Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Mekons,
The Mekons Rock n’ Roll

You don’t have to be a dyed in the wool Marxist to know that rock ’n’ roll is product—just another consumer item to be consumed by consumers who live to consume. It’s everybody’s not-so-secret dirty secret, as obvious as a turd suspended in Jello, but when push comes to shove only a limited number of bands—I can think of the Minutemen, the Fall, and Fugazi off the top of my head—have addressed the issue both in the way they do business and as subject matter in their songs. And no band has ever done it with such passion, fatalistic humor, and rage as The Mekons do on their 1989 walk on the riled side, The Mekons Rock n’ Roll.

Formed in 1977 by a rowdy bunch of University of Leeds art students, the Mekons combined rank amateurism, left-wing politics, and a wry sense of humor (the title of their 1979 full-length debut, The Quality of Mercy is Not Strenen, doesn’t make much sense until the album cover reveals it to be a monkeys at typewriters producing Shakespeare joke). The Mekons gradually evolved, practically inventing alt-country in the process, but returned to their punk roots (at a stage in their career when most bands have settled into comfortable conformity) to produce what is both a howl of unbridled savagery and probably their masterpiece.

Upon first listen, The Mekons Rock n’ Roll is exactly what it purports to be—a rough and raucous celebration of the glories of rock ‘n’ roll. Except it isn’t. What it is a sly critique of rock as commodity, of sex as commodity, of a world where everything is commodity—a veritable “Empire of the Senseless,” to cite just one of the wonderfully intelligent and derisory tunes on this savage assault on capitalism disguised as an LP. “They took away our films and tapes and notebooks/But it’s ok ‘cos we’ve self-censored this song,” sneers Tom Greenhalgh, before running down a long list of the lies and deceits and casual everyday treacheries that constitute life in a materialistic society where everything has its price. As for the song itself, it boasts a great chorus, one wonderful melodica, and some truly brilliant fiddle by the wonderful Susie Honeyman.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Fifth Dimension

Few bands have produced such blissful music, or music that so well fit the spirit of its time as The Byrds. Theirs was a bright and shining sound, filled with shimmering optimism and jingle-jangle hope, and they made the transition to the psychedelic age as well as anybody. Indeed, their 1966 LP Fifth Dimension is an acid rock landmark, and I listen to it whenever I want to pretend I’m tripping.

Speaking of pretending, let’s play a game of make believe, shall we? The year is 1966, and we’re just removing the plastic shrink-wrap from a virgin copy of Fifth Dimension. Let’s say we’re at my pad. It’s not bad so far as hippie crash pads go. Please don’t touch the lava lamp. I just bought the album, you brought the pot, and that redolent example of fetid man reek over there in the filthy poncho and crud-encrusted beard is the hippie who brought the acid, which is the only reason we invited him to our little listening party in the first place.

Really, no one wants him around. Not with his long staring silences, sudden bouts of insane cackling provoked by nothing going on around him, and rather scary habit of carrying a long and wicked-looking blade in a buckskin sheath. He uses it to kill squirrels, which along with the acorns he stole from the squirrels and purloined packets of McDonald’s ketchup constitute his entire diet. Do you have any idea how quick you have to be to seize and slit the throat of your typically twitchy squirrel? It’s too horrifying to contemplate. He reaches into his pocket and says, “Anybody want some delicious squirrel jerky?”

You and I both shudder and politely refuse, and then we put the LP on. The opening track “FD (Fifth Dimension)” instantly transports us to a higher astral plane where giant birds of phantasmagorical plumage perform dizzying acrobatics above the pulsating crystal abodes of the perfect ones. Or something like that.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)

The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is not a nice guy. Stories of his violent outbursts, willy-nilly firings of faithful band mates, and raging bouts of paranoia are well documented. Ian McCulloch of Echo and Bunnymen described Smith as “The most well-balanced person in the world—he’s got a chip on both shoulders.” And Smith himself once described what being a touring member of the Fall entailed: “On my tour bus you have to sit and listen to what I play. You’re not allowed to speak… if you argue, you get kicked off the bus.” Let’s face it, the man is a despot, which helps to explain why almost as many musicians have quit the Fall as have been thrown under the tour bus by Smith.

But if Smith is capable of being a spiteful prick he’s also a genius of sorts, and he knows it. Since 1976 the Fall have produced a staggering amount of music, all of it primal and totally idiosyncratic and much of it stone cold brilliant. The late English DJ John Peel paid Smith and his ever-changing line-up of serfs and underlings the ultimate compliment when he said, “The Fall have given me more pleasure, over a longer period of time, than any other band.” Over the past four decades the Fall have had their ups and downs, but every time the critics write Smith off as a wasted tosser or a sad parody of his younger self, he pulls a brilliant new record out of his ass. You dismiss the unprepossessing Smith—with his wizened face, false teeth, and rounded shoulders—at your own peril. The self-proclaimed Hip Priest may look like Everyman—his anti-fashion sense is legendary—but he’s anything but.

Take 2003’s The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click). The albums preceding it had been fair to middling at best, and the critics were once again wondering whether the very hard-living Smith had finally lost the plot or was merely coasting—and ripping off the Fall’s fanatical audience with subpar product in the process. But Smith once again rebounded victoriously with an album that is simultaneously primitive and avant-garde, brutal and sublime—in short, as ugly and beautiful an LP as any the Fall have ever produced.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Allman Brothers,
Eat a Peach

You can say what you want about yours truly, but you’ve got to grant me this much; not knowing jack squat about a thing has never stopped me from writing about it. No, I am not one those lily-livered sorts who let something as minor as complete ignorance stand in the way of stating an opinion.

Take the Allman Brothers. I’ve been a detractor for years, based largely on an LP (1971’s At Fillmore East) I’ve never actually listened to. But the way I see it, I don’t have to listen to it; it’s enough for me to know that it contains such interminable blues numbers as “Whippin’ Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” for me to write it off out of hand. The road, as Gregg Allman sang, may go on forever, but that’s no reason a song should.

But the recent passing of brother Gregg inspired me to give the Allmans another listen. I mean, ignorance may be its own reward, but sooner or later you have to suck it up and learn something, as unpleasant as that is. That said, I lacked the intestinal fortitude to give At Fillmore East a spin. But 1972’s double-LP Eat a Peach, why not??

And so I did. And I’m here to say that actually listening to the Allman Brothers mostly corroborates what I already believed about the Allman Brothers; to wit, they’re a powerful blues band when they keep things short, and they’re a great band when they write songs that break out of the blues idiom, but set them loose to meander and they’ll wear out your patience, and then wear it out some more. Indeed, on “Mountain Jam” they wear out your patience to the tune of exactly 33 minutes and 38 seconds. You actually have to take Side Two off and put Side Four on to listen to “Mountain Jam” in its entirety, which cannot be an easy thing when you’re as stoned as you have to be to want to listen to “Mountain Jam” in its entirety. Many an argument must have taken place over which wildly tripping hippie was going to stagger to his feet and do the album turning. Well I say kick out the jam, brothers and sisters. Kick it right off the LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Black Oak Arkansas,
Keep the Faith

Black Oak Arkansas may well be—and I say this with affection, and as a fan—the most stunningly inept band in the history of rock. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau once rhetorically asked why Black Oak—despite relentless touring and a big name tour manager—still couldn’t “sell out the Academy of Music on a Saturday night.” His answer: “They are actively untalented, incapable of even an interesting cop.”

Me, I think Christgau’s right about Black Oak’s incompetence, but wrong about everything else. I find Black Oak Arkansas tremendously interesting, exciting even, thanks in large part to the uncanny vocal acrobatics of the perpetually shirtless James “Jim Dandy” Mangrum. I find it hard to describe Mangrum’s voice except by comparing it to the pitching of Dock Ellis on that immortal June night in 1970 when he threw a no-hitter while on acid. Ellis’ pitches may have been all over the place—he walked eight batters, and probably narrowly missed hitting and killing a few more—but nobody could touch them, because Ellis was possessed.

And so it goes for Mangrum. He can’t carry a tune in his purse, and is likely to go from a macho growl to high-pitched keening to flat out making rabid possum noises in the amount of time it took me to write this sentence. And it’s not like he’s trying. For the horrible truth is that Big Jim has no control of the sounds coming out of his mouth whatsoever. All he can do is let rip and hope nobody gets hurt. It’s scary but in a wonderful way, that is if you possess a sense of humor and are wearing a state-of-the-art batting helmet.

The band’s 1972 sophomore LP Keep the Faith includes all of the hallmarks of the Black Oak Arkansas sound—a three-guitar attack that is far too psychedelic to fit neatly into the “Southern Rock” genre, a barely competent backbeat, and the snake oil ululations of Mangrum, who pitches his vocals just about everywhere but over the plate. And despite what Christgau says, Black Oak Arkansas has some more than decent songs on offer, even if the boys in the band don’t exactly do a stellar job of performing them.

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Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Nuthin’ Fancy

It is my unreconstituted thunk that Lynyrd Skynyrd is America’s second greatest rock’n’roll band, right behind the Velvet Underground. Hyperbole? Mebbe. But during the four short years before fate shot their airship down, the Southern rockers produced a veritable shitload of immortal (and yes smart) tunes that I, for one, have been listening to with pleasure for decades.

1975’s appropriately titled Nuthin’ Fancy isn’t the best Skynyrd LP out there. It may even be the worst of the five albums the original Lynyrd Skynyrd—which is the only Lynyrd Skynyrd that matters—recorded between 1973 and 1977. It lacks the sublime touches that make Skynyrd’s first and second albums rock landmarks, and the assortment of to-die-for songs (“That Smell,” “One More Time,” “All I Can Do Is Write About It”) scattered throughout the two LPs that came after it. The way I see it, Nuthin’ Fancy only boasts two songs—I’m talking about “Saturday Night Special” and “Am I Losin’”—that are truly indispensible.

The biggest problem lies in the songs, natch, and the problem with the songs is that they were written in a rush, in the studio between tours. I’ll stand Ronnie Van Zant up against any American songwriter (exceptin’ B. Dylan) ever, but when it came to Nuthin’ Fancy he simply didn’t have the same amount of time he’d had to write such immortal tunes as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” or “Simple Man” from 1973’s (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) and 1974’s Second Helping. (Indeed, he’d never again have the time to sit down and do some leisurely songwriting during his lifetime, which is why Lynyrd Skynyrd was never able to top the transcendental brilliance of its first two LPs.)

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Graded on a Curve:
KC and The Sunshine Band, KC and The Sunshine Band

Damn it! Where did I leave my boogie shoes? Hey you, have you seen my boogie shoes? Because I’m headed to the disco to boogie down to the funky sounds of KC and The Sunshine Band and I can hardly head to the disco and boogie down to the funky sounds of KC and The Sunshine Band without my boogie shoes, now can I?

If you were alive in the year 1975 there was no avoiding the irresistible disco-funk of KC (aka Harry Wayne Casey) and The Sunshine Band. What made them impossible to ignore was the combination of Casey’s “play that funky music white boy” vocals, great hooks, and lots of good old sonic propulsion thanks to the band’s “I can’t drive 55” percussion. KC’s 1974 debut LP Do It Good does it good indeed, but the band really kicked disco ass on its eponymous 1975 sophomore LP, which included such immortal dance floor standards as “That’s the Way (I Like It),” “Get Down Tonight,” and “Boogie Shoes,” the last of which was inexplicably not released as a single.

I understand that plenty of people—most of them white male rockers—despised all things disco at the time. I know because I flirted with disco disgust myself. But not even a die-hard Lynyrd Skynyrd aficionado like yours truly could deny the infectious quality of KC and The Sunshine Band at their get-down best. KC and Company specialized in simple but irreproachably funky good time music, and only a total ogre could write them off as “mere disco.” What KC and The Sunshine Band were was a great Top 40 band capable of turning out songs you couldn’t turn off, even if your tastes ran—as mine did—to “Sweet Home Alabama.” Hell, both Skynyrd and KC hailed from Florida, and that makes them soul brothers, doesn’t it?

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Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
Deutsche Trucker Hits

Germans and trucker songs—two great tastes that taste great together! Because if you think the good ole boys who drive Deutschland’s big panzer rigs are blitzkrieging down the autobahn listening to Kraftwerk you’re dead wrong, good buddy.

No, they’re singing along to good old-fashioned country songs about being a trucker, goddamn it, just like the long-haul truckers here in the U.S. of Goddamn A. And good old-fashioned patriots that they are those Deutsche truckers are singing along in German, and say what you will about their awful language, country music sounds just swell translated into Kraut, believe it or not.

On 2013’s Deutsche Trucker Hits you get 18 wonderful songs guaranteed to keep you awake as you drive the graveyard shift from lovely München to bawdy Berlin town, some of ‘em German originals and some of ‘em Germanized takes on American classics like “Auf der Autobahn” (“On the Road Again”)” by Matze Hern, “Sechs Tage jede Woche,” (“Six Days on the Road”) by Joe Raphael und die Party-Singers, and “Ruby” (the lyrics are in German) by The Partypistols. The Partypistols’ take on the Kenny Rogers’ classic is wonderful, as is Stef Eikeman’s take on Rogers’ heartrending “Lucille,” which he sings in English because there’s just no translating that kind of heartbreak into German, sob.

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Graded on a Curve: The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters

When it comes to your bad karma and shitty luck, The Allman Brothers Band is a tough act to follow. And no, I’m not just talking about the tragedy that was Allman and Woman. I’m talking about the motorcycle accidents that claimed the lives of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley; rampant infighting and supernatural drug use; and a big-time cocaine distribution bust that led Gregg Allman to testify against his road manager in order to save his own ass. But despite the deaths, the duplicity, and even Cher and Man, The Allmans remain the most influential Southern blues-rock band of all time, and next to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the best damn band to hail from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

But here’s the thing about the Allmans; I can honestly say I never much cared for them until Duane Allman took that fatal spill on his motorcycle. Because Duane, God bless his totally rad facial hair, was a blues player, and the fact is I despise the blues. As The Simpsons’ Bleeding Gums Murphy immortally said, “The blues isn’t about feeling better. It’s about making other people feel WORSE.” Don’t get me wrong; I can handle them if they’ve been radically tweaked, freaked, warped, or twisted. But Duane, a traditionalist, played ‘em old school, making me the dick at the party who ran out screaming every time somebody put on “Statesboro Blues” or, even worse, “Stormy Monday.” As for “Whipping Post,” it’s way up there on my Shit Parade alongside “Midnight Rambler,” “People Have the Power,” and the entire recorded output of The Clash.

The bottom line? One man’s tragedy is another man’s blessing, and Duane’s untimely demise had the ironic effect of transforming The Allman Brothers Band into a group whose music I actually like. 1972’s Eat a Peach had a few great songs, such as “Blue Sky” and “Melissa,” that took the band in a non-blues direction, but it also included the infamous “Mountain Jam”—really, did the world really need a song so long it took up two sides of a double LP? It took the advent of guitarist/vocalist Dickey Betts as the Allman’s de facto leader to produce 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, which emphasized a unique hybrid of country rock over the blues, and threw in some good-times boogie for good measure.

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Graded on a Curve:
Wanda Jackson,
There’s a Party Goin’ On

When it comes to vocalists—male, female, whale, Sasquatch, you name it—it’s hard to top Wanda “The Queen of Rockabilly” Jackson. For a couple of years at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s Jackson recorded a bunch of truly hair-raising vocal performances that generated every bit as much feral excitement and raw sexual energy as the ones being recorded by Elvis Presley (whom she dated for a brief spell), Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard. The very much alive Jackson possesses vocal cords made of barbed wire, and has never met a tempo—most of them played back in the day with lethal intensity by a relatively unsung young guitar slinger named Roy Clark—so raucous she couldn’t rein it in. And she can yodel up a storm, too.

There were other women singing rockabilly during its golden age; Janis Martin, for example, who was unfortunate enough to have the moniker “the Female Elvis” hung around her neck like an albatross. But Martin had a more staid vocal style that came up short in the barbaric yawp department, and for the most part the same goes for Lorrie Collins of novelty act the Collins Kids, who had her moments of inspiration (check out her wonderfully frenzied take on “Mercy”) but who rarely roamed into the realm of the possessed. Jackson was a full-grown woman and her voice was a force of nature in 1961, and still is; just listen to the 73-year-old Jackson kick up a rockin’ ruckus out on such raunch’n’roll numbers as “Shakin’ All Over” and “Rip It Up” on 2011’s Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over if you have any doubts about the matter.

On 1961’s There’s a Party Goin’ On Jackson was at the peak of her rockabilly powers and poised to go country, which was the smart move for an Oklahoma City girl with country music in her veins after the rockabilly craze went belly up. With her band the Party Timers, Jackson—who declared herself the first woman to put “glamour into country music” with her fringe dresses, high heels, and long earrings—jumped, wailed, and growled, and the best tracks on There’s a Party Goin’ On are every bit as crazy, daddy-o as those produced by Elvis, Gene, Little Richard, etc.

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