Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Jackson Browne,
The Pretender

Jackson Browne is the thinking man’s Eagles. Or perhaps he’s merely the pretentious man’s Eagles. Because while the Eagles were singing about the Hotel California, Browne was playing existential philosopher, and questioning whether we’re not all pretenders playing roles, and thereby slowly laying waste to our souls. But Browne is less the philosopher than he thinks he is, and is deep solely by LA standards, which is to say he’s rock’s equivalent of the Los Angeles River, and has spent his career as a singer-songwriter plumbing life’s epistemological shallows.

Browne’s fate will always be intertwined with that of the Eagles; he wrote one song and co-wrote another (“Take It Easy”) on the Eagles debut, and they were all urban cowboys in denim at a time when LA was basically a dude ranch for cocaine-fueled country-rockers, most of whom spent inordinate amounts of time sipping tequila sunrises in David Geffen’s hot tub. But Browne never wrote a song as good as the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” probably because debauchery was never his area of expertise. His muse was Henry David Thoreau, whose line about most men leading lives of quiet desperation became Browne’s abiding theme. Browne was intrigued by the quotidian banal and the spirit-squandering fate of the Everyman, and nowhere did he explore these themes as extensively as he did on 1976’s The Pretender.

Browne began his music career as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and then went on to write songs for everyone from Nico—with whom he was romantically linked—to Gregg Allman, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, and The Byrds before finally striking out on his own with his 1972 debut, Jackson Browne. The Pretender was Browne’s fourth LP and was released after Browne’s first wife committed suicide, which no doubt helps account for the album’s somber tone. And it featured the contributions of dozens of musicians, some of them horrible people (David Crosby, Don Henley, Graham Nash) and many of them studio pros. His regular band (David Lindley, etc.) was also on hand, as were the likes of Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, and Roy Bittan.

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Graded on a Curve:
Montrose, Montrose

Nowadays the band Montrose is chiefly remembered as the rock boarding school one Sammy (“I can’t drive 55/With my thumbs stuck in my eyes”) Hagar attended before graduating to a disappointing, if not semi-disastrous, tenure as front man of the post-David Lee Roth Van Halen. How unfair. At their best, namely on their debut 1973 self-titled debut, Montrose rocked balls, kicked ass and took names, and established themselves as perhaps America’s best response to Led Zeppelin. As for Montrose itself, some consider it America’s first true heavy metal LP. Me, I’d go with Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that’s beside the point.

Montrose came out of California, where guitarist Ronnie Montrose—who played sessions for Van Morrison (amongst others) and did a stint in The Edgar Winter Group—decided to put his own band together. The finished product included Sammy Hagar on vocals, Bill Church on bass, and Denny Carmassi on drums. Ted Templeman, who played an instrumental role in getting the band signed to Warner Brothers, produced the LP. Unfortunately this turned out to be a mixed blessing as Warners, which made it a practice to push only one LP from each genre at a time, already had the Doobie Brothers (!!!) in the rock slot and Deep Purple in the hard rock slot. Without publicity push from Warners, Montrose got left out in the cold, and only managed to reach the 133 spot on the U.S. Billboard charts.

But you can’t keep a good album down, not forever anyway, and the Montrose LP has received increasing attention over the following years, thanks to its strong songwriting, Montrose’s great guitar work, and Hagar’s hard-hitting vocals. I’ve always found it exceptionally easy to poke fun at Hagar, but on Montrose he proves the joke is on me, by doing things with his vocal chords that are illegal in Mormon Utah. (No, I have no idea what that means either.) In any event, Montrose has received its just desserts, which is more than you can say about Warners’ beloved Doobie Brothers, who deserve to be tied to a large stone and dropped into some deep and very black water.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ohio Players, “Funky Worm” b/w “Paint Me”

Occasionally you run across a song so unutterably strange you’re left speechless. Such is the case with the 1973 single “Funky Worm” by the great Ohio Players, who bequeathed us such fabulously funky tunes as “Love Rollercoaster” (“Say what?”) and “Fire.” “Funky Worm” inexplicably rose to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts, despite it’s, er, rather odd vocals and subject matter. But if I’m surprised it was a big hit I have no doubt it’s a fantastic song, infused with high humor and featuring several high-pitched Moog synthesizer solos that have been sampled, at last count by one source, by some 183 artists including Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and N.W.A.

The Ohio Players were formed way back in 1959 as the Ohio Untouchables, but broke up and reformed several times. But talk about your perseverance; they were still together (having changed their name to Ohio Players) in 1973, when the band finally scored a hit with “Funky Worm” off their Pleasure LP. The song was written by the band’s then keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrison, who split in 1974 and went on to record several solo albums before joining Parliament-Funkadelic.

“Funky Worm” is odd for the simple reason that it’s basically a conversation between a member of the band and “Granny,” who I suspect is another member of the band, although I’ve had zero luck in finding out who delivered her lines. Granny is introduced to a Mr. Johnson by his secretary while a funky groove plays in the background, and she delivers her introductory lines (“Me and the Ohio Players gonna tell you about a worm/He’s the funkiest worm in the world/Okay, sing it, fellas”), at which point the guys in the band sing about the worm, who lives six feet down and “who only comes around/When he wants to get down.”

Those six feet are odd, being grave-deep and all, but I don’t think the song has anything whatsoever to do with death, although the following tune, “Our Live Has Died” reprises the “six feet down” trope in a more meaningful setting. Nor is the worm a metaphor for a cock. No, it’s a worm she’s talking about, who “when he comes out of his hole sounds something like this,” at which point Morrison plays a freaky solo.

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Graded on a Curve:
Judas Priest,
Screaming for Vengeance

Six Six Six/My Judas Priest tix/I’m out in the parking lot/And I’m looking for kicks!

What am I supposed to say about Judas Priest, Birmingham England’s contribution to heavy metal, that hasn’t already been said by those three great music critics, Bart Simpson and Beavis and Butthead? Judas Priest has received the imprimatur of the greats, for being the guys who put out “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” on their groundbreaking 1980 LP English Steel, and what’s more introduced plenty of your basic heavy metal tropes (S&M gear, operatic vocals, the twin guitar attack) that we now take for granted. In short, I’m going to have to reach to find anything original to say about Judas Priest, and I’m not sure I have the cojones. Beavis and Butthead’s rendition of “Breaking the Law” captures the essence of the band better than any critic ever will.

But I’m nothing if not intrepid, and Judas Priest has released 17 studio albums starting with 1974’s Rocka Rolla, which leaves me with lots to natter on about. Like the infamous civil action following the suicide of one young man and the attempted suicide of another, which their parents alleged were the result of a backwards masked message on a Judas Priest album saying “Do it.” It’s possible the subliminal message was there, but it’s also possible the message was encouraging the pair to buy Big Macs, or learn Esperanto. Personally I think the whole backwards masking thing is bunk, but just in case it’s real and works, I’ve placed a subliminal message or two in this review encouraging you to click on the Like button.

What else can I say about the great Judas Priest? Well, singer Rob Halford used to appear on stage on a Harley-Davidson, which I would probably think was pretty rad if I hadn’t (no kidding) seen Karen Carpenter do the exact same thing in the mid-seventies. And she never wrecked said Harley while doing so, as Halford did, colliding with a drum riser obscured by the dry ice that metal fans so love.

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Needle Droppings: Herbie Mann, Push Push

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That may be true for books, but not for LPs. You can most definitely judge an album by its cover, as is proven by the four-nipple exposure of Orleans’ Waking and Dreaming, the screeching wombat in suspenders leaping at you to tear off your face that is Leo Sayers on the cover of his 1976 LP Endless Flight, and the hairies in girdles who are Brainstorm on the cover of their 1972 LP Smile a While. Only a crazed person would put down real money for albums with covers so inexcusably hideous.

But they’re not the worst, not by a long shot. That award goes to jazz flautist Herbie Mann’s 1971 LP Push Push. Its cover features a shirtless Herbie, his hirsute man-pelt slathered in what appears to be high-viscosity motor oil, flute thrown insouciantly over shoulder. As for his belly button, it’s not an innie it’s an abyss, of the Nietzschian sort that if you stare into it long enough you may just find it staring back at you.

In short, you look at the cover of Push Push and you don’t know who’s been push pushing what where, but you have no choice but to suspect the worst. What in God’s name was Herbie doing with that flute, that he felt it necessary to grease himself up beforehand at Jiffy Lube? The cover speaks of the unspeakable, of sexual acts even I would find unseemly, and of a form of man-instrument intercourse so perverted and obscure its practitioners carefully keep their perversion a secret.

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Graded on a Curve:
Queen,
Sheer Heart Attack

It’s a shame, when you think about it. All the great albums I never heard growing up because (1) I could rarely afford the cost of an LP, and (2) there was no great or even half-decent FM radio station within listening range of the one half-horse town (the other half of the horse was owned by nearby Harney, and they got the front end) I called home.

Take Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack. Never heard it. Never heard of Queen period until “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I should have liked but didn’t because I thought it was too camp. Too camp! This from a guy who spent the better part of his adolescence idolizing Elton John. But that’s the way I roll. I didn’t like the pitch of Freddie Mercury’s voice, or the band’s lush and ubiquitous vocal harmonies, and as for the songs, they were too structurally baroque for my primitivist tastes. In hindsight, I was a little punk in the making. My attitude was keep it simple, which was why I never liked progressive rock, period, until I started to get high and listened to my fair share of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

And if I didn’t like Queen much to begin with, I really disliked them after they put out those bookend hits, “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.” To me they sounded like pseudo-fascistic declarations of supremacy, and I thought then and still think now their Übermensch shtick would have gone over like gangbusters at the Nuremburg Rallies. The line “no time for losers” offends me as much as any line in rock history, which is why I never listened to 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack even after I knew it existed. I thought of Queen as a bunch of snotty high-pitched twats whose songs were too complicated for their own good, and wrote them off as bad rubbish.

But there is a time and a place for everything, and now is the time to give Queen their chance at rocking my world. And guess what, they have. Sheer Heart Attack isn’t the perfect LP, but it includes a slew of cool songs I like, even if some of their affectations continue to irk me. Bottom line: Any band with a guitarist as good as Brian May, and that can come up with a line as good as “Give me a good guitar/And you can say my hair’s a disgrace” is okay with me.

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Graded on a Curve:
Half Japanese,
Greatest Hits

I honestly don’t know why Half Japanese isn’t my favorite band in the world. They’ve done the one thing I think a great rock band should do, namely defiantly refuse to become more proficient on their instruments. Lots of bands start like Half Japanese, but quickly forget their roots and practice for eight hours a day until they can actually play, thus ensuring their doom. They simply lack the vision and discipline required to never get any better, and before you know it they’re Emerson Lake & Palmer.

That said, while I’ve owned Half Japanese’s 69-track Greatest Hits (Safe House, 1995) for years, I’ve never once listened to it. I think I’m afraid their genius will ruin every other rock band for me forever, like Cows did for a while. But I’m a professional, god damn it, and I get paid to take the sorts of profound risks that listening to Half Japanese entails, so here we go.

Half Japanese can be accused of plenty of things, but short-changing their audience isn’t one of them. Sixty-nine tracks is a lot of tracks, and while Half Japanese sounds like they rehearsed some of them before releasing them, others show signs of an admirable dedication to the musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s “First thought, best thought.” Other signs of professional-level amateurism; Jad Fair plays an untuned guitar and has been quoted as saying, “the only chord I know is the one that connects the guitar to the amp.”

As for brother David Fair, who is no longer in the group although he still makes occasional guest appearances, he sometimes played drums and sometimes sang. They played as a duo until the early eighties, when additional members were recruited, and since then some 9,000 musicians (including VU drummer Maureen Tucker and Kramer, but unfortunately not the Seinfeld Kramer) have played under the Half Japanese banner. And while Kurt Cobain wasn’t one of them, he was wearing a Half Japanese t-shirt when he killed himself. Professional jealousy has always been my suspicion.

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Graded on a Curve:
New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Adventures of Panama Red

What better time, now that marijuana has been decriminalized here in our Nation’s capital, to break out the old one-hitter and the decrepit tie-die t-shirt, and dust off your old New Riders of the Purple Sage LPs? If you’re unfamiliar with the New Riders, they were rock’s primo chroniclers of the chronic, and their Kush Kuntry classics “Panama Red” and “Henry” were essential listening at any glassy-eyed gathering around the old bong.

Originally an incestual offshoot of the Grateful Dead—NRPS’s 1969 line-up included Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Mickey Hart on drums—the members of the Dead gradually dropped out, and by November 1971 the New Riders’ line-up consisted of John “Marmaduke” Dawson on guitar and vocals, David Nelson on guitar and vocals, Buddy Cage on pedal steel guitar, Dave Torbert on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums.

The band’s history is too convoluted to summarize in a paragraph, but here are some of your basic facts: Dawson turned on innumerable long hairs to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, while Nelson often played traditional bluegrass with Garcia. Acid turned Dawson towards a more psychedelic country sound akin to Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music,” and a union between Dawson and Nelson led to the formation of the New Riders, which eventually released a debut album on Columbia in 1971, with Garcia’s pedal steel playing an integral part of their sound.

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Graded on a Curve:
Cream,
Goodbye

Here’s exactly how it happened. I was sitting around thinking about Cream and how much I hate them, loathe them in fact, when I got the craziest idea—why not try actually listening to them? It was such an outlandish notion—after all, I’d spent years never listening to Cream but dismissing them anyway, and it seemed almost a waste to scattering all those wonderful years of ignorant bad mouthing to the four winds.

After all, I had a lot invested in hating the British supergroup and power trio; hating them because they represented the triumph of instrumental prowess over good songwriting, and because they were the epitome of pointless musical virtuosity, but most of all because I’ve had “White Room,” a song I don’t even like, stuck in my head for years, and there seems to be no way of getting it out short of trying to impale and extract it via a coat hanger through my left ear. So they were all giants on their instruments, big whoop. All that pure musical talent and they’d never written a single song even half as great as those beginners Iggy and Stooges’ “No Fun.” Or at least not one I’d ever heard.

Still, how could it hurt to give them an innocent listen? I’ll tell you how. What if I listened to them and liked them? Or even worse, loved them? Where would I be then? Fucked, that’s where I’d be. I’d have a billion words to eat, many of them words with multiple syllables, along with crow and my hat, and I’d have to reconsider my hatred of the dozens of other bands I’ve despised without ever once listening to one of their LPs, bands like Rush and Queen and I could go on but I won’t, because it’s not like I’m being paid by the word.

I’ll be honest with you. I picked 1969’s Goodbye, the band’s fourth and final LP, because it had the least songs on it. Okay, I told myself, I’ll give them a listen, but that’s no reason to go crazy. Plus it included the one Cream song I actually knew I liked, namely “Badge.” Goodbye is a haphazard mish-mash of studio and live recordings, and I knew that this could lead to accusations of my not giving them an honest chance, but I simply wasn’t sure I could mentally handle listening to a Cream LP with more than six songs on it.

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TVD Live: Ian Hunter and the Rant Band with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby, the Hamilton, 11/2

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | I won’t deny it; I’ve been in love with Ian Hunter since I was 14. Since the first time I heard Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” in fact. I played the hell out of that song, listened to it again and again, and I still love it every bit as much as I did the first time I heard it. And that’s all I have to say about that, except that I want it to be duly noted that I’ll be really truly pissed, as in sit up in my coffin swinging pissed, if it isn’t played at my wake. And played very loud at that. I bet it’ll sound great on church organ.

Ian Hunter is a real rarity in so far as he is still making vital music despite the fact that he’s 75. Think about that for a moment. At 75 my maternal grandfather was collecting and freeze-drying stool samples (mostly but not all his own) as a hobby. Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather was convinced that Adolf Hitler was alive and well and living in his bedroom closet. Closer to home, the live Dylan (almost an oxymoron at this point) sounds like a frog who has just gotten his tonsils taken out, while Mick Jagger makes a geriatric fool of himself every time he struts about on stage like Mike the Headless Chicken.

But Hunter has managed to age gracefully without going the adult-contemporary route or just trotting out the oldies. He’s still rocking like he means it because he does mean it, and is still writing new songs that actually matter because he lives and breathes rock’n’roll, has ever since the first time he heard Little Richard.

Ian Hunter the former glam rocker never made a very good glam rocker, because at heart he was a down-to-earth punter. He never could have played the polymorphous perverse rock’n’roll Martian like David Bowie or played the teen idol card like Marc Bolan. As for his band, Mott the Hoople, they always looked a bit ridiculous in their glam finery, like factory workers on Halloween. In short, Hunter outlived glam because he wasn’t at all about fashion but was an ordinary earthling whose real talent was for making great music, first with Mott the Hoople and then as a solo artist working with the late, great Mick Ronson and some other excellent collaborators.

The platform boots are history, but Hunter still has his trademark look—dark shades and that great mane of curly hair of his—both of which I was fortunate enough to finally see in the flesh on Sunday, November 2 at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C.

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