Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Wild Cherry,
Wild Cherry

White folks trying to sound like black folks: that’s your condensed history of rock ’n’ roll right there. Some 60-plus years of felony vocal identity theft. It may or may not have begun with Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips, who famously said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

In any event, shortly thereafter a young Elvis Presley walked through Phillips’ door, and white singers from P.J. Proby to Michael McDonald to the Young Americans incarnation of David Bowie have been giving it their soul brother best ever since. Why, even John Denver tried to horn in on the trend, and I own a mint copy of his 12-inch club hit “Get Up Offa Grandma’s Funky Feather Bed (Geriatric Sex Machine)” to prove it. None other than James Brown called it “out of sight.” Or perhaps he said, “Get it out of sight.” I’m pretty sure there’s a difference.

All of this raises the question: Who is the biggest, baddest, blackest white singer of them all? Elvis? Janis Joplin? Mick Jagger? Gilbert O’Sullivan? I don’t know about you, but my vote goes to Rob Parissi of Mingo Junction, Ohio, population 3,454. Parissi, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the vocalist, guitarist, and chief songwriter behind Wild Cherry, the band that brought us the great “Play That Funky Music.” Parissi sounded so much like a brother he made Joe Cocker sound like Leo Sayer.

As for Wild Cherry—which swiped its name from a brand of cough drops—it played a hardcore hybrid of funk rock, soul, and disco that blew away other white competitors in the black sound appropriation sweepstakes such as the Average White Band and KC and the Sunshine Band. When it came to pure funk copyright infringement, Wild Cherry was King.

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Graded on a Curve:
Eric Clapton,
No Reason to Cry

Over the course of my writing “career,” I’ve practically made a cottage industry of disparaging Eric Clapton. I’ve called his supergroup Cream overrated, eviscerated him for making inexcusably racist remarks in the mid-seventies, and let it be known that I’m revolted by just about every song he’s written in the past several decades, especially those twin pillars of pure treacle, “Tears in Heaven” and “My Father’s Eyes.” I’ve condemned him for turning his own best song, “Layla,” into a sluggish travesty, and called him chinless, feckless, gormless, a tool, one of the most overrated guitarists in rock history, and the owner of a voice less suited for rock’n’roll than for working behind the customer service desk at your local IKEA. Oh, and let’s not forget Slowbland.

So why write a review of a guy I have virtually zero respect for, aside from his brilliant work with Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos, and a small handful of great songs scattered across approximately 150 LPs? Because I actually enjoy 1976’s No Reason to Cry, that’s why. Or at least I used to, when I was a mere sprite, and I’m curious to discover why. It’s hardly one of Clapton’s more beloved albums, and while you can actually find human beings who think highly of 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, which included that pair of embarrassments “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Willie and the Hand Jive,” I’ve never run into a single sentient being with ears that worked who had so much as a single good thing to say about No Reason to Cry.

Like its 1975 predecessor, There’s One in Every Crowd, No Reason to Cry contains no reggae-lite hits or beloved cult favorites, and as far as most people are concerned is simply another one of the many LPs that marked Clapton’s largely lost decade, the seventies, which saw him beat heroin addiction by becoming a hardcore drunk, and was marked by constant geographical cures to Miami, Jamaica, and finally (in the case of No Reason to Cry), Shangri-la, The Band’s former bordello turned recording studio in depraved Los Angeles, home of the evil Eagles.

During the 1970s plastic and cocaine-infested LA was where bands came to lose the thread; small wonder that David Bowie, who recorded the brilliant Station to Station there but in the process lost his shit thanks to a diet of peppers and milk (seriously) supplemented by limo-length lines of high-grade cocaine, later remarked, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth.” It was also the place where Robbie Robertson, who was also doing a fair amount of blow at the time, received a rude wake-up call in the form of a morning walk along the beach during which he encountered a fully dressed and unconscious Keith Moon, being tossed to and fro by the surf.

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TVD Live: Big Star’s Third Live at the 9:30 Club, 8/23

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Once a decade or eon or so, an LP comes along that is simply too tortured and nakedly honest for human ears. 1978’s twisted and raw Thirs/Sister Lovers is such an LP. The final offspring of the seventies’ incarnation of Memphis, Tennessee power pop band Big Star—which never dented the charts during its lifetime but has achieved cult superstardom in the years since—Third is anything but a catchy power pop record. I mean it could be, were it not lacking in the catchy, the power, and the pop departments. That said it is a bona fide 12-inch record, which ought to count for something.

What Third offers the listener instead of Big Star’s previous infectious and bittersweet tunes about teenage kicks, love, and heartbreak (you know, like the great Raspberries, only more emotionally complex and sonically all over the place) is the sound of former Box Top Alex Chilton teetering on the edge of the psychic abyss and about to completely lose his shit, to the loving accompaniment of some great string arrangements by Carl Marsh. (They should have entitled the LP Breakdown to Strings.)

As such, Third is every bit as nakedly powerful a work of art as Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up,” or heroin- and booze-ravaged Charlie Parker’s tortured 1946 Dial Records take on “Lover Man,” which he couldn’t even stand on his own to record and which was followed by a long “vacation” in California’s Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

Third’s honesty and vulnerability have moved innumerable music fans, even if I’ve never been one of them. Sure, I’m touched by some of the songs on the LP, and admire its complete disregard of commercial considerations—they certainly couldn’t have expected this one to go platinum—but I’ve always found it both cold and lacking in irresistible tunes, and really only like 5 or so of its 14 (or more, depending on which release you buy) cuts.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rod Stewart,
Gasoline Alley

I didn’t want to do it, because I knew it was going to hurt. I knew it was going to hurt something awful. But I’m just a soldier in the war of rock & roll, with a keyboard for a hand grenade who took a bullet at Live Aid, and my marching orders were to attend the Washington, DC leg of the Santana and Rod Stewart “Electric Geriatrics” Tour at the Verizon Center on the benighted evening of Tuesday, August 19.

The something I knew was going to happen was my old hero Rod “The Old Sod” Stewart was going to sing “Hot Legs” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Both tunes are (although Stewart either doesn’t know it or is too cynical and money-grubbing to care) legacy-sullying disgraces of such embarrassing proportions even his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame rolls up into a cringing ball every time it hears them. But the review tix never came through, and I didn’t get to cover the show, and oddly enough I found myself disappointed. I’ve never seen Stewart, and I suppose I was hoping to hear some flickering glimmers of the genius who gave us “Every Picture Tells a Story,” “Handbags and Gladrags,” and “You Wear It Well.”

I’ve said it before, but Stewart’s fall from grace remains one of the saddest and most precipitous in rock history. In the early seventies the rooster-cropped, sandpaper-voiced party animal who took nothing seriously was fronting one of the greatest live acts of all time, the Faces, while simultaneously putting out solo albums that were heart-breakingly brilliant. And then? I wish I could say nada, but his post-1974 (hell, make it post-1972) output was far worse than nothing—it was flat-out debasing, both to Stewart and his fans.

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Needle Drop: Uncle Acid and the deadbeats, “Runaway Girls”

You can call me Mike, or you can call me Michael, or hell you can even call me Tex if you want—just don’t call me late for Helter Skelter. Because my favorite hypnotic cult leader Charles “No Sense Makes Sense” Manson is back—along with the infamous Jim Jones, lots of naked and semi-naked go-go dancers, a slew of badass biker chix astride chopped hogs, and even a little in-the-grave fornication, to say nothing of drugs and more drugs even more drugs—thanks to the brand new video of “Runaway Girls” by my favorite English psychedelic doom rockers and yours, Uncle Acid & the deadbeats.

Can you dig it? Is that some witchy shit or what?

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to like the Manson Family, or to glorify or gloss over the monstrous crimes they committed over a two-day period during 1969’s Summer of Hate. And I try my level best not to, I really do. But as I wrote in a March 2014 TVD review of Uncle Acid’s latest LP, Mind Control, both they and I are hopelessly obsessed by the second, benighted half of 1969, when the dark stars of the Tate/LaBianca killings and the mud and murder fiasco that was Altamont converged to send all those hopelessly naïve “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Your Brother” hippie bromides into permanent paranoid retrograde.

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Graded on a Curve:
Kix,
Rock Your Face Off

Generally, when a band I love puts out a new LP after a decades-long absence, I run for cover. I just know it’s going to suck, and its makers are going to be superannuated versions of their former selves, reminding me that I’m not getting any younger either. And what’s the percentage in that? Besides, why sully fond memories?

But I made an exception for Baltimore hair/glam metal legends Kix because I adore its 1981 eponymous debut—which included such immortal tunes as “The Itch,” “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” and “Kix Are for Kids”—even more than my Light-Up Crazy Faux-Hawk with blinking LED lights, which I like to wear around the apartment while saying things like “Sod off, geezer” and “Johnny Rotten’s a bleeding gobshite, I saw him last night in queue for an ELP concert” to my cat, whose general response is to walk away in disgust at my stupidity.

And I’m glad I did, because Rock Your Face Off, the group’s first LP since 1995’s Show Business, kix ass. That’s the good news. The not-so-great news is that Rock Your Face Off is not as good as Kix’s first album. But then again, none of the five albums Kix put out between tantalizing the world with the sheer brilliance off its debut and breaking up in 1995 were as good as said debut. It’s debatable—as is most everything in this world but the fact that Gene Simmons is an unsightly creature possessing an IQ with a negative sign in front of it—but I consider Kix’s debut the second best American metal album to come our way since 1980, topped only by Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction.

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Needle Droppings:
Bob Dylan, “Joey”

Like most mortals, I have made some terrible mistakes in my day. One of the worst was paying actual money to see Dylan and The Dead at the Philadelphia stop of their infamous 1987 “collaborative” tour. Pairing Dylan—who has always needed a hot shit backing band to kick him in the keister—with the shambolic and drag-ass Grateful Dead was about as ill-conceived a notion as East Germany’s mass production of concrete umbrellas in 1961. (Death toll: 341.)

The low point of the Philadelphia show was “Joey,” Dylan’s seemingly endless paean to Brooklyn Mafioso Joe Gallo, who was gunned down while eating a bowl of mussels in morte sauce in Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in Little Italy in 1971. “Joey” came off the same LP (1976’s Desire) that gave us “Hurricane,” and Dylan made wrongfully persecuted Buddhas of both subjects, which is exactly the problem. Because while the imprisoned (and most likely framed) middleweight boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was a bona fide sympathetic figure, it’s hard to say the same about “Crazy Joe” Gallo, who was not only a high-ranking made member of the Profaci crime family, but a homicidal maniac to boot.

Dylan’s treatment of Gallo peeved plenty, most notably the late, great Lester Bangs, who dismissed “Joey” as “one of the most mindlessly amoral pieces of romanticist bullshit ever recorded.” And it’s impossible to ignore the maudlin sentimentality at the song’s core: “It was true that in his later years he would not carry a gun/‘I’m around too many children,’ he’d say, ‘they should never know of one.’” How gooey sweet. Gallo, evidently, was one of your pacifistic homicidal maniacs.

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Graded on a Curve:
Steve Miller Band,
Fly Like an Eagle

If there were any justice in the world, the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle would not exist. Because it would have been blindfolded, stood before a bullet-pockmarked wall, and shot, for the crimes of being slick, lyrically vacuous, and just plain dumb.

Lucky for us there is no justice under the human sun, because Fly Like an Eagle is almost as guilty a pleasure as, I don’t know, Frampton Comes Alive or Hotel California, just two of the LPs Fly Like an Eagle beat out to win Rolling Stone’s award for Best LP of 1976. It also won out over Night Moves and Boston. You’ve got to hand it to The Steve Miller Band; rolling over that kinda competition is, by anyone’s standards, an extraordinarily unimpressive accomplishment.

More impressive is the way Miller—a psychedelic-era San Francisco acid-blues survivor who seemed destined to perpetual journeyman status—hung on through seven poorly selling albums before finally hitting pop pay dirt, scoring four Top 10 LPs between 1973 and 1982, the best remembered and most iconic being Fly Like an Eagle. During this stretch he bequeathed us such lovable (or jaw-droppingly jejune, depending on your point of view) songs as “Abracadabra,” “Rock’n Me,” “Jungle Love,” “Swingtown,” and “Jet Airliner.” None of them are brilliant, mind you, but they’re all catchy as hell, and as hard to get out of your head as a candiru fish from your urethra.

In his long pursuit of the brass ring, Miller tried on musical identities (i.e., The Joker, The Space Cowboy, Maurice, The Gangster of Love) the way a bald man trying on fedoras. His eight pre-Fly Like an Eagle LPs constitute a dizzying agglomeration of disparate musical styles, including traditional blues (long-in-the-tooth war horse “Key to the Highway”); groovy hippie intergalactic hoodoo (“Space Cowboy”); chug-a-luggin’ harmonica-fueled garage rock (“Living in the U.S.A.”); deranged soul (“Enter Maurice,” on which Miller first uses rock’s greatest invented word, “pompatus”); Dylan-in-the-garage strangeness (“Overdrive”); and even derivative Brit-prog (“In My First Mind”).

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Graded on a Curve: Randy Newman,
Good Old Boys

Where does one begin a review of Randy Newman’s 1974 classic Southern concept album Good Old Boys? With the naked man and his dark secret? With the distraught bridesgroom of Cherokee County who cries out, “Why must everyone laugh at my mighty sword?” With Birmingham’s Dan, “the meanest dog in Alabam’”? With the mental patient and his fantastic story of his stripper sister, who runs off with a black man only to discover he’s a white millionaire? With the great 1927 Louisiana flood? With the legendary Louisiana politician “Kingfish” Huey Long? With the lovely and sad “Marie”? Or with the great “Guilty,” the confession of a man who “takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I’m somebody else”?

Too many folks nowadays tend to dismiss Newman as the fellow who writes all those soundtracks for rug rat flicks, or know him only as the guy who wrote the tempest-in-a-teapot toss-off “Short People,” but Newman could write soundtracks for midget porn and I would still respect him every bit as much–the guy’s a genius. Newman was and remains (check out 2008′s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”) probably the funniest, most sardonic–and yes, serious–pop songwriter ever to plop his ass in front of a piano. No one–with the possible exception of Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes–has ever written songs that are as funny or as deep, and the amazing thing about Newman is that, unlike the Dylan of Big Pink, he possesses the ability to do both in the same song. And who else would think to write a hilarious ode to ELO (“The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” off 1979′s Born Again), or question his own sexual prowess in “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong?”

A concept album about the Deep South might seem like an odd choice for a Jew who resides in Los Angeles, but Newman either lived or summered in New Orleans until he was 11–a childhood he recounts in “Dixie Flyer” off 1988′s Land of Dreams–and it left an indelible stamp upon him. You can hear it in his masterful command of southern dialect, and detect it in his understanding of Dixie resentment in title track “Rednecks” and other songs, and I think it’s these things that make Good Old Boys the best of Newman’s LPs, which is saying a lot given he’s the same very guy–perhaps the least unlikeliest looking rock star in history–who bequeathed us 1970′s brilliant 12 Songs and 1972′s Sail Away, not to mention the underrated 1977 record Little Criminals.

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Graded on a Curve:
Yes,
The Yes Album

I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day, wondering out loud, “What is that awful sound?” And I have to tell them, “It’s the Yes album spinning on your turntable, dim bulb!”

That’s the intro I intended to use for what I figured would be a disparaging review of 1971’s The Yes Album. I’ve always been a big believer in the motto “Just Say No to Yes,” because the band has all the loathsome characteristics of your average “progressive” rock band. Castrato vocalist, check. Extraordinarily talented musicians who would sooner play some intricately difficult chord progression than just whomp you on the skull like Iggy and the Stooges, ditto. And fiendishly complex songs composed of like 10 intricately interwoven musical themes, present. But a terrible thing happened when I put The Yes Album on my turntable. Much to my surprise and dismay, I discovered I actually kinda like the fucker!

Me! Prog! Impossible! Implausible! Because prog-rock is the exclusive domain of skinny-armed guys (women hate prog, it’s what makes them superior to men) in ill-fitting t-shirts with scruffy beards who spend the bulk of their time tinkering with electrical gadgetry and watching Dr. Who, and who like their rock music in direct proportion to its distance from three-chord rock. They don’t want three chords, they want three hundred! Five hundred! One thousand! One million!

Let’s get one thing straight: when I say I like The Yes Album what I really mean to say is that I like portions of The Yes Album. Because Yes, like many other progressive groups, suffers from a collective form of attention deficit disorder the effect of which is to render them incapable of sticking to one musical idea for very long. No sooner do they fall into a cool groove before they move onto another section that isn’t half as great, and so on. Rare is the song (the two-parter “All Good People” fills the bill) where they open on a beguiling note and stick with it through the entire song.

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