Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
Sheik Yerbouti

So I was sittin’ and I was wonderin’ why it is I used to love Frank Zappa so much and now he just makes me want to puke from my ear holes when suddenly the answer hit me like a Zen Bullet straight to the third eye–Drug Abuse!

I mean, we all know drugs are great and pretty much a “must do” on just about every social occasion including weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Black Oak Arkansas concerts but I would add an item to the list–when listening to Frank Zappa albums. Cuz if my experience holds true for anybody else drugs (it don’t matter which ones–better to take ‘em all!) do not only enhance the “Frank Zappa experience”; they are necessary to enjoy the “Frank Zappa experience” in the first place.

Take 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti. Very shortly after it come out my pig farmer buddy Billy and I were busy drinking and doing drugs in my upstairs room in the decaying hovel (the ceiling collapsed in the room next to mine, dropping a one-ton wooden beam on my roomie’s bed–did I move? No!) where I lived at 16 North Washington Street in sunny Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.

And because it was such a fine and beautiful day we thought why not crank up Sheik Yerbouti and place the speakers on my window sill pointing out just to, you know, educate the neighbors on the subject of righteous music. Because such is what passes for rational thought when you’re burning holes in frontal lobe with every drug you can get your clammy teengenerate hands on. Which in our case came down to pot, Placidyl–and I’m talking the big green 750s, the ones they use to treat insomnia in prize hogs–beer, Wild Turkey, and a several gallon jug of fake Quaaludes Bill was selling to 10th graders (god knows what was in ‘em), which he insisted upon crumbling into the bowl of the pot pipe we were passing on the theory they would probably fuck us up in some way if we could just find the proper delivery mechanism.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Blue Öyster Cult

Good news! You don’t have to fear the Reaper! Blue Öyster Cult were only joking!

For years morons like yours truly were so wrapped up in Blue Öyster Cult’s ethos (evil as career choice) that we never caught on to the (manifestly obvious in hindsight) fact that the band was pulling our collective leg!

That’s right. Here we hayseeds thought they were, like, a bunch of Satan-worshipping Aleister Crowleys dabbling in Nazism and S&M when in reality they were just a coupla nice Jewish boys from Long Island sniggering down their collective sleeve at the hard-rock-loving suckers retarded enough to take them seriously. As occasional lyrics contributor and full-time rock critic Richard Meltzer said of the boys’ music, “This is really hard rock comedy.”

I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m some kind of terminal moron; I caught on to the joke a long, long time ago, and would have never fallen for it in the first place if I hadn’t been spending all my time smoking pot with pig farmers. Pig farmers and bikers make up the bulk of the Blue Öyster Cult fan base, and by that I don’t mean to imply pig farmers and bikers are stupid. Most of them are in on the joke too, and love it, because not only were Blue Öyster Cult funny back in 1972, they were one hotshit boogie band writing great songs that sounded even better after you drank a bottle of Wild Turkey and popped a few Placidyl.

Blue Öyster Cult’s eponymous 1972 debut may have less laughs than some of their later LPs, but it’s heavy on screaming diz-busters, inspiring anthems, a lil taste of the rock ’n’ roll apocalypse, and one very cool psychedelic threnody to a foot. In short it’s one helluva rock record, and well deserved the plaudits it received from just about every critical luminary (Christgau, Bangs, etc.) of the time.

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Graded on a Curve: Imagine Dragons,
Evolve

I don’t know what I imagined I’d hear when I turned on Imagine Dragons’ 2017 magnum opus Evolve, but what I heard was worst than my most horrendous imaginings. I mean, I’d just been listening to Keith Emerson back with The Nice doing simply unspeakable things to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” and this was worse. Far worse. I’d heard stories… terrifying rumors… about Imagine Dragons, but like Pol Pot’s Cambodia you just don’t know what unspeakable means until you’ve been there. My editor, the estimable Jon Meyers, calls them “Imagine Jagoffs.” It is appropriate. Evolve is the rare LP that is so bad as to evoke not mirth, but contempt.

Just the other day I heard “Whatever It Takes” at the gym and immediately thought, “Wow, these guys are such empty vessels they’re actually proud to release a song that is not only thoughtless but the opposite of thought, whatever that opposite is.” Don’t get me wrong; I have no aesthetic bias per se against pure pop product. That said, I must insist it signify something other than its own obvious desire to move units, and “Whatever It Takes” as well as every other song on Evolve is a carefully engineered exercise in moving units.

Evolve is one of those albums designed to do only one thing, namely go platinum by any means necessary. It has, of course, gone platinum. These guys may have only one big idea–they certainly didn’t put any into their songs–but they have stayed true to that one big idea, which goes something like if we’re going to be a successful corporation we’re going to have to have all of the personality of a corporation, and make the homogenized likes of Mumford and Sons sound like bona fide fucking soul groups. They have succeeded to the extent that Evolve has about as much soul as your average snuff film and far less personality–at least a snuff film evokes human emotions such as pity and terror.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Monkees,
The Best of the Monkees

The kids in my 6th grade class didn’t give a shit about The Beatles; we were Monkees fans through and through. The Beatles, well… The Beatles were for fucking old people, and who gives a shit about old people? We had our own squabbles (Mickey’s No. 1!) and rumor mill (Davy’s dead!) and preferred Dr. Pepper to Sgt. Pepper anyway. My older brother never tired of playing the thing; it was fucking boring! And what did he know anyway? He was, like, 16 and practically dead!

And all these years later I’ll still take the Pre-Fab Four over the Fab Four any day. My heart doesn’t go pitter patter when I hear “Penny Lane,” but it skips a beat every time I hear “Daydream Believer” or “Valleri.” What do I care if The Monkees were the product of big Hollywood and that boring homunculus Don Kirshner? The truth is I kinda like Don Kirshner; his impossibly monotone and utterly banal introductions of bands on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert bordered on Andy Kaufman-school performance art, and provided me with some of my biggest laffs during the seventies.

Sure, the Monkees were created in a test tube in a laboratory by the suspiciously named Raybert Productions, and sure they were hardly allowed to play their own instruments on their own albums (hell, for a long time they couldn’t play ‘em!), but when push comes to shove it’s all about the songs, man, which now that I think of it were outsourced to the likes of Boyce and Hart and Neil Diamond and Goffin and King, but who cares? The kids in my 6th grade class knew something our boring elders/Beatles’ fans didn’t know; namely, that The Monkees were communicating with us DIRECTLY through the televisions in our living rooms, and the televisions in our living rooms were omnipotent!

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Graded on a Curve:
Patti Smith,
Horses

So I’m listening to Patti’s Smith’s pretty darn great 1975 debut Horses and here’s what I’m wondering: just how does Horses manage to rise so divinely above Patti’s ghastly “poetry”? Oh, I know I’m not supposed to say she’s a terrible poet. I’m not even supposed to think it. But when I hear grotesqueries (just to pull a couple of lines out of a hat; they’re everywhere) like “Your soul was a network of spittle/Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic” the poet in me rolls up in a little ball and shivers.

The answer, of course, is simple. Horses succeeds on a bunch of brilliant songs, lots of great playing, and Smith’s otherworldly energy and sheer charisma. Songs like “Gloria” (I’m going to dispense with the pretentious subtitle), “Free Money,” and “Land” prove quite conclusively that the Patti Smith Group was one helluva rock ’n’ roll band and Smith is one helluva singer. She’s by turns incantatory, seductive, and full of spit and vinegar. When she sings, “I’m not human,” I tend to believe her. She reaches peaks that most other artists spend their whole careers trying in vain to reach, and this was her first time out.

And such performances are enough to make me forgive her godawful poesy, and her pretentiousness even. Bear in mind that I’m not the only person to remark upon her, how does one say, bombastic and self-serious approach to her “Art” (I have every reason to believe that she would insist upon the capital A). Lester Bangs began a review of 1978’s Easter with the words, “I hate Patti Smith. She’s a pretentious wretch.” And he was a fan. As am I with the reservation that I find her belief in her own genius, well, a bit overbearing.

How does one prove that Patti Smith was, and may still be, an arrogant elitist and snob who is all too full of herself? Easy. One only has to quote her. Here’s her view on who should make art: “I never think that anybody should do art unless they’re a great artist. I think that people have the right to express themselves in their own homes (ed. note: how “permissive” of her–should they be sure to draw the blinds?) but I don’t think they should perpetuate it on the human race.” Patti sees fit to perpetuate her art on the human race. You do the math.

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Graded on a Curve: Grateful Dead,
Terrapin Station

Deadheads are like every other kind of head; they have their drug of choice and they like it. Just don’t try to tell ‘em–and I’m talking about your really hardcore Deadheads here–that the quality of their drug of choice varies. When it comes to Dead albums, they can’t tell their skunk weed from their Alaskan Thunder Fuck.

Take 1977’s Terrapin Station. I listen to it and I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that there are people out there who think it’s a great album. It’s not. It’s skunk weed. I could listen to it all day–although I’d sooner have knitting needles driven into my ears–and not catch a buzz. I try–I try–to weigh it against an album like American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead and I want to weep. The Dead goes disco! The Dead digs up the already dead “Dancin’ in the Streets” only to kill it again! The Dead lets Donna Godchaux sing and the whole world gags! The Dead bequeathes us the seven-part, sixteen-plus minutes of “Terrapin Part I,” complete with the “orchestral stylings” of The Martyn Ford Orchestra and The English Choral as arranged by Paul Bloody Buckmaster, and all I can think is, Fuck me, there’s a Part II?

The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau–one of the Dead’s least deluded hardcore fans–inexplicably gave Terrapin Station a B, and even more inexplicably called it the Grateful Dead’s best studio album since American Beauty. All I can think is he must have caught a buzz off the Martyn Ford Orchestra and wrote his review while stoned. Me, I listen to “Terrapin Part I” and ask myself, “Where the hell are the good songs? And since when does the Grateful Dead need a fucking orchestra to get its point across? Are these the same guys who charmed us with exquisite harmonies and stripped-to-the-bone Americana of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead?

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Graded on a Curve:
Van Halen, Van Halen

So I was listening to the masterful and spiritually uplifting guitar artistry of John McLaughlin and thought, “You know what? I’d rather listen to Van Halen.” That’s the kind of spiritually evolved being I am. There is the cosmos, with its songs of devotion and birds of fire, and then there is the shirtless David Lee Roth. The fact that I prefer the latter is proof that I exist upon a lower class astral plane, in a double-wide trailer whose front yard is littered with empty beer cans.

Let me say this just to start: When it comes to Van Halen, I’m a 1984 guy. Hardcore fans call 1984 a sell-out. I deny they sold out. I would argue they sold up. But the fact is I’ve already written about 1984, so I’m writing about Van Halen’s kick-ass 1978 self-titled debut. It’s not 1/10th as funny as 1984–the biggest laugh riot of a metal LP this side of Kix’s first–but it rocks much harder and is a lot meaner to boot. Van Halen was the opening salvo of a band that was clearly hungry and just as clearly had something to prove. It’s evident in every note Eddie Valen plays; you can hear it in David Lee Roth’s straight-from-the-crotch vocal swagger. Not all of its songs are winners–I might even go far as to say its B side sags–but the winners win big. Why, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” is so wonderful The Minutemen saw fit to cover it on Double Nickels on the Dime. When you’re the kind of band punk rockers love to hate but punk rockers still love your songs, you must be doing something right.

Van Halen was not universally beloved upon its release. The critics in particular were mean. Rolling Stone’s Charles M. Young opined, “In three years, Van Halen is going to be fat and self-indulgent and disgusting … follow[ing] Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet. In the meantime, they are likely to be a big deal.” Meanwhile, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, commenting about Van Halen’s status as a bar band, wrote, “The term becomes honorific when the music belongs in a bar. This music belongs on an aircraft carrier.” And you know what? He’s right. This music does belong on an aircraft carrier, provided everybody on said aircraft carrier is drunk, said aircraft carrier is driving erratically and well over the posted speed limit, and there’s a wet t-shirt contest being held on the flag bridge.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Alice Cooper’s
Greatest Hits

Could 1974’s Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits be the best album of the seventies? It’s a perverse and ludicrous notion, I know. But when I’m in the right mood, and I happen to be in the right mood right now, there isn’t an album I’d rather hear.

And is it such a perverse notion, when you come right down to it? I would direct the reader’s attention to Chuck Eddy, the perceptive and witty rock critic who wrote the brilliant, hilarious (and very much hated by metalheads) Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe. In said book Eddy puts Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits at No. 3 on his list. That’s right, No. 3, right below Led Zeppelin IV and Appetite for Destruction.

The fact is that Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits captures the highlights–albeit with some inexplicable omissions–of a band that melded razor-edged garage rock to grade B horror movie theatrics to create some of the most enthralling songs to emerge from your car radio in the early 1970s. I know plenty of purists who find greatest hits packages suspect. When it comes to making up “best-of” lists, greatest hits LPs don’t count. Me, I’m a populist and a utilitarian and I prefer Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits to Alice’s other product, although Love It To Death comes a close second. It’s time we let greatest hits LPs out of their ghetto!

Put simply, I like Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits more than any of the five albums whose tracks appear on it because Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits does not include any of the duds that made all five of those albums so uneven. 1971’s Love It to Death was as close as Alice Cooper came to producing a masterpiece, and is my AC studio LP of choice. Billion Dollar Babies finishes a not-so-close second. As for the other three, I don’t own them. Why don’t I own them? Because I have Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits. That’s what greatest hits albums are for.

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Graded on a Curve: Tangerine Dream,
Phaedra

The late, great Lester Bangs began his absolutely priceless 1977 review of Deutsche Electronische Musik pioneers Tangerine Dream with the words, “I decided it would be a real fun idea to get fucked up on drugs and go see Tangerine Dream.” His narcotic of choice? Two bottles of cough syrup. Having finally (I’ve been putting it off for decades) gotten around to listening to Tangerine Dream, I think he had the right idea. When it comes to listening to Tangerine Dream, paralyzing quantities of cough syrup are most definitely in order.

Lester opened his review on a jocular note, but he was at heart a serious man and truly curious. What was it, he wondered, that made people actually want to go see a band that sounded like, in his own words, “silt seeping on the ocean floor?” He couldn’t come up with an adequate answer to this question, and neither can I. I suppose some people can empathize with silt. They have silt-like qualities. They listen to Tangerine Dream and they can “relate.”

I decided to further Lester’s research (sans cough syrup) by listening to 1974’s Phaedra, which is widely considered one of Tangerine Dream’s best. I found the experience both boring and unnerving, which you would think is impossible but isn’t. I still don’t know how they pulled it off. I can only say I was as uninterested by its subtle ambience of nothingness as I was disconcerted.

The basic question is this: why do I find such unobjectionable, unobtrusive music so objectionable and obtrusive? I do not know. I can only say I wanted what I was hearing–and I can only describe most of what I was hearing as eerie solar winds blowing across the denuded surface of some alien planet, set against the backdrop of a persistent mechanized hum–to go away. I don’t want to listen to eerie winds–to say nothing of burbling water, disquieting whooshing noises, or random blips and chirps. I’m a rock ’n’ roll fan. I want to hear comforting loud and vicious noise set to an ear-pummeling beat.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tony Conrad with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate

How best to describe this remarkable 1973 exercise in minimalist drone by U.S. avant-garde composer Tony Conrad working in collaboration with the Krautrock avatars Faust? Boring would be one way of describing it. But I prefer to describe it as mesmerizing.

I generally give a wide berth to avant-garde music for the simple reason that I’m too dumb to appreciate avant-garde music, but this sounds like a couple of guys sat down, gobbled a whole bunch of thorazine, and proceeded to warm up for a pair of songs they never actually got around to playing because they were too wasted on thorazine to remember how said songs went. I recommend it to psychotics, minimalist noise freaks, and people who have just taken a lot of thorazine. I’ll bet you Outside the Dream Syndicate sounds simply spectacular with a head full of thorazine.

Tony Conrad was a member of Le Monte Young’s The Dream Syndicate (original name, Theatre of Eternal Music), and played on a pair of LPs (the second of which is primarily attributed to John Cale) that were recorded in the mid-sixties but didn’t see the light of day until the early 2000s. The album came about after Conrad was invited by a Hamburg film producer to come to Germany where he met Uwe Nettelbeck, Faust’s producer. The man and the band proceeded to record this experimental two-song LP (issued under the Caroline label) in an old schoolhouse in Wümme, which is mysterious as Wümme is a river rather than a place. I can only assume their instruments got wet. At any rate, no subsequent LPs bearing Conrad’s name were released until 1995; his career is perhaps best summed up by a 2011 article in Gramophone entitled, “The Minimalist Pioneer Time Forgot.”

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