Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: The Velvet Underground,
White Light/White Heat

Have you ever driven over what you thought was a speed bump, only to discover later it was your grandmother? I know, I know, so have I. Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s partly her fault for falling face down in the street like that, and then failing (those old hips shatter like china!) to get back up. And the rest of the blame lies with the fact that you weren’t paying attention, but instead singing “too busy sucking on a ding dong” along with Loud Reed on “Sister Ray,” the centerpiece of the Velvet Underground’s magnum dopus, 1968’s White Light/White Heat.

Like many people I know and despise, I’ve gone through phases with the Velvet Underground. Their 1967 debut will be my favorite for a while, then I’ll switch allegiance to White Light/White Heat, and then I’ll go turncoat and spend a year or so listening only to Loaded. But I have given the matter a lot of thought, and have decided that White Light/White Heat is VU’s best LP, because it alone gets to the point, the point being that life is an absurd and awful place, and the only real and valid goal of art is to communicate said absurdity and awfulness in as absurd and awful a manner as possible.

Lou Reed was a Janus-faced fellow, an Apollonian and a Dionysian by turns, and as capable of producing songs of formalist beauty (“Pale Blue Eyes”) as he was of creating songs of seemingly chaotic ugliness (“I Heard Her Call My Name”). Me, I’ve decided (having spent the past year in an anteroom of Hell) I prefer the ugliness and chaos, and all of the nihilistic accoutrements that come with them. And on White Light/White Heat Reed was definitely in chaos mode.

As for vocalist/multi-instrumentalist John Cale, who would leave the Velvets after White Light/White Heat, he preferred the chaos to the beauty for aesthetic reasons having to do with his avant-garde predilections. Meanwhile, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker were simply along for the ride. That said, they weren’t unwilling participants in the creation of the masterpiece of malignity and malice that is White Light/White Heat. Morrison summed up the band’s collective gestalt at the time by saying, “We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction. In the White Light/White Heat era, our lives were chaos. That’s what’s reflected in the record.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Television,
Adventure

Sometimes I flabbergast myself. I think I know what I like and what I don’t like, only to find out I don’t know a damn thing about anything, least of all my likes and dislikes. Take KC and the Sunshine Band. I hated them with a passion for like 30 years and now I think they’re great. Or Elton John’s Caribou, which I liked for like 80 years only to realize just yesterday it only has two good songs on it, although to Captain Fantastic’s credit they’re two really great songs.

But occasionally I get it right the first time, as with Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” which I hated when it came out and still hate to this day. And the same goes for Television’s sophomore LP, 1978’s Adventure. People—as in every sentient human breathing air the year it came out—wrote Adventure off as a lackluster follow-up to the band’s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon. Everybody but me, that is. Because I had never heard of Marquee Moon. I didn’t even know it existed. Hell, I can’t even remember how or why I came to buy Adventure, because I had no clue as to who Television was and absolutely no inkling that they were an integral part of a musical revolution in progress at a ratty club in New York City called CBGBs.

But buy it I did, just as I bought Kill City without having ever heard the Stooges, which just goes to show you how isolating rural living was back in the days before the internet gave you access to all kinds of information, including who was who on the rock circuit. About all you got exposed to back in those days were hoof and mouth disease and square dancing, which is why I spent my teen years doing my level best to do as many drugs as I could get my greedy paws on, while trying to wrap my vehicle around a utility pole, which I finally accomplished on March 1, 1980. You’ve got to have goals, even in the boondocks, or life isn’t worth a damn.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Second Helping

When people—and by people I mean people who can’t believe a person of reasonable intelligence could possibly like the rednecks in Lynyrd Skynyrd—ask me why I love the band, I always tell them the same thing. I tell them that Lynyrd Skynyrd was the best Southern rock band ever, Fight Club, a future meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that was never held, and rock’s greatest tragedy all rolled into one. Of course it doesn’t convince them for all kinds of reasons, including Skynyrd’s prominent display of the Confederate battle flag, its contentious celebration of the state of Alabama and mock feud with Neil Young, “Free Bird”—you name it. Some people just love hating Lynyrd Skynyrd, and I wish I knew why.

I get the “Free Bird” bit—it’s long and goes on for a really long time and its been played to death on the radio—but as for the rest of it, I say phooey. I don’t believe—Stars and Bars and pro-Alabama song notwithstanding—that Lynyrd Skynyrd had a racist bone in its body, and people consistently fail to hear female back-up singers Clydie King, Merry Clayton, and Sherlie Matthews singing “Boo boo boo” after Ronnie Van Zant sings “In Birmingham they love the guv’nor” in “Sweet Home Alabama,” perhaps because they simply cannot conceive of a bunch of ignorant rednecks like Lynyrd Skynyrd possessing a sense of irony.

But I always thought Ronnie Van Zant was one highly intelligent guy, albeit rough around the edges and when intoxicated prone to punching people in the face and on occasion even attempting to push them out of airplanes in mid-flight. But I always found Ronnie’s foibles amusing, endearing even, and the fact is that when he wasn’t knocking Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell’s teeth out—twice—he was writing great and nuanced songs in the vein of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, only set to a rock beat. And still he couldn’t win; the same people (Yankee hipsters all) who think loving Merle and Waylon proves their open-mindedness still despise Skynyrd. As Robert Christgau noted when MCA released the compilation Gold and Platinum in 1979, “It’s not fair, really–everybody who was dumb enough to dismiss them as another pack of redneck boogie freaks now gets to catch up.” But most of ‘em failed to catch up even then, and what is to be said about such adamant close-mindedness except their loss?

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Graded on a Curve:
Can,
Delay 1968

I love microwaveable serving pouch. I love box of mac and cheese. But most of all I love Can. Formed in Cologne in 1968, Can—which was one of the first Krautrock bands and in my opinion the best—integrated psychedelic, experimental, and avant-garde influences into its great and hypnotically raucous music. Can’s methods were radical—you’ve got to love a band that spent 6 hours without a break spontaneously improvising “Yoo Doo Right” in the studio, only to pare it down to 20 minutes for release on vinyl. Hell, I don’t think even the Grateful ever played for six hours straight. Can dubbed such spontaneous jams “instant compositions,” and I beg to differ. Six hours is not instant. Soup is instant. Six hours is almost a goddamn workday. Hell, if it took six hours to heat soup, I’d starve to death.

Most people consider Can’s golden years to be those when the great Damo Suzuki—whom the band discovered busking outside a Munich café and was playing with them live that same night—was the vocalist. It was during these years that Can released such legendary LPs as 1971’s Tago Mago, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi, and 1973’s Future Days. I love that trio dearly, but have always had a soft spot in my heart for Delay 1968, which was supposed to be the band’s debut album and would have been the band’s debut album had they been able to find a single record label willing to so much as touch it, even while wearing biohazard gloves. (It wasn’t released until 1981, by Spoon Records.) Often labeled a compilation album, or an album of outtakes, Can bassist and recording engineer Holger Czukay has gone on record as saying Delay 1968 was intended to be Can’s first LP and bore the title Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM.

My reasons for loving Delay 1968 have much to do with the band’s first vocalist, the American sculptor Malcolm Mooney. Mooney’s hoarse vocals, mad rants, and odd utterances added an element of derangement to Can’s often repetitious and strange songs, which are less propulsive and Autobahn-friendly, and often bring to mind German Captain Beefheart. And Mooney wasn’t just faking those lunatic vocals—following the release of Can’s proper debut, 1969’s Monster Movie, he returned to the United States, after receiving a strong recommendation to do so by his psychiatrist. Evidently he wouldn’t stop shouting, “Upstairs, downstairs,” which I imagine must have gotten on his fellow band mates’ nerves. In any event he left, and didn’t rejoin Can until 1989, when he returned to assume vocal duties for the band’s Rite Time LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft,
Alles Ist Gut

I’m not a dance guy. You can ask anyone. And they’ll tell you my dancing brings to mind a man in bare feet leaping about on hot coals while being attacked by a swarm of apoplectic hornets. But I do like me some good industrial/dance/noise music on occasion. So I recently checked out the defunct Düsseldorf band Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (“German American Friendship”), and boy, was I glad I did.

Not only did they release scads of great electropunk dance noise, but they actually wrote a song about dancing with Adolf Hitler! That’s right, they were Germans with an actual sense of humor! And not only that, but the brutal Thump! Thump! Thump! of their drums evoked the sound of 88-millimeter shells falling on Stalingrad. What’s more, vocalist Gabriel “Gabi” Delgado-López kinda sounded like what I imagine Josef Goebbels might have sounded like had he forgone the whole loser Nazi propaganda shtick and gone the club music route instead. In short, they made WWII rock!

D.A.F., as Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft are more popularly known, were formed as a five piece in 1978, but attrition soon whittled the band down to a duo consisting of vocalist Delgado-López and Robert Görl on drums, percussion, and electronic instruments. D.A.F. released seven LPs over the course of its career, and said LPs run the gamut from quite listenable to dead-raising cacophonies. My fave is 1981’s Alles Ist Gut (or “Everything’s Cool”). And not just because the “Deutsche Phono-Akademie,” whoever they are, awarded Alles Ist Gut the coveted “Schallplattenpreis” Award, whatever that is.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Despite what you may have heard, or read, Glam Rock didn’t begin with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, or any other early seventies English rocker. It began long, long before that, during the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Forget those plain and lumbering creatures you see on the Science Channel—those were the workaday dinosaurs. The real creatures, like Glittersaurus Rex and Giganotosaurus Glamii, were fashion queens and totally outrageous.

They knew theirs was a final age of decadence and lived it to the hilt, wearing mascara, eyeliner, feather boas, and fabulous neckpieces like the one Edgar Winter sports on They Only Come Out at Night. And glitter, of course—the terminal age dinosaurs adored glitter. On their faces, on their claws, and even on their thigh-high 8-inch platform boots, which made it impossible for them to run and are the reason they went extinct. Their elegy, if they can be said to have one, was uttered by David Bowie, who said, “If those dinosaurs were the spearhead of anything, it wasn’t necessarily the spearhead of anything good. Any era that allowed dinosaurs like them to become rampant was pretty well lost.”

But we’re not here to talk about dinosaurs, but about one of the greatest albums of all time. And not just Glam albums, but albums period. 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was a concept album recorded by rock’s premiere changeling—a skirt-wearing longhair oddball ex-mime named David Bowie, who decided that outrage was the name of the game and that the most fabulous route to stardom lay in dressing up like a mincing androgynous intergalactic space fop, come to spread the news of imminent apocalypse and the gospel of hazy cosmic jive. And it worked, worked so well in fact that even Bowie himself came to believe it. Soon every teen in Glam Britannia was dressing up like a spaceman in drag, and tossing the wanker rock (e.g., Edison Lighthouse, Leapy Lee) they’d been forced to listen to until then into the dustbin. This wasn’t rock’n’roll—this was recordcide!

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Graded on a Curve:
Colleen Green,
Milo Goes to Compton

Sock it to me! No, you bet your sweet bippy I’m not an extra on the sixties’ too-weird-for-words variety show Laugh-In; I’m just quoting the title of one-woman army Colleen Green’s latest LP. With guitar and drum machine Green writes songs she calls “stoner pop,” and they’re all over the place: she usually sings in a deliciously hushed voice, but not always, and her songs veer from the sweet to the swaggering, with a touch of The Ramones here and some muted synth-pop there, and the important thing to note about all of them is they’re catchy as Kuru.

Her sophomore release, 2012’s Milo Goes to Compton, is an obvious nod to the Descendents’ 1982 LP Milo Goes to College, and reflects her move to Cali from Massachusetts. It follows 2011 debut Cujo, which includes a song called “Mike” I’d like to think she wrote about me but didn’t. (Or at least I think she didn’t. Plenty of women have written songs about me, but most of the titles can’t be repeated in a family magazine like The Vinyl District.) It also includes a hard-rocking (she can do amazing things with that guitar) tune called “Rabid Love,” which I would also like to think is about me, but I think is about a raccoon. (I haven’t listened carefully to the lyrics.) And her newest offering, 2013’s Sock It To Me, includes such great grinding tunes as “Heavy Shit” and the slow and ominous title track, on which she plays some space rock keyboards and sings until there’s a kind of hush all over the world, and it’s emanating from your turntable.

I’m no big fan of drum machines, but they work in Green’s case because there’s something mysteriously mechanized about her vocals as well. She has a lovely voice, but her vocals are cold—not Nico cold, mind you, or even close—but cold nonetheless, and if that sounds like an insult it’s not. Even on such love songs as “Only One” she sounds like the coolest girl in your high school, the impossibly prepossessed one who never lost her cool, or her sense of impressive self-possession.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
“Stink”

One thing you’ve got to say for the Replacements; they knew how to record an album. The story I’ve heard, and it could well be apocryphal, is that after the Replacements finished one recording session, some poor sap had to go in to clean up the puke—off the ceiling.

The Replacements’ hard-drinking, hit-or-miss live shows became legendary; they might be great or they might be wrecked, and proceed to abandon songs in midstream, commit bodily harm to their defenseless instruments, perform covers they only kinda sorta knew, and generally muck about until they decided enough was enough. Lots of bands lay claim to being room-clearers, but the Replacements were the real deal, the kings in a world full of pretenders to the throne.

The Replacements were formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1979. Their career trajectory was rather odd; instead of starting as a hardcore band and then softening the edges as most bands did, they did just the opposite, by recording 1982’s decidedly hardcore “Stink” EP after the tangentially more melodic (which bears definite traces of vocalist/guitarist and chief songwriter Paul Westerberg’s gift for writing great, heart-wrenching melodies) debut LP, 1981’s Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Westerberg was supported by the Stinson brothers, Bob on guitar and Tommy—who was 11 when he first started playing, and had to drop out of 10th grade to join the band on its first national tour—on bass, and Chris Mars on drums. Bob Stinson, a lunatic and hardened alcoholic, would leave the band in 1986 and die a sad drug-related death in 1995, but all that was far in the future when the Replacements recorded “Stink.” Westerberg hilariously summed up the young band’s general attitude towards their chosen profession on Sorry Ma’s “I Hate Music,” when he sang, “I hate music/Sometimes I don’t/I hate music/It’s got too many notes.” And Westerberg hit the nail on the head on “Something to Dü” (a reference to their relatively friendly rivalry with Minneapolis’ Husker Dü) when he described the band’s job as “delivering noise.”

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Ian Hunter,
The TVD Interview

It’s not often that you get to talk to a bona fide rock legend—and one of your biggest heroes to boot. So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak by phone with Sir (I added that myself; why wait for the Queen to get around to it?) Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople and solo artist fame. I’ve been listening to Mott since I was 14, and getting the opportunity to speak one on one with him was something I never considered possible. It seemed to me as likely as getting the chance to talk to Robert Johnson, or Napoleon.

Anyway, Ian Hunter and band are coming to The Hamilton in Washington D.C. on Sunday, November 2, and Hunter was interested in hyping the show. Unfortunately he was talking to a deranged fanatic, and he had to remind me of that fact about three-quarters of the way through our hour-long interview. My sincerest apologies, Ian. But I learned a lot. 

I’ve heard rumors of a Mott reunion? True?

We’ve done two, and I think that’s enough. We’re all a bit older now and I think we’ve done enough.

Damn. Well, let’s start at the beginning. You were a Teddy Boy?

I came out of gangs. Teddy Boys—they were all about style. Edwardian clothes and violence. Drainpipe trousers, jackets that came down to your knees. There was a lot of fighting involved. I’d be playing pubs, so I wasn’t engaging in much violence. But they had my back. If somebody hit me, all I had to do was call some guys, and there’d be five Teddy Boys tapping the guilty party on his shoulder. They were poor people, a lot of them had grown up in boy’s homes, but they weren’t stupid. They were angry, but not stupid.

Do you have an all-time favorite rocker?

Little Richard. “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” I found your American artists’ names very confusing. I thought Jerry Lee Lewis was Jerry Lewis (of The Nutty Professor fame), and as for Elvis Presley, what kind of name was Elvis? What was up with that? I saw Little Richard in 1957. In those days artists couldn’t afford to bring their own bands to England, so Sounds Inc. [a British instrumental pop group] served as Little Richard’s backing band. And he had Sam Cooke singing back up. It’s funny about Sam Cooke—he always sounded very quiet on record, but he had a very loud voice on stage.

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Graded on a Curve:
Repo Man (OST)

The life of a repo man is always intense. I know this because I have, at last count, watched Alex Cox’ 1984 film Repo Man 123 times. Its storyline—shiftless punk finds himself part of a motley crew of repo men, while a mad scientist roams LA in a car with some highly dangerous nuclear materials in the back—is both whacked and hilarious, and it’s as full of classic lines (“I don’t want no commies in my car. No Christians either” says jaded repo man Bud [Harry Dean Stanton] to young acolyte Otto [Emilio Estevez]) as Apocalypse Now. What’s more, it boasts a better soundtrack, thanks to the contributions of Iggy Pop, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, Fear, and The Plugz.

The film does a wonderful job of capturing the aimlessness of LA’s hardcore youth, and is so full of catch phrases (Bud: “Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.”) you could spend the rest of your life, or at least a day or two, speaking only lines from the movie, and never repeat yourself. It’s not impossible, either. I have a friend who took a whole lotta acid and spent the next four days speaking only in song lyrics. Seriously. You might ask him how his day was going and he’d reply, “I’m easy, easy like Sunday morning” or “I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.” I didn’t witness this, but I believe him. He’s not a pathological liar like yours truly, of whom Mary McCarthy once said, “Every word he writes is a lie, including and and the.” Come to think of it I’m lying again, because McCarthy was actually referring to Lillian Hellman.

Anyway, the soundtrack (and the movie) open with Iggy Pop’s “Repo Man.” He recorded the song with Blondie’s former rhythm section (Clem Burke on drums and Nigel Harrison on bass) and ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones on guitar after hurriedly scribbling some lines in his notebook. Jones’ opening guitar riff is titanic, oceanic, and BIG, and the rhythm section is spot on. Jones then plays a sorta secret agent man riff while Iggy sings one of his greatest couplets: “I’m looking for the joke/With a microscope.” Okay, so it’s not as good as 1969’s “Now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my and a boo hoo,” but that line’s one in a million. Anyway, Jones demonstrates that his knack for writing riffs made him punk’s Jimmy Page, and Iggy throws out some more great lines (“I was a teenage dinosaur, stoned and obsolete/I didn’t get fucked and I didn’t get kissed/I got so fucking dense/Using my head for an ashtray” before taking the song out repeating “I’m looking for the joke.” Black Flag’s “TV Party” follows, and it’s one of their greats, a hilarious sing-along and put down of drunken couch potato punks who spend their lives chained to their television (“I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day/Or even a minute!”). Everybody loves it when the guys shout out the names of their favorite shows, but then a terrible tragedy takes place—their TV goes on the fritz!

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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