Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Captain & Tennille, Love Will Keep Us Together

A few remarks on Captain and Tennille’s immensely successful 1975 debut LP Love Will Keep Us Together.

1. It should have been entitled, Buy This Album or We’ll Shoot These Dogs. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I think of when I look at that cover is “My God. They’ve taken hostages.”

2. Talk about your sexism. Who appointed Daryl Dragon Captain? Tennille should have mutinied and made him walk the plank.

3. The Grammy Award-winning title track of this enormously popular slab of G-rated family entertainment was followed, oddly enough, by an X-rated paean to interspecies dating entitled “Muskrat Love.” And I’m not the only family values advocate who was shocked by this. Here’s Toni Tennille, talking about the duo’s audience before royal company: “So, we performed and then the next day, lo and behold, it hit the papers that the Captain & Tennille had performed an ‘obscene’ song for Queen Elizabeth. Now, I have performed this song many times… and I still have not figured out what’s ‘obscene’ about it!” Toni, Toni, Toni–you’re not fooling anyone.

4. As the proud owner of a copy of Mark Bego’s quickie paperback Captain & Tennille: An Unauthorized Biography (1977: Tempo Books) I can tell you that Dragon’s sun is in Virgo, Tennille’s is in Taurus, and that the late Rona “Queen of Gossip Columnists” Barrett was both a close personal friend and humongous fan. As was the late, great rock impresario Don Kirshner, who gushed, “They can’t miss because they’re a fun couple, and they’re terrific singer/musicians!” And then there’s this, from Angelo Jurkovich of Vidal Sassoon Beverly Hills, who was responsible for Toni’s “trademark look”: [Her hair] has a lot of body, and when you cut it, it has so much movement and body!” Wow! Her hair has so much body he said it twice!

5. Daryl is a retiring guy who likes to stay in the background behind his keybs, but don’t let that fool you; behind those dark glasses lurks the musical genius responsible for making Love Will Keep Us Together such a gonzo piece of gauzy musical entertainment. Just check out the positively insane “Broddy Bounce,” with its wacky synthesizer, French-influenced vocals, and series of dog commands by Toni. “Lie down! Roll over! Good boy!” Perhaps this isn’t a G-rated LP after all.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Exile on Main Street

I’ve been down in the dumps of late; the suicide of a friend, the death of another friend I dearly loved, and a bad case of the blues have all pretty much brought me to my knees. I feel beat down, fagged out, fucked over, and broken up, and life sure does have a way of tarnishing your eyelids, doesn’t it?

Where to turn in times like these? When you’ve got a foot in the grave and your head in the oven?

Exile on Main Street, naturally. It’s as beat down an LP as ever you’ll hear; Mick, Keith and Company are torn and frayed and have shit on their shoes and the whole album sounds like it was recorded in a sub-basement of Hell.

And yet. The Rolling Stones’ 1972 bruised and battered masterpiece (and high-water mark) somehow manages to rise above the bad vibes and general miasma of death and dissolution that surrounded the band at the time. Nothing–not drug busts, the death of Brian Jones, Altamont, tax exile, or Keith Richards’ slide toward junkiedom–could stop the Stones from turning Exile on Main Street into a celebration of hope and soul survival.

And this despite the fact that the album is the aural equivalent of the La Brea tar pits. Mick Jagger has never stopped carping about Exile’s notoriously sludgy mix, but the murk doesn’t just work–it’s part and parcel of the double album’s greatness. You have to trudge through shit to get to the Promised Land, and if you scrape the shit off these songs, well, you find diamonds. “Turd on the Run” anyone?

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Graded on a Curve:
Hot Chocolate,
10 Greatest Hits

The U.K. funk/soul/disco outfit Hot Chocolate never made much of a dent statewide; they’re best remembered for their 1975 hit “You Sexy Thing,” although pop aficionados will also remember them for such curiosities as “Brother Louie”–which Stories took to Number One in the U.S.–and “Emma.”

And that’s too bad, because the racially mixed Hot Chocolate produced some damn good music, much of which found its way onto their 1974 debut Cicero Park, 1975’s eponymous Hot Chocolate, and 1976’s Man to Man. Lead singer Errol Brown and bassist/co-lead vocalist Tony Wilson were a formidable songwriting team before the latter’s departure, and Brown continued to turn out some excellent stuff, as is proved beyond a doubt on 1977’s 10 Greatest Hits.

It didn’t hurt that Brown’s soulful croon was one in a million, or that he could shriek just like Wilson Pickett. Just listen to the screams he tosses off at the end of the immortal suicide ode “Emma,” which works to a “T” thanks to the funky drumming of white guy Tony Connor and the guitar of other white guy Harvey Hinsley. And Hinsley’s guitar is a thing of wonder on the hard-charging funk rocker “You Could’ve Been a Lady,” which would have flown to the Top of the Pops in a just world. This baby remains one of my favorite songs of America’s Bicentennial Year; inexplicably, Hot Chocolate didn’t see fit to release it as a single.

“Disco Queen” shows off Brown’s funky vocals and Connor’s heavy manner on the drums; the horn section is hot, and when Brown sings “She don’t need no man to give her satisfaction/All she needs is a guitar playing high” Hinsley’s there to do just that. This baby is the Talking Head’s “Life During Wartime” for the dance set, and I love it. “Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac” has an impossibly funky groove and brings the best out of Brown, whose vocal style on this one is impossible to describe. Suffice if to say that when he bends the words “Let me take you there” the ladies swoon, and never has the idea of cramped back seat love sounded so good.

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Graded on a Curve: Fleetwood Mac,
Kiln House

We remember Fleetwood Mac’s Danny Kirwan who passed away on Friday, June 8 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Long before Fleetwood Mac became thee greatest soft rock band of all time—1977’s Rumours sold approximately 17 billion copies, and everybody from the Shah of Iran to the killer whale at the San Diego Zoo were humming “Go Your Own Way”—Mick Fleetwood’s flagship was a bona fide English blues band. And charting said flagship’s Mac’s Columbus-like course from trad blues wannabes to soft rock heroes makes for an edifying listening experience.

Take 1970’s Kiln House. Guitar slingers Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan were in. Former guitar hero Peter Green was out. Christine McVie provided backing vocals, but was not yet a member of the band. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were doing whatever it is rock gods do before they become rock gods. Pursuing careers in professional badminton, perhaps. Anyway, Kiln House is a far more curious bird than Rumours or its groundbreaking predecessor, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac.

If Kiln House is short on the pop gems that stud Rumours and Fleetwood Mac, it’s light years away from the band’s blues origins as well. The truth is Kiln House is all over the place. Just check out the guitar heroics on such great tunes as “Tell Me All the Things You Do” and “Station Man.” And from there Mick and Company veer crazily from old school rock’n’rollers (a kick-ass cover of Fats Waller’s “Hi Ho Silver”) to country parody (the hilarious “Blood on the Floor”) to rockabilly tributes (a wacky cover of “Buddy’s Song,” which is credited to Buddy Holly’s mom, and “This Is a Rock,” which lopes and shuffles along at a lackadaisical but irresistible pace, putting anything ever recorded by the Stray Cats to shame).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Very Best of Mud

Ask your average American about English Glam, and she’ll most likely reel off a familiar list of names. David Bowie, Roxy Music, T. Rex, and Mott the Hoople will top the list. Sweet and Slade will most likely come as afterthoughts. As will the likes of Gary Glitter and Suzi Quatro.

But U.K.’s Glam Rock movement had a glitter-encrusted underbelly that only the most tuned in Americans knew about. Alvin Stardust, Geordie, Chicory Tip, and Mud may have been household names in Merry Olde England, but they’re rock’n’roll trivia answers stateside.

I would like to report that this deep pool of unknown talent opens wonderful new vistas to American Glam aficionados, but if Mud is any example, we didn’t miss all that much. A couple of the cuts on 1998’s 20-song The Very Best of Mud shine, and I’m certainly happy to have them around, but for the most part I can only say there’s a good reason why Mud made even less of a dent on the U.S. pop charts than Slade and Gary Glitter.

Which is too bad, because in many ways Mud personified the populist (read: strictly for the tweens) wing of U.K. Glam. And like most of said members of Glam’s populist under echelon, they owed their relatively brief success to two uniquely English impresarios of star-making machinery. The first was superproducer/label owner Mickie Most. The second was the songwriting/production machine that was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman.

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Time Fades Away

Neil Young’s years spent “in the ditch” (his words) remain, for me, the most vital of his entire career. As the hippie dream fell apart so did Young, and on albums such as 1975’s Tonight’s the Night (a “howling facedown with heroin and death itself,” in the critic Robert Christgau’s words) and 1973’s live Time Fades Away Young proceeded to disintegrate, sick unto death with the deaths of his junkie friends and dissatisfied with the folk-rock box he’d put himself in with 1972’s mellow Harvest, the LP that made him a superstar.

On Tonight’s the Night the songs bear an almost unbearable weight of sorrow, and Young’s mournful wildcat yowl is a million miles away from the peaceful vibes of Harvest; one can only imagine what Harvest’s diehard fans must have thought of it, just as it’s hard to imagine what his concert-going fans made of the never-before heard songs on Time Fades Away, on which Young and his Stray Gators ripped into such raw, electrified (and electrifying) numbers as the title track, the great “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” and “Last Dance.”

Me, I’ll always think Tonight’s the Night is the greatest LP ever made about the demise of the Age of Aquarius, but Time Fades Away has its pleasures as well, even if Young himself has dismissed it on multiple occasions, saying in 1987 that it was “the worst record I ever made—but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.” And on the original, unreleased liner notes to 1977’s Decade, he again expressed his unhappiness with the tour and ensuing record, before saying, “… but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while.”

So what we have here is as sort of rock version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, with Neil coming to pieces in the spotlight, as it were. Fortunately Young is hardly the best critic of his own work, because despite his bad memories of the tour that brought us Time Fades Away, the resulting LP is tremendous—not nearly as chilling as Tonight’s the Night, for sure, but a howl of pain and disaffection nonetheless.

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Graded on a Curve:
Big Black,

File under: Music to Hurt Things To. These guys make me think of that line from Fight Club. You know, the one that goes, “I felt like destroying something beautiful.”

I was never much of a Big Black fan for a couple of reasons. For one, they never made me chuckle the way their noise rock brethren in Cows and Killdozer did. For another, I had the hardest time working up any enthusiasm for their drum machine-driven proto-industrial sound.

But time has softened me up to the very unlovable Steve Albini and Company. Sure he’s an awful snot with a jaundiced worldview and a mean word for just about everybody, but you can’t deny he lacks vision. He wanted to make a horrible pummeling caterwaul and accompany it with lots of transgressive lyrics based on stories he read in the newspaper or vomited up from his revolting imagination, and the results can be heard to nauseating effect on Big Black’s 1986 debut LP Atomizer.

The LP credits Albini (guitar, vocals, drum machine programming), Santiago Durango (guitar), Dave Riley (bass) and Roland, who happens to be the drum machine and who I can only presume didn’t get paid. And this despite the fact that on some songs Roland should get top billing.

But on other cuts it’s easy to forget poor Roland because the boys make such an ungodly noise with their guitars, thanks to their use of metal guitar picks notched with sheet metal clips. They achieve a variety of startling and discordant effects via this simple trick; the tinny Chinese din of “Passing Complexion” (think world music as played by guys who never got out of Evanston, Illinois) will give you a good idea of the sonic possibilities. Sonic Youth have nothing on this bunch.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dreamboat Annie

What do you get when you cross Stevie Nicks with Led Zeppelin? Heart, of course. Ann Wilson brought folk-inflected female tonsils to the hard-rock table, and things were never the same.

Or rather they were the same, because Heart, while they were groundbreaking, were not one of those bands like the Velvet Underground that went on to launch a thousand imitators. Aside from the songs we all know because they still get played on classic rock radio, Heart’s sound never caught on for the simple reason that they could never settle on a sound, as is demonstrated on their 1976 debut Dreamboat Annie.

Dreamboat Annie veers from Led Zep rips (see “Soul of the Sea”) to Glen Campbell-flavored ersatz country (see all three iterations of the title track, the second of which is the keeper), and takes a few MOR folk, pop, and country rock stops on its way. So if it’s continuity or cohesiveness you’re seeking I suggest you look elsewhere. Diversity–in terms of both gender and music–is the order of the day, and while Ann and Nancy Wilson certainly did a lot in terms of proving girls could play just as well as the boys, the musical on their debut is diverse to a fault.

Ann Wilson is what happens when a little girl grows up wanting to be Robert Plant instead of Janis Joplin or Karen Carpenter; unfortunately the Wilson Sisters couldn’t decide whether they wanted to grow up to be Led Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac. The lesser angels of their nature led them to unsatisfying compromises like “How Deep It Goes” (string and horn-infested pop shlock) and “(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” (bona fide soft rock), the latter of which reminds me of Bread, for Christ’s sake.

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Graded on a Curve: Allman and Woman,
Two the Hard Way

When it comes to bad marriages, the one between Gregg Allman and Cher was far from the worst. I give you Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were such gluttons for punishment they married twice. And John and Lorena Bobbitt, whose less-than-happy marriage ended in a custody dispute over John’s penis.

And let us not forget the marriage between 19h Century art critic John Ruskin and Euphemia Gray, which remained unconsummated after Ruskin made the horrifying discovery that unlike his beloved nude sculptures Euphemia had–gak!–pubic hair.

But what made the disastrous Cher/Allman union so uniquely awful is that they saw fit to leave us with a wedding souvenir in the form of 1975’s Two the Hard Way. Famously attributed to “Allman and Woman”–Cher having evidently agreed to surrender her half of the billing to womankind in general–this ill-starred love child was doomed to ignominy from the start for the most glaring of reasons, namely irreconcilable musical differences.

How incompatible are we talking? Suffice it to say that the wedded couple’s post-LP European tour was cut short after fights kept breaking out between Allman Brothers fans and Cher fans at their shows. It was like a replay of the Civil War, only it was fought overseas. I like to think the Cher fans triumphed–”Claw that hairy brute’s eyes out, Bernice, with your fabulous six-inch nails!”–but I have my doubts.

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Graded on a Curve: Foxygen,
We Are the 21st
Century Ambassadors
of Peace & Magic

Foxygen’s 2013 full-length We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic raises an interesting question. To wit: Just how good can an album be when the strongest cut on it is a shameless Pavement rip?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is pretty damn good indeed. It doesn’t hurt that the Pavement steal in question–”No Destruction”–is for the ages. Nor does it hurt that the indie pop duo of Sam France and Jonathan Rado have an uncanny knack for raiding the old musical closet to put together new and garishly interesting outfits.

When it comes to retro, Foxygen prefers the AM band to the FM one; their songs are twisted, for sure, but most of them have the exuberant pop! of a cork coming out of a bottle of expensive champagne. And like a good bottle of bubbly, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors will definitely go to your head.

The album’s potpourri of sounds runs the gamut from the dizzy-making French pop readymade that is “San Francisco” (dig those cheesy glockenspiels and the dreamy backing vocals of Sarah Versprille) to the truncated mutant blues that is “Bowling Trophies.” The latter is a total musical outlier (it borders on noise rock, from the Cows bugle blurt on down) and our favorite pot-loving duo’s retort to those people who wondered what it was doing on the LP probably ran along the lines of, “Hey, it sounded great when we were stoned.”

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