Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Jerry Reed,
Jerry Reed Visits Hit Row

A guitar picker extraordinaire and redneck comedian whose songs could almost be called funky, the late Jerry “Alabama Wild Man” Reed is one of my favorite country artists. Me, I’d love him if he’d never cut anything but “East Bound and Down” (the theme song of Smokey and the Bandit!), “Amos Moses,” and “The Preacher and the Bear,” a hilarious tale of an unfortunate meeting in the woods between a preacher hunting on the Sabbath and a grizzly bear that ends with the preacher up a tree and praying to his Lord, “I mean/Look at how he’s lookin’ at me/Does the word ‘fast food’ mean anything to you, Lord?/Oh, he’s hairy/And he’s still thinkin’/And he’s lookin’ at me like I… smell good!”

The man’s usual mode was high-spirited, and he had a knack for what you could call novelty tunes, but he was also capable of singing about the more lugubrious aspects of life; you know, broken hearts and all that. But I much preferred him at his wildest and woolliest, as did Robert Christgau, who called him “a great crazy,” and said apropos his more saccharine tunes, “He couldn’t sell soap to a hippie’s mother” and “RCA should ban the ballad.” Me, I hadn’t listened to him for years when my girlfriend gave me a truly terrible ‘70s compilation CD redeemed only by R. Dean Taylor’s great “Indiana Wants Me” and Reed’s fantastic swamp tall tale, “Amos Moses,” which is one of the songs on the 2000 best-of compilation, Jerry Reed Visits Hit Row.

Fiddle-driven opener “East Bound and Down” is a bootlegger’s anthem and smooth as Jim Beam Single Barrel bourbon, and includes a great solo by Reed. It speeds along like an 18-wheeler on the run from Smokey, and if you think it’s a bit slick, well, all I can say is all those thirsty boys in Atlanta don’t agree. “Amos Moses” is a funky tune about a Cajun alligator poacher, mean as a snake on account of his old man, who used the young Moses as alligator bait. He’s got one arm on account of a hungry gator, most likely killed a sheriff trying to track him down in the bayou, and the only thing cooler than his biography are Reed’s righteous guitar picking and distinctive voice, which are as good old boy as you can get.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper, Killer

Ten bonus points and a dead baby if you can tell me which album John Lydon called his favorite of all time. All time! That means he likes it more than KC and the Sunshine Band’s The Sound of Sunshine or the Eagles’ Hotel California even! Unimaginable! Well, if the dead babies reference didn’t tip you off, which it certainly should have, the former Johnny Rotten’s favorite rock album in the whole wide world, including the Sammy Johns record with “Chevy Van” on it, is Alice Cooper’s Killer.

1971’s Killer followed hard on the heels of that same year’s breakthrough LP for the band, Love It to Death. Which I prefer to Killer, but who cares? I’m not John Lydon. Anyway, Killer cemented the band’s reputation for writing songs of macabre weirdness, which they milked for all they were worth with a live show that included decapitations, gallows, giant snakes, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, 7,000 showgirls wearing glitter-encrusted Nazi jackboots and porcupine-spike bras, a full-scale reenactment of the crash of the Hindenburg, and an elderly Dr. Josef Mengele playing cowbell. Okay, so I exaggerate. But the band’s gory and fantabulous live show delighted teens while deeply disturbing parents, who were convinced that Cooper’s magically morbid extravaganzas were going to instantaneously transform their kiddies into wild-eyed axe murderers. Which made the kids love it even more!

I’ve said before that the perfect LP would have combined the first three tracks of Love It to Death—in which guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce play like men possessed by the Devil—and the first two tracks and “Dead Babies” from Killer. But that’s not the way it went down, and I have to (resentfully) live with it. I suspect they had slave-like contractual obligations with their record label that obligated them to put out two albums in 1971, when they’d have been much better served by only releasing one. That was how things were often done back in the day, when record companies behaved much in the same way as antebellum southern plantation owners.

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Graded on a Curve: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Collectors’ Item: All Their Greatest Hits!

When it comes to the bands representing the “Philadelphia Sound” that came to dominate the soul charts in the early seventies, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were inarguably the best. Signed to Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972 and featuring the mind-blowing baritone of lead singer and soul legend Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes recorded masterful soul, R&B, and disco tunes that were alternately inspirational and heartrending, thanks chiefly to the band’s myriad musical talents, the stellar production of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the almost phantasmagorically powerful pipes of Pendergrass, who at his most passionate could both cause people of the female persuasion to swoon and blow the wooly off a mammoth.

I picked Collectors’ Item: All Their Greatest Hits! for two simple reasons; (1) it really does cull the biggest hits from the band’s golden years of 1972-1975 with Philadelphia International, before Pendergrass defected to pursue a solo career, and (2) it has one of the cheesiest album covers I’ve ever seen, a horror of pastels with the band in blue leisure suits (with Harold in lime green!) huddled together as if for protection against the dubious painting skills of one Victor Juhasz. I have half a mind to buy the album and frame it on my wall next to a black light painting of a unicorn.

Melvin & The Blue Notes were a vocal group, and the music on their songs was provided by the legendary MFSB, a stable of more than 30 musicians based at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios who also worked with the Spinners, Wilson Pickett, the Stylistics, the O’Jays, and others. They’re chiefly remembered for their great proto-disco track “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which was to become the theme song for Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. How cool, I ask you, is that?

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Diamond,
Beautiful Noise

Neil Diamond is many things to many people: a God, a histrionic huckster, the best showman since Elvis, the anti-Christ who foisted “Song Sung Blue” upon an innocent public, and the writer of a whole bunch of great songs who slowly descended into the tar pits of treacle like a dinosaur at La Brea. Me, I lean towards the last choice. His early work was great, but he turned into a kitschmeister and sentimental vampire, in which form he has caused much unnecessary human suffering.

Take 1976’s Beautiful Noise. Produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson—which won him an appearance at The Last Waltz, much to the disgust of Robertson’s more discriminating band mates—it led critic Robert Christgau to proclaim, “This is a monstrous record.” Although he went on to concede that “it takes a special kind of chutzpah to create a monster.” “Pop program music” is how he described the music, but I’m sticking with overly sentimental and histrionic; Diamond is the champion of grand gestures, which explains both his popularity and the existential nausea he inspires in people who like their music human-sized. As Christgau said of 1972’s Hot August Night, “it’s obvious that the man is some sort of genius rock entertainer, but for the most part the great entertainer is striving for bad art and not even achieving it.” Ouch.

As for Beautiful Noise, it reveals the mature Diamond to be a caricature of a parody of a satire, with all the authentic soul of an organ grinder’s monkey. The title track makes it plain; this guy doesn’t mean a word he’s saying. Locked away in a penthouse somewhere, I doubt he ever hears the sounds of the city, and if he does, they only irk him, just as the thought of being forever in blue jeans would make him blanch.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rufus, Rags to Rufus

When it comes to great pipes, Chaka Khan is hard to beat. Songbirds, and I’m talking your top-notch mellifluous as all hell songbirds, fall suddenly silent when she walks into the room. Because they know they can’t compete. They’re beat. It’s time to go home, sit in front of the television with a fifth of vodka, and sulk.

Khan, as everybody in the universe knows, got her start with Rufus, a multi-racial funk band of extraordinary merit. She shared singing duties with Ron Stockert on the band’s eponymous 1973 debut, but by 1974’s Rags to Rufus she had, with some not so gentle nudging by ABC Records, more or less become the whole show, a move that led Stockert to up and split halfway through the sessions for From Rags to Rufus.

Khan was more or less a force of nature, and her singing and scanty attire won her favorable comparisons to both Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin (she was nicknamed “the wild child” and “Little Aretha”). She also had balls, as Stevie Wonder, who contributed the smash hit “Tell Me Something Good” to the band, found out when Khan, only 20 at the time, turned down another of his compositions for the band, “Come and Get This Stuff.”

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Graded on a Curve: Loudon Wainwright III,
Album III

Loudon Wainwright, folk rocker and writer of sardonic, witty, and sometimes touching songs, is the only performer ever to break through to stardom with a song about a dead skunk. It’s certainly not a stratagem recommended by the professors at rock school. But that’s the way it’s always been with Wainwright; the subjects of his songs are the stuff of everyday life, cast into a prism of pure mirth by his intelligent and often hilarious lyrics. Known primarily for “Dead Skunk” and the great “The Swimming Song,” Wainwright has written scads of wondrous tunes, some of them drolly funny, and some of them truly moving.

He’s been at it since 1970, but it was in 1972 that Wainwright released “Dead Skunk” on Album III, and since then he’s more or less worn the song like an albatross around his neck. It must be horrible when everybody wants you, nay demands that you sing the same damn song every night. Especially when he has so much more to offer. Take “The Swimming Song” off 1973’s Attempted Mustache. The melody is irresistibly poignant, and as for the lyrics, they’re wonderful. “This summer I swam in the ocean/And I swam in a swimming pool/Salt my wounds, chlorined my eyes/I’m a self-destructive fool/Self-destructive fool.” Or “Rufus Is a Tit Man,” written about his baby son. Or “The Acid Song,” in which Wainwright recounts the perils of taking LSD after a 12-year hiatus (he concludes you’re better off sticking to mushrooms).

“Dead Skunk” deserves its immortal status; fiddle, violin, banjo, and who knows what else play a melody that is utterly happy-making and may or may not be filched from Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Meanwhile Wainwright sings his gory tune of death on the road: “Dead skunk in the middle of the road/Stinking to high heaven.” He recommends, “Roll up the windows and hold your nose/You don’t have to look and you don’t have to see/Because you can feel it in your olfactory.” I personally love it when he interjects, as if talking to the deceased skunk, “C’mon stink!” And the way he goes crazy towards the end, shouting, “And it’s stinking to high high heaven!” “Red guitar” is a slow plaintive tune, and is just Wainwright and a piano. He recounts the night he destroyed his guitar: “Used to have a red guitar/Until I smashed it drunk one night/Smashed it in the classic form/As Peter Townshend might/Threw it in the fireplace/Left it there a while.” The Townshend reference is classic, and I like this one despite its bare bones and lack of a lovely melody.

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Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross, Third Eye

Over the course of their long bubblegum meets indie rock career, cult faves Redd Kross have established two indisputable facts: (1) there’s nothing they love more than to sing about the signifiers of seventies kitsch, and (2) they are a power pop band of sublime brilliance who have never gotten their deserved props because they have consistently refused, as the Raspberries and Big Star did, to remove tongue from cheek, preferring to sing about elephant flares and tube tops at the mall to the serious love songs that make power pop, well, power pop.

Since 1980, when they were mere middle school kiddies opening for Black Flag, brothers Steve and Jeff McDonald of Hawthorne, California, home of the Beach Boys, have been cranking out songs about Linda Blair, “Dracula’s Daughter” (one of the most sublime power pop songs ever written), Frosted Flakes, 1976 (the year I graduated high school!), McKenzie Phillips, Lita Ford—and I could go on and on. They’ve also covered artists as varied as Charles Manson and The Carpenters—and that’s real breadth! And their early punk bona fides were established with Replacements-fuck-you-tunes like “I Hate My School” and the great “Notes and Chords Mean Nothing to Me.”

Their 1990 major label debut Third Eye followed upon the relative success of 1987’s Neurotica, but whereas Neurotica was all over the fucking place, and has even been cited as an inspiration for grunge, Third Eye sticks more to the power pop format exemplified by the wonderful “Bubblegum Factory,” which sounds like The Archies, especially when Jeff McDonald sings, “Take me on a tour of the bubblegum factory/I want to see where love is made,” backed by Susan Cowsill of sixties popsters (and Partridge Family inspiration) The Cowsills.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Paranoid Style,
“Rock & Roll Just Can’t Recall”

Never, and I mean never, have I read a musician describe her work as brilliantly as Elizabeth Nelson, who leads the band The Paranoid Style, does hers. After speaking of her “songs of decorous fury and defiant defeatism,” she describes them as “glam rock for the end times, a Bolan for the abyss.” And sums up her 2015 EP “Rock & Roll Just Can’t Recall” as “fifteen minutes of unadulterated, malevolent mirth and singularly nasty, catchy and precisely unvarnished songcraft.” Why, the nastiness is right there in the title of the EP, a not very subtle dig at the senility of the Depends Generation of classic rock in general and Bob Seger, who gave us the loathsome “Rock & Roll Never Forgets,” in particular.

Nelson’s list of enemies is long but she’s not paranoid, despite the name of her band, which she swiped from an influential essay on the conspiracy-mongering nutball tendencies in American politics written by Richard Hofstadter in 1964. She shares with yours truly contempt for the idealism of the 1960s, the stench of our political system (where’s H.L. Mencken when you need him?) and various other bugbears, such as gurus of all stripes. Oh, and we both love Rod Stewart, who Nelson name drops (“But what do we do with Rod the Mod?”) in the title track.

And the beautiful thing about The Paranoid Style, besides the ingeniousness of the lyrics, is that they rock as hard and produce melodies every bit as fetching as any band this side of the Firth of Forth. In short they do it all, and they do it all for you. Nelson’s band includes such crack musicians as guitarist Bruce Bennett of legendary garage rockers the A-Bones and Will Rigby of the great dBs on drums.

To really comprehend the depth of Nelson’s gimlet-eyed take on American life, you have to go back to “The Dear Departed,” from the 2013 EP “The Purposes of Music in General.” There she tips her hat to the guy who gave her band its name (“Hofstadter said we’ve got a paranoid style/And I like style”) before describing the current dystopia and attacking the Baby Boomers (“The Woodstock nation, the fucking bores/Robbed the coffins, nailed shut the doors”) she sees as a confederacy of hypocritical dunces.

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Guided on a Curve: Ronnie Lane and the Band “Slim Chance,” Anymore for Anymore

The late great Ronnie Lane, bassist and vocalist for the Small Faces and later the Faces, was a lovely man—sensitive (you can hear it in every note he sings) and possessing a lively and wry sense of humor. It was that sense of humor that led him to call his post-Faces band Slim Chance. And it was accurate, in so far as Slim Chance never exactly tore up the charts. But they released some great music that deserves to be heard, much of it to be found on the band’s 1974 debut, Anymore for Anymore.

Recorded at Lane’s Welsh farm using his mobile studio, Anymore for Anymore is an eclectic affair, held together only by Lane’s sublimely moving voice. The guy injected everything he sang, high-spirited or not, with an undercurrent of nostalgic melancholy, as if he’d been born in the wrong place or time. It’s evident for all to hear in Lane’s sentimental music hall cover of Kinky Friedman’s moving “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight.”

But it’s most prominent in “The Poacher,” a lovely song with strings and organ on which Lane sings his wistful heart out, before a sublime violin enters to help take the song home. “Bring me fish with eyes of jewels,” sings the old poacher Lane encounters on the riverbank, “And mirrors on their bodies/Bring them strong and bring them bigger/Than a newborn child.” Who knew a song about fish could be so charged with longing?

“Roll on Babe” sounds like a Faces song, and its acoustic guitars and whatnot do just what the song says, while Lane’s singing makes you want to weep. “Tell Everyone” is a romantic slow burner with an almost gospel feel, that brings out the crooner in Lane and boasts a chorus that is pure lustrous beauty, to say nothing of another great sax solo by Jewell.

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Needle Drop: The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”

What can I say? Sometimes you want to say one thing only to have another far more important thing intercede. Take this review. I was going to review “Start Me Up” from the 1981 The Rolling Stones’ LP Tattoo You when I received some truly mind-boggling news, news that will no doubt come as a shock both to the scientific community and the general public.

It seems that English physicians examining Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards have determined that he is—despite long-standing rumors to the contrary—still breathing. “I’m astounded,” said band mate Mick Jagger. “I’ve been proceeding on the assumption that Keith was dead since, well, 1975 at latest.” Dr. Richard Arschloch, of the Twatney Institute in West London, broke the news, saying, “I’ll be buggered, the sublimely pickled corpse has a pulse.”

Other physicians have corroborated his discovery, which will force the rewriting of rock history books and drastic revisions to scientific estimates of how much tequila and cocaine a human being can consume on a daily basis and remain above ground.

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