Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Badfinger, Timeless… The Musical Legacy

Talk about your bad mojo. It would be hard to find a band with as tragic a back-story as Badfinger, not one of whom, but two, of its original members hanged themselves. And this despite a string of at least five timeless tunes, and plenty of other good songs to boot. The problem is that corrupt management—in the form of the New York mob-connected Stan Polley—made off with the bulk of the band’s profits, leaving Badfinger’s members practically penniless. It proved to be too much for the band’s songwriting team, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, leaving Badfinger to be remembered as much for its morbid history as its status as a great power pop band, England’s answer to The Raspberries.

The quartet formed in Swansea, Wales in 1961 as The Iveys. After much struggling they found themselves part of Apple Records’ stable of artists and hit pay dirt with “Come and Get It,” a Paul McCartney written and produced record, at which juncture they changed their name to Badfinger, supposedly after an early iteration of “With a Little Help From My Friends” entitled “Bad Finger Boogie,” so named because an injured McCartney was reduced to using one finger. They then proceeded to produce a number of hits, but saw no money, and their subsequent career saw them become pop stars without a dime to call their own.

But what a legacy they left behind! It’s not all here on Timeless… The Musical Legacy (you owe it to yourself to also check out 1990’s The Best of Badfinger, Vol. 2, which includes such great tunes as “Just a Chance” and “Shine On”) but it’s a powerhouse record nonetheless, and convincing proof that Badfinger was more, and much more, than the band that brought us the delectable “Day After Day.”

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Graded on a Curve: Ramones, Ramones

It’s easy to take this the Ramones’ landmark 1976 self-titled debut too seriously. Sure, it signaled a seismic shift in rock music, exploding like an M80 in the minds of every cretinous young thing who’d had it up to here with the pompous, bloated likes of ELP, Queen, and the Eagles. And sure, this baby is often celebrated as the first real punk rock LP.

But so far as declarations of war go, Ramones is a hilarious one. On it the most famous band to ever come out of Forest Hills, Queens state their demands (they wanna be your boyfriend and they wanna sniff some glue; they don’t wanna go down to the basement and they don’t wanna walk around with you), dabble with fascism (“I’m a Nazi schatze”), and beat on the brat with a baseball bat.

The Ramones weren’t the first NYC band to give voice to the inchoate yearnings of teengenerates everywhere; the Dictators got there first with 1975’s Go Girl Crazy!, and they deserve their due. But unlike Handsome Dick Manitoba and Company the Ramones got their yucks playing their songs at tempos that boggled the imagination; I saw the Ramones early on, without having ever heard a single note of their music, and the experience bordered on the traumatic.

The songs–which segued one into the other with nary a pause–went by at an insane, buzzsaw blur that night, obfuscating what is obvious to anyone who listens to the album now–that the Ramones mated their 160 beats per minute ferocity to an impeccable pop sense that gives many of these songs the loving feel of good bubblegum.

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Graded on a Curve:
Queen, “We Are the Champions” b/w
“We Will Rock You”

Greetings, fellow totalitarians! Have I got the single for you! I’m talking some real Triumph of the Will shit! The real Blitzkrieg Bop! You’ve heard of arena rock? Well I’m talking Nuremberg Rally rock! Seriously–if this baby had been around in Hitler’s day, he’d have played the living fuck out of it!

In 1977 Queen declared themselves the champions of the world, and they did so via this two-sided monolith that has everything in common with totalitarian architecture. “We Are the Champions” (the A-side) and “We Will Rock You” (just flip the damn thing over) crushed the competition by means of pure jackboot stomp, and like your best Nazi architecture were custom-designed (Albert Speer would be proud) to convey iron fist power, brute virility, and sheer truncheon force. This ain’t combat rock; it’s Mechanized Mood Music for the Fourth Reich. And what I want to know is, where is Winston Churchill when we need him?

“We Will Rock You” would make the perfect soundtrack for invading Poland, and “We Are the Champions” the perfect song to play while popping a champagne cork atop the still smoking rubble of Warsaw. Of course nobody invades Poland nowadays–damned political incorrectness has ruined everything–so “We Are the Champions” became the theme song of every high school football team in America (and sports teams everywhere else) instead.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Aren’t you making too much of a pair of big, dumb, rabble-rousing anthems you can’t help but sing along with? Whatcha gonna do next? Write off Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” as Nazi agitprop?”

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Graded on a Curve: Hamell on Trial,
The Night Guy at The Apocalypse Profiles of
a Rushing Midnight

Welcome to the Apocalypse. No, I’m not talking about the End of Days. I’m talking about that mythical taproom perched somewhere between heaven and hell (I would situate in somewhere in the environs of Detroit) where every day is Judgement Day and harsh punishment is meted out to the evilest motherfuckers amongst us.

The night guy at the Apocalypse is the proudly foul-mouthed anti-folk saboteur Edward Hamell aka Hamell on Trial, who has been proudly offering up his unique blend of acoustic punk, spoken word agitprop since 1989 or thereabouts.

And we’re lucky to have Ed there, because he just so happens to be the best American storyteller this side of John Darnielle. Ed hears all, sees all, and tells all in his brand spanking new Saustex Records release The Night Guy at the Apocalypse Profiles of a Rushing Midnight, and let me just state from the outset that he has some harrowing yarns to spin.

Forget about Charles Bukowski; Hamell’s darkly hilarious tall tales of brutal revenge, crimes both small-time and large, dysfunctional love, and drug- and alcohol-fueled mayhem are a million miles away from America’s original barfly’s quotidian tales of ordinary madness. At the Apocalypse people get taken out in some not so very pretty ways, but don’t get too disturbed–they really, and I mean really, have it coming.

Hamell has been down the road of addiction and he remembers everything; the junkies and hookers and petty criminals, the bar fights and the fucked-up heists, the way shit has of always going south. Hamell emerged from hell a man of conscience; I don’t know anyone who’s angrier about the injustice we see all around us, or who so despises the power mongers, hypocrites, and all-around assholes who wield the levers of power in Donald Trump’s America.

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Graded on a Curve:
Player, Player

Do you remember Player? They were, without a doubt, the sleekest vessel in the Yacht Rock marina. Unlike many of the other soft rock artists of the time they actually looked like rock stars, which is more than you can say about Christopher Cross, England Dan and John Ford Coley, and Michael McDonald.

Unfortunately, this California quartet’s rock star sheen only took it so far; Player may not have been one-hit wonders, but most folks would be hard pressed to remember them for anything but 1977’s No. 1 hit “Baby Come Back.” And while the band would record a number of LPs, none of them scored big but their eponymous 1977 debut.

On Player the band put its MOR pop craft to uninspired but more than competent use; if your idea of good music is substandard Steely Dan, you owe it to yourself to run out and buy this record. Player’s 10 cuts are pleasantly unremarkable, vapidly unobjectionable with only one or two exceptions, and hard to hate if you have a single soft rock bone in your body. I have several.

Romance, of course, is the album’s theme; boy loves-hates-wants-loses-misses girl was the wind that set sail to every boat in the Yacht Rock flotilla. Does Player have anything novel or interesting to say on the subject? Of course not. On the ersatz funky and very bass heavy “Love Is Where You Find It” they at least find a unique musical setting for their very unoriginal sentiments, but other than that they might as well be one of those Hallmark cards that plays a song when you open it up.

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Graded on a Curve: Jefferson Airplane,
Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969

The recent passing of Marty Balin puts me in an awkward situation–how do I eulogize a man I’ve been poking fun at for years?

Every year I tastelessly commemorate the anniversary of Altamont as “Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day,” but not because I disliked the man; fact is his work with the Jefferson Airplane brings me a lot of joy. As for his later years, he provided some much-needed yucks; his conflation of vagina with ultimate reality in “Miracles” (“I got a taste of the real world/When I went down on you”) always cracks me up, as does his wonderfully awful performance on “We Built This City.” But mock him as I might, Balin was a key member of one of the most important bands to emerge from the ballrooms of San Francisco’s psychedelic scene in the days leading up to the Summer of Love.

The Jefferson Airplane might not have had the mad improvisational skills of the Grateful Dead–you won’t find any 48-minute renditions of “Somebody to Love”–and they’ve left a fainter footprint on the counterculture than Jerry, Bobby et al. But Balin and Grace Slick were THEE VOICES of the acid experience in the late sixties, and on songs like “White Rabbit” the Airplane communicated the sheer visceral weirdness of LSD in a way the Dead never did.

And the archival treasure that is 2007’s Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969 captures the Airplane at their most fiery–and inconsistent. Recorded on November 28 and 29, 1969 in the city that never sleeps, this baby may disappoint fans of the early, folk-rocking Airplane, and offend those who don’t want to hear their faves played at warp speed. In short, if it’s subtlety you’re looking for, forget about it–on this live one from the vaults the Jefferson Airplane sound lean, mean, and very, very ready to trample their audience underfoot.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jo Jo Gunne,
Jo Jo Gunne

Everybody knows Jay Ferguson, the one-hit wonder who bequeathed us the great “Thunder Island.” Some will remember that he got his start in Randy California’s Spirit. But how many also know that, bookended between his days with Spirit and his checkered career as a solo artist, he was both the creative spark and voice of the band Jo Jo Gunne?

Jo Jo Gunne–the four-piece that Ferguson and Matt Andes founded following their departure from Spirit–seemed destined for big things; David Geffen, who had mad ears, made them the second act he signed to his Asylum Records label.

But Jo Jo Gunne took one very wrong turn on their way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and too bad, says I, because the quartet’s 1972 eponymous debut is a bona fide lost (albeit minor) masterpiece. Part of the problem could have been that Jo Jo Gunne resisted easy categorization; they usually get filed under hard rock, but one listen to Jo Jo Gunne is enough to dispel the notion.

I detect glimmers of American Glam, a few tinges of barstool blues, some Winters brothers, and even the Jackson 5, and these disparate echoes undoubtedly made Jo Jo Gunne a very hard band to pigeonhole–and sell.

Don’t get me wrong; the boys have some hard rock in ‘em, as they prove on the very, very dumb (sample lyric: “Oh you know you’re so bony/You smile like a pony”) but very, very crunchy “I Make Love.” Andes kicks out the jams on guitar, and you’ll never guess it was the lightweight dude who gave us “Thunder Island” who’s singing. And Mark Andes (on bass) and William “Curly” Smith (on drums) produce a real din.

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Graded on a Curve:
Limp Bizkit,
Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water

Finally–the perfect band for people who like the Red Hot Chili Peppers but think they’re–get this–too tasteful and smart.

Nu Metal avatars Limp Bizkit made mucho bucks with their aggressive fusion of rap and metal, proving in the process they had the mad skills to suck at two genres at once. That said, if your idea of a good metal band is a bad rap band, Limp Bizkit’s hugely successful third album, 2000’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, could just be for you.

The turn of the millennium was a dark time for people like me; the likes of Limp Bizkit, Korn, Creed, and Papa Roach ruled the airwaves, and no one was safe. My older brother called in to a radio station to win an unnamed prize once. The DJ asked him if he liked Korn. My brother said yes; he thought the guy was talking about the kind that comes on the cob. He ended up with two tickets to see the band, which is kind of like winning radioactive waste.

I can sum up my problem with Limp Bizkit is two words: Fred Durst. The man has undeniable commercial smarts, and his crude braggadocio can be amusing; I’m impressed by his ability to stuff forty-six “fucks” into a single song (see “Hot Dog”), and you should be too. And the song itself ain’t bad, if you’re willing to settle for an unreconstituted Nine Inch Nails rip.

But the boasting wears; Durst wavers between defiance and self-pity, and when it comes to rhyming’ and stealing he’s no Beastie Boy. There’s no joy in this music–Durst is good for the occasional laugh, sure, but in general he just sounds pissed off. And how much does a rich record label vice-president have to be pissed off about?

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Graded on a Curve:
John Mayer,

Damn right I have a grudge against John Mayer. I’ve never forgiven him for 2002’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” the not so anodyne (it’s been linked to fatal brain aneurysms on every continent) bit of aural foreplay that followed me from gym to car radio to supermarket when it came out.

Then what does he do? He follows “Wonderland” with the equally despicable “Waiting on the World to Change.” There’s a reason I cover my cat’s ears every time a John Mayer song comes on; his estimation of human beings is low enough as it is.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking; you’re thinking “Sure, Mayer has produced some real pablum, but he also happens to be a talented blues guitarist of impeccable taste who has played alongside such legends as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton, and you really owe it to yourself to give him a listen.”

So that’s what I did. I girded mine loins and turned on 2006’s Continuum, which received mucho plaudits for its blues and soul touches. Mayer was expanding his musical palette, went the spiel, and beginning to show off his guitar chops, and in short evolving into a bona fide musical renaissance man.

So I listened, and what did I get? A sensitive singer-songwriter’s album of exquisite whiteness, that’s what. Sure it’s relieved by a few brief moments of high-quality (but tightly reined in) blues guitar, and a few of its songs don’t make me want to scour my ears clean with Ajax afterwards. But for the most part Mayer plays the wimp with his earnest caucasian croon, which he backs up with the kinds of limpid tunes that pass for funky if your tastes in funky run to Train.

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Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
No New York

NYC’s No Wave movement was short-lived, very loud, and ugly, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to witness it. But Brian Eno was there, and we have this mucho abrasive 1978 document–which allots four cuts each to scene makers the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A.–to prove it.

Sheer dissonance–both musical and cognitive–was the order of the day, and if you’re normal and looking for some music that you can, you know, sit around and listen to without having to carbo-load on Xanax first, fughetaboutit. These songs range from the challenging to the flat-out off-putting, and if you’re not a fan of deliberately confrontational avant-garde experimentation or the kind of person who likes to hang around jackhammers, you’re probably best off giving No New York a pass.

The No Wave crowd didn’t just want to kill rock stars; they wanted to kill rock music period. Fuck the pop aesthetic of New Wave: No Wave was atonal, nihilistic, apocalyptic even; these folks wanted to put an end to things altogether, and the world did what it always does to end of the world advocates–just laughed ‘em off.

As for me, I can honestly say I enjoy some of the music on No New York, albeit in small and very carefully measured doses. I may put it on twice a year when I’m convinced the world has it in for me, and it does the trick–I walk away so nerve damaged I don’t much care if the world likes me or not.

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Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player

As Elton John bids a bittersweet adieu to playing live with his 2018 Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, let us all reflect for a moment on what he has given us. Speaking just for myself, he gave me everything; Elton John was the idol of my unfortunately well-mannered youth, and his were the albums I lost myself in when the world was too much with me.

Not for nothing did my friends start calling me Elton.

And I wasn’t alone. It’s hard to imagine now, but during the mid-seventies the unprepossessing (short, plump, balding) English piano rocker was King, boss, God, and bigger than anybody.

Forget McCartney, Lennon, Frampton even; Sir Elton conquered the world (seven consecutive No. 1 U.S. albums, a heap of hit singles) and he did it his way. To listen to his songs now (and I’m including the big hit singles) is to realize how weird, wonderful, and utterly idiosyncratic they are.

I dare you to come up with another major artist who produced hits as defiantly unorthodox as “Rocket Man” (astronaut as 9-5 drudge) “Bennie and the Jets” (electric boots glam rock) and “The Bitch Is Back” (“I get high every evening sniffin’ pots of glue”). As for the non-hits, I recommend you to “Solar Prestige a Gammon” (top shelf gibberish rock), “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” (teenage angst complete with tap-dance solo), and “Social Disease” (country-and-gonorrhea anyone?).

In short, the man is one of a kind, and we may never see his likes again.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pink Floyd,
Wish You Were Here

I have a dream. It’s that someone will put out a LP of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here made out of sugar and heavily laced with LSD. That way you could lick it before turning it on, and hear the damn album the way it should be heard, while you’re peaking.

It would be appropriate; has any major band ever been as associated with acid as Pink Floyd? (Yeah. The Grateful Dead, dumbo.) But not even the Dead managed to put out LPs (like 1969’s Ummagumma) that I would ONLY listen to while I was on hallucinogens, because they were unlistenable to anyone on the uninitiated side of the doors of perception. That said, I’ve since put on Ummagumma and found its first side to be bearable and its second side to be complete and unadulterated bullshit (“Several Species of Small Furry Animals” or “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party (Entertainment),” anyone?). And while my recollections are hazy, I have come to the conclusion that the guy in the dorm who owned it was so far out there he’d only play side two while tripping balls.

The Pink Floyd story is a familiar one. The band was formed in London in 1965 by Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright, with David Gilmour coming aboard in 1967, destined to be the substitute for Barrett, who despite the band’s success and his status as the band’s chief songwriter was coming unhinged. After numerous legendary on-stage fiascos involving increasingly odd behavior on the part of Barrett—he might stand in the hot stage lights, crushed ludes melting in his hair, looking off into the distance with his arms dangling down, declining to play his guitar for the entire set—the band more or less decided to not pick him up for a gig, and just like that he was gone, although his living specter (he showed up, bald and bloated, at the Wish You Were Here sessions, and his evident madness left several of his former band mates in tears) would haunt the band and indeed inspire some of their best work.

As time went on the band moved from challenging works such as Ummagumma towards more commercial LPs, such as 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which contained none of their trademark acid jams (“long psychedelic noodling stuff,” as Gilmour dismissively described them) and made them superstars. But I’m partial to its successor, 1974’s Wish You Were Here, in part because I’ve heard “Time” and “Money” so many times I scream in agony when they come on the radio, and I don’t think I could give the landmark LP they’re on an even break.

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Graded on a Curve: Bauhaus,
In the Flat Field

Sometimes I’m ashamed for my fellow music critics. Take their rude treatment of Bauhaus’ 1980 debut, In the Flat Field. An NME writer described the LP as “nine meaningless moans and flails bereft of even the most cursory contour of interest,” while a Sounds writer dismissed the LP for having “No songs. Just tracks (ugh). Too priggish and conceited,” before writing the LP off as “coldly conceited.”

I’m no Goth fan because I have a pulse, but I think the writers above are idiots. I will concede that In the Flat Field is cold, but I also happen to find it brilliant—one of the finest LPs of 1980. Clamorous and loud, it’s a wonderful example of the sonic possibilities of carefully controlled noise, and its wild sounds and angular riffs provide the perfect backdrop for the chilly vocals of Peter Murphy. Take “Dive.” Daniel Ash’s guitar playing and saxophone work are brilliantly crisp and menacing, the tune proceeds at a breakneck pace, and Murphy’s vocals are a marvel; he stutters, shouts, does it all. Or take LP opener “Double Dare.” It commences with some heavily fuzzed out riffs, then the drums kick in, and this is metal, people. Murphy is as his dark best, producing nonsense noises when he isn’t shouting, the rhythm section is heavy as Flipper, and what we have here is a drone rocker as good as any by No Trend.

The title cut is a racing rumble of distorted guitar, with great percussion and Murphy singing about who knows what (“black matted lace of pregnant cows”???), although the chorus is clear enough: “I do get bored, I get bored/In the flat field.” My recommendation is to ignore the lyrics about “spunge stained sheets” and hone in on Ash’s shredding sheets of guitar noise, the wonderful percussion, and Murphy’s vocals, which climb to an apocalyptic pitch while Ash’s guitar howls and howls. “A God in an Alcove” opens with some tentative guitar and Murphy sounding like he’s been gagged, before the song’s angular riff takes over. Ash’s guitar is ominous, someone joins Murphy on vocals, and together they make a wonderful noise, and then the song takes flight, 100 mph in a 55 zone. “Silly,” repeats Murphy, before the song’s close, but there’s nothing silly about the tune, which rocks.

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Graded on a Curve:
Nervous Night

Remember the Hooters? I know, I know, I wish I could forget them too. I found their meteoric, mid-eighties rise to stardom utterly depressing, and what made it worse was that I was living in Philadelphia–ground zero of the Hooters’ phenomenon–at the time.

Talk about your civic shame. Fantastic things were happening in NYC and LA and Minneapolis and just about everywhere else, really, and what did we get? Five boobs with all the edge of a safety razor. All I could do was hang my head and say thank god for the Dead Milkmen.

Guitarist Eric Bazilian and keyboardist Rob Hyman made their bones on Cyndi Lauper’s immensely fun She’s So Unusual, but the fun stopped there. When it came time to record 1985’s Nervous Night they settled for bland and, thanks to MTV, Rolling Stone (which dubbed the Hooters the best new band of 1986), and lots of record buyers willing to settle for bland, found themselves with a platinum LP on their hands. All you zombies indeed.

Earnest and anodyne, the Hooters aimed for faceless small arena rock and hit their target; first they won over the kids of Philly, then they conquered Australia. And they did it with thin gruel; Nervous Night is a lackluster collection of clunky, wannabe rousing tunes, three of them taken straight off their 1983 independent release Amore, and one of them (gak!) an Arthur Lee cover.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Doobie Brothers,
What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits

Or, What Were Once Harmless Affectations Are Now Threats to the Public Good. When it comes to the Doobie Brothers I’ll never be able to say it better than The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, who dismissed the band’s 1976 Takin’ It to the Streets with the words, “You can lead a Doobie to the studio, but you can’t make him think.” But that’s not going to stop me from trying.

But before I do that, I should ‘fess up. I like a fair number of Doobie Brothers songs, probably because I heard them as a kid on AM radio and if you can get a kid at the right age and deny him anything better he’ll lap any old shit up.

I grew up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere where the notion of a real rocking time was going to the CYO dances on Saturday night, and every single one of the faceless bands that played those dances tossed a few Doobie Brothers into the mix. You were as certain to hear “China Grove” as you were to hear “Colour My World.”

So there it is, I’m fucked for life and need some serious deprogramming I’m never going to get if only because I don’t really want to be deprogrammed. I get off on the stupid circle in the round singing on “Black Water” and always will.

But hey, I wouldn’t be a world-famous rock critic if I weren’t able to put my own feelings aside (yeah, right) and don the mantle of objectivity, and by any objective standards the Doobie Brothers produced lowest common denominator rock for the common man, like Grand Funk or Three Dog Night only with a little more boogie in ‘em. When you can dismiss a band with the words, “Yeah, well, they rock harder than Loggins & Messina” that band is in trouble, and it didn’t help that the Doobies never put out a truly solid LP. You have to go to their greatest hits album for that.

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