Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Love It to Death

Alice Cooper, 1971; it’s almost enough to break your heart. Alice put out two LPs that year, Love It to Death and Killer, and both include a handful of incredibly great hard rockers combined with their fair share of duds, including a boring nine-minute workout on Love It to Death (“Black Juju”) and the equally coma-inducing eight-plus minute “Halo of Flies” on Killer. I know bands were often contractually obligated to produce two LPs per annum back then, and that may or may not have had something to do with the limited number of fabulous tracks on both LPs. But imagine, just for a moment, had Alice Cooper put out just one album in 1971, an album containing the best songs from both LPs. The finished product would have been brilliant, and one of the best hard rock LPs of all time.

Alas, you can’t turn back the clock—if you could, I’d move it back to the glory days, when I could smoke tons of pot and not get paranoid—and we’re stuck forever with two woulda-coulda been tremendous albums marred by too many weak tracks to be called great.

As for the band, they got their start in Los Angeles on Frank Zappa’s Straight label, but following the disappointing sales of their sophomore LP (1970’s Easy Action) they up and moved to Pontiac, Michigan, where they fit in perfectly with bands like the Stooges and the MC5. Cooper himself blamed the band’s failure to make a mark in LA to drugs; “L.A. just didn’t get it,” he stated. “They were all on the wrong drug for us. They were on acid and we were basically drinking beer. We fit much more in Detroit than we did anywhere else.”

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Graded on a Curve: Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blank Generation

Of New York punk’s first wave, only Richard Hell and the Voidoids truly embraced the nihilism that punk has come to represent in the popular imagination. The Ramones, great as they were, were one step away from being a joke band; Television was far too ascetic and monk-like; and the Talking Heads were too intellectually frigid. As for Patti Smith, she flirted with the idea of anarchy, but was far too positive a soul to be a nihilist. It’s not her fault; nihilists never hail from New Jersey.

I could go on but I won’t, because the only point I want to make is that Hell was the only musician at that time and place asking the only question the existentialists found pertinent, to wit, “Why should I bother living?” And his grappling with this question—along with the excellence of his band, which included the late, great guitarist Robert Quine—are what makes 1977’s Blank Generation such a seminal punk recording.

Hell, aka Richard Mayers, was born in Kentucky and took the scenic route to the Voidoids. Having moved to New York City, he commenced his rock career as a member of the Neon Boys, which became Television. Friction with Television’s Tom Verlaine led Hell to leave and co-found the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, but Hell found it no easier to work with Thunders than he did with Verlaine, so he finally set about establishing a band in which he was boss. The Voidoids—they got their name from a novel Hell was writing—included Hell on vocals and bass, Quine and Ivan Julian on guitars, and Marc Bell on drums.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Wedding Present,
Bizarro

The Wedding Present is a simple enough proposition—if amphetamines could make a noise, they’re making it. If you could snort a sound, it would be theirs. Their songs mark the triumph of the rhythm guitar played fast, very fast indeed. Musical crank cranked up, super propulsive and less jangly than jaunty, their songs are all sound and fury, and the proof that the siren call of the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” did not go unheard. It just got faster.

The Wedding Present was founded in Leeds, England in 1985 by guitarist and vocalist David Gedge, following the dissolution of his former band, The Lost Pandas. Gedge, the Wedding Present’s only permanent member, has operated in adherence to a credo that involves three-chord structures and rhythmic grooves played as fast and as loud as possible. The band’s name is an homage to The Birthday Party, and its influences have been cited as The Buzzcocks, the Velvet Underground, and The Fall (although I’ll be damned if I hear The Fall in their music). Lumped in (although Gedge wasn’t happy about it) with the shambolic C86 subgenre—which joined jangling guitars to power pop—The Wedding Present’s first LP (1987’s George Best) won critical acclaim.

In February 1989 The Wedding Present came upon an ingenious way of ruining their own career. Українські Виступи в Івана Піла is one of the most offbeat compilation LPs ever released by a major band. Composed of two John Peel sessions, and sung in Ukrainian, it failed miserably, which is to say that instead of sidetracking the band forever it inexplicably rose to #22 on the UK album charts. Fortunately, unless you’re a Ukrainian folk song fanatic, The Wedding Present returned to form with their sophomore LP, October 1989’s Bizarro. Featuring Gedge, Peter Solowka on guitar, Keith Gregory on bass, and Simon Smith on drums, the original LP featured 10 songs, all but 3 or so of them hard-edged rhythm guitar workouts. (The subsequent US CD release included 4 additional tracks, including a not-so-different version of “Brassneck” produced by Steve Albini and a cover of Pavement’s “Box Elder.”)

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fall,
Fall Heads Roll

It has long been my contention that The Fall are the best band to ever come out of England. Better than those annoying Beatles, better than the Rolling Stones, better than The Smiths even. Front man Mark E. Smith, instead of rotting from the inside out given all the booze and seething bile in his seemingly indestructible body, continues to produce album after album full of weird poetry, rants, funky and monstrous beats, and gigantic riffs. You don’t have to know what he’s going on about—in fact it may well be impossible to determine what he’s going on about—but he does it with the urgency of a WWII siren warning of an imminent attack by German bombers. He’s truly one of a kind, spewing his indecipherable harangues that come at you like communiqués from who knows where, all set to the backing of a big, percussive, and frequently intimidating din.

The U.S.A. has never fully embraced Mark E.’s hypnotic cadences or his band’s big beats. But that just goes to show you how backwards we Americans are. In England, his idiosyncrasies have made him an institution, which he is, having released some 600 studio LPs (actually it’s somewhere in the thirties, with an equivalent number of live LPs) since 1979’s Live at the Witch Trials. And over that time he’s utilized an ever-revolving cast of musicians who probably number in the hundreds as well. Even my pal Kid Congo Powers toured with Smith, which puts me at only two degrees of separation from the man I consider England’s best retort to Captain Beefheart.

2005’s Fall Heads Roll (Fall LP #25, if you’re keeping count) is compelling for the simple reason that it features the most primal and unrelenting drums and bass I’ve ever heard. Listen to it, loud, and the head rolling will be yours. It’s like a sonic guillotine, this LP, and it’s a pity—although hardly surprising, given Smith’s tendency to mistreat the help—that the band Smith put together for the LP (Ben Pritchard on guitar, Steve Trafford on bass, Spencer Birtwistle on drums, and Elena Poulou on keyboards and vocals) split acrimoniously four shows into a 2006 tour of the United States, never to return to the fold.

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Graded on a Curve: Television Personalities, Are We Nearly There Yet?

Over the course of his long and sometimes star-crossed career, Dan Treacy of Television Personalities has recorded enough captivating songs to keep you listening for weeks. The proponent of punk pathetique is all over the place—Television Personalities’ 11 studio LPs have included the delirious pop gem in the rough “She’s My Yoko,” the tres catchy “I Was a Mod Before You Was a Mod,” and an irony-free cover of “Seasons in the Sun.” And those are just a few of my personal favorites; yours might include the electrified pulsations of “You, Me & Lou Reed,” the classic and hilarious “Part-Time Punks,” the guitar histrionics that constitute “My New Tattoo,” or the unvarnished confessional “Now That I’m a Junkie.”

Treacy tends towards the art brut end of the rock spectrum, and his albums tend to have an appealingly shambolic, lo-fi feel to them. He comes across as lovably naïve, and you’d never know by listening to his wistful tunes that he spent approximately six years (1998-2004) on the HMS Prison ship Weare (which he called the Good Ship Lollipop) for the crime of shoplifting to feed a voracious drug habit. (I find the sentence astoundingly long for such a seemingly trivial charge—just what was he trying to sneak out under his overcoat, Elizabeth II?) He’s a sort of English Jonathan Richman except his is a broader palate, and he doesn’t share Richman’s self-consciousness, which practically screams, “I’m Peter Pan, now listen to this song I wrote for an ant!” Which isn’t to say Treacy doesn’t have his little idiosyncrasies, such as referring to himself in the third person, as in, “Well that’s me/That’s Daniel,” from “She’s My Yoko.”

Television Personalities recorded their first LP in 1981, and since them the band has included a revolving cast of characters with Treacy as the only permanent member. They’ve never achieved more than a cult status—they got the boot as the opening act for Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour when Treacy used the stage to give the audience Syd Barrett’s home address—and they’re likely to retain that cult status, as Treacy does as he likes and has never compromised in an attempt to be the Toppermost of the Poppermost.

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Graded on a Curve: Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food

Has there ever been a gawkier twitch of a front man than former Talking Head David Byrne? Regardless of how calculated his quirky on stage nervous tics may have been—Suicide’s Alan Vega, for one, wrote him off as a poseur, saying, “He didn’t make any twitchy gestures without something in his head saying, ‘Make a twitchy gesture now’”—Byrne made acute anxiety chic, both with his stage moves and ominously flat “Psycho Killer” vocal delivery. It was Byrne’s presence, the band’s stripped to the basics sound, and its allegiance to a dance aesthetic that put it at the forefront of the bands that helped make CBGB’s famous.

As everybody knows, that adherence to funky rhythms was what led Talking Heads down the primrose path to the world music influences that came to dominate their later albums—from 1980’s Remain in Light to 1988’s Naked. But those dance rhythms were around from the very beginning, and were what set Talking Heads apart from most of the other CBGB bands, excluding Blondie of course.

In any event, Talking Heads occupied a seemingly unique position in the New York rock scene. They certainly didn’t fit the “Fuck Art, Let’s Rock” paradigm, although they frequently and successfully toured with the Ramones. But neither did they fit comfortably into the more pretentious and artsy-fartsy circle of bands that took Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine as their inspirations (e.g., Patti Smith, Television, and even Richard Hell, who despite his punk bona fides was a doomed French poet at heart.) Sure, if push came to shove it would be the fine arts contingent I’d slot them in with, if only because of Byrne’s highly intelligent lyrics, but in the end early Talking Heads come off as aloof, loners, and every bit as quirky a band as their front man.

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Graded on a Curve: Cockney Rejects:
Oi! Oi! Oi!

It’s hard to think of an American equivalent to Britain’s Oi! Movement, which at the turn of the eighties produced a slew of working-class bands that produced great sing-along anthems that provided the soundtrack to the ultraviolence associated with the football hooliganism (a wonderfully benign term for taking a steel bar to somebody’s head) that was causing panic in the more sedate ranks of British society.

American hardcore bands like Minor Threat and SS Decontrol had their crews, who looked for fights at shows and generally found them, but they were pussies compared to the unbelievable brutality associated with the English football firms and the Oi! bands linked to them. In his amazingly good book Among the Thugs, Bill Buford describes how one fan headbutted a police officer, then proceeded to literally suck one of his eyes out its socket and bite it off. Now that’s mayhem.

Sham 69, Cockney Rejects, Cock Sparrer, the 4-Skins—unfairly or not, all were in some way associated with or linked to both football hooliganism and the violent antics of the right-wing British Movement, aka the National Front. Most were innocent or relatively so on the first charge, and totally innocent on the second. Take the Cockney Rejects, one of the few influential bands (whose cries of Oi! before songs led British journo Gary Bushell to give the movement its name) linked to a specific football club (West Ham United).

While their defiant songs dealt with both street- and football-associated violence, their own fighting was generally precipitated by audience members who supported other football clubs. Or, on one notably large-scale occasion, by British movement members. In short, it’s sheer slander to assert that so much as a single Oi! band—while they may have had their share of right-wing fans, and perhaps even some sympathy for such fans—in any way espoused fascist or racist rhetoric. On the other hand, a handful of Oi! bands were actively left-wing and anti-racist.

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Graded on a Curve:
Be Bop Deluxe,
Axe Victim

Some people are just in the right place at the wrong time. But few have been as unfortunate as Bill Nelson, the front man of English rock band Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe put out a miraculously good debut LP, 1974’s Axe Victim, which suffered due to circumstances beyond its control. To wit, it was a glam record released at around the same time as David Bowie’s final stab at glitter rock, Diamond Dogs. This shouldn’t have been a big deal; England was awash in glam bands at the time, many of them enormously successful. No, what really did Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe in was the fact that Axe Victim bore a more than passing resemblance to the work of Mr. Bowie, which led critics to lambast Be Bop Deluxe as mere copycats.

As a result, Axe Victim has never gotten its fair due as a great glam album, on a par with Brian Eno’s “rock” albums, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, or the four albums attributed to Ziggy Stardust and the other personae Bowie adopted during the Glam Age, when it seemed every wild young thing in England was sashaying about in glitter-encrusted platform boots and home-made space suits that screamed, “Look at me! I’m from Venus!”

Nelson founded Be Bop Deluxe in 1972 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. A little history—Wakefield was dubbed the “Merrie City” in the Middle Ages, and “the perfect place to lose an eye” during the height of football hooliganism in the 1980s. (Okay, so I made that last part up.) The band was composed of Nelson on lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards; Ian Parkin on rhythm and acoustic guitars and organ; Robert Bryan on bass; and Nicolas Chatterton-Dew on drums, backing vocals, and incredibly pretentious name. Together they set about ingratiating themselves into the glam scene that was all the rage at the time, and they hit all the right notes on Axe Victim, which benefitted greatly from Nelson’s virtuosity on guitar.

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Graded on a Curve:
Damn Yankees, (s/t)

In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” That was back in 1922. Had poor Stephen been alive in the early 1990s, the nightmare from which he was trying to awake would undoubtedly have been the band Damn Yankees.

A classic case of tragedy replayed as farce, the “supergroup” that included Ted “I’m wearing my loincloth, now where’s my gun?” Nugent, Styx’s Tommy “Mr. Roboto” Shaw, Night Ranger’s Jack “Sister Christian” Blades, and Michael “I’m the unknown guy who will go on to join the abominable Lynyrd Skynyrd” Cartellone achieved a level of popularity—their debut went double platinum—that should make us all ashamed to be Americans, as if the very existence of Mr. Ted Nugent hadn’t done the job already.

In short, Damn Yankees are a short but sordid episode in the history of rock. Or are they? Like most pointy-headed intellectuals, music critics, and indie rock fans, I have never actually listened to Damn Yankees. Instead I mocked them from afar, as is evident in the previous paragraph. They seemed too bad to be true, like Stryper in their bee costumes, and why waste your time listening to swill, especially when the swill includes Ted Nugent, who if I had my druthers I would feed to a herd of ravenous swine? No, my sort consigned them to that circle of Hell reserved for those bands whose audiences consist chiefly of people with IQs in the single digits, and that was that.

But what if, and I throw this out there at the risk of incurring universal ignominy, they weren’t as bad as all that? What if a band composed of a gun nut wackjob, the guy who bequeathed us the bathetic “Lady,” and whatever it is Jack Blades is responsible for wasn’t half bad? Lacking a research assistant I could force to listen to the LP to find out, I bravely girded my loins, took out extra life insurance, and actually listened to their self-titled 1990 debut myself.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Gun Club,
The Las Vegas Story

I had a gun once. And if you have a gun, you might as well hold up a liquor store. So I went to the liquor store, panty hose over my head, and pointed the gun at the clerk. Turned out he was an old high school friend who recognized me immediately, panty hose notwithstanding. I lowered the gun and said, “Well, shit,” and pulled the panty hose off my head. “Way to go, fucktooth,” he said, “you just performed a cameo for the security cameras. Just go. I’ll fuck them up somehow.” Then he said, “I can give you a bottle and a pack of cigarettes. Like tequila?” I said, “Man, this is ridiculous.” He said, “You’re disappearing ink. I never saw you. Take the tequila. It’s some expensive shit. And I recommend heartily that you find another way of getting paid, because you’re too nice a guy for this business.” By this time there was a customer standing behind me. I didn’t even know he was there. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry for the hold-up, no pun intended,” and bolted. And heard him say behind me, “It takes all kinds of idiots to make a world.”

None of that is true, but it reminds me of The Gun Club, whose 1981 debut LP blew my mind. “Sex Beat,” “She’s Like Heroin to Me, and “For the Love of Ivy” opened up new possibilities in post-punk; for one The Gun Club was heavy on the blues, and the songs were dark, dark as Robert Johnson dark. No 57-second tantrums directed at that bitch Ronald Reagan for The Gun Club; they played a deviant hybrid of punk, rockabilly, country, and blues, and lyrically were mining an ancient vein of a haunted America, where spirits and ghosts wandered the highways and lightless trains rode the trestles at night, along with one Jack on fire. I listened to that album for six months straight, then I discovered the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, and The Gun Club just sorta slipped off my radar.

It was my loss, because front man Jeffrey Lee Pierce came on like a man possessed by some curse spirit from South of the Border, like he had voodoo in his blood and sex in his guitar, and it surprised virtually no one when he died at age 37 as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. He founded The Gun Club in the happening Hollywood scene in 1979, with a line-up that included Brian Tristan (aka Kid Congo Powers) on lead guitar, Don Snowden on bass, and Brad Dunning on guitar. Originally called The Creeping Ritual, they changed their name to The Gun Club at the suggestion of Circle Jerk Keith Morris. But the band had a high turnover quotient, and everyone but Pierce was history before The Gun Club recorded its debut, including Powers, who skedaddled to the Cramps and was replaced by Ward Dotson. As for Snowden and Dunning, they were replaced by two former members of the Bags, Rob Ritter and Terry Graham, respectively.

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