Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Led Zeppelin,
In Through the Out Door

Now listen here: Once upon a time there was a band called Led Zeppelin, and they laid down more barbaric heavy metal riffs than anybody, ever. They came from the land of ice and snow, and produced a Hun-like din, and if you heard them approaching your castle walls the wisest move was to flee via the back door. Guitarist Jimmy Page seemed to possess an inexhaustible repertoire of battering ram riffs designed to smash through castle gates, and what he couldn’t turn to splinters John Bonham, his catapult-fisted drummer, could. There was nobody quite like them when it came to the employment of brute and unremitting force, and there never will be.

But in case you haven’t noticed there are no Huns rampaging across the countryside raping and repining, haven’t been for centuries. Because nothing lasts forever, and so it went for Led Zeppelin, who officially disbanded in December 1980, several months after Bonham died from asphyxiation of vomit following a day of supernatural drinking (four quadruple vodkas—and that was just breakfast!).

Led Zeppelin’s first six LPs are unimpeachably great; the debate over quality arises only in relation to their final three albums, one of which (1982’s Coda) was a collection of unreleased odds and sods from sessions that took place years before. Me, I’m primarily interested in their final studio LP, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. Critical reaction was at first lukewarm at best. Over the years, however, there has been a reappraisal, with many a critic eating his words. So which is it? Led Zeppelin at their best, or worst? Or somewhere in that vast middle ground, where the bustle in the hedgerow is just the spring clean of the May Queen?

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Graded on a Curve:
The Pretenders,
Learning to Crawl

A couple of days ago, I found myself doing something I haven’t done (no exaggeration) in years: dancing. I dervished about the apartment all by myself, like a lunatic, with the cat looking on from the safety of the bed, wide-eyed with eminent peril. I could tell the poor puss was thinking, “What the devil is he doing?” So I cried, “Listening to The Pretenders, you hairy little fool! And dancing!”

I would not call The Pretenders a great band, per se. A very, very good band, sure. Chrissie Hynde is an excellent songwriter, and has one of the most distinctive voices in rock. Unfortunately, like Badfinger, The Pretenders are just as famous for their tragically high mortality rate as they are for their music. During the 2-year hiatus between 1981’s Pretenders II and 1983’s Learning to Crawl, Hynde saw two band mates, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, die drug-related deaths. Technically Farndon was no longer a Pretender—Hynde fired him shortly before he died—but still. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde on the subject of orphans, to lose one band member is bad luck—to lose two, sheer carelessness.

Hynde, an Akron, Ohio native, formed The Pretenders in 1978 in London, England, where she was working as a journo for NME and at SEX, the legendary fashion boutique of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. She received a record contract on the strength of a demo recorded with a three-piece band including Phil Taylor of Motörhead, then hired a permanent group including Honeyman-Scott, Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers. The Pretenders’ first two albums included several hits; unfortunately, while the band was making its bones musically, it members were dropping like flies. By 1983’s Learning to Crawl 50 percent of the original group was dead, leaving just Hynde (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, and harmonica) and Chambers. But rather than throwing in the towel, Hynde hired Robbie McIntosh on lead guitar and backing vocals and Malcolm Foster on bass and backing vocals.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Diamond Dogs

So I was walking down the street in London one time and who do I run into but David Bowie. Give the man his privacy, I think, but in the end I can’t resist saying, “Mr. Bowie, I just want to tell you I’m a huge fan.” To which he replies, “I am a God. You are a repugnant toad and smell funny.” Then waving his hands about in the air for me to disappear, he says, “Shoo, shoo.”

Okay, so that never happened. But if it had happened I’d still be one of the biggest Bowie fans in the world. I rate him the greatest artist of the seventies, during which he didn’t put out a single less-than-great LP except 1974’s David Live. Name me another great musician about whom that can be said. Dylan? Don’t make me laugh. Lou Reed? Hardy har-har. The only band that even comes close is Steely Dan, and they’re not really in the same league and besides, they blew it in my opinion with 1977’s Aja, which they produced to death. Sure, critics had their doubts about 1979’s Lodger, the last of Bowie’s Berlin trio with Brian Eno, but over the years the album has been given a second look and deemed underrated.

Another album that was seriously underrated upon its release was 1974’s Diamond Dogs. Conceived initially as a theatrical production about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bowie’s ambitions foundered when the author’s estate said no way, Jose. The concept album that evolved out of that idea is as sketchy as most concept albums, and you need know nothing about Bowie’s ideas about a future dystopia to enjoy the hell out of “Rebel Rebel” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me.”

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Graded on a Curve: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Bluejeans & Moonbeams

Every Captain Beefheart fan knows that his releases Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams marked the nadir of his career. Desperate attempts at commercial success, both LPs met with critical opprobrium and horrified the good Captain’s fans. Even Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, his critical cred in ruins, come to regret them; he labeled them “horrible and vulgar” and urged fans to take them back for a refund.

Remember that ’60s TV show Branded starring Chuck Connors, who played a soldier in the Wild West? Who, wrongly convicted of some crime, had his shoulder epaulettes ripped off and his sword broken in half during the opening credits, which ended with him standing stoically outside the closed fort gates, facing the grim prospects of surviving in the savage wilderness the best he could? Well that’s what happened with these albums. They were branded, given the bum’s rush, and left shivering in the rock wilderness, while Beefheart fans tried their level best to forget them.

But nothing attracts me like a spectacular disaster, which is why I’ve watched every Irwin Allen film like 38 times. So I was eager to listen to Bluejeans & Moonbeams, which is generally considered a bigger fiasco than Unconditionally Guaranteed, or the Titanic even, because Beefheart’s Magic Band fired him in disgust after Unconditionally Guaranteed, leaving him to round up a whole new Magic Band that was around only for Bluejeans & Moonbeams. What’s more, the untaught Beefheart, who had always counted on a musical director to realize the sounds he heard in his head, was forced to do without one on Bluejeans & Moonbeams. And finally, he was still seeking commercial success, which entailed his curtailing many of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that made his music so intriguing in the first place.

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Graded on a Curve:
Michael Hall,
Love Is Murder

Austin, Texas: Where you can’t fire off a six-shooter without hitting some manner of rockabilly genius, half-mad, Listerine-chugging singer-songwriter, displaced Englishman, or, if you’re really lucky, just some drummer. Austin has depths—unacknowledged musical geniuses skulk about its streets, drunk or sober, hopeless or hopeful, stubborn to the point of absurdity or about ready to throw in the towel.

One of its premiere unacknowledged geniuses is Michael Hall. He began his career with the Wild Seeds, then went off on his own to write great songs that tell wonderful stories, stories like “Put Down That Pig” that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. Take “America” off his 2006 LP, The Song He Was Listening to When He Died. It’s a defiant song about taking pride, not in America the nation, but America the band, and it includes such wonderful lines as, “They rode the Ventura Highway/They rode the horse with no name/They rode Sister Golden Hair/All three of them at one time.” I’ll be damned if “America” isn’t Randy Newman good, and I can’t pay a songwriter a higher compliment.

It’s tough to pick a favorite LP with Hall, but I lean towards 1992’s Love Is Murder. It’s filled with weird and wonderful story-telling songs, beginning with the deadpan “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around.” Accompanied only by a piano, Hall sings lugubriously about cruising aimlessly; he certainly doesn’t make it sound like that much fun. A rough harmonica breaks things up, before Hall repeats “Drive around, drive around” until the song ends. “What Did They Do With the President’s Brain?” is a JFK conspiracy theorist’s dream and mines Warren Zevon territory; set to a rollicking rock beat, Hall name drops Allen Dulles, wonders what happened to the real murder weapon (they ended up in a pawn shop in Dien Bien Phu), and sings, “Look out here he comes/There he goes/The President of the United States with bullet holes.” He blames the CIA, who “tore up the streets of Camelot,” but it’s highly unlikely he’s in earnest; not with those lines about George Bush “kissing a tramp up on the roof.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Slade, Slayed?

So there I was, listening to Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and being all jazzbo pretentious and shit, when really deep down inside I was miserable when it hit me—what I needed at that moment was not the chill vibraphonic rebop of Bobby Hutcherson, but the atrocious spelling, abominable haircuts, and abysmal glitter gear of those inimitable Black Country lads, Slade. It may be easy to make fun of ‘em, but the quartet ruled the UK charts in the early ’70s, with artists like Roxy Music and David Bowie eating their dust. And vocalist Noddy Holder and the boys have been cited as an influence by everybody from Twisted Sister and Nirvana. Not bad for a couple of skinheads-turned-glamsters from Wolverhampton, whose misspellings, I kid you not, led to protests by an entire nation’s worth of outraged school marms.

The band’s classic line-up (Holder on vocals, guitar, and bass; Dave Hill on guitar, vocals and bass; Jim Lea on bass, vocals, keyboards, violin, and guitar; and Don Powell on drums and percussion) was formed in 1969 as Ambrose Slade. Their first album tanked, and they abandoned their skinhead look due to its negative association with football hooliganism. The “Ambrose” went too, and following the release of some poorly spelled hits and a well-received live album the band blew out the pipes with LP #3, Slayed? Filled with anthemic sing-alongs, Slayed? remains one of glitter rock’s seminal albums, despite the fact that the toughs in Slade looked about as absurd in their Glam clobber as Mott the Hoople looked in theirs. Holder wore a mirror top hat, tartan pants with suspenders, and striped socks, while Hill sported an ungodly Prince Valiant haircut and silver outfits that made him look like an alien with a retarded Venusian hair stylist. But who cares? The kids ate it up.

Slayed? might not have been the high-water mark of Slade’s success, but it’s indisputably Slade’s best LP and the one you want to own. It includes all the songs beloved by American listeners but “Cum on Feel the Noize,” which was never released on a non-compilation LP. It’s included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, but even a fan like me—I owned a copy of Slayed? on 8-track—wouldn’t put it in the top thousand. They must have included that final ‘1’ so they could sneak Slade in there.

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Graded on a Curve:
Molly Hatchet,
Flirtin’ with Disaster

I consider myself a southern rock fan of sorts—Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of my favorite bands, and I still plan to get that tattoo of their plane going down, Ronnie Van Zant looking out a window and saying, “Turn it up!”—but I always drew the line at Molly Hatchet. I think it had to do with those fantasy covers—you know, the ones with steroidal Huns in Viking helmets like the sopranos in operas wear wielding wicked-looking double axes. I’ve never liked fantasy art, or people who like fantasy art, and while I’m ashamed to admit I refused to listen to a band because of its album covers, it’s the god’s honest truth.

Anyway, I finally took the plunge, and I was shocked—Molly Hatchet wasn’t half bad. A kind of poor man’s Lynyrd Skynyrd—both bands hailed from swampy Jacksonville, Florida—Molly Hatchet boasted a singer who sounded a lot like Ronnie Van Zant and three guitarists just like Skynyrd, which gave them the ability to “Free Bird” out to their heart’s content. True, their songwriting skills were never up to Skynyrd standards—all meat and potatoes, only without the meat—but they were good enough, good enough. And when I call Molly Hatchet a poor man’s Lynyrd Skynyrd it’s not a total diss, because I still—having finally heard them—rate them above the Outlaws, the Charlie Daniels Band, .38 Special, The Marhall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, and all the rest of their Southern Rock brethren, with the exception of Black Oak Arkansas, because BOA is just so fucking weird.

Molly Hatchet mixed in enough hard rock to differentiate themselves from the more countrified Southern Rock pack, but were also capable of pure South of Dixie goodness—just check out their loving cover of Gregg Allman’s “Dreams I’ll Never See” if you don’t believe me. Or “Gator Country,” an excellent tune in which they name-check their competition and their home states and conclude they’d just as soon be back in the gator country of Jacksonville. True, they lost the thread later on—as is demonstrated by songs that sound like bad hair metal and an album called Southern Rock Masters that included songs by Thin Lizzy, the Eagles, and Mountain—proof either that they had a very flexible concept of Southern Rock, or should really have paid more attention to their geography teacher in high school.

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Graded on a Curve: Guided by Voices, Propeller

One of my fondest rock memories: Guided by Voices opened for Cheap Trick at the 9:30 Club, and following a great set during which GBV lead singer and mastermind Robert Pollard drank what appeared to be a case of beer, he returned to the stage, bottle of tequila in hand, to join in on backing vocals on Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” The audience went mad. It was cosmic.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Dayton, Ohio’s Guided by Voices. I was in a long defunct restaurant-café on 14th Street—the kind of place, gone now unfortunately, where the staff were junkies and the customers were junkies and where your pet rat was definitely welcome—when I heard a great song on the jukebox. By the time the vocalist threw out the wonderful couplet, “I am a lost soul/I shoot myself with rock’n’roll,” I was hooked. The song turned out to be “I Am a Scientist” by Guided by Voices, and the next day I ran out and bought it. It was the beginning of a long romance.

At that time Pollard and Company were defiantly lo-fi, and specialized in writing catchy tunes with gnomic lyrics. Over the years the sound quality would become slicker—Ric Ocasek’s polished production of 1999’s Do the Collapse alienated lo-fi purists—but Pollard’s modus operandi never changed. He leaned towards the Anglophilic and was miraculously prolific; he breathed songs, thousands of songs, all of them with absurdist lyrics that made up for their lack of warmth and emotion with great lines and wonderful melodies. And while touring he drank prodigious amounts of beer on stage—even had his own bar—and over time he managed to establish a true cult of personality. Guided by Voices’ fans are some of the most fanatical in the world, and he could probably establish his own Jonestown if he wanted.

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Graded on a Curve:
Redd Kross,
Teen Babes from Monsanto

I love Redd Kross. The power pop/punk outfit’s undying affection for pop kitsch is infectious, and will live on forever in such songs as “Linda Blair,” “Tatum O’Tot and the Fried Vegetables,” “McKenzie” (about the train wreck Mackenzie Phillips), and St. Lita Ford Blues,” to say nothing of their affectionate covers of other bands’ material—“Stairway to Heaven,” anyone?—which are largely to be found on the original soundtrack to 1984’s Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Teen Babes from Monsanto from the same year.

Pranksters who adamantly refused to take their assigned role as serious rock stars seriously, Redd Kross—they had to change their name from Red Cross following the threat of a lawsuit from that notoriously bloodthirsty organization—have far more in common with John Waters than Roger Waters. In short, they like to crack themselves up, and have always been willing to pay the consequences in terms of rock cred. Good for them.

By 1984 the band’s membership had changed radically from their primitive and barely pubescent origins in 1980, with guitarist Greg Hetson splitting for the Circle Jerks and drummer Ron Reyes leaving to join Black Flag. By 1984 it was just founding brothers Steven (fuzz, bass, vocals) and Jeff (lead vocals, guitar) McDonald with Dave Peterson on drums. As for Teen Babes from Monsanto, it featured six covers and one original, and the surprising thing about it, not having heard it for so long, is how straight they play it. They’re not butchering the songs for kicks the way, say, Yo La Tengo do on 2006’s Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics. Yo La Tengo’s takes on songs like Yes’ “Roundabout” are hilariously and deliberately inept, and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard their version of “Rock the Boat.”

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Graded on a Curve: George Harrison,
Dark Horse

George Harrison was always the neglected Beatle, the Beatle who through no fault of his own simply lacked the charisma of his band mates. He had talent galore but there was something invisible about him, something faintly drab and colorless, that caused him to pale next to his more flamboyant fellows. Hence the title of his 1974 release Dark Horse. He was the least of the defunct quartet and he knew it.

And yet he was achieving commercial success, until Dark Horse came along. The critics eviscerated it and the public didn’t buy it, and they had good reasons; it is, especially by the high standard he established with 1970’s ambitious All Things Must Pass, so much tepid musical dishwater. You know you’re in trouble when an album’s only energetic cut is called “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” and boasts lyrics every bit as dumb as its title.

Much has been written about the soap opera that was Harrison’s life at the time. Eric Clapton made off with his bird, and he’d returned to using drugs, and the various other romantic entanglements he found himself in were positively byzantine. In short he was going through his own version of John Lennon’s Lost Weekend, and to make matters worse he insisted upon dragging Ravi Shankar across the United States at about the same time Dark Horse was released and giving the sitarist a large share of the limelight, which irked just about everybody who paid good money to see the first Beatle to tour North America since 1966.

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