Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Can,
Delay 1968

I love microwaveable serving pouch. I love box of mac and cheese. But most of all I love Can. Formed in Cologne in 1968, Can—which was one of the first Krautrock bands and in my opinion the best—integrated psychedelic, experimental, and avant-garde influences into its great and hypnotically raucous music. Can’s methods were radical—you’ve got to love a band that spent 6 hours without a break spontaneously improvising “Yoo Doo Right” in the studio, only to pare it down to 20 minutes for release on vinyl. Hell, I don’t think even the Grateful ever played for six hours straight. Can dubbed such spontaneous jams “instant compositions,” and I beg to differ. Six hours is not instant. Soup is instant. Six hours is almost a goddamn workday. Hell, if it took six hours to heat soup, I’d starve to death.

Most people consider Can’s golden years to be those when the great Damo Suzuki—whom the band discovered busking outside a Munich café and was playing with them live that same night—was the vocalist. It was during these years that Can released such legendary LPs as 1971’s Tago Mago, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi, and 1973’s Future Days. I love that trio dearly, but have always had a soft spot in my heart for Delay 1968, which was supposed to be the band’s debut album and would have been the band’s debut album had they been able to find a single record label willing to so much as touch it, even while wearing biohazard gloves. (It wasn’t released until 1981, by Spoon Records.) Often labeled a compilation album, or an album of outtakes, Can bassist and recording engineer Holger Czukay has gone on record as saying Delay 1968 was intended to be Can’s first LP and bore the title Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM.

My reasons for loving Delay 1968 have much to do with the band’s first vocalist, the American sculptor Malcolm Mooney. Mooney’s hoarse vocals, mad rants, and odd utterances added an element of derangement to Can’s often repetitious and strange songs, which are less propulsive and Autobahn-friendly, and often bring to mind German Captain Beefheart. And Mooney wasn’t just faking those lunatic vocals—following the release of Can’s proper debut, 1969’s Monster Movie, he returned to the United States, after receiving a strong recommendation to do so by his psychiatrist. Evidently he wouldn’t stop shouting, “Upstairs, downstairs,” which I imagine must have gotten on his fellow band mates’ nerves. In any event he left, and didn’t rejoin Can until 1989, when he returned to assume vocal duties for the band’s Rite Time LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft,
Alles Ist Gut

I’m not a dance guy. You can ask anyone. And they’ll tell you my dancing brings to mind a man in bare feet leaping about on hot coals while being attacked by a swarm of apoplectic hornets. But I do like me some good industrial/dance/noise music on occasion. So I recently checked out the defunct Düsseldorf band Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (“German American Friendship”), and boy, was I glad I did.

Not only did they release scads of great electropunk dance noise, but they actually wrote a song about dancing with Adolf Hitler! That’s right, they were Germans with an actual sense of humor! And not only that, but the brutal Thump! Thump! Thump! of their drums evoked the sound of 88-millimeter shells falling on Stalingrad. What’s more, vocalist Gabriel “Gabi” Delgado-López kinda sounded like what I imagine Josef Goebbels might have sounded like had he forgone the whole loser Nazi propaganda shtick and gone the club music route instead. In short, they made WWII rock!

D.A.F., as Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft are more popularly known, were formed as a five piece in 1978, but attrition soon whittled the band down to a duo consisting of vocalist Delgado-López and Robert Görl on drums, percussion, and electronic instruments. D.A.F. released seven LPs over the course of its career, and said LPs run the gamut from quite listenable to dead-raising cacophonies. My fave is 1981’s Alles Ist Gut (or “Everything’s Cool”). And not just because the “Deutsche Phono-Akademie,” whoever they are, awarded Alles Ist Gut the coveted “Schallplattenpreis” Award, whatever that is.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Despite what you may have heard, or read, Glam Rock didn’t begin with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, or any other early seventies English rocker. It began long, long before that, during the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Forget those plain and lumbering creatures you see on the Science Channel—those were the workaday dinosaurs. The real creatures, like Glittersaurus Rex and Giganotosaurus Glamii, were fashion queens and totally outrageous.

They knew theirs was a final age of decadence and lived it to the hilt, wearing mascara, eyeliner, feather boas, and fabulous neckpieces like the one Edgar Winter sports on They Only Come Out at Night. And glitter, of course—the terminal age dinosaurs adored glitter. On their faces, on their claws, and even on their thigh-high 8-inch platform boots, which made it impossible for them to run and are the reason they went extinct. Their elegy, if they can be said to have one, was uttered by David Bowie, who said, “If those dinosaurs were the spearhead of anything, it wasn’t necessarily the spearhead of anything good. Any era that allowed dinosaurs like them to become rampant was pretty well lost.”

But we’re not here to talk about dinosaurs, but about one of the greatest albums of all time. And not just Glam albums, but albums period. 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was a concept album recorded by rock’s premiere changeling—a skirt-wearing longhair oddball ex-mime named David Bowie, who decided that outrage was the name of the game and that the most fabulous route to stardom lay in dressing up like a mincing androgynous intergalactic space fop, come to spread the news of imminent apocalypse and the gospel of hazy cosmic jive. And it worked, worked so well in fact that even Bowie himself came to believe it. Soon every teen in Glam Britannia was dressing up like a spaceman in drag, and tossing the wanker rock (e.g., Edison Lighthouse, Leapy Lee) they’d been forced to listen to until then into the dustbin. This wasn’t rock’n’roll—this was recordcide!

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Graded on a Curve:
Colleen Green,
Milo Goes to Compton

Sock it to me! No, you bet your sweet bippy I’m not an extra on the sixties’ too-weird-for-words variety show Laugh-In; I’m just quoting the title of one-woman army Colleen Green’s latest LP. With guitar and drum machine Green writes songs she calls “stoner pop,” and they’re all over the place: she usually sings in a deliciously hushed voice, but not always, and her songs veer from the sweet to the swaggering, with a touch of The Ramones here and some muted synth-pop there, and the important thing to note about all of them is they’re catchy as Kuru.

Her sophomore release, 2012’s Milo Goes to Compton, is an obvious nod to the Descendents’ 1982 LP Milo Goes to College, and reflects her move to Cali from Massachusetts. It follows 2011 debut Cujo, which includes a song called “Mike” I’d like to think she wrote about me but didn’t. (Or at least I think she didn’t. Plenty of women have written songs about me, but most of the titles can’t be repeated in a family magazine like The Vinyl District.) It also includes a hard-rocking (she can do amazing things with that guitar) tune called “Rabid Love,” which I would also like to think is about me, but I think is about a raccoon. (I haven’t listened carefully to the lyrics.) And her newest offering, 2013’s Sock It To Me, includes such great grinding tunes as “Heavy Shit” and the slow and ominous title track, on which she plays some space rock keyboards and sings until there’s a kind of hush all over the world, and it’s emanating from your turntable.

I’m no big fan of drum machines, but they work in Green’s case because there’s something mysteriously mechanized about her vocals as well. She has a lovely voice, but her vocals are cold—not Nico cold, mind you, or even close—but cold nonetheless, and if that sounds like an insult it’s not. Even on such love songs as “Only One” she sounds like the coolest girl in your high school, the impossibly prepossessed one who never lost her cool, or her sense of impressive self-possession.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
“Stink”

One thing you’ve got to say for the Replacements; they knew how to record an album. The story I’ve heard, and it could well be apocryphal, is that after the Replacements finished one recording session, some poor sap had to go in to clean up the puke—off the ceiling.

The Replacements’ hard-drinking, hit-or-miss live shows became legendary; they might be great or they might be wrecked, and proceed to abandon songs in midstream, commit bodily harm to their defenseless instruments, perform covers they only kinda sorta knew, and generally muck about until they decided enough was enough. Lots of bands lay claim to being room-clearers, but the Replacements were the real deal, the kings in a world full of pretenders to the throne.

The Replacements were formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1979. Their career trajectory was rather odd; instead of starting as a hardcore band and then softening the edges as most bands did, they did just the opposite, by recording 1982’s decidedly hardcore “Stink” EP after the tangentially more melodic (which bears definite traces of vocalist/guitarist and chief songwriter Paul Westerberg’s gift for writing great, heart-wrenching melodies) debut LP, 1981’s Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Westerberg was supported by the Stinson brothers, Bob on guitar and Tommy—who was 11 when he first started playing, and had to drop out of 10th grade to join the band on its first national tour—on bass, and Chris Mars on drums. Bob Stinson, a lunatic and hardened alcoholic, would leave the band in 1986 and die a sad drug-related death in 1995, but all that was far in the future when the Replacements recorded “Stink.” Westerberg hilariously summed up the young band’s general attitude towards their chosen profession on Sorry Ma’s “I Hate Music,” when he sang, “I hate music/Sometimes I don’t/I hate music/It’s got too many notes.” And Westerberg hit the nail on the head on “Something to Dü” (a reference to their relatively friendly rivalry with Minneapolis’ Husker Dü) when he described the band’s job as “delivering noise.”

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Ian Hunter,
The TVD Interview

It’s not often that you get to talk to a bona fide rock legend—and one of your biggest heroes to boot. So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak by phone with Sir (I added that myself; why wait for the Queen to get around to it?) Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople and solo artist fame. I’ve been listening to Mott since I was 14, and getting the opportunity to speak one on one with him was something I never considered possible. It seemed to me as likely as getting the chance to talk to Robert Johnson, or Napoleon.

Anyway, Ian Hunter and band are coming to The Hamilton in Washington D.C. on Sunday, November 2, and Hunter was interested in hyping the show. Unfortunately he was talking to a deranged fanatic, and he had to remind me of that fact about three-quarters of the way through our hour-long interview. My sincerest apologies, Ian. But I learned a lot. 

I’ve heard rumors of a Mott reunion? True?

We’ve done two, and I think that’s enough. We’re all a bit older now and I think we’ve done enough.

Damn. Well, let’s start at the beginning. You were a Teddy Boy?

I came out of gangs. Teddy Boys—they were all about style. Edwardian clothes and violence. Drainpipe trousers, jackets that came down to your knees. There was a lot of fighting involved. I’d be playing pubs, so I wasn’t engaging in much violence. But they had my back. If somebody hit me, all I had to do was call some guys, and there’d be five Teddy Boys tapping the guilty party on his shoulder. They were poor people, a lot of them had grown up in boy’s homes, but they weren’t stupid. They were angry, but not stupid.

Do you have an all-time favorite rocker?

Little Richard. “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” I found your American artists’ names very confusing. I thought Jerry Lee Lewis was Jerry Lewis (of The Nutty Professor fame), and as for Elvis Presley, what kind of name was Elvis? What was up with that? I saw Little Richard in 1957. In those days artists couldn’t afford to bring their own bands to England, so Sounds Inc. [a British instrumental pop group] served as Little Richard’s backing band. And he had Sam Cooke singing back up. It’s funny about Sam Cooke—he always sounded very quiet on record, but he had a very loud voice on stage.

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Graded on a Curve:
Repo Man (OST)

The life of a repo man is always intense. I know this because I have, at last count, watched Alex Cox’ 1984 film Repo Man 123 times. Its storyline—shiftless punk finds himself part of a motley crew of repo men, while a mad scientist roams LA in a car with some highly dangerous nuclear materials in the back—is both whacked and hilarious, and it’s as full of classic lines (“I don’t want no commies in my car. No Christians either” says jaded repo man Bud [Harry Dean Stanton] to young acolyte Otto [Emilio Estevez]) as Apocalypse Now. What’s more, it boasts a better soundtrack, thanks to the contributions of Iggy Pop, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, Fear, and The Plugz.

The film does a wonderful job of capturing the aimlessness of LA’s hardcore youth, and is so full of catch phrases (Bud: “Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.”) you could spend the rest of your life, or at least a day or two, speaking only lines from the movie, and never repeat yourself. It’s not impossible, either. I have a friend who took a whole lotta acid and spent the next four days speaking only in song lyrics. Seriously. You might ask him how his day was going and he’d reply, “I’m easy, easy like Sunday morning” or “I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.” I didn’t witness this, but I believe him. He’s not a pathological liar like yours truly, of whom Mary McCarthy once said, “Every word he writes is a lie, including and and the.” Come to think of it I’m lying again, because McCarthy was actually referring to Lillian Hellman.

Anyway, the soundtrack (and the movie) open with Iggy Pop’s “Repo Man.” He recorded the song with Blondie’s former rhythm section (Clem Burke on drums and Nigel Harrison on bass) and ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones on guitar after hurriedly scribbling some lines in his notebook. Jones’ opening guitar riff is titanic, oceanic, and BIG, and the rhythm section is spot on. Jones then plays a sorta secret agent man riff while Iggy sings one of his greatest couplets: “I’m looking for the joke/With a microscope.” Okay, so it’s not as good as 1969’s “Now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my and a boo hoo,” but that line’s one in a million. Anyway, Jones demonstrates that his knack for writing riffs made him punk’s Jimmy Page, and Iggy throws out some more great lines (“I was a teenage dinosaur, stoned and obsolete/I didn’t get fucked and I didn’t get kissed/I got so fucking dense/Using my head for an ashtray” before taking the song out repeating “I’m looking for the joke.” Black Flag’s “TV Party” follows, and it’s one of their greats, a hilarious sing-along and put down of drunken couch potato punks who spend their lives chained to their television (“I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day/Or even a minute!”). Everybody loves it when the guys shout out the names of their favorite shows, but then a terrible tragedy takes place—their TV goes on the fritz!

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Graded on a Curve: Minutemen,
“Project Mersh”

Well, I can cross another item off my bucket list. I got busted this past weekend, and shoved handcuffed into the backseat of a Pennsylvania State Police car, and it was thrilling in a traumatic way, even more thrilling than the first time I heard the Minutemen’s “Paranoid Chant” off SST’s 1983 compilation LP, The Blasting Concept. I was in Boston where a friend put it on, and I can’t describe the wonderment of that moment, because I’d never heard anything like “Paranoid Chant” before, and it left me hungry for more.

Which is more than I can say about my run in with the state trooper, who said I was driving erratically. I wanted to tell him I always drive erratically, and in fact do everything erratically, but he gave every indication of not having a sense of humor. Why, he even refused my request to take a photo of me in cuffs. I even offered to let him use my cell phone to take it.

But back to the Minutemen. They were the quirkiest post-punk band ever, musically speaking, what with their off-kilter time signatures, jagged edges, unusual song structures, and funk and jazz influences. They had about as much in common with such by-the-numbers hardcore bands as SSD as Miles Davis did with KC and The Sunshine Band. Throw in some really cool lyrics (guitarist and vocalist D. Boon’s frequently addressed political concerns, while bassist and vocalist Mike Watt’s were often opaque and indecipherable “spiels”) and the Minutemen quickly established themselves as the best post-punk trio in business.

I still think their 1984 double LP Double Nickels on the Dime is one of the top five LPs recorded during the eighties, and I would happily review it were it not for the fact that it’s 45 songs long, a feat made possible by the fact that most of its songs clock in at a minute and change. Plenty of people think this is why they called themselves The Minutemen but they’re wrong; Watt has stated that the name was taken from Colonial America’s minutemen militia, or a poke at the 1960’s far-right-fringe militia The Minutemen, or both.

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Graded on a Curve:
Grand Funk,
We’re An American Band

Jesus Funkin’ Christ, Grand Funk. Where does one even begin? Homer Simpson’s immortal description of the band’s members is as good a place as any: “You kids don’t know Grand Funk? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drumwork of Don Brewer? Oh, man!”

Grand Funk was one of the biggest arena acts of the 1970s, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone besides Homer Simpson who will admit to liking them. I’ve never heard a single rocker cite Grand Funk as an influence, and unlike their Michigan brethren the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk scored a big zero when it came to hipness factor. Their talk of revolution was transparently empty jive, they didn’t have a proto-punk bone in their bodies, and in general all they did was fill arenas—something the far cooler MC5 and the anarchic Stooges never came close to doing—and make the people in those arenas (and their bongs) happy.

Of course filling arenas doesn’t prove much, except that it’s impossible to overestimate the ignorance of the American public, but still it’s intriguing—what did all those pothead on reds at all those Grand Funk shows hear that we simply can’t hear in 2014? Did people back then have an extra Grand Funk ear? That closed up around the time of 1976’s Born to Die, which marked the band’s downward slide following seven consecutive LPs in the Top Ten?

That’s right: seven consecutive LPs in the Top Ten. How they managed this feat, given their lackluster body of work, remains a mystery, like what became of Amelia Earhart or how Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis managed to throw a no-hitter while tripping his balls off. It is possible people really did come to hear the shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? Or were they truly that hard-up for entertainment in the Dark Ages of the early to mid-seventies, when rock had become empty entertainment, with the talk of music changing the world having become passé on one side and the soon-to-come (and equally unsuccessful punk revolution the other. Never having seen Grand Funk—they were well into their precipitous fall from superstardom when I started attending concerts, I can’t say.

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Graded on a Curve:
Spade Cooley &
the Western Swing
Dance Gang,
Shame on You

Western swing musician, big band leader, actor, nationally known television personality, and cold-blooded killer—you’ll have to look really hard to find a resume more varied than that of Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley. And you’ll also have to look even harder to find an album with a more appropriate title than Shame on You, seeing as how Cooley brutally murdered his wife in 1961 by pounding her head on the floor and then putting out a lit cigarette on her body to make sure she was dead. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, he forced his teenage daughter to witness the murder, saying, “You’re going to watch me kill her.”

It has become almost impossible—and appropriately so—to write dispassionately about Spade Cooley, the so-called King of Western Swing, given Spade Cooley the private citizen’s status as a convicted (and particularly bestial) killer. Cold-blooded murder will always be what Cooley’s best remembered for—thanks in part to noir writer James Ellroy, who has made Cooley a recurring character in his fiction—regardless of his musical accomplishments, which were considerable.

Cooley, who was part Cherokee, was born in 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma, a lovely part of the country that the Cooleys fled for California come the Dust Bowl in 1930. (Grand is now a ghost town.) Cooley’s skill on the fiddle and good luck saw him take over Jimmy Wakely’s big band after Wakely got a movie contract, and soon Cooley and band’s shows at the Venice Pier Ballroom were packed. By the mid-forties Cooley was a superstar of sorts, renowned for his songs (Shame on You came out in 1945 and led to six straight Top Ten singles) as well as for his numerous roles in films. And come the advent of television he conquered that medium too, with The Spade Cooley Show drawing in 75 percent of Los Angeles’ TV viewers each week, to say nothing of the viewers nationwide who tuned into his show, which was broadcast coast-to-coast by the Paramount Television Network.

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