Dear Reader: I would never lie to you. I hate Blood, Sweat & Tears. I have always hated Blood, Sweat & Tears. I will always hate Blood, Sweat & Tears. With their big horn sound they always sounded like a Las Vegas lounge act to me, and the truth is they were a Vegas lounge act, back at the turn of the 1970s when such an act bordered on heresy and constituted a crass betrayal of every single tenet of the counterculture. It didn’t help that agreed to go on a State Department-sponsored tour of Eastern Europe, a move that destroyed whatever credibility they had with your average government-hating hippie.
No, I do not like them. And perhaps I should recuse myself from writing about them for that reason. But I refuse. I will have my unreconstructed say, because I believe that the critic’s sole task is not just to praise the music he loves, but also to sound the alarm whenever some truly suck-ass jive comes his way. For this reason I will damn BS&T with faint praise and praise them for providing me with the occasional callow chortle. And I’m not alone. Speaking of the band’s foghorn of a vocalist, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote, “Just figured out how David Clayton-Thomas learned vocal projection: by belching. That’s why when he gets really excited he sounds as if he’s about to throw up. But it’s only part of the reason he gets me so excited I feel like I’m about to throw up.” I agree totally with Christgau about the throwing up part.
Originally formed by the famed Al Kooper and others as a “brass-rock” band, BS&T released their debut, 1968’s Child Is Father to the Man, after which Kooper quit, and was replaced on lead vocals by Clayton-Thomas. That same year “the Sweat” (no one has ever called them this but me) released their eponymous sophomore LP, and hit pop gold. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Spinning Wheel,” “And When I Die,” “God Bless the Child,” or “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” The LP was not just a jazz-rock monstrosity; it also included three heaping helpings of prog rock, including the interminable “Blues, Pt. 2” (an incredibly awful fusion of brass-rock, prog rock, jazz, and blues that comes complete with a drum solo, a brief detour into Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and, to its credit, one very decent sax solo) and two brief takes on the work of Erik Satie.
I am happy to report there is one town in this God-obsessed land that remains under the sway of the Devil. I am talking, of course, about N’Orleans, that spirit-haunted hotbed of hedonism and home to the legendary likes of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, the prostitute Lulu White, and the never-captured Axeman of New Orleans. God has sent flood upon flood to destroy America’s most depraved and flat-out weird city—where else are you going to find public ordinances banning gargling in public and tying an alligator to a fire hydrant?—but in vain. Either God’s floods ain’t what they used to be, or sin has rendered the birthplace of Jazz, where Lucifer owns a winter home, indestructible.
The Big Easy is renowned for two things: music and voodoo. And no human being has ever combined the two with such funky finesse as Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper. Like most people, the only tune I knew by the good doctor was 1973’s funky “Right Place Wrong Time.” Then Kid Congo Powers—who honed his own voodoo chops with the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s Gun Club—suggested I check out the Night Tripper’s 1968 debut LP Gris Gris, and I promptly fell under its spooky Creole spell.
Its trance-inducing, doom-heavy grooves instantaneously transported me to a shadowy Louisiana swamp swarming with snakes and alligators, voodoo drums sounding in the distance, the Axeman of New Orleans hard on my heels. Then to an incense-choked, unpainted wooden shack on stilts situated deep in the bayou’s perpetual gloom, where I found myself shuffling and shaking to the sound of congas and the Night Tripper’s Muzippi-muddy growl. Suffice it to say Gris Gris is one the most haunting slices of hoodoo you’ll ever hear, and one of the most addictive.
Ah, The Crystals—their best songs are every bit as wonderful as their career was checkered by the evil machinations of studio Wunderkind Phil Spector, who made them the first act to record a single on his nascent Phillie Records label. Spector first saddled them with a song so offensive—Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s anthem to masochistic female approval of the physical abuse of women, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss”)—that it almost sidetracked their career at its get-go.
He then proceeded to utilize a group of replacement singers (Darlene Love and the Blossoms) to record such immortal “Crystals” tunes as “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” Finally, he added insult to injury by shifting his attention to a new girl group, the Ronettes, and went so far as to include four songs actually recorded by the Ronettes on the Crystals’ 1963 “best of” LP, The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits, Volume 1.
Yet despite these dictatorial and confusing antics by Spector, the Crystals remain one of the most beloved girl groups of the years just prior to the British Invasion. Why? Because songs like “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” are both brilliant and timeless; why just the other day I did a crazy dance in the supermarket, attracting the attention of numerous shoppers, when “Then He Kissed Me” came on over the store’s loudspeakers.
But returning to the theme of exactly who recorded what songs attributed to the Crystals, anyone interested soon finds oneself tangled in a byzantine world of confusion. Take 2001’s Da Doo Ron Ron, a compilation of the band’s greatest hits. At first its ten songs seem to comprise an admirable distillation of only the Crystals’ finest work; you won’t find the “The Frankenstein Twist” or any of the Ronettes’ novelty songs credited to the Crystals (e.g., “Hot Pastrami,” “The Wah Watusi”) on it.
David Lee Roth was Thee Consummate Showman of the Hair Metal era. With Roth you got the whole shmeer; a natural-born ham and song and dance man, he would gladly have set himself alight and turned flaming cartwheels over the squat Michael Anthony if that’s what it took to keep Diamond Dave in the limelight. Not for nothing did the one-man parade once say, “The world’s a stage, and I want the brightest spot.”
Diamond Dave’s fashion sense may have been deplorable (I’m looking at a photo of him wearing leopard-print spandex leotards and a chest-pelt-revealing v-neck t-shirt complete with—yes, the t-shirt—suspenders), but he more than made up for it by being rock’s preeminent komiker, or comedian. Forever “on,” and with a touch of the old-school vaudevillian in him, you got the sense Roth would have been just as comfortable playing the Borscht Belt as he was playing rock’n’roll. This made him a refreshing anomaly in a genre that depleted the world’s stockpile of hair spray yet still took itself very, very seriously. Thanks to David “I don’t feel tardy” Roth, Van Halen wasn’t just the premier hair metal band—or metal band, period, for that matter—of its time; it was the funniest one (“Have you seen Junior’s grades?”) as well.
And I suppose still is, since Roth rejoined Van Halen in 2006—21 years after departing in 1985, unhappy with the band’s pop turn, adoption of keyboards and synthesizers, and increasingly “morose” (his term) sound. During the interim the Dean Martin of Rock (what else are you going to call a guy who once quipped, “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out my glass”?) released a series of increasingly less successful—grunge killed the vaudeville star—solo albums; put together a Las Vegas lounge act complete with a star-studded brass band and exotic dancers (whom Roth described as “so sweet, I bet they shit sugar”); hosted a radio show; and even worked a stint as an NYC EMT. I don’t think this was a poverty move; he probably just wanted to know how to resuscitate himself in the event of a coke-induced heart attack.
Tomorrow, October 20th will mark the 39th anniversary of perhaps the most tragic event in rock history; to wit, the one that deprived us of the redneck genius of one Ronnie Van Zant, just three days after Lynyrd Skynyrd released 1977’s Street Survivors. The twilight crash, which occurred in a remote forest outside McComb, Mississippi as the band was flying from Greensboro, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also took the lives of Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie Gaines, a backing vocalist for the band, as well as the lives of the pilots and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick.
Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, not so much in the form of the band bearing their name that still roams the land playing meat and potatoes rock (minus the meat) for the faithful hungry enough to settle for poor seconds, but on their records, which sound just as fresh today as they did back in the seventies. People who write off Lynyrd Skynyrd as being just a band of dumb rednecks should remember that southern man don’t need them ‘round anyhow, and would also be well advised to remember this shocking truth: Lynyrd Skynyrd was both a populist sensation and a critic’s band. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau never tired of singing their praises, and Greil Marcus ranked their demise as the No. 1 rock tragedy of the 1970s, the decade that cost us Janis, Jimi, and Jim, to say nothing of Elvis. As Christgau once said of Van Zant: “Dumb he ain’t.”
Take the title track of 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets, on which the guy who hated Saturday night specials seems to be demanding his ammunition back. It’s a ferocious track, and Ronnie sounds like an ornery advocate for the National Rifle Association, that is until you learn he wasn’t referring to real bullets, but to the bullets that Billboard magazine used to put before chart entries for songs that sold a million copies. As for the guitar work it’s every bit as ornery as Ronnie himself, and the track is a classic. The same goes for the relatively overlooked “Every Mother’s Son,” a lovely tune with a great chorus and a couple of guitar solos that will make you forget all about Ed King, the Yankee-born Skynyrd guitarist who jumped ship after 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy. Hell, J. Mascis liked “Every Mother’s Son” so much he recorded a cover over it.
Before I get to my review, a bit of stereotype slinging. About the Irish, who are oft said (you can ask anybody) to have produced the greatest drunken poets the world has ever seen. Here in the States, a drunk is a drunk is a drunk. In Ireland, if you believe the hype, every drunk is a poet and every poet is a drunk, and when the pubs close every last inebriated man, woman, and child who spills into the dimly lit street to stagger home or fall fecklessly into the filthy gutter is conjuring brilliant quatrains in their brain.
It’s obviously shite, and to the part of my lineage that is Irish (or is it Scottish, who knows?) offensive even, but I do believe the Irish harbor a romantic soul and love their whiskey as much as they love a gift for high-blown (Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, anybody?) speech. So just for argument’s sake, who is the greatest drunken Irish poet of them all? My vote goes to The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, hands down.
He may be a spent force now; it’s been years since he wrote any new songs (that we’ve heard, anyway); his voice is every bit as much a ruin as the Acropolis; and the last time I saw him perform he hung precariously onto the microphone stand like a sailor clinging to the ratlines for dear life in the face of 90 mph typhoon winds. But the fact that he continues to draw breath at all is in itself a miracle.
I have done the math, and more whiskey has passed MacGowan’s lips over the course of his lifetime than was imbibed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Jones, Malcolm Lowry, and Dylan Thomas put together. Despite this dubious achievement, he has written some of the best poetry ever set to music, and has brought more happiness to mankind than a regimen of teetotalers.
Few albums have been as vilified or written off as colossal missteps as The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. There’s Taylor Swift Sings the Songs of Captain Beefheart, and Arnold Schwarzenegger Sings Barbra Streisand, but neither of these albums can hold a candle to the Stone’s 1967 answer to the Beatles’ acid-influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their Satanic Majesties Request was quickly dismissed as a shameless attempt to keep up with the psychedelic Jones’s, and the critical blowback was so negative that the Stones promptly hopped to it and followed Satanic Majesties with Beggars Banquet, an LP so down to earth a filthy toilet graces its cover.
Aside from “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years from Home” you’re highly unlikely to hear any of Satanic Majesties’ songs anywhere, and the Stones themselves haven’t had much good to say about it over the years. Keith Richards called it “a load of crap,” while Mick Jagger said “there’s a lot of rubbish” on it. But it has its fair share of cultists, whole heaps of them in fact, and they love it to death. And their waxing enthusiastic over the LP finally got the better of me. Just how bad could it be, after all?
Not bad at all is the short answer. Strange, far stranger than Sgt. Pepper for that matter, Their Satanic Majesties Request has more than its fair share of fine moments, along with a few dubious tunes that don’t quite make the grade. Me, I’ll take it over Sgt. Pepper any day, and I think the Stones should be commended for putting out an LP that was even more experimental than its Beatles counterpart. Mick and the boys took real chances on the LP, and if they didn’t always work, at least the Stones tried.
Okay, so in everybody’s life there comes a day so bleak that not even Joy Division can do it justice. And on that day there’s only one recourse: to crank up Public Image Ltd’s Second Edition. John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band’s sophomore release, also known as Metal Box because it initially saw light as a metal 16mm film canister containing three 12” 45rpm records in 1979, was re-issued in 1980 as a double LP. But regardless of format it was designed to brutalize the listener with music that was as remorselessly and relentlessly down-in-the-mouth as it was utterly hypnotizing, thanks to Lydon’s deranged vocal stylings, Jah Wobble’s loping and rhythmic dub-inspired bass, and Keith Levene’s splintered and utterly unique guitar riffs. Me, I find it soothing when I’ve reached the end of my tether; it lets me know I’m not alone.
Lydon was wise to abandon punk rock; he’d said everything that needed saying in that genre and knew damn well it was a dead end. And it’s a credit to his musical knowledge—which was far more wide-ranging than anyone would have given him credit for—that he went the avant-garde dub route. Sure, the Sex Pistols posed an existential threat to everything that had come before them; but Second Edition is downright SCARY at times, and sounds every bit as demented as the Sex Pistols did menacing. Plus you could dance to it, as the band’s legendary (and hilarious) performance on American Bandstand proved.
The “death disco” (the alternative title of the song “Swan Lake”) of Second Edition marked a radical move away from the (relatively speaking) more conventional punk of 1978’s First Issue, and proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lydon was not interested in making music for the masses. The band may have released two singles from the LP, but neither made any commercial concessions, and were completely representative of what critic Steve Chick described as the “cold dank, unforgiving, subterranean” nature of Second Edition in general. With the exception of “Radio 4,” a symphonic piece that is lovely really, and “Socialist,” a throbbing and fast paced instrumental that won’t give you the shivers, Second Edition never gives you a break… it wants you to suck you down into a tarpit of sound, and sink, and sink, you do.
Call it heavy metal, call it Dungeons and Dragons Rock, call it whatever you want; Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple band Rainbow melded neo-classical rock riffs to swords and sorcery imagery to produce—especially on their sophomore release, 1976’s Rising—music that was a necessary addition to any teenage stoner’s 8-track collection. Because this shit sounded extreme, man, coming out of the open window of your bitchin’ Camaro in the high school parking lot.
Me, I was never down with Rainbow in my misspent youth, just as I was never down with Deep Purple. I thought Rising, and its predecessor 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, were just plain dumb. But I’m here to recant. I mean, Rising IS dumb, but it also rocks balls, and at its best meets Led Zeppelin on their own terms, and holds its own. Sure, Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio’s fantasy lyrics are risible, but so are plenty of Robert Plant’s fantasy lyrics, as anybody who has ever tried to figure out exactly what “if there’s a bustle in the hedgerow don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May queen” will tell you.
Having had a chance to listen to both Deep Purple and Rainbow, I can tell you I prefer the latter for several reasons. First, Rainbow kept their songs shorter; no 20 plus minute excursions for these fellas. Second, I prefer Tony Carey’s keyboards to those of Jon Lord, which I always found too heavy and intrusive. Finally, Rainbow never possessed the pure lack of introspection it took to release an album entitled Come Taste the Band. Oh, and I can’t listen to “Smoke on the Water” without wanting that “stupid with a flare gun” to fire shots into both my ears.
In Performance, the surreal British crime drama starring Mick Jagger as the reclusive former rock star Turner and James Fox as Chas, a soldier in the east London gang of Harry Flowers, Turner says, “The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right? Eh?” Right you are, Mr. Eccentric Former Rock Star, as I can attest with 100% certainty following two failed marriages featuring performances by yours truly that indeed “made it all the way.”
Performance, which was directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg in 1968 but not released until 1970, was one of the seminal motion pictures of the seventies, and went so far in the direction of Arthur Rimbaud’s “derangement of all the senses” that at a test screening in Santa Monica in 1970 the wife of a Warner Bros. executive blew the chunks fantastic, and customers had to be offered a vomit refund. It ends with Chas shooting Turner, then driving off (presumably to be murdered) by a member of the Flowers’ gang. But the face looking out the rear window could be either Chas or Turner
While Performance, with its hallucinogenic use and bi-sexuality, still has the capacity to shock the timid, it’s the film’s soundtrack, which includes songs by Mick Jagger, Randy Newman, The Last Poets, Merry Clayton, Bernard Krause & Merry Clayton, Ry Cooder (with and without Buffy St. Marie), and Jack Nitzsche (also with and without Buffy St. Marie) that retains the capacity to amaze. It’s worth owning for the Jagger (“Memo From Turner”), Newman (“Dead Gone Train”), The Last Poets (“Wake Up, Niggers”), and Ry Cooder and Buffy St. Marie (“The Hashishin”) tracks alone, to say nothing of the Ry Cooder bottleneck guitar tracks (“Get Away” and “Powis Square”).