Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Barry White,
Greatest Hits

You’ve got to hand it to Love Man Barry White; his lubricious bass-baritone croon could charm the panties off anything–woman, man, antelope, albacore tuna–you name it. Hell, I bet you he could have induced sexual stimulation in a rock had he set his mind to it. There’s just something about that low flame timbre of his that makes you want to shout, “Ravish me, grossly overweight and not all that physically attractive soul man!”

Back in the seventies, the greatest Barry this side of Manilow ruled the airwaves like a weapon of mass seduction. His was a late-night, dim-the-lights, bedroom sound, and Barry wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his needs; on “Love Serenade” he sings, “I wanna see you the way you came into the world/I don’t wanna feel no clothes/I don’t wanna see no panties… “ Subtle he wasn’t. Indeed, White’s erotic entreaties bordered on comedy, and the parodists have been making hay of him for years; in an episode of The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa use Barry’s croon to lull vipers.

Musically, pop music’s biggest sex addict mixed R&B, soul, and funk, and is credited with helping to usher in the disco era with 1973’s “Love Theme,” by Barry’s backing unit The Love Unlimited Orchestra, whom The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau once hilariously dismissed as “Barry’s Jackie Gleason tribute band.”

Sadly–I love the thing myself–”Love Theme” is not included on 1975’s Barry White’s Greatest Hits, which remains the one-stop shopper’s LP of choice. Barry plays the role of sexsuasier (a French word I just made up!) to the hilt, and the mood rarely deviates from the lewdly priapic. Some of the songs sweep you along on string power alone, while others are midnight slow and give Barry the opportunity to ply his patented brand of dirty talk, but they’re all as heavy as the man himself.

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Graded on a Curve:
Humble Pie,
Smokin’

I have an unwholesome relationship with Humble Pie. It may not be as unsavory as my obsession with the impossibly déclassé Grand Funk Railroad, but still. The fact is I return again and again to Steve Marriott and Humble Pie’s refried boogie like a dog chained to its vomit, seeking in vain to be sanctified. And occasionally—as on such songs as “Beckton Dumps” and “Shut Up and Don’t Interrupt Me” off 1973’ live Eat It LP—I am. But all too often—and believe me when I say I keep trying—I’m left wondering how the electrifying former frontman of the Small Faces went so wrong when the regular-sized Faces went so right.

The answer lies, I think, in the fact that while the Faces played ‘em fast and loose with an irrepressible spirit of camaraderie and fun, Marriott—who certainly had the pipes to pull it off—wanted desperately to be a testifyin’ boogie man. While Rod the Mod and Company were getting soused on stage and having fun, serious Steve was rewriting Ike and Tina Turner’s “Black Coffee” to make clear that his skin was white but his soul was black. And unlike the Faces, who had a deceptively light touch, Marriott opted to go—for the most part at least—the hard blues route. Finally, Marriott liked to stretch ‘em out live—it gave him more time to testify, brothers and sisters—as is evident on 1971’s Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore. None of these things have helped Marriott’s posterity—everybody loves the Faces, but Humble Pie is more of a footnote and acquired taste for the kinds of tossers drawn to the Brit Blues likes of Savoy Brown, Blodwyn Pig, and the Groundhogs.

Yet I continue to turn to Humble Pie, attracted by Marriott’s astounding vocals, mean guitar work, and occasional ability to come up with a song that boogies as hard as the soulful “30 Days in the Hole” off 1972’s Smokin’, which demonstrates that Marriott had at least one borderline excellent boogie record in him. It was the song that would help make Smokin’ Humble Pie’s highest charting LP ever, and it’s a riff’n’roll triumph with lots of great vocals, some great bass by Greg Ridley, and the imaginative drumming of young Jerry Shirley. Opening cut “Hot ‘n’ Nasty”—which should not be confused with the great Black Oak Arkansas song of the same name—is one truly funkified number thanks to some powerhouse organ and excellent piano work. And Marriott’s vocals go where few vocals have gone before. And it just gets better and better as it goes along, with Marriott tossing in some splendid guitar as the song comes to a close. White boogie rarely sounded this good, or danceable for that matter.

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Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
Goodbye Yellow
Brick Road

“Ridicule,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the tribute paid to genius by mediocrities.” Such would seem to be the case with one Sir Elton Hercules John. Esteemed critic Robert Christgau once wrote him off as a “puling phony,” while Charles Shaar Murray dismissed him as “Elton Schmelton.” Even John understood he lacked respect, and jokingly told Murray, “I’m gonna become a rock’n’roll suicide, take my nasty out and piddle all over the front row, just to get rid of my staid old image.”

Elton never carried through on his threat, probably because he was too busy writing brilliant songs, more than I can count on my six hands even. Besides, who needs critical respect after scoring seven consecutive No. 1 albums in the U.S. between 1972 and 1975—a feat not even the Fab Four could beat? During those golden years, which extended from Honky Chateau to Rock of the Westies, John (in collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin) churned out hits like a one-man Brill Building, and many of them will still be around long after mankind is gone, leaving our groovy ape successors to do the Crocodile Rock.

John’s high-water mark as a songwriter was 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I consider it Elton’s masterpiece, even if The Evil One, Robert Christgau, dismissed it as “one more double album that would make a nifty single.” A concept album of sorts, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road takes a bittersweet look at a lost past, from its film stars to its dance crazes to its bovver boys in their braces and boots looking to mix it up on Saturday night.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about John’s unprecedented success is that he achieved it with Bernie Taupin—a mediocre lyricist at best, and the fourth place finisher in a 3rd grade poetry competition at worst—as a collaborator. Not only is Taupin the mook who wrote “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them/If you did,” it’s his lyrical DNA police found all over Starship’s “We Built This City,” a song so unfathomably dumb it makes Jon Anderson’s “A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace/And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace” sound like Shakespeare. That said, his lyrics on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are shockingly unterrible, and a few of them are actually quite good.

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Graded on a Curve:
Randy Newman,
12 Songs

In my mind’s eye I see Randy Newman supine on a sofa, taking an afternoon nap. Or a morning nap. Or an evening nap. It doesn’t matter. Or I see him in a comfortable armchair watching television, an old movie perhaps, or a documentary about acid rain, or an infomercial–anything at all really, he doesn’t care. He looks as blissful as a Buddha, but he’s talking it all in. Nothing escapes his amused notice. It’s all material for his fantastic songs.

Randy Newman is an unprepossessing fellow, and he likes it that way. He doesn’t worry too much about his image because in a sense he doesn’t have one–he’s spent his whole career hiding behind masks, amidst personae, inhabiting characters who aren’t Randy Newman.

I’m talking a rogue’s gallery of miscreants–whether they be wicked, deranged, pathetic, megalomaniacal, impotent, deluded, dumb but not nearly as dumb as you might think, sad, self-aware but only to a point, proud for no damn reason at all. I could go on, but suffice it to say they’re a terribly flawed bunch, and therein lies their pathos: all of them, no matter how awful, are human to a fault.

Newman gets tagged as a singer-songwriter, but singer-songwriters bare their souls; Randy’s far too reticent a soul for such confessional nonsense, and far too modest as well–Randy Newman would be the first person to tell you there’s nothing very interesting about Randy Newman. No, the label is accurate only to the extent that he writes and sings his own songs and performs a whole lot of them all by his lonesome on the piano.

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Graded on a Curve: George Harrison,
All Things Must Pass

I have been guilty of saying mean things about George Harrison in the past, most of them having to do with the lugubrious and often wimpy tenor of the ex-Beatles solo work. But I am here today, dear members of the committee, to recant. I’ve been listening to 1970’s sprawling All Things Must Pass, and while it has its share of doleful bummers, what strikes me about it now is how hard it rocks. The most anonymous Beatle could cook when he felt like it, and on All Things Must Pass he frequently felt like it, as did co-guitarists Eric Clapton and Dave Mason, and when all is said and done I’m forced to agree with critic Mikal Gilmore, who called All Things Must Pass “the finest solo work any ex-Beatle ever produced.” And its flaws make that assessment all the more remarkable.

The studio sessions were a clusterfuck, with superstars being dragooned left and right. The line-up included the players who would soon form Derek and the Dominos as well as the members of Badfinger, to say nothing of folks like Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Ginger Baker, and Gary Wright. Why, even Phil Collins played on one track. There was also extensive overdubbing, and while the production duties were formally in the hands of the mercurial Phil Spector, Harrison has said Spector required 18 cherry brandies just to BEGIN work, leaving poor George to handle much of the production himself. In addition, Harrison’s mother was dying, and he was nurturing a burgeoning heroin addiction.

Let me make it clear from the start; I’m not much for “My Sweet Lord,” the song the LP is probably best known for, nor am I wild about its companion piece, “Help Me Lord.” LP opener “I’d Have You Anytime,” which was co-written by Harrison and Bob Dylan, does nothing for me, nor do the run of the mill “Run of the Mill,” the milquetoast “I Live for You,” and the “I need love” sentimentality of “I Dig Love.” But I’ve changed my mind about the title track—it’s prettier than I remember—as well as about the Dylan cover “If Not For You,” a song whose laid back charms (great guitar riff, some nice harmonica by Harrison, catchy tambourine, etc.) had previously eluded me.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ringo Starr,
Ringo

News flash! Critic declares Ringo Starr greatest ex-Beatle! Rioting breaks out in hipster enclaves! Brooklyn in flames! Incensed Lennonites carry signs: “Michael Little = Dingbat!” Hairy Harrisonoids counsel karmic calm: “This too shall pass!” McCartney maniacs attempt to sooth selves with “Silly Love Songs”! NME headline reads: “Panned on the run!”

In my dreams. But it’s what I really believe. I really believe that Ringo Starr, who never got no respect and was the comic foil and clown of the legendary Fab Four has—over the almost four-and-a-half decades since the Beatles went the way of the Ono, er make that Dodo—produced far more genuinely likeable pop songs than any of his “genius” fellow Mop Toppers.

But first, a sordid confession. I’ve never cared much for Ringo’s old band. I can count on one hand the number of Beatles songs I really love (“Helter Skelter,” “She Said She Said,” “Hey Jude,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Let It Be”). As for most of the rest of their oeuvre, it could vanish into the void and I would never miss it. And there are plenty of songs (the dreadful “Long and Winding Road,” the hideous “Something,” and the unpalatable “Got to Get You Into My Life”) whose disappearance would make me very happy. As for the post-Beatles work of John, Paul, and George, I can think of maybe one or two (at most) songs I love by each of them. Shit, Ringo matched them with ONE single, 1971’s “It Don’t Come Easy” backed by “Early 1970,” a very funny series of good-natured jibes about his former band mates.

I always liked Ringo best because he wasn’t touted as a genius (although he’s a great drummer) by anyone. I’m an underdog guy, and Ringo was the ultimate underdog. Nobody expected much of him after the Beatles imploded, sucked into the black holes of John and Paul’s grossly oversized egos. And it isn’t as if Ringo has come through with a slew of artistic masterpieces. But since 1970 he’s put out a bunch of really cool pop songs, low brow it’s true, but I don’t give a shit where a song’s brow is (it can be a Neanderthal for all I care) if it has a good melody and I find myself singing along.

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Graded on a Curve: Nazareth,
Hair of the Dog

The Scottish clods o’ peat in this hard-working, hard-rocking man’s man band never won any originality awards, and weren’t exactly well-versed in the songwriting arts either, and given their high scunge factor, I doubt they’d even be allowed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as paying customers, much less as inductees.

They’re not going to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame anytime soon, either. Hell, they only hit two homers over the course of their long career, and their lifetime batting average is in the .233 range. Forget about Cooperstown; these guys would be lucky to earn a spot on the bench of the 1962 New York Mets.

But I’ll say this for ‘em–way back in 1975 every badass or wannabe badass in my home town was blaring Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog out of their car 8-track speakers, whether that car be a GTO or a rusted-out Ford Pinto. The title track–with its “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch”–was a blast of pure unbridled belligerence and without a doubt the orneriest cut of the summer, hell the whole year probably. Alice Cooper may have put out “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but that was play acting; Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty came on like the Real McCoy.

As for the album title, me and my buddies prided ourselves on knowing what it meant even though we’d never cracked a beer (much less suffered a hangover) in our lives–it made us feel adult, worldly even, just as that “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch” made us feel tough, when in effect we were probably the wimpiest band of geeks to ever gingerly trod the halls of Littlestown High School, on the lookout for the real sons of bitches.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Greatest Hits

So I died and went to Heaven (naturally) and who should I see as I step off that divine airline but The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. Which took me back a bit, as McGuinn is still very much alive. So I said, “Roger, sir, what are you doing here?” and he replied, “God likes my music so much he’s given me a hall pass to come and go as I please.” So I asked him what the Lord’s favorite Byrds songs are and he said, “Well, you’d think it would be ‘The Christian Life’ but he actually doesn’t like that one very much. Says it’s a straightedge bummer. No, the song that always gets him is ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’ or, if he’s been partaking of the magic mushrooms that are everywhere up here, ‘Eight Miles High.’ Says it can turn the most twisted trip into a Holiday Inn of the Mind.”

So here I am, typing this in between playing chess with Sam Cooke and drinking brandy with Richard Manuel, and basically all I want to say is that The Byrds were a great band, a very great band. Stylistically they traveled a weird but not unique road from their early days as the Jet Set, from folk rock to psychedelia to pure country to a combination of all of the above, while establishing themselves as the world’s best Dylan interpreters—so that with every new album you didn’t know what you were going to get, but you knew it would be interesting. Between the band’s extraordinary harmonies to McGuinn’s guitar tuned to the key of LSD it was hard to go wrong. And the talent! Between McGuinn (who was calling himself Jim then) and David Crosby and Gram Parsons and Gene Clark and Chris Hillman and Clarence White—all of whom passed through The Byrds at one point of another—they had enough great musicians to fill a whole wall in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And the problem with The Byrds is figuring out which album to review, because between the innovative folk rock of their first LPs, the psychedelia of their later LPs, the cosmic country of Sweetheart of the Radio, and the powerful but not so easy to categorize later albums such as The Notorious Byrd Brothers (which inexplicably features three of The Byrds and Mr. Ed on its cover) I’ll be damned if I can choose a favorite, which is why I’m reviewing The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, which is great but limited because it came out in 1967—after only four albums—and hence before they recorded some of their best songs, such as “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” “Hickory Wind,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Bad Night at the Whiskey,” and “Chestnut Mare.” It’s also too heavy on the Dylan—four songs out of ten? Come on!—but it remains the best alternative to anyone looking for a single LP overview of the band’s many transmutations.

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Graded on a Curve: Frankie Avalon,
“Beach Party” b/w
“Don’t Stop Now”

It’s easy to say snide things about Frankie Avalon. I myself have called the teen idol who first made his name as a trumpet player, then as a singer, and finally as the star of such immortal motion pictures as 1963’s Beach Party (with Annette Funicello, natch) and 1965’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (with Vincent Price) the worst thing to happen to rock’n’roll this side of the extended drum solo.

I’m being unfair of course. Avalon was just a good Italian kid from Philly who specialized in froth, didn’t have a rebellious bone in his body, and never pretended otherwise. An earnest and wholesome boy as never got hooked on heroin or attempted to reinvent himself as a pinwheel-eyed avatar of the hallucinogenic sixties, was our Frankie. But say what you will about his escapist product, Avalon has always been and will always be true to himself.

As anybody who has ever listened to “Venus” or “Why,” Avalon was a crooner whose saccharine songs sound inconceivable as teen product to anyone reared in the rock’n’roll era. Lush orchestral arrangements, choirs, you name it—Frankie’s producers liked to lard it on, and on, and on. Ah, but once, just once—and it is as glorious a moment as any in the annals of rock—Avalon said to hell with it and got down with his bad self, garage rock style.

I have no idea why. Perhaps he ate an extra-large helping of some rich Italian dessert with a touch too much sweet liqueur, say amaretto, in it. Or drank one too many (as in two) glasses of red wine. Whatever the reason, on one lost day in 1963 a real, real gone Avalon swaggered into the studio, flicked a half-smoked cigarette at some studio hack, and snapped, “Fuck the strings, Johnny, and ditch the backing singers. This is Jungleland.” And proceeded to throw his everything behind as mean as guitar as he could get his goomba (no offense meant) mitts on.

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Graded on a Curve:
Barry Manilow,
Greatest Hits

Back in the mid- to late seventies, when America was flying high thanks to the exalted stewardship of such Churchillian figures as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, one all-around entertainer bestrode the Pop World like a colossus. Men wanted him. Women wanted to be him. He floated like a god in a bubble of fame so high above the rest of us it would have taken Ted Nugent with a surface-to-air missile to bring him down to earth, and he was known to one and all as: Barry!

Seriously, friends and neighbors, who better personified the soft-rock seventies–that epoch of saccharine supremacy–than Barry Alan Pincus, aka Barry Manilow? He was stardust, he was golden. To listen to his songs was to drink from life’s enchanted cup. To see him live was the musical equivalent of pissing on an electric fence. His voice was glorious treacle. It was said that the mere sight of his perfect feathered hair could cure cancer. His sleepy bedroom eyes were known to enchant your larger farm animals, giving them the ability to speak in the voices of men–a skill he liked to show off in his live performances.

Barry WROTE the songs that defined an epoch. Okay, so he wrote hardly none of them, including “I Write the Songs,” which was penned by the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston. But so what? Jesus’s best material was penned by other people, including Brewer & Shipley, ZZ Top, The Byrds and Ministry, and He never catches any shit for it. Fact is Barry MADE those songs his own by sheer force of his iron will; he was the divine conduit through which flowed such immortal tunes as “Mandy,” “Can’t Smile Without You,” and “Copacabana (At the Copa).”

Manilow began his career as a folk singer, entertaining beatniks in such flea-ridden New York City coffeehouses as Gerde’s Folk City, the Cafe Wha? and the Greenwich Village Starbucks at the corner of Waverly Street and 5th Avenue. Said fellow folk musician Arnie Van Gleb, “They didn’t actually allow music in Starbucks, so he would sneak into the bathroom and play there. At least until they broke down the door and threw him out.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Carole King,
Tapestry

Carole King is a paradoxical figure; having begun her career as an assembly-line songwriter with then husband Gerry Goffin at the famed Brill Building, where the couple collaborated on a number of highly successful songs for other artists, she went on become an archetype of the sensitive singer-songwriter–that avatar of authenticity who wouldn’t be caught dead singing songs written in the musical world’s equivalent of an automotive factory.

King’s move from West Orange, NJ to Laurel Canyon in 1967 was more than just a geographical one; insofar as it symbolized her transformation from song craftsman for hire to soul-barer, it made King–along with the likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell–the perfect embodiment of the soul-searching Me Generation.

King’s turn toward self-expression was well in tune with the zeitgeist, as was proved by the supernatural success of her second solo album, 1971’s Tapestry. Every sensitive soul in America owned a copy, including the two spinster ladies–they were probably only in their late twenties–who ran the Catholic Youth Organization meetings I attended as a teen, that is until it finally struck me that (a) I wasn’t even Catholic, but was only there to woo my first love, and (b) could be having a much better time doing drugs.

How many nights did I listen to Tapestry while looking at the cover and thinking “Why is her hair so frizzy? Why isn’t she wearing shoes? And what is that goddamn cat’s problem?” And for a long time afterwards, having abandoned King and the school of genteel singer-songwriters in general for the electric thrills of David Bowie and Frank Zappa, I chuckled at my silly and naive thralldom to the mild comforts and gentile thrills of this snug and familiar quilt of an LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Damn Yankees,
Damn Yankees

Once a decade or so a major label release comes along that is so utterly devoid of redeeming qualities you just know it’s going to go double platinum.

Take, as object lesson, Damn Yankees, the 1990 debut album by the supposed supergroup of the same name, who took their name from a 1955 baseball film about a Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the hated Yankees, and is promptly transformed into the hitting sensation Shoeless Joe Hardy.

Combining the gonzo hard rock stylings of Styx’s Tommy Shaw, the tender romantic sensibilities of Ted “I Kill Mammals” Nugent, and the nebulous contributions of Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, Damn Yankees were hardly nobody’s idea of a rock and roll dream team. But on Damn Yankees they demonstrate a commitment to the cliché that is positively awe-inspiring, and over 10 cuts ingeniously manage to say (or play) not a single original thing.

The end result? Two million units sold and counting. Talk about your deals with the devil. Let this be an object lesson to you, young bands!

Damn Yankees is purely a cookie-cutter affair; it’s as if the boys in the band went down a list of bad rock tropes and dutifully checked off the boxes. Mega-successful suck-ass power ballad? Check. Song about a little girl lost in the big bad city entitled “Runaway”? Check. Song with the generic words “rock city” (i.e., “Rock City”) in the title? Check. Song with delicate acoustic guitars and soulful vocals kinda along the lines of “Dust in the Wind” only shittier? Check.

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Graded on a Curve:
Gary Wright,
The Very Best of
Gary Wright

Namaste, fellow seekers! And welcome back to the Vedic District and your host, Michael Paramahansa Yogananda Little! On this week’s turn of the cosmic wheel we’ll be discussing New Age seer and synthesizer-around-the-neck avatar Gary Wright, whose chakra-cleansing songs and mystical crystal revelations make him the most spiritually evolved being on our astral plane.

Wright was, arguably, pop’s first New Age musician. Forget George Harrison–who turned Wright on to Eastern religions while they were recording 1970’s All Things Must Pass–he refused to give up on rock and roll. And compared to Wright, Van Morrison and Stevie Nicks are mere earthbound materialists–the Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rands of rock, respectively.

It’s all there on the cover of The Dream Weaver, where a blissed-out Wright rests his head against what is either a telepod to other dimensions or the Findhorn Community’s very own jukebox–the man was staking his claim as the first New Age technocrat, enlisting the aid of machines to further the cause of the Harmonic Convergence.

And, boy, did Wright make a splash. Who, my fellow theosophists, can forget the Annus Mirabilis 1976, when a cosmic convergence brought us both David Spangler’s book Revelation: The Birth of a New Age and Wright’s June 11th appearance on The Midnight Special, where he cast a magickal sorcerer’s spell on an entire nation with his mesmerizing performance of “Dream Weaver”? Surely the stars were coming into alignment at last, and the Age of the Enlightened Unicorn was nigh.

Of course that exalted age never arrived, nor did Wright’s success last. But if the former Spooky Tooth keyboardist’s fleshly fame was fleeting, he has accepted it with Buddhistic resignation–having parted the veil of Maya, he knows all too well that all we are is dust in the wind. Yet he continues to mould a new reality closer to the heart with his ecstatic ectoplasmic musical emanations, which make the ideal accompaniment to both Kundalini awakening and sweatless tantric sex.

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Graded on a Curve: Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix

Ronnie Lane is a hardly a household name, but he is one of my all-time favorite rockers. Whether with the Small Faces, the large Faces, or his own band Slim Chance, Lane’s lovely and wistful voice was always a pleasure, whether he was singing sublime ballads like The Faces’ “Debris” or “Oh La La” or knocking off a hard rocker like the hilarious Faces tune “You’re So Rude.” The world didn’t know what it lost when Lane died at 51 after suffering for 21 years from multiple sclerosis. But I can tell you what it lost; a soulful and sweet soul whose bass work and vocals had an integral impact on not just one, but two great rock’n’roll bands.

Lane was a frequent collaborator with the likes of Pete Townshend, Steve Marriott, and Ronnie Wood (the two of them recorded the soundtrack to the 1972 Canadian film Mahoney’s Last Stand, and it’s a tremendous series of rave-ups despite its almost total lack of vocals). He recorded four LPs between 1970 and 1977 with Townshend, but three of them are hard-to-find tributes to their spiritual mentor Meher Baba, who lent his name to the great “Baba O’Riley.” Their fourth collaboration was Rough Mix, which was released in 1977 and featured an all-star cast that included Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Ian Stewart, Charlie Watts, King Crimson’s Boz Burrell, the ubiquitous John “Rabbit Bundrick, and Medicine Head’s Peter Hope Evans. Why, even Townshend’s father-in-law, the noted British TV and movie soundtrack composer Edwin Astley, makes an appearance. Sly Stone is right; this one’s a family affair.

Lane and Townshend eschew rock for the most part, opting instead to mine the folk-rock vein, and it works. Lane wanted to collaborate on songs with Townshend but Townshend declined, and this collection of songs by two separate songwriters has a disparate feel, which is another way of saying it’s stylistically all over the map. But what holds it together is the passion both men pour into the songs, which stray from pure folk ballads to a pair of rave-ups to a handful of songs that defy easy definition, but show that both men showed up at the sessions—this despite the fact that Lane had just discovered he was ill—at the top of their game. No throwaways, in other words, or songs they didn’t think were good enough for their primary bands—they came to record great music, not just fuck around and jam.

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Graded on a Curve:
Eric Clapton,
Unplugged

Well here you have it–the most feckless, no account, totally useless dog turd of an album it has ever been my displeasure to hear. On 1992’s Unplugged axe legend turned pop hack Eric Clapton plays the blues with far less passion and commitment than your average 94-year-old lady puts into a game of Mahjong, laying waste to “Layla” and adding his live version of “Tears in Heaven” to the short list of contenders for worst song ever in the process.

The joke’s on me, I suppose. Here I’d been begging somebody to unplug old Slowhand for years, and when they finally did I got… this monstrosity. Be careful what you wish for.

Robert Johnson–whose “Malted Milk” Clapton does a grave disservice to here–sold his soul to the devil; Clapton sold his soul–or what little was left of it–to MTV. As it turns out, one is much safer making deals with the Lord of the Underworld. But I’m not blaming MTV; its corporate heads didn’t force E.C. to go the adult contemporary, easy-listening route. The decision to sleepwalk his way through the LP’s assortment of hoary blues covers and lackluster originals was all his.

Champions of this bland excuse for an album–and there must be legion, given it’s the best-selling live album of all time–will no doubt argue that Clapton had every right to play like a guy who’s taken too many muscle relaxants, and they have a point; Clapton’s mid-1970s conversion to the easy-does-it Tulsa sound is a matter of historical record, and you can hardly fault a guy for digging the likes of Clyde Stacy and J.J. Cale.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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