Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Von Lmo,
Future Language

Futurists, extraterrestrials, and fans of the NASA space program pay heed–Von Lmo is calling!

Never heard of him–or the band that bears his name–you say? Well, that’s because Mr. Lmo split our planet for good sometime in the late nineties for greener pastures in the Ork Nebula, and isn’t the kind of guy who writes letters. And even if he were, the Intergalactic Postal Service sucks.

But lucky for us Von Lmo–who sometimes said he was born in Brooklyn to Sicilian parents, and sometimes claimed to be an emigre from the planet Strazar–left behind some really fabulous no-wave-tinged space rock, much of it to be found on his 1981 debut Future Language. If your idea of cool is a slew of hard-driving songs featuring lots of great fuzz guitar and savage sax skronk, Future Language is a must-own that makes Devo sound like a buncha new wave lightweights.

Von Lmo’s champions over the years have included the critic Chuck Eddy, musician and psychedelic rock archivist Julian Cope (of course), and Alan Vega of Suicide, who saw Von Lmo do his thing at Max’s Kansas City and concluded, “I was afraid to be in the same room with him.” It doesn’t pay to be alone with an extraterrestrial.

And Von Lmo deserves its champions because Future Language is a lost classic and real space oddity. Imagine an unholy fusion of Pere Ubu, Krautrock, and Steppenwolf, toss in some Iggy and the Stooges and a dash of Fear, and what you have is a great post-punk record that sounds like no other post-punk record under the Strazarian Sun.

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Graded on a Curve:
Def Leppard,

Hello music fans! You’re joining me here live from lovely Pyongyang, North Korea, where I’m about to sit down with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, who is about to make a big musical announcement!

And here comes Kim now, ready to verbally spar in a glittering WWE wrestling jacket and tights, a baby tiger cradled in his arms! What chubby charisma! What a dazzling smile! It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who had a mid-sized city executed for sneezing during one of his 5-1/2-hour speeches!

A palace lackey seats us in two very uncomfortable solid-gold chairs, another palace lackey brings Kim his jade bong and baggy filled with primo Godfather OG, and after we both take a couple of hits and I get very, very paranoid, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

You don’t plan to have me killed, do you?

Ha, ha. Never. You are my favorite Western Rock Critic. Your extremely positive review of Christopher Cross echoed many of my own insights on the genius who brought us “Sailing.” We Christopher Cross fans must stick together.

So what’s the big announcement?

For many years I have banned Western Music. It is decadent, serves no propaganda purpose, and makes people dance. North Korea is like the town of Bomont, and I will not put up with any Kevin Bacon-like footlooseness. Such counter-revolutionary hijinks could undermine my very cool Cult of Personality.

That said, I have given my personal okay to certain types of Western Music over the years. My all-female military ensemble The Morenbong Band has been known to play the theme from my favorite movie Rocky, for example. I cannot watch Sylvester Stallone triumph against adversity without crying, and then killing anyone who has witnessed me crying. I’ve tragically lost many beloved family members in this manner.

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Graded on a Curve: Public Image Ltd.,
The Flowers of Romance

Talk about your careering; John Lydon upset the rock ’n’ roll apple cart forever with the Sex Pistols, made a pioneering post-punk statement with Public Image Ltd.’s First Issue, and took existential dread to new heights with the dub-wise Metal Box, and I was with him all the way.

Ah, but then came 1981’s The Flowers of Romance, and it brought me up short. With bassist Jah Wobble gone Lydon said to hell with the dub experiments and doubled down on the percussion, and released one of the least listener friendly LPs you ever will hear. The Flowers of Romance’s severe, musique concrète-cluttered soundscapes are daring, no doubt about it–Lydon made no concessions or compromises whatsoever in pursuit of his musical vision, and this LP is as radical a statement in its way as Never Mind the Bollocks was in its.

The problem, at least for me, is that the LP is interesting in a way I don’t find very interesting, and challenging in a way I don’t find very rewarding. The devil’s in the details on such musical drags as “Phenagen,” “Track 8,” and “Hymie’s Him,” but picking them out isn’t much fun–I hate to use the word boring, but it’s the word that springs to mind.

Public Image Ltd. came up the loser when Jah Wobble left and Lydon decided to dispense with the bass altogether, and the proof is on the refreshingly propulsive “Banging the Door,” on which Keith Levene condescends to play the instrument. It alone packs the oomph of good rock ’n’ roll, and while it’s true that Lydon wasn’t out to make rock ’n’ roll music–probably thought it was dead and saw himself as a citizen of some brave new world trying to produce something new from the rubble–those of us who still detected signs of life in the beast can hardly be blamed for checking out.

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Graded on a Curve:
Minor Threat,
Complete Discography

I’m straightedge! My Stay Clean t-shirt is straightedge! My cat won’t even touch catnip because he’s fucking straightedge! My kitchen table is straightedge! I don’t drink, smoke or shoot pool because I’m straightedge! I haven’t smiled in six years because I’m straightedge! I don’t laugh at jokes because I’m straightedge! And I’m totally pissed off at the wall and everything else because I’m straightedge! Come to think of it, I’m so fucking straightedge I can’t stand it! Do you think a beer might help?

Ah, but let’s be serious for a moment. Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat has always been a conundrum to me. Their patented brand of hardcore was the catchiest and most abrasive this side of early Black Flag, and by far the purest; Greg Ginn’s guitar lent Black Flag what can only be called an art rock touch, one that Ian MacKaye and Company had no use for whatsoever.

In short, when it came to the hardcore medium Minor Threat were the shit, and if you like hardcore as much as I do what could be the problem? The answer, of course, was the message: MacKaye famously used the band’s songs as platforms for his straightedge philosophy, and unless you’re a fan of the kinds of strident moralizing that made Cotton Mather such a well-spring of human warmth, Ian’s preaching was, well, off-putting. Especially if you enjoyed the sorts of extracurricular activities (drinking, smoking, fucking, smiling) that MacKaye seemed to find so reprehensible.

On such straightedge anthems as “Straightedge” and “Out of Step” Minor Threat took direct aim at people like me, and I couldn’t help but push back. It did not escape my notice that puritanism didn’t seem to make MacKaye very happy, and it certainly didn’t imbue him with a sense of humor–rage was his metier, and he unlike a lot of other angry young hardcore types he wasn’t about to leaven it with a welcome touch of levity. In short, he was a puritan, and being a puritan ain’t supposed to be fun.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ram Jam, Ram Jam

Hey Hard Rock Kids! Confused by the intricate musical complexities of Bad Company? Not a fan of Foghat because so far as you’re concerned they play math rock? Well have I got the Neanderthals for you!

I’m talking about Ram Jam, who played a brand of hard rock so stripped down it made the Troggs sound like baroque chamber music. NYC’s Ram Jam appeared on the music scene just as punk was exploding in that city, but you won’t find any punk in their DNA, and if you think punk was a primitive rock form, well, compared to the Ramones these guys sound like a bunch of cave men beating on rocks with other rocks.

Ram Jam are best remembered for the 1977 sorta-hit, “Black Betty.” In fact it’s the only thing they’re remembered for, and if you’re lucky you don’t remember it at all. Their pitiless pummeling of a defenseless Leadbelly tune is either stupid and annoying or pure dumb fun, depending on whether your idea of fun is singing “Whoa, Black Betty, bam-ba-lam” over and over again.

Me, I don’t even like it as kitsch, but I’m far less hostile to their debut LP as a whole. There’s something almost endearing about this cave man quartet’s dedication to keeping it simple, and I’ll be damned if a couple of its brainless melodies and atavistic sentiments don’t jump out at you–”Keep Your Hands on the Wheel” sounds like an unholy fusion of Mott the Hoople and Brownsville Station, and how can you go wrong?

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Graded on a Curve:
Bee Gees,
Best of Bee Gees

Look: Everybody, and I’m including Inuits, that deaf dumb and blind kid who plays pinball, and people who live in yurts, should own 1967’s Bee Gees 1st. Its psychedelic pop will blow your mind and that’s an unreconstituted fact.

And if you’ve got the scratch you should probably own its follow-ups Horizontal, Idea, and Odessa too. But if you’re a cheap bastard like me or just not a huge fan you can’t go wrong with 1969’s Best of Bee Gees, a crackerjack compilation of their singles from 1966-1969.

Best of Bee Gees hardly does full justice to their early days, mind you–singles are just singles and you’ll look for such great deep cuts from Bee Gees 1st as “Turn of the Century” and “Red Chair, Fade Away” in vain–but if you’re looking for a succinct comp that doesn’t include their disco era work, this 12-cut distillation is essential.

But this is dry, pedantic stuff, so let’s get down to the real point I want to make: The Early Brother Gibbs were God. They wrote gorgeous songs, sang like blissful castrati, and got that groovy psychedelic vibe down just right, and they did it all despite the fact that they were raised by dingos in the remote vastness of the Australian outback.

It’s true. In 1960 a roving group of ethnomusicologists/camel rustlers discovered the three brothers living in naked, fece-stained squalor inside a meteor impact crater, singing Gregorian chants in perfect harmony. Within the year they’d learned human speech and formed their first group and the rest, as they say, was history.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Time Out of Mind

Lots of supposedly sane folks shouted “Masterpiece!” when Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came out in 1997; Elvis Costello, to pick a seemingly sober-minded celebrity name out of a hat, said, “I think it might be the best record he’s made.”

Hoo ha, said I. Sure, Time Out of Mind was a marked–no, make that very marked–improvement on the rather desultory couple of albums he’d released before it. So if you wanted to call it a resounding comeback, that was fine by me.

But masterpiece? Forget about it.

Well, time has softened me some. I still wouldn’t call Time Out of Mind a masterpiece–so far as I’m concerned Dylan stopped producing them in the mid-seventies, at latest. But it includes at least one song that stands with the very best of his work and a couple of others that are pretty damn good, and that’s not bad for an artist who was born before America entered WWII.

And the album as a whole is noteworthy for its unremittingly dark tone. Dylan sounds lost, desperate even; love makes him sick and has him all mixed up, things are disintegrating, and while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there. This baby is one long twilight stroll through the graveyard of Dylan’s mind, and he’s not whistling; he taking a reckoning, and wondering whether the journey was worth the cost.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lady Gaga, “Poker Face”

I’ll be the first to admit I sold Lady Gaga short when she detonated like a hyper-sexualized glitter bomb on the pop scene with her 2008 debut LP The Fame. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta sounded like a brazen Madonna copycat to me, and if there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s a cheap Lower East Side Madonna knock-off. Ms. Ciccone and I go back too far.

Ah, but then her Gaganess sat down for an interview with Vanity Fair, and said an astounding and wonderful thing. Namely, “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina.”

I mean, wow. Those words hit me like a diamond bullet smack in the third eye. Because NOBODY who says crazy shit like that can be written off as fake goods. No, I knew right then and there that Lady Gaga was a stone American original, and deserving of the kind of same degree of unwavering respect as the Dali Lama, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Kanye “This hat makes me feel like Superman!” West.

Why, I haven’t heard such naked honesty since Little Richard said, “The only thing I like better than a big penis is a bigger penis.” And with her refreshing candidness in mind I promptly sat down to listen to Lady Gaga with new ears.

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Graded on a Curve: Badfinger, Timeless… The Musical Legacy

Talk about your bad mojo. It would be hard to find a band with as tragic a back-story as Badfinger, not one of whom, but two, of its original members hanged themselves. And this despite a string of at least five timeless tunes, and plenty of other good songs to boot. The problem is that corrupt management—in the form of the New York mob-connected Stan Polley—made off with the bulk of the band’s profits, leaving Badfinger’s members practically penniless. It proved to be too much for the band’s songwriting team, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, leaving Badfinger to be remembered as much for its morbid history as its status as a great power pop band, England’s answer to The Raspberries.

The quartet formed in Swansea, Wales in 1961 as The Iveys. After much struggling they found themselves part of Apple Records’ stable of artists and hit pay dirt with “Come and Get It,” a Paul McCartney written and produced record, at which juncture they changed their name to Badfinger, supposedly after an early iteration of “With a Little Help From My Friends” entitled “Bad Finger Boogie,” so named because an injured McCartney was reduced to using one finger. They then proceeded to produce a number of hits, but saw no money, and their subsequent career saw them become pop stars without a dime to call their own.

But what a legacy they left behind! It’s not all here on Timeless… The Musical Legacy (you owe it to yourself to also check out 1990’s The Best of Badfinger, Vol. 2, which includes such great tunes as “Just a Chance” and “Shine On”) but it’s a powerhouse record nonetheless, and convincing proof that Badfinger was more, and much more, than the band that brought us the delectable “Day After Day.”

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Graded on a Curve: Ramones, Ramones

It’s easy to take this the Ramones’ landmark 1976 self-titled debut too seriously. Sure, it signaled a seismic shift in rock music, exploding like an M80 in the minds of every cretinous young thing who’d had it up to here with the pompous, bloated likes of ELP, Queen, and the Eagles. And sure, this baby is often celebrated as the first real punk rock LP.

But so far as declarations of war go, Ramones is a hilarious one. On it the most famous band to ever come out of Forest Hills, Queens state their demands (they wanna be your boyfriend and they wanna sniff some glue; they don’t wanna go down to the basement and they don’t wanna walk around with you), dabble with fascism (“I’m a Nazi schatze”), and beat on the brat with a baseball bat.

The Ramones weren’t the first NYC band to give voice to the inchoate yearnings of teengenerates everywhere; the Dictators got there first with 1975’s Go Girl Crazy!, and they deserve their due. But unlike Handsome Dick Manitoba and Company the Ramones got their yucks playing their songs at tempos that boggled the imagination; I saw the Ramones early on, without having ever heard a single note of their music, and the experience bordered on the traumatic.

The songs–which segued one into the other with nary a pause–went by at an insane, buzzsaw blur that night, obfuscating what is obvious to anyone who listens to the album now–that the Ramones mated their 160 beats per minute ferocity to an impeccable pop sense that gives many of these songs the loving feel of good bubblegum.

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Graded on a Curve:
Queen, “We Are the Champions” b/w
“We Will Rock You”

Greetings, fellow totalitarians! Have I got the single for you! I’m talking some real Triumph of the Will shit! The real Blitzkrieg Bop! You’ve heard of arena rock? Well I’m talking Nuremberg Rally rock! Seriously–if this baby had been around in Hitler’s day, he’d have played the living fuck out of it!

In 1977 Queen declared themselves the champions of the world, and they did so via this two-sided monolith that has everything in common with totalitarian architecture. “We Are the Champions” (the A-side) and “We Will Rock You” (just flip the damn thing over) crushed the competition by means of pure jackboot stomp, and like your best Nazi architecture were custom-designed (Albert Speer would be proud) to convey iron fist power, brute virility, and sheer truncheon force. This ain’t combat rock; it’s Mechanized Mood Music for the Fourth Reich. And what I want to know is, where is Winston Churchill when we need him?

“We Will Rock You” would make the perfect soundtrack for invading Poland, and “We Are the Champions” the perfect song to play while popping a champagne cork atop the still smoking rubble of Warsaw. Of course nobody invades Poland nowadays–damned political incorrectness has ruined everything–so “We Are the Champions” became the theme song of every high school football team in America (and sports teams everywhere else) instead.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Aren’t you making too much of a pair of big, dumb, rabble-rousing anthems you can’t help but sing along with? Whatcha gonna do next? Write off Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” as Nazi agitprop?”

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Graded on a Curve: Hamell on Trial,
The Night Guy at The Apocalypse Profiles of
a Rushing Midnight

Welcome to the Apocalypse. No, I’m not talking about the End of Days. I’m talking about that mythical taproom perched somewhere between heaven and hell (I would situate in somewhere in the environs of Detroit) where every day is Judgement Day and harsh punishment is meted out to the evilest motherfuckers amongst us.

The night guy at the Apocalypse is the proudly foul-mouthed anti-folk saboteur Edward Hamell aka Hamell on Trial, who has been proudly offering up his unique blend of acoustic punk, spoken word agitprop since 1989 or thereabouts.

And we’re lucky to have Ed there, because he just so happens to be the best American storyteller this side of John Darnielle. Ed hears all, sees all, and tells all in his brand spanking new Saustex Records release The Night Guy at the Apocalypse Profiles of a Rushing Midnight, and let me just state from the outset that he has some harrowing yarns to spin.

Forget about Charles Bukowski; Hamell’s darkly hilarious tall tales of brutal revenge, crimes both small-time and large, dysfunctional love, and drug- and alcohol-fueled mayhem are a million miles away from America’s original barfly’s quotidian tales of ordinary madness. At the Apocalypse people get taken out in some not so very pretty ways, but don’t get too disturbed–they really, and I mean really, have it coming.

Hamell has been down the road of addiction and he remembers everything; the junkies and hookers and petty criminals, the bar fights and the fucked-up heists, the way shit has of always going south. Hamell emerged from hell a man of conscience; I don’t know anyone who’s angrier about the injustice we see all around us, or who so despises the power mongers, hypocrites, and all-around assholes who wield the levers of power in Donald Trump’s America.

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Graded on a Curve:
Player, Player

Do you remember Player? They were, without a doubt, the sleekest vessel in the Yacht Rock marina. Unlike many of the other soft rock artists of the time they actually looked like rock stars, which is more than you can say about Christopher Cross, England Dan and John Ford Coley, and Michael McDonald.

Unfortunately, this California quartet’s rock star sheen only took it so far; Player may not have been one-hit wonders, but most folks would be hard pressed to remember them for anything but 1977’s No. 1 hit “Baby Come Back.” And while the band would record a number of LPs, none of them scored big but their eponymous 1977 debut.

On Player the band put its MOR pop craft to uninspired but more than competent use; if your idea of good music is substandard Steely Dan, you owe it to yourself to run out and buy this record. Player’s 10 cuts are pleasantly unremarkable, vapidly unobjectionable with only one or two exceptions, and hard to hate if you have a single soft rock bone in your body. I have several.

Romance, of course, is the album’s theme; boy loves-hates-wants-loses-misses girl was the wind that set sail to every boat in the Yacht Rock flotilla. Does Player have anything novel or interesting to say on the subject? Of course not. On the ersatz funky and very bass heavy “Love Is Where You Find It” they at least find a unique musical setting for their very unoriginal sentiments, but other than that they might as well be one of those Hallmark cards that plays a song when you open it up.

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Graded on a Curve: Jefferson Airplane,
Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969

The recent passing of Marty Balin puts me in an awkward situation–how do I eulogize a man I’ve been poking fun at for years?

Every year I tastelessly commemorate the anniversary of Altamont as “Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day,” but not because I disliked the man; fact is his work with the Jefferson Airplane brings me a lot of joy. As for his later years, he provided some much-needed yucks; his conflation of vagina with ultimate reality in “Miracles” (“I got a taste of the real world/When I went down on you”) always cracks me up, as does his wonderfully awful performance on “We Built This City.” But mock him as I might, Balin was a key member of one of the most important bands to emerge from the ballrooms of San Francisco’s psychedelic scene in the days leading up to the Summer of Love.

The Jefferson Airplane might not have had the mad improvisational skills of the Grateful Dead–you won’t find any 48-minute renditions of “Somebody to Love”–and they’ve left a fainter footprint on the counterculture than Jerry, Bobby et al. But Balin and Grace Slick were THEE VOICES of the acid experience in the late sixties, and on songs like “White Rabbit” the Airplane communicated the sheer visceral weirdness of LSD in a way the Dead never did.

And the archival treasure that is 2007’s Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969 captures the Airplane at their most fiery–and inconsistent. Recorded on November 28 and 29, 1969 in the city that never sleeps, this baby may disappoint fans of the early, folk-rocking Airplane, and offend those who don’t want to hear their faves played at warp speed. In short, if it’s subtlety you’re looking for, forget about it–on this live one from the vaults the Jefferson Airplane sound lean, mean, and very, very ready to trample their audience underfoot.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jo Jo Gunne,
Jo Jo Gunne

Everybody knows Jay Ferguson, the one-hit wonder who bequeathed us the great “Thunder Island.” Some will remember that he got his start in Randy California’s Spirit. But how many also know that, bookended between his days with Spirit and his checkered career as a solo artist, he was both the creative spark and voice of the band Jo Jo Gunne?

Jo Jo Gunne–the four-piece that Ferguson and Matt Andes founded following their departure from Spirit–seemed destined for big things; David Geffen, who had mad ears, made them the second act he signed to his Asylum Records label.

But Jo Jo Gunne took one very wrong turn on their way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and too bad, says I, because the quartet’s 1972 eponymous debut is a bona fide lost (albeit minor) masterpiece. Part of the problem could have been that Jo Jo Gunne resisted easy categorization; they usually get filed under hard rock, but one listen to Jo Jo Gunne is enough to dispel the notion.

I detect glimmers of American Glam, a few tinges of barstool blues, some Winters brothers, and even the Jackson 5, and these disparate echoes undoubtedly made Jo Jo Gunne a very hard band to pigeonhole–and sell.

Don’t get me wrong; the boys have some hard rock in ‘em, as they prove on the very, very dumb (sample lyric: “Oh you know you’re so bony/You smile like a pony”) but very, very crunchy “I Make Love.” Andes kicks out the jams on guitar, and you’ll never guess it was the lightweight dude who gave us “Thunder Island” who’s singing. And Mark Andes (on bass) and William “Curly” Smith (on drums) produce a real din.

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