Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Fall,
50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong–39 Golden Greats

The death of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith at age 60 has left me inconsolable; as a proud member of rock music’s most exclusive cult I find it hard to wrap my mind around the horrible fact that I have no more new Fall LPs to look forward to. Because the most telling thing I can say about rock’s most cantankerous, cranky, and iconoclastic artist is this: despite his age, Smith adamantly refused to rest on his laurels. He continued to produce difficult, angular, instantly recognizable, and ultimately brilliant music up until the very end.

By no means did the inimitable Mr. Smith end his days as a novelty act, reprising his greatest hits. Not that he had any greatest hits. Legendary DJ John Peel may have thought The Fall was the greatest thing since the watercress sandwich, but they never (in part because they remained a distinctly English phenomena) gained anything remotely resembling a mass following. Indeed, the title of 2004’s best-of compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong–borrowed, of course, from Elvis Presley’s LP 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong–is a self-mocking reference to this fact.

The first thing to be said about 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong–which includes both album tracks and singles from 1978 to 2003–is that there’s no way it could do the work intended. Trying to sum up The Fall in 39 songs is like trying to sum up Winston Churchill by saying he enjoyed cigars. The Fall catalogue is a sprawling beast because Mark E. Smith was a prolix artist who wasn’t happy unless he was glutting the market with studio albums, singles, EPs, live LPs, and compilations of all sorts, some of highly uneven quality but many dead brilliant. By my admittedly sloppy count The Fall released 10 records in 2005 alone. I certainly haven’t listened to everything The Fall committed to record, and I almost certainly never will. I’ll leave that to the sorts of obsessives who would otherwise be dedicating themselves full-time to trainspotting.

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Graded on a Curve:
MC5,
Kick Out the Jams

Am I the only person in the world who finds the MC5’s seminal live debut, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams, terribly overrated? No I’m not. When it came out, the late, great Lester Bangs wrote it off in Rolling Stone magazine as “ridiculous, overbearing, and pretentious.” I’ll go Lester one further. I think it’s boring.

On what sophisticated scientific basis do I adjudge Kick Out the Jams dull? Simple. I’ve listened to it some 83 times, and every time I do so I find myself drifting off mid-listen. The only tracks that keep me interested are the title cut, “Ramblin’ Rose,” and “I Want You Right Now,” and the last named only holds my attention because it sounds exactly like the Troggs’ “I Want You.” I’ve spent my whole life hearing people laud the MC5 as the second greatest proto-punk band to ever crawl out of the rubble of Detroit city. I beg to differ. I don’t listen to the MC5 and hear Iggy and the Stooges; I listen to them and hear Grand Funk Railroad. Much hipper, and with more garage in their sound, for sure, but both bands are playing hard rock. Iggy sounded like no one ever had before; the MC5 sound like America’s answer to the aforementioned Troggs.

I would be the last to deny opening cut “Ramblin’ Rose” wins in the metallic K.O. department–although I’m not a huge fan of Wayne Kramer’s falsetto vocals–or that “Kick Out the Jams” is every bit as incendiary as reported. But while the latter song’s sonic propulsion reminds me of the Stooges, Rob Tyner’s vocals have Grand Funk written all over them. And while I generally like sloppy, I think “Kick Out the Jams” could be tighter.

As for “Come Together,” it doesn’t so much come together as fall apart. There’s a melody in there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find it; no sooner am I done listening to it before I forget how it goes. It’s positively anti-memorable. And the same goes for “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa),” which despite its memorable title is eminently forgettable–a puddle of guitar ooze into which the group vocals sink without a trace. “Borderline” is all bombast and no song; the guitar is gargantuan but it takes you nowhere, while the vocals are, to borrow a phrase, all sound and fury signifying nothing. I’ll take Madonna’s “Borderline” any day.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fall,
458489 A-Sides

We remember The Fall’s Mark E. Smith who passed away on Wednesday, January 24 with a look back from our archives. —Ed.

Rock crit Robert Christgau once went on record declaring The Fall’s 1990 best-of compilation 458489 A-Sides the “only Fall record any normal person need own.” And depending on one’s definition of normal, he may be right. Certainly this would be the one I’d recommend to shut-ins, ligyrophobics, and that massive proportion of the listening public who prefer their music to be soothing as opposed to sounding like a particularly excitable day at the laughing academy.

But if by definition of normal you mean a person who has a jaundiced view of life and prefers his or her music to be at least mildly challenging—if not downright annoying with its insistence upon being heard as foreground noise rather than background buzz and hum—there are plenty of Fall records that are must-owns. These include 1981’s incomparable “Slates” EP, 1982’s seminal Hex Enduction Hour, 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and 2005’s Fall Heads Roll. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the Fall’s formidable discography.

The Fall recipe of songwriting is simple. First, hand village crank Mark E. Smith a microphone. The long-suffering curmudgeon is the band’s only permanent member, and his definition of said band is memorable. “If it’s me and your grandma on the bongos,” he has said, “it’s the Fall.” But where were we? Oh, yes. First, hand a microphone to the irritable Mr. Smith, who is both a true individualist and misanthropist. And second, let him spew great gouts of indecipherable poetry and hurl strange incantations over one form of droning caterwaul or another. This homemade recipe has been working since the late 1970s, and continues to work to this very day. Because Mark E. Smith is holding a grudge, and that grudge is against society. Or life. Or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Smith is dedicated to rattling life’s cage in as irritable and noisy a manner as possible.

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Graded on a Curve: Chicago, Chicago

1970 was a dark year in American history. Students opposed to the Vietnam War were being gunned down by the National Guard at Kent State. Richard Nixon was ordering the invasion of Cambodia. U.S. soldiers were massacring the people of My Lai. Hard hats were attacking student demonstrators protesting Kent State. The first Ford Pinto was rolling off the assembly line, just itching to explode.

But I have saved the worst for last. On January 26, 1970 the band Chicago (shortened from the original Chicago Transit Authority) released its sophomore album, Chicago (or Chicago II as it’s sometimes royally called; these guys didn’t put out albums, they put out successors to the throne). There are atrocities and then there are atrocities, and this double LP of “horn-based rock,” upped a notch for awful on the basis of its classical pretensions, is about as atrocious as they come. The Weathermen were then in the business of blowing things up. Why they didn’t blow up this clear threat to public safety is beyond me.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m prejudiced; from Electric Flag to Blood Sweat & Tears right on down to the lesser-known likes of Cold Blood and The Ides of March, I have always assiduously avoided rock bands with horn sections of the sort that don’t just jump in and wail, but play careful, jazz-inflected arrangements that stand front and center in virtually every song. Never put the horns up front is my motto; you’ll end up sounding like a precociously good high school jazz band.

I’m not opposed to horns in my rock’n’roll; I simply don’t want to listen to a rock band whose chief sources of inspiration are the big bands of Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey. It’s sordid and unhip; I can’t listen to Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago without imagining them stinting at some garish showroom in a Vegas casino, wowing the socks off the high-rolling Middle American squares out for an “edgy” night of “toe-tapping musical entertainment” designed to allow them to tell themselves, ‘I’m hip! I just saw Chicago!”

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Graded on a Curve:
Ian Dury &
The Blockheads,
Laughter

You have to wonder how this album came to be called Laughter. The sessions that produced it were stressful and marked by discord; Chaz Jenkel was gone and personalities clashed. Ian Dury, who was juggling addictions at the time, was, by all accounts, almost impossible to work with. The subject matter is often dark, and very dark at that. So why the incongruous title? Said England’s most foul-mouthed polio victim matter of factly at a later date: “I called it Laughter to cheer myself up.”

That said, I have this to say about 1980’s Laughter; it never fails to make me laugh. Which is to say Laughter isn’t such an ironic title after all. Even at his most lugubrious Dury–who was, and will likely always remain, England’s most lovable vulgarian–cheers me up, and that’s a rare gift. Down in the mouth Dury may have been, but he hadn’t lost his cheek, and he still managed to produce an album chockfull of dance friendly grooves and happy-making pub rock sing-alongs. So what if “Uncoolohol” is a dark ode to the perils of alcoholism; I spent plenty an alcoholic night cheerfully slurring along to its rousing chorus while falling down drunk. Laughter is not unlike one of the later Beatles albums; John and Paul may well have hated one another’s guts, but you’d never know it listening to the music.

I have my favorites on Laughter. LP opener “Sueperman’s Big Sister” (that’s no typo) is all swing, strings, and vocal bluster–a funky dance floor raver that will simply sweep you off your feet. “Dance of the Crackpots” comes at you in a rush; Dury can hardly get the words out of his mouth fast enough. Harmonica and some great tap dancing by Will Gaines transform Dury into a mad square dance caller; he name drops Thelonious Monk and Rosemary Clooney, and utters the Inspirational verse: “Being daft is a therapy craft/Which sharpens up your wits.” “(Take Your Elbow Out of the Soup) You’re Sitting on the Chicken” is sheer joy to the ears, what with its mental nursery rhyme lyrics (“The mouse runs up your leg/It’s one o’clock in China”) and chorus you simply have to join in on.

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Graded on a Curve:
Donovan,
Sunshine Superman

Scottish born Donovan Leitch went from folkie fop to Flower Power avatar as fast as you can say Mickie Most, and by so doing became “the voice” of “Swinging London” in our Year of the Lord 1966. He brought America’s West Coast psychedelic sound to England’s green and pleasant land, one-upping his pals in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the process. A pretty cheeky move, one has to admit, for the feckless lad Bob Dylan more or less savaged in Don’t Look Back.

Donovan’s first stab at freaking out was 1966’s Sunshine Superman, and it would be nice to report that it’s a stone-cold psychedelic classic from beginning to end. Alas, the same man who was pioneering the sitar sound and dayglo imagery was still nurturing Medieval fantasies, and the latter constitute jarring interruptions in what is otherwise one groovy slab of vinyl. But not even “Guinevere” and “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” (written for Brian Jones’ girlfriend Linda Lawrence) can spoil the lysergic fun, and on “Season of the Witch” Donovan might as well be a soothsayer; its ominous vibe literally catapults us three long years into the future, when Altamont and Charles Manson would forever harsh the universal peace and love buzz. “It’s strange,” sings our Donovan looking over his shoulder, before going on to say cryptic things about how you have to pick up every stitch. Very spooky number what with that eerie organ and portentous bass line, and just what are those rabbits in the ditch running from any way? That great chicken-scratch guitar, maybe?

The title track is a slinky homage to getting really, really bent, and its sinuous contours, funky percussion, and rubber band bass are the perfect complements to Donovan’s cock-sure vocals. Studio ace Jimmy Page nails down a near-perfect guitar solo, Donovan brags that “Superman and Green Lantern/Ain’t got nothin’ on me,” and there’s a reason this baby soared, cape and all, to the top of the U.S. pop charts. It’s a perfect piece of sunny psychedelia and it’s brimming over with the kind of self-assurance that can only come out of a capsule. “The Trip” is every bit as LSD inspired, and succeeds despite the lack of guitar pyrotechnics being engaged in by Donovan’s American compadres. “What goes on, I really wanna know,” sings Donovan, more or less channeling (talk about your time travel!) the future Lou Reed. The lyrics are Dylan gone Merlin mythical, which for some reason I don’t find irksome, perhaps because Donovan also tosses in LA, a white straw chair, methedrine, the devil, and a talking seagull. And one Bobby Dylan, coincidentally enough. As for the instrumental breakdown, it’s to die for.

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Graded on a Curve: Professor Longhair,
Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo

Where to start when talking about the music of Professor Longhair, given name Henry Roeland Byrd? His piano makes you want to do a crazy 3 a.m. strut down Bourbon Street. And his vocals–which quaver and wander willy-nilly off pitch–make you want to smile. A voice like his is one in a million; not so hot you think, until you find yourself knee-deep in glad.

Professor Longhair created the distinctive “New Orleans sound,” which Allen Toussaint called “that mambo-rhumba boogie thing.” Dr. John, who has made hay from the good Professor’s musical innovations, said Longhair “put funk into music… Longhair’s thing had a direct bearing on a large portion of the funk music that evolved in New Orleans.” But enough with the ethnomusicology; suffice it to say that Longhair was one of America’s great originals, with a distinctive style of playing piano developed, it’s worth noting, out of necessity–he learned how to play on a piano with missing keys.

But Professor Longhair is isn’t just a piano original. His vocals–sly, insinuating, and delivered with a wink–are ingratiating, that is when he doesn’t sound flat-out demented, as he does on the great “Tipitina.” Whether meandering off pitch like a drunk staggering down Bourbon Street at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday night or coming off like a deranged Elvis Presley, Professor Longhair’s singing will keep you on the edge of your seat–he’s the most unpredictable singer this side of Black Oak Arkansas’ wild pitch throwing Jim “Dandy” Mangrum.

Everything about Professor Longhair is improbable–he got his start with a band called the Shuffling Hungarians, for Christ’s sake. The toughest part of my job was choosing which album to review: 1972’s New Orleans Piano, which compiles music recorded by Atlantic Records between 1949 and 1953, and includes the original (and definitive) “Tipitina?” 1980’s Crawfish Fiesta, which is nothing less than the good Professor’s final LP and as great a Longhair album as any? Both are indispensable, but I went with 1972’s Rock ’n’ Roll Gumbo, because it includes a whole parcel of great songs including “Tipitina,” “Junco Partner,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” and “Mean Ol’ World.” To say nothing of a tasty version of “Jambalaya.” The damn LP does nothing less than swagger, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown is sitting in on guitar.

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Graded on a Curve: Motörhead,
Ace of Spades

We remember Motörhead’s “Fast Eddie” Clarke who passed away on Wednesday, January 10 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Well, the impossible has transpired. Lemmy Kilmister is dead. I was convinced he was immortal, but he finally drew the Ace of Spades, and is no doubt in Hades as I write this, turning the Dark One on to some good old-fashioned amphetamine-fueled biker bar jukebox rock’n’roll. And the Dark One is undoubtedly crouched in a corner with his fingers in his ears, wishing Lemmy (vain hope!) would turn it down a notch.

Motörhead’s 1980 LP Ace of Spades—the band’s fourth—is without a doubt my all-time favorite proto-thrash LP, or any metal album for that matter, and the world would be unimaginable without it. It’s a nonstop blitzkrieg of raunch’n’roll, what with its high velocities and Lemmy’s hoarse croak; this isn’t just speed metal, it’s an 18-wheeler with no brakes descending a steep grade straight to Hell. Lemmy sings about all his favorite memes: poker (although in real life he preferred the slots), jailbait, drugs and more drugs, high-speed driving, burning hotels, and making the audience’s ears bleed.

In short, it’s the ferocious salvo of a band led by a fiercely independent spirit who got kicked out of Hawkwind for, as he himself put it, “doing the wrong drugs.” To which I can only say, if the drugs that produced this album are wrong, I don’t want to be right. It’s possibly the perfect album with the exception of “Dance,” which will pound you like a deranged gorilla but boasts a very un-Lemmy set of lyrics about, well, dancing. Me, I don’t want to hear Lemmy sing encomiums to dancing—I want him to sing about how he, as he puts it in the great “Jailbait,” “loves that young stuff,” thereby joining in the select company of Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Bill Wyman, and assorted others.

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Graded on a Curve: Creedence
Clearwater Revival,
Cosmo’s Factory

During a recent crawl down Bourbon Street in New Orleans I heard a lot of mangy cover bands manhandle a lot of my favorite songs. Was I outraged? Hell no. I enjoyed every minute of it. There’s nothing I love more than listening to a band of barely competent rock ‘n’ roll discards–I’m a rock ‘n’ roll discard myself–butcher the classics. My only regret is I didn’t hear a single one of them do their honorable worst to Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Because I loves me some Creedence. During the psychedelic era, when just about everybody else was jamming away ad infinitum to songs about peace, love, and sundry other species of Aquarian bullshit, CCR’s John Fogerty was writing unfashionably short songs as tightly wound as Swiss clocks about dread and menace. He saw bad moons rising, wondered who was going to stop the rain, and warned that when you’re running through the jungle, it’s best not to look back. And unlike, say, the Velvet Underground, his songs were immensely radio friendly–they might as well have come equipped with payola. J. Fogerty is that rarest of all creatures, a natural-born hitmaker, and a hitmaker of such prolixity that Creedence fell into the habit of releasing double A Sides. You have to write a lot of damn good songs to be that cocky.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was, with the arguable exception of the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead, the premier American band of their era, and on 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory–the band’s fifth album in two years, amazingly enough–CCR hit their creative zenith. On it Fogerty makes writing great songs look dizzyingly simple; only 2 of its 11 songs fall short of indispensable, and they’re both covers. The rest of ‘em are stone cold classics, and they range from monumental covers (the 11-minute “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which is less a jam than a carefully structured exercise in locking down a groove) to a foray into friendly lysergic-country pastoralism (“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”) to a note-perfect Little Richard tribute (“Travelin’ Band”). And I could go on.

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Graded on a Curve:
Uriah Heep,
Demons and Wizards

Who was it who said, “He came to mock, but remained to pray?” It doesn’t matter. But such was the case–to a degree any way–when I decided to “relisten” to Uriah Heep. I’ve always loved “Easy Livin’,” but when I was but a teenage droogie I plunked down some hard-earned money for a Uriah Heep 8-track that quickly made its way to the bottom of my 8-track pile. And I haven’t thought of them, except to chuckle at their risible swords and sorcery pretensions, since.

So imagine my surprise when I turned on 1972’s Demons and Wizards–chortle, chortle–only to discover I rather liked the thing. Sure, the lyrics are the work of somebody who has spent far too much time amongst hobbits. And David Byron’s histrionic tonsils–his voice has more octaves than there are steps on the stairway to heaven–occasionally make Geddy Lee sound like Paul Rodgers. But I’ll be damned if Demon and Wizards doesn’t have something up its sleeve–namely some good songs featuring some dandy playing. It’s not some progressive rock nightmare, it’s a rock ’n’ roll album, at least in its better moments, and Demons and Wizards has plenty of very good moments.

Demons and Wizards is fantasy-drenched right down to its head shop cover art by the infamous Roger Dean, and I expected to hate it for that reason alone. There’s nothing I despise more than your standard dungeons and dragons imagery, and Demons and Wizards has all the makings of a dungeon torture device. Things start inauspiciously enough; LP opener “The Wizard” boasts some awful lyrics featuring “a magic man” who wears “a cape of gold,” and I wanted to call it a day right then and there. Then I realized “The Wizard” might as well be a Styx song, and I have a perverse liking for Styx. There was, absurdly, hope in the air.

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