Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Assorted Artists,
Television’s Greatest Hits: 65 TV Themes!
From the 50’s and 60’s

The 1950s and ‘60s were a golden age of television. There was zero drug use, no filthy language, and nobody got to second base. Heady times indeed, if you were a puritan. But the theme songs! They were great! And wouldn’t you like to hear them again, all together in one place? Well you can, thanks to TVT’s invaluable 1985 compilation Television’s Greatest Hits: 65 TV Themes! From the 50’s and 60’s. And I’m here today with everybody’s favorite talking horse, Mr. Ed, who’s on a nationwide tour to promote the album.

Are you ready to answer some questions, Mr. Ed?

Mr. Ed: Ready as I’ll ever be. And you can call me Ed.

Thanks, Ed. Before we get started, what have you been up to since your show went off the air in February 1966?

Mr. Ed: I went through some hard times. I’m talking a serious oats addiction, three failed marriages, a couple of bankruptcies. At the peak of my career I owned a million dollar stable in the Hollywood Hills. I was dating Donna Douglas. Eva Gabor was an intimate friend. By the end I was living in a one-room flea trap on Skid Row, freebasing hay and settling for non-speaking roles on Bonanza. Chub and I used to sneak into Virginia City to score celery.

But you’re back on your feet?

Mr. Ed: Sober as Dick Webb.

What do you think of the compilation?

Mr. Ed: It’s great. I love every song on it with the exception of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt: Morning Suite.” For the life of me I don’t know why it’s on the comp. But to be honest, a lot of these TV theme songs are colored by what I know about the stars of the shows. Wilson Mizner called Hollywood a trip through a sewer in a glass-bottom boat, and he wasn’t kidding. It’s easy to lose your moral bearings in Tinseltown. You get jaded fast.

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Graded on a Curve:
Gene Clark,
No Other

Talk about your impeccable resumes. Not only was Gene Clark a founding member of jangle rock pioneers The Byrds, he was also half of alt-country band Dillard & Clark and a great solo artist to boot. But not even this list of accomplishments could win Clark’s 1974 album No Other—which he considered his masterpiece—an audience. To be blunt, No Other was a flop, mainly because Asylum Records declined to promote the LP, both because they didn’t see any hits on it and because they were appalled by the time and cost it took to produce the record, which featured such notables as Chris Hillman, Jesse Ed Davis, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, and Butch Trucks. Indeed, by 1976 Asylum had deleted No Other from its catalogue altogether.

It even took the critics a long while to realize that No Other—a lush, lovely, and even visionary work—was worth every dime and hour spent to make it. Clark—a psychedelic kinda guy who hung out with the likes of Dennis Hopper and David Carradine—was said to have ceased feeding his head when he composed the songs on No Other, but they’re spiritually deep nonetheless. They’re also disparate in terms of influence: this was no pure country rock LP, but an agglomeration of folk, country, rock, gospel, even R&B and funk. And to think it was initially intended to be a double LP, until Asylum head honcho David Geffen blanched at the $100,000 the project had already cost.

As I noted above, No Other has a deeply spiritual feel to it—it possesses the gravity of a work only possible by an artist who has opened his head and journeyed to the 5th Dimension, ultimately emerging wiser as he returned to our far more prosaic world. Which may sound like hippie bullshit, and may even be hippie bullshit, but I buy it, Clark’s fascination with Carlos Castaneda, Theosophy, and all. Far more ornate than his three previous solo records, due in part to his pairing with “spare no cost” producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, No Other features lush and unusual arrangements; backup vocals from the likes of Clydie King, Claudia Lennear, Shirley Matthew, and Vanetta Fields, amongst others; and lots of overdubs.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dazed and Confused OST

As a proud member of the proud class of ‘76, I am prepared to state that the collection of bong hits contained within constitutes one of the finest film soundtracks in the history of mankind. Dazed and Confused is the Citizen Kane of stoner films, and if today’s Millennials with their hippity-hoppity music don’t get it, well, let them eat Drake.

The soundtrack to 1993’s Dazed and Confused is a time capsule of sorts–a fond backwards glance to a golden age of 8-tracks, GTOs and Kiss. Every single one of these songs is imprinted in my DNA–had I sired a kid, his first words would have been, “Rock and roll, hoochie koo.”

Director Richard Linklater could have gone the hipster route and padded the soundtrack with songs by the New York Dolls, the Stooges or even the Velvet Underground. But that would have been missing the point. It was the rare small-town kid who listened to such bands, or even heard of them for that matter.

A case in point: during the summer of 1976 my older brother and I spent $1.99 on a variety store cut-out bin 8-track of 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. I don’t understand why we bought it–we’d never ever heard of them, or Lou Reed even. Anyway, we listened to a sing or two the way home, and promptly backed over it with dad’s car. It’s probably lying on the side of the road somewhere.

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Graded on a Curve:
Roky Erickson & the Aliens, The Evil One

The late, great Roky Erickson saw dead people. He also saw zombies, vampires, demons, Lucifer, two-headed dogs, a creature with an atomic brain, alligators, and Sputnik. For all I know he saw unicorns too, but if so he didn’t tell anybody.

The former 13th Floor Elevators frontman was both a survivor and a hero; he struggled with mental illness for over 50 years, but never let it defeat him. He was forced to undergo electro-convulsive therapy, had thorazine shoved down his throat, and lived to tell the tale. Anybody who suffers from mental illness or knows someone who does understands just what a hard road he traveled. The man had spirit.

Given this back story, it can be difficult to distinguish Roky’s mental illness from his love of Grade B horror and science fiction movies, especially on 1981’s The Evil One, a veritable parade of all of the beasties, ghastlies, and ghoulies enumerated above. Produced by Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook (who played on two cuts), The Evil One’s songs are surprisingly catchy, mainstream even–take away the Halloween themes and dress ‘em up a little, and many of these songs would have sounded right at home on FM radio.

The songs on The Evil One stick with you–listen to the LP a couple of times and you’ll be able to hum along to most of ‘em. You may know all of the lyrics too. Erickson had a lot in common with Blue Öyster Cult, who also mated surprisingly melodic rock ’n’ roll with outré subject matter: Godzilla, extraterrestrials, Nazi fighter jets, flaming telepaths, and I think you get the idea.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Never Let Me Down

Never let you down? How about never letting us down? On this 1987 dry well of an LP David Bowie–who thanks to 1983’s Let’s Dance and 1984’s Tonight had finally achieved the vast popular success that had eluded him throughout the years–stooped yet again to conquer, and put paid to his reputation as a genius/ trendsetter in the process. Never Let Me Down wasn’t just a stumble, or even the worst LP of Bowie’s career–it was a harbinger of the lost years to come.

One hardly knows where to start. With the second-rate dance rhythms? The forgettable melodies? The overweening (let’s go big big big!) but ultimately counter-productive production? The ubiquitous (and headache-provoking) ’80s drum drum drum? The horrifying harmonica Bowie seems to have borrowed from Boy George? His lackluster vocals and lack of commitment to the material? The inexplicable presence of Mickey Rourke? Did I just say Mickey Rourke?

On Never Let Me Down Bowie shamelessly panders to his newfound audience. Pandering is but a form of condescension, and on Never Let Me Down he doesn’t just make a whore of himself; he makes whores of us all. I’m one of those people (Velvet Goldmine director Todd Haynes being another) who thinks Bowie sold his soul for fame with Let’s Dance. But the devil always exacts his due. He spared Bowie eternal damnation; guess he figured Never Let Me Down was punishment enough.

Inexplicably many critics–blinded perhaps their fond memories of past glories and unwilling to face up to his precipitous fall from grace–had nothing but good things to say about the album. Bowie himself was far less deluded, telling a 1995 interviewer, “My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album…I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Goat’s Head Soup

By anybody else’s standards a very good LP; coming as it did on the heels of Exile on Main Street, a colossal disappointment. And this despite a few top-notch songs. For The Rolling Stones 1973’s Goat Head Soup was the beginning of the end; the title of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll about says it all, and Some Girls was less a last gasp than a death rattle. After that, the abyss.

All great bands have their golden age, and with the Stones that golden age lasted from 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet to 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Inside those bookends were 1969’s Let It Bleed and 1971’s Sticky Figures–masterpieces all. This four album run–five if you consider Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, which I don’t–beats The Beatles and put them in a dead heat with Bob Dylan. But as with the Beatles and Dylan, all good things come to an end.

How do I adjudge Exile on Main Street to be a great album, and Goats Head Soup but a good one? Simple. While every single song on Exile is engraved upon my memory, for the life of me I can never remember what such songs as “100 Years Ago,” “Coming Down Again, “Hide Your Love,” and “Can’t You Hear the Music” even sound like. It would be unfair to call them forgettable, but I’ll be damned if I can remember them.

On Exile the Stones ripped that joint, let it loose, then scraped the shit right off their shoes. On Goats Heads Soup they sound, well, enervated. Weary, or even worse, complacent. Like a band resting on its laurels. The LP has a couple of excellent slow ones on it, but ballads were never the Stones’ forte; they made their bones playing a raunched-up variant on American rhythm and blues, and on Goats Head Soup the raunch is missing in action.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Mr. Tambourine Man

So I was hanging out with the Weavers at the Troubadour’s Monday Hoot Night when Chris Hillman walked through the door and said, “Hey Mike, Jim McGuinn and I just invented folk rock. And it’s gonna be huge!”

“Yeah, right,” I said as I tuned my Alpine zither. “And within 10 years we’re going to put a man on the moon. What are you, eight miles high?”

“Hmm,” said Chris thoughtfully, adding “Wanna join our band?”

“And give up playing my zither-based adaptations of Woody Guthrie songs in front of 7 people? Give me 8 years and I’ll be opening for Tiny Tim. I’m gonna be bigger than Dave Van Ronk!”

“Get real, man… “

“I am real, whatever that means. This whole “just add electricity thing” is a passing thing, like The Beatles. What do you plan to call yourselves, anyway?”

“The Birds.”

“Pretty lame,” said I. “I suppose you’ll spell it with a ‘y.’”

“Hmm,” said Chris.

“Who’s in your so-called group?”

“Well, in addition to McGuinn we got Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke. Oh, and David Crosby.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Cheap Trick,
Heaven Tonight

What a cheap trick. Here Rockford, Illinois’ finest put out Heaven Tonight which I considered the coolest album in the galaxy, only to follow it up with Cheap Trick at Budokan and the heinous “I Want You to Want Me,” which I’ve had to suffer through like 80,000 times over the years. Every single person I know loves the damn song. I’d sooner listen to the death rattle of a unicorn.

That said, 1978’s Heaven Tonight–the band’s third–still makes me as giddy as an axe-wielding maniac at remote summer camp. It’s a knee-trembling, rock ‘em sock ‘em, wham bam than you ma’am classic, and it solidly established Cheap Trick amongst America’s Power Pop elite alongside the Raspberries, Big Star, and (my campy faves) Redd Kross.

What set Cheap Trick apart from the power pop pack was hard rock crunch. They infused their catchy melodies with steroids: had they been ML baseball players they’d have gone the way of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Songs such as “Surrender,” “On the Radio,” and “How Are You” may not be cement mixers, but “High Roller,” “Auf Wiedersehen,” and “Stiff Competition” all fall into Robert Christgau’s characterization of Heaven Tonight as “power-tooled hard rock product.”

Heaven Tonight is a case of eclecticism at work. “Surrender” is an ecstatic-making monument, like Mount Rushmore but with a better chorus. And it’s funny to boot. Robin Zander comes downstairs to discover his parents going at it, and with his Kiss records playing to boot. It’s a friendly bridge across the generation gap; if the kids are alright, so are the parents. Mom and dad aren’t out of it, they’re with it, and it’s a life-altering revelation.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Mama’s and the Papa’s, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

A few random observations about The Mama’s and the Papa’s’ 1966 debut LP and folk-pop classic If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.

1. This album has everything, including a toilet on the cover! Which puts it in some elite crapper company, including the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, Sebadoh’s Bakesale, Millie Jackson’s Back to the S__T!, and Humble Pie’s Thunderbox. (The Circle Jerks’ Golden Shower of Hits doesn’t count, because it features a urinal.) As for the toilet on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, it faded from view and was living in filth and poverty until 1988, when it sued the Mamas and the Papas for royalties and won. It currently resides in Costa del Sol and is married to a supermodel.

2. There’s a great story about how Mama Cass Elliot came to join the Mamas and the Papas. Seems John Phillips didn’t want her in the band because of her limited vocal range. THEN, but let’s let Elliott tell it:

“They were tearing this club apart in the islands, revamping it, putting in a dance floor. Workmen dropped a thin metal plumbing pipe and it hit me on the head… I had a concussion and went to the hospital. I had a bad headache for about two weeks and all of a sudden I was singing higher. It’s true. Honest to God.”

It’s a great story. Unfortunately it’s not true. Seems Phillips didn’t want Elliot in the band because she was too fat. Me, I prefer her story. It gives me hope that one day I’ll get conked on the head by a length of pipe, and suddenly discover I can sing like Geddy Lee.

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Graded on a Curve: Canned Heat,
Living the Blues

Come on over, kids, and sit on your granddad’s lap. He wants to bore you to tears with tales of the good old days, when American blues band Canned Heat (what ‘cha mean ya never heard of ‘em?) were, like, Gods. Not only did they knock ‘em dead at Monterey and Woodstock, they gave voice to the counterculture zeitgeist with their ode to hippie urban flight, “Going Up the Country.” A lot of freaks listened to it, built themselves lean-tos in the woods, and got torn to pieces by grizzly bears.

And get this, Bobby and Lu Ann: Canned Heat also have the distinction of recording the longest song in rock history. The Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” (which comes in at a succinct by comparison 33 minutes and 41 seconds) can’t touch it. Yes’ “Fly from Here” (which is the soul of brevity at 23 minutes and 49 seconds) doesn’t even come close. And Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Godda-Da-Vida, which clocks in less than 18 minutes, is practically a Minutemen song. (And don’t even try to sell me on J. Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; both are made up of individual songs strung together like a chain gang and don’t count.)

Yes, kiddies, Canned Heat hold the world record. It’s 41-minutes long and called “Refried Boogie” and you can hear it on the band’s 1968 double LP Living the Blues. Why you (or anybody else) would want to listen to it is a mystery to me, but that was the trouble with your average hippie–no quality control.

A few words about the band. Canned Heat was founded by two rabid blues enthusiasts (Alan “Owl” Wilson and Bob “Bear” Hite), took its name from every rail yard hobo’s alcoholic beverage of choice, and boasted a most excellent pair of electric guitarists (Wilson and Henry Vestine, the latter of whom had the rare distinction of being kicked out of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention for smoking pot). Wilson was a brilliant harmonica player and had one of the most distinctive voices of the hippie epoch. Hite was fat. Everybody in the band was stone ugly, which is kind of cool. Your long-hairs loved ‘em.

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Graded on a Curve: Mountain,

Leslie West is a heavy guy. He weighs like 1,000 lbs and plays heavy music and called his band Mountain because mountains are very heavy, and his song “Mississippi Queen” is so heavy it has to be carried from gig to gig in a specially made truck of the sort the U.S. Army uses to transport intercontinental ballistic missiles. And forget about vinyl. Mountain was so heavy they released their 1970 debut on concrete. It weighed 42 pounds and crushed a whole lot of record players.

Lots of folks dismissed Mountain (West on guitar and vocals, Felix Pappalardi on bass and vocals, Corky Laing on drums, and Steve Knight on keyboards) as Long Island’s answer to Cream, and on songs like “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” “For Yasgur’s Farm,” “The Laird,” and “Boys in the Band” the resemblance is striking. But on Climbing! Mountain escapes their Cream fetish to produce songs as humongous as the whale you keep expecting to show up in “Nantucket Sleighride,” except he never does.

Given Mountain’s reputation as the heaviest beast to ever slouch out of Long Island, Climbing! is far more diverse than you’d expect. Sure, you get some nifty Godzilla stomp along the lines of “Mississippi Queen.” But the band also flirts with acid-prog of the sort that won’t wreak havoc on your tweeters, and tosses in a couple of genre-benders that defy all known ethnomusicological definition. In short, Mountain was no one-trick mastodon.

The band’s division of vocal duties further lent diversity to Mountain’s sound. West’s rhino snort contrasts nicely with Pappalardi’s Jack Bruce, and the duo delegates lead vocal chores accordingly–West sings the speaker-busters, Pappalardi the more Cream-influenced tracks.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pink Floyd,
Wish You Were Here

I have a dream. It’s that someone will put out a LP of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here made out of sugar and heavily laced with LSD. That way you could lick it before turning it on, and hear the damn album the way it should be heard, while you’re peaking.

It would be appropriate; has any major band ever been as associated with acid as Pink Floyd? (Yeah. The Grateful Dead, dumbo.) But not even the Dead managed to put out LPs (like 1969’s Ummagumma) that I would ONLY listen to while I was on hallucinogens, because they were unlistenable to anyone on the uninitiated side of the doors of perception. That said, I’ve since put on Ummagumma and found its first side to be bearable and its second side to be complete and unadulterated bullshit (“Several Species of Small Furry Animals” or “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party (Entertainment),” anyone?). And while my recollections are hazy, I have come to the conclusion that the guy in the dorm who owned it was so far out there he’d only play side two while tripping balls.

The Pink Floyd story is a familiar one. The band was formed in London in 1965 by Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright, with David Gilmour coming aboard in 1967, destined to be the substitute for Barrett, who despite the band’s success and his status as the band’s chief songwriter was coming unhinged. After numerous legendary on-stage fiascos involving increasingly odd behavior on the part of Barrett—he might stand in the hot stage lights, crushed ludes melting in his hair, looking off into the distance with his arms dangling down, declining to play his guitar for the entire set—the band more or less decided to not pick him up for a gig, and just like that he was gone, although his living specter (he showed up, bald and bloated, at the Wish You Were Here sessions, and his evident madness left several of his former band mates in tears) would haunt the band and indeed inspire some of their best work.

As time went on the band moved from challenging works such as Ummagumma towards more commercial LPs, such as 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which contained none of their trademark acid jams (“long psychedelic noodling stuff,” as Gilmour dismissively described them) and made them superstars. But I’m partial to its successor, 1974’s Wish You Were Here, in part because I’ve heard “Time” and “Money” so many times I scream in agony when they come on the radio, and I don’t think I could give the landmark LP they’re on an even break.

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Graded on a Curve:
Van der Graaf Generator, Godbluff

File under Acquired Taste I Don’t Want to Acquire. My ears have recoiled in horror at many a progressive rock album, but Van der Graaf Generator’s 1975 LP Godbluff isn’t prog-rock, it’s musical theater for people who wish Hamilton had been written by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Vocalist Peter Hammill wins an Obie for Shameless Histrionics, and ruinously over-emotes over those precious few moments when when the band condescends to play something interesting. Robert Benchley once quipped, “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” A demoralizing thought indeed; here I’d been thinking of stabbing Hamill in the back just to shut him up.

Better minds than mine–Julian Cope being just one–have hailed Godbluff as a classic, but I simply can’t bear the sound of Hammill’s voice. It’s like he learned how to sing by listening endlessly to Jesus Christ Superstar. Some of the music’s listenable, at least in parts–both ”The Sleepwalkers” and “Arrow” have their shining moments, and saxophonist/flautist David Jackson’s performances don’t offend my tender aesthetic sensibilities. But every time I think, “Hey, this ain’t so bad!” 1) Hammill shows up and regurgitates on the thing or 2) the band abruptly switches gears, and rarely for the good.

It tells you everything you need to know about Van der Graaf Generator that they were only big in Italy. Opera originated in Italy, and its citizens enjoy listening to shrieking fat women in Viking helmets. To quote the immortal Don Rickles, “Italians are fantastic people, really. They can work you over in an alley while singing an opera.” Me, I’d like to work Peter Hammill over in an alley, period.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Doors,
Other Voices

Everybody knows The Doors died with Jim Morrison. Everybody except the band’s three surviving members, that is. They went on to record an album without Mr. Mojo Risin’ at the helm, proving that some people don’t know how to quit when they’re ahead. And then went on to release two more albums, proving that some people don’t know how to quit when they’re behind. They were that guest who, at the end of the night, refuses to leave the party.

The Doors weren’t the only band to outstay its welcome following the departure of its defining frontman. The Velvet Underground released an album (1973’s Squeeze) without Lou Reed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed after the death of Ronnie Van Zant. But very few people at the time had ever heard of Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground, and Van Zant, while a musical genius, lacked Mr. Leather Pants’ stage presence, sex appeal, and aura of dark magic. Nor did he possess Morrison’s wonderful capacity for making a drunken spectacle of himself.

1971’s Other Voices raises an immediate question. To wit, why didn’t Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore, who evidently went in search of a new frontman, try harder? Because both Manzarek and Krieger, who share lead vocals, have zero charisma and can’t sing a lick. And to make matters worse, Morrison’s lyrical talent went to the grave with him. He may not be the great poet some claim he is, but he’d have rather volunteered to parachute behind enemy lines in Vietnam than write a song entitled “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned.”

And more’s the pity, because a couple of songs on Other Voices stand on their musical merits. “Tightrope Ride” is a bracing garage rocker marred only by a mediocre bridge and, miracle of miracles, Manzarek actually holds up his end on vocals. And the trio strike lovely (and very un-Doors like) note on the piano-based “Wandering Musician,” which holds up despite Manzarek’s every effort to sabotage it with his wooden indian vocals.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
The Shit Hits the Fans

Please allow me to begin this review with an anecdote, most likely apocryphal. Seems Minneapolis’ The Replacements went into a recording studio, and when they left the cleaning person, or whoever, found vomit–on the ceiling.

True or not, the story serves as a testimony to The Replacements’ reputation as a band of drunken don’t give a fucks–they were the band that got a big break in the form of an invitation to appear on Saturday Night Live and literally sabotaged themselves by getting drunk beforehand and sending the word “fuck” out to an entire nation–live and on the air. SNL producer Lorne Michaels’ exact words afterwards were “Your band will never perform on television again!”

The Replacements were infamous for the falling down drunk live shows; put ‘em on stage, and there was a good chance they’d muck it up. Whether they did so on purpose is a good question, but they seemed to take a perverse pleasure in falling apart in public. Songs would disintegrate in real time, vocalist Paul Westerberg and guitarist Bob Stinson might get into a tussle, and on many a night the band said to hell with playing their originals in favor of playing a bunch of cover songs they’d never played before. Depending on your point of view, such shows were either a rip-off or one of the most liberating experiences of your life.

This is where 1985’s The Shit Hits the Fans comes in. The cassette-only live album captures the band at their hit-or-miss best at a show in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and depending on who you talk to the cassette was a) seized from an illegal taper by the band’s sound guy or b) stolen by the band’s sound guy from the club’s manager, who’d asked for permission to record the show (Westerberg’s reply: “Why? We suck.”).

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