Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Screaming Lord Sutch,
Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends

This very heavy solo debut by renowned English loony Screaming Lord Sutch (aka the 3rd Earl of Harrow) comes with some very heavy baggage. And I’m not referring to the late Lord’s Heavy Friends, who included such rock luminaries as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Bonham, Noel Redding, and Nicky Hopkins.

No, I’m talking about the album’s deplorable reputation. A 1998 BBC poll crowned Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends the worst album of all time, to which I can only reply that the people polled did a grave injustice to Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. And plenty of others have heaped scorn upon this benighted 1970 LP, which mortified just about everyone including the people who played on it.

Me, I think they’re being unfair. I rather like Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, and not as kitsch either. The musicians who recorded the LP would go on to condemn it as a bunch of demos that should never have been released, but to my ears it sounds like rock’n’roll primitivism at its best. The album has a lovably raw-boned, one-take feel to it, and what it lacks in polish (there is no polish) it makes up for in pure bluster and monolithic garage rock raunch. If you’re a fan of “You Really Got Me,” Blue Cheer, the Troggs (and who isn’t a fan of the Troggs?), or any number of sixties garage bands, you’ll most likely dig what’s on offer here.

There’s no denying Sutch was a fascinating character, and that the world was a far more interesting place with him in it. He may have had no more connection with the peerage than the infamous Nazi broadcaster and English traitor Lord Haw-Haw, but during his time on this planet he recorded a whole slew of timeless horror rock classics (“Jack the Ripper,” “Murder in the Graveyard”), basically invented Alice Cooper’s shock-schlock stage act, and ran for Parliament innumerable times, both as a representative of the National Teenage Party and as the proud founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (that he never won a Parliamentary seat is a sad commentary on the intelligence of your average English voter). Toss in a tragically aborted foray into pirate radio and what you have is a great English eccentric in a long line of great English eccentrics, and while Lord Sutch wasn’t as witty or bright as a lot of great English eccentrics (I’m thinking in particular of the Bonzo Doo-Dah Dog Band’s Vivian Stanshall) there’s no denying he made stodgy old England a livelier place.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Metal Machine Music

Note: The author has reviewed this LP before. But Metal Machine Music is such a rich and constantly rewarding musical experience that it deserves to be reviewed not just once or even twice, but thousands of times. But that is not the reason I’m writing about it again. The truth is that listening to it and writing about it the first time around was such a traumatic experience I completely repressed it, and I didn’t remember my earlier review until I’d finished this one. Enjoy! 

So I was out partying one night with the identical Rumdinger twins Roy and Ray, who nobody could tell apart so if you ran into one of ’em you just called him Roy-Ray to be sure you got it right, and preparatory to getting high they pulled to the side of the Fish and Game Road outside of Littlestown, Pennsylvania and filled the bong with murky ditch water. Then they popped in a battered Redd Foxx 8-track that they’d obviously played to death because Redd sounded like a chittering racoon and you couldn’t (I swear) make out a word he was saying but–and this is the important part–not only did they insist upon playing this inadvertent example of advent garde art, but they guffawed at very precise moments like they COULD UNDERSTAND RACCOON! That or they had the whole album subliminally memorized and were laughing by sheer reflex.

I found it odd, of course, that Roy-Ray, who possessed two of the reddest necks I’ve ever known, would be Redd Foxx fans in the first place, but it’s a funny world and for all I know there are plenty of Klansmen out there who find old Redd a hoot. Hell, they probably play his albums at klaverns and literally piss their robes with laughter.

But I’m going off point. What I want to say is that Roy-Ray, who almost certainly had never heard of the Velvet Underground and wouldn’t have liked them if they had, most likely would have loved Lou Reed’s 1975 double LP Metal Machine Music (The Amine β Ring). They’d have cracked up at all the right parts too. Because anybody who could appreciate the sound of the human voice broken down into sheer unintelligible raccoon jabber would almost certainly have related to Lou’s intimidating and perverse hour-long foray into pure feedback.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Raspberries,
Raspberries’ Best Featuring Eric Carmen

When it comes to Seventies power pop, you tend to be either a Raspberries person or a Big Star person. Me, I’ve always been a Raspberries guy, if only because they were about as subtle as a brick. Now Big Star, they had subtlety and class, but then again they were so subtle and classy hardly anybody heard of ‘em until they were long gone. Say what you will about the Raspberries–you could hear their songs on your car radio.

And as a male adolescent of the time I could actually relate to the Raspberries in a way that I probably wouldn’t have related to the heartbreaking nostalgia of “September Gurls” or “Thirteen” because I was too young to be nostalgic and all I wanted to do was go all the way, which was just about the only thing Eric Carmen sang about. He was the Dante Alighieri of Teenage Lust and as such gave voice to every shrieking hormone in my adolescent zit suit.

Musically, the Raspberries succeeded on a hybrid sound that was equal parts The Beatles, The Who, and The Beach Boys, with a wee pinch of The Faces thrown in for flavoring. Eric Carmen was a clever synthesist and even better thief with grand ambitions, and the epic sweep of his songs is a million miles away from the more nuanced power pop of Alex Chilton and Company. The Raspberries may have been from Cleveland but they were a peek into a rock future that would be dominated by the overblown sonic likes of Boston, and I’m talking about the band, not the town.

Eric, who suffered from delusions of grandeur for sure, aimed for the fences every time out, and he struck out a lot. But when he connected the result was power pop greatness, and his biggest homers can be found on Raspberries’ Best Featuring Eric Carmen (his hubris is right there in the LP’s title). He didn’t hit that many home runs, it’s true, but that’s one of the best things about this particular album. Some best-of compilations hit the skids cuz the people who put ‘em out pad ‘em with too much weak material, but that isn’t the case with this bare bones, 10-song 1976 best-of from a great band that was so much dust in the wind by the time it came out.

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Graded on a Curve: Backstreet Boys,
“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”

So I was sitting around with Herman Melville, author of a well-known how-to manual on whale hunting named after a better known Led Zep song, and I asked him what he’s been listening to. “You know, Mike,” he said, setting down the bong beside the manuscript of his soon-to-be-published Great American Novel on pot farming, “it’s easier to tell you what I’m NOT listening to, and that’s rock’n’roll. And that’s because rock’n’roll is finished. Kids don’t listen to rock’n’roll any more because rock’n’roll is for DEAD PEOPLE.”

The geezer was harshing my buzz, but I had to admit he was right. I have a couple of teenage relatives and they listen to nothing but hip hop, and when I suggested to the little punks that they might wanna check out the Dictators they literally laughed in my face. Kids got no respect today–try to get ‘em to listen to some morally upright music like “Teengenerate” and they just sneer like little Lou Reeds before slapping on their Turtle Beach Stealth 400 headsets and returning to their regularly scheduled video game.

Herman went on. “Hell, I knew rock’n’roll was dead the night I went to a party being thrown by a bunch of sleazoid Johnny Thunders guys and they spent the whole night playing Licensed to Ill over and over again. And that was way back in 1986. That album wasn’t a crossover, it was an autopsy, and anybody who tries to tell you rock’n’roll made some kinda big phoenix from the ashes comeback with Appetite for Destruction is full of shit. And don’t even get me started on what’s come down the pike since cuz it’s horrible. There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes his whole universe for a vast practical joke, and by that I’m talking about the first time I heard Arcade Fire.”

“Well ya gotta admit your rad and totally retro beard has Brooklyn or even Portland writ all over it,” I told Herman, “and the folks in those places certainly haven’t bought into the whole “Rock Is Dead” meme. They’re churning out all kinds of new sounds, even if I’m too lazy to listen to any of ‘em and what little I do hear makes me wish I was in an insulin coma. But there has to be some good rock and roll out there SOMEWHERE!”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Best of Bread

I’m listening to The Best of Bread, and if I get any more mellow I’ll be urine.

It’s easy to mock the anodyne sounds of soft rock avatars Bread; easy enough, for example, to point out that like their name their music is white, bland, and utterly lacking in nutritional value.

But what you gotta understand about David Gates and Company is that come the bitter end of the sixties and the turn of the seventies, when America’s once idealistic and optimistic young longhairs were ready to assume the collective fetal position in the face of such shattering “happenings” as Altamont, the Manson killings, Kent State, savage acid trips, and the Vietnam War, Bread was there like a giant aural Quaalude to calm their frazzled nerve endings. If the Age of Aquarius had become a grim joke and America one big lunatic asylum, soft rock bands like Bread were the music being piped through the nationwide hi-fi to sedate the inmates. You could pull Bread up to your neck like a snug childhood blankie and HIDE.

In short, Bread provided an important mental health service and may even have saved lives, and who am I to gainsay a bunch of American heroes? Sure, they constituted a craven retreat from social engagement or even leaving your apartment, but what with all the evil hoodoo going down in the streets, who wanted to leave their apartments anyway? A National Guardsman could shoot you! Or a Weathermen bomb could blow you sky-high! Better to say to hell with it all and sing along to “It Don’t Matter to Me,” which is a pretty good song and might as well have been the National Anthem of the New “I Give Up” Generation.

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Graded on a Curve,
The Peter Brötzmann Octet, Machine Gun

We didn’t mean to shoot the water heater.

That water heater was a casualty of war, and its shooting was just one of those things that happens when you’re abruptly levitated out of bed in shock and awe in the form of some ferocious Pharaoh Sanders free jazz skronk playing at maximum volume on your younger brother’s stereo at 10:00 on a hungover Sunday morning, and then proceed to get half drunk and decide it would be a real cool idea to go down to the basement of your parent’s house in Littlestown, Pennsylvania to play a lively game of “Dodge the Ricochet.”

“Dodge the Ricochet” is fun and easy to play and basically involves standing maybe six feet away from a brick wall and then taking potshots at said wall with your dad’s kid-sized .22 caliber “cat” rifle. The rules are simple. You shoot, then duck, because those .22 slugs are coming right back at you.

Not that it’s really possible to dodge a ricocheting bullet; they’re pretty darn fast. It’s more of a case of very quickly covering your balls and contorting yourself into as small a target as possible for that rebounding slug. It’s kinda like playing kamikaze frisbee, only instead of a frisbee you’re playing with live rounds.

Where, you may be wondering, does German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s seminal 1968 European free jazz recording Machine Gun come into this? Patience, friend, patience. Suffice it for now to say that Machine Gun is one of the most abrasive, anarchic, and hair-raising free jazz albums to ever set your synapses sizzling like overworked bug zappers. Think yer some kinda hot shit noise aficionado cuz you’ve managed to sit through John Coltrane’s Ascension or Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity? I dare you to check out Machine Gun. It makes those free jazz landmarks sound like Duke Ellington in comparison.

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Graded on a Curve: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

So yeah, before we go any further–about the band name, which is unfortunate. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band evokes images of earth tones, earth shoes, earthworms, Middle Earth, the Mother Earth Catalog and turnips, and all of these things horrify me.

I know, I know, poor Manfred got caught up in the whole big “ecology thing” that had every hippie not killed at Altamont waving cardboard signs on wooden sticks (did they even give a thought to where that piece of wood came from? Or the cardboard?) reading “Save the Planet.” Hell, even Charles Manson jumped on the ecology bandwagon, so who am I to judge?

But let’s just write it off to hazy hippie idealism (those poor longhairs really thought they could save the world, har!) and get on to the important stuff, which is that while most sentient beings (and turnips) only remember Manfred Mann’s Earth Band for the coupla Bruce Springsteen covers they sent to the top of the charts, they also got around to putting out some pretty great albums in the early seventies starting with this eponymous 1972 debut, which may just be the best of ‘em.

Like many of his more musically savvy rock cohorts, Manfred Mann had a pop heart and an art head, which is to say that at the same time he was singing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” he was also playing jazz piano, and would later (much to the consternation of yours truly) even go the dubious classical/rock hybrid route, thus placing himself squarely in the progressive rock camp alongside such blackguards as Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

But on Manfred Mann’s Earth Band everybody’s favorite South African auteur sticks to the pop/hard rock knitting with a slew of great tunes featuring lots of state-of-the-art synthesizer (which he never allows to dominate the proceedings) and at least one very impressive jazz piano flourish, to say nothing of some really mean guitar playing by the very underrated Mick Rogers.

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Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
Sheik Yerbouti

So I was sittin’ and I was wonderin’ why it is I used to love Frank Zappa so much and now he just makes me want to puke from my ear holes when suddenly the answer hit me like a Zen Bullet straight to the third eye–Drug Abuse!

I mean, we all know drugs are great and pretty much a “must do” on just about every social occasion including weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Black Oak Arkansas concerts but I would add an item to the list–when listening to Frank Zappa albums. Cuz if my experience holds true for anybody else drugs (it don’t matter which ones–better to take ‘em all!) do not only enhance the “Frank Zappa experience”; they are necessary to enjoy the “Frank Zappa experience” in the first place.

Take 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti. Very shortly after it come out my pig farmer buddy Billy and I were busy drinking and doing drugs in my upstairs room in the decaying hovel (the ceiling collapsed in the room next to mine, dropping a one-ton wooden beam on my roomie’s bed–did I move? No!) where I lived at 16 North Washington Street in sunny Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.

And because it was such a fine and beautiful day we thought why not crank up Sheik Yerbouti and place the speakers on my window sill pointing out just to, you know, educate the neighbors on the subject of righteous music. Because such is what passes for rational thought when you’re burning holes in frontal lobe with every drug you can get your clammy teengenerate hands on. Which in our case came down to pot, Placidyl–and I’m talking the big green 750s, the ones they use to treat insomnia in prize hogs–beer, Wild Turkey, and a several gallon jug of fake Quaaludes Bill was selling to 10th graders (god knows what was in ‘em), which he insisted upon crumbling into the bowl of the pot pipe we were passing on the theory they would probably fuck us up in some way if we could just find the proper delivery mechanism.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Blue Öyster Cult

Good news! You don’t have to fear the Reaper! Blue Öyster Cult were only joking!

For years morons like yours truly were so wrapped up in Blue Öyster Cult’s ethos (evil as career choice) that we never caught on to the (manifestly obvious in hindsight) fact that the band was pulling our collective leg!

That’s right. Here we hayseeds thought they were, like, a bunch of Satan-worshipping Aleister Crowleys dabbling in Nazism and S&M when in reality they were just a coupla nice Jewish boys from Long Island sniggering down their collective sleeve at the hard-rock-loving suckers retarded enough to take them seriously. As occasional lyrics contributor and full-time rock critic Richard Meltzer said of the boys’ music, “This is really hard rock comedy.”

I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m some kind of terminal moron; I caught on to the joke a long, long time ago, and would have never fallen for it in the first place if I hadn’t been spending all my time smoking pot with pig farmers. Pig farmers and bikers make up the bulk of the Blue Öyster Cult fan base, and by that I don’t mean to imply pig farmers and bikers are stupid. Most of them are in on the joke too, and love it, because not only were Blue Öyster Cult funny back in 1972, they were one hotshit boogie band writing great songs that sounded even better after you drank a bottle of Wild Turkey and popped a few Placidyl.

Blue Öyster Cult’s eponymous 1972 debut may have less laughs than some of their later LPs, but it’s heavy on screaming diz-busters, inspiring anthems, a lil taste of the rock ’n’ roll apocalypse, and one very cool psychedelic threnody to a foot. In short it’s one helluva rock record, and well deserved the plaudits it received from just about every critical luminary (Christgau, Bangs, etc.) of the time.

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Graded on a Curve: Imagine Dragons,

I don’t know what I imagined I’d hear when I turned on Imagine Dragons’ 2017 magnum opus Evolve, but what I heard was worst than my most horrendous imaginings. I mean, I’d just been listening to Keith Emerson back with The Nice doing simply unspeakable things to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” and this was worse. Far worse. I’d heard stories… terrifying rumors… about Imagine Dragons, but like Pol Pot’s Cambodia you just don’t know what unspeakable means until you’ve been there. My editor, the estimable Jon Meyers, calls them “Imagine Jagoffs.” It is appropriate. Evolve is the rare LP that is so bad as to evoke not mirth, but contempt.

Just the other day I heard “Whatever It Takes” at the gym and immediately thought, “Wow, these guys are such empty vessels they’re actually proud to release a song that is not only thoughtless but the opposite of thought, whatever that opposite is.” Don’t get me wrong; I have no aesthetic bias per se against pure pop product. That said, I must insist it signify something other than its own obvious desire to move units, and “Whatever It Takes” as well as every other song on Evolve is a carefully engineered exercise in moving units.

Evolve is one of those albums designed to do only one thing, namely go platinum by any means necessary. It has, of course, gone platinum. These guys may have only one big idea–they certainly didn’t put any into their songs–but they have stayed true to that one big idea, which goes something like if we’re going to be a successful corporation we’re going to have to have all of the personality of a corporation, and make the homogenized likes of Mumford and Sons sound like bona fide fucking soul groups. They have succeeded to the extent that Evolve has about as much soul as your average snuff film and far less personality–at least a snuff film evokes human emotions such as pity and terror.

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