The story of the Ghetto Brothers is an inspiring one, though it’s also an account possessing the deep reality checks of disappointment and strife. It’s a tale of struggle, of growth, of the positive tendencies of human behavior, and naturally some fine music. The reissue of Power Fuerza by the Truth & Soul label makes the essence of a legendary group easily available for anyone desirous of hearing it, and in the process it transcends their legend to become one of the best of all possible things; a record that can be spun and enjoyed many times.
The rediscovery and easy availability of long sought-after musical documents reliably comes with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance. It’s a ceremony partly directed to serious collectors, those individuals that have dedicated countless hours and energy in the pursuit of unearthing that rare and enticing artifact of delectably persuasive cultural marginalia, but it’s additionally aimed at listeners possessing a sincere interest in the contents of those recordings if little of the often rabid intensity (and substantial moolah) that’s required to actually procure original copies of these frustratingly elusive objects.
Occasionally these records are so rare they are essentially considered “lost,” indeed so obscure that even the most hardcore of collectors can’t get their hands on a copy, and in these instances the accompanying promotional verbosity can rise to the level of full-blown lather. The reason why almost always boils down to extreme (and at times overblown) passions on the part of those doing the reissuing, or less attractively the understanding from the participants that the music is, well, ultimately not all that great, the ensuing hyperbole aimed at increasing record sales, with honesty getting cast aside amongst the hoopla.
David Lee Roth was Thee Consummate Showman of the Hair Metal era. With Roth you got the whole shmeer; a natural-born ham and song and dance man, he would gladly have set himself alight and turned flaming cartwheels over the squat Michael Anthony if that’s what it took to keep Diamond Dave in the limelight. Not for nothing did the one-man parade once say, “The world’s a stage, and I want the brightest spot.”
Diamond Dave’s fashion sense may have been deplorable (I’m looking at a photo of him wearing leopard-print spandex leotards and a chest-pelt-revealing v-neck t-shirt complete with—yes, the t-shirt—suspenders), but he more than made up for it by being rock’s preeminent komiker, or comedian. Forever “on,” and with a touch of the old-school vaudevillian in him, you got the sense Roth would have been just as comfortable playing the Borscht Belt as he was playing rock’n’roll. This made him a refreshing anomaly in a genre that depleted the world’s stockpile of hair spray yet still took itself very, very seriously. Thanks to David “I don’t feel tardy” Roth, Van Halen wasn’t just the premier hair metal band—or metal band, period, for that matter—of its time; it was the funniest one (“Have you seen Junior’s grades?”) as well.
And I suppose still is, since Roth rejoined Van Halen in 2006—21 years after departing in 1985, unhappy with the band’s pop turn, adoption of keyboards and synthesizers, and increasingly “morose” (his term) sound. During the interim the Dean Martin of Rock (what else are you going to call a guy who once quipped, “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out my glass”?) released a series of increasingly less successful—grunge killed the vaudeville star—solo albums; put together a Las Vegas lounge act complete with a star-studded brass band and exotic dancers (whom Roth described as “so sweet, I bet they shit sugar”); hosted a radio show; and even worked a stint as an NYC EMT. I don’t think this was a poverty move; he probably just wanted to know how to resuscitate himself in the event of a coke-induced heart attack.
“When I was very small, two of my greatest obsessions were the piano and the stereo. I’d pound away, and then when I was tired of that, I’d go over to the volume knob on the stereo and turn it ALL THE WAY UP. Then I’d stand and scream until someone came and turned it down. Sound has always affected me in a very physical way. Many sounds have distinct physical textures.”
“The record I remember most from those years is the Charlie Brown Christmas album. It got so much play (and probably so much handling by my grimy little fingers) that we eventually had to throw it out.
In university, one of my best friends bought a turntable at a garage sale. She was also given a complimentary Al Jarreau record. At first, we liked it mostly because we thought the front cover picture was adorable (a smirking Al in a red t-shirt—swoon!) Later, we realized that it worked musically at all three speeds—and it was the only record we listened to for several months, changing up the speed depending on our mood.
The appearance of female blues guitarists didn’t begin with Bonnie Raitt, as she’d be the first one to tell you. There were surely a few gender trailblazers in the genre, and the most successful was Memphis Minnie. But she was no mere curiosity, possessing great ability both as a singer and string-bender, recording in four decades as a solo performer and in fine collaboration. The Arhoolie Records subsidiary Blues Classics was the first label to give her work serious attention after the end of her commercial heyday, and it’s an effort that’s still worthy of commemoration.
It can be difficult to adequately express just how crucial the Arhoolie label of Chris Strachwitz was in exploring the sheer depth of the American Music of last century, particularly the ins and outs of the blues, a form that in its raw state had become a tough sell for more commercially minded companies, especially after the innovation of the long-playing record really got its hooks in.
Strachwitz’s now celebrated imprint combined the no-nonsense DIY spirit that’s commonly associated with the contemporary “indie” experience with the urge for documentation of styles of music with essences so pure and intense that they’ve always resided on the margins. That is, they were limited in their potential for widespread “pop” success, but absolutely crucial in providing insight into how creativity could flourish and give meaning to everyday life when concerns of monetary gain weren’t a central and often overriding issue.
For instance, Arhoolie was essentially founded to annotate the discovery of a then obscure Texas musician Mance Lipscomb, a singer and guitarist that had never previously recorded. Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster, the first in a series of enlightening volumes of his repertoire that retain their potency to this very day, set the course for the general vibe of a massive hunk of the subsequent Arhoolie discography.
Zephire Andre Williams has packed a lot of living into his nearly 80 years on this planet, and along the way his name has been attached to a whole lot of records. In the second half of the 1950s he cut a slew of smolderingly low-fi platters for Detroit’s Fortune label, with “Bacon Fat” b/w “Just Because of a Kiss” growing into a national hit. The a-side is amongst the most potent R&B of its era, and it rightfully stands as a classic.
Specifically due to its scarcity, Andre Williams’ early work was once the stuff of legend. Not just his run of singles for Fortune, but his subsequent motions for ventures of differing size and longevity such as Wingate, Sport, Avin, Checker, and Duke. He was also noted for his role behind the scenes at Motown during the first half of the ‘60s and as a co-writer (with Otha Hayes and Verlie Rice) of “Shake a Tail Feather,” the original of which was recorded in Chicago by The Five Du-Tones for the One-derful imprint.
The waxing of that ludicrously swank monster occurred in 1963 during one of Williams’ absences from Motown. It’s now well-established that he and Berry Gordy’s relationship was a highly volatile one, and by ’65 the two men had parted ways for good. His biggest post-Motown success came at Checker, one of the numerous subsidiaries belonging to Phil and Leonard Chess. Hooking up with Ike Turner in the early-‘70s sent Williams’ life into a downward spiral, mainly due to the steady availability of copious amounts of cocaine.
And Williams’ frequent label-hopping combined with his overall lack of national hits to basically insure difficulty and neglect in the anthologizing of his discography, even after he’d made his comeback. In ’84 Fortune Records, still in business against seemingly insurmountable odds, issued the compilation Jail Bait, but by the point of his ‘90s resurgence copies of that slab were long gone.
Panic in Eden mine a sweet-spot, vintage rock vein on “Out For Blood.”
The LA-based quintet’s newest single throws down the gauntlet for other vintage rock revivalists, traversing the trail macheted by Band of Skulls and The Dead Weather. This is dangerous territory where the line between Zeppelinesque authenticity and The Darkness-like parody is very thin, but Panic in Eden prevail with their righteous indignation for the man and mind-boggling riffs which are distinctly their own.
“Out For Blood” is the first single from their forthcoming album, In The Company of Vultures, and the predatory species they reference is a direct dig on the establishment. The ten songs which comprise the LP take aim at the band’s collective disillusionment with the current state of the world and fire a blistering warning shot which essentially says “We have some serious rock ‘n’ roll here and we know how to use it.”
Tomorrow, October 20th will mark the 39th anniversary of perhaps the most tragic event in rock history; to wit, the one that deprived us of the redneck genius of one Ronnie Van Zant, just three days after Lynyrd Skynyrd released 1977’s Street Survivors. The twilight crash, which occurred in a remote forest outside McComb, Mississippi as the band was flying from Greensboro, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also took the lives of Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie Gaines, a backing vocalist for the band, as well as the lives of the pilots and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick.
Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, not so much in the form of the band bearing their name that still roams the land playing meat and potatoes rock (minus the meat) for the faithful hungry enough to settle for poor seconds, but on their records, which sound just as fresh today as they did back in the seventies. People who write off Lynyrd Skynyrd as being just a band of dumb rednecks should remember that southern man don’t need them ‘round anyhow, and would also be well advised to remember this shocking truth: Lynyrd Skynyrd was both a populist sensation and a critic’s band. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau never tired of singing their praises, and Greil Marcus ranked their demise as the No. 1 rock tragedy of the 1970s, the decade that cost us Janis, Jimi, and Jim, to say nothing of Elvis. As Christgau once said of Van Zant: “Dumb he ain’t.”
Take the title track of 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets, on which the guy who hated Saturday night specials seems to be demanding his ammunition back. It’s a ferocious track, and Ronnie sounds like an ornery advocate for the National Rifle Association, that is until you learn he wasn’t referring to real bullets, but to the bullets that Billboard magazine used to put before chart entries for songs that sold a million copies. As for the guitar work it’s every bit as ornery as Ronnie himself, and the track is a classic. The same goes for the relatively overlooked “Every Mother’s Son,” a lovely tune with a great chorus and a couple of guitar solos that will make you forget all about Ed King, the Yankee-born Skynyrd guitarist who jumped ship after 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy. Hell, J. Mascis liked “Every Mother’s Son” so much he recorded a cover over it.
After departing the group Spirit, guitarist Randy California knocked out an underrated and underheard covers-centric solo album Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. While not a masterpiece, it still provided a solid chunk of early hard rock action, and the disparate nature of those cover tunes also did a fine job of blurring the divisions that can result from over-strident genre categorization.
When the discussion comes around to the topic of the great Los Angeles bands of the late-‘60s (and with the right combo of stamina and substances the talking will arrive at that destination much sooner than a person might think), it’s sort of a no-brainer that The Byrds will be awarded their just due and such worthy names as The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Love, and even Capt. Beefheart & His Magic Band will have their moments of appreciation.
But you’ll know the conversation is fortified with good company if somebody stands up to stump for the cause of Spirit, a fine bit of discernment that will directly relate to that band’s truly unusual mixture of rock, jazz, psych, and pop influences. And it was a blend that proved fairly popular at the time; all four of the LPs by the original five-piece lineup hit the Billboard Top 100 Album Chart, and all four are mandatory purchases for those curious over the serious-minded American rock music of the period.
The records are Spirit (#31) and The Family That Plays Together (#22) both from 1968, Clear (#55) from ’69 and Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (#63) from ’70, and the membership of the initial incarnation was guitarist/vocalist Randy California, drummer Ed Cassidy, keyboardist John Locke, bassist Mark Andes and percussionist/vocalist Jay Ferguson. And anyone impressed by the above quartet of albums by this unique quintet should investigate their soundtrack to French director Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, unreleased at the time but given a nice LP issue by the ever dependable Sundazed concern back in 2005.
In the first month of 1970, RCA Records released Nilsson Sings Newman, a collaborative album between one of the period’s strongest and most unique pop vocalists and a truly gifted if somewhat obscure songwriter known primarily for providing other artists with prime material. A theoretical perfect match; it’s therefore unsurprising that hardly anybody bought the thing when it first came out.
On a purely commercial level, Harry Nilsson is vindicated by his very fine version of superb singer-songwriter Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” initially an album track given second life by its use in the epoch-defining New Hollywood film Midnight Cowboy, and by the smash success of his 1971 LP Nilsson Schmilsson, which rose to #3 on the Album Chart and wielded three Top 40 singles including a #1 in “Without You,” another cover via UK group Badfinger.
Considering Randy Newman through this same specifically commercial prism finds him justified not only through the sizable hits his songs provided for other artists, but also via his late-career transformation into a film-scoring juggernaut, though it bears mentioning that he had an unlikely and somewhat unrepresentative #2 hit with “Short People” in 1977. However, many also know him through the smaller, though much longer-lingering success of his biting tribute to Los Angeles, “I Love L.A.”
But if there is one thing that the careers of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman share, it’s in the way they exploit the futility of judging an artist purely in terms of record sales. To do so with Nilsson is to depict an artist of fitful slow-growth potential finally scoring a breakout success with his seventh album (or ninth if you count his soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s eternally divisive hunk of weird-meat cinema Skidoo, where Nilsson actually sang the film’s end credits, and his early ’71 “remix” LP Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) and then going through a long, slow decline.
Before I get to my review, a bit of stereotype slinging. About the Irish, who are oft said (you can ask anybody) to have produced the greatest drunken poets the world has ever seen. Here in the States, a drunk is a drunk is a drunk. In Ireland, if you believe the hype, every drunk is a poet and every poet is a drunk, and when the pubs close every last inebriated man, woman, and child who spills into the dimly lit street to stagger home or fall fecklessly into the filthy gutter is conjuring brilliant quatrains in their brain.
It’s obviously shite, and to the part of my lineage that is Irish (or is it Scottish, who knows?) offensive even, but I do believe the Irish harbor a romantic soul and love their whiskey as much as they love a gift for high-blown (Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, anybody?) speech. So just for argument’s sake, who is the greatest drunken Irish poet of them all? My vote goes to The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, hands down.
He may be a spent force now; it’s been years since he wrote any new songs (that we’ve heard, anyway); his voice is every bit as much a ruin as the Acropolis; and the last time I saw him perform he hung precariously onto the microphone stand like a sailor clinging to the ratlines for dear life in the face of 90 mph typhoon winds. But the fact that he continues to draw breath at all is in itself a miracle.
I have done the math, and more whiskey has passed MacGowan’s lips over the course of his lifetime than was imbibed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Jones, Malcolm Lowry, and Dylan Thomas put together. Despite this dubious achievement, he has written some of the best poetry ever set to music, and has brought more happiness to mankind than a regimen of teetotalers.