Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Richard Hell and
the Voidoids,
Blank Generation

Celebrating Richard Hell on his 74th birthday.Ed.

Of New York punk’s first wave, only Richard Hell and the Voidoids truly embraced the nihilism that punk has come to represent in the popular imagination. The Ramones, great as they were, were one step away from being a joke band; Television was far too ascetic and monk-like; and the Talking Heads were too intellectually frigid. As for Patti Smith, she flirted with the idea of anarchy, but was far too positive a soul to be a nihilist. It’s not her fault; nihilists never hail from New Jersey.

I could go on but I won’t, because the only point I want to make is that Hell was the only musician at that time and place asking the only question the existentialists found pertinent, to wit, “Why should I bother living?” And his grappling with this question—along with the excellence of his band, which included the late, great guitarist Robert Quine—are what makes 1977’s Blank Generation such a seminal punk recording.

Hell, aka Richard Mayers, was born in Kentucky and took the scenic route to the Voidoids. Having moved to New York City, he commenced his rock career as a member of the Neon Boys, which became Television. Friction with Television’s Tom Verlaine led Hell to leave and co-found the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, but Hell found it no easier to work with Thunders than he did with Verlaine, so he finally set about establishing a band in which he was boss. The Voidoids—they got their name from a novel Hell was writing—included Hell on vocals and bass, Quine and Ivan Julian on guitars, and Marc Bell on drums.

Hell—he took his name from A Season in Hell by that enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud, whose life and work made him a totem amongst the intellectual wing of the CBGB’s crowd—was a well-read poet who gravitated towards literature’s dark side, and found there—just as I did—plenty of reasons to give the gimlet eye to human existence.

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Graded on a Curve:
Don McLean,
American Pie

Celebrating Don McLean on his 78th birthday.Ed.

Where were you the day the music died? I was living in rustic Littlestown, Pennsylvania, and at the tender age of 4 months I didn’t know Buddy Holly from a jar of pureed peas.

But that’s the amazing thing about Don McLean’s 1971 masterpiece “American Pie.” I can’t listen to it without feeling a sense of immense loss. McLean brings the November 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa that took the lives of Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper and lays it at my door.

The music didn’t really die that day; had that been the case, Don McLean wouldn’t have had the material to write the moralistic social and musical allegory that is “American Pie.” Anyway, without further ado, here are some random thoughts on some words and music that spoke to an entire generation.

1. “American Pie” succeeds as a piece of narrative poetry. It’s not great narrative poetry like Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” mind you, but its’ encapsulates the years between 1959-1969 in order to anatomize two kinds of death; first, the death of first wave rock and roll in that frozen cornfield in Iowa, and second, the death of hippie innocence personified by the murder of Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont.

2. McLean kept mum about the meaning of his lyrics for decades. He told one interviewer, “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” When another interview asked what the song meant he replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

3. Buddy Holly chartered that doomed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza because he wanted to catch up on his laundry. In short, he didn’t die in the name of rock’n’roll. He died in the name of clean underwear.

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Graded on a Curve:
Grand Funk,
We’re An American Band

Celebrating Mark Farner on his 75th birthday.Ed.

Jesus Funkin’ Christ, Grand Funk. Where does one even begin? Homer Simpson’s immortal description of the band’s members is as good a place as any: “You kids don’t know Grand Funk? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drumwork of Don Brewer? Oh, man!”

Grand Funk was one of the biggest arena acts of the 1970s, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone besides Homer Simpson who will admit to liking them. I’ve never heard a single rocker cite Grand Funk as an influence, and unlike their Michigan brethren the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk scored a big zero when it came to hipness factor. Their talk of revolution was transparently empty jive, they didn’t have a proto-punk bone in their bodies, and in general all they did was fill arenas—something the far cooler MC5 and the anarchic Stooges never came close to doing—and make the people in those arenas (and their bongs) happy.

Of course filling arenas doesn’t prove much, except that it’s impossible to overestimate the ignorance of the American public, but still it’s intriguing—what did all those pothead on reds at all those Grand Funk shows hear that we simply can’t hear in 2014? Did people back then have an extra Grand Funk ear? That closed up around the time of 1976’s Born to Die, which marked the band’s downward slide following seven consecutive LPs in the Top Ten?

That’s right: seven consecutive LPs in the Top Ten. How they managed this feat, given their lackluster body of work, remains a mystery, like what became of Amelia Earhart or how Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis managed to throw a no-hitter while tripping his balls off. It is possible people really did come to hear the shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? Or were they truly that hard-up for entertainment in the Dark Ages of the early to mid-seventies, when rock had become empty entertainment, with the talk of music changing the world having become passé on one side and the soon-to-come (and equally unsuccessful punk revolution the other. Never having seen Grand Funk—they were well into their precipitous fall from superstardom when I started attending concerts, I can’t say.

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Graded on a Curve: Suede, Suede

Celebrating Brett Anderson on his 56th birthday.Ed.

When Suede released their eponymous 1993 debut, Glam fans took notice. No they didn’t. They leapt to their feet and dug through their closets for their six-inch platform Ziggy Stardust boots and moth-balled space age Brian Eno ultra-high collars before sprinting, or more accurately tripping and wobbling—have you ever tried to run in six-inch platform boots?—to loot the make-up counters of every store in London. Finally, they managed to lose (in six minutes flat!) the eighty pounds necessary to squeeze themselves into their old designed-for-skeletons glam attire. Depending on your point of view, it was a glorious moment or a bleeding horror show.

Actually, of course, none of this happened, because while Suede had that classic Glam sound, they didn’t necessarily look the part. They were, for the most part, Glam in mufti, and dressed, for the most part, in fashionable black, with the notable exception of vocalist Brett Anderson, who had that vintage Brian Ferry look—sans the 1940s tailored suits and jaded sophistication—down flat.

But none of this has anything to do with Suede, which ranks amongst the finest LPs of the Britpop era. By turns lush, romantic, low key, high strung, guitar heavy and flat-out metallic, the album’s songs are showcases for Anderson’s vocals, which tend towards the histrionic fabulous. His voice is the Glam glue that draws it all together—Bernard Butler’s guitar shapes the music, for sure, but it’s primarily Anderson’s arch delivery that sets the band squarely in the Great Glam Tradition.

“So Young” is as good as it gets. The song’s fresh melody captures the sound of youth, Anderson goes big time romantic, Butler’s piano adds flavor, and his guitar gives the song just enough muscle to keep it from dissolving into a lovely fey wisp. “Animal Nitrate” is a tougher beast boasting a killer chorus and Anderson singing, “Oh, it turns you on, on/Now he has gone/Oh, what turns you on, on?/Now your animal’s gone.” The ballad “She’s Not Dead” showcases Anderson’s ability to hit those dramatic high notes, while the band produces a Starman solar sound that fits Anderson’s voice like a tailored space suit.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jerry Lee Lewis, Southern Roots: Back Home to Memphis

Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis in advance of his birthdate tomorrow.Ed.

For Jerry Lee Lewis, 1973 was the worst of years and the best of years too; despite a brief turn in prison, the death of a son, a divorce (his fourth), and rampant drug and alcohol abuse, the Killer still turned out two seminal LPs with The Session… Recorded in London with Great Artists and Southern Roots: Back Home to Memphis.

The latter LP is nothing short of a miracle; Jerry Lee somehow managed knock off ten galvanizing performances even though he was, by all accounts, out of control even by his own berserk standards. When he wasn’t abusing legendary producer Huey “The Crazy Cajun” Meaux, the heavily medicated Lewis was threatening to kill a photographer and generally being a dyspeptic old cuss. “Do you wanna try one?” asks Meaux doing the proceedings. “If you got enough fuckin’ sense to cut it,” replies the orneriest cage-rattler to ever hail from the friendly state of Louisiana.

Let’s make one thing clear from the start; neither LP comes close to recapturing the anarchic feel and demented energy of Lewis’ early recordings, or the deranged ferocity (subtlety? toss it out the goddamn window!) of his hair-raising live performance with the Nashville Teens at Hamburg, Germany’s Star Club in 1964. His vocals are lazier, and his piano playing less a frenzied hammering at the gates of Hell, the place he’s always figured will be his final destination. It may have been the pills, but the old piano burner almost sounds relaxed at times.

In short, on Southern Roots The Killer proves there’s more than one way to skin a cat. He lays back in the groove and waxes sly and lewd by turns, sounding randy even at his most relaxed and pretty copacetic for a guy who has just threatened to murder another guy for having the audacity to point a camera his way. Whether he’s singing the songs of Doug Sahm or Isaac Hayes or breathing life into novelty tune about a haunted house, Jerry Lee mostly plays it cool but isn’t afraid to blow volcanic hot when the mood strikes him.

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Graded on a Curve:
Germs, (GI)

Remembering Darby Crash, born on this day in 1958.Ed.

Poor Darby Crash. First the Germs charismatic and drug-abusing lead singer returned from England a converted Adam Ant fan (very bad form, very bad form indeed), then he had the amazingly bad luck to die in a suicide pact the day before the murder of John Lennon, thus ensuring his death would receive virtually no recognition in the press.

Fortunately neither his Antdom nor his ill-timed deliberate death by heroin overdose have sullied his posterity, and his pre-planned live-fast-die-young career continues to contribute to what practically amounts to a cult. And I get it. The guy was loony tunes, but he also had charisma. Germs drummer Don Bolles recalls, “With a little more luck and concentrated effort, Darby could have fulfilled his plan to be the new Jesus/Bowie/Manson/Hitler/L Ron Hubbard… he was a natural messiah type, whose heroic consumption of LSD helped make him the most psychedelic prankster I have ever known.”

Fortunately he started a punk band instead, and not just any punk band. As Germs guitarist Pat Smear recollects, “Whatever we were going to be, we were going to be the most. If we’re gonna be punk, then we are gonna out-punk the Sex Pistols! If we are gonna be the worst band ever, then we are gonna be the fucking worst band ever!” As the lead singer for what I like to think was one of the worst bands in history, those are inspiring words indeed.

But my favorite Darby Crash story has nothing to do with the Germs, but rather Pop Rocks. Remember the candy that detonated like little hand grenades in your mouth? Well, in We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, Gerber (aka Michelle Bell) recalls the time she and Crash were walking through a parking garage towards two Persian gentlemen who, faced with a couple of deranged looking punkers, assumed they were being mugged. So they threw themselves to the ground and offered up their wallets.

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Graded on a Curve:
First Step

I am, I don’t mind telling you, the biggest fan of the Faces who has ever trod upon the earth. I love them. I love them so much I would gladly shovel their dung, much as the elephant dung shoveler at the circus who, upon being asked why he doesn’t find a less flagrant job, replied, “What, and give up show business?”

That said, I have a confession to make. I’ve never, and I mean never, listened to their 1970 debut LP, First Step. I don’t know why this is so. I suspect that, somewhere in the back of my lizard brain, I believed they weren’t ripe yet. I didn’t think they were fully Faces. So yesterday, in a paroxysm of guilt, I turned First Step on. And my feelings, while not completely positive, are positive enough. It’s a good LP. Not a great LP, but a solid one, and I must admit to being a fool for having snubbed it for all these years.

The first thing I have to say about it is that it features not just one, but three songs on which both Rod Stewart and Ronnie Lane sing. They sing in tandem on the slow and lovely “Nobody Knows,” and it’s a revelation. It’s a pity they never made it a practice. And on the similarly slow “Devotion,” which is rendered all but holy by Ian McLagan’s organ, McLagan sings and is echoed by Stewart, and it’s lovely indeed. Ronnie Wood’s guitar is wonderful as well. As for “Shake, Shudder, Shiver,” it’s the Faces at their best—heavy, but not too heavy, and just loose enough to dance to. All of the parts are working, and working well indeed. Rod even gives out a few of his trademark howls.

The second thing to be noted is that First Step includes two instrumentals, which in my opinion is a waste of both two songs and two ginger-crack vocalists. “Pineapple and the Monkey” is heavy on the organ and Wood’s fantastic guitar playing, but it’s a mite on the slow and ‘eavy side, and plods a bit, much like the anti-hero of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies. And McLagan’s organ is a bit too “lounge jazz” for my tastes.

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Time Fades Away

Neil Young’s years spent “in the ditch” (his words) remain, for me, the most vital of his entire career. As the hippie dream fell apart so did Young, and on albums such as 1975’s Tonight’s the Night (a “howling facedown with heroin and death itself,” in the critic Robert Christgau’s words) and 1973’s live Time Fades Away Young proceeded to disintegrate, sick unto death with the deaths of his junkie friends and dissatisfied with the folk-rock box he’d put himself in with 1972’s mellow Harvest, the LP that made him a superstar.

On Tonight’s the Night the songs bear an almost unbearable weight of sorrow, and Young’s mournful wildcat yowl is a million miles away from the peaceful vibes of Harvest; one can only imagine what Harvest’s diehard fans must have thought of it, just as it’s hard to imagine what his concert-going fans made of the never-before heard songs on Time Fades Away, on which Young and his Stray Gators ripped into such raw, electrified (and electrifying) numbers as the title track, the great “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” and “Last Dance.”

Me, I’ll always think Tonight’s the Night is the greatest LP ever made about the demise of the Age of Aquarius, but Time Fades Away has its pleasures as well, even if Young himself has dismissed it on multiple occasions, saying in 1987 that it was “the worst record I ever made—but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.” And on the original, unreleased liner notes to 1977’s Decade, he again expressed his unhappiness with the tour and ensuing record, before saying, “… but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while.”

So what we have here is as sort of rock version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, with Neil coming to pieces in the spotlight, as it were. Fortunately Young is hardly the best critic of his own work, because despite his bad memories of the tour that brought us Time Fades Away, the resulting LP is tremendous—not nearly as chilling as Tonight’s the Night, for sure, but a howl of pain and disaffection nonetheless.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul Williams, Evergreens: The Best
of the A&M Years

Celebrating Paul Williams on his 82nd birthday.Ed.

It is the fate of some singer/songwriters to be the worst interpreters of their own work. Burt Bacharach springs to mind. Ditto Hoyt “Joy to the World” Axton and Jimmy “MacArthur Park” Webb. Kris Kristofferson falls into this category—unlike Webb and Axton he’s instantly recognizable for his rugged good looks and ragged voice, but few prefer his versions of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Help Me Through the Night” to those of Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash.

The premiere example of the phenomenon, however, is Paul Williams. Williams may have written immortal songs like the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” (amongst others) as well as hits by Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, Anne Murray, and Helen Reddy, but his own versions have never made a dent in the public consciousness. Even his take on “Rainbow Connection” is overshadowed by the one sung by Kermit the Frog.

Fairly or not, Williams’ failure to make a name for himself singing his own songs has much to do with the fact that he’s one of the most unprepossessing singers to ever take the stage. One is tempted to use the word gnome, but while he’s short (five feet, two inches) he isn’t ugly—just odd looking. If anything, he’s cuddly. You want to pick him up and squeeze him. It hardly matters he can sing and has great material—he simply doesn’t belong beneath stage lights. Williams is the Anti-Kris. He can sing but looks a lot like a Hobbit–Kristofferson looks like a rock star but can hardly hold a tune.

William’s presence in the public eye was limited largely to his many TV appearances—a joke appearance on The Tonight Show here, parts on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hollywood Squares and The Muppet Show there. For most he wasn’t a pop songwriter of genius—he was the Muppets guy.

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Graded on a Curve: Ramones, Ramones

Remembering Dee Dee Ramone, born on this day in 1951.Ed.

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.

The Ramones won their rep by keeping their songs nasty, brutish and short. But their secret ingredient was melody; their songs are both catchy and likable, and that’s what makes Ramones sound as fresh today as it did the day it hit the streets.

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Graded on a Curve:
Art Bears,
The World as It Is Today

Like the Henry Cow that calved ‘em, the Art Bears are a shut up and take your medicine proposition. I don’t think you’re supposed to enjoy their hifalutin’ take on progressive rock—no, you’re supposed to listen to it because it’s good for you. Their music is high in avant garde fiber and listening to it is like downing cod liver oil—unpleasant, but elevating. A steady regimen of the Art Bears is guaranteed to make you a smarter, more well-rounded music listener. It’s sophisticated stuff for sophisticated people. Me, I don’t want to be sophisticated. I’m like the guy on the cover of Foghat’s Fool for the City. I enjoy going fishing in the sewer for the music I love.

But I suspect the monocle-wearing people of taste who love the Art Bears couldn’t even be bothered to sneer at Foghat, which is okay—they obviously have more class than I do. And the smart set have reason to love the Art Bears—gadfly guitarist/keyboardist Fred Frith is a musician’s dream, and percussionist, “composer” (songwriter is a title beneath him), and “musical theorist” (it says so right on Wikipedia!) Chris Cutter ain’t chicken feed either.

If avant-rock chamber music is your thing, there’s no gainsaying the fact that England’s Art Bears have the goods. And their music is educational too—their third and final LP, 1978’s The World as It Is Today, is less rock album than textbook on the evils of capitalism, and for all I know it’s an assigned reading at the London School of Economics. And I say “textbook” because lyrics are beneath the Art Bears—words guy Cutter insists upon the term “texts.” In short, I shouldn’t be writing a review of the Art Bears—I should be writing a doctoral thesis.

The Art Bears fall into the dreaded category of bands I respect but can’t stomach, which is to say they fall into the lowest of all categories. I’d much sooner listen to a band I don’t respect and can’t stomach, because at least it affords me the pleasure of laughing at them. Having a good chuckle at Emerson, Lake & Palmer makes me a happier person. The Art Bears don’t afford me that pleasure, and frankly I find it difficult to forgive them for it. Other than the fact that avant-cabaret vocalist Dagmar Krause occasionally chitters away like a German Yoko Ono, the Art Bears are a chuckle-free proposition.

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Graded on a Curve:
Meat Puppets,

On 1989’s Monsters Phoenix, Arizona’s the Meat Puppets finally got around to doing what they’d been threatening to do for a while–went heavy metal.

For a post-punk band with more in common with the Grateful Dead than the Misfits the move might have seemed a shocker. But with their first three albums the Meat Puppets had proved themselves perhaps the most rapidly mutating organism in the history of rock. They went from mutant hardcore to unhinged psychedelic country to mystico-desert funk, so why not metal? On the albums that followed their third LP, 1985’s oddly syncopated and incorrigibly cheerful Up on the Sun, they made the occasional foray into heavier territory—just check out the very ZZ Top “Automatic Mojo” from Monsters’ predecessor, 1987’s Huevos. But it wasn’t until Monsters that the Meat Puppets began taking musical growth hormones and iron supplements and commenced to Sabbath out.

The only potential shocker was the Meat Puppets impetus for the change of direction: commercial ambition. Noted drummer Derrick Bostrom, the band had decided it was time to sign to the bigs, and heavy music was their way of doing it: “It was kind of a reaction to the whole Bon Jovi mentality of the time: ‘Let’s try to show the world that we can be a mainstream rock band.’” It was a quixotic quest; no one was going to mistake the Meat Puppets for Bon Jovi, or anybody else rocking the pop charts.

And commercially their big metal move was doomed from the start, for the simple reason that Curt Kirkwood is no Rob Halford. (Nor is his brother Kris, with whom he often harmonizes). Curt doesn’t project. You could amplify his vocals to the nth power and they still wouldn’t reach the back of the arena. And his vocals are 100% menace free. Kirkwood oozes laid-back Arizona nice guy charm; he doesn’t have an ounce of Iron Man in him. Hell, he doesn’t even sound like he’s trying, which is partly what makes their albums so wonderful. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau hit the nail on the head when he wrote of Monsters, “this is really the guitar-god record Curt Kirkwood always had in him,” before adding, “What’ll keep them from turning into plutonium is the utterly unmacho vocals.”

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Graded on a Curve: Nazareth,
Hair of the Dog

Celebrating Pete Agnew on his 77th birthday.Ed.

The Scottish clods o’ peat in this hard-working, hard-rocking man’s man band never won any originality awards, and weren’t exactly well-versed in the songwriting arts either, and given their high scunge factor, I doubt they’d even be allowed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as paying customers, much less as inductees.

They’re not going to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame anytime soon, either. Hell, they only hit two homers over the course of their long career, and their lifetime batting average is in the .233 range. Forget about Cooperstown; these guys would be lucky to earn a spot on the bench of the 1962 New York Mets.

But I’ll say this for ‘em–way back in 1975 every badass or wannabe badass in my home town was blaring Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog out of their car 8-track speakers, whether that car be a GTO or a rusted-out Ford Pinto. The title track–with its “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch”–was a blast of pure unbridled belligerence and without a doubt the orneriest cut of the summer, hell the whole year probably. Alice Cooper may have put out “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but that was play acting; Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty came on like the Real McCoy.

As for the album title, me and my buddies prided ourselves on knowing what it meant even though we’d never cracked a beer (much less suffered a hangover) in our lives–it made us feel adult, worldly even, just as that “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch” made us feel tough, when in effect we were probably the wimpiest band of geeks to ever gingerly trod the halls of Littlestown High School, on the lookout for the real sons of bitches.

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Graded on a Curve:
Fool for the City

Remembering Craig McGregor, born on this day in 1949.Ed.

Here’s an interesting historical tidbit: I was the geezer wot gave Foghat their name. It happened like this: we were all (the band and I) totally pissed in Rod “The Bottle” Price’s bedsit in manky Manchester, when “Lonesome Dave” Peverett rolled a J the size of John Holmes’ John Thomas and set it ablaze. It took some real hyperventilation-level huffing and puffing to get that monster going, and by this time Dave’s head was wreathed in a glorious crown of cannabis smoke, and I cried out, “Lonesome Dave’s sporting a Foghat!” And Bob’s your uncle, that’s exactly how it didn’t happen.

Anyway, I don’t know what you think about Foghat, and I don’t particularly care, because I love them. They may have been your bog-standard, no-frills British blooz and boogie rock band, all meat and potatoes but skimping a bit on the meat, but they had a great name and were likeable blokes and the punters loved them because they played an arse-walloping live set. What’s more they displayed a sense of humor, as proved by the cover of their finest LP, 1975’s Fool for the City, which depicts drummer Roger Earl fishing in a manhole in the middle of East 11th Street in New York City, looking as casual as if he were casting bait along Manchester’s own River Irk, which none other than Friedrich Engels described as “a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse.” All of which leads one to suspect that Earl had a better chance of catching a real, live fish in said sewer than he did back in grim and grimy old Manchester town.

I also have an abiding affection for Foghat because the band’s music features in the final scene of one of my all-time favorite films, Richard Linklater’s 1993 cult classic Dazed and Confused. To wit, when Mitch Kramer, who has just returned home at dawn after having undergone all the requisite initiation rites and rituals (drinking beer, smoking pot, throwing a bowling ball from a moving car) of seventies teenagehood, puts on his oversized headphones, it’s the great opening of “Slow Ride” that brings a beatific smile to his face. Linklater could have chosen any song from the mid-seventies to produce that smile, but he chose Foghat, which raises my estimation of both him and them.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Grand Illusion

Celebrating Tommy Shaw on his 70th birthday.Ed.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Beware, for if you stare long enough into Styx’s The Grand Illusion, The Grand Illusion will stare back into you.” Nietzsche had good reason to be fearful, for not only did Styx’s masterpiece ultimately drive him mad, it also happens to be the most addictive slice of “soft-core prog” (thank you, Philip) ever created. I myself was certain I hated it, but like Nietzsche I stared too long into it, and sure enough here I am, come not to bury The Grand Illusion but to praise it.

Chicago’s Styx came to be in 1972, but its members were playing together long before that under the name TW4. A lightweight ELP but with catchier melodies, far better guitar hooks, and fewer grandiose musical pretensions—no “symphonies” or 93-part songs ever came from these guys—Styx was gigantic from the late seventies to early eighties, scoring four consecutive multi-platinum albums, a feat never matched by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

Styx was your younger sibling band par excellence. While older sis Suzie sneered at Styx as a moronic shlock-rock band, younger brother Randy knew for a fact Styx could kick the asses of all those high-falutin’ progressive rock outfits like Yes and Gentle Giant Suzie thought were so sophisticated with one synthesizer tied behind its back. Styx was more fun to listen to while doing bong hits, too.

Styx recorded The Grand Illusion—their seventh studio album and the one that catapulted them to superstardom—in 1977. The album’s cover was the work of legendary psychedelic poster artists Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, while the band’s line-up at the time included Dennis DeYoung on keyboards, synthesizers, and vocals; Chuck Panozzo on bass guitar and vocals; John Panozzo on drums and vocals; Tommy Shaw on acoustic and electric guitars and vocals; and James Young on guitar, keyboards, and vocals. DeYoung handled the bulk of the songwriting duties, although Shaw and Young also contributed tunes.

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