Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Ron Wood,
Gimme Some Neck

Celebrating Ronnie Wood on his 76th birthday.Ed.

If your idea of heaven would be a cross between the Rolling Stones and the Faces, then Ronnie Wood’s your man. He’s done stints in both bands after all, and while I infinitely prefer his work with the Faces (he kinda disappeared into the Stones machine, in my opinion) you can hear echoes of both bands in his 1979 solo LP Gimme Some Neck, which boasts a mix as dirty as Rod Stewart’s mind and lots of Wood’s jet engine of a guitar, the one to be heard on the immortal “Stay With Me.”

The only problem is Wood’s vocals; at best he sounds like a Dylan imitator, at worst his voice is as thin as cheap toilet paper. He’s at his best when he’s joined by the LP’s backing vocalists, who include some bloke named Mick Jagger, some other bugger named Keith Richards, and the legendary Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg. Other notables on the LP include Mick Fleetwood, Dave Mason, Charlie Watts, Bobby Keys, and former Faces’ band mate Ian McLagan, whose keyboards give such songs “We All Get Old” an indisputable Faces feel.

But as I said previously, it’s the gritty mix, reminiscent of the Faces’ best music and the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, that makes this LP special. No polish here, thank you very much. Instead the best songs almost sound like demos, albeit good ones. Wood has his limitations both as a vocalist and a songwriter, but he sure knows his rock’n’roll, which means he’s well aware that it’s best left unvarnished, like a coat of primer on an old muscle car.

Songs like “F.U.C. Her” (which features Dave Mason on both acoustic guitar and drums) and “Infekshun” (great drumming, C. Watts, and keyboards by who knows who!) make up for what they lack in political correctness with a raucous sound that takes you all the way back to the invention of the duckwalk; “F.U.C. Her” features bona fide decent vocals by Wood and doesn’t sound like either the Faces or the Stones, while Wood’s wild and wooly guitar on the latter tune definitely makes up for his limited vocal range. And both he and McLagan dirty up the big sound of the Bob Dylan tune (Bobby wrote it for Eric Clapton, but dummy turned it down) “Seven Days.” Kudos to Wood’s pedal steel guitar, as well as to Mick Fleetwood’s tight drumming.

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Graded on a Curve:
Led Zeppelin,
In Through the Out Door

Remembering John Bonham in advance of his birthdate tomorrow.Ed.

Now listen here: Once upon a time there was a band called Led Zeppelin, and they laid down more barbaric heavy metal riffs than anybody, ever. They came from the land of ice and snow, and produced a Hun-like din, and if you heard them approaching your castle walls the wisest move was to flee via the back door. Guitarist Jimmy Page seemed to possess an inexhaustible repertoire of battering ram riffs designed to smash through castle gates, and what he couldn’t turn to splinters John Bonham, his catapult-fisted drummer, could. There was nobody quite like them when it came to the employment of brute and unremitting force, and there never will be.

But in case you haven’t noticed there are no Huns rampaging across the countryside raping and repining, haven’t been for centuries. Because nothing lasts forever, and so it went for Led Zeppelin, who officially disbanded in December 1980, several months after Bonham died from asphyxiation of vomit following a day of supernatural drinking (four quadruple vodkas—and that was just breakfast!).

Led Zeppelin’s first six LPs are unimpeachably great; the debate over quality arises only in relation to their final three albums, one of which (1982’s Coda) was a collection of unreleased odds and sods from sessions that took place years before. Me, I’m primarily interested in their final studio LP, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. Critical reaction was at first lukewarm at best. Over the years, however, there has been a reappraisal, with many a critic eating his words. So which is it? Led Zeppelin at their best, or worst? Or somewhere in that vast middle ground, where the bustle in the hedgerow is just the spring clean of the May Queen?

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Graded on a Curve:
Levon Helm,
Electric Dirt

Remembering Levon Helm, born on this day in 1940.Ed.

Talk about your survivors; legendary Band drummer/vocalist Levon Helm was 69 years old when he released 2009’s wonderful (and moving) Electric Dirt, and he packed a whole lot of very hard living (and a near fatal case of throat cancer) into those 69 years.

But this proud son of cotton farmers from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas triumphed over it all, and went out on a valedictory note with a pair of twilight LPs (2007’s Dirt Farmer garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008) that did nothing but enhance his status as one of the most distinctive vocalists and drummers of the rock era.

Helm may have run with real slick customers (Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson, for starters), and he spent his fair share amount of time atop the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but he never lost that rural twang. His singing was equal parts white clay grit, visionary yowl, and sly country swing, and it provided some much needed American coloring to Robbie Robertson’s Canadian songwriting palette–he was the only fella in the Band who could have pulled off “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The years that followed the break-up of the Band were no kinder to him than to anybody else in the group; he messed around some, landed a memorable movie role or two, and put together some great touring bands and played his ass off, but his recording career was spotty at best.

Which is what makes the last two LPs he recorded before his death so wonderful. On Dirt Farmer he reached way, way back to explore his folk roots; come Electric Dirt he stretched out and went the funky Americana route, and ended up winning the first ever Grammy Award for Best Americana album for his efforts.

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Graded on a Curve: Another Sunny Day, London Weekend

Miserablism may be an “ism” of my own devising but it’s a very real thing, and its sufferers—if they’re of the cynical bent, and most are—tend towards the use of industrial strength sarcasm. Take musical miserablist Harvey Williams’ name for his late ‘80s/early ‘90s solo project, Another Sunny Day. It’s every bit as sarcastic as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and were he a believer in truth in advertising he might have gone with “Your Fucking Sunny Day,” which just happens to the title of a Lambchop song.

Another Sunny Day–who only released one LP, the 1992 compilation London Weekend—were on the roster of the British indie pop pioneers at Sarah Records, which basically put the band amongst the jingly-jangly guitar-friendly power pop set celebrated in the New Musical Express’ highly influential 1986 C86 cassette compilation (although Williams was too late on the scene to be included). London Weekend is made up of five of the six ASD singles released by Sarah Records, minus the “Genetic Engineering/Kilburn Towers” single on which Williams covered songs by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and the Bee Gees, respectively.

Another Sunny Day announced itself to the world with the 1988 six-inch flexi-disc “Anorak City,” a very, very low-fi guitar blur of a song on which Williams sings, “Take a trip to Anorak Station/There’s a craze that’s sweeping the nation/So don’t let your credibility slip” and (wonderfully) “Will you be anorak, baby?” I don’t know if Anorak City is London, but I assume the craze he’s talking about is anoraks, which will most likely never take hold in the U.S.A. because most of us wouldn’t know an anorak from a kayak.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Jam,
In the City

Celebrating Paul Weller, born on this day in 1958.Ed.

In the year punk broke, 1977, The Jam carried with them a whiff of a year far past, namely 1965. Paul Weller brought punk’s jacked-up velocity and coiled tension to the band’s debut LP, In the City, but the LP is also steeped in the spirit of Pete Townshend and The Who.

Call the Jam Mod revivalists, then, but make no mistake–the music on In the City is most definitely punk. No Mod ever took enough leapers to keep such a frenetic, breakneck pace. Paul Weller sounds a lot like Elvis Costello, but unlike Elvis he never slows things down–you won’t find a “Watching the Detectives” on In the City, much less an “Alison.” The song “Slow Down,” appropriately enough, goes by in a sonic blur.

Weller’s Who fetish wasn’t the only thing that set The Jam apart from the punk pack. They eschewed safety pins for tailored suits, said no thanks to anarchy in the U.K. and Clash/Mekons-style left-wing polemics, and even tossed in some conventional lyrics about, you know, girls and stuff.

And then there’s Weller’s voice. Rotten’s savage snarl, studied put-on or not, was pure punk, the barbaric yawp of a street-smart yob whose idea of a good time was ripping the antenna off your car. Weller sounds like a full-grown man.

Paradoxically, it was Weller’s backwards-looking glance to the days of “My Generation” that helped make The Jam something so defiantly, brazenly new. His “back to the future shtick” bears ripe fruit. “Art School” opens just like a Who song–for three seconds or so you’re sure the next thing you’ll hear is Roger Daltrey. But The Jam then proceeds to kick into hyperdrive, and you’re rocketed from yesterday to tomorrow in a rocket fuel flash.

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Graded on a Curve: Radiohead,
Kid A

Celebrating Phil Selway, born on this day in 1967.Ed.

Not long after Radiohead released 2000’s Kid A, my friend Patrick and I gave it a scathing review without having actually listened to it, on the basis that its only appeal was to depressives better served by listening to the Archies. We also surmised that if Thom Yorke was such a creep why bother, because who wants to hang out with a creep? And seems we weren’t alone. Author Nick Hornby lambasted Kid A, and a critic for England’s Melody Maker dismissed it as “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” You won’t hear that sort of language on The Crown.

It was the Melody Maker review that finally convinced me to give Kid A a listen–if the the damn thing was really that bad, I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to pile on. But Kid A isn’t the space age fiasco I’d hoped for; its Pink Floyd/Brian Eno vibe make it the perfect accompaniment to a hard day over a hot bong. Your more active types, on the other hand, risk drowning in its ambient ooze. That sound you hear off in the distance is a non-fan, crying out hopelessly for a lifeguard.

The band itself was split over Kid A’s new direction; vocalist/songwriter Thom Yorke went into the studio convinced rock music had “run its course,” while guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood and bass player Colin Greenwood worried that they risked producing “awful art-rock nonsense just for its own sake.” Yorke was full of it–folks have been writing rock’s obituary since the early 1960s. The Greenwoods were wrong as well–Kid A may not be my cup of studio overkill, but it’s a noble foray into the realms of electronica that works, at least in parts, very well indeed.

Dreamy atmospherics abound, and on occasion Radiohead take things too far. The soundscape that is “Treefingers” is a limpid pool of nothing special, and if Yorke thinks he’s breaking new sonic ground he’s dead wrong; David Bowie was doing this sort of thing in the late seventies. The title track is a trifle livelier thanks to its snazzy drum beat and electronic squiggles, but Yorke’s distorted vocals serve only to annoy, and the big bass thump at the end of the song is too little too late.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Smiths, Strangeways, Here
We Come

Remembering Andy Rourke—on Morrissey’s 64th birthday.Ed.

Morrissey has long been the funniest man in the rock biz. The King of the Miserablists (my own word) and high priest of unrequited love has turned self-pity and general anomie into pop gold, and in the process has proven Samuel Beckett’s famous adage that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” But the Moz is more than just a jilted jester. He can hit the tragic notes too, although he often filters them through irony and his trademark humor.

Since his beginnings with The Smiths, Morrissey has cut a unique figure on the pop landscape. Fey, sensitive as a flower, yet possessed of a wit as cutting as a straight razor, Morrissey is the closest we’ve ever gotten to a second coming of Oscar Wilde. He strikes one as being much too tender a violet for this world, yet can vent contempt as well as Bob Dylan. Throw in a unique voice, and a personal life that is veiled in myth and conjecture, and you’ve got my idea of the perfect pop figure—one who looks at life darkly, but transmutes that darkness into irresistible pop songs. Really, is there—or has there ever been?—another pop star who could pull off a song as complex, ironic, and ultimately hilarious as “Girlfriend in a Coma”?

I’m one of those rare birds who, all things considered, slightly favors Morrissey’s solo work to his work with The Smiths. That said, I’ve always felt the pull of Strangeways, Here We Come, from its title with its mention of a now-defunct English prison to such moving songs as “Death of a Disco Dancer” and “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Strangeways was the fourth and final Smiths studio LP, with Morrissey and Marr parting ways after some false information in the press giving the impression that Morrissey was exasperated by Marr’s side projects managed to sever their remarkably successful partnership.

The Smiths hailed from Manchester in 1982 and included Morrissey on vocals; Johnny Marr on guitar, keyboards, harmonica, autoharp, synthesized strings, and saxophone arrangements; Andy Rourke on bass; and Mike Joyce on drums. Marr wrote the music, Morrissey the lyrics, just like Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

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Graded on a Curve:
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

Celebrating Kevin Shields one day after his 60th birthday.Ed.

My Bloody Valentine’s famously obsessed frontman spent 3 long years and a whole shitload of other peoples’ money making this 1991 shoegaze classic, and he didn’t deliver a follow-up until 2013. Seems Kevin Shields found Kevin Shields a tough act to follow. As for the guy whose money he spent (Creation Records honcho Alan McGee), his verdict on the record is on the record. In 2014 he said, “Loveless is fucking overrated as fuck.”

Well I humbly fucking disagree. While there are brief moments on Loveless when my attention wanders, My Bloody Valentine’s “sheets of tampered guitar noise meet dreamy melodies and hushed vocals” recipe is a winning one. The songs contained therein are simultaneously abrasive and deliciously mesmerizing–Loveless is as hypnotic a drug as nembutal, but it won’t put you too sleep.

The formula’s simple–Shields utilizes a whole mess of tricks (reverse reverb, tremolo techniques, tuning systems, samplers, etc.) to create oceanic swells and tidal washes of guitar that he harnesses to beguiling melodies over which he and Bilinda Butcher sing like sedated angels. Every single review I’ve ever read has described the guitars on this record as “swirling,” but that’s not what I hear. I hear churning–the churning of raw distortion into creamy dream pop butter.

Both mood and volume vary–for some reason “Only Shallow” and “What You Want” are twice as loud as anything else on the LP–but for the most part what you get are a set of songs that sound, well, like some mad genius fucked with them in the studio until they sounded wrong–wrong in such a way that obliges you, dear listener, to grow an entirely new set of ears in order to hear them right. And you do. After a while the brain-melting seesaw guitars and slushy and pureed vocals not only begin to make sense but to sound inevitable–as inevitable as any great forward leap in music, or any of the arts for that matter.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Who,
Who’s Next

Celebrating Pete Townshend on his 78th birthday.Ed.

Who loves The Who? Everybody loves The Who, that’s who. Six billion Chinese people love The Who. That Turkish family that walks on all fours loves The Who. Kim Jong-un loves The Who. The ape at the zoo loves The Who. Okay, I suppose there are lots of people who don’t love The Who, but I don’t understand them. Why, I would even go so far as to say there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with them.

Then again, how much do I really love The Who? I have no use for Tommy, dislike everything after 1973’s Quadrophenia, and have never really listened to their early stuff beyond what’s on the 1971 compilation Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. And don’t even get me started on the post-Keith Moon Who. Face Dances? Why, I have half a mind to dance on your face, Mr. Peter Dennis Blanford Townshend, for reanimating the corpse of a band that died with its heart and soul, Keith Moon.

So, unlike our friends the quadruped Ulas Family from Turkey, I suppose I’m ambivalent about The Who. But I have no mixed feelings about Who’s Next, the band’s 1971 masterpiece. From its cover of the foursome at Easington Colliery, having apparently just finished pissing on a concrete “monolith” emerging from a slag heap, to “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—two of the greatest rock songs ever written—it’s a gas, especially when you toss in such odd birds as the hilarious “My Wife” and the cool and amusing “Going Mobile.” It may include some songs I flat-out dislike, but I don’t care. It’s still the best thing to come along since sliced Altamont.

Back story in telegraphic form: Formed in 1964 and briefly called The High Numbers… Mods vs. rockers and gratuitous guitar smashing… “My Generation” and rock opera Tommy… drummer Keith Moon drives limo into swimming pool… shirtless Roger Daltrey swings mic in great arcing loops… John Entwistle, bass genius, as great as Jack Bruce… Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar and famous boiler suit, STOP.

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Graded on a Curve: Humble Pie,
Street Rats

What a fiasco. Humble Pie’s 1975 LP Street Rats was like the crash of the Hindenburg, sans the cool explosion. And what a way for a band, perhaps not a great band, but a band that produced quite a few excellent songs and were one of the more formidable live acts of their early seventies, to go out.

As for legendary Humble Pie and (former) Small Faces vocalist and guitarist Steve Marriott, the LP stands as a career nadir. And the amazing thing is, despite the fact that the band itself abhorred it—more about the reasons why to follow—it could have been much, much worse. There are songs on it worth hearing—the problem is they’re surrounded by songs that have been shown to induce clinical disgust, and a cautious person will want to think long and hard about putting the LP on their turntable. The damn thing could be contagious.

Plenty of bands get fucked by their record labels. It’s standard trade practice. And on 1975’s Street Rats, A&M Records gave it to Humble Pie and gave it to them good and hard. And kudos to the folks at A&M, because they managed to do it at a great distance and without the band even knowing about it until it was too late.

Not that Marriott—an incendiary guitarist and gritty, big-lunged vocalist whose combined talents made him one of the most jaw-dropping (if unfairly neglected nowadays) performers of his era—did himself no favors. His brilliance is largely conspicuous by its absence on Street Rats—only two of the songs are solo Marriott compositions, and neither song stands amongst his better efforts. And he doesn’t even lend his mighty pipes to four of the LP’s eleven songs.

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Graded on a Curve:
Q: Are We Not Men?
A: We Are Devo!

Celebrating Mark Mothersbaugh, born on this day in 1950.Ed.

Thank God for the great state of Ohio. It produces rockers the way Utah creates cretinous little polygamist kids. Just look at Cleveland, where I once pissed into the front seat of a car that parked us in after a drunken night on The Flats. (And people ask me why I quit drinking.) Cleveland Rocks! has given us The Isley Brothers, The Raspberries, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs, and Nine Inch Nails. To say nothing of that great cowboy punk, Roy Rogers.

Then there’s Kent State—which I visited once, and after careful calculations concluded it wasn’t the Ohio National Guard that murdered those four students back in 1970 but Neil Young, desperate for the subject of a protest song—which has bequeathed us perhaps the weirdest Ohio band of them all.

I’m talking, of course, about Devo, which I was lucky enough to see on their first national tour: on Thorazine. It was in a seated auditorium, and during the show lead guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh stepped from chair arm to chair arm until he was straddled directly above me, playing a very berserk solo. I repaid him by drooling on his right foot. (And people ask me why I quit doing drugs.)

Call Devo Art-Punk, New Wave, or Synthpop, just don’t call them late for De-evolution, their joke philosophy which isn’t when one considers the likes of Dick Cheney and Rascal Flatts. Some people favor the “Whip It”-era Devo, but upon listening to their music again I’m forced to concede the only Devo LP I really love (or even much like) is their 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Produced by Brian Eno (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Robert Fripp also expressed interest), the LP featured their “classic” line-up of Mark Mothersbaugh on keyboards, guitar, and lead vocals; Bob Mothersbaugh on lead guitar and backing vocals; Alan Myers on drums; Bob Casale on rhythm guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals; and Gerald V. Casale on bass, keyboards, and lead vocals.

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Graded on a Curve: Robert Fripp,

Celebrating Robert Fripp, born on this date in 1946.Ed.

What a great album! The songs are brilliant! The entire cast of musicians, which include Daryll Hall, Tony Levin, and Terri Roche defy the laws of talent! Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins also make guest appearances! And Mary Lou Green does hair! And does a bang-up job of it I’m sure!

On 1979’s Exposure—the first of his four solo albums—Robert Fripp condescends to the conventional, or as close as the dyed-in-the-wool avant gardist would get to making an album for progressive rock haters. Fripp has spent his long and illustrious career on the experimental end of the rock party; he co-founded and played guitar for King Crimson on all thirteen of the albums they released between 1969 and 2003.

He also kept himself busy during those years by recording two LPs with Giles, Giles & Fripp, two with the League of Gentleman, and collaborating with the likes of Brian Eno and David Sylvian. He also fell in with the crowd attracted to the work of Russian spiritualist George Gurdjieff and went off to a ten-month course at Gloucestershire, where he achieved so much deep spiritual wisdom he would later say, “I was pretty suicidal.” I’m thinking of signing up myself.

On Exposure Fripp enlisted the usual array of prog-rock musicians, including Brian Eno, Tony Levin, Peter Gabriel, and Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator fame. But his real genius lay in enlisting Hall and Oates’ Daryl Hall in the project. Hall was not as surprising a choice as, say, John Denver, but many wondered why Fripp engaged a top notch pop songwriter and blue-eyed soul singer to participate in a project that—with the noticeable exception of “North Star”—made so little of Hall’s perceived musical strengths.

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Graded on a Curve:
Brian Eno,
Here Come the
Warm Jets

Celebrating Brian Eno, born on this day in 1948.Ed.

What a divine creature: In the first half of the 1970s the pre-ambient Brian Eno flitted about England’s glitter rock scene in fantastical glam attire, making an indelible mark on Roxy Music’s first two LPs with his VCS3 synthesizer and “tape effects” before moving on to create two utterly idiosyncratic art rock masterpieces with Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, both released in 1974.

On the former album, Eno utilized a boldly original approach to recording that placed a high premium on happy accidents that were not really accidental; Eno very deliberately lined up a cast of studio musicians he felt would be incompatible with one another just to see what would happen. In his own words he organized the situation “with the knowledge that there might be accidents, accidents which will be more interesting than what I had intended.” He then doubled down on the oddness by “treating” instruments and doing a lot of heavy condensing and mixing of the recorded tracks, some of which ended up sounding nothing like what the musicians played in the studio.

In short Eno puts chance in charge, and like any good gambler chance works in his favor. Marcel Duchamp abandoned art to play chess; if Eno were to retire, he would no doubt take up craps. Not enough random variables in the game of kings.

Art Rock with a sense of humor and none of the grandiosity, Here Come the Warm Jets is a collection of beautifully textured songs filled with staggering performances by the slew of stellar performers Eno gathered together because he thought they didn’t belong together. All of Roxy Music (excepting Bryan Ferry) were on hand, as were guitar aces Chris Spedding and Robert Fripp; other players included members of King Crimson, Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, and Matching Mole. They don’t seem like such an incongruous bunch to me–Spedding excepted, there’s a decided tilt towards art- and prog-rock–but if Eno considered ‘em an Odd Bunch, well, he’s the guys with the ears.

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Graded on a Curve:
It’s A Beautiful Day,
It’s A Beautiful Day

Hilariously earnest hippie folk rockers of the mushy stripe have a lot to answer for, as Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau noted in his cut-to-the-chase review of It’s a Beautiful Day’s eponymous 1969 debut: “This is on the charts. Get it off.” On the cover of It’s a Beautiful Day a woman in a flowing rustic dress stands atop a mountain peak. My guess is the album inside the cover inspired her to jump off.

San Francisco’s It’s a Beautiful Day are the band that gave us, for worse or for worser, “White Bird,” which you don’t hear very often because even your more sensitive poetic types know it crosses that fine line between the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and a bottomless lake of treacle. It’s the sort of song nuns in Catholic schools of the era played to their students in English class to prove they were “with it,” the same way they’d spin Sister Janet Mead’s groovy rock adaptation of “The Lord’s Prayer” some four years later. Lord only knows how many male parochial school students were inspired to drop out, join the Army, and risk both life and genitalia in Vietnam—anything to put as much distance as possible between themselves and “White Bird.”

It’s a Beautiful Day—who also tossed classical, jazz and “world music” elements into their musical mix—featured vocalist Pattie Santos and the husband-wife team of violinist David LaFlamme and keyboardist Linda LaFlamme, along with guitarist Hal Wagenet (the only member in the square ensemble with an ounce of freak in him), and some other folks I’m too lazy to mention. Although It’s a Beautiful Day were part of the San Francisco Summer of Love scene that produced the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, they had the bad luck of hiring as manager Matthew Katz, whose other clients, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, were busy trying to scrape off the boot bottoms of their careers.

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Graded on a Curve: Plasmatics,
New Hope for the Wretched

Shock rockers in the grand tradition of Alice Cooper, NYC’s punk/metal band the Plasmatics—like Alice—had a can’t-look-away live act. Watching seminude former porn star/sex show worker (she could shoot ping pong balls from her vagina!) Wendy O. Williams take a chainsaw to a guitar (one-upping both Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix in the process), blow up automobiles, fire off shotguns, do unkind things to innocent television sets, and perform lascivious acts not suitable for family audiences must have been big fun, and I’m sorry I never caught their act.

The only problem—and it was as fatal as being sawed in half by a chainsaw—was Wendy couldn’t sing. A lick. Microphones wouldn’t put up with her abuse and refused to work with her. Following the release of the Plasmatics’ 1982 LP Coup D’Etat, Robert Christgau of The Village Voice wrote, rather uncharitably, that “Wendy O. might be well advised to try singing with her nether lips. Not only can’t she carry a tune (ha), she can’t even yell.” Which didn’t stop her from receiving a 1985 Grammy nomination for Best Female Vocal Performance. I can only write this off as a case of mass possession by the Recording Academy of the United States, many of whose members must have been (I’m assuming here) ping pong enthusiasts.

I’ve never placed too high a premium on vocal abilities and I love a multitude of singers who can’t sing—witness my undying affection for the Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba, Black Oak Arkansas’ immortal Jim Dandy Mangrum, The Fall’s late Mark E. Smith, and the Germs’ late Darby Crash. But their vocals had both personality and a certain lovable charm. Wendy O. possessed neither. She attempted to get by on sheer pugnacity, but her singing possessed nary an iota of imagination or personality. She was an anger machine, and machines don’t have personalities, although many sex doll owners will tell you otherwise.

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