Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Scream

Celebrating Siouxsie Sioux on her 65th birthday.Ed.

My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees fact; the early band, primitivists to the core, ditched axe player Peter Fenton because he was a “real rock guitarist.” Can’t have one of those gussying up one’s primal punk rawk sound, not if one wants to create something truly unique and new. Which is what Siouxsie and the Banshees created with their celebrated 1978 debut, The Scream. So revolutionary was their music that critic Clinton Heylin held that the post-Fenton iteration of Siouxsie and the Banshees, along with the formation of PiL and Magazine, marked the “true starting point for English post-punk.”

On The Scream, Siouxsie Sioux (aka Susan Janet Ballion), guitarist and saxophonist John McKay, bassist Steven Severin, and drummer Kenny Morris created a sound that perfectly melded discord and harmony—a twitchy, spiky, and seemingly chaotic ruckus that was actually filled with beguiling melodies.

Siouxsie’s vocals were by no means “pretty”—on The Scream she’s more attack dog than traditional female vocalist, and that’s a large part of the LP’s charm. But the real beauty of her vocals is the way they perfectly mesh with the band’s jagged yet catchy melodies; she’s in total synch with McKay’s remarkable guitar lines, and the pounding and throbbing of Morris and Severin on drums and bass, respectively.

McKay in particular is brilliant; I listen to his surprisingly ornate guitar work on, say, “Jigsaw Feeling,” and I marvel. The same goes for his magnificent guitar riff on “Carcass,” which is undoubtedly the catchiest song on The Scream. Between his guitar and Siouxsie’s alternately choppy and flowing vocals, this baby is a keeper, especially when you throw in the glam handclaps.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Flaming Lips,
Telepathic Surgery

Yeah, yeah, I know. The Flaming Lips’ 1999 LP The Soft Bulletin is brilliant. A masterpiece released just as the sun was going down on the Twentieth Century. But for my money—which unfortunately happens to be in worthless depression era German Reichsmarks—the Oklahoma band released its finest work between 1986 and 1995, before they went and got themselves domesticated.

The Soft Bulletin is a warm and fuzzy album for warm and fuzzy people looking for an uplifting musical experience. Earlier Flaming Lips albums featured songs like “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever),” Unconsciously Screamin,'” Jesus Shootin’ Heroin,” and “Evil Will Prevail.”

If The Soft Bulletin is a hug-your-neighbor ecstasy trip, LPs like 1989’s Telepathic Surgery and 1992’s Hit to Death in the Future Head are LSD trips—you might find instant enlightenment or, conversely, locked in a Porta-John at your local music festival, because demons are pursuing you and you need somewhere to hide.

I attended a few Soft Bulletin-era shows, and they were joyous affairs—Grateful Dead concerts minus the home tapers. The concertgoers around me had the glassy-eyed look of true converts. The only song that’s ever left me glassy-eyed is Sammy Johns’ “Chevy Van,” which ought to qualify as a world religion. Your Flaming Lips idolater is a fanatic, and fanatics can be very dangerous people.

Which is why I prefer albums like 1989’s Telepathic Surgery. It doesn’t hurt that the LP’s title sounds like the name of a Blue Öyster Cult song. But what really wins me over are song titles like “Hare-Krishna Stomp Wagon,” “Hell’s Angel’ Cracker Factory,” and “Redneck School of Technology.” And the songs are as strange as the titles. A fair number of Flaming Lips fans would hide in a Porta-John to escape them.

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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:
Bob Dylan,
Time Out of Mind

Celebrating Bob Dylan on his 81st birthday.Ed.

Lots of supposedly sane folks shouted “Masterpiece!” when Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came out in 1997; Elvis Costello, to pick a seemingly sober-minded celebrity name out of a hat, said, “I think it might be the best record he’s made.”

Hoo ha, said I. Sure, Time Out of Mind was a marked–no, make that very marked–improvement on the rather desultory couple of albums he’d released before it. So if you wanted to call it a resounding comeback, that was fine by me. But masterpiece? Forget about it.

Well, time has softened me some. I still wouldn’t call Time Out of Mind a masterpiece–so far as I’m concerned Dylan stopped producing them in the mid-seventies, at latest. But it includes at least one song that stands with the very best of his work and a couple of others that are pretty damn good, and that’s not bad for an artist who was born before America entered WWII.

And the album as a whole is noteworthy for its unremittingly dark tone. Dylan sounds lost, desperate even; love makes him sick and has him all mixed up, things are disintegrating, and while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there. This baby is one long twilight stroll through the graveyard of Dylan’s mind, and he’s not whistling; he taking a reckoning, and wondering whether the journey was worth the cost.

Time Out of Mind is an autumnal, and even elegiac, work; you can practically hear the shadows gathering. The dark and sublimely lovely “Not Dark Yet” is the album’s linchpin and one of the greatest songs Dylan will ever write. On it Dylan finally looks back, if only because there doesn’t seem much ahead; “Behind every beautiful thing,” he sings, “There’s been some kind of pain.” This is the sound of a man sinking beneath his burden of years, and you’re forced to wonder; does he fear the darkness, or look forward to it?

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Graded on a Curve:
The Smiths,
The Queen Is Dead

Celebrating Morrissey who turned 63 yesterday.Ed.

I’m a Morrissey fan by temperament—of all the musicians who have ever lived, Manchester’s most famous miserabalist (he even beats Mark E. Smith!) comes closest to sharing my belief that hope is the lubricant that keeps the human meat grinder running—and because I consider him the funniest musician to ever kvetch into a microphone.

I can’t help but love a man who quipped, “What’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning? Wish I hadn’t.” And was quoted as saying, “I have found the best way to avoid ending your life as a bitter wreck is to start out as one.” The Mancunian misanthropist’s feckless take on life is utterly hilarious, and what I’ll never get over is there are people out there who don’t think he’s funny. No wonder Morrissey’s miserable; he’s a great comedian but nobody gets his jokes.

And the jokes just keep on coming on The Smiths’ third studio LP, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead. Morrissey possesses a savage wit; “Girlfriend in a Coma” is a black comedy for the ages. And on The Queen Is Dead Morrissey is in top form. He opens “Bigmouth Strikes Again” with the lines, “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said I’d like to/Smash every tooth in your head/Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said by rights/You should be bludgeoned in your bed” and you can practically hear him cackling. And his take on dying a romantic death on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (“And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die/And if a ten-ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well, the pleasure—the privilege is mine”) never fails to crack me up.

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Graded on a Curve:
38 Special, The Best of 38 Special: The Millennium Collection

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant sure has a lot of brothers. Let’s see: there’s Donnie Van Zant, Johnny Van Zant, James Joyce Van Zant, Canadian Mountie Van Zant, and Larry, Curly, and Mo Van Zant, the three of whom put out three legendary albums with Iggy Pop.

But younger brother Donnie is the one we’re interested in here. He’s the long-time front man of 38 Special, who gets labeled a Southern Rock band when what they really are is a lame pop band—they’d lose an arm-wrestling match with Rupert Holmes. They’re the epitome of generic pop, but generic pop has long been a winning formula. So let’s give 38 Special their due—between 1981 and 1991 they scored two No. 1 singles and another eleven singles that broke the Top Ten mark. Contrast that with the Rolling Stones, who during the same period broke the Top Ten only five times and scored nary a No. 1. Take that, Mick and Keith!

38 Special are—album sales charts notwithstanding—primarily a singles band. So why take your chances on one of their twelve albums when you can hear the best on 2000’s long-winded 20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection. You have to love that 20th Century Masters makes ‘em sound like Arnold Schoenberg, whose atonal adaptation of Black Oak Arkansas’ “Happy Hooker” caused a riot at Austria’s Vienna Musikverein.

And the compilation proves that, to their credit, these pop savvy Southern rockers in name only bequeathed to the world several songs that—if disparaged by snobs like me—will burn forever like the eternal flame at Minsk, whose leaders are loathsome Russian lackeys whose government is already feeling the pinch of the embargo on copies of “Hold on Loosely.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Joe Cocker,
Live At Woodstock

Remembering Joe Cocker, born on this day in 1944.Ed.

Joe Cocker, he of the spastic stage gesticulations and mouthful of gravel, was one of rock’s greatest interpreters of other peoples’ material. He didn’t cover your song, he Cockerized it with that impossibly expressive rasp of his, and once he’d Cockerized your song you never heard it the same way again. He did it live, twitching like he’d just grabbed hold of a live wire, at Woodstock in 1969, and again on 1970’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, and the amazing thing is not that he never inadvertently hurled himself off stage in mid-contortion, but that it took four decades (!) for his legendary Woodstock performance to finally be released as an LP.

How was such an oversight possible? Did the master recordings fall into the paws of a rapacious monkey who demanded an exorbitant number of bananas? I don’t know, but their availability, even if it took 40 years, has made the world a better place. 2009’s Live At Woodstock featured Joe Cocker with the Grease Band, who were backing him at the time, and together they create sparks.

Their arrangements are loose—too loose in some cases—but Cocker (who passed away in 2014) had one of the best blues and R&B voices of all time, and the Grease Band could cook, and the results are evident on such amazing tracks as the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a masterpiece of shifting dynamics, call and response, superb musicianship, and pure ecstasy. And over it all Cocker, expostulating, roaring, screaming—he goes right over the top, Joe does, and it’s enough to leave you enervated when it’s all over.

With the exception of the overly long (as in 12 minutes) “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” which I’ve always disliked and which suffers from a slow as molasses midsection of the sort that rendered many live cuts of the era unlistenable, Live At Woodstock is a great if flawed (more on which later) LP. From Cocker’s very loose interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” (he speeds up the tempo and tramples all over Dylan’s lugubrious original) to the great “Hitchcock Railway,” which features organ, guitar, cowbell, and a rambunctious rhythm that runs right off the tracks, Cocker and the Grease Band play it loose and funky, while on slower tracks like the great Dylan tune “I Shall be Released” Cocker demonstrates his ability to convey pain and loneliness. He does the same on the slow and soulful “Do I Still Figure in Your Life,” an obscurity that he breathes pure soul into.

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Graded on a Curve: Robert Fripp,

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:
Pete Townshend,
Who Came First

Celebrating Pete Townshend, born on this day in 1945.Ed.

When it comes to grandiosity, Pete Townshend takes the cake. He’s always had huge ambitions, as his numerous concept albums—both with The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia, the abandoned Lifehouse, and The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether–wait, that one was by The Alan Parsons Project) and on his own—demonstrate. And I suppose I always took it he had an ego as big as his ambitions. But what is one to make of his 1972 debut solo album, Who Came First, on which he turns things over on two of the LPs nine tracks to other people? And performs a third song he didn’t even write? Certainly that’s an act of humility, if not abject self-abasement.

And Who Came First isn’t particularly ambitious, either: he throws on a song that would later appear on The Who’s Odds and Sods, along with a prayer set to music for his spiritual guru Meher Baba, and so on. But there’s something becoming about Pete’s laid-back approach on Who Came First—he’s not trying to conquer the world for once, just to be content in it. And the LP includes a cool bunch of tunes that you’re guaranteed to love, even if “Parvardigar” (his salute to Meher Baba) isn’t one of them.

Pete isn’t entirely without ego. While he admirably declined to fill the studio with a star-studded cast of ringers, he went too far in the other direction, recording almost the entire LP all by his lonesome. The great Small Faces/Faces bassist and singer Ronnie Lane makes a cameo, as do musical gadfly Billy Nicholls and percussionist Caleb Quaye, best known for his work with Elton John and Hall & Oates, and that’s it. Townshend even plays the drums, adequately if not inspired, and who knew? I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he also took charge of mopping the studio WC.

Opener “Pure and Easy” is real pretty, lovely actually, but it doesn’t measure up to The Who version on Odds and Sods, with its powerhouse closing and great drumming by Keith Moon. But Pete’s take is still quite nice, and well worth a listen, for his guitar solo, his equally cool keyboards, and the song’s takeout, which features some nice drumming and Townshend repeating, “There once was a note, listen,” which may be cooler on The Who version, but still packs a punch here.

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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: Jonathan Richman,
I, Jonathan

Celebrating Jonathan Richman on his 71st birthday.Ed.

With 1976’s The Modern Lovers Jonathan Richman bequeathed us one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever. Then he had a change of heart. “I believe that any group that hurts the ears of infants sucks,” he said, giving up VU-school riffs and proto-punk sonic thrust in favor of wide-eyed songs of innocence for kiddies of all ages that couldn’t hurt the ears of crickets, much less babies.

Artists evolve; it’s the nature of art. But does anybody out there find Richman’s aggressive optimism as depressing as I do? And am I the only one who thinks Richman’s affected loony toons for naïfs and bohos make him the Pee Wee Herman of rock?

On The Modern Lovers Richman historically situated himself in the here and now, the here being the Boston suburbs and the now being the dawn of the seventies, a time in which he found himself both in (he was in NYC to catch the Velvet Underground in their glory) and out (drugs? Our boy was the original straightedge kid) of place. On 1992’s I, Jonathan he is in full retreat to the 1960s, both spiritually and sonically, which is to say that it’s not just the song forms on I, Jonathan that have been largely ransacked from rock’s distant musical past.

Richman has always been a romantic, and it’s due to this that even such quintessentially contemporary Modern Lovers cuts as “Roadrunner” carry with them what I can only call a nostalgia for the Now. I, Jonathan is the work of a man ruled by the more conventional form of nostalgia; for the most part he’s looking backwards and romanticizing the past. Ray Davies could pull of this sort of thing because he was anything but a naïf, and always undercut his nostalgia with a knowing wink that told you he fully understood that the past wasn’t as great as everybody makes it out to be. Richman never winks because he’s a true believer, and “knowing” simply isn’t a word in his vocabulary.

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Graded on a Curve:
Linda Ronstadt,
Live in Hollywood

Through no fault of her own, Linda Ronstadt has been relegated to the 1970s soft-rock camp. Some would even label her an easy-listening artist, but they’d change their mind by listening to her fiery takes on Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ “It’s So Easy.” Say what you will about the long-time denizen of West Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon scene, she’s more than a lovely voice.

Ronstadt has primarily covered other musicians’ songs, but she’s always left her unique stamp on them. Like Joe Cocker at his best, she’s made their songs her songs, and many of those songs were written by her L.A. contemporaries: Warren Zevon, Lowell George, Townes Van Zant, Neil Young, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the list goes on. If Thelonious Monk was a close personal friend, I would have to include him on the list.

There are plenty of welcome vinyl introductions to Ronstadt’s work. Studio LPs such as 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel and 1977’s Simple Dreams are as good as any, as is 1976’s Greatest Hits. There are some more extensive compilations out there as well. But my personal favorite is 2019’s Live in Hollywood, which was recorded in 1980 at Television Center Studios in Hollywood for broadcast as a special on HBO. Only three of its twelve songs were previously recorded, making it an essential purchase for fans looking for songs they’d yet to hear.

Ronstadt isn’t known for having grit in her voice, or muscle for that matter. But on Live in Hollywood she makes it clear that Linda Ronstadt the MOR (in some folks’ opinion anyway) can be a real belter. It doesn’t hurt that her backing band are not just crack musicians but close friends, and they include the likes of Little Feat keyboard player Bill Payne, guitarist Kenny Edwards, Stone Poneys founder and frequent Ronstadt collaborator, drummer about town Russ Kunkel, and backing vocalist and singer/songwriter Wendy Waldman. They lend Live in Hollywood an organic feel—their warm and intimate sound is miles away from the clinically cold sound coming out of Ronstadt’s contemporaries at the time.

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Graded on a Curve:
Elvis Presley,
Having Fun with
Elvis on Stage

1974’s Having Fun with Elvis on Stage is my favorite album by the King. On this bizarre throwaway you get snippets of Presley goofing off, having fun, cracking wise, spouting complete gibberish, and generally behaving like Robin Williams in full-blown manic mode before live audiences, quite possibly while stoned out of his legendary pompadour on serious narcotics. There are no songs. No signs of the Elvis who could deliver the goods on stage long after he ceased to produce great albums. This is Elvis unleashed, free to be his absurdist self, and the results are both surpassingly strange and weirdly touching.

As you’d expect this LP of often surreal stage banter—which is universally acknowledged as Elvis’ worst—has a dizzying and disjointed feel; you go abruptly from one monologue or audience interaction to another, without segues or warning. Having Fun with Elvis on Stage was a shameless money-grubbing ploy by Elvis’ rapacious manager Colonel Tom Parker, whose intention it was to milk his cash cow for every shekel he could get. But to anyone interested in treating Elvis as psychological study, it’s a goldmine.

It helps that Elvis has an adoring audience. He was the King, for God’s sake, and if he wants to act the role of his own court jester that’s just fine with the faithful who’d stuck with him through albums like 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair and 1965’s Harum Scarum. To call his fans undiscriminating is a massive understatement—they’d have no doubt made a gold record of Elvis Reads Excerpts from Mein Kampf. I’m sure some of the audience’s laughter on the album was of the nervous sort; those closest to the stage must have looked into his pinwheel eyes as he went full Andy Kaufman and realized the man was either on some very strong medicine or an off-the-charts lunatic, or both.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ooh La La

Remembering Ian McLagan on the date of his birth.Ed.

The Faces may well have been the best party band of their era, if not all time. The Rolling Stones were all sex and menace, the Who was a thinking man’s band, while the Kinks dealt in England’s hallowed past as viewed through the prism of its dystopian present. Which left the Faces, who boogied and drank to excess and were cheerful, mischievous lads, ne’er-do-wells of the sort who frequently got tossed out of parties for engaging in some innocent fun. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they even managed to get themselves thrown out of their own parties. They were, as the title of their excellent 1995 best-of compilation noted, Good Boys When They’re Asleep.

Rock’s most impish rotters only released four LPs. Or five if you count 1974’s live Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, which was credited to both Stewart and the Faces—a sly signal that Stewart’s band mates were no longer equals, but in effect had been relegated to his backing band. It was this development that caused the great Ronnie Lane to split the band, to be replaced on bass by Tetsu Yamauchi, and that soon led to guitarist Ronnie Wood’s desertion to the Rolling Stones, spelling the end of one of my favorite bands in the universe.

Lane’s decision to part ways with the Faces was partly attributable to Stewart’s comments following the release of the band’s final studio LP, 1973’s Ooh La La. Stewart, preoccupied with the enormous success of his solo career, largely left the LP’s recording in the hands of Lane, then came out in the press afterwards and called the results a “stinking, rotten album.” To quote another Faces tune, Rod, you’re so rude. Especially for a guy who would soon be releasing songs like “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

But at their peak, The Faces were a great band, both in the studio and on stage. Its members included several former Small Faces in Ian McLagan on keyboards; Ronnie Lane on bass, guitars, and vocals; and Kenney Jones on drums and percussion. Indeed the Faces were the Small Faces, minus Steve Marriott—who formed Humble Pie and took his boogie in a decidedly harder direction than the Faces—but plus Ronnie Wood and Rod the Mod. Lane’s amiable vocals provided a nice counterpoint to Stewart’s raunchier trademark sandpaper rasp—to say nothing of his lascivious cackle—and the songs were often written by two or more members of the band.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sheet Music

Celebrating Graham Gouldman, born on this day in 1946.Ed.

Looking for some sophisticated English entertainment? Well put on the old school tie, break out the crumpets and watercress tea sandwiches, offer Viscount Basil Clement-Clawsey a cup of Earl Grey tea, and put 10cc’s Sheet Music on the gramophone. Then unstiffen your upper lip just long enough to say in your poshest English accent, “You’ll love this, old boy. They’re no Foghat, mind you. And by the way, you look quite dashing in your black silk stockings and whalebone corset.”

10cc were an English art pop band whose American success has been limited to two of their most traditional songs: 1975’s “I’m Not in Love,” which rose to No. 2 on the pop charts, and 1976’s “The Things We Do For Love,” which made its classy way to No. 5. Musically, 10cc’s closest American counterparts are Sparks, whose elegantly witty songs look at the world askew, and like 10cc have been rewarded by limited commercial success.

The difference between 10cc and Sparks is the former have a fuller sound and lusher vocals. 10cc is made up of a quartet of multi-instrumentalists and typically utilizes multiple vocalists on individual songs. Sparks is just Ron Mael on keyboards and brother Russell on vocals. The bands share a quirky sense of humor, but Sparks win the cleverness sweepstakes hands down. The trouble with Sparks is that, for all but diehard fans, a little of their music goes a very long way.

On their sophomore outing, 1974’s Sheet Music, 10cc bring another band to mind as well: Bachman Turner Overdrive. Just Kidding. I’m talking Queen. It’s there in the complex song structures (think “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and the vocals, which you can’t hear without thinking the Freddie Mercury of “Killer Queen.” And it’s hard not to detect the Bonzo Dog Band in their music as well, both in the absurdist lyrics and the odd musical touches—one rarely runs across a song (in this case “Somewhere in Hollywood”) that comes complete with tap dancing.

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