Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Celebrity Skin

Celebrating Patty Schemel, born on this day in 1967.Ed.

Lots of people despised Courtney Love back in the day. They viewed her as the talentless and vulgar villain in the lurid, drugged-out soap opera that was her marriage with Kurt Cobain, and if you listened to some of them, she was actually responsible for murdering the poor guy. Bullshit. To all of it. And to prove them all wrong, Love’s band Hole produced one of the very best albums of 1998, Celebrity Skin.

Celebrity Skin was Hole’s third LP, and there are those who prefer its predecessors (1991’s Pretty on the Inside and 1994’s Live Through This) because Celebrity Skin constituted a turn away from post-grunge punk towards a more pop sound. In addition, unlike most of the songs on Hole’s previous efforts, the bulk of the songs on Celebrity Skin were team efforts, with another two being written by guitarist/collaborator Eric Erlandson without Love’s assistance. Finally, Love saw fit to enlist the help of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy “Ol’ Cueball” Corgan, who gets partial songwriting credits on five of the LP’s twelve tracks.

The songs on Celebrity Skin aren’t merely pretty on the inside; they’re pretty on the outside as well. The LP’s title is its theme—Love abandons overcast Seattle for sunny California, and the LP’s pop leanings reflect that fact. Which isn’t to say it’s themes are sunny as well—far from it. It’s the contrast between sun-drenched melody and dark message that makes Celebrity Skin so potent a work.

Both of the LP’s two opening tracks make this clear. The title track has a guitar riff as sharp as a razor, and opens with the great lines “Oh, make me over/I’m all I wanna be/A walking study/In demonology,” after which Love runs down the cost of Hollywood celebrity (“No second billing ’cause you’re a star now/Oh, Cinderella, they aren’t sluts like you/Beautiful garbage, beautiful dresses”) and failure (“When I wake up in my makeup/Have you ever felt so used up as this?/It’s all so sugarless/Hooker, waitress, model, actress/Oh, just go nameless”). But Love ends it all on a defiant note, “You want a part of me/Well, I’m not selling cheap/No, I’m not selling cheap.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Illinois Speed Press,
The Illinois Speed Press

Chicago’s Illinois Speed Press’ dual guitar attack has been said to have inspired Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington to form Lynyrd Skynyrd, and if true (I’ve read like five books on Skynyrd and never heard of ‘em) it’s their only lasting legacy.

Like me you’ve probably never heard of them unless you made the Midwest festival circuit at the tail end of the sixties, caught ‘em at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood (where they played regularly) or just happened to be watching the tube the time they played American Bandstand, which is too bad because on their 1969 eponymous debut they do a whole lot of top-notch axe jousting. They had a wild, dissonant streak too—the album’s opening track is proto-noise rock that probably led at least a few first-time listeners to take a ball-peen hammer to the platter.

When the Illinois Speed Express is remembered at all it’s because guitarist/vocalist and co-founder Paul Cotton stepped out of the band and into Jim Messina’s shoes in Poco in 1970, which I can’t help but think of as a classic case of downward mobility. But it made sense because by then Illinois Speed Express had gone the country rock route with 1970’s Duet, joining the legion of enlistees in the Sweetheart of the Rodeo revolution. Which was simple enough—you didn’t have to sign any enlistment papers, just trade in your paisley shirt and Beatles boots for a fringed buckskin jacket like the one David Crosby liked to ego around in and learn how to play pedal steel guitar. God those were awful times.

But on The Illinois Speed Press you won’t hear much country—just blues-based, R&B-tinged, heavy on the twin-guitar rock. Despite their name I seriously doubt the boys in the band were speed freaks, and when it came to velocity it was an open question as to whether they could beat their compatriots from the Sucker State REO Speedwagon in the 100-yard dash, but what they had in spades was a pair of top-notch guitarists. Their songs may not have been all that, but Cotton and fellow lead guitarist/vocalist Kal David knew how to rip it up and tear it up, assisted by Mike Anthony on organ and piano, Rob Lewine on bass, and Fred Page on drums.

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Graded on a Curve:
Iggy Pop, The Idiot

Celebrating Iggy Pop on his 76th birthday.Ed.

David Bowie was a great artist, but he was also an appropriator and opportunist, and was not above exploiting his friends to achieve his own goals. Take Iggy Pop. Pop had been floundering since the Stooges dissolved, and found himself in Berlin with Bowie who, like Pop, was trying to fight both his drug demons and find his way to a new sound, which would emerge in 1977’s Low. But before Low he produced Pop, as much out of self-interest as friendship. As he would say later, “Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound.”

Fortunately for Pop, their creative collaboration—for their sessions were much, much more than Bowie’s simply using Pop as a laboratory animal for musical experimentation—resulted in 1977’s The Idiot, a work of genius and a radical departure from Pop’s frankly self-destructive proto-punk with the Stooges. Indeed, it was so radical it skipped punk entirely, and disappointed plenty of people who thought Pop should have been taking advantage of a sound and attitude he had helped to foment.

The Idiot would have been unthinkable to anyone familiar with Pop’s previous personae as rock’s wildebeest, who flung himself about to the frenetic roar produced by the Stooges, seemingly oblivious to the physical and psychic damage he was inflicting upon himself. On The Idiot, the roar of guitars was replaced by a funky and robotic foray into more Apollonian territory, with Pop singing over Kraftwerk-flavored art rock, quieter tunes some with Gothic overtones, and even proto-industrial electronica.

Most of its songs would be celebrated by proponents of the various genres of post-punk, demonstrating conclusively just how far ahead of its time it was. On a bummer of a note, it was even the soundtrack to Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, as it was found spinning in the room where Curtis hanged himself.

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Graded on a Curve: Stereolab,
Switched On

Musical chemists—by which I mean fans, critics, and guys in white lab coats and thick glasses raising test tubes into the air and crying, “Eureka! And they said I was mad! Mad!”—tend to consider 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup and 1997’s Dots and Loops the perfect distillation of the Anglo-French “post-rock” band Stereolab’s sound. An aurally sophisticated compound of Krautrock, jazz, lounge, funk, Brazilian, and 1960s pop elements, Stereolab’s music could rightfully be called retro-futuristic. It wasn’t, technically speaking, space age bachelor pad music—that was a far different musical phenomenon—but the phrase so perfectly encapsulated the Stereolab aesthetic they entitled a 1993 mini-LP The Groop Played “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music.”

I’m a musical chemist myself, but a radical one—the guy in the white lab coat in the previous paragraph everyone thinks should be in a straitjacket. Why? Because Stereolab’s easy listening leanings and later influences do nothing for me. I prefer the band’s very first records, when Krautrock was their preferred métier. Keep it simple, stupid is my motto, especially when simple puts you in the same league as such immortal German bands as Neu!, Can, Faust, Harmonia, and La Düsseldorf, amongst others.

I suppose I should mention Stereolab’s allegiance to the Situationist International and its critiques of advanced capitalism but frankly the word “Marxism” causes my eyes to glaze over, and last I checked Stereolab themselves are a product of advanced capitalism—I can’t walk into a record store and walk out with one of their albums without paying for it unless I’m a member of the Baader-Meinhof Group, whose critique of advanced capitalism involved taking it from the man rather than selling him albums full of didactic blather for profit.

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Graded on a Curve:
James Chance and the Contortions, Buy

Celebrating James Chance, born on this day in 1953.Ed.

Of all of the bands that came out of New York City’s No Wave music scene, my faves have always been James Chance (aka James White) and the Contortions. The Contortions combined the atonal jazz skronk of Chance’s blurting and squealing alto saxophone with broken-glass-sharp shards of guitar, played atop one very funky bottom. I preferred Chance because you could actually dance to his music, agitated as it was, because in his own special way he never abandoned that James Brown groove—he just tortured it a bit.

How Chance’s sax stands up to that of “serious” jazz players is open to debate; while he briefly studied under the great David Murray, I think of Chance as an outlier, what with his brief tenure in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Brown screams, nihilistic world view, and frequently antagonistic interactions with the very people who paid money to see him play live. These very “punk” attributes certainly separated him from the likes of his free jazz contemporaries, whose style he incorporated into his own playing. But the bottom line, when it comes to comparisons between Chance and the many other purveyors of free jazz is this: Can the guy actually play his horn, of is he just one very ballsy but amateurish poseur?

I asked my brother Jeffrey, a world-renowned free jazz expert, and this is what he said: “Regarding James Chance, I’m not quite sure where to rank him. Sonically, his alto falls neatly in the Luther Thomas/Noah Howard/Albert Ayler range. Chops-wise, I don’t think there’s a big enough pool of recorded material, especially material where he really stretches out, to see how good he really is, or could have been. That said, I think he’s ridiculously interesting, and captivating, as a soloist. What may have started as a joke, or a goof, very well could have morphed into something far greater.

John Lurie, who began in much the same vein, over time developed into an incredibly articulate player/composer. He outgrew the caricature he first presented himself as to become, in the end, a fine altoist whose sound fit hand in glove with his compositional skills. If James Chance ever played/recorded with some of the more jazz-oriented No Wave players, I think he could have done much the same thing. Imagine him sitting in with the Free Lancing-era James Blood Ulmer trio; that could have been the crucible. As it stands, however, you treat him as a joke at your own disservice.”

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Graded on a Curve: Happy Mondays, Greatest Hits

Celebrating Bez in advance of his 59th birthday tomorrow.Ed.

A crash course for the ravers—back in the late 1980s, Happy Mondays became the veritable house band for Madchester’s e-fueled rave scene, which transformed an entire generation of Joe Bloggs-clad English kids into pinwheel-eyed, whizz-happy 24-hour party people stepping on and up, up, up to a dizzying sound composed of equal parts alternative rock, acid house, funk, and psychedelia.

Oh, it was a glorious time, a true Renaissance as it were. I’d have loved to be there when the party started, and every blessed baggy-jeans wearing ecstasy-altered geezer at the Haçienda loved every other baggy-jeans wearing ecstasy-altered geezer at the Haçienda. And every single one of them knew the song—which just happened to be the Happy Monday’s deliriously danceable “Step On,” with its infectious keyboard progression and funky drumming—would go on forever.

It didn’t of course—I strongly recommend Pulp’s “Sorted for e’s and Whizz” if you’re looking for a post-mortem—and Happy Mondays crashed as hard, or harder, than anybody else, having gone “crack crazy” (in guitarist Paul Ryder’s words) in Barbados during the sessions that would culminate in 1992’s Yes Please! But you can still hear the joy of being young and very, very chemically altered in every song on Happy Mondays’ 1999 Greatest Hits.

On such immortal ravers as “Step On,” “Kinky Afro,” “Loose Fit,” “Mad Cyril,” and “24-Hour Party People” brothers Shaun and Paul Ryder and Company (including of course, the band’s official “dancer” Bez) kept the punters soaring above the dance floor all night long. It’s all there in “Kinky Afro”—Brit pop melded smoothly to a seductive groove—and “Loose Fit,” the definitive baggy anthem and Madchester fashion manifesto, which fuses funky percussion to a lovely riff and a message (“Don’t need no tight fits in my wardrobe today”) that put a sizeable segment of England’s youth in flares.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Some Enchanted

Blue Öyster Cult’s 1978 live album Some Enchanted Evening is a devil’s bargain. Unlike the band’s live 1974 two-fer On Your Feet or on Your Knees it includes the absolutely essential “Godzilla” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” but unlike the latter album it’s short on classics—it has to be, seeing as how it only has seven songs and two of them are covers. The result is an album that despite its great songs is lacking in ambition, and the miracle is it remains the band’s biggest seller.

The entire Blue Öyster Cult Konzept was an elaborate shuck, right down to the cryptic band name, hilarious umlaut and utterly cool logo. The band’s “Career of Evil” persona was a goof, conceived by the high-spirited inmates of a group house at Long Island’s Stony Brook University. One of them was rock critic Sandy Pearlman, who was quickly named the band’s manager and contributed lyrics, and from the very start they exploited the kinds of dark imagery and subject matter (Nazi fighter jets, Altamont motorcycle gangs, dominance and submission) designed to induce a sense of menace. And this from a group of friendly Jewish guys from the nation’s first suburb whose collective notion of evil probably consisted of sneaking free food from the university’s dining hall.

But the masses bought it—hell, I bought it—and this despite such dead giveaways as songs like “She’s As Beautiful as Foot,” the lyrics of which were penned by noted rock scribe and band associate Richard Meltzer, who would go on to contribute the lyrics for “Burnin’ for You.” Blue Öyster Cult created a mock mythology for itself, which made the band one of rock’s most mysterious bands and greatest put-ons, although they probably wouldn’t have made it out of Long Island had it not been for the fact that guitarists/vocalists Eric Bloom and Donald Roeser (aka Buck Dharma), keyboardist Allen Lanier, bass player/vocalist Joe Bouchard, and drummer Albert Bouchard knew their way around their instruments and had a knack for writing powerful but melodic songs with gnomic subject matter. Take “7 Screaming Diz-Busters.” I’ll be damned if I know what a diz-buster is, and if you do I’d appreciate your letting me know.

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Graded on a Curve: Rainbow, Rising

Celebrating Ritchie Blackmore, born on this day in 1945.Ed.

Call it heavy metal, call it Dungeons and Dragons Rock, call it whatever you want; Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple band Rainbow melded neo-classical rock riffs to swords and sorcery imagery to produce—especially on their sophomore release, 1976’s Rising—music that was a necessary addition to any teenage stoner’s 8-track collection. Because this shit sounded extreme, man, coming out of the open window of your bitchin’ Camaro in the high school parking lot.

Me, I was never down with Rainbow in my misspent youth, just as I was never down with Deep Purple. I thought Rising, and its predecessor 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, were just plain dumb. But I’m here to recant. I mean, Rising IS dumb, but it also rocks balls, and at its best meets Led Zeppelin on their own terms, and holds its own. Sure, Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio’s fantasy lyrics are risible, but so are plenty of Robert Plant’s fantasy lyrics, as anybody who has ever tried to figure out exactly what “if there’s a bustle in the hedgerow don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May queen” will tell you.

Having had a chance to listen to both Deep Purple and Rainbow, I can tell you I prefer the latter for several reasons. First, Rainbow kept their songs shorter; no 20 plus minute excursions for these fellas. Second, I prefer Tony Carey’s keyboards to those of Jon Lord, which I always found too heavy and intrusive. Finally, Rainbow never possessed the pure lack of introspection it took to release an album entitled Come Taste the Band. Oh, and I can’t listen to “Smoke on the Water” without wanting that “stupid with a flare gun” to fire shots into both my ears.

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Graded on a Curve:
West, Bruce & Laing,
Live ‘n’ Kickin’

Look, I’m going to be straight up with you. I am not reviewing 1974’s Live ‘n’ Kickin’ by dubious supergroup and power trio West, Bruce & Laing because I either like or dislike the band, or because I find them interesting in any way, shape or form—I don’t. I am reviewing Live ‘n’ Kickin’ solely because upon its release Village Voice scribe Tom Hull saw fit to give it an E+, a grade which, so far as I know, doesn’t exist. I was a terrible student whose only talent was for academic fiasco, and I never received an E+. Nor did you or anyone else, I’m willing to wager.

But suffice it to say that the moment I saw that grade I knew I had to listen to Live ‘n’ Kickin’. Only a surpassingly vile, incompetent, or beyond-belief mediocre piece of shoddy workmanship could warrant a grade like that, and snarling Dobermans, electric fences, and fleets of screaming Stuka dive bombers couldn’t stop me from gently lowering it on to my turntable the way you might a stick of unstable dynamite and listening to it.

And sure enough it’s a perfect example of live self-indulgence, complete with lengthy drum and bass solos, both being the banes of the lesser classes of rock bands of that benighted era. The trio make a primitive din and in general sound like a subpar Humble Pie, except the LP’s four songs meander like an Alzheimer’s patient who has escaped his rest home.

The band jams on and on, each player showing off his chops with utter disregard for what his band mates are doing, and the occasional coherent moment passes by like a flash of lightning and is lost forever. They’re headed elsewhere, our threesome, that elsewhere being the grandstands, where they spend their time pushing one another aside to get their fair due of applause from a far-too-easy-to-please audience.

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Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat, Little Feat

Remembering Lowell George, born on this day in 1945.Ed.

Little Feat’s eponymous 1971 debut may not have changed the world, but to those who were listening it must have come as a revelation–here were four guys, two of ‘em Mothers of Invention alums, boldly staking their claim (and a decent claim it was) as America’s very own Rolling Stones. Not bad for a first outing.

Fronted by guitarist/vocalist and native Angeleno Lowell George–who with his gutbucket growl was the youngest white old black bluesman ever to graduate from Hollywood High School–Little Feat laid it on the line on their first LP. You get lysergic blues, trucker toons, some Sticky Fingers-school country honk–these guys took Gram Parsons’ concept of Cosmic American Music and ran with it. This is edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold music, the sound of the Mississippi Delta on hallucinogens–a mythical collaboration between Don Van Vliet, Dave Dudley, Mick & Keith, ZZ Top, Slim Harpo, and Harpo Marx.

Robert Christgau opined that these guys could “pass for” the Band, but he’s fulla shit. The Band always held things in check; they were as tightly wound as a clock, and clocks aren’t in the business of howling. They never hit as berserk a note as the Feat do on “Hamburger Midnight,” and there’s simply no mistaking the very agitated freak looking for safe harbor in “Strawberry Flats” to Levon Helm’s resigned drifter looking for a place to lay his head in “The Weight.” And the Americana-loving Robbie Robertson never could have come up with as song as bizarrely lovely as “Brides of Jesus,” which is set where exactly? In Lowell George’s LSD-scrambled mind?

No, the early Little Feat was a freak’s dream’s come true. Just check out the sorta Captain Beefheart-esque “Hamburger Midnight,” on which George plays some truly frenzied slide guitar and delivers the most unhinged performance of his career. Or “Strawberry Flats,” wherein poor Lowell (who’s been “ripped off and run out of town”) knocks on a friend’s door in search of succor only to discover: “His hair was cut off and he was wearing a suit/And he said not in my house, not in my house/”You look like you’re part of a conspiracy.”

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Graded on a Curve: Tommy James & The Shondells, The Essentials: Tommy
James & The Shondells

Tommy James has not led a boring life. The pride of Niles, Michigan and his band the Shondells saw their first single, 1964’s impossibly innocent ode to sex “Hanky Panky,” become a modest Midwestern hit before fading out, leading to the dissolution of the band. And that would have been the end of it had the song not reached the ears of a Pittsburgh DJ, whose ceaseless promotion broke it nationwide and took it to the top of the pop charts, leading a shocked and (by then band-less) James to hire a group of nobodies he ran across playing a club in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

That’s hardly a unique story, but James’ unfortunate connections with the Mob during his dealings with Roulette Records and its president Morris Levi—the real life inspiration for Herman “Hesh” Rabkin of Sopranos fame—and participation in Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign tour as “Youth Affairs Commission” director are. Oh, and then there was the night in 1970 a doped-up James walked off stage in Birmingham, Alabama and promptly dropped dead (he was ultimately resuscitated). As for Hubert Humphrey, he was so grateful to James he wrote the liner notes for the band’s 1968 album Crimson & Clover. In the notes he misspells “rallies” as “rallys.” No wonder the guy lost.

James rejected the bubblegum music label, and he was right to do so. Unlike virtually every bubblegum musician out there, James wrote or co-wrote most of the Shondells’ hits, and his band actually played on their records. And the band’s music wasn’t targeted exclusively toward the pre-teen set. Even “Hanky Panky” and “I Think We’re Alone Now”—both of which I couldn’t get enough of as a pre-teen—appealed to both kids and their parents, as did most of the songs on the hit-filled 2002 Rhino Records compilation The Essentials: Tommy James & the Shondells. “Hanky Panky” and the band’s other songs may have earned the Shondells zero cred amongst the Summer of Love’s drop-outs, freaks and hairies, but America’s much larger short-haired demographic loved them. Squares Tommy James & the Shondells may have been, but America was still one square nation, LSD, sexual revolution, and anti-Vietnam war protest marches notwithstanding.

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Graded on a Curve: Blodwyn Pig,
Getting to This

Celebrating Mick Abrahams, born on this day in 1943.Ed.

When friends recommended I check out Blodwyn Pig’s 1970 sophomore LP Getting to This, I was dubious. This was, after all, the band England’s New Musical Express praised for its promising blend of “Hooting grunting blues mingled with snorts of jazz.” The only adjective they omitted was squealing. Then there’s the issue of the awful band name, which only beats Pearls Before Swine by snout. You really shouldn’t name your band after livestock, unless you’re The Cows.

But now that I’ve listened to Getting to This, I can only say the above description is an understatement. Ex-Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams and gimcrack saxophonist/flautist Jack Lancaster (who’s been known to play two saxes at once just like Rahsaan Roland Kirk!) do more than hoot, grunt and snort—on Getting to This they whip up a pig’s ear stew, and toss in everything but the trotters.

The eclectic shtick doesn’t always work. Take “San Francisco Sketches.” It opens with some ocean atmospherics ala the Who’s “Sea and Sand,” then cuts to Lancaster sitting beneath a tree in Sherwood Forest playing a fey flute. Then a high school jazz band enters stage right, Abrahams plays a hot dog of a guitar solo, and a choir of heavenly voices enters stage left and pulls a Godspell on ya. Then things kick into overdrive, Abrahams’ guitar adds kraut to the dog, and Lancaster follows up with a tasty sax solo. Me, I want to take a surgical knife to the damn thing and remove the parts that irk me. I guess this is what your aficionados call progressive rock. I prefer to call it attention deficit disorder.

“Variations on Nanos” is even more out there. Lancaster opens on a freak flute note, launches into a flitting butterfly of a solo, then hands things over to Abrahams, who serves up a subdued but classy guitar solo. All’s as should be until Abrahams (who sounds a whole lot like nemesis Ian Anderson) decides to sing from the deep end of a swimming pool before climbing out, drying himself off, and launching into a dead-on impersonation of Captain Beefheart. Weird, but not as weird as “To Rass Man,” a Deutsche Schlager Oompah reggae tune designed to excite the lederhosen hacky-sack crowd.

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Graded on a Curve:
Roger McGuinn, Thunderbyrd

The biggest takeaway from this so-so 1977 solo album is former Byrd Roger McGuinn’s eclectic taste in covers—he takes on Tom Petty, Bob Dylan (no surprise there), George Jones, and who’d have thunk it, the great Peter Frampton. Cool, right? Unfortunately the covers are testimony to the drying up of McGuinn’s songwriting gift—not that should come as any shock, as the process had been going on for years. Another takeaway is how much McGuinn sounds like Tom Petty on his lackluster cover of “American Girl.” Can you believe it? He stole Petty’s voice!

And the music is so-so too. Only one of McGuinn’s originals—all of which feature lyrics by Jacque Levy, who penned most of the lyrics for Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire—will knock you back on your heels, and that’s “Russian Hill,” although “Dixie Highway” holds its own. You’d be excused for suspecting that the guy who wrote some of The Byrds’ best songs—including “Eight Miles High” and “Ballad of Easy Rider”—didn’t bother showing up for the sessions.

His cover of Frampton’s romancer “All Night Long” sticks too close to the original, so you may as well listen to Peter’s version. The McGuinn/Levy original “It’s Gone” is up-tempo and has that Byrds’ feel—McGuinn’s ringing guitar brings back better days, if nowhere close to his best days. “Dixie Highway” is another original, and sounds exactly the way you think it would: rollicking Southern-tinged country rock with some nice honky-tonk piano gratis Marty Grebb. “American Girl” has a decided limp; his arrangement has none of the speed rush and passion of the original, and Tom Scott’s MOR saxophone doesn’t help.

“We Can Do It All Over Again” (written by veteran producer/player Barry Goldberg and Mentor Ralph Williams, who wrote “Drift Away”) is pleasant if hardly inspired; McGuinn’s cover of George Jones’ 1955 rockabilly hit “Why Baby Why” has the requisite get up and go but lacks the hillbilly “let’s hear some fiddle,” flavor of the original. On the other side of the coin, the country rock original “I’m Not Lonely Anymore” stands up quite nicely, thanks in large part to Rick Vito’s dobro.

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Graded on a Curve: Procol Harum,
Procol Harum

Remembering Keith Reid.Ed.

Oh groovy of groovies! Procol Harum MADE the Summer of Love with their immortal debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” If I recall correctly John Lennon used to pump it out the windows of his psychedelic Rolls Royce while driving stoned immaculate down happening Carnaby Street, and why not? The sound is heavy as Bach, the lyrics are, like, deep, man, and listening to it is like slow dancing your way across the bottoms of tangerine seas while the sun of the real world beats on the waves above you a million, trillion miles away.

John Lennon again: “You play it when you take some acid and wooooo.”

A couple of months later Procol Harum gave us their debut LP (and one of the finest albums of 1967), Procol Harum. Released by my favorite label, Regal Zonophone, Procol Harum is every bit as groovy as “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which didn’t make it onto the U.K. release but was included on the U.S. one. Procol Harum can be divided into heavy tunes and pop lightweights but it doesn’t have a loser on it unless you include the silly “Good Captain Clack,” which the folks at Regal Zonophone had the good sense to jettison from the U.S. version in favor of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

People talk about Procol Harum being a slice of proto-prog and I suppose they’re right; organist Matthew Fisher liked his dead composers every bit as much as Keith Emerson. But–but!–he never lowered himself to slavish imitation but instead alchemized the sounds of all those defunct powdered wig-wearing geniuses in such a way that you never feel like you’re being forced to inhale some moribund Beethoven’s classical gas.

Take “Repent Walpurgis.” It may have been built on the moldering corpses of Charles-Marie Widor and Johann Sebastian Bach but what I hear is one cool instrumental; sure, Fisher waxes classical on the organ, but he’s playing it with soul, and soul is what differentiates this baby from your typical ELP Mussorgsky plod. The proof? His organ sounds right at home with Robin “Bridge of Sighs” Trower’s truly astounding guitar caterwaul. Fisher’s more playful, too; his organ on the jaunty “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” may fall under the label “neoclassical,” but it’s also a lot of fun.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Band,
Live at the Academy
of Music 1971

Remembering Richard Manuel, born on this day in 1943.Ed.

When I think of The Band, which just happens to be my favorite group in the whole wide world, it’s not “The Weight” that first comes to mind, or “This Wheel’s on Fire” or “Rockin’ Chair” or even the brilliant body of ramshackle demos they recorded with Bob Dylan in the basement of the rented house they dubbed Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York in 1967.

No, what I think about is the scene in 2003’s Festival Express—a documentary about the financially ill-fated but fun for all involved 1970 rock tour that crossed Canada by train—where Rick Danko leads a lounge car full of rock stars (including Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia) in a wonderfully wasted rendition of “Ain’t No More Cane (On the Brazos).” Danko is so gloriously fucked-up, and his crazed smile and arm-waving performance so full of joy, that it seems the embodiment of the spirit of The Band itself, whose ensemble playing brimmed over with high spirits, camaraderie, and the sheer joy of making music.

The Band—whose country and Motown-tinged roots rock and wonderful songs filled with colorful characters conjured up the topsy-turvy spirit of a mythical and long-lost America—released only one live album during its original incarnation, 1972’s double-live Rock of Ages. Recorded during a triumphant four-night stint at NYC’s Academy of Music as 1971 came to a close, Rock of Ages featured The Band supplemented by a five-piece horn section arranged by New Orleans’ Allen Toussaint, as well as a guest appearance by Bob Dylan. It remains one of rock’s greatest live albums, along with Bob Dylan at Budokan… er, make that Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert and Killdozer’s The Last Waltz, which is not to be confused with another album bearing the same name by a band I can’t think of at the moment.

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