Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Wedding Album

What could possibly be worse than throwing your hard-earned money down a sewer grate? Buying this colossal ripoff. Why? Throwing your money down a sewer grate does not oblige you to bring the sewer home with you.

There’s a wonderful story surrounding John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Wedding Album. Seems a Melody Maker reviewer was sent the single album in the form of two, single-sided discs. Thinking it was a double album, the critic reviewed the two blank sides, which basically consisted of an engineer’s test signal. It speaks volumes about the album that he could make such a mistake. It says even more about the album that, although I’ve never heard the phantom sides, I am unequivocally prepared to say they’re improvements on the album itself.

The only thing interesting about Wedding Album is the packaging. An elaborate box set, designed by Apple Corps creative director John Kosh, it included sets of photos, drawings by Lennon, a reproduction of the couple’s marriage certificate, a picture of a slice of wedding cake, and a Mylar bag that had the word “Bagism” printed on it. Oh, and it also came with a booklet of press clippings about the couple. Your average wedding album does not come complete with press clippings, but your average newlyweds are not highly evolved egomaniacs. What would have been nice is if the whole fancy package had come with an actual slice of wedding cake instead of the vinyl contained within. You can’t eat vinyl, it might kill you, and in this case listening to it could be fatal as well.

Wedding Album is an unconscionable piece of work and speaks volumes about its makers’ colossal egotism. It is one thing to rip your fans off in a cynical money grab. Unscrupulous record labels looking to capitalize on a band’s popularity by releasing sub-sub-par material, with the band in question having no say in the matter, do it all the time. The scary thing about Wedding Album is it wasn’t a shameless attempt to empty your wallet. John and Yoko obviously believed their adoring fans would be grateful for the opportunity to open their wallets for this unlistenable celebration of their blessed union. There is only one word for this: narcissism. Wedding Album may well be the most narcissistic album ever released.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Marble Index

You have to hand it to Nico—she made her mark in rock history by dint of a set of vocal cords that would have made Siberia jealous. You have to put on winter clothes to listen to them.

The German one-time actress/model made her mark with the Velvet Underground, of course, then embarked on a solo career, and while her debut album is accessible in a shivery Teutonic way, her second album, 1968’s The Marble Index, is about as huggable as an ice machine. It’s one frigid piece of vinyl. Heavy gloves are necessary just to put it on the stereo. And talk about catatonically depressing. I strongly suspect it was Nico’s vocals that led Cher to say of the early music of the Velvets, “It will replace nothing but suicide.” This has not stopped The Marble Index from becoming a real cult favorite. Some people like dying in the snow.

So far as I know, Nico’s first musical press clipping was Richard Goldstein’s “A Quiet Night at the Balloon Farm.” Goldstein is worth quoting. “[The Velvet Underground] are special. They even have a chanteuse—Nico, who is half goddess, half icicle. If you say bad things about her singing, she doesn’t talk to you. If you say nice things, she doesn’t talk to you either. If you say that she sounds like a bellowing moose, she might smile if she digs the sound of that in French. On-stage, she is somewhat less than communicative. But she sings in perfect mellow ovals. It sounds something like a cello getting up in the morning. All traces of melody disappear early in her solo.” And so on.

But back to The Marble Index. One of its champions was the late, great Lester Bangs, who praised it despite the fact that it “scared” him. He described it as “self-torture.” Now that’s what I call a glowing review. The album was produced by John Cale, who had special things to say about Nico’s non-negotiable determination to accompany her trance-like vocals on harmonium on every track. Said Cale, “The harmonium was out of tune with everything. It wasn’t even in tune with itself.” He was wrong. The harmonium is in tune with her vocals, which are tuneless.

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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: Talking Heads,
Fear of Music

Celebrating David Byrne on his 71st birthday.Ed.

Am I the only one who thinks the pre-Remain in Light David Byrne was the funniest rocker this side of Randy Newman? He turned twitchy paranoia into humor, and then did such a good job of channeling his alternately hysterical and wooden persona we were left wondering whether we were listening to an actor or the real David Byrne. He was, in his own way, rock’s equivalent of Andy Kaufman.

Take “Animals” off my favorite Talking Heads LP, 1979’s Fear of Music. It may open with “I Zimbra,” that portent of the Talking Heads future what with its tribal disco, heaps of percussionists, Afro-centric rhythms, and lyrics by Dadaist Hugo Ball (to say nothing of Robert Fripp on guitar!), but on the remainder of the LP Byrne has yet to stop making sense. Crazy sense, perhaps, but sense nonetheless.

And on “Animals,” which I consider one of the funniest songs ever, Byrne plays a barking mad fellow with a paranoid grudge against our cohabitants in the animal kingdom. “I’m mad/And that’s a fact/Animals don’t help/Animals think/They’re pretty smart/Shit on the ground/See in the dark.” He then adds, “Trusting them/A big mistake!” followed by “They’re never there when you need them.” And he concludes his diatribe by ensuring us that we’re being snickered at behind our backs by our animal fellows: “I know the animals/Are laughing at us,” he sings, and then adds, “They think they know what’s best/They’re making a fool of us.” I crack up every time I hear the tune.

On “Electric Guitar,” meanwhile, Byrne fears electric guitars, or at least considers them “a crime against the state.” Indeed, a guitar finds itself before a judge and jury; their verdict, “Never listen to electric guitar.” And it’s sound advice, because as he repeats at the end of the tune, which is catchy as all hell by the way, “Someone controls electric guitar.” He never says whom, but if that isn’t paranoia, I don’t know what is.

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Graded on a Curve: Rapeman,
Two Nuns and
a Pack Mule

Musician/producer Steve Albini—who passed away recently at the age of 61—was a heckuva nice guy. He made pleasant, melodic music with a positive message, had nothing but good things to say about his fellow musicians, and I think read the wrong obituary. Because the Steve Albini who died about a week back was an abrasive person who made abrasive music and had a tongue dipped in battery acid.

Albini was best known for his work with the less-band-than-industrial-drill Big Black and as the no nonsense, zero-frills producer of bands both big (Nirvana)and small (Poster Children), many of whom he had hilariously scathing things to say. This was partly the reason he didn’t want his name on their records. “When I am hired to record a band,” he once wrote, “I do not wish to be associated with their charming little records.” What he was more than happy to do was kiss and tell.

Everybody has their favorite Steve Albini diss; mine include his description of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (which he produced) as “A patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top-dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.” I also like his bottom line on Bitch Magnet’s “Star Booty” EP: “Listening to this wittle wecord is about the dumbest thing you could do with it, especially if you’re short on dinnerware.” And lovable guy that he was, he described The Breeders’ drummer as looking “quite like an emu, except that her hair is thinner.” This is not a nice thing to say about a woman. Or a man. Or an emu, for that matter.

Albini was no fan of political correctness and his songs with Big Black—a noise rock outfit with an industrial feel thanks to “Roland” the drum machine—were taboo busters, rife with cynically “funny” takes on racism, homophobia, sexism, child sexual abuse, and god knows what else. If a Big Black song didn’t offend your sense of common decency, it was probably not a Big Black song. Outrage was Albini’s métier—it was always a simple matter of saying the next wrong thing. His was envelope-pushing comedy, but while the songs were remorselessly brutal exercises in drill-bit ear surgery, the jokes wore very thin very fast, and I tended to just ignore them.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sunshine Superman

Celebrating Donovan on his 78th birthday.Ed.

Scottish born Donovan Leitch went from folkie fop to Flower Power avatar as fast as you can say Mickie Most, and by so doing became “the voice” of “Swinging London” in our Year of the Lord 1966. He brought America’s West Coast psychedelic sound to England’s green and pleasant land, one-upping his pals in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the process. A pretty cheeky move, one has to admit, for the feckless lad Bob Dylan more or less savaged in Don’t Look Back.

Donovan’s first stab at freaking out was 1966’s Sunshine Superman, and it would be nice to report that it’s a stone-cold psychedelic classic from beginning to end. Alas, the same man who was pioneering the sitar sound and dayglo imagery was still nurturing Medieval fantasies, and the latter constitute jarring interruptions in what is otherwise one groovy slab of vinyl.

But not even “Guinevere” and “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” (written for Brian Jones’ girlfriend Linda Lawrence) can spoil the lysergic fun, and on “Season of the Witch” Donovan might as well be a soothsayer; its ominous vibe literally catapults us three long years into the future, when Altamont and Charles Manson would forever harsh the universal peace and love buzz. “It’s strange,” sings our Donovan looking over his shoulder, before going on to say cryptic things about how you have to pick up every stitch. Very spooky number what with that eerie organ and portentous bass line, and just what are those rabbits in the ditch running from any way? That great chicken-scratch guitar, maybe?

The title track is a slinky homage to getting really, really bent, and its sinuous contours, funky percussion, and rubber band bass are the perfect complements to Donovan’s cock-sure vocals. Studio ace Jimmy Page nails down a near-perfect guitar solo, Donovan brags that “Superman and Green Lantern/Ain’t got nothin’ on me,” and there’s a reason this baby soared, cape and all, to the top of the U.S. pop charts. It’s a perfect piece of sunny psychedelia and it’s brimming over with the kind of self-assurance that can only come out of a capsule.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bikini Kill,
The Singles

I’ve always been loathe to write about Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement in general because every time I read about either I run face first into discussions of third-wave feminism and find myself confronted with words like “post-structuralism,” and just ten minutes ago I ran across a doctoral dissertation (I’m assuming) entitled “From Girl to Woman to Grrrl: (Sub)Cultural Intervention and Political Activism in the Time of Post Feminism.” And while I consider myself an ardent feminist (the world would be a better place if women ran it) the horrible truth is I’m a frivolous person and simply not that smart. And Marx ruined me for manifestos. Foghat didn’t write manifestos.

So let’s just say that bands like Bikini Kill were angry and had damn good cause to be angry, and called for a revolution girl style now because one was desperately needed, what with rape, physical and sexual abuse, condescension, and all of the ugly thoughts and words and deeds of a patriarchal society that considered it their god-given right to tell women what they could and could not do with their bodies and minds, all of which Bikini kill saw not as abstractions but as day-to-day reality.

To rebel against a male-dominated society (hell, a world) where violence real and psychic are your daily fare, and to want to change that, and to tell young women they too could change that, put Bikini Kill and their like on the side of the angels. Recently it came out via an informal social media poll that woman would sooner run into a bear in the woods than a man. And not because bears are better looking.

While I’ve never been a big fan of angry music, especially when it comes from white male indie types (Fugazi, anyone?), I’m a huge fan of Bikini Kill because they produced some of the most ferocious, confrontational and succinctly brilliant music of the post-punk era, and seemed to be having fun while doing it. And their songs were complicated, nuanced, and went well beyond the simple rah-rah didacticism of “I am woman, hear me roar.” Not that they didn’t do their fare share of sloganeering. It’s simply that the messages in their songs—which were aimed at both young girls and their oppressors—went far beyond easily grasped agitpop. They could be a subtle bunch.

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Graded on a Curve:
Cheap Trick,
Heaven Tonight

Celebrating Tom Petersson on his 74th birthday.Ed.

What a cheap trick. Here Rockford, Illinois’ finest put out Heaven Tonight which I considered the coolest album in the galaxy, only to follow it up with Cheap Trick at Budokan and the heinous “I Want You to Want Me,” which I’ve had to suffer through like 80,000 times over the years. Every single person I know loves the damn song. I’d sooner listen to the death rattle of a unicorn.

That said, 1978’s Heaven Tonight–the band’s third–still makes me as giddy as an axe-wielding maniac at a remote summer camp. It’s a knee-trembling, rock ‘em sock ‘em, wham bam than you ma’am classic, and it solidly established Cheap Trick amongst America’s Power Pop elite alongside the Raspberries, Big Star, and (my campy faves) Redd Kross.

What set Cheap Trick apart from the power pop pack was hard rock crunch. They infused their catchy melodies with steroids: had they been ML baseball players they’d have gone the way of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Songs such as “Surrender,” “On the Radio,” and “How Are You” may not be cement mixers, but “High Roller,” “Auf Wiedersehen,” and “Stiff Competition” all fall into Robert Christgau’s characterization of Heaven Tonight as “power-tooled hard rock product.”

Heaven Tonight is a case of eclecticism at work. “Surrender” is an ecstatic-making monument, like Mount Rushmore but with a better chorus. And it’s funny to boot. Robin Zander comes downstairs to discover his parents going at it, and with his Kiss records playing to boot. It’s a friendly bridge across the generation gap; if the kids are alright, so are the parents. Mom and dad aren’t out of it, they’re with it, and it’s a life-altering revelation.

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Graded on a Curve: Grateful Dead, Veneta, OR 8/27/72: The Complete Sunshine Daydream Concert (Live)

Celebrating Bill Kreutzmann on his 78th birthday.Ed.

The Grateful Dead isn’t a band–it’s a petri dish for fanatics. There are four kinds of people out there. 1. Those who don’t care anymore about the Grateful Dead than they do the waste disposal manager two towns over. 2. Those who hate Dead because their music sucks and their fans are filthy hippie burnouts. 3. Those who love the band but possess the critical faculties necessary to discern a good Dead album from one that blows. And 4. Those who own some 950 Grateful Dead bootlegs and can (and will, at length) tell you which one of those 950 Grateful Dead bootlegs includes the gnarliest version of “Me and My Uncle.”

Comparing the people in Category 3 to the ones in Category 4 is like comparing your average Episcopalian to a clay-eating, rattlesnake-handling Southern Baptist tent revival preacher. I myself belong in Category 3. But let’s pretend for a moment that I fall into Category 4, and prefer listening to Grateful Dead bootlegs to such unessential life activities as eating, sleeping, bathing, screwing and mastering rudimentary social skills. Which would be my choice of best live Grateful Dead recording?

First I would have to establish some completely arbitrary criteria. I have my peculiarities, as do you, and I stand by mine.

1. The concert must be top notch. This would appear to be self-evident, but the Dead were an erratic live act, which is only to be expected given they played some 2,300 concerts over the course of their 30-year existence.

2. The concert must have been recorded between 1971 and 1974, because the former don’t include many of my favorite songs and the latter tend to include material recorded after From the Mars Hotel, the last Dead album worth owning. Call me petty, but “King Solomon’s Marbles” makes me lose mine.

3. The concert cannot include a song longer than 20 minutes.

4. The concert must include four or more of the following: “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider,” “Brown-Eyed Woman,” “Bertha,” “Deal,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Wharf Rat,” and “Jack Straw.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Seger and the
Silver Bullet Band,
Night Moves

Celebrating Bob Seger on his 79th birthday.Ed.

Through no fault of his own—or maybe it is his fault, I don’t know—Bob Seger has never gotten any respect. He’s the Rodney Dangerfield of rock, and this despite the fact that he’s written his fair share of memorable, and even great, songs. He’s always been the consummate journeyman—someone you might go to see, but without being totally psyched about it—but in the bicentennial year of 1976 he rose above his station to produce two very, very good LPs, Night Moves and Live Bullet.

The former included a couple of instant standards, while the latter made a convincing argument that seeing him live might just be a better bet than you think. I’ve liked him since I first listened to my older brother’s copy of Live Bullet way back in 1976, and I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for him, this despite the fact that he’s the force of evil who bequeathed us such awful songs as “Like a Rock,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and the dreadful “Old Time Rock and Roll,” which to his credit he didn’t write but still recorded, which probably merits the electric chair. Why he even helped the Eagles write “Heartache Tonight,” a song that deserves to be burned at the stake.

But I forgive him, because he’s also given us such great tunes as “Get Out of Denver,” “Turn the Page,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Looking Back,” “Katmandu,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” “Night Moves,” and “2 + 2 = ?” And his version of “Nutbush City Limits” is almost as good as Tina Turner’s. As much a product of Detroit as the trucks he’s helped to sell via the suckass “Like a Rock,” Seger played in or founded a number of bands—the most notable being The Bob Seger System—without achieving much more than regional success before forming the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. Live Bullet finally propelled him to national stardom, and Night Moves solidified his status as a player in the big leagues.

Unlike fellow Detroiters the MC5 and The Stooges, Seger was never a firebrand; instead he was the epitome of Heartland Rock, which pays due respect to rock’s origins and doesn’t have a musically radical bone in its body. He was John Mellencamp before there was a John Mellencamp, a purveyor of meat and potato songs that told stories and that never veered too far from a relatively conservative template that fit neatly into the classic rock tradition. Which is undoubtedly why he’s been inducted into that den of iniquity, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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Graded on a Curve: Creedence
Clearwater Revival,
Live at Woodstock

Just got back from lovely Costa Rica, and let me tell you this—they sure play a lot of Latin American music down there in Latin America. It was downright disturbing, at least to this Ugly American, who needs rock and roll to function but wasn’t hearing it anywhere.

Well, that’s not exactly true. As I was making my torturous way north on nerve-wracking Highway 1 over the mountains between capital city San Jose and the city of Liberia (four-and-a-half hours to go 133 miles!), turning the radio dial of my Chinese SUV from end to end and getting nothing but nothing, I pleaded to the God of the mountains to throw me some good old American rock and roll. And for my sins the God of the mountains, and I’m not making this up, gave me James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Be careful what you pray for.

But things began to look up when I reached my destination, the beach town of Playas del Coco on the country’s Pacific coast. The second night there I happened upon a band of aging hippie gringos playing an enthusiastically inept version of John (pre-Mellencamp) Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” at an open air bar on the main strip. I love bad cover bands—butcher a song and I will love you forever. And things got even better—my new favorite coffeeshop—the only reason I go to exotic places is to sit in coffeehouses—played Creedence Clearwater Revival, a lot, along with plenty of live Elvis from the late sixties and early seventies.

Anyway, that steady diet of Creedence and cappuccinos may just have saved my life. It helped me to forget that I was a non-drinker in a drinking beach town who doesn’t fish, surf, snorkel, kayak, sunbathe, scuba dive, ride horses on the beach (I’m not crazy!), or go on tours into the wilds to be torn to pieces by adorable sloths (pacifists my ass!). Hell, I can’t even swim. It also helped me to forget that it was so hot that the ubiquitous vultures to be found walking the streets or talking romantic walks on the beach seemed to be looking not for carrion but for air conditioning.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
Let It Be

Celebrating Chris Mars, born on this day in 1961.Ed.

Minneapolis indie rock heroes The Replacements went from snot-nosed “let’s get drunk and puke on the ceiling then fall down on stage” punks to power pop legends on the strength of the deceptively effortless songcraft of Paul Westerberg, and Westerberg reached his peak on 1984’s audaciously titled Let It Be. Taking on the Beatles takes cojones, especially from a guy who once sang, “I hate music/It’s got too many notes.”

Let It Be hardly marked the end of their “too shitfaced to play” ethos, but it was, as Westerberg would note, “the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles.” “I Will Dare” is a bona fide slice of pop genius; “Unsatisfied” is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with more heart and more soul than the jaded Mick Jagger could summon up if you tossed him into a pile of cocaine and supermodels and let him stew until unhappy. But Westerberg hadn’t lost touch with his inner punk; songs like “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “We’re Comin’ Out” would have been right at home on 1982’s puke punk classic Stink.

Let It Be is the sound of a punk growing up just to learn that growing up isn’t all that much fun. But grow up you must, as John Mellencamp could have told Paul Westerberg if he’d been willing to listen. “Everything drags and drags,” sings Westerberg on the doleful coming of age tune “Sixteen Blue”; “It’s a boring state/A boring wait, I know.” You try to call your girl and all you get is her answering machine and what does that mean? It can’t be good. And what can you really expect from the future? “Everything you dream of/Is right in front of you,” sings Westerberg, “And everything is a lie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Gary Wright,
The Very Best of
Gary Wright

Remembering Gary Wright, born on this day in 1943.Ed.

Namaste, fellow seekers! And welcome back to the Vedic District and your host, Michael Paramahansa Yogananda Little! On this week’s turn of the cosmic wheel we’ll be discussing New Age seer and synthesizer-around-the-neck avatar Gary Wright, whose chakra-cleansing songs and mystical crystal revelations make him the most spiritually evolved being on our astral plane.

Wright was, arguably, pop’s first New Age musician. Forget George Harrison–who turned Wright on to Eastern religions while they were recording 1970’s All Things Must Pass–he refused to give up on rock and roll. And compared to Wright, Van Morrison and Stevie Nicks are mere earthbound materialists–the Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rands of rock, respectively.

It’s all there on the cover of The Dream Weaver, where a blissed-out Wright rests his head against what is either a telepod to other dimensions or the Findhorn Community’s very own jukebox–the man was staking his claim as the first New Age technocrat, enlisting the aid of machines to further the cause of the Harmonic Convergence.

And, boy, did Wright make a splash. Who, my fellow theosophists, can forget the Annus Mirabilis 1976, when a cosmic convergence brought us both David Spangler’s book Revelation: The Birth of a New Age and Wright’s June 11th appearance on The Midnight Special, where he cast a magickal sorcerer’s spell on an entire nation with his mesmerizing performance of “Dream Weaver”? Surely the stars were coming into alignment at last, and the Age of the Enlightened Unicorn was nigh.

Of course that exalted age never arrived, nor did Wright’s success last. But if the former Spooky Tooth keyboardist’s fleshly fame was fleeting, he has accepted it with Buddhistic resignation–having parted the veil of Maya, he knows all too well that all we are is dust in the wind. Yet he continues to mould a new reality closer to the heart with his ecstatic ectoplasmic musical emanations, which make the ideal accompaniment to both Kundalini awakening and sweatless tantric sex.

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Graded on a Curve: ABBA, The Best of
ABBA, The Millennium Collection

Celebrating Björn Ulvaeus on his 79th birthday.Ed.

I love ABBA. I love them so much I contacted the Swedish ambassador last week to see if I could buy them. “ABBA are a national treasure,” the ambassador informed me. “But a thousand kroner would probably do it.” I was rather taken aback really, given ABBA are Sweden’s biggest export behind Swedish Red Fish and Swedish meatballs.

ABBA’s frothy brand of Europop and disco bring back fond memories of my first and last visit to a discotheque. The experience was unforfeitable insofar as it ended with me throwing up in the parking lot, but it wasn’t ABBA’s fault–staring at the revolving glitter ball above the dance floor gave me vertigo.

From disco classic “Dancing Queen” to “Waterloo,” ABBA’s songs were good, innocent fun. Who can resist their infectious melodies and perfect harmonies? Lots of people, evidently. ABBA were anathema to the “Let’s burn down the disco crowd,” and none other than Robert Christgau saw fit to describe their “real tradition” as “the advertising jingle.”

Formed in 1972 by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, ABBA first made their mark by winning the 1974 Eurovision Contest–a sure step to superstardom, as evidenced as by such memorable bands as Teach-In and Herreys. It took awhile for ABBA to catch on with US listeners, but when they did they did it big—in the years between 1974 and 1981 they placed a dozen singles on the American Top 40.

The ABBA sound is a study in contradictions. On one hand their music is as frothy as it’s frosty; detractors will tell you their music is as cold as a dip into a Hellasgården ice bath. But to pop and disco lovers their music is something you’ll want to warm your hands over—especially if you spent your formative years listening to “Dancing Queen.”

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Graded on a Curve: Creedence
Clearwater Revival,
Cosmo’s Factory

Celebrating Doug Clifford, born on this day in 1945.Ed.

During a recent crawl down Bourbon Street in New Orleans I heard a lot of mangy cover bands manhandle a lot of my favorite songs. Was I outraged? Hell no. I enjoyed every minute of it. There’s nothing I love more than listening to a band of barely competent rock ‘n’ roll discards–I’m a rock ‘n’ roll discard myself–butcher the classics. My only regret is I didn’t hear a single one of them do their honorable worst to Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Because I loves me some Creedence. During the psychedelic era, when just about everybody else was jamming away ad infinitum to songs about peace, love, and sundry other species of Aquarian bullshit, CCR’s John Fogerty was writing unfashionably short songs as tightly wound as Swiss clocks about dread and menace. He saw bad moons rising, wondered who was going to stop the rain, and warned that when you’re running through the jungle, it’s best not to look back. And unlike, say, the Velvet Underground, his songs were immensely radio friendly–they might as well have come equipped with payola. J. Fogerty is that rarest of all creatures, a natural-born hitmaker, and a hitmaker of such prolixity that Creedence fell into the habit of releasing double A Sides. You have to write a lot of damn good songs to be that cocky.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was, with the arguable exception of the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead, the premier American band of their era, and on 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory–the band’s fifth album in two years, amazingly enough–CCR hit their creative zenith. On it Fogerty makes writing great songs look dizzyingly simple; only 2 of its 11 songs fall short of indispensable, and they’re both covers. The rest of ‘em are stone cold classics, and they range from monumental covers (the 11-minute “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which is less a jam than a carefully structured exercise in locking down a groove) to a foray into friendly lysergic-country pastoralism (“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”) to a note-perfect Little Richard tribute (“Travelin’ Band”). And I could go on.

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