Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Descendents,
Milo Goes to College

I have a grudge against the Descendents. Sure, the Manhattan Beach, California punks were the first to inject hardcore speed and aggression with catchy melodies, and to come up with the novel idea off writing songs about girls and love and what have you. And that’s exactly the problem. By doing so they invented pop punk, and inspired bands like Blink 182, The Offspring, Green Day, the All-American Rejects and other shitheel bands dedicated to the proposition that success lies in–to paraphrase the great H.L. Mencken–giving the kids what they want and giving it to them good and hard.

It’s unfair to blame perfectly good parents for the crimes of their children, but I do anyway; the Descendents’ 1982 debut Milo Goes to College is a template for unspeakable things to come. Milo Goes to College is a groundbreaking album by a band with an undeniably great backstory–very young suburban kids form band, elect band hanger and bespectacled dweeb Milo Aukerman to be their frontman, and proceed to inspire a later generation to copy their formula with horrific–and commercially successful–results. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case the imitators have proven dangerous.

The Descendents are hardly your “No Future” types–you’ll have to look long and hard to find a band fronted by a guy who, from the band’s beginnings, had his sights set on a career in microbiology. The Descendents of Milo Goes to College care less about the decline of Western Civilization than they do conformity, shitty parents, the suburbs, marriage (they’re for it), hope (they have it), romance (pro-), punk (they’re not), boats (theirs is in need of repair), and bears (they want to be one).

My problem with the Descendents is just this–I can’t listen to them without hearing the shitty bands who followed in their wake. It’s impossible to listen to the Descendents’ past without hearing the unspeakable present, and I defy anyone to listen to “Bikeage, “Hope,” “Jean Is Dead,” or “Marriage” without thinking Blink 182. The songs have the same catchy melodies your mom has come to love, and the same earnest approach to subject matter.

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Graded on a Curve: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland

Remembering Mitch Mitchell, born on this day in 1946.Ed.

Is it me? I repeat, is it me? Am I the only person on the planet who thinks the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland is grossly overrated? Well, almost. The famously eccentric rock critic Chuck Eddy agrees with me, I think. But otherwise? The two of us are all by our lonesome on this one. Let the critics, all 20 million of them, fawn and gush! Let one Peter Doggett proclaim Electric Ladyland the greatest rock album of all time! Me, I’ve always found the guitar legend’s 1968 double LP to be less a rewarding experience than an overlong and sometimes grueling, listen.

Maybe you had to hear it stoned. Maybe that’s it. I never heard it stoned. I never listened to any Jimi Hendrix LP stoned except 1969’s Smash Hits, which I liked because whomever it was that cherry-picked its tunes made certain they were both (1) catchy and (2) short. Smash Hits coheres, as does 1967’s Are You Experienced, which is more than can be said for the shambolic Electric Ladyland, which one critic called “the fullest realization of Jimi’s far-reaching ambitions,” but which I find both uneven and diffuse—in short, less a case of far-reaching than overreaching, and overreaching at its worst.

Only a fool would write off Electric Ladyland as a complete loss. There’s no denying that “Crosstown Traffic,” the haunting cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” are stone cold brilliant. “All Along the Watchtower” shows remarkable self-restraint; Hendrix plays only those notes that are necessary to frame and accompany the melody, which was rarely the case with the guy. As for “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” it’s musical napalm, and one of the most incendiary songs ever recorded. On it Hendrix renounces subtlety for a sound every bit as brutal as the Tet Offensive, which took place while Hendrix, his bandmates, and an all-star crew of extras were recording Electric Ladyland.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mott the Hoople,
Super Hits

I have always had a soft spot for crap “Super Hits” LPs. I know they’re déclassé exploitation packages designed to sucker the neophyte into parting ways with his hard-earned buck, and are the sort of thing your serious vinyl collector sniffs at haughtily before asking, “What reeks? Could it be this crass and repugnant straight-from-K-Tel-waste of perfectly good polyvinyl chloride resin?”

But I don’t care because I’m a crass bastard myself, and I’m totally down with those immortal purveyors of the cheap-o LP, K-Tel and Ronco Records. I gaze upon the Super Hits LPs of this world with a fond and benevolent eye. Shameless cash-ins they may be, but piss down on them from a great height or not, they serve a useful, and indeed necessary, societal purpose. To wit, they’re the perfect vehicles for the fan who likes a band but doesn’t want to buy eight of their LPs when she only loves one or two cuts off each of them.

Take Mott the Hoople. I love several of their albums to death, but should I listen to “All the Young Dudes” and then feel a sudden and irresistible hankering to listen to “Hymn for the Dudes” I have to take LP one off the turntable, fling it willy-nilly across the room, and put on LP two, and so on. Until what I’m faced with is a room with wall-to-wall polyvinyl chloride carpeting. Why, the very thought of putting all those LPs back in their jackets exhausts me. Hence the stupendous genius of the Super Evil Super Hits Konzept. Should I want to listen to “One of the Boys” followed by “Honaloochie Boogie” I needn’t raise the proverbial finger.

The downfall of the Super Hits Konzept, in the case of Mott the Hoople, is that the songs collected on this cheesy compilation completely ignore the band’s first four LPs, the most important being 1971’s great Brain Capers. This is the case because Mott the Hoople switched labels, and the folks who put this wonderful LP into my hands had no rights to the songs put to vinyl before 1972’s epochal All the Young Dudes.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ringo Starr, Ringo

Celebrating Sir Richard Starkey MBE who turns 81 tomorrow, July 7.Ed.

News flash! Critic declares Ringo Starr greatest ex-Beatle! Rioting breaks out in hipster enclaves! Brooklyn in flames! Incensed Lennonites carry signs: “Michael Little = Dingbat!” Hairy Harrisonoids counsel karmic calm: “This too shall pass!” McCartney maniacs attempt to sooth selves with “Silly Love Songs”! NME headline reads: “Panned on the run!”

In my dreams. But it’s what I really believe. I really believe that Ringo Starr, who never got no respect and was the comic foil and clown of the legendary Fab Four has—over the almost four-and-a-half decades since the Beatles went the way of the Ono, er make that Dodo—produced far more genuinely likeable pop songs than any of his “genius” fellow Mop Toppers.

But first, a sordid confession. I’ve never cared much for Ringo’s old band. I can count on one hand the number of Beatles songs I really love (“Helter Skelter,” “She Said She Said,” “Hey Jude,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Let It Be”). As for most of the rest of their oeuvre, it could vanish into the void and I would never miss it. And there are plenty of songs (the dreadful “Long and Winding Road,” the hideous “Something,” and the unpalatable “Got to Get You Into My Life”) whose disappearance would make me very happy. As for the post-Beatles work of John, Paul, and George, I can think of maybe one or two (at most) songs I love by each of them. Shit, Ringo matched them with ONE single, 1971’s “It Don’t Come Easy” backed by “Early 1970,” a very funny series of good-natured jibes about his former band mates.

I always liked Ringo best because he wasn’t touted as a genius (although he’s a great drummer) by anyone. I’m an underdog guy, and Ringo was the ultimate underdog. Nobody expected much of him after the Beatles imploded, sucked into the black holes of John and Paul’s grossly oversized egos. And it isn’t as if Ringo has come through with a slew of artistic masterpieces. But since 1970 he’s put out a bunch of really cool pop songs, low brow it’s true, but I don’t give a shit where a song’s brow is (it can be a Neanderthal for all I care) if it has a good melody and I find myself singing along.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bruce Springsteen,
Born to Run

Celebrating the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan on his 72nd birthday.

Well here it is—the most operatic, overblown, bombastic, and yes wonderful slab of vinyl that has ever caused my ears to cry hallelujah. On 1975’s Born to Run a cocksure Bruce Springsteen went right over the top, blew a fuse, and tried to pack as much of the majestic mystery of the New Jersey night as he could onto one LP. It was a desperate gamble but it paid off in spades, and we’re all the richer for it.

On such Phil Spector-worthy epics as “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” and especially “Jungleland” Springsteen risked all trying to say all, and the results are indeed awesome. To a small town kid like me, Born to Run captured the wild and inchoate delirium of coming of age—of wanting to go out and explode like a skyrocket in the warm summer night. Is the whole contraption at the risk of overheating? Sure. But listening to this album never fails to return me to that innocent kid desperate for experience, and for that alone I will always love it.

To more jaded ears Born to Run may have sounded hokey, but therein lies the genius of Bruce Springsteen; on Born to Run he’s as shameless a romantic of the American Night as Jack Kerouac, and he captures the wild and heedless excitement of being young and mad with an unquenchable thirst for everything. On Born to Run Springsteen says yes to the night and to all it represents. “Roll down the window/And let the wind blow back your hair,” he sings in “Thunder Road,” “Well the night’s busting open/These two lanes will take us anywhere.” On Born to Run Springsteen sings of the possibilities, and of risking it all to run the backstreets, and I’m not certain if anyone has ever come even close to doing a finer job of doing so.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Cale,
Vintage Violence

As the classically trained member of the Velvet Underground, few would have been surprised had John Cale gone the avant-garde route. And he did just that on 1971’s Church of Anthrax (a collaboration with Terry Riley) and 1972’s The Academy in Peril. But on his 1970 debut Vintage Violence, Cale produced a collection of more or less conventional rock songs that had virtually nothing in common with Cale’s contributions to such VU songs as “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation.”

What was even more surprising were Cale’s influences. Country rock is the last thing you would associate with Cale, but one can hear its echoes on no less than six of Vintage Violence’s ten songs, most often in the guitar playing of Garland Jeffreys–a rock and reggae guy no one would have associated with the country rock either. One can only wonder how to account for this. Did someone dump Hee Haw into the studio water supply? Mix Gram Parsons into his Welsh rarebit?

But the John Cale of Vintage Violence is still John Cale, the off-kilter singer-songwriter capable of veering from lovely ballads to flights of whimsy (“Ski Patrol” from 1975’s Slow Dazzle is a hilarious must-hear). Cale’s lyrics make obvious he’s every bit as conversant with the poetry of the French surrealists as he is the traditional love song, and the only thing missing on Vintage Violence is the cocaine-induced paranoia that would crop up later on songs like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” and “Gun”–which is odd given that “violence” in the LP’s title.

Vintage Violence opens with “Hello, There,” the only number on the album with muscle and a rock edge. But its big hook and “I’m Waiting for My Man” piano pound give way to an upbeat and decidedly friendly chorus that signals it’s a quiet Cale we’ll be dealing with. The proof lies in “Gideon’s Bible,” which is as lovely a ballad as “Hanky Panky Nohow” and “Andalucia” from 1973’s Paris 1919. But Cale, who is prone to tossing dada into his most emotional songs, can’t help but add a touch of black humor of in the form of lines like “Throttling children callously, a messy day with Clancy.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Desolation Boulevard

Celebrating Andy Scott on his 72nd birthday.Ed.

We live in complicated times. This was brought home to me years ago, when I TWICE found myself on board flights from Frankfurt to Berlin with the band Sweet. They were flying peon class just like me, and looked haggard, hungover, and very thick in the middle. But what complicated matters was this: while I knew they were Sweet (I chatted up the drummer, who was sitting morosely beside me) I had no idea whether they were Steve Priest’s Sweet, Andy Scott’s Sweet, or Brian Connolly’s Sweet.

That’s right. During those years there were three different bands calling themselves the Sweet out there, keeping themselves alive primarily by playing glam oldies shows in Finland, Denmark, Norway, etc., with the likes of Suzi Quatro. Now you might think three Sweets is four too many, and I would be inclined to agree with you, that is if I hadn’t just spent days listening to the band’s 1974 classic, Desolation Boulevard. Opened my eyes, it did. Sweet is primarily known for two songs, at least in the United States, but Desolation Boulevard has a slew of tasty tracks, even if some of them sound like uncanny copies of other bands’ sounds.

Recorded before Sweet exploded into multiple Sweets, Desolation Boulevard included original members lead vocalist Brian Connolly, bassist Steve Priest, guitarist Andy Scott, and drummer Mick Tucker. Formed in 1968, they quickly teamed up with the pop songwriting machine that was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, with whom they produced bubblegum hits with titles like “Funny Funny,” “Co-Co,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” and the horrifying, “Little Willy.”

But by 1974 Sweet wanted to be taken seriously, and in so doing parted ways with Chinn-Chapman, although Desolation Boulevard, or at least the U.S. version (which differed drastically from the English release), consisted of a Side One consisting solely of Chinn-Chapman contributions. As for their new, tougher, rougher sound, it won them some real critical respect; indeed, Pete Townshend asked Sweet to open for The Who, an offer Sweet had to turn down due to severe throat injuries suffered by Connolly in a fight. It also resulted in his not handling lead vocals on a pair of tunes on Desolation Boulevard.

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Graded on a Curve:
Men at Work,
Business as Usual

Celebrating Colin Hay, born on this day in 1953.Ed.

Say what you will about the Australian new wave outfit Men at Work—not only did they make the most famous sandwich in the history of rock’n’roll they made it out of vegemite to boot, which an Aussie fella in a restaurant not long ago told me is completely inedible and to be to be avoided at all costs unless you want your taste buds to sue for divorce.

Men at Work produced songs that were as unprepossessing as their name, were frequently jabbed at for sounding too much like the Police, and enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame at the dawn of the eighties. And if I have a mild case of affection for Men at Work while despising the Police it’s because Men at Work aren’t remotely as pretentious as the Police, although being less pretentious than the Police is child’s play. Or maybe I like them because their lead singer has a lazy eye, which made watching their videos on MTV more interesting.

Anyway, Men at Work’s 1982 LP Business as Usual went monolithic and brought in enough moolah to open a kangaroo ranch or two. And this despite the band’s tame and yes even docile exterior, about which no one has ever cried, “Men at Work got my baby!” No, Men at Work did not truck in fury and revolt but simply did their job of producing likeable songs that you can pet without losing your hand. And I for one am glad they did so, because despite being as non-threatening as your average koala, Business as Usual contains some songs I really like even if I am not likely to ever fight about them.

Let me correct that. I will fight for “Down Under,” which boasts a spritely flute, a catchy beat, and some of the weirdest lyrics you’ll ever hear. Why it oozes existential dis-ease, does “Down Under,” what with old lazy eye, or Colin Hay to you, tossing off such great lines as, “Traveling in a fried-out Kombi/On a hippie trail, head full of zombie/I met a strange lady, she made me nervous/She took me in and gave me breakfast.” I’ve spent hours mulling over these lyrics, and things only get weirder as the song goes on—we follow Hay to an opium den in Bombay, watch him get offered a vegemite sandwich by a circus strong man in Brussels, and all this time thunder is roiling and poor Hay is being told to run for cover.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Gun Club,
The Las Vegas Story

Remembering Jeffrey Lee Pierce, born on June 27 in 1958.Ed.

I had a gun once. And if you have a gun, you might as well hold up a liquor store. So I went to the liquor store, panty hose over my head, and pointed the gun at the clerk. Turned out he was an old high school friend who recognized me immediately, panty hose notwithstanding. I lowered the gun and said, “Well, shit,” and pulled the panty hose off my head. “Way to go, fucktooth,” he said, “you just performed a cameo for the security cameras. Just go. I’ll fuck them up somehow.”

Then he said, “I can give you a bottle and a pack of cigarettes. Like tequila?” I said, “Man, this is ridiculous.” He said, “You’re disappearing ink. I never saw you. Take the tequila. It’s some expensive shit. And I recommend heartily that you find another way of getting paid, because you’re too nice a guy for this business.” By this time there was a customer standing behind me. I didn’t even know he was there. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry for the hold-up, no pun intended,” and bolted. And heard him say behind me, “It takes all kinds of idiots to make a world.”

None of that is true, but it reminds me of The Gun Club, whose 1981 debut LP blew my mind. “Sex Beat,” “She’s Like Heroin to Me, and “For the Love of Ivy” opened up new possibilities in post-punk; for one The Gun Club was heavy on the blues, and the songs were dark, dark as Robert Johnson dark. No 57-second tantrums directed at that bitch Ronald Reagan for The Gun Club; they played a deviant hybrid of punk, rockabilly, country, and blues, and lyrically were mining an ancient vein of a haunted America, where spirits and ghosts wandered the highways and lightless trains rode the trestles at night, along with one Jack on fire. I listened to that album for six months straight, then I discovered the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, and The Gun Club just sorta slipped off my radar.

It was my loss, because front man Jeffrey Lee Pierce came on like a man possessed by some curse spirit from South of the Border, like he had voodoo in his blood and sex in his guitar, and it surprised virtually no one when he died at age 37 as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. He founded The Gun Club in the happening Hollywood scene in 1979, with a line-up that included Brian Tristan (aka Kid Congo Powers) on lead guitar, Don Snowden on bass, and Brad Dunning on guitar.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mike Oldfield,
Tubular Bells

Early in the production process of 1973’s The Exorcist, director William Friedkin decided to bring a surprising consultant on board: Satan. “Details are everything,” Friedkin would later say. “I was aiming for total authenticity, and I wanted to get Linda’s dialogue right.”

A relaxed Satan would later tell Spin magazine, “Billy [Friedkin] asked me if I’d be interested in participating in the project. And I was really quite pleased. Nobody ever asks for my input. The Rolling Stones got their hands on a speech I made to the Dayton, Ohio Chamber of Congress, but did they show me any sympathy? Not with Jagger singing they didn’t. I’ve dealt with sewing circles more Satanic than him. Have you ever seen a macramé pentagram? Scary as hell.”

As a favor to Friedkin, Satan agreed to weigh in on the film’s score. The director ran a number of ideas past the Prince of Darkness, but he didn’t like any of them. Then one day Friedkin walked into Satan’s office with a copy of Mike Oldfield’s 1973 debut LP Tubular Bells. “Listen to the opening,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.” The Evil One took the LP back to his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, and a week later burst into Friedkin’s office.

“We can’t use this!” he shouted. “It scared the shit out of me! I haven’t slept for a week! I haven’t been so frightened since I heard Blood, Sweat & Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’ and I still can’t get that damned song out of my head!”

“Isn’t that the idea?” asked Friedkin, inviting Satan to take a specially designed asbestos–covered sofa he’d had made after Satan had accidentally set his previous one on fire.

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Graded on a Curve: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Collectors’ Item: All Their Greatest Hits!

Remembering Harold Melvin, born on this day in 1939.Ed.

When it comes to the bands representing the “Philadelphia Sound” that came to dominate the soul charts in the early seventies, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes were inarguably the best.

Signed to Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972 and featuring the mind-blowing baritone of lead singer and soul legend Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes recorded masterful soul, R&B, and disco tunes that were alternately inspirational and heartrending, thanks chiefly to the band’s myriad musical talents, the stellar production of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the almost phantasmagorically powerful pipes of Pendergrass, who at his most passionate could both cause people of the female persuasion to swoon and blow the wooly off a mammoth.

I picked Collectors’ Item: All Their Greatest Hits! for two simple reasons; (1) it really does cull the biggest hits from the band’s golden years of 1972-1975 with Philadelphia International, before Pendergrass defected to pursue a solo career, and (2) it has one of the cheesiest album covers I’ve ever seen, a horror of pastels with the band in blue leisure suits (with Harold in lime green!) huddled together as if for protection against the dubious painting skills of one Victor Juhasz. I have half a mind to buy the album and frame it on my wall next to a black light painting of a unicorn.

Melvin & The Blue Notes were a vocal group, and the music on their songs was provided by the legendary MFSB, a stable of more than 30 musicians based at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios who also worked with the Spinners, Wilson Pickett, the Stylistics, the O’Jays, and others. They’re chiefly remembered for their great proto-disco track “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” which was to become the theme song for Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. How cool, I ask you, is that?

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Graded on a Curve:
Meat Puppets,

Arizona’s Meat Puppets’ musical career has worked according to some as yet undetermined law of evolution. Most bands hit upon a sound early on, then tinker with the formula. Not so with Meat Puppets. They veered off in totally unpredictable new directions on each of their first three LPs, and I defy anyone unfamiliar with their work to sit down and listen to them then tell me they’re by the same band.

Meat Puppets’ self-titled 1982 debut was perhaps the only psychedelic hardcore LP ever released, and so fucked up in so many ways–vocalist and guitarist Curt Kirk deliberately made sure you couldn’t understand a single word he was singing–that hardcore kids didn’t know what to make of it.

Similarly, on 1984’s Meat Puppets II the band went lysergic cowpoke with a bunch of twisted country songs that sounded nothing like the by-the-numbers retro that fell under the label of cowpunk. And they reinvented themselves yet again with 1985’s Up on the Sun, a shambolic and sun-baked slice of oddly syncopated songs boasting lyrics that proved vocalist/guitarist Curt Kirkwood to be a a goofy and good-natured desert mystic.

1987’s Mirage was a clear (if not as good) sequel to Up on the Sun, and at long last it seemed they’d found their niche. But Huevos, released later that year, made it clear they weren’t done changing skin. Huevos is often referred to as Meat Puppets’ “ZZ Top Record,” and “Paradise” and “Automatic Mojo” are the primary reasons why–both sounded like twisted outtakes from Afterburner. On a less overt note, Meat Puppets upped both the volume and intensity to ZZ Top levels, a radical move given the band’s machismo-free outlook on life in general. Even Kirkwood’s normally conversational vocals boast muscle.

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Graded on a Curve: Fleetwood Mac,
Kiln House

Celebrating Mick Fleetwood on his 74th birthday.Ed.

Between their start as a standard English blues band and their apotheosis as perhaps the seventies best pop group, Fleetwood Mac wandered from style to style and sideman to sideman, and in so doing put out some very intriguing albums. 1970’s Kiln House is a fine example.

Guitarist Peter Green was out. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer was in, as was (kind of) Christine McVie, who provided backing vocals and wouldn’t be considered a full member until 1971’s Future Games. Bob Welch, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks were all in the future.

Like the other LPs Fleetwood Mac would release during their middle period, Kiln House is a dizzyingly eclectic affair. You get a couple of rockabilly rave-ups, a country music parody, a very, very English folk rock instrumental, an engaging hard rocker in the vein of The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman” (only gnarlier!), a couple of very likable folk rock ditties, and an inspired cover of “Buddy’s Song,” which is credited to Buddy Holly’s mom Ella but is basically “Peggy Sue Got Married” with new words.

Kiln House constitutes a loving backwards look at rock ’n’ roll’s past, and as such anticipated the “rock ’n’ roll revival” that would inspire albums by the likes of John Lennon, The Band, David Bowie and a whole slew of backwards-looking English glam bands.

Fleetwood Mac doesn’t quite follow through on the concept; songs like “Earl Gray” (the aforementioned instrumental), “One Together” (which could be a Neil Young tune), and “Station Man” (chug-a-lugging blues number with nice vocal harmonies and raucous guitar) are hardly R&R revival fare. And that goes double for the C&W send-up “Blood on the Floor,” on which Jeremy Spencer does an uncanny imitation of a woebegone hillbilly crying tears in his beer.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Grateful Dead, American Beauty

Remembering Robert Hunter, born on this day in 1941.Ed.

How many Deadheads does it take to change a light bulb? Six hundred and one. One to score the acid, and the other six hundred to stare slackjawed at the dead bulb and say, “Looks lit to me, man.” I know, it’s a shitty joke, but there’s some truth in it. The chief problem with Deadheads has always been their lack of quality control. They see no difference between 1970’s brilliant American Beauty and 1978’s execrable Shakedown Street, and lack the discernment to recognize that the light of creative genius that illuminated the Grateful Dead at the dawn of the seventies had long since flickered out by the time Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995.

Drug burn-out was the culprit, that and the natural order of the rock creativity; virtually no one continues to make great album after great album—shit, by my accounting, even Bob Dylan did his best work between 1965 and 1967, and that’s if you count The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until years later. As for the Dead, I think they did their best work between 1969 and 1972, when they released the lackluster Wake of the Flood, which a true fan, Robert Christgau, described as “capturing that ruminative, seemingly aimless part of the concert when the boogiers nod out.” As for when their live concerts finally settled into equal parts boredom and cult worship, I have no opinion, although I will say that the three shows I saw in the eighties were perfunctory and the Dead appeared to wish they were somewhere else.

Ah, but at their best they were sublime. My personal favorite is 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, but that same year’s American Beauty is a close second. On both LPs the Dead abandoned their free-form extended jams (1969’s Live/Dead had two sides with one song on them, and one side with two songs on it) for real songs, and on both they proved that they had plenty of great four-minute songs in them. As for American Beauty, it was prettier than Workingman’s Dead—a folk-rock LP that eschewed the doom-laden songs on its predecessor for songs that were, for lack of a better phrase, sunnier and more pastoral. From opener “Box of Rain” to the lovely “Ripple,” Jerry Garcia and Company sing and play their way down the Golden Road of Everlasting Devotion, and even the diabolical “Friend of the Devil” and paranoid “Truckin’” are more friendly nods of the hat than Workingman’s Dead’s dark forebodings in the form of such songs as “Dire Wolf” and the Altamont-inspired “New Freeway Boogie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks,
Muswell Hillbillies

Celebrating Ray Davies on his 77th birthday.Ed.

Ah, the Kinks. Of all the great bands to come out of England in the 1960s, they were by far the most English. Their music hall inclinations and deadpan irony simply didn’t translate, and until they reconstituted themselves as a hard-rocking touring band in the 1970s their only claims to fame here in the U.S.A. were “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.” Ray Davies was simply too smart, and had his tongue too far in his cheek, to win over U.S. fans, although I do remember—because it was, I think, the first 45 rpm record I ever heard—my older brother’s copy of “Apeman.” Nor did it help that the band was refused permits by the American Federation of Musicians to tour the U.S. for 4 years, ostensibly due to over-the-top on-stage band mate on band mate violence.

Of course, the Kinks always had their Kultists, people who lovingly cuddled their copies of 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society the way you might your dog Blighter. As for the rest of us, we listened to our Beatles and our Stones and The Who, and the rest of England be damned. This was especially true if you were raised, the way I was, in a rural outpost of provincialism, where the Klan once marched through town and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was considered the pinnacle of pop sophistication.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was a real latecomer to Ray Davies and Company, but have come to love their music, including Muswell Hillbillies. It’s one of the bleakest and funniest albums I know, and it deals with a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart—namely, the failure of everything. Tormented character follows tormented character on this LP, and I can’t get enough of it. Davies sings about paranoia, rampant alcoholism, and the myriad other complications of life, all from a working class perspective. Only Randy Newman could compete with Davies in the hilarious downer department, and while I prefer Newman, Davies more than holds his own.

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