Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Electric Flag,
A Long Time Comin’

This album is an abomination. The only things that make the Electric Flag better than their horn-heavy brethren in Blood, Sweat & Tears is their guitarist (Mike Bloomfield) is 1,000 times better than BS&T’s and they don’t have David Clayton Thomas on vocals. David Clayton Thomas ruined lives. Oh, and they didn’t give us “Spinning Wheel.” “Spinning Wheel” is one of those gifts you can’t give back. Once you’ve heard it, you’re soiled forever.

Michael Bloomfield was one of the premier blues guitarists of his (or any) time, but he shouldn’t have been allowed to get within 500 yards of a horn section. This is what ambition can do to a person—they end up hurting people. Admittedly he wasn’t the only musician to come up with the idea of fusing jazz and the blues. B.B. King and Booker T & the M.G.’s (amongst others) had already done it, and they bear part of the blame.

But Bloomfield—who dubbed his new sound “American Music” as if Chuck Berry hailed from Uzbekistan—took things too far with Electric Flag and their 1968 debut album A Long Time Comin’. But let’s be fair; as with the Kennedy assassination, Bloomfield did not act alone. He had accomplices on the grassy knoll in Buddy Miles, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, and Harvey Brooks. I will omit the names of the others (particularly the horn players) out of respect for their families.

As for that album title, I would argue a long time isn’t long enough. The ideal release date for A Long Time Comin’ would have been ten years after my demise. Which isn’t to say the album is a complete waste. Its cover—which depicts a “groovy” chick in an LSD haze encircled by some of the boys in the band—is a classic example of Haight-era psychedelic kitsch. And that band name is great. Lose the band, and we’d have a winner on our hands.

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Graded on a Curve: Grateful Dead,
The Grateful Dead

Celebrating Jerry Garcia, born on August 1st in 1942.Ed.

Many Deadheads, and by this I don’t mean all Deadheads but only many many thousands of Deadheads, suffer from an alarming lack of quality control. To them, the monstrous Shakedown Street is every bit as listenable as Workingman’s Dead. Me, I love the Grateful Dead, but I have by no means swallowed the electric kool aid. Terrapin Station, for instance, makes me want to nail two-by-fours over my ears, and if I hear it coming, I run. Like Hell.

But I adore a half-dozen or so of their LPs, and their 1967 debut is one of them. I love the album for many reasons, but first and foremost I love it because it is, compared to many of the Grateful Dead’s later, more lackadaisical LPs, a real firecracker. The boys are energized, and most of the songs are psychedelic rave-ups that highlight the brilliant playing (I’m not sure he ever sounded better) of guitarist Jerry Garcia. Many Dead albums, including a few I like, are long-winded slumber parties, but on their debut they’re in and out, and traveling at light speed, even on the sole lengthy number, “Viola Lee Blues,” which includes some of the best rock improvisation I’ve ever heard.

I’m not the only one who thinks the LP is uncharacteristic of the Grateful Dead. Bassist Phil Lesh commented in his autobiography that “the only track that sounds at all like we did at the time is ‘Viola Lee Blues,’” before adding that the recording was rushed. To which I can only reply that all of their recordings should have been rushed. The key to their debut is velocity, a characteristic that no one, and I mean no one, would attribute to the mature Grateful Dead. Only two of the LP’s nine songs are originals, but only the bluesy “Good Morning, Little School Girl,” which highlighted the vocals and harmonica of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan sounds like a cover; remarkably, the Dead do a fantastic job of making a potpourri of other artists’ material sound like their own.

Amazingly, the LP only includes one slow burner, “Morning Dew.” And it sounds great reduced to bare bones, as anyone who has ever suffered through the extended live version on Europe ’72 will attest. On this one Garcia’s guitar sounds like the epitome of the “San Francisco Sound,” and his vocals are appropriately doleful. Pigpen’s organ adds some nice seasoning, and the band is as tight as they would ever be. And the Garcia solo! Exquisite.

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Graded on a Curve: Vivian Stanshall,
Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead

An eccentric in the great English tradition, Vivian Stanshall was a one-man Monty Python before there was a Monty Python. Together with some friends he founded the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a free-wheeling musical/comedy ensemble that threw everything they could lay their hands on (trad jazz, music hall, psychedelic pop, lunacy) into a Bunsen burner, then fled the room to escape the explosion.

Stanshall was one of no kind—a hyperactive, hypo-literate, hypo-witty master of the bon mot. “If I had all the money I’d spent on drink,” he once said, ‘I’d spend it on drink.” Stanshall’s work with the Bonzo Dog Band—that Doo-Dah is maddening—showed him to be a master satirist of England’s stuffy elite. He’s the man who sent up the rich English sportsman in “Tiger Hunting in India” (“But look at you! You’re shaking like a leaf!/ Shaking?/ You silly goose/ I’m just doing the Watusi.”). He also gave us “Mr. Apollo” (“Five years ago I was a four-stone apology/ Today I am two separate gorillas”) and the hilarious mock band introduction “The Intro and the Outro” (“And looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes. Nice!”).

A series of unfortunate events (two disastrous US tours, personnel changes, and Stanshall’s less amusing mental problems) led to the Bonzos’ dissolution in 1970, and four years (during which he participated on numerous side projects) would pass before he released his 1974 debut Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. Two years in the making, the LP makes apparent two things. First, that Stanshall’s screwball humor had taken on a darker hue. And two, that he’d traded in the Bonzo’s unpredictable quirkiness for a more straightforward music with an African ambience. Stanshall, it seems, had gone native.

The LP features the likes of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Ric Grech. But the LP’s exotic world music feel is the result of six percussionists, two of them identified only as “Unidentified West Indian taxi driver” and “Unidentified West Indian taxi driver’s friend.” The percussion is apparent on such grooves as the instrumentals “Prong” and “Prong and Toots Go Steady,’ as well as on “Red Eye,” “How the Zebra Got His Spots,” “Lakonga,” “Afoju Ti Ole Riran,” and “Baba Tunde.”

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Graded on a Curve:
ZZ Top,
Tres Hombres

Remembering Dusty Hill.Ed.

Everybody knows the polished latter-day ZZ Top, the power trio that gave us “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Cheap Sunglasses.” I don’t much care for them—too slick by a Texas mile, and too enamored of synthesizers, new wave, and punk flourishes for my liking. But the early ZZ Top? A whole different story. They’re meaner, cleaner (no annoying synths), and tell better stories. Has there ever been a tale as downright weird as “Master of Sparks”? Or a boogie as fetching as “La Grange”? Throw in the raging “Heard It on the X,” and you’ve got as vivid a portrait of the goings on in the badass state of Texas as you’re ever likely to hear.

ZZ Top has boasted the same line-up for over four decades: Billy Gibbons (the band’s guitarist, lead vocalist, and main lyricist); Dusty Hill (who handles bass, keyboards, and co-lead vocals); and Frank Beard (who drums, duh). Gibbons is an amazing guitarist, and a rebuke to all those critics who wrote ZZ Top off as derivative and unoriginal; whether he’s playing the Texas blues or laying down some hard-driving boogie, his playing is rarely short of miraculous.

His solos are mean, mean, mean, as he demonstrates on “Waitin’ for the Bus,” the opening track of ZZ Top’s third LP, 1973’s Tres Hombres. The song features one cool guitar riff, frequent calls of “Have mercy,” and a brown paper bag with a bottle in it to help spend the time before the bus shows up. Throw in a great harmonica solo, and this is one bus stop you want to find yourself waiting at. The opener segues into “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” a big bad blues in which Jesus is heading for New Orleans, and then on to California before Gibbons serves up one hellacious solo backed by a bass that throbs like a very bad toothache.

“Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” features both Gibbons and Hill sharing vocals and moves along at a healthy clip until Gibbons dishes up one hell of a solo, while Beard provides a ferocious backbeat. Then he follows solo one with solo two, and it’s even better, meaner, more badass. As for “Master of Sparks,” it’s a supposedly true story of a good old boy (aka Gibbons, who swears to its veracity) who rides in a round metal ball with a VW seat and shock absorbers chained to the back of a pickup truck going sixty mph, shooting sparks a hundred feet into the air. Billy lived and the tune is tres cool, a redneck legend better even than the time my brother, wasted on a country road, saw a creature, half bat and half Chihuahua, rise from the woods. And Gibbons totally kicks out the jams on this one, his guitar shooting sparks just as high as the ones produced by that metal cage.

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Graded on a Curve:
T. Rex,
Electric Warrior

Remembering Steve Peregrin Took, born on this day in 1949.Ed.

Never got into T. Rex as a kid. I lived too deep in the sticks, and the only kid I know who owned a T. Rex record refused to tear off the cellophane shrink wrap and play the damn thing because that’s the way he was with all his stuff; he was saving it for posterity, or for somewhere down the line when it would fetch a pretty penny for being in mint condition. He’s probably a millionaire now. I thought he was a complete imbecile.

And the songs I heard after that struck me as a bit fey and simplistic; Marc Bolan truly was a dandy in the underworld, and I failed to get the whole “T. Rextasy” thing that swept England in the wake of 1971’s Electric Warrior.

Before that Bolan was an unreconstructed hippie, in a duo with the wonderfully named Steve Peregrin Took. Their acoustic-guitar-based material had a raga-like feel and ran towards lyrics about paisley unicorns leaping through peace symbols in the tie-dyed sky. But the two band mates had a falling out, and Bolan caught the glam wave, with a funky and more pop-oriented electrical guitar style and a flashier sartorial style. Indeed, he is credited with founding glam, after he appeared on Top of the Pops with a spots of glitter beneath his eyes. Superstardom followed, as little girls swooned and little boys prayed nightly for a pair of platform glitter boots to appear magically in the morning by their bed. Hit followed hit in a manner not seen since the Beatles, and it mattered not a nonce that Bolan and Took’s old hippie audience cried, “Sell out!”

Electric Warrior is generally credited as being the high-water mark of T. Rex’s career, although 1972 follow-up The Slider also wins big props from fans and critics. Electric Warrior was, as its title indicates, Bolan’s move towards an electric rock sound, with irresistible hooks and an almost child-like approach to melody. The journey begins with the shuffle funk of “Mambo Sun,” which highlights Bolan’s almost whispered vocal delivery and playful lyrics, and it’s good, infectious fun. Bolan stuck to the basics, with relatively simple grooves that might run the entire song, and it’s an exhilarating formula. Call it white glam funk.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Exile on Main Street

Celebrating Mick Jagger on his 78th birthday.Ed.

I’ve been down in the dumps of late; the suicide of a friend, the death of another friend I dearly loved, and a bad case of the blues have all pretty much brought me to my knees. I feel beat down, fucked over, and broken up, and life sure does have a way of tarnishing your eyelids, doesn’t it?

Where to turn in times like these? When you’ve got a foot in the grave and your head in the oven? Exile on Main Street, naturally. It’s as beat down an LP as ever you’ll hear; Mick, Keith and Company are torn and frayed and have shit on their shoes and the whole album sounds like it was recorded in a sub-basement of Hell.

And yet. The Rolling Stones’ 1972 bruised and battered masterpiece (and high-water mark) somehow manages to rise above the bad vibes and general miasma of death and dissolution that surrounded the band at the time. Nothing–not drug busts, the death of Brian Jones, Altamont, tax exile, or Keith Richards’ slide toward junkiedom–could stop the Stones from turning Exile on Main Street into a celebration of hope and soul survival.

And this despite the fact that the album is the aural equivalent of the La Brea tar pits. Mick Jagger has never stopped carping about Exile’s notoriously sludgy mix, but the murk doesn’t just work–it’s part and parcel of the double album’s greatness. You have to trudge through shit to get to the Promised Land, and if you scrape the shit off these songs, well, you find diamonds. “Turd on the Run” anyone?

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Graded on a Curve: Rebellion,
Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Tragedy in Steel

Shakespeare sucks. You can make neither heads nor tails of his plays because his characters are always spouting words I’m convinced the Immoral Bard made up on the spot, and they have more footnotes than words.

And I’m not the only critic who thinks Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy was a plate of rotting haggis. In 1606 a theatre critic for The London Cock-a-Hoop wrote “Last night’s debut of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth made me harken for a return to Middle English. As gagging playgoers streamed from the Globe Theatre at the end of Act II the poor lad portraying Lady MacDuff tore off his wig and cried “I’ve had enough of this fancified gibberish!” I strongly recommend that worthies in search of real entertainment avoid this Black Plague of a play and head over to Blackfriars Theatre to check out Strumpets on Ice instead.”

Fortunate for us we have we have a sort of Cliff Notes in metal to Shakespeare’s tragedy in the form of the German power metal band Rebellion’s 2002 concept album Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Tragedy in Steel. The LP—the band’s debut—is an audacious masterpiece that peppers its heavy metal thunder with dialogue from Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare would no doubt doff his copotain to Rebellion in tribute, agreeing that their version of Macbeth makes his smell like the foul ordure of a prancing bear.

As you’ve no doubt known from the start, it’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Tragedy in Steel that reeks of bear shit. You can’t fault Rebellion for their ambition, but you can fault the finished product as one of the worst LPs this side of Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla. You know you’re knee deep in something when a heavy metal album comes complete with a ten-member “cast,” each and every one of whom has mastered the fine art of overemoting.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rush, Rush

Remembering John Rutsey, born on this day in 1952.Ed.

Sounding less like a bird of prey than a castrati with a gerbil up his ass, Geddy Lee is trying to tell us something. Xanadu, subdivisions, the spirit of radio, how we’re all trees in the forest and if you happen to be a stunted one you’re shit out of luck—your guess is as good as mine. The late Neil Peart, may he rest in peace, wrote ‘em, and your average 13-year-old with a unicorn glitter notebook would have rubbed his nose on the playground gravel.

Behind Geddy, prog-metal bric a brac: 2012’s ping-ponging title track (Rush isn’t a band, it’s a kid with attention deficit disorder) boasts seven parts including a grand finale, and is less a suite than a Frankenstein monster of ill-fitting parts. As for the band’s concept albums, Geddy himself has been quoted as saying, “Even I can’t make sense of them.”

Either you love Rush or you loathe ‘em, and I loathed ‘em up until the day I realized they were a comedy act. Now I love ‘em. Geddy cracks me up every time he opens his beak. “Closer to the Heart” is my all-time favorite song.

But there was an old Rush before the new Rush, and the old Rush can only be heard on the band’s 1974’s eponymous debut. With the soon-to-be-booted John Rutsey on skins, and nary a tedious 19-minute musico-philosophical discourse on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in sight, everybody’s favorite Molson belchers made like Led Zeppelin on Beaver Tails, and while your critic types derided Rush as a turd hamburger, I like it cuz I’ll take good old-fashioned hard rock over mutant mullet metal any day.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Dandy Warhols, Tafelmuzik Means More When You’re Alone

The opening track of The Dandy Warhols’ 2020 release Tafelmuzik Means More When You’re Alone is entitled “It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Bored.” Well so do I, and the reason is this album, which in case you haven’t heard is four hours long. I’ve loved the Dandys since I first heard “(Tony This Song Is Called) Lou Weed,” but the only way I’ll listen to this 240-minute trudge again is by getting too wasted to get up and turn it off.

The Dandy Warhols have been the personification of the cool groove since their 1995 debut Dandys Rule OK. Over the intervening years they’ve been producing infectious songs for discerning hipsters, many of which can be heard on the band’s 2010 compilation The Capitol Years 1995-2007. Feel free to stop by the house and I’ll treat you to my favorites. That or I can snatch you off the street and hold you hostage. It’s your choice.

But on Tafelmuzik (that’s table music to those of us who refuse to learn German because we’re still holding a grudge over WWII) The Dandy Warhols dispense with the infectious grooves, irresistible melodies, and irrepressible good humor that have given us such great indie anthems as “Boys Better” and “Every Day Should Be a Holiday.” Message to The Dandy Warhols—a Tafel isn’t good for much there’s nothing on it.

The longest of Tafelmuzik’s eleven tracks weighs in at approximately thirty-seven minutes; six of its cuts top the twenty-minute mark. Their length lends them a hypnotic power; give them a couple of hours and you may find yourself a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. But most listeners (yours truly included) will give each of Tafelmuzik’s songs a few minutes of their valuable time before moving on. That said, these same songs will delight sofa dwellers who don’t set too high a premium on trivial things like excitement and euphoria and who have nothing better to do with their ears.

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Graded on a Curve: Funkadelic,
Maggot Brain

Celebrating George Clinton on his 80th birthday.Ed.

A decade or so ago my friend D., a borderline sociopath jailhouse-type individual, suggested we go rock climbing. Without ropes. Idiot that I am, I said sure. I was some 20 feet off the ground—a frightful distance when you looked down—when I found myself unable to go forward or retreat. Suddenly my left leg began to violently shudder. D. looked over (I think I was whimpering for help) and mirthfully cried, “You’ve got Disco Leg!” That’s when I fell, breaking my ankle and cracking my skull.

That “Disco Leg!” never fails to crack me up, and for some reason always brings to mind Funkadelic, the greatest funk-rock band of ‘em all. And of all their LPs, my all-time fav-o-reet has always been 1971’s Maggot Brain. (Yeah, I know, 1978’s One Nation Under a Groove is brilliant, fantastic, blah blah blah, but I’ve made up my mind, and I’m too dumb to change it.) I would say you can thank guitar svengali Eddie Hazel for making Maggot Brain my most treasured slice of P-Funk, but it would only be partly true—some of the tunes on Maggot Brain barely feature Hazel at all, and I still love them every bit as much as my Black Power Fist Afro pick.

Maggot Brain features one of the more unfortunate covers in music history, with its front cover depicting a black woman buried up to her neck screaming in agony and back cover showing the same woman’s head, now become a skull. Why, it’s almost as creepy as the cover of Herbie Mann’s Push Push, on which Herbie shows off his ghastly lubed-up chest pelt for reasons I don’t care to speculate about. And the same goes for Maggot Brain. Then again, what do you expect from a band that entitles an LP Maggot Brain in the first place? P-Funk was a crazy-eyed crew of acid-gobbling freaks, and on LSD everything seems like a grand idea.

Some brief history: George Clinton’s Parliament was founded in the late 1950s in Plainfield, New Jersey as a doo wop group called the Parliaments. But then psychedelics hit town and the Parliaments became Parliament, and morphed from played doo wop to do wot?, by which I mean they went funky berserk. Funkadelic began its career as the backing band for Parliament, but by the early seventies Parliament and Funkadelic were separate entities with different sounds but utilizing most of the same musicians. Funkadelic was the freakier of the two outfits, a funk-rock monolith that melded psychedelia, big honking guitar riffs, Bible-belt blues, James “Soul Brother No. 1” Brown’s flaming funk, Frank Zappa’s absurdist humor, and Sun Ra’s astral plane crash jazz, to cite just some of their influences.

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Graded on a Curve: Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

Celebrating Paul Cook, born on this day in 1956.Ed.

Well here it is–the first and best punk album ever vomited upon an unsuspecting public. And I don’t want to hear any naysaying or quibbling. With 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Company fired a shot heard round the world, and the aftershocks of this LP will be felt as long as kids continue to form punk bands, which is forever.

Never Mind the Bollocks sounds every bit as snotty and uncompromising as the day it was released, but hindsight affords us the opportunity to look at where it fits into the history of rock ’n’ roll. The first thing I would note is how much it has in common with smart English hard rock. Given a large quantity of speed and set loose in the studio, Mott the Hoople might have sounded like this. Which brings us to another point. Like Mott’s Ian Hunter, Johnny Rotten is one smart bloke. He may not have attended Oxford, but our lad Johnny had a knack for saying what was on his mind. And he summed up what was on his mind when he said, “Sometimes the most positive thing you can be in a boring society is absolutely negative.”

The songs on Never Mind the Bollocks are slower than I remember, and their sound is fuller; they don’t have that razor-thin edge one associates with, say, the Ramones or the Clash. And they don’t have the pop overtones of those bands either. Listen to the Ramones now and they sound like a bubblegum band; the Sex Pistols don’t blow bubbles and their songs might as well be Brighton rock. The Sex Pistols roar thank to Steve Jones’ blunderbuss guitar, and Johnny Rotten is purest ferocity. The Sex Pistols produce a ferocious din, and I can’t think of a punk band that has ever come close to equaling them in sheer savagery.

I prefer the cartoon nihilism of the Sex Pistols to the pretend revolutionary tendencies of the Clash; if nothing else, cartoon nihilism is far funnier. By “cartoon nihilism” I mean to imply that the anarchy advocated by this band probably goes no further than ripping the occasional car radio antenna off. I do not mean to suggest Johnny Rotten’s disgust, hatred, and bile are not real. It only takes a few seconds of LP opener “Anarchy in the U.K.” to demonstrate the man isn’t just taking the piss.

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Graded on a Curve:
10cc,
Sheet Music

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

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

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

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

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Graded on a Curve:
Kiss,
Music from “The Elder”

Things can always get worse. Just ask Kiss. As their glory days receded in the rearview mirror, Kiss flailed about looking to turn things around. First they released 1979’s Dynasty, a crass attempt to cash in on the disco craze. Then in 1980 they teased baring faces and asses both on the tragically misguided Unmasked. Finally they released 1981’s Music from “The Elder,” a progressive rock concept album complete with orchestra and choir. Sales were so abysmal the band chose not to tour, presumably because they feared being tarred and feathered in every stop on the itinerary.

Music from “The Elder” was primarily the lizard brainchild of Gene Simmons—it was he and he alone who came up with the LP’s hackneyed plot, which centers around a boy who is recruited and trained to combat evil by the Council of Elders of the mysterious Order of the Rose. We’ll never know what the finished product of Spinal Tap’s proposed musical Saucy Jack would have looked like, but it most surely would have bettered this musical vomitorium.

Kiss defenders will no doubt lay blame for Music from “The Elder” on the fact that Kiss was in a state of chaos at the time–drummer Peter Criss was out the door and guitarist Ace Frehley would follow shortly thereafter. But personnel changes didn’t account for this abrupt turn towards orchestral prog rock, which was doomed from the start given Kiss made its reputation (and a sizeable fortune) on simple three-chord rock and roll classics like “Strutter,” “Detroit Rock City,” and “Love Gun.” An expedient punk rock move would have made sense. Going Emerson, Lake & Palmer on the rock kids who made up their fanbase was commercial and artistic self-immolation.

The 1997 remaster opens with “Fanfare” as performed by the American Symphony Orchestra. It sounds like something the orchestra pulled from a Fanfare cut-out bin, and proves that symphony orchestras can be whores just like anyone else. “Just a Boy” is a Kansas-school howl, complete with acoustic guitars and a chorus that goes, “I’m no hero, though I wish I could be”—sung in a falsetto of course.

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Graded on a Curve:
Roky Erickson & the Aliens, The Evil One

Remembering Roky Erickson, born on this day in 1947.Ed.

The late, great Roky Erickson saw dead people. He also saw zombies, vampires, demons, Lucifer, two-headed dogs, a creature with an atomic brain, alligators, and Sputnik. For all I know he saw unicorns too, but if so he didn’t tell anybody.

The former 13th Floor Elevators frontman was both a survivor and a hero; he struggled with mental illness for over 50 years, but never let it defeat him. He was forced to undergo electro-convulsive therapy, had thorazine shoved down his throat, and lived to tell the tale. Anybody who suffers from mental illness or knows someone who does understands just what a hard road he traveled. The man had spirit.

Given this back story, it can be difficult to distinguish Roky’s mental illness from his love of Grade B horror and science fiction movies, especially on 1981’s The Evil One, a veritable parade of all of the beasties, ghastlies, and ghoulies enumerated above. Produced by Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook (who played on two cuts), The Evil One’s songs are surprisingly catchy, mainstream even–take away the Halloween themes and dress ‘em up a little, and many of these songs would have sounded right at home on FM radio.

The songs on The Evil One stick with you–listen to the LP a couple of times and you’ll be able to hum along to most of ‘em. You may know all of the lyrics too. Erickson had a lot in common with Blue Öyster Cult, who also mated surprisingly melodic rock ’n’ roll with outré subject matter: Godzilla, extraterrestrials, Nazi fighter jets, flaming telepaths, and I think you get the idea.

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

Remembering Bob Casale, born on this day in 1952.Ed.

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

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

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

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

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