Agony Shorthand

Saturday, August 30, 2003
SHHH....AGONY SHORTHAND IS SLEEPING....Some great comments on the post below -- thanks. I will check the recommended artists out. Right now I've got some bigger fish to fry; my son Adam was born on Thursday. We're going to "go quiet" for a few days while I school him on the major players in the late 70s LA punk scene and the twelve overrated musical acts that no thinking newborn should listen to. I expect to pump out some 3:30am posts in the near future, so come back in a few days.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003
OH, THE THINGS I DON’T KNOW….It may appear that I’m some sort of music-obsessed jerk with an axe to grind, and perhaps I am. Certainly the charge "hipster" has been leveled by at least two people in the MONKS comments below. Ouch! But appearances can be deceiving. Would you believe that all this “informed” blather is just smoke and mirrors? You wouldn’t believe some of the bands I’ve never heard before! I got to thinking how, for example, in at least 19 years of knowing & reading about them, I’m never actually heard the SWANS. Never even been interested! Or more recently, the oft-cited RICHARD YOUNGS. Who he? I may read about these folks here and there, but -- you're not gonna believe this -- the list of musicians and bands I’ve never heard is even longer than the list I have heard! Here are a few examples that, to my knowledge, have never crossed my eardrums:

The Feelies, Tower Recordings, Jim O'Rourke, Voivod, The Pack, No Neck Blues Band, Yoshimi, The Apples in Stereo, Jarboe, Popul Vuh, Public Nuisance, Curved Air, The Mighty Hannibal, Rhys Chatham, Esquerita, Derek Bailey, Andrew W.K., Alice Coltrane, Henry Cow, Blonde Redhead, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Incredible String Band (wait, turns out I have heard them!), Blechtom From Blechdom, Soft Machine, Ash Ra Temple, Wreckless Eric, Nikki Corvette, Virgin Prunes, Huggy Bear, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Quintron, Tenacious D, Melt Banana, Exodus, Dr. Feelgood....

And it goes on from there. I wish I could have cited “BRIGHT EYES”, but I was tricked into hearing him by a very, very mean person earlier this year. Now, of this list, who among them deserves to be heard? Anyone?

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
OVERRATED, VOLUME THREE : THE MONKS….Not to be a nattering nabob of negativity all the time, but there’s something cathartic about purging all the hostility and frustration that’s built up over the years watching mediocrity rewarded and brilliance ignored. As my shrink Dr. Melfi keeps telling me, “give voice to your pent-up anger, speak truth to power”. I’m trying, doctor!! That brings me to the third installment of our “overrated” series, starring the POP GROUP, the DICTATORS, and now, those crrrrazy 60s GIs “on the loose” in Germany, THE MONKS. Wow, these guys were cuckoo! I mean, totally bats! They shaved their heads like real Monks and everything, and said controversial stuff about the Vietnam war! Not just crrrazy, but bold too! Yeah, to be fair, the MONKS are not quite as egregious on the musical front – I gave “Black Monk Time” two more complete spins over the past weekend to see if I could spare them the guillotine, but in the end, despite some flashes of talent, I gotta conclude that these guys were about as dangerous and ingenious as Jello Biafra. Aw christ, I almost forgot the caveats I have to throw out there before the “Monks hillbilly jihad” tracks me down:

A.) There’s no accounting for taste, and
B.) My opinions are just that, opinions. Yours are equally valid and defensible.

Let’s establish front and center that, kidding aside, the MONKS’ back story is one of the more interesting angles around – musically-inclined American GIs stationed in Germany who, out of boredom, start a band for their own amusement and go a little bonkers in the process -- but to pump & milk a legend on that alone would be a huge mistake. I’ve found most Monks praise continues to be centered on their story, not their sound. “Black Monk Time”, their one and only true LP, came out in 1966, and there are certainly some forward-thinking nods to sonic experimentation in the mix. "We got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing harmonics," bassist Eddie Shaw said, quoted in a Perfect Sound Forever feature on the band. "Everything was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated on over-beat". Great, mission accomplished – the dissonant production is ahead of its time. But the songs? Are they really worth listening to over and over? Other than the dynamic “Shut Up” and the kinda fun “We Do Wie Du”, I honestly don’t think there’s a lot of there there. The hoarse shouting and falsetto yodeling of the vocalist is absolutely grating when combined with deliberately nonsensical lyrics and rhymes – sort of a “look at me, I’m a nutty madman” posturing that is incredibly calculated and wears poorly on repeated listens. It’s kind of like the difference between OS MUTANTES and the MOTHERS OF INVENTION; the former paid as much attention to their harmonics and melodies as they did their experimentation, and when they started venturing off the deep end, they were pushing boundaries that could always be snapped back into shape as the song itself demanded. The latter, who I believe the Monks resemble more approach-wise, were more about flipping the bird and making a statement about what freaks they were, and their music suffered accordingly for this lack of seriousness and craft. With “Black Monk Time” it’s kind of a frustrating cycle: you plop the record on, hear this terrific production, golden farfisa and thudding bass, and you end up 40 minutes later with – this? This wet noodle of a record? I can’t help but do some back-of-the-envelope math. Hmm, let’s see here: MONKS + undue hype = OVERRATED!

Sunday, August 24, 2003
GIRLS AT OUR BEST : “PLEASURE” CD….All I’ve ever known about this band I learned in the early 80s in my fanatical perusing of then-newly minted copies of UK musicweeklies NME and Melody Maker – that they were a British “girl band” (untrue, there’s three blokes & a bird) and that their actual moniker was the more emphatic GIRLS AT OUR BEST! (still checking on that). This 1994 complete works compilation on Vinyl Japan helps set the record straight. The kickoff track, “Getting Nowhere Fast” from their 1980 debut 45, is one of those face-slapping moments any music obsessive lives for – a fantastic, classic, top-tier rock and roll song that I’d never heard before, at a time when sometimes I snobbishly think I’ve heard everything brilliant this era had to offer. Picture a driving, snotty, femme-voxed cross between “Pretty Vacant” and “Suspect Device” – “Getting Nowhere Fast” is easily as good and catchy as both. Download it! You need to hear this classic if you haven’t before – I must’ve played it 25 times in the past couple weeks.

Since “Pleasure” is a warts-and-all career compilation, well, the good news after “Getting Nowhere Fast” is that the band didn’t fly down the toilet with their next 45s and 1982 “Pleasure” LP, but the bad news is they didn’t do anything especially noteworthy either. There’s some raw, grinding “Join Hands”-era SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES guitar on a couple winning numbers (like “Warm Girls”) and then, in a complete change of form that comes about four songs in, there are multiple examples of happy bouncy pop, like a slightly more amped-up DOLLY MIXTURE (“I’m Beautiful Now” and “China Blue”). Nothing in the 17 tracks has anywhere near the oomph of “GNF” but I’m telling ya, not much of anyone’s does. To its credit, the CD is pretty stylistically varied from track to track, and vocalist Judy Evans is really “at her best” when she sings in her normal, snarled tone of voice instead of the less enthralling high-pitched English falsetto. Not because I’m a punker, but just because.

Friday, August 22, 2003
SLIDE SHOW ALERT....Some really great archival photos are now posted on longtime SF Bay Area playa J. Neo Marvin's (X-TAL) personal web site. I expect to see a lot more music-related photo sites/blogs in the years to come what with the proliferation of digital photography, but these 1978-83 photos are raw captures of some terrific events that previously existed only in the collective memory of the scattered attendees, or the odd Search & Destroy write-up. Inlcuded are Santa Cruz and San Francisco shows from YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS, CRIME, DILS, FLIPPER (with some beer guzzling, of course), DELTA 5, GANG OF FOUR, SLEEPERS, AVENGERS and even that last THROBBING GRISTLE show. If you view it in a slide show format (rather than thumbnails) you get some of Marvin's commentary as well. Thanks to RW for the heads-up!

Thursday, August 21, 2003

A theme seems to be brewing here at the Shorthand around poorly-recorded, legendary records that have been or should be cleaned up. To be honest, 9 times out of 10 I would not be in favor of it – I can only think of two clear huge winners from the past where this was done: the aforementioned “Raw Power”, and almost as good, the HEARTBREAKERS' “L.A.M.F. Revisited” . To this let us add a third – and when one considers how little raw material they (in this case Jack Endino) had to work with, one has to doff a cap. Early Seattle hardcore punk band SOLGER lasted all of six months during 1980, and during that time played a small handful of local shows (one opening for BLACK FLAG) and recorded a bizarrely satisfying 5-song 7”EP that remained mostly lost to time save for a limited reissue in the late 90s. To be especially lame and quote myself on this record (from 1998’s Superdope #8):

“What is special about the Solger single still remains somewhat elusive – on first listen, it’s poorly-recorded, generic hardcore, and it’s subject matter (detailed in an enclosed lyric fold-out) is moronic early 80’s teenage nihilism (war, hate, fascist Amerika, ect). Yet many consider the record to be a true classic, and I have to say, I love listening to it. Low fidelity often brings out the warmth and an artist’s true expression in a way that conventional recording can’t – Solger took this maxim several steps further and buried their mics underneath Puget Sound while recording, spilled a case of Schmidt on the masters, pasted swabs of cotton to the final tapes and pressed up 500 copies. The songs charge forward and then spin out of control in a manner quite foreign to hardcore structure, making this the most “arty” generic hardcore record of its day…”

This new CD on Empty Records brings all 5 tracks back in jumbled order to start the disc in a “remastered” form – and it comes off as just fucking rabid, frothing, first-wave American Hardcore like few have ever played it. It attacks and wails like the GERMS or – and I’d never made the comparison until hearing this CD – early Michigan hardcore heroes THE FIX, who were operating in roughly the same timeframe. Endino did a superb job of bringing these muddy tracks to life again, and all the great things I had to say in the paragraph before this one are cubed. What’s more, the CD includes the original unremastered recordings of “the magic five”, as well as a brief chunk from a live set with howling vocals, careening guitar and a general take-no-prisoners approach. Pantywaists these boys were not. GERMS and DAMNED covers, too – and liner notes by Mudhoney’s Steve Turner and Mark Arm. I gotta think that this is a reissue that will make the overall appeal of your CD collection that much better.

PUT IT TO A VOTE....While I was listening to the remastered STOOGES “Raw Power” (see below) I started to wonder what that other legendary thinly-recorded classic LP might sound like if it were scrubbed down, amped up and made to sound like some have argued it should sound. I’m talking, of course, of the VELVET UNDERGROUND’s “White Light/White Heat” – a record that will forever live in infamy for not only its genius (the record that gave us “Sister Ray”!!) but for that nagging, biting, tearing feeling that it could have been so much more. What do you think? Should something be done at this late date? Would you buy it?

Wednesday, August 20, 2003
SIGHTINGS : “SIGHTINGS” and “ABSOLUTES” CDs…..Got a lovely batch of uneasy listening from Providence noise standard-bearers LOAD RECORDS the other day, including the two releases from NYC trio SIGHTINGS. The first self-titled CD is quite a chaos of fizzling uber-distortion – it’s ready, set, explode on every track, and the result is a total sonic mess, full of test pattern-like experimentation interspersed with the skeletons of actual songs. No titles on the CD jacket itself – but you can get them here (not that they’re instructive in any sense – we’re talking mostly instrumentals). Before I knew a thing about the band I predicted that they were Japanese, and I was dead wrong. Not too much to get excited about here. The more recent “Absolutes”, on the other hand, has got an overmodulated, shit-hot kick-off number called “White Keys” – picture first EP MEAT PUPPETS crossed with Dez Cadena-era BLACK FLAG, and then record it all live & fuck with the results afterward. Outstanding track! The lead Sighting grunts and chokes up guttural moans worthy of a Kirkwood brother circa 1981. There’s wild drumming throughout, and though it’ll test your patience from time to time, the whole of the CD is wrapped up in 30 minutes give or take. Fans of the more edgy HIGH RISE numbers or wilder, rockist DEAD C stuff will probably find something to grab for here.

DID SOMEONE SAY ICKY BOYFRIENDS?....(see below) – And hey, it turns out they’re about to make their posthumous debut on CD. The forthcoming “A Love Obscene” will be an ICKY BOYFRIENDS 2xCD retrospective, with material from their LPs "I'm Not Fascinating" and "Talking to You is Just Like Being Dead: 1988-Present", as well as from their C&P and Blackjack 7" EPs. There’s also a nice dose of unreleased bonus stuff. The whole package will be rolled out to a salivating public by Menlo Park Recordings next Spring. Talk about a healthy lead time! The band is not for the squeamish – you’ll either find them to be a refreshingly retarded take on ELECTRIC EELS-style proto-garage rock, or you may find them to be an absolute train wreck. Their reign was from about 1988-1995, and they left as many broken hearts as they did alienated and confused hipsters. You’ll get a chance to experience the joy digitally if you can just wait 7-8 more months!

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

There’s always a bit of skepticism brewing when a band releases a “remixed” or “remastered” version of a classic record, but – and I know this is old, old news – this 1997 CD version, "remastered by Iggy himself", easily blows away the original and any previous CD (including Bomp’s underwhelming “Rough Power”). I had heard it before, but now that I’ve spun it again a few times I think it’s safe to say that, while the STOOGES' 3rd album is still just their 3rd best album, it has now officially entered the upper levels of the pantheon. The original “Raw Power” was the end result of employing a celebrity producer (David Bowie) for no other reason than he’s a celebrity – the CHEATER SLICKS achieved similar mediocre results with genius songs on their "Don’t Like You” album, with Jon Spencer at the helm. The red-lined “Shake Appeal” absolutely screams, and is now a lot closer to its hairy-palmed cousin, the James Williamson masterpiece “Tight Pants”, than ever before. Similar wonders are worked with “Search and Destroy” and the all-time knock-down drag-out dirty punk blues masterpiece, “I Need Somebody”. And I’m still floored by that back cover photo of Iggy with a ghostly white face & his mouth locked in a scream – I would post it here if I could find it. One photo that most assuredly made parents piss their pants in 1971. Now the record’s finally capable of doing so as well.

Monday, August 18, 2003
VARIOUS ARTISTS : “FRISCO STYLES”…..I’ve always tried to straddle the line between being a “hometowner”, hyping my local bands in whatever forum I’m writing in way past the point of objectivity, and an out-and-out local skeptic – realizing that while it may play well in San Francisco (my hometown, by the way), other metropolitan areas’ bands/scenes/clubs/whatever are far more interesting, and I’d easily be able to see how lame it is here if only I lived elsewhere. I definitely trended toward the former in the early 90s, and perhaps I was on to something – my local faves back then were THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282, the MUMMIES, WORD OF POOH, DWARVES, anything involving BARBARA MANNING, ICKY BOYFRIENDS and SUPERCHARGER. Not the worst rock and roll scene in America, right? But intervening years weren’t kind to my city. San Francisco has often seemed to engender musical acts that rub several of my – and maybe your – sore spots very hard: there are far too many wacky, unfunny dress-up bands; many tend to be mired in unthinking, platitude-filled far left politics (60s baggage that never left), or are given to the turgid miasma of confessional singer/songwriterdom. Such seemed to be the case from about 1994-on, with some bold exceptions, until a vibrant new scene appeared in recent years with strong, young, experimental bands centering themselves on both sides of the SF Bay. These young pups ranged from the spazz-robot punk of NUMBERS and ERASE ERRATA to the death disco of CRACK: WE ARE ROCK to the bizarre acid/fuzz/biker metal of COMETS ON FIRE, and further onward to a ton more I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing live. It was thus that I decided to purchase this 48-track double CD called “FRISCO STYLES” in hopes of finding, at long last, my rekindled scene – and in so doing, maybe just a little piece of myself.

Granted my BS detector has ripened with advancing age, so I believe I’ve got a far higher quality threshold than I used to. I'm going to try real, real hard to not be especially cynical -- nothing's worse than a fusty, cranky sourpuss who was there when it really mattered. I'm making no such claims, either. But this compilation delivers the goods far too rarely, I’m afraid – it’s a “regional comp” in every sense of the phrase, with the large amounts of dreck and filler that implies. There are a handful of knockouts, though. I’m strongly impressed with CONDOR and their pounding synth/darkwave track “Go No Dull”. When I saw them live about 18 months ago I couldn’t get over the fact that someone told me that their vocalist "played" Morrissey in a SMITHS cover band, so it was hard to visually get back “in the moment”. But this is first-rate Screamers-style crunch. There’s also the lush nuanced pop of the AISLERS SET, a band who not without some merit get compared to BELLE & SEBASTIAN at every turn, but who boast a terrific sound that I’d like to hear more of. A slight notch down from those are ZMRZLINA, who sound like something off of one of Chuck Warner’s “Homework” CDs, NAM, ZEIGENBOCK KOPF (fake gay German industrial techno band; I'm sure every town's got one), COACHWHIPS, MR. & MR. & MRS. EVIL, the blank-faced drone of CRACK: WE ARE ROCK and the always first-rate electro spazz-core sweethearts ERASE ERRATA. That’s about it – another couple of listens might serve up a few more passable numbers, but overall, it’s a pretty thin gruel.

The worst offenders on the whole thing are SHOTWELL, who kick off their appallingly bad “popcore” drivel “Patriot” with a head-in-the-anus speech that mockingly dedicates the song “…(to) people who holding on to the true belief that capitalism is a viable entity under democracy. It’s not. People never wanted capitalism, and they never will“. Riiiiiight. San Francisco, folks. These are my peeps. VIRGIL SHAW contribute their entry to the “worst example of incompetant fake alt-country covers, ever” award, and right now they’re my odds-on favorite to win it all. Hey, you think PEGGY HONEYWELL's ever heard a Cat Power record? You think? And what happened to VIRGINIA DARE? 10 years ago this band was creating absolutely shimmering country-tinged, autoharp-driven pop music; today they’re doing exactly the same thing almost to the point of parodying themselves, minus the shimmer and adding a meaningless cultural commentary on the agony of having to live “in a consumer society”. Oh, the pathos! (UPDATE: I may have been a bit off on this one; if this in indeed an X-Ray Spex cover, then it just happens to be a throwaway "save it for a compilation" track. I still heart Virginia Dare). Anyway, here it is: San Francisco, 2003. Things were so much better in the days of STICKDOG and CAROLINER, *sigh*. See you in the pit!

Friday, August 15, 2003
BLASTITUDE #15….I recently became acquainted with BLASTITUDE “zine”, a great online read that it the best model I’ve yet seen for supplanting the traditional bricks & mortar fanzine with its online equivalent. The latest issue, their 15th, is maybe the best yet. Interview with Kyle Nixon of SOLGER, a SIMPLY SAUCER retrospective, and so, SO many reviews & columns of reviews that you’re likely to draw up a big fat list for your next record shopping excursion. Applause all around. You can find the latest issue here.


Easily the best CD I’ve bought in the past few months, this collection pinpoints one of the least-documented major scenes of the past several decades: the NYC downtown minimalist art/funk/punk renaissance that took place in the shadow of a city in decline. One of the unique things about this era in NYC history is that the city had recently emerged from bankruptcy, and many now-trendy or famous neighborhoods were generally considered to be uninhabitable (and of course were teeming with people). “Don’t walk past Avenue A – you’ll definitely be murdered”, I remember hearing on my 1983 visit to the Lower East Side. This is the neighborhood where the “NEW YORK NOISE” underground scene mostly went down, and the neighborhood that is easily the nation’s most culturally fertile stretch of square miles anywhere. To give a context for the scene this compilation celebrates, I’ll take the easy route and quote directly from the liner notes:

“The acts featured here were part of a young and diverse group of people involved in art, music, film, theater, fashion and writing who were based in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This area of cheap rents had played host to several successive generations of arts practitioners and had come to be known as the home of an open-minded bohemian community. While the reputation born of this history undoubtedly played a part in bringing this group of people together in this particular part of Manhattan, many of the people involved in the scene felt scornful of their cultural forebears, and wished to separate themselves from this artistic lineage despite their geographical location. This tension between seeking to reject past norms while building on, and referencing, them if something that characterizes the Downtown scene of the late seventies and early eighties.”

The “NEW YORK NOISE” compilation features a small handful of semi-overlapping styles. First, you get your slashing no wave artists (MARS, DNA, CONTORTIONS, THEORETICAL GIRLS, GLENN BRANCA) – to call them “danceable” certainly stretches the imagination, but with the right stimulants I suppose it could be done – this is more the “noise” portion of the programme. How was it that MARS' frantic, incredible, skittering creepy crawl racket “Helen Fordsdale” was sitting there on my copy of “NO NEW YORK” this entire time, but never made an impression until removed from that context? What a wallop! Worth the price of admission by itself. There’s also some OK early hip hop from RAMMALZEE vs. K.ROB and DINOSAUR L – as a complete aside, when I went to Seattle’s Experience Music Project a few months ago there were two special exhibits going on: one was a “ history of punk flyers in the Pacific Northwest” exhibit, the other an “early days of hip hop” showing. Guess which one totally ruled? I was personally far more into the old school hip hop exhibit; it showed a flowering, sub-underground scene of bored kids trying to invent their favorite music from scratch, whereas the punk flyers exhibit showed me little beyond a visual representation of that legendary 1993 Gas Huffer/Gruntruck show in Tacoma.

Right, where were we? Some of the most eye-opening stuff here is the minimal funk/dance music that the comp is built around. I had bought and then sold back the LIQUID LIQUID compilation CD from a few years ago, and yet again, their hard-charging “Optimo” here sounds fantastic, removed from a context of all angry dance music & placed into a cultural time capsule with their peers. Also love the stuff from the BUSH TETRAS (“Can’t Get Funky”), KONK (“Baby Dee”) and MATERIAL (“Reduction”), as well as from new-to-me acts like the all-girl BLOODS and LIZZY MERCIER DESCLOUX. And of course ESG, who’ve undergone a renaissance of critical hosannas in recent years. Rare to find a compilation this solid all the way through – highly, highly recommended. Also be on the lookout for ZE RECORDS' “NY NO WAVE” compilation as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

I wasn’t sure if the rumors of a BLACK FLAG reunion in September in LA were true until I did a little undercover sleuthing on “the web”. I was skeptical not just because the rumor was totally implausible: Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, fuckin’ Dez Cadena and (maybe) Henry Rollins all singing tracks from “The First Four Years” (I know those guys all have varying degrees of antipathy toward GINN), but also because it was said that all proceeds were going to “cat rescue organizations”. Get out of here!! What?!? What about Citizens United Against Police Brutality? Or Rock Against Reagan?? Well, turns out it’s on, September 12th and 13th at the Hollywood Palladium, sight of several legendary Black Flag shows back in the day, but I’m not really sure who is actually involved in the proceedings. Are we talking Robo and Chavo? Or some awful “In My Head”-era line up? And what if Ginn insists on sprinkling in some TOM TROCOLLI’S DOG or OCTOBER FACTION numbers? Are they going to let Danzig or Barry Henssler up on stage for an encore? If anyone out there goes to these shows, I’d love to get a full scene report e-mailed to me – I’ll post it right away.

OVERRATED, VOLUME 2 : THE DICTATORS….Continuing our look at those musical acts that receive far too much credit for far too little payoff, let us now turn to those 1970s clown princes of mediocre rock and roll, THE DICTATORS. Oh wait – let’s first take a look at a couple of things we need to remember before we launch into the evisceration:

A.) There’s no accounting for taste, and
B.) My opinions are just that, opinions. Yours are equally valid and defensible.

I’ll go that one further and recognize that any negative mojo thrown The Dictators’ way will really rub our compatriot, the estimable Jeroen at NEXT BIG THING, the wrong way – they’re pretty much his favorite band, which doesn’t reflect on the high quality of his (and Lindsay Hutton’s) excellent web site. And yeah, I recognize that I may be kicked out of the scene for my views. But I never could figure out the appeal – to me, the Dictators at best are a loud, drunk, partyin’ guitar band worth a couple of cheap laughs ("we knocked ‘em dead in Dallas / they didn’t know we were Jews” is a good one). They may have been far more enjoyable at the time than many of the lesser lights of the 1975-76 “rock scene”, but we’re talking about an age of Jethro Tull, Supertramp, Yes and Boston – not exactly formidable competition. That sort of entrenched awfulness cries out for a true revolution & for the men to stand up and separate themselves from the boys. That revolution came a year later – and it didn’t include The Dictators. What were theydoing in 1977? Plodding on with the same old major-label, well-produced “funny” guitar rock they’d already played out with their decent debut “Go Girl Crazy”, but with lesser songs and a joke that had already been swept aside in the wake of the punk explosion of both sides of the Atlantic. And sure, I’ll give Adny Shernoff his props for being a Stooges fan & for publishing the “Teenage Wasteland Gazette” – good on ya, Adny! Digging the Stooges in 1975 is the bare minimum for consideration for elevation into the canon; but history won't let you coast on that alone.

About 15 years ago I was poking around The Dictators section in a Los Angeles record store, where I was accosted by an older gentleman for whom English was not a native tongue. He saw me looking in the bin, and had this to say: “Dictata. Good gitah”. Yes, on this point I have to agree with him – some very, very good gitah on those 3 Dictators albums. After that, what?

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Or, “Agony Shorthand discovers Africa”. And musically, over the past year of two I’m beginning to find that it’s quite a place. Prediction: African 60s and 70s music is soon to be the new dub, the new tropicalia, the new krautrock – whatever it is that people move on to when they’re bored with rock and roll, and ready to leap into wild foreign sounds from what some might argue was the heyday of recorded musical innovation (the 1960s). Some Soul Jazz-like label is going to swoop down and package up compilations of the most mind-blowing rare 45s and EPs of African sounds, and in so doing become the standard-bearer in what is now a sea of disparate, extremely limited European-only releases (maybe Afrodisiac Records from the US?). These two compilations couldn’t be more different – one a wacky testament to the power of Afrobeat, the African interpretation of American soul and funk, the other a full-bore tour of the natural, likely centuries-old music of Guinea. Let’s take a look, shall we?

1995’s “MONEY NO BE SAND” focuses on new, mostly 1960s, interpretations of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian “highlife” in the wake of those countries’ discovery of JAMES BROWN and other American soul music. It’s a blast, and doesn’t completely hue to any one form or another. Calypso, straight-up funk, rock, and wailing, polyrhythmic African highlife are all well represented here – with a strong undercurrent of Mr. Brown throughout. Looks like you can’t overstate the impact he had in these two countries, at least, and the 1958-1971 timeframe represented here roughly correlates with his peak hit-making years in the US. Again, that’s not the whole story. The highlights are CHARLES IWEGBUE & HIS ARCHIBOGS' tough title track as well as their swinging “President Tubman” and the PROFESSIONAL BEACH MELODIANS’ aptly-titled “Shake It”. You’ll find a lot to groove to in this one if you can track it down.

By contrast, the rambunctious 2000 compilation “SYLIPHONE 40 EME ANNIVERSAIRE: GUINEE VOLUME 1” (Syliphone celebrates the 40th anniversary of Guinean independence) is as authentically heart-of-Africa as I comes. I don’t have a good handle on when this music was recorded, but let it be said that there are virtually no American or rock influences anywhere. It’s pure Guinean syncopated rhythm and choral chanting, with lots of bells, horns, cymbals and traditional African instruments. There are soaring choruses full of boisterous children – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say children of all ages. My favorite here is the super-uptempo “Nina” by BALLETS AFRICAINS and “Kogno Coura” by PIVI ET SUS BALLADINS, which has such a laid-back, warm Caribbean feel to it you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Cuban (my limited, uh, academic research in this field has told me that around the 1930s and 40s there existed a huge cross-cultural pollination between Cuba and parts of Africa). After maybe 60 minutes straight of this I’ll ethnocentrically admit to wanting to deplane from Africa for a while; the percussion and foreign-tongue babbling is relentless and best absorbed by the newcomer in limited doses. I’m planning to get re-involved soon; these are definitely two great comps that’ll help get you introduced to distinct shades of the African musical palate.

Monday, August 11, 2003
TWENTY AMERICAN 60s PUNK SCREAMERS…..Every day I get letter after letter in the Agony Shorthand P.O. Box asking “When, WHEN are you going to list your Top 20 American 60s garage punk screamers? We want the best! Hurry!!!”. Jeez, all right then. Here they are, ranked and ordered, with a margin of error of about 2 or so. And hey, did I miss any? Or mistakenly throw a CANADIAN in there? (No, not the Five Canadians – can’t fool me there). Never mind the SONICS – I decided they’d clog this list up too much, so let’s remove them from the equation and give others a chance. There are the high-water marks for raw teenage garage band howling, circa 1964-66, every song essential to understanding the fertility of the era and the place – and the fact that true punk rock didn’t begin on the King’s Road in 1976 (but you knew that):

1. MURPHY & THE MOB – Born Loser
2. MODDS—Leave My House
4. ESQUIRES – Judgment Day
5. HUNS – Destination Lonely
6. SPLIT ENDS – Rich With Nothing
7. FIVE CANADIANS – Writing On The Wall
8. REASONS WHY – Don’t Be That Way
9. AVENGERS – Be a Caveman
10. SHAMES – My World Is Upside Down
11. LEVIS – Hear What I Say
12. CAVE MEN – It’s Trash
14. RATS – Rats Revenge Pt. 1 & 2
15. THEE SIXPENCE – My Flash On You
16. LYRICS – They Can’t Hurt Me
17. ILLUSIONS – City of People
18. MONTELS – I’m Moving On
19. KEGGS – To Find Out
20. SYNDICATE – The Egyptian Thing

Where to find them? The majority of these tracks pop up here, here and here.

ROLLING STONES : “12 X 5”….This one was a missing gap in my STONES collection, primarily because I have a German LP collection with a bunch of overlapping tracks called “Around and Around”. But lately it’s been easy to find the essential 1960s and early 70s Stones CDs, ever since London/ABKCO did their reissue/remaster series in digipack editions (yet with no extra tracks). Now it’s obvious that the obsessives are dumping their previous remastered versions into the used bins in favor of these new ones, leaving these perfectly fine earlier editions for the rest of us. “12 X 5” was the Stones’s second LP, released at the tail end of 1964 and during the band’s fast & furious rise to int’l stardom – and their transformation to a real (non-cover) band. There are 3 Jagger/Richards tracks on this one: “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Congratulations” and “Grown Up Wrong”, the latter a true rough & tumble standout, and two by the mysterious Nanker Phelge (“Empty Heart” and the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue”). I’ll still take their totally jukin’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” over any of those, and let us not forget the great megasmashes “It’s All Over Now” and “Time Is On My Side”. Only the ill-advised, spine-chillingly awful cover of “Under The Boadwalk” almost ruins the blues-joint party here; I guess an argument could be made that their “Susie Q” isn’t so hot either, but I never dug that song anyway. The CD is a fun R&B romp pretty much from start to finish, especially when it’s been remastered and the sounds leap right off the laser beam.

Friday, August 08, 2003
I & I ON A SOAPBOX, SEEN?….I’ve put it forth on this site before that after the amazing wealth of 1960s ska, rocksteady and “blue beat”, my decided regggae preference lies with tripped-out experimental 1970s dub a la KING TUBBY, LEE PERRY and AUGUSTUS PABLO over the more “pure”, more renown, vocal-dominated Rastafarian form from the same era. I think I stand pretty firm on the fact that BOB MARLEY and many of his pop reggae peers – not to mention most of the nonsense-spouting “toasters”! – are flat-out boring and often incredibly annoying (with the caveat that there’s probably some leftover 1980s university hippie/hacky sack baggage contributing to my revulsion). Knowing this, and because this revulsion disappoints him (and because he’s a stand-up guy), my pal Tom Arnaert sent over a recent (?) article from THE WIRE magazine about this dichotomy. Looks like it’s not just me splitting the difference. Simon Reynolds writes a good piece about this (isn’t that the guy that wrote the totally panned book “The Sex Revolts”?) – and I quote,

“…Dub theory (shares the) exaltation of producers and engineers over singers and players, and the idea that studio effects and processing are more crucial than the original vocal or instrumental performances. Which is why thousands of words have been spilled on the wizardry of Perry and Tubby, but surprisingly little on reggae vocalists or the role of drummers, bassists, rhythm guitarists, keyboardists, in building kinaesthetic moodscapes (aka grooves). The mystery of “skank” has failed to provoke a downpour of eloquence. The really distorting side of the Afro-futurist privileging of the producer, though, is the fact that reggae actually involved people saying stuff about stuff has almost totally been forgotten”

I’d argue it hasn’t at all been forgotten – just the stuff they were prattling on about (Jah, weed, mystical Rastafarianism) was so goddamn bothersome and alien to the lives of so many non-Jamaican reggae listeners. Or at least it is now. There’s no denying that there were some terrific players involved – I mean, Sly and Robbie and so many of the dub pioneers actually played music before it was remixed, too – and there obviously had to first be something for the Tubbys of the world to work with. 1970s reggae latched on with so many white folks – a lot of them UK punk rockers – because it was the product of a remote, class-oriented subculture, with a small network of cool indie or semi-independent labels, and because it was bearing a distinct outlaw drugs/guns/political outsider vibe. That package doesn’t hold a whole lot of cachet any longer (the world is ever more connected; class matters in music less than it ever did; indies are a dime a dozen, and I think we’ve all been about “outlawed” to death). People, myself included, knew there were some kernels of genius in reggae somewhere, we just needed to look past Marley, Tosh, Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse and god forbid, “Eek-a-Mouse” to find it. To me, THAT’S what the surge of appreciation for pre-70s reggae roots and for dub is mostly about. It’s really about the music now, and all the politics and the glory of Haile Sellasie and the get up/stand up nature of the rest of it is pure window dressing for the good stuff.

Thursday, August 07, 2003
JSP’s CARTER FAMILY BOX SET….Speaking of old-tyme mountain sounds, I’m trying to get a bead on this JSP Records box set of the CARTER FAMILY (“Carter Family 1927-1934”). I invested several years in the early/mid 90s and a collective dollar amount in the low three figures trying to pick up all volumes of the amazing Rounder series of Carter Family recordings, all of which are now out of print and really tough to find in stores. Looks like the recent JSP set, which is five discs packed with 70 minutes of music (and which retails for only $22!), has almost all of the same tracks available on that Rounder series, give or take a few. The downside appears to be the lack of liner notes, and, if you’re bothered by that sort of thing, the missing tracks. You completist tosser, you. (kidding aside, we’re only talking about an absolute hallmark act in musical history, the single best “group” of their era and the originators of country music – you want everything you can get your hands on). When I posted a question about JSP’s CHARLEY PATTON box set a while back, I got all kinds of frothing responses. Anyone out there have this one, along with an opinion?

VARIOUS ARTISTS : “THE MUSIC OF KENTUCKY – EARLY AMERICAN RURAL CLASSICS 1927-37, VOL. 1”….Another one of those tremendous Yazoo Records excavations of US heartland treasures from the dawn of recorded musical history. This set has now reached two volumes of 25+ tracks each, superceded in small part by Yazoo’s own brand new leviathan 7-CD box set called “Kentucky Mountain Music”. As one curmudgeonly reviewer puts it: “….who in the world would want to listen to this old, scratchy, terribly played and terribly sung material…..if you like Grandpa Jones, Alison Krauss, Bela Flek, or anyone that plays bluegrass like them, then do yourself a favor and do not buy this CD”. Hear hear! If, on the other hand, you don’t, and you love old, scratchy, “terribly played” bluegrass and fiddle breakdowns, you’re going to be all over this like stink on a pig.

Volume One of “MUSIC OF KENTUCKY” presents a rotating handful of all-time great traditional musicians/masters of early country fiddling, banjo & guitar playing, and singing. You get the glorious ALFRED KARNES, who sounds like he’s about 85 and just dying to give you a stern lecture of the evils of booze & wimmin – his opening “Called To The Foreign Field” is a terrific evocation of how terribly exciting it must have been for these true believers to ship overseas and do the Lord’s work. Certainly a great bulk of this collection is religious in nature, never too annoying until you get to ERNEST PHIPPS AND HIS HOLINESS SINGERS and their deadpan Sunday church psalms. B.F. SHELTON is absolutely top notch as well – he’s only slightly less frightening and lonesome than his peer DOCK BOGGS, and they even play a great deal of similar material (e.g. “Pretty Polly”). There are also a ton of instrumentals chock full of sped-up, crazy rhythm, with great titles like “The Old Hen She Cackled”, “Ruffles and Bustles” and “Ned Went A Fishin”. I’m no expert on the genre but have been buying it up piecemeal for years now, and this volume’s easily of a par with my other roots-n-fiddlin' favorites, “Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow” and “Music From The Lost Provinces”.

ARGUMENTUM AD POPULUM….Another music blog absolutely worth seeking out is called, ahem, ARGUMENTUM AD POPULUM, and is written by one Jack Cole. He’s been doing this far longer than I have (a year ago who’d even heard of the Internet?), and he’s got a great, cranky take on plenty of music from DMZ, THE FALL, FACTRIX, ESSENTIAL LOGIC, OBLIVIANS, HOWE GELB and a bunch of stuff I now wanna be turned onto (mark of a good critic!). He even digs The POP GROUP!

Wednesday, August 06, 2003
OVERRATED!, VOLUME ONE : THE POP GROUP….I’ve had it in mind for months now to compile the be-all & end-all list of the most overrated musical acts of all time, or at least of our current day – those bands or artists that people just can’t seem to stop hailing to the skies while you scratch your noggin and ask, “What the f&%#???!?”. We all have ‘em. Part of my reluctance to publishing “the list” stems from the full knowledge that a lot of artists that rub me as supremely overrated just happen to be rated highly by my pals or by influential peers whom I respect. So let’s establish right off the bat that,

A.) There’s no accounting for taste, and
B.) My opinions are just that, opinions. Yours are equally valid and defensible.

That said, of course I want to sway you to my way of thinking by forcing you to renounce your former heroes, turn against yourself, and brutally question your entire core system of values and beliefs. Will it work? You let me know if it does, OK?

I’d like to start this series with a band I find incredibly heinous, completely unlistenable and indisputably OVERRATED! That band is the POP GROUP, the late 70s/early 80s UK art/wank/funk/reggae band that’s undergone a renaissance of critical thought in recent years. Who was asleep at the switch when these guys waltzed into the critical canon unmolested? They’re getting covered by moderne art-noise groups, there’s an (admittedly well-done) full web site slavishly devoted to and praising the band, they’re popping up on comps, and they’re being thrown into comparative sentences with true worthies such as THE FALL, SWELL MAPS, GANG OF FOUR, BIRTHDAY PARTY and so on. Amazing. Their representative tunes – the ones chosen for the comps – are “We Are All Prostitutes” and “She Is Beyond Good and Evil”. The snarky, wheezing vocals on these two are grating enough, but each track is so unstructured and atonal that it’s honestly hard to discern where the pleasure lies. You certainly can’t dance to it, unless you just finished smoking a giant bowl; it’s not clever enough to rank with the true pioneers of dub or even of white boy funk; and when rated against the explosion of British rock and roll creativity and boundary-pushing during this time period, the POP GROUP are decidedly minor players, if that. Check that – extremely OVERRATED minor players! Now, you tell me – who’s really been smoking the bowl here?

More overrateds in the weeks to come.

NAME THAT TUNE, PUNKERS…..There’s this what-the-hell-is-that-song-called dilemma I’ve been trying to figure out for some time, and thought maybe someone out there could give me a helping hand on it. In the early 80s, the original MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL radio show used to air on college radio stations across the US (actually made it overseas as well), playing the finest in screaming Italian hardcore, angry North American anti-Reagan punk, and ballistic South American shit-core. It was usually a well-spent two hours, and is the first place I ever heard hardcore favorites like DIE KRUEZEN and DOA -- even the MEAT PUPPETS in their earliest incarnation. Anyway, they used to kick off the show every week with Tim Yohannan shouting, “And now, stay tuned for Tim & the gang on Maximum Rock and Roll!”, and then this killer mid-tempo rockabilly-ish instrumental tune would start up. This was not a hardcore punk song; it sounded like it could be from the early 60s or from a late 1970s fifties/sixties revival band playing raw, ornery, revved-up rockabilly. Anyone know who this is?? First person to respond gets 500 Agony Shorthand reward points posted to their account!

UPDATE: Hey, guess what, they still play this tune to start the show, as I found immediately after posting this! Follow this link to the current show, download the latest one, and then you can hear this song for yourself. That ought to make it easier to collect your points.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003
A FEAST OF SNAKES : “A FEAST OF SNAKES “ 12”EP….A couple of months ago I solicited your feedback on the new crop of garage punk bands & requested recommendations on same. At least one person fired back with an unequivocal endorsement of Dallas’ A FEAST OF SNAKES – not that you’d know it from my disappeared comments boxes. Then Agony Shorthand browser CS was kind enough to forward a recording of the band’s 2003 debut, vinyl-only, eight-song 12”EP, and I have now listened intensely and studied it in hopes of rendering a verdict. In three brief, remarkably well-chosen words: pretty fuckin’ hot. This is all-over-the-map squall with a deadly blues-fuzz feel, & maybe a wink and nod to biker punk a la DAVIE ALLEN & THE ARROWS. And pretty much every track stands up – not a insignificant feat in an era of soundalike fall-apart punk. James Arthur, who played guitar in FIREWORKS (who did his thing on two of the 90s’ finest garage-noise 45s in “Untrue/She’s a Tornado” and “Silver Moon/Moonshot") & Alex Cuervo from BLACKTOP and a host of others, anchor the panic here (I noticed in the Grunnen Rocks database that former bassist Angelique Congleton also did time in a band called the MEAT HELMETS. Outstanding name!!). Sure, you could quibble with the buried, ultra-distorted vocals, a 1993 vintage Crypt/In The Red move that is perhaps a wee bit played out, but how much more quibblesome would an awful vocalist be? See, we’ll never really know with this approach, so hats off to ‘em. This is a fantastic debut, and I want to hear more.

Monday, August 04, 2003
SCIENTISTS : “LIVE PARIS 6-14-85”….Man, I’d forgotten how great THE SCIENTISTS were. This bootleg of a 1985 Paris live set gave me ample reason to remember, however. Kim Salmon & co. roar through their classic “Blood Red River” and “This Heart Doesn’t Run On Blood…”-era material in front of an enthusiastic French crowd, and go ballistic with so much feedback and whine that they actually blow out the club’s circuits during the opening “Nitro”. Couldn’t have invented a more apt kickoff, could you? It’s telling when listening to realize just how many bands – especially in the past 5-8 years – have aped The Scientists' muddy blues-buzzed garage punk, even more so when these guys were often (wrongly) dismissed as mere CRAMPS clones when they morphed into their deadliest incarnation a couple years before this show. This set really has it all: “Set It On Fire”, “When Fate Deals Its Mortal Blow” (still my fave Scientists tune), “Lead Foot”, and a churning, ear-bleeding encore of “Murderess In a Purple Dress”. It wasn’t long after this era that they started down the “when good bands start to suck” path with the EP “Human Jukebox” and then packed it in by 1987. In case you, like me, needed to get reacquainted with the band’s masterworks, I’d strongly recommend the “Blood Red River 1982-1984” CD and taking it from there.

DELTA 5 : “ANTICIPATION IS SO MUCH BETTER” CD….I’ve been waiting years for someone to put together the compleat DELTA 5 collection, and now here it is, in the “semi-legit” CD-R format. If I’m not mistaken, this truly is complete too – all the band’s great early 45s + the mediocre 1981 “See The Whirl” LP. Delta 5 were one of those hardscrabble, working class, factory town English DIY bands you always read about, birthed at the peak of British economic misery and racial/class warfare in 1978 in Leeds, no less – the factory town to end all factory towns. They were one of the first bands I connected with on college radio during my teenage years; KFJC used to play the hell out of their best aggro leftist punk/funk hybird 45s: “Mind Your Own Business”, “You”, “Colour”, “Anticipation” and “Try”. As Trouser Press put it in their capsule summary of the band,

“Delta 5 display up-to-the-minute beat consciousness welded to songs of emotional discontent. Double female vocals in pronounced British accents are backed by whomping rhythm (two guitars, two basses) and occasional splashes of musical color (brass, keyboards, pedal steel guitar). Semi-cryptic lyrics, full of striking images, are worth the strain needed to pull them out of the seething mass. Jagged music for jagged times”

Those early 45s are golden – totally thumping, bass-heavy grooveathons with heavy doses of bile and anger. Exceptionally well-played, too – unlike, say, the AU PAIRS or the US’s BUSH TETRAS, Delta 5 were solidly in command of their unique rhythm and never let it get particularly messy. The vocalist sounds like a frustrated English schoolmarm just chomping at the bit to punch someone out. Their ultimate trajectory is very similar to that of their Leeds compatriots the GANG OF FOUR, who darted from the sharp and angular, tough-sounding early records to their new wave wimp-out “Songs Of The Free” (I’ll caveat that by saying I actually dig that record and its hit 45 “I Love a Man In a Uniform”). I bought “See The Whirl” in the early 80s and was really disappointed after the creative stomp of the first 45s & sold it back quickly. It’s not that bad, really, just uneven and lacking the sort of structured, single-minded intensity that made their early records such a revelation. There’s a little “new wave” meandering and a few song lengths that go unchallenged, but the core horns, female vocals & double bass are still front, center, and loudly braying all over the place. Overall, you’ve got a capsule package that is close to 78 minutes of top-drawer UK post-punk rhythm, hopefully legitimately released in the near term.

Saturday, August 02, 2003
COMMENTS ARE BACK, BUT....OK, so we can get this conversation going both ways again, but somehow all the old comments are gone. I don't know what to say. I'm gasping and speechless. Let me get under the hood and see what I can do, but please, it you've got something to post in response, by all means fire away. I'll have much more to react to in the week to come.

Friday, August 01, 2003
BLITZ MY BRAINS....I've been hoping to witness the birth of new music-obsessed blogs, and today I've found one that promises to be a corker. Mark Murmann, San Francisco-based raw rock and roll maven (he's the guy who put out the X (Australia) "Home Is Where The Floor Is" 7"EP a few years back), debuted his blog BLITZ MY BRAINS a few weeks ago. He's just getting started, but this is one that promises to be worth clicking over to every day or two. Like Mark, I have no idea how to post links in my own blog -- I can't even fix the friggin' comments box -- but consider this to be the perma-link to his site. Now bookmark and go prosper!