Agony Shorthand

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

It’s really easy to make fun of the shrinking violet known as CAT POWER, as I’ve spent a little writing time doing it myself. Why, last time I checked she was running away with the lead in the Chunklet online poll for “Shittiest Live Act You’ve Ever Seen”. That said, I count myself as a huge fan of hers. I think she’s one of the most talented rock/folk/whatever musicians of our time, and every time I think she’s about to tank under the weight of the hype that swirls around her, she delivers another fantastic record – records that I am quite certain many of us will still be listening to and enumerating on various lists 20 years from now. A year ago I wrote up a review of her latest, “You Are Free”, and after shelving it for many months, I brought it out again for repeated spins this week. Now I like it even more, and stand even more resolute in my defense of the mumbling, non-sequiter-producing, often completely cuckoo live performer known as Cat Power.

“You Are Free” is the record that was supposed to be her big sellout, the one with Eddie Vedder and I guess some other famous people helping out (where they're lurking is a mystery, as this is all Ms. Power’s show). It isn’t – a disc with something like 10 nearly-hookless solo piano or guitar pieces is unlikely to shift a lot of units, even if the other 4 are pumped-up, multitracked full-band rock and roll. Of those 10, I have a new favorite track of hers, “Maybe Not” – a gently desperate and but ultimately hopeful piano piece, right out of the late-period Marianne Faithfull school of pain without the rasped vocals. In fact, Ms. Power’s vocals, which come off to some as phony or straining for attention, are to me plaintive, aching and quite lovely. I think this woman is for real, something I have to keep convincing myself of. “You Are Free” has only one misstep, and it’s the track right after the beautiful “Maybe Not”, “Names”. Unfortunately this one steps right into the trap of those who believe Ms. Power to be “depressing”, and it’s such a cartoony, central casting version of depressing – kids selling their bodies for crack, little girls molested by their daddies & that sort of jive – that I suggest that you pretend that this track never happened and use the skip feature that now comes mandatory on all factory-direct CD players. Everything else on here approaches brilliance, maybe even better overall than “Moon Pix” (my “favorite record of 1998”). Having seen her live three times now, I think I’m done tempting fate and will stick to lining up to buy her next release at 12:01am the day it’s released.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

I’ve now completed two posthumous books and one entire magazine (Throat Culture) written by, and another book written about, Mr. LESTER BANGS. I guess you could say that I, like many, am an admirer of the guy who truly put the rrrr in rock critic. Someone made the point in the forward to the “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” collection that a lot of Bangs' pieces read even better as straight-up prose than as vanilla “rock criticism”, and I whole-heartedly agree. It’s probably redundant to make the point that this guy, when ON, was one of the finest and most funny writers of his century, all genres included. That he also had strong and well-defined taste in outside-the-lines rock music as it was being created was a nice side benefit, given that Bangs was cheerleading for the Velvet Underground, Stooges and MC5 (after his much-celebrated false start with “Kick Out The Jams”, which is included here) in the late 60s/early 70s with the same bug-eyed intensity that people do today. Finally, Bangs had the humility to write follow-up articles proclaiming his initial ignorance whenever he’d slam something that later grew on him, as he did with both “Kick Out The Jams” and, in this collection, “Exile On Main Street”. And his plaintive justifications for “mis-hearing” them actually held water, too.

One of the surprises of this recent collection of essays and scattered writings, circa 1967-1983 is that Bangs was one of the few writers I’ve seen who could write about jazz with the same amount of feeling and passion (and knowledge! Bangs was no dilettante) he brought to rock and roll. Some of the best work in here is his cold dismissals of MILES DAVIS’ 1970s fusion and funk meanderings in comparison with the glories of the 50s and 60s, and his willingness to call Davis on his callous and ornery disdain toward his fans. There also a few riotous essays and/or reviews on Bob Dylan, Wet Willie and their shy search for groupies, more LOU REED worship/baiting, and a fantastic piece on THE DOORS deflating the Morrison myth while keeping his longtime love for the music intact. The 1979 CAPTAIN BEEFHEART essay, which includes snippets of interviews with the good and good-hearted Captain, is easily the single best thing I’ve read on Beefheart anywhere. Bangs also makes up for his slobbering CLASH obsession with a correct (i.e. mocking) take on Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys in real time. Finally, there’s a well-mannered travelogue of Bangs’ paid junket to Jamaica along with a bunch of other rock journalists, there to report back on reggae culture and interview Bob Marley. Bangs approaches the whole thing with a great deal of healthy skepticism and comes away marginally impressed, if not a changed man. It’s terrific reading, and arrives at the perfect intersection of music fandom and gonzo travel writing.

There are also areas of this book that call for a quick breezing-through, rather than a deep read. Bangs wrote much of his material while high, drunk or both – and was legendary for first-take-is-the-best-take, stream of consciousness blabbering. That so much of it so intelligent, funny and insightful is in itself amazing. But much of it isn’t, and editor John Morthland was smart to include some of the more rambly and difficult stuff to help keep a sense of perspective in check. So even though a good chunk of the book is unpublished material, I wouldn’t get too lacquered up about it. A lot appears to be drugged-fueled journal entries on nights when things weren't going so well, some of which hits brilliance in places, but much of which begs for the same sort of half-hearted speed reading as the spirit in which it was written. I was also surprised to see an over-intellectualization of the ROLLING STONES in places; at time Bangs succumbs to Ivy League navel-gazing about this most primal of rock groups, then veers off into gossip about how much he dislikes Mick’s wife etc. Yeah, Bangs was a pretty tortured guy with a lot of inner demons, but he appears on whole to have been a very decent and at times lion-hearted man. It would have been great to grab a beer with him, ask a few strategic questions and just watch him go. Consider this collection an adjunct to the superior “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”, but if you loved that one, there’s no reason to think you won’t dig this too.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004
STRANGE NOTES, 3/23/04…..A few things to report and/or comment on : first, thanks to all who participated in the “Are You SWA or Not SWA?” discussion a bit down the page. Never before has one of my posts generated a response like Darren Cifarelli’s essay (“In Defense of SWA : A Scholarly Inquiry into the NATURE of all Things SWA”). If you had told me in 1988 that somewhat would willingly use more than one brain cell to write anything about SWA, I would have guffawed myself blue. Yet he not only corrects one of my egregious errors (again, it was reconstructed from a repressed memory), he actually eloquently and exuberantly makes a case that I thought no one could ever make. I do think that any band who have a built-in defense of being “postmodern” – a heinous catch-all term used by many to justify crimes against art, literature and music – by definition must totally blow. But I have to applaud Mr. Cifarelli for being a lone wolf, willing to walk off on a big, steep cliff for SWA!….speaking of the 80s, there’s a 1980 interview with poet and brawler MARK E. SMITH of THE FALL now posted in its entirety on J. Neo Marvin’s site…..the March issue of Mojo, referenced in the Cambodia Rocks post a couple days ago, also came with a great 60s soul CD – packed with a bunch of high-energy powerhouses that languished on obscure comps before this, along with some Big Chill-esque lite soul hits for your parents’ generation from Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett…the slammingest track on here is LITTLE ESTHER PHILLIPS’ “Mojo Hannah” – wow! The best uptempo female-sung soul killer I’ve discovered since CAROL JONES’ “Problem Child”….a song I hadn’t heard for probably 20 years until this week is TUXEDOMOON’s 1978 “No Tears” – a huge staple of KFJC airplay in the early 1980s – and I can’t for the life of me figure why I haven’t been tracking it down since then. Throbbing surf/spy fuzzed-out guitar riff, loopy keyboards, weird-ass “man disintegrating onstage” vocals – a terrific period piece and a song right at home on a HOMEWORK compilation….finally for you American hardcore fans, it has come to my attention via the comments of this very blog that’s there’s a TAR BABIES page up with downloads of some of their hotter 1983 berzerk-core tunes + the entire MECHT MENSCH 7”EP. Free! They are encouraging you to steal! How refreshing. Thanks for the tip, and until next time, keep your feet on the ground etc.

Monday, March 22, 2004
MICHAEL YONKERS TRUTH MACHINE....Dave Lang over at Lexicon Devil is on the hype-busting case again, weighing in with a perfectly reasonable verdict on Sub Pop's MICHAEL YONKERS BAND reissue that I've been too lazy to type up myself. Face it, folks, we've found all the Electric Eels, Simply Saucers and Mean Red Spiders we're going to find. The vein is tapped. Pretending otherwise only does you and your peers a grave disservice. Lang's review:

MICHAEL YONKERS BAND – Microminiature Love CD
There appears to be a universal verdict regarding this album, the great “lost” 1968 outing from Mr. Yonkers. The verdict is this: it’s an unsung masterpiece. That verdict prompts me to ask this question: have I been taking crazy pills or this merely an ordinary ‘60s garage/psych album which has garnered such levels of praise only for its elusive, “lost” status? I’ve been burned way too often to get excited about things like this. Look, the music of Simply Saucer, Electric Eels and Vertical Slit, to name but three great, lost bands, is something I can get my ears around: their music is amazing, regardless of any status, but Yonkers I’d unfortunately put under my Record Collector Music banner, alongside Debris’, Monks, Silver Apples and the Deviants: interesting bands who made some fairly OK, out-of-time music for the era, but whom, taken out of any context, didn’t actually record many great songs. Microminiature Love looks good on the shelf, though it probably won’t be moving from there too often.

TANKA FOR NEIL YOUNG…..Found some time to read through the latest issue of Bob Bert's BB GUN magazine yesterday, and my favorite piece by far was the Byron Coley/Thurston Moore anglicized version of the ancient Japanese poetry form “tanka”. I think they did some of this on a tour they undertook, and on their Montreal stop they decided to honor a native Canadian musical act with some English-language tanka. After deciding against Burton Cummings and The Subhumans, they instead applied their tanka magic to the complete discography of NEIL YOUNG. I will quote from some of the more funny/clever entries herewith:


neil's last solo tour
had made every hippie chick
so wet for these tunes
that you could almost get laid
just whistling "sugar mountain"

CSNY : Deja Vu

waiting for a poop
that seemed like it would not come
my generation
squatted on the toilet's edge
awaiting this arrival


even punks agree
this one is almost as good
as peter hammill
at his peter hammill-est
ask mr. rotten, okay?


the whole tour concept
the hobbits versus devo
that's what it was, right?
struck everyone as so hip
that punks never hassled neil


i know they're some
because there are always some
willing to say that
neil young's latest is his best
but even new, this one blew

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The story of the "CAMBODIA ROCKS" compilation CD and the sub-story of Cambodia Rocks tribute band DENGUE FEVER are both pretty compelling in their own right – and even better, the music’s great as well. The March issue of MOJO brought it to life again with a little piece on both. I mean, when I think of Cambodia in the 1970s, I think abject misery, suffering and genocide on a Stalin-like scale. I don’t conjure up twisted, psychedelic pop music with gorgeous, shimmering female vocals sung in a baffling Asian tongue, but there it is, accidentally captured for posterity by a thrill-seeking white dudes riding taxis in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. This fella, LA resident Ethan Holtzman, was able to discover tapes of a pre-Pol Pot rock-inspired scene listening to Cambodian cabbies’ tapes and asking the right questions. This inspired some feverish hunting through the flea markets of Phnom Penh and Long Beach, CA's Little Cambodia, and what he turned up after much scavenging, editing and quality control was the terrific 2000 "Cambodia Rocks” CD on Parallel World records. His biggest find was ROS SEREYSOTHEA, who presided over a warped hybrid of girl-group pop, netherworldly Cambodian traditional music and a small dash of UK/US psych. Her tracks alone are worth the price of admission – not that you’d know which ones they are, since Parallel World were unable to provide a track listing that would’ve made a smidgeon of sense to a non-Cambodian. Believe me, this isn’t one of those “ha ha, look at the funny foreigners playing rock music” comps that were hot a decade ago (Japan, Mexico, Turkey etc.). This is a truly visionary glimpse into a – that’s right – parallel world, a world that was violently eliminated and buried by the murderous maniacs who took over the country in the mid-70s.

But Holtzman was so inspired by his find that he returned to Los Angeles and formed his own band with his brother Zac in tribute, picking up a local Cambodian immigrant (rumored to be a former pop star in her home country) to interpret Ros Sereysothea‘s songs with her own distinctive set of pipes. And in the mother tongue, no less. The result is DENGUE FEVER, and having heard their shtick, I tip my cap. It’s very faithful, not too wink-wink about the source material, and probably a real hoot live. And as jarring as the language is for those of us not accustomed to it, it is sweet and lilting when placed in the hands of singer Chhom Nimol and her muse, Ros Sereysothea. Dengue Fever are trying to make sure they play in front of Cambodian audiences at coffee shops and ethnic-neighborhood bars at a 1:1 ratio with indie rock clubs, but they’re somewhat bemoaning the fact that they’re building a fan base almost entirely reliant on the latter. Native Cambodians in the Agony Shorthand audience – go see this band!

Wednesday, March 17, 2004
OVERRATED : WAYLON JENNINGS….Haven’t done an “overrated” post in a while, and not once on a “country music legend”. WAYLON JENNINGS? Hey, all I knew about the guy were a couple of his dumber hits like “Theme From The Dukes of Hazzard (Good ‘Ol Boys)”, that he was a rootin-tootin’ Texas “outlaw” who hung with Willie Nelson, and the fact that he gave up his propeller plane seat for either Buddy Holly or The Big Bopper and therefore saved his own life. But in my effort to slowly but surely unravel the true history of genius country music, and place the pioneers and key players in their respective places in my mental hot-or-not list, I roasted up a CD called “The Essential Waylon Jennings“ from a friend. I had hoped it would render a barstool revelation on par with my big 2003 discovery, JOHNNY PAYCHECK. Au contraire!

Waylon Jennings’ “essential” tracks really boil down to a tiny handful of decent, countypolitan-style 1960s weepers, and a whole bunch of pseudo-redneck, middle of the road lite pop music. I’ll take “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” and “Waymore’s Blues”, both interesting enough, but the rest – jesus – it’s really weak, to my surprise. Not only does Jennings not possess the sort of endearing, worn but wry & heartbreaking vocals of seen-it-all peers like Paycheck, GEORGE JONES & MERLE HAGGARD, he obviously sold out to Nashville hit-making orthodoxy earlier and more often than any of those guys. Ironically, in the song “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way”, Jennings appears to decry the very country-meets-pop pablum he’s dishing out in spades – or rather, is the song a clever self-loathing indictment of his own music? That, at least, would be kinda cool. Worse, and I hate to be such a meanie, but the duets with JESSIE COLTER are just drowning in stunning mediocrity – her voice is one step above Sueleen Gay’s in “Nashville”, and I guess I understand now why she’s regarded as some sort of 1970s anachronism rather than an angelic songstress on par with the holy trinity of Loretta, Tammy and Dolly. I thought that Waylon Jennings was going to be this grizzled whiskey rebel, pumping out twanging anthems of drinking and divorce. Instead, I see that he’s a forebear for the lame FM Radio “hot” country music that almost killed the genre dead for a while. No wonder the GARTH BROOKS & TIM McGRAWs of the world revere the guy. “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” – amen, brother. WAYLON JENNINGS = Overrated!

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

1960s garage punk was very much a 7-inch single-intensive genre, given the exceptionally brief careers and limited bank accounts of the many fine teenage bands of the golden 1965-66 era. As I’ve pontificated about before, the number of quality, non-compilation “garage punk” LPs during this brief heyday surely numbers as a single digit. Topping just about everyone’s list is the debut from Tacoma, Washington trailblazers THE SONICS, the loudest, most whompingest combo of their day. I just bought the CD (“with extra tracks”), and it, as expected, once more confirmed the record’s place in the pantheon. I don’t feel the need to go into too much blather about The Sonics’ approach, save for a nod to Gerry Roslie, arguably the blackest white man ever to let loose a blood-curdling, primal wail in the course of rock and roll servitude, and those drums – brought up way, way to the front of the mix and blasting sharp, exacto-precise beats to complement the crazed riffage screaming around it. The originals are a cattle call for killer 1960s Valhalla punkage: “The Witch”, “Psycho”, “Strychnine” and my all-time favorite, “Boss Hoss”.

Is the album perfect? No. The preponderance of covers and a few OK non-Roslie vocal turns keep it from being, say, “Easter Everywhere” or “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (to name a couple of just-about-perfect 1960s contemporaries). But some of those covers are so outrageously wild and loose – like “Do You Love Me” and “Have Love Will Travel” – that they’ve become the de facto, definitive versions for me. Can you imagine a 1965 Tacoma sock hop with these guys as the band blasting it out for your date-night shenanigans? “No honey, I think I’d rather stay and watch the band”. The extra tracks, two of which are about Santa Claus, are worth missing. And finally – as an aside – there’s a Sonics LP that’s been in my collection for a while called “Full Force” that’s absolutely friggin’ amazing – a raw, HOT remix of all the best Sonics tracks from their two LPs, overloaded into the red and just melting the vinyl on which it resides (quite literally – the first track on each side is unplayable due to a heat warp). Anyone know the story with this one? Are these versions on CD anywhere? I would submit that it is THE Sonics record to get if you can get just one – and since you can get two, “Here Are The Sonics!!!” is essential, and a masterpiece for the ages.

Friday, March 12, 2004
ARE YOU SWA OR NOT SWA?…..One of 2004’s “Top 5 most promising Australian newcomers” is blogmeister Dave Lang, who forced me to chortle out loud this week with his continuing reviews of his dust-collecting cassettes, most notably the SST “Program: Annihilator” compilation tapes of some 15-20 years ago. His gratuitous mention of SWA, universally regarded as one of the absolute, no-question-about-it Worst Bands of All Time, got me remembering my own 1988 encounter with this loathsome combo. I mean, I’ve seen some atrocious bands in my day – Ethyl Meatplow, Hole, The Gargoyles, Stone Temple Pilots, Doggy Style – but I’m pretty sure that SWA were the worst (all right, Ethyl Meaplow were the worst). Dave was dumbfounded after I emailed him my kudos for his piece: “I can’t believe you saw SWA!!!”.

Some background, all reconstructed from memory. By 1988, after three years of fruitless toil, SWA had been a huge scene joke for years. The band was one of several post-Black Flag, Los Angeles-based outfits for Flag co-founder and bassist Chuck Dukowski, all of whom were – when thought about at all – considered to be unarguably awful. But SWA took the cake. Tuneless, hookless, arduous and hideously overdone pseudo-metal with rotten vocals and a generally meatheaded persona was not a recipe for success in 1985-88, even with the Flag pedigree and the SST banner unfurled behind them. Countless fanzines mocked them. Steve Albini, in a piece listing the 50 Worst Things a Person Could Do (or something like that), had two SWA-related entries: “Listen to SWA” and “Be SWA”. Any association with the band could be deadly. SYLVIA JUNCOSA, having played guitar in SWA for a period of time, was instantly disowned by a large percentage of rock fans and had to resort to giving titles to her songs like “Lick My Pussy, Eddie Van Halen” in a vain effort to recover what little credibility she’d vainly squandered. A guy from my college radio station was hounded mercilessly for weeks and ceremoniously “kicked out of the scene” simply for the transgression of playing SWA on his show – once. Even Southwest Airlines were boycotted for years by a substantial contingent of underground rock tastemakers for the crime of having the offensive toll-free reservations number of 1-800-I-FLY-SWA.

Seeing them open for DAS DAMEN at LA’s Anti-Club in ’88 was the culmination of years of trembling anticipation – I mean, how bad could they really be? Oh my goodness yes, that bad. In front of 10 people in a dank, dark, dirty club with a 2-foot stage, Dukowski violently slapped his bass, puffed out his cheeks like a blowfish, and leapt around like he was headlining at Wembley. It was so ridiculously over-the-top and 100% uncalled-for that I’m willing to at least entertain the theory that SWA was actually a drawn-out, years-long joke from the Andy Kaufman school of humor (supporting evidence for this notion can be found on one of those Harvey Kubernick “spoken word” compilations, on which Dukowski gives a long rant asking people to choose if they’re “Swa” or “Not Swa”). But I doubt it. Lead vocalist “Merrill” writhed and winced and sweated through their bombastic barrage, and even transported his mic outside onto the patio to berate the poor patrons who just needed an escape from the band’s horrors. It was pretty amazing chutzpah, but the band must have figured, what did they have to lose? I am willing to state for the record that there was A.) not one person there to see SWA and B.) that of the 10 who watched, not one liked them, not even a little bit.

Yet the band soldiered on for one more album (of five total, including a compilation!) the next year, before vanishing in complete and utter disgrace. I had repressed them fairly successfully until Dave Lang brought them screaming back to life. One of the hallmarks of progress in therapy is the willingness to confront your innermost demons and slay them publicly, with a circle of close friends or relations you can trust. I’d like to think that I can share the horror of SWA with you, my friends, and in so doing can perhaps bring my rock therapy to a close. It all depends on how I sleep tonight, because I just may have woken something up that had wanted to stay buried for a long, long time.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Also meeting the bootleg litmus test established below in my CAN review is this collection of odds & ends spanning many years of, and illustrating many tectonic shifts within, Mr. ARTHUR LEE’s rock and roll oevre. Like try 31 years! Starting with a pair of terrific instrumentals from 1963 by Arthur Lee & the L.A.G.’s: “The Ninth Wave”, which rips off a riff from “Baby Elephant Walk”, and “Rumble-Still-Skins”. Next we move to the hully-gully 1964 sounds of The American Four, with their rip-offs of both “Green Onions” (“Soul Food”) and “Twist & Shout” (an excellent stomper called “Luci Baines”). Other tracks are offered up on which Lee either sings or wrote, including the girl-group tearjerker “My Diary” by Rosa Lee Brooks, on which one Jimi Hendrix is alleged to be playing guitar.

The meat of the disc comes from 10 tracks that made up an unreleased 1973 by Lee (as LOVE, perhaps?) called “Black Beauty”. A little research on “the Internet” would probably reveal a great story as to why this record never saw a day’s light, but I’m feeling like guessing instead. Perhaps it’s the record’s way out-of-character, tuff BadCo/ Grand Funk-style boogie thunder? What about the funky calypso “Beep Beep”? Maybe that wasn’t primed for any rack jobbing in 1973? I don’t know; it probably comes down to the usual problem of sub-standard material being dropped off at the record company’s doorstep, and their perception of a surfeit of supply to meet a miniscule demand. Not that the record’s without its charms, Lee’s wild-man-of-loincloth-rock vocals notwithstanding. “I Got To Find It”, reminds me a bit of a Hendrix-ized “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”, and the closing “You’re Just a Product of the Times” (what a classic LOVE title!) is heavy heavy heavy. But wait – after “Black Beauty” there’s even more. “Give Me a Little Energy”, an unreleased acetate for the 1977 “More Changes” LP, sounds both lyrically and content-wise like Rob Tyner rallying the great unwashed at a 1968 White Panther rally – just acoustic and very short is all (1:44). Finally, there’s two versions of an unreleased track Lee recorded with the well-monikered BABY LEMONADE in 1994 that’s actually pretty smokin’ psych-punk, with Lee’s astral vocals returned to their rightful place in the mix. The man has been through so many highs, lows, and in-betweens that if you’re at all interested in filling in some of the gaps of this mystical cat’s career, this is a healthy puzzle piece to track down.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004
CASSETTE NOSTALGIA ALERT…..Seems almost quaint that people used to throw a lot of hype & energy around about a rebellious “tape underground” – e.g. cassettes, the most inconvenient and user-unfriendly listening format imaginable, save for reel-to-reel tapes. “Cassette Activism!” was their rallying cry, I kid you not. I always thought it was a bunch of hooey, a shitty format reserved for shitty bands unable to find someone to put out their LPs. I “interned” for SOUND CHOICE magazine in the late 1980s, one of the house organs for Tape Revolution USA, and could never figure out just how and when this tsunami of home tapers and cassette micro-labels was supposed to hit our collective shores and claim their long-delayed triumph. Funny enough, it never happened, and tapes are increasingly serving as a punch line for a multitude of set-ups. Eugene Chadbourne and David Ciaffardini, please phone home!

Dave Lang, in his excellent Lexicon Devil blog, tackles a few hidden 1980s gems he found sprawled about his vast tape collection (scroll down to Monday March 8th). SACCHARINE TRUST’s “Worldbroken”, anybody? Sure! (and by the way, Dave, you’re not alone in your appraisal of this band – they WERE well-regarded, except for Jack Brewer’s nails-on-chalkboard vocals and “look at me, I’m a crazy man” persona, which so overwhelmed Joe Baiza’s talents that only true seers like yourself could cut through it. I’ll take “Surviving You, Always”, though). Check out Dave’s piece here.

A-FRAMES : “NEUTRON BOMB” 7”EP….I’ve given Seattle’s A-FRAMES their fair share of props (and a few ribbings) on this site in the last year – I’d easily call them one of the most sonically exciting fifth-wave punk rock bands on the planet right now, and a band worth following whole-heartedly until the inevitable false moves are made. I’m coming to their earliest 45s just now, the 2001 releases that generated so much hoopla and attention in the first place – and which now change hands on eBay for $50-$75 routinely. Of those two, the debut 7”EP “Neutron Bomb / Radiation Generation / Test Tube Baby” is the real knockout punch – so head and shoulders above most of what passes for garage rock, punk rock or electro-rock in the 21st Century that I’ve no doubt it’ll still stand up tall and proud a couple of decades hence, when a far better name than mine for whatever racket it is they’re making has been coined & circulating on various retrospective compilations. All three have overmodulated, cascading riffs that slash & shred like a slab of sheet metal run through a grinder – the effect is just huge, and the sheer sweat, noise and volume has quite a pulse-quickening effect. You’d have to place this 45 on any decade’s-best list six years from now – at least the one I’m making. Pray it makes it to a compilation soon!

Monday, March 08, 2004

A year back I took a stab at what I considered to be the “Top 10” records by one of my small handful of favorite rock bands ever, THE FALL. “Live At The Witch Trials”, their 1979 debut, happened to be just the second Fall record I ever bought, after being blown away by “This Nation’s Saving Grace” in 1985 and resolving to delve into their back catalog at once. For the purposes of my top 10 list, “Witch Trials” ended up at #9, simply because once I discovered 1980-83 FALL (“Hex Enduction Hour”, “Perverted By Language” and the rest) I was hooked in for life and elevated those instead to near-constant turntable airtime. Those records still remain among my all-time favorites. This was the era in which The Fall shed any punk pretensions and the lingering influence of being birthed in the first wave of 1977 Manchester snottitude, and instead embraced the trippier, more experimental sides in Mark E. Smith’s record collection and incorporated Can, Van Der Graff Generator and Velvet Underground influences (while sounding nothing like those bands). Songs became longer, subject matter even more obtuse, and their trademark repetition more jarring and unnerving.

But that’s why The Fall will always be ranked as one of the true innovators of the punk era, and amazingly continue to do great, complex, progressive work to this day (as I had to be reminded last year). I had reconstituted my Fall collection on CD in recent years, selling off the old LPs, and it turned out that “Live At The Witch Trials” was the last pre-’85 masterpiece I needed. One thing I learned is that I’ve been shortchanged – all these years I’ve owned the American version of this record, the red one on IRS. For reasons unbeknownst, IRS lopped off 2 (great) tracks from the UK version, “Mother-Sister” and “Industrial Estate”, and substituted the masterful, depressing b-side “Various Times” in their place. Didn’t know that until I picked this up, and the rollicking, rifftastic “Mother-Sister” is brand new to me. Hallelujah! You may be aware of the sheer deluge of Fall product on the market of late; I can’t visit my local CD emporium without finding some new repackaging of the band’s glory years in some form or another. Not that I’m complaining, as this double CD version of “Witch Trials” is what got me over the goal line to purchase.

What’s this one got the others don’t got, you ask? Not only is the original UK version of the LP on here, ya get the “Bingo-Masters’ Breakout” and “It’s The New Thing / Various Times” 45s. You also get to hear three of the earliest 1977 recordings the band made in rehearsal, commonly known as the “Dresden Dolls” recordings, after the bootleg EP they’ve also appeared on. There’s also their 2 buoyant “Short Circuit – Live at the Electric Circus” tracks, “Stepping Out” & “Last Orders”. That’s all on disc one – Disc Two contains the 2 John Peel sessions they recorded in 1978, the ones that made Peel such a tireless and fanatical cheerleader for The Fall in subsequent years (he’s claimed on more than one occasion that The Fall were and remain his favorite band). Finally, there’s a 1978 show from Liverpool played in the shadow of grime & general UK decay, with Smith taunting the audience every time the band gears up to play a “slow” one (like the creepy-crawl “Frightened”, easily my favorite Fall track of the early years). I’m pretty sure this same show is available as a CD in its own right, one that I bought at one point and sold off to put food on the table & buy the family shoes for the winter. The whole collection adds up to an insightful look at The Fall’s earliest stirrings, a time when the band was successfully incorporating raw Pistols-style punk aggression, tinny organ plinking and Smith’s bizarre vocal affectations, while learning and growing into a trailblazer and signpost band for “post-punk” in their own right.

Friday, March 05, 2004

I plopped this on yesterday for the first time in a good many years, and was reminded again what an incredible, top-tier rock and roll masterpiece it is. It got me all hopped up to let you know about it, in case you were somehow unfamiliar & in need of a new breakthrough. Rather than write up a whole new spiel on it, I consulted my archives and found that I’d written a thing on it in 1997 as part of a bigger list of the greatest 45s of all time (!). This one clocked in at #13. Here goes my Clinton-era take on the NEON BOYS, slightly edited for grammar and content:

"I’ll make an allowance for this posthumous release on our list, as it contains one of the all-time great “love” songs, “That’s All I Know (Right Now)” and should very well have been a single in its own right. The Neon Boys were a precursor to the mighty Television, and recorded three known songs back in 1973. The line-up was three-quarters of the original Television as well: Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Billy Fica. The session was remixed and put out around 1980, a time when a market for independently-released 7” singles had fully developed and could now support what I’ll bet was a frothing demand for these tapes.

The songs are as close to near-perfect as any of the original recipe NYC proto-punks ever came, full of vigorous hooks and the clanging guitar interplay that became Television’s trademark, with a dollop more teen frustration and aggression than anything that band ever released. Hell and Verlaine, both gifted with incredibly distinctive and malleable voices, harmonize (in a manner of speaking) together on an early version of “Love Comes In Spurts”, and then hit the upper registers of chord-dom as the verse/chorus/verse structure splits wide apart. The song bears virtually zero resemblance to the song that kicked off the first Richard Hell & The Voidoids LP four years later. It seems that Richard Hell blessed both his non-Voidoids bands with their best material; an argument could certainly be made for Hell-era Television and Hell-era Heartbreakers hitting their respective peaks with him in each band. Ironic indeed that the Voidoids, decent as they were, never came close to the fire of the aforementioned, and this record’s B-sides of “Don’t Die” and “Time” (recorded in ’79 or ’80 as Richard Hell and the Voidoids) are poignant and nice but not outstanding. The real treasure here is the Neon Boys, who we can only hope have a box of tapes stashed somewhere awaiting a big fat cash-in!"

One last thing (this is me speaking in March 2004 again): I once played a cruel joke on my most rock-knowledgeable peer by making him a tape of “lost” 1973 Neon Boys recordings, which actually ended up being some dumb prank calls a la Gregg Turkington, Tube Bar, Patio Tapes, etc. I took my inspiration from great Forced Exposure scumbait pranks of the past, such as the legendary “Bullshit Summer” EP by the Lazy Cowgirls and some nonexistent Mission of Burma record I remember salivating over. I labored long and hard over my fake Neon Boys titles, such as “Teresa Says” (copped from the “Meet Teresa Stern” short film that Hell & Verlaine made together in their wild youth) and others totally derivative of Television titles. My wacky, unfunny stunt backfired and profoundly failed to amuse its victim – a testimonial, I now see, to how friggin’ great it would be to REALLY hear more Neon Boys material than what’s available on this EP. Someday!

Thursday, March 04, 2004
CAN : “RADIO WAVES” bootleg CD…..

When approaching – and spending well-earned money on – bootlegs, the litmus test for me is that they generally have to include at least one of the following: songs unavailable anywhere else, live versions so jarring they at least temporarily make you forget the studio versions, and/or top-quality demos/studio recordings that shine insight into the band’s creative process and vision, and mark their development as a point in time. This excellent bootleg “Radio Waves” from Krautrock uberheroes CAN meets all three entry criteria, and is well worth tracking down. Let’s take it track by track, remembering that this is the sort of band so given to utter wankitude (in the best sense of the word, I mean it) that they’re only able to “squeeze” 6 tracks on a 74-minute CD:

First, “Up The Bakerloo”, live on BBC circa 1972, has the distinction of being the longest single rock and roll song I’ve ever heard: 35 minutes, 12 seconds. Yes, you read that correctly. The HAMPTON GREASE BAND’s masterful “Halifax” is a premature loadshot by comparison. I actually started the song up in my car in the Oakland, California airport parking lot one evening, and it didn’t conclude until I was pulling into my driveway in San Francisco – one full county, a bridge, two freeways and numerous city streets away. The song approximates all the different bonkers elements spread across the “Tago Mago” LP, going from polite and gently churning to absolutely wacked-out and flushed with heat-seeking white noise. Lather and rinse, repeat, and then repeat again. 35 minutes, folks! I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. The version of “Paperhouse” recorded for 1971 German TV is fantastic – all cracked and desperate-sounding, with a great Damo Suzuki vocal. “Entropy” is 15 minutes of spaced-out solos, Suzuki muttering gibberish, and crashing percussion somehow cosmically holding the thing together. Coming at you live from 1970 Germany – I dig it. “Little Star” is a great semi-spoken 1969 studio demo of “Little Star of Bethlehem”, a little weirder yet with a little less propulsion and, uh, funk than the more recognized version. The disc closes with two 1971 B-sides from “Tago Mago”-era 45s (it certainly strikes one as odd that this band actually had 45s!). One is the silly “Turtles Have Short Legs” (flip of “Spoon”), which resembles an African-ized Roxy Music, and the other, “Shikaku Maru Ten” (flip of “Halleluwah”), is quietly hypnotic and more in keeping with the Can I think I know (and a good precursor to the excellent “Ege Bamyasi” LP). Did I say it was well worth tracking down?

THE PONYS “I WANNA FUCK YOU” 7”EP….No, not GG ALLIN AND THE JABBERS, but Chicago garage pop maestros THE PONYS, last discussed in these parts all of three weeks ago. The new CD “Laced With Romance” got me piqued to check out this earlier 45 from just last year, and I’m happy to report that “I Wanna Fuck You” is just a flat-out fantastic fuzzed-out, aggressively loud pop song, reminiscent of “You’re Living All Over Me”-era DINOSAUR JR. crossed with, I don’t know, MAZZY STAR (some Roback-like/paisley underground guitar ringing going on here). It’s got a ton of mersh potential on “alternative rock” radio, say, and yet will never get played there because a.) it’s really, really good and b.) it says a nasty, nasty word. Boys and girls are just a little more direct with their amore these days, I reckon, and more power to them. So one thing you’ve got to know about The Ponys above all else, despite how incredibly catchy and powerful their hooks are: the singer just apes Richard Hell to the point of parody. Thus I can’t recommend the other tracks, “Sorceress of the South Side” and “So Sentimental”, as he turns the shtick up just a little too high and crosses the Maginot Line of rock credibility. He tones it down on the new CD, at least enough for me right now, but I’m gonna keep a close eye cocked on him anyway for future transgressions.