A selection of records will be available at the Rich Treasures Pop-Up, featuring a number of musical projects that I’ve been involved with. 8″ and 7″, lathe-cut, mono records that really get to the heart of what my various sounds and projects. There are limited quantities, and this music is not available in other formats, or on compilations. If you want these sounds, you will want to come to this event. One item is limited to one copy, so consider getting something quickly.
These records all have bonus materials that are unique to these items, too. Bonus collage inserts and ‘zines, download codes for items that are not on these records, and are not available elsewhere. And all the covers and items were printed and duplicated in The Lava Lamp Lounge, with a little help from Salem Blue Print Company. The lathes were cut by Gorbie Lathe Cuts in Milwaukie, OR. We really keep all of this stuff down home. One of these is a compilation, and comes with downloads of material from the first 15+ years of radio, a gift item what was available at my 40th birthday party (and not really very often since.
I love music, I love making music, and I love records. Hopefully you will love these records, too.
I’m really looking forward to the DIY Pop-Up happening at The Art Department. Please, join me!
Sometimes, we lead lives that are more charmed than we remember, or even realize at the time. Little experiences can change everything around us in big ways, and the smallest things said at a point in the deep past can echo forward in strange, and unpredictable ways.
For example: I had become good friends with a gentleman who used to be known on the Inter-Web-A-Tron as kungfuramone. They had always been a cool dude, and was involved in at least a few bands that had made albums and played out. One had even toured.
Anyway, when kungfuramone moved to Portland, he happened to land a room at Jesse Sutherland’s house, during the transition period between The Automatics and The Epoxies starting to take off. (I remember being at their house during an early “Adhesives” practice session.) Knowing kungfuramone allowed me to attend a number of cool parties and gatherings; one of my birthdays was spent at an Epoxies show, which was incredibly memorable.
During one of the many parties I attended at their house, which was a wonderful pad that was a lot of fun to hang at back in the day, I remember getting into one of those kitchen conversations that you have with a group of your friends when you are several drinks into the evening, and almost anything else could happen. A few of us were talking about the next projects that they were going to work on, and most of it revolved around, “I wanna write a song about this,” or, “my next album will be like that.” It was actually quite lovely, listening to all these friends of mine plan the next step in their creative lives.
I was involved in radio at the time, and I had been in a couple bands before that. But nothing to write home about, and certainly nothing that recorded very diligently, or seriously. So as a way of contributing to that conversation, I threw out the following sentence:
“Someday, I’d like to just record a full album of songs that I wrote. Nothing fancy, just something that I came up with.”
I remember Jesse nodding, and saying, “That’s not too hard. You should do it.”
I am recalling this scene, this experience, this moment more and more, and now that I have professionally duplicated copies of my new album in my hands, it is pretty impressive to have finally done, even if it was almost 15 years later.
It took me the longest time to realize that if I wanted to make art, that I had to do it myself. I had to start the band, I had to design the image, I had to record the song myself. And then, it took a while to discover that I could even teach myself how to do things I didn’t know how to do, if it was important to me, and contributed to the work I was doing. I was not young when it occurred to me that I should probably try and write ‘zines and join a band. I was in my 20s before I even stumbled into radio. But to call myself an artist took until I was well after 40, and realizing that I could make music – any kind of music that I wanted to – was probably only obvious to me last year.
I’m not sure I learned much more than is the obvious lesson in nearly every self help book and confidence boosting guide that I have ever been exposed to. I had to undo, and work through, so much built-in confusion and self-doubt that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, make art that was important to me. I still run into that problem. What business, what right do I have as a white, middle aged guy, to think that my art needs to be presented to the world. Especially the esoteric crap that I make.
Anyway, this album was a strange thing to dream up, a weird thing to make, and a bizarre thing to see completed. And now, for some reason, a 50 minute album of space grunge is now available to be listened to by anyone who likes to the idea of a sci-fi electronic rock album.
Thanks Jesse Sutherland, for inspiring this one. Thanks Jesse Ransom, for being a part of that original conversation.
Thanks everyone else, for making it possible for me to make stuff like this.
The seed of the idea behind any release is often worth getting into, and when it comes to the Electronic Cottage Split series (organized by Hal McGee), the seed is deceptively simple: two artists, selected by Hal himself, go off to produce 30 minutes of material together, developing the release as a partnership. There are 29 installments in this series, which has yielded some surprising and incredible results as these have been coming out. The strength of the series not only relied on the artists involved, but their efforts to work together. If it had been approached randomly, or even with a little less thought, and if even a few of the artists had only phoned it in, then this could have seemed like a shoddy series at best.
But Hal has sort of buried the lead when it comes to this series, and how these splits have been organized. Because, while they might seem to be odd pairing in a couple cases, what he has done upon closer evaluation is concoct some clever and wonderful pairings with the artists he has selected. This shouldn’t be surprising, as many of the projects that Hal involves himself in are very well thought out, and offer unique music listening opportunities that you just don’t find elsewhere.
On installment #23, of this series, the matching of Ben Presto with Jeremiah Paddock seems to be particularly inspired, and the proof is in the musical pudding we all get to enjoy during this holiday season. While I knew a little about Jeremiah’s music before this release, I was completely new to Ben’s work, an Italian artist who has been working for well over 10 years. Another bonus to this series is that Hal really introduces you to incredible artists from all over the world, and this series seems to really highlight the world-wide flavor of this project. I’m always learning about new avenues to explore in music, and Hal inevitably leads me to places I’m very happy to have visited.
We open this album with Ben’s homage to film soundtracks, a breathtaking voyage through some of the musical ideas of cinema, while taking them into places that belong, very much, to Presto and their delightful bass playing. There is, in a way, a bit of a story that is developed throughout Ben’s songs. We open with our protagonist having gone through a particularly harrowing psychedelic experience, where they have wound up dead in the end. Not only must they escape the actual life they once led in the mortal world (first by physically leaving, then by spiritually saying goodbye), our protagonist must then bid farewell to the material world entirely, and thus embrace the emptiness of what lies beyond… whatever that might be. Fortunately for us, the metaphor maps nicely over the struggles that we all have in any new beginning, or rebirth, that we might have to go through. I’m also reminded of the “Black Blotter” episode of Fringe, for some reason: that same kind of psychedelic experience we are prone to having if we start having a “bad trip.”
“Farewell” stands out among these tunes, as it not only breaks the format of the rest, but does not lean on Ben’s bass playing and synth lines to create the brooding, atmospheric pallets that would make Mr. Carpenter proud, for sure. These songs all feel of a piece after you’ve been through them once, and I can’t imagine how you could listen to them separately, now. Presto’s performances and playing on these songs is superb, and while these are not discordant or even that “noisy” compared to some releases in this series, these songs are certainly only skirting the edges of popular music. And yet, they could very much live near the world of popular music fairly comfortably, on a movie soundtrack, for example. Overall, if I had to pick, I would say my faves are “Escape From New York,” and, “Nothing Out There,” just for the gloominess that they both evoke.
While some trips can be ominous, there is something a little wistful about the way that Jeremiah gets into a car with his guitar, and goes on a somewhat pleasant drive. Certainly, like on drives 5, 12, 14 and 15 in this collection, we hear some of the sense of foreboding and anxiety that this regular, routine trip can cause our protagonist, but while we are still on a journey into something that might be scary if we dwell too much on what’s going on in the world outside of the car, inside the car we get to hear Jeremiah’s dedication to trying to find the ways that we can endure this particular trip, through offering us some of the lighter thoughts that we can entertain through a guitar.
And it is very, very fun. Jeremiah’s guitar playing takes center stage on these drives, and it is something to behold. While these are loops and other studio compositions, they highlight some of the best kinds of playing that Jeremiah has to offer, and gives a dizzying insight into they way their mind works, musically. This offers a great cross-section of Jeremiah’s style, and I find these songs endlessly listenable, and I would say that I could probably play this comfortably at a party with a bunch of squares and some would probably even start tapping their toes. It is incredibly catchy experimental music.
I’m still working out how to interpret the final drive. It doesn’t have the same wistfulness of some songs, nor the lurking threat that other’s portray. We’ve arrived, somewhere, and it is dramatic. But how should we feel about it? How should we interpret the sense of joy and the sense of horror, both competing for attention? Perhaps we are merely meant to acknowledge it, and find a way to try and start over tomorrow, without feeling dread.
What I like about this release is that is doesn’t feel too “weird,” in spite of the deep weirdness that is at work here, too. These are very beautifully written songs, played very straightforward and with heartfelt attention to detail, then well mixed by people trying to create a total package. The performances are strong, and they don’t muck about too much with studio gloss to cover up the imperfections. This music is what it is, no frilly extras or filigree around the edges, and as a result, they work wonderfully together.
I can imagine that others who are not precisely into experimental music could find this a very good entry point into what this kind of music can do when it isn’t strictly noise. As someone who likes to find the edges of what experimental is and isn’t, this release fits into that territory perfectly.
You can now order this record from WTBC via Bandcamp. In addition to the music on the record, which is unique to this release and unavailable elsewhere, there is also over an hour of videos and audios you can enjoy, not available elsewhere, included via QR codes, with covers and collages created and designed by Formaldehydra & Mini-Mutations.
This release does not come with bandcamp downloads; the digital bonus materials are only available via QR codes, that you can only find in the packaging for this release. Truly a unique item that we promise you will love.
Outside of the US: we will have to charge for shipping. Inside the US: it is included int he cost.
$12 per disc. Limited to 30 copies.
Several have already been spoken for, so order yours today! Here’s a little promo video to whet your whistle…
Reviewing the last decade of Four Dimensional Nightmare releases offers a wonderful glimpse, and incredible insight, into what they have accomplished on this most recent release, 4DN 2020. And even that narrow window into the career or this artist probably omits some of the more impressive, and compelling, work. But that does us no good if we are looking for an entry point into this album. To suggest that we should examine the scope and sweep of their career to fully understand what this album is about is akin to saying, “You need to see 23 movies before this one will make sense.”
Consider it this way: if you’ve been following their carrer for any length of time, then this album continues themes and tropes that you’ve been picking up on for a while, and certainly is rewarding in that respect.
But that doesn’t do a new listener much good, does it? To say that 4DN is continuing to explore places they hinted at in previous releases is not a decent map for someone about to enter into the kind of darkness predicted by track 5, a beat-driven track almost unlike anything else you’ve heard on a Nightmarish release like this. Layered over the industrial rhythms and strange dance jams are these synth explorations that beg for scrutiny and consideration, and that doesn’t even address the ebb-and-flow soundscape that eerily weaves through the various performances, almost hinting at a Haunted House. This is a dense track, not exactly a great entry point if you were hoping to be eased into this artist, but is perfect for getting to know the mind of Four Dimensional Nightmare.
“Beta Tonic” shakes with a low-end pulse that really caused my head to turn, another track I love, but I’m not sure if it is the way “into” the oeuvre of this artist. Certainly, you are better off trying to catch one of their rare performances, as that, I think, better lets you get a sense of where this stuff is coming from, and perhaps, how you can get in synch. But “Beta Tonic” builds in a way that feels like something new, and I was excited to let it have it’s way with me.
It’s with repeated listens that this album really shines. The hallmark of any Four Dimensional Nightmare album is certainly density. There are layers and layers on any given song on any given album, and there is a weight to a 4DN track that seems heavy with multiple, nuanced performances. You need to re-listen to really get a sense of what’s going on.
What feels new this time around is there is a clarity to the layering, either through careful production or higher quality facilities, that gives you a chance to focus on the different synth lines as they dance around each other. This is a great record for leaving in your car, so you have to return to it over and over again, without needing to change anything. Each time through, something else sticks out, and these bits that catch your attention give you something new to dig into.
The production seems unmistakably first class, and to my ear, this is a major evolution. It’s no wonder Four Dimensional Nightmare makes regular appearances on Mike Watt’s program, as this album illustrates the strengths and boons that are the hidden gems on every 4DN release.
Certainly, the nerdiness is worn on the sleeve of this group, and that is probably never more apparent than on the opening track, “Pi,” which contains some of the first lyrics I’ve heard on a release is years. This comes with the territory; someone playing around with this many synths for this long is bound to get wrapped up in some of the more science-informed subjects, as time goes on. But there are also moments of pure joy and frenzy, like on “Beta BonZyard,” where the ferocity of the Nightmare comes into sharp focus, only to have moments of almost beautiful sounds come forward out of the burbling chaos.
If anything, this is the work of someone who has been at it for a while, and this release not only highlights the expertise with which Four Dimensional Nightmare produces new work, but the repeated listenability of a record that is as experimental as the genre actually suggests.
* When I firsts reviewed this album, it was self-released. Now, Four Dimensional Nightmare has moved to Kill Pop Tarts.
A Review of The 10 Albums Stolen From My Studio in 2016
At about 8 PM on Christmas Day 2016, my home was broken into. My wife, cat and I were with family at the time, and most of the neighbors were, too. Even worse, we were in the process of moving. For a number of reasons that defy logic and explanation, we moved mostly on Christmas Eve. We had left some things to move after Christmas, and thought that we could leave our house unattended until we were done celebrating. But when we arrived at our old house on the 26th, we found that everything that wasn’t nailed down had been ransacked and overturned, while anything of actual value was loaded into a truck and moved.
Who would be suspicious? We were doing just that the day before.
To make matters worse, both my wife and I had offices in the old house. We were planning to continue working out of there until we had Internet service at our new place, which wouldn’t be connected until January 4th. This means that in addition to our bicycles and lawnmower, they got our laptops, my desktop and studio recording gear, my wife’s collection of purses and her winter coat, and a stack of the last records I had not moved yet. In total, it was about $6000 worth of stuff that was stolen. Someone’s Christmas present to themselves, probably snorted before the week was out.
One of the hardest things to do (at first) was come to terms with what was stolen. It was hard to remember, at first. With each new corner turned, we found something else that was gone, something else that they took. And we still haven’t unpacked from the move. Who knows what else we’ll find missing, when all is said and done, when we can no longer use that as an excuse. How do you look for things that are missing? How do you notice what isn’t there?
While we are not quite over what had happened, the immediate shock has faded. And we’ve come to accept what is gone, in a way. But when I think about what we lost, the thing that is most frustrating is the pile of records they stole. It was an assortment of recently heard and recently acquired stuff, plus a few things that had not been filed when it came time to pack. I had less than 20 records in that pile, maybe more, maybe less. I was gonna use some for my radio show, but on the whole it was just stuff I was looking forward to, things on my mind just before the break-in.
This isn’t a complete list, nor is it the most valuable or the most precious. These are just the things I remember that were in that pile, and stuff I wish I still had. Much of this stuff came from Dimple Records, a place I visited just before we began to pack. (Thanks Dad & Mernie!) It seems important to Eulogize these albums. It’s likely they never found a home, never got sold, and wound up in some dumpster somewhere. They deserve a proper burial, a goodbye to music that will go unappreciated.
I really only knew “Spanish Stroll” by Mink DeVille, but for a steal, I decided to check them out. My wife and I listened to these, and we actually enjoyed them a lot. I was really looking forward to enjoying them, too. Now some junky probably threw them away when it turned out that they weren’t particularly valuable.
I picked this up based mostly on her reputation. Odetta is a legend, and while I wasn’t familiar, I was looking forward to learning more. This is probably typical for her career. Overlooked and ignored, Odetta is tossed around by people who could not care, and when in the hands of a fan, is never given a chance to be appreciated. Poor Odetta. You didn’t deserve this, at all.
Here’s the real tragedy: we had gone to the record store day sale, not only to get some stuff for me, but for my wife. She specifically wanted this, and we got it, excited to support the cause, and hear the tracks that were getting a lot of play because of the recent losses to the music world. These assholes don’t realize how much the music world is suffering. Instead, they want a quick score, and even though I can hear this album anywhere online at any time, that is not the point. This one was completely unopened. Pristine. And now, completely destroyed, ruined by nameless assholes who will never care.
In the year 2000 I heard that my favorite band – Negativland – was running low on vinyl copies of their albums, and that they would be selling CDs after the LPs sold out. I immediately ordered a copy of their first album, and got a nice hand-written letter back. The album came with a custom made cover, a collage assembled by the band members. I ordered another, but by then the LPs were gone, and got CDs for their remaining albums. I loved that album, and listened to it often. It sounds good anywhere, anytime, and I just wish the junkies had taken the time to listen, and get to know the album. It is well worth it, no matter what your interests are.
Bob Wills is great, but there isn’t anything special about this record. It is older than me, and it has a lot of hits. But I love it mostly because it belonged to my Grandmother, who has passed. You will never love that album as much as I loved her. What dicks.
I already have an original copy of this record, but I decided to pick up the Record Store Day reissue because there is no other movie that can make me cry faster than Popeye, and the soundtrack is no exception. I’m not as mad about this, because I’m sure even the bonus tracks are easy enough to find. But this was unopened. And, to be honest, this is probably the most personal attack of the bunch. You don’t care about these songs like I do, like my family does. How dare you. That record is too good to be treated like that.
I’m trying to imagine these junkies putting this album on. Do they know who Vince Guaraldi is? Could they connect with the music of Black Orpheus? What would they get out of it? Would they enjoy it? Do they understand the journey into the underworld that they have taken? Would I have enjoyed this album? Do I enjoy the irony? Who can say…
I took a chance on this record because of the price and because it seemed like a good bet that it was good. And it probably is, but that’s not the point. I had entirely forgotten I’d bought this album until I saw a picture of it that I’d taken, just after I purchased it. Part of me feels bad; I didn’t even remember that it was gone. That’s awful of me. How many albums do I have that I neglect in some way, that needs attention that I can’t even remember? The dangers of collecting? Perhaps. But I would have at least given this album a chance. And they never would have.
Probably the rarest and least-known of the bunch, this is most likely out of print, and not something you would find in Salem, at least not very easily. I bought this record from Mark Gergis, when I saw his band Porest play in Portland. This was one of two US performances for this artist, and I traveled out of town with a friend at night to see this show. Mark, who had never met me, was really nice, and had no idea how much this night meant to me, had no idea how much I was looking forward to hearing this album. He didn’t have to be nice to me. Who was I to him? And yet, I never got to hear this album before it was ripped off. Mark, who heard about this, send me a digital copy, and for that I am eternally thankful. But what did they see in this album? In any of these albums, for that matter?
* * * * * *
There were more. There will be more. Forever this event will haunt me. Every sound is a window breaking, every movement someone stealing our stuff. Who knows if this will go away? Who knows if I will get over these being stolen from me. I can only say that there is a part of me that wishes they would listen. That they sat down, and by the end, found something meaningful in those albums.
Komodo Fried Chicken Blues * Sufian Abdullah * Music To Break Out of Jail By
From Peru we move to Ipoh, Malaysia, and the work of instrumentalist Sufian Abdullah. While the location may change, the story of a lone musician honing his craft for years is universal, and Sufian spent his spare time in Ipoh playing guitar, over and over again, practicing riffs endlessly, perfecting chord changes, mastering solos. Sufian’s story could have happened in any city in the world. The only difference is that modern technology allows us to discover artists like this when, even 10 years ago, we would have never heard of a rock musician from Malaysia. And, in a way, he is merely a voice in a sea of digital albums available across the web, one of hundreds that are all vying for attention and your appreciation. Without having a friend clue me into this record, I probably would never have found it.
Fortunately for me, I did.
Music To Break Out of Jail By is a collection of tunes that are all born out of blues-based rock music. Everything is in that Black Sabbath style vein, with a trace of eastern musicality and form. This western influence on the guitar playing of Sufian is clearly his attempt to break out of the expectation that someone from Malaysia would carry in their musical work. Stuff like the Nirvana cover, “School,” – a droney, extended jam on the riff that veers into doomy territory – illustrates that Sufian is not only skilled, but a connoisseur of guitar, and that includes music from home as well as from all over the world, too. For western audiences, an album like this embodies a similar kind of transition: I recognize the blues progressions, but the format is helping me see this music in a new way that I would have never imagined.
As the story goes, Sufian Abdullah practiced guitar for years at home, playing along to all his favorite punk and metal records. This was mostly a hobby to him, and he took to it like some kids take to video games, relentlessly practicing until he had a huge repertoire of songs he could play upon request. However, it wasn’t until home recording was as easy as getting a laptop with GarageBand on it that Sufian even considered making an album. Made almost entirely by himself, this is a fantastic first effort, and even if this is Abdullah’s only release, it’s a great statement about music in general.
I also enjoy the fact that “Komodo Fried Chicken Blues” contains every imaginable rock and roll cliche in a new and intimidating form, and thus, is perfectly suited for Chickenman.
Along with lone mavericks like Lee de Forest and his friends were collectors, people who spent their time reading about and purchasing rare records. For these folks, a unknown 78 was just as important as the legendary statue that Bogart was talking about when he uttered the phrase that became title of this compilation. But there’s an irony to its use in the movie that the people behind this compilation probably shouldn’t have allowed to be associated with their album: the falcon, of course, was a fake, and Sam Spade delivered the line ironically when a cop asked what the fake statue was all about.
The plot thickens, as The Stuff That Dreams Are MadeOf claims to contain “previously unissued” recordings of music from the 20s and 30s, an allegation that ironically didn’t pan out too well for Yazoo Records in the long run, though in the wake of O Brother Where Art Thou? becoming a global phenomenon, netted them a few dollars. While the pairing of R. Crumb artwork with Richard Nevins liner notes is supposed to drive home the authenticity of these songs, among collectors it is clear that a few of these cuts have made their way to the public before, and perhaps only a handful were “unissued” in any meaningful sense of that word. The claim that some are mastered from unheard test pressings seems, at this late date, to be incredibly unlikely, but nonetheless, The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of persists as a collection for beginners.
Keep in mind, this was 2006, and the Inter-Web-A-Tron wasn’t as comprehensive as it has become. Old Timey Music was starting to become incredibly popular among the NPR crowd, no longer the realm of people who lived and breathed these recordings. But for new fans, you couldn’t just Lycos “Little Harvey Hull” any easier than you can now, and even still, the information is spotty. Without the deep knowledge of these collectors helping guide you in this largely forgotten world, it is easy enough to end up like Kasper Gutman and Wilmer, tricked by something that looks and sounds like the original, but is not. This does not mean that the fake has no value; in the case of The Maltese Falcon, prop collectors now shell out insane amounts of cash to own a replica that was meant to represent a fake. In the case of this collection, at least there is some great music on it, and the value of a good song – even one you’ve heard before – cannot be underestimated.
Starting here I begin my run of Lee de Forest songs, one of the bit-players in the story of Radio. This original tune has origins that lie in the deep forgotten past, but the “Stack ‘o’ Lee Blues” has taken a number of forms, contemporaneously to the release of this recording, as well as in the misheard forms of “Stagger Lee” in the years since. The beauty of these tunes is that they are reinterpreted by artists endlessly, creating a sort of ‘Song For Any Occasion.’ Considering that both the Lee of this song and Lee de Forest himself shared some of the same qualities, it not only seemed appropriate, but essential.
The incidental music for this episode is “Tremens.” Not only are Sonic Youth the musical heirs to the Captain’s throne of art-rock aspirations, they heartily acknowledge this indebtedness in their own rendition of “Electricity” on a fantastic Beefheart tribute record. “Tremens” holds quite a bit of significance for me, personally. I began my stint on radio when the SYR series began, and I listened to them as I was learning the ropes. This track is featured in an early episode of my program, too. But the title gets at the thesis statement problem too: in order to get us to a place where we can understand the transformative effects electricity has had on music, we may suffer the the aural DTs as we travel back to the acoustic era of recording.
I also use a chunk of “Two Golden Microphones” not only because microphones themselves are such a large part of the narrative, and were the innovation that allowed music to evolve out of the acoustic era of recording, and into the electric era of recordings, but to further acknowledge that Nurse With Wound are the true pioneers of the cut-and-paste music aesthetic. In fact, between them and Negativland – the DNA of which should be apparently audible in nearly everything I’ve done – I would have no other schtick to stand on. So for that, thank you.
From here on the musical selections are slightly less symbolic and much more literal, though I do hope that these can work on at least two levels as well. Bing Crosby was chosen only because he is a perfect example of the kind of artist that could only have a career post-microphone. His voice is very well suited for an intimate performance, where we is really singing at a quiet and personal way, something that couldn’t be done in the era of acoustic recording.
05.) Menuett G flat major & Valse bleat * Beethoven (Kathllen Parlow – violin; George Falkensten – piano) * Edison Amberol 4M-28026 (1912)
There is something incredibly charming about being able to listen to Beethoven while you wash dishes, but for this I decided that I should find an actual Edison Cylinder recording, because I knew I could actually take the extra step. As this song is in mono, it adds another level of simplicity to the program. There are a number of places online that you can find wax cylinders, and I do very much love listening to these .mp3 transfers of a 100+ year old record for the disjoinedness of it. Therefore, I encourage you to go to The Thomas Edison section of The National Parks website, and download some archived recordings of Edison Cylinders. It’s a lot of fun, and they are all really weird.
06.) Aria from Massanet’s “Le Cid”: O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere * Enrico Caruso * 1916
Something that is lost on audiences 100 years later is the absolute star power of an artist with a name of which you have never heard. Enrico Caruso released more records in his lifetime than most tenors could ever imagine being featured on, and was the opera singer of his time. He packed houses across two continents, and critics have spoken so passionately about the sound of his voice that there are some schools who have annual competitions by students who eager to take a shot at describing Caruso’s vocal performances. If you don’t go that deep into opera, then there’s no reason you would be able to recognize the caliber of his performances, and since the last time Caruso was popular in the US was 100 years ago (and I’m not kidding, it has been that long, precisely), I’m not surprised you don’t know who he is. I only came across his music when I started listening to The Ragged Antique Phonograph Music Program, and even then I can only really say I know of him.
Plus, opera ain’t really my bag. But, as a key player in the early days of recording music, Caruso is a perfect example – unlike Bing – of being able to perform for the acoustic era. It is said that his voice loved the horn, and he could belt out a tune the way no one else could. It is no wonder he recorded over 250 times in his career; the dude could sing.
07.) After Dinner Toast at Little Menlo * Arthur Sullivan * ENHS E-2439-7 (5 October 1888) 08.) The Lost Chord * (performers unknown) / composted by Arthur Sulivan * ENHS E-2440-3 (August 1888)
Various corners of the Inter-Web-A-Tron can reveal some incredible things, so here’s something fun I turned up as I was researching this episode: a recording of Arthur Sullivan from 1888 talking about being “thrilled and terrified” by Edison’s invention. Hopefully you have the kind of ear that can dig through the grooves on this one and really “grok” what he’s saying, but the gist of it is something that I think is at the heart of the central conversation about recorded music: the old generation is excited and annoyed by the next generation all at once. It was just too perfect, not only as an artifact, but as a way of framing how long this generation to generation conversation has been going since the beginning. Edison’s later resistance to electric recording technology, then finally giving in and embracing it far too late, is entirely foreshadowed, symbolically.
09.) Alexander’s Ragtime Band * Billy Murray * EDIS 36065 (1911)
Caruso might have been the opera equivalent of a rock star, but Billy Murray has often been referred to as the Elvis of his time, mostly in the sense that Murray was known by everyone. Unfortunately, he was considered a novelty for most of his career, which spanned almost 45 years across two centuries. Unquestioningly the biggest household name of the 1900s and 1910s, he sang vaudevillian ballads and novelty songs, and for nearly 20 years made a living touring and singing to people all across the country. His singing style is considered “conversational,” and people really connected with his everyman style, unconventional compared to other artists working the similar circuit. While he continued to get work into the early ’40s, as electric recording techniques and jazz began to dominate the record industry, Murray had less and less star power. In the acoustic era of recording, Billy was the biggest star America had ever known in popular music, and it wasn’t until Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra that someone as huge grabbed the American consciousness. While his name is largely forgotten today, this is a sample of American Popular music at the beginning of the 20th Century. Hopefully, as we continue with more History Lessons, we can see this style and format evolve.
For a story like this, how can you NOT pick Beefheart’s “Electricity” to kick-start this mother, huh? If the thesis statement runs along the lines of: electricity is to music as punk rock is to pop — then you really have to put your cards on the table up front, dig? And truly, “Electricity” was the lighthouse beacon straight ahead across black seas, a song that laid bare a new path that rock and roll could forge through the saccharine formula that was prevalent across the musical landscape in 1967.
Already in the years between the early and late 1950s the world has seen an incredible revolution in the form of rock ‘n’ roll, and the ’60s see a massive array of miniature musical revolutions to match, each setting the course for a wide number of new interpretations. For Beefheart, it was the dirtiness of rock ‘n’ roll, it was the strangeness of The Blues (with a capital T & B) all mixed with this country shuffle, that really turned him on. But Beefheart wanted to distort both the recording of his vocals specifically and the artform as a whole intellectually, to return the music to its raunchy & rebellious origins. Ambitious? Absolutely. No small feat for any band of any era. Beefheart’s deconstruction of the blues/rock jam is so perverted it just oozes with the grime that is unmistakably punk in spirit and form. “Oh, they do it that way? Well, we do it this way.” There’s a sort of Troggs-y quality to the forward momentum and chord-progressions, true, but even that comparison only highlights the weirdness of the bass-line, a direct ancestor of the first Clash album, or some Ramones tunes. This, in many ways, is the source of the infection, patient zero, at least of this particular strain.
The myths surrounding this number are, themselves, larger than life, and the most appropriate pieces of foreshadowing if ever there were any. As it goes, Jerry Moss (the co-owner of Beefheart’s label) claimed the song was “too negative” for him to allow his daughter to hear it, leading to A&M Records dropping Beefheart. It is also said that in an effort to get the gritty vocals, The Captain shattered a microphone during one take. But the strangest legend of “Electricity” comes from one account of a legendary performance on 11 June 1967. The Magic Band was slated to play on Day Two of The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, by all accounts the first true rock festival as they exist in the modern form.
By way of an all too appropriate tangent within a tangent within an annotation, it is interesting to note that the promoters (Tom Rounds and the staff at KFRC 610) were inspired by the success of The Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California, who were putting together these multi-stage, two-day events with music and artists and food and drinks, packaged together as a weekend of renaissance style fun. They wanted to do a rock & roll / freeform radio version of their event, and out of this was born The Fantasy Fair, a less documented affair that happened a full week previous to The Monterey Pop Festival, and really kicked off The Summer of Love.
The Fantasy Fair was, for lack of a glamours way of putting it, trying to capitalize on the rise of Psychedelic Rock. Sgt. Peppers had just come out, and everybody was talking about the San Francisco scene, which was already a few years old by then, and was was already being considered old news by the hipsters who were moving on to the slightly “harder” stuff that was happening in the underground “garage rock” scene of the late ’60’s. KFRC figured they could squeeze a few dollars from these hippies and make a mark in a big way for freeform AM radio by covering the event. Everybody wins.
They were, of course, 100% right. While there were absolutely financial motivations, KFRC was also looking to reclaim rock and roll from the awful version that America was living with in those days. The early ’60’s had seen the rise of the disdainfully named “bubble gum” craze, called such not only for the association that the music was for children, but for the added insult that the music was also quickly flavorless, and ultimately disposable. The Pat Boone-ification of these baby-faced teen idols led to a very bland format, which at the time was parading as “rock and roll.” A lot of people remembered how exciting it was to hear Little Richard on the radio, and were not getting the same vibe from Paul Anka. At least with the scene at The Fillmore, it could be said to be about, and for, adults who liked to rock, and who remembered that rock and roll used to be fierce and seedy, and fun. The Rock Festival, as an artistic statement, was to draw a line in the sand and say, “over here, we try to expand our minds like real adults.”
Were we ever so naive?
The line-up at The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Festival is a veritable who’s who of late ’60’s rock bands: The Doors, Canned Heat, Chocolate Watch Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, The Fifth Dimension. It is in this insane time and place where Captain Beefheart performed his greatest version of “Electricity.” Here’s the scoop: The Seeds has just laid waist to the audience, themselves already declaring so-called “psychedelic” rock to be bullshit they produced their own hard-driving sound that was pretty formidable for audiences who were there to see Tim Buckley, or had heard that, “Mr. Tambourine Man” cover and thought it was “pretty.” The Doors had already begun to walk the darker side of rock music, and there was a small but dedicated group of folks who were exploring things that were new and different. The Magic Band sets up, trying to find a way to follow the propulsive set The Seeds had just offered. The crowd is ravenous. They are ready to rock. Time freezes. You can hear the sound of a pin dropping amplified through stage speakers.
The Magic Band winds up, rears back, and lurches forward. “Electricity” issues forth to a slightly perplexed crowd. They don’t know what to make of it. A few are just loaded, so they start to dance. Others just watch. Several wander off. One person is turned away slightly, eating. But most are trying to get into it, trying to figure it out. This whole weekend has been about something new, and they are eager. This song is a little shaky on the landing. Perhaps not the best song to open with, but Beefheart insisted. If they could just get to their next tune, “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which has been a bit of a hit when it came out and got a ton of radio play, perhaps they could win–
Beefheart signals, and the band lurches to a halt. They’re confused. What happened? The audience is stunned. They really don’t know what to make of the situation. Beefheart silently straightened his tie, and pointed to a girl in the crowd. Off mic he says, “she has turned into a goldfish.” Silence, quieter than before. Beefheart walks toward the girl, right off the front of the stage, pitching up face first in the mud and grass below. “That’s it!” yells Ry Cooder. “I have had it with your pretentious unpredictable bullshit, Don!” Cooder walks off stage, and out of The Magic Band forever. As Cooder leaves The Captain – still face down – signals again, and the band picks up the song (as best they could, sans one guitar), as if nothing had happened. As the show went on, you could see Beefheart smiling through the grass stains on his face.
The Seeds claimed it was the best performance they had every seen anywhere, and they should know, as they caught the whole thing from the side as they shared a joint.
Fuck the Summer of Love. This festival was the beginning of Punk Rock.
It’s easy to defend The Flaming Lips when they put out a great album, and have a hit song like, “Do You Realize?” and everyone is excited about festival concerts and the extreme production value they bring to their shows. But the cruel eye of hindsight is not so kind to them at times. While their output is treasured by hardcore fans, they become increasingly panned as the flops start to add up. This particular era of the band – we’ll call it the “Don’t Use Jelly” years – was not their strongest, to be perfectly frank. They had not yet written Clouds Taste Metallic, and where quite a long way off from The Soft Bulletin. In many ways they have become a bit of a cut-out-bin band, a novelty act that puts out Zaireeka (an album where you listen to all four discs simultaneously), or their absurd “7 Skies H3” (a 24 Hour Long Song), not to mention the song-for-song cover of Dark Side of The Moon, and “Christmas On Mars,” a holiday movie that is as inscrutable as it is terrifying. I can see why some people find them a problematic start to any story.
I don’t want to argue about their relevance or importance; I don’t want to claim that they are essential or a must for any smart psychedelic music fan; I don’t even want to convince you that you need to own or listen to anything else by them.
I just want to ask: have you ever heard anything as uplifting and strangely funny as “Turn It On” with these Mike Staff samples?
I gotta say, it’s better than it should be.
Now that you’re reconsidering The Flaming Lips, let’s get into it for a bit. I can’t change your mind, but they began to click for me when I had a better understanding when I considered the time and place. Mid-West in the early ’80’s, where the rules of punk rock were trying to set fire to the entire pre-history before The Ramones. Punk insisted that the bullshit excess of rock music from the ’60’s was completely valueless, and that only when we get loud and fast do we break out of the norms that had become “standard practice”. The past had nothing to teach us, and in the name of punk, we could only look forward to getting drunk and fucking shit up. The loudfastfuckyounow of punk awoke in their fans a rigidity of thought and uniform, behavior and musical ethos. Its narrowmindedness is often better summarized as a rejection of everything else rather than an articulate analysis of what they didn’t like about… well, anything.
The Flaming Lips understood that punk rock was due for an infusion of something new to save it: psychedelic rock. The story of punk had, ironically, been paved when rock & roll discovered psychedelia, spinning out of it a million permutations on a similar three-chord idea. Punk was a revolution, to be sure, but was insular and defined by negation, following a narrow aesthetic ideology. It had stagnated without anything new to expand it, and the fascistic denouement of all other things became a hinderance. The Flaming Lips never planned to create psychedelic punk per se, and even still, The Butthole Surfers beat them to the punch. But the Lips were such students of psychedelic rock and punk that their ideology was equally in those two worlds. In essence, the heart of the Flaming Lips is their curiosity about music in these varied forms and structures, and they have dedicated their lives to it.
Their early work borders on avant guarde, as the band is clearly still learning how to be a band. But after a handful of albums like this, a thread starts to emerge, and they get good at playing and writing songs. As the ’80’s closed, The Lips were a fairly strong band that could get a crowd, keep ’em, and put on a fun show the whole time. As the ’90’s began, they released records when everyone was watching for the next big alternative act. In the wake of this, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart hit stores, an album that not only summarized their sci-fi / earnest aesthetic in a nutshell, but wove a radio metaphor into the very fabric of their music, specifically the album opener, “Turn It On.”
If a mainstream band wore their heart on their sleeve more in the ’90s than The Lips, I’m hard pressed to name them at this time. “Put your life into a bubble / we can pick you up on radar / hit a satellite with feeling / Give the people what they paid for.” They have chosen this life, have dedicated themselves to being artists on display for us. We, as listeners, have a chance to pick up the signal they are sending, and fortunately for us they are the kind of band who will “hit” us with a feeling that is as real as possible. For the Lips, there is no better experience than that of celebration, or raising your voice to sing along to a song you hear on the radio, to Turn It On and On and WAY UP, and share that moment across the country at the same time and moment connecting us all in a positive expression of loving a simple rock and roll song.
How cool is that?
You can see that thread throughout all their work: this idea of sharing a celebratory feeling with a large number of people to create a magical moment, even a sad one, or a mundane one, and share that feeling through these transmissions, these records and songs The Lips have been making for almost 40 years now. Their perspective is so much a radio metaphor that, while it might seem crazy at first, they are the perfect band to kick off any story about radio.
This particular mix – with the Mike Staff Samples – comes from another audio essay I made in 2009, “A Sound Salvation.” I was rummaging through the library and came across this self-help tape by a NuRock style DJ, Mike Staff, who was going to reveal his tips for those who wanted to become successful professional DJs. This tape was perfect to mix with songs about radio and DJs, and the show wrote itself. While I don’t usually like to listen to individual songs from a show like this one (as I think the show works great as a whole), there is something about the way the mix during “Turn It On” worked that really sounds good to me. Mike Staff is over the top and full of himself, but his voice has that tone that makes you want to believe what he’s saying. And, for all his cheese, he makes a good point: Your Dream is Important to you, and can guide you if you will let it.
After a while, all the stories people tell about the music world start to sound the same. This white guy started working at this studio and the artists they found were great. This guy started writing songs with his friends and they became famous. It’s all so formulaic that it starts to get a little boring, and you start to mix all those white guys into one amorphous nerd who is hunched over some guitar or studio for way too long. So even the existence of Yma Súmac, the Peruvian Princess descended from the last sovereign ruler of the Incan Empire, Atahualpa, is a joy to discover in a world of white sameness.
Born in 1922, when she was 20, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo took the name Yma Súmac, and began performing with her incredible five octave range to stunned audiences. Recording a grip of songs in Argentina at a radio station in 1942, she parlayed these recordings into a deal with a local label, which garnered her popularity locally, making her the most in-demand act around. But Yma had bigger plans: America.
She married a composer, and together they set out for NYC in 1946, performing around town in local clubs as a trio, with her cousin rounding out the group. Four years of gigging started to build their reputation, and the reputation of her incredible range was enough to make Yma an important act to be seen in the early ’50’s for anyone hip. Capitol Records finally came calling and signed her, thinking that she would make a good pair with this other kook they had, Les Baxter. And, in a rare turn of events, someone at a Record Label was right. Together they made her first album, Voice of the Xtabay, which not only introduced America to a new form of music, referred to as Exotica, but introduced the World to her incredible talents.
Her fame was instantaneous. She performed at incredible venues: The Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, The Roxy Theater, Las Vegas nightclubs, The Mikado Theater in Japan. She landed roles in film and on broadway. She toured South America, Europe and Africa, performed for The Queen of England, and did shows with Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Marlene Dietrich, where they opened for her.
She was, after all, an Incan Princess, a fact that was supported by the Peruvian government in press releases, no less! Her record contract was immediately lengthened, and she continued to belt out records that spoke to the Tiki zeitgeist that was moving through the country at the time, during the golden age of velvet paintings and mixology. She was the perfect combination of sex and chanteuse, a beautiful and delicate bird that would sing songs that were so fantastic that it would send chills down your spine, and make you couldn’t help but dance.
While her husband was always there for her, initially Capital didn’t want him composing the work Yma released, which was a pity because when he was finally given that chance in 1954, it was clear that the resulting record – Mambo! – was one of the high water marks of her career. It was the perfect balance of traditional music with a US perspective, and embraced the current fads of mambo and exotica in a way other, whiter artists were unable to grasp. “Chicken Talk,” while not being particularly about chickens, is like much of the music on that album: Yma sings using her incredible range, with incredibly hip and danceable music backing her along the way.
This lifestyle worked perfectly for Yma, and straight through to 1961 she toured extensively, and released seven fantastic records. The years were not great to her career in the end. As the sixties began to be dominated by rock music, exotica lost sway among music fans, and she spent much of the rest of her life in and out of vogue, depending on the trend of the moment. She would perform here and there, and even put out a couple of albums when nostalgia began to grip the culture, but it was clear that The Princess was ready to retire, letting new divas take the stage and the throne, for better or for worse.
In a way, she had conquered the world for a brief period of time, had traveled through most of it and had surveyed her people and their customs, and having ruled it as well as she could, it was time for her to retire to her mansion in LA, always a princess, and to this day, the woman with the biggest range in history.
We know what you’re thinking. You have that person on your list who is hard to shop for. They like music, but you don’t know what they’re looking for these days, and the thought of going into a record store to find something for them is probably the most intimidating idea you have ever had. If there was just a way that you could get a wide variety of tunes for a fairly low price that was guaranteed to make a wide range of people happy…
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Upon first listen, it is easy to say that this song is only known for its appearance in the 1997 cut of Pink Flamingos, and leave it at that, but the nature of the “rarities” on this collection is that these were songs that fell between the cracks of popular music in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. Each of the singles featured hear are prized among collectors for their weirdness, the performances, and the incredibly precise recording techniques, something that few studios in LA were able to achieve as bands became more sophisticated. The glue that holds this compilation together is the exotica and surf undertones, and Bob Keane knew that when he assembled the disc.
Getting “Chicken Grabber” in the new cut of a John Waters flic sent that message from the get-go, and while the disc does not contain a single song by any of the artists on Del-Fi that did have hits, that is the genius of the collection. Most of the hits Del-Fi had were over-comped even contemporaneously. But these tunes are rarely heard, not only because the discs retail for $150 on the open market, but because the bands were never popular enough to demand their inclusion on previous compilations. Like Del-Fi records itself, this compilation was trying to bring other bands to the masses, and not just the Ritchie Valens‘ of the world.
Del-Fi Records got its start in 1958, but the man behind Del-Fi – Bob Keane – was an entertainment business figure going back to the late ’30’s, when he put together a big band that he led via the clarinet at the age of 16. In yet another example of radio playing a major roll, when KFWB in Los Angeles broadcast one of his band’s performances, he got an offer from MCA, the first of many deals that would never seem to last for very long. MCA promoted him as “The World’s Youngest Bandleader” for exactly three years, when the dropped him out of fear that he would get drafted for the war.
Bob took this in stride, and decided to beat fate to the punch, and offered his services to the Army Air Force. I like to imagine that, in some obscure way, Bob and Vyacheslav somehow crossed paths, and where completely unaware. Bob was eventually let go from the Air Force due to a lung infection, so he returned to LA to heal. When he was well enough, he returned to music, and worked as a clarinet for hire until 1955. Occasionally he got work in radio, but they asked him to change his last name – Kuhn – out of fear that audiences would think that Bob was black when he was introduced as Bob Coon. From 1950 on, he used the name Bob Keane.
There are several versions of how Bob Keane & John Siamas met, but one thing is absolutely clear: in 1955 they discussed the idea of getting all the talent that they run into on the club circuit, and putting out their records. They would each tell the other that they see people who are 100 times better than the records you could buy in stores. If only the people they played with had a record label where they could come and cut a session, they would be in business. Sometime after these conversations, they shook hands, pooled their resources with Siamas’ brother, Alex, and decided that they would release a record by an artist that mattered. They immediately turned to an artist that Bob had been raving about, in spite of the Siamas brothers having never heard of him: Sam Cooke
The first release on Keen Records was “Summertime” b/w “You Send Me” in 1957, part of Sam’s three-year contract with Keen. It got decent enough airplay, but when DJs discovered the b-side, the single began to really move in stores, and on 25 November 1957, the record hit #1 on The Billboard. Keen Records was raking in the dough.
Like any smart businessman, Bob when to John and asked how he wanted to structure the business of Keen Records. John pretended he had no idea what Bob was talking about. John offered a session musician’s paycheck for finding Sam, and countered with another offer to let Bob buy into Keen Records with a $5K investment, which Bob could not afford. The label was named after him, but Bob walked away, and before John was done laughing with his brother, founded had Del-Fi Records later that same month.
While Bob was litigating the Siamas’ over their assholedness, he turned to the next artist he hand gotten to know on the club circuit, Henri Rose, and rushed a recording of “Caravan” b/w “September Song” on 45 under the Del-Fi label in early 1958. Bob had intentionally picked Henri because they were friends, and gave Henri the most flexible contract he could devise, on purpose. He knew that someone would come calling in an effort to buy-out Henri Rose once anyone with half-a-brain heard what Henri could do, and Bob only had to wait for the call to come in.
By Spring, Warner Brother’s Records waved an $8000 check in front of Bob for Henri, just as a settlement check was already deposited into his account. Bob considered that revenge enough and moved on to his next trick: Making Del-Fi the epicenter of LA cool.
There are two distinct periods in Del-Fi’s catalog: the early rock ‘n’ roll period, and the later surf period, but in the roughly 10 years Del-Fi existed, they alway managed to have a very agreeable policy when it came to checking out new bands. Bob knew from experience that the guys that were best on the club circuit worked hard every day, no matter how little money was on the line, and often those were the best artists. But it would often take a little while to find this out about these incredible artists, and it was better to let everyone have a chance rather than hold out for a guarantee.
Around 1967 things began to fall apart for the music industry. It was clear that 45s were now “singles” off of LPs, which was the real product, and with psychedelic starting to really take over, Bob’s “dinosaur” perspective on the music industry didn’t seem to gel with modern bands. When The Bobby Fuller Four broke up, Bob knew that Del-Fi was over. He banked what he could, and decided to merely manage his own songs as The Keane Brothers, while selling burglar alarms to the people of LA.
The story would probably end there, but curiously enough the time between 1967 and 1987 did wonders for Bob’s status as a legend. Since he couldn’t afford to release any new records, the collectability of Del-Fi releases went through the roof, and artists in his roster began to get relegated to the “classic oldies” status. While this had no way of affecting Bob’s income, when the La Bamba film came out in 1987, it was clear that interest in what Bob had done was back in the public consciousness.
Bob began to assemble collections and compilations of Del-Fi classics, repackaged for public consumption. This was only helped by the success of Pulp Fiction, which not only came at a time when surf was coming back as a genre, but when interest in the original bands of Keane’s era was in high demand. Keane released collections of his records (with a few new bits here and there) for several more years, but in 2003 he realized that he could not sustain the work on his own. Again, Warner Brothers came to his aid, and in a very cool turn of events, they relegated the work of managing Del-Fi’s catalog to Rhino Records, who has the rights to “Lost Treasures,” along with everything else Bob Keane did in his career.
The Night Hawks were also a group that Bob met on the touring circuit, and their story is also fascinating. The group was let by Nesbert Hooper Jr., also known as “Stix” Hooper, and The Night Hawks evolved quite a bit, into the Jazz Crusaders, and the just The Crusaders, taking the exotica / R&B sound of this tune and becoming a very accomplished Jazz group that lasted until 2003. They did not last long as The Night Hawks, but there is something very cool and Del-Fi about this recording.
The thing that Bob Keane was, perhaps, best at was finding artists that complimented the Tiki culture of the late ’50’s, and Del-Fi is, in many ways, a document of that early music scene in LA. in addition to all of that, Bob Keane best represents the kind of producer that they do not make anymore. His openness to artists, desire to be honest in all his business dealings, and his focus on fostering an environment where the music came first was rare in the music industry, and almost everyone he worked with spoke highly of him as a person. As the digital age creates new kinds of hassles that artists and businesses are constantly negotiating, reading about Bob Keane reminds us of an earlier time, where people made records because they, too, loved listening to them.
Two major forces were also at work in this early era of American history. Film and, later, radio, were on the rise in the US, and as this fledgling music industry worked to develop it’s structure and form, the relationship film and radio had with one another was immediately parasitic. As sound pictures began to develop, they were immediately married with songs, and radio could not only play records on the air, but promote film stars as well with drama and comedy. These three media forms grew to become dependent on each other, and while film will undoubtedly get left out of this story (to be saved for some future series), the story of music and art in the 20th Century cannot be told without covering the subject of wireless telegraphy.
As the program moves into it’s back end, I decided to pull out a handful of songs that were not only about radio, but embrace the real center of this argument: the story of music is also the story of radio. The Spirit of Radio could, in fact, be music. There is something spellbinding about good radio, something I’ve been obsessed with for my entire adult life. As soon as radio was self aware enough to do so, it started playing music for audiences, and I love exploring the subject of radio in a radio format. It just seems fitting.
I’m not really that familiar with Jimmy Vigtone, and it’s possible that there was only the one 45 ever released. However, I do know the Hyped To Death Compilations, which are all full of incredible gems of punk, post-punk, power pop, and other oddball records released all over the place. I went through a phase around 2005 where I became obsessed with these collections, and every now and then I can find a song that is just perfect. This one in particular gets stuck in my head all the time, and it really feel on the nose to me.
13.) Shikaku Maru Ten (Radio Waves) * CAN * Cannibalism 2
This track also works very well as something that runs behind vocal samples, obviously, but comes from a CD I found in a Goodwill here in Salem, and was singular in the kind of band it was, and for the kind of women that worked in the place. I was very happy to pick it up for 50 cents, and it has entertained me well ever since. At times listening to CAN feels like radio waves, rolling in.
To be fair, I am not the Rush fan I probably should have been. I am the right age, and they were absolutely popular (and even played in my home by my parents). You couldn’t avoid them. But I never really was interested in them the way I liked Pink Floyd and The Doors. But in time I would feel the power of what they were getting at, and while I can appreciate certain aspects of them, I’m not bound by any nostalgia or early childhood memory to enjoy them in spite of their other musical crimes.
However, this song (and a handful of others) are just incredible, and The Spirit of The Radio is really where all of this was leading. Perhaps in an exploration of the form I will find new meaning in it all? It is possible. There are plenty of subjects I have not been able to cover in a radio form, and I feel as if Audio Essays are only beginning to be understood as a way of telling a story, but at a slower pace. Like Rush, maybe I’m entering territory that no one else has. But to me, making radio like this makes me happier than I ever have been happy before, and as I work on this series, I hope that some of that excitement can rub off on the show, on the listener, and the world around us.
The mid-’90’s was an interesting time for Negativland. With the U2 debacle leaving them financially drained but in the eye of the public, they were now revered underground heroes, and poised to pull a media prank worthy of their previous efforts. The tour they undertook after Free in 1993 was probably their biggest one yet for a band that had largely avoided them in the past. (Some of the members are agoraphobic.)
They had just done a documentary with Craig Baldwin that introduced the public to the creative philosophy of the group, along with other’s who are using music for both activism and artistic expression. Having built their career on manipulating media – and manipulating the way media is used to talk about art – they had already taken a number of pot shots at their favorite targets, from Guns to drunk drivers, suburban sprawl, religion, government, and they were making some noise outside of the art world, too.
Their collective – a group of suburban weirdos with a passion for home-brewed electronic music meets post-modern folk – had accomplished some pretty crazy stuff since they started fooling around with recorded work in 1979. Really, after closing their last album with a deconstruction of the National Anthem, with samples that explain which drinking song the tune was stolen from, where do you go next?
Previous albums had remained somewhat brief with regard to subject matter, and unless it was an EP, they rarely let a project take over an entire record. But Don had found all of this incredible audio about Pepsi, and the concept was not just to do an album, but make a pop album. With all the attention they were generating because of U2, it seemed reasonable that they could try and make a release what was their twisted version of a pop record, which was sure to get radio play around the time of its release.
Dispepsi, the album in question, was proceeded by a 7″, which contained a track from the record and two new cuts by Negativland. Initially concerned that they couldn’t be so bold with the title of the forthcoming album, they developed a promotional campaign where the CDs were not released with the letters in any particular order, resulting in a “call this number, hear this message” strategy to hearing a sample of the album, and The Weatherman telling us the real name of the record.
The album spun off a single – “Happy Hero” – which was included on a follow-up EP, with even more new Don Joyce edits (some from his radio show), and “The Remedia Megamix” of the single. As if that weren’t enough, they used this creative juice to release a re-mix record with Chumbawamba shortly thereafter, where they re-interpreted their huge hit “Tubthumper” in a typically Negativland-esque manner.
This was all done to put attention back on the band and the world that they do, and to draw attention away from the SST release, Live on Tour, a disc that completed Negativland’s contract with their former label, in spite of the fact that the band members did not get any say in the way the release was packaged (or what was included on the disc). Negativland was hoping that, if there was enough new material on the market that they had actually created, the SST Release would be conveniently forgotten, and rightfully so (The SST Release sounds terrible, from an audio perspective). Fan’s at the time made stickers that explained the travesty, and would go into stores selling the SST Release and put the stickers on the discs. It pretty quickly languished in the cut-out bin, where fans picked it up for a much more reasonable price a few months much later.
Negativland’s Seeland Records, on the contrary, faired pretty well for themselves during this period. The new album charted at college stations, and Pepsi make it public that they had no intention of any legal action against the band, which allowed the band to reveal the album name publicly, and garnered even more press. (Even “Entertainment Weekly” plugged the record, and the head of Pepsi commented, “It’s no Odelay [by Beck], but it’s a good listen.”)
Negativland was hoping they could “cancel a tour” and spend the time documenting a new lawsuit with Pepsi, but instead, they played a few shows here and there as they were able to, and used this creative spurt to push on into several new projects thoughout the next 20 years, including released by their heroes Plunderphonics, as well and championing a new generation of oddballs who all grew up on Negativland records, like Wobbly and People Like Us.
For many bands, the kind of punishment they took over the creative use of sampling would destroy any future they might have had. But Negativland’s deft navigation of their financial devastation has not only led to their status as elder statesmen of the experimental music scene, but as the fathers of DIY collage art in the modern age. Many artists owe their careers to their pioneering records, and they are worth exploration if for no other reason than to experience audio art that is unlike “music” that you might be familiar with elsewhere.
In many ways a cornerstone of their career will always be the U2 lawsuit, born largely over the use of some Casey Casam blooper tapes in a deconstructed “cover” of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. While the band themselves were very clearly influenced by (and fans of) blooper tapes, their own fans got into the habit of sending the band any number of rare and influential tapes that were making the rounds among collectors and aficionados, born out of this fiasco.
Don Joyce was particularly interested in material like this, as his interest in audio splicing and editing had enormous potential with some of their more famous creations. As Dispepsi was largely about the soft drink, this Happy Heroes EP could be the perfect place to include a track dedicated to a similar institution, Kentucky Friend Chicken. The blooper tape of “The Colonel” not being able to nail his own line had been floating around for years, and even Mr. Bungle had used it on their self-titled debut. But using the same Dispepsi approach to integrating jingles into a sort of musical refrain, “Chicken Diction” illustrated the kind of hypnotic editing that Don was particularly great at.
While it is clear that Negativland will continue without Don, his contribution to the band with tracks like this were completely unique and excellent additions to their aesthetic, and it will absolutely be missed.
In the 1990s I would have killed for a CD burner. I remember hearing a story about a guy who made a Cure Mix CD for a girl he was trying to impress, and part of me just died the moment I heard that. “How can my mix tape possibly compete with a Mix CD?” While I had spent all of my time in the years since I first got blank tapes around age 10 or 11 perfecting and honing the art of capturing sound with a cassette – and maximizing the way you can use that time each tape offered – that it seemed like the ability to make a CD would only increase the means through which I could better manipulate the sound you could hear during playback. And, everybody listened to CDs.
Initially, when CD burners became fairly ubiquitous, they were amazing. I didn’t build a computer with a CD burner until 2002. But prior to that I always did my best to integrate sound in my computing experience, limping around with shitty desktop that I had cobbled together with stuff I salvaged from a gift-computer I’d received in 1993. Prior to that it had been my TRS-80, and a few stray machines here and there that had been on the loan. In the years since I had figured out how to make sound with a computer, and capture it from a turntable and cassette deck. When the early Internet became stable around 2000, I would periodically send sound files to friends and ask them to burn discs for me. It all started very, very primitively.
However, it wasn’t long before it was very easy for everyone to make CDs, and almost daily. By 2004, it has already become passé, I had bought my first Mac and iPod, I was podcasting my show at KPSU, and the technology landscape had changed dramatically. CDs were already an in-between technology, but I clung to this old-media idea of discs and making them, born largely out of those desires in the ’90’s. I remember making tapes of my band’s recordings, thinking that if ONLY we could make CDs, we could compete on a different level. We had a DAT, we had cassettes, but CDs were what people were buying, and listening to in cars. CDs would be the future. CDs meant some sort of permanence. A physical disc! How could having those around be bad?
Throughout all the of the 2000s I spent a lot of time sorting, organizing, and labeling my discs. Part of this was for easy searching and finding later, as it was very easy to quickly burn a CD and not label it. I invested in plastic folders, bought sharpies in large quantities, and developed systems for storing in this folder vs. that folder. In the early days I had scads and scads of Audiogalaxy finds that needed organizing, and as my hard drive filled up I burned off discs to free up the space. I couldn’t fathom the idea of terabyte drives in those days, and the 50,000 album archives being the standard seemed of another universe, a time that we could never possibly reach. Meanwhile, these folders consumed money, discs, space, and time, and I never questioned it.
Around the year 2010 I stopped making discs of new stuff that I got from friends or the radio station, but it took me a few years more before I realized I wasn’t even looking at these old plastic folders anymore. I had made the music more or less inaccessible. All of my new toys and devices ran .mp3s, and my massive record collection was finally all in one house. There was no shortage of stuff to listen to, and it was easy enough to let these CDs languish, as the idea of making discs now seemed quaint and outmoded. I had a wealth of music in those burned discs, but they were entirely out of the realm of my listening experience. For quite a while, I didn’t even own a CD player outside of my computer, and when I bought one, it was so small and so cheap that I felt sad for the me in the ’90’s that longed for this technology, that was so insanely expensive way back then, and was now so pathetic.
Over the last few moves I’ve carted these folders of burned CDs around, looking at them longingly and wondering what I will do with them. But the same impulse that causes me to hoard everything has led to me defending the need to carry around this dead weight, as if they would someday have secret hidden value of which only I was aware. As the discs rotted in my basement, they went, unlistened, unused, and unheard.
It was around last summer that I started seeing these discs as garbage. Not the content; I still wanted the music on them. But to continue to pamper and idolize them was insane. What I needed to do was rip them to my computer again – completing their life cycle – and I could finally be rid of them once and for all.
In the last couple decades I have taken my .mp3s on a sort of hero’s journey, setting them adrift from the rest of my digital life on these island’s that were discs, only to reunite them with my larger digital library – almost 10 years later in some cases. I immediately set to work establishing a playlist that played new additions to the library first, but did not repeat anything after it had been played once, and set about enjoying all of this stuff that I hadn’t heard it years and years.
There were a handful of discs that didn’t survive. A few of them have degraded over time, and in other cases my taste has evolved. But I was astounded at how much of it was actually still interesting to me. In the end, however, I did keep one folder of discs. I had to up the criteria quite a bit to ensure I didn’t just keep everything, so I was reduced to keeping only discs by my friends bands (that were, otherwise, never released anywhere), and the few discs I’d gotten over the years that really set themselves apart from the others because of cover art, or the work they put into the disc. I kept maybe 20 discs or so.
It took a lot of work, ripping them and labeling meta-data. I have become a stickler for well-documented files, and the ability to search and find things quickly has become the primary definition of “good data” for me. So, after a lot of finessing, labeling, and tweaking the genre filters, I managed to get it all sorted out, and I’m listening to an incredible selection of stuff from my past that is evoking all sorts of nostalgic listening binges. The mix discs from my friends are the most interesting, but there are a few hundred albums that I just haven’t heard in all that time, the music locked away on these discs.
The experience has made me rethink a lot of things in the last few days. Obviously, there are plenty of things we keep in our lives that could serve us better in the trash, and there are even more ideas that we have locked up in some container, without giving the notion a chance to breath and be a part of the ecosystem. And, some of us are packrats.
As I churn through a wealth of new-old music, I can’t help but try and find the deeper lesson that were trapped in digital amber for so long. What technologies are we rabid over now that will be in the trash before long? The urge to go minimal is starting to overtake me, and while there are some things I am not ready to part with, there are so many that serve me no real function. There was a time when material items were the things I surrounded myself with because I couldn’t surround myself with the friends and people I wanted in my life every day. But that me – the mean that felt so alone – seems quite a distance from the me that is cleaning up all this crap now.
It is freeing to be rid of so many discs, but there is more work to be done. My version of cleaning used to be to just pile everything in a box, and put the box away, and there are quite a few boxes left to be sorted. But even these little battles against my own bad habits must be fought one at a time, and never all at once.
As Halloween began to get commodified more and more in the ’70’s and ’80’s, the kinds of music and recording that were hitting the market began to dabble in strange little nooks and crannies. Disney had established that narratives could work, and many people stuck with reading Edgar Allen Poe if they wanted a spooky story. But Caedmon Records expanded the scope of what they were willing to release, and with that they contacted Vincent Price to perform for their Halloween releases.
I’ve written at length about both Vincent Price and his relationship with Caedmon Records, so I won’t bore you too much with that, except to say that to me, he really is a Halloween character, through and through. My perception of him as a kid was very much that of a horror creature, and I would get pretty excited when I would hear his voice, or see him in a film. Having Vincent as a part of Halloween just makes sense, and I’m happy to hear him year-round.
Below are five links, that allow you to hear the five-part series I ran last October as part of our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular! These were delivered into the podcast feed on five consecutive days – Monday through Friday – at 11 AM each day. String all five of these together for a 25 minute tale that is a fantastic way to spend an evening if you’re looking for something seasonally appropriate to do.
There’s something really fun about serial entertainment, as the kinds of people who are prone to binge-watching any TV Show can easily attest to. We like being cut off at the height of the stories’ telling, knowing that we have to wait for the next segment to come a day, week, month or year later.
I’m not sure how many new fans got into the story as it was being doled out in five-minute chunks, but Vincent Price fans loved it, and I had a lot of fun making it, for sure, so much so that I even made a little commercial for the event.
Halloween Nuggets! (Originally podcast on 17 October 2014. Expanded for this presentation.)
Once “The Monster Mash” hit the scene in 1962, two things became clear for artists in the 1960’s: the combination of Monsters and Rock Music was perfect for any aspiring artist, and the “Christmas Effect” was now applicable to Halloween as this songs – not even a great song, to be sure – was starting to get guaranteed seasonal airplay. In the same way that cutting a Christmas Tune gave your group some longevity, if only because you would get yearly airplay), then anyone with a guitar and some friends could watch a few horror films late at night and cast around for their own novelty hit that might help launch their careers.
But it wasn’t just people like Bobby Pickett and Don Hinson that were cranking out monster songs, and in the early ’60’s, rock music was changing. Surf had hit the scene pretty hard in the early ’60’s, telegraphing psychedelia by a few years. Surf taught kids that, so long as your guitar player could solo and your rhythm section could play nice with each other, anyone could start one of these bands. Once The Beatles made their epic three week engagement on The Ed Sullivan Show, it seemed as if this version of Rock & Roll was not your parents version from the last decade. Focused on teenagers and their alienation from the rest of modern culture, Rock Music was no longer just about dancing and partying, but had a new range and sound that was electric, and LOUD.
It helped that there was a lot of cheaply made instruments for sale – both new and used – and was thus easy to distribute among the suburbs. Kids everywhere began to create bands with their friends, and by the end of 1964, hundreds of garage bands across the country started, all picking up instruments, picking up cues from the Rock Stars on TV, and picking up on this Monster Vibe that was reverberating through our Culture in Movies and The Late Late Show. Just because these groups were not famous, and were not well known outside of their own home town was irrelevant; if they could get a gig at the local armory, or at a house party, that was fine. And, if one of them had enough savings to sink into pressing up a 45, hey, that was cool, too. Teenagers – distracted by hormones and parties and the War in Vietnam and girls & boys and surfing – had never gotten together and planned to create a music movement. Instead, they were just looking for ways to pass the time.
1 – 4 – 5. Now Start A Band.
Lenny Kaye was one of these teenagers, and started his own band in 1964 – The Vandals. As a fanzine writer and music enthusiast, this made sense, and as he got to know other bands and began traveling, he collected records by other garage groups – music that Kaye labeled “punk rock” – and found that many of these songs were in danger of getting lost in the cracks if action was not taken. In 1972 he assembled the original Nuggets compilation, which showcased music by groups that, while not representative of the entire movement, captured those with some pretty big regional hits: The Blues Project, The 13th Floor Elevators, The Amboy Dukes, and Nazz. As some would say, the rest in history: Nuggets has become a sort of cottage industry for Rhino Records, who released 14 sequels to Kaye’s original record in the late ’80’s, and assembled three 4-disc sets of other material, along with other 4-disc localized collections like the LA and San Francisco sets.
It is impossible to say if Kaye knew what was happening when he made that first collection in 1972, but before long he set off not only the modern Rock Record collector market, but a whole genre of compilation albums. The Pebbles series followed in 1978 (which seems to have stopped after 28 collected LPs of tunes), each collecting the lesser-known groups of the Garage Era. Crypt Records‘ very own Tim Warren started Back From The Grave in 1983, as series of comps that focused on some of the wilder, rawer, and crazier records from this same era. (Up to 10 volumes, at this point.)
But more importantly, these (and other) compilations that came out in the years since began to document an era that was beginning to be lost. Classic Rock Radio was the dominant format in America by the ’80’s, and it seemed as if the history of rock and roll was going from Elvis to Led Zeppelin, with little focus on the ’60’s outside of the psychedelic movement (that seemed to map over the political ideology of the counterculture). However, not everyone was into psyche rock. Most people in the ’60’s had grown up on Rock & Roll, and want to make something closer to The Troggs than to Jefferson Airplane. These compilations reclaimed the story of Rock Music from the one that was being heard on the radio, and helped document scenes that had otherwise disappeared once everyone went off to college.
It is ironic that a more complete picture of the ’60’s didn’t come together until the ’80’s, and even then seemed only appreciated by collectors and nerds who enjoyed doing the research. But people who had worked to assemble these kinds of comps also established an entire market for LPs that were not collections of Hit Songs. The idea that you could make a record that documents a time and and a place – wherever and whenever that might be – created the Punk Rock that Kaye had identified in Garage Music. Not only has the Killed By Death series done for punk what these other comps did for the ’60’s, but the larger idea of documenting these fragile (and quickly disintegrating music movements) gave the DIY movement the much needed juice to keep going when things seemed darkest, a tradition that has persisted into the 2010s.
In the early 2000s, S’more Entertainment was just another small record company looking for an angle, and noticed that the reissue market was one place that record sales were not dropping off. They began with re-issues of Black Oak Arkansas and Nazareth records, and hit gold with Dick Dale’s back catalog. They quickly assembled a collection – Surf-Age Nuggets – under the name RockBeat Records, hoping that if it bombed, they could quickly shed the name and keep going. However, Surf was still big money, and this collection (available on both CD and LP) but this new subsidiary on the map. Very quickly RockBeat, and the work they were doing in that office, subsumed the parent company.
RockBeat had hit on a formula, and went on to release collections of The Moving Sidewalks, Little Feat, The Blasters, Albert King, Django Reinhardt, and the very impressive Los Nuggetz Volume Uno, which assembled the previously-uncharted territory of Mexican Rock Music from the ’60’s and ’70’s. Armed with this success, they began casting around for something else they could put in the stores, and hit upon the idea of collecting old ’60’s Monster songs. Plenty of garage bands had recorded stuff like that, and with access to a number of artist’s catalogs, it appeared that they could even release a proper boxed set, music like the comps they were using as their inspiration.
Taking cues from the Wavy Gravymodel, RockBeat inserted horror movie trailers into their three-disc set, in-between songs about partying in graveyards and hanging out with vampires. The the concentration (and quality) of the tunes here is what really sets this apart from the stuff you usually find in stores when September rolls around. Foregoing anything close to “The Monster Mash,” they really dug into the Nuggets of the past, and assembled almost 100 tracks of incredibly rockin’ songs, many of which had not been comped elsewhere. (There is some overlap with other sources, but not much.)
As a relatively new compilation – 2014, no less – it remains to be seen if this collection will gain the same kind of notoriety of the Nuggets predecessors that paved the way for this label. And, to be completely fair, RockBeat might not have a long-term future, either. (Having only been around for 10 years, and the increasingly declining state of the Record Industry, might make it hard to build a career on re-issues.) However, in our house, this collection is already a classic, and is absolutely essential listening this time of year. If you want to class up any party you’re throwing – and you still want to be on-point with seasonal treats – Halloween Nuggets is the only way to go.
Before The Cramps & The Misfits there was another Monster Themed rock band, made up of real monsters, that was blowing the socks off all the cool kids in mid-’60’s: Frankie Stein & His Ghouls! But the story of how these monsters came to be was so secretive that, for many years, it was completely unknown to most. The mystery behind Frankie Stein & His Ghouls is, for some, most of the charm, and in the summer of 1964 when their first record slipped out into stores, unannounced, it was pretty clear that the Synthetic Plastics Company (under the Power Records imprint) had a hit on their hands.
For those of you who don’t want the mystery of these recordings ruined for you, I completely understand. You might want to skip most of the rest of this essay. There is something amazing about the complete package you see in the album above. This was absolutely marketed to kids in every way, but also: to HIP kids. Kids who liked to dance, who understood how cool ghouls really were, and knew that having monsters at your party was the only way to be “cool.” If you grew up like this, you probably don’t want to know the truth about Frankie Stein. Who would? The band is better off as a group of unknowns. In a way, I like to think that these records really were made by the monsters you see on the covers.
It’s sort of lame, in this modern age of instant-information, to think that you have to know everything about everything. It’s the same problem when Jandek went from a genuine mystery to this guy who releases eccentric records that a fair number of people have now met. This group of monsters cutting rock and roll LPs is just as reasonable to any boring truth that would probably ruin the charm of these amazing recordings. So, please, feel free to skip the story below. I won’t be offended.
But, if you want to learn a little more, follow me…
In 1950 the Synthetic Plastics company went from the premiere manufacturer of plastics that were used by the garment industry to the premiere manufacturer of children’s music entertainment, basically overnight. It was not a glamorous or financially solvent field to enter into, but from the perspective of the company, Children’s Entertainment could be produced in the same way that their assembly lines had produced plastic products for clothing. Turn your limitations into strengths, and hire good workers to produce quality materials. Then, find the right store to stock your product, and roll out the advertising. The ideas were basic business practices for decades now, and Synthetic Plastics went about creating a number of subsidiary companies throughout the ’50’s and ’60’s to release one kind or another of children’s LPs as a way to stay competitive.
While the idea that each of these different “labels” all had a traditional staff of record industry analogs is to even give the practice a Synthetic Plastics that much credit or planning. Each staff member at Synthetic Plastics headed “a label,” and they were each in charge of the releases that label put out. The company had a studio, and everyone learned how to run the gear on their own. Once a recording was finished and the covers were designed (again, by the one in-house self-taught design team), the company would ship these off to be pressed, after which the records were sent to their warehouse, where they shipped out their product to every store that carried their stock. Everyone was urged to get as many releases out as possible. Quantity was going to win this battle.
Story albums and collections of children’s rhymes and songs were instant hot sellers, but as the ’60’s began to start rocking, it was clear that the kiddie dance crazes were another market that Synthetic Plastics to fill. Kids were really enjoying these LPs of dance songs, each song catering to a dance that was popular. This wasn’t Rock and Roll per se, just a very watered down and “whitened” form that was popular everywhere now that groups like The Beatles and The Stones were starting to get going. These dance LPs (instrumental, of course) were safe ways that parents could let their children enjoy Rock music, and built in a guaranteed fan base for rock music as the kids got older. Synthetic Plastics began searching for some musicians that “got” this new sound, to produce records for them to release.
The found the perfect Duo in the pair Joel Herron & Fred Hertz. Joel had came out of radio, conducted his own band in the ’50’s, and had made a name for himself as a bit of a songwriter. Joel met Fred working on The Jimmy Dean Show, and they bonded over having grown up on jazz and swing, but having a love of the new R&B and Rock music that came with girls, dancing and drugs. Joel was approached by Synthetic Plastics to assemble an in-house band to record for some of these dance records they were planning, and the money was just good enough that he brought Fred Hertz (and some of his regular players) along with him. Joel and Fred bonded over pop culture, and loved talking about different creature features they had recently taken in, always making obtuse and crude references to bad horror tropes when the got together. Very quickly they developed a sense of humor that made them a perfect working partnership.
The idea was to lay down some tracks that Synthetic Plastic could use as “bed music.” With a set rhythm section recorded, the label could go back and have different “lead” musicians do different solos and bespoke licks over the same bed music. This gave Synthetic Plastics the opportunity to creating a number of “songs” without having to record the whole band every time. The more unique lead parts they could lay over the tracks, the better, and soon one session with a full band was paying off rather fruitfully for the label. Using different themes and cover designs, Synthetic Plastics managed to do very well for themselves with this idea, and by 1963 a number of these Dance Records has been making the rounds in stores, and sold fairly well.
It is hard to say who had the idea first, but after a night of getting loaded and goofing around in the studio, Joel & Fred took the sound effects from the studio archives and laid them over the dance tunes they had recorded, and made a tape for themselves that they would play around for friends. They knew they could outdo “The Monster Mash” in terms of performing, and the way they mixed the tracks, it sounded like real monsters were playing the tunes. Both Joel & Fred were well aware of the Shock Theater! monster book happening around them, and while the tape was started as a joke, once they got a cover mocked up and had made a few copies for friends in the radio industry (pressed under the amusing moniker “Power Records,”) it seemed as if the idea was crazy enough to actually work. In 1964, Synthetic Plastic tested “Introducing Frankie Stein and His Ghouls: Monster Sounds And Dance Music” (The Ideal Party Record!) to an unsuspecting America. It sold out in every store, and thus the “Power Records” label – which had not existed before – was handed over to Joel & Fred.
The next year was busy for Joel & Fred, and in the summer of 1965 they released four new Frankie Stein LPs, and re-issued the one from the previous year, all of which sold very well everywhere they were available. These were easily produced in the studio, again recycling other tracks they had cut for other dance records, then remixing them with the “Frankie Stein Sound,” and it seemed as if Joel & Fred had set up a cottage industry. But they also had other interests in Hollywood, and making kids fare all day, every day didn’t really appeal to them, especially given how cheaply Synthetic Plastics was producing them (skimping on things like studio time, and pay). Fred went on to be relatively unknown afterward, and Joel went back to radio and television, popping up here and there for the remainder of his life. Frankie Stein & His Ghouls would be a nice footnote to a small paycheck they had received from Synthetic Plastics, and wasn’t really thought about by either of them again.
As time went on, these records began to become quite collectable. The original print runs were the only time Synthetic Plastics put any money into the project, and when Fred & Joel left, both Frankie Stein (and Power Records) essentially stopped production, and the company moved on. Until some of these songs were reissued (incompletely) on a two-CD set in 2005, the primary way anyone heard this music was from a friend who had made a cassette transfer, and to this day LP rips float around online. Fans had no way of finding (or confirming) information about these records for decades, and while the value of the original LPs (like much of the Synthetic Plastics releases from their early days) skyrocketed in value on the resale market among people in the know, they were completely unheard of by most everyone else. For a long time, these albums seemed mythical.
This, in many ways, ushered in the modern era of Halloween Novelty records. Frankie Stein took the ideas of scary sounds LPs and “The Monster Mash,” and combined them in a way that punk bands have been doing every year since. And there is immense charm and genuine strangeness to these albums that qualifies as experimental at times, too. And, let’s not forget, they rock and roll was pretty good for 1964, when you get down to the playing. Frankie Stein did not invent the Monster Rock And Roll song, but in five albums over less than two years, he certainly perfected it, codified the sense of humor, and insisted on a good backbeat.
These days, these albums are virtually forgotten by the mainstream, and are rarely dusted off outside of record nerds like me. But the idea of music by monsters is so compelling that these albums deserve a second listen. These are albums made during the golden age of children’s albums, and in many ways, the perfect synthesis of a studio system creating the Casablanca of monster records, almost completely by accident, like some creature born in a lab.
It isn’t required that you know how these kinds of records get made. But it is important that you get to know them, anyway.
* * * * * *
Stoned (Monkey, Watusi) [Excerpt] * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Shock! Terror! Fear! (1964)
Mummy’s Little Boy (Monkey, Twist) * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Ghoul Music (1965)
Dance Of Doom (Monkey, Watusi) * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Monster Sounds And Dance Music (1965)
This is, by far, my favorite Halloween Record. I currently have six copies, and I will usually buy another copy if I see one out in the wild, and at a reasonable price. In a lot of ways, it is the archetype for what Halloween Records became in the ’70’s and ’80’s, and these days this kind of album is a forgotten relic from a time since past. If anything, people are familiar with the dollar-store CD sound collages made to last up to 70 minutes, which was usually a rehashing of an ’80’s album that the CD Manufacturer has a deal with, transferred to digital from the master tape.
Monster Songs From the ’20’s to the ’80’s
But for the real deal, return with us, now, to the post-war Record Industry. As long as there has been recorded music, there have been novelty records, and even songs that could be called Halloween-adjacent in those days. As far back as the 1920’s there was a tradition of weird or funny songs slipping out among the serious endeavors, and scary songs were just as prevalent. An early “spooky” meme in records was a sort of whistle or instrumental “flourish” to indicate a ghost, and there was a fascination with “boogey” men, made for double-entendres when boogie music came about, but also allowed writers to be off-color with regard to racial stereotypes and still get it into a song. You even, occasionally, found scary sounds being added to a record, and most companies tried their hands at kids output from time to time. All the pieces of the puzzle where there, but no one had gone after the idea as relentlessly as they could have.
The 1950’s were a very curious time, and as a number of cultural forces met to mix and mash, the emerging market for records and recordings was aided by the standardization of the formats: the 7″, the 10″ and the 12″ for size, and 45, 78 and 33 1/3 for speed. With formats standardized, the production of records became cheaper and easier, and allowed for more and more experimentation. You could press records in bulk, and small runs of new types of sounds could be made, tested on the marketplace, and re-pressed if sales were good. Sound effects records of all types and shapes began to creep out into the market, as “found sounds” and other novel audio ephemera sold well among the newly-minted “audiophile” market. With the baby boom taking over every aspect of life, music for kids became much more demanded, and records like Spooky Music found their way to the market much more often. But the idea of making a living at Halloween Records was still a few years off, and again, was a result of a bigger cultural movement.
It wasn’t until 1957 – after the introduction of the Shock Theater package, that monster mania began in the US. Kids were dressing up like monsters for fun, horror movies were being acted out on the playground, and Halloween was becoming big business. Between ’57 and ’59, everyone was rushing out Halloween LPs to capitalize on this potentially passing fad: Dean Gitter releases a record of Ghost Ballads, Al Zanino releases his famous “The Vampire Speaks” 45, Hans Conried & Alice Pierce collaborated on their very strange “Monster Rally” LP (with cover art by Jack Davis, no less, and included mostly covers of strange novelty songs from previous years), Bob McFaddon & Rod McKune’s Songs Our Mummy Taught Us went the beatnik route, and Spike Jones with his incredible Spike Jones in Hi-Fi and A Spooktacular in Screaming Sound sort of mixed humor and a narrative for one hell of a record. The stage was set for 1962, when Bobby Pickett scored a hit with “The Monster Mash,” taking all of these ideas and synthesizing them into a band of monsters that was lead by a Boris Karloff impression and contained a Bela Lugosi interjector as a recurring gag, all with rattling chains and moans to seal the deal. Monster songs, for better or worse, were not going away.
Pretty song, rock, doo wop & country music were littered with monster gags, to not only capitalize, but to play with a well-worn metaphor: the monster as an outsider. Frankenstein (the novel) really nailed this idea perfectly, and monsters very quickly became to embody the outsider in every respect. As music was the generation gap for many, and monster became a proxy for someone “cool.” There are endless songs about going to Frankenstein’s party, or a monster ball, or hop. Graveyards became the hang-outs that kids would congregate in, and soon the lure of she-devils and women who could seduce and terrify were a very common theme. Monsters, and being scared, were the perfect stand-ins for teenage libido and the pains of falling in love. After 1962, Monster Metaphors become second only to UFOs and the Atomic Bomb as subjects for songs, and up until the early ’80’s there are hundreds of these songs, by a wide range of artists and songwriters.
The problem, of course, is that of popularity: nothing has “topped” Monster Mash in terms of a hit, with the only exception being “Thriller.” (A tame, and yet Vincent Price bejeweled, version of the same idea.) While many have tried, the archetype of a cool monster party that you have stumbled upon is hard to outdo, so much so that even bands like Whodini and Buck Owens have tried. But after “Monster Mash” and “Thriller,” it was clear that the subgenre has little depth. Once you find that monster party, the only thing left is to let Bob & David make fun of you.
With Halloween just around the corner, they sold through instantly. Everyone reordered when the second printing was available.
Side A of the record contained a number of “Adventures In Sound” (as Disney called them) with sounds from their very famous Disney Effects Library. (Any Disney nerd can recognize voices and effects from any number of cartoons and shows.) In addition to title track, there’s “Chinese Water Torture” and “Your Pet Cat.” These 10 recordings are complemented on Side B with the raw sound recordings from the library. “Screams and Groans” or “A Collection of Crashes.” Half story LP an Half Effects Record, it lay somewhere in-between two different genres that were not quite one or the other, and was, in effect, it’s own thing, far from the monster songs that were gaining popularity. With great art that had a fantastic Haunted House on the front and back, the Liner Notes went on to talk about how you could have, “even greater enjoyment in creating sound stories of your own using the effects on this LP plus others you may do yourselves.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Here’s a huge, monolithic company like Disney inviting you to remix their media, with the addition of your own work, to create something new. While this could not have been their intention, it was none-the-less taken to heart by a number of companies in the following years. The ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s found a proliferation of “Halloween Sounds” LPs, with a story / narrative on one side, and raw sound effects on the other. In fact, it was such a formula that you rarely found records that were only one or the other. The “Halloween Sounds” genre of LPs was cemented in form and content by that original Disney album, and in the years that followed a number of copycats – including “Sounds To Make You Shiver” (1974) and “Haunted House” (1985) – directly copy this style. Most modern CDs of “scary sounds” are often just combining audio from albums from this era, and I think they have all (more or less) fallen into the public domain. Following the Disney model, a sub-genre of Ghost Stories with sound Effects followed, pioneered by Vincent Price on the Caedmon Label, most commonly with Edger Allen Poe short-stories being read, to great effect.
Much of this was, of course, Disney’s prelude to their interest in designing a Haunted House for Disneyland, which they launched in 1969. Disney finally understood that fun a casual horror was not only a healthy market, but could be taken advantage of in their park. The LP could not only market Halloween itself, but their new theme ride, too. Without this album, that amazing part of Disneyland may never have existed.
The overall decline in the way that vinyl is produced has made Halloween albums only affordable to make on CD, where the quality has dropped tremendously, both in terms of Halloween Novelty Music, and in terms of sound effects recordings. While they are readily available in any store with Halloween Accoutrements, most often they are cheaply made, and don’t sound as robust as the recordings you find in these older efforts. Disney unwittingly opened up pandoras box: by encouraging remixing, other companies realized there was a small market to be had in Halloween records, and people like Wade Denning and The Haunted House Co. found ways to make a name for themselves.
More importantly, this record taught people that you can make your own Halloween.
Here’s the sounds. Here’s the ideas.
All you need to do is have at it, and enjoy.
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I can only imagine what it must of been like to tune in and see “House Of Horror” when it was first on KPTV on 9 October 1957. At the time, there was talk of this woman down in LA doing a show… Vampira or something… and there were a number of stations across the nation where the guy who ran the lights was dressing up as some monster, and introduced late-night horror movies. KPTV began to look around for someone to host their late-night Shock Theater package. They looked around and saw, at the radio station next door, Suzanne Waldron.
Suzanne was your typical post-WWII weirdo, who found herself feeling isolated and out of touch with her peers who were fairly “normal” and “average.” She did her best to play along, and while her morbid curiosity and interest in both the library and the movie theater kept her out of trouble, it led to a fairly lonely lifestyle. After school she caught the acting bug, and toured around with MacBeth until they returned to Portland, where she found a career doing voice-over work for local radio. Comfortable off-camera, she was happy to lend her voice – something she would change and manipulate for the air – and was rarely recognized outside of the station. The idea that she would be on camera, introducing the films seemed absurd at first. She never fancied herself as an actress. However, Tarantula Ghoul had other plans.
Once she got into costume, the personality was immediate and persistent. She mocked bad actors, had a fiery wit that made people think she was as vicious in person as her character was on screen. Her thin figure added to her lankiness when Tarantula was “on,” and between her time in prop coffins and posing with live snakes on her arms, she developed an other-worldly carriage, where she seemed both alive and dead in her movements. Her ability to improvise in this character was what really sold her to the station. Just turn on the camera, and point it in her directions, and she could make up something that was so spooky, and so very “Taranch” that scripts for her segments were rarely needed, unless there were other actors in the shot. She would take a look at the film in the studio for a few minutes before she get into costume, and suddenly Suzanne disappeared, and the Ghoul took over!
It is no wonder that within the year or so that she was on, both she and KPTV capitalized on her personality in a number of ways. Taranch was in demand to make public appearances whenever possible, and she milked these for all their were worth. When it was clear she was a hit on the radio, too, KPTV asked her to record a 45 of ghoulish rock songs which they could market. The single sold quickly and became a hit locally, but only dedicated fans knew of the record until the tunes were comped, sometime in the late ’80’s. Both “King Kong” and “Graveyard Rock” were big hits in Portland, and got plenty of air-play. She was the IT girl when it came to horror in the Northwest, and once she took the costume off, she was Suzanne again. A nice gig if you can get it.
And then, just as quickly, the fad was over. KPTV – and Suzanne herself – had moved on to other things, as the Shock Theater package was not getting great ratings locally, enough so for the station to move on to other things like Wrestling. Tarantula Ghoul was still well loved, locally, and Suzanne was always very proud of the way people remembered her when a fan would approach her in public. She passed away in 1982, and sadly, none of the broadcasts survived. (KPTV just didn’t archive their shows in those days, not realizing there was any historic value to them.) However, we do have her songs, which you can enjoy through the magic of modern technology.
I like to imagine what it was like to sit down with a very different kind of Cool Ghoul, one that understood not only The Pacific Northwest, but the monsters that roam around within it.
Now available from our Bandcamp Page, it is The Ways of Ghosts, four short ghost stories from the late 19th Century. These have been produced as separate pieces, clocking in about about 20 minutes, with sound effects, music, and other tidbits to create an audio essay that is perfect for the holiday season. Now you can help support our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular and enjoy these ghostly encounters from a time long since past.
Not only did his “spooky” pieces get taken as “true” accounts by most who read them, but the humor of these made-up slices of “Americana” (a direct descendant of Irving’s own style, so Bierce thought) seemed to be lost on his readers. Bierce had always seen the ghost story as a satiric engine, and was floored to see that people were not looking for that with these stories. Regardless, he understood a good thing when he found one, and collected these stories from the paper together as “The Ways of Ghosts”, which itself was collected with other ghostly stories. The form of these collections seems to shift from publisher to publisher, but there’s an ebook version that is worth downloading for free, as these are in the public domain now.
In 2014, as part of our Halloween Spook-tacular!, a few of these appeared as part of our daily NewsBlas, and were available then. However, I’ve re-edited, re-mastered, and re-worked these, and recorded new pieces to complete the set.
I’m very proud of these, and they are not only a great way to kick-off a full month of great stuff, but buying these help us continue to make cool things for you to listen to and enjoy.
As we get comfortable with the details of Lee de Forest’s life, we continue to explore other realms new to this author’s ear. One project on the shelf in my office has been learning jazz, something I chip away at as the years go on, but feel like I make such minor progress when I assess it each time. The first thing that was really hard to wrap my head around was to realize that all these great jazz dudes all played with each other. I mean, I got that they all crossed paths, and that they might even play the same gig. But when it clicked that no, really, they all played with each other – in each other’s groups – and they each had their own groups, as well. I’ve given up long ago trying to draft a family tree, and instead try to focus on absorbing the songs. I still marvel at tracks like this, when you have five highly skilled performers all grooving to the same scene and were co-stars in each other’s movie about incredible artists.
Jazz really started to open up for me in big way when I heard bebop.
Charlie Parker was, in a lot of ways, the father of bebop, but his own demons and faults were his inevitable downfall. Bebop was a new permutation that was seen by the old fashioned jazz cats as an upraised middle finger to the sanctity of form, a sort of – ahem – flipping the bird.
Charlie didn’t give a fuck. He blazed his own trail, fueled by drugs and determination, and mastered his craft at a young age. Bird recorded with some of the greatest artists bebop, but spent most of those years hooked on smack, with occasional bouts of alcoholism. Parker’s crime was, of course, timing; because of the Musician’s Union recording ban between 1942 & 1944, Bird’s initial performances were never recorded. When he started to make a name for himself, the previous generation found him to be over the top, subverting jazz in a way that the moldy figs would never understand.
As time went on his reputation and virtuosity spoke volumes about who was right or wrong. No matter where Charlie found himself, trouble followed, and over the 18 years of his formal career, he drove his body to death, which finally gave up one night in 1955, on the cusp of Rock & Roll beginning to take hold of the country. It was clear that his boozy records were much worse than his heroine laced tracks, but most of that 18 years was spent trying to hold himself together long enough to produce some of the greatest music ever recorded.
The story of Parker differs in that his is a cautionary tale, a nerdy pioneer who flew too close to the sun. Bird was well know for his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, but dig: he worked with Miles Davis, in addition to becoming the supreme icon of the beat generation, who managed to combine base passions and desires with unparalleled intellectual curiosity, and set a template for what “cool” was for the rest of the 20th Century. His relentless pursuit of the chromatic scale was not only an ultra-hip means of expressing his own identity at a time when that was rarely possible for any artists, and more pointedly, any well-dressed black man in post-WWII America. Like most mavericks, his interest in his ideas isolated him from like-minded folks, and much of his life was spent wrestling with his music and his chemical interests. What was left of him when he passed could be described in many ways, but I like to imagine it was spontaneous human combusion; his work consumed him.
Don Woody is not anyone about which you should necessarily know, and even his place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame is more as a footnote than as a true heavy hitter in the story Rock & Roll. But his song “Morse Code” is not only entirely relevant to the conversation at hand, but is a good example of how many lesser known figures are also movers and shakers behind the scenes. Don was a support act for Red Foley, and Brenda Lee recorded a version of one of this tunes. Don’s backing band was none other than the Slewfoot Five, known for working with country legend Grady Martin (who popularized “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” among other things). But outside of his six or so songs released on Decca & Arco Records as cheap 45s, Don Woody’s career never broke into the national consciousness, and even in these MCA Rockabillies collections, he’s still more footnote than star.
People like this are often forgotten entirely if it weren’t for hardcore fans preserving music for future generations, and this series on Norton Records (picking up where Big Tone Records left off) deals with those forgotten gems and lost treasures that are not talked about much by modern fans. Music, like mythology, is dependent on the stories the culture is telling at any given moment, and while Don Woody’s tale – if there was ever much of one to tell – probably mirrors that of 100s of has-been artists who have put their hair up with pomade and tried to write a love song or two. The big difference here is that Don’s music, like all the artists featured on the MCA Rockabillies series, is as good, if not better, than anything that qualifies as well known from the same era.
A travesty? Maybe. If we knew enough about Don we could speculate more about what might have led to this minor god never gaining a reputation to make that of Hercules. Don’s career flamed out before the ’60’s really began, and maybe it was better that he took a shot and retreated to a simple down-home life, rather than become front page news when there’s nothing much worth reporting. His is certainly a more common story, and one that everyone can relate to to better than that of Carl Perkins, or Johnny Cash.
Don fell in love. Don wrote some songs about it. He made a small name for himself, and then went home to BE in love, on his own terms, and not just for his own sake.
09.) Hot Wire My Heart * Crime * Once Upon A Time Vol. 2: USA 1976
The B-Side to Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” is “Baby You’re So Repulsive.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
1975 was on the cusp of punk’s big debut, where a sea of rock bands that were stewing in the proto-punk beginnings were coming to a head in the big explosions happening in the UK, LA & New York, when Punk, capital P, legendarily “started.” But to say even that is a pretension that ignores the very, very obvious: it wasn’t in a vacuum. It wasn’t like there were no rock bands before Television first took the stage. The stage was there already, and other bands in the years between had climbed on it before them. The world was stewing in weridness that was as perverse as it was diverse: The Flaming Groovies, MX-80 Sound, Debris, Simply Saucer, The Gizmos, Zolar-X, The Memphis Goons, The Count Five, The Seeds. The list goes on and on. And during those in-between years, guys were growing up in the suburbs who were learning to play from copying Ventures records, filtering The New York Dolls through their own peculiar perspective. Those very guys turned into something that more or less approximates San Francisco’s First & Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, Crime.
Their story is as improbable as it is absolutely fascinating. The members of Crime all met hanging out at bars in San Francisco, all united by this strange mix of glam rock tastes that quickly led to photo shoots before they even had a name. After getting into a rigorous three times a week practice ethic, they burst into a studio one day and recorded a handful of tracks in front of a befuddled hippy engineer who was told outright he was cutting “the first west coast punk record.” (This same engineer stormed off after the band told him they wanted to record it live, without mixing anything.) Those tracks would make up their first two 7″s, which they self-released at a time when very few bands imagined such a thing was possible. Their records always sold poorly, in spite of the fact that the band thought it would be clever to market material as “punk” to jump on a trend that was up and coming, despite the fact that they saw it as a fad with no real substance. It was only when Crime decided to start playing for audiences that they dropped the punk label and insisted on being called the first and only Rock ‘n’ Roll band from San Francisco (at the time, a pointed dig at the way Jefferson Airplane used to promote themselves).
Their debut performance for an audience was on Halloween, 1976. It was a “GayPolitical fundraiser” (their words), where they played to movers and shakers in the activist community, and for a few friends that came with the band. Their willingness to play in unusual venues became as much a staple of their shows, as did the S&M Police Uniforms they wore on stage: a Tuesday night at a gay club on Market, San Quentin Prison (dressed in guard uniforms), and occasionally at the Mabuhay Gardens to befuddled audiences who never seemed impressed. When no where else would give them a gig, they rented their own venues and financed the shows themselves, DIY before there was even a name for it.
Their flyers featured war criminals and serial killers (including Hitler), all designed to send a very specific message that was confrontational in every way imaginable. When you experienced the band Crime, it was on their terms, period. It was the antithesis of everything that was hip and cool at the time, but a completely unsustainable way to conduct a band. After three obscure seven inches and six years worth of shows that almost all lost money, they packed it in before it was possible to consider selling out as an option (though some claim that they did so on the third record, where they were paid largely in drugs, and the songs on it sound different than the rest of their stuff). What they had left in the very end was a pile of glam-tinted stories to last the next 40 years, and an astounding gauntlet to be thrown down at a time when punk had barely even begun to start in earnest.
Crime were, by all accounts, drugged out, drunk, on too much coffee, all of the above, and argumentative, with each other and anyone who would engage them. This never really won them over a devoted fan base, but they had a circle of friends who came to the shows mostly so they could all get fucked up together. They did score some opening spots for touring acts, but their performances were mostly controlled violence, where the band played mid-tempo “rock” songs at a time when people wanted fast and loud. It seemed that they were a band without a home: outside of close friends, scensters active in pre-punk San Francisico ran in very tight circles. Crime did not play their bullshit games, in a complete rejection of all things cool. Crime took the Suicide approach to performances: loud, plodding, and in your face. Crime took a fascist approach to their imagery, and made such a reputation for themselves that they were rejected by the scene itself.
Crime insist that they are too wild for radio, but the problem is that there’s a dirty, filthy pop song at the center of “Hot Wire My Heart,” a song with drugs and prostitutes, improbable bedroom talk in the form of a Velvet Turner Group reference, and this car radio metaphor as the narrative frame. “Got your eye on the main control / turn it on and let’s go.” Not the most subtle analogy, true, but neither is having to create a short in your own circuitry to get you to feel anything – sex, drugs, ANYTHING – at this jaded stage in your bored life. Through the sneering and slop they pour into the tune, the story of a stereo blasting to life after you finish twisting the wires to get the motor running, the band playing couldn’t be anyone but Crime, could it? The radio blasts to life, and its like a spike in your arm, a mean installation of dominating rhythm.
Crime is probably better known now than when they were initially around, and their reputation is easier to digest when they are old and on a reunion tour, rather than the drunken spitting hot mess they once were. But in their first release they admit that they don’t have a place on modern radio, in spite of their contrary belief that rock music needed, desperately, to be saved from itself, by any means necessary. They knew going in that their vision did not fit the format of their time, but now, in a post-Crime universe, radio is more than ready to Hot Wire the Hearts of people who missed this incredible band the first time.
As a huge fan of X ever since I was introduced to them via The Decline of Western Civilization, I’ve seen them several times now, and I find their songs an endless well of inspiration and perfect rock music structure. In many ways X distilled the entire history of rock and roll into a hopped up unit of cool, painting these perfect and harrowing images in song form. There’s a reason I ended the program with “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” for so long, and I will find any reason to play X. They’re just one of those bands.
But like I was at 20 when my friend Lyra Cyst forced me to watch Decline, there was a point when I didn’t have most of their albums, and when I was completely new to their stuff. For someone in that theoretical position, who wasn’t sure about a new band as they were generally skeptical about all things new, the Beyond & Back two-disc set would have been a great entry point. It not only gives you a very good overview of the band and their history, but offers treasures, unreleased tracks, all the hits, live bits, and other mixes of well known tunes.
What is genius about this collection is that it rocks all the way through – essential for hooking new accolades – and rewards long-term fans with treats you didn’t know you needed to own. A lot of collections like this tend to fall short of being anything other than a greatest hits shtick, or a contractual obligation release. To make it a two disc set that complements and introduces all at once is pretty fantastic, and a rarity for most artists.
“Blue Spark” has a sort of stop-start structure to it that you can imagine acting as an SOS Signal, sending out bum-bump message to someone across the bar. There is always an undercurrent of smoldering sexuality running beneath most X songs, a sort of pulse that vibrates in time with the rest of the tune. When X is firing on all cylinders they are sex, strutting around the stage with beers in hand and cocaine eyes that want to have their way in spite of the terrifying world that exists outside the club door. They’re looking to create a spark in the listener’s mind, to turn them on and make them dance and celebrate in this secret corner of the city, away from the pain and misery and violence and horror that the rest of city pummels them with each day. They just want to look you in the eye as they sway in ecstasy and know that you are feeling it too, in that moment. They paint a picture of a horny dude waiting for his famous wife to finally fuck him after a long day, but they do it in the most sexually propulsive way imaginable, ignoring the subtext of the loneliness and isolation both characters feel in their lives, separate and together in spite of their orgasms.
The build-up and release form does, when you squint at it, mirror the morse code that radio took before voices were seamlessly integrated into wireless broadcasts, and the penetrative power of radio itself could take the sex metaphor to other places, if I wanted to make that case. But I think X handles those with a little more deft that is not only the perfect rock song, but is more suggestive upon repeated listenings.
Sometimes when you are building stories like this one, you start with a specific ending in mind. I knew I wanted to close with We The People, but I needed a lead in that offered the proper climax to its denouement. As I was flipping through different discs and records and digital albums, I accidentally fell down a rabbit hole that led to The Estranged, as is often the case. I put the album on and turned it up, and the end of the show revealed itself to me. Of course. Sometimes, you let rock and roll be your lodestone, and everything will work itself out; even though static thoughts, they were still able to get through.
In the wake of a new millennium, rock and roll was entering a dangerous period of synthesizers, Bumford & Lames, and laptop DJs that was threatening the future of guitars. Every party bleeped and blooped with a steady sonic pulse of un-ironic Erasure re-mix 12″s, and more and more kids were trying to ignore the work done by garage rock bands and punk-inspired retro acts, in favor of a future that was shiny and plastic. It was easy to get discouraged as math rock failed to hit it big, and while indie made a polished and tiny foothold in CW dramas, it felt as if someone had walked over Keith Moon’s grave. Where were the three-chord wonders? Who was gonna save the world from itself?
Like their heroes The Wipers, The Estranged came out of Portland, where Pierced Arrows and a few others were trying to save the scene from itself. The gimmick was simple: rock songs, well played, well written, and polished by guys who practiced relentlessly. Their movement from the garage to the studio was a tactical progression, and as they each became skilled performers, they worked out the tunes for Static Thoughts as their version of Is This Real? – a mission statement of influences – that was to become the blueprint for the rest of their output. The most strategic move was to get Jason Powers to engineer, who had made a name for producing great work with Scout Niblett, Holy Sons, The Decemberists, Grails & The Swords Project. The Estranged believed if they could get the kind of Indie Rock polish on a straight rock record, they could capture a new audience and bring them into the dirty sonic landscape that was punk.
“The Message” returns us to the beginning of our thematic story: broadcasting to an audience, trying to make yourself be heard. Many of us spend our days in a barrage of Static Thoughts, a swarm of ideas and notions that overwhelm us with a constant din of binge-watched TV, 100s of gigs of new .mp3s, computers inserted into every flat surface imaginable, and 10 layers of management each telling us what to do. This largely mirrors the relationship Monkeyface & Marconi had with each other, competing so hard to become well known that when they try to demonstrate their own technologies, their signals jam each other, so much static that neither could pick out a signal. Sometimes, it is all we can to do send out one message, anything, and make ourselves be heard. “The Message” uses a propulsive bassline to anchor the tune, a bouncy guitar riff, and Joy Division meets Television-esque vocals to cut to the heart of the matter. How can I get through? What can I say that will reach you? It feels like the message is not clear, and not getting through, no matter how hard you want to say what you mean. In the end, all we have are these awkward attempts, these moments where we work and craft and make ourselves as articulate as possible, and leave The Message behind for others to interpre
If you lived in the pacific northwest in the late ’90’s, it seemed as if the music scene was going to be ruled by KARP with an iron fist. So, when they broke up suddenly in 1998, we were all a little heartbroken. Their final record destroyed , and they were a unique band making records that reflected their own sensibility that was unlike a lot of music you heard among the too-cool-for-school indie rock stuff that Washington was popular for in the post-grunge days.
So the sudden announcement of an Olympia super-group – adding Jared and members of Behead The Prophet No Lord Shall Live to form The Tight Bros., seemed incredible. Even more-so was the release of their first 7″, Take You Higher!, with four songs that were not only a mission statement, but a perfect synthesis of the 70’s party metal ideas into a faster, high-energy form, brilliantly cribbing their name from a classic line from The Derek Tape. The genius was in having Jared sing, and Quitty‘s natural inclination to play like a triple-timed AC/DC only cemented their sound. In Eugene, THE record of summer ’98 was this piece of Tight Bros. juvenilia, undoubtedly.
“Chicken Little Lied” seems like a typical answer song, a sort of hopped-up version of a “girl done me wrong” quip. But what “she” lied about is unclear, and his babe is saying it all over town. In the social media drama reality of the modern era, Chicken Little could be our childish friend who likes to stir the pot online. Still, I like to see a sort of “take a chill pill” angle to the way we respond to the world at large. Look, babe, the sky ain’t falling, and don’t freak out over something that isn’t true when there’s plenty of other ways to spend your time. I think that advice scales up in a lot of ways. Don’t tell me the world is going to end unless I repent. I am autonomous, and the sky will not fall, no matter how loud you get.
A song like this so completely relates to Chickenman it is almost too on the nose. Like Hawkeye from M*A*S*H, we’re all tilting at windmills most of the time, watching the world around us go about their day as they scream incoherently about how things aught to be in some sort of parody of a Marx Brothers routine. There are a few of us who are willing to square off in whatever deluded manor we choose to say that the sky, really, truly, is not falling.
For now, anyway. Just shut the fuck up and rock out, okay?
Born in 1929 to a Shawnee family, Link Wray is an unlikely heir to the Punk Rock throne. Wray had few opportunities growing up, and it was Link’s older brother, Vernon, who was the guitar wizard. Vernon was a clever kid, and lied about his age to get a job with a cab company so he would have access to a car to use for other jobs, including gigging as a Country Swing group. But, keep in mind, in spite of the name on the label, this is also Vernon’s story.
Vernon invited his brothers into the group when they were interested, and it quickly became a family affair, each member of the family performing as well as the others. Link had a great voice, and would often sing for the group, but picked up a few instruments just through performing with his family. Vernon would change the name of the group (and the line-up), and relied on their indian heritage and certain unspoken by prevalent racial prejudices to increase the number of gigs he could book with easily-duped club-managers. The band learned a large number of songs so they could perform as other kinds of groups, as needed. Vernon had a natural aptitude for equipment and management, a skill that he honed over the years of playing and loving the music he was making. It made all the cabbing worth it.
However, for Link, there are few other options available for an 18 year old native american, and as fun as playing hillbilly music for honkys in some bar might have been, Link felt the call of adventure, and the Army offered more opportunities than anything else around him. Link loved the traveling and the camaraderie with his army buddies, and thought he was going to do well for himself in this enviornment. A case of Tuberculosis not only cut short his tour of duty, but cost him a lung while fighting the disease. When he got back home he was weak and poor, and spent a lot of time at home with a radio, just in time to discover rock ‘n’ roll in it’s nascent form in the early ’50’s. Wray suddenly saw his experience with his brother’s group the training ground for something that he could only just now see. Link picked up a guitar and, until 2005, didn’t bother to put it down again.
It took Wray a few years still to become the player he would evolve into, but his lack of formal education and a desire to FEEL the guitar propel itself out of the amplifier led to Link straining equipment and gear to the point of distortion, and was intensified when he used what he called “cheater chords” (barre chords), which caused his guitar to send out massive swaths of reverberation in the middle of a tune. Once he landed a hit single with his first release, “Rumble,” he secured for himself a signature sound and style that was prescient of the impending Garage & Punk movements of the years to come.
For nine years he worked in a three-track studio he build in a chicken shack with Vernon, and together they churned out singles and albums of instrumental rock. Vernon had an intuitive understanding of how to record Link’s unique guitar playing and fit it into a sound and format that would move 45s, with both DJs and kids in record stores. Unfortunately, Link’s singing voice never recovered from his military illness, but this only ignited within him an attempt to express himself with his guitar. While he did try to write new material after his initial “retirement” in the late ’60’s, he was never able to match the fierceness captured in those early records. He performed his entire life, and at age 76, had become an icon in rock music in a way few artists of his age had every achieved previously.
In the ’60’s Link Wray had fallen into a routine: he would write and record music with a permutation of the same band from the country days, and his brother – having moved to the management / production side of things – helped make sure Link’s records got into stores, and Link got to the shows.
It was during this period that he was on Swan Records. He cut quite a few records for them, but in 1964 the band cut a very loose and loud session to tape, with some old favorites and some new tunes, in the hopes that they could work out a couple new songs, and maybe – just maybe – get a single out of some of it.
While there was plenty around that was pointing in this direction, Link was laying on the distortion so thick that they band had an amplifier-rattling attack that synthesized the Link Wray sound he’d been developing since “Rumble,” only louder. Listening to Law of The Jungle, you can almost hear Punk Rock being invented in his riffs.
And then… silence.
For decades these recordings were shelved, and no one is entirely sure why. Hits weren’t a guarantee with this weird and new sound, and it was possible that Link listened back to the sessions and was nervous about releasing the record, which would mean a financial hit for him and his label. Wray was a fairly profitable artist when it came to 45s, and he was able to keep a steady fan base and a string of gigs, built on the foundation of these hot recordings. It would be hard to imagine anyone in the Wray family not seeing the financial side of this equation, and I’m sure you can sense Vernon’s hand in this decision. Shelving those tapes might have made sense. Even when this kind of thing was fashionable, they probably had moved on to other things.
But I like to imagine Vernon & Link, in the chicken-coup studio, listening back to the “Law of The Jungle” recordings. Cigarettes lit, the sound as loud as it can go. Vernon just going mental over the sound he was able to get, Link air-strumming to the tracks.
They each had to know, looking at each other, smiles on their faces. This was… something.
23.) In The Past * We The People * “In The Past” b/w “St. John’s Shop” (Challenge, 1966)
And, while we’re at it, one more for the road:
In the wake of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s initial explosion at the end of the 1950s, American kids got the message very quickly: pick up a guitar, grab some friends, and start a band. This compulsion was so prevalent in the US that an entire genre of music – Garage Rock – developed, and kids from Tacoma Washington to the wilds of Florida found common ground when they all tried to learn “Louie Louie” and play at their friend’s backyard party. Now that the children of post-WWII families were starting to come of age, and the Viet Nam war was only just getting started, the combination of better education, more leisure time created a demand for entertainment to fill both leisure and radio air time. It also helped that rock and roll was, compared to the music of their parents, fairly easy to play. You could figure out how to strum a song from a record with a little patience and some beer, unlike the popular music of their parent’s generation, which required practice and study. Rock and Roll was closer to the metal, and the distance between you and a song was developing a good Pete Townsend windmill and being able to play “Psychotic Reaction” on demand.
The Garage Rock movement was unique in that it was fractured. The majority of Garage Bands never recorded, and even fewer played regular gigs. The scene was spread across the country, but due to the newness of rock journalism, the slim number of outlets that were interested in Rock Music, and the fact that the touring circuit was not yet carved in stone, each region had their own unique take on Garage that was largely unaware of what was happening elsewhere. The scene in Texas wasn’t grooving on records from Massachusetts, and vice versa. Garage Bands were only seeing releases on regional labels, often in small runs of 100 or less, if a recording was even possible. These bands didn’t always write original tunes, making their bread and butter in covers and playing local dances or shows at a VFW hall. After the Pat Boone-ification of rock music, garage became the line that was drawn across generations. The period between 1960 and 1965 saw an unbelievable uptick in these kinds of bands, all united by a love of Music and a belief that jamming on a riff with your buddies was the only sensible way to spend an afternoon.
By 1965 a number of changes – culturally and musically – were beginning to take hold. Music was beginning to mutate again, political and social tension was coming to a head, and in a post-Kennedy Assassination world, it as difficult to imagine the naiveté of the early ’60s continuing for much longer. The beginnings of a musical political consciousness was starting to awaken, and you could no longer play a sort of primitive frat rock and be taken seriously.
Enter Ron Dillman, a newspaper writer covering the music beat for the Orlando Sentinel. Ron knew the score, and followed the local scene pretty closely, in spite of his square dress and stupid hat. Ron was at all the shows, and was always supportive of new acts. Ron was noticing the changes, how the bubble gum of the last few years wasn’t sticking anymore. It was the perfect name – We The People – a populist slogan that communicated you were a dove, but in a strange in a psychedelic way, like The United States of America. Ron was on the cusp of a modal shift, and he knew that the right gimmick could bag him a few hit records. He just needed a band.
It was serendipity when Ron showed up at a Trademarks show to hear that it was their last show with Ralphie, their drummer, an account that he didn’t own his own set, and was never available to do road gigs because he couldn’t get the time off from work. Ron instantly thought of The Offbeats, who just lost their singer / songwriter to another band, and were looking to keep the act together. He realized that they were both sort of chasing the same idea, but from different angles, and that they might complement each other better than either of them thought. The Trademarks featured really fuzzy guitars and harmonicas as part of their sound, while The Offbeats had a member – Wayne Proctor – who played a thing they called “the octochord,” which sort of sounded like a sitar. This octochord was homemade by a family friend, and might just work with the sound everyone else was developing. Ron’s philosophy was: throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks.
Ron introduced the bands to each other at a local watering hole, where they all talked shop for three hours, running over gear and records. Ron went on to sell the band on his name (We The People), mentioning that he could get them a record deal (maybe) if they used it, and that it would be a hit, guaranteed (lie) if they just tried it out. The band dug what Ron had to say, and before long they were jamming out future hits like “You Burn Me Up And Down” and “Into The Past.” Ron ran into a streak of luck when he successfully managed to get someone from Hotline Records to drop by a rehearsal, who immediately agreed to put out “My Brother, the Man” in 1966. To everyone’s surprise, it was a top 10 regional hit in Florida. Ron couldn’t believe it. He was doing everything he could imagine to get We The People off the ground, and in a strange turn of events, it was starting to work.
Challenge Records caught wind the group, and struck a deal to release three 45s to follow up the success. Challenge had lucky with “Tequila” by The Champs, and with records by Jan & Dean and The Knickerbockers among their releases, it seemed a little strange to be making a foray into psychedelic garage. But Challenge was taking a lot of chances in those days, as they were doing rather poorly, and were looking anywhere for a hit like “Tequila” to give them the money they needed to continue. Bands like We The People benefited from Challenge’s risky behavior, and before long their follow up, “Mirror of Your Mind” was getting airplay as far north as Nashville. The band released two more singles in fairly rapid succession, and while they were generally liked, only the B-Side to their last release with Challenge hit #2 in the region, keeping them on the radio for a while but never bringing them to a national audience. Challenge stopped offering We The People deals, and soon the label folded.
Ron quickly made the calls to get the band on RCA Records for a three single deal. However, Wayne Proctor, one of the primary songwriters, suddenly quit. He was dodging the draft, using college as his “out,” but this meant he couldn’t be associated with a socialist rock band in order to make the argument fly. In spite of the loss, their RCA Singles did okay, and hit the local airwaves, unfortunately to tepid success. When Tommy Talton left after their last 45 failed to make it big, it seemed like the end for the band.
Ron made a few last ditch efforts to course correct with the remaining members. But the writing on the wall was clear; this band now only existed “Into The Past.” Ron tried desperately to keep the band alive, and sunk every last dollar into promoting and renting a venue for a Halloween 1970 show. After an endless number of phone calls to replace last minute members dropping out, he managed to get some form of We The People to finish playing 10 songs in capes that evening, the bare minimum needed to count as a full set and not get called out for ripping off the audience. After that night Ron realized that managing the band no longer has the spark it once did, and dissolved We The People, paying out the remaining members with his own money, leaving him in the hole for years to come.
What We The People left behind is more than some bands ever get to do. 14 songs recorded in a studio, and a story that is so set in a time and a place as to sound like a joke from my parent’s generation. But their sound was pretty mind blowing, and prefigured punk in a number of ways. But if Lee de Forest and the other mavericks that helped pioneer radio had a band manager analog, it would have to be Ron Dillman, manager of We The People. He had a vision, an idea, and the tenacity to do it, in spite having no real idea how the music industry really worked. Sure, he did not succeed; Ron wanted a hit, and Lee wanted to be The Father of Radio. What neither of their realized was that their efforts in the past have left an indelible mark on the present, and to those who want to follow the story, their reward is something that sounds like it could have happened to them if the circumstances were just a little different.
Both of the generations previous to me had the same understanding of portable media: you grabbed the records that you wanted to listen to, you took them to the place you were going, and if that place had a record player too, then you could listen to those records. The media itself was portable; the player was not. Humorously enough, my great-grandparents actually had it a little easier, in that the very first gramophones did not require electricity, and could be carried from place to place, and could even be used while on the go if you wanted. Most of them were very heavy and were not always worth the effort, but there were some companies that made very small players – with very small horns – which could fit in the palm of your hand and could deliver a three-minute song. If you had a huge bag that contained a number of these cylinders, you could realistically listen to about 20 of them outside of the house.
On the whole, people did not do this, and so the idea of portable media as we think of it – where the player and the media are in use while on the go – is a very recent development in our culture. For me, it began with my first walkman, and I would carry with me a handful of tapes in my backpack as I was skating, walking, or busing around town, content with the four or five albums, and the one or two mixtapes, I could carry. Culturally speaking, walkmen were disliked in droves when they were first introduced. A lot of people complained that they were making the listeners deaf, that the people using them were distracted, and that prolonged usage would create a world of Marty McFlys. (I can remember a number of sitcoms that employed the, “Huh?” joke as a listener would pull one side of their headphones off so they could try and hear the insult that was just lobbed in their direction.)
Not to be outdone, the introduction of .mp3 Players, and the dominance of the iPod / iPhone as a platform for portable media, has completely normalized the idea of portable media. Digital releases are expected by teenagers, and grandparents can be seen putting in their earbuds as they are power-walking. I’ve always been interested in all things audio, and I couldn’t wait to get my first iPod – a lime-green mini that I got free with my first laptop. For years it was at my side non-stop until it just stopped working just after the warrantee ran out. After that, I upgraded to a very fancy black iPod with a color screen that could carry 80 GB of music. (I decided not to get the iTouch, in spite of the clerk’s insistence that it was amazing, only because at the time I couldn’t fathom what I would do with something that did more than just play music.) Not too much later, the iPhone came out, and in the wake of a break-up, I bought one as an impulse purchase. Within a couple weeks, I sold my iPod and have stuck with the iPhone, and have had one ever since.
What initially attracted me to .mp3 players were the simple fact that I no longer had to limit myself to the handful of tapes that I could carry with me. Even at 3 GB, the idea that I could carry that much music music with me, and not have to bring anything other than the device on which I would listen to it, absolutely blew me away. Already attracted to CDs (and the random feature on CD Players) I loved the notion that I was programming a very small jukebox – or even a radio station specifically tailored to my tastes.
Time has continued to pass, and developments in portable media have almost completely eliminated the idea that there is even a limit to the music that you can “carry.” Devices have capacities that are unthinkable when compared to what I imagined as a teenager. Smart Playlists have created environments where we can algorithmically program the means through which we enjoy or music. (“Random” seems very quaint now by comparison.) Between YouTube, “Cloud” storage, the iTunes store, and a host of other means through which we can absorb media when the mood strikes us, we very literally have unlimited access to more content available than any of us could ever hear in our lifetimes, not to mention the new content that is continually being developed and created every day. Who could ask for anything more?
This desire to carry our entire music collections with us everywhere has eliminated something from our listening experience that used to be the driving force behind the act of listening to music: intention. Rather than selecting albums that we will listen to as pieces of art – or even as singles and EPs that we want to check out – we create listening environments that turn our devices into digital audio landscapes. To quote Negativland, “Too many choices is no choice at all,” and now that we have the ability to hear everything, we are no longer listening to anything. Rather, we amass huge collections, push play, hear the first few seconds of a track, get distracted, and start doing something else.
When considered reasonably, no one could ever listen to all the music they have collected in one day. For most people, you could not listen to it all in a month either. The notion that we need access to everything is more marketing than anything else. Look what you can do! We agree that yes, we could eat fast food every day of our lives, too. We can also drink a fifth of bourbon and pop any number of over the counter pills. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Anymore, I no longer believe that “music” has started to “suck” in recent years, but rather, the means through which we digest it has started to completely blow chunks.
I admit, I am guilty of consuming media in less-than-ideal means on a regular basis. I love random features, I have an unwieldy collection of digitized music, I am never more than a few feet away from my Borg Implant, and I see the world divided into times that I can listen to music, and times that I cannot. But I am trying to make improvements. I love music. I think listening to a song is one of the most sublime forms of entertainment a person can enjoy, and I want to make sure that I never develop a habit that reduces the value of this incredible human experience.
With this in mind, I’ve been working on reducing the amount of media I carry with me to no more than 12 hours. Even that amount is more than I can realistically “listen to” in one day (without reducing most of it to background music), and beyond that, I’m fooling myself anyway. During my recent trip up north, I brought with me 20 hours audio, and in a full week did not manage to listen to it all. Not only did this open my eyes to the ludicrousness of “instant access to everything all the time,” but it also made me realize that by being more selective I could maximize the enjoyment I can get out of music. Having to actually think about what music I bring with me creates and environment where I am selecting specific artistic expressions I want to enjoy, rather than just cramming as much as I can fit into the device of my choice.
It’s not perfect, of course. I’d like to get that amount down to 6 hours, or less even. And I know I will never win over listeners who grew up in a world where digital entertainment was already the norm. I’ve tried to bridge this subject with a few people within my own age-range, and even they are confused as to why I would want to limit the amount of music I have access to. But it is not a question of limitation. I still have access to everything I own at any point in the future. That isn’t going anywhere.
The question becomes: what do I want to listen to right now? I want to be able to answer that without activating the “shuffle” feature, and without resorting to, “I don’t know.” There’s enough green slime in our lives as it is.
There are any number of albums that you can legitimately claim might be the greatest album ever made: White Light / White Heat, Who’s Next, Ramones, Pink Flag, Nevermind, Trout Mask Replica. The list goes on and on, and while many come very close to feeling “right” when I apply the title, I’m not quite sure it fits.
Recently I was introduced to the 12 minute, 7″ masterpiece Tumours, a complete rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album, Rumours, and I have to admit that so far, I cannot deny the possibility that the greatest record ever made was recorded by a band named Schlong.
To make a claim like this is clearly absurd, undoubtedly. And yet, when I bounce around the phrase, “Tumours is the Greatest Record Ever Made,” it does not feel dishonest. And what is not to love about every element of this record? Merely the cover alone is a dissertation’s worth of amazing punk rock imagery. (What woman isn’t looking for a can of Olympia, and the right man who might offer it?) Rumours itself was born the same year as Punk Rock itself, and where bands like Fleetwood Mac & The Eagles were beginning to define the “California Sound” that was dominating Top 40 Radio (and taking all the edge off of rock music), Punk Rock as an idea began to work its way into the underground in every city in the world.
By the early ’90’s, punk rock was already 10+ years old, and was already looking for reinvention at a time when many bands were becoming constrained by what “kind” of punk they were going to be. Pop, Hardcore, Crust, Political, Vegan, Christian and “Traditional” brands were already codified, where bands were being virtually stamped out by cookie cutter molds that seemed to align with a “sound” their label had developed. (How many bands are identifiable by the “Fat Mike” filter that they’re all run through?) In a dadaist move that would make any artist pleased as punch, it was already time for the idea of punk rock to finally infect punk itself.
Schlong was born out of the scene in Santa Rosa, just after Operation Ivy Broke up. Dave, fresh from Op Ivy, joined up with his brother Pat, and their friend Gavin, to start fooling around, making music. They spent the year mostly following to fruition every random musical idea they could come up with. Having never performed a single show in that year, they worked out almost three hours of music – a total of fifty songs – ready to play to anyone who would listen.
They relentlessly worked on material, pursuing covers and original tunes with a sort of fervency that studio hands might find disarming. While the brothers were proficient in and of themselves, and developed the aesthetic that was later made famous by Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, they each credit Gavin as “the musical genius.” His contribution to Schlong was a mixture of Carl Stalling by way of John Zorn, as interpreted through a Captain Beefheart sensibility. Even this description pales in comparison to the actual songs they wrote and played. Yes, they were THAT good.
“We’d come up with ideas just to prove to ourselves that we can do it,” was how Dave described the band. “We strived to fail because we thought that was funny and that entertained us. If somebody really liked something that we did, we would’ve changed it.” Gavin put it another way: “The biggest drive for me is somebody going, ‘That’s really stupid. You shouldn’t do that.’ ”
For both of them, they describe much of the aesthetic ideology of original punk rock in a way that few other artists have ever been able to articulate, before or since. Punk Rock has always been about the subversion of mainstream culture – fashion, music & media – into a sinister, Bizarro-universe version of itself. Rather than write music with the consideration of it as a product, Schlong would pursue the alternative notion that they could parade as a band for a few years and create “failing” pieces of art, merely for the entertainment of themselves. Their inversion of the very elements of what it means to be a working musician – even by the loose standards that had been codified by the American punk scene in those days – is (in my mind) some of the greatest work done by ANY working artists in the last few decades.
Dave again: “We would play musical games. We’d change a beat where it shouldn’t be changed, and see if the other guy would catch on. My brother Pat would play a reggae beat, and all of a sudden I’d just chop something up into a grindcore beat, or a Latin beat, in the middle on an odd time. We started writing songs a minute long. We couldn’t stand playing the same thing for long periods of time. We’d have 60 parts in a two-minute song. If it made us laugh, then do it.”
Fortunately, Schlong was not only another attempt at The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, because from an objective point of view, the are undoubtedly really good. Their most well-know work, Punk Side Story, has already established itself as an essential part of the mid-’90’s cannon of albums, and even that statement is to far undersell what they were as a band. While it is true that their real power lay in their ability to introduce covers, partial covers, stolen hooks, and appropriated ideas as a part of their repertoire, their original songs were even stranger concoctions, taking punk into places that was more akin to détournement in the same way that Negativland was taking tape splicing and sampling into newer and stranger lands.
Their stage shows are fondly remembered by people who saw them, a sort of last-minute punk rock cabaret with narrators, Christmas themes during the holidays, the band sometimes playing as an all Steely Dan covers act called Royal Scam (where they didn’t tell anyone they were a cover band), and on the whole, used lo-brow gimmicks to keep things light and fun on tour. As far as the band was concerned, they were always just entertaining themselves, trying to come up with the wildest ideas, and then executing them with a “Schlong” vision.
Dave describes the exact circumstances that lead to Tumours: “We were listening to the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album a lot on tour. So we covered “Go Your Own Way.” After that it was like, let’s just do the whole album as fast as we possibly can, and put the whole thing on a 7-inch. We tried to make it sound as garagy as we could. Tumors. One take. We recorded it in a couple hours.”
Here’s a link so you can hear some of it yourself (at least, 10 minutes worth… it cuts off the last couple tracks). Listen to the instrumentation. Yes, they are doing extremely succinct versions of Fleetwood Mac songs, true. But listen to the arrangements. Each song takes on a different flavor, forcing these various songs through appropriate punk tropes. “Never Going Back Again,” has a great bluegrass tinge to it, and “Don’t Stop” staples a hardcore verse onto a ska chorus. “Go Your Own Way,” almost sounds like a Crimpshrine record, and “Oh Daddy” is pulled off with crust-core precision in 28 seconds. Again, Dave insists that it was all Gavin. “Gavin would learn things in a matter of seconds.” But the more you listen to Schlong, you begin to realize that as a band, they become more than the sum of their parts. With an endless knowledge of the history of rock and roll, and the attention span of three kids in Santa Rosa who love loud music, this is the only possible outcome.
Where Punk Side Story was their magnum opus, their sort of punk-prog epic pushing the form to the very edges of what it could do, Tumours is their fuck-you-kick-the-amps-over-and-deliver-a-concentrated-blast-of-Ramones-style amazingness. Not only is the length incredibly inviting – the entire thing is over in 12 minutes – but this allows every person still in the closet about Fleetwood Mac a chance to enjoy a rare treat.
Finding Tumours may be tricky. Aside from Punk Side Story, which is easily available on both LP and CD, their entire catalog is in-and-out of print (depending on the year and what part of the country you live in), and I have never seen anything of theirs in a used bin. The copy that I’ve been playing has an even more mysterious origin: my buddy Trevor handed it to me on CD. It turned out to be a data disc containing a single, mono .wav file of the entire record. The only thing to even indicate what it might be was the green sharpie writing on the disc. This just goes to show that, even In the digital age, it is still possible to recreate some of the aesthetic attributes that shitty cassette tapes used to offer an aspiring punk artist.
Give Tumours a chance, and sit on it for a few weeks. I think you might have some trouble deciding if it is or isn’t the greatest album ever made, too. Which is okay. There’s plenty of other records out there that have really worked hard at the title, and they’ve probably earned it. In the world of Schlong, the greatest record ever made would remain unsold in the back of a store, ignored and unlistened to by all, influencing no one, and known only by the ones who made it, as they hold extended middle fingers to all the other records around them.
That is what I hear when I listen to Tumours.
But I’m in a bit of a paradox, in that to announce how much I enjoy it is to invalidate the record itself by the band’s own criteria. Is that the final joke? I’m sure there’s one or two other’s that I’ll never manage to unpack, either, and that’s what makes bands like Schlong so much fun. While it is predictable that the Schlong story ends just after Punk Side Story, I like to imagine a world where their version of music history is the way everyone views the world. What is incredible about this band is not the world they did inhabit, but the game they have created that is being re-imagined by every generation of band to follow in their wake: what would x sound like if I ran it through the punk-rock filter?
And if I’m not mistaken, you’re starting to play that game right now, too. Which is their ultimate triumph.
In 2007 I picked up this Crosley (minus the JJCnV record) for a pretty reasonable price. I wasn’t quite in a position to buy a stereo, and I really wanted to listen to my records, so I bought it on an impulse. It worked like a charm, and while the fidelity of something like this wasn’t fantastic, it wasn’t terrible, either. This is by no means a vintage machine, but aside from a power cord, volume, and tone, there are no other components. You pull the arm back, and it starts rotating the platter. When it gets to the end, it stops. You can buy replacement needles for it pretty easily, but this is not a fancy piece of equipment. It gets the job done, and quite while I might add.
However, a few years ago I lived in a house where we spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and thus listened to this Crosley quite a bit. I lasted through having beer and flour spilled all over it, and one roommate who insisted that he could only listen to music at full volume, in spite of the distortion. By the time we all split ways from that place, the Crosley had seen better days. Even a new needle wasn’t quite helping it be its best.
And here’s why: as you would increase the volume, the sound would begin to crackle and distort randomly. Sometimes you could finagle it into a position where it sounded fine, but if you moved it too suddenly, the sound would short out, and you could barely hear anything. I took it apart to make sure that the speakers were not blown, and that there wasn’t flour in the components, but when I took it apart, aside from very basis mechanical pieces, there was nothing for the flour to muck up. The single point of failure was the volume knob itself, and upon taking apart the Crosley, I had figured out why: the volume was controlled by a very simple potentiometer.
You’ve probably seen these before. They are very common in electronic devices. Without getting into too much detail as to how they work: imagine our Crosley. It has a signal – the volume – that’s running so long as the needle is on a record, and the platter is spinning. Now, without a potentiometer, the signal is at maximum. In order to allow us to control it, a potentiometer like this is added. As we move the dial, we can control the amount of the signal that gets through to the speakers. Potentiometer’s have literally thousands of uses in electronics, and in my Crosley, since there are so fun components, it is essentially the last remaining point of failure in this device. It must be old and full of flour, and just needs to be replaced. As my Crosley is well past its warrantee – and I’m sure “kitchen use” would fall outside of it – I had been waiting for an opportunity to hit up a much more electronically inclined friend to replace it for me, with the promise of beer and companionship.
The Crosley sat, largely unused, save for those occasions when my annoyance threshold was just high enough that I could stand listening to the crackle. Periodically, when I would have friends over, I would play an album, and then tell the sad story of how I just need to get the potentiometer replaced. Until my buddy Trevor made a very simple, and amazing suggestion: oil.
Apparently, over time, a potentiometer like this one will gather dust. The signal that gets through as you turn the dial works based on forming contacts around the dial. When dust gets in there, the contacts are disrupted, and prevent the dial from working properly. This is why, when a device like this is at full volume, you might get no sound whatsoever. Other times, you’ll get deafening crackles, but no signal. However, the dust problem can be flushed out with the addition of a few drops of oil.
After I procured the oil, finished my chores, and had a spare evening, I set about oiling my Crosley. Within minutes, it was working perfectly. Not more crackle, and no more lamenting that I can’t listen to my records.
It does sound like I could use a new needle, and the speakers have seen better days. But I can listen to the new JJCnV record while I make dinner, and that’s all I really care about.
I like to consider myself a Music Collector, spending an inordinate amount of time reading about, and tracking down, recordings that please some sensibility that I can’t quite pin down specifically. So, I feel a little strange in saying that I have never heard the phrase, “Perfect Sound Forever,” used in reference to what you get when you listen to a CD. Not once, and I grew up at a time when the CD had just been introduced.
This is strange because this is part of the central conceit of Greg Milner’s book which derives its very name from the phrase. It is (supposedly) the claim that CDs can deliver on this promise that seems to motivate Milner’s prose, and while I have never heard the claim myself, he stresses several times in the book that this has happened, and it is this claim that he takes the most issue with. I do no deny that this claim was made about CDs. However, for this music fan, if a large portion of this book rests on a claim that was not impressed on me (or the others I’ve discussed this with), then how can the narrative in the book hold true for me, too?
Milner’s book is lauded as being, “An Aural History of Recorded Music,” and beginning with the earliest practitioners (largely Edison himself), Perfecting Sound Forever traces the story of a world that had no understanding that sound could even be recorded at all, to a world that is largely defined by recorded sound in all its various forms. One thing becomes clear very early on in trying to parse the effects this has had on the world around us: while it is impossible to claim that any medium is ultimately “better” than others, Milner’s own preference – the vinyl record – clouds his narrative the entire way through this text.
In a way, his bias is a good metaphor to use when looking at the way recorded sound developed over the years. In what proves to be a very technically-driven book, Milner illustrates the various format wars that have developed since Edison, that have informed the way the next generation recorded sound. Acoustic vs. Electric recording was the first, but soon Cylinder vs. Disc, Disc vs. Tape, Tape vs. CD, and CD vs. .mp3 have divided music consumers over something that cannot be encoded into any medium: the “way” a sound was “meant” to be heard. Each generation that developed a new technology found it frowned upon by the one previous that was clinging to the old one. Meanwhile a successive generation grows up with the older format, loves it, and tries to emulate it using even newer technology, and creates yet another new format, to be reviled by the prior generation who still loves the one they came up with. Ad infinitum.
With each new format war, the goal appears to be the same: to improve on the sound quality of the previous format. But each successive improvement creates a backward looking vision. Crystal clear recording in perfect environments always manages to impress recording and engineering nerds because of the wonderful dynamic range, but almost everyone else agrees that you seem to loose something in the improvements. Electrical recording was looked down up because it seemed to “loose” something that pure acoustics had. Tape was similarly mocked because of the hiss that accompanied it, which was only a mere “motor whirr” on a turntable before it. These days, why outright “new” formats aren’t developed nearly as often, the battle seems to be focused on the ability to recreate those old, glitchy artifacts that were present in primitive modes of recording, but in an entirely digital world. By adjusting the digital sheen, we can ultimately create the “perfect” simulacrum.
What is lost on the public at large – and seems to be what Milner is driving at – is exactly that conundrum: music consumers have been fooled in thinking that ANY recording we hear is “real” at all. While this may seem obvious – the sounds a record makes could never be really mistaken for sound made by the actual thing in the real world – the implications seem to have played out in the rhetoric surrounding recording media. Media has always been marketed in a way that illustrates the illusion between real and recorded. Edison himself would put on “Tone Test” performances, where records were performing for audiences who were “unaware” that it was merely a recording. (This tradition continues into the modern age, most recently with digital performances during the last decade.) “Is it Live? Or is it Memorex?” Even the slogan admits that, while they themselves don’t really know, they would rather you believe they are both the same.
Another issue that is addressed is the notion of scientifically measured High Fidelity. Usually, people marketing anything like to have science on their side to make a point, and there is plenty of that in this book. However, many of the points are lost or immediately discarded to discuss who was right in the next Format War. After making the point that Digital Recordings have a higher possible dynamic range than any other recording format, and further making the point that recordings made on tape with more than four tracks is already suffering from sonic compression and leakage that make eight track (or more) recordings “weaker” in many respects, Milner insists that science cannot account for the preference he has in the preferred media he’s chosen (vinyl records). He will buy records, played on his stereo, forever, in spite of the fact that the sound is not so perfect.
This seems to be what Milner has missed (or, at least, failed to fully develop) in his book. While people love to get passionate over technology, the real truth is that recorded music has allowed us to create an audio world that reflects our sensibilities, in whatever kind of fidelity that interests us the most. At each step in the narrative, the backward looking inventors, trying to add analog sensibilities into the digitally pristine world of ProTools, are not attempting to “perfect” sound. They are sculpting it, building it, molding it into sounds that reflect the kinds of things that they want to hear more of in the world. It is a mish-mash of perfect and dirty, clean and analog, all at once. The way we consume music is an extension of ourselves, and our quirks as individuals.
Music is the place we turn to when we want the sign and symbol confused. We want to believe that the song is real, that it wasn’t tracked and recorded over a period of months, but is a spontaneous example of the way we feel at that exact moment. We want to believe in this Edisonian notion that there is a “perfect” sound, that can be reproduced in all it’s depth, for us to hear later. But this is not possible. We know, consciously, that even Edison was bending over reality backwards to get his musicians as far into the recording horn as possible, to forcibly capture things that would have been lost in a live setting. The way we really achieve the illusion of recorded sound – be it an iPod or a finely build stereo with nice cabinets – has little to do with how perfect the sound is, and is as much a part of who we are as the clothes we wear every day.
Reading Perfecting Sound Forever has reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago. During one of my many days at the radio station, I decided to multi-task by transferring a few of my records to the station computer, so I could later take the files home and make some .mp3s of them. I had a number of reasons for doing this, but in the end I spent most of the day listening to records while I was working. Not a bad way to spend the day. I transferred the files to my external drive, bussed it home, and set about the task of hunkering down for an evening of editing.
I put on my headphones and started listening to the first file, and to my complete astonishment, I found that I recorded more than I had intended. As I scrolled through the first few seconds before the opening of, “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet”, I noticed that you could actually hear the sounds of me slowly lowering the needle of the record. They were very faint, but any audio nerd would clearly recognize the sounds for what they were. This was beyond just the stylus hitting the record. There was a bit of my voice, the arm moving, me saying, “…okay…,” then click. A moment later, the song started.
It was something of an epiphany, or, at least, the final piece in a puzzle that has been assembling itself over time. The only reason that I hadn’t noticed it sooner was that I am so immersed in the ability to edit audio that I hadn’t really seen the ideology that was invisibly at work. It was almost so clear that I was afraid to say it out loud, and for a while I didn’t. But it was finally just too obvious to not say it anymore: We do not listen to recorded music. We listen to recorded ideas & memories.
The moment that I dropped the needle on that Blues Magoos record was, ultimately, nothing to write home about. I’ve done it hundreds of times before, and will do it again, like millions of other audiophiles across the globe. But as soon as I captured that moment digitally, there was an idea that could be conveyed in that small recording: an audio re-telling of someone dropping a stylus onto a piece of wax. The following idea is the song that was contained within that record. That idea was now forged as a very distinct memory for me, because the idea was re-presented to me, what was a lost moment, an ultimately meaningless moment in the sequences of every day life. Now, it was more complex than the sounds captured in 1s and 0s.
I snipped off this part of the recording, its implications a little bigger than I had time to wrestle with. But this book is beginning to stir that pot again, and add a little spice to the broth.
Consider this: while I cannot argue that most music comes in the form of some sort of artifact (CD, vinyl, cassette, etc.), the music therein cannot be pointed to anymore more materially than one can point to the grooves, tape, or aluminum the music is encoded within. The material that contains a representation of the music constructs, using vibrations, a somewhat realistic sound-image of a musical idea that we then interpret to be the guitars, bass, drums and vocals of The Blues Magoos, in spite of them being no where near where the record is being played. But the sounds we hear do not “exist” except in the form of created vibrations, that are used to execute the ideas that the artists creating these sounds have. The results are “music.” Sound sculptures. Moments that are, and then pass in a time-based way. They do not “exist” in a tangible sense, any more than the ideas behind words exist in a tangible sense.
However, we confuse the symbol for the sign regularly, because music is encoded in tangible artifacts that we buy and trade in the marketplace. While the music can never be tangible, the means to communicate it IS, and this cognitive dissonance causes us to refer to music as if it can be possessed. “I have that,” is a common response when presented with a representation of a song that is also represented in our own material record collections. While the distinction is nuanced, and seems to play little role in everyday discourse, that does not mean that the implication is any less important. You may never discuss the meta-realities behind a Brian Eno record at a party, but they are at work at the party – especially at the party – in ways that cause us to want to buy back into this confusion between symbol and reality ever moreso.
I should stress that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We confuse the symbol for reality all the time, and it is a very human way to deal with things. Movies would be boring if we couldn’t immerse ourselves in the reality they temporarily represent. (This is easily recognizable as the friend you hate to take to the movies with you, because they spend the entire film complaining about how unrealistic the movie is.) So do not think the application of this confusion in the world of recorded sound is meant to deter you from continuing to listen to good music. I just want to make the point that there is something else going on here.
As way of an example: growing up I had a Sir Mix-A-Lot tape that I would listen to often. I brought it with me when I went to visit my Dad, and was playing it for my brothers on a new cassette player. This had a Record feature, that used a built-in Mic. While my Dad was exploring what the machine could do (while my tape was playing), he pressed the record button momentarily. I quickly said, “Dad, that’s record.” He replied, “whoops!” & hit the Stop button. While I listened back to the tape to survey the damage, both my Dad and myself were surprised to find that, not only was the exchange between himself and I captured perfectly on the tape, but it was actually in-time with “Buttermilk Biscuits.” Often, when I hear that song, I keep expecting to hear us pop into the recording at a precise moment, because I continued to listen to that tape for quite some time afterward.
We’ve all had this experience with Mix Tapes, Mix CDs, move soundtracks, etc. Formative moments that were, accidentally or not, captured on tape that become part of the way we hear that song. I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve heard that all start, “Every time I hear that song, I think of [fill-in-the-blank] song, because I used to have a tape where they were back to back.” I find these moments interesting. The expectation is not satisfied, and yet telling the story seems to create the same effect. Those same people seem to smile after they’ve told it, as if they have heard [fill-in-the-blank] song anyway.
At the party, when we’re listening to Brian Eno with our friends, the ideas that are conveyed are so powerful, it can compel us to want to go out and buy the record. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done that, or heard a similar story. What is at work is the Idea & Memory aspect of having heard something. We hear it, we want to clarify it, to re-experience it, to have the same idea conveyed in a quieter locale. So we buy the record. We get to experience music as a side-effect, but what we hear are ideas and memories being formed.
Perhaps this is not big revelation to anyone who is a fan of music. The media itself is so flimsy, that the impressions of each listening experience is forever etched into the media, preserved for each subsequent time we listen to it again. Each listening experience accesses a memory – re-written every time it is accessed – with new dimensions that include every time we’ve dropped the needle, every time we accidentally taped over part of something, and every time it was mixed and remixed with something new.
These memories we listen to are what draw me to recorded sound, I think. Forever nostalgic, but also curious, about the ideas and memories that have been formed before me. Perhaps I’m really looking to see if Nomeansno is right, and that only so many songs can be sung with two lips, two lungs, and one tongue? But I think that recorded sound is as limitless as ideas and memories themselves. It just depends on how much space you want to give to it.
The wrong atmosphere can ruin a good album, as much as poor word balloon placement can topple stellar comics. DIY bands get this wrong all the time, making something that should sound like a basement practice session into a perfectly polished CDR that shines just a little too bright for the generic schlock within. Other audio noodlers have been known to reverse the formula, layering in tape hiss where the sheen of an electronic synth will do just nicely. It is this balance in knowing how to create the right atmosphere that Paco Jones excels at, and his newest release, Signs and Symbols, is perfect evidence of this.
Paco’s songwriting and guitar playing preclude the desire to namecheck influences or predecessors. He’s happy enough to wear those happily, wherever they choose to hang themselves on his body of work. But in tracks like “Deep Space” and “Crystal,” new territory is carved out in electronic textures and spacy interludes. Both “And Bess” and “Most Acoustic” find his guitar traversing passages that few choose to tread, and when there are lyrics, like on “Archive,” they are chilling in a way that defies logic or explanation. Here is an artist content to let his muse – and the technology that allows him to follow her – go where ever she pleases, and the results are worth revisiting over and over again.
There are moments that explore the dark side of experimental music, and on tracks like “Michael Caine” and “Siberia” you can almost hear Paco wrestling with his own demons, musical and personal, transubstantiated into soundscapes that evoke a similar response in the listener. But it is in these moments that Paco is most himself, most laid bare for the listener in a way that his other pieces only allow glimpses of. And that is probably the best way to consider Paco’s music. This is an artist laying out for his audience some very personal work, and it comes through the more attention you give it. Isn’t that what all the best art is trying to do, anyway?
Living in The Age of The Reissue offers a variety of benefits for the musically-minded person. Now, you can get to know Carl Perkins in the same way that the public at large knew Elvis Presley back in the day. The constraints of what is popular now no longer dictate the kinds of music we are familiar with, in spite of sales figures, the proliferation of music videos (distributed through whatever means is popular at the time), or even their inclusion in TV and film. The Age of The Reissue liberates us from the stale conformity of Top 40, and allows our musical dollars the chance to flow in obscure, seldom traveled paths, and in many cases, offer us a chance to excavate the past in a way that was never previously thought possible.
It is with this in mind that The Numero Group persues their catalog. This will not come as a surprise to any of the moderate-to-late-stage Collectors out there; anymore, a well-rounded collection demands at least a passing familiarity with their releases. Which is why when something like this Alternate History collection comes along, it is important to take notice. This is not merely a casual compilation of old musty 45s, nor is it a sort of Sampler Collection that allows you a chance to “get to know” The Numero Group. In fact, the title really does say it all: this compilation allows the listener to experience An Alternate History of Popular Music, taking us from 1959 (with the invention of the blues by a woman named Niela Miller), all the way to 1985, the year that disco died with this swan-song track by Golden Echoes. If those names aren’t familiar to you, don’t worry. The music in between is just as – if not moreso – unheard of.
The beauty of The Numero Group releases is their careful selection. While the artists may be unfamiliar, these tracks embody the zeitgeist of the era in a way that feels entirely appropriate. You can picture this history unfolding, as black artists dominate the charts, while later white artists integrate into this form of music. A world where funk and soul were the standard pop tunes to arrange yourself around, and where gospel is even more tied to mainstream culture than ever… through music. It is all here, and it is a fascinating document of what could have been. And that, in and of itself, is the primary benefit of living in The Age of The Reissue: experiences like this are possible. The Numero Group understands that collectors are not merely obsessive compulsives with an eye for small pressings and imported vinyl (though that may be the case, too). In collecting, we ourselves are assembling a musical universe all our own, where certain artists loom larger than others, according to our own vision of Popular Music.
In this collection, you can sit back and listen as someone else’s musical universe assembles before your ears. How cool is that?
The staff at KPSU asked me to fill out a year-end list, of my top 10 favorite records of 2010. I don’t normally do lists like this; most of the music I buy is not new, most of the music I listen to is not new, and I think year-end lists are extremely misleading, often because there don’t have context. But, since I had to fill one out, here’s my context:
These are the albums I listened to in 2010, that were released in 2010. This isn’t everything that I was a fan of, nor is it everything that I listened to in 2010. It is merely the honorable mentions that were released in the year 2010, that I listened to in 2010. I’ll be the first to say that the list is subjective, missing a ton of things that you would rather see on the list, and in some spots, I cheat. But this is the closest accurate reflection you will get from me about how 2010 went down, musically speaking. Enjoy!
01.) Ke$ha – Animal
If, for no other reason, “Tik Tok” made this album all worth while. I kept coming back to it, even when I knew I shouldn’t.
02.) Moment In Static – Demos
Local math-rockers are stellar, live and recorded. Check out one of their rare live shows, or their archived KPSU performance.
03.) The Oblik – Demos
Pop rock like they used to make, with equal-parts goth and glam. Hooks and then some, and rewarding upon multiple listens.
04.) Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings – I Learned The Hard Way
You need this album the way you need to hit the clubs on a Friday night, but this is better for the wee hours of the night, when you’re feeling introspective.
05.) The Black Keys – Brothers
This is what rock and roll is all about. The hyper-color disc says it all: this band either polarizes you one way or the other. For me, I became a full-on convert.
06.) Grinderman – 2
The most anticipated record of the year, and well worth the wait. Nick Cave with a sense of humor is the best kind of Nick Cave to listen to, and this record is something to get genuinely creeped out about.
07.) No Age – Everything In Between
Get this album. Listen to it twice daily. Then try telling me I’m wrong about it. I dare you.
08.) Weekend – Sports
This album snuck in late for me, as I found only a week or so ago. But it is, without a doubt, the best album of 2010.
09.) Quasi / Pavement – Live!
A chance to see Pavement was the highlight of the year, and the show delivered everything I wanted and more. Quasi was great, too.
When all was said and done, I had my computer locked on kpsu.org. It had all of this, and more, 24 hours a day.
Devo – Something For Everybody
Warner Bros. Records. 2010.
Devolution is a painful process for many bands, often slipping into a period of releasing a series of bad records before descending into self-parody and, yikes, Greatest Hits Tours. It happens to the best of them, and in many cases, the successes of the past aren’t even enough to make up for the sins of today. Starting out great is often the worst career move a band can make, with the full knowledge that it only gets worse from then on out.
Fortunately for Devo, this isn’t a problem. Self-Parody was part of the initial concept. While little should be said of their last two albums – in some ways, unforgivable even by Devo standards – they were the evidence cited by most everyone that it was the end of their all-too brief career. However, their recent adoption of Greatest Hits Tours (complete with critiques of the conceits and conventions of Greatest Hits Tours) worked perfectly for their particular brand of musical repartee, and the occasional new song surfaced for compilation albums and other assorted appearances. However, even this fan was not expecting this, an entirely new album of songs that – what’s this? – are not that bad? Say what?
Leave it to Devo to surprise me yet again. Not only is this album 88% Focus Group Approved (assumedly a reference to the fan voting system they had on the clubdevo.com website), but the songs are catchy. The guitars are prominent, and the synths are dancey and appropriate. Rather than embrace the pop conventions of now (the knife that slit the throats of Smooth Noodle Maps and Total Devo), they stick to what they’re good at historically, which is off-kilter social commentary, strange New Wave ballads, and an affinity for strange costumes and pseudo-narratives for the players in the story of Devo.
While I cannot say that this will ever enter into the realm of being my favorite Devo album, my initial fears were entirely dissipated after hearing “Later Is Now,” “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man),” and even “Mind Games.” There are a few low moments, as can be expected. “No Place Like Home,” sort of plods and drones, getting lost when it tries to be profound, and the lyrics aren’t as sharp as the rest of the record. (While leading a track with a strong piano part might seem like a good idea, it just doesn’t translate on headphones.) And some of the other lyrics dance around in that area that seems poignant at first, but loose their punch after a couple listens.
Still, if that is the worst this album offers, then it is definitely a return to form for these lovely Akron weirdoes. The fact I want to listen to it a few times in a row is an excellent sign that things are improving for these devolutionary heroes, and that alone makes me excited. A change of clothing can sometimes set a new tone for someone who has been stuck in a rut, and the new jumpsuits and masks are a sure sign that things are changing for the better. Not that they were in any danger of loosing this fan, but if future efforts are this good, I’ll even take back some of the things I said about the two “mistakes” in my record collection.
One evening as the sun went down
and the jungle fires were burning,
down the track came a hobo hiking,
and he said, “Boys I’m not turning.
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
besides the crystal fountains.
So come with me, we’ll go and see
the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
there’s a land that’s fair and bright.
Where the handouts grow on bushes
and you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
and the sun shines every day
and the birds and bees
and the cigarette trees
the lemonade springs
where the bluebird sings
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
all the cops have wooden legs
and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
and the barns are full of hay.
Oh I’m bound to go
where there ain’t no snow
where the rain don’t fall
the winds don’t blow
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
you never change your socks
and the little streams of alcohol
come trickling down the rocks.
The brakemen have to tip their hats
and the railway bulls are blind.
There’s a lake of stew
and of whiskey too
you can paddle all around
in a big canoe
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
the jails are made of tin
and you can walk right out again
as soon as you are in.
There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
no axes, saws nor picks
I’m bound to stay
where you sleep all day
where they hung they jerk
that invented work
in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I’ll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
As a seasoned fan and purveyor of broadcast audio, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that you’ve heard it all before. A quick scanning of the dial reveals very few things that veer away from the mundane and into the realm of the worthwhile, or even manages to be compelling enough to stick with for more than a few minutes. More often than not, you’ll be much more entertained by merely tuning the knob for an hour. Or, at least, you won’t notice much of a difference between stations if you do.
Listening to recordings of The Firesign Theater has almost nothing to do with that kind of experience. Equal parts Dada, performance art, verbal psychedelia for the sake of psychedelia, and pitch-perfect satire, this radio ensemble manages to consistently perform incredible feats of radio-tastic tomfoolery in a way that no other American (with the possible exception of Don Joyce) has been able to do. In many ways they are the Monty Python of broadcast radio, except that The Goon Show already managed to fill that roll, and more to the point, there is a sort of Marx Brothers style anarchic mania to Firesign that seems far too rooted in North American style and culture.
And that is, of course, the point. Sounding more like a drugged out, stream of consciousness, border radio, theater of the mind version of NPR anyway, Firesign occupies that very special place in media were they are simultaneously satire and statement, comedy and commentary, absurd and art, all at once. Nonsensical parodies and impersonations transition to insightful observations about modern junk culture, filtered entirely through late ’60’s cynicism and the medium of broadcast radio. In a lot of ways, it is far too much to take in all at once. Cursory listeners might be shocked to hear an audio veneer that is far too similar to your average talk radio station. Dig a little deeper, and you’re shocked to realize that there’s well thought out, scripted, carefully observed satire at play, that is more and more rewarding with each repeated listen. (Just parsing all the cultural references, many buried in double and triple enendres, can be a full time job.)
I’ve only just discovered Firesign, which is fortunate for me because there are hours and hours (and hours) of their recordings, both released and fan traded, for future digestion. In a world where it is increasingly more and more difficult to distinguish the difference reality from representation, Firesign effectively blurs, points out, mangles, and comments upon the line that separates the two in one of the most unique ways I’ve every had the pleasure of hearing.
Here is a deep dark secret: I have terrible taste in music. It is true, and there is no denying it. I must come clean. For anyone in doubt, this can be evidenced by the fact that today on the bus I heard a snippet of, “Journey of the Sorcerer,” – A fucking Eagles song, mind you! – and I almost started crying.
(Mind you, I could easily defend this by explaining that the song in question is the theme song to the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show, but does that excuse me in any way from liking the song anyway? Certainly not.)
I have always related to the song, “180 lbs.” by Atom & His Package (see below for the lyrics), because I have this obsession with music, but there seems almost no real way of objectively judging the quality of my “taste.” I recently made fun of a co-worker of mine for liking Oasis, not at all remembering the 500 records I own that are much, much worse than anything they’ve recorded. (Styx? Rush? King Crimson albums after “In The Court Of The Crimson King”? ELO? The Band!?! Need I say more?)
I like a lot of shitty music, but I think it is finally time to own up. Absolute, utter tripe, and I love it. (Ahem, Ke$ha.) We all do, and I think we would all be much better off if we stopped trying to one-up each other when it comes to records. I’ll admit that I am guilty of it constantly. But there is something more impressive about admitting bad taste, and I’d like to get to that point. This isn’t to say that I don’t like good music either, and you will find a healthy dose of Miles Davis, Dead Kennedys, Acid Mothers Temple, and most everything by Johnathan Richman. But they’re often filed next to terrible ’80’s compilations, ensemble recordings of musicals that not even gay men will listen to, and a selection of absolutely Earl-awful 45s by bands named “Chicano-Christ” and “Boba Fett Youth.” Someone has got to draw the line somewhere, right?
Or, perhaps not. Perhaps the point is to embrace these absurdities, and finally admit to myself that it’s only music, and move on. Yes, I know there are very few reasons to own any Springsteen album after the first three or four. But someday I would like to live in a world where I can, publicly, stand up and say, “I own the complete works of The Moody Blues, and I don’t care who knows about it,” and not feel like a complete and utter tit.
…and with that, I have now alienated 2/3s of my readers. Until next time…
180 Lbs :
I own the worst records, of all time.
I got ’em stored on a Ikea shelf of mine.
They make me laugh.
They make me cry.
For owning the Voice of the Voiceless,
I deserve to die.
Why do I own Fireparty?
The last Dag Nasty CD?
The 1st Snapcase 7″,
or anything by F.Y.P.?
I own S.N.F.U. and fucking Pennywise.
Oh my god, what is wrong with me?
I got a bad curse that follows me.
It makes me purchase the worst records produced in history.
I’ve sworn off buying records, after this one I’m done.
I buy 15 bad records to every good one.
>As was recently reported on Sound Opinions (footnote 3), a UK study has been researching the actually financial impact that music downloaders have on the Music Industry. The narrative that has been spread by the Music Industry has been consistent since downloading music even became possible: downloaders are killing the Music Industry, costing the labels millions of dollars every year. I have always been highly suspicious of this argument, as personal experience has proved that, when you have the ability to listen to a lot of music for free, you actually tend to spend more money on albums you actually want to own. For those who don’t have access to free music like this, they tend to be more cautious with their record buying dollars.
Well, the results are in, and it appears that I was right. According to the research, downloaders spend 75% more money on music (physical records as well as digital sales) than people who do not. The access to free music online, according to the research, creates more music fans who are more dedicated to the bands and genres they love, who then go out and buy the albums they become fans of. This behavior injects into the Music Industry four times the amount of money than your average, non-downloading music consumer does. So, downloading isn’t actually a lost sale, but rather, much like radio exposure to music that a fan might not get to hear any other way. Well, duh. I could have told you that. And did, many, many, times before.
My question, now, is: where does The Music Industry get the $330 million figure that they say they loose in sales to downloaders? In light of this research, it seems that the figure in question has to have been completely fabricated in order to gain sympathy for new Internet Legislation, and other means of keeping huge Media Entities in power. Plus, labels have to account for the lagging sales from Mainstream Media, so they don’t get in too much trouble from their stockholders.
Yes, new records are not moving in the same numbers that they did in the old days. Boo hoo. But overall sales, new and used, are up, and spread out among small bands, labels, and in other areas of the Music Industry that are not easily controlled by big Media companies. Yes, U2 and Brittney Spears are not the cash cows they used to be. But the number of fans that are spending their money on a larger number of less-famous artists and albums is going up. Fans are diversifying, and you can’t just expect a new Springsteen or Mariah Carey album to cover your ass. If anything, rather than blame downloaders for causing you to loose money (which is not true), here’s a suggestion for big Media that will benefit everyone, CEOs, stockholders, bands, and fans alike:
Only release good albums by good artists, and make the records affordable (and accessible) to fans.
I know, I know. I must be crazy to even suggest it. Sorry to interrupt your morning. Now, go back to playing Second Life and reading Yahoo. Thank you for your time.
I’ve been really impressed with the number of Great Albums The Flaming Lips have put out so far. Starting with In A Priest Driven Ambulance (their first Great Album), they have done an incredible job of maintaining that kind of energy and songwriting, while rarely repeating themselves, or getting stale. Which is saying a lot; not only are their early efforts extremely illustrative of how far they had to come to be able to record a Great Album, but the number of Great Albums that follow defies all logic, in that most bands are lucky to even record one.
Cursory listens of Embryonic has me convinced that, after a short break, they are back to defying all logic once again. Between In A Priest Driven Ambulance and their newest effort, the band has produced some really amazing (and occasionally quizzical) records. After producing Clouds Taste Metallic – to this author, a peak of songwriting skill that has yet to be fully recaptured – they released three records in a row that were all incredibly different, and each spectacular in their own unique ways. But it seemed as if the band had tapped much of their creative juices by the time At War With The Mystics was released, which, at best, is a well performed tribute to their influences. After nearly 20 years, I was beginning to think that they may want to throw in the towel, or at the very least, become a Greatest Hits band, touring the County Fair circuit, and cashing in on t-shirt and back-catalog sales.
However, Embryonic has, in my mind, proved that I had the band completely wrong. I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but this record is their Kid A, another reinvention for the band in the same way that both Clouds and Yoshimi were. But what makes this record a must for me is the simple fact that, like discovering Parts And Labor, or that Opal record (that is admittedly over 20 years old itself), this is an album that instantly grabbed me and demanded close, careful listening. That, alone, is something I can’t ignore.
Unmistakably The Lips, and unmistakably new territory (simultaneously!), this record will once again polarize fans, critics, and anyone else who has even heard of the band. If you have never been a fan, this is a great place to start. If you’ve hated them in the past, this could be your entry-point, too. And if you already know and love them, then you probably already have the record, anyway, so, ’nuff said.
I haven’t listened to Weezer, consciously, in quite some time. I went through a phase where I had to listen to Pinkerton once a day, and had almost all of lyrics (that I could make out) memorized. I would sit in my office (when I worked at the Museum), listen to Pinkerton all the way through, let out a life-long sigh, and get to work.
It was actually kind of terrible; there were a lot of days where I would just start crying before I got to the end.
It’s strange the kinds of relationships we build with albums. Since those cube-dwelling, working-days, my music-listening habits have transformed so drastically, that the only time I sit down to listen to albums anymore is when I actually pull out a record, lift the needle, etc. (And this is generally a fairly social occasion, with other people around.) The i-ification of our music listening habits (through shuffle and random features being prominent in the Apple-dominated world of music listening) has de-centered the album and returned music to the pre-Beatles world of The Single. Songs, Earl-forbid, have taken prominence again, and while I miss the album quite a bit (and still cling to the belief that it will return as a form), I have to admit that the next generation of music fans that have come after me are not as attached to 45 minutes of listening as they are to three minutes. Sad, but true.
Nonetheless, I have faith in the album as something that has an unbreakable hold, at least on this listener: while I was getting ready for school this morning, I shuffled my way through a half dozen songs until “Falling For You” came up. I had to stop, suddenly; I unconsciously began to mouth the words, and my skin began to crawl with the chord progressions. The hours and hours I spent listening to this album had practically become muscle memory, but even worse, everything embedded in listening to that record came back to me in a wash of huge, tangled, complicated, and frustrating emotions that I wasn’t exactly sure how to purge.
The solution was simple: I had to stop the shuffle, and put the album on from start to finish, the way it was meant to be heard. It wasn’t easy; chance is a bitch, and it just so happens that a lot of what I was trying to sort out then has come back to haunt me, now. “The Good Life” has never meant more; “No Other One” & “Tired Of Sex” not only sound just as good as I remember, but it’s weird to think that I still quote lines from these songs in everyday interactions. This record has become part of my DNA, and if I give blood, I imagine anyone who receives it will probably get Pinkerton as part of the package deal.
I just wish, for my own sake, that I didn’t need it so bad anymore.
If you’re lookin’ for some new music to get you through the tail-end of winter, might I recommend the bands I saw last night during one of the rare times I actually left my house:
Hearts And Minutes: My friend Tristan told me he was morally apposed to bands who don’t all live in the same town, which only turned him off of this band more given that one member each lives one Portland, LA & Oakland. I have to say I was a little lukewarm on the beginning of the set, but as they kept playing they got better and better. That’s an interesting tactic when you play live: save all your good songs for the end, and give them the slow lame ones to start with. Still, they piqued my interest enough to pick up an ’09 Tour CD, and I’ll report back if my opinion improves.
Moment In Static: Comprised of several of my friends (and one roommate), it’s hard for me to think of another band that loves Don Caballero as much as these guys. Certainly the draw when you see ’em live is their drummer and their singer / percussionist / Korq player, who dance and move and kid and look like their having more fun than just about anyone you know. They seem to be obsessed with ’80’s cover songs (Devo, Gary Numan, Wire), but the covers are generally strange and deconstructed, and more to the point, their original material is much, much better. The name is probably the only thing (anymore) that I’m not sold on… yet.
The Jezebel Spirit: I used to work with one of the guitar players for this band, and their first CD, Turtles All The Way Down, was pretty awesome (and epic) instro-rock with the emo turned all the way up. They’re still just kids, but they totally get it, and seem pretty stoked on the music they play. I didn’t get a chance to stay for the whole set, but I did pick up their new CD (Remember… Always obey, you’ll live longer than way), which (like thier first CD) is one continuous performance, broken into “suites” (or tracks). They’re playing at the Know pretty soon, so check ’em out if you can.
After many years of being obsessed with this movie (mostly due to the near-daily viewings of it when I lived with Lyra Cyst), I finally managed to borrow of cassette copy of it, encode it digitally, and make myself a CD version I can now bump and grind whenever I want.
While I can never adequately explicate how stoked I am about this, liken it to when you finally managed to figure out the name of a song you taped off the radio years ago because a friend of yours just so happened to play it at a party.
Why is it that encapsulated in the two above-mentioned experiences, I think I’ve managed to summarize a good 70% of my previous emotional experiences? Sigh.
In the late ’80’s and ’90’s my mom ran a bookstore / record store called a.k.a. Used Books & Records. She and her partner took care of every aspect of the store: they traveled all over the West Coast buying books, records, & comics, built home-made tables, shelves, and racks for the merchandise, and painted / made every sign they hung in the store. It was a huge undertaking; almost every waking hour involved something with “The Shop,” and my first job was helping them out in the store. It was a formative experience; the three things I seem to value most in life are books, comics & records.
Eventually they went out of business. There was just too much work to do, not enough money coming in, and few places a pair of lesbian business owners could turn in the small, closed-minded town of Cottage Grove. Eventually they sold the business, except for the Records, which the new owner was not interested in. Ever since, my mom has had the back-stock from The Shop in storage.
Every so often she would kick down a few Records here or there, and then we eventually fell into a regular routine: she would deliver to me a box of Records that she didn’t want, and I would keep anything I was interested in and dispose of the rest for her. It was a fair deal, as I got free records for a little amount of work, and she was rid of a box that was cluttering up her house.
Yesterday I got the most recent delivery when my sister and brother were passing through town. These boxes of records are always very well picked over by the time I get them. Occasionally you’ll find a gem here and there, but on the whole, you are better off selecting for reasons other than the music contained within. I now have the complete Moody Blues collection; aside from looking at the album covers, however, they remain unplayed.
Here are a few selections that came in yesterday’s shipment:
I collect Halloween Records and music, but so does everyone else that has any good taste. Thus, there are certain ones that I’ve been looking for, but have never managed to get. My roommate laughed at me when I found this one, because I actually gasped audibly and quickly began pouring over the liner notes. This record is the Soundtrack to The Haunted House in Disneyland, and is one of the earliest Halloween “Scary Sounds” Records around. Side A is a series of scary stories, while Side B is a collection of scary noises and sounds (Screams, Animals Howling, Doors Creaking, etc.) I can’t wait to put this next to Sounds To Make You Shiver and A Night In A Haunted House.
Robert Gordon was the primary mover and shaker behind Tuff Darts, a little-known band in the NY punk scene. Robert went solo and started playing with Link Wray (yes, THE Link Wray), and recorded a few albums of covers with Wray as the primary guitar player. Gordon led the East Coast rockabilly revival in the late ’70’s, but without any original tunes on this album, nor the promise of the full power of Link Wray coming to the forefront, this can’t possibly be as good as, say, actually listening to a real Link Wray album instead. Why my mom had this or knew about it is still beyond me. (My guess: this album is most notable for Gordon & Wray doing a cover of the Springsteen hit, “Fire.” )
As allmusic.comis quick to point out, this is ELP’s “contractual obligation” record with Atlantic, and thus, is all you need to know about this album. I would contend that you should also know that all three of these men have their shirts unbuttoned to some degree, are all wearing gold chains, and have hairy chests. I would also assert that you should know that Side B consists of one, 20-Minute long suite that is broken up into four parts, and was also released in 1978. Aside from that, I don’t think I ever need to know anything else about this album, or even listen to it, for that matter. It’s the little pleasures in life…
Al “He’s The King” Hirt released this “Dynagroove Recording” in 1967, and was (apparently) available in both Mono & Stereo. The back of the album shows Al playing trumpet, next to his name inside of a crown logo, above the phrase, “Al Hirt – A man for all girl watchers.”
Which is funny, because I have always been looking for the perfect man to compliment my girl watching activities, and now it turns out that he recorded a soundtrack for me to do this by, too. Will wonders never cease?