Saturday, January 27, 2007

Yip/Jump Music: Summer 1983, Daniel Johnston, 1983

Daniel Johnston
Yip/Jump Music: Summer 1983


Daniel Johnston was born in 1961 in Sacramento, California to Christian fundamentalist parents. When Johnston was still a young boy, his parents moved the family to New Cumberland, West Virginia, when the father, an engineer, was offered a job with Quaker State. As a young man, Daniel Johnston originally attended Abilene Christian University in Texas, but had to transfer to Kent State because creeping emotional and mental problems that would continue to dog him for the rest of his life began to surface.

His parents, feeling that Johnston was an ill fit for college suggested he quit school. In 1983 he moved to Houston Texas, to live with his brother, where he worked at the six flags theme park Astroworld. In the basement of his brother’s Houston house, Johnston kept a chord organ—a wheezing keyed instrument that uses air blown through reeds to make sound—an exceptionally out of tune guitar and a tape recorder. With barely anything else, Daniel Johnston created his classic album of love lost, pain, confusion, innocence, The Beatles, salvation and hero worship with an inelegant and brutally messy grace that is scarcely heard in popular music—Yip/Jump Music.

The songs themselves are somewhat arresting and more than a little confusing upon first listen. The first song on the album, "Chord Organ Blues" is literally banged out on a chord organ and is a kind of churlish sounding boogie woogie, driven by Johnston’s feverish and percussive, locomotive slamming of the keys. One would be forgiven, if at first, they did not know what to make of the juvenile and simple scrawl of a song. I would imagine that some might even find Johnston’s work to be a case of the emperor wearing no clothes. Though I would forgive that thought initially, hopefully by the time one sifted through the entire album, and listened closely to its final track "I Remember Painfully," one would jettison such wrongheaded notions.

"I Remember Painfully" is a savagely sad and hyper-literary song that defies all songwriting logic, it is a classic and excruciatingly destructive ballad written in a sad and innocently angry hand: “And I remember you at the funeral shaking hands and hanging coats. And I remember you standing pregnant at the art room. It was weird, but what is it now, it’s pain.” And then: “When I saw you at the department store I said, “Have a nice baby.” You were standing happy. I left you with that smile on your face. Years later I was hitchhiking and that mortician picked me up. Then he said to me, he said ‘good luck.’” Yip/Jump Music is Johnston’s most lucid and well-written work, before his psychosis bloomed and his lyrics became increasingly (more) childlike, biblically oriented and weirdly psychedelic.

Much has been made of Johnston’s mental illness. Besides for perhaps his music, his lunacy has formed the greatest bulk of the singer/songwriter’s myth and renown. Like other, somewhat similar, artists—Skip Spence, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett—some of Johnston’s fans subscribe to a kind of cult of mental illness, meaning that many seem to ascribe a certain amount of credibility to Johnston’s creative output (he has also become a popular visual artist) because of his long history of mental troubles. It seems as if some have made him into a chaste vessel of truth and purity for having a history of psychosis. Johnston seems to have, over the course of his life and career also become a kind of damaged trinket or ornament for celebrities; a badge of legitimacy (or a shirt, as it were) to wear.

I would hope that people would take Johnston’s music for what it is worth, not because he has spent great portions of his life deranged and in some cases quite destructive. Mental illness is no great claim to artistic legitimacy—there are far more great songwriters who have managed to get by without being institutionalized than the other way around. Johnston is a singular talent though, managing to make something quite breathtaking out of musical detritus and a very strong, vividly emotional lyrical style. Yip/Jump Music is a triumph of simplicity, heart and shockingly proficient and unique songwriting. If poor recording technique, ramshackle instrumentation and deficient musicianship are not attractive to you though, and you are still curious about Johnston, I would start with his major label debut, 1994’s Fun, which is a more proper affair.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Top 100 (Songs 50-41)

And the hits keep coming, and coming, and coming...(for the uninitiated, these songs represent a top 100 of songs that I recently "got into" as it were. Most of them I have heard before and failed to be swayed by their greatness, some are totally new to me).


50. Johnny Too Bad (3:11)-The Slickers, The Harder They Come (OST), (1972)-I have not yet written about my rather new affection for reggae music. Though it is not fair to be embarrassed by a rather new love affair, reggae has always been a problematic genre. Anyone who has ever spent any time, after say, 1990, in a college dormitory, has been exposed to Bob Marley’s Legend album which has kept legions of pot smoking youths enthralled for decades. Though I spent a fair amount of time watching dorky ska bands in high school, my knowledge of reggae was rather limited, and wholly tainted by the likes of corny bands like Big Mountain and UB40. I, like many others spent a fair amount of time pissing on the genre without ever knowing what was really there. I bought the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, at the Community Thrift Store on Seventeenth Street in San Francisco because it had Pressure Drop, which the Clash covered, and it kind of sat on the shelf, forever gathering dust. After hearing a dub song on a boom box at work and spying a King Tubby disc on the desk, I was hooked. I scoured my records for reggae, and the rest is, as they say, history.

49. Into Your Arms (2:45)-The Lemonheads, Come on Feel the Lemonheads, (1993)-My newfound good feelings that surround this song are very hard to characterize. Recently I read a review in the newspaper of a new Lemonheads record. I downloaded some old songs and listened. I remembered most of the old stuff, like It’s a Shame About Ray, and the Simon and Garfunkel cover, but most of it was not very good. This song reminded me of drinking Dr. Pepper and watching alternative nation on television so it made me feel good.

48. I'm Only What You Want Me To Be (2:46)-The Flamin' Groovies, Rock Juice, (1992)-The last Flamin’ Groovies album of original material is a pretty uneven affair with regrettable cover art, but with some major highlights, including a cover of Brian Hyland’s Sealed With a Kiss, and two Cyril Jordan originals, I’m Only What You Want Me to Be and Way Over my Head. Not on a par with their greatest albums, but still amazingly good for being produced so late in their (Cyril Jordan, George Alexander) careers.

47. I'm Not Sayin' (2:50)-Nico, I’m Not Sayin’ single on Immediate Records, (1965)-Recorded before Nico joined The Velvet Underground but after she was in La Dolce Vita and bore Alain Delon an unwanted son. Gordon Lightfoot wrote I’m Not Sayin’, and it was backed with The Last Mile. Jimmy Page produced and both him and Brian Jones handled the guitars.
  • Watch the video.

  • 46. I'd Rather You Leave Me (2:12)-The Choir, The Choir EP on Bomp Records, (1975; probably recorded in 1967)-The Choir was essentially The Raspberries in the sixties without Eric Carmen. The Cleveland, Ohio natives were originally called The Mods but after recording their first single in Chicago, they switched to The Choir. (FYI: When doing a google search on The Choir, add a band member’s name like Wally Bryson or Dave Smalley, otherwise you’ll end up with a million pages of a scary Christian group). Their first single, It’s Cold Outside is a minor garage classic collected on both the Pebbles and Nuggets comps. They never released a proper album, but most of their songs are collected on a Sundazed release from 1994 called Choir Practice.

    45. I.R.T. (2:12)-Snatch, I.R.T. single on Bomp Records, (1977)-.I.R.T. was originally meant as a demo, an off the cuff song about perverts riding on the New York subway built on a messy tangle of Dollsish punk guitars and tough-girl brassiness. Snatch was a duo (Judy Nylon and Patty Palladin)—a couple of American expatriate punks living in London who recorded their songs in Judy Nylon’s flat. Greg Shaw released their first single, and in 1980 Fetish Records released their only album Shopping for Clothes fleshed out with a pianist, and former New York Doll and Heartbreaker Jerry Nolan on drums.

    44. I Won't Hurt You (2:24)-West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, Part One, (1966)-A beautiful lullaby of a pop song built around the percussive sound of a beating heart. They were kind of rich-kid psyche-posers from LA that embraced many genres. Some of their output is good, some is not, but they are not terribly well respected.

    43. Help You Ann (2:31)-The Lyres, Lyres on Fire, (1984)-Formed from the ashes of farfisa organ grinder Jeff Connolly’s first band DMZ, The Lyres were a Boston institution. Along with the Barracudas, The Lyres were one of the very best of the neo-garage bands that began to pop up in the late seventies and early eighties that eschewed contemporary punk, preferring a kind of garage-punk impressionism based on sixties acts such as ? and the Mysterians, The Seeds, The Outsiders, and The 13th Floor Elevators.

    42. I Know I'm Not Wrong (3:05)-Fleetwood Mac, Tusk, (1979)-Fleetwood Mac’s White Album, Tusk is a nervy and fractured double album which has the sound of a band coming apart at the seems. I have never been much of a fan of Fleetwood Mac (yet two of their songs are on this list, go figure?) but Tusk has a handful of songs that I find particularly appealing in a skewed pop sort of way, mainly the Lindsay Buckingham ones, like I Know I’m Not Wrong and the morose Save me a Place.

    41. I Feel Much Better (3:56)-The Small Faces, B-Side to Tin Soldier Single on Immediate Records, (1967)-The best band on Rollinig Stones Manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s label Immediate. The Small Faces were a powerhouse who were close to being on a par with The Kinks and were probably better than The Who (stayed together too long and produced too much crap). While not being one of their best songs, I Feel Much Better may be one of their strangest, from the chipmunk-voiced back up vocals, to its bracing and punchy proto-metal coda, it is an odd yet satisfying bit of B-Side fluff.
  • Watch the whimsical video for Get Yourself Together.
  • Monday, January 22, 2007

    Sweetheart of the Rodeo-The Byrds, 1968

    The Byrds
    Sweetheart of the Rodeo


    After the fractious and harrowing recording sessions for Notorious Byrd Brothers—the Byrds' most challenging and eclectic effort to date—the group was reduced to just two members, father-guitarist Roger McGuinn and his chief-lieutenant, the stalwart mandolin player-cum-bassist, Chris Hillman. The Byrds lineup had been in flux since Gene Clark, their primary songwriter, co-founder and sometimes lead vocalist, left the group in 1966. He was re-enlisted again in 1967, between the unceremonious dumping of guitarist-vocalist David Crosby, and the departure of longtime drummer Michael Clarke.

    After a matter of weeks, Gene Clark left the band yet again and in 1968 McGuinn and Hillman were in search of third and fourth members, both still remarkably wedded to the idea of The Byrds. What they ended up with was Hillman’s cousin, drummer Kevin Kelley, and somewhat extraordinarily, a 22-year old Floridian and one-semester Harvard theologian who was equally obsessed with country music and rock and roll named Gram Parsons. Parsons was a country singer-songwriter who had (somewhat illegally) recently bolted the Lee Hazlewood-controlled International Submarine Band. Though he nearly tore The Byrds apart, Parsons helped them to redefine country music, and incredibly, make it relevant again. Sweetheart of the Rodeo was his one and only contribution to The Byrds legacy.

    The Byrds began their formation in 1964 in Los Angeles, when the Tipton, Missouri-native and former New Christy Minstrel, Gene Clark enlisted Chicagoan, Roger (nee Jim) McGuinn—a veteran of local folk groups like The Limelighters and grunt worker for Bobby Darin—in a new folk duo. Third vocalist and guitarist, David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke subsequently joined the two, rounding out the original quintet. After a false start, (they released a single entitled "Please Let Me Love You" as the Beefeaters in 1964), they lucked into a demo of a Bob Dylan song called "Mr. Tambourine Man," which after making slight compositional, and earth-shaking musical changes, they promptly recorded it and released their version before Dylan. The iconic "Mr. Tambourine Man," sounding more like The Beatles and The Beach Boys than Bob Dylan, went to #1 on the Billboard Chart and not only launched The Byrds but defined a brand new movement in popular music: folk-rock.

    1965 saw the release of The Byrds second single, another Bob Dylan cover, a heavily truncated version of "All I Really Want To Do" which had as a B-side the far stronger Gene Clark original, a bitter and brilliant pop gem titled "I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better." Clark was increasingly becoming the primary songwriter (along with, in a de facto sort of way, Bob Dylan). On the website Byrdwatcher, Tim Connors wrote that of the 23 songs on the first two Byrds albums, “six are Dylan covers, seven are covers of songs by other writers, and eight are written by Clark. Of those eight, two—probably the two weakest—were co-written with McGuinn, who also wrote one other song alone and one with Crosby. Clark was also the primary author of the band's pièce de resistance, 'Eight Miles High.'” Clark was not long for The Byrds though.

    In 1966, after a nervous breakdown on a New York to Los Angeles flight in which Clark (who had been increasingly self-medicating in response to his fear of flying) insisted on being let off the airplane, he left the band. Gene Clark knew he would be unable to meet the obligations of touring with The Byrds, but to be sure there were other underlying tensions between Clark and McGuinn. The Byrds would never enjoy the commercial success of their early Gene Clark-era albums, seeing each release sliding further and further down the charts. 1968’s Notorious Byrd Brothers peaked at #47, their worst showing yet; it’s main single, "Goin’ Back," peaked at #89. Their next album, though an instant classic would do precipitously worse.

    After the fracturing of The Byrds due to the recording of Notorious Byrd Brothers, they tried to make a go of it as a trio at first: McGuinn, Hillman and Kevin Kelley on drums. They were frustrated though, because they could not get what McGuinn referred to as that “Byrds Sound” without a second guitarist (McGuinn has also intimated that he wanted the fourth member to also double as a jazz pianist). As the story goes, in 1968, after a chance meeting in a bank, Chris Hillman invited the 22-year-old Parsons to “try out” for The Byrds.

    The idea now, seems ludicrous—to invite a young, cocksure, and damaged country singer-songwriter to join an already established but commercially sliding band that had made their name from covering Bob Dylan songs so that they sounded like The Beatles, who had been increasingly trying to distance themselves from their hemmed-in formula—but it is exactly what happened. What makes the sequence of events even more incomparable though is the fact that they hired Parsons, who was not a jazz pianist nor a traditional lead guitarist, in hopes of reclaiming their long sought after “Byrds sound.” Gram Parsons though, more than anybody, helped to burn that sound to the ground and in its place he helped to build a semi-traditional Bakersfield-via-Nashville country sound, replete with banjo, steel guitar, mandolin and piano. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is far closer to traditional country than it is to traditional rock. It is, for all intents and purposes, a country album.

    Roger McGuinn’s original vision as a follow up to Notorious Byrd Brothers was an ambitious but cumbersome-sounding attempt at a concept album that “would...canvass the history of American popular music, beginning with early string band music and moving into bluegrass, country music, jazz, rock, and electronic music.” Hillman, the lapsed bluegrass mandolin player and Parsons the young hot shot country-rocker persuaded McGuinn to ditch the “trajectory-of-popular-music” idea and focus on country and western music. The result of which was Sweetheart of the Rodeo, produced by the former hotrod/surf songwriter and The Byrds’ favorite knob-twiddler, Gary Usher, in Nashville, Tennessee.

    The Byrds however, were unable to give up on Dylan’s prolific stream of songs, opening and closing the album with obscure covers, both from Side 4 of The Basement Tapes, ("You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere" and "Nothing was Delivered"), both of which were sung by McGuinn in which he improved upon the rather sanguine, yet messy Dylan versions. Aside from two dazzling originals (both by Parsons)—the classic "One Hundred Years from Now," the only song to vaguely traverse rock territory on the album, and the bittersweet ode to a lost childhood that most likely never existed, "Hickory Wind"—Sweetheart is chock full of traditional country and folk covers.

    The one major misstep on the album is Roger McGuinn’s cruel and disrespectful faux-twang on the Charles and Ira Louvin-penned gospel-country classic "The Christian Life." Chris Hillman’s stab at "I am a Pilgrim" is a much more forthright attempt at respecting the material they chose to use. McGuinn makes up for his crassness with a pitch-perfect version of the idealized, depression-era gem, "Pretty Boy Floyd," about the famous Okie outlaw, written by Woody Guthrie, the most famous idolater of Okies east of Steinbeck. The latter two songs evoke the traditionalism of their eras, as they are fleshed out with banjos, mandolins, violins and an upright bass.

    Not surprisingly, Sweetheart of the Rodeo garnered The Byrds their worst chart showing—#77 in the U.S. and it was the first Byrds album that failed to chart in the UK. In April of 1968, The Byrds toured England and were hosted by The Rolling Stones who knew The Byrds (in this case Hillman and McGuinn) through tours in the past. Guitarist Keith Richards famously took in Gram Parsons, and the two irascible and troublemaking songwriters bonded over country music (and probably intravenous drugs as well).

    The Byrds had scheduled a tour of Apartheid-era South Africa, and as the story goes, Parsons consulted his new friend Richards on the ethical nature of touring the officially racist nation. Richards said flatly that he would never embark on a tour of that region. On the eve of The Byrds tour of South Africa, Parsons pulled out, citing an aversion to the country’s racist policies; McGuinn and Hillman promptly fired Parsons. Almost no one believes that deep-held anti-racist beliefs played a part in his decision. Gram Parsons would become the Stones' country-guide, helping them to navigate the vast history of country music.

    Parsons famously arranged the country version of the Stones’ single "Honky Tonk Women," entitled "Country Honk" (on the album, Let it Bleed) and inspired the bulk of their country-tinged output. The Rolling Stones, more than the Byrds (and I know this will inspire argument) were responsible for country-rock—listen to Beggars Banquet, and every album after that through Some Girls. Parsons inspired the bulk of that.

    Sweetheart of the Rodeo is famous for being Parsons’ first major foray into the whole milieu of Country Rock; the segment of rock history that he gets the lions share of credit for. It is not as if he does not deserve it, because he took it by force, almost like a con artist he faked his way in to the Byrds, hijacked the band and recreated them in his image. Quickly bored, he abandoned the group and put his own together and became an icon. Once free from the Jim McGuinn-created restraints and insistence on covering Dylan tunes, Parsons embraced Stax-style soul, coupled it with his traditional country and formed a band that is the most influential of all country-rock bands—The Flying Burrito Brothers (with Hillman on Bass).

    After the shenanigans of Hillman and Parsons, Roger McGuinn put a chokehold on The Byrds and put them on a path of commercial relevancy again, especially with the fantastic Ballad of Easy Rider album. McGuinn forever kept within a hairsbreadth of country but never embraced it with the Parsonsesque fervor that helped to create Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

    The Rootless Parsons recorded two classic albums with The Flying Burrito Brothers, and two albums on his own before dying from an overdose of morphine on September 19, 1973.


    Thursday, January 18, 2007

    Top 100 (Songs 60-51)

    It is hard to believe I am only through half of these songs. 100 is a long long time.


    60. Never Never Go (2:05)-The Chills, The Lost EP, (1985)-This Dunedin, New Zealand band came on the heels of some of their heroes, The Clean and The Enemy. The Chills were essentially Martin Phillips and a rotating cast of players that churned out skewed pop that was a bit sweeter in nature and more well produced than their kindred spirits, The Clean. Never Never Go is a bit rough edged, but still has the kind of cute and cloying quality that marked the later punkier English twee groups like Tallulah Gosh, Heavenly and Boy Racer.

    59. My Elusive Dreams (3:12)-Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Nancy & Lee, (1968)-One of the more unlikely partnerships in music history. Hazlewood was a kind of off-beat, wandering hobo of a songwriter, part Edgar Lee Masters, part Roger Miller and Nancy Sinatra was a true music blue-blood; both though, had a flare for the dramatic which provided for an endearing and magical interplay between the two as a vocal duo. I would like to say that neither of them did better work apart, but it would probably be untrue considering Lee Hazlewood’s remarkably long and varied career as a composer, songwriter, producer, performer and label owner. Sinatra and Hazlewood both worked best within the framework of novelistic, story songs which Hazlewood had a knack for writing (Sand, Some Velvet Morning), but he did not pen this weepy country classic, it was written by Curly Putman and Billy Sherill.

    58. Mr. Tough (4:05)-Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, (2006)-The first song on this list to actually be released in 2006. Despite the overlong and obtuse title, Yo La Tengo’s 2006 entry is a pitch-perfect return to form, on a par with their greatest efforts, Painful, Electr-O-Pura, and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. On Mr. Tough, a characteristically uncharacteristic bit of piano and horn funk that finds Ira Kaplan in a comfortable falsetto, Yo La Tengo get back to the blissful eclecticism that has defined some of their finer moments.

    57. Margaret (3:20)-Kevin Ayers, Whatevershebringswesing, (1970)-One of rock’s most peculiar and capricious iconoclasts, Ayers has forever flown under the radar. With his deep-toned and sonorous voice caught somewhere between John Cale and Leonard Cohen, Ayers seemed born to interpret the melancholy, which he seemed to rarely do, favoring a looser kind of off the cuff lyricism. Margaret though, almost wades into the waters of melancholia, but only almost.

    56. Mag Wheels (2:16) Gary Usher-In my rabid hunger for surf instrumentals, I came across this hotrod classic made famous by Dick Dale, but penned by Gary Usher, most famous for his work with the Beach Boys (writing credit on 409 and In My Room) and as producer for The Byrds (Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, among others).

    55. London Girl (3:16)-The Pogues, Poguetry in Motion, (1986)-Much ink has been spilled in favor of The Pogues—their history, their eclectic wont to blend punk with Irish traditionalism and Shane MacGowan’s crippling addictions. I once put my quarters in a dive-bar jukebox and played The Pogues song, A Rainy Night in Soho, only to be rebuffed, completely shocked that there was such a people immune to The Pogues irresistible charm. London Girl could possibly be, all hyperbole aside, the best pop song ever written. At the very least, the best pop song with the accordion as its musical centerpiece.

    54. Let's Face It (3:50)-999, High Energy Plan, (1979)-Let’s Face It is one in a long line of British punk songs from the seventies on this list. 999 were a more pop-centric punk band in the vein of The Buzzcocks and The Vibrators—all were clearly more obsessed with cheeky sexuality than politics which made them all infinitely more fun than their more serious peers.

    53. Let’s Dance (2:28)-Chris Montez, Let’s Dance Single on Monogram Records, (1962)-An infectious, organ-fueled archetypal teen pop stomper that would prefigure ? and the Mysterians, Elton John, The Ramones, and The Clean, all acts that barrow from this 1962 top ten hit from one of Hawthorne High’s most famous alumni.

    52. Last Night (2:39)-The Scientists, Last Night Single on White Rider Records, (1979)-The Scientists were a kind of lo-fi and influential, Perth-based, Australian psyche-punk band that were more Radio Birdman than Birthday Party. Last Night is basically a sweaty punk song about having sex.

    51. La Plus Belle Pour Aller Danser (2:29)-Sylvie Vartan, Sylvie A Nashville, (1964)-Though Sylvie Vartan sung mainly en français, she was born in Iskretz, Bulgaria in 1944, immigrating to Paris with her family in 1952. After helping her brother—the RCA producer Eddie Vartan—out of a jam by singing an uncredited duet with Eddie Jordan called Panne d'essence which would be released as a Jordan B-side, Sylvie was deemed worthy of a contract, and eventually an unlikely recording trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Thus it was in America that a Bulgarian-cum-French yé-yé chanteuse recorded this classic song penned by a Frenchman of Armenian descent who was also a movie star (Charles Aznavour), with all the requisite Nashville strings and brass; though, no appearance at the Grand Ole Opry was scheduled. Truth be told, I was quite surprised that this album was cut with Elvis’ band, proving how hard it is to cut through the Gallic iciness of French Pop.

    Friday, January 12, 2007

    Chris Bell, I Am the Cosmos, 1992 (Recorded in 1974)

    Chris Bell
    I Am The Cosmos
    1992 (Recorded in 1974)

    Chris Bell, the founder of the legendary Memphis power pop band Big Star, was, along with Alex Chilton, the principal songwriter of the group’s debut album, the cheeky and optimistically titled #1 Record (1972). Bell, described as almost suicidally depressed, left the group he started later that same year. In the lore of Big Star’s fractious demise, Chris Bell—a young man torn by his intense religious feelings and the subsequent guilt caused by his homosexuality and drug abuse—often plays the complicated and saintly Abel to Chilton’s destructive Cain.

    Bell was the son of a successful local restauranter, and grew up in the advantaged, predominantly white neighborhood of Germantown in Memphis, Tennessee. School friend and later band mate of both Bell and Chilton, Richard Rosebrough described his and Bell’s upbringing thusly to Mojo’s Barney Hoskyns: “Our scene was Memphis prep: snotty-nosed, spoiled-brat Germantown kids.” During the late-sixties, while Chilton, the son of a local jazz musician, was cutting his teeth as the lead singer for local blue-eyed soul hit-makers, The Boxtops, Bell was performing live in local Anglophilic acts such as The Jynx, Rock City and Ice Water and recording intermittently at John Fry’s Ardent Studios.

    In 1970, Chilton, fed up with his role in The Box Tops quit the band and recorded a clutch of demos at Ardent studios that he intended as a solo album. Though the record never came to proper fruition, (Ardent Records eventually released these recordings in 1996 under the title 1970) Chilton became acquainted with his future band mates. Over the late winter of 1971, and early 1972, Big Star recorded the phenomenally influential #1 Record at Ardent; a classic that effortlessly combined Beatlesque pop, Memphis soul, youthful restlessness and country melancholia but was a spectacular commercial failure. By the end of the year, terribly depressed and upset over both the failure of his record to sell, and the insalubrious business practices of Stax Records (Ardent’s parent company), not to mention creeping frustration over the extra attention the extroverted Alex Chilton received, Bell left the band.

    Bell’s depression and drug use only worsened, and in the summer of 1974, after multiple suicide attempts, his brother David took him to Europe where the two wandered, wealthy-minstrel style throughout the old world; with Bell playing in both English pubs and French castles. The dreamlike self-financed vanity project became even more fantastical, as Geoff Emerick, an engineer on the later Beatles albums mixed the sessions at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. Unfortunately upon his return stateside, Bell’s dreams turned hopelessly bitter as record companies roundly rejected the material (which would make up the lions share of I Am the Cosmos, released subsequently by Rykodisc in 1992). Bell was forced to work for his father’s successful chain of fast food restaurants, his music career all but dead.

    I Am the Cosmos is not a proper album, and should not be judged as such. Cosmos is more a de facto album; a collection of Bell’s post-Big Star work recorded at both Chateau d’Heurville in France (during his and David’s sojourn) and at Ardent in Memphis. The Memphis material was recorded with Jody Stephens and they were even joined by the wayward Chilton on the stunningly gorgeous and country-tinged You and Your Sister, perhaps the best thing Bell ever wrote. But because of the fractured nature of these sessions there is an uneven quality to the “record,” and apparently, when mixing the tapes, the preternaturally unsure Bell wore out the tapes by habitually remixing tracks, leaving them with a “blurred” quality. That being said, I Am the Cosmos is a triumph of introspective, faith-based, and effecting songwriting, Anglophilic guitar work, requisite Memphis soul, and even gospel. It is a record that is hampered only slightly by certain timely, stylistic defects like the funky frog-like bass playing on Fight at the Table. All in all, I Am the Cosmos comes closer to capturing the sensibility of #1 Record more than anything Chilton would ever do.

    Throughout Bell’s life as a writer, he seemed to be obsessed with the twin themes of religious salvation and the bitterness of romantic desperation. The opener on #1 Record is the sulky Feel, a sparkling, bluesy and desperate two-stanza rant that starts with the line; “woman, what are you doin’, you’re drivin’ me to ruin,” and ends with the bitter and melancholy, “you just ain't been trying, 
it's getting very near the end, I feel like I'm dying, 
I feel like I'm dying.” The album also contains the religious fable The Ballad of El Goodo (“It gets so hard in times like now to hold on, 
but guns they wait to be stuck by, at my side is God”), and Try Again, which has the quality of a fraught bed-time prayer:

    Lord, I've been trying to be what I should. Lord, I've been trying to do what I could, but each time it gets a little harder, I feel the pain. But I'll Try again. Lord, I've been trying to be understood, and Lord, I've been trying to do as you would.

    Bell’s work on I Am the Cosmos is no different—he evenly splits his themes between Jesus and loneliness. The title track is an obvious paean to his fragile mental state: “don't know what's going on inside, so every night I tell myself ‘I am the cosmos, I am the wind’ But that don't get you back again.” The loneliness and anxiety of Bell’s psychological desperation is as palpable as any thing ever written in a rock and roll song. The two best songs on Cosmos though, aside from the exquisitely spare You and Your Sister, are lovely examples of Bell’s affinity for, and obsession with, Jesus and what he has to offer—Look Up, a delicate and uplifting, almost hopeful song played primarily on acoustic guitar and mellotron, and the ballsy-rocker, I Got Kinda Lost which is perhaps better than anything he did as a member of Big Star.

    Bell being a tragic and sadly sympathetic character was an incongruous and obscure rock figure. Lacking the confidence of the most bellicose and average of songwriters, he never was given the opportunity to do what it seemed he was intended to do. Another aspect of his obvious incongruity was his deeply felt religious feelings, which I think had somewhat slightly less to do with salvation, for the nature of salvation has more to do with the afterlife. Bell seemed to be grasping for a kind of framework or theory or meaning of life on earth; a simple key to getting through his own life’s worst torments.

    In 1978, The dB’s Chris Stamey, a Big Star acolyte, released the single I Am the Cosmos b/w You and Your Sister on his micro-indie label, Car Records. At the time, Chris Bell was excited and feeling his life moving in the right direction and with what must have been a feeling of vindication, he put a band together, hoping to make another go at it. Early in the morning though, two days after Christmas day, 1978, Chris Bell’s tiny Triumph smashed into a tree and killing him instantly.

    R.I.P. Chris Bell: January 12, 1951-December 27, 1978


    Tuesday, January 09, 2007

    Top 100 (Songs 70-61)

    Another in the continuing series of my recent favorite tracks.

    70. Quiet Surf (2:49)-The Mermen, The Mermen At The Haunted House, (1994)-The Mermen sometime sound as sublime as I would imagine Galaxie 500 to be as a surf instrumental band. If only wishes came true— than no more songs about writing poems on a dog biscuit. That was mean, I like Galaxie 500, just not Dean Wareham’s lyrics all the time; thankfully, The Mermen had none, which is sometimes how I wish it always was. Lyrics often get in the way of a good song.

    69. Qui Peut Dire (2:06)-Francoise Hardy, Ma Jeunesse Fout Le Camp, (1967)-This iconic and beautiful Gallic chanteuse wrote her own material, including this beautiful windswept entry buoyed by requisite sixties reverb and a gentle slide-guitar motif that recalls the cloud-strewn sky above the sea. I speak no French, so I have absolutely no idea what she is talking about though.
  • Francoise Hardy on French Television doing Qui Peut Dire.

  • 68. Popcorn (2:05)-The Upsetters, Eastwood Rides Again, (1970)-Essentially Lee “Scratch” Perry’s house band, named after his 1968 hit The Upsetter. On Popcorn, the Upsetters, sounding not unlike the JB’s, pound out about two minutes of pure Lee Perry-penned sweaty funk that eschews both reggae influences, and the Ennio Morricone influence promised by the title and cover art.

    67. Police Story (2:11)-The Partisans, Police Story Single on No Future, (1981)-This obscure and militant second generation punk band with the leftist-rebel name, and obsessive NWA-ish negative feelings toward law and order, formed in 1979 and was immediately accepted into London’s thriving punk and Oi! scene in the late eighties, based mainly on this single. Police Story is a frighteningly raw and breakneck punk anthem detailing police brutality perpetrated against the fictional James Kelly: “James Kelly told us 
of the shit that went on in the cell of his; broke his ribs told him not to speak, said you're drunk now on your feet; into the van Kelly did go; never seen again now everybody knows; James Kelly you're dead."

    66. Pledging My Love (2:31)-Johnny Ace, Pledging My Love Single on Duke Records, (1954)-Born John Marshall Alexander Jr., Johnny Ace, the Memphis-based blues pianist/vocalist died unceremoniously backstage at the Houston City Auditorium, early on Christmas Day in 1954. Between sets at a show in Houston, the drunken Ace, allegedly began playing with a gun backstage, pointing it first at his girlfriend and pulling the trigger; then at her friend, and again pulling the trigger; then finally he put the gun to his own temple and pulled the trigger, killing himself. This ugly end, may have been the result of foul play, as some have intimated that Don D. Robey, Peacock Records owner and founder, may have pulled the trigger, but both Robey and Big Momma Thornton, both present at Ace’s death, have denied this outcome. Pledging My Love is a magnificent ballad, and even more melancholy after knowing the truth.

    65. Please Don’t Tell My Baby (1:45)-Mickey & The Milkshakes, Showcase, (1984)-Billy Childish’s second outfit, put together after his first group, The Pop Rivets broke up, was a rough edged neo-garage band, that was a proponent of what was termed The Medway Sound; Medway being an area of North Kent, England. The Medway Sound was a part of a larger Medway collective of artists and poets including Childish, Sexton Ming, Charles Thomson, Bill Lewis, Rob Earl and Miriam Carney.

    64. Pabst Blue Ribbon (2:42)-Untamed Youth, Some Kinda Fun, (1988)-This Missouri revisionist-surf rock combo, took their name from a 1957 Mamie Van Doren, Eddie Cochrane movie. Pabst Blue Ribbon is a surfy frat-rock instrumental that moves along on a tide of farfisa organ and the iconic sound of a beer can being opened.

    63. Noue Bushi (2:16)-Takeshi Terauchi and Bunnys, This Is Terauchi Bushi, (1967)-Takeshi Terauchi, the virtuosic guitarist of The Bunny’s was part of a larger movement in Japan called Eleki—a hybrid Japanese-English word for Electric, as in guitars. What set this movement on its course was a 1962 tour of Japan by the Ventures, which sent Japanese youth into a frenzy, and almost every teen bought an electric guitar (in 1965, Japanese manufacturers produced 760,000 guitars!). Takeshi Terauchi’s style is very much like The Ventures but with much more flare and élan, and with obvious indigenous influences.

    62. No Love Now (2:55)-Vic Godard, Long Term Side-Effect, (1999)-Vic Godard, a veteran of the initial London punk scene in London released, as a member of the band Subway Sect, his first single in 1978—the almost Siouxsie and the Banshees-like Nobody’s Scared. Their second single, Ambition, debuted after their manager fired the whole band aside from Godard, and is a jittery keyboard-fueled pop song that is much better than their first effort. The late eighties saw Godard blazing a whole new path away from punk and towards jazzy standards. The failure of his album T.R.O.U.B.L.E caused him to quit music altogether and take a job as a postman. Probably finding the monotony of postal work too taxing, Godard returned to songwriting in the early nineties. No Love Now, from Godard’s late era musical grab-bag, Long Term Side-Effect, recorded more than twenty years after his first single, is perhaps even more jittery than his early work. Getting by on hand claps and feverish accordion, No Love Now represents a striking return to form, and much better than anything you would hear from members of the Sex Pistols around the same time.

    61. Nice Legs, Shame About Her Face (2:01)-The Monks, Bad Habits, (1979)-Not to be confused with the cranky sixties garage band made up of American GI’s stationed in Germany. These British Monks were yet another joke band—English “trad-rockers” masquerading as punks. The thing is though, they did a pretty good job, especially with frothy sophomoric pop, like Nice Legs, a rather mean-spirited song that is somewhat justified by it’s last line. Bad Habits is a great bit of Stiff-sounding punk, not unlike early Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, or Wreckless Eric, only fraudulent.
  • The Monks do Nice Legs Shame About Her Face on Top of the Pops
  • Monday, January 08, 2007

    Like Flies on Sherbert, 1979, Alex Chilton

    Like Flies on Sherbert
    Alex Chilton

    I once read something along the lines that aside from Rod Stewart, no one had betrayed their talent more than Alex Chilton. The fact that Alex Chilton’s career has not followed the neat path laid out for him, after scoring a few hits as lead singer for the Boxtops and garnering overwhelming critical sycophancy for the first two Big Star albums, has lead many critics to deride Chilton’s post-Big Star output. Chilton’s later works—his uncommon and seemingly whimsical covers of Volare and The Oogum Boogum Song for instance—have done more to disappoint critics and Big Star fans than Like Flies on Sherbert, but to be sure, Flies’ wanton, fractious and ultimate destruction of the Big Star myth has ruffled more than a few feathers. Mark Jordan of The Memphis Flyer referred to the fact that the album has “among Chiltonites…taken on the status of a cult masterpiece,” as “largely [being] a case of the emperor wearing no clothes. Ultimately, [falling] well short of that mark.” Jordan, like many conservative listeners misses the point of Like Flies on Sherbert—it is not about the quality of composition or songsmanship, or (obviously) musicianship; it is a document, a punctuation mark in Chilton’s career (a semicolon rather than a period), a statement of purpose and a musical ethos. It is a masterwork of petulant defiance and the final widening of the gulf between (what Chilton thought of as) Chris Bell’s Beatles-paint-by-numbers songwriting style and Chilton’s catch-as-catch-can musical obstinacy.

    The first time that I saw the name Alex Chilton, it was as the producer of The Cramps albums Gravest Hits and Songs the Lord Taught Us, and also The Gories phenomenal I Know You Fine But How You Doin’ record on Crypt. All of which were grim forebodings of what Chilton would become as the seventies wound down. In 1997 I checked out a book from the downtown San Francisco Public Library called The Spin Alternative Record Guide, which besides it’s name and it’s sponsor was an indispensable text in my musical education. Among the bands I discovered between those pages were The Young Marble Giants, Nikki Sudden, The Swell Maps, Richard and Linda Thompson, Wire, The Modern Lovers, The Stooges, and most germane to this essay, Big Star.

    Some time later, perhaps a matter of months, I ran across a reissued copy of Radio City on Big Beat at a record shop in Berkeley that specialized in imports. I took it home, listened to it, and did not really care for it, save for maybe I’m in Love With a Girl, which sounded like Elliot Smith to me. At the time, I was too young and in to all things twee and feminine sounding, especially Heavenly and things of that nature (oh, how people change!). I put it away and did not listen to it much for about a year. I remember looking at the cover though, and trying to figure out which one was Alex Chilton—the singer of Cry Like a Baby and The Letter—not knowing he was the short one on the right pointing at the viewer. I eventually warmed up to both Big Star albums, and soon got to the point where I could tell, like with The Beatles, the difference between lead vocalists, that is to say, when it was Alex, and when it was Chris Bell doing the singing (#1 Record only). It was not long before I began searching for Chilton’s solo material, and Bell’s lone solo work, the Geoff Emerick-mixed scattershot masterpiece, I am the Cosmos (which I will review in my next entry).

    The Original release of Flies was a 500 record run on the local Peabody label. It was recorded at Sam Phillips Studios in 1978, over what must have been a number of boozy, druggy and chaotic sessions. Jim Dickinson produced, which is to say that he let Chilton run roughshod like a child, a fact that shows in the almost uncontrolled and unfocused nature of the output. All Music Guide’s David Cleary had this to say of Flies sound quality: “Sadly, this release is a dreadful disappointment. Production values are among the worst this reviewer has ever heard: sound quality is terrible, instrumental balances are careless and haphazard, and some selections even begin with recording start-up sound.” Again, the overwrought, cynical and mean conservatism shows through in the banal observations of a rather conventional critic.

    Many reviewers unfortunately refuse to see a record on its own terms. Like Flies on Sherbert is a cathartic blast of rock impressionism and an obvious example of not only the deconstruction of the Big Star myth, but of rock and roll in general. The album is a collection of originals and obscure covers (save for the lamentable opener, KC and the Sunshine Band’s Boogie Shoes) like Elvis Presley’s Girl after Girl, Ernest Tubb’s Waltz Across Texas, and the Jimmy Newman-penned swamp-country classic Alligator Man.

    Cleary is correct in assessing that precision is not really what Chilton and company were after here, but in calling it dreadful or terrible is more an indictment of him as a listener than Chilton and Dickinson as architects of the album’s sound. There is a primal essence in each track, and a trashy devolution at work here; a kind of catch-as-catch-can innocent brilliance that sets the listener on a collision course with an audacious musical wreck. Chilton’s originals too, are strong, including the brilliant My Rival, a shambling mess of a song about jealousy and rejection that would not sound out of place on an early Pavement record. The title track is the final nail in the coffin of Chilton’s boy-band past, a deconstruction of sixties pop, rendered perhaps unlistenable, in a bad acid kind of way to some, by Jim Dickinson’s reliance on effects laden keyboards and piano.

    Chilton and Dickinson obviously never intended to record a conventional album and, more to the point, probably never intended to record a classic of rock deconstructionism either, but their instincts, starting with the Big Star Third/Sister Lovers album began to blaze a path toward that eventual end. It’s not the kind of thing that one could go on doing forever, because once you tear it down, you can never build it back up again; you can not go home again. And to that end, I am sure Chilton has disowned this record, like he disowned the Big Star records before. But it doesn’t really matter if David Cleary or even Chilton himself like the album, it is a document that is out there in the ether. It has been re-issued many times, and is a touchstone for many fans. Like Flies on Sherbert is an album of immense depth, that, I think should be viewed like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, and Skip Spence’s Oar; as albums that are documents of a time and a place, records that embody an essence of emotional immediacy and represent a certain skewed mentality at a given time.


    Top 100 (Songs 80-71)

    This is another in a continuing series on my favorite songs this year. I know that none so far actually were released this year, but, hey...nobody's perfect.

    80. Strangers When We Meet (3:47)-The Smithereens, Especially for You, (1986)-A workingman’s power-pop group from New York who liked to wear tight jeans and look eighties faux-tough in leather motorcycle jackets. Not really in the same league as 20/20, The Beat, or The Nerves, but Strangers When We Meet, is a rather lyrically dense song about infidelity that has a bittersweet, novelistic quality that those other bands just could not muster. The Smithereens were a very soft-edged and un-cool kind of band, but in a sweet and guileless way, like Marshall Crenshaw or The Toms.

    79. Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight (2:41) Fleetwood Mac as Earl Vince & The Valiants (1969), B-Side to Man of the World Single on Immediate Records-This song is a special case because has made a real monkey out of me. I have to go back a bit. About eight months ago I was flipping through the used compact discs at Rasputin Records, and I came across a few disassociated discs from the Immediate Records Singles Collection, of which I only purchased Volume 1. It had The Small Faces, Vashti Bunyan, Nico, P.P. Arnold, The Poets, The McCoys, Fleetwood Mac, and others. The thing is though; I really don’t like Fleetwood Mac. Honestly. OK, it’s true, I do have a soft spot for Tusk and some of the other Fleetwood Mac over-produced AOR anthems, but I’m certainly not one of those guitar freaks that has a big hard on for Peter Green, just listen to Man of the World, it’s a putrid and maudlin wankfest. I must not have read the liner-notes though, because when I did the research on Earl Vince and the Valiants, I found out the truth, that, like the XTC/Dukes of Stratosphear ruse, E.V.& The Valiants are another genre-induced joke band, and, as in the other case, they are better than the real thing. I must admit, some of the good will I felt toward this song has somewhat diminished by finding out the truth, but it still is a great song, and it detailed the picturesque image of blood on the dance floor long before M.J.

    78. Skyway (2:06)-The Replacements, Pleased To Meet Me, (1986)-A very sweet song, from a band (or at the very least, a principal songwriter) that proved it could grow up if it wanted to. A very well-written album with three classic songs on it: besides the bare-acoustic Skyway, there is also the song about the man and the myth, Alex Chilton and the anthemic Can’t Hardly Wait. Alex Chilton’s producer of choice, Jim Dickinson—the man who did something like producing on Chilton’s Third /Sister Lovers album and Like Flies on Sherbert—was tapped to produce Pleased to Meet Me in Memphis, but he just, sadly, gets in the way, adding all kinds of corny, eighties sounding reverb that makes this a good candidate for the Naked treatment that Paul McCartney used to expunge Phil Spector’s soul from Let it Be.

    77. Sister Golden Hair (3:19)-America, Hearts, (1975)-Not something that I expected to like, but sometimes you don’t pick the song, it picks you. I really would never buy an America album, but this is just one of those radio-ready type songs that cheaply comes to you through the oftentimes powerful conduit of childhood memories. America really are only a half-rung above the Eagles, which is to say, the bottom. Sister Golden Hair though, is a gorgeous bouncy bit of country-tinged AOR fluff that is just really easy to listen to, unlike their more silly and famous offerings, Ventura Highway and A Horse With no Name, which make me want to vomit.

    76. Simple Love (original version) (3:40)-The Saints, Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow EP, (1980)-Besides Children of Nuggets, another favorite compilation of mine that I heard for the first time this year, was Do the Pop—a collection of songs from Australian punk bands, the most famous of which were The Saints. Personally, I like Radio Birdman better, but The Saints are more a part of that ’77 class of punk bands. Simple Love is the kind of deceptive song that starts off with a rather slow-building and pedestrian first verse, that lurches into an absolutely perfect hand-clapped chorus; a phenomenal mid-tempo punk song.

    75. She Lied (1:59)-The Mummies, Never Been Caught (1992)-This is almost two minutes of pure garage filth. Usually I don’t like bands that dress alike, but if you are going to do it, dressing like mummies is preferable to dressing like members of a barbershop quartet. The Mummies were a total prehistoric mess of a trash band, whose production values were nonexistent. I once read a review, in which the writer said that they sounded as if they were recorded on equipment from the forties, which is a kind of a ridiculous thing to say, but if (good) sound quality is something that you require from your listening experience, steer clear of The Mummies.

    74. Shadow (2:29)-The Lurkers, Fulham Fallout (1978)-Along with the Miracle Workers and The Oblivians, The Lurkers are a new favorite band of mine. They are a group, to my eternal shame, that I had not heard prior to 2006 (proof that, even when you think you know everything about music, you know absolutely nothing). Shadow is a total dumb-assed rock masterpiece, replete with the most unimaginative drumbeat ever committed to tape. It is a beautiful example of the kind of minimal punk songwriting made famous by the Ramones, the kind of song that even in its monotony is terribly effecting.

    73. Rumble (2:28)-Link Wray & His Ray Men, Single on Cadence Records (1958)-The king of fuzz; the king of scuzz; the king of the surf guitar. Dick Dale with his histrionic and eastern-influenced guitar style should bow before the most famous student of Hambone the circus guitarist. Rumble is mid-tempo fuzzy (Link slashed his amp way before Dave Davies) genius; a punk song before punk thought that it had to be fast.

    72. Romeo And The Lonely Girl (3:56)-Thin Lizzy, Jailbreak (1976)-Perhaps because recently, The Boys are Back in Town has been used as a shill for Capital One credit cards, I have gravitated toward this other Springsteenesque novelistic entry from Jailbreak. A good bit cornier (how about this for the first line of a chorus: oh-hoh Poor Romeo, sitting’ out on his own-eo…), Romeo and the Lonely Girl is still a grand story-song in Phil Lynott’s allegorical style.

    71. Ram Jam (2:41)-Jackie Mitoo & The Soul Venders-In so far as reggae, dub, dance hall, ska and all that other stuff is concerned, I am no expert (save for my seventeenth and eighteenth years when I was all about third-generation ska), so I won’t pretend to be. I did however, come across Mitoo while perusing what is possibly the greatest issue of Mojo Magazine ever pressed, issue # 75 (February, 2000). That February Mojo ran a list of cult heroes, one of which was the reggae and ska-pioneering organist, Jackie Mitoo.


    Friday, January 05, 2007

    Blues Run the Game, 1965, Jackson C. Frank

    Blues Run the Game
    Jackson C. Frank
    Jackson C. Frank was a brilliant and largely unknown folk tragedian whose life was, not surprisingly, an intensely heartbreaking mess, dotted with the kind of accidental and self-made disasters that conspired to make the last half of his time on earth extremely difficult. Perhaps the most harrowing episode that Frank lived through occurred in 1954, when the wooden annex that housed music classrooms at his school in Cheektowaga, New York caught fire, causing the eleven year old Frank to spend seven months in the hospital, terribly burned and irrevocably scarred. The fire had disastrous physical effects on the young Frank but the insurance settlement he garnered upon turning twenty-one, afforded him the opportunity to live fast and free; and to record this indelible folk classic. "Blues Run the Game" is a study in beauty, economy and the trans-Atlantic fluidity of the Anglo-American folk tradition—a criminally under-appreciated effort that has been knocking on the door of legend for some time.

    By 1964, the youthful Frank along with friend—and future Steppenwolf leader—John Kay, were running about the northeast, making a stir in Frank’s newly purchased Jaguar, and trying to spend the insurance settlement as fast as they could. Frank, ever the automobile enthusiast, boarded the Queen Elizabeth in late spring, 1965, heading for England to acquire British cars. On board he wrote the title track of "Blues Run the Game." Frank’s signature song, a wistful paean to wandering and drinking, is perhaps most exacting in it’s description of the futility of life: “living is a gamble, baby, loving's much the same, wherever I have played, wherever I throw those dice, wherever I have played, the blues have run the game.” It is an extremely mature and beautifully realized effort for a young man of 22. Frank’s materialistic quest was disturbed by his desire to write and perform folk music in what he described as “Swinging London.” The outgoing American had no trouble making contacts and soon was befriended by two other young Americans, who, like Frank were also folksingers; their names were Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Within a year, Frank would record "Blues Run The Game," his first and only album, at the CBS Studio on New Bond Street in London. Frank’s new friend, Paul Simon was behind the board producing. To alleviate his embarrassment, Frank recorded the entire album shrouded from view by a bed sheet.

    American and British folk music have similar and very fluid traditions, but by the Sixties much of American folk music was of two main categories: that which was light and breezy, often preformed by corny trios in matching, pressed outfits, and that which was serious and oftentimes political and performed by Benzedrine addicts in New York coffee houses. Simon and Garfunkel would eventually manage to straddle that vast gulf with the type of élan that translated in to heavy record sales, but in 1965 the duo were in England, establishing an Anglophilic-tradition based bulwark against the scrubbed Kingston folk crassness that would dog them, having yet to record their masterwork, "The Sounds of Silence." In the same year, the man most associated with the American folk tradition after 1960, Bob Dylan, formerly known as Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing Minnesota, was also doing his time across the pond. Dylan, a tousle-haired boy of 24 and already a myth, was crisscrossing the island with his documentarian D.A. Pennebaker in tow, famously making a petulant ass of himself.

    The English folksingers though, were a more serious lot, and not prone to the clean-cut goofiness of that particularly American strain of folk music. They were so serious in fact that they had as their de facto clown-prince, a diminutive and solemn Glaswegian named Donovan Leitch, who, in America would be cruelly known as Dylan’s acquiescing foil, and had not yet advocated the smoking of banana peels. Most of this lot engaged in an almost faith-based traditionalism, something that was largely unknown in American music—among them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Roy Harper, Sandy Denny, the angel-voiced Anne Briggs and slightly later, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, and the remarkable Vashti Bunyan. The weirdly eccentric guitarist John Fahey practiced the closest approximation of tradition-based folk music in America, which had any impact during this era. Even among the most serious American folk practitioners, the distinctly American sound, and by extension relative modernity of the blues, folk’s earthier cousin, almost always filtered down to the artists work, especially in the case of Fahey, and inevitably in Frank's, who was the most British-sounding of the sixties, American folk masters. The British traditionalists however, seemed to have wanted to erase all musical traces of modernity, they left the blues to their famous brethren, the rock and roll practicioners. Frank’s own ill-at ease blues moment is titled, "Here Come the Blues," and is easily the weakest entry, a standard kind of guitar-walking blues with uninspired lyrics.

    Frank fit rather awkwardly into this framework of folk artists, and perhaps that is why his work, though lauded by critics and famous fans alike, has never caught on with the vast amount of people who have afforded those who become legendary their status. In the cases of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, two extremely talented but self-absorbed songwriters, longevity has been the key (both having written as many bad songs as good ones). Frank, like many other artists, was never afforded the opportunity to be profligate about his talents, he could not waste them on albums that detailed being born again for instance. In fact Frank never recorded another album, the rest of his discography is a collection of song fragments and scraps; "Blues Run the Game" is his lone musical legacy.

    The rest of Jackson Frank’s life was a downward spiral. As a man about town in London, and well-respected folk artist, Frank was living a dream that would soon dry up, a life that he could never recapture. Frank, a former beaux of Sandy Denny, (who recorded a version of his stunning "Milk and Honey"), returned to America and took up with a fashion model in Woodstock, New York, a home base shared by Bob Dylan. After the death of his child though, Frank fell in to a deep depression, the depths of which he would never truly recover. An immensely tragic figure, Frank suffered through tests that even Lot was spared—he was institutionalized intermittently for psychological problems that included schizophrenia (which was erroneously diagnosed); he was rendered bloated and dazed from thyroid medication; he lost sight in one eye as the victim of a random drive-by shooting; slept for a time on the streets of New York City after taking a bus there, seemingly on a quest to reacquaint himself with his former friend and producer, Paul Simon, and then for years lived in a decrepit Bronx housing project. Frank was helped along in his later years by an angel of mercy, a folk fan named Jim Abbot who helped him move back to Woodstock, and get a backlog of royalty payments. But by then, his dreams were all shattered.

    By 1965 though, Frank had produced a beautifully realized album, and to him, what must have seemed like a dream. Like Paul Simon, he too could bridge the gap between the fluid British and American folk traditions, only better and with more passion than the often-bloodless Simon. "Blues Run the Game," and the magnificent "Milk and Honey" are the albums true standouts, but "Kimbie," "Yellow Walls," "Dialogue" and "You Never Wanted Me" are all extremely affecting. There is no question that Jackson C. Frank, like Skip Spence and Roky Erickson was an artist of immeasurable quality who was beaten, left for dead, and almost allowed to slip past us completely. Almost.


    Monday, January 01, 2007

    Top 100 (Songs 90-81)

    Top 100 Continued...

    90. Vampiro (2:14)-Satan's Pilgrims, Creature Feature (1998)- I was sad to learn that this band ceases to exist. My first brush with them took place more than ten years ago as I was beginning my musical education by collecting labels, like so many other dopes. Bellingham’s Estrus was an early favorite. I foolishly abandoned the sixties revivalist label in search of all things modern. Now though, infinitely more discriminating when it comes to music, I have re-embraced what as a nineteen-year old I threw aside. I was most happy to see that the Satan’s Pilgrims remained totally uncommitted to all things modern to the end, embracing monster movies, surf-rock, and sixties revivalism in equal parts, making their demise lamentable.

    89. Under Heavy Fire (3:45)-John Stewart, Wires From The Bunker (2000, recorded between 1983-1985)-This is something that, as of a year ago, I would not expect to be so fond of. John Stewart was originally a part of the sixties folk-machine that produced so many groups—or trios rather—in the vein of The Kingston Trio; a group he was to one day join. Stewart though, as a solo artist, would have the goods to trump many of the other pretenders to the folk-throne. Stewart, the workingman’s savior of the genre, was the former guitar-playing member of The Cumberland Three, who cut his teeth on songs that waved the Americanized folk-flag of the Civil War; honorably, or perhaps cowardly, taking on both sides—Civil War Almanac vol. 1, The Yankees and Civil War Almanac vol. 2, The Rebels. The San Diegans must have been confused. Not wanting to go on forever, I would like to draw some conclusions from Stewart’s work after he shook the dust of The Cumberland Three, and The Kingston Trio from his boots. His discography is long and spotty, dotted with what I can best be describe as a fair share of crap. The album Wires from the Bunker though, is a lost classic, (the interval between the recording date and the release date is 15 years, yes there is a story there, and it is tackled with aplomb in it’s review on the allmusic website) has hidden gems. Under Heavy Fire being one, in fact, for me, it was just the first song that I came across, but there are other gems including, Liddy Buck, and It Might As Well Be Love, both reminiscent of Tusk- era, Lindsay Buckingham.

    88. Trains (3:07)-The Nashville Ramblers, Children Of Nuggets: Second Psychedelic Era 1976-1996, Disc 1 (Originally released in 1986)-Another of the Children of Nuggets entries, this song starts out nice, with its chiming Byrdsish guitar style and the reverb-drenched sixties, garage, Choir-style sunny pop, but then the song lurches into a stunning, and unforgettably perfect Beatlesque chorus, followed by an enigmatic twelve-string electric guitar break. Trains is a perfect example of the eighties, garage revivalism that is handily compiled on the Children of Nuggets box. The Nashville Ramblers were obviously well studied connoisseurs of the Hard Day’s Night-Mr. Tambourine nexus of sixties jangle pop. Other than that, I don’t know much about the band. Trains is also on the Bomp compilation, The Roots of Power Pop.
  • Watch the video.

  • 87. Thrown Away (3:31)-Stranglers, The Meninblack (1981)-I have had the album, The Singles (The UA Years) for some time, but I kind of stuck to my favorite guns, (Get a) Grip (On Yourself), Golden Brown, Peaches. Then I kind of stumbled on to this one, and it has turned out to be the kind of brilliant, stripped down electro-pop minimalism that Stephin Merritt made his name off of, only without the dog-voiced literary hysterics.

    86. There's An End (3:36)-Holly Golightly, Truly She Is None Other (2003)-For a time, I lived off a song of hers called, For All This, on the album Painted On. I was living alone for the first time in a long time, and always drinking and, despite the build up, generally making a decent go of it; but at the same time being drunk and depressed at 4 in the morning and listening to that song never failed to have an effect on me, and to this day, the song gives me the chill of the past. Anyhow, I have doggedly stuck to her since. I generally don’t like to make recommendations, but if there is anyone who has any kind of affinity for this artist, the album Painted On is matchless. Anyhow. I could have easily gone with her version with The Greenhornes of There’s an End, that appeared on the Broken Flowers OST, but, the truth be told, I heard that in late 2005. This edition brings the tempo up, but might be a bit too wide open; too stripped down. It’s still, just a magnificent song, but suffers a bit from the openness.

    85. The Train From Kansas City (3:20)-The Shangri-Las, The Shangri-Las ’65 (1965)-A virtual girl-group juke box—the best of the Brill Building girl groups. The Shangri-Las were possibly the greatest of all the girl groups, the only competition being the Ronettes or the Shirelles, and if you grew up on the radio, perhaps the Supremes. This is one of their best songs, and it’s from the pens of a pair of great writers: Jeff Barry and Elle Greenwich, but the “composer” of their best stuff was their producer, George “Shadow” Morton, who has a credit on Leader of the Pack, and the sole credit on Shadow (Walking in the Sand) and their greatest song Give Him a Great Big Kiss, which are, bar none there two best songs. Train from Kansas City opens with a kind of pulsing piano figure, ostensibly reminiscent of a train, before the tambourine gives way to the drum kit and the rest of Shadow Morton’s Spectoresque wall of sound.

    84. The Sad Skinhead (2:36) Faust, Faust IV (1973)-The Sad Skinhead has a kind of Eno-ish feel, the kind of song that would probably not sound out of place on the idiosyncratic Here Come the Warm Jets. It does sound somewhat out of place on Faust’s own album however, being a pop song and all, played fairly straight, albeit with some rhythmic nuances, including (possibly) a marimba (a xylophone? Definitely not a glockenspiel, a vibraphone perhaps) and a Russo-folk, polka-bass rhythm; the kind that Eastern European-influenced bands such as Gogol Bordello utilize as part of a somewhat wider movement, referred to, and I almost hesitate to write it, because it’s existence proves that the taxonomy of rock and roll has gone too far: gypsy-punk. The Sad Skinhead being essentially a straight song (no avant-garde tendencies) makes it an unsuitable example of their work. The label moneymen though and A&R types, probably wished that Faust had produced more songs like this, instead of the long-winded and obtuse, yet still enjoyable, Krautrock.

    83. The Rain, The Park & Other Things (3:01)-The Cowsills, The Cowsills (1967)-A singing family that included mother and children; the inspiration for the television show/musical group, The Partridge Family. This is an unabashed bubblegum gem, replete with the beatific harmonies that can only come from children in different stages of their youth. More will be forthcoming in a future essay, In Defense of Bubblegum, a celebration of The Cowsills, The Partridge Family, The Archies, The Baycity Rollers, and don’t worry 1910 Fruitgum Company fans, I shan’t forget your favorite sons.
  • Watch the video.

  • 82. Take Me For What I'm Worth (2:38)-The Searchers, Take Me For What I’m Worth (1965)-The first of two songs written by PF Sloan in my top 100, I’d have to do more research but he may be the only scribe to notch two slots on my list, since I made a conscious decision to forego using two songs preformed by the same group. Worry not, there will be nary a sign of Johnny Rivers and the garish Secret Agent Man on this list. This was the last of the Searchers’ top twenty hits, and the album marked the beginning of the end for the band that started, like so many other British groups, as a skiffle combo in the late fifties. Not really a great band, the only other song of theirs that I’d care to listen to is their version of the Sonny Bono-penned classic, Needles and Pins, which is better than the Ramones’ stab, the Herman’s Hermits’ and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. I have yet to hear the Deftones interpretation, if anyone has though, please compare and then comment.

    81. Sunday You Need Love (2:38)-The Oblivians, Soul Food (1995)-There’s nothing I detest more in music criticism than the pervasive habit of using food metaphors, a favorite of which is the term southern-fried, which is invariably used in reference to all genres of music that are produced south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is ubiquitous when you read anything about the Oblivians, (it’s a pity they had to title their album Soul Food, it doesn’t really help my cause). The Oblivians just don’t sound southern-fried (what does?), there is just a hint of hillbilly to them, but so, so small that this album often sounds as if it could have been produced in Detroit, or even New York (what doesn’t?).

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