ON HEER UNKL JOHNZ BANNED:
EVERYTHING FROM SLADE TO THE GRATEFUL DEAD
youre hanging out at this bar, it's safe to assume that you have formed
some sort of bias against the Grateful Dead. Good gosh, we all know their
fans are not the most objective out there, gleefully guilty of accepting any
self-indulgent recycled jam as the real deal. Just recently, Rhino Records
has reissued the Dead's vintage Warner Brothers catalog. I'm here to
provide my two cents on whether or not we rock 'n' roll punks were too tough
on the band all these years.
Now, this is not exactly easy for me. Speaking of bias, there was the time in the '80s when I briefly considered naming the band in an alienation of affection lawsuit, when a live-in doll ditched me and my thrilling passions like around-the-clock record collecting in favor of running off to join the Deadhead circus. (OK, that ain't the half of it but then again, these guys deserve some sort of punitive judgment for unleashing crap like "Shakedown Street" in that era.)
In other words, Im predisposed to hating this stuff.
A few years ago - and independent of investment on my part, I should add - I acquired almost all of these Dead CDs in earlier, no-frills editions. To be honest, I only flinched for a moment to the surprisingly lively live track "Bertha" ('Grateful Dead', '71) before hauling the whole lot down to the local used record store to barter for beer money. Obviously, I didn't think much of those Grateful Dead albums. However, I'm a sucker for all the fancy repackages that Rhino seems to specialize in. From what I understand, these individual new Dead CDs are the same discs found in a massive GD box set put out by Rhino a few years back. They now come in nifty digipacks, bursting at the seams with bonus and, in many cases, hidden bonus tracks.
With the possible exception of their uncharacteristically garage-y debut LP and later "Workingman's Dead" (their rootsy breakthrough from '70), I don't think I will ever again be able to sit through any of these inconsistent albums in its entirety. This goes for their other alleged masterpiece, "American Beauty", which to me runs the gamut from greatness ("Sugar Magnolia", "Friend of a Devil" and "Truckin") to marginal ("Box Of Rain", which starts out somewhat stunning in a very commercial way; as flat-out rockin' as a Carole King hit from the same period - but plods on and on with increasingly more insipid, exhausting lyrics) to the just downright lame ("Ripple").
For me, the surprise is that across these CDs, there is absolutely essential music; some of it, would you believe, quite rocking. The bait to capture my interest is the simultaneously-issued 2-CD "Birth of the Dead" set, also on Rhino. This collects their earliest studio session where the fledgling folk-rockers can be found cutting tracks for San Francisco's Autumn Records. It's a blast, in a sloppy garage band way.
Also included in "Birth of the Dead" is a second recording session, this time for Scorpio Records (including a few more highlights plus too many instrumental backing tracks) and an entire disc of July '66 live recordings where the Dead sound contentedly stuck in their ragged folk-rock and biker bar blues band format of the time. I dig this CD.
Better still is their '67 Warner Brothers debut, "The Grateful Dead". As with "Birth of the Dead", the sound is unfamiliar compared to everything that came afterward. The tempos are as frantic as any from the garage band era. In order to keep up with the amphetamine pace, Garcia regularly resorts to the most blindingly fast guitar runs imaginable (check out "Sitting on Top of the World", for a sampling). "Cream Puff War" which sounds like Arthur Lee at his snottiest - and "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)", the two originals, exhibit a remarkably high energy and serve as last vestige of their formative, trashy garage-punk tendencies.
"The Grateful Dead" is a real restoration project in that it includes full-length versions of five songs; their endings originally axed by Warner Brothers. This CD edition doubles the length of the album with interesting bonus tracks including a rare band original, "Alice B. Millionaire", which includes an even rarer example of Pigpen on lead vocals effectively carrying a melody (rather than indulging in his blues man persona that frankly gets old when heard repeatedly across these Rhino CDs). This track is a real winner!
Another bonus track highlight is a reverb-drenched instrumental take of "Death Don't Have No Mercy", better known from the later Live/Dead set. "Viola Lee Blues", the albums long track with requisite extended instrumental break n buildup is included in two opposite alternative bonus tracks. The "edited version" (at 3:00) is notable for an improved mix. For good measure, the CD ends with a 23 minute version of the song, from a 67 show.
Apparently, the Dead were none too pleased with the resulting rushed feel of the first album. They would never again flail through their material in such an anachronistically snappy combo style. In 68, they went so far as responding with the indulgently psychedelic "Anthem of the Sun", where they deserve dubious credit for experimenting with mixing studio and live tracks into a single swirling sound throughout. The opening "Thats It for the Other One", served up as a suite of different songs and noises, is the most successful example of this approach. It also showcases the Grateful Deads expanded rhythm section, adding Mickey Hart to their arsenal (along with Bill Kreutzmann, in place since the "Birth of the Dead" early sessions).
For all its sonic disorder, its fair to deride the album for how exhausting it plays today sans psychedelics. While the bonus tracks primarily a 30-plus minute recreation of Anthems second side elevate the CD somewhat (particularly the more revved up interludes), in its less mind-altering current context, "Anthem of the Sun" wont warrant repeated listens, at least here.
The Deads third album, "Aoxomoxoa", is slightly less erratic. It consists of one absolute classic ("St. Stephen"), one abomination (eight sadistic minutes of "Whats Become of the Baby"), and the rest just marginal material. However, this latest CD edition is vastly improved thru inclusion of three long studio instrumental warm-ups including the swinging, 15 minute "Eleven Jam" (a better known version would appear on the follow-up release, "Live/Dead").
Speaking of "Live/Dead", its a record that Ive always intended to check out. My ears have been assaulted by "Turn on Your Love Light" a few times but thats about it until now. Considering it holds the distinction of first proper live album by the band whose reputation was made on live cassettes, my expectations ran high on wrapping my ears for the first time around this very vintage (and highly rated) LP. All I can say is that for an album released 34 years ago, this definitely shatters all the rules. For instance, opening track "Dark Star" sounds like its already been noodling away for a while as it fades in, then proceeds to meander through an endless string of psychedelic solos (Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and roller rink organ work from Tom Constanten) for over 23 minutes.
This was certainly a bold move. Few bands would try this even today. At the same time, its boring and I cant help but think of the MC5s mantra, "Kick out the jams or get the %$#@ off of the stage." Worse is a seven minute-plus "Feedback". This crap wouldnt even make it as a bonus track on anyone elses album. (Actually, Anthem includes a mercilessly abbreviated and better served bonus shot of "Feedback").
On the plus side, "St. Stephen", "The Eleven", and "Turn on Your Love Light" all benefit from the Grateful Deads massive rhythmic thrust, supplied primarily by that dual drum setup. This is displayed to best effect on "Love Light". Its entertaining to hear the bands biker mascot Pigpen croak through the tune (less so, his tedious adlibs for an extra ten minutes) but once one has heard Bobby Blands original, the Deads version doesnt exactly make it as "definitive".
The Grateful Deads real weakness at this point and an undermining element to degrees on all of these live tracks are their vocals and jarring lyrical interludes (for example, the regrettable ditties at the end of "St. Stephen" and very unexpectedly six minutes or so into "The Eleven" instrumental, where they sound like a drunken karaoke act). Chalk it up to a band not bothered quite yet with the minor business of carrying a tune. That would come next with the following years redeeming studio albums ("Workingmans Dead", "American Beauty").
(On a side note, count me as a big fan of Lenny Kaye. However, his shameless plug for his own band, the Patti Smith Group, which serves as a big crescendo of hype at the end of his liner notes to "Live/Dead", should have never made it past the Rhino editors!)
More live sounds are found on the 71 "Grateful Dead". This album kicks off to an oddly rousing start with the aforementioned "Bertha" and only goes down hill about a third of the way through (equating to decent results for a Dead live LP) with the brain-numbing jam "The Other One" it opens with a drum solo, for Petes sake. Suffice it to say that it worked better in its chaotic setting on "Anthem of the Sun". This album also includes their elevator music version of Buddy Hollys "Not Fade Away", to be avoided by anyone whos ever enjoyed Englands Newest Hitmakers.
I must reiterate that while some of these albums are a mess, they each have wholly unique highlights that only the Grateful Dead can drum up. Paired with the programming feature on your CD player, these new Rhino CDs can be adjusted into a winning combination.
It never ceases to amaze me how much great music Ive missed through
all these years. I was swapping emails with Ken Shimamoto earlier in the year
when he made mention of Slade. I think then and there my emails went silent
in hopes that an icon of expert musical taste such as Ken wouldnt pick
up on the fact that I was not hip to those glam-rock relics.
In my defense, I had never heard Slade in the day. I was only nine-years-old and they werent on the radio in my town (and country, for that matter). As for the years since and my investigation of other hi-energy sounds from the past, it took one gaze at Dave Hills goofy getup (unavoidable in old issues of Rock Scene and Circus) to be convinced I wanted nothing to do with these tasteless jokers. Id venture to guess that the rest of America was similarly turned off.
Well, now Ive finally caught up and can claim to be a Slade fan at last. For those that similarly couldnt be bothered, it should be explained that Slade had a ridiculous amount of singles success in England in the early seventies something like six consecutive #1 records!! and it didnt translate one damn bit to a stateside following. In their prime, they were a complete bust on our shores.
One important consideration is that their glam credentials were tied by a mere combed-over thread to Dave Hills flamboyantly unfortunate hair and fashion sense (by comparison, he made silver spray-painted Overend Watts look like a roadie for Bad Company). Besides the campy "Coz' I Luv You" single, all of Slades biggest hits were pile-driving hard rockers but bolstered with a real punk spirit (plus paint-peeling vocals and the most repetitious choruses ever recorded). Personal faves for this last minute convert are the marracca- rockin "Gudbuy TJane", "Take Me Bak 'Ome", "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me" and of course "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" (maybe their all-time best) and "Cum On Feel the Noize" (Quiet Riot, be damned).
I found the much-recommended "Slade Alive" album to be a bit of a let down; nowhere near the fury of Kick Out the Jams, for instance. Its worth checking out, though, for a number of sweaty performances (especially, "In like a Shot from My Gun" and a characteristically over the top live rendition of their hit "Get down Get with It").
The cool thing about these guys is that they never really went soft. In the post-success pUnK era, they were as tough as ever with an album titled appropriately enough, "Whatever Happened to Slade?"! Despite a suspiciously studio-perfect performance - or maybe they were just that tight - their imaginatively titled "Slade Alive Vol. Two" live album from this later age is arguably better than its 72 predecessor. They even scored some belated U.S. success in the early eighties, when most of em were pushing the big four-oh.
Cooler yet is that they started out as a raving mod/soul band, the NBetweens. Theres an album titled "Genesis of Slade" (on Cherry Red, UK) that includes one of the very wildest songs I have heard, titled "Need". Cut in '66 with production handled by none other than Kim Fowley (slumming for talent in London at the time), it is the one song that backs up his suggestion, published in Ugly Things Magazine a few years back, that we readers suspend reason and with the NBetweens, "imagine if the Who had a better bass and drummer". What???
Yet Fowley aint lyin. This song is that rhythmically relentless. Noddy Holders lead vocal is just right crack-ups n all - but better yet is the second "singer", a real Neanderthal who spits out demands like, "Baby, if you really want our lovin/you gotta get down on your hands and knees and beg". No wonder this was never released. I dont have the CD liner notes to confirm it but this misogynist sounds a whole heck of a lot like the background singer on Fowleys production of the Seeds "Wild Blood". Yep, probably the producer himself!
While Im highlighting overlooked sounds, let me also put in a word for the godlike Edwin Starr. Now of course, everyone knows his anthem "War", the mightiest record from Motowns adjustment period in the early seventies (from the ultimate hit assembly line to music maker with a message). On the Wurlitzer jukebox at home, Ive had a house-wreckingly loud original pressing of Starrs "25 Miles" in heavy rotation for a few years probably too few. Of course, Rhino Records has included his 65 stomper "Agent Double-O Soul" on many of their repackages, so it remains a second tier soul favorite, too.
However, how did I miss Edwin Starrs other mid-sixties Detroit Ric Tic label smash sides, "S.O.S. (Stop Her on Site)" and "Headline News"? How have they not become part of the soul reissue A-list lexicon and/or half way imaginative oldies radio programming? To my ears, either of em top "Agent Double-O Soul". "S.O.S." even beats Motown at its own game (and probably with the aid of moonlighting Motown musicians). But its "Headline News" that has really knocked me off my soles since finally discovering a few months back. Ive heard a lot of great records over the years but its been a long time since coming across anything of this caliber. Its both in the backing track, with its powerhouse rhythm (like Motown in overdrive), but especially Starrs positively infectious n emotive vocal (just dig how he punctuates the chorus with some seriously sublime mm-mm-mms) that sets this apart as two minutes of colossal greatness. Sad to say, Edwin Starr passed away in April.
Big Beat Records, a 60s-oriented arm of the massively great UK-based Ace reissue enterprise, are the latest to repackage Lester Bangs favorite garage band, the Count Five. Besides the Bangs angle, the Count Five guys are only remembered for their single shot into the US charts with the supreme 66 Yardbirds cop, "Psychotic Reaction". (Perhaps, you heard em in Australia, too. I can vouch for having an Oz-pressed Festival Records copy of this 45 on my U.S.-based jukebox).
Count Five hailed from the streets of San Jose, adjacent geographically to the San Francisco scene. Having listened to all 24 recordings on Big Beats "Psychotic Revelation: The Ultimate Count Five", I can mostly say that I have a new found appreciation for the Grateful Dead. OK, in fairness, "Psychotic Reaction" will ALWAYS remain in my 60s Garage All-Time Top Ten, even vying for the top spot in my 66 punk hit parade. No surprise, its included here in all its greatness but also in an interesting original take prior to some inspired editing by the bands producer.
But beyond the hit plus one other superb Yardbirds homage ("Double Decker Bus"), youll have to take a leap into Lester Bangs-like embracement of the sheer ineptitude in order to survive an entire 70 minutes of this stuff. Bangs already enshrined the idiotic lyricism in his epochal "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" Creem magazine tribute. And to be sure, there is no more awful a lead vocalist than C5s Kenn Ellner. In fact, he was so tonefully woeful in the studio that the producers forced another member to cut the majority of the lead vocals. (Awful Ellner can be heard on the bands stupendously bad Who covers such as "My Generation" and "Out in the Street" and little else.)
Big Beat deserves a break for uncovering a bunch of unreleased tracks, a few ("Move It Up"; a raw demo of "Contrast") that actually put Mr. Ellner in a more favorable light compared with the barren productions that became their cash-in LP and post-hit singles. Also, an exceptional effort was placed in documenting the bands spectacularly unspectacular story. This type of attention to detail would be more fitting for a band of real significance like the Sonics. Which brings me to Big Beats dynamite and I do mean in the most explosive sense - Sonics package out now, too. (Read my review here).
In my 2002 Top Ten list posted here, I made sure to hip you Barflies to the heavy arrival schedule of audiophile 180 gram wax from our friends at Sundazed Music. Last year, highlights included remastered vinyl of essential Stooges, MC5, Byrds and Dylan longplayers. As much as those releases, I enjoyed rediscovering the Lovin Spoonful via Sundazeds glossy gatefold-sleeved n great sounding reissues of the their first two LPs ("Do You Believe In Magic", "Daydream").
Now, Sundazed bring us a second pair of vinyl LPs which nicely complete the story of the Spoonfuls mid-'60s salad days. In fact, these LPs serve as bookends. First up is the old Whats Shakin compilation in an exact reissue (right down to the original Elektra "Descriptive notes and photos" insert; hows that for detail?!). Whats Shakin is a schizo blues n pop cash-in with the Non-Elektra Lovin Spoonful splashed across the cover if to imply its the latest from the band. Not surprisingly, the Spoonful appears only in a set of early demos.
But what demos! "Good Time Music" is the same kind of electrifying rock n roll poetry that Chuck Berry churned out so magnificently in his Chess heyday. The other Spoonful demos rock with similarly stripped-down authority, especially on a cover of Berrys "Almost Grown". (Whats Shakin is rounded-out by other fab forgotten sessions including early Butterfield Blues Band and even Eric Clapton in a circa 65-66 side-project with "Steve Anglo", or so it says in the insert. The latter is quickly recognizable as Steve Winwood.)
The other recent Sundazed/Spoonful release is a reissue of the last great album from the band, Hums of the Lovin Spoonful. While not wild about the Lovin Spoonfuls purest purist jug band sounds ("Bes Friends", "Henry Thomas"), the rest of Hums is a masterful blend of hard blues ("Voodoo In My Basement", "4 Eyes"), funkiest electric country pickin ("Nashville Cats" and LP fave: "Darlin Companion"), and atmospheric wonders ("Coconut Grove" and the instrumental "Rain on the Roof"; an important bonus track).
Also just in from Sundazed is the long-awaited new Mindbending Sounds of the Chesterfield Kings. No other band did more for relaunching the 66 garage sound than these guys, who have been at it in out of the way Rochester, NY ever since the late seventies. There have been more than a few personnel upheavals over the years but at this point, they have really found their strength in production know-how that none of the competition can touch.
This latest LP seems to pick up on their early momentum (documented on the lo-fi, tragically out of print "Here Are the Chesterfield Kings", from two decades ago) but benefits from an improved, uncanny grasp of vintage mid-sixties instrumentation and recording techniques. The guitar effects in particular sound amazingly true to the Yardbirds era. All in all, this sounds like some long-lost Dave Hassinger production, cut between his 66 sessions with the Stones and Electric Prunes.
Oh yeah, the music is pretty great, too. When Greg Prevost whines away in his best exaggerated punk phrasing, it doesnt come across as a put-on (although it probably should). Hes a modern day Dave Aguilar (Chocolate Watchband); a dedicated understudy of peak early period Jagger. By comparison, a lot of other garage-punkd frontmen of recent decades sound like they are goofing around in some spoofy send-up of the style. For Prevost, this is clearly serious business. They even print their lyrics now, setting the best liner notes of Andrew Loog Oldham to music; combining em with the cryptic rear sleeve set/philosophies from "Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators". The overall mood is Paint it, Black. Pick hit of the week!
On a final note, some of these sounds notably Slade and Edwin Starr were acquired by unspeakably devious means. Lets just leave it at that. But in both cases, Ive investigated em, liked what was heard (to say the least), and have now ordered a CD of each. As for the Dead, I received some of these titles as promos from Rhino and got so hooked by some, that it led me to the local superstore excuse for a record shop to buy the others.
To digress, the record retail landscape, at least in my backyard (Raleigh, North Carolina, USA), is starting to look a lot like some Mad Max post-apocalyptic backdrop. In only two or three years, nearly all of this areas better stocked record shops have been run out of business by a few giant electronics and book seller chains where its difficult to find anything other than the ordinary.
On the flipside, one can acquire a Rationals or Bob Seger & the Last Heard single either of em out of print for over three decades in potentially seconds off of one of the file-sharing sites. Talk about a mixed message for us consumers!
Ill leave it to others to argue their right to freely trade music electronically. Using the Rationals and Seger examples, I cant say I have any sympathy for the copyright owners that have kept these crucial sounds out of the publics hands (and ear drums) for so long.
But to my point about the seemingly antiquated practice of purchasing music (such as those CDs mentioned above), let me admit that Ive been as impressed as the next rock n roll junkie with whats out there n so easily accessible online. Then it occured on me that Im really going to miss all these great labels like Rhino, Sundazed, and Big Beat when the internet puts em out of business. Hopefully, these operations are as healthy as ever and Im overreacting. But just to be on the safe side, lets support these and any other cool labels that care.