DEEP FUNK: Taking a long, loud look at two of the hardest working pioneers of heavy metal

January 26th, 2003: When I weasel my way into a local college radio station later in the week for one of my irregular shows, the programming won’t be the usual '60s garage and '70s punk that makes up a quality unbalanced diet. Instead, the plan this time around is to pay homage to two less likely examples of alternative, Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad! It all started the other day when I asked the co-host/station staffer if it would be a big ugly scene if I showed up with a pile of recent reissues by those two seemingly over-aired early '70s heavy metal acts.

Much to my surprise, the instant feedback was exactly as follows: "Theme at least for the first two hours can be Deep Purple vs. Grand Funk. We can let listeners vote on which band they think is cooler and ill try to snag some giveaway items like stuff by the bands."

Knowing the enthusiasm and sincerity of the guy that emailed this to me, his instructions were surely dispatched devoid of any sarcasm. He’s serious about this contest. Suffice it to say, I’m completely on board, too. After all, beyond the semi-banality of classic-rock calling cards like "Woman from Tokyo" and "I’m Your Captain", it’s been obvious to me for decades that either of these acts in their prime could dish out the hi-energy goods as convincingly as any punk act worth mentioning. A pile of recent reissues of each has only pounded (and I do mean pounded) this point home for me all the more absolutely.

My introduction to Grand Funk Railroad in their original, primitive power trio format occurred at an odd time. It was 1977, of all things. I should have been listening to the Ramones (more about that later). After witnessing Paul Stanley of Kiss "destroy" a prop guitar on stage the previous year, I had already received my first whiff of arena rock bullsh*t (and at my first concert, no less). My enthusiasm for cartoon heavy metal was on the ebb. I was now on the lookout for the real deal.

In the summer of that year, at the home of a "very respectable" family (who were friendly with my own), I found mixed in with the expected Cat Stevens and Carole King longplayers a copy of Grand Funk’s ‘Closer To Home’ LP. Now, someone in this family was so respectable that they had covered the entire inside of the gatefold sleeve with tin foil and tape! Rightly so, this got my curiosity going and soon found myself out of sight and unpeeling the violated record jacket. (For those with fuzzy memories of GFR, ‘Closer To Home" is not the LP with the cheesy nude spread of the band. But it could’ve been for all the determination that went into censoring this sleeve).

What awaited me behind the Reynolds Wrap was a live shot of the band taken at Madison Square Garden in 1970. 33 years after it was caught on camera, I still rate that photo as one of the few iconic images of its early seventies era (along with those of the MC5 and, of course, the one of Iggy standing atop Grand Funk Railroad’s audience at the Cincinnati Pop Fest). It showed a band completely caught up in their performance yet without a trace of the self-conscious posturing that has defined the look of heavy metal almost ever since.

Guitarist Mark Farner, caught in mid-scream, is the centerpiece of the shot; a monument of muscles and yeti-like hair. Here he exudes the kind of primitive authenticity/intensity that a primping wimp like Paul Stanley could only try to impersonate. Besides Farner, it’s the musical unit as a whole that is captured so mightily in this black & white image. Drummer Don Brewer hammering away at his kit while singing (and with no drum riser at this gargantuan venue!), and Mel Schacher, wrestling with a bass pointed to the rafters, say as much as Farner’s stance and scream that something exciting is going down.

Soon after unpeeling this Pandora’s Box, I was calling the local independent hippy record shop only to be informed, "We don’t carry Grand Funk records." That snooty affront just made me more determined to get funked even if for the most part, the record chains only stocked a hits comp of GFR’s latter day Top 40 hits that I knew better than to buy.

That was 26 years ago. In 2002, Capitol Records finally set things right. First out of the gate was ‘Live, the 1971 Tour’; a compilation of live recordings from various shows on that year’s US concert swing. While not quite as unhinged as the vintage ‘Live Album’ (from the peak of hysteria, in 1970), the sound is consistently better and for some songs, arguably definitive. (For more of the same opinion, refer to my year-end Top 10 list posted at the Bar).

On the heels of the ’71 Tour disc, Capitol finally began rolling out remastered CDs of the original albums. It’s kind of amusing that the label couldn’t be bothered until now, considering that virtually all of these LPs were Gold Records in their day. Minor quibbles, though. Having picked up these (mostly) fine repackages, I’ve been on a major Funk bender for awhile now. Here’s what I’m hearing:

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD – On Time (1969): To say that this, their debut, is Grand Funk’s least sophisticated effort speaks volumes for its utter simplicity and at times, ineptitude. The most glaring example of the latter is "High On A Horse", a highly promising Blue Cheer-styled fuzz shouter marred by grating harmonies worthy of a few laughs but not regular listens (it’s included here in two versions). Compared to later albums, the performances are a bit tentative, as well. While listening to any of the early Grand Funk Railroad albums, one might get the impression that producer/manager Terry Knight had a knack for… well, managing.
For all its flaws, I would not and could not kick ‘On Time’ out of my record collection. First of all, it has an unadorned, clean yet crude quality with drums and guitars separated to ridiculous effect. Mark Farner, one of rock’s least celebrated lead guitarists – and for good reason, mind you – plays fab, economical fuzztone fills and prehistoric power chords throughout. Farner, one of rock’s least celebrated lyricists – and for good reason, mind you - hasn’t fully succumbed to the lofty spokesmen role that would overtake his songwriting on later albums. Instead, there’s "T.N.U.C.", a real milestone in misogyny. "Are You Ready" introduces the band’s predominate influence, soul music (uniquely given the raunched-out power trio treatment). More so than some of their better selling albums, ‘On Time’ has a healthy percentage of their more memorable material ("Are You Ready", "Into The Sun", "Heartbreaker", to name the most obvious).

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD – Grand Funk (1969): Though recorded only a few months after their debut LP session, this record is a loud leap forward. First of all, the tasteless album cover artwork of ‘On Time’ (which looked like a damned American Breed sleeve) was ditched in favor of an appropriately blaring red jacket. The sound is the real surprise, however. This is one of the best "drum" albums ever engineered. Better yet is the colossal bass sound that equates to a 50 minute rock ‘n’ roll earthquake. I would even go out on a limb by claiming that bassman Mel Schacher invented heavy metal on this LP! Mark Farner’s guitar playing is dwarfed by comparison.

Mark Farner is hardly the worst guitarist in rock. In fact, I’m a lifetime fan of his bastard funky unrestrained rhythm guitar playing, popularized circa ‘69/71. As for his lead guitar, though, it’s too bad that no one explained to him the less-is-more rule. "In Need" is extended evidence against allowing Mark to ape Jimmy Page. His clumsy attempt at speedy soloing on this track (here and on subsequent live versions) strangely enough has the tonal quality of a badly broken banjo! On the "plus" side, plenty of live work between albums seemed to beat his voice into shape. Whereas his singing was once weedy (another ‘On Time’ example: "Call Yourself A Man"; boss tune, regardless!), it’s full of authority on ‘Grand Funk’.

"Got This Thing On The Move" opens the album and has absolutely everything going for it (thunderous bass, commanding lead vocal), at least for the first two and a half minutes. It then succumbs to a seriously constipated fuzz dirge. Not to worry ‘cause the Funk are back at full throttle with "Please Don’t Worry", a mediocre melody that is upgraded to draw-dropping results thanks to a very over the top rave-up performance. Specifically, listen for when Farner interrupts a predictable solo with unpredictably out of control rhythm guitar, igniting an unbelievably manic groove with double time machine gun percussion and full throttle bass runs. "Paranoid" just may top the Stooges’ "1969" as most violated wah wah on wax. Except for some distracting as hell, cheapo sounding keyboards on one track (plus several tragically lengthy Farner guitar solos) this record rules as Grand Funk’s heaviest studio album. One of its two bonus tracks is an early version of "Nothing Is The Same", one of the more rockin’ tracks off of next LP, ‘Closer To Home’.

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD – Closer To Home (1970): This is a transitional, somewhat schizophrenic album; part the pile driving sound of previous months, the rest a bid for musical credibility (Not surprisingly, it’s the former approach that provides repeated listening enjoyment for this fan). My favorite example of this confusion is opening track "Sin’s A Good Man’s Brother". It begins with some gentle acoustic guitar strumming that abruptly explodes into one of GFR’s most crushing, screaming numbers. (The acoustic intro is so completely unrelated to the rest of the track, it sounds like an afterthought; a gimmick attempted to sway the critics who detested them).

"Hooked On Love" also features that trademark locomotive rhythm but boasts female backup singers, as well; really horrid "soul" backup singers. They also appear for no apparent reason on an otherwise instrumental track, "Get It Together" (which owes a passing resemblance to the ‘60s cocktail soul hit, "Mercy Mercy Mercy"). The misguided, offensive screeching of the backup gals on this song marks a real low point in Grand Funk’s recording oeuvre.

Mark Farner shows off his sensitive side (har har) on "I Don’t Have To Sing The Blues", a tribute to his main squeeze including the immortal valentine card sentiments, "And she’ll roll over on her back". More evident of musical development is the 10 minute epic, "I’m Your Captain". Even if it will rarely get played from this point forward by yours truly (‘cause it has already been programmed to death on the radio for three decades), it’s nice to know it’s there in this fine sounding remastered form.

Of the bonus tracks, "In Need", "Heartbreaker" and "Mean Mistreater" appear as alternative versions from the same live gigs that made up their next album (see effusive praise below). They do not suffer from the suspicious crowd eruptions that overtake the mix throughout ‘Live Album’. Plus, the bone-breaking drum sound on "In Need" murders. Note, the new packaging does not include aluminum foil.

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD – Live Album (1970): With this remastered edition, I’m on at least my fifth copy of this hi-energy, savage masterpiece. I’ve owned almost as many copies of ‘Kick Out The Jams’ though if push came to shove, would choose this over the MC5 (and believe me, that’s no careless testimonial). Warts and all, this is one of the essential documents of live metal mania. Just dig how the band shifts gears in the middle of the tepid wah wah workout "Mark Say’s Alright", transforming it into a stampeding showdown of furiously uninhibited rhythm guitar, overdriven bass, a screaming fuzz lead and superhuman drumming. Feedback ‘n’ fuzz perfectly segues from this into a hotwired version of "T.N.U.C." that despite the interruption of an overly endless drum solo (not nearly as breakneck as the ‘On Time’ studio showcase), rates as a perfect melding of metal and punk. Though set aside as Don Brewer’s vehicle, the feedback, power chords and guttural screams of front man Farner steal this one. Other highlights are, well, everything. It’s worth noting that the remastering doesn’t produce a particularly better sounding recording.

GRAND FUNK – Survival (1971): Portraying the band as grubby cavemen on the front sleeve was a stroke of genius. Too bad that this step towards self-awareness was lost on the music housed within; a dreary collection of sluggish numbers, pointless covers, and a cleaned-up drum sound that has all of the percussive qualities of a Fisher Price toy. Their cover of "Gimme Shelter" is the only track with any real energy but in the end, maybe a little too heavy handed compared to the incomparable original (to put it kindly). "Comfort Me" is the one standout track, reminiscent of "I’m Your Captain".

Of the bonus tracks, "I Can’t Get Along With Society" shows promise at the onset but is cancelled out as a contender over a supremely tasteless, never-ending ending. (As a side note, the liner notes for all of these 2002 reissues are penned by the same guy. Judging by his statement, "Surely there is little doubt, especially with the hindsight of decades gone by, that SURVIVAL stands as one of Grand Funk Railroad’s very best albums ever", this guy might have earned the liner note assignment through a contest sponsored by the band’s fan club).

GRAND FUNK – E Pluribus Funk (1971): Just when it seemed they were a spent force (after four studio LPs in two years and most recently, the dubious artistic success of ‘Survival’), Grand Funk rebounded with one of their strongest collections in ‘E Pluribus Funk’. From the soul revival send up of "Footstompin’ Music" (with Mark Farner alternating between downright fine Hammond organ and concise guitar leads) to another R&B-infused raver, "Upsetter" and heavy-duty, slightly Who-like "I Come Tumblin’" (where they had the good sense to combine drum and bass solos as one), the record rarely lets up. Even the token ballad "Loneliness" has a fluid arrangement including some heavy riffing (docked points for overzealous orchestration that threatens to swallow the arrangement).

The bonus tracks include a ‘Closer To Home’ live medley from ’71 featuring "I’m Your Captain", "Hooked On Love" and less notably, "Get It Together"; the first two in the heavy style favored by the band on stage (Mel Schacher’s massively rumbling bass adding more funk to each number; Mark ‘n’ Don trading vocals and shouts to exciting effect). ‘E Pluribus Funk’ (along with ‘Live, The 1971 Tour’) effectively closes the book on Grand Funk’s Pre-Top 40, prehistoric power trio era. Sniff sniff.

GRAND FUNK – Phoenix (1972): Having given the boot to greedy manager/producer Terry Knight (who it should be noted was key to their massive overnight success back in ‘69/70), Grand Funk entered a new era with ‘Phoenix’. They rescued from obscurity an old Pre-Funk band mate (keyboardist Craig Frost) and cut a self-produced album which based on some previous wrong steps under the watchful accounting of Knight, could’ve been a disaster. Instead, ‘Phoenix’ is a decent record, albeit one that shows the band reinvented as a polished, professional outfit (the unbridled wildness of the early LPs is nowhere to be heard). Without a real producer in charge, the songwriting might have been worse. But for a few out ‘n’ out clunkers ("So You Won’t Have To Die", "Freedom Is For Children"), this record served its purpose, succeeding by showing the band could stand on their own. Best of the lot is "Rock ‘N Roll Soul", which is a throwback to the style of "Footstompin’ Music" from the previous year.

GRAND FUNK – We’re An American Band (1973): After listening through all of the Grand Funk remasters (which so far stop at this LP; ’74 to ’76 album reissues are expected any day now), I ventured out to the All-Music Guide website to see what the critics had to say about ‘em. Now, when I compare my opinions vs. those of the AMG reviewers, I can only conclude that either they or I have sh*t for ears. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s AMG that ought to have their ears inspected. Case in point (and using the site’s five star rating system), this LP somehow garners five stars while ‘Live Album’ and ‘Live, The 1971 Tour’ get somewhere in the neighborhood of a lousy two stars.

I can only assume that the five stars are intended to heap further undue praise on Todd Rundgren, the hired gun producer of ‘We’re An American Band’. If there is a key contributor here, it’s drummer/vocalist Don Brewer. He wrote or co-write anything of note, including the albums two standouts; the title track and "Walk Like A Man". Indeed, these are timeless ‘70s party records (file along side BTO). But I don’t find anything else on this LP at all memorable.

As a bonus track, an acoustic "Stop Lookin’ Back" is very powerful; the kind of lyric that would have made for a monster cut on one of their earlier albums. As it appears on the original LP, there’s too much going on with the arrangement including an unhealthy amount of Clavinet where Mark Farner’s crude chords ought to be out front. Interestingly, Farner’s role seems diminished here including only half of the lead vocals. With no disrespect to Brother Don Brewer (MVP), it just makes me miss the early days of Grand Funk all the more.


"I want everything louder than everything else."
- Ian Gillan, ‘Deep Purple-Made In Japan’, 1972

Besides Grand Funk reissues, the other recent cause for celebration is in the Deep Purple camp. Make no mistake, when it comes to these guys, I’m right there with the most rabid, life-long fans. In my book, Purple’s wildest moments created the same kind of excitement as live Grand Funk, only they also had the musical chops in the guitar/keyboard department to take it to the next level. While this could also be seen as a recipe for bombast, with Purple the rewards are usually worth the risk. In the digital age, Deep Purple is one of the most deserving, best documented groups. But then again, none of their countless prior reissues could have prepared their fans for the massive new UK box set, ‘Listen, Learn, Read On’.

At six discs and over 70 tracks (several clocking in at the 30 minute mark!), this collection doesn’t cover a lot of ground; it covers all of the ground. True, their best loved cuts are all included in either rare live versions or - no joke - even rarer quadraphonic mixes. But it’s debatably all here. If there is any argument to be made, it is over the choice of selections from their first phase; one initiated by the surprise ’68 US smash, "Hush". ‘Shades of Deep Purple, their debut from whence the hit was launched, is an unheralded classic (and to my ears, easily the best, most exhilarating of the early LPs). "Hush" and one other selection are included yet where is atmospheric instro "And The Address" or violently executed personal fave rave, "Love Help Me"?
To split hairs, it’s also a little annoying not to have the eponymous third LP’s percussive pounder, "Chasing Shadows". To play fair, it must be said that the compilers picked perfectly from ‘The Book Of Taliesyn’, the band’s 2nd longplayer.

However, most fans will rejoice over the major emphasis on Deep Purple’s second, most successful phase. While this period, from ’69 to ’73, is ID’d as the Ian Gillan era, that frontman - like all Purple frontmen, before and after – was merely a side attraction to the main event, namely Ritchie Blackmore, lead guitarist extraordinaire. Nearly three CDs of this set are crammed full of cuts from these years, labeled by the band’s historians and fans as Deep Purple Mk 2.

Ritchie Blackmore (Courtesy of the Deep Purple Appreciation Society,

Deep Purple Mk 2 floundered through one hokey single ("Hallelujah") and a ‘Group and Orchestra’ side project - both represented on the box set - before preparing for their first proper DP album. At the onset, legend (and liner notes) recalls Ritchie Blackmore issuing the ultimatum, "If it’s not dramatic or exciting, it has no place on this album." Blackmore had spent years toiling on the ultra-rowdy stages of Hamburg thus must’ve known a thing or two about winning over an audience before they could think to communicate back with launched beer bottles. From this point forward, the band was known for eardrum-shredding volume and intense instrumental pyrotechnics. The album that defined this groundbreaking sound was ‘Deep Purple In Rock’.

One key reason (among many) for recommending the box set is its inclusion of many BBC radio appearances from the ‘In Rock’ era. Beginning with a revamp of the first lineup’s "The Bird Has Flown", these BBC cuts are bountiful in distorted organ runs and Blackmore’s astoundingly speedy, tasteful picking. From recently unearthed (and surprisingly decent sounding) live tapes, the band makes the most of their older material with 50 minutes allocated to two cuts alone; an extended instrumental dual between Blackmore and organist Jon Lord on "Wring That Neck" plus an Ian Gillan-sabotaged revival of "Mandrake Root". Despite the sarcastically screeched vocal on the latter, it is over soon enough, allowing 27 additional minutes for drummer Ian Paice’s "Rondo" rhythm and a platform for Blackmore to violate his guitar in every possible manner (tastefully violated, mind you). This is not one of those lengthy song inclusions that serves no purpose. On the contrary, this is exactly the kind of tune I intend to finance on the CD jukebox next time I stop by the I-94 Bar, with some ugly air guitar showmanship a distinct possibility.

Another heavy highlight is a pair of live cuts from an uncredited TV appearance (sounding a lot like a German ‘Beat Club’ appearance that I once raved about in another rock rag venue), consisting of a ‘Fireball’ LP fave, "No No No", and early ’71 version of "Highway Star" (with what sounds like improvised lyrics all about Ann-Margaret, etc. On "No No No", a suspiciously loose Ian Gillan takes snide pot shots at number one nemesis Blackmore and on both tracks, Mickey Mouse…?!). Of course, the ever popular ’72 ‘Machine Head’ album is represented, too.

In ’73, when Deep Purple was awarded Billboard Magazine’s top album artist of the year, Ian Gillan celebrated his good fortune by leaving the band. However, this was not before completing an erratic studio album, ‘Who Do We Think We Are’ (recorded the previous year). The ‘Listen, Learn, Read On’ box set does not help in rewriting the LP’s poor reputation. "Woman From Tokyo", the lack luster lead off track, sounds only marginally better in its quadraphonic mix (with added lo-watt guitar leads; same lame bridge, too). My vote for worst track on the set is "Mary Long". This plodding number, with lyrics that might make even Mark Farner cringe, undermines my argument for why Deep Purple rule. Because of the way mighty Mk 2 DP went out on a whimper, I probably have less of a hard time digging the next version of the band featuring none other than David Coverdale.

While David Coverdale might’ve stood as an icon of sh*t in the eighties (with Whitesnake), I thoroughly dig the energy that he and bass player Glenn Hughes infused into the next album and tours (caveat: for the most part). I once owned a copy of the ’74 ‘Burn’ LP but in all honesty, not in 25 years. So it was a minor revelation in hearing these tracks again. The title track, featuring Blackmore’s classic riff ‘n’ solo plus manic drum attack by Ian Paice, is of course familiar. Yet the other remastered tracks, "Might Just Take Your Life" and "Sail Away", are forgotten gems, too; complimented by the contrasting, quite soulful vocals of Coverdale and Hughes. On the sh*t side, one other low point on this set is Mk 3’s horrendous 30 minute live update of "Spacetruckin’". It’s one thing to note that Coverdale is not credible in copying Ian Gillan’s vocal. But far worse a problem is Glenn Hughes, who makes a mockery of the song by turning it into a vehicle for his egotistical soul man aspirations. It’s "Spacetruckin’", Glenn, not the %$#@ing O’Jays!

Despite my "Spacetruckin’" grievances, Deep Purple Mk 3 was one great live band, at least when they laid into their own material. "You Fool No One" is a good example, with Coverdale and Hughes in serious croon mode. Backed by a relentless Ian Paice cowbell funk rhythm and prominent Blackmore riffing, they sound almost like a heavy metal Walker Brothers! Very strange, but it works. The version here isn’t the best in quality, but at least documents a significant gig; Deep Purple co-headlining (w/ ELP) at the 200,000 strong California Jam festival in ’74. Trivia: At Cal Jam, despite five best selling albums under their belt, Black Sabbath was still a support act to the hugely popular Purple.

As mentioned, Deep Purple was on top of the world, sales-wise, in 1973. The following year, they were back in the US Top 10 with ‘Burn’. So, what happened in the next nine months to cause the Warner Brothers accountants in the US to maybe confuse Deep Purple’s current ‘75 sales figures with those of the latest Uriah Heep LP stiff? Answer: ‘Stormbringer’. It’s all documented exceptionally in the imposing 120 page book included with ‘Listen, Learn, Read On’ (stuffed with page after page of full color photos ‘n’ memorabilia and a tiny font size for the text that hides the fact that there is enough coverage in words to fill a conventional 300 page book) but to sum it up, the new guys pushed the band away from their trademark sound towards, of all things, soul/funk.

The title track of ‘Stormbringer’ is true to the established sound though undermined by Jon Lord’s growing reliance on synthesizer (for a DP record, it’s uncharacteristically close in sound to the Captain & Tennille’s "Muskrat Love", for gosh sake!). Now, I’m a little naïve about all this remixing biz but if the compilers of this box set managed to track down the long-lost quad mix of "Stormbringer", I don’t see why they couldn’t have ditched the one channel with the synth plus the one other track with the idiotic backward-taped spoken intro, thus restoring this to an actual Deep Purple classic! From the same LP, "Hold On" is so polished, it sounds like a Steely Dan record. While Coverdale is credible, the track is not helped by yet more Glenn Hughes soul affectations, probably intended as Stevie Wonder emulation but in its breathy cuteness sounding frighteningly like a forerunner to Wham.

An unreleased instrumental mix of "High Ball Shooter" is a real fave, however, placing Ritchie Blackmore in a down-home southern funky rock groove. This stands as one of his last great moments with Purple. "Gypsy" is the one track representing the final Blackmore tour (a series of dates compiled to great effect on the out-of-print ‘Made In Europe’ LP and posthumous ‘Mk 3 – The Final Concerts’ 2-CD set. It’s an ok performance but I would have preferred an appearance of the butt-kicking "Lady Double Dealer", which despite all my complaining about Glenn Hughes includes some seriously soulful singing from he and Coverdale.

Besides the ‘In Rock’ era, the one other period that receives an almost perfect overview on the box set is that of DP Mk 4, with Tommy Bolin replacing Ritchie Blackmore. This is not to say that Mk4 was as rewarding musically as Mk 2 – not hardly – but the right tracks are included, whether from their one studio album (‘Come Taste The Band’), rehearsals, demos or live tracks (highlighted by a fab monotone Bolin vocal showcase, "Wild Dogs"). The Mk 4 recordings stand as a return to form, with some of the funk tendencies of the previous album now integrated in a way that works. For a truly no holds barred oral history of this drug-addled period, again a plug for my 2002 year-end Top 10 list available elsewhere at the Bar. This chapter in Deep Purple’s history - which ended in a disgusted Jon Lord and Ian Paice not bothering to reassemble the band after a particularly unprofessional, vomit-ridden ’76 tour – wraps up the ‘Listen, Learn, Read On’ box set. From "Hush" to this in just eight years, it is a thrilling journey to take once again.
I am up to my ears in new CDs to listen to since the holidays. Besides the Deep Purple and Grand Funk reissues, I have been listening to the highly erratic but enjoyable box set of the Nice (on Sanctuary/UK; an import bargain in the US at under $20 for a 3-CD set). It’s titled, cleverly enough, ‘Here Come The Nice’. While it’s never too cool to own up to owning some Keith Emerson, I must admit to cranking up the ’67 first LP cuts (even punchier in some alternate mixes included as a bonus). In fact, I cannot think of anything much heavier than the instrumental fuzz fest, "War And Peace"; one of my real faves of late. I’ve also been digging the big soulful voice of Lee Michaels, especially the astonishing live-in-studio medley that opens his ’69 third LP (interminable drum solo not part of my praise) and to a little lesser degree, the heavy rock sound of his ’68 debut, ‘Carnival of Life’ (side one, I should say).

I mentioned the Ramones earlier. Even as an unsophisticated early teen in the late '70s, I admired what I saw of the band on ‘Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert’ …well, at least the chainsaw guitar. A full appreciation would come later. Rhino Records has commissioned Johnny Ramone to pick his favorite, fastest 30 records by his favorite band, compiled as ‘Loud, Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits’. It’s a damn excellent overview, right from the beginning to the end. As a bonus, it includes a second disc capturing a short live set from when they were out supporting the ‘Too Tough To Die’ album. More so than ‘Loud, Fast Ramones’, or any other Ramones LP/CD for that matter, my all-time favorite record by these guys is ‘Too Tough To Die’. The album’s best track, "Mama’s Boy", is also included on the new Rhino collection along with one of Dee Dee’s hardcore killers, "Wart Hog". What’s odd to me is that Johnny didn’t also insist on including his super-cool guitar instrumental showcase, "Durango 95".

No worries, though, because earlier in 2002 Rhino issued expanded, remastered editions of the band’s early eighties releases including this overlooked masterpiece. Unlike several previous albums where veteran producers were brought in to mold a hit out of the band’s idiosyncratic style, the Ramones were allowed on this occasion to bring back T. Erdelyi (a/k/a Tommy Ramone) to helm the production. The no-bull results on ‘Too Tough To Die’ hold-up fully after two decades. Even "Howling At The Moon (Sha-La-La)", the token synth-pop concession produced by Dave Stewart, doesn’t detract too badly. In this latest CD edition, the album is doubled in length with demos including Dee Dee’s guide vocals on the title track, "Danger Zone", and "Planet Earth 1988".

I enjoyed my recent reunion with this album so much that within 24 hours, was also purchasing the Rhino repackage of the Ramones’ ’81 ‘Pleasant Dreams’. While in no way as powerful as ‘Too Tough To Die’, the commercial touches contributed by producer Graham Gouldman lend well to Joey’s ballads ("Don’t Go", "7-11"), the power-pop winner "She’s A Sensation", and lost anthems like "We Want The Airwaves" and "Come On Now". Personal fave is the Joey ‘n’ Dee Dee duet, "All’s Quiet On The Eastern Front" (which sounds like it absorbs some of the "melody" from the Stooges’ "Little Doll"). My next purchase may just have to be the Rhino Ramones remaster of ‘Subterranean Jungle’.

Lastly, as with the Nice CD mentioned above, another UK release that slipped away unnoticed by me for a few years is Mott The Hoople’s ‘Two Miles From Live Heaven’. From the Angel Air label that brought us both the excellent ‘All The Way From Stockholm To Philadelphia – Live 71/72’ and abominably lo-fi ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus – Live’ CD sets, I didn’t know what to expect with this latest trawl through ex-Mott members’ (and fans’) tapes. Considering the previous debacle of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’, I must say I am pleasantly surprised with what’s included on this 2-CD set.

One disc is culled from a decent-sounding, expectantly sloppy ’71 US live show, followed by a ’73 TV broadcast dubbed direct from what sounds like a VHS tape. To be honest, it’s not nearly as awful sounding as I describe it, plus the band appears still to be in possession of some of the earlier spark of the Island Records era.

Disc two marks the first legitimate commercial issue of a well circulated ’74 US radio broadcast. In many ways, these performances are better than what reached the record shops at the time as ‘Mott The Hoople Live’. Still, the rhythm section sounds a little sluggish on most numbers, making me long for the crazy days of ‘Brain Capers’ (another great, hi-energy "drum" album). Coincidentally, ‘Two Miles From Live Heaven’ is rounded out by a few unreleased demos. The one that matters is an alternate ‘Brain Capers’ session mix of "Death May Be Your Santa Claus". It’s a revelation, with Ian Hunter’s insulting studio chatter and an uncensored lyric. This is priceless and reason alone for recommending this set to any fan of Mott The Hoople.

UPDATE, February 2nd: I have never had more fun on the radio than the other night, while co-hosting an on-air "battle of the bands" between Deep Purple and Grand Funk Railroad. Unlike many of my shows which must go right over the local listeners’ ears, the phones lit up throughout the show (which was extended to a third hour in response to public outcry!). OK, the phones did go pretty dead at one point, when I made the mistake of broadcasting 10 minutes or more of Deep Purple letting it all hang out on "You Fool No One". Up until that point, Deep Purple was represented with furious performances that led to a commanding early lead in the listener voting (biggest spike in D-Purp vote casting was incidentally during the awesome ‘Deep Purple In Concert’ version of "Wring That Neck"!!).

In the end, though (symbolically initiated by the maraca-shakin’, unstoppable "Upsetter’"), Grand Funk’s simple, pounding approach resulted in a major comeback and ultimately, a contest victory. Actually, the phones were still ringing as the last note of "Spacetruckin’" (‘Made In Japan’ version, make no mistake) faded, thus marking the closing of the poll. Those calls were ignored (after all, these lazy listeners had three previous hours to dial in a vote) so we will never know if Deep Purple had enough last minute votes to steal back a win. As for me, I didn’t care who won. It was preordained by me to be a perfect outcome, no matter who prevailed. Congratulations to Grand Funk Railroad!