A-SQUARED (OF COURSE): THE STORY OF MICHIGAN'S LEGENDARY A-SQUARE RECORDS - Various Artists (Big Beat/Shock)
Two minds are better than one and I was briefly in both of them about this compilation, another in the series by UK label Big Beat that explores the output of various important record labels. But more on that in a minute.
Ann Arbor - aka A2 ("A Squared") - is the college town 40 miles west of the Motor City-proper and the place where the MC5 took refuge after the Detroit riots, when the heat from the pigs became too hot. Their abode at 1510 Hill Street still stands. Ann Arbor was also home to the Stooges whose misfit members took slacker culture to its n'th degree when they moved into a rental place they dubbed The Funhouse and indulged in all manner of druggy and musical madness. (Oddly enough for a bunch of anti-commercial outcasts, their former home is now a drive-through bank.)
A-Squared is also the label named after the town and it started as a means for band manager Jeep Holland to secure gig for his acts. Jeep was really a "linkman"; the guy who moved a heap of bands off the frat-and-teen circuit and into the larger clubs and ballrooms. A prescient operator.
Both A2s were wellsprings of that ill-mannered beast called Detroit Rock. More a time and place (south-east Michigan and circa 1965-70) than a homogenous musical genre, it was where rock and roll, energy and force intersected musically, producing some of the decade's most potent music. Michigan rock existed in spite of, rather than as an extension of, what was going down outside the Midwest.
While the Stooges weren't on the A2 label, the Five only briefly so, but the musical linkages are such that you can draw a map from the label to them and other influential acts. But of course Michigan Rock was always about more than two bands.
But back to the intro and the big letdown with this collection is that it leaves off A2's cornerstone act, the Rationals, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their output. Ownership of much of their music was signed away years ago (ever heard the name Allen Klein?) Word is that legal relief is at hand and a Rationals compile is just around the corner. So not so much a letdown but a delay.
While "A-Squared (Of Course)" isn't a representative sampling, it's not meant to be. It's a collection of 25 tracks from 10 bands that Holland either managed or released. A dozen are previously unreleased.
Holland was an influential figure who managed to attract all sorts of people into his orbit. He's the guy who gave Iggy his nickname and his first job at Ann Arbor's Discount Records where the future Stooge was a bit of a chick magnet, by all accounts.
Jeep had The Collector Gene and accumulated 100,000 comic books in his house. He also had an amazing collection of cutting edge 45s. This gave his own bands access to quality songs before the originators (mostly British Invasion bands) cracked it Stateside. Should anyone be surprised that A2 artists The Rationals had success with the Otis Redding-penned "Respect" well before Aretha Franklin broke the song nationally? On the other side of the coin, Holland's bands found him to be a control freak, very prescriptive in his management style without having the hard-edged business acumen to back it up. This caused some friction in the ranks but none could say the guy didn't things 110 percent in trying to break bands.
Although it's been widely issued elsewhere, the MC5 single "Looking At You" b/w "Borderline" was an obvious inclusion whose backstory says much about the wheeling and dealing of late '60s Planet Detroit. If you've heard it you'll know the A side is an aural disaster that shows what happens when you mix loads of hash, LSD and production ineptitude. I love it. The even more distorted "Borderline" features farting bass and a rhythmic feel akin to a herd of elephants fucking on a waterbed. This one I can still do without.
Alec Palao's incisive liners reveal MC5 manager John Sinclair had the single recorded, pressed and just about in the stores before he told the label owner it was coming out on Jeep's own imprint. Holland, who had been working with Uncle Russ Gibb to book bands at the Grande Ballroom, was by then a convert to the band's music if not its revolutionary cause and went along with Big Chief's American Ruse. It's a pity Jeep's label didn't host the band a little longer before they signed to Elektra as their trajectory might have been much different.
The Prime Movers were Ann Arbor's vastly-respected blues purists whose drummers included a young James Osterberg. Holland managed them for a while and you can hear a crystal clear live cut from a demo he was hawking - a very "up" version of "I'm a Man" with Michael Erlewine intro and a young Iggy stepping up for a cameo vocal. Shades of the Pop he would soon be, a year before the birth of the Psychedelic Stooges.
Scott Richardson would one day become a latter day version of Jim Morrison, working with Ray Manzarek on one "An American Prayer": type spoken word affair before going onto write screenplays. In his days on A-Squared he was economically-named Scot Richard of The Scot Richard Case, a heavy mod band with noteworthy Gary Quackenbush on guitar. and they merit five inclusions.
In the style of the time, the Case mixed Brit singles with strong original material. Their cover of Cream's "I'm So Glad" is a strong opener to the set and there are two Pretty Things songs, a crunching "Get The Picture" and "MIdnight Six Man", that are great. The band split with Holland and went on to be known as SRC, producing some excellent psych/prog albums. Their ex-manager acrimoniously billed them as The Old Exciting Scot Richard Case on a post-split single. Ouch.
The Thyme were a staple of the Holland staple and rate six inclusions. They were a big live drawcard but their recorded legacy isn't as strong as some of the other bands Jeep had on the books. Their pre-emptive cover of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" is a cut above with its slinky feel and slightly hazy harmonies.
The Bossmen became The Frost, a journeyman outfit with the mega-talented Dick Wagner (future Lou Reed and Alice Cooper sideman) on guitar. Their stuff here is all unissued demos, with the prog rock precursor "Mystery Man" the pick.
"Just Like An Aborigine", the single from the MC5's little brother band, The Up, (featuring future Sonic's Rendezvous Band bassist Gary Rasmussen) makes the cut and shows off their elementary and brutal attack. Watch this space on these guys.
And that, folks, is by no means a full rundown. Dip in and hear for yourself. We've had local band appearances on the "Boulders" series and there's the "Michigan Mayhem" releases that delve back into the garage, but this one pulls together some important threads. - The Barman
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