In one glorious package.
In one glorious package.
The front cover of Lumpy Gravy states that it’s a “curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.” The back cover asks “is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It For The Money?”, a bizarre question given that said album didn’t come out until 1968. It was, in fact, an orchestral piece commissioned by Capitol Records’ Nick Venet; to get around his contract with MGM and Verve, Zappa positioned himself as merely the conductor of the orchestra he cobbled together for the recording. This cutesy bit of manouvering didn’t stop MGM from threatening to sue, but as subsequent history would show, label heads going after Zappa would prove to be an exercise in futility. In fact, while waiting for MGM to come to that conclusion, Zappa plowed ahead on a project he called No Commercial Potential (which would make a great name for a retrospective of his career) that would eventually give birth to four albums: We’re Only In It For The Money, a reedited second edition of Lumpy Gravy, Cruising With Ruben And The Jets, and the gloriously bizarre “soundtrack” album Uncle Meat. The second edition of Lumpy Gravy would be released in 1968 by Verve Records; it would contain pieces of the original orchestral recordings as well as dialogue that was recorded near the studio’s grand piano, which would vibrate with resonance whenever someone spoke near it. The result is willfully bizarre musique concrete, the sort of thing you can only fully enjoy if you’ve completely disconnected yourself from society and human contact, as shown in the following chart:
As you can see, Lumpy Gravy falls somewhere close to the bottom level, where light no longer actually shines and the sounds of pan-dimensional click-beats can be heard from the wall. Patrician approved.
It’s worth noting that many of the performers Zappa gathered together for the original recordings thought at first that he was a total chump, just a guitarist from a joke rock band with no real experience composing. By the end, he won all of them over to his peculiarly cracked genius.
Okkervil River may be indie rock’s perennial “mid-level band” (as they refer to themselves on “Unless It’s Kicks”) but The Stage Names, their fourth album, they burst up above the clouds to briefly take their places among the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. This is not a reference to any hits – there are no hits, a criminal shame in itself – but instead to pure songcraft, the perfection of a crafted album and the wry, self-reflective poetry of frontman Will Sheff. Their previous album, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, came close to the indie-rock mastery present here, but they would never again achieve such heights (although 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium comes kind of close). Unlike Black Sheep Boy there is no explicit concept (that album was an exploration of the life and death of junkie-poet-folkie Tim Hardin); however, there’s some pretty clear themes running through The Stage Names that make it a sort of meta-rumination on Sheff, the band, and the nature of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. If the album could be said to be about anything, it’s about the cheap theatricality of populist art, and the complicated narratives that we spin around simple people.
We think of our lives as films, with narrative arcs and neat endings; “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” posits that there is no such thing. Sheff sings that “It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax” and teases here and there that are moments that make one think that their life could be a movie, if you looked at them sideways in the magic hour that begins twilight. “Unless It’s Kicks” is an admission that the narrative created by the consumer of art bears no resemblance to the author’s intent (and here we go rehashing that argument again); “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s fiction,” he asks, “Unless it’s licks, man, unless it’s lies or it’s love?” and then implores a fan “with their heart opened up” to take warning about believing your own lies. Those lies – the narrative we impose tyrannically on the anonymous textures of everyday life – are important, because they impart some meaning onto the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, but if we believe in these lies too fully we risk trapping ourselves in an unrealistic narrative that can crush us if it’s revealed to be too much of a lie. “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene” is about the slick and vicious nature of some of those lies; Sheff buildings the lyrics out of scenes from television shows that Okkervil River’s music has been featured in, including a Cold Case scene where a serial killer picks up a male prostitute, kills them, and buries them in a remote, rocky area. “Savannah Smiles” shows the flip side, being about Shannon Michelle “Savannah” Wilsey, a pornographic actress who swallowed her own narrative so completely that when she was disfigured in a car accident she killed herself rather than face a life without being her illusory, created self. “Plus Ones” takes aim at our mad frenzy to keep the story going, to churn out sequels and franchises in order to never end the imposed narratives we’ve become obsessed with. “A Girl In Port” likens the travelling rock ‘n’ roll band to being sailors with girls in every port, only the girls in port for rock ‘n’ roll bands are acting out the dictates of the (usually false) mythology that builds up around bands. “You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man” bridges the gap between the narrative of youth and wealth and the reality of age and starvation for artists; “Title Track” tackles the illusion of stardom head-on with an eye to it’s utter absurdity. The final song, “John Allyn Smith” sets sail, tracks the life and suicide of poet John Berryman, a doomed artist who was something of a muse in 2006-2007 as he was referenced by a number of others, including The Hold Steady on Boys And Girls In America. It examines the mythology of the poet versus the sad, sordid reality (alcoholism and suicide attempts) and caps it off with a rendition of the traditional “Sloop John B” that feels more like suicide note than the raucous ode to debauchery and hangovers it usually is.
The album that came directly after, 2008’s The Stand-Ins, would be a sort of second half of The Stage Names, but would not be as successful in mining it’s themes for frisson; The Stage Names still remains Okkervil River’s crowning achievement. I first fell in love with it on a bus trip; I was going north to help close down the family cottage and on the bus ride I had enough time to listen to two albums. I ended up listening to The Stage Names twice, entranced by it’s lyrics, it’s melodies, and the way that the two combined to run goosebumps up and down my arm. Ten years later I still sing along to every word and, if pressed, I’d probably place it in my twenty favourite albums.
Earlier this year, in January, this blog celebrated the 40th anniversary of Animals, a tough, gnarled, and asocial sort of album that was as much an indication of Roger Waters’ eternal crankiness as anything else. The band was celebrating it’s tenth anniversary that year, and it’s worth noting that the difference between Animals and the very first Pink Floyd album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, is staggering. Piper is the most psychedelic of the psychedelic rock albums that defined the genre in 1966-1968, and it screams “a lot of LSD went into the making of this” at the top of it’s lungs. The fact that it did is both a fascinating and terrifying story – perhaps the cautionary tale of acid rock and the 1960s.
Pink Floyd, the band – Roger Waters on bass, Nick Mason on drums, Richard Wright on keyboards, and Syd Barrett playing guitar and singing – had been going under various names since the Beatles were still playing German clubs hopped up on amphetamines. Sometime around 1965 they settled on the name Pink Floyd Sound, which was a combination of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, two blues musicians whose records were in Barrett’s regular rotation. The name stuck, and seemed to spur the group to take things seriously; within a year they had paid gigs in the London club circuit, playing rhythm and blues for the hip audiences that made up the Swinging portion of Swinging London in the mid-Sixties. One such gig, at the Marquee Club, caught the ear of Peter Jenner, who taught at the London School of Economics; Jenner took up their cause, invested in them, became their manager, and convinced them to shorten their name to the now-familiar Pink Floyd. With increased gigs, and press coverage, the group began to experiment. Their R&B repertoire was fleshed out with lengthy instrumental jams, noisy art-sound, and mixed-media presentations that complemented the psychedelic flavour they were hashing out. Much of this stemmed from Barrett’s newfound love of LSD, and the visions that came out of his brain through the drug.
The band’s increased notoriety lead them inevitably to being signed with a record label, in this case EMI. EMI was exceedingly wary about what kind of band they were signing to a contract, and so the terms that were offered were awful, compared to their contemporaries. They received a very low advance, a terrible deal on royalties, and they had to pay for studio time. The only really good part of the contract was that EMI allowed them to do whatever they wanted while they were in the studio – and “whatever they wanted” ended up being The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
The album is a perfect summation of where the band was at in 1966-1967. The songs are built along thrumming, hard-edged rhythms that flick and whirl with sharp, off-kilter guitar lines, spacey noise pads, and Barrett’s whimsical, at times disturbing vocals. “Lucifer Sam”, “Flaming”, and “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk” (the latter the album’s lone Roger Waters song) are the most straightforward songs, taking the structure of most English psychedelic rock songs of the time and building off of the R&B stuff the band was playing in their earlier gigs. “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”, meanwhile, represented the extended jams that they’d gotten into when they decided that what they really wanted to do was soundtrack Barrett’s LSD visions. “Matilda Mother” is creeping folk-rock; “The Gnome” rides a similar vibe but amps up the lysergic absurdity. “Bike” finishes off the album in a comfortable fashion, like a nice pleasant come down from a somewhat terrifying acid trip. It was, in terms of ideas and execution, far beyond what many bands at the time were attempting; it put other psychedelic acts to shame with it’s explosive exploration of the limits of rock ‘n’ roll.
Unfortunately, if acid was it’s main driving force, acid was also it’s ultimate destruction. By the time The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn came out, Barrett’s heavy, daily LSD use was taking a grim toll. Before 1967 Barrett was remembered as a friendly and exuberant person; as he continued to dose himself heavily with LSD, he became distanced, unfriendly, and detached from reality. He would go through manic stages and then bottom out with periods that were basically catatonic states. Rumours have abounded throughout the years that Barrett’s LSD use triggered a latent schizophrenic state in his brain, which would explain some of his subsequent behaviour. That behaviour, in the wake of the release of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, would become increasingly erratic and bizarre. He developed an infamous dead stare, and at times would be completely unaware of where he was. Before a gig at the UFO Club, Waters found him in the dressing room, completely unresponsive. With the help of Jenner, Barrett was lugged out on stage, where he stood motionless with his guitar hung around his neck. Nor was this the only instance of that dead stare during performances. While gigging in support of the album in America, Barrett spent a performance on The Pat Boone Show (where acts lip-synced to their singles) staring into the camera. An interview with Dick Clark was spent staring at Clark and refusing to answer any questions the host would ask. During one performance he refused to play “Interstellar Overdrive”, instead detuning each string on his guitar until it fell off; the audience thought it was all part of the act, but it was clear to the band and their management that Barrett’s mental state was completely unraveling and the American tour was cut short.
By 1968 Barrett’s tenure in the band was by-and-large over. After some abortive attempts to write new material and rehearse (including the infamous “Have You Got It Yet?” incident, which you should look up because it’s honestly fucking hilarious and indicative of Barrett’s weird sense of humour), the band decided to move on and replace him at live shows with a friend of the band, David Gilmour. There was an idea at first to keep going with Barrett writing the songs a la Brian Wilson, but Barrett’s catastrophic mental breakdown made it so even that was a dubious prospect. He would release an interesting solo album (1970’s The Madcap Laughs) and Pink Floyd would of course go on to become jet-setting international superstars, but The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the sole artifact of the melding of the two forces, and it remains the best document of the entire psychedelic scene in 1960’s England. As the band grew, they jettisoned most of these tracks from their live shows, except for the long space fillers “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive”; regardless, these are all integral pieces of the Pink Floyd Experience, the sound of hip rock ‘n’ roll artists on the verge of something profound and new.
Has there ever been a rock band as completely on-the-nose as Def Leppard is on Hysteria? I mean really just taking the idea of Big Dumb Rock and making it Bigger, Dumber, and Rockier. It’s not enough to have an album with the ultimate power ballad, “Love Bites” on it. Not at all. They also had to have the ultimate arena rock anthem, the stripped-down-to-essence rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumper “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. And the sanitized stadium lust of “Animal”. And the pure butter melodies of “Armageddon It”. And the Eighties rock heroics of the title track. And “Rocket”. And “Women”. It was wall-to-wall singles, all chart-reaching arena pounders without any depth beyond having a good time and sticking your fist in the air. And yet it’s coming was as hard-won as any hardscrabble up-and-coming band’s might have been.
In 1983 the band released Pyromania. Their previous two albums had established them as a driving force in the poppier side of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the sprawling, dank counterweight to the British punk movement that also featured Union Jack-wavers Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, from whose discography Metallica grokked most of their moves. Pyromania was a huge success in America, driven by hit singles “Photograph” and “Rock Of Ages”; the band only released three singles despite selling towering piles of records because they didn’t want to flood the market and undercut the inevitable follow-up. That follow-up, Hysteria, wouldn’t arrive for another four years. The band, who had recorded with Mutt Lange for Pyromania, wanted to go bigger and tapped Jim Steinman, the songwriter for Meatloaf. Steinman wanted to record a more visceral, in-your-face Def Leppard; the band had hired him, however, because they wanted a clean, crisp, gigantic arena rock album. As singer Joe Elliot pointed out, Steinman wrote Meatloaf, but it was Todd Rundgren that produced him. Those early efforts were frustrated by the gap between band and producer and then were cut short in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen flipped his Corvette on New Year’s Eve and ended up losing an arm.
The idea that the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll cliche now (thanks to the Bloodhound Gang) but getting Allen back up to speed was both time-consuming and technologically challenging. Thankfully the band’s label was awash in money thanks to Pyromania and so the latter proved to be no serious issue. Allen’s kit became a hybrid traditional and electronic kit, with MIDI triggers built in that would play the sounds that Allen would typically have used his left arm for. Learning to use it was the harder part, and most of 1985 was spent just getting the band back into fighting form. By the end of 1985 Allen was on top of his game again, and Mutt Lange had returned to produce new recording sessions. 1986 would also prove to be a challenging year, since Lange himself crashed his car (with less injuries than Rick Allen suffered) and Joe Elliott somehow managed to contract the mumps.
The end result of all of that, however, was a bona fide hit machine, a chart topper that ruled the airwaves for the end of the Eighties. Mutt Lange has said that he and the band wanted to record a crossover album that would have wide pop appeal, like a NWOBHM Thriller, and that’s pretty much exactly what Hysteria is. Def Leppard would hit the Billboard Top 40 with ten consecutive singles, seven from Hysteria, beginning with “Animals”. They would never again achieve such success, although they always managed to pop up in the charts from time to time. Hysteria is about as pop as metal got in the 1980s, scrubbed clean to the point where there’s really nothing metal about it at all. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and a pillar of Eighties production; Mutt Lange would go on to use the tricks he pulled on Hysteria to inform his then-wife Shania Twain’s country-crossover success.
Incredible String Band were a couple of Scottish folkies who got their start wanting to be Donovan and Bob Dylan and ended up being mainstays of the lysergic road of the Hippie Trail. Their 1966 self-titled debut showed the former as being big influences; this follow-up included a number of then-exotic instruments (sitar, gimbri, mandolin, etc.) that were incorporated in such a blissful way that “psychedelic folk” leads it’s long, bizarre trail directly back to it. If 1967 was indeed the fabled Summer Of Love, then The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion is the most Love-y album of that summer. This is meant in two senses. In the first sense, 5000 Spirits is pretty much the epitome of psych-folk, which was the driving soundtrack of the naked, wild, flower-dancing hippie children of 1967. In the second sense, it is also the epitome of the more teeth-grinding aspects of that era; it’s overly fey in spots, cutesy beyond credibility (“The Hedgehog’s Song”), incorporates blues music without really understanding the grinding poverty that underpinned the blues (“No Sleep Blues”, “Blues For The Muse”), and plays fast and loose with the era’s regrettable love for freewheeling, womanizing men (“The First Girl I Loved”). There’s little wonder, then, that Paul McCartney called it his favourite album of 1967. Still, as far as documents of a decade’s music go, there’s few records that sum up the 1960s quite as well as 5000 Spirits.
1540 KHz on the AM band: that was the original broadcasting position of legendary Sydney radio station 2JJ (later 2JJJ, or “Triple J” when it crossed over into the FM market). From it’s inception it was a home for the experimental, the odd, and the alternative – stuff that wouldn’t get played on other Australian radio stations. The growth of Australian cool starts from it’s inception in 1975, when it was founded to be a government-funded radio station meant to appeal to the 18-25 demographic. Radio Birdman, a group of Aussie Stooges fans, were among the bands the station championed at the very beginning of the punk rock era.
Radio Birdman were unlike anything else that Australian radio was playing at the time; while it might be somewhat correct to call them “Australia’s Sex Pistols”, this does Radio Birdman a disservice. The band weren’t cobbled together, they could play their instruments, and they didn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to sell their records. In fact, Radio Birdman’s early success was as much a result of their hands-on work ethic as it was their killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes; their records were initially sold out of their trunks, before and after shows. The band provided the example, and from them the punk DIY ethic was born into Australia.
Those killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes, though: Radios Appear had them in spades. The band name and album title give key clues as to their influences. “Radio Birdman” came from a misheard lyric on The Stooge’s “1970”, and tracks like “T.V. Eye” and “Murder City Nights” bear the scars of a definite Stooge’s obsession. “Man With Golden Helmet”, however, shows another side of the band, one that is hinted at in the title of the album; “Radios appear” is a line from “Dominance And Submission” by Seventies hard rock icons Blue Oyster Cult. “Descent Into Maelstrom” and “Love Kills” combine the two, marrying a harrowing, relentless beat to a more free-wheeling and progressive melody and structure.
Radios Appear is both the debut and the highwater mark for the band. Their second LP, 1981’s Living Eyes, was released three years after the band broke up, and while the band reunited in 1996 and continues to tour intermittently, new music has been spotty at best. For a pure rock ‘n’ roll experience – filtered through Michigan proto-punk – however, Radios Appear is one of the finest efforts of that legendary year of 1977.
Another entry in my series of “songs that use synths to make something approaching heavy rock and/or punk”. Noisy, ravey, and I really like the coda.
The death of Soundcloud made The Pitch a few days ago! Also of note from that article: the phrase “broken embeds, dead links, and lost sounds” sounds like a stellar name for an album that I’m totally going to do now.
I may have skipped a day. Eh.
This one is a filler track from Temporarily Abandoned Profiles, but one that I remember fondly. Brash, aggressive, noisy, almost punk rock. Good times.
This was back during a time when I was dealing with frenetic hand-drumming married to near-chaotic thumb piano lines. Early 2004, I think. A collection of increasingly ominous historical quotes from a variety of figures that ends with Rodney King’s sobbing plea to stop making it horrible for the old folks, and the kids.
Don’t forget to stop by the books page here to check out some fiction which you can use to subsidize my existence.