This is what the world looked like before WordPress, punks. And it was a more vibrant, exuberantly tactile world, too. Our resident fanzine expert Tim “Dagger” Hinely weighs in.
BY TIM “DAGGER” HINELY
Print is still alive and well and here’s some rags to prove it! (See Part 4 of this series elsewhere on the Blurt site.) Fall is here, which mean that the baseball season is slowly coming to its conclusion, so with that in mind….
Zisk (#27) I have to start off every review of Zisk by stating that it is “The baseball magazine for people who hate baseball magazines.” Mike and Steve will never quit. Ever (and we hope they never do). This ish includes Mighty Joe Young! The all-time World Series team, some serious hate for Roger Clemens and much more. Come on man, don’t we all hate Clemens? For that alone you need this. www.ziskmagazine.com
Vulcher (#1) Long-time Los Angeles based writer Eddie Flowers has dusted off his old mag and restarted it again. He and his pal Kelsey Simpson have gathered up a gang of folks to put a new spin on a classic old rag. You might not hear Eddie’s name in the same breath as Bangs or Meltzer but it should be: During his early days in Indianapolis, he was a member of now-legendary punk band The Gizmos and part of the creative team that gave the world the mighty fanzine and record label Gulcher—hence the ‘zine title here. He’s got a hard-working crew of writers (including yours truly) that rivals that of Bull Tongue (see below). It’s packed to the gills and excellent. Write Eddie for a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Big Takeover (#78) Speaking of someone who nevers quits (and we hope he doesn’t) is Jack Rabid, editor of this long-running mag. It started off 100 years ago as one piece of paper and now has grown into a nice, glossy mag covering the gamut of punk and indie rock. In this ish is Savages (cover stars) plus other interviews with John Doe, The Thermals, Tanya Donnelly, Kid Congo, Lemmy (RIP), Great Lakes, La Sera, and more interviews also hundreds of reviews and much more. Lotsa bang for your buck. 152 pages. www.bigtakeover.com
Bull Tongue Review (#5) Byron Coley and his motley crew of writers just keep on keeping on with this thick monster (close to 80 pages). You get reviews of whatever the writers feel like writing about and with a lineup like this you’ve gotta be tuning in: Gregg Turner, Tom Lax, Michael Hurley, Eddie Flowers, Thurston Moore, Bruce Russell, Richard Meltzer and too many others. Tune in, turn on and get intoxicated (on these writings). www.bulltonguereview.com
Casting Couch (#4), Miranda Fisher hails from Austin, TX, and seems to be soaking up all that fair city has to offer. Fuck the high rents and overpriced lattes, she’d rather head down to Beerland and catch a band then write about it (I’m assuming here). Casting Couch isn’t all Austin though. In here she’s got pieces on Lavender Flu, La Misma, Golden Pelicans, Crazy Spirit plus reviews and a lot more. The Golden Pelicans even pose for a color pinup on the back cover, hell, this is issue is worth it for that alone! email@example.com
Dynamite Hemorrhage (#3) San Franciscan Jay Hinman used to do the punk-garage zine Superdope. He then got married, had a kid and settled down, if just a bit. Well he came roarin’ back a few years ago with DH #1 and now he’s up to issue #3 and it’s spectacular. It’s a perfect mix of old and new, olde as the Velvet Underground are on the cover plus a piece on old San Fran band World of Pooh, but he also scribbles about new bands, too. White Fence, Unit 4, Sara Fancy and others. Plus there’s reviews, pics and it looks beautiful (bound with a full-color cover). www.dynamitehemorrhage.com
Exploitation Retrospect (#52) Editor Dan Taylor used to do an awesome food zine called the Hungover Gourmet but I had no idea he’d been doing this rag on obscure films. I guess he’s been doing E.R for like thirty years or more, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this one. Anyway, this is a bound, digest-sized rag that calls itself “the journal of junk culture & fringe media.” Inside this ish is WAVE Productions, Nikkatsu Erotic Films, novels and movies featuring The Destroyer and plus reviews and a lot more. One issue and you’ll be hooked. www.dantenet.com
Fuckin’ Ziggurat (#1) This zine is put out by the folks behind the Emotional Response record label but mostly done by Stewart Anderson and this zine come with a 17-track cd as well. In this ish is Bobby Carlson, Ginnels, Primitive Calculators, Quaaludes and others plus no reviews but plenty o’ comics! It’s all bound up in a zine that slightly bigger than a half-sized one. On the cd are the names listed above plus Bing and Bob, Tangible Excitement, Croque Madame, Wanda Junes, etc. Dig into the zine, the CD and the label. Go! www.jenandstew.com
Incremental Decrepitude (#4) Done by Mr. Dave Brushback who is no stranger to the zine scene having previously done zines like Run It and Brushback as well as others. This one is pocket-sized and is all record, zine and live shows reviews except for the interview with Bonus McGinty. Dave only made a handful of these but write to him anyway and see if he has any left (if not he probably has a new zine in the works anyway). Rock_in_my_shoes@yahoo.com
Saying farewell to the Bard via a collection of our Cohen coverage from over the years.
By Fred Mills
With the passing of Leonard Cohen this week (Nov. 7, at the age of 82), the inevitable deluge of tributes followed. Which is as it should be, of course. Intriguingly, it was a story on Cohen published shortly before his death that has taken on a remarkable resonance: While promoting his recent album You Want It Darker (you can find a link listen to it here or on Spotify), Cohen did an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker in which he commented, regarding how he was viewing life at the time, “The big change is the proximity to death. I’ve got some work to do… take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”
Whether uncannily prescient or simply making an semi-oblique reference to some personal details he was already aware of, it’s a quote that I suspect will linger whenever people talk about the man, his life, his work, and of course his death.
As with most music magazines, BLURT has covered Leonard Cohen many times over the years (we’ve been around since mid-2008). So I thought it would be appropriate to compile some of the more relevant pieces here; included are reviews and meditations, plus a very special interview with Cohen that originally appeared in the pages of our predecessor, Harp. Check them out, and I hope you’ll honor the memory of Cohen as well.
HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN, by A.D. Amorosi (Photo from the Beacon concert by Scott Weiner.)
Ed. note: In 2005 Cohen sued his former manager for having misappropriated more than $5 million from him, and this eventually led the singer to start touring again in order to generate income. He did so fairly extensively between 2008 and 2010, and I was fortunate enough to see Cohen live in Asheville, NC, in 2009; it remains one of my brightest memories of my recent musical life. Cohen also performed on that tour in Manhattan for the first time since 1993, at the storied Beacon Theater. Contributing Editor A.D. Amorosi was fortunate enough to attend, and he penned a deeply insightful review of the concert for us.
“It was profound and religious, plain and simple,” wrote Amorosi. “We were watching him cradle his microphone while occasionally kneeling before a grand flamenco-folk-smooth-jazz ensemble and oddly-sunny background vocalists, all who played elegantly precise waves of wonder so that Cohen could croon-chat in a mummy-lizard-like voice his stories of sensually tempered interludes, un-flowered romance and crushed-ice apocalypses…”
Ed. note: With the newfound touring regimen also came a number of new and archival releases for Cohen, among them a trifecta of DVDs: Bird on the Wire (a 1972 world tour; released by MVD Visual), Songs From the Road (the 2008-2009 world tour; Columbia/Legacy), and Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes (a documentary-style examination of the songwriter’s influences featuring selected performances and interviews; Chrome Dreams). Contributing Editor Steven Rosen stepped up to the plate and concluded that, while each DVD took a different approach in its appreciation of Cohen, they all worked quite nicely together whether you’re a longtime fan or a novice to his oeuvre.
Wrote Rosen, “Taken altogether (but not quite as a de facto trilogy), these DVDs further establish Leonard Cohen as one of the preeminent bards of his generation. Not that anyone needed to be reminded of that fact, of course, but it’s reassuring to know that successive generations will also have these aural and visual documents available for consultation, edification and inspiration.”
THE COMPLETE STUDIO ALBUMS COLLECTION, by Ron Hart
Ed. note: In 2011, Columbia/Legacy released a limited edition 11-CD box set of remastered editions of Cohen’s 1968-2004 output: Songs of (1968), Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love & Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies Man (1977), Recent Songs (1979), Various Positions (1984), I’m Your Man (1988), the Future (1992), Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). Pretty irresistible, and the CDs were nicely packaged in mini-LP sleeves housed in a smartly-designed box. Contributor Ron Hart was impressed, to say the least:
“This exhaustive overhaul of his historic body of work, warts and all, is without question well worth the dive into the expansive artistic sprawl of North America’s premier ‘Chief Apocalyptist’ as he enjoys his 77th year on this planet.”
HOLY (WHOLLY) EXISTENTIAL SENSUALIST, by A.D. Amorosi
Ed. note: In January of 2012 Cohen, clearly energized from all the activity of the past few years, released his 12th studio album to huge acclaim; it even landed in the Billboard top 10 albums. A.D. Amorosi, our resident Cohen acolyte (well, technically, we all are), once again did the deed, tackling the record with his trademark passion, concluding that it was Cohen’s best album, period.
“Old Ideas,” he observed, “has a sort-of devilishness about it, in that it’s an exaltation and an assault on Cohen’s sacred/profane intellectualism. There is forgiveness. And then some… Vision – his old ideas, the best ideas – is what guides Cohen in matters of sexuality, decay and renewal, always has in what’s become a philosophical decretum. If a holy existential sensualist is required, Leonard Cohen alone fills that niche… Song for song, sound for sound, lyrical point for point, [it is also] most certainly the best album of 2012.”
It’s fascinating to note that prior to Cohen’s latterday “comeback” there hadn’t been too many books published about him. That has certainly changed, with notable additions to any self-respecting Cohen fan’s bookshelf being Sylvie Simmons’ definitive 2013 bioI’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Alan Light’s more narrow-focused book, also from 2013,The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” , Liel Leibovitz’ 2015 musical analysisA Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, and a 2015 anthology, edited by Jeff Burger, called Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Musicians in Their Own Words)—not to mention several collections of Cohen’s poetry. Then there was Everybody Knows, published in late 2014 by esteemed music book publisher Backbeat and written by the equally esteemed journalist and author Harvey Kubernik. Rich in photos, many of them rare or previously unseen, and arranged as an oral history along an annotated time-line plus the author’s connective narrative, the coffeetable book is not only quite handsome, it’s a solid reference work. As I put it, “one could easily use this as a primary source when researching specific details and events of Cohen’s life.”
Of additional note: “Kubernik skillfully avoids the key pitfalls that plague most oral histories; his aforementioned connecting text includes notes on his respondents so the reader understands their significance and relevance, while the aforementioned time-line structure proves to be the book’s greatest strength in terms of providing a real sense of the arc of Cohen’s career.”
Ed. note: I have semi-saved the best for last, and technically, this isn’t even a Cohen piece published by BLURT. It did, however, appear in Harp magazine, in 2007, and I was responsible for assigning, coordinating, and editing it. (Harp essentially morphed into BLURT following the former’s abrupt demise and bankruptcy in 2008, with the main members of the Harp editorial staff resuming operations again within a few months. I retained copies of all editorial content I had overseen, as well as PDFs of pre-publication pages.) Since most of the magazine’s content has basically disappeared into the ether—the archives were lost after the Harp website was shut down—and there are not even any copyright owners, I just hope that all the individual writers have taken the initiative and archived their own material for posterity, because there was a lot a great writing in the publication.
Such as the one at hand, by Harp contributor (and occasional BLURT contributor) Gillian G. Gaar, a Seattle-based journalist and author of numerous books. “He’s Your Man” originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Harp, and at the time it was one of only a handful of interviews Cohen was doing; we were pretty proud that he had approved our request, and I knew instinctively that Gaar would be perfect to do the interview. It was enthusiastically received, and we even had a number of inquiries from overseas about obtaining copies of the magazine—definitely one of the projects from my Harp tenure that I’m deeply proud to be associated with.
Gaar was able to subsequently republish the piece in the aforementioned Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen anthology of writings, and it’s one of the book’s standouts. Introducing her story for the book, Gaar recalled being contacted by yours truly and being offered the chance to be flown to L.A., squired around by the record label, and spending a good amount of time with Cohen and then-paramour Anjani Thomas to talk about his upcoming reissues and her Cohen-produced album.
There’s a telling passage in the article, one which essentially forecast the flurry of Cohen activity that would unexpectedly unfold starting the next year. Wrote Gaar, “Those anxious for Cohen to record his own work again should be pleased to learn that the film’s concert sequences have inspired him to consider touring in support of his next album, tentatively set for release later this year. ‘Yes, yes,’ he confirms. ‘I haven’t been out since ’93. The years went by and I thought ‘I’ll never go out again.’ But every so often you do have that itch. You’ve heard that saying in rock ‘n’ roll, they don’t pay you to sing, they pay you to travel. But you forget about that stuff. The actual concerts are always compelling. If you’ve got good musicians, and you’re playing, and people know the songs, and they want to hear them live, it is a wonderful thing. And so I’m drawn to that.’”
Indeed he was. And we, his public, have been all the richer for it.
Go HERE to read the entire original Harp interview.
And… here’s the fifth installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind), HERE for #5 (Fort Lowell), and HERE for #6 (Chunklet). (Below: 2008 photo of the Darla Recs staff; go HERE to read the Detour magazine article it originally appeared in.)
When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration?
August, 1993 when I received a DAT tape master from Grifters. “Holmes” b/w “Junkie Blood” with cover art by Grifter, Trip Lamkins. I absolutely loved this band. Still do. I asked to do a 7″ single because they were unique and strong enough to stand apart. The single was released October, 1993. I’d intended to do my own label since 1985 (age 22) when a friend who worked at Virgin said, “Y’know what you should do? You love music so much. You should work in the music business.” A light bulb literally went on at that moment. Like duh. Of course. Before that it may have occurred to me abstractly but it was her suggestion that literally set me in motion. I just wanted to learn as many aspects of the business as I could first. So, I was the Energizer Bunny on the path then. KUSF, I-Beam, BMG, RCA, Geffen then Darla. I have always had my head immersed music and surfing. When I was 13 I’d skateboard around Laguna Beach garage sales on Saturday morning, buy records for .10 cent to .25 cents, then skate with an armload downtown to The Record Shed and trade in or sell (what I didn’t want to keep) for $1.00 or more. I started building my collection then and learning. On day the owner, Sam, asked me if I knew how to make change and left me with the cash register drawer open because we didn’t have time to learn me how to work it and split for lunch for more than a half hour. I worked for Sam at The Record Shed on weekends that Summer. What I do now is a natural extension of that first start. I should have been a professional surfer though!
Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?
I did it myself – freehand with pen and ink. Appropriation was big in the early 90s y’know. The primary Darla logo has elements of two classic American labels from the golden age of stereo, lovingly appropriated. The spiky frame is from the Jubilee Records logo. The D is from the Dot Records logo. There’s a secondary logo, which we haven’t used as much in the past 10 years – the Darla girl in the little black dress dancing on a record. She’s appropriated from the Hula Records logo where she has on a grass skirt, lei and hibiscus. I just changed her clothes. I love classic record label logos.
If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who
would it be?
Neil Young. I’d love to work for soul daddy. The Beatles and Neil Young are my top two all-time favorites. Fela Kuti if he were still with us.
What has been your best seller to date?
My Morning Jacket – At Dawn (Darla: DRL111) by miles, however, Darla does have a strong, active catalog of over 300 titles now.
Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your
label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?
No, however, I do have a concept album in mind to make one day…
Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?
Oh yes. Every day. Required now y’know.
Is the Southern California/San Diego music community supportive of the
Yes. Amoeba is good about stocking titles! Our #1 distribution partner AEC is in Irvine and they seriously are the best ever. Whenever I meet local music people they share stories about their favorite releases on the label & etc., however, we’ve always looked globally more than locally. We didn’t emerge with a roster of local talent exclusively. We are supported locally but California-wide as we began in San Francisco and still have strong ties there (Sweet Trip and MCM And The Monster), then moved to Sacramento where we have a ton of good friends we don’t see enough (Holiday Flyer, The California Oranges, The Sinking Ships, Avaleya and the Glitterhawks). And in LA: Lowlights, San Diego: Maquiladora, Tijuana: Static Discos, Fax. So, that’s the big picture locally speaking…
Have digital sales been significant or nominal?
Very, very significant. More significant since digital overtook physical by a hair in Spring, 2015. Digital sales have grown steadily since while physical sales continue to shrink, for everybody.
Has there actually been a vinyl resurgence the past few years?
Yes, however, we still see more CD sales by far. Mucho mas.
What is your personal favorite format to release music?
CD. Reasonable profit margin. Practical.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?
Serein, Carpe Sonum, American Laundromat, Saint Marie, Elefant, Les Disques du Crepuscule, Orange Twin, Factory Benelux, Deep Space Recordings, Essence Music, Seksound, 12k, Aloha Got Soul… Always someone new.
Do you accept unsolicited demos?
Yes. Every day.
What releases are upcoming?
Corky Carroll – Blue Mango CD/DD. Corky is my hero. The California sound with a core crew of stars in their own right who’ve been his band for decades. So stoked on this project.
MCM And The Monster 2xCD/DD. San Francisco’s ultimate party band (80s/90s) retrospective including the demos and an unreleased third album.
Peyton Pinkerton – Rapid Cycler CD/DD. Guitarist/songwriter from New Radiant Storm King, Pernice Brothers.
Momus – Scobberlotchers CD/DD. It’s actually on his own American Patchwork label manufactured and distributed by Darla. Nick Currie’s perspective/world view/filter is my absolute favorite of all artists today.
The label is me and Chandra Tobey, my wife and partner of 26 years. I couldn’t do all that we do alone and it is A LOT. In addition to the label we provide physical and digital distribution service to over 150 labels. We manage a digital catalog of over 15,000 songs. We provide publishing administration for a small handful of Darla artists. Chandra does all the bookkeeping, accounting, receivables/payables. I do the creative and marketing. As physical distribution declines for all, I look forward to focusing more on the label as I enjoy that part most of all.
Ye Olde Blurte Editore reflects on his 1987-92 musical romp across the Charlotte, NC, skyline…
BY FRED MILLS
Sweet memes are made of this: I recently met a fellow North Carolinian who, it turns out, was living in Charlotte during part of the same time I lived there. We apparently did not know each other, but we did have a mutual friend, photographer Don “Bongo” Swan, who passed away in 1995, so it was natural to share stories with one another. Don was loved by pretty much everybody in Charlotte, and I had the good fortune of working with him on numerous occasions in my capacity as Music Editor for alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. The conversation left me feeling more than a tad nostalgic, so I did a search online and found a story I wrote for the Loaf in 1997 to mark the paper’s 10th anniversary. Rereading it now, a lot of memories came back, including plenty of Don. He took the photo pictured above, in case you were wondering, of my editor John Grooms, the Domino’s pizza noid, and me as we took part in an attempt to land the Guinness Book record for “most guitarists playing ‘Louie Louie’ at the same time,” go figure. (Somewhere in my files I also have the original image that Don gave me. I need to get that framed.) So at the risk of seeming hopelessly self-indulgent, I thought I’d republish the article here for posterity. Let me just add – this one’s for you, Bongo.
Rock through the first five years
Charlotte music from 1987-1992
If, as historians advise us, eras have their defining moments, then so, too, do smaller periods contain their own seeds of identity and character.
Looking back at the first five years of Creative Loafing, during which I served as the paper’s music editor, I get the sense that there were a number of “defining moments.” Viewed as separate points on a time line or as linked incidents on a continuum that has now stretched to 10 years (and counting), these moments do seem to paint CL in a myriad of hues and shadings. Put metaphorically, if Charlotte’s daily newspaper is black and white (and, like the musty joke adds, “read all over”), then this city’s alternative weekly is as colorful and rich in depth as a Hockney painting. And at times, suitable for framing.
One such event that will always represent, to me at least, what CL — as an alternative to the mainstream — was all about transpired in January of 1990. For weeks Charlotte had been fudging its undies over Tom Cruise and the filming of Days Of Thunder at the Speedway. The Observer in particular was a lighter shade of brown at the time, logging the star’s real and imagined movements around town as if he were Mother Teresa touring local leprosy wards. Imagine the chagrin, then, of the daily paper when we reported from the front lines and even buttonholed Cruise for an exclusive interview.
Seems that the Belmont Playboys got the wrap party gig, and the band smuggled me in as their roadie. I duly reported the arrival of Robert Duvall, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, not to mention the impromptu jam session involving the Playboys and the Duvall entourage (Cash was particularly smitten by the band’s version of his “Rock & Roll Ruby”). More importantly, and sensing my duty as a journalist, I engaged Tom Cruise for our “exclusive interview.” The entire interview went thusly: “What did you think of the Playboys, Tom?” “Man, they were rockin’!”
Yessir, Creative Loafing (not to mention its worldly music critic) had finally arrived into high society. Of course, we had to come through the back door with the servants and hired help, but still …
Damn. Time flies. Here it is, seven years later, and I’m browsing a Tucson record hole when I spot a CD called Wolf Patrol by none other than my ad hoc employer, the Belmont Playboys!
Even though talent naturally rises, it’s hard not to feel like CL had at least a small hand in boosting the band’s career. One of our prime directives from the git-go was “support local music.” Before our first issue was published in April of ’87, editor John Grooms and I had lengthy discussions over what role the paper should play with regards to the area’s music scene. It had always rubbed both of us the wrong way that the media powers-that-be (including Charlotte’s candy-ass radio stations) tended to treat local bands with the same kind of embarrassed condescension usually reserved for that eccentric, flamboyant relative who turns up tipsy and in a feather boa at the family reunion. To that end, we set out to champion our rock ‘n’ roll underground — what the hell, let’s crash the party and get drunk with the rest of the freaks! — and challenge the rest of the populace to keep up with us.
A poorly kept secret around the Loafing office is that Break, the entertainment tab started up in 1987 by the Observer in order to complete directly with CL for advertising revenue (let’s face it, it sure wasn’t for prestige), tried to hire me as a music writer. As the editrix schmoozed me over instant coffee and stale donuts, I inquired as to the level of music coverage Break had in mind.
“There’s a Billy Joel show coming next month to the Coliseum. I think our readers would enjoy a 750 word profile on the man.”
When I mentioned that Antiseen and Fetchin Bones had gigs coming up too, I was met with a blank look. ‘Nuff said.
I’ll admit it, we were as arrogant as we were hip. Case in point: taking it upon ourselves to paint Charlotte’s Springfest celebration in its true colors — a crashing bore or a yuppie circle jerk — we proceeded to muscle a local rock and blues stage into the annual goings-on for a couple of years. When Springfest organizers tried to water down our efforts, we opted out entirely and put on our own Nightfest (the name we judiciously picked over “Counterfest” and “Screw You Springfest”) in ’90, staging bands after sundown in three clubs during Springfest weekend. The idea seemed to fly despite some territorial pissing among competing club owners (don’t ask), so in ’91 we put the call out en masse and wound up with three nights, seven clubs and 27 local acts. The entire spectrum of Charlotte talent was showcased: folk, blues, heavy metal, alternative, punk, psychedelic, etc.
And whether or not any of the bands and performers went on to bigger and better things isn’t the point — what matters is that someone was taking local talent seriously, not as minor league players. (You want serious? Seven months later CL threw its weight behind striking members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and helped put together a fundraiser for the out-of-work musicians. The sight of our beloved Spongetones onstage, backed by seven string and three horn players, as they played a dead-on set of Beatles songs was one of the best Christmas presents we ever received.)
Nowadays, of course, judging by the club ads and CL “Soundboard” listings, it seems that on any given night of the week you can catch a reasonably hot gig. But for those with short memories, let me assure you that there was a point in time when Charlotte’s idea of a thriving club scene meant folksingers doing Kenny Loggins and Eagles covers, blues bands who performed entire sets sitting down, and multiracial reggae-cum-fusion outfits listlessly jamming on Fridays after five on the watering holes’ outside decks.
Likewise, 10 years ago it was simply not an option for a local band to release a CD; I recall a Major Event being defined as so-and-so putting out a three-song demo cassette, and when a regional compilation like Statements Vol. 1 or Metal Mythos appeared in the stores, declaring a civic holiday was in order.
So even though the term “thriving” is relative (and probably cyclical as well), Charlotte would be a far poorer community had it not been for the efforts of a small but dedicated network of musicians, club bookers, fanzine editors, record store owners, independent label and recording studio heads, even the occasional radio visionaries (you may all turn in the direction of Spindale and genuflect). I’d like to think that CL helped transform the scene — oh, screw modesty, I know we did, as anyone who’s ever turned to the “Music Menu” or filled out a ballot for our annual “Best of Charlotte” knows.
Defining moments aren’t necessarily positive in nature. Sometimes they can be downright notorious. (Just ask people who attended the dung-flinging ’87 appearance at the Church of Musical Awareness by punk nihilist G.G. Allin.) No recounting of our first five years would be complete without mention of the Great GWAR Obscenity Bust in September 1990. The incident has long since passed into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll lore, and the band itself has even been immortalized in song and on video the night when Charlotte vice and ALE agents, acting on a “tip” provided by scanning the CL Music Menu concert preview, raided the 4808 Club and toted vocalist Oderus Urungus and his two-and-a-half foot long penis (in two separate paddy wagons) off to jail.
Not to romanticize the event unnecessarily, but a bit of local innocence was lost that night as well. 4808 had long gotten up the noses of local authorities anyway, staging all-ages punk and hard rock shows right in the heart of the downtown area. (Unlike the Milestone Club, which garnered some negative reactions over the years but was “lucky” enough to be located across town on the other side of the tracks, so to speak.) So hosting GWAR, with the show’s explicit, if cartoonish, sexual content, simply blew out the fuses, and when the dust cleared, 4808’s owner had been charged alongside the band with disseminating obscenity, ultimately getting his beer license revoked. The club closed, and Charlotte seemed just a little less friendly a place to be for working musicians. Maybe the arts community too; is it my imagination, or did a theater production have a similar clash with the prevailing Bible Belt mentality around here less than a year ago?
In my own arrogance, it was a rude awakening. I actually believed it was my duty to further the subversive agenda of latex-covered, heavy metal practitioners of sodomy and ritual disembowelment. Antiseen’s as well.
Ah well. In the words of CL‘s staff photog at the time, the late Don Swan, “Fuck ’em, man.”
People and personalities also defined the paper and its first five years. Too many to list here, including the bums who entertained us with their grunts and moans of alcoholic lust as they previewed skin magazines at the convenience store across the street from our South Boulevard location. Don Swan, though, was quite the bon vivant, and I was proud to have worked with him on assignments. In 1995, John Grooms called me with the news that Don had died and asked me to pen a brief remembrance for the paper’s farewell to him. The first thing that came to mind was of one night when Don and I were covering the Scorpions at the Coliseum. I made the observation that “there’s something kinda weird about a 40-year-old man dressed in spandex and wiggling his butt and making goofy faces.” Don thought for a second, then turned to me and stated matter-of-factly, “Yeah, but I bet he gets laid tonight.”
Now that was rock ‘n’ roll. I would end up naming a kitten I’d adopted around the time Don passed away Bongo, in his honor.
I could produce a laundry list the length of Oderus Urungus’ erstwhile member of moments sublime and surreal that stand out in my mind as significant during my tenure at Creative Loafing. Come to think of it, I already did, in the April 18, 1992, fifth anniversary issue.
But overall, what the experience meant to me was being able to treat music and music culture with the kind of respect, passion, and yeah, adolescent irreverence that I thought it deserved. I mean, what could be more pointless yet life-affirming than spending weeks debating behind closed doors with Grooms, then proudly writing a cover story called “The 100 Greatest Intro Guitar Riffs Of All Time”? Or heading south to the Gaffney Peachoid with Swan and Grooms, to help break the record for most people playing the three chords from “Louie Louie” over and over?
When I surrendered my duties at this paper in ’92 to move to Tucson I received two retirement gifts. One was a lifetime (theoretically) gratis subscription to Creative Loafing. Reading it from afar, I’m proud to have watched it grow in size, scope, and just plain huevos.
The other gift was a colorful T-shirt custom-designed by none other than Rene Escarcha, aka Renelvis, aka the only known Charlotte-based Filipino Elvis impersonator. Displayed on the back of the shirt is the music column I wrote in which CL “discovered” Renelvis during his residency as the floor show of a local Chinese eatery — clearly, in tone and texture, one of the paper’s singular defining moments.
I can’t think of a more appropriate way to sum up five years worth of rock ‘n’ roll memories. See the concert, get the T-shirt.
There’s unlimited supply
And there is no reason why
I tell you it was all a frame
They only did it ’cause of fame (—The Sex Pistols, “EMI”)
BY STEPHEN JUDGE
Ed. Note: Stephen Judge, who owns BLURT, also owns Schoolkids Records, a small chain of North Carolina-based record stores; yours truly worked with him in one of those stores from 2012-15, and during that time we got to experience firsthand the latter-day vinyl explosion. From the groundswell of new releases, both major label and indie, that previously would have only been offered on CD, and the deluge of catalog reissues on vinyl; to the steadily-growing used vinyl business, and the broadening of the customer demographic to include every age group, including pre-teens just discovering vinyl for the first time as well as older music fans catching the bug again and finding a reason to return to their neighborhood record stores; it was by all measures a period of unprecedented growth for that sector of the music industry, one which saw the market share of vinyl growing by significant percentages practically every quarter. (You would’ve had to be living in a cave not to spot at least one hyperventilating “Vinyl is back!” report in the national and international media during that time as well, to the point that such reports started become hilariously redundant.)
Now, however, with the escalating price of new vinyl—for both new releases and reissues—hitting what some are calling dangerous levels from a consumer point of view, media coverage has gradually been turning negative, in some instances even prematurely sounding the death knell for vinyl. Last year there was a cautionary story published at Stereogum titled “Have We Reached Peak Vinyl?” which discussed, among other things, those rising prices, the problems small labels were having getting their records pressed with a limited number of actual pressing plants, and the perception among a lot of collectors that the annual Record Store Day—which arguably kick-started the whole latter-day vinyl revival—had become co-opted by the major labels and ultimately rendered near-meaningless. (That’s what a limited edition Justin Bieber record will do, eh?)
Then last week Stereogum published a follow-up story, “We’ve Passed Peak Vinyl—Here Comes the Collapse” in which writer Michael Nelson addressed all this, and more. Lively discussions about the Nelson article quickly followed across the interwebs, including one that Stephen and I found ourselves knee-deep in—we’re both extremely passionate about these matters, to say the least, and feel it’s a dialogue that needs to be ongoing. Plus, make no mistake, Stephen’s take (and mine too, even though I am no longer in Raleigh and working at Schoolkids) is that despite all the current issues, vinyl is decidedly NOT on the verge of extinction. There will always be collectors of and devotees to the analog format. Perhaps the headlines should instead read something along the lines of, “Hi, My Name is Vinyl: The Rumors of My Impending Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.” What follows below, then, is his recap of our side of the conversation, plus elaboration, stemming from his experiences as a record store owner and as a well-known figure within the national independent record store community, both as a member of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and a board member for the Music Biz Association (formerly NARM). Readers are encouraged to post their comments and reactions. Got all that? Okay, let’s rock. – FM
The Michael Nelson-penned Stereogum report referenced above may be viewed by some as “just another person belly-aching about the record industry and its mistakes.” However, from my perspective as a record store owner—I operate three Schoolkids Records businesses, in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—it is all 100% accurate and an honest take on where things stand. (The comments that Stereogum readers posted following the piece are honest, too; they are all spot on.) Regular customers who shop at stores know. This is fluid and serious. Now, more than ever, support your local stores—they need you.
Furthermore, if people blow this off as just another person just complaining about the industry, major labels, etc., you are really missing the point. I am all for major labels, all for vinyl selling in chains, and am not an elitist and someone who never promotes or looks for negativity ever. But these statements Nelson is making are correct, minus the parts about Billy Fields, who I know personally and is 100% a champion of vinyl and record stores, one of our biggest cheerleaders and advocates in the industry. Everything Billy says in the story about Record Store Day and the industry itself is true as well: Yes, WEA recently announced they would stop selling to anyone who doesn’t meet a certain threshold of sales on an annual basis, but as much as I know that doesn’t help (and that it does hurt some small retailers), also realize that a lot of people were also taking advantage of the system, buying direct from WEA just so they could participate in Record Store Day while not buying and carrying vinyl year-round—which defeats the purpose. However, it is a policy that has been in place with WEA for years but was not enforced. And it is a concern, as it will hurt a lot of small, low volume stores and make it more difficult.
One thing I get really tired of is people blaming Record Store Day, such as in THIS article published earlier this year at TheVinylFactory.com about stores opting to drop out of RSD participation. To me, that’s the same short-mindedness as saying, “I don’t shop at a store that carries Led Zeppelin because that’s too mainstream…” Get over yourselves. Vanity is not a virtue that will yield long-term success in this business. Fields’ comments on RSD in the report are accurate. While it’s not untrue that the major labels have essentially taken over, as most of us know, it’s still a good day overall, sales-wise, and in terms of spreading awareness of indie record stores—which was the whole point of RSD in the first place.
I have been on many panels with Record Store Day co-founder Carrie Colliton seen the venom coming her way, as if she has something to do with the onslaught of releases coming and the prices—as if she alone can 100% control it. The RSD folks do everything they can; they are a non-profit tiny operation where the day to day administrative aspects and policing of policies is run by one person. Yes, one. What’s corporate about that? What people fail to realize, is that some companies out there will do whatever they want: They defy our rules, our criteria, hell, even our way of life, and they will do it with someone else (like Amazon or Barnes & Noble) if we say no. They are already doing this. In Dublin, where I am at now writing this, local friends/colleagues were telling me about Tesco (UK company), a grocery store that is the third largest retailer in the world for Father’s Day, selling rare, limited edition colored vinyl from bands such as The Jam and The Clash.
Seriously? Do the labels not understand what they are doing to the format by doing promotions with large chains like this? Not to mention what this does to small indie record stores? It’s an insult to all of the work we stores have done; it’s now in the hands of those who do not respect what it is and will do anything to make an extra buck.
In addition to that, I also know, since she works in our Raleigh store every single year to help us with crowd control on RSD, what Carrie deals with on an annual basis. This includes record stores themselves breaking the explicit rules set up by RSD, such as gouging fans by putting limited LPs on eBay. Some things I will not mention here as it would create havoc for her, but let’s just say that there are some greedy people out there, and they are not all at labels—they are at stores as well.
Then where does that leave the stores that helped create this phenomenon and curated the format? Who never stopped selling vinyl for over 40 years? We build something up, make it work, make it successful, and then it leaves us to go elsewhere? Hello, LeBron James! They will just take “their talents elsewhere.”
Well, it’s time for the flirtations to end, time to take a pay cut and take one for the team, and time for you to do the right thing—and come home. If LeBron can do it (who was once the most hated athlete in the world for leaving Cleveland to go to Miami), why can’t you? You can win in Cleveland; you just have to assemble the right team.
Make no mistake: Vinyl is not dead, so don’t believe any headlines to that effect. It’s not in any danger of disappearing. But the pricing structure is deeply problematic. The real issue RSD has presented, and something that was not mentioned in the Stereogum article, is that because of its success, stores have become a line-item on the Income Statement for major labels, instead of just being in the “Misc” column. That is, RSD has made a significant enough impact (as vinyl sales have, overall, but this is largely led by RSD) industry-wide to prompt the “black-and-white/I-have-no-idea-why-people-buy-records” accountants working in the industry to start to dissect those line items. Those accountants then come to the conclusion that the labels are “not making enough margins” on their products. THIS is the reason for the price increases that Nelson outlined in his Stereogum report. It’s based on the generic analytics that accountants use to study what something should be priced, which incorporate manufacturing issues, volume, and the ridiculous overhead they have, what with the large buildings, offices, and expenses incurred for the elite few in an industry that is only a fraction of what it was before, during the peak years for the CD, volume- and cash flow-wise.
The latter point is worth restating, and I have said it before. It makes no sense for the majors to have these large offices in NYC or in extremely expensive real estate markets, when you can work from just about anywhere (depending on your actual job). You can save tremendous amounts of money having satellite offices and/or in cheaper markets. There are tons of empty buildings, for example, in Atlantic City from casinos that went out of business. In 2016, normal human beings are moving away from overpriced large cities like New York to more reasonably-price areas like Raleigh-Durham (my hometown). But the music industry, for some reason, feels it has to “keep up appearances” and stay in ridiculous situations. They therefore make the “business of music” almost impossible for these large corporations—the ones that waste money on such things—to have a realistic grasp of the “business” in terms of the prices that normal people are actually willing to pay and what this industry realistically can make in 2016 and into the foreseeable future. It all goes back to those margins, which become the problem, which in turn is due to the inflated overhead and unrealistic expectations.
In a sense, independent stores were better off when we did not show up on those accountants’ radars. RSD did generate press and hype; those large RSD sales figures and vinyl sales in general got noticed by the industry, and the numbers were then played with. And here we are: accountants in NYC making decisions that might work on paper in a short-term sense, but make no sense for the long-term life of the business. Anyone in the trenches or who actually buys records can tell you this; it is obvious. However, this is nothing new, that those decisions are being made by people who haven’t bought a record (or even music, for that matter) in years or decades and answer monthly to shareholders and look at everything as just “widgets.”
They simply do not understand the landscape and the customers—what they actually want, what their consumer habits are like, and what they are willing to pay for the products they buy. However black and white that is, it lacks complete common sense. As my late father, who was a highly respected CPA, used to say, “You can teach someone the numbers and the books, but you can’t teach someone common sense.” In this day and age, where people walk around like the zombie apocalypse playing a video game on their phone, is it any wonder why the stereotypical starched, white-collar accountant can’t look up from his desk for five minutes and see what is really going on? Of course not, but we all need to look up as we are missing a really beautiful world around us, all the while getting stuck in a fantasy world with numbers that don’t add up.
The indie labels understand this—most of them do try to keep their prices down, relatively speaking—but the majors control way too much catalog and therefore need to lead here. But the direction they are leading us in is down to the edge of a cliff once again, when people actually need to see the whole picture of what is happening. Success—the type that RSD did foster— shouldn’t necessarily be a problem. If managed properly, growth and success can work, but not if the people making the decisions don’t understand what exactly they are selling and who they are selling to and the basic common sense of it all.
At any rate, I have been saying for a year now that vinyl has reached a milestone and a peak, mainly because of the price and over-saturation of the marketplace, versus the demand and supply. The only reason vinyl sales are even up nationwide is because some places are only just now coming to the party, so it’s a false increase. I call it the “Bugs Bunny Effect,” when someone gets hit over the head with a hammer while running and they keep running for many frames until they realize someone hit them over the head and the big bump rises on the top of their head and it goes “ouch!” There is always a delayed reaction in the marketplace. It was the same when vinyl was going up; we saw it first at indie retail, and now we’re seeing the opposite.
With stores closing, prices staying high, too many sub-par reissues coming out, labels’ continued policies of vinyl being sold one-way/NON-returnable (unlike CDs, and unlike vinyl in decades’ past, once you buy a new LP for your store, it’s yours, and if it’s a stiff like the latest, and high-priced, Lana Del Rey album, you’ve essentially eaten your cost and can only pray you recoup after you’ve reduced the price and dumped it in your “sale” bins), and stores struggling to keep cash flow up for the traffic and turnover, this will ultimately start to trend downward. More stores will inevitably close, many will survive just like 15 years ago (when piracy had taken a huge toll on the independent store sector), but many markets will not be able to support a store, or multiple stores, especially if you are vinyl only.
At this rate and change we have seen over the last 12 months, there is going to be another purge. This is also inevitable, as everything is cyclical; but it could have been another 5-10 years before we saw this (and could have been more gradual) if the industry would just be more patient, let things build organically, and not overprice and make the same mistakes made in the ‘90s with the CD. (Remember when you’d pay an $18.98 for a single CD, not even a deluxe version, just to get the couple of songs you wanted?)
The stores with the higher rent are going first, which is why you are seeing it in NYC, where we all know rent is an issue. It will continue to trickle down into other markets unless the industry makes some major changes such as (1) moving street date from the current Friday back to Tuesday; (2) lowering the price of vinyl back to what the market can bear; and (3) also not allowing streaming services to have a record online and streaming on street date. The film industry doesn’t allow 99% of its movies to be rented concurrent with them opening in theaters, so why does the music industry allow new releases to be streaming—which is very analogous to renting— the same day they appear in stores? It makes no sense.
At my stores, I have seen double digit growth over the last four to five years—until last year, May 2015, when it just completely stopped. This trend started when the majors increased vinyl costs and list prices. Blurt editor Fred Mills was sitting right next to me, around April 2015 in my Raleigh store, when I opened the email from two of the major labels announcing the price hike. My immediate reaction was, “What are you idiots doing?!? You are making the same mistake you made in the ‘90s with high list prices for CDs, which directly fueled the downloading and piracy problem.”
Then the industry compounded matters with street dates changing to Friday, which has been an utter disaster and effectively killed weekday sales; weekends were already when customers were more likely to be out and shopping, so having Tuesday at a street date was a great way to get them into the stores during the week.
Many other factors were at play, too, but those were two huge ones. For example, we started off the first four months of 2015 up 22% from the same period in the year before, and we were on pace to have our best year in 10 years. Once those changes outlined above took place, however, the bottom fell out, and we finished down for the year.
I am seeing this nationwide. I deal with it every single day in my stores, as do the retail coalitions mentioned in the Stereogum article. I am a proud member of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS) and also a board member for Music Biz (formerly NARM), so I am hearing stories from all over the country. Some are seeing it worse than others, but the common denominator is, everyone agrees, that we have a really serious problem.
I noticed things dropping off a few months after Record Store Day 2015, by the time August rolled around, I knew something was seriously wrong and this was not just a lull and/or a slow summer. I have voiced my issues to my colleagues, and there have been some heated discussions. There are many higher-ups in the industry who are furious about this and are pushing every day for solutions, but it typically falls upon deaf ears among those people who should understand but cannot seem to do anything, as well as people who just don’t care. So I am back in my corner, building up my reserves as best I can for the winter and the freeze. It’s been a perfect storm of problems, and here we are.
Another point worth mentioning here is that there are too many places selling vinyl for the number of people actually buying. To restate what I said about about the UK grocery store Tesco selling vinyl, with the boom we also have chains such as Guitar Center, Barnes & Noble, Urban Outfitters and even some Whole Foods locations selling the wax. If you look at the statistics and sales numbers, they are not large enough to justify this amount of growth in the market place it’s all hyped-up fashion that has been sold to them by those who benefit from it, and it’s not healthy to the business in the long run—you don’t want to blow your wad before you have the romance, so to speak. Think of your retail partners, people. Think of the long-term effects of this. Can we really afford to not let this grow organically? Do you seriously not see the ramification of going to the altar too soon?
Many of these challenges were bound to happen, but in this day and age of social media, things change quickly. When we had a little bit of “good news” in the industry during the last ten years, such as all the “Vinyl Is Back!” stories in the media, well, of course everyone jumped on board. But it was too fast, too soon, too broad, too expensive.
Now those businesses that are more efficient, can manage their cash flow and inventory, have reasonable landlords and rent and good locations, experience a stable market, and diversify themselves enough to make higher margins off other items (such as online sales, second-hand vinyl, and accessories) are the ones most likely to survive. Lately I’ve been working more with shirts, books, and other items that have better margins, additionally trying to stockpile as much second-hand product as I can get my hands on, whatever the format.
When nearby stores do close, those stores that remain will certainly pick up some of the customers, but it’s all short-lived gains. Don’t forget that competition is good and more product in the marketplace is good—as long as it’s priced right and fits the market demand. This is the same thing that happened in the early 2000s, when stores were closing left and right. It’s about to happen again, and it’s sad because it could be different if it was managed better.
I am particularly worried about the small stores that are vinyl only and don’t have any room for error. Two of my stores are 50/50 CDs-to-vinyl, which is healthy. Another was 70% vinyl, but that is gradually starting to change now. Stores that sell only vinyl, that is a really tough thing to manage, and unlike my stores, they don’t necessarily have a 40+ year history of selling CDs and all genres. This gives us an advantage, not just in the shop itself but especially on-line, where secondhand sales do really well for us with CDs and LPs alike.
Regarding stores located in areas of high rent, they are the most vulnerable right now. As mentioned, I have three stores and I have a lot to fall back on. We are adjusting to these industry changes. It’s what I do and analyze every single day.
I also have an accounting degree and business management degree, and thanks to having smart store managers, I am not bogged down daily with running the stores. That frees me to spend all of my time running reports, analyzing sales, trends, and inventory levels. (Having a robust point-of-sale system that can manage inventory and cut down on the administrative labor is critical for a retail business, and that’s the best investment I’ve made in the last 6-12 months.) I also am constantly looking for more things to increase our business and to make us different—like having a bar and selling craft beer at my Raleigh location, for example—and to increase our brand, not just within NC but nationally and in Europe as well.
But many others do not have this luxury, and it’s those stores I worry about. Clearly the conversation about all this is now happening among the general public, and with customers, too, who are seeing it happen every day.
The question is, will they do anything to fix this? The record industry, that is. I am not counting on it. But I plan to survive regardless. Vinyl’s not dead; it’s a music format that has endured for longer than most of us have been alive, in fact. As a retailer, I certainly don’t plan to go down without a bloody fight—which makes it worth reminding you that in 2013, major label EMI was broken up as part of its acquisition by Universal. This renders those defiant, confrontational Sex Pistols lyrics quoted at the top of this article all the more timely, and meaningful:
“Some people don’t get metaphor at all”: The acclaimed Texas rocker/songwriter/raconteur on the innate power of words, and what it means when someone like Donald Trump knows how to twist them to suit his own ends.
BY JAMES MCMURTRY
Whatever the front man says or does gives license to those in the crowd. A certain band used to play at the Continental Club in Austin, where my band and I regularly play when we’re home. When they played, a woman danced naked, or very nearly naked, behind a screen on which a light threw her shadow to the full view of the audience. Some of the staff that worked those shows are still working at the club. They tell me that during those shows some of the men in the audience became unusually and uncomfortably aggressive toward the women in the audience. I thought that was terrible.
Years later, while touring through Utah, someone gave me a small sticker that read “I love Mormon pussy.” It actually employed the symbol for a heart, rather than the word “love.” I thought it was funny as hell. I put the sticker on my ESP Telecaster. My label thought it was funny as hell, and put a picture of it on my website. After we got home, we resumed our regular residency at the Continental Club. Some of the staff soon reported that some of the men in the audience were becoming unusually and uncomfortably aggressive toward the women in the audience at my shows. I took the sticker off the guitar and had the label take the picture off the website and that shit quit happening. I didn’t feel so morally superior to that certain band after that.
When Donald Trump said he’d like to punch someone in the mouth, he knew there was a good chance someone would get sucker punched at one of his rallies, and someone did. Donald said it was ok, so someone believed him and made it happen. When Trump said some of the Second Amendment people could do something about Hillary, he increased the odds of Clinton getting shot at and he knew it full well. He’s a front man and he knows the power of the front man. For Trump to deny that he’s inciting violence is beyond full of shit.
But let’s just say, for the sake of devil’s advocacy, that Trump actually was speaking metaphorically, as his spinners say he was. Even if he was speaking metaphorically when calling for the assassination of his rival, he was still criminally negligent because he said those words from the podium. He said those words as a front man, speaking to his millions of followers, many of whom, statistically speaking, are unlikely to understand or even care that their Messiah was speaking metaphorically. Some people don’t get metaphor at all, so anything one says from the podium to an audience of millions must be taken at face value. Trump has crossed the line into unabashed thuggery and is dragging our electoral process down to the level of Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, and Joseph Stalin. He should share a room with them somewhere, metaphorically speaking of course.
James McMurtry blogs for Blurt with his “Wasteland Bait & Tackle” column. Find him on the web at JamesMcurtry.com.
And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock, and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. Go HERE to read Dr. Denim’s first installment of the series. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
As leader of the now-legendary Lazy Cowgirls, Pat Todd created a canon of blazing roots/punk rock & roll that should serve as a textbook for anyone who reveres both Johnny Cash and the Ramones. When the Indiana-born longtime Los Angeleno shifted focus (barely) toward the Americana side of his personality with the Rankoutsiders, he stuck to the same standards – four chords, blasting guitars, a kickin’ rhythm section and more soul than a Baptist church on Sunday. Blood and Treasure (Hound Gawd!), the band’s fourth LP, is another stellar example of Todd’s vision. Jolted by the six-string team of Kevin Keller and longtime foil Nick Alexander, the ‘outsiders rip through blues and ballads, C&W and R&R, with an expertise that should be the envy of bands half their age. Todd’s songs eschew clever wordplay and ironic distance to simply channel the man’s heart from his sleeve to yours, whether he’s fighting bad love (“Tell Me Now,” “I Hear You Knockin’”) or working class despair (“This Counterfeit World,” “Just Another Broken Day”). He won’t give in, though, stating his case most effectively in never-surrender anthems “Stand Up and Sass Back” and “Don’t Be Sellin’ Emptiness.” Blood and Treasure shows Todd and the Rankoutsiders once again reinventing ragged but right by being simply unable to do wrong.
Fronting a freewheeling blend of Detroit hard rock, Nuggets garage punk, dirty Cramps-a-billy and grungy surf, all given an acid sheen, Spain’s Capsula have been blasting away for nearly 20 years to a devoted audience far smaller than it should be. But the Argentina-bred power trio have never let that – or anything, really – get them down, and that same joie de vivre infests Santa Rosa (Vicious Circle), the band’s eleventh album. (Twelfth, if you count its stint backing up Ivan Julian on Naked Flame.) Tempering its live energy a tad (note: if this band comes to a club anywhere near you, do not hesitate), Capsula polishes its songwriting to an even more potent shine, balancing full throttle burners like “Tierra Girando” and “Candle Candle” with midtempo psych poppers “Moving Mutants” and “They Are New Models.” The trio even successfully ventures into ballad territory on “Past Lives.” Proof that great bands can keep getting better. Birth of Joy comes from the same spiritual place as Capsula, but, with the bass replaced by keyboards, trucks in a more expansive sound. Get Well (Long Branch/SPV), the Dutch trio’s sixth album, picks up where its last studio LP Prisoner left off, pushing the psychedelic and jamming tendencies to the fore while not losing the band’s intense rock & roll drive. That proves BoJ equally adept at both short/sharp/shocked bangers like “You Got Me Howling” and “Blisters” and drawn-out epics “Numb” and the title track. Perhaps not the revelation Prisoner was, but a progression, for sure.
With a name like Dr. Boogie, you’d expect a band beholden to John Lee Hooker, or at least ZZ Top and Canned Heat. In this case, though, you’d be wrong – the L.A. quartet owes its soul to the New York Dolls and the heyday of glam and protopunk on Gotta Get Back to New York City (Dead Beat). “Down This Road,” “Queen of the Streets” and the title track rock hard with that ever-so-tricky mix of Chuck Berry and aggression, while “Really Good Feeling” verges on power pop. The biggest surprise is “Together,” which adds a disco beat and “doot-doot” vocals for a dandy variation on the formula. Boasting a clever, “why didn’t anyone think of this before?” name, Indonesian Junk romps straight outta Milwaukee with an impressive self-titled debut album (Rum Bar). Throwing glam rock, protopunk, power pop and R&B-flavored garage rock into a centrifuge, the trio shakes it all down until it comes out as uncomplicated rock & roll. “Black Hole,” “Little Malibu” and “Indonesia” show off a band that rummages through the past, takes what it wants and leaves the rest to rot. Surprise bonus: a cover of Jayne County’s “Fuck Off.”
Though best known for leading U.K. punk & roll band the Almighty and his current frontman position with Black Star Riders (the group that grew out the latter-day revival of Thin Lizzy), Ricky Warwick started banging guitar in imitation of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. Despite his schedule with the Riders, the Irish native found time to knock out a double album that serves both sides of his personality. When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (and Guy Mitchell Sang the Blues)/Hearts on Trees (Nuclear Blast) ranges from the hard-edged heartland rock of the first half (“Son of the Wind,” “Johnny Ringo’s Last Ride,” “The Road to Damascus Street”) to the mostly acoustic folk rock (“Said Samson to Goliath,” “Disasters,” a cover of Porter Wagoner’s immortal “Psycho”) of the second. Not out of line for a dude whose first professional job was playing second guitar on a New Model Army tour. German singer/songwriter Conny Ochs takes a similar tack on his third solo album Future Fables (Exile On Mainstream), though he prefers to mix his folk and rock rather than segregate them. Fielding melancholy introspection and cautiously optimistic progression, the record sounds like Ochs decided to blend his twin lives as acoustic troubadour and badass rocker, giving “Golden Future,” “Piece of Heaven” and “No Easy Way” a grit most singer/songwriter records rarely achieve.
If Kiss had succumbed to its 70s glam rock tendencies instead of its 80s hair metal fantasies, maybe it would be half as cool as Watts. The Beantown quartet kicks the requisite amount of gluteus maximus on third LP The Black Heart of Rock ‘N Roll (Rum Bar), happily rebooting riffs from the Stones, ZZ Top and the Sweet as it’s the first time anything like it has ever been heard. “She’s Electric’ and “Strut Like a Champ” brandish serious swagger, “Stage Fright” boogies like Marc Bolan if he’s been born in Texas and “Bye & Bye” reveals the bruised heart under the bravado. If the U.S.A. has ever produced a rock & roll band inhabiting the same dimension as the late, great Dogs D’amour, Watts is probably it.
Led by singer/songwriter Victor Penalosa – younger brother to Hector of the Zeros and Flying Color, cousin to the Escovedo clan, current drummer for the Flamin Groovies – the Phantoms bop all over the map on their self-titled debut (Rum Bar), from power pop (“Baby Loves Her Rock N’ Roll”) and country rock (“One For the Road”) to snotty punk (“Chump Change”) and no-nonsense rock & roll (“Tears Me Up Inside,” “Ditch Digger”). Add the driving heartland rock of “Two Lane Black Top” and Chuck Berry boogie of “The Ballad of Overend Watts” and it’s a party. The band has a solid grasp on anything that requires a backbeat and loud guitars, while Penalosa’s memorable melodies and appealingly plain singing tie it all together. You can probably be forgiven for casting aspersions toward the Two Tens – after all it’s a co-ed duo with a male guitarist and a female drummer, and debut album Volume (Ugly Sugar) was mixed by Detroit super producer Jim Diamond. But the L.A. act is no White Stripes wannabe – the band is far more enamored of 60s garage rock than Zeppelin blues. All the better to rock sweet pop tunes “Sweet as Pie” and “Watching Me” and pounding thrashers “Life” and “Rush Out” into the dirt.
Despite coming from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (or maybe because of it), the Connection has established itself as one of the best 60s-inspired power pop bands going via Little Steven-endorsed rekkids like Let It Rock and the stupendous Labor of Love. So it’s a good time to reissue the quartet’s debut New England’s Newest Hit Makers (Rum Bar). Fresh-faced and sparkling, the record gets down to business quickly and efficiently via “Stop Talking,” “My Baby Likes to Rock N Roll,” “I Think She Digs Me” and other nuggets analogous to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night era. Delightful. Seattle’s Navins apply similar energy to power poppy tunes that boast melodies by the jangleful on debut LP Not Yourself Today (Green Monkey). Named after Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, the band (which includes ex-TAD man Gary Thortensen) certainly exhibits a sense of humor, but is no joke, showing serious craft and heart on the winsome “Oceans,” the jamming “Wallet Full of Signs” and the crunchy “Never Wanted Nothing.”
Singer/guitarist Eric Knoxx slung strings for rockin’ surf/lounge band the Vice Barons for several years, but finally uncorks his larynx on Saturday Night Shakes (Rum Bar), the debut album from his new outfit the Backseat Angels. With a nod toward the upbeat melodies of old school punk/pop like the Boys and a wink toward the swagger of bubblegum glamsters like the Sweet, Knoxx and co. bang out hard candy delights “Teenage Rock’n’ Roller,” “To Be a Better Man” and “My Baby Wants to Brainwash My Mind.”
Hailing from Seattle, the town that kicked off the whole garage rock thing back in the 60s with the Sonics, the Wailers and – RIP Jack Ely – the Kingsmen, Liquid Generation takes direct inspiration from its forebears on Quarter to Zen (Green Monkey). Recorded in 1983 and unreleased until now, scrappy snarls like “Hang Up” (a gem from the Wailers’ catalog), “Nothing” (via the Ugly Ducklings) and “¼ to Zen” would’ve landed the band on the Get Hip label and on tour with the Chesterfield Kings had it come out when it should’ve. NYC’s Mystery Lights get even more faithful to the old school on their self-titled debut (Wick) – close your eyes and you’d think this was recorded in 1965. As such, it sounds like a bunch of kids with loud guitars, a handful of chords and a few drugs fueling their rock & roll fantasies. It would almost be too retro for its own good if not for the quality of the songs – the blistering “Melt,” the wide-ranging “Before My Own” and the surprisingly psychedelic “Flowers in My Hair, Demons in My Head” scratch the Nuggets itch as well as anything from the original era.
The blues is, of course, one of the bigger planks in rock & roll’s platform, and bands will never stop using it as the crux of their raison d’etre. So it is with Jane Lee Hooker. The NYC five-piece takes on everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and Otis Redding on its debut album No B! (Ruf). But since these ladies have backgrounds in punk and hard rock – specifically Nashville Pussy, Bad Wizard, Helldorado and the legendary Wives – they simply can’t help rocking the hell out of the likes of Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” Albert King’s “The Hunter” and Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.” The band’s rip through Johnny Winters’ “Mean Town Blues” hews far closer to the members’ previous day jobs than anything that came out of Memphis. Whiskey-and-cigs singer Dana “Danger” Athens’ original “In the Valley” fits right in alongside genre classics and deep cuts. Northern Ireland duo the Bonnevilles stick to an original program on Arrow Pierce My Heart (Alive Naturalsound), but also punk up the blues like Chess Records filtered through the Standells. “I’ve Come Too Far For Love to Die,” “The Electric Company” (not a U2 cover) and “The Man With the X Shaped Scar On His Cheek” rock raw and dirty, not a million miles away from what the Black Keys were doing in their early days.
For the last decade, Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Left Lane Cruiser has practically defined the idea of punk blues. Beck in Black (Alive Naturalsound), compiled by original drummer Brenn Beck from the albums on which he appears, collects tracks from the then-duo’s earliest days up until right before the band became a trio on last year’s barnburner Dirty Spliff Blues. The Cruiser’s rawboned bottleneck ‘spunk stomps and stammers on “Zombie Blocked,” “Circus” and the mighty “Sausage Paw,” one of six previously unreleased tracks. Shawn James is more of a blues traditionalist than Hooker, Cruiser or the Bonnevilles, but only in the sense of staying acoustic on his latest LP On the Shoulders of Giants (self-released). Wielding a pair of resonator guitars and recording at Sun Studios, the big-voiced Arkansan lays down deep blues like “Back Down” and “When It Rains, It Pours” that would crush boulders if played through a Marshall stack.
The blues is more of a feel than a form for international (counting members from the States, France and Sweden) quartet Blues Pills. Second full-length Lady in Gold (Nuclear Blast) finds the band folding in flavors of psychedelic soul into its groovy rawk stew, which suits brassy singer Elin Larsson on tunes like “Rejection,” “You Gotta Try” and “Won’t Go Back” (all hidden in the final third, oddly enough). Ultimately, though, the band is still about fairly frill-less rock & roll – check “Bad Talkers,” “Little Boy Preacher” and the especially catchy title track. Bonus: a menacing, rocking take on Tony Joe White’s “Elements and Things.” Hailing from Sudbury, Ontario, Sulfur City plays groovy blues rock with a political edge on Talking Loud (Alive Naturalsound). With an electric washboard, a powerful howl, a 60s sense of social outrage and a thing for the Devil (who appears in “Johnny” and “Sold”), leader Lori Paradis cuts a striking figure. Aided and abetted by guitarist/co-writer Jesse Lagace, she sometimes lets her band lapse into a Grateful Dead choogle that sucks the energy out of the performances. But when she and the band grit their teeth, via the swampy “One Day in June,” stomping “Tie My Hand to the Floor” and fiery “You Don’t Know Me,” they show a lot of promise.
Remember when alt.country meant more than folk singers with tasteful bands backing them up? The Right Here does. Sounding on debut LP Stick to the Plan (Rum Bar) like the Old 97’s if they’d just come off a particularly debauched tour with Motörhead, the Minneapolis (of course) quartet takes two-stepping melodies and C&W progressions and thrashes the hell out of them while keeping the songcraft intact. From blazing cowpunkers “Til the Wheels Come Off” (which sounds like a classic set-closer) and “Judge Me When I’m Sober” to the tear-in-your-spilled-beer ballads “Drunk and Rolling Around” and “Fall Asleep, Hate Yourself, or Leave,” the Right Here rips and tears at your heartstrings as often as your ears (and your air guitar). Austin’s New Mystery Girl also fields a rootsy vibe on Crawl Through Your Hair! (Gutsy Dame), but calling them just another band of that ilk is a mistake. Singer/songwriter Chrissie Flatt and guitarist Eric Hisaw have deep roots in country and Americana music, but also a smart pop sense and a raw attack, while rhythm section Bobby Daniel and Hector Muñoz did many years with Alejandro Escovedo. Add quality songs like “Stepping On My Toes” and “I’m Not Ready to Let Go” and a rollicking rip through the New York Dolls’ “Subway Train” and you’ve got something more developed than just roots rock.
The Kingbees were contemporaries of the Stray Cats, but never hit the same heights. That’s partly because the trio simply wasn’t as stylized as Brian Setzer’s crew, and partly because the group’s neorockabilly wasn’t as flashy about its retro stylings. That’s especially evident on second LP The Big Rock (Omnivore), originally released in 1981. Singer/guitarist Jamie James and co. worry less about 50s trappings than in simply continuing the tradition, making streamlined confections of the title track, “She Can’t ‘Make-up’ Her Mind” and covers of Charlie Rich, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins.
On the way to recording their second LP, the Muffs lost rhythm guitarist Melanie Vammen and traded drummer Criss Crass for ex-Redd Kross basher Roy McDonald. The changes did the band good, however, as evidenced by Blonder and Blonder (Omnivore). Originally released in 1995, the record reflected no radical departures from the self-titled debut. Instead the band refined its melodic punk & roll, with sharper hooks, wittier lyrics and a more aggressive attack. (Credit McDonald, whose spirit animal is clearly Keith Moon, at least in part for the latter.) “Ethyl My Love,” “Oh Nina” and “Laying On a Bed of Roses” rock recklessly without ever losing their grip on the hooks, while “Sad Tomorrow” and the waltz-time “Funny Face” demonstrate growing lyrical sophistication. The Doug Sahmish “Red Eyed Troll” and mostly acoustic “Just a Game” show a group growing beyond its self-imposed boundaries. Blonder and Blonder represents the Muff growing from strength to strength. As with last year’s reissue of The Muffs, this edition adds a gaggle of bonus tracks (including the album-worthy “Become Undone” and “Born Today”), informative liner notes from bassist Ronnie Barnett and Shattucks’ song-by-song commentary.
Careening out of control like a bus driven by a tweaker, Sleeping Beauties reclaim punk rock bash ‘n’ crash for a younger generation with their self-titled debut (In the Red). Slavering meat-eaters “Meth,” “Hands” and “Bobby & Suzie” filter garage rock through the prism of ADHD-addled high school dropouts; “Slumber Party” adds a shit-kicking (if barely recognizable) C&W beat. “Merchants of Glue” and “Addicted to Drugs” pass for ballads, with pretty melodies rolled in the dirt and left to dry in the sun – “South Eugene” even goes full on acoustic. The Pacific Northwestern quintet lays claim to real songwriting chops, which means even the most crazed numbers hold up beyond the initial energy rush. Like the long-gone Squirrel Bait drowning in the Johnny Thunders side of its personality, Sleeping Beauties buries a sensitive soul under a nightmare of squalling guitars, blaring vocals and chemically-assisted insanity, and may very well be what rock & roll is all about.
Michael Toland also writes about metal for BLURT. Go HERE to read the latest installment of his blog, “Throwing Horns,” in which he covers himself in goat’s blood and genuflects before the likes of Cobalt, Melvins, Death Angel, Candlemass, Dust Moth, Lord Mantis, and more.
The Backseat Angels – Saturday Night Shakes bandcamp:
And you thought I was done with a mere record review of that awesome Scientists box set.
By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor / Erstwhile Australian Correspondent
Sharp eyes have already spotted yours truly’s extended review of the new box set from Numero Group, A Place Called Bad, documenting the initial career of Australian grunge pioneers The Scientists. In that review, I quoted from a much earlier feature, circa 1990, I published in the late great US fanzine The Bob about the band and its founder, Kim Salmon. Although no Bob material has ever, apparently, graduated to the digital milieu – and for me, that’s just as well, given my amateurish flourishes back in the day – I still felt that the two-part original Salmon/Sci story was worth posting here at my (cough) sacred forum.
Following my discussion of that Numero retrospective on the band are the scanned pages, direct from my archives (the one above is the cover to one of the two issues the Salmon feature spanned). Click on the pages to enlarge, or download, then enlarge, at will.
Special thanks to David Gerard of the equally late great Aussie zine Party Fears for doing the original Kim Salmon interview… Where are ya these days, David? Drop a line…
Meanwhile, here’s the breakdown of the new box.
“The Scientists, like the Birthday Party, were fueled on negative energy—a very negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way. I think the result is intense energy, but rather than force things out dynamically and theatrically like the Birthday Party did, we tend to basically unleash. The momentum is there, and we’re able to pick up on it and let it loose.” —Kim Salmon, 1989
Legendary Australian proto-grunge avatars the Scientists enjoyed—well, maybe that’s an overstatement; let’s just say, “indulged”—a career that lasted, initially, from 1978 to 1987. Co-founder/guitarist/chief songwriter Salmon subsequently re-formed the group in 2006 at the behest of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm to play that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and the band additionally has gotten back together a few times since then for events such as the ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series and as opening act for Sonic Youth.
It’s that initial decade-long run, however, that put the “legend” into the “legendary” for the band, the mid-‘80s in particular cementing the quartet’s reputation as uniquely qualified to shoulder the mantle of “heir to…” such brutality merchants as the Stooges, Suicide, the Cramps, Gun Club, and fellow Aussies the Birthday Party. With this particular lineup in place—Salmon, guitarist Tony Thewlis, bassist Boris Sujdovic and drummer Brett Rixon—the scabbily hirsute, silk-shirt adorned Scientists assaulted frequently unprepared audiences with the demented, unfiltered glee of, yes, a mad scientist, charting paranoia, decay, and bad love against a thundering, howling backdrop of swamp-twang and dissonance.
Admittedly, the group’s name recognition factor may be relatively low in terms of how many rock fans, in 2016, have heard of the musicians, much less actually heard them. But for a certain breed of music lover weaned on the aforementioned icons—that would include Jon Spencer, Mark Arm, and Thurston Moore, who were talking up the Scientists years before either of the latter two had to opportunity to extend their direct support—and tuned in to what was happening Down Under during the ‘80s, it’s likely the name continues to loom large. It certainly does for yours truly, having been smitten early on and obsessively collecting each and every official release alongside numerous live tapes; the ’82 Australian 45 “We Had Love” b/w “Swampland” retains a permanent lodging in my singles playbox, with that epochal B-side also a perennial of my Spotify playlists. (The title of this article takes its cue from a brilliant bon mot Salmon sneers in “Swampland”: “In my heart/ There’s a place called Swampland/ Nine parts water/ One part sand.”)
With the release of a comprehensive new four-disc box set by the astute archivists at the Numero Group label, hopes are high that a long-overdue reassessment by consumers of the band lurks in the wings. Following reissues of both The Scientists debut and the 1983 mini-album Blood Red River, Numero now drops A Place Called Bad, and it’s an essential collection. It breaks up the group’s history into three logical segments: “Cheap and Nasty,” covering the group’s somewhat poppier origins on the Perth punk and indie scene (Salmon had a pre-Scientists band circa 1977 called the Cheap Nasties—more on them in a sec); “Set It on Fire,” the fruitful years when they’d relocated to the Eastern edge of the continent, earning steadily-growing audiences, and ultimate making the pilgrimage to England as homelanders the Triffids, the Moodists, and of course the Birthday Party had recently done with reasonable success; and “When Worlds Collide,” the period during which personnel upheaval, clashes with their record label(s), and just plain bad luck all conspired to bring things to a close, although not without some equally compelling recorded output. The fourth disc for A Place Called Bad, “Live Cuts,” contains, logically enough, 23 live cuts recorded at various venues in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney during 1983, and for any right-thinking Scientists fan, they’re pure catnip. (I should know.)
Included with the box is a thick booklet boasting a nicely-annotated discography; photos (posed; why not live shots?) of most of the various Scientists lineups from over the years; a terrific eye-straining family tree done Pete Frame-style (count ‘em: nine separate versions of the group, plus such precursors as the Nasties, the Invaders, the Exterminators, the Mannikins, the Rockets, and the Helicopters, along with offshoots/members-overlapping-peers like the Hoodoo Gurus, the Johnnys, the Beasts of Bourbon, the Dubrovniks, and Salmon’s post-Sci trio, the Surrealists); and copious liner notes by box co-producer Erin Osmon, who managed to get fresh interviews with Salmon and several other principals. Throw in a remarkably handsome graphic design by Chunklet Industries majordomo Henry H. Owings, and you’ve got a box set guaranteed to prompt a Pavlovian drool among collectors.
Did someone say “drool”? Anyone worth his or her collector salt will have pre-ordered the vinyl edition as well, which replicates said booklet and graphic design in 12” gatefold format, the thick cardboard tip-on sleeve housing two heavy LPs (literally and metaphorically)—which of course means the tracklisting is a distillation of the choicer material contained on the CD box. But assuming you did preorder, you got an advance digital download of the entire thing, PLUS a bonus four-song 7” EP or cassette (!) by Salmon’s Cheap Nasties outfit, pressed on red wax at that, PLUS Cheap Nasties digital-only bonus tracks comprising the band’s entire 10-song demo from back in the day. Somebody please hand me a towel so I can sop up this puddle on my linoleum… I digress…
“The floor was littered with beer cans and bottles of whatever. We got one full bottle thrown—it sailed by my head, missing by about a foot. We had to sneak out of that gig without getting paid, because there were so many people there that really hated us. There was so much hatred. When I say it was common for people to throw bottles at us, I should say we did set ourselves up for it a bit: We tended to work off it, working off negative energy.” —Kim Salmon, 1984
That interview quote (it refers to one memorable Sydney gig in ’83 that found the Scientists opening for the decidedly UN-Scientific Angels), and the one at the top of the page, come from a 1990 article on Salmon and the Scientists that I collaborated upon with Australian fanzine editor David Gerard, who’d kindly allowed me to work in the bulk of a Salmon feature he’d done for his publication Party Fears. Incorporating information from two other equally esteemed Aussie ‘zines, B Side and D.N.A., the story charted Salmon’s journey to date, starting as a teenager discovering the likes of the Ramones, New York Dolls, and Modern Lovers. Listening to some of those early Scientists tunes on Disc 1 now, it strikes me how effortlessly Salmon and his bandmates absorbed their influences: the almost-jangly “Frantic Romantic” sounds like a cross between the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies, while the rowdier “Shake Together Tonight” could pass for a Dolls outtake. And neither “Pissed on Another Planet” and “Sorry Sorry Sorry” would have been out of place in a UK punk band’s setlist (think: Clash, Eddie & the Hot Rods, etc.).
By way of brief digression: Salmon, speaking to me in a more recent interview (2008, when he’d collaborated with the Died Pretty’s Ron Peno as the rootsier-sounding Darling Downs), elaborated upon a number of the artists who have informed his musical sensibilities, many of whom surface at myriad points in the box set’s material.
Explained Salmon, “Some of it’s well-known to people acquainted with my music—Stooges, Suicide, Beefheart, Creedence always come up, especially for the Scientists. But I liked most of the U.S. punk/CBGB stuff—Ramones, Television, Blondie. Before that I liked British rock like Zeppelin, the Stones, Bowie and King Crimson… and when it was okay after the initial punk purges, I liked them again, ha-ha!
“I’ve also liked jazz since I was a teenager, especially Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner have had as big an influence on my music over the years as any music. Of the blues artists, Howlin’ Wolf is definitely the one who I’ve taken the most from by a long shot, although I do like most blues. I have always felt a greater affinity with jazz and punk than blues, bizarrely, even though a lot of people think of my stuff as blues—which it is not.
“But none of this tells anything, really. Julie London’s in there, along with Nancy Wilson, Leon Russell —fuck, when I was a teenager I was a dog for Joe Cocker! — Hank Williams, Lee Hazelwood, Can, Blue Oyster Cult… the list could go on… British folk-rock stuff, like Cat Stevens, Nick Drake and Jimmy Page.”
Turning back to A Place Called Bad: In the band for most of the material featured on Disc 1, it should be noted, was drummer James Baker, en route to the Hoodoo Gurus, and Baker’s pop-punk inclinations no doubt influenced Salmon to a degree. But by late ’82, where Disc 2 commences via “This Is My Happy Hour,” a radical rethink of the group’s sound had transpired, as the band, and Salmon in particular, now sounded aggravated and very much on edge, with the term “happy hour” clearly meant ironically—or simply sarcastic, a sentiment underscored by “Swampland,” which with its metronomic rhythm, T.Rex-on-twang riffs, and Salmon’s part-moan/part-sneer, being anything but optimistic. From there the disc hits peak after peak (or mental low point after low point, depending on how you choose to psychoanalyze the Scientists): a whooping, ramshackle cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Clear Spot,” the malevolent, chiming minimalism of “Set It on Fire” (Salmon never sounded more desperate as a singer), some fetid swamp-blues for “Blood Red River,” the dissonant, buzzing “Fire Escape”—this is all the sound of a band who, true to Salmon’s words, was not just fueled by negativity—the Scientists personified it. Salmon, Thewlis, Sujdovic, and Rixon sound like men on the run and pursued by bounty hunters who aren’t necessarily going to be bothered with bringing their prey back alive. It’s no wonder that by mid-’85 the lineup was turning unstable.
Disc 3 can’t quite match its predecessor for sheer sonic and psychic oomph, but it’s not for lack of trying. Although in places it suggests a band for whom all that negativity was catching up with them and taking its toll, tracks like the Taxi Driver homage “If It’s the Last Thing I Do” (boasting the eternal lines “Sometimes I feel like Travis Bickle/ Just wanna shoot up all the bad that’s lurking in this town,” it’s a twangygrindingsexy sonic tour de force), punk-rockabilly pastiche “Atom Bomb Baby” (imagine Eddie Cochrane backed by Sonic Youth), and the subterranean rumble that is “A Place Called Bad” (it conjures an anthropomorphic drill press afflicted with a brutal hangover and puking its mechanical guts out), all conspire to send the band out on a high note. And trainspotters will want to know that, yes, the cover of John Fogerty/CCR nugget “It Came Out of the Sky” is undeniably great, simultaneously true to the original spirit while still utterly recognizable as classic Scientists. It’s unlikely that Salmon knew what or where “Moline,” namechecked in the song, was, but he chews the word around and lets it slide off his tongue like a man enjoying a particularly juicy bite of prime rib.
The live CD is a welcome addition to the canon, because while back in the day I’d heard plenty of ’83 shows via my tape traders’ network, having these tracks in official, cleaned-up, remastered format is a real treat. Highlights and left-field delights include a version of “Happy Hour” that completely wipes the original studio version for sheer, er, negativity, and “Set It on Fire” almost does likewise, particularly in Salmon’s edge-of-hysteria shrieks at the mic. There are several intriguing covers as well, including no less than three tips o’ the Sci cap to the Flamin’ Groovies (“Don’t Lie to Me,” “Have You Seen My Baby?” and a somewhat muffled, but revved-up and righteous “Slow Death”), a semi-throwaway take on “I’ve Had It” (originally done by the Bell Notes, it was covered by a number of bands during the punk era), and—just to return full circle to one of Salmon’s earliest inspirations—the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” served up sleek ‘n’ snotty, just like mama ordered.
All in all, A Place Called Bad is everything a good box set is supposed to be: a collection that tells a specific story with coherence, precision, and painstakingly comprehensive detail. This is true for both the music and the overall package (did I mention how sweet that vinyl version is?), and if this is intended to be the final word—not counting the latterday reunions of course—then it hits that goal 110%.
Perhaps, then, a similar project might be mounted to chronicle Kim Salmon’s numerous projects he’s undertaken since the Scientists’ initial dissolution in ’87, most notably the Surrealists. (There was also Tex Perkins’ Beasts of Bourbon and the Salamander Jim offshoot, the above-mentioned Darling Downs, Kim Salmon & the Business, a number of solo records, and just recently, separate collaborations with erstwhile Scientists drummer Leanne Cowie, aka Leanne Chock, and fellow Aussie legend Spencer P. Jones. You can find plenty of details, not to mention downloads, at his BandCamp page or at his official website.) When I talked to him in 2008, the Scientists had recently completed a handful of reunion gigs, and as he put it to me, “It’s always possible, given the right offer and person to negotiate things, that there could be more Scientists shows.”
Indeed, both anecdotal reports and the 2007 reunion album Sedition, recorded live at the ATP festival in May of the previous year, offer ample testimony that the group hadn’t lost its formidable live powers. If anything, this was a tighter, more focused ensemble that any of the lineups of yore. Salmon confessed to me, though, ambivalence regarding the revived Scientists cutting a new studio album.
“I do think, however, that the set of conditions that made that band work and evolve have passed on forever and that it would be an extremely risky thing to attempt to make another recording of new material with that band. Having reformation shows has been more a matter of setting things up for just long enough for us to recreate what we did have without it going anywhere. I don’t believe we’d go anywhere good if we were allowed to go on for longer than a short time. I haven’t heard any reformation albums that can convince me otherwise, I hate to say.
“It has been great revisiting what the Scientists did, and it has rekindled something that I can pursue with the Surrealists, who never actually broke up and are, I believe, able to grow and evolve. For me, Blood Red River [Scientists, 1983], The Human Jukebox [Scientists, 1987] and Hit Me with the Surreal Feel [Surrealists, 1988] follow a natural path that I got diverted from throughout the nineties. Anyway, it put me back in touch with what I was trying to do back then, and a lot of ideas that have been mulling over in my head for a decade and a half have just fallen into place since doing the Scientists tours…. [And] the Surrealists have just picked up all the ideas and run with them. It’s amazing. We’re definitely going to do another album and it’s going to follow on seamlessly from Hit Me With The Surreal Feel, which was so far ahead in time compared with anything I’ve done subsequently that it won’t be a step back in time.”
As cult as cult can be, Colorado’s Cobalt records infrequently and tours even less, so the metal community can be forgiven for forgetting the duo still exists. But records like Eater of Birds and Gin are prized by fans like slivers of the true cross (and are about as rare at this point), so any new release comes with the kind of reverential anticipation usually reserved for a Tom Waits album. Slow Forever (Profound Lore), the band’s fourth LP, comes with its own black cloud – singer and founding member Phil McSorley was fired after using racist slurs in an interview, then replaced with Charlie Fell, whose own lyrics with his previous band Lord Mantis have been accused of racial insensitivity. (If you want to know the full tit-for-tat story, Google is your friend.) Regardless of one’s feelings for its creators’ past actions, the album is an exceptional piece of work. Multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder paints an ugly picture, but not one without appeal. Thanks to a tight grasp on arrangements and just enough melody to focus the violence, he spreads the band’s doom-ridden progressive black metal over two disks with no listener fatigue. Fell brings his bloodthirsty A-game to the mic, slashing his larynx with ferocity and slotting into songs intended for McSorley as if the latter had never been present. Psychedelic, dynamic and brutal, “Hunt the Buffalo,” “Slow Forever” and the massive “King Rust” and “Final Will” smash and burn with the best extreme metal of the past decade. Expect Slow Forever to top a lot of 2016 best-of lists.
Speaking of Lord Mantis, the band’s latest EP Nice Teeth Whore (New Density) is also the debut of its latest iteration, with Indian’s Dylan O’Toole and Will Lindsay joining Mantis’ Andrew Markuszewski and Bill Baumgardner. (The drama surrounding this particular mind-meld, which also tangentially involves Abigail Williams and the disgraced Nachtmystium, is worthy of a soap opera, but we’ll skip it – Google that shit if you gotta know.) Given that both outfits indulged in some of the most angry, hateful and nihilistic death metal ever made by anyone anywhere, it’s not a shock that the four songs here are the same, but moreso. The grinding closer “Final Division” isn’t just the key track on the EP, but practically a primer on this poisonous strain of Chi-town extreme metal.
Undoubtedly one of the best metal acts going, Tombs follows up 2014’s masterful Savage Gold with the all-too-brief EP All Empires Fall (Relapse). The Brooklyn quintet ostensibly plays black metal, but happily incorporates wild-eyed acid doom, spooky gothic drama and Neurosis-like poundcrunch into its violent aesthetic, always layering in just enough melody to keep from being mere cacophony. Synthesist Fade Kainer adds a new touch to the band’s usual deathcrush, but it’s still visionary Mike Hill’s show via the brilliant, eccentric “Last Days of Sunlight” and “V.” Former Emperor leader Ihsahn has long used black metal merely as a jumping off point – his last album found him hitting a new peak in that regard, and his latest Arktis (Candlelight/Spinefarm) keeps that momentum going. Few artists incorporate prog and psych into extreme metal as well as this Norwegian genius – he effortlessly makes “Pressure,” “My Heart is in the North” and “Mass Darkness” sweeping, jagged, melodic, dissonant and beautiful all at once. Though it has no toes in the extreme metal pool, Canadian duo Sierra also ranges all over the map on its new EP 72 (self-released). The difference is that singer/guitarist Jason Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Carvalho (plus drummer Sam Hill) hop from 70s metal to prog to psych to folk and back within a single beautifully written, arranged and performed 22-minute song.
The Cavern, the last album from Inter Arma, was also a single( 45-minute) song.The Richmond quintet doesn’t revisit that idea on its new record Paradise Gallows (Relapse), but it throws all its others into this 70-minute epic. IA carefully and considerately combines black metal dissonance, death metal brutality, doom metal dynamics and psychedelic sonic fuckery into lumbering constructions of artful agony and dark power. The band knows when to leaven the mood, via the ethereal arpeggios of “Nomini,” the gothic drama of “Primordial Wound,”the acoustic shimmer of “When the Earth Meets the Sky,” the prog rock majesty of “Potomac.” But that just makes the noise noisier and the loathing more potent – the eclectic journeys of the title track, “Transfiguration” and “The Summer Drones” blaze loudly with horror at humanity’s inhumanity to, well, everything. That the band hits the low points and does it in an artful way puts Inter Arma on its way to rewrite the rules of extreme metal someday. Seattle’s Dust Moth gets just as eclectic, if not as heavy on its first full-length album Scale (The Mylene Sheath). The band’s tricky blend of shimmering gauze pop, melancholy post-prog and psychedelic doom reaches full, expressive flower on the darkly flowing “Up Into Blackness,” the powerful “Corrections” and the enigmatically unwinding “Lift.”
The Melvins don’t fit comfortably in any bag (King Buzzo’s distinctive hairstyle would stick out, for one thing) under normal circumstances, and on Basses Loaded (Ipecac) it ain’t normal circumstances. With six different bass players (including Krist Novoselic, JD Pinkus of Honky and the Butthole Surfers and Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald, who’s filling the slot on tour) aiding and abetting the bottom-challenged trio, the band traverses all over its personal heavy rock territory, from spacey doom (“Captain Come Down”) and roiling acid metal (“Phyllis Dillard”) to thick grunge (“War Pussy”) and near-pop (“Choco Plumbing”). New Zealand’s Beastwars spins its own metallic web on third LP The Death of All Things (Destroy), plunging neck-deep into a thick ooze blended from doom, sludge, psych, thrash and biker metal. Guitars and rhythms mind-meld in pursuit of massive riffs; Matt Hyde’s carnivorous vocals rain visions of worldwide apocalypse down from the thunderclouds. “Witches,” “The Devil Took Her” and the mighty “Call of the Mountain” reveal meticulous craft under the nearly overwhelming power.
The future of doom titan Candlemass has looked uncertain for a few years, with singer Robert Lowe’s dismissal and rumors the band had no plans to record again. Clearly, though, any lingering issues have been sorted, as evidenced by EP Death Thy Lover (Napalm), the Swedish quintet’s first record in four years and first with veteran metal singer Mats Levén. Just in time for its 30th anniversary, the band proves it hasn’t lost a jot of its touch on lumbering blasters “Sleeping Giant” and the title track. Japan’s Church of Misery also could’ve thrown in the towel after losing every member but mastermind Tatsu Mikami following 2013’s Thy Kingdom Scum. The surprising choice to replace his countrymen with Americans (metal vets all) seems to have given the serial killer-obsessed outfit new, uh, life – And Then There Were None… (Rise Above) expertly balances melody and groove with brutality and heaviness for one of the long-running quartet’s most accessible LPs.
Miss Lava pushes its doomcrunch far out into the space/time continuum on Sonic Debris (Small Stone). The Lisbon trio swirls cosmic trippiness into ribcage-crushing doom, going from cruising speed (“Another Beast is Born”) to warp speed (“The Silent Ghost of Doom”) in a heartbeat, pausing to orbit both groovy (“Symptomatic”) and acoustically (“In a Sonic We Shall Burn”) along the way. Brontosaurus licks meet heavenly melodies, and it’s all shaken down until it burns. Dallas’ Wo Fat continues its blues-inflected, acid-soaked odyssey through the doom metal cosmos with Midnight Cometh (Ripple). The threesome’s seventh LP gets groovy (“Le Dilemme De Detenu”), rockin’ (the appropriately-titled “Riffborn”) and, most of all, smoky (“Nightcomer,” “Of Smoke and Fog”) if you know what we mean. Fresno trio Beastmaker brings together two countries’ worth of doom on its debut album Lusus Naturæ (Rise Above), drawing as much from Stateside pioneer Pentagram as from originator Black Sabbath. “Mask of Satan,” “Eyes Are Watching” and the title track do 70s heavy as well as anybody.
Speaking of that oft-maligned decade, airbrush that Ford Econoline and strap your mane down with a headband, because La Chinga hits town with second record Freewheelin’ (Small Stone). The Vancouver trio giddily grooves up its Me Decade riff rock – while nothing here goes full-on disco (it’s not that 70s), it’s not hard to imagine booties getting shaken during “War Cry” and “Gone Gypsy.” Guitarist Ben Yardley sparks fire with tough but melodic riffs and economic solos, while bassist Carl Spackler keeps the party rolling with beer-and-reefer vocal performances. Song titles “Mother of All Snakeheads” and “White Witchy Black Magic” (that’s the chorus!) nod to a certain self-aware sense of humor, but you’ll be too busy rawking out to acknowledge it.
Death Angel rose during the original wave of Bay Area thrash in the early 80s, but tends to be overlooked, possibly because the quintet didn’t release an album until 1987. If The Evil Divide (Nuclear Blast) is any indication, it’s also because the band doesn’t much care for the word “compromise.” Death Angel’s eighth album rarely bothers with anthemic hooks, catchy choruses or any of the commercial concessions peers like Metallica and Megadeth eventually traded in. With the exception of the incongruous lighter waver “Lost,” stalwarts Mark Osgueda (vox) and Rob Cavestany (guit) and their current cohorts thrash their fornicating brains out, spraying more squealing solos, savage singing and chuggachug guitar over the landscape than their pals have in twenty years. “The Electric Cell,” “Cause For Alarm” and “Hell to Pay” deftly mix precision strikes and blunt force trauma for old-school thrash that doesn’t sound nostalgic.
Though it doesn’t have the history that Death Angel does, the Australia-borne/Europe-based Destroyer 666 is no spring chicken, having released its first album in 1997. Wildfire (Season of Mist), the fearsome foursome’s fifth LP and first in seven years, blends fist-pumping melody, charred vokills and whipcrack thrash into a most impressive wall of glaargh on “Live and Burn” and “Hymn to Dionysus.” Philadelphia’s Vektor is even younger, but no less accomplished. Indeed, Terminal Redux (Earache), the quartet’s third record, shows off an impressive level of sheer musicianship without compromising tonnage. Leader Daniel DiSanto’s black metal screech conveys a science fiction story of some sort, but his and Erik Nelson’s python coils-tight six-string work remains the primary attraction.
A key influence on the early thrash bands, particularly Metallica, England’s Diamond Head has let long periods of inactivity shape its legend, so when it makes yet another comeback, it’s an event. Only the band’s seventh album since its 1979 recorded debut (the “Shoot Out the Lights” single), the quintet’s self-titled LP (Dissonance Productions) keeps the faith with its primary virtues: strong riffs, clear vocals (by Danish-born newcomer Rasmus Bom Anderson) and melodies for miles. Leader Brian Tatler still has the fleetest of fingers and a bottomless bag of licks, but it’s his dedication to hummable tunes that has made the band stand out all these years – of their peers, only Iron Maiden boasts the same devotion. “See You Rise,” “Diamonds” and “Shout at the Devil” boast catchy hooks as well as epic power,while the chugging “Our Time is Now” and “Wizard Sleeve” crank the headbanging energy while still keeping tunesmithery alive. Some might consider Diamond Head old-fashioned, but we prefer the word timeless.
Grand Magus waves a familiar flag on Sword Songs (Nuclear Blast), the Swedish trio’s eighth album. “We are warriors,” roars singer/guitarist JB on “Varangian,” “defenders of steel!” The band continues the quest exemplified by its last LP Triumph and Power, raising its blades high and conquering all who cross its path. The macho battlelust would be ridiculous if not for Magus’ burly riffology and relentless energy – “Last One to Fall” and “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel” would rampage even if the lyrics were about kittens and angels. “Every Day There’s a Battle to Fight” even works up a nice lighter-waving head of steam.
NYC legend Prong keeps blasting away from its own unique corner of the metal universe with X: No Absolutes (Steamhammer/SPV). For the most part it follows the usual Prong pattern of headbanging up 80s New Yawk hardcore – “Ultimate Authority,” “Worth Pursuing” and “Belief System” hit as hard and deadly as ever. But attempts to make the trio’s bashcore singalong friendly on songs like “No Absolutes” lead it to resemble Helmet, while “Do Nothing” and “With Dignity” sound like attempts to slot in late 90s radio alongside Breaking Benjamin and Shinedown. Artistic development should always be encouraged, but maybe Prong should just sound like Prong. Further down the East Coast, Miami’s Wrong has more than a little Prong (and Helmet) in ‘em, thanks to hardcore-influenced breakdowns and steely chunkachunk. But on its self-titled debut (Relapse), the quartet – made up of former members of Kylesa, Torche and Capsule – also wallows in drillbit noise metal in the Unsane tradition. The combo of teeth-gritting riffcrack and grinding screeblast reaches maximum potency on the pounding “Boil” and “Stasis” and the blazing “Entourage” and “Turn In.”
None more black: Savannah powerhouse Black Tusk had a major obstacle to overcome on the way to releasing Pillars of Ash (Relapse) – the death of bassist/vocalist/co-founder Jonathan Athon. Fortunately for band and fans its fifth album was finished before Athon’s untimely motorcycle accident, and it’s a ripper. The trio’s distinctive blend of steely thrash and shoutalong punk – sort of a Southern re-imagining of what Prong does – sets fire to the landscape via blazers “ Beyond the Divide,” “Still Not Well” and “God’s On Vacation.” Out on the other coast, Black Cobra kicks up a sludge-covered ruckus on Imperium Simulacra (Season of Mist) that wouldn’t sound out of place in Tusk’s hometown. The San Fran duo of guitarist/vocalist Jason Landeman and drummer Rafael Martinez digs deep into rifftastic rumblers “Challenger Deep” and “Dark Shine.” Rolling out of Vancouver,
Black Wizard goes straight for the doom jugular with New Waste (Listenable), leaving no power chord unstroked nor bong unsmoked on “Eliminator,” “Harsh Time” and “The Priest.” Though it didn’t get the chromatic memo, Red Wizard might be Black Wizard’s California cousins, and not just for being similarly inclined toward sorcery. The San Diego quintet’s debut Cosmosis (Ripple) sinks even deeper into the sticky grass of Sabbath worship – check the mighty “Temple of Tennitus” and the monstrous title tune.
Tucson, Arizona may be best known for eccentric root rock & roll, but a darker power lurks underneath the surface. Or so it seems with North, who slowly and painfully unleash Light the Way (Prosthetic). The trio’s follow-up to its “Through Raven’s Eyes” single imagines the epic progressive doom of Neurosis as post rock, roaring hoarsely over waves of riff that are almost symphonic in their grandeur. Tunes like “Weight of All Thoughts,” “Primal Bloom” and the powerhouse “From This Soil” come off kind of like Isis as interpreted by Explosions in the Sky, all furrowed-brow power and ugly beauty. Speaking of Isis, former leader of that band Aaron Turner returns swiftly with What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey) from his new outfit Sumac. The sequel to last year’s debutThe Deal, the hour-long monsterpiece pushes Turner, bassist Brian Cook (also of Russian Circles) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) into uglier, meaner territory – the leader in particular sounds nearly livid with rage and loathing. But the trio does it without losing the experimental edge and melodic undercurrent that Turner carries with him to all his projects. “Rigid Man” and the 18-minute, nearly overwhelming “Blackout” prove that art, atmosphere and blackened doom can mix.
Funny how some bands find favor mainly with metal audiences, despite a relationship with the genre that’s tangential at best. Thus it is with Great Britain’s Purson. The quintet released its head-turning debut on Cathedral/With the Dead singer Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label, which seems to have cemented its standing with headbanger audiences. Desire’s Magic Theatre (Spinefarm), the long-awaited follow-up, deftly swirls the same distinctive blend of psych rock, prog, electric folk and boogie as its prior platter, but with an even keener edge. Leader Rosalie Cunningham has clearly been honing her songcraft, and it shows on eccentric delights “Dead Dodo Down,” The Window Cleaner” and the striking single “Electric Landlady.” Toronto’s Blood Ceremony connects a bit more firmly to the metal tradition via harder rocking performances and an obsessive interest in the occult. But fourth LP Lord of Misrule (Rise Above) still portrays a band not easily categorized, with progressive rock elements (including frequent use of singer/keyboardist Alia O’Brien’s flute) and a 70s classic rock vibe that puts the heaviness on the lyrics. Regardless, “Flower Phantoms,” “Half Moon Street” and “The Devil’s Widow” rule.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where he acts “somewhat suspiciously at times,” according to his Lone Star State accomplices, which include media heavy hitters The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV. Coincidentally or not, the BLURT editor once lived in Tucson, which is a kind of sister city to Austin, where similarly strange happenings have taken place over the years. Note that a Tucson metal band is profiled in Toland’s latest column. Perhaps the work of the Illuminati? You be the judge…. Toland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ever wonder why reviewers do what they do when they are actually LOSING money on the deal? (First in a series, collect them all.)
By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor
Lately our writers and staffers have been doing an outstanding job with their record, concert and book reviews, and you may have noticed that some of those reviews have been posting as Features initially (prior to be archived in the respective Reviews sections). They get a bit more attention that way, and since they’re not getting paid for their reviews, it allows me to thank them for occasionally putting in the extra time and sweat to make a review a bit more special. Plus, while it’s sometimes because the artist in question is relatively high profile and we can potentially grab a few extra eyeballs, it can also be because I just feel the artist being reviewed deserves to be spotlighted.
There’s a related wrinkle to all this. Can we agree that no one is getting rich reviewing records these days? Worse, with even the most DIY of labels moving to digital promotional platforms, eschewing hard copy promos for lo-res MP3s or, worse, horrible sounding digital streams, one could argue that we reviewers now find ourselves in the curious position of PAYING THE LABELS for the privilege of writing about their artists and clients.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. Assume, as a base, that a reviewer spends 90 minutes listening to a 45-minute album twice before sitting down to write. Then assume he/she puts in another 90 minutes’ minimum to write, proof, revise and finalize a review. Could be more, could be less, depending on the record. Some reviews practically write themselves because their merits (in the case of a great rec) and deficits (for lemons) are so blindingly obvious. Plus, regarding the lemon contingent, who wants to waste an hour and a half on, I dunno, a John Mayer or (insert whatever is displaying on the Pitchfork home page at any given moment) when you could be out shooting hoops, tending the garden, or banging some hot rock critic groupie. Hey, it happens!
At any rate, now we’re up to three hours. Let’s say a reasonable hourly wage is $15. You’ve just racked up $45 worth of time and sweat equity. Except there’s no equity, because you were reviewing digital files. And if you actually want to keep the album, you’ll probably want to burn it to a CDR, print out some artwork or at least tracklisting, and insert both into a jewel case. That’s at least another buck for the disc, the printer paper, and the ink used printing it. (The writer will NOT have to purchase a jewel case, luckily, because he’s already got boxes and boxes of empties, the result of tossing the discs from the shittier titles among the hard copy promos he got. Well, that’s where the latest John Mayer promo I received went.) Not to mention, I dunno, another 10 minutes spent downloading, organizing, burning, and printing; which, at $15 per hour, or 25 cents per minute, is another $2.50 worth of work you are not getting paid for. We’re at $48.50 now.
I’m tempted to put a dollar value on the amount of time it takes to send the link to the review out in an email to the label or publicist who sent you the digital files – compounded, let us not forget, by the subsequent, inevitable, deluge of emails from same, who, following a cursory “thank you” proceeds to start badgering, er, I mean, pitching all those other artists/clients currently with projects they want to publicize. But that would be mean-spirited of me.
So let me just return to my original premise: by virtue of that $48.50 that he did NOT get paid, the writer has essentially PAID THE LABEL for letting him review the record. And there’s not even an ACTUAL RECORD to show for his trouble – just a bunch of shitty-sounding MP3s clogging up the hard drive, and a CDR copy of the album that may or may not actually play in the future, depending on what CD player is being used. (You wouldn’t believe the number of promo CDRs I get that will play on one player but not on another, especially my car player, as I often preview promos while driving to and from my day job, or while vacationing.)
$48.50: extrapolate that figure across the course of a year, during which any writer worth his or her salt will “spend” at least 50 times. Usually more.
When BLURT became a volunteer operation, I was already aware of all this, but I hadn’t quite “monetized” the notion. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that (a) only a schmuck would review a digital file unless a finished hard copy of the album is also part of the picture when it is ready at the label; (b) those labels that do make it their usual policy to send out hard copies should be acknowledged and thanked, even if the writer can’t necessarily reciprocate with a review (there might be just too damn many promos that have come in around the same time, or the writer simply can’t place a review with a media outlet – I have the deepest admiration for our writers like Lee Zimmerman, Michael Toland and Bill Kopp who somehow are able to crank out scores of reviews practically on a weekly basis; unfortunately, superhumans such as they are a dwindling race); and (c) if a label goes the extra mile and actually SENDS A VINYL COPY OF THE RECORD, you can damn well bet that I’m gonna make that a priority review if at all possible, because the cost of the hard goods and postage for gifting a reviewer with an LP is not negligible… did I mention that COLORED VINYL GETS THE SUPER-DUPER PRIORITY as well?
Anyhow, by way of a semi-digression here, and just to “circle back” (my favorite publicity rep phrase) to the topic at the start of this rant, today at BLURT we posted an extended review of “Blood & Treasure” by Pat Todd & The Rankoutsiders, issued by the Hound Gawd! Records label. Todd of course once fronted the legendary The Lazy Cowgirls. Longtime contributor Barry StVitus penned the review, and we published it in Features, along with some choice audio samples and a killer live clip of the band from this past April. Why? Because, well, Pat Fucking Todd.
Plus, as suggested a moment ago, it will get way more exposure at the top of the home page rather than semi-buried down “below the fold” in the Reviews section. Oh, and because Barry’s a damn good writer, and he puts forth the kind of effort that deserves to be recognized. As do all my writers at BLURT: thanks to every goddam one of you. What’s that saying? Oh yeah – you complete me. Uh…
In all seriousness, we rock writers do this for the fun and the love of the music, not necessarily for the acclaim (right….) or simply to get paid. Well, that and the free records. But as you may recall, those “free records” can sometimes be illusory and actually put you in the hole.
At any rate, by my way of thinking, we at BLURT might as well take that fun when we can get it, and write about the stuff we really care about, and not fret about some weird flavor-of-the-moment Pitchfork shit for 20 year old hipsters and their crappy-sounding earbuds. (Hey you kids, get off my freakin’ lawn!) There’s a lot to be said for supporting the artists who make our lives just a little less grey, and in particular, artists like Pat Todd who have been doing it for as long as I can remember. At this stage in the game, loyalty counts for a lot, you know?
Thanks for listening. Now I must go. I have to start sending out a lot of $48.50 invoices…. HERE is the link, incidentally, to that Todd review and accompanying music samples that set me off in the first place.