A handsome new book edited by museum curator Adam Lerner celebrates the life and times—and the visual artistry—of the DEVO co-founder. “I was the different one,” he notes.
BY FRED MILLS
One of the very first promotional records I received, back when I was but an aspiring fanzine-scribbler, was DEVO’s self-released 1977 debut “Jocko Homo” b/w “Mongoloid.” In addition to the record’s synapse-curdling twists and conceptual teases, the seven-inch 45’s sleeve graphics caught my attention just as profoundly, and even though the design was credited collectively to the band, there’s no question that Mark Mothersbaugh was largely behind those visuals. One might say that Mothersbaugh was partly responsible for this young spudboy’s cultural (de)evolution as I embarked upon an as-yet-unfinished journey as a rock writer.
Revisiting scores of DEVO-related graphics—along with hundreds more culled from Mothersbaugh’s 40-year tenure as an artist, designer, musician and film/TV scorer—now via Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press), a handsome 256pp hardbound volume, I’m struck by just how influential he must have been over the years. He was key in coming up with much of the DEVO visual iconography, from the signature yellow haz-mat suits and flowerpot/”energy dome” hats to his Booji Boy full-head mask (which Mothersbaugh found at a thrift store while an art student at Kent State University in the early/mid ‘70s) and the band’s occasional donning of identical masks and hairpieces (part of a theme of repetition that would recur throughout his career). Mothersbaugh’s since contributed to the video and kid’s TV world—notably the Rugrats cartoons and, more recently, Yo Gabba Gabba—and taken part in numerous art exhibitions, showing such intriguing contraptions as his music-generating “Orchestrions” and ceramic creations, dubbed “Roli Polis,” that resemble tubby little men with the heads of babies. No less an artist than Shepard Fairey contributes a testimonial/appreciation in the book, writing:
“Mothersbaugh takes art—but not the rules of the art world or the world at large—seriously. The elitist art-world model is quickly becoming obsolete as barriers erode between high and low culture. I think Mothersbaugh has embraced de-evolution viscerally and intellectually by shrewdly speaking the language of pop culture while adding subversive layers underneath.”
Indeed. In his own opening essay, editor Adam Lerner (director of Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art) proposes that Mothersbaugh “finds freedom by inventing imaginary worlds that hold a mirror to the one that everyone else inhabits,” which is essentially the definition of a true artist. A good portion of the book is devoted to documenting DEVO’s early days and is accordingly manna for longtime fans (for example, a handful of early ‘70s photos of Mothersbaugh and eventual band co-founder Jerry Casale show them presciently attired, with Mothersbaugh already rocking that Booji Boy mask). But much of the accompanying text is aimed at analyzing the actual art and concepts that underlie the band’s music and activities, additionally placing DEVO in the larger art world—such as the avant garde and Dada movements that influenced a young Mothersbaugh—context. The fact that someone of Neil Young’s stature would borrow from DEVO, via a comment from Mothersbaugh where he observed that “rust never sleeps,” is of no small significance.
From there the narrative moves forward, detailing in both images and text the aforementioned Roli Polis and Orchestrions as well as Mothersbaugh’s famous “postcard art” (which is exactly what the description implies) and his “Beautiful Mutants” series of digitally manipulated mirrored images (the young lad titled “Nubest Boy” has an unsettling Children of the Damned air about him; an otherwise normal snapshot of a young girl leaning forward becomes the creepily smiling circus freak named “Daddy’s Little Sideshow”). In addition to Lerner and Fairey’s contributions there are essays by art history professor Maria Elena Buszek, gallery curator Steven Wolf, museum curatorial assistant Sonya Falcone and art critic Cary Levine; filmmaker Wes Anderson pens the foreword. Lerner also conducted a number of interviews with Mothersbaugh over the course of a couple years, and excerpts from those conversations comprise pages 31-52 of the book. (“I was the kid who got his ass kicked all the time” in school, Mothersbaugh recalls in one chat, adding in a masterpiece of understatement, “I was the different one.”)
All in all, Myopia perfectly straddles the worlds of rock ‘n’ roll and visual art and is a delight; I say this as a music person who is notoriously non-visually oriented (during my fanzine days I always left the graphics and layouts to someone else). Like I said above, DEVO devotees will get a massive treat; cue up some vintage live bootlegs while you absorb it. For those of you with even just a smattering of art training or appreciation, it’ll be an eye-opener.
“We’re just getting started”: With a badass new punk album in stores and a high-profile trip to Japan looming, the Jersey boys are in the driver’s seat.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
So two pizza delivery guys and a plumber from Jersey decide to start a band… No punchline, that’s actually the origin story for the band The Moms, a trio inspired by punk that play a pretty inspired set of straight-ahead American rock.
With an EP already under their belt, the band caught the attention of Less Than Jake drummer/songwriter Vinnie Fiorello – a record label kingpin at this point, having co-founded and sold Fueled By Ramen before starting Paper + Plastick. Fiorello offered to put out the band’s debut full length, Buy American.
The trio, who may or may not like the booze… a lot, made the drive to New York to record the record over two weeks.
Drummer Donny Saraceno—who’s joined in the band by Jon Stolpe and Joey Nester—spoke recently about making the record, the group’s founding and what’s next.
BLURT: Let’s start out with how the band first got together?
SARACENO: We have been friends for quite some time now through one avenue or another and played together in another band prior to The Moms. In a lull of our personal engagements with other things, we hung out together on the weekends at Joey’s Rutgers apartment. Each weekend the partying kind of turned into making noise and at a certain point in that process we kicked it up a notch and decided we better hop back on that hobby horse. So we decided to put out the Viva! record, get in the van and be on the road as much as possible.
A couple off the songs on the full length were on the EP and 7″. Are most of the other songs on Buy American new or had you been working on them for a while?
It’s split pretty much down the middle between old and new. Some songs on Buy American are older than songs on Viva! (“VII,” “Dwyer’s in the Navy Now”) whereas songs such as “Back Pocket” or “Wasn’t Bothered” are quite fresh.
You guys are described in the press materials as being drunk punks and reveling in dark humor. So I expected just a bunch of goofy songs, but you touch on some deep political and social matters with this record. Do you guys feel closer to bands like The Ramones and Dead Milkmen or to political punks like The Clash? Or do you draw influences from both?
Yea, there’s nothing intended to be “goofy” here. I would never say that we draw inspiration from any of those bands. Those names have not crossed any of our minds. Also, the press might be taking some liberties with our drinking habits but I couldn’t deny the statements 100%.
How did you first connect with the guys at Paper + Plastick?
Vinnie (Fiorello, label founder) had heard that we were trying to make a badass American rock album that brought music back to and older phase of punk rock or grunge or post hardcore, whatever you want to call it. Going back and forth between us we realized that Vinnie really understood where the band is coming from and those are the people we really want and like to work with.
How much time did you have to record this one?
The recording process went down in a matter of two weeks and even some of those 14 days were only half days. We went back up maybe two or three times to tie up some loose ends like percussion or some vocal re-do’s.
Did you work with a producer?
We had John Collura producing the record at his studio in Pine Island, New York.
What was the experience like compared to working on the EP?
Recording Buy American was incredibly similar to recording the EP actually. We worked at the same studio with the same people, (John Collura, Mike Menocker). A few things were different though. Something I thought was awesome was that their friend makes these “Fink” tube preamps that we used on almost everything. I am a nerd though. And we did more camping and drinking in the studio. Viva! was done in four days whereas we took two weeks or more for Buy American.
You guys are about to start a 30-date tour later this month. Is it tough to find the time to tour or have you had to quit your jobs at this point?
Nah, I wish man. We all agreed in the beginning we were going to have to get shit jobs and make shit money so we can get through the shit tours. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, we have the “luxury” of being able to take time off from work and return to our jobs. Jon (Stolpe) and I are pizza delivery boys, and Joey (Nester) is a plumber. We work 40-plus hour work weeks and rehearse a few times a week late at night. Sometimes ask the studio space to stay open later for us. Then we bail out for a few weeks and have the time of our lives.
Aside from the tour, what’s next for the band?
The Moms are headed to Japan in December for some shows with Alternative Medicine. After that our spring is wide open at the moment but we are hoping to start demos for a new record. We’re finally just getting started.
Ed. note: The Knights of Fuzz project began in 1991 as the “Echoes In Time” book, which doubled in size by 1995 when re-titled “The Knights of Fuzz.” Author Timothy Gassen added audio and video for the 2001 CD-rom edition, and then produced a video DVD version in 2006. Now the book returns as a 500-page paperback opus, detailing the global garage and psychedelic music revival since 1980. Here is an edited excerpt from the introduction to the 2014 book’s update section, and we are proud to present it as the initial installment in what we hope to be a recurring series at BLURT “The Garage Chronicles.”
BY TIMOTHY GASSEN
The very definition of what constitutes “garage” and “psychedelic” music has evolved since the 1995 edition of “The Knights of Fuzz” saw publication. New sub-genres of the sound have laid claim to the moniker garage, while trippy sounds far-removed from their 1960s grandfathers’ label themselves psychedelic. I enjoy many of the bands in the “somewhat-related-to-garage” category, but this book remains focused on those who take the 1960s definition of garage and psych (pop) to heart.
And a curious battle it is for today’s young bands that see 1985 as a distance in the far past much as the 1980s revivalists saw 1965. The fact that new 1960s-styled bands keep appearing – now with musicians born in the 1980s and later – baffles many observers. Luca Re, vocalist with Italy’s long-running garage kings The Sick Rose, explained to me, “The 1960s sound now has become a musical standard, like folk music. It is a form that can continue as its own, like classical music, in its own way.”
And I think Luca is correct – even as kids re-define garage to be heard as “lo-fi” or “psycho-billy” or “shoegazer trance,” the original 1960s-style will also somehow survive.
But how new garage and psych bands approach their sound is much different in 2014 than, say, in 1984. Freddy Fortune, of the essential Fortune & Maltese band, told me, “Back in the 1980s and 1990s most if not all of the obscure garage bands from the ‘60s were so mysterious, you really had to search out fanzines or actually track down the bands yourself if you wanted to know more. So it was almost some kind of new frontier of a forgotten time.
“Today, all one has to do for research is use the internet and many of those mysteries unravel in front of your eyes immediately,” he continued. “I also think that, because another 20 years has passed by, that new bands that really ‘get it’ and try to do that authentic sound are getting to be fewer and fewer. It’s also harder to find songs to cover that nobody has heard. In the 1980s you could get away with playing the Sonics – now it would be an utter cliché to do that.”
Nick Salomon, the force behind the long-running U.K. hard psych Bevis Frond, agrees. “In the 1980s the garage bands had probably been directly influenced by the classic ‘60s bands, while now it’s a couple of degrees of separation. I’m guessing The Chesterfield Kings (and others) actually bought records by The Electric Prunes or The Standells and saw them on TV while it was actually happening. Now, you’d be checking them out online as a kind of historical artifact. (Today) it’s less to do with the feel of the times, and more to do with the look and an approximation of the sound.”
So garage bands are still forming, but in what form their released music will survive is also up in the air. The neo-garage movement began when vinyl records were still king, then by the early 1900s even indie labels could release affordable CDs – and in the 2000s the CD gave way to Internet digital downloads as a dominant format. Then, completely un-expectantly, vinyl records began a slow and steady revival of their own.
This acceptance of vinyl record releases in the second decade of the 2000s is especially advantageous for current garage-psych bands, since that is the way many fans believe this music is meant to be heard. Garage fans already understand the tactile enjoyment of holding an actual physical release, with a cool cover graphic, and an actual disc to play.
Digital files on a portable device are fine for listening on an airplane, but can you imagine the stunted impact that The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album would have had in 1967 (or if released now) without its colorful gatefold sleeve and carefully arranged two-sided song line-up? A list of file names on a computer hard drive can never duplicate the immersion into a band’s style and sound like an actual vinyl record and its sleeve. As Get Hip Records honcho (and Cynics guitarist) Gregg Kostelich told me, “Downloading bores me to tears.”
So the irony is delicious – as the digital media world engulfs us globally, garage fans can find even more new vinyl releases to share and spread their gospel. And remember that vinyl can survive the decades. The U.S. Library of Congress still accepts the vinyl record as the only long-term archive medium for music. No one knows the long-range survivability of digital files or CDs, but the good old vinyl record can last for hundreds of years.
But while the vinyl record remains the ultimate goal for garage fans, the digital download is still the current king in the commercial music industry – with serious ramifications for the garage scene.
We’ve certainly witnessed a profound change in how most listeners consume music with the acceptance of the Internet as the global default communication medium – a form that was just getting a foothold when my original 1995 book was published. The positive ability to instantly hear and see a band from anywhere in the world is certainly welcome, but it also has severe ramifications on how fans are found and cultivated. It is difficult for kids today to comprehend that 1980s neo-garage lovers, like me, had to find a street address somewhere and write an actual paper letter to a band in Sweden or beyond, ask a few questions, and then hope that in a month’s time perhaps they would answer. By definition fans who took this time and effort over years were dedicated – “True Believers” – as I will call them throughout this book.
Today a kid can zip through a whole nation’s musical scene in a day, chew on some of it and spit it out – and move on to more new free meat in a different genre. A person’s attachment to a band, as a “fan,” is today very tenuous. “Yes, the internet has made everything easy to find or hear, but that hasn’t generally led to bigger audiences, more sales, or more knowledgeable fans,” Bart Mendoza of Manual Scan and The Shambles told me. “When everything is available all the time, nothing is special.”
And “free” is also a vital term, since now people who call themselves “fans” can steal a band’s entire discography – years of hard work and investment – with a few keyboard clicks and a few minutes of download time. While this kind of electronic bootlegging and stealing affects major label profit margins, it is absolutely devastating to the indie record market – and especially threatening in smaller sub-scenes such as garage-psych.
Prominent garage labels have told me that their sales of actual physical releases – vinyl and CDs mainly – have dropped dramatically since the ease of illegal Internet downloading has become the norm. Within a day of an indie label releasing a vinyl record or CD for sale its entire contents are invariably online and shared illegally through underground Web pages and networks. This simply means that garage labels and bands are making less and less profit and therefore are releasing fewer and fewer records. What once were a profitable 1,000 sales for a band’s new album can now be 200 sales or less.
Illegal downloading, simply, is crippling – and could kill – a fragile, small scene such as garage-psych.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend is that “fans” who upload and download bootlegged music – especially those under 30 years of age – do not even admit or understand they are thieves. They equate the technological ability to share digital files as the right to take other people’s intellectual property. These are not music fans. They are simply thieves.
How a record label does its public business also has shifted since 1995, in great part because of the Internet and digital download world. Never an easy business to maintain in any era, independent record labels have struggled to survive – especially in the garage-psych genre. Many of the 1980s and ‘90s main U.S. garage labels (such as Get Hip, Bomp!, Dionysus, and Estrus) diversified their range of styles, distancing themselves from the perception of being merely a “garage revival” label. Many other labels simply stopped operation.
Other long-time garage-related labels soldiered on, amazingly releasing a slew of new material to its niche market. Important labels such as Detour, Dirty Water, and Twist (all in the UK), Screaming Apple, and Soundflat (in Germany) all survived the new century, all the way to this 2014 writing. A few new labels, such as Portugal’s fine Groovie Records, Greece’s Action, Lost in Tyme, and Sound Effect, and the USA’s 13 O’Clock Records also joined the economically-tough record-releasing fray. (There are many other relevant record labels, as noted throughout this book.)
The use by bands of Internet “crowd-funding” sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo also has revealed the overly self-interested nature of some garage record labels. The mere idea that fans could directly fund a band’s release – with no record label as the middle man – is an ultimate threat to an indie label. After all, if a band can appeal directly to their fans and then make their own record, why is an actual record label even necessary? The answer: in many ways, today, record labels are not necessary. This has resulted in some label owners voicing privately to me (and publicly) their wish that bands fail when using crowd-funding campaigns, and voicing their disdain for bands that attempt (and succeed) when using that method to release music.
This attitude of “there’s only room for me to succeed” – so common in all levels of the business world – makes the global garage music scene shrink. Cooperation and goodwill between bands, fans, and record labels, in comparison, can grow and spread an underground sound such as garage-psych. That spirit was much more in evidence (in my view at least) in the original 1980-1995 garage revival era.
“There was also a dedication that doesn’t happen today, and there was a sense of unity between all the different little scenes,” longtime garage-scene musician Bart Mendoza told me. “In the old days it was, and for many of us remains, a way of life.”
I still consider The Chesterfield Kings the most significant band of the neo-garage era, and vocalist Greg Prevost told me, “I remember playing the Peppermint Lounge around 1981 to 1984 in particular – and it was like this family – everyone was friends, guys and gals with the ‘look’ or not, just people turned onto this sound, including guys from other bands, guys from the coolest record stores – it was actually a great vibe.
“It was great while it lasted – but that feeling and camaraderie is not present these days,” he continued. “There is still the movement and the spark among guys who are in bands, but the universal following is sort of lost.”
And make no mistake – the financial feasibility of operating a ‘60s-styled garage band has changed since the 1980s, and not for the better. “In the 1980s and early ‘90s most of the people in my bands did music for a living,” Bruce Joyner of the seminal early 1980s The Unknowns told me. “There was a circuit to play in each large town or city. I fed myself and paid the rent. Today that is not the case – musicians usually work full time jobs or live at home with their parents. Paying jobs, playing clubs locally or state-to-state, are rare. More musicians do it as a hobby on the garage band level, not as a paying thing.”
And while commercial bands which feature some element of the garage-psych sound are not the focus of this book, their influence can’t be ignored. The White Stripes’ early 2000s success is among the most financially lucrative in indie rock music history, and while they don’t fit the1966 definition of “garage,” they certainly exposed similarly raw sounds to millions of unknowing kids. Unfortunately, this also meant that other, lesser-inspired bands adopted the affectation of some similar “garage” elements in a careerist stab at financial gain – and those bands won’t be found in this book.
Some notable commercial groups that do merit praise include The Raveonettes, with many fine releases – dig their superb 2014 cover of the Doors’ “The End” as one example. Both The Hives and The Vines have also deposited blistering garage-fueled major label records, too. Yes, we could start to discuss Oasis and other mega-acts somewhat associated with the garage-psych “sound,” but again, they are not the focus of this book, which is centered on what is most certainly best when still in the underground.
In these difficult financial times some of the most important garage-psych bands from the original 1980s revival era somehow continued to tour and make records. As of this 2014 writing, genre greats such as The Fleshtones, Fuzztones, and Cynics are still going strong, and The Chesterfield Kings only recently called it quits after three decades of mastering the garage world. (This makes my own 25-year Marshmallow Overcoat garage band journey seem brief!) [Ed. note: go HERE to read our review of the Overcoat’s recent 2LP anthology The Very Best Of.]
And there were some notable reunion shows, too. In December 2013 the “Paisley Underground” concerts in L.A. and San Francisco featured The Bangles, Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade – the same impressive lineup that graced a landmark 1982 show at the Music Machine club in Los Angeles.
Guitarist Matt Piucci, of The Rain Parade, told me, “It seems like even more fun now – and I do feel we have a legacy of which we can be proud, and this can only come with time. Now that we are thirty plus years past our inception, history really does include us as an influential and important band. We have a lot of respect from our peers and from younger bands.” Not stuck in the past, though, Piucci adds, “It’s great to have this thing, Rain Parade, that we can celebrate, and to have that thing engender interest from really cool musicians so that new, other things can flow from it.”
A series of popular garage music festivals also continue to take place annually, most successfully in Europe each Spring and Summer. The tribes shall gather and the fuzz shall be shared!
And there are still notable 1980s garagers still making some of the most vibrant sounds today. Swedish garage maven Jens Lindberg played in seminal 1980s bands such as The Crimson Shadows and Highspeed V – and continues the tradition today in The Majarajas. He told me, “In the 1980s I was like a child learning to walk – everything was new, you ‘discovered’ new songs every day, and it was like entering a big treasure chamber and you just found bigger, greater things the more you dwelled in that cave. In other words, we were innocent.
“Nowadays I feel like a connoisseur – I’ve heard so much so I can pick and choose what I want to create from a 60 year historic span of rock-n-roll,” he said.
And with that span of time we also lost some of the neo-garage era’s most dedicated musicians. Paula Pierce of The Pandoras left us in 1991 and Wendy Wyld of The Mad Violets passed in 1996 – and we should not forget Lux Interior of the still wildly influential Cramps, gone in 2009.
In 2004 the garage scene was dealt one of its most devastating blows: Greg Shaw died of heart failure. The legendary record collector and music historian brought us Bomp! Records in 1974 and later Voxx Records, which specialized in the neo-garage revival. His good taste in underground rock is well known: DEVO, The Romantics, The Shoes, Plimsouls and Flamin’ Groovies were all championed by him, and later he opened doors for The Miracle Workers, Pandoras and many other garage revivalists, too.
It should be emphasized that Greg Shaw’s “Pebbles” compilation album series (and the later “Highs In The Mid-Sixties” series) was instrumental in the garage revival. Without these collections of original 1966-styled garage sounds, many bands (like mine) wouldn’t have had a roadmap to create their own garage sound.
Losing other personal friends such as Alan Wright (of The 14th Wray and others) in 2004, Greg Johnson (of The Worst, and The Fiends) in 2009, and Mark Smith (Creatures of the Golden Dawn) in 2011 emphasized to me that soon all that will be left of our garage scene will be the records we’ve made.
So it is with that adult understanding, far away from the first blush of fervor and dedication I felt to underground rock as a teenager, that we begin the updates to the original 1995 “Knights of Fuzz” book.
And with goodwill to all garage bands everywhere…
Below, watch a short documentary from the KOF DVD. Timothy Gassen lives in Tucson, AZ, and along with the BLURT editor knows where most of the bodies are buried. (Hint: in the desert, just west of the city, under a very large bed of caliche clay.) He also knows the difference between reverb and tremolo, which is more than most of you can claim, eh? Complete book information on the Knights of Fuzz is at www.tinyurl.com/lnlyvva and you can also check out the KoF Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/knightsoffuzz/
Or, how I “met” the Kinks mainman one day but he didn’t actually “meet” me… and lived to tell about it, sorta. Guest-starring: one ladder, one set of stage lights, and one large chunk of Afghani hashish. Above: the band circa 1975.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: With the recent release of the RCA/Legacy Recordings expanded version of the Kinks 1971 masterpiece Muswell Hillbillies—which contributing editor Lee Zimmerman reviewed HERE—now seems as good a time as any to unearth yet another musty piece from the editor’s gradually-deteriorating archives. This was partly prompted by the set’s inclusion of a bonus DVD containing the band’s 1972 BBC performances, which brought back memories of the times I saw the band live. Soon enough, a creaky motion of mental gears ensued, and you, gentle BLURT readers, are the lucky (???) recipients. Don’t blame me, blame Ray Davies…
Dateline: Chapel Hill, NC, spring of ’75. I’m a junior attending the University of North Carolina theoretically majoring in sociology but, from all outward appearances, making classwork a distinctly low priority as I pursue my real passion, rock ‘n’ roll. Granted my educational endeavors would eventually land me a year, albeit an ill-fated one, in law school, such was my ability to snooker my professors into presuming I was mastering my coursework. But the fact that I am sitting here now telling you this story rather than basking in the climes of academia or social research should speak volumes as to my ultimate trajectory.
The Kinks had recently released their 14th studio album The Kinks Present A Soap Opera, a conceptual record that found them knee-deep in their so-called “theatrical period” that had more or less commenced with 1973’s Preservation Act 1 and extended through Schoolboys In Disgrace (late ’75). Although the Kinks had enjoyed critical acclaim for the 1970-72 trifecta of Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One, Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody’s in Showbiz (in between there was also the soundtrack to the film Percy), the suits at their U.S. label, RCA Records, must have become increasingly distressed at Ray Davies’ determination to plunge full-tilt into Big Concepts with Big Ideas and, accordingly, Big Productions that didn’t necessarily cost Small Money. The Kinks were popular—yours truly, indeed, was a massive fan, eagerly scooping up any and all Kinks-related recordings and ephemera—but they weren’t exactly the Rolling Stones when it came to record and ticket sales.
“Unlike most of their other concept musicals, which told their story exclusively through the music, as a sort-of rock opera, this show is more of a direct Musical Theater Stage show, in that in addition to the songs there is also quite a bit of story and dialogue, like an actual musical play. Not surprisingly, this was not received well by The Kinks more rock-oriented fans. However, as musicals go, this was actually quite a good story that worked very well. And musically, although not as rockin’ as most would like to see, it still had some excellent songs, including the Bonafide Kinks classics ‘Everybody’s A Star’, ‘Face in the Crowd’, and ‘You Can’t Stop The Music.’”
“It tells the story of a musician named Starmaker who changes places with an ‘ordinary man’ named Norman in order to better understand life. Starmaker goes to bed with Norman’s wife Andrea and then goes to work the next day, getting caught in the rush hour. He works 9 to 5, then goes down to the bar for a few drinks before making his way home. He then is greeted by Andrea whom he tells is ‘making it all worthwhile.’ By this point Starmaker has lost his grip on reality, he doesn’t know who he is anymore. In the end he settles down with Andrea, accepting that he is now just ‘a face in the crowd.’ The album finishes by saying that although rock stars may fade, their music lives on. (The Starmaker is a parallel exaggeration of Ray Davies, he would often use his name in the stage version on Soap Opera and perform previous top Kinks songs as examples of his work as a star to explain that he is not Norman.)
“The material was initially developed for a Granada TV live teleplay in 1974, which was broadcast under the title Star Maker, starring Ray Davies and June Ritchie as the leads, with the Kinks providing live accompaniment. (View the teleplay, below.) A Soap Opera adapted the same songs and plot to an audio presentation, with Ritchie in the same role. Plans for a full-scale theatrical tour were not realized, but the Kinks, with their extended mid-70s lineup, did perform the entire album on tour in 1975. Though the album was not well-received, Dave Thompson, reviewing an unofficial bootleg recording, called the live presentation ‘a revelation.’”
And that’s where we come in. (The BBChronicles blog, incidentally, has a great-sounding MP3 download of a June ’75 London performance of Soap Opera originally broadcast over the BBC.)
Unable to tour the album as he envisioned it but determined, as was typical for him, to put his brain-blast on display for the public, Davies marshaled his Kinks krew for a North American tour in April and May, and included on the announced itinerary for April 25 was UNC—the band’s very first Southern appearance, no less, as duly noted by Doug Hinman’s essential Kinks kronicle All Day And All Of The Night. Upon learning the news I very nearly redecorated my apartment with duck-image wallpaper, such was my excitement. My girlfriend and I, along with several fellow Kinks acolytes, summarily made our plans.
When the day of the show arrived, one of my friends suggested we wander down to the venue—Carmichael Auditorium, the old, original “Dean Dome” that hosted the Tarheels basketball team and which was, sonically speaking, one of the least hospitable arenas in the country for musical acts—and see if we could get a peek inside during soundcheck. Not only did we get that peek, we wound up getting “hired” (term used loosely) as student volunteers/grunts with the load-in staff. For reasons you’re about to read, my memories of the afternoon remain somewhat hazy, but I do recall a couple of hours’ worth of humping sundry boxes and carrying armloads of cables from one area of the building to another, not particularly glamorous or even gratifying work but, hey, I was an honorary Kinks krewmember!
“Come over here and steady this ladder for me, mate,” barked one of the actual crew. I climbed up onstage and dutifully braced a long ladder while he ascended to secure a rig of lighting. He fiddled for what seemed a long while then, apparently satisfied, signaled to the lighting operator that it was time to test them and make adjustments. Suddenly various colored lights are flashing on and off, seemingly at random intervals and frequently with a blazing intensity. And there was me, staring directly up at them from the floor, and gradually starting to feel…. a bit woozy. Then a tad nauseous. I didn’t have a history of epilepsy or seizures, but I could tell that I was having a negative physical experience due to the lights. Yet I couldn’t abandon my post, either, because Mr. Lighting Rigger was still at the top of the ladder and relying on me, Mr. Student Volunteer, to keep it steady while he twisted and shifted in the process of adjusting the lights.
What seemed like an hour passed (in actuality it was probably less than 15 minutes) and then we were done. The crew man climbed down and stared at me. “Mate, you’re sweating like a pig. Are you okay?” Indeed, my teeshirt was drenched and I felt extremely lightheaded. I mumbled something about the heat from the lights—which he clearly should have realized was a lie since I had been 20 feet away from the lights and he had been just a few inches away and wasn’t sweating at all—and told him I was going to take a quick bathroom break. I jumped somewhat unsteadily down from the stage and went looking for a men’s room.
Oh. I’ve forgotten one important factoid. Earlier in the afternoon my friend and I had decided to eat a couple of chunks of hashish. Quite good hashish, in fact, of the Afghani strain, and already well-tested via the combustion method. Our reasoning was that we might not get a chance to smoke any prior to the concert, and of course we needed to catch a buzz for the show. This was the Kinks, after all, one of our favorite bands.
What I hadn’t sketched out was the timing of drug’s effects, nor the intensity. I’d eaten my share of pot in the past, typically sprinkling it on a juicy burger or mixing it into spaghetti, with the desired results beginning to kick in about an hour and a half to two hours later. I hadn’t eaten hash, though, a far more concentrated (and potent) intoxicant, nor had I done it on an empty stomach. So I didn’t expect to start “getting off” (for you novices, that’s a quaint term we used back in the ‘70s) less than 45 minutes after ingestion. But there I was, clutching a tall ladder and staring directly at flashing spotlights, gradually realizing that my body was turning to rubber and my vision was shifting sideways and turning two-dimensional.
Down a long corridor I wandered/stumbled/floated, eventually spotting the bathroom. I went in, slammed a stall door shut, and just sat quietly for ten minutes or so, calming my nerves and trying to pull myself together. I stopped sweating and the extreme lightheadedness was replaced by what THC aficionados call “a full body stone”; not an unpleasant one, at that. After splashing some water on my face and combing my hair—falling just below my shoulders, it felt at that moment rather like a creamy velvet cloth draped over my head, although I couldn’t look in the mirror without laughing maniacally—I walked slowly back out into the corridor, contemplating my next move. Should I go get back on the stage and await my next instructions?
A figure was coming in my direction from the other end of the hall. I could tell it was a male, dressed head to toe in black. I had already started walking that way, and as we neared one another the realization hit: That’s Ray Davies himself. Oh shit, I’m about to meet Ray Fucking Davies of the Kinks.
When about 10 paces separated us, my right hand involuntarily came up and out, wrist and fingers extended in the universal sign of a forthcoming handshake. There was no reciprocal motion from Davies, however. The look on his face wasn’t exactly an invitation to commune, either. Between the body language, the ominous black attire and the major scowl, I determined that he was in no mood to meet a long-haired, sweaty tee-shirted American fanboy. I may have been giggling to myself as well, which wouldn’t have helped my case. I froze, my hand suspended in mid-air. Davies brushed past me, wordlessly.
I watched him vanish down the hallway, shrugged while mentally berating myself for choking at the precise moment when I could have met a personal hero. It’s not as if I had any particular expectations of the summit; though unplanned, I would have at least said something cheery like, “Welcome to Chapel Hill!” or “I have got all your albums!” or a similarly erudite utterance. Or maybe not. In my particular chemical state at the time, I might’ve been equally likely to say, “Monkey poop turns green when they eat apples!” or “Snkkssssgrphhhjummpshkk…” So it’s just as well; things happen for a reason. (Ask me sometime about a similar, though sober, encounter with Neil Young in Las Vegas in the late ‘90s. Apparently I didn’t learn anything from the ’75 incident.)
The concert itself was awesome. No, I really don’t remember much of it, although we had unbelievably great seats because I was able to hang around for the soundcheck and then remain in the building until they opened the doors. It was a general admission show, no seats on the main floor, so I held down front-and-center spots for my girlfriend and our pals until they all arrived. I am advised that the Kinks performed the entirety of Soap Opera followed by a selection of hits ‘n’ faves and I have no reason to disbelieve that. (The above-listed link to that BB Chronicles download also has a setlist for the Soap Opera portion of the tour’s shows.) The music was sweet, the lingering buzz equally delectable, and a good time was had by all, even though it was apparently sparsely attended, maybe just a couple thousand ticket buyers according to Doug Hinman’s indispensible Kinks kronicle All Day and All of the Night: Day By Day Concerts and Broadcasts.
I would see the Kinks a couple more times during their ‘70s and early ‘80s heyday, notably a show in Atlanta on the Schoolboys In Disgrace tour for which I smuggled in a small Super-8 camera and filmed a couple of five-minute reels’ worth of footage. No, I have no idea what happened to it, but hopefully one day it will turn up in some random box of crap that’s been stored away in the attic and weathered multiple moves of domicile. If and when it does, you, gentle readers, will be the first to hear about it…
God save the Kinks!
Special thanks are in order to Jon “Bubba” Heames (of Let’s Active/Motocaster fame) for the additional archival help, and to Jud “Prof” Cost for his unconditional love for all things Ray Davies and the accompanying encouragement.
Ed. note: With Raw Power- and Ready To Die-era Stooges guitarist James Williamson currently unleashing his Re-Licked revisitation of early ‘70s Iggy/Williamson material, the BLURT crüe pays tribute to Mr. W. First up is Dr. Toland’s appreciation of the new album, then Moore and Stegall play tag-team with quotes from interviews they conducted in 2010 and 2013.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND, W/JOHN B. MOORE & TIM STEGALL
The story goes like this: once Rock Action died, Iggy Pop was allegedly no longer interested in making Stooges music. This left a bucketful of Iggy & the Stooges songs that, while heavily bootlegged since their demo and live debuts in the 70s, had never been properly recorded and released. Guitarist and co-composer James Williamson decided to take the tunes into the studio with a gang of guest singers and get the songs down before they were lost to the ether. Thus Re-Licked (recently released by Leopard Lady/Cobraside).
These “and friends” records tend to fall flat, if not completely on their faces – the importance of having a “name” artist often supersedes any musical merit. Not so here, fortunately. Williamson doesn’t mess with arrangements much – while not everything is heart-full-of-napalm Stoogerawk, there’s nothing here that would sound out of place in the mothership’s catalog. Plus Williamson chose his collaborators wisely.
Unsurprisingly, the BellRays’ Lisa Kekaula rocks “I Got a Right” and “Heavy Liquid” into the ground. Little Caesar singer Ron Young does the same for “Rubber Leg,” his soulful growl making this track sound like a fantasy team-up of Williamson and Scott Morgan. Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie raves through “Scene of the Crime,” the Kills’ Alison Mosshart croons through “‘Til the End of the Night” and Texas blues picker Carolyn Wonderland roars “Open Up and Bleed” and “Gimme Some Skin.” The blunt “Cock in my Pocket” gets a pair of recordings, one featuring Nicke Anderson of the Hellacopters/Imperial State Electric and the other starring Gary Floyd of the Dicks/Sister Double Happiness. Young guns represent as well, with the Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone singing “Pin Point Eyes” and the Orwells’ Mario Cuomo doing the anthemic “I’m Sick of You.”
It goes without saying that the songs boast plenty of Williamson’s firebreathing guitar. Though his playing offers no real surprises, unless you count his delicate acoustic work on “‘Til the End of the Night,” he remains a riffmeister supreme. Given its origins in 40-year-old songs and all its moving parts, Re-Licked could have been a disaster. But instead it’s as ball-busting a rock & roll record as any to come down the pike in 2014.
RE-LICKED TRACK LISTING:
01. Head On The Curve (w/ Jello Biafra)
02. Open Up And Bleed (w/ Carolyn Wonderland)
03. Scene Of The Crime (w/ Bobby Gillespie from
04. She Creatures Of The Hollywood Hills (w/ Ariel Pink)
05. Til The End Of The Night (w/ Alison Mosshart from
The Kills, Dead Weather)
06. I Gotta Right (w/ Lisa Kekaula from The BellRays)
07. Pinpoint Eyes (w/ Joe Cardamone from
The Icarus Line)
08. Wild Love (w/ Mark Lanegan & Alison Mosshart)
09. Rubber Leg (w/ Ron Young from Little Caesar)
10. I’m Sick Of You (w/ Mario Cuomo from The Orwells)
11. Gimme Some Skin (w/ Caroline Wonderland)
12. C*ck In My Pocket (w/ Nicke Andersson from
13. Heavy Liquid (w/ Lisa Kekaula)
14. Wet My Bed (w/ The Richmond Sluts)
15. C**k In My Pocket (w/ Gary Floyd from The Dicks)
16. Rubber Leg (w/ J.G. Thirlwell aka Clint Ruin, Foetus)
On resuming dialogue with Iggy Pop after Ron Asheton died:
JAMES WILLIAMSON: You know, we had spoken with each other over the years from time to time, mostly about business-related things like publishing… but yeah, we weren’t real tight and I had run across him a couple of times and gone to a few shows over the years but that’s about it. You know, it’s funny: when somebody dies there’s something about it that makes you brush all that aside and start talking. He called me up when Ronny died. I had already heard, but he was going to tell me if I hadn’t heard yet. So we started talking about this, that and the other thing and it just went from there.I had no intention of playing music at that point because I was still working for Sony, so I had a day job and I wasn’t going to start playing anymore. I told him if the band got into the Hall of Fame I’d come play, but other than that I didn’t have time to do it for one thing.
The second thing is I hadn’t played in 35 years virtually, not that kind of music anyway so we left it at that. A few months pass and Sony, not being immune to this economy, was handing out early retirement packages and I looked it over and decided I couldn’t afford not to take it, so I did. So now I’m thinking to myself, I’m available and these guys really can’t go out without me because they were fresh out of Stooges. So I said I owe it to these guys, I’ll do it. I called [Iggy] back and told him I’d do it, and we chatted a little more and decided it was something everyone wanted to do — so here we are.
On picking up his guitar again and initial rehearsals with the revamped Stooges:
I had pretty much put the guitar down and only a few years ago I found this marvelous guitar that was built in the 1920s that really kind of inspired me to play again… So I hadn’t played really rock ‘n’ roll for 35 years. In fact my son wrote a kind of humorous essay when he was in college called “Coffins in the Corner,” which were my guitar cases sitting up against the wall, never being opened. When I put it down, I put it down. So it didn’t get picked back up, basically, until about a year-and-a-half before I got a call from the Ig. I happened to run across a guitar in a flea market that was a real old guitar from I didn’t know when, but it sounded amazing. I didn’t know what it was, and neither did the guy who was selling it. So I got it cheap, and it turned out to be a Herman Weisenbourg Spanish guitar. It was just an amazing instrument, and it kinda got me excited about playing it. I was dicking around with that for about a year-and-a-half. So I wasn’t completely without playing, but it wasn’t the rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar style that you hear now.
I started rehearsing by myself pretty solidly in June of  and I was fortunate because I knew some local guys through the music store and they offered to rehearse me as a band. It’s one thing to practice on your own; it’s a whole other thing to play with a band. I kind of told then I want to pay you back, so I did a gig with them in early September. So I did a gig with this local band called The Careless Hearts and that went over really well. In late August, the Stooges got together, but not with Iggy, just the band. We did about five days in Los Angeles and some things were rough, but it was rough on everybody because the new material we were playing, the other guys [drummer Scott Asheton, sax player Steve Mackay, latterday bassist Mike Watt] weren’t playing. They had just been playing the stuff from the first and second albums. It was all kind of new to everybody and we worked real hard for those five days and pulled it together pretty well. Later in September we got together with Iggy and played. It was pretty magical at that point, having everybody clicking and playing this material that was revamped, but fresh. We got a gig in San Paulo, Brazil and that kind of solidified everything.
On writing and recording the Ready to Die album:
When I got back in the band in 2009, all we cared about was touring. So we just had to get the band to be a crackin’ band and tour. But it took a couple of years before [Iggy and I] started sitting together and trying to write new material. And frankly, I wasn’t sure we could. It was a long, long time ago when we wrote the last song together. But it turned out we could write as quickly and as well as we ever did. So we got started on those things.
When we first started, occasionally we’d get together when we were on the road somewhere and dink around with stuff. That’s kinda old school for us. Then I went to Miami and we did sit in a room for a few days and also work on stuff. The way we write is, typically, I come up with a riff. If I like it well enough, after awhile I send it to him. If Ig likes it, then he starts working on the words. Then we go back and forth. You can do that anywhere, whether you’re sitting in a room or across the country. We came up with one song [“The Departed,” about Ron Asheton] in 2011, so that one goes back a ways. But most of the tunes actually were mostly [written in 2012] maybe a little bit at the end of the year before. I started putting them together as demos and stuff, and they started coming together pretty well. Then we spent the year really making songs out of them. So, we came up with about 15 that we recorded fully. From that, we got the ten on the album and a couple of bonus things. [Ultimately] I think the secret with Iggy. is he’s got to get excited about it. I think once the stuff is coming together, he certainly did get excited and he did step up.
On getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
None of the band members thought we were going to get in. We thought, we’re going to have to settle for taking pride in setting a record for never having gotten in. We didn’t have to, and we’re in, and I think everybody’s really happy about that. It’s just human nature; you want to be appreciated for what you’ve done. It’s a really gratifying thing.
“What can I say? You can hear it.”(—Howe Gelb) The late Tucson guitarist was the heart, the soul and the soundtrack of the lower Sonoran desert.
BY FRED MILLS
The article below combines stories I originally wrote a number of years ago for the Phoenix New Times and Harp magazine (Blurt’s predecessor). I wanted to archive the piece here in the hopes that whoever reads it might be intrigued enough to check out the music of the late Rainer Ptacek, who died far too young, at the age of 46. I was honored to call him my friend, and his records continue to inspire me to this day. More to the point, it’s important that we occasionally take time out to pay tribute to those who have passed on but whose artistry continues to resonate. -FM
November 12 brings the anniversary of the passing of Rainer Ptacek (1951 – 1997), a Tucson-based singer-songwriter who was a bluesman by genre but also a roots innovator and rocker by any measure — and one serious motherfucker of a slide guitar player. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. With his soulful vocals and unerring instinct on when to rock it out and when to let his muse dance delicately in the ether, unquestionably the most instinctual, pure musician I’ve ever encountered, too.
Born on June 7, 1951, in East Germany, Rainer Jaromir Ptacek grew up in Chicago after his family fled the Communist country in 1953 and moved to the Windy City in ’56. Musically inclined from childhood, in the mid ’60s Rainer swapped violin for guitar, as a teenager forming the usual British Invasion-influenced combos of the day and smitten like most other ’60s teens by the Beatles. (He’d later quip, drily, “None of the Beatles, it seemed, were interested in violin.”) The first record he bought was “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson and the first concert he attended was Iron Butterfly; combined with a firsthand exposure to the blues giants that played regularly around Chicago, Rainer’s musical apprenticeship was nothing if not diverse.
In the ‘70s he landed in Tucson and quickly became a fixture on the local music scene, ultimately garnering a reputation as a song stylist and slide virtuoso that one day would have critics speaking of him in the same breath as Ry Cooder, John Fahey and Chris Whitley—no doubt due, in part, to the intricacies of a tape loop/delay pedal strategy he’d developed during his later years that allowed him to sound like several people playing at once. Among Tucson audiences in particular, Rainer was admired for his emotionally vivid lyrics, his high, keening vocals and that near-otherworldly style of guitar. His national and international profile commenced rising around the time he co-founded Giant Sandworms with Howe Gelb; despite the fact that the group’s physical legacy includes but a pair of seven-inch records, to this day critics and collectors in far away places still speak of those singles in reverent tones, citing them as early examples of the area’s vaunted desert rock sound. When Gelb temporarily moved the band to New York, Rainer chose to stay behind in the Old Pueblo. Before too long, in addition to his regular solo gigging, he formed Das Combo, a kind of mutant roots/power blues trio. (Below: a young Ptacek and Gelb, mid ’80s)
The impact that the group’s debut Barefoot Rock With… Rainer and Das Combo wielded was not negligible, despite it originally being released only in Britain. Vacationing in London in 1985, before I’d even heard of the guitarist, I was hanging out one afternoon with some record label people and the publisher of Bucketful Of Brains magazine when someone pulled out a copy of the album and asked me if I was familiar with the band, me being from the U.S. and all that. No, I wasn’t, I told them. “This Tucson guy is incredible,” they advised me, with utmost severity. “One of the best guitarists in your entire country.”
Below: Rainer & Das Combo live in ’85 at the University of Arizona’s Studio A.
In addition to the five albums he released between 1986 and 1994, over the years Rainer collaborated with everyone from Giant Sand, whose Gelb was one of his closest friends, The Grid and Germany’s F.S.K.; to Emmylou Harris (pictured below, w/Rainer), ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Led Zep’s Robert Plant, not to mention scores of Arizona musicians. It’s interesting, though, that Rainer, like his pal Gelb, was always more appreciated in England and Europe than in the States. With the exception of one album, all Rainer’s music was issued, initially at least, on overseas labels. What might potentially have been a significant ticket to fame — a series of tunes he recorded with Plant, who was a big fan of his — came out as UK-only Plant B-sides in 1993. (One of them, an update of Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” can be checked out at the bottom of this page via a stylized fan-generated video.) A timely mid ‘90s collaboration with British ambient techno outfit The Grid, a mesmerizing instrumental album titled Nocturnes, appeared on a German label.
Just the same, Rainer didn’t exactly lack for fans in the U.S. The ZZ Top connection makes for an interesting story. Sometime in the late ‘80s guitarist Gibbons happened to drop by Tucson venue Nino’s after a concert; Das Combo was performing at the club and, taken by Rainer’s unique guitar style, Gibbons sent a note up via one of his bodyguards that he’d like to meet the musician. A few years later Gibbons invited Rainer to his studio in Texas to record with him, and the results eventually appeared in ’93 on Rainer’s The Texas Tapes — minus any Gibbons accreditation. Apparently something in Gibbons’ contract prevented his name being listed on any outside credits, and Rainer always honored that. It was a source of great amusement around Tucson that Rainer would never let himself be pinned down by the Gibbons question, at least not on record, and he consistently danced around the matter. As he told me once during an interview when I asked him could I finally put in print what everyone already knew, “You can write, ‘It has been said that Rainer recorded with members of ZZ Top…’ and that will not be untrue. Because that has been said!”
I can still see the mischievous smile on his face as he said that.
Below: Rainer live on Jools Holland’s “Later” BBC program 7/16/93
A measure of the love and respect Rainer commanded can be found in the tribute album The Inner Flame, released in ’97 and reissued in expanded form in 2012, which featured covers of Rainer songs performed by Harris, Plant & Jimmy Page, Evan Dando, Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, PJ Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux, Bill Janovitz, Jonathan Richman, Chuck Prophet and others. Rainer himself appears on several of the tracks.
Muscle memories: I met Rainer not long after moving to Arizona in 1992, and I was fortunate enough to see him play in various formats, from solo acoustic to electric power trio to gigs with Giant Sand. A story I’ve often enjoyed telling is about the time I saw Rainer and that group at Tucson’s Club Congress one night: midway into a long, gale force jam, as Rainer and Gelb spewed out riff after riff in a magnificent duel, I swear I saw neon green sparks and trails popping and spiraling in the air above their heads. It wasn’t from the weed and alcohol, either.
Another time, watching Rainer perform a solo set in a tiny coffee shop down on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue, I was mesmerized by the way his hands floated over the strings and fretboard of his beloved old National Steel. Slide guitar is not an easy technique to master, but Rainer was a master’s master, and he’d also designed his ingenious tape loop system years before other slide guitarists thought to try similar things to enhance their solo sound. This was well before the advent of affordable/portable digital samplers. With the resonator on his guitar adding additional tones and harmonics, at times he could sound like four (or more) guitarists.
I got to know Rainer in bits and pieces—chatting casually at a show; visiting him at his day job to conduct an interview (he repaired guitars down in the basement of a Tucson music gear shop, the aptly-named Chicago Store); swapping tales at my day job, a local store called Zia Record Exchange where he’d frequently drop by to get his music fix. I recall him coming by to see me one day some time after he’d fallen ill for the first time: in 1996 while riding his bicycle to work he experienced a seizure and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor, the ensuing chemo/radiation therapy making for a long and no doubt frustrating recovery. I asked him if he was playing again and writing songs, and he gave me a funny look. “You know, these” — Rainer held up his hands and nodded at them — “know where they want to go. They remember the chords, the notes. The problem is that I still can’t remember all of those chords and notes.”
When the cancer returned, it came after about a year of remission, although thankfully Rainer’s musical skills had returned so thoroughly that during that year his creativity reached new peaks. It was early October 1997; I had temporarily left Tucson to take care of family business when I heard the news; I understood it was bad this time. I called him up in Tucson one Saturday afternoon, and there was a note of pleasure in his voice when he learned it was me calling. He talked about his plans to record a slew of new material he’d been writing, told me about all the classical music he’d been enjoying lately and asked me what I’d been listening to. He never once mentioned the illness, and in my awkwardness I didn’t know how to bring it up myself. I don’t think I had ever talked to someone who knew he was dying. Yet there was nothing in what he said or how he said it to suggest that he had any plans other than to keep making music.
“Before Rainer got sick, he’d recorded a lot of songs. He wanted to get these out in Europe; he was already hooked up with Germany’s Glitterhouse Records. And then he got sick, and it was just pushed under the rug.” Patti Keating, Rainer’s widow, talking to me in 2000, explained how she and Howe Gelb were planning a series of posthumous archival releases intended to document Rainer’s final recordings as well as restore some of his earlier albums to print. The initial fruits of their efforts arrived via Glitterhouse later that year in the form of Alpaca Lips, an astonishingly pure, intensely soulful collection of acoustic folk and blues that actually resides somewhere in a rarefied between-genres space.
Keating recalled going through a handful of Rainer’s tapes some time after his death and coming across a DAT labeled “alpaca lips.” (“Just his funny little sense of humor, a play on words — I think he actually wanted a picture of an alpaca on the cover,” she said, laughing at the memory.) Knowing her husband’s intentions, she revived the project precisely as he’d conceived it.
While it may be folly to second-guess the dearly departed, Keating suggested that Rainer may have subconsciously left clues to make such an endeavor possible. Not only did he secure a completed, sequenced and labeled DAT, he also tucked away scores of handwritten notes and hours of tapes chronicling long practice sessions; radiation treatment and chemotherapy had affected his memory, forcing him to relearn his own music. “It’s almost as if he left us road maps to where he was going, because he wrote down everything. The tapes, too—I think that was also his memory.”
One of Alpaca Lips‘ most riveting numbers is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” With minimalist backing from Calexico’s Joey Burns (standup bass) and John Convertino (vibraphone), Rainer hangs shimmering, spider’s-silk notes in the air; a fragile, world-weary vocal pushes Wonder’s cautionary rumination into the realm of existentialism when he sings, “We’re spending too much of our lives/Living in a pastime paradise/Yeah, we’re wasting most of our time/Glorifying days done gone behind/Tell me who of them/Have come to be?/How many of them/Are you and me?”
“You know, that one was recorded right before he got sick, which is why it seems so profound to me,” mused Keating. “It’s real eerie to me. Almost like, not an omen, but… [voice trailing off momentarily] almost like he knew it was coming on. A premonition.”
Having worked with Rainer previously on a CD reissue of Barefoot Rock and the 1995 Nocturnes collection of ambient-tinged solo pieces, Glitterhouse owner Reinhard Holstein was eager to release Alpaca Lips. Talking to me about the musician, Holstein recalled his first exposure to Rainer’s music: “I bought [1992 album] Worried Spirits and loved it. Then came Texas Tapes , and the fact that it was unmistakably ZZ Top backing him blew me away. My initial impressions then were the same as they are now: I like the way he constructs his songs, I love his electric guitar work and I’m totally into his Dobro virtuosity. But what I like most is his voice, or the combination of his guitar style and the vocals. That howl is maximum intensity for me.
“We did Nocturnes, got a lot of great press and did reasonably well. And I knew that Rainer had something coming; he’d sent me some of the stuff that finally made it onto Alpaca Lips. But at the time, the record was not put together yet and he wanted to send me something that was finished. So [after he died we wanted] to do it right, and give it a fair chance to make an impact.”
Complex and riveting yet accessible on multiple levels, the album locates Rainer at an artistic peak—songwriting, singing and playing, and all the more improbable, given his situation at the time of the initial recordings. Howe Gelb, talking to me about Rainer’s initial recovery period, explained, “It took some time to relearn everything he’d known before the seizure. The most amazing part of his trek—which was unbearably frustrating, given how his brain wouldn’t work with him for the longest time to remember so many things, let alone the coordination it takes for his hands to carry out his brain’s ideas—was that he not only was able to teach himself all over again. His stunning achievement was then to surpass his ability before he got sick! I remember coming over to where he was practicing what would become ‘The Inner Flame’ [recorded by Giant Sand and Rainer as the title track for the Inner Flame project]. The moment I heard it, I could hear the progression of his writing ability. And it was as if he were never sick at all! It was astonishing to me since I’d watched him struggle with relearning to even hold a guitar again.”
Below: Live recording (no video) of Rainer doing “The Farm” at Tucson’s Performance Center in ’97.
Another triumph occurred at a Tucson concert on June 6, 1997, prior to Rainer’s relapse. Recorded professionally and the second installment in what turned out to be a Glitterhouse trilogy, Live at the Performance Center was, by Gelb’s description, “the best live recording I have ever heard from anyone, anywhere, from any time. And if you listen with a critical ear — which is hard to do, given the emotional status—he keeps getting better and better as the set goes on. He’s on a plain I have never heard anyone ever get to.”
The third release was The Farm, comprising songs culled from the more than 15 hours of material recorded in the weeks immediately prior to Rainer’s passing. “That came about after his final seizure [in ’97],” explained Gelb, his voice choking with emotion at the memory. “I raced home from a European tour to find him talking in numbers. Again, he slowly began to relearn his guitar, but this time the end was imminent. We all knew it. And we had to tell him, as well. Anyway, I mentioned to him that he was coming up with all kinds of ideas on the guitar; would he like to record again? To focus on that for the healing it can do, and the relief of the art he gave himself to his whole life. A day or so later, he was up for it. We headed up to Harvey’s place [Harvey Moltz, Tucson studio owner], and three sessions later we had a slew of material.”
Glitterhouse went on to additionally reissue Worried Spirits and The Texas Tapes, both originally released by Demon Records. In 2007 Keating and Gelb assembled The Westwood Sessions for Gelb’s Ow Om label, material recorded in 1987 with Das Combo. In 2011 Roll Back the Years was released featuring Rainer backed up by Burns and Convertino of Calexico. There have also been two compilations to come out in the last few years, 17 Miracles: The Best of Rainer, and the two-CD The Rainer Collection, both of which make excellent introductions to his music. Meanwhile, UK label Fire, long a home to Giant Sand and Howe Gelb, commenced a comprehensive reissue campaign for Rainer’s back catalog starting in 2012 with an expanded version of the Inner Flame tribute and then in 2013 with Barefoot Rock; more are en route. Finally, Rainer’s estate has made available a number of digital-only albums, which can be purchased at the Rainer Bandcamp page.
A desert symphony: Humans seem to have a genetic predisposition towards the marking of anniversaries, either on formal, outward terms (celebrations, vigils, family gatherings, etc.) or on subtler, more subliminal — but no less meaningful — levels. Each year around this time I find myself going through the latter process as I mark once again the death of a gifted, visionary artist who was also a friend and an inspiration to me. I had even played the Nocturnes CD in the delivery room when my son was born in 2001. And in the music he created and in the life examples that, as a citizen and a family man, he set, I continue to draw that inspiration from him more than a decade and a half since his passing.
I recall how in ’97, a few days after Rainer’s death, a memorial service was held at Tucson’s ancient San Pedro Chapel, a holy place with marvelous acoustics where Rainer had recorded on numerous occasions. An overflow crowd spilled out the Chapel doors and into the yard as Howe Gelb and local deejay Kidd Squidd offered moving testimonials. Austin singer-songwriter Kris McKay got up and sang a song while backed by Giant Sand, followed by a number from Giant Sand themselves. Wandering around the yard afterwards, I saw a lot of moist eyes. A couple of mounted displays featuring snapshots of Rainer from over the years had been set up in the yard and small knots of people would cluster around them, some gesturing and smiling, others gazing silently. There was Rainer’s widow Patti, and I spoke to her and hugged her. Up walked Gelb, and I greeted him too, and as we talked I swear it was the first time I’d ever heard his voice tremble. When someone pointed out Rainer’s mom to me, I wondered what it must be like for a mother to lose a son. Unable, for some self-conscious reason, to make myself go over to her, I stood there and silently hoped she understood how much we had loved him. (Below: Rainer’s obituary as published in the Arizona Daily Star)
I also recall the arrival of the annual monsoon season in Arizona. While the rain storms can be frightfully intense, often prompting dangerous flash floods, they still mark a time for rejoicing among natives of this hot, dry, parched place. The rains signal rebirth and life, and there’s a certain vibrant, physical quality to the air and to the light after a late afternoon monsoon that you never forget. At times, when I reflect on my 10 years living in the desert, I think about those monsoons, and I think about Rainer also. To me, the two will always be linked. When Rainer left us, the desert shuddered for a moment, took a long deep breath, then began to sing. And what an unbelievable symphony it was.
Someone once said that we rarely know what in life we’re looking for, but when we find it, we instinctively sense its rightness. For me, my arrival in the desert in the summer of ’92, was a coming home to a place I’d only known from books. Over time, I grew to understand that Rainer’s music was the heart and soul, the musical essence, and spiritual soundtrack to this sun-kissed place.
As it always shall be. God bless you Rainer, for that gift. You gave us the most unbelievable symphonies.
Longtime friend Gelb, who observed that there’s perhaps a deeper significance to what Rainer accomplished, gets the last word:
“What a great struggle for him at times to even read and make sense of the notes he’d made. The spine tingle is the delivery from a man who is perched on the precipice and able to look over into the void and deliver still, in this world, what he sees on both sides.
“What can I say? You can hear it.”
There are a number of resources on the Web for people looking to delve more deeply in Rainer and his music. The first places to start would be his official website, RainerMusic.org, plus of course the memorial Facebook page,. There’s also a musical oasis of Rainer downloads organized by Rainer/Giant Sand/Calexico archivist Jim Blackwood located at the live Rainer Archive.
Having already enjoyed a 40 year career as producer, performer and songwriter, the man who’s got Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, U2 and Emmylou Harris on speed-dial shows no sign of letting up. In 2014 he just might be, our correspondent muses, the hardest working man in showbiz.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Daniel Lanois sounds somewhat groggy. “Hey man, thanks for getting on the phone so early in the morning with me,” he ventures, somewhat meekly. It’s no problem for us at this end of the conversation, I assure him. After all, it’s noon here, east coast time. Still, being that it’s 9am in L.A. where Lanois is phoning from, it could be considered ungodly early for any musician, much less one who’s known for maintaining such a prolific prowess.
Nevertheless, duty calls. Lanois’ first order of business is to discuss Flesh and Machine, his latest album and easily the most ambitious effort of his career. It finds veering into sonic terrain eerily reminiscent of the dreamy atonal soundscapes once conceived by avant-garde composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. And although it lacks material that could be deemed of the hummable variety, these vague instrumentals are draped with hushed halo-like effects, a mix of random rhythmic pulses, droning tones and a brief shimmering sparkle. For the most part, the material is amorphous and elusive, neither here nor there, but wafting weightlessly through atmospheric realms in-between.
Even so, for all its obtuse designs, Flesh and Machine represents another adventurous advance in a nearly 40 year career that’s been marked by both invention and innovation. An erstwhile master of ambiance and intrigue, Lanois’ unique aural imprint has at various times informed the works of Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Robbie Robertson, and Emmylou Harris, giving each artist the rarified feel of gothic haunts and shadowy domains. By turns both a producer and a player, he served an apprenticeship with ambient auteur Brian Eno early on, and indeed, Eno’s influence is especially evident here. Indeed, it’s yet another testament to the unique imprint Lanois has left on modern music.
So if Lanois was sleepy to start with, he quickly perks up when the subject of the new album comes up.
BLURT: How did this new album come about? It’s certainly different.
LANOIS: Hours and hours were spent in the studio coming up with these sounds. There are times where you don’t know if you’re hearing humans or animals. There was this village across the way and a coyote going crazy in the distance. I enjoyed picking up those native chants. As record makers, we look for what we call” liftoff,” where the music lives outside the musicians and it just takes off. The music takes on a life of its own. I tried to pay attention to my liftoffs as much as I could on this record, and that’s usually the part people respond to. Something that triggers the emotion in the listener. I think that track “Iceland” has that about it. It has that air of tranquility that makes you want to be a bit more sentimental, to be with your lover. I see myself as a sort of sound specialist, and I like to create that imagery for my listeners. That’s largely my criteria when it comes to my recordings.
It’s a very organic album, and a very daring album at that. Even though you have a loyal following who admire and appreciate your work, is there ever any concern that this might be a bit too adventurous even for them?
Well, I’m counting on a lot of word of mouth with this. Sometimes there’s no better way of spreading the gospel than to have somebody whispering in somebody else’s ear about a work they’re excited about. The commerce for this is probably on the stage. I’m using the phrase, “I’m taking the studio to the stage.” I’m bringing a multi-track with me into live performance. I do a lot of sampling on the side. I think it would be nice to be the Lee “Scratch” Perry of Quebec. (Laughs) I like surprising people. My job is really to take them on a journey or a trip. So we’re doing that on the stage. I’m performing with Brian Blade on drums and so I’m very excited about that too. I’ve got him convinced to follow metronomic time and he’s wearing headphones during the entire show. [Ed. note: Blade also plays with Lanois in the ensemble Black Dub.]
It sounds like no two shows are going to be alike.
Yes, that’s true, but what will be constant will be my metronomic sources. There will also be some films to run in tandem with the show. A friend of mine came across these early animations that actually precede film, and we’re showing those on a screen behind the stage. We’re trying to present the music in a very adventurous fashion. Even though the spine might be metronomically driven, the toppings fabulously belong to the moment.
With the live dubs we sometimes get a great one and sometimes we get a bad one, but I try to shut it off immediately if it’s a bad one (laughs). It’s about as far away from jazz as you can get, but the spirit of it is very close to jazz, especially those artists in the ‘50s who didn’t want to be in big bands any more. People like Miles Davis and John Coltrane – they joined combos, smaller units. They pushed the envelope. I see that as part of my responsibility. I don’t just want to reference what’s been done in the past. I want to take it into the future. So part of my criteria is to experiment with new forms and try sounds that drive it into the future if I can, on record and on stage.
You are definitely a triple threat — as an artist, as a producer and as a songwriter. You may be the hardest working man in show biz.
(laughs) Especially since we lost James Brown. Thanks for the vote of confidence, especially on the melody front. It’s good to be reminded that they should exist. This album isn’t entirely melodic, but some of it is melodic, and I’m proud of that. I think a song like “Iceland” has a lot going for it melodically. It has a lot sonic layering. But I can play it live on stage and it can be touching in its simplicity.
Some things on the record are quite pure, and other things are quite out there. The final song on the album, “The End,” got into quite a mess. I call it “The End” because I said I will never do it again (laughs). But then again, I like that it’s not a peaceful track. I like that it’s threatening in a way, and it’s saying, “We’re not going to take this anymore.” It’s kind of reflective of the madness we’ve created around the world. You watch the news for a day and it’s not hard to figure out the problems we have to deal with around the planet. So I see “The End” as maybe the representation of a young heart in a troubled zone, trying to figure out what’s going on in one of those bombing zones. We’re so lucky to be in this continent.
There certainly seems to be a duality to this record. It’s very cerebral and yet there are parts of it that really hit you in the gut.
Thank you, my friend. I caught the tail end of the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and I knew what was going on in people’s minds and in people’s hearts. They were looking for something, and I think as human beings, we are fundamentally seekers. That’s part of our intelligence and evolution. We want to get things done, but also respect the past. At the same time, we often want to tear things down. I’m not promoting war here, but I am promoting deconstruction, and a lot of this record was done through deconstruction. The spine of a lot of these pieces was removed and the ornamental and hidden details of this work was brought to the fore.
There’s a track called “Two Bushas” – a busha is a trailblazer in Jamaica, by the way. It was written by my friend Rocco DeLuca [whose recent, Lanois-produced album is reviewed HERE at Blurt]and he asked me to do some processing and enhancing, so I stripped everything away and just saved the two tracks that I had done the processing on. He said, “That’s so beautiful, That’s where I see symphonic music going in the future.” So I took that as a compliment and put it on the record. The details that were in shadows were now in the foreground, and one isn’t aware of the original song at all.
You’ve been accorded such honors and acclaim throughout your career. Does that give you a high bar to live up to?
I’m driven by invention. That’s part of the mantra that I operate by. But part of me is very naïve, and so when I step into a situation, I think, “These people are the best in the world. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have everything available to us. We will draw on the talents in the room and really make this work. That’s how I imagine people go into marriage. I’ve never been married, but you have to believe at that moment it’s all going to work out. So I love the people that I’m with and I believe in them, and I roll up my sleeves and bring it to paradigm. Whoever’s in the room believes in that idea and we bring it to a pinnacle. A couple of years later I could be thinking,” Wow, I was really naive,” and it could have gone all wrong,
Nevertheless, you bring this distinct ambiance and atmosphere to the albums you produce. It clearly seems a lot more of a thoughtful process than merely arranging the musicians in a circle and extracting a live vocal. Does that approach ever take the artist by surprise? Hey man, if you’re lucky enough to have a great first day then you get a second day. That’s basically how it goes. When I went to work with Robbie, he obviously rolled the dice on me. He was a hero of mine but he didn’t know me. We both came from Canada, but that was it as far as the connections were concerned. He had this idea about a song called “Fallen Angel,” and he said, “I don’t know what to do with this. I have a few chords and a bit of a melody.” So I asked him to leave it with me and I plugged in this beat box (sings the beat) and I asked Tony Levin to play along with the chords. There was a snippet of a thing he played (sings the bass part) that sounded like a Jamaican thing. So I asked him to play that same thing rhythmically throughout the entire song, and he did, and then I asked him, “Tony, would you double that on a Telecaster?” And he said, “I don’t play guitar!” So I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take off the top two strings and you can play it like a bass.” So he doubled the part, and we got this beautiful groove. Then I added some atmospheric guitar, and when Robbie came in, he said, “What the hell is this? This is beautiful! Daniel, I will never doubt you ever again!” And that was our first day. And like I said, if you have a good first day, you get a second day.
And apparently, you get a lot of good first days! So the obvious question is, with all you do and all the demand for your services, how do you pick your projects?
I used to go from the stage to the studio, but now I’m taking the studio to the stage. I’m on stage with my multi-tracks, and while I sing some songs, I’m not afraid of doing instrumentals either. There are a lot of beautiful films that run in tandem with my electronic music, so I try to raise the spirit and give people a good time, so that when they leave the theater they have something to think about that they might not have had when they walked in. We’re just trying to take the studio to the stage and have it all be one. So if anyone wants to work with me, have them come to my stage (laughs).
Breaking down barriers.
Well, we try. Why not? I was lucky enough to be gifted with a talent. I like helping people and making things happen. Let it live on. It’s going to change year to year of course, because people change. That’s what we do. So I don’t want to be the kid who went to Ireland and made a record with U2 in 1983. I love that record, but I’m not going to do that record now because we did it back then.
Are you still in touch with Brian Eno?
Oh absolutely. I did a tour in England with Emmylou Harris after the reissued Wrecking Ball album came out, and Brian came backstage. It was lovely to see him. Then I went to his studio and he showed me some of his recent visual experiments. He’s always on a roll. He said he would provide me with a film for one of my instrumentals, so I’m waiting on that.
Wouldn’t that be great to be able to get on stage and say, “Eno made me a film for one of my tracks!?”
Lanois’ North American tour started Nov. 9 in Toronto. Dates at his official website.
The Philly-to-NYC band on their acclaimed fourth album, on the decade-long evolution that made it possible.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
A decade together as a band, and with three previous records already on the merch table, Jukebox the Ghost have subtly reinvented themselves with this fourth outing. The piano-soaked, hook-heavy music is still there, as are the soaring choruses. But this self-titled record (named so for good reason) is much more expansive, and personal, than anything the Indie pop group has done in the past.
The result is simply impressive; catchy while being lyrically personal, and big without coming off as overtly commercial. Far from being a fan-alienating record, this album will likely just grow their audience.
Singer/pianist Ben Thornwell spoke recently about the trio’s decade-long evolution, working with two producers on the latest record and why Jukebox the Ghost music may soon be heard everywhere from improve stages to cartoons.
BLURT: This is your fourth record and it’s the first one you guys have self-titled. Is there significance behind that decision?
THORNWELL: Yeah, absolutely. We worked on this record in a whole different way and spent so much time making the songs, and the process was unique in that there was a level of honesty… We came in with 50-odd songs for this record and we spent months and months whittling it down to the 11 that are there. Once we got down to those 11 we spent months and months arranging and taking them apart. It was different from the way we worked on past records and to us, it felt like a reinvention of who we are. We felt that we could have it self-titled because we were reasserting or reinventing who we are. So (that title) wasn’t a casual thing. This record sort of represents the next phase of who we are, so we thought that a self-title was appropriate.
It also hit me, just a song or two in, was how big this album sounds, production-wise. You guys have always had really big choruses and hooks in your music, but it seems like almost a Queen-vibe with this record.
When we were in the studio working on this one we did it completely backwards to how we normally do it. Normally we get in and use the first week to work on all the piano and drums and maybe some guitar and then we work on how to fit everything else in. Is there an organ or something else to put in behind the piano part? This time it was completely different. We didn’t even touch the drums or piano until the final weeks of recording. It was using all other instruments and testing out vocal patterns on 10 seconds of music trying to figure out the right way to treat it. What that ended up doing was it freed us up to take riskier creative decisions and arrangements we hadn’t done before and that manifests itself into bigger vocal takes and different sonic choices and instrumentation choices. We wanted to make the biggest and best record that we could and we did. I think that this record sounds bigger was a conscious decision.
You worked with Andrew Dawson and Dan Romer on the record. Was this your first time working with both of those guys?
Dan Romer did our last record, but this was our first time working with Andrew Dawson and it was his process that repaved the way we worked with Dan. So we started with Andrew and tore everything down and worked from the ground up. Then we moved on to Dan and showed him what we had down and he loved that process and he did the rest of the record.
Andrew has done some pretty diverse records – he doesn’t simply stick to one sound or specific genre. He worked with Kanye, he worked with fun. Is there a particular record of his that you heard and thought, “We really need to work with this guy”?
You know, it’s interesting, a lot of it was the fun record being so huge with what he did and having his hip hop ear was important to us as well. We hadn’t worked with anyone who had that sort of musical knowledge, not that we’re ever going to do a hip hop record, but we wanted to cross-pollinate genres and experiment with different ideas. The song that he did in its entirety is “Postcard” and I think that’s why there’s a really unique sound on the record, a bigger sound. It was great working with him; really inspiring.
There was a lot of talk around the lyrics around your last album. Those lyrics seemed so much more personal than your previous records and this new record seems to carry on with the theme of personal anecdotes in songs. As a songwriter, are you – or were you – ever hesitant to share your own experiences in lyrics?
You know, there’s a fine line between confessional writing and personal writing. Confessional writing can sometimes feel like people are reading a journal that they shouldn’t. I don’t think we really cross into that. I think as a songwriter you learn where to draw the line of what’s too personal and what isn’t. I think I’ve always been writing personal songs, but the decision ends up being what goes on the record… For this record in particular, no matter what, the best songs were going to be on the record regardless of what the topic matter was. For me, songwriting was always personal and you can write an incredibly personal song and it can be interpreted that way and then you can write a song that’s all third person and imagined and it can be read as the most personal song ever.
Have you ever held back or changed a song because it just seemed too revealing?
No, I’ve never edited for the sake of worrying that I’m sharing too much. In the act of writing a songs I may have been too literal and it doesn’t resonate, so it’s more interesting to add in a metaphor to better resonate with the listener.
The song “The Great Unknown” caught my attention on the first listen and it’s a song you co-wrote with Greg Holden. Is this your first time writing with someone outside of the band?
It wasn’t my first time writing with someone outside the band, but it was the first time (a Jukebox the Ghost) song was written with someone outside the band. He’s one of my best friends and we just got together in a room and wrote that song one afternoon. We weren’t thinking “Let’s write a Jukebox the Ghost song” we were just thinking about writing a great song. That sort of mindset was what was different about this record. We weren’t so precious about “this song has to be 100 percent mine; I have to write everything.” It was more about putting the best songs on the album. Tommy (Siegel, guitarist for JtG) and I have been writing with a lot of other people for other projects and it’s sort of opened up our eyes. There’s this whole other world of creativity and inspiration that you get from working with other people.
Just about a year ago you guys passed the decade mark…
Technically, I think it was about a week ago.
Well, happy anniversary. How has the band changed over that decade in terms of how you guys work together?
It couldn’t be more different. Really in the past two or three years we have grown so much as songwriters. The way we work together now, we can be honest and no one gets their feelings hurt. It’s huge. I think it’s really enabled us to have better songs. We’ve gotten older, let our guards down a bit; let our egos go away. I think the other guys would agree that we are getting along better than we have in the past. We’ve been together 10 years and we’re all good people and I think we’re lucky. In so many bands you have at least one crazy person and then if you shut them all in van for 10 years, something is gonna happen.
You’ve got the record coming out and you’re about to tour. Anything else you or the other guys are working on?
One exciting project that is still in the early stages… We’ve been in talks with Second City about doing a musical collaboration project with them.
Yeah, in Chicago, and that’s not fully set yet, but we’ve taken some early steps and we’re really excited about that. We also wrote a song for a cartoon show that’s going to be on Netflix before too long. What’s cool is these little opportunities keep popping up, so we’re staying busy and being creative in as many different ways as possible. Even as this record comes out and we tour, we’re still going to be looking at different ways to branch out and be creative.
Once upon a time, in a funky galaxy far far away, there was… Funkadelic. Years later, in April of 2002, a future BLURT editor would talk with the legendary founding member, George Clinton, about how the group came to be and the circumstances surrounding debut album Funkadelic, released in 1970. The interview was conducted via telephone from Denver one evening following a Clinton recording session and was subsequently published in Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper. What follows below is an extended version with additional interview content never before published.
BY FRED MILLS
“If you will suck my soul
I will lick your funky emotions…” (- from “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?”)
On the eighty day God inhaled deeply and, amid a bloozy haze of Hendrixian goo, fuck-throb bass, nappy harp gulps and lysergically altered vocals, created Funkadelic.
By 1970 the age of Aquarius had been machine-gunned by Manson, Altamont, ghetto riots and the squirrelly little cocksucker they called Tricky Dick. That year would generate its share of not-insubstantial missives — Band of Gypsys, Morrison Hotel, Fun House, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, etc. — but perhaps no other LP captured the underground vibe quite so perfectly as Funkadelic’s self-titled debut.
Funkadelic was the brainchild of George Clinton, a North Carolina-born, New Jersey-bred leader of doo-wop outfit The Parliaments who’d moved to Detroit in ’64 to work for Motown’s songwriting factory while trying to land a deal for his group. Eventually the Parliaments did taste success with their 1967 soul hit “(I Wanna) Testify,” but ironically, Clinton was about to get his consciousness raised. Scarred by the New Jersey and Detroit riots of ’67, seared by Jimi Hendrix’s super spade psychedelia, and smarter by at least a barrel-hit or two of orange sunshine, he began plotting a musical agenda that was uncompromising, asymmetrical, and thoroughly freaky.
“Yeah, it was all of that,” says Clinton now, with a knowing chuckle. “See, we was leaving Motown. ‘I Wanna Testify,’ you know, after having been singing for years, just about the time we got our first hit record the whole industry was changing. So we had to make a quick turnabout ‘cos the rock ‘n’ roll was coming out again – which was the music I had listened to in school. Blues was my parents’ music. So I had to go through that again, you know? We just said, well, we’ll do the music that was the nasty music I listened to in school. We’ll do that funky music, we’ll do that nasty music!”
This was born Funkadelic. Recruited into the fold – the Parliaments at the time included vocalists Clinton, Fuzzy Haskins, Grady Thomas, Calvin Simon and Ray Davis, plus guitarist William Nelson – were guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross (changing instruments, Nelson became “Billy Bass”), organist Mikey Atkins and drummer Tiki Fulwood. Nelson came up with the dead-on descriptive name “Funkadelic” for their so-called “nasty music,” and soon enough the band had its mojo working in earnest on the Detroit scene, sharing management and concert bills with the Amboy Dukes, Stooges and MC5. (Clinton: “We all had the same agency, Diversified Management Agency, DMA. It was called ‘The Bad Boys Of Ann Arbor.’ We all played, tried to get John Sinclair out of jail…”)
Although the group’s original home Motown was still pretty conservative at this point, Detroit circa ’69 was decidedly not. Clinton recalls having “the best of both worlds” for the band, booking the Parliaments one night in a soul palace like the Twenty Grand and Funkadelic the next night into the rock venues of the day – the Birmingham, the Palladium, Grande Ballroom. (In fact, a powerful document of the era exists by way of ’96 CD Funkadelic Live, recorded in Rochester, Michigan, on Sept. 12, 1971.)
Soon enough the newly-christened Funkadelic went into the studio to record for upstart label Westbound Records, founded by Detroit record distributor Armen Boladian. Prior contractual problems, in fact, actually prevented the Parliaments from recording under their name at the time. As Clinton explains it, “We couldn’t record as Parliament so we started freakin’ out as Funkadelic, dropping acid. The first album, two days, really, just went in the studio and stayed in there for two whole days. We took all the vamps and things we did on the stage and just went from vamp to vamp, did everything we could think of.”
The debut Funkadelic single “Music For My Mother” was released that summer, followed by “I’ll Bet You” (an old Parliaments track funked-up and rerecorded) with both 45s doing respectably on the R&B charts. But early the following year Funkadelic appeared in stores as Westbound #2000, and the group became an underground sensation.
Clinton, operating in a songwriting and production capacity (he also sang lead vocals on two cuts), had marshaled his funkateers along with several moonlighting Motown session players to commence broadcasting directly from the freak zone. Any doubts as to whether the Clinton crew had turned on and tuned in were dispelled by Funkadelic‘s opening cut “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?,” all nine bluesy, sensual, LSD-gobbling minutes of it:
“I am Funkadelic, dedicated to the feeling of good
Let me play with your emotions, for nothing is good unless you play with it
Fly on baby
It’s called Funkadelic music
It will blow your funky mind.”
Explains Clinton, “The concept would become ‘free your mind and your ass will follow,’ like the second album says. Because we were late in the psychedelic thing, we had to do it twice as much as anybody else had did it. We had to overdo it because we was late! Because, you know, Jimi Hendrix, when he was Jimmy James and the Flames, with King Curtis, the Isley Brothers – once we heard those things [with him], we said, ‘Aw shit. We’s late. Let’s catch up!’ When we played with the Vanilla Fudge one time, we heard the sound: ‘Okay, that’s what it is!’ Went out and bought a whole ton of amps and just turned ‘em up and played the blues, played funky grooves, and talked shit! [laughs]
“Eddie had learned guitar pretty good, the blues. And [as the main songwriter] I was just humming in the microphone and they would play, following basically whatever I was humming. [Goes “mmmm-muuumm-hmmmm”] We’d just let ‘em trip, and the engineers would freak it out. People like Martha and the Vandellas would come by and we’d have them in the background singing, and they didn’t know what they was singing! They was like, ‘What the hell are y’all doing?’ We were playing our ass off!”
The man ain’t kidding. From the aforementioned “Mommy…” and the jazz-blues psychedelic chain-gang grooves of “Music For My Mother” to the freaked-up soul of “I Bet You” and the wigged-out sassy funk template “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody Got A Thing,” Funkadelic broke significant new ground. By today’s digital standards it may sound primitive, yet its raw immediacy and head-warping sonics outweighs any technical considerations. (Clinton: “One [radio station] said, ‘If you would take the airplanes out of your songs we could play ‘em!’ You know, all the tape loops and [mimics weird sound] ‘mmwwhhmm’!”)
Lyrically, too, there was an undeniable cohesiveness afoot that, intended or not, marked Funkadelic as a concept album whose signifiers planted open-minded listeners squarely at the intersection of Woodstock Ave. and Watts Blvd. Clinton’s proto-raps in both “Mommy…” and its album-closing counterpart “What Is Soul” were both slyly subversive and funny as a muhfuh, particularly the former’s autobiographical thrust (“I recall when I left a little town in North Carolina/ I tried to escape this music… But I had no groove, hehhehheh…”) and the latter’s itemizing of what exactly constitutes “soul” (“a hamhock in your cornflakes… a joint rolled in toilet paper… rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps… Soul is you, big mama!”).
Meanwhile, “Music For My Mother” is a narrative about consciousness raising in which the protagonist hears “something like raw funk” while traveling down South and, in the aftermath of this revelation, is left triumphantly and defiantly chanting, James Brown-style, “Say it loud! I’m funky and I’m proud!” And in “I Got A Thing” the combined counterculture/black power interface is made explicit: “You don’t drink what I drink/ You don’t smoke what I smoke/ You don’t think like I think/ You don’t joke like I joke/ Everybody got a thing/ When we get together, doin’ our thing/ In order to help each other/ In order to help your brother.”
Clinton acknowledges that his early schooling as a songwriter for Motown came in handy when it came time to craft his conceptual piece. “In the very beginning, yeah, I was writing at Motown first and they was like very strict of how lyrics had to be, to make sense and tell stories and things. By the time we started doing [Funkadelic] it was puns and nonsensical, stream of consciousness – we’d do all of that and it was very intentional. Even if a song started off like that, I would make it general, with the population, into our people or a very feeling type thing, where you could emotionally feel it. We did a few of ‘em like that, you know, love songs. But mostly it was like – just funkin’! We was in love with the funk at the time. Very stream of consciousness. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we was stuck on ‘stupid’ and we would try trickery! [laughs]
“Basically, I was talking about doing a concept that would last from then on, you know, right ‘til now, today. That we was gonna embrace the funk the way rock ‘n’ roll had been embraced, and we was never gonna change it. No matter what the industry, which was always changing the names – R&B, to ‘urban,’ all of that. We did funk and we kept it that way! Right through to the Parliaments, the Mother Ship and all of that. But right from the very beginning, we started off – because Jamerson and them, you know, Motown, they called us ‘The Young Funk Brothers’ – Billy, Eddie, Tiki, Bernie, Tawl… you know what I’m saying? The Young Funk Brothers. So we kept it like that. The concept of funky music as the thing.
(Concept or not, some of the folks involved with the first couple of Funkadelic albums didn’t necessarily get with it, for as Clinton points out engineers Russ and Ralph Terrana didn’t want their names listed on the records and would soon move over to the presumably saner territory of Motown where they became the label’s main engineers. Likewise with some of the studio musicians the group enlisted: “They didn’t want to be connected with it because it was so crazy! They was going on out and saying, ‘I hate that!’”)
Just to place the album in its proper context: it would be another year before Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On or Sly & the Family Stone issued There’s A Riot Goin’ On. In short, the revolution wasn’t gonna be televised – it was about to be funkadelicized.
In his 2001 consumer-guide encyclopedia Funk, journalist Dave Thompson rates Funkadelic a “10” and describes it as “a shattering blend of R&B sensibilities and acid soaked rock effects. The production treats the studio like one giant toy box and the feedback is a living creature. Play it loud.” Likewise, author and noted funk deejay Rickey Vincent, in his 1996 book also called Funk (which contains a foreword penned by Clinton), calls the album “a blues-rock classic that serves to introduce the Funkadelic concept with perfect clarity… [It captures] the gritty realism and urban blight of black rock in 1970.”
It didn’t matter if you purchased your albums from a shiny suburban record mart or out of a dusty bin tucked away in the corner of some urban wig store. Funkadelic, from the mysterious record sleeve depicting a lone black face kaleidoscoped into eight stoned stares to the brain-waffling, stanky matrix of sound within, made the connection regardless of race, creed, size of bellbottoms or kink of hair. Yours truly, an aspiring young teenage hippie exiled deep in the redneck south, was so seared by the album that I can still conjure up every telltale ka-chunk of the eight-track tape’s channel changes as I listened to it over and over while sprawled across the front seat of my mom’s old blue Buick.
As both the Thompson and Vincent funk books point out, the album also extended its reach into the hip-hop era. While most observers are quick to cite Parliament or solo Clinton tracks (say “woof!” if you haven’t heard an “Atomic Dog” sample) as rap DNA, Funkadelic’s influence is undeniable. The Beastie Boys and Ice-T sampled “I Bet You”; De La Soul and Kool G. Rap tagged “Mommy…”; and a zillion rappers including 2 Pac, The D.O.C. and Ice Cube have leaned heavily on “Good Old Music.”
It’s the equivalent of a classic jazz album, providing inspiration to generation after generation of musicians who find themselves (not just) knee-deep in its hypnotic grooves, irresistible beats, whacked-out vocals and expansive arrangements. It’s also every bit as classic a soul record as platters cut a half-decade earlier, telling a story via edgy, athletic vocal performances. And like the most groundbreaking psychedelic tomes, it has the capacity to peel back one’s inner eyelid, shove the listener through the looking glass and allow one to view the world through altered-state refraction.
George Clinton’ subsequent, estimable exploits and accomplishments aside, this album was a genuine vehicle towards enlightenment. Funkadelic might’ve titled its next album Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow, but anyone who heard Funkadelic first had already been delivered.
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