Ed. note: this feature was originally published on May 28, 2015
Kept the band’s road treks running smoothly for more than three decades.
BY FRED MILLS
In the rock world we rarely hear news about the passing of someone whose occupation was one of the behind-the-scenes roles; that’s reserved for the artists and the bandmembers, with only the occasional exception of a larger-than-life character, like Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, or Elvis Presley’s mentor and manager Col. Parker. Unless you’re actually part of a band’s deep-in-the-loop fans you’d be hard pressed to even name one of the roadies, or guitar techs, or sound and light men.
But then, there’s never been a band quite like U2, and fans have long thought of the U2 extended family as a community of near-equals. That was certainly the case during the ‘80s when, as publisher and editor of U2 fanzineU2/USA, I came to know many of those behind-the-scenes names, understanding that for a big-time rock ‘n’ roll organization to run smoothly, those roadies, techs and sound/light men were nearly as integral to the show as the four musicians onstage. So while I’ve long since moved on and nowadays consider myself to be more of a passive fan (but a permanent fan just the same, make no mistake), it was a shock to learn today that U2’s longtime tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, passed away sometime late Tuesday/early Wednesday reportedly from cardiac arrest. The New York Daily News reports that Sheehan was found unconscious in his hotel room in Los Angeles (where U2 had been playing a five-night stand) and paramedics were unable to revive him.
From a statement posted at U2.com:
“We’ve lost a family member, we’re still taking it in. He wasn’t just a legend in the music business, he was a legend in our band. He is irreplaceable.” Bono
– “With profound sadness we confirm that Dennis Sheehan, U2’s longstanding tour manager and dear friend to us all, has passed away overnight. Our heartfelt sympathy is with his wonderful family.” Arthur Fogel, CEO Global Touring, Chairman Global Music Live Nation Global Touring
Sheehan had been with the band since 1982, and as Rolling Stone reports, he’d previously worked with Led Zeppelin on their ’75 and ’77 tours, additionally touring with Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Siouxsie and the Banshees. That’s a life well-lived by any estimation, and the fact that he was U2’s go-to guy for more than three decades speaks volumes about his talents, and about his character and charisma.
This was driven home when, during the 1985 tour, Sheehan granted our little zine an exclusive interview. Conducted by my U2/USA co-editors Lisa Watine and Deb Padova, the interview ran several hours yet he never showed an ounce of boredom or restlessness, patiently answering all our questions with grace, good humor and humility. We subsequently ran the interview as a two-parter appearing in issues 5 and 6, and the response from fans and from the band itself was uniformly positive. Sheehan was clearly a special guy even back then, and I’d like to extend deepest condolences to U2 and to Sheehan’s family on behalf of us at Blurt. I’m sure that there are many, many people out there who could assume Sheehan’s duties with expertise, but there’s no question that as a person and an intimate of the band, he’s irreplaceable.
Below, then, please see our tribute to Sheehan in the form of the original 1985 interview. In the interest of timeliness I’ve scanned the actual nine pages (click on ‘em to enlarge ‘em), although I hope to find time asap to assemble all the text and post it here—no small task to do all that typing, considering that it was first done way back in the pre-word processing era. Okay, without further ado, I’ll turn the forum over to Lisa, Deb and the good Mr. Sheehan….
(photo credits: Sheehan via U2.com, Bono and Sheehan via Instagram, U2/USA cover shots by Deb Padova)
“Thank you for allowing me to fly”: in which a fan finds new reason to live, and persist, and thrive, through the music of the Muse.
BY CORAL SCHNIPPERT
Ed. Note: While we’ve run a number of contests over the years at Blurt, giving away sundry swag to the lucky winners, our recent Tori Amos contest in which we offered Amos vinyl LPs along with an autographed Moleskine journal and signed print, turned out to be a remarkable experience for me as an editor and as a music lover. Many times, in reviews or features, I’ve had reason to comment on the healing properties of music and how it nourishes the spirit, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a story quite like the one you’re about to read. We asked people entering the contest to tell us your best Amos experience story — a concert, a personal encounter, or perhaps how her music affected you when you first heard it. We got a number of delightful submissions, including the one below which was unanimously judged by our editorial committee to be the first place winner. It was so moving, in fact, that I asked the writer’s permission to publish it on our site. She graciously said yes, so without further ado…
Hello, and thank you for this opportunity to enter this contest and share our stories. The following is one of my fondest memories of Tori’s music and how it has impacted my life.
For the last 16 years I’ve been battling a debilitating genetic illness that has put me in a wheelchair, made it difficult to sit up or function, and has made me feel like a prisoner in my own body. I am a firm believer that the difficulties we never would have imagined for ourselves are the very experiences which bring out the true fabric of what we’re made of. But there is a process to go through before the strength is felt, a shroud of darkness to move through that can be paralyzing and debilitating — far more than any physical malady. As I’ve traced the curvature of this challenge within my physical body, I’ve learned to develop a rhythm with my own limitations. I’ve befriended my illness, and through the years it has become a portal to a much deeper understanding of myself. I’ve come to learn that sorrow and hardship are universal, and mine simply happens to manifest in the shape of my physical form. Throughout this journey of finding harmony with my illness, I’ve been given peace from a place beyond all memory or sensibilities — I can only call it a spiritual life-raft. And I believe that is not my doing; it just that thing we call grace.
That all changed during the year of 2010, when my inner landscape drastically altered into a gnarled, chaotic version of what I used to know. Who and what I loved seemed to be withering away all at once — whether it be by the malignant cancer that was killing my sister and father at the same time, or the concurrent betrayal by a close friend — the spaces I used to crawl into to find healing drained away, colorless. Grief broke apart who I thought I was. Almost half of my family was dying, and I was helpless to stop it. When you have no place to cleanse the wounds in the corners of your psyche, they can bleed into your whole consciousness. In despair, I flew into the arms of music as I have always done ever since I was a child… but the moment silence diffused through the room, I would sink back into the darkness all over again. I started to wonder if everything that made me strong in years past was simply gone from me, and that I was far more brittle and breakable than I believed. Perhaps I had fooled myself into thinking I could survive, and I just didn’t know it.
In the thick of this, my best friend Lori suggested that we go to four shows during Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters tour in 2011, and I (lovingly) thought she was nuts. Not because it didn’t sound amazing, but because I essentially require a caretaker at all times, which makes such a trip very impractical. She also suffers from chronic illness, and has only a slightly easier time getting around than I do. Well, another dear friend I’ve known since high school (a lover of music) agreed to help tie all of this together and make it work. He agreed to help take care of both Lori and I, drive, do all the grunt work, everything. My parents gave me the finances for me to go as a Christmas gift so I could afford it. And it still didn’t hit me what in heck we were doing until I was actually sitting in row L in Seattle at my first show, looking at an obsidian piano glimmering under the stage lights before the show was about to start.
Music has been a safe haven for me since my earliest memories, my relationship with it intimate and consuming. It has been one my greatest creative inspirations and healers of my spirit. But hearing the songs live is entering a completely different dimension, the effects of which I couldn’t fully prepare myself for. The music from each live show was as a thread of light, gently, sweetly, rhythmically sewing and healing the deepest spaces in my being. The notes stretched across time and stitched together the ragged edges of the previous year, smoothing wounds and making me feel whole again. The sounds from the piano and quartet leapt into space as a three dimensional gale force, breathing wild and achingly alive.
Before my illness took hold 16 years ago, I had an immense love for dancing and was briefly part of a dance club in college that focused on ballroom and Latin dancing. Our teacher likened the act of dance to a work of art: the man was as the frame, guide and the structure, and the woman was as the painting, color and form. While I was sitting in those theaters for each show and as each song washed over the room, Tori’s hands moving deftly over the keys, the quartet in impossibly frenzied passion, an image surged into my mind: Tori was, in a sense, like the man in the dance — guiding and framing, pressing gentle force for each delicate turn or feverish spin, and the string quartet was as the woman — the curve of the flame bending, emanating upwards, the crackling crimson spilling in luminous ribbons of color. In these moments, my skin falls away and all its boundaries and limitations with it. I feel truly free, and movement is no longer tied to the external.
I have always loved music in all its many incarnations and genres, and each instrument for me is as speaking a different language, a different path to our hearts. But I am perhaps more deeply moved by piano and strings than anything else musically on this earth. Tori is my favorite artist (among many others that are not too far behind), and the piano is one of my favorite stand-alone instruments. I even own a piano despite the fact that I can rarely play due to my health, as I honestly feel less alone in its presence.
Since listening to Tori as a teenager, some of my favorite phrases in her songs were soaked with strings. They are melded in the songs so seamlessly as though they were born in the same breath. I have mused at times that if I were to choose my own reincarnation in a stronger vessel than my current physical body, I would want to fly forever into the notes of music. There are many pieces of music I have felt this about, spanning over the years and many different artists…and one particular progression of notes that holds me in its hands are the three chords in “Cloud on My Tongue” right before she sings “you’re already in there”. I was privileged to hear that song several times while on this tour. The new arrangements were unceasingly inventive and emotionally complex.
It was one of the most extraordinary acts of creativity I’ve been a witness to in a long time.
Going to those shows and listening to her music helped heal my grief and bring me back into alignment with myself. In a sense, the songs were reaching through the years and touching the hand of my 14 year-old self, the girl without illness that first fell in love with her music — the music that would later prove to affect me more than any other in my life.
And all I wish I would say to Tori and those who make her music possible is: thank you for allowing me to fly.
In which we get punky, not ‘chunk-y, via the Superchunk frontman’s frankly brilliant debut under his own name. Our main man on the ground in North Carolina, Prof. Schacht, explains….
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Navigating nostalgia in the rock world is tricky business. For all those young bands paying homage to eras they didn’t live through there’s a real danger of being swallowed alive by your influences. Just as dangerous are the classicists of those bygone days, railing against ‘music today’ like an old man shaking an impotent fist at the juvenile delinquents jamming in the basement next door.
No, the best way to deal with nostalgia is to confront it head-on — in the case of Mac McCaughan’s Non-Believers (Merge), to embrace it fully and by doing so, escape its gravitational pull. The first release under McCaughan’s own name (rather than the Portastatic moniker the Superchunk front man previously used for non-Superchunk efforts), Non-Believers explores nostalgia itself, training a spotlight on the early-‘80s transition from punk to new wave/post-punk.
What intrigued McCaughan was an era when synths and drum machines became the new means of expressing disaffection and alienation from society, school, suburbia, etc. McCaughan had in mind a duo of fictional teen goth outcasts with only each other and the music of the Cure, OMD, the Cocteau Twins et al. to accompany their transition into the compromises of adulthood.
The nostalgia may be as rich as the layers of familiar synths that blanket these songs like Tule fog, but McCaughan’s themes transcend their specific era to embrace any thinking young person who’s ever had to find happiness “living in the margins,” as he puts it on the rocking, keytar-vs.-guitar solo-accented “Our Way Free.”
What really keeps Non-Believers from the frozen-in-amber nostalgia decried in rock-today critiques like Simon Reynolds’ Retromania is the music McCaughan’s composed here, and played primarily by himself. He may relate to the kids in these songs, but it’s from the vantage point of adulthood — one that features a McCaughan who long-ago developed his own sound and songwriting aesthetic. So for him, channeling an obvious Joy Division bass line (“Lost Again”), OMD synth-symphony (“Mystery Flu”) or poppy Cure tempo (“Barely There”) isn’t like trying on a second skin; they form part of a DNA that is distinctly McCaughanian, and Non-Believers overflows with the type of memorable hooks that give Superchunk its iconic sound.
The result is a conversation between generations going in all directions; McCaughan talks to his younger self and any angst-ridden young person since then, and they’re talking back to us adults. On the brilliant scene-setting disc-opener “Your Hologram,” McCaughan conjures one of those basement parties any suburban survivor (or “Driveway to Driveway” stumbler) remembers, all the while staring at this hologram of a memory and “trying to make it real”; on the following “Lost Again,” driven by that prominent Joy Division bass line, McCaughan watches his young Goth driving down the suburban streets looking for a friend or lover — but it’s clear he’s looking for himself, too, only in real time: “I’m kind of looking for you/but I’m kind of looking for me.” The brilliance of that hall of mirrors-line is that today’s McCaughan is using his young stand-in to do the same.
But McCaughan doesn’t shy from unabashed nostalgia, either. There’s palpable envy in recalling the energy and chaos of that transition between adolescence and adulthood. He captures the excitement of first love in “Only Do,” an Echo & the Bunnymen-like anthem — “You said, ‘I’m no miracle, in fact I’ll be your fatal flaw”/Oh, but I don’t believe you/even better, I don’t care/Cause when I’m with you I got nothing to lose” — and turns the unambiguous joy of zero responsibility (plus keys to your stepdad’s car) into the fuzzbomb rocker “Box Batteries,” where you “bring your tapes and disaffection/(and) the rest is understood.”
Non-Believers slips masterfully between vantage points and emotions, and there are times when McCaughan looks back with the concern of a parent for a child — as if he could pass down to the young the knowledge that, ‘yes, this angst, too, shall pass.’ But it’s never that simple on this record, which is what makes it resonate. “Real Darkness,” with its Cocteau Twins shimmer, delves brilliantly into the DMZ of teenage emotions. Addressing his thinly-clothed fictional Goths amidst Alpine canyons of guitar reverb, McCaughan concedes that adults will tell them, “’smile, kid, smile’ until you know real darkness” in an effort to get them to cheer the fuck up. But having absorbed — and remembered — both sides of the equation, McCaughan can also speak with authority in their voice when he sings “you can hold my hand through these years/or you can look away/but my stuff is real like your stuff and I’ll be you someday anyway.”
That sympathy is, in the end, what makes this record so successful. This isn’t some blind paean to the old days, or an “if I knew then what I know now” lecture. It’s a reminder of how important the past and our memories of it are to who we become, but also what a trap it can be getting stuck there. On “Barely There,” which hums along on that “In Between Days” Cure vibe, McCaughan laments time’s passing and the faded Polaroids it leaves behind: “Now we’re barely there/like a phantom or a flare/but we were solid once, I swear/now you hardly have to care/cause we’re barely there.”
But Non-Believers ends with “Come Upstairs,” an imprecation to not get stuck in the past because the present and future hold plenty of worthwhile memory-making events. As oscillating synths and processed guitar leads zip through the song like meteors in a speckled night sky, the record fulfills its narrative arc when the narrator exhorts us to come upstairs – from that hologram-filled basement at the start —to see new galaxies (of the musical variety) exploding. “Don’t you want to hear them go boom?” he asks.
Running a successful record label for 25 years requires a lot of new galaxies, of course. But with Non-Believers, McCaughan reminds us any galaxy is capable of providing transcendence, and can tell us fundamental things about ourselves — our pasts, to be sure, but our futures as well.
As evidenced on a reissue of one of his most elusive and sought-after artifacts, the Brummie boffin emerges to be as crucial a listen as his late collaborator Nikki Sudden.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Originally released in 1996 as a limited edition on stellar German label Glitterhouse, Princess Thousand Beauty has long been one of the rarest items in Dave Kusworth’s catalog. Fortunately British rock & roll label Easy Action has dedicated itself to the cause of bringing the work of this far under the radar Brummie back to the world, as it has with the oeuvre of Kusworth’s longtime cohort Nikki Sudden (covered not long ago in these very pages).
Beauty is essentially a continuation of Kusworth’s previous record All the Heartbreak Stories, one of the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s most romantic – some might say sappy – works. Unlike Heartbreak, however, Beauty never drowns in its own lushness, despite generous use of strings. Part of the album’s backbone grows from Kusworth’s utter commitment to his sentimentality – when he sings “I’ll always be there for you” in his plainspoken, vaguely offkey warble, you believe him. But it also has to do with the variety of stylistic permutations in which Kusworth indulges. Widescreen pop like “Temptress” and “Always Be There For You” shares space with the precious pastorality of “All My Dreams About You” and the subtly funky rock/pop of “False Promises.” The bulk of the record relies on the kind of anthemic balladry that can easily slide into vomit-inducing goop. Here, though, “She Lives in a Movie,” “Just a Girl” (with a great take-me-home guitar solo from Kusworth) and “Torn Pages” work in precisely the way these kinds of songs are supposed to. Wrapping accessible melodies around a perfect balance of heart and drama, they practically beg for lighter apps waving in the air. It sounds cheesy, but it’s a good thing – the ability of Princess Thousand Beauty to remind us how and why sentimental anthems connect is part of what makes it special.
As a bonus, this edition tacks on a faithful rendition of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” which is nice but out of place with the rest of the record. A better supplement is the second disk, which contains an entire live acoustic show featuring Kusworth and guitarist Glenn Tranter. For all of Kusworth’s rock & roll bonafides, he’s quite comfortable in this format, his heart-on-sleeve balladry thriving with so little accoutrements betwixt song and singer. Kusworth wanders across his catalog here, from Beauty cuts “She Lives in a Movie,” “Torn Pages” and “Always Be There For You” to solo classics “Paint & Sugar” and “Everything’s For Her” to a selection of gems from the Jacobites catalogue. Plus a pair of covers; the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” (which Kusworth credits to Townes Van Zandt, for some reason) is no surprise, but a decent showing on Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” is. Arguably 67 minutes of acoustic balladry seems a little much without the color the studio record brings to these songs, but it’s still a strong live showing for one of rock’s most potent iconoclasts.
Those that prefer their Kusworth on the more overtly rocking side should note the release of the Rag Dolls’ Such a Crime, the first album from the quartet Kusworth co-led right around the time he started working with Sudden in the Jacobites. Recorded at various demo and radio studios in 1982-1984 and assembled into an album for the first time, the songs on Crime bespeak an unsurprisingly love of the Rolling Stone and the Faces, with just enough of an early ‘80s power pop edge to make the tracks more than knockoffs. Backed by bassist Mark Lemon and drummer Carl Bevan, who would both cycle in and out of the Jacobites axis in coming years, and sharing writing and singing duties with Simon “Slim” Cartwright, Kusworth indulges in guitar rock both crunchy and jangly, sometimes at the same time.
As might be expected, the Dolls get groovy on the riff-rockers “Streets of Gold,” “Such a Crime” (represented by two very different versions) and “What You Don’t Know (You Won’t Show),” and anthemic on soon-to-be Jacobites numbers “Pin Your Heart to Me” (likely the first recording of that standard) and “Snow White” (with a very 80s sax solo). Guitars ring more than rage on the folk-rocking “Lucky Smiles” (which also gets a slightly altered do-over later), “Do Anything” and “Sparrows,” the latter featuring a particularly strong Cartwright vocal. Less professional recordings round things out, with a grungy live “Fortune of Fame” and a pair of rehearsal takes on the rock ballad “Silken Sheets” (another future Jacobites track) and the acid garage rocking “Vanity Box.” The high quality of both songs and performances makes one scratch the noggin at the silliness of a clueless music industry, but it was the early 80s: rock & roll records weren’t selling that year.
Fortunately, Easy Action knows exactly how to handle Kusworth’s work. (In the case of the Dolls, the treatment includes liner notes from Pat “The Jazz Butcher” Fish.) These rescued recordings continue to hammer home the notion that Dave Kusworth is a rock & roll true believer worth discovery and rediscovery.
Below: a clip of Kusworth and Nikki Sudden, aka the Jacobites, live in 2003.
Would YOU pay $12 a pop for crap albums from Toto, Pablo Cruise and Leon & Mary Russell? Ye olde editor engages a hip new subscription service that promises “hand-curated vinyl records” to its eager—and apparently young/newbie—clientele. (Additional reading: Stereogum’s “Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”)
BY FRED MILLS
Like many of you, the BLURT braintrust was excited—or, after reading the fine print, at least optimistically enthused—by the January news that a new record subscription service was preparing to launch in a couple of months, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, which would adopt some of the (wildly successful) Netflix model features —but utilizing used vinyl LPs instead of DVDs, and instead of subscribers making their own choices, have their albums picked (“curated,” in today’s misnomer-strewn parlance) by employees of the service. The classic Sub Pop Singles Club and the Vinyl Me, Please services were also cited as inspirations.
Dubbed, somewhat minus-a-vowel cutesily/trendily VNYL (motto: “hand-curated vinyl records delivered to your door”), the service, founded by software/app developer Nick Alt, promised early backers that they would receive their initial shipments in February and the general public in March. As Rolling Stonereported at the time,
“For a monthly fee, members of the just-launched venture VNYL can choose from a list of categories, called “#Vibes,” and receive records in the mail much in the same way they used to receive Twin Peaks Season 1 DVDs at home before streaming services. Although it is not set up like Netflix, in the sense that members select the records they want, VNYL still caters to subscribers. Once a member has selected a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance) the company will send three albums curated to fit the “vibe” by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.”
Founder Alt added, “The real magic that I can bring to this is the community aspect. People who listen to vinyl are not connected [the way online users are] unless they go to a record store, so why can’t we bridge that for people who are really into listening to vinyl.”
Fair enough. Yours truly — who has passionately collected vinyl records since the late ‘60s, from LPs to 45s to 78s to even the stray 5” single or flexidisc (ask me sometime about the 10” flexi of Australian indie bands I curated, er, compiled in the ‘80s for rock mag The Bob) — quickly became a backer of the Kickstarter campaign for VNYL, not only feeling seduced by the possibilities but also sensing a great story about what it means to be a collector and lover of records. I pledged, put in my credit card info, then sat back and waited, having been guaranteed three free months’ worth of records (translation: nine LPs), after which I could maintain my official subscription or cancel any time.
As an aside, there’s a good discussion about the numerous online record sub services currently operating over at The Record Collectors Guild. Titled, succinctly, “Review of Vinyl Subscription Services,” it’s mostly positive in tone, basically describing VNYL, Prescribed Vinyl, Feedbands, Vinyl Me Please and Turntable Kitchen in terms of what you get for your dough. It also hands out praise for the brick and mortar record stores that still exist, enthusing, “Enter a museum of 12″ square canvases displaying amazing artworks, each unique to the album they represent. Have a funny conversation with the cynical hipster latte sipping record store employee. Learn something, share something, find new music, re-discover old goodies, buy a brand new record, or buy 5 obscure used ones, it’s all part of the experience.”
Part of that experience: Alt mentioned magic. Ask any practicing magician, and he’ll tell you that “magic” comprises a series of illusions that feed off observers’ need or willingness to believe what they are seeing or being told, irrespective of the objective facts.
Today is May 13, and my first box from VNYL just arrived, postmarked April 29 and shipped via Media Mail from Venice, Calif. (The full address: 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA 90291-3314.) If you are doing the math, you have probably noticed that there’s been a slight delay from the original estimation of when backers and charter subscribers would receive their initial shipments. Intriguingly, in looking at my account profile at VNYL now, it says that I joined on April 5, but it was in early January that I made my Kickstarter pledge. But that’s no problem: the VNYL folks have kept all of us regularly updated, including at least one notification of a slight delay. So far, so good.
Worth noting: backers received an email indicating they needed to officially register and fill out a brief online questionnaire about our musical tastes in order that the VNYL staff might better “curate” our selections—for example, what categories of music we did and did not like, or the URL of our Spotify account/playlist or similar streaming services we utilize. The former was easy enough, and I faithfully documented my likes, which include indie and alternative rock, punk, classic rock, blues, singer-songwriter and more, but not classical, opera, rap and several others. The streaming-service question, however, was pointless: I don’t have a Spotify account for myself, only one that I maintain for BLURT. For that matter I don’t even need a streaming service: I have 10,000 friggin’ records in my collection and another 5,000 CDs. (Full disclosure: I’m in the process of dumping the CDs because their value is rapidly declining; nowadays you can barely get 50 cents a pop for ‘em. Meanwhile, the LPs and 45s are appreciating at roughly the same rate. Hey, Bob Lefsetz, maybe you have a blog post about this soon, hmmm?) And each time I tried to ignore that section of the questionnaire I was blocked from proceeding farther, so finally I just plugged in the URL for BLURT’s Spotify list so I could be done with it.
I remained optimistic, and I had checked a box that suggested my initial VNYL three-LP shipment could fall under the general category of #work—I think other categories were #lazysaturday, #danceparty, #betweenthesheets and, uh, #cooking. The latter momentarily made me think of that album Canned Heat Cookbook that I used to own, and how cool it might be to have it again, but because I do most of my listening here at work—oh, did I mention that BLURT shares offices with Raleigh, NC, record store Schoolkids Records, and that I am spinning platters all day long?—it made sense to select that “work” hashtag for my category of preferred LPs for my first shipment.
“Magic” is clearly a relative term. I suppose you could charitably say that my first VNYL batch of goodies made me feel like being on the receiving end of a slick Three-card Monte operation.
Allow me to detail what I just tugged from my pink-interior VNYL box (displayed at the top and below), which also included a nice note from my personal hand-curator, Teal, who had affixed a photo of her smiling for the camera and clutching my records: “Hey Fred, Hope you like the records I chose for you. Love this Pablo Cruise album. Enjoy! – Teal”
Leon & Mary Russell –Make Love to the Music (1977, Paradise) ditto
Did you get that? Toto, Leon/Mary Russell, and Pablo Fucking Cruise. Gee, thanks, Teal.
If there is a single record store owner out there reading this right now who has any of the above listed albums in stock and they are NOT in the 99-cent bins, please tell me. Recall that I myself work in a record store, and I have worked in record stores on and off for, cumulatively speaking, nearly 20 years, for extended stints during the ‘70s, the ‘90s and, of course, the past three years during the contemporary vinyl explosion. So I know a little about vinyl. But—Lefsetz mode on here—VNYL values them at $12 apiece, at least that’s what a sticker on each plastic sleeve indicates. Jesus. There’s not a person on the planet who would pay that much for ‘em. They are titles we can barely give away at our store, sitting there in the junk bins alongside the Dan Fogelberg, Loggins & Messina, Poco, George Benson and Eddie Money albums. For $12, we have Dylan, Stones, Neil Young, Reprise-era Kinks, DEVO and the stray early Elvis Costello albums.
Now let’s be fair: back in the day there were undoubtedly folks who cherished those LPs. The Pablo Cruise album even featured the mega-hit “Love Will Find A Way”; although the Toto album, the band’s second, was a relative flop, commercially speaking (chart monster Toto IV was still three years away), and by the time Leon Russell’s record was released, the songwriter’s hitmaking days were long behind him.
(Caveat emptor: that bassline in the Pablo Cruise song will stick in your head and keep you awake at 4:30 a.m. unless you immediately play some Twisted Sister after it finishes.)
But while each artist had its share of devoted fans, they’ve all since moved on, and it’s unfortunate but true that none of those albums have stood the proverbial test of time. Records from the same general era by, I dunno, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, KISS, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell have, however, and proof resides right here in my record store: when I get in used records by those artists, they don’t stay in the bins for long (Zep and Floyd are typically gone within 24 hours, in fact). See my above comments about our 99-cent bin….
As a side note, I will mention that the records were in outstanding condition, both the sleeves and the actual vinyl. That’s a plus, although it should be a given that VNYL won’t send out platters that look like they’ve been trashed, or that are excessively noisy or even skip.
Bottom line: while I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield, this initial installment in the series is not all that encouraging. In fact, it reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about Australian table wines: this is a shipment with a message, and the message is “beware.” In 2015, nobody is going to their local record store and looking for records by Pablo Cruise, Toto and Leon & Mary Russell, much less willing to pay twelve freakin’ dollars for a copy. I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums; below is typical of the numerous comments made.
Ha, well….I thought the idea was odd anyway.
Well, it’s not like first impressions count, or anything.
My guess is VNYL owns a record store a found a new way to get rid of that old, dusty stock.
I can only imagine weeks of dollar bin raids but who knows.
Indeed, if VNYL expects to make its subscription business a success, it’s going to have to do a lot better than trawl bargain bins and hit thrift stores in search of “product” for the subscribers. (Intriguingly, on the VNYL Twitter page the following info has been added: “New record store at 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA.”) It will also have to conduct some serious seminars in “hand curation” for its employees in charge of making selections for customers. Otherwise the negative word-of-mouth is gonna kill ‘em.
Strike one, VNYL. Three strikes, and yer out. To be… continued?
POSTSCRIPT: Literally as we were preparing this article to post, the good folks over at Stereogum published their own piece entitled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”. In it, writer Michael Nelson made some observations similar to ours, particularly along the lines of my 99-cent-bin complaints:
“VNYL subscriber Rob Baird talked to Stereogum for this story. For his #vibe, Baird told us, he chose the hashtag #lazysaturday, ‘based on [VNYL’s] Spotify playlist, which contained artists like Iron & Wine, Jack Johnson, Sufjan Stevens, Father John Misty, and Norah Jones, who I listen to regularly and are part of my record collection.’ Baird also shared with us a link to his Discogs profile. This not only helps to give you, the reader, an idea what he listens to; it was ostensibly consulted by VNYL personnel in order to help hand-curate musical selections based on his #vibe…. His first VNYL shipment included old releases from Jefferson Airplane, Dan Fogelberg, and England Dan & John Ford Coley.”
A number of the reader comments following the story took a similar tack, like this one:
“Damn! I thought this sounded like a cool idea and almost signed up. I ultimately decided to cheap out – and now I am so glad I did. I make enough questionable vintage record purchases without needing to pay $24 a month to get Pablo Cruise, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins delivered to my door.”
Most of the Stereogum story, however, concerned an entirely different matter, that of whether or not VNYL would be violating the Record Rental Amendment Of 1984. It appears that VNYL became aware of this at some point and had to make some small changes in its operating model in order not to run afoul of the law. Writer Nelson delves pretty handily into this and it’s well-worth reading carefully.
He also talked with founder Nick Alt directly, who discussed that as well as some of the complaints that were starting to come in from subscribers. Among his quotes:
“VNYL was Kickstarted as a ‘Hand Curated Music Discovery’ project. I wanted to prove you could build the best human-curated music platform there is. After the campaign, I reached out to all our Kickstarter backers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about VNYL and their own music experiences. I was really curious — what were they listening to? What genres do they like? What don’t they like? We’re all being sold these digital streaming services, but VNYL is about doing something anti-algorithm and focused on how people experience and actually listen to music.
“I also asked members why they backed VNYL. The vast majority (over 80%) chose to back us because they wanted to grow their vinyl collection, try a human curated service, and because they wanted to support vinyl as a medium. For a majority of our backers, the Netflix rental model just wasn’t the draw and actually created the most apprehension. Since we’re constantly making decisions around what the best user experience is for VNYL, it made sense to us to allow our backers and future members keep records they receive from us and pay us no additional costs…
“It fucking sucks when we disappoint our members. We honestly feel incredibly sad when a member doesn’t like what we sent. That sucks for them and also for us. It’s like you just spent all this time planning out what you think is an awesome surprise gift idea for someone and then they can’t mask the look of disappointment when they open it up right in front of you. It’s completely deflating. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory of being a human curated service.
“With time, VNYL will only improve. As shitty as it feels when someone doesn’t like our choices, when we do get it right, it’s a total rush. There’s nothing more rewarding for me or our curators when we see someone tweet or Instagram their open box of vinyl and are debating which one to spin first.”
Well, only “time” will tell, Nick. But judging from the growing snowball that is the court of public opinion, there’s not a whole lot of time to improve and “get it right.” Remember what I said about “negative word of mouth” at the end of my original article? It’s already started, and in a big way.
UPDATE, 5/16: Watch this video that Stereogum found by a, shall we say, less than pleased VNYL subscriber posted about his #danceparty selections:
UPDATE, 5/20: Another unhappy backer has posted a story about his experience at The Faculty of Thinking Blog. The writer’s conclusion: “VNYL charges $24 a month for 3 records via mail currently valued at less than $3 a record. Most of what you receive is not great and will feel more like a yard sale or goodwill or dollar bin find. If you’re into it, cool. You cannot return these records if you don’t like them. Very little about what you include in your profile, musical taste or “vibe” will influence what records you get. The records chosen are “hand curated” and possibly even with care, but from an extremely limited and low quality pool. There is nowhere to see the list of records that your selections are being curated from. Absolutely not worth the subscription unless you are trying to build a novelty library of quality over quantity. You are losing money in this current build.”
UPDATE, 5/20: Here is the first (to my knowledge) complaint about VNYL filed with California’s Better Business Bureau. It reads, in part: “When VNYL initiated a Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nickalt/vnyl-hand-curated-vinyl-records/video_share) in December 2014, it billed itself as the “Netflix of LPs.” As described by magazine Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/new-record-service-vnyl-distributes-lps-like-netflix-20150109), VNYL offered a subscription service that: allows member to select a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance). Once completed, “the company will send three albums curated to fit the ‘vibe’ by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.” I participated in the Kickstarter campaign and chose 3 months of service in late December 2015.On or about March 25, I tried to select vibes that had been promised on the Kickstarter campaign. I found that at least two vibes, #gamenight and #rainyday, were not being offered as promised. Nick Alt, creator and owner, noted that those vibes might be added at a later date. On April 25, I contacted Nick Alt again after receiving three albums that were not to my taste. They arrived with no prepaid return envelope, and I asked him how I could best return them. I also asked him to cancel my membership. He did not respond to repeated emails and Facebook queries until May 9th. His response, in part: “Those records yours to keep for no cost…but you dont have to do anything to get them back to us.”At this stage, I feel like the Kickstarter campaign was a bait and switch, an opportunity for VNYL to collect money and use it to open a brick and mortar record store as opposed to service members properly.Mine is not the only complaint.”
“It set me on a course where I felt I didn’t orbit around anything anymore”: North Carolina’s Jason Kutchma talks about his new album Blue Highways.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Great road records take us with them, conjuring not just the places they go, but the headspace those places evoke. And the very best road records take us on the inner journey that led the author to pack their bags in the first place. Like hitchhikers, we ride shotgun as the musician undergoes whatever personal changes road trips engender that make them such transformative — and familiar — American rites of passage.
Enter JKutchma & The Five Fifths’ Blue Highways, a 40-minute collection of nine folk ballads and country rock-tinged songs stitched into a single suite like a days-long cross-country trip. Kutchma has partnered the LP with both a handsome book of the same title and a 40-minute long film culled from Rick Prelinger’s open-source film archives; it’s an immersive experience, though the music is more than capable of standing on its own.
Known initially for his work with the anthemic Carolinas’ punk act, Red Collar, Kutchma conceived his third solo effort as an examination of the lure of the road trip, as well as a chronicle of his own ongoing evolution from iconic punk rocker to fully fleshed-out songwriter. Inspired by William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 travel memoir, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, and other Americana signposts like John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie and Robert Frank’s seminal photo book, The Americans, Kutchma’s LP successfully — and at times brilliantly — taps into that uniquely American sacrament of self-discovery-by-odometer.
The “blue highways” of Least Heat Moon’s title are the rural roads notated on maps by blue lines, but that’s just one element of the equation. Kutchma quotes Least Heat Moon in an epigraph for his own book, citing blue highways as “those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk — times neither day or night — (when) the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”
Those blue highways, and that dusk-to-dawn conceit, colored nearly every aspect of Kutchma’s project, from its subject matter to the actual recording. The latter took place on April 14, 2014, over a 12-hour stretch in an old rundown Durham textile mill; minus some percussion and vocal overdubs, Blue Highways emerged in its entirety out of that night. If there was any question about Kutchma’s commitment to the integrity of his vision, the answer is right there in the 40-minute single track — an anachronism that flies in the face of any digital sense.
“I remember getting the tracks and wondering what it sounded like as all one thing, and artistically it made sense — if this album is supposed to be about dusk to dawn, and about some type of change that I’m going through, then I can’t stop it,” Kutchma says. “You can’t really pick the best parts — this has to be one full thing. And this whole album is like some inner change for me.”
That change was significant and, judging from Kutchma’s tone discussing it, not without trauma. At its core, Kutchma says, was that he’d come to rely on his persona from Red Collar — the hard-rocking, gold-boots-and-spurs-stomping anthem-singing frontman — to the point that he found himself going through the motions on stage. Blue Highways doesn’t reject that past, he says, it only acknowledges it for what it is and was — a transition to somewhere new.
“I’m really, really grateful that it came out of me and I really needed that to come out of me,” Kutchma says of his Red Collar self, but asks, “Is that what your natural inclination is? To start pounding the stage every single time? That seems a little weird — to me it seemed contrived. And I wanted this journey of Blue Highways to be, ‘you can’t rely on that anymore, for this album, anyway. You have to strip that away, you need to find your voice, and you need to be in the moment of your performance.’”
The moment of truth for Kutchma came during a show when he was “so disconnected” from the music that he “wanted to vomit.” Yet a friend later told him that he’d seen that show and thought he sounded great — a sign to Kutchma that something was seriously, maybe irrevocably wrong. He decided that he wouldn’t play again —“ever,” he says, if need be — until he had something he felt inspired by again.
“I slept-walk through that fucking show and the audience didn’t know — but I did,” he says. “It just wasn’t worth it to play another show.”
That harsh realization set off a year of soul-searching. In October of 2013, Kutchma had entered the studio for his third solo effort, following 2012’s Pastoral, which was accompanied by a book, and 2013’s Sundown, USA, a chronicle of middle class-demise through three distinct recorded versions. Kutchma was recording with the Sundown, USA version of The Five Fifths, which included members of Maple Stave and Spider Bags, two of the region’s harder rocking outfits. The sessions didn’t go well, though, and Kutchma scrapped them.
“It was just real obvious to me that the tone wasn’t what I wanted from it — it just wasn’t happening,” Kutchma says. “Not necessarily their fault, it was my vision for this thing, and what I wanted. It took some time of me stepping away from it and rethinking my approach to it.”
Ironically, Kutchma turned to a couple of Red Collar vets — including drummer Jon Truesdale and occasional keyboardist Andrew Blass — to tame things down and find the mood Blue Highways songs required. Following three weeks of rehearsals with new bandmembers and new instrumentation, Kutchma and eight others filed into the 200,000-square-foot abandoned mill, set up in a circle with producer Nick Petersen’s mobile recording equipment, and banged out Blue Highways through the night. Recording ended when the sun came up, and after an hour of sleep at home, Kutchma hopped on a train for a series of solo shows in the Northeast. It seemed, he says, the perfect punctuation to the recording session.
And no wonder. The narratives in Blue Highways slip in and out of transforming scenarios — for every passing landscape glimpsed from a windshield or bus window there’s an interior shift to accompany it. Some of them express the sense of optimism that all road trips evoke, as when Kutchma sings over the brushed-snare shuffling beat, slide guitar and bells of “Bus Station in Montana” (inspired by the Frank photo in The Americans), “I feel right at home on the Great Divide/For maybe the first time of my life/That County Road’s a country wide/Split down the middle by a dotted white line/That I’ve signed and signed with a silent pen/I’ll never stop just begin again.” Others reflect Kutchma’s personal trials, as on “Far Rockaway,” when, accompanied only by a finger-picked acoustic, he sings, “Write the same old songs over and over again/Same path in forest, same tree fallen/When it fell did it make a sound?/I can’t tell but they all do now.”
The music manages to be both intimate and wide-screen, capturing perfectly the duality of travel, the notion that when the exterior world expands, so does your interior world. The songs are aided significantly in that sense by Kaitlin Grady’s cello adding rich bottom end or mournful shades, piano from Blass and Kutchma, and Matt Oliverio’s tasteful guitar fills. These themes may have been worked over so many times they’re practically ciphers, but Kutchma brings a fresh enough — and honest enough — take to them that what sounds clichéd in the hands of lesser musicians and songwriters sounds fresh and essential here. Whether Kutchma’s singing about a ne’er-do-well outrunning trouble in Mobile (“Come On By”) or an aging server at the highway diner (“June the Waitress”), the stories ring true throughout.
“I wanted the feel of the album to be the blue of dusk and dawn,” Kutchma says. “I needed that in my vocals, I needed that in everything. It had to be that blue.”
Nowhere is that blue tapped into more than on the suite’s final cut, “Neighbors,” which reads as the most autobiographical song. Sung over plangent piano chords and with tremendous emotion and soul, Kutchma delivers the line “All of my neighbors know who I am/Cause I’m the one screaming at midnight/’I think I can’” with so much conviction the song reads like a confessional. To add to the sense of late-night desperation, Kutchma ends the song mid-verse with an abruptness so jarring that it initially seems unintentional. Not so, he says —that’s just the witching hour, the time to get gone.
“I really wanted a ‘yank’ of the rug that says, ‘you gotta leave; now’s the time to go,’” Kutchma says. “The other reason is, if you ever do watch that 30 minutes of the day turning into night or the night turning into day, there’s a moment where you’re watching it happen and you realize suddenly, ‘it’s dark. It’s night.’ Or, ‘holy shit, it’s day.’ It’s a snap — it is a real occurrence. There’s no doubt that something has changed, and that you watched it happen.”
As for Blue Highways’ multi-media partners, Kutchma hopes they provide different vantages on the topic. Kutchma wanted to solicit old home movies from friends to accompany the LP’s 39:39 run-time, but two friends separately suggested the home-movie archives of Prelinger, which includes silent public domain footage from the mid-20s through the 70s. Prelinger had also directed 2013’s No More Road Trips?, a cross-country trip stitched together through different home movies to celebrate the increasingly rare phenomenon of Americans driving from one side of the country to the other. (Prelinger had left the soundtrack blank on purpose, hoping to provide different ones with each showing of the film.)
The book, much like the one that accompanied Pastoral in 2012, mixes essays, epigraphs, lyrics and photos for yet another take on the musical experience of Blue Highways.
“The thing about the film,” Kutchma says, is that “because it’s mixed with visual imagery, the interpretation doesn’t necessarily change — it becomes a very concrete interpretation, but the interpretation deepens. What I’m trying say with this album, some of the message deepens with the film — and I think the book ends up being a nice bridge between a person’s way of interpreting it and my way of interpreting it.”
In the end, though, all these roadways and various interpretations point to the same place, an inner journey toward truth. And for Kutchma, the blue highways all come back to the place where his music and art comes from to describe whether that place is one of honesty or not.
“This Blue Highways album set me on a course where I felt I didn’t orbit around anything anymore, there’s no center to revolve around, there’s just me,” he says. “And this process has been about trying to build up my own planet so that I have my own sense of gravity — that I have my own grounding — rather than some other thing. It’s been healthy in the end, but it’s been a real journey.”
And one best undertaken in the blue of twilight or dusk.
Thirty-seven years after releasing their classic debut Can’t Stand The Rezillos the Scottish band has finally gotten around to cutting a followup. Frontman Eugene Reynolds explains.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
For a band whose nearly four-decades-old debut is still cited as a first wave punk rock classic, you’d think The Rezillos would have put out it’s follow up sooner. And no, 1979’s live record does not count.
Granted the band, the pride of Scotland (assuming The Bay City Rollers haven’t stolen that title), broke up in 1978, just months after they put out that first LP, Can’t Stand The Rezillos. But in the years since, they have mended fences and been playing together again since the early aughts. Why so long for a proper follow up, then? According to frontman Eugene Reynolds, when your only other studio album is considered a classic, the pressure of expectation can be a tad bit intimidating.
But sometime last year, The Rezillos managed to finally muster the courage to head back into the studio and pull together a stellar collection of new pop punk songs. The members may have turned into much better musicians over the years, but the playfulness that made their first record so appealing is still felt throughout the 12 tracks that make up Zero.
Prepping for their first U.S. tour in three years, Reynolds was kind enough to take some questions about the band’s legacy, their new album and why it took so long to finally put it out. And as he makes it pretty clear below, he was not responsible for the band breaking up in 1978.
Well, no one can blame you for rushing into this album to follow up the last one. What finally made this the right time to put out another album?
There’s always been a desire to make another album. But the band did break up – not my idea, I hasten to add – in 1978 soon after the album was released and only reformed in the 21st Century. Then it took some time for the band to find its feet… you know, we vaporized in the heady days of the Punk Rock explosion and then rematerialized a quarter of a century later and things don’t look the same! Or taste the same. Imagine if you had been frozen for 25 years and then re-emerged. AAAAGH Bright light!
However, it has still taken far too long, I agree. Part of the problem may have been that in the in-between years our first studio album had come to be regarded as a classic, and we thought there might be heightened expectations from us, so until we felt we were in the right mentality to deliver, it happened that it would be better to wait until then. And it looks like we were right to wait. It’s amazing to see so much interest and positivity. It’s been a bit of a surprise for us all, I think.
You mentioned you had plans to put it out earlier time, did you have songs that you ended up scrapping?
Yes, there were plans, but for every song that makes it on to an album, there are many that don’t… for various reasons; sometimes we get bored with a song, or it might not fit with the other tunes, whatever. So it can be a benefit in disguise to take time to consider things from all angles. Even with this album, we originally planned to put 14 tracks on but decided against that towards the end of mixing because we thought there was more to be developed before releasing. Some songs have been abandoned, others are not dead, only “sleeping.”
You’ve had reunion shows and tours over the years. Was it difficult to find time to come together to write, practice and ultimately record? Do you all live relatively close to each other now?
We did “reunite” but since then we have continued to exist as a band. It’s not been reunion touring. It can be hard to find the momentum sometimes, but once we got on a roll, it came naturally. The worst thing is writer’s cramp – the inertia of that. But like they say, the best way to write a novel is to start the first line of the first paragraph! Fay (Fife) and I live just a few miles away from each other in the same city. Jim (Brady) and Chris (Agnew) live about 40 miles distant, but Angel (Paterson, the original Rezillos drummer) lives in Germany, so this is a bit of a logistic challenge. We have hundreds of song ideas, concepts floating around and the trick is to work on a song at the right place right time etc. I tend to work impulsively and of the moment, whilst Fay chisels away at an idea for days, weeks. I can’t work like that but each to their own.
How long did it take to pull this latest album together? What was the experience like?
How long? Too long! A couple of the songs have been written many years ago, and by contrast, the title track “Zero” was written in the studio which was a real departure for us. Actually, playing live for such a long time before recording has definitely helped. It was important to try to capture the essence of a real live band within the limits of a recording studio situation. I think we’ve managed that. As for the experience, well, I personally found a lot of the recording and mixing mind-numbing. People tell me I’m a perfectionist, so maybe that’s why. But the funny thing was that once the mixing was truly complete (and when I say mixing I mean mix-remix-remix-remix until you go crazy!) when it was completed, Fay and I were proud to play the stuff to others and felt we had “done right.”
What was behind the decision to split up the first time?
I have to say I was not behind that decision! I always thought it was the dumbest thing to do, and that will always be my opinion. It was the most ill-conceived idea. Sometimes, it’s been explained away as “just being young” or whatever. But I think it was such a stupid move. NOT my idea.
That first album is still talked about highly by many – decades and decades later. Did you realize at the time you were making it and right after you released it, that it was an important record?
It was hard to see that from the inside. It was recording with 100 percent commitment certainly. If we all knew exactly what we did was right all of the time then “Whoa, Alright!” But seriously, it doesn’t feel like that at the time. We had no idea when we went to New York to make the album that the Power Station was probably one of the world’s best, or that the producer, Toni Bongiovi was so talented and experienced, and especially that we were working with an engineer by the name of Bob Clearmountain whose skills would soon be recognized as legendary, world class. I don’t think anyone has a clue as to whether their new record will be considered important or irrelevant. That’s for others to decide… maybe not immediately; sometimes much later.
When the band first started out, you often got lumped in with the punk groups at the time like The Sex Pistols and The Damned. Did you feel a kinship to those bands or do you think it was just lazy journalism to throw all of you in the same category?
I think the Damned and the Sex Pistols are great bands. One of the reasons they are is because they did not sound like anyone else, only themselves. And some fantastic songs too! Punk Rock can only be seen as a loose genre. Yes, it can be lazy journalism to seek pigeonholes. Punk should never have been about categorization- the very opposite in fact. But I guess some folk seek order in chaos, especially when it comes in seven or twelve inch squares and sits on a shelf. The Rezillos need their own velvet-clad shelf.
Are there plans to tour the U.S. again?
Not only plans, it’s real. We are coming to the West Coast this May, from Seattle down to San Diego, and over to play the Punk Rock for Bowling Festival in Las Vegas. Then back again in July to cover the East Coast. We’re posting the dates on our new website now-www.rezillos.rocks
Do you think you will you make more music in the future?
Now we have the new Zero album out, we have crossed a significant hurdle. There are plenty more songs to uncork from the Genie’s lamp and we are in the mood and place to do that from now on. It won’ be such a long this time around, there’s not enough time to wait.
What’s next for the band?
I’m going to make a few videos of some of the songs from Zero. I’d like to direct that. As long as it doesn’t dilute my focus on promoting the new album and writing new material. The band has gone from strength to strength and we are going to keep that energy up. No question of that.
Band photo credit Robman94(via Wikimedia Commons); Reynolds live photo credit Dod Morrison, Reynolds stock photo credit E Gabriel Edvy. Below, watch a complete live show from 2013.
We resume our coverage of the Omnivore label’s overhaul of the late, great Davis, Calif., band’s back catalog—we profiled Scott Miller and his band’s initial waxing, 1982’s Blaze of Glory, late last year at BLURT, subsequently reviewing the Dead Center compilation a couple of months later. So why stop now? Prof. Toland hereby picks up the story with Game Theory’s acknowledged masterpiece, 1985’s Mitch Easter-produced Real Nighttime.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
By the mid-‘80s, Scott Miller and Game Theory were ready to make a “real” album. That’s no slight on the slapdash brilliance of the band’s homespun debut Blaze of Glory or the EPs that followed. But by 1985 Miller was ready to record in a professional studio with a name producer, and he smartly chose Mitch Easter, whose work with R.E.M. and his own Let’s Active pointed to a like mind. The result was Real Nighttime, released in 1985 on the prolific and sadly defunct Enigma Records, and the record many point to as Game Theory’s most lasting legacy.
One of GT’s greatest strengths, and one shared with fellow travelers the dB’s during Chris Stamey’s tenure, was its ability to successfully blend its ‘60s Beatlemania and ‘70s Big Star influence with then-current new wave aesthetics. In particular the band had no fear of twinkly synthesizers and cheesy organs, and the keyboards give these songs a slick sheen that in no way interferes with the songs. Indeed, the easy blend of classic and modern gives Real Nighttime a sound that’s more timeless than dated. Listen to how Nan Becker’s wacked-out synth licks in “Curse of the Frontier Land” enhance, rather than distract from, its jangly power pop crunch, or the nearly invisible Simmons drum pads used throughout. The album sounded fresh then, and timely now, as more modern bands rediscover the synth patches of yesteryear.
Of course, for all the talk of Miller’s infamous obsession with production tricks, which would reach full realization a couple of albums later and in his ‘90s band the Loud Family, his work is still about songs. As always Miller and the band prove their mastery at, well, everything: the near-perfect jangle pop of “I Mean It This Time,” the wordplay-happy power pop of “She’ll Be a Verb,” the new wavey folk rock of “I Turned Her Away,” the 60s-meets-Big Star pop of “24,” the heartbreak balladry of “If and When It Falls Apart,” the caffeinated blitz-pop of the title track. The band pays tribute to a key influence while still maintaining its own identity by filtering Big Star’s bitter “You Can’t Have Me” through its distinctive vision, making what was then a hip obscurity nearly a signature tune.
The album is strong enough on its own, but, this being a deluxe reissue, it’s enhanced with bonus tracks. Bassist Fred Juhos’ piano ‘n’ synth-driven “Faithless” comes across like a classic rock tune trying to put a new wave spin on itself, and is no less charming for that. Several live cuts from the post-Nighttime version of the band showcase new and old numbers, from “The Red Baron” to “Curse of the Frontier Land,” plus a queasy cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” Miller gets plenty of solo showcases, including a pair of recordings of “Girl w/a Guitar,” a co-write with the Three O’Clock’s Michael Quercio that became one of that band’s standards, and an acoustic take on Queen’s “Lily of the Valley.” Best of all, though, is the gorgeous “Any Other Hand,” performed solely by Miller and his trusty 12-string, and as stunning a song as any in the GT repertoire. Why it didn’t make the original track listing is a mystery.
The Omnivore edition includes ruminations on the record by writer Byron Coley and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, as well as an interview with Mitch Easter. This is no mere archival recording, however – Real Nighttime sounds so fresh and timeless it might as well have been made by a brand-new band.
Legendary in their native Britain, cult heroes here in the States, the trio has finally arrived on these shores to take care of unfinished business. Our man on the ground in D.C. genuflects before the Manics’ Bible.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY MARK JENKINS
On Monday, April 20, a British rock trio that’s little known in the U.S. made its Washington, D.C. debut at the 9:30 Club. That’s so not unusual, except that this band was the Manic Street Preachers, who formed in 1986 and released their first single in 1988 — and still haven’t been properly introduced to the American audience.
Even stranger was that the first two-thirds of the 95-minute show was devoted to the entirety of The Holy Bible, an album that’s been hailed as a masterpiece in Britain but which caused barely a ripple in the U.S. The 1994 album recently got a deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue that includes the remastered album on heavyweight vinyl, a 40-page book, and four CDs (with the usual outtakes, alternate versions, and live tracks). Meanwhile, the band’s fine 2014 album, Futurology, is available to American consumers only as an import.
The band’s failure to connect with stateside listeners is partly a matter of happenstance. Twice, the Manics cancelled a major U.S. tour because of a significant loss: In 1995, guitarist-lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared. (He’s presumed a suicide, but his body still hasn’t been found). Then in 2001, singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield’s mother died. I interviewed Bradfield before that planned jaunt, but didn’t write up our conversation because the tour never happened.
“Sometimes it felt like it was never going to happen,” Wire said from the stage at the 9:30 Club, addressing a crowd that could sing whole verses of Manics songs without prompting. “We’ve never played Washington before. I’m fucking glad we came!”
Although they didn’t make it to D.C., the Manics have done some U.S. dates. (The last were in 2009, around the time of an album with a characteristically cheery name, Journal for Plague Lovers.) They even went out as an opening act for Oasis in 1996, an experience Bradfield told me was great fun.
“It was nice to see another band falling apart in front of our eyes instead of have it happening to us for once,” he recalled in 2001. “I thought Oasis was brilliant. There was so much tension within their band at that time and onstage every night and it just made them so much more exciting. So I really enjoyed that tour in a funny way.”
The Manics began as scrappy neo-glam-punkers, widely hated in Britain for their debts to the Clash and their brazen boastfulness — and for being Welsh. (“There was a romanticism attached to being Irish and Scottish, but there was a bitterness attached to being Welsh which just didn’t seem to wash away,” said Bradfield in 2001 of the initial hostility to his band.) But their reputation has blossomed to the point where almost no one objected to the title of their 2011 singles collection: National Treasures. It charted in Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Japan, but wasn’t released in the U.S.
The Manics’ low profile in the U.S. doesn’t reflect just the relatively little time the group has spent on the road here. There’s also a conceptual problem or two. The band’s populist-rock sound combines the Clash and Guns N’ Roses, but is short on hooks. This may result from the way the band composes: Lyrics, whether by Edwards or bassist Nicky Wire, come first. The melodies composed by Bradfield and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Sean Moore are secondary — and often sound that way.
Also, there’s nothing populist about the lyrics, at least not to Americans who didn’t grow up in the British tradition of working-class leftism. While the tormented Edwards’s favorite subject was self-loathing, Wire’s preoccupations include the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, modernist poets and painters, and American violence and hypocrisy. Among the wordy Holy Bible tunes for which Wire wrote lyrics is “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart.”
In that 2001 interview, Bradfield attributed the band’s politics to growing up in south Wales’s coal-mining region, an area in economic decline for decades after World War II, and convulsed by the Thatcher-sparked 1984 miner’s strike.
“We were politicized in a very natural way, and in that I mean that we were just taught to be aware of the politics in and around our daily lives,” he said. “We were taught to think about things that affected our lives. I suppose the actual urge to escape in our songs was not there. We didn’t want any kind of escapism in the songs. We actually wanted to have some kind of discourse in the songs.”
Love songs? One of the band’s catchiest, from 2007’s Send Away the Tigers, is called “Your Love Alone is Not Enough.” The title reportedly comes from a suicide note.
Cardigan Nina Persson dueted with Bradfield on “Your Love Alone is Not Enough,” and guest vocalists are common on later Manics albums: Cate LeBon, Georgia Ruth, German actress Nina Hoss, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, and others sing on Futurology. Its predecessor, the acoustic-guitar-based Rewind the Film, featured the voices of LeBon, Lucy Rose, and ex-Pulp member Richard Hawley. The group has always used samples, beginning with its 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists. It gradually added keyboards, synths, horns, strings, and more, forging a modern-rock sound that might even be termed accessible.
At the 9:30 Club, though, The Holy Bible‘s 13 songs were as stark and guitar-oriented as ever. The trio didn’t bring along a second guitarist (as it sometimes has) to expand its sound. Perhaps that’s because Bradfield played all the guitars on the album, the last record made while the band was officially a quartet. Edwards attended recording sessions, but reportedly didn’t participate much.
“It’s well documented that Richey was not a musical person really,” Bradfield told me in 2001. “He didn’t really care for playing guitar. He couldn’t really play guitar.”
“I took a good solo and he took a good picture. And he wrote brilliant lyrics. He was like the mouthpiece of the band, the lyricist, and he looked absolutely fucking cool.”
At the 9:30 Club, the Manics went into The Holy Bible‘s opener, “Yes,” without a word. They skipped some of the album’s sampled intros, and at one point Bradfield briefly forgot what song came next. Otherwise, they played the album with the all urgency and earnestness of the recorded version. Wire, who towers over the other band members, bounced exuberantly around the stage, but Bradfield didn’t loosen up until the band got to the seven-song set that followed the Bible reading.
As with most Manics albums, only a few songs stood out, notably “Revol,” “Faster,” and “P.C.P.” The action was more in Bradfield’s guitar playing, which switched often between post-punk rhythm and arena-rock lead, than in the melodies delivered by his high tenor (and only occasionally supported by Wire’s voice on shout-along choruses). The slower numbers, as is characteristic of the group, were anthemic in way that was more often stiff than stirring.
The post-Bible set featured only one song from relatively sprightly Futurology, “Walk Me to the Bridge.” Most of the others came from the ’90s — and from albums that were actually released in the U.S., even if few people noticed. They included “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “You Love Us,” from Generation Terrorists, and three songs from 1996’s Everything Must Go and This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the two albums that represent the peak of the Manics’ British popularity: “A Design for Life,” “You Stole the Sun From My Heart,” and “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” (The Holy Bible was not a commercial success on release, but became a steady-selling cult hit.)
At the 9:30 show, one audience member hoisted a Welsh flag, and another threw a green-red-and-white hat to Wire. No one was checking passports, but it’s quite possible that the crowd was heavy on U.K. expats. It’s unlikely that this short tour — six dates in the U.S. and one in Canada — presages an American breakthrough for the Manics or a stateside discovery of The Holy Bible.
In fact, if this article piques anyone’s curiosity, I’d suggest checking out Futurology instead. It’s always impressive when a 29-year-old band’s latest album is one of its best. Interestingly, among the many guest stars is Super Furry Animals keyboardist Cian Ciaran, and the made-partially-in-Berlin disc’s eclectic internationalism’s suggest SFA’s later work.
When the Manics first strutted their way into the pages of the British music press, one of the attention-getting brags was that they would make one spectacular album and then disappear. Instead, they became craftsmen who have refined and expanded their music and outlasted most of their peers — all without cracking the world’s largest pop market.
He had planned for band to be “the fiery phoenix definitely,” Bradfield said in 2001. “I wanted to release a record as good as Never Mind the Bollocks, and for it to be perfect, a crystal moment in time, never to be topped. But fortunately we weren’t good enough to do that.”
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