Monthly Archives: December 2016

THROWING HORNS: Blurt’s Metal Roundup Pt. 666.10

 

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 Hard rock! Stoner metal! Crustcore! Psychedelia! Grunge! Thrash! Skronk! Black metal! Trash punk! Bad boy boogie! (huh?) Smell the glove and make the sign of the umlaut, kids, it’s the 10th installment in our latest genre study, with Metallica, Opeth (pictured above), Helmet, Sodom, Wretch, Brain Tentacle, and more. Go here to read the first episode, Pt. 666.1, here for Pt. 666.2, here for Pt. 666.3, here for Pt. 666.4, here for Pt. 666.5here for 666.6, here for 666.7 , here for 666.8 and here for 666.9—if you dare. Incidentally, following the album and band blurbs are links to audio and video, so check ’em out.

BY METAL MIKE TOLAND

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When Metallica releases an album – something that’s become an oddly rare occurrence in the past couple of decades – it’s an event. The San Fran band is such a major player in its genre – arguably the most important act in metal still in full flower – that the quality of the music is almost beside the point. Fortunately, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (Blackened) finds the nearly 40-year-old band closer to its original mojo than it’s been since the early 90s – maybe even the late 80s. The quartet has made no secret of its desire to revisit the whipcrack thrash it pioneered in the mid-80s – members have filled interviews with assurances of a return to their original sound, and recent shows have relied almost solely on its Reagan-era repertoire. Unsurprisingly for an album with such high expectations, the results are mixed. Much of the record takes the heavier tracks on the massively successful and still controversial Black Album as core inspiration – anyone expecting Master of Puppets II will be disappointed. Plus a lot of the lyrics are seriously dire – the chorus of “Hardwired” (“We’re so fucked/Shit out of luck/Hardwired to self-destruct”) would embarrass a 12-year-old. And James Hetfield’s mighty voice is starting to sound thin on a few tracks – on “Dream No More,” he’s nearly unrecognizable. But when the band locks in on what it does best – the raised-fist power metal of “Atlas, Rise!,” the hatchet prog metal of “Confusion,” the neckbreaking attack of “Spit Out the Bone,” “Moth Into Flame” and even “Hardwired” – with all the power, precision and, most significantly, enthusiasm of their younger selves, all the carping falls away in a haze of headbanging and air guitar. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct may not be the new masterpiece most of us were hoping for, but it’s absolutely the best Metallica record in a quarter of a century.   TRACK: Metallica – “Moth Into Flame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tdKl-gTpZg

 

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Instrumental metal usually takes the form of either prog-like epics or shredfests designed to let the musicians show off. Philadelphia’s Dysrhythmia can certainly be accused of the latter, as the trio is made up of virtuoso technicians who can play nearly anything. But on The Veil of Control (Profound Lore), the band’s eighth LP, guitarist Kevin Hufnagel, bassist Colin Marston and drummer Jeff Eber use their powers for good. Taking cues from jazz in their interplay and punk rock in their elevation of intensity over technique, Dysrhythmia grab hold of riffs that are complex more in feel than in form and don’t let go, driving them to levels of power and tension that takes telepathic reciprocity and a lot of time in the practice space. Anyone looking for insanely complex solos worthy of Guitar Face may need to go elsewhere – Dysrhythmia’s compositional smarts and interwoven musicianship creates a space where solos aren’t needed to make the songs compelling.  TRACK: Dysrhythmia – Veil of Control Bandcamp: https://profoundlorerecords.bandcamp.com/album/the-veil-of-control

 

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More overtly referencing jazz fusion than Dysrhythmia, Animals As Leaders takes similar influences to different places on The Madness of Many (Sumerian), the D.C. trio’s fourth album. Eight-string guitarists Tobin Abasi and Javier Reyes are quite capable of soloing with GIT-soaked abandon, but are more interested in textures than technique. The axemen’s string slashes – which contribute both bass and guitar tones – clash in a way that creates polyrhythms with drummer Matt Garstka, and a subtle funk undercurrent keeps the tracks percolating.  TRACK: Animals As Leaders – “Inner Assassins”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEYt2GtfQJk

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Drawing on different inspiration than its fellow trios, Russian Circles eschews solo-happy arrangements and just goes for the jugular on Guidance (Sargent House), the Chicago band’s sixth record. Guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Turncrantz ride a fine line between doom metal and post rock, infusing the soaring dynamics of the latter with the power chord chug and thundering crunch of the former.  TRACK: Sodom – “Caligula”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI6GXnBPDuQ&feature=youtu.be

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Ottawa quartet The Night Watch adds prog rock sweep to its second record Boundaries (self-released). Guitarist Nathanael Larochette and violinist Evan Runge – both also of equally wordless experimental act Musk Ox – balance power chords and soaring string lines over the course of one 36-minute tune that never loses steam.  TRACK: The Night Watch – Boundaries Bandcamp: https://thenightwatch.bandcamp.com/

 

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Veteran Seattle black metal duo Inquisition has endured its fair share of bad press lately, due to accusations of Nazism. (Which seems unlikely, given this decidedly non-Aryan act hails originally from Colombia.) While denying all charges, guitarist/vocalist Dagon and drummer Incubus spit out Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith (Season of Mist). The title alone indicates more interest in high-falutin Luciferian fooferaw than National Socialism, and Dagon’s guttural rumble makes meaning hard to discern in any case. In truth, the band’s passion is for grinding but catchy riffs and blastbeat rhythms that conjure up that most rare of demons in black metal: a groove. (All the more impressive given the lack of bass.) “The Flames of Infinite Blackness Before Creation” and “Through the Divine Spirit of Satan a Glorious Universe is Known” don’t court controversy so much as headbanging glory.  TRACK: Inquisition – “Power From the Center of the Cosmic Black Spiral”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C-W3Tq-zgM

 

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Also no stranger to controversy, Norway’s legendary Darkthrone returns with its sixteenth LP Arctic Thunder (Peaceville). Singer/guitarist/bassist Nocturno Culto and drummer/lyricist Fenriz forgo the usual chaotic blast beats for a powerhouse marriage of blackened extreme metal and NWOBHM riffery. “Tundra Leech,” “Boreal Fiends” (which ends with a synth solo!) and “Deep Lae Trespass” sound, a quarter of a century after the band released its first album, less like black metal classicism and more like classic metal.  TRACK: Darkthrone – “Tundra Leech”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwz7gucE7x0

 

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German headbanger vet Sodom also make a big return with Decision Day (Steamhammer/SPV), the trio’s 15th record, released 30 years after its debut. The band’s blackened thrash is as teeth-gnashingly powerful as ever, blazing through ugly anthems “Rolling Thunder,” “Vaginal Born Evil” and “Caligula” with nasty (and faintly ridiculous) intent. What else would you expect from a group whose singer is called Tom Angelripper?  TRACK: Sodom – “Caligula”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI6GXnBPDuQ&feature=youtu.be

 

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Witchery keep the Satanic vibe rolling on In His Infernal Majesty’s Service (Century Media), the long-running Swedish ensemble’s sixth LP. The quintet has always blended its bloody black metal with other styles (particularly thrash and power metal) for an evil brew that appeals to more than just the corpsepainted crowd. The powerhouse whipcrack of “Netherworld Emperor” sidles up to the blastbeat explosion of “The Burning of Salem,” both of which contrast with the heads-down stampede of “Zoroast” and the straight-up anthemry of “Oath Breaker.” Good headbanging fodder whether you worship Lucifer or not.  TRACK: Witchery- “Oath Breaker”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMBynqpUzdE

 

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Norway’s In the Woods… never bothered with all that Satan stuff, finding its eerie weirdness inside its own collective head. Pure (Debemur Morti Productions), the innovative band’s first album in 17 years, keeps the menacing atmosphere of darkness, but skips most of the other BM signifiers. Exchanging blastbeats and vampire-on-crack singing for sweeping minor-key melodies and a gruff baritone, ItW uses its black metal roots as foundation for moody progressive anthems “Blue Oceans (Rise Like a War)” and the massive “Transmission KRS.”  TRACK: In the Woods… – “Blue Oceans Rise (Like a War)”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iY0nBdumDr0

 

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The Gates of Slumber waved the flag for old-fashioned doom metal for over a decade, before the departure and subsequent death of bassist Jason McCash put a period on the end of that sentence. But guitarist/singer Karl Simon isn’t done laying down the thundering riffgroove just yet, picking up exactly where he left off with Wretch, named for TGoS’s final LP. The trio’s self-titled debut (Bad Omen) floweth over with deep sludgy grooves, lava-thick guitar waves and Simon’s plainspokenly gruff ruminations on “Grey Cast Mourning,” “Winter” and “Running Out of Days.” No psychedelic excursions, blackened atmospheres or noise dynamics here – just pure doom done well – better, possibly, than anyone else treading the boards not named Tony Iommi. Check out “Icebound” for a near-perfect encapsulation of everything doom is all about.  TRACK: Wretch – s/t Bandcamp: https://badomenrecords.bandcamp.com/album/wretch

 

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Combining progressive rock melodics, death metal aggression and doom crunch, Vancouver’s Anciients blast to life on sophomore LP Voice of the Void (Season of Mist). Alternating carnivorous roars with keening croons, sweeping tunesmithery with thunderous riffology and soaring majesty with grimy brutality, the quartet lifts you up to heaven, only to drag you back through hell, usually within the same song. As such, the band is at its best on longer pieces where it can really flex its considerable muscle – “Worshipper” and “Ibex Eye” are particularly good examples.  TRACK: Anciients – “Ibex Eye”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFJaeVS8L00

 

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Veteran Swedes Dark Tranquility skip the doom part of the equation, but aren’t a million miles away from prog metal on eleventh LP Atoma (Century Media). The band’s sense of majestic melody informs tracks like “Neutrality,” “When the World Screams” and “Encircled” – it’s just one clean vocal away from a radio-ready anthem.  TRACK: Dark Tranquility – “Forward Momentum”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suhuQlYZwtE

 

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Pioneering avant metal act Neurosis lets enough years go between releases that any new album is a big deal. Fires Within Fires (Neurot), the influential Oakland quintet’s twelfth album and first in four years, serves as a thirtieth anniversary record, and a summing up of the group’s long career to date. Over the course of five long tracks, Neurosis takes a journey through noise and silence, chaos and order, alternating high volume and maximum crunch with delicate beauty and near-ambient intonation. Guitarists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till interweave steely webs of thorny latticework before crashing into wall-shaking thunder; drummer Jason Roeder modulates the dynamics while still keeping to the crunge. Keyboardist Noah Landis and bassist Dave Edwardson fill out the sound without drawing attention. As vocalists, Kelly and Von Till evoke the album title in their performances, calling up a harsh passion undiminished in their three decades around the metal block. “A Shadow Memory” and “Fire is the End Lesson” present masterclasses in how to manipulate sturm und drang without becoming tiresome, while the awesome closing epic “Reach” is a summary of everything that makes Neurosis great.  TRACK: Neurosis – Fires Within Fires Bandcamp: https://neurosis.bandcamp.com/album/fires-within-fires

 

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Every time we think NYC alt.metal icon Helmet has finally given up the ghost, we’re proven wrong. Since its reactivation in the early ‘aughts, Page Hamilton likes to take his time between records and tours, so the confusion is understandable. Six years since the underwhelming Seeing Eye Dog, Hamilton and co. return with Dead To the World (earMUSIC), Helmet’s eighth LP. The guitarist’s voice has gotten rougher over the years – indeed, he’s almost unrecognizable to his former mellifluous yet harsh singing self. Otherwise, though, the song remains the same – growling riffs, grungy melodies, noisy guitar breaks, the occasional unusual lick or chord progression to remind us of Hamilton’s jazz training. “Bad News,” “Life or Death” and “Expect the World” likely won’t change the minds of the unconverted, but fans will feel a familiar warm and steely buzz.  TRACK: Helmet – “Bad News”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkFMvststF0

 

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On their last album Clean., Whores. seemed just too angry and spiteful to live. But rage can keeps the blood pumping, as on the band’s follow-up Gold. (eOne). The Atlanta trio pummels its riffs with barbwire-wrapped baseball bats, while guitarist Christian Lembach rants and raves about whatever’s pissing him off at the moment. Same old same old, especially in the noise rawk world, but Whores. (spellcheck loves that period!) definitely possess that certain spark that elevates them above mere Unsane clonery. Maybe it’s because, like Unsane, Wrong and the other heads-above distortion mongers, Whores. writes real songs – “Baby  Teeth,” “Mental Illness as Mating Ritual” and “Bloody Like the Day You Were Born” would hold up if they were being played by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fortunately, they’re not.  TRACK: Whores. – “Baby Teeth”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqPVISe4jhI

 

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If metal musicians are playing, is the result still metal? Hard to say, given how many active headbangers like to make goth rock, postpunk, prog, noise rock and various electronic and ambient musics. Case in point: Brain Tentacles, the membership of which includes dudes from Municipal Waste, Keelhaul and Yakuza. The trio’s self-titled LP (Relapse) plays smash ‘n’ grab with elements of free jazz, riff punk, noise rock and thrash for a gleefully frenzied tornado of sonic ass-whuppery. Bruce Lamont’s growling sax leads the charge, dragging bass guitar, drums and occasional synth waves and vocal expulsions in its wake with a chain. Four-stringer Aaron Dallison sometimes challenges Lamont and even threatens to win, but ultimately goes back to his corner, while drummer Dave Witte just keeps his head down and bashes away. “Sleestack Lightning,” “Fruitcake” and “The Sadist” are exciting and goofy and overwrought and brilliant all at once. Exactly what you want from a band called Brain Tentacles.  TRACK: Brain Tentacles – s/t Bandcamp: https://braintentacles.bandcamp.com/

 

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Opeth hasn’t really been metal in several years at this point, ever since excising its death metal side with 2011’s Heritage. While the Stockholm quintet still hasn’t rediscovered the magic that made Blackwater Park and Watershed so distinctive and compelling, it gets closer with every post-Watershed album, as latest Sorceress (Nuclear Blast) shows. “Era” and “Will O’ the Wisp” mix progressive rock and psychedelia like there’s no difference betwixt them (is there?), while the Middle Eastern melodies of “The Seventh Sojourn” give the album a different flavor. “Chrysalis” and the title track also remind that Opeth still knows how to rock when required. Sorceress is this metal royalty’s best non-metal album so far.  TRACK: Opeth – “Sorceress”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhqijfqecvA

 

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Opeth’s countrymen Witchcraft have followed a similar path from headbanging to headscratching, though starting from 70s doom rather than 80s death metal. Time (Nuclear Blast), Witchcraft leader Magnus Pelander’s first solo album, falls even further from the metal tree, its apple rolling off into fields of lite prog and acid folk. Given how stripped down these tracks are – mostly just acoustic guitar and voice – the nearly nine- and ten-minute lengths of “True Colour” and “Precious Swan” seem excessive. But Pelander’s melodic instincts serve him as well here as they do in his main band, keeping him out of trouble.  TRACK: Pelander – “The Irony of Man”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXF7Y_QOV5g

 

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Similarly, Sweden never seems to tire of the heavy classic rock groove, as it spits out bands of that ilk like watermelon seeds. Örebros quartet Captain Crimson is the latest to cross over to domestic shores, via its third album Remind (Small Stone). The band sports a fairly traditional (if you can say that about this music) melodic blues rock sound – songs like “Money” and the title track sound familiar even if you’ve never heard them before. But singer Stefan Lillhager boasts a charismatic tenor and guitarist Andreas Eriksson knows when to let riff and when to let rip. “Black Rose” and “Drifting” score big on both counts.  TRACK: Captain Crimson – Remind Bandcamp: https://smallstone.bandcamp.com/album/remind

 

A SERIES OF SNEAKS: Sneakers

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In 2016, Chris Stamey put together his seminal band from the mid-‘70s for a handful of reunion gigs. With guitarist Mitch Easter, bassist Robert Keely, and drummer Will Rigby joining Stamey onstage, Sneakers duly performed in public for the first time in four decades, and it was a North Carolina music scene follower’s wet dream. Easter and Keely reflect on this most-unlikely turn of events…. Pictured above: the original lineup of Keely, Rigby, guitarist Rob Slater, and Stamey.

BY BILL KOPP

In the histories of power pop, indie rock and college rock (and whatever you want to call the musical scene that bubbled under in North Carolina several decades back), there’s one band that elicits approving nods whenever it’s mentioned. Sneakers never released a full album and played only a tiny handful of live shows, but the band is an important part of those histories. More to the point, Sneakers left behind a tidy pile of catchy songs that are full of clues about the subsequent direction of the band’s members.

Sneakers was (and is, but we’ll get to that in a bit) guitarist Chris Stamey, bassist Robert Keely, Will Rigby on drums. (Guitarist Rob Slater was there in the early days, too, but with due respect to his contributions to Sneakers, you won’t see his name again in this story.) If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned rock subgenres, at least a couple of those names will be familiar to you. Stamey and Rigby would go on to – among many other things – The dB’s, one of the most celebrated bands to come out of North Carolina.

And helping out in various ways with Sneakers was another name you’ll recognize: Mitch Easter. Years before producing R.E.M. and fronting Let’s Active, Easter was a key (he’d probably prefer the word peripheral) part of the Sneakers story. “First of all, Sneakers is Chris’ baby,” he says. mitch_easter_and_bill-kopp_by_audrey_kopp

Chris Stamey is (a) currently very busy with a number of projects and (b) well known for his reluctance to doing interviews. But when I set out to learn more about the history of this somewhat obscure band, Mitch was quite happy to sit down with me and chat. During that conversation – backstage before an actual Sneakers gig, but again, we’ll get to that a bit later – I said a brief hello to Stamey and chatted a bit with Robert Keely. (Pictured: Easter, with the author.)

Chris described the bassist to me as “a real keeper of the flame for Sneakers. He’s somewhat of an historian as well for everything about that period of the North Carolina rock scene.” I followed up with Keely sometime later, and he was kind enough to share some thoughts on the band. You’ll find his observations sprinkled here and there throughout this story. (Below: Sneakers live in 2016 at Durham’s MotorCo.)

Though as early as 1972 there had been a band called Rittenhouse Square, featuring Chris, Mitch and Peter Holsapple (and Bobby Locke, another guy whose name won’t reappear in this particular story, so never mind), and though that heavy band actually recorded a number of tunes, the pre-history of Sneakers can actually be said to have begun with a band called the Pedestrians.

“They played once, I think,” laughs Easter. “And that was kind of legendary.” Chris Stamey was “moving into a front man role” with his new material, Mitch recalls. “He wrote this batch of songs … great songs. He was playing an acoustic guitar and singing a lot, but the neck of the acoustic guitar was broken. Which was … memorable. And kind of traumatic, too.”

The chronology gets fuzzy; Easter says he wasn’t really in that band, either. “But I played acoustic guitar on the session.” One figures that somebody had to, what with Stamey’s guitar being broken and all. “I’ve known Chris for a really long time, and whenever he asked me to get involved in things, I would do it.”

Mitch relates Chris’ version of the story since Chris isn’t doing the interview: “His story is that after the Pedestrians fiasco, he just assumed I wouldn’t even want to play in the band, because that was such a disaster. But it was more a disaster for him, because it was his baby. And it kind of exploded along with the guitar.”

Robert Keely remembers that show as “disastrous,” and remembers that the show was billed as “The Pedestrians: Play the Nixon Years.” His very earliest recollections of that group – the first combo he’d ever played in – involve “being invited to Will [Rigby]’s apartment in Chapel Hill, where he and Chris taught me ‘Some Kind of Fool.'”

But even with the failure of the Pedestrians, Stamey still aspired to – and worked at – being the leader of a band. “Chris was just ready to be that kind of artist, you know,” Mitch says. He had played bass in high school, and played in bands, but just not as the front guy.”

Mitch explains that while Stamey was already a musician by his high school years, he wasn’t yet a songwriter. “But then in college, he started sort of re-configuring himself” to be a songwriter and “front guy.” The first batch of songs that Chris wrote ended up forming the basis for Sneakers’ first record, a 7” vinyl EP released in 1976 on Stamey’s own label, Carnivorous Records.

Priced at a reasonable $1.98, the six-song EP sold about 3,500 copies. Try finding one now, and expect to pay about ten times as much for one in decent shape, and up to $40 for a mint copy. In the CD era, that EP – variously appended with other Sneakers-related material – has been reissued no less than three times: East Side Digital released a 19-track compilation called Racket in 1992; Collectors’ Choice Music released Nonsequitur of Silence in 2006, adding two more tracks.

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Omnivore Recordings released a 10” vinyl record in 2014, and a shiny silver CD the following year. Omnivore used a slightly-edited version of the original EP art (it’s pictured below), and appended the six tracks with five more, one of which – a cover of The Grassroots’ “Let’s Live for Today” – had never been released before. Not even on all those other re-re-issues. (Ed. note: as sung by Rigby, the Grassroots number was included, along with other subsequently-issued outtakes, on a 60-minute underground cassette that was widely circulated by fans. A digital collection of unreleased and live material from Sneakers can be found at the most excellent NC music blog, The dB’s Repercussion.)

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The songs on that original EP – “Condition Red,” “Nonsequitur (of Silence),” “Driving,” “Ruby,” “On the Brink” and the immortal “Love’s Like a Cuban Crisis” – were all Stamey originals (“Nonsequitur” was a co-write with Will Rigby, who would go on to prove a sterling songwriter in his own right). And they were really good, a kind of skewed power pop. Maybe not quite as off-kilter as the stuff Alex Chilton and his Big Star band mates had been cutting – to critical praise and commercial indifference – 650 miles west in Memphis, but really, really good.

“Every time Chris starts a new band, he writes a batch of good songs,” says Mitch, who would know. “Which is a great way to get a band going. And I remember being very impressed with these songs because they were so good.” Mitch recalls that the songs they had each written before that weren’t, shall we say, up to the same standard. “They were these kind of things that were like nerdy children with guitars and stuff,” he chuckles, “but not something that you could really expect anybody else to listen to.”

The goal had been to write pop songs, but punk was looming on the horizon. In a good way; the aesthetics of punk had a liberating effect, even on people making pure pop for now people. “Even if you weren’t a punk band, it kind of re-defined what you could do as a lead singer,” Easter says. “I mean, you could have [somebody like] Tom Verlaine as the lead singer. Whereas, just a few years before it’d be like, ‘Yeah … Right, pal.’”

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There would be a second, sort-of-Sneakers record, In the Red, released in 1978. Though this record was bigger (12”) and had more songs (nine total), it was really a Stamey-Easter collaboration using the Sneakers name, for whatever reason. It too was self-released; to balance out the longer playing record, Stamey shortened the label’s name from Carnivorous to Car. (Pictured above are Easter and Stamey; note the B&G sign in front of the drumkit.)

Okay, not really; in fact In the Red was one of four releases on Car Records in 1978. The others were by people all of whom figure prominently into the story of that decade’s indie-rock/power pop: Peter Holsapple (at the time, soon to join The dB’s; he’d recorded a brace of songs that he, Easter, Keely, and drummer Chris Chamis had been performing under the name the H-Bombs, whose story can be read elsewhere on this site), Chris Bell (ex-Big Star) and the instant-classic dB’s debut single, “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know,” written by Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.

Speaking of wanting (or not wanting) to know, around the time that the original Sneakers EP was released, the band couldn’t get many gigs. In fact, according to Unofficial Sneakers Historian and bassist Robert Keely, Sneakers’ 2016 reunion performance at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh was exactly the band’s ninth show ever. “So every performance is a very special occasion,” smiles Easter. “We know where we are welcome.” (Below photo by Larry Tucker, from the Hopscotch show. Visit Tucker’s YouTube page for some clips from the band’s other 2016 gig, at Durham’s MotorCo.)

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For at least one of the band’s eight previous live shows between 1976 and 2016, they weren’t greeted with open arms. Mitch amusingly recalls one Sneakers gig in particular, one during which he wasn’t in the band. “I remember seeing Sneakers play at the Apple Chill Festival in Chapel Hill. At the time, Chapel Hill was pretty much culturally dominated by hippies.” He readily concedes that the hippie movement was largely moribund by 1976 … but apparently news of its demise hadn’t reached Chapel Hill. “I loved the hippie scene in 1967,” Easter says. “But by this time it was getting kind of dreary.” That hippie vibe was blended with a kind of down-home southern ambiance; not exactly a recipe for acceptance of a power pop group.

“Anyway,” Mitch continues, “the famed Apple Chill Cloggers were up next.” Workers were already busy laying down plywood flooring in front of the stage, all while Sneakers were still up there playing and singing. “They were all holding their ears, like ‘Ohh!’ And these were young people! I just thought, ‘Fuck you.’”

But Mitch thought that scene was, in its own way, a great image. “It definitely reinforced the dangerous punk aspects of Sneakers,” he deadpans. “They really offended people, which is always what you need to do, right?”

Robert Keely remembers a few other details from Sneakers’ short list of live dates. “We played a street festival in Chapel Hill; we were so loud, they unplugged the PA.” And at the Connor Dorm Spring Fest – also in Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: BLURT’s future editor attended the show); save for the Max’s gig, Sneakers don’t seem to have been able to escape the city limits – band friend and producer Don Dixon “played an actual car horn from the parking lot for the intro to ‘Driving’.” This was long before sampling, kids. (Below: Rigby, Easter, Stamey, Keely, and Slater, plus unknown associate in hat.)

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Alas, there was essentially nowhere for Sneakers to play. Everyone involved does recall a show at famed New York City club Max’s Kansas City. “It was quite exciting to play Max’s,” says Keely. He recalls that it was Sneakers’ “fourth, maybe fifth show ever.”

“That was very exciting,” Easter admits, “but it wasn’t part of a tour. It was just like, New York and then home.” In fact, by the time of that gig, Mitch was in the group. “I guess I was sort of brought into the band; I can’t remember, man …”

But the whole thing ended shortly thereafter. “Chris had been to New York City, and met and seen Television,” Keely recalls. Stamey moved to the City in January 1977. “I don’t know if Television are aware of their influence on Chris at that time,” adds Mitch. Stamey soon joined forces with Alex Chilton, playing bass in Chilton’s band.

Fast forward almost 40 years. But first …

In the interval, Chris Stamey got The dB’s up and running. Peter Holsapple, fresh from the above-mentioned H-Bombs, joined. They did a few excellent albums. Stamey left, and Peter carried on with Like This and The Sound of Music, wonderful despite Chris’ absence. Peter and Chris teamed up outside the group for a pair of superb albums, Mavericks and Here and Now, separated by a mere 18 years.

Meanwhile, Mitch opened Drive-in Studio in his hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, and played a key (again, he might say peripheral) role in developing and capturing the sound of early R.E.M. His own band, Let’s Active, cut a wonderful EP and album before fracturing; the second Let’s Active album was excellent as well, but – like Sneakers’ In the Red – not really a group project. Post-Let’s Active, he teamed with then-wife Shalini Chatterjee in the groups Fiendish Minstrels and Shalini, and did more production work, including some of the best releases from Game Theory, yet another criminally unknown and underrated group. For his part, Keely enjoyed what he characterizes as “a very long retirement.”

More recently, around 2010 Mitch and Chris reunited for the Big Star’s 3rd concert series, along with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. (See how this all hangs together?) And in 2012, Stamey, Rigby and Easter (plus Holsapple) played at the annual SXSW Festival in Austin—billing themselves as The dB’s—including a special set at the BLURT day party held at the Ginger Man pub.

Returning now to the present …  (Pictured below: Easter and Stamey at the Hopscotch gig.)

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“I can always kind of remember these songs,” Easter tells me backstage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, while – of all people – Television is doing an extremely loud sound check a few yards away. “And it’s weird, because they’re not songs I played very much.” He muses that Sneakers happened when all of its participants were at young and pivotal stages in their lives.

 

“It was right when we all sort of became adults. We were trying to really do rock music and it was kind of, sort of happening around this band a little bit.” They had made a record that got some attention, and – they had hoped – that would mean they could “break out of the three or four local depressing clubs that we could play, [places] where they kind of wished we’d go away.”

Mitch says that “to have it feel like a connection to the wider world was fantastic. And that’s all down to Chris’ efforts, his wherewithal to actually press this [record] up and everything.” Keely shrugs and adds, “All the deep philosophy and musical questions are best directed to the other players. I was just extremely fortunate to be a passenger on the bus who happened to be in the right place at the right time, with correct change.”

Some months earlier, the organizers of the annual Hopscotch Festival reached out to Stamey, asking if he’d consider putting Sneakers back together for a reunion gig. Chris had played Hopscotch a few years earlier with a recently-reactivated dB’s; that enthusiastically-received set included him, Peter Holsapple, bassist Gene Holder and Will Rigby (plus the very versatile Brett Harris as an auxiliary dB). So he said yes.

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will_rigby_by_audrey_koppThe plans for Sneakers’ Hopscotch set were to do songs from “the original ancient EP, and then a couple of other songs, a couple of newer ones,” Mitch says. I ask if the set will include the infamous “B&G Pies Commercial” track that showed up on Racket and Nonsequitur of Silence. “No. We got a cease-and-desist [order] from B&G,” Easter says. They told him, “We don’t want to be associated with punk.”

The Hopscotch show was a success; the band tore through the material as if the previous forty years had never happened, and Chris’ guitar didn’t break. So who knows? Maybe they’ll do some more shows. “It’s all about the money,” Mitch deadpans. Keely leans in and adds, “It has to be bigger Canadian dollars; physically bigger dollars. And in another time frame; another nine years seems about right.”

Turning slightly more serious, Keely gets the final word. “It’s totally up to Chris, Mitch and Will. I’ll show up and know my parts if requested.”

Damn well better, Robert….. Bill Kopp is BLURT’s Jazz Desk editor, but he dearly loves his power pop, punk, and prog, too. 2016 individual bandmembers photos credit: Audrey Kopp.

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS: James Johnston

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The British musician made his mark, initially, with Gallon Drunk, with whom he continues to tour and record. Most recently, he’s been an integral part of PJ Harvey’s band and played on her Grammy-nominated Hope Six Demolition Project. Now, he has an ambitious solo album that is already stirring rumblings among music critics about year-end best-of list placement.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston has produced something timeless with his debut solo album The Starless Room, from Clouds Hill Records, based in Hamburg, Germany. The starkness of Johnston’s photo gracing the cover revealing nothing but the man himself, is a wonderful metaphor for the album as a whole. Here, he opens his heart and lets it flow like never before. This is a sweeping culmination of the musical moments we’ve heard punctuated throughout his career—which includes work with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Faust, and, currently, PJ Harvey—as well as a fascinating new step into an artistic space that he’s finally ready to inhabit.

As I did last year for our Gallon Drunk From The Heart Of Town piece for our The Story Behind The Album piece, I contacted James who was more than willing to sit down and answer my questions about the new record and the amazing year he’s had. (Ed. note: Sharp-eyed BLURT readers no doubt spotted the exclusive track he offered us recently, a live version of the new album’s “Heart and Soul” recorded by Linda Gerdes back in 2015 at the Clouds Hill festival. You can listen to that track below. Meanwhile, Johnston has also created a series of videos in which he discusses the writing of each track on the album. Go HERE for the “Track by Track” section of his YouTube channel.)

BLURT: Why at this stage of your career do a solo record?

JAMES JOHNSTON: I needed to do something different, I wanted to try something fresh, something I wasn’t familiar with. Something that reflected more what I like to listen to myself. It just developed from there, encouraged and helped along by Johann Scheerer, the producer. We’d just done two Gallon Drunk albums in fairly quick succession, and it needed to go somewhere new. I’d skulked about behind a curtain of noise for ages, I wanted to see what it was like without it for once, take the comfort blanket away. [Below: Johnston and producer/Cloud Hills owner Scheerer]

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How long have the songs on the album been kicking around, and how long did it take to record the album?

Everything was written specifically for the album. I hate coming back to troublesome old demos, all the same indecisions rear their ugly heads back up immediately, sends me out of my mind hearing stagnant old ideas that I overworked or overthought. Garageband drum loops, hearing some of them again makes me want to weep, throttle myself, or smash my computer, so I tried to stay as far away from anything like that as possible this time for the sake of my sanity. If something’s not working it gets erased immediately. I tend to start everything as an improvisation, just see what comes out. Often I keep the form of the improv intact and build on that. The first half of “Dark Water” was done like that, and the last track, a lot of it was.

We did three session for the record, initial recording, then overdubs, the choir, the strings, and then a mixing session a while later. I’ve no real idea how long it took. It’s easy to lose track of time at the studio, Clouds Hill, as it’s a residential studio, meaning you live there too. It’s very easy to just get lost in the whole process, I barely went into Hamburg once throughout the entire recording.

Who decided the running order?

That was me. I spent a long time working on it – as usual, but certain things were always set in stone for me. “When The Wolf Calls” was always going to be the last track, for example. “Dark Water” was the center, so having those in place made it a bit easier. Trying to keep tracks apart that are in the same key. I enjoy albums that have a definite musical and lyrical flow and work as a complete piece, so mostly I was hoping to achieve something like that with the running order. Just listen to it until it felt complete. Probably the same as it is for everyone putting a record together.

How many songs did you record in total, and which were the hardest to nail?

There were only a couple that didn’t make it, one called “The Wild Sky” that I really like, but it just didn’t fit in the running order. The most difficult ones were where I’d embellished the demo too much, and we were trying to recreate that, or build on that rather than start afresh. “Heart and Soul” was like that. Completely different to the demo. We ended up totally stripping out the idea, changing the key, and then slowing it right down, after which Johann further slowed the tape down so it has that odd ambience. The drum part especially. The demo was an up-tempo cross between Dr. John and Ennio Morricone, totally overblown, bombastic, and impossible to recreate, but we still felt it could really work as a song, and I was really happy with how the lyrics turned out. I’m so very glad Johann suggested starting from scratch with that one, as otherwise it was heading towards the bin, and I love the ghostly way it ended up. It fitted the nature of the words so much better than the original track did. So much better than the demo, and more part of the record in its overall atmosphere.

By far the easiest was “When The Wolf Calls,” one take and that was it.

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 “Cold Morning Light” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and to be honest, I was sad when it ended. What was the seed of an idea that set you on a course to write this gem of a song?

It was originally going to be an instrumental, and I was completely happy with it that way. It was Polly who suggested I try singing on it so I tried it out at home, sounds to me now like I’d been listening to The Doors, which I probably had been! I wanted the whole track to develop, layer upon layer, so it was logical for the vocal to be the last entry, hence the form of the song that leaves you hanging at the end. Also, it works as a break from the more traditional song structures on some of the rest of the album. Live, we’ve stretched the intro out longer, but on the record, I generally tried to keep things more succinct.

“St. Martha’s” I loved when I first heard it—how did this song come about? (Ed. note: A live version of the track, recorded at the above-mentioned Clouds Hill festival, appeared on a 12” single that featured Peter Doherty on the flipside. The limited edition vinyl-only item was released for the 2016 Record Store Day in the UK.)

That’s a favourite of mine too. The music came first. Then the lyric was triggered by looking through a box of very old photos. It’s about a very specific place that has huge emotional resonance for me, it’s out in the country. But hopefully as a song, it could be about anywhere that someone holds precious, hazy memories both good and painful, we’ve all got them! I’ve tried writing about that sort of thing before, but I could never get the tone of it right. Probably the saddest track on there.

Do you have plans for another solo record, or will a Gallon Drunk record come next?

Everything is very much open, I really enjoyed the freshness of recording the album, and I’d very much like to keep that sense of newness going, whatever it may be. The feedback will always be there if needed, it’s just waiting inside a Big Muff for a while.

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Tell us about Johann Scheerer’s [pictured above, with Johnston] involvement as producer and bassist—what discussions did you have regarding the sound you wanted?  What’s he like to work with?

First and foremost, Johann’s a friend. We’ve worked together on two Gallon Drunk records now, and a Faust album, and now The Starless Room. Knowing someone that well can be totally key to trying something new; you have to have that trust, the freedom to try anything, regardless of whether it’ll work or not, and not rely on your usual methods. Johann is great at that, and I’ve seen him develop that level of trust very quickly with other bands in the studio too.

It started with my emailing him a blizzard of demos, sometimes one a day, and this went on for a long time. He’d respond immediately with what he thought, good or bad, and I’d take it from there. They weren’t finished songs, just chord patterns and rough vocal ideas. It really helped to bounce ideas off someone, and gave me confidence to follow my instinct with some songs I might not have ever shown anyone, and also to ditch some things immediately. It gradually became obvious what style was working best, and that a group of songs was developing.

Most of the discussions about the actual sound came in the studio; we both had ideas for every song, so we’d just try them out with Ian [White; pictured below] on drums, and see what worked. Ian plays beautifully on the record, and obviously, that brought something new to respond to as well. Generally, we all tried to let our enthusiasm and instinct take the lead, try different approaches until it felt right, then move on quickly.

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Strings are tricky to employ without sounding cloying and overly emotional, and on the album, they seem rather restrained. Was this something you thought about when trying to fill out the core layers of the songs?

Well, I certainly didn’t want it to be like one of those “Hank Williams and Strings” type albums where the strings are poured on as a sweetener. The string arranger, Sebastian Hoffmann, was extremely sympathetic to what I wanted and what was needed. We listed to loads of arrangements I like. From Massive Attack to Serge Gainsbourg, [John] Cale, Lee Hazlewood, and even Vaughan Williams, all sorts of stuff. The overall tone of the whole record is one of restraint, so the strings are part of that mood and he achieved it beautifully, a lot of subtle counter-melodies like the gorgeous tune on “Cold Morning Light,” and then on the last track it’s just improvised harmonics and a very delicate drone was all that was needed, barely there.

 On this record, you seem to be the most emotionally vulnerable we’ve seen you. Were you at all worried how this would play with your Gallon Drunk fan base, who were more used to the visceral edge of your songs?

The nature of the songs demanded something open and vulnerable, exposed, something markedly different, so the lyrics had to match that. I really needed that too, I needed change. As usual I wrote the music first, with a vocal melody, then fitted the lyrics to that. You can’t really worry about how people will respond or you’d never finish anything, I know I wouldn’t. I find it hard enough to start with, without setting up even more barriers and things to consider.  Again, I just went with what felt right at the time. I was still basically just responding to the music, in the same way as I would with Gallon Drunk, except this time more based around melody, and the vocal taking the lead in the song.

You’ve spent a good part of this year touring with PJ Harvey, who counts Mick Harvey also as one of her band members. What influence has playing with these people had on your music?

I know Mick really well from playing in The Bad Seeds, and in his solo band, so that feels totally comfortable, and I really enjoy it, the same with Terry from Gallon Drunk who’s also in the band. It’s a big band, ten including Polly, so we’re all reacting to one another, and playing off and around one another the whole time. It has to be sympathetic to the song, what’s needed, or as is often the case in music in general, what space needs to be left. One big difference for me has been playing the violin again after years of it sitting sadly in its case, ignored. I took it into the recording sessions on the off-chance it might be of use, even if someone else were playing it, and now I’m playing as much violin as guitar on tour.

What does the Grammy nomination for Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project mean to you since this is also partially your work?

The Grammy nomination is for Polly, it’s her record in every way, but being involved with the album has been an amazing experience, which has now spread out over time to include the tour that now continues on through 2017. Mainly it helps draw more attention to the album, and the timing has been great as the North American dates have just been announced. But also, I’m very proud to play on the album, and it’s meant working closely with friends old and new. The first gig where Polly and I were on the same bill was a Gallon Drunk gig in 1992 in a London pub The White Horse. We subsequently went on to tour together for about a year. It’s always been a great memory; we were all young and very fresh to it all. So, it’s been great to work together, and really reconnect properly as friends.

 Will you be touring for your record? Any chance of a stop in Asheville, North Carolina so our esteemed editor, Fred Mills, can catch you?

I played Asheville a few years ago while I was in Faust, loved it, still have the tinnitus to remember it by. I hope to do some shows in the States for the album, so we’ll see. Sadly, we’re not stopping in Asheville on the upcoming Harvey tour or I could have done an impromptu gig somewhere in town that had a piano. (Damn. Well, next time then, mate! – Ed. Fred)

Last time we spoke for our piece on Gallon Drunk, you were looking forward to 2016 and all your various musical endeavors, now that we are at the end of the year, take stock for us as to what this year has meant to you, and what next year holds in store for James Johnston?

Well, a lot [has] happened for me with music this year, and there’s been a lot of travelling. To put it simply, next year looks the same, and I’m very, very grateful for it being that way.

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Photos by Steve Gullick

THE INSPIRATION BEHIND… Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade” (1992)

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Ed note: With BLURT’s newest series, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here. Response from readers was immediate, and enthusiastic; Matthews himself was appreciative, and fans are encouraged to check out his new single (details HERE). For our latest spotlight, Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’s Let Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). Scroll to the end for details about the band’s upcoming 25th anniversary shows for the album.

BY TIM HINELY

In the late ‘80s, Massachusetts trio Buffalo Tom burst onto the scene with a very good self-titled, J. Mascis-produced debut that was initially released in Europe on the Megadisc label in 1988, subsequently getting picked up in the States by SST the following year. They followed it up with Birdbrain in 1990, by now signed to Beggars Banquet, another very good effort, but the band really hit it out of the park on record number three, 1992’s Let Me Come Over, also on Beggars, and one of the best records of that year. It’s still a favorite among Buffalo Tom fans. The band—the same three guys: Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn and Tom Maginnis—still get together for occasional tours and recording (their latest, 2011’s Skins, is among their best). I tossed a few questions at vocalist/guitarist Janovitz to get the skinny on one of the band’s most popular songs and he was kind enough to give it up for the BLURT readers.

 BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?

BILL JANOVITZ: This one, as with most of my songs, started with the music. I think I just started humming out a melody and the first verse came. The second verse was taken from a newspaper story about a girl who goes to hide as a hermit after her family would not allow him to marry the man she loved. I believe this was in Romania. The third verse is a summary, tying the three together. Cappy Dick is a reference to a Sunday comics character from when I was growing up.

Did it take long to finish writing it?

The song, with melody and chords came quickly, all at once. The first verse was likely culled from the initial mumbling I was doing. The second verse was just sitting around in a notebook, though in different meter. I think I pulled the whole writing part together in a day or so. I started on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. I could go in there and play a little because it was the furthest away from my girlfriend while she slept in our bedroom in our tiny apartment. I would record into a boom box.

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Any idea how your longtime fans feel about it—i.e., would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?

Certainly yes. It is kind of our signature number.

Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later?

We have played no shows without it, I think.

Is there anything about the song you’d change?

The actual writing? No.

Tell me a little about the recording of it—where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?

Recorded at Dreamland, a converted church in Bearsville, NY, near Woodstock. Amazing spot. Then we overdubbed guitars, vocals, etc., at Fort Apache in Cambridge, all with Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie co-producing. It was mixed by Ron St. Germain. I think every performer listens to recordings of themselves and hears things they would change or improve, if not just cringing outright. So, yeah, I would change a few things. But nothing glaring.

How do you feel about it now?

I still feel deeply about the song, especially when singing it. But I would never have predicted it would be a song so many people latched onto, never mind be a single or a song that still resonates for so many fans. I’m grateful to have one song like that, if nothing else.

Buffalo Tom recently announced they will be doing some shows next year to mark the 25th anniversary of Le Me Come Over, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and London.

Janovitz on the web: http://billjanovitz.com/blog/  / https://www.facebook.com/Bill-Janovitz-37654950807/

 Buffalo Tom on the web: http://www.buffalotom.com/  / https://www.facebook.com/buffalotomband/

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 Suggestions for a potential “Inspiration Behind…” profile? Let us know in the comments section, below. If we take your suggestion and the artist, in turn, takes us up on it, we’ll acknowledge your editorial input in the feature (and maybe even give the artist your contact info so he can thank you – or sue you – for making the suggestion).

 

BIG BOSS MEN: The Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade

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For anyone with a serious interest in the history of Midwest rock and certainly Cleveland, a lesson in Sixties American electric blues and garage rock not to be skipped on a remarkable new archival unveiling. Above: Jim Fox (left) and Glenn Schwartz (center) during the latter’s James Gang tenure.

BY FRED MILLS

Unlike with contemporary irony-slinging hipsters, back in the day, bands who dubbed themselves a “blues crusade” not only meant what they said, they backed up those utterances with the tunes, along with the chops to deliver ‘em. Such was the case with this short-lived Cleveland combo, a powerhouse outfit featuring members of the James Gang (pre-Joe Walsh hitmaking period) and cult heroes the Mr. Stress Blues Band. The Smog Veil label has now unearthed recordings the group cut in the spring of ’67 as part of its ongoing archival series, Platters du Cuyahoga. Although in one sense the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade represents a footnote of sorts to the James Gang files (drummer Jim Fox would be the constant in the band, including during both the pre- and post-Walsh eras) and those of Pacific Gas & Electric (the group guitarist Glenn Schwartz formed after leaving the Gang, ultimately landing a major label deal and almost grabbing the brass ring with PG&E), no serious Cleveland scene watcher would deny the visceral power contained in these grooves.

The exhaustive liner notes penned by archivist Nick Blakey for the album’s thick, rare photos-adorned booklet (16 pages for the CD version; 12 LP-sized pages for the vinyl—which, collectors should note, comes pressed on limited-edition yellow wax, but only if you move fast enough) tell the tale so thoroughly that I’d be foolish to try to encapsulate them in a mere review.

In a nutshell, though, it was the mid ‘60s and young American musicians were forming bands, many of them taking inspiration from the likes of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, who were utilizing classic blues as jumping-off points for their nascent garage rock and psychedelia. Among the groups on the Cleveland club scene were the James Gang and the Mr. Stress Blues Band, which Smog Veil has also documented as part of that Cuyahoga series. At some point there was a meeting of the minds between members of them and a handful of other local luminaries in order to lay down some straight-up electric blues during a “hungover Sunday morning” 1967 recording session comprising covers of such blues icons as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, etc. Fox and Schwartz presumably were the best-known players, hence the resulting band name here, although the album also prominently lists “Featuring Mr. Stress” on the cover to give the Mr. Stress’ Bill Miller, his proper due, as he’s the lead vocalist and harmonica player on two of the best tracks here. (Below: the Mr. Stress Blues Band.)

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Indeed: “Checkin’ On My Baby” (which was premiered recently right here at BLURT) in particular is a blistering number, one in which the band shifts brilliantly between shuffle and boogie modes as Miller spits out indignant lines; while the slower, slinkier “Long Distance Call” showcases his innate ability to convey nuance and emotion. Elsewhere, there’s Dixon’s timeless “Evil,” on which Schwartz shines on both guitar and vocals, the band itself conjuring images of their beloved Yardbirds; and James’ eternal “Dust My Broom,” that reveals the ensemble’s instinctive elasticity—check, in particular, how Fox steers the arrangement through the stylistic changes. There’s also the title track, a composition credited to all of the assembled musicians, although it’s more of a goofball, 50-second noise jam than an actual song. But it fits the loose vibe of the session.

One can only speculate what would have ultimately transpired had this essentially impromptu outfit decided to operate on a full-time level, as all of the players were accomplished enough musicians to take their love of the blues to the next, commercial, level separate from their own individual groups’ aspirations. ‘twas not to be, however, as Schwartz soon set out for California, where he’d form PG&E, essentially opening the door for Walsh’s entrance—and with the James Gang, at least, the rest is history. (Below: Schwartz)

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History, though, comprises a series of vignettes and interludes, and once in a while we are privy to those moments in after-the-fact fashion thanks to the diligence and research on the part of labels like Smog Veil and writers like Blakey. For anyone with a serious interest in the history of Midwest rock and certainly Cleveland, Sunday Morning Revival is a lesson not to be skipped. (Below: vinyl eye candy. You can read more about the band at the Smog Veil site’s page for the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade,)

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JUKIN’: Robert Mugge’s Last of the Mississippi Jukes Film

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As much as a celebration as it is a eulogy: Though at times this documentary looks at the Mississippi blues scene grimly, you still feel grateful that director Robert Mugge at least took time to document that scene at its root. Even if it’s been fading for years, no true music lover will come away unmoved—and at times during the film, utterly exhilarated. Above: Mugge in the film with Irma Thomas and Morgan Freeman at the latter’s jukejoint.

 BY JASON GROSS

In 2006, a Mississippi trip provided me with sumptuous culinary highlights but mixed musical highlights.  The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum had opened the year before in West Point and the Blues Festival done in Wolf’s name provided a great tribute including his long-time guitarist, the late Hubert Sumlin. The Delta Blues Museum stood as a large expanded former freight depot in Clarksdale, with its doors open since ’99, and just down the road from Ground Zero, a blues club co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, which started out only two years after that. Fitting that both places are also adjacent to the fabled crossroads when highways 61 and 49 meet. Unfortunately, both places were closed the days we visited so we made due with the 930 Blues Cafe in Jackson, a small suburban house that had comfort food and an older gent playing electric piano, as well as a stop at the Club Ebony in Indianola (purchased two years later by local legend B.B. King) which featured a band rehearsing ‘80s pop tunes- it didn’t necessarily feel down home in either place. But there was also plenty of mouth-watering, sauce-slathered barbecue there that any Northerner would kill for or weep in shame at the fake shit for passes for food above the Mason-Dixon Line.

A trip four years before that would have revealed another music landmark and cultural hub- the Subway Lounge in Jackson.  Opened in ’66 by bandleader Jimmy King as a basement club in a black-owned hotel, Subway was a somewhat spiffier version of the blues clubs, aka juke joints, which featured local talent and all-night jams. It also a Souther stop for nationally-known R&B acts like James Brown and Jackie Wilson who would pass through (not to mention the Civil Rights Freedom Riders in the early ‘60s).

When director Robert Mugge (also responsible for 1991’s wonderful Deep Blues doc) showed up in 2002 to document the local scene, Subway was on its last legs while Ground Zero was just starting out.  As such, his now-reissued 2003 documentary Last of the Mississippi Jukes is as much as a celebration as it is a eulogy. (Go to Mugge’s website for details, photos, and more.)

“We (as Americans) are doing more to preserve European classical music than we are to preserving American classical music” Freeman laments early in the film and you can’t help but think that race is involved there. Still, Freeman and club co-owner Bill Lockett did their part to keep the tradition alive and help rebuild Clarksdale by opening Madidi Restaurant and Ground Zero, where they took care to recreate the look and feel of the old time jukes with Christmas lights, beer signs and pool tables (and a sign that says “no, no, no, no out of town checks!”). Freeman himself grew up in Greenwood (1 hour south of the club) and wasn’t allowed to visit those ‘bucket of blood’ places where the blues wailed out of, though he would sneak out anyway to visit. As he recalls in the film, decades before that, field hands would come off back-breaking broiling days picking cotton to blow off steam and congregate in these small shacks.

“Sometimes people are ashamed of who they are- they wanna run away from that,” another actor tells us later in the film. Chris Thomas King was featured in the Coen brothers’ (arguably best) movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, playing a blues man, as he’s done off screen for years now. Thomas knows of what he speaks of, and not just in his own career- his dad ran Tabby’s Blues Box, which also closed its doors.  Indeed, Mississippi comes up woefully short on cultivating its own musical history when compared to states like Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas. Truth be told, New York, Chicago and other northern cities are also pretty pitiful when it comes to toasting their own local talent. (Pictured: Mugge with musician Chris Thomas King.)mugge-chris-thomas-king

Speaking of pitiful, the scenes that Mugge documents at the Subway Lounge are especially disheartened when we learn its rich history and how even when it was nearing its coda, it was still a vibrant place to soak up the area talent.  Co-owner King started the Lounge because other clubs would close early and musicians craved a place they could play into the wee hours of the morning- as such, it was not just a musical hub but also a place where musicians bonded and felt a kinship with each other. The Lounge was also crucial to the scene because as racially divided as the city was, the club was a place where races intermingled seamlessly otherwise.  The racial mixers extended to the club’s own group, the House Rockers. Alongside the Rockers, the King Edwards Blues Band alternated as the house group, with other acts sitting in on gigs all the time. For a meager five bucks, you could experience its musical treasures and wash it down with a bucket of beer (recommended since there were no waiters) and a ‘blues dog’ sausage loaded with onions, chili, relish and peppers.

But there was a money-sucking cloud hanging over Subway in the form of a casino, which in addition to the slots and card games also had its own club to draw in local acts which would enjoy a better sound system and more pay if not the devoted crowd they’d find otherwise.  Bigger name area venues also tried to glom off the historic music scene, offering the same amenities and better able to cash in on it.  Wanna guess how the half-dozen or so juke joints around then fared against the big boys?

Mugge tells the discouraging tale of Subway and the scene through the eyes of area musicians who are best known to hardcore blues fans but definitely deserve more recognition.  The performers also provide us with useful context, history and insight, including Vasti Johnson and Steve Cheeseborough, alongside historian Richard Waterman.  Other times, we get the story from the songs themselves, including Jackson’s “Casino in the Cottonfield,” Greg Taylor’s “Subway Swing” and David Hughes, who provides the title song of the movie.  To give us a taste of the scene, we also see Subway performances from noted songwriter George Jackson (“Cheating in the Next Room”), singer Patrice Moncell (aka Queen of the Blues), Bobby Rush (whose woman ran off with the “Garbage Man”; view a clip below) and Alvin Youngblood Hart (probably the biggest name here, performing solo and with a trio) among others.

But even with the rich pool of talent, the club had to contend not only with the casino but also highway construction, bureaucratic red tape and not enough props from the local government. A campaign to save Subway coalesced with a non-profit org backed by the local paper, some councilmen and donated labor in recognition of not just the music history but also the building’s connections to the Civil Rights movement.  At the end of the film, we see a title panel showing us contact info for the Save the Subway fund and a dedication to Helen King (Jimmy’s wife) who ran Subway with him and died shorted after the filming ended.

In the postscript included as an extra with the recent DVD reissue, we get an update where we see Harris standing in front of crane taking down the dilapidated building in hopes of ultimately rebuilding the place. But there wasn’t enough money to cover the repairs which led to more demolition and flooding.  Ultimately, Subway held its last show in April 2003, closing its doors the following month and the rest of the building was demolished the following year.  As a post-postscript, further info reveals that the highway came into place and the spot where Subway stood is now a grassy, empty lot with a plaque commemorating the club.

A mixed fate, at best, was in store for the other clubs there.  While Ground Zero still hosts shows from Wednesdays through the weekend, Madidi restaurant went under in 2012, 930 Cafe closed about five years ago and Club Ebony is only open for special events. Another local juke joint a half hour south of Clarksdale called Po Monkey’s (which dates back to ’61) is now in limbo since its owner recently died. On the plus side, the Delta Blues Museum just got one and a half million dollars to upgrade their exhibits (which means that the state boosts history but not the here/now) and the Wolf festival now lives on as the Black Prairie Blues Festival. Local writer/educator George Light reports that Clarksdale still has its share of music thanks to area festivals and that some of the Subway acts congregated around a restaurant two hours south of Clarksdale (near where the 930 Blues Cafe stood) for a blues night until the eatery also went belly up about five years ago.

Though Mugge’s doc paints a grim picture, you feel grateful that at least he took time to document the Mississippi blues scene at its root, even if it’s been fading for years.

Luckily, if you wanna support the scene, you have some options- you can boost the Delta Blues Museum at http://www.deltabluesmuseum.org, the Blues Foundation (based in Memphis) at http://blues.org, and the Mississippi Blues Foundation & its Blues Trail at http://www.msbluestrail.org. If there’s enough backing, maybe Mugge could do a sunnier follow-up doc.

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RETURN TO GROUND ZERO: Action Time Vision: A Story of UK Independent Punk 1976-1979

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If you’re sick of today’s mall punk and you already know the old classics otherwise, there is a new 100-song box that’s a great go-to place to get your punk fix.

BY JASON GROSS

Once upon a time, some angry Brit youths thumbed their nose at the Crown and the government for a bit of cathartic fun.  Yanks were already on that tip for a few years but not quite as political as their Blighty brothers and sisters.

Though top dogs like the Pistols and Clash opted for big labels, many other punk bands opted for the indie route, traveling down stranger, more obscure paths via independent releases. Stalwart labels like Rough Trade, Fast, Stiff and Factory documented this wonderful rabble while it lasted, which it only could for a few years as most blazing styles burn themselves out quickly.  The labels themselves did a good job of piecing together their goodies in collections like Wanna Buy A Bridge?, Hits Greatest Stiffs, Mutant Pop and C81 (trying to cash in on the trend, EMI also put out Oi! The Album and Pink Floyd’s label Harvest released the classic The Roxy London WC2). Much later, around the turn of the millennium, the Hyped To Death label did its own Messthetics series to document the super obscurities of the Brit underground punk scene, though its release-first-license-later policy occasionally got it in trouble. Nowadays, even punk nostalgia is a quaint thing of the past- galleries display old record sleeves as gig flyers as artifacts, endless streams of reissues come out of tiny label releases and decades-in-the-making reunions come out of nowhere (Gang of Four, PiL, Pistols, Buzzcocks, Slits, though note that most of those didn’t last long).

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The London-based Cherry Red label has roots that stretch back to punk’s early days putting out UK-licensed version of Runaways and Dead Kennedys albums.  After becoming an important indie music hub in the ’80s, Red has also recently been dong yeoman-like work with historic compilations covering Northern soul, Brit psych, Mod revival, the C86 scene and shoegaze.  Impressive as these works are, you could argue that alongside their amazing 2013 indie pop box Scared To Be Happy, the new Action Time Vision collection, on the venerable Cherry Red label, might be their crown jewel.

Obviously, this isn’t the place you’re going to look for hooks or musicianship but if you’re on the hunt for momentum, energy, spirit, spit and grime, this is the place to go. Cherry Red’s operation manager John Reed (also a former writer/editor) did yeoman-like assembling this box set and because the songs are so short, you get a meaty sample of DIY, underground UK punk- about two dozen songs per CD and over 100 songs total on the whole set.

Maybe the nicest surprise here is that despite the intervening decades, much of the material retains its loud, snotty, obnoxious charms that these no-hit wonders had to offer, even if some of them went on later to get some fame as Adam Ant, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the Pogues and Gary Newman.  The common thread otherwise is the appropriately lo-fi, amateurish nature of these singles, which would make great opening/warm-up music for any alt/indie show nowadays.  Highlights abound, including the Damned, the Sniveling Shits, the Killjoys (later to be Dexy’s), the Only Ones, folkie punk Patrick Fitzgerald, Stiff Little Finger’s rabid “Suspect Device,” and one of the hooky exceptions, the Bears’ “On Me.”

Shouted chants help to make a number of the songs stand out, especially on the 2nd disc- the Subs’ “Gimme Your Heart,” The Boys’ “No Leaders” (‘you’re all crazy!’), Fruit Eating Bears’ “Door in My Face,” the Art Attacks’ “I Am A Dalek,” the Members’ wonderful suburban critique “Solitary Confinement” and Alternative TV’s anthem which provides the title of the box itself. On the downside, you do miss out on releases from New Hormones and Crass’ self-titled label and this could use more from the important Stiff and Factory catalogs, plus the 4th disc is DEEP crate digging that would even stump punk collectors but doesn’t necessarily provide as much quality as the other discs here except for Psykik Volt’s “Hall of the Mountain King” rip and Pure Hell’s Nancy Sinatra cover.

Still, if you’re sick of today’s mall punk and you already know the old classics otherwise, this is a great go-to place to get your punk fix. With a 33-page booklet that includes all the cover art of the singles plus flyers, band photos and notes about each group/song, the whole package is an insane labor of love, not to mention a licensing nightmare.  Probably the perfect Xmas gift for your younger sibling or cousin who thinks Green Day is the shit.

Tracklist:

DISC ONE:
1. THE DAMNED – New Rose
2. EATER – Outside View
3. THE RADIATORS FROM SPACE – Television Screen
4. THE CORTINAS – Fascist Dictator
5. THE DRONES – Lookalikes
6. THE LURKERS – Shadow
7. THE REZILLOS – I Can’t Stand My Baby
8. 999 – I’m Alive
9. JOHNNY MOPED – No One
10. SHAM 69 – I Don’t Wanna
11. PUNCTURE – Mucky Pup
12. THE SNIVELLING SHITS – Terminal Stupid
13. THE VACANTS – Worthless Trash
14. THE ZEROS – Hungry
15. MANIACS – Chelsea 77
16. THE OUTSIDERS – One To Infinity
17. THE KILLJOYS – Johnny Won’t Get To Heaven
18. JOHNNY AND THE SELF ABUSERS – Saints And Sinners
19. THE UNWANTED – Withdrawal
20. THE WASPS – Teenage Treats
21. THE PIGS – Youthanasia
22. LOCKJAW – Radio Call Sign
23. NEON HEARTS – Venus Eccentric
24. JERKS – Get Your Woofing Dog Off Me
25. THE PANIK – Modern Politics
26. SOME CHICKEN – New Religion
27. THE CARPETTES – Radio Wunderbar
28. THE FLYS – Love And A Molotov Cocktail
29. ALBERTO Y LOST TRIOS PARANOIAS – Gobbing On Life
30. THE ONLY ONES – Lovers Of Today
31. SUSPECTS – Nothing To Declare (Live at The Vortex)

DISC TWO:
1. SWELL MAPS – Read About Seymour
2. PATRIK FITZGERALD – Safety-Pin Stuck In My Heart
3. THE BOYS – No Leaders (Demo)
4. THE STOAT – Office Girl
5. ACME SEWAGE CO. – I Don’t Need You
6. V2 – Speed Freak
7. BAZOOMIS – Give It All To Me
8. RAPED – Moving Target
9. BIG G – I Hate The Whole Human Race
10. SUBS – Gimme Your Heart
11. TUBEWAY ARMY – That’s Too Bad
12. THE XTRAVERTS – Blank Generation
13. FRUIT EATING BEARS – Door In My Face
14. FRONT – System
15. SATAN’S RATS – You Make Me Sick
16. STIFF LITTLE FINGERS – Suspect Device
17. MENACE – G.L.C.
18. THE DYAKS – Gutter Kids
19. SKIDS – Reasons
20. RUDI – Big Time
21. THE ART ATTACKS – I Am A Dalek
22. BEARS – On Me
23. ‘O’ LEVEL – Pseudo Punk
24. THE MEMBERS – Solitary Confinement
25. NIPPLE ERECTORS – King Of The Bop
26. ANGELIC UPSTARTS – The Murder Of Liddle Towers
27. MEAN STREET – Bunch Of Stiffs (Live at The Vortex)

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DISC THREE:
1. ALTERNATIVE TV – Action Time Vision
2. SOCIAL SECURITY – I Don’t Want My Heart To Rule My Head
3. THE TIGHTS – Bad Hearts
4. RIFF RAFF – Cosmonaut
5. THE DOLE – New Wave Love
6. JOY DIVISION – Failures
7. LEYTON BUZZARDS – 19 And Mad
8. DEMON PREACHER – Little Miss Perfect
9. THE OUTCASTS – Just Another Teenage Rebel
10. THE FALL – Psycho Mafia
11. CHELSEA – Urban Kids
12. PROTEX – Don’t Ring Me Up
13. THE CRAVATS – Gordon
14. HORRORCOMIC – England ’77
15. U.K. SUBS – C.I.D.
16. SPIZZOIL 6,000 – Crazy
17. THE DODGEMS – I Don’t Care (Full Version)
18. THE USERS – Kicks In Style
19. PETER AND TEST TUBE BABIES – Elvis Is Dead
20. THE RUTS – In A Rut
21. DISCO ZOMBIES – Drums Over London
22. NICKY & THE DOTS – Never Been So Stuck
23. THE SHAPES – Wot’s For Lunch Mum ? (Not B****s Again!)
24. NO WAY – Breaking Point
25. THE WALL – New Way
26. THE HOLLYWOOD BRATS – Sick On You

DISC FOUR:
1. ADAM AND THE ANTS – Zerox
2. NOTSENSIBLES – Death To Disco
3. THE VICE CREEMS – Danger Love
4. MURDER THE DISTURBED – D.N.A.
5. COCKNEY REJECTS – Flares ‘N’ Slippers
6. PSYKIK VOLTS – Totally Useless
7. THE MOLESTERS – The End Of Civilisation
8. THE NEWTOWN NEUROTICS -Hypocrite
9. PURE HELL – These Boots Are Made For Walking
10. FIRE EXIT – Timewall
11. THE PACK – King Of Kings
12. STEROID KIDDIES – Dumb Dumb
13. ENGLISH SUBTITLES – Time Tunnel
14. THE PROLES – Soft Ground
15. THE ADICTS – Easy Way Out
16. THE DARK – My Friends
17. WOODY & THE SPLINTERS – I Must Be Mad
18. VICTIM – Why Are Fire Engines Red
19. THE X-CERTS – Anthem
20. F-X – Slag
21. THE RIVALS – Future Rights
22. SILENT NOISE – I’ve Been Hurt (So Many Times Before)
23. VICE SQUAD – Nothing
24. THE PREFECTS – Things In General
25. THE LICKS – 1970’s Have Been Made In Hong Kong
26. FATAL MICROBES – Violence Grows
27. POISON GIRLS – Under The Doctor

 

NOT PLAYING GAMES: White Hills

Only Lovers Left Alive event at Heaven, London, 06 February 2014

The NYC psych outfit spills the beans on their influences, on Krautrock in general, on their hometown scene, their upcoming album, and more. Below, listen to key tracks.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

White Hills, who hail from New York City are, sad to say, one of the bands it took me until 2016 to finally hear. Since I didn’t know much about the band, I decided to contact Dave W. for a quick interrogation. The band has graciously offered Blurt readers an exclusive link to the triumphant and otherworldly, “Before Leaving Earth”, from their Oddity III: Basic Information CDR. The music is the aural equivalent of liquid propellant being forced through the shuttle’s, booster rocket O-rings, before consuming itself and spinning back to earth. So strap yourself in because it’s one hell of a ride. (Visit the band at their Facebook page HERE or at their label, Thrill Jockey.)

How long have you all been together and could you introduce the members of the band?

DW: We’ve been together since 2006. The only other constant member other than myself has been Ego Sensation.

Seeing that your ep No Game to Play was released in September what’s next for the band?

DW: No Game To Play was the first release under the name WHITE HILLS. It was re-issued, for the first time on vinyl, by the San Francisco based label 300mics. It was originally released only as a CD-r with a different sequence and mix under the title They’ve Got Like We’ve Got Blood on Julian Cope’s short-lived label Fuck Off & Di label in 2006. The vinyl version is the original sequence and mix of the album.

Presently we are working on a new album, title STOP! Mute Defeat, that will see the light of day on Thrill Jockey records in mid May of 2017.

Tell us about some of the bands that have influenced your music?

W: I am the collective sum of all music that has been dear to me. I wouldn’t say any one has more influence on me than another.  Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Dub, James Brown and various bands from a scene out of Sheffield in the late 70’s/early 80’s; groups like Hula, Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire and Chakk.

What’s the New York Psych music scene like? Any bands from the scene that you’re into?

DW: I couldn’t tell you to be honest. I’ve never been one to pigeonhole myself, or prescribe to a certain scene.  I like to immerse myself in anything and everything. That is easy to do living in NYC. What I can say is that when I started the band “Psych” was a dirty word, now it’s the catch phrase of the month. Some other genre will replace it soon enough.

Some bands I dig in NYC at the moment include The Space Merchants, The Netherlands, Insect Ark, One Prayer One Sin, SQURL, Psychic Ills and Anasazi (although I’m not sure if they are still together which is a shame if that is the case.)

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Do you guys use any vintage gear?

 DW: We aren’t gear heads of any sort. We like to use what sounds pleasing to our ears. If you can make an instrument sing it doesn’t matter whether it’s old or new, does it?

What’s the last record you purchased?

DW: Wovenhand’s Star Treatment. Definitely worth looking into if you haven’t yet. They never disappoint.

Name 5 Krautrock albums that you feel are essential listening?

DW: I think the whole Krautrock thing has been touched on enough at this point in time. The only band that I might be able to shed some light onto that many might not be familiar with is Ton Steine Scherben. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they were not spacey, but heavier in the same way that the MC5 & The Stooges were to their contemporaries.

I’ve always been found of music that comes out of Germany. Lately I’ve been listening to bands like Abwärts, Deutsch Amerikanishce Fruendschaft (D.A.F.), Die Krupps, Palais Schaumburg, S.Y.P.H., Blumfeld and DIN A Testbild, and am more interested in the post-punk and experimental scenes that came out of the late 70’s/early 80’s.

What’s the reception to your music in Europe versus the US?

DW: We spend more time touring Europe, so I’d say we are better received there. We do tour the US, but more offers come in from Europe.

Have you ever played in Asia?

DW: Not yet. There have been a few chances but they’ve never materialized.

I’m new to your music but my gateway drug was the album Oddity III can you tell us a little about the genesis of this record?

DW: Oddity III: Basic Information is part of a series of limited edition self released CD-r’s that are only available from us when we are on tour.  Each release is made up of unreleased tracks that are collected from studio, live and rehearsal recordings. The material corresponds to the new album we have at the time. I see the series as a look into our process for that album. The tracks on this release were accumulated from sessions that gave birth to the album H-p1.

 Any tours planned at the moment?

DW: At the moment we are in the process of finishing up our next record. Outside of a random show here and there, touring won’t really kick in for us until the spring of 2017.

What does 2016 mean to you all at this point in time?

DW: Today, it seems that the collective human conscious is choosing to head towards a time of uncertainty, the potential destruction of our planet and ourselves in the process.  The further we evolve the further away we get from moving forward in a positive non-harmful way. We’re smart enough to have invented all kinds of technology that we perceive makes life better for us now than it was in years past, but we aren’t smart enough to realize in the process that we are polluting the earth’s resources faster than they can be naturally detoxified and in doing so have tilted the balance of nature.

Balance is the key. The pendulum cannot swing to heavy one way or the other without a problem. At this point in time the pendulum weighs too heavy to one side. That is why all seems so tumultuous at this time. Humans will continue down a destructive path, until we don’t exist anymore, unless the collective conscious realizes that we need to live within harmony of all things. It’s not brain surgery. If we continue to destroy what gives us life, we in turn are only destroying ourselves. The earth could care less about humans and it will do what it needs to do in order to heal itself. It is time we get off our high horse and realize we aren’t as great as we think we are. Only then we will be able to move forward in a positive direction for all things and not destroy ourselves in the process.

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Photo credits (top to bottom): Simona Dalla Valle, Marylene May, Chris Carlone

PUTTING THE “P” IN ELP: Carl Palmer

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The Prog legends’ drummer talks about the notion of a supergroup “brand”; pre-Emerson, Lake & Palmer group Atomic Rooster; the distinctions between pop, folk, and Prog; the new remixes and remasters of ELP albums; and of course his late bandmates. Above: Palmer with his own group in 2014.

BY BILL KOPP

Late-breaking Author’s Note: Very shortly after I turned in this feature for publication, news broke that Greg Lake had succumbed to cancer at age 69. Carl Palmer and I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing Greg specifically, but Carl did, as you’ll see, make repeated references to Greg’s “choirboy voice.” I like to think that Greg Lake would appreciate being remembered that way. – bk

I grew up on the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. When I was in high school, appreciation of ELP’s music was one of the few things that gave me any sort of connection with my fellow students. And my love of that music has continued. I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Greg Lake in 2012, and then saw him in concert a few months later. In 2014, I saw Keith Emerson in what would turn out to be one of his final performances; tagging along with him and his crew for much of the following day, I got the chance to conduct a brief interview with the virtuoso keyboardist.

I haven’t yet seen Carl Palmer in concert. But in 2016 I did “complete the set” and sit for an extensive interview with him. The ostensible reason for this particular interview was the reissue of three expanded-version ELP albums and a 3CD anthology. But we talked about much more. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

BLURT: The new mixes of the first album and Tarkus were done in 2012. Can you tell me how ELP came to work with Steven Wilson?
CARL PALMER – Steven Wilson had created a bit of a name for himself here in England, coming from the band Porcupine Tree. We heard some stuff that he was doing. He was very, very good and very, very keen on what was going on in his certain area, as it were. We were approached by the record company: would we like to have the remixes done by someone outside the group? So we said, “Look, the music’s great anyway; whatever anyone does to it, you know, it’s going to be one opinion against another opinion. It might be good, it might be average, it might be ok. Who knows?”

I mean, it was great music to start off with so, literally, all you could do is make it better or ruin it. Or just produce something which is pretty much the same as the original. But we thought we’d give it a go. When [the first one] came back, we were … ok with it. It wasn’t … it didn’t light us up. It was good; there’s no doubt about that. But as I said, it was good anyway, so this was just a different good, if you see what I mean. So we decided we’d have another go, and that’s how it worked, really. We were very casual about it.

One of the things that is often noted about Steven Wilson’s remixes is that he brings out things that were sometimes kind of buried in the original mixes. As you’ve listened to the new mixes, have you heard anything that you hadn’t heard in the original mixes?
You’ve only got so many tracks, anyway. So, when he goes to mix it, he’s not going to have more tracks available. Whatever was there in the first place, that’s what’s available to him. What’s he got is more refinery to play with; there’s more outboard gear, and you can “mature” the sounds. The EQs are a lot more sophisticated, the distribution spanned across the stereo is a lot better. With ProTools, you can even correct some stuff.

When you mix something in ten years’ time, it’s going to be better than something that you mix today – if you know what you’re doing – because you’re going to have more permutations at your fingertips to play around with. So that’s what he had. Yes, there were some things which sounded better. Some things … I kind of lived with them for so many years the wrong way, [so] it was hard to change. I was on both sides of the fence, really. As I said, I didn’t get overexcited; I just could appreciate what was being done.

I understand that King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk took over the task of doing the remasters of the other albums going forward. Do you know when we might see new releases of those?
I was not involved with that at all, to tell you the truth. I wanted to do it at BMG; we had a great relationship with them. We always have over many, many years. We will just see, you know, what happens and how that progresses and just take it from there, really.

Most record companies, now, when they get a catalog that’s been strong as what ELP’s has been over the years, everyone is always looking at how can we improve it. Obviously, technology is better today than yesterday; what can we do? There are certain names that if you immediately add to Emerson Lake & Palmer – like, say, Steven Wilson – start to bring in a different audience. Maybe younger prog fans start to listen to it. So you’ve got to understand there’s an area of commerce here which gets crossed as well. There’s a reason for doing things.

Obviously we’re keen on the sound being good, and if it’s a different way of mixing it on that day, then that’s fine. As long as it’s not any worse than what we’ve got, if it’s better, or if it’s slightly different, or a different version of a good version, then we’re up for it. We will all carry on going ’round with this, I would imagine, and see where we get with it.

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Here’s a question to take you back to the earliest days of Emerson Lake & Palmer. How did the guys in Atomic Rooster (above) take the news when you told them you were leaving to form ELP?
It was a little bit sad, because I had just finished up recording with Atomic Rooster; we had recorded a single, “Tomorrow Night.” “Tomorrow Night” was the only number one single that Atomic Rooster had, so I had to dub the demo which was now going to be turned into a master and I suddenly jumped ship, as it were. Obviously, you know, when the guy kind of leading the band decides to leave, because I had formed Atomic Rooster, it gets a little bit knotty.

The situation was very, very simple. I said to Vincent Crane, “Look, I’m going to do this. You will need to re-record those tracks that I’ve done, and I wish you well, but I’m going to do this.” And I had decided, once I’d spoken to Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records. I was managed by Robert Stigwood at the time, and Keith and Greg were being managed by EG, so it meant that ELP had three managers. It was quite a complicated sort of setup.

But Vincent took it as a great friend as he always was, God bless him, and I moved over. And that was it. But, six months down the road, I was sitting in rehearsals, and Atomic Rooster were number one and I was still rehearsing with Greg and Keith. So I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.

elpThe term “supergroup” was just coming into use around the time ELP got started. And it certainly applied to you three, since each of you had achieved success in previous projects. I would imagine there were expectations placed upon you by the music press and so forth. Did that reality intimidate you at all, or did it encourage you in a way?
Well, to be honest with you, Keith and I were mentioned in a supergroup in 1968 by Chris Welch. He used to write for Melody Maker magazine. He put four [imaginary] supergroups together. It was Keith, myself, Stevie Winwood, and … who else was it? Someone else; lead guitar player or bass player – I can’t remember. And then there was another group, and another. So this supergroup kind of branding, which is really a journalistic sort of phrase, came very early, came way before ELP.

ELP really wasn’t happening until two years later, almost, 1970. So, I was kind of used to having that branding; there was no problem there. I think where it got out of hand was when journalists started to write that [Jimi] Hendrix was going to join ELP, which was not true, because I never saw Hendrix at any time in any of the periods that I personally played in ELP. He was not there at the beginning; he was not there at all. So this was just something made up by the journalists because they could call the band “HELP.”

Chris Welch dreamed it up. You have to realize that at the time he was an extremely well-thought-of writer in the music industry here in Europe, at the time especially in England. He just put those groups together [in his mind].

The ironic thing was that I had actually played with Steve Winwood when I was 12 years old. I hadn’t seen him since, and suddenly 10 years down the line or whatever it was, there I am, in the paper in a supergroup with him. And with Keith Emerson who I went on to play with 2 years later. So some of the bands actually came true! I can’t remember the other groups; I’ve got a clipping here somewhere…

But, yes, it was something that was basically generated by this one guy who really loved music. He knew all of these people and he thought that this was the combination that would work.

We went along with this for a long time, but basically it was all complete rubbish, you know. Nothing ever happened with Hendrix, even though I think Keith might have played with him one night in some club in Central London. But there was never any talk amongst the three of us about Hendrix joining.

Speaking of labels … to your mind, was ELP a progressive rock group, a pop group, a power trio, or something else? You trafficked in a lot of styles.
Keith was by far the better writer than any of us as far as directional concepts, that type of writing. If you wanted two or three chords for the folk song, something really simple, Greg definitely had the upper hand on Keith and myself. So we were very lucky to have two very strong writers in the band going in different directions and being able to put it together.

You have to understand one thing here – and I wish to make this quite clear – they always call Emerson Lake & Palmer a prog rock group. I’m still playing Emerson Lake & Palmer music today with my group, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. I’m still playing this music and it’s given me a great, great thrill. But if you go back to the original group, we had more hits with folk songs: “C’est la Vie,” “From the Beginning,” “Still … You Turn Me On,” “Lucky Man,” “Footprints in the Snow.” These are all big hits.

Until we had a hit on a commercial front with a simple kind of folk song, the first one being “Lucky Man,” we wouldn’t get people to go into the album and go three or four tracks deep and listen to the actual complexity and the diversity and the eclectics of flavor the group had. Because we were European, we weren’t American, we were keyboard driven, we didn’t play blues, we didn’t really play out-and-out rock and roll, even. We played a European, sort-of rock music with classical adaptations and a few original folk songs thrown into the mix.

That makes a lot of sense. In one sense, you were very much a pop group if you look at it from the standpoint of the singles.

Yes, and we were very much a prog group as well, because we had all of the latest technology; we really pushed the Moog synthesizer to the front. One of the all-time great Moog solos on a pop tune – which became one of the iconic prog rock solos – is “Lucky Man,” the solo at the end. So we crossed a lot of bridges all at the same time.

They used to call us a prog group, but it was really only half the story. And then you had all the technical expertise: everyone was a really great player, almost a master of his trade, so we had a lot going. [Greg Lake’s voice] wasn’t a blues or rock voice. It was an English choirboy-sounding voice. We went against the grain all the way. I didn’t play like an out-and-out rock drummer, because I had quite a lot of classical training. So I could bring in the tuned percussion – vibraphone, glockenspiel, bells, tympani, whatever – in, and we had a bigger sound as three people.

There was a lot going on in those days. It was very different, and we were very, very surprised that it took off in America, but it did. In hindsight when you look back on it, you can see why: because it was totally different to anything else that was happening.

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The name of the band – equal billing for the three of you – suggests a kind of democracy. In practice, did it feel like an equal partnership?

There was never any doubt about that with ELP. Everything has always been split three ways. The partnership has been 100% like that. It was just the way it was. ELP never, never ever argued over money. We never argued over women, or what restaurant we should go to. The only thing we ever argued over would be four bars of music. And we would argue over those four bars of music for four years. [laughs] That’s the way ELP was.

From a commercial standpoint, was your collective point of view – assuming there was a consensus – a goal of creating each album as a free-standing creative expression?
We just tried to do the best we could every time. What came out, came out. When it went wrong, it went horribly wrong, like Love Beach in ’78. When it was right, you had something like Brain Salad Surgery. When it was absolutely laying the blueprint down for prog rock, you had Tarkus. The very first album, which had the drum solo on it, has “Lucky Man.” It has a classical variation, “The Barbarian,” by of Béla Bartók; not even written by the band. Then on the B-side of the vinyl – ’cause it was vinyl in those days – there’s three pieces of music: “The Three Fates,” with Keith playing a church organ on his own. I mean, what kind of band is that? That shows you how eclectic it was from the get-go. We just didn’t care; we did what we wanted at the time, and it worked. And we’re very lucky. As we went on, we did get more progressive; we did evolve with technology.

With the benefit of studio technology, bands in the early ’70s could overdub and make really dense, layered albums. Reproducing that sound onstage was another matter, especially for a three-piece, I would imagine …

Of course we didn’t have MIDI in those days, so we couldn’t trigger more than one keyboard at a time. [Now] you can play one keyboard, and have four or five of them firing off, and they can sound a lot bigger and fatter, more orchestral sounding. We couldn’t do that then. So when we did overdub on an album – say, like Trilogy – you ended up having something that couldn’t be reproduced onstage, because the technical aspect wasn’t available. The technology wasn’t there; we couldn’t do it.

We were always way in front. The first electronic drum solo is on a piece by Alberto Ginastera on the Brain Salad Surgery album, a piece called “Toccata.” People thought it was the keyboard that was doing that, but it was all from the drums! They were made to trigger electronic sounds from the drum; these were all preset sounds, and they could be changed by an octave divider. The drum solo was really abstract, and we thought it worked really well. We didn’t advertise, “This is an electronic drum solo,” because we weren’t about that. We were about producing a wall of sound our way. We didn’t care what people thought, as long as we knew that we were always one step in front. And we always were, to tell you the truth. Until, as I say, we got to Love Beach.

It seems that – with the possible exception of Trilogy – a lot of the music that you put together was something that you could more or less recreate live onstage. Was that a conscious goal?
No. It wasn’t a conscious goal. Our goal was pretty much the same goal as I carry on until today. I play a lot of ELP music; I play Pictures at an Exhibition and Tarkus, and I play them all instrumentally with virtuoso musicians. I don’t have any keyboards; I have two guitars. And they’re sensational. And all I’m doing today is exactly the same premise, the same thing that ELP laid down when we made those tracks. We said that if the backing track does not sound like a dynamite, explosive instrumental before we put a voice on it, something’s wrong. And that’s the way ELP conducted itself. So the backing tracks were always fabulous anyway, even before the vocal went on. So then when we put the vocal on top, then you had another gain again. The backing track had to sound like a killer instrumental. And most of the time, we succeeded.

Which ELP album is your favorite, and why?
I would say Brain Salad Surgery, mainly because we were at the creative pinnacle of our powers. We never played all of it onstage, incidentally. Not because we couldn’t; it just didn’t work in a live situation as well as it worked as a recording. Mainly because of technology, and the limitations we had of not being able to sound as “big” as we needed it to with three people. Because that was another album which was heavily overdubbed.

On the other hand, I would say to you Trilogy, as well. And Pictures at an Exhibition; probably those three. Trilogy is heavily overdubbed. What happened is, we came off the rails. We started adding a bunch of stuff, saying, “Yeah! We got it!” And then we’d say, “But if we add another line, another melody going up the back of the chorus the second time around, going into the middle eight before the instrumental section, that would just tie it up!” And before you know it, Keith would go out into the studio, and he would play 6 or 7 lines, and they would make you cry. You wouldn’t know which one to pick. We’d pick one and put it on, and before you know it, we’re in overdubbing mode. And we know we can’t reproduce this onstage unless we had auxiliary musicians. Which we never did, but we could have done. Because it was becoming a music industry standard; Pink Floyd have had backing musicians; the Rolling Stones, the Who … you name it. But we didn’t do that, unfortunately. When we did do it, we took out a whole orchestra! 54 people! We messed up. But that’s another story.

You mentioned Love Beach, which is of course notoriously unpopular among fans. As the story goes, that’s when things went a bit sideways for ELP. But I have to say: listening to the new 3CD set The Anthology, when the title track from Love Beach came up, I didn’t have the track listing in front of me. And once I realized what it was, I thought to myself, “Y’know, this is better than I remember.”
Well, that’s nice. Listen: music has got legs. This music will be around for a long, long, long time. And it’s all in the writing; the lyrics are incredibly mature. I have no problem telling people that I don’t like something [we did]. And we weren’t sure [about it] when Love Beach came out. But if you play certain tracks, you might say, “Wow, yeah.” It’s not exactly prog rock or cutting-edge, but … great tunes played really well.

There’s a piece on there by [Joaquin] Rodrigo, “Canario,” a classical piece. We absolutely nail it; it’s unbelievable! I still play it today; I haven’t played it this year, but I played it last year as part of the repertoire. So there are so many great, great things. If you listen to Brain Salad Surgery, there’s a lot of depth in that. I wouldn’t say that just because I’ve been in the band, and had a great time in the band.

There’s been a lot of controversy over the years with myself, Keith and Greg. They had even got another drummer [Cozy Powell] in for awhile. But at the end of the day, I can truthfully say that the music that was made when I was there is here to stay.

ELP had an amazing run in the 1970s. With all that you accomplished, do you ever look back and think there was anything that ELP left undone, didn’t quite realize a goal?
The only thing that I can say to you – you know, unfortunately Keith committed suicide the beginning of this year, which was extremely tragic – we were going to play together this year. Not as a group; Keith was going to come along and be in my band, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. He liked the group, and he said he would come along and play maybe one night somewhere.

There is a tribute to Keith that is coming out on DVD, with people like Steve Hackett on guitar, and Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge singing, a choir singing “Jerusalem,” and a contemporary dance group. One of the things that ELP talked about – which is why I used dancers and things – was getting involved with ballet or dance, and orchestra and auxiliary musicians. We talked about that, but it never really happened. So I did some of the stuff which we talked about but didn’t do. But ELP, I would say, fulfilled most of its dreams very quickly, but there was the odd thing which we didn’t do. We did do the orchestra thing, but unfortunately we didn’t do it for very long: three weeks. It should have been six weeks, but things weren’t going our way as far as selling tickets, so we had to look at the situation. But all in all, I would say we completed most of our dreams. (Below: Palmer live in 2010 with ELP)

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Photos via CarlPalmer.com. Bill Kopp is editor of BLURT’s Jazz Desk. Postscript: After Greg Lake died last week, Palmer posted this memorial to his old bandmate at his official website:

 It is with great sadness that I must now say goodbye to my friend and fellow band-mate, Greg Lake. Greg’s soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music and recordings made with ELP and King Crimson. I have fond memories of those great years we had in the 1970s and many memorable shows we performed together.

Having lost Keith this year as well, has made this particularly hard for all of us. As Greg sang at the end of Pictures At An Exhibition, “death is life.” His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him.

Carl Palmer
December 8, 2016

THE LAST POGO: Dow Jones and the Industrials

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Nevermind the Band and all their coked-up superstar pals—here’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s Hoosier hysteria all over again, rounded up on a crucial-listening, handsomely-designed 2LP/DVD set.

BY FRED MILLS

Where were you in early ’82? If you’re a standard-issue music consumer, you certainly weren’t in mourning over the demise of Indiana punk/new wave pioneers Dow Jones and the Industrials a few months’ prior; you wouldn’t even have been aware of the band in the first place. But if you hailed from the Bloomington-Indianapolis-West Lafayette areas and were on the underground rock scene of the era, it’s likely that you were nursing the big gaping hole in your heart, because for two riotous years, the Dow gang had bum-rushed regional stages—from punk dives to college coffee houses to even the stray mental hospital—with an uncommon vim and vigor, burning its indelible image (and more than a few whacked-out musical hooks) into your impressionable, possibly chemically-altered, young brain.

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The story of Dow Jones and the Industrials isn’t particularly unique: They formed, they hustled for whatever gigs they could scrape up, they cut a few songs, they broke up. I myself could list numerous outfits that populated my own music scene back (North Carolina) back then and had identical trajectories. Recall that this was going down before MTV, before so-called “alternative rock,” before the internet made it possible to spread the news of fresh music with the click of a mouse. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we were at the mercy of indifferent (and sometimes outwardly hostile) club owners, clueless major record labels and nonexistent indie record distributors, and the occasional authority figure who suspected any musician not playing what was coming to be known as “classic rock” to be a Commie, speed-gobbling pervert hell-bent on corrupting their sons and sleeping with their daughters. (Well, that final bit was probably true…) We had, at best, a tiny, unorganized network of photocopied fanzines and college radio to stand up for our musical community. Save the stray maverick booker who though he knew how to ferret out (or otherwise establish) the proverbial “alternative venue,” that was it. dow-2

A community it was, though. Dow Jones and the Industrials—originally: Greg Horn (guitar, vocals), Chris Clark (bass, vocals), drummer Tim North, and Brad Garton (“Mr. Science”) on keyboards—also had the benefit of a musical peer community which, while tiny, was engaged and energetic—among them, the Gizmos, an equally aggressive/provocative combo from Bloomington who spotted kindred spirits in the West Lafayette lads (who were, at the time, students at Purdue University) and would wind up sharing stages (along with tips on decorating and dressing up for those stages) and splitting sides of a 1980 album, Hoosier Hysteria, on Bloomington label Gulcher, which also operated as a fanzine. Speaking of fanzines, of the two bands, the Gizmos probably notched a bit more “fame” (if you can call it that), as I remember reading about them on numerous occasions in fanzines from various locales; as I was publishing my own punk ‘zine at the time, I was lucky enough to be able swap rags with other ‘zine editors and obtain a semi-birds-eye view of stuff going on in the heartland. I did, however, get promos from Gulcher for my troubles, and therefore I got to hear both Dow Jones and the Gizmos via that split LP.

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Can’t Stand the Midwest 1979-1981 recently arrived via Indianapolis indie label Family Vineyard, longtime home of misfits and iconoclasts (among them: Chris Corsano, Alan Licht, Loren Connors and Tom Carter) and no small supporter of artists hailing from the surrounding region and the rest of the Midwest. The two-LP/DVD set is one of several Dow-related artifacts, which include a reissue of the band’s 1981 self-titled 7” EP (whose three songs are also on Can’t Stand), the Live at Third Base: September 28, 1980 DVD that comes with Can’t Stand, and the 1978-1979 7” EP by one Mr. Science, aka Brad Garton, the Dow keyboardist. So you could probably call the Family Vineyard label’s Eric Weddle a fan. People don’t release music by obscure bands from 3 ½ decades ago because they’re trying to get rich.

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And indeed, the album at hand is as pure a labor of a fan’s love as it gets, from the deluxe gatefold sleeve packaging and handsomely-designed 12-page booklet (all respect to ace art director Henry H. Owings, of Chunklet fame, for pulling this all together), to the copious liner notes in the booklet by Dale Lawrence (who, by virtue of being a member of the Gizmos can tell the whole tale from a first-hand perspective), to the music itself, which comprises Dow Jones and the Industrials’ entire recorded output.

First up are the Hoosier Hysteria tracks, highlighted by such delights as the staccato stylings of “What’s the Difference,” the buzzsaw riffing and blurted vox of “Set Yourself on Fire” (raise your hand if the melody vaguely recalls Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”), and the overtly DEVO-esque kineticism that is “Malfunction.”

The three 7” EP tracks from 1981 are next, among them the song that gave this collection its title, “Can’t Stand the Midwest,” in which the band details its, er, love affair of its cultural surroundings amid a kind of power-pop-at-78-rpm arrangement. With the exception of one track (“Ladies With Appliances,” from an ’81 Gulcher compilation of label artists), that was the sum total of music that Dow released in its time. But Weddle & Co. were able to dig up enough previously unissued material to essentially double the band’s studio output, and Indiana studio maestro Paul Mahern put in a considerable amount of time and effort to ensure that the audio quality of the material would be up to snuff.

Among my personal faves: “Latent Psychosis,” which aside from the archetypal punk songtitle, nicely revisits that itching-powder DEVO musical aesthetic; “Never Too Stoned to Disco,” a kind of Talking Heads-esque slab of sonic and lyrical snark; and “Don’t Complain About Muzak,” oddly anthemic, with a seriously sleek funk rhythm, interstellar keyboard zips/zooms/whooshes, and beautifully chaotic guitars. The fourth side of the 2LP set is given over to highlights from the Live at Third Base video soundtrack, including a loony, robotic reworking of “Louie Louie” which brings to mind DEVO’s dismantling of “Satisfaction” and segues smartly into “Latent Psychosis,” truly living up to its title while the brutally battered audience, such as it is, shrieks in terror and heads for the exits. (Below: watch a pair of live clips from 1980)

Okay, I made up that last part about the audience leaving. If someone attended a Dow concert, it wasn’t because they’d wandered into the venue by chance. In 1981, we were all hungry for whatever alternate musical viewpoints we could track down, and when we encountered something fresh and unusual, we embraced it with the kind of combined youthful naiveté and countercultural swagger that has fueled underground musical movements for ages. That type of energy can’t sustain itself, of course; folks graduate from college, take real jobs because their parents aren’t covering their rent any longer, get married and have kids, etc. During the time period covered on Can’t Stand the Midwest, folks pogoed the nights away while going-nowhere bands emitted a nonstop, beautiful racket, everyone oblivious to the world outside beyond the 7-11s and 24-hour waffle shops. But eventually, the sun was gonna come up, and we’d have no choice but stagger outside and squint in the morning light.

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Luckily, with archival projects such as this one, everyone gets a chance for one final, lasting pogo. Speaking of which, there’s also a kind of pogo postscript to report: As the Family Vineyard website reports, in mid-September the group reunited for three gigs to mark the album’s release, including a Sept. 17 show at the Void in Bloomington that also featured the Gizmos. Set yourselves on fire, gents. (Above: one of the reunion gig posters. Below: a fairly-rough-but-watchable clip from Dow Jones, followed by a somewhat better one from the Gizmos. Here’s hoping the full sets will surface.)