Guarantee: No Mariah Carey fans were harmed during the making of this column. Check out some cool videos at the bottom, too. And yes, the photo above was grabbed off the web. Meanwhile, below, Jason Gross, a longtime BLURT contributor, is also the editor/publisher/majordomo of Perfect Sound Forever, the internet’s greatest-ever music magazine. Yeah, he was and always will be an early adopter. Accept no substitutes. Listen to his picks on Spotify right HERE.
BY JASON GROSS
But first, a standalone single pick from the editor:
Let’s get into it, kids. Tell the parents to let you stay up late tonight. Ranging from classical to mash-up to indie to country to ‘hood pop’ to boy band to folk to art rock, there was plenty of variety and quality in 2019 Xmas music to choose from. As for the controversy over John Legend’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” aren’t there more important, substantial things to get pissed over? Yes, there are.
The 5 Browns Christmas With the 5 Browns (Steinway and Sons) In theory, this sibling group of Mormons sounds like they’d be the Osmonds of the classical world. But by taking tried and true holiday classics that even non-classical slobs like me know well (especially “The Nutcracker Suite”) and arranging them for a bunch of pianos (presumably Steinway’s), they craft a lovely album you can enjoy with your parents, grandparents, etc.
Big Stick Sauced Up Santa (Fortes Music) John Gill is a raunchy never-say-die indie artist who once howled about hot rods over womping drum beats but here grumbles like Tom Waits and adds on a kiddie choir. Modern Family‘s patriarch Jay Pritchett once marveled that Waits’ voice could be beautiful and horrible at the same time. Ditto for Gill. End result: the unlikeliest children’s record in recent memory.
Bleached “Single Bells” (Amazon) Courtesy of the elves at the online giant, a joyous indie/grrl stomp in honor of Santa.
Wade Bowen Twelve Twenty-Five (Bowen Sounds) Technically, it’s a country Xmas party (you can tell by the twang of the guitars and voice) but it’s almost as much of a soul Xmas, which definitely ain’t a bad thing. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” does right by Darlene Love and you can more easily stand to hear his version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” than Mariah’s by now.
Molly Burch “Last Christmas” (Captured Tracks) Her whole Christmas Album is sweet and low-key but this is a particular highlight, especially with its goofy, funny video.
Ceraadi “Christmas With You” (Roc Nation) This L.A. ‘hood pop’ group (yep, that’s a thing) imagines Xmas as a time for twerking in the kitchen and drinking games. Definitely a better time than the holiday office party you’ll be forced to go to.
Judy Collins & Jonas Fjeld “Bury Me With My Guitar On” (Wildflowers) Courtesy of the folkie legend, Chatham County Line and Norwegian singer/songwriter Fjeld comes this high-stepping country/bluegrass tune with some fatalism for the holiday.
Lucy Dacus “Last Christmas” (Merge) By now, the Wham song is such a standard that even cover songs of it are standard for this time of year, so give the normally-downbeat Dacus credit for revving it up to indie rock speed, adding in a moshing finale.
The Flaming Lips “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (Warner Bros) Leave it to these lovable Midwest space cadets who graced us with cult film Christmas On Mars to remake the song that Bing/Bowie made (in)famous and mash it up with another Xmas classic. Maybe it’s their bizarre/perverse sense of humor that made them dress up like Hindu gods there.
Rob Halford Celestial (Legacy) Just in case you haven’t been keeping track, this is actually the 2nd holiday album from the Judas Priest frontman- first was 2009’s Halford III: Winter Songs. You’ll either head bang or laugh along or annoy the hell out of your friends (or all of the above). You definitely won’t be bored, any way it turns out. Especially gnarly: “Donner and Blitzen” who sound like rampaging huns and “Deck the Halls” which get a demonish “fa-la-la-la” chorus.
Jonas Brothers “Like It’s Christmas” (Universal) Even if you’re not a fan of the recently-reunited trio of heart-throb brothers, you have to give them their due for pulling off a swinging holiday pop tune that you’d actually wanna hear more than once.
Keb’ Mo’ Moonlight, Mistletoe & You (Concord) Though you’d wish that a holiday album from this noted bluesman was a little less sentimental, he does bring soul to the proceedings (“Better Everyday”), makes a blues standard like “Please Come Home For Christmas” upbeat and gets the music downhome now and then (“Santa Claus, Santa Claus,” Merry, Merry Christmas”). Plus, you just can’t argue with “Christmas Is Annoying.”
Los Lobos Llego Navidad (Rhino) Christmas en español! This great roots rock band hasn’t fully returned to its Spanish roots since 1988’s La Pistola y El Corazón and there hasn’t been a holiday album like this which stood a chance of breaking out to a multicultural audience since the 70’s- not just Jose Felciano but also Fania Records’ wonderful Asalto Navideno collection. And yes, of course we get “Feliz Navidad” but everything else here is a joy too. I mean, how could you say no to a delightful Tex-Mex tune like “It’s Christmas Time In Texas”?
Kacey Musgraves The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show (MCA Nashville) Probably the only new Xmas special you need to watch this holiday, the show loses some of its silly appeal without the visuals but even then you’ll have no problem digging the bouncy “Ribbons and Bows” finale and a Hawaiian duet with Zooey Deschanel that definitely ain’t trad fare, though it should be. And FYI, it’s actually her 2nd Xmas album after 2016’s A Very Kacey Christmas.
Ne-Yo Another Kind of Christmas (Motown) A nice R&B joint and you gotta love the ladies here- Candice Boyd’s “Carol of the Bells” and Satori’s “Christmas VIbez.” He even does a nice blues turn and doesn’t make you regret he covered “The Christmas Song” (which is a feat by now). But what might be most notable is that it’s one of the few holiday albums not made to be offensive that comes with an explicit song- “Talk About It,” which drops an N-bomb along with ‘shit.’ Cool tune but don’t expect to hear it at family singalongs.
Mark Peters Winterland (Sonic Cathedral) This Brit ambient master is no stranger to the holiday spirit- check out his 2018 take on “Jingle Bells” and 2017’s “Silent Night.” After improving the already-impressive Innerland with a beat-less version, he comes home for the holidays to collect the two aforementioned titles along with his own tune “The Box Of Delights,” which sounds like a music box gone nutty before drifting off blissfully.
A Prog Rock Christmas (Purple Pyramid) Not a new bunch of tunes but a varied collection from the past few decades. It’s as perverse as the Halford album and a lot better than you’d expect. Sure, there’s plenty of over-singing but “Christmas Lights” has drunken Elvis impersonators, “Carol of the Bells” is something you could almost head bang to, “Fairytale of New York” sounds fine without Shane’s croak, one of the Buggles/Yes guys wisely keeps “Linus and Lucy” (from the Peanuts) in a jazzy tone, a pair of Hawkwind refugees give up a spacey “Silent Night” and you get Malcolm McDowell howling the Grinch song as a wonderful ringer.
The Regrettes “Holiday-ish” (Warner Bros) Though this pop-punk group is turning into much more of the former and much less of the latter, they land in a nice place for an adorable heart-warmer of a jaunty tune with some help from Dylan Minnette (from Netflix’s 13 Reasons).
Josh Rouse “Heartbreak Holiday” (Yep Roc) His Holiday Sounds album is soft rock that isn’t soft in the head. Even if that’s too mellow for your taste, you’ll be hard pressed to deny this catchy little pop song that evokes Nick Lowe and manages to sound cheerful even when he’s taking back his ex-lovers’ presents and wonders if she’s doing the same.
Lionel Scardino “Navidad” (1631 Recordings) Clocking in at a neat 2:22, it doesn’t sound like the Spanish classic but you do get a gentle piano refrain that sounds like snow falling softly outside.
The School Christmas EP (Elefant) This Cardiff band starts with pop-punk and ends up with two pieces of 60’s girl group pop, with three originals clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes. Sweet and effecting, especially on “It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without You,” which deserves to be a future standard.
Tim Story “Silent Cycles” (Curious Music) This Philly soundtrack composer and Cluster collaborator starts out with looped bits of “Silent Night” and then stretches it out with gentle. shimmering ambient drones and synth-choirs. By the time he reaches an album-length 73-minutes, he’s made the little old carol into something majestic and cosmic.
Sharon Van Etten “Silent Night” (Amazon) Yet another reason Jeff Bezos hopes that you sign up for his music service. This alone might not warrant the monthly fee but this rising indie-folk star turns the standard into a beautifully spooky chant that you should hear at least once.
Rick Wakeman Christmas Portraits (Sony Classical) Granted, this art rock codger and master of excess might be the last person you’d wanna hear Xmas music from, but here, he wisely pares it down to just him tinkling away on a piano, playing the trad pre-Tin Pin Alley Xmas classics. Other than a few fancy flourishes, the result is surprisingly simple and charming. Maybe his label can convince him to lay off the synths in the future.
Back to bedrock with stoneage romeos the Hoodoo Gurus. Below, also watch the original video for ’80s mega-hit “I Want You Back,” which boasts the most awesome use of a green screen ever. Spoiler alert: despite the lyrics, that song was NOT about a girl songwriter Dave Faulkner was pining for.
News Item, December 14, 2019 – Hoodoo Gurus to Tour America (from HoodooGurus.net):
“We are finally coming back to tour the U.S. at the end of next year. About time, I hear you say. The whole tour is being presented by Little Steven’s Underground Garage, the hippest radio station in the world. Amongst many others, the Underground Garage features Count Zaremba’s Crypt, a spooktacular show presented by The Fleshtones’ own, Peter Zaremba, from midnight (ET) every Saturday.
“I know many people are going to be disappointed that their city (or country) will miss out on a Gurus gig this time – and that includes some of our favourite places to play (hello, Atlanta and New Orleans!). We will be coming back again asap with a new album and a much more extensive tour next time. This is just the first step in a much more active touring schedule for the band over the next few years, with visits to many other cities, countries and planets being in our long-term touring schedule. For reasons that are too boring to get into, we have to limit this particular U.S. tour to three weeks, and though we’ve squeezed as many gigs as we can into that time, we are barely scratching the surface. We’ll come back again soon, we promise.”
HOODOO GURUS U.S. TOUR OCT./NOV., 2020
Fri. 23 Oct. SEATTLE, WA – Tractor Tavern. Tickets here.
Sat. 24 PORTLAND, OR – Aladdin Theater. Tickets here.
Sun. 25 SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Slim’s. Tickets here.
Mon. 26 LOS ANGELES, CA – The Roxy. Tickets here.
Wed. 28 SOLANA BEACH, CA (San Diego) – Belly Up Tavern. Tickets here.
Thurs. 29 SALT LAKE CITY, UT – State Room. Tickets here.
Fri. 30 ASPEN, CO – Belly Up Aspen. Tickets here.
Sat. 31 DENVER, CO – Bluebird Theater. Tickets here.
Mon. 2 Nov. MILWAUKEE, WI – Shank Hall. Tickets here.
Tues. 3 CHICAGO, IL – City Winery (U.S. election night). Tickets here.
Wed. 4 NASHVILLE, TN – Mercy Lounge. Tickets here.
Fri. 6 NEW YORK CITY, NY – Webster Hall. Tickets here.
Sat. 7 BOSTON, MA – The Sinclair. Tickets here.
Sun. 8 PHILADELPHIA, PA – Philly Underground Arts. Tickets here.
Mon. 9 NORFOLK, VA – The NorVa. Tickets here.
Wed. 11 WASHINGTON, DC – The Hamilton. Tickets here.
Thurs. 12 JACKSONVILLE, FL – Private show
Fri. 13 JACKSONVILLE, FL
Sat. 14 CARBORRO, NC – Cats Cradle. Tickets here.
Now, while we’re almost a year away from the tour (you can bet I will find a way to catch it), never let it be said that I pass on a chance to sing the praises of one of my favorite bands. What follows is a retooled republishing of a tribute to the Gurus that I published at Blurt in 2010, which itself was an expanded take on a profile I had written for Harp magazine (BLURT’s predecessor) in 2007 as pare of my ongoing “Indelibles” series.
The occasion of my interview with founder and frontman Dave Faulkner was the overhaul of their extensive back catalog and a DVD career retrospective, Tunnel Vision; in addition, with an impending March trip to Austin for SXSW, expectations in their camp were high for a newly elevated American profile.
Forming in 1981, the Gurus had enjoyed a lengthy and successful career well into the late nineties until Faulkner decided to pull the plug (“I was all written out,” he confessed), only to resume operations in 2004. A new studio album subsequently appeared later that year, and during our conversation Faulkner noted that he’d been writing material for another one and predicted they’d have it out sometime later in 2007. Yet the record failed to materialize – twice, as a projected 2009 release date also came and went when the band reportedly grew unhappy with both the studio they’d worked in and the mixes
Luckily, their old friend and noted producer, Ed Stasium, stepped in and agreed to perform some of his mixing wizardry on the tapes. The resulting Purity of Essence, yielded a sparkling set of tunes bearing all the hallmarks of classic Gurus: sleek, hook-filled melodies; propulsive rhythms; heart on sleeve lyrics; terrific singing.
Having seen the Gurus at SXSW in 2007, I witnessed firsthand their enduring prowess as a live act. On 2010’s Purity, though, the band members – Faulkner, guitarist Brad Shepherd, drummer Mark Kingsmill, bassist Rick Grossman – genuinely sounded like they’d been granted a new lease on life. Whatever delays transpired in the making of it ultimately served to make everyone stronger. So, let’s revisit my conversation with Faulkner from 2007 as he recounted the band’s origins and trajectory…
Thanksgiving eve, 1984: Your future Harp correspondent is front and center at a packed Charlotte, NC, punk club, literally hanging on to the monitor of Hoodoo Gurus vocalist/guitarist Dave Faulkner. Amid an incessant, hypnotic tribal thud, searing psychedelic guitar riffs and football stadium-worthy chorus chants, Faulkner regales us with quirky lyric narratives about kamikaze pilots, zombie love and south-sea island sacrificial rites. No turkeys, though these Gurus: they rock like rabid wombats. And every last person in the venue is singing along and dancing so hard the room could pass for an MTV video shoot.
Afterwards, as punters clutching copies of the Australian group’s debut album Stoneage Romeos cluster around the band, a girl standing too close to Faulkner’s massive coif of teased-out hair almost sets him on fire when she lights a cigarette. Ah, the perils of the road….
“Oh god …” Dave Faulkner, speaking now from his home in Sydney, has vivid memories of the Gurus’ initial American trek. “We had so much Aqua-Net in our hair on that tour! It just got ridiculous. We were doing shows every night and couldn’t un-tease our hair and wash out all the goo, so it was just a succession of teasing upon teasing. By the time we got to Los Angeles, I think it was L.A. Times critic] Robert Hilburn, in a review, who said something like, ‘Dave Faulkner looks like a tumbleweed landed on his head.’ [laughs] And that’s how it did look! I got to the point at the end of the tour when I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do with it now?’ I thought I was going to have to shave it all off because it was like one huge dreadlock underneath, you know? It was kind of scary.
“But it really was a wonderful period. A lot was happening. People really were into us, and we had some great times even though we were living, er, low to the ground. We had this tour manager who didn’t think he was going to be paid so he stole all our gear in New York! We were playing with the Long Ryders the next night in Boston and had to use their gear.”
Within a year the Hoodoo Gurus’ star was in full ascent, the group a mainstay at college radio and on MTV. With the release of 1985’s Mars Needs Guitars the Gurus found themselves touring America once again, this time playing arenas as the Bangles’ opening act. And the band would continue to record and tour successfully for more than a decade, going on hiatus in January 1998 and then reuniting in 2004.
Before all that, however, there was just Faulkner and a long-simmering scheme to bring back “the dumbness of rock,” as he puts it now—the innocence, the naïveté, the joy of early rock ‘n’ roll.
Faulkner got his start in the late ‘70s playing in punk band The Victims (inevitably, he had a punk nickname: “Flick”) in his home town of Perth, located on the remote western edge of Australia. A ’79 pilgrimage to New York City, however, opened his eyes. He was already a fan of the bands dotting the lower Manhattan scene; through a mutual friend he hooked up with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, and the pair made the rounds of clubs, seeing everyone from the Fleshtones, Ramones, Talking Heads and Rigby’s own combo, to such recent Big Apple transplants as the B-52’s and the Cramps.
“I’d say the Cramps and the Fleshtones were the ones that really gave me the desire to do the Hoodoo Gurus,” says Faulkner. “Not that I knew it at the time, of course. But back in Australia a year later, I was seeing the legacy of Radio Birdman and all the so-called ‘Detroit bands.’ There was also this sort of homemade art-rock scene—I called them the suitcase synthesizer bands. But not much in between. And I just wanted to have something a bit more brash, more pop, I guess. In the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, the songs had a lot of jokey themes and titles. But I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ had this exuberance; it didn’t necessarily have to make sense, and it’s still just as exciting and direct today.”
Upon his return from the States, Faulkner briefly joined another punk group, the Manikins, then relocated to Sydney where, in his words, “It felt like a band was forming every week.” A chance meeting with guitarists Kimble Rendall and Rod Radalj at an end-of-1980 New Year’s Eve party led to the formation of Le Hoodoo Gurus, with former Victims drummer James Baker rounding out the roster.
The Gurus were initially conceived as a covers band, but Faulkner’s songwriting gifts quickly became evident. The band soon had a cache of catchy originals and notched a minor hit with their debut 45 “Leilani,” about a grief-stricken young man whose girlfriend gets tossed into an island volcano as a native offering to the gods, and set to an irresistible tribal thump one part Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” and several parts Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2).”
Turmoil then struck when first Rendall then Radalj quit, the former due to a budding career as a filmmaker, the latter out of frustration with Faulkner’s perceived dominance in the band as frontman and chief songwriter. By this point Faulkner was already convinced that a three-guitar Gurus was too limiting and gimmicky—earlier, they’d landed an actual spot opening for Gary Glitter when he toured Australia, and the consensus among Glitter Band members was that the Gurus needed to beef up their bottom end—so replacing Rendall and Radalj were bassist Clyde Bramley and guitarist Brad Shepherd, both alumni of Radio Birdman offshoot the Hitmen and of bubblegum tribute combo Super K. The band dropped the “Le” from the name and the classic Hoodoo Gurus lineup that would record Stoneage Romeos was in place.
Recorded under the watchful eye of veteran producer-engineer Alan Thorne, Stoneage Romeos, released in the spring of ’84, was an instant hit in its native Australia. And with good reason: Happily plundering trash culture, dropping in a trainspotter’s buffet of classic pop references, and powering along with an insistent—and danceable—turbine-like precision, the album has a seductive timelessness that, even two decades on, still connects with rock ‘n’ roll fans of all stripes. Nowadays, Faulkner’s reluctant to name it among his favorite of the Gurus albums: reminded how one journalist suggested that Romeos, draped in reverb and echo, “sounds like it was recorded in a cave” (in the context of the original review, a positive comment), he complains that the record “is, for me, very antique sounding—we always wanted to ‘make a din’ and some of the rough edges we had live got softened in the studio. What I am happy about it is that it still sounds fresh and lively. And good on the hi-fi.”
That it does: there’s the aforementioned glitter-glam slam of “Leilani”; Brit Invasion jangle, Flamin’ Groovies style, in “I Want You Back”; twisted Cramps psychobilly for “Dig It Up”; and vintage bubblegum pop in the “Hang On Sloopy”-like “My Girl.” It all bursts from the speakers, aglow with an analog warmth that not even contemporary digital reconfiguring can obscure.
As a wordsmith, Faulkner was, by his own admission, very specific with his imagery. On subsequent Gurus albums he’d deliberately move away from tackling quirky lyric topics, but for Romeos his imagination ran wild. For example “Tojo,” on the surface, concerns a girl named Tracy who blows in and out of a guy’s life and leaves him in ruins, but as Faulkner points out, “it’s really a series of very bad puns about a tropical depression,” e.g. Cyclone Tracy, which hit northern Australian city Darwin in 1975 on Christmas Eve. In the case of the heart-on-sleeve sentiments of “My Girl” (boy takes girl to school prom, girl slips outside to snog with a different boy), that song, too, has a double meaning: “It was a love song about love songs, a tribute to all the ‘60s boy-girl love songs, and I felt bad that some people would get quite sad about it —‘That poor guy!’—because it was just a joke!”
If there’s any one track on the record that sums up the Gurus aesthetic at the time, it’s album opener “(Let’s All) Turn On,” a boisterous, Fleshtones-worthy frat-party anthem whose lyrics namecheck all of Faulkner’s musical obsessions in just over three minutes. Sings/speed-raps Faulkner, “Shake Some Action, Psychotic Reaction, No Satisfaction, Sky Pilot, Sky Saxon/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like/ Blitzkrieg Bop to the Jailhouse Rock, Stop Stop Stop At The Hop, do the Bluejean Bop/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like!”
And that’s just the first verse.
“Ah-ha!” Even from half-way around the planet, I can tell Faulkner is grinning on the other end of the telephone line. “There was one review that actually criticized us for that, saying The Fleshtones’ ‘Hall of Fame’ was far cooler in its references. And it definitely is! But we weren’t trying to be the smartest guys on the block. We wrote that song over pizza and a flagon of wine.”
Unlike many of their Australian peers, the Gurus, who were signed to the Big Time label at home, secured a U.S. deal, with A&M, for their album, although a foreshadowing that the liaison wouldn’t last came when A&M insisted on redoing the Romeos cover art. The Australian LP sported a cartoonish nod to the 1966 caveman flick One Million Years B.C., all menacing dinosaurs and Day-Glo colors; in America, consumers got a stylized sleeve featuring arty renditions of the giant reptiles. “Bad coffeetable art, very anonymous and boring,” is Faulkner’s assessment. “On the U.S. tour fans are bringing up the Australian copies for us to sign—they were all getting them on import! Yet at the end of the tour, A&M says to us, ‘Oh well, we don’t really think the cover will affect sales it all.’ Like, when they’re right, they’re right, and when they’re wrong, they’re still right.”
Shortly before the ’84 American tour, drummer James Baker quit the band, replaced with Mark Kingsmill (another former member of the Hitmen), and, as previously noted, the band went down a storm in the U.S. The following year brought Mars Needs Guitars, released here by Big Time-America after a dispute with A&M resulted in the band being dropped by the label. Like its predecessor, the album became a college radio favorite on the strength of tracks such as rousing punk-powerpopper “Like Wow—Wipeout” and psychedelic ballad “Bittersweet,” and in 1986 plans were laid for the Gurus to do a co-headlining tour with another group of up-and-comers, The Bangles. However, just before the tour, the Bangles’ single “Manic Monday” started taking off, eventually reaching number two in the U.S. charts.
“We were like, ‘Well… I guess we won’t be co-headlining after all!’” Faulkner laughs good-naturedly. “So, it was more of a Bangles tour, doing larger and larger venues. But it was amazing—we ended up playing the Greek Theater in L.A. We had a great time, and both bands loved each other as artists, so it wasn’t hard, just fun.”
The Bangles connection extended to the third Gurus LP, 1987’s Blow Your Cool, which featured the four ladies singing on two songs (members of the Dream Syndicate also guested on the album, recorded in L.A.). Faulkner describes the making of the record as a “dark period” and calls its producer Mark Opitz (INXS, Divinyls) a “yuppie wanker, and arsehole” who pitted band members against one another in the studio. And while Blow Your Cool also did well, the strain of recording took its toll on bassist Bramley, who quit before 1989’s Magnum Cum Louder and was replaced by Rick Grossman.
The Faulkner-Shepherd-Kingsmill-Grossman lineup subsequently recorded the albums Kinky, Crank and Blue Cave, although not long after the release of the latter, Faulkner announced that the Gurus would tour through the end of 1997 then disband, a move he says was prompted by a sense that he was “all written out—I didn’t want to go in again and do a half-baked album, so hey, it’s been good, let’s stop it before we become embarrassing.”
Assorted solo projects ensued, then in 2002 a mysterious EP appeared by a band calling themselves the Persian Rugs—the Gurus in disguise, essentially pulling a Dukes Of Stratosphear and doing ‘60s-styled garage, pop and psychedelia. This was followed in ’03 by a Persian Rugs full-length, Turkish Delight, and with the old chemistry reestablished, by the following year the group had officially resumed operations under the Hoodoo Gurus banner, resulting in 2004’s Mach Schau.
“The Persian Rugs was me doing a complete ‘60s revival sort of thing,” explains Faulkner. “Also, in a funny way, it was my own sort of version of retaliating at all the critics who always harped on the Gurus’ ‘60s influences: ‘You want to hear what I do when I do ‘60s? Here it is!’ But I also had a whole lot of songs after the Gurus broke up, and though I rehearsed them with different musicians, they just couldn’t seem to get the flavor of what I was trying to do. It became obvious to me that there was only one band that could play these songs the way I wanted to hear them. So Mach Schau, far from us coming back and being ‘middle aged’ and writing for an older fan base, we just wanted to make a hard rocking record that out-did anything we’d ever done. We really blew a gasket on that one—it’s our Presence, like Led Zeppelin.”
Following the release of Mach Schau, in 2005 the Australian division of EMI Records reissued expanded/remastered editions of all the Hoodoo Gurus albums; also released was Tunnel Vision, a two-DVD set compiling every Gurus video, a wealth of never-before-seen live material and a smartly-done retrospective documentary, Be My Guru. The band subsequently struck a deal with New York label Virtual, which is distributed through Ryko, to restore their back catalog to print in the U.S.; the initial brace of releases, Stoneage Romeos and the Tunnel Vision DVD, hit stores in October. Still a significant draw in their home country (in 2005 the Gurus co-headlined the annual Big Day Out festival with Metallica and the Strokes), they hope to capitalize upon that American profile-boost by coming to the States in March for South By Southwest. And plans are in place to make a new Gurus album, but Faulkner says he needs more time to write new songs so they’ve postponed what would have been January recording sessions until May or June.
Absent from these shores since 1995, in spirit the Gurus never really went away. You can still catch the occasional video clip on VH1-Classic, and enlightened deejays at community and college radio stations are known to cue up a Gurus track from time to time as well. “I Want You Back” in particular hasn’t lost any of its jangly lustre—and the video for the song, which features the Gurus in all their teased-hair, Aqua-Netted glory performing while Claymation dinosaurs frolic around them, still exudes a quirky, primitive charm.
Noting that “I Want You Back” was the track that introduced the Gurus to America, I can’t resist asking Faulkner if the song, with its lyrics about a breakup and the messy aftermath (“It’s not that she’s gone away/ It’s the things I hear she has got to say/ About me—and about my friends…”), was about a particular girl who dumped him?
“No, and, ah, I don’t really want to go into it,” says Faulkner, adding, “but it’s definitely true.” He pauses for a moment, then emits a self-conscious chuckle, as if he feels foolish for coming across so cryptic. “Well… okay. I guess I can finally talk about that.
“Basically, when [co-founder] Rod Radalj left the Gurus he was very dismissive of us, trying to move on and kind of burn everything behind him: ‘Oh, it’s not worth staying in that band. They’re terrible!’ So, I basically turned that emotion around: ‘Here’s this guy who ditched us and he’s acting like the spurned lover!’ It was me saying, ‘You’ll regret it.’”
Yet with its jangly melody, soaring vocal harmonies and overall yearning vibe, “I Want You Back” has all the earmarks of classic guy-girl pop.
“Well, yeah, I just turned all that stuff into a relationship song.” Faulkner says. “I don’t know why people don’t realize that it’s an anger song. You’re right, they think it’s a longing song. But it’s not a song about ‘I wish you’d come back,’ but—‘You’ll wish you were back!’”
OK, Boomers: Ever wondered why Saint Neil’s biggest-selling album is also his sloppiest, least engaging one? Screw the music biz-approved “Heart of Gold” narrative, let’s dig a bit deeper. From the editor’s deep archives, originally published in the 2004 rock-writing anthology Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics (edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carmel Carrillo, published by Barricade Books). First installment of our new series, “Slaying the Sacred Cows” – step back, it might get bloody.
BY FRED MILLS
Let’s start with a selected time-line:
10 Bazillion B.C. – 1969: God creates the cosmos; Jesus dies for Mankind’s sins; McDonald’s serves its first cheeseburger; Charles Manson kills off the hippie dream; and Neil Young is inducted into the superstar club by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
1970: The perennially-waffling Young can’t decide which he prefers, being a hippie poet laureate or the “Y” at the ass-end of “CSN&Y.” He does decide that LA sucks, however, and he moves up north to a ranch.
1971: Thanks to a nasty back and spinal injury Young spends much of the year in bed and popping pain pills but still manages to assemble his fourth solo album.
February 1972: Harvest is issued by Reprise Records. Both the album and the single “Heart of Gold” shoot to the top of the charts.
1973 – 2003: The music world is overrun by simpering singer-songwriters obsessed with the D chord and first-person pronouns
2004: Charles Manson is denied parole once again.
Calling Harvest a lesser Neil Young effort isn’t that much of a stretch. Hell, a preliminary warning to that effect appeared shortly after the album’s release when critic John Mendelssohn, in the March 30, 1972, Rolling Stone, submitted a dryly hilarious but pointed assessment of its dubious charms.
Among Mendelssohn’s chief complaints: nearly every song on Harvest bears a “discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance” to earlier Young compositions; the stiff musical performances themselves are “restrained for restraint’s sake, and ultimately monotonous”; the lyrics are oftentimes “flatulent and portentous nonsense” routinely plagued by “rhyme-scheme forced silliness” and offer “few rewards to the ponderer.”
Mendelssohn also concluded that Young’s superstar status ensured his audience “will eagerly gobble up whatever half-assed baloney he pleases to record.” I’m here to tell you his prediction came true, and that – o, the shame! — back in the day I, too, did gobble my share of Youngian half-assedness.
My 17th birthday occurred right after Harvest appeared in stores. Do the math and you’ll quickly realize that, as a baby-boomer, I was primo demographic material for a record such as Harvest. Along with my boomer peers, I kept it in the Top 40 for 25 weeks and made it the best-selling album of 1972. Blame me for its ensuing cultural ubiquity if you wish. But understand that in 1972, for a liberal-minded teenager with inclinations towards hirsute grooming, sucking down doobs and pursuing those elusive young fillies in their peasant dresses, denim jackets and cowgirl (in the sand) boots, falling under the spell of a cultural totem like Harvest was a forgone conclusion.
As Johnny Rogan, in his 2000 critical bio Neil Young: Zero To Sixty, put it, “Young’s name was synonymous with the sound of the moment and he was increasingly perceived by the record-buying public as the hippie troubadour, blessed with a songbook of catchy, carefully crafted compositions and pleasing bittersweet melodies.”
My initial encounter with the album actually left me a tad underwhelmed; in retrospect I should have listened with my head and not my headphones. “Heart of Gold” sounded okay, but it didn’t “rock”; and even the “righteous jam” of “Alabama” paled compared to the similarly-themed and -arranged “Southern Man” from an earlier Young album. I also recall being sorta creeped out by the textured, chalky-grainy feel of the sleeve; give me the faux –leatherette sleeve of Déjà Vu any day. Still – it was Neil, and like most of all the other it-was-Neils who bought Harvest, I accepted it as my duty to embrace the album and proselytize in the name of you-know-who.
Blind faith, of course, always extracts a price.
Several decades’ worth of hindsight and a couple hundred Neil Young bootlegs later, I see Harvest as an unexpected but not altogether unexplainable artistic low sandwiched in between a pair of notable, three-album highs.
The first, which I’ll call the Laurel/Topanga Canyons trilogy (1969’s Neil Young and Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere plus 1970’s After the Gold Rush), has long been acknowledged as one of rock’s most impressive early-career sunbursts. The second, assuming we omit the 1972 film soundtrack Journey Through The Past, is an equally brilliant, but different kind of supernova, a booze- and chemical-fueled one, comprising rolling drunk revue live album Time Fades Away, from 1973; 1974’s moody but epochal On The Beach; and the black hole of nihilism that is Tonight’s The Night, recorded in ’73 but held back for two years. You get rock, you get revolution, you get sex, you get drugs — sometimes all at once, a six-album rollercoaster ride across the counterculture that, listened to now, conjures key moods of the era while still sounding fresh and provocative. Somebody should do a box set.
Leave Harvest out, however. Young biographer Jimmy McDonough, in his 2002 book Shakey, pointed out how much of the album now sounds “heavy – as in turgid,” and that’s as good a description as any. What should have been an engaging, back-to-roots project turned out instead to be a meandering, unfocused affair characterized by plodding-to-the-point-of-anesthetized rhythms, slight (if, on the surface, pleasant) melodies, and a lyrical outlook that could be charitably described as relentlessly narcissistic.
Young himself candidly admitted, speaking to writer Cameron Crowe for a 1979 Rolling Stone profile, how “being laid up in bed [following his back injury] … I became really reclusive. There was a long time when I felt connected with the outer world ‘cause I was still looking. Then you get everything the way you want it. You stop looking out so much and start looking in. And that’s why in my head I felt something change… I was lying on my back a long time. It affected my music. My whole spirit was prone.”
The Cliffs Notes version of the making Harvest goes roughly like this:
In the fall of 1970, following a massively successful CSN&Y tour and a breakup with his first wife, Neil bought a ranch so he could get back to the country, get his head together and whatnot. A subsequent back injury incurred while working on the farm, coupled with an aggravated spinal disc problem, forced him to spend a fair amount of time in bed and on heavy pain medication. Wearing an uncomfortable back brace, he went out on a solo tour in late ’70 and early ’71 during which time he premiered a number of new tunes, several of them hinting at Neil’s blossoming romance with actress Carrie Snodgrass.
Shortly after the tour Neil went to Nashville to appear on the Johnny Cash On Campus TV show. While in Nashville he hooked up with local producer and studio operator Elliot Mazer, who rounded up drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel player Ben Keith – Neil dubbed ‘em The Stray Gators – and commenced recording sessions for Harvest. Neil returned to Nashville later in the year to cut some more material, holding additional sessions back at his ranch when his ongoing back ailments precluded travel. Also in the Gators: Neil’s old friend and producer Jack Nitzsche, on piano and slide guitar, who’d previously overseen a February recording session in London featuring Neil on piano and backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Reprise Records initially wanted to release Harvest in time for Christmas. Those plans were scotched while Neil dithered over matters involving the track listing (at the last minute he decided he wanted to include an acoustic song, “The Needle And The Damage Done,” recorded during the earlier solo tour) and sleeve design (a gatefold affair, it featured a fragile and strangely-textured oatmeal paper for both the sleeve and the lyric insert). The album was finally issued the following February.
Harvest, then, represents a mish-mash of material culled from multiple recording sources: Four songs hailed from the Nashville sessions; three were cut at Neil’s ranch; two in London with the orchestra; and the live solo number. Therein lies one of the album’s chief flaws: its maddening lack of consistency.
Now, it should go without saying that Neil Young is among a select few artists – Dylan, in particular – who’s frequently revered for his very inconsistency. Fans have come to accept, for example, that the cost of getting a Freedom or a Ragged Glory is having to sit through a Landing On Water or a Life first. Critics, for their part, cite Neil’s damn-the-marketplace approach to record-making as evidence of a fearless, uncompromising muse constantly shifting gears in a quest for new artistic strategies.
I’m not so sure any of that applies to Harvest. Bloody-mindedness is one thing, but Percodan-fueled indecision is another matter entirely. Not even counting some of the problems (plodding tempos, overly reined-in performances, etc.) ticked off above, Harvest’s internal inconsistency makes for a bumpy, at times downright jarring, ride. One minute we’re in mellow-yellow lalaland (“Heart Of Gold”) then the next we’re tossing back shots and getting rowdy with the crew out in Neil’s barn (“Are You Ready For The Country?”); the reflective mood of “Old Man” is abruptly shattered by the orchestral bombast of “There’s A World”; and so forth.
Need I add that the actual sound quality of Harvest, is equally schizophrenic? One challenge for Neil, Mazer and Nitzsche was to make the Nashville, London and ranch material all synch up sonically, but if it crossed their minds at all they were still too lazy to put forth much effort. A striking example of this is when the audience claps at the conclusion of “Needle And The Damage”: instead of a fade-out, or the applause being cut entirely, a sudden edit boots the listener headfirst into the opening chords of “Words.” While I have no doubt the effect was intentional, it just comes across as sloppy.
What really bugs me about the album is what it could have been. “Country-rock Neil,” maybe, comprising an entire set of the Nashville material, and there are a number of viable contenders in circulation as bootlegged outtakes, notably the woozy “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the sweet “Dance Dance Dance.” Perhaps by keeping the overall vibe consistent with what Young presumably intended as a laid-back, autumnal theme, some of Harvest’s performance flaws wouldn’t have been as glaring. (In effect Neil attempted to right his own wrong some 20 years later by reconvening the Stray Gators and creating Harvest Moon, a vastly superior and more aesthetically pleasing effort than its namesake.)
I’d personally vote for “Jamming-in-the-barn-Neil”: Take slide-guit rocker “Are You Ready For The Country?”, gospel-blooze “Alabama” and the complete 16-minute version of “Words” (which would later surface on Journey Through The Past) then throw in a couple more tight-but-loose honky-tonkers and you’d have a – umm, well, you’d probably have a studio variation on what Time Fades Away, recorded on tour in early ’73 with the Stray Gators, sounds like. But you get the point.
In one sense, lyric analysis is a sucker’s game. One can take words and lines out of context to back up or illustrate practically any claim, pro or con. But some of the sitting ducks that Neil floats out onto the Harvest pond are too irresistible not to take a pull or two at ‘em.
As right-on as the sentiments expressed in “Alabama” are (yes, slavery and racism are bad!), the metaphor “your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch/ and a wheel on the track” seems slightly askew; shouldn’t that second wheel be on the road, since ditches are usually found beside roads and not tracks? (Is that a railroad track?) Of course, “road” doesn’t rhyme with the word “back” in the couplet that precedes it, so… The famous titular metaphor in “Heart of Gold” fares somewhat better; it’s kinda romantic-sounding, and it’s also gussied all nice and purty in burnished acoustic guitar chords, sweetly humming pedal steel and a subtly yearning bassline. But try popping the line on a gal at a bar sometime: “Hi. Looking at you makes me realize I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold for a long time.” Don’t forget to duck; she’s either gonna take a swing at you or beer will squirt from her nose from the laughter.
What about that nifty little simile bobbing politely there in the middle of “Old Man”? It goes, “love lost, such a cost/ give me things that don’t get lost/ like a coin that won’t get tossed/ rolling home to you.” I think I catch part of Neil’s drift; he’s talking about needing stability in life and love, right? But the whole coin thing eludes me. Does he mean the untossed coin is desirable because it’s safe in your pocket and won’t get lost, or is he saying an untossed coin is cool because the coin (representing Neil, who presumably doesn’t like making his decisions based on a coin toss) is free to roll on home? Oy. My head is hurting. Maybe he should have used “stone” in place of “coin” – then he could rhyme it with “home.” But I digress… I must admit I am attached to the simile in “The Needle and The Damage Done,” the tagline “every junkie’s like a setting sun.” Far from being a lazy rhyme (“sun” with “done”) or uneven imagery (one critic huffed that setting suns are beautiful whereas junkies most assuredly are not), it seems pretty dead-on, as anyone who has ever observed a junkie nodding out with his eyelids gradually shutting – or, in the large sense, watched a junkie’s spirit slowly close down — knows.
While I’m giving Neil some due here, let me also say that my favorite song on the album also seems to have the strongest, or “least flawed,” lyrics. For Harvest to be considered such a classic singer-songwriter album it’s remarkably devoid of epiphanies or universal truths. I’m sorry, but “Heart of Gold”’s tagline “and I’m getting old” won’t cut it, and I defy anyone to make sense – literal, poetic, cosmic or otherwise — of “words between the lines of age,” from “Words.” (Jack Nitzsche famously pilloried that song’s lyrics as “dumb.”) But Neil partly redeems himself in “Are You Ready For The Country?” It’s worth pointing out that to this day the song gets routinely misconstrued as Neil’s announcing his “new” country-rock direction. Blame lazy reviewers, who just looked at the song title, or country king Waylon Jennings, who covered the song, or Neil himself, who frequently whips it out at the annual Farm Aid concert. In fact, it’s so clearly a song about war (Vietnam was still raging in ’72), with direct references to the Left, the Right, the domino theory of Southeast Asia, dying for God and Country, etc., that it’s hard to fathom how anyone could get it wrong. While not as potent as “Ohio,” it’s still a compact, uncluttered anti-war number, a tale about a kid, about to ship out, talking first to a preacher (who lets him know that God will be on his side) and then to the hangman (who tells him unequivocably, “It’s time to die”).
Some have cited “A Man Needs A Maid” as an example of Neil being on top of his game. Admittedly it does carry a certain emotional heft, particularly at the end when Neil sings in a tiny, plaintive voice, “When will I see you again?” It’s a wonderful, nakedly vulnerable moment. But the whole housekeeper imagery, even as a metaphor for Neil’s insecurity and neediness, strikes me as slightly banal. I’m no poet, but maybe he could have considered some other lyrical options: “Hmm, lessee… ‘a man needs a – a- a- a- mechanic and, uh… someone to keep my gears turning and my motor running…’ Naw, naw…. howzabout – ‘a beekeeper, someone to keep my hive warm, bring me sweet nectar and buzz around all day…’ Yeah, that works.” Hey, it could have happened!
Earlier I called Harvest “relentlessly narcissistic.” Writing from one’s own point of view certainly isn’t a crime; part of any good songwriter’s appeal is how he translates his interior life to the lyric sheet. That said, methinks the man’s ego doth runneth over on Harvest. I ran the lyrics though my trusty old Schlock-O-Meter and arrived at some telling stats: “I” and “my” are the first words of three songs; “I,” “my” and “I’m” appear in the first line of three other songs; and in still three others, “I” is prominently positioned as a line’s first word. That’s nine out of ten songs. Even after giving byes to “Alabama” and “Are You Ready for The Country” for being political and not personal screeds we’re still left with a whopping 70% of Harvest being an exercise in solipsism, not storytelling.
The last thing I want to touch on might best be addressed in a court of law, but here goes anyway: Can Neil Young be sued for what he spawned with Harvest? Seriously. That album gave every half-assed folkie on the planet license to whine. All these years later we’re still knee-deep in legions of groveling, simpering, me-fixated singer-songwriters whose sole stock in trade basically boils down to this: “I got up today/ I fixed a cup of coffee/ Looked around/ And saw you were gone/ My heart was heavy/ So I wrote this song about you/ It kinda made me feel better….” Your honor, we’re willing to stipulate lifetime probation for Mr. Young, but absolutely no charity concerts in lieu of his community service.
It’s interesting to note that Harvest was recently the sole focus of an entire book, published in 2003 as part of part of Continuum’s “33 1/3” series in which classic records are dissected but otherwise praised by virtue of inclusion in the series. Author Sam Inglis does a fine job and he claims to love the album, although one wonders how loyal to Harvest he truly is given that he voices many reservations similar to those expressed above yet rarely offers any evidence to the contrary. (A probing of Tonight’s The Night would have made for far better reading.) If the best defense one can mount of a record comes across that conflicted, why bother in the first place?
So if Harvest’s faults are so glaring, if critics routinely savage the album — or, in the case of Inglis, damn it with faint praise — and if its creator even tries to atone for his lapse by redoing it years later, what accounts for the fact that it continues to sell bucketloads? (Fun Fact #1: Harvest was the first album in Young’s back catalog to be reissued on CD, while last year it also became the first Young title to be sonically overhauled – by Young and producer Mazer, no less — for the DVD-A format.) As recently as last year Aimee Mann, a gifted songwriter who’s hardly your garden variety mainstream Best Buy-shopping schmuck, was talking to Entertainment Weekly about essential records to own. Gushed Mann, of Harvest, “My babysitter brought this over one night when I was a kid and I was fascinated. It had such a haunting and mournful quality.” Mann should know better, but I’m not going to launch an ad hominem argument this late in the essay. I’m also somewhat tempted to take the easy way out and play the baby-boomer ’72 nostalgia card and be done with the matter. (Fun Fact #2: In August of 2003, a second-stringer named Josh Rouse issued an album of half-baked lite-rock entitled 1972.) But maybe the noble approach is to simply call Harvest’s enduring appeal a mystery, throw up my arms and say, beats the hell out of me.
Besides, I have a story to finish.
Back in the summer of ‘72 I’d become deeply smitten by a hippie-chick type who I privately referred to as my “Cinnamon Girl.” After finally screwing up the courage to ask her if she wanted to go out some night and smoke some dope, I rushed out and bought a second copy of Harvest, this one on 8-track tape (for the car, natch). I mean, how could these sensitive, tuneful songs about maids and men, about weekends and words – about hearts of gold! – fail to get me to first… second…. third base… oh wow…
Somewhere in between the mellow notion of Harvest as an album and the theoretically sure-fire “Heart of Gold,” however, my Cinnamon Girl turned into the Cynical Girl. I sensed I might be losing ground when she mocked my air-piano playing during “Maid.” Thirty seconds into “HOG” she complained, “Gawd, he is soo whiny sounding… you don’t have Deep Purple In Rock do ya,” and summarily ejected the 8-track. That’s when I deduced that tonight was not gonna be the, uh, night. With no Purp on hand, I shoved in Wheels Of Fire instead and fired up another joint. I think we both passed out during the drum solo in “Toad.”
For a long time afterwards, I held a grudge against Neil for delaying the loss of my virginity by at least six months. (That’s an eternity in teenage time.) I eventually got over it, though, and Neil is still my favorite all-time artist. Picks to click: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Sleeps With Angels, and the 1991 tour with Sonic Youth as the opening act.
To this day, however, I can’t pick up a copy of a Harvest and touch that textured sleeve without cringing.
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