Thursday, June 28, 2012

2012 UMS Band Interviews #1

 Click the link below for complete info about venues, performers, and times for 2012's UMS!
The UMS July 19th-22nd South Broadway

Patrick Dethlefs

Where and when are you playing at the UMS?
Saturday July 21st 7pm Irish Rover w/ Full Band

How long has your band been together?
I have been playing music since I was 12 and have been playing music with friends as much as I can, but seriously I have probably been playing for 4 years.

What was your band's first live show/ performance and what was memorable about it?
I played a few shows when I was younger in middle school but I remember playing a song with my friend in high school, in front of the whole school and being so nervous haha.

What was the first album you purchased?
Not really sure, maybe Queen's Greatest Hits cassette, I really loved the movie The Mighty Ducks.

What album was your most recent purchase?
my last Twist & Shout purchase was the new Tallest Man on Earth record.

Do you have any advice for new bands?
It's weird to think of me giving advice but keep trying to progress and enjoy what your doing.

Besides your own band- who do you want to see at the UMS?
Maybe there are a few I can't mention but some of the folks I'm excited to see are, Eye & the Arrow, Esme Patterson, Fairchildren, Rachael Pollard.

Best past UMS experience?
Well last year was my first year playing and I played a solo set which went really well and the crowd was great!

Do you have any tips for festival goers?
Do your best to make it my set! ha and stay hydrated.

What's the best food people can find on Broadway during the festival?
Sweet Action Ice Cream

Who is your all time favorite Denver band?
It's hard to just pick one! But I really enjoy Nathaniel Rateliff

If you were behind the counter at Twist and Shout, what three albums would you recommend to our customers?
Ray LaMontagne- God Willin & the Creek Don't Rise, Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues, Feist- Metals.

Is there anything we forgot to ask you about the UMS that you think people need to know?
Hmm not sure, maybe I will mention that I just came out with a new album Fall & Rise

Lords Of Fuzz

Where and when are you playing at the UMS?
Thu 7/19 11:00 pm  at the Denver Wheel Club 404

How long has your band been together?
6 years

What was your band's first live show/ performance and what was memorable about it?
cricket on the hill. i think it was very painful for our friends to watch.

What was the first album you purchased?
Led Zeppelin 2

What album was your most recent purchase?
The Black Keys - El Camino

Do you have any advice for new bands?
keep it fun

Besides your own band- who do you want to see at the UMS?
black moth super rainbow, git some, zebroids, 

Best past UMS experience?
in '10 there was a very large and extremely drunk woman dancing right
in front of oscar the whole set. in between songs she would scream 'you
want some of this?!?!?' she fell down twice and knocked the mics over before
the bouncers got her out of there.

Do you have any tips for festival goers?
don't wear a bra

What's the best food people can find on Broadway during the festival?

Who is your all time favorite Denver band?
Fucking Orange

If you were behind the counter at Twist and Shout, what three albums would you recommend to our customers?
The Clash - London Calling, Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R, Lords of Fuzz - Broken Bottles and Knives (due out in july)

A Shoreline Dream

How long has your band been together?
We've been at it since 2005. So crazy to think it's been that many years already. Seems like we just started dreaming.

What was your band's first live show/ performance and what was memorable about it?
Our first show was at the Hi-Dive back in 2006. It was amazing to have such a great crowd for our first gig. The band was an experiment of sound we were obsessed with, so to share it with so many people was outstanding in all ways.

What was the first album you purchased?
Ryan: Iron Maiden was the first, The self titled debut. The cover art lured me in as scary stuff was always a winner in my book.

Lauren: I think it was a New Order cassette tape from Black & Read...I remember getting into New Order, and then discovering Joy Division as a teenager. Peter Hook was my inspiration to start playing bass.

Erik: Purchased was Van Halen's 1984 - because I had already stolen the self-titled from a family member.

What album was your most recent purchase?
Ryan: I just picked up the new Carina Round, titled Tigermending. We had the chance to see her in L.A. back when we played out there with Pop Levi and I told her I loved her in person, which was odd now that I think back on it. She is simply outstanding, and this new disc is one of her best.

Lauren: I literally just bought the newest Washed Out album when I got this email. I'm about to go on a beach vacation and wanted to hear something spacious, like a musical landscape.

Erik: The new Silversun Pickups. It is so good that it is either playing in my car, on my phone or in my office at any moment. Cannot get enough of it.

Do you have any advice for new bands?
Ryan: Don't burn yourselves out and have fun no matter what. If you do what you love, everyone will gravitate to it at some point...

Erik: Have a passion for what you are doing, enjoy it and connect with other musicians.

Besides your own band- who do you want to see at the UMS?
All of them!

Best past UMS experience?
We did a very intimate acoustic show a few years back for Reverb which was so different from what you'd expect of our sound. It was quite a unique gig. One which we have yet to do again... though we may go for it again this go around.

Do you have any tips for festival goers?
Don't get overwhelmed, and try to give bands more than 5 minutes before moving on. Sometimes you miss the best stuff by running around all crazy. Bands during festivals need one or two songs to get super warmed up ;)

What's the best food people can find on Broadway during the festival?
Lauren: I can never pass up the cinnamon flavored ice cream at Sweet Action. I'm giving everyone permission to eat ice cream for dinner.
Ryan: I love SoBo, mostly cause my family is part Czech!
Erik: Moe's because I love bbq.

Who is your all time favorite Denver band?
Ryan: Bright Channel by far...
Erik: Tie between Overcasters/Fell/Panal s.a. de c.v
Lauren: That's tough because Denver's so diverse...Lately I've been listening to Volplane the most during my morning commute. As for bands currently playing, Loose Charm and Eyes & Ears are always good.

If you were behind the counter at Twist and Shout, what three albums would you recommend to our customers?
Ryan: 1. Engineers - In Praise of More, 2. Dead Can Dance - Self Titled, 3. Sneaker Pimps - Splinter
Erik: 1. Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream, 2. Explosions in the Sky - How Strange, Innocence, Godspeed You! Black Emporer - F? A? ?
Lauren: 1. Land of Talk - Cloak and Cipher, 2. Neko Case - Canadian Amp, The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters

Is there anything we forgot to ask you about the UMS that you think people need to know?
We have a new series of EP's that we are in the process of releasing. We call it the "333" series as it's 3 EP's released over the course of three months, each with three songs each. Names of the EP's, now available digitally and coming as a physical boxset soon are as follows: "three", "3" & "III". We're also super proud and happy to announce a new member of the band.... Lauren Shugrue Maske on Bass!

Patrick Brown

Where and when are you playing at the UMS?
Sunday July 22nd, 6-9PM at the Sputnik, right after DJ Alf.

Do you have your cd for sale at Twist and Shout?
No, I don’t make music that I release on CDs, but if you ask nicely I might make a mixtape of my set for you.

How long has your band been together?
Not a band, but I've played music out in public from time to time since 1996 or so.

What was the first album you purchased?
I always say that it was Chic’s C’est Chic but I’m not sure that’s strictly true. I'm sure I made my parents get me some children's albums before that.

What album was your most recent purchase?
Francis Bebey African Electronic Music 1975-1982. Crazy lo-fi African music with lots of synth, drum machine, and cheap keyboards. I will definitely be playing some of this in my set.

Besides your own band- who do you want to see at the UMS?
Mostly I just want to soak in the vibe of the whole thing, because the total experience is really what the UMS is about, not any individual 45 minute set. That said, I will not miss Shabazz Palaces, Imperial Teen, or Theesatisfaction, and I will probably see about 20 other acts in the process – Wymond Miles, Mancub, Sole, o0o00, Esme Patterson, Ginger Perry… a bunch of others too. I’m gonna play it by ear and see as much as I can.

Best past UMS experience?
I’ve loved it both times I’ve gone, pretty much all the time. Friends, music, food, fun, drinks for four days solid. What could be bad about that except that I have to work on three of those days as well and don’t have a day to recover afterward?

Do you have any tips for festival goers?
Drink water - and not just in the form of ice in your drinks. Catch as many bands that you don’t already know as you can. Don’t miss Shabazz Palaces. Eat at Socorro’s Street Tacos on East Bayaud. Smile and dance a lot. Hula hoop if the opportunity arises. Support all the businesses along that strip. Make friends. Have fun.

What's the best food people can find on Broadway during the festival?
Socorro’s, obviously. Sugar Bakeshop at 3rd & Broadway for coffee and sweets. Senor Burritos. And bear in mind that El Diablo’s walkup window stays open really late. And then there will be the food trucks…

If you were behind the counter at Twist and Shout, what three albums would you recommend to our customers?
Oddly enough, I am behind the counter at Twist and I recommend these at this moment (and will have three totally different ones ready in another five minutes): Singer/songwriter Bhi Bhiman’s awesome album Bhiman, African experimental artist Bola’s first U.S. release Volume 7 (on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label), and jazz composer Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp (I have no idea what the title means, so don’t ask, but the music’s great so who cares?)

Monday, June 25, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On At The Movies #42 - The King of Comedy (1983, dir. Martin Scorsese)

All the movies Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro made together seem to fit into two categories: gangster films (Mean Streets, Goodfellas or Casino) and bleak movies about ultraviolent anti-heroes (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Cape Fear). Good as these films were – and some are among the best ever made – they give the impression that there was a limit to what the two could do together. But then there’s The King of Comedy, a weird little early eighties film that shows the breadth of talent and skill these artists possessed.
It’s the story of a wannabe comedian named Rupert Pupkin (played by De Niro) who’s desperate to land a spot on The Jerry Langford Show, a late-night variety program along the lines of The Tonight Show, with Jerry Lewis as the Johnny Carson-like host. Unlike many of the characters De Niro has played in Scorsese films, Pupkin is kind of a putz. He has a silly mustache, combs his hair over to one side and wears dorky sports coats and slacks. And he lives with his mom. In one classic scene, he turns on a tape recorder in his room and pretends he’s being interviewed by Langford, only to be interrupted by her shouting at him from the living room. “Mom!” Pupkin shouts back in a teenager-worthy whine that sounds incredibly funny and a little bit creepy coming from a 34-year-old man. As a comedian, Pupkin is a walking flop; he uses canned lines everyday on strangers, and they all induce groans. Yet Pupkin quickly reveals himself to be a menacing character, and after a series of very, very uncomfortable run-ins with Langford, he and another insane fan named Masha (played brilliantly by Sandra Bernhard) kidnap the TV star and hold him until Pupkin is offered an appearance on the show.
The King of Comedy is also a cinematic departure from other Scorsese works; it lacks the aggressive camera work and editing of his classics. Still, I rate it among his best, mostly because it’s a masterpiece of dramatic tension. From the beginning scene, when Pupkin muscles his way into Langford’s limo and begs for a chance to be on his show, this movie seethes with tension right through to the end. Part of this is due to the outrageousness of the kidnap plot, but it owes more to the acting and the subtlety of the script. In that early scene where Pupkin and Langford are in a limo together, for example, face to face for the first time, their motivations are so clear – Langford’s to be left alone, Pupkin’s to be accepted – that the clash between them is vivid and stark. Yet the scene keeps going beyond probability because the Langford character is just enough of a mensch to not kick Pupkin out of the car, and Pupkin is just enough of a psycho to not pick up on Langford’s vibe and just sane enough to appeal to Langford’s inner mensch. It’s a complex social interaction, but De Niro and Lewis make it look easy and natural. It takes a lot of skill to pull off that kind of scene. I also rank it high on my list of top Scorsese films because it’s wickedly smart and funny. Smart because he’s basically giving us a crime thriller in a comedy’s clothing. And it’s very funny, though darkly and ironically so. Some of the funniest lines and scenes are funny precisely because Pupkin is not funny. His jokes bomb hilariously, and some of the wittiest zingers are aimed at Pupkin’s lame humor. So it’s kind of a meta-film: a dark thriller about comedians that’s as hilarious and scary as can be.
- Joe Miller

Monday, June 18, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #59 - Built To Spill - Keep It Like A Secret

It's funny that Guitar Hero is such a popular game in this decade. Mainstream musicians with the chops to merit the title "guitar hero" are scarce. We have no modern equivalent to Hendrix, Gilmour or Page. Those who are still around (John Frusciante, Nels Cline, Eddie Van Halen) were cutting their teeth 20+ years ago, and the competition was stiff. Frankly, guitar heroics in pop music have been dead since the mid-90s when metal went underground and the pop landscape was flooded with average strummers who relied on witty wordplay or knew their way around a studio. Enter Doug Martsch and his band Built To Spill. Martsch is carrying the progressive torch in pop-rock's simplistic landscape and no other album in BTS' catalog exemplifies his abilities better than Keep It Like A Secret.
            Now, Martsch isn't a master at two-hand tapping. He doesn't play his guitar behind his head or rip white-hot leads. No, his importance rests in his tone and imaginative and melodic lines, of which he has an abundance. This is exemplified in opener "The Plan," which varies between crashing chords, a winding two-note octave solo, and a springy passage of static and feedback. Then, on "Carry The Zero," Martsch opens up, soloing over the first chorus by letting each note sustain and swell to feedback before sliding to the next one. The tone is so lush it sounds like honey oozing out of the speakers. Another example of Martsch's control is the opening to "Time Trap" which bubbles up from a rattling hum into a soaring crescendo. Throughout Keep It Like a Secret, Built To Spill jams, not in an aimless navel-gazing sense, but instead utilizing a vibrant sonic palette and a keen sense for editing.
            Martsch's guitar playing isn't the only factor in the success of Keep It Like a Secret. The rest of the band deftly holds their own as the album progresses and Martsch's lyrics more than match his playing. Interestingly, Martsch has said in interviews that the words are an afterthought; they are based on which vowels fit the melodies. This is apparent as none of the lyrics are linear but lines like "didn't add up, forgot to carry the zero" and "I don't like this air, but that doesn't mean I'll stop breathing it" are far from pedestrian. Plus, in Martsch's hands they all sound great.
            Almost all of Built To Spill's catalog is worth exploring. There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Perfect From Now On and You In Reverse are all highly recommended. Another step would be the Live album as it contains songs from three of their best albums as well as some excellent covers of Neil Young and Love as Laughter. Plus, hearing the band live solidifies Martsch's status as a guitar legend.

Paul Custer

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Nick Drake and Fairport Convention

I was getting bogged down in psychedelic rock and punk, so I asked my record store friend to recommend some folky mellow stuff, and he suggested Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. All I knew about Drake was what I’d heard on a Volkswagen commercial, and Fairport Convention I’d heard just once on a bootleg cassette and I couldn’t remember much about it. The Drake was along the lines of what I was expecting, simple melodies sung and strummed gently on an acoustic guitar. I picked up Family Tree, a 2007 double-record release of his earliest recordings. His voice is so smooth and soothing, sad in the loveliest way. It’s got harmonies built into it, like he’s somehow singing bass and treble at the same time. And his guitar work leans to the fingerpicking end of the spectrum, so it’s busy and intricate, but like his voice, it’s velvety, simple, it never overpowers. I’m instantly calmed when I lower the needle onto any of the four sides. In addition to the solo numbers, they added a few piano tunes by Drake’s mother that were recorded on very lo-fi equipment. They feel like ghostly tunes from another time, like something you’d hear on a 78, without all the crackles and pops. I love listening to these in the late afternoon, when the sun’s angled off behind the trees. It’s music to deepen thoughts.
            Fairport Convention was full of surprises. I grabbed their second, third and fourth albums—What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief, all from 1969. The first big surprise is that I like them as much as I do, because the vocals are of a style that I’ve never been crazy about. Sandy Denny’s singing fits in with the ilk of female folk singers who stay mostly in the higher octaves and whose voices have a lilting quality that calls to mind Medieval maidens and mead. I don’t hate it; it’s just a little too pretty for me. Music has to have at least some darkness to keep me coming back to it. Somehow Denny manages to fold a bit of evil into her pretty voice. Part of the secret, I think, lies in the harmony vocals, sung by Richard Thompson. He adds just the right low notes to give Denny’s voice fullness, and his voice tucks perfectly into hers, bolsters it, never overshadows. The other factor is the instrumentation; Fairport Convention’s arrangements are adventurous and eclectic, woven with strands of blues, rock, raga and folk melodies from all around the world, and electric guitars and full drums, and they stretch Denny’s voice in ways that I’ve never heard Judy Collins’s voice stretched. For instance, on the last song on side one of What We Did On Our Holidays, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” begins with an electric guitar strummed low and quietly in a way that makes you know that the song is going to build up to triumphant heights, and it does: the drums kick in, and the guitar and bass play harder, and Denny belts it out: “Come on! Give it to me! I’ll keep it with mine!”
            My favorite number on that album is “Book Song.” Thompson sings lead, but not by much; Denny is right there with him through every note. The melody is a masterpiece, drawn out almost to the point of being epic, and their voices are bolstered by wide-ranging sounds: a bit of sitar here and there, some violin, a tape of an electric guitar solo played backward and forward, a gentle swell of organ at the end. Their music becomes more adventurous across the arc of the three albums. The second to the last song on Unhalfbricking is an eleven-and-a-half-minute adventure that begins sort of like a British or Celtic folk tune and builds into a fulsome jam with violin, thick bass and electric guitar with a raga flair. This roaming track seems a precursor to the third record, Liege & Lief, which, unlike the others, has no covers of songs by American folks artists such as Dylan. The roots here all dig deep into the British Isles, all punched up with modern amplification and attitude, all adorned with Denny’s beautiful voice, and the result is quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard. It’s got the mellow I was asking for, but it also has the complexity I need to keep me coming back to it. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On At The Movies #41 - Rio Bravo (1959, dir. Howard Hawks); Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, dir. John Carpenter)

            In his 30+ years working in Hollywood prior to making this film, director Howard Hawks had refined his skills to a sharp point and was able to use any trick in the book to create the film he wanted. Not that he’s striving for any kind of trickery here, simply straightforward filmmaking, telling a story, getting you involved with the characters. And underlying all that “simple” storytelling, there’s a fundamental humanism at work that colors his every decision. In most all of Hawks’ best films there’s a community at work, and each character within that is drawn in enough detail to give you an idea of the personal struggles they’re facing. Here, in this greatest of Western films, you run across a seemingly stock assembly of characters – sheriff faced with a sinister cattle baron and overwhelming odds, town drunk who used to be a great gunslinger, woman with a shady past drifting into town, old man past his prime working with the sheriff, young hotshot gunslinger – but at every turn, Hawks tweaks the clichés of the Western film even while utilizing them and in the process creates one of the all-time great Westerns – no, scratch that: one of the all-time great films. Even though here he is working in the Western genre, he’s drawing on his experience using nearly every genre – suspense thrillers, screwball comedies, male-oriented action films, dramas, even musicals – and putting it all into what may in fact be the finest of his many fine films.
            The set-up for the film is simple and brilliantly told in a dialogue free opening scene that pays homage to his beginnings in the silent era and sets up almost every conflict that will play out throughout the film. The cattle baron’s wild younger brother, Joe Burdette, attempts to humiliate the drunken former deputy (played by Dean Martin) by having him fish in a spittoon for coins to buy a drink. Martin’s character, Dude, is stopped by the sheriff, John T. Chance (John Wayne, in one of his finest performances), who forces him to pass on the drink and keep his dignity. This sets off a fight between Dude, Chance, and Burdette that ends with Burdette killing an innocent bystander attempting to break up the fight. Chance and Dude work together to apprehend Burdette and lock him up until the Marshall comes to town in a week and thus the wheels are set in motion. Burdette’s wealthy brother Nathan enlists his workers and hired killers to try to extricate his brother from the jail while Chance and Dude, with help from the old man (Stumpy, another turn as comic foil by the great character actor Walter Brennan), hold off Burdette’s attempts to free his brother Joe. Enter into this scene Chance’s cattleman friend Pat with hotshot young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson) in tow. Unlike most young hotshot gunslingers, Colorado’s got a cool head rather than something to prove, and is not quick to show off his skills. He also stays out of the conflict until the choice between right and wrong is forced upon him. Also enter fallen woman “Feathers” (Angie Dickinson), who rolls into town with a wanted sign bearing her likeness and is asked to leave on the next stage out, something she’s reluctant to do. This is partly because she wants to put her past behind her, and partly because she’s fallen for Chance.
            Though the film plays out in ways that you might expect – or might not, given how Hawks makes subtle variations on the conventions of the genre – it’s the small touches, plus Hawks’ complete mastery of technique that raise it up. Though the characters of the film fall into recognizable types, the underlying ideas here of right vs. wrong (rather than law vs. criminals) and the fundamental humanity and dignity of each of the characters comes through. Dude is angered that he’s forced to face his debilitating alcoholism in the first scene, but in a pivotal scene later Chance lets him lead their charge into Burdette’s bar to find a hired assassin, and at his moment of greatest self-doubt – linked directly to his drinking – he is able to triumph. Similarly, dignity and respect is accorded to Feathers, who unashamedly claims her past deeds, but shows herself ready to move beyond them to work within the existing community, and to Stumpy, who far from being a “useless old cripple” is one of the most stalwart defenders of right within the film. All of these ideas are masterfully rendered for both maximum entertainment value and maximum impact by Hawks, from camera placement and framing, to camera movement, to editing, to his work with all the actors and the screenwriters. And if the ideas sound “heavy” let me assure that Hawks has fun with every bit of the film, poking and prodding Wayne’s star persona (especially via Walter Brennan’s constant razzing of Wayne’s character), utilizing Martin and Nelson’s fame as musicians for a musical interlude, and using Dickinson to provide a strong female lead to rival the lead roles he’d directed in such films as Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep. There may be other more portentous Westerns, like The Searchers, that have been accorded “Masterpiece” status because of their more openly broadcast seriousness, but in its fundamental humanism, in its mastery of film technique, I can’t think of one I prefer to Rio Bravo.
            So surely John Carpenter’s exploitation quickie homage to Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, couldn’t possibly be on that level could it? Well, no, but within its own framework, it tries really hard to be. Carpenter has noted Hawks as his all-time favorite director and it’s not hard to see why – mixing art and craft deftly, jumping from genre to genre, always keeping a focus on the actors to keep viewers interested in the film; Carpenter’s own bag of tricks is straight out of Hawks’ book. The setup here is also simple: a multi-racial L.A. gang has stolen a cache of automatic weapons and chosen to avenge their comrades killed in the robbery at any cost. Switch the focus to a defunct police precinct, closing down the next morning for good. A relatively young, new sergeant is assigned to oversee what should be a sleepy last night at the precinct. Switch the focus to a prison, where notorious criminal Napoleon Wilson is being transferred to a maximum-security prison. Switch the focus to a father and daughter lost in the region trying to find a relative’s house. Father and daughter have a run-in with the gang in which the daughter is killed, so the father kills one of the gang members in retribution and flees to the precinct where the prison bus happens to be pulling in any minute for a break in driving. Carpenter echoes Hawks’ economy of storytelling, and once all the characters have been maneuvered into place, the siege begins. Though the film borrows from Rio Bravo in its mostly male community buoyed by a strong woman, its cop trying to lead a motley crew through vicious waves of assault by a mostly anonymous enemy, and its concern not with law versus criminality but rather right versus wrong, it takes off here from its inspiration in Hawks’ film and moves into the realm of another inspiration, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, where a faceless and unrelenting enemy continues pressing its attack on our heroes in their sanctuary, picking them off one by one while internal tensions flare up inside around a catatonic victim. Of course here no one chooses to side with Right, they’re forced into the situation in a life or death struggle. And Carpenter’s hand with humor is subtle, and probably also less confident than the mature Hawks, but just when you think things are falling a little flat and you’re laughing at the film, a grin pokes through in the form of a deadpan delivery from the actors, or a sign that reads “Support your local police” used to repel attackers. You can see his youth and exuberance compared to Hawks’ confident skill and maturity, but his film retains all the entertaining qualities of Rio Bravo (and Night of the Living Dead), updated and relocated to then-contemporary L.A., and even a touch of the master’s humanism in finding each of the characters worthy of heroism.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: LA Punk

I read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and was peeved to find almost no mention of Los Angeles. To me, L.A. punk is punk. Those great bands that came out of there in the late 70s and early 80s weren’t the first punk bands, but they were most highly evolved and lowly devolved. My conviction is probably due to the movie Decline of Western Civilization. It’s by far the best punk-rock doc and it had a profound impact on me, especially the scenes with the Germs. I was in junior high when I first saw those shots of Darby Crash writhing on stage, cutting his bare chest with shards from broken bottles, screaming the most guttural screams that any punk has ever screamed. The Germs’ GI has been reissued on CD this week after a far-too-long hiatus. Produced by Joan Jett, it’s an all-out scorcher. A lot of people call it the first hardcore album ever made, which is understandable, because they play very fast, loud and hard. But there’s a lot more going on than pure aggression. The guitar work is intricate and spidery, the drums are spastic but centered and forceful, and the bass playing is very loose and spaced out. I read Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs before I read Please Kill Me, and I was surprised to learn that the Germs didn’t listen to a whole lot of punk. They were into the New York Dolls, the Ramones and especially the Stooges, but they were actually more into the arty 70s bands that I always thought punk was rebelling against. Lead singer Crash and guitarist Pat Smear hailed David Bowie and Yes as their favorites, and drummer Don Bolles was big into Krautrock. All this comes through on the album—once you get past the initial shock of its all-out punkness.
            When I first got into punk as a teen in the early 80s, the scene was dominated by hardcore. Anything over two chords was pretentious art rock. My gateway albums were the Circle Jerks’ Wild in the Streets and Golden Shower of Hits, but both of those came out after hardcore had put a stranglehold on the punk scene. The real catalyst was Black Flag’s Damaged. After that record came out, hardcore spread like some sort of violent, conformist disease that consumed disaffected kids from the suburbs. Punk slid into a single, high gear and sort of stayed there, and that’s what a lot of people think of when they think of punk. The fact is that the L.A. punk scene was very eclectic, even after hardcore hit. The members of Black Flag themselves were hardly close-minded hardcore freaks. The band’s founder, Greg Ginn, is a professed lifelong Dead Head, and his label, SST, put out some of the most eclectic and innovative music from the 80s – Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust. And it was Henry Rollins who turned me on to Jimi Hendrix when I interviewed him outside of the Rainbow Music Hall in ’85 for a little fanzine I made on my mom’s photocopier.
            If you really want to get a feel for the scope and musical promise of the LA punk scene, check out X and Zolar X. The former were arguably the best musicians and songwriters in the scene, and their first four records – Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the Real World were tours de force. They played fast and hard, but their musicianship was always top notch, especially Billy Zoom’s guitar playing, which had rockabilly flair to it, and the vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. And they would slow it up and play more old rhythm and blues, good old rock and roll, and even a dash of country here and there. I played Under the Big Black Sun for a friend of mine who thinks he doesn’t like punk. (He likes the Clash, but strictly London Calling and later), and he thought I was full of it when I told him it was punk. Zolar X, on the other hand, were not great musicians. And technically, they weren’t punk. They were part of that nebulous mid-70s genre between glam rock and heavy metal. But they were de facto members of the punk scene. They lived in the same ghetto apartment complex where a lot of the early punks lived (members of the Germs shacked up there, for instance), and they were weird as hell. They billed themselves as aliens from outer space. They spoke and alien language that they’d made up and wore angular, bright-colored satin outfits like the kind you might see on The Avengers, as well as antennae and pointy ears – all the time, everywhere they went. Since they lived in the same place as some the more active early punkers, and they played a lot of the same small venues, they had an unwitting influence on the scene. Their music sounded less like the Germs and X and more like Kiss, without the practiced musicianship and money for production, and way more freakified with outer space sounds. Years later, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys found one of their records in a used record bin and was blown away. He reissued their rare EPs and 45s on a single LP on his punk label, Alternative Tentacles, thus officially sanctifying them in the church of punk.

            So to hell with those snobby New Yorkers and their “definitive” history books that suggest that the Big Apple and London are the only place where punk mattered. As far as I’m concerned, the genre was at its best in the West.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #58 --- Todd Rundgren --- A Wizard, A True Star (1973)

This is about reinvention. This is about not playing safe, moving forward and confounding your audience. The early 70s were full of singers reinventing themselves; on Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell went from confessional folkie to sophisticated jazz ingénue and with On the Beach (part of the so-called “ditch trilogy”), Neil Young left his fans behind by not recording Harvest 2. In the grand tradition of The Beatles’ continuous progression into the unknown, these artists at their peak never made the same record twice. Then, there is Todd; wunderkind musician and boy wonder producer who, by 1972, was an established songwriter and maker of hits. But, Todd didn’t want to go down the boring, MOR route that would have been so easy for him. Instead, he decided to take loads of drugs, buy a moog and venture out into sonic space.
The Todd album that is generally considered to be his best is Something/Anything? recorded just before Wizard, in 1971. Something/Anything? is actually a transitional album, marking the point between his early Laura Nyro- and Carole King-inspired LPs and his mind-expanding excursions of the mid-70s. One can see the next phase of Todd’s career in tracks like “Night the Carousel Burned Down” and the introspective “I Went to the Mirror,” but there was nothing that truly prepared his record buying public for what happened next. Wizard is a mind-blowing sonic barrage of distorted drums, wild guitar, weird electronics and freaky lyrics. It’s an anything-goes record, taking in Hendrix-y rock, Philly-soul and ahead-of-its-time synth noodlings, all cut up in a complex aural montage.  It’s Todd’s greatest achievement, and one of rock’s most ambitious relics.
Wizard kicks off in superb style with a statement of intent: the wall of sound epic “International Feel.” Everything is fully layered here - vocals, guitars, synths - all in a hallucinatory blaze not for the faint of heart. Todd sings of “Interplanetary deals” and “Universal Ideals” over blissful major 9 chords, like a cosmic Buddha fed on a diet of Burt Bacharach records. Over-produced? Probably. Self-Indulgent? Hell, yeah. But, it’s also great fun, and indisputably brilliant.
The extended side-one collage continues with the Disney chestnut “Never, Never Land,” spelling out Todd’s intention to go beyond the usual thing, both in terms of songbook, but also actually living on Earth. It’s a gorgeous, surprising track. Following that, there is a series of short, quirky, goofy prog tunes, quickly segued in a dizzying display of virtuosity. It’s a lot like getting a book thrown at you and trying to read it; you’ll only pick up a few of the nuances on first listen. The highlight of side one is the stellar “Zen Archer,” a perfect summation of where Todd’s head was in ’73. It’s a breathtaking adventure with lush chords, stacked vocals, feedback guitar, Billy Cobham-esque funky drums, sound effects and wailing sax. It’s one of the greatest tracks in the history of prog ‘n’ roll. Side one ends with a reprise of “International Feel,” giving us the impression of a unified suite. The line “Utopia is Here!” is Todd’s literal proclamation of his future.
Side two is seemingly more conventional, being a series of unconnected songs. The eclecticism and experimentation continues, however, with a brace of heartbreaking ballads, a rollicking rocker and even a soul medley, with Todd giving a nod to his heroes Thom Bell and Smokey Robinson. It’s strange sitting in the middle of all this LSD-marinated material, but somehow, the audacity of it works well. The LP ends with one of Todd’s best tracks “Just One Victory,” an uplifting anthem and a splendid finale. When it’s all over, you’ve been on a journey, one which you’ll want to take again and again, as I have.
Patti Smith, in her review in Rolling Stone at the time, wrote “Todd Rundgren is preparing us for a generation of frenzied children who will dream in animation,” which for me captures the feel of this amazing album.

- Ben Sumner