Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Joey Levine

Dragon Tales has to be one of the most odious children's programs ever produced. My four-year-old son runs screaming from the room whenever it comes on. I assume this is because he is as turned off by the show's inane moralizing and poor animation as I am. I am convinced that this sort of sanctimonious, politically correct kid's programming is what turns children into hard-hearted conservatives when they grow up.

So anyway, the show basically blows, and mercifully my son doesn't want to watch it. So why the heck can't I get its damned theme song out of my head? Simple: It's because it was written by Joey Levine, and the guy is some kind of evil genius who can put things in your head that never, ever come out. If you need proof of this look no further than the fact that he wrote the music for the "sometimes you feel like a nut" Almond Joy/Mounds commercial. You probably haven't heard that in a quarter century, but it's running through your head right now, isn't it? Yeah, I thought so. Levine wrote dozens of other commercial jingles that are permanently lodged in your subconscious as well, but I won't tell you what they are because you'll start to go crazy.

More importantly, Joey Levine was also a prime mover in the bubblegum revolution of the late sixties. "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," "Chewy, Chewy," and dozens of other bubblegum hits flowed from Joey's pen, and his nasal, proto-punk vocals were featured on many of the smashes from the Buddha Records hit factory. Bubblegum got zero critical respect at the time, but in retrospect it was an important simplification/reduction of rock music at a time when it was starting to become pretentious. Punk was a later such simplification that owed much to bubblegum music (the late Jeffrey Hyman claimed he re-named himself "Joey Ramone" in tribute to Levine, and the Talking Heads, Dickies, Ramones and others covered bubblegum hits).

Here is a sampling of some of Levine's less-known handiwork, "I Enjoy Being A Boy In Love With You" was performed by The Banana Splits, but written by Levine (I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but Bingo, Fleagal, Drooper and Snork combined wrote less than 25% of The Banana Splits material, and most of that was album filler). "Quick Joey Small" was featured on a Buddha Records Bubblegum sampler called The Kazenetz-Katz Super Circus. Why haven't more bands covered "Quick Joey Small"?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Fetchin' Bones

All Music Guide says Fetchin' Bones were a proto-grunge act, but that in no way does justice to what a quirky and unique band they were. In reality Fetchin' Bones music was a joyous mishmash of punk, funk, rockabilly, surf, and jangle-pop, filtered through a quirky, uniquely Southern, sensibility. Musical boundaries meant nothing to this band. Fetchin’ Bones were fun in a way that grunge could never be.

Talk about an energetic live act. Fetchin' Bones could really get a crowd of white people moving (their live cover of "Superfreak" could easily have caused the floors of many indie clubs to collapse). I remember they always had a big box of odd percussion instruments on stage that lent an element of mysterious alchemy to their show. And lead singer Hope Nicholls seemed like a real wild woman. What fun.

Fetchin' Bones put out three wonderful albums, Cabin Flounder, Bad Pumpkin, and Galaxie 500, before they produced Monster, an album that smoothed off some of their quirkier edges and moved the band closer to heavy metal territory. When that bid for mainstream acceptance flopped, the band called it a day. They deserved better. How can you not love a band that named an album Bad Pumpkin? (Hope Nicholls and guitarist Aaron Pitkin later founded the bands Sugarsmack and Snagglepuss. They also own a clothing store, Boris & Natasha, in Charlotte, NC.) I think Fetchin' Bones might have a myspace page if you want to be one of their "friends."

"Asteroid" is one of the many excellent cuts from their first album, 1985’s Cabin Flounder, on DB records.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Everything Must Go!

I've been reluctant to weigh in on a couple of subjects because I don't want to wallow in nostalgia, even though nearly everything on this blog is about music I listened to long ago. One is the closing of CBGBs and the other is the closing of Tower Records.

Too much has been written about CBGBs already. I have many fond memories of the club. I vividly remember the first time I walked through its hallowed doors. I was hit by an incredible blast of sound from the guitars of the Lazy Cowgirls. I could literally feel the music hit me in the chest. It was so loud and powerful I thought it would knock the wind out of me. I saw tons of memorable shows there (too many to list), and always enjoyed the genuinely grungy atmosphere. So it's closed now, and my reaction is "big deal." Clubs come and go all the time, and CBGBs had a great run. CBGBs was special, but then I assume so was Max's Kansas City. Life goes on.

I have a different reaction to the closing of Tower. I find this a bit sadder. As with CBGBs I have a lot of fond memories of Tower Records. I can still recall the feeling of excitement I felt upon making a trip to Tower in Washington D.C. when I was in high school--from the overwhelming sense of anticipation as I looked for a parking space in the GW neighborhood, to the misplaced feeling of pride I felt at the approving nods of the tattooed and pierced music-snob clerks when I checked out. Going to Tower was like entering a different world from the mall chains in Annapolis that I was desperate to leave behind. Everything about Tower just seemed cooler, and I felt cooler for shopping there (and yes, I know that is idiotic, but I'm just trying to be honest).

But it's not just my memories of the place that make me feel the closing of Tower more intensely than the closing of CBGBs. It's because the closing of Tower is another nail in the coffin of the brick-and-mortar record store. I've known this was coming for years, and I've watched as one-by-one my favorite record stores have closed up shop: The Annapolis Record and Tape Exchange (okay, so there was one cool thing in Annapolis), Venus Records and Rocks In Your Head in New York, Rick's Records and In Your Ear in Providence, to name just a few. There are only two actual record stores left in my area, and from what I can gather they could close at anytime. Face it: the record store is dead.

Of course, there are other ways to buy music (online retailers, eBay, downloads, Borders, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target), but none of them are remotely as satisfying as browsing a well-stocked record store. And sure, I realize that some of the record stores that are still out there will continue to find a niche in the market (from what I understand Other Music situated across the street from the Tower on Broadway is still going gangbusters). But this is much like the current situation with the LP, you can still buy new LPs from specialty manufacturers and retailers, but for all intents and purposes the LP is dead and it’s not coming back. Everything must go! All things must pass...My favourite buildings are all laid to waste. One might as well sculpt a statue from toothpaste.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Velvet Monkeys - Spooky

The Velvet Monkeys' story is the stuff of rock legend and should be familiar to all Americans between the ages of 36 and 37 who came of age during the period of Velvet-Monkey-Mania. I don’t know that there is much I can add to the story that isn't known already: The Velvet Monkeys' rise to fame was meteoric; they went from opening act for Wayne Newton to the first band simultaneously featured on the covers of both SPIN and Psychology Today within a matter of weeks. The bad blood between Don Fleming and U2's Bono was as famous at the time as the later Biggie/Tupac feud. To this day, when he will speak about it on-the-record, Bono refuses to refer to Fleming as anything other than "El Diablo." And if a recent Kitty Kelly biography is to be believed, drummer Dr. L. Rum Hubbard Rummager's frequent late-night visits to Nancy Reagan at the White House were of something more than a medicinal nature.

Sadly, the Velvet Monkeys' fall from grace was as rapid as their ascent to the pinnacle of rock stardom. Just weeks after headlining the YES NUKES! Benefit Concert with Ted Nugent, the group split acrimoniously amid well-publicized drug problems, leaving a trail of lawsuits, untidy hotel rooms, and accusations of bestiality in their wake.

Speculation about a possible reunion was a staple of the tabloid press until Don Fleming's mysterious and untimely 1989 death in a bizarre electric can-opener accident. Rumors that Fleming's death was a hoax have only increased after he was reportedly sited outside a so-called gentleman's club in Sioux City, South Dakota in 1998. Dr. Malcolm Rivera was last seen in Washington Square Park trying to sell a book of self-published poetry written exclusively in Esperanto. Dr. L. Rum Hubbard Rummager changed his name to Jay Spiegel and has been a perennial third-party candidate for President. Rumor has it that he was Ross Perot's first choice for Vice Presidential running mate in 1992, and he only settled on Gen. James Stockdale when it was discovered that Spiegel had something of a "nanny problem."

But then, you know all this already. What you may not know is that (according to Wikipedia) the master-tapes for these two songs, "Spooky" and "Trance Band and Process" were the only thing Geraldo discovered in Al Capone's vault.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Redd Kross does PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey's first album, Dry opens with the stark, masochistic "Oh My Lover" in which the subject of the song abjectly begs her lover to stay with her even though he(?) loves another woman. ("Oh my lover, don't you know it's alright / You can love her, and you can love me at the same time.") It is one of the most unsettling opening tracks on a first album I can think of, and was an introduction to a major talent with a uniquely bleak approach to songwriting. Here Redd Kross transform the song into a sleazier version of David Crosby's "Triad."* Classy.

This is actually a fascinating study in how different a song can become merely by switching the gender of the singer. The sound changes little from the original and the tone of desperation remains, but that just makes it sound like Jeff McDonald, really, really wants to have that three-way. With what should be a meaningless change, the song’s connotations shift radically. This appeared on the b-side a 10" single of "The Lady In the Front Row."

*I think "Triad" is one of the worst songs ever written, ranking only slightly above "Brother Louie" by Stories. The Byrds were right to kick David Crosby's hippy ass out of the Byrds for writing such garbage.

Happy Birthday iPod

Apparently the iPod turns five today. So happy birthday iPod. It may well be true that as Farhad Manjoo writes in Salon the iPod and digitization of music have "altered how we experience music more fundamentally than any technology since the advent of audio recording."

Manjoo points out how complicated our relationship to the iPod tends to be. Though he loves his iPod, he says he sometimes wishes it had never been invented...It's great to have so much music at your fingertips, but doesn't the iPod tend to foster a kind of musical ADD in which you skip from song to song without ever truly soaking in anything? Does walking around with headphones all the time cut you off from the rest of the world? Etc., etc.

What Manjoo misses, I think, is that these are the kind of questions that come with the introduction of any new technology, and the more revolutionary the technology, the greater the anxiety about change. Take a look at debates that raged about the train, the automobile, and even the typewriter when they were introduced if you don't believe me. One would be hard pressed to find any technology, no matter how helpful, no matter how much it enriched our lives, that wasn’t met with some level of ambivalence and resistance. Though there are no records to document this, I expect the first humans to take to cave dwelling complained that it had cut them off from the "authenticity" of their nomadic experience as hunters and gathers.

Such fears tend to fade over time. I remember in the early-eighties predictions that the advent of "test tube babies" would have a radical effect on our lives and that the technology was moving forward before we had time for adequate debate on the pros and cons of the procedure. Some worried the test tube baby would mean we would cease to be human (again, if you don't believe me take a look at the debates from the time). Who worries about that now?

The same people today claim we're not ready for BioNanotechnology because we haven't pondered all the moral implications long enough. To hell with them, I want to be turned into an invincible nonobot-cyborg that can lift cars, see through buildings, shoot lazers out of my eyes, and has an iPod that knows what I want to listen to before I do implanted in my brain as soon as possible. Sign me up. I'll let others wring their hands and worry about what it means to be human. If we ever listened to these kinds of people no new technology would ever go anywhere because we'd be stuck debating its merits ad infinitum. We'd still be living in caves debating whether fire was on balance good or bad for humanity.

I think Manjoo also misses the fact that people tend to appropriate technologies in ways that work for them, and don't necessarily use them in a uniform manner. People find ways to personalize technology. Consider for example the plethora of aftermarket products that are available for the iPod. This is actually a sign of a robust and healthy technology, not a flawed or incomplete one. No one argues that there is some basic problem with the automobile because people customize it. The very fact that people want to customize it merely indicates that they want to personalize their relationship to to the technology, and by extension that it is important to them.

For instance, I only rarely listen to my iPod through headphones, but it has made my daily commute much more pleasant with the added accessory of a radio transmitter. What could possibly be wrong with listening to the music I want to hear in my car? When I do listen through headphones it is usually through a pair of Grado SR80 headphones (I never took the stock ones out of the box). And my iPod is clad in a fluorescent green silicon skin. It protects the iPod from scratches true, but it also personalizes it--makes it more uniquely mine.

I was surprised to see a couple of "audiophile" complaints about the iPod pop up in Manjoo's article, as these usually get passed over as applying only to nutcases. First, the complaint about compression of music (the reduction of dynamic range) is valid and real. But this has been an ongoing problem that started well before the advent of the iPod, and is probably more linked to the introduction of the CD changer than to the iPod. As for the digital compression process (reduction of file size), it is true that it reduces audio quality, especially at the frequency extremes. But in my experience this is not a problem in the high noise environment of the automobile or for casual listening, and I still have my turntable and a decent CD player for those times when I want to relax and really sink into the music. And if you insist on audiophile quality from your iPod you can use Apple Lossless compression, get a good pair of Grado headphones, and buy an audiophile quality headphone preamp. Your life will be a little bulkier, but the point is it's your life and your iPod and you can use it however you want to.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Mothership Connection

I have really been enjoying the recent Honda Odyssey commercials featuring Parliament's 1976 smash "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)." But let's face it, if you are considering buying a Honda Odyssey you are among a handful of the most un-funky creatures in the Universe. Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk drives an Odyssey. Rumpofsteelskin drives an Odyssey. The truly funky among us drive Dodge Caravans. The truly, truly, freaky-deaky funky drive Grand Caravans.*

I saw P-Funk live at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. in 1992. While they were musically as tight as ever, and both Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell were there, I wish I had been able to see them back in the 70s when the shows were a true all-out spectacle. I also wish I had been able to see Glenn Goins perform. This clip from a 1977 show in Houston is among the best things I have seen on YouTube.

*Full disclosure: I drive a Grand Caravan and am unarguably the funkiest organism in the Universe.**
**Full, full disclosure: Only half of the above statement is true, I will leave it to you to decide which one.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Vomit Launch

Vomit Launch has to be one of the two or three most poorly chosen names in the history of indie rock (if you can think of worse ones, please share them). You expect a band named Vomit Launch to sound like the Circle Jerks not the Young Marble Giants' American cousins. I estimate that Vomit Launch could have sold an additional 3,000 records over the course of their career if they had named themselves the Little Furry Kittens, which would have brought their likely sales up to a respectable 3,087 units.

This stuff comes from a compilation of early material released by Teenbeat in 1994. "Star Trekking" was recorded in 1985 and originally released on the Not Even Pretty EP, "Blood On Me Eggrolls" was recorded in 1989 and is an outtake from their Rough Trade/Mad Rover LP, Mr. Spench.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Merle on Bob

I like country music. I know I'm not alone, but I wish I had a dime for everytime that someone told me "I like all kinds of music except COUNTRY!" I don't know whether this phenomena is rooted in the perception that Country is redneck music, or if a lot of people just genuinely don't like Country. Either way, I really don't understand it. Maybe it's something else altogether. Anyway, I like Country music a lot, I have ever since I was a kid. I remember sitting by the radio singing along to Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" (I still know all the words). I used to beg my Dad to take me to Bluegrass festivals. I remember having a particular fondness for a song called "I'm Gonna Hire A Wino To Decorate Our Home" by David Frizzell (younger brother of Lefty).

Merle Haggard is probably a big reason why a lot of socially progressive types like myself say they loathe Country music. 'Ole Merle let his redneck flag fly during the cultural ferment of the late sixties with such anti-hippie anthems as "Okie from Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side Of Me." But even a hardcore lefty like Phil Ochs recognized the strength of his artistry, and a closer inspection of his catalog reveals that he is not as much of a reactionary as many assume. There is a powerful populist streak running through songs like "Mama Tried," "Workin' Man Blues," "I'll Be A Hero (When I Strike)" and "If We Make It Through December" that show a real empathy for the plight of people who live paycheck to paycheck. I'm not going to deny that this form of populism can also have a nasty, bigoted, nativist side to it too, but I don't believe in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Plus, Haggard is a heck of a musician and singer.

This song comes from a 1970 Bob Wills tribute album that kicked off a Western Swing revival that continues to this day. Bob Wills had recently suffered a career-ending stoke, and Haggard gathered together a number of original Texas Playboys to record with his band The Strangers. Haggard caught some lightning in a bottle, and the result was one of the best albums of his career. It mystifies me that this is out of print. It was reissued by Koch back in 1995 after having been unavailable for over a decade, and now it is back out-of-print. Merle showed good taste in chosing "I Knew the Moment I Lost You," a fairly obscure Wills song, for this album.

I Knew The Moment I Lost You [Now reissued! click for Amazon link]

Little known fact: Merle Haggard and I are ordained ministers in the same church.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Died Pretty

Here is a band that I really lost track of. A little research indicates that they only recently broke up, but I mostly stopped following them after their first album. I'm not sure why honestly. When Free Dirt was first released in 1986 it seemed similar what was coming out of the so-called "Paisley Undergroud" in California, although I think Died Pretty were a bit less blatantly revisionist. I liked this album a lot at the time, but I never bought another one by the band.

This is the lead off track from Free Dirt, and I think it holds up quite nicely against similar retro-flavored indie music from that era. So does most of the rest of the album.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A short history of the car song

Car songs have played an important role in rock and roll's mythology virtually since its inception. Typically the car has represented adolescent dreams of freedom and sex, but the best rock and roll car songs present a more complex picture of the role of the automobile in middle-class American adolescent life. Chuck Berry set the gold standard in the 1950s with "No Particular Place to Go," by making the automobile simultaneously serve as both a sex machine and a chastity belt.

In the 1960s the Beach Boys' carried on the tradition with songs in which the automobile is sexualized to the extent that when Brian Wilson sings "Oh what she does to me, when she makes love to me" in "Don't Worry Baby" you can't be 100% certain he isn't singing about the car instead of a girl. But the Beach Boys' car songs are also shot through with an increasing level of anxiety and ambivalence about the automobile’s ability to deliver on its promise of freedom.

In the 1970s the automobile as sex machine theme becomes even more explicit in songs like "Chevy Van", but also finds deeper and darker expression in the music of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen seems all too aware that the automobile's promise of liberation is at best temporary and illusory, and it brings a level of desperation to his car songs that is almost operatic in scope.

You just know the narrator of "Born To Run," despite his desire to escape the confines of the working class world, will end up knocking Wendy up and working at a dead-end job. Or worse yet he'll end up like the narrator of "Darkness at the Edge of Town," offering bitter recriminations from beneath some bridge on the outskirts of town. But then of course the 1970s were a time of diminished expectations, when America seemed to be literally and figuratively running out of gas. (When I was in grade school in the 70s I vividly remember teachers telling us that we were the first generation of Americans who would end up worse off than our parents. That and we had to learn the metric system or the Japanese would eat us alive.)

Anyway, here is a weirdly wonderful car song from The Beat of the Traps, a compilation of songs from the "Send us your poems and we'll put them to music! Big money could be yours!" stuff collected by Tom Ardolino of NRBQ in thrift shops over the years. Where does this fit within the history of the rock and roll car song? Well, it doesn’t. Instead it’s a reminder that real life is too messy, and often too weird, to fit into the tidy historical narratives we construct in order to make sense of our world.

I genuinely enjoy listening to stuff like this. I like to imagine what the writer was thinking when they wrote it, the anticipation they felt waiting for their record to arrive, and their reaction when they got it. I like to think about what the performers must have thought of the lyrics they were assigned to put to music, if they thought about them at all. This is the stuff that happens outside the contours of official history.

And, not that it matters, but "Roadrunner" by The Modern Lovers is my all-time favorite driving/car song, because it really is about the journey, not the destination, and nobody gets that like Jonathan Richman. And you can't drive around in the rockin’ modern moonlight of Massachusetts listening to "Roadrunner" and not feel good. Please feel free to share your favorite driving/car song in comments.