Monday, February 16, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock - Goodnight Oslo

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 release a new album, Goodnight Oslo, in the U.S. tomorrow (it was released in the UK last week). I pre-ordered the vinyl directly from Yep Roc so that I could get a bonus CD with a few non-album tracks (somehow, I feel it is important that I add to my seemingly bottomless well of Hitchcock obscurities). I just noticed that the release date for the LP is not until March 3, so hopefully Yep Roc will give me access to the digital tracks tomorrow.

From the bits that I've heard of the album, it sounds very good. It's clearly the most carefully produced and pop-friendly album we've heard from our hero since his stay at A&M ended in the mid-nineties. The production sounds crisp, but not overdone. Certainly it's not fussed over to the point that the music will sound dated in a couple years.

In the meantime, I finally picked up the Luminous Groove boxset (on CD). Despite my uncharacteristic foot dragging, it's an essential purchase for any Hitchcock fan. The three albums presented in the box, fegMANIA!, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, and Element of Light, were among my first Hitchcock purchases and remain favorites. Between cassettes, LPs, and various CD editions, I've probably bought each of these albums several times over at this point. No doubt I'll buy them again when they're offered as implantable nano-crystals, or whatever format lies on the horizon beyond digital downloads.

Yep Roc currently has all three of these CDs on sale for $5, but the boxset (despite being pricey) is easy to recommend because of the excellence of the bonus material found on the double CD Bad Case of History album. The first CD focuses on (mostly) previously unreleased studio material. Much of it dates from 1987, the period between Element of Light and the Egyptians A&M debut, Globe of Frogs. Another excellent batch of previously unreleased songs dates from 1994. The material sounds too well produced to be demos, but not as polished as what appeared on the official releases from the period. It's hard to figure out why these songs wouldn't have seen release sooner. The liner notes are of no help in this regard, because there are none to speak of. Highlights include, "Bad Case of History," "Poisonous Angel," "Evil Guy," "Ivy Alone," and one of my all-time favorites "Surfer Ghost." The second CD collects live tracks recorded at various gigs from 1991 to 1993, think of it as Gotta Let This Hen Out! Mach II!

Here's another Egyptians obscurity from Hitchcock's A&M years that is not represented on the boxset. "Watch Your Intelligence" was released on the b-side of the "So You Think Your In Love" promo 12" in 1991. Perhaps this song will see official release on some future CD boxset chronicling Hitchcock's A&M recordings, but of course we might have moved on to nano-crystals by the time that happens. Stay tuned.

Watch Your Intelligence [right click to download]

Friday, February 13, 2009

Songs The Cramps Taught Us: Psychedelic Jungle

Well when I die don't you burry me at all, Just nail my bones up on the wall, Beneath these bones let these words be seen, "This is the bloody gears of a boppin' machine" Roll on...

I've spent a lot of time the past couple weeks thinking about what made The Cramps so great. Perhaps this should be an easy question to answer. I could just say "it's the music" and move on. But I think there's more to it than that.

Part of what makes The Cramps' music so powerful is the way in which Lux and Ivy were able to create a kind of alternative universe that their fans could inhabit. And the world they created is more tangible, more real, in part because it has been stitched together--like some beautiful Frankenstein monster--from things that are real (twisted rockabilly, garage punk, budget horror films, etc.).

The music The Cramps covered is an important part of their aesthetic. With their choice of covers, it was as if Lux and Ivy were pointing us toward a secret history of rock'n'roll. It was a history in which the music never became homogenized and corporatized, a history where rock'n'roll remained the music of outsiders, freaks and deviants. The Cramps were not alone in this attempt to reclaim rock'n'roll from the normals ("Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us"), but they brought a powerful sense of history to the project.

It's a fight Lux kept up till his last breath, and for that I salute him. Rock on.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Songs The Cramps Taught Us: She Said

Like Flies On Sherbert was recorded, mostly, over three nights in 1978, mixed over the year that followed, and released to an unsuspecting world in 1979 by Selvidge's Peabody label. While it takes only three minutes to record a song, Chilton emphasizes that sorting it out takes a lot longer, "especially if you cut things that're really crazy." Only five hundred of the album were pressed (a British label subsequently pressed a version), and I suspect that through a series of phone calls over a short time, one could locate the individuals who own four hundred of them. Peabody had little distribution, but Chilton’s ardent fans managed to acquire their copies.

- from It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon

During high school, I suffered from an extended case of insomnia. I spent most nights watching bad horror films on TV and listening to Nuggets-style garage rock, punk and 50s music. During my sophomore year, at the behest of my good friend, Bill, I bought Songs The Lord Taught Us by The Cramps. This took some convincing, I am ashamed to admit, as I was skeptical of any band that wouldn’t have a bass player. Anyway, when I finally listened, I heard songs that mixed Nuggets-style garage rock, punk and 50s music with lyrics about insomnia and horror movies. It was as if some sick pranksters had recorded a platter especially for me.

I became, and remain, a Cramps fan.

At that time, Lux & Ivy's last "real album" was 1981's moody Psychedelic Jungle. Since that creepy crawl, they had bestowed upon us a great live EP (Smell Of Female) an import comp (Off The Bone) and a US comp (Bad Music For Bad People) but no new stuff.

Despite being virtually identical to Off The Bone, Bad Music For Bad People was somehow my favorite. It was less expensive, for starters. More importantly, it had some of the greatest cover art of all time. In addition, it arrived on IRS Records, a label I (ahem) trusted. Finally, I got real gone on "New Kind Of Kick" and "Can't Hardly Stand It" -- both became mixtape favorites.

A highlight of Bad Music For Bad People was "She Said," a rockabilly shudder that sounded like the product of a drunken night. Lux Interior hectored listeners through a disposable cup he had lodged in his mouth to give the chanting an appropriately incoherent quality. At the mall, my friends and I would shout its maddening chorus, "Whoo Ee Ah Ah!," at each other like some catch phrase along the lines of "Where’s The Beef?" or "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls."

Around this time, (I'm not sure of the exact date) a compilation entitled Rockabilly Psychosis & The Garage Disease marched in on Big Beat Records It contained original takes of songs later covered by The Cramps, such as "She Said," "The Crusher" and the unbalanced "Love Me." Shards like The Legendary Stardust Cowboy's infamous "Paralyzed," The Sonics' "Psycho," and a cool number by The Gun Club made the disc all the more enticing. The coup de grace (coup d'etat?) - it held within its vinyl etchings, The Cramps, themselves, performing "Red Headed Woman" alongside Jim Dickinson, who I may or may not have heard of at the time. I have to assume "Red Headed Woman" was done by the group during a sojourn to Memphis to record with Alex Chilton. It's a fun song, and it features the the very talented Mr. Dickinson on lead vocals - but, darn it, I wanted Lux.

Still, I played the record to death.

With that...

"She Said" startled me. It was dramatically different than the version on Bad Music For Bad People that I had become used to. The Cramps' rendition, while obviously screwy enough, at least sounded like it was taped in a studio. There were discernible guitar parts and somebody had taken the time to set up a drum kit. This "She Said" however, as played by somebody named Hasil Adkins, sounded like a field recording of a mentally ill man. The Whoo Ee Ah Ah! bit, instead of being fun and catchy, was raspy and feisty - an evil whoop. There was no way of recognizing the instruments. Instead, I caught a simple rattling behind the lyrics that I assumed was intentional. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

I examined both versions of "She Said." Over and over. One against the other. As if by voodoo, I began encountering mentions of Hasil Adkins in magazines. He was some Appalachian nut who lived in a disused bus and howled about "hunching" and hot dogs. A basic misunderstanding of the recording process led Mr. Atkins to believe that most rock & roll musicians were one-man-bands who played guitar and percussion at the same time, which is precisely what he learned to do.

I quickly realized that the punkabilly and psychobilly I had been listening to for the past year represented fairly refined, or at least distilled, versions of maniacal sounds which had emanated from a vanishing America.

I figured I should hear more.

I learned about Hasil Adkins from The Cramps. I learned about a masked, musical polygamist who recorded under the alias "The Phantom" from The Cramps. I heard about Irving Klaw and Russ Meyer. I found out which numbers Carl Perkins was alleged to have recorded while tanked.

That's the effect The Cramps had on a lot of listeners. Lux & Ivy were infinitely hip people - always a few steps ahead of their audience. By listening to their records - which, frankly, there are too few of - we got a brief view into their unique world. Enticed by those flash glimpses, we always wanted to see more - they were magnificent carnival barkers; we were suckers stumbling by. We flatfoots knew our world could never be as wild or as groovy as theirs, but they inspired us to try.

The late, great Lux Interior and his brilliant partner, Ivy Rorschach, fired up a generation of oddball kids to search for the real and the campy and the artificial and the ugly and the beautiful and to find something/anything that rolled them all up into one fun, scary mess.

I miss him already.

Songs the Cramps Taught Us: Tav Falco's Panther Burns

A year after working with the Cramps in Memphis to produce tracks that would appear on Songs the Lord Taught Us and Gravest Hits, Alex Chilton was working with Tav Falco to create a masterpiece of wail and reverb on Behind the Magnolia Curtain.

1979 also happened to be the year Chilton released his polarizing Like Flies On Sherbert LP. This is one of those albums you love or hate and critics mostly hate it. I happen to love it, warts and all. "Hey Little Child!" is simply one of Chilton's finest moments. And while there are a few missteps, it's a really enjoyable record that explores rock and roll, country and blues in it's most basic forms.

Tav Falco's Panther Burns Behind The Magnolia Curtain also happens to be one of those records that you'll write off as a lo-fi mess or can't get enough of. The parallels between "Bourgeois Blues" and "Teenage Heart" with what the Cramps were doing during this period is obvious. I've also included the track "Red Headed Woman" from The Unreleased Sessions recorded at Kingsbury High School in Memphis.

In contrast, the track "Pantherman" from the ep Blow Your Top was recorded at Radio City Music Hall and represents Tav's New York period. The guitar on this track does have a nervy, edgy sound that was much more typical of New York than Memphis at the time.

Go man go!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Lux Reading

Available for free this week on Rock's Back Pages three cool interviews with Lux Interior by Paul Rambali (1978), Cynthia Rose (1983), and Susan Compo (1995).

One quote from Rambali's piece really jumped out at me:

For us, we've loved rock'n'roll all our lives, and this band is the end of it. We're not using the band to get into galleries or become mime dancers or anything. We want to be a rock'n'roll band, and I'll do it till past when I'm dead.

Made back in 1978, it's a promise Lux more than kept. Rock on Garbageman.

Songs The Cramps Taught Us: Green Fuz

The Cramps second album, the great Psychedelic Jungle, contained a remarkable seven covers. This was "remarkable" in the sense that it's an extraordinarily large amount of covers, and in the sense that the songs themselves were, well, remarkable. Everyone of the songs they covered was incredibly obscure at the time the album was released in 1981, so much so that only the most dedicated record hounds and devotes of musical esoterica would have recognized all of them as covers. Additionally, each of the songs seemed so much of a piece with The Cramps' musical vision, that it was hard to imagine they could have emanated from anywhere other than Lux Interior's twisted imagination.

So this week, in honor of the late Lux Interior, I will present the original versions of each of the seven covers presented on Psychedelic Jungle, alongside The Cramps' cover versions for your listening pleasure. My friends Guy and Peter have also promised to do "Songs The Cramps Taught Us" posts in Lux's honor.

"Green Fuz" (or "Greenfuz") was originally recorded by garage rockers Randy Alvey & the Green Fuz from Bridgeport Texas at a deserted roadside cafe in 1969. "Green Fuz" had already appeared on the second Pebbles compilation by the time it appeared on The Cramps' second album, but no doubt the way a lot of people first heard it (present company included) was as the classic lead off track to Psychedelic Jungle.

R.I.P. - Blossom Dearie

I was saddened to hear of another passing of a great musician, this time jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie. With her wispy, girlish voice and playful demeanor, Dearie was entirely unique among jazz singers.

The obituary in The New York Times explains why Dearie was a woman after my own heart:
But just under her fey camouflage lay a needling wit. If you listened closely, you could hear the scathing contempt she brought to one of her signature songs, “I’m Hip,” the Dave Frishberg-Bob Dorough demolition of a namedropping bohemian poseur.

Ms. Dearie didn’t suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn’t like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.

Seriously, anyone who hates Andrew Lloyd Webber is okay with me.

But while Dearie was best known for her unique interpretations of jazz standards, she first came to my attention (and I suspect many of my generation) through her work on the educational Saturday morning cartoon series Schoolhouse Rocks. It was Dearie who taught me how to unpack my adjectives and the simple beauty of the figure eight.

It wasn't until many years later that I discovered Dearie's voice could be equally enchanting singing jazz standards. Here are two of my favorites that were associated with her. Her version of "Rhode Island Is Famous For You" ought to be adopted as our official state song. Even though it was Ethel Merman who first introduced Cole Porter's "Give Him The Ooh-La-La" it sounds like it was written for Dearie's playful voice.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Lux Left Instructions

I wanna leave a happy memory when I go,
I wanna leave something to let the whole world know,

That the rock 'n' roll daddy has a done passed on,

But my bones will keep a rockin' long after I've gone...
Rock on...

Lux Interior left instructions as to what should happen in the event of his demise. We're supposed to rock on, which is exactly what I intend to do. But not before paying proper respect.

It's impossible to calculate the effect The Cramps' music has had on me personally. It was largely through The Cramps that I learned to appreciate the pleasures of junk culture--the stuff I had always been taught to look down on. More than any punk band, The Cramps taught me that rock'n'roll music is at its most powerful when it is at its simplest. More than any other band (with the possible exception of The Ramones) The Cramps taught me that rock'n'roll music should be fun. More than any other band The Cramps taught me not to eat stuff off the sidewalk (no matter how good it looks). I literally do not know what would have become of me without The Cramps.

I can't think of a better description of The Cramps' music than that provided on the back of their first EP, Gravest Hits, by Dr. J.H. Satisfy, Professor of Rockology, American Rock'n'Roll Institute, Washington D.C. U.S.A.:

In the Spring of 1976, The Cramps began to fester in a NYC apartment. Without fresh air or natural light, the group developed its uniquely mutant strain of rock'n'roll aided only by the sickly, blue rays of late night TV.

While the jackhammer rhythms of punk were proliferating in NYC, The Cramps dove into the deepest recesses of of the rock'n'roll psyche for the most primal of all rhythmic impulses - Rockabilly - the sound of Southern culture falling apart in a blaze of shudders and hiccups.

As late night Sci-Fi reruns coloured the room, The Cramps also picked and chose amongst the psychotic debris of previous rock eras - instrumental rock, surf, psychadelia, and sixties punk.

And then they added the junkiest element of all - Themselves.

Nick Knox, stoic drummer with the history of the big beat written in his left hand. Ivy Rorschach, Voodoo guitarist with the rhythm method down as pat as her blonde beauty. Bryan Gregory, flipping cigs and fractured guitar runs at the incredulous mob. And Lux Interior, the band's frontal lobe, wherein Elvis gets crossed with Vincent Price and decent folks ask, "What hath God wrought?"

The Cramps don't pummel and you won't pogo. They ooze, you'll throb.

The rock 'n' roll daddy has done passed on, but his bones will keep a rockin' long after he's gone.

I'm breaking my usual rule about not posting music that is commercially available because "Rockin' Bones" is available on the Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits CD two-fer. And if you don't own--at the very least--The Cramps IRS records, go out and buy them right now, then work your way through the rest of their catalog. But this version is kind of special because it was transcribed directly from a vinyl copy of Psychedelic Jungle purchased by a genuine mutant teenager.

Next week: "Songs The Cramps Taught Us."

Thursday, February 05, 2009

R.I.P. Lux Interior

This hurts.

For Immediate Release:
February 4, 2009

Lux Interior, lead singer of The Cramps, passed away this morning due to an existing heart condition at Glendale Memorial Hospital in Glendale, California at 4:30 AM PST today. Lux has been an inspiration and influence to millions of artists and fans around the world. He and wife Poison Ivy’s contributions with The Cramps have had an immeasurable impact on modern music.

The Cramps emerged from the original New York punk scene of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, with a singular sound and iconography. Their distinct take on rockabilly and surf along with their midnight movie imagery reminded us all just how exciting, dangerous, vital and sexy rock and roll should be and has spawned entire subcultures. Lux was a fearless frontman who transformed every stage he stepped on into a place of passion, abandon, and true freedom. He is a rare icon who will be missed dearly.

The family requests that you respect their privacy during this difficult time.