Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mötley Crüe, Stage Theatrics, and “360 Drumming”

So last night I went to a concert (not Van Halen, though they were playing less than 2 miles from the show I was at)  and in between the opening band (Blood Orange, who I thought was pretty cool) and the main attraction (Florence + The Machine), the topic of Tommy Lee’s stupendously-stupid “360 Drumming” somehow randomly came up.

I’m not the world’s biggest Mötley Crüe fan, but I can acknowledge that they have a few pretty good songs.  Anyway, my best friend (a Fiona Apple kind of guy) had never heard of Tommy Lee’s stage antics, so I decided to track down a video.  I honestly thought it would be hard to find, I had no idea that as recent as last year Mötley Crüe was still using this schtick in their live act. You would think that after years of drug and alcohol abuse, ‘ol Tommy wouldn’t be able to hang upside down and bang the drums…but I guess he still can.

Not the first time Tommy Lee gave one of his fans a "ride."

Growing up I had a pretty big aversion to being upside down. I’m still not crazy about roller coaster loops, but I can do them because they’re usually mercifully brief. But hanging inverted like he does in the video below? Forget about it.  I know he’s strapped in there pretty good, but how the hell does he keep from dropping his sticks? Part of me wants to dismiss these shenanigans outright…but how is this any different than Jimi lighting his guitar on fire? Or Ozzy “biting” the heads off fake bats? Or Alice Cooper beheading himself? Theatrics have been a part of rock since the beginning, like Chuck Berry’s duck walk.  Something to think about.

Oh the humanity.

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Why PET SOUNDS Means So Much To Me

For the past few years I’ve wanted to write an epic, all-encompassing essay about The Beach Boys’ classic album PET SOUNDS.  I’ve sat down on at least two occasions and actually started, only to give up in disgust.  It seems like everything that could be said about has been said, by people far more knowledgable than myself, so why bother? Because I can’t stop listening and thinking about PET SOUNDS.  My adoration for this record has long since moved past obsession and I guess I want to try to make sense of how that happened.

Like all good art, PET SOUNDS is best described as a reflecting pool–esthetically beautiful and mirror-like in that we can see some of ourselves within it.  Sorting fact from legend in regards to it’s creation/recording is almost beyond impossible at this point.  It’s all too easy to say that PET SOUNDS is the singular work of one brilliant, tragic genius.  As an American, the notion that a complex, challenging piece of work springing from one rebellious individual is both romantic and affirming of our continental-myth of the “lone cowboy.”  On the other hand, the years have been kind to PET SOUNDS, much kinder than many of the people involved in creating it could have ever imagined, as a result many people have stepped up and claimed credit for an album they openly ridiculed during it’s inception.

Such a lovely album...such a terrible album cover.

PET SOUNDS is sort of the bastard son few people wanted to acknowledge at it’s birth–but later, as it matured and did good by itself–well, then many were practically falling over themselves to establish themselves as it’s parent. Does it matter that Al Jardine may or may not have insisted The Beach Boys include “Sloop John B” on the record? Or that he (or Carl) may have been solely responsible for it’s amazing arrangement?  At this stage in my life, my appreciation for PET SOUNDS, I don’t care about these matters.  All that is important for me is that PET SOUNDS exists, vacuum sealed from time and the bitter in-fighting of songwriters, musicians, arrangers, producers, studio technicians, and hangers-on.

Released in May of 1966, PET SOUNDS did not exist for me until the early 2000’s when I happened upon it in my Uncle’s CD collection.  I was in Nashville, trying figure out (among other things) who I was and what the hell I was doing.  I gave it a brief listen, made myself a copy, and promptly forgot all about it.  I’ve always been a “Beatles person.”  Growing up, The Beach Boys were that lame, striped-shirt-wearing novelty band that briefly styled themselves as “The American Beatles.”  People (mostly rock critics from Rolling Stone magazine) would, from time to time, blow my mind by placing PET SOUNDS near the top of many “Best Albums” lists, but otherwise–The Beach Boys had little credibility.  The only place I ever heard them was on the local golden-oldies radio station, placed strategically between Herman’s Hermits and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.

I still cannot recall exactly what compelled me to dust-off my copy of PET SOUNDS, but around 2008 I did.   Almost everything stupid (for lack of a better word) about The Beach Boys is missing from this record.  There are no dated, lame-ass novelty songs about surfing or hot-rodding.  No, PET SOUNDS is 13 songs about love, the confusion of youth, self-doubt, self-realization, loneliness, and also “Sloop John B” is tacked on (thanks Al/Carl).  The music is lush, full of complex and achingly beautiful arrangements.  Lyrically, the PET SOUNDS is almost the exact opposite of the music–the lyrics are so simple they sometimes strike me as slightly moronic.  I mean that in the best way possible, sort of like how people always remark how many startling truisms spring from the mouths of very young children.  The lyrical content of PET SOUNDS is simple but never basic, the observations aren’t plain and vanilla–but shockingly universal.

And that, I think, is why I’ve been obsessing about it these past few years (and why older people have been obsessing about it for decades).

The album-opener, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is probably the most recognized track, and a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  The song is about first-love, not silly puppy love, but actual honest-to-god love.  Anyone that’s ever felt that for the first time can completely understand the song, which is about the yearning to essentially always feel that feeling by being able to spend every minute of every hour with your lover.  This song encapsulates a very real feeling I think just about everyone has had.  And even though the sentiment may not be smart or realistic, that’s not the point–“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is an explanation for every stupid teenager who’s ever run off an gotten married.  Still, an album filled with this sort of idealized romantic love wouldn’t be emotionally satisfying or realistic.  PET SOUNDS takes things further than 99% of pop albums (up to that time and since) with the very next song “You Still Believe In Me.”

“You Still Believe In Me.”opens with a confession that the song’s narrator has completely fucked up–and yet she still loves him.  Here, the wonder is not in the bliss of love but the endurance of love.  He tries, promises, and fails…and yet she still believes in him. “That’s Not Me” is another song about failure, this time the song’s narrator has decided to give up chasing foolish, impulse (saying “That’s not me”).  More than just a song of redemption, what impresses me the most about “That’s Not Me” is the self-realization that one’s dreams (and their pursuit) can not only be harmful but also maybe the opposite of what we really want. Stoned or sober that’s a mind-blowing realization.

This is what self-realization looks like, kids.

And then there is “God Only Knows.”  Not only is it hauntingly beautiful musically, but the it’s astonishingly rational while still being romantic at the same time.  Unlike a traditional pop-love song where the singer expounds about how he can’t live without the love of his life, “God Only Knows” acknowledges the fact that both he and the world would go on spinning without her, but he’s eternally grateful that he doesn’t have to be without her (because God only know where he’d be without her). I can live without you, but I don’t want to is infinitely more romantic than the foolish adolescent declaration of “I can’t live, if living is without you” (sorry Badfinger).  And you know, if PET SOUNDS was just about the complexities of love it would still be a damn good album–but it’s the introspective stuff that really pushes the album from “good” to “masterpiece.”

“I Know There’s An Answer” is about the search for the meaning of both life and self.  It’s about all those Nowhere Men sitting in their Nowhere Land, and how we ‘re all lost and adrift in lives.  There is no magic bullet answer that’s going to fix everything and make us happy, we have to save ourselves with our own answer.  Also, there’s no way of helping all the lonely people of the world without first helping yourself.

And much like “You Still Believe in Me” responds to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” responds to “I Know There’s An Answer.”   “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” isn’t just my favorite song on PET SOUNDS, it’s also my all-time favorite Beach Boys song.  “I Know There’s An Answer” affirms that yes, there is an answer for all of us, but “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is about what happens when we can’t find that answer.  It’s about failure and self-doubt.  It’s about feeling absolutely stuck–as an artist, lover, liver of life.  It’s about the profound sadness and dissatisfaction that stalk all of us throughout our lives.  And mostly, it’s about that feeling we all have at least once in our lives, that we don’t fit in or belong anywhere.  If you’re the least bit human you will find yourself relating to this song.  And while the song is, on the surface very sad, I find it one of the most comforting pieces of music ever written.  Not just in the misery-loves-company sort of way (though I suppose there is a great deal of that), no–“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is like a music hug for me because it let’s me know that I’m not alone in feeling lost and sad.

Lastly, there is the bittersweetness of “Caroline No.”  It’s the final track on the album, and it’s all about the terrible way time strips us of the things we cherish the most.   It’s heartbreakingly sad and every time I go back to my hometown I’m reminded of Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  Again, it’s the comforting universality of the song’s sentiment that gives the song it’s power.  Rather than struggle for a cheesy  redemptive silver-lining, the “Caroline No” does us the public service of letting the listener know that that’s just how life/the human condition is.  Rarely does commercial art, let alone pop music, deal with just weighty (and frankly unpleasant) topics without resorting to some kind of cliched “happy ending.”  What do unrealistic portrayals of life and love really give us, beyond a fleeting bit of pleasure?  They doom us to even greater sorrow, hoisted up by a Hollywood endings none of us are going to get.  The braver thing, I think, is to stare at both our souls and our sorrow right in the face.  So in that respect, PET SOUNDS is probably the only mirror I’ll ever need.

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Classic Albums Revisited: MY AIM IS TRUE

Elvis Costello is one of those guys whose rep has suffered a bit as he’s aged. Kids today only know his as the “dude with the funny glasses.” Many more equate him to Phil Collins or Eric Clapton–a boring “adult-contemporary” singer-songwriter (Clapton’s last decade and a half of output as a bluesman has murdered his rock GOD status…what a shame). But in the beginning, before the duets with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello was punk.
Punk!?

His aim is still true.

Not really the word many would us to describe Mr. Costello, but after re-listening to his first three (mega-classic) albums, that’s the word that kept springing into my head. Oh sure, there’s a lot of organ…but the attitude, snide delivery, and sheer velocity of the songs on MY AIM IS TRUE is pretty damn punk.

Prior to MY AIM IS TRUE, Elvis Costello was Declean MacManus. He worked a lame office job (for the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden no less!) and he dreamed of being a rock star. No one was buying Costello as a rock star. He was this thin, pasty, awkward looking Englishman. His voice was…unusual. But he could write a good tune, so in 1976 Stiff Records hired him as a songwriter. They wanted him to write songs for their prima-donna Dave Edmonds. Edmonds, however, had to be convinced that he needed to record Costello’s songs. So, the label had Costello record his songs, with backing band Clover, in order to give Edmonds an idea of how the songs would sound.

The backing band went onto become The News (of Huey Lewis and The News fame) and Elvis Costello’s career was launched. The songs turned out so well, that the label decided to release them with Elvis as the star.

Recorded over a stretch of 1976, in about twenty-four hours, MY AIM IS TRUE is a breezy, blast of English pop. And I mean “blast”: most of these songs clock in around 2 minutes. That said, even though these songs are short, they’ve all well-constructed. Prime example, the doo-wop backing vocals and sharp hand claps on “Welcome to the Working Week.” The song is literally over in the time it takes for most songs to reach the first chorus. And yet this is a whole, complete thought. Amazing.

Costello, looking dapper (read: like Buddy Holly).

There’s a surprising amount of Biblical references on the record. “Miracle Man,” “Blame it On Cain” (where Costello blames his problems on Cain, even though it’s not really his fault), and “Waiting for the End of the World.” The first time I heard this record my mind just sorta glossed over all these allusions, but they’re there.

Love and it’s opposite emotion, anger also pop up frequently on MY AIM IS TRUE. The chilling “I’m Not Angry” encompasses both. My favorite track, “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes,” which is both bleak and strangely comforting (and features some of my favorite Costello lyrics). It’s so snarky, it’s downright magical. This song features one of the most brutally honest/realistic depictions of the relationship between man and woman:

“Oh, I said “I’m so happy, I could die.”
She said “Drop dead”, then left with another guy.
That’s what you get if you go chasing after vengeance.
Ever since you got me punctured this has been my sentence.”

What guy hasn’t had that happen to him. Who hasn’t been so utterly rejected? Costello distills this experience, and makes it rock ‘n roll. Fucking brilliant.

“Less Than Zero” is another great snarky track, and marks one of the earliest manifestations of Costello’s (understandable) fear of Nazism/Fascism (which pops up again and again in Costello’s early work).

You want punk? Nothing’s more punk than:

“Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it, so your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything is less than zero.”

or how about:

“A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor
Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet”

Of course, not discussion of MY AIM IS TRUE is complete without talking about “Alison.” Next to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” “Alison” is his most famous songs. It’s a quiet, love song (of sorts) about a lost love who’s gotten married to someone else. It’s sad and soulful.

“Alison”
Oh it’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.
And with the way you look I understand
that you were not impressed.
But I heard you let that little friend of mine
take off your party dress.
I’m not going to get too sentimental
like those other sticky valentines,
’cause I don’t know if you are loving some body.
I only know it isn’t mine.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.

Well I see you’ve got a husband now.
Did he leave your pretty fingers lying
in the wedding cake?
You used to hold him right in your hand.
Bet he took all he could take.
Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
’cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

This song stands out like a sore thumb on MY AIM IS TRUE. Every time I listen to it, all the way through, it feels too much like a single. I can understand why, even to this day, people love it…but compared to the wit and irony of the rest of the record, “Alison” comes like a splash of cold water to the face. It’s refreshingly different, but also a little startling. This guy sings, kinda ironically–almost like he’s winking at you…then BAM! smack dab in the middle of MY AIM IS TRUE there’s this moment where his defenses lower a bit, and you’re kinda embarrassed–for him, because you know you’re seeing something unguarded, that you’re not supposed to be seeing. So, even though it’s an okay song by itself, “Alison” is one of the greatest songs (in my opinion) in the context of the album as a whole.

Go dust off MY AIM IS TRUE, it’ll surprise you how modern it still sounds.

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Highly-Unscientific Rock Poll: Best Psychedelic Rock Band

Sometimes there are questions too big for one man. Sometimes, in the search for ultimate truth, we must seek the guidance of others. And then there are times when one wants to increase traffic to one’s blog by actively seeking participation of one’s small readership by stoking the fires of eternal debate…

Yes friends, it’s time to review the lastest statistical disaster I like to call my HIGHLY-UNSCIENTIFIC ROCK POLL! This week I wrote a nerd-tastic article about NUGGETS, a boxset of trippy psychedelic rock from the 1960’s. It got me thinking about psychedelic rock bands in general and thus was born a poll.

Let’s break-down/over analyze what happened:

7, 6, and 5 (no votes) Iron Butterfly, T. Rex, and Steppenwolf: all three bands received exactly zero votes. Now, it should be noted right off the bat that only 10 people (myself included) participated in this survey (hence the “highly-unscientific” nature of the poll results) however I strongly agree and disagree with the votes these bands (didn’t) got.

First, let me address T. Rex. Marc Bolan and company were the last band I added to the list. I basically ran out of bands and didn’t want to add a band like The Beatles (which would have been too obvious and would have sweeped the poll). So I reluctantly added T. Rex. Although, to be honest, I don’t think T. Rex fits. They were more “glam” than “psychedelic” rock. True, they have some pretty trippy songs (especially in their early stuff). But for the most part, I think T. Rex was a mistake on my part. They didn’t belong on the list.

Iron Butterfly, and to a lesser extent Steppenwolf, didn’t get any votes probably because they were too psychedelic. I think most people dismiss Steppenwolf outright because their singles have been played so much on the radio they’ve lost their edge and have been relegated (unfairly) to parody. Iron Butterfly is a one-hit wonder–but that one hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is probably the greatest pscyh-freakout song ever. But one song does not a “greatest band” make, does it? I approve of Iron Butterfly’s lack of votes, but feel bad for The ‘wolf.

3. (tie) Cream and The Strawberry Alarm Clock: all three bands (ironically)tied for third place. Just to be completely transparent in my reporting, let the record show that the one vote for Cream was my vote. I think that Cream should have been #1. I think that in general Cream has the best psychedelic songs of the bunch. As a power trio, Cream created the most dynamic, textured, weird-ass sounds of any band on the list. But that’s just my opinion. The Strawberry Alarm Clock are, like Iron Butterfly, one-hit wonders. Their one-hit, “Incense and Peppermints” is pretty much a textbook example of psychedelic rock. And like Steppenwolf’s many radio hits, the song has been over-played and (thanks to use in films like AUSTIN POWERS) is now a parody of the era in which it was created.

2. The Grateful Dead: The poll was dominated by bands with a massive cult following, which shouldn’t be too surprising. The Dead are a another band that I added to the poll but ultimately regretted, like T. Rex. I don’t think they’re the best example of psychedelic rock. Still, they made some freaky-ass music and God know’s their is a massive contingent of people that worship they at their tied-dyed altar.

And the winner…

1. Pink Floyd: Winning by a landslide, Pink Floyd came out on top as the “greatest psychedelic rock band ever.” While I didn’t vote for them, I can’t help but approve of this choice. Pink Floyd have always been innovators in sonic freakiness. Whereas psychedelia might have been a fad or genre that some bands might have tired (like The Beatles), for Pink Floyd psychedelic sounds were a way of life. Hell, founding member Syd Barrett did so much LSD that he completely lost his mind. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON is pretty much universally regarded as the freak-out album. Earlier Floyd albums are even trippier and go to even darker places.

So there you have it. Disagree with the results? Well then head on over to Facebook and “like” DEFENDING AXL ROSE. Then the next time I have a poll you can VOTE!!!

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RIP Levon Helm

Levon Helm 1940-2012

Yesterday the world of rock ‘n roll lost one it’s greatest voices–Levon Helm.  Helm was the drummer and singer in a band called The Band.  Despite a rather innocuous name, The Band were anything but ordinary fusing rock, country, and the sounds of Motown  into something truly great (and very American).  Most people became aware of The Band when the legendary Bob Dylan started using them as his back-up band (when they were still called The Hawks).  They contributed a lot to Dylan’s late 60’s sound, and the group were featured on Dylan’s (in)famous “basement tapes.”

In 1968, The Band released a “solo” record called MUSIC FROM THE BIG PINK.  That album, named after the pink country house in which it was recorded, became an instant classic.  It featured, among others, the song that would most be identified with The Band–“The Weight.”

When he wasn’t playing in The Band, Levon recorded solo albums and worked with other artists, almost too many to name.  In 1989 he joined Ring Starr’s First “All Starr Band.” I’ve also read that he was the ‘Levon’ in the classic Elton John song of the same name.  He was mostly known for playing the drums, but was also a guitarist and also played bass, mandolin, and harmonica.

Levon died yesterday after battling cancer.  His rich, soulful voice will be greatly missed.

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Roger McGuinn on NPR

So what did I hear today when I turned on NPR during my lunchbreak? Roger McGuinn of The Byrds talking about (among other things) Gram Parsons! McGuinn was on Talk of the Nation promoting his website and his efforts to preserve classic folk music.

National Prettyawesome Radio

You can listen to the segment here.

I recommend giving it a listen.  He tells an anecdote about having Parsons try-out for The Byrds by playing some jazz piano (!) and also has a pretty badass story about the difficulties of covering Dylan accurately.  It’s pretty amazing the stories these old warhorses have…check it out.

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NUGGETS and The Dukes of Stratosphear

Psychedelic. What does that word kick up in your mind? Drugs. Drugs that make you see bright, shiny, other-worldly colors. Back in 1960’s, when LSD was “discovered” popular music was altered (for the better in my opinion) when artists began experimenting in the studio to create songs that recreated and enhanced the “trippy” effect LSD gave it’s users. I have no interest in going on a real-life, honest-to-God psychedelic journey…but I’m always ready to dip my mind in the vibrant colors of psychedelic music. Back in 1972, near the end of the “Psychedelic Era,” a dude named Jac Holzman at Elektra Records assembled one of the greatest collections of American and British Psych-rock/pop. The 2-LP was called NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1965-1968. Anyone wishing to earn a million-bajillion brownie points with me can do so by tracking this thing down and buying it for me…

Nuggets. Get your rainbow-shimmering dipping sauce ready...

Anyway, NUGGETS didn’t feature any bands that today are very well known…in fact, one of the reasons Holzman put NUGGETS out was to preserve these rare gems (or “nuggets”) of great 60’s music before they were lost to the ages. Despite being a bit random and obscure, this box-set influenced a shit-load of musicians (and critics).

One-hit-wonders have always fascinated me. I could, in fact, write a whole blog post about that strange musical phenomenon, but instead my focus is The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Flash forward from the 1960s, past 1972 and NUGGETS…all the way to 1980’s. The eighties music scene did not look kindly on the 1960s. The era of excess, for the most part, rejected the idealism of 60s–and psychedelic music. Which is why British rockers XTC probably adopted the guise of “The Dukes of Stratosphear.” Already heavily influenced by classic 60’s English pop, XTC admitted to being fans of The Beatles in a time when The Clash were pissing on the Fab Four (and selling lots of records). Going against the grain, XTC released two EP’s that hearkened back to an earlier, “trippier” time–1985’s 25 O’CLOCK and 1987’s PSONIC PSUNSPOT.

CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL is a 1987 CD-only compilation that combines both shorter records into one larger package. Consisting of sixteen short, strange tracks, CHIPS is a great band both aping and embracing the music they grew up loving. Under the moniker of The Dukes, XTC imitate the styles of The Byrds, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, and yes…Iron Butterfly.

Lots and lots of Iron Butterfly. You know Iron Butterfly from their one (and only) great song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That song featured a shit-ton of hypnotic organ playing. That’s the sort of thing found of CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL. Except it’s not annoying. The record has a a lot of ALICE AND WONDERLAND-like spoken word bits in between tracks. It’s all really freaky man. Really freaky.

25 O'Clock, time to put up your DUKES.

25 O’CLOCK was released on April Fool’s Day, so this stuff is not meant to be taken seriously–however it’s hard to listen to the the Pink Floyd-eque “Bike Ride to the Moon” and not be impressed. Sure, it sounds like a Pink Floyd rip-off…but have you ever tried writing a Pink Floyd song? It’s not easy. Hell, Pink Floyd can’t even write Pink Floyd song anymore. I guess what I’m saying is, it would be wrong to dismiss this record on the basis that the songs are so derivative.

Consider, for example, The Hollies-influenced “Vanishing Girl.” This song has all the trademarks of The Hollies…the distinctive vocal harmonies, the jangly 60’s guitar flourishes, the intricate story-like lyrics. This song sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You could go back in time and play it on the radio, and not only would it sound of the era–it would have been a hit. Sure, it’s unlikely that the song could exist without The Hollies…

This is the case for many of the albums more memorable songs. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a whimsical ode to the daughter of Superman’s nemesis that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s 1975 B-Side “Magneto and Titanium Man” (both songs are wacky with lyrics that reflect the songwriters rather shallow understanding of their comic book subject matter–Brainiac has no daughter). Though it’s a bit too cute for it’s own good, the song works for me only because it’s so far “out there” with it’s psuedo-vaudevillian sensibility. Like “When I’m 64” it’s a throw-back to a throw-back.

While “Brainiac’s Daughter” may very simple, repetitious lyrics, a particularly clever set of lyrics on “You’re My Drug” (Byrds-style song) really showcase how versatile the Andy Partridge and company were at adapting differing styles of psychedelic music. Bouncing between American and British psych-rock can’t be easy. Compare the frenetic, bouncy roller coaster that is “You’re My Drug” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Pale and Precious” and it’s hard to believe they were composed by the same band (let alone performed by the same men in the same time frame).

The material from 25 O’CLOCK sounds nothing like XTC or 80’s music. This cannot be said of all the songs from PSONIC PSUNSPOT. “Have You Seen Jackie?” and “Little Lighthouse” sound a bit too polished, a bit too modern…here The Dukes drop their false beards and XTC shine though–not that it’s a bad thing but some of the magic is lost towards the end of the record. I would say about 85% of this record is perfect, and totally captures the spirit of the 60’s track they’re mean to emulate/pay homage to.

Many critics regard CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL to be the best work from the musicians in XTC. The argument made is that by using another name (The Dukes…) the band felt free to experiment more and were generally more relaxed. I disagree with this partially. XTC is a great band, whose last two records were an amazing capstone to a storied career. That said, The Dukes of Stratosphear recordings were an astonishing feat of musicianship. The attention to detail and history that went into these songs are top notch.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. In August of 2005 Rhino Records released a four disc box-set titled CHILDREN OF NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE SECOND PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1976-1995. Among the many artists in the psychedelic/garage rock world included on this new compilation, were The Dukes of Stratosphear. In fact, “Vanishing Girl” is the first song on the first disc.

This inclusion on the “second generation” of NUGGETS is a fitting tribute to such an interesting band/project.

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NUGGETS and The Dukes of Stratosphear

Psychedelic. What does that word kick up in your mind? Drugs. Drugs that make you see bright, shiny, other-worldly colors. Back in 1960’s, when LSD was “discovered” popular music was altered (for the better in my opinion) when artists began experimenting in the studio to create songs that recreated and enhanced the “trippy” effect LSD gave it’s users. I have no interest in going on a real-life, honest-to-God psychedelic journey…but I’m always ready to dip my mind in the vibrant colors of psychedelic music. Back in 1972, near the end of the “Psychedelic Era,” a dude named Jac Holzman at Elektra Records assembled one of the greatest collections of American and British Psych-rock/pop. The 2-LP was called NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1965-1968. Anyone wishing to earn a million-bajillion brownie points with me can do so by tracking this thing down and buying it for me…

Nuggets. Get your rainbow-shimmering dipping sauce ready...

Anyway, NUGGETS didn’t feature any bands that today are very well known…in fact, one of the reasons Holzman put NUGGETS out was to preserve these rare gems (or “nuggets”) of great 60’s music before they were lost to the ages. Despite being a bit random and obscure, this box-set influenced a shit-load of musicians (and critics).

One-hit-wonders have always fascinated me. I could, in fact, write a whole blog post about that strange musical phenomenon, but instead my focus is The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Flash forward from the 1960s, past 1972 and NUGGETS…all the way to 1980’s. The eighties music scene did not look kindly on the 1960s. The era of excess, for the most part, rejected the idealism of 60s–and psychedelic music. Which is why British rockers XTC probably adopted the guise of “The Dukes of Stratosphear.” Already heavily influenced by classic 60’s English pop, XTC admitted to being fans of The Beatles in a time when The Clash were pissing on the Fab Four (and selling lots of records). Going against the grain, XTC released two EP’s that hearkened back to an earlier, “trippier” time–1985’s 25 O’CLOCK and 1987’s PSONIC PSUNSPOT.

CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL is a 1987 CD-only compilation that combines both shorter records into one larger package. Consisting of sixteen short, strange tracks, CHIPS is a great band both aping and embracing the music they grew up loving. Under the moniker of The Dukes, XTC imitate the styles of The Byrds, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, and yes…Iron Butterfly.

Lots and lots of Iron Butterfly. You know Iron Butterfly from their one (and only) great song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That song featured a shit-ton of hypnotic organ playing. That’s the sort of thing found of CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL. Except it’s not annoying. The record has a a lot of ALICE AND WONDERLAND-like spoken word bits in between tracks. It’s all really freaky man. Really freaky.

25 O'Clock, time to put up your DUKES.

25 O’CLOCK was released on April Fool’s Day, so this stuff is not meant to be taken seriously–however it’s hard to listen to the the Pink Floyd-eque “Bike Ride to the Moon” and not be impressed. Sure, it sounds like a Pink Floyd rip-off…but have you ever tried writing a Pink Floyd song? It’s not easy. Hell, Pink Floyd can’t even write Pink Floyd song anymore. I guess what I’m saying is, it would be wrong to dismiss this record on the basis that the songs are so derivative.

Consider, for example, The Hollies-influenced “Vanishing Girl.” This song has all the trademarks of The Hollies…the distinctive vocal harmonies, the jangly 60’s guitar flourishes, the intricate story-like lyrics. This song sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You could go back in time and play it on the radio, and not only would it sound of the era–it would have been a hit. Sure, it’s unlikely that the song could exist without The Hollies…

This is the case for many of the albums more memorable songs. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a whimsical ode to the daughter of Superman’s nemesis that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s 1975 B-Side “Magneto and Titanium Man” (both songs are wacky with lyrics that reflect the songwriters rather shallow understanding of their comic book subject matter–Brainiac has no daughter). Though it’s a bit too cute for it’s own good, the song works for me only because it’s so far “out there” with it’s psuedo-vaudevillian sensibility. Like “When I’m 64” it’s a throw-back to a throw-back.

While “Brainiac’s Daughter” may very simple, repetitious lyrics, a particularly clever set of lyrics on “You’re My Drug” (Byrds-style song) really showcase how versatile the Andy Partridge and company were at adapting differing styles of psychedelic music. Bouncing between American and British psych-rock can’t be easy. Compare the frenetic, bouncy roller coaster that is “You’re My Drug” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Pale and Precious” and it’s hard to believe they were composed by the same band (let alone performed by the same men in the same time frame).

The material from 25 O’CLOCK sounds nothing like XTC or 80’s music. This cannot be said of all the songs from PSONIC PSUNSPOT. “Have You Seen Jackie?” and “Little Lighthouse” sound a bit too polished, a bit too modern…here The Dukes drop their false beards and XTC shine though–not that it’s a bad thing but some of the magic is lost towards the end of the record. I would say about 85% of this record is perfect, and totally captures the spirit of the 60’s track they’re mean to emulate/pay homage to.

Many critics regard CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL to be the best work from the musicians in XTC. The argument made is that by using another name (The Dukes…) the band felt free to experiment more and were generally more relaxed. I disagree with this partially. XTC is a great band, whose last two records were an amazing capstone to a storied career. That said, The Dukes of Stratosphear recordings were an astonishing feat of musicianship. The attention to detail and history that went into these songs are top notch.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. In August of 2005 Rhino Records released a four disc box-set titled CHILDREN OF NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE SECOND PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1976-1995. Among the many artists in the psychedelic/garage rock world included on this new compilation, were The Dukes of Stratosphear. In fact, “Vanishing Girl” is the first song on the first disc.

This inclusion on the “second generation” of NUGGETS is a fitting tribute to such an interesting band/project.

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“Big Sky” by The Kinks

This is a killer-cut off off THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY.

 

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