Archive for the 'Guitar Gods' Category

28
Nov
17

Mott the Hoople “All the Young Dudes”

I have a theory that the peak of Western pop culture (music, books, movies) is the year 1973, and 1974 and 1972 come in a close second. I won’t list examples here, you can do that on your own. If I was allowed to pick my favorite things on different days of the week, on one of the seven my favorite rock band would be Mott the Hoople, but that’s mostly based on their last two records: Mott (1973) and The Hoople (1974) (to the uninitiated, it might sound like I’m making this up), and a single, “All the Young Dudes” from 1972. They had been a band since the Sixties (though I never heard of them until I bought the Mott record (as a young dude). The story I’ve heard is that they were a great live band, had a lot of die-hard fans, but their records didn’t sell that well, and they were about to break up in the early Seventies, and David Bowie, a fan, gave them the song, “All the Young Dudes,” which revived their career, got them a new label (Columbia), and led to this 1972 album—and then the two amazing (in my opinion) followup albums.

I might have some details or nuances wrong there, but I want to believe that, because it’s a great story. It’s also a crazy story because “All the Young Dudes” is one of the greatest rock’n’roll songs ever written, and who gives away their best songs when they’re right in the middle of a recording career as well? And it’s one of those songs that you know, the first time you hear it—that it’s going to be a classic. The nice thing is Mott the Hoople did a great version of it, and David Bowie later did an equally good version (which you might like better if you’re a Bowie fan), and no one sued anyone and everyone stayed friends (or so I want to believe). Anyway, the idea of Bowie giving this band that song is something that warms my heart every time I hear it.

I had probably heard the song somewhere, like on the radio, when I was 12, but I didn’t hear this album until many years later. As much as I liked Mott and The Hoople, it’s odd I didn’t seek out the older records, but at that time, I guess, it was looking toward the future, and I did buy the first Bad Company record, a band Mick Ralphs started when he left Mott the Hoople the next year. (The Bad Company hit song “Ready for Love” is on this record.) All the Young Dudes isn’t a bad album, but it’s not that great either; it feels really low-energy to me for some reason, and kind of disjointed. There are lead vocals from three different singers, but Ian Hunter is the one I want to hear. There are songs by Ian Hunter, other members of the band, Mick Ralphs, David Bowie, and even Lou Reed (not the worst cover of “Sweet Jane” anyone’s ever done, but not the best either).

The front album cover looks like it got slapped together in a mix-up with Columbia’s pulp fiction department, and they just decided to go with it. The five individual band pictures on back are all from live performance, but if you isolate their faces they just look sweaty and tired, and kind of sad even, like five guys watching their favorite football team lose. I’m pretty hard on this record, but really, there’s nothing here that indicates how good their next two albums would be, and how inspired Ian Hunter’s songwriting would be on those records. I can’t think of another example in rock’n’roll history where a band’s best two records are their last two. Still, I keep this record around just so I can listen to “All the Young Dudes” on vinyl—what can I say, it’s just really the perfect rock song, and is another one that sounds better right now than in in your memory (and the rhyme of “juvenile delinquent wrecks” and “I need TV when I got T-Rex” is one of the most inspired ever).

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25
Nov
17

Alice Cooper “School’s Out”

If you’re anything like me, you played the title song loudly, repeatedly, each year, junior high and high school, on that glorious day in late May or early June… to the point that the lyrics, the tune, the nuances are ingrained in your mind like your social security number. And you might think there’s nothing left here for you to listen to. There you are wrong, as this is a great album, not just some filler backing up a hit. First of all, the song “School’s Out” is a lot better, hearing it again, than you remember—it’s one of those things that fades in your memory, but actually listening to it fresh is kind of a revelation. But because I’ve heard it like one million times, everything else on the album is more enjoyable to me—and it’s all pretty excellent, starting with the next song, “Luney Tune,” which starts out: “Slipped into my jeans/they’re hard and feelin’ mean.” I think that was the thing that turned me on to blue jeans. I don’t know about the rest of you kids out there, but that was it for me. Then it gets even better with the opening to “Gutter Cat vs. The Jets,” just a killer song.

This whole album, from 1972, has a high school theme, and borrows a lot from West Side Story and that whole mythology—which is very much in keeping with Alice Cooper’s overall theatricality. There’s an artifice to it all, of course, exacerbated by doing a kind of sound effects “street fight” bit—but that’s a very small part of this record. Most of all it’s great songs and some really pretty heavy duty music. I think this version of the Alice Cooper group wasn’t taken as seriously as the more blues-based musicians of the same era (that took themselves so seriously) (not that this isn’t blues-based at its core, but the theatrical element kind of dominates).

It has one of those novelty album covers that drives you crazy, not knowing which way is up, all that, as it’s a cardboard representation of a school desk, all decorated with graffiti, the lid opening to reveal a taped-in, very cool photo of the band (one—among many—strong influences on my drinking at an early age), and then a photographic representation of the inside of a school desk—which includes a switchblade, crayons and pencils, a slingshot, album credits in the form of a “School’s Out Quiz,” marbles, composition book, comics, etc. Even more impressive, the back album cover is a representation of the bottom of a desk (complete with gum stuck to it), with song titles scratched in—and die-cut legs that fold out, if you so desire.

Side two is as good as side one, starting with “My Stars,” and then what was not only my favorite Alice Cooper song, but favorite song period for probably a decade of my youth, “Public Animal #9.” This song must have been a single—at least it made its way into a jukebox at the Model-T Drive-In, a pizza place that had an old Ford Model-T high up on a pole as its sign. When I was 12 or so, first able to ride my bike on the street, my fledgling juvenile delinquent friends and I would head down there and order a pizza, and then when the waitress wasn’t looking, buy Lark cigarettes from a machine. We’d play the jukebox, and this is the song I most strongly remember. When we started our first band, maybe a year later, this is the first song we tried to emulate. It sure as hell seemed a lot easier for them than it was for us.

23
Aug
17

Led Zeppelin “Led Zeppelin IV”

I’ve got a new random number system for picking out records to write about, by the way, so there is no other reason for me putting this one on than that, though I still do thoroughly enjoy it—one of the more overplayed rock records of all time—every time I hear it. I don’t really need to talk about the songs or the music with this one, do I? My dream would be to meet someone who has never heard this record, then play it for them a few times while we talk about it and I take notes. But in what cave am I going to meet this person? My favorite song, no hesitation, is “Misty Mountain Hop”—one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs—especially the, “Baby, baby, baby do you like it,” part.

One of the funniest things is the disagreement over the title of this 1971 LP, the band’s fourth. I’m calling it, here, Led Zeppelin IV, as that, I think, is the most common way to refer to it, and what Wikipedia calls it. Discogs, however, insists that is has no title, which I guess is technically correct, but to call something “Untitled” strikes me as asinine, and that goes for anyone who has an artwork or something without a title, because then “Untitled” becomes the title and it’s no longer untitled. So please, people, title your shit. It just occurred to me, that since I’m writing about this now, in 2017, I may as well assign it a new title, and maybe it will catch on. I’ll think about this as I proceed.

I’m sure the album cover is considered some kind of a classic album cover, but I never liked it (except for there being no words on it), but when you open it up and look at the entire composition—the bleak landscape on the left, and crumbling wall with the painting hung on it in the foreground—it’s really pretty great. So I guess in that sense, I like it, which is more than I can say for the stupid stoner drawing on the inside, with a wizard standing on a rocky cliff looking down on a town (or maybe on a small, ragged figure of indeterminate gender, in the foreground). So little have I ever cared for this drawing, I feel like this is the first time I’m really looking at it. How many bags of weed have been consumed while the intricate, unrealistic rocks have been examined for hidden images and meanings? However, I just noticed, for the first time, that little white goat, grazing on an elevated plateau. I’m pretty certain the answer to the mystery lies there.

Okay, I’ve got it. Since this might be the most “Speenish”—(i.e., my last name, as an adjective, meaning the distillation of the R. Speen essence (sometimes, though not to be, confused with patchouli and burning sage))—of all popular rock ‘n’ roll records, I’m going to officially, as of this date forward, name this record: Led Zeppelin Speen.

05
Jun
10

Boston “Boston”

It’s really hard to criticize something like this album–I mean it’s like criticizing The Dictionary–though, when I say that, I’m assuming “the dictionary of the English language,” and if you don’t speak English, the book isn’t of much use.

Listen to the record!

That was an attempted allegory. Note: edit out that first paragraph before posting.

Listen to the record!

Everyone knows the story of how Tom Scholz, MIT grad and scientist, was working for GE developing the Doomsday Machine when, while tinkering in his basement workshop, developed all those compressors and distortion devices that– when built into what are known as “guitar pedals” –have allowed future generations of mindless wankers to pick up an electric guitar for the first time and in fifteen minutes learn how to make noise like a goddamn god. When Andy Warhol said that “fifteen minutes of fame” thing, this is exactly what he was talking about.

Listen to the record!

That “Listen to the record!” business is from the liner notes, and I just love liner notes. It makes me so sad to think about all the young people and their MP3s and how they don’t even have an idea of the concept of liner notes. These liner notes discuss how the guys got together, first called their band “Springfield” and when things weren’t happening, changed the name to “Boston” and the rest is history. There is also a discussion of “technology,” but I’m just listening to the record. The song “More Than A Feeling,” despite being seriously in the top ten of alltime overplayed songs, is surprisingly fresh sounding–I mean considering– with that acoustic part and the hard rock part– I know it should sound more stale than it does– well, maybe it’s just been such a “Long Time” since my stereo needle touched vinyl. The song, “Long Time” incidentally, was used in studies. It was found that people of a certain age group (my age) could pick up a guitar for the first time and play the opening guitar part nearly note for note, particularly guitar store employees.

I’m making fun of this record a little, but I have to admit I’m actually enjoying listening to it, so if you’re a fan, old or new, and you want say “Speen thinks it rocks” go ahead, it won’t bug me too much. Really, it’s not entirely these guys’ fault that some of these guitar flourishes are what many of us will hear as we’re dying, coming out of a coma, having sex, or every time we turn the ignition of a car or open a can of Pepsi. Maybe Scholz DID invent the doomsday machine after all. Look at the cover art closely, if it doesn’t cause flashbacks to commence. It looks like the Earth is exploding and entire cities are being saved by being jetted off into space by dome-topped flying saucers. The one closest to us, of course, contains Boston. One wonders if Kokomo made it.

Lyrically–there are no printed lyrics on this particular sleeve, so I’m trying to make them out. Smokin’ indeed rhymes with tokin’. It’s interesting, with all the millions of times I’ve heard “More Than A Feeling” I never heard the “Mary Ann slipping away” part. Who is this “Mary Ann”? Seeing how this record came out in 1976, you have to figure the lyricist must have been watching endless Gilligan’s Island reruns, and how many people had a crush on that Mary Ann? I know I did, but it’s interesting, once I got to a certain age, I switched over from Mary Ann to Ginger. I really believe that’s a sign of maturity. Ask your friends who they prefer– it’s a good test to separate the men from the boys. I’m trying to remember who the eighth person on that island was… Anyway, you KNOW that The Professor could have had a short wave radio rescue transmission going in about five minutes, but he obviously didn’t want to. Thurston had Lovey and The Skipper had Gilligan (don’t pretend you didn’t know) so who else was there to satisfy the two hot women other than Russell “Magic” Johnson (not his real name) who– well they couldn’t really show it on TV then like they could today– got more ass than a makeshift bamboo outhouse.

I would apologize for that last paragraph, but you’ll never see it. I just started drinking coffee again and I’m getting carried away here. Memo to Speen: DELETE the paragraph about lyrics before posting.

Side two starts out with a really corny, compelling, unoriginal and utterly awesome rocker called “Rock & Roll Band” which is probably about playing in a rock & roll band, but I’m not going to fall back into that listening to the lyrics trap. I wasn’t actually able to get to the end of side two because this particular record, which was found on “the street,” seems to have about a kilo of cocaine encrusted in the later grooves of the second side. I would take the initiative to clean it, but I can’t find a hundred dollar bill.

20
Jun
09

Blues Explosion “Extra Width”

I preferred to alphabetize the band as “Blues Explosion” rather than wait for later in the alphabet (and be faced with alphabetizing dilemmas–Spencer, Jon Spencer, The Jon Spencer?)– but this is indeed The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, one of my all time favorite bands, I’ll admit right away. This isn’t my favorite of their records (and I haven’t even HEARD all their records) but it’s pretty solid. Also nice is that it’s a record–one of the newest in the current collection I’m writing about– though it’s from 1993– which now seems as long ago as The Fifties. The boys look pretty young in their individual Richard Kern glamour portraits– Jon Spencer’s, on the cover, which should have sold a record or two, is particularly striking with all the stuff in his hair and his Kuchar-esque eyebrows. Hell– I’D buy that guy a double bourbon!

There’s even some pointless liner notes on the back, for an old-fashioned touch– by Herb Hitts– a description of a live show that is so generalized and cliché-ridden it may as well say, “they rocked” with one fist in the air. Is it meant to be ironic? While I think it is — the once ironic fist in the air, and heavy metal fist in the air, and expression “rocked!” — once intended to be ironic, is no longer taken, or even intended that way– so what you have instead is a willful reduction of the IQ by half. But with this band there is no discussing irony or sincerity, they are so far beyond those considerations, you can’t figure it out and you shouldn’t try. Though, I can imagine if I was in a band with Jon Spencer I might at some point beg him to “please sing normal for once!” I might roll my eyes violently when he comes into rehearsal with a song called “Back Slider.” It might lead to a fight, someone walking out on the session, sulking on a bar stool, but would any of that be real or just another episode in a cheap paperback version of the life of a blues band that’s a rock band and a punk band?

I guess the question with this band will always be (as it is with every band): are they just an act– are they merely ABOUT what they seem to be, or are they the real thing? I have had the benefit of seeing a live show a few years back (maybe the last live show I’ve seen) where that question was answered; either they were the real thing, or else the real thing doesn’t really exist. Which might be the case. As time goes on and layers of history are peeled away, and you closely examine what you considered the important bands from your past, you find out they were ALL acts. The only thing that is real are the rare moments when no one was looking, the mistakes, and the tiny miracles that occasionally transcend the cement weighted egos and vanities.

But enough about me. This record is the kind of record, unfortunately rare, that I always prefer to listen to all the way through. I love some of it and hate some of it, but to isolate individual songs seems pointless. It all runs together the way a record album should. I’ve listened to it now hundreds of times, but I couldn’t tell you what a single song title is or what any of them are about. There’s a lot of grunting, groaning, screaming, unsettling noises, and then suddenly you find yourself in a groove that you wish you never had to leave. The guy’s singing “typecast” but he may as well be singing “hotpants” – guitars are destroyed, and the side is over.

To all of you in the CD generation, you will, I’m sure, not believe me when I tell you that you will never, ever be able to understand the singular, sublime pleasure of turning a record over and putting the needle on the second side. After some Elvis from hell bullshit, we again find ourselves in a groove that is over far too soon. Then some kind of an incomprehensible plodding noise out of which suddenly can be heard the phrase: “a Roy Rogers roast beef sandwich!” Probably the high point of my life. Then an instrumental funk groove that serves a similar function as when, in certain times and certain cultures, one would excuse oneself from the table to gracefully throw up. Followed by an unpleasant exorcism of a song– but it all works together, because then you get to the last song on the record, which is also the best, and it’s like you endured your dreadful vegetables, formalities, and pleasantries so that you can be rewarded with (your favorite dessert here). Bon appetit!

11
Apr
09

Black Sabbath “Vol. 4”

Why I never had this album, which came out in 1972, in my adolescent record collection, is beyond me, since I had “Master of Reality” from the year before and I loved that one—particularly the song “Sweet Leaf.” Even as a lad, I thought it was both funny and awesome, simultaneously, though I’m sure I didn’t use the word “awesome” at that time. I probably thought it was “bad”— which in 1971 meant awesome.

So I’ve never put this one on a turntable until now, and it’s pretty satisfying. The first song, “Wheels of Confusion” starts out with some guitar excess that sounds just like Pink Floyd, and you have to wonder if it was a joke. Pink FLOYD… Black SABBATH—get it? Then it goes right into that super heavy, super slow, simple guitar heavy metal that I love so much, and it’s like eight minutes long, too! The next song, “Tomorrow’s Dream”—if you were ever going to put a heavy metal song into a time capsule and send it out into space—to represent “Heavy Metal”—this would be the song. “Changes” kind of brings me down, even though it’s so obviously pretty and an allowable step in a different direction. “Supernaut” brings you back to where your heavy metal brain wants to be—insane!

Side two is much of the same, with Ozzy working the brain/insane rhyme which he had been, was, and would continue to make a career out of. Actually, I don’t know how many times he or anyone else used that rhyme, and I’m sure not going to pursue it! There are some pretty obvious drug references—a clue: if someone in rock music mentions “snow” it has nothing to do with weather. Everybody back then wrote about drugs a lot… you’d think they were IN LOVE with drugs! Try to find someone from 1972 who WASN’T writing songs about drugs—that is the real challenge.

The cover is a classic high contrast photo of Ozzy that’s as boring as it is iconic. The inside cover is nicer, with, apparently large color photo pages of the band—most of which are missing in this tattered copy—though there is a good picture of Tony Iommi, who was one of the more cool looking guys in rock from that time, in my opinion. The band wishes to thank, in the credits, “COKE-Cola”—apparently they were the first ones ever to make that Coca-cola/cocaine connection, and for that we owe them a great debt.

14
Mar
09

George Benson “Weekend in LA”

Ever since the suffering, bored days of high school, I’ve always considered George Benson’s 1976 milestone, “Breezin'” as shorthand for “insipid.” So it was with great trepidation that I put on this double, LIVE, LP from two years later, the dreaded cultural abyss of 1978. But to my surprise, I’m rather enjoying this low key, smooth jazz experience—really, I’m not kidding. I’ve graced my turntable and neighbors with this LP more than a few times lately. Perhaps I have mellowed like a fine wine. I’m not exactly coming home from school, putting on the Sex Pistols, and pounding a quart of hard cider like I was doing in the days this was pressed. No, these days Ray Speen has used his crack pipe to prop up the wobbly leg of his game table where he’s slowly working on an enormous jigsaw puzzle of the Taj Mahal. That image in the reflecting pool—as still and perfect as it is—just drives you crazy! But that’s another subject.

At first I thought this was a single record, as the second disk is gone. Then I noticed that I was in possession of Record 1 Side I, backed with Record 1 Side IV. That’s Roman numeral “4” for all you intravenous drug abusers who can’t get their minds off the dope. Try a jigsaw puzzle, really. The best song is on side “IV”—the awesome Leon Russell’s “Lady Blue.” Other standouts are “Weekend in LA”, which could be synonymous with “mellow,” and “On Broadway” which could maybe be the theme song for everything in the 1970s I’d like to forget. But in a good way. You can barely tell this is a live record, the audience is so subdued; they sound like they’re all sitting in comfortable seats next to blonde ladies, sipping gin sours.

The cover is as equally classic, with “George Benson” “signed” in red neon, and George assuming the (strictly reserved for superstars) Jesus on the cross pose, that is if Jesus had been gripping a hollowbody, George Benson signature Ibanez in one hand, which, who knows, maybe he was. There are a couple more good pictures of GB, and really, he’s got one of the best moustaches of all time. This could very well be my moustache model for my new look. I’m already, as it is well known, fond of those open collars big enough to double as a jib, Genoa, or even a mainsail. Not something you’d want to wear on the high seas, but fine for tropical, LA nights.




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