Friday, December 15, 2017

We're All Lying in Hell

In December of 1977, Suicide released its debut album. For six years the duo of Alan Vega and synth-man Martin Rev performed for baffled, often hostile audiences in New York City's Lower East Side. While Rev made the most out of a $10 Japanese keyboard, Vega sang songs of doom with an echoey rockabilly voice.

You've truly got to be in the right mood to listen to this album, a bright, sunny day at the beach may not be the best location. The highlight, if you will, is a ten minute epic called "Frankie Teardrop"which ahas been called the most terrifying song ever. It's about a factory worker who, despite working ten hour days, can't make ends meet and is facing eviction. He snaps, killing his six month old son and his wife before turning the him on himself. Vega's screams may be may the most blood curdling thing you ever hear.

"Oh, my God! That's one of the most amazing records I think I ever heard. I love that record," Bruce Spingsteen told Rolling Stone.

"23 Minutes Over Brussels," included as a bonus on the CD reissue of Suicide's classic, eponymous debut album, gives some indication of the public's reaction to this confrontational duo in their heyday. Recorded on June 16, 1978, when Suicide were supporting Elvis Costello at the L'Ancienne Belgique ballroom, it shows a riotous crowd pelting the duo with chairs and bottles.

Utilizing a primitive drum machine, Martin Rev's mutant fuzz organ, and Alan Vega's blues holler, Suicide had been performing for six years before unleashing their debut at the height of punk. With their roots in the New York art scene, their provocative name, nihilistic attitude, and the lack of rock 'n' roll accoutrements such as a drummer or guitarist, they often aroused violent reactions in their bewildered audiences.

Arriving in a sleeve full of slash-and-blood imagery, and sounding like a nightmarish netherworld, Suicide's technical and musical innovations make it sound almost contemporary today. "Cheree," lifted as a single, is a piece of sweet electronica, while the manic electro-billy of "Ghost Rider" proved to be a massive influence on the likes of 50ft Cell and The Sisters of Mercy. Psycho- monologue "Frankie Teardrop" is unnervingly intense and features the most spine-chilling scream committed to vinyl, while the album concludes with the icy mechanized cellos and haunting vocals of "Che."

Suicide's harrowing vision of 1970s America has won praise from acts as diverse as Spiritualized, Nick Cave,and Bruce Springsteen.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pissed A Tequila-Anaconda

The most reckless thing about Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, released December 13, 1977,  is her appearance in blackface on the cover, reprising a Halloween costume she wore earlier in the year, going as a black man who complemented her on an L.A. street 

“As he went by me he turned around and said, ‘Ummmm, mmm... looking good, sister, lookin’ good!’ Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him,” Mitchell said. “I bought a black wig. I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pan- cake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’”

The double album has enough jazz inflected moments to please fans of Court and Spark and Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the album did sell enough to go gold. But the reviews were not kind, including the one below by Rolling Stone's Janet Maslin who called it "an instructive failure".

In retrospect, Blue turns out to have been the album that displayed Joni Mitchell at her most buoyant and comfortable — with herself, with the nature of her talents, and with the conventions of pop songwriting. From that happy juncture, she has moved on to more graceful and sober self-scrutiny (For the Roses and Court and Spark), to dramatic musical experimentation mixed with failed social commentary (The Hissing of Summer Lawns), to ever-more-seductive singing (Miles of Aisles) and to rambling, hypnotic flights of fancy (Hejira). She has dabbled with jazz and African tribal music, ventured deep inside herself and fled far away. But, always, the unpredictable caliber of her work has been as exciting as it is frustrating. Now, for once, she has gambled and lost. The best that can be said for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is that it is an instructive failure.

 Since Blue, Mitchell has demonstrated an increasing fondness for formats that don't suit her. Not that this awkwardness can't be occasionally successful: on Hejira, she clung so resolutely to even the stray flat notes that the impression was an attractive one of stubbornness and strength. But, increasingly, Mitchell's pretensions have shaped her appraisal of her own gifts. At her best, she is a keen observer but not a particularly original one, and she has never been an interesting chronicler of experience other than her own, though the new LP finds her trying. Instead, she has been inexplicably inclined to let her music become shapeless as she tries to incorporate jazz and calypso rhythms that eventually overpower her. Her most resonant lyrics have been simple and concise, spinning out images rather than overburdening them, but lately the endearing modesty of "California" or "Just like This Train" seems far behind her. These days, Mitchell appears bent on repudiating her own flair for popular songwriting, and on staking her claim to the kind of artistry that, when it's real, doesn't need to announce itself so stridently.

 Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a double album that should have been a single album. It's sapped of emotion and full of ideas that should have remained whims, melodies that should have been riffs, songs that should have been fragments. At its worst, it is a painful illustration of how different the standards that govern poetry and song lyrics can be, and an indication that Joni Mitchell's talents, stretched here to the breaking point, lend themselves much more naturally to the latter form. Her writing works best when it's compact, yet the record's expansive mood forces her to belabor, in the title song, the precious contrast between a snake (or a train, as well as the author's baser instincts) and an eagle (or an airplane, plus a longing for "clarity") for nearly seven minutes. Mitchell's music has evolved into a kind of neutral background, rolling on endlessly in either a languid spirit ("Jericho") or a nervous one ("Dreamland"). Somehow, she has chosen to abandon melody at a time when she needs it urgently.

 The painful banality of Mitchell's lyrics — there is nothing said here that she hasn't said better before, except those things she should have kept to herself — is almost the least of her problems. Behind a treacly title like "The Silky Veils of Ardor" lurks an even treaclier notion: that the romantic visions of love put forth by certain folk songs are one thing, that reality is another, and that the singer apparently yearns for both. "It's just in my dreams we fly," the song concludes, with a reference to "The Water Is Wide." Or, as a dialogue balloon on one of the inner sleeves puts it, "In my dweems we fwy." The album offers what is, one can only hope, the ultimate in cute cover art.

It also offers the ultimate in potshots: "Otis and Marlena," a facile, snidely sung song about tourists who come to Miami "for fun and sun While Muslims stick up Washington." This leads into "The Tenth World," a mostly instrumental percussion track featuring Jaco Pastorius (who plays on a majority of the record with distinction, but without much helpful influence), Airto and Chaka Khan (who hums). Here and elsewhere, there seems to be the notion that blacks and Third World people have more rhythm, more fun and a secret, mischievous viewpoint that the author, dressed as a black man in one of the photos on the front jacket, presumes to share. On the numbing, sixteen-minute "Paprika Plains," we also learn about Indians, who "cut off their braids/And lost some link with nature." 

"Talk to Me" is the LP's most enduring number: as a terrible, embarrassing song about feeling terribly embarrassed, it has a scary appropriateness. But even though there are no real solutions to the album's mysteries or explanations for its lapses, Joni Mitchell's resilience has been demonstrated often enough to make speculation about such things appear superfluous. She's bound to be back when the time is right and her mood is less drowsy, less disengaged than it seems here. Until then, we're left with Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, in all its recklessness.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Four Turkeys in a Big Black Car

In December of 1977, Brian Eno released his most diverse album of the 1970's, Before And After Science. Having collaborated with David Bowie on two albums recorded in Berlin, Eno was stepping out on his own with an album he wasn't completely satisfied with.

  Side One offers Eno's last foray into rock music of the decade, including the single "King's Lead Hat", an anagram of Talking Heads with whom he had originally hoped to record the song. You can easily imagine David Byrne singing this song. Phil Manzanera is playing the frenetic guitar. 

The opening track is a funky Bowiesque number with two bass players and Phil Collins playing drums. Yes, that Phil Collins. 

"Kurt's Rejoinder" makes history by sampling a 1930s recording of ‘Sonate in Urlauten’ (or ‘The Ursonate’)– a phonetic poem by Dada affiliate Kurt Schwitters . 

Side Two is mostly instrumental, a return to the spacious sounds of Another Green World. Though Eno questioned the quality of the album, Before And After Science got very good reviews. 'Heroes' may have topped the NME chart, but Eno's album finished at No. 14, just ahead of the Jam’s In the City. Eno would have to wait until the following year to learn the album, released in the Spring of '78 in the States, had finished No 12.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Kinda Soft, Kinda Mean

On December 10, 1977, Dr Feelgood were filmed performing at Queen Mary College in London. Guitarist John "Gypie" Mayo is now completely comfortable in his role as guitarist, having replaced Wilko Johnson earlier in the year. The Nick Lowe penned "That's It, I Quit" is from the September 1977 release Be Seeing You, produced by Mr Lowe himself. ( Nick Lowe recorded the Feelgood's "Keep It Out of Sight" a year earlier).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Think Of A Number

In December of 1977, Wire released Pink Flag, my favorite album of the entire year.

Wire had one foot planted firmly in the punk rock gutter.  But the other foot was in the college educated, art rock. On Pink Flag, they play with the basic concepts of songs, how they should start, how they should end and how long they should be. 

The second track on Pink Flag is "Field Day for the Sundays". It is 28 seconds long.

"The shorter songs developed naturally," Graham Lewis told Rolling Stone. "When the words ran out, Colin said, 'That's it.' We went, 'Yes, why not?' It used to drive the punks nuts. They'd sort of get pogoing, and then it would stop. We always thought it was really funny."

Humor played a large role in what Wire were up to. ("Brazil" got its title because some members thought it had a rhythm that sounded like something off a Sergio Mendes record). 

"As we played, our skill level was going up and we were getting tighter, and the tighter we got, the funnier it was with the stopping and starting," said Lewis.

"As we played, our skill level was going up and we were getting tighter, and the tighter we got, the funnier it was with the stopping and starting," said Lewis.

Wire could do it all. Is there a faster punk song on record than "Surgeon's Girl"? Or a more melodic bit of power pop punk than the love song "Fragile"?

Called a punk suite by Robert Christgau, this 21 song album clocks in at under 36 minutes. It's the best 36 minutes of 1977.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nah Pop No Style

In December of 1977, the Jamaican teenage reggae duo Althea and Donna released the single "Uptown Top Ranking",  a #1 smash hit in the U.K. The story about "Uptown Top Ranking" is well known.  Heading for oblivion, the single was accidentally played by BBC D.J. John Peel on his late evening show. Not sure how a D.J. accidentally plays a record, but in any case Peel received letters from people saying how much they liked it so he kept playing it. Daytime BBC D.J.s soon following the example and by February it was the top song in the U.K. 

It's a catchy song, sung over the dee jay track of Trinity's "Three Piece Suit", with indecipherable patois lyrics that turn out to be exactly the kind of thing teen age girls would write--  men who cat call them when they walk on the road (See me pon the road I hear you call out to me ), driving around in Mercedes Benz (See mi in mi Benz and ting Drivin' through Constant Spring ), dancing with the most popular guy in tan leisure suits. (Watch how we chuck it and ting Inna we khaki suit and ting ) And telling the world they don't care for pop music. They love reggae (Nah pop no style, a strictly roots ).

Sly and Robbie played on the album.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Yam! Bam!

In December of 1977 Belgian singer Roger Jouret, better known as Plastic Bertrand, released "Ca Plane Pour Moi", an infectious and silly international hit that was actually sung by the record's producer, Lou Deprijck. That would explain why Bertrand only received 0.5% of the royalties. 

This is not the only time a performer would find fame by lip syncing somebody else's vocals (Milli Vanilli anyone?), though it would be thirty years before Bertrand would admit it. 

 (Wham! Bam!)
My cat "Splash"rests on my bed
She’s swallowed her tongue
While drinking all my whisky.
As for me,
Not much sleep, worn out, bullied
I’ve had to sleep in the gutter
Where I've had a vision
Hou! Hou! Hou! Hou!
In four colours
 Let’s go!
One morning
A chick came to my place
A cellophane doll, chinese hair
A sticking plaster, a wooden face
She’s drunk my beer from a a big rubber glass
Hou! Hou! Hou! Hou!
Like an Indian in his igloo
 That’s cool with me
That’s cool with me
That’s cool with me, me, me,me, me
That’s cool with me