Monday, September 22, 2014

Wails From the Crypt (An Occasional Series)

[Attentive readers will perhaps recall that I have from time to time, since NYMary first gave me the metaphorical spare set of keys to this here blog, reprinted various pieces I originally wrote for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review. If truth be told, however, I've done it less often than I originally anticipated, mostly because a lot of my old stuff -- especially from the '70s -- kind of creeps me out for various reasons (god, I could be an annoyingly opinionated blowhard back then -- as opposed to now, hah!) but also because to a large degree the pieces are simply dated. Also, I really hate transcribing the damn things.

That said, I chanced across this column...from the February 1977 issue...

...and upon re-reading it I decided it wasn't totally embarrassing and decided to share. I've done a little rewriting to eliminate a couple of really egregious dumb pronouncements, but by and large this is how it appeared back in the day. I should add that the photo of Graham Parker is the very same one that ran with the essay originally; god bless the intertubes for the picture's easy accessibility. I should also add that I do not stand by my assessment of the George Harrison song in question, although in my defense, I was prematurely correct about George's ultimate artistic renaissance. In any event, enjoy if possible. -- S.S.]

It's a strange time right now for pop music. Oh, sure lots of interesting things have been going on -- the remarkable return of Brian Wilson, the Led Zeppelin film, the second (and I hope the last) Rock Awards TV show, and punk-rock festivals in (where else?) France -- but it's a hard to get a fix on what it all means. A new sensibility seems to be emerging out of the ashes of the slowly sickening Seventies, but there's a vagueness about it, a tentative slippery kind of feeling that resists analysis. For myself, I find that most of the records I'm listening to now are retrospectives of one kind or another -- the Faces Snakes and Ladders, a lovely memorial to a band that never really got it together the way the could have; Leo Kottke's 1971-1976; even the latest reissue of Phil Spector's sublime Christmas album -- and that's got me muddled even more. So rather than try to make sense of all of this, I'm cribbing an idea from Simon Frith, who cribbed it from Charlie Gillet, who cribbed it from god-knows-who. Here is this month's Big Six.

1. Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia

Before Patti's new album came out, I was fortunate enough to stumble across an excellent live bootleg featuring some of her new songs, as well as to catch an unannounced low-profile gig she did at a bar in SoHo, and I think I've finally figured out why she gets to me: As knowingly as she comes on, she really is an innocent. It doesn't matter that most of the criticisms that have been leveled at here are true. Sure, her singing is fairly limited, her band isn't virtuoso, her poetry is at times laughably overripe -- but she's still open enough to fit Smokey Robinson and Dolly Parton in there among the fever dreams. Radio Ethiopia, different as it is from Horses, has just as many problems, but she's getting closer to whatever it is she's chasing, and for the moment at least the ride she's taking us on is the most exhilirating one in rock.

2. George Harrison: "This Song" (from 33&1/3)

That little old cringe-maker is back, but with a difference. Not only has he shaved his beard and started eating meat again, he seems to have regained both his sense of humor and his songwriting chops. I have not yet heard the whole album, so I will have to restrain my enthusiasm, but on the basis of the single -- inspired by his recent loss in court, it's his first rocker in ages and works both as a novelty tune and a love song -- George may finally be able to demonstrate that his work with the Beatles was not the fluke the intervening years have indicated it might be.

3. Graham Parker and the Rumour: Heat Treatment

R&B lives! No sooner had I speculated that Southside Johnny's passion for Sixties Soul might be contagious than Mr. Parker and a fine group of refugees from the London pub-rock scene show that the English might have caught it too. The Rumour isn't quite as flashy as the Asbury Jukes, nor is it as purist, but the groove is similar and Heat Treatment might just be the best original soul revivalist album since, oh, let's say the Beach Boys Wild Honey.

4, Elton John: Blue Moves

Gosh, but it must be lonely at the top! It seems that it isn't enough for poor Elton that his records sell by the zillions, that he's adored by both the fans and other pop stars -- those nasty old rock critics just keep picking on him, and its ruining his breakfast. Insensitive bastards. The odd thing is that although Blue Moves is, if anything, more numbingly turgid than anything he's done previously, it's also, in a peculiar sort of way, the most honest; it's full of the peeved petulance he demonstrated when, in a recent radio interview, he vented his spleen at a poor New York Times reviewer who had confessed to being only moderately enthused over his last concert. The Rock Star Self Pity Syndrome claims its least likely candidate; can Peter Frampton be far behind?

5. Boston: "More Than a Feeling"

This song, of course, has been the left-field smash of the year, coming seemingly out of nowhere from a first album by an unknown group of musicians who have only just quit their day jobs. It really is good; a soaring riff out of Lou Reed by way of Joe Walsh, stunning playing and production, and the best job of adapting the George Martin/Beatles approach to heavy metal that anyone has come up with in ages; Todd Rundgren, not to mention Eric Carmen, must be reaching for the razor blade every time they hear it. But, like most left-field smashes, it's a one shot. There isn't another song remotely as memorable anywhere on the rest of the album, and, unsurprisingly, the group's singing is as faceless as all the rest of the metal bands. Still, in a period when imaginative rock-and-roll hit singles are getting harder to find than practicing Druids, it's nice they're around. File with "The Boys Are Back in Town."

6. Bruce Springsteen: "Rendezvous"

It's been over a year since Born to Run put the Bard of Asbury Park on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and Springsteen, embroiled in a lawsuit with his old manager that prevents him from recording anything new, must be wondering if rock stardom is all it's cracked up to be. He doesn't act like it, thought, or at least he didn't during a recent six-night stint in New York City. Instead, he put on the most sweeping, ambitious and deceptively spontaneous shows I have ever attended, including one that reduced several extremely skeptical friends of mine to actual tears. Two of the new songs he introduced are obviously still being worked on, but the third -- a hypnotically compelling teenage lament called "Rendezvous" (that is also the most English-sounding thing he's ever done) -- is clearly a Bruce Springsteen Song for the Ages. Incidentally, he dedicated a tune at each performance to Patti Smith, and actually pulled her onstage during one version of "Rosalita." If Springsteen is the New Dylan, does that make Patti the Baez of the Seventies? Well, why not? -- though I admit to being a little uncomfortable with the idea of Revelations taking place in New Jersey.

UPDATE: The video for the Harrison track.

Amusing enough, I suppose, but as for the song itself -- all I can say is "what was I thinking?"


Mark said...

Nice. I'm reminded why I subscribed for years to SR, and it wasn't for the Pioneer ads. Very nice.

edward said...

The Harrison video is an interesting artifact of the pre-MTV era. Look how long the shots are. The closest thing to a quick cut is the thumbs up segment towards the beginning.
Patti Smith as Joan Baez. Hehe.

ScottE4 said...

I started reading SR when I was about 13. Every time I go to a Springsteen concert I think of this article when I see skeptical fans convert. I was one of them in 1978.

Ken J Xenozar said...

It doesn't really take guts to have an opinion. But it does to go back in time and revisit them. Kudos and laughs for exposing yourself. Mostly on target methinks.

Peter Power Pop said...

Hey, Steve:

If anyone wants to hear those songs and albums, here they are:

1. Patti Smith Group - Radio Ethiopia (album)

2. George Harrison - "This Song"

3. Graham Parker and the Rumour - Heat Treatment (album)

4. Elton John - Blue Moves (album)

5. Boston - "More Than A Feeling"

6. Bruce Springsteen - "Rendezvous"

steve simels said...

Pete--bless you for those links....particularly the Springsteen, which blew my mind.

Anonymous said...

Nice little time capsule, especially with PPP supplying the music.

Noticed the cover date of February 1977. Assume you wrote the stuff in November based on the content.

Patti Smith: I gather the bootleg referenced is Teenage Perversity Or Ships In the Night on Ken Douglas’ Ze Anonym Plattenspieler imprint [The Roxy 1976-01-30 – KMET broadcast]. The low profile Soho gigs you referred to are likely at the Ocean Club in Lower Manhattan circa late August 1976. The cover tunes referenced are Smokey’s “When the Hunter Gets Captured By the Game” and Dolly’s “Jolene”. Correct?

IMHO Radio Ethiopia had way more problems than Horses. Talk about a sophomore slump! The former only had three good songs: Ask the Angels, Ain’t It Strange [my favorite on the LP] and Pumping. The latter two were previewed on the bootleg. I mean, c’mon, how many times do you really wanna hear the title tune? That negates two-thirds of Side Two. It isn’t even as listenable as Sister Ray, which I seldom endure.

George Harrison: You suggest that George hadn’t done anything worthwhile after leaving the Beatles until “This Song.” I liked All Things Must Pass. I gave up on him after Bangladesh. Renouncing the Material World and writing songs about lawsuits seemed incongruous to me. But mainly, the toons just weren’t very good.

Graham Parker: I saw Graham Parker at the Roxy around the time you must have written this piece [November 1976]. Loved him ever since. Prefer him over Southside Johnny & the Jukes who were a great bar band propped up by Bruce and Little Steven’s songs [incidentally I saw these guys around the same time at the Roxy, maybe a week or two before Parker. They opened for Elvin Bishop]. Parker, in contrast, is a songwriter par excellence. I also dig his stage banter.

Elton John: Irrelevant then and now.

Boston: “Stunning playing and production,” doesn’t necessarily make for great rock ‘n’ roll. This song cuts the balls off “Louie Louie” to please wrong-headed potheads who think building stereo systems is an evolutionary progression that is preferable to souping up a car. Even though the hooks are substantial, the twin leads are ultimately too antiseptic and formulaic. Hello corporate rock by the numbers. Invented at MIT.

I saw these guys live at the Santa Monica Civic just days before Graham Parker. What a night and day difference between the shows. I went with a nurse from UCLA Medical Center who was procuring wonderful remedies from the pharmacy for us. We shared a greenhorn Portuguese boyfriend whom we were teaching the universal language, and, all things Southern Californian ["two girls for every guy"]. He gave us linguica galore in return for his "Orientation". Boston sounded just like their record and were a total insincere bore. No fucking passion. Opening band was even worse [Y&T].

Bruce Rendezvous: The Palladium version of Rendezvous is one of the best. But I think it’s a corny song. That’s just me. I feel that way about a lot of his work. His songs are like Stirling Silliphant screenplays, they can go either way for me. But I’m a sucker for stuff like Nils’ “Delivery Night.” So go figure. Don’t see how this one sounds British, though. Care to give a British artist who sounds like this? Comparisons?

Vickie Rock - Sweet treatment

steve simels said...

Vicki -- words fail me. Your memory is astounding.

As far as Patti, yes, absolutely, the bootleg must have been Teenage Perversity, and the live gig was definitely at the Ocean Club (owned by the late great Mickey Ruskin, of Maxs fame). And yes about the Smokey and Parton songs.

Also yes, I must have written the piece in late November or early December of 76, given Stereo's three month lead time.

As far as "Rendezvous," you're also right The Palladium version simply kills me -- the one on the Bruce box set is from the same week of gigs, but the bootleg (from a different show from the same week) is actually a better performance.

You're really quite amazing...

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senormedia said...

I think that George may have skimmed a little song inspiration from his Rutles buddies.

Anonymous said...

Re Bruce some more: I heard Rendezvous for the first time in 1976 at the Santa Monica Civic. Sandy and I went with this guy named Gerard who was an absolute dead ringer for Jimmy Page. He even played a mean guitar. We were seniors at UCLA at the time of the Springsteen show. Gerard lived at our house rent free for our last two years of college. He was our ZoSo A-Go-Go fantasy fuck-toy.

I first laid eyes on him a year prior at the Moby Disc in Pasadena. He was wearing a leather jacket, red velvet flares, a floral shirt and alligator boots. He stood about 5’9” and had delicate, pale features. His long dark hair was disheveled gorgeously. One look at him and I knew he was a musician. But what really mattered was that he was a ringer for Jimmy Page in late 1969. He was perfect!

He was quizzically looking at an import Banco del Mutuo Soccorso LP. Upon engaging him, I came to find out he didn't know shit about that band. A pity. But I could turn him on to them and a whole lot of other wicked things at my place.

I abducted him, regardless. He had the look I needed. Sandy and I could teach him the rest. We were about to enroll him for Graduate Studies in The Philosophy of the Bedroom.

Sandy and I role played a lot and many times our wanton fantasies involved Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin’s music. Their whole catalog is great for fucking. It’s downright witchy music with a hypnotic pulse. Jimmy spanked and teased us so deliciously with that bow. His licks conjured us to orgasm. Gerard’s uncanny resemblance would only enhance the experience. I had to have him.

First I exercised my domination by slaughtering him in pool at the bar two doors down from Moby. I was so excited about finding him that I called Sandy from the pay phone. I had finally found our Pageboy!! Sandy's response was, "Goodie! Let the games begin." My thoughts exactly.

When he walked into that record store he was living with mom and dad in Eagle Rock. When he left Moby Disc with me, he was unaware that he moving in with us. Let alone that he was going to be submitting to our every lustful wish for the next two years. He just needed to be baptized. But that's another story.

Nakamichi Mike, the taper from Placentia, was at both Springsteen Santa Monica shows and taped from near the front each night. Those tapes have never surfaced, though other inferior ones have. Maybe someday, but it seems like they would have by now.

Those were incredible shows clocking in at just under two hours. Vicki Vinyl was there with Jim, her hair blue when scarcely anyone was doing that. To the best of my recollection the second night was better than the first. I was in the third row on night one and sixth row night two. Only the truly devoted attended. It didn't have the same buzz as the Roxy shows a year prior [I went to three of the five], but the shows were just as good, if not better. I really liked Bruce back then. For me the dividing line is after The River.

Here's a full show from 1976 which is mighty fine, fine, fine. Especially disc one. It surfaced circa summer 2004 on Godfatherecords, a first rate European label.

Vickie Rock - The thunder in your heart at night

And a baby pix:

And since I mentioned Vicki Vinyl:

Anonymous said...

That February 1977 "Pop Beat" column was also historically significant in the sense that it was actually the last one you did; starting in the next issue you were no longer Pop Music Editor, but continued to contribute regular and feature reviews. (My memory, while not Vickie Rock-esque, is pretty good).
At the time, I believe then-Editor-In-Chief William Anderson commented that you were moving on to the "fresh pastures" of TV (?) writing. This prompted a reader named Jack Stacy Boove (love that name!) to quip, in a subsequent Letters-To-The-Editor column: "Sing praises! The boy has found himself."
Actually, you reviewed the whole George Harrison "33-And-A-Third" LP in the March 1977 issue and your enthusiasm for "This Song" was already waning a bit. You said it was "reasonably clever and actually rocks a bit", but you were probably more taken with "Crackerbox Palace", which you characterized as "an addictive bit of Beatlesque whimsey" with an "alive" arrangement.

J. Lag

John Werner said...

I started reading Stereo Review when I was 12-years old. Joel Vance was the pop-music editor. When Steve came along I missed Vance just a little because I knew a more "kindred soul" was at the helm. I just loved his sense of praise for all things Brit Invasion inspired. I'll never forget his raving about an obscure acts like The White Animals (Nashville) and Shoes (Mid-Western) and how these bands were Brit revivalists of sorts as well as rockers. As for This Song I shared his initial enthusiasm which in time waned as it was too lightweight to make a lasting impression.

side3 said...

I liked George Harrison's "33 1/3" alot, especially in comparison to "Dark Horse" and "Extra Texture".

The Boss gave "Rendezvous" to the Greg Kihn Band to record. It is the first place I ever heard it. I seem to remember that Springsteen gifted to them based on the fact that he loved their cover of "For You".


"For You":