Archive for the ‘garage’ Category

Album Review: The Roaring 420s – What is Psych?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

There’s a bubbling-under sort of cottage industry in sixties revivalism. And it’s been around for at least a couple of decades now, occasionally popping into the mainstream consciousness to enjoy a charting single or album. Of course Oasis raised the practice to fetishism in the 1990s, shifting millions of units for their trouble. And the (admittedly more modest) success of Rhino’s Children of Nuggets box set proved that, for many, the sounds and aural aesthetic of the 1960s have never really gone away.

Today we have Elephant Stone, The Allah-Las, The Black Angels and many others. Each has their own style based in whole or part on what was happening in the second half of the 1960s, but each, too, has their own identity. And the similarly-named (yet quite distinct from one another) bands The Fuzztones and The Fleshtones have been keepers of the flame for the more garage-y end of 60s style.

Paradoxically perhaps, it requires more than a modicum of originality to earn success in 2014 while reaching back half a century for one’s musical touchstones. The Orgone Box is one act (based in the UK) whose music somehow builds upon the sounds of old while transcending the eras to create something fresh and lasting; look for my review of their Centaur album soon in this space.

Another group of note with a similar level of quality is The Roaring 420s.

Okay, now that you’ve had a second or so to chuckle at the group’s name and get it out of your system, you’re ready to digest (or, ingest) their music. Yes, this is a case of band name as truth-in-advertising, though the music of this German-based group often suggests the intake of something stronger than a bit of weed.

Judging solely by the music, there’s little or nothing to suggest that The Roaring 420s are from Germany. In fact their sound is firmly rooted in mid 1960s Los Angeles: you’ll hear strong hints of The Music Machine, The Electric Prunes, and even (shudder) The Doors. The group has a real knack of combining the vibe of yesteryear with something far more important: a hook. Every track on What is Psych? is loaded with at least one – sometimes two, occasionally three – killer riffs or hooks.

The Roaring 420s come blasting out of the gate with “Bury My Burden” sounding for all the world like a much more pop-leaning Black Angels. Fuzzy guitars and a heavier bass than is usually the case in sixties garage stomp forward, aided by some especially tasty combo organ work. And it’s the keyboards that push the music on What is Psych? past the very-good mark toward something really special. The band’s call-and-response vocal approach (employed on some but certainly not all tracks) pulls the listener in, if they weren’t already all-in.

Typically, songs of the type one will find on What is Psych? are of the three-minutes-and-out variety. It’s a testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting and arranging that many of the cuts on What is Psych? extend well beyond that mark. Catchy soloing that actually goes somewhere is backed by hypnotic backing; even at seven-plus minutes, a tune like “Bury My Burden” never so much as threatens to wear out its welcome.

The band cleverly builds its arrangements in a way that means sometimes one member is turning out a memorable solo, while the rest are providing sympathetic support. But then, perhaps, the bass and guitar will engage in lockstep riffing. Then it’s Florian Hohmann‘s combo organ and Timo Elmert‘s guitar in octave-apart unison. Then, maybe Martin Zerrenner‘s bass and Hohmann’s keys. And it all works, anchored by Luisa Mühl‘s solid drumming.

In places (as on “Blue Jay,”) The Roaring 420s sound like early Velvet Underground supercharged with the sort of pop sensibility the VU wouldn’t display until Loaded. (And the 420s are not nearly as dark as the Velvets; they seem to be having a good time.)

Like Elephant Stone (who, at will, they they can sound like) the 420s make intelligent use of sitar, as on “These Woods of Stone.” But their shimmering, riff-based pop tunes – exemplified by “Another Chance (to Blow)” are where they truly shine. The Roaring 420s have figured out to just what degree they can employ repetition: more and it would be overkill, less and they’d be leaving riffs on the table (so to speak).

Mid-album (especially on “Hey Hey Rider”), the group seems to take a brief detour into a slightly different style, one that suggests a Blonde on Blonde era Dylan crossed with, I dunno, The Fugs. Hohmann does his best Dylan but ends up sounding more like Lou Reed. But on “Yes I Am” the quartet make it clear that they won’t be pigeonholed on every tune. The bright piano work that forms the track’s basis illustrates that there’s still room for expanding the parameters of what-is-psych, Sixties style.

It’s Blues Magoos time on “You Had to Learn it the Hard Way,” taking a familiar blues lick and building a track around it. The result threatens to yield a less notable tune, but the “ba-ba-ba” vocals suggest what might’ve happened if The Mamas and the Papas dropped by a Magoos recording date.

Thick fuzz riffage against a piano backing makes “Saturday Night” alright for this album, though here the lead vocals sound curiously like Tom Verlaine. The folky strains of “Pill Hill” suggest the Velvets’ more gentle, contemplative moments. Rhyming “jello” and “pillow” is a bit dodgy, but the Al Kooper-style organ work means they earn a pass.

The Roaring 420s save the best for next-to-last: the slow chugging vibe of “Tourist” crosses a Neil Young and Crazy Horse approach with (again) Television, and the result feel like epic storytelling, whether it is or not. After several guitar solos – none of which feels excessive – an extended (and finely textured) keyboard solo conjured pleasant memories of the late Ray Manzarek. Even at eight minutes, not a second of “Tourist” feels gratuitous or wasted.

The fuzzed-out, low-key “You Will Never Be the Same” ends the album on a blurry note, providing a calming chill-out to send listeners home after this trip through the past. But not too calming: in spots, the tune feels like C.A. Quintet‘s dark classic “A Trip Thru Hell.”

For those who dig the psychedelic vibe of the 60s but want strong melodic underpinning, but who insist upon something they haven’t heard before, The Roaring 420s’s What is Psych? may be just what the doctor ordered.

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Album Review: Sun Ra — A Space Odyssey

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

As Kris Needs notes in his excellent and detailed liner notes for A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham to the Big Apple – The Quest Begins, Sun Ra was a practitioner of “garage jazz.”

Today (May 22 2014) would have been the 100th birthday of the man born Herman Blount, though once he rechristened himself Sun Ra he also claimed to be a visitor from outer space. And when he began releasing music under his own name (beginning with 1956′s “Saturn,” credited to Le Sun Ra & His Arkistra), many listeners would be inclined to agree. Sun Ra’s closest antecedent wold have been Thelonious Monk; both men shared a love of dissonance and odd meters. But where Monk worked on (acoustic) piano and generally within a small combo, Sun Ra often worked with large ensembles and – in later years – made full use of electronics. A staggeringly prolific artist, he released more than 100 albums, many of which are quite rare today. His influence is wide: Parliament/Funkadelic owe much to him both musically and in their visual approach, and in my interviews, some surprising artists – XTC‘s Andy Partridge and New Jersey powerpoppers The Grip Weeds – have expressed their deep admiration for his work.

The new 3CD set from Fantastic Voyage focuses on the earliest part of Sun Ra’s recorded career. The first disc (subtitled “Pre-flight”) kicks off with the aforementioned “Saturn” and then quickly moves on to a survey of the session work Blount/Sun Ra did for other artists (plus some early solo/Arkistra sides). The earliest track dates from 1933, with the pianist as part of Clarence Williams & His Orchestra on the Sun Ra original “Chocolate Avenue.”

Most r&b fans will be surprised to learn that Sun Ra played on a number of tracks by well-known artists of that era: Wynonie Harris and Red Saunders’ Orchestra are just two of these. The “Pre-flight disc is packed with 28 tracks overall, about a third of which are Arkistra tracks from the tail-end of the 1950s.

Disc Two (“Lift-off”) features seventeen tracks, all Sun Ra originals, and all credited to various aggregations of his. He changes the spelling of Arkistra to Arkestra, sometimes appending the prefix “His” or “The” and other times adding “Solar” before “Arkestra.” But it’s the music that matters. Whacked-out big band music that surely seemed bizarre then (these tracks are assorted randomly from the period 1956-1968), and while they feel a bit more melodic in the context of the 21st century, they’re still pretty out-there. “Sunology” from 1957′s Super Sonic Jazz is a relatively straightforward number, but some electric piano takes it outside the safe zone. The electric piano runs on “Springtime in Chicago” seem processed somehow, perhaps through a ring modulator. But that’s a nonsensical observation: ring modulators weren’t available in 1956. Nonetheless, Sun Ra did some sort of processing – however primitive – to alter the tone of the instrument. “Sun Song” from 1957 features some otherworldly percussion, slightly off-kilter piano glissandi and weird, gurgling Hammond organ, all (perversely) applied to a relatively accessible melody. The brief solo piece “Advice to the Medics” is built around Sun Ra’s electric piano work, again with a strange, likely intentionally overdriven tone.

All of which leads to an important point. Long before the phrase DIY became a watchword in music, Sun Ra was doing it himself. Most of his recordings are relatively low-budget affairs, many released on his own El Saturn label. It’s unlikely that a relatively straight label such as Riverside or Blue Note would have wanted to release the seemingly unending stream of weirdo jazz that Sun Ra & His Arkestra churned out. And long before the era of the “merch table,” El Saturn releases were normally pressed in exceedingly small quantities (often less than a hundred copies) and sold at live Arkestra shows.

Despite its subtitle, disc three (“Future Shock”) isn’t all that weird, at least not in its first half. Fifteen tracks focusing tightly in on the period 1958-1961 (a time during which he released eleven albums!), these actually represent a sampling of the most accessible music Sun Ra produced. In some ways, Sun Ra’s music here has hints of exotica practitioners Esquivel and Martin Denny, albeit filtered through a jazz/r&b sensibility neither of those men possessed to any great degree. Even a straightforward blues arrangement on “Great Balls of Fire” (decidedly not the Jerry Lee Lewis standard from a year earlier) has atonal horn bursts peppered throughout its run time. “Velvet” is a big band number led by Sun Ra’s Monk-like piano runs; it swings hard and gives solo time to members of the Arkestra. Many of the tracks here are built upon a blues foundation, and seem designed for dancing. “Blues at Midnight” does engage in some thrilling bass and saxophone runs that lean toward hard bop, and “Ancient Aiethopia” is cinematic in its scope. “Space Loneliness” (a single from 1960) is evocative of its title, and features some excellent, dissonant piano soloing from Sun Ra. The disc tosses in a doo-wop oddity: “Teenager’s Letter of Promises” from 1959 by Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings backed by Sun Ra’s Arkestra masquerading as Mr. V’s Five Joys. It’s otherworldly and banal all at once, and has to be heard to be believed.

“Bassism” is just what its title suggests: a tune built around upright bass. But fluttering flutes and skittering piano take it in an uncharted direction. The Arkestra continues on its trajectory spaceward with 1961′s “Where is Tomorrow” and follows with three more tasty, edgy cuts from that year’s album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The percussion-centric “The Beginning” feels like what Edgard Varèse might have done had he been backed with the Arkestra. The set wraps with 1961′s “Message to Earthman,” on which the Arkestra is led by a speaking (and shouting! And wailing!) Sun Ra, declaiming his intergalactic message.

Since the subtitle of this 3CD’s set includes the phrase “The Quest Begins,” one can only hope that Fantastic Voyage will grace modern music listeners with another Kris Needs-curated collection of Sun Ra music in the near future.

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Album Review: Night Beats — Sonic Bloom

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Modern perspectives on 60s garage rock have littered the musical landscape in the 21st century. But I’m reminded of an oft-repeated response to all that by a friend of mine. Upon hearing the latest band claiming to faithfully re-create the garage rock vibe of 1965-68, he often remarks upon the result, saying something like, “Aww…that’s not garage.” Clearly, to him, these young whippersnappers took the wrong cues from the era; perhaps the focused more upon sartorial concerns than musical ones.

And the sixties identikit isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to simply outfit a band with Rickenbacker guitars, fuzztone pedals and some Vox amps. While it may or not require consumption of drugs, there’s little doubt that an understanding of the musical goals of the sixties antecedents is the foundational prerequisite to getting it right.

Some do succeed. Austin’s Black Angels (on tour this coming spring with no less a psychedelic light than Roky Erickson) understand the vibe; their albums are awash in the fuzz-and-feedback aesthetic, and they get the tmepose right. But beyond that, they understand what it takes to put together a good song. Because one of the foundations of that sixties garage stuff was songcraft: you had to be able to dance to it, and (with some exceptions) the song had to make its musical mark quickly.

Another band that “gets it” is Night Beats. I reviewed their self-titled debut in Summer 2011, and I’m happy to report that on Sonic Bloom, their 2013 followup, they deliver more of the same quality.

Lee Blackwell still sounds like Sky Saxon. His guitars consistently reverb, feed back and fuzz out. There’s a pleasingly nodded-out vibe on groovy tunes like “Playing Dead.” And some tasty Farfisa enlivens “Outta Mind.” Throughout Sonic Bloom, the vocals and guitar – and to a lesser extent, everything else – are treated with sheets of reverb, phase and other sonic trickery of the late 60s. But it’s all done lovingly, and with an understanding – once again – that the basic song has to be there for it all to work. No, you probably won’t find yourself singing along to “Real Change.” Bonus points to you if you can even decipher what Blackwell’s singing about. But that’s not the point; the sound of the vocal – and the sound of that keening, squealing lead guitar break – is what’s important here.

“Satisfy Your Mind” is a Dylanesque jugband romp filtered through a fuzztone. Elsewhere, the band’s musical time machine goes back to the past to invent proto-shoegaze. “The Seven Poison Wonders” sounds like it could fit nicely into the “dance club” scene in the soundtrack of a Roger Corman film from way back when. And the album’s closer, “The New World” folds in some jazzy elements, suggesting that should Night Beats wish to expand their sonic horizons, they could do so effectively. (Here’s betting they won’t.)

Sonic Bloom represents a small step forward from the band’s debut, but since they started from such a solid place, little movement is needed. They haven’t yet said all they have to say where they are.

Sonic Bloom is a prime contender for Top Ten albums of the year, if the year is 1966. And from where I stand, that’s high praise indeed.

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It’s a Mondo Zombie Boogaloo!

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

It’s one thing to make good music. A challenging thing, not to be taken for granted, but as far as live performance goes, ultimately it’s only one part of the mix. Another thing is to put on a good show. Some artists do that without getting the first part of the equation (Gene Simmons, I’m lookin’ at you). Precious few can muster both, and do it reliably, consistently.

So what, dear reader, might be the odds that an evening’s entertainment might include three such acts? In my experience – and I’ve been to a lot of shows in my time – it’s a pretty damn unlikely proposition. But the exception that proves the rule is the current – as in, right this moment as I write these words – tour billed as “Mondo Zombie Boogaloo.” Featuring three bands who have long been performing at the top of their respective games, the tour makes its final three stops tonight (Halloween) in Carrboro NC, tomorrow (11/1) in Asheville NC, and then wraps up at Atlanta’s Masquerade (in the “Hell” room, natch) on November 2. I spoke with key members of all three bands – The Fleshtones, Los Straitjackets, and Southern Culture on the Skids – about the tour, and the new Mondo Zombie Boogaloo: 100 Years of Roc album that features all three acts.

Two of the bands (Los Straitjackets and The Fleshtones) are signed to Yep Roc for their album releases, and SCOTS (who are on Kudzu) have allowed their tunes to be included on the North Carolina label’s Boogaloo disc. And while each of the bands has their own unique approach to music, they share much in common; they’re friends, and musically kindred spirits. All three are “strongly rooted in the past,” asserts Peter Zaremba (keys and vocals, The Fleshtones). “But not for the past’s sake. And without reverence for that past. It’s not like we dig up this stuff and treat it like museum pieces. We treat it as a living organism that’s still developing and changing. Mutating, even!”

“And we all enjoy being onstage,” Zaremba adds. “A lot more than the average band. There may be things in our lives that are sources of anguish, like anybody else. But playing rock’n'roll is not one of those sources of anguish for us.” He feels that inflicting anguish upon an audience is not part of the Fleshtones’ brief, either. If, like his band, “you have to have a good time to be spiritually and emotionally liberated, then so be it.” Enthusiastically concurring with the argument that live rock’n'roll does not (and should not) have to be a zero sum game, Zaremba says that at a Fleshtones show, “everybody wins.”

“I think we all bring a sense of fun to rock’n'roll,” says Eddie Angel (guitar, Los Straitjackets). He agrees with Zaremba about the bands’ “love and respect for traditional rock’n'roll,” and compares it to the approach found in many bluegrass and blues bands. “They know where the music came from. In this day and age, that’s sometimes lost in rock’n'roll.” Rick Miller of SCOTS sums it up: “We all like to have fun, and music is our vehicle.” He adds one more thing all three bands have in common: “We’re all old as dust!”

That collective experience is the foundation of the new albums’ “100 Years of Roc” subtitle; SCOTS celebrate their thirtieth year together this year. Add the other two bands’ tenure to that and you come up with the 100-year figure. All three bands played together at 2012′s Yep Roc 15 celebration in Chapel Hill, and that show’s success gave rise to the idea for them to tour together. The bands have all shared bills before, two at a time, but this tour marks the first time all three groups have taken to the road en masse. And since Los Straitjackets had already recorded five Halloween-themed tunes (including a rocking reinvention of the “Theme From Halloween” soundtrack tune), SCOTS and The Fleshtones decided to add songs of their own that fit the theme, and then build the brief tour around showcasing those numbers.

At the time of our conversations, the tour hadn’t yet started – it kicked off on October 17 in Illinois, and SCOTS joined the tour five days later – so the performance order hadn’t yet been sorted out. But that didn’t seem to matter much to Peter Zaremba. “We’re all bands that enjoy watching each other play. I’d actually go see these guys,” he says. “And they would do the same.” Asked if audiences can expect an all-star end-of-show number featuring all bands at once, all three men interviewed are circumspect. But Zaremba allows that “there are definitely opportunities for us to play together.” Mondo Zombie Boogaloo includes a few tunes on which SCOTS’ Mary Huff joins The Fleshtones. “So,” chuckles Zaremba, “if she’s done taking care of her makeup and whatnot, we’d certainly like her to come out and sing one or two of those songs with us.”

Peter handles the lead vocal on the new record’s “Que Monstruos Son,” a Spanish-language reinvention of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” a tune that does in fact feature all three bands. So what may happen onstage remains to be seen and heard. “I’d be more than honored to come onstage and sing that,” Zaremba says. “Anything can happen. Mostly, I think we’re gonna wing it.” He pithily characterizes the upcoming show as “the closest to nonstop excitement that you’re gonna see live onstage, anywhere. We’ll take care of everything; all you have to do is show up.”

Believe it. The Fleshtones, Los Straitjackets, and Southern Culture on the Skids will be at Asheville’s Grey Eagle on Friday, November 1. Show time is 9pm. Don’t miss it.

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Album Review: Various — In Fuzz We Trust

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

The premise alone is enough to set your head a-spinning. First, start with a bunch of sixties garage bands, the kind immortalized on the legendary Lenny Kaye-curated Nuggets album. Now flash forward to the 1980s and beyond, when a second wave of bands spring up in tribute to the garage/psych sound of yesteryear. Now flash forward again to the 21st century, and have a number of those original 60s acts get back together to pay tribute to arguably the finest of those second-wave bands. Got it?

Well, get it. Because that’s the thinking that led to the new compilation In Fuzz We Trust: 60s Garage Legends Salute the Fuzztones. Rudi Protrudi‘s group existed and exists to re-create (with original-ish tunes) the sound and style of bands like Gonn and The Music Machine, so even though they’re from different eras, their spirits are decidedly kindred.

Now, I’ll bet you didn’t know that some of those old bands were still around. And as it happens, some of ‘em actually aren’t, now. In fact several of the artists featured on In Fuzz We Trust have, sadly, passed from this dimension. Sean Bonniwell (Music Machine) and Arthur Lee (Love) are featured with The Electric Prunes and The Pretty Things(!) on a cover of The Fuzztones‘ “All the King’s Horses,” even though Bonniwell passed in 2011, and Lee even earlier in 2006. The SeedsSky Saxon (“Get Naked”) died in 2009, and Electric Prunes bassist Mark Tulin passed away in 2011. So clearly this project has been in development for awhile.

And it’s been worth the wait. Over the last several years, the American expat band – now based in Berlin – has mounted any number of theme-based albums: Horny as Hell employed brass and Hammond(!) organ; Illegitimate Spawn collected younger bands influenced by The Fuzztones, and the recent Snake Oil rounded up a bunch of groovy Fuzztones rarities and odds and ends. So in some ways, In Fuzz We Trust is just the latest theme package.

But it’s much more. It’s thrilling to hear some of those 60s bands (some of whom remain pretty obscure) crank it up and attack Fuzztones songs. Soundtrack heroes Davie Allan and the Arrows blast things off in style with “Avalanche,” and things keep rolling from there. Shadows of Knight fold some, er, familiar riffs into a cover of “I Never Knew,” and elsewhere everybody’s favorite tonsured rockers The Monks take on “Hurt on Hold.”

Question Mark and the Mysterians – one of the best live bands around today, no kidding – are a perfect fit for “Actions Speak Louder Than Words,” and Gonn tear into “Hallucination Generation.” And while some of these vintage bands don’t include all of the original members (c’mon now; what did you expect in 2013?), Strawberry Alarm Clock core members Mark Weitz and Randy Seol turn in a nice reading of “Charlotte’s Remains” (also found on SAC’s latest album, 2012′s Wake Up Where You Are. Long Island legends The Vagrants might not have Leslie West in the band these days, but their version of Rudi’s “Nine Months Later” still rocks pretty hard. And Vanilla Fudge‘s rhythm section (Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer-to-the-stars Carmine Appice) make “mincemeat” (according to Protrudi’s liner notes) out of The Fuzztones’ “Black Box.”

The “cool ghoul” Zacherley joins the Pretty Things for a monologue on “Ward 81,” and while the remaining acts are perhaps less well known than the aforementioned ones, the whole thing is a lot of fun. It works surprisingly well; if you don’t mind as bit of conceptual tail-chasing, In Fuzz We Trust is a thrilling eighteen-track journey through the past, into the present, and back into the past again.

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Fuzzy Memories: A Conversation with The Fuzztones’ Rudi Protrudi, Part Three

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Continued from Part Two

Rudi Protrudi: We did a single in 1972 and our singer was very into Jethro Tull , and we did “Locomotive Breath” along with a lot of other stuff. He played flute, and he had the Ian Anderson thing down.

Yeah, I like the song. And so when we started writing our own stuff, I just remembered that riff. I thought, “If that was a little punkier, and if we changed the minor chord to a major, that could be a pretty rockin’, garage-sounding chord sequence.” So yeah, I stole it. But I changed it.

It’s funny that you mention it, too. Because this tribute album we have coming out ( In Fuzz We Trust ) is a celebrity compilation. Eighteen tracks, fifteen bands from the sixties that influenced The Fuzztones . I actually tried to contact Ian Anderson to see if he’d cover “Bad News Travels Fast.”

Bill Kopp: That would have been great…

RP: Wouldn’t it? With a flute solo in the middle…

But I couldn’t reach him. So we had to stay with sixties guys. ‘Cause I was gonna throw a couple seventies guys in. Black Oak Arkansas was another one that influenced me. See, that’s the other thing: a lot of 80s and 90s garage revivalists – and now – if they’re gonna take something from somebody, they’re gonna take form such obvious sources. If you’re a garage fan – or worse, a purist [laughs], or a record collector – you’re gonna recognize that riff immediately. You’ll say, “Hey, they stole this from here and there.” So if I was ever gonna be influenced by anybody that it was obvious it would never be form a 60s garage band, I’d take a riff from somewhere where they’d never look!

BK: Like a Yes album or something…

RP: Yeah, something like that. And then I’d make it sound “garage.” Again, I think there’s a skill to that as well. I mean, how many people can make Jethro Tull sound like the Fuzztones?

In our career The Fuzztones have covered Bobby Darin , Black Oak Arkanasas, Bo Diddley …and in my country career I’ve covered Pat Boone …in another project I covered Tchaikovsky and the David Rose Orchestra . I never stick to garage. Because in all honesty, anything that we play is gonna sound like us. If you listen to the greats – Chuck Berry , Jerry Lee Lewis , Bo Diddley – they would cover some pretty strange things sometimes. And they’d make it sound like them . Jerry Lee did “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Chuck Berry did some calypso stuff by Harry Belafonte . Bo did “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford .

If you’re willing to experiment and go out on a limb, you’ll get a lot father than if you stay in safe territory. I always like to challenge myself a little, and see if I can take it a step farther than other bands that are in our ilk.

BK: On Snake Oil, you present some tracks on which The Fuzztones join some 60s legends – Sean Bonniwell, Mark Lindsay, etc. – reminding me of what The Smithereens did on their conceptually similar Attack of the Smithereens album. Some of these artists – like the late Bonniwell – didn’t really have a whole lot of commercial/financial success back in the 60s, but they get a sort of hero worship from us garage fanatics. What was the experience like for you, meeting and playing with these guys?

RP: As a fan, it was very rewarding. I was a huge Music Machine fan since they came out. I bought “Talk Talk” the day I first heard it on the radio. I saw them on TV many times; they influenced The Fuzztones very much in our style of presenting visually. We’ve been accused of imitating them, but I think that’s an absurd notion. Just because we have black hair we’re imitating them? Does that mean that every band with brown hair is imitating every other band with brown hair?

I actually had to tell Sean Bonniwell this: when Sean told me that he started the black hair and black leather glove thing, I had to tell him: “ Wrong , Sean. You were imitating Gene Vincent !” If he wasn’t imitating Gene Vincent, then why are we imitating The Music Machine? Maybe we’re imitating Gene Vincent!

But then, was Gene Vincent imitating Elvis? Or…was Elvis imitating Gene Vincent? Because, look at the ’68 special. Elvis came out dressed in all black leather.

All this is so silly. It goes around; everybody influences everybody. As well it should be. If it wasn’t for The Beatles , there wouldn’t even be garage. All that matters to me is, is this stuff great, or is it not? Listen to The Beatles and you’ll hear some Chuck Berry.

BK: It’s all about taking the influences and filtering them through your own personality, your own sensibility. And if you’re nay good, it’ll come out as something that’s original, but informed by those other things.

RP: Look at The Rolling Stones , for instance. First album they did, they had one original song on it. Which, I believe, was an instrumental with four chords. So it can’t really be called an original. Yet, did they have their own sound? Hell, yeah. The Rolling Stones probably spawned more garage bands than anyone else.

BK: Tell me about this documentary film that’s underway.

RP: We had many false starts. We started making a documentary maybe ten years ago. We had a woman filmmaker in Greece that was working on a documentary for several years. And then she basically got too busy, and couldn’t do it any more. So we inherited a lot of footage from her.

And then I had a couple other people get interested, start up, and then lose interest. And just this year I met a German filmmaker who’s very interested, and we started it up again.

We collected all the footage that we’d already gotten from the other filmmakers. And I’ve been collecting footage of my own career since 1976, and I have a huge collection. I have a big collection of scrapbooks with almost every article and review that I’ve ever gotten.

We just started going through all of it, scanning all the articles and photos. Then we started interviewing people; right now we’ve already interviewed about fourteen people…some very big names. And we have a lot more scheduled, people committed to be interviewed.

We think that we can finish it in a bout a two-year time frame. It’s basically a documentary on me; The Fuzztones are a very, very big part of it. But it’s about me and my life, because I’ve done quite a lot more than just The Fuzztones. And a lot of it’s stuff that people don’t know.

The plan is to get it on TV, and into the Cannes Film Festival. And then to release it on DVD.

BK: Will we ever see The Fuzztones onstage back here in the USA?

RP: Well, we really had no intention of ever coming back. And about four years ago, I believe, we were offered an American tour. And [heavy sigh] the promoter made it sound very inviting. And it turned out that if we had done it, we would have ended up at least $3000 in debt. He successfully booked the east and west coasts, but we were going to have to travel by van from one coast to the other.

And in the interim, no one in the Midwest had verified any of the shows. We ran out of time; we needed confirmation, and we couldn’t get it. So we were forced to cancel the tour. And you can hear on Snake Oil , there’s a sound bit of Question Mark on the radio, excitedly telling everyone that The Fuzztones were coming to town. And we weren’t; sadly enough, we weren’t able to do it.

We wanted to do it, because The Fuzztones never toured America. Isn’t that strange? So here’s our chance, and we never ended up getting to do it. But it was all based on a festival we were supposed to play with The Sonics . So the festival people paid our way to come, and paid us quite handsomely to do this one show. So we came over, did this one show for the Ink and Iron Festival in Orange County, California. And you know, no one knew who we were, or who The Sonics were. And no one gave a shit. And it made me think, why bother. I don’t think America is were it’s at.

So unless someone would come up with something to make me think otherwise, I can’t see how it’s really beneficial for us in any way.

BK: What led you to relocate to Germany?

RP: Part of it was a career move. Part of it was that I didn’t want to be in America any more because I don’t like the political climate. I was never able to make a living playing music in America; even at our peak I wasn’t able to. And I had met a gal here, who turns out to be our keyboard player [Lana Loveland]. We had a hot romance on the road, and it turned into more. And so I dropped everything and moved here.

I moved from Pennsylvania to New York for music, and from New York to Los Angeles for music, then I moved from L.A. To Berlin. I think there could be a lot more success for bands if they weren’t afraid to leave their turf and pursue things. But it;’s human nature to stay where it’s safe. And [laughs] I try to avoid human nature.

BK: You bring up an interesting point, one that I often think about. Whether it’s rock’n'roll or jazz or blues, there’s long been examples of artists who play American music having to go to Europe to survive, to get the respect they deserve. Why do you think that is?

RP: The grass is greener. Look at [American pop culture]. American went nuts over The Beatles, and later on David Bowie. I think that the “exotic factor” appeals to everyone. That accent that you’re not used to hearing. Or the moptops, Beatle boots and collarless jackets that we weren’t used to seeing.

And – hilariously enough – the musical influences that The Beatles and the Stones brought to America…

BK: …were all American!

RP: We went nuts over ‘em, and they were all American influences. But, I mean, how would a teenage have known that? How many teenagers listened to Howlin’ Wolf? So thank god for the Stones; I know that’s how I got into the blues.

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Fuzzy Memories: A Conversation with The Fuzztones’ Rudi Protrudi, Part Two

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Throughout The Fuzztones‘ history, you’ve again and again managed the tricky feat of writing new, original songs that fit the aesthetic of stuff from 1965-66. Is it a conscious effort to do that, or by now are you so immersed in the style that it just happens that way?

Rudi Protrudi: Both, actually. Sometimes something just pops out. It’s almost as if I am not even writing it, but it is almost like I have antennas, and it just picks up something. And then other times I have to really concentrate on how to put something together that will fit a certain sound that I have in my head. I have different ways of writing material to trick myself into doing it, because I am not really what you would call a prolific writer. I don’t write a lot. Maybe I will write one or two songs a year on average. Up until the point where we did Preaching to the Perverted,at that point I had a whole lot on my mind and I was turning out songs left and right. And that was the only time I ever did that in my whole life, which is interesting because I did it way later in my career.

Sometimes I will have an idea for a song; maybe it’s just a title, maybe it’s a whole line or even an entire verse. And then I’ll think, “Ok…what kind of music will fit this?” And then I’ll trick myself into thinking, “Ok…what if the Electric Prunes did this song? How would they approach it?” Then I would work with a chord sequence that sounds like the Electric Prunes. Then once I have the melody, I would say, “Ok, now that’s how the Prunes would write it, but now, how would, say for instance, The Seeds play it? And maybe I would add some guitar licks that are based on a Seeds sort of feel. And then I’ll say, “Ok, the drumming could be a lot more like…”

BK: The Music Machine.

RP: Yeah! I will just put things together so there are elements from different bands that I like. To me, there is a certain skill in trying to cop people’s styles without using their licks.

BK: That is perfectly put. That is exactly right.

RP: And then you mix them together and you put your lyrics with your personality over top of it and, I believe I also have my own guitar style. I think that some members of the band have a very distinctive style, too. And then we put that together and the finished product always ends up sounding like the Fuzztones. We have our own specific sound, that I think if you turn on the radio, if you know who the Fuzztones are, if you are familiar with us, and you turn on the radio and hear a new song, I am positive you could tell it is the Fuzztones within the first verse.

BK: I would agree with that. Talking about your signature sound, the Fuzztones have found interesting ways to keep things fresh while remaining true to that aesthetic. Horny as Hell was a good example: putting some horns on it and using some Hammond-type organ sounds on there as opposed to the Vox and Farfisa and whatnot. When you change it up like that, is it to keep yourself amused and interested or to offer something different for the fans, or both?

RP: Well, it’s both, but it starts off as amusing myself. When we started in 1980, I can guarantee you nobody wanted to hear garage music. And we were not popular, whatsoever. Tinapeel was quite popular and we had steady gigs and made a lot of money. We played at a lot of very big venues, and it was a conscience decision to break that band up and start the Fuzztones. So we went from $1,000 a night in 1980 to $10…and that is not $10 each! And we did that for two years, with a lineup that no one had ever heard because no one paid any attention to us. The lineup that everyone thinks is the original Fuzztones is not. That’s the second lineup; the [one people know] is the second lineup. We started off as a four piece for two years and we played some dumps that I cannot even remember. The Great Gildersleeve [radio program] played us some in DC, but we were not popular. We did not do well until about 1983 when we switched bass players and added a guitar player, and all of the sudden it was like “Whoa!”

It wasn’t just because of that, because actually no one knew who we were were or anything. Our music got fuller but it wasn’t all that different. I think what changed is just that the climate was right. It was time for that kind of music. There were a couple of different bands that were playing the same sort of stuff in other areas of the country, like The Unclaimed in L.A. and The Lyres in Boston, The Chesterfield Kings in Rochester. And I don’t think that any of us even knew about each other; we just pretty much started at the same time. There was something in the air that it was time for this stuff to return.

BK: I know there are only so many notes to work with, as they say, so this could be a coincidence, but one day it hit me: the central riff on “Bad News Travels Fast” is the same lick as Jethro Tull‘s “Locomotive Breath.”

RP: That’s right.

BK: Coincidence, sly inside joke, or something else?

RP: It’s no coincidence. I was in a cover band in 1972. It wasn’t entirely a cover, we actually did a record, an original 45 with two songs in 1972. The band was called Springhead Motorshark, and funny enough, by the way, there is a band called Britny Fox, and they ripped off the name. They had a 2003 album called that, and no one can tell me they thought of that name.


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Fuzzy Memories: A Conversation with The Fuzztones’ Rudi Protrudi, Part One

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Since 1980, The Fuzztones have been leaders in keeping the garage rock flame alive. Originally based in New York City, the group – led by singer-guitarist Rudi Protrudi – eventually emigrated to Germany, where they believe they’ve found a more receptive audience. There’s been a fair amount of Fuzztones-related activity in recent years; among the latest is a new 2CD set of rarities called Snake Oil. There’s also a new Fuzztones tribute set called In Fuzz We Trust, and there’s a Fuzztones documentary film in the works. I recently enjoyed an in-depth conversation with Rudi, in which he took me back to the band’s beginnings and earlier. Here’s Part One. — bk.

Bill Kopp: In addition to serving up a couple hours’ worth of unreleased and/or rare goodies, Snake Oil does a pretty good job of outlining the Fuzztones‘ history. How did the idea for this collection come about?

Rudi Protrudi: The idea came about back in 1989 when we did Creatures That Time Forgot. That particular album came out specifically because we got a major deal with RCA and Beggars’ Banquet. We had to leave our independent label, Music Maniac. And because we were going to do that, I gave them a record to say goodbye with. So they wouldn’t get too pissed off.

And it turned out that that album was a really big hit with our fans. It was a lot of really rare stuff, a lot of which we wouldn’t have normally put on a record, for various reasons: maybe a tune was a demo, and alternate version or whatever. Or maybe a song we didn’t think was good enough to be on an album. But in the context of a rarities collection, it has a different flavor.

So that album went over very well. It had a lot of snippets – soundbites – in between the songs. And a lot of people really enjoyed that, because it gives you more of a chance to really get to know what the people in the band are really like. Besides just listening to the music, if you hear clips from radio and TV interviews, you get a feel for what the band members are like as people.

BK: As best as I can gather, your own musical career got underway in the 60s, right around the time that garage/psych was giving way to heavier stuff like Cream, Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin. What initially attracted you to the style, and what has kept you interested in it as it’s gone in and out of fashion over the years?

RP: When I was a teenager, this stuff wasn’t called garage; that term hadn’t come up yet. It was called Top 40. You would be hearing Sky Saxon, and The Kingsmen, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, ? And the Mysterians all on the radio. Right next to The Beatles and Tom Jones. It was just what they played; they might call it rock’n'roll or pop. But we as teenagers knew that it was a little different. We didn’t label it, but when you heard a song like “Louie, Louie” or “Gloria,” it really stood out as something different from The Beatles. It was more raw, and it spoke more to me because of that rawness and simplicity. And to a lot of outcasts: that particular music, I remember when I was listening to it in high school, the only kids who really dug it were greasers, outcasts, and kids who like to fight. And bad girls who teased their up and sprayed it, and wore white lipstick and heavy eyeliner. Those were the kind of people who like The Shadows of Knight, y’know?

So I always dug that kind of stuff. I always bought the singles right when they came out. And I continued to like it past its expiration date. But as a musician living in Pennsylvania, the only time you really got any gigs was if you were in a cover band, and doing whatever was happening at the moment. So I just went, with time, to different things. In the 70s I was playing rock, covers of Jethro Tull and Bloodrock and Grand Funk…whoever was popular.

And meanwhile, about 1976, I started to read a lot of stuff in Rock Scene Magazine about New York, about the scene that was going on there. Nobody had a record out yet, but there were pictures of The Ramones and Patti Smith and Blondie. And of course I had already gotten the New York Dolls‘ album. So I had an inkling of what that music might be about. It seemed to me that there were a lot of references to sixties garage and girl groups in the music. This was just from what I read and the pictures that I saw.

So I decided to start a band that would play the kind of music that I thought they were about. I hadn’t heard it yet, so I had to imagine what the music was like. I started writing my own songs, which turned into the music of Tinapeel. Which, in the long run, isn’t all that different from early Blondie, even though I hadn’t heard them. We were maybe a little more bubblegum-influenced; we were very sixties influenced. But it was more influenced by The Monkees, The Archies, The Ohio Express, bands like that. And dress-wise, we were right off the map. Nobody could even come close; we weren’t influenced by anybody at all. We dressed in op art: black and white, clashing polka dots and stripes and checkers. And we had a big concentric circle backdrop that we would play against. And all of our instruments, we’d do up in contact paper, with black and white designs. So if you watched the band, you’d get very dizzy! We weren’t about following a trend; we were starting one. It was fun. And we were the first band to use a combo organ.

And about three or four years later when we started the Fuzztones, I started seeing in the East Village storefront windows that they were catching on to Tinapeel’s fashion. Betsy Johnson…all that black and white mixing that we had done earlier.

And the music: what we were doing back in ’76 later became new wave. It skipped punk. We had a punk influence and a sixties influence, but the music and lyrics were really new wave, four years ahead of its time.

BK: New wave had the melodicism that a lot of punk didn’t have.

RP: Exactly. And the thing is, in New York, a lot of the early punk was pretty melodic. It was the English that changed that to a bunch of noise, I thought. I mean, I love the Sex Pistols, but a lot of the other stuff was the beginning of the end of punk, as far as I was concerned. The end of the creativity of it.

BK: So what do you think is the central, core appeal of what we’ll call garage rock? I have my own ideas, but I’d really like to know yours.

RP: Very similar to punk, in that you don’t have to be an amazing musician to play it; that’s one of the things. Because we had gotten to the point – and the punk guys always say this as well – where you had to study at a guitar conservatory to be able to play rock’n'roll. And even then, you had to make it big-time and play in concert arenas and things like that. And that’s really not very appealing to me. I like to have the interaction with the audience; I like to have them right there in front of me. When I play really huge places, I’m not that crazy about it, because I can’t see the audience. I like the up close and personal feel of playing directly, one on one, and involving the audience. And to me, the music sounds like that.

Also, I think it’s a lot more creative than music that is commercial. You know, I love the – for lack of a better word – amateur stuff. The young bands on compilations like Back From the Grave or Pebbles. I’m not talking about bands like ? And the Mysterians or the Electric Prunes, bands that had hits, even though it applies to them as well. But I think that these guys, maybe they made up for their lack of virtuosity…with imagination.

BK: Absolutely. I think of Green Fuz as the prime example of that. I interviewed them and saw them at Ponderosa Stomp. They got up and played their “Green Fuz” song. And they tried to polish it up a little bit; we were all like, “No no no no…don’t tune your guitars!”

I agree with the idea put forth that while there were thousands of unknown garage bands in the sixties, hundreds of them actually had one good song in them. They might not have had two… But there are hundreds of great, one-off songs from that era.

RP: And then you put a bunch of those together on a compilation, and that comp is better than most bands’ album!


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Album Review: Various Artists — Los Nuggetz: ’60s Garage & Psych from Latin America

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

During the first four or five years of this new century, there existed online a thriving collector/trading community, dedicated to sharing and disseminating obscure, forgotten and occasionally never-known-about-in-the-first place music from the 1960s. Operating right on the edge of copyright law (well, on the wrong side of it, if truth be told), these collectors shared music you simply couldn’t find anywhere else.

If you’ve heard of Nuggets, you know what I’m talking about, sorta. But go a few degrees farther on the obscuro-meter, past Pebbles, past Back From the Grave. Now…keep going. Now you’re getting close. One example was an eleven-CD set that circulated among hardcore psych/garage fans and serious aficionados. That set was winnowed down to four CDs, proper licensing was done, and the results were released as the infinitely more commercial (but only in a relative sense) Rhino set Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969. It was really, really good, and remains an essential purchase for anyone whose tastes in 60s music extends far beyond The Beatles and Rolling Stones.

A couple of tracks on that 2001 set featured bands from Spanish-speaking countries. Previously unknown (in the USA, at least) bands like Os Mutantes (Brazil), We All Together (Peru) and Los Shakers (Uruguay) were featured, and their music was extremely appealing.

So perhaps that set’s success was part of what gave inspiration to an especially intrepid collector in Switzerland who went by the online pseudonym Sylvain. He put together what was initially a 6CD series called Psychodelicias, focusing on pop, beat, pop-sike, garage and psych of the late 60s (and sometimes early 70s) from those Latin American countries plus Spain and Portugal. The sets were designed with lovely artwork, and (according to the closest thing we have to official word on this unofficial, unlicensed set) only about 35 copies of each volume were produced.

As luck would have it (and this explains how I come to know all this) I have all six volumes, each hand-numbered by Sylvain himself (my copy of Volume One is #11 of 35). Moreover, I was involved in the “vining” of this set (with Sylvain’s consent and cooperation) to members of a Stateside collector/fanatic group, and the set was extremely well-received. These days the whole trading/collector scene has pretty much faded, owing to Bittorent sites and – one surmises with a tinge of sadness – the drying-up of the well of undiscovered material.

But wait! Those with an interest in all this – and you know you’re out there – who would prefer a legitimate release, one with detailed discographical and historical information, plus higher fidelity (as opposed to the nth-generation dubs of needle drops we pioneering collector/traders had to settle for)…well, you’re in luck. Rock Beat has put together an amazing set called Los Nuggetz: ’60s Garage & Psych from Latin America. Lovingly assembled from the best sources available, and packaged in a stunning hardcover book, Los Nuggetz is the real deal. 101 tracks across four discs (all music save a few must-hear nutty period-piece radio commercials and station identifications) explore this heretofore all-but-undocumented genre.

Now, before you go having any chauvinistic, Anglophone thoughts, let me point out something out for you. Yes, a goodly chunk of Los Nuggetz is given over to Spanish-language versions (and semi-versions) of the English-language pop hits of the day. And you might get a chuckle or two out of hearing “Bule Bule” by Los Shain’s, and comparing it to a certain similarly-named song by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Or Los Salvajes‘ “Todo Negro,” a reading of a certain sitar-laden Rolling Stones tune. Or even “Yo Crei (Reach Out I’ll Be There)” by Los 4 Crickets. And you might look down your nose at these sometimes (technically speaking) inferior versions.

But it’s worth remembering that covering the hits of the day was a common approach for American acts of the era, as well. To wit, consider many of the tracks on Sundazed’s 2131 South Michigan Avenue. Yep, lots of Yardbirds, Kinks, Stones and Beatles covers there. That’s what the local markets wanted, and even more so in Spanish-speaking countries. So their local heroes (or neighbors!) would march into the local studio and lay down a cover or six, inevitably imbuing the tunes with some local or regional flavor. Sometimes they’d pen wholly new lyrics to fit the songs’ meter, and sometimes they’d attempt a sort of pidgin English. The results as collected on Los Nuggetz are quite enjoyable in their own right.

And there are plenty of original songs on the set too. Los Nuggetz is a little light on the psych side, possibly owing to the fact that many of the home countries of the featured acts were ruled by relatively authoritarian regimes not given to the excesses of songs about mind-altering drugs (much less the drugs themselves). But it certainly rocks and pops with the best of ‘em.

But the overall quality (and surprising variation) among these tunes makes Los Nuggetz essential listening. The set’s packaging is on a par with Rhino’s Where the Action Is! and Love is the Song We Sing collections, and while Randal Wood‘s liner notes have the odd typo or two, the research itself is impressively solid and thoughtful. In fact, there’s really little or nothing that could have been done to better feature the music in this set. Los Nuggetz is even more well put together than Rock Beat’s last related compilation, Surf Age Nuggets. And that’s a high standard indeed. Even those lucky few who have that underground Psychodelicias set (now up to some ten volumes) won’t have more than a few of the tracks on Los Nuggetz. Get this.

Note: The cover artwork was changed a bit between distribution of the image above and actual production. But — other than what’s noted in the accompanying book –  the songs remain the same.

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EP Review: Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ — Songs from the Psychedelic Time Clock

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

In terms of delivering new music, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ is employing a strategy not unlike that of Marshall Crenshaw. Instead of releasing an album after a couple years’ wait, both acts are meting out new music in smaller, EP-sized bites. From a marketing (or fan relations) standpoint, this is a solid approach; it keeps the artists in the collective consciousness.

The EP format also seems to free the artists to explore some directions they might not pursue on albums. Drivin’ n’ Cryin has just released the third of four planned EPs in this series. (I reviewed their first, Songs From the Laundromat, in September 2012.) Now, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ has always been a stylistically eclectic band, mining everything from bluegrass to metal to folk in the creation of their songs. And while the first two EPs in this series (the also-excellent second disc is titled Songs About Cars, Space, and The Ramones) headed off in all sorts of directions, their latest has a more thematically unified approach.

The EP’s title provides your first clue: if Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock reminds you of XTC alter ego Dukes of Stratosphear‘s 25 O’Clock EP and the compilation Chips From the Chocolate Fireball, well, the similarity is probably intentional. Time clock is six songs delivered in various garage-psych styles, and it’s an effective set.

Listeners can play spot-the-influence or they can simply enjoy the tunes for what they are rather than what they sort of try to be. Conceptually reminiscent of fellow Atlantans The Coolies‘ Rock-opera-with comic-book Doug (except without the rock-opera trappings), Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock serves up songs that are each reminiscent of a particular legendary band of old. “The Little Record Store Just Around the Corner” features that loopy blown-jug effect unique (or unique until now) to the 13thFloor Elevators. “Metamorphcycle” feels like the Electric Prunes. And “Sometimes the Rain (Is Just the Rain)” is reminiscent of both The Youngbloods‘ reading of “Get Together” and the bridge of The Moody Blues‘ “Legend of a Mind.”

It’s all a lot of fun, and the songs would fit nicely on the Nuggets compilation, not suffering a bit for any comparison. Leader Kevn Kinney is keeping the theme of the fourth (and final?) EP a secret for now, but if these first three are any indication, it promises to be another winner.

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