Archive for the ‘garage’ Category

Six Years of Musoscribe: The British Invasion

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

In February 1964, The Beatles landed in America. And everything changed. In the wake of the Beatles’ Stateside success – from the launchpad of The Ed Sullivan Show – the floodgates opened, and a bunch of other British groups rushed onto the American pop landscape.

Over the course of my music journo career, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of speaking with a handful of artists who were (in one way or another) connected to what we call the British Invasion (in the UK they more aptly term it the beat era). In celebration of the Musoscribe blog’s six year anniversary of providing new content every business day, here’s a roundup of feature-interviews with some of those stars.

The Zombies
Though their commercial success in the USA came too late – the band had for all intents and purposes broken up by the time “Time of the Season” was released – The Zombies are now rightly considered at the forefront of British pop music of the 1960s. Another thing that makes them so remarkable is the fact that there’s a current-day lineup of the group that includes co-leaders Colin Blunstone (vocals) and Rod Argent (keyboards) alongside longtime Argent member Jim Rodford. The music they make today holds up well when compared with their 1960s output, and onstage they put on a peerless performance. I spoke with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone in advance of their April 2014 show in Asheville, and was fortunate enough to meet them backstage (and to have them autograph the jacket of my Odessey and Oracle LP).

The Moody Blues
When most people think of The Moody Blues, their mind goes to Days of Future Passed. (Or, if they’re younger, they recall the group’s 1980s output and their ubiquity on MTV.) But the original lineup of the group enjoyed some success (in the UK, at least) with their British r&b styled music, most notably the hit “Go Now.” On the occasion of a deluxe reissue of the group’s earliest material, I enjoyed a conversation with flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas. A couple of years earlier, I interviewed (retired) keyboardist Mike Pinder about his time in the group and his solo albums. And even farther back, I interviewed drummer Graeme Edge about the 21st century Moody Blues. (Look for an interview/feature on keyboardist Patrick Moraz coming soon to Musoscribe).

Bill Wyman
Though he left the group in 1993, for three decades Wyman was the bassist in The Rolling Stones (significant;y, the group has never officially replaced him). These days his interests – musical and otherwise – no longer center around the Stones, but he’s passionate about what he does. And as I learned in the course of my 2011 interview with Bill Wyman, he’s more than happy to talk about his old group, and does so with characteristically droll wit.

The Small Faces
The music of the Small Faces didn’t make the successful Atlantic crossing, but they’re fondly remembered today. A number of high quality reissues and compilations have helped their reputation by illustrating just how good their music was (and how much of it they created). In early 2014 I interviewed drummer Kenney Jones and keyboardist Ian McLagan about their time in the group. Sadly, McLagan passed away just a few months later.

The Remains
Yes, it’s true that The Remains weren’t a British group,. But led by Barry Tashian, the Boston-based group did in fact tour with The Beatles on their 1965 USA concert series. Immortalized in Lenny Kaye‘s garage rock Nuggets compilation, the group left behind a slim but impressive catalog of music. I spoke at great length with The Remains’ Barry Tashian in 2010.

1964: The Tribute
Ever since the 1970s era Beatlemania show, Beatles tribute bands have been an in-demand presence on the concert circuit. In 2012 I interviewed Mark Benson of the group 1964: The Tribute.

Stay tuned for more rock’n'roll reminiscences. And as always, thanks for reading.

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Some Long-lost Artist Biographies

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Way back in the depths of the Great Recession (2007-2009), one of my former writers (from my time as Editor in Chief of a now-defunct magazine I won’t dignify by naming) put me in touch with the good people at Amoeba Music. The California-based record chain had an ambitious plan: creating artist bios to serve as a resource on their website. Right alongside online ordering, visitors could click on an “Artist Biography” link, and read a concise bio about that act.

I was commissioned to do several dozen of these, but owing to that little worldwide financial debacle I mentioned earlier, the project was shelved indefinitely. And because the pieces I turned in before deadline were “works for hire,” they were the property of Amoeba. So I couldn’t publish them myself. Fair is fair.

Fast forward more than six years, to a couple of weeks ago. I stumbled upon one of those essays online! Turns out that – and I don’t know when this happened; could’ve been years ago – Amoeba has published five of the six essays I penned; most (but not all) of them include my byline.

If you enjoy any of the acts listed below, you might also find these short biographies an interesting read. For my part, I’m just happy that they’re available. All excerpts below ©Amoeba Music.

Badfinger
The story of Badfinger is one filled with tantalizing promise, modest success, and crushing tragedy. Initially viewed as something of an heir apparent to the Beatles’ legacy, a combination of naivete, emotional fragility and misplaced trust served to rob this quartet of greater fame; their brief time in the limelight (1970-1974) ended with the suicide of their primary songwriter, effectively spelling the end for this talented group. Despite the band’s tumultuous history, Badfinger has earned its place among the top tier of power pop groups. [read more...]

Blind Faith
The aptly-named Blind Faith is a textbook example of unrealized potential. Formed in 1968 from the remnants of other high-profile groups, this “supergroup” brought together some of rock’s greatest talents. The quartet issued one hastily-recorded album, did a quick tour and disbanded. In some ways, Blind Faith is no more than a footnote to the careers of three of its members. Yet in its lineup, approach and songs, the group possessed immense potential to push popular music in new and exciting directions. They made tentative steps in those directions, but left fans wondering what could have been. [read more...]

The Rutles
The mockumentary/rockumentary genre didn’t start with the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap. As far back as 1978, NBC-TV aired All You Need is Cash, a prime-time special that purported to tell the story of The Rutles, England’s “Pre-Fab Four.” Former Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle had conceived of the project years earlier, and the project’s musical director (Neil Innes from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band) had already written and produced a few songs in a mock-Beatles vein both with The Bonzos and The Grimms. [read more...]

Spinal Tap
Rock music is often funny; rarely is it intentionally so. The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap was a faux documentary (“rockumentary” or “mockumentary”) that followed the exploits of fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (“one of Britain’s loudest bands”). Like The Monkees before them, Spinal Tap went from being a fictional group to a real one; unlike The Monkees, Spinal Tap never had ambitions to be taken seriously. Turning every rock cliché on its head for laughs, Spinal Tap (the band and the movie) may be the most fully-realized parody in all of popular culture. [read more...]

The Tubes
The Tubes successfully combined rock, theatre and satire. Their biting combination of offbeat subject matter, complex yet muscular arrangements, and provocative presentation pushed the boundaries of rock like few before or since. Most modern visually-oriented acts owe a debt—knowingly or not—to the Tubes. [read more...]

The list of acts I was planning to cover for Amoeba (but didn’t) was long, and included Syd Barrett, Boston, Brinsley Schwarz, Junior Brown, Cheap Trick, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Finn, Fleetwood Mac, Flo & Eddie, Fountains of Wayne, Robert Fripp, Gentle Giant, David Gilmour, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Jellyfish, John Lennon, Nick Lowe, Nazz, Porcupine Tree, Procol Harum, Raspberries, Redd Kross, The Replacements, Rockpile, Todd Rundgren, Soft Boys, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Traffic, The Turtles, Utopia, Steve Ray Vaughan, Roger Waters, The Who, Brian Wilson, Johnny Winter, and Roy Wood. As you might note from the links embedded in that last sentence, I’ve since written about many of them – and even interviewed several – on this site.

As of this writing, my completed-and-submitted biography of Moby Grape remains unavailable. Far be it from me to suggest that the (allegedly, I say) dastardly Matthew Katz has anything to do with its omission. I’m sure he’s a lovely man. Really. Honestly. Everyone says so.

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Album Review: The Standells — Live on Tour 1966!

Friday, July 10th, 2015

The Standells – considered a quintessential protopunk band of the 1960s – got their start as a matching-suited, club band playing frat-rock and covers of the day. The pride of Boston thanks to their name-checking 1966 hit, “Dirty Water,” The Standells weren’t even from Massachusetts; they were a Los Angeles group.

But with the passing of a few months and a few band members, The Standells quickly coalesced a lineup around founder and former solo act, keyboardist Larry Tamblyn, and former Mouseketeer Dick Dodd on vocals and drums. The band toughened their image, and signed with Tower Records, where they began to work with producer Ed Cobb. Cobb would write (or co-write) “Dirty Water” for (or with) the group, and went on to produce another legendary 60s garage group, The Chocolate Watchband.

Buoyed by the success of “Dirty Water,” the group cut more songs in the nascent garage rock style, including genre classics “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” “Riot on Sunset Strip” (from the 1967 teen exploitation movie of the same name), “Why Pick on Me,” and the banned-in-Texas “Try It.” By ’68 the group’s style was past its sell-by date, and though they would continue with various lineups, no new music was forthcoming.

Back in ’64 an early Standells lineup released The Standells in Person at P.J.’s, but that set captured the pre-garage version of the group. In 2001, Sundazed released a 10” vinyl record, The Live Ones! (a riff on the title of The Standells’ second of three 1966 LPs, The Hot Ones!). That set provided the first officially-available live document of the garage-era group. Recorded in the summer of 1966 at Michigan State University, the surprisingly good quality recording found the band at their snarling yet good-natured, fuzztone best.

Now – almost fifty years after it was recorded – Sundazed has unearthed yet another live document of The Standells from that banner year of 1966. Recorded no more than a couple of months after the show that would yield The Live Ones!, and performed less than sixty miles southeast, Live on Tour – 1966! is equally exciting, and it features twice as many songs.

The recording opens with a laughably tepid introduction (probably by a college administrator) explaining that there will be two acts on the evening’s bill: The Standells (curiously, this is met by silence from the audience) and The Beach Boys. The crowd seems to chuckle inwardly at the announcement before breaking into delayed applause. But once the announcer introduces The Standells, the crowd’s reaction is much more enthusiastic. A friendly bit of pandering from Dick Dodd (“We hear somebody won a game today; is that right?”) leads straight into the guitar buzz of “Mr. Nobody.”

Dodd’s vocals come through loud and clear, as do Tony Valentino‘s electric guitar, Larry Tamblyn’s Vox Continental organ, and Dave Burke‘s Fender bass. Dodd’s drums are less distinct, but overall Live On Tour – 1966! is a superbly recorded (and preserved) recording.

The setlist doesn’t differ greatly from what’s showcased on The Live Ones!; while that set featured songs closely associated with The Standells, this disc features the complete opening-act length set, a setlist that included covers that were well-known (and oft-played) by garage bands across the USA: “Good Lovin’,” James Brown‘s “Please, Please, Please,” Wilson Pickett‘s “Midnight Hour,” and the all-but-required “Gloria.” But The Standells imbue their readings of these tunes with just the right combination of polish and grunge.

Mid-set, they feature a Tamblyn lead vocal (with ample vocal support from the rest of the band) in a faithful cover of the then-brand-new “Sunny Afternoon.” The Kinks‘ single had been released in the USA weeks before; at the time of this concert (October 22, 1966) the tune was riding high on the singles charts. Dodd notes afterward, “That song can be found on an album of ours which will be released around Christmas time, where we do nothing but everybody else’s hits…probably the best album we ever made.” It wasn’t, not by a long shot; the world didn’t really need a Standells reading of “Eleanor Rigby.”

But there are no Beatles ballad covers on Live on Tour –1966! “Now that we’ve messed up everybody else’s number, we’d like to mess up one of our own.” Drawing out the tension with a serious of groan-eliciting one-liners, the band finally relents and launches into the garage rock anthem, “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” playing it in a fashion that’s both Just Like the Record and shot through with the energy that only comes from an onstage performance. The crowd claps along start to finish while the band closes their set with their million-selling hit, “Dirty Water.”

With the fine exception of the low-key Kinks cover, Live on Tour –1966! is a consistently uptempo, rocking good time, and proves – in case there were any doubts – that The Standells were a solid, engaging live band, one that leveraged a garage-punk image with professional musicianship.

This review was previously published in BLURT Magazine.

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Album Review: The Shadows of Knight — Live 1966

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

In their heyday – a period that began in 1966 and ended, well, in 1966 – Chicago’s Shadows of Knight embodied what we now look back upon as the garage rock aesthetic. A group of suburban teens inspired – like countless other groups of teens in those days – by the British Invasion, the Shadows of Knight channeled American blues through the filter of British sensibilities (Them, Rolling Stones, Animals), reinterpreting it yet again and creating something fresh and exciting in the process. A newly-released live recording, Live 1966 offers a previously unheard document of the group’s onstage power.

The group released two albums in 1966 (and one more a few years later) but their strength was best expressed on the 45rpm single. Their reading of Van Morrison‘s “Gloria” – originally a b-side of Them’s top ten hit “Baby Please Don’t Go” – helped enshrine the tune as a garage rock classic. Though the group’s success was short-lived, The Shadows of Knight received belated attention when their reading of Bo Diddley‘s “Oh Yeah” was featured on Side Two of Lenny Kaye‘s influential 1972 compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.

On the group’s 1966 singles and albums, the production (credited on the sleeve only as “A Dunwich Production”) was of the basic, let’s-get-it-done variety. In those days – especially where a small regional label such as Dunwich was concerned – bands were expected to have their repertoire tight, ready to lay down in the studio in one take. (With their bigger budgets, larger labels often dispensed altogether with the niceties, enlisting so-called Wrecking Crew session players to record, one-and-done, in the stead of the named groups.)

What this meant in practice for The Shadows of Knight is that their finished studio recordings did indeed sound a good bit like the actual group. The eleven songs on the group’s Gloria LP – nine overs, three originals – captured the band’s assertive, energetic playing and singing. They had certainly gotten tight playing live gigs, and the records captured that vibe as best as could be expected.

But there’s nothing like the real thing, and Live 1966 is that real thing. Recorded in front of what Jeff Jarema‘s liner note essay calls “suburban Chicago’s hands-down hippest teen club,” Arlington Heights’ Cellar, Live 1966 finds the group playing to a familiar and appreciative hometown crowd. Jarema notes that there’s no way of knowing the date of this performance – club owner Paul Sampson was known to record shows – it likely dates from late in the year, after two of the group’s albums had been released (the compilers’ best guess is December ’66).

These white suburban kids sure did have a thing for the blues; their first LP featured no less than three Willie Dixon numbers alongside covers of Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Live 1966 features several of these. Even their Chuck Berry cover (“Let it Rock”) was delivered in a bluesy manner. And their original tunes were a clear attempt to write in that same blues-based style.

The second album widened the group’s scope a bit to include their take on New Orleans funky pop (Huey “Piano” Smith‘s “High Blood Pressure”). A cover of the Boyce/Hart number “Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Day,” released at almost the same time as the Monkees‘ version, couldn’t have less in common with the prefab four’s reading; in the hands of The Shadows of Knight, the tune sounds like early Rolling Stones.

A solid selection of tunes from Back Door Men figures into the Live 1966 set, too, including a soulful run-through of Jimmy Reed‘s “Peepin’ and Hidin’” sung here not by drummer Tom Schiffour (he sang on the single version) but by lead guitarist Joe Kelley.

Live 1966 is presented in astonishingly good audio quality; the monaural recording accurately captures David “Hawk” Wolinski‘s walking bass lines. The drums aren’t as forward in the mix as modern tastes might dictate, but overall Live 1966 is quite the well-balanced recording. Occasional amplifier hum only adds to the you-are-there feel of the recording, and Kelley’s stinging guitar leads punch through the mix. The group shines on “Oh Yeah,” with the band – led by a screaming Jim Sohns – adding just a bit more swagger and abandon than found on their studio version.

Closing with six wild minutes of “Gloria,” The Shadows of Knight deliver a loose yet forceful performance that renders The Doors‘ posthumously-released live version (recorded in the late 60s) completely unnecessary. And a brief quote from The Mothers of Invention‘s just-released Freak Out! suggests that the group had more than just the blues on their mind.

As a heretofore undiscovered document of mid-sixties garage rock at its rawest and most authentic, The Shadows of Knights’ Live 1966 is essential for fans of the genre.

The review was previously published in BLURT Magazine.

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Best of 2014: New Music, Part 1

Monday, December 29th, 2014

In my blog posts of last week, I surveyed some of my 2014 favorites: music-related books; DVDs; concerts; and interviews. For these last few days of the year, I’ll wrap up with a look at my favorite music of 2014, specifically new and reissued titles. Today, it’s four of my eight favorite albums of new music released in 2014.

Night Beats – Sonic Bloom
I make no apologies for the retro-mindedness that pervades my favorite new music. I’m one of those who believes that the mid-sixties gave popular music (rock in particular) its best material. And I daresay the members of Night Beats agree; everything about Sonic Bloom screams 1966. But that doesn’t mean one needs to be a garage-punk aficionado to dig them. When reaching for a modern corollary, I tend to think of Night Beats’ music as a more tuneful rethink of the sort of thing Black Angels (another favorite) create.

Jimbo Mathus – Dark Night of the Soul
I was never any sort of fan of Squirrel Nut Zippers, so I didn’t approach the solo music of Jimbo Mathus with anticipation of finding much I’d dig. But what I discovered – first on his blue vinyl EP, then onstage in and person at the 2013 Americana Fest, then on Dark Night of the Soul – was the work of a man who appreciated, understood and (most importantly) synthesized various American musical forms, creating something very much his own. Mathus’ wide-screen style suggests a more rock-minded version of The Band, with hints of Alex Chilton‘s wild devil-may-care abandon. You can hardly beat that.

The Last – Danger
Middle-aged guys playing thrashy punk? Yeah, that happens. This high-speed rock owes a debt to The Minutemen and the stop-on-a-dime pyrotechnics of Fugazi and Hüsker Dü. But piano in the mix? Didn’t see that coming. And combo organ, and vocal harmonies? Hey, that’s unexpected. Taken as a whole, their early Kinks-like presentation suggests a group that has assimilated all the best of what’s edgy and exciting about rock’n'roll. Like all the albums on this list, highly recommended.

The Paul & John – Inner Sunset
There’s always room in my collection for what I call “pop.” My definition differs from the widely understood one in that I focus more on guitar-based music with a classic songwriterly approach. And I can think of few better exemplars of the style than this duo featuring Paul Myers (also a fine author and clever Twitter user) and John Moremen (also a hotshot guitarist who’s worked with the Mystery Lawn stable of artists, Half Japanese and many others). If you like acts such as XTC and Marshall Crenshaw, you’ll swoon when you hear cuts like “Everything Comes Together.” Me, I get shivers. An outstanding LP start to finish.

Stay tuned for more of Musoscribe’s best new music of 2014.

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Album Review: Halloween Nuggets

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Halloween’s coming: October 31 is a mere two weeks away. Personally, it’s my favorite holiday: for several years I lived on one of my city’s busiest residential streets, the go-to location on Halloween. This upscale neighborhood (we were firmly at the bottom of of the street’s socioeconomic scale there, by the way) was very popular with trick-or-treaters. So much so, in fact, that people chartered vans and buses – I kid you not – just to drive their kids to our street where they could collect candy. One year, we had over 500 kids ring our doorbell.

Leaving other family members to dispense the loot, I stood out front in a creepy mask, hood and gloves, playing (well, playing after-a-fashion) my Theremin. The spooky tones fit perfectly for the play-fun that is modern Halloween. Music – especially music laden with eerie, gimmicky sounds – has long been a staple of this fall holiday.

Like Christmas, Halloween has engendered a fair amount of its own theme music. But not a lot of it has hit the charts in a big way, despite its quality. And so when an artist records a Halloween-themed tune, it usually slides quickly into obscurity. I mean, who wants to hear spooky music once November rolls around?

Well, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Me,” then I have a treat for you. Rock Beat Music has put together a box set – three discs packed to the limit – of 1960s music loosely built around the theme of ghosts, goblins, witches and monsters. Drawing mostly from among the era’s hopelessly obscure sides, Halloween Nuggets: Monster Sixties A Go-go is a fun if modest collection of ninety-plus tracks.

Because from a cultural point of view “the sixties” really began circa February 1964, there are a number of 50s-sounding tunes here. Most lay on the gimmicky theme a bit thick – loads of spooky sonds, scream and whatnot – but the underlying theme is an undeniably kitschy sort of fun. While there are a few duds – Ralph Nieson and the Chancellors‘ manic psychobilly raver “Scream” is repetitive enough to give even the most die-hard listeners a headache – there are plenty of gems here. The song titles (“Tombstone No. 9,” “Cha Cha with the Zombies”) and one-off band names alone (Frankie Stein and His Ghouls, The Graveyard Five) are entertaining enough, and a lot of songs are goofily wonderful.

Some of these tunes will be familiar to connoisseurs of garage rock obscurities: Positively 13 O’clock‘s reading of The Count Five‘s “Psychotic Reaction” has been comped many times, as has Kiriae Crucible‘s “Salem With Trial.” But for every one of those, there’s a too-rarely-heard track like Baron Daemon & the Vampires‘ “Ghost Guitars.”

The track sequence is peppered with laughably awful audio tracks from B-movie trailers. You don’t really need visuals to know what The Astro Zombies or Night of the Blood Beast are about; their inclusion here doesn’t impede the flow of the music. Instead they just add to the fun.

James Austin – the label’s leading light when it comes to compilations: see also Los Nuggetz – has done his usual fine job of collecting and choosing the songs. What he hasn’t done – and where Halloween Nuggets leaves me a bit wanting – is to provide anything along the line of discographical information, or any sort of liner notes, for that matter. So listeners are left to wonder exactly what was behind an admittedly ace number such as Ervinna & the Stylers‘ “Witch Queen of New Orleans” or the good-timing garage jangle of The Circus‘ “Burn Witch Burn.” (The exceedingly tiny type used for track listing on the box’s back is frustrating to readers of a certain age, too).

But those are minor issues; we’re here primarily for the music. And Halloween Nuggets digs deeply into the graveyard of rock’n'roll (and pop) obscurities for this set. And this 3CD set might be just the ticket to enjoying a little bit of lightweight fun before the Christmas decorations come out. (How’s that for scary?)

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part One)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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EP Review: The Fauntleroys — Below the Pink Pony

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I can’t find the specific quote I’m looking for at the moment, but there’s an entry in Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (the original 1969 edition, not the lousy and lifeless early 70s update edited by Ed Naha) in which the author predicts the rise of one-off collaborations between established music. Again, I can only paraphrase, but Lillian Roxon cites the artistic freedom inherent in such temporary musical unions.

The whole concept didn’t catch on in rock to quite the degree Roxon predicted (though it was and remains a fundamental principle in jazz, where “groups” often assemble for a single project and then dissolve and move on). But when it does happen, the results can be impressive, and do fall in line with Roxon’s predictions.

The Fauntleroys are the latest example of an ad-hoc group made up of established artists. This alt-rock supergroup (there, I’ve said it) features Alejandro Escovedo (The Nuns, Rank and File, substantial solo work), Ivan Julian (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, excellent solo work, and production for such greats as Richard Barone and The Fleshtones), Linda Pitmon (Miracle 3, The Baseball Project) and Nicholas Tremulis* (Candy Golde, and yet more stellar solo work), all coming together to record and release the six-song EP Below the Pink Pony.

Each of the quartet’s straightforward melodies comes wrapped inside a slashing, barbed-wire arrangement that conveys danger, and a sort of elegant scuzziness, a streetwise beauty that will feel familiar to fans of these players’ back catalogs. Their collaborative approach to songwriting – working from snippets and building the tracks in Julian’s NYC studio – means that the songs have the fingerprints of all four members on them, rather than sounding like the work of one member backed by three others. Below the Pink Pony is, then, the antithesis of something like The Beatles’ white album.

That said, Tremulis’ powerful and commanding lead vocals gives him what sounds like a slightly larger role in the finished product. Pitmon’s backing vocal on “(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” and others balances things out a bit, though. Julian’s snaky guitar slashes and Escovedo’s distorted, buzzing guitar work mesh together to convey a sense of peril, even when the lyrics lean (slightly) toward the positive and uplifting.

The production finish on the album is spiky and rough, and one senses that’s exactly as the four musicians hoped it would be. The balance between studio polish and first-take vitality is perfect. And the best news about The Fauntleroys is that – unlike what Roxon described in 1969 – the group has plans to tour and release a full-length album. I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for that one, as should you.

* I’m still waiting for Tremulis to paint my house as promised (inside joke).

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