Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Bonus Weekend Post: Call Me “Steve Asheville.”

July 12th, 2014

I needed some chimney work done this week, so on the recommendation of a Facebook friend, I called a local business. When I spoke to the guy, his name (Joe Carlson) sounded familiar. I asked him if he was also a musician (in Asheville, you have to be one of those, a poet, a massage therapist or “life coach,” otherwise they turn you away at the city limits).

Anyway, he said yes. “I thought so,” I said. Then I reminded him of a studio session I did for an album he was working on. I laid down keyboard overdubs on four or five of his original songs, mostly using Wurlitzer electric piano and Mellotron string samples. This would have been back in February 2006 (I checked my records). We hadn’t met before the brief studio session, nor did our paths ever cross again, until today.

Turns out that when time came to finally release the finished album (in 2011, some five-plus years after my overdub sessions) he didn’t remember my name. So on the liner notes, the credit reads: “Steve Asheville: mellotron and synthesizer.” I had never heard the finished mixes until today when he brought me a copy…and sealed my chimney flue.

I had totally forgotten the session, as well as the session fee. I gotta say, I really like the ‘Tron textures on the title track of Living Sideways (I come in just before the one-minute mark). And I’m a fan of any mix that puts my work up-front, especially when it also means I can claim to be on an album with such musical heavyweights as Eliot Wadopian and River Guerguerian!

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

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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Book Review: One Way Out

July 10th, 2014

The members of The Allman Brothers Band – and there have been many – tend to think of themselves as a jazz band. The onstage interplay owes, they argue convincingly, more to a jazz players’ aesthetic than to the comparatively aimless, noodling approach employed by a “jam band.”

That surprising fact was but one of the many things I learned reading Alan Paul‘s new “oral history” of the band, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. This surprisingly engrossing book – I say “surprising” because while I enjoy large swaths of the ABB catalog, their history hasn’t interested me much beyond the all-too-brief Duane Allman days – draws the reader in and holds attention through the rocky, twisted path the group follows to the present day.

Causal fans (and for once, that term applies to me) tend to believe that keyboardist Gregg Allman and his guitarist brother Duane were the centerpiece of the band. But One Way Out argues forcefully – by the totality of its multi-person point of view – that the band was and remains much more than that. Bassist Berry Oakley, guitarist Dickey Betts and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) all contributed in their own significant ways to the band’s sound, personality, and aesthetic. The book explores the band’s history from its earliest days (in the form of the bands that would end up serving as “farm teams” for the original ABB) by quoting all of the available personalities involved. Alan Paul’s history with the ABB extends far back into the mists of time, so many of his interviews date back far as well. The author occasionally weighs in at key points (noting his contributions in italics) only to provide context where a direct quote won’t work as well. And as he notes in his introduction, when accounts vary – or stand in mirror opposition – he does his best to give both (or all) sides equal time, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions (or not).

The band’s history is so tumultuous – and some of its mid-period work so drearily uninspired – that readers may be cheering part-way through for the band to throw in the towel. But just when things look the darkest, some sort of turnaround takes place. Maybe it’s a half-hearted, cash-inspired one (see: the group’s Arista years), or maybe it’s thanks to the infusion of some fresh, new talent into the fold (see: the additions of Chuck Leavell, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks).

As best as he can, author (“editor” might be a better word) Paul alternates between featuring band member voices as fluidly as possible. But at key points in the story – most notably whenever Gregg Allman is in one of his frequent drug- and alcohol-related downward spirals – certain members seem to go silent. (By “certain members,” I of course refer to Gregg Allman.) It’s not difficult to envision in one’s mind’s eye a scene in which some or other member is recounting Gregg’s detachment from active membership in the band, while across the room, the keyboardist is staring at the floor, quietly and ineffectually mumbling. This is, however, the only characteristic of the book that can conceivably be termed a flaw. The book’s narrative style overall has the feel of being in a room with all the principals, each weighing in when they have something relevant to offer.

Those whose interest lay more with the intricacies of how the band worked in the studio might find One Way Out a bit shallow on that score; far more space is given over to exploring the interpersonal relationships among the band members, their crew (nominally considered equals to the band, but often not treated as such), and wives/girlfriend etc.

That said, the voices of most of the female characters (and nearly all of the crew) fade away mid-way through One Way Out. Judging from the manner in which the members are quoted, it would seem that around the time of Haynes’ first tenure with the ABB, the collective focus was placed (back) onto the music. The results as represented by their music tend to support this interpretation.

With the obvious exception of the departures of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley (and Haynes, though he’d return), when a member leaves the band, the collective voice portrayed in One Way Out makes it seem largely for the best. The wondrously talented Leavell is seen to have not been given a fair chance, and to have had certain factions aligned against him (fairly or not), dooming any chance of his long-term success within the ABB.

And when Dickey Betts finally leaves (did he jump or was he pushed?), many readers will breathe a sigh of relief, while never questioning the man’s talent. Those not deeply familiar with the band may well wish they had a bookmark in the form of a laminated “Rock Family Tree” a la Pete Frame to help them keep score on the who’s-in-who’s-out nature of the band, and especially in the earlier parts of One Way Out, it’s easy to lose track of whether a given quoted character is a player, roadie, friend, or something else. But in the end (and with some key exceptions), who’s saying what matters less than the overall collective thrust of the narrative.

As any book of this sort should do, One Way Out will renew the reader’s interest in revisiting long-forgotten tracks, and may lead them to explore material with which they hadn’t previously bothered. To that end, Paul helpfully appends the book with a critical rundown of the ABB catalog. Perhaps his decision not to present the catalog in chronological order might have something to do with a wish to avoid exposing just how lengthy a weak patch the ABB endured. But Paul argues convincingly for some lesser-known gems among the dross, and he isn’t afraid to call out the band for their ill-advised, lifeless product when doing so is warranted.

Essential reading for fans of this widely-loved band that calls itself a jazz group, One Way Out is also a fascinating read for anyone wishing to go deeper than the music of The Allman Brothers Band.

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Legends Do Stuff: A Dad-Rock Roundup

July 9th, 2014

From a demographics perspective, I suppose I am the target market for releases such as these. How else to explain compilations that have no thematic or time-period cohesiveness? Legends Get it On and Legends Crank it Up have one common thread: they attempt to distill the salad days of the boomer generation into CD-sized chunks.

And, on some level, they succeed. These discs play like someone’s idea of a classic rock station “rock block” without the car dealership commercials or annoying morning jocks prattling on about whatever. So that’s good. But it’s difficult to imagine who would actually buy these: what self-respecting fan of 70s AOR doesn’t already have “Smoke on the Water,” “Slow Ride,” “Free Bird” and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band‘s definitive reading of Bruce Springsteen‘s “Blinded by the Light” in their collection?

There are a few nods toward the softer side of album-rock: Elton John‘s wistful “Daniel,” Ace‘s “How Long” with a then-unknown Paul Carrack on lead vocals, and The Moody Blues‘ classic “Nights in White Satin.” And there are a few 60s gems tossed here and there: The Doors‘ “Light My Fire,” The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing, The Zombies‘ “Time of the Season.” And there a few clunkers, ersatz rockers that illustrated the more vapid, airball side of FM radio: Fleetwood Mac‘s “Go Your Own Way,” and Jackson Browne‘s “Running on Empty.” But mostly these two discs are heaping helpings of Dad Rock. Each features brief liner notes by an esteemed rock journo – Gene Sculatti and Dave Marsh, respectively – but one wonders if the consumers of these products will even read those pieces. (Neither is an exemplar of the writers’ best work.)

In an age of downloads and MP3, a hybrid SACD version of high-charting radio rock seems a dubious commercial prospect. But since these albums were originally released in 2003 on the Time-Life label, we can safely assume the record company people crunched the numbers and decided a reissue was at least a break-even proposition.

Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight” is here, which is funny, because I assume that if anyone actually wants to hear that song, they need only tune to their local classic rock FM station. It’s playing there right now, I assure you. But for those who want the music without the deejays, these CDs just might be the ticket. Over-40 white males who haven’t given over to download culture might just enjoy getting Legends Crank it Up and/or Legends Get it On (the latter’s title a nod to T. Rex‘s “Bang a Gong,” included therein) as a gift. We missed Father’s Day 2014, so maybe birthday or Christmas. But if you give one of these CDs to the middle-aged man in your life, don’t be surprised to find him cranking up his car stereo and fist pumping while he should be driving, all to the thumping strains of Foreigner‘s “Feels Like the First Time” or Eric Burdon and War‘s “Spill the Wine.”

Verdict: slapdash, seemingly pointless collections of music – some great, some good, some lousy, all overplayed – rendered in excellent fidelity. But undeniably, they’re a lot of fun.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part Two

July 8th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Your album The Universe of Geoffrey Brown is very “visual,” in that it creates a mind movie in the listener’s head, much like old radio programs. Were you looking to put something together that was in line with radio dramas of old, or did that not figure in to your thinking?

Captain Sensible: Yes, I love radio. But I don’t care for film and TV too much, it has to be said. You sussed that did you? Movies did hit all up for you: you’re a passive sponge soaking up whatever you are given, reacting in exactly the way the film creators intend, and your emotions are prodded and controlled at will.

I feel very strongly that we should all be more aware of how we are being manipulated by what we watch. Audio leaves more to your own imagination and your thoughts can wander into areas of your own choosing. Much better, in my opinion.

I listen to BBC Radio 4′s Archers soap about rural English farmers. It’s a bit boring at times, but it’s brilliantly done and it makes me laugh. Some of the characters have been going for 40 years or so! Not the cows, though; they all ended up in pies years ago.

BK: You played some of the Universe songs in the concert documented on Live at the Milky Way. Did it ever occur to you to mount a live-performance version of Universe?

CS: Yes, the songs worked great live. But I feel the audience needs to know the story for interest to be held in some of the more meandering pieces, so I will probably only perform the album in its entirety if we’ve either staged the whole thing theatrically or – cue cries of “hypocrite” – gotten Geoffrey Brown made as a movie prior to gigs.

BK: Copies of The Universe of Geoffrey Brown are not easy to find. For that matter, none of your albums is particularly easy to locate in North America. But of course you’ve enjoyed much greater success in the UK. What do you say to the argument that your work it “too English” to be assimilated by American audiences? (The same argument is sometimes leveled at The Kinks, Small Faces, etc. so you’d be in good company.)

CS: Maybe…I dunno. You won’t find me complaining that I could’ve been a contender or whatever though, as I’ve had a pretty fun time as a muso over the years. I was crap at getting up in the morning, so the jobs I attempted upon leaving school generally only lasted a few days owing to poor timekeeping on behalf of my laziness. Thankfully I am not usually asked to work until the evening these days…although I have missed a few flights over the years.

BK: Your last studio release was in 2002. What are you up to musically these days?

CS: Funny you should ask, as I’ve (laughs) just made a concept album with ex-Damned bassist Paul Gray entitled A Postcard From Britain. It was written and recorded with the aid of some of the acoustic instruments hanging on his living room wall, like bouzouki, sitar, mandolin, et cetera.

We decided to write a bunch of songs which have as their theme things about the UK that we find annoying, amusing, or plain daft. So there’s plenty of potential for material there! The lyrics were mainly written in Paul’s local pub, so as you can imagine we had a real laugh naming names and poking the occasional accusing finger.

Plus of course being a closet progger there’s no shortage of acid tinged guitar solos on the record! Postcard was recorded in a garage in Wales; we love the finished lo-fi feel. Vinyl copies are now available from Easy Action Records. Or as is more normal these days, MP3s from Amazon and iTunes.

BK: What was your reaction when you learned that Aggronautix was doing a Throbblehead of you? Do you think it’s a good likeness?

CS: Yes, not too bad at all! They got the nose right, anyway (laughs). They worked from a picture of me onstage, giving the audience the finger.

But doing one of Captain Sensible? What the makers were thinking, I dunno. But it gave me a good laugh when I saw the Throbblehead for the first time, as can be seen in the video on Aggronautix’s website. And to be in the company of maniacs like GG Allin, Roky Erickson and Jello Biafra is good stuff in my book.

I dig the sales pitch too: “Let the good Captain tell you to ‘sod off’ on a daily basis as he gives you the ole two finger salute. Limited to 1000 numbered units he’s accurately sculpted right down to the beret, seething sneer, and leopard-print pants.”

My own one will blend nicely in a display cabinet with current residents the Dalek, Zippy, Dennis the Menace, Betty Boop, some Homepride Flour men, Doraemon and Commander Shore from Stingray. Which dates me nicely, as you have to be a certain age to know most of those!

Once described by a music paper as “one of the world’s most disgusting slobs,” I see myself as a possible antidote to the slick choreographed mainstream so-called entertainers that make you wanna hurl a brick at the TV screen every time they appear. So with that in mind, I wholeheartedly endorse this excellent new Sensible figurine. Every home should have one.

The Captain Sensible Throbblehead is available from Aggronautix.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part One

July 7th, 2014

Concept albums have been around for quite awhile. Opinions differ as to which was the first of the lot: some say The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow, while others pick the most obvious and high-profile release, The Who‘s Tommy. Still other insist that Freak Out by Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention deserves the nod.

All of these are valid choices, as each holds together – to varying degrees – in one form or another. And the “concept” form remained semi-popular through rock history, applied to projects as diverse as Rick Wakeman‘s all-instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The TubesRemote Control, and XTC‘s Skylarking. But one thing that all of these albums mentioned so far lack is a narrative story line. The interspersing of dialogue between songs is thought by many to diminish the flow of a record, and to make it something other than a standard “album” that can be listened to while driving, working out, whatever.

And when artists have attempted to go that music-and-dialogue route, the commercial and critical response has been divided at best. Jeff Wayne‘s War of the Worlds employed an all-star cast including Richard Burton, and the resulting 2LP set has its fans (me among them). But it didn’t sell in droves. Pete Townshend gave it a serious go with his 1993 Psychoderelict, the (fancifully autobiographical?) story of a washed-up rocker’s attempt at a comeback. Most critics went on record characterizing Psychoderelict as dreadful; me, I loved it and thought it quite entertaining.

Townshend himself thought enough of the work to mount a stage presentation of Psychoderelict, complete with actors reprising their spoken bits onstage. But he (or his record company) also thought little enough of it to release an additional “music only” version of the album, stripped of all the narrative. (I found that version to be stripped of its power and impact as well.)

But the most notable – and for me, successful – of all attempts to fuse story and dialogue with rock music came from a somewhat unlikely source: Captain Sensible, then best known as bassist for seminal UK punk group The Damned.

The Universe of Geoffrey Brown (like Psychoderelict, released in 1993) wasn’t a massive commercial success, and perhaps it didn’t even do well enough in the marketplace to be labeled a cult favorite. But it remains one of my favorite albums. A few years ago, I got the chance to speak with Martin Newell about his role in the creation of the album. And now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak directly with the man behind the project – Captain Sensible, aka Ray Burns – about The Universe of Geoffrey Brown. We also chatted a bit about his latest project, and a new limited-edition bobblehead that immortalizes the good Captain in plastic resin.

Bill Kopp: There’s really nothing – at least nothing of which I’m aware – in your music prior to The Universe of Geoffrey Brown that tips your hand as having interest in the sort of concept-album that Universe is. How did the original idea for the album come about?

Captain Sensible: I consider myself incredibly lucky as a music fan to have grown up in the 60s / 70s at a time when rock n roll had just grown up – via Dylan and The Beatles, mainly – and some incredible records were being made. Bands pretty much did whatever they wanted in the studio, which cannot be said of today. Even The Damned had visits from label A&R people occasionally, but we usually sent them off with a flea in their ears.

The first time I heard The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, I was transfixed. The concept nature of the album took me on a musical journey…a mind trip, even. It was hugely engrossing, and I started seeking out other records of this kind – like The Moody BluesDays Of Future Passed and Tommy. “One day I will make an album like this,” I promised myself. And that’s how Geoffrey Brown came about.

I took my inspiration from the Cold War rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher. The question the album asks is, “How did we go from the beautiful love and peace dream of the summer of ’67 to public acceptance of the Dr. Strangelove world of mutually assured nuclear annihilation?” My main character Geoffrey works at the Ministry of Defence, plotting targets for destruction in a nuclear attack. He considers his job normal until his head is turned by a hippie chick one day on a bicycle ride; he decides to do something more creative with his department’s missile tracking technology.

My poet chum Martin Newell – being of the wordy persuasion – brought the characters to life with some excellent scripts, and we got proper actors to perform the between-song dialogue. It all works splendidly if you ask me, although the whole project took two years or so to complete!

BK: When I asked Martin Newell about the album, he told me that you did the one song and then decided to flesh it out to album-length work. Did you find it difficult to put songs together that – along with the spoken bits between – moved the story along?

CS: No, once we had the story mapped out the song ideas flowed easily. In fact, I recommend the concept album idea to all musicians, as it’s a massively creative and fun way to make a record, and connect with your audience by telling a story.

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Keith Allison: Man of Action (Part Five / conclusion)

July 4th, 2014

Continued from Part Four

Bill Kopp: You first rose to fame as a cast member on Where the Action Is. Can you tell me how you got that gig?

Keith Allison: At the time, I was playing with The Crickets, as their guitarist. But when in town, I did all the Boyce and Hart demos at Screen Gems. Sometimes they’d go in at ten in the morning, and they’d cut Joe Osborne on guitars, and various people on drums. And they switched around: sometimes James Burton and myself on guitars. They’d get whoever they could, for whatever the song needed. And Bobby Hart would often play keyboards.

Back then, we’d make ten dollars a song. Three songs was thirty bucks. But thirty was the difference between finishing paying your rent and buying some groceries. So they owed me, like, forty dollars, as I had done four songs the week before. This was April or May of 1965. And I needed to pay my damn rent, or I was gonna get evicted. So I went to Screen Gems, and told Lester Sill – the director of Screen Gems on the west coast – that I needed him to cut me a check. And he said, “ I can’t sign a check unless Boyce or Hart sign a voucher, approving it.” And I asked, “Well, where are they?” “Some television taping. A new show. They’re down at the Whisky-a-Go-Go.” He said, “Take this, go get it signed, bring it back, and I’ll cut you a check.”

So I went down to the Whisky and I saw all these film trucks. I walk in, and I look up. I see Dick Clark. The first time I’ve seen him in person. Dancers and such, too. I saw The Raiders on the staircase, and I said, “Hey, guys!” I already knew them. I had done a show with them in Honolulu, and I had run into them a time or two. I had known them for about a year. Not well, but kind of hi-how-are-you-guys.

Tommy Roe was about to sing “Everybody” onstage. And a stage manager said, “We need butts in seats!” So I sat down. One of the dancers, Joy [Ciro], saw me; I was wearing Levi’s and a Levi’s jacket, a yellow turtleneck, and I had a black leather cap on. And boots. A very sixties British-looking outfit. So Joy knew when the cameras would be on her. I was just clapping along and smiling. The camera did several shots of me, about four or five seconds each.

So after that I went off to Las Vegas with The Crickets, to Texas, playing at the Thunderbird Hotel for a month. Two or three shows a night. And I got this telegram from Dick Clark Productions. They needed me to come in on my day off; they had a prepaid ticket for me at the airport. They gave me the address to meet with the Executive Producer. I thought, “What the heck is this about?”

What had happened was, they got bags of fan mail after that show aired, with this kid with one of the dancers. “Who is that?” And they pulled in everybody they could, asking them who it was. Finally they pulled in the girls from the front office: receptionists, young girls. And one of them said, “Ah! That’s Keith Allison. He plays with The Crickets. They’re supposed to be in Las Vegas right now.” So that’s how they found me.

So I flew in on my day off, and went over to Rosalind Ross‘ house; she lived right behind the Dick Clark offices on Sunset Boulevard. I knocked on her door. She opened it, looked at me and said, “Oh my god! Can you start today? And you play guitar?” I said yes. “Can you dance?” I said, “A little.” She said, “Come on in! We have a guitar here. Would you play something?” So I played “Maybe Baby” and “Not Fade Away,” some Crickets songs.

She said, “Do you mind if we cut your hair?” I said, “What!?” My hair was kinda long and unruly; it wasn’t a proper haircut. They had a hairdresser already there, so they trimmed my hair. Then she said, “We need you at Will Rogers State Beach at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.” I said, “I have to fly back to Vegas tomorrow!” “We know what time your plane is; you’ll be out by noon.” So I started Where the Action Is that morning.

BK: That’s a Cinderella story!

KA: It’s like Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drugstore. So I showed up that day wearing the same outfit: the yellow turtleneck and all. They’d show The Raiders playing, and then they’d cut to me, running down the beach with about 50 to 75 girls screaming and chasing me. They did those teaser shots for weeks, so people would say, “Who is that?” They’d build this thing up; that’s how they presented me.

BK: That’s pretty shrewd marketing.

KA: Then finally one day they’d say, “Well, you’ve been seeing this guy, and now he’s joining our Where the Action Is family. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Keith Allison!” and I said, “Thank you, Dick.” The first song I sang on camera was “When Will I Be Loved” by the Everly Brothers.

But after that first episode, I flew back to Vegas to The Crickets. And my cousin Jerry Allison asked me, “So what happened?” Because he already knew about Rosalind Ross. He knew her from back in the Buddy Holly days when she was an agent with Premier Talent in New York.

“They asked me to join this television show,” I told him. He said, “Really!” So I went back to Los Angeles, and was working on Where the Action Is full time. And then [DCP] didn’t want me playing with The Crickets any more. I kinda felt bad about that. Because I liked playing with them, and my leaving left them hung up, briefly.

BK: I almost didn’t ask you that question. And I am so glad that I did.

Keith Allison’s In Action: The Complete Columbia Side Plus! is available on Real Gone Music.

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Keith Allison: Man of Action (Part Four)

July 3rd, 2014

continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: A guy I vaguely know put together some unauthorized DVDs of It’s Happening episodes. He sent me copies and I reviewed them. The next day he got a cease-and-desist order from Dick Clark Productions!

Keith Allison: I just talked to the archivist over there [at DCP]. They contacted me; they’re talking about putting together a bunch of Where the Action Is stuff, and putting it out on DVD.

BK: They are finally thinking of doing that?

KA: Well, they contacted me a couple of years ago, and they came back and said it would cost so much money. But [this time] they said, “What if we didn’t use any of the stuff from the record company, but used the stuff that you guys recorded [at Armand Steiner's Sound Recorders]. Who owns that stuff?” I said, “Dick Clark Productions!” We were work-for-hire, and it was cut at Steiner’s or wherever. So all they’d need to do is get song clearances from the publishers.

BK: and that’s the stuff that all us hardcore fans really want! Because those tracks are the whole band – including Revere – playing live in the studio.

KA: Yeah. It’s The Raiders, and me. On guitar and/or piano. And Steve Alaimo and Linda Scott, the whole cast doing the “family numbers,” y’know.

Someone sent me a bunch of DVDs of kinescopes of Where the Action Is. And I was surprised that Steve and I did so many duets. We did medleys of Little Richard songs, and medleys of something else. One of the greatest cuts of all was all of us doing [the doowop arrangement of] “Blue Moon.” [sings the bom-ditty-bom part] We each took part of that part and drew it out; it was the funniest thing you ever heard.

When I joined the show, The Raiders – before they got so busy – would cut fourteen, sixteen songs in an afternoon. And there were no overdubs; it was two-track.

BK: that material is the Holy Grail for Raiders fans…

KA: Do you know that I had the tapes for all those tracks? In a storage place. And I lost it all. Every one of the damn quarter-inch playback tapes. I had every one of ‘em. It was a big box full of ‘em.

BK: When you say “lost…”

KA: The place was robbed, or flooded, or something. All my memorabilia. Amplifiers. Multi-track masters of Ringo and me at Tittenhurst. All kinds of stuff. But the biggest loss was every one of those tracks we cut for Where the Action Is. Evidently, whoever got all that stuff kept the stuff that looked like it was worth money: armoires and stuff. They probably looked at the box of tapes and thought, “Throw this shit out.” They probably had no idea what they had.

BK: One of your original tunes – in fact, the only original on the first release of In Action album – “Freeborn Man” went on to become something of a standard. I don’t know how many versions of it have been recorded…

KA: I don’t either. I’ll tell you, one time – I don’t know what year this would have been…must have been around 1970 – Johnny Cash had the TV show in Nashville. It was very successful. It was eclectic, and a highly watched show. Well, he went on tour with that, and he had The Oak Ridge Boys, Carl Perkins. Anyway, one might my sister called me from San Antonio: “Keith! You won’t believe this, but we went to see the Johnny Cash show. And Carl Perkins opened the show with ‘Freeborn Man’!” And then I found out that all the great bluegrass guys started cutting it.

When I did it, when we put on the vocals, Mark had come in to sing on it with me. After I was finished with that, I was moving on to background vocals for the album with Gary Usher and Glen Campbell. We did that on the all the songs I cut, with the exclusion of The Raiders things. Glen had shown up when we were still working on “Freeborn Man.” And he was in the control room. He said, “That’s a great song! Who wrote that?” I said, “We did.” He asked, “Would you guys send a tape over to Capitol?” So we ran off a quarter-inch tape of it. Then he cut it, and it was going to be his next single.

And then his producer said, “Y’know, I got this other song in. I want to cut this other song before we release ‘Freeborn Man,’ and see how it turns out.” and then they cut “Gentle on My Mind.”

BK: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, huh?

KA: Yeah! How many times can I tell you this kind of story? And every one of ‘em is true.

So he had it in the can. It wasn’t the single, but it ended up on an album. And then he had “By the time I Get to Phoenix.” But it’s on an album called A New Place in the Sun. It sold well over a million copies. And then The Outlaws cut it down in Georgia, and they sold well over a million copies.

BK: Junior Brown did a great version of it…

KA: Bill Monroe cut it. Jerry Lee Lewis cut it. Jimmy Martin cut the definitive bluegrass version of it. Dan Tyminski of Union Station does it; it’s fabulous. One night I was watching TV in bed in New York. I was channel surfing because my wife was already asleep. I ran across some show, a Pine Knob Theatre thing out of Lexington Kentucky. This song starts, and it’s the Rounder Records All-stars. It was Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and Tony Rice. And they’re into the second verse before I realize. I was half asleep. I bolted straight up in bed and yelled, “Holy shit!” And I turned it way up. It blew me away.

BK: So I guess when you wrote it, you had absolutely no idea it was going to be a hit.

KA: It was well into a life of its own before I even heard about it. It’s kind of like Mike Stoller coming back from Europe, getting off the boat, and Jerry Leiber saying to him, “We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got a hit with ‘Hound Dog.’” And Stoller says, “’Hound Dog’ with Big Mama Thornton?” “No. It’s this kid, Elvis Presley!” “Who the hell is that?” “I don’t know. But the damn thing’s taking off!”

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