Album Review: Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock

January 16th, 2015

Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, the term krautrock is neither pejorative nor disparaging. In its classic sense, the label refers to improvisationally-based rock with spare musical foundation. As the word suggests (in an undeniably gauche manner), the form originated in Germany.

When one thinks of krautrock, the first bands that often come to mind are Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (the latter’s hypnotic, album-length “Autobahn” is an exemplar of the genre).

The style reached its apex in the 1970s; today when one sees or hears the term, it’s nearly always I nthe context of music form the past. But – depending on how the term is understood – the krautrock label can be applied to modern-day music. Especially if a strictly literal interpretation is used (in other words, German rock), all manner of musical artists fit under the umbrella.

Certainly garage/psych revival bands like The Roaring 420s don’t fit into this discussion. Nor, of course, do some fantastic American expat artists who have made Berlin their base of operations (Anton Barbeau, The Fuzztones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Anton Newcombe, to name but three). But a number of interesting artists do fit the bill, and while they’re made barely a ripple on the musical consciousness of American listeners, collectively they’ve created a body of work that bears further investigation.

But how to do so? One could start by reading Krautrocksampler, the 1995 book by the genre’s most prominent champion, Julian Cope. But there are two problems with that idea: first off, the book is now twenty years old, so it can’t address, y’know, current acts. More problematic is the going rate for the long out-of-print title: currently upwards of $230 for a used copy on Amazon.

With that option off the table (PDF scans of Cope’s book do circulate online, and as of summer 2014 there’s “talk” of reissuing it), we turn instead to a compilation CD. The German label Sireena released a fine overview of “classic” krautrock not long ago: Live Kraut: Live Rock Explosions from the Heyday of Krautrock! focused on what one might call the first wave of the genre. Band names like Grobschnitt, Guru Guru and Jane will be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but for the most part, their music isn’t so out-there as to be unintelligible to American ears. (The same can’t be said for some of krautrock’s more adventurous acts: Kraan and Birth Control are pretty freaky; I have a few vinyl albums by each, and hope to find more later this year when I visit Germany.)

Happily, Sireena has filled this niche by releasing another compilation, Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock (never let it be said that the Germans don’t spell it right out for you in their titles). Once again, here is a disc (with twelve tracks) filled with artists who are virtually unknown in the USA. RPWL might be familiar to those who regularly visit this blog; I’ve both reviewed their music and interviewed the group’s Yogi Lang. RPWL are featured on this set with “World Through My Eyes,” the title track off their 2005 album. It’s fine enough, but doesn’t show the group at their best, and isn’t truly representative of the band’s oft-displayed appealing characteristics.

The other eleven tracks are a varied lot. Some do explicitly build on the motorik textures of older krautrock: Ear Tranceport‘s “Lock In (Namby Pamby)” has that chugging, mechanical beat applied to a melody that’s largely driven by acoustic guitar. And the one-chord “Stranded” from Space Debris will delight fans of Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, as it meanders purposefully though similar sonic territory over the course of its nearly ten minutes.

Sankt Otten‘s vaguely sinister instrumental “Nach Dir Die Sinnseflut” will remind listeners of Tangerine Dream at their soundtrackiest. Electric Moon deliver a deeply textured vibe on “Madrigal Meridian,” sounding like a Teutonic (and at times, more tuneful) Nine Inch Nails. One man band Level Pi engages in some evocative krautrock that features some straightforward rock guitar riffage; it too wouldn’t be out of place in a film soundtrack.

The Perc Meets the Hidden Gentleman is a wholly different affair. Seemingly taking its sonic inspiration from former Berlin resident David Bowie, “The Moon of Both Sides” is perhaps the track on Son of Kraut most likely to connect with the casual listener. The brooding, dreamy “I Can’t Walk My Floor” by Tarwater is cut from similar cloth as the music of Austin’s Black Angels.

“Psysomsyl” from Electric Orange features seven minutes’ workout on a single chord; the track grows in intensity, not unlike some of Glenn Branca‘s work, or classic-period Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Things take a decidedly more tuneful direction with “On Stranger Tides” from Fantasyy Factoryy. The hand drumming and repetitve electric guitar riff suggest a campfire version of Pink Floyd, as does the track’s Roger Waters-like vocal.

The intriguing instrumental “”O.M.E.N.” from Le Mur initially heads back into the psych revival region, but some treated saxophone riffage suggest what Black Sabbath might sound like with some added brass instrumentation.

Son of Kraut wraps up with some prog-metal, a genre heretofore unexplored on the set. Both the band name (Panzerballet) and the song title (“Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”) provide hints as to where this Teutonic Metallica are headed. Some tenor sax will throw metalhead for a loop, but otherwise, the genre’s hallmarks – blindingly fast guitar licks, thundering rhythm semitone – are all here. Overall, it’s a bit jarring in the context of Son of Kraut‘s mostly moody atmosphere, but it gets better as it goes along.

The poster-styled liner notes (in both German and a chuckle-eliciting English translation) provide enough information to help those wishing to investigate the bands further. For listeners interested in a sampler that is both adventurous and not music not a million musical miles away form their comfort zone, Son of Kraut is recommended. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something you enjoy in this album field with unfamiliar names.

N.B.: There’s an additional title in this series, a disc called Jazzkruat: Teutonal Jazz Rock Excursions. It features the aforementioned Kraan and Volker Kriegel; I will do my best to score a copy and review it here when I can.

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Album Review: Black & Blue – The Laff Records Collection

January 15th, 2015

A new 4CD collection of vintage comedy records, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection exemplifies the abbreviation NSFW (“Not Safe for Work”). The low-budget stand-up comedy records (usually but not always recorded in front of raucously appreciative audiences) released on the independent Laff Records label in the 1970s were a sensation in African American communities across the USA. But to buy these records, you had to know whom to ask: titles like Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’ by Wildman Steve simply couldn’t be put on prominent display in a record store.

The story of Laff Records is a sort of underground, sub- or counter-cultural history. The labels’ so-called “party records” were put together using the smallest of budgets – the cover art is often amateurish, and the recording techniques won’t win any audio awards – but then those measures completely miss the point. These extraordinarily “dirty” records featured the likes of Redd Foxx and Lawanda Page, both giants in the black standup comedy world. The public at large knew Foxx as Fred Sanford on the hit TV sitcom Sanford & Son; they knew Page, too, as Aunt Esther, the uptight sister-in-law of the main character. But TV viewers would be shocked (shocked, I say) to hear Page on record, on her Pipe Layin’ Dan LP. There she runs through routines with titles like “Bustin’ Cherries” and “Douche Powder.” Needless to say, as with most Laff Records titles, Page’s LPs were not for the easily offended.

But there’s an undeniable (dare I say) charm to be found in routines like Jimmy Lynch‘s “Tricky Dick & Pussy,” Dap Sugar Willie‘s “Duck You,” and Mantan Moreland‘s immor(t)al classic, “That Ain’t My Finger.” And while this caucasian writer can merely hazard a guess here, one suspects that there was a certain degree of liberation at work, an I’ll-say-anything-I-want mindset that was, in its own way, empowering to both the comics and their (almost wholly black) listening audience.

To this day, original Laff Records are fairly difficult to come by; seemingly they’ve all been melted in conservative church bonfires, or (more likely) they’re hidden away in the collection of now-aging African Americans (note to self: hit some nearby intown garage sales this coming spring). Ten or so representative titles from the Laff catalog are now collected on this new 4CD set. Robert Townsend‘s brief essay helps modern listeners understand the debt that today’s black comics owe to these underground party records. And a richly detailed booklet provides biographical and contextual information about the performers and their recordings. There’s no Richard Pryor material here (though Laff released several Pryor discs, the man’s relationship with the label was contentious), but the lesser-known names make their raunchy mark nearly as well. With Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection, Rock Beat Records are once again to be commended for their edgy (if limited-appeal) approach to compilations and reissues.

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Album Review: Sid Griffin — The Trick is to Breathe

January 14th, 2015

In the immediate wake of the excesses brought forth by psychedelia, popular (rock) music took a decided turn toward the simpler, more pastoral. Mere months after Cream were hitting the charts with “Sunshine of Your Love” and Jimi Hendrix was endeavoring to stand next to our fire, groups like The Band were finding success with a much more toned-down, sepia-tinted sort of music. That style owed more to acoustic instruments, even when they were employed in rock fashion.

While the charts splintered into genres as the 70s wore on, this simpler (dare I say softer) approach was taken to another level – a higher or lower one, depending on one’s need for rock in their musical diet – with the rise of the sensitive singer/songwriter. For all his merits, James Taylor exemplifies this turn away from the visceral in popular music, at least for a significant portion of the listening public.

But before the singer/songwriters took hold, and in connection with the pastoral approach, some very interesting (and creatively fertile) things were happening in popular music. The Byrds, Poco, Moby Grape and a few others had been investigating the sweet spot where rock and more acoustic-based forms met, and the results were sometimes exemplary. But the hybrid style didn’t gain a strong foothold in the pop marketplace.

Not right away, anyhow. But more than a decade later, concurrent with the rise of what is sometimes called the paisley underground movement, a number of musical artists took another look at combining rock and folk (and/or country) styles. There wasn’t really a succinct name for the hybrid then – today we might call it proto-Americana – but the music from artists such as The Blasters and Lone Justice had as its foundation that commingling of musical genres.

And without a doubt the giant among these was The Long Ryders. Led by guitarist (and player of other stringed instruments) Sid Griffin, The Long Ryders could be pointed to by decided fans of hard-rocking music of the 80s as the one “twangy” band that they really, really dug. The group folded near the end of the decade (happily they reunite on occasion), and the members went their various ways. Griffin continued to cultivate his career as a writer, a curator of music, and a musician with solo albums. He also started a group called The Coal Porters; almost wholly rooted in Americana-type instrumentation, they also rocked.

Griffin’s latest album, The Trick is to Breathe, combines the best elements of the hybrid rock-Americana style, and it’s also a lyrics-focused album that fans of the singer/songwriter genre will find very rewarding. It’s most certainly not a rock record – there’s not a note of electric instrumentation to be found – but it has an undeniable (if hard to pin down) rock sensibility about it. Griffin’s vocals are mixed right out front, allowing listeners to follow along in his story-songs without straining their ears. On the gentle “Ode to Bobbie Gentry,” Griffin makes the observation that “no one ever comes to no good in the show-biz world,” but the fact that he’s making albums like this strongly suggests otherwise. “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” is a bluegrass romp, but one that’s fun and free of artifice; even an avowed non-grasser such as this writer can’t be helped but drawn in by the lighthearted lyric set against a familiar melodic structure. Maybe it’s purely coincidental (and maybe not), but “Circle Bar” is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Rush‘s reading of Joni Mitchell‘s similarly-titled “The Circle Game.”

Griffin’s gentle mandolin plucking is at the center of “Between the General and the Grave,” and some melancholy fiddle work helps create a fragile ambience for this tale of war. Perhaps the most interesting track on The Trick is to Breathe, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” is also the track that sounds the most like The Long Ryders. This fanciful rethink of an imagined conversation between the King and Gladys Presley is warm and sentimental, painting a portrait of Elvis when he was young and relatively innocent (“I’ll still be your son when all is done”). Griffin’s Elvis conveys some hard-earned wisdom to his mother: “Mama, never party after the show.” Musically, it’s a cousin to “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” from The Long Ryders’ 1987 LP Two Fisted Tales. Whatever its provenance, it’s a delight.

“Everywhere” is the album’s longest track, and it waits until more than halfway through to change up the arrangement. But it’s worth the wait, with some wonderful close harmony vocal work. A reinvention of the sixties folk-rock classic “Get Together” is nearly unrecognizable, but in Griffin’s capable bluegrass-centric hands, the old adage “a good song is a good song” is proved yet again. With its fade-in and fade-out, the brief, clanging instrumental “Front Porch Fandango” sounds for all the world like a spontaneous jam that happened to get caught on tape; more of it would be even better.

“Punk Rock Club” is a bizarre – yet enthusiastically welcomed – left turn on The Trick is to Breathe. On this spoken-word track, Griffin recites a collection of comments, perhaps from selected audience members. In their most deadpan voices, Griffin and his friends give us lines such as, “Why is the singer so angry?” and “Why does the drummer hit so hard?” This piss-take of rock’s poseur tendencies is very knowing, and very, very funny. The crosstalk near the track’s end is reminiscent of some of the experiments Robert Fripp did with The Roches on his The League of Gentlemen album.

The gentle guitar picking on “Who’s Got a Broken Heart” finds Griffin with both feet in singer/songwriter territory. He reaches deep and pulls out a more nuanced vocal than is typical, and subtle cello sawing adds the perfect accompaniment. The three-quarter time story-song “We’ve Run Out of Road” feels like the kind of song Willie Nelson comes up with at his best. Griffin’s careful arrangement touches help the song strike the perfect balance between slick and down-home.

Griffin wraps up the stellar album with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a high-speed bluegrass tune that riffs on tried-and-true phrases and lyrical snippets that overtly reference Bob Dylan and The Beatles (“No Direction Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,”) all put to clever, smile-eliciting use.

The Trick is to Breathe is a start-to-finish triumph.

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DVD Review: The Complete Truth About De-evolution

January 13th, 2015

Beginning in the 1970s, DEVO established themselves as among the most effective artists using using the creative tool of video in the musical idiom. Contrasting starkly with the the myth-making and glamor of most other music videos, the work of DEVO is deeply unsettling and provocative. Twenty DEVO music video clips (plus some relevant extras) have been compiled on The Complete Truth About De-evolution.

DEVO’s philosophical sensibility is shot through all of the band’s video work. The concept of de-evolution as used by the group (and from whence comes their name) holds as its central concept the idea that humankind is no longer evolving in a forward direction; instead, we’re on the decline. DEVO has always been as much an art installation as a band; in keeping with the punk aesthetic (the band’s first video clip debuted in 1976) the band employed a DIY musical aesthetic that eschewed virtuosity in favor of a harsh, brittle, discordant and often deceptively simplistic sound. That approach would have certainly been part of the appeal to fellow musical outsider Brian Eno; he produced their first album.

Most of the video clips as collected on The Complete Truth About De-evolution are low-budget affairs; even when the band hit it big and had a Warner Brothers-financed budget, their more costly videos still had an intentionally homegrown look about them. Though professionally executed, the stop-motion sections of “Love Without Anger” (oddly enough, a staple of early 80s MTV) are reminiscent of the crude animation found on early DEVO clips.

And what all of the group’s videos share is that world view that concedes – no, celebrates, really – the idea that everything is shit, that we’re headed for the dustbin of history. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in what may well be DEVO’s finest video clip, the one made to support the song “Beautiful World.” Thick with irony (or sarcasm; your choice), the video displays police beatings, KKK rallies, and atomic detonations, all providing a visual backdrop for lyrics that (on the surface, at least) express what a “sweet romantic place” the world is. With DEVO, satire is always a central element, or at least a tool that’s kept handy.

The early clips – that is, the ones that predate MTV’s summer 1981 launch – have gotten much less exposure, though some of them surfaced on the USA cable network’s night time music-centric program Night Flight. Still, most casual viewers won’t have known that these clips (such as “DEVO Corporate Anthem” and “Jocko Homo”) even exist. And while they’re very different from later, more commercially-oriented material like the tres bizarre “Whip It” video, the band’s bent approach is consistent through all of the clips.

And as seems to be true with most any established band one would care to name, the later songs (“Theme From Doctor Detroit,” for example) don’t measure up to earlier efforts; but with DEVO the quality of the videos never flags. Certainly not “easy viewing” in the manner of easy listening, DEVO music video clips are thought-provoking, entertaining in their own awkward way, and always exceedingly strange. For those qualities along, The Complete Truth About De-evolution is worth viewing. For fans of the band – and/or aficionados of the strange – this DVD is a must-own.

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Book Review: British Invasion

January 12th, 2015

I’ve read countless books about The Beatles, about their fellow British Invasion (aka Beat Era) acts, and about the sixties from both musical and socio-cultural points of view. To say that the overall topic interests me is grand understatement. So I was intrigued when I learned of a new book called British Invasion: The Crosscurrents of Musical Influence. Having some familiarity with other works from the book’s publish (Rowman & Littlefield), I suspected that British Invasion wouldn’t be a pop-culture, general readership tome; no, I fully expected it to lean in a more scholarly direction. And that would be fine by me.

Author Simon Philo is a British citizen who – as he relates in the book’s introduction – first traveled to the USA many years ago. That inaugural visit lit a fire within him to better understand the ways in which British music of the 1960s influenced American music and culture. What an interesting idea, I thought: many books have looked through the lens from the opposite end, charting how The Beatles (and others) were influenced by such things as (a) the film The Girl Can’t Help It, (b) Bill Haley’s UK tour, and (c) records brought to Britain by merchant seamen landing at Liverpool docks (though this last one has been – if not debunked – shown to have happened much less often than many music chroniclers have claimed/guessed).

But considering how the music of The Beatles and other British groups influenced American music at the time (as opposed to in the grand scheme of things) is a topic that hasn’t been done to death. So Philo’s book is welcome. In the earliest chapters – truth be told, the best, most insightful ones among the book’s 150-plus pages – Philo outlines British pop music history, and he does so in a manner that places skiffle and trad jazz (the two biggest pre-rock musical sensations in postwar England) in their proper context. Philo displays a deep understanding of these forms and how they fit into the big picture.

As the story progresses, British Invasion focuses more than one might expect upon The Beatles. Yes, they were the biggest (and I’d say best) among the British musical exports of the era, but the bands that followed in their wake get perfunctory discussion in the book. Philo does a commendable job of outlining the American cultural scene into which The Beatles sprang in early 1964, debunking a few myths of his own (namely, that the country was in a deep depression post-JFK, and that The Beatles single-handedly rescued American consciousness from that malaise). But immediately after making a good case for his viewpoint, he writes (though in far more eloquent terms than I’m paraphrasing), “well, but yeah, they kinda did cheer things up.”

From there, Philo’s analysis is astute, and he makes all manner of useful connections. Still, he all but breaks down every single Beatles album, exploring its cross-cultural effects, and spends little time on the works of any other artists (save The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan). Granted, since the Beatles had the lion’s share of the hits, they do deserve full discussion. But the work of other groups (The Animals, for example) is perhaps deserving of a more thorough and nuanced analysis than it gets here.

Where British Invasion seems to falter is in its last third: while Philo is very careful to include citations for many of his quotes (and conclusions stated previously by others), toward the end of the book, he makes some serious mistakes. The author discusses (at some length) the genesis of the Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” and while he gets many of the details right, he cites Roger (Jim) McGuinn‘s fear of flying as the source from which his (McGuinn’s) lyric came. The thing is, it was Gene Clark who was uncomfortable in airplanes, and the song featured his lyrics (with help from David Crosby). McGuinn was responsible for the music.

And so on. In the most offhand manner, Philo unquestioningly repeats the long-discredited urban legend that mass murderer Charles Manson auditioned for The Monkees in 1965 (Manson was a guest of the United States Federal Prison System in the years 1961-67). And he seems to think that Abbey Road was met with roundly thumbs-down reviews upon its release (that sounds more like Let it Be). All that said, it’s only because of Philo’s overall careful and thorough approach to his subject that these lazy mistakes are so glaring.

That final third of British Invasion is actually the part in which Philo’s keen observations are the most significant. He discusses the “Britishness” of the Monterey Pop Festival; touches on the (discussed-ad infinitum) contrast between the Woodstock and Altamont festivals, and then breezily discusses the relationship between UK and American music from the mid 1970s onward. But he then jumps back to his own personal story circa 1981, neatly stepping over punk and new wave.

As scholarly works go, British Invasion is good on the merits (Philo strives to make as many original points as he possibly can, and nearly always hits the mark), but it falls down on the details (perhaps a looming deadline resulted in some glossing over of easily fact-checked errors). As a general audience reader, it’s a bit heady, lacking in any firsthand reportage (seemingly all musician quotes are sourced from the works of other writers) and occasionally getting pretty far into the academic weeds. But there’s enough straightforward analysis to make the required few hours spent with British Invasion most rewarding.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Bellybutton and Spilt Milk

January 9th, 2015

Nineteen-ninety was a curious year in rock music. The top hitmaking artists of the year included Madonna, Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson. If you liked rock music and wanted to find it in the mass-consumption media (in other words, on radio), your choices were largely limited to Jon Bon Jovi, Heart, Billy Idol, or (shudder) Poison. (The so-called grunge rock of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam was still a few years away.)

There wasn’t a whole lot going on in high-profile rock that suggested the form was anything besides moribund. For more compelling rock-based music, one had to turn to an emerging format called “new rock” or “alternative rock.” (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m conveniently forgetting about non-commercial college radio – which counted for a lot of what I enjoyed in those days – because it wasn’t as widespread).

Alternative rock stations such as the one in my then-hometown of Atlanta set their sights on what one might call “guitar pop.” Melodic, rock based music was in, and synthesizer-based pop confections were out. Out, too, were the “dinosaurs” of rock who had (supposedly) been left behind in the wake of punk and new wave; one wouldn’t likely hear Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Dire Straits or any number of classic acts on alternative rock playlists.

In the same manner as early MTV did almost exactly a decade earlier, this new format paved the way for some very good artists to get their music heard by the masses. Those rock fans who dug “classic rock” and perhaps new wave were often left cold by the glam-metal antics of Poison, and perhaps a bit bored by Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins‘ turn toward adult MOR balladeering. But the music found on these alternative rock stations often hit the sweet spot for those listeners, programming as it did new music from younger artists whose musical sensibilities were rooted in a similar mindset to the rock acts of the past.

What this meant in practical terms is that artists like Michael Penn (1992′s “Seen the Doctor”), Matthew Sweet (1991′s “I’ve Been Waiting”), Greenberry Woods (1994′s “Trampoline”) and even Bob Mould‘s harder-edged Sugar (1992′s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”) all broke into the mainstream. Arguably, none of these acts would have enjoyed mainstream success on the level they did without the rise of alternative rock radio.

Into this mix came Jellyfish. And for rock fans like myself, it was a huge breath of fresh air. Jellyfish’s original music drew upon the highly complex arrangements aesthetic of 1970s bands such as Supertramp, Queen, 10CC, Paul McCartney and Wings, and the like. Their visual appeal drew upon glam rock, but rather than the androgynous, faux-sexy approach favored by (shudder) Poison, Jellyfish’s visual aesthetic was filtered through a playful, Sid & Marty Kroft kind of sensibility. In short, Jellyfish were fun.

And the music was fun, too. Hardcore Jellyfish fans (see: this writer) have long been divided on which of the group’s two albums is the superior effort, but for those who dig the style, both Bellybutton (1990) and 1993′s Spilt Milk are crammed to the brim with ear-candy gems.

The band split amidst internal dissent not long after the release of Spilt Milk, and that was it. After a long silent period, additional Jellyfish material turned up on Fan Club, a 4CD set that was expensive to begin with. Issued on the now-defunct NotLame label, it was pressed in rather limited quantities, and soon went out of print. Today, used copies fetch hundreds of dollars. Fan Club served up a buffet of demos, outtakes and live tracks that – besides tripling the amount of officially-available Jellyfish music – showed that the collective musical artistic vision of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning and their band mates burst forth fully formed.

While there are differences between the demo- and official versions of Jellyfish songs, the demos show that the subtle ideas and flourishes were there from the start; it took only a bigger recording budget and the expertise of producers Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig to present the ideas in a shinier, commercially-digestible format.

Now in the 21st century, the long-gone Jellyfish are fondly remembered. To my knowledge, there’s never once been any serious talk of the band reuniting, but a steady flow of additional Jellyfish material has found its way to the marketplace, thanks to the efforts of Omnivore Recordings. A live-for-radio set (Radio Jellyfish ) and instrumental mixes of both albums (Stack-a-Tracks ) have been released in the last few years. But (likely owing to the expense involved and the limited commercial appeal) there hasn’t been a reissue of that Fan Club box set.

What Omnivore has done instead is to comb through the eighty(!) tracks on Fan Club, collect the ones relevant to Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, and then create new reissues of each of those two albums, appending the original discs (now remastered) with bonus material that fills the first disc of each to capacity, and a second disc as well.

The contextual placement of live and demo versions of tunes such as “The King is Half Undressed” makes sonic sense for listeners, and it makes for a better listen overall than the solely odds-and-sods Fan Club. The well-known versions of the songs remain the definitive versions, though: it’s hard to top the chiming, upbeat arrangement and production of “Baby’s Coming Back.”

Live and onstage, Jellyfish were – as the live tracks illustrate – a much better band than one might expect. With (at least on the first album) the guitar skills of Jason Falkner, they managed the nigh-on-impossible feat of presenting Just Like the Record versions of complicated arrangements. And that’s no small feat if your lead singer’s the drummer (just ask Phil Collins. Or Chester Thompson).

Bellybutton is the more musically straightforward of the two original albums; it is, I’m told, the favorite of most listeners expressing a preference. I give the nod to Spilt Milk, an even richer tapestry of ideas woven into a seamless whole. Though perhaps my favorite individual tracks are on the first (specifically ‘Baby’s Coming Back” and “That is Why”), Spilt Milk stands up better as a start-to-finish album. Appended with bonus tracks that – among other things – tip the band’s hands as to their influences, both albums benefit from the added context.

As essential for the Jellyfish fan as Fan Club is (or was), these new expanded versions of Bellybutton and Spilt Milk earn the right to be termed definitive.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 2

January 8th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Back in 1965, the original lineup of The Moody Blues did seem poised for bigger things: that year they played the prestigious and televised NME Poll Winners Concert, along with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and Kinks. Those – and sessions for Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ready Steady Go aren’t on this set, either, but the second disc does include more than a dozen tracks cut for Saturday Club and other BBC radio programs.

In the original lineup, Ray Thomas shared lead vocal duties with Denny Laine; he would continue that role – though sharing with more vocalists – in the later lineup. While his flute is a feature of some early Moodies tracks (notably “I’ve Got a Dream”), it became a centerpiece of the later lineup’s style. In the original lineup, Thomas’ role could have been described as “singer who also plays flute,” and in the later lineup, “musician who plays many instruments – flute, piccolo, oboe, French horn, harmonica, etc. – and also sings.” Surprisingly, Thomas is a wholly self-taught musician. “I’ve never had a music lesson in me life,” he says. “And I don’t read music; it’s all done by ear.”

Those flute parts were difficult to hear onstage in those days. “All the sound was literally coming from the stage,” Thomas recalls. “That’s what finished The Beatles playing live. Paul [McCartney] said to me, ‘It’s useless. All we hear is “Yester-” and then the rest is all screams.’” Thomas relates an anecdote from the tour when the Moody Blues opened for The Beatles, the latter’s final UK tour. “’Watch this,’ John [Lennon] told me. The band was introduced, went onstage and started playing. And John played a completely different song! And nobody could hear anything!”

Thomas continues, “I was actually one of the first people to use foldback [also known as monitor speakers] onstage. I couldn’t hear myself play, and with flute you’ve got to be pretty precise with your embouchure. So I asked [live sound engineer] Gene Clair if he could put a speaker in front of me. And he did, and it worked. And then everybody started doing it!”

The era of composing in the studio largely began with The Beatles. But even for The Moody Blues, a rare spare moment in the studio might be used to compose songs. “I used to write songs in the broom cupboard,” chuckles Thomas. “There was a glockenspiel in there. I used to take a scotch and Coke in there – and maybe a little substance, y’know – and play on this glockenspiel and write my songs.”

Some time 1967, after the string of hit singles faded, the group seemed at a dead end. “Clint [Warwick]‘s wife didn’t want him going on the road,” Thomas recalls, “so he went back to the family business in Birmingham. And Denny fancied his chances at going solo.” But since they were already moving (albeit subtly) in the musical direction that would flower on Days of Future Passed, they recruited new members, and kept the band name.

“I’ve known John [Lodge] since I was fourteen,” Thomas says. “I was fifteen. We worked in a band together in Birmingham.” Both had day jobs as apprentice toolmakers. “I wanted to go professional [playing music], and my dad said to me exactly what John’s dad said to him: ‘Finish your apprenticeship, because you might not score in this musical venture. And if you don’t, you’ve always got a trade to fall back on.’ Sound advice.” But since Lodge was younger than Thomas, he still had a year to go. So we got Clint in The Moody Blues instead. But from starting that band, things took off quickly. And a year later, we couldn’t very well say to Clint, ‘See ya, mate.’ Because he had put in a lot of hard work.” But when Warwick left of his own accord, Lodge was in the following day. Thomas’ friend Eric Burdon provided a list of guitarists who had answered a blind ad searching for a guitarist/vocalist for Burdon’s new Animals, and that led to them finding Justin Hayward.

Thomas retired from The Moody Blues and live performance in 2002. As far as the original band, Thomas says that a reunion is out of the question: “Clint [Warwick] died [in 2004] and Denny is over in the States. And Mike Pinder had decided much earlier on [the late 70s] that he didn’t want to go back on the road.” The Moodies’ other founding member Graeme Edge remains in the current touring Moody Blues lineup with Hayward and Lodge.

These days, Thomas lives in England with his wife. In October 2014, he announced via his website raythomas.me that he is being treated for prostate cancer, adding, “the cancer is being held in remission, but I”ll be receiving this treatment for the rest of my life…I urge all males to get tested NOW.”

But Thomas isn’t finished with music. “I have recently worked with John,” he reveals. Lodge has been working on a solo album, his first since 1977. “He’d written a song for his grandson, John Henry. He came over to my pad and asked me, would I go in the studio and put flute on it. And I said, “Sure!”

“This story goes on,” Thomas tells me. “Mike [Pinder] hadn’t spoken to John in years. But the night John got home from the session with me, his phone rang. It was Mike! ‘I hear you’ve been in the studio,’ Mike said. John said, ‘Right…?’ ‘Can I put the strings on the track?’” Lodge gladly accepted the offer. Pinder went into his home studio with his son (and fellow recording musician) Michael Lee Pinder, and cut his Mellotron parts in a single day. So for the first time since 1978, Lodge, Pinder and Ray Thomas will be together on a newly recorded track.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 1

January 7th, 2015

The Moody Blues made their most indelible mark on pop music with the landmark LP Days of Future Passed. That concept album was one of the earliest successful combinations of light-classical music and rock. Though it was released in 1967 – the fertile period that also gave the world Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the album-proper didn’t make its mark on American charts until 1972. (They did hit the US singles chart a number of times, however.) And by that time, the band’s pre-Days music had largely been forgotten (if was ever known at all). The earliest music made by The Moody Blues features a significantly different lineup of musicians, and – at least initially – a sound almost completely removed from the approach used on Days of Future Passed and subsequent albums.

The original Moody Blues featured Denny Laine – later of Wings with Paul McCartney – on lead vocals and guitar, as well as bassist Clint Warwick. The other three members – drummer Graeme Edge, keyboardist Mike Pinder (with Laine, the band’s chief songwriter at this stage), and vocalist/flautist Ray Thomas – would stay on to become the foundation of the more well-known lineup featuring Justin Hayward and John Lodge. The early Moodies sound was built around readings of American rhythm and blues and Merseybeat-flavored tracks; they were for the most part a cover band. As the group progressed, they began writing original material that established a more focused identity, but it was songs such as a cover of Bessie Banks‘ “Go Now” that established the group. They were rewarded for such tunes with spots on the British music charts: “Go Now” reached number one in Britain.

The original group’s sole album The Magnificent Moodies has been reissued and repackaged countless times in the the ensuing nearly-fifty years. In the US the album was reordered and released as Go Now: The Moodies #1, though – like The Magnificent Moodies – it did not chart. Subsequent reissues added various non-album tracks from the era – the group was essentially a singles band – but none of the releases could truly be called comprehensive.

That has changed now, with the new release of The Magnificent Moodies that includes everything the group cut in those pre-Days of Future Passed years, plus a collection of radio broadcast material. Fifty-odd tracks document the period in full. Showing a band in transition from beat group to tunes that tip the group’s hand, the music gives subtle hints of the direction they’d follow soon after Laine’s departure.

Of course 1965 was a long time ago, so perhaps it should come as little surprise that when I ask Ray Thomas the story behind there being two versions of “Go Now” on the new box set – the well-known version plus a slower take with softer piano part – he responds, “I haven’t got a clue.”

“I can imagine,” he continues, “we were just trying things out in the studio. Some of these tracks that have been dug up, I can’t remember ever recording! Denny might remember.”

Taken together, the bonus tracks on the first disc alone of  The Magnificent Moodies box set add up to enough material for a whole additional album. The material is strong, and is weighted more toward originals than the album-proper. “We were really busy – either playing or recording – in those days,” says Thomas. “We were doing a lot of cover versions: James Brown, Tim Hardin stuff.” Thomas doesn’t remember cutting some of the material that ended up on the box set, most notably the songs cut in 1966 with producer Denny Cordell. “I was just doing an interview with another guy in the States, and he was going on about [our cover of] ‘Hang Onto a Dream’ by Tim Hardin. I was absolutely knocked out! The vocal backing on that particular track, I thought, were great. I’m blowing me own trumpet here, but I thought, ‘That’s mighty good.’” Thomas also doesn’t remember cutting “The 23rd Psalm” another bonus track (from 1964) included on the box set.

“When we got an eight-track machine in the studio, we were gobsmacked: ‘Look at all this!’” Thomas laughs. “But these were all four tracks. If you had to do any four-to-two to make room for overdubs, it was all razorblades and sellotape. Derek Varnals [producer] was amazing. We’d all sit around and watch while he took one note out. Now, you just press a button.”

“In those days,” Thomas recalls, “We’d do three tracks in two hours. Decca had so many A&R [artists and repertoire] people in those days, for classical, Mantovani-type stuff right through. They had three studios in West Hampstead, London, and they were always booked full. To get studio time was bloody impossible.” So the groups had best be prepared when they got their time in the studio. When the Moody Blues got their turn at the mic, “We used to play live, near enough,” says Thomas. “You had to have ‘em all rehearsed up.”

Thomas hopes that this latest – and greatly expanded – version of The Magnificent Moodies will be considered the definitive release of that period of Moody Blues music. “The only thing that I’m a bit pissed off about,” Thomas says, “is that we did a hell of a lot of work on television in France. We were very popular earlier on in France. We did shows with Johnny Hallyday, Josephine Baker. When Cherry Red were putting together this box set, we got in touch with the French version of the BBC; they have reams and reams of these old rock shows. We said, ‘Can we have some of this to put on our box set?’ And they said, “Yes, you can, but this is how much we want.’ It just wasn’t worth it; they wanted so much money.”

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Miss Adventure

January 6th, 2015

Note: For this, my 1500th blog entry, I’m taking a look back in time. The events described herein took place more than a year and a half ago, so please take the specific details with a grain of salt. I find that I had to wait this long to allow the events to settle in my mind’s perspective; an unpublished June 2013 version of this story didn’t capture the story’s essence to my satisfaction. I now know that — as some playwright once wrote — all’s well that ends well. — bk

In early 2013, I experienced the opportunity of a lifetime: the legendary virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin had just finished recording a new album, and I was scheduled to interview him about it. The interview itself took place over the telephone – McLaughlin lives in France – and it ranks among my all-time favorite musical conversations. McLaughlin was engaging and forthright as we delved into all manner of subjects. When one is as well-known a figure as he is, there’s no worrying about “name dropping,” so he was happy to discuss his work with Miles Davis and others.

Near the end of our conversation, he made a point of telling me how much he had enjoyed the discussion. McLaughlin extended an invitation around his upcoming visit to Asheville NC: after the show, would I like to come backstage so we could meet in person? Why, yes. Yes, I would be willing to do that.

As the show approached, I was in touch with his publicist, making sure to iron out the details. Not that there were many: Am I on the guest list? Is my name on a cleared-to-go-backstage list? Yes and yes; his publicist is very good (you might be surprised how many times this sort of thing goes all wrong on the ground).

Around that time, another opportunity presented itself; a quite unusual one, in fact. A new friend of mine was planning a celebration around her upcoming 50th birthday party. The gist of the plan was that she had chartered a bus of sorts (more on that presently) and was planning on taking a merry caravan of friends on a trip from Asheville to Manchester TN for the 2013 Bonnaroo Festival. Would I like to come along? Why, yes. Yes, I think I might.

I had attended Bonnaroo in 2007, covering it for a feature that appeared in a print magazine where I just happened to be editor-in-chief. I went to that festival with my son Daniel, who at the time was only fourteen. We had a good and memorable time, but let’s just say that once it was over, my attitude about multiple-day, sleep-in-a-tent festivals was a resolute “never again.”

But this invitation had a number of appealing features. First of all, this bus – a sort of cross between the Merry Pranksters‘ Furthur and the coach that The Beatles chartered for their Magical Mystery Tour – had (I was told) sleeping quarters, air conditioning, a generator, and a rooftop stage where our little collective could stage impromptu “concerts” in the camping section at the festival. Second, most of the trip’s costs were to be covered by our host. And third, the bill for that year’s Bonnaroo included Paul McCartney.

So I said yes, and began sorting out my schedule to make time for the several-day excursion. As I learned of the trip’s itinerary, I quickly discovered that I had a bit of a conflict: the chartered bus trip was scheduled to leave a couple of days before the actual festival began. Why was this a problem? Because it meant that I would not be in Asheville on the night John McLaughlin was playing in town at the Orange Peel.

Luckily, it turned out that after his Asheville date, McLaughlin’s next-scheduled performance would be at none other than Bonnaroo! So I got back in touch with his publicist, explained the situation, and asked if I might instead meet the maestro backstage at the festival. No problem, I was told; they would even set me up with press credentials, meaning that I would have some backstage access for the whole of the the festival. Niiice, I thought. This was really working out well.

The crew for this adventure  included our host, who I had now known for just under two weeks. (Our initial meeting was actually a first date, but we quickly pivoted into just-friends mode.) Also on board would be an interesting and very nice couple who were close friends of hers. Another friend of our host had flown in from Alabama or somesuch to attend as well. And a last-minute addition – added because someone else had dropped out, and an extra ticket was lying about – was a friend of mine, yet another date-turned-friend. We’d be picking her up in east Tennessee, along the route to Manchester.

We were also slated to pick up two women who none of us knew, but who were described to me as “guards.” Their role, I was told, would be to stay behind at the campsite, keeping an eye on our bus and its contents while we enjoyed the festival. This struck me as a bit odd – who would go to the trouble to travel to an outdoor festival and then not take in the music on offer? – but there were lots of things about this trip that fell outside my sphere of experience. So playing strongly against type, I was just along for the ride, and had no hand in (or say in) any of the decisions about the nature of the excursion. Anyway, one of these so-called guards was to be picked up here in town before we left, and the other was to be collected somewhere (else) in east Tennessee, again along the way.

Our driver was a laid-back, friendly sort who also owned the bus; I wasn’t clear on his role in (and relationship to) the other members of the crew, but my vague impression was that he was a hired hand who would also be staying behind to watch the bus instead of the onstage performers. He reminded me of a cross between Shaggy from the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Timothy Leary; make of that what you will.

As scheduled, I showed up mid-morning at the point of departure. There I found the bus parked in its regular home, roadside amidst tall weeds, junked cars and mud puddles. I had packed as light as possible, though I did – on advice of our host – bring along a portable keyboard, stand, amplifier, and power cords. We were actually serious about staging some “jam” performances on the roof of this thing once we were set up at the campsite. (Those of you who know me in life may be raising your eyebrows at this point: I am decidedly not of the jamming sort. I would refer you to the immortal words of St. Ambrose: “When in Rome…”)

Joining me there were the driver/bus owner; our host; her out-of-town friend (both fully kitted out with many, many bags of makeup, hats, masks, costumes, helium-filled balloons, hair dryers, and god knows what-all else); and the female half of her friend-couple. The plan was to pick up the latter’s husband from the Federal Building downtown (he’s a lawyer, and had a case that morning). We rode the bus the five or six miles to the Federal Building, and since he would be briefly delayed, the bus was parked a half-block away, on a side street.

I sat there with my fellow travelers, popping open a beer or two and idly watching some of them fiddle with makeup and the like. At one point, I noticed a really loud hissing, and an odor that was both unpleasant and oddly familiar. “That smells like the inside of a tire,” I said out loud to no one in particular.

We ventured out to the curb to discover that yes indeed, we had a flat. We hadn’t even gotten anywhere close to leaving the city limits, we were already a tiny bit behind schedule, and…now we had a flat tire.

Once we collected our crew member from the courthouse, we headed to the only place in town that – we were told – could handle a flat tire on a vehicle of this size. It was a few miles outside of town, in the opposite direction from our destination.

When we got there, we had to wait: a giant fire truck was in line head of us, and for obvious reasons it took priority over a rainbow-painted bus filled part-way with luridly costumed revelers (all of whom were by now drinking iced-down beer from cans). Some two or so hours later, we were again on our way. Around this time, I worried silently for a brief moment: if we continued to fall behind schedule, might I miss my appointment to meet John McLaughlin before his performance? I brushed aside that fleeting concern: at this point, we were still scheduled to arrive nearly a day ahead of time. What could possibly go wrong?

At this point, dear reader, I hope you have picked up on my subtle literary use of a technique we writers like to call foreshadowing. If somehow you missed it, allow me to answer the question posited in the previous paragraph: Everything could go wrong. Yes, we finally got on the road. But some 77 miles into our trip (I measured it), the bus broke down. We had just finished navigating the section of I-40 that winds through the Pigeon River Gorge: ten or more miles of narrow, endlessly twisting road taken (by most vehicles) at around 70mph. The magic bus, it seemed, could only do about fifty, which was fine with me (I am prone to motion sickness). But mere moments after we came out of the gorge and into a resolutely deserted section of east Tennessee, the drive shaft (or something like that) broke. The bus ground to a halt on the roadside, and there we sat. For hours, in fact.

Once we found someone who could potentially fix the bus – and making that happen took a lot of cell phone work on the part of our host, and in fact we were lucky to get a cell connection at all – it was quite late in the day. I forget now just how many hours behind we were, but the more we learned, the worse the news got. The bus would have to be towed several miles east, using – wait for it – the shoulder of the westbound lane of traffic on I-40. A special tow truck – the kind you might see hauling a tractor-trailer or dump truck – would have to do the work. And because the bus itself was so tall (did I mention it had the body of an old VW Microbus welded onto its roof, with a portable performance stage atop that?) there was some real concern that it might not clear the underpasses between the spot where it died and the off-ramp (oh, pardon me: the on-ramp) to which it was headed.

Our rescuers arrived in a transit van, the type of thing designed to hold maybe a dozen people. Fine, right? Because there were (at this point) only seven of us: the driver, the host and her makeup-aficionado friend, the couple, one of the so-called guards, and me. But wait: because we didn’t know how soon we’d be getting the bus back, we had to take enough gear for – here it comes – an overnight stay. So the van was packed to capacity.

There was also road construction underway, so with lane closures, the twenty-mile trip to the nearest town of any appreciable size took us a couple of hours. By this point it was dark, well after 9pm. Meanwhile, the news from the repair shop (the bus had made the trip safely, thank goodness, with most of our belongings still on board) was not good: the magic bus had lost its magic, and would be sidelined for perhaps a week or more. So we bunked up for the night in a few rooms at a motel.

The next morning, we collected our two remaining travelers: my friend and the second “guard.” Once we were all gathered in the hotel lobby, we began to have discussions as to what we should do. Our host had by this point rented a pair of transit vans, big enough to carry all of us and a scaled-down version of our gear (the rest would stay with the bus).

My own contribution to the discussion was the idea that our host should cut her losses, send the inessential members of the crew home, and head onto Bonnaroo. By my reckoning, she didn’t need all of these people. The bus driver was wholly superfluous. So he could go home, or perhaps stay with his brokedown bus until it was repaired. We wouldn’t be staying in the vehicle campground, so we didn’t need those guards. (By the way, the two of them were chatting a good bit about which acts they were planning to see at the festival, so it quickly became evident that they weren’t going to be standing guard over our stuff anyway.)

And since our host hardly knew me at all (and knew my friend even less) it made sense to cut us loose. Besides, I figured, if we left for home now, I’d make it back to Asheville in time to see John McLaughlin play (assuming I could reach his publicist and convince her to change the plans to suit me yet again).

Our host was having none of it. She was bound and determined to see the trip through in a manner as close as possible to her original vision. It made no sense to me, but I bit my tongue and stuck to my along-for-the-ride approach. We trundled back east to where the magic bus was now in storage, went aboard and got the bare essentials. For me, this meant some of the food and drink from my cooler, and the rest of my clothing. My thousand dollars’ worth of musical gear (and that of some of my fellow travelers) would await our post-festival return.

Our host and her friend collected their bare essentials as well: the costumes, the shopping bags full of beauty aids (blow dryers, curlers etc.), and a few fistfuls of balloons (there were fifty total; mercifully, a few were left behind). All of these must-haves were squeezed into our vans, and we began our westward caravan. At this point we were almost exactly twenty-four hours behind schedule. I was supposed to be meeting John McLaughlin that very afternoon.

Thankfully, the remainder of the trip to Manchester went off with little interruption. Once we approached Manchester, however, the traffic slowed to a standstill, as it always does near the entrance to Bonnaroo. Getting through that traffic and the entry checkpoint took a few hours; by the time we rolled onto the parking area, it was minutes before my scheduled appointment with McLaughlin. As soon as the vehicle’s gear went into park, I said goodbye to my fellow travelers, leaped from the van, and began a one-mile-plus journey on foot through the entry gate and past many thousands of festivalgoers. My destination was the press area, conveniently situated on the opposite end of the Bonnaroo complex from where we were parked. With single-minded purpose, I navigated my way across the acres in record time.

When I arrived at the press tent, it was oddly quiet. There were very few people present, and a line of director’s chairs on the stage was empty. I spotted a TV reporter who was busily scribbling away in her notebook, so I approached her. “Do you know when John McLaughlin will be here?” She looked at me with eyes that said I wasn’t going to enjoy her answer. “He left about ten minutes ago.”

The remainder of the trip had its high points, but was mostly punctuated with misadventures that are best left unrecollected. We all made it safely home afterward, and we were reunited with our belongings about a week later. The bus wasn’t so lucky: I believe that I heard it was a few weeks before it was repaired enough to be driven the 70 miles or so back to Asheville.

But when I was still in Manchester TN, I was so downcast that I skipped the second of three days of the festival, electing instead to stay behind at the motel (a good half hour away from Bonnaroo). As it turned out, it was a low-key, highly enjoyable day. I took a swim, had a few beers, read a book, napped, and dined out at a nearby pizza place. I also spent a good portion of that afternoon on the phone with a woman back home who I was getting to know (though we hadn’t met in person at this point). Today that woman is my wife.

I never did get to meet John McLaughlin, but I did get to see his concert. It was predictably wonderful. McCartney was great, too.

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DVD Review: Looking for Johnny

January 5th, 2015

One of the less appealing qualities of music culture –both in rock and jazz, at least – is a tendency toward romanticizing certain fallen characters. While there’s no denying the massive contributions of such figures as Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, in death they have assumed oversize reputations that their lives and musical output don’t always justify.

And some figures are lionized in a fashion wholly outsized relative to their deserved stature. Though he’s considered by many a “legend,” the Sex Pistols‘ second bassist Sid Vicious could barely play his instrument, as a singer he wasn’t real great, and as a composer…he simply wasn’t. But it’s part of the punk ethos that he was still somehow great.

That punk mythologizing extends to Johnny Thunders (neé Genzale), but at least in his case – in relative terms – it’s somewhat deserving. Thunders wasn’t a technically gifted guitarist, but he did what he did quite well. What he did was filter Keith Richards-style playing and riffage through a New York punk sensibility, bringing a sharp-edged sound to his work, first with The New York Dolls, then as a solo artist, with The Heartbreakers (no relation to Tom Petty) and briefly with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer in Gang War.

The title of a new documentary film, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders, would suggest an attempt to make Thunders into a legend, assuming interested parties aren’t already convinced he is one. But in reality, the film takes a reasonably objective look at the man and his work. Looking for Johnny relies to a great deal upon actual audiovisual footage of Thunders (onstage and in interviews) to construct a history that avoids becoming a hagiography. The film never shies away from highlighting Thunders’ serious and seemingly nonstop problems with substance abuse, and avoids romanticizing the drug use into some sort of creative fuel for his art. And it deals relatively straightforwardly and unapologetically with his failings as a human, a spouse, and a band member.

Through interviews with those who knew him well (or as well as anyone could know him), Looking for Johnny attempts to fill in the blanks in the man’s history, to ask and answer the important and too-infrequently asked questions. A few figures, however, are most conspicuous in their absence: New York Dolls lead singer/frontman David Johansen appears nowhere in the film, save in live onstage archival footage.

The so-called mystery surrounding Thunders’ 1991 death in New Orleans is given ample screen time. True or not, the filmmakers want viewers to at least consider the possibility that his death came about at least in part due to his leukemia. The thing is, dead is dead, and avoiding the more lurid rumors surrounding his death in favor of a we’re-not-sure-how point of view doesn’t change the fact that Thunders died at the age of 38.

The filmmaking style is unadorned and largely free of cliché. There are a good number of live and studio performances cut into the film, balancing nicely with the chat. And the no-narrator approach works well, letting the onscreen characters (including Lenny Kaye and Bob Gruen) tell the story from their points of view. Perhaps oddly, all three of Thunders’ managers — Marty Thau, Leee Black Childers and Malcolm McLaren – are now, like Thunders himself, deceased. Thau and Childers died in 2014, so their sessions for Spanish filmmaker Danny Garcia remain among their final onscreen appearances.

Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders is an unpolished, low-budget affair, and it looks like one, but somehow that’s a fitting manner in which to chronicle the life, music and death of a punk icon. Or, if you prefer, a legend.

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