Kansas in 2014–Sparse. “Steve Walsh is Still Amazing….Wait…What?”

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Kansas has been on their 40th anniversary tour for a while now, going on two years. Though some are unfamiliar with the hectic changes time and God hath wrought upon the band, not many are aware of the recent change to the lead singer/keyboardist’s position. For a majority of Kansas fans, Steve Walsh IS Kansas, a gyrating, keyboard thrashing center of attention, with a set of vocal cords that put most seventies yelpers to shame. It was pretty much unthinkable for him to leave, but the wholesale lineup upheavals that plagued the band since the mid 80’s saw Steve exiting the frontman position in the middle of a tour with basically no explanation. Peculiar to say the least.

This brings us to the recent New York appearance by the band. The above quote in the title was overheard in the bar after the show ended. Nobody corrected him because you see, very quietly Steve Walsh left the band a few weeks ago, and Kansas kept that news kind of quiet. Hardly anyone knew. They kept it so quiet they almost mumbled the details as they introduced new singer Ronnie Platt halfway through the show. Even then, some in the crowd were unaware it was not Steve. But Ronnie, from the Chicago area cover band Arra fills the shoes of Steve Walsh nicely. Anyone familiar with Kansas’ Live at the Whisky 1992 live album is aware of the vocal problems plaguing Walsh over the last two decades–straining to hit notes, little power and a general uncomfortable sensation wondering if the next note would be his last. These problems have not abated in the recent decade, and the casual fan is left to wonder if he quit or was thrown out of the band. Either way, most fans are fairly disappointed that the big 40th tour is now a celebration being held by the guitarist and the drummer. Sparse lineup.

When do we become original members Billy?

Kansas has been held together by (old time) newcomers Billy Greer on bass (joined 1985) and Dave Ragsdale on vioiin (joined 1991) for the better part of two decades. Robbie Steinhardt, the original violinist, bailed in 1982, Kerry Livgren, the wildly talented lead guitarist and widely regarded leader of the band left in 1983 (he did return briefly in 1990-1). Founding bassist Dave Hope left with Livgren (they had both become devoted Christians and became born again after Monolith in 1979, essentially tearing the band apart from the inside. After dabbling in the dense Urantia Book for answers, LIvgren fell headlong into Christianity on tour in 1979). The horrors of post Monolith Kansas were largely ignored by most, when with John Elefante (another devout evangelist) on vocals (joined in 1982), the band essentially became a modern day Christian rock band. Only the religiously converted and the extremely fanatical stayed on board. The odd addition of the Dixie Dreg’s Steve Morse in 1985 saw a brief flicker of interest rekindled, while few noticed Walsh’s return, a return that lasted nearly 30 years. The band became a fairground and casino circuit draw, rubbing elbows with Foghat and such.

The unexpected and untimely departure of Walsh led to a lineup consisting of the above mentioned Ragsdale and Greer, along with surviving founding members drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Richie Williams. The lighting guy was depped in to play (nearly inaudible) keyboards, and Ronnie Platt on keys and vocals round out the sextet. The band stage lineup look was sparse, and the stage had a PA hung from the ceiling left and right, with no supplemental speaker columns on stage. No stage monitors or guitar amplifiers graced the stage for any of the instruments, lending a further sparseness to the air. ‘Is this a band on extreme budget tour?’ was a queston that came to mind.

But there is more to Kansas than Dust in the Wind, their signature but unrepresentative major hit. On a good day in the mid 70’s, Kansas were quite a musical phenomenon. An Americanized version of Yes and other British prog bands, they were able to give many bands a run for their money. Like some Jr. Varsity Mahavishnu Orchestra, Kansas could change keys, time signatures and instruments in seconds, stopping on a dime and leaving change. Many forget the power these guys were capable of mustering in their heyday of 1974-1979. Much of that muscle was still on display this week, as the remnants of Kansas were the backdrop for the new vocalist showing off his chops. Ronnie Platt was the real highlight of the evening, a flawless imitation of Walsh in 1975 at the height of his powers, giving the band a strange dichotomy. A depleted Kansas with a faltering lead vocalist is but a shadow of a former monolithic band, but still original. A replacement vocalist that acts and sings so much like Walsh that some didn’t even notice it was a new guy? Well that’s pretty damn good too.

Old songs mixed with newer ones-Point of Know Return, the achingly beautiful Song For America, Belexes and Closet Chronicles rubbed elbows with clunkers like Fight Fire With Fire, Hold on and Play the Game from their Christian era. But the overwhelming power of their original material won the day. Dave Ragsdale doubled on guitar for some tunes, enabling the dueting Livgren and Williams used to such good effect. The obligatory Carry on My Wayward Son rounded out the evening (a song that is diabolically difficult to play or sing) leaving the crowd stomping and chanting.

Final note-in lieu of merchandise, two large posters with the band’s URL graced the lobby. No shirts, no hoodies, no DVDs, no CDs, nothing. Fan reactions varied from miffed to genuinely annoyed. “How hard is it to pay a guy to sell a thousand bucks worth of shirts per night? Really?” Sparse again.

Yet out of the sparseness still was a solid backbone of a band that changed many people’s lives forever. And despite the best efforts to dismantle it through muddle headed decisions and overt religious flourishes (Robbie Steinhardt used to complain openly that the band had gone from good time partying to holding prayer meetings before shows), Kansas is still a very entertaining proposition. As they once said in Closet Chronicles: “I heard the king is dying, I heard the king is dead”. Pretend you don’t know it’s a new singer, close your eyes and prepare to be impressed. Not dead yet. Wheatheads rejoice!

Aerosmith Music Hall Boston 1978, Can You Arrest the Band AND the Audience? They Tried

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This week, a CD quietly slipped out, barely noticed by anyone.  I encountered it in a local Newbury Comics, and the subtitle Classic 1978 Radio Broadcast caught my attention and made me pick it up. Could it possibly be the legendary Boston Music Hall Show? The hands down best Aerosmith show ever delivered in their whole forty year history? The night the whole band and the audience seemed on the verge of getting arrested? The show that got them banned for life from the Music Hall? Oh yes, yes it is. And what a doozy this CD is.

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!978 saw the band on a real hot streak. Material from Draw the Line had been seamlessly integrated into their set, and Aerosmith were firing on all cylinders. Their personal lives were a blur of booze, coke and non stop touring. But this show captures the rare moments in a band’s career when full time partying gives the music a special edge-a careening out of control at any second white knuckle ride. On the rails? Off the rails? Who cares? This is the menacing and snarling heart of rock n roll, ready to change lives forever, perhaps not for the better. For about half a year, Aerosmith was able to muster this kind of danger nearly every night. (1978’s Texxas Jam and the Philadelphia show are two prime examples). I had seen Aerosmith two years previously at the Boston Garden (Tyler had pitched face first unconscious into the audience before the encore, leaving Joe Perry to sing Train Kept A Rollin on his own), so this revitalization in only 16 months was quite unexpected.

March 28th saw thousands pack into the Music Hall, a venue not known for rock n roll. With  roughly a 3,500 capacity, and Aerosmith easily able to sell out the 17,000 seat Garden meant competition for tickets was heavy. More than capacity managed to stuff themselves in to the arena, much to the consternation of the Fire Marshal, a known foe to all things rock n roll. ( His eyes had nearly popped from his head when in 1975 Kiss had their flamethrowers in front of the stage actually hit the ceiling,  and spread out in a sustained pool of fire on the ceiling decorations at the Orpheum. Kiss was banned from using flames in Boston forever).

WBCN broadcast the show live, and both DJs are in a near frenzy as they try to be heard over the pandemonium of a crowd on the edge of a riot. And that is before the show has even started. The lights drop, the music from the film Psycho tests the sonics of the PA to the limit, and they’re off! Rats in the Cellar leads off at impossibly high volume, single handedly one of the loudest concerts at any Boston venue ever(perhaps the Clash in Harvard Square 1979 or Motorhead at the Paradise in 1983 were louder, but not by much). The playing was precise and undefined at the same time, that careening out of control feeling one gets when going into a skid on a snow covered road-it’s beautiful and cool, but you know danger is around every corner and disaster is about to strike, and perhaps strike you. Very quickly the fire marshals stopped the show: too many folks dancing in the aisles (literally hanging from rafters to be truthful). Semi pleasant conversation with Tyler, Aerosmith management and the Fire Dept takes place side stage, and after a short break, the mayhem continues. Material was mostly drawn from Rocks and Draw the Line, and each song drove the overflowing hall into further paroxysms of anarchy. Seats moved, the PA roared at a deafening level, aisles refilled with sweaty, surging masses cramming towards the stage, seeking some unspoken sacrament that was evidently changing the atmosphere into one of barely contained chaos. The show stopped a second time and the Fire Marshal ordered house lights on. The crowd reacted predictably poorly to this decision, and Tyler announced that the show was about to stop if the crowd could not control themselves and sit down properly. Of course this went nowhere, and Aerosmith’s management pointed out to the Music Hall’s management the likely results to his theater if the  plug was pulled (Watts, Dresden, Atlanta after Sherman passed through…). Lights went down and the band continued to light up the night like they never had before. Volumes were pushed to impossibly high levels-Draw the Line, Same Old Story, Toys in the Attic-near bedlam ensued in both the crowd and onstage. The Fire Marshal begged the show be stopped, but this time, Tyler passed on the message, and said “Aw hell do whatever you want to” as the band flew into a seamless and uninterrupted headlong run to the end, knowing full well the muscle to physically remove the band from the stage was not present. Amps fed back, the band reluctantly left the stage.  Sweat literally dripped from the walls, and a deafening silence took over at the end as everyone checked to see what level of hearing was still available.

This CD is a fairly good document of that evening of madness, although perhaps a little clean for my liking.  If anyone is a bit more curious, seek out some of the bootlegs of this show that are out there, preferably those sourced from the original broadcast cassettes. That source captures a little bit better the utter sonic mayhem that night had wrought. My cassette of the evening is pushed to the red, overloading but still without distortion, a perfect storm captured on tape. But most importantly, one of the monuments of rock history is now available to all. Find it. And play it LOUD.

The Beatles Mono Vinyl-Sell Your CD’s, Sell Your Remasters, Sell Your Children

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Rarely does a new release on vinyl grab any attention from music fans–hell 50% of the country doesn’t even know that vinyl records are even still being made. But the recent issue of mono versions of the Beatles albums is a cause for major celebration for all vinyl junkies out there, never mind Beatles fanatics. Never before has a reissue program made such an impact on the record buying public as this. There are several reasons, but the main point of this is: you need these records.

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Mono albums are kind of a polarizing issue for many people. I mean stereo? This is what we grew up with. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a good example as to what can be accomplished with stereo-effects fluttering throughout the mix, sounds travel back and forth, up and down, and essentially you freak out nicely at the sonic gymnastics. This is what we grew up expecting, spatial stereo mixed albums. Mono comes out the same in both speakers. No separation of instruments, voices, percussion. Done well, it can feel very warm. Done poorly it can sound like a cheap AM radio playing. But back in the 60’s, mono was the gold standard. The Beatles (and the Rolling Stones) put all of their albums out as mono releases. The big reason was that back then was simple. Most record players had a single speaker. Most portable radios had a single speaker. Car radios had a single speaker in the top of the dashboard. AM radio broadcast in mono. So for all practicality, mono was best suited to all forms of playback that were out there. This is why an inordinate amount of time was put into mono mixes. For many vinyl aficionados, mono releases are du rigeur.  Fifty years of stereo releases have erased this fact from most people’s memories and from most audiophile’s playbooks. The new Beatles releases are set to change all of that.

 

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Some little known facts back this up. First, the mono mixes were the only ones the Beatles sat in on, and approved. They worked long hours to get these mixes perfect. They recorded with mono in mind. The set up of microphones in the studio for all instruments was done with mono in mind. The final product was intended to be mono. With the recordings fresh in their minds, the band and George Martin worked together to put the final touches on the recordings to make them ‘perfect’. Or as perfect as they could. Stereo was new then, few had discrete stereo systems with two speakers. FM radio, with its ability to broadcast in stereo was in its infancy in America. So stereo mixes were haphazard, quick and sometimes messy. The Beatles were not in attendance for any of the early mixes in stereo, and sometimes even George Martin declined to participate, leaving the task to studio engineers. They were considered an afterthought. (although some concerted stereo effort did go into the White Album, and Sgt Pepper) The stereo albums often amateurishly  pushed the instruments into one channel and the vocals in the other, an unsettling experience on a good stereo. This is an important point: the Beatles mixes we have been listening to since childhood are not the ones the Beatles thought were what the album should sound like.  From the first album Please Please Me to The White Album, all Beatles albums were created in mono, meticulously rendered by George Martin and the band. But these albums disappeared very quickly from shelves, or in the case of the White Album, never appeared on American shelves at all. (Abbey Road and Let it Be were recorded only in stereo). The stereo mixes soon crammed the mono albums, the ones that the Beatles intended us to hear, completely out of sight forever. A huge part of musical history was lost. George Harrison is on record as saying the stereo mixes “ruined the sound from our point of view”. This is pretty weird when you think about it. The Beatles albums that were created from 1963-1968 have essentially never been heard by anyone in the United States, or even the UK for that matter. Unless of course you are over 60 and were clued in to what was cool in the mid sixties. That list is definitely makes up the minority of record collectors.

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This changed in September 2014, with the vinyl release of the Beatles complete in mono. I know what some people are thinking-“Didn’t the Beatles remasters come out on vinyl in 2012?”. Yes, that is true. But those copies are not true analog releases. For some inexplicable reason, they were sourced from digital remasters, (and not even the high quality transfers either, the downsized 44.1k files were the source, not the 192k transfers). Most of the public has never heard an analog Beatles release-1987’s CDs were sourced from a digital transfer. So for the last 27 years, we have had some fairly crappy approximations of what the Beatles wanted us to hear. The new mono releases, however were created in a true analog path. The original analog master tapes at Abbey Road were brought out of mothballs, fired up on original tape machines, and were sent to a laquer cutter with no digital equipment involved in any part of the path. Pretty amazing to pull this off in 2014’s digital age. The result is an endearing warmth that is easily noticeable on any decent sound system. Advances in sound reproduction in the last 50 years have enabled masters to be cut with more clarity and definition than the originals, and sound is improved. This is an achievement for 2014, going backwards to go forwards.

Another big reason to snap up these puppies is that for the original mono releases, many different mixes were used. The best example is Sgt Pepper. Playing this album will be a revelation. You never have heard this record sound like this. Other websites chronicle the exact differences (suffice it to say they are significantly different), but lets leave it at this single statement-mono Sgt Pepper and stereo Sgt Pepper are two completely different animals. The White Album and Magical Mystery Tour (really only an EP, not an album) also deviate noticeably from the familiar mixes we all grew up with. Revolver and Rubber Soul also have some large differences in guitar, vocal and percussion choices.

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The production is stellar. They were pressed in a former East German record plant, with heavyweight virgin vinyl, under near computer chip clean room protocol. Each individual LP was allowed to cool before being sleeved. The US stereo LPs of 2012 were pressed at Rainbo records, and were distinctly poor quality. Recycled vinyl, paper scraps swirled into the vinyl, pops, warps and skips. Terrible stuff. But these things look and sound incredible. Between songs they are almost as silent as a CD. The jackets reproduce the mid sixties UK jackets-glossy covers, flaps wrapping around the back on three sides, the White Album sliding the vinyl in the top not the side (and each LP individually numbered like the original), the original inner sleeve for Sgt Pepper (not seen in over 45 years). The only quibble would be the photographic reproduction of the color covers is not quite up to spec, fuzzy and unfocused, with color washouts.

So to wrap it all up in one shiny blanket-get these things if you have a turntable. Get these if you like the Beatles even if you don’t have a turntable. Ditch your 2012 vinyl remasters. Ditch your CDs, ditch the kids, settle in, hunker down, and relive the sixties like you were meant to. But never had the opportunity. Until now.

 

 

Gene Simmons and the Death of Kiss-From Thunder Lizard to Fraud of Thunder

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Before we begin, I need to state that I am a charter member of the Kiss Army (1976) and a long time die hard Kiss fan. In high school I had collaged my walls with photos from Creem, Circus, Hit Parader, Guitar Player- a wall of Kiss. But something has gone very wrong in the last years. Gene Simmons has been acting during interviews like he and Paul Stanley had created Kiss together, written all of the songs and deserve all of the credit. Luckily some long term fans have better memories than Simmons and Stanley, and know better. And we know that there is only one problem in Kiss-world, and that thing is Gene Simmons. He has done much to undo any bit of cool that Kiss had ever achieved, and much of that has to do with his treatment of founding members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, victims of his faulty memory skills.

Kiss had come from the ashes of the almost signed New York band, Wicked Lester. They had been signed to Epic, recorded an album, but the label refused to release the record. Glam was big, and New York was overflowing with glam aspirants. Weak songwriting was a problem. Stanley had some talents in writing lightweight pop tunes, but Simmons had no noticeable songwriting abilities. (See: Christine Sixteen and Plaster Caster for evidence). The arrival of Peter Criss brought some street cred from his stint in the Decca band Chelsea, and Ace Frehley brought a genuine rock personality into the fold, and someone who could deliver some solid riffing. (he also designed the famous Kiss logo). Suddenly Wicked Lester had transformed into Kiss

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Stars were born, and the slow climb through the first three albums led to the monster of all live albums, Kiss Alive! The success did not stop, and three more studio albums later the band delivered Kiss Alive 2, and were on top of the world. But fans started to wonder if something was wrong.

One thing was the band’s penchant for overmerchandising. Anything repeat anything was ripe for a slathering of the Kiss logo. Action figures were one thing, lunchboxes were du rigeur in the seventies. Comic books were a natural extension. But Colorforms sets for kindergarteners? Bingo and checkers sets for the elderly? Studded Kiss kondoms for the lame? Let’s not forget the ignominy of the Kiss coffin, and the Kiss funeral urn. Kiss cologne and shampoo? Kiss wine? Kiss lip balm? Kiss cooking apron? Kiss Mr Potato Head sets? Kissmas ornaments? Kiss rubiks cube? Kiss checkbook (to buy more Kiss stuff with)? Kiss golf club covers? Kiss Hello Kitty action figures? Kiss electric toothbrush (plays Rock n Roll All Night), Kiss nutcracker? Kiss monopoly?

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What the living fuck did this have to do with rock n roll? What the fuck did Gene Simmons think he was doing? (Eventually Simmons licensed over 3,000 different items to appear with the Kiss logo). Were they losing the thread? Hard core rockers started to have their doubts about this actually being a real band. This was the first sign that all was not well inside of the band, and some openly posited the idea that this was all a scam just to sell merchandise.

By 1979 Kiss was in a shambles. And by far the largest part of the problem was Gene Simmons. He had become an absentee landlord of the Kiss empire. 1979’s Dynasty featured Gene playing bass on only four of the nine songs (Stanley and Frehley stood in), and the atrocious Unmasked in 1980 had even fewer appearances from Gene. By 1981, Criss was out of the band (Frehley had been outvoted 2-1 in his firing), and with new drummer Eric Carr in tow, the band decided to show the growing legion of doubters that they were capable of producing some of the heaviest music they could. Rough tracks were cut at Frehley’s home studio, and things were in place to deliver the monster the fans were waiting for.  Except one piece: Gene was absent in Hollywood trying to start an acting career. With Stanley and producer Bob Ezrin at the helm, a decision was made to scrap the heavy album and do an ill advised progressive rock concept album based on a yet to be made film, The Elder (despite the fact that prog rock was a stone-cold corpse by 1980. Ever late to the food trough again, also see I Was Made for Loving You–too late for Disco and Carnival of Souls-too late for Grunge). This decision to postpone the heavy album enraged Frehley, and he quit the band in protest as he had watched them take far too many missteps from the true path of rock. (the heavy album project later surfaced as Creatures of the Night in 1982, sans Ace) With the departure of Frehley, the last genuine rock element in Kiss was gone. Seven drummers and guitarists later, the world had passed Kiss by. By the millenium, Kiss had degenerated into a Beatlemania-ish parody of what a Kiss show once was, and light years away from what a real functioning rock band actually is. Real fans had bailed long ago. New fans are few and far between.

What of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss and their self destructive drug and alcohol problems and addiction? Because this is what Gene continually points to when he (inaccurately) claims Ace Frehley was fired: continual lapses. Not one writer has pointed out that Simmons also has a debilitating addiction: S-E-X. His long term womanizing has caused just as many problems in the band as Frehley and Criss’ partying. Even Paul Stanley has bemoaned some of the problems Gene’s wizened and widely traveled member has caused the band. When Gene’s photo album of polaroids of every girl he had banged in the early days of the band was stolen from a hotel room, Gene reacted like an insecure teenager, ranting to get it back, bereaved like a coke freak who accidentally dropped two grams of Peruvian dancing powder down the toilet by mistake. He was inconsolable, and his remarks bore all the signs of a full blown clinical addiction. His pointing fingers at Ace and Peter’s problems as addictions are hypocritical in the extreme.

Yet Simmons and Stanley still rant against Frehley and Criss. Both warned Tom Snyder in 1979 not to engage a drunken Ace Frehley on the Tomorrow Show. Tom asked one queston, and Ace was off and running, clearly the only one with a sense of humor and personality. Simmons and Stanley visibly fumed as Ace hogged the mic. Snyder was delighted. Both Simmons and Stanley still mention this event decades later showing their lack of connection to the rock world as the rest of us know it. (In another example, Stanley tried to produce the first Guns n Roses lp, but was wisely rejected when Paul tried to apply the Kiss paint-by -numbers philosophy to them, much to their horror) Both Simmons and Stanley have begrudgingly admitted that Ace’s album was far superior to either of theirs in the simultaneous 1978 solo album release. Simmons album was savaged by most critics as a hodge podge of Hollywood namecheck dreck. (His dalliance with Cher still rankles most hard core Kiss fans). Those descriptions generally fail to capture the horror and depth of failure that album encapsulated. Gene was exposed as self absorbed buffoon, not the cartoon personality he was trying for.

 

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The coffee table book in 1995 was full of photos, but light on any credit for Ace and Peter. Books from Gene and Paul discount and disparaged their input as founding members, and began to rewrite history, leaving out large parts of the story to accentuate their importance, and downplay the input of the other pair of founding members. There is a repeating mantra of questioning Ace and Peter’s commitment to the band. Somehow large parts of the years of Gene’s absence from the fold and long lack of commitment are conveniently forgotten. Gene’s books in particular are mind numbingly dull, lacking details and passion. He pretty much comes out and says that the whole Kiss thing was a shuck to make bundles of cash and score women by the boatload, and that he was pretending to be interested in rock until he ‘made it’. Both of their books bring half truth to a new level, and are a detriment to the actual history of the band and should be avoided by real fans.

The embarrassment continues. The Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels reality show, even though cleverly edited, fails to disguise what a loathsome personality Gene has evolved into. One listen to his infamous NPR interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2002 should be enough to send even the most hardcore Kiss fan straight to the local record store to immediately divest themselves of anything bearing the Kiss moniker.

 

Gene has also embarrassed himself several times recently. First there was a debacle over the appearance of Kiss at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall wanted the original Kiss to perform. Simmons and Stanley wanted the new puppet band to perform, with hired hands wearing Ace and Peter makeup and costumes. The impasse led to the original four onstage to accept the award, but no performance. Few were aware of the behind the scenes tantrums that Simmons had thrown trying to avoid appearing with Ace and Peter. That came on the heels of his support for Donald Sterling of the Clippers, which was greeted by more derision, and his support for Rick Perry for president engendered even more of the same. Then even more recently Simmons spoke out ill-advisedly in the wake of Robin Williams suicide to claim that folks who who are depressed should “just kill themselves and get it over with”. Radio stations banned Kiss music, and even a man so self absorbed and narcissistic that it is hard to believe that even light can escape his gravity had to backtrack somewhat.  Now the recent news that the duo has purchased an arena football team caused a few groans, but full page ads in magazines this month indicate this event is a part of yet another reality series? Again the question-what the fuck does this have to do with rock n roll?

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This begs yet another question: “was Gene Simmons ever actually a rock n roller?” The pre Kiss band Wicked Lester featured Simmons and Stanley along with long time friend Steve Coronel. Coronel has stated that the only reason that Gene (Chaim Weitz) and Paul (Stanley Eisen) had gotten into music was to get laid, and escape the Jewish community center circuit trade they were unsuccessfully plying. His bass playing never really progressed past the skilled novice stage of Alive era, and I began to suspect about a decade ago that Gene had always gotten into the rock business to promote himself towards a huge financial reward, and was not someone with a strong affinity for the rock n roll vibe. Nothing he has done in the last three decades can dissuade one from this opinion.  The lack of any serious musical output in the last thirty years would seem to indicate that, despite claims to the otherwise,  Ace and Peter were a huge part of the band’s creativity. Poring over his quotes in interviews, he seems clear that he has no principles, integrity or values, gleefully admits it, and exists in an infantile state of development stuck on self gratification.

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In conclusion,  If Gene had committed suicide sometime before 1980, he would be revered as a rock god of immeasurable importance, instead of the fat, vapid, self aggrandizing hype machine he has turned into. Gene Simmons, you have forgotten what it means to play, live and breathe rock n roll. A bit of research indicates you likely never knew. You are guilty of immeasurable crimes against rock, Kiss and humanity. Rock n roll does not take well to phonies and frauds. Please turn yourself in at the nearest record store for processing, your time is up.

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Steven Wilson and the Remix Mania-Stop the Madness!

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This will be a quick one–Rant? Polemic? More of a warning to the unwary. It was inspired by running into Jethro Tull’s Passion Play in a store today, remixed.

Remixing other people’s work, in particular especially beloved works, is very dangerous territory. It is like tampering with someones childhood memories, their primal brain wiring–unsettling and ill advised. So, an important question: just because you can, does it mean you should? This brings us to the spate of reissues that have been remixed by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson.
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I had first noticed the remix game being played with In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson’s majestic debut. Seeing Steven Wilson’s name was intriguing, he can work wonders with his own band in the studio. Yet there was a nagging question-did this album really NEED to be remixed? After all, this whole album, from recording to artwork to final mix, is a product of 1969. A time capsule if you will. All part and parcel of what the artist considered a single body of work, a document of the time and space it was created in. Should someone come bounding into the room and proclaim they are able to improve on it?  For that is the underlying message, because if it cannot be improved upon, why should anyone attempt it in the first place? (this is ignoring the 5.1 mixes that have been created for sound systems so equipped. If it was created in stereo, leave it that way is my take, I know others that are delighted by 5.1 discs surround sound effect, but I have yet to meet one that doesn’t feel ‘artificial’) Overall the Court reissue was somehow not quite right. Too clean. Not warm. Perhaps this was the only experiment. I was wrong. He was planning to remix every important Crimson, ELP, Tull and Yes album of the early 70’s. This needed watching.

Modern technology can work some miracles (see article here on the resurrection of the Velvet Underground acetate by Universal), but there is a point where modern technology loops back in on itself, and brings diminishing returns. But when factoring in an important aspect, the analog vs. digital debate, then the argument gets a bit clearer. The albums Wilson has remixed are full analog creations of the seventies (60’s for Court), and converting the whole work to the digital domain is the first step towards sterility. Analog breathes, has life and tension, real sound waves recorded as they happened to be created. Digital is an approximation, very close but an approximation that is clean, motionless and somehow gets cleansed of the emotion inherent in the music. 80’s and 90’s works created solely in the digital domain usually have this sonic flaw. Some call it the “ProTools” syndrome. ProTools is a computer program used in many modern recording studios that isolates every part of every multi-track so it can be processed individually. The results are precise, clean and crisp. And often sterile. Unfortunately this is not how music sounds when it is created live, and much of the life of the music is sapped when transferred this way. Analog has a very different quality when overdriven (recorded in the red, ironically see King Crimson-Red). Harmonics appear, and the sound can produce qualities that no one has expected, but are delightful artifacts. Digital however, produces nothing but nasty glitch sounds when overdriven. Butch Vig was a big mover and shaker in the ProTools style of production (interestingly, Dave Grohl flat out refused to have the Foo Fighters last album with Vig recorded on anything but analog tape, threatening to firebomb any computer in the studio).
But Vig’s work, however huge sounding it is, can tend to a samey feel, big sound but ultimately lifeless. This is the process that Wilson uses to remix the classic albums of the 70’s, dump them into the computer, digitizing them, and start fiddling. Akin to cutting a small child into 40 pieces and then reassembling it carefully, then wondering why it doesn’t act like it used to. The records he has worked on were all created with analog microphones, recording desks, tape machines and mastering. The sound was reproduced on an analog record on an analog turntable through analog speakers. The path stayed pure analog.

A quick side note: without getting too technical, many remixes often use compression. This is a technique that makes ‘everything as loud as everything else’. The recent Genesis remixes suffered from disastrous compression. Comments like ‘hey I never heard that little tingly bit before that used to be in the background’ are tempered by cymbals crashing to be heard over lead guitar with bass fighting for the attention….you get the picture, ZERO dynamics. Quiet bits were meant to be quiet, loud surges were meant to be loud. Compression means that every single instrument and every single passage is fighting for your attention at essentially the same volume.
Lets’ first look at the list of what has been done so far: Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Yes…the big guns of progressive rock in most people’s collections. More obscure contemporaries like Hawkwind and Caravan also got the treatment. (Hawkwind’s remix is unsettlingly clean and very un-Hawkwind) These were also the ummm important gods of the time for many. Tampering with icons of people’s past is getting into a grey area of good vs bad.
close to the
Close to the Edge by Yes is one album that is a sonic benchmark. Highly dynamic, it captured Yes at their peak and is usually agreed to be the highlight of their career, both sonically and compositionally. The Wilson remix tries to keep the feel of the original, but is essentially dry and flat sounding. Wilson said that some of the overdriven parts of certain albums needed to be addressed, with the overdriven artifacts in mind. Many fans disagreed. Clarity? Yes, there is plenty of that. Some vocal bits are higher in the mix than they used to be.(some oddly are pushed to the background). But warmth and life are far more important than clarity. Ultimately this comes down to one thing-what is more important, clarity and cleanness of a mix or the emotional feel and warmth of the music? The power inherent in the music lies in the latter not the former. This is an important part of the equation that Wilson has missed. One basic fact remains–analog tape is not very suited for digital remixing. All of the Wilson remixes I have heard suffer from the above traits, cleaner but ultimately emptied of emotion.
Remixing albums is like tampering with a work of art. It comes back to the original question: does it really need to be changed? Another troubling point is that this project smacks of wayward hubris, a dangerous motivation. It takes balls to think you can improve on the work of people from decades ago, rock visionaries who created musical works far superior to anything Mr. Wilson has ever come close to. One does not indirectly try to tell another artist what they should have done in the studio, one appreciates the work as it was created. So what is the motivation here? Is it for us, or is it for his own gratification? Put in a different way-“Hey Mr. Picasso! Come over here! I fixed all the noses on your paintings!! They didn’t quite ‘look right'”.

star wars star wars 1

Film makers learned the problems with this trick when George Lucas added special effects to the original Star Wars movies, to the universal disdain of purist fans. Even Lucas realized he had made a mistake. A work of art is static, captured in time, not a continually changing piece that is always in flux. And that’s where all of this is headed. Stop the madness.

Queen in 2014, Whatever Would Freddie Have Thought?

Treading on graves is risky business. You may find yourself either stoned by an outraged populace for heretical grave desecration, you may fall into a deeply dug hole that you can’t extricate yourself from. Hence: Queen. Queen has hit the road again for the first time since the Paul Rodgers led version that toured from 2005-2009. A notably gruff voiced singer, the former singer for Bad Company and Free was the antithesis of the operatic Freddie Mercury. (not quite Harvey Fierstein, but you get the idea…) Vocal limitations meant some important songs had to either be reworked or omitted altogether. Results of the collaboration were uneven, and fans were split on whether or not it was actually ‘Queen’. Most fell in the camp of “it’s not Queen”.

Now this year brings us another version of Queen, but more suited for the real old school Queen fan. Adam Lambert, runner up American Idol finalist in 2009 has been handed the golden microphone on a tour that started in June of this year. He had done a short tour of Europe, but this is the first major tour for the newly revamped line up. But why would anyone want to slip into the shoes of literally the most iconic vocalist in the history of rock n roll? His mere presence in the conversation instantly polarized the Queen camp into the curious and supportive vs. the ‘desecrating the legend’ folks. History has shown us that new vocalists in well established bands have a difficult row to hoe. Many hard core fans instantly reject any revamped band while the lead singer is still available elsewhere. The ‘Ripper’ Owens, a tribute vocalist in Judas Priest (which spawned the film Rock Star) while Rob Halford was away, Journey with another tribute singer fronting them to replace Steve Perry, Yes now on their second replacement singer (both from tribute bands) depping for Jon Anderson… but in this case, the lead singer isn’t available. (Mercury passed away in November 1991). After witnessing Queen this week in Boston, it is clear that this collaboration is a totally different animal. Lambert has grasped the reins of the nearly dormant Queen carcass and thrust them once more into the limelight. A difficult job indeed, especially considering the low level of respect that American Idol commands in the real music world. Fans were curious, would this actually work?

From the opening lines of ‘Now I’m Here’ from 1975’s monumental but relatively unknown Sheer Heart Attack, it was clear that this guy had the chops to hang with the material. Hints of Lambert’s near operatic range rang through loud and clear. Stone Cold Crazy, from the same album, followed quickly. Brian May has lost a step or two in the intervening 39 years since writing this barn burner, but accounted himself pretty well throughout the whole show. His lengthy guitar solo spot before Tie Your Mother Down was heavy on echo and distortion and light on actual guitar skills, and could not muster much of the echo tinged magic of his Brighton Rock meltdowns. But he also reproduced a nice David Gilmour influenced instrumental improvisation that was accompanied by laser like effects that filled the arena, mesmerizing the crowd in a syncretic Floyd-like moment.

Song choices were designed to please all Queen fans, from the die hards to the MTV generation-Seven Seas of Rhye, the extremely difficult to sing Killer Queen and In the  Lap of the Gods were delivered with frightening accuracy. In the latter song, Lambert looked directly at the crowd as he sang the lines Mercury penned nearly 40 years ago:

“I can see what you want me to be, But I’m no fool”

Delivered without a hint of irony, you could tell he was well aware of the sacred territory he is treading on, and that no amount of wishcraft can obscure the fact that this lineup straddles the line between tribute band and real band. (Bassist John Deacon has not been heard from in over 15 years). From here Lambert grabbed control, mugging and camping furiously, endeavoring to show that he is perhaps the most openly gay performer in rock. (Aside: when I was in high school, my mother noticed a new Queen poster over my bed. “they are gay” she opined. I was stunned! Just because they dress in satin and feather boas, wear make up, have a logo font that seems to spell out Queer when looked at right and have a song called My Fairy King doesn’t mean they are gay! Right? Jeez…)

 

One of the most unexpected genuine moments came on a Freddie Mercury solo song, Love Kills. The band gathered around a small drum kit on the walkway into the crowd, and played a revamped version of a spotty song and turned it into one of the most heartfelt songs of the night. It was the first time where Queen faced off as equals, the feeling of being an actual real band, not a re-creation of past glories. Another highlight was Under Pressure, where Taylor took on Bowie’s part (two guys who aren’t actually on the original doing a pretty smashing vocal job too)

Other quibbles were the inclusion of the mildly talented son of drummer Roger Taylor on the skins for a couple of tunes and a drum battle solo. The progeny on stage phenomenon is viewed by some as endearing, but many others see this as a cringeworthy admission of surrender not unlike sweatpants in public. (See: Tangerine Dream, Van Halen, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe as guilty of bringing their kids into the band). While this is fun for dad, it’s not necessarily what the crowd has paid to see.

I was not a fan of latter day Queen, when the magic had all but dried up, and when songs like Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Radio Ga Ga, These Are the Days of Our Lives and even Another One Bites the Dust ruled the airwaves, I had bailed. In concert, though, these were major crowd pleasers, getting the parents of the Idol kids up and dancing along. (Don’t Stop Me Now and The Show Must Go On have been dropped from the set-after 4 and 19 shows respectively)

The show ended with a joyously uproarious Bohemian Rhapsody, and the one two punch of We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, with Lambert sporting a regal crown. The crowd went fairly mental chanting and stomping along. A fitting end to a fantastic evening. But was it Queen?

Overall, it was an evening of spectacle and remembrance, honoring the creator of some of the most memorable songs in rock history, while passing the torch to a vocalist of the next generation. Within all of the effusive praise Lambert has rightfully garnered, it should be remembered that while Mercury was in the band, he was often pounding out some fairly complicated piano lines while delivering his jaw dropping vocal histrionics. This is an important point to note-Freddie Mercury was a singular talent, never to be seen again. His underrated talent in lyrics, the ability to weave myth, magic and a strongly innate literate sense into a seamless coherent whole was a huge part of the early career of the band, and was only surpassed by his beyond genius ability to use his voice as multiple instruments. It took six musicians (two partially hidden behind a curtained area) to pull off what Queen used to do as a quartet. This is what Freddie could accomplish. No slight to Adam Lambert, but there is more to the tale than just knocking the vocals out of the park.

So what would Freddie have thought? After what I had seen this week, I am fairly certain that I can picture a large buck toothed smile, a head tossed back, and the glorious laughter of delight. Freddie would be beyond pleased with what his legacy hath wrought. Go see for yourselves kids, you need to. Australia is up next.

 

The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling the Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond, the Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

seaside seaside2

My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

sing to god

But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

stoenhenge

My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…