Public Service announcement: For long term Deadheads, here is a quick synopsis in Deadspeak and you don’t have to read anymore: picture a museum exhibit set up and roped off to depict what a fair to middlin Bobby driven 1974 and 1995 show of the past would look like-tempos running at about 45 bpm for most of the tunes and a maddeningly mundane, predictable and soporific setlist. Never hit lightspeed once. Whatever ‘it’ is…..or was-it looked like it, but it wasn’t it.
This summer, Deadheads got a nice but short farewell 50th anniversary treat from the band. Two shows in Santa Clara at the end of June were the precursor to the final “Fare Thee Well” three night run in Chicago for the 4th of July weekend. Trey Anastasio of Phish fame stepped into the ‘Jerry Garcia’ role for this tour, as he joined the remaining original members: Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzman. Supplemented by Jeff Chimenti on keyboards (who does a very nice fake Brent) this unit was a passably good imitation of the Dead. The 50th anniversary vibe and the limited amount of shows gave this run the air of a real Dead tour. Opening night in Santa Clara’ssetlist was a wet dream for the long term Deadhead-the debut LP, Aoxomoxoa, Live Dead, Anthem of the Sun-a value pack of little heard full blown psychedelic chestnuts including the nitrous drenched Whats Become of the Baby-never before performed live. The next four shows inclined straight down successively towards an unplanned faceplant on the final night in Chicago. The Grateful Dead laid an egg to finish up their career? Not a really huge surprise-and really a fitting end for those who had witnessed disasters more than they care to remember onstage in the 80’s and 90’s. I had thought the 2009 run of the originals with Warren Haynes was far more authentic with Haynes huge guitar and gritty vocals taking some of Garcia’s songs further than Jerry had ever done himself. Still, Trey acquitted himself nicely, solid on vocals and providing an interesting study on guitar, able to hybridize his prodigious noodling skills with a more tempered ability to harness them in Garcia-like short bursts. Regardless, this was the end of the road we were told.
They lied. The money seemed too huge to ignore. Which brings us to Fall 2015 and Dead and Company. Exit Anastasio and enter John Mayer in the Jerry role. This was was a head scratcher for many. The brilliant and overly talented bassist Oteil replaced Lesh. His bass skills have been lauded for decades by musicians and fans, yet his stylings are….not really Dead-like. Mayer worried me. It was with trepidation that I attended a November show to witness what a 2015 Dead show would look like.
First up, I have to address the greed that seems to drive the once family driven Dead organization. Like Chicago, seats for this tour were sold behind the stage, with zero view of the action. Okay, I get Chicago, folks were flying in from all over the world. But in this run? Not exactly a friendly move. (I have never sat in my actual seat in all of my 70 or so Garcia Dead shows, and moved into a nice view of the stage for this one). Still, who sells tickets BEHIND the stage? I will only say a quick online search will reveal many complaints about the prices of recent Dead CDs and vinyl ($225.00 for a six lp box set?) The pre-release prices in June for the box sets of the Chicago shows before they had even been played were a bit astronomical and a bit insulting.
A passable Cassidy opened the set hopefully until a string of “hey let’s go get a beer” songs ensued: Row Jimmy, Ramble On Rose, Big River, Peggy-O all plowed along in very similar torpor inducing tempos, much like what happened to the band in the final two tours of 1994 and 1995 when all the faster songs headed to a single shuffling tempo. The second set showed some signs of life with an Estimated Prophet and Terrapin that almost could convince you it was the Dead. Mickey single-handed tried to recreate the magical ‘space’ section (the thunder machine of Merry Prankster days is still ensconsed to shake the rafters) but leaned a bit more towards some of his world beat ethnic solo material, a nice change of pace. A couple of surprises in the one two of Dear Prudence and Get Out of My Life Woman (Allan Toussaint had passed away that day) led towards a spluttering Going Down the Road Feeling Bad and and a restrained encore of Ripple.
All Dead songs, yet not. John Mayer has to shoulder a large part of the blame. His playing is far more improvisational and fluid than many would guess, but he just wasn’t….the right choice. Look at the photo above-a jacket straight from a Prince photo shoot with….shoulder pads? Someone in the Dead wearing shoulder pads? I know this may seem like a quibbling detail, but I found it symbolic of much of the lack of thought that went into this very hurried sequel to the reunion. A perfect example was Uncle John’s Band. I had heard this song on every Dead tour from 1982-1995. Not ONCE did they play it right. Some nights they blew the chord changes, some nights they stopped dead in the middle of the song, utterly lost. Harmonies were white knuckled car crashes as the vocals of Jerry, Bob, Phil and Brent struggled mightily to find some harmonic center. Weir forgot the words to it nearly every night. Jerry would sing the wrong verse on top of Bob’s different verse. “Oh Oh all I want to know, how does the song go?” was more than a lyric in the song, it sometimes marked a moment when they’d look at each other and silently acknowledge ‘hey we really don’t know how this goes.’ It sounds stupid, but that was made the Dead such an endearing proposition, you would never know what was going to happen next–and neither did they. On this night, the well rehearsed and versatile vocals of Mayer, Oteil and Chimenti left a locked in frequency for Bob to slot himself into-it was flawlessly executed. And dammit–that’s not what is supposed to happen!
The appealing trainwreck aspect of the band is gone, and near perfectly executed covers of the Dead is what is left. The game Jenga comes to mind-how many important pieces of a monolithic tower can you remove safely before the tower can no longer stand?
There are very few times that I take pleasure in savaging a long time favorite band in print. But the plethora of stellar reviews for the dreadful Heaven and Earth album from 2014 (unfortunately Chris Squire’s final legacy) boggled the mind. So this review was written more in response to the addled would be reviewers than for any inherent axe to grind with Yes. That axe had unfortunately been dulled heavily in the last two decades. Anyway, this is written for those who thought this is “a fine album”.
Here is one question for the (at this point) one hundred different five star reviewers of this album: How many stars would Fragile get? Seventeen? How many for Close to the Edge? Thirty two? Folks who throw five star reviews around willy-nilly need to take a breath, and realize they are not really reviewers, but cheerleaders. And hey, that’s ok. I love Yes. Seen them every tour since 1977. But if this is a good Yes album, I am apparently stone deaf. I saw Jon Davison twice on this past tour, and he is a very nice replacement for Jon Anderson-gauzy shirts, ethereal voice, cosmic references. But as long as Jon Anderson is on earth and breathing, it is hard to take this band seriously. The last tours were full versions of Close to the Edge, The Yes Album and Going For the One. Davison acquitted himself respectfully, more Jon Anderson than Benoit David’s take on Drama was. Yet the previous vocalist managed to get some life out of these guys, where on this record, the band literally sleep walks through a mind numbing embarrassment of stuporific elevator music.
The list of the guilty is large. First up-Roy Thomas Baker, of Queen fame at the production helm. Those Yes fans who are hard core will remember him as the producer of the failed follow up to Tormato in 1979, an album that wasted months of time, thousands of dollars, and miles of recording tape better left untouched. Some of that ended up as a blueprint for a wispy Jon Anderson solo album, but the main result of this collaboration was a hugely acrimonious break up of one of the most legendary prog bands of the seventies, and no album.
The production here is demo level and sounds hurried and murky-drums in the background, Squire’s bass varying from inaudible to middling, but always on cruise control. Howe is hard to gauge, more a background coloring than the forceful disciple of Chet Atkins and maniacal fretboard wizard of the seventies that topped ‘best guitarist’ polls on both sides of the pond. Downes has a distinct lack of imagination in his keyboards, although he may be trying to inject some 70’s authenticity and sacrificed the rest to the gods. Davison sounds as bright and excited as anyone who just joined his dream band would. But inexplicably he has co writer in credit on most of the album. And though vocally a fine performer, lyrics are not his strength. Subway Walls has flickers of the Yes we knew and loved, but is written by Davison and Downes. Squire and Howe have nothing to say musically any more? Seriously a sad state of affairs for such a beloved band. Yes, we may have unreasonable expectations, but this falls off a cliff and drags everyone with it. Safe, saccharine, pop soft rock cliched trite unchallenging slow tempo poorly produced AOR bland unambitious easy listening. This is a compendium of various comments and reviews of this album. Does that sound like a Yes album you cannot wait to hear? If Open Your Eyes was a two star affair, let me be clear: this would rate a zero on that scale.
One reviewer put it this way-if Starcastle was several degrees away from Yes, this album is several degrees away from Starcastle. If you are a long term Yes fan, let that last sentence guide you.
In summation, this is the worst album they have ever released, by a longshot. If you enjoy watching disasters unfold, jump aboard. If you love Yes as much as many of the reviewers here do? Mourning is upon us. The gates of delirium have slammed shut.
In a winter covered forest, a small crowd of young men have gathered. The crowd is leather clad and masked by corpse paint. Their eerie faces are illuminated by a large flickering fire that is spitting and hissing legions of sparks deep into the night sky. They chant and laugh in bad Latin and ancient Viking language. In front of them, the source of the fire and reason for the gathering? A one thousand year old church is going up up in flames…in some sort of pagan ritual. Is this a scene from some B-grade Hammer Horror film? No, it is a real life scene that was re-enacted many times over in the early 1990’s at the behest of one of the strangest associations of musicians in the history of rock-the Norwegian Black Metal scene.
Rock n Roll has always been about rebellion and iconoclastic behavior. Satanism? Well that is another story. Apart from the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, there are few satanic trappings in rock until the late sixties, with Black Sabbath as the focal point for many. But most of the satanic shenanigans reside within the halls of heavy metal. The PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) in the United States famously went after rock music in 1985, and heavy metal in particular as a source of ‘negative influence upon our children’. Through their work in Washington, they organized a movement and finally Senate hearings to force record companies to put warning advisory labels on albums. Among their targets were what they called the ‘Filthy Fifteen’. Ensconced in the list, tipping in at numbers 11 and 14, were two very little known metal bands: Mercyful Fate and Venom. And here our tale begins.
In 1993, Norwegian Black Metal became an internationally known scene. The normally conservative Norwegian press became increasingly hysterical-I mean folks were getting murdered, ancient churches were going up like marshmallows at a weenie roast, and all fingers pointed to a small cabal of make up clad local heavy metal bands. Peculiar. What was even weirder was not only did the suspects not deny much of their misbehavior, they seemed uncharacteristically unrepentant. Unrepentant to the point of reveling in their notoriety and showing absolutely zero level of remorse for their actions. This was different for even the most Mad Max anarchist scenario, but for staid and egalitarian Norway? Unprecedented, unexpected, and highly troubling. Who the hell were these miscreants that turned a country on its ear? First, a quick guide to their influences:
What in the Hell is Black Metal?
Many look to Motorhead as the grandfathers and the blueprint for most genres of extreme metal. Motorhead pioneered a speeded up version of heavy metal that folks duplicated, put their own touches on and ran with-hundreds of bands by the early 80’s had copped the Motorhead formula. As the 80’s wore on, sub genres came and morphed pretty quickly. Thrash metal of the early to mid 80’s (Metallica, Anthrax and Overkill are decent examples) quickly changed into Death Metal (Death, Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and band costumes went from surfer shorts and sneakers to black on black with leather on leather, vocals became strangled and unintelligible growls, and lyrics got grimmer, bloodier and darker.
In 1981, an unassuming album was released in the UK, Venom’s Welcome to Hell. Light on musicianship, but heavy on the heavy with an accent on speed, it boasted an unprecedented level of Satanic philosophies. Critics savaged them in print. With songs like the title track and “In League With Satan”, Venom were the signpost for the future of metal. The back cover sports their mission statement:
“We’re possessed by all that is evil, the death of you God we demand, we spit at the virgin you worship, and sit at Lord Satan’s left hand…” This set an agenda that was taken quite seriously in Oslo and its environs. .
But it was the follow up that really got the ball rolling. 1982’s Black Metal is the one that kicked off a whole scene and provided a genre a name. Black Metal. Replete with more Satanic imagery, Black Metal laid it out. (Bathory also deserves credit for refining the sound further, and Mercyful Fate for pioneering corpse paint and furthering deep occult Satanic lyrics) Not many bought this hugely influential album when it came out, but people in Norway were listening. Here is a taste of Venom
Welcome to Helvete
The Black metal scene in Norway revolved around the Helvete (Norwegian for hell) record store in Oslo run by Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, founder of the band Mayhem, and the Deathlike Silence Productions label run by him. The list of characters in this scene is amusing to say the least. Euronymous’ best friend and chief rival for the leadership of the scene was the leader of a rival band-Burzum’s Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernenes. Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun (who murdered an innocent man in a park to “see what murder felt like”) was another young leader of the scene. (The maximum penalty for murder in Norway is 21 years) A myriad of fanciful names soon festooned the populace, seemingly comical but deadly serious… Metalion, the writer for the scene and publisher of an early Black Metal fanzine called Slayer; others went by the handles of Faust, Maniac, Necrobutcher, Occultus, Grim, Infernus, Storm, Samoth, Fenriz, Ihsahn, Blackthorn, Hellhammer, It, Mortiis and Dead (more about him later) You get the idea. Like characters from some kind of Satanic dungeons and dragons fantasy game, but acted out in real life, with real weapons and real deaths, the leaders gathered minions. The bands also had two other things in common: corpse paint and band logos that were impenetrably difficult to decipher. The Norwegian Black Metal scene took to corpse paint to indicate the difference between them and the death metal bands.(the actual difference between death metal and Black Metal is difficult for the novice to discern-much like the goth kids and the vamp kids on South Park) Here’s some corpse painted 1993 era Black Metalers and some logos:
These bands were different, but the country was not prepared for exactly how different they were from their predecessors. Hellish fantasies, flames, death and Satanic trappings were no longer the domain of lyrics and costumes-they were about to vividly bleed into a whole full blown lifestyle.
The first to go was Per Yngve Ohlin, better known to all as “Dead”. Dead was an other worldly person prone to sitting alone in the woods, cutting himself for attention at parties, and alienating most who came in touch with him. His devotion to death was admirable: he is credited for being the first to introduce corpse paint to the scene, burying his stage costumes in the earth before shows to appear and smell more corpse like, carrying dead animals around and inhaling them from a bag and rubbing them on himself before shows to “sing with the stench of death in his nostrils” He would occasionally bring decapitated pig heads to shows and put them on stakes around the stage He was the lead singer for Euronymous’ Mayhem, and soon soured on the whole life trip. He had insisted he had died on the table in hospital at age ten from a ruptured spleen and didn’t belong on this planet anymore. (partially true). He would cut himself on stage (years after Iggy had pioneered this trick). “Dead was a very private person, no one knew him very well” was a quote from an associate. When in 1991 at age 22 he found his depression too much to take, and at the urging of Euronymous, Dead cut his wrists and his own throat, and then when this didn’t seem to be working, blew his head off with a shotgun (the ammunition had been a Christmas present from Count Grishnackh.) Here is where the story gets weird. Supposedly Euronymous found the body and photographed it (this ended up as grisly bootleg album cover), took bits of his brains that had fallen into Dead’s lap and boiled them into a stew to sample human flesh, and finally took the sections of his skull that had scattered over the room, cut them up, and made necklaces for the inner circle of Black Metal acolytes. (this part has been confirmed by more than one member of the scene.) “Dead died for this cause and I have declared war!” exclaimed Euronymous weeks after the suicide. What was the war against? Poser false metal bands and their fans, only extreme black metal bands were permitted in this world, and the extermination of those deemed unworthy was planned. (cue Manowar here). Death threats flew around (mostly directed at Swedish metal bands). Dead’s death initiated a surge in interest and activity for the Norwegians. Mayhem was without a lead vocalist, but now possessed a legend. The next phase of Black Metal was initiated. The most dangerous music in the history of rock was about to make some real noise in the world. Here is a clip of Dead performing with Mayhem.
It was the March 1993 issue of the British metal magazine Kerrang that brought this stuff to the world. The article in here was so over the top it was very hard to believe. I bought this issue the week it came out and shared it with my friends. It strained credulity. I’d worked at a prominent metal store for a while and thought I’d literally seen everything. These guys were bragging about murder and church burnings like it was their latest one night stand conquest. The main characters Euronymous and Grishnackh fairly gushed: “We are but slaves of the one with Horns” and claimed they are part of a Satanic terrorist organization devoted to overthrowing society. Are they serious? The British band Paradise Lost came back from a Norwegian tour with tales of horror and Satanic terrorist aggression. The Kerrang article stated:
British Doom Metal band Paradise Lost were also victims of satanic Terrorist aggression. While on tour in Norway, the band’s tour bus was set upon by Black Metal followers.They were upset at the falseness of the band and lack of genuine evil.
“They’re fucking nuts!” exclaims Paradise Lost singer Nick Holmes, “but the attack on us was blown out of proportion a bit. The little disciples are all about 10 years old – fuckin’ embryos!”
“It is quite frightening,” he considers. “It’s a Manson-type cult thing. It’s like the fucking Nazis in East Germany… the same kind of power game.”
Nick was closer to the truth than he may have guessed. This scenario, a group of corpse painted early teens trying to attack and burn a tour bus is fairly far fetched. The police had ignored the many leads that led to the “Black Metal Circle” for a while, and dismissed it as all too implausible. But soon their attention turned towards the group revolving around the Helvete record store. Could it be possible that the current wave of violence, murder and arson were the work of a homegrown Satanic terrorist unit based in a record store? They began to take the idea seriously. And their attention was drawn to what the excellent 1998 Lords of Chaos book called “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”, as churches combusted regularly (also the aptly and prescient title of the seminal 1991 Darkthrone album). The cat was out of the bag.
The Attack of the Black Metal Circle
Things started to amp up after the suicide of Dead. The rebellion against clean sounding studio production values and staying true to rawness in sound now blurred into a rawness and rebellion against the cleanliness of society. Lawlessness and illegality were the new watchword as they seemed to dare each other to increasingly outrageous crimes. The circle gathered their main players and began to plan in earnest. Meetings were held, band leaders of Mayhem, Burzum and Emperor became leaders of arson squads… and churches started burn. Nine churches burned in 1992 and the country was stumped. Arson wasn’t even considered at first. But the pattern of burnings and some loose lipped teenagers pointed to the Helvete store as a possible lead. (over forty churches burned in a five year period). Varg and Faust began to brag along with Euronymous, and their dark hints of involvement became more brazen.
“There is no such thing as mindless violence,” comments Vikernes. “Just to walk down the street and kick a boy is stimulating.”
“Whenever I go out, I always have guns,” he discloses. “Right now, I’m wearing a chain mail, and have a big knife. People don’t dare to attack us, and if they do, they never survive. We are the Vikings, who kill for their own pleasure. We are not fucking humanitarian Red Cross idiots.”
The party ended as quickly as it had begun. In August 1993 Vikernes murdered his rival Euronymous in his apartment, his chief rival for leadership of the Black Metal Circle. He claimed that Euronymous had planned to take him into the woods, tie him to a tree and torture him to death. He undertook a pre-emptive strike. Aarseth was stabbed 24 times. Whether this was a planned or spontaneous event, Vikernes seemed unconcerned. In an interview he said:
“Bam! Through his skull. I actually had to knock the knife out, it was stuck in his skull and I actually had to pry it out…” bragged Vikernes from his prison cell. “I hit him directly into his skull and his eyes went boing! And he was dead!”
Faust noted that he had been in the news twice in one day-once for the recent church burning, and on the same newscast for the recently discovered murder. And he wasn’t even a suspect in either crime yet. In an interview he said:
“I didn’t care much about the value of human life. Nothing was too extreme. That there were burned churches, and people were killed, I didn’t react at all. I just though ‘Excellent!’ I never thought ‘Oh this is getting out of hand’, and I still don’t. Burning churches is okay…”
Vikernes had bragged to him that he had burned a church and how cool it was, how anti Christian. This point is one little discussed. Many of the participants thought that Christianity had come in unwanted under 1000 years ago, and erased a far more ancient and powerful religion-an Asatru Nordic vestige of a tradition that ran through their ancestral blood. Many of the circle said in interviews that they thought Christianity was an abomination and the burning of churches was a logical extension of this rationale. It was quite logical to all involved that a short term interloper of a religion in their eyes needed to go to restore a religion that went back over five thousand years. Vikernes said:
“Christianity was created by some decadent and degenerated Romans as a tool of oppression, in the late Roman era, and it should be treated accordingly. It is like handcuffs to the mind and spirit and is nothing but destructive to mankind. In fact I don’t really see Christianity as a religion. It is more like a spiritual plague, a mass psychosis, and it should first and foremost be treated as a problem to be solved by the medical science. Christianity is a diagnosis. It’s like Islam and the other Asian religions, a HIV/AIDS of the spirit and mind.”
If this was an actual motivation, some of this makes sense. But I have my doubts…
The police closed in and over sixteen were rounded up. Police found Vikernes from a Burzum flyer that depicted a burning church and had his home address printed on it. He ended up being released but shortly after the murder, the net tightened, and the Count was nabbed once again. Bard and the Count took the main heat for murder and the country was aghast. Before his arrest he accidentally predicted his own future:
“What happens to us doesn’t matter. If I had a great enough reason to kill, I’d gladly serve 20 years in jail.”
This would come true far sooner than he would imagine.
Even in custody, Varg maintained his solid Satanic unrepentant outlook:
“It’s too nice in here,” he moans. “It’s not hell at all. In this country prisoners get a bed, toilet and shower. It’s completely ridiculous. I asked the police to throw me in a real dungeon and also encouraged them to use real violence!”
The scene fell apart in 1993 after Euronymous had been murdered (he had already closed Helvete in the face of growing police pressure before his death, much to the dismay of Vikernes who thought the current wave of publicity would translate into huge record sales). But the legacy of Norwegian Black Metal was secured permanently.
L-R Dead, Faust, Count Grishnackh, Euronymous and Dead without makeup
In re-reading this article, it’s hard to believe this shit actually happened. Take a look at these guys (above-note the two Venom shirts) It’s too cartoonish, too over the top for anyone to believe that any of this was done by kids–bad-ass deluded metal heads who turned the word misanthrope into an art form–but kids nonetheless. Nobody in their wildest dreams or nightmares would imagine this could ever come true in such an anomalous outburst of criminally violent anti social behavior. What started as a theatrical over the top metal band scene was taken to a whole other level. Kids take heavy metal fantasies into a real Satan fueled terrorist war against society? How the hell is that even possible? Who is to blame for this? The fake theatrics of the 80’s death metal bands had been put into actual practice-no longer were bands singing about it, they were now doing it and encouraging others to follow their example, which I suppose is the next logical step. I mean where is there to go beyond heavy?. Bands in the scene were quick to point out that Venom had laid the blueprint down in 1981-1982. When told that Venom weren’t actually Satanists, but had done it for attention, that didn’t matter.
Well where are we today? Count Grishnakh and Faust are out of jail already (Varg in 2009 after 15 years in prison and Bard in 2003 after 9 years–Burzum albums were allowed to be released from jail with Varg on solo Synthesizer). Their legacy is a laundry list of PMRC nightmares and beyond: murder, self mutilation, corpse desecration, animal torture, arson, burglary, cannibalism, child abuse, weapons dealing, assault, suicides, church burnings, sedition, explosives (strangely drugs weren’t a huge part of the scene)-ticking boxes on a list that Tipper Gore never imagined could exist in real life. If she had been confirmed in her beliefs by the infamous teenage metal head “Say You Love Satan” murders of Long Island in 1984, this event would have made her head explode like the dude in Scanners. This cast of characters made Ozzy look like Mr. Rogers. But real life this was, and real life this is. Enough black magic was genuinely thrown in around in amateur fashion with predictable results-things unraveling quickly and ending poorly for the main players of the scene, ending in deaths and incarceration.
Is this Venom’s fault as the main players in the scene claim? It is clear that they played a major if unwitting part in the fertilization of the scene, and the lyrics were taken as gospel. The single mindedness of this group and unity of conception and purpose launched by Venom’s early releases could have inadvertently launched something bigger. Could it be that pushing the envelope of grinding rhythms, snarling vocals, Satanic trappings, unwitting lyrical spells….did this conjure up something that manifested as this nearly unique heavy metal nightmare? Perhaps. Norway is on the map musically to this day for this scene-but in the words of someone wise: “Be careful what you wish for”. Because apparently things sometimes come true. One wonders whether the names the players assumed invoked some kind of unexpected ‘familiar’ karma induced spell that hastened the events. But in the hazy world of black magick, wishing is fraught with peril, and sometimes things come true in a fashion that they would never conceive, but is exactly what they had conjured. Euronymous was correct in an interview before his death trying to explain Black Metal :
“There is an ABYSS between us and the rest…we must kick them in the face and be guardians of anti-morality”
More ink has been spilled, more typewriter ribbons have been trashed, more teeth have been gnashed on the subject of this album than any album in the history of rock n roll. Why? Simple-nobody has ever been able to come up with a clear answer-is this record a scam to get out of a record contract? Is it some well thought out con and deep seated revenge plan against the record industry? Or is it one of the most brilliant and misunderstood albums in music history?. Let’s investigate the record that launched more returns than any album in the history of rock:
From Sonic Pariah to Cult Classic
In the summer of 1975, rock n roll was king. And getting huge in scope and in numbers. The Rolling Stones launched their debauched “Tour of Americas”, Yes took on stadiums with their second leg of the Relayer tour, Led Zeppelin pillaged the States like an unstoppable Visigoth invasion, The Who cut a swath from November to December-arenas were full, stadium shows started to get booked, and kids flocked en masse for the insanity that was a US mid 1970’s concert experience. Live albums (especially double live albums) started to sprout in the industry like mushrooms after a rain. Industry folks pushed for live albums from most of their artists. Kiss, Bob Marley, Santana, Grand Funk, Robin Trower, King Crimson and more initiated the era of live lp’s that is usually marked by the massive Frampton Comes Alive (recorded in ’75 and released January 1976).
So when Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music quietly slipped out in June of 1975, and little publicity surrounded it, the public was left to its own devices to figure it out. You can’t realy blame kids for being fooled. Look at the cover-Lou looking cool onstage. A double album. Esoteric electronic gobbledy-gook for liner notes. A live tour featuring Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground currently underway. Of course this had to be a live album, right? Rock n Roll Animal had exposed the more mainstream rock audience to the weirdness of Lou in a live rock format. Walk on the Wild Side had given him radio exposure. He was becoming a known and intriguing rock figure. Metal Machine Music sold well in chain and department stores across the country in the beginning of the summer, but then something happened. Kids opened it up, popped on side one, and were met by what the Rolling Stone Record Guide called:
“a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time”
What? That’s not rock n roll! What is it? Let’s give the reader a taste of what the listener encountered forty years ago. This is part 1.
People were frightened, perplexed and offended. Many assumed the album was defective. I mean-were these songs? Is it even listenable? (Lou once let slip this quote: “If you can stand to listen to the entire album in one sitting, you are truly a unique human being… maybe not even human… Myself, i’ve only listened to maybe 40 min of it before I felt like my head would explode.”) There is no discernible melody, nor apparently are there any instruments being played. Some genuinely thought it was a pressing plant mistake, a huge defect and fuck up that somehow had escaped the attention of quality control. And to a clerk at a department store trying to judge whether the customer was telling the truth? How would they be able to tell? It sounded like a washing machine about to throw a belt mixed with a transmission gearbox about to fling wrecked splinters of metal all over the road. Of course it was deemed defective. It was returned in droves. There was no press on it, and most stuck with the view that it was a huge record plant mistake, and money back was offered, and the allegedly defective lps started to pile up in warehouses across the country. It was withdrawn from release within three weeks as RCA circled the wagons and tried to figure out who the joke was on, who’s head would roll, and more difficultly-was it even a joke? It did however claim the honor of garnering the most returns of any album ever released.
Some may see that words do not do this album justice in view of the ‘full experience’. Each side was exactly 16 min 1 sec in length according to the label( Some sides seem to vary from this standardized time, but are pretty close) Side four was labeled “16:01 or ∞”, as it had a locked groove, playing forever in a loop until you took the needle off the vinyl. A nice masochistic touch for one of the most notoriously torturous listening experiences ever (#2 in the Worst Albums of All Time 1991 book).
But if it was a scam, what was the purpose and what was the target? Lou himself has stood by the album up until his death. This essential question bugged one of the most famously cantankerous rock critics on the planet-Lester Bangs.
Enter Lester Bangs
Lester was famed as a free lance writer unafraid to throw himself into a story with wanton abandon. Booze? Drugs? Essential to the journey towards truth. Lester latched on to Metal Machine Music as a combination of cause celebre and enfant terrible. He penned many pieces on the subject of MMM, all are highly recommended. Read one here. All are worth seeking out. He hounded Lou for interviews, trying to get to the depths of the creation of the recording. Were there instruments actually on it or was it processed feedback? (The album says it was all table and rack mount generators and processors humming and squealing into each other, but later Lou said it was guitars feeding back set in front of amps and recorded. Yet another mystery unsolved)
Lou had always claimed that the album was supported by the RCA Red Seal classical division, and that according to Lou, this album was taken very seriously by the president of the RCA Red Seal . He insisted that there were many levels of sound going on (there are) and that buried deep inside are references to Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Pastorale symphony many levels down. “But show me exactly where” Bangs asked on the point of exasperation. Lou indifferently refused to answer and just said “it’s there”, as if he knew he was lying. Bangs remainded doubtful of this ex post-facto attempt at legitimizing the classical stamp.
But could this album actually be what Lou claimed, an avant-garde electronic classical piece? There is some evidence to back this up. Before the Velvet Underground had come along, John Cale had been working with famed electronic composer LaMonte Young in New York City. Along with Tony Conrad, they were experimenting with sonic drones, some pieces being over 24 hours in length. The effect on the consciousness of the listener was the end game here. Reed had been exposed by Cale to this scene, and the noise of the early Velvet’s feedback sessions (see: Sister Ray) reflects some of this influence. Was he teasing Bangs and testing his knowledge of the electronic scene of the mid and early 60’s? Bangs was not unaware of the work of Stockhausen, Young and Xenakis, but felt Lou was a pretender to the scene, and dismissed this release…then was intrigued… then tongue in cheek worshipped it (read that one here.). He obsessed over it until his death.
Tales of Madness
I had heard of this album spoken of in hushed tones when I was younger. ‘A dangerous album’ big kids said. Others dismissed it as a scam. It commanded high prices even in the early 80’s on vinyl. I found a copy in the dollar bin of a college record store when I was 17. I was a bit incredulous but noticed it only had one of the albums in it. “That’s more than plenty” opined the clerk when I asked if I needed the whole thing and why so cheap. Later in life I had an acquaintance that had an eight track player bolted to his bedroom ceiling. Metal Machine Music was in it and it played non-stop, 24-7 for months. If he needed to listen to his stereo, he played his regular record player and turned it up loud to be heard over the munching away of MMM. He did this for years, on endless loop (what 8 Tracks do) forever. What this would do to the psyche of a fragile 70’s rock kid is unknown, but he later took to cruising in his sixties Oldsmobile shitbox chugging cough syrup and cranking Black Sabbath at aircraft landing volumes around town. I recently got a mint copy on eBay, and was delighted in the holy relic in its entirety. I strapped into the record room and hit launch. Strangely, I found much of it soothing. It was a bit like Terry Riley on speed. Hypnotic mantras repeating whispers of insanity that just made you pay attention despite your probably knowing better. But I liked it, and got through the whole thing in one sitting. Forty years later, and in view of what has come since, it hung together pretty well.
The Final Cut
ln the final run, this album ended up hugely influential. Everyone from Sonic Youth to Nine Inch Nails to Throbbing Gristle owe a significant debt to this record. Hell, the whole industrial and noise scenes could be viewed as direct progeny of this unassuming record. Is it one of the most accurate portrayals of the simultaneous delights and horrors of extensive amphetamine shriek? Is it as Lou said in a 2007 interview “the greatest and longest guitar solo ever”? Reed obfuscated until the end. So one part overwhelming affront to the senses, one part mid 60’s electronic classical music, one part musical joke, one part “Fuck You” to the industry he delighted in screwing with? Remember, he was trained by Andy Warhol from 1965-1967 in promotion and perception. Multi leveled pranks that masquerade as art were Andy’s forte, and it is quite possible that we will have to forever leave this mystery unsolved. Reed has left few clues, but gave evidence that he was chuffed at not being taken seriously as a modern classical musician- something John Cale had effortlessly accomplished, and something Young and Xenakis had done a decade before with some very similar approaches to sound. Will we ever know the truth? As a record store colleague once said to me, “there’s certainly months more of work to investigate further, but I just avant-garde the time.”. .
On a chilly January evening 1975, Led Zeppelin fans lined up for tickets going on sale the next morning. Thousands of freezing fans were let into the lobby to keep warm. The doors separating the Garden from the lobby were stout, but no match for the eternally wasted Zep posse. The crowd broke down the doors, poured into the Garden, and mayhem ensued. This misbehavior offended proper Bostonian’s Puritan sensibilities, and they were added to the illustrious list of those “Banned in Boston”
The phrase Banned in Boston meant one of two things. For a Boston citizen on the lookout for the prurient and subversive, it meant something we needed to keep out of our city. For the movers and shakers in the music, theater, art, literature and film world? It was a badge of honor. I mean, if you can’t offend a Bostonian, you aren’t really applying yourself to your full potential. In the 17th century, Purtians banned…well…everything. Turnips and the Bible were OK, but god forbid a sexually suggestive shape in a turnip. Things accelerated with the entrance of the Comstock Act courtesy of Anthony Comstock in 1873, that prevented obscene material from being transmitted through the Postal Service. What was defined as obscene? Well anything that Anthony deemed offensive. And he was mighty easy to offend. The Watch and Ward Society took up the cause and guarded the morality of the few and imposed it upon the many. Eugene O’Neill, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, H.L. Mencken, H.G. Wells, Upton Sinclair, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Bocaccio’s Decameron were all deemed too naughty for Bostonians to read. Plays would be banned after a single show (the cast of a play was arrested on site once). Films would be banned mid-reel in front of paid theater audiences. The clean cut Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie was stricken from the airwaves. Hell, Rock n Roll in its entirety was banned from Boston in 1958 after a supposed riot at Boston Arena at an Alan Freed rock show. The list of things banned in Boston would fill up an admirable collection of music, literature and art. But we have strayed from our topic….
Zeppelin was riding the crest of a tsunami of popularity that had no end in sight. They hadn’t toured America since spring 1973, and the intervening two years of absence seemed like a decade. Their mystical appeal had drawn in an exponential growth in their fan base, and they could easily have sold out a three night stand if it was offered pretty much anywhere in America. Although waiting overnight for tickets is not something unfamiliar, it was a rare breed in the 70’s that would line up for an overnight vigil. Rather than regurgitate some of the things known, I thought I’d try to gather the reminiscences of a colleague at a record store I worked at in the mid 80’s. Because….he was there. Although he told me this tale a long while ago, and many of these things are paraphrased, here’s his account:
“Yeah well, me and my friends were a mix of juniors, seniors, Boston suburban high school kids. We were pumped that Zeppelin was coming cuz most of us missed the Garden show in ’73. I knew if we got there early, we would definitely score tickets. We got some booze and rolled some bones and headed into town. We were surprised to see a HUGE line when we got there. Also not psyched cuz it was fucking coooooold, temps got close to zero. But whatever, we’re in line and seem guaranteed tickets. Soon, some kind hearted security guy saw kids outside in denim jackets turning blue and shivering violently and took pity on us. He opened the doors and let us into the lobby. To warm up. Lots and lots of us. The room was pretty huge and held hundreds. More piled in and it got crowded. Well, only one place to go to make more room,and that was through the fucking doors to the Garden! So in the spirit of the times, we all pitched in and broke through some fairly meaty security doors. Once inside, it was like that scene in Wizard of Oz when the doors open and it turns color -mixed with some scenes from Road Warrior. I mean, you haven’t seen chaos like this at the Garden. Thousands of kids ran amok! Tearing up wood seats, throwing them on the ice, running and diving on the seats and sliding the full length of the rink on impromptu sleds, crashing into the boards full speed, getting up cackling laughing and going to it the other way. Hundreds of kids were on the holy Bruins ice surface partying. Most of the refreshment stands were broken into immediately. Kegs were tapped, and already drunk people drank out of anything they could find. We’d been boozing to keep warm in line already. We had brought our own stuff, so we stayed away from that. But everyone was shitfaced, and getting drunker. Crushed paper cups were everywhere. Food was passed out, but mostly was the ammunition for a massive thousand person food fight. Industrial sized plastic jugs of ketchup, mustard and mayo were tossed around like watermelon sized grenades. Walls were plastered like art with yellow and red splotches. Fire hose fights I remember. Water went everywhere, people went flying like in the 60’s. . Then small piles of chairs in impromptu bonfires contrasted with enthusiastic fire extinguisher fights erupting. Regular seats got lit on fire. Foam covered and water covered kids staggered around. Some guys said they had broken into the Celtics dressing room and basketballs got thrown around. Drunk screaming everywhere, more fires, and then a single thought formed in my head:
“this shit is not good. I’m gonna get fucking arrested if I hang around “
A rare moment of sobriety, and I got most of my friends to leave with me before we got the shit beaten out of us by Boston cops (it had happened before to us). Arrest was kinda a secondary but real concern. I got home right before the sun came up and thanked my lucky stars I had all my teeth still. “
The cops did show, and were beyond horrified. How can you successfully deal with an unintended but contained riot that has a 30-1 participant advantage against the cops? So quickly the box office opened and the tickets went on sale in the wee hours of the AM. The Garden revelers successfully filtered their way out and home, leaving over $50,000 of damage, in 1975 dollars ( a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money). Most surprisingly, nobody got arrested. Mayor White came in the next day, and surveyed the damage of the flooded, rubble strewn and partially scorched Garden. He imposed a five year ban on Page and co. within the confines of Boston. The band had to cancel the ’75 show that had caused this ruckus. They passed on trying to book a show in 1977. Finally in 1980 for the prospective fall tour , they were booked to play Foxboro, a football stadium 35 km south of the city, in an effort to suss if they were serious about the Boston ban.This show doesn’t appear in the official Fall 1980 US tour list, but was reported on local radio stations (they may have been confusing a proposed summer 1981 tour in their excitement). But in a final irony, ’twas not to be. John Bonham inconsiderately died from drinking over a liter or so of booze. The ban might have been up, but the band had a drummer in Valhalla and the dream also went belly up. So let’s raise a beer to the days when kids REALLY knew how to party.
This is another off the wall review from the same issue of VMag, December 1999. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties.
Chris Cornell-Euphoria Morning (A & M)
Last Boat Out of Seattle Founders:
Helm: Helm to Captain,are you sure we should steer through these waters again, sir? I mean, sir, that we ran aground the last time we went through these shoals.
Captain: Stay the course
Engineer: Captain, that last shudder, I think we may have hit something. I believe we have begun to take on water.
Captain: No problem, keep on course
Engineer: Sir, the engine room again, we’re taking on water here. I told you that the area outside Seattle harbor is treacherous. The Sea of Ennui is particularly dangerous, and chilly to boot. It’s a bit of a problem….
Captain: Ignore it and stay the course–no deviations.
2nd Officer: : Sir, we’ve slowed down quite a bit. Do you think this wise? We ran aground last journey by slowing down…
Chief Petty Officer: You can still see Seattle behind us, should we turn back?
Captain: Stay the course…
2nd Officer: Sir the passengers are abandoning ship left and right….
Captain: Stay the course. First Officer Thayil to the bridge!
Part One of a look at the Carwreck Archives. These pieces were written for VMag, a music and arts magazine from the late 1990’s until the early 2000’s. Home to some pretty amazing writers, all under the patient watch of editor Murphy, one of the best of the best. Some reviews were quick hits, some were downright strange. The following is one of the latter (in light of the Nuge’s later proclivities, this one now seems oddly prescient).
Ted Nugent-Great Gonzos (Best of) remastered Epic
Classification: Secret(declassified 11.9.99)
The following is an excerpt from a Michigan Federal Court House wiretap #11790. Extremist subgroup; Nugent cousins MF and ML discuss holidays.
(begin transmission) “…..ok kids, your uncle Ted is coming over for Thanksgiving dinner today. Now, he’s a little different. If he’s wearing a loin cloth today, remember it’s to honor our Indian brothers, not any dysfunctional behavior. And if he comes in with a freshly killed turkey, well he hunted it himself with a bow and arrow just like the Indians. Let’s try to forget the last Thanksgiving and the cat impalement incident. I know what your mother has said about this, and I’m sure she’s still mad about Uncle Ted and your cousin Lolita-you know the one who had to be sent away to boarding school for nine months? Anyway, we should familiarize ourselves a little bit before he gets here. Gather round the Close n’ Play while grampa Joe gets out his 45 collection. Not guns. Joe Jr.—records. Yup, records like your parents used to collect.
First, your uncle Ted like cats a lot. and I’m sure he’s very sorry he shot Mr Jingles last year. I’m not totally sorry he shot the neighbors two alley cats, but we had to pretend we were sorry. Anyway the sings about cats a lot, look here, one of his records is even called Cat Scratch Fever.! It has lines about pussy cats and stuff. You know, most of his songs are about pussy cats. He doesn’t actually say cat, after pussy, but he’s from Detroit and you know how those city folk like to abbreviate.
He likes the guitar a lot. * I think he’s been playing in those ‘rock n’ roll’ bands for about thirty five years now. Your aunt says he doesn’t ever even use those fancy guitar pedals, just an amp and a Gibson Birdland guitar. You know once he played in a stadium in Kansas City I think, and the got noise complaints from three miles away. Imagine! She said that Ted told her he saw a mouse run onstage during a show, during a guitar solo, got in front of his amplifier, and died. from the volume! He swore it was true! Lord knows he’s always liked loud music. Those Amboy Dukes friends of his used to scare me in the 60’s. “Journey to the Center of Your Mind”, and he swears he never did drugs? They used to rehearse in the garage over here, and I tell you, those cigarettes could have been laced with Mary Jane. He certainly acts like they were.
Oh, this song soundsl like that guy Meat Loaf is singing. It is? He was around before Bat Out of Hell? “Dog Eat Dog“? That’s not about cats Wow. this is cool! Slick instrumental interplay–not what people remember uncle Ted for. And this one–“Stranglehold“. Isn’t this on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack? Long and spacey–out there! ‘This is a lot different than I remembered. It’s really good. Oh, this song must be about starting old fashioned Model T cars, “Yank Me, Crank Me”. Your uncle just has so many interests. Oops, there he is, make yourselves look nice!. He’s getting out…no loincloth., good….what’s that in his hands?…..children, go to your rooms right now.!!!……….(end transmission)
Case closed 11.5.98–not considered a threat to family or friends.
-FBI Headquarters, Ann Arbor Michigan. (transcribed and edited by Carwreck deBangs)