David Bowie-the Anti Chameleon: Will the Real Davy Jones Please Stand Up?

Rock stars seem to be dropping like flies lately. In reality, important rock personages have been shuffling off the mortal coil since the trifecta of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison all pulled the curtain closed at age 27. But the one-two whammy of Lemmy and Bowie in under two weeks has left the rock world reeling. That the both of them died less than a week after their birthdays only adds an eeriness to the tale. Lemmy was the one that really hit hard, for many folks thought they had a bead on Lemmy-everyone’s fabled disreputable but lovable uncle. (just keep him away from your little sister and the liquor cabinet). But David Bowie was more enigmatic. Able to shed personalities like a snake shedding skins, the real David Bowie was very hard to pin down. The question is, did a real David Bowie exist under all those layers? Let’s see:

Which One Is Davy Jones?

Sometimes there’s just not enough room for two people in one place. Davy Jones and the Manish Boys were on track under Shel Talmy’s (the Who) guidance towards success-singles and selected high exposure gigs. Things weren’t perfect, but then in 1966 something happened, a US television show. Perhaps the meteoric rise of the Monkees in 1966 caught everyone unaware. But as Bowie wrote to an American fan in 1967: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it” ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said Bowie’s manager.  The name change to David Bowie was necessary. (Of note is his 1965 encounter with session guitarist Jimmy Page. Jones/Bowie grabbed an unused riff from Page that he held on to for the perfect moment, resurfacing five years later on The Man Who Sold the World as The Supermen).

Glamming on to a Trend

                                     Alice                                            David

The glam movement was just getting started in the late 60’s. Guys started wearing make up and dresses, dropped hints that they might be gay, strapped on guitars, and rocked out. An early pioneer, Alice Cooper (first the name of a band, then later the name of the singer) had workshopped  the ‘guy pretending to be a girl thing’. In Britain, homosexuality was becoming popular (it had been illegal in that country until 1967). Though it took until 1972 for him to declare himself gay (possibly a publicity stunt to promote the bisexual character Ziggy Stardust that was his persona for the next two years), he embraced the controversy and the ink it generated in the music press. Regardless, the androgynous Bowie character went huge. Starting with the hugely influential Space Oddity single (which seems to have drastically higher production value than the rest of the LP, indications of the need to get an album out quickly), Bowie seemed to have the grand plan already in mind-space themes and dystopia with a hint of hippy pop.  The follow up,  1970’s The Man Who Sold the World found Bowie hitting a rough but powerful outline of what was to come next, with three quarters of the future Spiders already in place. Width of a Circle is a good picture of the imminent future, and a dystopian party it was going to be. The musicianship of the Spiders From Mars band-Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder had a lot to do with this incarnation becoming the real life version of the fantasy. The combination of Bowie and Ronson was unbeatable at the time for spinning out anthem after anthem. 1971’s Hunky Dory brought in fans drawn to this guy who might be a hippy (Glastonbury Fayre appearance), might be a faux stoner trying to be cool (Davy Jones background), might be some half-alien spacerocker trying to get a cult together?  The latter choice  was closest to the truth. But fans gathered to the freak flag Bowie was flying, and the party was about to begin in earnest. The stage was ready for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s acknowledged masterpiece. A loose rock opera of sorts, it is a dystopian tale with a hint of 60’s utopian optimism. Everyone should own this record.(The fictional glam alien pop star Ziggy that takes the world over was supposedly based on the name and persona of the over the top persona and groundbreaking ambiguous sexuality of Iggy Pop).

“Well the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You’re the blessed, we’re the Spiders from Mars”

Ziggy drew huge crowds wherever he went. Arenas and halls filled up across the Europe, America, Japan and of course, the UK. They played 174 shows from February 1972 to July 1973. They had conquered the world in fashion akin to what was accomplished recently by Led Zeppelin. This was far more than just a band-the whole trip promised was a lifestyle that fans wondering where the promise of the festival generation had gone had been waiting for- a glass asylum with just a hint of mayhem. The hippies, the glam kids, the new pill druggies, the sci-fi futurists–the optimists and pessimists of the post commune era had been searching for something to fill this unfulfilled dream. This was a utopia of sex, drugs and rock n roll as a way of living. Not a cliche,  but a real outlet from reality that you could stay in permanently, with Ziggy as their leader. Ziggy was becoming a reality, the messiah that was only words scrawled into an album coming to life-a real cult leader with a real cult following. But it wasn’t really clear where Ziggy started and Bowie ended. They started to fuse into one personality, which in a haze of drugs and decadence, must have been a little concerning.  When Bowie announced his retirement live in concert, there were gasps of disbelief in the crowd. Fans were aghast that he had taken off the Ziggy persona like a cheap Halloween costume and crumpled it in the corner, ending their dreams.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

  US original cover and 1972 reissue

MWSTWUS2.jpgDavid Bowie - Hunky Dory.jpg ZiggyStardust.jpg

A Lad Insane?

You’d have to be nuts to walk away from the fame (and cash) that Ziggy brought in. His retirement? A publicity stunt. You see, only Ziggy was retiring, not David. Bowie’s next tweak wasn’t that radical. Aladdin Sane was huge in America, and those that missed the Spiders From Mars tour were sure not to miss this one. The next two albums did not stray too far from home. The lightning bolt became his icon, and glam burst full force in America, spawning bands from the New York Dolls to Kiss, signaling even the early Ramones to put on make up, wear dresses, act gay, and hope to get famous.

His decision on Diamond Dogs to not have a star guitarist in the band, and hold down guitar duties on his own was a hubris motivated mistake. His limited skills on guitar held back some fairly impressive songs from becoming full blown rock legends. Still, this album ranks as one of his best, and is the last in the trio that started with Ziggy. Rock n Roll was about to run its course for Bowie. The three album arc for an invented personality though? This was a format to stay on.  (Many Bowie fans point to these three albums as the essential Bowie, a point I essentially agree with).

Blue and Green Eyed Soul

Bowie’s next move puzzled many. Gone were the dresses, the futuristic sci-fi costumes, the make up, the platform shoes-the whole thing. Many fans were crushed when Bowie became the Thin White Duke: a cigarette smoking, smoky eyed soul singer. Demure zoot suit era costumes were modernized to fit in with his new ‘cool persona’ . 1975’s Young Americans kicked this off. R n B and Philadelphia soul? A natural for a skinny white boy from Brixton, right? Soul was huge in America, and though he had a solid fan base, radio hadn’t caught on until Young Americans. Station to Station continued the run, and the Ziggy kids were perplexed and pissed, feeling ditched by their hero who had laid out the blueprint of a whole lifestyle. Fame and Young Americans had supplanted the alien pied piper. Carlos Alomar came on as guitarist, but couldn’t get the things out of Bowie that Ronson could. Never again would Bowie have a muse like Mick Ronson.

Station to Station cover.jpg

Nothing says soul like being surrounded by black people,  and his appearance on Soul Train either validates his new persona or is uncomfortable in the extreme. Perhaps a little bit of both?

Krautrock Here We Come

The next trio of albums was started in Berlin. Krautrock had been noticed throughout Europe, and the flamboyant and odd Amon Duul II and equally strange Faust had left the playing field to the instrumentalists. Bands like Cluster, Harmonia, Can, Kraftwerk (see V2 Schneider from Heroes), la Dusseldorf and Tangerine Dream had been left standing. Mostly  instrumental, these bands had created a sound-they were stark and brooding-and ambient. Bowie saw and Bowie liked. He contacted ambient music pioneer Brian Eno to come to Berlin and absorb the vibes of a dark and brooding city, and make some music. Eno was essential to this new sound, and the new image-part performance art, part disaffected rock star, part coke head trying to kick a nasty habit. Many Bowie fans point to the trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as his peak period, and perhaps the only view of the ‘real’ Bowie he allowed us to see.

Low (album).jpg  

Scary MTV Monsters

The follow up to Lodger didn’t exactly light up the charts-it was a frightening thought to have a 1980’s Bowie for many. Robert Fripp and the then new instrument guitar synthesizer played by Chuck Hammer tried to fill the gaping hole left by Eno’s departure. It spawned the classic tune Fashion, but others noticed the album was filled with references from his past, especially an update on Major Tom.

A three year layoff and a huge new record contract with EMI (as he jumped ship from RCA) led to an unexpected renaissance. Let’s Dance, released in 1983 garnered a lot of attention, and the rise of MTV gave it a boost that no one could have predicted. With the relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, and the ultra slick disco era Chic’s Nile Rodgers as a producer, a streamlined dance floor ready MTV icon was created. The guitar work of Vaughan kept some of his older fans in the fold while new fans flocked to the banner in hordes. The album went straight to number one in the UK, and scrapped its way to number four in the States. Following the pattern of three, it was followed by the generally inferior Tonight in 1984 and the generally ignored Never Let Me Down in 1987.

David-bowie-lets-dance.jpg Tonight (album).jpg Never-Let-Me-Down.jpg

In the mid sixties, Bowie had said that all he wanted to do was be Mick Jagger. In 1985, his dream came true in the magnificently horrific ‘Dancing in the Streets’ duet with Jagger. A video so amazingly ill advised, the US animated television show Family Guy showed it in its entirety, without comment. That moment in a show that never used live footage said more than any words could ever say -a unique combination of awe and disbelief for mid 80’s cocaine decisions:

Folks rightfully thought it was over, and Bowie was generally put into the ‘where are they now’ category. For those puzzled by the duet with Bing Crosby, this duet was viewed as the nadir of his career. He needed something to revive his flagging prospects.

I Am a Musician In a Band, Not a Pop Star

Tin Machine was a surprise in 1988. Bowie was no longer an MTV star, poster fodder for tweens bedroom walls. Though his reputation was headed towards  ‘fading former video icon’, he was now a musician in a band, Tin Machine. With Reeves Gabrels as the guitar hero for a musical foil, and Soupy Sales’ kids-Hunt Sales and Tony Sales as a rhythm section, this unit seemed headed for stardom. Bowie trying to get his rock cred back, twenty years after Space Oddity? Sure, I’m in. Trying to ditch all of the unwanted fans that Let’s Dance had created? Admirable. But there was a problem. Perhaps due to an inability to write a single good song, the seriousness with which this was presented sank like an overloaded freighter presented with a large ocean wave. It sank agonizingly slowly. The follow up was met with even more disdain. Apparently Bowie was not ‘a musician in a band.’ An admirable failure.  (the live album is mildly entertaining).

Tin-machine album.jpg The European album cover, showing 4 greek Koroi statues and the name of the band Tin-machine oy.jpg

Revisiting the Past to Nine Inch Nails Here We Come

Black Tie White Noise brought Bowie into the 90’s. Released in 1993, Nile Rodgers was back on board. So was Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine. Add in a cameo by Mick Ronson from the Spiders From Mars and you have a two decade reunion on one disc. It hit number one in the UK, but barely made the top 40 in the States. It was scattered and showed that Bowie might be grabbing at any ideas he had left over. The next albums did little to dissuade anyone leaning towards this theme. By 1995, techno and industrial music was huge. Former underground bands like Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry had developed large followings, and new tastes were trending towards raucous electronics. Bowie sniffed the wind and adjusted accordingly. Outside in 1995 and Earthling in 1997 felt like he was being led by the trends a bit more than actually writing from the heart. Eno had shown up for Outside, a dystopia revisitation of Diamond Dogs themes-right down to the spoken word pieces, ominously subtitled “the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”. Computers were called in to randomize proposed lyrics in a scissors cut and paste method, and sampling became a parallel cut and paste technique. The album got mixed reviews and did not crack the top 20 in the States. Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails for this tour, and the blurring of who created what was suddenly right on the same stage. The release of I’m Afraid of Americans – a stand alone single featuring Trent Reznor further cemented the NIN/industrial image. The follow up, Earthling in 1997 brought more current trends to bear. Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails, club techno all collided with technology to create a full on digital computer based product. Drum n bass fans were miffed at this less than original appropriation of their generally underground scene. Older Bowie fans thought a weak copy of a Nine Inch Nails album might signal the end of the line. The follow up, Hours, did little do dispel this notion. A contest to get fan lyrics on the album(!) and a video game theme song were the highlights and the signpost that the train might be hitting the last stop. Heathen from 2002 called upon guests: Pete Townshend, Tony Levin from King Crimson, Dave Grohl, Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater to give a mish mash of leftovers a fresh coat. Neil Young and Pixies covers gave this a patchwork feel, but it was a slight return. Not as overtly derivative of others, he now was mining his own career for nuggets, semi-successfully. As one reviewer said “I’m tired of attending funerals for David Bowie’s career” when appraising Bowie’s last decade of work.

Outsidebowie.jpg  Earthling (album).jpg Bowie Hours.jpgHeathen.jpg

Ironically, it was in the last two years that Bowie mystified his critics. 2013’s The Next Day surprised many. Those who thought he was lingering in retirement gave their kudos. Recorded in secrecy, many of his associates and even his label were unaware this album was being recorded. The album shot to number one in many countries (number 2 in the States) and was by far the most successful and original piece of work in three decades. Housed in a perplexing sleeve (Heroes, reworked), it gathered praise everywhere. Rock n roll had returned, and most of the songs on this would not be uncomfortable on a late 70’s Peter Gabriel solo album-a minor classic, and so unlikely this late in the game. His 26th album was even more paradoxical. The release of Blackstar, two days before his death in January 2016,  confounded critics and was viewed by initial reviewers even more favorably  than its predecessor. Was he mining the little heard skronk territory of music to glom onto a new vision? Or had Bowie, realizing the end was near, finally become able to reveal his true self to the world? Only time will tell, but the concurrent Lazarus theater project is ironically symbolic. The chameleon may have shed the multi layers of skin he had grown over the past fifty years.

David Bowie - The Next Day.png   Blackstar album cover.jpg

Picking Up the Pieces

It should be noted that Bowie was an artist, first and foremost. Rock star, screen roles, theater, visual art-check out his Dada inspired collaboration with Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in 1979:

Also, before we finish-let’s not forget that Bowie single-handedly saved the careers of both Mott the Hoople (he gave them All the Young Dudes, slated for Ziggy Stardust, as a career changing single), and Iggy Pop- the inspiration for Jean Genie and Ziggy himself. The amount of money Iggy took in for co writing China Girl was not insignificant. (It could be argued he saved Lou Reed too by producing Transformer with the groundbreaking single Take a Walk on the Wild Side). Three hugely influential rock icons might have shuffled off had it not been for Bowie.

Well, What Was Bowie-Gifted Copycat or True Genius?

The definition of a chameleon is something that changes its colors to blend with the background. But Bowie was an anti-chameleon. He changed his colors to match the background not to hide, but to become noticed. Like Madonna, Bowie’s real strength was in having a good radar for what is currently popular, identifying musicians that were good at the particular genre, and then exploding on the scene with a new full blown persona-masquerading as the figurehead of a scene. Also like Madonna, musicians and music writers were well aware of this appropriation of what others had started. Unlike Madonna, Bowie’s legacy is much harder to pin down. He became so influential in the rock world for two decades that the chicken and the egg question becomes relevant-which was more important, the innovators or the copyist? His nose for popular trends was unerring, but the question remains-how much originality was involved? In the long run, it might not matter. David Bowie touched so many lives since Space Oddity quietly scraped the charts some 47 years ago. And in the long run, that is what really matters. Lazarus will rise. One thing you can say about Bowie, he was a survivor.

Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmininster-Stone Dead, Forever (or 14,600 Bottles of Jack on the Wall)

Lemmy; WIldest Moments

The bass that launched a thousand trips

Lemmy’s death this week has spawned more hurried articles in more unlikely places (even porn sites were changing their front web pages to give tribute to him…)  But there is a reason for this-Lemmy was a force in rock n roll rarely seen: part of the rock scene since before the Beatles caught the nation’s fancy, and one of the loudest and hardest partying motherfuckers  ever spawned from the growling  belly of the six string hell-beast had touched many lives in the five decade swath he cut through polite society.

In short, Lemmy was unique in rock, an eye blinkingly difficult feat to achieve in a field of fairly unique personalities. His dedication to ‘heavy’ single handedly spawned most of the current metal bands dating over the past three decades-thrash metal, speed metal, death metal, black metal? All of these genres can be traced directly to the humble Motörhead origins. A simple power trio, unapologetic and single minded in approach to the end, Lemmy and company pushed the limits of volume to unimagined heights of “huh? what?” as folks tried to assess what the hell had just happened at the end of a show and where the hell had their hearing gotten off to.

 

nascent Lemmy with Vicars
Why is there no hold button on this thing? -Emerson with dagger

 

Hendrix: currently experienced

 

Many sites have chronicled his curriculum vitae, but in short: Ian Kilminster started his career proper in roughly 1965 in the Rockin’ Vicars, his third or so band of his career, but one who released a few singles that made no dent in the charts or hearts of the grim Manchester surroundings. His involvement in the late sixties as a roadie for the Nice and Jimi Hendrix showed him what the road could really be like, from pulling birds and loads of equipment while out of his mind with Hendrix (“That’s how I learned to function on five hits of acid”) to giving Keith Emerson some of his Hitler Youth knives as a present (some of which were used to stab keys down to hold notes as an early pre-ELP  band the Nice stage trick), Lemmy was fine tuning his act.

Hawkwind Space Ritual, Lemmy center

It was with the space rock band Hawkwind that the legend began to form. Hawkwind was a collection of furry freaks from Ladbroke Grove who took the Pink Floyd blueprint from Interstellar Overdrive and ran with it. Lemmy’s legendary 1971 debut gig introduction to the band was being told by Nik Turner, “make some noises in E” and he was off. His Motörhead style of bass playing was honed here: two note chords strummed to give a helluva bottom to the sound– simultaneously functioning as bassist and a second guitarist in a one guitar band. The drug taking? Legendary. Hawkwind’s only hit, Silver Machine, was one of the rare tunes sung by Lemmy and became a huge hit across Europe. It was recorded live at the Greasy Truckers Party.

After three days spent taking Dexedrine with Dik Mik, Lemmy and his bandmate took Mandrax, a depressant, to lessen the intensity of the high. But Lemmy got bored, so he dropped acid and mescaline, then took more Mandrax. Dik Mik drove to the venue, where they pair partook in cocaine and eight Black Beauties (uppers) each. “Fuckin’ hell, Mik, I can’t move,” Lemmy said. “Can you?” As he explained in his book, the band’s roadies helped them onstage for the show, which was taped for the Greasy Truckers Party live album “That was one of the best gigs we ever taped,” Lemmy enthused. “The jamming between me and [leader Dave] Brock was great. We got ‘Silver Machine,’ our only hit – and Number Two at that – from that gig!”

This wasn’t his first trip to the edge, nor his last:

In 1969, before Lemmy joined Hawkwind, a friend convinced his nurse girlfriend to sneak them some amphetamine sulfate from the dispensary where she worked. She accidentally brought home a jar of atropine sulfate. Lemmy did a teaspoon full, which he said was “200 times the overdose,” and then everyone “went berserk.” In his memoir White Line Fever he recalled talking to a TV held under his arm, then passing out and waking up in the hospital. “If we got you in another hour you would have been dead,” the doctor told him. Even after being treated, he had sporadic hallucinations for two weeks and recalled, “sitting, reading a book, and I’d turn to page 42 – but there was no book.”

Seemingly not possible, yet…

Stacia explains Hawkwind to crowd

…on another night in the early 70’s, the band was coming from a show and were pulled over by the police. Already aware of the unfriendly attitude that the constabulary had towards them, Lemmy and Bob Calvert split up the bottle of speed and Mandrax, eating the lion’s share himself. Later in his hotel room he shared with Stacia, Hawkwind’s statuesque naked dancer, Lemmy passed out cold. She phoned the band in other rooms and said Lemmy was unresponsive  on top of her, she was trapped and couldn’t move at all, and he was apparently dead. The band came, dragged him into his bed, and let him sleep it off. “‘Tis but a scratch”

Motörhead mk1-Larry Wallis, Lucas Fox, Lemmy

Motörhead proper began shortly after Lemmy had been sacked in 1975 from Hawkwind. His playing and integration into the band had given Hawkwind the sound and the success that had been eluding them for so long. Success in America beckoned. But getting caught crossing the US/Canada border mid tour with an inordinate amount of amphetamines led to a muddle headed decision to sack him immediately.

“If I was busted for acid, everything would have been fine,” he said. “But they were all about the psychedelic experience. The most cosmic band in the world fired me for getting busted with the wrong kinds of drugs!”

Lemmy joined forces with Larry Wallis of the Pink Fairies, who had laid down a rough blueprint for Motörhead  with the Fairies recent “Kings of Oblivion” lp-a dash of Hawkwind stirred into an uncomplicated pot of pub rock and heavy rock. Lemmy brought up the volume, scaled back the psychedelia, used his last tune written for Hawkwind as the sign out front, and hit the throttle and popped the clutch on the motorcycle.

Things did not go well. Fox couldn’t cut it, and was replaced by Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor on drums. (he is a story all by himself). Wallis had his fingers in other pies and as interest waxed and waned (Motörhead won NME’s poll for worst band of the year in 1976), the future was uncertain. Fast Eddie Clarke replaced Wallis, and the classic trio was in place. The only thing missing were two important parts: fans and a record label.

Clarke, Philthy, Lemmy

The band flew through a couple of labels, before Hawkwind’s management put them on to Bronze records to make a final go of it. They reworked their first unreleased album to no avail and things looked grim. But those in the know had noticed they had a crossover following lacking in all bands on the UK scene: Metal heads liked them,  punk rock kids liked them, bikers liked them, and a few die hard Hawkwind fans (see: hippies)  liked them- that covered most of the bases. The potential was there, and in 1979 they released their first tour de force, Overkill. These three albums: Overkill, Bomber and Ace of Spades were the trifecta of metal, creating a genre. This started a five year run of over the top metal-stuff that unscrewed your brain case, rewired the the hardware, and nailed the whole thing shut again.  Microphone stand impossibly high, with microphone pointing straight back back down towards the floor (supposedly to stretch Lemmy’s vocal chords for maximum effect), Motörhead re-defined metal for the next decade.

Bomber.jpg Ace of Spades Motorhead album cover.jpg

The Big Three

Overkill       Bomber     Ace of Spades

All of this stuff was available in Europe only. In the States, punters had to find independent shops that carried imported vinyl- easy in cities, not so easy in the sticks. But America was in for a treat: Motörhead opening for Ozzy with Ozzy allowing them to bring their ‘Bomber’ rig-a lighting rig that simulated a somewhat life sized WW2 German dive bomber, complete with sound effects and an ability to dive into the stage (and first rows occasionally) The tour was accompanied by the first ever big US Motörhead release and most peoples introduction to the band  -No Sleep til Hammersmith, an introduction if there ever was one-one of the heaviest live albums ever put to vinyl. (technically Ace of Spades was first, but this one got the push) I got this the week it came out, hurried home and dropped the needle down on this one while my roommate slept in the other room-it sounded like a car crash as they took the stage. I turned it up to aircraft landing volume, and  as he staggered into the living room worried and confused he said “I honestly thought a truck had just come through the fucking front wall and smashed into the kitchen..”  That’s what would make Lemmy smile.

No Sleep 'til Hammersmith.jpg
Bomber rig in action

The follow up, Iron Fist, seemed to have something wrong. Other than the title track, even this three chord outfit seemed to be running out of ideas. Nobody was surprised when Fast Eddie exited at the end of the 1982 US tour (supposedly pissed over  Motörhead’s collaboration with the dreadful Plasmatics, who made Motörhead look like King Crimson in comparison)

Motörhead seemed dead in the water. The choice of Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy was an odd one. Too melodic. Too..uhh…pretty. Motorhead prided themselves as being the ugliest band around, and were a band that- to quote them- “if we moved in next door, your lawn would die”  Musos were excited though, could a guy who literally dripped melody from his fingers get anything out of Lemmy and Philthy, or was a multi car pile up imminent?

Early buzz had it that something really special was going on in rehearsals. Robertson had made Lemmy change to the other side of the stage (“he was so deaf in one ear, he needed to change and have his good ear pointed at me so he could follow what we were doing”) Sounds magazine in Britain chronicled their early days and pumped the hype with a weekly comic strip.

The results? Some would say the best Motörhead album ever. It certainly was the most daring. Robertson’s natural melodies swirled through the new tunes, and the cover was a pretty accurate depiction of what was happening inside-a swirling rainbow of color coming from the Motörhead skull. I Got Mine was the first single, and was likewise a pretty good representation of the change that Robertson brought to the band:

Lemmy trying to actually sing, melodic arpeggiations-what was going on? I was delighted-Motörhead had done a fairly challenging musical album. At the time I had been working at a fairly well known Northeast heavy metal record store. Motörhead was due to come for an in store appearance and record signing. The whole  store was pumped-the owner sent me off to buy a case of Carlsberg Elephants, Lemmy’s brew of choice. “So we can drink at work while the band is here?”  Yes, yes we could. The band showed up, living legends strode in and a line went around the corner. I stood in line near the end and unfolded Space Ritual, Hawkwind’s masterpiece. It folds out triple gatefold, then opens downward again into a full six panel 36″ x 24″ tablecloth unfolding kerffflopp:
Lemmy took one look at this and growled:    “Aaargh ye still listen to this do ye?”
But he signed it.(six years later, Dave Brock signed the same album and said “hmm, Lemmy. Alright, there’s two now”)  That night at the Paradise, they almost literally blew up the whole sound system. Robertson had four 100 watt double stack Marshalls, Lemmy had two 200 watt HiWatt heads on two double high stacks. Lets clarify: you could play Madison Square Garden easily with this rig, and be heard clearly in the rafters. I had never experienced volume even close to this in my life. I spoke later to the house sound guy as he chronicled the damage the volume had caused: all floor monitors blown out, left side of stage PA fully blown out, right side stack half blown out, overhead monitors two of three fully fried. He had never seen anything like it either. I had expensive earplugs with metal internal baffles, useless. My internal organs actually hurt the next day. I realized that the bass had set up standing waves in my body cavity and were rattling me like a slow motion maraca. It took days before my hearing returned and my internal bruises dissipated.

The next night in Providence, a club about twice the size of the Paradise, Robertson was down from four to two double stacks, and Lemmy down to a single from a double rig.  Apparently they had learned their lesson. The volume was sane, but the music? The combination of Robertson, Taylor and Lemmy was one that had to be seen live to be believed. Musicality and Motörhead in one sentence? It didn’t make sense. (quick aside: in Sounds that month, Motörhead had done a stunning multi page interview by an open sewer pouring into a river. Within the interview, Lemmy semi-bragged about having anal warts. Not mad, not proud, just telling something nobody should ever tell.  In another magazine interview the same month, Philthy Animal Taylor allowed that he had a case of warts on his dick. In the bathroom of the Providence venue, I noticed I was at the urinal next to Philthy. We chatted (while peeing) about the insane volume of the previous night, and then…the thought flickered for a second-putting two and two together–and asking if his dick warts came from the warts on Lemmy’s ass? Y’know, investigative reporting and such. I calculated the odds of getting punched out instantly as pretty high and kept that one inside)

It was too good to be true. Robertson’s illogical insistence on exercise headbands and jogging shorts for a costume alienated a large part of the fanbase. He was resistant to much of the back catalog and wanted to create a new version of  Motörhead based on their new sound. Bikers, tweakers and metal heads looking to Motörhead as the point of the plow tearing metal forward saw this as an unnecessary slip off the rails. Metal was heading further into the unknown realms of heaviness. This wasn’t. I was devastated. (Philthy proved I wasn’t completely off base by also quitting the band– to join up with Robertson in a new project.)
After this LP, I put Motörhead into the background. Oh sure, I bought the greatest hits double LP that came in an actual leather sleeve, No Remorse. It was the first appearance of Wurzel, Phil Campbell and Pete Gill-the new Motörhead. For me-it was pretty much over.
Not completely though. I still checked in once in a while. The line up stabilized in 1995 with Mikkey Dee already in and the departure of Wurzel, the band was a trio for the next two decades, steady and consistent.  In the early aughts I worked at a high school and had a punk rock chick student. Her mom had been one of Lemmy’s girlfriends and actually had him on her answering machine, all growling and shit. I went to an area show. On the way in, a bloodied guy in the lobby was on a stool surrounded by security trying to ascertain what happened. He was all covered in blood-shirt, nose, face….he muttered a snippet ‘he was in a Slayer shirt’ as I passed. Well that’s still a Motörhead show. The show was pretty good, but they were no longer the Motörhead I had known. They did get there finally by the encore, full on rip into the stratosphere. (My student brought an autographed band photo the next day: “take it easy on the kid in math today–love, Motörhead and then signed by all. Probably the only document of Motörhead trying to influence a teacher. )
In later years, Lemmy’s health slipped, but the constancy of the band did not. Lemmy knew that “rock n roll is gonna save your soul, you gotta let it” This gave him a nearly universal respect across the board-Ozzy, Jarvis Cocker, Slash-hell pretty much everybody knew who Lemmy was and what he did: leather, spikes, Rickenbacker bass powered metal. Good metal. It was like thousands of people had a universally shared crazy uncle, depraved and beloved in the same breath-people knew his lifestyle… and liked it.
An auto defibrillator was installed in 2013 after a few heart related events, but the band didn’t really slow down until the very end (sixteen studio albums and seven live albums released post 1983). But still Lemmy had reasons to keep going with the band, and reasons to keep rocking out towards age 70. On his 65th birthday, he said: “Rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll – it speaks for itself. You hear it and you know it, whether it is or not. It’s quite simple. It means ‘fuck you’ – that’s the attitude of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about music that makes you 10ft tall and immortal.”
Events related to his conspicuous consumption of alcohol and cigarettes started to take their toll. Lemmy had bragged that he had drunk a full bottle of Jack Daniels every day since his 30th birthday. (hence the 14,600 bottles of Jack in the headline). He hadn’t thought that the multiple liters of Coke  he drank every day in his dozens of Jack and Cokes would be a problem. He switched to vodka and orange juice from whiskey “for health reasons” in 2015. He cut down smoking from two packs a day to one pack per week. It was too late. But he didn’t stop. Motörhead played over 50 shows  between May and December 2015. Hell, they played six shows in December by the last show on the 11th. Lemmy was diagnosed with cancer only fifteen days later. Two days after that, he died in his sleep-in his chair with his favorite video game in his lap. A living legend no longer, the motto of the 2015 tour said it all: victoria aut morte–victory or death.

Click below for a quick run through of Stone Dead Forever from Bomber:

The final show ever, December 11, 2015 below….gawdammm he died only 17 days later, probably thwarting his plans to die onstage.

So hats off to this one of a kind whiskey swilling, ear drum smashing, gun toting, Nazi memorabilia collecting brawling tripping speeding banging living biker legend. Summed up in the eponymous song, the last one he wrote while in Hawkwind in 1975, this both sums up and predicts the whole imbroglio perfectly:

Fourth day, five day marathon,
We’re moving like a parallelogram,
Don’t move, I’ll shut the door and kill the lights,
I guess I’ll see you all on the ice,
I should be tired,
And all I am is wired,
Ain’t felt this good for an hour,
Motörhead, remember me now, Motörhead alright

We’ll remember you, mate

Dead and Company: The Grateful Dead in 2015-Lots of Smoke, Little Fire

ha

Public Service announcement: For long term Deadheads, here is a quick synopsis in Deadspeak so 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 mixed with a  1995 show of the past would look like-tempos running at about 45-50 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. The bus came by and I got on; but there was no cowboy Neal at the wheel, and the bus to Never neverland? Never mind that, it doesn’t even say Furthur on the front anymore. If you thought this summer’s Trey led reunion was a bit far from the ‘real thing’, then this version is even yet further away from that. If Trey’s tour was a blurry photo of the Dead, Mayer’s version is more akin to  a crayon drawing of a set.

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’s setlist 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.

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John Mayer? Really?

First up, I have to address the recently increasing 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, but was forced to buy a seat behind the stage 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? A more recent example-the 3 lp Fillmore East lp released this week-12/12/15, hit the shelves at an lofty $119.99, or FORTY dollars per lp-most triple lps clock in at around $45 per 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-nobody even knew what was going to be played yet. The AmEx sponsorship of the Halloween shows in New York? ‘Nuff said.

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. Too clean vocally, too clean as a guitarist, too clean in general.  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?

 

Yes-Heaven and Earth: Rock Bottom, Here We Are

Heaven & Earth

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.
.

Norwegian Black Metal: Satanism, Church Burnings and Murder-What Hath Venom Wrought?

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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.

220px-Venom_Welcome

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. .

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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

Euronymous
Euronymous

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:

historymayhem immortal emperor

dark throne unleashed emperor logo 3_MayhemThese 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.

 

Dead


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.

 

Kerrang

Kerrang cover story

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 inexplicably 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”

 

 

 

 

Metal Machine Music 40 Years Later-Sheer Genius or the Biggest Scam Ever Foisted Upon the Rock World?

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:

MMM

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.

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.”. .

Banned in Boston-Led Zeppelin Banned For Life (Sort of) 1975

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”

75_2-4-Boston_tickets

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….

page and plant 75

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.

“Can….You…Dig… It” -Cyrus