This is another off the wall review from VMag, August 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Three 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. Murphy published this untouched in the pre Columbine world, only commenting dryly “So you didn’t like it?”.
Yes-Open Your Eyes (Beyond/Tommy Boy) 1998
Zack skated around the corner of his street, the dread in his heart increasing. He knew, of course, that his parents would be home. His mom was kinda straight, but his dad….uh….well, his friends thought they were OK but Zack knew they were so, well–friggin’ goofy. His dad reviewed records for the Springfield paper, and regarded himself as damn hip. If it wasn’t bad enough that Zack had to absorb eternal grief for his skateboarding, they’d also made him get rid of all his piercings.
Now his old man was censoring what he would bring home to listen to. Ever since he’d seen his dad snap the Fugazi and Life of Agony discs in half right in front of him, Zack had settled on a compromise plan. CD’s would be smuggled into the house inside innocuous looking jewel cased covers.
He entered the front door quietly. -“Oh Christ there he is…”
Zack’s dad looked up from an ancient issue of Crawdaddy. “What ya got there, sport?” he asked, noticing the CD’s in in Zack’s hand. He peered into the darkness of the doorway to see….
“Hmmm, YES, Open Your Eyes and the Symphonic Pink Floyd? That Billy Sherwood certainly has revitalized Yes, hasn’t he? I mean, I had my doubts during the Buggles era, but now, whew! Four stars next Sunday, y’know? Dad said to no one in particular as Zack quickly exited toward his room.
Sliding the deadbolt shut, Zack tossed the Yes and Floyd onto his dresser, on top of the Pearl Jam-Yield and Dave Matthews- Live empty cases. Opening his five CD changer, he carefully loaded the new Hatebreed and Snapcase into the machine, and donned his headphones. “They should be happy I’m not a metalhead anymore” he intoned to the empty room.
Zack absently picked at the shrinking scab on his arm, until a dark crimson globe appeared, shining at the corner. Zack regarded the reflection of the light in the growing orb, and chuckled to himself.
“Yup, it’s decided, tomorrow’s the day…” He glanced around his room at the Queen, No Doubt and Bush posters his dad had bought him.
I will admit it, I had Hawkwind written off. For most long term fans of Hawkwind, the band has been on life support for over 15 years. It’s not as if there wasn’t plenty of evidence. Folks started to wonder what was up as drum machines and sequencers took control of the band. Albums began to have a push button feel to them, and fans had started to abandon ship around the time Alan Davey left circa 1997’s Distant Horizons. This album had ushered in the ‘techno era’ for Hawkwind, and ripping guitars, washes of jet engine level white noise and howling vocals were being replaced by drum machines, polite sequenced synthesizers and a pattern of endless parade of pleasant remakes of their classic tunes, mostly inferior to the originals. Recent clunkers didn’t add to confidence that the ship would stop taking on water.
With that in mind, any new Hawkwind album needs to be graded on a sliding scale. 2010’s Blood of the Earth suffered from an overt absence of Dave Brock, the sole surviving member, and the heart of the band. His vocals and guitar work were essential cogs that made the Hawkship fly so successfully. His handing over the reins of the band to a revolving door of some less inspired associates made for a frustrating and disappointing experience. The follow up, 2013’s Onward, fell even further down the rungs of the ladder-no memorable tunes at all, and padded out with remakes of their own former classics. Ennui and malaise were now the watchwords, and the outlook for the future looked grim.
All of which makes 2016’s The Machine Stops, their 26th studio album such a welcome surprise. When one enters with zero expectations, even a modest level of success is noteworthy. But make no mistake, this album exceeds any modest expectations. Echoes of their underrated 80’s work-Church of Hawkwind, Levitation and Choose Your Masques-flow through this concept album (loosely based on E. M. Forster’s prescient 1909 short story of the same name-a post apocalyptic underground world controlled by machines). Church of Hawkwind is the best reference point, a 1982 album revered by Hawk-heads and generally unknown in their catalog. It has long been considered one of the last of the ‘classic’ Hawk albums, heavy on the synths and thick with a creepy and trippy dystopian vibe. The Machine Stops follows a similar bent: spoken word pieces as intro and outro, synth instrumentals that segue songs seamlessly, genuine rockers interspersed with more dreamy takes. It would appear that this is the first Hawkwind album in decades without a remake of a former classic, but hard core Hawkfans may notice that the song Tube is lifted from the introduction of Choose Your Masques’ Dream Worker, while others may notice musical and lyrical themes from other past songs weaving their way through.
Keeping in mind that Hawkwind has been mostly a functioning band since 1969, it is beyond startling that 47 years later, they could still pull some magic out of their hats and dazzle us. Long term fans and newcomers will resonate with this record, as it plays into Hawkwind’s strengths. Concept album? Check. Large dystopian theme running through the whole thing? Check. Creepy atmospheric interludes? Check. And a big reason for this album’s success is Brock stepping up once more to grab control of his own band, and inject some of his magical energy that has been lacking in the last 20 years. When people say this is one of their best albums in a while, they are spot on. (One review states it is the best since 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time, a bit of misguided hyperbolic praise). But this is definitely the most satisfying and complete work since 1992’s Electric Teepee (or some others have pointed towards 1995’s Alien 4 as their last really satisfying and complete album). Either way, it has been over 20 years since a Hawkwind album that really gets you excited and makes you want to play it again immediately has been released. Hawkwind releases used to be cause for celebration, make you want to take the day off from work or school and just—you know-get into it, get out of it, get into it. Blood of the Earth I played a few times and haven’t revisited in six years. Onward? I actually sold it after two plays knowing I’d never listen to it again. Hawkwind’s recent output was starting to tarnish the unique power and beauty of their 1969-1992 era of near perfection.
Their recent attempts at sticking their toes into the prog rock pool also didn’t sit right. Prog bands are known for their chops and tricky compositional skills, this was never Hawkwind’s vibe. Hawkwind was always about the SOUND. They always had taken a punk rock approach, long before punk existed. “Plug a bunch of things in, wail away, and let’s see what happens” has always been their approach, and nobody in the history of the band would claim virtuoso status in any era of their existence. This is what made Hawkwind stand out from the crowd, in a field crowded by anorak prog geeks wielding moogs, Hawkwind were the Neanderthals armed with technology who co-opted the fancy gear and created a glorious primal electronic caterwauling, a maelstrom of sound that could pluck your consciousness from your shaking body and take it to new dimensions, something ELP and their ilk could never do. Attempting to enter territory they weren’t well equipped for wasn’t playing to their strengths, and their recent work showed it. Only 2012’s Hawkwind Light Orchestra’s Stellar Variations avoided this trap, stripped to a trio of Brock, Chadwick and Hone.
Is this album perfect? No. Although it does not fare as well in comparison to their groundbreaking 1970-1977 period, and can suffer from time to time from overly generic synthesizer work, it should quickly grab the attention of any Hawkwind fans who would consider themselves a bit disaffected in the millennium. Overall, this album has an elegiac feel to it. Under the guises of following the storyline, the third to last (and best) song on the album, the infectious Solitary Man sounds as if Dave Brock is finally letting the long term fan peek behind the curtain into his private life for both a quick glimpse and large statement, and has pinned an appropriate title to let you know. For as the song says, Dave has always been a Solitary Man, single-handedly guiding the starship Hawkwind through the Cosmos, surrounded by friends, but alone with his thoughts. If this is the last Hawkwind album ever, it is a solid final statement, and they have done us proud. Highly recommended for Hawkwind fans both old and new.
The Stooges are a tricky proposition on vinyl. Depending on who you talk to, they only have either two or three releases (four with Metallic K.O. for the really hardcore) The purists point to the 1969 Elektra debut and the 1970 follow up Fun House as being the holy grail of Stooges lore, the only recordings featuring the original band of Iggy Pop, brothers Scott and Ron Asheton (drums and guitar) and Dave Alexander (bass). A band that horrified Elektra Records label staff, John Cale their producer and pretty much anyone else who came into earshot. Known for a stripped down proto punk rock sound-virtuosos these guys were most definitely not. (you could make a strong case for the Stooges being the first actual punk band). Early shows leaned on an avant-garde bent: Scott pounding away on amplified oil drum percussion, vacuum cleaners and appliances whirring into microphones, all of this creating a pre-industrial music sonic cacophony. (Sadly, this stage of their career is the least documented by any recordings). In the days of flower power, this band was distinctly anti-hippie in look and vibe.
Their first album made few inroads as they were viewed by their label as the little cousins of the other more well known Detroit band, the political heavyweights MC5. The Doors-esque album cover of their debut highlights Iggy’s nascent snarl, both in photo and in sound. John Cale of Velvet Underground fame did all he could to tame these wild beasts from Detroit, and managed to capture their grim outlook in what could be termed a palatable style. (original recording sessions had the Stooges turning the amps up to aircraft landing volume and letting fly. When a horrified Cale explained that in the studio, things had to be less raucous and more controlled, the band just shrugged and said “That’s how we play”. Cale eventually acquiesced and made the necessary adjustments to the dials in the red). The label was unenthused by their new signing, but the infectious enthusiasm of Danny Fields, Elektra’s ‘in house hippie’ and publicist responsible for getting the Doors into the national spotlight kept the dollars flowing and the second album began to take shape. Funhouse, released in 1970, was an attempt to re-create the sonic maelstrom of their early days. Left mostly to their own devices in the studio, the band recorded what many consider their definitive album, culminating in the cacophonous LA Blues, a five minute free form explosion of sound that is akin to a recording of a riot in progress, all accompanied by wailing saxophone courtesy of prospective new band member, Steve Mackay. Overall, the maelstrom of sound the Stooges reveled in had been somewhat captured into the grooves. The public, however, was not enthralled. The burgeoning heroin habits of most of the band, the addition of the divisive James Williamson, the sacking of Alexander and the lack of record sales led to the early demise of the Stooges Mark 1. It seemed over.
When Iggy met David Bowie at the end of 1971, it was decided to give the band one more try, this time on Columbia Records with Bowie as the producer. Raw Power, recorded in 1972 is looked upon today as a punk rock masterpiece, but back then it was only mildly more successful than its predecessors-almost cracking the top 50 in America (likely due to Bowie’s involvement). Metallic K.O., a lo-fi recording of the last Stooges show ever in 1974, and released in 1976 as almost an afterthought, brought an end to the main releases of the band. Oddly this last release was their largest selling album to date.
Which brings us to Live at Ungano’s. You can really be forgiven for missing this release, a lost 1970 NYC recording that had circulated for a while as a bootleg cassette. Starting with the difficult Metallic K.O. in ’76, the last twenty years are replete with Stooges releases of dubious origin. Most releases are light on source information like dates and places, and light on quality has been the benchmark for, let’s see: eleven live albums and six compilations in the last twenty years. Genuine Stooges fans got scarred again and again by sub par bootleg quality recordings being foisted upon the public as ‘new found gems’ and ‘rare complete concert!’. Some beautiful packaging surrounds some of the most diabolical sounding recordings you could ever imagine being put to vinyl (or CD). Some releases literally were taken from those old school tape recorders your parents used to play with-size of a school book with push buttons on one end. Something along the lines of this:
Anyone who has ever owned one of these remembers the murky recordings they provided-internal microphones seemingly wrapped in flannel, an inability to record any conversation that could be translated back into English, and prone to distorting heavily when any loud sounds came anywhere near it. Perfect to record one of the loudest bands in rock n roll!
I initially dismissed Ungano’s as likely did many others as just another one of the plethora of shoddy bootlegs designed to look pretty and drain cash from the unsuspecting public. It wasn’t until one day I turned it over and noticed the Elektra Records logo on the back I began to suspect this was something different. Elektra PR wizard Danny Fields had set up a reel to reel deck (fairly high end sound recording unit) at the back of the club, and the band ran through all seven of their tunes from their upcoming release- Funhouse. Shambling, chaotic, out of control, out of tune-this is a glimpse of the Stooges like they saw themselves. A dose of raw power accompanied by a smack in the head as delivered by a line up never heard on recording before. The Asheton brothers guitar and drums keep Iggy glued, while newcomer (and former roadie) Zeke Zettner replaces the founder Dave Alexander on bass (Dave said: “I got everything I need at home with my mom: food, clean clothes, a bed, my record collection and my instruments. Why would I leave?”) and Bill Cheatham on second guitar give them a rare two guitar attack. The sound is what you would have actually experienced in the club on that long ago August 1970 evening. Glasses clink, folks yell at each other, Iggy interacts-a genuine window into an event that Stooges fans have been seeking for decades. Mackay joins the fray halfway through TV Eye, and nearly hijacks the whole set in two songs. The real treat here is the jam Have Some Fun/My Dream Is Dead, a multi faceted meltdown powered again by Steve Mackay, blowing his brains out in a rock version of Coltrane’s recent salvo approach to saxophone. The final song is the window into the other –Albert Ayler was skronking jazz saxophone squawks into the pop world in 1970, and the other side of the river or lake heard the call and squawked right back. Far from the cacophony of Funhouse’s L.A. Blues, this is another animal completely. Proto Stooge songs, improv vocals, solid jazz riffing, free form poetry and full on atonal free form improvs all melt into perhaps the single best encapsulation of this band ever recorded. Like some proto-fusion jazz rock NRG experiment, this nearly 11 minute jam shows that the Stooges were no slouches musically or conceptually–when they chose to be. I was dumbfounded that this record had languished until five years ago in the can. They finally had released a Stooges concert from their peak era, and one sounding like you might actually have been there, and actually have gotten IT. One thing that Iggy would agree with-the Stooges were a live band far more than a studio band. If there is one slab of Stooges I’d play to someone new to the band, I’d be hard pressed to choose between this and Funhouse to convey the volcanic power and volatility of this sound.
In conclusion, it’s no surprise this gem passed under most people’s noses. This isn’t a perfect sounding LP, but it is pretty damn good. The first thing to disappear on a cheap bootleg are the drums and bass, but here they are articulated nicely, once the house sound guy got a good EQ on the sound. (The tape also suffers from some phasing in the first five minutes of the show, but this sign of aging quickly disappears.) No club in 1970 had perfect sound, but overall this is the best sounding Stooges live recording out there. This is a highly authentic and faithful recording of what the Stooges actually sounded like in a small club with an imperfect sound system and some dodgy microphones. If you want a record that sounds EXACTLY like the Stooges would have sounded in a small club in 1970, this is your ticket. Turn down the lights, light up a pack of cigarettes and leave them around the room, and turn this sucker up as loud as your stereo goes. Close your eyes, and….you are there, a head twisting experience unlike any other band in 1970. That my friends, is a definitive Stooges album. Sem-in-al.
Is rock n roll dying? Not rock stars, who seem to be lining up for lethal injections with great regularity lately, but rock n roll. I look at my living room floor. It is littered with Bowie, Motorhead, Mott the Hoople and Paul Kantner albums. Each new week brings another deletion from the rock n roll Hall of Famous. The detritus of the mighty beast of rock n roll lays scattered like the rubble of a childhood’s end. The recent deaths of David Bowie, Lemmy, Dale Griffin, and Paul Kantner (hey Glen Frey too) in two months is a very large hit for the rock community to take.(and now in the four weeks since this was written-Keith Emerson offed himself and Prince has checked out too) But it got me wondering about the state of rock of late. All of these platters on the rug came out over thirty five years ago (Bowie’s Blackstar being the lone exception). Turn on the radio-you hear about the same 100 songs: Bad Company, Boston, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, the Who, the Doors, Bob Seger, Elton John, the Yardbirds, Dire Straits, the Cars…..the list goes on. What do all these guys have in common? They were active and put albums out in the 1964-1979 fifteen year patch. In fact, almost every important album in rock came out between 1967 and 1977. Could it be that rock actually died, and we didn’t notice?
When the Beatles rewrote rock music history in the 1964 season, things really started to change. Groups played their own music for the first time. No longer were acts a couple of frontmen that used different back up bands at every venue, they were a full functioning self contained unit-bass, drums and guitar were now in house. Blues purist groups sprouted first, with the Rolling Stones being the best known aficionados of the new Brit craze, along with Alexis Korner and Graham Bond. The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton began their slow blues inflected ride. Mod groups popped up in the end of 1964 in the UK, with the High Numbers leading the charge into their next phase renamed as the Who. By 1965, America and the UK were teeming with rock bands of every stripe. Rhythm and Blues, pop, blues, nascent drug music, poetry bands..things started to diverge. With the introduction of LSD to England in late 1965, everything there changed. The budding post beatnik scene in San Francisco launched another center of LSD influenced music. Everyone from the Beatles on down turned on and tuned in. Take a look at what 1965 yielded: the Rolling Stones spat our an eyepopping five releases, including the groundbreaking Out of Our Heads; The Beatles four releases were topped by the awe inspiring Rubber Soul and the chart inspiring Help!-the Byrds, the Who, the Kinks, Van Morrison (Them), the Moody Blues, the Yardbirds all released their debut albums (technically the Kinks was their second). Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home. Add in the Animals, the Beach Boys, and the Zombies and you have a pretty good record collection. 1966 saw even more luminaries hit the recording field: Simon and Garfunkel, and Cream hit the stage, but a new contender hit the airwaves: Psychedelic rock/protest rock/California rock? Whatever you called it, US bands fought back for control.. Buffalo Springfield (the future CSNY), Jefferson Airplane, 13th Floor Elevators, Love, Frank Zappa, the Fugs all highlighted the weirdness that was cropping up in the States with their debuts. Minds expanded, audiences expanded and the diversity of rock expanded exponentially.
It was 1967 that changed everything. LSD was ubiquitous in use, and society mirrored the kaleidoscopic sea change that the music industry went through. Topped by the Beatles Sgt Pepper, many band’s definitive albums came out this year alone: 13th Floor Elevator’s Easter Everywhere, Jefferson Airplane-Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxters, Jimi Hendrix-Are You Experienced and Axis Bold as Love, Pink Floyd-Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Doors-debut and Strange Days, Cream-Disraeli Gears, The Velvet Underground and Nico, the Grateful Dead debut, Traffic-Dear Mr. Fantasy, Love-Forever Changes, the Beatles-Magical Mystery Tour, the Moody Blues-Days of Future Passed, the Byrds-Younger Than Yesterday, Soft Machine debut, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie-Alice’s Restaurant, Moby Grape debut, Procol Harum debut, the Who-Sell Out-these 23 albums still form the core of many a well curated rock collection 49 years later, and are still considered the masterpiece of each bands work. And they all came out in one magic year. Rock had turned on, tuned in and turned up.
The class of 1967 spawned some fairly worthy progeny, as rock turned up, down and inside out. Add in the late comers to the scene like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Family, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Taste, the Stooges, Genesis, King Crimson, Chicago, the Guess Who, T Rex, MC5, Free, Van der Graaf Generator, Tangerine Dream, Spirit, Steve Miller, Steppenwolf, Sly and the Family Stone, J Geils Band, Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, Cat Stevens, Gentle Giant, David Bowie, Elton John, Mott the Hoople, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, Caravan, the Band, Hawkwind, Humble Pie, Rod Stewart, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Alice Cooper, Ten Years After, the Move, Deep Purple, Kraftwerk, Can, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor, Funkadelic…a veritable full on collection of classic rock playlist of well knowns and cult favorites, and you have a full blown scene. Just this list would form a formidable collection of pure and diverse rock n roll unmatched by any releases in the last twenty years. All of the above bands were well established by the end of 1970.(All of these bands actually put an album out in calendar year 1970). The bar had been raised considerably for any newcomers to the game.
So the 1976 punk era brought us a glimmer with the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Stranglers, the Sex Pistols, and the UK scene–the Ramones, Blondie, Television and the CBGBs scene. The synth pop and New Romantics of the 80’s? Does Duran Duran, Simple Minds and Spandau Ballet warrant attention? Joy Division certainly does. One thing that became clear though, by the end of the 80’s, the ranks of the upcoming visionaries was thinning rapidly.
The early 90’s rock revival brought us Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Janes Addiction, Alice in Chains, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Fishbone, Smashing Pumpkins? With the some main exceptions like the daring Sonic Youth and the thoroughly acid soaked Butthole Surfers-even the good bands were starting to recycle ideas. Rock seemed out of steam. What started blossoming in 1965 had started to die on the vine only 25 years later. By 2000, the front door had been left open for the next visionaries, but nobody was waiting on the doorstep.
Which brings us to the spate of 50th anniversary tours. Never in my wildest dreams as a teenager could I have imagined that some of the best recent concerts I’ve attended would be 50th anniversary shows from the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. If a band lasted more than five years in the late sixties, it was considered a very real achievement. Tenth anniversaries used to be looked at with a mixture of imminent foreboding as well as a huge badge of honor. Hell, the Beatles never made it to ten years. Ten was a milestone, twenty went from unimaginable to a reality quickly for many in the 1970 list above. But FIFTY? No one in their right mind would ever imagine anything along those lines. Ludicrous wouldn’t even cover it if you ran this past Jann Wenner or Lester Bangs in the 70’s. Ironically, the Stones delivered one of their best tours in the last twenty years, even featuring Mick Taylor; the Who’s Quadrophenia was still spine chilling even sans Moon and Entwistle on their 2013 jaunt; the Grateful Dead? Mixed reviews of their five date summer tour didn’t negate the huge crowds they drew. Yes, Kansas and Rush trotted out 40th and 45th anniversary affairs.
Another troubling sign is the rise of tribute bands from local barrooms to sheds and theaters. Beatles tribute bands have long populated this venue hopping genre, but the mop tops stopped touring in 1965. But newer bands are now blurring the line between reality and homage, while pulling in increasingly large numbers of fans. Dark Star Orchestra, a rip on the Dead, have headlined festivals and regularly packed theaters that their mentors did in the seventies. They toured with former Dead vocalist Donna Godchaux as a member of the band. Pink Floyd? Pick your poison-The Australian Pink Floyd and Brit Floyd regularly play theaters and arenas. Led Zeppelin? The field is crowded. Get The Led Out tours the States from coast to coast filling up theaters and sheds. This is the troubling part-cover bands as bar bands? Sure that makes sense. But when these guys start crawling up the ladder of success, and rock theaters are now headlining tribute bands, one must ask-where the fuck are the real bands? Why are people still so hungry for the magic of the 67-77 era that they will shell out bucks for the ersatz versions?
So where are the next ones to step up? The thought of Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie or the Arctic Monkeys filling up Boston Garden on their 50th anniversary? I would be hard pressed to say those guys even being remotely remembered in 20 years, and would take odds they won’t even be playing an instrument then. The titanic waves generated by most of the ‘1970’ list above is now reduced to faint ripples in a pond made by the current rock cadre, barely noticeable in the bigger picture of what rock music has accomplished. Kids now flock to arenas to pray to the light machine, as shadowed figures tap at laptop computers to generate an electronic stroboscopic maelstrom, sometimes without an actual musical instrument on the stage. These are now the concerts where the ‘cool kids’ are showing up in droves-no band, no instruments, no real vocals-and riffs sampled (read: stolen) from records of the classic rock era-something very ironic and telling at the same time. Has social media-everyone with their nose pressed into their goddamn cellphones-killed rock n roll?
Something very very special happened in a ten year run from 67-77, and it has taken the last 40 years to put this in perspective. Rock used to be a form of secret communication. Sex, drugs, mysticism? All contained on the album cover you reverently held in your hands while trying to decipher what the hell any of this meant, buried in huge headphones. Rock albums were your only source of good information about how the world really worked. Album covers soon gave way to CD booklets which gave way to postage stamp size album art on an iPod which gave way to no art at all on your cellphone. Lyric sheets disappeared. Too many questions have answers only a google flick away. Mystery is gone. Rock cannot any longer reinvent itself back to those days when it held sway over pop culture like a monolithic pseudo god, and provided what honestly functioned as a religion for a huge part of the youth and aging youth of America and the UK. Concert goers are now aging. I know there are plenty of good bands lighting up clubs everywhere-but none of them have done anything new, only recycled things done many times over since the 1967-1977 decade of excellence. Some well-stirring the pot of influences into an interesting variant on a theme, some not so good. But the old guard still filling arenas speaks volumes about what has come recently. And though I shudder as I type this, may mean that rock might actually be dying in front of our eyes.
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
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.
US original cover and 1972 reissue
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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? (Much of this still sounds like Peter Gabriel filtered through the second side of Heroes, only much darker). 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.
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
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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
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 actually 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 snapshot of the Dead, Mayer’s version is more akin to someone going to a xerox machine and making copies of a copy until it blurs into a barely recognizable blotch of the original.
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. Despite his myriad of skills on bass, he struggled mightily to force his active playing to sound more like Phil, and only hit it a couple of times. 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 recently increasing greed that seems to drive the once family driven Dead organization. (see comments below) 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. Removing the distinctive bass runs of Lesh has removed a larger part of the Dead magic than they might have guessed. 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?