Manowar: “Death to False Metal”-The Good, The Bad and….The Sublimely Ridiculous

So, you are watching the first Conan the Barbarian movie. Conan is brought to town early in the film, and the market is crowded with suspicious merchants, thieves, vagrants, broken wizards and prostitutes and the detritus of a sword and sorcery society. In the background, four men are in a straw covered corner, dressed in fur loin cloths and swathed in chain mail armor banging on guitars and drums and pounding out slow anthems to heaviness and glory undreamt of…..

Conan-the-Barbarian

No, this never happened, but that imagined scene gives the uninitiated a pretty good idea of what Manowar are about. And In retrospect, they would have done a helluva job on the soundtrack to that movie, Alas an opportunity squandered….

Manowar are fairly unique in the annals of Heavy Metal. Before death metal, black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, there was Manowar. Since their inception in 1980, they have plowed ahead with a singular vision: being the loudest sword wielding metal band on the planet, bent on the destruction of every band except those who play true metal.  Their dedication to the ideal of true metal fuels their drive, and is their zeitgiest. What exactly defines ‘true metal’ is rather nebulous…even the metal masters themselves are unclear on it. In one radio interview done circa 1983 (the golden age of Manowar) they claimed they listened to no rock music at all, only classical. An incredulous DJ asks if he heard correctly. Then, suddenly realizing they are on the air, and that they had toured with Black Sabbath, they quickly added: “We like Black Sabbath a lot!” (They also allowed that their current tour partner Ted Nugent was okay too.)  So they are on record as saying they only listen to:  A. Themselves B. Classical Music C. Black Sabbath. This keeps their minds clear for their Beowulf era sword slash sorcery sagas of honor, killing, revenge, killing, metal, and killing. Other frequently visited topics for lyrics are ‘we are the best band in the world’ (about a dozen songs fall into this category) and railing against ‘false metal’. Add in a dollop of Norse mythology and you pretty much have it.

battle hymns

Manowar sprang into being in 1980 during Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ tour. Joey DeMaio, founding member and brain trust of the band was working with their lighting rigs and supposedly handling the pyrotechnics end of stage productions. “i got to blow things up on stage, THAT is metal” he said in an interview. He had an epic voiced partner in Eric Adams from his hometown of Auburn, New York that had the pipes to give life to DeMaio’s self penned tales of swords and vengeance . But the necessary pieces were not quite assembled yet. That tour proved fruitful, as Joey encountered Ross the Boss of Dictators fame playing guitar for Shakin Street in the opening slot for Sabbath. They compared notes on what each had in mind for the perfect band, and finding common ground and common minds, a plan for world domination was hatched. (We met on English ground, In a backstage room we heard the sound, And we all knew what we had to do… -from the song Manowar from debut LP, Battle Hymns.)  Back in the States, an advertisement for a drummer who’s ‘heart was black’ yielded the Rod’s drummer Karl Kennedy (Canedy) and then quickly his replacement, Donnie Hamzik. This quartet recorded the debut album, released on Liberty Records in 1981. The album sank without a trace, and was vigorously ignored by press on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet some gems are in there. Most notably, the inclusion of Orson Welles in the narration of the epic Dark Avenger. An extensive quote of the narration is needed to understand exactly what these guys were about

“Let ye not pass Abaddon–Return to the world
From whence you came And seek payment
Not only for thy known anguish But to vindicate the souls
Of the Unavenged” And they placed in his hands
A sword Made for him
Called: Vengeance Forged in brimstone
And tempered By the woeful tears of the Unavenged
And to carry him up on his journey Back to the upper world..”

Orson-Welles

Picture the stentorian voice of Welles, dripping with gravitas,solemnly intoning that one. In one song, the ethos of Manowar is laid bare. Yet few in the world took notice. They were promptly dropped by Liberty within months of the album’s release. Manowar, realizing the world was against them, closed ranks and declared war on…..well pretty much everyone. The path to success was clear: not the way of commerciality, but to get even weirder and more uncompromising. One piece was missing though.

That piece was drummer Scott Columbus, a former plumber. In an interview regarding his entrance, DeMaio said “He literally pounds metal for a living, what more could you want for a true metal drummer?” What more indeed? With a drummer with a heart black enough to propel this motley sword wielding crew towards Valhalla, Manowar sought a new label.

The new label was the US indie Megaforce.  Formed in 1982 to put out Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All, they were home to early Anthrax and Raven releases as well. (all three begrudgingly declared true metal by their new labelmates). Manowar was willing to do anything to succeed. In the aforementioned interview, they said “we will play anywhere with anyone! I will personally hang up posters for any show! But nobody will tour with us, they are afraid!”  Ross jumps to the radio mic and yells “their hearts are filled with fear, their hearts are filled with fear!” They were deadly serious. I, however nearly wet myself in hysterics. This was a band that was dead set on entertaining, although perhaps unintentional humor was rising to the top.

manowarintogloryride

Into Glory Ride, released in 1983 set a new standard. The album cover showed them dressed in fur loincloths, wielding swords. Yet unlike other metal bands, one got the impression that they would actually use these swords.  A quick aside: In late 1983, they had scheduled an interview with the British magazine Sounds. They asked the reporter to meet them in a field at dawn. He sat in the grey morning alone, thinking ‘Damn, I’ve been had by these Yanks, they got me to get out of bed and sit here like an idiot.”  And then..a thrum thrum thrum in the distance became audible. The sound reconciled as horses hooves. As the sun rose in the distance, Manowar crested the nearest hill on four horses, with swords held high, thundering down the plain towards the disbelieving journalist. They circled his car, threw their swords point first into the ground around him, and announced “We are Manowar!” and dismounted for the interview. Perhaps the best promo stunt in the history of rock, although the writer was not so sure they were kidding. As were their legion of growing fanbase.

 

manowar 

Manowar meets the enemy

hair metal

Into Glory Ride upped the insanity quotient quite a bit. With no commercial considerations, all bets were off, and the killing could begin in earnest. False metal was a large target for the band’s vengeance plans. By 1983, hair metal ruled MTV-Cinderella, Poison, Motley Crue, Winger, Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot, Ratt….and Manowar was pissed. “True metal people want to rock not pose, Wearin’ jeans and leather, not cracker jack clothes…” -Kings of Metal LP.

More than most songs, the surreal epic Gloves of Metal from Into Glory Ride continues to hone in one most of what the band was about:

“Hear the pounding army of the night
The call of metal summons us tonight
And gather we on this site
To behold the power and the might
We wear leather, we wear spikes, we rule the night

The sound of metal so loud it cracks the beams
Played by warriors called the Metal Kings.
A hero’s welcome for those who heed the call.
We are together, we are all.
With hands high fists fill the air
Against the world we stand.
Hands high forever we’ll be there,
Gloves of Metal rule tonight.”  – Gloves of Metal

This album got them noticed, especially in England. A tour with Mercyful Fate had them opening for the first leg, but their overwhelming stage presence and deafening volume pushed them to headliner status. From the radio interview:  “we are the loudest band in the world. Everywhere we play, every theater, we drop plaster. Chunks of ceiling crash to the floor from us.”  True to their word, they were included in the Guinness Book of Records in 1984 as the world’s loudest band, a record they have broken twice since then.

hail to england

Album sales in the UK were healthy, and a full blown tour of England was planned. To accompany the tour, they put out a British only release, with the subtle title of ‘Hail to England’. Considered their masterwork by many, this proferred homage to the country they hoped to conquer contained some of their strongest material to date. Blood of My Enemies cruises along at half throttle, but though the bpm are down, the power soak is set to scorch. And it contains some of their catchiest riffs and some of the most unedited stabs at lyrics yet:

“Three sons have I, and they
Ride by my side. The fierce,
The black, and the wicked are
their names-we ride down my
enemies on their half-hearted flight.
No voice of mercy-no evangels of light.” -Blood of My Enemies

Run berserk-spreading fear and pain
Black shield and weapons, black our chain.
None can harm us-not their fire-
Iron or steel-for we have the
Will to power-with power we will
Kill

Kill with power-die die
Kill with power-die die” -Kill With Power

The last one there is actually kind of catchy. Which is an important point, despite the inane and adolescent bent to their philosophy and lyrics, some of their songs are damn appealing, catchy as hell. As is their paean to their fans, Army of Immortals.:


“Metal makes us strong
It makes us
Metal makes us strong
It makes us stronger, stronger, stronger, stronger…
Stronger, metal makes us strong

In our eyes you’re immortal
In our hearts you’ll live forever
In our eyes you’re immortal
In our hearts you’ll live forever more.”

As goofy as that sonnet is, there is a strong undercurrent to the song, and that is that they believe 100% every word, and it is a genuine heartfelt message to the fans. That is something rarely put to disc.Then, a bass solo I think.  Black Arrows is a bass solo…or is it?

“Let each note I now play
be a black arrow of death
sent straight to the hearts
of all those who play false metal”

This pitch bent demented speech is followed by a scream, and a frenzy of notes from a piccolo bass. Melody? Nope. Structure? Nope. Black Arrows of death were sent to dispatch the literally thousands of hair metal bands across the planet, those bands festooned with colorful bandanas randomly tied to their legs, and strategically torn spandex tights. And at 120 notes per minute, one can assume they put a solid dent into the legion of the false metal hordes with said arrows. Did they conquer the British Isles as planned? Not really.

A 12″ single, Defender, brought back Orson Welles once again for a narration. (It was re-recorded for the disappointing Fighting the World lp). A move to Ten Records was preceded by the shameless and ill advisedly titled single, All Men Play on Ten. Although musically solid, the lyrical content (heavy on the Odin this time) was getting silly. Folks began to wonder if the band had pumped the creative well dry. But this is the central paradox of Manowar. How can a band that kicks so much ass instrumentally be so goofy lyrically? Do they actually believe all of the self praising ass kicking Nordic god stuff? No good answers are available.

220px-ManowarFightingtheworld

A jump to Atlantic forced some compromises. Efforts to create a single on Fighting the World were embarrassing, Blow Your Speakers and Black Wind Fire and Steel began to seem inexplicably self mocking, yet it was clear they were serious, despite the comic book cover. The fighting the world theme, once a call to arms in 1983, was now a tired mantra. By 1988, it seemed over. But the band had one last trick up its sleeve.

220px-Manowar_kingsofmetalsalbumcover

Kings of Metal, their sixth album marked the last with Ross the Boss and Scott Columbus.But what a farewell this thing is. Wheels of Fire, Kings of Metal, Blood of a King, Hail and Kill….many of their masterpieces which grace their set to this day come from this album. A ten minute narrated story is also included. This is one of the essential albums, and is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Gonna keep on burning
We always will
Other bands play – Manowar kill
Other bands play – Manowar kill

Even the cartoon cover is grim, with only the US flag still standing, the last unconquered nation. For you see, America never came to grips with Manowar. No radio play, no press, no notice. They stay ignored in their homeland for the better part of two decades of existence.

The departure of Ross the Boss and Columbus signaled the end of the magic. Triumph of Steel, with its Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts, weighing in at a half  an hour in length, signalled the end of the game. It became apparent that Ross the Boss had brought a melody and swing to the band that was now gone. Bereft of ideas, the band died on the vine. Several more lackluster albums led into the 21st century. Re-recordings of Battle Hymns and Kings of Metal now pass as their new albums, as the band finally admits that yes, the creative well has gone dry.

I will finish with some personal stories. In 1983 they were due to play in New England. Their sound and lights showed up at the theater in an 18 wheeler. No sign of the band though. The crew waited, waited, then pulled out. Half an hour before showtime, the band showed up. Fans were confused, mad, and felt cheated. One called and left a message on Manowar’s listed phone number. He let them know what fans thought-the band were chickenshit and acted like babies pulling out. Weeks later, the phone rang at a suburban Boston house at dinner time. Mom gets her 22 year old son to the phone “Joey DeMaio’s brother is on the phone honey”  He got an earful. “How dare you call us pussies? We will play anywhere anytime anyhow!”  The fan calmly noted that they hadn’t played a booked gig the past week, which sent the Manowar messenger into a berserk fury.

I finally saw them in the early 2000’s in a bowling alley. The ceiling was low, the lanes were closed, and an air of Spinal Tap pervaded the evening. The band had thrown a shit fit when witnessing what the venue looked like, but regained composure, turned the amps to twelve and proceeded to drop ceiling tiles in lieu of plaster. Drinks flowed like streams overflowing their banks, and the crowd was generally pummeled by the end of the show. 130 decibels, beers and shots, bodies started to drop. Exiting the bar as the dust settled, a large guy staggered into the night with a passed out girl thrown haphazardly over his shoulder. I yelled out “We will avenge our fallen!” Everyone laughed, everyone knew. Cuz we are Immortals.

Edgar Froese: Yes I Invented Space Rock. See You In the Cosmos

Edgar Froese passed away this week (January 20, 2015), and most of the world have zero idea what a legend this man was. That right there is a shame. John Lennon dies? John Entwistle? Johhny Cash? Headlines across the world. Edgar’s passing has created nary a ripple in most news outlets. And this is also a shame, for this man was a giant and a pioneer of synthesizer based music. He was the founding and sole surviving member of the German kosmische synthesizer trio Tangerine Dream. You may know them from the soundtracks to Risky Business or Firestarter. Others may remember darkened college dorm rooms with Stratosfear or Phaedra bending uninitiated minds to the edge of sanity. But one thing is certain: this man is single handedly responsible for most of space rock, krautrock and hell, even techno. That is a pretty large legacy for an under the radar German synthesizer  guy.

Electronic_Meditation

For those who are new to this, let me get this out there: you need to own some Tangerine Dream albums. This band pretty much created a sound and scene on their own. Meetings and work in the late 60’s with Salvador Dali and Karlheinz Stockhausen cracked Edgar’s rock n roll reality. Multi media, lights, plays, music, improvisation? This was the signpost for the future.  A new wind blowing through Europe encouraged experimentation.   Fledgling experiments under the  moniker Tangerine Dream started in 1967, with Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive as the blueprint. But where Pink Floyd quickly abandoned their massive sonic improvisational sound for songs, Edgar and company took the model even further. The first Tangerine Dream album, Electronic Meditation (1970), was a miasma of sound. Klaus Schulze, future synth god was aboard as the drummer. Many of Germany’s great space rock musicians had floated though the band before they broke internationally. But still it was rooted in the rock format-drums, organ and guitar were the predominant blueprint.

Phaedra             Rubycon                 Ricochet         Stratosfear           Encore               Tangerine-Dream-Sorcerer

It was the period from 1972-1978 that was their glory period though, and the stretch where the albums that defined a genre were created. Kraftwerk, another synthesizer trio from Germany that broke in the US, were filled with repetitive blips and clicks. Tangerine Dream pulled in the sounds of the cosmos. Huge soundscapes were the order of the day. Melody, rhythm, chord structures? No thanks. 1972’s Zeit was a sprawling double album that sounded like a 60 cycle electronic hum accompanied by droning cellos. This was about as far from rock that anyone could get. Yet they swung in rock crowds, and attracted rock audiences. They caught the attention of Virgin Records, who were coming off the massive success of Mike Oldfield with Tubular Bells. They were looking to grab any fringe bands, and the enthusiasm of DJ John Peel for the band ensured they got signed. 1974’s Virgin debut Phaedra was the result. The classic trio of Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann had pretty much abandoned their ‘normal’ rock instruments (guitar, drums, keyboards respectively) for a new form of musicianship. VCS3 synthesizers, mellotrons and electronic effects replaced normal instrumentation for most of their tunes. Prototype sequencers generated hypnotic rhythmic patterns, drawing in the LSD and stoner crowd from England and Europe. Fans of space rock who thought Pink Floyd had sold out and gone commercial and that Hawkwind was stagnating in format now had a new darling-a synthesizer trio that could genuinely freak out the hard core freaks. Washes of sound induced paranoia could come on the heels of delicately beautiful piano driven melodies. Moog modular synthesizers could conjure up genuine vertigo as the sensation of the floor suddenly slipping away poured from your speakers. This was some heady stuff. But was it rock? Lester Bangs described it as the “sound of silt seeping across the ocean floor”.

tandre16

Phaedra was the breakthrough. It sold massively in the UK, and was the underground hit of the year. With little publicity and zero airplay (barring John Peel’s rabid enthusiasm), it shot to near top ten in British charts. Europe and America started to notice. A tour in 1974 used cathedrals as venues (the natural ambience providing a powerful and impressive reverb character to the sound). A concert at a cathedral in Reims France in summer 1974 drew international attention when over 5,000 fans tried to cram into a cathedral that barely held 2,000. People were literally hanging from the rafters. (the Pope banned them from cathedrals, and sent emissaries to ritually ‘exorcise’ the sullied church) What the hell was going on? People were in a frenzy trying to see what many thought was just subliminal hums and static? And the band reinforced the image by never acknowledging the crowd. They came on to a darkened stage, played, and left. No song introductions, no hello or goodbye. Was this rock n roll?

After the international success of Stratosfear (1976), Tangerine Dream’s legend was assured. A massive tour of the United States was documented on the 1977 live album Encore (highly recommended as a starting point for anyone uninitiated, as is Ricochet). Krautrock was a recognized genre (see: Can, Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, Amon Duul 2, Faust, Neu, Guru Guru, Klaus Schulze, Kraan, Eloy…) and German synthesizer pioneers started to work with dance club divas (Donna Summer’s I Feel Love was a prime example). The seeds that spawned techno had been planted by German synthesizer pioneers.

So this brings us back to today, and the passing of a genuine electronic music genius. His work has been massively influential on swaths of musical fields. I had the pleasure of meeting Edgar briefly back stage after a 1986 US show. I approached him to shake his hand, and said “Danke schoen Edgar”  He looked me in the eye and said in a thick German accent: “You’re welcome”. Thank you Edgar. See you in the cosmos.

AC/DC Bag Half Full-Gov’t Mule New Year’s at the Beacon 2014

mulenye2014_beacon
mule091231_01
Warren Haynes is a guy that is known for taking chances, and somehow never stumbles. Mule, Lesh, Allmans, the Dead…the list goes on for projects he has either jump started or revitalized. As for his now main project, Gov’t Mule, his work is impressive. With over 300 songs in their working repertoire, and a working knowledge of cover tunes that is inexhaustible, they are able to pull out some obscure chestnuts to surprise a crowd. But it is Halloween and New Year’s Eve that are considered the ‘main event’. Both evenings are usually dedicated to full on tributes: Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, the Doors….this is only a sampling. Last year’s New Year’s show at the Beacon Theater in New York City featured Robbie Krieger on guitar, as Warren Haynes and company plowed though a full 90 minutes Doors set after midnight.
This year’s theme was announced in October as an AC/DC tribute. Some early rumors had Slash as the ‘special guest'(Slash’s vocalist Myles Kennedy as Bon Scott was the actual guest) Initial excitement was met with some lingering doubts. Even Angus Young would admit that he is not a really exploratory guitar wizard. Would this be a good template for Gov’t Mule to successfully launch into hyperspace?
myles-govt-mule-happy-new-year-2
The answer? Well not really. Although things were fairly raucous as the band hurtled into Highway to Hell, you could sense some frustration building in the crowd. Myles Kennedy took over lead vocals for the 18 song second set. It was strange to see Gov’t Mule and not see Warren singing for this long. When in the past they have had special guests at a show like this, they were usually musical sidemen, not frontmen. Vocalists were usually given a turn at a song or two. To have someone take over the stage for this long? Weird. The other problem was alluded to earlier. AC/DC songs are not really suited to stretching out musically. Longish solos don’t really feel right, nor are they really vehicles for jumping off to deeper jamming. This is what some in the crowd noticed. Warren, the focus of the band, was relegated for almost two hours to a sideman position. He had been painted into a corner musically from the first notes, and it was very difficult for him to inject his intergalactic guitar extrapolations into these concise tunes. It almost felt half way through the second set as if I were watching a top tier AC/DC cover band, and at 90 bucks a pop for tickets–the most expensive cover band ever. Others around me echoed similar sentiments. Warren looked a bit lost on the sidelines as if even he was starting to wonder if this had been really thought through. Not one of the better Mule shows I have seen, a noble failure if you will. Other things noticed: for the first time in memory, there were no balloons dropped from the ceiling at midnight. Also, the New Years tshirt pictured above as a poster oddly sold out on 12/30 during the show, meaning that everyone who attended on the 31st had no chance to buy a New Years shirt. Some in the crowd were puzzled by this lack of preparation.
Crowd-shot-Govt-Mule-Beacon_Photo-Dino-Perrucci
Before we finish, I want to be clear: the purpose of this article is not to take pot shots at Warren Haynes for taking chances, on the contrary, this is to point out and thank him for being one of the few out there willing to take some really big chances. In this age of completely scripted and meticulously rehearsed performances that are getting pretty far from what a real rock show once was: getting out there with an idea and seeing what happens–an event like this is pretty rare. Sometimes you fly, sometimes you stumble, but the point is you tried something different and went for it. More folks in rock music need to think this way-what was once a raison d’être is now becoming a dying breed. As Ian Anderson observed decades ago, this business is a Crazed Institution. Take chances, stay crazy and rock on in 2015 folks!

Three Albums That Almost Changed the Record Business–Bootleg Records Arrive, 1969

tmoq

It’s 1969, and Rock n Roll is King of the World. Movie stars have taken a back seat to rock stars, and the international press trumpeting of Carnaby Street, Pirate Radio, Psychedelia, and the Summer of Love have given the naysayers who thought rock was a passing fad a solid thump on the chin. Albums have replaced 45’s, bands have replaced pop stars, and things are changing faster than anyone can keep track. Early sixties bands that once ruled the airwaves are melting away like a spring frost on the lawn. Mid sixties bands are either adapting or dying on the vine. And nobody doubts that there are two giants in music that changed everything: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And coincidentally, these two bands are responsible for two of the first three bootleg records in the history of rock music. And these records were responsible for some big changes in the perceptions of those who thought “they knew how it is done”.
gww

The first bootleg in the history of rock was Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder. Released in July of 1969, it was studio quality outtakes of recordings with the Band in 1967. It was a double album contained in a plain white sleeve, and it confused the hell out of everyone. Record stores were serviced back then by “rack jobbers”, independent distributors of vinyl that had access to regular release albums. Some of the more connected jobbers had access to this release, and the fact it was played heavily on the West Coast meant that there were thousands out there that would be customers for this. The lack of any information on the sleeve or label lent a cryptic air to the proceedings. Of course, anyone actually working in a record department of a larger department store had pretty much no idea what anything was. If it was on the shelves, they sold it.
That Dylan album was the first foray into the business of the most famous bootleg label in the history of music, The Trademark of Quality label, or TMOQ. Based in Los Angeles, they were responsible for most of the original bootlegs in 1969 and the early 70’s. (Stealin’ and GWW John Birch Society Blues were two very high quality follow ups to Great White Wonder, also put out by ‘Dub’ and ‘Ken’ the anonymous bootleggers in late 1969)
The next release was something altogether different, and got some serious attention from record companies. The Rolling Stones played in Oakland Coliseum in November 1969- two shows. This was the first Stones tour since the halcyon days of early 1966, the days of screaming teenagers, poor sound systems and shortened shows. In 1969, audiences had matured. LSD and marijuana were now commonplace, and teens no longer showed up to shriek, the showed up to LISTEN. Rock concerts had changed from high energy female shoutfests to sweaty communal gatherings of a near religious import. The tribes had been identified, and had gathered at Monterey and Woodstock in large numbers. They now gathered to commune with the Stones on their 1969 tour.

Liver_Red

An enterprising audience member from the Bay Area decided to show up with a high end reel to reel deck tape deck, and expensive shotgun microphones. You see, there was little to no security back then, and nobody would question someone lugging in some unwieldy professional gear. (hell people could sneak KEGS into shows back then, never mind a beer). The resulting recording was quickly pressed, and hit the streets in December 1969, a month after the show. It was reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine in February 1970, and was highly praised. Other reviews claimed it to be the best representation of the Stones to date. (this was early in Mick Taylor’s first tour with the band) This put the record industry in a difficult bind. Sources for the label said that it had sold in excess of 200,000 copies by November, enough to qualify for a Gold Record award. Panic ensued in most major labels offices. Some schlump could buy a ticket, drag in a suitcase full of semi pro gear, and press up his own hit album? This defied the industry paradigm. What about copyright control? Publishing rights? Art choices? The all important ‘record company cut’ ? If this guy could do it, and get reviewed in Rolling Stone, what was to stop anyone from doing it? This would be the end of the recording industry’s control over their acts. In the spirit of revolution, the people had tried to seize control of their own music.

The Stones and their label Abkco reacted quickly. Press releases said that East Coast shows were to be recorded for an official live album, and Get Your Ya Ya’s Out was rush released to counteract the threat. Most sources agree this album was not planned until the storm of this bootleg broke. (others pointed out that Ya Ya’s had many overdubs to clean up mistakes, and wasn’t technically a live album, leaving Live’r as still the honest album)  All major arenas were warned sternly by promoters to have heavy security on hand to prevent any repeats of this debacle. Billboard reluctantly included it on a list of top selling bootlegs of the year, but did not put it on any charts, to curb any possibilities of ‘legitimizing’ this burgeoning illegal industry.

LP

The other major release came very shortly after the Stones, in December 1969. This was a preview copy of the upcoming Beatles album, eventually titled Let it Be. It’s working title throughout 1969 had been Get Back, hence the play on words with Kum Back. This version was stripped down high quality rock ‘n roll-no strings, few overdubs, different songs, wholly different mixes-a holy grail for many Beatles fans. The master tape for the album had been mixed several times in early 1969, and these Glyn Johns mixes were reportedly in John Lennon’s possession in late summer 1969 when he visited the States, and he traded an acetate to a collector who had some early Beatles recordings he did not have. This is the generally accepted story, per his own quote. Whatever the truth, this album circulated throughout the major FM stations of the country-WBCN in Boston broadcast it in late September 1969. WKBW in Buffalo played it at the end of August 1969. WBAI in New York, WMMS Cleveland, CKLW Winsor/Detroit, KXOK in St Louis and WEBN in Cincinnati were also among the first to air this. For an album officially released in May 1970, this September 1969 radio release of the largest selling band in the history of music would be considered an extremely troubling leak, or a disaster of near apocalyptic scale, depending on your view.  High quality mixes circulated across the country courtesy of these radio stations, and the WBCN tape was used as the source for the album itself.

Like the Stones live album, this showed up in droves in legitimate stores, sold by the pallet-load, and was reviewed once again by Rolling Stone, confusing the issue of legitimacy. Storm clouds gathered in powerful circles. What could companies do to wrest control back of these cash cows from the stoned and delighted masses? Music belongs to the people was a quote oft heard back in the late ’68 and early ’69. Now it was coming true. Bootlegs needed to be demonized, made illegal, and draconian penalties had to be associated with this behavior. While this was in practice true, bootleg records continued to flourish well into the 1980’s and the advent of the CD era.

All three of these albums were sold in department stores (the major source of records for mainstream America) and underground record stores. Little distinction was made as to the legitimacy of each release. It was just ‘cool’. And to be fair, few clerks in a department store would have any idea what it was other than just another obscure ‘rock’ album. They all got reviews in major music magazines, including Rolling Stone. They sold well enough to earn Gold Record awards. They gave record companies endless nightmares. One more thing they have in common, though…

As legendary and as rare as these albums are, many will be surprised to learn that they are not out of reach for the average vinyl collector. This year I found two copies of Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be in one store, both for around ten dollars. Kum Back I found last month for an inexplicable three dollars. Great White Wonder is a bit harder to find, but generally a patient person can find one for around 25 bucks or so. These prices are definitely on the low side, but the diligent collector who puts time in can do it. This is something anyone into rock history should investigate: three albums that together nearly brought the record companies to their knees? That is the power of the people in action. Rhetoric is easy, but actions are powerful. These albums caused the largest uproar in the history of rock. Go find ‘em.

Pink Floyd-The Endless River: Outtakes or Best Floyd Album in Forty Years?

PFFull 2014PinkFloyd01PR200514                                                                                      I want to be clear right up front, I had pretty much zero expectations going into this album. Pre-release reviews let the cat out of the bag early: this is predominantly sourced from 1994’s Division Bell sessions. With that in mind, how could this have any chance of being good? While a nice re-creation of the Floyd sound, Division Bell certainly did not light up the sky as a new benchmark in Pink Floyd excellence. Which leads us back to the original problem-if Division Bell was spotty, what would outtakes from those sessions yield twenty years later?

What it has yielded is an album that is the most satisfying Pink Floyd release since Wish You Were Here. I know that is a bold statement, but let’s backtrack a bit. What on paper seemed to be a release akin to Syd Barrett’s 1988 release Opel-expected to be a great lost album but in reality just outtakes not good enough to pass muster-is not what Endless River is at all. And this is important-most reviewers of this album have absolutely missed the point of this release. Many Pink Floyd fans have had a lingering dissatisfied aftertaste with each post 1975 album. Animals was fairly bleak, and began to show a disproportionate influence from Roger Waters. Songs and rants began to edge out the longer instrumental explorations. In 1977, fans hoped this was an aberration and not a signpost of the future. They were wrong. Waters then took full control, delivering the trilogy of angst ridden and bombastic concept albums: The Wall, The Final Cut and Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. The final album was a Water’s solo album proper, but had originally been proposed as the concept instead of The Wall as the 1979 album, and follows the same general pattern. Histrionically overblown themes outdid themselves in all three albums as the band degenerated into a solo vehicle for the increasingly bitter and alienated Waters’ zeitgeist. The band broke up acrimoniously in 1985, with Waters and Gilmour taking various potshots at each other in the press. The Waters-less reunion in 1987 yielded A Momentary Lapse of Reason, an album that had all of the sounds in place, but little solid songwriting and little heart or substance. Essentially a snapshot of what the general public thought a Floyd album should sound like.

So what comes as a huge surprise is this week’s release, The Endless River. Moody and mostly instrumental, this album has far more in common with Wish You Were Here, Obscured by Clouds and Ummagumma than any of their albums in the last 40 years. Pre release reviews talking points included phrases like “unfinished”, “outtakes” and, gasp! “drum solo”.  Translated for a Floyd aficionado, this actually is: “Moody and atmospheric masterpieces”, “demos that exceed the original” and “drum solo? try full on Ummagumma freakout!” I dropped the needle at a listening party (darkened room with laser projections on the ceiling, ya know authenticity required!), and some comments were: ‘this is the first Floyd album in a long time that I’d listen to a lot” and “You would never guess this came out in 2014, this sounds like 1970’s Floyd”. This album should be viewed as a strong return to form, a return to the pure spacey roots that set the controls long ago.

On vinyl, this is something to behold-crisp silent pressing, pristine packaging and suitably obtuse cover imagery. A sixteen page full size booklet shows photos from the original 1994 recording sessions, heavy on the Rick Wright images. Which is no surprise since this album is indirectly designed to be a tribute to Wright, who passed away in 2008 (and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, the creators of all of Floyd’s covers since the early 70’s, who died in 2013). Rough sketches of Wright’s piano form the backbone of more than one song. On vinyl, the whole first side-Things Left Unsaid, It’s What We Do and Ebb and Flow pretty much make up a single song, which is variations on Shine On You Crazy Diamond themes. Flickers of recognizable themes weave into other songs: One of These Days, Us and Them, On the Turning Away all are hinted at in different songs. But pretty much no song in the last 40 years has mined this territory, a huge strength of the Pink Floyd sound from 1969-1972, a strength inexplicably abandoned for far too long. Other highlights are a 1968 Rick Wright organ exercise that has been overdubbed, and all of side four of the album. Side four contains the lone ‘real song’,  Louder than Words, a song that makes one realize the band still has the goods, and in abundance. Allons-y  parts one and two come close to song-dom, like one of the better instrumentals that never made the Wall. Talkin Hawkin is a version of Keep Talking from Division Bell, but more free flowing. Stripped of the Motown backing vocals and heavy overdubs, this song is far more powerful than it was 20 years ago. Sure there is the occasional clunker: one tune evokes faceless 80’s jazz-rock, another piece echoes early 80’s Kitaro (who had some pretty good stuff now and then) Overall though, it’s back to basics, no frills playing that harkens back to the days of Meddle and Obscured, just four guys playing sounds of the universe, before the studio became the fifth member circa Dark Side of the Moon. This is true of much of this album-ditch the heavy additions of extra instruments and backing vocals that got slathered on like too much frosting trying to fix a dodgy cake-and the power and the beauty inherent in Gilmour, Wright and Mason’s compositions are allowed to shine.

In short, this is the Pink Floyd album many fans have been waiting decade upon decade for-an introspective, lava lamp melting stoner classic. (Floyd had originally referred to this release as ‘The Big Spliff’) Floyd fans have always had the reputation of sitting motionless in a room watching the walls melt. If you fall into that category, your train has finally arrived. So we finally have the last Pink Floyd album ever, and it certainly succeeds as a final statement of purpose like you cannot imagine. All aboard for the cosmic express kiddies, there will be no more stops for this train! From the first shudders and throbbe of the Binson Echorec as Syd Barrett throttled his guitar and gazed into the maelstrom of melting lighting effects in 1966 to forty eight years later as Gilmour and Mason stare into the event horizon looming ahead as they pass 2014, this truly is the final cut. Highly recommended.

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

  maxresdefault

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

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

When do we become original members Billy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aerosmith1 71vkKpgIyTL._SL1500_

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

aerosmith_concert_ticket

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

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

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

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