Mirabile Dictu: Hawkwind Rises From The Ashes and Delivers The Goods

Hawkwind- The Machine Stops (2016) Cherry Red

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.

Madonna-Ray of Light Carwreck Archives #5 May 1998

This is another off the wall review from VMag, May 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Five 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.

After getting hired for faxing the magazine a single sentence, Murphy asked for another review for the May 1998 issue to go with the Ani Difranco one I’d submitted. This one ended up as the lead review for that issue. It’s truly amazing that  this record still stands up pretty well today, 18 years later. 

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Madonna -Ray of Light (Maverick/WB)

Once upon a time, there was a little blonde girl who fell down a rabbit hole. At the bottom of the hole was a room full of mirrors, and every mirror that the little girl looked into had a different reflection. Identities swirled around her as she pirouetted in the center of the room, finally stopping in front of one. ‘Goodness me’ she exclaimed, regarding herself in the mirror, “…a techno princess!”

Madonna’s long route to 1998 has been fraught with a multiple array of personalities both divergent and occasionally embarrassing.  The common denominator to these changes is her glomming on to the latest fad, thereby appearing current and hip.

The electronica boom, and the ensuing crossover success of Bjork and Portishead in this field has not escaped the constantly scanning eye of Madonna. Attempting at first to enlist Prodigy (of  Smack My Bitch Up fame) to produce her new record (who politely declined with a terse ‘Fuck off’), her searchlights descended upon William Orbit, whose techno resume was sufficiently solid enough to inject a smidgen of credibility into this project.

The result, however derivative, is fairly successful. The key to judging any Madonna release is the question: “Would you really ever listen to this  outside of a dance club?” That most people’s answer will be ‘yes’ is  going to puzzle a lot of folks. I hate to use the words ‘Madonna’ and ‘maturity’ in the same sentence, but the new post-techno format elicits a strikingly reflective and thoughtful side to her that most would think never existed.

The opening cut, ‘Substitute For Love‘, strikes a brooding mood immediately–awash in the thick echoes of midrange and muted breakbeats so currently in vogue in the Bjork and Portishead camps, it’s a strangely heartfelt meditation, bordering on –dare I say?—SPIRITUALITY. A spiritually dreamy trance-like state permeates the album. Indo-trance pop influence bubble under the techno veneer, most evident in the piece ‘Shanti Ashtangi’. This song (and much of the album) is strongly reminiscent of the pioneer of the trance pop genre, Sheila Chandra and Monsoon. Spiritual influences dart in and out of songs-oops, there she goes again, apologizing for being shallow and self-centered for the last fifteen years. (Nothing Really Matters)

Although Ray of Light is fairly strong all the way through (the exuberant title track and the quirky ‘Skin‘ in particular), the musical reference points on the album are symptomatic of the problem in Madonna’s recent work. Her innovative strengths seem to have faded into the background, and her talents have shifted to successfully latching on to others and adapting their work to her own ends. Sometimes the result is disastrous (Bedtime Stories, I’m Breathless), but this time Madonna-with William Orbit–has crafted a highly listenable, laid back journey through the current looking glass.

Ani Difranco-Little Plastic Castle May 1998 Carwreck Archives #4

This is another off the wall review from VMag, May 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Four 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.

This review was my first one for VMag. I had been working at a record store and was in contact with the magazine through their ad rep who came through often. I faxed over to them a single sentence, the opening line to this review. Within 5 minutes, the store fax machine lit up, and this message spat out:

“You’re hired. Finish the review. Call me.”

Working at a store within spitting distance of Smith College, some of the concerns noted were a possibility (my previous record store had Smithies and their compatriots superglue the locks shut for selling CDs that ‘exploited women’).   In retrospect, it is kind of amazing to get hired on the basis of a single sentence. Like I said above, Murphy’s instincts were razor sharp.

 

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Ani Difranco-Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe)

Truly a phenomenon, Ani Difranco has the same effect on young women of unfixed gender preference that Adolf Hitler had on Germans of the 1930’s: blind obedience, unswerving loyalty, and a belief in the messianic. With that in mind, it is very difficult to fairly appraise her work without fear of lynching at the hands of PC-addled brickbat wielding fem-bots.

This record is certainly going to be looked at as a watermark: a clear divider between the old and the new. This will be the record that finally alienates the coffeehouse Ani crowd and introduces her to the REAL WORLD. Her older fans will always pick this record out as the one that killed ‘the scene’ and wistfully recount alternate lyrics she sang on the Puddle Diver tour, while wiping away a tear.

Newer fans, unaware of the near Deadhead-like behavior of the older crowd, will latch onto this one like an infant confronted with its first sugar donut. References to fledgling lesbian experiences will delight the last brace of fans unaware of her persistent avowed heterosexuality. Her songstress skills are still evident in enough quantity to keep the older fans from completely abandoning ship, but lyrically she veers perilously close to self-parody–a theme hinted at by the album artwork.

An appearance by the avant-garde trumpeter John Hassell and former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta lend a breadth of musicality to this album that shows an artist striving to break the cumbersome shackles of preconceptions that she’s been saddled with. For some though, these changes will mark the end of an era and the expiration of some special secret.

Yes-Open Your Eyes: Carwreck Archives #3 August 1998

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.

“….tomorrow, I finally will kill both of them.”

-Carwreck deBangs,  August 1998

 

 

The Definitive Stooges Album Finally Came Out And No One Noticed? -Have Some Fun: Live at Ungano’s

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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:

Stooges high tech bootlegging device, circa 1970

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.

Sifting Through the Wreckage of 2016: Blows Against the Empire

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.

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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.

 

 

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

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

Which One Is Davy Jones?

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

Glamming on to a Trend

                                     Alice                                            David

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

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

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

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

  US original cover and 1972 reissue

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

A Lad Insane?

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

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

Blue and Green Eyed Soul

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

Station to Station cover.jpg

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

Krautrock Here We Come

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

Low (album).jpg  

Scary MTV Monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the Past to Nine Inch Nails Here We Come

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

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

Ironically, it was in the last two years that Bowie mystified his critics. 2013’s The Next Day surprised many. Those who thought he was lingering in retirement gave their kudos. Recorded in secrecy, many of his associates and even his label were unaware this album was being recorded. The album shot to number one in many countries (number 2 in the States) and was by far the most successful and original piece of work in three decades. Housed in a perplexing sleeve (Heroes, reworked), it gathered praise everywhere. Rock n roll had returned, and most of the songs on this would not be uncomfortable on a late 70’s Peter Gabriel solo album-a minor classic, and so unlikely this late in the game. His 26th album was even more paradoxical. The release of Blackstar, two days before his death in January 2016,  confounded critics and was viewed by initial reviewers even more favorably  than its predecessor. Was he mining the little heard skronk territory of music to glom onto a new vision? (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.

David Bowie - The Next Day.png   

Picking Up the Pieces

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

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

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

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

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