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Monster Magnet in 2018-Nature’s Got a Way Brothers, Of Scraping the Bowl

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“Say man, you got a joint? It’d be a lot cooler if you did”

No band in the history of rock has been able to assimilate their high school years and portray it as vividly as Monster Magnet. They lived like many a stoner kid in 70’s America: smoking bowls, taking shitty acid, staying out all night, wearing army coats, going to tons of concerts and listening to the classics over and over. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Aerosmith, Judas Priest were the more familiar signposts, but these Red Bank area New Jersey kids had their finger on the pulse. Less familiar bands like Captain Beyond, Sir Lord Baltimore, Dust, UFO and Hawkwind were also strong apostles for the devoted. With CBGB’s and New York City a short ride away, the mysteries of proto punk residue (MC5 and the Stooges) and the more alienatingly tangible sounds of the Ramones, Suicide, Richard Hell and the punk wave of the mid 70’s were there for the grabbing. Of course this often meant riding bicycles for miles to grab some weed, stealing beers whenever possible, blasts of nitrous, robitussin chugging, tripping to stay awake for longer road trips and occasionally waking up in dumpsters on the lower East Side. Staying elegantly wasted full time…was a full time job for Dave Wyndorf and this pack of sketchy high school and post high school kids.

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It was easy to want to emulate this drug fueled dissident behavior (think Linklater’s 1993 Dazed and Confused film), but you could only take this so far. Heroin grabbed and planted many of those who couldn’t get to the finish line successfully-many yearbooks of the era had memorial pages in the beginning with photos of those who had died tragically before graduation. (Mine had three) But there was an allure for many to aspire to be (or at least hang out with) the scuzziest drug ball in the neighborhood-they were badasses with the best record collections, knew they were cool, had access to the best drugs, scariest cars and were a beacon to those who wanted to rebel. (Another good comparison are the roller blade hockey kids from Kevin Smith’s Dogma-a Red Bank resident who witnessed all this stuff)

 

 

Shrapnel circa 1979-1980-Wyndorf center
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Not to be confused with pacifist hippie bands

Where could one go next? Grow old and outgrow your army coat? The answer was easy: start a band. Loading up on a bunch of Stooges and Sabbath, Shrapnel (earlier known as Hard Attack-a band known for putting weed in their flashpots so the final explosion filled the auditiorium with pot smoke that couldn’t be traced) assaulted high school dances, dressed in army togs and even paraded out a cardboard tank toting Dave Wyndorf around. (future Monster Magnet guitarist Phil Caivano was a part of this outfit)

The public wasn’t ready for a GI Joe inspired band of New Jersey lunatics rolling around in tanks, pointing guns everywhere and pounding out the theme to Underdog as their signature moments. They did make local TV though (see above)

So Scream as Loud as You Can, I’m Not Here, Man I’m Gone

Wyndorf laid low while plotting the perfect band: Monster Magnet. They were to be the synthesis and monument to all the wide variety of decadence that any kid who grew up in the seventies had witnessed: scoring drugs, taking boatloads of said drugs and the ancillary carnival-like madness that few who haven’t been on the inside can imagine.  The band coalesced around Wyndorf, guitarist John McBain and drummer (future sound/light/manager) Tim Cronin. They submitted demos, got rejected, changed their band name, re-submitted similar songs, got rejected, changed their band name again. Finally Glitterhouse in Germany was willing to take a chance on them, named now after a 60’s toy, releasing the self titled EP in 1990. It was a glorious paean to all the excesses of drug use:  Tractor (‘Well my buddy Jo gave me a laughing pill..Well it tasted like shit and it gave me the chills..got a hole in my arm, when I’m driving the tractor on the drug farm’), and the debut of their perhaps all time classic, Nod Scene:

Bought another copy of Fragile
Seeds were bustin’ up the spine
I think I cracked my skull doin’ airplanes
Not too many buds, just fine
Pussy scratching sniffin a Playboy
Christ I’m a good looking man…
Fifteen miles to cop on our stingrays
Boys we’re gonna ride tonight
Goofball’s and 70’s nipples
Gotta get our heads just right
Sit me on the lap of the god’s babe
Cover me with skin and hair…
Bought another copy of ZoSo
Seeds were bustin’ up the spine
I think I wet my pants doin’ whippits
Not too many buds, just fine
Sit me on the lap of the god’s babe
Cover me with skin and hair
Ride a number one on the home train
Screw you if you think I care………

This one song encompasses their whole Monster Magnet universe: weed, acid, nitrous, airplane glue, getting wasted, getting laid, giving the middle finger to cops, jacking off, riding bikes to score drugs, cranking Yes and Zeppelin…what more did a kid need? Propelled by a monstrous riff nicked from Time We Left This World Today by Hawkwind, everything that is essential to the band is in this song. (an odd aside-in interviews lately, Wyndorf claims he quit doing drugs around  age 22, or right as Shrapnel was starting to break in 1979. I’d hung with the band more than a few times at shows both backstage and on the tour bus in the 1993-1999 period, and find this statement a bit hard to believe, as well as hard to reconcile with the overwhelming drug themes that pervade their classic albums)

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Rare photo of John McBain in the band

The universe slowly opened: the Tab EP featured the instant classic 30 minute title song with Wyndorf whispering and yelling deep back in the mix entreaties to galactic madness and specific illegal behaviors. (the band once said they played this song for 45 minutes as their whole show on their first Europe tour if they didn’t like the club or audience) Highly recommended. And then…

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1992 saw the release of  Spine of God, the all time masterpiece of stoner rock, before the genre even existed. All of the excesses of the previous two releases were refined into a nine song bible of drug fueled entertainment-a well thumbed guide to life based on the 70’s life of a Jersey stoner kid that still holds up today as the pinnacle of the whole stoner genre. Sure they ended up lifting wholesale songs from bands you’d never heard of and reworked them as their own (Captain Beyond and Sir Lord Baltimore got hit up), but 26 years later, this is still one of the most important releases of the 1990’s, in any genre.  This is the essential album if you are only going to have one.

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Not sure why you guys keep asking about drugs

The follow ups, Superjudge and Dopes to Infinity saw the departure of McBain and the entrance of the hypnotic Ed Mundell on guitar. The band coalesced quickly with Ed and the rhythm section of Jon Kleinman (drums) and Joe Calandra (bass) and plowed similar territory as their masterpiece, and yielded the minor hit Negasonic Teenage Warhead in 1995. (this was the era of the ‘School Free Drug Zone’ shirt) 

1998 was the year they crashed the big time, with the unlikely titled ‘Space Lord Motherfucker’ hitting #3 on the US charts, and their following expanded exponentially. Fame and fortune are fickle though, with the dissolution of the classic line up in the early 2000’s, things headed south. Kleinman and Calandra departed after the disappointing God Says No. Shrapnel guitarist Phil Caivano had come on board as second guitarist, freeing Wyndorf up for more visual madness.

The mid 2000’s were lean years: label changes, lineup changes, money drying up, until Wyndorf’s overdose in 2006 brought the proceedings to a halt. The band focused their efforts in Europe, and US appearances were sparse.

Monster Magnet/Electric Citizen Live at the Sinclair Boston October 2018

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Which brings us up to the present day. The band has had mixed live reviews-one main complaint is their 80 minute set of the same 12 songs every night is a little paint by numbers. I had seen them in Williamsburg NY in March of this year and was underwhelmed. Dave looked like he couldn’t wait to get offstage, and the set ticked in well under 90 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, they were good, but it wasn’t the madness of the 90’s, it was a well rehearsed blast of psychedelic stoner metal-but far too short. And then they went off to tour Europe, and returned for a US tour. Boston was the last night of the tour, and things this night were quite different. The band consists of the rhythm section of Atomic Bitchwax (Ed Mundell’s side project that he somehow managed to get himself kicked out of) Bob Pantella and Chris Kosnick on drums and bass, with Garret Sweeny on guitar rounding out the quintet with Dave and Phil. This time the set was devastatingly powerful-New York was like a blueprint while seven months later Boston was like a fully built and tricked out house. Guitars crackled, with Caivano bringing a sharper edge to the sound than Mundell’s more psychedelic bent. A few times it was apparent that Sweeny was buried in the mix and significantly quieter than Caivano, but that is only a minor quibble. The setlist hit all the classics with the accent on their earliest material. Powerful, crisp and psychedelic-the band has shed some of it’s Hawkwind influenced meanderings (despite dipping into Brainstorm for a bit), and maybe that’s not for the better. The hits are behind them, and perhaps some old school explorations might perk up things. Still, this was light years better than their spring show.

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Black Sabbath? Never heard of ’em

Openers Electric Citizen sounded like they had sliced up every Black Sabbath riff into six second snippets and re-assembled them in a fashion that resembled originals. Their stuff was derivative but energetic with a female vocalist stalking the stage. After their third pass through a re-imagined Children of the Grave with some Run to the Hills lingering in the background I began to wonder: “Is rock and roll really dying?”

Dave recently had this to offer:

“…at one point, rock really meant a lot to a lot of people. It was a way to talk about things that people were uncomfortable talking about. There was a lot of poetry and a lot of weird cultural insight to it – but as our culture changed, people started wanting less and less from music. They started getting what they needed by other means. People just don’t have the time anymore… they don’t read poetry.”

So the weed is gone, and there’s only a blackened pipe left. Scrape and scrape and you will find one last hit, because nature’s got a way you know?

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Summer 2018 Concert Round Up-Dead, Ween, Belly, Slayer, Yes, Mastodon, Mule, Magpies, Primus, ZZ, K-Joke, Daltrey, n (Black)more

Once again, for the third year in a row, the Carwreck party went on the road for a full schedule of summer shows. Most venues were outdoors, the best place to see a show during summer in any reality. Let’s kick off the wrap up:

Primus and Mastodon, Blue Hills Pavilion Boston May 29

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The summer kicked off early this year-May 29th actually-with the double headlining bill of Mastodon and Primus. I thought this an odd pairing, but it seemed like well over half the crowd was there for Mastodon. Mastodon is a band that has gone on a strange trajectory-from the heavier than hell Leviathan in 2004 this band has become downright peculiar. Prog tendencies in metal bands usually have mixed results. Coheed and Cambria sometimes can pull this off, and Mastodon has similar uneven results. The recent album Emperor of the Sand is a good example of this schizophrenic approach-they are capable of being dazzlingly brilliant and godawfully painful not only in the same set, but sometimes in the same song. Think REO Speedwagon trying to do Rush and you are close. Setlist here.

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Primus hit the stage to Danny Elfman’s iconic Clown Dream from Pee Wee’s Playhouse fame, setting the vibrations to weird from the get go. Once the horn helmet hat came out, things phased from normal to delightfully surreal. The middle of the set featured their newest album, The Desaturating Seven, a quick 35 minute rundown based on an Italian children’s book. With Tim Alexander back in the fold, this band is now more telepathic than rehearsed. Somehow they have become considered a ‘jam band’, despite exhibiting few of the necessary Dead-like noodling characteristics. Primus has always sounded like a spastic version of early 1990’s King Crimson-precise when they need to be, and cacophonous spontaneously. Primus were consistently on point where Mastodon were a bit scattered. A solid evening. Setlist here.

Dead and Company, The Meadows Hartford June 13

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Weir no longer monitoring Mayer every second

The thought of John Mayer in the Dead has finally transitioned from horror to a tacit acceptance. Since the legendary Fenway Park 2016 show, Mayer has managed to quiet the critics with his palpable enthusiasm and toning down of his more annoying characteristics. (no more shoulder pads in his jacket, appropriately scruffy outfits). The ninth show of the tour saw them land in Hartford. For the first time, I had actually arrived in time for the parking lot scene. Illegal vending is always interesting, and the beer cooler guys were selling the holy grail of beer, Vermont’s Heady Topper. Unfortunately, this was one of the highlights of the day. The setlist trended towards ordinary following a ferocious Hell in a Bucket opener,  but there were flashes in Viola Lee Blues and China->Rider. Two songs after drums and space and the show was over early. Still, an average Dead and Company show in 2018 is comparable to average Grateful Dead shows of the early 90’s, and light years beyond their sputterings of 2015

Roger Daltrey with the Boston Pops does Tommy, Tanglewood Lenox MA June 15th

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No fiddling about please

Two nights later, a jaunt across the whole state of Massachusetts to Tanglewood, the home of the Boston Pops/BSO on the New York border. Last year this was the site for Pete Townhend’s orchestral version of Quadrophenia. But where Quadrophenia functioned as a fully formed classically arranged symphony, Daltrey brought a full solo band to back him up, resulting in more of a rock band playing Tommy with orchestral flourishes than a realized classical piece. Daltrey was in fine voice this evening on the lawn: a sea of blankets, wine bottles and dinners covered this jewel of Massachusetts al fresco venues. The familiar themes of Tommy are some of the Who’s strongest material, and Daltrey kept the energy high, and it was a headlong rush to the end with Who Are You and Baba O’Reilly (including an insane violin solo so often neglected) to cap the evening.  Comparisons to Townshend’s performance last year are inevitable-one managed to shoehorn Quadrophenia into a genuine classical piece while Daltrey mainly used the orchestra as window dressing embellishment. However, Daltrey did get the rock vibe going much better. Who won? ‘Us’ would be the best answer.

Yes Hampton Beach Club Casino NH July 11th

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Image result for yes 50th hampton beach 2018 or YES featuring Anderson, Rabin & Wakeman?

Wither Yes?

This one is an interesting conundrum. Yes is on their 50th anniversary tour. Twice actually. For those unaware, there are actually two versions of Yes currently touring-first Howe, White, Downes and replacement parts. The second version with founding vocalist and face of the band Jon Anderson along with iconic Rick Wakeman and 80’s star guitarist Trevor Rabin. Club Casino has seen the version led by Howe take the stage in the past in this relatively small venue. This evening the lineup was again the former: Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison and replacement drummer Jay Schellen. Actually there was a surprise in store for us in the third set, founding keyboardist Tony Kaye showed up.

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I’d popped tix for this on stubhub for $6.25 each. Cheaper than their 1970’s shows. Weird.

 tony kaye

A quick thirty seconds or so of traditional taped warm up Firebird Suite led to Close to the Edge as the opener. Downes has some difficulty reproducing Wakeman’s more challenging lines from time to time, and it showed here. Howe’s acoustic solo guitar piece Mood for a Day showed that he is still a master of the fretboard, and his electric guitar work on set one closer Heart of the Sunrise carried the whole band on his shoulders. Billy Sheridan on bass sometimes had a challenge in mimicking Chris Squire’s dominant bass lines. Oddly he’s never once strapped on a Rickenbacker 4001 bass, the signature sound of Yes. (Anderson’s version relies heavily on the Rick for bass).  For the second set, Alan White came out for the closer. He is now borderline infirm after several back surgeries, and only plays on the last four songs of the set. On Awaken, he was solid in his snare and cymbal work, but some of the trickier tom fills have to be omitted. Kaye came out for the final three songs of the encore. He still has the annoying habit of only playing with his right hand while the left hand waves in the air. Good Hammond work does require some mashing with both hands to create the proper effect. Very odd that he resolutely refuses to do this. At the end of the night I compared notes with friends and the consensus was that Yes is no longer able to accurately reproduce their own material. While this sounds harsh, one has to remember that Yes wrote some of the most challenging rock music in history. Downes and Sheridan, relatively capable musicians both, often give the impression that they are slurring their way through things that are too difficult to play precisely. I had the good fortune to meet the whole band after the show, and got to speak to each member one on one as they sat at the long autograph table. I had to bite my tongue several times, I had plenty to say-White appeared frail, Kaye affable, Sheridan offhanded but pleased, Schellen quietly ecstatic, Howe prickly and distracted. But in front of Jon Davison, the singer they had grabbed from a Yes cover band, I had to comment:  “Do you ever wake up in the morning and think ‘I am the luckiest motherfucker on the planet?’ I mean seriously, you are not opening for your dream band, you are IN your dream band? Unreal” He nodded and said ‘Oh yes I know, I do know’. Great ending to an uneven but overall fun evening. In the end, which version of Yes you prefer is up to the readerSetlist

Gov’t Mule, Avett Brothers, Magpie Salute Mansfield MA July 14th

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The light show,  Floyd style

Gov’t Mule brought their ‘Dark Side of the Mule’ set to Great Woods in Mansfield. Although one would think they were doing Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd in its entirety, only seven of the fifteen Floyd covers were from Dark Side. Echoes part two, The Nile Song and Pigs on the Wing were some highlights. Warren Haynes, who never seems to have an off day, was masterful on guitar. A dazzling light show complemented the set which contained only two actual Mule songs. Before this tour, Mule had only done this Floyd adventure twice-Boston for Halloween in 2008 and at their own festival Mountain Jam in 2015.  Setlist here

Openers Magpie Salute featured the remnants of the Black Crowes, and rocked out old school. Harder and faster than the parent band, Rich Robinson, Sven Pipien and Marc Ford provide the core of something that has a rawness similar to 1987 Guns n Roses with elements of dangerous Rolling Stones and a strong heavy Crowes vibe. This is a band to watch.  Needless to say, their set was far too short. The middle band, the Avett Brothers had a large contingent in the crowd. I was a bit dumbfounded-they sounded like the Jonas Brothers on a good day mixed with any generic Christian Rock band minus the Jesus lyrics. I was bored to tears. Fortunately Warren had lined up a memory cleansing set of Floyd to send the posers to wing. He did.

Blackmore’s Night  Academy of Music Northampton MA July 21st

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Renaissance Festival? Where?

Ok this one is hard to believe for those who are unaware. Ritchie Blackmore, the notoriously difficult iconic guitarist for Deep Purple decided one day to start a band with his then girlfriend Candice Night. The band name is cleverly a play on both the names of the founders and one of Purple’s more iconic songs ‘Black Night’. Though they’ve been around since the late 90’s, many still don’t know that Blackmore has created an acoustic band that bears zero resemblance to Rainbow or Deep Purple. I was warned ahead of time that fans show up in renaissance costume. I wasn’t prepared for said fans gathering at the front of the hall and engaging in spirited group dances of Elizabethan times.

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Next one to yell Smoke on the Water is getting battle axed.

I’d have to say I was solidly impressed. I mean what the hell, Ritchie Blackmore, who is on a short list of rock guitarists who stand as the founders of heavy music as we know it comes to town? Townshend, Hendrix, Gilmour, Clapton, Page, Beck? Blackmore is right in there timeline-wise and talent-wise. This is a living legend. But as long as you don’t expect any Purple, you are in for a treat. The band sounds very close (nearly identical) to the Annie Haslam led band Renaissance who ruled the floorboards in the seventies. Night has a similar vocal range as the operatic Haslam, and the band is fluid on their plethora of acoustic instruments. Oddly, barely recognizable versions of Rainbow, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep obscurities dotted the set. On other nights Renaissance and Mike Oldfield songs will make appearances. I thought this night might be a disaster, but I would go again in a heartbeat.

Ween Waterfront Park Burlington VT July 29th

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Ween Burlington 2018 Hampton Crop
Boognish in five parts

Ween end of summer tour show. Lake Champlain for the background? Are you kidding? You could smell that this would be a special one from a long way off. From the opening notes of Did You See Me? things were loose and fun. Claude bloodied from playing drums with his hands, a half assed cover of Black Sabbath by Sabbath, China Cat by the Dead, three of the five Stallions….holy crap this was perhaps the best Ween show I’d seen since 1999. The location was perfect. We are gonna keep this one light on words and heavy on ‘watch and see what the fuck they did’. See below for video evidence of the mayhem:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many online agreed, this one was special. The band all switched instruments for a song. Multi Stallions-always the sign of a special show. No seats, just a field. One of the best days of the summer. Sun sets over the lake literally just behind us. For me, this was the best show of the summer by a longshot. Long live Boognish. Setlist here.

 

Slayer Albany Times Union Center Albany NY August 1st

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More propane used tonight than most houses use in a month

Slayer…Slayer…Slayer….Slayer…..

You actually have to say their name three or four times in a row, or it doesn’t count. Somewhat like Bloody Mary. So Slayer announced that they are on their farewell tour and packing it in. To go out in style, they packed the bill with legends of thrash and death metal.

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I was on the way into the arena very early in the bill when I saw a kid leaving the event in a Venom shirt. Kind of early. Clearly he’d only come for Napalm Death who’d replaced Behemoth a few days before the show. Once inside, I realized it had been a while since I had been at a show where I could be in genuine danger. (Venom last year in Boston but in reality Butthole Surfers in 1990 would take the cake for uncontrolled mayhem). I’d missed some of the opening acts, coming in towards the end of Anthrax. Wandering around looking at various concert T shirts was highly entertaining-beer bellies stretching vintage shirts of 80’s bands long forgotten: Exodus, Overkill, Carcass, Megadeth, Obituary, Kreator…I’d forgotten about some of these bands. This show was another one I’d popped on stubhub for dirt cheap, $7.00 for loge seats. Lamb of God had a large following there, yet I couldn’t really find anything in their set to grab on to. First, bands that spend much of their time onstage with members having an arm in the air at all times? Play yer damn guitar. Plus the singer standing on the monitors often, posing, posturing and yelling WWF style? The aluminum bleachers backdrop also lended to what could easily be confused with a choreographed wrestling match theme. I was bored.

 

 

 

And then came Slayer. (Slayer…Slayer…Slayer…). Very quickly these guys established why they are the kings of thrash and death metal. Precision riffs created large incisions in the sweaty air of the former Pepsi Center, drums spitting artillery shells at machine gun rates, flames bursting front and back and sideways. It was mayhem on the stage, and the mosh pit circled menacingly, taking up a large fraction of the floor. Violence was tangible in every turn. But somehow these songs showed a spirit and swing that Lamb of God couldn’t achieve. Hell Awaits, South of Heaven, Raining Blood, Chemical Warfare led to the finale of Angel of Death-all at impossibly loud volumes and impossibly fast tempos. Brutality and catchiness intersected in a tribute to all that is metal. Glorious. Hell awaits indeed.

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No Caption Needed. Slayer

Belly,  The Royale Boston MA August 23rd

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Don’t Get Too Close To My Fantasy-Still Coquettish After All These Years

I’d wanted to see Belly since their second album came out in 1995, never have. My time with them went back to the Throwing Muses era, when I’d seen that band a half a dozen times in Cambridge before they were signed and they only had a cassette out (to this day, still their best release by a long shot). Belly’s second album, King, was a masterpiece of perfection, musically and in the timing. It was sublimely different from much of the ‘chick rock’ that flooded the market in the 90’s. But Belly were different. The riot grrl movement, Liz Phair, L7, PJ Harvey, Hole, The Breeders, Kim Gordon? These girls were dangerous, could mess you up. Or even worse, ignore you completely. These were their themes-boys and love not needed here. Belly and Tanya Donelly were something very different. They sang about the things that concerned many hipster 90’s twenty somethings the most. Dating as a full time activity,  and love….found and lost. Wistful and romantic in a good way, there is heartache and longing described in vivid terms–in poignant but easily understood terms-the spectrum is covered from highs to lows in impressionist wordplay.  Emotionally closer to Emily Dickinson than Bikini Kill, Belly is able to cut to the heart of relationship gamesmanship. Twenty years later, this album still stands as a masterpiece. Yet somehow the band only existed for three years and two albums-packing it in by 1996. Here is them doing their signature song, Red, back in ’95:

 

 

At the Royale, the band looked like they hadn’t lost a step since 1996. Tanya, who has to be pushing 55, still looks every bit the indie rock goddess-Dorian Gray’ed by the Gods and Goddesses of rock n roll. But make no mistake, she has an ability to use her voice in ways few singers could. Whispers to shrieks to country trills to breathy entreaties to guarded dive bombs from soprano to zero-Donelly has a unique and powerful vocal presence that Kristin Hersh never let her show in the Muses. The band still prowls the stage like there is a threat in their missives. Who could forget this pose:

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Gail Greenwood, the Lemmy of Indie Rock

The band had their kids there. Their progeny hosted an onstage drawing for a raffle and hogged the stage in a fashion that would make the cynical cringe, but was slightly endearing and a dose of perhaps needed reality:  ‘Hey we got kids and are not 22 anymore folks’. But the air of family that the Muses once nascently carried back in a long burned down club in Cambridge was now fully formed, a maturity has descended upon an era once innocent and adolescently hopeful on the love front. In some ways, their weighty and heady successes are frozen in time, along with any fans memories. It was a special time. ‘Don’t get too close to my fantasy’ a wise philosopher once said. Fair dinkum. Setlist here.

ZZ Top, Indian Ranch Webster MA August 26th

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My first concert year (underage), I had seen Rick Derringer in Salisbury Frolics. I was way too close to a PA that would easily deafen Madison Square Garden in a room the size of a small lecture hall. They tuned the monstrous PA up with some radio tunes. ‘Heard it on the X’ was the first song. I was intrigued. ZZ Top they said. I waited decades without seeing them, grabbing a few of their early albums. Why? I knew they had had a Texas history that went back to the days of the 13th Floor Elevators. But somehow they never had they crossed my path, and too many lunkheads were into them. I filed them away.

I’d had tickets two years ago to see ZZ Top when the bass player Dusty Hill wiped out drunk on the tour bus and broke his hip, pooching the tour. I had then given up all hope in ever seeing them live. Scanning the concert calendar, I discovered a day ahead of time ZZ Top playing within 50 miles of home. I had no idea that the Indian Ranch is located on a rather famous lake, one made famous in the Guinness Book of Records as longest name for a lake ever: Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. Or: ‘you fish on your side of the lake I’ll fish on my side of the lake and nobody fishes in the middle’. I’d memorized this in elementary school but never knew the damn lake was in Massachusetts. (a plaza with a convenience store has the name over it. It covers all of the stores from end to end.)

Top came out and delivered a perfunctory set-no surprises-some obvious omissions-that lasted perhaps 75 minutes to the predominantly biker crowd. Little time for jamming and mostly getting things done quickly  was the order of the day. Some songs just fell apart at the end as if they were unwilling to let the song go another bar. Cheap Trick also operates this way lately, pre-programmed set that will not be deviated from under any circumstances, and an 80 minute target endtime. Bands on auto pilot that play the same set every night aren’t the best thing to see, but I was happy to finally witness these guys decades after I’d written them off with Eliminator. Setlist here Some footage:

 

 

Killing Joke and Pig, Paradise Theater Boston September 11th

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The summer ended on the ominous day of September 11th. I’d seen Killing Joke 5 years ago at this exact venue. Unlike many long lived bands, Killing Joke is currently constituted by their original 1978 lineup: Jaz Coleman, Youth, Geordie Walker and Paul Ferguson. This alone should reap them accolades-seriously a punk band that still has the same lineup for this long? Unheard of. And this was their 40th reunion.

Most Americans have no idea who Killing Joke are. They made zero impression in America during their heyday. With a sound that could be categorized as ‘standard 1980 brit punk’ with a heady Hawkwind edge-well you can see why nobody in the States would get it. But Youth? Few know he is the god of bass in KJ, but even fewer know he is a producer of rather impressive stature. Paul McCartney? The Verve? Alien Sex Fiend?  U2 and Depeche Mode? Yep, Youth.

Jaz Coleman is even more enigmatic. Often missing off planet, or perhaps in the Sahara, Coleman can be hard to pin down. He is famous for being an idealist, conspiracy theorist, truth teller and yet another famous producer. He rose to fame in 1995 with Symphonic Pink Floyd, a classical re-arrangement of Floyd classics.

With that in mind, seeing them in Boston was once again an amazing experience. They are so on top of their game that they could, like ZZ Top and Cheap Trick, phone one in. But they are made of sterner stuff. They briefly noted that it was September 11th and left the rest hanging, and quick comments on Trump were followed by ‘you guys watch out for us, so we are in it together’. For better or worse was politely left out. The set contained four songs from their debut lp from 1980. Setlist here

Pig, the opening band were entirely confusing. Seven musicians were coming out of the PA but only a guitarist, drummer, and engaging vocalist were onstage.

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Raymond Watts, an integral member of KMFDM, is the central figure of <PIG>. One can be forgiven for thinking this is an offshoot of Pigface (the industrial rock scene is the most incestuous of any rock scene ever-everyone has been in each others band at some point). As a front man, he is hypnotic. Dazzling stage gestures can be hypnotic to engage a crowd at first. After a while though? Repetition grows stale when computers are actually playing most of the instruments and your band members aren’t. Notsogood. Would go down a storm in a NYC bondage bar though.

So, that brings us to the end of the summer run. Distance traveled to shows: 1,890 miles traveled. 11 shows: $373.00 total ticket cost.

Cats Down Under the Stars for sure.

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2017 Concert Roundup here

2016 Concert Roundup here

Hawkwind-Road To Utopia Review, or Cricket Test Match Implosion: Disaster Overtakes Starship Hawkwind

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Fans were wary when Hawkwind announced they would be doing an album with strings for their 30th lp release, Road to Utopia. I mean that when a rock band not known for any strings in their songs decides to do an orchestral album, it is usually a signal that it’s finally over. It is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public–you gave up. Which makes it so puzzling that Hawkwind, who had been riding a streak of victories with their last two studio albums would decide to engage in what is usually perceived to be a musical white flag of surrender. Then the album cover was released:

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I was gobsmacked. Were they kidding? I canvassed long term Hawkfans, and most honestly thought this was a parody-couldn’t possibly be real, right? Cricket cartoons in a folk art style? Very ill advised was the kindest comment I heard. So what went wrong? First up, fingers must be pointed at Mike Batt of the Wombles, who orchestrated this collection of yet again more (all) Hawkwind remakes. The Wombles were a Brit children’s TV show featuring the band in fuzzy costumes (see above). Even odder was Eric Clapton guesting on The Watcher. This seemed like a confluence of bad decisions of epic proportions, like an acid trip that despite the best intentions, ends up spinning further out of control at every turn until there is an uncomfortable and painful thud.

First off, more covers of their older classic material is not what Hawkfans have been salivating for. Hey the first cover of Quark Strangeness and Charm in the 90’s was kind of cool, but little did we know that this was to be the blueprint for the next decade and a half. Their propensity for revisiting their older material has gone from eyebrow raising to a genuine problem. And their remakes never capture the magic of the originals, this is also the case here. Early statements tried to assuage fans by stressing that this was not an album of Hawkwind playing with an orchestra, but a Hawkwind album augmented by string and horn arrangements. True, it’s more variety show glitz arrangements than a full on orchestral treatment, but in the end this splitting of hairs matters little. The songs are sapped of whatever power they once contained and vary from semi-successful curios to downright look away embarrassing. Psi Power is vaguely interesting but Batt’s propensity for 1970’s over the top horn arrangements mar even this one slight success. The Age of the Micro Man is haunting but slowed tempos make it eventually sound like they are walking through viscous toffee. Some cool guitar from Brock manages to find its way past the wicket when Batt wasn’t looking in the grand finale. But by the end of the second pass through the album, I could no longer take the histrionic horn flashes intruding like a hamfisted attempt to insert some pep in their step but end up destroying everything-a Vegas inflected big band Hawkwind? Ugh. Things looked so bright when 2016’s The Machine Stops came out. Into the Woods kept the engine running smoothly. But this album pours sand into the oilpan and the whole colossus shudders to a frightening halt. We took the wrong step years ago? A bit more recent than years ago I’m afraid. Avoid.

Makes you wonder: ‘what would Lemmy have said?’

update Hawkwind live at the Palladium, London, November 2018: So the orchestral Hawkwind Palladium London shows have come and gone, and how did they do? Remember, this was supposed to be ‘Orchestral Hawkwind’ as opposed to the album, which was ‘Hawkwind with horn and strings in background’. In the end, there wasn’t much of a distinction.  Like this album, this show was a polarizing event-from those who thought it was the greatest thing they’d ever witnessed to those who yelled out ‘this is shit!’ straight from the crowd right at the band-there was little middle ground. Both the Telegraph and Financial Times in London panned it as straddling a passable/borderline disaster thin line.

https://www.ft.com/content/e3f07b68-e0e5-11e8-a8a0-99b2e340ffeb

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/concerts/hawkwind-review-palladium-london-ramshackle-old-vehicle-somehow/

The whole show is on Youtube currently in seven parts shot from the crowd, and judge for yourself. The six songs where Hawkwind are alone without accompaniment? Ok stuff. This quartet isn’t their strongest lineup, and it can show (Haz Wheaton’s departure is particularly felt). Brock holds things down nicely, exuding charisma and that ‘something’ Hawkwind always has on guitar and vocals, and they delivered workmanlike versions of some classics like Shot Down in the Night, some uneven versions (Damnation Alley and Spirit of the Age) while in the same breath Arthur Brown butchered (or drastically re-arraanged depending on your point of view) the Lemmy growl of the Watcher. The orchestra seemed superfluous at most stages. The opening orchestration piece was borderline excruciating-the worst of Aaron Copland meets some outtakes from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth meets casual ‘hey let’s throw in some Gil Evans here’ moments. The orchestral backing to Arthur Brown’s version of The Black Corridor and the classic Sonic Attack injected treacle and haphazard classical hackwork where some Ligeti inflected menace was required. (Nik Turner was openly missed on these two…Sonic Attack resembled the Atom Heart Mother orchestra working out early rehearsal bugs while Brown struggled to read the words and maintain any semblance of tempo). Down Through the Night suffered from horn blasts straight from an Italian 70’s variety show before picking up a bit towards the end-look up Prisencolinensinainciusol when you get a chance.

Overall, Mike Batt’s orchestrations seem like taping on a false moustache to Sean Connery: ultimately, not only is it just not needed, it actually detracts from the whole thing. In the end, this whole event was a noble failure that could have been predicted. Orchestral versions of progressive rock? Maybe. Orchestral versions of space rock? No. It’s antithetical to the whole genre. While the mid 90’s symphonic Pink Floyd lp courtesy of sympathetic kindred spirit Jaz Coleman was a reasonable success, Mike Batt has little feel for Hawkwind’s music and the final effect is like leaving Doc Severinson from Johnny Carson in charge of arranging an orchestral evening of Amon Duul II on short notice-two styles that would never mesh even under the best of circumstances forced uncomfortably together. It wasn’t awful, it wasn’t great. And really, nobody wins in that scenario. Let’s move on.

 

Behringer Deepmind 12-A Review For Those Who Have Played A LOT of Analog Synths

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This review is written for people who have seen a ton of analog synthesizers in their past. How does this thing SOUND? The lowdown on the Behringer Deepmind 12 (Note: this was written after seven days of playing this) : 

I don’t think more ink has been spilled over a synthesizer either before or after release than the Behringer Deepmind 12. Not the Moog Voyager, not Korg’s Arp Odyssey, not the Little Phatty. Much of this hand wringing has to do with the brand name on the case, Behringer. Known by some for their borderline patent infringement copies of some famous gear and questionable quality control, people had this thing written off before a prototype version had even hit the streets. The rumor that it was going to be a remake of the iconic Roland Juno 106 caused endless debates of skepticism. News then filtered out that it was to be manufactured in China-well this sealed it for many who verbally dug their heels in and posted final judgements without ever touching one in real life. It has polarized the synth community in opinion like no synth before ever has.  Is this kind of judgement worthy or overblown hyperbole? Let’s take a look at this beast.

So let’s first look at what happened in the major synth forums: Behringer lit up the synthesizer boards online with news that they had planned to clone the Juno 106 in August 2016. Folks were skeptical to say the least. Many online judged it and poured out missives without hearing a single note-“It’s a Behringer, it’s going to suck. I want no part of it” was a comment seen in many guises over and over. When it hit the shelves in January 2017, it was buggy. But it needed to be noted that this wasn’t a Juno 106 clone, it was a lot more. Another oscillator, arpeggiator, and most importantly, onboard high quality effects. Quick revisions of the OS (currently 1.1.2) have cleared up many of the quirks. Many will be surprised to hear that the Behringer is surprisingly solid.

First off, I am not one of those Behringer huge fans or one of the  ‘haters’. I have had several Behringer pedals (meh) and mixers in the past, and still use a mixer nearly two decades later. (ps: this mixer I gig with regularly: throw it in a milk crate uncased, throw it onstage and throw it back in the crate. And it has never failed) But Behringer has a reputation in some circles for gear that is only borderline acceptable. A full on analog polyphonic synthesizer? (these hadn’t really existed new anymore until the DSI Prophet 08 was released a decade ago.–I’m ignoring the Andromeda, no one could afford that—More expensive analog polys today trend towards $2,500. For a cheaper analog alternative today, outside of the mini keys Korg ‘minilogue? Not much out there.)

And for this to be your company’s first foray into synthesizers? This can be tricky ground. Look at Arturia’s Minibrute-another company that debuted an analog hardware synth as their first dipping of their toes into the musical instrument hardware water. The Arturia received mixed reviews (personally I thought it was too harsh sounding) and as a made in China provenance, few were surprised that it had a nearly series wide defect of a broken middle C key. The Microbrute revision released later was an improvement but sported mini keys, a deal breaker for many. People were wary of a brand new company making their first synth.

How Does It Sound?

Too many reviews of this thing are not much more than a recitation of the Deepmind 12 promo sheet of its specs. Few reviews get into what this thing has going for it: the unique sound. It sounds like a few synthesizers.   For a cliff note version, here is a starter formula for you to work with:

Juno-106  70%                                                                                                                                                        Alesis Ion 10%                                                                                                                                                        Waldorf Micro Q 10%                                                                                                                                 Korg Prophecy 10%

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Roland Juno 106 -1984. The biggest inspiration.                            Analog/hybrid
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Alesis Ion-2003. Virtual Analog Poly
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Waldorf Micro Q- 2000. Virtual Analog

 

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Korg Prophecy-1995. Virtual Analog

Some of the more astute will note that three digital virtual analogs are mentioned as close to how this sounds. Let’s get more specific.

The Korg Prophecy was designed in the mid 90’s as a bone to throw to the engineers who wanted a project mostly for themselves to be entertained-a digital synth that sounds like a monophonic analog synth of the 70’s. In reality, it didn’t sound much like an analog synth-you could hear this distinctive digital buzziness like fine sandpaper on wood in most sounds. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great–but it did have a fairly distinctive resonant nasally sound that would be the signpost for much virtual analog to follow. I had one for a while and it excelled in swirling soundscapes-but sketchy and scratchy outputs made it unreliable live.

The Waldorf Micro Q was a lower priced sequel to their flagship virtual analog monster, the Q. These guys had gotten down to brass tacks in synthesizer gestalt-buy a castle in Germany, move in, and create a company dedicated to making synthesizers Tangerine Dream would walk through burning buildings for. Not a bad original idea, and these guys are really good at what they do. The Micro Q was a very high end take on virtual analog-it has a very unique digital spin on analog. Crystalline high end bordering on…it’s hard to put in words, but it’s damn good. The micro Q still sports a sound today 18 years after release that is appealingly unique as well as easily identifiable. Waldorf digital synths have a certain something that makes the keen observer pick it out in a mix quickly. Great arpeggiation and clean and precise articulation are the hallmarks here. I have valued one of these in the rig since 2001.

The Alesis Ion was a latecomer to the game. It was all metal and solid feeling with a strength in a distinctly digital take on virtual analog. Formant sounds (a way of making a synth sound like it is vaguely talking) and very thin nasal swirling and sweeping resonant leads are the distinctive and easily identified signature sounds from this beast. The screen in the middle is able to show much information: BPMs, a pictorial of the envelopes, filters  and knob setting numbers for starters.  This was a ton of information in 2003, almost overwhelming for one weaned solely on 70’s and 80’s analog synths. I had one of these for a few years, but it had two live drawbacks, the labeling of knobs and buttons is literally invisible in most lighting situations, and it is much heavier to lug around than one would guess.

The Roland Juno 106 was the big analog polyphonic synth of the 1980’s. Hundreds of bands featured this thing-both pro and amateur. This keyboard was all over MTV styled euro bands-Most Duran Duran songs use the more expensive but very similar version of the 106, the 60. Pet Shop Boys and a-ha helped make this a staple of the airwaves while Tangerine Dream and Vangelis made wide use of the strings. It hit all the right notes for many synth enthusiasts-just old school enough, just modern enough, and affordable. DCOs instead of VCOs gave it a stability older synths lacked, but its single oscillator boosted by a sub oscillator limited what it could do. The lack of an arpeggiator or even the hold button from the SH-101 made for some complaints. This synth is widely considered to be a classic these days-it fetches around $1000 on the used market. I’ve had one for five or six years. The chorus on it can make some string sounds untouchable-hence its wide demand.

(further reflection months later)    I’d be tempted to add that there is a dash of the Korg Poly 800 in there too, the only affordable analog polysynth of the 80’s.

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Let’s Put All the Pieces Together

First reaction (five minutes of scrolling through patches) – Holy shit!! This is the most AMAZING synth I’ve heard in thirty five years!!

Second reaction (twenty minutes, 40 patches)-Hmmm most of these patches seem to be  awash in delay and echo…..

Third reaction (forty minutes-90 patches)– Wow a lot of these patches really sound alike. This thing is kind of samey. I don’t know….

Things changed. The second day, I had a similar reaction at first, but began to see deeper into the beast-reaction # 1 hung in there longer-impressive. By the end of day two, I had discovered something echoed by other commenters on various boards. I just started fiddling with sliders to see what I could do to each pre-set. At the end of an short noodling session, I had not just created a cool new patch, I had created a fully vibrant evolving motion soundscape that could function as a full on song on its own. Remember this synth has no splitting the keyboard to have two sounds at hand, no layering and no ‘combis’ that push patches together as a single sound source. It is all one single patch. This is pretty amazing for any synthesizer (even my behemoth Prophet 10 monster has difficulty creating full blown soundscape pieces this easily). By day four this had happened several times-random sliding of parameters leading to that ‘oh yeah’ moment of multi dimensional sonic universes unlocking. I began to wonder if the perception that the patches were sounding samey was because the programmers had made soooo many amazing sounds-an overload of cool sounding shit that overloaded the senses? This does seem to be the case.

How does this theoretical ingredients list play out? The Deepmind 12 sounds like a very clean Juno 106. It has essentially the same layout and many of the key and famously iconic pad sounds of a 106. It then has the large screen information display very similar to an Ion, with some of its signature formant sounds-albeit analog in source instead of digital. It also excels at the thin nasal resonant mono leads the Ion showcases. It has the clipped precision of the Micro Q in the arpeggiations, and many of the Deep Mind patches-even though this is an analog synth-have the distinctive character of the Prophecy’s evolving soundscapes and more straightforward analog emulated leads. It has a dollop of some of the straightforward bland but effective analog of the Poly 800. There are many patches on here I’d identify as digital virtual analog on first hearing. Most of that is a function of too many effects on a single patch, as when stripped of the reverbs, many patches revert to sounding clearly analog, if a bit vanilla. Overall, the percentage of sounds you’d pick as clearly analog matches roughly the original ingredients list-about 7 out of 10 would get the nod. (There are 1,024 patches in the beast). Perhaps “greater than the sum of its parts” would be an accurate quick take.

Oh My God The Fan

Some early and vocal reviews put the kibosh on this synth because it has a fan (actually two) in it. I couldn’t understand the fuss. I’d grown up with Kurzweils, both keyboard and rack, and never thought of a fan as something to give a second thought to, except if it stopped making noise. All of our computers and laptops have had fans forever. For those who think this is an issue, there is a setting in Global to adjust fan speed. Is the fan audible at full speed? Yes. My version had the fan factory preset to a very low setting of 64, where it was nearly inaudible. Engineers at Behringer say that those who are freaked out and can’t handle the fan can set theirs as low as 34. You can even turn it off if your studio isn’t currently doubling as a sauna.

A Quick Rundown of Most Common Complaints

Build quality is excellent. All metal and wood, this thing is built like a brick shithouse. A sturdy gig bag would be recommended to protect the sliders, as the sliders are slightly wiggly. But so are the sliders on my Juno 106 (just went downstairs to check, the 106 faders wobble side to side, not as much as the Deepmind, but still wiggly). The revised Deepmind 6 has smaller sliders that feel much tighter. The keybed is good, not great, but this would be a place to save a little money in the manufacturing. Me? I ain’t Keith Emerson going to town, but I had no beefs.

Unwanted clicking sounds. Yes this is true, there are some occasional quiet clicks and pops in the sounds. Some seem to be residue from the effects, but some do seem to be noise generated unintentionally. Not often enough to be noticed much on my unit, but they are there.

Noisy fan. As noted above, this isn’t really a problem at all.

Relies too much on effects. Well this one depends on your viewpoint. It is true that some patches are absolutely slathered in reverb, making the sound recede in a wash of repeating digital echoes. But remember, the Juno 106 made its name on a particular sound, a sound often generated by engaging its distinctive chorus. Somehow effects integral to the vintage inspiration get a pass but on the newer version are now a sticking point? Weird. Think of it this way-a patch has certain settings that build the architecture of the sound-envelopes, cutoff etc. The effects are just one more ingredient to the madness-another essential piece of the puzzle. What usually is never mentioned is that in a live setting, you no longer have to carry around an echo pedal, power supply for it, and two patch cords. This really streamlines setup time. Plus the effects are sourced from TC Electronics, known for their high end delay units and Klark Teknik, a high end British sound processing outfit. These aren’t cheap add on effects. (These companies have been absorbed into the Behringer family.)

The analog strings are too thin You see this complaint a lot on various online boards. And if I only gave this a cursory run through, it is possible that one could get that impression. Many string patches (there are hundreds) do sound like they are missing something. But keep looking-you will find some massive string patches (about ten or so) that would make Juno 106 aficionados weep openly. There is one patch in the A bank I need to revisit (forgot to write it down stupidly). It is the most massive string sound I’ve heard in a while-Roland Jupiter/Yamaha CS in depth.

It has no low end for huge bass Well this is just straight up incorrect. Even the smaller six voice Deepmind 6 is capable of bowel loosening sub bass–foundation shaking bass.

Final Judgement

In the end, this is more a synth you’ll play around with and discover things you’d never imagined more than something to sit down and willfully program. Subtle tweaks produce galactic results you’d never expect. At the new price point of $699, the Deepmind 12 is really a no brainer. It can do some things that even the Oberheim OB 6 and Prophet Rev2 cannot do. Are both of those famous and top shelf synthesizers inferior to the Deepmind? Of course not. But at $3,000 and $2,000 respectively, they require a serious financial commitment. If you are looking for a synth that does deep Moog soundalike patches, piano, orchestral instruments, and conventional style instruments, look elsewhere. If you are looking for something that oozes Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Cluster, Berlin school, Jean Michel Jarre and deep ambient vintage analog synth textures?  Look no further. Hell this thing could also fit nicely in a Hip hop, funk, techno, prog metal or jam band.  If you have experience getting sounds out of a Roland SH-101 (my first synth) then you will feel very much at home instantly programming this. The blinking LFO lights in particular are an invaluable guide for those who know where to go to find the exact sliders to fine tune weird sounds.

At $899 these were already worth it. Now? Well what are you waiting for? Open a new window and order one now. And get a Deepmind 6 while you are at it.

addendum: I’ve owned quite a few vintage and later era synths in my time and this thing hangs in there very well with all of them.

Gear list: Moog Voyager, Minimoog Model D, vintage Moog Source and Micromoog, Moog Sub 37, Moog Sub Phatty, Moog Grandmother, Moog Slim Phatty; vintage Arp Odyssey Rev 1 and Rev 3 and Arp Axxe, vintage Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, DSI Prophet 08, DSI Evolver, DSI Mopho keyboard;, Kurzweil K2000r, K2500r, K2000 keyboard; Korg Arp Odyssey, Korg Karma, Korg Monologue, Korg Ex-8000; Waldorf Streichfette, Waldorf Micro Q, Waldorf Pulse, Waldorf Pulse 2; vintage Waldorf Microwave 1, Roland SH-101, Roland Juno 106, Roland Alpha Juno, Roland JX 10;  Roland/Studio Electronics Se 02, Studio Electronics SE-1, Doepfer MS 404, vintage Oberheim Matrix 6 and Matrix 6r, Oberheim Matrix 1000 and tons of gear traded in over the past two decades. And now, add in Behringer Deepmind 12 and Deepmind 6.

A Lost John Coltrane Album Was Just Found? Both Directions At Once-The Lost Album

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“This is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid” – Sonny Rollins

So growing up, it seemed like Coltrane was the jazz counterpart to Jimi Hendrix in the record industry: a “new” album seemed to be discovered every two years or so. In reality, these albums consisted of outtakes, jams and experiments that usually never were intended to see the light of day. Which is why the new Coltrane album ‘Both Directions at Once’ is so surprising. For it appears that yes, this actually is a lost album that was intended to be released, and instead it got buried deeper and deeper in the archives until all traces of it were gone. Thankfully, that has been remedied with this release.

Let’s be honest, this is amazing that this could show up in 2018.  This is one of the biggest finds in jazz history. The 2005 discovery of a Thelonious Monk concert with Coltrane from 1957-professionally recorded-had turned the jazz scene upside down. It was hailed then as the “musical equivalent of the discovery of a new Mount Everest”. In view of that, Sonny Rollins’ quote above might be a little  overstated, but not by much.  In the jazz world though? He is spot on. Vultures at ABC and Atlantic had long ago picked the vaults clean-releasing multiple outtakes and song fragments as ‘newly found’ material for decades. This is certainly not the case here-we are presented a full length album that literally everyone had forgotten about until a safety master was discovered in a house closet of a Coltrane family relative. But first, a little back story on 1963 Coltrane:

The quartet of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones had been together for a full two years of recording and gigging. For a jazz scene that often traded out parts, to have a band with the same lineup for that long brought some unseen rewards. They were nearly telepathic with each other in their delicate improvisations. Combine that with a piano and drum section that re-defined jazz-the ability to support and lead simultaneously. Angular piano leads and sharp fills on drums do far more than accentuate-the band became a four headed monster with Garrison’s ability to underpin and never overwhelm on bass. Take a look at what these guys recorded in two short years from May 1961 up to March 1963 (new album slotted in where it was recorded)

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This is a fairly fertile period for Coltrane, where he could literally show up for an evening in the studio and knock out a full album with multiple takes.   So much material generated would pose a problem for record executives at the time. They would rightly point out that they couldn’t release four albums per year and promote them properly. This one fact would come back eventually to seal the vault on this album. Recorded the day before the Johnny Hartman sessions, and in only five hours, the label likely posed the question: ‘so you have two albums in the can in three days-one with a vocalist that is such a new direction we can commercially promote to a whole new audience, or one you recorded yesterday that is similar to your other recent things. We only can release one, so which one?’ This was a period of post My Favorite Things which pushed Coltrane out from top flight sideman and nascent national star status to genuine ‘jazz world’ and international star. Even the largest aficionados of Coltrane’s purest forms of jazz creation (Bob Thiele and studio owner Rudy Van Gelder) would have chosen the former-if the commercial success angle could be pushed further, well there were no losers in that scenario. If an album could double or triple his audience and his sales, everyone would be on board.

That dilemna covers the origins that triggered the eventual disappearance of this album. Luckily for us, Coltrane’s wife Naima found the mono safety master that had been created in the studio for Coltrane to take home and analyze. It had languished there for over half a century. But what of the master recordings? The masters were catalogued by Van Gelder, then stored in the voluminous Impulse archives until the label relocated from New York to Los Angeles. Any non released masters found in the tape archive in LA were eventually destroyed by the label to save storage space. It appeared this album was destined to be lost forever. Folks had now forgotten about the mono safety master 7″ tape.  It lay undiscovered in a box for 55 years until their rediscovery.

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Is This Actually a Real Album?

There is some fairly convincing evidence that this was intended to be an actual album. The biggest piece would be the four full takes in recording ‘Impressions’, one of his signature songs in his canon according to McCoy Tyner. This song eventually appeared the next year on the self same titled album, but in a live form recorded in December 1961, but this shows he was after something important. Chasing a perfect studio version of this song would indicate he was after something a little more than just jamming. The quartet also had not recorded in their ‘pushing the envelope’ style since July 1962’s Coltrane-opting for the commercial friendly Ballads and a collaboration with Duke Ellington to continue an expansion of his commercial exposure.

Shorter traditional tunes Nature Boy and Vilia, (which showed up on the subsequent Live at Birdland) contrast with a long slow blues and Impressions, this pair clocking in at nearly half an hour. One Up, One Down (from a conversation Coltrane had with Wayne Shorter before his death) and two untitled instrumentals (called Sun Ship and Triangles on the tape box in Coltrane’s handwriting-not clear on which one was which however) make up the album. Some traditional, some forward looking, this is a perfect picture of an artist in transition. With him flying at such a high level, one can almost see how this album would have been gauged as not quite perfect at the time. And with a glut of top flight Coltrane material in the can awaiting release? Well some hard choices had to be made, and this album was consigned to oblivion. Until now. But make no mistake, this album is amazing-a snapshot of what came before and what was to come that slots perfectly among his better works. Coltrane pushed the boundaries already tested in 1962’s Coltrane, and this album holds its own easily with the upcoming Live at Birdland recorded seven months later in 1963 and Crescent a year later in 1964. In some ways it is even more satisfying than both of those albums.

So yes, this is an actual real lost Coltrane album, and a damn good one to boot-comfortably sliding into his top studio releases. It is one of the biggest events in jazz history to discover any work from an artist like this, but one from his peak period of creativity? Holy shit! Go out and get one immediately.

 

RSD 2018- Hawkwind and the Residents Deliver Definitive Albums (and No One Noticed?)

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Record Store Day. The somewhat benevolent creation of the record industry in 2007 to enervate the then fledgling recovering vinyl industry. Records had been considered dead and buried by the end of the 80’s, and vinyl pressings had dwindled to near nil from their hey day. In 1978, over 340 million albums were purchased, the peak year of album buying in America. With the advent of CDs, twenty years later, 1998 saw LP sales drop to 1% of 1978’s sales figures at just over 3 million units. By 2006, vinyl LP sales had plunged to under a million-900,000 units sold for that year. (CDs had shifted an amazing 800 million units in 1998-nearly 1,000 CDs sold for each LP sold) Records were proclaimed dead in every industry paper, folks dumped their decades long curated collections into landfills and Salvation Army bins, and the chore of lugging around hundreds or thousands of pounds of vinyl was solved.

Or so it seemed. Indie labels had never really given up on vinyl, and the cooler indie stores still stocked records by bands that most had never heard of, and sales were moderate. Albums were now pressed in the thousands (sometimes as low as 1000) per release. 2007 saw the innovation of a single day created for the indie record stores that had kept the faith through the lean years. Severely limited editions of some enticing titles were offered for sale on a single day in April, and only independent stores were allowed to order them. Soon, the buzz spread. As years went on, folks began lining up in the early morning hours to grab some genuine treasures, or get tricked into buying repackaged turds that they knew better than to drop another 40 bucks on. (the dreadful double A side 45s from WB with the original vintage single on one side and a cover by a modern band as the B side gets singled out here). Regardless, some real rarities spat out, and it became almost de riguer to jump to eBay to see what the sold out items were fetching.

The past few record store days (now doubled to twice a year-Black Friday in November joins the original April date) have shown an industry short on imagination. Flickers came here and there, but a trend towards reissuing albums at $30 a pop that are easily found across town in a vintage used record store for five bucks? No thanks. Rarely is a truly groundbreaking and definitive rarity released under the guises of Record Store Day. Until this year, where lightning struck not once, but twice.

Hawkwind – Dark Matter (The Alternative Liberty/UA Years 1970-1974) 2 lp

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This one escaped almost EVERYONE’S radar. Even Hawkfans online had little idea how important a release this one is for fans of early Hawkwind (considered the definitive era by most). Sourced from the 2011 3 CD compilation Parallel Universe (in and of itself the single definitive Hawkwind collection) Somehow folks didn’t realize how important the gems contained in here were. The plethora of Hawkwind compilations-similar to Stooges releases-have made fans immune to most Hawk comps. Too many are the same things over and over in a new sleeve and a new title. For those who thought that about this release, please take a closer look.

First, this one is easy to miss on the shelf. The band name and title are nearly invisible on the cryptic alien manhole cover. Last years RSD Hawkwind release (Best of the UA Years 1971-1974) sank without a trace with zero track information on a poorly designed cover.  . (both record stores in my town still have two copies each of this a year later. Many US record fans sadly would now just flip past any Hawk RSD title ) With this in mind, my early morning arrival to score what I knew to be one of the RSD treasures of the decade turned out to be unnecessary-they had plenty. Bringing this home immediately, I could not believe what was contained within. Basically this had things NEVER heard before by Hawkfans (excepting those who had been wise enough to grab Parallel Universe). And what things these were! The debut lineup of Brock, Turner, Harrison, Lloyd-Langton and Ollis doing In Search of Space material? What?? The In Search of Space lineup doing early Do Re Mi style material? Reworked versions of Hawkwind Zoo material that sound nothing like that EP? Studio versions of songs we’d only heard live? What was going on here? Was this one of the biggest Hawkwind releases in their career?

Digging a little deeper, that is exactly what we have going on here. The 1969-1970 lineup is represented on three tracks, You Know You’re Only Dreaming (which ended up on In Search Of Space) is a completely different take on the song, with only the lyrics as the common thread. It almost heads into a sound not unlike King Crimson of the same 1970 era. A fairly unique sound Hawkwind didn’t really show again. The Reason Is from their debut album is a different take, slightly scarier if that’s possible. Be Yourself is a different mix, very close to the original. Still, side A is an eye opener for a Hawkwind collection, with the Dreaming track being the real treasure. I was already blown away.

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Side B kicks off with another unheard song, the instrumental Hog Farm. This contains riffs from the much later Hawklords album of 1978 and is something out of left field for a Hawkwind fan-completely unheard until today. The transition to the In Search of Space line up has happened, and vocalist/poet Robert Calvert has entered, and guitarist Lloyd-Langton has exited, with Dave Anderson from Amon Duul 2 now on bass. Rumblings of Brainstorm and Master of the Universe scuttle in and out of the jamming. Sweet Mistress of Pain (Kiss of the Velvet Whip) is another song from the same session from May 1971. Originally taken from the rare pre Hawkwind EP ‘Hawkwind Zoo’ from early 1969, this version has been pumped up several levels. Calvert carries this one along vocally, and the newly injected instrumental power makes one wonder why the band didn’t up the ante and just keep the melody and replace the puerile lyrics with something a bit more star/drug/cosmic oriented. (lyrics to this song are the low point in Brock’s canon, probably why this song never surfaced) Alas, this was a  missed chance to create a truly classic Hawkwind song-still this version is heady. Seven by Seven, made famous on Space Ritual only had a studio version as the B side to the Silver Machine 45. This one here is a different version of the studio version and contains different lyrics. Again, this side is a strong argument as to why Hawkwind is a uniquely amazing musical experience. Brock and Turner are twin masters here; psychedelic voles burrowing into the deepest folds of your brain, and you are helpless in the sincerest sense of the word. The expansive wah wah use by Brock on guitar and Turner on sax create the essence of the Hawkwind sound-pounding bass and drums underneath, psychedelic warpings of guitar and sax, and wooshing chaotic underlay. This is the primordial heart of Hawkwind that perhaps even some of their hard core fans don’t know exists. The sound of In Search of Space has expanded to a more refined primordial puddle of brain bubbles than the studio album could quite aspire to.

Side three starts with another never before heard song, an outtake from Do Re Mi called Take What You Can-a fairly easy going standard Hawkwind type tune, it soon veers off into an instrumental section that features newly minted Lemmy endeavoring to tear holes in the universe before retreating back to home base and dwindling to a gentle two chord segue straight from Space Ritual (the song ends with the segue fading out). Elements of Master of the Universe are clearly evident in the riffing here. The rest of the side is taken up by the full studio version of Brainbox Pollution from August of 1973. Although this song is not unfamiliar to most Hawkfreaks, this version is. Stretched out to full length from the single edit that everyone knows, everything that makes Hawkwind special is contained in here (despite lacking the ‘horn of destiny’ call in the riff). Honestly, this version of the song would be what I’d consider what you’d come up with if you distilled the Hawkwind ethos into a single song. Side three has upped the ante, I can no longer believe that stuff of this quality has been undercover for so long-every song here would stand easily with the classics of the Hawkwind oeuvre.

Side four contains the unheard studio version of the B side It’s So Easy. (the more common version is a live one). A studio version of You Better Believe It (the Hall of the Mountain Grill version was likewise live) with the lyric ‘it’s so easy’ shows why the previous song was likely shelved from the album.  Both come from the same January 1974 studio session. It’s So Easy ends with a sublime denouement you never hear from them, almost Grateful Dead-like in elegiac subtlety. A different take on Wind of Change closes out side four, a very Pink Floyd guitar attack that bring the proceedings to an end like watching the most sublime beach sunset close out  a lysergic soaked day of adventure.

But make no mistake, these are powerful anthems to sheer lunacy, real howl at the moon kind of shit. The kind of stuff they don’t make anymore. This album already is insanely essential-a landmark of space rock. Nik Turner, who usually flies under the radar musically is shown to be a huge part of the sound–his carefully modulated and wah wah inflected sax sound like nothing on this earth, and provide a twisted musical continuity to most of the pieces. Brock’s likewise heavy wah use throughout most of this helps the call and response between two alien beings manning instruments not of this earth.   It is not hyperbole to state that this is perhaps the best Hawkwind album since Space Ritual–the surfacing of a long lost treasure trove of relics we didn’t  suspect existed, finally released a full forty plus years after being recorded. Pass the word on to your friends and Hawkfriends: “if you don’t have this album, you are missing a HUGE part of Hawkwind.”

The Residents- The Warner Brothers Album

The Holy Grail of Residents Lore Sees the Light of Day!

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The second treasure of RSD 2018 is a doozy, something we were told we would never ever hear-the nearly mythical Warner Bros. Album that gave the band their name. But first, maybe we need a little background on this band.

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Had this poster over my bed for the last two years of college
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One of their rare appearances, pre eyeball-in   fireproof suits
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Their other early appearance, wrapped in gauze
The Residents in their unfinished film, Vileness Fats

The Residents are best known as the eyeball wearing quartet from perhaps San Francisco who make some of the most uncommercial, sanity threatening and mutation inducing music this side of a lunatic asylum orchestra. They had been kicking around the psychedelic scene as early as 1967, and though many collectives explored similar paths, none had the vision (or perhaps lack thereof), diligence, dedication to destroying established musical traditions and mores and the ability to excise the word ‘no’ from their vocabulary like the Residents. Getting sued by the Beatles label for their first album cover got them a smidgen of infamy (a trick later borrowed by conceptual cousins Negativland). They had to change the album cover.

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Who was actually in the Residents? No one knew. This was a more closely guarded secret than what Kiss  looked like under their makeup. Unlike Kiss, few actually cared. Their debut registered minuscule sales. It was an unsettling maelstrom of music concrete, childish sing a longs, advanced modern classical riffs, homemade instruments and intentional mistakes that were the underpinning to some vocals that would disturb even Captain Beefheart. The band stayed the course for an album arc that everyone should dabble their little toes into:

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The above five albums set a benchmark for weirdness that is hard to top. In fact, it’s never been topped. But as twisted as these releases are, nothing compares to the early years of the band. And so our tale begins:

Our heroes are ensconced somewhere in California. The sixties are coming to an end. This loose collective who now might include Philip Lithman (better known as Snakefinger) as a guest guitarist on top of Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, Jay Clem and John Kennedy. (though all four claim they are managers of the Cryptic Corporation, not actual musicians) They start making serious music. Seriously damaged that is. Tapes slow down, instruments are primitively recorded: is it a kazoo? A fuzzed violin? a cat being tortured? No one knew. One never discussed item is that there was another early member of the band (often referred to as N. Senada- a pseudonym), someone classically trained on piano and composition. He became disenchanted with formal collegiate musical training and conservatory approaches, and decided to hitch his star to these acid soaked performance artists with pretty much zero musical talent. Perhaps he recognized flickers of Harry Partch, John Cage, Edgar Varese and Stockhausen in their childish dada clinking and clanking (and occasional transmission throwing out gears at 60 mph) But both factions were willing to make it a go, and the genesis of the Warner Bros. album was created. They recorded into 1971, hand painted the optimistically titled tape cover (see above) and mailed it to Hal Halverstadt, the guy at Warners who signed Captain Beefheart. (hey, if this guy signed Beefheart, he’ll LOVE us!) songlist below:

  1. Strawberry Fields Forever (Lennon-McCartney)
  2. The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany
  3. Baby Skeletons & Dogs
  4. Bop Bop (Shoo Bop Bop)
  5. Stuffed Genital
  6. Every Day I Masturbate on A Merican Fag
  7. Oh Mommy, Oh Daddy, Can’t You See that it’s True?
  8. Baby Skeletons & Dogs (Reprise)
  9. The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise)
  10. Love & Peace
  11. The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise 2)
  12. Black Velvet Original
  13. The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise 3)
  14. Christmas Morning Foto
  15. The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise 4)
  16. In the Still of the Night
  17. Maggie’s Farm (B. Dylan)
  18. Snot and Feces: Live at the Grunt Festival
  19. Sweet Meat
  20. Oh Yeah Uhh Bop Shoo Bop
  21. Ohm is Where the Art Is
  22. Concerto in R Flat Minor
  23. Gagagapiggaeioupe
  24. Sell American
  25. Love Theme from a Major Motion Picture
  26. Prelude for Accordion, Sousaphone and French Horn
  27. Oh God You’re a Pie in the Sky
  28. Short Circuit Comes to Town
  29. Marching Toward AEIOU Blues
  30. In the Still of the Night Again
  31. Oh Mommy, Oh Daddy, Can’t You See that it’s True Again
  32. Art the White Elephant
  33. Psychedelic and Orgasmic Finale

Unfortunately, Hal was not blown away. But with no information to go on, he was forced to mail the tape back to the return address c/o “Residents”  since they had not included any names. Thus, the band was born.

But no one had ever actually heard the album outside their guarded inner circle. It went from history to legend to myth. A single play was allowed on the radio. KBOO in Portland Oregon broadcast the album once in 1977 during a tribute to the Residents. Many Residents fans (myself included) had a multi generation copy of this weirdness on cassette. But nobody thought we’d get to hear it ever again. That was certain.

How this thing got tabbed for a RSD release is beyond me. Nobody, even the most clued in and knowledgeable employees in any store I spoke with had heard of this holy grail of Residents history. I managed to grab the last copy in the 8 am scrum by the RSD release bin. By reaching through four people. Luckily I knew this one was all black, and took a chance by grabbing a jet black single lp–gawwdammmm that is it!!!  That afternoon, this puppy was grabbing over $100 on eBay. Too many people found out too late what an important release this was, perhaps one of the most important releases in the whole history of Record Store Day. This record will crack your cranium open, plant little seeds of madness, then haphazardly super glue you back together. Below is a compendium of the ‘songs’ on this set of proto madness for your consumption. Country, blues, current pop music, children’s melodies, monsters under your bed and kitchen utensils get deconstructed, reassembled and collide nicely:

http://www.allformusic.fr/the-residents/the-warner-bros-album

or

Addendum: Early 80’s, the band split in half at the conclusion of the Mole show tour. I seemed to be the only one to notice the band had dropped from a quartet to a duo. The band steadfastly refused to acknowledge anything of the sort. (Clues from the hard to find “Mole Comics’ printed at the time are very clear that two of the members are not happy at all cruising this mess around Europe). They returned for a 1985 tour  with two members, Snakefinger and female dancers in eyeball heads. I’m pretty sure no members of the Residents had boobs. Oddly, one of my long term acquaintances managed to get a job in the periphery of the Cryptic Corporation. I confronted him one day:

‘why doesn’t the band admit they split in half and that two members disappeared in 1983?”

him: “I know nothing about that”

me: ‘mmm hmmm, I’m pretty sure in 1985 in concert in Boston I saw members in leotards with boobs dance and not play a single note.’

him: “errrrrrrrrrrrrr…”

me: ‘I’ll take that as a confirmation’

So maybe it’s not news, but Jay Clem and John Kennedy scampered away at the end of 1982. Some of you might have figured it out, some of you might not have even thought to ask, but the Residents have been a duo since then, and in recent years, down to just Homer. (who in a recent cabaret style performance admitted he had recorded most of Donkey for the huge animated film Shrek, then gotten bounced by Eddie Murphy. The vicissitudes of stardom will smack you down, won’t they.)

Two definitive albums. Two acid soaked bands from opposite sides of the world who recorded these treasures at roughly the same time, and had the results sit unheard for 47 years. Sometimes they get it right, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of: The Plastic People of the Universe-Or, Can You Arrest the Band and the Audience? They Did.

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“When an inquisition increases in severity, it regularly throws up bands of visionaries.” -Vera Linhartova, 1961

“one of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest.” -Ivan Jirous

“Plastic people, oh baby now, you’re such a drag” -Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention

Rock n Roll. It has been viewed over the years as a fad, a public nuisance, a social upheaval, something that needed to be watched, put down, suppressed-for the sake of the children don’t you know. Some view it as a party, some view it as a movement towards changing the way people think about life. This is a story about the latter.

On one hand, the Plastic People of the Universe (originally Plastic People of Universe-their English wasn’t so good) were like many bands popping up all across Europe-progressive leanings, improv jams, edgy jazz inflected takes on the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, lyrically challenging and lyrically absurd. But one thing set this Czechoslovakian band apart from their peers: they were literally outlaws. Like the government is after them, the secret police are after them, the national guard confiscates their equipment after them, the  police burn their houses down after them, they end up doing hard time in prison after them. Their crime? Bombings? Bank robbery? No. Their unique crime that gathered so much attention was their ability to play rock n roll, pure and simple. And for some reason, that scared the shit out of the government.

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The Prague Spring of 1968 saw the Iron Curtain country of Czechoslovakia in a weird place. Stalinism was gradually phased out by the new secretary of the Czech communist party, Alexander Dubcek. Newly found ideas like freedom of the press, literary guilds, freedom of speech and freedom of travel helped people shake off the malaise of being a  Soviet colony, and things looked good. After eight months of relative freedom, the Soviet Union had seen enough. Nearly half a million Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks flooded the country to restore order and a more Soviet-like ruling system. Dubcek was shown the door in April of 1969 and a hard line party leader was installed. Slowly, all of the freedoms of the Prague Spring were reversed starting in August of 1968. Things looked grim. But a seed had been planted in the short time of relative freedom.

How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)

One thing that had snuck into the country during the short era of freedom was rock n roll albums. Once the curtain of totalitarianism had descended again, smuggling albums in was nearly the only way to hear western music. (the Beach Boys did manage to play Prague in early 1969).  To be a band in the new era of Czechoslovakia, one had to follow some fairly strict rules. Bands had to register with the government and get a license, had to adhere to strict and conservative dress codes and hair styles, were rarely allowed out of the country, and had to submit their lyrics to censors for pre-approval before doing any recording. Concert appearances were likewise regulated. The state owned all of the band’s guitars, drums and amplifiers. Czech tastes in rock n roll had previously been limited to cover bands performing early and mid 60’s rock classics. But Czechoslovakia had been a bit more westernized than the average Iron Curtain country. Allen Ginsberg had visited (and been deported) in 1965, and he had laid the groundwork for a counterculture vibe across all forms of the arts. Hair got longer, and a beatnik vibe overtook the youth movement. But some folks went huge for rock n roll, and the weirder the better. The more offensive, the better. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, Captain Beefheart were the signpost of a galaxy of weird that resonated with the more artsy circles of proto hippies, drugballs, aspiring revolutionaries, dreamers and artists that were suddenly cut off from the faucet of a thirst quenching world of ideas and musical mayhem beyond their borders. The government had called a halt to the party. What were a bunch of furry freaks supposed to do?

New Potato Caboose

“What’s it like making rock n’ roll in a police state? The same as anywhere else, only harder. Much harder”-Paul Wilson, Plastic People

The flurry of activity in government didn’t affect the rock scene much in the initial months of 1969. Milan Hlavsa, Josef Brabek, Jiri Stevich and Michael Jernek formed an early version of the band called New Electric Potatoes. The name change to Plastic People in homage to the Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention song gave their audiences a clearer hint towards their intents. Things didn’t solidify until the band fused with some important members of another Czech band, the Primitives Group. Guitarist and keyboardist Josef Janicek and more importantly non musician and visionary Ivan Jirous brought a double dose of musical muscle and visionary influences. The Primitives had been one of the weirdest bands in the country: hanging dripping herrings from the ceiling for a “Fish Feast” concert, covering the band in feathers for a “Bird Feast” show-‘happenings’ these might be called-decidedly and purposefully not slick and designed to freak people out. (songs from Zappa’s Freak Out album were in their setlists) With the voluntary dissolution of the Primitives Group in April 1969, Jirous then latched on to the only other enfant terrible band in Prague, the Plastic People. He saw them as the only band who could serve as a vehicle for his version of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable-a multi-sensory performance art based rock experience (the band and Jirous were huge Velvet Underground fans-the Velvets were almost more popular in Czechoslovakia than America). While none of the band had been overseas to America, they cobbled together what they thought would be a good approximation of what they were hearing on albums: dada-ist vignettes, killing a live chicken as a sacrifice to the god Mars to begin a show, flying saucers hung from the ceiling, home made torches across the front of the stage, elements of circus (fire breathing clowns), homemade togas, liquid light shows, spaced out jams, face paint-you know, general psychedelic madness. The band played 13 shows in 1969, the most they managed in their 40 year history.

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Outfits and hair not approved by government

The band became a lightning rod for the freaks of Prague. However, the state had other ideas. ‘Normalization’ was the Kremlin’s word for what descended upon the arts scene. Censorship was the watchword. Bands were expected to clean up their acts, or else. The Plastic People stuck to their guns, refused to let government censors edit their lyrics and refused to get haircuts. The Czech government responded in January of 1970 by forcing them to audition for a professional musician’s license-then denying them for not cutting their hair short, and being a general menace to society.  To reinforce their point, Czech officials seized their government owned instruments, denied them access to rehearsal spaces and performance halls, and put an end to the proceedings. Things looked dark.

“It was clear we weren’t going to pass the state audition to get our professional status,” says Paul Wilson, former lead singer of the Plastic People. “We wouldn’t cut our hair, we wouldn’t allow our lyrics to be vetted, so we were kicked out. We were on our own.”

“Our manager (the well-known pop impresario Pavel “Cassius” Kratochvíl) had good connections with the official music organization and arranged for us to be given free amplifiers and instruments. Around 1970 however we had to play an audition for the committee responsible for registering bands officially, and they decided that our music was too disturbing for young people and very soon they took our equipment back. At that time the easiest path would have been to stay with our manager, cut our hair and get some tidy clothes. We decided to go in the other direction.” Josef Janicek

Long-Haired, Neurotic Drug Addicts and Mental Cases

“Long-haired, neurotic drug addicts and mental cases who take delight in the grossest of perversions and deliberately sing vulgar, anti-social songs”-Plastic People of the Universe review by state sponsored newspaper at the time

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The band vowed to soldier on, however. They scraped their meager cash reserves together, and got jobs as forest loggers to purchase their own used guitars and drums (drinking away most of the profits by their own admission), built their own amplifiers from scrap electronics and kept going. Jirous solved the performance problems by offering state approved and legal lectures on art: specifically the relationship between Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. As a member of the Union of Artists, Jirous could get the government to provide permits for large halls and professional sound systems to support the lectures. The Plastic People would be onstage behind a curtain-show a few slides and then pull the curtain to have the band give musical examples of what he was talking about. Eventually these ‘art lectures’ degenerated into a short introductions on Warhol and a couple of hours of Velvet Underground covers courtesy of the Plastics. It took a while, but the government figured out they were being tricked, and put an end to the ‘lectures’. Once again, things looked bleak.

Back To The Starting Line

Jirous had hired Canadian Paul Wilson to teach the band English so they could understand what madness was being spewed by the likes of the Fugs, Zappa and the Velvets, and pronounce things correctly in their slapdash cover versions. He eventually became the band’s lead singer for two years (eventually he was deported in 1977).  But with their instruments confiscated once again, the band had been knocked back to square one. They were reduced to borrowing instruments when they could, never being able to rehearse, and playing at secret parties.

“They were pretty much chewing-gum-and-string-gigs,” remembers Wilson. “We had no instruments to practice on, so the only time we played amplified was in front of an audience – you could say we weren’t very polished.”

Wilson estimated the band performed roughly 15 times in the 1970 to 1972 period.

The Heat is ON: 1973 -1976

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This is the era when the Plastic People legend was really born. Change was in the wind, and the wind blew in different directions. Musically, things got different in 1973 with the addition of saxophonist Vlatislav Brabenec, someone older and much more musically trained than the rest of the band. His addition brought two important changes. First, he demanded their set list contain only original material, and second that songs now only be sung in Czech. He brought in Czech lyrics by the surrealist writer and poet Egon Bondy. No more cover songs in their set pooched one of their last excuses of legitimacy to the government-‘we are just a band performing western rock because those bands aren’t allowed to visit here.’ Nevertheless, their newfound musical complexity led them to reapply for a ‘professional band’ status card. They were granted a license in 1973, but it was once again revoked within two weeks. Authorities claimed their music was “morbid” and would have a “negative social impact”, and once again they were banned from public concerts and had to retreat to the now familiar ‘underground’.

The band were not at a loss for creative ideas on how to get some illegal concerts going. House parties were the logical choice, but other ideas bubbled in: renting a riverboat for private tourist excursions, with the soundtrack on the boat provided by the Plastics. A Plastic People soccer team (with real uniforms) organized to play a village volunteer fire department. The after party? A Plastic People concert at the fire station of course. Then there were some large parties at weddings. The fact that the couples had already been married recently wasn’t shared with the officials. The wedding band? The Plastic People of the Universe of course. A new scene was growing larger as the Plastic People became the center of a second social and cultural revolution.  Newer bands like DG307, the Midsummer’s Night Band and later the Dog Soldiers were drawn in, and writers, poets, singers and artists came into a scene that was developing organically-and exponentially. The band had relocated to obscure Bohemian villages, as the heat in Prague was too much. The government had less control in the boondocks, and perceived dissidents had to leave the city for the relative safety of the forests.  Concerts were organized like American raves of the late 90’s-locations were kept secret until the final day, were generally very far out of town, and the exact location was spread by word of mouth only. People would walk for miles. You had to be literally clued into the scene.  It wasn’t long until the freaks began to gather in force, and in numbers that would make it hard for the government to ignore.

 The Merry Ghetto

 

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Booklet for Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s Club Banned

 

“The Plastics really started to get attention from the secret police when they started singing in Czech,” says Wilson, who despite no longer featuring in the band’s line-up, continued to be involved. “Suddenly they became more than a minor annoyance.”

Shit started to get real in March 1974. What became known as the Ceske Budovice Massacre saw the government strike back in a fashion that they never had before. Over 1,500 fans descended on the Bohemian village of Budovice for one of the rare secret Plastic People concerts. By this time, these were more than concerts, they were gatherings of the cognoscenti, the cream of the dissident intellectual crop. (There was a vibe of ‘hey, we’re getting away with this” if the Plastics managed to play for an hour without the proceedings getting busted up.) This time, the police were wise to the game, and were waiting in force. Fans were intercepted as they decamped from the train into a tornado of billy club wielding secret police. Government officials were there to take names, check IDs, throw people back onto a waiting government train to Prague. Hundreds of kids got arrested. Beatings and interrogations were handed out indiscriminately. Those who were students got expelled from college (the government paid for college, remember). The band did not get to perform.

Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club, Banned

Rather than back off, Ivan Jirous wanted the band to be a focal point for a whole new way of life in the country. He organized what was known as the First Music Festival of the Second Culture. The Second Culture was the designation Jirous gave to the collection of (literally) Bohemian dissidents and freaks as the antithesis to the government sponsored ‘First Culture’. Held outside of Benesov in September 1974, it was disguised as a wedding, and hundreds managed to attend. The band was getting more polished, and sounded like a hybrid of some Velvets, but elements of early Mothers of Invention, Henry Cow and Van der Graaf Generator filtered through an early Hawkwind scruffy lens.

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Houska Castle
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Czech out the hammer and sickle with hearts

 

 

 

 

 

The band was recorded at the time by friends at Houska Castle, 30 miles north of Prague  in 1974 and 1975. The intentions were to smuggle the master tapes out of the country and give the Plastic People a proper release-Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. To ensure the success of the endeavor, this information was kept secret from even the band (who were notoriously prodigious drinkers, and might let the secret accidentally slip).  The album was pressed in Ireland, the jacket printed in England, assembled in France and sent to the Netherlands for distribution (!). All benefits were listed for the Plastic People Defense Fund, London. They needed funds because the long expected day arrived. The band were all finally arrested.

Folsom Prison Blues

Future President of the Country, Off to Prison

The First Music Festival of the Second Culture had not gone unnoticed by the government. It had grown legendary in the underground among those who could not attend. The police had focused on the most vocal part of the group, Ivan Jirous-now known as ‘Magor’ (short for phantasmagoric, translating better as loony or crazy). Starting in 1974, Jirous would spend many periods in and out of prison-actually spending over nine of the next SIXTEEN years in prison. Jirous organized the Second Music Festival of the Second Culture in Bojanovice in February 1976, disguised as his own wedding. ‘Magor’s Wedding’ attracted fans from all parts of the underground, and oddly, no police attention whatsoever. Or so it appeared.

Less than a month later, the government struck. On March 17, 1976 there was a general round up of the counterculture. Simultaneous raids across the country bagged the Plastic People, DG307, Jirous…in all 27 musicians were arrested, writers and artists were taken in, concert promoters and hundreds of fans of the scene were rounded up and charged with disturbing the peace among other things. Musical instruments were once again confiscated, houses were ransacked, all of the bands tapes, artwork and notebooks were seized.  The Plastic People were left without any resources, instruments,  spiritual leader and now worst of all-without freedom.

This event did not go unnoticed outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. International outrage led to several of the band being released after a few months in prison. Vlatislav Brabenec, the Plastic’s saxophonist and Jirous were held, along with DG307’s Pavel Zajicek and singer Svatopluk Karasek. Paul Wilson, the person who had organized their one album being smuggled out of the country was deported. The government demanded a large show trial, to put the Second Culture on trial, essentially trying to end the hippie vs. communist question. The velvet glove and the iron hand were about to collide.

“I would say I survived about 80 or 90 interrogations, which was sometimes very exhausting,” said Brabenec. “It was at its worst when they threatened to kidnap my two-year-old daughter,” concedes Brabenec. “But I pitied these people, he said of his interrogators,  “I thought they wouldn’t find peace until the end of their days.” Others privy to the events  were more specific: “They would beat them up, drown them… it was torture,”

While the charges were almost comical–‘vulgar lyrics’, ‘anti-social phenomenon’, corrupting Czech youth– the verdicts were not. It was a foregone conclusion to all watching how this would end up.  Jirous was sentenced to 18 months, Zajicek to 12 months, and both Karasek and Brabenec to 8 months in prison. A simultaneous trial of three concert promoters in Plzen reinforced the government’s attack on the new culture.

 

 

 

Magor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brabenec

This verdict had the opposite effect of what the government hoped for. Powerful forces in the both the underground and mainstream Czech circles were outraged at the massive overreaction. Vaclav Havel wrote some powerful essays on the nature of freedom, and the huge injustice that had been done to the country. He contacted other western intellectuals and kindred spirits, and the cause of the Czech underground became an international one. The remaining Plastic People regrouped with a purpose. Vaclav Havel offered his own house and barn for recording sessions and underground concerts. The dissidents dug their heels in and once again the Plastics were more determined than ever. From prison, Magor tried to direct proceedings, which he now saw as quite serious-a struggle between the future and the past.

Charter 77

Charter 77 was written in the wake of the trial, and published clandestinely in December 1976. It was a manifesto and a declaration of intent-the underground wasn’t about to go quietly. Nine prominent Czech intellectuals from all walks of life were signatories to it, virtually guaranteeing arrest. Soon over 200 important Czechs had signed it. Havel was arrested trying to bring it to the Federal Assembly, and the Charter was confiscated. Unsurprisingly, copies had been smuggled to the west, and it was published simultaneously in newspapers in France, England, Germany and the United States. The Charter was represented as a “loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.” The Czech government did not react well, with random arrests, deportations, interrogations, expulsion from college, loss of driving permits-general harassments. The Plastic People were not forgotten by the government.

Midnight, a New Day?

Brabenec,-Kabes_,-Jirous,-Havel,-October-1977
Post arrest Plastics with Vaclav Havel (R) in 1977

“The teenagers in the boondocks had no idea the underground existed,” says Wilson. “Suddenly they did and it looked exciting as hell. More and more people found themselves drawn into the Plastics’ orbit.”

The band were followed wherever they went. Police were following everyone associated with the Plastics and the underground. They were once again forced to play parties in the woods. One uncomfortable consequence, though? Houses they played in tended to burn down after they played there. The police were immediately suspected, although there was little recourse. (the police did do it). Police surrounded Havel’s barn for a 1977 show, letting people pass (and taking down names), but not moving and letting the band play. (the barn was eventually burned down in retribution for hosting events)

Jirous was released but then arrested twice, once for ‘inappropriate comments at an art opening’ and then again for involvement with an underground magazine. He stayed in jail until the government fell in 1989. Brabenec had enough, and depending on who you listen to, was either forced into exile or petitioned to emigrate permanently in 1982.

According to Pepa Janiček, “Some secret policemen visited Brabenec’s home at night and said “so you play the saxophone? How will you play it after someone has knocked your teeth out?”.

In 1986, the Czech government allowed the first ever rock festival to be held-Rockfest 86. Bands who had been blacklisted for years were allowed to play for the first time. Things were starting to mellow.

Image result for pulnoc

In 1988 the government offered the remaining members : Janicek, Hlvasa, Kabes and Brabec a devil’s choice: reinstatement of their performance license, the one denied way back in 1970-with a catch. They could never use the name Plastic People of the Universe again. Brabec quit, refusing to perform without the name they had literally given up blood, teeth and years of their freedom for. The remaining band reformed as Pulnoc, which means ‘midnight’. They were signed to Arista Records in the States, and toured America, to ecstatic expat Czechs and those in the west who knew the tale.

After all of the better than two decades of harassment, imprisonment, confiscations, interrogations and beatings-one might expect the story would end with  more of the same. But instead, quite the opposite resulted. The Plastic People of the Universe were asked to reform at the behest of new Czech president, Vaclav Havel. They performed legally for the first time since 1970.  Fucking unbelievable.

What About Other Recordings?

Although there are enough people in the west who have heard of this band, fewer have actually heard their lone album-most people who know of them only have heard this single album. And even fewer know there are a dozen or so essential releases out there, lovingly curated by GLOBUS International label out of Prague. They put together a stunning 15 Cd compilation of their various eras (insanely rare, fetching up to $1,000 online).   Single CDs are available from this set if one really looks around, and is willing to buy from overseas. The first CD in the set is one of the two treasures: Muz Bez Usi (Man With No Ears) 1969-1972. This one captures the band in the early days-some when they were still legal. Most of this is professionally recorded, something rarely afforded the band. The band is surprisingly tight and inventive-a hybrid of straight ahead Mothers of Invention with general psychedelic jamming. Overall, circa 1969 their blend of influences sounded not unlike early Amon Duul II (who were forming in Germany in the same months). The first eleven minutes of the album is a suite of a half dozen songs that gets the ethos across quickly, and is the best snapshot of what they were like in the chaotic early days-highly recommended :

 

Other pieces are harder to grab, but the next big one is the recordings they did once released from prison,  Kolejnice duni (Railways rumble) 1977-1982. The Third Music Festival of the Second Culture held October 1, 1977 was their first reunion show for the public. Known as the 100 Points, the concert was held in Vaclav Havel’s barn, and this recording is the 28 minute centerpiece of this album. Here the band has evolved into a completely new sound-Magma, Henry Cow collide with darker sounds-early R.I.O. (if there ever was a band deserving of the title ‘Rock In Opposition, it surely is them). Here is 100 Points:

 

 

Their 1978 album, Pasijove hry velikonocni (Passion Play), is Vlatislav Brabenec’s masterwork-he wrote the whole album to tie up all of the threads of Plastic madness up to that point in one single statement. (In reality, these guys had to know that every day literally could be their last). Don’t be fooled by the religious implications of the title-the band was finally making an oblique and thinly veiled political statement-persecution ending in crucifixion? Legally plausible deniability? (“C’mon guys, we’re only singing about Jesus! Hey, hey put that guitar amp down!”). Strings from Jiri Kabes were now becoming one of the signature sounds of the band-the link to their earlier Velvets days. Early Magma vibes swirl in with some early Hawkwind, Van der Graaf and Popol Vuh sounds-lots of Christian Vander intonations combine with Peter Hammill angst throughout-alternating with hypnotic instrumental jams reminiscent of Gong or Nik Turner circa 1971. The sounds of the forests are out in full force-again an R.I.O vibe. Stark, harsh and ominous, this is as close to definitive as they got in a single album, with some great meditative playing in there as well. Wide ranging, not easy listening but sometimes confrontational stuff.

Co znamena vesti kone (Leading Horses), was smuggled out to Canada for release in 1981, and is probably their easiest to find release. Poppier and less confrontational than Passion Play, it is the last to feature Brabenec.

An album was recorded in 1983, Horezi porazka (Beef slaughter), to be smuggled to Canada for release, but it had to wait 20 years until it saw the light of day. Here the band continues to develop the heavy strings arrangements that defined their later sound in Pulnoc. Univers Zero with Zeuhl undertones is a good description, but the band is starting to really carve out their own unique Bohemian dark sound-the sounds of the gypsy forests and of villages of centuries past weave seamlessly into one now coherent whole. Those paying close attention might notice that some of their more important riffs get recycled on future albums-the conceptual continuity that Zappa referred to in his own work.

The musical perception of this band as only the snapshot of Egon Bondy’s era recordings is really a crime. This band danced from psych rockers to Amon Duul-ish space rock to darker Velvet Underground to Zeuhl sounds of Magma and Henry Cow to flirtations with quirky Cardiacs and Devo inflected 80’s sounds to a final restrained dark ‘Univers Zero as a pop band’ sound that morphed into the above ground Pulnoc. That is quite a musical history journey for a single band, especially one so hassled on a daily basis, an amazing feat in retrospect.

The Power of Music-Never Underestimate a Hippie

America had a handful of bands that tried to stick it to the government and preached some borderline seditious vibes: the Jefferson Airplane, MC5 are two of the better known examples, with some singular examples like Steppenwolf’s Monster album also lurking in the background. But an important difference is that while American bands consciously tried to foment some level of rebellion, the Plastics were just going about their business, making music as art and being generally weird. But while hippies in America had vague aspirations to some formless change, the Plastic People helped literally overthrow the government, and one of their prominent literary advisers, Vaclav Havel (who had done time in prison for being a dissident) was now president of Czechoslovakia. Frank Zappa was an adviser to Havel, and flew into Prague and found a crowd of 5,000 awaiting him. Lou Reed came in for the extended inauguration proceedings in early 1990 to meet Havel, where Reed gave the president his new album, and Havel told Reed the story of his rise to power and the band that had provided the secret soundtrack-the Plastic People. Havel took Reed to a small club that night to see a band, and Reed realized they were playing a song from the first Velvet Underground album. Fans went wild when they realized that Lou Reed AND the president of Czechoslovakia were in attendance. Long term dissidents came to greet them and regaled Reed with tales of the days of repression-where they had recited Velvet Underground lyrics to each other while in jail to help stay strong. Things had come full circle as the members of the Plastic People wailed away on stage.

American hippies fantasized the dream-change the world and get enough power to start making the rules. Czech hippies didn’t fantasize, and it was no hyperbolic hippie hallucination: they were ones who actually went out and fucking DID it-they changed the rules, dumped the government on its ass, and installed one of their own as president-a president that has Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa albums in his collection. Can’t think of any countries who can say that. And that my friends…is the real power of rock n roll.

“All of the stupid brains are out in the sun: our powerful nation lives in a velvet underground” -The Sun, by the Plastic People of the Universe

We weren’t political, we were dissidents against our will’‘ -Milan Hlavsa 1988