Tag Archives: Frank Zappa

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.

Plastic People
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?

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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.

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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

 

 

 

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Pink Floyd-The Early Years Box Set: Price Check on Aisle One!

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Okay, the Early Years box set is the big kahuna, the whole enchilada-the motherlode of early Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett that fans have been waiting for…waiting so long that many have actually forgotten they were waiting for it in reality. But people were fairly ecstatic that a huge and I mean huge amount of Pink Floyd rarities were seeing the light of day finally. But then…people got a look at the proposed price, one of the eye poppingly highest price tags in the history of rock releases. And everyone drew a long breath. Does this thing have nuggets to tempt even the most jaded Pink Floyd aficionado? Hell yes. Does the content (27 discs) come up equal to the price? (pre release list price- $699.00, Amazon pre-order price $571.36 at the time of this writing). Well lets do the math. 571 divided by 27 is twenty one and change per disc. For a single CD, that’s a pretty hefty entrance fee. But multi disc sets usually discount pretty heavily. Most double CDs clock in at around $19.99. Triple CDs average $25. See there is an industry prescribed sliding scale for multi disc sets. But over twenty one dollars per disc for the full run of 27 discs? (actually with the DVD/BluRay duplicating each other, this is only a 19 disc set, at $36 per disc!!) Mighty strange marketing here. Are they kidding? Did they include something worth this literally obscene outlay of dosh?  Let’s look closer:

First, any Floyd head worth his salt  owns 90% of this stuff already. Vinyl and cassette in the early 80’s, CDs in the 90’s-whatever. But the list of famous bootlegs is long, and folks like the author and his close friends have owned this stuff on vinyl bootleg since 1979 ticked into 1980.

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You get the idea. There is a lot of good stuff here. Among the 10 cds, 8 blu-rays and 9 dvds are plenty of treasures. But we have already heard much of this. The legendary More Furious Madness from the Massed Gadgets of the Auximenes? Mostly here, yet not called that for some reason. Known as ‘The Man’ and ‘the Journey’, it was a 1969 concert slated to be released as a live album, but shelved for some reason. But something Floyd heads have owned for decades. The Stockholm 1967 soundboard recording with Syd Barrett? For many, this is the treasure of the box, yet it has circulated for a while on bootleg forums. 1965 recordings with original guitarist Bob Klose? Ok, that is pretty cool. The long sought after 1967 John Latham soundtrack recording done by the Syd led Floyd? Now we are getting somewhere. That takes care of CD 1 and CD 2.

1968 BBC sessions that have been heavily circulated comprise CD 3. Studio tracks readily available pad out this disc. Outtakes from More and some heavily bootlegged 1969 BBC and Amsterdam stuff comprise CD 4. The aforementioned Massed Gadgets unreleased live album takes up CD 5. 1970 BBC sessions (again, heavily bootlegged and common) make up CD 6. Zabriskie Point outtakes (these somewhat rare compared to the rest) take up CD 7. CD 8 is Meddle era 1971 with an early version of Echoes, again BBC stuff. CD 9 is a clunker-a 2016 remix of Obscured By Clouds. Why? The original is a favorite of many Floyd heads and was the opening section of the first leg of the 1972 US tour. Unnecessary. The final CD is back to BBC 1967 with Syd Barrett, some 1968 BBC stuff and the famed 1969 session they did for the moon landing.

The DVD and Blu-ray stuff is more enigmatic. First-is this set really a mixture of Blu-ray and DVD? Why? Blu-ray folks will put their noses in the air at DVDs. And DVD people will not be able to play Blu-rays. Puzzling in the extreme. (a closer look reveals that the DVDs and Blu-Ray duplicate each other-so it is really a 19 disc set, which puts this at a gagging price of over $36.00 per disc!) Yet this stuff is where most of the unreleased material resides. A compendium of exactly what is on the set can be found here.

A video of the unboxing with some close ups of the extra memorabilia is here.

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Five original facsimile picture sleeve 45s are included, as well as facsimile memorabilia (a la Who Live at Leeds lp) in a nod to the vinyl collectors (very few of who actually still spin 45s, as they are a royal pain in the ass to change every 3 minutes).

So the main underlying question remains: Is this thing worth it? Could I spend the same amount of money on something else?

So what could a budding rock aficionado get for $699? Let’s put together a comparably priced fantasy space/prog/classic rock new CD essential collection with seven hundred bucks to spend (using Amazon prices for new CDs), and see what we can come up with:

Pink Floyd -Dark Side of the Moon $7  A prism refracting white light into a rainbow on a black background

Pink Floyd – Meddle $7.50  Related image

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother $7.00 Image result for atom heart mother

Pink Floyd -Piper at the Gates of Dawn $8.00 Image result for pink floyd piper

Pink Floyd – Saucerful of Secrets $4.00 Image result for pink floyd secrets

Pink Floyd – Obscured by Clouds $8.00 Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd (CD, Mar-1987, Capitol)

Pink Floyd- More $7.oo  

Pink Floyd – Ummagumma $16 Ummagumma by Pink Floyd (CD, Apr-1994, 2 Discs, Capitol) Remastered w/ Slipcase!

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here $9 Image result for pink floyd wish

Pink Floyd- Animals $8 Image result for pink floyd animals

Pink Floyd -Relics $9 Image result for pink floyd relics

Hawkwind-the first 8 albums in one box 11 cd  $39

Tangerine Dream- 3 cd 4 lp virgin box $11 The-Virgin-Years-1974-1978-Box-by-Tangerine-Dream-CD-Jan-2011-3-Discs

Ash Ra Tempel – Best of Private Tapes 2 cd $11 Image result for ash ra private tapes

Klaus Schulze – La Vie Electronique 3 cd  $20 Klaus-Schulze-La-Vie-Electronique-CD-Box-Set-NEW

Faust-Complete 5 cd $39 Product Details

Can-the Lost Tapes 3 cd $30 Image result for can lost tapes

Ozric Tentacles-Vitamin Enhanced 6 cd $60 Image result for ozric vitamin enhanced

Gong- the Trilogy box 3 cd $49 Image result for gong trilogy

Magma – Konzert Zund 12 cd $70 Kohnzert Zund

Grateful Dead-the Golden Road 1965-1973 complete 12 cd $70 The Golden Road (1965 - 1973)

Yes – The Studio Albums 1969-1987 12 cd $40 The Studio Albums 1969-1987

Frank Zappa –  Läther 3 cd $10 Läther

Sensation’s Fix-Music is Painting in the Air 1974-1977 $12 Music Is Painting In The Air (1974 - 1977)

Genesis-Archive 4 cd $57 Genesis Archive, Vol. 1: 1967-1975

King Crimson-21st Century Guide to King Crimson 4 cd $45 21st Century Guide to King Crimson 1: 1969-1974

Okay let’s stop there and figure out what we got with that haul. 16 bands. 25 releases. 95 cds. Roughly six hundred bucks. This would keep anyone pretty busy for….what, a year at least?

In the end, this box isn’t really universally the “unheard” motherlode it appears to be, but is coming from a similar place as Frank Zappa’s Beat the Boots box set, where Frank reissued some of the most important Zappa bootlegs in their original covers. What were they gonna do-sue him? So I hope this last part gives a bit of perspective on where your six hundred dollars could be spent otherwise. If this was at a more reasonable $15 per disc, it would be $285.00 for the box. This begs the larger question: “WHERE DID THE OTHER $400.00 GO? This might be where one could say ‘Can someone charge a record company with fraud?” and actually mean it. A box set that is priced $400 over what it should roll out at is……..friggin’ criminal.

And perhaps, in the spirit of the bootleg origins of most of the material on this Floyd box, and the spirit of the truly ironic, many of us will wait and…you know….see if it will show up somewhere sketchy for download instead? Shhhhhh…

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C’mon, SEVEN HUNDRED bucks for a fucking CD box? Really?

fortes fortuna adiuvat

Update: Warning-Caveat Emptor
Even at $400, this is still overpriced for what you get. On paper, the 10 cd audio content is tantalizing. In reality, the tendency to screw up remixes in sonic quality (which has become a trend lately) hits this package squarely on the nose, and bloodies up the whole thing. Huge clanging treble issues render much of the audio borderline unlistenable. In many songs, cymbals crash with a harshness that cymbals just aren’t supposed to sound like. The Obscured By Clouds disc suffers heavily from a harsh, unnatural and digital sounding mix that makes this particular disc something no one needs. If one is only going to listen to this on mp3 on their computer, perhaps some of the sonic problems would be less noticeable. Can’t say I know of anyone ready to dish out $400-$500 for mp3s though.
More specifically in the complaint department, why some of the BBC stuff I have owned on cassette since the 80’s is superior in sound quality to what shows up here is dumbfounding. It is like the research department spent zero time tracking down better versions that are readily found in the bootleg field.

Pet peeves:
Where is Let’s Roll Another One instead of Candy and a Currant Bun? My friends and I have had this for decades, and they didn’t bother to look for a version of it? Mixing out the chipmunk vocals on Scream Thy Last Scream? To what end I’d ask? The  1967 Advision sessions not included (which had Lets Roll Another One). Remixed Vegetable Man instead of the original mix. Stockholm live 1967. Sigh-vocals from the show are not up in the mix. Nothing to do about that as it was a product of the show at the time, but still, this holy grail bit is slightly underwhelming. In the Beechwoods, something discussed for years as one of the unheard Floyd masterpieces is an intriguing and out of character sounding instrumental, decent quality-is missing the vocal melody, an unfinished eye opener of sorts.
So, 8 of the video discs duplicate each other, the Obscured disc is a listen once throw away, leaving us 18 real discs at a minimum of $400 at this date (12/10/16)—still over twenty dollars per disc. The vinyl 45s suffer from a similar over equalization towards a harsher high end. Throw in defective BluRays that most everybody got and now have to exchange, and you have a product that is nowhere near even a $300 price point.
Some good stuff in there, to be sure, but dodgy sound on more of the live stuff than I expected, overly ‘high end heavy’ equalization yielding harsh treble across so many songs? Peeved. In the end, although this seemed to be the Floyd dream, it’s really not worth a huge financial outlay by a longshot. Fortunately, a friend kicked down to buy one, giving many a chance to hear the great, the good and the disappointing together. Try the $12 two cd condensed version of it first to give it a test run for the sound would be my advice. Separate sets are coming after the New Year to give the subsets of this more manageable release.

 

Summer 2016 Concert Round Up-Janes Dead Guns Bad Beatles Sabbath Ween n’ More…Around the World in Eighty Daze.

“My magnificent octopus” – S. Baldrick

As the Zombies almost once said, summers are the time of the season for concerts. From sheds to stadiums, folks pile into their vehicles to head out road trippin’ and space truckin’ for some full on outdoor Dionysian rituals. Some choose to make the parking lot their tailgating blow out (occasionally failing to even enter the show), others wait patiently in line to get into the venue early to drop $40 bucks on a shirt and absorb multiple beers at $11 a whack. But the gamut of summer concert behavior makes up one of the best seasons to see rock n roll in person– outside and under the stars. This summer was no exception. Below is a chronicle of the Carwreck adventures on the road from June to August this year.

   June 9-Joe Walsh and Bad Company

Joe Walsh and Bad Company, opening night for the summer season. I’d almost given this one a miss, even though I had tix in hand already. It was a weeknight, I was beyond tired. At the last second though I jumped in the car and flew to Great Woods (sorry, corporate logos change so quickly at these joints that we need to stick with the real names: The Meadows in Hartford, Worcester Centrum, Providence Civic Center, Boston Garden, Great Woods etc, who can keep track of which joint is the Xfinity Center anymore? And by next year it’ll be something different, you can TD bank on that). Aptly named the One Hell of a Night tour, this was one of the best shows of the summer. Going in, my expectations were low, but was I in for an eye opener. Joe Walsh is a pretty funny guy. If you’ve never heard him talk, you’d swear he was blasted out of his mind (which he was from the sixties until 1994)  Here is a pretty good example of him, courtesy of David Letterman in the late 1980’s:

Joe was in fine form at this show, introducing Life’s Been Good with the slurred quote “If I’da known I’d be playin’ this song for the rest of my life, I’da written a better song. But this is what we got, we’re stuck with it,  so let’s make the best of it…”. Long term band mate Joe Vitale gave the outfit a 70’s era Barnstorm feel. Walsh’s unit opened the show but easily could have headlined-Walsh’s distinct guitar lines warping reality like the James Gang used to.

Next up was Bad Company. Often thought of as the poor man’s Led Zeppelin, they were crisp on a pared down stage, serious and powerful. With Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from the original band (bassist Boz Burrell passed away in 2006 and guitarist Mick Ralphs declined to do this US tour due to health reasons) they were fleshed out by long term second guitar Howard Leese of Heart fame and a temporary stint from Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes. Lean and mean, Paul Rodgers stalked the stage as the band delivered some of their tightest playing of their career. Notes I took at the show included the question “How the fuck can Paul Rodgers still be this good?” How the fuck indeed-Rodgers had started to really tear up venues with Free in 1969, and 47 years later hadn’t lost a step. I’d seen Robert Plant a few times over the last few years, and Roger Daltrey a dozen or so times in the last decade. Both are still vocal legends, but neither could hold a candle to what Paul Rodgers can still pull off in 2016. Hard to believe, but Paul Rodgers is the last man standing, the most powerful 70’s era vocalist in rock n roll today. Had there been a roof, Bad Co.would have blown it off.

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Yep, still got it

July 15 Fenway Park-Dead and Company

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Is that really made from a tablecloth?

Next up was Dead and Company. I had seen them in 2015 early in their tour and was decidedly underwhelmed, as noted here.

I’d been wary of this band since the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary last show ever ‘we swear we are done’ in Chicago was quickly followed by a fall tour announcement with Oteil replacing Phil Lesh, and John Mayer as ‘Jerry’. I wasn’t the only long term Deadhead to be a bit skeptical of a cash grab, as brilliantly portrayed here.

I was dragged nearly kicking and screaming to the show and protested heavily that I didn’t really want to go. But an outdoor show at Fenway seemed like it could overcome John Mayer being the focus of attention in the Dead, but still had very low hopes of them being close to good. . But like Fonzie once famously said, I was wrrrrowrrr..

I thought Dead and Company were a pale imitation of the real thing, and that there was no way they could even come close to the Grateful Dead’s power.(I was wrong). The band started out the night with a jam that took a while to lead into Jack Straw. Jams to start a show? This was new. Donna Godchaux, a polarizing vocalist from the Grateful Dead from 1972-1978 showed up for a rare appearance, and brought a decent mid 70’s vibe to the setlist that drew heavily on her era of studio work. The first set finished with Help On the Way->Slipknot->Franklin’s Tower, something usually held out as a second set centerpiece. I wondered if this was going to be a long single set show and we had strayed into the second half. Nope. Second set started with St. Stephen->Dark Star. This was a mind bending way to begin a set. Combine that with the follow up of TerrapinStation/Drums/Space/Terrapin/Morning Dew–this  would have sizzled synapses and popped craniums had it been played in the 80’s or 90’s, leaving many Deadheads quite different people than they are today. But make no mistake-this sounded VERY much like classic Grateful Dead of the late 80’s early 90’s. Mayer popped a couple of song choices over Bob Weir’s strummed introductions to something different. Mayer overruled Weir? Twice? What was going on? With a Casey Jones that sped up each successive pass through the chorus, the Dead finished with a lighting fast version that sounded like they’d been injected with some of Heisenberg’s finest blue.(read up on Phil Lesh allegedly inventing cocaine suppositories for the band in the 80’s so they didn’t have to stop to blow lines in between songs when you get a chance).  Weir in particular threw Mayer slightly worried glances as they sped up to a tempo never heard before in any era of the Dead canon. As they approached light speed, Weir and the drummers eyes bulged at the exertion and looked as if all three might pass away right in front of us while Mayer hopped up and down gleefully strumming full speed.

A rare double encore to finish what has been said to be the best show this unit has ever played? Sublime. Though never a Donna fan, her addition combined with some pretty inspired playing from Mayer made this so close to the Dead that I have fooled several knowledgeable people playing them the soundboard from this show. (highly recommended for purchase while you can). Oteil deserves a mention for finally figuring out how to get genuine dinosaur-like Phil Lesh bass  runs pounding underneath. Great show, and I’d go again in a heartbeat. These guys are becoming musically dangerous on stage, and though it pains me to say this,  John Mayer might consider dropping his career to do this full time.

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July 17 Fenway Park-Paul McCartney

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Uh oh,  I see a drunk guy headed for the stage

Found some cheap tickets to McCartney on StubHub and jumped in the car once again. I’d seen the giants of the 60’s bands: Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, the Animals, Traffic…but never seen an actual Beatle.  Once again the rockers on their 50th or more anniversary tour fill up the stadiums. McCartney looked ageless (he’s actually 75), and has overcome some vocal problems that have plagued his recent tours to deliver a 38 song set that covered his whole career. The show started with a surprise for Sir Paul. Everyone had a card under their seat with instructions. Which resulted in this:

Crowd members held up cards welcoming Paul McCartney to Fenway Park Sunday.

From the opener Hard Day’s Night the band was off and running. Pretty much every Beatles song you’d ever want to hear combined with some excellent Wings era material made for a show that seemed short even though it pushed nearly three hours. Tributes to George Martin and George Harrison and stories about meeting a Russian defense minister who told him that his first album was an illegal  Beatles album, and that the Beatles had nicked For the Benefit of Mr. Kite off a Victorian era circus poster nearly word for word made McCartney seem very reachable and real. Another highlight was Bob Weir-still in town from his two day stint with the Dead at Fenway the previous night- coming onstage to join McCartney for Hi Hi Hi (of course).

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We’re gonna get high high high…

Then during Helter Skelter, with Weir still on guitar, the stage was charged by a drunken Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots. As he mugged for the audience, Weir gave him a look like he wished Gronk would spontaneously burst into flames and burn to a crisp onstage. It would be nice if someone could emulate the Seinfeld episode where he goes to a heckler’s job to screw with them. A rocker should show up at a Pats game and start yelling signals at Gronk behind him to see if he’d get the point. Doubtful. Even hard core Pats fans were pretty dismayed at his embarrassing drunken roofie worthy stunt (He is likely immune to roofies though):

Other highlights were the fireworks laden Live and Let Die (the first of two I’d see this week) and a peek at the earliest work of McCartney and (mostly)Lennon-In Spite of All the Danger from the 1957 era pre-Beatles, the Quarrymen. A real cool night that ended with a blast.

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Live and Let Live? Live and Let Die!
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Green Monster with the real score

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July 21-Jane’s Addiction, Dinosaur Jr, Living Colour

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In a tent on the waterfront of Boston Harbor two days later, this triple threat of 90’s heavyweights lit up the night. I’d been a fan of Living Colour since day one-my Vernon Reid fan-dom even tracing back to his stint in jazzer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s highly demanding Decoding Society in 1984. Always hard to pin down, what exactly is their sound? Funk, jazz, metal and pop synthesize seamlessly into a literally unique sound. Hitting the stage early, the seats were only about 20% filled. But no matter, vocalist Corey Glover (sans Bodyglove wetsuit) played it like it was a full stadium. The band has become even tighter in the last twenty years-Vernon Reid crackling on guitar like a rampant electrical storm, Doug Wimbish moving air with devilishy complex bass runs, and the spectacular Will Calhoun pounding out poly-rhythms that made Dinosaur’s drummer Murph comment backstage: “he’s a monster!”. Not bad praise coming from a drum legend himself. During their major hit, Cult of Personality, Corey ventured deep into the crowd-running down empty rows back and forth until he settled directly behind me to sing the final notes “per-sunnnn-al-it-teeee!” all about a foot from me. Holy living fuck! I’d been lucky enough to have backstage passes for this one, and quickly shuttled to the backstage area. Jane’s Addiction were holed up with tattooed, pierced and needle scarred mini skirted hangers on, but both Living Colour and Dinosaur Jr were hanging in an outdoors area backstage entertaining the handful of hangers on. (this was a home game for Massachusetts based Dinosaur Jr). Living Colour stayed in the main open area backstage to chat with fans and take photos. I had a long conversation with Vernon Reid, reminding him that I’d seen him play at Newport Jazz Festival opening for Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck in 1984. Took a bit for him to remember until a mention of the minuscule statured pianist Michael Petrucciani jogged his memory. He stayed and chatted for about a half hour, very affable and generous with his time. This set was one of the highest energy sets of the summer, with Vernon Reid spitting molten notes out on top of the most ferocious rhythm section I’ve seen all year. Breathtaking shit, really. I said to Vernon that they should be headlining this bill. “you gonna have to talk to somebody else ’bout that I’m afraid…” was his wry observation.

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Dinosaur Jr came out pumping with Lung from their 1987 second album, and didn’t let off the gas pedal until the final notes of Just Like Heaven, a Cure cover also from their second album. Start Choppin’ from 1993’s  Where You Been got people up out of their seats and jumping around until the end of the set. I’d seen them several times over the years, and in 2016 the band is a well oiled machine. Murph’s drumming syncs with Lou Barlow’s bass to give a perfect platform for J Mascis’s unique wall of sound country inflected punk rock assault. Dinosaur Jr can be volume monsters in a smaller venue, but open air can tend to absorb much of this power. (As an aside, I’d seen J play in a Stooges tribute band recently, and his raw Les Paul through a Marshall was the best sound and soloing I’d ever heard from him in the twenty odd years I’ve seen them. ps-he was deafeningly loud. )

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Headliners Jane’s Addiction were what the crowd came for though. I’d seen them on the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991, but hadn’t seen any of the reunion shows until 2011. A sober-ish Perry Farrel (peripheral ya know) held down the madness, and guitarist Dave Navarro was a whirlwind of motion, spitting out blistering solos that simultaneously ripped large holes into songs and melodically stitched them back together again by the end of a run. Maybe the five years of touring has taken a little lustre off the silver spoon, but this show wasn’t quite as energized as the 2011 and 2013 tours. (in 2013 I witnessed Navarro nearly punch out his guitar tech right on stage when his acoustic guitar kept failing during Jane Says). Still, a so so Janes Addiction show is much better than 95% of the bands out there. 2013’s vintage stag films were replaced this year by something definitely more chilling. Girls hung and swung from the lighting rig like they had in the past. But when you looked closer, you could see they were fetish style hung from meathooks through their skin. You heard that right. I saw them backstage before the show, and they exuded a….ummmm….different vibe. A video below captures the painful action from the front row. (not for the squeamish)

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Overall it was an amazing triple bill. Living Colour, although on the undercard billing, took the night hands down. The nineties, updated and backdated-and fully syncopated. All three of the bands are headliners in their own right.

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July 22-Guns n Roses/Lenny Kravitz- Foxboro

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The next night it was in the car once again and off to Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots. Labeled the Not in This Lifetime Tour ( a reference to an interview Axl had done recently when asked about the chances of a reunion of the original lineup), this was an unexpected event. I definitely didn’t expect any sort of reunion of the original line up, especially Slash. (Technically, without main songwriter Izzy Stradlin or founding drummer Steven Adler, this isn’t the original line up). Knowing their proclivities for legendary train wrecks on tour, I waited to buy a ticket until the last minute, not convinced that this uneasy detente between Axl and Slash would actually hold. A reunion of Slash and Axl was certain to bring people out of  the woodwork, yet would they make it far enough through the tour to get here? Witness Axl breaking his foot on opening night and doing several full shows sitting in a huge throne. (Dave Grohl’s super throne actually). I had my doubts.

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Axl unexpectedly finds himself on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms

Fans scooped up the overpriced tickets quickly, perhaps too quickly. But the promoters made a large miscalculation in booking two nights in Boston and tickets on Stubhub plummeted in price. 75 dollar tickets slipped to 17 bucks a pop. When coming through the turnstile, I was directed towards another ticketing area for a “free mandatory upgrade”. Choices were simple: “Do you want floor seats or lower bowl 100 level loge seats?” My 24 dollar Stubhub ticket for a 64 dollar face value ‘cheap seat’ in the nosebleeds was now a 104 dollar loge seat. The upper bowl 300 level was roped off and empty. Half of the stadiums’ 200 level was likewise roped off, and the 100 level loge was only about 80% full. Someone took a large financial bath on this particular show. Although Billboard reported a 92% of capacity ticket sale for Foxboro, the numbers they reported don’t add up, as they used a 35,000 capacity figure for a stadium with a listed 69,000 seat concert capacity. This show didn’t have more than 25,000 people scattered thoughout the bowl and floor. (More GnR lies?)

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It’s about the music and the fans, not the money, right?

Opener Lenny Kravitz kicked off the evening in style. I’d thought it an odd pairing until I found out that Slash and Kravitz had gone to high school together, and he had jammed together with GnR in 1992. A seven song set seemed short, but nobody was here for Lenny.

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One question many people had was ‘Will they go on before midnight?’ as Axl was notorious for coming onstage literally hours after showtime. There must have been a strongly worded clause in their contract involving forfeiting pay, because the band came onstage before 8:30 pm. Axl looked good, no longer the beanpole, sinuously serpentine, but also not the beer inflated parody he had begun to turn in to. (in comparison, Slash is starting to increasingly resemble Howard Stern circa 1995). He kept a leather cowboy hat on over his omnipresent bandana (to cover the bald spots). Strong in voice, he had definitely worked to get his end of things solid. It’s So Easy kicked off the night, and three of the first four songs included Mr. Brownstone and Welcome to the Jungle. Wedged in there early was Chinese Democracy from their latest incarnation, and Slash must have wondered why the fuck he was doing playing on something he not only hadn’t written, but actively  disapproved of. He wandered a bit aimlessly during this song. Further Chinese Democracy material combined with some questionable tracks from the Use Your Illusion albums to bog the proceedings down.But though this unit may not be a ‘real’ band, they are nothing but professional. Slash, resplendent in a ‘Mickey Mouse boning Minnie Mouse doggie style’ shirt kept mostly to himself. In fact, the stage was so huge, Slash and Axl could have actually not violated a restraining order and still played the show on the same stage they stayed so far away from each other all night.

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Mickey and Minnie
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Axl and Slash in separate zip codes yet performing together

There were some unexpected highlights. An instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and a cover of the Who’s the Seeker were a couple of ‘out of left field’ moments. Live and Let Die (my second in four days) has never lived up to McCartney’s version, but was still a highlight. My largest shock was a surprisingly fleshed out version of November Rain. Axl tapped timidly on the piano (Elton John is in no danger here) while the band rose up in a powerful crescendo. I was amazed that this fairly weak song was transformed into perhaps the highlight of the evening.

The grand finale, Paradise City brought everyone back to life as the whole end of the stadium literally exploded.(Axl either intentionally or accidentally sang over Slash’s iconic guitar solo introduction here. Puzzling)  We were ushered out into the wild before 11:15, a time usually reserved for their coming ON to the stage. In retrospect, though this was a nearly three hour show, it did illustrate the fact that this band doesn’t really have the material to sustain a show of this length. Sometimes less is actually more. But the band did defy predictions of imminent implosion and make it through the tour successfully without any fights onstage, prolonged hissy fits, three hour delays or crowd members being attacked by Axl  (hello St. Louis). I wasn’t blown away, but was very glad I went.

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Long stick goes boom

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August 21st  Ween Philadelphia

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Well, this one wasn’t a home game by any stretch of the imagination, but it was for Ween. But a Ween reunion isn’t something one needs to split hairs about. If they are playing and you can physically drive there in a reasonable less than six hours time? Go.

Ween had been off the road for a while. Gener’s meltdown in Vancouver in January 2011 signaled that-if not the end of the band, a long hiatus was needed.

The power of the Boognish is strong though, and when Ween announced three shows in Colorado for February, the tribe gathered once more. (Personally I’d wished they’d opened that run with Bumblebee part 2, but What Deaner Was Talking About Made a similar point)

A 90+ song setlist for the three days there showed zero repeats of a single tune, a difficult feat. But they had announced very few shows. Were these it? Soon we knew there would be a three night run in New York City at Terminal 5 in April 2016. They were impressive there, delivering another 100 songs over three nights. Spot dates were announced here and there for the summer, and the whole tour seemed very tentative, likely depending on how Gener’s new found sobriety held up. The idea of seeing them on the waterfront under the stars in Philadelphia was definitely appealing. So once more out on the road. What was less appealing was a forecast for torrential rains, 100% guaranteed. Somehow upon arrival, the sky cleared, and though the venue was a bit of a mudfest in spots, the rains abated for the whole evening.

Under a bridge downtown…

A setlist that delved heavily into Chocolate and Cheese (they had to play Freedom of 76 in Philadelphia, right?) combined with deeper cuts (the Thin Lizzy-ish Gabrielle) to make an incomparable 31 song set. Buenos Tardes Amigos closed out the evening in a large group sing a long. Seeing Ween in their home state? Pretty amazing experience.

Foolishly I decided to give their Boston show two nights later a miss. Deaner ended up posting online (something he doesn’t usually do) that the Boston show was the best one of the 2016 reunion and was one of the top 25 Ween shows ever. Fuck. A listen to readily available bootlegs of the show confirm they were pretty off the hook that night. I’d heard more recently that Lockn Festival crowds were questioning why Ween was on the bill, which makes one wonder about the state of jam band audiences these days, and a quick read of the comments on the Lockn forum shows some pretty calcified brains flickering towards flat lining. Sorry folks, there’s life beyond Phish (who actually love Ween). Or, as someone posted “I’m sorry, Umphrey’s fans opinions just don’t really count”. These people haven’t been even exposed to Frank Zappa or the Mothers of Invention, never mind the Tubes or 10cc or Sparks (all precursors of Ween’s ability to jump genres and parody social culture), so there’s a learning curve of musical literacy out there that many  have missed. I could go on a soapbox rant on the increasingly limited musical awareness populating the twenty somethings in the festival scene, but lets move onward to something far heavier…

August 25 Black Sabbath-Great Woods

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Four days after Ween, the concert-mobile trekked out once again. Back to the venue where this whole summer started, 80 days and a weighty daze later we’ve come full circle back to Great Woods.

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Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends?

Black Sabbath has declared this to be the final time on the road. With Tony Iommi battling lymphoma at age 66, the end of the ride has been more forced upon the band than any internal band decisions. I’d seen Sabbath twice on the “13” tour in 2013, and although the word uneven comes to mind, many of the strengths that made this band a legend already forty five years ago were still on display. That album hearkened (with obvious intention) back to the glory days of Master of Reality and Volume 4, and the new material in concert wasn’t half bad (even prompting Ozzy to say ‘hey I’m starting to LIKE that one”). Constant ice water baths over his head kept him conscious. He reminded me of grandpa at Thanksgiving  finding out there’s only one beer left in the fridge  as he scurried shuffling across the stage. This year the baths were minimal, and Ozzy seemed far more energetic and in better voice. (On the 2013 tour he was frequently out of key by the final two songs Dirty Women and Children of the Grave) With this the final tour, there was no time for newer material-it was full on retrospective time. Black Sabbath, Fairies Wear Boots, After Forever and Into the Void opened the show. I had received a coupon for $16 lawn seats for this show and grabbed em up. Deciding to keep on the  move and remain directly behind the arena seats, I had a great view of the whole show (and from every angle to boot). Here’s the start (cribbed from Omaha):

Iommi seemed to have lost a step or two in his trademark brittle cascading solos, but what the hell, he almost expired last year. Ozzy’s inexplicable improvement compensated for this small trifle nicely. Geezer Butler remains the thundering ball of rumbling bass energy that he has been for 47 years in the band. Former Ted Nugent and Rob Zombie drummer Tommy Clufetos held down the rhythm seat. His overly histrionic drum solos tend to detract from the overall feel, but I do understand that this band needs a dependable workhorse to let Butler and Iommi lay their magic on top of. I personally would love Bill Ward’s free flowing improvs underneath, but as Ozzy said: “I’m not going to be responsible for killing one of my best friends by making him tour!”

This is Your Captain Speaking, Your Captain Is Dead

There were a couple of shows I intentionally missed this summer. The first was Yes. They were continuing their album showcase. This time it was Drama and half of Tales From Topographic Oceans. Here’s where I had a problem: Drama was a vehicle for Chris Squire primarily in the wake of vocalist Jon Anderson’s departure in 1980. But with Chris Squire’s untimely death, Billy Sherwood stepped in and donned the long coat to give the impression that Squire’s ghost might still be flickering around. It isn’t. Another large part of that album is Alan White, who has dropped off the tour with a bad back. So let’s take attendance: Jon Anderson? No. Chris Squire? No. Rick Wakeman? No. Alan White? No. Steve Howe? Yes, the last one standing. With Tales From Topographic Oceans being such a creation of Jon Anderson collaborating with Steve Howe, and Ritual in particular being a vehicle for Squire’s legendary bass solo, I’d have to agree with the  many reviewers who have said that the band should have postponed the tour until Alan White healed up. Although people said it was a fun night, it is getting perilously close to being a tribute band. (In a current Steve Hoffman website poll, 88% of respondents pick Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman as the authentic Yes compared to 12% for the current Howe-led Yes). I didn’t want to tamper with the decades of awe inspiring Yes shows programmed in my brain with a severely diluted version. Squire is just too integral to not only the band, but these two albums in particular.

Image result for yes 2016 lynn
Find the real Yes member in this photo

While on the topic of tribute bands, I also declined tickets to go see Kiss. Now this is a band that has crossed the line from rock n roll, to an actual stage play being put on with actors playing the part of Kiss. Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer don Peter Criss and Ace Frehley’s make up each night and pretend to be them. Sure, the Dead have John Mayer in as ‘Jerry’, but they don’t strap a pillow around his gut and slap a fake beard on him, do they? Sure it’s entertainment, but let’s be real-it’s a choreographed show with rehearsed dialogue, not a rock band anymore

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Don’t tell me this isn’t the real Ace and Peter

In conclusion, this was quite a parade of talent on view, and a highly recommended summer diversion. Get out there, highway star….

Cats on the bandstand, give ’em each a big hand
Anyone who sweats like that must be all right
No one wants sometimes, no black eye
Just another cat beneath the stars tonight

Cats down under the stars
Cats down under the stars

Final tally-Eleven bands, seven shows, five venues, 225 dollars total in tickets, 1585 miles traveled.

The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. (technically just ‘Cardiacs’ for those in the know).  Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond,  Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

seaside seaside2

My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. (Update 2016: the Seaside cassette is currently on sale from the band in its original form as a 2lp vinyl version, a cd version, and a deluxe version of LP, CD, cassette and raft of memorabilia in a box. Get it now, it won’t last.) Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

sing to god

But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

stoenhenge

My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…

When Two Wrongs Make a Wrong, Right? The Monkees Tour With Hendrix and Make an Acid Album

 

monkeeshendrix monkees

It’s 1967, and the hottest touring band in the country is the television show band, the Monkees. Desperate to show their chops as real musicians, they embark on a Summer of Love tour showing off their talents—manning the drums, guitars, bass and keyboards themselves. In an attempt to further reinforce their credibility, they engaged the little known (in America) Jimi Hendrix Experience as the opening act. In retrospect, it is easy to ask: “Who in blazes thought this was a good idea?”  A testament to the efficacy of LSD on decision making has to be considered as a strong possibility here. And although this sounds like the beginnings of a fake Onion article, this in fact is exactly what happened.

 

aaa jimimonkeepeter

Mickey Dolenz  and Peter Tork had attended Monterey Pop in the spring of 1967, and like most who attended, dropped acid, and were blown away by Hendrix’s astounding pyrotechnic performance. Mike Nesmith had heard Hendrix in England earlier in the year, so 3/4 of the band were huge fans already. The tour started in July 1967 and Hendrix was on board for seven shows, ending in NYC. The Monkees show featured liquid light psychedelic projections, one of the first touring bands to have this. They also used screens onstage to project scenes of them playing, goofing around and some civil rights era protest footage, predating this common current concert feature by a good three decades.  While for a limited twisted few this would be a dream line up, fans were generally horrified. Most Monkees fans needed parental chaperoning for the show, and Moms and Dads of 1967 were completely unprepared to deal with a rainbow coated blisteringly loud Negro humping the air with a phallic Stratocaster. Chants of ‘WE WANT THE MONKEES!” were often heard,  the only time that Hendrix was ever flushed from the stage. But it is easy to see how Purple Haze and Wild Thing would be too much for establishment parents. The story that Hendrix was thrown off the tour after the Daughters of the American Revolution complained was an invention of a European rock writer, but much repeated through time and reported as fact for years. In retrospect, this wasn’t as bad an idea as it seems now, for Hendrix brought them needed respect, and the Monkees brought him needed US exposure.

monkees67poster

Building on their attempt to gain credibility with the main rock scene, In late 1967 the Monkees had another plan, a film and album that showed their budding psychedelic attributes. They had worn black armbands onstage in London to protest the arrest of Jagger and Richards, and had some elite rock stars as fans that were willing to help them out: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Brian Jones, Eric Clapton and the Who were fans. If they had convinced the rock royalty of the UK that they were cool, how hard would it be to convince America?

 

Head_film_posterMonkees-Head

Production began in 1968 on the film Head. This movie had its origins in stoned meetings between the band and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson had just come from the psychedelic film The Trip with Peter Fonda, and took the tape recorded ramblings of stoned Monkees, dropped more acid,  and turned it into a free flowing script that was about……nothing? Change? Free Will? No one really could tell as it was filmed in the stream of consciousness style that was popular at the time with critics and acid heads and pretty much no one else. Frank Zappa made a guest appearance. In the accompanying soundtrack album (used to be insanely rare lp until reissued in the 80s) the Monkees did their best to deliver some material that was not only their best but could stand with some of the strongest tunes from anyone of the era. The Porpoise Song written by Goffin/King, Circle Sky by Nesmith and Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? by Tork are the three strongest songs, and though ignored by critics, still sound fresh today. The band manned all of the instruments for this whole album, and lambasted their own career as puppets on the song Ditty Diego-War Chant:

 

Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.

You say we’re manufactured.
To that we all agree.
So make your choice and we’ll rejoice
in never being free!

Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
We’ve said it all before
The money’s in, we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you more!
The money’s in, we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you…

Written by Nicholson, each verse was sung by a different Monkee. In one song, the band essentially disavowed every single thing they had done up to this point, declaring war on the industry that had manufactured them. In the late 1960’s, credibility and integrity was what was desirable in the changing values the psychedelic era had brought to America. Fame and money were now secondary. But this level of candor was troubling for most of their fans. In the long run, they effectively destroyed their careers in one fell swoop. The teeny boppers that had brought them riches were horrified and positively freaked  at this blast of adult psychedelic honesty. The Monkees had gone weird. And the intended audience? Established psychedelic hipsters would not touch the Monkees with a proverbial ten foot pole. It was viewed as a pathetic attempt to cash in on the movement. Everyone abandoned the band at once.

Looking back, it is hard to blame the Monkees for trying to shed the saccharine image that coated everything they did. They didn’t write songs, didn’t play instruments, and often had back up singers to reinforce them in the studio. Nothing was theirs. So this was a reaction to the times to become a creative force and participate in the revolution. You have to admire a band that is willing to risk it all, and ended up alienating every single fan or potential fan they hoped to gain.  If you can find the album Head, let me assure you that it is highly worth the time, and may become an odd but treasured part of your collection. And although the above story is one of the coolest and weirdest psychedelic moments lost to time, the album is definitely one of the top lost gems of 1968. And it is Zappa approved.