Kronomyth 9.0: GLADIATOR? NO DOUBT. It was a long way to the top for AC/DC. Before they began their descent, they rested at the plateau of perfection for one more album. For Those About To Rock We Salute You completes the royal triumvirate of AC/DC records produced by Mutt Lange. Recorded in France, Rock is immaculately produced and engineered, which is both its crowning achievement and its Achilles heel. Lange’s approach is different this time: the songs start with the spark of an idea and then quickly catch fire, building into a pyre of heavy metal majesty. The technique is best captured on songs like “For Those About To Rock” and “C.O.D.,” where the man called Mutt creates an almost Pavlovian anticipation of the power chords to come. Yet there is the sense that the thunder and lightning, which arrived so naturally in the past, is staged this time. If Lange seemed intent on cleaning up the band’s sound, Angus and the band certainly didn’t bother to clean up their act. Brian Johnson’s voice is absolutely brutal on this record and the lyrics (like the infamous album cover) offer only the barest pretense of innuendo: “Let’s Get It Up,” “Inject The Venom,” “I Put The Finger,” etc. Success, of course, tends to spoil a band. Sometimes, the change is overnight; other times, it’s more insidious. AC/DC’s saving grace over the years has been to stick to the same gameplan, and the success of For Those About To Rock is built on that solid foundation. It’s more polished than you might remember, and you’ll raise your lighter higher when a “You Shook Me All Night Long” rolls around, but you cannon argue with the fact that AC/DC had now become the black standard by which other rock bands would be measured.
Kronomyth 7.1: MAKE LOVE, NOT WARM. Van Morrison albums had always contained one champion: a rousing number that stirred something deep in your soul and carried you along on its joyful wings. “Warm Love” is not that champion for Hard Nose The Highway. The song initially threatens to fall apart like a tissue-paper heart before it’s bolstered by a backing band and the supporting vocals of Jackie De Shannon. There is a delicate sweetness in the song, yes, but the danger of Morrison’s rich and ready genius is the temptation to knock off one hundred warm loves without stirring deeper waters. The flip side is “I Will Be There” from his last record, Saint Dominic’s Preview. Truly, this single was an inauspicious herald of Hard Nose The Highway. In his book, Into The Music, Ritchie Yorke apparently refers to this single being released in late April and entering the Top 40 charts (a point that Wikipedia repeats). I didn’t see a single sighting of the song in Billboard’s April through July charts, although I do see that Billboard reviewed what appears to be an advance/promo copy in their May 12 issue, so I’m leaving the release date as June in the US and presuming for the moment that the single didn’t chart in the US. For my efforts, I did at least discover a new (to me) site that features a wealth of information on 7-inch singles from the 70s, a true labor of love: Seventies Sevens.
Kronomyth 8.0: HOT DOGS. Bark is the beautiful unraveling of Jefferson Airplane. Founding member Marty Balin had bailed, following the departed Spencer Dryden (who actually left during Volunteers), and the remaining members (which now included violinist Papa John Creach from Joey Covington’s previous band) embarked on their strangest journey to date. The Airplane had essentially splintered into three different parts: Jorma Kaukonen’s inner battle between Jimi Hendrix and gentleman farmer, Grace Slick’s trained monsters and Paul Kantner’s groupthink apocalypse. On a paper-bag poster, it might have looked messy. On vinyl, it was exciting as hell. In my opinion, this is the first Jefferson Airplane album that could be filed under progressive rock, as the psychedelic label has now completely worn off. You’ll hear the influence of Frank Zappa (“Wild Turkey” is their approximation of Hot Rats), Santana (compare “Pretty As You Feel” to “Oye Como Va”) and even The Beach Boys (on both Kantner’s “Rock And Roll Island” and Covington’s “Thunk”). And then there are Grace Slick’s songs, which defy description. “Crazy Miranda” is in line with earlier songs about foolish girls, but “Law Man” is like a shotgun blast of rock & roll in the face and her “European Song” is Marlene Dietrich genius mit more than a touch of madness. That the band couldn’t sustain this level of intensity is made plain in Kaukonen’s “Third Week In Chelsea,” which explains his change of heart in a song that might have stepped off a Lou Reed record. Kantner tries to rally the troops one more time for “War Movie,” but it’s clear that the Airplane’s journey is coming to an end. Yet Bark also makes clear that the band members still have plenty to say. I find myself wishing they’d extended this into a double album so I could hear more from Slick, Kaukonen, Kanter and even Covington, with Jack Casady and his unbreakable bass holding it all together.
Kronomyth 4.0: OBLIVION AS THEY ROSE SHRANK LIKE A THING REPROVED. Forgery finds the Monks’ swamp music telegraphed into the early nineties alternative rock scene. It’s another dark and serious album; you wonder if David Lowery didn’t leave camp with the band’s sense of humor in his backpack. The Monks have plenty of good ideas (nicking XTC’s “Making Plans For Nigel” on “Flow” isn’t one of them), play their instruments with a sense of adventure (including an unexpected electric guitar tango) and Victor Krummenacher’s dour vocals do grow on you over time. In a move of unwarranted optimism, the songs “Flint Jack” and “Virtual Lover” even seem to have been floated as potential singles by IRS, the label (or someone) going so far as to make a music video for “Flint Jack.” This turned out to be the end of the road, however, with the Monks going into retirement for a while. Yes, it’s a shame that the band never garnered more attention, although their music was always stern and standoffish. Young people didn’t buy records to be lectured on them, and you get the sense on Forgery that Victor Krummenacher is delivering a series of short sermons on the evils and dangers of the world (the reference to the “Reverend Victor Krummenacher” seems to concede the point). As with all of the original Monks album, this is worth owning. I’ve listened to it dozens of times over the years and still find myself humming “Virtual Lover” on occasional, idle moments. For the future, I think the band would well served by a compilation as a way to ease Camper fans into the Monks’ dark monde.
The “alternative indie” bands of the eighties were an oasis in a dry wasteland of dance pop, hair metal and whatever Phil Collins was working on at the time. While MTV and mainstream radio were selling a message of Reagan-era prosperity and capitalist hedonism, the pirate radio broadcasts of Camper Van Beethoven, The Pixies, Flaming Lips et al were reveling in the surreality of the current zeitgeist. (I’m keeping that sentence just to remind me why I don’t like writing band biographies—i.e., because I suck at them.)
Most rock bands wanted to be The Beatles or Velvet Underground. Camper Van Beethoven wanted to be a Ukranian folk band, or at least be the surf-punk equivalent of a Ukrainian folk band. Their first two albums, Telephone Free Landslide Victory and Camper Van Beethoven II & III, explored this desire with equal amounts of aplomb and abandon (aplandon) while tantalizing listeners with humorous songs (“The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon,” “Take The Skinheads Bowling”) mixed with moments of disarming sweetness (“Sad Lover’s Waltz”).
On their eponymous third album, the band seemed to figure out that Ukrainian folk music probably wasn’t their future and wisely shifted the balance of their energies to writing absurd rock songs with really catchy melodies (“Good Guys & Bad Guys,” “We Saw Jerry’s Daughters”). Their (sort of) breakthrough came with Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and a video for the single, “Eye of Fatima (Part 1).” Even a little success seemed to spoil them. Signs of internal dissension or simple boredom could be seen in the disappearance of Jonathan Segel and the appearance of various offshoots (Camper Van Chadbourne, Monks of Doom).
Camper Van Beethoven re-emerged on a major label (Virgin) for one last album, Key Lime Pie, which featured a new violinist (Morgan Fichter) and a remake of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” When Pie failed to chart well, the Campers disbanded for good, with lead singer Lowery starting Cracker and the rest of the band setting up camp in the Monks. The band today enjoys an elevated status as elder statesmen of the alternative indie rock movement, which has fueled interest in several reunions. Interestingly, Lowery has also parlayed his experiences into a role as a university lecturer (on the subject of the business side of music) and digital media muckraker (see The Trichordist for more on that).
“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.” – V.I. Lenin
Kronomyth 5.9: FOOL PLAY. Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse died on the vine, but not before yielding a single, beautiful blossom, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They should make it a law to play this song at every presidential inauguration. The single, released ahead of Who’s Next, is credited to the motion picture, Lifehouse, which instead was replaced with the motion picture, Tommy. Apparently, many were unclear where Tommy ended and Lifehouse began. The single version is, in fact, a brutally edited version of the album track that later appeared on Who’s Next. It’s a hatchet job, and you’d be much better served by hearing the song in its entirety. The B side, “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” is a country-rock song in the same vein as “Now I’m A Farmer” but not as hokey (“Farmer” was intended for Lifehouse, and plays out more like a staged musical number than a rock song.) And, yes, the song refers to revolution not election, so the Lenin quote above isn’t really appropriate. One site on the Internet seems to have erroneously translated the Lenin quote, “Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted” as “Give me your four-year-olds and in a generation I will build a socialist state.” Now that would have been an oddly appropriate quote.
Kronomyth 2.0: ALL CHOKED UP. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a professionally produced pity party featuring piano ballads with minimal accompaniment (bass, drums) and multi-layered vocals, plus a few rock songs to shake things up. Where his last album, Runt, featured an eclectic mix of ideas, Ballad sticks close to the Laura Nyro/Joni Mitchell school of the solo confessional. It starts out promising enough with some surreal pop (“Long Flowing Robe,” “Bleeding”), but “Wailing Wall” bores me to tears and begins to show signs that Todd’s masterful production may be a thin veneer to hide structural weakness in the material. Some people enjoy this album more than his last; most people, actually. Me, I prefer “Believe In Me” to “Be Nice To Me” and the medley of “Baby Let’s Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don’t Tie My Hands” to “Parole.” Although this record was again assigned to Runt, there is no band; in fact, the entire album is in sore need of one, since most of the songs feel about one musician light. The material on his next album, Something/Anything?, tries more things and hits more highs. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is, as its name suggests, a portrait of the artist as a sensitive young man. The production is gorgeous in spots, the songwriting impressive enough, but I’m usually looking at my watch during the second side. That said, I can see where listening to this album repeatedly (something I really haven’t done) would breed a certain loyalty to it. I also enjoy the rock side of Rundgren more than the balladeer. If you’re not bored by ballads, then you’ll likely want to hang around for this one.
Kronomyth 5.5: FASTEST GUN IN THE WESS. The Prestige All-Star recordings tend to be hit or miss, since you can’t just throw a bunch of talented players together and expect sparks every time. Wheelin’ & Dealin’ is a miss: midtempo mid-50s jazz that never catches fire. The session is interesting for the attention it gives to Frank Wess, a prominent member of Count Basie’s Orchestra who splits his time here between flute and tenor sax while managing to outrun Trane in the bargain on the tenor sax shootout, “Wheelin’.” Coltrane isn’t exactly a no-show, but this isn’t among the top twenty Trane performances you need to hear. Paul Quinchette, the elder statesman, is simply outgunned. The session features only four tracks, including two presumably sketched out by Mal Waldron on the spot, “Wheelin’” and “Dealin.” Rudy Van Gelder recorded two different takes of each, and the alternate takes appeared on subsequent reissues. Waldron seems to be a mainstay of these Prestige recordings, here joined by Art Taylor on drums and Doug Watkins on bass. (The rhythm section of Waldron, Taylor and Watkins had also recorded with Coltrane for Prestige earlier in the year, and those recordings eventually turned up as Dakar.) Personally, I don’t go for Prestige’s approach of throwing multiple horn players into the mix and letting them duke it out; it’s a catfight, although I won’t argue that the competition can yield some interesting solos. Surprisingly, it’s Wess who comes out on top, both for his smooth sax soloing and soulful flute playing, the latter highlighted on “Robbins’ Nest” and the closing “Dealin’,” where Wess starts on flute and ends on tenor sax. While Quinchette and Coltrane fans can stay home for this one, Frank Wess fans should check this out at some point, since he shines here in some pretty impressive company.
“The first Stooges album I heard was the Funhouse album. I would have been about 19 at the time, and it was so instant and to the point and between the ears that it totally knocked me for six.” – Brian James, in a 2007 interview.
Kronomyth 1.0: NEVER MIND THE SEX PISTOLS, HERE’S THE DAMNED. The Damned’s first album introduced listeners to England’s newest musical craze, punk music. Unfortunately, I somehow missed the introduction and wasted my youth listening to The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Stooges. Not that it was wasted time, of course, but it would have been a damned sight more interesting with “New Rose,” “Neat Neat Neat,” “Feel The Pain,” “So Messed Up” and “See Her Tonite” in the mix. And so, while I recognize that the world doesn’t need another review of Damned Damned Damned, if it turns one more listener onto this music before it’s too late, I’ll have gained some measure of peace. While the obvious precedent here is The Stooges and MC5 (a scorching cover of “I Feel Alright” closes out the album), The Damned’s first record is very much a product of its personalities: Brian James as the rock-steady rebel raining thunderbolts of fury, Rat Scabies assaulting his kit like Keith Moon, Captain Sensible pounding like a jackhammer on the same notes and Dave Vanian infusing it all with his ghoulish charisma. Other punks more or less followed the same formula insofar as their talents and temporary sobriety allowed, but none of them did it any better than The Damned do here. Tracking the album’s influence is a bit tricky, since the first generation of punks were a surly lot by nature. When Siouxsie Sioux says she doesn’t respect The Damned, you have to wonder if her perspective isn’t fueled by a little competitive jealousy. The band’s first album remains a punk powerhouse; every song is a punch in the gut, not one song breaks the rock & roll commandment of “get in, get out, get on with it.” Ferocity and urgency are the order of the day, with producer Nick Lowe doing his best to get out of the way and capture the band’s live intensity on tape (which he does masterfully). As good as they were, The Stooges were sloppy; The Damned are neat neat neat, as sharp as a surgeon’s knife, and the twelve cuts delivered here left a permanent mark on music.
Kronomyth 5.01: WIZARDS AND DOGS. I’ve always heard “Pinball Wizard” as the climax of Tommy. It probably is, since I don’t think it’s supposed to be rocket science to find the climax. The song remains the most identifiable track from The Who’s greatest work; when the electric guitar comes crashing in on the left channel, I still get chills. I’m old. I believe the internal thermostat is one of the first things to go. According to Pete Townshend, the acoustic guitar on this song was inspired by Henry Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note (or, as Townshend refers to it, Symphony Upon One Note, which sounds considerably more daunting for the listener). I’m never sure how much stock to place in Townshend’s later interviews, since it’s hard to imagine him listening to Henry Purcell, although it’s less offputting than him explaining that “Pinball Wizard” is a reference to some backdoor fantasy. The B side is an instrumental from mad Moon, “Dogs Part Two,” that features Keith Moon chasing after a pair of sticks with the usual abandon.
Kronomyth 7.0: TROPICALIFORNIA ROCK. Dave Mason continued to maintain a high profile despite his lack of a hit single. He graced the cover of Guitar Player Magazine (October 1975), rested comfortably in the US Top 40 with his new album (Split Coconut) and went out on tour with the latest version of the Dave Mason Band. The tropical album cover and two island-themed opening tracks are a tease, however; Split Coconut is simply a continuation of the music that Mason had been making all along. It’s a professional affair from beginning to end, with some updated keyboard sounds (courtesy of Mark Jordan and Jay Winding, in what appears to be a mid-session keyboard chair change) and an extra infusion of funk (“Split Coconut,” “Save Your Love”). If Mason seems to have settled into a groove as far as making solo records, longtime listeners will settle into the same groove soon enough. “Save Your Love,” “Two Guitar Lovers” (written by singer Maureen Gray, who had performed with George Harrison, John Lennon and Eric Clapton), an island-tinged cover of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting & Hoping” and the freebirdin’ “Long Lost Friend” are all solid songs. The rest of the record is the same sort of generic guitar rock you’ll find on most of Mason’s mid-Seventies records. I realize that “generic” is a dismissive word, and I don’t mean to dismiss the man’s effort; instead, the sensation on these records is that Mason is more or less trying to write the same kind of song ten different times, and so you don’t encounter the range of styles that you might on a George Harrison or Eric Clapton record. His workmanlike approach to songwriting also means that nothing on here is a work of art so much as well-crafted product. Splitting hairs, I suppose, since you either like Dave Mason or you don’t, with love and hate being rare reactions.
“If we had intended to (symbolize Crosby with a horse), we would have turned the horse around.” – Roger McGuinn.
Kronomyth 6.0: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is completely spaced out. David Crosby and Michael Clarke were simply out. The Byrds’ sixth album marks the end of the classic lineup, even as it marks a fascinating continuation of their classic music into exciting psychedelic areas. The marvel of this record is that the band could move forward creatively even as they were falling apart personally. Gary Usher deserves much credit for holding the sessions together and stitching them up with state-of-the-art studio production, serving as a sort of fifth Byrd (a role that Gene Clark also applied for briefly during the recording sessions). While Crosby probably had to go for the health of the band, his contributions to The Notorious Byrd Brothers are essential—with the caveat that Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman seem to have taken the essence of his songs and altered them, since it’s unlikely at this stage the three collaborated on songwriting. “Draft Morning,” “Tribal Gathering” and “Dolphins Smile” are quintessential Crosby at their core: free and mysterious and powerful. They’re balanced by psychedelic pop songs co-credited to McGuinn and Hillman that rank alongside their best work. “Artificial Energy” is a tripped-out tune with horns that reveals the influence of Sgt. Peppers/Satanic Majesties, and would have almost certainly been banned by the BBC for its references to amphetamines and killing the Queen. You have to wonder if the band didn’t write the song in reaction to the BBC. “Get To You” is perhaps the sweetest song they’ve ever written, kind of a cross between an Irish folk song and a minor-key pop masterpiece. “Old John Robertson” shows that the band doesn’t need to pilfer from the past to play great folk music (in an odd twist, I would have liked to hear Bob Dylan do a version of this). Where Younger Than Yesterday made a conscious shift toward country-folk (notably in the contributions from Chris Hillman), The Notorious Byrd Brothers shifts again into the psychedelic. Hillman’s “Natural Harmony” sounds nothing like “Time Between,” and the band’s earlier Beatles comparisons, which landed closer to the acoustic side of Rubber Soul, now sound like the electric experiments of George Harrison (“Change Is Now”). (The comparison is even clearer on “Moog Raga,” an instrumental that was appended to the 1997 expanded reissue.) The album once again ends on a strange note, the space/sea chanty “Space Odyssey.” It’s become a Byrds formula to grab the listener with a powerful opening track and leave them scratching their heads at the end. While I don’t believe in a “best” Byrds album (they’re all different, they’re all good), The Notorious Byrd Brothers is an amazing last ride into the technicolor sunset.
Kronomyth 4.0: THE ISLAND OF LOST SOLUS. This double album is, in reality, two separate sessions recorded in 1971 that were originally intended to be separate albums called Solus and The Inner Source. Long story short, the original music label (SABA) changed hands a couple of times, eventually ending up back in the hands of its original owner at a newly started label, MPS. Recorded with the standing George Duke Trio (John Heard, Dick Berk) plus some extra horns and percussion, the recordings align with Duke’s short tenure in the Cannonball Adderly band (as Joe Zawinul’s replacement, no less) following his first stint with The Mothers. For some reason, MPS opted to interleave the recordings from both sessions, so the flavor of the two is now mixed together. The Inner Source is an important stage in Duke’s journey of self discovery—a pair of Rhodes trips where he explores the range of the electric keyboard in a variety of settings, from Coltrane meditations (“Peace”) to avant-garde (“Solus”) and Africana (“Nigerian Numberama”). To my mind, the stronger pieces are the more direct and melodic: “Feels So Good,” “So There You Go,” “The Inner Source.” “Some Time Ago,” popularized by Sergio Mendes, is another highlight, here re-imagined in a frothy Coltrane treatment. Otherwise, a lot of The Inner Source sounds like a cross between generic jazz (“Love Reborn”) and a Rhodes demonstration record (“Manya”). Those listeners interested in the journey of George Duke would do well to pick up a copy of The Inner Source, if they can find it at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been released on compact disc yet, which may speak more to the condition of the original tapes than commercial interest.
Kronomyth 8.0: TOWARD AURORA’S COURT A NYMPH DOTH DWELL, RICH IN ALL BEAUTIES. Aurora sets into motion Ponty’s revolving-door hiring policy with a new set of players featuring guitarist Daryl Stuermer (who was “discovered” by George Duke), bassist Tom Fowler (ex-Zappa) and drummer Norman Fearrington. As one of two albums to feature the brilliant Patrice Rushen on keyboards, this is prime-time Ponty. The violinist wastes little time showing off his new band, roaring out of the gates with the muscular fusion workout, “Is Once Enough?” Ponty then cleverly changes the pace for the warm, Pat Metheny-styled “Renaissance,” featuring Stuermer on acoustic guitar. This leads up to the stunning, two-part “Aurora” and the intoxicating “Passenger of the Dark.” Combining intricate arrangements with instantly gratifying melodies, “Aurora Part I” and “Passenger of the Dark” remain favorites of mine over a long career. “Lost Forest” unfolds beautifully like a Coltrane song, “Between You And Me” mixes midtempo funk with fusion, and Ponty closes the album with the intimate “Waking Dream.” All of Ponty’s Atlantic recordings are more or less variations on the same Mahavishnu-inspired theme, with some variations being better than others. Aurora stands as a shining example of what Ponty has to offer the listener: an impressive balance of musicianship and melody presented in several unique moods. Stuermer and Fowler impress from the first note to the last, while Rushen seems to fade into the background this time and Fearrington has the unenviable task of replacing the irreplaceable Ndugu. Rushen’s reduced imprint on the album is something of a disappointment; maybe it’s the arrangements, maybe it’s the mix, but I couldn’t take my ears off of her on Upon The Wings of Music and I sometimes forget she’s there on Aurora. This record and Imaginary Voyage are my favorites from the Atlantic years, and stand as twin towers in Ponty’s fusion-fueled dreamscape from the Seventies.
Kronomyth 9.0: DISCO JOCKEY. This is as close as Stephen Stills has come to making a disco album, which is probably enough to seal its fate as an also-ran in his catalog. Yet behind the string arrangements, punchy rhythms and backing vocals (which feature the up-and-coming Andy Gibb) is the usual strong songwriting from Stephen. In fact, I might give Thoroughfare Gap the nod over his other Columbia records, which is as good as a wink to a blind horse. “Can’t Get No Booty” is the funniest song Stills has ever recorded (okay, so it’s a short list) and should have been a hit, especially given the success Joe Walsh was having with “Life’s Been Good.” On most of the record, Stills strikes a good balance between high-gloss production and guitar-driven rock (e.g., “What’s The Game,” “Lowdown”). He mixes it up with the usual polyglot pop (“Woman Lleva,” “Beaucoup Yumbo”), adds a nice acoustic number (“Thoroughfare Gap”) and even includes a couple (admittedly inferior) covers, “Midnight Rider” and “Not Fade Away.” Honestly, I didn’t expect much after the last few Stills albums, and the picture of him in a jockey’s uniform (a look that no one, not even Prince, could pull off) didn’t bode well. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that the music on Thoroughfare Gap wasn’t a case of Stills trying to work outside of his idiom, but rather to adapt his idiom to contemporary influences. Unfortunately, Columbia didn’t pick up his contract and Stills went silent during his pending divorce, resurfacing several years latter under the protective glyph of CSN.