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Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Presents…#1 Record by Big Star

A Literal Big Star

The greatest power-pop album ever created is #1 Record by Big Star. This may seem like a bold, definitive statement, but I really don’t care. You can dispute me all you want, but if your opinion is otherwise, you’re wrong. I feel as if I could write a long essay about why “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen” are two of the greatest songs ever written, but it would just turn into me rambling and repeating myself. Instead, here’s a concise discourse on why you should be listening to this record right now.

Before I start gushing about how great this record is (too late – ed.), I’ll give you a little background information regarding it. Big Star were initially formed as Icewater in Memphis, Tennessee in 1971 and consisted of Chris Bell, Jody Stevens, and Andy Hummel. Subsequent to their founding, Chris Bell met guitarist Alex Chilton at a recording studio while they were both playing on different sessions where Bell – being impressed by the latter’s songwriting skills – invited him to join the band. Upon Chilton joining the group, they changed their name to Big Star, which was taken from a grocery store that the band often frequented when they wanted to purchase snacks. Bell and Chilton were the main creative force of the band and were both disciples of The Beatles, who were a huge influence on both of them; in fact, their stated mission was to be a songwriting duo with the same force of Lennon and McCartney.

Although they were certainly a team, the two had very disparate styles of songwriting. While, as I said, they were both extremely influenced by the Beatles, the Fab Four had a much bigger impact in Bell’s contributions to the band than Chilton’s. Chilton would write rough versions of songs, and Bell’s job would be to polish and refine them with pleasant vocal harmonies and arrangements. Bell was much more involved in producing the record than anyone else in the group; as such, his influence is very apparent on #1 Record. Chilton became more involved in the post-production of the following albums, and because of this, they sound much more rough and unpolished.

The one sentiment echoed by most scholars of rock and roll is history is that Big Star should have been huge (in fact, they should have been big stars and their records should have all been number one, hurr durr). After #1 Record was released in 1972, it received numerous critical accolades. Billboard went as far as to say that every song on the album could have been a hit single. Unfortunately, due to poor distribution, #1 Record sold less than 10,000 copies during the period surrounding its original release. Because of this, Bell and Hummel left the band. The group tracked two more records, Radio City and 3rd (Sister Lovers on some reissues), though only the former would come out during the band’s initial lifetime. Due to frustration with their label, poor sales, and a general lack of palpable success, they completely disbanded in 1974.

Of course, as most bands are wont to do, the Big Star banner was re-activated in 1993 – after nearly 20 years of silence – with a new line-up. Unfortunately, as Chris Bell died in a car accident in 1978, they were without his contributions. However, the revitalized lineup did contain some original members in the form of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens.

Scarf patrol.

That’s enough history for now – back to my ranting.

My personal highlights of #1 Record – as I mentioned before – are “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen”. The former is track two on the record, and while I have no idea who El Goodo is, Bell and Chilton sure did write a beautiful song about him. This piece is the best example of Bell’s beautiful falsetto harmonization on the album: they really shine through on this track. On the surface, it is just a simple ballad, but the arrangements and harmonies on the track really make it into something special.

“Thirteen” is even simpler than “The Ballad of El Goodo”. It utilizes acoustic instrumentation and has its lead vocal duties handled by Chilton. This track holds a special place in my heart, and I would say that it’s one of my favorite songs in general: it’s a beautiful, little portrait of teen love and perfectly captures the innocent spirit of the record as a whole.

Every other song on the record is fantastic as well, but those are the ones that really stand out for me. The lush production really shines on tracks such as the bright “Watch the Sunrise” and the somber “Try Again”, which sounds like it could have been an outtake from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. And, of course, who could forget the nostalgic teenage anthem “In the Street”? If you can get past the fact that a cover version of it was used as the theme song for That ‘70s Show, I daresay it is one of the best tracks on the record.

The thing that’s amazing about this record is how well it still stands up, even if you only listen to it for the first time later in your music-devouring career. If you’re like me, you probably heard a good number of the countless bands who were influenced by Big Star before you actually listened to this record and, because of that, one would think that this wouldn’t seem special at all. Yes, there have been countless other groups who have tried to imitate this sound; the simple pop structure, jangly guitars, and tight vocal harmonies were all oft-employed musical elements during the college radio days of the 1980s. However – even with all of the similarities to groups who found much more fame than Big Star ever did during their short career -, even being as familiar as I am with its derivatives, this record still feels magical to me. Most of the tracks on the album feel like adolescent anthems worthy of being blasted in a car filled with your best friends at age sixteen. (Yeah, yeah. Now I’m picturing That ‘70s Show). Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were magnificent songwriters, and their collaboration on this is truly wonderful.

As I write this article, I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my headphones on, and it just doesn’t feel right that I’m not singing along with it. I suppose that I could start belting out the lyrics, but I don’t think that the girl working on her chemistry homework across from me would appreciate that. #1 Record is just one of those perfect, infectious pop albums that begs to be echoed by an appreciative audience, whether that be one of the large crowds that saw them during their reunion concerts… or a single listener like me. In fact, I think that it’s time I finish my drink and go perfect my Alex Chilton impersonation.

 

Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Presents… Lucifer Rising

Audrey takes a look at the darker side of the 70’s music scene with Manson family connection, Jimmy Page, and more, all connected to a strange rock and roll album…

Scary.

From the beginning, there were always connections between the Manson family and music. The obvious story was the one of Charlie’s own failed music career, and the horrible crimes that were committed because of that. I’m not going to talk about that today, though: there was another member of the Manson family was also creating interesting music before any of the murders happened in ’69. That man is Bobby Beausoleil, and much like Charlie, he is currently serving a life sentence for murder.

Though this article obviously isn’t meant to be about his motives or the details of the crime (this is primarily a music blog, after all), I will divulge a bit of information about what happened: Beausoleil was involved in the murder of Gary Hinman, a music teacher; allegedly, Hinman owed money to the Manson family for a bad batch of mescaline that they had purchased from him and sold to a biker gang, who subsequently demanded their money refunded when they realized the drugs were faulty. On July 27, 1969, Beausoleil (along with family members Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner) showed up at Hinman’s house in an attempt to get their money back. When he refused to pay them, Hinman called Manson to the scene, who arrived at the house and promptly chopped Hinman’s ear off with a sword. When Hinman still insisted that he didn’t have money to give them, Beausoleil stabbed him to death. Afterwards, they wrote “Political Piggy” on the wall in his blood. Alongside that, they also drew a paw print in an attempt to make it appear that the crime was committed by the Black Panthers. This was the first of the string of gruesome murders committed by the Manson Family: a little over a week later, Beausoleil was arrested after he was found driving Hinman’s car.

Before his incarceration, Beausoleil played in several different bands; the most notable of which was Arthur Lee’s Grass Roots (no relation to Creed Bratton’s band of the same name), who later became the very influential Love. He also played in a psychedelic rock band called The Orkustra following the Grass Roots’ dissolution. Not only was Beausoleil involved in music, but he was also an aspiring actor, which is incidentally where his most famous recording Lucifer Rising comes into the picture.

It’s impossible to talk about this album without bringing up yet another important ‘60s icon: Kenneth Anger. If you’re not familiar with the name, Anger made a lot of experimental short films throughout the ‘40s up until recent years, usually blending surrealist imagery with occultist themes. Anger was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema and made many references to it in his works, including the short film Lucifer Rising, which featured Beausoleil in a major role. The original plan was that Bobby would be the star of the production and that the music would be composed by Jimmy Page. Unfortunately, there were many issues during the production of the film. The actual filming was delayed many times due to a number of problems: Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole the original footage, but the rest of the cast stated that this didn’t happen and that Anger simply ran out of money. Another major issue involved the soundtrack; Page and Anger had a falling out during the creation of the film: one story says that Anger began to question Page’s devotion to the Thelemic way and, because of this, he placed a curse on the Led Zeppelin star. Another, likelier story is that Page wasn’t working as quickly as Anger wanted him to and, in his stead, the filmmaker tapped Beausoleil to compose the score in addition to being involved as an actor. Either way, after an argument with Charlotte Martin – Page’s longtime lover and the mother of his first child – Anger washed his hands of Page.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad decision on Anger’s part considering that Beausoleil is an extremely talented musician in his own right. The most amazing thing about this record is that it was entirely recorded behind bars. Even more remarkable, especially considering the occult and otherwise taboo themes of Anger’s films, Beausoleil was given permission by the warden of Tracy State Prison – where he was incarcerated for his involvement in the Manson crimes – to create this soundtrack. With the help of some incredibly skilled inmates, the record was created in the late ‘70s. I really wish that I could find more information about the recording process of this album: it sounds absolutely incredible given where it was recorded. I can’t imagine that a prison in the 1970s would keep very many (if any) decent musical instruments around, let alone any recording equipment, so the amount of cooperation between the prison and the outside world would have been unprecedented. Despite the locale where it was made, this album sounds as if professional engineers were on hand to record it using somewhat decent studio equipment. While this technical consideration would be quite remarkable if true, I suppose it made sense that they were able to find such great musicians among the inmates given that this was a prison in southern California during the drug-conservative 1970s: there were probably plenty of talented musicians who were incarcerated for narcotics and other minor crimes.

The album is completely instrumental and separated into six movements. The music contained within is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd; all the tracks are dreamy psychedelic soundscapes that act as a showcase for Beausoleil’s exquisite compositional skills and guitar work. That’s not to say that Beausoleil’s playing is the most important part of the record; the session musicians are incredibly tight and focused as well – especially the horn player. There are moments in the fifth movement where the trumpet becomes the main focus, and is just as beautiful as the guitar on the rest of the album.

While it isn’t necessary to do so if one merely wishes to enjoy the record as a musical statement, it helps to watch the film to see how the portions of the score that were selected for inclusion (the soundtrack album’s runtime is about 46 minutes to the film’s 29) complement Anger’s visuals. Due to all of the production delays involving the soundtrack’s rather unique circumstances, Lucifer Rising – although completely filmed by 1972 – wasn’t released until 1980. Although it features luminaries such as Anger himself and Marianne Faithful (as well as Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris, in a minor role), there is no dialogue to speak of, giving Beausoleil’s musical contribution an even greater importance. The finished work is loaded with Thelemic symbolism as well as a lot of very dated looking psychedelic effects, which makes for an entertaining watch if you’re in the right mindset (stoned *cough*). Honestly, I would have probably enjoyed Anger’s film a lot more if I were knowledgeable about Crowley and his teachings: as I’m only mildly aware of Crowley’s philosophies, I’m sure that most of the symbolism went straight over my head. Even if I didn’t completely understand what was going on, it’s still cool to have Anger’s cinematography in the back of my head while listening to the album: I can’t hear it now without picturing pyramids and volcanoes.

Since this record was written by a famous murderer and completely performed by inmates, one would think that this album would only hold value as a curiosity for record collectors and outsider music enthusiasts, yet this is not the case at all. It is probably best not to get caught up with that notion since this album doesn’t deserve to be cast aside as simply a novelty: It is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the ostensibly limiting conditions under which it was created. Anyone interested in hearing some really great psychedelic instrumentals and guitar work should check this one out, since – even casting aside its interesting context – it really doesn’t get much better than this.

Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Presents…Les Rallizes Dénudés

Audrey is back with some words of wisdom on a far out band from Japan. Dig it.

If you didn’t notice from Culture Fusion correspondent Jonathan Brodsky’s last review, a lot of fucking weird music comes from Japan. Thinking about this has inspired me to write about one of my favorite groups to come out of Nihon. What I’m reviewing today is going to look pretty tame compared to the ridiculousness that is the Gerogerigegege, but bear with me: this is still pretty weird, especially considering when the band began creating records. Les Rallizes Dénudés may not have recorded themselves shitting their pants (at least, not that I know of…) or masturbated on stage, but I promise that this is worth your time if you like avant-garde music.

Are you still there? Good. Les Rallizes Dénudés (a linguistic mash-up of Japanese and French that translates to ‘they who are fucked up and naked’) formed as a concrete entity in 1967, its members originally bound together as an avant-garde musical theatre troupe. The band was led by the incredible guitarist and vocalist Takashi Mizutani. LRD became infamous in Japan for their intense, visual live performances and extreme leftist politics. In 1970, they became even more infamous when one of the members decided it’d be a good idea to hijack a plane.

Bassist Moriaki Wakabayashi was a member of the Japanese Red Army – a Communist group formed in the early ‘70s whose ultimate goal was to overthrow the Japanese government and eventually spread their message all over the world. Nine members of the JRA, including Wakabayashi, boarded Japanese Airlines Flight 351 on March 31, 1970 with the intention of hijacking the plane and flying it all the way to Cuba. They apparently didn’t plan this very well, since the flight that they hijacked was only traveling 45 minutes away and there wasn’t actually enough fuel in the plane to make it all the way to the Caribbean. The plane ended up landing in Pyongyang, North Korea, where the hijackers were given refuge and treated as heroes. Most of them stayed in the country for over thirty years until they were eventually allowed back into Japan: those who returned were immediately arrested. Supposedly, Mizutani was also asked to join in the hijacking, but he declined, choosing to stay in Japan. It’s a good thing that he did, or some of the heaviest music ever to come from that part of the world wouldn’t have been created.

The most direct comparison that one could make with this band would be that they’re somewhat like the Velvet Underground: the band even dressed similarly, wearing all black clothes and dark sunglasses; Mizutani looked like he could have been the Japanese Lou Reed. Their live shows were also very similar to Warhol and the Velvets’ Exploding Plastic Inevitable revue, featuring bright strobe lights and crushingly loud feedback. While they were very obviously influenced by the group, Les Rallizes Dénudés can’t simply be discounted as Velvet Underground rip-off: after all, they went a step beyond what the Velvets did. By turning the volume up even higher, playing their songs for much longer, and adding much more reverb to their vocals, their sound was significantly more disorienting and psychedelic than anything the Velvets ever did.

Aside from the Japanese noise music enthusiasts and the artists they influenced (most notably High Rise, Fushitsusha, and the Acid Mothers Temple collective of music groups), the band was largely forgotten by most until 2007, when Julian Cope’s brilliant book Japrocksampler was published. Les Rallizes Dénudés were one of the bands he chose to focus an entire chapter on, leading to a resurgence of interest in the band among aficionados of avant-garde sounds.

If you’ve ever heard anything by this band, it’s likely that the recording was a bootleg: Rallizes had almost no official releases, and next-to-nothing of their cumulative output was recorded in the studio. However, when looking at the massive array of unofficial material, deciding where to start can certainly seem intimidating: their rateyourmusic.com page lists over 70 third-party records, many of which are sourced from grainy live recordings and contain multiple discs. In my opinion, a good place to start is the aptly titled Heavier Than a Death in the Family: this bootleg record – a collection of recordings the band made mostly dating in or around 1977 (with the exception of the track ‘People Can Choose’, which was recorded in 1973) – is widely considered to be one of their best.

The thing about Les Rallizes Dénudés is that while their discography is enormous, there really isn’t much variety in it. That’s not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing – after all, their recordings were consistently pretty good, if you’re into that sort of thing. The only problem is that – for me, anyhow – it gets boring after awhile. Since I’m kind of insane, I’ve done the hard job for you and listened to hours and hours of their recordings. I can honestly say that Heavier Than a Death in the Family is probably the most solid overall. The record features only six tracks, although most clock in at over ten minutes. In terms of musical content, the core of the record is just primitive rock and roll. It features simple, repetitive riffs, throbbing bass lines, and steady drumming. Sounds easy enough to get into, right? Wrong.

The thing that really sets this band and this album apart is the noise. One of the main things Les Rallizes Dénudés are known for is how ridiculously loud they are. Honestly, if you listen to this album all the way through and your ears aren’t ringing by the end, you either need to get them checked or turn the volume up to a listenable level: I can’t even imagine going to see them live. Every recording I’ve heard by them (except for the odd folk songs on their Mizutani record – one of three band-sanctioned recordings) is incredibly loud, and sounds as though it would have been deafening if experienced live. Not only were Rallizes very noisy, their sound also had a lot of psychedelic elements to it; consequently, they’re most often classified as psych-rock. Although the long guitar solos were obviously influenced by American psych and experimental bands, I find this to be a gross oversimplification of what they do, and anyone checking them out for this reason will either be in way over their head or pleasantly surprised.

One time, in a disgustingly Garden State-esque moment, I told a former professor of mine that this band would change his life. While I can’t say that this will be true for everyone, if you like noise, psychedelia, or any sort of avant-garde rock, you definitely need to check LRD out. When I first heard them, I was already into weird Japanese stuff like Boredoms and Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O., so this was a step down in terms of strangeness, but the experience made everything suddenly click for me: I finally realized the point of influence that all of these forward-thinking Japanese bands shared: Les Rallizes Dénudés started the wave of all the cool experimental and noise bands that came from the land of the rising sun, and I’m incredibly grateful for their existence.

Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Presents: Lorca by Tim Buckley

Today is a big day for Culture Fusion: our efforts to expand to a wider range of writers and musical interests has hit pay dirt with the introduction of new reviewer Audrey. She enjoys exploring the realms of the strange and unusual and who’s innate understanding of music helps create an informative and enjoyable read.

Her first review delves into the strange and unusual world of Tim Buckley’s experimental period with the classic album “Lorca.”

Nothing unusual here…

I’ve found that it’s impossible to have a conversation with someone about Tim Buckley without the subject of his son immediately slipping into the dialogue. So, I will get this out of the way right now: I am not a fan of Jeff Buckley. There, I said it. Shoot me.

Don’t get me wrong: Jeff isn’t bad; I just don’t find him all that interesting. He has a nice voice, and 1994’s Grace had a few good songs on it (his cover of Hallelujah brings me to tears), but as an album, I find it to be completely unremarkable; this is a lot of why it enrages me when he inevitably gets brought up every single time I try to talk about his father.

Seriously, people – I just want to talk about one of my favorite songwriters, not his son. Jeff couldn’t even swim! (Okay, that was bad.)

Jeff is not amused, Audrey.

Also, Tim was just so dreamy. I mean, look at those curls. Swoon.

When I listen to Tim’s output from the year 1970, I can’t help but wonder why he isn’t more recognized and revered. He released two of his strongest records that year: Lorca and Starsailor. The former of these two releases is not only the Tim Buckley album I enjoy the most, but also one of my all-time favorite records.

It was recorded during the same sessions as his 1969 album, Blue Afternoon but they couldn’t be any more different. Tim was trying to fulfill contractual obligations to his record labels during this period and was creating and releasing a lot of new material.

Perhaps as a response to creating so much at once, his music started becoming eccentric. Rather than writing catchy tunes, Lorca found Buckley completely abandoning the binary structure of his songwriting to explore a more free-form style: this led to his songs being much longer than on his previous records. Leaving behind the verse-chorus format allowed him to focus on creating immersive pieces that highlighted his astonishing vocal range and his poetry.

Not only did his lyrical approach begin to differ, his musical approach was similarly altered: this certainly wasn’t the hippie-folk sound that he used on his earlier albums. On Lorca, Tim started incorporating free jazz and avant-garde elements into the compositions, which undoubtedly alienated his fan base.

Fans may have also been alienated by the minimal levels of acoustic guitar on the album. It was no longer the musical focal point and driving force of the tracks. There is almost no percussive element on the record, except for congas in the background of a few songs.

With the exception of perhaps the track ‘Nobody Walkin’’, these songs don’t sound like traditional rock or folk. His voice completely took over and led the songs in much different directions. Largely owing to the unexpected nature of the record, the album was a financial and critical failure.

All smiles…

Side one opens with the title track, which is much more jarring than anything he had previously released. The song begins with the sound of various keyboards (including the pipe organ), an immediate and complete departure from everything he had done before. Tim plays in an unusual and uncomfortable 5/4 time signature, which creates an brooding atmosphere he maintains for 10 long minutes. This is easily the most difficult track on the record, and I’m guessing it probably scared a lot of his folk-oriented fans away from the album.

The other track on side one is called ‘Anonymous Proposition’. I get the impression that Tim must have been depressed when he wrote most of songs on this record: almost every track creates a strong feeling of isolation which is especially strong on this song. The track (which is easily my favorite on the album) features what I feel is the best vocal performance Tim ever recorded: the song appears to deal with an uncommitted relationship, and I cannot help but be moved by his authentic-sounding delivery of lyrics like “love me as if someday you’ll hate me”, knowing that his romance was doomed before it even started. When asked about the piece, Tim said, “It deals with a ballad in a totally personal, physical presentation… It has to be done slowly; it has to take five or six minutes; it has to be a movement. It has to hold you there and make you aware that someone is telling you something about himself in the dark”.

Side two of the record is significantly less challenging than the first. It starts off with the beautiful ‘I Had A Talk With My Woman’ which initially seems to be more uplifting than the rest of the record.

However, when you listen closer to the lyrics, the song reveals itself to be just as depressing as the rest of the album.  The track has similar lyrical themes to ‘Anonymous Proposition’: Tim alleges singing about his love from the top of a mountain in one verse, but questions how long the love is going to last in the next. Fans looking for an accessible starting point on Lorca could do well to start here, as it features more similarities to his older work than anything else on the LP while still retaining some of the jazzy elements that are present on side one.

Next, we find a moody piece called ‘Driftin’’. Like the rest of the album, this song reaffirms my belief that Tim was dealing with depression over a break-up or a stagnant relationship. It is a slow, dreamy song which features some very lovely guitar work. If I had to identify a low point on the record, I would say that this wonderful song is it.

The final track is ‘Nobody Walkin’’, which presents a musical change of pace. The slow moodiness of the rest of the album is broken by an upbeat, fast-paced groove which feels out of place in the context of the recording. As alien as it is, the song leaves the listener with much better feelings than that rest of the songs.

Lyrically, the song is also different in that it sees Tim take initiative by leaving his lover rather than wait to see whether or not she is going to leave him. This more proactive approach makes ‘Nobody Walkin’’ an appropriate, somewhat positive conclusion to the story of Lorca.

Much like the love spoken of in ‘Anonymous Proposition’, it seems Tim knew that the record would be doomed from the start. Larry Beckett, Tim’s early songwriting partner, said that he wanted to purposefully alienate his fans with his new direction. Tim was once quoted saying that Lorca is a record that “you can’t put… on at a party without stopping things; it doesn’t fit in.”

I would definitely have to agree with him. I’ve tried playing it for a group of friends and everyone in the room immediately stopped talking and started listening. It’s definitely a record that demands your attention.

Just one more (political) party stopped dead by the power of Lorca.

For the time, there aren’t many albums to which you can compare Lorca. The 1970s weren’t a time when popular folk artists were incorporating avant-garde and jazz elements into their sound. Buckley’s use of the chromatic scale sets Lorca apart from the more conventional and melodic folk music which lived (and lives) as the norm. The most obvious contemporary of Lorca’s would be Nico’s ‘Desertshore’, but even that record doesn’t have the desolate and stark qualities of Lorca.

My opinion of Lorca, much like my opinion of Jeff, is the unpopular one. Most people I know prefer Starsailor. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on that album; it’s a fantastic record and certainly deserves all of the acclaim it receives. The two albums receive comparisons quite often since they’re both products of his avant-garde period and they have some similar qualities.

Starsailor also loses out in the “album cover” contest. Blandzilla, yo.

However, I think it’s unfair to compare the two as they have many important differences that separate them more than their similarities unite them. First of all, Starsailor is a much more adventurous and genre shattering album. Tim dove even further into experimentation on that record and came up some very interesting and unique songs as he moved further and further from the folk norm and format. Lorca does not dive as fully into the uncertain waters of the unknown and holds more strongly to traditional folk music formats.

While I usually tend to favor weirder albums, Lorca is my favorite album by Buckley. Starsailor is a fascinating listen, but it lacks intimacy, whereas when I listen to Lorca, I feel like I’m getting a better look at what Tim was like during this point in his life. It has a very atmospheric quality to it that few other albums I’ve listened to are able to achieve, and for this reason alone, it is worth your time and effort to enjoy.