Rock's Backpages Writers' Blogs » Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com Rock reviews, rock articles & rock interviews from the Ultimate Rock'n'Roll Library Mon, 20 May 2013 00:14:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Godmamas II / Cheikha Remitti / Revisitation Rights 19 http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2013/03/godmamas-ii-cheikha-remitti-revisitation-rights-19/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2013/03/godmamas-ii-cheikha-remitti-revisitation-rights-19/#comments Sun, 17 Mar 2013 21:20:22 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=52280 Continue reading ]]> GODMAMAS II / Revisitation Rights 19

CHEIKHA REMITTI

And carrying on with the godmamas from La Niña de los Peines…
Come to think of it, Original Music was almost certainly the source of my first Cheikha Remitti LP (and I do remember that was vinyl). I already knew a little bit of rai from that handful of early Virgin compilations produced by Rachid Baba (who was promptly assassinated, the first major casualty of free fatwa license to kill in ’90s Algeria that would take down several major rai artists there and sent far more fleeing to relative safety in France) but I do believe I got hooked into French and sometimes Algerian label releases by Khaled and others through John Storm Roberts’ catalogue. But ultimately it’s irrelevant because Cheikha Remitti (or Rimitti, and be aware the spelling does swing both ways if you’re in info/music search mode) was just instantly arresting, one of those rough, gritty female singers who immediately and absolutely snap-to-it commands any musical setting she enters, a voice that conveys total authority. Ghir al Baroud on Sonodisc was the introduction to Remitti in pure trad style rai mode – nothing more than breathy flute over the top, punchy percussion underneath and Remitti ranging through the middle – and the music still never fails to impress with its forcefulness and power.
Remitti apparently acquired her last name as the result of her bastardized French attempt to buy another round for drunken French fans at a bar in the red light district of Oran, while cheikha was the name given to any veterana female rai singer worthy of respect (the chebs and chabas contingent were the next generation young singers). Now there may be a few layers of mythmaking involved here but the word I heard was she was an orphan who loved to sing and dance, which put her so far beyond the pale of orthodox Algerian Islamic society she had nothing to lose anyway and decided to wholeheartedly embrace the performing life. Her initial reputation apparently came from taking the frankly lustful, sexual lyrics regarding matters of the heart and boudoir sung for and among women only at Algerian wedding parties from behind closed compound walls and out into the street bars of Oran and beyond in the early ‘50s.
Most famously, there was a song (“Charrak Gattà”) encouraging young women to lose their virginity and lines like “He scratched my back/ And I gave him every thing I had” not surprisingly invited some serious ostracism from the morally upstanding in orthodox Islamic circles even as her music became popular at street level. So Remitti was scandalous, suspect and shot at from all sides, since the new post-independence Algerian government banned her from national radio and television when they took power in the ‘60s, reportedly because she had appeared on them under French rule and probably for making music that wasn’t sufficiently “revolutionary” or supportive enough of the revolution. Reminders that she stopped smoking and drinking and went on the Hajj to Mecca in the ‘70s would become the Algerian press equivalent to Spanish journalists stressing the feminine/domestic side of La Nina de los Peines for Remitti. All these things ultimately made her an exile in Paris long before the Islamic fundamentalists started in on their prime fatwa hunting season against in the mid-‘90s.
But Remitti was still on the scene and able to benefit when rai first popped on to the Western world music radar courtesy of Khaled and the other chebs and chabas in the late ‘80s. Most of the subsequent discs she recorded followed the trad instrumentation model of Ghir al Baroud but a few embraced Western rock band instruments, with keyboards filling the flute role and bass guitar and drum kit supplementing, but never ever supplanting, the distinctly Algerian percussive drive generated by the darbouka. And of course Remitti was on hand to keep everything in its proper place. One of those discs was Cheikha Remitti On Air on Indigo/Radio Bremen label, a captivating live set released in 2010 but recorded at the 1998 Women in E(motion) festival, which convincingly showed that Remitti was far too commanding a vocal figure to allow any mere pumping up the decibels to change the underlying nature of her music.
It also brought back fond memories because I actually got the chance to see her perform in Spain, four or five years after On Air was recorded and with that identical instrumental line-up (maybe the exact same band for all I know), at some multi-cultural festival in Zaragoza a couple hours drive from Valencia. The gig was in a fairly cavernous indoor arena and far from filled by the roughly 1000 people in the house but Remitti came out and was simply wonderful. There she was, probably pushing 80 years old and onstage for the full 90-minute set, her voice cutting through the arena with total authority (you expected something else?) when she wasn’t dancing and prancing around like a young girl in her party dress and silly/sweet princess tiara.
But probably my most enduring memory of Cheikha Remitti’s indelible imprint on her musical surroundings was the Sidi Mansour album and its extra disc of unreleased tracks recorded and released a few years earlier, circa 1994. This was a full-fledged update-the-Cheikha-sound job intent on connecting Remitti with contemporary alternative audiences (I have no doubt she was fully receptive to the idea) at the hands of arranger/producers Houari Tabli (sax, keyboard, samplers), JBV (computers/sound treatments) working together with L.A. punk scene grad Geza X (guitar and West Coast punk plus Fowler brothers contacts) for a short-lived label that was hard enough to find then. It would probably be impossible now if not for the slightly improved prospects due to a 2006 re-issue of Sidi Mansour that snuck out well under most every radar.
Obviously the plan behind the album was to record Cheikha Remitti’s core percussion-and-vocals tracks in Paris and ship the tapes off for Geza X in southern California to concoct roaring rock/punk arrangements around them. And so you find the Remitti voice plunked down in midst of Flea bass thumb pops, East Bay Ray (Dead Kennedys) metallic sturm und drang lead guitar, and Robert Fripp came onboard at some point in the process to apply his patented Frippertronics to a mix that by this point was seriously rock-i-fied and a long away from any red light café in Oran. And yet, even with a full barrage of percussion and every track pretty well cluttered with a wide assortment of variations on the kitchen sink, Remitti’s singing sounds absolutely unfazed by the ruckus rising up around her. They can throw thundering chords, searing atmospherics and raucous rough edges (whether they come in via guitarzan antics, synth acobatics or horn flashes) at her and she still sounds completely in her element. Doesn’t even bat an eye.

I actually may slightly prefer the unreleased tracks album (that one seemingly has yet to be re-issued, naturally), for the atmospherics of “Mendirch al Haseb” moving into the contrast of the rock histrionics of “Rah Yabki” playing against the return to dominance of atmospheric elements in the “Dune Mix.” But the most telling moments on Sidi Mansour proper come in the title track, when the song suddenly breaks clear after four minutes of rock heroics, the volume level subsides, keyboard washes and/or Frippertronics take over the soundscape and the acoustic, percussive core of Remitti’s music rises up. And then her voice comes in and its mere presence alone reduces all the preceding musical maelstrom to secondary importance. Just the authority inherent in her singing asserts her complete pre-eminence in that particular musical order and, by extension, any other one that she would walk into.
Now I know that in the real world (well, what passed for the real world in 1994) the basic tracks with Remitti singing were merely sent off to Los Angeles and the musicians there simply added their parts. But I still can’t shake (and don’t particularly want to) this lingering long-term fantasy projection of Cheikha Remitti and all the rest there playing live in the studio and Remitti indulging them until the exact moment arrives when she knows it’s time to set things straight and put musicians, producer, everything in its proper place. Just time to take command and show everyone what’s really what.
Just like any good, self-respecting godmama should.
Now the piece was originally going to end on that note but now it turns out a final Remitti studio album was recorded, well after On Air but released years earlier in 2005. It came out before Remitti died from a heart attack in May, 2006 in true trouper fashion, two days after her sold-out concert at the Zenith in Paris drew 4,500 people and a week after she turned 83. N’ta Goudami inspired a Guardian rave that opened by saying at 82 she “can still produce rousing dance music that should shame many of the young, more commercially minded contenders.” While I would never argue with that opinion, a cursory Spotify listen to a few tracks found the music didn’t quite pack the hoped-for force, particularly because the synth players covering or doubling the flute don’t seem to have progressed beyond that cheesy ‘80s sound setting on their instruments.
But even so, there is a reason and back story to the sessions worthy of Remitti, because the musicians playing those synths are Algerians in an Oran studio and Remitti was still officially banned from her native land. But even persona non grata at age 82, she thought nothing of defying the authorities and coming full circle by going back home after over 25 years to record the album in an Oran studio with native Algerian musicians.
And that is most definitely like any good, self-respecting godmama should.

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Godmamas I / La Niña de los Peines / Revisitation Rights 19 http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2013/03/godmamas-i-la-nina-de-los-peines-revisitation-rights-19/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2013/03/godmamas-i-la-nina-de-los-peines-revisitation-rights-19/#comments Sun, 17 Mar 2013 04:44:28 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=52279 Continue reading ]]> GODMAMAS I / Revisitation Rights 18

LA NIÑA DE LOS PEINES

Godmamas, seems like every style’s gotta have at least one, that towering figure, sometimes doomed to early death, sometimes not, almost always a trailblazer who simply defined and established the idea of what a female artist could be, whether in a particular culture or through their more general, across-the-board impact. They are the artists who in some way and for whatever reason become signposts and emotional touchstones through their musical abilities, expressive impact or the mere fact of their existence and behavior at a given point in time.
You can point to any number of obvious icons – Bessie Smith for blues, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington in jazz, Aretha for soul, Patsy Cline or the early Carter family clan for country. Celia Cruz would undoubtedly the popular choice name on everyone’s lips for Latin/Afro-Cuban music, but whenever I hear Celina González snapping out the lyrics to “Que Viva Chango/Santa Barbara” with total command and authority, whichever version I’m listening to, I’m absolutely convinced she rates the godmama designation, too. Venturing across the Atlantic, Edith Piaf is as much of a lock for that status in French continental chanson as Amália Rodrigues is for Portuguese fado or Cesária Évora for morna.
They don’t have to be long dead and gone heroines, either. Certainly Patti Smith has turned into the great punk/alternative godmama for all times and Madonna’s just been adding on to her godmama stake for the last two decades minimum – I remember new female artists like Fernanda Abreu and Najat Aatabou being labeled the Madonnas of their respective countries (Brazil and Morocco, respectively) when their records briefly surfaced in the wider Western pop world in the early ‘90s. (I also remember Madonna and Michael Jackson as about the only Western pop artists whose albums you saw in African and Arab record/tape shops when I visited Paris around ’94 or so).
You can go regional (go Irma Thomas for New Orleans/Gulf Coast blueswomen, Exene Cervenka of X for a generation of Los Angeles punk/alternative women), survivors (Marianne Faithfull very strongly for a good long while but the torch now seems to be passing to Bettye LaVette with some serious soul godmama cross-mix added) or genre creation and identification (Siouxsie Banshee and Madonna again there). Don’t think enough time has passed to tell whether the Gagas and Beyonces or any of the rest of that ilk will make it, and I’m sure everyone can come up with their lengthy list of suggestions, variations and/or challenges to supplement those artists.
The mix could include Miriam Makeba (historic pan-Africa) or Oumou Sangare (modern Mali), Susana Baca (Afro-Peruvian) or Toto la Momposina (Afro-Colombian folkloric) – hell, it’s basically search and you’re sure to find godmamas depending on your own individual criteria. But the ones I’ve been listening to recently for this piece are largely unknown and now gone, but absolute creators and initiators of styles.

I remember the first time I heard La Nina de los Peines…was in a movie theater. That was during the time when I was first learning world music via the Original Music mail order catalogue (remember those?) assembled and sent out by John Storm Roberts with its eclectic, idiosyncratic assortment of selections accompanied by his dryly humorous and usually quite illuminating commentary. JSR had me nosing around some record by La Niña de las Peines he touted for two or three catalogues running as exemplary roots flamenco and, while I never felt any real pull towards flamenco from the fusioned-out variants I was hearing, I figured it would be probably good for me to sample an example of the real deal. Build up my cultural muscles, you know, like cultural spinach for Popeye. But I was still holding back on taking the plunge…
…and then I went to see An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s film about the Australian writer Janet Frame. Sitting there in the theater, a scene came along about halfway into the film where the emotionally fragile Frame is trying to absorb the shock of being dumped by her Spanish lover, her first romantic heartbreak. She’s sitting on a rocky cove looking out over the Mediterranean and the soundtrack is wailing flamenco melisma by a female singer. And I suddenly thought to myself, “That’s La Niña de los Peines. That has to be La Niña de los Peines.” Just as I was certain Champion would have insisted on some truly roots flamenco for the passion/desolation intrinsic to the scene, I just instinctively knew from JSR’s description of that disc that it had to be her. I waited until the credits rolled and yes, indeed it was La Niña de los Peines. Needless to say, that CD was part of my next Original Music order.
So fast forward some 20 years, but even increased exposure and familiarity from a somewhat concerted effort to get myself some kinda grip on flamenco still left me lukewarm towards the music at best. I just don’t feel the underlying rhythms for the various styles, the music is too guitar-centric to appeal to a confirmed bass culture addict and far too prone to be straitjacketed into following strict forms for my taste. But La Nina de los Peines remained such an figure I finally splurged on a heavy-duty official culture collection – the Integral (Complete) Niña de los Peines set produced under the auspices of the Culture Ministry of the Andalusian regional government. That’s an edition limited by the expense of containing her entire output of 250-plus recordings on 13 CDs and an extra info CD loaded with enough background details, history and analysis to satiate the historically minded amongst you…albeit in Spanish, of course.
The splurge was well worth it, too, because more than a few major revelation time flashes rolled along while absorbing the music and history. The most profound one simply involved the time frame for her career – the handful of CDs I’d run across before came sans recording date info, so I always assumed her career probably started some time in the early ‘30s (maybe back to the late ‘20s), was rudely interrupted by the Spanish Civil War and aftermath, then resumed and flourished for a couple of decades before petering out in the late ‘60s or possibly the early ‘70s.
Wrong, seriously wrong.

Her first recordings dated from all the way back in 1910, upping the godmama ante considerably to absolute foundational since it meant La Niña de los Peines almost had to be the very first female flamenco singer people heard in Spain and beyond, at the very dawning of the 78s era. The tracks on the first eight CDs of the Integral collection were all recorded through 1917 and virtually all her recordings were released on 78s before the Civil War intrusion – only the sessions on the last two CDs were recorded post-1935 and just the final 30-odd songs of her career were cut after 1945. When a final 1950 theater tour failed to pull big enough audiences, La Niña de los Peines packed her career in and never went back out again, even once next generation began to cycle around a bit to discover her while her own generation celebrated her to the tune of building and dedicating a statue in her home city of Seville while she was still alive. She moved to the next phase in 1969.
While flamenco was a style emerging from the social underbelly and reviled ethnic group and struggling for acceptance during that time, La Nina de los Peines was a genuinely popular figure who helped shape all the different developmental stages and facets flamenco experienced during its initial phase – the rise of the first great guitar accompanists (names like Rámon Montoya, Luis Molina, Niño Ricardo and Melchor de Marchena) and the direct connection with the artist/intellectual set including Lorca. She was a headliner throughout the 20’s and ‘30s, after live performances moved on up from the fabled cafés on to the Spanish theater circuit with revue-style packages that drew turnaway crowds and became the flamenco norm up to the start of the Civil War.
Her given name was Pastora Pavón Cruz and she was a precocious talent, already singing in clubs and dodging child labor laws in the first decade of the 20th century before she was even a teenager. She acquired the stage name she never really warmed to from a song she sang as a child that gave her early word-of-mouth street rep in Seville. Music definitely ran in the family – both her brothers were singers and her first club performance was subbing for older brother Arturo. Younger brother Tomás would become known as one of those artiste singers known for tackling the most obscure and complicated deep flamenco styles in intimate gatherings for artists and purists but was unable to re-create his triumphs in that milieu on the rare occasions he was persuaded to venture into a studio. And Pastora wound up marrying and sharing those latter-day theatre revue bills with another highly popular flamenco artist, Pepe Pinto.
So she was absolutely fundamental in forming the idea of how and what flamenco could sound like onstage and on record. It was the era when the early giants were making the scene (in every sense of the phrase) and all indications point to La Niña being fully accepted and appreciated as a peer of equal standing – and pretty amusing and equally revealing how Spanish period interviews always made a point of stressing her femininity and fondness for the domestic life to reinforce traditional roles and moral sensibilities. Photos show she was no glam girl so the source of her appeal was purely musical, and peers and commentators alike have always stressed her vocal skills and the wide sweep of material on her recordings.

Flamenco artists were often specialists in, or most celebrated for, singing one particular style but La Niña de los Peines by all reports was a masterful and versatile vocalist capable of satisfying the most demanding listeners across virtually the full spectrum of flamenco styles. And not just get them over with the purists and peers – she was one of those artists who had the ability to communicate the power and passion of live flamenco on …well, whatever materials those old 78s were made of (they call them pizarras in Spain). She could convey and project the essence of live flamenco performance in this new studio medium, something that not all artists can pull off in any genre as we all well know, and especially important and impressive when what you’re singing amounts to the first forging of a musical sound in the collective popular mind.
A true godmama, in other words, but I can’t say I have a couple of easily available options as a representative introduction to her music. I’m not that familiar with what’s available out there in CD and/or streaming world, and almost every La Niña de los Peines CD I’ve come across over the years seems like it’s been part of some series called some kind of variation on Masters of Cante Flamenco. One of those compilations devoted exclusively to her recordings (Planet Records, circa 1992) must have bridged the discovery of noise reduction technology, because the sound of their La Niña, Vol. 1 was pure scratchy ‘78s authenticity but Vol. 2 was far more pristine sonically, a significant upgrade to audibly enjoyable.
I can tell you that listening to the full Integral collection doesn’t get tiresome at all so you probably won’t suffer too much whatever your decision may be. Probably the best tip to pass along is that any guitarist credits will give a clue as to the years/decades the track was recorded: Ramón Montoya did the honors in 1910 and 1912; Luis Molina took over from 1913 – 1915; Niño Ricardo handled the six-string things on studio dates in 1927 and 1935, and Melchor de Marchena played on the last few pre-Civil War and pretty much all the post-Civil War sessions. That’s not foolproof by any means but at least it’s some kind of guide.
Oh, and I do suspect that first CD I picked up via Original Music and John Storm Roberts was the Grands Cantaores du Flamenco, Vol. 3 compilation devoted to her on the Le Chant du Monde label. FWIW and in case it’s still floating around out there.

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Avengers Summer http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/avengers-summer/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/avengers-summer/#comments Sun, 30 Sep 2012 04:06:34 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=50739 Continue reading ]]> AVENGERS SUMMER

Revisitation Rights 17

God, the Avengers were a great little band.
And I say little band only because time and geography conspired against any possibility of them being recognized as a great band for the music in their time. But those things happen when a band’s lifespan lasts all of two years (from mid-’77 to mid-’79), home base is San Francisco and the farthest they ever apparently played from the Pacific Ocean was 75 miles inland at Riverside (where a small punk and very early college radio scene flourished down in Orange County). That gig looks to be the farthest east they got by a good 50 miles, too, so you can imagine it was well nigh the impossible dream for a band that pegged to the left coast to escape the ranks of minor players when the idea of cred (street or otherwise) for any West Coast punk band then would be one of the more laughable propositions imaginable in faraway New York or UK punk circles.
Where the Avengers ultimately did get major cred and reputation (big-time prices, too) was in collectors circles for their monumental three-song Dangerhouse single featuring “We are the One”. Then there was whatever cachet came from having a four-song session produced by Steve Jones in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols split that would slip out on an even rarer 12” on an even more obscure label some months after the band broke up. The band did eventually get to release the full-length Avengers LP in 1983, pieced together from the songs on those singles plus material recorded mainly during a few sessions at top Bay Area studios, soon dubbed the Pink album for the dominant tone of the cover photo of singer Penelope Houston. The album arrived way too late to have any major impact beyond serving to satiate the faithful and probably spread the ripples of awareness a bit further out in the wider world.
But as the LP age moved into CD world, the Avengers disappeared from sight and earshot, apart from recycling the trilogy of Dangerhouse songs on scattered compilations put out by Frontier and Rhino (probably others, too, but those are the ones I know and listened to). In 1999, out came the Avengers Died for your Sins on Lookout, which offered four previously unheard songs, very well-recorded at a rehearsal studio, plus an assortment of very raw audience tapes of the Avengers playing live versions of their previously recorded anthems – valuable as a curio/supplement under any circumstances but one that only heightened the hunger for the real deal. However, the back cover notes warning that these were the only real, band-approved Avengers recordings available and to “Accept no imitations, and don’t forget to read the fine print” indicated that their early recordings were undoubtedly caught up in some sort of CD legal limboland cul-de-sac.
And then, almost miraculously, word started circulating and upcoming release lists in 2010 began featuring an officially sanctioned 2CD reissue of the Avengers pink album plus bonus material culled from Died for your Sins and other sources. In typical Avengers fashion, it took another two years before the disc actually materialized in my mailbox and so, in this summer of superhero Avengers in costume with supersize budgets saturating movie screens and the media, came the moment to revisit and gorge myself on music recorded by four scruffy art school Avengers on a shoestring 35 years ago.
And you know what?
Goddamn, the Avengers were a great band.
The weird thing is I don’t really have many specific memories of seeing them live. I know I saw them three of four times and they were exhilarating. I definitely know I saw them at least once at L.A.’s formational underground dive, the Masque (and almost certainly with the Zeros), because it’s by far the strongest memory I have of seeing a band live at the Masque. I’m sure I saw them at the Whisky and probably one or two others places around L.A., most likely with the Alleycats or X or the Zeros again. The Avengers were one of that handful of brilliant bands up and down the California coast instrumental in laying the foundation for the West Coast punk scene, the first generation groups that laid down on the barbed wire for a scene that kept growing incrementally and spreading out inexorably from the core nucleus scene they originally created, but never got the recognition they deserved. I did make the trek up to San Francisco for the Sex Pistols’ Winterland swansong, where the second-billed Avengers delivered far and away the set of the night by virtually all accounts (no arguments from me, I even liked the Pistols but the Avengers were just a great live band. No specifics again, this time due to…well, let’s just say it was one of a handful of great rock ‘n’ roll excess weekends I ever had, fueled by Scotch and no sleep, but we don’t have to go there now).
I think the lack of specific gig memories comes down to the fact the Avengers were so damned good all the time and the quality of their material so consistently high – even the three finished songs written back in the day that the “scAvengers” (aka Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham plus a new rhythm section) recorded in 1998 to release on Died for your Sins (amen to that great title) were very strong. John Dougan’s review of the original Pink Album LP in All Music insightfully pointed to how easy it could be to overlook the Avengers since so many groups came along later to mine the same vein: “…contemporary standards diminish what great music this was and what a great band the Avengers were. Dozens of bands came in their wake, but few could recapture the ferocity and excitement of their sound.”
Amen to that again. One locals-only sign – when the West Coast punk scene started cranking up, a half-hearted rivalry between L.A. and S.F. bands existed, mostly inherited from an old sense that there should be one since the two cities were supposed to be at cultural odds with each other but it didn’t really last long. It really couldn’t when there was a scene to build and pretty counterproductive, if not downright stupid, to cut yourself off from the other major city in the state with clubs for gigs where you could maybe make some money to pay the rent. The Avengers were pretty regular visitors to L.A. and one thing I remember distinctly about the L.A. punk audience was everybody loved the Avengers. And I mean everybody.
But what was there not to like? The Avengers had great songs and knew how to arrange them, great vocal and musical hooks and how to frame them, very sharp and oppositional lyrics in the best outspoken and uncompromising early punk tradition. They had their musical dynamics down and were one of those memorable balanced bands where each member was absolutely integral to the overall sound. Greg Ingraham was a tremendous guitarist, with an ear for magnetic riffs and a searing tone meshed with a great sense of economy, perfectly content to let a distorted chordal roar ring out and float while the rampaging rhythm section carried the momentum. Bass player Jimmy Wilsey and drummer Danny Furious had the skills and savvy as a rhythm section to know when to step forward and give that extra kick to the songs and when to drop back into serving as the basic foundation for Ingraham and Houston without letting the ferocity and excitement lag (good word choices there, John Dougan). And Penelope Houston was a great singer and incisive lyricist, a performer who relished engaging the audience when she was onstage, be it playful sparring and encouragement or more confrontational harangues to get her message across. She was also an absolutely gorgeous buzzcut punkette (objective fact, that) who absolutely never pandered.
And they had anthems, did they ever have anthems. The chorus of “We are the One” from that monumental first Dangerhouse single is a chorus that has never left my head, never will leave my head, and even colored my perceptions of the whole “We are the 99% against the 1%” movement this summer. Because I want no part of that 1%, but yeah, put me down for this One:

“We are the leaders of tomorrow
We are the ones who have the fun
We want control, we want the power
Not gonna rest until it comes

We are not Jesus Christ
We are not fascist pigs
We are not capitalist executives
We are not communists
We are the One ”

Hell, yes, combined with the ringing chords creating anticipation for one killer descending chord progression and you have an all-time anthem permanently embedded in the cranial hard drive. And it’s got company up there. Right next door is Ingraham’s clarion call opening riff to “The American in Me”, triggering layered chords and Houston not only impressively negotiating a tricky extended melodic line but weighing in with some pretty perceptive snapshots of the American psyche viewed through the filter of the Kennedy assassination. The chorus is an absolutely brilliant and pure punk invocation and inversion of JFK’s inaugural address call to patriotic arms, about as close to the irreverence and “sacrilege” displayed against hallowed national iconography committed by “God Save the Queen” as you could get in the U.S. circa 1978:

“Ask not what you can do for your country
But what your country’s been doing to you (your mind)”

Now it did take a memory jog to bring back “I Believe in Me”, the third piece of the anthem trilogy with its resounding chorus chant of “I believe in me / I make my dreams real”, a prime example of the positivity and sense of self-affirmation at the core of early punk and particularly the West Coast strain the Avengers were instrumental in developing. But it took hearing the live version on this new expanded Avengers, recorded at the Winterland show when they opened for the Pistols, to really bring it home full force. The lyrics always seemed set up primarily as an open platform for Houston to free associate on her favorite theme of the necessity of self-reliance in life, rejecting and condemning imposed rules and people telling her what to do. And here she uses the first verse to throw down the gauntlet to the audience:

“Hey, well, I see you all packed right in here
I see you all came
You want to see the Sex Pistols
What are they going to tell you
That you don’t already know
What are they gonna tell you
You gotta figure it out for yourself
I believe in me
I make my dreams real”

And this after surviving a false start before laying into the sweeping slash-and-burn garage rock riff sweeping the song along and a brief stutter step when Ingraham momentarily loses the chordal roar which, rather than derail the song’s momentum, only seems to relaunch the band’s ferocious assault with even more intensity. But the piece de resistance arrives in the final chorus when Houston snarls “No one else will” right after the final “I make my dreams real”. Simply a glorious moment.
Both versions are found on the new expanded Avengers for your listening pleasure comparison. It’s almost certainly designed as the definitive compilation, the most complete reference and final home for the band’s long scattered songbook and recording history. Even though the bonus disc does cherry pick the best finished tracks, it doesn’t entirely supersede Died for your Sins for the period snapshot of raw live Avengers, Houston bantering with the audience, and the three scAvengers studio tracks that aren’t included on this Avengers.
One of them, “Crazy Homicide”, does kick off the live Winterland segment of the bonus disc with an in-full-flight barrage of lyric (“Nothing in the world satisfies you/But you won’t give up and be like the rest/ Nobody cares if you live or die/So you join the party called homicide”) and sweeping riff that is one helluva jolting opening. The duplicate songs on both discs do have a purpose, since the remix of “Uh-Oh” basically salvages the song and its guitar rampage for listenability from the echo overkilled vocals of the (unfinished?) version on the first disc. The “American in Me” remix raises and brightens Houston’s voice to highlight the lyrics and well, any excuse to listen to more two-minute blasts of that anthemic guitar lick and chorus is just fine by me. As for “White N*****”, it’s one of the three punk-era songs using the word I can tolerate (Patti’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll N*****” and X’s “Los Angeles” are the others and yes, I’m playing favorites because I love all those songs), because the absence of racial connotations in context is clear as a betrayed Houston vehemently lays into the object of her scorn for selling out and living a lie far from ideals once held dear.
But again it’s less the individual elements than the balance of the band and their savvy ways with arrangements and dynamics that shines through. Even on a lesser song like “Cheap Tragedies”, the way the rhythm section swells up to frame and inject dynamics underneath Ingraham’s repeated lick solo imprints that section in the memory, just as the Furious drum flurries bring some life to “No Martyr.” The powersurge of the rhythm section on “Car Crash” from the first Dangerhouse single, drives the song in tandem with Ingraham’s ominous riffing and stinging solo, while Houston’s zombie state of shock mutters and moans serve as background before it all careens towards an early nod to noise with an audio verite simulation of the song title.
But the most salient point about finally collecting these songs in one place comes immediately after the opening trilogy from the Dangerhouse single, when the searing guitar, menacing undertow and accusatory lyrics (to be aware, challenge assumptions and mindless group think, always a favorite Houston theme) of “Open Your Eyes” points the way towards the overall high quality of the material beyond the anthems. “Teenage Rebel”, “Friends of Mine”, “White N*****, “Open Your Eyes” “Second to None” and “Corpus Christi” are all great songs in their own right and most of the others at least have something to recommend them. The rhythm section steps up to a more pronounced role on “Rebel” and “Friends”, both driving uptempo songs that bear some kinship with early X, not that surprising for West Coast contemporaries who shared the same punk club and formative stages. “Thin White Line” is very fine, equal parts punky and punchy pop with Penelope spitting out tongue-in-cheeky lyrics (“You say don’t go, don’t go / Don’t go to Babylon/Well, hey Joe, I’m already there”), and more faint echoes of X in a guitar solo that lands halfway between Billy Zoom and Johnny Thunders.
Which fits because the Avengers aren’t so much Ramones school as extension of the Dolls/Pistols brand of Thunders-esque guitar rampage (”Uh-Oh”, “Second to None” “No Martyr”) with the live “Something’s Wrong” catching them at their most ramalama Ramonic. The pair of covers, “Paint It Black” and the early Berry Gordon R&B staple “Money” are both surprisingly traditional choices and very faithful performances except the initial wave of punk bands were essentially rock ‘n’ roll bands formed by people who loved the music so much they couldn’t stand what it had turned into without trying to do something about it. Or so it always struck me, and particularly true of the West Coast – I wonder if it’s any coincidence the Stones song also is the title for Janet Fitch’s novel centered around the L.A. punk scene of that time period. Maybe something in the air.
And they knew how to frame their choruses, witness the punctuations setting up “Second to None” as Houston sketches the different phases of parental attitudes towards lifestyle choices. I was surprised by how frequently overt Christ and Catholic imagery popped up in the lyrics but then I didn’t expect to have a chorus like “Corpus Christi” (“See how they run/Sheep to the fold/See how they fall/Corpse of the Cross”) be catchy enough to keep running through my head for a couple of weeks either .
The latter song was the only one featuring Brad Kent as Ingraham’s replacement on the original vinyl Avengers pink LP and the material does drop off markedly with the four live Kent tracks near the end of the bonus disk. “Misery” and “Time to Die” in particular deteriorate into the kind of desultory, disjointed thrashing that sounds like a band on its last legs. Whether Ingraham leaving severed the crucial link in the band sound or just unbalanced the overall chemistry, whether it was cumulative internal band tensions or the frustrations of wrestling with the record industry machinery trying to get their music out there, or whether that first exhilarating flush of excitement that comes when creativity is flowing and you know the music’s happening had just run its course, the magic is clearly gone.
On the brief original LP liner notes reproduced on the new expanded Avengers CD, one V. Vale capsulized things this way: “In San Francisco 1977-78, before the proliferation of ten thousand garage bands (“hardcore” and otherwise) the Avengers invented and played a few classic teenage rebel songs…created amidst a genuine underground as it was originating.” And for all the rhapsodizing and flinging around of superlatives I’ve done here, in some respects that’s all the 27 songs and 31 tracks found here amounted to when you get down to it. I had the chance to feel the music live and direct in that forming underground so it resonates deeply with me but still I think there’s an elemental quality to the music here that takes it beyond its specific context. No matter if some lyrical references are outdated or they sometimes showed their youth, no matter if they stumbled reaching for something beyond their abilities or how often their musical elements have been recycled since, the Avengers caught the moment they lived in, that brief window when everything blew wide open.
In their time, when it mattered, they nailed it.
Damn, the Avengers were a great band.

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PHIL MANZANERA, MEET LUCIO MAIA http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/phil-manzanera-meet-lucio-maia/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/09/phil-manzanera-meet-lucio-maia/#comments Mon, 03 Sep 2012 04:16:16 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=50510 Continue reading ]]> PHIL MANZANERA, MEET LÚCIO MAIA
Or…
THE SAVAGELY INTELLIGENT MEETS THE INTELLIGENTLY SAVAGE
Or….

Revisitation Rights 16

…or should that be the intelligently savage Manzanera meets the savagely intelligent Maia?
I don’t rightly know, to tell you the truth, and I may not still be 100% settled on who gets which adjective/noun set once I finish here. These are two favorite guitarists, a pair of players with recording debuts separated by 25 years and several music mini-generations of divergent influences. But their presence always piques my curiosity and interest about any project they’re involved with and I passed out of any semblance of a six-string worship phase ages ago. I’ve always associated them because variations of intelligent and savage in varying proportion always spring to mind as defining words for describing their playing. Manzanera is an old school classic, weaving together melodic strands into often majestic and cohesive statements, experimenting with textures and technology to extend his sonic palette with different colors and extra edge. Maia comes out of hip-hip, dub, rock and Brazilian roots forms, using techniques extremely prone to abuse that he invariably avoids, operating within a percussion-heavy dynamic and using fragments, brief phrases and tonal variations with something akin to a dub mentality to flavor the music in a myriad of ways.
Manzanera obviously is the known quantity here, especially with the deluxe release of the Roxy Music studio album box set at hand for a refresher course. No need then for anything more than noting his solos in the traditional lead guitar role on “Re-Make, Re-Model” and “Editions of You” were impeccably tasteful and fiery, just as the final Eno-ized rampage on “Dream Home Heartache” and bravura sturm and drang opening to “Mother of Pearl” before Ferry settled into his superlative display of phrase turning stretched beyond that. In an era of rampant ego-fueled excess, Manzanera was that rare self-effacing guitarist whose playing was always at the service of the song – witness the elemental and perfect six-note guitar hook to “Street Life” or the shimmering guitar layered guitars of “All I Want Is You”. He was one of three instrumental voices behind Ferry essential to defining the Roxy sound (the others being the obvious Andy MacKay and the underappreciated backbeat drive of Paul Thompson), not to mention the go-to guitar guy for the cycle of Eno/John Cale/801 Live/Quiet Sun/ solo LPs that were beacons of weirdass smart and dirtyass creative rock ‘n’ roll in the pre-punk mid-‘70s.
I still vividly remember Roxy playing the Hollywood Palladium around ‘75 – it was the USO revue theme tour supporting “Siren,” the one that began with Ferry being forced to ignominiously abandon his gaucho shtick – because Manzanera absolutely ruled that night, ripping out blazing riffs and firestorm solo flurries from his Firebird time after time. He was so good I was always pissed off that the Viva live LP from that tour was a single album because Roxy at their peak deserved the double live LP treatment, especially with Manzanera in prime form (and I do wonder why isn’t there an expanded re-issue of Viva in this here era of the Deluxe Special Edition).
His inherent restraint and tastefulness were crucial to the sensibility that marked Avalon, wherein Roxy succeeded in pulling off that rarest of feats by crafting a low-key, low-volume yet rhythmically forceful album that showed that a (gulp) mature/adult rock record that wasn’t bullshit could actually exist. But once Roxy was over, I can’t say I made much effort to follow his career as an artist in the ‘80s. Some of his productions during the ‘90s did pop up on the radar, specifically his projects with Latin American rock bands like Paralamas from Brazil and Aterciopelados out of Colombia. But it really took the re-issue of old ‘70s classics for the CD era and new releases since the turn of the millennium to pique the interest again.
So Manzanera we know but Lúcio Maia is almost certainly an X-factor who needs some introduction. He’s the guitarist of the Brazilian band Nação Zumbi (Zumbi Nation, Zumbi being the last leader of a famed 17th century settlement of runaway African slaves, akin to Maroons in Jamaica), which rose to prominence with their charismatic frontman Chico Science and became standard bearers for a mid-‘90s generational changeover that went largely unnoticed outside Brazil. They hailed from Recife and called their music Mangue Beat – the logo was a satellite dish nestled in the twisted roots of a mangrove tree, a pretty clear statement that this music was rooted in Brazil but wide open to all incoming mid-‘90s global musical influence, from dub and hip-hop to MTV and the baby steps of the Internet model. No mellow MPB business as usual or leftover vestiges of ‘60s Tropicália generation here – Nação Zumbi took three surdo drummers (the big bass drums in Brazilian samba school groups), overlaid a rock verging on thrash metal power trio on their thunderous foundation, topped that with Chico Science’s raps and vocals and filtered the whole thing through a streetwise, dubwise mentality.
Hearing their Da Lama ao Caos debut LP for the first time cold was another vivid memory. Chico briefly riffed on Latin American heroes (“Viva Zapata! Viva Sandino! Viva Zumbi”) over surdo flurries before the song segued, a descending bass line came in, the pace of his rap picked up and then Lúcio Maia lowered the boom with a huge sustained distorted power chord over the top while the drum powersurge roiled and tumbled and drove the music relentlessly underneath. By that point, I was already looking back at my speakers and literally lol-ing at how absurdly good the music was. And then Maia comes flying out of that power chord straight into a trebly right hand rhythm lick that split the distance between Jimmy Nolen/JB funky chicken scratch and Andy Gill’s borderline demented riffing on Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” to shadow Chico Science the rest of the way.
There was absolutely no drop-off on the rest of that album, either. Maia hesitated slightly on the final note of the riff to “A Praeira” and then dropped it in the absolutely perfect place to make it feel like the natural order of the universe would be thrown seriously out of whack if that note hadn’t landed dead on that spot. Maia’s surprisingly spare approach and arsenal of textures – and he had one serious arsenal from the start, ranging through high-aggro thrash metal phrases, mondo distorted chords, sustained notes, controlled feedback, heavy reverb, JB R&B scratch, some Jimi wah-wahing – was crucial in giving melodic shading and color to the band’s percussive attack. He controlled and mixed his techniques to fit the song, flying over the top of the surging rhythms or dropping back inside them it to more subliminally comment behind Chico Science.
The circular construction of “Coco Dub (Afrociberdelia)” was pure dub sound science, layering the guitars over the rhythm flow, the feeling that the flow could go on endlessly mutating itself, a sensation that full understanding of dub principles and sound sculpting was at play here (no surprise, then, that Chico Science & Nação Zumbi sounds like the Brazil branch of On-U Sound on “Dubismo” from the posthumous 1997 CSNZ). The follow-up Afrociberdelia sounded less accomplished and meandering, more rough sketches than fully fleshed out pieces, but also suggested their style was primarily based on the hip-hop approach of piecing together fragments and segments to achieve flow.
Those two albums left Chico Science & Nação Zumbi standing on the verge of displacing the ‘60s old school Brazil vanguard – Da Lama ao Caos created enough stir for both LPs to be distributed by Sony U.S. Latin, not your everyday occurrence, and European festival performances – but then Chico Science got killed in a car crash in 1997. That 2CD CSNZ compilation of odds & sods and remixes (by an impressive international array of contributors) was the final addition to his recorded legacy and Maia apparently went off and joined the first edition of ex-Sepultura singer Max Calavera’s Soulfly under the name Jackson Bandeira. But he was back when the retooled Nação Zumbi released Radio S.Amb.A in 2000 and for the four subsequent studio albums that largely went unheard and undistributed outside of Brazil, the usual fate for new Brazilian music unassociated with those ‘60s names and sounds (Why is that, anyway?)
Fome de Tudo from 2007 is the latest Nação Zumbi release I know of but probably Lúcio’s Maia’s most visible recent project is playing guitar in Almaz behind Seu Jorge, who you may know as that Bowie-singing black boatman in whatever that Bill Murray as Jacques Cousteau movie was called. Almaz was an accidental band that came out of informal jams on favorite Brazilian songs and a few very offbeat covers sung in English but it shows how Maia has continued stripping down his sound to the point where, even in this minimal quartet setting where his guitar is the melody instrument, he doesn’t do much more than sketch out the chord structure or melody line. On the opening “Errare Humanum Est”, his focus is on strums and washes of sound supporting Jorge’s deep, mellifluous voice, which sounds more than a bit like Gil Scott-Heron (and actually a whole lot like him on Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”).
The nature of the material may account for the unexpected jazzy and MPB stylings Maia employs but, surprisingly, what he relies on most is a crystalline reverb tone (why am I reminded of Chris Isaak-style rockabilly?) that comes through strongly on Kraftwerk’s “The Model”. “Rock With You” is another skeletal outline where that reverb and Maia’s touch his touch carry the day while “Pai Joao” is the first time he starts breaking out and exploring his sonics arsenal. But the only time he really cuts loose and amps out on the entire album is “Girl You Move Me”, a song culled from the one album by an early ‘70s black funk-rock band from Paris named Cane and Able (and I wonder how in hell did they come across that one?).
But Almaz just extended the streamlined sound already evident on Fome de Tudo, one more reliant on textures through echo and reverb and less on the roar of distortion and the early wah-wah. It actually reflects the direction Maia has steadily been moving in since Radio S.amb.A., but he still occasionally drops one of those heavy chord bombs and there’s nothing quite so delicious as the anticipation building when you can feel it coming – like 90 seconds into the opening “Bossa Nossa” on Fome de Tudo where it triggers a maelstrom riddled with reverb flashes in the siren-laden night. “Inferno” builds incrementally in intensity, volume, and guitar power until culminating in the explosion of a full-on blitz solo finale…but even that lasts only 30 seconds. The appealing, horn-flavored “Nasceduoro” offers lighter relief, berimbau leads into the potent stomp of “Onde Tenho Que Ir” and “Será Castigada a Culpa” boasts a memorable melody heavy on sonic textures. So does “No Olimpo”, and then that melody on simple chords and tone colors goes off into a section that brings to mind Quiet Sun – much like the live “Salustiano Song” from CSNZ (more than the snippet on Da Lama), you could very easily imagine this music as part of a Manzanera record.
It was talk of Quiet Sun that rekindled my interest in Manzanera over the past few years, with the revamped and expanded re-issues of early solo career highlights like Mainstream and 801 Live released on his Expression label. Mainstream always rated as a favorite album for the blend of strong material and inspired playing, a prime example of how the savage side of Manzanera gave an extra jolt of much-needed intensity to a form that far too often created little more than skilled noodling. It also featured “Mummy was an Asteroid, Daddy was a Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil”, doubly memorable for its superbly crafted melody and arrangement culminating in a breakneck unison rifferama finale as well as ranking number three on my personal favorite song/album title of all time list. The news of an LP of fresh material by a band including Quiet Sun drummer Charles Hayward for an album celebrating his Firebird guitar that Manzanera himself likened to an extension of that group tipped the scales towards checking it out.
Firebird VII starts out very strongly in the “Asteroid” vein with the riff-heavy savagery of “Fortunately I had One with Me” (written by Quiet Sun bass alumnus Bill MacCormick) and sustains very promisingly through “FIREeBIReD.” But the music just seems to dissipate once it reached “Mexican Hat” and the rest of album faded into insignificance with next to no impact. The problem seemed to be keyboard player Leszek Mozdzer, who has a jazz and classical background but lacks the ability or inclination to engage Manzanera as an improv partner cum equal foil with the intensity Dave Jarrett did in Quiet Sun. Mozdzer is simply too tasteful and restrained, plenty intelligent but would appear to be lacking a bit in the old savagery department.
The Music, 1972-2008 compilation features one disc of early career highlights, the Roxy selections centered on the songs Manzanera had a hand in writing, more or less predictable although the shift in context does turn the extended coda melody on “Prairie Rose” into something more forceful and memorable than when it closed Country Life. The second CD exclusively focuses on the materials from the post-Roxy reunion trilogy of albums during the 2000s (the accompanying DVD takes care of key performances from the ‘80s and ‘90s) where Manzanera rejoined forces in the studio with Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson and, once in the occasional while, Brian Eno. He also discovered his singing voice and, while that may be no great shakes, it’s certainly serviceable and the featured songs suggest that the CDs may be worth at least a cursory listen. And something more than that when it comes to 50 Minutes Later, because “Enotonik Bible Black” with Brian Eno ventures into intriguing realms of sonic texture experiments while the riff to “Technicolor UFO” simply nails a triumphant ringing chord that hits the early ‘70s glory days spot dead on.
But it also leaves us hanging without anywhere else to go or much of a conclusion with regard to Messrs. Manzanera, Maia and the burning question of the intelligently savage vs. the savagely intelligent. It’s an artificial distinction, of course, a vehicle to use as an excuse for writing about two favorite musicians, their youthful primes separated by 25 years, who shared certain traits in their approach to playing guitar that triggered very similar and very powerful emotional reactions. They’re certainly not the only guitarists whose playing could be described with variations on those words and concepts.
But for the record, and to make a final getaway from this self-created cul de sac, I would lean more towards savagely intelligent to describe Manzanera, since intelligence could be considered as the defining characteristic of his playing – the savagery enters the picture from awareness of his innately melodic musical sense and the need to rough things up some around the edges to give the intrinsically tasteful music the requisite bite it needs. So that would leave Maia as the intelligently savage, because the main building blocks of his style are more consistently raucous and rowdy, and the hallmark of his approach lies in recognizing the need to keep a tight rein on musical elements that walk the tightrope of potential excess and having the savvy to pull that off without sacrificing the power that the take-no-prisoners music demands.
But then again, when I reviewed Da Lama ao Caos for Allmusic years ago, I described him as the savagely intelligent Lúcio Maia.
So there you go.

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Chuck Brown and the out-of-air go-go experience http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/05/chuck-brown-and-the-out-of-air-go-go-experience/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/05/chuck-brown-and-the-out-of-air-go-go-experience/#comments Tue, 29 May 2012 04:11:59 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=49553 Continue reading ]]> CHUCK BROWN / OUT OF AIR GO-GO

Revisitation Rights 15

The only time I saw Chuck Brown live made a deep, deep, indelible impression on me in an altogether unexpected way.
It wasn’t surprising that I only had the one opportunity to catch the Godfather of Go-Go, who moved on to the next phase on May 16 at 75, since go-go always was such an overwhelmingly local Washington, D.C. phenomenon and I was based in L.A. But I finally got the chance about 20 years ago when for some reason I traveled back to New York, which I guess qualifies as neutral ground in this case. Scanned the gigs that would be happening when I was there, big surprise when I spotted Chuck Brown at Tramps (the latter-day, 21st Street club), and the rest was no-brainer automatic.
But what I ran into that night was anything but automatic – it was one of only two times in my life that I experienced the feeling that the band just didn’t come onstage and play their set. They came out and plugged in and played music that was already there, only you could hear it now because they were playing what was flowing through the air a la the Marley lyric to “Natural Mystic.” It already existed and, once they stopped playing and left the stage, you were absolutely certain that music was still playing up there in the air. Your ears just couldn’t hear it any more.
Brown came onstage without any star-time announcement or fanfare – hell, he just walked out and actually spent the first couple minutes with his back to the audience audibly tuning his guitar. Meanwhile, Ricky Wellman, back from his stint with Miles Davis, settled into setting down that fundamental go-go beat while the other band members strolled on, casually picked up their instruments and locked down into that groove. Then Brown joined in and songs just periodically took shape within the all-encompassing rhythm – I remember “Run Joe” because it surprised me to hear the old Louis Jordan calypso-tinged hit in the go-go context and “Bustin’ Loose” and “I Need Some Money” (the Brown tune I was most familiar with) probably popped up somewhere over that steady rollin’ undercurrent but I couldn’t swear to either one.
It brought a smile to read Brown’s quote in the Washington Post that go-go got its name simply because the rhythm just goes and goes on and on (nothing like truth in advertising) but the Tramps gig also did clue me in to one key ingredient that went into making it go-go. At least one layer of the extra percussion that creates that rolling undertow sensation (I heard something very similar later on with early bhangra and rai, played on Indian and Algerian hand percussion) came from playing congas with drumsticks. Could be that was only part of Brown’s individual sound, hard to tell, but it definitely changed the usual hand-played conga tone into something far more forceful.
The rhythm continuum was expected since I had locked into go-go myself fairly early on, one part because I was living with Nina, a D.C. area woman who was into black music sounds, and one part from reading a rave NME review of the first Trouble Funk LP on Sugarhill. Adding those two parts together equaled recommendation enough to pick it up first time I saw it on a Rhino Records run (the retail store in Westwood, not the label). I can still remember putting it on the turntable the first time and then turning back to return to the piece I was writing.
And turning back right around after the opening drum and percussion barrage and – once Big Tony Fischer got through bellowing, “Hey, fellas/You want to take time out to get close to the ladies/Gonna find a super freak and take time out to taste her/Say what, now,” and the monster unison horn riff kicked in – just looking at my speakers and laughing out loud at how absurdly good it sounded. I’ve only had that immediate reaction to a few other things, so suffice it to say I can completely relate to the well-known tale of young pup D.C. punks Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins driving in Washington and pulling over to the side of the road because the Trouble Funk music they heard on the radio was so powerful good.
I saw Trouble Funk one time at some way-off-the-beaten-Hollywood-industry-path club in Long Beach with a smattering of other L.A. scenesters and laughed at first over how utterly silly the chants and band costumes and the whole thing was at first (looked like the band was in on it, too). But you know, after about 30 or 40 minutes or so, that non-stop rhythm just sorta took you over, any tendencies towards intellectualizing faded away and you just surrendered to the groove. And you understood how go-go gigs could easily be the marathon affairs of legend that could go-go all night.
I picked up a goodly share of DETT/TTED homegrown label 12” singles by D.C. artists and tracked E.U. as they “Da Butt”-ed their way on to the international (ahem) consciousness and touring circuit.
And I appreciated finding out somewhere along the timeline that Trouble Funk’s James Avery had wound up with a good part of the original Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard arsenal – it seemed like an appropriate passing of the Chocolate City funk groove torch in one of P-Funk’s acknowledged strongholds.
But none of those things remotely prepared me for that out-of-air go-go experience with Chuck Brown.
I’ve spent decades listening to the most adventurous strains of jazz and by now it’s second nature for me to conceive and speak of music as spirit force without that feeling the least bit contrived. Just the mere ability of musicians to improvise, to invent and bring strands of melody and rhythm out of nothing and nowhere, is still enough to boggle my little brain. But this was an entirely different sensation and it happened with a music so patently grounded in the funk and dance and the very basic pleasure of getting people moving and grooving.
And the other out-of-air musical experience? That would be Thomas Mapfumo playing acoustic guitar at some really small club in Santa Monica with just a pair of mbiras (thumb pianos) for accompaniment. Two examples of music that are poles apart, although obviously there’s a potential Africa / African-American connection to work off that could be seriously developed.
Or go all fanciful and riff away on any Motherland meets Mothership Connection and spin off to how the Smithsonian Institute in Washington acquired the mid-‘90s replica of the original Mothership stage prop last year for its National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And extend that to mention the great Washington Post article by Chris Richards in April 2010 about going in search of the original Mothership stage prop in the wilds of the outskirts of D.C.
But that will have to wait for another day, another comment, because what happened that night with Chuck Brown at Tramps and Mapfumo was just too special and thought-provoking to reduce to a mere launching pad for being flip and indulging in ostensibly clever wordplay.
Today it’s RIP Chuck Brown, and thanks for taking me with the go-go into a different dimension.

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Lloyd Brevett, foundation bassman RIP http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/05/lloyd-brevett-foundation-bassman-rip/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/05/lloyd-brevett-foundation-bassman-rip/#comments Sun, 27 May 2012 22:30:36 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=49551 Continue reading ]]> LLOYD BREVETT / SKATALITES RIP

Revisitation Rights 13

The news that Lloyd Brevett, the bass half of the inimitable double Lloyd rhythm section of the Skatalites, had moved on to the next phase on May 3 immediately brought back a memory I’ve always found both amusing and very illuminating.
The dance floor at the House of Blues in Los Angeles was packed for an early Sunday evening, all-ages show by the late ‘80s/early ‘90s version of the venerable Jamaican band reformed to ride the wave of Ska Revival Mach II. There was still a healthy contingent of original members (Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso plus foundation bassman Brevett and drummer Lloyd Knibb, at least) on hand. I can’t remember whether House of Blues already had a regular hours show booked that night or knew that the Skatalites crowd those days was mostly under drinking age and the early show was the only way to live up to their declared mission (the original stated one, anyway) of supporting black music forms and give these Jamaican originators a showcase venue gig in L.A. that made any kind of financial sense.
Whatever, the grizzled vets found themselves staring out at a sea of very young, overwhelmingly male white faces whose deep roots touchstone exposure to ska had almost certainly been the adrenalized version delivered by the Two-Tonic horde during Ska Revival Mach I. They knew the Skatalites were the legends who started it all and they were psyched for the gig, primed to pay homage and get their skank seriously on as soon as the band hit the stage, ready to explode into hyperactive motion with all the pent-up energy, aggro and whatever else was mixed in their testosterone-heavy cocktail.
So the Skatalites kicked off with one of their signature instrumentals, maybe “Guns of Navarone”, maybe not, and the dance floor exploded into fast and furious, limb-flailing action…
…And the funniest thing happened.
All the little skankaholics couldn’t find the rhythm.
Oh, they knew they were hearing ska all right, but the model they patterned their skank on moved at a herky-jerky speed and intensity about twice as fast as the kicked-back, jazz-inflected, walking bass line kind of classic ‘60s original ska the Skatalites were throwing their way. It caught them completely off stride, literally and figuratively, and it was really intriguing and entertaining to view this erstwhile seething mass overcome its initial confusion and perceptibly downshift their body riddim until they found and locked into the new experience of this groove bred long before they born. It took most of ‘em the first couple songs to get there, but to their credit, they were determined to find it and they finally did.
That scene brought back into mind how integral the jazz influence was to the development of early ska. The original Skatalites were musicians from the era immediately before the bass guitar arrived and the prime model for them became the horn-heavy instrumental line-up for Blue Note house bands sessions, which neatly dovetailed with the key formative role the Alpha Boys School band played in turning out talented horn players. That accounts for ska revival band horn sections being one of the few places where young trombone players could get gigs outside of Latin music or that so much was always made of the Skatalites’ star instrumentalist, Don Drummond, placing high in Downbeat’s Talent Deserving Wider Recognition poll for trombone.
The Skatalites were far from the only studio band of that era who dipped into that jazz model. They themselves had been coming together as the studio session pool of the best JA players for several years before they got around to taking on a name of their own and racking up their own instrumental hit singles. But a variation on that same scenario repeatedly played out in any number of U.S. cities with small R&B//soul labels, to cite the obvious example, where the prospect of making steady money without hitting the road proved quite enticing. Motown and the Funk Brothers would be the prime one but the goal for most aspiring young black musicians in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s was to make their name in jazz, and the musical lines between where jazz left off and blues/ R&B picked were still pretty well blurred.
But meanwhile, back to Lloyd Brevett, I interviewed him once, probably the next time the Skatalites played L.A. after downshifting the skankaholics, and his primary experience in learning his craft was playing big band stock arrangements at tourist hotels along the Jamaican coast. While he was quick to acknowledge prominent Jamaican bass players like Cluett Johnson who came immediately before or were contemporary with him, make no mistake that the double Lloyd Brevett/Knibb tandem were the first of the great riddim twin teams that marked Jamaican music. To me, the fluid walking of Brevett on his electric upright bass and the propulsive snare turnarounds that Knibb unleashed to supplement the backbeat and recalled Art Blakey ‘bombs’ were clear reflections and reminders of the jazz elements underpinning that essential ska rhythm.
Brevett also left his imprint on the emerging shape of Jamaican music by being among the first to play bass guitar in the studio scene, even if it helped sound the death knell for that short-lived first Skatalites incarnation and ultimately cost him his regular studio work. Even more vitally, he was one of the first musicians to openly embrace Rasta, playing at the grounations on Wareika Hill, easing the transition of Count Ossie and others into the studio environment and eventually the wholesale incorporation of heartbeat Rasta rhythms and percussion that came to define ‘70s roots reggae.
But Brevett was largely invisible, confined to the anonymous limbo of studio masters from pre-credits era whose time had apparently passed long before they ever became known to a larger world. A couple of Skatalites/Lloyd Brevett LPs came out during the first flush of JA music discovery in the mid-‘70s, but it wasn’t until the mid-‘80s, when specialty labels and the reggae market had a solid enough foundation to begin looking back and the first signs of the incipient Ska Revival Mach II were starting to swirl around, that Brevett and the Skatalites re-emerged on the active gigging circuit.
Another vivid memory from that time is seeing them play at some multiple artist reggae festival (most likely one of the Reggae Sunsplash US tours) at an outdoor venue outside L.A. in southern California – probably Irvine Meadows Amphitheater – and watching an entire row of some 40 or 50 high school to college frat boy youths on their feet in the throes of manic unison skank. Reggae authority Roger Steffens was standing next to me, surveyed the scene and made some remark along the lines of, “There’s something about ska that just gets to those teenage hormones.” Yeh, mon, seen.
I have this theory of revivals revolving around what I call the cool grandfathers (or mothers/parents/folks) principle. Namely, scenes and sounds tend to come back into vogue after a period when audiences don’t want to know the original artists and need to reject what went down before as old-fashioned to free themselves up to find their own musical way. Then they cycle back into favor with next generation who can choose them as cool grandparents with valuable experience and wisdom and relish having the chance for first-hand contact. I think the ongoing presence of the Skatalites as graybeard sages for the extended ska revival that lasted throughout the ‘90s is a prime example.
But I also felt that the Skatalites would truly be the Skatalites only as long as their double Lloyd original foundation was in place – horn players and others could come and go or move on to the next phase and the Skatalites essence would remain, but not if that limber, elastic rhythm spring that Brevett and Knibb generated together was broken. So you could say the Skatalites effectively ended when Brevett left the band and retired in 2004, even though Lloyd Knibb continued playing, even after falling seriously ill with liver cancer and moved on to the next phase last year on May 12 at 80.
Brevett followed him on May 3 this year at 80 and I suppose it’s a fitting synchronicity that the two Lloyds who shared a name and formed Jamaica’s first symbiotic bass & drums tandem moved on almost exactly a year apart after spending the same number of years on the planet. But it saddened me to read that Brevett was suffering from the effects of a debilitating stroke for his final three months, a stroke that came two weeks after the fatal shooting of his son, a doubly agonizing way to fade away.
But then Lloyd Brevett playing a fundamental role in developing one nation-building music from scratch that spawned two revivals (and counting?), contributed to another sound with major repercussions that took Jamaican music around the world – all in all, not a bad tally for a life’s work in music.

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Duck Dunn and the Stax Attack / RIP http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/05/duck-dunn-and-the-stax-attack-rip/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/05/duck-dunn-and-the-stax-attack-rip/#comments Tue, 15 May 2012 05:30:14 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=49238 DUCK DUNN AND THE STAX ATTACK

Revisitation Rights 14

Duck Dunn was one of the lucky ones – he had a name right from the start.
By now, plenty of words have undoubtedly been written extolling the musical contributions and significance of Dunn, the bass anchor of the Stax attack who died in Tokyo on Sunday. I’ll leave it to others to delve deeply into the distinct musical elements that went into fashioning his sound, what Stax meant in the ‘60s musical and social context, the reasons connected to the appropriateness of all that happening in Memphis and why it happened where and when it did. I’m sure quite a few Top 10 Duck Dunn tracks are making the cyberspace rounds, too, or should be, anyway, so I’ll pass on trying to sift through all the great songs that prominently featured his bass playing. Well, okay, surprisingly enough, I can throw the spotlight on two specific songs that do stand out for me for what he plays – “Wrap It Up” by Sam & Dave and “Liberty”, the opening track from The Detroit-Memphis Experience, an under-the-radar collaboration between Booker T & MG’s and one post-Detroit Wheels/Bob Crewe Vegas disaster and immediately pre-monster Detroit band Mitch Ryder. Yes, the latter would be one pretty appetizing proposition and both songs do feature one seriously funky Duck.
I never interviewed Duck Dunn, and I first knew of him as everyone else knew of him – as the architect of the bass lines on innumerable great songs that came out of the radio in the ‘60s. Not that I knew what he was playing was soul music or Memphis soul or anything, any more than I knew that “El Watusi” was a style called charanga, or “My Boy Lollipop” was ska, “The Israelites” was rocksteady, and “She’s About A Mover” was Tex-Mex or conjunto/norteño. They were just great songs. I didn’t start finding all the rest of that stuff out until ’74 or ‘75, somewhere around there, when I also first became consciously aware of how much I heard the music I loved most through the bass lines that played an integral part in them. Duck Dunn and Stax were fundamental to that Eureka light bulb moment (a rather extended one in this case), and when I began playing along to records to learn the rudiments of bass, you can bet greatest hits albums by those Stax records were in heavy rotation, as they always have been and will be whenever/if ever I go back and brush up on bass again in the future.
And as they always should be for any aspiring bassists who want to craft seriously creative lines that push and prod from behind, drive up from the bottom, and/or work the middle with fluid and never overly flamboyant fills. All three are essential, but that last trait was particularly important when dealing with a fundamental backbeat drummer like Al Jackson, Jr. and the impeccable spartan guitar of Steve Cropper. But then that’s why they called it a rhythm section – the elements have to achieve their own kind of internal balance and interplay one way or another and when they do, you have what you call your chemistry for creating memorable music. Duck Dunn’s style is a lot different than Motown’s equally (maybe even more) legendary James Jamerson, but both are absolutely crucial figures because their individual approaches fit their musical contexts and studio partners so perfectly. And you can slot in the name of any of the fundamental studio session players from that era and it will be just as true.
But Duck Dunn was one of the lucky ones because he had a name from the very start. And that was only because Booker T & the MG’s became recording artists in their own right, and having your name listed on credits was a privilege reserved for artists in the soul music era of the ‘60s. King Curtis was another who benefited from that dual artist/sideman status but everyone knows the Motown Funk Brothers situation, where Jamerson and company had to wait for the ‘70s and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On LP to get a name check for their dozen-odd years of labor in the Hit Factory.
I’m bringing all this up because discovering the story of these behind-the-scenes figures – not only the session groups but engineers and producer, or the East L.A. Sound scene of the ‘60s, basically anyone involved in the music world who wasn’t part of the “It’s star time, ladies and gentlemen” marquee artist spotlight – developed into one of my prime areas of interest in writing about music. It played into the born historian in me (and certainly a host of others), a graduation from scouring liner notes and album credits (once they started providing them) to find out details and flesh out the back stories. There was also some desire and impulse to try and give credit where due and expand the (his)story to whatever small degree that was possible by putting names, contexts and perspectives to those under-the-radar slices of musical history.
One of great appeals of writing about Willie Dixon was the chance to find out more on the behind-the-scenes-characters and history in early Chicago blues. And the rhythm sections born and bred in the day of the 4 songs-in-3 hours aesthetic, where those label sessions were the preferred gig because it was a steady, paying one where you stayed at home instead of busting your butt on the road were particularly fertile ground for that kind of exploration. The U.S. was full of small but vibrant regional scenes bubbling under the mainstream industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s – as everyone knows, that’s exactly what Stax and Memphis soul was when Duck Dunn came onboard but you could take that example and multiple it any number of times over. Take it down to New Orleans and you find the ‘50s R&B crew responsible for Fats, Fess and Little Richard, bring it ahead to the late ‘60s / early ‘70s and you have Toussaint and Meters second-line funk. Bring it back to Memphis in the early ‘70s and it’s Al Green/Hi rhythm section time and that’s just a very small sample confined to the U.S. and of styles that I happen to like.
Take it international and you can head down to Jamaica for ‘70s roots variations with various Sly & Robbie aggregations, the Barrett brothers in Upsetters/Wailers worlds, (plus Soul Syndicates, Leroy Sibbles/Studio One, Skatalites and who knows how many other golden age crews). Shift language and go continental, you can plug into that Desvarieux-Decimus-Kassav crew in mid-‘80s Paris. As you might guess, I once seriously toyed with idea of writing a book on classic session rhythm sections, taking it up through the Chic axis and Sugarhill/On-U Sound/Tackhead crew in the ‘80s until the whole thing seemed to nosedive and basically die off in the ‘90s. The one exception since then would be the Roots, between their own records and filling that studio group function for hip-hop artists who want the occasional live musician touch. At least as far as I know, but then I am pretty much out of touch.
So Duck Dunn was one of the lucky ones in that respect, because he had a name and rep that could be found without any historical digging. Not that it prevented him from slipping back into the obscurity that greeted most players from that era until the he was re-introduced to next generation as part of the Blues Brothers Band. At the time, that felt utterly loathsome – the movie and Belushi/Aykroyd shtick still is, and you do have to realize I live now in a country where the Blues Brothers were/are considered near-gods and standard bearers cum ambassadors for U.S. roots music. But it did get Dunn and Cropper back into the spotlight before the Stax sound could cycle around and become classic again and gigs could open up. Just like I hope Mark Ronson taking the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste on to David Letterman with Erykah Badu to perform “A La Modeliste” on U.S. TV earlier this year plants a seed and has the same effect for the King of the Funky Drummers (I wear the T-shirt with pride, for about 15 or 20 years now).
From the reports I’ve read so far, Duck Dunn died in Japan at the end of a five night, two-sets-a-night stand playing with Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper. That sounds like music that would have mattered to him, no indications of misadventure so far and I certainly hope it stays that way on both counts for a man who contributed so much to what Dave Alvin labeled American music and indirectly my own music-loving life. Most of us already know that Duck Dunn didn’t actually play on the original recording of “Green Onions,” but we also all know that it’s one of those perfect grooves that could go on forever without ever getting old or tired. And it’s the groove I hope Duck Dunn is riding as he moves on into the next phase.

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GEORGES DECIMUS, THE BEST HOOK BASS PLAYER YOU NEVER HEARD http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/04/georges-decimus-the-best-hook-bass-player-you-never-heard/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/04/georges-decimus-the-best-hook-bass-player-you-never-heard/#comments Sun, 08 Apr 2012 03:53:13 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=48843 Continue reading ]]> REVISITATION RIGHTS 12

Georges Decimus is probably the best hook and groove bass player you never heard.
We’re talking someone who rates on the James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Family Man Barrett, Robbie Shakespeare, George Porter, Jr. and Bernard Edwards, et al, level in my personal pantheon for locked-down grooves, stick-in-your-head hooks and song-defining riffs. A good amount of this undoubtedly comes down to personal taste, too, because some of the basic zouk patterns he plays just slip ever so seamlessly into my natural body rhythms that moving to them is totally effortless. There’s one two-note anchoring phrase he uses a lot that I suspect is the same I-V bass line that is so prevalent in country music but has always acted like a soporific agent on me – I can literally feel my body slowing down to the point it shuts down and that was enough to put me off country for my entire listening life. But Decimus plays the same two notes and it just hits some magic spot that gets my horizontal slink ‘n’ glide mojo working. Must be that Caribbean jump up thang.

Any number of good reasons exist for people not knowing Georges Decimus. He was the bass player in Kassav, and Paris-based bands of émigrés from Guadeloupe and Martinique playing dance music rooted in rhythms from tiny Caribbean islands and singing in French Creole patois weren’t exactly high visibility on most people’s mid-‘80s radar. No one really knew what zouk was then, basically because Kassav was in the process of inventing it at the time, or that a host of French-language African, Arabic and Caribbean artists and sounds were cross-pollinating and blossoming in the French capital during that period and reaching the critical mass point where awareness of them would begin to filter into the Anglo music world. Hell, the whole notion of world music as catchall code word/marketing concept for most non-English language or non-European music was just starting to take form, let alone take hold.
With Georges Decimus as bass anchor, Kassav was central to that golden foundation era for zouk and French Antilles music. The band was formed around 1980 by his older brother Pierre Edouard Decimus, a bassist himself with the popular Les Vikings band which added Haitian elements into the home island music mix during the early ‘70s, Georges and Jacob Desvarieux, a guitarist already established on the Parisian session scene. From the start, Kassav was conceived as a band with a declared mission – a few in fact, like establishing a distinct musical style and identity for Guadeloupe-Martinique music within the Caribbean context and to sing only in Creole patois. Roots rhythms were an initial launching pad but another major goal was to place zouk on an equal footing with other pop/R&B/whatever sounds in Europe and worldwide by virtue of undeniable musicianship and state-of-the art studio techniques to confront head-on and counter implicit or explicit racist/colonial assumptions regarding their music. They wanted zouk to be perceived within the French cultural world as a contemporary pop music style, not filed under folklore.

Kassav was always aware of taking on those issues and vocal about them. Shades of Etta James and Charlie Parker recording with strings to prove their uptown credentials, one part defensive and one part “Yes We Can Can” positivity that we are fully capable of developing our own sound from our culture that is every bit as sophisticated and vital as anything that mainstream French and/or European pop culture has to offer.

And thus Kassav became a magnet for the top Paris-based singers and players from Guadeloupe and Martinique in the early ‘80s, and ultimately settled into a permanent line-up (several had experience backing Manu Dibango on their resumés) revolving around the core duo of Georges Decimus and Desvarieux. Older brother Pierre faded into the background to serve as manager/Svengali of the operation, no small matter since Kassav operated as something of an uptown slick, French Antilles version of Parliament-Funkadelic for most of the decade. And were they ever prolific – apart from eight LPs released using the group name, there were nine solo or duo albums from vocalists Jocelyne Beroard, Patrick St. Eloi and Jean-Philippe Martheley, keyboard player Jean-Claude Naimro, Desvarieux and Decimus, with the last two also tossing off an EP apiece and a pair of duo albums. Virtually all those sessions featured the entire band backing them, with Desvarieux-Decimus often serving as the chief songwriter tandem and definitely the mainmen production architects of the recorded sound. Writing this, it suddenly dawned on me that it wouldn’t be at all far-fetched to characterize their guitar-bass-production partnership as a zouk/French Antilles counterpart to the Nile Rodgers-Bernard Edwards Chic creative axis but we’ll just leave it floating there as a still-forming thought for now.
Oh, yes, and all that activity was just up through 1986, before most people outside France and/or the French Caribbean had a clue they even existed.
But the model I always remember them citing at the time was Quincy Jones’ productions for Michael Jackson and the sound they developed in creating that prodigious output was big and sweeping, the music often achieving almost cinematic scope via the precision arrangements augmented by a flashing five-piece horn section. That sound ultimately wasn’t just reserved for their own music or even French Caribbean artists – different permutations of the Kassav line-up, and Desvarieux in particular, forged a studio alliance with French-speaking artists newly arrived in Paris from west Africa to give soukous and makossa a different sonic dimension in the mid-to-late ‘80s.

Within the Kassav framework, Decimus functioned as the funky foundation, the black leather, street-smart tough guy keeping the sound firmly rooted and grounded in dance floor grooves and catchy riffs to counterbalance the musical complexities and fancy flourishes in the arrangements. A prime Decimus moment arrived on “Souskay”, a song appearing on a duo album paring Jean-Philippe Martheley and Patrick St. Eloi that was also featured on a compilation CD accompanying the Jocelyne Guilbault’s 1993 book Zouk (University of Chicago Press). Her comments on “Souskay” offered a prime example of something that always bugged me in the way new world music styles were presented back in their day and probably still are (assuming that anything resembling a distinct world music category still exists these days).

Now bear in mind that Guilbault’s book was (and probably still is) an excellent introductory primer on zouk and related French Caribbean popular music styles in general. I learned an enormous amount of history and context when I read it, since my background in Creole Caribbean pop music and/or Guadeloupe and Martinique specifics was not exactly extensive (you can spell that non-existent) then –hell, I went back and consulted it again to flesh out some of the backstory details here. The tone is not insufferably academic, but full of the sort of musicological analysis and written musical notation of motifs that was de rigeur for treating these fledgling popular styles which fell outside the folklore realm seriously. And it was very valuable for that reason alone.

But re “Souskay”, the CD notes section and the musical breakdown later in the text emphasize that something like 15 distinct melodic and arrangement ideas in the song serve as an example of the complexity and sophistication of Kassav’s brand of zouk. Now, she’s certainly right to point out that Kassav is not simple verse-chorus structures, a lot of stuff is going on in the record, in fact it sounds like about that many things do get played in the first 45 seconds of the song if you’re keeping score (I’ll take her word for it). But you know what happens right after that, once the band finishes running through all their intro moves?

Decimus happens, that’s what.
Because Georges Decimus drops an absolute bomb of a bass hook that utterly transforms “Souskay”, and they just ride that funky groove for the last five-odd minutes or so until cannily fading it out (as Kassav so often does) just when the notion begins crossing your mind that things are getting a wee bit repetitive. The way his bass line sinuously intertwines with that whiplash crack offbeat snare shot makes for one monster dance beat that slips into your hips and absolutely forces your body into gyration rotation (mine anyway, and I’m no dancer, albeit admittedly susceptible to Caribbean offbeats). And Kassav knows exactly what they’re up to – you can hear the singers just laughing in the background the first couple of times Decimus and drummers lay that line down. Set you up and nailed you good, suckah.
Kassav finally became a big deal in France in 1985 when “Zouk-la Sé Sèl Medikaman Nou Ni” became a breakthrough hit and turned them into an identity band for Caribbean and African youth in Paris. The depth and breadth of their songbook, spread over so many records by so many different artists and songwriters working under the greater Kassav umbrella, ensured that when they banded together for live performances and filtered out the filler material (inevitable with all that activity), they had a pretty spectacular selection of popular audience favorite songs to draw from.

So it’s not really surprising that the double album/CD Live au Zenith is my all-time favorite Kassav recording and quite probably their peak moment. (That would be the first one, circa 1986, a necessary distinction because the Parisian venue was a touchstone for the group so there are three or four Kassav Live au Zenith albums in the Kassav catalogue). I was new to zouk, the band was riding the crest of that inimitable early rush of seeing their music both take shape and take off, and the closing three-song sequence of the set was a perfect capsule of the best with Kassav and the role Georges Decimus played in defining it.

It starts with the bassist hitting the descending melodic riff to Jocelyne Beroard’s feature “Mouvé Jou”, an economic and funky foundation triggering a major audience eruption and sing-along – heartfelt sing-along – for the duration. And then come “Tim Tim Bwa Sec”, a complex composition wherein Decimus runs through virtually his full arsenal of basic techniques, from short staccato bursts and funky flurries to thicken the mix to elegantly smoove, sublimely funky scale climbs and minimal chordal foundations in the first three 3½ minutes.

But that’s just the appetizer, because Jacob Desvarieux steps up for a guitar solo that is among the most flat-out exhilarating 2½ minutes of music I’ve ever heard in my life. And it’s a shock because the guitarist cuts loose with some unexpectedly raw, searing, sustain-bleeding-into-feedback passages while the band behind him explodes into this berserk carnival calliope, with flight-of-the-bumblebee keyboard and four-on-the-floor bass drum thump. Decimus romps and roams underneath, locking down the groove before tossing in a two-note tag at the end of his phrase that generates unbelievable momentum for something so simple (it jumps out much like the final two notes to the guitar riff on the Velvets’ “I Can’t Stand It” from VU does). Even on this solo section, a rarity in that it’s not in the studio version, Kassav holds true to its finely honed arrangement model as the music surges through dynamic peaks and valleys, bringing the singers to the mike for extra vocal tags and then dropping them back out. It simply leaves me breathless every time I listen to it…and reaching for the rewind.

The coda/return for the final verse final verse is anti-climatic (to put it mildly) and trying to sustain momentum after that basically mission impossible but Kassav au Zenith pulls it off fairly convincingly with the percussion-heavy “Mwin Malad Aw” kicking off with driving drums before adding keyboards and steady Decimus counter-grooves. You can actually sing along to the chorus once it get there near the two-minute mark whether you know Creole or not – the crowd sure does and that’s even before the horns flash in their punctuations. (There are YouTube posts of this entire concert, from a home videotape of a live TV broadcast by the looks of it, since the segments are arbitrarily divided without following natural song breaks. And they show these three songs weren’t played in sequence during the performance – they were combined as the finale when sequencing the live album, another sign of Kassav’s collective smarts and musical savvy about what makes a record work.)

And après la, the deluge. Kassav had arrived on the world map, enough to graduate from the small Caribbean and French labels that were home to virtually all their early ‘80s output to the major label worldwide distribution league with Sony France. But that move came with a high cost attached – that erstwhile Parliament-Funkadelic set-up that proved so creatively fruitful ran headlong into industry business as usual as Sony insisted that all Kassav members record only as Kassav, thus bottling up the fertile flow of music that had been pouring out of the members during the ‘80s for at least five years. I have no idea whether cutting off the output played a key role or whether our old favorite musical differences entered into the equation, but the fact is Georges Decimus left Kassav after only two Sony LPs (the relatively sedate Vini Pou and the more convincing Majestik Zouk) for a solo career.

The split only highlighted how each side of the divide benefited from the other as both parties sorta spluttered and foundered somewhat. While Frederick Caracas was a capable enough replacement in Kassav, his playing lacked the gut punch force that Decimus delivered, throwing the group’s balance out of whack and tilting the sound towards a reliance on top-heavy sweeping arrangements and shortchanging the groove. Plus making any headway in new, bigger markets (i.e., English-speaking and especially U.S.) ran up against the twin obstacles of language barrier and simple economics that made maintaining a touring presence with a 13-piece live band all but impossible. On the flip side, Decimus’ new group Volt Face was clearly influenced by the emerging hip-hop sound and culture, with some songs in English and a more electro-zouk sound overall, but the polarities with post-Decimus Kassav are reversed on the handful of Volt Face CDs I’ve come across. The songs often suffered from sounding like basic grooves with minimal, sketch arrangements that could have benefited from that wide-screen, fully fleshed-out Kassav treatment.
La Brousse in 1991 was reasonably successful in introducing and establishing Decimus’ new sound, but the most accomplished and fully realized Volte Face album was Electrik in 1996. Even there, the quotient of truly memorable songs was sporadic – “Dékonnecté” worked as a variant on dark, minimal electro-dub but there really were only two undeniable highlights, and undeniable was the word when they got their groove on. Decimus locked the group into an irresistible, seductive slink on the title track and the savvy “If I Say Yes” worked a blend of simple English and French lyrics with a change-up bridge that was jarring and disruptive the first time it hit, dropped right in pocket the second time, and achieved total body takeover on the fadeout.

By that point, I can’t say I was paying that much attention since both Kassav and Decimus had basically drifted back into the French-speaking market and that Parisian scene they played such an integral role in was largely cycling out of its creative prime time. Solo careers were resumed, Jean-Claude Naimro popped up as keyboard player in Peter Gabriel’s mid-‘90s touring band (he still could be, for all I know) and Decimus drifted back into the Kassav fold in time for Ktoz in 2004. From the looks of various YouTube posts, the group is a sporadic presence on the French equivalent of the classic rock circuit, playing their hits much as they did 25 years before and putting out releases commemorating special anniversaries. No way the music has the same impact, of course, when so many years have passed since the initial inspiration and revelation time rush of discovering something so fresh and exciting in the moment, but I still never get tired of listening to back in their mid-‘80s prime. A big part of that is the brilliance of Georges Decimus as a major force in shaping the overall group sound, and dropping foundation, hooks, and grooves into the mix with a panache and feel that merits a spot for him in the very top echelons of the bass brotherhood.

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Neneh Cherry, Unsung Hero/ine http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/03/neneh-cherry-unsung-heroine/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2012/03/neneh-cherry-unsung-heroine/#comments Tue, 13 Mar 2012 06:16:47 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=48654 Continue reading ]]> NENEH CHERRY (UNSUNG HEROINE)
Revisitation Rights #11

The original title for this piece was “Ticked Off at a Tick”.
The reason being that I spent more than a few years operating under the misconception that the Lyme’s Disease Neneh Cherry came down with right around the time “Buffalo Stance” hit worldwide was behind her oh-so-limited recorded output – a mere three full albums in her solo career and then largely dropping off the map after 1996. A journey to Google/Wikiworld set me straight on the Lyme’s front – ran its course within a year – but did little to dispel the mystery over why so little music had been heard from someone so talented.
“Buffalo Stance” really had seemed like a clarion call for the dawning of some new day when it burst on the scene. It was simply a glorious song, pulling diverse musical strands together into a cohesive whole that was catchy as hell and most importantly signaled the arrival of a new artist with the potential to be highly influential, a young woman who projected strong, sexy and streetwise in equal measure.
Certainly Raw like Sushi delivered on that promise and displayed the range of the sources Cherry was capable of drawing off and would draw on in her songs with impressive savvy and insight. Even as “Buffalo Stance” told off gigolo suckers in no uncertain terms, “Manchild” used swelling strings to accompany its portrait of a young man coming of age. And “Kisses in the Wind”, with its mix of street-verite girl rapping and recurring Jimmy Castor “Troglodyte” sample, is an even better snapshot capturing a particular life moment from a young woman’s perspective. Not that I would have any way of knowing for sure, but “Boys, boys/Wrapped around her finger/So young/Making love was only dreaming” just seems to freeze-frame a phase of some young girls’ lives perfectly. Who turn in turn into “Inna City Mammas” and wind up bouncing the “Next Generation” on their laps, all grist for the songwriting mill here and enough to suddenly make me wonder if there was some sort of (conscious or unconscious) concept design at play with the sequencing. Off Raw Like Sushi, it was hard to picture any finer model for that incipient “you go, girl” generation than Neneh Cherry – mixed race, mixed cultures, mixed musical styles, hell, everything in the mix and Neneh Cherry very definitely in command of determining the outlines of her own final mix.
It figured the level of early-career mass popularity afforded by “Buffalo Stance”, coupled with a fresh songwriting approach that made savvy use of the mix ‘n’ match, scratch and sample techniques then on the cutting edge of R&B/hip-hop would set Cherry up for a long run as a new school diva with smarts to burn. It should have become even more inevitable when she followed Raw and the Lyme/tick interlude with arguably her greatest single performance – the devastating version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” on the Red Hot & Blue AIDS benefit CD.
Everything about her reading cuts deep to the bone, from the chilling new implications the song title and lyrics acquire in this context to the truth-telling opening rap and that slightly off – ominously off – bass keyboard lick that runs throughout the song. And when that sinister Fender Rhodes or clavinet lick drops in around the two-minute mark, the effect is…I’m sorry, it’s not out of insensitivity, but the word that always comes to my mind is deadly. That is the final element falling into place to complete the emotional backdrop of the song, a musical landscape that evokes the dread and horror of what it must feel like to be trapped inside that body betrayal (“I got you deep, deep in the heart of me”). Cherry’s singing evokes the dread and horror even as she waxes prevention-wise with outro vocal tags (“Share the love/Don’t share the needle”, “Use your mentality/Wake up to reality”) that sound like anything but shallow moralizing, just matter-of-fact, voice-of experience admonitions to be smart. Harrowing as it is, “I Got You Under My Skin” shows Cherry doing what a great artist does, taking a song and absolutely transforming it.
So she seemed to be perfectly positioned but things changed by the time Homebrew rolled along in 1992. Where Sushi was pure city street life, grounded in hip-hop and in-your-face direct, her second album was far more diffuse, like a collection of individual tracks thrown together w/guest turns from all over the map, from a Gang Starr rap to Michael Stipe vocal, and co-writing credits for Lenny Kravitz and Portishead trip-hop honcho Geoff Barlow. “Move With Me” was a pretty affecting ballad with another strong lyric chorus, “I knew a young girl by the name of Susie/Now she sleeps with her arm on her Uzi” was one helluva modern world couplet, and it was pretty amusing to hear Stipe singing sex ed on “Trout” over a Steppenwolf guitar lick and arena rock drums. But “Move With Me” aside, the only song that really stuck was “Buddy X”, another one of Cherry’s specialty-of-the-house gigolo sucker putdowns, this time on a more domestic cheating on your partner level, and even that doesn’t end so much as fall apart around a bluesy piano tag.
Where Sushi was focused and definite, Homebrew sounded indistinct and gauzy, like the sound was filtered through veils and lyrics from scenes dimly glimpsed through curtains. Maybe that just reflect my old-school wish for sonic clarity that engages you when her music was beginning to break down and move towards atmospheric keyboard washes cued by Cherry’s involvement with the-then incipient Bristol trip hop scene. But the songs that cut through the murk prominently featured guitar in the arrangements, uncharacteristic for her at the time but a harbinger of things to come when she returned to the fray after a four-year hiatus.
Man was another surprise, more song-oriented and structured incorporating textures rather than leading from textures, the songs built around guitars rather than beats, bass and keyboards. It’s basically an alternative rock songwriter disc as much as anything because virtually all musical references to her initial dance/R&B/hip-hop days are gone, unless the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” counts. The centerpieces are two stately, string-driven ballads: “Woman”, Cherry’s sharply conceived recasting of JB’s “Man’s World” and the “7 Seconds” duet with Youssou N’Dour that became an omnipresent (as in very long-lived – hell, I still hear it a lot) European hit and paean to international brother/sisterhood. And who better from the English-speaking world to pair up with N’Dour for that kind of intercontinental anthem than Neneh Cherry?
And who else would follow it on her own disc with a pair of odes waxing frankly carnal a la “Kootchi”, erotic anticipation growing against thundering guitar, and “Bestiality”, with acoustic guitar strum and loopy organ framing a chorus hook of “What love, what hate/Could reach the point of no return”? Flamencoid guitar runs in “Golden Ring” acknowledge Cherry’s living in southern Spain when the album was made but it’s the steady rolling groove and skilled wordplay funnin’ in the lyric couplets of “Hornbeam” that has been sticking with me when listening to it again.
Amazingly, Man didn’t receive an official U.S. release (still hasn’t, as far as I know), which seems fairly remarkable given Cherry’s commercial tracks record. Certainly it didn’t help that her albums were so divergent, since falling into the classification cracks always was anathema to the music business and the kiss of death in these brand-o-centric times. Maybe she just got swamped and washed under a sea of grungy flannel, new Brit pop and resurgent U.S. hip-hop that rolled in during the ‘90s. Cherry did make her big commercial breakthrough dealing on R&B-rooted dance and hip-hop inspired sounds, and there always a pronounced tendency to dismiss female singers in that zone as disposable, dispensable divas (often with good reason, too).
But not in her case, and it’s hard to imagine a male artist with a similar profile of recent commercial success wouldn’t even get their third album released. I wouldn’t be surprised if a major part of the reason was simply a long-standing industry preference (not just music, you could apply it to movies, too) for dealing with female performers who project as openly vulnerable and even cracking under the strain than strong and sure of themselves. Better to celebrate an Amy Winehouse than a Neneh Cherry, just as better to sanctify a Janis Joplin than Grace Slick back in their day.
And then, after Man… nothing, for all intents and purposes.
Yeah, there are Googleland sightings out there for the odd re-mix projects and collaborations to be found but nothing that signified a next step for Neneh herself. The ongoing family demands of raising that generation that was once bouncing in her lap undoubtedly played a major role, but then again she always seemed to operate and move according to her own artistic clock and rhythm. Probably not surprising given her family background – I interviewed her stepfather Don Cherry and he definitely followed his own improviser muse (not to mention globetrotting gypsy ways) in all facets of life. So I was pleasantly surprised amidst the sadness of reading a Vivien Goldman piece last May on the original London punk rock women contingent after Poly Styrene moved on to the next phase (preceded by Ari Up six months before) and find that Cherry was now actively involved in the group cirKus, a family affair with her daughter and husband.
So Spotify time for a listen to Laylow, a bargain price buy of Medicine and…well, frankly all this cirKus turned into a kind of Where’s Neneh? version of Where’s Waldo? because finding audible traces of her on those discs is none too easy. Laylow had some sign of her presence, indirect or direct, since “You’re Such an… (Asshole)” was another gigolo sucker putdown (uptown Ferrari cruisin’ for chicks division, this time out) that always seem to inspire her best efforts. But Medicine, maybe her voice is buried somewhere in the background masse but it sure is hard to pick out, and every time I first look up and notice the music is actually playing, the read-out always tells me it’s already on track five and that’s never a good sign. Medicine actually closes fairly strongly but its atmospheric textures just drift too much the rest of the time.
So we wind up with Neneh in musical limboland once again but then an interview appeared in the Spanish paper El Pais last October that reported Cherry is apparently in the process of writing and selecting material for a new solo release. Good news, indeed, although after 15-odd years of near silence, more than a few wait-and-see grains of salt are in order. The rep from her past solo work and even earlier, pre-“Buffalo” association with punk-era experimentalists Rip, Rig & Panic, Pop Group, New Age Steppers, et al (assuming they’ve reached retro underground hip critical mass by now) and involvement in the early founding days of Bristol trip hop scene would seem to work in her favor this time around.
But who knows whether Cherry has ascended to godmama status for Gaga youth or even what her new music may sound like today. And…ummm….well, looks like the only way to end this is to resort to ye oldest of journalism clichés and simply say that whether anything concrete happens or if Neneh Cherry can have any meaningful impact in these 21st century times remains to be seen.

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R.E.M. Snapshots and Farewell http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2011/10/r-e-m-snapshots-and-farewell/ http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/2011/10/r-e-m-snapshots-and-farewell/#comments Mon, 31 Oct 2011 03:26:21 +0000 Don Snowden http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?p=47362 REVISITATION RIGHTS 10

R.E.M.: Early Snapshots and Final Farewell

Snapshot 1:

It was not a pretty persuasion.
In fact, I’m sure I was fairly well pissed off.
There we were at our second or third Jazz Fest in New Orleans circa ’82 or ’83, still in the throes of the first flush of discovering the full range of New Orleans music and culture (long before Cajun and Creole recipes/seasonings made it to menus around the world), especially the R&B piano tradition centered around Professor Longhair, sadly deceased only months before our first Crescent City pilgrimage a couple years before. But we did know of James Booker (who shall be waxed ecstatic over at greater length in another post shortly) and catching the mercurial pianist around town as often as we could during those two weeks was always high priority.
Now, Nina had turned a couple of her hometown friends on to Jazz Fest, music people from around Washington, D.C., so we were traveling around and making those delightful options hell decisions in group. And these friends had heard and loved a self-released debut 45 by some unknown, unsigned group out of Georgia – I probably recognized the name from the New York Rocker singles column or some other source like that – who happened to be playing in an uptown New Orleans club named Jimmy’s on the Monday night between the main Jazz Fest weekends.
The only problem was that Mondays also was a residency for James Booker at the Maple Leaf Bar right by Jimmy’s, the closest thing the notoriously unpredictable Booker had for a regular gig you could count on so that made Monday at the Maple Leaf an all but automatic stop on the calendar. The group consensus was leaning to Jimmy’s but l mean, c’mon, this was James Booker playing in his natural element of New Orleans. Ultimately, and no doubt grudgingly (I hate being noble about seeing music), I trooped across the street from the Maple Leaf to Jimmy’s and experienced…

…well, not exactly revelation time, but a first exposure to R.E.M did provoke reactions that were far from the standard ones I expected from seeing a new band for the first time back then. There were 10 or 20 people at most in the club (that may be generous, the four of us could easily have been the only non-workers there), and I can remember how the sound balance changed by walking across the empty dance floor and into or out of range of the bass or guitar amp on the bandstand. I don’t remember specific songs but didn’t consider it time wasted because I was hearing a band that seemed remarkably balanced, one where the contributions of all four musicians were absolutely essential and integral to the group sound.
As we hit the street outside afterwards, I do recall remarking that they struck me as Beatlesque in that regard, a strange characterization because the Beatles were never a common reference for me and one I automatically shied away from anyway because of the absurd pressure that could bring on a young band in its formative stages. But in retrospect it was an early signal that something special was at work there.

Snapshot Two:

Fast forward however many months it was to the release of Murmur.
In the interim, R.E.M. had become very much a known factor, a group I actively marked and searched out after that first encounter in New Orleans. Chronic Town was already out and I was thoroughly engrossed by it, particularly “Gardening at Night” and the exhilarating closing rush of “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars).”
After the EP release but somewhere between six and nine months before Murmur hit the stores, R.E.M. came to town and played a gig at the Music Machine (with the Plugz, if memory serves), an off-the-industry-beaten-track West L.A. club just completing its transition from full-on “Urban Cowboy” venue complete with mechanical bucking bull to live music showcase. R.E.M. played a great set, it was fast, hit hard, “Boxcars” rolled out of town at the end, you know, the usual positive blur live experience of new material when you don’t already know any songs or chorus hooks or melodies.
So then Murmur came out and I slapped it on the turntable for the first time.
And I recognized nine of the dozen songs immediately.
But it wasn’t that kinda sorta, vague, “Oh, yeah, I think I remember that”, hazy recognition that usually happens.
No, this time the response was, “Oh yeah, that one.” That clear, that definite, that instant.
This is not something that happens often. For a band to have subliminally planted melodic hooks that resonated so deeply so long after I first heard them without resorting to overly familiar song structures (we’re not talking Chuck Berry licks and I-IV-V blues pattern variations here) was remarkable, given the amount of music I normally listen to during that time span. The first few times I heard “Sitting Still” I vividly remember this overwhelming déjà vu feeling of “Oh, man, it’s so good to hear this again”, like it was some long-unheard favorite song…and then realizing, with something like one part shock and one part puzzlement, that they wrote the song and I’d never heard it before then. Encountering a band with an ability to effortlessly alchemize classical elements into new and memorable forms was not to be taken lightly.

So those twin early snapshots always colored my perceptions and I think provided a somewhat different frame of reference on R.E.M. as the world found them and they became standard bearers for the scene that grew up around ’80s indie/college radio in the U.S. I always thought those early Byrds comparisons were a bit lazy, almost made on autopilot purely because Peter Buck played a Rickenbacker more than anything else – R.E.M. was far too energetic and dynamic, especially as a live band, for them to hold. I chuckled over how many people were shocked to discover Michael Stipe was an effective frontman/ performer, because I remember him swirling and twirling in a trench coat at an early Club Lingerie gig in Hollywood right after Reckoning came out, while Buck did his Ronnie Wood shaggy dog hanging over Stipe’s shoulder routine and Mike Mills leaped and bounded about. They were always value for money live – the cover photo of the And I Feel Fine compilation really caught the essence of R.E.M. to me, the whole punk aesthetic that drove them, just load up the van, hit the road and play for people. Even though they didn’t sound prototypical punk, but then the whole DIY point of punk originally was to be creative and original, wasn’t it?
It was just as amusing reading the contortions and convolutions the critical fraternity put themselves through trying to deal with Stipe’s notorious “mumbled” vocals and impressionistic, imagistic lyrics (and no lyric sheet to serve as a Rosetta Stone key for scribes to decipher the message/meaning of life, shock, horror!) when Murmur hit with a far greater commercial impact than anyone could reasonably been expected. But that running issue with the early LPs was somewhat disheartening, too, by placing an inordinate, unnecessary burden on Michael Stipe to be a public spokesperson far more than someone who had developed his own personal language for lyrical expression wanted to be. I always thought it was irrelevant because the songs had choruses and hooks galore and if the lyrics to “Pilgrimage” or “inside the moral kiosk” didn’t make much literal sense to you, you could always just sing along and give the words whatever private meaning you wanted to. Like you do most of the time, anyway.
Never got the chance to ask Stipe early on but I always wondered if he sometimes chose words for the way they sounded rather than their literal meaning. I suspect so, and it takes us back to those early snapshots because I thought R.E.M. fundamentally was a sonic band, one which achieved and owed its impact to a blend of sounds and balance (let’s not forget those subliminal hooks) that each member brought to the mix. Stipe’s long, extended vocalisms over the top were matched by Bill Berry’s steady percussion foundation underneath, while Mills and Buck chattered back and forth in the middle. R.E.M. achieved a rare and very appealing balance akin to Pere Ubu in my ears, surprisingly enough. The big difference was that whereas Pere Ubu’s balance was all focused into and then projected outward through the imposing presence of David Thomas, R.E.M.’s music was always a fully egalitarian mix of all four components, despite the inexorable and inherent media/market pressures towards turning Stipe into the figurehead.
But those ostensibly vague lyrics may have had one salutary effect – I always felt R.E.M. was very fortunate their first four I.R.S. albums sold very well for a critically acclaimed but non-player-on-commercial-radio band back then, all of them good for roughly 400-500,000 copies in their initial mid-‘80s LP run as I recall. That very consistency surely was the bane of record industry marketing execs and the root of who knows how many U.S. trade publication stories on the best strategy for breaking R.E.M. to superstar level. They were not an overnight sensation and, crucially, that gave them the chance to consolidate themselves and get their business and infrastructure in place on their own terms with reasonable expectations of enough income and popularity to sustain an actual career as working musicians, something they could count on to provide a living for some years and set their lives up accordingly. That enabled them to sidestep the Cobain curse of the overnight sensation and savvy moves like the early decision to credit original compositions to everyone removed one potential bone of contention and classic source of festering internal discontent from the git-go.
I’ll try to avoid overdoing the standard litany of the my favorite songs rundown but I would be remiss without giving props to the irreverent motor-mouthed wordplays and irrepressible sweep of “End of the World” as a highlight and the underlying chordal bass foundation to “Catapult” always stuck in my bassaholic heart more deeply that it probably did with most people. Not to mention the bass-driven majesty of “Cuyahoga,” those glorious harmony vocals rising in the chorus and Stipe’s matter-of-fact invitation of “Let’s put our heads together/ Start a new country up” and final condemnation of “We are not your allies/ We can not defend”.
Another early memory was Stipe onstage at the Hollywood Palladium, probably during the “Fables” tour, either sitting or on crutches at the mike, immobilized by a cast on his foot or knee, as R.E.M. did their full complement of Velvets covers and the ache in his voice on “Femme Fatale” perfectly matched how I always felt the emotions in that song. One thing that vividly stood out in all their live shows I saw was the way Bill Berry never ever cleaned up at the end of songs by thrashing about his kit until everyone hit the end note together in tried and true triumphant rock & roll fashion–once he nailed his final snare shot, that was it, lights out, we’re done here.
But once the early snapshots were over and done with my R.E.M experiences were nothing out of the ordinary. It was a group that basically lived the four-or-five-great-essential early LPs model basically coinciding with the I.R.S phase, followed by progressively more sporadic Warner Bros. albums culminating in their post-“Losing My Religion/Shiny Happy People” ascension to alternative stadium gods, and then more intermittent flashes of inspiration that came from discovering grunge-era noise toys for “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth/Crush With Eyeliner”, et al.
But their inspired moments were inevitably and decidedly growing more sporadic on record if not in concert. I vaguely recall a mid-scale outdoor gig, probably at the start of the Warner Bros. era and definitely after they first started augmenting the onstage line-up, when they were still powerful and convincing in live performance. By then, they were playing venues right at the limit of my comfort zone and would only get larger in the next few years and that became the last time I saw them live.
It’s stating the obvious that the real end for R.E.M. came once Berry called it quits. I’d always sworn that if/when/once that core four split up, I would stop listening because throwing that organic symbiotic balance (snapshot number one) out of whack would mark the end of R.E.M. as we know it. Ultimately I did check out Up, but there was nothing to get excited about and since then, it was an exercise in following R.E.M. from a distance, trying to gauge which Deluxe Editions or compilations were worth picking up.
But that said, and even so long removed from their creative peak, R.E.M. held true to form and character in the way they decided to check out. No undue hoopla, no fanfare, just realization that now it was well and truly time to knock it on the head. Fitting, because over the last 20 years, I thought R.E.M. did about as good a job of handling the pressures of being a stadium-level rock & roll band as could be expected without completely turning their backs on the ideals of the scene which spawned them. And deserving of all the praise received, too, because in the time they were in their creative prime, they created a tremendous amount of great music that transcends their time.

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