Monday, January 13, 2014

The Death of Creativity or a New Filter?

By Doug Sheppard

In a recent issue of The Guardian, David Byrne lamented that the Internet “will suck all the creative content out of the world”—pointing to the meager pittance musicians get from streaming services and the way a large portion of books and movies are now delivered electronically.

I agree with some of Byrne’s points. Musicians (and all artists, for that matter) should get paid better (including from streaming services), streaming for free or a small fee may lead to a lack of appreciation for music, and the blockbuster culture portended by all of the above is indeed a concern.

But then again, we’re already there. Almost everything worthwhile in the last three decades was on independent labels—or by artists who started on an indie. Take away the early ’90s grunge era (which wasn’t all that great, but that’s another article) and a few notable exceptions, and what you have on major labels during that span is utterly worthless: AOR, hair metal, trendy dance music, tuneless (yet “critically acclaimed”) alternative rock, nu metal, rap/hip hop, boy bands and divas.

So assuming we’re not worried about the majors, should we worry about the indies? Yes and no. I’d hate to think that the indie scene would be eaten up by streaming, reducing us to a world where -- similar to the way individual franchises like Google, Amazon and Facebook dominate the Internet—there are only large entities. But it goes back to the same question: What would we be losing?

The double-edged sword that is the Internet has enabled me to check out many cool bands that I would otherwise never have heard. But it’s also given everyone with access to a computer a means to make music—complicating an already unfiltered world. With majors and radio long having abandoned their place in the filter, it’s left to the consumer to separate the wheat from the chaff.

And what a load of chaff there is. On club bills featuring multiple bands, one or more is guaranteed to be lackluster or worse. Thanks to the ability of independent labels to go straight to the Internet and skip the previous distribution channels, a morass of mediocrity has been unleashed with catch phrases like “in the tradition of the Stooges,” “hooks like Cheap Trick,” “savage garage a la the Sonics,” and so on—mostly just signaling that the band sounds nothing like what they’re being compared to.

In the vast majority of cases an artist that’s truly great—or even very good—will get recognized in some way, be it a hit record, a local following, a major label deal resulting from that local following, or at least some acclaim at some point (occasionally even after the band breaks up). (That’s not to say that every artist who achieves one of those things is worthwhile, but you get what I mean.) So I don’t share Byrne’s worry about great music going unheard.

In fact, I think that if Byrne is even partially correct about the Internet sucking creative content out—it’s a potential cause for optimism. It may mean being exposed to fewer soundalike bands that have been praised by their friends in blog posts. It may mean that I don’t have to sit through another shitty Clash/Ramones/Black Flag wannabe on a punk bill, another crummy New York Dolls knockoff that’s all clothes and no music, or the “psychedelic” band that’s merely aimless jamming without songs. Maybe if the Internet makes it impossible for such frauds to make music, it will be the beginning of a new filter that the world has lacked for quite some time.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Seeds on Sundazed and other Record Store Day Scores

By Doug Sheppard

Like the authorities catching up to the protagonist in a biker exploitation film, time had caught up to Sky Saxon in 1970. Between Altamont, harder drugs and the frowning faces of war protestation, there was no room for the Seeds’ idealism and – if analogies are in order – the times had indeed spoiled Sky’s fun. Rock was now serious, like really serious, man – discovering all kinds of wimpy folk, phony roots, long solos and (thanks to Woodstock) corporate influences. Sky was Davy Crockett at the Alamo – or rather, a rocker past him prime getting laid a lot at his Malibu home. But it didn’t mean he didn’t have one last charge in him.

Calling on old keyboard sidekick Darryl Hooper, plus three new members, the re-sprouted Seeds departed GNP Crescendo for MGM and recorded two killer singles that sadly never made it past the promo stage, falling into permanent rarity status and never getting a legit reissue – until now, thanks to Sundazed and Record Store Day.

The Seeds’ first MGM offering, “Bad Part of Town” b/w “Wish Me Up,” paired a biting fuzz rocker with a more flowery, keyboard-dominated number that harked back to the band’s later GNP material. It was the heavy influence of “Bad Part of Town” that would propel the even better followup, “Love in a Summer Basket” b/w “Did He Die.”

In spite of its title, “Love In a Summer Basket” isn’t so much a floral excursion as it is a tidal wave of loud fuzz guitar squalls crashing the shores of idealism as keyboards and flute weave in and out. Perfection. And if that trip isn’t bad enough, then the war-torn flip of “Did He Die” – rumbling bass, screeching guitar distortion and all -- blurs visions even more, as Sky lets the Vietnam anxiety out by screaming “He shot him in the head! He killed his bro-ther-ah-ah-ah-ah” without fear of pushing too hard.

But when MGM President Mike Curb purged his label of acts with drug influences (like the Seeds) just two days before its release, he denied the world what would undoubtedly have been the finest Seeds album yet. (The Seeds would go on to make one more great indie single the next year, “Shuckin’ and Jiving” b/w “You Took Me By Surprise,” two barnstorming rockers that up the heavy ante even more.)

This Sundazed gatefold double-single set not only replicates the sound of the originals thanks to use of master tapes, but also offers a great essay by Seeds scholar Jeff Jarema that finally reveals the names of the other musicians (outside of Saxon and Hooper) on the MGM sessions, plus some really cool vintage photos. File under “must have.”

Speaking of screaming punks, Sundazed has unleashed another punk killer among its RSD releases, the lasciviously lustful “Lorna” by Adrian Lloyd. Busting and burning the surfboards he brandished in the Rumblers and the Sunsets, Lloyd unloads a torrent of tribal drums, snotty vocals and screams (“approximately 25,” sez Jarema in the liners) for a rightly regarded classic getting its first reissue on a seven-inch. Possibly (and if so, justifiably) winded, Lloyd is a little more restrained on the B-side, “Got a Little Woman,” a groovy rocker with “woah yeah” call-and-answer vocals that’s pretty cool in its own right.

No discussion of screaming rock ’n’ roll would be complete without the Trashmen, who rode it into the Top 10 with the infamous Rivingstoned rant “Surfin’ Bird” in 1963. By 1966, the hits had dried up, the British had come, and a trip was about to be taken, but the Bird men defiantly stuck to rock ’n’ roll -- as evidenced by the live versions of “Mean Woman Blues” and “Big Boss Man” on this RSD single on Sundazed, which has done more than perhaps anyone else in spreading the Trashmen gospel.



Sundazed head Bob Irwin’s other employer, Legacy, also did some great releases for Record Store Day – the best unquestionably being the 180-gram vinyl reissues of the mono mixes of three vintage Miles Davis albums: ’Round About Midnight, Milestones and Someday My Prince Will Come. Housed in sharp reproductions of the original covers, the sound emanating from the grooves is nothing short of stunning – presenting the material with a clarity that almost feels like being in the studio with Miles, John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones and (on Milestones) Cannonball Adderly.

Much has already been written about Miles’ first and third Columbia offerings, ’Round About Midnight and Milestones, respectively, what with the all-star lineup and groundbreaking evolution of hard bop into modal jazz – not to mention classics like the rearranged version of Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight” on the former and the swinging title track of the latter. So that leaves the mono vs. stereo question and, to these ears, much as I enjoyed the stereo CD remasters, the more intimate sound of the mono mix is preferable.

Released on the heels of two landmarks, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come was bound to suffer in comparison. But it’s a fine album in its own right, thanks to all of the Kind of Blue lineup save Adderly and Bill Evans -- although here the mono mix is more of an alternative for collectors.

Legacy has also given us 10 inches of previously unreleased Sly and the Family Stone at their peak, including “Music Lover/I Want to Take You Higher/Music Lover” from the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, the rare promo-only single version of “Higher,” and a TV medley of “Sing a Simple Song/Hot Fun in the Summertime/Sex Machine/I Want to Take You Higher” from 1969. Nice to have, but the best news is the insert in this I Want to Take You Higher EP noting the upcoming release of a four-CD Sly box set with rarities and 18 previously unreleased tracks.



Black Friday has become to Record Store Day what Labor Day is to Memorial Day – and spotlighted some worthy limited editions of its own the last time around, including a self-titled 12-inch four-song EP by Eric Burdon & the Greenhornes on Readymade. Old-meets-new affairs usually signify guest appearances on remakes, so I’m pleased to note that this is not only all new songs -- but the best music that both Burdon and the Greenhornes have made in years. Hard rockers (“Black Dog,” not the Zeppelin or even Timebox track), slow blues (“Out of My Mind”) and flat-out rockers (“Can You Win”) fire up a package that makes one wish for a full-length. Age can be detected in the old Animal’s voice, incidentally, but like the bluesmen he’s long idolized, it’s fine seasoning, not wear.

Also worthy of investigation is Secret Stash’s single by the Prophets of Peace, “P.O.P” b/w “46th Street Bump Time.” From the same 1974 session that produced one side of their lone single (included on Twin Cities Funk & Soul, reviewed in the upcoming issue) comes this previously unreleased pairing of two fine Tower of Power-styled horn soul groovers: a vocal number on the top side and an instrumental on the flip. Limited to 500 copies.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Record Store Day Rebuttal

By Doug Sheppard

You would think that if an otherwise struggling retail sector were reinvigorated at least twice a year by a self-conceived holiday that spurs more in-store traffic and sales, it would be celebrated by consumers and retailers alike. You would think. But proving that the High Fidelity stereotypes of cantankerous record store clerks and narrow-minded collectors are nonfiction, the onslaught of cynicism about Record Store Day is in full swing in the blogosphere -- supposedly providing a bit of levity to us fools who actually enjoy it every year.

The critics -- who I’m not going to single out in the interest of not starting a pissing match -- have a few legitimate points. It may indeed be a last gasp for most record stores rather than a rebirth, some releases take “limited edition” to idiotic extremes, and it unfortunately does shut those without access to a record store out of the process.

The majority of the anti-Record Store Day arguments, however, are just silly. Addressing a few of them one by one:


   “They’re creating artificial rarities that end up on eBay.” Yes and no. Some will start off at premium prices and stay that way. A more discerning (and patient) consumer, however, will note that prices of the vast majority of titles will rise briefly in the ensuing weeks, then fall back down to the original retail tag within a month or so. Copies of many even remain in record stores for weeks or even months after Record Store Day. Finally, did it ever occur to those leveling this charge that many of these items are of only limited interest, hence only worth pressing in limited quantities? It’s wonderful to demand universal access, but someone has to pay the bill.

   “These are fetish objects that probably won’t be played regularly.” Fetish objects in a collecting field? Whoever heard of that? Record collectors buying more than they can listen to? Another phenomenon I’ve never heard of. In all seriousness though, why should anyone care what happens to items after they’re sold?

   “Many RSD customers don’t return.” Assuming it’s not hostage takers laundering ransom money, why should anyone care who’s buying the records if you’re turning a profit? Even if Record Store Day adds only a few new customers, that’s more than the store had before -- and probably more sales as well. I mean, the goal of any retailer is to make money and stay in business, right?

   “RSD is not about building a community.” OK, maybe it is my turn to be a cynic. “Building a community” in a record store sounds like pretentious indie rock horseshit to me. I go to record stores to buy records. Sure it’s nice if the clerk is knowledgeable and/or friendly, but mainly -- I want to browse and buy stuff. Why else would I be there? The coolest record stores aren’t the ones with “community,” but the ones with the best records/prices. Besides, if that is your goal, community can be created whenever people are together -- including on Record Store Day. (Just beware of including in your community those horrible people who only play their RSD purchases once.)


Those who conceived Record Store Day are to be commended. With the decline of tangible formats, someone had to do something to generate a buzz and business -- and, judging by the long lines, they’ve succeeded. Even critics would have to acknowledge that the alternative -- doing nothing -- would have been much worse. Plus, similar to CD revolution, many RSD titles may not have otherwise seen release/reissue. Vanguard, for example, had been sitting on its psychedelic vaults for years before RSD finally inspired the Follow Me Down double-LP comp in 2011.

But beyond all of that, no one is forcing any consumer or retailer to participate in Record Store Day. You don’t like it? Don’t do it. I won’t judge you as long as you don’t judge those of us who have a good time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Moldy Dogs Story • By Jack Partain

It may be hard to believe, but in the early and mid 1970s a small, independent punk rock scene was developing in St Louis, MO. In fact, the city was setup to become a regional hub of underground music. There were two universities in the city, Washington University and Webster College, both of which funneled artists and weirdos into record stores like Akashic Records, where the Stooges were worshipped. And from that group bands like the Dizeazoes, the Back Alley Boys, the Welders, and the Moldy Dogs would form, noisily incubating themselves in garages, dorm rooms, and basements throughout the city, pounding out and working through the Stooges-inspired blurt that would come to be known as punk rock. In addition there was a friendly weekly radio show, Rock It!, hosted by Dave "The Rave" Thomas, who blasted punk rock and new wave music every Friday night from KWUR studios at Washington University. In short, everything was there—kids with funny haircuts and guitars and places to hang out—everything except places to play.

And those places simply didn't exist. At least not in the traditional sense. Though bands like the Dizeazoes, a freaky cover band that specialized in wild versions of songs by the Troggs, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Balloon Farm, were able to scrape together a few modest appearances at house parties, the early St Louis punk bands were, for the most part, too weird to fit in with the Top 40 style bands that dominated the rock clubs, and too electric to hang with the folk crowd.

One band that was able to overcome these difficulties was the Moldy Dogs, a proto-punk duo made up of Wolf Roxon and Paul Major, who had formed in 1972. The Moldies were one of the only bands able to get regular gigs at local bars and restaurants in St Louis, a feat accomplished "with a great deal of difficulty," laughs Roxon, who worked tirelessly trying to find places for the band to play. Eventually, because of a mixture of hard work, luck, and good old fashioned persistence, the band was lucky enough to find two homes, local spots the Pastrami Joynt and The Grove.
The Acadian Grove ('The Grove') was a sandwich shop located in the Webster Groves area of St Louis, across the street from Akashic Records. Roxon had approached the owners of The Grove about the possibility of his band playing there during his regular rounds.
"I was always the band member who scored the gigs in the early period," says Roxon. "This was primarily because I had the desire and gumption to walk into any bar or eatery and inquire if they were interested in booking live music. I had approached the owners of The Grove about letting us play and they agreed without an audition. This was very rare but, as the restaurant was relatively new, they may have never considered live music and figured there was nothing to lose. Boy, were they brave."

At the time the Moldy Dogs were performing as a full band but that didn't last long. After getting the job at The Grove, which Roxon had wisely set to debut a month later, band members who were "lackadaisical" about rehearsal gradually disappeared, "in typical Moldy Dogs fashion", laughs Roxon. Eventually only Roxon and Major were left and, after rehearsing six nights a week for a month, they developed four sets worth of material and debuted at The Grove as a duo. But, again, this incarnation was short lived. Very quickly the band would attract fans, some of whom would go on to join the band on stage.

"We were not always a duo at The Grove," says Roxon. "Jimmy, a fellow student from Webster College, would sit in on harmonica. He played one hell of a blues harp. We also met a student named Willie who filled in on bass. Willie originally played with a female folk singer who performed during our breaks. But he seemed to enjoy our songs more, so we considered ourselves fortunate that he would join us. Willie was such an amazing musician that we never had to show him a chord progression of a song or even tell him the key in which we were playing. He seemed to have a sixth-sense when it came to music and knew where the song was going without any coaching."

Major also remembers Willie and Jimmy. He recalls that Willie had jammed with the duo "like we'd been doing it together for years". And Jimmy? Well, that's another story.

"[I] recall Jimmy having that deep down feeling too," says Major. "One of those dudes with a biker vibe. He had sold us some impotent magic mushrooms and we were bummed so a few days later he laid a new batch on us and they were amazing. We took them later that night and as we were in a frenzied, peaking situation he appeared saying 'Get the full trip this time?' like a voice from another dimension."

Roxon was not present at this event.

"Sorry I wasn't there," says Roxon nowadays. "Paul had all the fun."

But all of the fun wasn't had outside of The Grove. In fact there were a few interesting incidents which occurred inside. Roxon remembers a gig in which he and Major performed songs by the Velvet Undergound and the Rolling Stones for a crowd of "little old ladies with tinted blue hair and pant suits" which resulted in the owner of the venue, instead of firing the band, insisting that the band add "Venus in Furs" to their repertoire. And, of course, there was the inevitable appearance of friends, like the time Jon Ashline and Bruce Cole, who made up the legendary noise-garage duo The Screaming Mee-Mee's, paid a visit.

"Jon and Bruce came by one night and became very drunk," says Roxon. "[They were] singing along with us and freaking out the other patrons. They were yelling slurs at us and we gave it right back. The waitress accused us of insulting the customers and really caused a commotion. Then we got in a fight with the waitress. Surprisingly, the owners backed us up, but, very wisely, refused to serve any more alcohol.

And then there was the incident with the little girl.

"In those days, I wore wraparound sunglasses," says Roxon. "During one performance, a little girl walked up to the stage between songs and asked for my autograph. All the patrons at the restaurant thought it was so cute and there was a hushed silence as everyone watched and listened. When I gave her back the signed paper she immediately read what I had written and looked very puzzled. She said 'What's your name?' I told her. 'Oh,' she said sadly, 'I thought you were Jose Feliciano.' Of course, I couldn't hold a candle to Jose and everybody screamed with laughter.

"By far, our most memorable performance was at the Mayfest," Roxon continues. "The streets were crowded and the owners requested we play outside to attract customers. We gladly did and they rewarded us with pitchers of beer. This was one of the hottest days in May on record and the sun beat on our heads and guitars so intensely that I thought the glue on my acoustic was going to soften enough to pop it apart. We were soon joined by Willie and Jimmy. We probably gave our best performance ever, up to that point of our lives. I just remember that sun roasting my brain, the beer slurring my speech like a true blues scrapper, Jimmy wailing, and the notes burning on Paul's fretboard."

But, as impromptu as this version of the Moldy Dogs had formed, it dissolved. Both Jimmy and Willie simply disappeared. Roxon says that the two were never actual members of the band, just musicians who "enjoyed the improvisation and jamming" on which the Moldies thrived at the time.

While at The Grove, the Moldies continued to scour St Louis for places to play. They auditioned at large clubs and family style restaurants with names like "The Ground Round, Lums, and Sirloin this and that", according to Roxon, with very little success.

"Truthfully, we failed a lot more than we succeeded," says Roxon. "In the early days, when we had a full band, we were 100% unsuccessful. For example, we auditioned for Marcos Imbibery, a new bar in University City. I knew Marco from Webster College. The bar catered to a country and bluegrass crowd. We looked a bit glam, our singer appeared to be a lounge performer (he eventually became a Barbara Streisand imitator) and our bassist had a homemade amp housed on a metal tv tray that we carried with great caution. It was a waste of time. We were finished before we even started. The club manager obviously told Marco that we couldn't be more wrong for this bar."

The band even had a gig at Duff's, which was at the time, one of the premier clubs in St Louis.

"Duff's was located in the Euclid Ave scene which offered a variety of music," says Roxon. "The manager let us play early on a weeknight. There was just a scattering of customers this early in the evening, but we had a favorable response. The manager understood our musical slant, and indicated we were capable of playing at his club, but he seemed to be recommending a little 'musical tweaking' of our sound. Had we auditioned with Willie and Jimmy, and played our blues repertoire, we probably would have landed the gig."

But there were things working against the band other than their lack of "tweaking" when it came to acquiring gigs.

"As a full group, it was harder to find jobs, primarily because the addition of a drummer meant the smaller restaurants and bars were off limits due to excessive volume," Roxon continues. "At the same time, the larger bars and clubs would never consider a band that played our repertoire. Of course, it was a waste of time trying to join the Musician's Union, which was a necessity for playing at some venues. Booking agents tended to steer clear of bands that were not union members. For us, it was easier getting booked as a duo because we were relatively quiet and willing to accept the gigs that no one else wanted."

Despite these hardships, the band was lucky enough to land a regular gig at the Pastrami Joynt, where they would enjoy some of their greatest success, shortly after the gigs at The Grove dried up.

The Joynt, as it was known by the band and their followers, was a family restaurant located in the University City area of St Louis. The band acquired a regular weekend gig despite the fact that they didn't fit in with the Top 40 theme of the restaurant.

"Like all family style eateries in the Midwest, the entertainment was wholesome," says Roxon. "Top 40 hits were performed by clean cut performers who were very predictable. Songs sounded very much like the original recordings. To arrange your own version of a tune was pretty much unheard of in this scene."

But the Moldies were able to land the gig through a strange combination of persistance, luck, and an uncanny ability to understand their audience. Much like the incident at The Grove where the duo inexplicably impressed a crowd of little old ladies, the Moldies once won over a crowd of hostile truckers.

"There were some trucker types sitting at a table right in front of the stage," says Roxon. "They looked annoyed and began to mumble to each other under their breath while we set up our gear. So Paul and I quickly broke into 'Spider and the Fly', a Rolling Stones classic with humorous verses to which every man can relate. They really got into the lyrics and Paul launched into one of his gutsy blues leads that turned everyone's heads and caught their attention. The last verse, which we repeated, was full of accents: "She was common / Flirty /She looked/ About thirty " with the chord accents falling hard on the words that drove the song home. You could see their eyes open wider and their head bob to the rhythm. When we finished and went about packing our gear, the Truckers huddled around us and asked about the song—who recorded it, when, and so forth. This impressed the restaurant manger."

At the time Roxon and Major were still experimenting with their sound, which Major describes as "an electric fuzz and acoustic guitar". During performances they played both originals and covers, but shied away from Top-40 hits of the day, opting instead to play lost tracks from the 1950s and '60s. In addition the duo experimented with their stage show. Their wardrobe consisted of "Hawaiian shirts, Salvation Army uniforms, Boy Scout shirts, straight-legged black jeans, leopard skin or leather", all of which were considered bizarre by mid-70s St Louis standards. Roxon even created a costume consisting of an old pair of pajamas decorated with scrapped light switches and electrical sockets salvaged from an electricians visit to his apartment.

"It actually backfired on stage since it scratched up my guitar," he laughs. "So they were gradually removed."

In addition, the duo were strongly influenced by comedy and the parody music of the 1960s and 70s. Prior to forming the Moldy Dogs, Roxon had formed a basement freakout band with Jon Ashline called Wolfgang & the Noble Oval, and both members cite Dickie Goodman as a major influence. Later, both Roxon and Major found inspiration in the work of PDQ Bach, who became famous for interjecting classical music with modern pop music.

"We played some instrumentals," says Roxon. "One being 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' by the Andrews Sisters. Though the song was in minor, we switched back in forth with major or Paul would inject the 'Paint It Black' riff in part of the verse. It served as a 'musical goose' which would leave the senior listeners baffled. I also bought a portable xylophone and we worked out an arrangement of 'Springtime for Hitler'—instrumentally, of course. We always did our heartbreaking version of the Gilligan's Island theme or connect songs in a medley that didn't match. It usually worked on a number of levels, but mostly as musical kitsch for those listening."

Roxon and Major both remember this time as a high point for the band.

"The creativity level was high in the band [at this time]," says Major. "Wolf and I were writing a deluge of songs then... folk, punk, psychedelic, all kinds of moves."

"We never compromised our vision," continues Roxon. "Our main goal was to write and sound differently than any other band, yet remain within the musical language of the rock and roll genre. Our live act and venues may sound tame when compared to later punk acts and clubs, but, by the standards of the time and the environment in which we performed, we were very musically subversive and, somehow, got away with murder."

And all of this was done in an atmosphere that was hardly ideal. The Moldies' equipment was "substandard by anyone's definition", says Roxon. Their amps were shoddy and beat up. A pole lamp substituted for a microphone stand, and their PA columns were very old and fragile. And getting to the gigs wasn't exactly easy.

"We moved our decrepit equipment in my VW bug," recalls Roxon. "All the seats were removed and we stacked the guitars, amps, pa columns, props, etc, from the floor to within a foot or so of the inside roof. Paul would climb into this space and lie spread-eagle in order to hold everything in place. I sat on an amp and drove. A sudden stop would have ended our careers. Fortunately, we never had to worry about this... my brakes didn't work."

And once they arrived, the stage itself was another story.

"It barely fit two people and it wobbled at the slightest energy released such as keeping time with your foot or smashing down hard on your guitar strings," says Roxon. "The vibrations from the wobbling stage would shake the mic stand, be picked up on the microphone, and the PA columns would waver and collapse on us, looking like the end of a Steve Reeves' Hercules movie."

But the band was able to attract a small, dedicated, following, acoording to Paul Major.

"We quickly picked up a following of local stoner teens and other people in town who were into the kinda sound we were," says Major. "[But] the place didn't dig the horde of barefoot potted pre-slackers who didn't buy much pizza..."

And, as a result, the band was kept on a tight leash.

"We played for as much as five hours, that's 55 minutes on stage and a five minute break," says Roxon. "We did get free beer, but it was only available during our five minute break. We were not allowed to send a girlfriend over to the counter to retrieve a beer during our set. For all this, and playing 65-80 songs a night, we were paid between $10 and $20—as a group, not each. Most of the time we made under $15—just enough for a weekly change of guitar strings and maybe a hamburger."

Despite all of this the band was able to find a temporary home at the Pastrami Joynt. The owner recognized and appreciated their hard work and even liked them. In addition, the clientele, which over time included both families dining out and college students looking for new music, appreciated the music they played.

"Mixed with the older, familiar material came some edgier songs from the Stooges, Velvet Underground, or our originals," says Roxon. "The patrons tolerated these musical explorations probably because with just one acoustic and one electric guitar and maybe a harmonica, we were still listenable. Eventually a crowd began hanging out who requested these latter songs."

Those that would request the songs by the Velvets and the Stooges were part of a group that would go on to form the nucleus of the early St Louis punk scene. Paul "Dirt" Wheeler, who had co-founded the Dizeazoes, was one of the bands' earliest fans and would go on to join the group as a bassist and be influential in arranging their performance at the Punk Out Party in Dennis Toler's apartment complex. From there the band would meet The Welders, the first all female punk rock band in St Louis, and Joey Schadler, who would record their first demo. The demo would make its way around town and catch the ear of David Thomas, who hosted the Rock It! show on KWUR. Thomas was one of the most influential individuals in the early development of punk rock in St Louis. In addition to his weekly radio show, Roxon recalls that Thomas "had a knack for recognizing which bands would become successful" and remembers one night when he received a call from Thomas about a band playing in downtown St Louis.

"One night Dave called us and said this band from Australia was playing at a club and we might like them because the guitarist's older brother had been in the Easybeats who had recorded one of our favorite songs, 'Friday on My Mind,'" says Roxon. "So we all piled in my VW and went to the show. Only about ten people were there, and our carload made up the bulk of the audience. Of course, the band was AC/DC and they were obviously completely unknown at this point."

From there the whole scene seemed to snowball into a big bang of activity. Several bands formed and the First St Louis Punk Rock Fest occurred in December of 1976. After that the Moldy Dogs would leave town for Los Angeles, later return for a brief time, and then disappear into the miasma of the punk scene crystallizing around New York City in the late 1970s. Roxon and Major would go on to play in The Tears together in New York and Roxon would form the Metros and Walkie Talkie and today lives in Vermont. Paul Major, under the pseudonym Top Dollar currently heads New York's critical darlings Endless Boogie.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Robert Johnson, Meet Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson: Lost And Found
by Barry Lee Pearson & Bill McCulloch
University of Illinois Press, 2003

Book review by Phil Milstein

Through the efforts of a succession of dogged blues researchers, there is by now a modest-sized stack of verified information on the life of Robert Johnson. The emergence of this data has done nothing, alas, to stanch the systematic growth of a parallel mass of bullshit information about him — ye olde Crossroads Myth, and all that — that threatens to lap the real facts several times over. These twin views are at such variance that if the two Johnsons were ever to meet, they’d scarcely recognize one another.

Carefully surveying the most current set of valid Johnsonia, including an attempt to reconcile the many conflicts in the testimonies of Johnson’s acquaintances, Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch aim with Robert Johnson: Lost And Found to not only surgically discredit every last piece of the mythology that’s sprung up around Johnson like so much kudzu, but also to trace the original sources of those myths, and the paths they’ve taken on their way to becoming common misinformation.

They do a skillful enough job of this that something like a flesh-and-blood Robert Johnson begins to arise from the murk, shake off the mud and peel away the vegetation, and stand before us, finally, as a recognizable human being. The authors ought to be content to help bring him along to this point, but the righeous indigation with which they condemn all those complicit in fostering the mythological Johnson results in an often infuriating read.

Pearson and McCulloch ignore the fact that history rarely emerges as a wholly-developed entity. It tends, instead, to grow in stages, beginning with a few scant facts coupled with patches of rumor and legend, and often smoothed over with pure invention. This process is entirely normal and human, and it is only in response to such primordial accounts that the more professional work can take place.

For Johnson, this more accurate version has been slow in coming. Given this vacuum, along with the essentially mysterious quality of his music— how else to explain, for instance, how a fit man in his mid 20s can sound as often as not like he’d just stared, unblinking, into life’s terrible chasm? — and the usual process of romanticization, and it seems perfectly natural for the kudzu to have so flourished.

While I applaud Pearson and McCulloch for their clear demonstration that their subject acquired his musical skills the old-fashioned way, their lack of sympathy for the dynamics of popular mythology strikes me as unmercifully clinical. By so successfully demystifying Robert Johnson, in fact, they have left him more mysterious than ever, as shorn of such stuff we are left with no idea of the source of his dread.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An interview with Jim McCarthy of THE GODZ

Contact High with THE GODZ
By Jack Partain

As a founding member of the Godz, one of the seminal freakout bands of the mid-1960s garage folk scene emanating from the energy of the Fugs and the freedom of legendary avant garde label ESP-Disk, Jim McCarthy holds an interesting place in rock and roll history. The Godz were one of the first bands to explore the devolution of rock & roll and the raw, instinctual music they produced was in direct opposition the high art excesses of popular music that would culminate in albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper's. Which also means that the band was in direct opposition to the hordes of adoring fans, massive record sales, and critical acclaim that artists like the Beatles and the Beach Boys enjoyed.

But the Godz were on to something, and their influence has vibrated throughout the rumblings of underground music since their first album Contact High was released in 1966. Lester Bangs, one of the first to understand what the band was trying to do, claimed that though the Godz were quite possibly “the most inept band [he'd'] ever heard,” they reminded him of the “vast vacuous beauty” of New York in the 1960s. In his 1972 essay for Creem magazine titled "Do the Godz Speak Esperanto?", Bangs would go on to say: “The Godz were exciting to think about because they promised to break through and become even more outrageous by dynamiting all the stupid standards by which esthetic-minded critics and technique bound musicians sought to raise rock from pygmy squall to art form.” 

The Godz released four albums from 1966-1973. The first two, Contact High and Godz 2, contain the songs for which the band is best known: “Radar Eyes,” “Turn On,” and, of course, “White Cat Heat” (a song in which the band members screech like cats for two minutes over an eerie bass and drum accompaniment) are regarded as classics of proto-neo-psychedelic-punk and roll or whatever you want to call it. The final two albums (Third Testament and Godzeuntheit are almost universally derided as schlocky attempts at mainstream success. The Godz disbanded in 1973 and subsequent attempts at a reunion have proved disastrous.

Jim McCarthy is currently a photographer living in New York. He was kind enough to answer a few questions via email earlier this year. 

 Jim McCarthy

UT: Here's a slightly ridiculous question to start: where did the name 'The Godz' come from, and why the 'z' on the end?

Jim McCarthy: I don't find the question ridiculous, I think the name is ridiculous! It was intentional. When we were trying to come up with a name as cool as the Beatles, we passed through a great number choices. Larry (Kessler, bassist) was the one who said, “Fuck, why don't we just call ourselves The Gods?” and that name stuck. It was after we recorded the improvised tune “Godz,” and the engineer asked for the name of the song, that I told him, “Godz, with a z,” and the rest is history.

UT: How did The Godz form? In Ray Brazen’s “This is The Godz Truth” you say that it came out of personal frustration and being inspired by seeing the Fugs. Is that the gist of it or is there more?

JM: The Godz came about at a time that was personally depressing for me. I had just been released from the hospital and was recovering from hepatitis. My girlfriend and I also broke up and I was crashing on Larry Kessler's couch temporarily. Up to then I was singing in a very good covers band which was originally called the Dick Watson Five, but later changed to the Chosen Few. That group recorded an album of songs from the Broadway show Baker Street, but in a contemporary rock style. An independent production on the United International label that went nowhere, and is now extremely rare.

Larry Kessler

Larry (Kessler), Paul (Thornton, drums) and I had worked together at Sam Goody's record shop on West 49th Street and had been friends for a couple of years. Jay (Dillon, psaltery) was an acquaintance of Larry who was brought into the picture after the idea was born. The Fugs were a definite influence on me because it was after seeing them in rehearsal at the Astor Theatre that I phoned my guitarist and told him I didn't want to sing in a covers band anymore. That was the first step towards the formation of the Godz in my mind.

The music actually came about quite organically in Larry's living room and Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk were a perfect opportunity to express our feelings at the time.

Paul Thornton

UT: The music of the Godz is almost always described by critics in the same way. Lester Bangs called the band "inept", others have used words like childlike or "like they just picked up their instruments without knowing how to play them...." etc, but how would you describe the music of the Godz?

JM: Even though Paul Thornton had been in the music business previously, and I had been playing professionally for a couple of years, Jay was a painter with no previous music experience and Larry had no experience playing an instrument other than his childhood days playing violin, our approach to making music was entirely loose in structure. In that respect, we were influenced a bit by the artists already recording on ESP, such as Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, the Fugs as well as others. Paul and I would gather at Larry Kessler's place socially to play some music. Because of various substances we were entertaining ourselves with, the music was very loosely structured. So, even though some of us played instruments, we weren't very good. We determined early on that that was not important. What was important was to express our feelings as accurately, and immediately as possible. When Jay Dillon entered the picture, we thought of teaching kids in local schools how to express themselves through music, and I believe we tried it once, but that never really developed into anything substantial for us. Inept? Yes, we were inept and still are, but not without the ability to create. The idea was to not let our limitations stop us from expressing ourselves. It's obvious that we were doing something true, otherwise we would not have so many fans today. Fans who were not even born until much later.

The Godz’ music is as honest as it gets in the music business.

UT: Did the Lester Bangs article in Creem come as a surprise to you?

JM: Total surprise. We had already disbanded a few years earlier. I was working at a clothing store on West 4th Street when while on a lunch break I spotted the magazine on the newsstand. I was a bit confused by the cover, “Lester Bangs on The Godz,” and when I bought and read it, I was ecstatic. Ecstatic and disappointed. Why couldn't this have been written a few years earlier, while we were still together? I think this is probably the most definitive essay about us and our music.

UT: I never saw the Godz live. Can you describe what the band was like live?

JM: Depending on the venue and the frame of mind we were in, the performances varied. I think we probably led off our shows with “White Cat Heat,” just to let people know what they were in for, if they didn't already know. One of our most common occurrences at shows was the inordinate amount of time spent trying to tune-up. If an audience member could survive this, which actually became part of the Godz experience, he or she might feel satisfied. We were constantly going out of tune, assuming that we were in tune to begin with, due to the cheap instruments, condition we were in, and very hard playing. I played so hard I literally destroyed my guitar.

We never really attracted much of an audience outside of some close friends and admirers. The largest crowd we drew was at a concert sponsored by some students at Duke University in Durham, NC. It was a very respectable size audience that seemed to get what we were about, even though the local blues band opening for us did not.

UT: Do you resent the criticisms of the later Godz albums, Third Testament and Godzuhnteit?

JM: That’s a good question. The answer is, no. I myself never considered them to be Godz albums. Jay Dillon had left, and that was a significant change in structure, input, output and what it all meant at that point. We all pretty much knew that the original intent was finished. I think the third and fourth albums were a desperate attempt by the others involved to continue the concept, but it just didn't work the same without Jay Dillon's input. So, no I have never resented the criticisms of those works.

UT: Are the Godz albums “New York” albums?

JM: I think they are “New York” albums because of all of the elements coming together the way they did. We all came from different backgrounds and NYC is what brought us together. I don't think ESP-Disk would have existed in any other town. I definitely think that those works were indicative of the New York scene at that time.
UT: Where did the idea for “White Cat Heat” come from? I'm sure you've answered this question a lot, but I haven't found anything addressing this specific topic and would love to know!

JM: One afternoon while we were trying to play music in Larry's one bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, we were forced to endure the intense calls of Asia, his very much in heat Siamese cat. I don't remember what it was we might have been attempting, but it got to the point where her calling overwhelmed my singing, and I joined her. I think that kinda freaked her out, and she shut up for awhile. Anyway, that became our anthem.
UT: The Godz seem to be a band that came out of nowhere, a band with no real precedent in the history of popular music, but yet you chose to cover Hank Williams, and “May You Never be Alone” in particular. What is the significance of that song in relation to The Godz?

JM: Do you really think there's no precedent? I'm not sure about that. Paul Thornton was not contributing original music to the group at that time. We were a very young, impromptu effort. Pretty much a “pipe dream.” Everything was being made up as we went along. Hank showed up because we had done all our original stuff, and decided to give Paul the spotlight. His favorite musician then and now is Hank Williams. As far as I know, there is absolutely no significance in that choice of songs, but who knows what was going through Paul's mind at the time.

UT: Well, since you mentioned it—musically, what do you consider the precedents for the Godz?

JM: Maybe the Goon Show in England, but who knows who might have been doing something similar earlier on, and has never been recognized.

UT: Can you give me some insight as to how the band decided what instruments might be included on which songs? I mean, take “May You Never be Alone,” for instance. How did the band decide how to put that song together with the flute then harmonica? I guess what I'm asking is how did the Godz actually put their songs together?

JM: I guess they just got started by the creator, the others joined in whichever way they felt might be appropriate. We were aware of our musical limitations and tried to vary sounds when possible. As for that song in particular, I guess it was just a matter of me finding a place in Paul's performance that worked. It needed to be bent a bit.
UT: Do you think that Godz II is an extension of Contact High or was the band trying to do something different with the second album? I mean, the two albums seem to get lumped together like they're a double album in most reviews and I was just wondering what you opinion is about the differences between the two albums?

JM: I do think that Godz 2 is a natural progression from Contact High, though not Third Testament. It's kind of like a one, two punch. In the beginning we were a little restricted by the limitations of the instruments at our disposal. When our first studio efforts were greeted with enthusiasm by Bernard Stollman at ESP-Disk, he helped us get some additional instruments through support from several companies. This enabled us to be a little more varied in our sounds.

We really did have high (no pun intended) aspirations, and felt we could be widely successful. The problem was we were very anarchistic, and although I think we each had a different notion of what the Godz was about, essentially the first two albums were about bashing out our ideas in spite of our limitations. Our goal was not to sound awful, it was to sound as good as we could, but primarily to get our real feelings across. We were very inept in some ways, but we didn't let it get in our way, we forged on.

In my opinion, the second album achieved the sound that I imagined would be strong enough to compete in the commercial market, while maintaining our individuality. Unfortunately, we were very bad at getting it all together enough to achieve that.
Jay Dillon

UT: Can you describe how the Godz actually stopped being a band (“broke up,” for lack of a better term)?

JM: In 1967, before, during and after the release of Godz 2, we were playing around at various venues in the NY / NJ area. Hallucinogens were commonly employed during these adventures. Experiences varied widely, but Jay Dillon never felt comfortable on stage. He was a very introverted person, and as we all felt, a very integral part of the equation. Some Duke University students in Chapel Hill, NC organized a concert at the Civic Center in Durham. Michael Soldan, a close photographer friend of Jay Dillon's and the band who shot the cover for the second album and allowed us to use his studio to rehearse, drove us down there and back, and even provided the strobes we used on stage. The concert, and accompanying events, were enjoyed by all, except for Jay, who remarked, “I’ll never do that again.” He didn’t.

It was when we got back home that Jay announced he was leaving the band. In my mind, that was the end of it. That was the spring. We kind of went on hiatus for the summer, put out a couple of singles in an attempt at cracking the market, but not much in the way of performances, as I recall. I did drive cross country and back with some friends, hanging out in San Francisco and Berkeley for about a month. When I got back, I wound up getting involved with a woman who I married the following January.

At this point I pretty much considered the Godz to be finished and was thinking of my music in solo terms. I returned to playing acoustic guitar and writing more personal songs. This is evidenced on Third Testament. I really don't remember exactly what I was feeling at that time, except that I felt like I was going along with the program, but not really believing in it. The Multitude was Larry's idea entirely. The whole thing just seemed a little forced to me.

UT: Why have attempts at a Godz reunion failed?

JM: We’re not kids anymore.
UT: Is it true that you never received any royalties from Bernard Stollman and ESP? Why?

JM: I can only say that that matter has been settled recently, and I am not at liberty to discuss the details. As to the second part of your question, that's an excellent question.
UT: Has your own opinion of the Godz been shaped by the writers and bands that have praised the band in the years after the Godz were a functioning band?

JM: I don’t think so. Well, maybe a little. It’s made me happy to realize that our efforts didn't fall on deaf ears. I'm still amazed at how well known the band is. We could have been totally obscure. As for critics of the first two albums, fuck ‘em. Who cares?

Usually, I'm in agreement regarding opinions of the third and fourth albums. I am well aware of the value of our work and don't rely on the opinions of others for validation, but it's always nice to hear good things about yourself, and it probably does make me feel a bit more proud. Who knows what might have happened if we had that support while we were together.

UT: Finally, which is more rewarding: rock & roll music or rock & roll photography?

JM: Making rock & roll music is more rewarding, but photographing it in action, getting up-close and personal, is extremely rewarding for one who loves the genre. •