Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
This Post is Brought to you by the Gods of Awesomeness.
I'm moving house in a couple of days, and as such, haven't had time to write anything.
That means another lame video post, but thankfully we have three of the flat-out AWESOMEST pop videos I've seen in all my days, all of them of a power-pop/bubblegum/punk persuasion, and all of them hailing from that golden year for such things, 1981.
First, The Modernettes (not to be confused with UK post-punk band The Mo-dettes, who are also ace), doing 'Barbra'. What can I possibly say.... I think about half the youtube playcount on this one is me.
The B-Girls - 'High School Dance'. Again, just The Greatest. Great tune, fantastic lyrics, big guitar riff, killer backbeat - I so want to cover this song. Sadly, I don't think the B-Girls ever actually recorded it in this form - or at least, the only version of it on the retrospective CD of theirs I ordered immediately after watching this video is an acoustic muck-around, retitled "Boys Are Drinking". Even sadder, most of their other material isn't half as rocking as this clip, with most of their studio recordings serving to reinforce the worst women-in-rock cliches by just sounding really weedy and... 'candy-assed', I believe is the term, whilst the sleevenotes seem to imply that they were more notable at their day for the amount of time they spent hanging out with Johnny Thunders, Stiv Baters, The Clash etc. than for their own achievements. It's particularly galling to discover that their version of "Who Says Girls Can't Rock?" (as memorably covered by The Riff Randells) just plain... doesn't. Oh well. Such is life. For these three minutes on Canadian TV at least, they RULED SUPREME. Dennis The Menace jerseys, white cowboy boots, Rickenbacker - now there's a look you can't fuck with.
A dead cert for "best ever power-pop band from Milwaukee", here's the oddly-named SHIVVERS, with "Please Stand By"! (I can only assume there must have been another local group called Shivers or something.) I know I'm only restating what I said at the top of the post, but man this video is awesome. What a singer! It's like if Lydia Lunch had packed it in and joined Blondie instead! Look at her eyes in the close-ups! Amazing! And what a song! Number one w/ a bullet! And say what you like about the guy with the hangglider collar and the red stratocaster, he can't hear you, he's too busy livin' the dream.
CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE: I first saw the Modernettes video over at Last Days Of Man On Earth, as part of a fucking fantastic Canadian punk video post. (There's a similarly great round-up of Japanese punk on the front page at the moment too - check out Friction and The SS - wowza.) Also, my friend Pete sent me links to the B Girls and Shivvers videos, thus meaning nothing in this post is actually the result of my own scholarly pop-culture type investigations.
Friday, March 27, 2009
I Like Favours For Sailors.
And god knows what sort of misguided search engine hits that post title will bring my way. It’s true though! In the past few months, it seems like Favours For Sailors have exploded out of nowhere (well, out of some combination of London boroughs, I assume) as one of the best straight-up indie rock bands in the country.
The first time I saw them, you could say my expectations were not high I guess. They were supporting the band who my natural grumpiness and sense of band name-related refinement mean I shall forever refer to as The Dan Ackroyd Band, and from the name alone (Favours For Sailors, I mean), I feared we might have been in for some sorta ‘confrontational’ band – y’know, one who might wear sailor suits, play horrible farty keyboards, instigate some awful kind of forced jollity and generally to their utmost to cause a kerfuffle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that I suppose, but I was TIRED, goddamnit, and I wanted something solid and enjoyable to groove to, not something I’d have to be ‘subjected’ to. (Watch out kids, stuff like this happens as you get older.) Thus my relief must have been palpable – nay visible across all of Islington, like a happy, pastel-coloured cloud – when Favours For Sailors actually turned out to go four mild-mannered fellas with nice Fender guitars, playing quite loudly in a manner very much reminiscent of early Pavement, and making a damn good job of it too. Not a sailorsuit in sight.
Through the filter of a loud, fuzzy sound-mix and a few ales, their sound seemed to be closely anchored off the coast of Slanted & Enchanted land, and indeed, the chugging verses, lilting vocal melodies, slightly unconventional chord progressions and instrumental breakdowns of tunes like “No Room At The Buffet” are pure Malkmus. Such were my thoughts at the time, but ‘Furious Sons’, FFS’s six song debut on Tough Love records is an absolute bloody revelation, transcending such easy reference points not so much by virtue of engaging with the sort of meaty, pro production that Pavement didn’t really get to grips with ‘til album#4, but rather by virtue of simply being really, really good.
There has been such a log-jam in recent years of professional, carefully produced indie-rock product, the vast majority of it crushingly mediocre, that it is often tempting to swear off the whole damn business entirely in favour of the kind of resurgent punk/pop primitivism that’s been increasingly taking up my ear-time recently. Tempting, ever so tempting. Imagine: no longer having to take time out to consider the existence of new opuses by hardworking Beach Boys fans signed to Secretly Canadian, or earnest, bobblehatted ‘songsmiths’ recorded by the guitarist from Deathcab For Cutie on his laptop. A few more minutes each day to enjoy skulking around like a troll, listening to old garage comps or, I don’t know, Venom or something. Wonderful.
But no! To do that would be to miss out on the occasional flat-out WINNER, like this here Favours For Sailors record (or Throw Me The Statue last year). ‘Furious Sons’ is a brief set of songs custom built to remind us that a good band who know how to play their guitar/guitar/bass/drums, who have big, bright, clean production, vaguely literate/ambiguous lyrics and fully developed multi-part songs that venture beyond the four minute mark, can still be SO MUCH FUN when they hit the bullseye and do all that stuff RIGHT for once, with energy and humour and the kind of off-the-cuff musical prowess that makes crappy wouldbe musicians like myself curse their sorry lot in life.
“Erode My Empire” makes for a great opening track – I love the way the lead guitar hooks splurge all over the melodica-assisted verse-chug, and it’s hard not to crack a smile at the lyrical conceit; “empires erode / from the coastline in / soon I’ll be stuck in a square metre in the middle / probably in Nottingham”. It’s great too on the yell-along-at-home chorus, where it sounds like one guy is shouting “burn all the bridges!”, whilst the other guy goes for “burn all the bitches!”, creating an all together superior melding of the two into “burn all the breeches!” Now there’s a shout-out we can all get behind.
The best song though is track # 4, “I Dreamt That I Dreamt That You Loved Me In Your Dreams”. It’s STUNNING. An indie-rock ‘Citizen Kane’ in three minutes fifty-nine seconds. And, like ‘Kane’, it both demands a blow by blow written account and supersedes the need for one in it’s clarity of its intention and expression. It builds moment of awesomeness upon moment of awesomeness like a big, top heavy layer cake for anyone who’s ever enjoyed lively, smart sad-boy indie rock, until it collapses in on itself at just the right moment – instant classic.
If they’d included this song on the record and filled out the rest with recordings of themselves whistling amusing little solos to each other in D#m, ‘Furious Sons’ would still be amongst my favourite releases of the year thus far, but thankfully all the other songs are really good too. “No Room At The Buffet” is another perfectly realised jaunty rocker, whilst the moral conundrums of “The Nihilist Prays” and “Shy Times” reveal a more introspective side of the band’s writing, and “Our Name” does indeed reveal the origin of THAT name, as well as featuring an interesting string-synth and syncopated vocal intro that, along with the looped “whoa-oh-oh”s on “I Dreamt..”, bespeaks the influence of post-Animal Collective experimental pop, adding a definite bit of ‘00s to the band’s ‘90s-centric scrapbook.
Frankly, these six songs are about as strong as a four piece British guitar band’s debut record could possibly get. Good work!
Mp3 > I Dreamt I Dreamt That You Loved My In Your Dreams
Favours For Sailors myspace.
You can buy ‘Furious Sons’ on Cd, vinyl AND mp3 for a mere £6 from Tough Love! Bargain!
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
A CATHEDRAL OF EYES:
Mystery TRAINing Volume # 2
For anyone who enjoyed my first wide-ranging type psychedelia mix CD a few months back, here’s volume two. As before, the overriding theme of this disc didn’t become clear until I started listening back to all the tunes I’d thrown together and saw a pattern emerging, proceeding to tweak accordingly.
So basically: this edition focuses mainly, though not exclusively, on exploring various strains of peculiarly British weirdness. Not the more garish, colourful brand of British weirdness defined by the ‘60s cultural explosion though, mark you. More like the murky, forbidding, timeless kind of British weirdness that always seems to emerge when you scratch away the surface of our nation’s (counter)culture, offering a path into the blackened psyches of our island nation’s more… peculiar.. inmates.
Aside from a few bigger cult names, there are a wealth of awesome private press / below-the-radar finds represented here, so I offer my thanks to blogs like Mutant Sounds and Lost In Tyme for slinging them into my path. Of particular interest to some will be The Fates, an all-female wiccan collective led by Una Baines, ex of The Fall, whose album ‘Furia’ offers a fascinating mixture of mysterioso pagan folk and feminist new wave pop (one for the ‘REISSUE NOW PLEASE’ file). Another favourite of mine are The Left Handed Marriage, a trio of talented kids who spent the late ‘60s stuck well away from the action in far North London, but who nonetheless recorded an album’s worth of startlingly strong, characterful acoustic pop-folk tunes that help reveal a very different England to the one in which The ‘Stones and Jimi Hendrix were strutting their stuff in but a few miles away. Dark (I keep wanting to call them The Dark) were an early ‘70s combo whose two private press albums are quite well known amongst psyche/prog fans and have subsequently been reissued etc, but, man, ‘Maypole’ never gets any more normal. As to the likes of The Lazily Spun and The Chemistry Set… well I don’t know a damn thing about them I’m afraid, although I’m quite happy with that state of affairs, being a fan of mystery and such.
Of course, that aside, we’ve also got contributions here from South Africa (Super-Eagles), Japan (OOIOO), what is now Iraq (Said El Kurdi), and the USA (Pearls Before Swine); maybe a few of these could serve to add a nice frission of post-Imperial guilt to proceedings, if you want to carry on the British theme? Or simply some incredible music, if you don’t. That Super Eagles track is so purely wonderful, it’s hard to justify the existence of any mixtape that fails to include it.
The other presumptuous, unintentional synchronicity that seem to crop up across these songs concerns the hermetic nature of love, and the need to protect it from worldly cynicism. Make of that what you will.
Oh, and I guess some people (who like their genres cut n’ dried) may question the inclusion of The Slits on a psychedelia compilation. So answers on a postcard if you’ve got a better guess at where the hell a track like ‘Life On Earth’ is supposed to be filed.
To get you in mood, here’s the video to The Troggs ‘Night of Long Grass’, which I think exemplifies the atmosphere I’m going for with this one better than any amount of talkin’:
1. Bermuda Triangle – Nights in White Satin
2. Super Eagles – Love is a Real Thing
3. OOIOO – Be Sure to Loop
4. The Troggs – Night of the Long Grass
5. Television Personalities – Scream Quietly
6. Belbury Poly – Caermaen
7. The Lazily Spun – The Rock
8. The Lazily Spun – The Whole
9. The Fates – Sheila / She Beats My Heart
10. The Chemistry Set – Under The Valley
11. The Caretaker – From Out Of Nowhere
12. The Deviants – Billy The Monster
13. The Left Handed Marriage – Civil Servile
14. Dark – Maypole
15. Said El Kurdi – Kassem Miro
16. The Slits – Life On Earth
17. John Cage – Experiences No.2 (vocal: Robert Wyatt)
18. Delia Derbyshire – Blue Veils and Golden Sands
19. Pearls Before Swine – Guardian Angels
(97mb .zip file)
Monday, March 16, 2009
Rough Trade at the BBC
I made use of the BBC's popular and remarkably easy/free/useful iplayer service for the first time this weekend. It's the first time in ages that they've made any original programming that I can be bothered to go out of my way to see.
The programming in question was a compilation of TV performances by bands associated with the Rough Trade label, shown on BBC4 on Friday night. At the time of writing, you can still go and watch it for another five days or so, and hell, perhaps you should: the first five performances are by Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Alison Statton's Weekend and Robert Wyatt!
Nice to know the BBC have had all that in the can the whole time whilst they've been boring us senseless with Whistle Test DVDs full of Rory Gallagher and Simply Red.
No Swell Maps in evidence sadly, but other highlights include Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven (doing "..skinheads"), and the exceptionally strange Cathal O'Coughlan fronting Microdisney.
The first half of the accompanying Rough Trade documentary is well worth watching too, although it's hard not to read the story's conclusion ("from DIY post-punk defiance to making a packet managing an MOR coffee table soul singer? = um... yay for us!") as a colossal downer, despite the applaudable quantity of good stuff the resurrected RT still puts out (which goes unmentioned, natch).
No other point to this post really - just thought I'd tip you off in case yr interested.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I Like Dum Dum Girls.
I like Dum Dum Girls. You might not. Taking part in the same tightrope walk between mysterioso rock n’ roll sublimity and arch, self-satisfied tedium as The Vivian Girls (who get a standing ovation for their services to the former) and Crystal Stilts (who plummet to their boring deaths whilst demonstrating the latter), I think Dum Dum Girls are going to be busy splitting audience reaction down the middle for years to come.
Currently blessed with a sense of mystery (both musical and biographical) that will likely fade once the expected hype kicks in in earnest, Dum Dum Girls would seem to be the work of one Ramones / 60s pop obsessed girl called DeeDee, recording alone in…. well, the natural cliché would be to say “in her bedroom”, only I muck about recording stuff in MY bedroom, and I’m not very good at it and don’t have much in the way of equipment or know-how, but I don’t think I could get recording quality this bad if I actively tried. So instead let’s say: Dum Dum Girls sounds like the work of one Ramones / 60s pop obsessed girl recording alone on an abandoned cargo ship in the middle of the Atlantic and broadcasting the results via WWII radio equipment to a farmer in the Shetland Isles who picks it up on short-wave and dubs it onto old C90s.
Ok, it’s not quite *that bad* - the vocals on some of the tracks are pretty bright and pristine, as are some of the sugary fuzz guitar tones, whilst the Spector-on-a-budget reverb-soaked roar of the overall sound is often beautifully realised. But the instruments, in general, are a muffled, indistinguishable mess – amplifiers turned to the wall with a cheap mic on the other side of the room, whilst the weedy electronic drums are a vague presence at best, often thudding off into a different dimension entirely never to return at around the time the first chorus kicks in.
Showcasing a brand of lo-fi that’s the polar opposite of Times New Viking’s painfully distorted practice room skree, the Dum Dum Girls take on rock n’ roll is distant, incorporeal and about 50% *quieter* than most modern recordings, making these songs seem almost ghostly, like the fading half-life of what used to be a furious punk-pop rave ups.
This seems appropriate, as Space-Rock, you see, appears to be DeeDee’s other big thing. And, unlike most of the big budget neo-‘gazers, she’s smart enough to realise that the perfection of that particular craft lies not in the pedals or the careful wooosh of overdubbed noises, but in the judicious application of Mark E. Smith’s three Rs. Combined with her sinister, minimal pop sensibility, this love of lingering, detached, slow-burn repetition comes together on songs like “Put a Sock In It” to create a previously undreamed of gateway between Shadow Morton and Spacemen 3 via ‘Beat On The Brat’.
It’s the sound though that’s initially going to see a lot of listeners turning back from said gateway with an understandable cry of “fuck this boring, can’t-be-arsed demo tape shit!” But for anyone willing to loiter around for a few minutes and let this music sink in, the whole no-fi thing is also a very effective technique, encouraging a deeper listening that lets a near heartstopping sense of classical pop beauty creep out of these hazy, introverted, simplistic songs, even more surely than it did on the 3rd/4th/5th listen to the Vivian Girls album.
Listening to the myspace was my first exposure. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first; I thought the songs sounded kick-ass, and I loved the fuzz guitar and siren-song-on-the-shortwave vocals a lot, but the wrecked sound and general sense of lethargy bothered me. Nonetheless, I simultaneously felt very, very happy and a reassured to be living in a world in which the heartfelt yet uncertain DIY outings of this lonesome Ramones/60s pop/space-rock girl could be met from all sides with praise, plaudits, encouragement and excitement, rather than with scorn and dismissal. Pat yourselves on the back, 7”-trading American lo-fi scenester types, you done good!
So in spirit I was THERE, but on a musical level, I wasn’t sure I could really hang with it. Then “Baby Don’t Go” rolled around, and…. I was sold. Utterly.
Listened to the other songs again, headspace properly adjusted, and…. beautiful. I could weep.
Maybe you’ll disagree. I mean, I can’t hide the fact – I just LIKE this sort of thing. Old fashioned girl group style songs, fuzzy, droning guitars, fast punk tempos, bursts of one note noise, slow blissed out ballads, music made by girls, music that’s weird and out-of-time and lonesome, music that remembers The Ramones and their teachings. That’s me.
If I was into 80s goth, meandering, grumpy songs, thin guitars, monotone Jim Morrison whining and music made by faux-druggy boys, I’d probably be all over Crystal Stilts instead.
I guess interpretation of this kind of distant, overtly referential music is largely a matter of aesthetic preference. Maybe these bands are just leaving us a hollowed shell of noise and second hand gesture that we can fill with whatever meaning we see fit. Maybe I just project a sense of emotional honesty and feminine pop/noise catharsis onto Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls because I want to, because it makes me feel better. Sometimes I might close my eyes and pretend there’s a dragon in the room. You might laugh, but the dragon’s still really cool.
I think it’s good when rock n’ roll calls for us to flex our imaginations a little and make-believe. I like Dum Dum Girls. Do you?
Baby Don't Go
Not a great deal of Dum Dum Girls vinyl or plastic available at present. Myspace is here.
You can order her four song 12" for $12.99 plus shipping from there, or else fire up the ol' Hype Machine and wait for some more widely distributed records.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
I Like Nodzzz.
Nodzzz is a really terrible band name, you’ve got to admit. The kind of vague, stupid sounding, deeply irritating band name that the more grumpy half of my brain is on the verge of starting to ignore on principle when they turn up on the pages of Plan B or on the listings of some hip promoter. Because, dudes – I know we’ve been raised in the ‘80s (or even – arrg – ‘90s; it kills me to refer to a decade I remember in it’s entirety in distant, historically-finished past tense), on a diet of garish, eye-grabbing and meaningless product names, ads and cartoons jammed with gratuitous Zs, Ks, !!s etc., but do we REALLY have to reflect that in our bands, which we’ve named ourselves, as grown-ups? Back when people primarily talked about music with each other outside the realm of the internet, Nodzzz would have been Nods (perhaps The Nods), no questions asked. Do fans of !!! or Rac-oo-oo-n or Sunn 0))) or XBXRX get fed up with not being able to talk about their fave bands without a five minute grammatical clarification?
Tormenting sub-editors for the heck of it is all well and good, but do these guys realise that whenever I get around to mentioning Nodzzz In Real Life, I’m gonna be all like “hey, have you heard of that band Nods, yeah, you know, the one with the three zeds?” EVERY SINGLE TIME?
But no matter, within three seconds of the start of any of their songs, Nodzzz will be forgiven, the name issue forgotten, because – and it feels good to say it - I like Nodzzz! I like them quite a lot in fact! I think they’re one of the best new bands I’ve heard in ages.
The a-side of Nodzzz debut single, “I Don’t Wanna (Smoke Marijuana)” is an instant classic, a timeless ninety-five second nugget of perfectly realised, self-contained awesomeness in the manner of “Read About Seymour” or “Judy is a Punk”. Over a rollicking lead bass line and clanging first-strat-into-first-practice-amp guitar chords, it’s a tale of teenage frustration in which Nodzzz shriek of their dissatisfaction with the awkwardness and hassles of casual drug use, wishing they could simply “..get high… in another place!” I bet I could listen to the song’s middle section breakdown (“grandma’s always saying he’s so rude / used to be number one but now you’re TWO!”) every day for the rest of my life, and it would still make me smile.
If there’s one word that instantly springs to mind when hearing Nodzzz for the first time, it is, for better or worse, NERDS. Now, I don’t have any very good reference points for what Nodzzz look like, or what kind of people they are, but… the impression comes across pretty clear, and I feel confident in thinking they’re unlikely to be a bunch of beefy jocks who are gonna want to come and ‘whale on me’ for writing this review. I’d like to imagine a Nodzzz live show would be a veritable riot of chunky NHS glasses, inappropriate headwear, baggy t-shirts and arms so skinny they look like they’re gonna snap like twigs if they ricochet off the bass strings too hard. I’d also like to imagine that they really like to *bounce around* the place to their heart’s content. You know that peculiar, jaunty, topsy-turvy kind of poppy *bounce*, like you get on early Violent Femmes or Camper Van Beethoven records? NERD BOUNCE – that’s what it is! Now that I come to define it as such, Nerd-Bounce is probably one of my all-time favourite musical things, and Nodzzz are masters of it.
Every song on Nodzzz self-titled 12” (as an aside, has anyone else noticed this deal with underground American bands deciding they’re doing “12”s” recently, as opposed to the more portentous “albums”? – kinda like “ok, no big deal, this is just like one of our singles, only this time we made a really big one with 11 songs” or something?) is a veritable education in the possibilities of Nerd-Bounce, each track throwing down in a uniquely enjoyable, off-kilter manner that fully delivers on the promise of “..Marijuana”.
Oft times, Nodzzz fleetingly remind me of my other “Revenge of the Nerds” heroes, The Embarrassment – one of the greatest, most frequently overlooked bands of all time, whom I’ve been meaning to write a proper post about for ages. Despite a raft of superficial similarities though, Nodzzz and The Embarrassment never manage to see eye to eye for more than a few moments. Whereas The Embarrassment always sounded as if they were being driven forward by a writhing mass of vengeful sexual frustration, even when singing about space travel or hunting dinosaurs, Nodzzz are, if not exactly *contented*, certainly a lot more…. easy-going… in their concerns. These are good natured fellas for sure, coming on witty like vintage Woody Allen, but with none of the neuroses in evidence.
In fact, Nodzzz very rarely sing about girls. You’d assume “Is She There?” might be about a girl, but the lyrics seem to be more about getting interrogated by the army. “Losing My Accent” wistfully relates how said loss took place whilst in bed with a girl “in the North-West”, but mainly it’s just sad about the accent. Nobly pencilling in the vast gulf left in pop songwriting once such concerns are removed, Nodzzz instead sing variously about their fears about moving to the city, their transport problems, getting old, being too young, and having to attend awkward social events on the great “Controlled Karaoke” (“it’s a party if you know what that means / no one wants to go and no one wants to leave”). I guess all of those themes sound like things one might moan about, and indeed Nodzzz probably ARE moaning, but you’d never know it unless you stopped to pay close attention, so darn irrepressibly upbeat and FUN do their songs seem on first exposure.
Musically, they’re absolutely spot-on too, hitting just the right balance between competence and spontaneity, just as lesser bands proceed to pointlessly tear chunks out of each other in the reviews sections in an unspoken war between over-cooked and under-cooked indie-rock records that are pretty dull in either direction.
Listen to the two vocalists trying not to burst into giggles as the guitarist fluffs up just before they hit the second chorus of “I Can't Wait”, and the wonky, wood-block assisted riff-fest that follows and you’ll hear the ‘first take / best take’ philosophy of Swell Maps and the makeshift sonic anarchy of early Sun sessions at their finest. Listen elsewhere though – to the slashing, fast-strumming guitarwork on “Highway Memorial Shrine”, the intricate surfy-jangle lead lines and handbrake turn drumming – and you can (kinda, sorta) hear the spirit of The Minutemen rising in the distance, a spirit of carefully pre-studio prep work, obsessive practice and the desire to give the audience it’s musical money’s-worth that seems almost alien after extensive exposure to the trashed aesthetics that predominate amongst the rest of the currently resurgent lo-fi scene.
Short, sharp, instantly likeable and packed with awesome, I hereby declare Nodzzz debut my the first out and out winner of 2009, or the last one of 2008, or whatever.
The Beatles – now there’s a REALLY crappy band name. And I guess people didn't go around calling them "you know, The Beatles, with an 'a', it's like a really bad pun" all the time either.
I Don't Wanna (Smoke Marijuana)
I Can't Wait
If you wanna hear nine other songs just as good as those, why not buy the Nodzzz record?
Nodzzz have a weblog and a myspace too.
Monday, March 02, 2009
Velvets Ephemera # 1: Before The Banana
Above we see what could well be the earliest known photograph of The Velvet Underground, taken in 1965, before Mo Tucker joined, before Andy Warhol & co rescued them from the coffeehouse circuit. From L to R that’s Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed, John Cale and Angus Maclise, all hanging out on a picturesque NY rooftop and, you’ll note, all carrying the tools of their dubious trade. (Click for a larger view - looks like a radical axe Sterling's got there!)
I’ve been meaning to find an excuse to post this photo ever since I nabbed it from If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.. a few months back, and now I’ve got one. Over the Christmas holidays, I finally got around to reading Uptight, the Victor Bockris/Gerald Malanga book about The Velvet Underground. Though a pretty good read, it’s not exactly the comprehensive work on the band that I’d been hoping for. It’s very good on mapping out the momentum behind the band’s formation, their interaction with the Warhol set and the rise and fall of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (as you’d expect, what with Malanga being very much the man on the scene), but coverage of the post-Cale era is sketchy, and detail on the musical side of things is lacking throughout. Call me a geek, but, whilst the explosive mixture of characters and circumstances surrounding the Velvets is fascinating in itself, I would dearly love to find out more about when, where, how and why the different sets of songs had their genesis, what equipment the band was using, exactly who played what on different recordings and tours and what brought about the drastic changes in direction that seemed to take place between each studio album.
Beyond a few tantalising details and interview quotes making reference to customised guitars, mishandled song-writing credits and unconventional recording techniques, the Bockris/Malanga book largely ignores such issues, concentrating instead on the personalities and assuming the music was just THERE, the end result of these guys just doing what they do, because they’re, like, y’know, geniuses and whatever.
Perhaps a better way to gain an understanding of the group’s musical development (or else to deepen the mystery further) is to do what I’ve been doing over the past year or so, and take the plunge into the labyrinthine world of Velvet Underground bootlegs, demo recordings and other such ephemera.
Now, given their position as the – ahem – ‘ultimate cult band’, with over three decades worth of obsessive pre-internet fandom behind them, trying to get an angle on the Velvets bootleg scene is a grim and forbidding business to say the least. There seem to be literally hundreds of discs out there, most baring mysterioso, fan-baiting titles and misleading (deliberately or otherwise) track info, all essentially concerned with repackaging what is in fact a pretty slim body of unreleased material and decent live recordings in various states of disguise and disrepair. In addition to this, there’s also quite a lot of worthwhile extracurricular material that HAS been granted official release, but that still lies beyond the grasp of the casual fan, tucked away as it is on the difficult to find ‘Another View’ album, or the pointless/expensive ‘Peel Slowly And See’ box set.
Hence the idea behind this series of posts is that I will attempt to save you the effort by highlighting (and, where appropriate, posting) some of the most eye-opening and essential pieces of Velvet Underground ephemera in roughly chronological order, writing some stuff to put them in context, and simultaneously warning you of other boots worth avoiding.
Does that sound good? – well, either way, I’m gonna do it, so let’s crack on!
Going way back in the Velvets timeline, to before even the above photo was taken most probably, we have the extraordinary ‘demo reels’ that appear on disc # 1 of ‘Peel Slowly And See’.
From glancing at the box set’s tracklisting, you might assume these tracks were just rough sessions for the banana album, but they’re a LOT more interesting than that, and are in fact entirely unlike anything the Velvets recorded subsequently, offering a fascinating insight into the group’s earliest incarnation as what was essentially an open-ended Reed/Cale songwriting partnership that developed shortly after the two met whilst promoting Reed’s Pickwick Records quickie ‘The Ostrich’.
In the Bockris/Malanga book, brief reference is made to Cale making tapes of the band’s earliest material which he sent to some of his contacts in the UK, apparently sparking “great interest” in some quarters, shortly before the band hooked up with Warhol and embarked on a different course entirely, failing to follow up said “interest”. Now, I may be completely off-base here, but I would ASSUME that what we have in front of us is those very tapes, presented in awkward documentary style on the box set as a series of lengthy tracks, each comprising multiple takes of a single song, complete with false starts, abandoned versions etc.
It is immediately obvious is that, whilst the bare bones of some of their best known songs may be in place, the version of the Velvet Underground that made these recordings sounds strikingly different to the one that was playing for Warhol’s crowd but a few months later. For all that Lou may have subsequently liked to frame the Velvets as growing out of “just another Long Island rock n’ roll band”, and for all that Sterling Morrison may have taken every opportunity to badmouth the notion of folk music in interviews and declare his dedication to the darkest, dirtiest rock n’ roll, there’s no avoiding the fact that these recordings are, well…. folk music. Pretty weird, unconventional folk music admittedly, but no electric instruments, percussion or even a hint of r’n’b muscle are present. It’s obvious that neither Maclise nor Moe are featured on these songs, and it seems likely that Sterling wasn’t around for them either. With each track featuring just Reed & Cale’s vocals, a single acoustic guitar and one additional instrument per song (slide gtr, viola, harmonica, or just a hand pounding a desk to keep time), I strongly suspect that this is just John and Lou sketching out their song ideas on tape.
The other thing that’s obvious here is, to put it to you in eight letters, JOHN CALE. Taking lead vocals on all of the best songs, and sounding as compositionally/lyrically involved as he is musically, he definitely comes across as the stronger force in the partnership here, making his subsequent retreat to the position of musical sideman, and all those ‘Reed’ song credits on the first album, seem even more suspect.
Cale’s vocal on ‘Venus in Furs’ in particular is beautiful, as the song is drawn out into a eerie psych-folk lament, his delivery of the “I am tired / I am weary..” section managing to transcend the shabby S&M subject matter altogether, echoing the kind of sonorous, mist-shrouded celtic plainsong that he would go on to explore from time to time in his solo career. It really makes me wish that he’d been able to sing on the album version – perhaps the only thing that could have made that extraordinary track more haunting, weird and timeless than it already is.
‘Prominent Men’, with Lou taking lead vocals, is, I’m sad to report, a fairly obvious Dylan rip off, and, despite being played with gusto and a few fruity lyrical lines, doesn’t really move much beyond that status. Perhaps it was for precisely this reason that it was dropped from the Velvets roster of songs pretty swiftly and, to my knowledge, has never been heard since.
Even more curiously, ‘Waiting For The Man’ is performed here in a manner that seems somewhat derivative of The Fugs (who were pretty much the kingpins of ‘underground’ music in New York when the Velvets were starting out), with Lou’s voice still sounding kinda nasal and Dylan-y as he and John holler along together and the music approaches a kinda rough, jaunty beatnik swagger, incorporating harmonica breaks and some utterly insane Cale viola destruction in the middle. Of all the songs here, this is the one whose tone changed the most over the course of the following year. Also, listening carefully, there are definitely two guitars here, so I guess Sterl might have been around for this one too.
Musically, ‘Heroin’ adheres pretty closely to the version we know and love, although at this stage it seems to have had a quite different set of lyrics (markedly less interesting ones than those used later), and lacks both the slow-burn build-up and incendiary descent into improvised noise that help make the final version so definitively mindblowing. It'll still give you the same old shivers though, if you can get over another Dylan-ish vocal.
‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ seems to be the song they had most trouble bringing to life – the guitar arrangement is quite complex, and the full track on the box set bears witness to near twenty minutes of abandoned takes, false starts and cursing.
The melody has a far folkier, more organic feel to it than the stark collapsing-glass-skyscraper majesty of the Nico led version on the album.
The most exciting find here though is the superb rendition of ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, a song that featured in many early Velvets set-lists and was eventually recorded by Nico for her ‘Chelsea Girl’ album. Although the song is initially striking simply for it’s minimal, folk-derived melody and sinister, dirge-like repetition (which needless to say, Nico made the most of), I think ‘Wrap Your Troubles..’ reveals itself here as an incredibly distinctive and beautiful song, contrasting verses filled with increasingly desperate images of brutality and decay with a calm, mantra-like chorus that, much like ‘Heroin’, seems to be urging a comforting, solipsistic escape from external woes. True, some of the lyrics verge pretty heavily into teenage quasi-symbolist garbage (“..excrement filters through the brain / hatred bends the spine..” anyone?), but nonetheless, the song is as perfectly realised as any of the early Velvets material, carrying with it the kind of baroque atmosphere and singular power that would have fitted in perfectly on the banana album.
For your listening convenience, I’ve cut each of these songs down to one complete take, and am posting them as mp3s below. Well worth a listen.
The Velvet Underground – 1965 Demos
Venus In Furs (take two)
Prominent Men (take one)
I’m Waiting For The Man (take three)
All Tomorrow’s Parties (take three)
Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams (take two)
The only other significant set of pre-first album Velvets recordings that persistently pop up are the ‘Rehearsal at the Warhol Museum’ tapes, supposedly from a tape recording made by Warhol himself of the group practicing at the Factory sometime in ’66.
These are, sad to report, a definite ‘hardcore fans only’ concern, proving, if nothing else, that even the most inspired bands have their off-days. Recording quality is roughly dictaphone level, with vocals and percussion largely inaudible and Cale’s bass predominating. It sounds like a pretty shitty, soul-draining rehearsal too for the most part, as the band shamble through a few sloppy, nameless blues jams, throwing in the odd cheesy ‘lick’ and stopping occasionally to mutter despondently. A bit of a downer.
I recall reading somewhere that these recordings were first heard when they were broadcast at some sort of Warhol retrospective/memorial event, where they were illicitly recorded by some guy pressing a tape recorder against the speaker, leading to what I can only imagine must be the most pointless and mystifying boots in rock history – a lo-fi tape recording of a public broadcast of another lo-fi tape recording of a really crappy band practice. I’ve not heard that one, but I suppose it could well venture into territory where the scuzz and ambience of a recording, the sense of unfathomable chronological and cultural distance, becomes far more affecting that the music itself – a theme we’re sure to return to in later instalments of this series.
A couple of moments of interest on the Warhol museum tape:
There’s a bit where you can hear Lou apparently trying to teach Nico to sing Venus In Furs, without much success, as Sterl and Cale jam rather slickly and horribly around the song’s central theme. There’s also a pretty interesting attempt at a really nice sounding Reed song called ‘Walk Alone’ – it’s only appearance as far as I know.
The best bit is a try-out of a song called ‘Miss Joanie Lee’ (another abandoned Reed original?), a tight John Lee Hooker-esque boogie that prefigures ‘Run Run Run’ and ‘Foggy Notion’ as Lou and Streling’s guitars momentarily coalesce into some definitive Velvets drone/choogle, like the blinding sun emerging from cloud, before the whole thing sinks into a bunch of weird, interminable noise. ‘Blues jam’ = URGH.
Here are those two bits, anyway.
The Velvet Underground – Rehearsal At The Warhol Museum
Miss Joanie Lee
NEXT UP: The holy grail to some, but it does exist: some seriously good shit from the Exploding Plastic Inevitable era.
First though, I'm gonna post some stuff about new bands, just to even out my karma.
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