Safely Obscure Bands, or “listening to bands that actually released albums is so, like, mainstream…”

19 10 2007

Top Five Myths and Legends of the Punk Era

1. The London SS

2. Rocket From The Tombs

3. The Crucial Three

4. Destroy All Monsters

5. The Electric Eels

There are many examples of snobbery amongst music fans, but one of the most pervasive is the belief that if too many other people come to enjoy a band, then their value to the true fan will be diluted. The optimum scenario is being a part of a small cognoscenti; occasionally there will be the opportunity to commend one another on having the “right” taste.

For music fans with this outlook there is a problem with supporting any up-and-coming or contemporary artists, however obscure they may currently be. For one thing, that band or musician’s time near the zeitgeist may pass quickly and they may prove to have been not so much cool, as irrelevant. Worse still, God help us, they might get popular! It would be profoundly embarrassing to have ever liked such sell-outs.

The route to more secure music snobbery must therefore lie in the past. You can then pick artists who have not only proved incapable of selling any decent quantity of their music over several decades, but have already conveniently been earmarked as “cool” or “influential” by equally snobby musicians and critics. A good example might be Krautrock – mentioned by lots of hip people, not about to listened to or liked by the general public.

Beware! The exclusivity of your appreciation cannot be guarranteed! Freakish trends and strange belated justice occasionally bring bands from the past the attention they always deserved, and then lots of people will hear of them. Nick Drake was rediscovered by miserable students everywhere in the ’90s and now there is no special kudos to knowing his records at all….

So I came to wondering how one’s taste could remain aloof and cool – what bands could be championed with the absolute certainty of their cultural weight, and the absolute certainty that larger numbers people will never get in on the act and like them too? Tricky, very tricky….

The answer is to claim to like very cool bands that are well documented, but never released any albums to start with! There is the slight downside that you probably won’t own any of their music either…. but that’s the price of exclusivity! Here are five bands from the 70s that could vaguely collectively be described as Punk, whose reputations remain untarnished by any proper back-catalogue….

The London SS

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Formed in ‘75, The London SS was a fetid petri dish out of which grew the London Punk scene. Core members Mick Jones (later of The Clash and B.A.D.) and Tony James (later of Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik) played with various lineups that also included Brian James and Rat Scabies (later of The Damned) and future members of the Hollywood Kids, The Boys and the Rich Kids. They never played a gig, but there is a demo to be found; no-one claims it’s great… However, they were essential in bringing together like minded people and putting Mick Jones in touch with Bernie Rhodes, who later did much as manager of The Clash to make them the titans they became.

Rocket From The Tombs

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Not to be confused with Rocket From The Crypt. Rocket From The Tombs existed in Cleveland around 1974-75. They never released an album and only played a handful of legendary gigs. [disappointingly their demos and live recordings have been collected on a recent CD. Luckily they’re very rough] RFTT members went on to found two of the great American bands, The Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. Indeed, old Rocket songs lived on in both subsequent bands’ repertoires, although stylistically they took the music in very different directions. The Dead Boys, having drafted in front-man Stiv Bators, became a classic sounding Punk band, although their best known song (Sonic Reducer) apparently dates from RFTT. Pere Ubu are better grouped with ”Post-Punk” – they got very much weirder, artier and experimental. Pere Ubu are way-cool, and remain fairly reliably limited in their appeal – but why take the risk? Best to plump for Rocket From The Tombs.

The Crucial Three

The Crucial Three have a lot in common with what may have been hundreds of groups formed in the spring of 1977 – a bunch of mates went to see The Clash on the White Riot Tour and decided to get a band together. It lasted for 6 weeks. Significantly the singer was Ian McCulloch (later of Echo & The Bunnymen), the bass player was Julian Cope (later of The Teardrop Explodes) and the guitarist was Pete Wylie (later of the Mighty Wah). Overpowered by egos, they never even recorded a demo, although both McCulloch and Cope recorded the Crucial Three song “Books” on their first albums.

Destroy All Monsters

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Destroy All Monsters had two distinct phases. From 1973-76 this bunch of University of Michigan Art students played their weird brand of experimental music at parties and exhibitions around Ann Arbor, confusing people with their use of broken, modified and odd instruments. The perfect obscurity of this period has been ruined by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who has gone out his way to collect and release recordings of this line up. Following a split in 1976 two originals (crucially still including ex-model Niagara) teamed up with a bunch of new faces including Ron Asheton (ex of The Stooges) and Michael Davis (ex of the MC5). This full-on-Punk line up wasn’t stable, but several EPs were released with Niagara and Asheton under the DAM moniker until a final split in 1985. No proper album though, and nothing easy-listening either….

The Electric Eels

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Around on the same Cleveland scene as RFTT from 1972-75, The Electric Eels were wholly precient in marrying music that would later be decribed as Punk Rock to nihilistic and pointless displays of aggression. Only ever playing 6 gigs (some say 5) they nonetheless managed to get themselves banned from numerous venues by reputation alone. Of course it’s upsetting that all their recordings were made available in the 90s, but a relief to note that they are all almost unlistenable and redefine the appelation “lo-fi”. Band members went on feature in The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, the Styrenes and The Cramps. None of them were involved in anything this unpleasant or anti-social again…





Corporate Attire For Corporate Rock (or The Old Guard Adopt the Suit Jacket In The 80s)

12 10 2007

Top Five Ageing Rockers In Suit Jackets

1. Eric Clapton

2. Rod Stewart

3. Phil Collins

4. Don Henley

5. Stevie Winwood

It is a strange fact that the Eighties did not kill off the careers of baby boomer rockers, but instead saw them play endless charity shows in suit jackets.

eric clapton

Why should this be surprising? Well, this was the decade after all where the re-invogoration of pop music from the twin forces of ’77 were finally felt commercially. Punk had slow filtered to the mainstream to make long solos and beards genrally unacceptable, and Bowie’s Berlin tryptiche had ushered in the looks and sonic tectures of Romo and synth pop, quite at odds with hoary old faces from the 60s. Moreover, the introduction of MTV properly allowed for the full synergy of multimedia marketing; it is of no surprise that acts such as Jacko, Madge and Prince prospered – but surely the old guard should have died off?

 rod stewart

Well, that’s not how it went down. Unholy forces intervened to make the Eighties a great decade to be an ageing Rocker past your prime. For one thing their baby boomer audience had grown up with them, and now they were ready to buy whole back-catalogues again on CD. For another the Live Aid / Princes Trust era reintroduced the world to these people as “legends”, forever getting together to be feted at superstar charity bashes.

phil collins

There was a time in the late 60s and early 70s where wearing a suit (often a white one), was a provocative act for a Rock Star, only confirming their countercultural status (think Dlyan at the Isle of Wight, George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh, Lennon on Abbey Road). Noone would confuse these guys with someone on their way into the office – the contrast to the wild hair, the impractical colour, the flared cut.

don henley

The same cannot be said of the 80s suit jacket of your typical dinosaur. Instead, we have the offensive near-admission that Rock music has become just a job to these guys, and this is their uniform. Sometimes made to look “funky” worn with a T Shirt and Jeans, the suit jacket successfully allowed a bunch of greying tossers to have perfectly popular vidoes on MTV by allowing them to tap into the woeful corporate fetishism of the era.

stevie winwood

I am not suggesting that attempting longevity of a Rock career is in itself sinful, but this was a period where record companies must have had a standard bulletin to older artists:

  • Get yourself a suit jacket – if you need tips look to that young gun Huey Lewis.
  • Lose your hippy hair and any sense of your identity- you may want to learn to blow dry.
  • Stop recording with a proper band – get Phil to show you how to achieve that gated drum sound and where to use some awful synth sounds.
  • If you ever were a songwriter, now would be a good time to stop and let someone completely soul-less take over those duties. Remember – we know the market.
  • Don’t forget to turn up to the next charity bash – I hear Tina Turner will be there!




Too Much Talent, Not Enough Taste or ‘The Unfortunate Music Of Jeff Beck’

10 10 2007

The Top Five Worst Jeff Beck Albums

1. Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live
2. Flash
3. Rough & Ready
4. Beck-Ola
5. There and Back
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Jeff Beck is one of a handful of 1960s guitarists credited with expanding the role of the instrument, a true original Guitar Hero. Along with fellow Yardbirds alumni Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Jeff showed that the guitarist could and should receive as much attention as the singer. Indeed, The Jeff Beck Group featured Rod Stewart on vocals, effectively relegating one of the greatest Rock voices of the age to the role of Jeff’s sideman.
There is certainly no doubting the innovation of Jeff’s playing with The Yardbirds. Not shy of using wacky effects, singles like Shapes of Things still sound extraordinary. I am also happy to concede that his blues playing displays all the subtlety of a master. However, having recently plunged headlong into listening to his Jeff Beck Group and solo work, I can only conclude that it’s almost all irredeemably rubbish.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re talking about the highest calibre rubbish here, the kind that only a finely assembled group of virtuosos could produce… Also, one can’t reasonably complain that Jeff has spent his career stuck in a rut – we have “heavy blues” rubbish, we have funky rubbish, we have (god help us) fusion rubbish, we have MOR instrumental rubbish, and finally we have ambient techno rubbish.
The first album, Truth, is the high water mark. With Led Zep et al so firmly established in the popular canon, it is easy to forget that there was a time before people had heard Willie Dixon blues standards mangled at top volume by Englishmen in loon pants. Rod’s wailing is top notch; Jeff’s playing setting the tone for Hard Rock to come.
Woefully however, this formula already palls by the time of Beck-Ola. The sleeve actually features this quote: “”Today, with all the hard competition in the music business, it’s almost impossible to come up with anything totally original. So we haven’t. However, this disc was made with the accent on heavy music. So sit back and listen and try and decide if you can find a small place in your heads for it.” Oh. My. God. What we have here is the classic mistake made by musicians emerging from the Pop market of the mid 60s into the late 60s Rock arena. Where once the songwriters in bands had conspired with producers to make daring slabs of brilliance on 45s, the industry now turned it’s attention to the instrumental prowess of people like Jeff Beck, feting their long solos and excusing their lack of DECENT MATERIAL on drab noisy albums. Beck-Ola is chock full of bad Elvis work outs and blues jamming.
I wouldn’t wish a car accident on anyone, but Jeff’s misfortune in ’69 at least allowed Rod and Ron Wood to decamp to the infinitely superior Faces.
Various artists have used their come back from this kind of absence from the music scene to re-establish a new version of themselves; the classic example being Dylan after the motorbike accident. Indeed, Jeff Back came back with a very different Jeff Beck Group. A very much WORSE Jeff Beck Group.
Rough & Ready is just awful. Unfocussed, it is half  jazzy instrumentals, and half naff AOR with Bob Tench’s awful singing. Who could have seen the Funk coming? Or it sounding so bad?
1973’s Jeff Beck Group – ah, the temptation of the self-titled album to draw a line under what has gone before and set out one’s stall anew. Just dull. Poor production; lord only knows how Steve Cropper has ended up with his name attached to this.
Then a mysterious backwards step – the Beck Bogert and Appice album (when you have names that catchy, why think of a proper name for your project?) is back into Blues Rock. Oops, still forgot to write any decent material.
Blow By Blow, the first “solo” solo album, is at least unusual. Entirely instrumental, Jeff gives up the pretence that music bearing his name is about anything else other than marvelling at his guitar playing. It sounds quite good, in no short measure due to the George Martin production, but it is still stupefyingly cheesy.
Enter the titans of Fusion! It was the mid 70s, Jeff had parted company with taste nearly a decade before – what to do? The obvious answer was to rope in Jan Hammer, keyboard maestro from the Matavishnu Orchestra (still a decade away from writing the iconic theme tune to Miami Vice). The Wired and There and Back albums are the most derivative Fusion bollocks one could have the misfortune to imagine, only topped in terms of worthlessness by the live album released in their midst. Noodling, self-important, pointless workouts. God did not intend for us to suffer their version of Pork Pie Hat.
The one thing in favour of Jeff’s 80s and 90s output is that there is less of it. Some record exec in the mid 80s must have thought it criminal that Jeff hadn’t had a “hit” in such a long time. The resulting album, Flash, is noteworthy for the excellent Rod Stewart vocals, and the “of-it’s-time” Rodgers/Baker production. This was a time when the “classy” use of synths on People Get Ready would have matched the “classy” suits everyone wore to the studio with the rolled up sleeves. This is that particular use of the word classy to mean shit.
And then the final phase. Working with ever more technologically-minded producers and programmers, the run of albums from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop onwards seem directed no longer at the chin-stroking Fusion market, but at the chin-stroking guitarist market. These are exhibitions of guitar derring-do, to sit comfortably next to release by Joe Satriani. The backings are diverse (Reggae, techno, all sorts), but ultimately irrelevant.
So, there we have it: one man’s mission to produce almost every type of music I don’t like.





Welcome

10 10 2007

welcome1.jpgWelcome to Bunch o’ Fives, the home of wholly debatable Top Five Music lists and reckless opinions.