Thursday, February 21, 2008

Helter Skelter

From the composer of "Yesterday" and "Michelle" comes a complete 180: a blast of heavy metal before the genre really existed.

Paul McCartney's "Helter Skelter" probably is the most notorious tune in the Beatles' discography, thanks to its association with Charlie Manson and his minions. When the TV movie of the same name was released it 1976, it led to rumors that "The Beatles" (the two-record set commonly called "The White Album") would be banned because of the connection.

The lyrics of the song apply for the most part to a sliding board in the British parlance: "When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide ..." Sure, prosecutor Vince Bugliosi convinced us that Charlie read a lot more into that. But "Helter Skelter" is basically a love song set to unprecedented bombast.

Actually, the song started as a slower, more deliberate and somewhat more menacing tune than the one eventually released on "The Beatles." A version appears on the second "Anthology" release of the '90s, a four-minute slice of the song culled from a take three times that length. And according to legend, a 27-minute version of the prototype was committed to tape, although that marathon session never has surfaced on any of the myriad Beatles bootlegs. I'd love to hear it, with my preference for long jams; plus, from Mark Lewisohn's description of the session, that version includes a mutated version of the Marcels' "Blue Moon" in the middle. Sounds interesting.

While the Beatles were working on "Helter Skelter," John Lennon was taking the basic track from "Revolution" and adding the proverbial kitchen sink full of sound effects in a sonic collage that become "Revolution 9," probably the second-most notorious "song" (using the term loosely) in the Beatles' catalog. A contemporary Lennon recording, "What's the New Mary Jane," is almost as bizarre, but not as well-known.

After hearing "Revolution 9," McCartney supposedly set out to create his own exercise in cacophony, so he orchestrated a revised "Helter Skelter" with maximum volume on all fronts, fading it out and back in again, and ending it with Ringo Starr's famous utterance "I have blisters on my fingers!" And it worked effectively (at least until Pat Benatar covered it).

One more bit of trivia: On the original monophonic release of "The Beatles," "Helter Skelter" faded out but not back in, meaning there was no "blisters on my fingers!"

Another reason to listen to music in stereo!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Rock Me, Baby

Back in the nascent days of MTV, I vaguely remember a segment called "Closet Classics," during which the network played vintage videos, many of them from a German TV show of the late '60s/early '70s called "Beat Club."

One of my favorite "Closet Classic" clips was of Blue Cheer, pretending to play the band's 1968 hit, "Summertime Blues." Here was the essence of rock 'n' roll: two guys with their faces completely covered by long blond hair, the third with a mane almost as long, surrounded by stacks of Marshall cabinets.

The Marshall setup produced plenty of decibels, of course, and that was what Blue Cheer was all about. "Summertime Blues," a cover of Eddie Cochran's 1959 classic, represents what may well have been the first heavy-metal single. It reached No. 14 on the American charts, I'm assuming, because it was louder than anything else.

So was the LP from which it was taken, Blue Cheer's debut, "Vincebus Eruptum" (supposedly, that's "organized chaos" in Latin). Forty years later, the album still begs to be turned up as far as your MP3 player will go.

I always wondered what it would have been like to see Blue Cheer live, whether I'd escape with any part of my hearing intact. Then in November, I noticed that the band -- two-thirds of the original! -- was scheduled to perform at the Rex Theater on Pittsburgh's South Side.

The turnout was sparse, but that didn't faze Dickie Peterson, Paul Whaley and Andrew "Duck" McDonald, who launched into a no-holds-barred set that, indeed, rendered me semi-deaf for a few days (just like concerts of old times). Their setup was nothing but the basics, and they used it to full effect, replicating what must have been the ultimate in ear-shattering concerts of the '60s.

In its heyday, Blue Cheer was one of those bands that had trouble holding a stable lineup. Original lead guitarist Leigh Stephens left after two albums to pursue a not-so-successful solo career; his place was taken by Randy Holden, who recorded two-plus songs with Blue Cheer before quitting. In came members of the West Coast group Kak, and by the time the band recorded "Oh! Pleasant Hope" in 1972, only bassist-vocalist Peterson remained from the "Summertime Blues" era.

Blue Cheer re-formed in the '80s and has been touring sporadically since, releasing a studio album here and there. The latest, 2007's "What Doesn't Kill You," sounds like vintage Blue Cheer with the advantage of working with decent recording equipment. (Even the band's best-audio-quality '60s output sounds like it was taped through a box of Styrofoam.)

Without Blue Cheer's hit-making impetus, heavy metal might not have gained the ground it did in subsequent years. And MTV's "Closet Classics" just wouldn't have been the same.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Funny Ways

Back when the bulk of music was available as 12-inch records, album art was important in the buying and selling process.

As an impressionable teenager, I often made purchased based part on educated guesses, part on whether the cover looked intriguing.

Once, I encountered an LP called "Octopus" by a band I'd never heard of before in my life, Gentle Giant. The cover was shaped somewhat like a Mason jar, with notches cut at the appropriate places, and depicted said jar containing the eight-tentacled mollusk of the album title. I grabbed it and headed for the counter.

Not only had I never heard of Gentle Giant, I'd never heard anything quite like what was coming through my speakers: radical time shifts, disjointed harmony vocals, totally abstract lyrical imagery and bursts of extremely heavy guitar and keyboards. It sounded nothing like the disco slop on the radio at the time. So I liked it.

I bought a few other Gentle Giant albums, including the live "Playing the Fool," which contained a medley of "Octopus" highlights. I remember playing "The Fool" at full volume in my apartment the summer I spent in Wildwood, N.J., and the girls who lived next door told my roommates about "really, really weird music" coming through the walls.

That was in 1980, and I was pleased to hear a band in Wildwood play a song called "Number One" from Gentle Giant's then-current album, "Civilian." Maybe others were starting to catch on, after all.

Maybe not. "Civilian" was absolutely mainstream compared with "Octopus" of eight years later, but that approach didn't catapult Gentle Giant into mass popularity. And the band broke up, after 11 years.

Gentle Giant had its origins as Simon Dupree & the Big Sound, which scored a hit in its native U.K. with a song called "Kites." (I've never heard it.) There really wasn't a Simon Dupree, and as the band members worked out more intricate material, they decided to change the name, adapting it from a tune they were working on that eventually came out as "Giant."

"Giant" opens the debut "Gentle Giant" album and sets the tone for what was to come: singer Derek Shulman's alternating soft, minstrel-like vocals with lung-shredding rants; guitarist Gary Green pulling heavy riffs from the midst of folklike melodies; and the entire ensemble venturing far afield from rock's traditional 4/4 beat. Then a definitively nontraditional rendition of "God Save the Queen" to wrap up proceedings.

Gentle Giant called its second album "Acquiring the Taste," an entirely appropriate selection given the subject matter.

If you're adventurous, acquire it: the taste, and the album.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Forget All About It

About five years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Todd Rundgren by phone prior to his appearance in Pittsburgh. We talked about a variety of subjects - including the minor-league baseball career of his son, Rex - and everything generally went well.

Then I asked him a question about his late-'60s band, the Nazz.

Todd said he pretty much dismisses that phase of his musical development, which took me aback. From a fan's standpoint, I really enjoy what he was doing back then.

As an artist, though, I guess he had put 35 years on the odometer by then, and the stuff he did in his late teens/early 20s didn't thrill him anymore. That's understandable.

But I still don't agree with him dismissing the Nazz.

The story of the band is short, with a discography of just three albums, and the last one wasn't quite what it should have been.

In 1968, Rundgren and cohorts Carson Van Osten (bass), Thom Mooney (drums) and Stewkey Antoni (vocals and keyboards) released "The Nazz," an album that crosses the bridge between garage rock and psychedelia, with some good, old-fashioned love songs for good measure.

The album kicks off with the swirling, phase-shifted sonic barrage of "Open My Eyes," the song for which the Nazz probably is best-known, owing to its inclusion on several "Nuggets" period compilations. The most famous song on "The Nazz," though, is "Hello, It's Me," here in its original form, five years before Todd took it solo into the Top 5. Other highlights include "Wildwood Blues," a group composition providing a less-than-flattering view of the New Jersey beach town near the band's native Philadelphia, and "The Lemming Song," which propels itself through a heavy guitar riff.

The following year, "Nazz Nazz" hit the shelves, released by Screen Gems Records on green vinyl, no less. The sophomore effort served as a showcase for Rundgren, who reportedly learned how to read music and compose arrangements while his bandmates simply jammed; if so, the results reach fruition on the epic album closer, "A Beautiful Song."

"Nazz Nazz" is chock full of the best of what the end of the '60s had to offer musically: the catchy riff and vocal harmonies of the should've-been-a-hit "Forget All About It"; the whimsical nonsense of "Meridian Leeward," about a pig who became a person; and the proto-metal of "Under the Ice."

If all had gone according to plan, "Nazz Nazz" would have been a two-LP set called "Fungo Bat." Screen Gems balked, and in the meantime, the band fell apart, with Rundgren deciding to stake out on his own, often literally; many of his subsequent releases feature Todd on all the instruments and vocals, plus production.

After Rundgren's departure, "Nazz III" came out as an epitaph, with Stewkey replacing Todd's lead vocals where they existed. (A recent Rhino reissue has restored the original versions.)

Perhaps Todd would prefer if you didn't, but check out the Nazz if you want to hear his origins. And see if you don't agree with me about the band's worthiness.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Motor City Is Burning

Berry Gordy and his Motown Records put Michigan's major city on the musical map (literally, if you look at the old record labels), and hits by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Supremes still are frequently heard four-plus decades later.

Giving Motown some competition for a time was Detroit's rock 'n' roll scene of the late '60s, a sonic breeding ground that planted many of the roots for what later became known as heavy metal: the ear-shattering sounds of the Stooges, punctuated by the self-destructive tendencies of the man eventually called Iggy Pop; Grand Funk Railroad, from nearby Flint, which became the second band after the Beatles to sell out Shea Stadium; the Bob Seger System, which featured a no-holds-barred approach before the leader ended up on Chevy commercials; and the original Alice Cooper Group, which found its formula after relocating from the hippie ethos of Southern California.

At the top of the hard-rock pyramid was the Motor City Five, or as their fans knew them, the MC5. Featuring a deafening twin-lead-guitar attack, give-his-all lead vocalist and earthquake inducing rhythm section, the MC5 melded its musical persona with a political agenda that stopped at nothing short of social revolution: the band's motto, in so many words, was rock, dope and @%&ing in the streets!

Give Elektra Records credit for recognizing the value of capturing the MC5's stage show, as the tape recorders for the band's debut album, "Kick Out the Jams," ran during a show at its home base, Detroit's Grande Ballroom. The end product certainly was a departure from flower power, and a decade later the heavier bands still were trying to catch up with the intensity captured in the record's grooves.

Elektra had only so much patience, though. The intro to the album's title track contained the line "kick out the jams, mother------s!" And in 1969, mainstream America wasn't quite ready for a public utterance like that. Many of the stores that sold records weren't, including the Detroit-based department store chain Hudson's.

When Hudson's refused to stock "Kick Out the Jams," the band retaliated by taking out an ad in the Freep (Detroit Free Press) that encouraged fans to "Stay alive with the MC5 -- and @%& Hudson's!"

The suits at the department store threatened to carry none of Elektra's product if the MC5 remained on the label. And money, of course, talks.

The band had the opportunity to make two more albums for Atlantic Records, "Back in the USA" and "High Time," but neither lit the sales world on fire, and the MC5 called it quits after touring Europe in early 1972.

In the meantime, the band gained almost mythological status as being among the forefathers of both metal and what evolved into punk rock. The reverence for the Five has not diminished in the digital era; numerous concert recordings from the band's heyday have been committed to compact disc, sound quality notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, only three of the Five are with us today. Singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith (longtime husband of fellow musician Patti Smith) died in the '90s. The three survivors -- guitarist Wayne Kramer, bass player Michael Davis and drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson -- have toured together as DKT as recently as 2006.

The sounds of the '60s weren't all flowers and sunshine, incense and peppermints. Listen to the MC5 for proof.

BTW: I thought I was imagining this, but I looked it up. Jennifer Aniston, indeed, wore an MC5 T-shirt on "Friends." Why didn't she wear it on the cover of one of those millions of magazines in the supermarket checkout line that have her on the cover??

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People generally enjoy talking about music. Once you've exhausted conversation about, say, the price of gas and the weather, music is a natural place to turn.

I'm one of those people who, when it comes to music, a disclaimer might be appropriate: Don't get him started! Unless that's what you're into ...

I sometimes joke that in my father's opinion, "anything recorded after World War II is noise." There's certainly some truth to that. His preference is for the Big Band era of the '30s through the '40s. That style was popular when he was growing up and first becoming cognizant of music, and it stayed with him.

The same pretty much holds true for me, just 30 years or so down the road. I'm partial to music, particularly rock, from the decade or so that began with the Beatles' first sessions at Abbey Road to the first signs of disco music taking over the airwaves.

That's not to say anything recorded after that is "noise." Plenty of people are making music nowadays that I thoroughly enjoy. I doubt if you'll hear it on the radio, but it's out there.

I like to talk about music, but I also enjoy writing about it. And I frequently refer to what other people have written as guidance for seeking out new listening material.

So let's consider that a goal. If you have an interest in the heart of the Classic Rock era (although I'm not fully comfortable with that term), and want some information that might help you find something you might enjoy, I'll try to be of assistance.

If not ... well, you might find my stuff interesting, anyway. Or you can go back to watching "American Idol."