Friday, December 29, 2023

Hot Wax: The Solo Works of Syd Barrett (2023)

The Solo Works of Syd Barrett
In a 2017 conversation with Mojo magazine editor Phil Alexander, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page expressed his admiration for Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, stating that “Syd Barrett was absolutely unbelievable in terms of what he was doing. He took a step sideways and channeled all this amazing stuff. Their version of psychedelia was very, very cool.” The six-string wizard doubled-down on his praise, comparing Barrett to Jimi Hendrix, saying that his “writing with the early Pink Floyd was inspirational. Nothing sounded like Barrett before Pink Floyd’s first album. There were so many ideas and so many positive statements. You can really feel the genius there, and it was tragic that he fell apart. Both he and Jimi Hendrix had a futuristic vision in a sense.”

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett co-founded classic rock legends Pink Floyd in 1965 with bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason. Barrett was the band’s early frontman and main songwriter, exploring the depths of psychedelic expression in words and music and introducing free-form fretwork, distortion, and feedback to the vocabulary of rock music. For all of his influence, Barrett’s tenure with the band was incredibly short – four hit singles, the band’s 1967 debut LP The Piper At the Gates of Dawn and studio leftovers comprising part of their sophomore effort, 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets – before he was begrudgingly removed from the band in early 1968 for his excessive LSD usage which, along with the stress of the band’s unexpected fame and commercial express, illuminated Barrett’s underlying mental illness.

The Solo Works of Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett
Barrett was essentially replaced in Floyd by singer/guitarist David Gilmour, a college friend of Syd’s who joined the band in late 1967 as its fifth member. Barrett launched a short-lived solo career with the 1969 single “Octopus,” subsequently releasing his solo debut, The Madcap Laughs, in January 1970. He followed up that album’s modest success (#40 on the U.K. charts) with his sophomore effort, Barrett, released in November 1970. That was basically it for Barrett’s solo career, and after wandering from one fruitless project to another for a couple of year, Syd gave up on the music biz and, by the end of the ‘70s, had retired from public life altogether, moving back into his mother’s house in Cambridge and spending his time painting and gardening, living keenly on royalties that Gilmour made sure he received.

Capitalizing on Pink Floyd’s chartbusting success during the ‘70s and the band’s enduring popularity, as well as Barrett’s growing reputation as a sort of reclusive mad genius, Harvest Records released Opel in 1988, an odds ‘n’ sods collection of unreleased material and alternate takes from Barrett’s 1970 sessions. While all three of Barrett’s erstwhile solo albums have been reissued sporadically over the decades, they’ve all been out-of-print since roughly 2010, leaving the door open for Jack White’s Third Man Records to walk through. As part of the label’s recent “Vault” offerings, Third Man has reissued all three of Barrett’s solo albums on various colors of 180-gram vinyl with remixed sound, packaged together in a gorgeous custom slipcase with new, exclusive artwork as The Solo Works of Syd Barrett. To sweeten the pot, the set includes a 7-inch single by David Gilmour covering two Barrett songs.

Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs

Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs
Roughly half (seven of thirteen songs) of The Madcap Laughs were produced by Barrett’s former Floyd bandmates David Gilmour and Roger Waters, with Syd provided co-production credits on two songs. Five tracks were produced Harvest Records headman Malcolm Jones with one song (“Late Night”) produced by Syd’s manager Peter Jenner and overdubbed by Jones. Much of the album is just Syd and his guitar; those songs provided fuller band instrumentation benefit from the contributions of several (uncredited) members of Soft Machine in the form of keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummer Robert Wyatt, who were brought in by Gilmour to appear on two tracks. Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley and Willie Wilson, who plays bass on the record, contribute to two tracks.

The album opens with “Terrapin,” a languid, folksy acoustic number featuring Syd’s wan vocals and a simple, yet mesmerizing guitar strum. By contrast, “No Good Trying” is a full-blown band jam (tho’, to be honest, the band was shoehorned in on tape later); the song the sort of psych-drenched free-for-all that would provide inspiration for Robyn Hitchcock and hundreds of other lysergic warriors. “Love You” is a little too Tin Pan Alley for my taste, with rinky-tink piano-play and soft-pedaled vocals, but “No Man’s Land” is full of atmospheric ambience, Barrett’s voice lying strategically beneath the surface of the mix while the band creates a multi-textured wall-of-sound with dense instrumentation and flanged guitars. The album’s lone single release, “Octopus,” is the apex of The Madcap Laughs, a reasonably up-tempo rocker with syncopated rhythm guitar and playful lyrics delivered with a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow.

Lyrically, “Golden Hair” is based on a poem by legendary Irish wordsmith James Joyce, possibly the only bard more madcap than Syd himself. The short, but satisfying song benefits from Barrett’s evocative vocals and a lonesome droning acoustic guitar. The sorta, kinda eight-minute medley/song cycle comprised of “She Took A Long Cool Look At Me,” “Feel,” and “If It’s In You” is proggy in spirit with elegant Barrett vocals that ride the waves of his complex, whiplash fretwork. Mixing the sort of soft-psych sounds that Floyd made its name upon, Syd blends in elements of British folk and American blues music in the creation of avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll. “Late Night” closes The Madcap Laughs, the song’s use of exotic, Eastern musical flourishes, slung low in the mix beneath Syd’s chanted, enchanted vox. It’s a perfect song for 1970, bridging the gap between Floyd’s early albums and the sort of genre-defying experimental rock created later by chance-takers like Led Zeppelin, Genesis, and Strawbs.

The Madcap Laughs
wasn’t released in the United States until 1974, packaged as a two-LP set with Barrett, by which time it was overshadowed by the unparalleled success of his former band’s Dark Side of the Moon. Given the relative success of The Madcap Laughs, Harvest’s parent company EMI thought a follow-up album was appropriate. Recording for Barrett began in February 1970 at Abbey Road Studios with Pink Floyd’s Gilmour and Richard Wright helming the sessions, the pair also contributing bass and keyboards while Shirley was brought back to man the drum kit. Rushed out by the end of the year, Barrett failed to chart – possibly because the label didn’t release any singles from the LP – and Syd’s Harvest Records tenure was over.

Syd Barrett’s Barrett

Syd Barrett’s Barrett
‘Tis a shame, too, ‘cause Barrett is a fine album, not far afield from The Madcap Laughs. The lead-off track, “Baby Lemonade,” would have made a fine initial single, sporting filigree 12-string guitar licks courtesy of Gilmour and a rich, lavish soundtrack beneath Barrett’s spacy, effective vox and psych-influenced lyrics. It could easily be mistaken for a Robyn Hitchcock/Soft Boys track of a decade or so later, displaying how forward-thinking Barrett was as an artist. The mid-to-slow-tempo of “Love Song” is off-putting, with morose vocals to match, but Wright’s subtle harmonium flourishes rescue the song from mediocrity. “Dominoes” could pass as an early Floyd cut from Saucerful, Syd’s madcap poetry and nuanced vocal delivery punctuated by a deeply-textured, often exotic, and delightfully-complex musical backdrop courtesy of Gilmour and Wright.

The blues-tinged “Rats” is built around Barrett’s syncopated, scattershot guitar strum and (seemingly) double-tracked vocals, which are among the singer’s most forceful on the LP. As the musical chaos builds behind him, with swirling instrumentation almost burying Syd’s voice as he sings oblique, nonsensical lyrics like “heaving, arriving, tinkling; mingling jets and statuettes; seething wet we meeting fleck” that somehow work in this context. In the same vein, “Maisie” is acid-blues built on a twisted Delta rhythm with Syd’s drawled vocals outshining Dylan’s in their lack of transparency, Barrett relating some sort of story-song with lines like “Maisie lay in the wall with her emeralds and diamond brooch, beyond reproach.”

Side two opener, “Gigolo Aunt,” is more normal – or as normal as Barrett gets, I guess – with an up-tempo psych-rock arrangement that veers close to respectable, BBC radio-friendly fare in spite of Syd’s opening barrage of hallucinogenic wordplay:

“Grooving around in a trench coat with the satin entrail,
Seems to be all around in tin and lead pail, we pale;
Jiving on down to the beach to see the blue and the gray,
Seems to be all and it's rosy, it's a beautiful day.”
Regardless, “Gigolo Aunt” benefits from a scorching Barrett guitar solo, Shirley’s jazzy timekeeping, and various instrumental flourishes added by Wright and Gilmour and would have made for a solid second single from the album. “Waving My Arms In The Air I Never Lied To You” could have been that single’s B-side, the performance sporting a jaunty arrangement complimented by Syd’s wasplike guitar and a full instrumental canvas for him to paint upon. Another lyrically-confusing sonic miasma, “Wolfpack” is maddeningly dense, with instruments barging into the mix and subsequently dropping out as Syd’s otherwise strong vocals hide in the mix behind stunning guitars, soaring bass lines, and the tinkling piano keys that they rest upon.

Barrett closes with the appropriately oddball “Effervescing Elephant,” Vic Saywell’s bleating tuba supporting the song’s overall British dancehall inspiration. Reviewing Barrett for All Music Guide, critic and rock historian Richie Unterberger writes that “it was regarded as something of a charming but unfocused throwaway at the time of its release, but Barrett’s singularly whimsical and unsettling vision holds up well.” I’d agree with my esteemed colleague as Barrett is an altogether enchanting collection of psych-folk with touches of uniquely British pop music that never fails to intrigue, the album revealing hidden secrets with each listening (even after 53 years!).

Syd Barrett’s Opel

Syd Barrett’s Opel
A lot of rockcrit types look down their bespectacled noses at vault-scrubbing, commercial cash-in compilations like Opel, but the collection succeeds in spite of EMI’s money-grubbing efforts because of the unique nature of the material that Barrett left behind when he left rock ‘n’ roll in the rear-view mirror. What today’s scribes don’t realize is that albums in the mid-to-late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s were usually only eight-to-ten songs in length due to the limitations of the 33-1/3 rpm vinyl format, artists often dropping two or three worthwhile tunes from the final track list before shipping it off for mastering. The title track here is a great example, the ninth take of “Opel” a keeper, a Donovan-esque folk dirge with haunting guitarplay and Syd’s droning vocals lifting up an otherwise down-tuned performance reminiscent of Nick Drake. I wouldn’t say that the song was 45-worthy, but it’s an otherwise solid opener to build an album around.

 “Clowns & Jugglers,” which includes the Soft Machine guys from Madcap, is a fractured, jagged pop song that preceded XTC and their ilk nearly a decade in advance, with fascinating instrumental backing cradling one of Syd’s most demented vocal performances. The song would evolve into “Octopus” from the first LP, but it’s altogether mesmerizing in this form. To call “Dolly Rocker” pleasantly eccentric would be an understatement, but it fits firmly into the Barrett milieu, with lovely acoustic guitar and Syd’s haggard, haunting vocals. The unreleased “Word Song” is of a similar construct, a man and his guitar and stream-of-consciousness vocals that will have your head spinning.

Another 1968 outtake produced by Jenner and overdubbed by Jones, “Swan Lee (Silas Lang)” offers an intriguing musical premise that could have benefited from a singular production vision and on-time studio backing. The odds bodkins “Birdie Hop” is a whimsical tune with rudimentary instrumentation and production that may have been deemed too damn weird to revisit, but “Let’s Split,” with an effervescent arrangement and performance, should have been taken the distance and afforded a serious take. “Lanky (Part One)” is a lengthy, yet invigorating instrumental track overflowing with cross-current sounds, fascinating musical ideas, and general cacophony (“Part Two” was reportedly a seven-minute-plus drum solo – yikes!) but “Milky Way” is another quirky, whimsical folk-pop song with skewed-but-effective vocals, a gentle melody, and imaginative acoustic guitarplay.        

There are a number of “odds ‘n’ sods” styled outtakes and demos included on Opel, songs like “Rats,” “Golden Hair,” and “Wined and Dined” that offer an interesting glimpse at the creative studio process but which don’t really out-shine those versions from the first two albums. I focused mostly on the unreleased tracks which, by themselves, would have been the foundation of an entertaining and artistically-satisfying album in 1971 or ’72 if fate had deemed otherwise. As Richie Unterberger wrote for All Music Guide, “for several years, the existence of “lost” material by Syd Barrett had been speculated about by the singer’s vociferous cult, fueled by numerous patchy bootlegs of intriguing outtakes. The release of Opel lived up to, and perhaps exceeded, fans’ expectations.” Unterberger deemed the album as “equally essential as his two 1970 LPs,” finding Opel “charming and lyrically pungent, with Barrett’s inimitable sense of childlike whimsy.”  

As swansongs go, Opel wasn’t a bad note to go out on, even if Barrett had clocked out almost a decade-and-a-half previous and likely cared less. As for the bonus 45 accompanying the Syd box set, Third Man dug up a pair of transcendent performances by Barrett’s friend and Pink Floyd bandmate, David Gilmour. The A-side is a cover of Barrett’s “Dark Globe,” taken from a European concert circa 2006, while the B-side showcases Gilmour’s take on Syd’s “Dominoes,” from a January 2002 performance at The Royal Festival Hall. The former offers a reverent reading with ragged vocals as close to Syd’s as Gilmour can reach, accompanied by intricate, lacy acoustic guitar while the latter is delivered as a jazzy fever-dream with shuffling rhythms, manic piano-play, and wiry fretwork. Both are too-brief interpretations of solid choices from Syd’s short catalog, leaving one with the desire to hear Gilmour record an entire album of Barrett songs.

Syd’s Tragic Genius

Syd Barrett
Barrett’s influence is undeniably timeless, with artists as diverse as David Bowie, The Who’s Peter Townshend, Brian Eno, XTC, The Jam’s Paul Weller, Pere Ubu, The Damned, Robyn Hitchcock and, of course, the aforementioned Jimmy Page all citing Syd as an inspiration on their own music. Too, Syd’s ethereal fingerprints can be found all over late period Pink Floyd albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall. As legendary critic and Trouser Press magazine founder Ira Robbins wrote of Barrett in The Trouser Press Record Guide (fourth edition, 1991), “his unselfconscious looniness continues to set a framework in which artists can explore updated acid-rock with little more than an acoustic guitar,” calling the artist “tormented but unquestionably brilliant.”

Barrett was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as a member of Pink Floyd; fittingly, he did not attend the induction ceremony. Syd died of pancreatic cancer in 2006 at the amazingly young age of 60 years; given the long shadow cast by the genius of this creative gnome, one could imagine Barrett living beyond time. Syd’s tenure with Pink Floyd is documented in the recent film Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd, which features interviews with his former band members. With Third Man’s lovingly-created reissues of Barrett’s solo albums as a deluxe box set, the crazy diamond will continue to shine for years to come. (Third Man Records, released September 2023)

The View On Pop Culture: John Eddie, John Mellencamp, Boysetfire, Stratovarius (2003)

John Eddie's Who The Hell Is John Eddie?

True story. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to be seated next to the beautiful and talented Roseanne Cash and (then) husband Rodney Crowell at a Nashville performance by Joe Jackson. At the finish of a wonderful a cappella rendition of Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” some clown yelled ‘play “Free Bird”’ referring, of course, to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song. “Only in Nashville,” I commented to my buddy Willie J. Cash leaned over and gently corrected me, saying “no, dear, they yell that everywhere...”

Evidently John Eddie has heard these cries as well, recording a song titled “Play Some Skynyrd” for his comeback album Who the Hell Is John Eddie? (Lost Highway). A lot of water has passed beneath the bridge in the fifteen years or so since Eddie sank into relative obscurity after his mid-80s hit “Jungle Boy,” but Who The Hell Is John Eddie? proves that you can’t keep a true artist down. A blend of alt-country and barroom roots rock, Eddie imbues the album with a mountain of soul, passion and grit. From the heartbreak of “Let Me Down Hard” to the hilarious middle-aged lament “Forty,” Eddie shows great maturity as a singer/songwriter on these tales of love and loss and life on the road. As for “Play Some Skynyrd,” Eddie’s self-effacing humor sounds suspiciously like the tears of a clown, expressing the frustration and elation felt by every rock & roller who has ever played to a hostile audience. With hot licks from guitarist Kenny Vaughn, “Play Some Skynyrd” is an artistic catharsis showing that, for John Eddie, the ride isn’t over yet.          

John Mellencamp's Trouble No More
John Mellencamp
has always drawn from the rootsier side of music, mixing rock with elements of blues, bluegrass and sweet soul music. It should come as no surprise that Mellencamp should choose to record an album of traditional American music like Trouble No More (Columbia Records). Drawing from the wealth of material available, Mellencamp revisits old masters like bluesmen Robert Johnson (“Stones In My Passway”) and Son House (“Death Letter”), folk legend Woody Guthrie, alt-country diva Lucinda Williams, Willie Dixon and Hoagy Carmichael. Mellencamp’s performances are truly inspired, the band rocks, and the song selection is tough to beat. As a result, Trouble No More is a simple delight, a heartfelt homage to the music that served to inspire Mellencamp’s own songwriting. He may not top the charts with the regularity that he once did, but John Mellencamp remains a complex and entertaining performer.

“Summer is right for fighting in the street,” Mick Jagger sang and Boysetsfire has taken the legendary rocker to heart. Following up on the success of last year’s EP, Tomorrow Come Today (Wind-Up Records) offers BSF fans an album-length dose of the band’s trademark socio-political commentary. Not as strident as, say, Corporate Avenger, Boysetsfire stomps across much of the same radical leftist lyrical turf with a musical attack that is equal parts nu-metal and hardcore punk. Boysetsfire vocalist Nathan Gray is a charismatic frontman with lungs of steel, guitarists Chad Istvan and Josh Latshaw slash-and-burn with blistering chainsaw riffs. Throw in an explosive rhythm section that offers piston-like consistency and you have a recipe for success. Angry young men (and women) will latch onto anthemic rockers like “Dying On Principle” and “Release the Dogs,” so expect to hear a lot of Boysetsfire on the radio this summer.

The Thorns' The Thorns
Sometimes great music is the result of years of hard work and training and sometimes it happens purely by accident. In the case of the Thorns, it may be a little bit of both. Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Peter Droge all enjoyed various degrees of success as singer/songwriters, but somewhere down the line, Fate put them all together in the same room at one time. The trio of talents discovered that…lo and behold…their three voices sounded pretty damn good together and a band was born. Their self-titled album The Thorns (Columbia Records) is sheer joy for music lovers who enjoy vocal harmonizing and gentle folk-rock-inspired songwriting.

The closest comparison that I can make is to Crosby, Stills and Nash, tho’ I’d give the Thorns an edge in songwriting (just listen to the Beatlesque “Thorns” or the ethereal “Dragonfly”). The album’s production, by Brendan O’Brien (best known for his work with Pearl Jam), is both delicately textured and amazingly sympathetic. The Thorns rock when they need to rock and bring it down a notch when the material demands subtlety, the trio of Sweet, Mullins and Droge discovering a wonderful chemistry together and delivering the classiest release of 2003.

Critics have begun commenting on a “heavy metal revival,” ignoring the convenient fact that, for fans of the genre, heavy metal never went anywhere in the first place. Perhaps a jolt of Stratovarius from the band’s Elements Pt. 1 (Nuclear Blast) will shake these dolts (who typically dismiss metal with a sigh and the wave of their hand) from their ignorance. These Finnish rockers have carried the power metal torch since the early-80s, and the release of Elements Pt. 1 shows why Stratovarius is in a league of their own.

The album’s elegant production lends a sense of neo-classical grandeur to songs like “Eagleheart” or “Learning To Fly,” Timo Kotipelto’s vocals soaring above the music while guitarist Timo Tolkki’s axe cuts through the material like a scalpel. The rhythm section hits like a brick wall at 100mph, the keyboard work is fascinating and the stories told by each song are epic in scale. The operatic poetry of Elements Pt. 1 shows heavy metal at its best. Put Stratovarius on the box, crank up the volume and prepare to take flight! (View From The Hill, April 2003)

Friday, December 22, 2023

The Dirtiest Dozen: Punk's Most Important Bands (2023)

The Clash
The Clash: The Only Band That Matters

In these troubled days and times, the first lesson learned by young music journalists is how to write lists. It doesn’t matter what you’re rating – albums, musicians, record labels – as long as it’s guaranteed to piss off half your readership and confirm the supremely good taste of the other half. Most importantly, lists of, say, “the top two thousand chord-crunching guitar gods” are certain to grab eyeballs, which placates bored and jaded advertisers who might take their filthy lucre elsewhere...

The Reverend certainly isn’t above such hijinks and, during my six-year-plus stint as the “Blues Expert” circa 2008-2014, I was required to create numerous lists and slideshows (‘memba them?), often utilizing corporate-approved, SEO-friendly “key words” like “lacrosse,” “Obama,” or “head cheese,” largely because the bosses had already paid big bucks for some dodgy roster of Google-guaranteed dictionary entries from some grifty company touting their ninja-like search-engine prowess.

In this spirit, I found inspiration in a recent Facebook discussion in which I was informed by one tender young soul that she was 64 years old and was “there” and, therefore, she knew more about the subject than I – a rockcrit who has been writing about punk-rock since it was in diapers – and that, contrary to my opinion, the Dead Kennedys weren’t a punk band, dammit! That debatable position got my cerebellum a quivering, so I figured that I’d scribble my own list of the twelve most important punk-rock bands.

As much as I love pre-punk rockers like the Dictators, the Flamin’ Groovies, and the New York Dolls, I haven’t included them below no matter how significant their influence on the genre may have been. If the list seems tilted towards American bands, that’s my experience, and although Britania ruled the waves from 1976-78, by ’79 the Yanks had clearly picked up the punk-rock torch and ran with it. One last caveat – your list is probably different, so you can bitch at me in the comments below…  

Johnny Thunder's So Alone

Godfather of Punk: Johnny Thunders
An exception, of sorts, to my ‘no NY Dolls’ comment above, Thunders’ solo career was clearly a major influence on punk and other raucous-based sleaze-rock lifeforms. After the Dolls, the guitarist formed the Heartbreakers, who shipped off to Merry Ole England to take part of the “Anarchy Tour” with the Clash and the Damned. The Heartbreakers’ only LP, 1977’s L.A.M.F., remains a punk-rock textbook to this day while Thunders’ proper solo debut, 1978’s So Alone, bridged the gap between old-school rock and the new wave. Recorded with Heartbreakers Walter Lure and Billy Rath and with studio contributors like Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), Steve Marriott (Humble Pie), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Peter Perrett (the Only Ones), and Steve Jones and Paul Cook (Sex Pistols), So Alone is a bona fide punk classic and Thunder’s best album.      

Green Day's Dookie

12. Green Day
A lot of people might argue about Green Day being included on this list, but I’d contend that no single band did more to revive a moribund mid-‘90s punk-rock scene than the trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool. The Bay area band made its bones playing 924 Gilman and coming up through the indie label ranks but when their sophomore album, Kerplunk, sold better than 50k copies for Lookout! Records, the major labels took notice.

Green Day’s Reprise Records debut, Dookie, has sold better than 20 million copies worldwide to date and opened the door for bands like Bad Religion, Rancid, NoFX, Descendents, and Pennywise to walk through and achieve varying levels of success. Subsequent multi-Platinum™ albums like Insomniac, Nimrod, and the classic American Idiot have seen Green Day evolve beyond their punk roots to become a solid rock ‘n’ roll outfit. In the meantime, they are arguably the best-selling punk band of all time.  

The Saints' (I'm) Stranded

11. The Saints
Although Australia’s Radio Birdman could easily be included in this position, their Motor City-styled musical mayhem didn’t reach U.S. audiences until Deniz Tek and Rob Younger had moved onto other dalliances. Still, Radios Appear is a great rock ‘n’ roll album. The Saints, on the other hand, successfully made the leap from the minor league Australian punk scene to the bright lights of London and, over the course of three critically-acclaimed albums, forged a unique identity based on a faster-louder sound fueled by chainsaw guitars and relentless tempos. Formed in 1973 by singer Chris Bailey, guitarist Ed Kuepper, and drummer Ivor Hay, they released their classic 1976 single “(I’m) Stranded” before the Damned or the Sex Pistols could get their rage cemented onto vinyl, and their 1977 single “This Perfect Day” hit #34 on the U.K. charts.

Albums like 1977’s (I’m) Stranded and 1978’s Eternally Yours (impressively produced by Bailey and Kuepper rather than some label hack) saw the band pursuing its own muse, refusing to become EMI’s idea of a cookie-cutter punk band. The band’s critically-acclaimed but commercially-unsuccessful third album, Prehistoric Sounds, further expanded the Saints’ musical vista, but after they were dropped by EMI, Kuepper left the band to Bailey, who carried on with new musicians for a handful of albums throughout the 1980s that failed to capture their early magic.   

Bad Religion's Stranger Than Fiction

10. Bad Religion
Although they were contemporaries of similar hardcore innovators as Minor Threat, the Germs, and Black Flag, Bad Religion didn’t really infect the rock mainstream with their erudite, literary lyrics and machine-gun instrumentation until the 1990s punk-rock revival. By the time that Bad Religion took their sound to the major leagues with 1994’s excellent Stranger Than Fiction, they’d already released seven albums through their own indie Epitaph Records imprint, from 1982’s How Could Hell Be Any Worse? through 1993’s Recipe For Hate. Although not as notorious or controversial as many of their contemporaries, Bad Religion’s sly social commentary and uncompromising political stance had a profound influence on bands like Green Day, Rise Against, Anti-Flag, and the Offspring.

When Bad Religion signed with Atlantic Records for Stranger Than Fiction, a lot of old fans cried “sell-out,” but I defy the average punter to legitimately argue that a performance like “21st Century (Digital Boy)” or “Better Off Dead” is weaker, musically or lyrically than, say, “Modern Man” or “American Jesus.” The Atlantic association resulted in four solid albums that inched their way into the upper reaches of the album chart and, as they were afforded a friendlier production budget, helped bring a score of new fans to the band’s later Epitaph releases like The Dissent of Man (2010) or True North (which actually charted Top 20 in 2013!). Additionally, Epitaph’s release of albums from bands like Rancid, the Offspring, Hot Water Music, and Pennywise helped fuel the flames of the ‘90s punk revival.      

The Germs' (GI)

9. The Germs
I could have just as easily included Richard Hell & the Voidoids at number eight, the band’s lone album, Blank Generation, providing both a cultural identity (“we’re the blank generation”) as well as a personal style (safety pins, etc) for punk-rock to anchor itself. But the Germs, equally-significant in their influence, had one thing that Mr. Myers, et al lacked – mythology. Specifically, that of singer Darby Crash (née Jan Paul Beahm), whose untimely death insured the short-lived band’s legacy. Crash wasn’t the first rocker to “live fast and die young” – Jim, Jimi, and Janis beat him to it by the better part of a decade – but he was one of the youngest, OD’ing on heroin at the barely-legal age of 22 years.

Still, Crash and the Germs rolled and roared through the nascent L.A. punk scene like a runaway bulldozer. Formed in 1976 by school chums Crash and guitarist Pat Smear, they added bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Don Bolles; this is the line-up that recorded the Joan Jett-produced 1979 album (GI) which, in and of itself, was as impressive a slab of white heat as any other U.S. punk band had released at the time. It was the Germs’ appearance in director Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization documentary film that expanded the band’s reach beyond the insular L.A. punk scene, however, carrying Darby’s self-destructive antics to a welcoming audience of junior nihilists across the fruited plains. A 2007 biopic about the Germs, What We Do Is Secret, along with a tour by the re-formed band (with actor Shane West, who played Crash in the movie, on the microphone), brought the Germs’ high-voltage sound to the Warped Tour generation.  

Black Flag's Damaged

8. Black Flag
The only constant in Black Flag is guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn, who has helmed his jolly band of karmic misfits since the band’s forming in 1976 in Hermosa Beach CA. One of the first hardcore punk outfits in the U.S., Black Flag helped define the hardcore sound, then discarded it just as quickly when Ginn’s musical obsessions took him far afield into heavy metal and free jazz-styled instrumental wank-offs. Still, Ginn’s ever-changing Black Flag roster had an indelible influence on punk-rock not only musically, but visually through the debauched cover art and show flyers created by Raymond Pettibon (Ginn’s brother) and through the band’s independent SST Records label, which released influential (and entertaining) early albums by bands like the Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, and Hüsker Dü, among others.

There were several distinct eras for Black Flag, but two were particularly significant to the band’s legacy and importance – the “Keith Morris era,” circa 1976-79 and the “Henry Rollins era,” from 1981-86. Morris only appeared on the band’s Nervous Breakdown EP and, subsequently, the Everything Went Black and The First Four Years compilation LPs before jetting from the Flag to form the Circle Jerks and, more recently, Off! By contrast, Rollins appeared on six of the band’s seven full-length studio albums, including classics like 1981’s Damaged and 1984’s My War, while his hyper-intense on-stage persona turbocharged the band’s sound. An appearance in The Decline of Western Civilization catapulted Black Flag beyond the confines of SoCal, carrying their infamy around the world. Much like the Sex Pistols in the U.K., Black Flag directly inspired the creation of bands like Slayer, Tool, and Nirvana here in the states.

Minor Threat

7. Minor Threat / Fugazi
What the Dead Kennedys were to west coast hardcore, Minor Threat were to the eastern seaboard. Formed in 1980 by singer Ian MacKaye, drummer Jeff Nelson, bassist/guitarist Brian Baker, and guitarist Lyle Preslar, Minor Threat were only together for around three years, releasing a handful of 45s, a pair of EPs, and a single album, Out of Step, which defined “straight edge” punk for a generation to follow. More importantly, the band was at the forefront of the D.I.Y. indie rock scene, the Dischord Records label founded by MacKaye and Nelson keeping records cheap and gradually expanding beyond releasing hardcore punk records to include all styles of underground rock.

When Minor Threat ran its course, MacKaye formed post-punk outfit Fugazi with guitarist Guy Picciotto, bassist Joe Lally, and drummer Brendan Canty, the band releasing six influential albums of often-experimental rock that expanded the possibilities of hardcore punk into new creative territory. Fugazi were touring missionaries for the D.I.Y. lifestyle, playing over 1,000 shows in all 50 U.S. states and overseas, and with Dischord Records they walked it like they talked it, releasing important and influential albums by bands like Government Issue, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, and Jawbox.       

The Buzzcocks' Another Music In A Different Kitchen

6. The Buzzcocks
Admittedly, the Buzzcocks’ enormous influence was initially limited to the U.K. but, as the band’s timeless and effervescent singles like “Orgasm Addict,” “What Do I Get?,” and “Ever Fallen In Love (With Somebody You Shouldn’t’ve)” meandered across the ocean as import vinyl, they picked up numerous fans stateside. Formed in 1976 by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto as a musical outlet for their shared Velvet Underground obsession, the pair found inspiration in the Sex Pistols and, before long, were opening for the controversial band and rapidly building a following of their own. Fusing power-pop roots with the energy and zealousness of punk-rock, the band racked up eight chart singles in the U.K. through 1979. Devoto split shortly after “Orgasm Addict,” eventually forming the art-punk outfit Magazine. 

After Devoto’s departure, talented bassist Steve Diggle switched over to guitar and shared songwriting duties with Shelley, which brought a diversity to their sound that led to the aforementioned string of hit singles. Meanwhile, in the U.S., listeners primed by the import 45s eagerly anticipated albums like Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites (both 1978) and A Different Kind of Tension (1979), which would all later be reissued domestically by I.R.S. Records, which had released the Singles Going Steady compilation to some fanfare in 1980. The band underwent its first of many break-ups in 1980, reuniting several times throughout the years and, after Shelley’s unexpected death in 2018, Diggle carried on the Buzzcocks name, acquitting himself nicely with 2022’s Sonics In the Soul album. A Buzzcocks influence can be heard in bands like the Smiths, Radiohead, and Superchunk, among many others.     

Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables

5. The Dead Kennedys
Jon Young, writing for The Trouser Press Record Guide (4th edition, 1991), said that “in the Dead Kennedys, America finally produced a powerful, self-righteously moral band to match the fury of the Sex Pistols,” considering them “as prime pioneers of American hardcore, the Kennedys have been influential, not only by setting a style, sensibility and commendable standards, but with their productive Alternative Tentacles label and active support for grassroots rock activity.” Featuring the manic vocals and socially-charged lyrics of frontman Jello Biafra, the DKs – guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Floride, and drummer D.H. Peligro – skewered American traditions and ethics with albums like 1980’s Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and 1985’s Frankenchrist.

The DKs weren’t without controversy, not only for their incendiary name but also for an uncompromisingly leftist political stance. The turmoil embroiling the band culminated in a 1986 obscenity trial that eventually saw the trumped-up charges dropped, but censorship had already taken its toll and, along with the band’s collective disillusionment with an increasingly-violent hardcore scene, led to their break-up. Although the other DKs got back together and moved on without Biafra as some sort of twisted covers band, Biafra continues to support underground and left-of-the-dial styled bands through Alternative Tentacles. The band shot across the punk rock firmament like a comet, influencing followers like Bad Religion, Green Day, the Minutemen, and Rage Against the Machine.

The Damned's Damned Damned Damned

4. The Damned
English punk rockers the Damned often don’t get the credit they deserve for their reach, innovation, and influence. They were the first U.K. punk band to release a single (1976’s blistering “New Rose”) and album (1977’s Nick Lowe-produced Damned Damned Damned), and they were the first to brave touring the U.S., sailing west across the Atlantic months ahead of the Pistols or the Clash. Although their second album, Music For Pleasure, was unfairly slagged by hometown critics, the Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) produced psych-punk LP has since received kinder reappraisal.

Subsequent album releases like 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette (described as “T-Rex meets Motörhead”), 1980’s The Black Album, and 1985’s Phantasmagoria added elements of Goth and heavy metal to the band’s pioneering punk sound. The Damned are still rocking to this day, their 2023 album Darkadelic helping corrupt an entirely new generation of young punks. 

The Ramones

3. The Ramones
Forming in 1974, the four “brothers” from Forest Hills, Queens NYC – Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy – would have a profound effect on the development of punk-rock in the U.S. Pursuing a stripped-down, no-frills style of guitar-rock that incorporated elements of pop and psychedelic-rock, the band’s fast ‘n’ loud delivery, Joey’s original vocals, and their junk culture lyrics quickly earned the Ramones a loyal local following circa 1975. Bridging the gap between proto-punkers like the Dictators and the New York Dolls and first-generation punk-rock outfits like the Dead Boys, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, the Ramones brought a unique sound and energy to rock ‘n’ roll that influenced scores of bands to follow. Signing with Sire Records, the Ramones notoriously recorded their self-titled 1976 album for a sparse budget of $6,400; the album would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and eventually be certified for Gold™ Record status.

They would follow their critically-acclaimed debut with a pair of albums in ’77 – Leave Home and Rocket To Russia – which etched in stone the band’s reputation as punk pioneers. The total run time of those first three essential LPs was roughly 90-minutes which, with a total of 42 songs among them, worked out to slightly more than two minutes per song; the Ramones were clearly not working by the hour. Road To Ruin (1978) saw the band begin to expand their sound to incorporate guitar solos and pop melodies, and they worked with legendary producer Phil Spector for 1980’s underrated End of the Century. The band broke up in 1996 with fourteen studio albums under their belt that incorporated everything from punk and hard rock to pop and psychedelia. Influential far beyond their often-meager album sales, the Ramones left behind an undeniable legacy that influenced bands worldwide, from the Misfits, the Beastie Boys, Rancid, and Green Day stateside to the Clash, Sham 69, and the Damned in the U.K. and even Teenage Head in Canada and Shonen Knife in Japan.

Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks

2. Sex Pistols
It helps that the Sex Pistols’ legacy that they self-destructed after less than three years together, leaving the vultures to pick at the band’s decaying corpse for decades with scores of dodgy ‘odds ‘n’ sods’ and bootleg-quality live album releases. As for their single legit album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks followed a trio of Top 10 U.K. hit singles – “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant,” and “Holidays In the Sun” – each seemingly more controversial than the previous.

The string played out through 1979 and the band’s demise, with non-LP singles like “No One Is Innocent,” “Something Else,” “Silly Thing,” and a cover of Eddie Cochran’s classic “C’mon Everybody” all charting Top 10. The Pistols directly inspired a generation of bands to follow, and we have Johnny Rotten and the gang to thank for the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Billy Idol, Joy Division, the Smiths, and many others. Outspoken, outrageous, and obscene, the Sex Pistols were a generational cultural phenomenon.

The Clash's London Calling

1. The Clash
“The Only Band That Matters” really was, the Clash following their own musical path for the better part of a decade, discarding the tiring cliches of British punk in favor of musical innovation that brought elements of reggae, funk, and rockabilly to their guitar-drenched and energetic sound. With roots in Britain’s pub-rock scene, the Clash were possibly the best band inspired by the Sex Pistols’ Sturm und Drang, and when Mick Jones and Joe Strummer were brought together, magic happened.

The band’s first two albums – 1977’s The Clash and 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope – are critically-acclaimed, punk rock classics that crossed over to the pop charts, but their third, 1979’s London Calling, was a commercial blockbuster on both sides of the pond and the band’s U.S. breakthrough. The confusing and uneven three-disc Sandinista! (1980) was seen by many as a step backwards (it might have been better condensed to two LPs), but 1982’s Combat Rock –a Top 10 disc in both the U.K. and the U.S. – solidified the Clash’s position as the most important and influential bands from the “Class of ‘77” (the less said of Cut the Crap, the better…)     

Honorable Mention: The Avengers, Bad Brains, The Boomtown Rats, The Dead Boys, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, The Minutemen, The Misfits, Operation Ivy, Rancid, Stiff Little Fingers, X, and X-Ray Spex… 

The Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols
Green Day
Green Day  

The Gems   
The Germs

The Dead Kennedys
The Dead Kennedys

Minor Threat
Minor Threat

Black Flag
Black Flag

The View On Pop Culture: Al Kooper & Michael Bloomfield (2003)

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session

Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield are two of the most underrated and influential talents in the canon of blues-rock. Both were phenomenal musicians (Bloomfield died in 1981, Kooper now only plays sporadically), insightful and knowledgeable with a true love of music. Both men’s credentials are impeccable. Kooper was, perhaps, the most valuable session player in the ‘60s rock universe, adding his considerable talents to records by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. A founding member of two seminal ‘60s bands – Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears – Kooper also discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing their first three albums.

Bloomfield was an equally decorated veteran of the rock ‘n’ roll army. A familiar presence on the early ‘60s Chicago club scene, Bloomfield made his bones as a guitarslinger with the Butterfield Blues Band. He toured with Dylan, formed Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites, and subsequently played sessions with Kooper, Muddy Waters, James Cotton and folks of that caliber. Between the two, they have played on/produced/written some of the most memorable music in rock music. So why aren’t more people familiar with these two? Blame it on the short-term memory, perhaps, of pop culture or blame it on an industry that no longer nurtures talents of extraordinary vision like Kooper and Bloomfield.

Two recently released recordings help document the pair’s legacy. At the time of its 1968 release, rock fans had never heard anything like Super Session (Legacy Recordings). Kooper was a staff producer at Columbia Records at the time, dreaming up a project to produce. Kooper thought of his old Dylan session cohort Bloomfield and, with a crack rhythm section in tow, retreated to a Los Angeles recording studio to “jam.” Half of Super Session offers day one of the sessions, Bloomfield’s guitar ringing clear as a bell on the Chicago blues-styled instrumental romp “Albert’s Shuffle,” the nine-minute ‘90s-jam band precursor “His Holy Modal Majesty” and the mournful blues jam “Really.”

Bloomfield was AWOL come day two of the session, his health problems and insomnia aggravated by a growing heroin addiction. Bloomfield simply picked up his guitar and went home, forcing producer Kooper to recruit Stephen Stills, fresh from a stint with Buffalo Springfield, to fill in for the missing guitarist. The Stills-dominated tracks travel in a more psychedelic direction than Bloomfield’s blues-rock virtuosity. A faithful cover of Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” leads into a dynamic eleven-minute reading of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Kooper’s vocals and keyboard work on the song are spot-on, Stills’ wah-wah driven six-string providing the fire while the rhythm section of bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh provide the pulse.

Super Session spent several weeks in the top twenty upon its release and helped spawn the first generation of “jam” bands (including the Grateful Dead), opening the door to greater instrumental improvisation. This remastered reissue of Super Session includes four bonus tracks, including original takes of “Albert’s Shuffle” and “Season of the Witch” sans horns (which were added to the final mix later) and two interesting outtakes. The success of Super Session led to a sort of sequel in The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, the live album a document of three nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco featuring mostly new material.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68
The previously unreleased Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 (Legacy Recordings) is the second of two new releases that further highlight the often-overlooked talents of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Recorded two-and-a-half months after the “live adventures” disc, these tapes were all but discarded after the performance due to engineering problems and musical incompatibilities between some of the players. Rediscovered by Kooper a couple of years ago, the performance has been carefully resurrected, masterfully remixed, and skillfully remastered for the digital age. A real treat for Bloomfield fans, any young musician with an interest in the blues should check out this set and hear the playing of a true blues aficionado.

Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is a veritable showcase for Bloomfield’s enormous talents, the guitarist dazzling the audience with his fiery fretwork. Bloomfield pulled every trick he had out of the bag for covers of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” and “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and his original “(Please) Tell Me Partner.” He wasn’t afraid to share the stage, bringing out Texas guitarist Johnny Winter for a scorching take on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault,” the red-hot performance subsequently earning Winter a recording contract. Throughout Fillmore East, Bloomfield’s six-string work is fluid and graceful, Kooper’s keyboard work is subtle and if the rhythm section often seems at odds with itself, it does little to distract from the prominent guitar pyrotechnics offered by Bloomfield.

It could be argued that Mike Bloomfield never played better than he did circa 1968, the Super Session album and accompanying live performances spotlighting his talent at its peak. Bloomfield wrote the blueprint for the white blues guitarist, informing the work of those who would follow, from Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and David Jacobs-Strain.

Kooper would become the architect of the mid-70s “Southern Rock” sound through his work with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he penned one of the best books about rock & roll, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. Because of his uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, I once called Al Kooper the “Forrest Gump” of rock ‘n’ roll. After listening to these two incredible CDs, however, this scribe has taken another look at Kooper’s legacy. Reconsidered, Kooper seems to have made his own opportunities, his place in rock history assured by his own diverse talents. (View From The Hill, April 2003)

Friday, December 15, 2023

This Mine Has Played Out: Goldmine Magazine In 2023

Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Goldmine magazine, winter 2023

I have quite a few rockcrit colleagues who write for Goldmine magazine, so I apologize in advance for stepping on any toes with this rant. Receiving and reviewing the winter 2023 issue of the long-running collectors’ zine, however, I feel that as the publication approaches its 50th anniversary, that it may be time to retire Goldmine to the old magazine resting home.

Goldmine was launched by publisher Brian Bukantis in September 1974 in the Detroit suburb of Fraser, Michigan. Bukantis’ agenda for the bi-monthly newsprint tabloid was to service the growing rock ‘n’ roll record and memorabilia collectors’ market. Early issues of Goldmine covered rock, country, blues, and soul music with artist interviews, discographies, and album reviews. One of the main features, however, were the seller’s ads, which offered albums, 45s, zines, and books by mail order from what would become a regular group of trusted sellers.

By 1977, both the magazine and the collectors’ market had grown to the point where Bukantis could take the publication monthly. I met Brian at a record convention in Detroit in 1979 and stayed in touch with him and editor John Koenig through the years. I wrote for Goldmine occasionally during the 1980s and ‘90s, and also contributed artist interviews and album reviews to similar publications like DISCoveries and Record Auction Monthly during both publication’s brief lifespans. At some point, Bukantis sold Goldmine to Krause Publications, a specialty publisher of price guides and other materials for collectors and hobbyists; it was a good fit. Krause later bought DISCoveries and folded it into Goldmine.

During its tenure as Goldmine’s owner, Krause did away with the magazine’s tabloid format in favor of a standard 8.5” x 11” magazine format largely printed on newsprint with color covers. In 2002, Krause was purchased by F+W Media, the New York City-based publisher of Writer’s Digest and other magazines. Goldmine continued more or less as it ever had, until F+W was bought out by a private equity fund, which continued expanding via purchases of other publications until F+W was saddled with debt and bought by another equity fund. The end-of-the-line came for F+W when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The publisher’s assets were sold at auction, and Goldmine was bought at a discount by something called Active Interest Media (AIM), an equity fund-owned publisher of “niche enthusiast magazines.”

A year later, however, AIM dumped a number of its publications before being sold off itself. Goldmine ended up in the hands of the Project M Group, LLC which was formed in 2016 by CEO Enrique Abeyta, an investor and entrepreneur, and COO James Welch. Project M has been on a buying spree since its founding, gobbling up publications like heavy metal magazines Metal Edge and Revolver; Alternative Press magazine; and the BrooklynVegan music website. The first thing the new owners did was move Goldmine from Wisconsin to Brooklyn, and change the publication to a glossy, full-color 9” x 11” square bound format with better paper quality and ostensibly more content. With the change in appearance came an increase in the cover price, which had held at roughly $6 per month for years. Still, at ten bucks for a better zine, it was worth it…

The changes didn’t stop there, however…while the cost of an annual subscription stayed the same at $29.95, the frequency of the magazine was slowly reduced. What was once a bargain has become much less so, as the number of issues published each year dropped from twelve to six to the current quarterly publication schedule. The mail order ads, which had already dwindled to a handful of longtime advertisers, were finally eliminated altogether in favor of advertising for Goldmine’s online store. Record and book reviews were moved online and axed from the print edition altogether. Issues started featuring multiple covers, a gimmick no doubt inspired by Marvel and DC Comics’ long-standing practice of separating fans from their cash. Photos of the covers are also available to purchase and, given the email pitches that hit my in-box at least once a week, Goldmine seems more interested in selling me anything but the magazine.              

Back to the winter of 2023, and the new issue of Goldmine hit my mailbox with a thud. This issue has almost nothing that I’m interested in reading…with feature stories on Night Ranger and Foghat, the publication is touting new projects by two bands that even a lot of avid fans stopped caring about 40 years ago. There’s something on a guy that took a lot of photos of Bruce Springsteen, an excerpt from Bernie Taupin’s autobiography, and the obligatory three articles on The Beatles ‘cause they released a new song or something…for years now, Goldmine has never missed an excuse to put the Fab Four on the cover to help move some copies to its aging boomer readership. If not for Dave Thompson’s regular and welcome “Grooves” column, there’d be nothing I’d want to read.

The previous issue was similarly-vacuous and light on copy, and I blame both the magazine’s editor and the parent company. The Project M Group seems less interested in publishing a good magazine than in creating a “lifestyle” company by luring readers to the web store where you can buy records, books, t-shirts, photographs, and even stereo equipment. In the meantime, they’ve left editor Patrick Prince to continue steering the Goldmine ship. I have no beef with the editor – my infrequent dealings with Prince have been pleasant through the years, but he’s been the editorial overseer for better than ten years (2010-12 and 2015 to now) and he doesn’t seem to realize that any new music has been made since 1979.

The magazine’s editorial focus is long-past stale, and focused on a ridiculously-narrow slate of classic rock artists from the 1960s and ‘70s. Yo, Patrick, do you know what young vinyl fiends are collecting these days? Punk, new wave, and heavy metal bands from the 1980s and ‘90s! You couldn’t tell it from the last couple years of the magazine. Whereas the original Goldmine offered diverse coverage of musical genres, the current incarnation offers little beyond the same old tune, which is as tired as my arthritic knees. I love classic rock and blues music, but I get deeper coverage of bands I know and those I don’t from zines like Ugly Things, Maggot Brain, The Big Takeover, and even British music rags like Vive le Rock.

Goldmine has some talented and insightful writers on its freelance staff, folks like the aforementioned Thompson, Martin Popoff, Lee Zimmerman, Gillian Gaar, and Bill Kopp, among others, but I don’t believe that they’re being used to their full capabilities – especially since the zine has axed Zimmerman’s indie release column (a source of new music for a lot of us) along with the review section that frequently hipped readers to new music. An editorial change of course is needed, or else I don’t see Goldmine making it far beyond its 50th birthday.

Tucked in the pages of the winter issue is the publication’s circulation statement, which to the experienced reader signifies a publication in dire straits. Goldmine prints and circulates less than 6,000 copies of each issue, most of them sent to subscribers. They seem to have all but given up on newsstand circulation, which represents just a few hundred copies of each issue. This, my friends, is not a recipe for a successful regional publication, much less a magazine with a national profile. The record collecting field is wide open right now, and opportunities abound. This “mine” has played out, though, and unless Project M Group discovers a better editorial blueprint (Yo, Enrique, pick up a copy of the U.K. zine Record Collector), Goldmine will too soon wander into the publishing graveyard…


The View On Pop Culture: Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt, King Crimson, The Faint (2003)

Lonesome, On’ry and MeanV2.53

Considering Waylon Jennings’ near-mythical status in the pantheon of country stars (ranking up there with Hank, George, Johnny, and Willie), a tribute album was bound to happen sooner or later. Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (Dualtone Records) is a labor of love undertaken by Chuck Meade of the alt-country outfit BR5-39. Meade got together a wide range of talent to pay tribute to Waylon and, for the most part, it works. As with any affair of this type, there are good songs and there are better songs and usually there’s a clunker thrown in to pacify some label exec somewhere.

The good stuff on Lonesome, On’ry and Mean includes Dave Alvin’s “Amanda,” his mournful vocals capturing the bittersweet sorrow of the original. Rocker John Doe’s plays it straight with “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line,” with pedal steel and honky-tonk piano and vocals that mimic Jennings’ familiar baritone. Guy Clark’s folksy take on “Good Hearted Woman” is solid, as are performances by Nanci Griffith, Junior Brown, and Allison Moorer. Carlene Carter’s rendition of “I’ve Always Been Crazy” reads true, Carter, perhaps more than any of the other contributors, coming closest to sharing Jennings’ rebellious spirit.

On the other hand, Norah Jones seems to have been included for purely commercial purposes, the young Grammy® winner in over her head trying to interpret a song performed by one of country music’s great interpreters. Ditto for Henry Rollins, whose punk credentials may be unassailable, but his heavy-handed, heavy metal reinvention of the title track does nothing but illustrate his limitations as a vocalist. There’s nothing on Lonesome, On’ry and Mean that will make fans forget about Waylon, but it’s a welcome tribute nonetheless and a lot of fun.

It'll Come To You (John Hiatt tribute)
John Hiatt
has a loyal following of his own, both as a vastly underrated performer and as a successful songwriter. It’s a sign of the respect the music industry has for a favored wordsmith that It’ll Come To You: The Songs of John Hiatt (Vanguard Records) is the third Hiatt tribute album in recent memory. Unlike the aforementioned Jennings tribute, rather than enlisting artists to contribute songs, It’ll Come To You collects (mostly) previously released tracks, throwing in a trio of new songs to whet the average Hiatt fan’s appetite.

Someone once said that it all begins with a song, and when the material has been penned by an artist as intelligent, talented, and well versed in musical tradition as John Hiatt, it’s no wonder that the hits just keep coming. It’ll Come To You includes Hiatt-written hits by Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”), Eric Clapton and B.B. King (“Riding With The King”) and Roseanne Cash (“The Way We Make A Broken Heart”). There are some lesser-known gems here, as well, such as Rodney Crowell’s take on “She Loves The Jerk” and a haunting reading of “Icy Blue Heart” by Emmylou Harris.

Among the new songs, Buddy and Julie Miller make “Paper Thin” their own with a rocking rendition while Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise delivers a soulful, blues-tinged performance of the title track. It’ll Come To You also includes strong performances from Buddy Guy, Linda Ronstadt and Patty Griffin, among others. Hiatt’s songs, as influenced by Memphis soul as they are by rock, pop and country music, are American treasures. If you’re unfamiliar with Hiatt’s work, It’ll Come To You is a good place to introduce yourself before running out and buying Beneath This Gruff Exterior, Hiatt’s latest solo effort (coming soon to a column near you).

In almost thirty-five years of sporadic music making, King Crimson has never delivered an uninteresting album. Irritating, perhaps, maddening for sure, but never dull. Such is the case with The Power To Believe (Sanctuary Records), the band’s first studio effort in three years and its most adventuresome recording to date. Working with producer Machine, best known for working with nu-metal artists like Rob Zombie and Pitchshifter, the band that defined progressive rock for a generation takes the music into new territory.

King Crimson's The Power To Believe
The current Crimson line-up of Robert Fripp, guitarists Adrian Belew and Trey Gunn and percussionist Pat Mastelotto manage to take the scattershot improvisational prog-rock that they cut their teeth on and imbue it with the aggressive vocabulary of nu-metal. The result is an invigorating and unpredictable album, songs like “Level Five” and “Dangerous Curves” creating virtual landscapes of sound and emotion. Other tracks on The Power To Believe, such as “Facts of Life,” blend traditional pop structures with a jazzy cacophony, creating an entirely new genre altogether. Young fans of bands like System of A Down would do well to immerse themselves in The Power To Believe and find out what new tricks the old dogs in King Crimson have up their sleeves.

The Faint is a band of new wave revivalists, genuflecting at the altar of early-80s bands like Soft Cell and Human League. So, here’s a novel idea – let’s take the MTV-inspired synth-pop of the Faint’s critically acclaimed album Danse Macabre and turn the songs over to a bunch of hot producers and DJs to remix. The result is Danse Macabre Remixes (Astralwerks Records), a risky musical adventure that pays off in the end.

With talents such as Thin White Duke, Paul Oakenfold and Junior Sanchez reinventing the Faint’s distinctive sound, Danse Macabre Remixes is a blend of straight-forward dance tracks, avant-garde techno and, in some cases, mere minor tweaking and enhancement of the Faint’s original efforts. My personal favorites include the revved-up Oakenfold take on "Glass Dance," the sparse electro-blues of “Total Job” and the Eno-styled ambiance of “Ballad of A Paralysed Citizen.” Danse Macabre Remixes isn’t for everybody, but if you enjoy a bit of edge to your music and crave a little experimentalism, here it is... (View From The Hill, March 2003)