Friday, July 19, 2024

Hot Wax: Bad Brains’ I Against I (1986/2024)

Bad Brains’ I Against I
Innovative, eccentric, unpredictable, fickle, high-energy, reticent, talented, pioneering, troubled, unrelenting…all of these words (and many more) can be used to describe Bad Brains. Much as Nashville’s Afrikan Dreamland was reinventing and reinvigorating reggae music in the 1980s by adding a dash of blues, so too was Bad Brains leavening punk rock with reggae grooves. The Washington D.C. hardcore heroes seem to have wanted to be anything but a hardcore punk band even as they pushed beyond the traditional barriers of rock, reggae, punk, and funk music like no other band in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Formed in 1976 as Mind Power, a jazz-rock fusion outfit not dissimilar to Return to Forever, it wasn’t long until the fresh and exciting sound of punk rock infected the band and they radically changed their sound towards a guitar-driven hardcore style. Original Mind Power singer Sid McCray – ostensibly responsible for introducing the band to punk in the first place – left shortly thereafter and guitarist H.R. (née Paul Hudson) took over the microphone. The rest of the band was comprised of guitarist Dr. Know (née Gary Miller), bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson (Paul’s brother). Around this same time (i.e. 1977 or so), the band experienced the legendary Bob Marley in concert, igniting a shared interest in reggae music and the Rastafari movement.

Hardcore Punk & Reggae

With punk and reggae as their magnetic poles, Bad Brains pursued a performance style that blitzed the audience with unrelenting energy and total creative abandon. H.R. was an incendiary frontman, Dr. Know a skilled guitarist nevertheless capable of grinding it out in the trenches, and the Brains’ rhythm section could swing or slam as the occasion merited. They quickly built up a loyal fan base in the D.C. area and were inevitably blacklisted by local clubs due to their chaotic and unpredictable performances. Bad Brains moved northward to New York City in 1980, where they became the blowtorch that ignited the city’s emerging and soon-to-be-notorious hardcore punk scene.

By 1982, Bad Brains were CBGB regulars, performing several nights a week at the infamous Bowery club. Their self-titled debut album was really just a document of the band’s ever-evolving live show, released exclusively on cassette by the specialty label Reachout International Records (ROIR). Featuring liner notes by New York Rocker writer Ira Kaplan (later a founding member of indie rockers Yo La Tengo), the tape’s fold-out insert also included lyrics – the ultimate in fan service. They were subsequently signed to the indie PVC Records label for their sophomore effort, 1983’s Rock For Light. Produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars and reprising five songs from the debut, the pop-meister smoothed down some of the band’s raw edges but ultimately delivered an enduring and high-octane record.

Creative tensions within the band caused Bad Brains to break up after the release of Rock For Light, the first of many such implosions over the course of the band’s career. The original line-up reunited in 1986, signing with the legendary SST Records label, which by that point could boast of a catalog that represented a veritable “who’s who” of influential underground rockers like Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü, among others. All of which brings us around to I Against I, the Bad Brains’ “breakthrough” and arguably their best-known and beloved recording. Recently-reissued as the eighth title in the band’s restoration of its back catalog with help from the good folks at ORG Music, the audio has been remastered by Dave Gardner and the vinyl produced by Furnace Record Pressing. A landmark effort, I Against I is worthy of rediscovery as a groundbreaking album that influenced generations of musicians to follow.

Bad Brains photo by Steven Hanner courtesy Org Music
Bad Brains photo by Steven Hanner, courtesy Org Music

Bad Brains’ I Against I

I Against I eschews the Brains’ reggae obsessions entirely, the opening track (appropriately titled “Intro”) a plodding doom-metal instrumental with delusions of grandeur and a powerful performance with start-stop guitar shred and ringing instrumentation guaranteed to give the listener tinnitus. The title track bullies its way off the disc, through your speakers, corkscrewing itself into your ears. A 90mph moshpit punker with metallic edging, “I Against I” was a hurricane-strength revelation to the possibilities of expanding hardcore into thrash- and speed-metal. Throw Ronnie James behind the microphone and “House of Suffering” could easily pass for a late-period Black Sabbath track, the perfect breeding of machinegun hardcore riddims and whiplash six-string heavy metal bombast.

The band expands its musical blueprint by a lick or two for “Re-Ignition,” in which you can clearly hear the future of Ice T’s Body Count and any half-dozen vintage ‘90s Lollapalooza bands in the song’s staggered rhythms, swaggering vocal delivery, and muscular git riffs. “Secret 77” is a clever outlier, punky but with tinges of “new wave” pop fused to a funk-metal groove that forged a blade for Fishbone to later hone into a deadly weapon. The rampaging “Let Me Help” performs a fancy head-fake with its pseudo-Zeppelin intro exploding into a punkish storm while “She’s Calling You” provides a bright spotlight for Dr. Know’s fluid fretwork, even though it may be the only wan song on the LP.

“Sacred Love” is a dinosaur-stomper that leaves heavy footprints with its discordant instrumentation; even cooler is the weird effect they got by recording H.R.’s vocals via jailhouse phone when the singer was locked up for a pot bust. Sounding like an early ‘80s Alice Cooper session outtake, “Hired Gun” allows Dr. Know to show off his six-string dexterity, the otherwise panoramic punk-metal construct embroidered with jazzy licks and avant-garde abandon. I Against I closes with the furious and feverish “Return To Heaven,” which offers one of H.R.’s most nuanced vocal takes soaring above a daunting instrumental soundtrack that blazes like 1970s-era stadium rock but offers – often hidden deep in the mix – sly and innovative musical ideas that other bands would exploit for years. I Against I was produced near perfectly by Ron St. Germain, who would earn a certain amount of street cred by working with the Brains that he’d later apply to records by Sonic Youth, 311, and Living Colour, among others.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Despite their relative obscurity, Bad Brains’ influence extends far beyond its meager commercial profile. They were nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 (though, unsurprisingly, they weren’t inducted) and their music has inspired bands as diverse as the Beastie Boys, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Sublime, Nirvana, Green Day, and Faith No More (whose original frontman, Chuck Mosley, was the Brains’ vocalist for a short while), among many others. Although Brains’ band members have experienced various health issues over the last few years, they continue to perform and turn heads to this day.

Working with ORG Music, Bad Brains has taken back control of their considerable and acclaimed catalog of music, and they’ve been busy reissuing every album on both CD and vinyl for discovery by a new generation of restless youth. Check out the band’s catalog at  

Bad Brains

Hot Wax: Skip James’ Today! (1966/2024)

Skip James' Today!
Born in 1902 in Bentonia, Mississippi – on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta region – Nehemiah “Skip” James was a contemporary of bluesmen like Charley Patton, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt, and a major influence on a young Robert Johnson, although he’s seldom spoken of with the same reverence afforded those legends. But James’ spine-chilling falsetto vocals and his unusual open D-minor guitar tuning created a sound unlike any other bluesman treading the boards of the Southern U.S. in the early 1920s, creating what is now arguably known as the “Bentonia School” style of blues.

James is said to have become enamored of the blues as a child after seeing local musician Henry Stuckey perform (sadly, no recordings of Stuckey have ever surfaced). His mother bought him a guitar for $2.50 and he picked up some technique from Stuckey and a little more from the brothers Charlie and Jesse Sims. John Hurt was also a major influence on the young musician as he worked to develop his own unique style. James was a natural musician, and he also took piano lessons – his only formal musical training – quitting after two sessions at $1.50 each, feeling that the fee was too much for the family budget.

Skip James’ Paramount Recordings

As a teenager, James worked in sawmills and on local levee and road construction crews, and he began travelling in the 1920s, picking up jobs as a laborer where he could, supplementing his income via less-reputable vocations as gambling and bootlegging. Returning to Bentonia in 1929, he became a street singer, and opened a school for aspiring blues musicians, offering guitar and piano lessons. In 1931, James auditioned for record store owner and Paramount Records talent scout H.C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi. James’ performance earned him a two-year contract with the label.

James travelled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount, cutting at least 18 sides for the label (James is said to have remembered recording 26 songs in two days), including such now-classic blues standards as “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” “Devil Got My Woman,” “22-20 Blues” (the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”), and “I’m So Glad.” Paramount released nine 78RPM records by James, which sold poorly due to the effects of the Great Depression. Today, James is considered one of the most significant pre-war blues artists and those 78s are scarcer than hen’s teeth, with only 15 records known to have survived.

Skip James Rediscovered

That was it for Skip James for better than three decades, the artist sinking into obscurity, seldom performing, and with no recordings known of from this period. James became the choir director for his father’s church, subsequently becoming an ordained Baptist minister. On a quest to rediscover the blues idols of their record collections, guitarists John Fahey, Bill Barth (The Insect Trust), and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat) tracked James down in 1964 to a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. Finding that his skills were intact, they convinced the reticent bluesman to return to his craft. Along with the parallel “rediscovery” of James’ contemporary Son House, the two men helped fuel the folk-blues revival of the 1960s.

James performed at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1964, his first moment onstage in over 30 years. Coaxed into the studio, James subsequently recorded albums for Fahey’s Takoma Records label, musicologist Richard K. Spottswood’s Melodeon Records, and for the legendary folk label, Vanguard Records. It was James’ two Vanguard albums, 1966’s Today! and 1968’s Devil Got My Woman, that provided many modern blues fans with their first hearing of the idiosyncratic bluesman. Along with his 1931 recordings for Paramount – reissued in the 1970s and ‘80s by labels like Spokane Records, Yazoo, and Biograph – these Vanguard releases represent James’ blues legacy.    

Skip James’ Today!

Recently-reissued with re-mastered sound and an all-around sonic upgrade, James’ Today! is the place to start for curious newcomers to what is one of the most original artists of the Delta blues era. Unlike its many cover versions, James’ contemporary reading of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (one of his earlier, Paramount sides) is slowed-down, deliberate, and absolutely menacing, the singer’s chilling vocals riding uneasily above filigree, finger-picked acoustic guitar. The newer “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues,” inspired no doubt by James’ health issues at the time, is just as bracing as his earlier material, with high-lonesome vocals and gentle, yet intricate guitar picking. “Drunken Spree” is one of the jauntier revisitations of James’ early songs, the 1966 recording capturing his complex finger-picking and lower-register vocals.

By contrast, “Cherry Ball Blues” puts James’ falsetto vocals front and center, his haltering performance accompanied by delicate guitar licks. James’ cover of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell’s 1928 single “How Long” (a/k/a “How Long Blues”) showcases James’ not-inconsiderable piano skills with a jazzy mid-tempo arrangement that is both winsome and engaging, including a brief barrelhouse-styled solo. James’ piano-pounding on “All Night Long” hints at a New Orleans influence while “Cypress Grove” provides undeniable proof of the guitarist’s immense six-string skills. James’ “I’m So Glad” is an inspired spiritual whose origins likely pre-date the blues. The artist’s best-known song – due to an upbeat cover on Eric Clapton and Cream’s 1966 debut album, Fresh Cream – James’ short, sharp reading of the song is provided one of his most uplifting and spry vocal deliveries, accompanied by a simply mesmerizing and rapid-paced guitar strum.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Skip James’ Today! offers the best of both worlds – James’ early Paramount sides re-recorded by the artist and preserved with modern 1960s recording technology – as well as a scattering of new songs performed in James’ unyielding, undeniable personal style. James’ performances are sung with intensity and passion, attracting mid-‘60s folk-blues audiences like catnip. James followed up Today! with Devil Got My Woman, a similar collection of both old school and new material that would be James’ last recording before his death in 1969 from cancer.

Still, James’ legacy has only grown larger since his passing, with numerous repackaged albums released with often alarming frequency. Those prolific last five years of James’ life resulted in dozens of recordings and outtakes that have been sliced ‘n’ diced over the years to create numerous new titles (buyer beware!), while his various live performances from the 1960s have been similarly pillaged for profit. Today! stands as one of the crown jewels of James’ relatively sparse catalog of originals, serving as a stepping stone to the artist’s earlier recordings. Today! – along with Devil Got My Woman and Yazoo’s The Complete 1931 Session – are the basis for James’ reputation, and are essential additions to the collection of any avid blues fan.

Buy the album from Amazon: Skip James’ Today! 

Friday, July 12, 2024

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory (2024)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory
“Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day;
rage, rage against the dying of the light.” – Dylan Thomas, 1947

If rock ‘n’ roll has the equivalent of Dylan Thomas’s famed protagonist, it would be Joe Grushecky. The Pittsburgh rocker has been fighting the good fight since the mid-‘70s, first with the Iron City Houserockers, and later as Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers. Joe released four critically-acclaimed albums between 1979 and 1983 with his former band and, since ’89, has released four “solo” and eleven band albums with one version or another of the Houserockers. Even more impressively, he’s accomplished all of this largely outside of the major label infrastructure.

Still, Joe has lived, loved, and sang long enough to realize that, as he so insightfully observed with the title track of his 2018 album, there are “More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows” on his horizon. Joe’s seen his son Johnny grow up and become a valued member of the Houserockers, but lest one think that Mr. Grushecky is ready to pass the torch to a younger generation, here is a brand-new album, Can’t Outrun A Memory, to belie that thought. At an age where his contemporaries have long given up the dream or – even worse – spend their days playing golf or tending to their wine cellar, Grushecky has delivered an album that’s every bit as fierce, ambitious, and defiant as anything he’s ever recorded over the past 45 years.

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory

Can’t Outrun A Memory opens with its poignant title track, a mid-tempo rocker with resigned vocals, big beat rhythms, and resonating guitarplay. “I’ve been thinking that it’s been too long since I listened to that old sad song. When I hear that soulful melody, it stirs something deep inside of me,” Joe sings, partly reminiscing, partly wrestling with ghosts of his past that we all possess. None of us can outrun the memory of past loves, past losses, and the risks we didn’t take (and some of those we did). With Grushecky’s gorgeous throwback guitar lines anchoring the song, embroidered by  Danny Gochnour’s intricate fretwork, Joe succinctly states, “time keeps marching on, blink an eye and it’s all gone,” drawing on his own experiences and losses to fuel the song’s wistful lyrics.

By contrast, “Just Drive” is more laid-back, with Johnny Grushecky’s elegant acoustic guitar strum opening and with lovely echoed intertwined electric guitars swirling around the mix above cautious, almost hesitant instrumentation. For those of us without a yacht to chill out on, driving around town, or out in the country, in our car is a form of meditation that provides solace from the barbed-wire existence of everyday life. It reminds me a lot of John Hiatt’s “Drive South,” but with more “Rust Belt” soul to its overall sound, the song dominated by Joe’s yearning vocals. Joe says of the song, “this one is for all of us who ever thought about getting away from it all and jumping into the car to drive off into to the sunset.”

An up-tempo, anthemic rocker with elements of the British Invasion seeping in at the edges, “This Is Who We Are” is the sort of populist message that Grushecky excels at, rock ‘n’ roll as balm for the soul. Singing above a massive drumbeat (courtesy of the ever-reliable Joffo Simmons), with Jeff Garrison’s fluid bass lines providing a rhythmic foundation, Joe shares his vision of the American dream: “I want a home on a quiet street, I just want to be left in peace. When I kiss my kids goodnight, I pray everything’s gonna be all right.” Grushecky’s vocals race out of the speakers like a high-speed chase, lyrically referencing both Dylan and his own past (“I had a good time but got out alive”), roaring out a message of American unity that seems to have been lost in our current quarrel over the soul of the country while guitars duel in the background. “My wife suggested this title to me,” says Joe. “It’s about where we are right now. I’m living on a quiet street, going to work every day, and hoping that we turn ourselves around for a better life for our children.”

Joe Grushecky photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy Omnivore Recordings
Joe Grushecky photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy Omnivore Recordings

Here In ‘68

Grushecky has long been lauded as a brilliant lyricist, yet it’s amazing and inspiring that he can still dig into his memory and experience to pull out a plum as perfectly-formed as “Here In ’68.” A look back at one of the most tumultuous years in American history, Joe name checks Viet Nam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and much, much more in a vivid lyrical history of the year that is punctuated by the poetic refrain “I can smell the smoke from a distance, feel the fire burning in my bones, hold out for hope peace love and desire, question everything that I’ve ever known, trying hard to keep the faith.” It’s a powerful song, Gochnour’s effervescent electric guitar providing a strong counterpoint to Johnny G’s subtle acoustic patterns, while Simmons and Garrison provide a strong, supportive rhythmic backdrop.   

Grushecky seldom covers other artist’s songs on his albums so, when he does, it’s an important moment worth paying attention to. Much as he did with “Old Man’s Bar” and “Junior’s Bar” on the I.C. Houserockers’ sophomore album, here Joe pairs the classic Animals’ track “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” with his own “Living In Coal Country” as matching blue-collar ballads. Eric Burdon delivered a powerful version of the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song for the Animals in 1965, and while Grushecky and the Houserockers basically follow that Top 20 hit’s original blueprint, they roughen up the edges and amplify the overall vibe with louder instrumentation and a high-octane arrangement. Garrison’s full-throated bass licks, for instance, build upon Chas Chandler’s original instrumentation, taking the song further onto blues turf.  

It’s the perfect lead-in to “Living In Coal Country,” a tuff-as-nails rocker with Joe’s mournful harmonica and raging vocals, which are accompanied by scorched earth guitars and jackhammer rhythms that drive home the lyrical message. With devastating imagery, Joe snarls “while the company blows up another mountain top, the brown dust mixes with the falling rain. When you do a deal with the devil, you lose all rights to complain.” It’s a protest song, and a wickedly surgical one at that, the singer’s anger at the region’s poverty, addiction, and economic desolation cutting like a scalpel to your conscious. “Both sides of my family were coal miners,” says Joe. “I grew up in coal country. When we went to visit relatives, we drove from one ‘coal patch’ town populated by company houses to another. I know these people and I wanted to tell their story.”

Until I See You Again

“Until I See You Again” is, in my humble opinion, the best song on Can’t Outrun A Memory, a heartfelt ode to that channels a great deal of emotion without ever becoming the least bit maudlin. Remembering those souls we’ve lost – and we all have a similar list of long-gone friends and family who have affected our lives in untold ways – Joe joyfully declares with the chorus “let’s raise our glasses and drink a toast, to all the ones that we love most. To our brothers and sisters and our best friends, I’ll keep you in my heart until I see you again.” The song’s buoyant rhythms and precise-yet-rockin’ instrumentation supports Joe’s electrifying vocals. “This one is about my old friends and how we had so much fun back in the day,” says Joe. “I miss them every day. I wanted to salute all our friends and family both here and gone.”

Can’t Outrun A Memory closes with “Let’s Cross the Bridge,” a nuanced take on life and mortality. Singing above a running river of instrumentation with ringing guitars and backing harmonies, Joe admits that “you can rage on forever, you can rage until you die, or go searching for an answer, and ask yourself the reason why.” With an almost Gospel fervor, Joe invites us all to step out of the darkness and into the light, to throw off the chains of the past. With reverent keyboard fills amping up the emotion, Joe and the musicians raise their voices in a joyous chorus that promises a better life is within our grasp.

It’s not the first time that Grushecky has visited this territory – he covered the 1930s-era Gospel song “Ain’t No Grave” on More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows – but it’s an inspired (and unexpected) spiritual moment nonetheless. The CD includes a brace of bonus tracks, including a bluesy, horn-driven take on “Sleeping Dog,” and powerful, inspired acoustic takes of “Living In Coal Country” (with mournful harmonica) and “Here In ‘68” that would make Woody Guthrie smile. The studio outtake “Leave Well Enough Alone” is a sizzling slab o’ energetic James Brown-styled funk with a hard luck tale that would be more than good enough for any other artist’s album, but sounds out of place compared to the rest of the material on Can’t Outrun A Memory.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If Grushecky’s last album concerned itself with mortality and legacy, Can’t Outrun A Memory deals with how we get to the end of the road…do we seize each day with unbridled energy, or do we allow entropy to creep into the short time we have on this spinning orb. Memories provide a signpost to the future and, for many, music allows us to approach the dying of the light with no regrets. Meeting Joe for the first time at a 1995 show in Nashville, I asked him why a middle-aged man would give up his job to hit the road with his band. Grushecky simply smiled and said, “it’s rock ‘n’ roll, man, it’s rock ‘n’ roll…” Nearly three decades since that meeting, Joe and the gang – Thomas’s “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight” – are still burning bright. If Can’t Outrun A Memory is any indication, Joe’s gonna keep on rockin’ until they turn out the lights… (Omnivore Recordings, released July 12th, 2024)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory

Also on That Devil Music:
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon review
Joe Grushecky’s It’s In My Song review

Archive Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live (2000)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live
A few years ago – 1995 to be exact – I saw a rock ‘n’ roll show that, if not number one on my all-time list, stands in the top three out of over 200 shows I’ve attended. No, it wasn’t the Stones or the Who or one of rock’s legends that I saw. Those guys couldn’t hold a candle to the spectacle that I witnessed that night. Sitting in a dark, smoky club in Nashville I watched Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers demolish the joint. Six guys crammed on a stage the size of a postage stamp; they spilled out onto the floor and, in the case of lead singer/guitarist Grushecky, on top of the tables. I’d waited fifteen years to see one of rock’s most underrated talents perform live, and Joe and his crew did not disappoint.

At the beginning of the show there were exactly three people in the audience who were familiar with the band (my wife and myself and one of Joe’s former producers). After two sets stretched out over almost three hours, it’s a safe bet that nobody leaving the club that night would ever forget Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. I’ve thought about that night a lot since then, played it over again in my head, smiling, and marveling that a middle-aged man (only slightly older than myself) could still bring such energy and passion to a live performance. After the show I asked Joe what prompted a man to keep on toiling away in a field that had always shown him such indifference. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll” was his reply and it’s all he had to say…

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live

If there was a lick of justice in this wicked world – and we all know that there is none – Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers would be revered as elder statesmen of rock rather than as one of the genre’s more obscure cult bands. The Houserockers would be facing the twilight of their musical careers with their walls covered in platinum records and mucho money in the bank. If this sounds like a fan talking, well, I am and have been since I bought that 7” picture disc of the Iron City Houserockers first single “Love’s So Tough” some twenty years ago. The critic in me, however, recognizes that Joe Grushecky truly is one of rock music’s greatest treasures and that in spite of the commercial and corporate indifference that he’s faced during the past two decades, Grushecky still manages to kick out a new album every two or three years.

I can’t help but thinking that this career insecurity has taken its toll, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from Grushecky’s music. Each album shows a little harder musical edge, the songs featuring more insightful lyrics. Over the course of four I.C. Houserockers albums and five “solo” releases, Grushecky has matured as an artist and performer in a manner that greater career comfort probably wouldn’t have nurtured. At an age when most men are counting their pension funds and looking forward to playing golf three days a week, Joe Grushecky is still following his rock ‘n’ roll dream with a fervor and reckless abandon that young cubs less than half his age can’t muster. All of which is my way of bringing you, gentle reader, to the subject at hand: Down the Road Apiece Live.

For a band that has earned their audience one set of ears at a time by delivering uncompromising live performances night after night, it’s somewhat strange that they haven’t released a live album before now. A few Houserockers performances have found their way into tape trading circles (I have one tape spirited out of WMMS-FM in Cleveland that is phenomenal), circulated among rabid fans. There are also a couple of Springsteen bootleg discs – Paradise By the Sea and Nick’s Fat City – that are really Houserockers performances that the Boss happened to wander onstage during. Down the Road Apiece Live is the band’s first official live set and it sounds, to these ears, as representative of a Houserockers onstage performance as you’re going to capture on disc.

Blood On the Bricks

Assembled by Grushecky and the band, Down the Road Apiece Live is as much a career retrospective as it is a performance disc. Of the baker’s dozen songs that are on the disc, some are from the Iron City Houserockers days, a few are from Grushecky’s early solo career and the rest from his later studio efforts, American Babylon and Coming Home. The album is designed as a straight-ahead rocker, with no fluff and no slow moments – just high octane, turbo-charged street level rock ‘n’ roll. Grushecky has always been known as a populist songwriter in the Springsteen vein, but I honestly think that he brings a working class perspective to his material that Springsteen hasn’t been able to for years. Several of Grushecky’s anthemic “call to arms” are here, including the haunting “Dark and Bloody Ground” and the angry “How Long.”

Other Grushecky originals are inhabited by the kind of literary characters that only a few songwriters can create, such as the memorable Frankie in “Dance With Me” or the star-crossed lovers of “Blood On the Bricks.” Springsteen even drops in for a few songs here, including one of the best Elvis songs ever written, “Talking With the King.” Behind all of these songs stands a band as polished and as rowdy as any rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced. Although many refer to Grushecky’s post Iron City albums as “solo” efforts, they’re really band creations that rely as much on the foundation of original I.C. Houserocker Art Nardini’s bass and drummer Joffo Simmons drums as they do on Grushecky’s taut guitar playing and trademark vocals.

These guys have been playing with Grushecky for more years than the lifespan of many better-known bands’ entire careers and it shows. A Houserockers show is an exercise in musical chemistry and a sincere love of rock ‘n’ roll – after all, these guys ain’t getting rich here, folks! When Billy Toms steps out front on guitar, Joe Pelesky screws up his face and makes a run down the keyboards, Bernie Herr adds some fine percussion touches to a song or Joe G. himself climbs atop your table to kick out the jams, the joy and release that they feel is infectious. It’s what rock ‘n’ roll should be about and for Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, it always will be…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The bottom line on Down the Road Apiece Live: buy it! Forget that trendy new punk rock record or moody, dark-hued album by this week’s “rock rebels.” Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers bring more energy, attitude and sincerity to their music than any of those chart-topping poseurs, kicking out each night’s sets with the same blood, sweat and tears that they did twenty years ago. One of rock’s true original indie bands, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers don’t get the respect that they deserve but deserve every ounce of respect that they’ve earned. If I had to pick one record to explain to future generations what rock & roll was about, this would be it. That’s all there is to say… (Schoolhouse Records, released 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Friday, July 5, 2024

Archive Review: Cream's The Very Best of Cream (1995)

Cream's The Very Best of Cream
In their time – which was almost thirty years ago – Cream was every bit as big commercially as Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Green Day are today. The band that introduced the term “supergroup” to the lexicon of rock ‘n’ roll, the trio of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker managed to live up to everyone’s lofty expectations and then some during their brief tenure. Their long-standing influence upon rock music is often overlooked these days, however, overshadowed by legends like Led Zeppelin or the Doors. The band’s seminal fusion of blues, jazz, and rock was to form the bedrock upon which many bands were to build their sound in the decades to follow, while one of the architects of Cream, guitarist Clapton, currently lives a revisionist daydream as an elder statesman of rock while most of his brightest moments lie in the past.

The Very Best of Cream is the first Cream “greatest hits” album to be released on CD that pulls together material from across the stylistic spectrum that the band musically explored. A collection of twenty songs, it includes the expected – ground-breaking covers of blues gems like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” as well as metal-tinged rockers like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” – as well as the unexpected, songs like the surprisingly popish “Wrapping Paper” or the psychedelic “Dance the Night Away.” Other Cream standards, such as “Badge,” with its incredible Clapton solo, “Strange Brew,” or the blues-tinged “Tales of Brave Ulysses” sound remarkably undated even with all the years that have passed. The Very Best of Cream draws heavily from the band’s three original studio recordings and the hits they yielded, filling out the edges with the handful of remaining singles that the band had released.

Given the benefit of hindsight, rock critics such as yours truly can make all sorts of claims about bands. Suffice it to say that Cream were...and still are...important. I can’t think of many recent hard rock and heavy metal bands that don’t some sort of musical debt to the trio. Clapton’s work with the band earned him a place in the pantheon of rock, regardless of what was to follow, and it was with Cream that he took his budding stardom to the heights of the music world. The Very Best of Cream is an excellent look at a band that, given their short time in the musical landscape – a little over two years – burned brightly, nonetheless. (Polydor Chronicles, released 1995)      

Review originally published by R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine

Archive Review: Eric Clapton's The Cream of Clapton (1995)

Eric Clapton's The Cream of Clapton
These days, Eric Clapton is considered one of rock’s elder statesmen, a blues-oriented artist working in a narrow musical vein. Many of his current fans have only fleeting memories of his early career, and those that do are saddened by what he has become: a commercial shill getting by on reputation and mediocrity ... even if he is selling more records than ever.

At one time, however, Clapton made great music. By the time that he formed Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and released their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, he was already considered rock’s premiere guitarist. Stints with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had earned him a reputation as a superstar axeman; by the time that Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears, spawned the hit “Sunshine of Your Love,” the trio sat alone atop the rock world.

Post-Cream projects such as the Blind Faith collaboration and his 1970 solo debut carried Clapton’s reputation until the release, later in 1970, of the landmark Derek and the Dominos’ album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Spurred on by a superstar band that included Duane Allman, Clapton reached his artistic and musical peak with the creation of classic songs like “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues” from that album. Solo albums would follow throughout the 1970s, artistically sporadic affairs that yielded a handful of hit singles in songs like “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Cocaine,” and “Wonderful Tonight.” By the time that the ‘80s dawned, Clapton had lost his artistic edge to heroin addiction, becoming a painful musical anachronism until his rediscovery in the current decade.

If all you know of Eric Clapton is beer commercials and his recent CD releases, allow me to suggest The Cream of Clapton. Kicking off with his seminal work with Cream in the mid-‘60s and carrying through late 1970s/early ‘80s solo discs like Backless and Another Ticket, this nineteen song collection showcases “Slowhand” Clapton at his very best. All of the aforementioned cuts are included here, as is Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and solo cuts like “Blues Power,” “Let It Rain,” and his haunting rendition of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” It’s not a perfect collection of Clapton – I could have easily filled up a second disc with favorites – but it’s a wonderful sampler of a great talent at his artistic peak. If you want more, you’ll have to wait for the upcoming A&M/Polydor release of a “best of Cream” collection. Along with The Cream of Clapton, the two discs will stand as a monument to one of the icons of rock ‘n roll. (A&M Chronicles/Polydor Records, released 1995)      

Review originally published by R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine

Friday, June 28, 2024

Archive Review: Dr. John’s Locked Down (2012)

Dr. John’s Locked Down
As the story goes, in late 2010 Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys traveled down to Louisiana to visit New Orleans musical legend Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. A longtime fan of Rebennack’s late 1960s/early 1970s recordings as “Dr. John the Night Tripper,” the now-classic albums fusing psychedelic rock with New Orleans funk, Mardis Gras R&B, and reckless swamp-blues, Auerbach promised Rebennack that if he allowed him to work with him in the studio, he’d help him make “the best record you’ve made in a long time.”

Rebennack’s children had told him nothing but good things about the Black Keys, so the pair decided to try out the new musical marriage at the 2011 Bonnaroo Festival, the resulting jam session leading to the recording of Locked Down, the follow-up to Dr. John’s acclaimed 2010 album Tribal, in Auerbach’s Nashville studio with a group of musicians hand-picked by the producer. The results seem to have exceeded both men’s expectations, described in the album’s liner notes as “a return to the heady sound that defined the legend of Dr. John and a new chapter in a long book.”   

Dr. John’s Locked Down

It doesn’t take song for Locked Down to display an innate musical chemistry between the musical legend and his (relatively) young acolyte. The album-opening title track is a sordid tale of life on the wrong side of the law; Dr. John’s soulful, patois-heavy vocals and street-smart, slang-ridden lyrical imagery matched by a deep groove fueled by chiming keyboards and energetic percussion. By the time that Auerbach’s guitar solo jumps out at you, it cuts like a knife, leaving as unexpectedly as it arrived. The New Orleans pedigree of “Revolution” shines so brightly that you’ll need sunglasses, bleating horns striving with a dangerous, syncopated rhythm, the singer’s shotgun vocals slung low but effective in the mix.

Opening (and closing) with a found snippet of sound from an old movie or TV show, “Big Shot” perfectly captures Dr. John’s infamous “Night Tripper” persona. Above a languid groove, the singer spits out lyrics like a conman’s tease, the song itself evincing a brassy New Orleans vibe that swings and sways like an out-of-control metronome. By contrast, “Ice Age” masks it social commentary with a mix of Cajun-styled swamp-blues and old school R&B, Dr. John’s stream-of-consciousness lyrical rant be-bopping and scatting machinegun-like above a rich, blustery soundtrack complete with swaggering percussion and scraps of guitar and keys.

Kingdom of Izzness

The up-tempo “Getaway” continues in a similar jump-n-jive vein, the song’s brief, albeit image-filled lyrics almost overwhelmed by a wall of instrumentation and backing harmonies that send wave upon wave of sound up against Dr. John’s vocals. Auerbach’s fierce guitar solo almost three-and-a-half minutes into the song delivers a scorched-earth finish to the sentiment, firmly punctuating the song’s tale of troubled lovers. No less confusing is “Kingdom of Izzness,” some sort of deep, back-alley wisdom going on in the seemingly random words and thoughts that Dr. John strings together here, the lyrics threaded in between the song’s rich mix of blues, soul, and gospel music.
The spry “Eleggua” is funky lil’ romp across the New Orleans musical landscape, the song’s instrumentation bringing to mind the Meters, fife-and-drum music, barrelhouse blues, and much, much more with Dr. John’s rich vocals hidden beneath the cacophonic soundtrack. Locked Down closes with “God’s Sure Good,” an old-fashioned, houserockin’ rhythm and blues song with a great deal of soul rising up above the wiry fretwork, keyboard riffs, gospel-tinged harmony vocals, and fluid rhythms. Dr. John’s vocals are inspired and energetic, tipping towards a sort of spiritual joy as his keyboards reach a crescendo of life and light above this mere mortal plain.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Auerbach has delivered everything he promised Rebennack, producing in Locked Down an album that perfectly captures the spirit and energy of the singer’s earlier work under the Night Tripper persona while providing Dr. John’s sound with a raw, raucous contemporary edge. Auerbach’s production of Locked Down is nuanced and light-handed; never do you get the sense that the guitarist is trying to push the singer out of his own album like some producers will do.

Instead, Auerbach provides Dr. John with the support and motivation to deliver one of the best albums of his lengthy career. While Rebennack’s efforts these past few years have certainly provided several fine showcases for the artist’s immense talents and songwriting skills, with a little help from a sympathetic producer and instrumentalist like Auerbach, Dr. John has delivered what will be considered a late-career tour-de-force in Locked Down. (Nonesuch Records, released April 3, 2012)

Archive Review: Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home (1999)

Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home
Lone Justice was a band at least ten years, maybe even a decade and a half ahead of their time. They were one of the first outfits to take their cue from Gram Parsons and the Byrds, successfully mixing traditional country leanings with roots-rock and punkish energy, pre-dating such “cowpunk” bands as Rank & File or Jason & the Scorchers by a year or two. Although Lone Justice was comprised of talented musicians with a bit of experience under their belt, it was the golden angelic tones of vocalist Maria McKee that made this material special. With one foot in her country and gospel upbringing and the other in the early-‘80s L.A. punk rock scene, McKee was often compared to a young Dolly Parton. Like Parton, McKee lent a presence to a song that was undeniably distinctive and unique.

The band’s first two albums were completely unexpected affairs, offering songs with complex themes of sin and salvation, love and lust that featured McKee’s incredible voice and were propelled by a band that was as equally endeared of the Sex Pistols as they were of Hank Williams. This World Is Not My Home is the first proper compilation to take a long hard look at those first two Lone Justice albums, paying the band their due respect. Offering up the most magical moments from those discs alongside a number of unreleased and obscure import tracks and a handful of live performances, This World Is Not My Home is as good a snapshot of Lone Justice as you’re likely to find.

All of the best songs from the band’s mid-1980s college-radio days are here, great big slabs of country soul like “East of Eden,” Tom Petty’s “Ways To Be Wicked,” and “I Found Love.” Some of the unreleased early tracks are real gems that should have seen the light of day before now. Among these are McKee’s duet with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock on “The Train,” the spirited “Drugstore Cowboy,” and the gospel-tinged title track. The live tracks are a bit of a disappointment, however. Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is steady enough until guest star Bono from U2 sticks his smarmy nose into the song. The other live cuts are from a later, inferior incarnation of Lone Justice without guitarist Hedgecock or bassist Marvin Etzioni and just aren’t up to the band’s earlier standards.

As with all good things, the members of Lone Justice eventually went their separate ways, with McKee moving on to a critically-acclaimed though short-lived solo career. The band never broke out of the alternative, college-radio market, however, standing alongside such equally esteemed but commercially bankrupt bands as the Long Ryders, the Del Lords, Green On Red and the True Believers as the lost children of Gram Parsons. This World Is Not My Home is a good place to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with Lone Justice, however, a fine band that would have fit in right at home with today’s alt-country scene. (Geffen Records, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Buy the CD from Amazon: Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home

Friday, June 21, 2024

Archive Review: Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Sweet Nothing" (1999)

Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Sweet Nothing"

When I lived in the Detroit area back in the late 1970s I used to hang out at a place not far from the house called Dearborn Music. A third-generation record store that had been passed down in a straight line from grandfather to grandson, the store had never sent back any records that it ever bought during its thirty-year history. This practice would make today’s retailers, with their sorry philosophy of limited selection and “just-in-time” inventory, wince and cry. But the result was a wonderfully dusty, crowded store that offered everything from still-sealed Big Band albums to ‘60s psychedelica and punk rock imports. Knowing my penchant for loud, high-octane Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, the grandson called me over one day and laid a 7” 45 rpm copy of “City Slang” on me. It was the first release from Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, a local “supergroup” made up of members from the MC5, the Stooges, and SRC and named after guitarist extraordinaire Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Little did I know at the time that this single would also be the last official release from the band. Although a couple of live bootleg tapes have circulated among the faithful during the past couple of decades, those of us thirsting for more had to be satisfied with our rare copies of “City Slang.” Imagine my surprise then when I opened up a copy of Mohair Sweets zine and saw an article on Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and a listing of a web site. Although Smith died a few years back, his wife – the talented Patti Smith – asked longtime associate Freddie Brooks to look through the band’s collection of tapes with an eye towards releasing some of the material. The first result of this jump into the vaults is the “Sweet Nothing” CD, which captures the band alive and scorching during a 1978 performance. Needless to say, I sent in my hard-earned coin as soon as possible and grabbed a copy of this gem before it disappeared on me.
Even though it had been twenty years since I saw the band play live in Ann Arbor, “Sweet Nothing” immediately brought up fond memories of that night. A solid hour-long set of raging “Motor City” rock ‘n’ roll, “Sweet Nothing” does not disappoint, even given my high expectations. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band were a monster of a live band, with Smith and fellow guitarist Scott Morgan dueling like sword fighters in a death match, trading deadly, razor-sharp riffs with abandon. Ex-Stooges’ drummer Scott “Rock Action” Asheton kept up a steady, often-times manic beat while bass maestro Gary Rasmussen laid down a rhythmic groove that propelled the music along like nitro in your gas tank.

With a sound that’s loud, meaty, and muscular, booming out of your speakers like a metal stamping machine in a Detroit auto plant, the songs on “Sweet Nothing” are almost immaterial, given the heaviness of the performances. These are good, not great songs, mostly originals by Smith or Morgan. Some are standard, guitar-driven love songs, like the mesmerizing “Hearts,” the engaging title track or the band’s drunkenly passionate cover of the Stones’ “Heart of Stone.” Other songs – like “Asteroid B-612,” for instance – are more esoteric, blazing a musical trail across territory that’s more akin to Sun Ra than to anything rock ‘n roll was spitting out in the late ‘70s.

That legendary single, “City Slang,” is presented here as an eight-minute, album-closing rave-up that’s guaranteed to stand you on your head, leaving you with the certain knowledge that Sonic’s Rendezvous Band were a great band. It’s a damn shame that they never became huge stars, but then again, their cult status befits them. After all, like Neil Young once said, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” For a too-few brief years, Sonic Rendezvous were the underground rock scene’s brightest burning stars, blazing their way through hundreds of live shows. Lucky for us that somebody captured one of these special nights on “Sweet Nothing”. (Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Sonic's Rendezvous Band

Archive Review: Black Label Society's Hangover Music, Vol. VI (2004)

Black Label Society's Hangover Music, Vol. VI
The epitome of the modern heavy metal guitarist, few log-splitters play with the speed, dexterity, and complexity of Zakk Wylde. Chosen in 1987 by rock legend Ozzy Osbourne to handle his six-string chores, the 19-year-old Wylde followed in the footsteps of acclaimed players like Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee, earning a reputation as a skilled instrumentalist while touring and recording with Ozzy. Wylde formed Black Label Society in 1998, the band conceived of as both a collaborative effort of like-minded hard rockers and as a vehicle for Wylde’s artistic vision.

As a showcase for his immense talents, Black Label Society has excelled beyond even the chainsaw guitarist’s expectations. Each album has shown Wylde evolving and growing as a musician; with Hangover Music, Vol. VI, he has taken a major step in defining himself as a legacy artist in the game for the long haul. Whereas previous BLS albums like Blessed Hellride successfully blended heavy metal chops with Southern rock aesthetics, Hangover Music takes the hybrid a step further, revealing more of Wylde’s personality and relying less on his trademark six-string pyrotechnics and more on solid musicianship and songwriting.

Backed by former Crowbar drummer Craig Numenmacher and a revolving cast of musicians including former White Lion bassist James LoMenzo, Wylde covers a lot of stylistic ground on Hangover Music, Vol. VI. “Crazy Or High” is reminiscent of late ‘70s Black Sabbath and “Queen of Sorrow” is a guitar-driven dirge that features Wylde’s tortured vocals and monster riffs. “Steppin Stone” is an atmospheric rocker long on grandeur while “Layne” is a somber tribute to the late Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley.

Adding piano to his instrumental palette, Wylde brings a previously unrevealed artistry to the acoustic-based “Woman Don’t Cry” or his inspired cover of the classic rock gem “Whiter Shade of Pale.” While there is nothing to alienate long-time fans here – there is enough string shredding to satisfy even the most die-hard headbanger – Wylde is quietly breaking new ground and taking his music to heights that few critics ever suspected he’d reach. (Spitfire Records, released 2004)

Review originally published by the Community Free Press, 2004

Friday, June 14, 2024

Hot Wax: John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell (1964/2024)

John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell
In 1959, blues legend John Lee Hooker was at a crossroads in his career. The music industry was evolving from a singles-oriented medium towards full-length albums and “The Hook” was in danger of being left behind. Hooker had enjoyed a string of seven R&B charting singles circa 1948-1958, including five Top 10 hits like “Boogie Chillen’,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Huckle Up Baby,” and “I’m In the Mood” (which also rose to #30 on the mainstream singles chart). These songs wrote the lexicon of the artist’s rhythm & blues saturated boogie-blues sound that he would pursue for the next 40+ years.

Hooker’s first bona fide album release was 1959’s I’m John Lee Hooker. Released by Vee Jay Records, it was a collection of seven previously-released singles and five newly-recorded tracks (a parallel album release, Chess Records’ House of the Blues, was comprised entirely of singles). Around this time, Riverside Records owner Bill Grauer traveled to Detroit with the idea of recording a new John Lee Hooker album consisting entirely of Leadbelly songs. Riverside was essentially a jazz label, so recording a blues artist of Hooker’s stature was an out-of-the-box notion, especially once Grauer discovered that John Lee had no idea of who Huddie Leadbetter was, and was unfamiliar with his music. Grauer quickly regrouped and produced sessions with Hooker and his acoustic guitar at the familiar United Sound Systems in Detroit where the artist had recorded several previous hits.

The core of Grauer’s brainstorm had merit, as acoustic-based “folk blues” artists were beginning to rise in popularity at the time. Long lost Mississippi Delta and Hill Country bluesmen like Fred McDowell, Skip James, and John Hurt were being “rediscovered” and shoved into studios to re-record their “old songs” before hitting the coffee house circuit and folk festival trail. Even Chicago blues stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson were re-branded as authentic, acoustic-toting “folk blues” singers. Grauer left Detroit with enough songs on tape for two albums, the first of which was released in 1959 as The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (quickly re-titled as The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker). The second album arising from those Detroit sessions was Burning Hell, which wasn’t released until 1964 and then only in the U.K. by Fontana; Burning Hell wasn’t reissued on CD until 1994, and it’s been long out-of-print in any format.

John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

The first release from the newly-resurrected Bluesville Records label (part of the Craft Recordings family), Hooker’s Burning Hell is an often-overlooked entry in his massive and decades-spanning catalog of music. With a tracklist largely comprised of roughly half Hooker originals and the other half choice covers, Burning Hell showcases Hooker’s deep, fluid vocals laid across several styles of acoustic blues. The title track is a spry, Piedmont-styled morality tale with scrappy guitarplay and strong vocals but “Graveyard Blues” is a dour, Delta-styled dirge with intricate guitar patterns and Hooker’s sonorous, almost droning vocals. Hooker isn’t the deftest of string-pullers, especially when compared to contemporaries like Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Kirkland, or even his cousin Earl Hooker, but his performance here is simply mesmerizing.

Hooker’s cover of the Big Joe Williams’ classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” is provided an emotionally-charged performance that relies on the singer’s pleading vocals more than on his boogie-stomp fretwork. Ditto for his reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” which substitutes soaring, almost falsetto vocals (well, as high as Hooker could go…) for The Wolf’s primal howl; combined with Hooker’s circular guitar strum, he creates a sort of melodic and enchanting tone poem. “You Live Your Life and I’ll Live Mine” is based on a standard blues scale with a few instrumental flourishes here and there as Hooker sings of his romantic woes while “Jackson, Tennessee” is afforded an up-tempo, loping guitar riff atop of which Hooker pounds out his Delta-dirty vox. Hooker’s jaunty “How Can You Do It?” is almost pop-styled with radio-friendly, intelligible vocals, an upbeat and melodic guitar line, and an undeniably sunny performance.

John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives
John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives

On the other hand, the odd bodkins Lightnin’ Hopkins cover “I Don’t Want No Woman If Her Hair Ain’t No Longer Than Mine” is an awkward talking blues with meandering guitar licks and disjointed vocals. Hooker’s “Blues For My Baby” pursues a similar theme, but with better results, his powerful vocal performance matched by bog-standard boogie-blues git licks with the occasional (and delightful) instrumental detour. Bluesmen and rock stars alike have covered Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” for decades but, for my money, Hooker’s reading is one of the best, with yearning vocals and a jazzy acoustic soundtrack. His reading of the Willie Dixon-penned “Natchez Fire” provides the song – originally recorded as “Natchez Burnin’” in 1956 by Howlin’ Wolf – with an eerie chill as his haunting vocals and arcane guitar playing mourn the true-life tragedy that took 200 lives at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Looking at its history and provenance, Burning Hell is an odd choice to kick off the new era of Bluesville Records. Perhaps it was chosen because Hooker is a well-known artist among casual blues fans, as Burning Hell was never released previously by Bluesville. When Riverside impresario Bill Grauer passed away in 1963, the label’s catalog passed through the hands of ABC Records before being bought by Fantasy Records in 1972. Fantasy, in turn, was bought by Concord Records in 2004, forming the Concord Music Group. Bluesville Records was a subsidiary of the esteemed Prestige Records jazz label that also became part of CMG via its purchase by Fantasy in 1971…and that’s how you get a 1964 John Lee Hooker album on Riverside Records seeing reissue by Bluesville Records some 60 years later. *

There were a number of other choices for an inaugural Bluesville reissue, including long-forgotten but worthy flapjacks from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Sonny Terry, Snooks Eaglin, and Pink Anderson (who inspired Pink Floyd’s band name). The minor cavil of its dubious status in the Bluesville label universe aside, this version of Burning Hell is nevertheless a godsend for hardcore blues fans and collectors. The packaging is hearty, with a thick cardboard sleeve, glossy laminated cover, and a padded, archival quality inner sleeve to cradle the vinyl. Little has been changed with the graphics, which are perfectly garish for the era, and the back cover includes Alan Bates’ insightful original liner notes. Cut from the original master tapes and pressed on black 180-gram vinyl, this Bluesville edition is the first time that this long-lost album has been released domestically on record.

In the end, however, it’s the music that counts, and Burning Hell showcases a different side of John Lee, his flirtation with “folk blues” opening new doors for his career as he entered the decade of the 1960s as a grizzled veteran. No less than six “folk”-oriented Hooker albums would be released just prior to, and shortly after Burning Hell for labels like Vee-Jay, Crown Records, Chess, and Kent Records, many of them constructed from vintage 1950s-era recordings. Hooker hit the summer folk festival circuit with aplomb, which helped carry him through the difficult ABC Records years to The Healer and his successful final chapter. With its raw vocals and wiry fretwork, Burning Hell isn’t the crown jewel of the massive John Lee Hooker catalog, but it represents a significant turning point in his career and is well worth rediscovery by both fans of the artist and blues fanatics alike. (Bluesville Records, reissued June 7th, 2024)

* For more on the Bluesville Records story, check out my interview with producer Scott Billington on the Rock and Roll Globe website!  

Many thanx to Charles Shaar Murray, and his wonderful John Lee Hooker biography Boogie Man, for info on the artist’s Riverside recordings...

Buy the LP from Amazon: John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

Also on That Devil Music:
John Lee Hooker’s The Healer review
John Lee Hooker’s The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62 review

Charles Shaar Murray's Boogie Man

Friday, June 7, 2024

Archive Review: The Roots' The Roots Come Alive (1999)

The Roots are, perhaps, the most underrated players in hip-hop. They may not raise a ruckus like the Wu-Tang Clan, carry a rep like the Ruff Ryders family, or even belong to an impressive Platinum™ album posse like the rappers on Master P’s roster. The Roots nonetheless continue to crank out some of the most interesting and intelligent music you’ll find on the hip-hop scene. Because their songs are based as much on African-American musical tradition as they are on rap’s verbal traditions, the Roots are also one of the few hip-hop crews that can pull off a live show with some energy and dignity.

A tight performance outfit with over a decade under their belts, the Roots hit the stage some 250 nights a year – a pace that would make many “touring” rock bands blush with embarrassment. As such, The Roots Come Alive, compiled from the performances during the past year, showcases the band’s strengths and delivers an accurate documentation of the Roots’ live persona. With various guest vocalists (including the incredible Jill Scott) rapping over a musical undercurrent that draws its influences from the worlds of jazz, soul, World music, and old-school rap, the Roots create a truly mesmerizing vocal and musical rhythm. Flying under the listener’s radar to stealthily deliver the band’s lyrical message, if you’d like to hear how good hip-hop can be, check out The Roots Come Alive. (MCA/Universal)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 1999

Archive Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic's Running With Scissors (2000)

"Weird Al" Yankovic's Running With Scissors
Rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest court jester, “Weird Al” Yankovic follows a pretty successful formula with every album. Toss on a couple of decent song parodies of recent chart toppers, mix in a handful of tongue-in-cheek originals, and complete with a polka-flavored “Stars on 45” styled medley of popular songs. Sure, it’s rote by now, but the key to Yankovic’s genius is in his dead-on, bull’s-eye pop culture parodies that often skewer the ridiculous cult of personality with which we grace musicians, actors, and athletes. Running With Scissors follows Al’s formula to a “T” and although, like most of Yankovic’s albums, there is quite a bit of thrown away material, there are also several very smart and entertaining cuts here as well. The album opening “The Saga Begins” tackles the Star Wars phenomena with a hilarious retelling of The Phantom Menace tale set to the music and rhythm of Don McLean’s classic “American Pie.” Especially clever is the chorus, “Oh my my, this Anakin guy/may be Vader someday later/now he’s just a small fry/he left his home and kissed his mommy good-bye/saying ‘soon I’m gonna be a Jedi’.” The humor here is sly as a fox and sharp as a paper cut.

Other parodies include “Pretty Fly For A Rabbi,” a Yiddish send-up of the Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” and the ultra-cool “It’s All About the Pentiums,” taking on Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins” with heavy metal, high-tech aplomb. “Jerry Springer,” a wordy rendering of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” is an engaging look at the addictive nature of tabloid television while originals like the wickedly cruel “Your Horoscope For Today” and the surrealistic story-song “Albuquerque” are hip, funny musical comedies. “Weird Al” is a true treasure, and like I’ve said before, we may take him for granted now but one day we’ll miss him when he’s gone. Nobody else has done more to deflate the egos and absurdity in pop culture, and Running With Scissors is another essential part of Yankovic’s legacy. (Volcano Entertainment)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000

Friday, May 31, 2024

Back To School: College Rock's Top Graduates (2024)

Talking Heads
Talking Heads 1980
Ah, to remember those hallowed days of ‘80s “college rock,” an ephemeral genre and overall catchphrase for bands too oblique and oblong to fit into the era’s increasingly straitjacketed commercial FM radio format. The domain of university radio stations that were originally launched in the 1970s as outlets for progressive rock records played by dope-smoking student DJs, college radio took on a new mission in the ‘80s, providing a safe haven for odd, unusual, and ornery music that was too unpredictable and, well, too chaotic overall for corporate radio, all of which was categorized as “college rock.”   

As Noel Murray wrote for The A.V. Club webzine, “though hardly uniform in style, there were commonalities between the college-rock acts. Not really punk, hard rock, or art rock, most of these groups played conventionally hooky songs, heavy on jangle and twang, with lyrics steeped in poetic Americana.” In the wake of America’s overall indifference to the bloato-hype of “new wave” and the sort of neutered, safe-as-milk punk rock then being shilled by the major label machine, Murray insightfully states that “the edgier and artier acts found a home on college radio, where screaming noise, retro country, avant-garde electronics, and power pop could coexist, linked by cheap-sounding singles recorded by local bands, often peopled by college-radio DJs and record-store clerks.”

College rock was a genre-that-wasn’t-a-genre unique to the ‘80s, later to be subsumed into the alternative rock tsunami of the 1990s, which itself was heavily influenced by many of the bands included on this list. College radio went further underground in the ‘90s as many onetime college rock stalwarts found unexpected (and often unwelcome) mainstream success. College radio itself barely exists today as many universities have divested themselves of their broadcast licenses for much-desired cold cash. Once upon a time, however, the “left of the dial” provided adventuresome listeners a respite from the anodyne hard rock pushed by homogenized, consultant-driven commercial FM radio playlists.

To follow is the Reverend’s “Top 10” list of college rock artists that helped blaze a trail during the uncertain ‘80s, my favorites among the many records I heard spun by DJs on Vanderbilt’s WRVU-FM in Nashville over the years. Your list may differ from mine, and you’re welcome to hype your personal faves in the comments section.

They Might Be Giants

10. They Might Be Giants
The “Two Johns” – John Flansburgh and John Linnell – were the unlikeliest of ‘80s-era rock heroes. They weren’t black-clad, axe-toting, semi-Goth fops moping around and moaning about how bad their lives were, nor were they tech-obsessed keyboard warriors with wobbly stacks of synthesizers, moaning about how bad their lives were. They Might Be Giants was a jaunty acoustic duo with absurdist, often surreal songs which displayed the John’s quirky sense of humor and playful, imaginative lyrics. Signed to the regional independent Bar/None Records label, their critically-acclaimed 1986 self-titled debut album became a mainstay of college radio with tracks like “Don’t Let’s Start,” “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” and “(She Was A) Hotel Detective” becoming staples of FM alt-rock airplay.

The Giants’ 1988 follow-up album, Lincoln, was even more successful, fueled by the infectious single “Ana Ng,” which brought them to the attention of Elektra Records. Called up to the major leagues, the Johns were forced to recruit a full band to tour with, but they recorded their third LP and 1990 label debut, Flood, largely by themselves with a slew of guest musicians. Provided a fair amount of creative freedom, Flood eventually achieved Platinum™ sales status on the back of melodic earworms like “Birdhouse In Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” The band rode out the ‘90s with a string of moderately-successful major label efforts, eventually branching into movies and TV, and even kid’s music, and the Two Johns are still banging away at it today, proof that a band can retain both its innocence and its integrity. Recommended Album: They Might Be Giants   
They Might Be Giants photo courtesy Elektra Records


9. XTC
College rock wasn’t notably biased in favor of American artists who, it could be argued, experienced greater corporate marginalization in the ‘80s. Anglophiles made up a large segment of college radio listeners and import LPs from the U.K. and elsewhere were easy to get in larger cities (especially those with universities). As such, artists like the Smiths, Depeche Mode, Robyn Hitchcock, and the Cure found loyal audiences on the left of the dial. XTC is a perfect example of a British band whose stateside following was 90% built by college radio (MTV later adding the other 10%). Formed in 1972 in Swindon, England and fronted by singer/guitarist Andy Partridge and singer/bassist Colin Moulding with keyboardist Barry Andrews and drummer Terry Chambers, the band’s unique blending of New York Dolls-inspired punk, jagged guitar rock, and skewed Britpop had “cult rockers” written all over it. XTC transcended punk and new wave with the eccentric musings of White Music, their 1978 Virgin Records debut album.

British record buyers nevertheless pushed the album into the U.K. Top 40, and it was quickly followed up later that year by Go 2, which rose even higher to #21 on the charts. Andrews left afterwards, replaced by a second guitarist in Dave Gregory. The band found a creative balance between eccentricity and accessibility with 1979’s Drums and Wires, scoring a Top 20 hit single in “Making Plans For Nigel.” The album was also XTC’s first to inch onto the U.S. charts, albeit at #174, but with the new decade came Black Sea, which became the band’s highest-charting U.S. release. Released in 1982 and quickly finding a home on college radio stateside, English Settlement is arguably XTC’s masterpiece, singles like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Ball and Chain” threatening to take the band mainstream. Subsequent albums like 1983’s Mummer and 1986’s Skylarking earned diminishing returns for the band, but 1989’s psych-pop oriented Oranges & Lemons brought XTC a renewed reputation with the hit single “Mayor of Simpleton.” By 1992, the members of XTC had gone their separate ways, but despite the band’s relative obscurity in America, they were major influences on ‘90s-era bands like Jellyfish and Apples In Stereo. Recommended Album: English Settlement    

XTC 1978, photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin, courtesy Wikipedia Commons   

Love and Rockets

8. Love and Rockets
Formed in 1985 from the ashes of Goth-rock pioneers Bauhaus by that band’s Daniel Ash (vocals, guitar), David J (bass, vocals), and Kevin Haskins (drums, synthesizers), Love and Rockets pursued less morose music with a guitar-driven pop/rock sound that quickly resulted in a cult of fans stateside and in their British homeland. Signed to the Beggar’s Banquet label (which had previously released three Bauhaus LPs), the band introduced themselves with a psych-drenched take on the Motown classic “Ball of Confusion,” a non-album single which didn’t sell particularly well but found a welcome home on college radio in the U.S. Their 1985 debut album, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, faltered commercially, but the following year’s Express album yielded well-received singles with “Kundalini Express,” “All In My Mind,” and “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man).”

Although 1988’s Earth, Sun, Moon represented a step forward creatively, it performed weakly commercially save for the minor college radio hit “No New Tale To Tell.” The band’s self-titled 1989 album evinced a bolder AOR sound that resulted in a Top 10 U.S. hit with “So Alive,” which pushed the album to Gold™ sales status. After a lengthy hiatus that saw the band members pursue individual solo projects, Love and Rockets returned with 1994’s Hot Trip To Heaven, a severe departure from their previous sound that incorporated electronic and ambient sounds with psychedelic elements which fell on deaf ears among their longtime fans. Dumped by Beggar’s Banquet, the band recorded a 1996 album for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, Sweet F.A. returning to a harder-rocking sound a day late and a dollar short. A final album for the ill-fated Red Ant Records – 1998’s Lift – returned the band to an electronica sound that resonated with absolutely nobody. Red Ant’s subsequent bankruptcy, along with a long-anticipated Bauhaus reunion tour, stamped ‘paid’ to Love and Rockets, but at least the band delivered three enduring albums during the college rock era. Recommended Album: Love and Rockets         

Love and Rockets photo by Mitch Jenkins, courtesy Beggar’s Banquet Records

The Pixies

7. The Pixies
Suffice it to say that, with the 1988 release of their debut album Surfer Rosa by the U.K. 4AD Records label, rock fans had never heard anything like the Pixies. Formed a couple of years earlier in Boston by singer/guitarist Black Francis (a/k/a ‘Frank Black’), guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering, the Pixies were almost too late for the college radio party, their brief (1988-91) four album heyday straddling the college rock ‘80s and the alternative ‘90s and having an immense influence on bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Produced by underground wunderkind Steve Albini (R.I.P.), Surfer Rosa was groundbreaking in its use of a “loud/quiet/loud” musical dynamic (later utilized with some success by Nirvana), coupled with the band’s chaotic, cacophonic punk-influenced sound, and Black’s eerie, odd, and often surreal lyrics. Due to scattered distribution, Surfer Rosa was little heard in the U.S. save for on college radio.

Doolittle, the Pixies’ sophomore album, offered more of the same, only with a bigger recording budget, and the extra noise the additional cash could buy. Songs like “Debaser,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven” received heavy college radio airplay, while a new distribution deal with Elektra Records put the record in stores across the U.S. which, combined with constant touring by the band, launched Doolittle to Platinum™ sales status. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the band recorded 1990’s Bossa Nova with producer Gil Norton (who helmed Doolittle), but their sound was showing signs of being watered-down for popular consumption. The Pixies’ swansong, 1991’s Trompe le Monde, displayed further creative exhaustion, and that would be it for the band until their first reunion in 2004. Elektra reissued Surfer Rosa in 1992, after the band was essentially kaput, extending the Pixies’ notoriety well into the alt-rock era. Frank Black subsequently pursued a solo career that is still thriving to this day alongside various Pixies reunion tours, while Kim Deal made a name for herself in the ‘90s as the creative force behind the Breeders. Recommended Album: Doolittle

The Pixies photo courtesy 4AD Records

Camper Van Beethoven

6. Camper Van Beethoven
Formed in 1983 in Southern California, the eccentric and visionary Camper Van Beethoven pursued a unique hybrid musical that blended the sounds of punk, pop, folk, country, and folk music into a heady sonic stew that often left their hardcore punk audiences gasping in confused fury. Students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the line-up of singer/guitarist David Lowery, guitarist Chris Molla, bassist Victor Krummenacher, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, and drummer Anthony Guess recorded 1985’s odd yet entertaining Telephone Free Landslide Victory. The album quickly earned the band much coveted college radio airplay with “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and a countrified cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted.” Camper Van Beethoven tread water with their 1986 sophomore effort II & III, with Guess dropping out and guitarist Greg Lisher coming on board. Guess was replaced by Chris Pederson on drums.

With their best-known line-up in place, the band broke through with its tongue-in-cheek self-titled 1986 album, which threw caution to the wind with an inspired mash-up of punk rock, psychedelia, Zep-styled bombast, and satirical lyrics on songs like “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac” and a raucous cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.” The album also saw the beginning of the band’s association with avant-garde D.I.Y. guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, which would result in two impressive collaboration LPs. Camper Van Beethoven made the jump to Virgin Records for Our Revolutionary Sweetheart (1987) and Key Lime Pie (1989), both of which featured a more mainstream rock style. The band subsequently broke up, with Lowery forming the modestly-successful ‘90s band Cracker and the rest of the guys pursuing their musical side project, Monks of Doom. Camper Van Beethoven reunited in 1999 and released several albums through 2014, but the college rock era was long over and only hardcore fans noticed. Recommended Album: Camper Van Beethoven     

Camper Van Beethoven photo courtesy Virgin Records

Talking Heads

5. Talking Heads
Forming in 1975 in New York City and mainstays of the decade’s CBGB scene, Talking Heads were never really a punk band, although their unique sound and uncompromising attitude certainly appealed to the more free-thinking punk-rock fanatic. The same aspects of the band that made them outliers on a CBGB stage that included such diverse artists as Blondie, The Ramones, Television, and Patti Smith also positioned them for college rock stardom in spite of their success as a Top 30 charting band with albums like More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist David Byrne, guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth, and drummer Chris Frantz were musically adventuresome, the band’s wandering muse leading them down some seldom-travelled creative pathways that paid off in cold, hard cash. Talking Heads burst out of the CBGB ghetto and arrived to the 1980s, bag of tricks in hand, ready and willing to infect college radio with their peculiar vision and talented musicianship.

They became darlings of the fledgling MTV network, mostly due to imaginative music videos and Byrne’s exaggerated on-screen personality, but it was their Brian Eno-produced 1980 album Remain In Light, which incorporated Afrobeat rhythms inspired by Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti into a sonic experiment with funky grooves and an alt-rock soundtrack, that earned the band their first Gold™ Record on the back of the classic single “Once In A Lifetime.” Their 1983 album Speaking In Tongues transcended the band’s long-standing college rock popularity to cement their mainstream rock status with the Top 10 hit single “Burning Down the House,” which drove the album to Platinum™ sales status. Their college rock popularity suffered little from hit albums like 1985’s Little Creatures or 1986’s True Stories, both of which featured a poppier “new wave” sound but, after better than a decade in the trenches, 1988’s back-to-Afrobeat collection Naked sounded weak by comparison to their earlier works and the band went on a hiatus that continues, more or less, to this day. Recommended Album: Fear of Music   

Talking Heads 1980, photo uncredited, courtesy Sire Records

Hüsker Dü

4. Hüsker Dü
Originally formed in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1979 as ‘Buddy and the Returnables’ and featuring singer/guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, keyboardist Charlie Pine, and drummer Grant Hart, the core trio soon dropped Pine, took on a new name, and plowed ahead with a fast ‘n’ loud guitar-rock sound that often teetered on the shiny, sharp edge of heavy metal. Although Hüsker Dü’s initial guise was that of a hardcore punk band, the guys left themselves a lot of creative space to grow into, and I’ve always considered them the first true ‘post-punk’ band of note. After regional tastemakers Twin/Tone Records rejected the band, they began releasing singles on their own Reflex Records label, which led to the release of the live Land Speed Record in 1982 and their 1983 studio debut, Everything Falls Apart. Steady touring by the band made fans out of scene heavies like Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, D. Boon of the Minutemen, and Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, who signed them to his SST Records label.

Hüsker Dü’s tenure with SST was astonishingly brief (a couple of years, really…) but fruitful, resulting in three bona fide classics of punk/post-punk Sturm und Drang with the 1984 double-album Zen Arcade and the following year’s New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. The band benefitted by having two accomplished singers and songwriters in Mould and Hart, and they successfully kept their unique musical formula intact after signing with Warner Bros. I defy any critic to argue that the band’s major label output (1986’s Candy Apple Grey and 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories) isn’t as fresh and exhilarating as their SST albums. As music historian Michael Azerrad stated in his 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Hüsker Dü provided a bridge between punk 1980s-era college rock, writing that the band “played a huge role in convincing the underground that melody and punk rock weren’t antithetical.” After the band had run its course, Mould went on to an acclaimed solo career that included the alt-rock band Sugar while Hart released two albums with his band Nova Mob as well as a number of solo records. Hüsker Dü was immensely influential, with everybody from Nirvana, the Pixies, Green Day, and Superchunk singing their praises. Recommended Album: New Day Rising

Hüsker Dü 1986, photograph by Daniel Corrigan, courtesy Warner Bros.

The Replacements

3. The Replacements
Much like their crosstown contemporaries (and sometimes rivals) Hüsker Dü, the Replacements started out as a punk rock outfit and quickly veered towards an influential alt-rock sound that was as equally influenced by bands like Big Star, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles as it was by the Ramones and Sex Pistols. Formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1979, the early line-up of the Replacements featured singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, guitarist Bob Stinson, his brother Tommy Stinson on bass, and drummer Chris Mars. They came to an agreement with the local indie Twin/Tone Records to release their 1981 debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, which received overwhelmingly positive fanzine reviews. The eight-song Stink EP followed in 1982 but, with Westerberg emerging as the band’s primary songwriter, 1983’s Hootenanny album saw the band shrugging off the punk rock albatross and incorporating elements of blues, country, and rockabilly into their ramshackle sound. With their third album, Let It Be, the Replacements found its voice as a band, Westerberg’s ‘coming-of-age’ lyrics evincing a humorous, rather than dour vision of the transition into adulthood. Songs like “I Will Dare,” “Unsatisfied,” “Androgynous,” and a cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond” became college radio staples.

The major labels soon came calling and the Replacements signed with Sire Records. Former Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi produced the classic 1985 album Tim, which yielded several timeless tracks like “Kiss Me On the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and the band’s ode to college radio, “Left of the Dial.” Three more major label releases cemented the band’s status as college rock trailblazers: Pleased To Meet Me (1987) was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer Jim Dickinson, and includes the band’s tribute song “Alex Chilton” while 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul was the first to feature guitarist Slim Dunlap, who had replaced Bob Stinson. All Shook Down (1990) was the band’s swansong, essentially a Westerberg solo album, and afterwards the band went its separate ways. The Replacements could have been bigger, commercially, save for their unpredictable live shows – some nights they were the best rock ‘n’ roll outfit anywhere while other nights they were falling down drunk and barely able to play. Ticket-buying fans never knew which version of the Replacements that they’d get, but the band was still highly influential, with disciples like the Goo Goo Dolls, Beach Slang, and the Gaslight Anthem following in their wake. Recommended Album: Let It Be

The Replacements 1984, photo by Laura Levine, courtesy of Twin/Tone Records

The Smiths

2. The Smiths
Along with RE.M. the Smiths were probably the most influential of the college rock bands of the ‘80s, directly inspiring the following decade’s “Britpop” movement and bands like Blur, Suede, Oasis, and the Manic Street Preachers; alt-rockers like Belly and Throwing Muses; and contemporary millennial bands like the Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, and the Decemberists. Formed in 1982 in Manchester, England by vocalist Steven Morrissey (i.e. ‘Morrissey’) and guitarist Johnny Marr, who shared a love of the New York Dolls and Patti Smith, the band eventually evolved to its best-known line-up with bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce.

Signed to Rough Trade Records, the Smiths released their self-titled debut album in 1984, hitting #2 on the U.K. albums charts and hanging around for a grand 33 weeks. Sire Records picked up the band’s albums for stateside distribution, which proved to be the Smiths’ entry to college radio. Meat Is Murder, the band’s classic 1985 album, hit #1 on the British chart and they added keyboards to their sound for 1986’s The Queen Is Dead would rise to #2 in the U.K. on the strength of a pair of Top 30 charting hit singles, “The Boy With the Thorn In His Side” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Internal band tensions would break-up the Smiths after the release of 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, another #2 U.K. hit and the band’s highest-charting U.S. release. Morrisey would go on to a successful solo career that has resulted in better than a dozen albums through 2020. Recommended Album: Meat Is Murder

The Smiths 1984, photo by Paul Cox, courtesy Sire Records


1. R.E.M.
Although they would become major label chartbusters, R.E.M. began as a humble band of jangle-rock enthusiasts in the sleepy college town of Athens, Georgia. Fittingly, for the undeniable granddaddies of “college rock,” the four members of R.E.M. – singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry – came together while students at the University of Georgia in Athens. Buck and Stipe met at Wuxtry Records where Buck worked between classes, quickly bonding over a shared love of artists like the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith. A mutual friend introduced them to Mills and Berry, who had been playing together since high school and, after jamming for a short while, a magical musical chemistry emerged, with each band member contributing something special to the cauldron. R.E.M. released its first single, the enigmatic and awe-inspiring “Radio Free Europe,” in 1981 on the Atlanta-based independent Hib-Tone Records label.

Signing with the major/minor I.R.S. Records imprint, they released their landmark Chronic Town EP in 1982, following it up with the critically-acclaimed 1983 album Murmur. With subsequent albums like 1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, and 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, R.E.M. dominated the college rock landscape, quickly outgrowing both the medium and a crowded Athens rock scene (which also included The B-52’s, Love Tractor, Pylon, and Dreams So Real, among others). Signing with Warner Bros, R.E.M. easily made the transition to become a mainstream rock band, releasing five subsequent multi-Platinum™ selling albums that would make them one of the most successful bands of the ‘90s. R.E.M. influenced a generation of artists like Nirvana, Pavement, Pearl Jam, and Dream Syndicate and can arguably be held responsible for the alt-rock explosion of the 1990s. Not bad, eh? Recommended Album: Reckoning

R.E.M. 1992, photo by Anton Corbijn, courtesy Warner Bros.

Honorable Mention: Depeche Mode, The dB’s, The Feelies, Game Theory, Let’s Active, New Order, The Pogues, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Wall of Voodoo...

Recommended Album links are for Amazon and we get a cut of your purchase!

Credit where credit is due…quoted above, my colleague Noel Murray wrote a great piece on college rock titled “1992: The Year College Rock Died.” If you’re interested in the subject at all, you should give it a read: