Friday, February 23, 2024

CD Review: Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981 (2024)

Blank Generation CD box set
Multi-disc punk rock compilations are a dime-a-dozen these days, and I’m lookin’ for the guy supplying the coin. England’s Cherry Red Records has done yeoman’s work in digging up and offering long-lost punk obscurities with a seemingly endless stream of chronological clam-shelled box sets that are all worthy of your patronage. However, with the label’s recently released Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981, they’ve outdone themselves. A deluxe five-CD box set packaged in a 5.5”x7.5” hardbound book, Blank Generation offers up succinct liner notes with plenty of B&W and color photos, making it as much a historical document as it is a collection of great music.

While the set certainly ain’t cheap – I paid $50 and change for my copy – it works out to roughly a sawbuck per CD (or less than 42-cents per song). Considering the rarity of some of tracks here, any one of which you’d pay double-dollar collector’s prices to acquire on a 45rpm slab, Blank Generation is a steal for the dedicated punk rawk fan. It’s the music that we’re all here for, and Blank Generation features 130 tracks from North American punk, post-punk, and punk-adjacent bands and their various progeny. Some of the bands included verge on being household names – Blondie, Devo, and Patti Smith come to mind – while others would still be familiar to anybody that followed music rags like Creem, Bomp!, or Trouser Press back in the day.

So, let’s get the niceties out of the way, shall we? Yes, Blank Generation includes well-worn punk “classics” that have become ubiquitous and tediously familiar for nursing home residents after nearly five decades. Scratch the obvious Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ title track off your bingo card; ditto for the Heartbreakers (“Chinese Rocks”), Pere Ubu (“Final Solution”), the Avengers (“We Are the One”), the Weirdos (“We Got the Neutron Bomb”), the Germs (“Lexicon Devil”), X (“White Girl”), Minor Threat (“Minor Threat”), the Ramones (“Rockaway Beach”), Dead Boys (“Sonic Reducer”), and the Dead Kennedys (“Holiday In Cambodia”). Sure, these are all great songs, but even the most half-assed punk fan is sick to death of hearing them by now.  

Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981

Blondie's Blondie LP
However, even for those bands you probably know, Blank Generation digs a little deeper into the punk bag and plucks out plums that qualify as “deep cuts” by any standard of measurement. Take Blondie, for instance…you might expect to hear hits like the disco-punk “Heart of Glass” or the new wavish “One Way Or Another.” Instead, the producers/compilers chose “Rip Her To Shreds,” an original track from the band’s indie label debut. Framing singer Debbie Harry in less of a 1960s-styled pop style, her lyrical delivery here is snotty, punkish, and insulting to the nth degree, Harry’s snarl accompanied by dense instrumental clouds that evoke both previous-decade garage rock (especially the chiming organ) as well as looking forward to the dawning of the “new wave” 1980s   

The Modern Lovers’ “Someone I Care About” is a wonderfully ramshackle and somewhat angular garage rock-adjacent track with instruments that are seemingly working at cross-purposes in a valiant sacrifice for the musical greater good. Jonathan Richman’s vox are off-kilter and wailed above the consistent din of the soundtrack, which makes for an exciting and invigorating performance (plus, it’s not the often-compiled “Road Runner,” no matter how great it may be…). An almost-forgotten track from 1976’s Radio Ethiopia, the Patti Smith Group’s “Pissing In A River” later fit comfortably onto the 1980 Times Square movie soundtrack. It’s a damn fine slab o’ estrogen-fueled heartbreak, punkish in intensity and cinematic in delivery with a lofty, art-rock soundtrack with haunting keyboards and slashing guitars to paint a painfully dark portrait. But it’s Smith’s emotionally-tortured vocal performance that raises the song above the punk rock ghetto.   

Q: Are Devo a “punk rock” band? A: They are Devo! Falling off the evolutionary ladder somewhere along the line, the beloved band from Akron, Ohio were alternately punk, new wave, art-rock, and surreal unlike any we’d ever heard before. Hailing from their 1978 debut album, Devo’s “Come Back Jonee” was produced by the definitely “not punk” Brian Eno (who also worked with the new wavish Talking Heads). An oblique song with nearly-buried vocals barely rising above the pogoing backing instrumentation (which incorporates guitar, synths, drums, and other noises), it’s punkish in spirit if not execution. By contrast, Wall of Voodoo’s “Call Box 1-2-3” sounds more like Devo than “Come Back Jonee,” the song evincing the same sort of ‘odd bodkins’ ambiance; bouncy, semi-irritating instrumentation; and strangely-phrased Stan Ridgeway vocals that come close, but still miles away from their college radio hit “Mexican Radio.”

Exciting, Supersonic Sounds

Destroy All Monster's "Bored" 45rpm
The box includes a lot of truly obscure tracks as well, many only originally available on 45rpm slabs and a tad bit pricey to acquire via Discogs or eBay these days. Cherry Red seems to have front-loaded the most familiar songs and artists on the first two discs, ‘cause the tracklists get weirder, funkier, and punkier with CDs three through five. That’s not to say that the first couple o’ flapjacks are lacking in obscurities, though…take Destroy All Monsters’ “Bored,” a band and song that barely crept beyond the borders of Wayne County, Michigan in 1978. A Motor City “supergroup” of sorts, featuring Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Michael Davis of MC5, and fronted by the gorgeous femme fatale Niagara (née Lynn Rovner), they were a great live band and “Bored,” their first single, established the template for much of what would follow. Niagara’s voice barely floats above the clashing guitars and cascading drumbeats, but the effect is otherworldly and enchanting in its ennui.

Long before legends like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü emerged from a thriving Minneapolis music scene, the Suicide Commandos were rockin’ stages with their loud ‘n’ fast punk rock sound. Signed to Mercury Records’ Blank label (along with Pere Ubu), they only released a single studio album, but their Make A Record album is well worth tracking down. The band’s “Match/Mismatch” is a good example of this unduly-obscure band’s range, displaying just a bit of the art-rock noise their friends and labelmates Pere Ubu pursued, but mostly just cranking up the amps and cranking out three-chord, supersonic rock ‘n’ roll with turbocharged instrumentation and passable – not laughable – vocal harmonies, that blazed a trail for other Minnesota bands to follow…artists like Curtiss A, whose “I Don’t Want To Be President” hits your eardrums like an earthbound meteor. The self-professed “Dean of Scream,” Curtiss Almsted kicked around the Twin Cities for years in a number of bands, but never recorded anything as potent as this 1979 Twin/Tone Records single.

Pure Hell's Noise Addiction
’s “Hot Wire My Heart” provides another electrifying jolt of high-voltage punk rock, the San Francisco band early adopters of the aesthetic, releasing the song as a single in 1976. Produced in glorious lo-fi with a veritable wall of noise behind the vocals, the band’s amateurish first effort is nevertheless incredibly effective, with ringing guitars and shouted vocals delivered with more ‘joie de vivre’ than better-produced, bigger-budget label releases. On the other side of the country, Pure Hell was terrorizing Philadelphia audiences with “Noise Addiction,” the first African-American Afropunk outfit every bit as young, loud, and snotty as any band working the ‘bucket o’ blood’ club circuit and one worth your time to discover. They’ve been a lot of things over the years – punks, power-pop, alt-rockers, bluesmen – but Red Kross was, perhaps, never punkier and prouder than on the slash ‘n’ burn “Clorox Girls,” from their self-titled 1981 debut EP on Posh Boy Records, which needs less than a single frantic minute to burn itself into your medulla oblongata.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Pagan's Street Where Nobody Lives 45rpm single
There are a lot of other exciting sounds to be found on Blank Generation; too many to ramble on about here, to be sure. But if your musical tastes run towards the punk, post-punk, and power-pop oeuvre, you’ll probably dig tracks by Television (the wiry “Friction”), the Dictators (the mondo “I Live For Cars and Girls”), the Residents (their mutant cover of the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction”), the Dils (the jaunty “Mr. Big”), the Bags (the high-octane “Survive”), Pagans (the amped-up garage rock gem “Street Where Nobody Lives”), Chrome (the syncopated electro-punk of “New Age,”), Non Compos Mentis (the power-pop/hardcore mashup “Ultimate Orgasm”), and DMZ (the Boston-bred “Bad Attitude”) who, in turn, begat the Lyres (the‘60s-styled proto-punk “Buried Alive”).

I’ve been writing about this stuff since the beginning, decades “frittered” away banging my head against the proverbial wall, and the Blank Generation box still manages to offer up cool bands I’ve never heard before (Black Randy & The Metro Squad, the Young Canadians, the Dishrags, Crash Course In Science) or had only read about in dog-eared copies of Bomp! and Trouser Press (Cleveland punks Mirrors and Electric Eels, New Math, the Middle Class, Howard Werth, et al).    

For you young ‘uns who didn’t enter this metaphysical plane of existence until the changing of the millennium, a lot – a majority, maybe – of these tracks will be brand new to your hungry ears. As such, Blank Generation is either the only punk rock compilation set you’ll ever need, or a welcome catalyst for further investigation into the early history of the genre. For those of us who rode that hobby horse from the beginning, before the paint began to chip off and tarnish set in, Blank Generation is a reminder of how fresh, new, and exciting rock ‘n’ roll can be. Either way, this is a set worthy of inclusion in even the most comprehensive music library. (Cherry Red Records, released 2023)

Buy Blank Generation from Amazon

The View On Pop Culture: R.L. Burnside, Skip James, Walter Trout, Furry Lewis (2003)

R.L. Burnside's First Recordings


By now you’ve watched every episode of the PBS documentary on the blues and you’re ready to celebrate the Congressionally-declared “year of the blues’ with a few new CD purchases. Well, you could choose from among the officially-sanctioned CD tie-ins to the PBS series, titles from deserving folks like Muddy Waters, Son House, and the obscure J.B. Lenoir. But if you really want to expand your musical vocabulary, look beyond the hype and marketing and discover these artists who offer several different shades of blue.

There are very few of the classic Mississippi bluesmen remaining, R.L. Burnside one of the last of a dying breed. Perhaps the best known of modern-day blues stylists, Burnside’s work has crossed over to a rock-oriented audience via collaborations with garage-rocker Jon Spencer and through the groundbreaking Come On In album. Remixed with an edge by Thom Rothrock and Alec Empire, the studio effects and loops enhancing Come On In only intensified Burnside’s already powerful performances, the resulting songs familiar to many listeners from movie and TV soundtracks.

The long-overdue reappearance of First Recordings (Fat Possum) on CD shows Burnside in a different light. Captured live in Mississippi by producer George Mitchell, these 1968 recordings – just R.L. and a beat-up acoustic guitar – preview the power and grace that will become Burnside’s legacy. Performing traditional juke-joint country blues in his Mississippi Fred McDowell-influenced “hill country” style, Burnside blazes through red hot readings of “Poor Black Mattie,” “My Time Ain’t Long” and his trademark “Goin’ Down South.” The recordings have been cleaned up to please modern ears, but Burnside’s hypnotizing vocals and strong, percussive guitar style are always a joy to listen to, First Recordings a welcome addition to the blues lexicon.

Skip James' Studio Sessions
Country bluesman Skip James is considered by historians to be one of the most important figures in the history of the Delta blues. A troubled man haunted by the dichotomy of sin and salvation represented by the blues and gospel music, James’ unique guitar style and songwriting skills have inspired and influenced musicians across decades and genres, from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton. A long-lost collection of previously unreleased material, Studio Sessions: Rare and Unreleased (Vanguard Records) had the potential to be a real gem, the sort of rare find that escapes the vaults from time to time. Unfortunately, it is only mildly interesting to the most hardcore of blues fans.

Recorded in 1967 near the end of his life, the collection offers an obviously world-weary James spinning through a selection of mostly Gospel-oriented tunes. There are times when James’ haunting, otherworldly vocals soar – most notably on “One Dime Was All I Had” – and his bordello learned piano playing takes flight on numbers like “Omaha Blues.” The purchase of Studio Sessions should be reserved until the newcomer to James’ unique talents has digested the artist’s Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo) from 1931 or the latter-era collection Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (Biograph) from the early-60s. Then you’ll know what all the brouhaha over Skip James is all about.    

Walter Trout's Relentless
Walter Trout
is a blues-rocker of the Stevie Ray Vaughan school, mixing lightning-quick fretwork with traditional boogie styling, appealing to fans of amped-up guitar pyrotechnics. Trout earned his bones backing legends like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton; he played in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and propped up Canned Heat for a while in the ‘80s. I must admit that I’ve found much of Trout’s studio work to be a snooze, but the recently released Relentless (Ruf Records), which captures Trout and his fine band the Radicals performing live in Amsterdam, has prompted me to reconsider.

The stage is obviously Trout’s element, the guitarist filling every song with incredible energy and, well…relentless six-string riffing that would please any blues-rock enthusiast. Trout’s whiskey glass vocals are appropriately suited to the music and what he lacks as a songwriter he more than makes up for with power, sweat and passion. The rocking declaration “The Life I Chose,” the Hendrix-inspired ballad “Cry If You Want To” or the anthemic “Collingswood” showcase an artist seriously in love with the blues. A lifer who may never get rich from his craft, Trout is nevertheless determined to make his mark playing the music that he loves and Relentless is a fine step in that direction.        

Furry Lewis' Good Morning Judge
Walter “Furry” Lewis
was a fixture on the Memphis blues scene for years beyond count, recording his first songs in the ‘20s, retiring from music in the ‘30s and being rediscovered in the ‘50s. While most of the original country bluesmen had fled the Delta for Chicago, Detroit and other points north, Lewis remained on Beale Street, traveled the Southeast in medicine shows and, along the way, forged a musical legacy that stands up with the greatest artists of the genre. The timing of the release of Good Morning Judge (Fat Possum Records) couldn’t come at a better time as it is one of the strongest collections of Lewis recordings that is currently available.

Recorded by producer George Mitchell in Memphis circa 1962, Good Morning Judge offers Lewis in fine form. The opening title cut is hilarious, Lewis stating that “I got arrested once,” and then going on to deny accusations of murder, fraud, forgery and even loitering, his light-hearted lyrics covering the deadly seriousness of institutional racism, his vocals accompanied by slinky bottleneck guitar. In fact, much of Good Morning Judge showcases Lewis’ unique and intriguing six-string style, the elder bluesman filling songs like “Blues Around My Bed” and “Roll and Tumble Blues” with spry energy and soulful performances. “Don’t You Wish Your Mama Had Named You Furry Lewis” and “Furry Lewis Rag” revisit these traditional blues tunes with more braggadocio than any hip-hop microphone fiend could muster. A wonderful introduction to the lively wit, musical talent and immense charisma of Furry Lewis, Good Morning Judge should be on the shelf of any serious fan of the blues. (View From The Hill, 2003)

Friday, February 16, 2024

CD Review: Pushin’ Too Hard: American Garage Punk 1964-1967 (2024)

Pushin’ Too Hard: American Garage Punk 1964-1967
The decade of the 1960s is notable for many pioneering efforts in film, fashion, music, and social activism, most of which have long since fallen out of the cultural zeitgeist, to be forgotten until some corporate interest needs to resurrect a specific cliché to cash in on and pump-up profits in the name of blind nostalgia. However, one of the lesser-known aspects of ‘60s-era music has refused to go quietly into that good night, remaining relatively underground and continuously flowing beneath the mainstream as the years passed by to influence generation after generation of young rock musicians.

Often a mere ‘blip’ on the pop culture radar during the ‘60s, garage rock nevertheless struck a chord with a specific group of music fans looking for raw authenticity and wild sounds. Every now and then a garage rock band like the Standells (“Dirty Water”) or Count Five (“Psychotic Reaction”) would strike gold with a Top 30 chart hit, but more frequently, worthwhile and imaginative bands like the Remains or Blues Magoos toiled in obscurity, only to be re-discovered years (or decades) later. Garage rock itself was resurrected for a while in 1972 when Elektra Records released the two-LP Nuggets compilation album. Curated by future Patti Smith Group guitarist and best-selling author Lenny Kaye, Nuggets – subtitled “Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era” – jumpstarted a late-decade garage rock scene that yielded bands like the Unclaimed, the Chesterfield Kings, the Fuzztones and many others that kept rock ‘n’ roll interesting during the 1980s and ‘90s.

Pushin’ Too Hard: American Garage Punk 1964-1967

There were multiple Nuggets compilations released subsequent to the original, as well as copycats and Nuggets-inspired collections like Pebbles, Rubble, Back From the Grave, and Killed By Death. An expanded Nuggets was reissued last year as a deluxe 50th anniversary vinyl box set and accompanied by live performances by Kaye and friends on both coasts…heck, I even wrote a book about the original Nuggets album. England’s Cherry Red Records has released numerous Nuggets-adjacent compilations but, with Pushin’ Too Hard: American Garage Punk 1964-1967, they drill down into the genre with what is perhaps the most comprehensive collection of obscure tunes yet. Released through the label’s Strawberry Records imprint and packaged in Cherry Red’s trademark clamshell box, the three-CD set offers 94-tracks of the purest and heaviest punky garage jams as you’d ever want.

Responding to the announcement of the release of Pushin’ Too Hard, some wag on Facebook smarmily commented something along the lines of “why do we need this set when we have Nuggets?” A good question, if somewhat disingenuous but, to be honest, Pushin’ Too Hard picks up the challenge that the original Nuggets laid down like no collection since the first couple of Pebbles albums were covertly (and pseudonymously) released by Greg Shaw. Sure, there are some overlaps between these 94 songs and multiple Nuggets releases, and well-worn tracks from bands like the Strangeloves, the Castaways, the Seeds, and the Remains will be familiar to even the most casual fan of ‘60s music.

But where Pushin’ Too Hard really shines is by presenting and preserving more obscure garage rock nuggets by not only those marquee artists but odds ‘n’ sods ‘n’ true rarities that all but the most rabid collector may not have heard. As a public service to my loyal readers, here are 16 reasons to check out Pushin’ Too Hard just as soon as the credit card charge clears and the postal representative jams the package into your greedy lil’ hands:   

1. The Denims - “I’m Your Man”
This Queens, New York sextet recorded but a handful of songs for Columbia Records and Mercury before disappearing into the blank void of obscurity but damned if “I’m Your Man” (1965) isn’t a gleeful combo of rockin’ drumbeats, buried vocals, sparkling fretwork, and an overall psych-drenched “wall of sound” that should have been blasting hourly from thousands of transistor radios across the country. Although the song’s intertwined guitars are fab, it’s drummer Mike Zaccor’s insistent, locomotive timekeeping that sends “I’m Your Man” into the stratosphere.

2. The Brogues - “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker”
The Brogues, hailing from Merced, California, obviously drew inspiration and more than a little influence from the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, but their take on “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” may be the best version of the often-covered psych-garage gem, beating out versions by the Chocolate Watchband and the Barracudas to take the gold medal. Gary Cole’s (a/k/a Gary Duncan) R&B-tinged vocals are pitch-perfect for 1965 while lead guitarist Eddie Rodrigues sparks up a bonfire with his twisted solos. Duncan and drummer Greg Elmore would later transition from garage fumes to lysergic-fueled psychedelia as members of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Roky Erickson photo courtesy Sire Records
Roky Erickson photo courtesy Sire Records

3. The Spades - “You’re Gonna Miss Me”
Although the original Nuggets LP included Texas psych casualties the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ version of Roky Erickson’s classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” it was originally recorded by Roky’s outfit the Spades, and it shines like a crazy diamond here tucked, as it is, between the Standells’ R&B rave-up “Rani” and the Lyrics’ “So What!,” which sounds like John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful on speed and cough syrup. Roky was a tender 18 years old when the Spades recorded this 1965 single, and Erickson’s manic harmonica riffs are front and center, providing a nice contrast to the Elevators’ enervating electric jug sound.

4. The Thirteen Floor Elevators - “Tried To Hide”
Speaking of the Elevators, Pushin’ Too Hard doesn’t include that song, but rather the B-side of the 1966 single, the raucous punk-blues tune “Tried To Hide.” Featuring Roky’s raging harpwork, scrappy git licks, minimal melody or rhythm, but lots of beery noise, random shouting, and general budget studio hijinks. This mono 45rpm version is rawer and more ramshackle than that which would later appear on the Elevators’ debut LP, Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

5. Paul Revere & the Raiders - “Just Like Me”
Because of their late ‘60s commercial success, Paul Revere & the Raiders are often-overlooked garage rock giants that walked the walk. Pushin’ Too Hard goes for the band’s deep cut “Just Like Me,” a 1965 single released in glorious mono and featuring all of the hallowed hallmarks of garage rock royalty – snotty, snarling vocals; chiming keyboards that prop up the rhythm; wiry, scratching-post fretwork; and an overall lo-fi, high-octane performance custom-made for maximum AM radio airplay.

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's “Diddy Wah Diddy”
6. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - “Diddy Wah Diddy”
Technically a Nuggets track, appearing on volume six of Rhino Records’ seemingly never-ending plundering of the concept released on a series of CDs in the 1980s, I’m gonna include it here ‘cause the Captain never sounded more like Howlin’ Wolf than he does on this inspired 1966 cover of the fabulous Bo Diddley song. Guitarist Doug Moon scrapes the strings like Link Wray turbocharged, and the entire band teeters like toddlers sotted on rotgut whiskey.

7. The Outcasts’ - “I’m In Pittsburgh (and It’s Raining)”
Straight outta San Antonio, Texas come the Outcasts, whose 1966 single was inspired by an Anthony Quinn line from the 1962 film Requiem For A Heavyweight. The Outcasts’ performance is as gritty as Quinn’s washed-up boxer from the movie, punch-drunk Bo Diddley-styled rhythms driving Jim Carsten’s sneering vox and invigorating rhythm guitar, Denny Turner’s switchblade leads, and harp player Buddy Carson’s icy blasts.  

8. Rocky & the Riddlers - “Flash and Crash”
The 1966 single “Flash and Crash” is an obscurity’s obscurity; originally appearing on the second volume of Tim Warren’s cult compilation Back From the Grave, the song is a bluesy, R&B rave-up with martial rhythms, underlying keyboard licks, nearly-buried lyrics, amateurish arrangement, and an overall smothering performance that will leave the listener gasping for air before queuing the song up to play again…  

9. The Unusuals - “I’m Walking Babe”
Another of the great Pacific Northwest bands that helped define garage rawk in the ‘60s, the Unusuals’ “I’m Walking Babe” stands proudly alongside the Sonics’ “You’ve Got Your Head On Backwards” as Nuggets-adjacent tracks that, for some reason, never made it to the major leagues. The Unusuals are over-the-top even by garage standards, with Vic Bundy’s circular keyboard riff providing a foundation for bassist Harvey Redmond’s whiskey-and-broken glass vocals and the jagged fretwork of guitarists Laurie Vitt and Bill Capp. The result is pure white light that threatens to go supernova at any moment.  

10. Link Ray & the Raymen - “Hidden Charms”
Link Wray’s Top 20 charting 1958 instrumental “Rumble” is a classic of switchblade guitar twang, the song subsequently appearing on a couple dozen surf-rock, rockabilly, and trash rock compilations. “Hidden Charms,” credited here to Link Ray & the Raymen, was a 1966 single that features a rare Wray vocal turn above the din of clashing instruments, shabby cheap-o production, and flamethrower guitar that steals the Willie Dixon-penned blues classic out of the great Howlin’ Wolf’s catalog and mutates the song into the sort of shambolic, ramshackle punk-blues gem that the White Stripes and the Black Keys would kill to have recorded.

11. The Standells - “Barracuda”

The Standells are Nuggets royalty, if only for their undeniably-soulful R&B romp “Dirty Water,” but the band’s “Barracuda” is equally awesome. Written by the band’s producer Ed Cobb (whose songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Soft Cell, The Clash, and George Clinton), “Barracuda” was released as a single in 1967 from the Standells’ final album, Try It, and should have been a monster hit. Punkier than “Dirty Water,” with a dense soundtrack of chiming instruments and fierce vocals, it was released at the ass-end of the garage rock tsunami and failed to gain any traction with record buyers.

12. The Rationals - “I Need You”
Motor City rockers the Rationals masterfully blended pop, rock, and classic R&B with an original sound fueled by singer Scott Morgan’s Mitch Ryder-styled, blue-eyed soul vocals. Although the band has been featured on various Michigan-specific anthologies (most recently on Ace Records’ excellent An A-Square Compilation LP), they were largely shut out of the Nuggets sweepstakes. Still, the band’s 1967 cover of the Kinks’ “I Need You” amps up the energy of the original with Morgan’s blistering vox and guitarist Steve Correll’s incendiary leads. Morgan would later hook up with fellow traveler Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 in beloved Detroit/Ann Arbor-area cult-rockers Sonic’s Rendezvous Band.

13. Roy Junior - “Victim of Circumstances”
“Victim of Circumstances” is an oddball choice for Pushin’ Too Hard, the Roy Junior in question the son of country legend Roy Acuff and a country artist by trade. This 1966 single seems like a blatant attempt at scoring a hit in the garage rock sweepstakes and plays a lot like what a Music Roy exec thought that a garage rock single should sound like. Inching close to self-parody, with inane lyrics (“I was raised on knuckle sandwiches…in a jungle of knives and chains, had to fight to live”) sung by a privileged nepo-baby, the song’s low-rent production, slumming studio professionals, and laughable performance is just greasy enough to pass for authentic garage, becoming a minor regional hit because not much else was going on in the Mid-South area at the time…

14. Front Page News - “Thoughts”
The only single released by the Tulsa, Oklahoma bred Front Page News, “Thoughts” balances uneasily on the razor’s edge between feedback-laden garage rock and taut lysergic psychedelia. Released in 1966, “Thoughts” was probably nine months to a year ahead of its time, and the band was never heard from again. Still, it’s a fine, frenzied performance that would appeal to fans of either 1966 or 1967…  

15. The Jefferson Handkerchief - “I’m Allergic To Flowers”
Best I can tell, The Jefferson Handkerchief’s “I’m Allergic To Flowers” has never previously been anthologized on any comp, not even Pebbles or the Grave series, tho’ it was covered by something called Vicky & Dicky, a New Zealand duo who scored a hit with the satirical anti-hippie send-up. The Jefferson Handkerchief was a fake band comprised of studio professionals and Challenge Records label staff songwriters having a bit of fun at the expense of youthful “Flower Power” movement, but it’s a helluva lot of fun anyway!
16. The Bedlam Four’s - “No One Left To Love”
Another Pushin’ Too Hard exclusive, the Bedlam Four was a short-lived group of ambitious young rockers from Hastings, Minnesota who successfully evolved from Top 40 mimicry to righteous blues-rock mimicry with the addition of new singer/drummer Rich Pogue. Sporting a playlist peppered with Muddy Waters and Yardbirds covers, “No One Left To Love” was a Pogue-penned original and a mighty fine one at that, strutting and stomping with reckless abandon across every rich note and riff they could find in the Chess Records catalog, spiced up with budget production and noisy mastering that shakes, rattles, and rolls off the turntable, ultimately bludgeoning your ears into submission.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Truth is, I’ve only scratched the surfaces of the groovy sounds and anarchic rawk ‘n’ roll you’ll find on Pushin’ Too Hard, and most of the songs here never staggered anywhere near a Nuggets compilation album in any of its many guises. If the 16 reasons provided above aren’t motivation enough to get you up off the couch and down to your local music emporium, how ‘bout deep tracks from the Seeds, the McCoys, the Misunderstood, Dirty Wurds, We The People, the Sonics, Zakary Thaks, Thursday’s Children, and the Checkmates, among many others? The set also includes a groovy 44-page color booklet with notes on every band and song, plenty of rare photos and other cool graphics that should pacify even the most fanatical of fanboys. At the low, low cost of around 36-cents per song, the set deserves a place in your collection. (Strawberry Records/Cherry Red Records, released 2023)

Buy Pushin’ Too Hard from Amazon

The View On Pop Culture: Remembering The Man In Black (2003)

Johnny Cash
The Man In Black: Johnny Cash
In the early morning of September 12, 2003, the world of music lost a larger-than-life icon in Johnny Cash. Known the world over as the “Man In Black,” Cash, along with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan, was one of the four most important figures in American music during the last fifty years. Cash had been sick for a long time with various ailments, but he faced his illness with humor and determination and had continued to sing and work in the studio almost until the day that he died. The death of his beloved wife June Carter Cash back in May, however, was a blow that he could not recover from and it could be said that Cash died as much from a broken heart as he did his physical infirmities.

The first live concert that I ever saw was Johnny Cash. It was back in 1969 at the Gannon College auditorium in Erie, Pennsylvania with the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins opening the show. It was an eye-opening evening and was responsible for a lifelong infatuation with music. This was at the beginning of Cash’s mainstream fame. Sure, he had enjoyed dozens of successful records throughout the late ‘50s and early-to-mid-‘60s but it was his television show, running for two seasons from 1969 through 1971 that made Cash a household name.

Cash was born in rural Arkansas in the throes of the Great Depression. Inspired by the country songs he heard on the radio, Cash began singing and writing songs at the age of 12, but it wasn’t until he served in the Air Force during the Korean War that he taught himself to play guitar. After being discharged from the service, Cash married a woman from Texas and moved to Memphis, where he took a radio broadcast course on the GI Bill. At night Cash fronted a trio with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, playing country songs.

A 1955 audition with Sun Records brought the young Cash to the attention of Sam Phillips, famed producer and the man who discovered Elvis. Cash auditioned as a gospel singer and was rebuffed by Phillips, who told him to come back with something more commercial. Cash soon came back with “Hey Porter,” which, coupled with “Cry Cry Cry,” became Cash’s first country hit. For the next three years, Cash knocked down a number of hits for the Memphis label, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Give My Love To Rose.” Cash made his first appearance on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1957, dressed entirely in stark black at a time when rhinestones were the style in country music.

With another of his characteristic misjudgments, Phillips refused to allow Cash to record a gospel album and was unwilling to increase his royalty rates (keep in mind that Elvis was long gone from Sun by this time). Cash subsequently jumped to Columbia Records, where he enjoyed a long association and a string of hits that would stretch from the late-50s through the mid-70s, songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” However, the rigors of 300 nights a year on the road and Cash’s use of amphetamines eventually led to legal problems, health issues and erratic behavior that saw Cash get booted off the Opry stage and eventually led to his divorce from wife Vivian.   

It was June Carter, scion of country royalty the Carter Family, who came to Cash’s rescue. Introduced originally by Elvis Presley (Carter was also managed by Colonel Parker), June was married at the time to singer Carl Smith. Cash and Carter became good friends and when he moved to Nashville and Carter was divorced from Smith, she helped Cash kick his drug problem and introduced him to her Christian faith. The two were married in 1968 after Cash proposed on stage and the two were virtually inseparable ever since.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
Also in 1968, Cash released what was to become his most popular album at the time, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, the album selling better than 500,000 copies (a lot in those days) and crossing over to the pop charts. A year later, Cash followed up with Johnny Cash At San Quentin, which yielded the hit single “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash sat in on Bob Dylan’s album Nashville Skyline and invited the singer/songwriter to appear on the first episode of his television show in 1969. During the next few years, Cash dabbled in movies, published an autobiography, and continued to score hits such as “One Piece At A Time” and “(Ghost) Riders In the Sky.” In 1980 Cash became the youngest member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame.

During the ‘80s, however, Cash’s star began to dim, his style of traditional country eclipsed by younger stars and gradually ignored by radio. A musical collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson titled The Highwaymen found mild success in 1985, though the album has since become considered a country classic. In 1986, Rick Blackburn of Columbia Records won the scorn of Cash fans across the planet when the label unceremoniously dumped the aging star from its roster. A brief association with Mercury Records produced little of value and in 1992, after almost 40 years of success, Cash found himself unable to get a record deal in Nashville.

Salvation came in the unlikely form of producer Rick Rubin. The founder of American Recordings, Rubin was best known for his work with rap and hard rock bands. However, he eagerly signed Cash to a deal in 1993, launching a career revival that has yet to end. Pairing Cash’s faltering baritone with a mix of contemporary songs and traditional favorites, often delivered with bleak acoustic instrumentation, the series of Rubin-produced albums earned Cash a young audience made up of rebellious punks, metalheads, and Goth kids who appreciated the singer’s passion and powerful delivery. The fourth collaboration between Rubin and Cash, titled American IV: The Man Comes Around, was released in 2002 to widespread critical acclaim. Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” propelled the album to nearly a million copies sold and several MTV Video Award nominations.     

A lot has been written about Cash in the days since his death, mostly focusing upon his success in country music or his relationship with June Carter. Most of those telling the stories, however, missed some of the subtleties about the man and artist. Cash was a great songwriter, his work championing the working man, the downtrodden and the needy. But he also recognized great songwriting, which led him to buck the Music Row establishment and record songs by rockers like Bob Dylan or struggling songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. Cash was a great live performer, a charismatic and powerful presence who took total control of the stage. However, he wasn’t afraid to share his stardom to give a little rub to friends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Marty Robbins, or the Statler Brothers. Cash is the only artist honored by inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

On the day of his death, the phone lines at Nashville’s talk radio stations lit up with people remembering the “Man In Black.” It seemed as if everybody in the Music City had a story to tell about Cash, every one without exception telling of the man’s great humor and kindness and humanity. Johnny Cash was a giant among men and even in death his legacy continues to inspire and comfort both those who knew him and those who knew his music… (View From The Hill, 2003)

Friday, February 9, 2024

Outlaw Country Legend Mojo Nixon, R.I.P.

Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper's Free, Drunk and Horny LP
I first met Kim Buie, the underrated Island Records A&R genius who guided both Drivin’ N Cryin’ and Tom Waits to some of the best work of their careers, while she was working for the legendary Enigma Records label. Mojo Nixon was one of the better-selling artists among the label’s impressive roster of punk, metal, and fringe performers, falling somewhere in between John Trubee and Zoogz Rift as one of the most original and unique musicians to make a record in America.

Kim turned me onto the first Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper album, 1985’s
Free, Drunk and Horny, before she ended up moving from L.A. to Nashville for a job with Jack Emerson’s Praxis organization. I spoke with Mojo several times, usually while drinking beer at some Nashville bar. I came up with the Ed Anger/Mojo Nixon myth, a story that subsequently spread across the country, fueled partially by Mojo himself. This is the only interview that survived our many conversations, originally appearing in the November 1990 issue of Nashville’s The Metro music magazine.

Sadly, Mojo (nee Neill Kirby McMillan Jr.) passed away on Wednesday, February 7th from a “cardiac event” while on the Outlaw Country Cruise, where he had performed the night before. Nixon was 66 years old and enjoyed a full life as a beloved cult-rocker, occasional actor, radio DJ, and Americana iconoclast. Mojo will long be remembered for his contagious humor, quick wit, and rowdy, charismatic demeanor. R.I.P.

His origins are shrouded in mystery. From whence he comes, no one really knows…except for Mojo, and he’s not talkin’. Rumor has it that he comes from Pigfoot, Louisiana, while others say he grew up on the East Coast. Still others have said that he’s the long-lost twin brother of the Beat Farmers’ Country Dick. Yes, rumors abound, but one thing is for certain…Mojo Nixon and Weekly World News columnist Ed Anger have never been photographed together…but more about that later.

Mojo’s on his way to Nashville, you know, set to headline a massive all-ages show along with the Dead Milkmen and the Cavedogs. The enigmatic Mr. Nixon is overcome with joy at his impending return to the Music City. “I just wrote a song that I was thinking of pitching to Nashville,” says Mojo. It’s called ‘I’m Addicted To ESPN, The Total Sports Network Is My Friend.’” Does Mojo harbor aspirations towards becoming a Music Row songwriter and country performer?

Mojo Nixon
“That’ll be when I start my stock car racing career,” says Mojo. “Eventually there’ll be some sign from above or below that the rock ‘n’ roll thing has run its course. Then I’ll move back to North Carolina, where I grew up, and begin racing stock cars and I’ll make my Nashville debut. But I don’t think that Jimmy Bowen will be involved,” he adds, “Jack Clement, possibly, but not Jimmy Bowen…”

Nixon will be returning to Nashville as part of a tour in support of his latest vinyl triumph, Otis, a “big, large, stupid slab of vibrating thingamajig,” says Mojo. “We recorded it in Memphis with Jim Dickinson,” he continues, “who produced our last album. I got…somebody described it as ‘The All-Gator Band’…I describe it as the first post-cowpunk supergroup, with John Doe (X), and Country Dick of the Beat Farmers, Bill (Davis) from Dash Rip Rock, and Eric (Ambel) from the Del-Lords. We just got down there and drank a few beers and just started rocking and rolling. We had a lot of fun!”

Otis is the first record Nixon has recorded without partner Skid Roper; a mature, fully-realized exercise in musical mayhem and lyrical madness as only Mojo can deliver. “I wanted to make a much more rock ‘n’ roll album than I had before,” says Mojo. “I made five albums with Skid and each one of those is much more advanced than the last. The first one was just totally primitive; we did it on a four-track cassette. We didn’t even know that we were doing an album…they were supposed to be demos in case we ever did an album.”

Mojo Nixon's Otis
To be sure, that first Mojo and Skid disc, Free, Drunk and Horny, contained some Mojo classics, gems such as “Jesus At McDonald’s” and “Rockin’ Religion.” “Yeah, it’s got some ‘stream-of-consciousness’ on it,” says Mojo. “A lot of people say to me, ‘well, I like the first album’ or ‘I like the second album.’ I think that there’s a natural order to things. I had to do the first two albums to get to ‘Elvis Is Everywhere’ and I had to do the next two albums to get to ‘Don Henley Must Die.’ Sooner or later, this adding stuff will peter out and I’ll just go back to me and a guitar. It’s a process you have to go through and I don’t want to miss any of the steps. You know, sooner or later, I may have a hit in spite of my own stupid self!”

Mojo is known for tossing lyrical arrows at a wide range of targets. Otis pokes fun at or insults everyone from George Bush down to Don Henley. “There was some controversy even before the record came out on the Don Henley thing,” says Mojo of “Don Henley Must Die.” “My point is that rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be wild and crazy and free and fun and anarchy and sex and pandemonium and drive-in movie theaters with fake-I.D. beer! What the hell is Don Henley doing? Not that he’s not talented…but VH-1 is wide-open. Why not go there and stay?”

Most of the targets of Mojo’s musical missiles have been quite, shall we say…understanding. “They’re supposed to be funny, not hate-filled or anything,” says Mojo, “not even the most hate-filled ones. I don’t know Don Henley or Phil Collins or Sting…they might be good race car drivers for all I know, but it’s unlikely.” MTV’s Martha Quinn, an early recipient of a Mojo barb with the song “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin” actually brags about the encounter…

“Martha Quinn,” says Mojo, “I never talked to Martha but I just heard that she was on TV talking about the song just recently, says that she was the only VJ to have a song written about her.” Of others, Nixon says, “Debbie Gibson took it all in stride and Michael J. Fox…well, I’m not worried about him because he’s near dwarf-sized. What’s he going to do, hire somebody to beat me up? Get together with Prince and beat me up…a bunch of short guys whuppin’ up on me?!”

Mojo’s music is an eclectic blend of talking blues, old time R&B, and roots-rock. Says Mojo of influences, “the kind of John Lee Hooker, front-porch Delta blues thing is a big influence, as is Hunter Thompson’s ‘railing at the gods’ kind of thing, railing at the absurdities and injustices; and a lot of your basic rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues stuff that I derived out of Otis Redding, out of the gospel church…”

“I was thinking the other day,” says Mojo, “that rock ‘n’ roll seems to have forgotten somebody like Roger Miller. I think that he won something like six Grammys. He’s a funny guy and also a musical guy. There’s a long tradition in country and R&B of people who were funny but musical, whether it was Jerry Reed or the Coasters or the Big Bopper…you could name a whole slew of them. The concept that these were novelty acts or whatnot…well, the Coasters went to number one, as did Roger Miller. Somewhere along the way, rock ‘n’ roll forgot this.”

Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper's Bo-Day-Shus
Rock ‘n’ roll as a corporate entity has pretty well led to a cultural decline for, says Mojo, “the same reasons that the hamburgers at McDonald’s taste like cardboard compared to a hamburger at some Joe Bob’s hamburger stand that they run themselves. It’s a big business, a big corporate thing and they’re going for the lowest common denominator to sell the most units they can. They don’t give a flying fuck about whether it’s good or not!”

In a climate such as this, Nixon continues to deliver sincere, heartfelt, if decidedly non-mainstream discs to his adoring fans. Says Mojo, “I’m pretty much determined to have success on my own terms. People in suits recognize quickly that I have some talent that can be exploited, but none of them seems to have any clue as to how to do that. Until one of them does, I’m just going to keep doing what I do.”

As for the question of Mojo’s involvement with the pseudonymous Mr. Anger, well, let’s just check the facts, shall we. Ed Anger writes a column of patriotic, right-wing pap called “My America” in the Weekly World News tabloid, a column that many believe to be done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Nixon has been known to comb the very same scandal sheet for song ideas, even going so far as to lifting headlines for song titles.

So how about it Mojo, what’s the scoop on you and Ed? “Some people think that we may be the same person,” says Mojo, “I’ve never seen me and Ed in the same room together! I’ve been pig-biting mad myself, you know.” The answer to this mystery? “Possibly aliens are channeling my energies and turning them into Ed’s column,” says Mojo. ‘Nuff said… (1990)

The View On Pop Culture: Hamell On Trial, Singapore Sling, Strung Out (2003)

Hamell On Trial's Tough Love

Across this great nation of ours, school is back in session and millions of teenagers, whether in high school or college, are carrying music back to the campus with them. Music has become such a seamless part of the everyday lives of many teens that they no longer look at how it is thrust upon them by the major labels. High-stakes marketing, “street teams,” the constant din of advertising, commercial radio placement and movie and television licensing all conspire to flood the young music-lover’s subconscious with one message – buy this CD! There are some of us who still believe that the music is the message, however, and that cheap rock ‘n’ roll thrills can still be found outside of the system. For our campus-bound readers, here are a few artists that you should take back to school with you…

Ed Hamell is not your typical rocker and Hamell On Trial – Ed and a revolving cast of friends – is not your typical rock band. First of all, Ed can’t really sing that well, although he’ll surprise you with a soulful performance every now and then. Instead, Hamell spits out his lyrical invective in a half-spoken/half-chanted cadence that often drives his point home with all the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer. And he’s not that good of a musician, really, an adequate guitarist with a fine knowledge of folk chords, a few rock riffs and a bluesy undercurrent. What Ed Hamell is, however, is a thoroughly enchanting storyteller with a keen eye for human behavior, an expansive vocabulary, and the ability to tie all of his strengths and weaknesses together to deliver a performance stronger and more meaningful than his technically proficient peers.

Hamell’s Tough Love (Righteous Babe) is the sidewalk scribe’s sixth album, a collection of personal observations and musical rants delivered with punkish attitude and high-energy glee. The songs speak for themselves, whether when Hamell revisits his near-fatal car wreck on “Downs” or remembers the victims of mindless hate on “Hail.” Hamell is at his best when he’s raging against the machine, offering more thought-provoking concepts in a single verse than most “socially-conscious” artists manage on an entire album. “Don’t Kill” is a fractured-take on God’s commandment; Hamell’s echoed vocals and a powerful beat calling on Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike to stop the violence in no uncertain terms. “Halfway” is Hamell’s call to arms, though, taking to task those who prostitute themselves in the name of commerce or those who would use patriotism as a cover for their agenda. Hamell admits that he’s “a self-righteous prick with a great big mouth,” adding “but I’m sick to death of mediocrity and lies.” A perfect fit with Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, Hamell On Trial is as real as a knifepoint mugging and as welcome as a warm bath at the end of the day.     

Singapore Sling's The Curse of Singapore Sling
Forget about Sweden or New Zealand or New York City ‘cause the real garage-rock vibe is sounding from Iceland, where Singapore Sling is keeping it real with a hardcore blend of three-chord rock, noisy psychedelica and feedback ambiance. Singapore Sling has more in common with other Velvet Underground acolytes like My Bloody Valentine or the Jesus & Mary Chain than with folks like the Strokes or the Vines. The band’s incredible debut disc, The Curse of Singapore Sling (Stinky Records) is a breath of ice-cold air blasting away the pretensions of a stale American alt-rock scene. Guitarist/songwriter Henrik Björnsson has crafted an excellent collection of dense, multi-textured songs that offer often-gentle vocals, screaming guitar riffs, layer upon layer of noise and the strongest rhythms this side of Killing Joke. With The Curse of Singapore Sling, the Icelandic cult rockers have successfully bridged four decades of rock ‘n’ roll, tying the ‘60s/‘70s/‘80s/‘90s together with a broken guitar string, Singapore Sling creating a highly-amped blueprint for alternative rock in the new century.
Strung Out's Live In A Dive
There’s been a lot of chatter among the musical punditry these days over bands like AFI and the Ataris that have made the jump from the indie world to major label status. For my money, however, they’re missing the boat if they’re not looking at Strung Out. Marginalized by critics as a minor league hardcore outfit, methinks they should get the cotton out of their collective ears and give Strung Out a closer listen. The band’s 2002 release, An American Paradox, proved to be the sort of artistic breakthrough that better-known and younger punk rockers have yet to experience. Live In A Dive (Fat Wreck Chords) captures this incendiary band in its natural element, live and onstage in front of an all-ages crowd of eager young punks.

Live In A Dive serves to map out Strung Out’s musical evolution from fast-n-furious pop/punk plodders to the metal-edged hardcore monster they showed themselves to be with their last album. The live set includes representatives from all of Strung Out’s previous efforts, even throwing in a raging performance of “Population Control” from the band’s decade-old debut. It’s the recent material that draws the most recognition from the audience, however, solid performances of “The Kids” and “Velvet Alley” proving that Strung Out might very well be the next big thing to jump from the fringes of rock and into the currents of the mainstream. (View From The Hill, 2003)

Saturday, February 3, 2024

MC5's Brother Wayne Kramer, R.I.P.

Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer is a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll legend. As guitarist for Detroit’s MC5, Kramer was part of an anarchic, creative band that was a major inspiration for both the late ‘70s punk revolution and the early ‘90s alternative rock movement. Kramer’s four late ‘90s solo albums recorded for the independent Epitaph label with members of bands like Bad Religion, The Melvins, and Claw Hammer only added to his already considerable musical legacy.

The guitarist also recorded albums with Johnny Thunders (
Gang War), British rock legend Mick Farren (Death Tongue), Brian James of the Damned (Mad About the Racket), and former MC5 manager John Sinclair (Full Circle), among others. Perhaps the most exciting album that Kramer recorded aside from the MC5 was the 1996 Dodge Main album, a sort of Motor City “homecoming” with Kramer, Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman, and Scott Morgan of the Rationals and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band.

Kramer passed away this week at the age of 75 after a brief fight with pancreatic cancer. This phone interview was published in 1997 in my
R Squared music zine.

It has become somewhat of a cliché, but in practice, Wayne Kramer is usually referred to as a “legend.” It would be much more accurate, perhaps, to label him as a survivor. As guitarist for Detroit’s notorious and influential MC5 – musical mouthpiece for the revolutionary White Panther Party – Kramer made it through the tumultuous ‘60s alive, if not unscathed. He’s lived through poverty, drugs, and prison to emerge from the other end of despair. Picking up the guitar again during the ‘80s for a series of musical collaborations with folks like Johnny Thunders and Mick Farren, it wasn’t until Kramer’s mid-‘90s emergence as a significant solo artist that he’d begun to forge his own identity and earn the critical respect he’s always deserved.

“For me, I didn’t really have a choice,” Kramer says of his chosen career path, “this is what I have to do. I’ve been confused about a great many things in my life, but I’ve never been confused about my reason to exist. It’s always been to do this work, to play this music. In the end, to hopefully share something with other people like they have shared with me...the things that I’ve gotten from great music, from great art. That sense that maybe I’m not alone, maybe I can spread that idea to someone else, that maybe they’re not alone, hopefully to leave the place a little nicer than I found it.”

Wayne Kramer's Citizen Wayne LP
After stints in New York and Nashville, Kramer ended up in Los Angeles, writing the songs that would eventually become 1995’s The Hard Stuff, his first album of three so far for Epitaph Records and the one that many consider his comeback effort. With backing from the L.A. band Claw Hammer and guest performances from a literal “who’s who” of punk rock (including inspired liner notes by Henry Rollins), The Hard Stuff is an excellent album, brimming with energy and lyrically exciting songs. Kramer quickly followed up with Dangerous Minds in 1996. The powerful Citizen Wayne is this year’s model, a stripped-down, hard-rocking, saber-rattling menace of an album. Lyrically, Citizen Wayne covers everything from Kramer’s MC5 days, the ‘60s and prison, to the struggle for human dignity and economic justice. Musically, it features a potent brew of hard rock, metal, punk, and free-form jazz that few artists have the talent to even attempt, much less make it work like Kramer is able to.

As one of the few icons of the ‘60s still standing, what are Kramer’s memories of the era? “They were exciting and romantic, but they were dangerous. You never knew when something bad was going to happen. You never knew what direction it was going to come from. If it wasn’t the police, it was the right wing – the ‘America, love it or leave it,’ John Birch Society – you add to that mix the volatile passions of the day, the militant rhetoric, and the fact that most everybody was high on acid most of the time, it was a time that was unique. That’s one of the things that I tried to do with Citizen Wayne, to try and grab a snapshot of what it was like. Songs like “Down On the Ground” or “Back When Dogs Could Talk,” that sense of limitless possibilities, that we could change the world, that there could be a new kind of politics, a new kind of music.”

Wayne Kramer & MC5
The Motor City seems a strange place to grow musical legends like the MC5 or Iggy and the Stooges. What was it about Detroit that allowed for this kind of musical phenomena? “I think it was that there were jobs there,” says Kramer. “There was work, and there was kind of a boomtown atmosphere, a sense that we could do anything in Detroit. If you wanted it built, manufactured, fabricated, we could do it in Detroit. People worked hard for their money and they wanted their bands to work hard. We carried that work ethic to the band and in the kind of music that we liked. It was what we called ‘high energy’ music. It was a visceral music, it was not a pretty, delicate music; it was a hard music. It was the music of James Brown, the avant-garde free jazz movement, Chuck Berry, and the rhythm section at Motown. Later, it was the music of the Who and the Yardbirds, that was experimental and pushed things.”

In many of the songs on Citizen Wayne, as well as his previous solo work, Kramer treads on political ground that is anathema to rock artists these days. With a perspective every bit as radical today as it was in 1969, Kramer is not afraid to take an artistic stand. “The wage and wealth gap is the human rights issue of today,” he says. “We don’t have the war in Vietnam now; we don’t have the generation gap. What we have is the difference between wealthy people and all the rest of us. I don’t believe that any thinking person can be an optimist today. I do believe that we are prisoners of hope. One sign that I see as really hopeful is that the unions are coming back.”

Wayne Kramer's Dodge Main
After touring throughout 1997 to support Citizen Wayne, Kramer will begin work on writing the soundtrack album for a proposed movie version of Legs McNeil’s history of New York punk, Please Kill Me. Afterwards, Kramer’s future is wide open. “My plan is to do an album a year for the next ten years, do a tour every year,” he says. “Music is not the kind of thing that is tied to being young. It’s something that you can continue to do through your thirties, your forties, your fifties...and continue to do it with meaning and passion. For me, my plan is to ‘do the work.’ That’s what living is all about. Push this music and sound into a more pure sonic dimension and try to write some good songs, tell some of the stories of what it’s like to be alive in this time and this place.” Like the true survivor that he is, Kramer works to create something that will live on beyond his brief time here. “Ultimately,” he says, “maybe I can become a blip on the horizon of our day.”

Also on That Devil Music:

Wayne Kramer’s Citizen Wayne CD review

Wayne Kramer’s The Hard Stuff CD review

Friday, February 2, 2024

Archive Review: Anders Osborne’s Peace (2013)

Anders Osborne’s Peace
Blues guitarist Anders Osborne switched gears musically earlier this year with the release of the semi-acoustic six-song EP Three Free Amigos. Eschewing the hard-charging, guitar-driven blues-rock thunderstorm of his 2012 album Black Eye Galaxy, Osborne’s Three Free Amigos was like a sun-drenched morning after the rain cleared out. By contrast, he guitarist’s Peace manages to walk a fine line between the two recordings – cloudy afternoon music, as it were – Osborne delivering a highly autobiographical set of songs that build upon his trademark roots ‘n’ blues sound to incorporate elements of funk, psychedelic-rock, even scraps of reggae that evoke memories of the 1970s.

Anders Osborne’s Peace

The title track opens the album with a bang, a shimmering cymbal riding low beneath oscillating guitar drone before a doom-laden dark rhythmic groove worthy of Black Sabbath kicks in. Actually, Osborne’s fuzzy, buzzy fretwork sounds a lot like Neil Young, as do his measured vocals, which float into the song on an acoustic guitar strum. The song’s biographical lyrics are delivered rather low-key but hide a deceptive edge only hinted at by the guitar, the singer’s inner turmoil as brilliantly expressed as anything penned by such similar roots-music oriented wordsmiths as Young, John Fogerty, or Lowell George. The instrumental break is mesmerizing in its complexity, blues influences hanging over the lyrics more so than the music.

The sprawling, loose-limbed “47” is similar lyrically to “Peace,” Osborne delivering his breathless vocals over a jaunty, reckless rhythm that drives the song forward like a perpetual motion machine, but it’s with “Windows” that the guitarist fulfills his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. With a strident guitar strum and wailing vocals, Osborne blends a bluesy vibe with an exotic rock soundtrack, the confessional lyrics telling a story that mixes classical mythology with Grateful Dead references, the finality of the chorus strengthened by the haunting vibe of Jason Mingledorff’s bleating sax. Osborne’s wiry solos sting like a 90-pound wasp, rolling off his fingers with no little urgency themselves, jumping headfirst into the blustery hard rock dirge that is “Five Bullets.”

Five Bullets

Osborne’s “Five Bullets” is both the most political song he’s ever penned, as well as one of the most emotionally powerful, the music driven by a rattletrap circular riff that pounds home the seriousness of the lyrics with the subtle grace of a runaway jackhammer. Lest readers forget, hard rock was born of the blues, and there’s plenty of blues in the unseen tears cried here, albeit lost amidst the muscular arrangement and bludgeoning soundtrack. “Five Bullets” leads, seamlessly, into the chaotic intro of the mostly-instrumental “Brush Up Against Me,” an industrial cacophony grinding along, casting a shadow across odd vocals, blasts of horn, the occasional guitar lick, and who knows what else is hidden in the mix? When Osborne’s brief folkie vocals kick in against a madcap backdrop, it’s quite jarring, but then the music devolves into territory only a demented genius like Eugene Chadbourne might explore.

Just as “Five Bullets” drops wordlessly into the tone poem that is “Brush Up Against Me,” so does the latter song roll unexpectedly into the pastoral “Sentimental Times.” At a certain age, mortality creeps up on all of us and nostalgia is often used as a weapon to ward off the evil spirits, and Osborne’s “Sentimental Times” is a wistful, almost melancholy reminder of the passing years. The singer’s vocals have seldom been more expressive, his subdued guitar playing never more elegant, the song hitting the ears like a cross between early Moody Blues and 1960s-era psych-pop tunesmiths like Emmitt Rhodes or Michael Fennelly. The life-affirming defiance of “I’m Ready” matches a bluesy undercurrent (especially in Osborne’s guitarplay) with Dylanesque, word-heavy lyrics and pitch-perfect vocals whereas “My Son” is a loving ode to the next generation, a lilting, peaceful acceptance of, and nod to the future.     

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

In more ways than one, Peace is Anders Osborne’s “classic rock” album, the artist feeling, perhaps, like a man out of time. The late 1960s and early ‘70s were an era where blues music casually informed rock songwriting, with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as big an influence on young rockers as Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. There’s little here that the traditionalist would consider even remotely “bluesy” and yet blues music imbues every performance on Peace, hanging around in the corner of the studio like the ghost of a favored ancestor.

And make no mistake, the songs on Peace are haunted by a lot of ghosts, not only those of the long-dead bluesmen and women that placed Osborne on his life’s path, but also by his addictions and renewal, his triumphs and his failures. Peace puts paid to all of Osborne’s past, the album a work of staggering lyrical and musical genius that creeps into your consciousness and forces you pay attention. (Alligator Records, released October 8, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Anders Osborne’s Peace

The View On Pop Culture: Buddy Guy, The Black Keys, Bernard Allison, Kim Wilson (2003)

Buddy Guy's Blues Singer LP


These are good times for fans of the blues. Old salts like Buddy Guy and R.L. Burnside are putting out some of the best work of their lengthy careers while young pups like David Jacob-Strain and Richard Johnston are keeping the flame alive with brilliant albums of their own. Blues festivals are flourishing, classic albums from legends like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Skip James are being reissued on CD (some for the first time) and a generation of kids have been turned on to the music through blues-oriented garage rockers like the White Stripes. As any fan of the genre could tell you, though, there are many different shades of blue and every single one has its own voice…

At this point, blues guitarist Buddy Guy really has nothing left to prove. His work during the ’60s for Chess Records is considered some of the best Chicago blues recorded while his collaborations with harp player Junior Wells are the stuff of legend. Guy has three Grammy Awards on his shelf and has influenced guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yet Guy still managed to break new ground with his excellent 2001 album Sweet Tea, recorded in the Oxford, Mississippi studio of the same name. With Blues Singer (Silvertone Records), Guys furthers his considerable legacy.

A collection of traditional blues songs performed acoustically with little or no accompaniment, Blues Singer presents another facet of Guy’s talents. While some purists have criticized the album for being too contemporary sounding, pandering to a white rock audience – heck, even Eric Clapton stops by to jam – they’re really missing the point. Collaboration has long been at the root of the blues, why should it be any different now? Guy’s performances suggest that the bluesman is attempting to broaden his palette at an age when many artists are content rehashing the golden moments of their career. Blues Singer offers many stellar performances, from Guy’s chilling take on “Hard Time Killing Floor” to the deliberate, funky reading of “Black Cat Blues.” Songs by blues giants like Son House, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker all receive an acoustic reinvention on Blues Singer, the album another high point in Buddy Guy’s storied career.  

The Black Keys' Thickfreakness
The Black Keys
– the duo of guitarist Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney – bring a different perspective to the blues, drawing on fifty years of crossbreeding between the genre and rock ‘n’ roll. Heavily influenced by the Mississippi Hill Country tradition and artists like R.L. Burnside, the Black Keys are grungier than the North Mississippi All-Stars, louder than the Soledad Brothers and more soulful than any half-dozen “dirty blues” bands you care to choose. The pair’s sophomore recording, Thickfreakness (Fat Possum), picks up where their critically acclaimed debut left off, mixing bent-note blues and rocking riffs with reckless abandon.

In fact, much of Thickfreakness sounds like Auerbach and Carney have been listening to their Eric Clapton record collection, the title track and “Hard Row” especially playing like contemporary power blues a la Cream. They bring a modern garage rock sensibility to their sound, however, shooting for rawness and recording on “medium fidelity” equipment. With only a guitar, drums and vocals, the Keys craft a dense sound that is as muddy as the Mississippi River and as powerful as a thunderstorm, Auerbach adding swirling guitar leads on top of thick chords and Carney’s potent percussion attack. The result is an electrifying blues-rock brew, songs like the shambling “Have Love Will Travel” or the dark, provocative “I Cry Alone” literally jumping off the turntable, crackling with life and energy. The Black Keys delivered one of last year’s best albums in The Big Come Up and it looks like they’ve topped themselves with Thickfreakness.        

Bernard Allison's Kentucky Fried Blues
For a musician, it can be hard forging a career in the shadow of a famous father’s footsteps…just ask Big Bill Morganfield or the Dickinson brothers. As a second-generation bluesman, Bernard Allison – son of the legendary guitarslinger Luther Allison – has done just fine, thank you. The younger Allison honed his craft as a member of Koko Taylor’s touring band, joining his father’s band in the late-80s. Allison has released a number of solo albums since his European debut some fourteen years ago, including a couple of live sets, but none are as incendiary as Kentucky Fried Blues (Ruf Records), a recording of a 1999 performance at the W.C. Handy Blues Festival in Henderson, Kentucky.

His father and his father’s famous friends may have influenced Bernard Allison’s musical education, but the myriad recordings in his father’s record collection pointed the way towards his future. Chicago blues, Texas six-string blues, ‘70s-styled soul and funk all inform Allison’s playing, which is an intriguing combination of all of his influences. With Kentucky Fried Blues, Allison stretches out and explores the many facets of his musical experience, including sultry Memphis soul (Don Nix’s “Going Down”) and traditional blues (a smoking 18-minute version of Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone”). Cover’s of his father’s “Midnight Creeper” and “Bad Love” show that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Allison is a distinctive guitar stylist and a dynamic performer. Fans of real guitar blues will find a lot to like about Kentucky Fried Blues.     

Kim Wilson's Lookin' For Trouble
Kim Wilson
is best known to audiences as the frontman of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He’s kept that band rocking coast-to-coast across four decades now and it doesn’t look like the T-Birds are going to run out of steam anytime soon. That’s not to say that Wilson doesn’t like a little somethin’ different on the side, though. The harp maniac’s solo career may not be as prolific as that of his legendary blues band, but it still puts a lot of wannabe bluesmen to shame. Lookin’ For Trouble (MC Records) is just the latest in a string of musical homeruns for Wilson, a solo album so raw and edgy that youngsters like Jack White should be taking notes.  

Lookin’ For Trouble is filled with gen-u-ine roadhouse blues, Wilson capturing the sound and feel of vintage ‘50s houserockin’. Although Wilson says in the liner notes that he didn’t set out to make a “retro” sounding album, his love of traditional blues can’t help but rise to the top. With guitarist Tony Gonyea and backing from a top-notch rhythm team, Wilson kicks out fifteen red-hot rockers on Lookin’ For Trouble, scorching tunes that blow the doors out and the walls down. Whether he’s cranking his harmonica full stop on originals like “Hurt On Me” or knocking down swinging covers like Willie Dixon’s classic “Love My Baby” or Snooky Pryor’s “Tried To Ruin Me,” Wilson brings a spirit and energy to his music that is missing from much of the Top 40. A fine introduction for the novice fan, Wilson’s Lookin’ For Trouble is a perfect example of the blues done right. (View From The Hill, 2003)