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:

Friday, May 24, 2024

Archive Review: Ed Pettersen and the High Line Riders’ Somewhere South of Here (1997)

Ed Pettersen and the High Line Riders’ Somewhere South of Here
In the “style-over-substance” environment of the ’90s, songwriting has taken a back-seat in importance to image in rock ‘n’ roll. There’s still a slew of gifted wordsmiths wandering around the musical horizon – towns like L.A., Austin, and Nashville are awash in singer/songwriter types who’ll never get the time of day from the major labels. It’s just that in this day and time of marketing strategies and multi-Platinum sales expectations, the songwriter is simply not needed. Which makes it all sweeter when one runs across a talent brave enough to buck the odds like Ed Pettersen.

A true roots-rock craftsman, Pettersen still believes in the power of music to tell the story...and Somewhere South of Here is full of stories. From the modern outlaws of “Run Away” to the hopeless romantic of “What A Little Love Can Do,” Pettersen spins tales of love and loss, hope and betrayal. Collaborations with ex-Del Lord Scott Kempner are additional joys, while Pettersen’s rendition of Kempner’s “Listening To Elvis” is reverent as well as timely. You’ll find nothing fancy on Somewhere South of Here, just exceptional songwriting and tasteful, no-frills musical accompaniment.

With strains of rock, folk and country providing a solid base to work upon, Ed Pettersen and the High Line Riders have delivered a wonderfully unassuming effort with substance that will be around long after the styles have changed. (Tangible Music, 1997)

Review originally published by Thora-Zine, Austin TX

Archive Review: Tiger Army's Early Years EP (2002)

Tiger Army's Early Years EP
Tiger Army has built a solid following on the strength of a number of singles, two well-received albums, and a hell of a live show. Hewing closer to the “psychobilly” style of the Cramps than to the trendy, whitebread rockabilly rebels of the late ‘80s, Tiger Army take the sound further out on a limb than either Brian Setzer or MTV envisioned, returning punk to its rebellious late ‘50s roots with energy and imagination. The band’s Early Years EP collects a half-dozen odds-and-ends from 1996/97 and offers them on CD for the first time so that fans of the band don’t have to fork over hard coin to collect the original vinyl.

A rollicking cover of “Twenty Flight Rock” and the punkish originals “Temptation” and “Jungle Cat” are taken from the out-of-print Temptation EP while an ultra-cool cover of the Misfits’ “American Nightmare” and early demo versions of the boring “F.T.W.” and the Dick Dale-influenced “Nocturnal” round out the Early Years EP. The cranked-up, amped-up sound of Tiger Army is that of Gene Vincent on steroids or Eddie Cochran on white crosses roaring down Route 66 in a fast car with a blonde on his arm and Johnny Burnette on the radio. If you haven’t already made an investment in one or both of Tiger Army’s full-length albums, the budget-priced Early Years EP will serve as a fine introduction to the band. (Hellcat Records, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Tiger Army photo courtesy Hellcat Records
Tiger Army photo courtesy Hellcat Records


Friday, May 17, 2024

Archive Review: Discharge's Discharge (2002)

It seems like Discharge has been around forever and, in a sense, they have. One of the lesser-known and sorely overlooked of British punk’s “Class of ’77,” Discharge was one of the first outfits to blend hardcore punk and heavy metal, becoming a huge influence on American thrashers like Metallica and Anthrax in the process. This self-titled disc is the band’s first release in six years and the first recording since the original band line-up reformed in 1997.

All of this is well and good, you say, but does the music kick yer arse the way that vintage Discharge did? Every bit as much, chucko! Cal, Bones, Rainy, and Tez cook up thirteen unrelenting, uncompromising punk rock brushfires on Discharge. Bones’ axework shreds the strings like a cat toying with a mouse while Cal gargles with broken glass to achieve the proper guttural vocal tone. Lyrically, the band follows pretty much the same anarcho-leftist tact as fellow Brits Crass or Icons of Filth, backing their words with music that is as subtle as a Molotov cocktail and as potent as a lightning strike. If you want to witness the stuff that punk legends are made of, look no further than Discharge and the aural onslaught the band delivers on Discharge. Not bad for a bunch of geezers, eh? (Sanctuary Records, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Archive Review: Marah's Float Away With the Friday Night Gods (2002)

For its third album, Philly’s favorite sons Marah traveled to Wales to try and find an artistic identity that would distinguish the band from the legion of heartland heroes who have followed in the quarter-century since Springsteen made working class rock cool again. Float Away With the Friday Night Gods proves that you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy as songwriter David Bielanko uses the same brilliant urban imagery as Springsteen or Joe Grushecky, imbuing his songs with a smoldering passion.

Musically, however, Marah has turned its back on the “young soul rebels” vibe that worked so well on 2000’s Kids In Philly album. Eschewing long time studio foil Paul Smith in favor of producer Owen Morris has resulted in a messy, conflicting mix that robs the band of its soulful intimacy, replacing joyful reckless abandon with a too-bright Britpop-flavored clash of vocals, instruments and production gimmickry. If Kids In Philly served as a giant critical and creative leap forward for Marah, Float Away With the Friday Night Gods represents an artistic backsliding. It’s not that this year’s effort is all that bad an album; when compared to Marah’s previous efforts, however, it’s obvious that the band set the bar too high the last time out. (E Squared/Artemis Records, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Friday, May 10, 2024

Archive Review: Paul Krassner's Iron Lives! (2002)

Paul Krassner's Iron Lives!
During his lengthy career as a counterculture gadfly, Paul Krassner has worn many hats. The original underground publisher, Krassner founded his satirical journal The Realist in 1958, the zine mixing alternative journalism with social commentary and wild-eyed satire. Appearing sporadically over forty years, The Realist inspired and influenced several generations of writers, musicians and comedians. Along with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Krassner formed the Yippies in the ‘60s and he has had significant friendships with counterculture legends such as Lenny Bruce, Ken Kesey, and Timothy Leary. Krassner served time as the editor of Hustler magazine, has freelanced for a number of publications, authored several books and, during the past decade, has forged a career as a stand-up comedian and spoken word artist.

Irony Lives! is Krassner’s fifth collection of comedic observations, recorded early in 2002 in front of a live audience in Los Angeles. Befitting his long-standing reputation as a social commentator and general pain-in-the-ass for the powers that be, Krassner’s material is topical to the extreme. From the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks to corporate clowns like Enron, Krassner leaves no sacred cow untouched, waxing intelligently on politics, religion, the Internet, and society as he rapidly blends personal experience and personal observations into a lyrical flow. As a comedian, Krassner doesn’t have the TV-bred timing of today’s young laughmongers, his delivery falling into a conversational style influenced by ‘50s-era iconoclasts like Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl.

Krassner does possess vast insight and razor-sharp wit, however, his material relying less on the quick punchline and more on a thought-provoking intelligence and a keen eye for absurdity. Irony Lives! is a valuable collection, Krassner’s intellectual musings especially welcome in the ever-repressive times in which we live. (Artemis Records, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Archive Review: Paul Krassner's Brain Damage Control (1997)

Paul Krassner's Brain Damage Control
An American treasure, Paul Krassner is the subversive, irreverent publisher of The Realist, Yippie founder, 1960s icon, and long-standing champion of free speech. After close to half a century of intellectually tilting at windmills in the best Quixotic manner, what’s left for a madman to do? Taking a page from former pal Lenny Bruce’s playbook, Krassner has turned his satirical eye towards stand-up comedy, resulting in this second Mercury release, Brain Damage Control.

As a comedian, Krassner leans towards the 1950s-styled Bruce/Sahl school of social commentary, with bits like “Ebonics Lesson” and “Spin Doctors” taking aim at the hypocrisies of modern politics and society. Although humorous and topical, such observations are ultimately dated, losing their punch as they age. Krassner is at his best when telling stories of his illustrious past, such as with “Conspiracy Trial” and “Larry Flynt,” or while sharing the difficulties of parenthood in “Teenage Daughter.”

Brain Damage Control is a fine introduction to Krassner’s unique sense of humor for the uninitiated, perhaps leading the laughing listener to subsequently search for one of Krassner’s books or copies of The Realist. In a popular culture run amok, nobody has skewered more sacred cows than Krassner – have a hamburger and entertain yourself with some Brain Damage Control. (Mercury Records, 1997)

Review originally published by Thora-Zine, Austin TX, 1997

Friday, May 3, 2024

Archive Review: Living Colour’s Live From CBGB’s (2005)

Living Colour’s Live From CBGB’s
I remember seeing Living Colour perform during its 1989 tour in support of the band’s debut album. I had seen the band once before, prior to the release of Vivid in 1988, but this 1989 show at the infamous Exit/In club in Nashville would become the stuff of legend. Since I had met them once before and had interviewed both the band’s extraordinary guitarist Vernon Reid and excellent drummer Will Calhoun, my friend Mark S. and myself hung out with the band backstage after the show. Reid and I discussed music; cyberpunk sci-fi writers like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The band members were genuinely friendly, intelligent, talented and obviously on their way “up” in the music world…and they put on a hell of a live show.

Living Colour’s Live From CBGB’s

By the time Living Colour would play Nashville again the band would blow up big-time. Vivid would go platinum, selling over a million copies – quite an accomplishment for an African-American hard rock band that every record label in the world passed on. The band was all over MTV at the time with its video for the raging “Cult of Personality” and would subsequently walk off with a pair of Grammy™ awards. The release of Time’s Up in 1990 along with a couple of high profile tours would solidify the band’s superstars-in-the-making status. Unfortunately, the band’s commercial fortunes would quickly diminish and, with only three albums under their collective belts, Living Colour became one of the casualties of grunge and the Seattle scene. The band would break up not long after the 1993 release of Stain.

If any live recording could capture the band’s onstage energy and chemistry, they would have been even bigger stars than they already were. Sadly, the band never released a live album during its initial run, something that might have revived its prospects and found Living Colour a wider audience. Although Live From CBGB’s comes along about a decade-and-a-half too late, it’s definitely a case of “better late than never” for Living Colour fans who have been living with seedy bootleg tapes of live performances for 15 years. This particular show, a homecoming of sorts for the band, was captured live at the legendary CBGB’s in the Bowery in New York City in December 1989, between the releases of Vivid and Time’s Up.

Cult of Personality

From the album’s tracklist and relatively brief hour-long running time, I’m guessing that Live From CBGB’s doesn’t include the band’s entire performance from that night. There are only four songs featured here from Vivid, including the set-opening “Cult of Personality” and the somber “Open Letter To A Landlord.” Almost half of the live album features songs from the yet-to-be-released-at-the-time Time’s Up, the band obviously showcasing songs from its upcoming album. Two new cuts make their debut here while the band’s relentless cover of Bad Brain’s “Sailin’ On” is a hard-to-find obscurity.

Although a lengthier performance might have made for a hardcore two-CD set, Sony chose to release this version so we have to live with it, which isn’t too difficult. The band is red-hot throughout these songs, Reid’s six-string pyrotechnics tearing through the smoke and heat of the club while frontman Corey Glover’s powerful vocals punch through the darkness with fire and passion. Some of the band’s best songs are represented here, from “Information Overload” and “Cult of Personality” to “Funny Vibe” and “Love Rears Its Ugly Head.” Of the two previously unreleased tracks, “Soldier’s Blues” offers some tasty guitar shuffles, Hendrix-inspired riffing and Calhoun’s jazzy drumbeats while “Little Lies,” a tortured ballad spotlighting Glover’s vocals, sounds out of place until it kicks into overdrive.

Overall, the band’s performance on Live from CBGB’s is simply explosive. Reid’s incendiary guitarwork, informed by his avant-garde jazz training, still sounds groundbreaking today; nobody currently playing can match the underrated Reid’s style and innovation. Glover was a soulful vocalist of some range and heart while the rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Calhoun were one of the finest in rock at the time, providing a solid bedrock for the dueling frontmen.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Unfortunately, no matter how good it is, Live From CBGB’s is unlikely to draw new listeners to the phenomenal, hard rocking Living Colour sound. If this set had been released in 1991 or so, perhaps its impact would have provided the band with a stepping stone to greater things. In 2005, however, with Living Colour considered yesterday’s news by young audiences, a “classic rock” band at best, Live From CBGB’s will appeal mostly to existing fans. Young music lovers wanting to know what all the hype was about could do worse than checking out Living Colour live. (Sony Legacy Records, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Also on That Devil Music: Living Colour’s Vivid CD review

Archive Review: Nivana '69's Cult (2012)

Nirvana '69's Cult
Way back, in the pre-grunge mists of Merry Ole England, there was a band called Nirvana. No, not that Nirvana – years before Kurt Cobain was born, and while he was still in diapers, this British outfit was wowing critics with a unique musical vision that mixed folk-influenced rock ‘n’ roll with elements of psychedelic pop, jazz, classical, and even baroque chamber music. Comprised of Irish musician Patrick Campbell-Lyons and Greek composer Alex Spyropoulos, Nirvana turned quite a few heads, wowed a handful of British music critics, and sold a bucketload of records – literally, however many records could fit into a large-sized bucket. Yeah, that few...

The buzz around Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos caused Island Records founder Chris Blackwell to sign the pair, and with a bevy of professional studio musicians and a small orchestra, Nirvana recorded 1967’s The Story of Simon Simopath, what is widely considered to be the first bona fide “concept album,” the odd couple beating such world-renown acts as the Who, the Kinks, and the Pretty Things to the punch. Although the band’s music was exceptionally difficult to perform live, Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos pieced together a touring band nonetheless, opening for bands like Traffic and Spooky Tooth, resulting in a subsequent minor U.K. hit single in “Rainbow Chaser.”

Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos would record two more albums together, 1968’s All of Us, which was similar in sound and scope to their debut, and Black Flower, an allegedly difficult recording which Blackwell refused to release. That problematic third Nirvana album finally saw limited release in 1970, but by 1971 the pairing had run its course, with Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos splitting amicably. Campbell-Lyons would release two more albums under the Nirvana name before launching a solo career that fizzled out in the mid-1980s, when he reunited with Spyropoulos and re-launched Nirvana, the pair making new music well into the 1990s.     

Imagine young Master Cobain’s surprise when Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos filed a lawsuit against him and Geffen Records in 1992 for the appropriation of their band’s name. A rumored large cash pay-off allowed Cobain’s crew to continue using the Nirvana name, while Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos kept on trucking, virtually unknown in the United States, but evidently keeping a sense of humor about the whole affair, even recording a version of Cobain’s “Lithium” at one point.

By the time of the Seattle Nirvana’s commercial ascent to the peaks of stardom, the British Nirvana’s first two original albums had become a sort of Holy Grail of 1960s psych-rock collectors, fetching handsome prices on eBay and elsewhere, leading to a rash of CD reissues, some legitimate and some questionable, that only spread the band’s myth even further. Since many of these CD reissues of Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath and All of Us were import discs, the band still remains a bit of an obscurity here in the U.S., notable mostly to the sort of hardcore collector type that will spend hours digging through crates to find that one album by Gandalf, the Millennium, the Left Banke, or Kaleidoscope to add to their teetering stacks o’ wax. Credited to Nirvana ‘69, Cult is a long-overdue CD compilation of early material from the British Nirvana, offered on these shores for what may be the first time.

Enquiring minds want to know, does this 1960s-era Nirvana live up to the hype spread around by the collectors’ community for the past three decades? Well, the short answer is, yes and no. Only the simple-minded and/or clueless would really believe that Nirvana ‘69 sounds anything like Cobain’s world-beating trio, so those of you expecting some sort of earth-shaking, proto-grunge cheap thrills can dash off to Pitchfork and see what new band you’re supposed to download this week. As for the rest of you, throw out any preconceived ideas you may have about psych-pop, British folk-rock, or any of that because, the truth is, Nirvana sounds both like nothing you’ve ever heard before and, curiously, like a lot of what you already love. If you’re a fan of such 1960s-era fellow travelers as the Zombies, Love, or the Left Banke, you’ll probably dig Cult nearly as much as any album by those folks.

To say that Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos had a grandiose musical vision is to put it mildly, and as shown by the nearly two-dozen tracks collected on Cult, the only limitations on the pair’s immense musical ambition seemed to be the restrictions of the studio itself. Cult includes seven of the ten tracks from The Story of Simon Simopath and nine of twelve from All of Us (the album’s actual title is too long for even me to recount here), as well as a handful of single B-sides, and even a new song in “Our Love Is the Sea.” While the bulk of Cult is pleasant enough psychedelic pop – a mind-bending musical garden that the Reverend only walks through a couple times a year – there are rare flashes of brilliance here that certainly justify the band’s legend.

Island Records definitely missed the boat by only issuing a pair of singles from the first Nirvana album, as I count four red-hot slabs from The Story of Simon Simopath that had a puncher’s chance to hit the U.K. charts hard circa 1967. In an era where singles were the currency of commercial pop music, it was almost malpractice to throw only one single into the marketplace. The band’s album-opening “Wings of Love” is a wistful little romantic number chock-full of poetic imagery, sweeping orchestration, a lovely melody, and odd little instrumental rumblings here and there which raise it about your normal “Summer of Love” fare. “Lonely Boy” would have made another rad single, the melancholy vocals clad in baroque-pop trappings with a dash of background harmonies, and an overall whimsical vibe.

“Satellite Jockey” is simply brilliant, reminding of both the Kinks and the Move, but pre-dating the Electric Light Orchestra with a complex pop melody welded to a classical construct. The album’s actual single, “Pentacost Hotel,” is a charming, elfish song with the sort of soft/loud dynamic that Cobain would later use to sell millions of records. This Nirvana slaps cascading instrumentation and orchestral finery onto a psych-pop framework with great results. The band’s only charting single, 1968’s “Rainbow Chaser,” would later be included on their sophomore album, and while it shows slight artistic growth over the aforementioned material from their debut, it doesn’t stray far from the classical-pop hybrid blueprint they used on that album. With swirls of orchestral instrumentation, the melody here is somewhat more syncopated, with wan vocals lost amidst the washes of violin and cacophonic percussion.

Curiously enough, “Tiny Goddess” was actually the band’s first single, but wasn’t included on the first album. I’m not sure why, because the song’ s ethereal arrangement, thundering percussion, flowery lyrics and vocals, and dazzling instrumentation fit like a glove with that album. Perhaps with a stronger melody “Tiny Goddess” might have delivered the band’s first hit. There are a couple of other high points from All of Us included on Cult, including the up-tempo “Girl In the Park,” a spry pastiche of late 1960s pop/rock and sunshine pop that hides its symphonic foundation beneath lively vocals and a strong melodic hook. “The St. Johns Wood Affair” is a catchy little number that blends jazzy flourishes with an unusual arrangement, sparse instrumentation, and a few surprising musical twists and turns before it’s all over.

Of the B-sides, etc to be found on Cult, they don’t detour much from the material from the main albums, although both “Life Ain’t Easy” and “Darling Darlane” both stand out, the former a hauntingly beautiful ballad with a lush orchestral background and melancholy vocals, the latter a mid-tempo romantic pop song that melds scraps of 1950s-era rock (think Gene Pitney) with a 1960s psychedelic sensibility (more like the Bee Gees than the Beatles). As for the “bonus tracks” on Cult, “Requiem for John Coltrane” is an unexpected outlier, mixing lonesome jazzy hornplay with odd noises and overall sonic chaos unlike anything the band had previously recorded. “Our Love Is the Sea” presents the 2012 version of Nirvana; benefiting from modern production and improved studio tools, the song builds upon the band’s 1960s legacy to deliver a fantastic bit of musical whimsy.    

The British Nirvana never found the fame and fortune that their later stateside namesakes did, but they were nonetheless influential far beyond their meager commercial returns would suggest. The making of the band’s first two albums involved a number of talents that would benefit from the experience of working with Campbell-Lyons and Spyropoulos to go on to bigger and better things. This list includes producers Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Marc Bolan); Jimmy Miller (The Rolling Stones); and Guy Stevens (Mott the Hoople, The Clash) as well as studio engineer Brian Humphries (Traffic, Pink Floyd) and musicians like Billy Bremner (Rockpile).

All in all, if you’re a fan of 1960s-era psychedelic pop, you’re going to love Nirvana, and Cult is a fine introduction to, if not a substitute for, the band’s near-mythical original albums. (Global Recording Artists 2012)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012