1977: David Bowie - “Heroes”
Once upon a time, David Bowie moved to Berlin, snorted epic amounts of cocaine, and recorded some killer tunes. So killer, in fact, that what has come to be know as the “Berlin trilogy” – Low, Heroes, and Lodger – have been universally recognized as some of the most groundbreaking and influential pop music ever recorded by a strung out ninety-pound drug addict (though John Frusciante certainly gave him a run for his money). But in all seriousness, these albums kick ass like few have before or after and have managed to sound fresh to this day, a feat not much electronic based pop from the 70s has been able to pull off – I’m looking at you Styx. Though Low is easily the best album of the three, the high-point of the trilogy is the track “Heroes” from the album of the same name.
The thing that sets “Heroes” apart from three albums worth of brilliant electro-pop is the stellar live performances from Robert Fripp and David Bowie. Fripp conjures some downright strange but shimmeringly pretty sounds from his guitar, tapping into the style of violin-like sustain long before it was popular and doing it better than almost every imitator that followed. Bowie’s vocal is a masterclass in angsty longing, using three mics staggered 9 inches, 20 feet, and 50 feet away to capture the pure anguish in his voice. When he finally opens up on the third verse, he radiates pain in a way few singers have ever managed. Thank God for cocaine and the Thin White Duke.
1998: Ted Hawkins - The Ted Hawkins Story: Suffer No More
“Good morning my darling, I’m telling you this/ to let you know that I’m sorry you’re sick/ no, tears of sorrow won’t do you no good/ I’d be your doctor if only I could/ What do you want from the liquor store?/ Something sour or something sweet/ I’d buy you all that your belly can hold/ You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.”
So goes the opening of Ted Hawkins’ “Sorry You’re Sick” and the inspiration for a 1998 greatest hits CD, one of many Ted Hawkins retrospectives. He’s an immensely talented bluesy soul singer who simply slipped through the cracks of widespread mainstream success. Somewhere between Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, the booming voice snugly fits into a long tradition of singers who seem capable of stopping time.
What little we know about Ted Hawkins’ history: he was born into a difficult life in Mississippi and was sent to reform school at 12. After that, the personal mythology starts – with tales of Hawkins drifting in and out of prison/various American cities and eventually (in the late 60s) hitchhiking to California to make a career as a musician. He accrued fans playing on a milk crate at the boardwalk in Venice Beach, gaining the attention of record producer Bruce Bromberg in the early 70s. But drug problems and another jail stint prevented him from recording his debut album, Watch Your Step, until 1982. The album gained impressive critical acclaim but little commercial success. Three years passed (with no knowledge of Hawkins’ whereabouts) until he recorded his next album, Happy Hour, with Bromberg, which managed to gain the attention of European fans. The famed British broadcaster Andy Kershaw invited him to Europe where Hawkins’ brought his milk crate songs to packed venues. However, when he moved back to the U.S. in the 1990s, he returned to street performing – until Geffen producer Tony Berg convinced him to record his songs with professional musicians. The subsequent album would gain him the U.S. fame that he had never been able to accumulate in the 20 years prior, but Hawkins would pass away months after the album was released.
It’s a remarkable story. As for the music itself, it’s a crudely wonderful mix of gospel, country, blues, and soul music. Hawkins plays in an open tuning, reportedly distinguishing between happy and sad chords. The 1998 collection boasts many great songs (“Watch Your Step,” “The Good and the Bad,” “The Lost Ones,” “Happy Hour”) but the real fun is tracking down the bootlegs and cover renditions that Hawkins’ recorded into relative obscurity throughout the years. There’s a beautiful image I have of him sitting on a milk crate at the Venice Beach boardwalk belting out songs for those passing by – the Temptations “Just My Imagination,” John Denver’s “Country Road,” Sam Cooke’s “Bring it On Home to Me,” and (my personal favorite) Charley Pride’s “All I Have to Offer You is Me.” If you’ve read the 2007 Pulitzer-winning article about renowned violinist Joshua Bell conducting a street performance experiment, it does make you wonder what it takes for people to truly recognize musical brilliance – even if it’s just sitting right in front of them on a milk crate.
2002: 90 Day Men - To Everybody
I don’t know many people that like To Everybody. Admittedly, 90 Day Men aren’t exactly a band that comes up in conversation all that often nowadays (well, maybe as an aside when discussing front man Brian Case’s current band Disappears), but of the people I know that were aware of them, most fall into one of two camps: either they like the band’s earlier “Fugazi and Slint go to University together” material, or the full-blown arty prog-psych of Panda Park. I vastly prefer the former, but I admire how each of the band’s records sound distinct, demonstrating the Chicago-via-St. Louis group’s artistic tenacity in continually pushing themselves forward. That said, I think Panda Park, with precious few moments aside, is a turgid mess of a record, losing much of what makes its comparatively overlooked predecessor, To Everybody, such an intriguing album to revisit.
To briefly contextualize, To Everybody signals a turning point in 90 Day Men’s discography. The band’s previous record, (It (Is) It) Critical Band, was more or less the summation of where they could take their contemptuously self-aware (I mean, look at the album’s title!) math-rock at the time. Not content to stagnate or make the same record again, the time following Critical Band saw them foregrounding keyboardist Andy Lansangan and making To Everybody, a piano-laced collection of lengthy, often-grandiose art rock songs. No wonder the red flags of suspicion popped up.
It would be easy to designate To Everybody as a transitional record, having been released between the vastly different Panda Park and Critical Band, but the more I listen, the more this feels inaccurate. There are elements of transition, to be sure, but To Everybody is more concerned with exploration, like a riskier version of what Fugazi did with The Argument – that is, to make a dynamic, challenging record that demonstrates a band’s strengths while also making an assured journey into unexplored territory. The key difference here is that 90 Day Men also shifted instrumental focus – Lansangan’s keys are all over To Everybody and, combined with the album’s density and prog-leanings, it initially feels alienating. Furthermore, there’s a sense of detachment here, as To Everybody makes relatively few concessions to reveal itself to an impatient listener; however meandering it may feel at points, this is a record that can’t be gently absorbed in passivity.
For me, the best parts of To Everybody are when the band will latch onto a groove and utterly refuse to let go. Take “St. Theresa in Ecstasy,” a track anchored by Robert Lowe’s fluid bass pulse set alongside blossoming piano keys and a steadfast, deceptively intricate drum pattern. Throughout the song’s last half, there are moments where it feels like drummer Cayce Key is battling to keep the enveloping swirl of instrumentation neatly contained and flowing, with errant fills resetting the track’s shifting sense of timing. This last half of “St. Theresa” is the most lucid, well-sustained segment on the record, and I could listen to it for hours.
To Everybody was an ambitious album, and while I don’t think it fully succeeds (the second half has some questionable moments), I find its ability to remain polarizing and unique ten years after its release commendable. I may listen to Critical Band more often, but To Everybody is the more interesting and distinctively artistic record, despite its inconsistencies and comparatively neglected spot in the band’s discography. If someone tries to tell you that Panda Park is the best 90 Day Men record, I’d wager they haven’t listened to this one since it came out.
On the surface, Necros are a generic band. All their songs are made from a template used countless times before by predecessors and contemporaries. They have the slow song, the noisy chaotic song, the mid-tempo rocker with floor tom action, and track after track of double beat “too-pah” thrash to inspire mosh pits the world over. These miscreants from Maumee, Ohio were quintessential 80s hardcore.
Yes, many others were breaking things up and doing something different during the Reagan/Thatcher era, but Necros had that IT factor that makes a great punk band. Their music is unadorned and monolithic without being monotonous, they had the passion and the “don’t give a fuck” attitude of getting hurt and getting their instruments out of tune to make it feel like a beatdown on your nervous system; in other words, all you needed in life. They got blood flowing without being original, like folk music (to indulge a tired simile), using the same forms and rules but finding a way to sound all their own.
The other factor that makes Necros good is that, consciously or not, they used the low quality of recording technology available for them at the time to work in their favor. Like the EP version of “Police Brutality,” the guitar sounds massive, like nothing else before or since, which makes us lucky that they weren’t millionaires with a major record label paying a large recording studio.
They might have been following footsteps, but, like all the great hardcore bands, the Necros managed to sound like no one while trying what everybody else was doing.
1996: Scheer - “Shea”
Resurrecting Scheer for this post makes me feel a little guilty for exploiting another casual acquaintance from my musical past. But is this elitist discomfort with exposing ‘secret’ music fetishes? Or is it the suspicion that the teenage bands are best left alone? By the time I’ve finished posing the intriguing questions that have ideally hooked the reader and brainstormed the substance of this Delorean post, the opening drums and squalling guitars of “Shea” make it clear why I still listen to this song for kicks and want to share some of the energy with the rest of the world.
The fact is, if you like your guitars as chunky as snicker-bars and your female rock vocalists on the wispy side of Joan Jett, this is a serviceable rock ‘n’ roll for you. Equilibrium doesn’t have to be a strange concept for loud music when it’s harnessed to a sturdy set of players like the members of Scheer. The presence of two guitarists doing their utmost doesn’t seem to have put off the drummer, who works harder than ever to integrate all those not quite there yet post-rock rhythms. The rolling breakers of chords in “Shea’’’s first few seconds represent the best that Scheer can offer: powerful and hypnotic but still going somewhere (in only 2 minutes, 22 seconds).
On the album that “Shea” opens (called Infliction – surely an angsty title if ever there was one), there were some Emo moments, but reportedly Scheer were just a great live band who convinced anyone who saw them play to take a second look. They were only a few innovations removed from early 90s Shoegaze bands like Lush and Slowdive, and they moved between heavily produced spiky pop hardcore and that full dreamy sound. They may have been meat and potatoes average in their song-writing ambitions, but the impact of the odd storming song is a tribute to the sounds that 90s folk were immersed in and obsessed with. Though I wasn’t there the first time round, I still return to 60s garage bands for a similar energetic fix that feels oddly like nostalgia. In fact it’s a collective nostalgia for the miraculous moments when rich, deep sounds came tumbling out of people’s instruments by chance, eventually defining the sounds of an era. It’s as if we all know what that felt like, and could happily leave it on repeat – plugged into the flow of something new. Audrey Gallagher of Scheer is now doing vocals on top of dance tracks that sound like Ibiza compilation picks. Apparently Eurodance is back in the clubs. Everything comes in cycles – even the things you don’t want to hear twice.
1990s: Man Or Astro-Man?
It was summer and we had just sat down at the perfect bar. Right in the middle of Chicago next to not-much-else sits this odd little place. Now I’m talking real little. The Matchbox truly earned its name with such a thin, slender construction. There’s three feet of space behind the bar, and three and one-half at best in the front, and the whole place narrows to the point that if you fell back from your stool (maybe after one too many of their signature ginger infused gimlets) the wall would catch you before you fell. There’s not much food aside from the Slim Jims they sell, but they pour a generous single malt, so who’s gonna complain. Sitting there soaking in this bizarre scene I suddenly became aware of something truly alien.
Surf-rock. They were playing surf-rock, but unlike any I’d ever heard before. It was surf-rock in space. The perfect soundtrack to some 50s B-movie about teen robots falling in love at an irradiated beach party; coming to you from director Roger Corman. Oh dear God there were theremins! It was instrumental aside from the occasional sample of 50s sci-fi dialogue; snippets from trash like It Conquered the World were peppered throughout these nostalgically futuristic rock songs. The only similar band I could connect it to stylistically was Brainiac (that most sacred of bands for me) and no amount of 50s kitsch could hide that this sounded like classic Touch & Go.
The bartender came over to me and my girlfriend asking if we needed anything else.
“I have to ask, what have we been listening to?” I said.
“Man or Astro-Man,” he said, smiling a little.
“That’s the name?” I asked.
“That’s the name,” he said.
I immediately looked them up and read some facts I already expected. They were in fact a Touch & Go band in the 90s produced by Steve Albini; however there were little things that made me realize how close this band was to me for years without my knowledge. They did such memorable theme songs as Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Jimmy Neutron. Furthermore they were memorably named dropped on Mystery Science Theater 3000, easily the biggest non-musical influence on these guys in addition to being a show that I would put my appreciation for on the scale of religious fanaticism. They were the band that main character Joel Robinson said he toured with as a pyrotechnics guy after his escape from the B-movie filled prison in space during season five. If that’s not rock music immortality then I just don’t know what is anymore.