1979: The Fall - Live at the Witch Trials
The history of The Fall is not that of a group of artists, but of a show business act. Mark E. Smith hasn't fired over 60 musicians because of "artistic differences" -- he's given folks the boot because they couldn't hack it, couldn't play or tour like professionals. Misanthrope, iconoclast, asshole -- whatever you want to call Smith, he's first and foremost a consummate performer, a top-flight ham. He's been able to record over 25 albums during the last three decades because he can sell the simplest of rock songs with his attitude, his vitality, his ability to entertain. A recap of The Fall's many, many lineup changes, tours, radio appearances, and releases isn't an account of Timeless Music forged through struggle, conflict, and perseverance. For all its details and events, The Fall's story is simple: Mark E. Smith continually tries and fails to find other musicians who believe equally, as he does, in sonic deconstruction and unabashed showmanship.
How else could you explain Live at the Witch Trials, The Fall's fully-formed, instant-classic debut album? Before releasing the record in early 1979, Smith had already cycled through more bandmates than most frontmen ever will, but judging from the remarkable tautness of his first LP, he hadn't been struggling to find his voice. When he began making music in his late teens, Smith already knew what he liked: The Velvet Underground's mantra-like repetition, Van Der Graaf Generator's art-rock dynamism, Camus's dim view of human nature. He needed little time to channel these influences into a unique sound; he needed a bit more time to find a group of folks who could get with his program. To this day, he still hasn't been able to do this, but for the single day The Fall spent recording Witch Trails, Smith had a band -- and a damn good one at that.
Though not as relentlessly good as Hex Enduction Hour, The Fall's first record is as good a place as any for neophytes to begin exploring the band, and it's an essential album -- especially in this expanded edition, which is replete with crucial singles -- for the already converted. Unlike most bands who arose in Britain's post-punk era, The Fall were more interested in riffs and hooks than in identity politics and the avant-garde. So their best records are the ones with the greatest number of cogent, energetic rock anthems, albums like Witch Trials.
Good tunes -- rollicking licks, spastic drum rolls, and breathless refrains colliding into one another -- is all we've got here. The Fall strip away rock's illusions of grandeur -- texturally, their early music's anemic, every instrument scraping and scrawling -- so that we can focus entirely on its combustibility, its cultural and compositional potency. No shame in show business when the show's this captivating.
1971: Gilberto Gil - Gilberto Gil
Gilberto Gil’s story is an interesting one, but not atypical of many Brazilian musicians living in the 1960s era of violence, imprisonment, intimidation, and the attempted, but unsuccessful, suppression of its country’s outspoken singers. Starting his musical career after hearing João Gilberto on the radio, Gil gained a reputation as a troubadour of some worth after penning television ads and the hit single “Louvacao” for Elis Regina. As part of the Tropicalia movement, he, along with Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, and others, turned tradition on its head and laid the foundations of modern Brazilian music (Musica Popular Brasiliera or MPB) while at the same time ruffled the feathers of the ruling government by attacking its policies and practices through song.
The dictatorship at the time had cracked down on escalating protesting and free speech and felt necessary to stop the already-dying Tropicalismo scene by arresting and imprisoning Gil and life-long friend and fellow Bahian Veloso in December 1968 in São Paulo. Feeling strong pressure to leave the country after getting released from jail, Gil decided on England as his exile destination and took to London like a fish to water, soaking up the freedom, drugs, music, and the general hyper-creative atmosphere of late 1960s post-Swinging London. Gil went on to carve himself a varied and successful musical career which continues to this day. In an exquisite turn of events, Gil represents the very same government that jailed him those many years ago, acting as Brazil’s Minster of Culture since January 2003.
Gilberto Gil was his third eponymous album (often referred to as Nêga after its opening salvo) recorded and released in 1971 during his exile in London. Despite previously toggling between a number of styles, the sound on this album is a straightforward acoustic rumination on what must have been a tumultuous time characterized by his uprooting half a world away and the sad betrayal by his own county. If this all sounds like a dour protest album is in the cards, you could not be more wrong. In “Nêga,” a more impish start to an album is not imaginable. Random “woo!”s and shout outs, silly acoustic and electric guitar fills, and rattlesnake noises in the background punctuate a song that reminisces about a relationship by looking back at the lovers’ pictures taken at the time. It is a fun song that sets the tone for the whole album and clearly states Gil’s intentions. There is so much going on that you would half-expect him to start scatting any second during the song.
The scatting does start on Gil’s take on Blind Faith’s seminal “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which goes a long way to completely erasing the memory of the behemoth classic rock monster and replaces it with a simple arrangement of a man and his guitar. Upon hearing Gil’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it is difficult not to think of Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but without an English-to-Portuguese translation of the lyrics.
The lack of English proficiency actually lends itself to an even greater appreciation of the writing and brings an unintended childlike innocence to the lyrics throughout. It contains a simplicity sadly missing from native English speakers who vainly attempt to be purposely oblique or poetic and oft-times just end up sounding ridiculous. This unplanned device is particularly charming on tracks like “Volkswagen Blues” (“My lunar Volkswagen cabin/ With no men, no dog, no bag in/ Such an idea
thrills my soul/ Breaks down my self control”), “Babylon” (“’Cause I have a silver knife/ And my lover is Satan’s wife”), and the Hendrix-like “Crazy Pop Rock” (“From the city runs electricity in my brains/ From the city runs gasoline up in my veins”). “The Three Mushrooms” is exemplary of this as well. Gil strums psychedelically and expounds on opening his mind and body to the unknown. The song descends into a series of yelps of "atomic mushroom!" before Gil makes his way
headlong into frenetic fingerpicking at the end.
The three bonus tracks tacked onto the reissued Gilberto Gil are live em concerto in London: a rendition of the aforementioned “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a great version of “Up From the Skies,” (one of Jimi Hendrix’s more bouncy songs which Gil regularly performed around the UK during his exile), and “Sgt. Peppers,” complete with a surprisingly accurate voice-trumpet break. Unfortunately my Portuguese is not up to snuff enough to understand Gil’s between-song banter, but one would guess it is as entertaining as listening to the man perform his timeless numbers.
On record or live, Gil is all about emotion. Many of the songs on Gilberto Gil are simple renditions with voice and guitar (and a little scattered accompaniment for good measure), but what sets them apart from the low-eyed clown down at your local pub playing “Maggie’s Farm” for half-pints is the way Gil sings and plays. Carefree and 100% honest and pure, you cannot listen to Gilberto Gil without picturing the afro-ed master on the front cover smiling his way through another set of peaceful tunes calling for peaceful times, and it is hard to find anything wrong with that.
* bonus live tracks on CD
2007: The Rubinoos - Everything You Wanted To Know About The Rubinoos
How convenient that this fabulously packaged three-disc Rubinoos retrospective was released just two months prior to a highly publicized plagiarism suit filed by them against shrill, incompetent teeny-bopper songwriter, alcoholic, and known terrorist conspirator Avril Lavigne, in perfect time for a little undue press.
Did shameful Canadian hack Lavigne, with malice of forethought or pure ignorance, ripoff “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by these late-'70s power-pop pioneering Berkeley boys for her equally vapid “Girlfriend” anthem? Yes, she did. She is a pop swill merchant, derivative to her soulless core, as is the nature of pop. Did the Californian candy suckin’ Rubinoos ripoff the Ramones track of the same name for the extremely minor late-'70s hit they are now suing Avril for ripping off? Probably. It’s pop we’re talking about here. Almost everything is blatantly ripped off from something else, and it’s always the same tap-dancing Botox wankers whoring it to us like greasy, handsy uncles after their third shot of JD. You know you want it. Don’t tell your mother.
Proof, it did not take a mental giant to pen “Gorilla,” with its fabulous closing line “If you want, you can learn how to swing/ I’m heavy into the jungle thing/ Give the love of a gorilla” and bestiality references throughout. You can be sure even less brain was required for these wimps to cover it. My god. Sure, there are admittedly some decent licks here and there and some credibility to be found in their brief collaboration with Todd Rundgren and their award-not-winning theme to Revenge Of The Nerds, but this bubblegum is just too sweet overall to be any good for you. The Cars own these guys every step of the way. Juicy Fruit > Hubba Bubba.
However, since much of this 63-song retrospective has been essentially out of print for years (I wonder why) and the third disc contains a previously unreleased 1978 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, it’s not hard to get caught up in the sentimentalism of it all, if you’re susceptible to that kind of thing. Plus, unlike Avril, The Rubinoos actually played instruments instead of just air guitaring to a pre-recorded tape. That’s the kind of radical thinking that allowed them to open for Elvis Costello on an Armed Forces tour. That’s gotta count for something, right? Well, maybe not, but at least they have a legitimate shot at destroying Lavigne’s career with the lawsuit, and that’s more than any critic can ask for. Here’s wishing Avril all the best in repeating the success of The Rubinoos. May they be equally remembered in 20 years.
1975: King Tubby - King Tubby Meets The Agrovators at Dub Station
Dub as studio science. This trope allows those of us who think ourselves more cultured than your typical 420-observin', Marley-lovin' bro to feel comfortable with reggae. Because we can recount a rock-crit narrative of freaked-out, zoned-in sub-bass experimentation that draws lines from Lee Perry to Kool Herc to Adrian Sherwood to The Orb to Pole to Burial, we can live with dub, claim it without shame. Jam bands (Dubconscious, anyone?) might co-opt the genre, but we know its "true" genealogy, its line of avant-garde ancestors and descendents.
Thing is, most of the 1970s LPs that Perry or Keith Hudson didn't make don't have a thing to do with aural sci-fi, Afro-futurism, or producers triumphing over musicians. When King Tubby teamed up with The Agrovators, Bunny Lee's dream-team sessions band, in 1975 to create this album, he approached the players' sizzling instrumentals not as an engineer or deconstructionist, but as another band member. From behind his storied four-track mixing desk, the producer responded agilely to the work of the musicians, his hallucinatory augmentations melding organically with splashing cymbals and popping bass strings. Tubby's contributions don't decontextualize or dehumanize this music. In fact, his production is so responsive that you'd think the entire album, drop-outs and all, was recorded in real-time.
Flesh and blood collaborations can still chart otherworldly terrain, though, and this album contains a handful of genuinely bizarre moments. "The Height of Dub" occupies a space between compositional minimalism and minimal techno: as in a free-form Terry Riley or Philip Glass piece, instruments materialize and vanish in rhythmic waves, tones converging in unpredictable patterns. Stranger still is the intro to "The Dub Station," in which an epic reed fanfare, some wiry funk guitar, and a beat-digger groove echo into the beyond; think David Axelrod's orchestral psych, but ghost-ified. Of this reissue's twelve bonus tracks, four -- "Jah Love Rockers Dub," "Six Million Dollar Version," "African World Wide Version," and "Don't Take Another Man's Life Version" -- capture Tubby at his most warped. Here, every bass note is slurred and every cymbal stroke is melted into tidal ambience.
During most songs, however, Tubby works more subtly -- a little reverb here, a little delay there, nothing more. The bulk of the album showcases The Agrovators' top-shelf musicianship. With tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook (a Jamaican pop pioneer who played in The Skatalites) and drummer Robbie Shakespeare (of Sly and Robbie fame) leading the way, the group revamps reggae hits, dips into the American pop, soul, and jazz canons, and cops lines from children's songs -- all within a taut three minutes, usually. Unlike so many filler-heavy full-lengths by chart-topping reggae singers, this outing engages from start to finish.
Trojan, a label prone to throwing together poorly packaged compilations with less than prime tracklists, made the right call when it opted to present these once-rare songs as an album. This new edition won't cement King Tubby Meets The Agrovators at Dub Station as a stone classic, but it does document dub reggae in its most exemplary form: a dynamic exchange between telepathic instrumentalists and the visionary producers who humbly allowed their mixing equipment to sing along.
1969: Rebecca & The Sunnybrook Farmers - Birth
The world just isn’t fair sometimes. Though this Pittsburgh collective (of whom no one was actually named Rebecca) scored opening slots for the Lemon Pipers, Alice Cooper, and Jethro Tull during the relevant and creative peaks of their individual careers, they found it strangely difficult to build much of a fan base outside of their native Pennsylvania. They released one album on a primarily country label – which they certainly weren’t suited for, but good on Musicor for giving them a shot anyway – then broke up a couple years later to eventually become a footnote on the Pretty Woman soundtrack. The immutable reason behind this being unfair is that the potential was obviously there for so much more, a fact made apparent to anyone lucky enough to hear the somewhat ironically titled Birth. They hit all the right buttons, musically and culturally, for their own time and place. So what gives?
“Love” explores baroque psychedelic blues under the mournful wail of Ilene Rappaport, perhaps expressing the realization at the end of 1969 that the world needed a whole lot more than just love and good intentions to change the world, while “Better Dead Than Red” rides the hot-button Cold War topics of the day through reflective soft-psych ricochets, sirens, explosions, and back, elevating the level of poignancy to boiling point. “David & Sally” even sees them take a sombre approach to character-driven storytelling, backed by one of the tastiest hooks on the album. Notable from the opener “Oh Gosh (Running Through The Forest)” is the frantic sound of Ilene (yes, two Ilenes) Novog’s violin, which is largely responsible for the folk aspect. Between the personal and politically insightful interplay of male and female sung vocals, Novog’s violin truly fills out their sound to make it their own thing, while the skill level of all involved takes the whole project to a near-epic level. As such, Birth is an incredibly intelligent and moving piece of industrial city chamber pop of which the only real negative is that it clocks in at a mere half hour.
Recorded over a week or a weekend (historically inconclusive) in New York, there was more than enough raw talent and vision to see this project live out a long life, as proven by the solo careers of the group's two Ilenes. Novog would record a couple albums with Chunky, Novi, and Ernie before pursuing a successful life as a session musician, working with the Violent Femmes and Indigo Girls along the way. Rappaport changed her name to Lauren Wood and recorded several albums as such, landing “Fallen” on the Pretty Woman soundtrack as well as singing the closing credits for the popular NBC series Just Shoot Me.
A lot of people point to the deaths of Joplin, Hendrix, or Morrison as the defining musical tragedy of the early '70s, and while they may not have the drama of wasted youth backing up their story, Rebecca & The Sunnybrook Farmers' criminal lack of exposure certainly ranks as a tragedy in its own right. Here’s hoping Fallout's reissue helps to correct that.
2007: X-Ray Spex - The Anthology: Let’s Submerge
If you ever want to attain a full understanding of the depths punk-rock has slipped into, listen to The Anthology: Let’s Submerge and then throw in an album by any number of modern mall-punks; the disparity, if it doesn’t cause you to openly weep, will at the very least hip you to something most of us Indie-genous folk have known for a long time: the wonderfully reckless abandon of late ’70s punk and early ’80s hardcore is gone, and it ain’t comin’ back.
Poly Styrene was X-Ray Spex’ lead singer, and she’s not important because she yelled “Up yours!” every few minutes at concerts or because she talks about “cliché” and “poseurs” in her lyrics – she’s a mini-legend because, like many of her peers, she didn’t give a fuck. The image pressures and marketing infrastructures that have turned punk into a Beach Party companion simply weren’t functioning at full-bore yet, at least in the underground. And so a string of rebels maintained a ‘scene’ – both in America and in the UK, where the Spex are from – so insular that even the most precocious music-industry leeches didn’t know how to go about sucking the life out of it.
Ironically, the albums recorded during this period, threadbare as they were, have become artifacts even noble lo-fi-ers can’t seem to duplicate. While modern – or, should I say, post-modern – bands have been at least marginally successful in recreating the pastoral folk of the early ’70s or the psych freak-outs of the late ’60s (not to mention that swing resurgence most of us have blocked from our memories), the emergence of a truly Punk retread, in the classic sense of the word, has yet to occur. On the surface, this discrepancy may appear to be disappointing – will the young kids ever truly know punk? – but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. Think about it: when an industry that fills its coffers by recycling the Same Old Shit can’t come up with an Nu version (or at least one anyone cares about), it’s truly a reason to celebrate.
And we do, with four-disc box sets, CBGB comps, still-running mags that can’t seem to Get Over the late ’70s (ever read Jack Rabid’s Big Takeover?), and, last but not least, disgustingly thorough anthologies that try to turn one-trick ponies like X-Ray Spex into a cerebral band through revisionist history and loads of live tracks, John Peel Sessions, demos, and alternate versions. “Whoopee,” you might sarcastically say. After all, Let’s Submerge is on a major label that wouldn’t have deigned to touch X-Ray Spex with a ten-foot A&R pole back in the day. But we’re talking about history here, so don’t sweat the semantics; just be glad these goodies aren’t long lost on old 78s like much of the folk/blues/country of the early 1900s. What’s more, none of the recordings offend. While there are several track repeats – many songs see four different versions – many of them are different enough to warrant inclusion, especially the revealing live takes.
Did I mention Styrene doesn’t give a fuck? As sax player Lora Logic’s horn bleats on unnecessarily – yet so necessarily – in the background and the guitars and bass players barely keep up, Styrene rants so hard and loud your ears will feel like they’ve been sliced, diced, and payin’ the price like Cool J’s rivals on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” To be frank, I can barely stand listening to her for extended periods of time, and this anthology – unlike, say, their only full-length, Germ Free Adolescents – isn’t blessed with brevity. (Just thank your lucky stars the 1995 reunion album Conscious Consumer isn’t included, as it would undoubtedly water down the content of this scrappy, ankle-biting affair.) Styrene’s so emphatic, in fact, that it’s no surprise she joined the Hare Krishnas soon after X-Ray Spex disbanded; after all that purging – today’s modern bulimic could learn a lot from Styrene’s puke-free method – she was probably ready to mellow out for a spell.
Best of all, she didn’t go on to form a shitty solo band. It’s better to burn out fast than to fade away where punk is concerned, and Styrene hasn’t bored us with endless attempts to replicate her golden years, save for the aforementioned reunion. This secures her legend more than her so-punk-they’re-almost-not antics – dayglo clothes, braces – and ensures that true appreciators of punk, music’s flunky, will echo her influence, whether directly or indirectly, for years to come.