2007: Joe Meek - Vampire, Cowboys, Spacemen, & Spooks
Think that crack-afro sporting, B-movie actress murderer Phil Spector is crazy? Yeah, I suppose he is, but Joe Meek has him beat across the board. He was a maverick pioneer of independent music, invented way more shit in the studio, and quite probably killed more people than old Phil. After you hear his story though, you’ll know he earned it the whole way. Why a major motion picture has yet to be made about him is beyond me. [Editor's note: A play about Joe Meek entitled Telstar: The Joe Meek Story ran in London’s West End in 2005.]
Born under the star Robert George Meek in 1929, Joe’s life long love (and hate) affair with music began when a brief stint in the Royal Air Force as a radio operator peaked his interest in outer space and the limitless possibilities of electronic sound. In his early twenties, he got a job with the Midlands Electric Board, which allowed him to gather up and begin creating gear, including a disc cutter. From there, he found work as a sound engineer for independent studios and started to make his name in the business, both as an innovative genius and as someone difficult to work with. Being forced out of a lucrative Landsdowne partnership by one Denis Preston would turn out to be something of a blessing in disguise.
In early 1960, Meek co-founded Triumph Records and disappointingly produced his first top 10 single, “Angela Jones” by Michael Cox. The disappointment here is based on the fact that it may have been a number one if the mom & pop pressing plants of the day – to which his self-supported label was completely dependant upon – could have kept ahead of demand. That year, Meek arguably created the first concept album as the guiding force behind the “Outer Space A Music Fantasy” theme for Rod Freeman & the Blue Men’s I Hear a New World, which was also remarkably ahead of its time in regards to its use of homemade electronic sound. Triumph did not last long as a label, but important lessons had been learned and new ground was constantly being broken.
It was around the time of Triumph’s fizzling when Joe figured out that, since he didn’t have the muscle to commercially back a hit, he could find far easier success by signing artists himself then merely leasing their material to major labels for a tidy profit. This shift was convenient since his next and by far most successful enterprise was to build a home studio above a leather-goods store and become more independent than ever while proving himself capable of scoring several UK number one hits. Hell, he basically kicked off the British Invasion by producing the Tornadoes’ “Telstar,” which was the first British record to hit the top of the US Hot 100, winning an Ivor Novello Award in the process. However, by the time The Beatles started experimenting with psychedelics, the hits started drying up. Meek’s unique flavor of Saturday morning Cowboys & Injuns cartoon rock was starting to be viewed as camp by a maturing generation that demanded a socio-political consciousness more relevant to their lives.
Times were changing and he fell into a cycle of drugs, paranoia (believing Decca had microphones in his studio’s wallpaper to steal ideas), rage, depression, and obsession with paranormal and occult activities. He believed his hero, Buddy Holly, and others who broke on through to the other side were trying to contact him from beyond the grave; he would record graveyards to try and hear the dead, but instead got a talking cat meowing for help. Having been brought up on charges of homosexuality earlier in the '60s – just being gay was illegal back then – which meant the pigs had free reign to pester and blackmail him, while his finances scattered to the wind under frail legal structures (he was unable to earn any royalties from “Telstar” in his lifetime due to an ultimately failed plagiarism suit). In January of ’67, the body of a former associate of Meek was discovered in a suitcase, leaving the police to declare they’d be brutally interrogating all known homosexuals in the UK. With no foreseeable good news on the horizon, Joe shot his landlady and himself with a single-barrel shotgun borrowed from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt on February 3rd, exactly eight years to the day after Buddy Holly went down with Richie Valens in his lap.
During the 245 singles (of which 45 cracked the top 50) and assorted albums he’d put his distinctive stamp on, he basically created the modern methods of compression, echo, reverb, sampling, multiple overdubbing on a two track, and the seemingly obvious process of recording individual pieces of a song separately, then arranging them together into a single composition. This was actually a big step forward from just putting a mic in the middle of a jam and hoping for the best, as was the fashion for the first half century of recording when they had to record directly onto vinyl in one live take.
Vampire, Cowboys, Spacemen, & Spooks is one of a few Meek compilations being released at once, though this one focuses specifically on his purely emotive instrumental work. Joe had very particular views concerning the use of the human voice as a musical instrument. After all, this is the man who walked into a Rod Stewart recording session screaming with his fingers knuckle deep in his ears until Rod stopped singing and left, while refusing to work with the Beatles (whom he considered “just a bunch of noise”), David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Aldous Huxley said, “after silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music” and I’m sure Meek would agree. His thematic subject matter certainly clung to the realms of the ineffable, and that sphere is given supreme definition here with some 60 tracks on two CDs.
Many of his most renowned hits are here, including a rare studio mix of the previously mentioned “Telstar” and other Tornados rarities, but the focus of this collection is on creating a whole picture of the man. Half a dozen previously unreleased tracks have now fulfilled their destiny, such as the sweetly sorrowful “Moon Rocket” by Roger Lavern & The Microns – which samples a take off before smoothing out on a rollicking, adventurous beat with a disembodied piano keeping the timing out front – as well as a raucous Animals blues version of “Besame Mucho” by Dave Roland. The lone vocal track (not counting the odd “doo-doo-doo ooooh-aaaah” chorus and the forgettable Dauphine Street Six number “Shenandoah”) shows Meek’s vision of complimentary vocals with his self-titled orchestra’s “Cry My Heart,” where at least a three-part harmony hammers home a bleak tale of love lost, but that’s a real rarity here. The emphasis is on ideas and themes, not mere words. Tracks like The Thunderbolts’ “Lost Planet” and the Moontrekkers’ “Night of the Vampire” presuppose electronica, hip-hop and their future fusions with rock in and of themselves alone, and covers like the aforementioned “Besame Mucho” and The Saints’ version of “Wipeout” always add something vital and refreshing.
Granted, all 60 cuts can’t be winners, but the collection paints a clear picture of a tragically undervalued genius. Being mostly without words, there’s not much obstructing our emotional impression of the man and his many achievements in the early-to-mid '60s. He’s the reason why these recording have aged so well and, what’s more, provide an essential link in the chain for any music fan with an interest in history. Everything in the charts today owes this man a reach-around.
1994: Kurious Jorge - A Constipated Monkey
Amalgam Digital is one of the most exciting projects to come along in hip-hop since the MPC2000. I mean, there’s just so much music coming out every week, and there has been for decades, so it’s tragically easy to fall through the cracks unless it all goes perfectly. Following their well-noted success in resurrecting the obviously still-viable careers of The Jugganots and Smiley Da Ghetto Child, they’ve now turned their Lazarus glare unto New York’s Jorge Alvarez. Looks like another sure winner, as far as I’m concerned.
This plucky Puerto Rican/Cuban Latino burst onto the scene way back in 1994 with his Sony debut. Despite featuring the same vein of quirky samples and, with the exception of some mild but standard homophobia, socially uplifting words that simultaneously worked wonders for Fu-Schnickens, A Constipated Monkey was released a couple years too late, and a pop world gathering interest in mean-spirited, joyless gangsta rap allowed sales to quickly stagnate. Consequently, Kurious Jorge got the boot from Sony, walking entirely away from the bidnezz shortly thereafter.
Snap to 2007, and Amalgam has an action plan on the go. With a two-album deal in his pocket and the blazing hot MF DOOM in the studio (Jorge was featured on DOOM's Operation: Doomsday), Kurious Jorge is set to make his sophomore record over a decade after his premiere. Just to remind you about the quality of character in store for that release, we are now treated to a well-deserved reissue of A Constipated Monkey, his under-appreciated debut.
For those who can remember 1994, all the beats on this album are of the exact flavor you loved to roll with. Over time, styles may have changed to a more synthetic sound, but they never really improved upon the old boom-bap, especially when you’ve got some crazy, canned soul horn samples on that shit. Hieroglyphics’ Casual and the notorious MF Grimm’s appearance on “Baby Bust It” is an aural anomaly and clear highlight, with some Asian strings, a moaning funk bassline, and a gettin’-jiggy-with-it chorus, oozing a blunted haze through any stuffy atmosphere. Pete Nice, DJ Lord Sear, and The Beatnuts also stamp their incredible sounds and personalities onto the product. Is that a Go! Team sample I hear on “Nicole”? 5th Dimension? Oh, no, they di’n’t! Break yo’ self, fools: this is a necessary reminder of rap’s Golden Age.
2007: Fire Engines - Hungry Beat
Like the early-'90s grunge scene in Seattle and late-'60s acid wave in San Francisco, there was a moment in early-'80s Scotland that burned bright and hot for a brief period of time, but left an enduring impression on the music landscape. Along side Orange Juice and Josef K, Fire Engines manufactured a fair-sized chunk of the first post-punk movement. Named after a 13th Floor Elevators track, these Edinburgh slackers managed to produce three singles and a mini LP over their roughly 18-month history, much of which has sadly been out of print since the '90s. Acute Records to the rescue, then.
Acute has gathered up all their old material for this special and definitive Hungry Beat compilation, along with a 16-page booklet featuring notes from their original label boss, Bob Last (who also discovered Human League and Gang Of Four), with the aim of proving just how deep their influence goes. All those Hot Hot Heat and Rapture types owe these guys a pack of smokes, as their lo-fi barrage of angular but funky punky orchestrations walked the dirty-cool walk that The Strokes would have attempted, if trying didn’t compromise their precious hipster status. Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream even says on the cover promo sticker that neither his band nor Jesus & The Mary Chain would exist if it weren’t for these guys. Franz Ferdinand also accepts this, having brought them out of retirement a couple years ago for an X-mas gig and a split seven-inch, while always listing them as an influence whenever asked.
Even without the vivid historical context, Hungry Beat is still quite viable on its own. Sure, it sounds like it was recorded with a shotgun mic in an airplane hanger, but the inimitable swagger this haggard quartet conveyed struts all over this record. Their personal Velvet Underground and Fall influence would see them being less immediately accessible than their Scot peers, yet their demeanor and interplay tells me they could give less than a toss what anyone thinks. Though technically thin in the translation, these guys rocked as hard as anyone ever has or will. The seven-minute-long, mostly instrumental rambler “Discord” was more than enough proof of that, and “Big Gold Dream” took care of the impending dance-punk movement. Fire Engines' legacy is evident of itself. Don’t forget where you came from, and give credit where it’s due. The buck started here.
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.
2007: The Michael Garrick Trio - Moonscape
Jonny Trunk is a weird guy, or at least his tastes suggest a collector for the truly exotic. One look at his label’s web site, Trunk Records, and your snooping boss at work might fire you for looking at pornography on company time. He has an affinity to reissue soundtracks, particularly oddball jazz and porno flicks. Just in the last year, Trunk also put out the last record by the late free-jazz composer (and mostly unknown) Basil Kirchen, a compilation of British ad jingles, and a collection of folk oddities.
A crate digger in the most literal sense of the term, it’s easy to imagine him as the greasy dude that brought his own kneepads to the record fair to flick through vinyl with maximum comfort.
As the story goes, an LP by jazz pianist Michael Garrick caught Jonny Trunk’s eye one day in a London record shop and he found himself obsessed. The one record he could not find, however, was the Moonscape 10”, maddeningly pressed to a scant 99 copies in 1964. When he finally found a copy in 2003 (humorously given away by a friend of the man who originally pressed the record because he didn’t like jazz), it was shockingly unplayed and immediately digitally archived.
43 years later, we finally get to hear this stunning album in all its 22 minutes of obscure glory. Ah, yes, Moonscape is short, but oh my, is it beautiful. This is a time when “The New Thing” was actually still very new, still tickling the ears of inspiration and turning boppers into free-blowers and ushering in some of the most polarizing music the world had ever seen. From what I gather, instead of sticking to his bop roots, British pianist Michael Garrick was challenged and fascinated by the new approach to jazz. The reissue reproduces the original jacket of the LP with this introduction: “FREE FORM or THE NEW THING, as it is sometimes known, can be something of a leap into an abyss… We aim for a clean, integrated sound which, upon later examination, might be found to have meaningful shape and make musical sense” It sums up the recording perfectly: “free” enough to turn a few heads, but still accessible to the casual jazz listener.
As for the music itself, Garrick definitely takes some of his cues from Vince Guaraldi –steady, dramatic phrasing, a “blue” left hand, cascades that will break your heart. One thing to keep in mind with Garrick, though, is that he had spent most of his time writing jazz for poets. So beyond Guaraldi’s evocative imagery is Garrick’s evocative attention to poetic speech. His left hand may keep a calm rhythm, but his chords are tightly wound, nearly clustered to add an extra pang of sadness and definition to the backbone of a song like the slow-building “Sketches of Israel,” whose brief climax stops you cold.
On harder hitting cuts like the awesomely titled “Music for Shattering Supermarkets” and “Take-Off,” Garrick and his adept backing band, bassist Dave Green and drummer Colin Barnes (the former would go onto to play with Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, the latter became a tax inspector), really explore the far reaches of The New Thing. “Shattering” sticks to a hard swing a la Art Tatum, but it barrels forward with a wild intensity, Green’s bass fierce in the face of a drummer that can’t help but speed up. It’s not exactly “free” (unless you count Garrick’s severe disregard for his keyboard at the end), but it threatens like none other.
“Take-Off” begins meekly, much like the odd chords and chord progressions of the opening cut, but like its title suggests, the song mounds from ground zero, launches discordantly, and stumbles out of orbit. The bass rumbles and drums signal the sparks of the engine and the piano is the smoke ecstatically billowing in every direction. It’s a fascinating two minutes and 42 seconds, one that makes me wonder why Garrick’s never been mentioned stateside in the annals of great early free-jazz musicians.
Garrick still plays to this day and releases material on his own label, Jazz Academy. He’s best known in England for his jazz-choral works and teaches jazz at various institutions, including the prestigious Royal Academy of Music. I can only hope that the Moonscape reissue launches a whole campaign to really look at Garrick’s vast and virtually undocumented discography.
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