1956: Moondog - Moondog
There are so many interesting subplots and contextual tangents embedded in the life story of the experimental street musician Moondog; his actual music could conceivably be overlooked. As a Kansas-born blind musician who, after his move to New York City, invented his own instruments and chose purposely (righteously?) to live on the streets and dress like a Viking, he seems akin to a fictitious character dreamt up by a NYU film student: "Who cares that he actually plays music, he is faaantastic!" Musically, he was seen as both an eccentric and a visionary who was admired by Philip Glass while influencing musicians ranging from Janis Joplin to Mr. Scruff. But years before he was conducting orchestras, his 1956 self-titled album portrayed him as burgeoning innovator – contextualizing the sounds of New York with his Great Plains background, and in the process, innocently challenging the limits of outsider music.
Without the benefit of sight or insulated walls, one could contend that a homeless, blind musician is the best-equipped person to truly “hear” a city. His album Moondog is his musical interpretation of the disorganized patchwork quilt that was 1950s Manhattan. The album’s melodies are often Asian-inspired and drift in and out of context, like a hurried immigrant trying to find his way through the crowded streets. The smells of the East Village, Chinatown, and Central Park are somehow conveyed through percussive shuffles and snaps. Through most of the album, Moondog symbolically keeps time with a steady thump-thump-thump on his tom-tom: homage to his playing with Native American chiefs as a youth. This consistent heartbeat not only backbones the album and represents the forward-moving machine of New York City, but it also whispers to the Western world that the Indians once owned the land, and we are lucky to be sharing their fertile earth. Right?
Moondog allegedly once said that Philip Glass anointed him the “father of minimalism,” even though he never wanted the title/burden of leading a musical movement. The songs on Moondog may be sparse, but they are also short, normally clocking in under two minutes. As quick and dirty encapsulations of larger musical visions, the songs are not necessarily minimalist in the same vein of an extended Terry Riley composition. Moondog’s work is delicate, direct, and overly observant, like a kindergartener describing his day at school. Additionally, unlike most other envelope-pushing modern composers of the time, Moondog did not have a debilitating obsession with tone. Instead, this album maintains a lo-fi charisma that invites the listener in, comforting him or her with warm, familiar melodies and a positive world outlook. Even though many people later saw Moondog as a kook or a hippie, very few doubted his early potential for creative, accessible musical expression. His self-titled album is the best example of how enjoyable American minimalism could have been and remains the ultimate tribute to the homeless, street musician.
1969: John Phillips - John, Wolfking of L.A.
In 1970, John Phillips, chief songwriter of the recently disbanded The Mamas & the Papas released his first solo album, John, Wolfking of L.A.. The Mamas & the Papas had been a pop juggernaut and, with tracks like “California Dreaming” and other hits, had perpetrated the California-as-Eden idea that was reflected by other acts of the day. But the Mamas were anything but idyllic, torn apart by interband jealously and the tumultuous romantic relationship between John and Michelle Phillips. The stakes where high when Wolfking was released, but despite some high-chart action for “Mississippi,” the album flopped.
Sonically, the album treads the “Cosmic Americana” sound Gram Parsons was always going on about, fitting in nicely with the urban-cowboy, soft-rock sounds of The Byrds, American Beauty-era Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (together and separately), and Parsons’ own Flying Burrito Brothers. Barroom pianos tinkle drunkenly, the drums maintain a soft clatter and warm pedal steel swells and moans; Phillips spared no expense in securing the best session players availabe, utilizing members of Elvis Presley’s band (Presley himself expressed interest in recording “Mississippi” but the Colonel killed the idea ). Having spent time in a premier vocal-pop group, he was understandably nervous about his own vocals and chose the, in retrospect, rather shoegaze-y approach of burying them in the mix, letting the subtle, fantastic playing of his band overshadow his modest voice.
Which is a shame, really, because in addition to his vocals being more than decent, Phillips' lyrics are far more subversive than anyone could have expected. The album starts off with “April Anne,” rife with references to Los Angeles avatars. A “gypsy woman” implores Anne to let the "Easy Rider share her bed," but Anne chooses the “drunken gigolo instead." Meanwhile, we hear of the “jingle jacket faggot friend” who’s mysteriously "dead" (a barb directed at The Byrds' Gene Clark, who dated Michelle when she and John were split up, "dead" essentially meaning "dumped" most likely).
“Topanga Canyon” recasts Lou Reed’s “Waiting For My Man” junkie tale in beach-bum attire, with Phillips driving out to the canyon to score a fix. He makes a stop at the farmers market to justify his purchase, noting the “buying and selling for profit.” But where Reed sings with fractured ambivalence, matter of fact and unashamed, Phillips pleads in the chorus, “Oh Mary I’m in deep water/ And it’s way over my head/ Everyone thought I was smarter/ Than to be mislead.” While Reed sounds detached and distracted, John sounds desperate. He seeks redemption, and the chorus of angelic backup singers echo the sentiment.
“Malibu People” showcases Phillips’ subtle dark comedy. In scenes dotted with fine beach houses and sun-bleached characters, he paints a vivid picture, a pregnant woman waiting where the waves meet the sand: “Big bellied woman lying in the sand, waiting where the waves roll in/ If she needs a spot to drop she’s not forgotten where the waves roll in.” It’s hard to say why it’s so funny, but it is. It's also poignant. The waves seem to be the only constant here. The clumsy 'some one took my stuff' blues of “Drum,” a tune that details junkies stealing John’s drums from the back of his car, is made utterly tragic by his heartbroken delivery.
Side two is less geographically thematic, but none less expressive. The blood and guts of “Let It Bleed Genevieve” (a nod to his dangerous pals The Rolling Stones, whose Mick Jagger and Keith Richards he would later go on to record fraught solo album Pay, Pack, and Follow with) details a fictional (?) tale of Phillips’ new girlfriend, actress Geneviève Waïte, having a miscarriage in his basement, while her replacement waits up on the sidewalk, “waiting to be skinned.” John and the boys tear it up out on the town in a fit of casual misogyny. The neighbors ask him to keep it down, but understand that “boys will be boys.” Meanwhile, “Mississippi” is an ecstatic swamp jam, all Dixieland and winks at the girls crossing their legs and looking at the narrator funny.
The album closes with the haunting “Holland Tunnel,” and it’s fitting that Phillips chose to finish the album with a song about driving. Perhaps it’s a clarion call. It seemed a fitting time to check the gas and oil and to get out while the getting was good. Throughout the album, Phillips lets his countrified beach-bum sound hide his dark subject matter. But peering through the veneer of the album's smooth sound reveals a hurt, defensive, and addicted artist. The album ends with Phillips looking to “find his soul on the other side.”
Perhaps the reason John Wolfking of L.A. remains a 'lost' album -- albeit one with a growing cult -- is because it’s too painful to view the idyllic ’60s dream crashing down. We really want to imagine California as a place where peace and love bloomed, if only for a time. We want to let our freak-folk singers move in to Topanga Canyon and record wild songs that sound the way we want the ’60s to have sounded, the way Devendra Banhart did with Smokey Rolls Down the Mountain. But in a recent interview, Devendra revealed that a female friend of his was violently attacked in his Topanga home studio by a man believing that he was Jesus.
Parallels to Phillips' experiences with the Manson clan notwithstanding (at one point Roman Polanski even, according to Phillips' book, though Phillips had something to do with the killings), it’s hard to say if Banhart is blowing smoke up our asses, playing into that Mansonesque image of his. But it’s also not hard to imagine this tale being true. Dreams can only last so long. It’s a matter of time before human nature rears its ugly head in the midst of peace and harmony. 1970 was a generational “morning after,” and as pop culture collectively woke up and got out of bed, John Wolfking of L.A. vividly, beautifully, and honestly dealt with the comedown and subsequent head-scratching.
2008: Big Dipper - Supercluster
Comparisons are funny, aren't they? Some bands can't escape them, no matter how hard they try. They can even break up for several years, reunite, then release a retrospective compilation and still come back to the same tired metaphors. It seems that finding commentary on Big Dipper without some reference to R.E.M. is like trying to avoid porn while surfing the internet (face it buddy, it ain't gonna happen). So let's get it over with here, then: Big Dipper sound similar to R.E.M. in a sort of vague, ambivalent way (they share chiming, clean electric guitar sounds and some tempos, but that's about it).
Now, let's move on to the important stuff: this anthology. Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology is a delicately assembled 49-track collection of the group's best pop gems in a tidy 3CD set by Merge Records. Giving up the music industry ghost back in ’92 after releasing a commercially unsuccessful effort in Slam on the Epic label, the Boston quartet's experience has obviously retained a bit of its original bitter taste, as only "Life Inside The Cemetery" appears on the Supercluster compilation (a tiny 2% of the anthology doesn't show a great deal of faith in their past product).
There are more than enough good reasons on Supercluster to justify its existence, however. Completists can bask in the knowledge that all of Big Dipper's late-’80s records for now-defunct label Homestead are included (Boo-Boo (1987), Heavens (1988), and Craps (1989)) in a shiny, remastered form. Meanwhile, obscurists can celebrate the debut of 15 previously unreleased tracks, an unreleased album titled A Very Loud Array, recorded after Slam silently flopped.
Big Dipper's charm was in their jangly pop-rock sensibilities laid over steady drum rolls; cuts like "Man O'War," "Meet The Witch," and "She's Fetching" are infectiously catchy riff-based college rock that surely inspired countless great Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. songs. There are plenty of hooky standouts amongst the crew of newly unveiled cuts, too: "Wake Up The King," "Lifetime Achievement Award," and the tinny but wonderfully harmony-drenched swan song "Beginning of the End."
Supercluster's bottom line is that even the worst Peter Buck reference couldn't hold this set down. If you can excuse the slightly dodgy album design, Supercluster has all the makings of any well-executed anthology -- complete sets of great songs, insightful liner notes, and a large number of high-quality unreleased tracks. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to avoid porn on the internet. Wish me luck.
1992: Diamond & The Psychotic Neurotics - Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop
Looking back, 1992 was a banner year for New York hip-hop. Actually, scratch that. 1992 was a banner year for hip-hop, period. Aside from stone-cold East Coast classics from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Gang Starr and Show & A.G., the West Coast was blowing up with Dre’s The Chronic, Cube’s The Predator and to a lesser extent, The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Maybe it’s just nostalgia kicking in --as it often does for music fans-- but these seemed like simpler times, when all that really mattered were fresh beats and dope rhymes. Sure, The Chronic and The Predator aren’t exactly the lightest fare, but when compared to the bleakness developed in the following years due to thug posturing and bi-coastal feuds, these albums sound positively giddy.
Amid this G-Funk era, unobtrusive New York producer/rapper Diamond D dropped what many consider to be the holy grail of underground hip-hop. Madlib sampled Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop extensively on Quasimoto’s The Unseen (another underground classic), so if you took as long to come around as I did, you’ll recognize pieces of at least four tracks here. This is not to say that the album is particularly rare, but for some reason it continues to remain unrecognized by all but the hip-hop faithful as the masterpiece it is.
There’s really no explanation for why Stunts wasn’t a hit. Regardless, nothing can take away from its unbelievably cohesive production and Diamond’s rhyme-for-the-sake-of-rhyme spitting; which he explains as concisely as possible in “Check One, Two," claiming, “My style is dope even though it’s simplistic.” The vocals here are not deep, even by Diamond’s own admission. But that doesn’t mean they’re wack. Far from it, in fact—they’re all the better for it, giving the proceedings a relaxed feel on par with the best of Tribe’s output. Perhaps the album's only example of a song with an overarching theme is “Sally Got A One Track Mind,” the tale of a young groupie who’s only out for the dough. The song was an obvious single, displaying one of hip-hop’s all-time illest bass lines; a snaky, hypnotic sample so fluid and engaging it hardly needs the accompanying drum loop. In a lot of ways, Stunts is like Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2—a record filled with spectacular beats that perfectly weave together, utilizing vocals simply as another instrument to work with.
Ironically, there’s more vocal talent on the album than just about any other release of ‘92, in spite of its reduced role next to Diamond’s sparse, funky and jazz-inflected productions. Guests include his legendary D.I.T.C cohorts—a pre-bling Fat Joe (yeah, he was dope once), the unheralded Big L, and Showbiz, as well as Lord Jamar and Sadat X from Brand Nubian—all of whom would arguably gain more notoriety than Diamond in the future.
So the question remains: why the fuck did Stunts never get it’s due? While it’s possible that Diamond never truly desired fame over street cred (which he definitely doesn’t have to worry about), it could be suggested that the man said it best himself on somebody else’s track. Rapping the last verse on “Show Business” from A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Diamond prophetically notes, “It’s not that easy/You gotta get a label/That’s willing and able/To market and promote/And you better hope/That the product is dope.” Judging from Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop, it couldn’t be more difficult to make a hit, even when the product is beyond dope.
1977: Brian Eno - Before and After Science
From his work ‘treating’ the sounds of his band mates in Roxy Music onwards, Brian Eno has made a career of challenging the notion that musician is synonymous with instrumentalist, and nowhere in his discography is this challenge more explicitly stated than in his 1977 LP Before and After Science. Not an instrumental virtuoso by any means, Eno is more regarded for his compositional techniques and mixing skills. Fittingly, the science in question is undoubtedly the science of audio recording - a field in which Eno possesses a Copernican level of mastery. The titular concept is manifest throughout the album. Its first half boasts complex arrangements and sonic textures that could only have been achieved after the advent of overdubbing, synthesizers, and the like, while the second half features simpler, relatively direct music that could have been created before the recording process became so technical. In 1977, this was something of a trend for Eno, as later that year, he and David Bowie would take a similar approach to track sequencing on Bowie's Low.
Although Science may sound more intellectually stimulating than fun, Eno manages to blend the conceptual rigor of his compositional techniques with an equally strong sense of playfulness. You'll be amused by lyrics like “the logistics and heuristics of the mystics” before marveling at Eno's ability to construct a narrative out of such strained rhymes. Likewise, “King's Lead Hat” is by far the catchiest track on the LP, even before realizing Eno is tipping his hat to the Talking Heads through the song's anagrammed title and martial rhythm. The album eventually winds down to a gentler pace, though the listener's interest never does. Instead, as things get quieter there is a better chance to appreciate the subtleties of Eno's songwriting. “By This River” boasts an achingly pretty melody, while “Spider and I” closes the album with a lyrical sensibility that recalls Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd.
Songwriting truly is the greatest strength of Before and After Science. When it comes to intellectualism, Eno can theorize about music and the artistic process as well as anyone, but he ensures that the cognitive aspect of his craft doesn't interfere with the music's ability to entertain. Sadly, Eno essentially abandoned lyricism and the concision of pop music for a while after Science, focusing instead on ambient music and production work for other artists. Although his other artistic pursuits have taken him on divergent paths, this album is not only one of the best albums in Eno's catalog, but of the 1970s as a whole.
1989: The Frogs - It’s Only Right and Natural
What does it mean to record a “gay” album? When I first learned of The Frogs’ 1989 underground pseudo-classic, It’s Only Right and Natural, I consistently read about it being one of the few records that could be properly called “gay.” After giving the LP a listen, I no longer questioned why so many have described this music as gay or novel or lewd or shocking or homophobic or terrible. But I disagree with the applicability of most of these to a record that circumvents so many topical and lyrical conventions. If I had to force It’s Only Right and Natural into the prison of a single adjective, I’d call it refreshing. This is a record that compels attention and polarizes both actual and potential listeners so violently that I’m reminded of why I love art and why the explosion of punk in the late ’70s was so very important for recapturing the “fuck you” swagger in music, highlighted previously by Elvis’s mythical pelvis and Velvet songs about drugs, whores, and more drugs.
The moment the Flemion brothers start in with the opening words of “I’ve Got Drugs (Out of the Mist),” you’re apprised of the over-the-top nature of the recording. Though this first track is one of the few without a vulgar homosexual narrative, it’s perhaps equally absurd in its treatment of drug culture. But it’s these gay narratives that garner all the attention and provide a unifying theme running from beginning to end. With songs like “Homos,” “Dykes We Are,” and “These Are the Finest Queen Boys (I’ve Ever Seen),” The Frogs aren’t pulling any punches, and they hammer away at exaggerated expositions on gay culture with a tongue-and-cheek humor that accomplishes that rare feat of being at once ridiculous and poignant.
It’s Only Right and Natural also strikes at religion with “Gather ‘Round for Savior #2” and, not content with a song so mild as to just address the topic of drug use, the opener includes the line, “Fucking priest with a yeast infection.” Indeed. Then there’s “Baby Greaser George,” a cut tracing a gruesome sexual encounter that can be deduced from the title. It’s altogether awful and offensive and striking and taboo. And this seems to be the point here: regardless of what subjects the brothers Flemion deem worthy of their lo-fi folk aesthetic, none are handled conservatively, and all are sewn from the same cloth handled by 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, and others who have composed their material with an eye to the censors. It’s probably not by coincidence that all these bands were at their best and most appalling at around the same time, in an era where explicit content in popular music resonated with ferocity in the media and amongst political elites. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t good. On the contrary, some of the early Geto Boys LPs border on classic status, and It’s Only Right and Natural is a brilliant middle finger wrapped in skeletal acoustics that nearly make you wish the band would have recorded a companion piece with a more traditional lyrical approach. It’s all just so raw and visceral and evocative and fun.
But you can’t really wish for anything other than what this record is, or else you’d be bargaining for something so very different as to void all meaningful comparison. The lyrics are such an immense part of this record and are so childishly clever and able to generate a what-the-fuck reaction that quickly merges with an appreciation for what The Frogs are doing here. And what they’re doing is whatever they feel like doing, and that’s something that should be cherished in a society that still insists on separating profanity from television. The tunes are pretty damn good, too.