1998: Richie Unterberger - The Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll
One day long ago I happened upon Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll in a pile of books at home. I was intrigued by the title: the book and CD began - like a charismatic lesson plan - with an oxymoron, as if it were nothing but an innocent encouragement to point out the problems with the phrase ‘unknown legends.’ In doing so it persuaded anyone who listened to buy into this alternative history.
For a person who knew very little about musical eras at the time, Unterberger’s selection was like some kind of progressive school that teaches history from an experimental angle. It’s a dilemma: do we learn better from consensus or from outside it? These days, for whatever reason, the artists that Unterberger’s CD and book namechecks have mysteriously made it into the alternative canon, which is fast becoming the main textbook for people interested in the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (people who weren’t there mostly). When I think of my reconstituted 60s, compared to the 60s that my parents’ generation remember, compilations like Unknown Legends and the Nuggets collection represent the difference in our outlook (Lenny Kaye of Nuggets writes the forward for Unknown Legends). These days crazed garage rock like The Monks, pyschedelic experiments like The United States of America, not to mention rockabilly like Wanda Jackson, is raided more enthusiastically than the mainstream.
It is almost uncanny to see how spot-on Unterberger’s selection has proved to be in terms of current tastes and trends. People like Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake, and The Raincoats enjoyed none of the attention when Unterberger’s book was published that they seem to afford now. Which is why the odd title has lately started to make sense to me. Unknown legends is not an oxymoron but a prediction: these artists were already legends in Unterberger’s personal canon, although they were unknown to his readers. And lo, they shifted into focus and became legends for the current breed of pioneers (The United States of America were Broadcast’s favorites). Maybe the reason that progressive music is often chosen over the mainstream in hindsight is because it seems to have more in common with present developments. It’s as if progressive music communicated and connected with future music by trying to understand how that might sound. Unterberger himself suggests that this music has been traveling for decades to reach its ideal audience – an all too appropriate statement for what we are trying to do here at Delorean Towers, except that we’re the ones waiting with open arms. Expect to see a blatant reissue of the contents of Unknown Legends come out in not-so-subtle Delorean installments over the next few months.
1986: Voivod - RRRÖÖÖAAARRR
I recently came across a website that collects old death/black metal fanzines from the late 80s and early 90s (here’s the link, if you’re interested in them). Around the fifth hour of reading, I came across an interview with Voivod’s drummer and visual artist, Michel “Away” Langevin, where they asked him about his least favorite Voivod album. He replied that he hated RRRÖÖÖAAARRR and pretty much wished they never recorded it. Listening to “Ripping Headaches”, I simply couldn’t disagree more.
Sure, the critics and fans tend to agree that the golden trilogy in the québécois’ headbangers catalog is Killing Technology, the thrashy yet mold-stretching third album; Dimension Hatröss, the epic Crimsonian follow-up; and Nothingface, the last featuring the original lineup, which winks in the direction of Pink Floyd. Those are fantastic albums in their own right. And yes, the production values on RRRÖÖÖAAARRR could use some cleaning-up of general muddiness – in fact, most people unfamiliar with the ‘Vod are better off starting with any of the aforementioned trilogy of albums. Still, I think RRRÖÖÖAAARRR is a far more exciting and challenging listen, though admittedly not perfect. The album is special because it’s the band’s most experimental outlet, the one where they took chances and ended up schooling a ton of bands from Discordance Axis to Krallice to Slint (David Pajo regularly wore a Voivod shirt onstage on the reunion tour).
The album is unpredictable in its changes, unafraid of dissonance and noise, and goes for everything with rage and destruction. It’s a bumpy ride that’s uncomfortable, like having a wedgie while sitting on a rattling old ATV with bare springs for seats crossing a petrified lava road. And here you are, among the sonic awkwardness, rocking out to the alien guitar riffs Dennis “Piggy” D’Amour (who passed away in 2005) concocted while Away grooves in ever changing time signatures, keeping the beat moshing in the free world like it’s the most natural thing possible.
Reflecting upon their history and geography, Voivod were bound to have an original sound. They were not only Canadian, they were from the french-cultured Quebec; they also debuted in the mid-80s, too late to be considered within the reaches of pioneers like Anvil or Helix, yet predating the national wave of thrash as exemplified by Annihilator, Razor, and Sacrifice. They were in an awkward position, but it’s no wonder they went to influence Quebec-based bands like Cryptopsy and Gorguts that practiced a skewed yet intellectual brand of death metal.
This makes me want to get my rocking on and once I’m finished colliding with like-minded young men getting aggressively physical to high-volume music, makes me reflect on the primitiveness of Voivod’s sound. After all, this was only their second album. They went on to refine their shit, becoming metal darlings around the world, but the crusty yet technical sound they concocted on RRRÖÖÖAAARRR has never been matched. Perhaps highly accomplished musicians make better sounds when they disengage their intellectual side and just let it rip.
1960s-70s: Ila Vann - The Ila Vann Collection
There’s something eerie about hearing Ila Vann sing, and then realizing you’ve never heard heard her name before. Vann seems to have been perpetually on the cusp of stardom, working with everyone from Sam Cooke to Louis Armstrong to recording songs intended for Gladys Knight. You can sense her authenticity so often in her work, specifically with her gospel-trained voice that necessarily seats her next to Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye.
Vann found a true fanbase in England, and now lives in Ontario, performing there extensively. For a Jersey girl whose four kids live in New York City, this is a travesty.
The Ila Vann Collection is a remarkable collection of some of her most arresting and emotional recordings. “Keep on Laughing Baby” has all the power of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and the brassy but still whiny ballad of “Every Little Living Dream” is truly haunting. And then there’s the hit that turned it all on for Vann, “You Made Me This Way,” with a Temptations like swing that ends far too quickly.
Comparing Vann to Franklin or Gaye, and imagining what her career might have been like in the 60s and 70s may be a futile exercise. But for a singer who lost two husbands and hasn’t really hit it big in her own country, Vann is a talent who deserves more than a retrospective head nod.
2002: Cody ChesnuTT - The Headphone Masterpiece
If not for a chance conversation, Cody ChesnuTT’s The Headphone Masterpiece would still be a buried memory. And that is very unfortunate.
When I bought the album in high school I felt as if I’d uncovered a rare gem. Sure, my purchase was informed by Rolling Stone’s review, but these songs didn’t fall under the slickly produced R&B rubric of the time. For one, the cover looked like a slapdash graphic design produced with cheap computer software. And across two disc’s worth of material, ChesnuTT explored varied sounds, from neo-soul to rock and roll with only his voice, instruments, and a scratchy sounding multitrack recorder. It’s safe to say that this was my first experience with lo-fi music.
But now I experience the album quite differently. I see the cover as an extension of the message. On the bottom left there are flags of Germany, Japan, and the UK along with a Rastafarian flag and a purple flag which I can’t identify. This is the album: elements of the known and unknown brought together with a personal touch. The name Headphone Masterpiece doesn’t strike me as arrogant or ambitious either. Rather, it seems to me that this is how ChesnuTT genuinely felt. Hell, if I produced ninety plus minutes of music in a sustained phase of creativity, I too would think I’d created a masterpiece.
So when I was reminded that this album had been collecting dust in my collection, my first feeling was regret. I felt as if I’d forgotten a friend whose eccentric company I very much enjoyed. I still remember hilariously irreverent lyrics such as “Thank you Jesus, for my mama/ And I thank you bitches, for my money.” But now it doesn’t feel the same. Artists like Ariel Pink and Here We Go Magic move me with stripped down production and bedroom intimacy. ChesnuTT, however, reminds of a time when musical curiosity and shock value meant more to me than feeling. And while I think Headphone Masterpiece is a seminal neo-soul album, it doesn’t speak to me like it did before. I guess I wish we’d kept in touch.
1965: Los Saicos - “Demolición”
Music is vital. Music never gets old. But what about battle cries? What about the power of watts gone by? What about the pioneering noise of snot nosed kids who made a tremendous racket because they had nothing better to do? Can they do it again when they are old men?
I asked myself those questions as I attended a concert headlined by living legends Los Saicos, who, in case you were not aware, invented punk. Back in 1965 these Lima, Peru adolescents recorded and released “Demolición”, a song under two minutes long that manages to be rocking in the noisiest way, with singer Erwin Flores proclaimed his general desire to decimate a train station in the hoarsest, most sneering of voices. One guitar strums the chords festively while the other hovers like a surfing helicopter; it’s a thriving song, hard and ugly. No wonder it’s considered the unknown cornerstone in the farthest reaches of the punk’s DNA.
One needs reminded that great songs don’t die, or are preserved as long and as good as giant turtles. Witnessing a reformed (and quite grey) Saicos play “Demolición” twice in front of a Spanish speaking crowd going apeshit over some old men reviving their rocanrol fantasies made me think that a) These guys sound remarkably good for a bunch of oldsters who haven’t been active for a long time and b) This song kicks ass and immediately grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go until you thrash and jump and pogo and scream and dance and do everything that music is supposed to do with you. I wouldn’t know since I am Spanish speaking myself, but I bet you don’t need to sing along to every nuance of the lyrics to get the power of what they are trying to convey.
It’s only rock n’ roll, the Rolling Stones once said. But it’s also fucking Rock n’ Roll. Secreting endorphins and reflecting in the now, that life is happening at this very moment and everything’s real. It’s everything this music aspires to be and it affects the listener, no matter the language or the time that has passed.
What I’m sure about is that Los Saicos weren’t thinking about their legacy when they wrote and recorded this song (How could they? They are singing about tearing down the fucking train station, for crying out loud!), yet here we are and “Demolición” sounds as menacing and vital as anything released on Goner or your favorite scum garage joint connection. It probably represents the very essence of rock n’ roll, distilled to the very core elements – simple yet aggressive instrumentation and performance, angry youth singing mad about something or other no matter if it’s important or not, strong rhythm to dance or to destroy your room to. That makes it great to a lot of us, something we feel the need for in our life. And surprisingly, considering the nihilistic time and attitude it portrays, it has aged quite well.
Here’s fan filmed footage of the show I attended, so you can grasp how the band sounded and the crowd’s reaction. It was quite a great show, I have to say.
1973: Incredible Bongo Band - “Apache”
Last week Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album, Watch The Throne, saw its official digital release. Ratings and criticism aside, it is as much boastful as it is homage. A collection of today’s most innovative producers, all under the watchful eye of West, generously co-opt classic funk and soul – the back backbone of hip hop. The first single, “Otis”, heavily samples “Try a Little Tenderness” by the song’s namesake. “New Day”, produced by the RZA, twists Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” into a psychedelic piano-laced dreamscape. If for nothing else, Watch The Throne is a display of sampling panache.
On the sixth track, “That’s My Bitch”, Tribe Called Quest visionary Q Tip and the rest of West’s production group use the break from “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, a familiar, if not cliché sample. Perhaps second to the “Amen” break, the “Apache” break is hip hop, rap, and dance music’s endless recyclable. From the Sugarhall Gang’s “Apache” to Nas’ “Made You Look”, artists have taken the rolling, punchy drum segment and used it as a back beat. Some, like Faboy Slim, keep to original title. Others, including Madonna, Vanilla Ice, and the Roots, go for reinvention, changing the name of the song and the sample’s utility. Regardless, it is a standard; the closest hip hop, rap, and dance come to the blues scale or three chord progression.
In light of such ubiquity, Q Tip and West’s producing team do their best to inventively appropriate the “Apache” break. Dark synths color the melody while an electronic drum kit holds the beat. Only at the chorus does the classic break pair with the new drum sound, and by that point the song posses its own character. The contrast of the playful sample with the foreboding instrumentation makes something upbeat but sinister, like a fast paced montage in a gangster film.
So while “That’s My Bitch” may not be an entirely original track, it is a clever attempt to connect the past to the present. It shows West’s attempt to be the definitive successor to hip hop’s forebears while also reminding us of the enduring elasticity of the “Apache” break.