1996: The Rolling Stones - The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
For nearly 30 years, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was a legendary, unexperienced piece of pop detritus, cousin to Smile and Jerry Lewis’ holocaust movie The Clown That Cried. The project -- a big-top-themed concert featuring the Stones, The Who, Taj Mahal, John Lennon, and others -- was supposed to be shown on television, but was never broadcast. Reasons for its absence abound, but the most accepted theory is that Jagger and co. were unhappy with their performances and felt upstaged by their colleagues.
It’s a reasonable concern. The bands on the roster -- aside from the play-by-numbers Jethro Tull -- are in top form, especially The Who, who had just come off a tour and were about to unleash Tommy. They perform a blistering, fevered rendition of their classic mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away,” leaving the unrehearsed, creaky Stones outmatched.
Nonetheless, the headliners' scaled-back performance has definite appeal. It’s interesting to hear The Rolling Stones with a little less energy than usual and more interesting still to hear them perform for a small audience. After an introduction from John Lennon (in its entirety: “and now”), the band starts their set with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” followed by “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Sympathy For The Devil,” and show closer “Salt of the Earth.” It’s a solid set, and if the rumor about the project’s shelving is true, it’s a shame the Stones didn’t have enough faith in their fans.
Elsewhere, the ’60s rock cameos come fast and furious: Marianne Faithful gorgeously singing “Something Better,” Jethro Tull phoning in “Song For Jeffrey,” Taj Mahal stomping through the murky funk of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love.” The best track, however, is also the most tossed off: a cover of the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” by a band called The Dirty Mac -- featuring Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Lennon on vocals. The song sounds exactly like you’d imagine, with Lennon wailing his misery while Richards’ and Clapton’s notes bend within an inch of their lives. It’s the perfect song choice for these icons; if they had tried to tackle “Hey Jude” or “All You Need Is Love,” the result would have been a watered-down mess.
There’s nothing bad here, just minutiae -- a carnival orchestra, an itchy 12-bar blues with shrieking Yoko Ono vocals, and witty banter between rock stars. The concert doesn’t live up to its reputation, but it was never meant to be taken seriously. Instead, it’s an informal experiment in variety, a throwaway work by legends who regularly threw away legendary things.
1. Mick Jagger’s Introduction Of Rock and Roll Circus
2. Entry of the Gladiators – Circus Orchestra
3. Mick Jagger’s Introduction Of Jethro Tull
4. Song For Jeffrey – Jethro Tull
5. Keith Richards’ Introduction of The Who
6. A Quick One While He’s Away – The Who
7. Over The Waves – Rosas
8. Ain’t That A Lot Of Love – Taj Mahal
9. Charlie Watts’ Introduction Of Marianne Faithfull
10. Something Better – Marianne Faithfull
11. Mick Jagger and John Lennon’s Introduction Of The Dirty Mac
12. Yer Blues – The Dirty Mac
13. Whole Lotta Yoko – Yoko Ono & The Dirty Mac
14. Jumpin’ Jack Flash – The Rolling Stones
15. Parachute Woman – The Rolling Stones
16. No Expectations – The Rolling Stones
17. You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
18. Sympathy For The Devil – The Rolling Stones
19. Salt of the Earth – The Rolling Stones
1981: Glenn Branca - The Ascension
At the New Music America Festival in 1982, John Cage attended a performance of Glenn Branca’s Indeterminate Activities of Resultant Masses. He was deeply troubled by what he heard, leading him to famously liken Branca to a fascist. As a matter of course, if an artist is able to provoke extreme disgust -- and particularly if the disgusted party happens to be the exalted father of American avant-garde music -- that artist probably has something going for him. Branca’s symphonies are still met with derision from certain quarters of the crusty classical coterie, but thanks in part to his association with the No Wave movement and Sonic Youth, his place in punk’s history books (they have those now!) is cemented.
The Ascension was written directly before Resultant Masses, when Branca was still playing rock clubs and working up the nerve to call himself a composer. Released on what’s widely considered to be the coolest record label of all time, 99 Records, The Ascension achieves a level of sophistication that even the most ambitious New York noise punks had only hinted at. Crossing the seemingly insurmountable divide between punk and classical, The Ascension stands apart from both traditions as simply essential 20th-century music.
Instead of offering my own account of an esoteric scene that died before I was born, I’ll defer to the recent throng of coffee table No Wave books (and at $29.99, you can’t call this cheap nihilism). The primary sources are probably more deserving of your time and money, though: Metal Machine Music, The Ramones, Brian Eno, No New York, minimalism, theater of cruelty, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, Branca’s own Theoretical Girls, and of course John Cale and The Velvet Underground. Branca’s piece managed to invoke the Lower East Side’s noisy cultural legacy while predicting the future of indie guitar rock.
Critic/martyr Lester Bangs once argued that the alien screeching of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was really just urban ambient music, “great in Midwestern suburbs, but kinda unnecessary in NYC.” That holds for the more extreme side of No Wave in general: It’s music to prove a point to, good for advancing passive violence on those around you, maybe attractive to Catholics with self-laceration complexes, but by design a moral and aesthetic dead end. Take The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” which after 15 minutes of hard fought perseverance finally succumbs to its insidious disease and degenerates into unadulterated white noise. The Ascension works the opposite way; it takes white noise and harnesses it to create something highly organized and possibly even life-affirming.
Branca begins “Lesson No. 2” with an agit-bass riff before his guitar army joins in, adding grinding and whirring feedback to his insistent pulse. It sounds like the rehearsal of a particularly tight and imaginative No Wave band. The tune runs its course and then derails; Branca’s shout-out and kiss-off to the scene that fostered his artistic development. It ends in crashes of cacophonous guitar executed with chilly precision on top of a steady drumbeat.
With a name borrowed from Situationist theory, “The Spectacular Commodity” initially continues the mood of cynicism and foreboding, a sonic depiction of industrialization’s corroding effect on the landscape and the human spirit. A monstrous chord rings out seven times in slow succession like the toll of church bells -- strident metallic chimes. Three guitars, each playing on a different octave, are accompanied by bass and drums as they work their way through a series of tempo changes, rave-ups, and blowouts. The musically untrained among us won’t understand everything that’s going on, and it makes no difference. It’s immediately discernible that, despite all the dissonance, each note played has its place in this 12-minute leviathan. At roughly 8:50, high, open-sounding chords begin to float above the grit, while the other two guitars drop in to perform exultant accompaniment. Climactic doesn’t begin to describe it. This could make the perfect soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis or a triumphant battle tune for that fated day when humans will have to take up arms against the machines. Guitarists of the world, unite!
“Structure,” built on recurring noxious harmonics, is all suffocated aggression and claustrophobia (on a related note, the pointed song titles helpfully guide the listener’s free association responses to the work). The second side begins with “Light Fields (In Consonance),” which basically consists of one note, but garners its momentum through rhythmic interplay. The composition is somewhat reminiscent of Rhys Chatham’s 1977 “Guitar Trio,” which was probably the first piece to marry punk guitar with minimalist composition. However, Branca was no strict minimalist, and “Light Fields” suddenly becomes dynamic in its final two minutes, as the riffs begin shifting and climbing upwards until they reach the octave.
Last act “The Ascension” is as ambitious and lengthy as “The Spectacular Commodity,” though otherwise an entirely different beast. It's a less muscular and methodical buildup, relying largely on the overtones created by extreme guitar feedback (one can only imagine how loud and powerful this must have been live). You know how weird guitar sounds are always referred to as “ethereal” now? Well, here’s the blueprint. At times the center can barely hold and the song becomes almost completely abstract, yet during the last 30 seconds I would swear there were strings playing if I didn’t know better. It's like a redemptive response to the godless Metal Machine Music.
The sense of otherworldliness in “The Ascension” is created in part by the random disorienting nature of feedback, as well as the song’s Cage-ian silences and unpredictable tempos. Yet “The Spectacular Commodity” remains the show-stopper here for all the reasons Cage hated Branca’s work: its shattering volume, its triumphant romanticism and Wagnerian hulk. One of Cage’s misgivings was that too much of Branca’s own personality was in his work, and indeed The Ascension bares the heavy hand of its maker. When I want ego-less sound, though, I’ll just open my Brooklyn window or turn on my rain machine, thankyouverymuch. With both classical and rock, the listener’s sense of empowerment often comes vicariously through the artist. Like the paroxysmal art-punks in Robert Longo’s iconic Men in Cities series -- to which the striking cover art belongs -- sometimes we need the shock of loud, angular guitar to catalyze our own private liberation trip.
1. Lesson No. 2
2. The Spectacular Commodity
4. Light Fields (In Consonance)
5. The Ascension
1973: Amon Düül II - Wolf City
Amon Düül II are perhaps best known as a krautrock band that grew out of a 1970s hippy commune in Munich. But dropping out of modern industrial society was always the farthest thing from their minds. Amon Düüll II wanted to change the world with their music, and for a long time they believed they would. "I never was a hippy!” recalls lead singer Renate Knaup in a 1996 interview with The Wire’s Edwin Pouncey. “I was a fighter. We were all fighters."
“Avant-garde” in the most literal sense, Amon Düül II hammered out their space rock jams at the frontlines of the 1968 student rebellions in Germany, providing a live soundtrack for protests and sit-ins and brandishing the slogan "everyone is a musician" -- a kind of youth-culture echo of artist Joseph Beuys’ "everyone is an artist." Like their more militant West German contemporaries (including the terrorist and strangely glamorized Red Army Faction), Amon Düül II seemed to blur the boundaries between politics and spectacle. But guitars and amplifiers were their weapons of choice, favoring group exaltation and expanded political awareness over bombs and bank robberies.
After splitting from what guitarist and songwriter John Weinzieri has called the “non-musical” members of the group, popularly known as Amon Düül I, the five remaining members set about creating a more traditional rock band. Although they never lost their taste for the long-winded group improvisations of the commune’s early years, their 1970s discography describes their evolution from a clan of wayward freedom-seekers into a mighty revolutionary unit.
With Wolf City (1973), their sixth album, the group yielded their most accessible offering to date and perhaps their most beautiful. The tracklisting alone signifies the overall tightening of their sound, with six out of the album’s seven tracks clocking in under six minutes. If the era of the 20-minute shamanistic freakout was over for Amon Düül II, this concentration of musical space left room for new vocal talent. And that talent was founding member Renate Knaup, whose stentorian alto had gradually crept its way up to the front of the mix, commanding enough to make even the most hard-nosed rock ‘n’ roller pick up a book of études.
People who believe overtly political art is bad art are usually not that far off the mark, but Wolf City steers clear of one important pitfall: though brimming with references to world hunger, economic imperialism, and prison reform, its structure is challenging enough to prevent it from descending into left-wing propaganda. As they leap between ice-slick bass grooves and explosions of rusty violin, loud-speaker diatribes, and German operettas, Amon Düül II pull off the kind of epic harmonic surprises that are usually found in classical music. We can hear this even in “Green- Bubble-Raincoated-Man,” the album’s most compulsively listenable number, where a simple chord change transforms a lockstep warrior chant into a cosmic guitar whirlwind.
For anyone who has ever wondered what it must have felt like to be in Germany or France during the late '60s and early '70s, Wolf City is probably a good place to start: the riffs on this album are positively blood-pumping, and it's hard not to feel like you are the edge of a historical precipice when you listen to it -- especially today. But Amon Düül were not looking for cheap thrills; more than rile up the masses, they reminded us that in order to bring about a change in attitude, music must also change the way we listen.
1. Surrounded by the Stars
4. Wolf City
5. Wie der Wind am Ende einer Strasse
6. Deutsch Nepal
7. Sleepwalker’s Timeless Bridge
8. Kindermörderlied [bonus track]
9. Mystic Blutsturz [bonus track]
10. Düülirium [bonus track]
2001: Preston School of Industry - All This Sounds Gas
When Pavement released the just-okay Terror Twilight in 1999, it was easy to believe the jig was up. The band had progressed from chaotic fuzz machines to slick popsters, and while the Twilight songs were catchy, they had little life in them. Pavement announced their breakup a year later, and it seemed things had run their course. Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus put out a self-titled debut in 2000, and the ensuing media blitz obscured Preston School of Industry, another post-Pavement band who released their first record six month later. The group’s leader was Scott Kannberg, a.k.a. Spiral Stairs, Pavement guitarist and songwriter.
The record in question, All This Sounds Gas, sounds great in 2009, and it must have sounded even better in 2001 to Pavement fans who feared all was lost. It’s certainly not a Pavement record -- there are few rough edges, and Kannberg’s voice is a little more melodic than Malkmus’ yelp -- but it has the let’s-make-a-record charm that made his old band’s best work so appealing. First track “Whalebones,” for example, is a slow burner with a distorted guitar line that sounds like it was taken from a Built To Spill B-side. It’s a perfectly solid lead-in to a perfectly solid record, and a good indication of things to come.
“Falling Away,” super catchy and breezy as hell, follows. Although it would have been better placed midway through the disc, it’s a pleasure to hear the track so early in the proceedings, as if Kannberg is confident he won’t need to pick up the pace later on. “A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s For Real),” with its bright steel guitar and wood block percussion, is yet another winner; it reveals the reason you’ve been bobbing your head for the last eight minutes: Kannberg has a knack for emphasizing every downbeat, whether on electric guitar or what sounds like a J. Geils-circa-“Centerfold” organ. He knows what it takes to keep a song moving.
Some of the credit for All This Sounds Gas also goes to bassist Jon Erickson and drummer Andrew Borger, both of whom played with the Moore Brothers, another act anchored by melody and strong arrangements. Their clockwork rhythm section provides the perfect backdrop to Kannberg’s rugged guitars and relaxed vocals. In fact, the record works best when using the bass and drum’s momentum, so deeper cuts like “Doping For Gold” get where they’re going through pure gravity. The best songs on the record, such as the poppy “Solitaire,” pair that momentum with truly catchy instrumentation, and the results are wondrous. When this combination doesn’t happen, such as on the dark “History of the River,” the results are simply uninteresting.
Pavement’s mystique has only grown since the band broke up, and each Malkmus release is greeted -- sometimes deservedly, sometimes not -- with a flurry of Pitchfork news updates. Kannberg, however, deserves perhaps more attention for providing both his old band and Preston School of Industry with what every good act needs: focus.
2. Falling Away
3. A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s For Real)
4. Encyclopedic Knowledge Of
5. History of the River
6. Doping For Gold
8. Blu Son
9. Monkey Heart and the Horses’ Leg
10. The Idea of Fires
11. Take a Stand/All This Sounds Gas
2008: Gore - Hart Gore + Mean Man’s Dream
Though you may not know it, Holland has long been a land of heavy music and reverberating amps. Take a listen to the Waterpipes and Dykes series on the Distortion Records label and you’ll unveil a late-”60s sonic scene as fully earth-shaking as anything out of Haight-Ashbury or the Motor City. Though the Dutch psych bands borrowed their sounds heavily from the standard U.K./U.S. blues rock models, they had a propensity for taking those familiar modes and blasting them through the ceiling, something that I'm sure the the legality, rampant availability, high quality, and cheap price of weed, magic mushrooms, and other entheogens never hurt.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Danish trio Gore were one of the heaviest bands of the 1980s. Aggressive and uncompromising for their time, they were kind of the missing link between late, Process of Weeding Out, instrumental-era Black Flag and the metallic tech-sludge of Saint Vitus or Melvins. “Baptized” in 1985 and playing their first show opening for The Swans on Feb 26, 1986, at Effenaar — a club that sat right next to Amsterdam’s largest and most famous club, The Paradiso — they played alongside, and sometimes shared members with, other heavy Dutch metal bands like Pandemonium and Disgust. This double-CD retrospective (once again lovingly packaged by Southern Lord) captures their two full-length albums, a few outtakes, and a couple live sets.
Hart Gore, their first album, polarized critics when it came out. Completely instrumental, Gore were taking a big chance, as instrumental math-metal and legions of Don Caballero fans were two things yet to exist. One of the strangest aspects of Gore's muteness on record was how politically vocal they were in their day-to-day lives. In fact, Hart Gore, though completely instrumental, contained a lyric sheet when it was released. More like political manifestos, the "lyrics" were rife with political angst, something which, on stage, they sublimated solely into their music. Gore's second album, Mean Man's Dream, was a more mature, precise outing, metered, mathy, and minimal. The contrast between the two records is best exemplified by their respective cover art: on Hart Gore, a picture of a fresh calf heart impaled on a sword; on Mean Man's Dream, a photo of a rusty knife sitting on an unclean table. In essence, while Hart Gore went straight to lacerating the jugular, Mean Man's Dream dared you to take the knife and do it to yourself.
Coming to America in the mid-’80s with the help of Henry Rollins, Gore were to embark on a West Coast U.S. tour, and had been tantalized with prospects of signing to SST. Unfortunately, Rollins had quit Black Flag just before picking them up from LAX, thereby putting a damper on their label deal. A pity, too, as they would’ve been an excellent fit; one could even see them snuggled cozily between Black Flag and Saccharine Trust on the Blasting Concept compilation. Instead, all they had to show for their only American experience was a short West Coast tour and a strong distaste for Greg Ginn's skunky American dope.
Eventually, their inability to compromise, both with convention and with each other, led to the group's demise. Today, Gore is not a household name, but perhaps if things had gone slightly differently, they would've been. Their influence is undoubtedly understated, and thanks go to Southern Lord for dusting off this chestnut and not letting the Gore legacy go down the memory hole.
2. To the Gallows
4. Axe of Revenge
5. Out For Blood
6. USA is Calling
7. Death is Coming
9. In the Eye of the Sniper
10. He Knows You Are Alone
11. Extirpation (Live)
12. To the Gallows (Live)
13. After (Live)
14. Axe of Revenge (Live)
15. Out For Blood (Live)
16. USA is Calling (Live)
17. Death is Coming (Live)
18. Fear (Live)
19. In the Eye of the Sniper (Live)
20. He Knows You Are Alone (Live)
21. Death Has Come
22. The Hunt
23. Station to Station
1. Mean Man’s Dream
4. Last Steps
6. The Bank
7. Back Home
9. Meat Machine
10. Out For Sex
11. Mean Man’s Dream (Live)
12. Search (Live)
13. Love (Live)
14. Last Steps (Live)
15. Chainsaw (Live)
16. The Bank (Live)
17. Back Home (Live)
18. Loaded (Live)
19. Meat Machine (Live)
20. Out For Sex (Live)
1968: Os Mutantes - Os Mutantes
An infectious energy and worldliness is immediately apparent upon hearing Os Mutantes’ most celebrated release, their self-titled debut. There’s an undeniable playfulness to every single one of its 11 tracks. Given that the band (comprised of singer Rita Lee and brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista) is commonly recognized for blending elements of bossa nova, psychedelic rock, and catchy pop, some would argue they could produce nothing other than uncorrupt, authentic bliss.
Yet there is undoubtedly a degree of awareness that goes into piecing together such distinct rhythms and musical concepts, so as not to be too safe or too over the top. Not to say that there aren’t moments of pure Mutantes flight. The dinner party at the end of “Panis Et Circenses” is one, brought to life with the sound of cups clinking together and spoken requests to "pass the salad." During such bouts of sonic experimentation, conflict is buried just beneath a surface shimmering with everything from angelic harmonies to church bells, flute solos to beating jungle drums.
After all, it was 1968. From every corner of the world, revolution boiled in the blood of the youth. This newborn ferocity -- a response to war, politics and general injustice -- quickly found its way into each region's music. In Brazil, it was no different. Circa 1967, the Tropicália movement stood as a force to fuel artistic innovation and experimentation throughout the country. Along with masters and leaders of the movement Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes were eventually threatened by Brazil’s right-wing military government, which feared their openness to Western influences.
As such, the playful and rejoicing characteristics of Os Mutantes are laced with experimental leaps, such as the heavily distorted guitar riffs layered over almost tribal-sounding vocals in “Bat Macumba.” These moments don’t bring anger or a sense of frustration to the music, yet being timely experiments in sound and creation, they certainly reveal the desire and struggle for change and evolution -- for anything other than what had been.
Meanwhile, the band’s experimental ventures are grounded by an occasional shout-out to their roots. Through the warm, earthy undertones of bossa nova, their distorting, mutating effects are given a softer and less intrusive presence. “A Minha Menina,” for example, is built on a foundation of homey, laid-back guitar strumming, while fuzzy guitar riffs float above, creating a dream-like, pensive state that inevitably alludes to the band’s ties with tropicalismo.
Os Mutantes translates quite simply into “The Mutants” -- embodiments of evolution and diversity. Change suddenly doesn’t sound so scary, drastic, or painful. Amidst everyday sounds -- the slurping from eating ice-cream, the clatter of dishes and silverware -- there is a place for change, for exploration. Distortion eventually finds its place under the wing of bossa nova lullabies and the band’s sensory approach to music. And it almost sounds natural.
1. Panis Et Circenses
2. A Minha Menina
3. O Relógio
4. Adeus Maria Fulô
6. Senhor F
7. Bat Macumba
8. Le Premier Bonheur du Jour
9. Trem Fantasma
10. Tempo No Tempo (Once Was A Time I Thought)
11. Ave Genghis Khan