Aside from a loyal fanbase of 50-year-old Long Island gearheads (hi, dad) and some devout followers of early hard rock and heavy metal, most people who know of Blue Öyster Cult, when pressed, can name exactly three of their songs: “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Burnin’ For You,” and “Godzilla.” These are all undeniably great in their own right, but apart from the epic solos, infectious hooks, and earth-moving power chords, they hardly paint a full picture of the prodigious instrumentalism and wholly uncompromising lyricism that the pioneers of ass-kicking once known as Soft White Underbelly have put forward time and time again. At best, they offer an incomplete, if beautiful, sketch — an outline of three different rock/metal composites, each assembled with equal parts traditional craftsmanship and alchemic wizardry.
To truly appreciate BÖC, one should start with their first three albums, the black and white LPs Blue Öyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation, and this writer’s personal favorite, 1974’s Secret Treaties. Co-written by Patti Smith, the album’s opening track, “Career of Evil,” features a demented guitar/organ riff that could provide the score to a cannibalistic cabal’s cross-country carnival — a fitting starting point considering that at this time a good portion of the band’s fanfare was a result of their frequent touring. When lead vocalist Eric Bloom declares, “I’d like to do it to your daughter on a dirt road/ And then I’d spend your ransom money/ But still keep your sheep,” he demonstrates a good-humored malevolence that serves as the rock star yin to producer Sandy Pearlman’s Lovecraftian yang.
The next track, “Subhuman,” and the album’s closer, “Astronomy,” are both inspired by the alien conspiracy mythos laid out in Pearlman’s unreleased poetry collection, The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos. That’s a whole story unto itself, and so you could spend all day picking apart the metaphysical meanings of verses like “Hellish glare and inference/ The other one’s a duplicate/ The queenly flux eternal light/ Or the light that never warms,” but the true genius lies in the fact that these abstractions are propped up by a familiar tale of youthful indiscretion: “Come Susie dear, let’s take a walk/ Just out there upon the beach/ I know you’ll soon be married/ And you’ll want to know where winds come from.” A brilliant ballad no matter how you slice it, “Astronomy” would reappear on several future BÖC releases, including the live album, Some Enchanted Evening, and 1988’s Imaginos.
Secret Treaties’ standout track – the one that really and truly bangs – is “Flaming Telepaths.” In today’s age of irksome irony, when we see such a title on an album’s tracklist we tend to scoff, and rightfully so I suppose. The title is over the top, as is its prog-heavy pre-stadium rock intro, as are lyrics like “Poisons in my bloodstream/ Poisons in my pride,” as are the consecutive keyboard and guitar solos that make up about a quarter of the song — but taken altogether, it works now in 2012 just as well as it did in 1974, maybe even better. The reason is this: Blue Öyster Cult’s members are smarter, tighter, and more talented than your favorite musicians, plus even when they’re fucking around, they ain’t fucking around. Look again at the front cover of the album. That’s a drawing of the band standing next to a German World War II plane marked with their hook-and-cross insignia and piloted by death himself. Donning a cape, the lead singer holds at bay four German Shepherds.
On the back cover, those same dogs lie sprawled in pools of blood.
Shoegaze has often struck me as a particularly “warm” sounding genre. You know the sounds: huge instrumental washes smudging out the presence of vocals, leaving behind gestural traces of mood and feeling; a general sense not unlike blurred-out smears of color (e.g., the gauzy red of Loveless, the blue tides of Nowhere, the sickly yellow of Ferment). Instead of the concrete or plainly stated, much shoegaze washes over the listener, smothering the ears with a big fuzzy blanket of texture — but suppose one were to apply the shoegaze aesthetic to the absence of color, or feeling? What happens when such an enveloping sound loses its warmth, or trades in the ethereal wash for crushing weight?
In 1993, Bailter Space answered this question with the release of Robot World, their debut LP for Matador Records. It was the first album from the originally Christchurch, NZ-based trio to see wide release stateside, roughly coinciding with their relocation to New York. True to its title, Robot World takes the shoegaze sound and renders it cold and mechanical: human feeling replaced by the factory line, and personal alienation wrought by a pervasively unrelenting world of technology.
Frontman Alister Parker’s vocals may occasionally be washed-out, but the music on Robot World belies any sort of ethereal pondering: instead of enveloping warmth, thick swathes of guitars form an austere latticework of mechanical grit, like rusted powerlines fizzling before a meltdown. On “EIP,” for example, the band’s guitars aren’t “played” so much as “bludgeoned.” The video for “EIP,” featuring Bailter Space performing in an abandoned concrete junkyard (which, I agree, is a pretty clichéd idea for a video by this point, but the brutality of empty concrete juxtaposed with distorted video footage really does suit the song’s detached emotional squalor) even shows as much, framing John Halvorsen’s bass playing as, well, a fist against the strings.
This isn’t all to suggest that Robot World is overwhelmingly cold or detached, however. The gliding verse melodies of “Make,” for example, hit wistful dream-pop territory, albeit only to be crushed shortly thereafter by a few extra layers of guitar distortion (it was 1993 — that’s to be expected, no?). Elsewhere, “Morning” pits a longingly strained vocal melody amidst energetic drive; “Ore” progresses with the closest thing to rhythmic swagger Robot World has and “Get Lost,” the lone track recorded in New York, is flat-out visceral. When played at the proper volume (i.e., loud), Robot World is staggeringly immense: headphones or loudspeakers are a necessity.
Nowadays, it’s almost unimaginable to have an artist on a major label put out more than one album in the span of a year. In 1969, Fairport Convention released three studio LPs, and at least two of them are regarded as classics of the era. While Liege and Lief is considered to be the one to buy, to me Unhalfbricking is the record that should be considered the quintessential Fairport album.
Unhalfbricking is where they started to use notes and scales heard within ancient folk ballads while also injecting their music with the energy and inspiration of the best psych-rock of the day, like Pink Floyd and Tomorrow. In my opinion, transition albums – when they work – have the biggest potential to become important records; the ones that transcend time and change the rules of the game, not only of the band but of everyone who comes in contact with them.
For the album’s centerpiece, the band plays a version of the traditional ballad “A Sailor’s Life” and it is significant for many reasons. Future violinist Dave Swarbrick makes an appearance, but, more importantly, the band makes the song their own, starting it with droning tones over which Sandy Denny sings the lyrics. Slowly, the band builds the song until they are all playing off each other, making it seem like the most exciting thing in the world. And this is hardly the only instance of such inventiveness and excitement on the record.
While it’s true that, in cold terms, Fairport’s importance falls on their electrification of traditional British music of yore, what really made them special was their ability to infuse it not only with the furor of the best rock n’ roll but also the intensity of jazz instrumentalists and blues singers. The element of emotion escaping the realms of song is present throughout the record. It’s there on the joyful choruses of “Million Dollar Bash.” It’s on the middle section of “Autopsy.” It’s right there on the final verses of “Percy’s Song.”
Perhaps Fairport Convention found a way to tap into the emotional well, the raw nerve core of hundreds of generations past who felt a religious release in music. A sentiment that has remained in humanity’s backbone, yet is sadly absent in many contemporary artists. Fairport were not only an amazing band, they were archeologists of sound and sentiments.
1979: Sun Ra - Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty is the only Sun Ra album I consistently put on when I want to fall asleep. It’s probably the quietest, most peaceful item in the audio universe that is Sun Ra’s discography. At this point in his career, Ra was recording material for five hour blocks, editing the best parts into an album, and then releasing them almost immediately. Three full-band Sun Ra/Arkestra LPs were released in 1979, with Sleeping Beauty on Ra’s own infamous Saturn Records label. I say infamous because for some albums he only pressed 75 copies. On others, maybe one side of a record was from a completely different recording session put out ten years earlier. Such is the mythology surrounding Sun Ra’s status as a DIY distributor of his own catalog.
The music on this album comes at a time when the disco/soul/funk of Sun Ra’s hometown (Philly Soul) had become bigger than ever. Besides that influence, Sun Ra and the Arkestra were becoming less and less dependent on the free jazz experiments documented on countless live recordings like 1978’s Media Dream. This isn’t to say that the tracks here don’t still feel formless, they’re just more conventional than what you’d expect. The first track “Springtime Again” lilts along at a slow and tender pace, hinting at Sun Ra’s reoccurring meditations on duality and the transition from winter to spring. The recording breezes along as the 28-piece Arkestra keep the song afloat. Punctuated by Ra’s piano work and the sax solos of veteran Arkestra members Marshall Allen and John Gilmore, the song is a classic in Sun Ra’s catalog.
Track two, the funkier “Door of the Cosmos,” brings to mind concert-favorite “Enlightenment” with a steady dose of chants and hand claps. The spirit of the performance stands out as the song becomes more dependent on bass and guitar. June Tyson’s vocals sound great on this one, and trumpet player Michael Ray also steps up to the plate with one of his best performances. Perhaps more than any other member in the Arkestra though, the song is driven by the subtle off-rhythm snares of drummer Luqman Ali who sounds amazingly in control of the band throughout the whole album.
The title track, taking up all of side two on the original LP, has always been my least favorite of the bunch but there’s still plenty to be said for it. Vibraphones come more into play, the vocals are murkier, and the song is carried along mainly by Sun Ra’s cloudy electric piano riffs as a guide for other members in the Arkestra to find room for their solos. Marshall Allen’s brief solo toward the end of the song is a pretty great representation of two themes that hold the album together: restraint and release. Allen’s stabbing atonal solos might be found on Sun Ra’s earlier work, but here they are squeezed tight and reconfigured for the track, a more traditional big-band-influenced slow-burning space-funk groove. This was the brilliance of Sun Ra as a bandleader; he constantly found ways to reinvent his music with the Arkestra. Sleeping Beauty is just one of many albums to uphold that artistic achievement.
EVOL was a hell of a leap for Sonic Youth. Considering that it’s bookended by the dreamily experimental, if slightly underbaked, Bad Moon Rising and the masterpiece duo of Sister and Daydream Nation, this LP is the blueprint for what became the instantly recognizable “Sonic Youth Sound” which drove late 80’ indie rock. From the downright creepy dirge “Tom Violence” to the near radio-friendly pop of “Star Power,” the album is loaded with gems, but the indisputable high-point is the closing seven-minute epic “Expressway To Yr. Skull.”
“Expressway” is a skeleton of a pop ditty surrounded by an ocean of seething guitar noise and remains one of Sonic Youth’s most popular and exhausting live experiences. The whole song is a rush of monstrous rave-ups and a slow descent into delicate, gurgling noise both of which the band handles with supreme ease. They lead the audience along with them until the taut pause in the middle of the song when they bash us over the head with a wall of guitar which starts the soundscape-ish second half that slowly dissolves into blistering feedback for the final minutes.
This is Sonic Youth, and noise rock generally, at the top of its game. From this point on, Sonic Youth could do no wrong, cranking out a series albums where every melodic line and guitar squawk feels equally essential and perfectly placed. As is evidence by the blatant riff “borrowing” on “Ex-Dreams” from The Men’s excellent 2012 LP Open Your Heart (skip to 2:20 if you don’t believe me), “Expressway To Yr. Skull” is still is still one of the finest and most beloved pieces from Sonic Youth’s 80’s pinnacle.
P.S. As the begging of this video proves, Thurston Moore is the fucking man.
1978: Wire - “Dot Dash”
Through the three distinct stages of their career, Wire has never been known to give much thought to their singles. Their records from the mid-80s and early-00s should probably be heard in “best of” compilations to avoid the occasional missteps and their three flawless albums from the 70s are so densely packed and perfectly constructed that listening to individual cuts seems somewhat odd. But one single sticks out in Wire’s discography, both because it’s one of the best tracks from their first incarnation and because it’s only appeared in one or two places over their entire forty-year span.
Released in June 1978, “Dot Dash” fills the already brief gap between 1977’s minimalist punk masterpiece Pink Flag and its expansive, synthy-er follow-up Chairs Missing from later the same year. As expected, “Dot Dash” toes an interesting line between these very different albums and shows what exactly Wire was working on in the months between LPs. On one hand, its sound isn’t too far from Pink Flag’s side B tracks like “Fragile” or “Mannequin.” But picking it apart a bit more shows Wire embracing a wider sonic pallet than Pink Flag offered and edging subtly closer to the more fleshed-out Chairs Missing.
At around the 1:20 mark, the song opens up with an actual guitar solo (sort of) and these chiming pings continue until the end, adding another layer of background texture. Now that doesn’t sound like much, but considering how crushingly stark and focused Pink Flag was, “Dot Dash” drops a pretty big hint at what Wire’s sound would morph into over the next couple years. Combined with a relative lack of aggression and strong pop sensibility, perhaps it was ultimately a lesser known single that foreshadowed the unique brand of experimental post-pop Wire focused on for much of the 80s.
1989: Inner City - “Good Life”
Kevin Saunderson got into music making a few years after his high school friends Derrick May and Juan Atkins, opting to spend the early 80s focusing on college, while they worked on a new sound that people were calling techno. Thankfully he did get into music because, aside from the fact that “The Belleville Two” wouldn’t sound nearly as cool, Saunderson’s late 80s work is responsible for creating the popular breakthrough his friends had been working towards. Saunderson’s greatest contribution to the sound came from his Inner City collaborations with Paris Grey, and while their debut single “Big Fun” is the track that skyrocketed techno to the top of the dance charts, the follow-up “Good Times” is even bigger and better.
While Saunderson’s beats are fantastic*, Paris Grey and her stunning voice are the reason why these songs had such a major impact. Originally a gospel singer in Chicago, Grey began doing vocal tracks for house singles during the 80s, and eventually was invited to Detroit to put vocals over some tracks that Saunderson had made. The pairing worked together like some sort of perfect chemical reaction: a Chicago house-diva and one of the early techno producers joined forces to create something that helped elevate both music scenes to tremendous popularity. Grey’s voice is an amazing combination of soulful and sexy in the verses of “Good Life,” leading into her electronically tweaked chorus that effortlessly glides over Saunderson’s pumping 909 programming. It makes sense when you watch the very dated (but still pretty charming) music video that Grey seems incapable of taking that cocky grin off her face; after debuting with a big hit, nothing’s more satisfying than blowing everyone away with an even bigger one.
*So fantastic in fact, that Hercules and the Love Affair heavily sampled “Good Life” to make their own take on 80s house, “You Belong.”
1996: Fiona Apple - Tidal
If you approach Fiona Apple’s early music without context, you’ll think she’s a seductive songstress who dares to go a little further to the extreme, both thematically and sonically. But in 1996, when her debut album first appeared, Fiona was a subversive figure in the music world.
She was an artist too young to be so serious and mature in her subject matter, one who never thought twice when speaking her mind (see her “the world is bullshit” rant she gave during her MTV Awards acceptance speech). The video for her song “Criminal” reeked of illegal activity even though nothing controversial is shown. But, most importantly, the reason she was a such a stark and heavy artist was reflected in the way Apple could hiss and whimper a melody that, at key moments, could be full of pain and sexual desire.
Tidal isn’t a concept album, it’s also not a confessional song cycle. It’s simply an old fashioned record, taking a setting and touching a bunch of subject matters within it, related with each other only because the author’s voice is so clear throughout its lyrics. Fiona reflects on past relationships in a remorseful way, confronts present lovers on their undoings and speaks about sexuality that is both painful (“Sullen Girl”) and pleasure seeking (“The First Taste”).
Armed primordially with a piano, Apple uses a virtual army of sounds and instruments to make her songs, thanks to partner in crime Jon Brion. Her tunes are not only showcases for her voice, lyrics and songwriting skills; they are also fully developed instrumental tracks that complement the themes and vocal melodies. The album features a very specific sound with certain touches that make it stand out.
But it’s her voice – a seductive sound on the lower register – that really makes this album stand out. It’s every word she didn’t write, every mental image that didn’t make it to the lyric book, everything that’s implicit by the protagonist: her raised eyebrows, smirks, and every single tear she sheds for her lover and herself. Like the music that carries it, her voice is not bound by range alone; sometimes it reaches high places, but most of the time it works by sheer force and emotion. “Tidal” is a perfect word to describe the ebb, flow, and power of her main instrument, not to mention the impact of the songs that use it to feel and become real. Fiona Apple might be another singer seated behind the piano, but her debut makes it clear she is a force to be reckoned with.
By the end of the 1970s, the hangover had worn off and underground psych entered a problematic phase, a second adolescence. If psychedelic rock had ever been a movement, it certainly wasn’t anymore, having undergone fragmentation and dispersal into the comparatively humorless realms of progressive rock and heavy metal. At the end of the decade, punk began to rear its ugly head, borrowing the DIY ethos of underground psych toward its own polemical ends. Though (post-)punk eventually addressed the need for music that appealed to the “higher” four circuits of human consciousness, in 1978 it was a stripped-down, primitive snarl without so much as a lysergic residue.
It is this background that makes a record like The Happy Dragon-Band — the sole album released by the eponymous Detroit band led by composer Tommy Court — such a unique case. It was recorded and released at a time in which there was barely any context for what it offered, an eclectic mashup of apocalyptic psych-folk and brain damaged groove glued together by a no-budget production with occasional side trips into abstract electronic noise. It was an idiosyncratic response to void times by a composer who was aware of the adventurous periphery of psychedelia. Captain Beefheart, Chrome, and Comus are a few of the possible reference points, and those are just the “C”s. This is not to suggest that the album is derivative. On the contrary, it is remarkably coherent and assured. That confidence of tone is especially true of the vocals, which alternate between the starry-eyed euphoria of first-wave psych and the acidic sneer of punk. Even as the band fumbles and trips over itself, the vocals carry the weird banner of The Happy Dragon-Band ever forward.
Released on the tiny Michigan-based indie Fiddlers Music, the album made very little impact and was quickly forgotten until a later generation of rare psych collectors retroactively recognized it as a lost classic. This led to a digital reissue in 2005 by bootleg label Radioactive. Due to poor research and the echo chamber quality of the internet, the record has frequently been incorrectly attributed to the Detroit group who recorded the Doors-esque album Phantom’s Divine Comedy in 1974. Listening to the two albums side-by-side should confirm the lack of even a slight similarity between the two. Phantom is derivative and staid, an avant la lettre throwback with the pedantic overtones of art rock thrown in for bad measure. The Happy Dragon-Band, for all their flaws, were startlingly original, and completely in step with the flux of their particular moment. Look no further than the album’s opening track “3-D Free,” a loping reggae jam with lyrics that evoke a bizarre apocalyptic vision: “All the buildings started to fall/ I saw police shooting rats swarming in the drains.”
The album ends with a chaotic squall of noise that purports to be an electronic version of the same song, but comes closer to a nightmarish re-vision. Nearly three minutes of tribal percussion, swirling synths, and distorted screams suddenly cracks and dissolves into a solo acoustic version of the song that somehow manages to be ten times as fucked and sinister as the original.
The growing influence of Ariel Pink and his milieu has meant that vintage lo-fi oddities by artists such as Donnie & Joe Emerson and Cleaners From Venus have recently received the reissue treatment along with a flurry of critical attention. The Happy Dragon-Band would seem to be ripe for this kind of reappraisal, despite the fact that their brand of psych retains an irreducible pessimism that does not mesh particularly well with the blithely Pollyannish outlook of much borrowed nostalgia. I would like to claim that The Happy Dragon-Band is an album whose time has come, but I’m not sure there is any one time in which it would sit comfortably.
Short-lived projects like the Del Byzanteens are often great ways of entering the archives of discarded culture. When Deleuze and Guattari first inflicted Jung’s concept of the rhizomatic nature of history on generations of college students, they were trying to suggest that you could get into history through the side door; that if you used the less stately entrance you might be exposed to a more complex, indeed more ‘Byzantine’ world of connections. The main point of entry for music scene historians into world of the Del Byzanteens is the internet factoid that their keyboard player and vocalist was film-maker Jim Jarmusch.
If you only listened to the labyrinthine garage of “Girl’s Imagination” for its ‘byzantine charms’ it might be enough; the track hits you with the feeling you get when you know you’ve found yourself some genuine old and dirty underground hit – a tune that actually got played at parties. But if you limited yourself this way, you’d miss out on other highlights of a great one time album; for example Supreme’s cover “My World is Empty Without You” or the keyboard experimentalism on “Apartment,” not to mention the 60s garage hustle of “Welcome.” Likewise if you assumed that Jarmusch is the mad genius behind all of this, just because he’s the only recognizable name, you’d be missing the eclectic influences that fed the Del Byzanteens.
As a band that only had one LP, their history was typically rhizomatic – lateral rather than deep. And as a New York band, with many connections in a tightly squeezed city of millions, we can assume this may have been more true for them than for most. Guitarist Dan Braun played with Glenn Branca and Michael Gira; the brothers Brown became film producers and horror comic archivists in later life (already in the 80s the Del Byzanteens were cultivating a horror B-Movie garage sound similar to The Cramps, also New York based). Phil Kline was to become a maverick experimental composer. The band’s sound itself was not correspondingly eclectic. Most tracks were characterized by an active pogo-ing baseline and tight straightforward drumming, with deranged honky tonk belly dancer keyboards and other curious flourishes thrown in to keep it interesting.
But it also happens for our generalizing purposes that Dan Braun’s high school band was called Spinal Root Gang, featuring none other than the protean Madonna Ciccone. In an interview with The Washington Post in the 1980s Jarmusch claimed that his free film-making was influenced by the spirit of a music scene that was DIY rather than professional. Sometimes when you turn over a stone, a scene is crawling with connections that seem to have had a lifelong influence on careers that at first seemed unique and entirely self-created.