Category Archives: vinyl

The Clash • The Clash [LP, CD]

In early April 1977, punk rock was something us Yanks enjoyed from the relative tranquility of our overstuffed living room chairs via nightly network newscasts and their exaggerated coverage of the UK’s latest outrage. Twenty-somethings with safety pins for earrings (and noserings!), ratty leather or Levi’s jackets emblazoned with patches and pins of their favorite bands – bands we’d never heard of here, with crazy names and logos – were shown constantly. It was real exciting for a 14 year old just starting his first band! I, like most of America, bought into the hyped-up, dumbed-down coverage, believing that “punk rock” must be pretty stupid judging from what our US talking heads were reporting. Of course, most of the stories on TV were shallow, not telling us how the movement was both a slam against the mega-rich rock stars of the time and the fact that there were no jobs for the working class, who were forced to try and live “on the dole” with no hope and quite likely no future.

By the time THE CLASH had their debut album, The Clash, released 40 years ago, punk was everywhere. The Damned had already issued their first records (see my review of Damned Damned Damned elsewhere on this blog), the Sex Pistols had a single out, and bands were forming everywhere in garages across the land. Here in the States, small, punk-infused movements were getting going in New York, L.A., San Francisco and nearly every city with more than four disaffected youths, and even way down under in Australia there was The Saints (see my review of I’m Stranded) singing about the same things! Fact of the matter is, teenagers and young adults all across the civilized world were feeling fed up with what appeared to be their lots in life and music was a real good way to express it. Anyone could pick up an instrument and play it, and some could even play together well enough to create songs – the rest could buy a cheap 7″ and sing along with the woes their new heroes had set to music. Punk rock wasn’t as homogeneous as it has been portrayed; some bands came up with great tunes and melodies while others set basic war chants to music. Some bands were political, others weren’t. If you had ears to listen there was something for you.

Photo by Chalkie Davies.

The Clash was for those who were through with what the government was giving them. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, with Paul Simonon and Tory Crimes, sang about “Hate and War,” a “White Riot” and “Career Opportunities” (“the ones that never knock”). The music was primitive and powerful. Strummer’s lead vocals weren’t so much sang as spat. Jones’ guitar was played with all the grit you could get out of a Gibson. This is a record that demands the listener to don full-on riot gear in order to avoid the blood splatter blasting from the grooves! “London’s Burning,” indeed.

In retrospect it’s strange that this album was considered so raw that it wasn’t even released in the USA until after the following album, Give ’Em Enough Rope, was issued. When it was finally released here (after it had sold over 100,000 units as an import), the A&R dude at Epic Records stripped a handful of songs from it and replaced them with some newer, more “radio friendly” cuts plus a 7″ single with two brand spankin’ new non-LP tracks. (See, even back in the late ’70s record companies were trying to get you to buy more and more copies of a release you already owned. “’Cause killers in America work seven days a week!”)

I’ve got a few different versions of The Clash. On CD there are both the 1999 issues (UK and US configurations, of course) and the 2013 remaster included in The Clash Sound System mega-boxset. Vinylly, I spin the pictured 2013 Record Store Day issue pressed in “white riot/Protex blue split color” wax. Both recent versions were mastered by “Tim Young & The Clash” (presumably minus Strummer!) and sound great considering the rawness of the recordings, unlike most of what was being released by major record labels in the ’70s. I imagine any 1999 or later CD or vinyl of legitimate issue will suffice – what we’re talking about here is a punk rock cornerstone, an album that would actually benefit from shoddy quality. If it was supposed to sound polished and proper it wouldn’t be punk!

4.5/5 (Epic Records, 1977)

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The Damned • Damned Damned Damned [CD, LP]

Some anniversaries make you feel old. Some of ’em make you feel young. And some – like the 40th anniversary of this, punk rock’s quintessential and inaugural album – make you feel both old and young at the same time. THE DAMNED‘s first album, Damned Damned Damned, was released in late February 1977 on UK upstart Stiff Records and in the last year it’s been reissued on both vinyl (Drastic Plastic USA) and now CD via BMG UK. It’s one of those records that never loses its cheeky appeal.

Yours truly didn’t discover The Damned until 1981-1982 (via an IRS Records sampler featuring 1980’s “Wait for the Blackout”), and by then they’d undergone a bit of maturing. But on their debut disc, The Damned were a rowdy, youthful quartet just happy to be making noise and having someone record it. Producer Nick Lowe was that someone, and you don’t have to consult reissue liner notes or Wikipedia to tell that his job was primarily to keep the youngsters focused long enough to get a dozen songs on tape. Just listen to Damned Damned Damned and you can hear all the joy and energy these guys exuded. Whether it’s their debut single, “New Rose” (“is she really going out with him?”), followup single “Neat Neat Neat,” or any of the other punk classics here (I’ll cite “Fan Club,” “Born to Kill” and “Feel the Pain” as my favorites), this barely 30-minute “long player” charges out of the gate like a horse not just going for the win but running for its life. By the time closer “I Feel Alright” (aka The Stooges’ “1970”) finishes, there’s no doubt that this album deserves its inclusion in the top of the punk pops.

Damned Damned Damned still has a lotta life in it. Whether you pick up the late 2016 vinyl reissue on Drastic Plastic (available on 150 gram yellow or 180 gram black vinyl; excellently mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio), or the brand new 2017 BMG CD (no weight or mastering credit), you can’t go wrong. I like the vinyl for Gray’s beefy mastering job (the CD’s a tad bit thinner-sounding), but the CD comes in a book-style package with some great liner notes and photos. Neither has any extra tracks, though, so for those you’d have to grab one of the compilations like 2005’s 3CD box set, Play It at Your Sister, et al.

There have been way too many changes in personnel, temperament and outlook over the last four decades to detail here, but in ’76-’77 The Damned were vocalist Dave Vanian, guitarist/songwriter Brian James, bassist Captain Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies; a buncha guys with colorful names making raucous rock ’n’ roll. Today only Vanian and Sensible remain (the latter having switched to guitar a long, long time ago), but the band – who have made a number of great records since 1976 – still tours regularly and this year they’re touring that killer record they made forty years ago. It’d be a shame to miss the chance to hear this punk classic performed nice ’n’ loud right in front of yer face by the only band that still matters, The Damned.

5/5 (Drastic Plastic DPRLP76, vinyl; BMG BMGAA01CD, CD)

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Pugwash • Almond Tea [LP], Almanac [LP]

pugwash-almondtea_350pxFirst off, get over to Sugarbush Records right now and order a copy of each of these before they run out. I’ll wait for ya. Okay, now that you’re back: PUGWASH is the best Irish band since The Undertones and one of the best bands of the last two decades, period. Their first two albums, 1999’s Almond Tea and 2002’s Almanac, have been reissued in very limited editions for the first time on (colored) vinyl and they’re stunning! If you haven’t heard of Thomas Walsh’s band it’s not surprising – Pugwash is as obscure here in the States as a hot dog is in Ireland. And it’s hard to understand why, in this Internet/Wikipedia/“Google it!” age, that a cursory search of “power pop,” “Irish rock bands,” or “those guys with the big-hearted, big guy who writes the catchiest tunes this side of 1960s Liverpool” doesn’t serve up the name Pugwash. The band, fronted by Walsh and including his current, more-than-able mates Tosh Flood, Shaun McGee and Joe Fitzgerald, has had a career-spanning “best of” (A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash, 2014) and a further CD released here in the States in recent years, and a new 2017 release on the way. (You can support that release on Kickstarter here.) But this is where it all started.

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Almond Tea in “mint tea green” and Almanac in orange.

Almond Tea (”as served by Pugwash”) was the band’s debut release, and one of those albums that comes out of nowhere (or in this case, Dublin) with a sound that is at once of its time and of no time. Put out by now defunct Vélo Records, it was Walsh’s first fully realized project after years of making his own demos in a shed out back. This time he and his mates go all out. Their songs sometimes recall ’60s greats like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Beach Boys, plus later heroes ELO and XTC, but none of them are out and out copies. “The Finer Things in Life” (pronounced “tings” in Walsh’s particular Irish accent), a tender yet semi-rockin’ love song, recalls John Lennon with its Rubber Soul meets Double Fantasy melancholy vibe. Further songs are in a more power pop place, like “Two Wrongs” and “Missing the Point.” Throughout Almond Tea you hear references to all kinds of records in your collection.

pugwash-almanac_350pxWalsh’s talent to come up with canny concoctions continues on Almanac, Pugwash’s sophomore release (also originally released by Vélo). More upbeat than its predecessor, the band’s second LP features guitar gems like “Monorail,” “Keep Movin’ On” and “Apples,” among a harvest of other treats straight out of The Big Book of Psychedelic Psunshine Pop. Thomas’s voice is a sonorous one, equal parts nasal and not; his range and note-hitting precision is something lacking in most of today’s lead singers. There’s not a hint of gimmicky affect or studio trickery anywhere. The other band members’ voices help carry Walsh’s to a place that is seldom seen or heard anymore.

Thanks to the folks at Sugarbush Records these early Pugwash albums are available on beautiful, 180 gram colored vinyl LPs. In your choice of two colors each, they are limited to 250 copies per color and rumor is this breed is just about extinct. Considering the original CDs are also an endangered species (they fetch big bucks on Ebay), you might just want to hop to it.

(Also of note: Sugarbush has many fine, limited edition releases available, including some by Seattle psych-pop greats Green Pajamas. Finally, I reviewed Pugwash’s 2015 release, Play This Intimately, right here.)

3.5/5, 4/5 (Almond Tea, Sugarbush SB021; Almanac, Sugarbush SB028)

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John Lennon • Rock ’N’ Roll [album] vs. Paul McCartney • СНОВА Б СССР [album]

lennon-rocknroll_400pxOr Battle of The Beatles Heavyweights! Right about now in 1975, former Beatle JOHN LENNON released an album of Rock ’N’ Roll oldies – and it was to be his last for over five years. At the time the critics weren’t exactly singing the praises of it or their hero’s seeming lack of new songs. In fact, they were fairly forthright about it. It doesn’t really matter anymore, though, as today Rock ’N’ Roll stands as the man’s unique tribute to the music that inspired him, eventually to form his own band and then change the face of popular music forever.

PAUL McCARTNEY, on the other hand, was then on a roll with his band Wings. By 1987, though, Lennon’s esteemed Beatles bandmate was having a rough time of it. The hits had slowed considerably and, in an attempt to recharge his psyche, Macca revisited his rockin’ roots and did a covers album of his own, Choba Б CCCP. It was initially only available in Russia (hence the title: Back in the USSR). The record was imported and bootlegged heavily, and after McCartney issued a few of the songs as B-sides to a 1987 single, “Once Upon a Long Ago” (not released in the US), he eventually relented and released an extended version of the album on CD for all the world to hear.

mccartney-chobabcccp_400pxLennon and McCartney, though once united in rhyme in The Beatles, chose different songs for their respective tributes. They both relied heavily on the big names of ’50s rock: Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame” was the only song covered by both, with McCartney also doing Fats’ “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” and “I’m in Love Again”), Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. The albums were recorded over ten years apart, with different bands and under different circumstances (by ’87 Lennon had been dead for seven years, which must have weighed heavily on McCartney’s mind as he went about making his record). So pitting the two records against each other isn’t really a fair fight. But since I’m the referee in this ring, I’ve chosen to go for it anyway and render my decision. No punching below the belt, no name calling, gentlemen, let’s have a fair fight and may the best man win!

lennon-mccartney-hamburg_400pxLennon’s LP, Rock ’N’ Roll, is a very thick-sounding record. Replete with not only guitar and keyboards but a horn section, its production – by Lennon and “Wall Of Sound” originator Phil Spector – is multi-layered and at times suffers from too-much-happening-all-at-once. Yet the arrangements are quite spectacular, sometimes unique (the slow reggaefied rhythm of “You Can’t Catch Me,” for instance), and delivered with commitment. When John sings “Stand by Me” you can feel the song’s import on his life. The album’s been reissued many times. I highly recommend the 2010 vinyl, remastered from 24/96 digital files (purportedly taken directly from the analog master) but very detailed and with no noticable digital ick. For a different take on the material, find the 2005 CD – it was remixed at the time and de-clutters some of the arrangements to give you a different, maybe even better idea of just what was going on at Record Plant East Studios (“everybody here says ‘hi’”) all those years ago.

As for Choba Б CCCP, McCartney’s take on some of his favorite rock ’n’ roll classics, it’s also a winner. (I know, I know: There are no ties allowed. Wait for it.) Sparse compared to Lennon’s, these arrangements pretty much stick to your standard guitar/piano/bass/drums variety, making for a more immediate feel. Yes, the snare’s a bit overbearing (this was the mid ’80s, after all) and the guitar sometimes has a slightly over-processed tone, but this album sounds no more “Eighties” than Lennon’s does “Seventies.” McCartney, too, sounds like he means it when he’s singing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” or Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” a song fabled in Beatles lore as the one he impressed Lennon with in 1957 or so when the two boys met and cemented their connection to each other forever. Though McCartney’s covers album was second in release (and really, Ringo Starr did an album of covers in 1970! – not a rock ’n’ roll outing), it’s hard to say which one is first in terms of greatness. But because there are no ties in pugilism – and because America loves a winner – I gotta go with Lennon. By a hair. Yes, those who know me know that McCartney is my man, but Lennon ain’t no slouch either. “But Marsh,” you might say, “McCartney’s put out a lot of crap as a solo artist.” And I would reply with, “Had Lennon kept releasing records for another thirty plus years, he might have put out a similar number of stinkers himself.” Besides: YOU WON. Let it be.

4.5/5 (Lennon, Parlophone/Apple); 4/5 (McCartney, Capitol)

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Blur • Blur [LP]

blur-blur_400pxBritpop heavyweights BLUR landed their first US biggie in 1997 with the eponymous Blur. Twenty years ago this week – another time, another place, at least for me – it was released as the followup to their celebrated (and then rescinded) The Great Escape, the last of their “Life” trilogy (which also included Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife). Blur was a departure, for gone were the new wavey arrangements,  the mellotrony goodness and the generally upbeat sound that defined their oeuvre. Here the band were primed and ready to shoot for bear with super distorted guitars, lo-fi production values and an even more overt down vibe. (Not counting “M.O.R.,” which feels at least slightly hopeful.)

The thing that was unexpected to many of us Yanks was how Blur had gone grunge. I’m not talking as grunge as Pearl Jam or even Nirvana, but after their last three albums, which were like finger flicks to the cheek, this one was a punch in the face. The underlying tunes were still quintessentially Blur, sure, but you’d have to be deaf to not hear the difference. Of course, twenty years later, the change feels more cosmetic and not as jarring as it did in ’97. Blur welcomed the band’s newfound American fan base thanks to the ubiquitous “Song 2” (“Woo hoo!”), whose video was played constantly and audio was everywhere there wasn’t a TV monitor. They were, indeed, looking for America (“with its kooky knives and suicides,” as they sang in “Look Inside America”) and they found it. Albarn, Coxon, James & Rowntree found the Promised Land, alright, warts ’n’ all.

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So, today I have a 2LP pressing of Blur from 2012 (180 gram, natch) that almost sounds too pristine considering this was Blur’s big fuck you and good night! to the Britpop sound they helped define. I almost think it would’ve served the material better if they’d crammed all 57 minutes onto one record. Bring out less of the snap and more of the crackle! Yet, there’s no denying that it’s an era-capturing album, among the handful of releases that make Blur an important part of my music collection.

4/5 (Food/Parlophone FOODLPX19; 2012 reissue)

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XTC • English Settlement [2LP]

xtc-englishsettlement_400pxHere’s another great album anniversary for me to go on about: English Settlement, the 1982 2LP set from XTC, turned 35 this week, and it’s yet another release with a distinguished place in my collection.

By the time the celebrated UK “new wave” band released this, their fifth album, XTC had had a few appearances on Top of the Pops under their belts, for songs like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Statue of Liberty,” and would do so a few more times over the next decade or so. Their principal songwriter, Andy Partridge, turned in some of his best songs for Settlement, as did bass player Colin Moulding. And yet, this album’s release – or at least the tour supporting it – was a huge missed opportunity that took the band years to recover from. That’s because Partridge finally succumbed to the stage fright that had been his nemesis since the band started, just as the band had begun a US tour that quite possibly would have “broke” them here. Their single, “Senses Working Overtime,” was topping college radio charts everywhere and its video was getting saturation play on MTV (which had only debuted in August ’81). The tour was cancelled after only a handful of shows (I’m still bummed because I had planned to attend their Seattle stop); who knows how the exposure would have helped them in America? It took XTC another four years to achieve similar visibility here (with the song “Dear God” from their 1986 album Skylarking). Regardless, today, English Settlement stands as a highwater mark for XTC.

The double album, as released in the UK, was a 15-song, 2LP affair that contained some of XTC’s best-known and best loved songs, such as “Senses,” “No Thugs in Our House” and “Knuckle Down” from Partridge, and “Ball and Chain,” “Runaways” and my new favorite “Fly on the Wall” from Moulding. As a double LP English Settlement is a staggeringly rich album, moving slightly away from the power-poppy, two guitars/bass/drums sound they’d established on Drums and Wires and Black Sea (1979 and 1980) to an earthy yet ballsy new place. This time, Partridge and guitarist Dave Gregory brought their electric 12-string and acoustic guitars, while Moulding frequently used a fretless bass to add to his sonic palette. Luckily, there was no let-up in Terry Chambers’ drumming and the album still had the all important anchor necessary to keep the songs within xtc_es-duotone_340pxthe band’s established wheelhouse. Sadly, when issued here in the US by Epic, the album was whittled down to a single LP and that really changed its feel. Yes, the “hit” singles were still there – “Senses,” “Ball and Chain” and “Thugs” were all released as 45s in England – but the flow was interrupted. You wouldn’t have known this if you were a casual XTC fan, but after I had devoured Black Sea the year before, I read up on these guys! I knew, according to Trouser Press or NY Rocker or maybe it was Creem, that the UK version was a double album, and that’s the one I wanted. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be until the late ’80s when, after Skylarking had become a sensation, the band’s US label, Geffen (now distributing Virgin releases here) reissued the album in its original 2LP configuration. None of this matters now, because these days you have your choice of either full-length 2LP or single CD when buying it new.

Last year, Andy Partridge’s Ape House Records reissued English Settlement in a super deluxe 2LP box set (along with a similar treatment to Skylarking), and it’s epic. (Pun intended.) Not only do you get a real quiet, 180 gram 2LP pressing of the album, you get a full-color, 12″x12″ booklet and inserts detailing the making of the record, foibles with their label, and remembrances about the instrumentation and the way the band came to the songs’ arrangements. The mastering (by John Dent at Loud) is pretty nice and detailed, but I must say: it isn’t as immediate (or as loud, actually) as the original Virgin (UK) issue. Finally scoring a super clean copy of that last year, I was amazed at how much better it sounds than the 2016 Ape House vinyl or the most recent Virgin (UK)/Caroline (US) CD master from the early 2000s, let alone the Geffen vinyl. Though my newly treasured 1982 copy smells a bit musty, it kicks ass on the more recent issues. You know what my advice is? Knuckle down and find an original Virgin UK copy.

4/5 (Virgin V2223, 1982; Ape House APELPD105, 2016)

I reviewed a book about Andy Partridge’s songs, Complicated Game; see it here.

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Fleetwood Mac • Rumours [LP]

fleetwoodmac-rumours-cvr_400pxYikes! 40 years ago this week one of rock’s undisputed greatest albums of all time was unleashed on the world. FLEETWOOD MAC‘s Rumours would go on to sell some 45 million copies globally and permanently chisel the band’s name into the figurative stone tablet of rock’s quintessential records.

So much has been written about the band and this seminal album that it’s hard to come up with anything about them that hasn’t already been said. But I have so many memories that are tied up in the band/album that I had to list them for myself just to pick a few poignant ones. I started my first band in 1977 with my pals Mike and Jerry in Cypress, California (Orange County for those keeping score at home). The three of us tried our best to learn songs we liked (“Smoke on the Water,” I believe, was first – and it was all riff and nothing else!) The band soldiered on, and by the time Jerry moved we had added two girl singers, Sharlyn and Dee Dee, and once Mitch replaced Jerry we were 3 guys + 2 girls = teenage Fleetwood Mac. I don’t remember if that was a conscious idea or whether it just happened that way, but indeed it was very handy. How better to reproduce our own versions of “Dreams” and “Gold Dust Woman”? We had the exact same makeup, because Sharlyn sang and played piano and Dee Dee sang and played guitar. I’m not trying to say we were able to even partially capture what the real Mac was, but we at least had the parts. So there’s that.

fleetwoodmac-band2_400pxLater that year my dad asked me to play a song on the guitar for my great uncle Sam (that was his name, I kid you not). I didn’t know what to play – what guy his age would know any of the songs I could possibly come up with? I didn’t think he’d know “Rocky Raccoon” or “A Horse with No Name,” so after wracking my brain, I read the lyrics to Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop,” one of the tunes she sings on Rumours with heavy assistance from Lindsey Buckingham. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow / Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here / It’ll be better than before / Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” Oh lord. The thought didn’t dawn on me then, but much later: Was I telling my uncle Sam to just let go? Well, I don’t know how lucid he was at the time (I remember he was in hospice and I played for him sitting in a chair near his bed), but he might have heard it that way. I was just a kid, thought it was a pleasant sounding song, and it was pretty easy to learn. (It helped having the songbook with all the chords!)

Like thousands of kids my age I had photos of the band plastered on my bedroom walls (along with Wings, ELO and Linda Ronstadt), favoring those that had Stevie Nicks in them. Rumours became one of those albums that I can quote without even thinking about it. Despite hearing most of its songs literally thousands of times, it’s an album that I never get tired of.

fleetwoodmac-band3_375pxA year or so ago, while watching the Classic Albums DVD on the making of Rumours with my wife Sarah, I had a weirdly emotional moment. They were discussing how they recorded Christine McVie playing the piano part for “Songbird” in an auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. At the time I was coming to a reckoning about some personal issues of mine that were making my relationship with my wife difficult. Laying on the couch with my head in her lap, I began crying. Big boys don’t cry. But there I was, 50-something, bawling in Sarah’s lap. Something about that beautiful song. “I feel that when I’m with you, it’s alright… And I love you, I love you, I love you like never before.” I think Christine was trying to tell me something. Listen to me: don’t mess this up. She is your songbird! And Good Lord. The very moment I’m writing this the freaking sun comes out after raining hard all morning. It turns out that Christine, like the songbirds of which she wrote, knew the score.

These days when I put on Rumours I listen to a pressing of the album that was done at 45rpm on two records. It’s an audiophile edition that came out in 2009, pressed on 180-gram vinyl and designed to bring out more of the nuances in the music that can get lost in lesser, shoddy pressings. And, indeed, you get more of the shimmer of the voices, more of the crystalline timbre of Buckingham’s underrated guitar playing and even more of John McVie’s killer bass lines and Mick Fleetwood’s kick ’n’ snare than on other editions. If you can find this pressing, and you’re not worn out by the continued ubiquity of this record, you should get a copy. That’s not to say that the 2CD reissue and the later box set aren’t worthy of your attention, as they both have many of the demo and live versions of the songs that give you a better idea of what it took to bring this baby to life and what it sounds like live. You can go your own way – pick the version that works best for you. All I know is, in one form or another, for me Rumours is going to be there until the end.

5/5 (Reprise 9362-49793-4; originally issued 1977, this version 2009)

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Frank Zappa • Joe’s Garage (Acts 1, 2 & 3) [3LP set] – Part II

Part II, in which I wrap up the story of Joe’s Garage – Frank Zappa’s 1979 3LP masterpiece.

zappa_joesgarage2_400pxJoe’s Garage, Acts 2 & 3

Act 1 of Joe’s Garage showed FRANK ZAPPA at his most adolescent. Dirty words and all, this one record release was basically a showcase for the more casual listener. It has lots of funny bits, real solid hooks and catchy songs that you couldn’t help but want to sing along with, though you might wince at singing something like “Catholic girls / with the tiny little moustache… With a tongue like a cow / she could make you go ‘wow’!” The subject matter – young Joe and his induction to the world of rock ’n’ roll – could be one of those After School Specials from the ’70s if it weren’t for the salty language and references to venereal diseases and the like.

Fast forward only a couple of months from early September ’79 and Zappa releases Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III, a 2-record set that continues where Act I left off. Instead of featuring songs that advanced the plot of Joe’s Garage, this lengthy, melancholy set focused on extended excursions into FZ’s guitar soloing. Which is to say, this is the one for those who are primarily interested in how Frank could develop a solo, from a possibly stark beginning to a meaty middle and on to its satisfying conclusion. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is a great example, a 9-minute instrumental that displays one of the man’s greatest gifts. There are songs you can sing along to, like “Stick It Out,” but the man and the band’s musicality is what’s mostly to be enjoyed here. The plot is secondary, and though you do get to find out what happens to Joe, it is best explained in the libretto that expands on the themes of free will, free speech, the drawbacks of big government and the evils of Big Brother that the author dared explore.

zappa_wbsucks_300pxIt must have been daunting to the execs at Zappa’s new record label (they gave him his own imprint, called Zappa Records, at PolyGram earlier that year): did they really want to put out a three-record set that could very well lose money as the artist’s first release on their dollar? Well, I’m not sure how it originally went down when Zappa presented the work to the label suits, but we do know that the album was split into two releases (keeping it greasy so it’d go down easy?). The first record served as a good beginning and the second, 2LP set wrapped up the story. Sadly, the Acts II & III release suffered on its own (if you didn’t buy the first one you were highly unlikely to buy this – and you certainly would have no idea WTF was going on), but when, in 1987, the three records were first put together in one set, the whole shebang made a lot more sense. Thematically, musically, plotwise, it turned out that Joe’s Garage wasn’t nearly as indecipherable as The Who’s Tommy after all. (It actually took a poke at Tommy with the line “see the chrome, feel the chrome, touch the chrome, heal the chrome” [from “Stick It Out”]!)

Joe’s Garage, Acts 1, 2 & 3, finally, puts all of what made Frank Zappa so amazing (his guitar playing, witty lyric writing, clever song arranging) into one enormous but approachable package. The sound of the records is gorgeous, the songs on the records are among FZ’s finest and the physical format, in all its double-gatefold glory, is like the icing on a very tasty cock… err, CAKE!

4.5/5 (Zappa Records ZR3861-1, 2016)

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Frank Zappa • Joe’s Garage (Acts 1, 2 & 3) [3LP set] – Part I

As this was originally released in 1979 in two parts, I will be reviewing the late 2016 vinyl reissue in a similar fashion…

zappa_joesgarage1_400pxJoe’s Garage, Act I
First of all, let’s just say that if you’re one of those who “don’t know where to start” when trying to “get into” FRANK ZAPPA, then Joe’s Garage is a great place to start – if you’re not easily offended by puerile, pimply-faced humor. If, on the other hand, even the mention of things such as “ninnies,” “wet t-shirt nights” or (especially) “cock” have you immediately in the car headed for church, then steer clear of this one. In fact, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by staying away from Frank Zappa entirely. That’s not to say that everything he does mentions naughty bits or contains vulgar language, but it’s easier for me to issue a blanket danger! then to try and detail what’s safe for you and what’s not. Now then…

Joe’s Garage, Act I was released in September 1979. I was 16 and had recently moved to Seattle with my sister and parents from Southern California and was entering 11th grade. I had a general idea who Zappa was but didn’t know any of his music and knew no one who had any to check out. (This was waaaaaayyy pre-internet, kids.) All I knew is he was a great guitarist and he once had a band called The Mothers. (Back then, for you youngsters who don’t know, mother was short for the slang term motherfucker.) Well, I met a guy at my new high school who was really into Frank so we were both excited to plunk down the bucks for Joe’s Garage and plop that baby onto the record player. We had no idea what we were in for! We were just kids, fer cryin’ out loud!

This record is a true concept album, detailing the story of a young American male succumbing to the horrors and overall nastiness of a career in music. Joe, our hero, forms a band, gets signed to a record deal, meets groupies, contacts venereal disease (look it up, kids), and eventually – as detailed in the then forthcoming but not-yet-announced second volume – finds himself being “reprogrammed” by some crazed religious zealots (think Scientology). Musically, Joe’s Garage is a great intro to Zappa and his world because it contains everything that made up the man’s musical DNA: great guitar playing, humor, a love for doo wop, and an intricate yet (often) approachable sense to what makes good music. The band on this record was well-suited to the material, including Ike Willis on vocals (now, that mother could sing!), Warren Cuccurullo ozappa_bob_400pxn guitar, Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars on keys, and various others on the rest. Zappa himself plays guitar, does some of the singing, and plays the role of narrator in the character of The Central Scrutinizer. It’s a role uniquely suited to FZ, as he later became the rock world’s mouthpiece and champion of free speech in the ’80s. (You may remember he testified in front of Congress during the days of Tipper Gore’s PMRC and their modern day witch hunt to persecute and prosecute musicians whose art used “bad language” that was surely going to mess up the minds of our impressionable youths.) Somehow ol’ Frank knew where America was headed and tried to head us off at the pass with his tale of how IT’S NOT THE GOVERNMENT’S BUSINESS TO DECIDE WHAT IT THINKS IS “BAD” FOR ITS CONSTITUENTS.

Errr, uhhh…… anyway, well, one of Frank’s greatest strengths was his ability to delegate. If he felt someone was better suited to sing a particular song, for instance, he’d have that someone sing it. Ike Willis is a monster on this record, singing a majority of the leads with soulful, expressive tone that really comes to the fore on “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up,” a slow R&B-slash-reggae groove that closes out Act I. He also grabs you by the nuts on “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, a painful look at what VD can do to a fella. Yikes! I don’t EVER want my balls to feel like a pair of maracas!

Ummm, where was I? Oh yeah. The Zappa Records reissue on vinyl is well worth the money, putting all three records together in one deluxe, double-gatefold package that includes a booklet libretto. The records were remastered from the original analog master tape safety copy by mastering great Bernie Grundman and pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Pallas in Germany. Though I don’t have the original vinyl or first CD pressing anymore, I can tell you with confidence that this vinyl reissue is miles better than those and even better than the very good sounding 2012 CD reissue. I’ll wrap up the story of Joe in Part II.

4.5/5 (Zappa Records ZR3861-1, 2016)

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The Doors • The Doors [mono LP]

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Doors’ debut LP – released this day in 1967 – I am re-running this review I wrote for my original blog, Skratchdisc, in November 2010.

doors_thedoors-mono_350pxAnother Record Store Day Exclusive (for Black Friday, that is), The Doors’ first LP, The Doors, has been re-released in a limited edition mono pressing. Previously only available in a vinyl box set from a few years ago (and its initial ’67 release, of course), it’s another great example of how songs can benefit from being mixed in mono.

The 180 gram audiophile pressing (made by the renowned RTI outfit) has the original Elektra catalog number and label, and is a godsend for those who’ve been trying to find a clean original pressing, let alone those who can’t brave the typical $200 price tag you’d find on Ebay. I really like “Break on Through,” which sounds like a different vocal take to me (though my hardcore Doors phase was over about twenty years ago so I could be high), “Alabama Song” sounds even more psychedelic since the carnival organ is equally in both speakers rather than primarily in one, and “The End” sounds easily as chilling in mono as it does in stereo. The drums in “Light My Fire” feel like they’re being pounded a lot harder, too.

Maybe all this mono hype will convince Elektra or Sundazed or someone to release the first three Love albums in monaural…

4/5 (Elektra/Rhino)

Today (1/4/2017), Rhino announced a 50th anniversary box set of The Doors, coming on March 31, that will feature three CDs (the original stereo mix, this mono mix [first time on CD], and a disc of live tracks recorded in San Francisco in April 1967) and the mono mix on vinyl. Whether it’ll be worth the cost probably depends on how many versions of this album you already have…
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