Thursday, June 30, 2011

For Every Famous Band There's An Obscure One Way Better

There are bands you can't put down- they are sacred. They are the classics and without them nothing you listen to would have been possible. There also are artists who are sacred and classics you have to acknowledge as the "Greats." For Blues it would be Muddy Waters, B.B King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson- the forerunners of true rock and roll like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ben E. King, Ike And Tina Turner, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy, Jerry Lee Lewis  and the way underrated Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Rock disappeared for awhile and it was scary what took its place. The American hit parade churned out disgusting naff offensively inoffensive rubbish like "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" while the British were planning how to invade us and shoot right through us like a shot from 23000 machine guns. The New Rock And Roll came with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Move, and the promising yet never quite fulfilling of their promise Pretty Things.
    Here is where things get a little trickier and get interesting. After so much music of so much merit some bands who took liberties with poor vocals, bad songs, and shit faced stupid ass production to their self-righteous music started coming on. In England you'd have those very sub British Invasion Invasion bands like Gerry & The Pacemakers, Freddie & The Dreamers, Herman's Hermits et all. These bands weren't inventive and weren't rock and roll at all. While in England they'd be heroes bands like The Move and earlier The Hollies never would break as big in the States, but are undeniably adventurous and creative bands who wrote great songs and sang from the heart. The Hollies managed some big hits in America, but The Move never took off except as a cult band here while in England they were downright massive stars. With The Koobas a perfect example success would not be forthcoming in England nor in America. Despite building off their Liverpool foundation with Brian Epstein as their manager and much hard work from the band The Koobas just flopped. It was one bad break after another in the UK while the band were forced to concentrate on Spain. Then future Genesis manager Tony Stratton-Smith (rest very much in peace) came along and tried everything. All that ended up happening were more bad breaks until finally their album appeared just as they threw the towel in. A psychedelic hard rock/pop masterpiece it was an astonishingly mature collection of hard rock and melodic pure British pop with even some progressive leanings. Too bad it was all over at that point for them. In a similar circumstance only 3 big hits were scored by The Zombies, but who could deny the talent of writers/arrangers organist/pianist Rod Argent, bassist Chris White, and vocalist supreme Colin Blunstone? They would release one of the most endearing yet oh so sad album landmarks in Oddysey And Oracle yet when the single lifted off that record "Time Of The Season" became a smash they would not reform. Despite threats and fake bands using their name and even a false statement of the death of Colin Blunstone they moved on. White and Argent got together on the project called simply Argent- a new exciting progressive/pomp band with the melodic nucleus of The Zombies much intact. Colin Blunstone after a brief period of pseudonyms and insurance salesman limbo came out with a great first 3 solo albums. One Year, Ennismore, and Journey are all essential classics. The two apart would achieve the success they deserved. In America Jimi Hendrix had to go to England to make it and then blow us out of our minds as he reconstructed everything to do with the electric guitar. Together with Hendrix Arthur Lee and Love showed us the gloom and doom and all the hope and promise of the 1960s on their masterful Forever Changes. Jim Morrison and The Doors broke a lot of rules as the forcefully melodic and passionate progressive psychedelia they created on their first two albums would be music that never tarnishes with age. And who would survive of the successful not to mention obscure American psychedelic circus? Jefferson Airplane the worst band ever along with The Strawberry Alarm Clock both of whom didn't ever know when to go away. The Airplane had some credentials before Grace Slick. They were a hard working inventive folkrock band who were turning their folk past on its head and into a happening. After the classic Surrealistic Pillow and the lukewarm, but sometimes good After Bathing At Baxters all Hell broke loose on the morbid, violent, pretentious, inept and sick Crown of Creation and the equally poor followups. Just so I don't sound too biased for the British all the time at least one thing came out of the Airplane and definitely came with the fantastic Janis Joplin which was an opening of the door for female fronted bands and given time we'd have Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks to make up for Grace Slick's destruction. In England there would be another turning of folk on its head as first Judy Dyble and then Sandy Denny fronted the amazing Fairport Convention- one of the most exciting bands ever and as potent today as then on their first 3 brilliant albums. Success would elude them in America, but in England Sandy Denny was the Star along with Ian Matthews.
  Come 1969 and the entire decade of the 1970s things became much more ruthless in the music industry. Confusion spread like mad and all of a sudden bands were either "Underground" or "Mainstream" and while some of the pop music was downright depressing so was some of the "Underground." I can't listen to Deep Purple anymore. I can't see anything in Ian Gillan or their horrible songs. So who would we have to fill the gap they opened? Stonehouse, Asgard, Uriah Heep, Free, Pluto and many more bands even less heard of than Pluto. Europe all of a sudden in their own quarters were causing a musical revolution. German and Swedish bands heard Deep Purple and read into the virtuoso organ and guitar work of Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore classical music. Soon Germany would produce more great bands along with England in the 1970s who went commercially nowhere than anywhere else in the world. The Dutch proved themselves worthy and so did Denmark and Sweden. As bands contented themselves with small followings in their respected countries the music scene blossomed and "Pop" didn't mean hit singles anymore by hideous bands like The Flying Machine ("Smile A Little Smile For Me") or all the American schlock. Now we had bands playing "Hard Pop" and "Progressive Pop," AOR, and Pomp Rock. Starting with The Sweet, Slade, and especially Queen the crossover hits would lead to America's own brand of excitement as Styx showed us their Crystal Ball and Grand Illusion, Journey's former roadie Steve Perry reinvented rock/pop vocals as did Foreigner's Lou Gramm who replaced the amazing yet lesser acknowledged Ian Lloyd who had been the frontman for the fantastic Stories. As demand grew high for crossover appeal soon bands began to think too much of the flash side of things and the music scene became fragmented. Out of this destruction rose Punk which was not a good thing. A war seemed to be going on between bombastic or inept with somewhere in between talented, wonderful bands who couldn't earn a living. As the 1970s turned gloomy around 1977 with disco and Punk what of Trickster? What of Trillion? What of Money? What of Quartz who would make 4 albums and what of Magnum? Magnum would breakthrough BIG in England/Europe and still exist today. Trillion, from the American Midwest inexplicably wouldn't make the kind of money horrible Kansas would and Trickster were buried alive while Quartz were demoted to cult status. Money only made one album First Investment- a masterpiece yet their label Gull mismanaged and destroyed their career. I'm not saying this wouldn't happen also back in the 1960s, but come the 1980s cutthroat double dealing and destruction through record companies and fanzines would lead Iron Maiden to be stars and their Proto Fascist Neo Nazi war mongering filth cluttered up the British Airwaves along with the same right wing filth of Saxon making it big. These two worst of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal together with the thankfully unsuccessful Witchfynde and Witchfinder General would give one of the most exciting and delicious movements in musical history a bad name. Someone had to save the day for the charts and that would be Def Leppard. However, bands like Airrace, Lionheart, Snowblind, Wolf (Of Cheshire who released just the one psychedelic hard rock masterpiece Edge Of The World), and Wildfire formed by previous Iron Maiden vocalist (for only roughly a year) Paul Mario Day proved that NWOBHM was really synonymous with tough melodic hard rock. As the 80s went on Duran Duran would stay a vital and exciting pop/rock group and bands like Glass Tiger and Brummies Shy would combine hard melodic pop with the image and video techniques pioneered by Duran Duran, The Fixx, et all. I am not trying to hurt anyone's feelings here on this blog, but I gotta say in conclusion if you can't face the facts that successful sales don't mean great music although they sometimes do and nothing is black and white than tough luck. Go out on your own journey and find what I've found. Don't buy into hype. Keep an open mind. I would recommend this bit of advice: Try the less successful bands and artists, but also don't thumb your nose at great bands from Abba to Asia to the afforementioned Duran Duran and Pat Benatar who made it. Music is a magical thing. And magic is never predictable.

Monday, June 27, 2011


There was for around a decade long fascination with American bands in the UK and for me these bands fell into one of two categories. On one hand there are amazing bands who just so happened to have been knocked out by CSNY in particular Neil Young and the Westcoast Folk Rock movement that also spawned much earlier The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and later some of the more "epic" sounds of Quicksilver Messenger Service and or the electric period of Bob Dylan. While I am not a fan of the Bay Area bands in general nothing was wrong with getting it together in the country or in following Dylan's trend of story telling lyrics. It really was Dylan and the Band and Paul Simon who made an impact. On bands like Northwind and Dog That Bit People and The Parlour Band the influences were of this former category and the music something that can never be matched. On the other hand there are pale imitations of Americana and bad singer songwriters like Ralph McTell were around in profusion. You unfortunately had to weed through about 50 to 60 English Leonard Cohens to get to Northwind and that other side. The painfully insincere sincerity of bad country rock albums was sadly a disease that bit a lot of bands everywhere. Where Earth Island fit in is an American band who sounded English with an American LA slant. They could have been mistaken on many of their tracks for the British Kaleidoscope which is a damned sight more splendid than the American band of the same name who brought us at least 4 albums of musical boredom.
  Northwind were one of the first UK bands to become unbelievably expensive. Not only was the album at the $500 to $600 mark in 1995-1996 it was impossible to find. I first heard Sister Brother Lover.... the Glasgow Scotland area's sole album on CD and couldn't make sense of it before falling in love with it. What I heard and still hear very much in Northwind is some strange kind of sexuality and easiness- a laid back groove with a very sinuous kind of ethereal sensual power. It's hard to describe. Brian Young's voice and the combination of two guitars (Young on acoustic/electrics and Hugh Barr on electric a lot of the time slide) and organ lead to a tight and yet very carefree sound that is as commercially viable as radio could have been at that time yet which never found an audience thanks to the poor distribution of the EMI Regal Zonophone label. While their album is at times an epic work of progressive psychedelic folkrock some songs are so damned catchy that you wonder how they managed to miss a hit in the UK and how this went by without a US release. They would have been fucked because the label in the States probably would have done them no service, but on listening to my original copy and the CD Northwind continue to stun me with how much potential they had for stardom and how it all escaped them in what seems like a split second. Most American dealers rate this one really low. Well, most Yanks don't understand music if it bit them on the ass.... While a million bad private press singer songwriters and jam band wannabes get huge raves from the likes of Acid Archives Northwind aren't just unpopular with the idiots who prefer American rubbish, they're downright hated by them. I spent $500 on a copy and considered it a great deal. That's a bargain compared to the going price of 700 to 1000 for it. The album can fetch over 500 pounds! Northwind's inability to make any noise outside their Scottish rural fan base is probably both the band's and the label's lack on their part to try and build a foundation on which they at least could have had the chance of making a dent in the history of successful British bands. Scottish bands have always had a rough time of it. The few that break through are great bands like The Marmalade, Pilot, and Blue- bands that have superb songs and great memorable hits, but for every Pilot or Blue there's about 20 bands who never move out from Scotland and who perish because of that. Most of these bands unfortunately can't hold a candle to the Mainland competition and I'd be one to put Heavy Pettin', Holocaust, and earlier Tear Gas down as laughable attempts at "Heavy Scottish Style." Unfortunately, while bands like Clouds and Beggar's Opera damage our view of Scottish music there is the isolated masterpiece such as Hate or Northwind- especially the latter. Northwind's tight ensemble playing, creative arrangements, and Epic Westcoast atmospheres are the best thing this side of The Parlour Band, Dog That Bit People, and the best of The Marmalade's work, but while they are a collectors group like the first two bands just like how bizarre and sad the lack of success of those bands is with Northwind it is downright staggering. I would have to give this the "Classic To End All Classics" as there isn't one note I'd change on Sister Brother Lover... The cover is a lovely thick leather textured thing of beauty to hold in your hands, but the music speaks for itself and speaks volumes. Find it, pay any price for it, for it does not get any better.
    So all my raves about UK bands probably have you thinking I hate all American bands. Well, I don't, but I must admit that I'm wholly unimpressed with most of them. This makes Earth Island as important for what they are not than for what they are. They are a band forgotten by time, neglected by collectors, and even in the current "Hype Everything" mood of dealers barely even touched. The album went from somewhat hard to find to a real rarity, but I don't even know what the current price on this gem is. I frankly don't know anything about Earth Island save for the album came out on US Phillips and was a Kim Fowley connected production making it even more shocking that nobody knows about it. Now, I won't praise Kim Fowley too much- he was a hack who destroyed the careers of a lot of talented artists, but the recording on We Must Survive by Earth Island is absolutely brilliant. Earth Island's serene beautiful 4 part harmonies meet very engaging song structures and well written environmentally aware lyrics on their one album. The sound is I would say a cross between British Kaleidoscope and some of the more forward moving American albums like say Green's excellent 1st and the softer parts of the amazing Over The Hills by Saint Steven. While most American psych is uninspired jump on the flowers and acid trip bandwagon nonsense with horrible vocals and dreadful songs if they even qualify as that here is a breath of fresh air amongst all the smog and pollution. It ain't a secret that LA had better bands, but together with Love and the great first two Doors albums Earth Island were like an American Northwind almost in the sense of being the best and getting no recognition at the time for their amazing contribution to music. It does not get better and if you love The Beatles around SGT. Pepper and Abbey Road this is compulsory listening. Particularly fans of Kaleidoscope upon hearing this would have to agree that the vocal sound is uncannily similar to that of their mastermind Peter Daltrey. I'll freely admit that I don't think American bands can do heavy psych any justice hardly ever and prefer softer more introspective bands like Earth Island, but Earth Island also are not complete softies. They have energy, they have enthusiasm, they have a strong and direct and very together sound. While most bands from the States come oozing out of your speakers with inept horrible vocals, nonexistent songs, pretentious lyrics, and a sound as outdated as a bad too much fudge and frills ice cream sundae here is something you can sink your teeth into without vomiting. An American psych band who don't make me feel nauseous is pretty rare for me. I have my favourites and I have my least favourites and if I stacked them up against England and Germany the Yanks wouldn't come close, but Earth Island are right up there with world class killers both American like Gandalf and Kak, German like Epitaph's 1st 3 albums, and all the great British psych toytown albums. This album demands attention- listen to and you'll be amazed at just how good it is. Nuff Said.