Monday, June 29, 2009

The Roxy Music Megapost part the First

Roxy Music

I'm afraid that I'm never going to fully wrap my brain around Roxy Music. I just can't comprehend them, as much as I try. So, in an attempt to understand this band and the conflicting roller coaster of emotions the music generates for me, I'm writing this post.
Here's what I know: Roxy Music was envisioned by keyboardist/vocalist Bryan Ferry and bassist Graham Simpson in the early 70's, but by the time the world met them, Simpson had left and the band was fueled by the creative tension between Ferry and Brian Eno. Along with classically trained oboist/saxaphonist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera, Roxy Music was nothing if not dynamic. Bryan Ferry was essentially a soul singer - he was influenced by American R&B and Motown. He also had a knack for crafting memorable hooks reminiscent at times of the Beatles and the Bee Gees' art pop experiments. His most immediately definable feature, however, was his voice: He utilized a bloodless, vampiric croon, stark and cold; sort of a nightmarish version of Nina Simone or Odetta.
Eno, the great anti-musician, didn't so much play music as
warp music with the various electronics he had at his disposal. With the Velvet Underground as an obvious influence, Eno would twiddle knobs, push buttons and systematically tear down any standard pop construct Ferry would send his way. The result was that choruses would have eerie atonal synthesized noise floating underneath them. Pounding bass and drum rhythms would disappear behind a wall of white noise cranked to the max. Ferry's organ would have to contend with Eno's space noises from the corner of the stage.
This dynamic served them well, at least early on. The music was a confounding concoction of sounds both smooth and abrasive, sleek and ugly, predictable and jarring, sophisticated and primitive. Pop songs seemed to effortlessly meld into art rock and from there to atonal noise jams. Eventually the tension would be stretched to the breaking point, as demonstrated on their sophomore album
For Your Pleasure - where literally every attempt of Ferry's to create an effective pop sound would be thwarted by Eno's maniacal treatments. But for seeming polar opposites, Ferry and Eno worked remarkably well together for longer than anyone could expect.
What derails me isn't so much the seeming compatibility of the disparate elements of Roxy Music, but what Roxy Music portrayed through their songs and imagery. On stage, they were flamboyant, covered in makeup and ridiculous outfits. They were preoccupied with fashion, glamour, the cult of celebrity, and expounded on the virtues of materialism with a fervor that was 10 years ahead of its time. Their music could just as easily be a mainstream pastiche than an abrasive dirge. They appeared on the outside merely as shallow punks cashing in on the dominant elements of Marc Bolan's glam movement.
But they were so maddeningly sincere about it! They were all top-notch musicians, for one thing, and Ferry wrote with the articulation of a poet. No other band could write a song about a robotic lover, seem completely serious about it,
and involve an oboe player. Which leads me to another point - they approached these shallow, materialistic ideals without any sense of irony. Ferry could sing about his new-found celebrity status, his big house, his new pool, and his new mail-order rubber woman with a singular intensity that could cause chills. He sang like a man burdened under the weight of the worlds' sins - only this man was self-centered, filthy rich, and a sociopath, who was unaware of any of the worlds' actual problems.
It was a band that thrived on uncomfortable contradictions. To appear as clowns and deliver stunning music, and to sing about materialism from the heart, is what confuses me so much about Roxy Music. In their early period at least, I get the feeling that deep down they were poking fun at the absurdities of the jet-setters and watered-down pop culture in general. But I can't be sure of that, because not once would any of them crack a smile. After Brian Eno left the band, and Bryan Ferry asserted his dominance over the group, things became a bit more obvious. But even then, the lines of distinction between celebrity and critic never fully came into focus.
Below are a few videos I came across that show Roxy Music in their early glory. Since they were such a visual band, I figured that these would be more pertinent than just audio tracks. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Angry Young Them


This song kicks, that's all there is to it. From the opening fuzz-guitar lick to the all-too-soon fade out at the end, "I Can Only Give You Everything" is pure energy. The Yardbirds may have had the amphetamine edginess, and the Stones may have had the predatory swagger, but to me Van Morrison's Them epitomized the rough and unpolished anger and exuberance of the 60's English rhythm and blues movement (and so what if they were Irish?). I can only imagine how the clubs must have erupted when this song was performed live. Badassitude.

I Can Only Give You Everything

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hot Potato

Aceyalone, Mikah 9, Ganjah K, Volume 10, Big Al

Here's a criminally hard-to-find Freestyle Fellowship track. Originally a b-side from 1993, it was the featured version in their "Hot Potato" video. For whatever reason it hasn't popped up anywhere since. This version has little to do with the album track. The beat is much livelier and the Fellowship exude an energy that was rare even at their peak (at least on record). This was the Fellowship's golden age. The way they fed off of each other, constantly pushing the boundaries of what each emcee could do individually and as part of the group is at times jaw-dropping. They don't disappoint here. Check out guest emcee Ganjah K's verse early on - He definitely holds his own like the heavyweight he is.

Hot Potato (Blow Up Club Remix)

Thursday, June 18, 2009



I liked this song a lot, when I was seven. Not that I would have ever admitted it at the time - at that age I was still eager please my parents, and Ratt definitely did not please them - But I secretly wrote in my diary that I thought they were rad. And who could blame me? This was 1985, smack dab in the era of hair metal, and MTV played their video for "Round and Round" all the time. To an impressionable child, the Ratt people seemed dangerous: They were sweaty and over-sexed, surrounded by women and smoke pots and neon green light. Their clothes were shredded, seemingly by their sheer manliness. Their hair was permed in a badass fashion.
Listening to their music now I'm struck by how tame it is. It almost sounds as if "Round and Round" could have been sung by the Angels or the Shirelles. And after all, hair metal was for all purposes in the 80's what the Brill Building sound was for the early 60's: Pop music for the kiddies. Young men and women singing about their stupid girlfriends and boyfriends, and sometimes cars. Now that I think about it, I guess this point was already made back when Twisted Sister sang "Leader of the Pack." Hmm. But it bears repeating.
So Ratt and Warrant and Winger and White Lion and endless other skinny white boys dressed in tights with big hair might not actually be as hard core as I once thought, but the music can still be appreciated. Or hated. Take your pick.

Round and Round

Phenomenal Cats

The Kinks

I can't really say anything about the Kinks that hasn't already been said a thousand times, so I won't bother too much. But I will say this: I love the Kinks. Ray Davies has to be among the best songwriters in recorded history. In the mid-to-late sixties they played quiet, homey music, in contrast to an era that was known for experimentation and excess. At the time they must have appeared an anathema to many a hipsters' ear, writing songs that their mothers' could enjoy listening to.
Two of my favorite Kinks tracks from this era are "Waterloo Sunset" and "Autumn Almanac", a pair of pastoral and childlike numbers that touted the virtues of home and stability; and rather than inciting revolution they spoke of calmly witnessing the passage of time. Listening to these tracks makes me want to curl up with a cup of tea or some shit and read Agatha Christie. Or climb an apple tree with a stick and whack apples in the fall. Something along those lines. Something English. So if you like the following tracks, I encourage you to pick up "Face To Face", "Something Else" and the deluxe edition of "The Village Green Preservation Society". They're all amazing records.

Waterloo Sunset

Autumn Almanac

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bring out the Green Trumpet!

The U-Men

So at some point The U-Men were singled out and saddled with the responsibility of being the first "grunge band." This distinction has also in the past been given to other and more fitting bands (most appropriately with Portland's Wipers), but the U-Men can't seem to shake it. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they were a Seattle band in the mid-Eighties, and that various U-Men went on to form notable groups after their break-up (The Crows, Gas Huffer and Catbutt, for example). But honestly the amped up music they made had little to do with Black Sabbath and the Stooges, and sounded more like Richard Hell or Hasil Adkins on a particularly sauced day.
They played punk with a decidedly hillbilly-ish twist, like they were the Butthole Surfers' less inbred northern relatives (In fact the Surfers wrote a tribute to them, "O-Men"). Guitarist Tom Price would churn and clang his instrument along like a derailed train over the solid rhythm section of Chaz Ryan and Jason Tillman (to be replaced by Amphetamine Reptile's Tom Hazelmeyer!), while singer John Bigley howled, growled and shrieked in what cumulated as a hallucinatory hay-ride involving drunken surgeons, unfortunate accidents, animal abusers, juice parties and something that can only be described as being "too good to be food". By all accounts they should have been much more appreciated during their time, should have been legendary even without the tag of being a Seattle band. The music speaks for itself: It's by turns disturbing, hilarious, original and energetic as all get out. Check out "The Green Trumpet" off their 1985 EP "Stop Spinning". It's a song that makes me wish I had been old enough to see them live, but it also makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it. Hold on to something.

The Green Trumpet