This new documentary directed by Rubika Shah could not have been released at a more favorable time. It is a lively and concise look back at the U.K’s Rock Against Racism movement of the late Seventies. The group was a direct counter-protest to the rise of the virulent anti-immigrant political party the National Front. The RAR was a grassroots movement that were supported by many high-profile punk and reggae bands from that musically fertile era. Coming as it does during the hangover period of Britain’s Brexit fiasco, and the restive aftermath of the election that ousted American’s unapologetic bigot of a president, White Riot shows how this struggle against humanity’s inner demons is a perpetual, vital cause.The only real beef I have with White Riot is its title. Also the name of the Clash’s first single, the song was a fervent call for multi-racial unity against a common foe: a government indifferent to the many societal and economic woes facing the working-class at the time. But the song could be misconstrued the other way (and occasionally was in 1977) and may also lead some to think that this is a film about Joe Strummer and Co. Although the Clash do make several appearances, this is squarely a film about a movement where music plays but a supporting role. Central to this tale is Rock Against Racism founder Red Saunders, now an old grizzly bear of a man sitting in his office surrounded by the memorabilia of the time, esp. many back issues of the group’s handmade newspaper, Temporary Hoardings. Early on, Shah uses some of the available stock footage of National Front rallies and marches, with their drearily obvious signs (“It’s Our Country, Let’s Win It Back”) and speech snippets by those like the odious NF leader Enoch Powell and their paunchy and punchable “activities head” Martin Weber. Saunders came from a background in agit-prop theater and knew how to gain attention for a cause without being a bore about it. When Saunders, who is also a photographer, was asked to shoot at a punk concert, he was instantly bowled over by the Clash. Here was the musical energy that could match the drive of his upstart social movement. The Rock Against Racism manifesto was re-printed in many of Britain’s biggest music mags and that movement quickly spread. Bands that played at RAR-related shows were X-Ray Spex, 999, Steel Pulse, XTC, Sham 69 and the Tom Robinson Band; several members show up in interview snippets. But director Shah makes no mistake in pointing out that the National Front had made race prejudice an “acceptable point of view” in Britain at that time. This extended to some prominent old-guard rock stars. Included in this shameful category was David Bowie (who opined that the nation could “benefit from a fascist leader”) and Rod Stewart, who suggested (from the comfort of his new home in Los Angeles) that all of the UK’s immigrants “should be sent home.” Most egregious was Eric Clapton who, during an infamous 1976 concert in Birmingham, launched into a drunken racist tirade (“get the coons out”) while also asking minority fans in the audience to raise their hands and chanting the NF slogan “Keep Britain White.” Of course, Saunders was all over this, bitterly criticizing Clapton (who built his career on the blues) of musical colonialism and suggesting that the guitar-god may be suffering from a touch of “brain damage.” True, punk did sometimes dabble in Nazi iconography, but you always got the feeling this was for shock value and not the sort of contemptible white privilege on display in the examples above. An enjoyable aspect of White Riot is the emphasis on the inner workings of Temporary Hoardings and the current interviews with staffers like “Irate” Kate Webb, Syd Shelton and Lucy Whitman. The grassroots organizing, in an age before cell phones and the Internet, is inspiring as are the animated re-creations pf the newspaper’s cut-and-paste punk aesthetic. After months of rumbling with NF marchers and right-wing yobs, RAR had its moment in a bravura march from Trafalgar Square (see photo above) to Victoria Park, the ensuing demonstration and concert (headlined by the Clash) drawing close to 100,000 folks. The National Front fizzled at the polls in the ensuing general election (1.3%) but the vote also saw the election of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, who employed the dog whistle instead of the boot to exploit the cause of white grievance. Yet the celebration of cultural diversity promoted by Rock Against Racism has taken hold over the decades, even as populations seem intent on going backwards. So the struggle goes on, but Rubik Shah’s compelling work can act as a valued piece to show us again the way forward. ************************************************** You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick. firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a little homemade seasonal comic from myself as writer and Eric Bornstein as the artist. It takes its cue from my work “The Ministry of Dark Tourism” part one of which is under way in graphic novel form with illustrator Ian J. Miller. More on that later and hope you can enjoy your socially-distanced Halloween! –Rick Ouellette
Is it “a small observation of a big thing” that makes The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, the group’s once-ignored and now-cherished 1968 album, so special? That comment by XTC frontman Andy Partridge is one of the more interesting takes in this vivid and engrossing new documentary of the iconic band’s “lost” masterpiece. Echoes of a World: The Story of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society features interviews (and two recent duet performances) by founding Kink brothers Dave and Ray Davies, as well as their drummer Mick Avory. Typical of rock docs nowadays, there is a parade of well-known musician/acolytes, including Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, Natalie Merchant, Graham Coxon, and Suggs from Madness.
There is also a lot of archival footage of both the band and the North London locales so central to their songs. A nice added touch is B&W filming in nearby Highgate Wood, where a young actor playing Ray delivers his thoughts on the record’s beguiling depictions of small-town Britannica. Overlooking the districts he would write about, actor Ray says that the album was a chance to “speak from inside myself.” This device works esp. well within the idea that the album was “not nostalgia but time travel.”
“I’m glad we stood our ground.” The simulated young Ray Davies mulls over the making of his unfashionable tour de force.
But oh, for those small observations of big things (actually, the inverse of that saying is probably more accurate). In late 1967, the Kinks’ released a single so great that Partridge (a pretty dang good songwriter himself) freely admits “I spent my whole life chasing that song.” This was “Autumn Almanac” a hit in the UK which preceded (and pointed the way to) the Village Green. The song, inspired by Ray Davies’ gardener, celebrated the prosaic joys of lawn work, a Sunday roast, a beach holiday in Blackpool and neighbors who will love you ‘til you’re 99. Not exactly the hippest subject matter during rock’s psychedelic era. Although “Autumn Almanac” would reach #3 in the UK charts, the band’s popularity started to fade as they went further down their rabbit hole of ethereal old-timeliness.
The last 11-minutes of “Echoes of the World.”
The Village Green album, which followed in the fall of 1968, doubled down on that lost sense of community and shared spaces. The title and lead-off track (one of the two tunes that the Davies are shown performing in a parlor) extols the virtues of Tudor houses, custard pies, George Cross medal recipients, obscure British pop-culture figures like Desperate Dan and Mrs. Mopp, and even virginity itself. The society is also quite clear on what they are against (“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate”). More poignantly, the brothers also do “Do You Remember Walter,” a bittersweet ode to the lost ideals of youth.
Echoes of a World also looks back fondly on the albums rich picaresques. The family remembrances (“Picture Book”), the indifferent-universe hymnal (“Big Sky”), the exquisite rural escapism of “Animal Farm.” Just as memorable are the inhabitants of Ray’s “dream space”: the rebel “Johnny Thunder,” the local temptress “Monica,” the legendary “Phenomenal Cat” and the neighborhood witch, “Wicked Annabella.” These people and places are so ingrained in the minds of fans that several of the interviewees here—including Partridge, Natalie Merchant, record producer Greg Kurstin and even Dave Davies—proudly show hand-made illustrations of various tunes.
“American tourists flock to see the village green” A picture of your humble blogger in 2016 in the Kinks Room at the Cliswold Arms pub, where the Kinks did their first show. Ray and Dave grew up directly across in the Fortis Green/Muswell Hill area.
In an age of social disconnectedness, the yearning for a solid sense of place and community is only enhanced. Maybe that is one of the reasons that Village Green Preservation Society took so long to be fully appreciated. Paul Weller likens it to “a longing for something that wasn’t really there.” True, the fraternity may be amorphous but it is still there and still vital. As it says under the credits on the back cover of the original album: “You are our friends for playing this record.”
Another Kinks-related piece that has been made available for Amazon streaming is 1985’s Return to Waterloo, a 57-minute fictional film directed by Ray Davies. Its title suggests the band’s signature ballad “Waterloo Sunset,” but the urban romance depicted in that beloved Kink Klassic gives way to a grim premise here.
The mostly dialogue-free story stars Ken Colley as the dark-eyed, haunted “Traveler” who goes to and from work on a commuter train whose terminus is the iconic station of the title. There is a serial rapist at large and our man bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the police sketch of the suspect. It is never made quite clear whether he’s the guy or not, although the lockdown stare he gets from Ray himself (as a subway busker) is ominous enough. Return to Waterloo functions more as a downbeat tone poem, encompassing feelings of disconnection, loneliness, parent-child alienation and disheartened nostalgia, in contrast to the mostly nourishing nostalgia of the Village Green album sixteen years earlier.
I know it doesn’t sound very chipper, but the strong songs here by Ray move along the story. (A few of the tunes from the soundtrack also made it onto the Kinks’ latter-day highlight Word of Mouth, released in 1984). An evocative piece like “Expectations” can stand on its own as a pensive commentary on Britain’s post-empire decline and seems esp. relevant now in the UK’s post-Brexit era. As one can tell from the video below, Return to Waterloo boasts excellent production values. The cinematographer here is the acclaimed Roger Deakins, still early in a career that would see him be the director of photography for such movies as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner 2049, among many others.
Return to Waterloo can be a bit of an odd duck in the viewing of it. It veers rather unsteadily between realism and the Traveler’s elaborate fantasy world. Everyday situations, like an encounter with a group of punk rockers, can shift into overdrive very suddenly (look for a young Tim Roth as one of the punkers). Elsewhere, a Pythonesque wit takes hold, as a matronly woman (within earshot of the Traveler) discussed her strategy if confronted by the rapist: “I’d give him a swift kick in the bollocks, that would sort him out.”
So while maybe not the thing to watch if you’re in the mood for a feel-good film, but a must for Kinks fans and clear-eyed Anglophiles. Make a note in your own autumn almanac to view one or both of these fine forays into the Kinkdom.
You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
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Spin yourself back down all the days to…
Wilsontown High School, 1974
It was a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…
It’s here! The complete 32-page “I Was a Teenage Proghead” is now available in a shiny new standard comic-book format. Text is by me (Rick Ouellette) and artwork is by Brian Bicknell. The recently added 8-page epilogue catches up with the kids in the summer of 1975, a year after the events of Part One.
This project is 100% author-funded. If you would like to support indie, rock ‘n’ roll-inspired comics, you can purchase your own copy (and/or buy one for a friend) for only $5, postage included.
Thanks, Rick Ouellette
The big duality of the 1960s was the great aesthetic leaps made in music, film and other artistic fields, countered by the social and political upheavals of the time. Of course, the former often fed off the latter but there was also just a lot of great escapist entertainment. Then came 1968, a year marked by escalation of the Vietnam War, assassinations, violent clashes between police and political demonstrators and the election of the divisive Richard Nixon to the U.S. presidency.
For rock musicians, recognized to be in the vanguard of the era’s youth movement, it was time to stand up and be counted. And so it was for the New York-based Rascals, who had recently dropped the “Young” from their band name. They had spent the previous few years as top-line hitmakers who combined infectious blue-eyed soul with progressive pop values. The AM radios of the day were often graced by their presence, from party anthems like “Good Lovin’” and “Mustang Sally” to sweet summery treats like “Groovin’” and “It’s a Beautiful Morning.”
But the spring of 1968 was not the time of escapism. In the wake of the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the band (vocalist Eddie Brigati, keyboardist-singer Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli) released “People Got to Be Free” a song that sounded both sobering and uplifting in its aspirational optimism. It became one of the hallmark songs of that era, staying at #1 for five weeks that summer and eventually selling some four million copies worldwide. Soon, the Rascals were in the studio for the follow-up album named Freedom Suite, released in March of ’69. It was a lushly packaged double-decker album that would pair up two sides of more conventional tunes with a second record of instrumental numbers.
It was a curious volume, perhaps an effort by the group to be taken more seriously as album artists at a time when rock’s horizons were broadening. Freedom Suite starts out strikingly with “America the Beautiful.” Not exactly the patriotic standard—though they do quote it and give credit to the original composers—but a reworked version that gives voice to the inequalities and injustices that have smeared that sunny vision. After a symphonic stating of the theme and Danelli’s drummer-boy snare work, the tune takes on a ragtime feel as Cavaliere sings of how a nation he loves has strayed, esp. noting the failings of the War on Poverty from an Establishment for whom “the dollar bill is as far as they can see.” This kind of social commentary is echoed on several other songs. Most notable is the remarkable “Look Around” whose uplifting melody (a Rascals specialty) is tempered by woke lyrics (“hate and fear got ten million votes this year”) and sound effects of sirens, gunfire and marching soldiers. But typically for Cavaliere and Brigati, who penned this and were the group’s primary writers, the emphasis is on working towards positive outcomes and the song ends with a burst of children’s laughter.
This positivity shines brightest on “People Got to Be Free,” included here towards the end of side two. “If there’s a man who is down and needs a helping hand/All it takes is you to understand and/To pull him through,” the song gently implores, while its memorable chorus promises a “lovely, lovely world” if only everyone could practice this golden rule. Interestingly, the song was only partly inspired by the MLK assassination that spring. Around the same time the group’s van broke down in rural Florida, leading them to be hassled for being no-good long-haired hippies, a la “Easy Rider”. And so it goes.
Elsewhere on Freedom Suite, the Rascals revert to old ways with Eddie Brigati cutting a rug and proclaiming “Any Dance’ll Do” and Felix going full soul-revue on “Baby I’m Blue.” Guitarist Gene Cornish also contributes two tunes and really shines on the nostalgic waltz-like number that recalls a time when “Love Was So Easy to Give.” The second disc is a whole other ball of wax. The guys did have bona fide jazz influences and experience in high-profile house bands, three of them having played with Joey Dee and the Starliters at the famous Peppermint Lounge in Times Square. But the stretching out here (two of the three cuts here clock in a way over ten minutes) could have used more focus. In fact, “Boom” was a 13-minute Danelli drum solo, without even the benefit of an opening and closing band theme. Dino was a legit jazzbo, having played with Lionel Hampton and Red Allen, and the playing is great but this is pretty indulgent even by late Sixties standards. The full band is present for the sidelong “Cute” which works better. There are fine solos by Cavaliere on organ and Cornish’s needling lead guitar, and a drum-and percussion workout (with Brigati on congas) that could have replaced “Boom” altogether.
This double album would prove a tough sell for casual fans, many of whom already owned the #1 single from several months before. Freedom Suite peaked at #17 (and at #40 on the R&B chart) but slipped away not long after and two additional singles from it cracked the Top 40 but not by much. The Rascals continued making high-quality music but without the commercial success they were used to. In 1971, after the departure of Brigati and Cornish, a new line-up put out another double LP (Peaceful World) that continued, with the help of greats like Ron Carter, Alice Coltrane and Pepper Adams, with the jazz explorations and sometimes fantastically so, as on the 21-minute title track.
Shortly after the release of Freedom Suite, Felix Cavalier told Billboard magazine, “We don’t believe in violence and we don’t believe in utter passivity. We want to point out a middle road to satisfy both extremes and solve the problems.” Worthy sentiments in our current American era, one that is so divisive that the current president makes Mr. Nixon look like Mr. Rogers (almost). The Rascals legacy of affirmation and compassion, mainly carried on by oldies radio and CD re-issues, got a big boost starting in 2012 with the “Once Upon a Dream” reunion concert and multimedia show that featured all four original members. Produced by “Little Steven” Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, it brought the group’s good vibes and useful messaging into a 21st century that sorely needs it.
This summer, bereft of the outdoor music concerts so beloved at this time of year, is the perfect time to catch up with the classic festival films. So what better time to begin at the beginning and discover (or rediscover) the one that started it all. Famed New York commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern came to Newport in 1958, with a somewhat different project in mind. According to film critic in his Boston Sunday Globe documentary page, “Stern initially planned to have the festival serve as a backdrop for a fictional narrative.” Apparently, he found the 1958 edition of the Newport Jazz Fest was far more interesting as a primary subject. How could it not with a line-up that included Louis Armstrong Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry and other greats?
Louis Armstrong in full flight.
With its scene-establishing prologue, exciting close-up views of the performers and scanning shots of distinctive audience members, Stern’s film would be a table-setter for several notable rock festival documentaries to come: Woodstock, Monterrey Pop and Gimme Shelter being the most famous. It not only captures the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. In the era that preceded those big rock music events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike. While Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t have the momentous vibe of those three rock films, Bert Stern’s work is a star-studded look back to a time when postwar jazz was at the height of its popularity and a partying youth culture was starting to butt up against the genteel high society of this Rhode Island resort.
Shades of summer: Fans at Newport ’58
Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. There’s some wild carousing at an oceanfront rental and a recurring theme where a roving Dixieland combo promotes the festival by showing up all over town, blaring from the back of an antique car or serenading on a moonlit beach. (This may be leftover footage from the aborted feature-film idea). The actual concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Be-bop, the preeminent branch of the jazz tree back then, is represented with fine segments featuring Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, the intercutting of yachting footage (that season’s America’s Cup trial runs were also taking place) proves to be a considerable distraction during Monk’s number.
Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is on stage as the nighttime segment starts and things begin to loosen up with a younger and more integrated crowd taking over. A few of them even look like they’re on drugs (the very idea!). Bluesy belters Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle wow an audience that’s all about dancing and singing along, and the good vibes peak with a sublime medley from the immortal Louis Armstrong. He starts with a tender “Lazy River” and finishes with a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and along the way there’s at least one of Pop’s stratospheric trumpet solos. The only miscue in the performance clips is Chuck Berry doing a rather lackluster version of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It hints at a tendency the Newport promoters would later develop when tastes changed and non-jazz performers became less of an exception.
But all is set right as Saturday night passes into Sunday morning, when Mahalia Jackson closes the film with a rousing gospel set. The ritual of a cross-section of people enjoying music al-fresco on a summer’s weekend would become a lot more common in the decades to come, but here it still seems new, which makes Stern’s idea of filming the fans as intimately as he does the performers feel prophetic. It’s something we’re all missing now and for maybe some time to come. The audience here at Newport—-the ones in cat’s-eyes glasses and plaid pants mixing with those in berets and turtlenecks—-didn’t “change the world” like those at the ballyhooed rock mega-festivals a decade later. But they and the musicians fed off each other in a communal rapture of the type that may feel new all over again once we ever get back to it.
For more info on the virtual re-release of the digitally restored Jazz on a Summer’s Day go to kinomarquee.com
You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
“I waited so long, so long to play this part
And just remembered/That I’d forgotten about my heart”
I’m not sure if Go-Gos bassist Kathy Valentine wrote those lines in the song “Head Over Heels,” the band’s fourth and final Top 20 single. She co-wrote it with guitarist/pianist Charlotte Caffey but it has Valentine’s stamp all over it. The Austin, Texas native had brought over a few songs from her previous band the Textones when she became the final link in what would be become a history-making band: the hit “Vacation” and the closing number of their debut album “Can’t Stop the World.” Both those songs, and the later “Head Over Heels,” brim with deep notions of yearning, self-examination and personal determination against great odds. It is the refrain of “Vacation” that gives Valentine’s incisive and consistently compelling memoir its title. It totally suited the last-minute bassist (she was a guitarist while co-fronting the Textones) to be a supporting player in the ascendant Go-Gos. The Los Angeles band’s rise to be the first (and so far only) all-female band who wrote and played all their own material to have a #1 album is quite a story and Kathy neither sugarcoats the success nor sensationalizes the circumstances of their untimely initial split after just three LPs. Truth be told, the Go-Gos have long been a misconstrued group and though this is one member’s take, the tale of both her life and career are refreshingly parsed in these 270-odd pages.
Kathy Valentine today. On a life of artistic pursuit, she says: “A creative person gets used to subsisting on unequal parts of passion, delusion and relentless hope. No matter what happens, as long as I keep doing it, I’m still in the game, there’s still a shot.”
Like so many who make it big in show-biz and later write autobiographies, Valentine had early life complications. Born in 1959, her father was out of the picture by age three, and he would be a long time in making it back into her life. Her mother was a mini-skirted “babe” who enjoyed a good party—often with her teenage daughter along for the ride—while she wasn’t earning a degree at the Univ. of Texas. Valentine’s light-bulb musical moment came from seeing the pint-sized dynamo Suzi Quatro do her #1 UK hit (the raucous “Can the Can”) on TV while visiting her English grandparents. It wouldn’t be long until the she was chasing her own rock dreams in a high-school band, although after singing “Wild Thing” at an early show decided she wasn’t suited to be the main focal point.
Unsurprisingly, the tough times are there too. Date rape, an unwanted pregnancy and building substance abuse issues by her mid-teens are part of this story. These autobiographical details steeled Valentine against the world, and the self-medication that was part of the rock ‘n’ roll high life would not be recognized as needing an intervention until much later. This is a twice-told tale in the music business, so it’s in other areas that the reader gets the fresh insights that make this book valuable.
The Textones recording of a song that would get a makeover for the Go-Gos second album. Kathy left the band in late 1980, feeling they were stuck in neutral. She later heard thru the grapevine they were relieved she left, due to her heavy drinking. She took offense at the time only to understand better in her later sobriety.
One thread throughout these pages is that male musicians were uniformly supportive of her and fellow female bandmates, and “wanted us to do well.” That extends from from her early Austin days to rock stars she dated post-stardom: notably Blondie’s nice-guy drummer Clem Burke. Any sexism or patronizing seems to come from creeps in clubs (early on) to “industry suits” (later). The sisterhood squad she found in the Go-Gos provided her with surrogate siblings she never had and the musical success she worked for and craved.
The Go-Gos with new member Kathy Valentine (far right) in early 1981.
When it did arrive, it was all very sudden: from gritty L.A. clubs to arenas and international stardom within a year. She met Caffey at an X concert on Christmas night 1980 and (with the original bass player sick) found herself on stage a week later with a band on the verge of big things. Valentine’s prose hits the right tone here: forthcoming but not lurid, forthright but not self-serving. Sustaining the runaway success of the history-making Beauty and the Beat album was a challenge, with the constant touring, publicity ops, tricky business dealings and all the attendant rock-star bacchanalia that temporarily disguised internal problems within the band. Plus, they were up against the feeling that they were never being taken totally seriously. Here is Valentine’s rumination of when the group presented at the American Music Awards in 1982. “It seemed like most of the old guard didn’t get us… I sensed they thought of us as temporaries more than contemporaries, bits of fluff blowing by eternal monuments.”
The band would be on the outs not too long after their third (and in my opinion, best album, 1984’s Talk Show. “One hand’s just reaching out/And one’s just hangin’ on/It seems my weaknesses/Just keep going strong,” sings Belinda Carlisle on the opening track, the aforementioned “Head Over Heels.” Seeking strength thru the recognition of vulnerabilities, Valentine was sure her song would be a hit and show the band’s evolution. She was correct in the first case, but it is unclear how many saw the deeper qualities of this savvy group. They were looked upon as “America’s sweethearts” and “bouncy” and “frothy.” The bassist secretly fumed at the refusal of other band members to loosen up the band’s “static” formulation and to let others sing more, or spread the songwriting royalties around (esp. to their ace drummer Gina Shock, a big reason for their initial success).
The Go-Gos on the Tonight Show with guest host Joan Rivers in 1984. After a performance of current hit “Head Over Heels,” they pile onto the couch for a not-bad interview, but one that still placed extra emphasis on their being “adorable.” Back on stage they perform “Yes or No” a great song that tanked as the new single. There seems to be an effort to mix things up, with Belinda Carlisle sharing the lead vocal with Jane Wieldlin from behind the keyboard and Kathy playing on the drum-riser stairs. For me, lot more charming than the showcase gigs they did at the Greek Theater shortly after (also on YouTube).
The group’s initial split in 1985 was esp. hard on Valentine, who characteristically refrains from bitterness in the retelling. Belinda Carlisle and guitarist Jane Weidlin had solo success, while she became estranged from Charlotte Caffey who had spent the interim in part by kicking her heroin addiction. Kathy had less success with her own musical projects and broke up with longtime boyfriend Clem Burke. It was Caffey who was there for her when the reckoning with her alcoholism (and eventual sobriety) comes at the end of the Eighties. By the early Nineties ordered was restored as the Go-Gos reformed for the first of many successful tours while also releasing a pretty good comeback album, God Bless the Go-Gos, in 2001.
Like a lot of these memoirs, “All I Ever Wanted” pulls up a bit short, ending around the first band reunion, with a short epilogue tacked on. That concludes with an emphatic “Not the end” and indeed Valentine and the Go-Gos continue on, with a possible onelast tour (post-Covid) tour, a Broadway musical to their name and a documentary going into wide release in August. That film will hopefully be a worthy reexamination of this singular but oft-misunderstood band. But Valentine’s engaging book has a leg up on that tale, as well as being a vital retelling of her own wild ride on the rock and roller coaster.
So many great rock ‘n’ roll origin stories begin in iconic locations like garages, basement and rec rooms. Of course, the whole idea is when greatness beckons, the next step is to find an audience in nightclubs and other places where rock-loving people congregate.
The new Whistlestop Rock all-star-cast single, “Queen of the Drive-In.” Check out the single on Bandcamp and the video for it on July 10th by following Whistlestop Rock on YouTube or Facebook.
Already you can see where this is going. In the upside-down world of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s back to the origins for both musicians and fans. This unprecedented (in our lifetime) human tragedy and lockdown/social distancing that suddenly became a way of life (the “new abnormal” as I prefer to call it) has put a unique burden on the future of live music, given the now-risky practice of both singing in close quarters to crammed-in patrons. But of the many performers who have taken to sheltered performances, first have done with such aplomb as the deferred-but-not-derailed Whistlestop Rock tour here in New England.
“FROM OUR UNDISCLOSED BUNKERS TO YOURS” After two live gigs out of ten scheduled, the Whistlestop Rock crew pivoted quickly and by the third week of May had come up with this awesome one-hour virtual gig, complete with opening credits, nifty graphics and tag-team introductions of their colleagues for a series of great musical performances. More details below.
Back on February 22, I posted on article about a recently-launched travelling rock show called Whistlestop Rock that featured a clutch of mostly female-led, mixed-gender bands from the bustling and very vital eastern New England scene. This idea to pool resources and fan bases was a great idea that had grown organically from an initial conversation between Simone Berk of Kid Gulliver and scene doyenne Justine Covault, best known in the Boston area for heading up the hard-rocking Justine and the Unclean and for organizing the long-running monthly musical jamboree called The Mess-Around at the famous Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge.
The second date of that tour, with a big crowd at the roomy ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. was a smashing success and bode well for a fruitful spring and summer of red-hot rock roll and great socializing. That show was on Feb. 29th and by just a few days later, it was terribly clear that something historically awful was afoot with the coronavirus. Even by that night there was an inkling, talk among the musicians of needing to be careful with microphone use, while a friend I met in the crowd was already using the elbow-bump greeting.
The self-named Whistle Sisters and Whistle Misters have not cursed their luck, as utterly disheartening as it must have been to have this carefully-curated rolling event squashed after only two of approximately ten planned shows. In addition to the one-hour online benefit show seen above (to help great local venues who are really struggling), with a new one airing on July 10th, This not-to-miss event will feature the all-star single and video “Queen of the Drive-In.” In the interim between these two virtual soirees, there have been individual song postings, videos and even cocktail recipes!
For any musicians looking for tips on how to get thru this unprecedented time, where the very proximity that binds bands to fans is indefinitely a no-no, can learn a lot from the Whistlestop rockers. Sure, the necessary at-home aspect of these performances brings on an Unplugged sort of vibe. But there are ways around this. Sometimes the strength of the songwriting will do it, witness Simone Berk and David Ammillotti do “Forget About Him” (starting at 2:35) and both of Justine Covault’s solo numbers (at 13:30 and 33:30). Local fave Linnea Herzog debuts “Non-Dramatic Breakup Song” in a mermaid suit (8:40). Lynda Mandolyn from the ass-kicking pride of Portland ME Tiger Bomb, does two of their garage rockers on acoustic guitar (5:43 and xxx) but does so with great panache. Not only does she perform with a spinning color globe with a vintage Gorgar pinball machine behind her (jealous!), but there’s an extra Lynda that pops up in the corner for the chorus harmonies. Kids today and they’re technology!
A couple of groups do manage a plugged-in full band sound, either because there are couples or quarantine buddies involved, or because they are so tech-savvy as to become split-screen combos. This worked out great with the rootsy sound of Steve Pyrgorda and Cold Expectations (at 20:38). The power-trio inventiveness of Providence’s Heather Rose in Clover was in evidence on the performance of “Red Vest” which is a scrappy post-punk rocker that suddenly veers off into a slowed-down psychedelic coda that would not have seemed out of place on Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. Linda Bean Pardee and Tim Gillis from Mod-influenced Chelsea Curve (there was even a Vespa scooter parked in the garage where they played) did their “Don’t Look Down” (at 47:30) with Linda’s monster bass turned up so loud it almost drowned out their singing. But that’s rock ‘n’ roll, baby!
The supportive vibe of musical colleagues makes it no surprise that these guys have lots of pals to call for guest appearances. This first online edition included (at 24:40) Tanya Donelly and Dean Fisher, the former from Throwing Muses and Belly, the latter from the Juliana Hatfield Trio. Also appearing as an acoustic duos were Joyce Raskin White and Seana Carmody at 11:40.
Granted, it’s going to be a long way back for nightclubs and live music: a Phase 5 re-start in today’s parlance. In the long meantime, the music can carry on and even has a chance to broaden audience’s via the long reach of the Internet. Rock on, everyone!
In the broadest sense, Joni Mitchell’s career can be broken down into three parts. From her debut album in 1968 through to her commercial high-water mark with 1974’s Court and Spark, she was one of pop music’s most beloved singer-songwriters. Her soulful insights into the complex nature of modern relationships where free love and feminism intersected were treasured by lyric sheet-devouring fans and fellow performers alike, her songs eagerly covered by everyone from Judy Collins to Nazareth. Likened to a “Nordic princess” by Girls Like Us author Sheila Weller, the Canadian-born Mitchell also stood out as a flaxen-haired beauty and muse of the age, feted in song by paramours like Graham Nash and James Taylor, as well as by admirers like Led Zeppelin. Since 1980, in the wake of changing musical fashions, Mitchell has been more figurehead than superstar, releasing an album about every three years (until 2007) while navigating the twists and turns of a compelling personal history. In between was a fascinating transitional time where she hoped to keep her public while branching out from her folk-rock base, delving into jazz, ethnic rhythms and more ambitious narrative structures.
Smack dab in the middle of this 1975-79 period came this high-sailing double LP. Caught between possessive audience expectations and the higher critical standards of the time, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was widely dismissed upon its release, although her hardcore fan base was still large enough to make it go gold, Mitchell’s last album to do so.
An unsavory aspect of the “Don Juan” album is that Mitchell posed in blackface for the cover. I didn’t even realize this until decades after the record’s release and I bet I’m not the only one.
The stylistic “excesses” of DJRD did not materialize out of thin air. A vocalist, wordsmith and musician of uncommon and uncompromising talents, Mitchell’s adventuresome streak was already evident on her #2 hit Court and Spark with the elaborate time signatures of “Car on the Hill” and the verbose bebop of “Twisted.” By the following year she recorded “The Jungle Line”, a nearly unclassifiable mix of emphatic Burundi drumming, buzzing Moog synthesizers and lyrics suggesting global cultural interconnectedness and 1976’s Hejira was a sophisticated series of jazz-tinged tone poems inspired by a cross-country drive. But it looked like a case of ambition gone awry when Don Juan ushers itself in with the signifying “Overture” as Mitchell sets a stark mood with several alternately-tuned acoustic guitars while bassist Jaco Pastorius eventually enters with a coiling flurry of notes. This sound is as intriguing as it must have been befuddling for many fans at the time. Pastorius, the celebrated four-string master from Weather Report, would be the main collaborator for this album’s often-sparse soundscapes. But the material is not as unapproachable as was once claimed. This is still Joni Mitchell, the famous “romantic freelancer” as termed by critic Timothy Crouse, and the remainder of side one shows it. As ever, she’s stepping out and open to fresh discovery (“Cotton Ave.”) and wrestling with the possibilities of new love, taking forms both anxious (trying to coax a Mr. Mystery out of his shell in “Talk to Me”) and hopeful (the open-hearted “Jericho,” reprised from 1974’s live double Miles of Aisles).
Four decades removed from the bad press (the headline of Creem magazine’s write-up was “Don Juan Says He Doesn’t Know You”) most of this album proves to be a pretty appealing listen. At 59 minutes, DJRD its not time demanding and it gradually reveals its charms, even if they are sometimes held out at arm’s length. The glittering/tawdry Miami Beach vignette “Otis and Marlena” is a top-notch example of Mitchell’s descriptive powers (“the street lights fade away/on louvered blocks in sea green air”) and if the seven-minute percussion instrumental that follows seems a world away from “Both Sides Now” it doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. The heady rush of words on the title track proves that Joni can still write with the best of them, even the vintage Dylan that it resembles. The 34 year-old Mitchell is taking stock (“Last night the ghost of my old ideals/Reran on channel five”) of both her life and her artistic image, flatly stating, “There is danger and education in living out such a reckless lifestyle.” These sentiments, and the hint of retreat from her jet-setting aura, also run through Don Juan’s magnum opus, the sixteen-minute “Paprika Plains.” On either side of its long Aaron Copeland-channeling middle section, writ large for orchestra and Mitchell’s emphatic piano, are lyrics where our ambivalent heroine cinematically steps out on a balcony to escape a “stifling” high-society affair, the better to dwell on the simpler times of her childhood on the Canadian prairie. “I take my sharpest fingernail and slash the globe to see/Below me, vast Paprika plains”, Mitchell sings, before the daydream dissipates and she’s obliged to head back inside.
But it wasn’t really Mitchell’s choice to leave the party that was her long run of popular and critical success. A proud, headstrong artist who was stung by the reception afforded this ambitious album, she soldiered on with an unusual collaboration with jazz giant Charles Mingus before the onset of semi-obscurity. Mass audience openness to pop innovation that had started around 1967 had now waned but Joni, who had long railed against the machinations of the music industry, remained true to her unpredictable imperatives and causes. In her footsteps followed the likes of Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls, Joanna Newsom and countless others. Later years brought challenges to Mitchell beyond the romantic arena that she had chronicled so acutely. Since the 1990s she has acknowledged her health problems, has established a relationship with her adult daughter (who she gave birth to in 1965 but then gave up for adoption) and lent her voice to issues like environmental awareness. The future cares of later life seem to inform the closing moments of this intriguing and peculiar album. “In my dreams we fly” she sings as if about her generation’s heyday, but then notes that to make it over the long stretch of a lifetime, “we’ll have to row a little harder.”
Elton John had a very peculiar sort of fame when his pop stardom was at its apex in the early to mid-Seventies. He was a short, bespectacled, closeted gay man whose teenybopper audience was as expansive as the literary/musical ambitions of him and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin. From 1970-72, they rung up seven Top 40 hits in the U.S. (it would have been eight if “Tiny Dancer” hadn’t stalled at #41). It was an eclectic bunch of songs that included romantic swooning (“Your Song”), Fifties revivalism (the #1 “Crocodile Rock”), atmospheric balladry (“Daniel”) and Band-styled Americana (“Levon,” named after guess-who). While Elton increasingly became identified with his catchy melodies and oversized sunglasses, there was a lot going on just below the surface. Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, for example, once remarked about how songs like “Levon” (who after all “was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day/When the New York Times said ‘God is Dead’”) were like a side door into a world of “adult concerns.” In 1973, the already prolific John-Taupin team had extra writing time when the production schedule for their seventh studio album was pushed back. When all was said and done, the pianist-singer and his crack band had enough material for a 17-track double album and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road would be the final step that would insure Elton’s place up on the mantle of that decade’s topmost pop idols. He hasn’t been down from there since.
Elton in action, 1973.
The album was recorded in two weeks in May of 1973 at France’s renowned Chateau d’ Herouville, the so-called “Honky Chateau” of a previous EJ album title. It was written almost as quickly—during a brief stay in Kingston, Jamaica where John and Taupin were holed up while trying to make arrangements (ultimately unsuccessful) to record there. The alacrity with which Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was conceived and committed to tape is pretty remarkable and may suggest a unifying theme. And while it is not strictly a concept album, the title and the cover illustration—Elton in satin jacket and platform shoes is seen stepping off a gritty sidewalk and onto that pedestrian byway that leads to the Emerald City—gives you a pretty good idea of the record’s semi-fixation on the fantasies and illusions that emanate from the silver screen.
Like many a double album, GYBR starts grandly, with the instrumental prelude “Funeral for a Friend.” This synth-heavy processional gains steam after a few minutes and segues into the end-of-the-affair rocker “Loves Lies Bleeding.” This emphatic up-tempo number is just the kind that John and his band started excelling a couple of albums before: propelled by his vigorous rhythm section of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, and complemented with flashes of Davey Johnstone’s lead guitar. The album is front loaded with some of its most well-known tunes. Side one fills out with the Marilyn Monroe tribute ballad “Candle in the Wind” and the glam-rock spoof “Bennie and the Jets.” The colorful but rather plodding “Bennie” was a #1 hit in the U.S. and Canada (in Elton’s native England is was relegated to the flipside of “Candle”) and its teen-dream lyric about the fictional Bennie (“She got electric boots and a mohair suit/You know I read it in a magazine”) shows that John and Taupin were cued in to the whole T.Rex and Bowie-Ziggy scene. In fact, Elton himself was joining that club with his increasingly outlandish stage show.
The title track kicks off the old side two, another huge hit and one of the songwriting duo’s most noteworthy collaborations. Against Elton’s rich, brooding piano melody, Taupin’s deft lyric of Tinseltown disillusionment (as reflected in the title) bears a passing resemblance to the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard with its stark depiction of the dark underbelly of Hollywood. Here, a kept man likens the town to a place “where the dogs of society howl.” Unlike Marilyn Monroe in “Candle”, who never knew “who to cling to when the rain set in,” our determined protagonist declares “you can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough.” This is definitely the Lincolnshire-bred Taupin talking here, but whether the ex-farm boy or his pal Elton can ever escape the stardust allure is still open to question, as John’s dreamy ah-ah-ah harmony at the end seems to confirm.
This mood has its bookend in the smoky barroom ballad “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” that closes the first half of the album. In between are two songs of clear-eyed affirmation and self-knowledge that are GYBR highlights (“Grey Seal” and “This Song Has No Title”) and a regrettably snarky one (“Jamaica Jerk-Off”) that will preview the shortcomings to come on sides three and four. The melodic rocker “Grey Seal” is esp. great with its simple wisdoms (“On the big screen they showed us a sun/But not as bright in life as the real one”) born of nature. The band has never been as sharp, Dee Murphy’s percolating bass and Nigel Olsson’s galloping beat are infectious and Davey Johnstone’s guitar filigree matches the piano between chorus and verse for the right reflective touch before they join in a bust-out jam to close out the number.
To much lesser effect, side two is rounded out with the uncharitable “Jamaica Jerk-Off.” The plans that Elton and Bernie had for recording this album in the land of reggae seemed to be based solely on the fact that they liked the Stones’ Goats Head Soup, which had been largely made at Dynamic Sound studios in Kingston. They found the facilities there not to their standards (an inadequate piano and only “one microphone”) and ditched the idea. Instead of responding to this snafu by maybe admitting their lack of advance work, they took the opportunity to make a faux-reggae number depicting the people as lazy and rude. This unfortunate tune says a lot more about spoiled rock stars than it does about Jamaica, a very small and poor country which has sustained an amazing musical culture for decades. It also previews the lyrical pettiness that informs much of the second disc.
If I still had GYBR as a double LP instead of a single CD (where its 76 minutes are a snug fit) I wouldn’t have much use of side three anymore. Three of its four songs are misogynistic portraits of women (or girls) that are extremely unlikable tunes when one gives them more than a cursory listen. “Sweet Painted Lady” is a rank reminiscence of a harborside hooker where the sailors “leave the smell of the sea in your bed” and where observations like “many have used you and many still do/there’s a place in the world for a woman like you” passes as philosophy. “All the Girls Love Alice” sounds like a nifty up-tempo number but then there’s the lyrics: Alice is an underage lesbian temptress in London’s Soho district who ends up getting murdered in the subway. This doesn’t prevent her from being called “a sixteen year-old yo-yo” in the following verse. And the less said about “Dirty Little Girl” the better, unless your thing is physically abusing street waifs (“Someone grab that bitch by the ears”).
I mean seriously, WTF? Amazingly, in our supposed “woke” age, you’ll never hear a peep about any of these tunes. You can scroll down the comments on any of them on YouTube and all you’d hear about is how they’re “underrated,” that is, not a hit single. Paradoxically, it was in pre-PC era that these songs could spark contempt. In Rolling Stone’s Nov. 1973 review, eminent rock scribe Stephen Davis called these tunes “misanthropic in their anger” and took particular offense at “Sweet Painted Lady.” Said Davis: “Elton and Taupin have a repository of nerve just to record this; amazingly they get away with it.” Forty years later, in a piece about this album’s deluxe re-release, the same magazine gushed its uncritical praise and spent several sentences fawning about how non-entities like Ed Sheerhan and Fall Out Boy contributed to a bonus disc of cover versions. Yes, music journalism has come a long way in the wrong direction.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road does rebound on the old side four, starting off with two high-energy numbers, “Your Sister Can’t Twist” and the hit “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” The latter song shows a more successful model for songwriting, with Bernie using the wild weekends of his provincial teendom as specific yet universal inspiration. But the appeal of the “Roy Rogers” may just depend on your penchant for old Westerns and the ho-hum drinking song “Social Disease” suggests again that this songwriting team didn’t quite have the surplus of great material that they thought. The album closes somewhat satisfactorily with the attractive ballad “Harmony.”
Far be it from me to counter the old adage that nothing succeeds like success. GYBR has sold some 30 million copies worldwide and its reputation as Elton’s best album is not about to shake loose anytime soon. Take the best material off this and his previous four albums and you’ll have a compilation of some of the best pop-rock of the early Seventies. But the excesses of that same era drag down the highlights of this double album, though you may never know it in our present time, where critical thinking on these matters has gone by the wayside.