Rock on Record

Make Mine a Double #10: The Damned’s “Black Album” (1980)

(An occasional series delving into the wild and woolly world of rock music’s notable double albums)

Give the Damned their due. They spearheaded England’s punk revolution, releasing the scene’s first single (“New Rose”) in October of 1976, and had an LP out the following February, months before London’s famously raucous Jubilee summer. While news of this upheaval was still being absorbed across the Atlantic, they were racking up another milestone by being the first such band to play in the States. And in a movement brimming with maverick characters, the Damned were no slouches—featuring a bassist who went by the name Captain Sensible but was known to perform in a tutu, a drummer dubbed Rat Scabies who wasn’t afraid to leave his seat behind the kit to scrap with audience members and Dave Vanian (as in Transylvanian), the lead singer who transitioned into the music business from his previous job as a gravedigger.

In the early days with original guitarist/songwriter Brian James, the sound was archetypal—full of buzzsaw guitars, turbo-charged drumming and declamatory vocals on songs with signifying titles like “Problem Child”, “Feel the Pain” and “Machine Gun Etiquette.” Although both intense and irreverent, the Damned never gained the socio-political cache of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. By 1980, they had slipped from the head of the pack (even referred to as “the Darned” by waggish record-rater Robert Christgau), fated to cut their own peculiar, semi-famous course. Hence The Black Album, their fourth LP, cheekily recalls the Fab Four’s sprawling 1968 classic as a reference point for their own double disc.


The Damned, circa 1980

There were two strong sides of conventional-length songs, an impressive 17-minute epic named “Curtain Call” that pointed the way towards the Damned’s imminent proto Goth-rock sound and a fourth side of early favorites performed live in-studio for a group of fan clubbers. They are quick out of the gate with rallying rocker “Wait for the Blackout” with Scabies’ dynamic drumming and some great Townshend-esque guitar flourishes by Sensible, who moved up to six-string (and keyboards) after Brian James’ departure while Paul Grey ably took over the bass duties. The opener also conveys the Damned’s increasing tendency to be champions of all things nocturnal with Vanian’s invocation of “the darkness (that) holds a power that you won’t find in the day.” Sure, there are a few of the witty, up tempo bursts of energy that were a punk-era calling card (“Drinking About My Baby”, “Lively Arts”, “Therapy” and “Sick of This and That”) and others like the Sensibly-sung “Silly Kids Games” that showed the band’s classicist side: in the spirit of mid-Sixties Who or Kinks, using a chipper tune to deliver serious lyric concerns—in this case, the core absurdity of avarice.

It’s little surprise, though—for a group that named themselves after the 1960 creep-out classic Village of the Damned and that featured a lead singer who looked like he wandered in off the set of Dark Shadows—that their more cinematic and macabre side would begin to take precedence. This more melodic bent, marked by Vanian’s newfound crooning vocal style, is heard to great effect on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (“I try to be true, he tries to be cruel/I’ll hold you gently, but he’ll smother you”) and “13th Floor Vendetta”,” with their acoustic guitar and keyboard shadings. The band itself grumbled a bit about Han Zimmer’s booming overproduction on the otherwise astute “The History of the World (Part One),” even though they are listed as co-producers, but no such complaints can befall the side-filling “Curtain Call”, where the group went balls-out to stake a new course that had more in common with the art-rock show-offs that the unschooled punks were rebelling against not long before. Its doomy minor-key ambience is perfect for Vanian to take center stage in a benchmark performance that directly or indirectly informed the subsequent legions of a darkly-clad and black-fingernailed subculture (“We’re coming up from the deep, the lizard sheds its skin/Night obliterates the day, and all the fun begins”). The long interior instrumental section also excels, especially a shivery, suspended passage that feels like getting lost in the woods before a piercing violin splits the fog and the Captain’s fright-film keyboards and nervy guitar solo summon back Vanian for the conclusion (“Tragedy, love all lie within/Each player takes his chance to play/And lives to fight another day”). “I like the fact that we push things a bit,” Sensible said later, dismissing the flak that “Curtain Call” caught from some of his contemporaries. (”They can bog off.”)

Despite something of a career setback in the years after The Black Album, this individualistic streak stood them in good stead in the decades (yes, decades) that followed. By the mid-80s, established as Goth-rock pioneers, The Damned scored hits with tunes like “Grimly Fiendish” and “Eloise,” with its strange Brian Wilson-meets-Bela-Lugosi vibe. They may not have “made it stinking rich/straight up there without a hitch” as they once ironically predicted on “Machine Gun Etiquette” (re-titled on the live side here as “Second Time Around”). But onward they skulked into the new millenium with Vanian as the constant member, always joined by either Scabies or Sensible if not both. On their 35th anniversary tour in 2011 they were even doing a 25-minute bog-off medley of “Therapy” and “Curtain Call”. Live to fight another day, indeed.


The Damned on stage today. Original members Capt. Sensible on left and Dave Vanian, middle.<

Make Mine a Double #9: Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” (1978)

“I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you/though perhaps I may not be happy/This is what you want, so I’ve conceded.” Musical dedications and poison pen songs are well-established pop conventions but it’s doubtful anyone else combined the two with such chutzpah as Marvin Gaye did in 1978 with the divorce-themed concept album that began with those lines. While in the legal process of ending his marital union with Anna Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy for whom he recorded, the financially and psychologically troubled Gaye was ordered to funnel much of the proceeds of his next album to his wife and son as part of the settlement. Gaye resisted his initial temptation to toss off a “lazy” record. Instead he dug in his heels and crafted a highly personal and idiosyncratic exploration of his failed marriage—some of the lyrics could have been lifted from the pages of a court deposition—and “wedded” it to some of the strongest instrumental tracks of his later career. Here, My Dear is not the easiest record to warm up to. It initially sold well enough to his loyal fan base (peaking at #4 on the soul charts and at #26 on the pop) but likely left a lot of bemused listeners in its wake. Originally derided by many critics as self-indulgent, its reputation has improved over time as a fascinating (if troubling) late chapter in the rocky life and times of one of R&B’s most beloved singers.


Marvin and Anna Gordy in happier times (I’m assuming).

Gaye met Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior, soon after he signed on with her brother in the early days of Motown. By the singer’s own account, she lit a fire under a promising but underachieving young talent. They were together through Gaye’s remarkable string of over twenty major hit songs in the Sixties, either on solo records or with duet partners like Tami Terrell or Mary Wells. But as the decade turned and Gaye reached new artistic heights with What’s Going On, a landmark album of black social protest, the marriage had hit the skids. After the table-setting title track of Here, My Dear, Gaye proceeds with his highly-personalized dissection on the second song with “I Met a Little Girl”, a bittersweet recalling of love’s early bloom that abruptly jumps ahead to 1976’s very public falling out. This is directly followed by “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” (Gaye is so locked into his lyrical quest to get at what went wrong that he doesn’t get around to the titular refrain until the song has nearly exhausted its six-minute running time) and “Anger” (an candid internal conversation where he strives to overcome his inner demons and “reach that wiser age”).

For Gaye, that last task always would prove a tough one. Raised in Washington, D.C. by a strict and domineering minister father, the higher aspirations of a Christian faith were pitted against an abusive home environment. The effects of this would appear to carry over into his tumultuous adult relationships, both personal and professional. Typically, Gaye doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life often resembled a lurid soap opera (“What I can’t understand is if you love me/How could you turn me into the police?”) and while he may vent about his wife’s expensive tastes inflating the alimony (“You’ve got a flair for style and you’re styling all the while”) he does not ignore his own exorbitant drug habit. With this much blame to go around, the atmosphere can become a bit oppressive but Gaye takes a recess from the musical divorce court of his own making for three consecutive tunes halfway through. Here’s a return of the more altruistic Marvin of the early 70s with the thoughtful yearning of “Sparrow” and the dogged self-encouragement of “Time to Get It Together”. And “Everybody Needs Love,” with its quiet-storm instrumental vibe and buttery vocal overdubs, could have been the hit song that Here, My Dear needed. But the only single released from it, the entertaining “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” did not fare well. It’s a bit of a departure from the classic-sounding soul jams that filled most of these four sides. With its slinky bass line, trebly rhythm guitar and Gaye’s own fulsome synthesizer fills, it suggests that the man was familiar with the jaunty sci-fi funk of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective. In this escapist fantasy, Gaye may be liberated by time travel, getting down with a new lover on his “space bed,” but the cold reality of his tangled affairs on the home planet soon come creeping back.

A review of Here, My Dear would not be complete without mentioning the exceptional (if suitably downbeat) cover art. Painter Michael Bryan had done album sleeves for the likes John Lennon, Rod Stewart and Bootsy Collins and his idea of incorporating Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss was met with approval by Gaye (“Put me in a toga”). The singer solemnly stands aside the iconic couple whose image is repeated on the back—this time they’ve caught fire inside the ruins of a columned courtyard while another statue, a grinning beast, sits on a pedestal bearing the legend “Pain and Divorce.” That’s only half of it. The inner gatefold shows a man’s hand giving over a token-sized LP to a woman’s hand above a Monopoly-like game board. Below her hand are gobs of cash, a house and a Cadillac. The male hand presides over a piano, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a single dollar bill. Ouch!


A 1978 TV commercial for the album gets you up close and personal with Michael Bryan’s distinctive artwork.

In this tangled web of personal grievances and court orders, Here, My Dear was fated to be a flop. First off, if Berry Gordy was unenthusiastic about What’s Going On (and still professed to not understand it even after it became a worldwide smash) what was he going to do with a double album that all but declared open season on his own sister? Secondly, Gaye seemed to lose interest in the record once he got it off his chest, while Anna Gordy (perhaps paradoxically) pondered an invasion-of-piracy lawsuit to stop the LP that was mandated to make her hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the initial sales spike, Here, My Dear died on the vine and was quickly out of print. A couple of years later, his brief second marriage to Janis Hunter (the inspiration for “Let’s Get it On” as well as this record’s “Falling in Love Again”) also hit the rocks. Dogged by the scourge of a hard drug habit and pursued by the IRS (he owed a fortune in back taxes) he relocated to Belgium and recorded his final big hit, the sublime “Sexual Healing.” But the old demons quickly caught up with him on his return to the States and, a day before what would have been his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father after a domestic dispute, the last terrible chapter in a life filled with destructive personal relationships.

Make Mine a Double is an ongoing series that explores the wild and woolly world of rock’s most notable double album’s. Up next: “Layla.”

Make Mine a Double #7: The Kinks’ “Everybody’s in Showbiz” (1972)

“God Save the Kinks” read the buttons and the wall graffiti of a long-ago age. Few other bands earned such a loyal and dogged fan base or needed as much saving (if only from themselves) as did the group from North London led by singer-writer Ray Davies and his lead-guitarist brother Dave. Bursting onto the scene in 1964 with their world-beating power chord prototype “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks went on to produce an impressive string of hits in their homeland while morphing from beat-heavy rockers into piquant social commentators. But the group became almost as well known for their intense in-fighting as they were for songs like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Days,” considered among the most beautiful in the pop cannon. During that late Sixties creative peak, the band were all but forgotten in America while they waited out a four-year ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians after a rancorous1965 tour. Everybody’s in Showbiz was a sort of culmination of their early 70s stateside comeback that started with the #5 hit “Lola” and carried through to this double album. One disc captured their current live act with a Carnegie Hall concert excerpt while the studio half pondered life on the road and negotiated the tricky intersection of celebrity and identity and featured “Celluloid Heroes,” the latest “Kink Klassic” and one of their first explicitly American-themed tunes.

Ray Davies, as the compassionate, ornery and nostalgia-prone leader, had guided the band into adopting a quintessentially English persona, often based on music-hall traditions and a yearning for a pre-industrial age. But as with most British bands, the oversized aura of America’s musical heritage (and vast legions of rock-loving youths) was alluring and inescapable. A couple of years of touring the States was enough to remove the Kinks from the splendid isolation that produced obscure masterworks like Village Green Preservation Society, prompting a new set of lyrical concerns on this album’s studio tracks. Showbiz opens with the restless rocker “Here Comes Yet Another Day” the umpteenth song of that era describing the downside of hectic touring schedules even though Ray can employ his unique descriptive wit to describe just how bad it can get (“no time to comb my hair or even change my underwear”). The theme continues with “Maximum Consumption” wherein the modern musician is likened to a machine-like “high-grade performer” fueled by roadside cuisine—cataloged right down to the anchovies on the pizza and the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. We’re enlightened to the dubious thrills of “Motorway” living (“never thought I’d travel so far to work”) and go backstage to meet the hangers-on and industry types in “Unreal Reality.” Even Dave, in his sole songwriting contribution here, taps into the same paradox, acknowledging the anonymity sitting just below the surface of stardom in “You Don’t Know My Name.”

The above material, while enjoyable enough, paled in comparison to the group’s recent work and the unfashionable vaudevillian atmosphere (they recently added an old-timey horn section) was just enough to save them from any more mass adulation to contend with. But luckily the studio set also contained a couple of saving graces. The tender depiction of the star qualities of everyday people and the fragile personalities of Hollywood icons in “Celluloid Heroes” was the type of ruminative songwriting that would elevate the group’s status in years to come. At that time, however, RCA didn’t even release it as a single (due in part to its six-minute length) opting instead for the droll utopian escape of “Supersonic Rocket Ship”.


Ray and Dave in action in the early Seventies.

Just as affecting as “Celluloid Heroes,” and more of a revelation for casual fans, is “Sitting in My Hotel.” Like the former song’s view of Hollywood Blvd. as a place where “success walks hand in hand with failure,” here Davies takes stock of the trappings of fame built around the phrase “if my friends could see me now.” They would what? Be green with envy? No, “they would laugh” and say “it’s not really me.” The fancy limo waiting to take the group to the concert is likened to a “chauffeur-driven jam jar” and the posh seventh-floor suite is merely an outpost from which to gaze down at the sensible everyday world and daydream about sunlit June afternoons in the countryside. With its wistful verses and soaring choruses, “Sitting in My Hotel” is one of the more honest and fully realized looks at this age-old subject. It remains especially relevant in an age where even an ignominious turn in the spotlight—being a contestant on a condescending reality TV show, say—has been fetishized beyond all hope.

Given all this ambivalence to fame and life on the road, one might expect a perfunctory live disc but the Kinks come roaring out the gate with a fully-invested performance, notably on the opener “Top of the Pops.” Powered by the double-time drumming of founding member Mick Avory and Dave’s crunching chords and feedback-laced solos, Ray embraces the vicissitudes of impending success with the right mix of ego and bemusement (“I might even end up a rock and roll god/It might turn into a steady job”). Much had been made of the Kinks’ checkered past onstage (especially in John Mendelsohn’s liner notes to the Kink Kronikles compilation, also released in 1972) with the members’ unstable personal chemistry and supposed inebriation being at issue. But here the band is finding its feet (maybe literally) with an act that mixed high-energy rock with snippets of Ray’s innate Cockney theatricality. By this time the band was a must-see item for the counterculture cognoscenti of the Left and Right coasts and the boys didn’t disappoint. The front row of this Carnegie Hall date featured a number of New York’s famous drag queens (Holly Woodlawn and Jayne County among them) that Ray plays up to with fey repartee and snippets of show tunes like “Mr. Wonderful” and “Baby Face.” He gets the whole crowd howling in response to the dramatic re-figuring of “Alcohol,” gloriously milking the woeful gin-soaked tale about the downfall of a middle-class executive as he goes from a life of “prominence and position” to passed out on Skid Row in three easy verses. If the live half of Showbiz has any problem is that it’s top-heavy with several tracks from Muswell Hillbillies, the critically lauded album from the year before. It’s good stuff, but not the smattering of past classics that newbies to the Kinks camp may have hoped for.


The old demon alcohol claims another victim.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Everybody’s in Showbiz touched off a much-debated phase of the Kinks’ career marked by a series of full-blown theatrical productions. While the Preservation, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace shows are fondly remembered by the hardcore fan base that saw them, it seemed the mixed reception these works received were set to forever relegate the band to cult status. But after signing to Clive Davis’ Arista Records in 1977 and agreeing to a more streamlined approach, the Kinks finally got the arena-sized audiences of their old contemporaries like the Stones and the Who. By that time, many of the lovable quirks of this album were very much part of their concert routine, including rapturous readings of “Celluloid Heroes” and the “Day-O” chants and “Lola” sing-alongs that debuted here. It was “God Save the Kinks” for a whole new generation and a run that lasted until the Davies brothers dissolved the family firm in 1996.

Make Mine a Double #6: Grand Funk’s “Mark, Don & Mel” (1972)

What separates the names Mark, Don and Mel from those of say, Moses, Cleopatra and Napoleon when it comes to their relative significance in world history? Apparently not much. That’s at least what you would think if you took at face value the shameless audacity of the liner notes to this Grand Funk Railroad compilation album released in 1972. Written by their then-manager Terry Knight, this proclamation, pictured as written on a parchment scroll (!!), was the last salvo in a monomaniacal hype campaign that pitted him in a three-year war of words with America’s rock music press. That Messrs. Farner, Brewer and Schacher should find fame and fortune in the rock and roll business would probably have sat better with the critics if it had just been left at that. The hard-working and hirsute power trio from economically distressed Flint, Michigan was not the most imaginative or technically proficient band to ever come down the chute. But they busted their tails in their emerging arena-tour economy and their manic stage show earned them a large, and largely blue-collar, following. But by constantly stating Grand Funk’s real value in terms of the Most Albums Sold or Quickest Sell Outs practically ensured a backlash by a music press that Knight claimed to be the enemy of the people. The divisive nature of this episode in pop history has some interesting parallels to the socio-political climate that we are dealing with in the U.S. today.


Terry Knight got Capitol Records to fork over $100,000 for this colossal Times Square billboard of Mel, Don and Mark (from left to right).

For this 3-year period, Grand Funk was statistically the #1 band in the USA. During this time, Terry Knight’s leadership was marked by extreme self-absorption, intellectual vacancy, shady business dealings, a distinct persecution complex and the demonization of a press corps who called him out for appealing to the baser instincts of a demographic that had felt neglected. Gee, sound familiar? To get at the full story, let us wind back the parchment scroll a little bit. Knight, who hailed from the Flint area like the three guys he was fated to manage, began his career as a radio DJ but after burning a few bridges in that field tried his hand as a singer in the mid-Sixties. The result was Terry Knight and the Pack, who scored a few regional hits. The biggest of these was his histrionic version of the oft-covered “I (Who Have Nothing).” But soon Knight left performing to concentrate on the business side of things. Some of the Pack people, which now included guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer, continued on the club circuit. But a dubious wintertime booking on Cape Cod left them stranded after a major blizzard in Feb. of 1969 (I remember that one well, having grown up on the North Shore of Massachusetts). Fed up, they phoned up Knight and asked him if he would manage them. Knight, who was several years older than Farner and Brewer agreed, so long as they agreed to do exactly as he told them. Mel Schacher, formerly of ? and the Mysterians was added on bass and a record deal with Capitol (for whom Knight was working) was quickly hammered out. Under their new moniker, based on the Midwest’s Grand Trunk Railroad that passes thru Flint, they released their first album, On Time, that August.

But the record, with Knight’s less-than-auspicious production values, sounded a bit tinny—more like heavy aluminum than metal. The first single off it (“Time Machine,” which also kicks off this compilation) was the type of bare-bones blues rock that was decidedly aimed at a lower common denominator in these peak years of Hendrix-Clapton-Who-Stones etc. The critics pounced, decrying this “regressive rock” that was like catnip to an early-teen demographic. These were the hippies’ younger siblings, perusing the record sections of countless department stores and anxious to start attending big concerts. It was an emerging market and Terry Knight was all over it. Under his strict directions, the trio gave a balls-to-the-wall performance at thundering volume every night. Finesse was sacrificed at the altar of frenzy. A nice studio track like “Into the Sun” (included on MD&M) had an instrumental intro whose soundscape was more reminiscent of progressive than regressive rock but on the double Live Album it was extended to twice its original six-minute length and culminated in an ear-splitting crescendo of guitar feedback, the part of the show where the ever-shirtless Farner was obliged to hump his guitar a la Hendrix. The kiddies were sent into a tizzy just as they were during Don Brewer’s earlier 7-minute drum solo, judging from the noise level of howling fans.

This was definitely not the first choice of more discerning rock fans and record reviewers, but the band certainly struck a vein. They toured early and often, building a huge base. They released five studio albums in little over two years, all of them went gold as did the live album, which I was very excited to obtain when I was thirteen—critics and parents be damned. Side Three of Mark, Don & Mel was devoted to this notorious concert document, including the track that contained the drum solo. Listening to some of the more choice cuts on Mark, Don and Mel nowadays, like their turbo-charged remake of the Animals’ “Inside Looking Out,” is a fun throwback to the elemental rock & roll joys of our youth, esp. for those of us just coming of age. For the older peeps of the music press, it was a different story. On the inner paper sleeves of this record, are re-printed articles that paint a less-than flattering portrait of the band. Sample headlines:

“Grand Funk Railroad Finks Out In Concert”
“Hot Group Gets Cold Shoulder At Home”
“E Plurbis Funk, All Others Pay Cash”

or, cutting straight to the chase:
“Grand Funk is Lousy”

It may seem strange to include these clippings in a best-of album whose manager-composed liner notes begin: “From the dawn of recorded history, stemming through the lifetimes of every man, woman and child who ever walked upon the earth, there have been but a handful whose fate it was to become known as Phenomenon.” (Dang, even Spinal Tap would be embarrassed by that). But by the time Terry Knight put pen to parchment his solipsistic reign was nearly over. The band had become more and more suspicious of why they were still on a weekly salary after all their record-breaking exploits and soon enough found the consequences of running all your publishing thru a scheming agent that had been working for the record company you signed with. He was making at least three times as much as the band members and had tied up much of their earnings in tax-shelter investments, some of which were later disallowed by the IRS.

The ugly split came about just around the time of what should have been their crowning achievement: their blockbuster 1971 show at the 55,000-capacity Shea Stadium in New York which they sold out in 72 hours despite the fact that Shea’s box-office windows were the only outlet (the Beatles took several weeks to sell out the same venue in ’65). Albert and David Maysles, the famed documentary-making brothers who were just six months removed from the release of Gimme Shelter, had been hired to make a film of the group. But for Terry Knight, it was a triumph tainted by both his bitterness at the media and the ridiculous self-aggrandizement that he projected onto his charges. (Of course, these two elements fed each other: Knight was livid when he threw a lavish press conference to announce the Shea gig and only six of the 150 invited reporters showed up).


Terry Knight in the studio. “I’m in control from now on, you hear! Now, tell me, how do you work these controls?”

In a released statement, he said that the mega-show was “the next logical step in (Grand Funk’s) now-famous not so logical nose-thumb to the media critics who have been consistently relentless in their outrage at the group’s soaring popularity.” He claimed for his clients’ the mantle of cultural revolutionaries: “An appearance of Grand Funk Railroad does not announce a musical concert. It hails a gathering of people… it is politics, that supersedes music.” Considering the decibel-soaked maelstrom of the group’s live act, deemed “obnoxiously loud” even by their own road manager, the non-believers would at least agree that GFR superseded music… in all the wrong ways.

The end came soon after, during a screening of the Maysles’ Shea footage. According to later interviews with Mark Farner, the guys were wary of Knight from the start but appreciated his music biz connections. The working stiffs touted as gold (record) plated demi-gods had had enough and confronted Knight for the books. In a fit of pique, they fired the manager a short time after, though Knight points out they were only three months away from the end of that contract and could have renegoitated then. “How stupid can you get?” he said of his ex-clients. When you’re dealing with a Terry Knight, it’s a thin line between being a demi-god and a dumb-ass.


As relations between the band and Terry Knight became frayed, funding for what could have been a fascinating film by the Maysles Brothers was cut off. This Shea Stadium clip survives.

So naturally the lawsuits started flying and Grand Funk were eventually able to buy out Knight’s interest at great cost to themselves. But they quickly recovered and in 1973, with new keyboardist Craig Frost and a real producer in tow (Todd Rundgren), they streamlined their sound and scored their first #1 single with “We’re an American Band.” By that time Knight, who had been let go by Capitol Records, was out of show biz. Although interest in GFR waned at the end of the decade (they were a uniquely Seventies “Phenomenon”) they soldiered on, sometimes with different personnel. But by the mid-Nineties they re-formed in their original trio form to make some hay on the classic-rock circuit.


Long live Mark, Don and… Dennis?? Graffiti on a Grand Trunk R.R. overpass in Flint celebrates an Eighties line-up of the city’s favorite sons.

How does the early Seventies Grand Funk craze contain early inklings of Trumplandia?

1. Play to the Base and the Fake News impulse.

Terry Knight saw the growing appeal of the hard-rock power trio and stripped it down for parts to reach as large an audience as possible without striving for aesthetic advancement. Gone were the artful touches of predecessors like Cream. They maxed out the volume and did songs that seemed expressly written to rile up a live audience. Two of these (“Are You Ready” and Footstompin’ Music”) are included on MD&M. When the music press, whose natural role it is to analyze records for potential buyers, noted this more primitive style, Knight played the Fake News card. He suggested that the critics only said that because they were jealous of the band’s (and his) materialistic success. The naysayers then got more personal in their attacks and it just escalated from there.

2. The Rightward Drift of Middle America

Until Knight started harping on the subject, the core of GFR’s fan base probably didn’t even realize it had been shortchanged by the Coastal Elites of Haight-Ashbury, Laurel Canyon and Greenwich Village. Now, this base wasn’t pandered to in the outrageously vulgar and racially-hostile way of a certain current U.S. president during the 2016 presidential campaign. The band had African-American fans and, on the surface anyway, left-of-center views. They were anti-Vietnam and pro-ecology, though songs like “People, Let’s Stop the War” and “Save the Land” didn’t offer much more than their titles. (More admirable, and more unusual for the time, was their anti-hard drug stance). But Trump’s pig-headed avarice is backwards-reflected by Knight’s silly insistence that his group’s music wasn’t nearly as important as “Mark holding his guitar over his head and saying, ‘You see this, Brothers and Sisters, you see me? I’m free. I own this stage, it’s mine and it’s yours.” This has echoes of the long-time Republican propaganda tool that has plebeians feeling like “undiscovered millionaires” and voting against their own interests and in favor of obscene tax cuts for the wealthy because they will be one of then someday, and in the process helping to turn the land of opportunity into one of chronic income inequality. It would not surprise me if a much larger percentage of Grand Funk fans of the Seventies became Trump voters than, say, people whose favorite band was Jefferson Airplane. (Some of this anti-liberal bias was not so latent: in an October ’72 interview Mel Schacher said, “One thing is sure, if McGovern gets elected, they’ll be a depression”).

3. Ignore the Flyover States at Your Own Peril

How fitting that Mark, Don and Mel hailed from Flint in the future swing state of Michigan. The town’s auto plants started closing around the same time that GFR were riding high, leaving the city (and to a greater extent, Detroit) nearly empty shells. The capitalist evacuation of southern Michigan’s dominant industry and the more recent poisoning of Flint’s water supply as a result of cost-cutting by a tax-averse Republican administration, is the stuff of dire legend. But it’s leftie documentarian (and Flint native and GFR fan) Michael Moore, that was out there in 2016 warning complacent liberals who thought there was no way that Trump could beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Hillary’s ill-advised crack that some potential Trump voters were “deplorables” must have rubbed the wrong way not only a lot of undecided voters, but chafed Moore’s working-class roots as well. The current noxious term for Middle America used by some (“flyover states”) has roots in the New Yorker’s famous cover of a Manhattanite’s view of America (a whole lot of nothing between the Hudson River and California) and even in the overstated snobbery of critic John Mendelsohn’s review of Mark, Don & Mel in a June ’72 issue of Rolling Stone, calling the music “worthless rubbish” and the group’s fans “insecure dingbats.” Sure, maybe they were people too prone to seek someone outside the accepted system to blindly idolize (ahem) but they hardly deserved that. Payback is a bitch, even when it takes over four decades to be delivered.

Sure, Grand Funk Railroad will not go down in history as the Einsteins of rock and roll. But they and their fans deserved better but for the lame-brain arrogance of their manager. He invited derision and it deflected off anyone in his orbit. Terry Knight ended up selling ads for a local newspaper in Temple, Texas where he shared an apartment with his adult daughter: it was her boyfriend that murdered Knight in 2004 after a drug argument. The lessons learned have a long reach as we find out in the Mark Farner interview below, where his magnanimity wins out over any hard feelings. So let’s take that to heart. The early Grand Funk anthem “I’m Your Captain” had a subtle anti-war theme that Michael Moore claimed was not lost on the very draft-liable young men of places like Flint, where the proportion of college deferments had to be a lot lower. As Mark repeatedly sings “I’m getting closer to my home” as if it were a mantra (enhanced by strings and oceanic sound effects) it seemed less about a returning veteran and more of a call to return to a larger American home. But over the long years since, that’s become a house ever more divided. To get back closer, it will take a little less certitude and a lot more mutual understanding from all interested parties. Are You Ready?

My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic History, explores the social and musical history of youth culture through the prism of non-fiction film. To find out more, check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Make Mine a Double #5: Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything (1972)

The latest in an occasional series about the wild woolly world of rock’s double albums.

Todd Rundgren has got to be one of rock history’s great chameleons. He’s gone from a paisley pop wunderkind as leader of the Nazz in the late Sixties, to a sensitive piano balladeer to a guitar-slinging metalloid, prog rocker and blue-eyed soul vocalist. These phases were not necessarily in that order, and a style once adopted could return at a later date and be co-mingled with others. With Rundgren, this never seemed to be a case of following fashion or commercial expediency; he had the air of a protean craftsman, a maverick with many interests. Something/Anything? was a prodigious outpouring of his eclectic talents, Todd’s only outright gold LP. It charted three singles and helped to solidify a loyal cult following that would stick with him through all the sometimes-bewildering career diversions in the decades to come.

The loping rhythm of “I Saw the Light” kicks the album off in elegant, R&B flavored style. “If there’s a single on this album, this is it, so I put it first like at Motown,” writes Rundgren in the first of the pithy comments he prints before each song’s lyric sheet entry. Reaching #16 in May of ’72, Todd’s business acumen doesn’t hide the sensitive side that won him the better measure of his popular appeal. “I Saw the Light” unerringly gleans the first nervous, delicious moments of a romantic affair. Although side one, a self-proclaimed “bouquet of ear-catching melodies” plays to his then-current strength, the restlessness is already leaking through, whether through the frisky rocker “Wolfman Jack” or by the implication that he’s already wary of being pigeonholed as a piano balladeer—even terming the lovely “Cold Morning Light” an “accident.”

Flip the old platter over and you get the “cerebral side.” After a quick audio tour of the studio, we start with the adventurous keyboard instrumental “Breathless,” a little preview of the wild left turn Rundgren would take into progressive rock a couple of years later with his offshoot band, Utopia. Aside from playing nearly all the instruments on his double album, Rundgren also showed off the soundboard skills that would soon make him an in-demand producer. “The Night the Carousel Burnt Down” is a good case in point with its calliope rhythms and shading dissonance dovetailed with a lyric of mixed innocence and foreboding worthy of a Ray Bradbury short story. But overall, the cerebral side isn’t radically different in content from the other three, with occasional genre side trips soon yielding to Todd’s default setting—the slow or mid-tempo number with heart on sleeve and fingers on the ivories.

Side three (“the kid gets heavy”) opens loud-and-proud with “Black Maria,” a prototypical 70s blues-rocker with Rundgren’s nervy lead guitar a highlight. Though the handsome balladry continues here as well (both “One More Day” and “Torch Song” are worthy additions in this crowded category) the side’s other two tracks are album, if not career highlights. This especially goes for the single “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” as perfect a slice of impassioned power pop as was ever recorded, matching anything of the era by the likes of Badfinger and Big Star. From it’s lilting guitar intro, to a vocal that opens on an urgent moment-of-truth (“Keep your head and everything will be cool/You didn’t have to make me feel like a fool/When I try to say I feel the way that I do”) to it’s soaring chorus, it seemed to pre-figure much of the indie rock of following decades, though it only reached #93 as a single. The side closes impressively with the Hendrixesque “Little Red Lights” (a “you know what” to “you know who” Todd quips), a “Crosstown Traffic” doppelganger featuring more six-string exploits.

If there’s a hitch in Rundgren’s professionalism and organic rock ‘n’ roll instincts it’s on Something/Anything’s last quarter. Presented as a “pop operetta,” it begins at the beginning with a hilariously lo-fi snippet of what sounds like one of his first-ever performances, fronting his teenage group, Woody’s Truck Stop. The rest of the side consists of live-take cuts with an ad-hoc studio band, a confounding series of tracks that sound just like their off-color titles: “Piss Aaron”, “You Left Me Sore”, “Slut,” etc. A career on Broadway was not in the offing. Somewhere in the middle of this is Rundgren’s world-beating love song “Hello It’s Me,” a lively remake of the Nazz’s gauzy 1968 single. It became his biggest ever hit, reaching the Top Five over a year after the release of the LP.

Something/Anything itself would be a highwater mark in Rundgren’s popularity, though mere chart success could never be the sole criteria for this singular personality. After its less accessible follow-up (A Wizard, A True Star) failed to catch fire, he blasted off into outer space with Utopia, the dazzling (if esoteric) combo that initially featured three electronic keyboardists in addition to Todd’s rocket-fueled lead guitar. Side two of their debut album was a 30-minute composition, in case any teenyboppers were still hanging about. Although he continued on parallel paths with his solo work and a toned-down Utopia, Rundgren would become just as notable as a studio producer, his bright-surface production stamp benefiting albums for a next wave of artists like Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC and the Psychedelic Furs. Into the 21st century the irrepressible Mr. Rundgren rolled on, still recording and touring, both as a solo act and with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, a re-formed Utopia and even as a Ric Ocasek stand-in with the New Cars. That makes the title of his classic double album sound not so much as a shrug but as a lifelong mission statement.

Make Mine A Double #3: Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” (1969)

The third entry in my series on the wild and wondrous world of rock’s double albums.
by Rick Ouellette

Pink Floyd at the end of the Sixties was very much the band in flux. In 1968, singer-guitarist and founding visionary Syd Barrett left the band and after an abbreviated solo career was hardly seen in public before his death in 2006. Barrett’s fanciful compositions had dominated their classic ’67 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but he barely appeared on the follow-up (A Saucerful of Secrets) and soon retreated from London to the group’s original home base of Cambridge. Beset by mental health problems complicated by prodigious LSD use and unwilling/unable to play the rock-star card for more than a few hands, the secluded Barrett would become one of music’s most fabled figureheads. Few at the time would have doubted the talents of his bandmates: bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason or guitarist David Gilmour, a boyhood friend of Barrett who joined the band shortly before Syd exited. But absent the primary writer of one of rock’s psychedelic masterworks, Pink Floyd struggled for a revised identity. After producing the soundtrack for the French hippie film More, Floyd ended the decade with the double LP Ummagumma, the type of project that would defy release today. Exploiting the era’s trend towards heavy acid jams (on its live disc) and openness to experimentation (in the studio half), Ummagumma was popular enough (#5 in the UK) to keep the band’s profile high before they hit their stride and became rock music titans with their all-world headphone classic, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.

On Piper, Barrett’s delectable mix of childlike whimsy and foreboding fairytales had been balanced out by two seminal excursions into what would be called space rock. One of youth music’s first extended pieces, the nine-minute “Interstellar Overdrive” was well-explained by it’s title. The other, “Astronomy Domine”, starts the live disc in an expanded version that ably states the new line-up’s mode of attack. The increased amplification of the instrumental excursions and Roger Waters’ eerie replication of Syd’s planetary roll call emanating from “icy waters underground” upped the ante of the original for the tuned-in provincial punters in the audience. “Careful With The Axe, Eugene” is transformed into a real horror show of tension-and-release, with its stalking build-up yielding to Waters’ ungodly screaming and Gilmour’s slasher guitar work. The live disc is rounded out by “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and the title track from Saucerful, now a 13-minute ramble through a psychedelic funhouse led by Nick Mason’s propulsive drumming.

Giving each band member a half-side to go freeform in the studio was an early example of the self-important tendencies of ambitious acts, or maybe it was just lack of new material. The underrated keyboardist Richard Wright contributes “Sysyphus Parts 1-4” an effectively doomy piece of program music that depicts the hapless mythological character, usually spelled Sisyphus. He, of course, is fated to forever push the same boulder up a hill—probably the exact feeling Floyd roadies got during the mammoth tours in the decades to follow (the album’s back cover shows two of them with the band’s gear spread out on an airport runway).


Abandon ye all hope, the road crew that enters here.

David Gilmour’s folksy acoustic guitar on “The Narrow Way” prefigures what Jimmy Page soon was getting at on Led Zeppelin III and the vocal part that follows presages the musical heights later attained on “Comfortably Numb”. Nick Mason never had a songwriting credit before Ummagumma and after hearing his aimless percussion workout, one could be forgiven for wondering where the writing was in this case. The only track that sinks lower is “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” a Roger Waters’ toss-off that sounds just like its title, which should be warning enough.


Less than the sum of its “parts”?: The back of the CD 2 breaks down the multi-sectional nature of the studio disc.

Luckily, he also offers up “Grantchester Meadows,” a lovely pastoral number named after a real greensward in the band’s hometown. One of the greatest of Floyd’s lesser-known numbers, simple acoustic guitar and looped sound effects of bird tweets cushion Waters’ softly sung boyhood idyll that’s tempered by the realization that this a memory recalled from the confinement of his “city room.” The profound disatisfaction with the vicissitudes of a cold modern society, merely hinted at here, would become the primary aspect of Pink Floyd’s art in the decade to come, culminating in their other double album, 1979’s The Wall, where the confined character is not just shut off in a solitary flat, but in an enormous brick prison of his own making.

If you like the in-depth writing of rock music, both on record and on celluloid, please check out my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey now available. You can sample a 30-page excerpt by clicking on the book cover image at the top right of this page.

Make Mine a Double #1: Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” (1966)

Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was rock’s first word on double studio albums and for many fans and critics it was the last word as well. There are those who would stand up for different personal favorites, many for the two-baggers released by the other figureheads in the holy trinity of the Sixties. Blonde on Blonde is not as willfully versatile as the Beatles’ “White Album” and it doesn’t rock out as hard as the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But it does pre-figure the musical stretching-out of the former and nearly matches the grittiness of the latter. What it has over both of them of course are the lyrics. It s no surprise that Dylan, who had already fixed his place as the voice of a generation with socially-conscious anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’,” would release an album that had his followers up into the wee hours trying to interpret every verbose stanza. But even in the wake of two seminal masterworks (Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home) this one stands out as a singular force of nature, the full flowering of his golden era. A severe motorcycle accident, an event whose details are still shrouded in mystery, sidelined Dylan only a few months after BOB’s release in May 1966. When he re-emerged a couple of years later it would be to resume a career that would run pretty much uninterrupted into the 21st century. But although there were to be some highlights to come, Dylan would never again conjure up the untamed genius that informs the music on these four sides.


“Let’s try and get one in focus, shall we?”

Dylan was all about cutting against the grain of audience expectations back in those heady days, always one step ahead of the listeners who would claim him for their own. Blonde on Blonde’s off-focus cover photo shows the inscrutable artist wrapped tightly in a scarf and only half looking into the camera, defying you to know him. This was reinforced as soon as the needle was dropped onto side one. A sliding trombone note at the start of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” seems to pull you inside the doors of a Salvation Army mission where all notions of temperance have been cast aside: the brass band is three sheets to the wind and men are hootin’ and a-hollerin’ as the singer declares that “everybody must get stoned.” Although this refrain would prove popular with the burgeoning freak culture (and help propel the single to #2 on the Billboard charts despite some radio station bans) a closer listen reveals a stoning more in a literal or Biblical sense, and men can expect the brickbats being thrown by the fairer sex (or just straight society in general) to follow them all the way from the breakfast table to “when you’re sent down to your grave.” The inebriated refrain now suggests that for him and everyone else, to live and love is to hurt. A lot of the rest of the album hashes out this notion with the rarest of rock poetry and a willingness to further push the envelope musically. Dylan even channels Elmore James on the next track, “Pledging My Time.” This track sounds as if it were cut on the South Side of Chicago and not in Nashville where this recording mostly took place. The same goes for “Obviously Five Believers” and the saucy “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” where Dylan’s rare turn on lead guitar will leave listeners with both ears ringing.


It’s hard to find original Dylan music on YT, but this Mark Ronson re-mix (with added elements) shows Bob’s lasting influence in a contemporary light

These tracks would seem to give some literal basis for the oft-stated belief that this Minnesota-bred son of middle-class Jewish parents is one of the greatest of all white blues singers. But those are the fun tunes of BOB. The real hurting comes on Dylan’s more allusive, acoustic balladry: side one concludes with the masterful co-mingling of romantic and existential angst in “Visions of Johanna” and “One of Must Know (Sooner or Later).” The latter’s depiction of a confused, non-starter of a relationship, where Dylan stretches out the last note of each verse until it sounds like a lifetime of regret, is thought to be about his rumored affair with Warhol “It Girl” Edie Sedgwick. Other likely inspirations are his first wife Sara (they secretly married in late 1965), former paramour/vocal partner Joan Baez and maybe old girlfriend Suze Rotolo. Many Dylanologists have a soft spot for this particular parlor game. But the ageless reverie on love’s complications, and the pursuit of mysterious females whose attractions are both majestic and ephemeral, transcend biographical speculation. “Nobody feels any pain/tonight as I stand inside the rain,” is the famous opening couplet of the oft-covered “Just Like a Woman.” A young lady one moment described as Queen Mary is soon said to be “like all the rest/ with her fog, her amphetamines and her pearls.” This dude can’t abide in a free-fire zone between womanly wiles and girlish immaturity, only allowing on the way out that “I was hungry and it was your world.” “I Want You” was the second most successful of the LP’s four singles (#20 Billboard) and something of an anomaly in Dylan’s songbook. A sprightly pop number redolent of much mid-Sixties AM fare, its chorus is simplicity itself—the repetition of the title with “sooo baaad” tagged onto the end—though the verses are as cryptic as ever.

Capping off the romance-related material is the song most associated with the new Mrs. Dylan, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (Sara’s last name by her first marriage was Lownds). This is also the piece that inaugurated a feature of many double LPs to come: one song that would take up an entire album side. At just over eleven minutes, it’s only about half the length of many that would follow, but could hardly be less epic. A languorous, long-unspooling melody gives Dylan plenty of space to recount in head-spinning detail his intended’s many strange attributes: “your mercury mouth in the missionary times”, “your childhood flames on your midnight rug”, even “your sheet metal memory of Cannery Row.” Like several other songs on BOB, “Sad Eyed Lady” ends with a plaintive harmonica coda, as if giving us the opportunity to absorb the amazing rush of words that has just blown by. Yet for all the audacious application of language on the album (much of it said to have been written on the spot in a room off the studio), little of it is expended on the sort of topical song that much of Dylan’s considerable reputation had been built on. Some may have wished for more in this vein, if only for a break from the singer’s illiberal views on the opposite sex, as on “Just Like a Woman” and “4th Time Around”, the fraternal twin of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

The closest we get to the old Protest Bob is on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” In no less than nine verses he runs a down a list of peculiar misadventures across a fabled American landscape, one that suggests the growing unease of a turbulent decade. There is the typical inventory of colorful Dylan characters: a gun-toting senator who enforces mandatory attendance at his son’s wedding, a preacher with “twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest”, cigarette-punching railroad men who “drink up your blood like wine” and Rosie, a woman of easy leisure who resides next to the “honky tonk lagoon.” After each bizarre encounter the narrator is left to question, “is this really the end” and trying to figure out “what you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice,” a sentiment that could easily extend to the nation as a whole. “Memphis Blues Again” is also the best example of the album’s unusual musical symbiosis between Dylan’s regular hipster sidemen (Al Kooper, Robbie Robertson) and the cool precision of the Nashville studio players like multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, versatile drummer Kenny Buttrey and guitarist Joe South, soon to become a notable singer-songwriter himself. With its intro resembling a freight train picking up speed and the dramatic series of hammered chords at the end, it’s little wonder that director Todd Haynes used this tune to play over the opening scene of his Dylan fantasia/biopic, I’m Not There.


Welcome to the Old Weird America. Todd Hayne’s brilliant opening sequence in “I’m Not There”

Haynes notably resorted to using six actors to portray his subject’s elusive persona and myriad career phases. Nothing is ever clear-cut with Dylan, including the release history of Blonde on Blonde. Although Columbia Records insists that they put out the record in May of ’66, it reportedly did not reach the charts (or have its review in major publications) until that July—-which could technically make the Mother of Invention’s Freak Out! rock’s first double studio album to hit the stores. Either way, Dylan’s popularity was peaking along with his skill set; Blonde on Blonde topped off at #9 in the U.S. and inspired a multitude down the path that led to a more independent–minded and ambitious style of youth music. A reluctant standard bearer in the first place, the June 29th motorcycle accident saw to it that Dylan would largely be on the sidelines for the revolutionary late 60s. Secluded in Woodstock (even, or especially, during a certain music festival) while raising a family and releasing a series of uneven albums, Dylan would not return fully to the public eye until his triumphant 1974 comeback tour with the Band. The BOB rocker “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” served as a ferocious show-opening mission statement while “Rainy Day Women” proved a natural crowd pleaser and “Just Like a Woman” was an acoustic set highlight. His separation from, attempted reconciliation with, and eventual divorce from Sara served as raw material for many songs on subsequent albums, especially with Blood on the Tracks, his Seventies high water mark. It was a decade after this epoch-making double album that people saw the flip side of the inspiration that had served as a catalyst for some of pop music’s most memorable songwriting.

In this new series, I’ll take a in-depth look at a classic (or not so classic) double album every 10-14 days.
Next up: Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade”

“Make Mine a Double” Intro: The Wild and Wondrous World of Rock’s Two-Disc Albums

by Rick Ouellette

Across much of rock history’s last half-century, the double album has stood for a certain stakes-raising ambition and creative envelope-pushing, with artists asking fans for a little more of their attention and a little more of their disposable income. Among the sample titles pictured in this post, you’ll find some of rock’s most revered and, in a few cases, most reviled recordings. What do these titles have in common other than they were originally released as two-disc packages? In some ways, not a lot. As one might expect, the musical styles and subject matter are as varied as the far-flung pop universe itself. Delve into these records and soon enough you’ll come across overtures, artful sidelong suites, titanic instrumental jams and concept works based on socio-political and fantasy themes. There will be room for genre dabbling, sound collages, acoustic interludes and maybe even space left over to let the bass player sing a number.

How did these outsized albums come about? After all, as conventional wisdom would have it, rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not concise. The early songs of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly et al rarely exceeded four minutes and were often closer to two. And that framework—the short, concentrated blasts of rebellion and celebration, dance and romance—are still often held up as the ideal of the art form. But art forms are rarely or ever immutable. They evolve and expand often to the point of earning a backlash, circling back closer to their original incarnation. Rock music is no exception to the rule. In its initial era of greatness, the 45 RPM single was the coin of the realm for rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers. The latest smash by Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis was played on a jukebox at the drop of a dime or heard on the AM radios of the big cruising sedans of the 1950s.
Long-playing records existed back then more as a vehicle for the most successful acts, pooling together a few hits and adding on some cover versions or dashed-off filler material.

In the wake of the Beatles’ worldwide success in 1964, rock music evolved into an artist-driven force to be reckoned with. Along with the Fab Four, bigger artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were able to assert more creative control. Soon, establishment-friendly fare like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t cutting it any longer, especially as the Sixties became a more turbulent, crucial decade. Moreover, people like Dylan had multiple influences to begin with and it was just a matter of time before they all came to the fore. Sure, ol’ Zimmy was inspired by the great country artists like Hank Williams he’d pick up on his radio during lonely nights in northern Minnesota. But alongside them—and rock ‘n’ rollers like Little Richard that he would soon emulate in his high school band—there was a Beatnik strain as well.

Many of early baby boomers who came of age in the Sixties looked back in admiration at the literary rebels of the previous generation (Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac) as a touchstone to a new subversive epoch. For the Beats, the chosen music was jazz, an exploratory long-form medium that connected with a crowd searching for something more cosmic than what the Eisenhower years generally had to offer. The combined effect of a seized artistic freedom and a tempestuous era eventually led to ambitious rock music and it was Bob Dylan on the leading edge. His seminal Blonde on Blonde is widely regarded as rock’s first double album, ranging from ruminative balladry to fierce and free-associating blues rock; it set a very high bar for all four-sided efforts to follow. The officially-given release date of Blonde on Blonde was May 16, 1966 although there are claims that it didn’t show up (at least on the charts) until that July. In the month in between, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention debuted with a two-record set aptly called Freak Out! This anarchic blend of protest rock, Dadaist vocalizing, revisionist doo-wop and avant-garde aural collage was an early indicator as to how far off the margins counterculture music could go in the decade to follow.

By the end of the Sixties, the hippie masses had been treated to the Beatles’ White Album, the Who’s Tommy and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. We were off to the races. In a few days, I’ll start with a review of Blonde on Blonde that will, like other posts in this series, look at the album in view of how it pushed out at the boundaries of rock music (or at least tried to).

Throughout 2018, I’ll post a new one every 10-14 days, jumping around in time and genre. This is for a once a maybe future book project and I have about a third of it written. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments section (you can use the album cover images here as a jumping off point). Note that I have made double live albums and best-of compilations ineligible for this series, though half-studio/half-live records will be included.
–Rick Ouellette

Forever Underground At the Rat: The Rise, Fall and Long After-Life of Boston’s Legendary Punk Venue.

Above photo by Wayne Valdez

by Rick Ouellette

In its heyday, the Rathskeller club’s unassuming façade was tucked into a homely jumble of mis-matched stores, restaurants and nightspots in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where the tony Back Bay neighborhood met the Fenway district and Boston University. Once you crossed its perpetually darkened doorway you could head straight to the street level bar (and later, James Ryan’s popular Hoodoo Barbeque) or turn left and head down the stairs to the subterranean music room. Along with cigarette smoke and the vestigial smell of sweat and spilled beer, the dim interior featured black walls, overhanging water pipes, dodgy rest rooms, tilty tables and a low bandstand that was cheek-by-jowl with the narrow dance floor. From 1974 until it closed in 1997, the Rat (as it was universally known) featured untold hundreds of bands, from rock’s living legends to the lowliest also-ran punk combo. That means about 8000 nights of edgy good times where the music was more often than not delivered at fever pitch.

Twenty years to the month after it closed, a Rat reunion show and benefit auction event was held at Kenmore’s Hotel Commonwealth. The supportive vibe that owner Jim Harold provided over the years for so many local groups starting out was a common theme, as it is in the commemorative “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD (more on that in a bit). The event took place in the second floor function area of the hotel whose giant footprint looms over the space where the Rat once stood. On an evening where exclamations of “Long Live the Rat!” were heard more than a few times, this irony was noted by many of folks in attendance.


Willie Alexander and band in front of the Rat’s original backdrop sign. (Photo by author)

Performing that night were a handful of local rock mainstays. Willie “Loco” Alexander, a godfather of Boston punk since the days of his raucous Boom-Boom Band, kicked things off with a mini-set that included the anthemic “At the Rat.” This tune was the lead track of the 1976 compilation double live album of the same name, organized by Harold to promote the local scene (now re-mastered and available on CD). It proved as popular as ever, two decades after the joint was shuttered. “Thanks for being alive,” Willie said in parting. The Nervous Eaters, led by singer-guitarist-writer Steve Cataldo, are another local legend that came up in the Rat’s earlier days; their buzzsaw riffing and unbridled lyrics set the course for many groups that followed. Having long lived down the compromised album they made in 1980 for Elektra, the Eaters reverted to the tough-as-nails sound in subsequent recordings and gigs. Songs like “Last Chance” and “Loretta” are for many people as much of a Boston tradition as the Swan Boats and were welcomed accordingly.


Steve Cataldo (Photo by author)

Emily Grogan and her band were of a later vintage than the two acts that preceded her and her impassioned songwriting and vocals were just as well received. Emily also told a touching anecdote about her early days when she was a bandmate of the late Mr. Butch, the beloved dreadlocked street person who was dubbed the “mayor of Kenmore Square.” Closing out the musical festivities were the Dogmatics. They were a prime example of groups that came into local renown in the mid-80s with a sound now twice re-generated since the 60s when garage-rock royalty Barry and the Remains played the Rathskeller when it was differently configured. Led by Jerry Lehane, the Dogmatics were a popular act not just for the Rat and the similarly downscale Chet’s Last Call, but also for the gig parties they’d have at their Thayer Street loft. At the Rat party they faithfully lived up to their legacy with the punked-up garage riffing and raffish townie humor of such nuggets as “Pussy Whipped” and the Catholic-school testimonial “Sister Serena.” They were joined by another Dorchester-bred favorite, Richie Parsons ex of Unnatural Axe, for a few numbers including the always reliable “Three Chord Rock.”



Emily Grogan (above) and the Dogmatics’ Peter O’Halloran and Jerry Lehane w/ Richie Parsons. Photos by Sara Billingsley.

The night ended sentimentally with a few words from Jim Harold as well as from former Del Fuegos drummer Woody Geissman whose Right Turn addiction treatment center was the charitable recipient of that evening’s fundraising. (I chatted with another Del Fuegos drummer, Joe Donnelly, but if either of the Zanes brothers were there I didn’t see them).

I moved to Boston shortly after the Blizzard of ’78, somehow getting my meager possessions from my hometown of Salem, Mass. to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I began checking out the notorious Rat as soon as the snow banks started to recede. In the last few months of the apartment me and my older sister shared with rotating cast of third bedroomers (we had moved back there, unimpressed with Ft. Lauderdale where our family had re-located) a few albums had circulated that changed my musical life. I had purchased “Talking Heads ‘77” and Television’s “Marquee Moon” pretty much on the strength of reviews (both were revelations) while a roommate owned the equally eye-opening “Rocket to Russia,” the Ramones third album. Elvis Costello’s debut record was also making the rounds. But the first time I ventured down into the occluded interior of the Rat it was a misfire: it seemed to be an open-amp night for suburban bands whose mountaintop was the first Pat Travers album—-it was like they wanted to send me back from whence I came.


The Talking Heads at the Rat in ’77. By the time I first saw them they had graduated to the Paradise club, which had a higher capacity but less exposed plumbing.

Determined to right this wrong, I went back a few nights later when the Romantics were headlining. These guys, in their pre-red shiny suits day, had a buzz about them esp. after getting a positive notice in Creem magazine’s recent review of the Detroit scene. After a couple of pumped-up power pop numbers (where most everyone stayed seated) the singer presumptuously suggested that this was the place “where all the dancing girls are at.” As soon as they launched into the next song, two sets of young ladies emerged from either end of the bandstand and met in the middle of the dance floor. It was like some vision from a half-remembered rock ‘n’ roll dream. The jig was on: soon after I was going to the Rat every weekend.

I say “half-remembered” because in its original form that what it was all about: the small venues, the dancing, the aspirational groups, the chance encounters. By the time I was old enough to go out to shows, rock music’s economy had changed. My early experiences ranged from the precipitous old Boston Garden down to the 2800-seat Orpheum Theater. But at the Rat (capacity about 300+), the close quarters meant the physical and physic space between performers and audience was reduced or overlapped. I saw dozens of great local groups in this hothouse atmosphere and many of them have remained highly-regarded here even though only a few acts “made it big.” This is evidence of the staying power of a community of outsiders, sort of like why you see Harley-riding guys of Social Security age still riding around in packs.

1983, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Rock band R.E.M. performs at The Rat in Boston. Band members include, left to right, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and (not pictured) Bill Berry. — Image by © Laura Levine/Corbis

Do Go Back to Rockville: R.E.M. were one of the last of the really big names to play the Rat. Others who came before them included the Ramones, the Runaways, Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Jam, the Police, the Stranglers and the Boston-based Cars. And few who were there will ever forget the Plasmatics’ three-night stand in March of 1979. I deny all rumors that have my hand brushing Wendy O. William’s derriere moments after she put down her chainsaw at the end of their set.

“The Sound of Our Town,” to borrow the title of Brett Milano’s excellent history of Boston-bred pop music, is ably laid out in the “Live at the Rat” album. It was a dynamic scene that was second only to CBGB on the east coast. Willie Alexander is out front with three tracks, leading a line-up that includes frenetic rave-ups by mid-70s staples like the Infliktors and Thundertrain as well as a fistful of bands known for their distinctive front men: Jeff “Monoman” Conolly (of DMZ), John Felice (the Real Kids) and Richard Nolan (Third Rail). These outfits were definitely the type of the times—with razor-edge riffing that would often build to cathartic peaks that sent the kids on the dance floor into a pogoing frenzy. But the three of them were also savvy songwriters, as were people like Frank Rowe of the Classic Ruins, who Milano suggested was the Randy Newman of punk.

This was a direct result of Harold’s policy of giving a chance to most any band that played their own material—or at least it served to unlock a lot of latent talent. Many bands that came along a little later in the late 70s or early 80s (the Neighborhoods, La Peste, Human Sexual Response, Pastiche, etc.) turned out to have quite a knack at evoking the urban milieu of the times. And what was that like for those who weren’t there or whose memory is getting a little hazy at this point? The “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD, produced and directed by David Lefkowitz, does a good job at hashing out that side of the story in the interviews interspersed with the stripped-down performances in the Hotel Commonwealth suite festooned with the club’s memorabilia. Doing songs are the same performers from the Rat party plus John Felice, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Billie Connors and the good ol’ Dropkick Murphys (worthy youngsters 21CF cover La Peste’s “Spymaster”).


At the Rat reunion party, it was like old times in front of the stage. In the background, “Live at the Rat Suite” is projected on the wall (Brett Milano is interviewing Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys). Photo by author

It’s great to hear your old faves in this cozy setting but also illuminating are the relaxed conversational segments, conducted by a trio of former Boston Globe music writers (Milano, Jim Sullivan and Steve Morse) along with local radio luminaries Oedipus, Carter Alan and John Laurenti. To Alexander, the supportive management and undemanding surroundings (“We were lucky if there was a door on the bathroom,” notes Willie) left a space that was a focal point where a scene could grow on its own. He says the kids, you know the artsy and non-conformist types you see in most every town, found a place of their own and a symbiotic relationship with the new bands that continues to this day. But while it may have been our clubhouse it was not the excluding type: also in the mix were adventurous suburbanites, post-game Red Sox fans and B.U. students.


The back cover of the DVD shows the partially-demolished Rat, while the front shows the well-meaning Rat-themed suite where you can have an “authentic experience” for several hundred dollars a night.

Ah, yes: Boston University. That’s where our story starts to fall apart. The school was always a convenient whipping boy for hometown rockers, ever since Jonathan Richman, in the early proto-punk days of the Modern Lovers, told his girlfriend to “Put down your cigarette and drop out of B.U.” But the ever-growing institution, under the presidency of the irascible John Silber, bought up large chunks of the Kenmore district. The eventual eviction of unwanted elements, whether it be leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ rollers or the hodgepodge collection of mid-century business, was almost an afterthought to the manifest destiny of outsized colleges, block-long hotels and chain stores (a similar fate has befallen Harvard Square).


Rat owner Jim Harold with some parting words and (on the left) Woody Geissman, whose Right Turn treatment center (“A Creative Place for Recovery”) specializes in the substance abuse issues of performing artists. Photo by author

In the photo at the top of this article, local musician Linda Viens stands in front of the Rathskeller, a quiet moment on a snowy day. A tip of the cap to Wikipedia for making this simple but remarkable shot by Wayne Valdez the featured image for their article on the club. All the loud music and edginess have fallen away, and the Rat’s tiny frontage is squished between a vintage clothing shop, a hairdressing school and the pre-Internet bank of pay phones. Viens’ casual pose suggests a kinship (even protectiveness) with her town’s most famous rock club. But not ownership. There’s less of a place nowadays for a “bon vivant” right-place-right-time proprietor like Jim Harold, who had the knack to know when to let something just happen. And boy did it ever. In the 21st century, the Boston rock scene has moved to nearby cities like Cambridge and Somerville where a vibrant blend of veteran bands and newer acts light up venues like the ONCE Ballroom. (I recently wrote about Linda’s new band Kingdom of Love and that abiding sense of musical community here). It’s the idea of the Rat that lives once the wrecking ball has cleared the way for the monolithic streetscapes of today’s gentrified cities. We plant the flag elsewhere and rock on.


Video by John Doherty

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is the first anthology of non-fiction rock films, covering the years 1964-2014. To see a 30-page excerpt click on the link here or contact me thru the comments section below. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Transistor Heaven: The Next Generation

I guess that September of 1972 was a big time for me. It was my first month of high school and first time at a non-parochial school if you don’t count kindergarten. I had been liberated from the yoke of the educational nunnery and free to live out the remainder of my days as a secular humanist. In truth, they hadn’t been all that bad the last couple of years, what with their folk masses and the stamp of approval they gave to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Yes, there was a recent infiltration of “messiah rock” into the charts—–think “Spirit in the Sky” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (even “King Herod’s Song” from JCS was a minor hit at least in my area). But in the larger musical world (in those days for me that meant WMEX 1510, Boston’s “NEW Music Authority”) reflected the wider temporal world of big ideas, big ideals and multi-culturalism, not dogma. The variety of styles in the Top 30 songs of their countdown for the week of September ’72 was impressive: along with about ten classic R&B numbers there was power pop, adult contemporary, prog rock, folk rock, an Elvis song and even a novelty instrumental with “Popcorn.” As music reflects the era, the times felt expansive instead of the strangely insular vibe that comes with our more “interconnected” 21st century.

This is an idea that I’ve tried to relate to my now 17 year-old son. While he is more open-minded than a lot of others, he still has the instinctive need to make fun of dad’s “stoner rock” even though he has wistfully acknowledged its superiority in an unguarded moment. I was good about it, not claiming victory and running out to buy a “I May Be Old But At Least I Saw All The Cool Bands” t-shirt. When I was driving the Ry-man every day this summer to his seasonal job at a day camp, we had the old radio tug-of-war game going. It was a Snapchat pop station (as I would call it) vs. the Classic Hits morning drive team. I had sorta raised him on the latter so we were all good to go on that (though I had a problem finding any redeeming value in the former) and we reached radio symbiosis one morning in July when the slinky introduction to the O’Jays song that was #1 in Boston 45 years ago this week. I was all ready with the opening cry of “What they do?” Ryan was soon joining in with “Backstabbers” in that full-throated way of his–he’s on his high-school A-Capella team. It became such a favorite that I was compelled to dig up my best-of O’jays CD.

The O’Jays smooth but muscular arrangement and the pointed vocal about your so-called friends trying hit on your old lady (even showing up when you’re not home!) is but one example of the imagination, creative verve and sheer variety of the records that made up that week’s survey on WMEX. At #5, the Main Ingredient (featuring lead singer Cuba Gooding, Sr.) delivers one of the all-time great “advice songs,” that informal genre that started to fade as the Me Decade took hold earnest. The Beatles were experts at this with such songs as “She Loves You,” “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” and “Hey Jude.” Many R&B artists were just as adept at this form of lyrical magnanimity.


The Main Ingredient, introduced by the late Don Cornelius on “Soul Train. The fact that they’re lip-syncing to the record can’t hide the smooth charisma of Cuba Gooding Sr.

“OK, so your heart’s broken,” concedes Gooding on the tune’s memorable spoken intro. After calming down his extremely distressed friend (“You say you even talking about dying?”), he convincingly assures his pal, and the rest of us, that even though “Everybody Plays the Fool” sometimes before you know it the shoe will be on the other foot. A similar heart-to-heart dialogue opens “Starting All Over Again” by Mel & Tim, the Stax Records cousin act who had hit the U.S. Top Ten three years earlier with the euphemistic “Backfield in Motion.” Well-articulated hopes of romantic reconciliation also informed the 5th Dimension’s “If I Could Reach You” and Rod Stewart’s “You Wear it Well.” Other lyrical gambits ranged from lava-lamp philosophizing (“Nights in White Satin”), to space-program satirizing (Nilsson’s “Spaceman”), to early midlife reconciling (the lost classic “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” by Dan O’Keefe).

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, the diversity of just this small sample exposes the cultural banalities of today’s “woke” generation. But us baby boomers (esp. those of us that are radio programmers) could also learn a little bit about variety these days. Ryan’s musical horizons would probably widen considerably if Dad’s station weren’t basically rotating the same few dozen songs all the time. I note my own pencil notches next to long-overplayed hits like the Raspberries “Go All the Way” and the Doobies’ “Listen to the Music.” Even back then a prescient Rolling Stone reviewer said that the latter song changed from a “volume-raiser” to a “station-switcher” in record time. A quick scan of the Top 30 suggests infusing fresh blood into the classic-hits format would not be difficult. A few I would nominate off the top of my head: Presley’s lusty “Burning Love” which still sounds as vital as it did when recorded during the King’s comeback era. How about “Freddie’s Dead” from Curtis Mayfield’s superb Superfly soundtrack (which was #1 on the album survey)? Maybe even “Loving You Just Crossed My Mind” by the nearly-forgotten singer-songwriter Sam Neely, though I’m sure that’s asking too much. Even the inclusion of “Witchy Woman” by the too-big-to-fail Eagles would ease the stress of hearing “Take it Easy” for the eight millionth time.
WHAT SONGS FROM THE SURVEY WOULD YOU LIKE COMMERCIAL RADIO TO PLAY MORE OFTEN?

There are many to choose from and even more if you scan the list of a dozen hitbound songs (“1st on 1510″) where, among the more familiar material, there are couple of nice outliers: the infectious “Stop” by the Newark singing group The Lorelei (a favorite record of the Northern Soul gang in England) and “No” by the Rascals spinoff group Bulldog. However, the inclusion here of the frivolous Dutch duo Mouth and MacNeal reminded me of the notion that there’s always a little bit of hell in Transistor Heaven. So I must mention the perversely naïve “Playground in My Mind” where Clint Holmes imagines marrying off a bunch of little kids as he watches them on the swing set. If released today, this song would be borderline prosecutable. And don’t even get me started on the Wayne Newton song that snuck in at #29. “Can’t You Hear the Music”?? Sure, I can hear it—that’s the whole problem!

But I’d like to finish with the now-obscure “American City Suite” which back 45 years ago was holding down the middle spot in the Top 30. Even then it was a bit of an anomaly, an 8-minute three-part bittersweet ode to the New York City. Songwriter Terry Cashman, half of this folk duo called Cashman & West, is better known for his later solo hit “Talkin’ Baseball.” So if this song were Willie Mays, it would start with his spectacular back-to-the-plate catch in the deepest recesses of the Polo Grounds outfield in the 1954 World Series and end across town in 1973 with him falling down after striking out for the Mets in 1973, his last season. This song may get a bit melodramatic as it traces a tendentious timeline from doo-wop and friendly neighbors on front stoops to the depressed Panic in Needle Park days of the early 70s. But with today’s current events, it’s hard not to be a little moved at the end of an epic song with “American” in its title while hearing, “They tell me that a friend is dying/And there is nothing in the world I can do.”

So I’ll try to guide my son in part by turning him onto what he may benefit from in terms of the musical olden times, while recognizing that it’s got to be his world going forward. But I still say he got his old soul from Dad. When our local Radio Shack was about to close its doors for the last time, it was he who encouraged me to get a spare transistor radio before it was too late. I owned one concurrently since the days I brought one along on my afternoon paper route (see Transistor Heaven, Part One). Today, my old transistor sits on the kitchen window sill, ready for Red Sox games or the classical station as none of the oldies stations can ever match the variety and pleasure of my own collection. But in case that little palm-sized device ever goes kaput, I’ve got a spare one ready to take me into my golden years, thanks to the chip off the old block.