Rock on Record

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.

Kingdom of Love in the Boston Rock Scene: It Takes a Village to Raise a Rock Star

Text by Rick Ouellette
Band photos by Joshua Pickering

Kingdom of Love are a great example of the current collaborative nature of the Boston-area rock scene, which I’ve been following to various degrees since the gloriously grungy late 70s heyday of the Rat club in Kenmore Square. KOL is the duo of singer-songwriter-guitarists Linda Viens and Richard Lamphear. On their luminous 5-song EP called Ghosts they use a few guest players (mainly on bass and drums) to supplement their sound. But for their late June record release party at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Kingdom of Love became like a glam-rock juggernaut with as many as eight players at a time. This goes a long way to demonstrating the supportive and intermingling nature of the current indie community in town, which is chock full of friends and acquaintances who came up in the vibrant 80s post-punk scene. But more on that later, what about the CD?


Linda Viens (right) and Sandra Marcelino

Ghosts begins in quiet-time mode with “Play it On”and a reflective piano motif and Vien’s airy vocal expressing a wide-view reverie on a life where “the song’s never finished.” Even after the drums kick in the song gives the impression of floating over a lush landscape. Through the four remaining tracks the same balm to the senses prevails even when they’re pumping up the dance beats, such a welcome vibe in these unsettling times. “Two Souls” has a bouncy New Wave-style keyboard hook and a sharp and sensuous lyric about two searching lakeside lovers and would be a big summertime hit in a more just world. The next two songs are finely-crafted duets between Viens and Lamphear. The first, “When You Follow,” is notable for its love-in-the-ruins lyric and Scott Getchell’s haunting trumpet, while “Starmates” is a vaporous outer-space romance.

The electro dance-rock groove returns for “Karma Song, which, along with “Two Souls, ” is the pick-to-click of this CD. “I was a superhero buried underground,” declares the song’s narrator, “I was that grown-up kid afraid to make a sound/Live in fear too long and there is no one else on whom to lay the blame.” The struggle for self-actualization has rarely sounded so rapturous. It will hard not to get swept up in this tune by the time Linda gets to the buoyant chorus (“I want to give, give again and earn my karma”) for the second time and Richard lets it rip on lead guitar.

Those positive reverberations were even more evident at the record-release show where the enthusiastic crowd was all in as soon as Viens stepped up to the center mike in an all-silver suit. Viens fronted a large funk orchestra called the Crown Electric Company in the late 90s so this expanded set-up is not an unknown quantity for her. The talented ensemble seen below is a good example of the Boston scene’s current mix-and-match flexibility where many musicians take time from their current bands to get involved in other projects.


The super-sized Kingdom of Love. from l to r: Sue Minichiello, Ben Aiken (keys), Sandra Marcelino, Gabe Rossi, Johnny Berosh (drums), Linda Viens, Zachary Rochester and Richard Lamphear.

Back-up singers Sue and Sandra were also involved in the recent well-received production of Hair by the revived Boston Rock Opera and BRO director Eleanor Ramsay designed Ghosts dazzling jacket art. Linda, who has sung in many past BRO productions, assumed the role of costume designer for Hair, while Zachary Rochester (the bass player at the show) had a lead role as Hud. This kind of fluid musical community, and KOL’s overall holistic approach to their craft, is a very encouraging sign and would be a great model for young musicians starting out in a field where it can be tough sledding most of the time. A local support system in the end can more gratifying than the current lone-wolf pop star model. There it seems the thought is the only was to the top is trying your luck on a TV talent show in front of a panel of celebrity judges who are likely to gush over anything but where in the end there is only “winner.” Instead, be like Kingdom of Love and find your tribe, work hard until you come up with a line as good as “I was a superhero buried underground” and in the end you may just earn all the good karma you’d ever want.

Find out more at https://kingdomoflovemusic.com/
To see my previous post about the Boston Rock Opera click https://rickouellettereelandrock.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/the-return-of-the-boston-rock-opera-the-moon-is-back-in-the-7th-house/

Rick Ouellette’s new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available online or by messaging the author. A 30-page excerpt can be seen at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html (Or click on the book cover in the right-hand column here)

Rock Band or Law Firm? The Invasion of the Would-Be Supergroups

Jeff Beck, Roger McQuinn, Paul Kantner, Jack Bruce, Keith Emerson, Leslie West. These are a few of the names burned into the pages of rock music history. They made their reputations in iconic bands of the Sixties like the Yardbirds, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain and the Byrds. But bands are invariably fragile entities, from the chart-toppers right down to the local covers group. Think of even your two or three best pals in the world and try to imagine working and travelling with them nearly non-stop for an indefinite period of time—not to mention with other people you may not be nearly as tight with—and you can see where even many of the most successful of groups have pretty limited time spans.

But an advantage of success is that you meet other talented peers and these connections invariably lead to new bands once the bloom is off the rose of your first star-making gig. For every Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton who had the right stuff for lasting solo careers, there were dozens of others more suited to being role players (for more on this check out some of my entries in the “We’ve All Gone Solo” category to the right) or nominal leaders who needed complimentary wingmen. With the surnames of these guys (they were almost exclusively male) already well-known to fans, this re-shuffling of the rock-musician deck led to a number of law-firm or acronym group names throughout the 70s and 80s. While some found even greater fame in this incarnation (notably Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Emerson, Lake and Palmer) many others had just a shining moment or two before splintering again, with others going solo and/or re-forming their more famous band, especially as the classic-rock “legacy act” thing became big starting in the Nineties. Here are nine of the more notable examples of this curious sidebar of pop history.

West, Bruce and Laing

I start with this power trio as perhaps the most natural fit in this category and who seemed most destined for bigger things as a unit. Felix Pappalardi produced most of the records by Cream, maybe the original pre-designated “supergroup.” When he hooked up with fellow New Yorker Leslie West in 1969, they formed Mountain as a sort of Americanized version of Cream, alternating gritty blues-rock (courtesy of West’s gruff vocals and blazing lead guitar) with an almost baroque take on pop songcraft (Pappalardi’s specialty). In 1972, with Mountain winding down and Cream long since broken up, West teamed up with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream’s Jack Bruce, who neatly reprised his role as powerhouse bassist and co-lead singer, also Felix’s part in Mountain.

There was a lot of buzz circling around West, Bruce and Laing, who got a nifty million-dollar, three-album deal after a bidding war. Their first album, Why Dontcha, hit #26 in the U.S. charts and ticket sales were brisk for their concerts. The bloozy rockers dished out by the wrestler-sized West (like “Pleasure” and the title track) were popular with the decibel-crazed longhairs of the era and Bruce’s somewhat softer material balanced them out. In 1973 came the pretty good follow-up Whatever Turns You On but that LP stalled at #87 and rock music’s perennial elephant-in-the-room, hard drug abuse, would lead to bitter in-fighting and WBL never toured again. Their official break-up wasn’t announced until early ’74 around the time an indulgent live album (featuring a bum-blasting 13-minute version of the Stones’ “Play With Fire”) was released to complete the three-album deal. Jack Bruce would move on to his many projects, which in 1993 included the not-dissimilar BBM (with his Cream frenemy Ginger Baker and Irish guitar great Gary Moore) and, in 2005, a one-off Cream reunion. Mountain re-formed for one more studio album and, after Pappalardi’s death in 1983, West and Laing played under the Mountain banner for many years with a rotating cast of bass players.

Beck, Bogert and Appice

As the second of the Yardbird’s three iconic axemen, the mercurial Jeff Beck had a lot to do with the creation of the modern rock guitar sound but with his vast array of squealing, whooshing or stabbing sound effects, he was the most difficult to pin down. Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice were forerunners of the heavy hard-rock engine stokers with their work in Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. Beck had met the package-deal rhythm section as early as 1967 with intentions of getting a thing together but contractual issues and the early edition of the Jeff Beck Group (which launched Rod Stewart) kept this from happening until 1972. The trio did some well-received shows and started working on an album, released in early ’73. I loved the BBA album as a 15 year-old (and still do) and it’s very much an article of its era. Beck’s bracing, sometimes unhinged, guitar solos and brash power chords, Appice’s walloping drum fills and Bogert’s hyperactive bass are well-matched to the slap-happy arrangements of a do-as-you-please era when rock was king. “Livin’ Alone” and “Lady” (with its Who-ish dynamics) are the highlights of the group originals. The group gleefully steamroll over Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” while changing gears completely for a refined remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” with a sensitive vocal from Appice that helped it become a minor hit. But soon, the restless Beck was packing up his white Stratocaster and moving on, and BBA would not complete a second studio LP, though a live album (originally released only in Japan) is now available on the Internet.

The Souther Hillman Furay Band

It wasn’t just the heavy rockers who were getting on the roll-call bandwagon when it came to assembling new “sure-thing” bands. SHF was the idea of David Geffen, who figured that the combo of singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and country-rock stalwarts Chris Hillman (a founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros.) and Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) would make a great addition to his roster of artists at Asylum Records. With a supporting cast that included keyboardist Paul Harris, drummer Jim Gordon and pedal steel/dobro master Al Perkins, SHF got off to a promising start with the 1974 hit single “Fallin’ in Love” while the debut album hit #11, meaning there were quite a few copies mixed in with the Jackson Browne and Doobie Brother titles in the record racks of those so inclined. Though a pretty solid entry in that category, the group couldn’t overcome the personal disagreements natural in such inorganic assemblages. SHF did manage to squeeze out a second album in 1975 (Trouble in Paradise) but split up soon after.

Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit

A few months ago, I wrote about Paul Kossoff in the aforementioned “We’ve All Gone Solo” series as one of those deeply sad rock & roll fatalities, a talented and influential lead guitarist who was less than fully equipped to deal with the often callous vicissitudes of the music industry and band dynamics, never mind the wide availability of hard drugs. Free were hard rock pioneers but bad blood (esp. between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist-songwriter Andy Fraser) and Kossoff’s heroin use precipitated an initial break-up in 1972. Kossoff pulled himself together enough to lead up this band with Free drummer Simon Kirke, Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (later Ronnie Lane’s replacement in the last line-up of the Faces) and future Who sideman John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys and lead vocals. With its brooding bluesy sound, the KKTF album sometimes seems the lost bridge between Free and Bad Company, fans of either/both groups may find this a pleasant discovery if it flew under their radar first time around. It has many fine examples of Kossoff’s trademark sustain-filled soloing and Rabbit’s fluid keyboard work is a nice added dimension, even if his singing is merely competent when compared to Rodgers. But this was strictly a one-off and soon Free were having another go, though Kossoff’s continued addiction problem (among other factors) derailed that idea in ’73. Rodgers and Kirke soon saw the top of the mountain as half of Bad Co. while Kossoff died in 1976, his drug-damaged heart giving out on a flight from L.A. to New York.

Paice Ashton Lord

Hard rock heavyweights Deep Purple split up in 1976 after which two of their original members, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord, teamed up with fellow Englishman Tony Ashton. The Blackburn-born Ashton was an accomplished pianist and singer and a bit of a gadfly, having done tons of session work, most notably for Family and John Entwistle. In 1971, he had had a big hit called “Resurrection Shuffle” with another group that sounded like an accounting firm—-Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. Paice, Ashton and Lord kept on with the sound of Ashton’s earlier group, blending in elements of R&B, jazz and rock with Ashton’s extroverted vocals on top. More of an enjoyable side project than an intended supergroup, they would only do the one album (with a live CD added years later). Jon Lord and PAL’s guitarist Bernie Marsden went on to form Whitesnake with singer David Coverdale (Paice was also in the band for a while) while Ashton was a bit out to dry. He re-invented himself in later years as a TV host and painter before dying in 2001. His two PAL bandmates went back to a re-formed Purple in 1984; Lord passed away in 2012.

McQuinn, Clark and Hillman

Let me take this time to give a shout-out to Chris Hillman, one of rock’s great utility players. Never a big star in his own right, he was nevertheless a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros. and Stephen Still’s Manassas. Good bands all, and of course in the first case, damn near legendary. Hillman, who was a steady hand at the bass guitar and mandolin as well as a sometime singer and songwriter, had already been down the great re-shuffle road with Souther, Hillman and Furay. In 1979 he agreed to join his more high-profile ex-bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark but he soon found out that while Byrds of a feather may flock together, they don’t always do so in flawless formation. The original line-up already had a brief, middling re-union in 1973 but MCH never even got off the ground artistically. These bona-fide folk musicians, who did so much to kick-start the great folk-rock movement in the mid-Sixties, almost totally abandon that here. Instead of trying to update that sound for a newer audience they settled for an glossy, soulless production style that was grounded in a no-man’s land somewhere between the Little River Band and Firefall (there’e even a semi-disco number). I bet Hillman and McGuinn likely would prefer to forget that debut nowadays, but for the talented but troubled Clark, this is a sadder case. He saw MCH as a boost to a post-Byrds career that never really gelled. But he overcame the production values he so disliked and cut what to my ears sounds like the band’s best song (“Won’t Let You Down”) on their second album though his continued substance abuse issues meant he lost equal billing (1980’s City merely “featured” Clark). It was likely these same drinking/drug problems that contributed to Clark’s premature death in 1991.

KBC Band

For such a group of disparate talents and personalities, Jefferson Airplane maintained their classic line-up from late 1966 to 1970, becoming one of America’s great psychedelic-era bands, augmenting the Aquarian platitudes of the day with tough-minded social and political lyrics. Starting in the early Seventies, the Airplane parts would splinter off into an uncountable number of solo projects, duos and reconfigurations. Of course, from 1974-78 the front line of vocalist-songwriters (Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Grace Slick) led the evolution into Jefferson Starship and more widespread commercial success than they ever saw in the Sixties. Meanwhile, the band’s formidable guitar-bass pairing (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) had formed the blues-centric Hot Tuna. By the time of the late 70s, this deck of cards was getting re-shuffled with ever increasing frequency. With Balin’s departure, Starship had recruited the full-throated AOR belter Mickey Thomas and had scored a huge hit with the paint-by-numbers arena rocker “Jane” which was a long way away from the days of “White Rabbit.” In 1984 Kanter, with his idealism and sci-fi sensibilities out of fashion, was eased out of an organization he co-founded almost twenty years before. He soon re-teamed with Balin, the other co-founder in 1965, and added Jack Casady when Hot Tuna went on sabbatical. The group’s self-titled 1986 album turned out to be a solid, sometimes inspired affair that balanced romantic and political themes in a way that recalled the heyday of both the Airplane and Starship. Sure, the closely-miked drums and sax refrains are pure skinny-tie 80s. But Marty and Paul combined to pen two excellent topical numbers here: “Mariel” was inspired by revolutionary Nicaragua (Kanter had visited there with Kris Kristofferson) and the mini-epic “America” which not only did some soul-searching about the home country but also featured shout-outs to everything from the struggle against apartheid to West Germany’s Green Party. This anthem compared favorably to the Starship’s recent laugher “We Built This City” and though not a hit did get considerable FM airplay. As did “It’s Not You, It’s Not Me” which was one of several classy, grown-up romantic tunes by the Balin. But Marty was more reliable in his songwriting than he was in the area of band commitment. When he skipped out on a music video shoot to take an extended Hawaiian vacation, the group dissolved though all three would be on board for a brief Jefferson Airplane re-union some five years later.

GTR

OK, this is cheating a bit as GTR is not an acronym but an abbreviation for “guitar.” The two GTRs in this case are the lead guitarists from the classic lineups of two leading progressive rock bands, Steve Howe of Yes and Steve Hackett of Genesis. By 1986, when this band released their sole album, their old bands had adapted in the post-punk 80s, when the fantasy themes and 18-minute suites of classic prog had fallen from favor. Genesis had become a pop juggernaut when Phil Collins stepped out front after Peter Gabriel opted for a solo career and Yes had recently scored their only #1 single with the new-wavey “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Howe was also a charter member of Asia, the standard bearer of amalgamated post-prog, but GTR was clearly a bridge too far. There’s certainly some fine playing by the two formidable six-string masters but the LP is bogged down by material that is neither fish nor fowl. Slick arrangements and clichéd lyrics trump the occasional instrumental inspiration and the leisure-suit videos didn’t help any (see below). Howe quickly retreated back to alternating his time between Asia and Yes, while Hackett (who has been critical of the project in retrospect) moved on to his many thoughtful solo efforts, earning much respect from both older fans and the younger neo-prog crowd.

Emerson, Lake and Powell

Well, this sort of brings us full circle, as the original ELP(almer) was cited up top as one of those self-named bands that did hit the jackpot, a group emblematic of both prog’s majesty and self-indulgence. Years after that band had run its course, keyboard maestro Keith Emerson and bassist-singer Greg Lake were keen to have another go but by 1985 drummer Carl Palmer was employed as the stickman with (wait for it) Asia. All involved insist that it was mere coincidence that his replacement had the right surname initial to keep the famous acronym going. Cozy Powell was the valued journeyman drummer (Black Sabbath, Robert Plant, Rainbow etc.) who also had a #3 solo hit in England with the Hendrix-influenced instrumental “Dance With the Devil.” ELP2 (as they were sometimes called) was a bit of a return to form considering the later albums of the predecessor band (Love Beach anyone?) with a unified group attack that replaced the solo-spot indulgences of old. It yielded a moderate hit (“Touch and Go”) that added a heady synth hook from Keith to a streamlined 80s arrangement.

Elsewhere, ELP2 built on past success with the “Karn Evil 9” echoes of “The Score” and also included was a mighty classical adaption just like in the good old days-—Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War.” Despite reaching #23 on the U.S. charts, there would be no encore record. Like the work of many of the bands here, this project was a fleeting moment in the vast backlog of pop music. It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, as they say, so when you need something a little off the beaten path after hearing the greatest hits once too often, it’s places like these where you can turn to appreciate as well the ambitions that came up a little short.

Copyright 2016–Rick Ouellette