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Adventures in Mega-Rock: Festival albums after Woodstock

I am likely to live out the rest of my days forever fascinated and repelled by the idea that millions of young folks once trudged off to over-populated music festivals to hear various rock ‘n’ roll legends in conditions that ranged from beatific sunshine and starry nights to suffocating humidity and apocalyptic rainstorms yielding vast mud fields. Of course, they still do if you count pre-Covid gatherings like Coachella and Glastonbury.

I was a little too young for the original wave of iconic rock festivals and by the time I came of age the business model was superstar bands playing in sports arenas and second-tier groups gigging at theaters. I was never destined to be one of those peeps rising in unison to say, cheer on Richie Havens at Woodstock or to complain to a film crew that the authorities don’t like me because of my long hair or because “I smoke a little shit.” But then again, I never took an unwanted mud bath or had to thumb home two hundred miles because I was short on “bread.”


The Allman Bros. Band at Atlanta Pop

These contemplations took hold recently when I finally secured a copy of The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies fifty years after its 1971 release. As a young teen I eyed this whopping three-LP set the way a Little League pitcher may have seen Bob Gibson. It covered the summer-of-1970 Atlanta Pop Festival (sides 1 & 2) and the gargantuan Isle of Wight affair in the UK (sides 3-6). The names of the fourteen artists featured were center-aligned on the cover (Hendrix! Sly Stone! Allman Bros.!) but this was a little rich for my blood and my wallet at the time. Festival burnout was setting in post-Altamont and “First Great Rock Festivals” never came near the stature of the 3-LP Woodstock set (or even the double album follow-up Woodstock 2) and it came to be a curio relegated to the “Various Artists” used-record bins.

The second Atlanta Pop Festival was not in the city. After various official roadblocks (not least of all from Georgia’s then-governor, the infamous reactionary Lester Maddox) it was moved way out to pasture in the little town of Byron, where a couple of hundred thousand kids gathered in a sun-baked soybean field, for the 4th of July event where temps reached just over 100 degrees. The album kicks off with Johnny Winter doing “Mean Mistreater,” the sort of emphatic blooze-rock that was a key genre at the time and which is well represented on TFGRFOTS. But so to is the stylistic hop-scotching of these huge events. We get a couple of nice country-rock numbers by Poco (the romantic “Kind Woman” and the up-tempo instrumental “Grand Junction”) and the groovy soul of the Chambers Brothers. Next up are favorites sons the Allman Brothers. The Macon GA stalwarts do “Statesboro Blues” and the proverbial “Whippen Post” (sic) though neither version matches up to the ones on their landmark At Fillmore East, also released in ’71.

The real acid test (literally and figuratively) of this six-sided foray comes at the end of the Atlanta disc with the 19-minute indulgence that is Mountain’s take on the T-Bone Walker blues standard “Stormy Monday.” I love Leslie West and the gang but this is not their finest moment. Mountain may have preferred the steamroller method when it came to their decibel-cranking concerts, but they could be ingenious as well (just check out the multi-sectional joyride that is the 25-minute live side of their Flowers of Evil album). Here you get a pro-forma jam where the usual Leslie West/Felix Pappalardi guitar-bass interplay is pushed along by Corky Laing’s rat-a-tat drumming, but it never gets to that next level. The crowd seem to enjoy it and these lengthy excursions (both musical and geographical) were part of the scene then. To get a pair of eyes on the ’70 Atlanta Pop Festival, check out the 2015 concert doc Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church. It begins and ends with 10-15 minute segments about the event and in the middle you get an uninterrupted (and most excellent) one hour set of what amounts to a best-of-Hendrix show, complete with 4th of July fireworks.

Jimi would also appear at the Isle of Wight festival off the coast of southern England a month later. Despite the logistics (ferry-access only) some 600,000 made it to the island for the tumultuous five-day festival. There is a full documentary of this third annual Wight festival, Murray Lerner’s essential Message to Love, which due to money issues was not released until 1997. In my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey I wrote about how the film shows how a happening that was supposed to be an English Woodstock descended into “chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.” French anarchists and freeloading freaks unwilling or unable to pay the three pounds sterling entrance fee tried to knock down the corrugated fencing erected by the youngish promoters who thought they were onto a good thing but took a financial beating (hence the delay in the release of Lerner’s commissioned film).


I miss all the fun! Part of the crowd at the 1970 Isle of Wight.

Peter Goddard, in the Wight liner notes here, compared the festival to a “medieval joust up-dated and passed through a time loop. An interviewed fan in the film used a similar metaphor, describing a “feudal court scene” with the rock stars as royalty, the groupies as courtiers and the audience as serfs. When it boiled down to the music, though, there was a lot less to grouse about. Jimi Hendrix was headlining again and though people who were in the know at that time said it wasn’t his best show, there’s a lot to like in his 15-minute segment here, esp. his razor-edge soloing on “Power to Love” and a wild take on “Foxy Lady.” Ten Years After, not to be outdone by Mountain, offer up there own 19-minute warhorse with far better results. Anyone familiar with the group’s 1973 live album will recognize their version of Al Kooper’s “I Can’t Keep from Crying” with its extended speed-freak guitar workout by Alvin Lee and its little side excursions into “Cat’s Squirrel” and the “Peter Gunn” theme. Despite the pyrotechnics preceding it, Procol Harum’s stately “A Salty Dog” comes off well.


Great excerpt of TYA’s above-mentioned jam from the Murray Lerner film “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970”

Sly and the Family Stone, who like TYA had a big boost from Woodstock film and record, do a morale-boosting medley of “Stand!” and “You Can Make it if You Try.” The restive crowd that is so evident in Lerner’s documentary spills into the record via the poorly-received appearance from Oxford-educated cowpoke Kris Kristofferson. Tensions between fans and promoters were peaking and seemingly taken out on cocky Kris, who tries to win back the crowd with the coy redneck parody “Blame it on the Stones.” In the film, he is seen waving dismissively while exiting before finishing “Me and Bobby McGee.” Faring better in the singer-songwriter department are David Bromberg with a tender “Mr. Bojangles” and Leonard Cohen. The bard of Montreal gives an unusually empathetic vocal on the jaunty “Tonight Will be Fine.”

That leaves Miles Davis to close out Side Six with a 17-minute bracing jazz-fusion outburst titled here as “Call it Anything.” That was probably Miles’ wily wit at work given the free-flowing improvisations of the trumpeting legend who was at a career peak and crossing over to a rock audience at the time. We know that from the 2011 CD release of Bitches Brew Live that this track compromises the last half of his allotted time (the whole 35-minute set is on the CD) and consists of a wired and inspired clutch of compositions centered around “Spanish Key.” His band consisted of both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Gary Bartz on sax, Dave Holland on bass, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira. Whew.

Peter Goddard, towards the end of his liner notes, opines that the age of the great rock festival was “kaput” despite the promise of the more to come in the title. I wouldn’t own The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies for many years to come although in 1972 I bought a discounted copy of Mar-y-Sol, a double LP from a Puerto Rican festival from the same year. Its line-up was typical of the eclectic roster of artists so typical of these outside multi-day events, which would continue, great or not. Everyone from Jonathan Edwards to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Afro-rockers Osibisa were featured. And the age of the various-artist mega-rock album was not over either. By the end of 1971 we had George Harrison & Friends with the 3-LP benefit album Concert for Bangla-Desh. Other triple-deckers included 1972’s Fillmore: The Last Days, where the Bay Area’s finest congregated to mark the closing of Bill Graham’s fabled ballroom the Fillmore West, and the dreaded No Nukes from 1979. (John Hall, anyone?).


Gong’s side-filler from the Glastonbury Fayre triple album. You’re welcome!

There’s even a three-bagger form the 1971 Glastonbury Festival, called Glastonbury Fayre (an accompanying film of the same name is worth seeking out). This six-sider is rare and bound to test the patience of even the hardiest mega-rock aficionado. It boasted songs ranging from 16 to 23 minutes from Mighty Baby (“A Blanket in My Muesli’), The Pink Fairies (“Uncle Harry’s Last Freak-Out”), Edgar Broughton Band (“Out Demons Out” and Daevid Allen & Gong with the immortal “Glad Stoned Buried Fielding Flash and Fresh Fest Footprint in My Memory.” I don’t know if any of those works would have made much sense away from the Glastonbury grounds, where the pot was plentiful and there was plenty of room for twirly freeform dancing in the days before the event exploded in popularity.
But like they say nowadays, “Go big or go home.” Luckily, we can also go virtually exploring into the far-off fields of adventurous rock exploration. Go big and stay home, to save yourself the unwanted mud-caked blue jeans and acid hangover.
–Rick Ouellette
Leave a message in the comments section if you are interested in getting a discounted copy of my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty Year Cinematic Journey”

So Long, John Nash (Part One)

A view from behind a John Nash-designed Regent Street archway, 2016 (All photos by author unless otherwise noted)

I have come here tonight to praise the former Regent Palace Hotel, just off Piccadilly Circus in London. At 1028 rooms, it was the world’s biggest hotel on completion in 1915. I did not know this tidy little fact when I stayed there for a week in May of 1976. This would have surprised me back then. The hotel had a rounded, impressive Edwardian façade but it didn’t seem especially large. That’s maybe because many of the rooms (like mine) were small and communal bathrooms were in the hall, which was the case until the place finally closed in 2006.


The white-washed ghost of the Regent Palace Hotel in 2016. Seemingly empty save for an Ugg store. Ugh.

So the Regent Palace was not much of a palace, but it did back up to rear of the Regent Street quadrant. That famously curved shopping street was laid out by John Nash, the master architect of Regency/Georgian England. His work also includes Buckingham Palace, the Brighton Royal Pavilion, and Marble Arch. The elegant sweep of Lower Regent Street led into Piccadilly Circus, anchoring London’s West End entertainment district, before taking a sharp turn and proceeding thru a stately institutional area to the The Mall, which of course leads to the Queen’s pad.


For 8 pounds a night, the Regent Palace Hotel was a place where “You enjoy all the amenities of a modern hotel, including telephone, radio and razor point.” (!!)

I’ve always had a thing about architecture and John Nash (1752-1835) is my favorite practitioner, except maybe for American Samuel McIntire, the Federalist architect/carver who’s greatest works were also done in the early 19th century. Sam’s not only a fellow countryman but lived and worked primarily in my hometown of Salem, Mass. Anyway, I cribbed the title for this post from the Simon & Garfunkel song “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” After all, there just aren’t enough tribute songs to famous architects, I mean how much can you say in that format? Even S&G are pretty much reduced to saying how they and ol’ Frank would “harmonize ‘til dawn.” Sounds funny, but city-building can have its own musical richness and John Nash was a symphony-level composer. He found his fame as a patron of the Prince Regent (later King George IV) and his master plan started with a design for Regent’s Park (ringed by his terraces and great-houses) and proceeded south in a grand avenue procession down to Regent Street and the Circus. So very royal, yes, but it also gave London some of its greatest public spaces. But more on all that in a bit.


Ray Davies makes the rounds of Swinging London in this satirical Kinks Klassic from 1966.

I was 18 at the time of my first visit to the city that had so captured my boyhood imagination, mainly stirred by my steady diet of Kinks albums and Chares Dickens novels. This trip to England I had planned for some time, funded by my high-school job as a busboy and by a nice little fund put aside from my godfather that he gave me when I had turned the big 1-8. I had gone with my mom to a local travel agent (remember them?) and the guy, seeing that I was a bright young lad off on his own for the first time, suggested that the Regent Palace Hotel, a literal stone’s throw away from London’s version of Times Square, would be a good base camp. My mom was already nervous about me going but it was quickly a done deal.


Your humble blogger at age 18, captured by a street photographer near my hotel.

Piccadilly Circus in the post-war years became world-famous for its neon-lit nightlife and its giant advertising signs for films, shows and a bewildering array of consumer goods. But ten paces away from these bright lights and rushing traffic, and thru the corner entrance of the Regent Palace it was a different story. The hotel had a certain frumpy charm, it was like a character in a Graham Greene novel, with a certain faded elegance and a hint of intrigue. (I was certainly intrigued by the occasional hooker loitering at a staircase landing). The Circus came to be one of those great gathering places, both for Londoners and tourists, but ol’ John Nash was way ahead of the curve. Lower Regent Street (completed around 1825) featured a covered arcade that kept window shoppers out of the elements and maybe give a chance for sweethearts to have a tete-a-tete, reportedly a consideration in the planning.


Panorama of Nash’s Regent St. quadrant. (Photo by Benh Lieu Song via Wikipedia)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus

Society took over from their and certainly by the 1960’s it was (like Carnaby Street) a place to see and be seen. Many of the nightclubs of Swinging London, hosting future rock mega-bands like the Who and Pink Floyd, were in adjacent areas like Leicester Square and Soho. It was well past the prime of that golden era by the time I got there in ’76. The place was considered tawdry by many, with its illicit street dealings and dignified old buildings covered in advertising hoardings and movie marquees. But it was transformational for me, the spark that started a lifetime of sporadic European travel. So I went boldly where all men had gone before and sat myself on the steps of the Shaftsbury Memorial (see below) topped by the famous statue of Eros though it is actually his brother Anteros, the god of requited love. Either way, point well taken.


Piccadilly Circus, 1976

Across from the steps was the grand façade of the London Pavilion, where the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine had had their world premieres. Currently, the theater’s 3-story high sign was boosting it’s first-run showing of Death Race 2000, the pedestrians-as-points cult film; a die-cut image of David Carradine as the black-masked driver loomed over the square. Instead, I opted for a walk down Coventry Street to the now-demolished Odeon West End to see The Man Who Fell to Earth, the futuristic mind-bender starring David Bowie. The bottom of the Odeon marquee, for all of Leicester Square to see, read “Kinky Sex”—The Evening Standard. Well, your average perv may have been disappointed to buy a ticket based on that alone, but I took up my seat in the balcony (smoking allowed) not unlike the girl in Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?” who’s “hooked to the silver screen.” After having my mind suitably blown, I walked past a Piccadilly pub where an hour later, a few of the Rolling Stones stopped by a drink. I read that the next day in the (wait for it) Evening Standard.

Jumping ahead nearly 45 years, I found out something that I had long suspected, a possible brush with rock and roll history that would have been more significant than catching a glimpse of a few Black and Blue-era Stones. The pre-Sid Vicious Sex Pistols were gigging in Central London the same month in the spring of ‘76 that I was first visited my fabled London. Mainly, they had a Tuesday night residency at the nearby 100 Club. Not that I necessarily would have known what to do with a Johnny Rotten back then (I was more of a Ray Davies and Ian Anderson kind of guy), but I did miss being present at the crossroads of rock history at a time when the band were not yet tabloid fodder. But ten months later the Pistols, now with Sid in tow, the group’s manager arranged a publicity-stunting signing of a contract with A&M Records, in front of the John Nash-designed Buckingham Palace. The competing symbolism was clear, even if the band didn’t release their groundbreaking, vitriolic anthem “God Save the Queen” until several weeks later. After that, they repaired to one of the lobby bars at the Regent Palace Hotel where they were over-served by the staff, according to (I believe) Jon Savage’s definitive book “England’s Dreaming.” Just think, only a gob’s throw away from where I sat in the RPH’s breakfast room, or the Carvery restaurant, whose sliced-roasts station, dessert cart and great big Imperial pints of lager were already legends in my own mind. The group’s drunken hijinks continued over at the A&M office, where their punkified misdemeanors had them booted off the label by week’s end. Twenty years would pass by the time I saw the re-formed Sex Pistols at an outdoor venue I the summer of 1996.

10 Mar 1977, London, England, UK — The punk rock group, The Sex Pistols, are about to be moved by a policeman as they sign a copy of their new recording contract with A & M Records outside Buckingham Palace. The next record to be released is called “God Save the Queen”. The band members (from far left to right) are John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

I would visit London alone again in 1994 and in 2016 with family. I was older and a bit wiser and able to take much better photographs, including those of John Nash’s greatest architectural hits (more in Part Two!). In ’94, I took a nostalgic stroll thru the Regent Palace lobby and out the side door. Also by then, the obstructing sign was down at the London Pavilion and it had been turned into a rock-themed wax museum; there were David Bowie and Mick Jagger effigies looking out imperiously from the revealed balconies. In 2016, the RPH was long-closed when I showed my son where I had stayed in another lifetime. The building, like many others in the Piccadilly/Regent Street area, had been scrubbed of their age-old London grime and white-washed to within an inch of their lives. The “people’s palace” hotel had only ghost of the memories of the lone travelers, wandering-eye businessmen and tour-group tag-a-longs that once issued forth the lobby into the whirlwind of London’s famous/infamous crossroads. But I’m still here to tell you my tale where the secret lives of buildings, people and pop culture intersect and will be back for more in Part Two.
—Rick Ouellette

From the MODT files: “A Descent Into the Uncanny Valley”

Here’s a little homemade seasonal comic from myself as writer and Eric Bornstein as the artist. It takes its cue from my work “The Ministry of Dark Tourism” part one of which is under way in graphic novel form with illustrator Ian J. Miller. More on that later and hope you can enjoy your socially-distanced Halloween! –Rick Ouellette




Rock Docs Spotlight: A Kouple from the Kinks

Is it “a small observation of a big thing” that makes The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, the group’s once-ignored and now-cherished 1968 album, so special? That comment by XTC frontman Andy Partridge is one of the more interesting takes in this vivid and engrossing new documentary of the iconic band’s “lost” masterpiece. Echoes of a World: The Story of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society features interviews (and two recent duet performances) by founding Kink brothers Dave and Ray Davies, as well as their drummer Mick Avory. Typical of rock docs nowadays, there is a parade of well-known musician/acolytes, including Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, Natalie Merchant, Graham Coxon, and Suggs from Madness.

There is also a lot of archival footage of both the band and the North London locales so central to their songs. A nice added touch is B&W filming in nearby Highgate Wood, where a young actor playing Ray delivers his thoughts on the record’s beguiling depictions of small-town Britannica. Overlooking the districts he would write about, actor Ray says that the album was a chance to “speak from inside myself.” This device works esp. well within the idea that the album was “not nostalgia but time travel.”


“I’m glad we stood our ground.” The simulated young Ray Davies mulls over the making of his unfashionable tour de force.

But oh, for those small observations of big things (actually, the inverse of that saying is probably more accurate). In late 1967, the Kinks’ released a single so great that Partridge (a pretty dang good songwriter himself) freely admits “I spent my whole life chasing that song.” This was “Autumn Almanac” a hit in the UK which preceded (and pointed the way to) the Village Green. The song, inspired by Ray Davies’ gardener, celebrated the prosaic joys of lawn work, a Sunday roast, a beach holiday in Blackpool and neighbors who will love you ‘til you’re 99. Not exactly the hippest subject matter during rock’s psychedelic era. Although “Autumn Almanac” would reach #3 in the UK charts, the band’s popularity started to fade as they went further down their rabbit hole of ethereal old-timeliness.


The last 11-minutes of “Echoes of the World.”

The Village Green album, which followed in the fall of 1968, doubled down on that lost sense of community and shared spaces. The title and lead-off track (one of the two tunes that the Davies are shown performing in a parlor) extols the virtues of Tudor houses, custard pies, George Cross medal recipients, obscure British pop-culture figures like Desperate Dan and Mrs. Mopp, and even virginity itself. The society is also quite clear on what they are against (“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate”). More poignantly, the brothers also do “Do You Remember Walter,” a bittersweet ode to the lost ideals of youth.

Echoes of a World also looks back fondly on the albums rich picaresques. The family remembrances (“Picture Book”), the indifferent-universe hymnal (“Big Sky”), the exquisite rural escapism of “Animal Farm.” Just as memorable are the inhabitants of Ray’s “dream space”: the rebel “Johnny Thunder,” the local temptress “Monica,” the legendary “Phenomenal Cat” and the neighborhood witch, “Wicked Annabella.” These people and places are so ingrained in the minds of fans that several of the interviewees here—including Partridge, Natalie Merchant, record producer Greg Kurstin and even Dave Davies—proudly show hand-made illustrations of various tunes.


“American tourists flock to see the village green” A picture of your humble blogger in 2016 in the Kinks Room at the Cliswold Arms pub, where the Kinks did their first show. Ray and Dave grew up directly across in the Fortis Green/Muswell Hill area.

In an age of social disconnectedness, the yearning for a solid sense of place and community is only enhanced. Maybe that is one of the reasons that Village Green Preservation Society took so long to be fully appreciated. Paul Weller likens it to “a longing for something that wasn’t really there.” True, the fraternity may be amorphous but it is still there and still vital. As it says under the credits on the back cover of the original album: “You are our friends for playing this record.”

Another Kinks-related piece that has been made available for Amazon streaming is 1985’s Return to Waterloo, a 57-minute fictional film directed by Ray Davies. Its title suggests the band’s signature ballad “Waterloo Sunset,” but the urban romance depicted in that beloved Kink Klassic gives way to a grim premise here.

The mostly dialogue-free story stars Ken Colley as the dark-eyed, haunted “Traveler” who goes to and from work on a commuter train whose terminus is the iconic station of the title. There is a serial rapist at large and our man bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the police sketch of the suspect. It is never made quite clear whether he’s the guy or not, although the lockdown stare he gets from Ray himself (as a subway busker) is ominous enough. Return to Waterloo functions more as a downbeat tone poem, encompassing feelings of disconnection, loneliness, parent-child alienation and disheartened nostalgia, in contrast to the mostly nourishing nostalgia of the Village Green album sixteen years earlier.

I know it doesn’t sound very chipper, but the strong songs here by Ray move along the story. (A few of the tunes from the soundtrack also made it onto the Kinks’ latter-day highlight Word of Mouth, released in 1984). An evocative piece like “Expectations” can stand on its own as a pensive commentary on Britain’s post-empire decline and seems esp. relevant now in the UK’s post-Brexit era. As one can tell from the video below, Return to Waterloo boasts excellent production values. The cinematographer here is the acclaimed Roger Deakins, still early in a career that would see him be the director of photography for such movies as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner 2049, among many others.

Return to Waterloo can be a bit of an odd duck in the viewing of it. It veers rather unsteadily between realism and the Traveler’s elaborate fantasy world. Everyday situations, like an encounter with a group of punk rockers, can shift into overdrive very suddenly (look for a young Tim Roth as one of the punkers). Elsewhere, a Pythonesque wit takes hold, as a matronly woman (within earshot of the Traveler) discussed her strategy if confronted by the rapist: “I’d give him a swift kick in the bollocks, that would sort him out.”
So while maybe not the thing to watch if you’re in the mood for a feel-good film, but a must for Kinks fans and clear-eyed Anglophiles. Make a note in your own autumn almanac to view one or both of these fine forays into the Kinkdom.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Now available: The complete “Teenage Proghead” comic book!

 

Comic Book

Postage included (even outside the USA), please provide mailing address in PayPal

$5.00

Spin yourself back down all the days to…
Wilsontown High School, 1974

It was a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…

It’s here! The complete 32-page “I Was a Teenage Proghead” is now available in a shiny new standard comic-book format. Text is by me (Rick Ouellette) and artwork is by Brian Bicknell. The recently added 8-page epilogue catches up with the kids in the summer of 1975, a year after the events of Part One.

This project is 100% author-funded. If you would like to support indie, rock ‘n’ roll-inspired comics, you can purchase your own copy (and/or buy one for a friend) for only $5, postage included.

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Whistlestop Rock: Now Barreling thru your town, virtually

So many great rock ‘n’ roll origin stories begin in iconic locations like garages, basement and rec rooms. Of course, the whole idea is when greatness beckons, the next step is to find an audience in nightclubs and other places where rock-loving people congregate.

https://whistlestoprock1.bandcamp.com/track/queen-of-the-drive-in?fbclid=IwAR1drESl9R6mS1SJhZrpqWrtfZU3tgCpAB3vcnPQlX6p9jsUJ8ioC06T9AM
The new Whistlestop Rock all-star-cast single, “Queen of the Drive-In.” Check out the single on Bandcamp and the video for it on July 10th by following Whistlestop Rock on YouTube or Facebook.

Already you can see where this is going. In the upside-down world of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s back to the origins for both musicians and fans. This unprecedented (in our lifetime) human tragedy and lockdown/social distancing that suddenly became a way of life (the “new abnormal” as I prefer to call it) has put a unique burden on the future of live music, given the now-risky practice of both singing in close quarters to crammed-in patrons. But of the many performers who have taken to sheltered performances, first have done with such aplomb as the deferred-but-not-derailed Whistlestop Rock tour here in New England.


“FROM OUR UNDISCLOSED BUNKERS TO YOURS” After two live gigs out of ten scheduled, the Whistlestop Rock crew pivoted quickly and by the third week of May had come up with this awesome one-hour virtual gig, complete with opening credits, nifty graphics and tag-team introductions of their colleagues for a series of great musical performances. More details below.

Back on February 22, I posted on article about a recently-launched travelling rock show called Whistlestop Rock that featured a clutch of mostly female-led, mixed-gender bands from the bustling and very vital eastern New England scene. This idea to pool resources and fan bases was a great idea that had grown organically from an initial conversation between Simone Berk of Kid Gulliver and scene doyenne Justine Covault, best known in the Boston area for heading up the hard-rocking Justine and the Unclean and for organizing the long-running monthly musical jamboree called The Mess-Around at the famous Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge.

The second date of that tour, with a big crowd at the roomy ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. was a smashing success and bode well for a fruitful spring and summer of red-hot rock roll and great socializing. That show was on Feb. 29th and by just a few days later, it was terribly clear that something historically awful was afoot with the coronavirus. Even by that night there was an inkling, talk among the musicians of needing to be careful with microphone use, while a friend I met in the crowd was already using the elbow-bump greeting.

The self-named Whistle Sisters and Whistle Misters have not cursed their luck, as utterly disheartening as it must have been to have this carefully-curated rolling event squashed after only two of approximately ten planned shows. In addition to the one-hour online benefit show seen above (to help great local venues who are really struggling), with a new one airing on July 10th, This not-to-miss event will feature the all-star single and video “Queen of the Drive-In.” In the interim between these two virtual soirees, there have been individual song postings, videos and even cocktail recipes!

For any musicians looking for tips on how to get thru this unprecedented time, where the very proximity that binds bands to fans is indefinitely a no-no, can learn a lot from the Whistlestop rockers. Sure, the necessary at-home aspect of these performances brings on an Unplugged sort of vibe. But there are ways around this. Sometimes the strength of the songwriting will do it, witness Simone Berk and David Ammillotti do “Forget About Him” (starting at 2:35) and both of Justine Covault’s solo numbers (at 13:30 and 33:30). Local fave Linnea Herzog debuts “Non-Dramatic Breakup Song” in a mermaid suit (8:40). Lynda Mandolyn from the ass-kicking pride of Portland ME Tiger Bomb, does two of their garage rockers on acoustic guitar (5:43 and xxx) but does so with great panache. Not only does she perform with a spinning color globe with a vintage Gorgar pinball machine behind her (jealous!), but there’s an extra Lynda that pops up in the corner for the chorus harmonies. Kids today and they’re technology!

A couple of groups do manage a plugged-in full band sound, either because there are couples or quarantine buddies involved, or because they are so tech-savvy as to become split-screen combos. This worked out great with the rootsy sound of Steve Pyrgorda and Cold Expectations (at 20:38). The power-trio inventiveness of Providence’s Heather Rose in Clover was in evidence on the performance of “Red Vest” which is a scrappy post-punk rocker that suddenly veers off into a slowed-down psychedelic coda that would not have seemed out of place on Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. Linda Bean Pardee and Tim Gillis from Mod-influenced Chelsea Curve (there was even a Vespa scooter parked in the garage where they played) did their “Don’t Look Down” (at 47:30) with Linda’s monster bass turned up so loud it almost drowned out their singing. But that’s rock ‘n’ roll, baby!

The supportive vibe of musical colleagues makes it no surprise that these guys have lots of pals to call for guest appearances. This first online edition included (at 24:40) Tanya Donelly and Dean Fisher, the former from Throwing Muses and Belly, the latter from the Juliana Hatfield Trio. Also appearing as an acoustic duos were Joyce Raskin White and Seana Carmody at 11:40.

Granted, it’s going to be a long way back for nightclubs and live music: a Phase 5 re-start in today’s parlance. In the long meantime, the music can carry on and even has a chance to broaden audience’s via the long reach of the Internet. Rock on, everyone!

The Blessed War: Iceland’s Serendipitous Trip through WW2

May 10, 1940 was certainly a momentous day in modern history. It was 80 years ago this day that Hitler launched his invasion of the Low Countries and France. This blitzkrieg culminated in the fall of Paris a month later. On that same day in May, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned his post and Winston Churchill took over as the new PM. Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy with the Nazis had failed to stop the onset of the war. It was Churchill’s more bullish and inspirational leadership that was a major boost to the resolve of the island nation that would be Germany’s only real enemy for the next year and a half.

A lesser-known event of 5/10/1940 was the British “invasion” of Iceland. In the early morning hours of May 10th four warships of the Royal Navy, with its contigent of marines, docked in Reykjavik Harbor. They met with no resistance but some resentment. It would be hard to imagine a more bloodless invasion: the only fatality was the suicide of an English sailor on the way over. The island, whose population at the time was about 117,000, was still a protectorate of Denmark. After that country was overrun by the Germans, Britain quickly made their move. The importance of this North Atlantic island could not be under-stated. The fight over control of the shipping and convoy lanes was the longest continuous campaign of World War II and Iceland would play a crucial (if oft overlooked) part in this struggle.

As explained in the new book shown above by author (and Reykjavik police detective) G. Jokul Gislason, this small island just south of the Arctic Circle has always been dependent on exports (mainly fish) and imports (almost everything else) and had been particularly hard hit in the Great Depression. He writes that although there were some sour feelings among Icelanders upset that their neutrality was being violated, the majority were relieved that it was the Brits and not the Germans who came to claim their strategic location. British interference in internal affairs was minimal, aside from the arrest and expulsion to the UK of a small number of union activists and Nazi sympathizers. What did happen during the British occupation, and even more so when American troops arrived in 1942, was the immense building up of the country’s infrastructure and other facilities needed to accommodate the influx of humanity. The unemployment rate dropped to zero nearly overnight and Iceland, which voted for full independence in 1944, went from one of Europe’s poorest nations at the start of World War II to one of the most prosperous by the end of it.


I had to settle for a postcard (but a really cool one) of the wreck of this US Navy D3 plane on a black-sand beach on the south coast.

On a family trip there last June, my son was particularly interested in seeing some remnants of this military occupation. Unfortunately, some of the more spectacular sights, like shipwrecks, crashed planes and rusting navy docks are located on inaccessible beaches or tucked into fjords. These locales can be pretty obscure and with all the spectacular geysers, waterfalls, caves, craters and thermal pools to explore, you don’t want to stretch yourself if you don’t have the time. What my son did find, as we wandered the broad hillside above downtown Reykjavik that is topped by the spectacular Perlan museum. All along one slope dubbed “Howitzer Hill” by Allied troops are the remains of bunkers, gun emplacements and fuel depots built by the “invader” to protect the harbor and airfield below.

We were visiting the site of the awe-inspiring Perlan museum (above) in the 11 PM hour, and as you can see, the pre-summer equinox daylight was pretty strong at that elevated vantage point. My son scrambled down the side of the hill, calling his parents down with him. Here are some of my photos, all taken around 11:15 to 11:45 PM.

Iceland’s “Blessed War” did not come without its hardships. Over 200 native seamen perished in the brutal struggle for control over the North Atlantic shipping lanes, where many vessels were sunk by German U-boats. Luckily for Icelanders, their island was too remote to be within practical reach of the Luftwaffe, even though the naval treachery continued right up until the end of the war. In November of ’44, by which time submarine attacks had greatly decreased, the Icelandic passenger ship SS Godafoss was sunk when bad weather separated it from its convoy, killing 24 including several children. When V-E Day arrived, 75 years ago this week, Reykjavik joined in the celebration, though this was not without incident. Gislason describes how the drunken revelry descended into “the biggest brawl in Icelandic history” as local men and British soldiers aired out their differences in a huge street fight in the capitol. Gislasson’s book is chock full of intriguing anecdotes like this, from Churchill’s visit in the summer of 1941 to the little-known fact that America’s first shots fired in anger (when the USS Niblack dropped depth charges against a German U-boat after its attack on a Dutch freighter) happened off Iceland several months before Pearl Harbor.


A handful of Quonset huts that were built for Allied forces remain in use today.

It turned out to be the Americans who would be the most influential in Iceland’s prosperity-filled transformation. The Yanks had brought with them not just contracted consumer products (the pre-independence administration was known as the Coca-Cola Cabinet), but cultural currency as well, notably Hollywood cinema.


Central Reyjkavik today

While the U.S. and the Soviet Union ended WW2 as global superpowers, little Iceland came out the other side as one of the other side as one of the world’s most prosperous and progressive. The first full day of our trip landed on Iceland’s Independence Day (June 17) and their small but distinguished parliament building was holding an open house. It was encouraging to visit a place where you could talk to reasonable, articulate representatives from all political parties knowing that policy differences would be hashed out in a way that would always fall far short of the scorched-earth tactics of the land we just flew in from. It could be said that such amenity is much more achievable in a smaller (pop. 364,000), more homogenous nation like this. Maybe so, but to look at Russia and America today—the former country ruled by a repressive and violent leader and the latter’s president fawning all over him in pathetic and destructive imitation—there must be a way to let David be a role model for Goliath without resorting to the slingshot.

Text and photos (except book cover and postcard) by Rick Ouellette

What can one do when the Death Merchant is King?

A soon-to-be former Facebook “friend” recently sent a very simple question, using white words on a black background: “Can you name a President that didn’t lie?” He then quickly added the first comment before apparently fleeing the scene, “Go ahead, make my day.”

Brilliant, no? In came a rash of replies, many of them actually indulging the poster by naming their choice of a non-lying or least-lying American head of state. Jimmy Carter, Lincoln, FDR and George Washington were all offered up. More promisingly, some people sniffed out his gambit, answering with the usual Trump-hating retort that he “lies as he breathes.” That would have been my first impulse, but after a recent rash of such social media sleights-of-hand I paused.

The whole question was a grotesque false equivalency. I replied, “That’s like asking ‘Who never stole some office supplies?’ to make it seem like the same offense as someone who blows up the office building with all the workers inside.”

Hey, it got one Like anyway. The comments continued, Washington was named again. I tried to bring poster out of hiding, calling him out with the question, “Care to join us?” Nothing. Unfriend and move on.

Apparently, it’s OK for an American president to sit on his now blood-stained hands and do nothing for a whole month as a pandemic raged across the planet, claiming that there was only one confirmed Covid-19 case and that it was a hoax of the opposition Democratic party. Then when it got to the point where even the intellectually-void narcissist who goes by the name of Donald Trump couldn’t deny the scope of this disaster, he of course knew about it all along even though he was just calling it a hoax while the death toll climbed to over 20,000. That’s OK, because Everyone Lies.

The sniveling dishonesty (or ignorance) of that Facebook poster was esp. troubling to me. In a better world, it would be common knowledge that people in many walks of life (not just politics) sometimes bend the truth to win people over to their way of thinking. That is bit different from the actions of a demented demagogue like Trump whose whole perversion of a life has been one gigantic lie.

Covid-19 may be a terrible global pandemic, but Trump is a uniquely American form of moral plague. He’s the son of a Nazi-sympathizing landlord father who started Donnie off with a cold shoulder and a small loan (actually, a shady $14 million trust).The story could have ended there. With a few safe investments, this spoiled dimwit could have lived the life of a callous playboy and left the rest of the world alone. But no. Somewhere “The Donald” developed a chip on his shoulder that was as big as that world he would someday try to fuck over. Having no discernible talents yet possessing a malignant compulsion to be the center of attention, Trump achieved that most (ugly) American of goals: being famous for being famous. Everything else has been tasteless buildings, bankruptcies, failed casinos and airlines, legal entanglements, admitted sexual assaults, unpaid contractors, and the insipid “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show where he lorded over pathetic ex-stars like Gary Busey.

But that ability to focus all attention on himself, most often by denigrating “elites,” minorities and the underprivileged, was underestimated by many on his way to an Electoral College victory in 2016 (though he lost the popular vote by a hefty three million votes). Yes, he released a tidal wave of latent racism and made hostility a virtue for millions of (mostly white) Americans whose own sense of powerlessness is often unfocused or greatly exaggerated. Of course, psychiatrists have had a feel day for the last few years. One aspect that I like is Trump supporters’ receptivity to a “primitive morality” of might-makes-right, which is normally grown out of by age five or six. To people who never outgrew this, or have reverted, this cartoonish display of power is more important than real-world abilities. It is also inherently violent (this includes economic violence), even to the point of followers happily becoming his victims. Is it any wonder he “loves the poorly educated”? Trump is so boxed in with legal issues and Russian duplicity, that his only choices now seem to be remain President or go to jail. He has now become the American Death Merchant who also wants to be king.

This is not new. In this exceedingly disturbing photograph, Trump and his null-and-void wife Melania, grinning maniacally like the very Angels of Death, pose in El Paso with the baby whose Hispanic parents had just been murdered in that week’s mass shooting. One columnist suggested that to Trump, this baby is “little more than a hunting trophy in his own brutal race war.” That may explain why Trump is insanely giving a thumbs-up.

Trump wants “total authority” but “takes no responsibility” and because he was afraid for his re-election prospects, we have now seen 32,000 die (as of April 16th) from this “hoax.” Some 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment and you can’t go anywhere anymore without feeling you could be the next to go. But this infantile ghoul has accomplished his one central goal in life: love him or hate him, everyone is thinking or talking about him all the time. But even the Death Merchant can’t escape immortality. And though John Donne, in his “No Man is an Island” poem said that “Any man’s death diminishes me,” I’m not sure that will ever apply to someone who has so divided us into many little islands, first politically then physically into a social distancing archipelago that could last on-and-off for years. So when it’s Trump’s time to go, feel free to ask for whom the bell tolls. Because it will toll not for thee but only for he, and the rest of us will be much better off whether we care to know it or not.

Whistlestop Rock: Full-Throttle Rock Fest Rumbles Thru New England

The rock and roll package tour, or travelling music festival, has a long history. They started in the Fifties and continued with such events as the 1970 Festival Express, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and later summer-shed happenings like Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair. Here in New England, we are being treated to a regional version of this called the Whistlestop Rock Fest. It began with a bravura 8-hour show in January at the Askew club in Providence. It continues of Feb. 29th at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. and there are several other dates upcoming. See whistlestoprock.com for full info on show dates.


Justine and the Unclean

“The Little Festival that Could” began with a casual online chat last year between Justine Covault (of Boston alt-rock favorites Justine and the Unclean) and Simone Berk, who fronts the power-pop quartet Kid Gulliver. The idea of getting all their friends’ bands together for a big show “caught fire” (as Covault said in a recent Providence Journal article) and soon the dialogue extended to several other woman musicians in the area. The rock music scene in my neck of the woods has long been known for its camaraderie, so it’s little surprise that, as Berk said in the same piece, “Next thing you know, we knew we had to do it.”


Kid Gulliver w/ Simone Berk in green jacket.

What resulted, after much legwork by all involved, was a curated festival that involves up to nine bands. All are co-ed or all-women groups and guest spots are promised at each gig. At the Providence show, it was clear just how well this concept was planned, with its quick succession of 45-minute sets. With so many groups, there was practically a built-in audience, supplemented by fans and friends coming down from the Boston area and a local Rhodey contingent lured by hometown faves Heather Rose in Clover and the promise of an all-star jam of other Providence rockers. HRIC would be be for me the revelation of the night, showing Whistlestop’s underlying value: turning local favorites into regional ones. But more on them later.

Views from Askew. From top to bottom: Heather Rose in Clover, Chelsea Curve, the Knock-ups. (Photos by author)


When I first ambled into Askew a little after 4:00 PM, Field Day was near the start of their set. Like many of the other groups on the bill, they played pretty straight-ahead rock with a fierce self-actualization. According to their own bio, Field Days’ members found themselves formed “unexpectedly, when its members were well into middle age.” This is not so unusual nowadays esp. when members have backlogs of material waiting to be heard. The band is led by former Boston Globe music critic Joan Anderman and fellow Globie Dan Zedek, a veteran of several area bands. The song “Finished With You” shows they were more than ready to hit the ground running.

Cold Expectations play in a more rootsy, country-rock style that builds on the genre’s early 70s heyday as well as later practitioners like Green on Red. Singer-songwriter-acoustic guitarist Steve Prygoda, bassist/back-up vox JoEllen Saunders, drummer Nancy Delaney and lead guitarist Bob Metzger have made a fine craft out of thoughtful, fully-arranged numbers like “Aliza Don’t Care.” I’ve known Prygorda for some time and way back when I did some videos for an earlier, more hardcore outfit. Those other roots were also apparent as the Expectations finished with the Camper van Beethoven barn-burner “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which has become a bit of a regular finale with them.

Steve later told me of his love-hate relationship with cover versions. That’s understandable for any band that works hard to get their own material heard but is also an ice-breaker for people getting to know you. Most bands struck the balance of mixing in one or two classic-rock standards. The Knock-ups are one of the more high-profile bands playing the Whistletop, along with Justine and the Unclean and Maine’s garagecore stars Tiger Bomb, who were unable to play this first date. (Tiger Bomber and co-organizer Lynda Mandolyn was there and made a cowbell cameo during the Unclean’s later set). The brassy Knock-ups are first-rate practitioners of the kind of bristling rock attack that’s been a big part of the Boston scene since the glory days of the late, lamented Rat punk club (see related post). Singer-guitarist Gretchen Shae (who was invited up onstage to play a song with U2 a few years back) delivered several thrashers from the group’s growing catalogue and threw in a good cover as well (“Ring of Fire”). Bassist Cat Verlico confirmed the band’s knack for cagey humor, singing “I Hate Your Facial Hair.” That number was met with approval from your clean-shaven correspondent.

Kid Gulliver were maybe a little less snazzy (except for Simone Berk’s glittery shoes!) but confident material like “You’ll Never Know” and “Suzie Survived Chemotherapy” were a fantastic blend of Blondie/X era and riot grrl. This natural alchemy of styles from Nuggets-era garage to 90s grunge inform a lot of indie-rock nowadays, as was evident from the closing act Powerslut, who unfortunately are doing their farewell show at the next stop of the tour on Feb. 29th (at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, MA).


Back on the subject of cover versions, Kid Gulliver do a great take on the old 10cc hit “I’m Not in Love.”

But most bands have their own little spin on it, like Chelsea Curve with their Mod influence (their cover was an awesome take on the Jam’s “In the City”). The irrepressible singer/bassist Linda Pardee, along with guitarist Tim Gillis and drummer Ron Belanger excel both in the more classic melodic punk style of “Don’t look Down” and in their more quirky material like the ditty they wrote explaining how to decode the weather beacon atop the old John Hancock building in Boston.

Heather Rose in Clover were up next. Singer/guitarist Heather Rose had been sporting a Belly t-shirt during the local all-star session. Belly (who gained some MTV notoriety in the early 90s) also hailed from the Ocean State and were led by Tanya Donnelly, who before that co-fronted Newport-based cult favorites Throwing Muses along with Kristin Hersh. HRIC have some of Muses’ adventurous spirit, their indie-rock attack colored with passages of psychedelic guitar from Rose, complemented with the bass interplay of Lisa Middleton and the deft drumming of Chris Alvarado. Their original songs are sharp and declarative, using (in their words) “the sharp end of their own broken hearts” in such fierce broadsides like “Satellites” and “Go Back to Ohio.” Better still was the barbed wit that fed a song like “Welcome to New England” (with its memorable line “I had to scrape Antartica off my windshield”). They also killed on high-profile covers of “Under Pressure” and “Psycho Killer.”

Justine and the Unclean have been plying their superlative power-pop-punk through two kick-ass albums on Rum Bar Records, Get Unclean and Heartaches and Hot Problems. When listening to these songs, you wonder to yourself (as with many of these groups) how aren’t these guys huge? In Justine Covault they have a diminutive dynamo of a singer-songwriter-focal point. Her razor-sharp lyrical wit and fiery vocals, plus the relentless instrumental momentum provided by bassist Janet Egan King, lead guitarist Charles Hansen and powerhouse drummer Jim Janota (formerly of Boston rock institutions the Bags and Upper Crust) make songs like “Rock and Roll Blackmail’, “Monosyllabic Man” and “Bring Me Fire” into forces of nature.

Click below for kick-ass rock & roll (and great video-making) from Justine and the Unclean and, below that, the unstoppable Tiger Bomb!

But it’s mostly rhetorical asking why the Unclean or Tiger Bomb, or whoever your fave local rockers are, aren’t huge in this day and age. We all know what rules the pop-music roost on a national and global stage: you can see it each week on “Saturday Night Live” when the latest Instagram pop act trundle thru another redundant set piece that is 90% choreography and 10% bad music. Rock may have lost its pop-culture supremacy to hip-hop and the latest American Idol-style sensation but you would hardly know it here. The sisterly solidarity, hard work and self-supporting vibe is admirable, esp. considering the day jobs and the odd kid to raise. Hopefully, the Whistlestop Rock concept can continue and even expand on this current model. What’s most impressive is the skill and all-out energy of these bands, with members ranging from roughly their mid-20s to mid-60s, rocking out and writing songs in group collaborations that blessedly cuts against the grain of today’s empty ideas of viral “success.” This is the real deal, so catch it while you can: this here rock & roll train is bound for glory.
(Again, stop by the Whistlestop Rock Facebook group or whistlestoprock.com for full details)
—Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #16: Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” (1975)

More of an urban legend than a recording that people listen to in any conventional sense, Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music may be the most uncompromising album in the annals of “rock” history. It consists entirely of shrieking guitar feedback and high-pitched processed electronic noise. In its original vinyl form, each of its four sides ending with an abrupt tape slice at a listed time sixteen minutes and one second. With this work, Reed took the concept of “full artist control” to its defiant extreme, although exactly why has been the subject of a decades-long debate. Was it a giant F-U to RCA Records, who was pushing him to release a new record when he felt he wasn’t ready? Was it an earnest tribute to electronic music pioneers like LaMonte Young? A perverse attempt at career suicide? During his lifetime, Reed variously implied “yes” to the first two questions (while many pundits in 1975 suggested the third), the real motives behind this sonic assault may never be fully resolved. All for the better: both reviled and revered for pretty much the same reason—namely, that it ever saw the light of day bearing the imprint of one of the world’s biggest record companies—Metal Machine Music remains one of rock’s great conversation pieces, even if the number of folks who have listened to all sixty-four minutes could fit comfortably inside a minivan.


If you want to claim a place inside that minivan, here’s your chance.

Of course, Reed was no stranger to controversy before this. He was a primary figure in the Velvet Underground, the legendary band that countered the prevailing Aquarian ethos of the late 1960s with odes to heroin, S&M and the gritty New York City demimonde in general—pre-figuring punk by a full decade. Anyone that’s heard the atonal rave-up at the end of their first album, or the transgressive 17-minute anti-epic “Sister Ray” on their second, knew that Reed was an envelope pusher. But that stuff sounded like the Carpenters compared to MMM, where the last vestiges of actual music was swept away in favor of pure ear-splitting white noise. Reed took variously-tuned guitars, set them to face directly into their own amps, then fed the resulting feedback into a self-generating loop of reverb, ring oscillators and God knows what-all, then mixed it for maximum effect. The media response was swift in coming though not all had the expected reaction of scorn or disbelief, as seen in the initial Creem magazine review.

In a rebuttal review for the March 1976 issue of Creem, uber-critic Lester Bangs called it “the greatest album ever made” (his Number Two? Kiss Alive!, of course) and listed 17 reasons to back up his assertion. These included the album’s handy application as a “guaranteed lease-breaker” or as a way to “clear all the crap out of your head.” Metal Machine Music became a bit of an obsession with Bangs who, like Reed, was apt to stretch the boundaries of his chosen craft. In the same magazine a month before, in a piece called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”, the two of them tangled in an interview where Reed shifted effortlessly from monster to mensch, while making a series of outlandish claims about a record he thought was one of his best. Supposedly there are sections of MMM where there are 7,000 different melodies going on at once (anyone care to count?) and Reed also insisted he wedged snippets of Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven into this unholy squall. A little more plausible is the assertion that he snuck onto the record “dangerous frequencies” banned by the FCC, which likely had a subliminal appeal to the “hate buffs” and “drug-numbed weirdos” that Bangs saw as the albums natural constituency.


Lou and the Metal Machine trio, performing in 2010.

Love it or hate it, it’s clear that in his own way Reed took this work seriously even if he couldn’t always bring himself to say so at the time. Nowadays, when anything this radical wouldn’t rise head high above the underground (never mind emanate from a major artist on the imprint of a media conglomerate) MMM will always get its props in certain circles. When pop mediocrity is usually what one gets from the “major artists” ruling what is left of the charts, the creative audacities of a lost era become greatly enhanced. Even Reed’s Berlin, his 1973 exquisite downer of a concept album about doomed junkie lovers (which upset Rolling Stone’s reviewer so much that he professed a desire to kill its maker) is now performed as if in repertory and made into a concert film. Metal Machine Music is too wickedly spontaneous to get that treatment, though in 2010 Reed did perform with an avant combo called the Metal Machine Trio, inspired by you-know-what. Like the endless locked groove its maker slyly worked into the end of side four of the original vinyl edition, this work has stubbornly held its ground and been reflected in the noisy experiments of everyone from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Sonic Youth to Radiohead. It has thrived in the Internet age, bringing out the wise guy in everyone. YouTube comments range from “Does anyone have this transcribed for ukulele” to “Kids today don’t understand great music like this.” Middle-aged respectability is probably something Reed never expected for this record when he foisted it on world so long ago.
—Rick Ouellette