Epic Rock

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

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

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

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


The Damned, circa 1980

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

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

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


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

“Make Mine a Double” 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

Epic Rock, Part One: Take Back Your Attention Span in 2014

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Happy New Year from Reel and Rock!

Here’s a preview of a feature that will begin on a regular basis sometime next month. The next few posts will be dedicated to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Beatles first arrival in America, an epochal turning point in the history of youth culture. At the rate the world spins in our hyper-technologized society, I find now more than ever the need to be lifted up and over it by the transformative power of music. Here are the first three entries in my survey of great rock tunes of over ten minutes in length, with the quixotic suggestion that they be listened to without distraction, a nearly lost art that I will expound upon in future entries.

“The Little House I Used to Live In”—Mothers of Invention (1969, 18:42)

A studious contrast to the class-clownish title of the album on which it was placed (“Burnt Weeny Sandwich”), this elegantly constructed jazz-rock piece was a big coming out party for Frank Zappa as a serious composer and bandleader. After the improv piano prelude by Ian Underwood, the group falls in abruptly with a syncopated groove of a type that was fast becoming a Zappa trademark: somewhat whimsical and marked by rigorous playing (including some stretches in 11/8 time). “Little House” is such a rewarding piece because funny-guy Frank checks his tendency to rely on pastiche and gives the work (which deftly alternates live and studio segments) a lyrical flow throughout, with emphatic jamming trading off with drifting interludes to keep things interesting. Violinist Sugar Cane Harris gets a lot of solo time and makes the most of it, while Zappa checks in with a great compact guitar lead, one foot heavy on the wah-wah pedal. A “sunburst” effect (using harpsichord, xylophone, flute and clarinet) leads to the finale, with Zappa sitting at the organ for a wild solo while the Mothers blaze away in a tempo that is barely comprehensible. Adventurous stuff for an adventurous time.

“Walk on By”—Isaac Hayes (1969, 12:00)
Though in later years he was better known as the animated character Chef on “South Park”, the late great Isaac Hayes will go down in pop history for the way he emerged from the Memphis recording scene in the late Sixties to play a huge role in the development of modern soul music. The writer-arranger-keyboardist for Stax Records may have been pictured in a suit and top hat on his 1967 debut solo LP, but by the follow-up it was a whole new ball of wax. The cover photo of “Hot Buttered Soul” was a high-angle shot that looked down on Ike’s imposing chrome dome while his bare torso sported an enormous gold chain. This guy was a player and he wasted no time in revolutionizing R&B in a way not unlike the way rock’s horizons were expanding in the psychedelic era. His epic funkification of “Walk on By”, that classic slice of Bert Bacharach-Hal David melancholia, kicked off the album. Backed by the legendary Bar-Kays and summoning all his prodigious arranging skills, the track sweeps in on a bed of strings and some hot, Southern-fried lead guitar by Michael Toles, which is soon sent thru some trippy stereo-panning effects. Flutes and female backing singers join with the steady pulse of the rhythm section as Hayes delivers the song in the deep, intimate voice soon to be world famous. What sounds like a conventional fadeout starts at the seven-minute mark and rides into the sunset with a magnificent coda longer than most singles of the time, with Toles’ soloing reaching fever pitch and Hayes’ organ glissandos adding to the building excitement. Over the course of the next several albums, Hayes would record many other tracks of similar or even greater length (witness the 18 minutes of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on side two of HBS) but none ever quite matched the grandeur of this.

“Star Storm”—UFO (1971, 18:54)
Until recently, I’ve only known UFO as those long-serving British thumpers who would occasionally turn up on a mix tape or compilation with an entertaining four-minute blast like “Doctor Doctor” or “Lights Out.” But classic rock’s golden period (roughly the mid-60s to the mid-70s) is the gift that keeps on giving and I recently found out about the group’s early, more psychedelic phase when Mick Bolton was the guitarist. Their second LP, “UFO 2: Flying” was aptly sub-titled “One Hour Space Rock.” That’s a lot to squeeze onto a single album and “Star Storm” wasn’t even the longest track, it’s nineteen minutes falling short of the 26-minute trajectory of the title track. But I’ll take this one for its way-out wayfaring, a period high point (as it were) in the annals of power-trio acid rock. The track begins and concludes with the husky vocals of mainstay lead singer Phil Mogg but it’s really all about Bolton leading the rhythm section (bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker) through a sci-fi wonderland that you’ll be too happy to get lost in. Bolton puts his axe through all its paces and then some, with bracing bluesy soloing alternating with sections that run his instrument through a panoply of processed effects.