Sunday, August 7, 2016

Ming, 1998-2016

Text and images (c) Robert Barry Francos

Yesterday, we had to put down our precious Ming. She had a fast growing mass in her gut, and had lost nearly a third of her body weight. It was all very fast, and she let us know it was time to join her litter-sister, Memphis, who passed in February 2014. In just over a month, Ming would have been 18 years old, which is 90 in cat years (we looked it up).

Ming was an affectionate kitty who liked to curl up between us at night, or rest with her head on some part of our body (usually the one trying to get things done, like type or write). She would headbutt us to ask for a rub, and was very kind tempered, especially as she aged. She seemed to take an instant like to my dad, though he was not impressed with pets, but she was insistent. Ming was strong willed and usually got what she wanted.

Sleep well, little one, you are missed and loved.

You can find of more her and her sister's story HERE.


Monday, July 25, 2016

The Last Ramones Interview [1977]

Text © Bernie Kugel / Big Star fanzine, 1977
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

These interviews were originally printed in Big Star fanzine, issue #3, dated Spring 1978. It was written by its publisher, Bernie Kugel, who kindly granted permission for this reprint.
I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with members of the Ramones three times. The first time was when Bernie interviewed them for the Buffalo State College magazine, Shakin’ Street Gazette, just before July 4, 1976, in the dressing rooms of Max’s Kansas City. This was the night before they headed off for their first tour in England. The next time was more accidental: we were heading up the stairs on our way to the offices of Sire Records when we ran into Joey on his way down. We had a nice conversation for a while, and then when we arrived at the office, we were given the pre-release, white label first Ramones LP (yes, I still have it). If it had been in reverse order, I would have had him sign it. The last time was during an interview with Joey for Videowave at Arturo Vega’s apartment in 1997, after the band broke up. He was wearing a butcher’s apron that said “Happy Birthday Oedipus” for a special recording he did to be played at the Boston DJ’s party (we watched them film it). I took the apron when we left as it had been finished, and found out he was furious about it. I made sure he got it back; part of me wishes I had kept it though.  

This piece was supposed to be part of a series, but as it was the last issue of Big Star, this was also the – er – last Ramones interview for the ‘zine. By the way, Bernie asks some great questions, rather than the usual nonsense people tend to ask over and over. – RBF, 2016

(The following comments are from conversations recorded in New York City and Buffalo in ’76, ’77, and ’78. And fear not, Ramones fans, for even if this is The Last Ramones Interview, the one that will make it totally unnecessary to ever do another interview with them, this is a multi-part article which is beginning now and will be continued in future issues.)

Bernie: Do you have a favorite English new wave band now?
Joey Ramone: Clash. I like the Adverts.

Bernie: Do you have favorite songs by the Clash and Adverts?
Joey: I like the album; The Clash album’s great. I like “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” I like Gaye Advert; that’s what I like about the Adverts.

Bernie: Do you have favorite New York bands now?
Joey: Naah. I like Suicide… I don’t like many groups in New York… I don’t like many New York groups that haven’t gotten anywhere, like Blondie [did]; they’ve kind of made it. But of groups around now, there’s nothing around now besides the Cramps and Suicide.

Bernie: Do you look back to one special concert or set and think that was the best you ever did?
Joey: We just finished an English tour and that was fantastic. I can’t really think of any jobs in particular, 'cause everything’s been going really, really great.

Bernie: Do you ever think back to the early days at CBGB’s, playing to a few people, and think you wanna return there?
Joey: Naah, I try to forget about those days. I don’t think about those days.

Bernie: It says in the Bomp Newsletter that your brother [Mickey Leigh – RBF, 2016] plays guitar on some of the Ramones records.
Joey: He did the claps in “Sheena,” but that’s about it. [Check out Mickey’s book, I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir, for more of the actual story – RBF, 2016]

Bernie: You like the Flamin’ Groovies?
Joey: Yeah.

Bernie: Do you have a favorite song of theirs?
Joey: “Shake Some Action,” “Please Please Girl.” When we were in England, we went to an NME party and they were playing, and they’re putting out a new album and I can’t believe they were playing these songs; man, they were playing “Paint It, Black” and all these Stones songs. I couldn’t believe they were playing those songs instead of their own songs because their own songs are so great. But they’re putting out “Paint It, Black” and Dave Edmunds is producing. And they’re putting out – what’s that song – “Feel a Whole Lot Better”?

Bernie: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” the Byrds song???
Joey: Yeah, yeah. They did that great.

Bernie: Have you ever played with a member of the band sick?
Joey: Yeah, all the time. We’re always sick.

Bernie: But I mean when one member of the band was so sick they couldn’t play and someone else had to replace them.
Joey: Oh, no, no… I mean, it doesn’t matter how sick we are we always play unless we’re really fucked up.

Bernie: Ever see Richie Ramone anymore?
Joey Ramone: Naah. John saw him though the other day. I think he’s just like been in his house for the past two years and hasn’t come out.

[Bernie: What do you do for fun when you’re on tour?]
Joey: All I’ve been doin’ when I’ve been going to a record store is like… spending everything… broke.

Bernie: You should see the store across the street [Play It Again Sam’s, which would soon become Home of the Hits; both stores were Buffalo landmarks – RBF, 2016].
Joey: Yeah, the last few stores we’ve been going to are like that… yeah, I was at this store, it was a real gourmet collectors' store. The guys would just play albums in the little store and have a pile like this for a buck… used stuff.

Bernie: You don’t think they’ll be a lot of Ramones solo singles in the near future?
Joey: No, I don’t think so… maybe later, later on.

Bernie: Have you heard any records by any non-New York groups that make major label records that you thought was any good?
Joey: I don’t think so. I’m always listenin’, but I never hear nuthin’. I think it’s really exciting when you come upon something new that no one’s ever heard. But that hasn’t happened in a while… But I’m really into collecting and checking out those English bands.

Bernie: “Babysitter” never came out; what happened with that?
Joey Ramone: Well, it’s out in England on the Leave Home import. I think what we’ll eventually do is put it out on the B-side of a single over here.

Bernie: Do you have any songs from the real early days you don’t do anymore?
Johnny Ramone: “Succubus,” “I Can’t Be,” “Girl What You Want From Me,” “I Just Want Something to Do,” “I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You,” “Why Did She Write that Letter,” “Crazy Animal Stomp,” which became “Listen to My Heart,” “I Don’t Wanna Be Learned, I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed”…

To Be Continued [Not – RBF, 2016]

Sunday, July 10, 2016


Text by George Beke / FFanzeen, 1984
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen 12, dated 1984, by George Beke. If I remember correctly, Beke is actually a pen name of one of our staffers who wrote so much they wanted to use a pseudonym for some of their articles.

I don’t remember exactly how or where I met Sex in Miami’s lead singer, Clark Render (or if we only talked on the phone), but he was quite happy to have this piece published about the band. They were raucous in a milder-than-Electric Chairs way. That being said, the gender-bending was not common on the scene back then, with drag being more sequestered to gay bars and the like, even with Jayne (then Wayne) County being such a force on the scene. It wasn’t until Wigstock followed by the popularity of the PRIDE and Halloween parades that it became a bit more acceptable and – for lack of a better term – mainstream.

After this piece came out (pun not intended), Clark called me regularly to chat, and to ask for further coverage in FFanzeen. I explained that we were not in the habit of having follow-up pieces as we did not publish that often, but he kept at it, and I did enjoy our conversations. However, I had predicted that as soon as I stopped doing the ‘zine, I would not hear from him again. And I was correct when, in 1988, FFanzeen ceased in its print form.

Over the years I didn’t hear much about him, but in researching this reprint, I found he’s been active in the community performing at various venues, including off-Broadway and Wigstock, in a tour de force piece called “Dueling Bankheads,” a hilarious bit based on the oft sodden Tallulah.

Mikky Zsedely (guitar) studied photography and now owns the 10 Thousand Steps Bookstore in New York. Ralph Robinson (drums) moved on to play more jazz, including for the group C’Est What. He passed away in 2009 (a blog about him HERE). Tom Gartland (bass) would later work at Secret Sounds Studios in New York. – RBF, 2016
Self-described as “most confounding,” transvestite-led Sex in Miami extoll the virtues of preening through chaos. The band members – Clark Render on vocals, Tom Gartland on bass, Ralph Robinson on drums and Mikky Zsedely on guitar – are interviewed in Mikky’s East 13 Street apartment, sans Gartland, who was unavailable for comment.

FFanzeen: You’re very Kabuki theatre.
Clark Render: Thank you. Kabuki is a good word. Much better than drag or transvestite. Those words feel obsolete. I guess I wear mini-skirts because they feel good.
Mikky Zsedely: Clark has great legs.

FF: Right up front is a strong sense of humor.
Clark: We can’t take ourselves too seriously, without incurring fratricide; still, we do dream about world takeover.
Ralph Robinson: We want lots of money.

FF: You’ve managed to combine certain elements of cabaret, psychedelia, hardcore and salsa. Is this the ‘80s formula?
Clark: It really just reflects our own tastes. Destroy All Monsters [excellent noise band from Detroit, including singer Niagara and late guitarist Ron Ashton – RBF, 2016] is probably my favorite band, and of course its predecessors, the Stooges and the MC5. Those and other odd, obscure bands, like Pavlov’s Dog.

FF: What about new bands?
Clark: The Stars That Wouldn’t Shine from Bard College is great.
Mikky: I just like whomever I happen to be listening to at that moment.
Ralph: It’s a free-for-all and you steal whatever you can get away with.

FF: Do you see a new psychedelia movement bubbling up?
Clark: Well, one does get the feeling of a new chapter starting occasionally.
Mikky: Coca-Cola and coffee are psychedelic these days.

FF: Where is each of you from?
Clark: I was born in Florida and raised in Detroit.
Mikky: New York
Ralph: South Beach, Miami.
Clark: Tom, our bass player, is from West Haven, Connecticut.

FF: You’ve come across as a very New York band.
Ralph: We’re a Florida band.
Mikky: We’re an American band.
Clark: Florida via New York.

FF: You have followings in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Digress a bit on these.
Clark: Well, in Baltimore, people actually flock to buy our record and even line up for autographs.
Mikky: John Waters has our record. I can see why he made those movies [Polyester, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc. – RBF, 1984]. They’re nice people. They write fan letters and make you feel it’s well worth it.
Ralph: Baltimore likes winners, as in ’83.
Mikky: They have pink hotel rooms.

FF: And what about Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love?
Clark: Well, we got the ol’ brotherly shove from the Philadelphia police, but the audience and club people are great. One person, whose name I won’t mention without permission, has really helped us win the hearts and minds of Philadelphia.
Mikky: When the police searched us, they wouldn’t touch Clark.

FF: Your debut record features a song called “Japan Must Be Stopped.” What was all the fuss over it?
Clark: We received a letter from the Japanese embassy, inquiring as to the intent of the song, but anyone who listens to the last verse carefully will know we’re actually flattering Japan.
Mikky: “Japan” is a hot record on progressive radio stations from Iowa to Maine, from Tampa to Clearwater, and, of course, New Jersey.
Ralph: There’s a Sex in Miami record-burning wave sweeping the Southeast. They’re buying them up and burning them down.

FF: What’s next?
Clark: Well, a record deal would be nice for starters. We’ve got about a hundred great songs now and even though we’re in the process of recording a couple of them, namely “Celebrities on Booze” and “Here Come the Magnetic Discs.” We’d rather not be forced to put it out ourselves.

FF: But if forced, would you?
Clark: Absolutely.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

DUANE EDDY: Twang’s the Thang [1981]

Text by David Post / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981. It was written by David Post. This Hoboken resident came to my attention as the bassist of Ronnie and the Jitters, who were the last band to ever play upstairs at Max’s Kansas City (I was there). He would later be one of the co-owners of the club Maxwell’s, and is now in a more formal swing band called Swingadelic, using a stand-up bass. He’s also a great guy.

As for Duane Eddy, who was born in Upstate New York before his family moved to the Southwest, he is still around and kicking as of this reprinting, at age 78. Even as late at 2010, he sold out London’s Royal Festival Hall. Along with numerous awards, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, before the Hall became a joke. – RBF, 2016

This year marks the 23rd anniversary of “Twang.” You say you don’t know what “twang” is? Well, where in God’s name have you been? Webster’s defines it like this:
“twang”/n 1: a harsh quick ringing sound like that of a plucked bowstring 2: nasal speech or resonance 3: the characteristic speech of a region.”
Everyone else who knows (like Dave Edmunds, whose new LP is entitled Twangin’, and New York City’s Rousers, who’ve penned their own tune called “Twanged”) defines it as the guitar sound that Duane Eddy used as his signature.

Duane Eddy came out of Phoenix in the mid-Fifties, and didn’t stop churning out instrumental hits until the British Invasion of the Sixties came along and provided a new sound for America’s rock’n’rollers.

Eddy’s cool guitar style consisted of flipping on his amp’s tremolo switch and playing simple, bluesy riffs on the bass strings of his hollow body Gretsch guitar, using the Bigsby “whanger” bar to get that real lowdown “twang.” His band, the Rebels, would play an easy rambling beat at a medium tempo while Eddy would alternate verses with a raunchy tenor sax. Hoots and hollers were always interjected by the band, and ultimately featured on a number called “Yep!” This formula (along with the help of Lee Hazelwood, Eddy’s producer and sometimes co-writer) brought Duane Eddy and the Rebels nearly twenty Top-40 hits.

One of Eddy’s earliest and most famous singles was “Rebel Rouser.” This simple driving riff really kicked off his career, reaching number 49 in Cash Box’s 100 in 1958, the year of Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop,” David Seville and the Chipmunks, and [Sheb Wooley’s] “The Purple People Eater.” More hits quickly followed, such as the up-tempo “Ramrod” and the toping shuffle of “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” and Duane Eddy was well on his way to becoming one of America’s biggest international stars. He was in demand for soundtracks and parts in movies and television, and made several guest appearances in “Have Gun Will Travel.”

Soon everything was “twangsville,” especially the names of Eddy’s albums, which included Have Twang Guitar Will Travel, Twang’s the Thang, Million Dollars’ Worth of Twang, Twangy Guitar, Twangsville, Biggest Twang of All, and of course, The Roaring Twangies. Most of Eddy’s albums and singles were recorded in Phoenix on Philadelphia’s Jamie label, and RCA has put out several re-issues. A good bulk of the material can still be obtained through the mail from Jamie.

In the early Sixties, instrumental artists like Duane Eddy were starting to get quite a bit of competition from the vocal “girl-group” bands and the oncoming British Invasion. Like everyone else, Eddy tried to cash in on the various bandwagons. The resulting product was Twistin’ with Duane Eddy, Surfin’, Duane a Go Go, and his own band of girl singers, the Rebelettes. Production qualities started suffering about this time. Gone was the old, raw, raunchy style, and in was a newer Muzak-like production complete with strings and the Rebelettes high harmonies. Instrumentalists were a dying breed.

Though he continued recording for various labels until the mid-Seventies, it’s ironic that the last hit on which Eddy appeared, he wasn’t the featured artists. Remember back in 1966, Nancy Sinatra came out with “These Boots Are Made For Walking”? You know that growling, descending bass line? Yep. That’s Duane Eddy.

"Rebel Rouser":

"Cannonball" live

"These Boots":

Ronnie and the Jitters:


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Review: Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records (Blu-Ray)
Directed by Robert Mugge
MVD Visual
87 minutes, 1992 / 2016

It is important to realize just how crucial Alligator Records is to the modern Northern electric Blues scene and industry. Founder Bruce Iglauer singlehandedly built the indie label into the largest Blues publisher in the world.

This is also not the only film about Alligator Records, which makes a good companion to this release (reviewed by me HERE). There are some great performances on that one, but part of my question is that there is quite a bit of repetition between the two films about the facts, so why not just make this just a concert film, as it offers music from the Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour, which was filmed at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia, on March 12, 1992 (the club closed in 2013).

I’ve already dealt with the social implications of gender and appropriation in the other review, so rather than discuss the interviews with Iglauer that are inserted between the songs at length, I’m just going to stick mostly to the music, if you don’t mind. Honestly, I wish they had done that, because I would have liked to put this Blu-Ray in and just groove instead of the wordy interruptions.

Note that the song list is at the bottom of the page.

All the music is electric – Chicago style fomented by the likes of B.B. King – and usually based on some form of the I-IV-V chord progression. First up is Lil Ed (Williams) and the Blues Imperials doing the title number, “Pride and Joy.” Lil Ed plays a mix of picking and slide. This is a near (early) rock’n’roll sound for some of it. The subject leans toward a love song, a topic not always found in Blues, though sex is often at the core. Here it’s just plain happy, with some amazing “bing-bing-bing” strumming and pounding of the strings reminiscent in a bit of a Son House adaption.

Katie Webster (d. 1999) was known as a boogie piano player, and here she does the slow burn of “Pussycat Moaning.” The grinding theme is being lonesome because her love has left, even though he’s no prize (“You spent my money / And chased every skirt in town”), and she has reached her limit. Her upper key registry playing on the piano is chilling in the context of the song topic. The style reminds me a bit of Cab Calloway’s gender reverse “Minnie the Moocher.” Katie’s blues scat is so deeply steeped in emotion.

Elvin Bishop, of course, has his own rock blues pedigree, having started with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and swinging into his own Elvin Bishop Band. Here, he is joined with Ronnie Baker Brooks (son of Lonnie Brooks) to pound out “El-Bo.” This is definitely the hardest rocking of the songs. Brooks plays a softer solo, and perhaps more emotional; he doesn’t seem to need to rock out, but rather butter up the guitar playing the same song. Both are incredibly delved in a different edge of the same framework.

The Lonnie Brooks Band plays a song deep in horn dog mode with “Wife for Tonight.” Wearing a Bo Diddley kind of wide-brimmed hat with the feather in the front, Lonnie plays the slow burner with a halting style that fits well into the desperation of the song, also hanging out in the higher register part of the guitar neck. “I feel a need / For some down-home love tonight,” he howls.
Koko Taylor (d. 2009) and her Blues Machine plays with Lonnie Brooks, with Brooks and Taylor sharing the back and forth vocals of “It’s a Dirty Job” (but somebody’s gotta do it). They are broke and both offer the other to do some work that isn’t that great, such as with an escort service; Lonnie volunteers, saying that even though it’s a dirty job “I wanna do it!” It’s a medium speed, humorous piece that reminds me a bit (in theme, not style) of the type Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty (d. 1993) would do.

If there was a side two to this record, this would probably start it off. Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials record in the studio rather than on the stage, for “Ed’s Boogie.” This is a great rave-up instrumental that sounds straight out of 1955 rock and roll. The band all play together in studio, rather than in pieces, which give it more cohesion. Plus we get to see more than one take, which is a pleasure since it’s a blazing song. Plus they seem to be having so much fun that it transfers over to the listener.

Katie Webster says her style is a mixture of Texas, Louisiana, and gospel. Back on the stage of the Chestnut, there is a strong feel of gospel mixed with the Blues for “Lord I Wonder.” It gets the audience participating with hand-clapping with this self-referential song that has malleable lyrics that Webster adapts to the particpants playing at any particular show, as well as classics like Billy Holliday and Etta James.

Working in some sense of humor to the song “Beer Drinking Woman,” Elvin Bishop plays the first-person storyteller. At first he talk-songs, and they dives into his heavy rockin’ blues. Throughout he goes back and forth between the vox and guitar.

The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band, which also includes his son Ronnie, has Lonnie playing more classic electric blues with a bit of a Chuck Berry-ish riff occasionally on “I Want My Money Back,” even when he plucks the strings with his teeth for a bit. I think I like his and Lil Ed's material the best on this release, and I say that without disparaging any of the other artists. Watching the father and son sharing the song, and even the same guitar at some point, is a joy. Unfortunately, like the second Katie Webster number, there is a brief interview with Lonnie and Ronnie that is placed in the middle of the song, breaking the vibe. To me, that just says director ego.

Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine’s slow grinder number, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” sounds stylistically like something Gladys Knight or Tina Turner might have covered. Or perhaps the Stylistics or O’Jays. Definitely sounds more Philadelphia Soul than Chicago Blues. It’s a gusty number with a vocal slide from growl howl to low murmurs: “I’d rather go blind / Then see you walk away from me.” Powerful.

The final is, rightfully, a phenomenal jam with all the main artists and back-up bands joining for a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.” I recent heard someone say they found the Blues boring because it all sounds alike. What I would like is to have that person watch this piece to see how all the musicians play the same song differently. One of the special moments of this song, I thought, is when Koko (she leads the whole thing) presents Elvin Bishop’s turn. He humbly starts playing in the back to honor the level of musicians that are on the stage, but Koko won’t hear of it and insists he comes to the front. That is camaraderie at its finest.

While I found a lot of the talking between songs made me anxious because I wanted to hear the music, there were still some fine moments in explaining the philosophy and history of the Alligator label. Just wish they had put it either at the beginning or the end, and let the music flow straight through. At least they played the complete songs, even the two that were interrupted; I still believe that’s a bad choice that too many documentaries make.

The first extra is an 11-minute Making Of, which is more of a director’s background to making the film than anything else. The big attraction for me is the audio of a number of songs from the show, the list of which is at the bottom.

Song list:
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Pride and Joy
Katie Webster: Pussycat Moaning
Elvin Bishop, with Ronnie Baker Brooks: El-Bo
The Lonnie Brooks Band: Wife for Tonight
Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine with Lonnie Brooks: It’s a Dirty Job
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Ed’s Boogie
Katie Webster: Lord I Wonder
Elvin Bishop: Beer Drinking Woman
The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band: I Want My Money Back
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine: I’d Rather Go Blind
Jam: Sweet Home Chicago

Audio Tracks:
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Killing Floor
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Can’t Let These Blues Go
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Mean Old Frisco
Katie Webster: Two-Fisted Mama
Elvin Bishop: Stealin’ Watermelons
Elvin Bishop: My Dog
The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band (with Katie Webster): Those Lonely, Lonely Nights
The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band: Two Headed Man
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine: Something Strange is Going On
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine: Wang Dang Doodle

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review: The Damned – Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead
Directed by Wes Orshoski
Cleopatra / Three Count Films (TCF) / MVD Visual
110 minutes, 2015 / 2016

Even in their earliest days, the Damned were a damned fine live band. They played a few in CBGBs betwixt 1977 and 1979. Probably, I saw them half a dozen times, usually with the Dead Boys opening. They never failed to entertain, and if they could keep the audience interested after seeing Stiv, Cheetah and the boys, that alone is enough to show their draw.

Like the Dictators being signed before the Ramones here in the States, the Damned were the first acknowledged punk band to be on a major label before either the Clash or the Pistols. It’s hard to explain to most mainstreamers how important the band was to the U.K. scenes at the time. They weren’t political like most of the Brit bands in 1976, but were just fast and loud, with good hooks, quite adept playing, and a front man who easily stood out; two if you include the guitarist, and I certainly would.

As with the Who, each member of the first incarnation of the band actually brought something that made them special. Underrated guitarist and vocalist Captain Sensible, who would also have a solo career with great songs like “Wot” and a cover of the South Pacific nonsensical “Happy Talk” fueled the engine, stoked the rest of the band. He wore outrageous outfits of bright colors (including wild wigs), white sunglasses and a red beret (the latter two becoming his trademark). Rat Scabies was the ginger drummer who was a powerhouse; watching him play was exhausting (in a good way), as he put so much into each beat. Bassist Brian James seemed the most nondescript, but he was the songwriting maven that gave them most of the material for their first records, such as “Neat Neat Neat” and “New Rose.” These songs still hold up today. Up front was Dave Vanian, who would single handily set the standard for the look of the coming Goth movement. Usually – especially early on – his black hair was slicked back, his face plastered white with dark circles around his eyes and dark lipstick, be it black or blazing red. He moved around the stage like an insane panther, and was not only interesting to watch, but had a decent voice as well, especially considering he never sang before joining the band. In time, he would have longer hair and a white streak that I’m sure was used by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton mediocre film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

But the Damned’s influence was not only for the Second Wave punk movement (i.e., British). As the band progressed and grew, its style changed and morphed into more…drama and emotion, being on the forefront of Emo and Goth. There is little doubt that they are to the Goth genre what the New York Dolls were to the New York (First Wave punk) underground sound that followed. And like the Dolls, their recognition factor did not go much above the fan base.

I believe part of the problem of the Damned was not necessarily their occasional infighting (e.g., Rat and the Captain), or even their revolving drummers and bassists – Lemmy did a stint early on, when the band temporarily changed their name to the Doomed – but rather their talent. The Damned would not be tied down to a single genre. Their catalog includes powerpop, disco (though they may call it something else, like Euro-pop), psychedelia and even some level of prog rock, as evidenced by the 17-minute “Curtain Call” from The Black Album (1980).

As documentaries go, this is a better than most (and also available in Blu-Ray). Yes, there is the mixture of old and new in both still images and performances, and interviews mixed in, but director Wes Orshoski takes a bit of a different approach. Among the talking heads, there is more of a philosophy of the band mixed in with the history, which almost comes secondary. I like this. The band doesn’t just become “I was the bassist from year X to year Y,” but rather shows the person behind the playing, what made the band a force, and also keeps them as individuals. Also, most members of the band through the years are interviewed, including Scabies and James, who jumped ship pretty early. While some of the personal bitterness comes to the surface through bits – and there is no shying away from the who and what and why – the humor is definitely there in a non-contiguous way, that shows even though they are not in the same band anymore, and possibly never will be, there is a bond that still hold them as being one of the Damned.

That being said, the documentary doesn’t limit itself to the Damned as a singular. They also follow a second group that is made up of the Damned’s other original members, called Scabies and James, who also play Damned, Damned, Damned while on tour in France, with another (American) punk cult singer fronting, Texas Terri. James takes over guitar rather than bass and shows himself to be quite spectacular in his own right.

This is also not a one-sided, “The Damned Rool” kind of approach used by too many, as we see the peccadillos, such as Rabies anger, the Captain’s insanity, James’s rambling and Vanian’s sometimes subtle power dynamics that led the band to break up its original form for good in 1991. This, of course, will only increase the myth them, but again, what I admire so much about this film is the humanizing of them. Not as punk gods, not as just in musician pantheon, not even villains, but makes them incredibly human, with frailties of pride, fear and uncertainty.

On a personal note, and I do mean this lighter than how I am going to say it, with a finger to the nose, there is a theme of “why didn’t they become as famous as the Pistols or the Clash?” I’m sure this is a question that has been following and plaguing them over the decades. I saw a hint of possibly just a part of why that may be: at one point, Vanian makes a comment about getting “a Jewish type of lawyer.” Now, this may sound like a yikes moment, but it brought back a very specific memory. In 1977, during a showcase at CBGBs, I was involved in an interview with Captain Sensible at one of the front tables between sets (HERE). After the show, we went backstage, to thank the good Captain, as we had kinda tricked him into it. I have a distinct memory of holding my thumb over the mouth of my beer bottle, knowing the Dead Boys’ reputation. As we were entering the dressing room, I did that side-to-side dance with Vanian as we tried to get by each other. He grumbled “Get outta my way,” to which I responded jokingly, being the obnoxious Brooklyn Boy I was, “It’s okay, I’m a Jew,” and rather than laughing or even smiling, Vanian smacked me in the back of the head with his palm, pretty hard. Yeah, even then I knew I deserved it, but perhaps it fed into something deeper with him? Considering the number of Jews that were deeply involved with running music business back then from the likes of record companies to promoters (e.g., Seymour Stein, David Geffen, Bill Graham), a reputation like that could have been career hindering.

There are lots of good interviews included, among many from musicians, most of them thankfully brief, from both sides of the Atlantic, including Lemmy (d. 2016, RIP) Chrissy Hyndes, two members of Blondie, fan Fred Armisen, Keith Morris, the omnipresent Ian MacKaye (of course; what no Henry Rollins or Dave Grohl?), Steve Diggle, Don Letts, Mick Jones of the Clash, and even Jesse Hughes, the idiot lead singer of Eagles of Death Metal (who actually makes at least one really good point that the band should get over their differences and get back together in their original form).

Five extras are included with this documentary, most of which could be considered deleted scenes. The first is the 5-minute “Captain Sensible and Fred Armisen: Nobody Busks in L.A.” This is a fun piece with Armisen meeting Sensible, and then both of them going out on the streets and them playing “Smash It Up” on acoustics with a small but enthusiastic crowd watching. Second is the 17-minute “Captain’s Tour of Croydon,” which is much more than it appears. It starts off as an extended scene from the opening of the film, with the Captain talking about his job cleaning toilets at a music hall, and this leads into showing where he saw bands, his first home as a child, where he and his first band, Johnny Moped, would hang out, and he brings us to the studio where the band recorded in some little dive/apartment. Here we get to meet Andy Gierus, one of the engineers who still works there. The whole thing is fun, thanks to the good Captain’s extroverted personality.

Next is the important 12-minute “The Anarchy Tour.” I noticed in the film that there wasn’t much talked about how the Damned were kicked off the infamous McLaren-Bernie Rhodes designed tour with the Pistols, the Heartbreakers and the Clash, but as I said, history was secondary to philosophy and personality in the feature. This is an important deleted part explaining what happened from the inside. Scabies makes a good point that with the Pistols getting banned a lot, “the Pistols’ reputation was from not being seen, the Damned’s reputation was from being seen” (i.e., touring a lot). I also find it interesting that the band talks about how the Clash went with McLaren advice and refused to talk to the Damned (unlike the Pistols), and yet there he is being interviewed for the main film, and a snippet shown here. Hmmm.

Number five is the 8-minute “The Doomed / Henry Badowski.” The viewer is introduced to Henry, a bassist / keyboard player who had been in bands such as Chelsea and Wreckless Eric, as well as having a subdued solo career. For a brief time he joined the post-James Damned when they were the Doomed. We meet him, who discusses the period, and why he was only involved a short time. Last up is the complete 4-1/2-minute multi-camera professionally-filmed performance of the song “Smash It Up,” from the Captain’s 60 birthday show in 2014, intercut with performances around the world.

As of this writing, the band, still containing Vanian and Captain Sensible, tour occasionally yet, and have a big following, especially in Japan (no surprise there). Their sets contain songs from all the periods, from their earliest to their latest, sometimes to the chagrin of band members. For example, they went on tour to do their entire first LP, Damned, Damned, Damned, and Sensible fought hard to not do the one Scabies song, “Stab Your Back,” due to the violent nature of it (as much as not wanting to have to give Scabies his royalty, I’m guessing). They remain dynamic if not presently important. But historically, they are one of the many great underrated bands of their generation, and most people will never realize the extent of their influence.

Friday, May 20, 2016

DVD Review: Steve Hackett – The Man, the Music

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Steve Hackett: The Man, the Music
Filmed, directed and edited by Matt Groom
Weinerworld Entertainment / MVD Visual
143 Minutes, 2015

This may open up the Dogs of War, but I find the progressive rock music genre (aka prog) kinda… well, I respect that the musicians can play reaaaaaally well, but when it’s all put together, I have to say it bores the crap out of me. That’s why I stopped playing the radio in the early ’70s other than oldies and the news, and from the first time I heard the Ramones, listened only to vinyl for a large number of years. Even today, it’s mostly talk radio for me (go John Montone and 1010WINS!).

So when I was given the opportunity to review a documentary about prog guitarist Steve Hackett, well, my enthusiasm was…mellow. Genesis, the band that he helped make famous, never played a song that stuck with me, and I could barely tell you one off the top of my head. Of course, the same is true with many other proggers, like ELP, Yes, (post-Syd Barrett) Pink Floyd, and so on. I lost patience with them very fast.

But an important thing about writing about music is not necessarily keeping an open mind about other genres, but being willing to step into another genre and experience it despite that, which is how we grow. I once told an 8-year-old who had very specific food she would eat (essentially, she would always order pizza or chicken fingers at restaurants) to always try things she didn’t like occasionally, because you never know when things can change. I live by that, in all aspects of my life. For example, growing up I was not much of a fan of soul, until the early ‘80s when I saw a VHS tape of Bill Withers doing a live version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and it blew me away. On the way to work this morning, I was listening to James Brown’s “Open Up the Door (I’ll Get It Myself).” In other words, I approached the DVD documentary about the guitarist cautiously, but as open as I could, honestly hoping for the best.

Amusingly, Hackett was only in Genesis from 1970 to 1975 (not counting numerous reunion shows), and was also in the brief GTR. He has had a long string of solo releases, blending classical, prog (i.e., pretentious classical) and other forms of world music. This later phase interested me more, honestly.

I’m glad this is more a history than just performance, because I was definitely interested in him in a zeitgeist way rather than just seeing him play for an extended period, i.e., I wanted to know about the “musician” more than the “music,” to start.

The documentary begins with the beginning (a very good place to start), namely his childhood (born in 1950), and even has an interview bit with his mum. His love of Mario Lanza being a pre-Elvis influence is listed on a few sites, so this was no surprise (and no clips of the amazing Lanza, which is neither extraordinary nor expected). Part of this early period is discussed with his third wife, writer Jo Lehmann (listed as Jo Hackett here), and his brother.

There is quite a bit of detail given. I am glad to get some background on the guy, and I’m certain that there are the fanatical guitar fans that will drink up every word, but I believe that the sheer level of detail is if not overwhelming than more than I want to know. For example, it’s nice to have some childhood background, but it’s not that important to warrant this amount of time. And I will illustrate with this anecdote of my own, if you’re willing:

I went with a group of media-focused academics to visit Marshall McLuhan’s childhood home. They were all ooh-ing and ahh-ing all over the place. I asked the women who now owns it what was still there when McLuhan was present. Apparently it was a hallway light and a fixture upstairs in the bathroom (if I remember correctly). Then I asked how old he was, and it was pre-5 years old. So what brilliant thoughts did McLuhan have at that age, in a space that doesn’t represent hardly anything at all when he was there? I was baffled by that.

It’s a rookie mistake, I believe, when a documentary, biography or autobiography delves too deeply into a subject’s childhood. Really, it reflects, but it doesn’t warrant a vast amount of detail. As it is, this film is well over two hours. The time saved here alone would have been valuable; hell, they could have made the extreme close-up of any period an extra in the deleted scenes, and that would have been good. Of course, the beginning of his musicianship is spot on for being here, such as learning the harmonica and guitar (from his dad), including going from steel strings to nylon (a clip of him playing Spanish guitar) and back to electric steel.

For me, it starts to take off at around the 20-minute mark, when we see clips of the Steve Hackett Band on stage, and some interviews with band members; the start of his playing with Genesis begins at 40 minutes. Even at this point, it’s pretty obvious that the whole she-bang is a bit long-winded for the average viewer who is not either Genesis or Hackett superfans. This film could easily have an hour cut out of it as it rabbits on, way past the point of interest on my part. What he’s saying in each segment is interesting, but it just goes on too long.

There are snippets of music played throughout the film, including techniques he uses, most of which are Hackett playing directly for the camera, which is interesting. Also shown are some recent live clips of the Steve Hackett Band, but there isn’t much of the older material played other than short snips more for example in the background while talking by him and/or others, and nearly always the pieces he wrote rather than just played on (assuming for copyright purposes).

Yeah, the man can play, I have no doubt about that, and he gives examples of it as I said, but for me it’s more the context of what he is playing rather than method. For example, I believe Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey have amazing voices, but I do not enjoy listening to their warbling style. When he’s playing classical or Spanish styles, cool; when he delves into the prog style, my mind kept checking out and I really wanted to fast forward a bit.

Even though Hackett is best known as a member of Genesis, especially in North America, as I said he was actually only in it a very short time in his decades-long career. Not surprisingly though, a large second act is dedicated to his experience. Still, there is a lot of touching down in different aspects of the career path, or set pieces on styles, historical moments, songwriting, and more, each part announced with chapter titles. His Andres Segovia (d. 1987) tribute moments especially are sweet.

The film is obviously shot on HD video, and looks like it, which will probably really help with the Blu-Ray, if that is (or becomes) available. Most people shoot on digital and then doctor it look like film, but it’s nice that Groom goes with the reality look rather than with artistic effect (I ask with a bemused sarcasm, arguably the opposite of prog?).

There are lots of interviews, as well as the multitude of Hackett talking (which makes up the majority of the time), including his bandmates, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, his long-time producer Roger King, and Chris Squire (d. 2015), the bassist of the prognoxious Yes (with whom Hackett played on Squire’s solo releases). The extra is a 10:48 extended conversation with Hackett and Squire.

Again, if you’re interested in Hackett, who seems like a genuinely nice guy, this will definitely satiate your curiosity.