Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: The Head Cat Rockin’ the Cat Club, Live From the Sunset Strip


Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet


The Head Cat Rockin’ the Cat Club: Live from the Sunset Strip
Directed by Mikki and Malory
Cleopatra Records / Ultra Films / MVD Visual
34 minutes, 2004 / 2006 / 2018

Back in the 1980s, there was a huge ‘50s revival. It was spearheaded, like it or not, by the Stray Cats. The reason I phrase it like that is because while the two guys backing up Brian Setzer, who seems to have garnered the lion’s share of the attention in his cutsie looks, were so much better than he was; musically, Setzer was by far the weakest link. It would be as if Billy Idol’s and Generation X was the face of British punk. Like Setzer, Idol’s okay, but he’s not really a good example of the actual sound, more a pretty face that’s built on ego. For more authentic rockabilly, we in the know relied on bands like the Rockats.

The reason I bring this up is because a member of both those post-rockabilly groups are at the core of the supergroup cover band called the Head Cat. Recorded in 2004 and originally released in 2006, this musical collective is made up of Lemmy (of Motörhead) on vocals and acoustic guitar, Danny B. Harvey (the Rockats) on electric guitar, Slim Jim Phantom (the Stray Cats) on drums, and Jonny Bowler (the psychobilly Guana Batz) on stand-up bass. One look at the set list below will give you some idea of the direction of the music.

If you are familiar with Lemmy’s sound, you may think, hmm, how authentic a rockabilly sound is that going to be? He’s more known for the growling, metal-punk cross-over of “Ace of Spades,” which feels like a vocal oil spill sludging across the speakers. You know, a great sound… but rockabilly?

From the first notes of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” one of the earliest rock’n’roll songs from 1947 by Roy Brown – which, if I may digress, proves that rock’n’roll did not start with (a) “Rock Around the Clock” in ’55, nor (b) with Elvis – you know you are in for an interesting show.  The trio comes out swinging and out to take no prisoners (yeah, I’m full of cliché’s tonight). Lemmy’s growl is perfect for the effect, Slim Jim simply pounds the skins at full tilt, and Danny dances around the melody to a tight-yet-loose sound like a piledriver. This is rock and roll mixed with just the right touch of rock’n’roll.

The visuals are crisp and digital, but definitely pre-HD, and the sound is totally clean and loud. The lighting is cast in mostly hues of greens and reds, as they should be. Also, the stage is small, which is actually appropriate for the sound, rather than having musicians running around the stage.

Next up is Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” more commonly known by Richard Penniman, aka the Little Richard. This medium-speed grinder is a great selection, even though tethered by the sheer weight of the rhythm section. Not a complaint, by the way. Sometimes I can be a purist, but hey, it’s Lemmy. This is followed by the similarly paced “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” by Ray Charles from 1958, though more know the Animals’ cover in ’64.

One of my major complaint about this DVD is the editing by Kari Pearson and King Romero. This isn’t ‘80s rock and it’s not M-TV; there is enough energy onstage that the editing doesn’t need to denote tension or excitement, as Sergi Eisenstein famously posited. The cameras move around way too much, swinging and swaying, and edited together so quickly that by the time you get your bearing on what you’re watching, it’s gone to the next shot. It seems like they average about every two-to-three seconds, which is not only annoying (and bad direction), but literally nauseating via motion sickness. I felt like turning off the screen and reviewing it like a CD rather than DVD. You can see a sample below.

Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” has been interpreted by many, including an enjoyable one by Sid Vicious in ‘79, but the Head Cat are a bit more loyal to the ’59 version. The pace, however, picks up when they next cover Chuck Berry – in my opinion the true King of Rock and Roll – with 1957’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” a rave up all the way. I remember the Rockats did an outstanding version of it as their encore the night they recorded their Live at the Ritz album; though the song never made it to the vinyl, sadly. But I digress…

The camera hovers around the three big-name members, including Phantom’s minimal yet-highly effective drum set, but you almost never see Jonny or the stand-up bass except in the background. The best I can tell there are three cameras, one for Slim Jim who is off to the far left rather than behind, one for Lemmy and Danny (though it’s usually up Lemmy’s nose), and one for a longshot from the back of the room. The bassist gets squeezed out. As a fan of bass players, this was disappointing, as well.

Putting aside some of the growl, they do the almost ballad-like “Fool’s Paradise.” Lemmy explains this is off the first album he ever bought, by Buddy Holly and the Crickets in ‘58, which explains why he singing it more straightforward. It’s a more obscure track of Holly’s, as is their next choice, Chuck Berry’s medium rocker “Bye Bye Johnny” (which was also covered by the Stones). Keeping the pace, they play Fats Domino’s 1958 “Sick and Tired,” which actually as a very similar feel to the previous song.

It’s important that they did not just pick the “top 10” kind of songs that you hear at most revivals, but rather chose some that you don’t hear very often, such as Larry Williams’ 1958 “Bad Boy.” While I’m familiar with it, it’s not one that shows up on oldies radio shows often. More people know the Beatles’ cover from their Help! album. However, the next song gets covered a lot, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” which is solid I-IV-V progression. Danny’s guitar really flashes on this one.

For the final number in the main set, it’s the third Berry number with the raver “Back in the USA.” Lemmy is in full growl mode for this one. It’s a fine number to end the set proper, just as Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” is perfect to start the two-song encore. Danny B. again gets to show off his guitar skill in a more modern vein that still stays loyal to the heritage.

The last on the DVD is “Blue Suede Shoes.” Knowing this band’s fondness for Elvis, I am assuming that’s the version they are covering, but for me, it’s solid Carl Perkins, who got jyped out of his career potential by an accident. But I will say this: no matter who’s they are doing, it’s a kick-ass song and a solid way to end the show.

The last thing Lemmy says as he ends the gig is “Thank you very much; live forever.” After Lemmy’s passing in 2015, he was replaced by death metal bassist David Vincent (aka Evil D, of Morbid Angel and Genitorture); I’m guessing Bowler is no longer with the band?

The extras are nice. The obvious ones are the set list (i.e., chapters) and a 2:40 slide show over a song not included in the DVD’s show, which is a killer cover of Buddy Holly’s great “Not Fade Away.”

The other more significant extras are two sets of interviews. The first is 20:33 of Lemmy and Slim Jim. They discuss a wide range of subjects including how they met and became friends, bonding over rockabilly, music from that period’s effect on the youth then and “still going on all the time” (Slim Jim), and the mythology of Elvis of course. For the 19:18 second interview segment the focus is Johnny D., on his history in music, his bands, and his musical philosophy.

Despite the terrible direction/editing and shaky camerawork in the feature, the important thing is the music, which is fantastic. I will gladly play this DVD more, but I will have it go through my speakers, and turn the visuals off. It’s still a great record.

Set List:
Good Rockin’ Tonight
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Talkin’ ’Bout You
Something Else
Reelin’ and Rockin’
Fool’s Paradise
Bye, Bye Johnny
Sick and Tired
Bad Boy
Matchbox
Back in the USA
Encore:
Baby What You Want Me to Do
Blue Suede Shoes



Sunday, April 15, 2018

Music Reviews: April 2018

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Empty County
Die Alone
There are only two songs here, but they spit guitar fire. Falling comfortably somewhere between rock and metal, they have a sound that could have mass appeal. I don’t know much about them, but with the right tweaking, I can see them going somewhere. The vocals by Steven Kuchinsky are solid New England, reminding me of so many rocker bands from the Rat period (like Stomper and Pastiche). It’s short and sweet, but this definitely gives the listener a nice taste of the band’s style. I’m looking forward to a full release.

Fire in the Field
War Bonnet
There are a lot of rockers of various shades in this column, but Fire in the Field are a bit different in that while it’s, well, user-friendly, there is enough of a pop level that is appealing so that it stands out. High production values without overwhelming it, with some catchy melodies, you get the impression that they’re fun to see live. Sort of like if the Romantics were heavier, it’s a band you can headbang to, or just dance. That’s saying a lot. The songs are good, if a bit long, but more importantly they’re fun with just the right amount of noise thrown in. My drawback comment? The lyrics are included, but they’re small and white print on red background, so that it’s hard enough to read that even my $2 drug store classes aren’t helping.

Joe Black’s Blackenstein
Joe Black’s Blackenstein
Carved in Stone Media / www.joeblack.com
At first I didn’t understand the name of the band; I mean, I got the “Black” part, but “Blackenstein” felt a bit like an appropriation. But now I get it. This is both a band and it’s also a collection of parts to make a whole. There is a sharing of musical sections and vocals (though Black wrote most of the tunes), including a number of additional players from various bands like the Joe Perry Project (Charlie Farren, who sings lead on a cover of “Care About You”). There is some consistency such as Black playing bass, Aart Knyff and Johnny Press sharing both lead and rhythm guitar. Some of the hard rock-style warbling vocals are handled by Jeffrey Baker. One of the enjoyable quirks on the collection is a cover of Black Oak Arkansas’ “Uncle Elijah” with Black on decent vocals. Knyff handles the vox on his own heavy rocker, “Over You.” All the songs are classic style rock with some strong metal edges, especially the last cut, “Blackenstein,” where drummer Simon Adamsson really gets to shine on a solo. While I prefer my rock style stripped down, this works well with more a more mainstream method that is full of musical gimmicks and production values that ae radio-friendly.

Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers
L.A.M.F.: The Lost ‘77 mixes
Jungle Records / Track Records
There are a lot of influential albums floating around that formed punk, such as the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. But there were three biggies (in my opinion) as far in influence that came out of the New York Scene that fostered punk around the world: the New York Dolls first album, the Ramones first LP, and arguably L.A.M.F. had the most lasting impression of even those other two. And, that release originally had a terrible mix thanks to the good intentions of drummer Jerry Nolan. There have been a number of different versions of the album since then, and this one is from 2017. From the first distorted note of the opening cut, “Born to Lose” (also known by its fans as “Born Too Loose”), you know you’re hearing something different just by the line “Living in a jungle / it ain’t so hard / Living in a city / It’ll tear, tear out your heart.” There’s not a bad song here, each being powerful fuelled by Thunders and co-singer/guitarist Walter Lure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen bassist Billy Rath speak on stage (his cigarette would have fallen out of his mouth…). Nolan is generally recognized as one of the great drummer of the scene. There are some that remain favorites of mine, such as “All By Myself,” “I Wanna Be Loved,” “Chinese Rocks” (written by Dee Dee Ramone, but released by the Heartbreakers first; Nolan’s drummer here is amazing), “Get Off the Phone,” “One Track Mind” (adapted from Richard Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts,” co-written with Lure), “I Love You,” “Let Go,” “Can’t Keep My Eyes on You,” and a cover of “Do You Love Me.” To me, what made the Heartbreakers (and hence this album) so special is what also made the Who so exceptional is that all the band members were pretty much playing lead concurrently. Even after not listening to the original for quite a while, I was singing along, and missing Max’s Kansas City. I Love this collection, and could wax on about it quite extensively. Oh, before I forget, it comes with a really nice booklet with an article by Nina Antonia (who wrote the Thunders bio) and an explanation about each song along with the lyrics.

John Lee Hooker
The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62
If you’re really into modern music history, you have to admit that when it comes to genres, whether you like a musician or not, it’s nearly impossible to realistically say that someone is “the best.” There is, however, a pantheon of musician in most fields, and it would be hard to argue that when it comes to the recordings of guitar-based blues, John Lee Hooker is near the top. This 101-song, 4-disc collection that lasts 214 minutes, is a good example of just why Hooker is so important to the field. Hooker is a master of the blues (acoustic) guitar, whatever the style, from the slow “my girl done me wrong” style to solid boogie, and into early rock’n’roll. It’s not fer nuthin’ that blues rock guitarists cite him, such as Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Hooker is the real deal. I don’t think I have the space to scratch the surface in averring just how amazing this collection is in that pantheon. Hooker was a game changer, and these discs are the proof of how he helped change the face of music. While Hooker never lost his blues touch, over time you can hear the rock’n’roll rhythms emanating out of his six-string and vocals, though usually more in the boogie mode. These are classic documents looking backward into rock history. It also comes with a comprehensive 24-page booklet that explains each song, what was recorded at which session, and so forth. Quite a stunning and wonderful – albeit a happily time-consuming – assemblage that is guaranteed to thrill those who are blues fans.

Perfect Defect
Perfect Defect
Built on a solid and heavy bottom sound with Dirk Van Tilborg’s bass and Patrick Johansson’s drums recorded together live in studio – and then overlayered with some flashy guitar (both lead and rhythm) by Mitch Bernstein and lower-register vox by Gary Brown. It’s effective and different than most high-pitched airy metal as it’s more sludgey; I like a sound you can wade through more than one that sounds like it’s coming from on-high, or as I like to put it in Marshall McLuhan terms, more cool than hot. The songs, however, sound decent, but I cringed a bit at the retro lyrics, such as “Bros before Hoes / Hoes droppin’ low … / I’m the one you need / Make that booty bounce for me” (from “Rollin’ With G”) and “Too drunk to take your clothes off… / That ain’t no way to treat your man” (from “Treat Your Man”), and this is the two opening cuts. Uff-da. “Love Song,” which is solid Southern Rock (they are from that region) a la Black Oak Arkansas-style nasality, has a similar dick-rock theme. Now, I’m not dissin’ the band, there’s some really good stuff here, like the ballad rocker “Used to Believe,” but so much of it is more “I can’t get no sleep / Even masturbation doesn’t help me,” from “I Got Needs.” Unfortunately, as much as I like the general sound, the lyrics don’t work for me as so much of them are unimaginative and repetitious in over-sexualized masculinist mode. Lyrics included.

Positive Negative Man
Broken
CPR Records (ancient-pistol@hotmail.com)
With a name that sounds like the title of a They Might Be Giants song, it’s hardly surprising that Positive Negative Man presents a kind of chaotic and dissonant front. Oh, that’s not an insult, hell no. The songs are borderline No Wave (closer to Mars than Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), but one of the aspects I find interesting is that with all the noise, it’s all done with standard rock’n’roll equipment (guitar, bass, drum, voice), yet there are enough squelches to keep any electro fan happy. Most of the vocals are pretty straightforward as are the core of the songs; they’re just played over the racket. They refer to themselves as a “post-punk pop experiment,” and I would not argue with that at all. Sometimes it’s the guitar as lead destructor, other times it’s the bass, such as with “The Ice Queen of Space.” Though no two songs are alike, their approach seems to be, though. While this may not exactly be my playlist style, and I did have trouble making out most of the lyrics, the last song, “Just Don’t Think” is extremely catchy and has lasted with me well beyond the initial playing.

Sidney Green Street Band
Half Live
www.facebook.com/sidneygreenstreetband/
The meaning of the title is that half the songs on the CD are recorded in a studio in Brooklyn, and half are recorded live at the Great Notch Inn, in Little Falls, NJ, at 12 in total. These guys do a bit of country rock but more on the AOR spectrum. That being said, the first song on the studio side is a bit different than the rest, focused on “Muscle Shoals” studio releases. Then the country kicks in with the cleverly named “Last Beer and Testament” and the heartbreak-focused “One Alone.” After a lusty “Next Time,” they turn a bit towards the bluesy “Don’t Make That Girl Cry.” The last cut on this “side” is the overlong but decent Southern Rocker “Stayin’ All Night.” Most of the live cuts are enjoyable country rock. There is a strong emphasis on all the songs of electric guitar. If you’re into this kind of sound, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: D.O.A.: A Right of Passage


Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet


D.O.A.: A Right of Passage
Written and directed by Lech Kowalski
High Times Films / MVD Rewind Collection
90 minutes, 1980
Blu-ray and DVD

This documentary of the later part of the early days of punk rock, namely the late-1970s, is now considered the granddaddy of non-fiction films about the genre, much as Please Kill Me is viewed, though in book form. While I’m not trying to imply that this or Kill Me was the first, I do posit that they are both game changers and have since become iconic.

There are generally two schools of thought: one that punk started in New York in 1974, and others that believe it began with the Sex Pistols in England, in late1975. They can be both right, as they were different in both politics and sound, with the occasional overlap. Rather than thinking of them as one or the other, I like to believe they are both concurrent and inter-serving. Yeah, I am in the New York school, and believe it started there, but am also comfortable knowing that they are both different and alike at the same time, as long as both acknowledge each other.

The film is essentially three acts that are intertwined, and yet remain unique: one is the Sex Pistol’s tour of the Southern United States (including post-tour), the governmental and record company reaction to the Pistols directly and therefore British punk as a whole, and live performances of various bands.

The film starts with the Pistols playing in Atlanta, including a clip of them performing “Anarchy in the [U.S.A.].” Of course, it’s the audience interviews that are equally as interesting as the music. The haters are a drawling hoot, but even the fans present a level of pretention that’s hard to explain. In New York, I remember seeing Eddie and the Hot Rods play Max’s Kansas City, and they were disgusted with the lack of audience frenzy, despite the applause after the songs. The First Wavers (aka the Blank Generation), including me, were too cool, after years of the Heartbreakers, Ramones, Dead Boys, et.al. By the way, the Damned were a more interesting live band than the Hot Rods, but I digress.

The point is that the audience in Georgia that were pro­-Pistol appeared just a bit off and pretentious to me in their going out of their way to be “different,” such as one who said, “They made me want to vomit, they were so beautiful.” It’s like the two girls fake fighting in the ticket-buying line to see the Ramones in the film Rock and Roll High School. I just said, “Hunh?” to the person I was with at the RaRHS New York premiere on Bleecker St. For me, the whole idea of punk was the lack of pretention and social norms, not necessarily creating a new one for this scene (which became especially codified by the time hardcore – aka, the Third Wave – came about).

I’m not sure if the interviews with the British politicians and such were specifically for this film, or taken from newscasts (or both), but it’s an interesting corollary between them and the hyper-sensitive Evangelical Republicans on the Hill today as I write this, seeing anything different as evil (e.g., “Make America Great Again” is much more regressive than, say, “Make America Greater”). To be fair, ironically (and hypocritically), much of what these people say about punk is how I feel about most of the modern Top 10. Yeah, I’m old.

The live music is part of what makes this film great, such as the underappreciated X-Ray Spex doing “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”, the post-Pistols’ Glen Matlock band the Rich Kids (I saw them play Harrah’s in New York opening for Sylvian Sylvian’s 14 Street Band, and was not impressed; Matlock was a great songwriter, but not as much as a front man), Generation X playing “Kiss Me Deadly,” and Sham 69, who were underrated in the States, doing a couple of numbers, including “Borstal Breakout.”

While a bit confusing on the why part, I am certainly not complaining that two thirds into the film, it shifts to the “U.S.A.” (as the John Holmstrom drawn title card states) and the Dead Boys – a band I saw many times – are playing “All This and More.” I really miss those shows, so it put a smile on my face to see them again in their glory; to me, they were the one of the rare bands that had an affinity to the British punk style (which would explain why they shared a bill with the Damned so often), and can arguably be seen as the first genuine hardcore band, fitting into all three Waves in function.

Of course, the most infamous scene occurs about an hour in: sort of the absolute antithesis of the John and Yoko Toronto bed-in interview is the Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious conversation (such as it is) where Sid is totally nodding off while wearing a Swastika tee. Nancy’s odd accent that’s a cross between Philly high-line, New York Lower East Side and London-esque is as disarming and alarming as Sid’s drug-induced mumbling.

For the film’s final act, it’s a mix of the Pistols’ last show of the tour and what came to be their final performance before reforming decades later with Matlock replacing Sid, the police presence and fans outside the club, and more wacked out Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel. This includes the infamous Rotten onstage comment about “being cheated,” playing over some woman spontaneously pretending to masturbate for the camera in a totally unsexy, fakey way.

Terry Sylvester
The ending is a nice mash-up of the band playing “Bodies” with clips from all their American shows melded together. And yet, even though they are the centerpiece, the Pistols turn out to really not the entire theme of the film, but rather a creamy layer of the whole cake. One of the points of focus is Terry Sylvester (not to be confused with the singer from the Swinging Blue Jeans), who was the lead singer of Terry and the Idiots. Not lasting long, they were pretty terrible-but-enjoyable; they remind me of New York’s Student Teachers, who were a better act, and arguably modeled themselves on the Mumps. We follow Terry around and listen to him philosophize about punk, and tell a very bad joke based on innuendo that really had nothing to do with the point of the film, but whatever. There’s also an amusing interview with New York stalwart Bleecker Bob in his infamous shop (Lenny Kaye worked there at the time, but you don’t see him). He talks about some bands, and they pan a bunch of singles on the wall, most of which I own (bought at Disc-O-Rama, though, not from him).

Worth it merely for the live band footage alone, but that is only a small helping of what is good here. Yeah, when it was reviewed by the late-great Lisa Baumgardner in the pages of FFanzeen back in the day, it was slagged (HERE). I remember it being really grainy and rambling, but I’ve always been kinda fond of the film, being somewhat neutral on the which is better front (though not on where it all started). The current release, however, while still obviously taken from the print by the wear and tear, it’s much clearer than I remember.

Lech Kowalski
The basic extras are an Image Gallery, the original film trailer, and a trailer for (I kid you not) the classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which was put out by the same distribution company as this one. There is also a nice and thick booklet with photos, and some text by Holmstrom, and a folded film poster.

The most notable extra is a complete and full-length documentary about the making of D.O.A. titled Dead on Arrival: The Punk Documentary That Almost Never Was. Put together by Richard Schenkman especially for this Blu-ray and DVD 2-disc set, at 115 minutes, it actually lasts longer than the feature it is about.

The two main talking heads are Punk magazine co-founder and the key New York Scene illustrator John Holmstrom and Scene photographer Robert Bailey, both of whom became part of the D.O.A. caravan through the American Sex Pistols’ tour, and Holmstrom then also continued on with the British phase after the American leg ended. Others who appear extensively in new material include (but not only) New Musical Express writer Chris Salewicz, musician Midge Ure (who was in the Rich Kids at the time of filming, and would go on to his own cult fame leading Ultravox), cinematographer Rufus Standefer, and crew members David King (U.S.) and Mary Killen (U.K.).

Along with some historical interviews with Malcolm McLaren and Billy Idol that are included from television shows, one of those in the new segments is Lamar St. John, the woman who is laying on the ground in the film as part of a group of teenypunkers from Los Angeles who drove to see the Pistols in Dallas. She’s also the one who bloodied Sid’s nose.

While the Pistols’ tour was infamously and covered from the inside with tons of snark by roadie Noel E. Monk and writer Jimmy Gutterman in the book 12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols and America (1990, Quill/William Morrow & Co.), which is name checked in this follow-up documentary, the view presented here was more from the outside looking in, which actually makes it extremely interesting in a whole different light. They lived in a circumstance of being within the crowd, with near constant threats of violence from the audience, from the clubs’ personnel, and even the Pistols’ Warner Bros. team. It’s definitely an interesting bookend to the Monk self-serving version.

Part of what kept me riveted is that everyone who discusses the events was at the filming, giving first-hand accounts of the events, rather than from other journalists who were told what happened. John and Roberta are experienced at telling of events of the 1970s, so this practiced hand keeps off the stumbling around for words or remembrances, keeping the pace up.

I especially liked when Holmstrom comments that punk was the last musical form created totally in an analog world, before digital music and CDs temporarily replaced vinyl. As a student of media and technology, this spoke to me.

What makes the film D.O.A.: A Right of Passage so palpable is that it is not news footage, but rather a group of fans who put together a film trying to express a positive point. Back then, and I remember this strongly, most of the media attention was on the negatives, about how punk would degrade culture rather than put a mirror up to it, as is expressed by the officials in the U.K. within the documentary. This (and I do believe the follow-up, modern Dead on Arrival) is a better indication of what was actually going on in a three-dimensional way, from multiple directions rather than just pro- or anti-.

Oh, and Lech? You still owe me the $100 for the full page ad you took out in FFanzeen when this film came out. Just sayin’…



Thursday, April 5, 2018

JOHN SEBASTIAN: You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice [1986]

Text by David Ancrum / FFanzeen, 1986
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet
Note: There is no ads on this page, so no profit is made from images or music used on this site

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #14, dated 1986, by David Ancrum. I’m not sure where I connected with David or where he is now, so if you know him, please let him know this has been republished! While published in 1986, the interview itself took place in 1984.

John Sebastian’s infamous band, the Lovin’ Spoonful, tended to have quite pleasant sounds, which Howard Kaylan of the Turtles referred to as “Goodtime Music,” a nomenclature that would stick. Sadly, more people seem to know him for his solo “Welcome Back” theme song to the overrated television show, “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Even Sebastian wasn’t a fan of the song; I remember on a PBS ‘60s Revival Show, he quipped that he was glad that it was a ‘60s revival so he wouldn’t have to do that tune. I respected him for that.

I also admire that he’s kinda snarky in an honest way during this interview. He takes the author to task for certain wording (something interviewees have done to me, too). His image is squeaky clean, but he has a refreshing bite to him, almost making the title “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” almost seem sarcastic, and that makes me smile. – Robert Barry Francos, 2018.




The best rock and roll songs always reveal a moment in one’s life. Whether it’s the girlfriend who broke your heart in high school, the song that came through your busted, static-filled speakers in your first car, or the songs that your group played in your family’s garage. They develop a universe of meaning.

Like novelists who often mime their late teens and early 20s for the rest of their lives, pop song writers lock into brief moments within an individual’s life and age developments, an epiphanal portrait of those moments.

Watching John Sebastian perform in Connecticut recently, this was never more apparent. Sebastian, leader and chief songwriter of the late, greatly lamented group the Lovin’ Spoonful, showed he still is the biggest optimist in pop music.

“Summer in the City,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” and of coruse the classic “Do You Believe in Magic,” to name just a few, have transcended their limitation, and like the blues, might be with us forgever. Lifting us up in times of trouble, they may not be thick on eschatology, but you’ve got to believe in something.

For example, “Rainbow All Over Your Blues” is a wistful song, delicate and muted with emotions, and as always there’s that hint of nostalgia.

As he performs, one comes to realize that from anyone else, John Sebastian’s approach would be mawkish. From Sebastian, though, the warmth is so real that you believe. His songs are children’s songs – the past as recollected by an adult. They’re like someone looking back into the innocence of youth, the magic of being a child – as he sees it.

Between sets at a recent show, I spoke to the Prince of Optimism.

FFanzeen: What has John Sebastian been up to?
John Sebastian: I have been concertizing pretty heavily over the past couple of years. In some ways, it is one of the problems of being a grown-up in rock’n’roll; the fact that you can work very hard without a record deal and be relatively unheard of to the point where people are asking what have you been doing, right after you have come off an 80-day tour.

FFanzeen: Looking back on the events of the ‘60s, what do you feel were the positive and negative things that came out of that era?
John: I am frequently asked these questions and always unable to find a very meaningful answer. During the ‘60s, I was too damn busy trying to get a group together, making the thing work, getting it recorded and doing all the stuff that goes along with having a band. The band itself was remarkably unpolitical; anything that would put me in a position where I could accurate say, well, this happened and this didn’t happen, and so on. I am perfectly glad to be in 1984 and looking forward to the future. What our old friend Bob Dylan told us back then (that) I think still applies: “Don’t look back.”

FFanzeen: I have a couple of questions about the ‘60s. Do you think some of the ideals are still functionable today?
John: Richie Havens [d. 2013] came up to me yesterday and had a crack that put me on the floor. He said that he had just played a show where he was surrounded by gods of alternate energy; a kind of dispersing, helping and yoga information. He said, “You know, it’s really coming around again. I think consciousness that was a part of the ‘60s and lost in the ‘70s is beginning to come back around.” The source of it, I think this time, is from the Europeans. The Europeans don’t have this fagged-out attitude that has hit the U.S., and by fagged out, I mean tired out. I think that we have been finding the limitations that we didn’t know existed at that time and, in many cases, the resistance is very rich, and that can be very frustrating. This time we are getting our protest movement started again, but it seems to be coming from Europe, and I always find that when I go to Europe that kind of consciousness is very much in our lives and is here.

FFanzeen: What do you think happened to the Children of the ‘60s?
John: They had to go to work. They couldn’t just sit around and smoke dope. At a certain point someone had to pay the rent. It was the realities of living that confronted every generation. It’s a shame that it had to be such a big deal.

FFanzeen: Most of the music today seems to have very little value and yet your must still seem fresh, alive and vital. Why do you think that is?
John: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the longevity of the things that I have written. I never expected it. I was pretty much trying to write for that moment in time, without consideration for the future, but I have been surprised at how many songs have not sold a lot more records than the Spoonful’s stuff I do hear, and so that’s good for me I guess, but I can’t say I would have anticipated it.

FFanzeen: Are there any groups today that impress you? What kind of music are you listening to today?
John: First of all, I don’t agree with your generalization that there isn’t much meaning in stuff today. It is still the same mix of glopped and great stuff. The stuff was always there. In the ‘60s, people talked about what a time it was and so on, but there was this whole commercial folk music boom that was just a bore. We forget why the whole thing got started: it was Frankie Avalon records. I don’t want to get too specific, but there was a lot of junk then, too. As for stuff that I listen to, let’s see, I find myself playing Thomas Dolby’s new record (Flat Earth) a lot; I like a lot of the groups that people like now. The Police are doing wonderful things. Men at Work; I really like the Eurhythmics’ approach, and I think that it is a very different mood than the music of the era we are talking about, but not of less value. People say there was disco and that was such a bore, but the fact was engineers were learning how to record the shit out of the bass drum at that point, and that was something the Spoonful was dying for; we wanted to have a heavy bottom, but the equipment just wouldn’t give it to us at that point in time. Recording techniques were not that strong. I would think if the Spoonful were together today, we would be right in there with our little sync-drums and all the equipment of modern recording.

FFanzeen: When The Spoonful were together, did you think it was something special, or was it something as the years went by you get on to see that it had more significance?
John: No. Without false modesty, I knew right then that it was hot stuff. I was really glad to be doing it. I felt that we were the premiere American group and sort of an answer to the English Invasion. Other groups had more publicity and we were better organized from a business standpoint, but when you put them in a club against us, it was bad news. We were a hard act to follow when it came to live performances. We had such a ball and thought we were pushing it over; it was like the biggest joke in the world.

FFanzeen: Every year, Al Kooper gets the Blues Project back together and there has been some talk about Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals getting back together. [The Rascals are back together and getting ready to tour! – ed., 1986.] Have you ever thought of getting the Spoonful back together if for nothing but a tour?
John: Every time somebody offers me millions of bucks to do it, of course I always have to consider it. The fact is the guitarist for the Spoonful (Zal Yanovsky, d. 2002 – RBF, 2018] is very happily in Scotland* doing something else. A group is not the kind of thing that you can casually do on weekends or suddenly jump off and gouge the public on these $20 tickets for a month, and then go back to the work you were doing. It doesn’t really work that way. I am perfectly happy to pursue my own career and let Zally not be forced back into entertainment when he doesn’t want to do it. The fact is that I end up playing. In fact, only a week ago, I was playing with Steve Boone (bass) at a show at the Key’s, Key West, Florida. That is always a lot of fun. Steven keeps his chops up to a point where we can easily do that kind of thing.

FFanzeen: I’d like to ask you about some of the classic songs that you have written. One that got a great response tonight as “Darlin’ Be Home Soon.” How did that come about?
John: That was a reflective song that I was experiencing being away for a lot of the time, and rather than write a song about being away, because everyone was writing songs about being away and everyone was having that experience, I decided to turn it around and take the position of the one what had to stay home. It just seemed like an easy way to write the same song without it being the same song.

FFanzeen: A personal favorite is “She’s Still a Mystery to Me”; how did that come about?
John: That was very much reflecting on my early sexual life. That’s really what it boils down to; that moment when romance was so intense that even waiting for the girl was unbearable, let along actually getting to it.

FFanzeen: And, “Do You Believe in Magic?”?
John: That came about mainly because we had suddenly changed the clientele of this little night club in New York, The Night Owl Café, from basically a beatnik hangout to little girls running around there, and it was very exciting to have this complete change of clientele over a period of two weeks; it was an exuberant feeling.

FFanzeen: It seems so many musicians from the ‘60s who were successful are having trouble getting a record deal now. Why do you believe this is happening and what alternatives do they have?
John: The Popular medium is not famous for the longevity of its stars, something that I had to learn watching my father’s development. He worked a lot harder at his music than I do. He would practice classical music 6 to 8 hours a day. I noticed that his popularity had nothing to do with his achievements or how hard he was working, so I always take that as a kind of clue as to the fact that all of this is going to come out in the wash, and I may not even be around to see it. I want very much to be able to record. I hate the impression that it conveys that somebody is not capable of recording simply because they don’t have a record out. These frustrations are shared by better men than myself, and so I guess I will have to put up with that until such time as it comes around. As to why, I don’t really have an answer.

FFanzeen: What can we look for from John Sebastian in the future?
John: Well, over the last couple of years, I did an adaptation for the musical version of Charlotte’s Web that should be out. Last year I did three different soundtracks, one of which has come out: the sequel to The Jerk – The Jerk, Too (1994) that was on TV a while back. And there were two other movies: one Michael Richie move called The American Snitch [1983] that I did the soundtrack for, I think that should be coming out soon. Also, I did the music for a Nixon-era political thriller called The Act. We are awaiting the release of that [he did the music to the recently released full-length cartoon, The Care Bears’ Movie in 1985 – ed., 1986]. And besides all that, I hope to record as soon as the tide turns a little bit.


* Zal Yanovsky would eventually open up a restaurant in Kingston, Ontario, titled Chez Piggy, where he was the head chef. He and his wife would travel to different parts of the world, and then change the menu entirely every few month to reflect where they had been. I had the opportunity to eat there a couple of times. Once, I bought one of his cook books and asked to meet him, but he refused; however, he did sign the book, and yes, I still have it (and no, I have never used any of the recipes). – RBF, 2018 


Friday, March 23, 2018

Photo Essay: "An Evening with Michelle Obama" in Saskatoon, March 22, 2018

Text and images (c) Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Poster from the Internet

Before moving to Saskatoon, I'm proud to say I vote for Barack Obama. Michelle as First Lady was a bonus.

When former president George W. Bush came to speak in Saskatoon in 2009 via the Chamber of Commerce, it was at the smaller TCU Place, and there was a large protest march of hundreds of people (of which I participated, having moved to the city just a few months before). This time, however, when the former First Lady came through the same organization, it was at the much larger Sasktel Centre (where the major sports and music events take place), it was cheered by all 8500 in attendance, with no protests inside or out.

The tickets were $100 (after the exorbitant TicketMaster fees), which was out of my price range, honestly, but thanks to working at the YWCA and some donated tickets, I was able to score a couple for myself and my partner.

Not surprisingly, there was a bunch of yakking before Michelle hit the stage for her hour-and-a-half by locals, such as radio host Shauna Powers, Darla Lindbjerg (CEO of the Chamber of  Commerce), Murad Al-Katib (president and CEO of AGT Foods), and someone representing the Invictus Games for wounded veterans (including two participants).

Rather than a set talk, moderator and Olympic gold medalist Cassie Campbell interviewed Obama, who talked extensively about growing up, raising her daughters, living in the White House, and some of the programs she worked on while First Lady. Despite that, she also avoided politics in general (sans an subtle audience-appreciated swipe at the present White House occupant's ego).

A coworker of mine who was present later said he wished for a more set speech, but I rather enjoyed the banter, and the humanizing of Barack and the joy of their relationship. She showed kindness, humor, grace, and a sense of how the Obama administration all worked together for the general good, things that are currently missing in Washington. It felt like everyone went away after feeling good.

Please note that we were sitting quite far away from the stage, as the first picture will attest. For that reason, the pictures aren't the sharpest, but I'm proud of how they came out in the long run, all things considered.

The view from where we were sitting


Shauna Foster

Darla Lindbjerg

About the Invictius Games, and two participants 

Murad Al-Katib


Michelle Obama and CassieCampbell