Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Brand New Bag for JAMES BROWN

Text by Tom Bingham
Images from the Internet
© 1981, 2011 FFanzeen

The following profile was written by Tom Bingham for FFanzeen No. 7 in 1981.

James Brown, who passed away on Christmas day of 2006, had many nicknames, such as the Godfather of Disco and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He brought an excitement to the stage that had few rivals. For example, the story of how the Rolling Stones regretting following him (at their insistence) on the
T.A.M.I. Show is legendary.

Like nearly all musicians that have performed as many decades as Brown had, there were periods of feast and famine. Below, rock historian extraordinaire Tom Bingham looks at one of the points where the diminutive powerhouse was teetering between fortunes and floundering. – RBF, 2011

As I write this (mid-February 1981), James Brown is slipping down the R&B charts after scoring a modest (at best) hit with “Rapp Payback.” This latest in a nearly decade-long series of miscalculations of the cultural mood of black America, signals the beginning of James’ new affiliation with erstwhile disco giant T.K. Records, after ten years of frustration and declining fame with Polydor. T.K. has similarly been struggling through a period of diminished sales. No doubt both James and T.K.’s Henry Stone are banking on whatever reputation each has left to bolster the other’s sagging profile on the recording scene.

Given that scenario of near-desperation, it would seem almost contradictory to claim that James Brown is making a comeback. But such the case, if conceivably in a somewhat limited sense. Perhaps “rediscovery” would be a more accurate description than “comeback,” since James has never stopped touring and recording during these lean years. If his comeback is occurring largely through concert performances, his rediscovery has been taking place on three entirely different levels, none of which carries a guarantee that will restore him to his former supremacy as Soul Brother No. 1. Rather, having regressed from superstar to has-been, he has now progressed to cult figure status. In the past year, he as been a) lionized by certain segments of the New York New Wave scene, b) honored by the music press on the occasion of the reissue of the so-called Greatest Live Show Ever Recorded, and c) praised by many film critics for his parodistic portrayal of a black preacher in The Blues Brothers movie. Though he’s never actually been away, James Brown is back, even if most of his original audience isn’t.

This year, 1981, marks James Brown’s 25th anniversary as a recording artist, a quarter century since “Please, Please, Please” broke through the R&B Top Ten. Then, 1956 was also the year of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Long Tall Sally.” But James Brown has never been accorded the pioneer status of Presley, Perkins, Vincent, Domino, Berry, or Richard. It may be because James’ early hits were too steeped in Blues, gospel, and hardcore vocal group R&B to appeal to young whites in the way that Fats Domino or Chuck Berry did. True, Little Richard had obvious gospel roots, but his white-hot fire appealed to the body, whereas James’ intensity was of the mournful, pleading variety which appealed to one’s capacity to deal with heartbreak and pain. James Brown wasn’t a rock’n’roller, but a ballad singer; yet he was by no means a pop balladeer. His music was undiluted R&B raunch, far too raw for the ‘50s rock’n’roll mainstream.

By 1962, the atmosphere for acceptance had changed. R&B was giving way to “soul,” though the term had not yet come into common usage outside jazz circles where it meant something else altogether (i.e., the gospel-chords of pianists such as Less McCann and Bobby Timmons). Ray Charles made gospel phrasing and intonation acceptable to white audiences by applying it to the pop orchestral / choral treatments of country ballads. The Falcons were screaming “I Found Love,” as if they were shouting for salvation in a ramshackle ghetto storefront church; the group’s lead singer, Wilson Pickett, would soon go on to bigger, if not always better things. Motown was experimenting with new black dance rhythms on hits by the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. And James Brown was on the pop charts, hoarsely reciting a list of cities while his band pumped its way through a shuffle-rhythm end remake of Jimmy Forrest’s instrumental smash, “Night Train.” Forrest's was released in 1952 (recorded in '51); James Brown's version was in 1962.
It was in this setting that James, fighting with King Records (whose idea of an LP was a collection of singles) all the way, investing his own money into the production, recorded a live album at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on October 24, 1962. Released the next year, this proved to be the record which established James Brown as a household name among young white Americans, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop LP charts in an era in which the best-selling albums came form Broadway, Hollywood, hootenannies, and twist clubs. Reissued last year by Solid Smoke (San Francisco) as Live and Lowdown at the Apollo, Vol. 1, the album captures the first phase of James Brown’s career at its emotional peak. James brays, begs, and moans; the Famous Flames harmonize in a modified doo-wop fashion; the band goes through its paces with precision and style; the audience shrieks, cheers, shrieks, applauds, shrieks, yells, and shrieks. You cannot, of course, see the famous cape routine or the dance steps or the down-on-his-knees sobbing, but you can hear the audience react to these visual aspects, as loud shrieks punctuate the normal shrieks. The songs are almost all slow in tempo, aside from an almost casual “Night Train” and a rousingly brief “Think” (originally a Five Royales tune), but every one is an essay in horse-voiced intensity with the exception of Bullmoose Jackson’s “I Love You, Yes I Do.” Some songs are fragmented, some reappear in fragmentary form, most obviously with “Please, Please, Please,” which always signaled the cape routine. James would fall down on his knees, grieving to the point of mental and physical collapse, when one of his flunkies (in James’ routine, even the Famous Flames and band members served as on- and off-stage flunkies) would put a garish cape around his shoulders and start to lead him offstage, whereupon James “miraculously” revived to sing some more; this would continue, using several capes of different colors. But all are memorable examples of early James Brown at his most emotional and spontaneous. Of course, the whole show was both visually and musically calculated with split-second precision, but James knew the secret of how to make fake spontaneity look and sound 100% genuine. It was show business, but it had the ring of real life.

It should be made clear that the James Brown heard on the Sold Smoke reissue is not the James Brown who has become an unlikely New Wave hero. Don’t expect to fear the famous James Brown Sound, which has influenced the likes of Fela and Afrika ’70, James Chance, and the Talking Heads. That James Brown began to germinate in the mid-‘60s with such hits as “Papa Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You,” and “Cold Sweat.” By this time, the shuffle beat of “Night Train” was transformed into something looser, freer, with more space for the rhythm instruments to move around in.

Through 1966-67, one could sense that James was on the verge of a breakthrough. 1968 proved to be the turning point, the year of “There Was a Time,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “Licking Stick, Licking Stick,” and “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” James Brown was now officially important, musically and socially. The sound was complete – the madly syncopated one-chord guitar riffs, popping and dancing lines, intricately rhythmic drumming, punching horn riffs, and above it all, James’ more-talked / shouted / grunted / screeched-than-sung hortatory, delivering lines which generally made little sense on paper, but whose message was nonetheless instantly understood when heard. Once and for all, the meaning of the word “funk,” another jazz-derived term which, like “soul,” originally had a different meaning, was redefined (at the time, “funk” referred to barroom organ-combo jazz).

James Brown was a prophet with honor. He was a musical innovator in terms of both rhythm and the free structure of his arrangements. Unlike most innovators, however, he was also a media superstar. His music blared from every radio, and could be seen grinning form every newspaper and magazine cover, and doing his bizarre, speed-stepping choreography, grabbing the mic and letting out a dog-whistle-pitched yelp, and groaning “Good God” on television screens from coast to coast.

And the hits just kept on coming for another four or five years – “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine,” “Hot Pants,” “I’m a Greedy Man,” “Good Foot,” “I Got Ants in My Pants” – all sounding pretty much the same, yet with enough variations on the basic pattern to make each one a classic. And with the hits came the self-imposed titles: “Soul Brother No. 1,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (he was already using that way back in ’62), “The Godfather of Soul,” “The Minister of New Super-Heavy Funk,” ad nauseam.

But around 1973, things began to sour. According to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), whose job it is to keep track of things, James’ 1973 double album, The Payback, was his only gold album. Major hit or not, that album was symptomatic of what was happening to the James Brown Sound. The one-chord rhythm jams were slowing down, cooling off, and definitely losing their excitement. The horn voicing was fancier, more jazz-flavored harmonically (no doubt influenced by the successes Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, et al., were having with more sophisticated soul styles), without the tight, attention-grabbing ingenuity one was used to from the James Brown band. Worse yet, most of the tracks were in the 8-10 minute range, virtually encouraging monotony and energy dissipation; what worked for 3-1/2 minutes on a 45 but became tiresome in this expanded album length (something Fela has learned to overcome).

To make things worse for James, along came disco. Regardless of one’s personal opinion of disco music, it doesn’t take much effort to notice a distinct relationship between James’ proto-funk and disco. The latter’s bass drum thump was more regular, its orchestration more expansive, and its attitude slanted more toward the studio than live performance, but the syncopation of the rhythm tracks was clearly derived from James Brown’s original concepts. So one might have thought that it would have been easy, even natural for James Brown to adapt to disco. Instead, he attempted, in vain, to keep his shouting funk sound alive, alternating with often dire string-laden ballads. As a result, his record sales plummeted.

If his records of the mid-to-late ‘70s had been stronger, they might have had a chance in the marketplace, fashionable or not. But as it was, not only could “Papa” no longer come up with any “new bags,” he had very little left in the old ones. It was almost painful to see him release an album in 1978 called Jam/1980s, which supposedly introduced his “new disco sound,” but that was, in fact, a rehash of the same music he’d been doing ten years earlier. The fact that it was the best album he’d released in some time helped him regain some credibility among hardcore fans, but it did little for his sales figures, or his status as a creative contributor. In 1979, “It’s Too Funky in Here” turned into his first Top 10 R&B hit in over half a decade, but it was, alas, an isolated incident on which he was unable to further capitalize.

But James kept touring, occasionally presenting what seemed to be a parody of himself, at other times manifesting as a hoarse voice screeching in the wilderness. A 1980 Canadian television special in the Live at the Forum series found him executing his cape routine, which used to be his climax, a mere ten minutes after appearing onstage. Singing “It’s Too Funky in Here,” no less than three times, James sought to get as much mileage as possible out of his lone glimmer of sunlight.

Here it is, 1981, and James Brown is alive and increasingly well. The one element missing form his comeback is a hit single supported by a strong album, from which he could once again head straight to the top. His T.K. debut, Soul Syndrome, may be just the answer. It is, in part, a back-to-the-roots album. “Rapp Payback” may not have a solid enough narrative line or a rhythmic enough delivery to work as a contemporary rap record of the Sugarhill / Kurtis Blow / Grandmaster Flash variety, but it’s a sold reminder of what made James’ late-‘60s / early-‘70s style so vital. True, 14 minutes may be too much of a good thing, but it’s funky, energetic and, above all, alive. “Mashed Potatoes” (which he first did in 1962) and “Honky Tonk” (which is closer to Bill Doggett’s original than to James’ unduly frantic 1972 version) are throwbacks to his band’s pure R&B instrumental sound of the early ‘60s (before James’ largely forgotten organ-and-big-band jazz albums of the mid-‘60s). The first two cuts on side two update the classic James Brown funk approach to 1981 funk standards by making only slight adjustments. Side two, track three, “Stay with Me,” has all the earmarks of that elusive hit single; it’s light, comparatively tuneful, and unavoidably catchy. With any luck, by the time you read this, T.K. will have taken the intelligent action of releasing it as a well-promoted single, which hopefully will be hitting the upper reaches of the charts.

Or maybe Soul Syndrome will simply disappear, another commercial disaster. Chart analysts tell us black music is turning away from funk back to soft harmonies. What’s more, New Wave dance-funk has yet to make an impact outside New York, thus delaying any opportunity James might have to reach the national New Wave audience. It could be that at age 47 to 53 (depending on the source), with a few more pounds and deeper creases in his face, the career of James Brown is doomed. Should that be the case, we’ll still have a great many classic records such as the Solid Smoke LP and the string of mid-‘50s to early-‘70s hits to remind us of those long-past glory days when James Brown was a giant among mere mortal musicians.

[Brown’s biggest hit after this article was his cover of a “Living in America,” which he performed in the film Rocky IV. – RBF, 2011]

RBF’s Favorite James Brown Songs:

(No embedding for “Open Up the Door I’ll Get it Myself):

Bonus video:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Vanity Plates No. 4: Webshots

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos, 2011

I had tried a few of the other Web photo hosting sites, and found problems with most of them. Sometimes the problems were minor, such as where the pictures were put up in the opposite order, you could not change the order once the pictures were on the site, or you could only load one at a time, but I found this to be frustrating because I wanted my photos to be in order so they could tell a story. Yes, sometimes I manipulate the order to tweak it, but most of the time, they’re chronologically correct within the event(s). There is one I had been using and was happy with it, but it was absorbed into another software, and became cumbersome and miserable (perhaps we can call it the MySpace Syndrome).

But I found a home with Webshots. I liked the ease with which the photos could be edited, and the large number it could hold. Heck, I even went for the $30 per year premium because I wanted to see the stats of all the viewings. With a click of a button, I can see how many photos have been viewed, which have been downloaded by the viewer, and where it stands in a particular category. Sure, since Webshots was bought out by American Greeting there have been issues, but I still find it better than what else I have found out there. They do charge to download (of which I receive nada), but the images are free to view.

My general site is here: , which has a total of 292,975 views as of date of this publishing.

So, here are the top half-dozen viewed folders from my Webshots collection, in ascending order:

No. 6: Peggy O'Neill's Xmas Show 12/10/05
10,396 views [Ranked 1,021 in the Music category]
One of the many great showcases put up by Brooklyn band, the Nerve! That December day in Coney Island, the Peggy O’Neil’s bar had a leaky pipe, so rather than use the stage, the bands played on the floor level to a very enthusiastic crowd (who appear in many photos, as well). The bands that performed, in order, are Inanimate Girl (young teens), Object (wonderful spousal duo who play guitar/vox and drums), Rubber Molding, Honest to a Fault, Hello Nurse (very physically active group who sounded good, but would send so many notices on MySpace – remember MySpace? – that I had to de-friend them, which was a shame), Good Grief (cousin guitar and drum twosome who had such a large sound that they appeared to be a full group if you closed your eyes; they were joined by a bassist that night, and did an all Nirvana set), the Marianne Pillsburys (way underrated all female pop punk band), SQNS (aka Status Quo No Show, who are big GG Allin fans; they cover “Bite It You Scum), and headliners The Nerve!, an excellent band. Most of these groups are gone now, having morphed into different forms, but it was an exciting evening.

No. 5: Wigstock 2005
11,264 views [Ranked 349 in the News category]
New York’s Wigstock was not just a drag show, it was the drag event of the year, and yet it is no longer staged. Held at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, it was a ribald chance for the community (and fans) to get together and strut. Started by Lady Bunny, in part, she was still MC-ing it in 2005. Meanwhile, the Poisoned Aeros, a band based in Toronto, were in town, and we met up at the park and hung out all Wigstock day and had a blast. After, we went to Trash & Vaudeville and Dojo’s (which has since also bitten the dust). The photos reflect the show, the backstage, and the audience (which amazingly included little kids, despite the nudity and sexually suggestive language). Included in this folder’s photos are Lady Bunny, Perfidia, the Fabulous Floyd, Amnesia Sparkle, and of course Buckshot Bebee and Ro the Knife of the Aeros.

No. 4: 1970s Musicians I Have Photographed
12,655 views [Ranked 153 in Music category]
This is a loose collection of photos taken in clubs like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City during the period of 1976-1979. There is a lot of see, such as the Ramones, Blondie, Dead Boys, Cramps, Heartbreakers, and other luminaries of the New York scene. There are both minor and major acts mixed together, including some of my AC/DC at CBGB shots. Before the days of everyone having a cell phone camera, it was rare to find people with 35mm capturing bands. Having started FFanzeen and the need for photos to accompany the articles, I talked my parents into buying me a camera, and the rest is, well, right here. Some day I’ll scan all these negatives, and hopefully produce a book of them.

No. 3: Dock Street Xmas Show 12/17/05
23,567 views [Ranked 312 in the Music category]
You may notice that quite a few of these are dated from 2005, but that’s surely because it takes time to get that many views. The Dock Street Xmas shows were run by Jay Miller, who fronted one of my favorite post-punk bands, Monty Love. Situated in Staten Island, Dock Street bar was consistently packed with fans (who were photogenic). Luckily, I had a “spot” to stand where the slammers couldn’t reach, and I could just enjoy the music as I snapped photos in relative safety. One good thing about getting there early was I got to see (and snap away) the whole setting up of the show. On this evening, in order of appearance, Victims of a Drive By (fronted by the ex-singer of the ska-laden Washington Riot), Shatter Me Silent (their last show), the screamo local legends Quantice Never Crashed (who had to change their name twice for legal reasons), local legends Folly, the amazing punk emo singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, and then Monty Love hit the stage for their high energy set.

No. 2: IPO Opening Night, Baggot Inn, NYC, 11/8/2007
37,995 views [Ranked 112 in the Celebrities category]
Since it’s inception by David Bash, the International Pop Overthrow shows have been not only gaining audiences in New York, but have toured around the US and Canada; now they even play other continents across the globe. Each year there are various shows with rotating artists that play to welcoming audiences. I feel lucky to have seen it at an early stage, and to see the artists performing, some of whom I’ve known for years. In order, they were the Voyces, Bibi Barber (her recordings are quite enjoyable), Jesse Bryson (and band), Jake Stigers and the Velvet Roots, the Dukes Jetty (from England), Twenty Cent Crush (which included guest bassist Nancy Street, who played in Cheap Perfume – and whose picture from back then appears in the 1970s Musicians folder), the Attorneys, and the Next Big Rave (consisting of theDave Rave, musician/rock historian Gary Pig Gold, and ex-Cheepskates leader Shane Faubert), who were joined for a few songs by Michael Mazzarella of the Rooks and Chris Mehos of the Big Up). It was an incredible evening.

No. 1: Monty Love Xmas Spectacular, 12/22/2006, Dock Street, Staten Island
38,820 views [Ranked 139 in the Music category]
The most viewed album is due in part, I’m sure, to some of the musicians that came to the show. Plus, many of the musicians who played are from Staten Island or close by, so there is definite hometown pride (S.I.N.Y., as they say). This was the last Monty Love show before they broke up (despite a couple of reunions gigs), and I was happy to be in the audience, as I’m a Monty Love fan, as well as liking many of the other groups playing that night. There is a very cool video of a few of the songs from the show on YouTube (search Monty Love Xmas Spectacular, and ignore the introductory minutes until the music truly starts). On tap that night were, again, in order, Racing Exit 13 (for those who don’t know, exit 13 on the New Jersey Turnpike leads to the Goethals Bridge, a major entrance way to Staten Island), rappers Bullfrog Reunion (meh), Dead Set on Destruction, Folly (yes, the same band as in No. 3, above; as I stated earlier, they have a very strong fan base), once again the legendary Kevin Devine (solo, without the Goddamn Band; he also used to front Miracle of 86) who shared a stage with cult fave Jesse Lacey (of Taking Back Sunday, the Rookie Lot, and Brand New), and lastly, the over-the-top energetic Monty Love. As the YouTube video shows, it was a great show, and Monty Love will be missed by many in the tri-state area.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review: Trouble in the Camera Club, by Don Pyle

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Book cover from the Internet
Band photos © Don Pyle

Trouble in the Camera Club: A Photographic Narrative of Toronto’s Punk History 1976-1980
By Don Pyle
Introduction by Steven Leckie
ECW Press (Toronto), 2011
300 pages; USD/CDN $29.95
ISBN: 978-1-55022-966-0

Every scene instigation has its photographer. In Buffalo from the ‘70s on, it was Eric Jensen. In Boston in the ‘80s, it was Peter Parka (aka Rocco Cippilone). In New York, well, there were many, including myself. Perhaps someday, my book will come.

One such photographer and fan to the nascent New York scene was Mariah Augier [d. 2005], with whom I was acquainted. By the early-‘80s, I had lost touch with her. Years later, around 1996, I ran into her at a party for a mutual friend and we started talking about “the days.” She said something to me that changed my entire perspective of my photographs: “When I started taking photos,” paraphrasing what Mariah stated, “I was just doing it for fun. Years later, I realized what I had wasn’t a collection of pictures, it was a body of work.” I identified with that. Obviously, on his own, so did Don Pyle.

Pyle was a music-obsessed teen with a new camera who pointed his lens on whatever bands he was interested in, which turned out to be just about everyone that matters in the Toronto scene, and more. Hot on the heels of Liz Worth’s excellent book, Treat Me Like Dirt: The Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (in which Pyle is not only often quoted, but his photo is on the cover, a self-shot piece which also appears in Camera Club, and, in part, to the right of this paragraph), comes this unofficial and welcomed companion.

Actually, referring to this book as “a photographic narrative” is a bit of an understatement. Yes, there’s over 300 of Pyle’s photos, but there is so much more, such as 200 other images of ticket stubs and show flyers, and sometimes scalding, other times self-reflective – and occasionally self-depreciating – stories of what led him to certain bands, and what turned him off about others. There are the occasional pictures of friends, some of his early and experimental shots of the city, all on levels of varied expertise: he was learning to work a 35mm camera by photographing shows, much as I was; his first was Iggy supported by Bowie, mine the Ramones at CBGBs. Similarly, he also starting out taking pix with a cheap instamatic (him: Ramones and BOC; me: Roxy Music, and stalwarts of the NY scene like the Cramps, Dead Boys, and Wayne County). Heck, we even both took some shots off the television of the same program (Joan Jett and Kim Fowley on The Tomorrow Show). I get the feeling that if we had lived in the same town at the same time, we may have been friends.

Though he was in Toronto and I was in New York, apparently we saw many shows of the same tour (e.g., Gary Glitter, the Troggs, Iggy Pop), and it was interesting to hear him describe what I was feeling back then (such as how bad and boring the Police were on stage). Fortunately for him, he also got to see way more of Toronto’s local bands than I did. While I saw the Dave Rave period Teenage Head, he followed the original Frankie Venom Kerr (d. 2008) era, along with the Viletones (great band, and Pyle took a lot of shots of them; the lead singer, Nazi Dog – aka Steven Leckie, wrote the brief intro to this book), the Diodes, the Curse, the Demics, the Ugly, and so many more that I would have loved to have seen, but have to rely on stills like these, and their released vinyl (which often, according to Pyle, did not live up to the live band performances).

So, you’re not familiar with the Toronto sound and bands? It doesn’t matter, because Pyle’s interest went beyond that, as he took his camera to shows by international groups that were touring, like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, 999, the Stranglers, the Runaways. Then there are the amazing shots of some of the New York bands that made it up there, like the Ramones, the Heartbreakers (Johnny and Walter, but no Jerry), Blondie, the Patti Smith Group, the Fast, David Jo and Sylvain, and the Dead Boys.

While I realize I have woven myself into this review (more than usual, anyway), it’s because I feel an affinity for the period, the photos, and the Pyle’s process and story. After going through the book and reading all the text (which alone would have been enjoyable), I went through it again just admiring the images. Sure, there are blurry shots (like me, he did not use a flash for a long time), weirdly composed ones, and just plain lucky ones, but mostly he innately presents the performer in the action that gives the photos life, rather than just some shots of a band in concert or backstage.

As the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s, Pyle started to lose interest in being behind the camera, and instead chose to be on the stage in bands with brilliant names like Crash Kills Five (vox) and the Juno Award winning Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (drummer) who played the theme song to the Kids in the Hall show; he also became a music producer (the Sadies, John Doe, Iggy Pop, Andrew Gold, etc.). While Pyle may have left the camera behind, but he also left a legacy that we can still enjoy.

This collection is a superb entranceway to the Toronto scene, and yes, beyond.

Below are some samples of the photos in this book.


Sylvain Sylvain

Runaways: Joan Jett

The Curse

The Diodes

The Heartbreakers: Johnny Thunders

Iggy Pop

Friday, April 22, 2011

ORAL FUENTES: Bringing Positive Belize Riddems to the Canadian Plains

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos

No one can deny that the Prairie winter of central Canada is a bit on the cool side, sometimes dropping down to -40, even before the wind chill. What better way to warm up a frigid night, than a hot reggae band?

When I first moved to Saskatoon from Brooklyn, I was tooling around my yard trying to figure out what was what, and started talking to a very enthusiastic and upbeat neighbor. A native of the Central American country of Belize and now a Canadian, he’s in a reggae band, he informs me. Later I find out that not only is he “in a reggae band,” but he leads the premier reggae band in the city, if not the province. Everyone I talk to knows of Oral Fuentes, and what I hear back is always positive.

Oral Robert Fuentes (no kidding) not only leads a band that plays regularly around the city, including at many of the festivals around town (Jazz, Blues, etc.), but started and runs his own fest. It started out as the Saskatoon Reggae Festival a few years ago, and recently was updated to the Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Fest, to allow a wider range of sounds.

Speaking of name changes, the Oral Fuentes Reggae Band, as they used to be known, have one CD as of yet, Oral Culture (what a great name to the ear of this Media Ecologist; Fr. Walter Ong would be proud), full of original slow and sensual beats. Supposedly (and hopefully), there is a new recording in the works, hopefully to be released by the 2011 festival.

Finally, after a over a year of joyfully talking over the fence about life and music, I had the chance to see the Oral Fuentes Band in action. At the Bassment, a top-notch jazz club in downtown Saskatoon with friends, we were all planning to see the first one-hour set of two, at the Mardi Gras Fest 2011. It should surprise no one who knows the band that we all stayed for both.

Shortly after, someone at the local community newsletter asked me to write a piece about Oral. The next day, I whipped off a bunch of questions and emailed them to him. When they came back, I turned his responses into a short, easy read piece, the kind neighborhood quarterlies are known for. However, I wanted to put the full answers out, so here they are. Note that I left Oral’s written patter pretty much untouched and unedited, with his permission, because he writes like he talks, in a lilting accent that sounds similar to Jamaican, but smoother in tone. I find his talking and writing manner musical, as well.

FFanzeen: Is it the Oral Fuentes Band, or the Oral Fuentes Reggae Band? Did you change it, and if so, why?
Oral: Fuentes: Although the band name was “Oral Fuentes Reggae Band,” we have change it to just “Oral Fuentes Band.” We did this change because we don't just do only reggae music, but other Caribbean rhythm and beats.

FF: Where else in Canada have you lived? In the world?
Oral: I have lived in Ontario, Oregon, Longview (Texas), Guyana and Belize.

FF: What can you say about how you feel about Saskatoon in comparison to Belize?
Oral: Man, I love both Saskatoon and Belize. The thing is the cold of course and Belize don't get this cold. But when it’s warm and hot, you feel right at home. I feel that I should be here for some reason... sharing and being an ambassador to my culture.

FF: Is there anything you miss from Belize?
Oral: I really miss the food. We have so many good food and fresh fruits. Although you can get some fruits here, it’s not the same when the products have to come so far. I also miss my family and friends.

FF: Is there a name for Belize-distinctive reggae?
Oral: Not really. It’s the same reggae “riddim” as we say... my style is that I mix it up with Latin sounds. Both Belize and Jamaica has the same influences of reggae artists. Most of the time though... these artists are not so much reggae artists but “dance hall” artists. Dance hall and reggae are two different things.

FF: Who are some of your inspirations?
Oral: Belizean Lord Rhaburn, musician Lord Laro, Ernie Smith, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.

FF: Do you prefer to play the slower reggae or ska?
Oral: I like both... the slower reggae gets us in the groove. Then we put it up a notch, and by the end of the evening, people can't stay in their seats.

FF: Do you play any other kinds of music?
Oral: I play punta rock, Bruckdown (music from Belize), some dance-hall and a bit of soca.

FF: Do you play any other instrument than guitar?
Oral: I play the drums, (both) congas and djembe.

FF: Is there a set Oral Fuentes Band, or do the people backing you change from gig to gig?
Oral: Yes, we have a set band. Most of the fellows in the band have been with me, some for 15 years, some for 7, others for 4 years. We also get a few people to help out from other bands. Both Randy [Woods, guitar] and Geoff [Assman; keyboards] help me out at times, from Absofunkinlutely Band.

The Oral Fuentes Band:
Joseph Ashong – percussion
Oral Fuentes – vocals / guitar
Mike Kereiff – trombone
Zender Millar – bass
Dave Nelson – trumpet
Kevin Pierce - drums
Nigel Wright – lead guitar

FF: What other bands do you play in, here in Saskatoon?
Oral: Just with this band.

FF: What is the competition like here; is there a community or it is aggressively competitive?
Oral: If there is a competition I don't see it. All of the musicians know each other here. If we don't know each other personally, we know the band or heard the name. Each genre or style of music seem to have its own community of friends or people they hang out with. I personally try to stay about from all types of bad vibes or negativity.

FF: What was the music scene like when you first moved here in 1992?
Oral: The music scene was already going, but a lot of people were doing just covers at the time. My band, with a few others, were the only ones that were doing originals. At the time though, none of the night clubs would even hire me, because I wasn't a cover band and not known. People would laugh at me and said that it won't work, just doing my own songs. Others left the band because I wasn't doing covers. But I stick with it and saw the vision for it. We have to be ourselves in this business.

FF: How is it different now?
Oral: There are so many original bands now, which is awesome! Many of the night clubs and festivals want to hire people that writes their own songs. I, myself, have played many times at these clubs that had bias, via the booking guys, against us... and we bring in large audiences for them.

FF: How is the Saskatoon audience these days?
Oral: The audience in Saskatoon is awesome. Saskatoon loves cultural music and the celebration of other cultures. We have so many people that come out to see us. I am thankful for that!

FF: Is there a regular audience that comes to see you play, or does it vary from time to time?
Oral: Yes! We have our regulars that come out to see us. But it depends on where we play. At the night clubs we have that crowd, and at the Jazz Festival we have the family crowd, which is also very large.

FF: Is there anything you'd like to see change about the music scene here (for example, I would like to see a Folk Festival, like the one in Regina, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, etc.).
Oral: We are already trying to do some changes by bringing in the Reggae Festival. Making it accessible to other cultural artists or performing groups.

FF: Why did you start the Reggae Festival?
Oral: I saw the need to have a Festival that celebrates reggae and world music culture. There is a vast amount of people that supports this type of music here. The Festival changed from “Saskatoon Reggae Festival” to “Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Festival.”

FF: How did you go about starting the festival?
Oral: I started the Reggae Fest a few years back in 1995. The Festival started with many Latin and Caribbean shows at the Odeon Events Center, hosted by our band and DJ Juan Valdez. Then it develop into the Reggae Festival. We are now a registered non-profit.

FF: How do you recruit bands?
Oral: Bands hear about the Festival online []. When they apply, I get all their infos and go thru it. I usually check for Band's content... whether they are positive or not. I want to find the right fit for the Festival.

FF: What about the high level of homophobia in some reggae bands; how do you get around that in choosing bands to play at the Festival?
Oral: Most of these bands will not get hired at this Festival. I check online to see if these bands are like this, and they will not hear back from us. That’s just the way it is... Also, if a band gets hired we make sure that they know as part of their contract that they can't use profanity or any homophobia statement on stage. If they do there will be consequences.

FF: Since starting the Festival, you have expanded from Reggae to include World Music. What do you consider World Music? And why it's inclusion to the Reggae Fest?
Oral: I consider World Music all afro-beats or other musical cultural rhythm.

FF: When will it be this year (2011)?
Oral: On August 11 to 13th at the Friendship Park, downtown. Last year was at the Rotary Park... but have to be change because of the construction.

FF: How does someone go about hiring the Oral Fuentes Band?
Oral: People usually hire us via my website:, or after they see us at a show.

FF: How can someone go about buying your CD, Oral Culture?
Oral: People can buy our music online at It is also at 40 different online stores.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

THE BEACH BOYS – Mike Love, 1984

Text by Mary Anne Cassata, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1984; RBF intro © 2011 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article / interview with Mike Love was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #12, in 1984. It was implemented and written by Mary Anne Cassata.

Whatever one may think of Mike Love, be it a voice of the ‘60s, as a follower of Transcendental Meditation, hardcore right-wing conservative, litigious instigator, or power hungry tool, there is no denying he is one of the focal points of the original Beach Boys, whose music revolutionized a genre.

Dubbed “The Boys of Summer,” The BB’s early cool breeze guitar-based melodies over intricate jazz-arranged harmonies became a symbol of all things American, or at least West Coast. The band matured in style over the years, and yet their sound became lost in the post-
Sgt. Pepper’s emergence of rock; still, they became the phoenix of youth when they broke the news stations in 1983 for being banned from playing the White House. Suddenly they were everywhere, as the country collectively said, “Oh, yeah, we remember you guys!”

Back in the eye of the public as an “oldies,” feel-good vibration, they once again started recording, and even had some hits with the light “Rock and Roll to the Rescue” (a throwback to their early sound), a stunning cover of the Mamas and the Papa’s “California Dreaming” (the still-living M & Ps appeared in the video for the song, as does Roger McGuinn), and the dreadful-yet-infectious “Kokomo” (which has led to numerous bars to be named this).

Through the early history of the BB, Mike Love was one of four singers in the band, and after the Smile debacle resulted in leader Brian Wilson going into semi-retirement, Love grabbed the reins and became the Johnny Ramone of the group until their eventual and inevitable break-up.

Note that my updated comments are in [brackets]. – RBF, 2011

The Beach Boys, an integral part of rock’n’roll since the early ‘60s, still remarkably retain a forefront position. There are some that would agree lead vocalist Mike Love and cousin Brian Wilson have attributed to much of the Beach boys’ phenomenal success. Brian Wilson has been regarded somewhat of a genius by his peers and fans alike for his special ability to create musically, with instruments and arrangements, what recording engineers have done with sound effects and studio recording techniques.

Brian, with Mike, co-wrote many of the Beach Boys classics, such as “Good Vibration,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Help Me, Rhonda.”

These songs and others were crucial to the shaping of the American pop culture of the ‘60s called Surf Music. Other contenders, Jan and Dean (Jan Berry [d. 2004] and Dean Torrence), also helped pioneer the sound that was a cross between ‘60s rock’n’roll and the British Invasion. In the splendid days of surf music, the Beach Boys often shared their stage with Jan and Dean. Sometimes, the two surfer groups received equal billing. The popular duo, most famous for songs like “Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” “Baby Talk,” and “Sidewalk Surfin’,” often traded off songs wit the Beach Boys, which were equally well recorded by both groups.

After 22 years of singing songs about surfing, cars and pretty women, one might think the Beach Boys would eventually grow tired of the same old repetition of wondrous harmonies and arrangements. For over two decades the Beach Boys’ band member line-up has remained basically the same, consisting of Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis [d. 1983], and Carl [d. 1998], cousin Mike Love, good friend Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnson [who replaced Brian on many tours until eventually becoming an equal partner].

Mike Love is, without a doubt, a material element to the Beach Boys, but is also a versatile solo performer in his own right. Nearly two years ago he released his debut solo album, Looking Back with Love, and performed on tour with the Endless Summer Band to sold-out houses all over the country. In between gigs with Endless Summer, he managed to perform in a few concerts with his old cohorts.

The Looking Back album and tour were enthusiastically received by music critics and fans alike. Mike is an easily likeable person and immediately puts his company at ease. It’s not every day one is given the opportunity to talk to a Beach Boy. Recently, Mike Love has been involved in new projects, primarily with the Tandy Corporation, a subdivision of RadioShack.

Rock’n’Roll City, his latest effort, features a collection of ‘60s classics newly recorded by some of the artists from that decade. Among the few include Dean Torrence, Paul Revere, and the Association. These artists and others combined their musical talents in an effort to decrease rising record costs and developed the concepts for Rock’n’Roll City. Some of the album features renditions of “96 Tears” by Paul Revere, “Wild Thing” by Dean Torrence, and a special recording of “California Dreaming” by the Beach Boys.

In his luxurious hotel suite at the New York Grand Hyatt Regency, Mike Love spoke open and candidly about his life, career, and upcoming projects. Dressed in a deep blue jogging suit, Love frequently took to the floor to exercise calisthenics. He has also been practicing daily Transcendental Meditation sessions for many years now, and feels it has allowed him to cope with the pressures and constant changes of the music business.

“I meditate every morning and evening,” Mike Love said. “I have been doing so since the winter of ’67. The Maharishi taught me.” Love indicated he is an authority on the topic and would like to write a book about it someday. “I have gone on to advanced courses in the T.M. Sidi Program. I have a perspective on being American. I think writing a book would be a very good thing to do.”

While Love contemplates the possibility of writing a book, in the meanwhile he will promote Rock’n’Roll City. The concept was actually developed two years ago by Mike, with Dean Torrence, while both were on tour with The Spring Break concert series. The two musicians tossed around the idea of possibly doing some recording together after the tour ended. The Tandy Corporation was interested in their project and signed them to the Realistic Division.

“Our production company, Hit Bound, got in touch with them. They were interested in featuring Mike Love and the Beach Boys, and Dean of Jan and Dean, because they had a pretty good success with the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean compilations. We mainly wanted to do the number one songs of the ‘60s, and eliminated the Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis Presley, figuring that those are so heavily identifiable with those artists. We wanted the stuff that was still some of the great songs of that time period.”

A few months ago, ex-Interior Secretary James Watts, ignited a nationwide upset when he thoughtlessly banned rock’n’roll music from the Washington Capitol Mall concert on the Fourth of July. The Beach Boys, scheduled to perform that day, were outraged with Watts’ action. “Watts said he wasn’t going to allow any more rock’n’roll to be performed at the nation’s capitol,” still fumed Love. “All of us need to be reminded just where rock’n’roll came from. Its roots are here in America. It was a blending of the black music of the ‘40s and ‘50s, with the hillbilly and country music that came out of the mountains of Appalachia.

“Thirty years ago, rhythm and blues was called ‘race music,’ and white music that was joined with it was ‘rockabilly,’” he continued. “A new wave of music was born incorporating all the facets of the musical spectrum. Then along came the singers – black and white – who had something new. These singers had a lot of soul, and they called it rock’n’roll. I’d probably think first of Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” but it was really his hit “Ain’t That a Shame” that opened the door to the rock era.”

The legend of the Beach Boys began half a decade later in Hawthorne, California. The three Wilson brothers were musically inclined and used to harmonize on songs together in their bedroom. In his early teen years, Brian became very influenced by the music of the Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry, and often would spend hours a day picking out parts of songs on the piano. Before long, Brian had assigned different voice parts to this brothers, cousin Mike, and high school friend Al Jardine – later joined by Bruce Johnson.

Of the newly formed Beach Boys, Dennis was the first to notice the surfing trend taking shape, and encouraged his fellow band members to write songs about it. In 1961, the group officially called themselves the Beach Boys and recorded their first single, “409,” on a small record label. The single, backed with “Surfin’ Safari,” became a national double-sided hit, which led to an exclusive record contract with Capitol Records. In the next few years, the Beach Boys’ songs continued to remain high on the charts with the likes of “Surfin’ USA,” “I Get Around,” and “Shut Down.”

At one point of their fascinating career, Brian Wilson found the pressures of performing and recording too intense and was forced to take a leave of absence. Although he didn’t perform with the Beach Boys, Brian still continued to direct their musical affairs. Over the years, there have been many different versions of the story told as to what actually happened to Brian. For three years the vulnerable musician remained confined to his room, and had been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. Mike was asked to comment on Brian’s delicate problem.

“He took some drugs; Brian’s a very sensitive person,” Mike explained, “There are certain people that can take drugs that can maintain and certain people that can take them and blow it bad. It is the same thing with alcoholics. There are those who drink and go crazy; then there are the drugaholics, too. Brian is one of those people that are so sensitive that he took these drugs and it messed him up for quite a while. He is still recuperating from it, too. It was the most tragic thing that could have happened to him.

“He just stopped being dynamic, productive and creative. Brian was, at one time, the most creative producer in the business. He influenced the Beatles, and other people, too. I can’t imagine the Beach Boys without Brian. It was a bit of a tragedy and a loss. He didn’t die, but OD’d emotionally. That is why I am very much against the use of unprescribed drugs. It may be fine for some people, but may destroy others. Emotionally or literally, I am totally against the use of drugs. Once in a while it’s okay if you’re sick and a doctor prescribes them. That’s where they belong. I have seen it in my own life with the Beach Boys. It can really screw up someone’s life.”

Brian has performed periodically with the Beach Boys, most recently this past summer. Mike says he is “doing fabulous now,” and is learning to be responsible for himself again. “He was very paranoid for awhile, and wouldn’t come out. He would go into the kitchen and eat, and go back into his room again. Brian had been touring with us for a couple of years and wasn’t making any progress, physically or mentally. We said, ‘Forget it; we don’t want to see you die. You’re not carrying your own weight in the group.’

“He’s much more clearer now. He’s got it all together now. Brian is much more bright and positive now. Anything he puts his mind to he can achieve. He is a very dynamic, creative and intelligent person. A couple of years ago, I wrote a song called ‘Brian’s Back.’ I’ve been saving it. It should be coming out real soon.”

In 1966, Brian supervised the production on the album Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys had no idea what an impact it would make on the music scene. The album instantly became a rock masterpiece and the Beatles acknowledged it simultaneously with their Sgt. Pepper’s album. The single, “Good Vibrations,” was the Beach Boys’ largest selling record.

With the many changes that occurred in rock music the last two decades, Mike Love is not at all too concerned about keeping up with the times. “I am not a person who identifies strongly with current trends,” he relates. “I don’t listen to enough music constantly to be an authority on it. I tend to be like our brand of rock’n’roll: the Beach Boys. We were successful with ‘Fun, Fun, Fun,’ ‘I Get Around,’ and ‘Good Vibrations.’ That’s the kind of rock’n’roll I like.”

When Mike finds the time to relax, he says he listens to the music of Marvin Gaye and other older ‘50s and ‘60s black artists. “When we were younger, we used to listen to bands like the Coasters and other great R&B artists. People like Fats Domino and Little Richard have made such a tremendous contribution to American music.”

Mike also feels that something good can come out of any form of music, and because it may propose to be different does not necessarily mean it is bad. “A lot of trends really have nothing to do with music, but everything to do with the superficial part of it,” he stated, “the look of it; the makeup.

“The beautiful thing about the music scene is that it is so diverse and there is something in it for everyone. I am in my own little world when it comes to music. That’s why I use research to see what relates to people and to me. We really research the songs we record. There’s no use putting out a song that doesn’t appeal to everyone. That’s wasting your time and subjecting you to an ego trip.”

The Beach Boys’ music is eternal and represents different meanings to their millions of fans around the world. Does the lead singer of this legendary band ever become discontented about singing the same old wonderful songs all the time? “No, it’s a lot of fun,” exclaims Love. “It’s a recreation and, you know, a lot of fun. The audience provides the spontaneity. We may sing our songs a hundred times a year, but only once a night. If you are a big fan of ours, then, maybe, you see us seven times a week. That’s good for us and good for them, too.”

At this point, Mike’s publicist entered the room with his order of watermelon and red zinger tea. This has been his steadfast diet for the past three months. Love is a strict vegetarian, too.

In conclusion to our conversation, he stresses it is “the responsibility of the entertainer to please his audience. What good does it do if you don’t give the audience what they want? My place is to entertain the audience and give them what they want.”

No doubt, Mike Love and the Beach boys will continue to give more wonderful and satisfying performances for another decade. It’s hard to get tired of listening to “I Get Around” for the hundredth time so far this year.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Amy Rigby’s “Dancing with Joey Ramone”

Text © Robert Barry Francos, 2011
Music and images from the Internet

Amy Rigby is one of the cooler singer songwriters on the scene. She’s the girl your parents didn’t want you to play with, or date. Tough and tender at the same time, with a rough and lovely voice, and a hard strum on her acoustic guitar, she can be considered an anti-folk poster child – er – woman.

More one of the guys, she retains a strong sense of oomph that one might link to the Shangri-Las or Ronettes; she’s a smooth bottle of malt that has just the right kick at the end. Okay, enough with the analogies, here is one of my favorite songs of hers, “Dancing with Joey Ramone” (from her Little Fugitive album), accompanied by her husband, the Wreckless Eric.

She mentions a lot of great music within the song. So raising it from the meta-, here is are the tunes she references:

The Temptations: Papa Was a Rolling Stone
While a club may not play the full 7-minute version (depending on the venue, of course), it’s still a sharp number with a throbbing rhythm that highlighted an urban problem that was not commonly discussed in the ‘60s, but if anyone could do it with a sharp tone and keep the melody, it’s the Temps to show us it’s still a ball of confusion, even if it’s within one’s own family.

Blondie: Hanging on the Telephone
One of the better Chrysalis period songs by Blondie (I still like the first Private Stock album best) from the Parallel Lines album, this is a solid cover of the Nerves’ song. You can hear Debbie’s solid Jersey accent in it.

The Nerves: Hanging on the Telephone
Though most likely it was the Blondie version that she was talking about, Rigby is cool enough to be possibly referencing the original, so I’ve included them both. Yes, I own this, and yes, I prefer it of the two. Jack Lee (vocal / guitar) is killer on it, and it also helps that he’s backed by the likes of Peter Case (bass) and Paul Collins (drum). They only released one 7-inch EP.

The Brooklyn Bridge: The Worst That Could Happen
Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge were discovered at a nightclub in Bay
Ridge, Brooklyn (it was on 86 St and Sixth Ave., across the highway from the now-Blockbuster Video Store). Even after fame would rise and fall for Maestro (d. 2010), he would often play at that club, as well as do local shows such as at the Walker Theater in Bensonhurst. He had a pure doo-wop voice that never failed, sounding great throughout his life. Before the BB, he was the lead singer of the Crests, who did “16 Candles,” “The Angels Listened In,” and one of my faves of the period, the lyrically silly-but-fun “Trouble in Paradise.” Unfortunately, the BB did not have as many hits as the Crests, though everyone knows “The Worst…” (written by Jimmy Webb).

The Crystals: He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)
This controversial song is loved now for its kitsch factor (and that it was done by one of the better girl groups of the ‘60s), but when it was released it was quickly pulled from radio rotation because of the message it was delivering (i.e., promoting violence against women). While I agree, it also seems a double standard since it’s the same tale as “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” except rather than Johnny hitting the other dude for dancing with “his” girl, he smacks her instead for being unfaithful. Both are ridiculous messages, despite being catchy tunes.

Dave Clark Five: Glad All Over
Growing up in the ‘60s, the DC5 were one of my favorite British Invasion bands (more so than even the Beatles at the time). Mike Smith’s (d. 2008) vocals were strong, and the band’s drive and harmony had me hooked. The “thump-thump” between chorus lines and Smith’s soaring keys hooked me in right away. They had so many great songs, like “Catch Us If You Can” (the first song of theirs to catch my attention when I saw the film Having a Wild Weekend), “Bits and Pieces,” and “Anyway You Want It.”

The Searchers: Needles and Pins
Written by Sonny Bono for Cher's solo album, fortunately it was the Mersey Beat group The Searchers who made it to the charts with the tune. I actually had the priveledge to hear them play at a Richard Nader show at a half-filled Madison Square Garden in the early '70s (one of my first shows). There has always been sort of a cult following for the Searches, more so it seems than many of the other MB bands.

The Ronettes: Be My Baby
The story goes that Ronnie Bennett only needed a single take to make this classic, one of the many great songs she did before being locked away for years by her producer husband Phil Spector (as for Phil, now that, my friends, is karma). And Ronnie being friends with Joey (as well as the Dead Boys and Patti Smith!) makes it all the more appropriate to be included here. This is not just a song, but it is iconic for the time and girl-group style.

The Shadows of Knight: Gloria
Along with “Wild Thing,” “Gloria” is one of the first songs a novice guitarist will likely pick out. Written by Van Morrison and first recorded by his band, Them, the cooler kids know that it’s the Shadows of Knight version that is definitive. Sure, Patti Smith would turn it over and make it her own, but in the garage rock lexicon, “Gloria” belongs to the SoK. This rendering below is a live recording, and is pretty long. Like “Roadrunner,” its basic melody can be played for an extended periods, looping along the identifiable riff.

The Chiffons: He’s So Fine
“Doo-lang-doo-lang-doo-lang…” My ex-managing editor, Stacy, had a fixation for this song back in the late ‘70s, and quite understandably. Even though they had so many great recordings, such as “One Fine Day” and the gender groundbreaking “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the “doo-lang” of the chorus is instantly recognizable and keeps one singing along.

The Coasters : Charlie Brown
Mostly considered a “novelty” group (“Yakety Yak,” “Along Came Jones”), the Coasters also had many straight hits, such as “Poison Ivy.” They definitely were a fun band who pushed the envelope on what was becoming standardized doo-wop, into a bit of the wild side, which again makes it appropriate to be mentioned here. For example, this song is one of the first that has a juvenile delinquent as the main protagonist. I’m sure that sat well in the Deep South.

The Dovells : Can’t Sit Down
This song from 1963 was the precursor to some of the wilder side of American rock’n’roll that wouldn’t be tamed by the Beatles, such as the Count V’s “Psychotic Reaction” or even Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s “Wooly Bully.” The Dovells started out with the wonderful “The Bristol Stomp,” and continued to be hard edged through this song, which was quite frantic and fast for its period.

The Ramones : Blitzkrieg Bop
Do I really need to explain (a) why this is here, (b) how important this song is, and (c) just how amazing a tune it is (albeit overplayed)?

Bonus Videos:
Ramones: Needles and Pins

The Dahlmanns: Dancing with Joey Ramone

The Crests: Trouble in Paradise

Dave Clark Five: Having a Wild Weekend trailer

L7: Hanging on the Telephone

Sleater-Kinney: I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Theatre Review: La Maculée / sTain, March 2011

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

La Maculée / sTain
Written by Madeleine Blais-Dahlem
Directed by Marie-Eve Gagnon
La Troupe du Jour
The Refinery (Saskatoon)

Outside of Canada, it is probably not widely known that Quebec is not the only province with a large Francophone population. Actually, between the Métis, gold rush migrants and homesteaders, Saskatchewan has many residents who have families that originated in Quebec and settled on the prairies.

This fact is just a beginning point in the thematically complex and compelling play La Maculée / sTain, staged by La Troupe du Jour, which focuses on a Montreal native become Saskatchewan resident, Françoise, who moves to the province when she marries Bernard, a resident of the Battlefords area. What starts as a deep love that sired five (unseen) children, twists into a bitter resentment, providing the frame for the storyline. But I jump ahead.

Set in the in 1920s, the play is mostly in French, with subtitles projected above the stage. The story jumps back and forth from the time the couple met toward the denouement, explaining how and why the situation has deteriorated. Using a very simple and yet eloquent stage (designed by David Granger), every element is used at one point or another.

[writer Madeleine Blais-Dahlem]
Devising a story that started out with a memory from her mother’s time, Saskatchewan writer Madeleine Blais-Dahlem was propelled to craft this drama when she heard about a female suicide bomber, and thought spontaneously: “Religion is still killing women.” These two points wove together in her consciousness to generate this play, which does not denounce religion as evil, but treats it as something that can be used for that purpose. As Bernard transforms into a Pentecostal snake-oil salesman searching for big bucks through tent revivals, while his innocent and deeply Catholic wife, Françoise, struggles with the toll it takes on her beliefs. As a result, Françoise eventually checks herself into the local mental clinic on a more-or-less regular basis to get away from the situation; Bernard wants to lock her away forever.

There are six characters in the play, each embodying the symbols of a patriarchal (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and matriarchal (Maiden, Mother, Crone) belief system. I’ll go in that order:

The Father figure is Dr. Maurice Johnson, the head psychiatrist of the mental hospital, played with just the right amount of sanctimonious blindness and condescension by veteran stage actor Ian C. Nelson. He knows that Françoise is not crazy, but rather than trying to root out why she keeps checking herself into the hospital, is more interested in proving himself right in relation to contemporary theory. Father does not know what’s best for Françoise, and since she is “merely a woman” in his eyes, he listens to her, but does not necessarily hear, much like one might say the “Man above” does with prayers.

Bernard, strongly portrayed by Gilles Poulin-Denis, is mentored by another religious faker who trains and uses Bernard to front his operation of religious fervor. Poulin-Denis convincingly plays his character as he is slowly transformed from a struggling farmer into a high-powered and abusive man who will let nothing stand in his way, be it his loving wife or using his children to further his aim. Through his retraining from a shy French-speaking Catholic into the hellfire English-tongued Pentecostal, he grows up to be someone feared rather than loved. Poulin-Denis walks the line between the two sides of Bernard, as he travels back and forth between before and after his “conversion.”

As for the Holy Spirit, New Brunswick native Bruce McKay is electrifying as the Real Preacher Man (as his character is listed), lighting up the stage from the moment he enters Françoise and Bernard’s lives as a door-to-door salesman, selling bottled religious remedies. He convinces the couple that his “medicine” (actually poured straight from a liquor bottle) is a miracle elixir. Through the transaction, he sees something in Bernard that convinces him to take him under his tutelage by teaching him English, and fostering enough confidence to take on the role of leading revival groups. McKay commands the stage as soon as the door opens for him, making him quite convincing as this evil, conniving, shady character.

Françoise is the poor Maiden, taken advantage of by the patriarchy in a system and time period where she has few rights. Torn between her religious beliefs, and having been taught that she is supposed to be “obedient” to her husband who is becoming someone else before her eyes, she watches as her children are exploited under Bernard’s tent as props to lure people in; they are also used as a weapon as Bernard turns them against their mother. Marie-Claire Marcotte using a full range of emotions from timidity to fear to absolute rage in a fit of futility, portrays Françoise as a person torn both emotionally and physically by everything she loves. It is a powerful role in which Marcotte shines.

The Mother image is personified in the hospital’s nurse, Louise, played by Alicia Johnston. Like Françoise, Louise is an intelligent woman who is forced to operate under the direction of a man, Dr. Johnson, who is less empathic than she is. She understands Françoise’s plight better than perhaps anyone in the play, including Françoise, but is powerless to do much about it. Instead, she takes Françoise under her wing and gives her what none of the males who control her life can: compassion. Johnston’s role is warm and nurturing for the audience as well, as a lonely symbol of what is right. Nurses who know better are too often stuck being subservient to doctors and systems who do not have the time or inclination to do the deepest caring work, even today.

The last character is Françoise’s mysterious neighbor, a First Nation’s woman who is seen fleetingly. As the embodiment of the wise Crone, she is someone who occasionally takes care of Françoise in times of need, drawing on tribal knowledge, without dialogue, and with no expectation of reciprocation. She is such an enigmatic individual, covered over from head to toe, that she is not even listed in the program (my guess is she is played by McKay, who has little to do in the second act).

Even the very title of the play is more than it seems. For example, there is no English word for Maculée, loosely translated as the opposite of “Immaculate,” as in the Immaculate Conception (Mother Mary is a significant symbolic presence in this story in the form of a statuette). The term “Stain” may be one way to interpret the term, but it is spelled in lower case here, with the “T” capitalized to represent the Cross.

[Director Marie-Eve Gagnon]
While being drenched in symbolism, the play is actually quite accessible, though emotionally wrought. Despite the tendency for these kinds of stories have all the men function as oppressors and all the women as the oppressed, it’s a moral tale for all about how a sexual caste system is unhealthy both for the exploited, through social constructions of victimization, and for the persecutor, whose potentials are distorted under the rigors of a culture of masculinist training.

As an amusing sidenote, I found it mildly ironic that the production was put on in the Refinery, which used to be a church rectory.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Hüsker Dü, by Andrew Earles

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Book cover image and videos from the Internet

Hüsker Dü: The story of the noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock
By Andrew Earles
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2010
288 pages; USD $24.00 / CAN $27.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-3504-8

I remember that day in 1984 when I went to my Post Office box and there was a package from SST Records. This wasn’t too unusual, except this one was heavy like a brick.

Rushing home I opened it up. Inside were two albums, each one a double disk: The Minutemen’s Double Nickel on the Dime and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. Apparently, they had both come out the same day. Then I took them out for a spin.

Hüsker Dü had grown quite a bit since their first LP, Land Speed Record, one I found excellent, but not a stand-out. With each HD release, though, their growth excited me more as they became somewhat more melodic. Still their rise was 45 degrees up until the end.

So what began as an above average fast-as-fuck hardcore band started to include some melody, rather than just trying to rely on proving how Speedy Gonzalez they were (after all, even a ratón rápido has a physical speed max). This is when HD became, well, more.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were lynchpin bands that were of great influence, such as the Ramones (NY punk), Talking Heads (art rock), Sex Pistols (punk rock), Blondie (New Wave), REM (college rock), and Black Flag (hardcore); HD to were to become highly influential about mid-way through their history. While the subtitle of the book seems a bit hyperbole, there is no denying that HD played an important hub in the huge wheel of indie music in the ‘80s.

Other than a 37-page full chapter in Michael Zaerrad’s intriguing Our Band Could Be Your Life (acknowledged by Earles), there has been nothing extensive written on HD. That is, until this book, which follows the career somewhat before, during, and somewhat after. Drummer / co-singer / co-songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton both took part in the process, giving Earles extensive quotes about the band. Only guitarist / co-singer / co-songwriter Bob Mould does not raise a voice here, except in quotes from previous sources such as fanzine interviews from the period. This could be because (a) he is currently working on his own auto-bio and didn’t want to be redundant, (b) he would not participate in anything that has to do with Grant Hart and / or Greg Norton, (c) he does not want to be associated with anything as singularly focused as a HD book that is not also about his other projects, or (d) all of the above. While his lack of participation does not eliminate the message of the book, it does leave a bit of a vacuum, and also a less-than-subtle message to the reader and / or previous members of HD.

Hüsker Dü is a fact filled telling of their early years, about finding each other, the growth of the band, recording sessions, the eventual break-up and a chapter-long follow-up of what-happened-since and where-are-they-now. What it does not reflect much, is the dynamics of the inner workings of the band (what made them tick).

In other words, as important a document as the book is, there is something missing as far as the band’s “personality,” even with extensive quotes by Hart and Norton and the fact that Earles is completely willing to face that HD were not perfect (e.g., there is, gratefully, no histrionics on the lines of “I have seen the future of…”). While the details are there, it’s a bit shy in the hues.

For example, it is clear that Grant and Mould were having huge ego attacks against each other, and that they fought for who would have what number of cuts on each release, but there is nothing about the form the “battles” took, just that they did. While their tours are discussed extensively, describing songlists, crowd reaction, and press mentions, there is no Get in the Van backstage stories, other than that Grant and Mould flew on separate planes while Norton rode back with the equipment. While not a dirt hound per se, I would like to see a little bit of juice to get the feel of being on the road with them, especially considering how often they toured. In other books there are wonderful stories about being on the road with the Ramones or the Clash, for example, and D.O.A.’s Joey Shithead wrote some wonderful road / war stories in I, Shithead. This book is dry meat with a hint of gravy (note that I would be just as critical if this was mostly gravy with little meat).

The last thing I will say in this direction is wondering if there was any fact checking going on with the book; there are some blatant errors that pop up here and there. For example, in discussing HD’s influence, Earles mentions Bostonian “all girl band” Salem 66. While they were all females for a very, very short period at their inception, during most of their career the two main women in the band were aided by a revolving series of males to round out the trio (and why he didn’t mention somewhat similarly sounding Boston band Christmas is a curiosity). But the biggest error I found was the repeated mention of Seymour Stein and his Sire bands (in a negative tone), including the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and Television. Well, at least two of them were never on Sire (Blondie on Private Stock and Chrysalis, and Television on Elektra). Makes me wonder what else was off that I missed…

Despite these flaws, there is a lot to actually recommend about Hüsker Dü I was extremely glad to be able to read this more extensive story of their career. It made me go back into my collection and play all their records (yes, vinyl) again, as he discussed them in detail. I also appreciated the sometimes extensive republishing of articles about / interviews with the band during the period, especially those by Mould, since he did not participate in this venture.

I’d met HD during an interview on New York cable access show Videowave, when I was the cameraperson for the shoot. I noticed that while they all interacted well together, Grant and Mould never looked at each other (of course, having given them copies of FFanzeen, they decided to keep reading them during the actual interview, so there was little eye contact anyway). They were all pleasant enough, even Mould (who was known for being snarky), and their soundcheck was killer. A photo I took of Mould during the check was published in Brian Cogan’s The Encyclopedia of Punk Music and Culture.

Speaking of photos, there are two sections of great pictures (my favorites by Kathy Chapman; see of the band’s history (and after), flyers, and the like. Tour songlists are sporadically added throughout the text, and there is quite a few appendices, including (but not only) an extensive discography and filmography, bands who have covered HD songs, and bands who were influenced by them. Also included with the book is a free bumper sticker that states “What Would Hüsker Dü?”

Considering the strong personalities that inhabited the members of Hüsker Dü, this book could have been more, but even with the lacks mentioned within this review, there is surely more than enough of the history of the band and the world in which they spun, to keep the ardent fan’s attention, and inform those who are curious.