Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book Review: Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll: Conversations with unjustly obscure rock’n’soul eccentrics Boys
Edited by Jake Austen
Forward by Steve Albini
Refiguring American Music series, edited by Ronald Radano and Josh Kun
Duke University Press (Durham / London), 2011
292 pages; USD $24.95 Softcover (cloth cover also available)
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4849-8
Images from the Internet

The sub-sub title of this book is “The best of Roctober.” Rather than having any connection to German beer drinkers, this is a collection of some articles / interviews that were published in Jake Austen’s Chicago-based fanzine by that same name.

Thing about Roctober is while its main focus is on rock’n’roll, Austen refuses to have a border, and covers jazz, rockabilly, blues, R&B, country, and outsider music. And in Kicks fashion, the ‘zine is thick, with articles unpurged for length. Admittedly, I could not say the same for my own fanzine back in its print form (’77-’88). Oh, yeah, Roctober still comes out in hard copy form, while so many others of us have gone the digi route.

Let me come out right now and say that other than name factor, the forward by the usually articulate if occasionally cryptic musician / producer / legend Steve Albini is uninteresting and thankfully short, possibly the only low point in the book. However, Austen’s lengthier introduction is one of the better ones I’ve read in a while, accurately placing the artists covered in their cultural perspective, and giving keen insights to the writers conscious and subconscious intents, as well.

There are 10 somewhat lengthy pieces on artists that have arguably accomplished more and achieved a higher level of fame than the subjects of Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, only to have come soooo close to breaking, but missed the ring. I know about more than half the artists in the book, but after reading it, I realize I really do need to know them all.

Probably the most obscure name in here (well, to me, anyway) is Armenian-American singer Guy Chookoorian, who has his own obvious market worldwide. Everyone else is of the bubbling under category. For example, Billy Lee Riley is one of the only Sun recording artists of the just-post-Elvis period that never had the exposure of the rest of the male-heavy category, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, etc., despite his blazing version of “Red Hot” (which had Jerry Lee on py-anna, and has been covered by many, from Robert Gordon to Ronnie & the Jitters), and the song from which this book gets its title.

Oscar Brown Jr., who opens the book, is well known in the jazz and poetry slam circles since the 50s, and considering his political takes he must certainly have a thick FBI file as well. His material is interesting, seditious, and he is certainly well spoken.

On the other end of the erudite scale is country star David Allen Coe (who was a clue in the daily newspaper crossword puzzle while I was reading his section, I kid you not!) and R&B belter Sugar Pie DeSanto, two extremely talented singers who have walk a profane-filled road. Coe’s material includes everything from blues to racist and country porn (e.g., “I made Linda Lovelace gag”; where’s Chinga Chavin when ya need him?) as he rode violence and a bottle (etc.) to prison and back, though he also wrote country classics as well, including “Take This Job and Shove It.” Both are still touring (but not together)

The two who have probably reached the highest plane are very early R&B --> rock’n’roll group the Treniers, led by a pair of identical twins, who claim to have been the first artists ever to play rock and roll on television during the Colgate Comedy Hour with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1954. The other is Sam the Sham (Samudio), who released what I consider one of the best rock’n’roll dance records ever, “Wooly Bully.” Despite having a number of hits, Samudio sank into obscurity after being forced to perform a series of silly albeit enjoyable songs (“El Toro De Goro,” “Ring Dang Doo,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” etc.) rather than the Tex-Mex fire that he was so good at playing. In the Sam the Sham section, one aspect I would have liked to have known about is the period after he found religion (touched on at the end of the interview) where I once heard he used to take supplies to the oil rigs outside his home of New Orleans, and preach the gospel to the workers; I have no idea if this is true, and I would have liked to have heard about it… quibble, quibble, quibble.

Two New York area bands are covered that I were sort of part of my milieu. Well, as I practically lived in used record stores during the mid-1970s to late-1980s, seeing the Good Rats’ albums was a constant. From Long Island, the Italian brothers who fronted the band were nearly omnipresent. And yet, as they were a bar band and for some reason never played on the many, many, many nights I spent out in clubs, I had not seen them play. Occasionally I heard their songs here and there, but despite them being just about everywhere, they were more peripheral to me. Their material was certainly fun, but my focus was elsewhere. It is good to read the interview with lead singer Peppi Marchello.

Speaking of Italian brothers from Long Island, one of the bands included is the Fast, one of my favorite bands from the mid-‘70s, comprising of siblings Miki, Paul and Armand Zone. Actually, the first time I saw them play was ’74 in Prospect Park, before Paul fronted the band. Their insane electro-pop, with Armand’s soprano voice mixing with Paul’s was thrilling, as was Miki’s guitar playing. Austen accurately describes Miki’s wild use of pencils to turn his guitar into a percussion instrument, and yes, I’ve seen the giant pencil in action. The Fast lost me a bit after Armand left and they became more metal-influenced. However, I was still enough of a fan to interview them in their van off the service road of the entranceway to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and publish it in FFanzeen. [A big thanks to Austen for not only quoting that interview, but naming our humble ‘zine (p. 91).]

Saving the most fascinating for last, Jonathan Poletti does an absolutely intriguing piece on Zolar X’s lead singer, Zory Zenith. And yet, it’s as much a journey for Poletti as it becomes to the reader. The piece almost comes across like a gothic novel, with unforeseen twists and turns that makes this a solid piece of journalism.

Because of the lengths of some of the pieces, a bigger picture can be presented as more details are not only presented by the writer, but by the artists themselves, showing ample reasons why, in some cases, they never quite reached the fame they deserved thanks to their own failings, be it substance abuse, ego, delusion, violence, or pride, among others. This is especially true in the two longer pieces, focusing on Billy Lee Reilly and Zolar X.

There are plenty of photos (and artwork by King Merinuk) scattered throughout, and the book ends with an appendix of where to find material on the artists titled “Suggested Listening, Viewing, Surfing,” and a brief bio of the writers.

To give you a solid example to express my enjoyment level of this book, I read the nearly 300 pages in three days. Couldn’t put it down (and in this case being unemployed gave me the time, but I digress…).

I am hoping this is actually the first part in a series of “Best ofs…”, and perhaps next time we can read more about the Black Lone Ranger?

Bonus videos:
Oscar Brown Jr.

David Allen Coe

Guy Chookoorian

The Fast

Sugar Pie DeSanto

Billy Lee Riley

The Treniers

Sam the Sham

The Good Rats

Zolar X

Extra bonus videos

No comments:

Post a Comment