Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hoyt Axton: Half Folkie, Half Hippie, Half Okie (Guest Article)

For the more than a decade that I’ve known Brian Dickson, his fandom of the multi-talented Hoyt Axton has been evident. If Hoyt had been younger, it’s possible he could have been called country punk, along with the likes of Rank & File, but he was more of the generation of Townes van Zandt and the hyper-realistic country that was both harsh and beautiful. This, in part, is why I asked Brian to write something about Hoyt, since little is known about him these days, and he deserves the credit he can get. Besides, feeding a musical obsession is something I will usually stand behind, especially if the subject is as worthwhile as Axton. – Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014

By Brian Dickson, 2014
Images from the Internet

I was pleasantly surprised when Robert dropped me a line and asked if I would like to write a piece on Hoyt Axton for this blog, but I had to ask him: “Are you sure Axton fits the bill for ‘Rock n’ Roll Attitude with Integrity’?” Robert's reply: “Hoyt was as punk as Johnny Cash or Townes Van Zandt, as far as I’m concerned.” Which I believe is true in several ways. Hoyt enjoyed a long, colorful career that included not only music composition and performance, but acting, record production and commercial voice-over work. But part of my fascination with the man, I think, is that his musical approach always eluded definition. He could never be bracketed into one genre or another.

Hoyt Wayne Axton. If you don’t know the name, chances are you’d recognize him from films and TV. “Bonanza.“ Smoky (1966). The Black Stallion (1979). “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Heart Like A Wheel (1983). Gremlins (1984) [He played the dad who gave his son the Gremlin – RBF]. We’re No Angels (1989). A slew of others. But if you can’t place the face, chances are you know the voice. Extoller of the Big Mac, Pizza Hut, and Busch beer. And of course, writer and singer of some truly great songs.

Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, in 1938, and raised in Comanche; the eldest son of John T. Axton and Mae Boren (Mae, later known as ”The Queen Mother of Nashville,“ co-wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis). He served a brief stint in the U.S. Navy after attending Oklahoma State University on a football scholarship. His career in music began in West Coast coffee houses and folk clubs in the early sixties.

I’ll admit I’m showing up at the party pretty late here. I was born in ’73; by that year Axton had recorded ten albums for six different labels. Nineteen sixty-nine saw the release of My Griffin Is Gone on Columbia Records, followed by two on Capitol Records in 1971 (Joy to the World, and the lesser known Country Anthem). In ’73 came Less Than the Song on A&M, the first of four albums on that label, which is widely recognized as Hoyt’s creative peak: Song in ’73, Life Machine (1974), Southbound (1975) and Fearless (1976).

But being an ‘80’s kid, I became aware of Hoyt not through his music, but by seeing him in movies - Gremlins, primarily - and on television, namely, “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” In tenth grade it became a daily routine after walking home from school to catch a re-run of “WKRP” at 4. I fondly recall that classic first-season episode entitled, “I Do, I Do…For Now.” Hoyt, playing the imposing “T.J. Watson from Rockthrow, West Virginia,” arrives at the station to reclaim his childhood sweetheart, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), who hastily pretends to be married to Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman). Hoyt sings “Jealous Man” to a captive and terrified Fever in the station lobby (“You got the knife, I got the gun / c’mon boy, we’re gonna have a little fun…”). He proceeds to tell a story about his dear ol’ pappy. And how the woman his pappy loved – his mama – was already married to another man by the name of Jenkins. But Jenkins didn’t wanna give his mama up. So his pappy - bein’ the man he was - went down to see Jenkins…and called him out. “Called him out?” Fever replies nervously. That’s right, T.J. says – called…him…out. Fever (hope diminishing): “To talk.” Hoyt: Uh-huh. Then he shot him.” This is one of my favorite scenes in all of TV history.

It wasn’t until a road trip in the first car I ever owned – an ‘85 Plymouth Turismo, paid $650 cash – that I found Hoyt on a purely musical level. This was a solo run from Ottawa to my home province of New Brunswick, Canada, in 1999. I had been browsing CDs in a music store a couple of days prior, and stumbled across the two-disc A&M Years package, which contains Axton’s four albums released on A&M Records from 1973-76. I remember thinking, “Well, looky here. Hoyt Axton.” On that trip I cranked up songs on that old Duster’s player like “Peacemaker,” “Life Machine,” “Idol of the Band,” “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” and “No No Song.” I discovered Hoyt’s music with road tunes from Southbound and Fearless on the highway outside of Montreal that morning, which made me realize what an underrated figure the man was and is, to this day.

Hoyt is generally considered a country artist, particularly from his musical bend in the mid-to-late ‘70s and on. But let’s go back to the beginning: 1963. Consider his first folk recordings on Horizon Records: Greenback Dollar, Thunder’n Lightnin,’ Saturday’s Child. Bob Dylan broke down the door, and Axton moseyed through – not with the same lyrical prowess as Dylan, but with attitude, groove, and a voice like no other.

The following year saw Hoyt “explode”! Released by Vee-Jay in ’64, Hoyt Axton Explodes! is a mid-‘60s curio that might be loosely described as “garage folk-rock.” If Axton has a blues record, it would be Sings Bessie Smith (1965). My Griffin Is Gone (1969) is a lesser inclusion among the pantheon of classic albums of the period, but an atmospheric gem of that era, nonetheless. And Joy to the World is a rock album. A rock album with folky ballads making up half of each side, though. Folk n’ roll? Listen to the title track and “Never Been to Spain” (big hits for Three Dog Night). Regard others like “The Pusher” (big hit for Steppenwolf), “California Women,” or that classic party song, “Lightning Bar Blues.” Also a tune called “Captain America” from 1973. These are rock songs. His aforementioned albums on A&M from 1973-76 started with a somewhat experimental, progressive folk/blues oddity (Less Than the Song), but which somehow…wasn’t. The albums Life Machine, Southbound and Fearless were “country-rock,” but…weren’t. Hoyt’s other albums for MCA and the ones on his own Jeremiah label appeared to be country, but also quietly defied categorization. For the most part, his music encompassed folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and country simultaneously. Michael Curtis, co-writer of the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit “Southern Cross,” said of Axton: “Hoyt had his own way of writing. He didn't exactly break the rules of songwriting, but he would often ignore them. He taught me a lot.” [Quote from HERE]

Hoyt: I'm one of those fringe dudes -- Half folkie, half hippie, half Okie. My input has been very eclectic. I was always surrounded by all kinds of music as my family moved around the country: jazz, classical, gospel, whatever. The influences enter from a lot of directions. [Quote from HERE]

Hoyt died of heart failure in Victor, Montana, in October of 1999, at the age of 61. I never had the opportunity to meet him, or see him in concert. But from what I’ve read in recent years (and learned from members of my Facebook tribute group Fans of Hoyt [HERE] who actually knew him or met him), he was a genuinely nice fella. In a People magazine article published shortly after his death, his third wife, Donna Axton, said, “He used to throw twenty-dollar bills out the car window and say, 'That will make someone happy.’” Look at almost anything autographed by him and he will have written, “Joy to you, Hoyt.” “Joy” was his watchword.

I realize my observations here may be a bit biased because I am such a devotee. After unearthing The A&M Years on that trip down home in ‘99, I have since sought out every Axton album, and I am continually trying to catch his movie and television appearances; my research is ongoing. Hoyt’s daughter, April, is a member of Fans of Hoyt, and last year thanked me and the members of the group on his birthday for “keeping his spirit soaring” (it’s a pleasure, April!). But c’mon – have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like Axton’s music (if they’ve heard anything beyond “Boney Fingers” or “Della and the Dealer,” that is), or the likable characters he’s played in movies and on TV? As with Cash or TVZ, the old cliché applies: A man for all seasons. But what I also dig about him is this: Hoyt did his own thing. You could never button-hole the guy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

DVD Review: East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet


East End Babylon: The Story of the Cockney Rejects
Produced and directed by Richard England
Cadiz Music / Custom House
101 minutes, 2013             

The Cockney Rejects were not one of the British bands that excited me in the way that others did in those early days, as with the Adverts or even John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett. They were more of the football hooligan types like the Hammersmith Gorillas that were just a bit too idiosyncratic and locally topical for me. This film gives me the chance to explore what was going on about them, and see if I was missing out on anything.

One way to judge a “foreign language” film like this, whose focus is a band I don’t know anything about, is will it keep my attention. Early verdict is in, and yes, it did a bang-up job straight through. Oh sure, the very thick East Ham (London’s poor East End shipyards neighborhood) kept my ears peeled as it were, and there were the occasional parts I had to replay to figure out the hell they were talking about, but it was worth the watch.

Part of what makes this successful is the mixture of not only period live footage of the band and current interviews, but the splicing of newsreels from World War II while the neighborhood was devastated by German bombings and home movies of band members. What I especially appreciated is how a topic is introduced and then a clip of the band playing the song about it is shown.

This kind of British punk, which members of the Rejects claim they invented in a backyard shed, is different than, say, the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned. It is more driven, being closer to what would become SoCal hardcore than just anarchy.  It’s beer – a lot of it – and football, rowdiness and history (more than politics), and totally East Ham working class loci perspectives.

As is described early on, the area was a breeding ground for bank robbers and the rolling of drunk sailors. A dangerous part of town where it was safer to know everybody than to not know anyone, even if you were just walking about, this is the breeding ground for their particular form of anger. They would right soon start a fight with you as buy you a pint or seven.

They are sort of like the Brit versions of the Tony Maneros that I was used to dealing with every day growing up in Bensonhurst. Oh, speaking of Otway (whose name briefly appears on a marquee in a film clip), he did a song about this sort, called “Headbutt.” But again, if you get on the good side, you had a better chance of not getting beaten up again. Their shows were, at times, outrageous and contentious.

As much as this film is about the band, it seems to be a history lesson of East Ham, from its longshoreman days through the closing of the docks in the 1970s (if I understood correctly, they blame it on the unions). As one of them posits, “There were only three ways out of the East End: football, boxing and rock’n’roll.” He apparently didn’t mention the fourth and fifth, which is prison or death, but I digress…   

This early chapter is also about the Greggus family in the middle of all that history. This is hardly surprising as it is produced by the guitarist, Micky Greggus. Not as much an ego trip, however, as you may imagine, it shows how they were part of the East End, and uses the East End to explain its effect on the family, rather than the other way around. It’s actually a good vision for the film, and it works.

The boxing part introduces Jeff Turner, the strapping singer of the band. He started out as a pugilist, and then helped co-found the Rejects. He brought his boxer moves to the stage, which he rightfully justifies as his stage style, much as other singers have their own, identifiable flair.

An aspect I also found interesting is how they conned their way into their first recording studio. You could call that punk, but I see it as year of being desperation-taught survival skills, even though they were around 15 years old at the time. With the help of Jimmy Pursey (Sham 69) in the studio as producer, they released a song, and used that to get their way into their first gig. Again, to me, this is more than just a punk story, but a sociological behavior that made that forlorn environment work for them. A little bit of luck, a smattering of chicanery and fast talk, and they’re at their first gig after recording at Polydor Records. Backtracking a bit, they even wrote their first songs after they found out they would be in the studio.

All this led to a signing with EMI (did I mention they were 15?) and a couple of hits that got them on Top of the Pops more than once. A drunken appearance, however, led to “phase two” of the band. Going full steam into the football realm (of West Ham, natch), the band’s music became more anthemic, raising them to a core leader of oi. This leads to epic fights, a gig in Manchester that is infamous, and a battle with Brit Nazi punks that is legendary, all of which is explained in detail, for which I’m grateful.  After that… aw, mate, stitch that, I’m not gonna give away the whole documentary. Besides, I’m on page three in this Word doc already.

Most documentaries I’ve seen recently regarding music has people talking with a stack of books and records behind them, as they yammer on.  Here, we see the Rejects in various places around the Ham, such as their mum’s house (she’s interviewed as well), along the Thames, in pubs, gymnasiums (boxing, remember?), and various places, keeping it fluid and moving. By not focusing only on the band, but on the times both past and, well, further past, as well as the present, the story doesn’t get claustrophobic. It’s always moving, always interesting. Perhaps it could have been a little shorter, but it still kept my attention. They are natural storytellers.

Which brings me to the one thing I would like to change: there are various language captions available, but the one I needed, English, was sorely lacking. The accents are so thick, sometimes things got lost in the translation (e.g., one I knew was claret = blood).  An English caption choice would have been welcome. But, hey, if that’s the worst I could find, that’s pretty damn good.

The extras are definitely worth the view: eleven shorts lasting between ten and fifteen minutes apiece that vary greatly from a live acoustic set, Jeff giving an inspirational talk, some of their recordings, their love for reggae, and stuff that didn’t make it into the film (enjoyable, but rightfully so).  There is also a very nice glossy multi-page booklet with photos and some text.

The most important thing this doc does is give you the opportunity to like these guys, both on a musical and personal level. Do yerseff a favor, mate, and give a peek.



Bonus video:


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

DVD Review: I’m Now: The Story of Mudhoney

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

I’m Now: The Story of Mudhoney
Produced and directed by Ryan Short & Adam Paase
King of Hearts Productions
102 minutes, 2012

Let me say it now, and get the shock over with. Grunge. There. Grunge. Oops, again.

Are Mudhoney grunge? Well, depends on who you talk to, of course. For example, Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm was in a Seattle band in the late ‘80s called Green River (still have my copy, with the insert and press release, I may add). They arguably started the sound. In Seattle, anyway. Like punk in New York, everyone was denying they were punk left and right during the time, but love to be included in that scene now.

In my opinion, grunge is actually older than that, dating back to a bunch of SST-era bands. I mean, Dinosaur Jr. was grunge, along with a bunch of other longhair groups that tend to get clustered into the hardcore genus due to the time and the label, but those longhair bands were into experimental and heavy guitar sounds that many previous punk groups had turned its back upon.

No, grunge did not begin and end with neither Seattle nor Nirvana. I still get bugged when I hear that Nevermind caused the “year that punk broke.” I like the band, but they were not punk, any more than the Beatles were rock’n’roll on Sgt. Pepper’s. It was something else. But before Nirvana, who absorbed so much of the Seattle energy and press, followed by Pearl Jam, there was and is Mudhoney. This is not fair.

I don’t know if it’s accurate to say there would be no Nirvana (the movement, not just the band) if Mudhoney weren’t who and what they were, but they were a definite force that shaped and honed for what Seattle would become known.

This documentary tells their story with the full participation of all members of the band, past and present, which is hardly surprising since they produced the thing. But this is not just a fluff, vanity piece. There is actually some depth to the thing. Sure, with the rare exception about a brief mention about drug abuse, they seem to just get along like fleas on a dog, the doc does show some of their downs and bad choices, as well as how they have lucked out on more than one occasion.

Perhaps it is because they were the ones who made the thing that they were able to get some heavy hitters to talk about the group, such as (in part) Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Kim Thayil (fellow grungites Soundgarden), Tad Doyle (TAD), and Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam; Eddie Vedder only appears in a live clip of an MC5 cover of “Kick Out the Jams”). No one from the Foo Fighters, however, I noticed. Is this a case of what is not said is saying something? There is also a clip of Nirvana, and there is a definite slam against Courtney Love’s causing them to get kicked off Reprise, but none of the women-led Seattle bands are represented. In fact, the only adult females you see are Kim Gordon and Megan Jasper, of the Sub Pop label.

As much as this is Mudhoney’s history, it is also, in part, a story of their label, Sub Pop. The label’s creators, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Peneman, are also heard from here, I should add. Sub Pop, whose first single-band release was by Green River, came close to folding before Mudhoney took them on the road to some success. Of course, Nirvana helped, but it was Mudhoney that put them on the map. There were other important Sub Pop releases, such as by Babes in Toyland and Elliot Smith, but the focus here is of course and rightfully so on Mudhoney.

There is a bit of unspoken irony in the story of Sub Pop in that many bands they introduced didn’t fit into their Indie World (Mary Lou Lord reference there), and went on to major labels – including Mudhoney – and had a hard time reconciling their indie independence with the big boys’ “formulas for success.” With the knighthood of Nirvana, Sub Pop, too, joined with Warner Music Group, where they were hard pressed by the new management.

The documentary presents the present and past members of Mudhoney as engaging, relaxed, independent in band direction (showing chutzpah to the big studios by doing it on their own and pocketing large sums of recording funds), and being relatively sober of mind if not body (there is an awful lot of booze consumption shown).

But hey, this is their party and they can present any frontage they want, and this one is quite a fun and funny face. Even as a band I don’t follow, the way Mudhoney are represented here shows quite a bit of honesty, including calling some of their own albums as not up to snuff, and blaming mostly themselves (and Courtney) for their occasionally sloppy work; they also justly take credit for their rightful place in grungeworld.

Mixed in with the band and guests interviews, there are also film clips from third-party sources such as old b-films (including the Russ Meyer one from which the band takes its name), live performances and interviews (MTV, for example). The film covers much from the beginning, through their rise, signing with the majors, a slump leaving the majors, and re-signing with Sub Pop (where Mark Arm now works in the distribution area), then back to touring when they want(/need).

The two extras are a music video for the song “I’m Now,” and a 13-minute short called “Fresh Socks,” which features behind-the-scene clips of interviews, travelogue, backstage and onstage antics from a recent tour in Europe, Japan and Brazil. One stop in Belgium is especially telling, as they mock a stoic and distracting Kurt-wannabe in the audience.

If you’re into the whole Seattle scene – well, the male end of it as there is no mention of the riot grrrl aspect at all – I can wholeheartedly recommend this. If you’re more like me and are casual at best, it’s still a well-crafted document/press release that is enjoyable all the way through.

Monday, September 1, 2014

DVD Review: Clockwork Orange County: The Rise of West Coast Punk Rock

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

Clockwork Orange County: The Rise of West Coast Punk Rock
Directed by Jonathan W.C. Mills
Endurance Pictures
92 minutes, 2011

In Costa Mesa, located in Orange County, California, the hardcore scene could be narrowed down to a single club, the Cuckoo’s Nest. Opened in 1979, from this very wellhead sprung the movement that some might say transformed punk into hardcore, setting in motion the third wave of punk rock.

Of course, every scene can claim that, from Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, to the Masque in L.A., to A7 in New York, and so on. But there is no doubt that the Cuckoo’s Nest was a touchstone moment in the movement.

What is most impressive is the heavy hitters willing to talk to the camera (in 2011) here, including various members of bands like Social Distortion, T.S.O.L., the Circle Jerks, the Adolescents, Agent Orange, Black Flag (including Rollins, of course), Dead Kennedys (Biafra, of course), and so many of the others that took a scene and brought it to that whole new level which became a standard / uniform for the rest of the world, and in many ways is still in play now, over 30 years later.

Rather than just yammering heads, there is a wise choice in showing both music and talking clips from the period, mixed in with the “present” (again, 2011), so you can see how the musicians and fans have changed over the years. The music clips, all shot at the Nest, are not complete, but many of them are lengthy enough to actually get a feel for the appeal.

Each topic / chapter is introduced with a title card, and is discussed pretty well in detail, again mixing the past and present. It makes for an interesting oral history, most of which are of memory, but this lets the memory mix with the moment.

Some of the subjects discussed include:
·         the both figurative and literal fights with the rednecks in the C&W bar next door, who were constantly antagonizing and threatening the punks (naturally you don’t hear their side, which I think could be amusing).
·         the love / hate relationship between the bands / fans and the club’s owner, Jerry Roach, who Rollins calls “a tightwad son of a bitch.”
·         how important the parking lot scene outside the club was to the denizens of the Nest
·         when Pat Brown, one of the regular fans, allegedly tried to kill a cop by dragging him in his car (resulting in three shots by said cop hitting his car as he drove away; this film is dedicated to him)
·         and even how (possibly) Jim Decker, the lead singer of the Crowd, started Slam Dancing as a trend.

[Side note: the first time I ever saw slam dancing was by Harley Flanagan when he was the drummer for the Stimulators, who opened for Sousxie & the Banshees at Irving Plaza around 1982.]

The topic of slamming brings up the subject of excess violence that followed as part of the natural order. Joe Escalante of the Vandals refers to the aggression of the pit and the audience as the bands merely being “the soundtrack to beating the crap out of each other.” I often felt like many people at hardcore shows are not there to hear the music, but to strike out at anyone they can through fists and kicks in the pit. At the Nest, this resulted in the choking off of the punks via legislation and harassment (1000 tickets in 3 days) resulting in the closing of the Cuckoo’s Nest more than anything else (as announced on their local television by a very young Connie Chung).

The thing is, just about every hardcore scene on the West side of the country (not just OC) seemed to have followed the exact same pattern, if not timeline. It starts with some kids who liked bands like the Ramones and Sex Pistols, and they find a dive to drive it. The kids start forming their own bands and put some originality into it, only to get harassed by law enforcement (remember, right-wing Ronnie’s the Prez in 1980 and the “moral majority” nuts are starting to show their teeth). The violence perpetrated on the kids starts to show up in the scene when the jocks who used to beat them up for being punks find that by being punks themselves, they can join that mosh pit and continue to beat on the brats. The violence level increases by within and without, the media starts paying attention, this turns the fans away, and the source - in this case the Cuckoo’s Nest - closes down and effectively turns the tide by abating the access.

Another aspect of this film that is interesting is when they don’t just get stuck in the past and take it to the modern punk bands that were influenced by that scene, such as the Diffs and Death Punch. The original bands seem split on how their legacy has been picked up, whether that’s good or bad, and whether the modern punks are, well, really punk rock.

The only extra is the trailer and chapter selection.

Is this a good film? Well, yeah. They’ve taken what could have been a boring talking head film and made it interesting by grouping topics together, and mashing up historical film documents, including live performances, interviews, and newscasts, and also throwing in some of the newer area bands. It keeps the pace moving and the interest high. And if you’re like me, and you have the music of all those bands (didn’t see many of the West Coast bands live), it’s great to see the then-now differential.

Plus, it’s always great to hear the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris’ strange and enjoyable vocal patter, Henry Rollins’ near poetic talking style, and Jello Biafra’s sibilant “s” and humor, for example.