Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: Band vs Brand

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Band vs Brand
Written and directed by Bob Nalbanian
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Video
84 minutes; 2018 / 2019

The premise of this film is simple, and explained on the box: “When does a band become a brand?” This refers to when the band name becomes a synergy of its own, until sometimes even the band members themselves have no control. Of course, this is nothing new: for example, there have been groups like the Shangri-Las and the Marvellettes that have been touring for decades with no original members, and it’s a compilation of a pool of “who’s available for this gig?” singers.

But the focus of this documentary is in the metal genre, starting with the post-1992 media ecological age of the Internet with some rear-view mirror thinking, and it’s overarching effect on how music is purchased, downloaded, and how media streaming companies are bypassing the record companies.

Much of the story here is broken up into chapters, separated by titled cards, the first being “Logos and Merchandise,” or as Minutemen’s bassist Mike Watt famously coined it, “Merch.” Usta be in the1960s and ‘70s, independent tee-shirt sellers at venues like Madison Square Garden would flash their wares. Now, that’s pretty much a thing of the past, and the bands themselves sell their own merch with their logos inside the arenas or even clubs. In fact, many make more money of their paraphernalia (stickers, lighters, CDs, bandanas, etc.) than they do on the concert tickets. That’s why you see people with Ramones shirts who never knew they were a band, or were unfamiliar with their music. The brand became as – if not more – important than the band.

I remember right after Guns N’ Roses appeared on some award show, with bassist Duff McKagan wearing a CBGB tee-shirt, and suddenly people were buying them. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal made a small fortune with his logo. This is irony as my first Blank Generation crowd would go out of their way not to wear brands, and then CBGB was the brand.

With “Standing the Test of Time,” the film – and musicians – attests that no one with longevity has the merch power of KISS, with over 10,000 products that they sell. It’s rare for bands to last past a few years, and it almost seems like if they can pass a certain point, they can gather enough attention just from their endurance to become a brand through cultural osmosis.

One of the interesting aspects of sections like “Classic Rock” is listening to the seasoned musicians such as one of Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, discussing how, for example, (and I’m paraphrasing) that the Who would be less legitimate with Daltry and not Towshend than with Townshend and not Daltry. It’s true that bands have a history of being taken over by its singer, such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, or Buddy Holly and the Crickets. It’s not a new situation, but when the musicians themselves start talking about the distaste of that, I find that interesting. There is a moment where Ross the Boss talks about the post-Dictators’ outfit, Dictators NYC, that is close to my heart of the 1970s New York era.

I also find it interesting that the bands that are interviewed tend towards the older side, so when they discuss “Technology & the Internet,” for example, it’s mostly doom and gloom about quality and the anyone can do it attitude, but DIY is solid punk rock mentality because it was put out by the fans and musicians themselves. Certainly I am not arguing with the fact that most of the music now is overproduced, but so was arguable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the products of Yes, ELP, and many of the late ’60 and early ‘70s rock (now called Classic Rock) that needed a whole sea of technicians to set up and play in arenas, as opposed to the plug and play of rock’n’roll.

This rightfully leads to “The Changing Industry,” which, again, is nothing new, but still fascinating. There’s a great book called The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman in 1998, that discusses how the music industry went from being sold by music lovers to corporate entities who cared for nothing but the bottom line. Much of this chapter looks at how the fans approach music differently than they used to, which drive the bands to approach their music in dissimilar ways, which also affects the way products (both bands and their music) reach their market.

Not everyone can have the touring power of Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, so when discussing “Live Performances” this documentary correctly posits that bands have had to change the way they tour, be it package tours with other bands (though I do remember seeing a Foghat / Montrose / Black Oak Arkansas show at the Beacon Theater in NYC in the mid-1970s), or play in casinos, on cruise ships, private corporate shows, or more and smaller venues on a single tour (for example, I saw Johnny Winter play at a college bar in Saskatoon in 2011).

While not in this order, the chapter “Hologram” could easily have followed the “Live Performance” one, perhaps called either the “Dead Performance” or “the Lazy Performance.” This is where a hologram of the artist – dead or alive – is used in the act. The idea of this drives me crazy. ABBA is currently in the process of being digitized as their younger selves and going “on tour.” For me, I’m not paying $100+ a seat to essentially watch HDTV; hell, I’m probably not going to pay that much for an actual live one. To see the two surviving members of the Who for $350 (pre-fees for the ticket processing)? Not going to happen; got to see the full band in the day for $8.50. I’m a fan, but I’m not rich. This has seriously affected my going to live shows, which I used to do quite often. I’ll just watch it on YouTube now, which refers more to the “Branding & the Fans” chapter.

There is no getting around this is a negative topic so it’s hard not to be cynical either watching it as a viewer, or from the musicians’ standpoint onscreen, but director Bob Nalbanian keeps it interesting and flowing. Considering the musicians involved here – and this is just a small touch – from bands such as Dio, Angel (who really do have the coolest logo ever, and the story is included in the documentary), Plasmatics, Megadeth, Slayer, Keel, and Saxon, along with some I’ve mentioned previously (and you can see a bunch in the trailer, below), this is obviously geared to an older demographic who are probably less comfortable with the modern tone of the music biz.

The extra are two of this film’s trailers, and for three other music documentaries, including the Damned.

While it’s sad it’s come down to mere merchandising sometimes more than the music, it’s also been part of the legacy of rock’n’roll from the beginning. It has, however, picked up momentum along the way. Fans of my generation remember ticket prices to big shows being under $10, no glare from cell phones recording the concerts and being distracting (I used to sneak in cassette recorders sometimes), and an excitement level that led to dancing rather than egocentric moshing.

I’m not trying to say this is either good or bad; it’s just the way it was. That it is different now is the point of this documentary, sand Nalbanian presents some of the top veteran musicians in the field to successfully prove his point. Worth the view.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

DAVE THOMAS: The Voice of Pere Ubu [1982]

Text by Stacy Mantel / FFanzeen, 1982
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 1982 and 2019
Images from the Internet

This interview was published in FFanzeen, issue #9, dated 1982, by FFanzeen Managing Editor, Stacy Mantel).

Since the interview, Dave Thomas has had a broad solo career, and despite his comment, has resurrected his proto-punk band, Rocket from the Tombs. Due to the nature of the style of interviewing, which was pretty common back in the day, there was no chance to Stacy to follow up on some the answers, such I would have definitely liked to ask for myself. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019
* * *
Pere Ubu

The following interview with Pere Ubu’s very elusive lead singer David Thomas (aka Crocus Behemoth) was conducted via mail by questions submitted by Stacey. We pick up with Dave’s opening comments. – RBF, 1982
* * *
“I must say that this is a thorough job: paper to answer on and all. I have spent the day catching up on the mail so I don’t know how much I will be able to satisfy your wishes. Your letter, as circumstances would have it, was the bottom letter in the second bag of mail I’ve answered today.”

Rocket From the Tombs; 1970s
FFanzeen: What is the most common misconception people have about Pere Ubu?
Dave Thomas: (A) we like art; (B) we like industrial music; (C) we are organized and follow a plan; (D) we are disorganized and spontaneous.

FFanzeen: Describe your music to someone who has never heard it before.
Dave: It is a modern sort of folk music.

FFanzeen: Does David Thomas still collect bubblegum cards?
Dave: I never collected bubblegum cards, and if I did so as a child, I’ve long forgotten it. Did I once say I did? Or was I once reported as saying I did? Oh, the tangled web we weave when, etc.

FFanzeen:  Is the machinery of Cleveland still a musical inspiration?
Dave: No.

FFanzeen: Why didn’t you move to New York City?
Dave: Nobody wanted to live in NYC. Our families are here. Our homes are here. Both of those are very important things. More important than music or business. Also, we like it here. We live here; I think that is the best summary. Also, the question must be asked in return – why?

FFanzeen: So many groups are inspired by Pere Ubu, but musically do not come close. What is the ingredient they lack most?
Dave: Any answer would be presumptuous. (At this point, as your hopes sink slowly in the Midwest, you may begin to realize that you’re not going to uncover the “real Ubu” by the course of this interview. Don’t panic.)

Pere Ubu at CBGB
FFanzeen: How are the songs usually generated?
Dave: Somebody has an idea; or a piece develops out of a jam. Not a very complicated process, actually.

FFanzeen: What is Dave Thomas’ pre-Pere Ubu background?
Dave: I was a writer for a weekly rock’n’roll/movies, etc., tabloid in Cleveland. I also did layout and production. I was in a pre-Ubu band that was good for about three months over the course of two years [I believe he’s talking about Rocket from the Tombs – RBF, 2019].

FFanzeen: Are band members currently in other groups or working on other projects?
Dave: Mayo Thompson [guitar] leads the Red Krayola, which is still active. Anton Fier [drums] is a member of the Lounge Lizards. Dave Thomas leads the Pedestrians when not working with Ubu. Tony Maimone [bass; currently owns Studio G in Brooklyn - 2019] does solo recording and plays organ with a reggae band in Cleveland. Allen (Ravenstine) [keyboards] plays in the Pedestrians and the Red Crayola.

FFanzeen: What is the group’s view of the Moral Majority?
Dave: Ubu does not have political views. And I certainly do not.

FFanzeen: Do you believe in “zero hour”?
Dave: According to every clock I’ve ever seen, there is no such thing as “zero hour”.

FFanzeen: Are you a “survivalist” or member of the “Ground Zero” club?
Dave: No.

FFanzeen: What is your opinion of the new horror movie genre?
Dave: I detest blood and gore movies and cannot stomach them.

FFanzeen: Can we ever expect a book of poetry or a novel?
Dave: I have thought of getting into the poetry racket but my wife has managed to dissuade me so far. I don’t have the concentration to write a book which is why I do songs: one good line repeated a few times and you’re out.

FFanzeen: What is David Thomas like when he is not David “Pere Ubu” Thomas?
Dave: Huh?

FFanzeen: What makes Dave Thomas so loveable?
Dave: See answer to Q #6.

FFanzeen: We understand that the press can be unsympathetic and really off-target when describing the group.
Dave: Oh, sure. But I can’t remember who or when.

FFanzeen: Whatever happened to the Numbers Band and 15-60-75?
Dave: One and the same band. 15-60-75 plays, still, four or five times a week in Kent and Cleveland.

FFanzeen: At this point, do you think the next album will be looser or tighter, in terms of structure?
Dave: We have begun work on The Song of the Bailing Man, and are very excited by it. The songs are all two minutes or under, so far. The structures are very tight.

FFanzeen: Whose music do you prefer listening to today?
Dave: I find very little in modern music to hold my interest.

FFanzeen: When will you be coming back to New York?
Dave: Maybe November.

Rocket from the Tombs, redux
Dave, post-questions:
“Pretty stunning interview, eh? What can I tell you?

“In May-June, while in the U.K., I recorded a solo LP entitled The Sound of the Sand & Other Songs of the Pedestrian. It was produced by Adam Kidron. It will be released by Rough Trade in mid-September. The musicians who played on it are: Richard Thompson [guitar], Philip Moxham [bass], Anton Fier, Tan-Tan, Allen Ravenstine, Chris Cutler [percussion], Ralph Carney [multi-instrumentalist; d. 2017], John Greaves [bass], Mayo Thompson, Scott Krauss[drums] and others. It is 37 minutes long, but has been mastered and pressed at 45 rpm.

“Oh, yes, we are working on Vol. 2 of Ubu Live, tentatively entitled, Altered for Your Listening Pleasure.

“Stacy, I hope you do not over-romanticize Pere Ubu. We are just entertainers. We are not artists. We take pride in our work, though, and we try to be as entertaining as possible – not appealing, we hope, to the lowest common denominators. Puzzles and games, i.e., chess, are entertaining, aren’t they? Listening to folks talking about years ago is entertaining, isn’t it? Amusing your friends and each other in wholesome activity can be great fun and can also be unbinding and intellectually stimulating. A hundred years ago friends and neighbors would gather together and sing songs at the piano, or go to lectures at the Town Hall on the yellow-breasted titmouse, or the symbolism of 17th Century literature. They didn’t wallow in an atmosphere pervaded by themes of sex, violence and base emotions. They didn’t seek to void real things in a whole-hearted manner. Such things are not entertaining. Self-occupation is not entertainment.

“I must move on now.”

Friday, February 15, 2019

Documentary Review: New Wave: Dare to be Different

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

New Wave: Dare to be Different (aka Dare to be Different)
Directed by Ellen Goldfarb
Jomyra Productions / Roger Senders Productions / MVD Entertainment
95 minutes, 2017 / 2018

One of the key lines on the box states, “The story of the most influential radio station in America: WLIR.” I’m not going to argue that the Long Island-based station became one of the most instrumental on the music scene back in 1982 when they switched to the New Music format, but as far as most goes, well, I just want to throw into the mix KROQ in LA (Rodney Bingenheimer’s show in particular) and WBCN in Boston (Oedipus was the key DJ then).

The big difference between WLIR and those stations is that while WBCN and KROQ played local independent music, WLIR was focused more on the import “British New Wave” and with exceptions, New York bands still had issues getting their indie records played. You’d hear Depeche Mode but not the Heartbreakers (original Johnny Thunders version, not that Petty person’s), for example. They may have “broke” bands like Blondie and Talking Heads, but odds were they would be putting out the artificial sounds of Wang Chung and the whiny tones of the Smiths and U2.

The synthesizer (synth) sound was becoming nearly ubiquitous back then, especially with the British bands, and it turned the sound into the very style I started listening to punk rock to avoid. For example, I was at Hurrah’s in New York, which leaned heavily on the Euro-synth style, but that night it was a group with Glen Matlock at the helm, and the 14 Street Band led by Sylvain Sylvain. Between bands, the DJ got the synth vinyl going, and I disgustedly turned to my pal Alan and said, “Disco didn’t die, it moved” (he created a great 3-panel comic strip based on that, but I digress…).

Needless to say, WLIR wasn’t on my radar much, but I also have to add that I respected what they were doing. The Program Director, Denis McNamara, took a gamble and changed the format from just one more Classic Rock station and created something different that attuned with the Tri-State area and fed it something it had not paid attention to, or heard before, and was needed in a homogenized radio world then run by record companies. They helped break that bind, and that alone is a massive achievement.

In that mindset, Director Ellen Goldfarb did an incredible job here taking what could have been a mawkish and self-serving documentary, and made it quite enjoyable and interesting. First of all, she has assembled nearly everyone who worked at WLIR during this period, and mixed them with historic footage. She also has interviews with so many band members from the time, including – and this is only a drop in the bucket – those from Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Midge Ure, Billy Idol, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones, a Cher-looking Joan Jett, Blondie (yes, Debbie and Chris), Talking Heads (Tina and Chris), and even Mickey Leigh of the Rattlers makes an appearance or two. To add to the recipe, she also includes a lot of music clips from all the bands’ videos (shades of M-TV), making now-vs-then images.

What makes this extra appealing is that everyone seems to be honest about their opinions, positive or negative about the industry at the time, such as those made by Mickey Marchello of the LI band, The Good Rats; also that the editing is brilliant in that it keeps a fast pace without being merely soundbites (i.e., one sentence from each artist). The artists/interviewees are seen multiple times, have complete thoughts, and are tagged with identifiers multiple times to make it easy to follow who is who. This makes it a much more comfortable watch.

Along with the musicians and staff, there are also some outliers who are important to the scene, such as the guy who ran the Long Island club, My Father’s Place (I was there often; you’d park under the highway and come back with your car covered in bird feces… but worth it) and some journalists. For example, King Atkins, who wrote New Wave: Image is Everything, comments that New Wave means different things to different people. He starts off giving the French New Wave as an example, but I think that’s a poor choice. For example, Garage Rock in the ‘60s was called punk, but it was not punk rock of the 1970s (and onwards). For my group of friends, New Wave started as a “safe” word for punk not to freak out the establishment (e.g., parents), but once Blondie came out with “Heart of Glass,” it mutated into a New Wave that co-joined indie rock (okay, on some level punk) with a synthesized disco beat. After that, it was not a safe word for us anymore.

The weak spot for me is the film’s length. This would have made a great hour, but it feels like it overreaches a bit, trying to take credit for introducing reggae and all the synth sounds on Western shores, and the rise of them. Sure, they deserve a lot of acknowledgement on social fronts, including sponsoring international charity festivals, but some of this feels like padding.

Of course, the ending came in 1991, as all things must, in this case in part to FCC regulations (conspiracy theories anyone?). Clips of their last days, and especially the ultimate one, are sad. The use of Sid Viscous’ “My Way” seem appropriate.

There are four extras averaging about five minutes. First up is the man himself, “Denis McNamara,” who took on the music world and succeeded for the most part in that he was near the helm of the synth revolution. It’s brief, and has interviews with his grown kids. Then there is “Message from the Director,” Ellen Goldfarb, who very briefly talks about her motivation behind the film. “Artist’s Stories” [sic] is essentially outtakes, but the stories are fun and Goldfarb continues with her great sense of pacing, which I want again to acknowledge. The last extra, and the one I actually wanted to hear the most is “DJ’s Stories” [sic], and it’s worth the wait. The DJs discuss meeting particular musicians, and how important the station was to them and to culture in general.

While with rare exceptions I still don’t like synth music per se, I do still respect what WLIR did to help change the stagnancy of what was being played over the airwaves at the time. And Goldfarb has taken all these stories and weaved them into an enchanting tale of a radio Camelot for many. RIP ‘LIR.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Alan Vega • Martin Rev • Suicide: Five Films by Marc Hurtado

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Alan Vega • Martin Rev • Suicide: Five Films by Marc Hurtado
Written and directed (etc.) by Marc Hurtado
La Huit / MVD Visual
113 minutes, various years / 2018

When the term Transgressive (capital “T”) is used for art, most are going to think of it in relation to cinema, with films created by the likes of Richard Kern, Scott and Beth B., and Lydia Lunch. When it comes to other forms, such as music, at best it tends to be considered transgressive (small “t”). This is not fair, especially for a period of the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were combative bands like Red Transistor (led by Von LMO, who would chase patrons out of bars with a chainsaw) and especially Suicide. It makes sense to combine art forms of film and music, perhaps to make something new: TRANSGRESSIVE (all caps).

Suicide in concert
I had the… pleasure to see Suicide play once at CBGBs in the early 1980s. Knowing their reputation for confrontation with the audience, I sat near the bar, but that didn’t help. As singer/provocateur Alan Vega (d. 2016) roamed the club while keyboardist Martin Rev stuck to the stage sending out punkabilly pulse waves. I’d been a fan of the band since their first eponymous album in 1977 on Red Star Records. “Cheree” caught my attention first, but one listen to the 10-miniute plus “Frankie Teardrop” was what reeled me in.

Suicide should have been everything I hated back in 1977: it was pure electronica, and to this day I mostly find that to be, well, musical suicide. But there was an artistic intensity that Vega and Rev brought to the minimalism that was different than, say, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ factory-like clunky and metallic rhythms. They were not just musical terrorists, they also were seducing the audience at the same time, like a snake charmer coaxing a cobra, except if the reptile was the safer choice.

Morocco-born director Marc Hurtado filmed a bunch of mostly shorts with Suicide before Vega’s death, and these are collected onto this dual DVD set. Both discs contain the same films, but one is in the original French, and the other in English. I’ll let you guess which one I chose.

First up is the 16 minute-long The Infinite Mercy Film (2009). Here is a mixture of an artist’s muse and its outcome. The locus is on Vega’s use of light and lighting as a paradigm in his paintings, as the camera focuses in and out of various mixed-media, while Rev’s rhythms wind their way around the image in a reflexive way to match Vegas’s use of cords, twine and light bulbs. Interspersed is Vega himself, as he describes the origin of his use of light and what feeds his influences. The level of avant-garde artistry used to mix the music, the artist, the filmmaker and the synergy they create together should come as no surprise.

Alan Vega posing oddly
At 6 minutes, we are given Saturn Drive Duplex (2011), which is essentially a music video for a collaboration of Vega’s speak-sing voice and Hurtado’s music. Where the first film was focused on light, this one is on motion. We follow the clips as they zoom along traffic in Manhattan (often on the side of the East River), close-ups of boxers sparring, and Vega posing oddly in his studio. Hurtado also uses shadows and, yes, light, to highlight his focus both in high contrast and subtle ways.

Saturn Drive Duplex Redux (2014) is 4 minutes and artfully combines and condenses the three previous films, using light, travel, and art into a different Vega/Hurtado music video for a remix. We also get to see b-roll images of Vega on stage added to the recipe. Perhaps it’s the shorter length, but this feels like the most rewatchable of all I’ve seen so far, and this material is the kind you really need multiple viewings to let the whole Zen of it wash over the experience.

One could refer to Infinite Dreamers (2016) as the main feature, due to its 82 minutes’ length. Essentially, this is Martin Rev’s film: a stream of consciousness from the mostly silent member of the duo with a mixture of clips of Suicide playing in various venues, such as Frioul Islands, France, and of course lots of B-rolls. This makes total sense, as they are considered cult heroes in that part of the world, and Vega even had a solo hit in the area with “Jukebox Babe” in the day. It’s quite obvious that the sound is camera-oriented, rather than through the mixing board, so it is kind of rough, with lots of echo and reverb, even beyond the band’s normal tone. It’s also way less confrontational, with Vega looking very frail as it was close to his end; he stays on stage rather than rampaging through the crowd.

Martin Rev
But like I said, this is Rev’s turn to step into the spotlight. Despite his talking, I would never use the word “narrative” to describe the whole thing, but it is as close to a storyline as we have seen so far. It is, rather, various clips of Rev speaking – both on camera and off – and discussing the history of the group, and Suicide’s role in the artistic world; especially their philosophy as far as art is concerned. It’s deep and meaningful, and while these monologs doesn’t seem to follow a particular path, it still all falls together into a transgressive (small “t”) pattern that can be put together as a whole in the end in the mind for the viewer.

The fifth film is Saturn Drive (2016), at 5 minutes, which was released posthumously after Vega’s passing. Essentially, it’s a one-camera shot of Vega in the Hospital after a bad fall where he did serious harm to his hip. He looks drugged out of his mind on pain meds. He talks about being in “Saturn Drive” (heaven? hospital? stoned?), his religious affiliation, and seeing 9/11. I’m willing to assume this is the last footage of Vega before he went over the rainbow bridge, and it’s touching.

So, overall, Hurtado seems to model himself a bit on filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who used the media form as his easel to let the film itself tell the story (a true “Medium is the Message” kind of mindset that would have made Marshall McLuhan proud). For Hurtado, the visual scape is as important as to what he is trying to convey to the audience, that art is multi-layered, and should be addressed as so. While I have always preferred the narrative framework over the stream of consciousness kind of art in various modes, I enjoyed the films and getting to see some of Vega and Rev at work is always enlightening.

Bonus video:

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

BEING JAPANESE: The British Business of “New Music” [1984]

Text by Jim Downs / FFanzeen fanzine, 1984
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This column was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #12, dated 1984. It was written by musician, photographer and friend Jim Downs. In 2011, Jim also interviewed cult band Human Switchboard for us, for which I was fortunate to be present. And just to make a quick note, at the time, Jim was a fan of the Smiths, who didn’t get much radio play back then. I’m just sayin’. – RBF, 2018

I sit across from my cousin-in-law. Both of us have been talking and playing records for a good part of eight hours. Occasionally he’ll urge me on and I’ll roll the knobs on my guitar amp to “11” and he’ll don the headphones (which surely kept my aunt from calling my parents and the police about that @#*S%! noise) and he’ll squint and giggle while I drill  a hole through his eardrums and into his brain.

“Man, that was great!” he says. “You know, you should be in a band.”

I barely smile at him and am grateful for the compliment, but mumble something about getting it really together before that.

“Well, man, if you want to really be tight, you should listen to the British bands. The only really good bands come from Britain. Like Zed Zeppelin or Cream, or the Yardbirds. What does America have? Kansas! The J. Giles Band! The Eagles! No, man, the British know what to do with music!”
* * *
It seems that “New Music” programming has taken firm grasp of American’s entertainment consciousness. More and more people want to “rock” more. Jackson Browne and his sky blue electric guitar, Billy Joel and his nylon curtain (Levolor Blinds), Michael Jackson beating it, Kenny Loggins trying to be less cute. Why? Is it really because it’s time to get back to basics, or take a good “hard” look at music? No, I don’t think so. I think that it’s time for these guys to get back to making money. Because rock, or as it’s called, “New Music,” is helping to pull a desperate music business out of financial limbo.

As I am writing this, the cold weather seems to have taken a firm foothold on Manhattan. But only about a month or so ago I was watching the return of kids back to school. On NBC’s “Overnight,” a segment was shown about fashion for the student ’83-’84, and the word was “New Wave.”

Minis, straight-legs, colored-spiked hair, sneakers (not the old fashioned Nikes), shades, and lots of black, purple and pink. Just think: all those kids and they’re going to need this year’s New Wave note pads, pencils and lunch boxes. Thank God for the U.S. Patent Office!
* * *
“Well, uh, I mostly wear, well… you know. New Wave or punk clothes; it’s in, you know?”
* * *

“So,” you ask me, “What does this have to do with your cousin-in-law and the British?”
“Well,” I say, “Lots.”

Let’s think back over this past year, specifically the new bands that broke through chart-wise, or as the accountants look at it, bands that finally made money. Now name for me all the British New Music bands that had a breakthrough this Summer: Madness; Duran Duran; Culture Club; Kajagoogoo; Big Country; Eurhythmics; A Flock of Seagulls. Great, now name all the American bands that were able to come up with the goods: … Well? … Come on, I’m waiting! Give up?

 Well, it seems that radio has also given up on American bands, or more accurately, has never given them much of a chance in the first place. I can turn on the radio and listen to a so-called “progressive” station play rehashed rockabilly, Blues, Motown, punk or rock’n’roll by groups who got their inspiration from the U.S. artists, but what about the U.S. artists? Hell, it’s gotten so bad that they’re taking credit for originating forms of music that started here. Bernard Rhodes, manager of the Clash, was quoted by Rolling Stone magazine as saying, “When Malcolm (McLaren) and I invented punk in 1976…” What is this?!?! That’s like saying that “When George Martin invented rock’n’roll…” or “When Mick Jagger invented Country & Western…”

Seems to me there were bands such as the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the MC5 and the Stooges long before Malcolm McLaren decided to sell clothes to “trendies.”

But what difference does this make to radio? Absolutely none whatsoever. Have you ever heard the New York Dolls, the Ramones, MC5 or the Stooges on the “hip” radio stations? I sure haven’t. Granted these bands have been around for a while (or haven’t been around for a while) and most of the “New” stations play current music. Well, so what happened to the Dream Syndicate (taken off the air in L.A. after only 30 seconds of play), the Minutemen, the Blasters, X, Pylon, Black Flag, the dB’s, the Cyclones, the Individuals, etc.?

The logical mind reasons that if a record or song is good, people will want to hear it, so it will get airplay. Or that Program Directors and DJs have your interests in mind, so when hearing some good music, they’ll want you to hear it, so… that you will hear it and like it, then buy the record, see the concert, so… the group will create more music which the Program Directors and DJs will like, then play the music, etc.

However, it isn’t this way a great deal of the time. In fact, it goes more like this: the Program Director and DJ hear music which is easy to digest and not obtrusive. They figure you’ll put up with it and not turn the radio off, so they play the hell out of the bland record with the catchy hook (you know, where it goes “da-da Da-da”) until you can’t help but think about the music. It’s pleasant and doesn’t upset you about the real world, so… you go out and buy the album ‘cause it’s as pleasant as the single, but it’s longer, so the group makes money and churns out more mood music, the DJs and Program Directors keep their jobs ‘cause nobody (almost nobody) turned off the radio, and you’re stuck with a musical vocabulary, a stack of records, and radio station that all sounds exactly the same: bland.
* * *
“Bland? Are you crazy? Have you seen what these groups look like, let along sound like? I mean, just one look at that Boy George will clue you in that something new is happening to music…”
* * *
In an anniversary issue of Guitar Player magazine, Frank Zappa wrote a mini-parody of the music business from dust to diamonds and back again. In the article (which outraged many in the conservative guitar community that Guitar Player support) Frank talks of a boy who puts on his mother’s dress, figures out how to bash out some songs, and ta-da – instant fame. So, in 1983, we have this bloke who puts on his mother’s dress, cops lots (tons) of licks off of every Motown and Stax record that you’ve ever heard and some you haven’t, and ta-da – instant fame [“So ya wanna be a rock’n’roll star / Well listen now to what I say…” – RBF, 2019]. He’s now at the top of the MOR New Music pile, and all the mums in Britain love him and have placed him numero uno on all the music polls.
* * *
“But Christ, he looks like a girl!”
* * *
Sorry, but not in all my wildest dreams would he ever look like a girl. He looks like what he is: a guy dressed like a girl. It’s a joke and people love it and think it’s cute. He doesn’t sing about hate, poverty, war, anarchy or anything that’s unsettling. He sings about love, time, and great stuff like that. Plus, he’s got a good voice and smiles on stage a lot. What more could you want? It’s just alike Pat Boone or Paul Williams: mellow, happy and cute.

And this happens to be the spearhead of the British Invasion. The rest don’t quite measure up to the standards that Boy George sets. Great! New bands make it across the Atlantic weekly and all of them are trying to take the crown away from Culture Club, the crown for rampaging mediocrity.
* * *
“Well, as the Jackson Five once said, ‘One bad apple don’t…' So is there still hope for the British?”
* * *
Sure, not by any stretch of the imagination are all British bands bad. There are quite a few people turning out good-to-great music; it’s just that this Invasion consists of only what the radio will allow to fit in next to Billy Joel and Air Supply. Sure there’s hope for the British, but what I wish for is hope for the Americans.
* * *
Paul Revere races along the road trying to make the seconds last as long as they can. He feels the British close, very close behind him. “Just a little bit more,” he thinks. “Just a little bit more and we’ll have a nice surprise for them,” he chuckles to himself. “The Minutemen will enjoy this.”

Saturday, January 5, 2019

THE CUCUMBERS: When Cute is Cool [1986]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1986
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

I had the chance to meet Deena Shoshkes and her partner Jon Fried during a taping of cable access show Videowave around the time this article was written. I never saw them play live, but I always liked their quirky music and videos. They are definitely a New Jersey lynchpin group from the 1980s that do not get as much play or attention for which they deserve.

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #14, dated 1986. It was written by FFanzeen Managing Editor, Julia Masi. – RBF, 2015

Deena Shoshkes’ voice is the sound of a smile: it’s light, warm, clear and destined to help the Cucumbers carve their niche in pop music history.

With two albums to their credit, Fresh Cucumbers and Who Betrays Me… and Happier Songs, on Fake Doom Records, the Cucumbers are already collecting compliments from the critics on the college and underground circuit throughout the country [By the end, they would have 5 LPs of original music – RBF, 2018]. The video for their first single, “My Boyfriend,” a colorful animation, has become a staple on many cable and marathon music video programs. And their latest visual effect, a cover of “All Shook Up,” made its way onto M-TV last Summer.

Their music is cute, clever and very catchy. The songs are written by Deena (guitar and vocals) and Jon Fried (guitar). They started writing together in 1980, although they did not officially form a band until ’82. “My Boyfriend” was the first song they’d ever written together.

“The words for ‘My Boyfriend’ were just little scribbles (that) I wrote down for myself,” recalls Deena. “I wasn’t trying to express the modern relationship. I didn’t even want Jon to see them, but he found them.” He also found the melody on a tape of one of their many jam sessions that tend to go off in all directions. “Jon is really good at wading through all the stuff until he finds the two bars of good music.” Once he finds a chord or melody, he quickly persuades Deena to write the lyrics.

She confesses that when she first started writing, she wasn’t always confident about her work. When she wrote “Susie’s Getting Married,” she was convinced that it wasn’t’ up to par and threw the lyrics in the trash. Secretly, Jon retrieved them from the garbage. About a month later, he came up with some chords. He played them for Deena. She was stumped for words, so Jon promptly handed her the crumpled lyrics.

“Our first songs were really spontaneous and fresh. And then when you decide you’re in it for a while you start writing more songs and start being more serious about it. I got a little more self-conscious. I started looking more closely at what I was doing. I had trouble adjusting to taking myself seriously as a musician because in the beginning it was all fun and games.”

Now, she sometimes worries that the band isn’t taken seriously. It’s not that they’ve taken much flack for being pop; in fact, the reviews are more than favorable. It’s just that they’re so wholesome and unpretentious.

Deena is as sweet as she sounds. The type of girl who could easily steal your boyfriend, but deep in your heart you know she won’t. She exudes that rare strain of confidence that is devoid of conceit.

“I seem to get a lot of attention in the articles that have been written about us, but inside the band I’m not the most important person. We’ve played with a couple of different people. The people we’re playing with now (Yuergen Renner, drums; John Williams, bass) have been with us for a while. As time goes by they have more and more involvement in the arranging and songwriting. I write all the songs with Jon, but the other guys have written melodies. Their input is more involved with rhythm.

“Yuergen has created a couple of drum beats that we’ve written music over. And John Williams is really good at arranging songs and helping out with the dynamics, and improving the part that everyone’s playing.

“Collaboration is really the most wonderful thing about the group, because a lot of times, you see a band and it’s one person fronting the band. They write the songs; they sing them. That can be very good if the person is interesting. But somehow, the interplay of more than one ego being involved makes it more interesting.

“We’re trying to get over our cute image. Some people say we’re ‘too cute,’ but I think that’s because of our name, which started as a joke.”

Jon used to jam with two friends. One would call out a song title. The other would start singing lyrics and John would provide the music. One night they came up with a silly song called “The Cucumbers.” Deena used to love to sing it because she thought it was funny. And when she and Jon started to play together they adopted the name. They never intended to name a band after a song, but it just stuck with them.

It conjures up artistic expectations that they actually deliver. They’ve never been particularly concerned with image or marketing. “We’re hopeless with that,” Deena laughs. “We’re trying to be sincere. The strength of our music is that it’s personal and that we’re ourselves.