Sunday, July 19, 2009

Albums of My Life - 1981 - Motorhead "No Sleep'Til Hammersmith"

by Steve Pick

Back in 1981, long before anybody dreamed you would one day be able to call or write anybody anywhere and get an immediate response, there was often nothing to do but go out looking for your friends and acquaintances. If there were no rock shows going on at Billie Goat Hill or the Bernard Pub, the odds were good you could find people you knew just by migrating to the Delmar Loop and walking around for a little while.

One night, I was out on Delmar when I ran into Brett Rosenberg and Alex Mutrux, two young and highly talented guitar players who were either still in or just recently out of the local band Surgery, virtually an Iggy Pop tribute outfit. Brett and Alex immediately began breathlessly recounting their thrills earlier that evening at the Arena, as they had just come from seeing Motorhead open for some much more popular mainstream metal act. This was the first time I had ever considered the possibility that there was a heavy metal band worth my notice.

Sometime within the next year or so, I actually acquired No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith, and understood what my friends were babbling about. Last week, we talked about rock'n'roll as sexual energy - this week, we're gonna talk about rock'n'roll as outlet for non-sexual excitement. Because every once in a while, especially when you're young, the urge comes to jump around, scream at the top of your lungs, and feel release. Motorhead took this exhilaration found in much of the punk rock I loved already, and stripped away pretty much all the melody, making for primal explosions of pure "AAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH."

Whether slam dancing to hardcore punk or banging your head to heavy metal, the urge is pretty much the same - it's aggression and joy and insecurity and connection. It's not simple, and it's not easily denigrated. I could never make this my only interest in music, as many people have, but I wouldn't want to ignore the pleasures I've gained from loud and fast expressions like this, either.

Motorhead was born when Lemmy Kilminster got bored with the prog rock of Hawkwind, and decided to push his fairly simple anthems into the realm of noise. This album features the classic trio of Lemmy on bass and vocals (his "singing" sounds pretty much like the demon which inhabited Linda Blair in The Exorcist), Fast Eddie Clarke on guitar, and "Philthy" Phil Taylor on drums. All three are technically proficient instrumentalists, yet all three are perfectly willing to bash about without worrying about impressing anybody with their skills.

Of course, many of the songs sound the same. But that doesn't mean this live version "Ace of Spades" isn't the greatest of all yelps of hormonal angst. "I know I'm born to lose / And gambling's for fools / But that's the way I like it, baby / I don't want to live forever." As long as it sounds like this, living forever might feel pretty good.

So what if "The Hammer" is just a rewrite of "Ace of Spades," or the song "Motorhead" sticks pretty closely to the same pattern? If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I always say, and Motorhead never needed to fix anything. Besides, they throw in "Capricorn," as close to a nod to the Stooges as anything else, just for a bit of variety.

Nowadays, you can buy a deluxe version of this album with 18 bonus tracks (including alternate versions of many of the same songs, which really don't change much from the original, except in so far as they aren't exactly the way you remember them), but I'll stick with the original eleven bursts of power which made this the live album I've long considered the best of all time. Yes, 1981 had its share of songcraft - Elvis Costello's Trust, the Blasters major debut, Psychedelic Furs' Talk Talk Talk, and Squeeze's East Side Story - but it's this jolt of caffeine (or speed) that lives brightest in my heart.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Albums of My Life - 1980 - AC/DC "Back In Black"

by Steve Pick

The me of 1980, a cocky 21-year-old who knew there was a lot yet to learn but was willing to believe that what he already knew was probably the most important anyway, would probably hate the me of 2009. How could I take a year which featured such incredible records as Elvis Costello's Get Happy, Magazine's The Correct Use of Soap, the English Beat's I Just Can't Stop It, or the debut from the Pretenders, and decide that one of the two or three biggest selling albums of all time deserves to represent it?

Well, I still listen to all those records, and many more besides from what was a pretty darn good year, but there is something singular about Back In Black which moves me in ways no other music does. Put quite simply, Back In Black is the record which most sounds the way it feels to have a raging hard-on.

Rock and roll and sex share a long history - heckfire, the term was originally slang for doing the nasty. The rhythms, the wild dances, the innuendos, the double entendres, and the downright obvious seductions were reason enough to hate it for those who preferred to pretend young people never get those special feelings. And, there's no question that, like virtually everything else in the popular culture, rock music was most often assuming a male point of view on the subject.

Basically, I'm saying there were forebears for the sexuality of AC/DC, but this band took it to the next level by virtue of a single-minded commitment to the metaphor of rock and roll as orgasm. And, yes, there are those who will insist that AC/DC perfected their sound and subject matter in the years before 1980, when the late great Bon Scott was writing the lyrics and screaming the words. I love the guy, and I can thrill to most of his songs, too, but it was somehow the perfect storm of newcomer Brian Johnson taking over after Scott's death just as Angus Young created his most memorable of many unforgettable guitar riffs and producer Mutt Lange figured out how to squeeze all this sound into the riffs with more power and passion than had been heard before.

The feminist in me is never going to defend lyrics such as "Oh she's blowing me crazy / Til my ammunition is dry" in the extreme "Given the Dog a Bone" or "Let me cut your cake with my knife" in the literal "Let Me Put My Love Into You." But, dammit, these songs sound just like it feels when such actions are being undertaken, and if those aren't the thoughts which pop into my head at that moment, I'm not saying my dirty words are any more clever or thoughtful. And when Johnson expresses his admiration for the skills of his partner in "You Shook Me All Night Long," it's even kind of tender to hear him say, "But the walls were shaking / The earth was quaking / My mind was aching / And we were making it and you / Shook me all night long."

Not that I'm going to pretend AC/DC is about tenderness. They're not. They're about waving their big dicks in the air and shaking them like they just don't care. They're about the most perfectly placed rhythms in all loud rock, as guitarist Malcolm Young (the older brother of lead guitarist Angus, who gets all the attention on stage) is about the most rhythmically intense player I know. Angus may write the riffs, but it's Malcolm who puts them into your groin, aided, I admit by the rumbling bass of Cliff Williams and the dynamite right foot of drummer Phil Rudd.

Side one begins with "Hell's Bells," one of the most thrilling album openers I know (so much so that most, if not all, of the times I've seen them live, this has been the first song. As that bell intones its warning, the band revs up slowly until reaching full throttle, from which they don't let down again until the record is over. Now, I'll admit the rest of side one is merely average AC/DC, which is to say it's nasty, it's sexy, and it grinds real good. But side two is a masterpiece which gives this album its place in my personal pantheon.

"Back In Black," that stuttering rhythmic delight; "You Shook Me All Night Long," which taught Mutt Lange that big money could be made by combining pop melodies with heavy metal thunder; "Have a Drink On Me," a song which still sounds like sex but is really more about fellowship; "Shake a Leg," the weakest link on the side and yet a pretty powerful number; and finally "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution," perhaps the best of their long-time crusade to demonstrate the way they felt at age 25 would be the way they would always feel.

At 21, I understood a little about music making me feel good, but my head was still ruling my heart when it came to breaking a tie. I was convinced that sex was a demeaning subject for a music which had made so much of it for so long, and I was equally convinced that guitar solos shouldn't go on for very long (not that Angus Young ever overstays his welcome - his blues-based licks are always entirely appropriate comments on the riffs and chord-changes at hand). I wasn't willing to accept the possibility that a record this ubiquitous - according to Wikipedia, the best selling album ever by a band - could possibly be good. But, listen here, you silly, pompous 21-year-old - eventually, you came to the conclusion that feeling good is its own reward, and Back In Black feels really, really good.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I Saw Bill Kirchen Right Here in Euclid Records

Just three guys stood up there on the stage at Euclid Records last Friday afternoon. Well, properly, one of them was sitting behind the drum kit, chopping up rhythms into neat, orderly patterns, with a love for and knowledge of his cymbals beyond what many drummers have. The bass player stood, though, and he was a master of varied walking bass lines, the kind which have anchored country and blues and old-time rock'n'roll for decades. And the guitarist/vocalist was Bill Kirchen. That was more than enough.

Kirchen was the guitarist in Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen back in the 1970s. Pretty much everything written about Kirchen has to include that reference, and certainly, there were people in the store to see him who had treasured memories to share about seeing the Commander all those years ago. But, the guy has been making excellent solo records, and touring frequently for at least a dozen years.

For roughly 40 minutes in the store, Kirchen showed us why he's a contemporary artist worth hearing. Most of the songs he played were his own originals, though one could easily be forgiven for thinking they were obscurities from the early 60s. Kirchen's voice a perfectly comfortable baritone which knows how to deliver a honky tonk or rockabilly style. And his guitar playing is a grab-big of licks either lifted or derived from the playing of every great six-string expert, or at least those who played between 1950 and 1980.

For me, the highlight of the in-store performance was a driving and brilliantly vital cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Imagine if Dylan had decided to use this song as the announcement of his shift to electric rock music at Newport in 1965. It really did sound remarkably like that band, especially the drumming. (The drummer denied to me after the show that he had that in mind at all; perhaps it's just the perfect approach for such a rocking take on Dylan's style of that period.) I tell you, I got goose bumps; after all these years, and with setbacks every step of the way, believing in the positive nature of those changes hasn't always been easy. But, while this version didn't exactly sound like a victory march, it at least felt like the battle was being waged again.

The performance was recorded, and there will be a 7" culled from it released later this year as part of the Euclid Sessions series.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Albums of My Life - 1979 - Graham Parker and the Rumour "Squeezing Out Sparks"

by Steve Pick

Three weeks ago, when last we checked in with Graham Parker in this series, he had just released his debut album, Howlin' Wind, and revealed a fresh voice in a highly rooted pub rock approach. Now, two studio albums and one strangely enervated double live album later, we come to Squeezing Out Sparks, in which Parker discovers his voice to be even more exciting when applied to his own sound.

During all this time, Graham Parker and the Rumour - Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont on guitar, Bob Andrews on keyboards, Andrew Bodnar on bass, and Stephen Goulding on drums - developed into one of the most torrid live bands walking the earth. I saw them in summer of 1979, touring behind this album, and to this day that 45 minute opening set remains a standard of comparison for any rock show I ever see.

For Squeezing Out Sparks, Parker turned in ten spitfire songs full of intense observation, anger, and dense wordplay. The titles alone evoke the intensity of the music - "Passion Is No Ordinary Word," "Don't Get Excited," "Nobody Hurts You," "Love Gets You Twisted." And the music kicks the titles in the butt.

Where to start? Bodnar and Goulding are on fire on this album, never content to lay in the pocket as perhaps they did sometimes (to great effect) on earlier records. Here, they play as if they are the focus of the music, with Bodnar's bass lines often providing highly effective counterpoint to the crackling rhythm guitar and Parker's melodic catch-phrases, and Goulding driving the choruses to greater and greater levels of intensity with constantly surprising invention on his kit.

Bob Andrews left the band after this, perhaps because he was feeling less important to the overall sound, but his keyboards, mixed behind the other instruments much of the time, add evocative colors and emotional nuance to what could otherwise be roars of power. Schwarz and Belmont, meanwhile, have worked out a perfect connection - Schwarz contributes almost as many guitar hooks in his brief but incandescent leads as Parker does vocal hooks, while Belmont's overdriven chorused guitar chords chop and throttle the rhythm parts.

Which brings us to Parker himself, spitting out lyrics fast and furious, never stopping to let us ponder such bon mots as "I draw a blank every time I think the football crowd is going to give me a boot" or "We're dying to be invaded and put the blame on something concrete." Parker is at heart a moralist who demands the world live up to his ideals, and if that sometimes puts him on the side of those who can't see complexity, it also puts his heart and soul into attempting to force passion into a world which often settles for going through the motions. Graham Parker wants to make us feel what he feels, and Squeezing Out Sparks is just about the most emotionally riveting rock album I know.

I'm not going into the politics of "You Can't Be Too Strong," the ballad from whence the title of the album derives, because the subject is too divisive, and my opinions on it don't effect my opinions of the album as a whole. Graham Parker and the Rumour never sounded more exhilarating than they do throughout Squeezing Out Sparks, and anger never sounded more alive.