Monday, May 26, 2008

Vladivostok Rock — The Golden Calgarians (1984)

Dis darn interwebs thingie is pretty cool ... for being a series of tubes, that is. (Big shout out to U.S. Senator Ted Stevens for teaching me everything I know about modern technology!) The other day, I was browsing recent visitors to Bongo Jazz and noticed some of these pages were viewed by a reader from Vladivostok, Russia. I was thrilled and knew it was time to blog about my Canadian hometown's long-gone, garage-rock heroes, The Golden Calgarians, and their song Vladivostok Rock.

Led by a charismatic big-mouth simply named Bruno (pictured above), the group was arguably the most popular local act in the city's underground rock scene during the 1980s. They gigged incessantly, in Calgary and across Canada, and self-released several singles and two full-length albums. The first, 1981's It's Fun To Be Alive, captured a young band trying on ill-fitting new wave duds but 1984's Savage Love was much better: primal, pulse-quickening garage-rock that combined cartoonish humour, carnal obsession and era-defining Cold War paranoia.

Vladivostok Rock is the record's Nuggets-worthy opening salvo. Guitarist Doug Smith sprays fuzz-guitar goodness all over bassist Dave Degrood and drummer Jeff Smith's lurching, caveman beat, while Bruno's knowingly silly lyrics take a typical rock band fantasy and adds a nuclear-nightmare twist: "We were hired by the CIA/ To rock and roll for Destiny Day/We were rockin' for the KGB/We didn't want to but it had to be... Doin' it like we learned/Playing rock and roll till the world got burned."

Sadly, the Golden Calgarians never drew much, if any, interest from the Canadian music industry. They never had a hit, although their ode to Calgary fast-food institution, Chicken on the Way, was a local campus-radio perennial in the day. They never reunited and their music has never been reissued on CD, or found a second generation of fans. But maybe, just maybe, in a world where interwebs tubes link us all, where somebody in the former Soviet Union can visit a blog from the prairies of Canada, the Golden Calgarians might enjoy a unique bit posthumous exposure they never could have imagined 24 years ago: Someone in Vladivostok downloading Vladivostok Rock and possibly allowing the sound of Bruno's voice and Smith's guitar to waft through the Russian night.

Vladivostok Rock (link expired)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday Soul: (Doin' The) Boom Boom — Eli 'Paperboy' Reed and the True Loves (2008)

Listen to (Doin' The) Boom Boom and you might assume the record was released 50 years ago, not four weeks ago. Such is the soul authenticity of Eli 'Paperboy' Reed and the True Loves, whose recently released sophomore album Roll With You channels the spirit and testifying power of Sam Cooke, The Isleys, T-Bone Walker, Otis Redding and pre-funk James Brown. "We're just trying to play soul music the way it was supposed to be played and in the spirit and the excitement that it's always been intended," Reed (born Eli Husock) told MOJO magazine earlier this year. One listen to Roll With You and it's clear: He walks it like he talks it.

Skeptical? Hell, I don't blame you. Many of Reed's musical influences were long dead and buried when he was born just 24 years ago. Furthermore, the band hails from Boston, hardly a soul music mecca.

Yet playing old-school R&B is obviously his life's calling. After high school, he moved to Clarksdale, Miss., where he honed his chops at local clubs and accepted mentorship from drummer Sam Carr, the son of Chess Records bluesman Robert Nighthawk. Reed later found his way to Chicago where he was befriended by former Chess star Mitty Collier (best known for her 1964 single I Had A Talk With My Man), who invited the young, self-taught musician to be the 'Minister of Music' for a church she founded. The fact Reed has Jewish roots apparently didn't matter — they both worshipped at the altar of R&B, after all.

After learning the ropes from Carr and Collier, no wonder Reed and his well-drilled band emerged in 2005 sounding like the real deal. (Doin' The) Boom Boom, which ends Roll With You, is Reed's tongue-in-cheek attempt to spark his own dance craze; it sounds like wildest songs of James Brown and Wilson Pickett condensed into a three-and-a-half minute blast of dancefloor-filling soul. The drums and bass rumble like a runaway train, the horns lock into a tight, Brown-derived riff, and Reed make those neck hairs stand up on end with some of the most transcendent screaming since fellow Bostonian Black Francis fronted The Pixies. I love the song's mid-section where, as a sax blows a wailing solo, Reed gets caught up in the moment and starts rambling: "Shake your hips from side to side! Let your conscious be your guide! C'mon honey, lemme see you do it, awwwwlllllrrrrright!" Amen, Brother Reed...

(Doin' The) Boom Boom (link expired)

And, courtesy of YouTube, here they are live, performing another Reed-penned, Roll With You highlight, Am I Wasting My Time:



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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Long Long Time To Get Old/Flies in the Bottle — Great Speckled Bird (1969)

A couple of milestones are approaching for Ian Dawson Tyson: He turns 75 in September and 2009 marks his 50th year in the music biz. In that time, Tyson (as one-half of Ian & Sylvia) was part of the Greenwich Village scene that sparked the early-'60s folk explosion. He helped birth the Canadian music industry (but please don't blame him for Nickelback). He inspired Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and, oh yeah, he also happened to write Someday Soon and Four Strong Winds — songs so good, they'll outlive us all. Not bad for a half-century's work.

Today, I wish to write about another Tyson accomplishment: the self-titled debut from Great Speckled Bird, a largely unsung country-rock classic. By 1969, Ian & Sylvia realized they had taken the folk duo concept as far as it could go and sought a new sound more in tune with the times. They brought aboard lead guitarist Amos Garrett (later with Maria Muldaur), steel guitarist Buddy Cage (later of New Riders of the Purple Sage), bassist Ken Kalmusky and drummer N.D. Smart, and entered the studio with Todd Rundgren at the helm. (At the time, Rundgren was the in-house producer for Bearsville Records, the label run by Albert Grossman, manager of Ian & Sylvia and, of course, some guy named Dylan.)

Long Long Time To Get Old is one of the record's many highlights; a feel-good, Tyson-penned track that moves to a chunky, loping groove with enough cowbell to cure the hottest of Bruce Dickenson's fevers. The lyrics are apparently about savouring life in the moment, a sentiment underscored by the chorus: "Remember this children/If the good Lord's willin'/There's a long, long time to get old." Tyson sings with a playfulness that characterizes the entire track, while Garrett's tasty, note-bending prowess and Sylvia's harmonizing skills are on full display. Long Long Time to Get Old blends into the ensuing track, the lovely Sylvia showcase Flies in the Bottle, another Tyson composition.

Alas, this lineup of Great Speckled Bird lasted just the one album, which disappeared from record shelves just months after its release. It was reissued in 1994 and remains available to this day; its quality undiminished by the passing of years.

Sadly, Father Time may be catching up to Tyson. Earlier this week, I watched him perform, along with special guests John Hiatt and Rhonda Vincent, at Knox United Church in downtown Calgary, about 85 kilometres north of Longview, Alberta, where the ol' cowboy has ranched for the past three decades. (The performance was videotaped/filmed for a television special to air in the fall.) On this night, his once strong, clear voice was worn and unsteady, and he seemed increasingly winded as the show went on. No crime in that; Tyson is a 74-year-old man, after all. We can only hope the good Lord will be willin' to give us such a long, long time before we get old. (The real crime: Hiatt forgetting — or not knowing — the words to Four Strong Winds during the show's big finale.)

Long Long Time to Get Old-Flies in the Bottle (link expired)

And here is the original Great Speckled Bird jamming with Jerry Garcia on CC Rider at Calgary's McMahon Stadium on July 4, 1970, as part of the Festival Express tour.



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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lemon Incest — Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg (1984)

Up in heaven, Serge Gainsbourg is surely laughing. Only after banging a young hottie and sucking back a good smoke, of course.

That thought went through my mind when pictures of teen-pop superstar Miley Cyrus posing with her dad, country music has-been Billy Ray Cyrus, appeared in Vanity Fair earlier this month. There was outrage in some corners of the media and blogosphere as many believed 15-year-old Miley looked more like Billy Ray's jailbait girlfriend than his teenaged daughter. And, with Miley perched between Billy Ray's legs, the media critics might have a point. (See photo here.)

But this Cyrus family photo is as provocative as a Little House on the Prairie episode compared to Lemon Incest, a 1984 duet between French icon/notorious provocateur Gainsbourg and his then 12-year-old daughter Charlotte that closed his Love on the Beat LP (pictured right). The song's melody is derived from Chopin's Etude Op. 10, No. 3 but the track remains a product of its era — all synthesizers and sequencers — unlike the timeless brilliance of his late-'60s, early-'70s output. Histoire de Melody Nelson, it is not. And chances are, without its subject matter, the track would be judged an unremarkable contribution to the Gainsbourg ouevre.

But Gainsbourg being Gainsbourg, the subject matter is taboo-shattering and, according to many, sick. "The love that we will never make together/ is the most beautiful, the most violent/ The most pure, the most heady" is a rough translation of one of the lyrics. You don't need to know a word of French to assume Serge and Charlotte aren't singing about selling Girl Guide cookies door-to-door; their voices — his gruff, hers breathy — entwine like Serge's sexually charged duets with Charlotte's mom, Jane Birkin.

For me, Lemon Incest is one of those songs that I find too disturbing for my tastes yet, as someone fascinated by the history of pop music, I'm intrigued a significant artist dared to push this particular envelope.

Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in March 1991. Charlotte turns 37 in July; she continues to work as a singer and actress, recently appearing in the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There and singing Just Like a Woman on the soundtrack.

Lemon Incest (link expired)

And here's the video for Lemon Incest. Now I ask: Still have a problem with Miley and Billy?



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Monday, May 19, 2008

Brainwashed — The Kinks (1969)

It's Victoria Day in Canada and, to mark the national holiday, I was initially tempted to write about Victoria, the Kinks' 1969 single and opening track from Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). But that seemed too damned obvious. Even so, I spent the day listening to Arthur for the first time in a long time and, approaching it with fresh ears, I was again blown away by the deftly executed story arc, Ray Davies's resourceful production and the sustained quality of his songwriting. Arthur was the band's third consecutive masterpiece — following 1967's Something Else and 1968's The Village Green Preservation Society — and arguably the last, truly great Kinks record.

Look past the album's singles, Victoria and Days, and fan favourite album tracks Shangri-La, Australia and the harrowing anti-war anthem Some Mother's Son and you'll find a treasure trove of lesser-known Kinks klassics like today's post, where the band's early power-chord impulses make a mighty return. That said, it's not exactly You Really Got Me, Part 2: Horns bolster the electric guitars, the bridge sounds like it comes an entirely different song and the vocals are inexplicably buried in the mix. Listen closely, though, and you'll make out some scathing observations on the perpetuation of the class system:
You look like a real human being
But you don't have a mind of your own
Yeah, you can talk, you can breathe
You can work, you can stitch, you can sew
But you're brainwashed...
You're conditioned to be what they want you to be
And to be happy where you are
Get down on your knees
Strangely, Davies has always looked upon Arthur with disappointment. The album was originally conceived to soundtrack a musical television drama but, while the Kinks finished the songs, Granada-TV withdrew its support. "On the whole, I remember (Arthur) for what it might have been rather than what was eventually realized," Davies wrote in his autobiography X-Ray.

I can't help but think that, had circumstances been different, we'd now agree the best thing about Arthur: The TV Drama is its evocative, inspired music.

Brainwashed (link expired)

And, from 1969, here are the Kinks performing Days:



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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday Soul: Copy Kat — The Bar-Kays (1968)

Plagiarism is rarely so shameless and blatant than when artists 'borrow' from their own back catalogue. Think Baby Talks Dirty, The Knack's rewrite of My Sharona. Think Nickelback's entire career. And, of course, think Fantasy Records suing John Fogerty for plagiarizing his CCR hit Run Through The Jungle to write his 1985 single Old Man Down The Road. (Feel free to add your own examples in the comments.) Today's post is another notable example of self-plagiarism but, in this case, the Bar-Kays had a good reason to revisit old glories.

Released in October 1968, the fittingly titled instrumental Copy Kat was a transparent attempt to duplicate the sound, feel and chart success of the band's debut single, Soul Finger, a top-20 pop hit during the spring of '67. Couldn't blame them, really: The previous December, most of the Bar-Kays perished in the same plane crash that killed Otis Redding, whom the band had been backing. The two remaining members (bassist James Alexander, who wasn't on the flight, and trumpeter Ben Cauley, who somehow survived the crash) assembled a new lineup and recorded Copy Kat, an apparent attempt to link the old Bar-Kays with the revamped Bar-Kays.

It didn't work, at least commercially. Copy Kat did nothing at radio and even less on the charts despite sharing many of Soul Finger's distinctive elements, most notably the dubbed-in party noise. But, listening to the track today, the son of Soul Finger sounds even more exciting than its parent song. The stabbing horn chart and na-na-na chanting combine for an infectious hook, while Michael Toles's blistering lead guitar and Alexander's rapid-fire bass during the chorus push the song's intensity into the red. If Copy Kat doesn't get your party kick-started, chances are nothing will.

Copy Kat's commercial failure didn't deter the new-look Bar-Kays. They'd back Isaac Hayes on his landmark 1969 album, Hot Buttered Soul, then enjoy varying success under their own name throughout the 1970s and '80s. The Bar-Kays' legacy received a little boost last year when Soul Finger and Too Hot to Stop appeared in box-office blockbuster Superbad.

Copy Kat (link expired)

And here's what appears to be the original Bar-Kays playing Soul Finger:



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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bottle Rocket — The Go! Team (2005)


Forgive me, dear reader, if I seem a little too excited about the imminent arrival of summer. In my corner of the world, we had snow in January. And February. And March. And April. And, yes, May, too. But, today, the sun is shining, the mercury is rising and those lazy, hazy days of summer don't feel so far away anymore. I might even store the snow shovel in the garage today. (Yes, that is a tear of joy now falling down my cheek.)

How can I not post a great summer song on a day like today?

So, from 2005, here's Bottle Rocket by Brighton six-piece The Go! Team — an exhilarating whir of primary-coloured dance-pop that layers old-skool rap; cheerleader chants; vinyl scratching; live drumming, and swinging a punchy horn arrangement. The lo-fi production actually enhances the song — everytime you listen to Bottle Rocket, you hear something else hidden in the mix. And, if you're like me, once the track ends, chances are you'll be reaching for the repeat button.

The version of Bottle Rocket posted here comes from the original Memphis Industries pressing of the band's debut, Thunder Lightning Strike, and not the remixed, markedly inferior version that was released in North America a year later.

Bottle Rocket (link expired)

The Go Team! returned last year with its sophomore album, Proof of Life. Here's the video from its leadoff single, Grip Like A Vice:



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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sunday Soul: Intensified — Desmond Dekker (1968)

If I had to identify my all-time favourite rock lyric, I wouldn't scour the songbooks of Dylan or Cohen or Costello. I'd look no further than the first few seconds of Tutti Frutti when Little Richard screams: "Womp bomp a loom op a womp bam boom!" — words that capture the essence and excitement of a music that would dominate the next half-century. Not bad for a so-called nonsense lyric, huh? Soon pop music would be full of womps and bomps and tra-la-las, while Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin celebrated the emotional sway of these seemingly meaningless words in 1961's Who Put The Bomp.

Desmond Dekker used a few nonsense words of his own to provide his 1968 party anthem, Intensified (aka Music Like Dirt), a little extra kick.

Unlike his signature tracks Israelites and 007 (Shanty Town), Intensified has no socio-political subtext whatsoever; its only agenda is to inspire listeners to shake booty.

Mission accomplished.

This Leslie Kong-produced dance classic is highlighted by its hyperkinetic bass playing — a style mimicked by David Steele on many early (English) Beat songs — and its nagging hook: "Ram baba looba bam bam ba louie/Ram baba loo bam bam ... intensified!" What does it mean? My guess: That this is the best party in the world ... ever! Or something to that effect. How good are Dekker's nonsense words? Just try to imagine the song without them.

Intensified was the third-ever winner of the Jamaica Festival Song Competition; the only time Dekker would receive this prestigious honour. You can find the track on countless compilations but I recommend Trojan's expanded edition of 1969's This Is Desmond Dekkar (sic), a superb collection of his enduring late-'60s reggae and rock steady cuts that, as you can see above, misspells the artist's name on the cover.

Dekker died of a heart attack two years ago this month. He was 64.

Intensified (link expired)

And, from 1970, here's Dekker performing his then-recent chart-topper Israelites at Wembley Stadium. Sadly, the video ends before the song does but, for two minutes, you can see Dekker at his artistic and commercial peak.



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Friday, May 9, 2008

Why Don't You Kill Yourself — The Only Ones (1980)

How do you follow up a pop music classic like The Only Ones' 1978 single Another Girl, Another Planet? The simple answer is you don't. Songs like that come once in a career, if you're lucky. Nevertheless, the short, turbulent career of The Only Ones (1977-81) left a body of work that only the foolish would describe as 'the hit and the other stuff.' Even in 1980, as his band was unravelling and his drug addictions spiralled out of control, frontman-songwriter Peter Perrett still managed to write well-observed, acid-tongued songs like today's post.

Perrett penned this for his ex-girlfriend who, in a perverse way, must have been flattered to inspire something this bilious and mean-spirited ... and succinct. "Why don't you kill yourself/You ain't no use to no one else," Perrett sings in a chorus that boils down everything he needs to say in a tidy, memorable couplet. That said, his other lyrics are pretty good too: Surely, this is the only song with a middle-eight that tabulates how many times a girl had her stomach pumped.

Perrett seemingly savours the malicious intent of every word; the song's sentiment nicely complemented by Perry's stinging guitar work, especially on the outro.

Of course, it's no Another Girl, Another Planet.

Then again, what is?

Why Don't You Kill Yourself (link expired)

All four original members of The Only Ones (Perrett, guitarist John Perry, bassist Alan Mair, drummer Mike Kellie) reunited in 2007 for a short UK tour with more dates planned this year.

Here they are performing Another Girl, Another Planet (top video) and a new song, Black Operations, last month on Later ... With Jools Holland:





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