Friday, September 13, 2019

ZAPPA PLAYED BY OTHERS


Frank Zappa was often brilliant in his composing in his multi-decade career as agent provocateur in America's fickle, short-memory popular culture. Most early fans, I am convinced, because they thought he was weird, off the wall, psychedelic to a high degree, a man with a band, the Mothers of Invention, creating the perfect soundtrack for whatever recreational drugs you happen to take. It may seem like a conceited thing to say at this point in my life, and it may be due to romancing the glory days of the Sixties when one was discovering literature, art, great music, ; I love his odd time signatures, abrupt switches between genres sans easy-going transitions, his dedication to dissonance. 

It was an audio-assault American audience weren't used to, large audiences, mass audiences in any event, but I soon suspected there was more to Zappa's game than random bizarreness as I encountered him in interviews insisting, over and over, that he didn't do drugs of any kind. He did imbibe alcohol from time to time, which was a relief since I couldn't imagine, in my still expanding mind-- because I was incapable of conceding that anyone could be as not-of-this-earth as Zappa without having to insult his brain in some manner.  Even so, he was sober as a judge, a serious composer, and the music he made from the early efforts to the end of his was the work of a man who regarded himself not as pop star, rock star, or  even professional celebrity, but rather as an artist, a composer, a serious composer making use of anything he found useful  in his goal of  alternately inspiring or antagonizing his audience .There's much admire to the dedication to complexity, although I understand why many have found him off-putting and arrogant. 

That he was, but I still like his music, and continue to listen to it since I first bought my first Zappa album, We're Only in it for the Money, in the late Sixties. That said, I have become less and less of a fan of Zappa's guitar solos, which I find, and have always found, repetitive and without direction. His long , live solos on many of his albums ruin the experience of hearing fine musicians play arresting compositions. It's a habit born of modern jazz players developed in the  40s and 50s and through a major portion of the 60s, when soloists of exceptional caliber would improvise ad infinitum , engaging the process of "spontaneous composition", an idea that a musician, responding to impulse, urge, inspiration and certainly without a great deal of preparation, careens off the highway and ventures down several tonal tributaries in a hunt for a better combination of notes in increasingly difficult formations. There are geniuses who've managed this consistently in their work, with John Coltrane coming to mind most easily; his music, with his friends Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison among a handful of others, being all of piece. The invention, energy and spiritual power of the extended forays went far beyond a riffing variations-on-a-theme and became whole compositional endeavours.  Keith Jarrett also should be mentioned, although that for all the brilliance he demonstrates as band leader and band member, his several multi-disc solo piano concerts have merely bored me ; so much effort getting himself warmed up for the inspired parts  makes you think more of someone burning gasoline looking for the perfect parking space rather than an artist working his or her way efficiently to the the dimension where they exceed their expectations. For Zappa, he is neither of these two musicians to whatever degree . He is an interesting guitarist, recognizable from the first note, effective in relatively short solos tailored to the material (One Size Fits All) . He is not, though, the world class concert soloist, although his True Believers wish it were the case.I wish he'd written sections for his best improvisers and let them shine; a lesson he might have learned from the Great Ellington. Lately, I've been dialing up interpretations of his daunting pieces, with generally good, even spectacular results. 

Here's a unit doing a tight and together take on the dizzying and sonically cubist "G Spot Tornado", originally from his  1986 release Jazz from Hell. This was a disc of wholly instrumental tunes with uncompromised complexity and density, with the majority of the tracks being the efforts of Zappa's programming of a then-bleeding edge synthesizer, the Synclavier, without the aid of other musicians for most of the album. The band here, Germany's hr-Bigband out of Frankfurt, serve a blistering version in this clip.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

"WOW": The Story of an Album

WOW--Moby Grape
For a brief moment in 1967 it seemed Moby Grape would be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. The evidence that the San Francisco band would ascend to the uppermost heights of the rock pantheon was their eponymously titled debut album ,Moby Grape. Bay Area promoter Matthew Katz assembled the band around Canadian guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist Skip Spence, a colorful figure who incidentally played drums on the first Jefferson Airplane album. Katz raided other bands in Northern and Southern California for other musicians, settling finally on lead guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson, guitarist Peter Lewis and bassist/vocalist Bob Mosley. It would seem they assembled the band Svengali-like, but the musicians took to one another remarkably well. Perhaps brilliantly is the more suitable adverb, as their first release made the cold, cynical hearts of the rock critic cabal go aflutter. Though the band intended to showcase Spence, all five musicians contributed in equal measure as songwriters and vocalists, with the first album regarded by many pundits, critics, and wags as the finest album from the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. Fronted by a three-man guitar army in Miller, Lewis, and Spence, their sound was eclectic, vibrant, and tight yet not constricted in their arrangements, with songs that easily bridged the styles of hard rock, country, blues, folk-rock, just touching the edges of jazz and pure psychedelia.
From nowhere came a group of collaboratively written songs with fetching melodies and crystalline harmonies that rivaled the Byrds. Their lyrics reflected the free-for-all times, of course, but there was something reliably grounded in this collective’s approach to describing experience, a refreshing stoicism learned from this band’s leanings toward working-class country and the gritty realism of the blues. The guitars meshed together wonderfully, wittily, at once powerful, rapid, bludgeoning with “Omaha” or in the delicately layered picking and strumming underscoring the subtly wrenching melancholy in the ballad “8:05.” The stylistic range and consistent excellence of the songwriting was utterly superb, the musicianship drew nearly uniform raves from reviewers, live performances were leaving audiences in varying states of awe. You wonder what might go wrong, but things did go awry after they released the album. The Sixties counterculture didn’t want corporate pre-packaging; the preference was for music that was real, risk-taking, authentic.Image result for moby grape

The precise definition of the authenticity was nebulous, but many of them could smell hype quickly from afar. Hype was exactly what Columbia Records, the band’s record label (and a subsidiary of CBS) did to promote them, infamously releasing five singles at the same time. The thinking was that a shot-gun approach would assure that at least one of the five would hit and garner maximum airplay and revenue. It failed miserably. Rock magazines, underground newspapers, and some strait-laced writers for the mainstream press viewed the ploy as conspicuously cynical to move product. The band’s reputation suffered as a result, although they continued to receive airplay on FM radio stations and drew audiences at live gigs. Moby Grape, though, didn’t sell in the numbers that fans and critics think it should have. Some of the spirit was leeched from the band. With their second album Wow, released in 1969, we have a harbinger of the series of bad breaks and bad decisions that stunted this band’s once-seemingly infinite potential.
It’s worth a mention that Grape’s debut was released May 29, 1967, three days after the seismic release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band on May 26 that same year. It would seem there was a fateful invisible hand at work here. The Beatles were receiving praise for their willingness to experiment with song form and production technique, particularly with Rubber Soul in 1965 and, later and more ambitiously, with 1966’s Revolver. Sitars, multiple track overdubbing, instruments played backwards, musical styles covering the range of blues, hard rock, rhythm and blues, classical allusions, old-time jazz and Music Hall balladry became part of the lexicon that rock bands could and would use in songs and records. Rock ‘n’ roll was now just “rock.” They elevated it to an art form or so critics and millions of na├»ve fans declared. The Beatles raised the bar with those two albums, and it seemed that any musical group worth attention emulated the British band’s initiative, Moby Grape among them. It’s arguable that the first album was the rare thing, a high-quality disc bearing the influence of someone else’s work; perhaps Grape had nearly equaled the Beatles in their achievements so far. The release of Sgt.Pepper changed everything and raised the bar again, this time to absurd heights. Where Rubber Soul and Revolver were brave if slightly tentative steps toward turning pop music into a much more adventurous, artful undertaking, Sgt.Pepper strolled boldly, in giant steps, crossing genres with ease, inventing new sounds and recording techniques as they laid it down, writing subtly arranged melodies and melodies with a keener wit and a modernist poetic bent remindful of T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.
Nothing seemed off limits or off the table for the Brits. Moby Grape’s release in July of 1967 was comparable to Revolver, and three days later the Beatles exploded all the things they’d been playing with for years, reconfiguring the pieces for a new music. Because the Beatles were so far ahead of the game, I remember thinking that it would be folly for other musicians to match their achievement. The Stones tried and famously failed with Their Satanic Majesties Request, released later in 1967.It was a stoned-out two-sided self-indulgence. It was more murk than music. Jagger, Richards, and the rest realized their foolishness and returned to their rhythm and blues roots.
There is little doubt that Moby Grape felt competitive with the Liverpudlians. Even after the much-maligned fiasco of Columbia Records’ release-five-singles gimmick, the first received almost universal praise from critics as an across-the-board masterpiece. It was surely their due to go up against the Beatles and their Sgt. Pepper achievement and show them how it’s done.
This was a period where the Beatles were receiving an unwholesome amount of credit for every element of studio and melodic sophistication in rock music, and it should be said that the single biggest motivation, most likely, for Lennon and McCartney to up their game and turn their pop-rock into art music was the Beach Boys and their Pet Sounds album. Released May 16, 1966, a full year before the release of the Beatles’ disc, Pet Sounds was head Beach Boy Brian Wilson in full flower as composer and arranger, constructing songs with odd meters, ethereal harmonies, sweeping sound stacks of nearly symphonic effect that was brilliantly anchored by the work of the Wrecking Crew, the famed collection of session musicians who gave flesh and blood to Wilson’s abstract and diffuse explanations of what he wanted his songs to sound like. The boys from Liverpool, particularly McCartney, were flabbergasted by what they heard. The competition began in earnest, Sgt.Pepper was their response, and the consequence of the rivalry were two masterpieces. And now it was Moby Grape’s turn to one-up the Beatles.
If Moby Grape deserves its place in the canon, Wow is surely the sharpest disappointment for a follow-up effort. Appearing on store shelves in April 1968, it sold well, peaking at number 20 on the Billboard 200 album chart but was greeted by expressly mixed reviews. I remember that a few reviews were particularly vicious, with most tastemakers citing the album’s faults with questionable production decisions. There was, in fact, many that recommended the album. American rock critic Robert Christgau succinctly summarized the album’s dilemma, saying Wow suffered from “Pepperitis,” referring to the strong impulse at the time to emulate the Beatles’ best and worst habits. Some of Wow’s artful strokes are baffling, sometimes infuriating. “Bitter Wind,” a compelling folk song highlighting the woes and sorrows of a man looking for truth through an unforgiving life, begins and proceeds beautifully, with a stirring pair of acoustic guitars that provide a galloping rhythm as Bob Mosley shouts a beautifully hoarse, soul-inflected vocal. All starts off grandly: the guitars, Mosley’s gritty singing, and chiming choir boy harmony when matters are summarily destroyed. Out of nowhere a gong is banged and as its resonance fades, the listener is overwhelmed with a blitzkrieg of sound, a virtual cacophony of electronic blorts and blasts simulating a hard wind, under which we hear fragments of the song and Mosley’s fine vocal forlornly obscured.
This was little more than the creation of something very fine, honest, and soulful and then smothering it with the thickest, gaudiest pillow you could find. Note that there are live acoustic versions of “Bitter Wind” available on later repackagings of Moby Grape songs. The unsullied version is worth seeking. There are many other bits of production overkill that would add a thousand more words to this piece, but an item I must bring up is a track called “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot.” Again, coming from a fad started by the Beatles and their Music Hall, turn-of-the-century tributes like “When I’m 64” and furthered with bands like the New Vaudeville Band (“Winchester Cathedral”) or Harper’s Bizarre (“Anything Goes”) securing hits with retro sounds, Moby Grape wanted a crack at it. But more so. Perhaps they were thinking that listeners weren’t getting the full experience of music made in the days of primitive recording technology. As the second to last song faded, there were a few seconds of silence and then a spoken voice booming through the speakers, announcing that he was there to remind you that the next song was at 78rpm, the same speed as the old albums our grandparents bought, and that it would do us good to get out of seats and change the album to the recommended setting. I don’t remember being high, but the announcement startled me and made me as indignant as a 16-year-old could become. 

I got off my bed where I’d been listening with my head wedged between two detachable speakers and changed the speed. Waiting for me at the sped-up rate were simulated scratches, crowd noise as if this were emanating from a live location and Arthur Godfrey, THE Arthur Godfrey, going along with the joke by introducing a fictional jazz dance band from atop an equally bogus hotel. The music was a sluggish parody of long-ago pop aesthetics, a humorless slice of nostalgia-mongering that was a profound drag to sit through. The best way to describe how miserable “Just Like Gene Autry” sounded is to suggest that you imagine playing your vinyl albums while pressing your thumb on the spinning disc. This ruins the listening experience, since from that time onward I made it a point to rise rapidly from whatever chair I was sitting in and lift the arm from the record before being instructed to change the record’s speed. But that bit of labor is something I did willingly for several years, as there is terrific music on Wow.
Several songs remain unscathed despite bad production and inflated ideas, as we have in the wonderful tale of “Motorcycle Irene,” Skip Spence’s darkly comic rendering of the myth of the motorcycle Madonna, the tough chick all the guys want but no one wants to mess with. With a rolling, rumbling piano making things move along with a surfeit of bass notes, Irene’s tale is wry and ironic. “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” shows Moby Grape’s blues side to superb effect, a chug-a-long shuffle where the band’s trademark three-pronged guitar work gives us something of a dialogue between the fret player, a call and response of anxiety, glee, and stoned nonchalance as a hippie appears before a hanging judge. Mosley sings lead again and shows himself as a man who might have been one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. Here, though, he is a free spirit baring his soul and throwing himself on the mercy of the cosmic inevitability before him, a plea to the judge responds “Just for getting smart boy/ I’m gonna give you more than a lifetime…” Jerry Miller slashes, punctuates, and animates the courtroom crisis with his fluid, witty blues guitaring. Despite a French horn introduction and the middle section that seem arbitrary and nonsensical, “Can’t Be So Bad” is a powerhouse boogie where all the counter culture trappings are dropped, the pretense of a generational consensus vanishes, leaving only the protagonist making a case to her beau that things are going get better if she just gives him another chance. The unadorned beseeching of a man to his mate was refreshing, honest, disarming. Miller’s guitar solo here positively rips with the sting of Bloomfield and all of Clapton’s fluidity. Truth is that Wow has several good songs: “He,” “Naked If I Want To,” “Three-Four,” “Rose Colored Glasses,” and “Miller’s Blues,” which rise above the often-murky sound mix and indifferently applied effects.
Their sophomore effort, truth, was one of the most disappointing purchases I made with my combined allowance and pop-bottle cash, naively assuming it was too diffuse, esoteric, muddy, self-indulgent, and all those terms one gleans from reading Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy’s record review sections. All the same I kept dropping Wow onto my turntable, moved the needle around to skip what was less worth a listen, and basked in a growing appreciation of how wonderful this band could be if there was nothing blocking their muse. Imperfect as it was, this record has been part of my permanent record collection all these decades later. Wow was a disappointment, but the best of it retains the  naive spark and sass. Naive, which is to say innocent, and part of the miracle of Moby Grape's first record and the most sublime minutes of Wow is that the band rarely advanced beyond innocence into the quicksand of pretentiousness. When they did, as on Wow, they paid the cost with grating, unlistenable minutes . 

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).

MISCELLANEOUS MISSIVES ON RANDOM ALBUMS OF YORE


It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Led Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. By the time I turned 48, how I perceived the world at 18 - 21 is irrelevant to the fact that they've made some good, sometimes brilliant tunes. Hardly perfect: the lyrics are an embarrassment, but the band is about riff and sound, as Richard Cobeen said in the Lennon thread by way of dismissing the band, but is something I think is crucial to their rock and roll success: riffs and sounds over laid on a varied set of styles and influences that work, sonically, more often than they don't. The lyrics, with the vocals, were just part of the overlay, a part of the texture. Like the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin were studio artists, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up. It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin again got my attention. What the new fascination revealed was a band that was more diverse, musically, than what the fidgeting knocks against them at the time allowed.Led Zeppelin IV is their high water mark for track-by-track knockouts and variety of sounds, but Houses of the Holy is where the band really stretched beyond the comfort of the hard rock style they created. I think they do reggae fine, and "The Crunge" is quite funked up-- Plant's Brown vamping is inspired, and the lyrics are , in turn, somewhat surreal without losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam.The only real bad aftershock of " Sgt Pepper's" and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through  both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and"Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically, 
are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album. Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who’s Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums; finally, on the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but not always, and I think the popular opinion that Pepper is a better disc, song by song, than Satanic Majesties is on the mark. Majesties had The Stones basically playing catch up with the Beatles with their emergent eclecticism and failing, for the most part. That they didn't have George Martin producing and finessing the rough spots of unfinished songs marks the difference.Majesties, though does have at least one great song, "2000 Man", and a brilliant one, "She's A Rainbow" For the rest, it sounds like a noisy party in the apartment next door. The album sounds like a collection of affectations instead of a cohesive set of songs. Cohere is exactly what the tunes on Pepper did, good, great, brilliant, and mediocre. The sounded like they belonged together. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someone's music is legitimate. It's a nice way to chase your own tail, though, which is what many like to do. Better to consider whether the music is at least
honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music, lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection.I would say that "She's Leaving Home" is one of the most atrociously three-hankie wank fests ever written, but I would say that "Good Morning Good Morning" has a lyric that is defensible: it serves the purpose, it's lines and images are clipped, fitting the beats, and the words don't address anything larger than what they're supposed to, a bad mood on a fast morning. It's a self-contained set of references, locked in a particular frame of mind. It is not Lennon's subtlest work, but it's not embarrassing at all. "Catch the Wind" is a lovely song, with a beautifully tendered lyric. Though obviously coming into public view on Dylan's coattails, Donavan was no talentless amateur: he wrote good material in his "new Dylan" period, and did, remarkably, go in a direction quite distinct from Dylan's. He had his moments of good work. Anyone who is still complaining about Zep's less-than-Eliot lyrics has spent too much time staring at their lyric sheets while wearing headphones. It's better to consider Sgt. Pepper as a good album as a good album as a good album, with its historical importance set to the side. There are several good songs on it that have worn well over the decades that keep it from becoming the equivalent of the nutty uncle you don't want your pals to see. Realizing which songs were good after the fact isn't nostalgia, it's common sense. Catcher in the Rye remains what it is, certainly the classic of growing up twisted and feeling put upon. It makes no sense to trash it just because your reading habits became more sophisticated.