I read a lot of books about music, some for fun and some to review here. I like almost all of them, but I don’t kid myself. I know that most of them are appealing simply because I’m interested in learning more about music, and not because the writing is particularly well executed. Respect Yourself is the rare music book with an exciting subject matter, in this case it’s the multiple rises and falls of Stax Records, that’s also really well written. Author Robert Gordon’s lyrical prose and exquisite word choices, are difference maker, elevating the book beyond just a good story, simply told. For example:
Stax stood tall as a symbol of opportunity, a beacon in the neighborhood, the glow from the ascending stars ensconcing nearby residents.
You won’t find a sentence like that in Motley Crue’s The Dirt.
Gordon is also a subject matter expect, having written about Memphis and its local music scene for over thirty years. His knowledge enables him to frame the label’s story through outside elements of city politics, civil rights upheaval (a key important element in the story of a white-owned Southern R&B label with an interracial house band, Booker T. and The MGs), and a cadre of local characters that came through the label’s doors at 926 East McLemore Ave.
As for the story itself, it’s a great one, with two distinct halves. The first half covers the period from when co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton launched the label as a small neighborhood enterprise in 1957, through the death of its biggest star Otis Redding and the loss of the back catalogue to Atlantic Records in 1968. The second tracks the label’s re-launch under new co-owner Al Bell, who brought label back from the dead and returned it to the spotlight when Isaac Hayes’ genius album Hot Buttered Soul turned him into a superstar. Bell also ushered in a new, uglier, capitalistic mindset at the label, marked by violent gun-toting enforcers, endless nonsensical business acquisitions, and generally shady activities. Of course, it didn’t end well, with bankruptcy shutting Stax’s doors in 1975, and Bell up on charges of bank fraud (he would be acquitted). Amazingly, Gordon makes you care about the business side of Stax as much, if not more, than the musical – the stories about radio promotions men as satisfying as those of the label’s roster of hit-makers. An important inclusion in any music geek’s library.
A group of four French guys calling themselves The Socks, doesn’t exactly scream “killer heavy metal” but this debut full-length is a pleasant surprise to say the very least. The Socks are part of an exciting scene of globe-spanning bands who’ve come up in recent years sounding heavily indebted to the early days of hard rock and heavy metal. Like the other top bands of this new movement (my faves are Kadavar and Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats), The Socks steadfastly ignore just about everything from the last 35 years and play metal like it was in the beginning, simply the next step in a natural evolutionary process that fused together elements from garage rock, psychedelia, and progressive rock to make something evil, aggressive and new. Sure, sticking to the original formula comes with its downside, like dopey lyrics about dragons and evil gypsies and such, but those eye-rolling moments are made digestible by the band’s heightened musical abilities. Like their heroes Deep Purple Led Zeppelin and (especially) Black Sabbath these guys can actually swing, something of a lost art-form among heavy bands. There are some slow doomy moments, some hazy psychedelic moments, and even some doomy psychedelic moments like “Lords Of Illusion” but for the most part they just rear back and “go for it” with aplomb and pretty high success rate. Nowhere do they go for it harder than “Some Kind Of Sorcery”, in which the band goes from zero-to-60 in less than one second and continues to trample you like a herd of runaway elephants for the next four minutes. It’s the album’s greatest achievement and one of the best songs I’ve heard so far this year.
The night before a reunion show has to be a nerve-wracking one, filled with sweaty palms, self-doubt and last minute attempts at remembering songs you haven’t played in years. It definitely doesn’t seem like a great time to record an album, but that’s exactly what Cleveland’s Death of Samantha did with If Memory Serves Us Well, laying down eighteen songs from their 1984-1990 back catalogue at a band rehearsal the night before a reunion gig in 2011 – their first show in almost two decades. If the idea of a reunited band releasing a rehearsal recording has you picturing If Memory Serves Us Well as a poorly recorded collection sloppy performances, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I’ve never heard any of these songs in their originally recorded form, so I can’t compare these versions to the originals, but I can, however, tell you that these songs smoke. The band are firmly rooted in the tradition of adventurous Midwestern bands like The Stooges and Pere Ubu, but with their own unique sense of poetry and passion. I can imagine them playing bills with similar-styled contemporaries like The Gun Club, Leaving Trains or The Dream Syndicate and easily holding their own. Everything that the band does is great, but I’m most impressed with the guitar interplay of singer John Petkovic and Doug Gillard (both of whom would go on to play with Cobra Verde and Guided By Voices, among others) which is part Keith Richards/Ron Wood drunk bob ‘n’ weave, and part Verlaine/Lloyd’s highly refined cosmic explorations. Liner notes by mega-fans, and people who know their shit, Thurston Moore, Mark Lanegan, Robert Pollard and Byron Coley are just icing on the cake. Now if someone would only reissue the band’s back catalogue…
The members of Swedish rockers Greenleaf came together as a side-project back at the tail end of the 1990s, and have somehow outlasted the bands they considered their main gigs at the time. To understand the Greenleaf sound you only need to look as far as the acts that ‘leaf mainstays Tommi Holappa (guitars) and Bengt Bäcke (bass) used to call home. Both played in Dozer, who made some interesting Kyuss-esque albums, and Bäcke also played in a band called Demon Cleaner, who I haven’t heard but can safely assume were equally Kyuss-esque given that their name comes from one of the desert-rock pioneers’ best songs. It therefore comes with no surprise at all that Trails and Passes, Greenleaf’s fifth full-length album, can best be described as…wait for it….Kyuss-esque. Kyuss’ mash up of low rumbling heaviness and molten psychedelia is all over these nine songs, which makes for some good listening, but the lack of originality makes them far from essential. Yes the band are tight and can deliver melody and brutality in equal measure; but so did Kyuss, and with better songs. “Equators” is probably my favorite song on the album; a fun rebellious anthem, complete with a cowbell that’s so expected you almost wonder how they waited until the third track to include it. However, it too suffers from a lack of originality, which anyone who’s ever heard Hawkwind’s own rebellious anthem “Urban Guerilla” can attest to. “The Drum” is both heavy and funky, and is as far afield from Kyuss as Trails and Passes gets – which is not very far, considering it sounds almost exactly like Queens Of The Stone Age. Singer Arvid Jonsson even sings with a Josh Homme-styled falsetto. It, like everything else on the album, is well done, but has also been done better before.
I can’t pinpoint the exact date I started writing about music, but it was roughly a decade ago, so now seems like a pretty good time to look back at those ten years, and figure out what, if anything, I’ve accomplished. Picture it, Manhattan, 2004 – I was a young-ish music fan living in a studio apartment, and still buzzing from all the new music I’d been exposed to in recent years (Sigur Ros, The Strokes, White Stripes…etc.). So much so that I was convinced there were still a lot of other great bands out there that I was missing out on, and dammit I wanted to do something about it. Writing about music would be a way to get access to a lot of new albums (for free!) and maybe even discover the next big thing. With that idea in mind I stumbled across Losing Today, which used to be a print magazine, but was now operating as a website with regularly updated content and a focus on shoegaze music – something I was very into at the time. The site had a link for anyone interested in writing for the site and I reached out to see if I could write for them. I sent what I can only imagine was a poorly written review of M83′s new album, Before The Dawn Heals Us, which I liked a lot at the time, but probably haven’t listened to in a few years. They told me they liked the review and that I could become a regular contributor. I was in. I was a music writer.
Truth be told, Losing Today was operated out of Italy and the people who ran it wrote in pretty choppy English on the rare occasions that we exchanged emails, so I’m not sure how much they understood what I wrote. But it didn’t matter. I was excited to dive in at the deep end and quickly set about the task of getting myself music to review. In what can only be described as an amateur’s display of over-enthusiasm, I picked up the latest copy of The Big Takeover (an indispensable rock magazine I haven’t missed an issue of since 1998) and proceeded to email the record company behind every album reviewed in that issue in an attempt to get on their mailing list for promos of new releases. There were hundreds of reviews in that magazine. Within days my mailbox was flooded…sometimes 10-15 albums a day; definitely more than a sane person could ever review. I tried to hit as many as I could, but I was definitely sacrificing quality in the name of quantity. Even today when I look back at those old reviews I cringe at my misinformed opinions, lack of insight and bad grammar (some of which was so bad I’ve gone back and given their entries on this site an editorial scrubbing). Mostly I can’t believe I reviewed so many records – even ones I didn’t have any interest in.
Writing reviews for Losing Today was exposing me to a lot of cool bands I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. It got me free entrance into a handful of concerts and it even gave me a chance to interview some artists I admired (Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember from Spacemen 3, Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Black Angels and Yuki from Asobi Seksu), but after several years boredom was setting in. The site was simply not where I was at any more. The other writers – when there were other writers – were well intentioned, but their meager skills made my tired horseshit look like Lester Bangs in comparison, and I longed for a sense of community or at least some form of feedback (although I was thrilled to one day find a discussion on a shoegaze message board about how bad I sucked as a writer). I was simply uploading my reviews to a portal, and sometime a few days/weeks later it would appear, regardless of what I wrote. One time I even put a doctored picture of my friend’s newborn baby in place of the album cover in one of my reviews. It was time for a change.
After plotting my next move, I decided I would create my own blog – the one you’re reading right now. This would give me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to, and to, hopefully, have more direct interaction with readers through comments and emails. I came up with a list of names, and finally settled on Midnight To Six. It was the name of a fine song by The Pretty Things, a band I’d long admired, but more importantly the name had a cool vibe to it and captured the essence of what I was doing with music writing – it was a hobby for after hours. I originally planned to have the site be a clearing house for musical essays, interviews, thoughts, top ten lists and the like, but I soon found that all the time I had to spend writing about music could easily be taken up with reviews, so that’s been the majority of what I’ve been doing ever since.
The only other twist in the story is the brief period I spent writing for a website called Spectrum Culture (www.spectrumculture.com). They somehow found my site and, after a brief interview with its proprietor over Instant Message, I was in. This seemed like a good opportunity to write for someone with a little higher profile than this site, but it never felt quite right. The people that ran the site were really nice and accommodating, but they also had a lot of rules and writing for them kind of felt like work. I had spent years doing whatever I wanted, and all of a sudden I was faced with word minimums, editorial scrutiny and, worst of all, deadlines. I appreciated the opportunity to write for a more professional outfit (although not professional enough that there was any pay involved) but I never really liked the site’s content, and felt kind of like Iggy Pop trying to sing a Yes song – this was not the right place for me and my unique brand of amateurism.
So, that brings us to the present day. Despite the occasional bout of stagnancy and frustration I still love doing it and I’m still getting a jolt of energy whenever I hear something new that excites me or when I have some kind of interaction with a reader. I guess that’s enough of a reward for me to keep at it.
Special thanks must be given to my friend Jake, who, in addition to putting my writing skills to shame with his occasional post here under the name Beerbrarian, has proofread almost everything I’ve written over the past decade. The guy has a career, a wife, and two young kids, yet he always finds time to read my thoughts on third-rate music nobody cares about. I’m grateful for that. He also keeps a well-tended blog over at http://beerbrarian.blogspot.com/
12A26A (aka David)
P.S. Listen to Black Sabbath
“Ray Davies has written something really good” isn’t exactly a headline-worthy statement – the man has a history of writing great songs going all the way back to 1964 when The Kinks burst onto the scene with “You Really Got Me”. However, with Americana he’s, yet again, written something deeply introspective and enjoyable; this time an autobiography-of-sorts relating to his lifetime fascination with America. Growing up in the austerity of post-war England, America seemed to Ray a place of endless opportunity and adventure, but the America he was presented with as an adult in the high stakes business of rock and roll was far more tumultuous. The rough times stated early, with a four-year ban on touring the states during what was arguably his creative peak (1965-1969). Being forced to sidelines in a fertile market put the band in a financial bind (I was shocked to read that the band often had to stay in low budget hotels in the early-’70s), and the book spends a great deal of time on Davies’ activities in the back half of the ’70s, perhaps not his best period artistically, but one that found him restlessly working to get The Kinks back atop the charts here in the states, where he had taken up residence. Moving here was a bold move for a guy whose songs were typically very British in nature, but new environment meant new influences and made it possible for him to pen songs he never could have written in England (ex: “A Gallon of Gas” about the oil shortage, or the disco of “Wish I Could Fly Like Superman”) and he was ultimately rewarded with the success that he so badly wanted. Americana also spends a lot of time in New Orleans, where Davies moved in the early -2000s to soak up the city’s cultural “openness” which had eluded him in the business-driven hubs of New York and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his stay there was not without problems and he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in 2004 when he was shot and critically injured during a robbery attempt (although he hints that it may have been something more calculated and nefarious than a random robbery). Whether writing about his professional or personal life, or just offering up an offhanded piece of social commentary, Davies (who turned 70 the day I started writing this) always approaches his subject matter like one his classic songs: funny, sentimental, introspective and feverishly enjoyable.