There Was A Light: A Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star by Rich Tupica (Hozac Books)

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Big Star were perhaps the quintessential cult band, having made some of the greatest records of all time, but struggling to sell many of ’em thanks to woefully inept distribution from their label, Ardent Records. For years radio play, high-profile touring opportunities and press coverage was practically non-existent, so you really had to want to hear Big Star to actually hear them. These days, the band’s legacy is in much healthier shape thanks to reissue campaigns, popular cover versions, boxsets, a documentary film, and a book. The cult of Big Star has grown so strong, that there have even been books on individual band members, with Holly George-Warren’s excellent Alex Chilton biography, “A Man Called Destruction”, and now Rich Tupica’s Chris Bell biography, given the lengthy title “There Was A Light: A Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star”.

The book is an oral history of Bell’s life, using quotes from Bell’s friends, family, and band-mates, with the author occasionally tossing in some factual context, but mostly staying in the background. The quotes present Bell as a highly complex and often conflicted character. Here was a guy who came from a wealthy Memphis family (his father was a successful restaurateur), yet he shunned business for music after getting his mind blown by The Beatles at an early age, and never looked back even when his commercial prospects were all but gone. He had an appetite for drink and drugs, and most people who knew him thought he was gay, yet he was also extremely religious, and, perhaps most shockingly, an avid tennis player. Outside of his personal life, Tupica charts Bell’s artistic growth from teen Beatle fan experimenting with garage rock in The Jynx, up through the piecemeal solo recordings that made up I Am The Cosmos, Bell’s only solo LP, which didn’t see the light of day until 1992, fourteen years after his death from a car crash. He also often gives a voice to Bell’s less known musical peers like Tommy Hoehn, Richard Rosebrough, and Ken Woodley, showing that Big Star (and Bell) weren’t one-offs existing in a vacuum, but rather a part of a local rock scene trying to come out from under the shadow of Stax Records. You can tell this was a real labor of love for Tupica, who clearly put a lot of time and research into making the book. His efforts have paid off in a book that’s both informative and easy to read. With seemingly no stone left unturned, There is A Light is the only book on Bell you’ll likely ever need.


Des Demonas – “Bay Of Pigs”/”Skrews” (Black Gladiator/Slovenly)

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Although I didn’t hear it until early this year, Des Demonas’ debut was one of the best albums of 2017. The DC band touched a variety of personal and political raw nerves via Jacky Cougar’s incisive lyrics, yet they also rocked hard, with deceptively simple tunes inspired by, and equal to, the best of ’60s garage rock and ’70s punk. If nothing else, they gave the world “The South Will Never Rise Again”, an anti-racist anthem whose chorus should be sung daily throughout the world. Less than a year later they’re back with a brand new two-song 7-inch, which thankfully delivers more of the same thrills. “Bay Of Pigs” is a two-chord steamroller of a song. The music and lyrics both feel a little underdeveloped, but there’s an immediacy in the performances that totally sells it. B-side, “Skrews”, is garage punk nirvana, with Cougar hoping for a future that doesn’t make you “feel like crying” over a charged up beat that’s as much Nuggets as it is Sex Pistols. If these two songs are any indication of where Des Demonas are headed next, we are in for a real thrill.

Cretin Stompers – Looking Forward To Being Attacked (Hozac)

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Let’s cut to the chase – this album is insanely good. Imagine if you will, a trio of bongs that somehow became sentient beings and formed a psychedelic rock band. And suppose that this bong-band’s singer sometimes fed their vocals through some kind of high-pitched effect (which may just be a sped up tape) that gave it a unique, and often startling, sound. Well, that band might come up with something that sounds like Looking Forward To Being Attacked. Cretin Stompers has its pedigree in recent-ish garage groups – Billy Hayes played with Jay Reatard, Alex Gatez in Wavves, and they’ve got a dude going by the name of BigMuff who played in BigMuffRadio and The Delay. The album does deliver  some punky numbers, like “Adult Child” and “Cretin Ate My Neighbor”, but they’re so noise-damaged that even the Butthole Surfers would have to tip their cap in deference. Beneath all the lunacy (which extends out from the music into the trippy/goofy record sleeve art) lies a serious knack for writing earworms. “Eye Of The Storm” and “Watch Sally Run” could even pass for Super Furry Animals tunes – and the way the latter segues into the bizzaro funk of “Dream Blood” is just one great weedy moment on an album of many. Super-obscuro covers of The Styrenes (“Drano In Yr. Veins”) and “Sweet Obsession” by Dave Brock of Hawkwind just add to the disturbed fun.

How much did I like this album? Well, I’m reviewing it now, even though it came out in 2014. Why? Because, maybe if more people hear it, they’ll make another. Oh, and the cover art is by Memphis photographer William Eggleston – on of his photos is the cover of Big Star’s Radio City – which is just icing on the cake.

The Sueves – R.I.P. Clearance Event (Hozac)

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The Sueves are a Chicago three-piece serving up tough as nails rock and roll that sets up shop right on the border of garage rock and punk. R.I.P. Clearance Event – the band’s second full-length album for local tastemakers Hozac Records – has the raw materials for success. The album is overflowing with attitude and energy, and singer Joe Schorgl’s voice never sounds less than ornery. However, the recording isn’t that great. Lyrics are consistently hard to discern, and their palette of sounds is too similar from song to song. The album’s best moments are all on Side 2 – “Never Been To The Beach” is a tightly wound anti-tribute to sun and surf, “Green White” is electrifying and “Slammer” is aptly titled. There’s even a hint of blues on “What They Did”, giving the album some much needed variety. While The Sueves aren’t likely to be hailed as rocks next saviours any time soon – and I have no idea how to pronounce their name correctly (is it Swaves? Sweves?) – there’s something interesting here for fans of Ty Segall, Brimstone Howl, Jay Reatard…etc. to latch on to.

Ruby Karinto – Ruby Karinto (Hozac)

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Everything about Ruby Karinto’s debut album seems designed to simultaneously confuse and stimulate. Even their name is puzzling – nobody in the band is named Ruby Karinto, nor are any hints given to what it means. The four members of Ruby Karinto are only listed by their first names, so we barely even know who they are! Their sound is hard to pin down too. There are reference points like ESG, Yamasuki, and maybe some of the weirder stuff Grand Royal put out in mid-’90s, but this is a unique spin on all of those inspirations. Ruby Karinto have no guitar player, instead the band is built on bedrock of bass and drums keeping a thumping backbeat, while all manner of swirling synth and electronics sounds swoop in and out of the picture and singer “Ai” chants, sings, and talks on top of it all. Oh, and did I mention that half of the songs on the album are in Japanese? Side two offers a few clues on the origins of Ruby Karinto’s sound, though you’d have to be a black-belt music geek to pick up on them. Specifically, there’s an excellent cover of “Always Now” by Section 25 and a song called “No Manchester” that does in fact resemble the caustic sound of the No New York compilation, gone Manchester post-punk. As challenging as Ruby Karinto’s music may sound on paper, it’s actually easy to digest and infectiously danceable too, proving that you can stimulate minds and asses at the same time.

Velveteen Rabbit – “Mind-Numbing Entertainment”/”I Wanna Be Your Woman” (Hozac Records)

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Listening to this single, you’d swear Velveteen Rabbit were some forgotten British Junkshop Glam band, yet they’re a newly minted outfit from New York City, previously known as The Jeanies. Pretty much every circa-’73 glam touchstone is accounted for: fey vocals, boot-stomping beats, guitar moves copped from Bolan, Thunders and Ronson….and that’s just the A-side! Flip your 45 over and “I Wanna Be Your Woman” gives you more of the same, this time with a little gender-fluid sexuality thrown in to boot (Velveteen Rabbit are men). As with the best of the original glam scene, beneath the lipstick and glitter lies a rock and roll heart and keen pop sensibility. A two-song single feels like the right format for Velveteen Rabbit’s kind of cheap thrills (a term which, in Junkshop Glam parlance, is actually a compliment), but I’d also be curious to see if they can sustain the fun over the course of an album. Mostly, I just want to hear more music from them.

F.U.K. – Roadkill (Hozac Archival)

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F.U.K. (that stands for Fucked Up Kids) were a brief blip, barely registered on Michigan’s punk radar, playing just one show at an Ann Arbor club called The Cube on Halloween 1977, and leaving behind these two songs as perhaps the only proof they ever existed. The band’s lineup shared some members with local faves Destroy All Monsters, as well as ultimately contributing two members (Roger Miller and Martin Swope) to Mission Of Burma a few years later after they moved to Boston. The titular A-side, belted out by Sue Rynski, overcomes the cheap recording quality with sheer ferocity, and an assist from Miller’s wild guitar, which marries Ron Asheton’s psychedelic tone to James Williamson’s razor-sharp technique. Miller sings the B-side, “I Got A Head”, and it sounds like a practice run for what Mission of Burma would end up sounding like a few years later, though the presence of a kazoo adds an Ubu-esque element of absurd experimentation. Both songs smoke and prove that there’s still plenty of unmined gold within the margins of punk’s early years.