33 1/3: Beat Happening by Bryan C. Parker (Bloomsbury)

I acquired Beat Happening’s self-titled debut album about six months ago, and have had a lot of questions about it ever since. Mostly I wanted to know how an album of low fidelity recordings by a trio of unseasoned musicians (vocals, guitar and drums – no bass) whose lyrics were almost child-like, came to be; and I wanted to know why it sounds so wonderfully out of step with everything else, even thirty years later. Bryan C. Parker’s book helps answer those questions over the course of twenty-six chapters, each one covering a band-related subject corresponding to a letter in the alphabet. “A” is for action, “B” is for Bret, “C” is for Calvin…and so on. At the center of the story is the band’s leader Calvin Johnson, a decidedly unique character who basically helped put Olympia on the punk map with his band and record label, K Records. Think of him as something of an Ian MacKaye of the Northwest, minus the aggression, as the two shared an almost identical vision of needing to make something happen locally, no matter how much work it took them. Parker does admirable work here in describing the origins of the band’s sensibilities (improvisational theater and early exposure to feminism are both key), and how those sensibilities put them at odds with punk as the scene was getting more violent and exclusionary. As with all volumes of the 33 1/3 series, I’ll judge Parker’s work on how much it enhanced my understanding of the album and whether or not that enhanced perspective made me want to revisit it with fresh ears. He’s successful on both fronts.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Mini Album Thingy Wingy (A Recordings)

Brian Jonestown Massacre singer Anton Newcombe has been a busy guy in 2015 – first he released a mostly instrumental full-length soundtrack to a nonexistent French film, then a collaborative album with singer/songwriter Tess Parks, and now this seven song mini-album recorded at his Berlin studio in 2014 and ’15. A lot of artists can’t maintain that kind of pace without sacrificing quality, but Anton has put out some of his best stuff during periods of hyper-productivity, and sure enough I don’t detect any signs that he’s rushing his process to keep up with himself. Cohesion isn’t much a of a factor, however; with each of these songs feeling like a separate thread that could be returned to later for deeper exploration. It opens with another songwriting collaboration with Parks called “Pish” (Anton takes the lead vocals, unlike their previous meeting), reminiscent of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s own mid-’90s song “She Made Me”, crossed with The Velvet Underground’s “Ocean”. These are good things. Next up is “Prsi Prsi”, an almost Morricone-like song which features guest vocals from Vlad Nosal, and is sung in Slovakian because, well, why the hell not? “Get Some” is a classic garage-rock tale of teenage boy/girl drama. What follows is a rather unexpected cover of “Dust” by The 13th Floor Elevators. It’s an awkward song vocally and lyrically, yet it’s effectively rendered here, with Alex Maas from The Black Angels adding some understated electric jug sounds. “Leave It Alone” follows; a simple, yet powerful, song reminiscent of John Lennon’s first post-Beatles albums. An instrumental song, “Mandrake Handshake”, is fine if a bit unexciting, giving way to the closing “Here Comes The Waiting For Sun”, a full-on lysergic rush of psychedelic rock, complete with backwards guitars and vocal tremolo, which sounds nothing like the Doors or Beatles songs it’s sorta named after. As with all Brian Jonestown Massacre releases, this mini-album is highly recommended.

The Mickey Finn – Garden Of My Mind: The Complete Recordings 1964-1967 (RPM)

The Mickey Finn are one of the many bands from the mid-’60s UK rock scene to have a few brushes with greatness, but ultimately failing to find themselves much of an audience. Garden of My Mind is the first ever compilation of the band’s material, collecting everything they released from 1964-1967, and a few songs that get their first airing here. The band’s earliest recordings were decidedly average ska sides, recorded under the moniker Mickey Finn and The Blue Men. Things start to pick up considerably in 1965 when the British ska craze died down and the newly christened Mickey Finn released the “The Sporting Life” single b/w “Night Comes Down”, featuring production from the brilliant Shel Talmy (The Who, The Creation, The Kinks…etc.). “The Sporting Life” is a solid Animals-styled R&B/blues hybrid, but the B-side “Night Comes Down” is a stone killer, with a barely controlled violence that threatens to boil over as the song progresses, but never actually does. Their next single, “Because I Love You” was a weak attempt at a pop number, though the b-side “If I Had You Baby” was another strong slice of Animals-esque R&B. After a year spent touring, finding a new bass player, and recording demos, the band put out their final single,”Garden Of My Mind”, one of the great British numbers of the psychedelic era, earning the band a worthy inclusion on the second Nuggets box-set. Perhaps the song amounts to little more than The Yardbirds covering “Purple Haze”, but if it’s executed correctly – as it is here – that’s a pretty great thing. The excellent b-side, “Time To Start Loving You”, is a proto-glam stomper featuring an exciting combination of livewire riffing from guitarist Mickey Finn (real name Mickey Waller) and Alan Marks’ gruff soul vocals. Had the band recorded a full album around this time they’d almost certainly have a more prominent place in rock history. Instead, all we get are some fleeting moments of brilliance. Waller would go on to be a popular session musician in the ’70s, and early band member Jimmy Page went on to be Jimmy fucking Page.

The Telescopes – Splashdown: The Complete Creation Recordings 1990-1992 (Cherry Red Records)

The Telescopes 1992 album, given the quizzical title of #Untitled Second, has now been reissued on CD three times since 2004, but Cherry Red finally gets it right with Splashdown. I’m not going to review most of the music on Splashdown because I’ve already covered a good portion of it here and here, but I will tell you briefly that #Untitled Second is a unique chapter in the Creation Records story of that era, featuring a becalmed, almost pastoral take on shoegaze and experimental indie. I will also tell you that, even with so much of it available on other archival releases, Splashdown is a revelation for Telescopes fans. The remastering is great, Jon Dale’s liner notes are informative, and there is more than a full disc of bonus songs taken from the band’s two year stay on Creation Records. The extra songs are, for the most part, easy to find on other Telescopes releases (my favorites are “Precious Little”, “Soul Full Of Tears” and “Sleepwalk”, all some of the best and most tuneful psychedelic music of the era), but there are a few key songs I hadn’t heard before, which piqued my interest. Included in those are a reverential cover of “Candy Says” which falls right in the band’s narcotic wheelhouse, a cover of “The Good’s Gone” which slows the original’s tempo down to an uncomfortable drone-crawl, and versions of four songs from #Untitled Second recorded for a Peel Session in 1991. The Peel Session tracks are fascinating proof that the band was strong enough during this period to translate the highly experimental sonic atmospheres from the album (which included sounds from sugar being poured into lemonade, wind up cars…etc.) to a more immediate recording environment, and still be entirely effective. Splashdown is the long-awaited final word on The Telescopes from this period, and an essential purchase.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – The Night Creeper (Rise Above Records)

There were a lot of albums I looked forward to hearing in 2015, but my anticipation was most feverish for The Night Creeper, the fourth album from Cambridge, England’s Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats. The band’s previous two albums (good luck finding the first one) were excellent takes on all things heavy and psychedelic from the late-’60s and early-’70s, and, when coupled with their rising profile (including a tour opening for Black Sabbath), all signs pointed towards The Night Creeper being the album to lift them out of the psychedelic metal ghetto and on towards better things. Now that I’ve had the album for a little over a month, I don’t think it meets the unrealistic expectations I saddled it with, but it’s still an inspired listen.

“Waiting For Blood” opens the album in typical Uncle Acid fashion, which means it combines a Sabbathy riff, Crazy Horse garage rock slop, and Revolver-era Beatle vocals. Perhaps the song is too mid-tempo and too closely attached to its main riff to truly excite you down to your core, but it’s rock solid and features a great guitar solo from singer/lead guitarist Kevin Starrs, one of the few current players that’s doing anything interesting with the instrument. Elsewhere, the album is heavy on doomy tracks, with “Downtown”, “Pusherman” and the title track all great restatements of the thunderous glory of early Black Sabbath, with Kevin Starrs’ twisted lyrics giving them a unique vibe. Several other tracks break that mold and veer off in interesting directions. “Yellow Moon” is a guitar and mellotron instrumental that adds considerably to the album’s creepy feel. “Melody Lane” is an obvious choice for a lead single, with a killer chorus and a ’60s garage rock sound that could almost pass as a song from the Nuggets compilation. “Slow Death” closes out the album proper with nine-minutes of musical bleed-out and brittle guitar interludes a la “Down By The River” (Neil Young is a huge influence – and an uncommon one for a band classified as “metal”). With all of the album’s focus on death and murder, you couldn’t ask for a more appropriate bonus tack than the acoustic funeral procession of “Back Motorcade”.

While it may not be the critical or commercial breakthrough I hoped for, and it could use a few more up-tempo songs to provide the immediate impact that “I’ll Cut You Down”, “Mind Crawler” or “Evil Love” gave their previous albums, The Night Creeper digs its way deeper into your brain with each listen, and it affirms that Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats are the best band making heavy music right now.

Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington D.C. (1980-90) by Scott Crawford (MVD Visual)

A documentary on the D.C. punk scene should be an easy win, yet somehow Scott Crawford’s film falls short of expectations. He tells the story of how D.C. became a key stop on the map of American punk through old band footage, and interviews with a lot of same talking heads you’ve seen in a ton of other music documentaries (Thurston Moore, Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl…etc.), yet despite D.C. housing such a fertile scene, with so many unique facets and characters, Crawford’s movie sticks to the basics of what’s already known, and ignores opportunities to dig deeper and pull new angles out of old stories. So, while you get the headlines of straightedge, Dischord, Revolution Summer, and the idea/ideal factory that is Ian MacKaye, the film ignores other interesting moments.

Among other things, why not look at:

*The Bad Brains leaving D.C. to move to New York?

*Henry Rollins leaving small local band State Of Alert to join Black Flag in California?

*What was it like for Alec MacKaye to be part of the DC scene, but always under his brother’s shadow?

*Stories about the high-school aged Teen Idles travelling across the country to play shows in California?

*The economics of running a label like Dischord?

*What the local D.C. music/punk scene was like prior to Dischord and how those participants reacted to the “new kids” taking over their scene?

*D.C. punks’ fights with people from other East Coast punk scenes – specifically those from New York?

These things could have made the story behind the music a lot more human than it appears. With these elements missing you’re left with a very watchable, but dry and mild-mannered documentary that’s essentially a film version of a Wikipedia page, where facts take center stage over people and emotions.

In addition to the 103 minute film, there’s a bunch of extra interview footage and lo-fi live performances.