Heavy Metalloid Music: The Story Of Simply Saucer by Jesse Locke (Eternal Cavalier)

Books about underground bands like The Velvet Underground, Big Star, MC5 or The Stooges usually create the impression they were so far ahead of their time that nobody appreciated them when they were around. Reading Jesse Locke’s book on Simply Saucer made me realize just how lucky those groups actually were. True, they didn’t have the level of success they deserved, but at least they had the advantage of operating out hip urban centers that gave them access to major label deals, tours and support from the music press. Playing psychedelically-charged proto-punk in early-’70s Hamilton, Ontario (a place I can’t even point to on a map – though that may say more about me than Ontario) made Simply Saucer perennial outsiders. Even though they had serious songwriting chops and an exciting experimental edge, there just wasn’t any kind of local network for them to tap into. Without the opportunity to catch the ear of a clued-in benefactor like a Danny Fields, Lester Bangs, David Bowie or Andy Warhol, Simply Saucer never toured, never put out an album (their only official release until 1989 was a highly-unrepresentative 7″ single), and made such a faint impression that for about a decade after they broke up it was almost like they never existed. However, no matter how deep it’s buried, good music always finds a way to surface given time, and 1989’s posthumous compilation Cyborgs Revisited finally gave the world a much needed document of what the band were capable of. If you haven’t heard it, track it down.

Jesse Locke’s book, named after a phrase singer Edgar Breau used to introduce the live version of their song “Illegal Bodies” heard on Cyborgs Revisited, charts Simply Saucer’s silent explosion, with a well-researched band history from formation up through the past decade since they re-launched in 2006. Locke covers those musically vital early years with fascinating stories of drugs, personal battles, strange performances and crazy bohemian lifestyles – the kind of stuff you’ve come to expect from a worthwhile rock bio. He certainly gets much deeper into their history than I could when I interviewed Edgar Breau a few years back. But perhaps most interesting is the way Locke documents how Simply Saucer’s legend stayed alive after they broke up in 1979, through a small but fervent network of musicians and tape-trading record geeks who, once they heard the band’s mid-’70s demos and live performances, were compelled to spread the word to like-minded peers. With the band’s best music now properly preserved, the future is looking up for Simply Saucer. In addition to Heavy Metalloid Music, there’s a documentary film and a 2cd reissue of Cyborgs Revisited on In The Red Records both promised for 2017. Perhaps they’ll finally get some of the acclaim they should’ve had over 40 years ago. Better late than never.

The Beatpack – Back, Behind and In Front (State Records)

Tons of bands have been inspired by the sounds of the ’60s, but I don’t think I’ve heard a more accurate recreation of mid-’60s r&b/freakbeat than this four-song EP by recently resurrected U.K. garage gang The Beatpack. It has the songs, the production (raw and echo-y), and all the attention to period detail needed to pass it off as a ’66 original. Within the first 30 seconds of opening track “Loopin’ With Lucy” you get the full scope of The Beatpack’s influences: The Pretty Things, Them, The Yardbirds and The Animals. Like those bands, these guys use obvious source material but play it hard and fast enough to make it interesting, with rave-up sections, wailing harmonicas, flirtations with jazz, and all other sorts of experimentation. “A Fog Is Lifting” is my favorite of the four tracks. So what if the song’s only aspiration is to find out what “Jeff’s Boogie” by The Yardbirds would sound like with Eric Burdon adding vocals? It’s 2:16 of compelling garage rock – as are the other nine minutes of this all to brief EP.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request (A Records)

Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request was the first of three Brian Jonestown Massacre records released in 1996, and like the other two (Take It From The Man and Thank God For Mental Illness) it wasn’t heard by a ton of people at the time, but those who heard it couldn’t really ignore what they were doing. Even before Jack White or The Strokes were making music, bands inspired by the 1960s were nothing new. However, The Brian Jonestown Massacre weren’t just copyists. Even when they were actually using someone else’s old ideas, they filtered it through their own chaotic lives, adding a sense of humor and willingness to experiment other bowl-haircutted bands lacked. Plus, they knew how to write interesting songs, which is why their albums from this era have held up a lot better than most of what was popular in alternative rock at that time.

As the title indicates, this album was inspired by The Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which is oft-maligned (though pretty great in my opinion) because it had the band shedding most of their blues and r&b roots and exploring the outer realms of psychedelic experimentation. The spirit of that album, and Brian Jones’ overall contributions to the Stones are all over these songs, with Jonestown members playing over 40 instruments, from the normal guitars and drums, to exotic instruments like the tablas, cabasa, and what the liner notes describe as “weird fucking Chinese shit”.

Sequencing is a real strength here, with the songs and brief musical interludes bookended by a pair of tracks called “All Around You” where Jonestown mastermind Anton Newcombe plays the album’s “host”, welcoming listeners to the journey it’s meant to take you on. Song-wise 2nd Request has a lot going on, with eighteen tacks and seventy-four minutes of music to dive through. My favorite songs are the ones where the band ventures into Eastern-inspired motifs, like “Feelers”, “In India You”, and “Cause, I Lover”, all of which sound like The Beatles might have sounded in 1967 with more Lennon/Harrison than Lennon/McCartney. On the folk-rock side, guitarist Matt Hollywood – often the band’s secret weapon during their wild 1990s peak – contributes classic “No Come Down” and “Jesus”, while Mara Keagle sings “Anemone”, one of the band’s signature tunes. As great as individual songs are, the album is most effective taken in as a whole.

So why am I reviewing a twenty-year-old album that hasn’t been reissued? Well this is a new 2016 2xLP repress on 180-gram yellow vinyl that looks cool and sounds better than my old CD. So if you already own it, there’s a good reason to upgrade, and if you don’t own it, there’s never been a better time to pick it up.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Third World Pyramid (A Records)

Third World Pyramid is the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 15th full-length album, and while they’re still putting out music that’s 10x better than most of their peers, they’ve started to hit some of the stumbling blocks that come with longevity (they recently celebrated a 25th anniversary). At their peak the only thing holding them back was themselves, but with band members approaching 50 they’re battling against diminishing range, maturity, and reliance on old ideas. Take the songs “Don’t Get Lost” and “Like Describing Colour To A Blind Man On Acid” for example: If these were the only Brian Jonestown Massacre songs you’d ever heard, you’d probably like them. But, if you’ve followed the band for any significant stretch of time, you’d know there’s at least three songs in their catalogue that sound just like them. That’s the problem; Third World Pyramid sounds just fine, but doesn’t add much to what you already know about the band. There’s also issues with the sequencing, with only nine songs running just under 40 minutes making it hard to find cohesion among all the loose threads, and there definitely wasn’t enough space to warrant including two instrumentals (“Oh Bother” and “Lunar Surf Graveyard”, both of which sound exactly like what you expect Brian Jonestown Massacre songs without lyrics to sound like). The album’s best moments actually come from sources outside the band. Album opener “Good Mourning” features Anton’s wife Katy Lane doing a Hope Sandoval type of vocal, frequent collaborator Tess Parks sings the title song, which sounds cool even if it reminds you of old Jonestown track “This Is The One Thing We Did Not Want To Have Happen” right down to the terrible drum fills, and “The Assignment Song”, is a surprising Nina Simone cover that clocks in over nine minutes thanks to a long flute-driven instrumental section. The final track, “The Sun Ship”, works much better here as a culmination of the album’s psychedelic journey than it did as a stand-alone pre-album single, though it’s pretty impossible to hear it and not be reminded of “I Am The Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields”.

Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds: The British Psychedelic Sounds of 1967 (Cherry Red Records)

I consider the two original volumes of Rhino’s Nuggets box-sets cornerstones of my music collection and I can’t help but compare all subsequent garage and psychedelic rock compilations to them. Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds often sound like a companion piece to the second Nuggets box-set, covering five years of great mod/psych/garage singles made outside America. They share four songs and even more groups between them, which furthers the need for comparison, but by focusing in on music from one country (England) and just one year (1967) this 3-disc set ends up telling a very different story. The bands you’ll meet were mostly unknowns (The Pretty Things and The Move are the biggest names here) influenced by the way The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks…etc. opened music up to a new world of possibilities with each successive release, starting around 1965. By the time 1967 rolled around, you’ve got Pink Floyd, Cream and Jimi Hendrix added into the LSD-drenched mix, creating one those rare moments when bands could find massive chart success while still being boldly experimental. With fame and fortune a real possibility, there was a lot of money being poured into the British psychedelic scene, which is why even bands you’ve never heard of sound phenomenal here, with expensive orchestration, exotic instrumentation and studio trickery all fleshing out their ideas in hopes of scoring a hit. For example – who the hell were Neo Maya, and how did they get to record their only single, “I Won’t Hurt You”, with a huge orchestra and backup vocalists? Actually, the informative track-by-track liner notes tell me they were a one-off group created around Episode Six guitarist Graham Carter-Dimmock, but that’s beside the point, which is: these aren’t lo-fi amateur leftovers. These were, for the most part, well-constructed tracks, by serious musicians, meant to land on the charts.

These songs, usually fall into one of two camps. There’s fey fairy-tale psych, with posh instrumentation, and stories of toy shops, flowers, colored clouds, and such. I usually find that kind of stuff pretentious, but there’s actually some pretty strong genre examples here. “Give Him A Flower” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and “Granny Takes a Trip” by The Purple Gang are both insanely catchy, and have a slightly deranged air about them, allowing you to overlook the campy lyrics. “Toy Soldier”, an unissued single by The Riot Squad, is merely decent, but historically fascinating, because their singer was a young David Bowie and the lyrics include a full verse lifted from The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”, which had just come out a few months prior.

The other prevalent style is heavy mod/freakbeat songs, with violently loud guitars and crashing drums, but still augmented by all matter of psychedelic sounds/instrumentation. You can hear it in songs from The Sorrows (“Pink, Purple Yellow & Red”), John’s Children (“Desdemona”), and The Attack, who deliver a killer slice of proto-metal/punk on “Magic in the Air”. This wild-sounding scene gives the compilation its strongest tracks, and accounts for a good percentage of its’ 80 songs. Also worth mentioning are the absurdly named Crocheted Doughnut Ring, whose proto-ambient instrumental “Nice” has more in common with Brian Eno’s Another Green World than anything else here.

As with any compilation, Let’s Go Down and Blow Our Minds has its share of highlights and duds, but the former outweighs the latter by a healthy margin and there’s enough hard-to-find musical gold here to recommend it to all fans of 1960’s British psychedelia.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – The Sun Ship (A Recordings)

This brief two-song 10″ is a teaser for the BJM’s 15th full-length album Third World Pyramid, due out later this October. The title-track A-side, taken from the album, finds the band in Beatles circa-Magical Mystery Tour mode. It’s not immediately attention grabbing, but it drifts along nicely, propelled on by a psychedelic “I Am The Walrus”-styled groove and some synth/mellotron flourishes. The B-side, “Playtime”, is exclusive to this release. It’s a little under-developed, but just about gets by on a strong melody that fits snugly with the 1967 U.K. psych-pop vibe of the A-side. With a little over seven minutes of good-not-great music, and a current Amazon sale price of $15.19, The Sun Ship isn’t a very good value – especially when you expect to find the “exclusive” B-side on a future compilation of some sort. However, if you’re someone who geeks out over the intricacies of vinyl packaging, it’s got interesting artwork, cool-looking translucent orange vinyl, and comes in a hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000 copies, so the cost can be somewhat justified.

Harley Flanagan – Hardcore: Life Of My Own (Feral House)

Image result for hardcore life of my own
In recent years there’s been a consistent stream of books, movies, and TV shows covering the vibrant New York music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, and just as many about the crime and violence happening on those same gritty streets. People usually get it all wrong <cough> Vinyl <cough>, but Harley Flanagan’s autobiography, Hardcore: Life Of My Own, gets it all too right. While I personally find his bands (Cro-Mags, Stimulators and Harley’s War) more historically important than enjoyable, Flanagan was one of the few New Yorkers who were neck deep in music and the street life, and his book recalls both in vivid, and often frightening, detail – like it really was, and not romanticized. Born to an alcoholic, but nurturing, mother and a criminal/addict father who left the family early on, Harley’s life was insane, pretty much from the start. While most kids were playing ball with friends, he was seeing shows at Max’s Kansas City at six (his mother worked there), publishing a book of poems at nine with a forward by family-friend Allen Ginsburg, living a nomadic life in Europe with his mother, and drumming in a Danish punk band at age ten. Things only got crazier from there, as Flanagan – now a skinhead – and his mother moved back to Alphabet City when it was a modern-day wild west of drugs, gangs, fights and general lawlessness. With constant pressure from locals who didn’t like the “crazy-looking” punks invading their neighborhood, he dropped out of school at fourteen and hit the streets, where his life was a daily routine of drugs, alcohol, beat-downs, and crime as he struggled to simply stay alive amidst a minefield of gangs, rival punks, and even a shotgun-wielding hitman in a pig mask out to collect a bounty on him. It was an ugly life, and Flanagan was a vicious street rat with no redeeming qualities other than the fact he could play an instrument, though I have no idea how he found time to practice and write with all the chaos around him. As bad as things get for him, and they get god-awful, you simply cannot turn away from the hundreds of pages of fascinating stories that simply no longer exist in modern New York (which is probably for the best, though people like to wax poetic about the old days). Harley writes about squatting in an abandoned San Francisco brewery, living with a pair of brutally violent satanic Nazi skinheads (!) in Canada, and his career in music, of course. While the entire book has tremendous visceral impact, the part I keep thinking of is a chapter on the 1990s where he tells readers he left out a lot of detail because he doesn’t want his kids reading it. In a book where he cops to about fifty crimes, freely uses the word “fag”, recounts separate incidents when he punched a girl in the face, and performed at a  Nazi skinhead concert (to be fair he didn’t know what it was until he got there – though he still played), the notion that there’s stuff so bad he doesn’t want his kids reading it is kinda strange, and potentially frightening. Thankfully, the book has a happy ending, with Flanagan, now 49 and a parent of two, putting his wild days behind him and finding a new career teaching Jiu-Jitsu to children (including Anthony Bourdain’s – he returns the favor by writing the forward). Throughout the book he often says “I could probably write a whole book just on this part of my life”, and based on what I’ve read, I 100% believe him. In fact, I want him to! I also want a “where are they now” section dedicated to all the crazy characters he ran with over the years. Don’t be surprised if Hardcore: A Life Of My Own is turned into a film or TV series somewhere down the road. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t. Simply fascinating stuff.