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


I acquired Beat Happening’s self-titled debut album about six months ago, and I’ve had questions about it ever since. Mostly, how does an album of low-fidelity recordings by a trio of unseasoned musicians (vocals, guitar and drums – no bass) with child-like lyrics come to be; and why does it sound 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 founding member Calvin Johnson, a decidedly unique character who basically put Olympia on the punk map with his band and record label, K Records. Think of him as an Ian MacKaye of the Northwest, as the two shared an almost identical need to make something happen locally, no matter how much effort it took . Parker does admirable work 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 just as the scene was growing increasingly violent and exclusionary. As with all volumes of the 33 1/3 series, I 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. Most artists can’t maintain that kind of pace without sacrificing quality, but Anton’s done some of his best stuff during periods of hyper-productivity, and sure enough I don’t detect that he’s rushing his process to keep up with himself. Cohesion isn’t much 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 Slovakian guest vocals from Vlad Nosal, 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 vocally and lyrically awkward, yet effectively rendered here, with Alex Maas from The Black Angels adding 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 were one of the many bands from the mid-’60s UK scene to have a few brushes with greatness, without ever finding a big audience. Garden of My Mind is the first-ever compilation of their material, collecting everything they released from 1964-1967, along with a few previously unreleased songs. The band’s earliest recordings were average ska sides recorded under the moniker Mickey Finn and The Blue Men. Things 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”, produced by 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 of touring, replacing their new bass player, and recording demos, they put out their final single,”Garden Of My Mind”, one of the great British numbers of the psychedelic era, earning them a worthy inclusion on the second Nuggets box-set. Perhaps the song is little more than The Yardbirds covering “Purple Haze”, but if it’s executed correctly – as it is here – that’s a 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 become 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 of Creation Records’ story, 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’s more than a full disc of non-album tracks from the band’s two-year stay on Creation. 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’s a few key songs I hadn’t heard before. Included in those are a reverential cover of “Candy Says” which falls right in the band’s narcotic wheelhouse, a cover of The Who’s “The Good’s Gone” which slows the original’s tempo down to an uncomfortable crawl, and versions of four songs from #Untitled Second recorded for a 1991 Peel Session. The Peel Session tracks are fascinating proof of how well the band translated 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. 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)


Of all the albums I looked forward to hearing in 2015, 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 lifting them out of the psychedelic metal ghetto and on towards better things. While it doesn’t meet the unrealistic expectations I saddled it with, 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 players doing anything interesting with the instrument these days. 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 the 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 a fertile scene with so many unique facets and characters, Crawford’s movie sticks to the basic info you already know, and ignores opportunities to 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 explore:

*The Bad Brains leaving D.C. for 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 other East Coast punk scenes – specifically New York?

These things could have made the story 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 Wikipedia page on film, where facts take center stage over people and emotions.

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

Third World War – Third World War (Esoteric Recordings)


Third World War’s 1971 debut album is considered an unheralded proto-punk classic by some, but I don’t think that’s what they were aiming for when they made it. Perhaps Terry Stamp’s politically charged “take it to the streets” lyrics got filtered down to The Clash and Sex Pistols a few years later (sample song titles: “Preaching Violence” and “Get Out Of Bed You Dirty Red”), but musically the London trio has little to nothing in common with other bands within the proto-punk umbrella. To me they sound more like a convergence of what was popular in England when they recorded the album in late-1970 – specifically. hard rock (“Working Class Man”), progressive rock (“Ascension Day”), folk (“Stardom Road Part I”) and boogie rock (“Shepherd’s Bush Cowboy”) – than The Stooges, MC5 and the like. Stamp’s no-nonsense lyrics and the band’s yes-nonsense playing, where extended instrumental indulgences are commonplace, make an awkward partnership, and Stamp’s raw-throated vocals make for rough listening. The only song where the energy and attitude come together well is a fiery non-album bonus track, “A Little Bit Of Urban Rock”, which sounds like a pub rock version of the New York Dolls. An album of songs like this would have been awesome.