Category Archives: On Music

Tribeca 2022: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Flying saucer, take me away. In 1971, the year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mother ship with their breakthrough album Electric Warrior. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before splitting in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Tragically, Bolan died in a car accident in 1977 at 29. An amazingly prolific songwriter, he left behind a substantial catalogue and a legion of fans.

Ethan Silverman’s film traces Bolan’s career, weaving in footage from the sessions for the 2020 multi-artist tribute album Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex (Silverman was also involved in the production of the album). In addition to archival Bolan interviews and T. Rex performances (much of the latter taken from Ringo Starr’s 1973 Born to Boogie doc), tribute album participants like U2, Nick Cave Joan Jett, and Rolan Bolan weigh in. There are also comments (some archival) from Gloria Jones, Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Tony Visconti, Ringo and Cameron Crowe.  While it may not be a definitive portrait, it’s a heartfelt nod to a rock icon whose lasting influence cannot be overstated.

Tribeca 2022: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker.

Soldier’s things: a Memorial Day mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2022)

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Memorial Day, like war itself, stirs up conflicting emotions. First and foremost, grief…for those who have been taken away (and for loved ones left behind). But there’s also anger…raging at the stupidity of a species that has been hell-bent on self destruction since Day 1.

And so the songs I’ve curated for this playlist run that gamut; from honoring the fallen and offering comfort to the grieving, to questioning those in power who start wars and ship off the sons and daughters of others to finish them, to righteous railing at the utter fucking madness of it all, and sentiments falling somewhere in between.

The Doors- “The Unknown Soldier” – A eulogy; then…a wish.

Pete Seeger- “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” An excellent question. You may not like the answer. When will we ever learn?

Tom Waits- “Soldier’s Things” – The reductive power of a simple inventory. Kleenex on standby.

Bob Marley- “War”– Lyrics by Haile Selassie I. But you knew that.

The Isley Brothers- “Harvest for the World”Dress me up for battle, when all I want is peace/Those of us who pay the price, come home with the least.

Buffy Sainte Marie- “Universal Soldier”– Sacrifice has no borders.

Bob Dylan- “With God On Our Side” – Amen, and pass the ammunition.

John Prine- “Sam Stone” – An ode to the walking wounded.

Joshua James- “Crash This Train” – Just make it stop. Please.

Kate Bush- “Army Dreamers”– For loved ones left behind…

Posts with related themes:

Bringing the war back home: A Top 10 list

All This and WW III: A Mixtape

The Kill Team

The Messenger

Tangerines

The Monuments Men

Inglourious Basterds

Five Graves to Cairo

King of Hearts

The Wind Rises & Generation War

City of Life and Death

Le Grande Illusion

Paths of Glory

Apocalypse Now

 

 

Blowin’ Free: 10 essential albums of 1972

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2022)

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As evidenced by the rhetorical posed on Circus magazine’s January 1972 cover, “rock” had become a many-splintered thing by the early 70s…but in a good way. The cross-pollination promoted healthy creative growth; and I firmly believe music fans were more open-minded than they are today (I don’t need to tell you that tribalism permeates every aspect of our lives now…from pop culture to politics).

By the late 60s, the genre broadly labeled “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds; “splintering”, as it were. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, jazz-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock, funk-rock, Latin-rock, Southern rock, etc.

In the wake of The Beatles’ influential Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which notably yielded no singles) recording artists began to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a “whole”, with a unifying theme at its center.

This was moving too fast for AM, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3-minute songs to buffer myriad stop sets. Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by the end of the decade, providing a platform for deep album cuts.

Consequently, the early 70s was an exciting and innovative era for music, which I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of since. For a generation, this music mattered…it wasn’t just background noise or something to dance to.

Since we all love “50th anniversaries” (heh)…I thought I would flip through my CD collection and (at the risk of life and limb) embark on my annual fool’s errand to compile a “top 10” list for (in this case) 1972…a damn fine year for music. As per usual, I present my choices in alphabetical order (not order of preference), and in a feeble attempt to curb the flood of hate mail I’m surely about to receive, I append “the next 10” at the bottom.

And remember, kids…it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.

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#1 Record – Big Star

Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was one of many hurdles they were to face during their brief, ill-fated career. Now considered a seminal “power pop” band, they were largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone). Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration.

Arguably, they may have jinxed themselves by entitling their 1972 debut #1 Record, but the album contains a bevy of strong tracks that have handily stood the test of time. You would think Bell’s chiming Beatles-influenced melodies and Chilton’s more hard-edged blues/R&B sensibilities would clash, but they make beautiful music together (at times recalling Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton’s dynamic on the early Humble Pie albums).

Choice cuts: “Feel”, “Thirteen”, “The India Song”, “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “Give Me Another Chance”, “Watch the Sunrise”.

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Argus – Wishbone Ash

About 10 years ago, I caught Wishbone Ash at a cozy venue in Tacoma with a longtime pal. When they finished their first set, they announced that after the break, the band would perform their 1972 album Argus in its entirety. We nearly fell out of our chairs. It was a 1973 conversation regarding a mutual appreciation for Argus (and Yessongs) that forged our friendship way back in high school, and eventually inspired us to form a band in 1976 (so forgive me if the opening chords to “Blowin’ Free” make me a bit misty-eyed).

Argus was the 3rd album for the band, which formed in 1969. In this outing, vocalist/guitarist Andy Powell (to this day the longest-standing member), vocalist/guitarist Ted Turner, vocalist/bassist Martin Turner (no relation to Ted) and drummer Steve Upton perfected their blend of blues, folk, and melodic hard rock; fueled by lovely three-part harmonies and Powell and Turner’s distinctive dual-guitar sound. Several long tracks with hard/soft tonal shifts give Argus a more epic and “progressive” feel than the rest of their (substantial) catalog, and it remains their most enduring album.

Choice cuts: “Time Was”, “Blowin’ Free”, “Throw Down the Sword”, “Sometime World”, “Warrior”.

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Can’t Buy a Thrill – Steely Dan

This first excursion into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s willfully enigmatic and ever-droll universe may not be as musically adventurous as the Dan’s subsequent albums, but it still had an air of sophistication that separated it from the pack. Can’t Buy a Thrill finds the band at their most radio-friendly (“Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” have become staples of classic rock and oldies formats).

The album contains the only two songs in their catalog (“Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn”) that don’t feature Donald Fagen on lead vocal (David Palmer does the dirty work). I like the fact that this album feels a little rough around the edges; more “analog” relative to the clinical perfection of later projects (likely leading to the “yacht rock” label the band has become undeservedly saddled with).

Choice cuts: “Do It Again”, “Midnite Cruiser”, “Only a Fool Would Say That”, “Reelin’ in the Years”, “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”.

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Last Autumn’s Dream – Jade Warrior

The core members of this hard-to-categorize band (vocalist Jon Field and guitarist Tony Duhig) had been experimenting and developing their idiosyncratic “sound” for the better part of the 1960s before eventually coalescing (with the addition of bassist Glyn Havard and drummer Allan Price) as Jade Warrior in 1970.

The result was a “hard/soft” mélange of multi-textured progressive jazz-folk-ambience (with a tinge of Eastern influence) and occasional bursts of fiery, Hendrix-like riffs from Duhig (sadly, he passed away in 1990). While the band continued to release albums through 2008, Last Autumn’s Dream (their 3rd LP) remains their crowning achievement. Put on some headphones and be transported.

Choice cuts: “A Winter’s Tale”, “May Queen”, “Lady of the Lake”, “Joanne”, “Morning Hymn”.

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Machine Head – Deep Purple

This seminal hard rock outfit formed in the late 60s…and they are still around! There have been many personnel changes over the decades (chiefly involving lead vocalists and lead guitarists), but the power of their music has never faltered. That said, Machine Head is widely considered the most defining album by the “classic” lineup-featuring one of rock’s great screamers, Ian Gillian on vocals, maestro of the whammy bar Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Ian Paice (drums), Roger Glover (bass), and Jon Lord (keyboards).

As the song goes, they “all went down to Montreux” to record this album in a rented casino space but had an unexpected change of venue after the casino burned down during a performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers (some songs just write themselves, don’t they?). At any rate, they found a space, laid down some tracks …and the rest is history.

Choice cuts: “Highway Star”, “Smoke on the Water”, “Lazy”, “Space Truckin”.

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Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie

David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “trendsetter”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Favorite Bowie album? For me that’s like choosing a favorite child. If pressed, I’d say my favorite Bowie period is the Mick Ronson years (Space Oddity, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Alladin Sane, and Pinups). There was indefinable “something” about the Bowie and Ronno dynamic, which reached its apex with this groundbreaking 1972 album. Bowie and the Spiders (Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey) are in top form; nary a weak cut, from start to finish. Bowie co-produced with Ken Scott.

Choice cuts: “Five Years”, “Moonage Daydream”, “Starman”, “Hang on to Yourself”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Suffragette City”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”.

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Roxy Music – Roxy Music

We are from your future! This English outfit (founded in 1970) had strange optics for its time. They looked like a hastily assembled jam band of space rockers, 50s greasers, hippie stoners, and goths, fronted by a stylishly continental 30s crooner. But the music they made together was magic. It also defied categorization and begged a question; do we file it under glam, prog, electronica, experimental, pop or art-rock? The answer is “yes”. They were a huge influence on art punk and new wave, and even their earliest music still sounds fresh-as demonstrated when you give their eponymous debut album a listen.

Choice cuts: “Re-Make/Re-Model”. “Ladytron”, “2HB”, “The Bob (Medley)”.

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Something/Anything – Todd Rundgren

It’s shocking to me that it took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2021 to induct musical polymath Todd Rundgren, a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who has been in the business for over 50 years (he is also a music video/multimedia pioneer). Granted, he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf, whether it’s his own projects, or producing for other artists (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, XTC, et.al.).

Rundgren pulled out all the stops for his third album (a double-LP set), which I consider his masterpiece. Running the gamut from beautiful ballads and radio-friendly singles to blues, R&B, hard rock, power pop, and experimental whimsy, this is a very distinctive (if disparate) set of material. What makes the album even more impressive is the fact that Sides 1, 2, and 3 are “all Todd” …all vocals, instruments, and the production. Side 4 (billed as “A Pop Operetta”) are essentially live take sessions with additional musicians.

Choice cuts: “I Saw the Light”, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, “Cold Morning Light”, “The Night the Carousel Burned Down”, “Torch Song”, “Black Maria”, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, “Hello, It’s Me”.

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Superfly – Curtis Mayfield

This superb and soulful soundtrack for Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation film was Curtis Mayfield’s third outing as a solo artist (he had previously been a key member of The Impressions from 1958-1970). Chockablock with funky riffs, in-the-pocket arrangements, and bold, socially conscious lyrics, it’s little surprise that the album yielded two huge hits (“Superfly” and “Freddie’s Dead”) and made Mayfield a “go-to” guy for soundtracks (Claudine, A Piece of the Action, Let’s Do It Again, Sparkle, et.al.).

Choice cuts: “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”, “Pusherman”, “Freddie’s Dead”, “No Thing On Me”, “Superfly”.

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Talking Book – Stevie Wonder

It almost defies belief that Stevie Wonder was only 21 years old when he released this classic set…and it was his 15th album. If the nearly-as-good Music of My Mind (released earlier the same year) was Wonder’s Rubber Soul, Talking Book was his Revolver. Expanding on the mature, sophisticated aesthetic of his previous LP (and possibly feeling artistically empowered by the success of Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking 1971 concept album What’s Goin’ On) Wonder continued to evolve beyond the established Motown pop formula.

That said, Wonder’s songwriting genius still yielded several chart-friendly hits (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition” both hit number one). Wonder’s keyboard work reached new heights, especially his use of the clavinet on the hook-laden “Superstition”, and he brought in some heavy hitters, including Ray Parker, Jr., David Sanborn, and Jeff Beck (Beck’s sublime solo on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” prompts an audible and heartfelt “Play it, Jeff!” from Wonder). Magificent.

Choice cuts: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, “Tuesday Heartbreak”, “Superstition”, “Blame it on the Sun”, “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever”).

Bonus Tracks!

 

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Here are 10 more gems from 1972 worth a spin:

All the Young Dudes – Mott the Hoople
Barnstorm – Joe Walsh
Exile on Main Street – The Rolling Stones
Harvest – Neil Young
Headkeeper – Dave Mason
Pink Moon – Nick Drake
Slade Alive! – Slade
Transformer – Lou Reed
Wind of Change – Peter Frampton
The World is a Ghetto – War

All this and WWIII: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 19, 2022)

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It’s 1961 again and we are piggy in the middle
While war is polishing his drum and peace plays second fiddle
Russia and America are at each other’s throats
But don’t you cry
Just get on your knees and pray, and while you’re
Down there, kiss your arse goodbye

-from “Living Though Another Cuba”, by XTC

What with the reheated Cold War rhetoric in the air (commensurate with the escalation of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine), it is beginning to feel a lot like 1983. That was the year President Reagan made his “Evil Empire” speech, in which he planted the idea of deploying NATO nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets having done the same in Eastern Europe.

For those of us of a certain age, what was going in in 1983 with the Soviets and the looming nuclear threat and the saber-rattling and such hearkened back to 1962, which was the year President Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we came “this” close to an earth-shattering kaboom (OK-I was 6, but I do remember watching it on TV).

Meanwhile, in 2022…I’m sensing Cold War III.

This past Thursday on Democracy Now, co-hosts Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh interviewed Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who pointed out far-reaching consequences of the war in Ukraine that are already playing out:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis, could you respond specifically — to go back to the question of the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine — the provision, in particular, of these 100 so-called killer drones, Switchblade drones? This is the first time since the Russian invasion that the U.S. will be providing drones, though Ukraine has been using, apparently to great effect, Turkish — armed drones provided by Turkey. Could you speak specifically about these drones that the U.S. is going to supply?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, this is a serious escalation of what the U.S. is sending. As you say, Nermeen, the Turkish drones have been in use by the Ukrainians for some time now. But these drones are significantly more powerful, and the expectation is that they would be used against groupings of Russian soldiers on the ground. And they could result in the deaths of large numbers of soldiers if they were used effectively.

The question of drone extension, where drones are being used, is a very serious global question as we look at the militarization that is increasing in the context of this war. Countries across Europe are talking about remilitarizing. Germany, in particular, is saying they are going to spend a lot more money on their military, that they’re going to start spending 2% of their GDP on military forces, something that has been a goal of NATO, that has so far has only been reached by about 10 European countries, not including Germany, which is of course the wealthiest country in Europe. So, this is a very serious level of escalation. Whether it will have a qualitative shift in the battlefield situation in terms of the balance of forces, I don’t think we know yet, but it does represent a serious U.S. commitment. […]

So, it’s very, very important that the pressure remain on the Biden administration to maintain the opposition to a no-fly zone. It’s going to be increasingly difficult, I think, because in Congress there is — there’s certainly not a majority, thankfully, but there are increasing members of Congress that are calling for a no-fly zone. Some of that is presumably political posturing. But if that rises and if there’s a public call because there’s this sense of, “Well, let’s just do that, let’s just have a no-fly zone,” as if it was this magical shield, I think that it will become increasingly difficult for the Biden administration. So that becomes increasingly important.

It’s taking place, this debate is taking place, in the context of what I mentioned earlier, the increasing militarization that is one of the consequences of this war. We’re seeing that certainly across Europe, but we’re also seeing it in the United States — the new $800 billion [sic], parts of the $14.5 billion — sorry, the $800 million for the new package, the $14.5 billion package that has already been underway for Ukraine. The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war. They’re the ones that are making a killing. And that will continue. That will continue with a newly militarized Europe in the aftermath of this war. So the consequences are going to be very, very severe.

“The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war.”  Bingo. When I heard that, a verse from Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” instantly popped into my head:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

Plus ca change. I’ve had lots of songs popping into my head lately…here’s a few more:

“New Frontier” – Donald Fagen

“The Russians Are Coming” – Captain Sensible

“April Sun in Cuba” – Dragon

“Living Through Another Cuba” – XTC

“And So It Goes” – Nick Lowe

“Land of Confusion” – Genesis

“99 Luftballons” – Nena

“Red Skies” – The Fixx

“Two Tribes” – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Leningrad” – Billy Joel

“Russians” – Sting

“Breathing” – Kate Bush

Outside gets inside
Ooh-ooh, through her skin
I’ve been out before
But this time it’s much safer in

Last night in the sky
Ooh-ooh, such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

Breathing (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing my mother in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing my beloved in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing her nicotine (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing the fall (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in…

We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and last, ooh
After the blast, chips of plutonium
Are twinkling in every lung

I love my beloved, ooh
All and everywhere
Only the fools blew it
You and me knew life itself is

Breathing (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing my mother in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing my beloved in (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing her nicotine (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Breathing, breathing the fall (out, in, out, in, out, in)
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in
Out, in, out, in, out, in, out
Out, out, out, out

[TV announcer] “Difference between a small nuclear explosion
And a large one by a very simple method
The calling card of a nuclear bomb is the blinding flash
That is far more dazzling than any light on earth
Brighter even than the sun itself
And it is by the duration of this flash
That we are able to determine the size of the weapon (what are we going to do without?)

After the flash a fireball can be seen to rise
Sucking up under it the debris, dust and living things
Around the area of the explosion
And as this ascends, it soon becomes recognizable
As the familiar mushroom cloud

As a demonstration of the flash duration test
Let’s try and count the number of seconds for the flash
Emitted by a very small bomb then a more substantial, medium sized bomb
And finally, one of our very powerful high yield bombs.”

What are we going to do without? (Ooh, please)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, let me breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Ooh, quick, breathe in deep)
We are all going to die without (oh, leave me something to breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, leave me something to breathe)
We are all going to die without (oh God, please leave us something to breathe)
What are we going to do without? (Oh, life is)

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Existence is elusive: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 29, 2022)

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Black is beautiful
White is alright
Your half-caste child
Do you wanna fight
Do you wanna fight
Black girl carries
Her flick knife
Will she cut me up
For being half white

The national front
Are after me
I’m infiltrating
Can’t you see

“Half-Caste”, unpublished poem by Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

I was leafing through my dog-eared copy of George Gimark’s exhaustive Punk Diary 1970-1979 (currently out-of-print) and came across this entry under September 14, 1977:

X-Ray Spex have just been signed by Virgin Records. The group is fronted by a mulatto Brixton youth calling herself Poly Styrene. She’s no stranger to the recording world and had a single out under her real name Marion Elliot last year. Since seeing the Pistols play, she’s become a regular around the Roxy Club, resplendent in her dayglo vinyl, psychedelic kilt and full set of dental braces. They’ll be releasing X-Ray Spex’s debut single on the 30th. This is not X-Ray Spex’s first appearance on vinyl though. You remember they were included on the “Roxy” album singing “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” the same song they will re-record for Virgin in the next few weeks. Other members of the group include Jak Airport on guitar, Paul Dean on bass, B.P. Hurding on drums, and Laura Logic on saxophone. They’ve been playing together since January, and now are prepared to hit the big time, invading the male-dominated punk world.

I reckon very few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether it was by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She was not only “invading the male-dominated punk world” of the late 1970s (which, despite its imminent association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was still an overtly “laddish” club), but was doing so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).

If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to an absorbing new documentary called Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk.

Bell (Styrene’s daughter) confides her mother “…always said she’d never considered herself a ‘punk’…that it was just a label, coined by journalists. At the same time, she recognized that the scene was a perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.” That’s one of many unexpected twists in an artist’s journey that begins in working-class Brixton, makes a life-changing whistle stop in the Bowery, and ends in one of India’s most sacred rivers.

By the time Bell was born in the 80s, her mother’s initial fame as a punk-rocker had waned; Bell’s earliest childhood memories stem from a period when the pair lived in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna commune in Hertfordshire (they would later resettle in Brixton). Upon Styrene’s death from breast cancer in 2011, Bell became custodian of her mother’s artistic estate. Bell’s access to those archives provided impetus for the film.

Sadly, Styrene struggled with a bi-polar disorder throughout her life (initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia). Bell navigates this aspect with the sensitivity and compassion as only a close family member could, and it is genuinely moving.

Fame, in and of itself, can do a number on someone’s head; especially for women in a business where appearance is (right or wrong) …everything. As Bell explains, “When mum was young, she was pretty confident about the way she looked. She’d never been short of admirers. But the experience of being famous made her insecure; the public scrutiny over the way she looked started to grate on her. She felt like journalists were celebrating her by insinuating that she was unattractive and overweight-totally not getting what she was trying to achieve choosing not to expose her voluptuous form on stage.”

A perfect illustration of this maddening double-standard comes in a recollection of one incident. After a humiliating experience wherein a member of the Sex Pistols played a cruel prank on her at a party, Poly disappeared into the bathroom for a spell. Upon re-emerging, she sported a shaved head. The timing was unfortunate, as X-Ray Spex was on the bill for the now-historic Rock Against Racism event the next day. The 1978 rally/music festival (headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band) was held in London’s Victoria Park, and attended by an estimated 100,000 people.

To her band mates’ relief, she showed up to the gig with a woolen scarf on her head. While performing the song “Identity”, she slowly unraveled the scarf to reveal a bald pate. There were audible gasps from the crowd, but giggles from her band mates. Obviously, she was not expressing solidarity with the racist National Front skinheads (AWK-ward!). She had once told her band mates she never wanted to be a sex symbol, and joked if she ever were to become one, she’d shave her head. Always fearless; and hopefully, thanks to this lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist, never forgotten.

“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” premieres On Demand February 4th.

Getting better all the time (can’t get no worse): A New Year’s Day mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 1, 2022)

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All is quiet, on New Year’s Day. Except for this mixtape (you may adjust your volume per hangover conditions). Cheers!

“This Will Be Our Year” – The Zombies – Starting on a positive note. Lovely Beatle-esque number from the Odyssey and Oracle album.

You don’t have to worry
All your worried days are gone
This will be our year
Took a long time to come

At least…we can always hope, right?

“Time”David Bowie – A song as timeless as Bowie himself. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

1999″ – Prince – Sadly, it’s a perennial question: “Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb?”

“1921” – The WhoGot a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year. OK, back to the drawing board …let’s make ’22 a better one.

“Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

“New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Great pick, Captain Obvious!” But it’s still a great song.

 “Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart – Great Old Grey Whistle Test TV clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

“Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer solo by Elliot Randall.

“New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Great Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late singer-songwriter.

Such a clatter: A holiday mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 25, 2021)

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I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I promise I won’t torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have curated 15 selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts (and a few novelty items) for your Xmas creel.

Happy Crimble, and a Very New Year!

All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs

The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! This is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.

Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder

There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.

Blue Xmas – Bob Dorough w/ the Miles Davis Sextet

The hippest “Bah, humbug!” of all time. “Gimme gimme gimme…”

Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe

Wry and tuneful as ever at 72, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is overdue.

Christmas in Suburbia – The Cleaners From Venus

Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatle-esque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cult-ish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome).

Christmas Wish – NRBQ

NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This is from their eponymous 2007 album.

I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas – Yogi Yorgesson

I first heard this tune about the “joys” of holiday gatherings on “The Dr. Demento Show” . It always puts me in hysterics, especially: “My mouth tastes like a pickle.”

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke

In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above. In the 50+ years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists, introducing the world to a gifted player with a unique and expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.

River – Joni Mitchell

Not a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and the lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. Oft-covered, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.

Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins

Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.

Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones,
Yeah just learning them exactly what to do.
So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people,
Learning they old children just what to do.
Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me,
Now this year he gone come to you.

My little sister said take your stocking now,
Hang it up on the head of the bed.
Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking,
And please hang it up on head of the bed.
And she said know we all God’s saint children,
In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.

Sleigh Ride– The Ventures

I’ve never personally seen anyone “hang ten” in Puget Sound; nonetheless, one of the greatest surf bands ever hails from Tacoma. This jaunty mashup of a Christmas classic with “Walk, Don’t Run” sports tasty fretwork by Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson.

Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas – Harvey Danger

Ho-ho-ho, here’s your %&#!@ change. We’ve all been there at one time or another. I have a soft spot for this music video (It’s a Wonderful Life meets Clerks) because it features one of my favorite neighborhood theaters here in Seattle-The Grand Illusion.

Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite

“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/DJ Binky Griptite (formerly of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s  “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.

A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior

Not a Christmas song per se, but it certainly evokes a cozy holiday scenario:

Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow,
Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead.
Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two,
Lovely having you to share a smile with me.

A beautiful track from an underappreciated UK prog-rock band.

‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong

The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.

Angel dust Byrons: A Rock ‘n’ Noir mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 6, 2021)

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Heard about the restaurant on the Moon? Great food…no atmosphere.

Yeah, I know. You rolled out of your crib in hysterics the first time you heard that one. But let’s face it – “atmosphere” is essential; not just for breathing, but for setting a mood.

I’ve curated a noir mixtape that is all about atmosphere; 15 songs evoking dark alleys, rain-slicked streets, low-rent rooms, beautiful losers, and broken dreams. In other words, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. Besides …everyone knows tough guys don’t dance.

STAN RIDGWAY: Drive, She Said – Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” meets Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in this cinematic cabby’s tale from the former Wall of Voodoo lead singer.

THE ALLIES: Emma Peel – The Allies were an early 80s power pop band from Seattle who should have gone places. Unrequited love in the sickly glow of a cathode ray.

Emma, I’ll be your Steed
I’ll be all you ever need
If I cry and if I bleed
Will it help me?

ELVIS COSTELLO: Watching the Detectives – Another two-dimensional dream. She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake… Damn, that’s cold.

THE DOORS: Riders on the StormThere’s a killer on the road. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.

JULEE CRUISE: Summer Kisses, Winter TearsAnd nothing can light the dark of the night/Like a falling star. Somehow, that’s less than reassuring. Ms. Cruise’s Elvis cover is nothing, if not atmospheric.

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: Then Came the Last Days of MayWasn’t until the car suddenly stopped/In the middle of a cold and barren plain… A tragic tale of a drug deal gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Steely Dan: Don’t Take Me Alive – I’m on the lam, but I ain’t no sheep.

Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive

WAS (NOT WAS): Somewhere in America (There’s a Street Named After My Dad) – Our luckless protagonist is trapped in an asphalt jungle; dreaming of a pleasant valley Sunday.

At night only crickets
No prowlers, no sirens
No pinky ring hustlers
No angel dust Byrons
No bars on the windows
No saber-toothed neighbors
Just good simple folks
In a rainbow of flavors

MICHAEL FRANKS: Nightmoves – An instrumental version of this moody piece played under the opening credits for Arthur Penn’s eponymous 1975 neo-noir.

I keep you in frame and I whisper your name till the picture fades
The feeling is already gone, I don’t know why I’m going on
Can’t remember the ending

DAVID BAERWALD: A Secret Silken World – I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Baerwald went to find the characters for this story, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

The seats of his car were like a woman’s skin
Made me think about all those places I’ve been
It made me understand murder and the nature of sin
I leaned back and I listened to his music

AL STEWART: Broadway Hotel – According to Al Stewart, “It’s a very strange song. It’s about a woman who checks into a hotel in order to be alone. She’s alone for a little while and she orders room service. The man who comes up and brings the trey begins a lengthy relationship with her. They lock themselves in the room for about a week and then they order room service.” Oh, what does he know about it? I’m still picturing the flickering light of a neon sign stabbing through the blinds of the hotel room window…

You’re seeking a hideaway
Where the light of day
Doesn’t touch your face
And a door sign keeps the world away
Behind the shades
Of your silent day.

CAFÉ JACQUES: Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Al Dubin’s 1933 composition has been covered many times, but I’m partial to this 1978 version by art-rockers Café Jacques. The message is evergreen: life is hard on the street, and everything is for sale.

Walk alone the street of sorrow, boulevard of broken dreams
Gigolo and gigolette take a kiss without regret
Here is where you’ll always find me, always walking up and down
But I left my soul behind me, in an old cathedral town

COCKNEY REBEL: Mirror Freak –Steve Harley’s enigmatic tale of skins, spivs, and other assorted night creatures.

Oh you’re too cute to be a big rock star
But if you’re cool you may not push it too far
Oh just believe in yourself and take a tip from the elf
And sing a boogie to the image fatale

GIL SCOTT-HERON: Pieces of a Man – Everyone has their breaking point. Gil Scott-Heron’s soulful vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics render a heartbreaking tale.

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom

They don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man

ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Raymond Chandler Evening – And with this selection, our coda, have a pleasant one.

It’s a Raymond Chandler Evening,
And the pavements are all wet,
And I’m lurking in the shadows
‘Cause it hasn’t happened yet.

13 songs the lord never taught us: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2021)

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I know what you’re thinking. Halloween is still 2 weeks off, but ’tis the season. Besides, “Halloween” is practically a 4th-quarter long celebration, if you count all the associated holidays…All Saints Day, All Souls Day, All Hallows’ Eve El Dia de los Muertos, Ghost Festival, Guy Fawkes Night, Mischief/Devil’s/Hell’s Night (take your pick), and of course…Samhain. Whichever one(s) you may be celebrating this year-just remember: wear two masks. And if you’re short a DJ, may I offer a few frighteningly apropos suggestions for your party playlist?

ALICE COOPER: The Ballad of Dwight Frye – “I’ve gotta get OUTTA here!” A theatrical paean to the screen actor who played a bevy of loony tune characters, most notably  “Renfield” in Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Just remember…”sleepin’ don’t come very easy, in a straight white vest.”

BAUHAUS: Bela Lugosi’s Dead – The Goth anthem. “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.” We get it.

CORRECTION: I have been informed by an astute reader that the refrain is “Undead, undead, undead.” I learn something new every day!

BLACK SABBATH: Black Sabbath– Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tritone power chord intro you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!“Talk about a mission statement.

PINK FLOYD: Careful With That Axe, Eugene – The Floyd’s most ominous dirge is basically an instrumental mood piece, but Roger Waters’ eerie shrieking  is the stuff of nightmares.

ATOMIC ROOSTER: Death Walks Behind You– “Lock the door, switch the light…you’ll be so afraid tonight.” A truly unnerving track from one of my favorite 70s British prog-rock bands.  Keyboardist Vincent Crane pulls double duty on this list; he had previously played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (below).

THE DAMNED: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– You know what they say: You’re never alone with a schizophrenic! Choice cut from the U.K. pop-punk band’s finest LP, The Black Album.

THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN: Fire- Yes, that Arthur Brown…heir to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the forefather of Alice Cooper, and most importantly, the god of hell fire!

THE CRAMPS: Goo Goo Muck–It would be sacrilege not to include the kings of Psychobilly.

I Put a Spell on You– This cat must have scared the living shit out of middle America, smack dab in the middle of the drab Eisenhower era. “Moohoohaha!

THE DOORS: Riders on the Storm – The first time I heard this song was in 1971. I was 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. It was my introduction to aural film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

Jim Morrison’s vocals got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

VANILLA FUDGE: Season of the Witch– Donovan’s original version doesn’t hold a candle to this marvelously histrionic psychedelic train wreck.  Eat your heart out, Bill Shatner!

THE ROLLING STONES: Sympathy for the Devil- “Something always happens when we play this song.” Famous last words there from Mick Jagger in the 1970 rock doc Gimme Shelter, moments before the cameras (unknowingly, at time of filming) capture the fatal stabbing of an audience member.  Now that’s scary.

KING CRIMSON: 21st Century Schizoid Man– “Cat’s foot, iron claw, neurosurgeons scream for more…at paranoia’s poison door...”  And that’s  the most optimistic part of this song!

Bonus track!

LED ZEPPELIN: (backwards) Stairway to Heaven– Rumor has it there is a painting of Jimmy Page  going all to hell. If you believe in that sort of thing (there are two paths you can go by).

Pleasant dreams!