Monthly Archives: May 2007

Noise happens

Ah, electricity, always that same 60-cycles-per-second hum with you. Records spin, lights light, refrigerators hum. You never alternate, even if your current does, and we thank you for that. And this week, we thank you for the electric guitar, as well.

Electrical amplification and magnetic pickups facilitated the guitar’s post-War ascendancy as a lead instrument, if not the lead instrument. The electric guitar’s crystal-clear tones brought new color to musical settings and its versatility, like the piano’s, allowed its easy use as a lead instrument or in a rhythm section. When electricity wasn’t enabling new styles of music altogether (e.g., rock ‘n’ roll), it was creating new potential for the guitar within existing styles (e.g. jazz, country, and rhythm & blues).

Electricity is one thing, but it took that special type of mind to see beyond just the electric guitar’s newly competitive role within group, combo and orchestral settings. The previously discussed Johnny “Guitar” Watson pushed the outer bounds of echo for 1950’s “Space Guitar.” Studio guitar whiz Vinnie Bell wired primitive versions of Wah-Wah and distortion pedals. Ike Turner’s guitarist Willie Kizart would use a damaged amplifier to get the distortion on 1951’s proto-rock ‘n’ roll “Rocket 88,” and instrumental guitar visionary Link Wray (“Rumble”) legendarily did the same by poking holes in his speakers. Bo Diddley’s hand-rigged tremolo units, session guitarist and inventor Del Casher’s tape-delay experiments – the list of early innovators goes on and on. Worlds and traditions might have separated these individuals, but their efforts were guided by sonic potential and the weird fun of altered signals, electricity, and guitar noise.

It was the British Invasion and Beatlemania which finally established the electric guitar as the de rigueur rock ‘n’ roll instrument. With it came amplifiers capable of crushing volume and an assortment of futuristic audio gadgetry. The first commercial Echoplex tape-delay units, and, later, fuzzboxes and Wah-Wah pedals seized upon the previous generation’s innovations, expanding the tonal horizons and psychedelic possibility of the guitar for the thousands of teenagers who snapped them up.

Even guitar feedback, though not an “effect,” had found its place in pop music by the mid-‘60s. A previously undesired consequence of audio equipment amplifying its own signal (resulting in ear-piercing squeal), feedback’s first putative use in commercial rock ‘n’ roll was the introduction to the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” from 1964. But before the Beatles, the Small Faces or the Who did it, amateur musicians must have recognized some potential in feedback beyond just its capacity to flatten an audience. There’s something I find appealingly conceptual, subversive almost, about feedback, this infusion of chaos into commercial ’60s music.

This week’s selections could barely be remembered as commercial, of course. Still, they epitomize much of what I love about the wilder and woolier ‘60s garage bands: you listen to their racket enough and suddenly they become sleek, conceptual art.

1. The Romancers, Love’s the Thing (Linda)
Like Thee Midniters (“Whittier Blvd.”), Cannibal & the Headhunters (“Land of 1000 Dances’) and the Premiers (“Farmer John”), the Romantics hailed from East Los Angeles’s Mexican-American community, home to one of the sixties’ most interesting homegrown rock ‘n’ roll scenes. These were versatile groups with repertoires of ballads, Top 40 hits, greasy R&B; instrumentals, soul, jazzy horn numbers and Latin pop – and the showmanship to match. Led by brothers Max and Robert Uballez, the Romancers never had a hit beyond East L.A. but, like these other groups, they put out a few records and played some wild, wild rock ‘n’ roll on occasion, too.

“Love’s the Thing.” It’s hard to imagine what role this selection’s breakneck tempo and clanging, over-the-top guitar breaks might have played during the Romancers’ live shows, except to stir audiences into some sort of epileptic hysteria.

From 1965, this selection was produced by Eddie Davis, a champion of the East L.A. sound. “Love’s the Thing” was released on Linda, one of the many small labels owned and run by Davis in the 1960s.

2. The Rock Shop, State of Your Mind (Rowena)
Little is known of the Rock Shop, though they seem to have been based in California. It seems likely that the Norm Flint credited as producer and director was the same Norm Flint who was a DJ at KMPX FM, San Francisco’s pioneering late ‘60s commercial rock station.

This inspired proto-punk nugget, from 1967, degenerates into one the stranger guitar breaks of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll; the bass, vocals and drums drop away, leaving only bare squalls of guitar noise. It’s striking, if nothing else. There’s metaphor in there too somewhere. As if the Rock Shop might have just as easily been deconstructing American pop as they stripped away the layers of “State of Your Mind,” exposing that same 500,000-volt core that begat every howling American garage band.

3. Our Mothers Children, I’ll Make You Sorry (Falcon)
A band that never released anything commercially, Our Mothers Children (sic) were, if the
Grande Ballroom gig posters and online recollections are any indication, a familiar name on the same Detroit/Ann Arbor rock ‘n’ roll scene from which the Stooges, the MC5, the Amboy Dukes, SRC, and many other bands emerged.

First things first, however. This record is actually an acetate disc, a glassy, highly perishable medium used to demonstrate songs (for deejays or record producers) and to otherwise afford an expedient copy of recording sessions. A medium never intended to be permanent, acetates might begin life with passable sound, but, after just a few plays, fidelity drops. A few plays more and whole guitar parts might be seen shearing off the needle in a shower of black lacquer flakes.

“I’ll Make You Sorry” is a record that I’ve played four times, which is three times too many, but here it is, at least for the archives. Those caveman drums still come through just fine.

What happened to Our Mothers Children? What were their live shows like? Why did they never record commercially like their Michigan compadres? For every question this record answers about how Our Mothers Children sounded, it asks a dozen more.

Recorded in Royal Oak, Michigan (their motto is “…the place to come to, not pass through on your way to somewhere else”), circa 1967, this is a cover of a minor hit by Chicago’s Shadows of Knight.

The flipside, “Down Down,” is an original, and another ball of tension that I hope to return to for a future post.

Posted in Garage Bands | 8 Comments

Office Naps, the Sex Issue

Anyone who shares my perverse fascination with mass-produced pop culture would probably also tell you that the best place to understand the role of sexuality within a particular society is, in fact, its mass-produced pop culture.

Recorded music’s diffuse and inexpensive channels of distribution and production have long lent it to sexual content. The independent record industry has been less vulnerable than its more centralized counterpart, the film industry, to external regulation and censorship. As a non-visual medium, though, music has generally limited itself to sexual humor, boasting, innuendo and sound effects. The sensory and more narrative experience of film has played the more critical role in sex’s media mainstreaming.

Still, cinema and recorded music (not to mention non-recorded media like magazines and books) have charted similar, sometimes converging, courses in both their place in American culture and their representations of American sexuality. For every blue burlesque record, bit of 78 rpm hillbilly and blues innuendo, or album of bedsprings squeaking, there was an exposé of nudist camp culture or a Russ Meyer movie. Sex’s weirdly sublimated existence at the fringes of music and film tells us just as much about our puritan hang-ups as it does about our actual sexual practices.

Mainstream pop culture started to loosen up in the ‘60s. By the 1970s, counterculture had seeped its way into mass culture, and, electrified by the spirit of economic opportunism and hippie-era free love, Americans momentarily achieved a sort of embarrassed stalemate with their sexuality. Joy of Sex was a bestseller and there was, of course, the Pill. Wives read about key party foibles in Cosmopolitan magazine. Hipper couples made that furtive trip to catch Deep Throat. After all, Johnny Carson had done it.

Film probably did more any other popular medium to change the landscape of sexuality and to reclaim it from media marginality. But there’s no denying the sexiness and air of sex about a lot of the pop and soul (and later, disco) of the era either. If nothing else, hits like Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s heavy-breathing “Je T’Aime” (hear an excerpt here) and the Chakachas’ “Jungle Fever” (excerpt here) and the Hair soundtrack measured that changing sexual landscape. Movies like Emmanuelle or Last Tango in Paris may have been pushing the envelope of popular discretion, but, still, you were more likely to only own their soundtracks.

I’ll leave such needless analysis at that, though. I offer up this week’s selections as part of the first annual Office Naps Sex Issue, and in the resurrected, gaudy spirit of Porno Chic. (And thank you Wikipedia, you pop culture godsend, for carrying such an entry to begin with.)

1. Manpower, Please Love Me (Erotica) (Philips)
This was actually the Welsh progressive rock group Man, renamed here by Philips Records as the more prurient “Manpower” for the U.S. release of their 1969 debut album Revelations. It’s an album lauded – at least by those who care about such things – as a sort of concept-rock masterpiece. I can’t personally attest to its music, but I can tell you it’s an album with titles like “The Future Hides Its Face,” and “And Castles Rise in Children’s Eyes” and liner notes which extoll Man in near-cosmic terms, promising that “there will be ‘a beginning but no end’ to their music.” Sure. Sounds great, guys.

Like many other hippie relics, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the artistic aspirations leave off and the exploitation begins. Which brings us this selection, taken from the Revelations album. Ground-breaking provocation or cheap thrill? The band would rather us believe the former, of course, but the increasingly seismic moans of “Please Love Me (Erotica)” favor the latter.

“Please Love Me (Erotica)” was apparently a big success in the European pop charts in the late ‘60s.

2. Damaso Pérez Prado, Sexomania (Orfeon)
Pérez Prado was the Cuban-born pianist and bandleader best remembered as a great populizer of the mambo, especially in this country. His “Patricia,” “Mambo No. 5” and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” were gigantic pop hits in the ‘50s, and they exemplified Prado’s style. Bombastic, bright, brassy, and punctuated by Prado’s trademark “¡Dilo!” grunt, they weren’t the most advanced arrangements, but they were accessible and certainly a lot of fun.

Outside of American’s Latino communities, Prado was known throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s as the “King of the Mambo.” There was some merit to the title: Prado sold more records than Tito Puento, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito combined. By the early ‘70s, though, when “Sexomania” was recorded, Prado had departed for Mexico (where he’d first achieved fame in the late ‘40s), his fortunes and popularity in precipitous decline on the American pop charts.

Prado’s grunting and heavy Afro-Latin dance rhythms – not to mention some lurid album covers – subtly indulged Middle America’s antiquated ideas of exotic intrigue and oversexed natives. In theory, then, Prado should have been poised to capitalize on our brief vogue for sexual expression in the early ’70s. Never perhaps the most versatile of bandleaders, though, here was Prado updated with some choppy guitars and a chorus of groovy nymphettes but sounding on “Sexomania” much as he always had: all grunts and screaming brass.

“Sexomania” was originally released in 1972. Orfeon is a large Mexican record label.

3. George Wilder, Partly Cloudy – Part I (Wilmax)
Not soundtrack music per se, but if ever there was a theme in search of adult cinema, then “Partly Cloudy” is it. Likely recorded in the mid-‘60s, this creamsicle predates the golden era of sax-you-down, easy-listening porn soundtracks. There are no orgasms or e
xplicit references here. There’s just no need for that sort of cheap titillation. Just a cloud of pink saxophone and soft-focus harmonies that says far more about a stimulating For Mature Audiences Only experience than thumping percussion or wah-wah guitars ever could.

The George Wilder here is likely the track’s saxophonist, the same George Wilder who played in a late ‘40s version of the Stan Kenton orchestra . “Partly Cloudy” was recorded in Los Angeles.

Begrudging respect must be paid here to the eternally brilliant Crud Crud. Soriano beat me to this track by a mere day or two.

Posted in Miscellaneous Flotsam | 6 Comments

A black & white affair

It’s not the psychedelized, socially conscious soul of Sly & the Family Stone or Cloud Nine-era Temptations I’m talking about. Nor is it the tripped-out voodoo of the first Funkadelic record (Funkadelic) either, though that’s getting a bit closer to it. Jimi Hendrix was too much his own inimitable entity, and the Equals (of “Baby Come Back” fame) were British (via the West Indies) and just not very psychedelic.

If we’re discussing successful early prototypes of black psychedelic rock this week, it must be the Chambers Brothers’ 1967 “Time” (hear an excerpt here). A major pop hit, “Time” (along with its full eleven-minute album version) was an excellent example of early psychedelia, its demented weirdness matched, against all odds, by its commercial achievement. “Time,” like all of this week’s selections, was music realized in that brief window when, if they weren’t desperately casting about for new formulas in psychedelia’s puzzling tumult, major record labels were actually taking chances on new artists and configurations of artists. Marketed to mostly white audiences, this was a rare and fleeting form of psychedelia before soul evolved into the socially-, culturally- and politically-engaged funk, transforming everything irrevocably.

Sly, Funkadelic, “Say It Loud”-era James Brown: theirs was music that, like “white” psychedelia, had a conscience. Theirs was music that was countercultural, colorful, rhythmic, and long enough to permit extended flights of instrumental fancy. But theirs originated in African-American communities – rather than from external agencies like major label record companies. Even if it did enjoy crossover success, funk captured an ethos in a way that immediately obviated the sort of industry efforts that, no matter how good the intention, went into coupling R&B; and soul singers with psychedelic instrumentation – like, for instance, this week’s ephemeral curios.

Of course, it’s just such ephemeral curios that I’m most interested in. So let’s take a look.

1. Larry Williams & Johnny Watson with The Kaleidoscope, Nobody (Okeh)
Maybe the most unlikely of an unlikely bunch this week, “Nobody” unites shimmering ethno-psychedelic rock with the world of rhythm & blues.

Larry Williams’s career began in the early ‘50s as a session pianist at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans recording studios. He briefly joined Lloyd Price’s band, and thereafter earned a name for himself as an R&B; shouter with late ‘50s hits like “Short Fat Fannie,” “Bony Moronie,” “Bad Boy” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” on the great Specialty label. In the early ‘60s, Williams relocated to the West Coast, there working as a producer and A&R; man for Okeh (Columbia Records’ R&B; subsidiary) and a handful of other California labels. Never quite able to revive his early successes as a recording artist, Williams lived out the sort of disreputable life that you expect of the echt R&B; musician, succumbing to a gunshot wound in 1980 that, depending on who you ask, was not necessarily self-inflicted.

When Williams’ friend, the multi-instrumentalist Johnny Watson, arrived in early ‘50s Los Angeles, he’d already gigged with Houston bluesmen like Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins. Still in his teens, Watson toiled in Los Angeles as a session guitarist and, a year or two later, he’d begin making – now as Johnny “Guitar” Watson – a string of gutsy R&B; singles. These included, amongst many others, the stratospheric 1954 instrumental “Space Guitar,” his autobiographical “Gangster of Love” (re-recorded in 1963 and again in 1978), and his biggest ‘50s hit, the swamp pop-flavored “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” Watson would continue recording and performing in the ‘60s in a more uptown, sophisticated soul style. It wouldn’t be until the ‘70s that Watson would finally find his enduring fame, however, with his funky Southern blues persona: the “Gangster of Love.”

In the mid-‘60s Williams and Watson joined briefly together for a few fine duet releases on the Okeh label. There were obvious similarities in their career trajectories up to this point. Both were hardened, Gulf Coast-born R&B; musicians. Both maintained ties to the criminal underworld: as a musician, Watson earned money on the side as a pimp (or vice-versa, according to Peter Guralnick), and Williams had a criminal record for dealing drugs and extensive involvement, it was rumored, in prostitution.

From 1967, their exceptional “Nobody” features the instrumentation of the Kaleidoscope, a preternaturally eclectic California group who, with varying degrees of success, were fusing elements of Middle Eastern music, folk, and psychedelia in the late ‘60s. Was it Kaleidoscope’s bohemian influence, or was it just the beatific vibes afoot in the Summer of Love? Either way, both Larry Williams and Johnny “Guitar” Watson were able to momentarily suspend their darker natures for this improbable Aquarian artifact.

Check out Richie Unterberger’s great interview with the Kaleidoscope’s multi-instrumentalist and founder Chris Darrow, who recounts the “Nobody” session in great detail.

2. Junior Parker, Tomorrow Never Knows (Capitol)
Born Herman Parker in the blues mecca of Clarksdale, Mississippi, Junior Parker cut some raucous R&B; sides early in his career as “Little Junior Parker” for Memphis’s Sun Records (in the label’s pre-Elvis, pre-rockabilly years). It was a prolific stretch at Houston’s Duke Records in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, though, that showcased the smooth, warm vocals and brassy R&B; for which Parker is still best known.

In the mid-‘60s, Parker was recording in a more soul-inflected style for the Mercury label. In 1970, when this selection was recorded, it was an era of aging bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf making some pretty dire psychedelic rock albums. Parker’s version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” appeared on what was marketed by Capitol Records as Parker’s “heavy” record, Outside Man. Outside Man was actually more a sort of funky electric blues album, however – and not a bad one at that. Still, “Tomorrow Never Knows” was easily its highpoint.

When Parker intones, “Listen to the color of your dreams,” it sounds like some stark moonlight incantation. If “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the Beatles at their most blindingly experimental, then Parker (with the help of veteran jazz and pop arranger Horace Ott) manages to do the impossible by retaining the original’s spookily psychedelic flavo
r and transforming it into something entirely his own.

3. Pepper & the Shakers, Semi-Psychedelic (It Is) (Coral)
This group, at least according to my sources, is thought to be the same Pepper & the Shakers who cut a rare Doo-wop record for Kentucky’s Chetwyd Records in ’59.

I’m not entirely sure it’s the same group. I’m not entirely sure this was an African-American – or integrated, at least – group, for that matter. It puts me in the somewhat problematic position of assaying the race of a singer from the sound of his voice, but for the sake of a complete post and a satisfyingly obscure theme, I’m including “Semi-Psychedelic (It Is).”

Actually, the whole concept of “semi-psychedelic” seemed a bit problematic for me at the outset. A few paroxysms of fuzztone and Echoplex delay later, though, and I had a much better sense of it.

This relic was recorded in 1967.

Posted in Psychedelic/Pop, Soul | 15 Comments

Watermelon Man

A young Herbie Hancock – all of twenty-two years old and fresh from Takin’ Off, his debut album on Blue Note Records – introduced his “Watermelon Man” (hear excerpt here) to the Cuban-born conguero and bandleader Mongo Santamaria one slow, fateful night in 1962. The story goes that Hancock was onstage to fill in for Santamaria’s usual working pianist (the even younger Chick Corea) for what was otherwise a routine New York City gig. Santamaria was taken with the funky, Latin-flavored riff that Hancock was stretching out on, and thusly a jazz legend was born. Not long thereafter, Santamaria’s 45 release of the number on Battle Records would reach number ten on the pop charts, it would launch what would be a very commercially successful decade for Santamaria, thine Earthly Kingdom was secured, etc.

Whether all this is anything more than apocrypha is inconsequential. Under Santamaria’s stewardship, “Watermelon Man” (hear excerpt here) took the elegantly vamping rhythm of Hancock’s Latin blues and beat it into something that would soon formalize as Nuyorican boogaloo. Though it was composed by a conservatory-trained jazz pianist, and rendered by a master Cuban percussionist a generation older than the upstart Nuyoricans who would champion the style, “Watermelon Man”‘s jazzy horn riffs, celebratory atmosphere, and catchy polyrhythms were definitive boogaloo.

Perhaps more than any other boogaloo, Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” spawned endless permutations of itself. There were R&B; vocal versions of it. Surf and heartland instrumental guitar groups slid it to their repertoires. Jazz combos everywhere played it. Like the token Brazilian Bossa Nova “Girl From Ipanema,” it became the de facto choice amongst gigging ‘60s combo for that moment when they needed a Latin number. It united jazz idioms with the exotic rhythms of American’s Afro-Latin communities and, along with hits like “The In Crowd” (which followed it), the broader idea of “funkiness.” It was friendly to the alcohol binges of the average American’s weekend lifestyle. It represented, in other words, the best that jazz had to offer the popular tastes of the ‘60s.

1. Wendell Holmes & His Heavy Weights, Goodie Good, part 1 (Cunity)
“Goodie Good,” like all of this week’s selections, is a thinly veiled version of “Watermelon Man.” It’s also instructive of one of the qualities that makes the “Watermelon Man” riff so brilliant: its durability.

There’s little connection between the ending of “Goodie Good,” part one, and the beginning of “Goodie Good,” part two. Like Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” or Nat Adderley’s “Jive Samba,” this reading of “Watermelon Man” very much possessed its own internal momentum.

2. Wendell Holmes & His Heavy Weights, Goodie Good, part 2 (Cunity)

A guitarist might go out for a sandwich and a cold one at Kate’s Luncheonette and, twenty minutes later, fall back into place for the “Watermelon Man” refrain without anyone really taking much notice.

As far as I can tell, this is the same Wendell Holmes who, along with his bassist brother Sherman, worked New York City’s ‘60s clubs as a backing guitarist for touring R&B;, soul, and blues artists – and who, decades later, finally found some enduring success up as part of the rootsy Southern blues and gospel harmonizers The Holmes Brothers.

I’d also guess that this nugget was recorded around 1968 or ’69.

3. Chelo Vasquez, The Preacher (GC)
A Tejano unknown, Chelo Vasquez recorded “The Preacher” for the legendary San Antonio producer Manny Guerra’s GC Productions, a label which, in addition to releasing some rare and funky soul sides by Mickey & the Soul Generation, Tortilla Factory, and the Latin Breed, hosted some of the big Tejano names of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The razor-sharp horn charts on this version of “Watermelon Man” are characteristic of Tejano music. The unstoppable boogaloo rhythms here are, of course, transcendent. As transcendent as you can get with a pair of a tinny speakers and your car’s AM radio in 1969, that is.

4. The Miles Grayson Trio, Sweet Bread (Hill)
Though Los Angeles’s Miles Grayson served as a session pianist on a few of Blue Note Records’ (somewhat ill-fated) West Coast excursions of the late ‘60s, it’s his role as a session arranger and producer for which he’s probably best remembered today. Grayson’s studio time included work with West Coast R&B; and soul musicians like Little Joe Blue, Brenda George, Little Johnny Taylor, Sonny Green and, most of all, the Texas-born, LA-based blues stylist and guitarist Z.Z. Hill.

Grayson would release a handful of obscure instrumental 45s in his spare moments as a bandleader as well. Whether or not the title here is a reference to everybody’s favorite glandular delicacy, Grayson, like so many R&B; and jazz artists, made the connection between savory food and funkiness.

Hill Records was a label that belonged to Z.Z.’s brother Matt Hill, who was that most recherché breed of record industry specialists: the independent label man. span>

Posted in Jazz Obscura, Latin | 14 Comments