Monthly Archives: December 2007

Psychedelic folk

Much is made of Bob Dylan plugging in an electric guitar at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival. Less tends to said of either the ensuing folk-rock – young, post-Beatles groups like the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield who merged folk’s lyrical aesthetic and harmonies with rock production – or the ensuing electrified folk of an earlier generation like Judy Collins or Richard & Mimi Fariña who experimented, maybe more uneasily, with electrified instrumentation.

Perhaps because folk-gone-psychedelic was, after Newport, less of a statement than folk-gone-electric – just more water under the bridge to the purist factions of ‘60s folk music. Perhaps because the commercial viability of psychedelia-tinged folk was only transitory. Either way, very little is said of the phenomenon of singer-songwriters, duos, trios, groups not only gone electric but gone psychedelic, folk musicians who imbued chiming 12-string guitars and pretty harmonies with mysticism, back-to-the-country beneficence and Eastern-tinged instrumentation.

The Byrds, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead – all groups with folk pedigrees – famously did so, and even “authentic” folkies like Fred Neil and Hearts & Flowers plugged in and turned on, albeit more at their producers’ behest. It was a diffuse, ephemeral phenomenon, though, and with the arrival of the ‘70s and the fragmentation of the previous decade’s counterculture, psychedelicized folk would be subsumed – along with psychedelia in general – by a wave of boogie-rock, confessional singer-songwriters and cocaine country.

But some proclivities – the deeply felt impulse for creative self-expression and the spiritual liberation of running around naked, stoned out of your mind – never quite lie dormant. Psychedelic-folk would fall from favor, certainly, but it never completely disappeared. It’d just retreated underground. From the late ‘60s onwards into the ‘80s, introspective, psychedelic records pressed in impossibly tiny quantities would continue to be produced by musicians like Michael Angelo, Linda Perhacs, Maitreya Kali and Bobb Trimble, latter-day folkies with cult followings in inverse proportion to their obscurity.

This week’s selections fall somewhere along that continuum, a chronology of psychedelic-folk from its flower power commercial peak to its subsequent home in the hinterlands of “outsider” vanity pressings, shrinking market be damned.

1. The Pre-Cambrian Lightning Bolt, Hey There Sunshine (NWI)
Though not quite the powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll region that it’d been five years previously, the Pacific Northwest’s scene was still fairly vibrant in the late ‘60s. Many of its original bands had dissolved, recasting themselves, true to the time, with longer songs, longer hair, bigger amplifiers and psychedelicized hippie-rock garb. Portland-based Douglas A. Snider, the drummer, vocalist and songwriter of “Hey There Sunshine,” would go on from the Pre-Cambrian Lightning Bolt to form Douglas Fir, a loosely psychedelic blues group; their sole 1970 full-length offering, Hard Heartsingin’, would embody the Pacific Northwest sound.

Much less is known of the Pre-Cambrian Lightning Bolt, however. They were not simply some one-off studio concoction with a baroque psychedelic name invented for the occasion: a 1967 poster reveal that the Pre-Cambrian Lightning Bolt were a real band, with real live shows. They played Portland’s storied Crystal Ballroom, and there’s nothing to indicate they weren’t a popular live draw. Then again, there’s nothing about the wonderfully strange “Hey There Sunshine” to indicate how exactly they could’ve been a popular live draw, either.

Either way, “Hey There Sunshine” and its flipside – a cover of Bonnie Dobson’s hoary “Morning Dew” – are hardly the stuff of ear-bleeding Northwest psychedelic rock. Snider is a bit reminiscent of folk eccentric Fred Neil, and the group sounds like unreconstituted folkies having the old college try at psychedelia and succeeding, at least, with an echo-bathed anomaly.

This was recorded in 1968, I’d guess.

2. Creme Soda, Roses All Around (Trinity)
A foursome hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Creme Soda consisted of Art Hicks (drums, vocals), Ron Juntunen (lead guitar), Bill Tanon (guitar, vocals) and Jim Wilson (bass, vocals).

Their “Roses All Around” 45 was taken from Creme Soda’s sole album Tricky Zingers, released on the tiny Trinity record label. The sensibilities of Tricky Zingers are a dead ringer for the gentler side of ‘60s pop and psychedelic-folk, though tracks like “(I’m) Chewin’ Gum” conjure trashy ‘70s-era punk as well. It’s truly an excellent album, stylistically everywhere. Everywhere but the year 1975, the year when, against all probability, it was actually recorded. A quick glance at the Tricky Zingers album cover gives them away: if you can’t judge a book by its cover, then facial hair.

Creme Soda did get some notice amongst underground rock cognoscenti – power-pop and ‘60s garage-rock champion and Bomp! magazine (and record label) founder Greg Shaw wrote the album’s liner notes – but their low fidelity and general obsolescence only increase their charm. “Roses All Around” – all of Tricky Zingers, for that matter – was a defiantly unfashionable statement in years of bar band rock ‘n’ roll and outlaw country. Too unfashionable, perhaps – Creme Soda were no more not long thereafter, though guitarist Bill Tanon would release a 1982 LP, Free Man’s Rainbow, also on Trinity Records.

3. The Friends of Mind, Not Much Lovin’ (Insounds)
The Friends of Mind? The group – including its songwriter Ken Tumlin – seem to have come and gone with nary a trac
e.

The only salvageable connection here is arranger Bill Cheatwood, presumably the same Bill Cheatwood who was a founding member of the Wayfarers Trio, an Oklahoma City folk trio that released a Civil War-themed album – Songs of the Blue and the Grey – for Mercury Records in 1961. The trio also included guitarist Mason Williams (whose 1968 instrumental “Classical Gas” later topped the charts), and Cheatwood would wind up hanging out again with Williams, by then a hot commodity, in late ‘60s Los Angeles. Where, if I may bring all of this supposition full circle, Cheatwood had a hand in releasing this fascinating duet. “Not Much Lovin’” is the Friends of Mind’s plaint of this dog-eat-dog society of ours; a bum trip atmosphere and some very odd analog guitar effects are put to good use conjuring that same dog-eat-dog society. The Friends of Mind would never be heard from again.

Insounds Records was the tinier subsidiary of the tiny Los Angeles-based Accent Records label, home to some other excellent and obscure psychedelic and garage-band 45s by the Rob Roys, the Human Expression, the Peace Pipe and the Silk Winged Alliance.

Posted in Psychedelic/Pop | 10 Comments

Chicago soul, part two

(Ed. note: more of my favorite late ‘60s Chicago soul this week and a continuation of a very early Office Naps post – back when I wouldn’t let minutiae like research or facts stand in the way of posting.)

Like its Great Lakes counterpart Detroit, Chicago in the 1960s was a vast industrial landscape, a city with a substantial and concentrated African-American population, much of whom had migrated in earlier decades from the Mississippi Delta and other parts of the American South.

Though it had its Brunswick Records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Chicago, unlike Detroit, never truly had its own Motown Records, that national tastemaker, that entity which so thoroughly dominated the local record industry. Chicago had its own homegrown economy of labels, though, a network that serviced and sustained itself through the African-American community. Successful independent record labels – United, Mercury, Vee-Jay and, perhaps most critically, Chess Records – registered both the vibrancy of Chicago’s post-War African-American demographic and north-by-south pedigree of its music scene. Its appeal would extend well beyond Lake Michigan, too, with millions of Chicago blues, R&B;, gospel and jazz records sold nationally in the post-War decades. And the ensuing infrastructure of A&R; men, distributors, studios, record stores, clubs, promoters, session musicians and entrepreneurs – the bedrock of a strong record industry – carried Chicago soul music well into the ‘70s, its record industry more formidable, diverse and ultimately more resilient than Detroit’s.

Chicago’s well-developed concentration of R&B-oriented; labels would be the foundation from which the soul-oriented labels could emerge after a gospel-infused number like Jerry Butler and the Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love” proved an early hit in 1958. Artists like Jerry Butler, the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, Gene Chandler, the Sheppards and the Dells paved the way for soul’s organic evolution from R&B; established labels like Chess, Okeh and Vee-Jay – as well as new indies like Constellation and One-Derful – would be there to capture it. Soul music was ascendant, the hits rolled in, and many of Chicago’s own would be national stars by the mid-‘60s: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Betty Everett, the Dells, Gene Chandler, the Artistics, the Vibrations, Fontella Bass, McKinley Mitchell.
Most soul groups and soloists truly were vocalists only, however, and their backing, as had long been tradition, was still primarily assembled from session musicians, their productions in turn orchestrated by studio arrangers and engineers. If the Chicago soul idiom had begun to coalesce in the mid-’60s, then behind-the-scenes names like Burgess Gardner, Calvin Carter, Carl Davis, Billy Davis, Johnny Pate, Bill Sheppard, Johnny Cameron, Willie Henderson would define that style every bit as much as the performers themselves. (Some, like Curtis Mayfield, Syl Johnson and Monk Higgins were immersed in both worlds.)

This week’s selections, all made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, reflect a pattern common amongst all commercial recordings, the tendency, that is, to appropriate the sound and spirit of their popular contemporaries. Specifically, these selections reflect the sound of industry veteran Carl Davis’s Brunswick Records (and its sister label Dakar), a Chicago label then rising with hits like Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher” (1967), the Artistics’ “I’m Gonna Miss You” (1967), Barbara Acklin’s “Love Makes A Woman” (1968), Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time” (1970) and Gene Chandler’s “The Girl Don’t Care” (1967). Carl Davis was an A&R; man, vice-president and, importantly, a producer at Brunswick Records. His aesthetic was dramatic – strings, vibraphones and an abundance of the soaring, sophisticated, gospel-infused harmonies that have been so identified with Chicago soul since the early soul hits of the Dells and the Impressions. Davis’s productions also managed a rhythmic wallop, too – loud bottom end and clear drums – that resonated with the dancefloor.

Brunswick Records embodied both the sound and hit-making success of late ‘60s and early ’70s Chicago soul – according to that logic, these selections should’ve been hits. But then you wouldn’t be reading about them on Office Naps, of course.

1. The Roe-O-Tation, Old Love (Gerim)
Precious little is known of the Roe-O-Tation themselves, but the credits of their sole 45 reveal much: this record was the handiwork of Gerald Sims, a name ubiquitous in ‘60s Chicago soul.

Gerald Sims, born in 1940 and a participant on the city’s music scene since his arrival from Kalamazoo, Michigan at age nineteen, was absorbed early on into the Daylighters, a vocal group then recently transplanted from Alabama. His considerable musical gifts – singing, writing, guitar playing – found Sims assuming lead vocal and songwriting duties for the Daylighters, and he would oversee the group’s transition from R&B; to soul with solid regional hits like 1962’s “Cool Breeze” and “I Can’t Stop Crying.” Sims himself would release two obscure soul singles under his own name on Okeh Records. His performing career, however, would be exchanged for expanded behind-the-scenes duties as a session guitarist, songwriter and producer with Okeh, Constellation and Chess Records, easily three of the city’s most vital soul labels in the mid-‘60s. Later that decade, Sims procured work as a songwriter and orchestra leader at Brunswick Records, but – before finally landing a producer role at Jerry Butler’s Fountain Productions in the early ‘70s – Sims worked in some time to release one record, this selection, on his own independent label, Gerim. Likely produced in 1969 or ’70, “Old Love” (and its flipside, “Special Category”) would be a one-off trial run for Sims’ label aspirations.

The sublime “Old Love” is a production in every sense of the word, a stunning bit of theater with wild tempo changes and an almost psychedelic vibes-and-guitar breakdown – great for making the whole dancefloor list to one side. “Old Love” makes you wonder what was happening in 1970. These soul guys were always running into old girlfriends on the street.

Gerim Records operations would be revived in the early ‘80s – the Chicago scene a pale shadow of the powerhouse it had been a decade earlier – for a brief flurry of contemporary soul releases from local groups like MC², Encore and 7 Miles High.

2. The Esquires, Reach Out (Capitol)
The Esquires, a group best known for 1967’s harmony-soul hit “Get On Up,” were originally formed at Milwaukee’s North Division High School in the late ‘50s by siblings Gilbert, Alvis and Betty Moorer and a series of neighborhood acquaintances.

Though popular in their native city, the Esquires did not record until relocating to Chicago in 1966, where the young group caught the attention of Bill “Bunky” Sheppard. Former A&R; man at the recently bankrupt Vee-Jay Records, independent promoter and manager, owner and vice-president of Constellation Records: Sheppard was an entrepreneur completely immersed in the city’s music industry.

Following the collapse of Constellation Records, Sheppard was shopping for talent for his new label, Bunky Records, and the Esquires impressed Sheppard enough to record a Gilbert Moorer original, “Get On Up.” Released in the summer of 1967, “Get On Up,” characteristic of their sleek, falsetto-led sound, was a huge pop and R&B; hit, and it unequivocally put both Bunky Records and the Esquires on the map. It would be their biggest hit, too, though the Esquires, suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, would continue to work closely with Sheppard, charting with late ‘60s singles like “And Get Away,” “You’ve Got the Power” and “Girls in the City.”

1969’s “Reach Out” was released on Capitol Records, based in Los Angeles, but don’t let that fool you. This embodies Windy City soul in all of its brassy, thumping glory; one doesn’t mistake Chicago soul like one doesn’t mistake an oncoming freight train. Produced and written by Bill Sheppard and Tom “Tom Tom” Washington (a Chicago-based arranger closely aligned with Sheppared), “Reach Out” was recorded by an incarnation of the group comprised of Gilbert and Alvis Moorer, Millard Evans and Sam Pace (part of the group from their Milwaukee days). It is silly-energetic, a 45 single flinging itself at the pop charts through exuberance alone, and a lesson in why that rarely works. Too bad. The Esquires’ star had begun to plateau a bit, but it wasn’t reflected on this gem.

Their last chart hit was their 1976 disco remake “Get On Up ’76.” As of ten years ago at least, the Esquires were still singing together in some capacity.

3. Judson Moore, Everybody Push and Pull (Capri)
“Everybody Push and Pull”: obscure soul dance, you-got-your-thing-I-got-mine party anthem. Push. Pull. Or not. Just be yourself, baby.

Research returns nothing on Judson Moore, and little more about either Capri Records – a label with a few other obscure 1970-era releases by Fred Johnson (“I Need Love”) the Scott Brothers (“Gotta Get Away From You”) and Reggie Soul and the Soul Swingers
(“My World of Ecstasy”) – or this selection’s principal producer Al Altog, who had a hand in releasing a few singles by the Soul Majestics on his own Al-Tog label in the early ‘70s.

This was speculatively recorded in 1970, the year that Rufus Thomas recorded his “(Do The) Push and Pull” on Stax Records.

Posted in Soul | 2 Comments

Office Naps returns after Christmas

Have a wonderful holiday – see you in a few days.  

-Little Danny
3 Comments

Outré refugees

Dig a little below the surface and you’ll find in our cumulative 45 rpm output a discography of the strangest musical impulses. Rare were the financial returns great for the independently pressed 45 record but rare was its overhead, either. Its inexpensiveness has made it, since the early ‘50s, the first (and last, often) commercial frontier of America’s idiosyncratic visionaries and of its overlooked, exotic, homespun and most anti-social musical niches. I tend to rhapsodize endlessly about this relationship on Office Naps. Visionaries and musical niches, though: these are forces that redeem American culture.

Such dynamics, the subtle balance of economic and creative energies, were still going strong in the mid and late ‘60s. The 45 was still the predominant format in much of popular music, including rock ‘n’ roll – though not for much longer – and examples of unconventional 45 records were just as ample, if not more ample, in 1968 as they were in 1958. It’s simply that, of the unusual or nominally experimental records that were issued commercially, they were then more likely to be the work of rock musicians, psychedelic individualists like Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson and the Holy Modal Rounders. In the guise of psychedelia, their freakishness would even perversely capture a fleeting commercial potential.

That’s what’s different about the selections this week, all recorded and released in the mid- and late ‘60s, the psychedelic era. They are likely strange by most listeners’ standards. Nonetheless they are neither rock nor psychedelic. They seem to be from some different moment, like beatnik artifacts washed up in a later decade. Their anomaly only seems to increase the profundity of their strangeness.

1. Kali Bahlu, Lonely Teardrops (Terra)
The enigmatic Kali Bahlu was a young woman in 1967 when she released her Cosmic Remembrance LP on the then-foundering World-Pacific record label. A swirling tableau of gongs, sitars, tablas and Bahlu’s Buddhist chanting and fairy-tale ruminations, Cosmic Remembrance is an album known for its general incongruity and for testing listeners’ patience. For all of its faux-Eastern artifice and Bahlu’s voice – sometimes a feral soprano, sometimes a jarring, child-like babble – Cosmic Remembrance is nonetheless quite unique, a relic that stands apart from its era. (Hear an excerpt of the album’s “A Cosmic Telephone Call” here).

“Lonely Teardrops” – Bahlu’s first recording, I believe – is not wholly dissimilar from the otherworldly atmosphere of her Cosmic Remembrance LP. It’s just much better. It’s also Kali Bahlu singing from some grimmer place. The ominous rumblings, Bahlu’s naked, if indecipherable, emotion, the wonderfully stark gloom: those of us drawn to sunless, wintry tundras find much to love in the remarkable “Lonely Teardrops.” This is the reason bears hibernate. Brighter days lay ahead for Kali Bahlu, however – they could hardly get any bleaker.

Whether it was the Bahlu of “Lonely Teardrops” banging on a detuned guitar – or the beatific Bahlu rambling in sing-song tones about Lord Buddha and “clocks of never” on Cosmic Remembrance – this is clearly someone on a separate psychic plane. Often referred to as acid-influenced, that is perhaps a disservice to the peculiar experience of Kali Bahlu, whose Californian, pseudo-Buddhist cosmic consciousness just happened to synchronize with hippie sensibilities.

Kali Bahlu would later be involved in some capacity with a few hens-teeth-obscure ‘70s albums of Eastern-inspired singing and commune vibes by the Los Angeles hippie-rock group Lite Storm. Bizarrely, Bahlu was more recently spotted in Taiwanese filmmaker Mei-Juin Chen’s film Hollywood Hotel.

I’ve found no conclusive information on Terra Records or this selection’s producer, Michael O’Shanessey. I believe “Lonely Teardrops” was recorded in 1966 or 1967.

2. George Loa and Maui Loa (Little Brother), Polynesian Chant of Green Creation: Cosmic Climax (Green Power)
The brothers Loa, this week’s mystery artists.

This is Hawaiian cosmology reinvented for a headier moment in history. The flute and conga drum channel grooviness. Same for the sexual overtones of the selection’s spoken-word introduction and title. The haunting call-and-response chanting seems authentic enough, but whether or not it was a pre-coital dance of the Polynesian gods is anyone’s guess.

There’s nothing one can definitively point out as either a precedent or an obvious target audience for 1969’s “Cosmic Climax. “ One might have found it being sold from ads in the back of a Stag magazine or peddled to shell-bar tourists. It might have been handed to you at last summer’s gathering of the tribe. Whoa, thanks man. But let’s not mistake the 45 rpm record for a medium that demands market analysis or committed commercial vision. It can be many visions all at once. It can be a great mass of anthropologically incorrect, conflicting intentions.

“Cosmic Climax” was recorded in Hawaii or possibly Los Angeles.

3. Miriam, Catwalk (Tanqueray)
“Catwalk” is the handiwork of the Hollywood actress Miriam Byrd-Nethery and her husband Clu Gulager, an actor, too, and later an aspiring filmmaker.

Miriam Byrd-Nethery (born 1929 in Arkansas) and Clu Gulager (born a year earlier in Oklahoma) met in the theater department at Baylor University, married and found their first professional theater and television work in New York City. Relocating to Hollywood in the late ‘50s, Gulager would go on to distinguish himself as a prolific genre actor in both movies and television, including deputy sheriff Emmett Ryker in TV’s The Virginian, rig-hand-and-ladies-man Abilene in The Last Picture Show and contract killer Lee in The Killers. Starting with 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, Gulager’s work as horror movie stock character revived an acting career that continues today, albeit at a subdued pace.

Miriam, too, managed her own small-time acting career in Hollywood, but if it was Gulager who enjoyed the spotlight, theirs would first be a marriage, then family, energized above all by a spirit of collaboration and the noblest of artistic endeavors: filmmaking. Their obsession wit
h producing films – including the family’s eight years in Tulsa trying unsuccessfully to realize their grisly serial killer horror noir Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (its saga detailed in an engrossing 1997
LA Weekly article) – put them on the brink of starvation.

None of this does anything but increase the charm of this maverick and quintessentially American couple, whose lust for creative, budget-minded expression reached early fruition on “Catwalk,” a slice of pure Sunset Strip eccentricity from 1967. Ever wonder what really goes inside the actors studio? This is it.

Miriam Byrd-Nethery passed away in 2003.

Posted in Exotica/Space-Age, Miscellaneous Flotsam, Psychedelic/Pop | 5 Comments

Message from the ghetto

What ties this week’s selections together is not merely their spoken word component (though it’s significant, certainly). Nor is it just their cause of change and greater societal welfare. Awareness-raising ballads, agitprop invective, activist commentary, summons-to-action and subversive parody are everywhere in recorded music – African-American or otherwise.

Their defining aspect, rather, is their specificity. “Invitation to Black Power,” “It’s Free” and “I Care About Detroit” aren’t broad laments of urban blight or gospel-liberated anthems. Theirs are messages associated with specific causes, specific religious organizations, specific cities, specific venereal diseases, even, and they’re calibrated to their communities accordingly.

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s would be the apogee of this sort of thing, specialized message records reflecting the general tumult of the era – the counterculture, the assassinations, the radical strategizing and the sexual and cultural politics. Music suffused the era’s upheavals, and the years’ idealism and anger inspired more than a few to disseminate the word in turn on the very model of audio expediency, the 45 rpm record. It’s music meets message meets shiny black wax this week on Office Naps.

1. Shahid Quintet, Invitation to Black Power, part I (S and M)
Despite its reference to the “long, hot summer” – Detroit’s deadly spell of rioting and discord in 1967 – I believe that “Invitation to Black Power” was actually produced in Chicago. The selection was likely recorded in 1968 or 1969 – after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, certainly. But no substantive light can be shed on the Shahid Quintet or Richard or Earl Shabazz, who, either way, were probably not related. (Shabazz is a frequent surname assumed by Nation of Islam adherents.)

Its mysteries aside, “Invitation to Black Power” is a fascinating, a one-of-a-kind snapshot of a particular dimension of the black inner-city experience of the late ‘60s. It’s a bit amateur, sure, and its format is more a throwback to earlier beat-poetry-with-cool-jazz collaborations than the screeching saxophones and intellectual aspirations of contemporaries like Archie Shepp or Amiri Baraka. But it succeeds in one account: running down, humorously and unpretentiously, the Nation of Islam promise of rebirth, equality and separation of the races.

2. Shahid Quintet, Invitation to Black Power, part I (S and M)
Which is not to say that “Invitation to Black Power” was ever a proselytizing tool espoused, officially or otherwise, by the Nation of Islam in the local communities. It has more the flavor of a vanity project, the handiwork of a ragged jazz combo and two men with poetic and theatrical proclivities and the zealous energies of the converted.

Earl Shabazz and Richard Shabazz might have envisioned their record finding its way to their local Black Nationalist bookstore, they might have seen it being sold at local poetry readings. Some forty-odd years later, though, they likely wouldn’t have foreseen that their recording had landed mostly in hands of white record collectors, the inevitable home to such cultural ephemera.

3. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, I Care About Detroit (Motown and Stein & Van Stock, Inc.)
A name that looms large in America’s pop music annals, William “Smokey” Robinson was born in 1940 in Detroit and grew up singing and writing songs for the local vocal group the Five Chimes. The Five Chimes became the Matadors who, in turn, metamorphosed into the Miracles, the group with whom Robinson, the very icon of the romantic, urbane tenor, would go on to become one of the definitive voices of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Besides his considerable vocal gifts, there was Robinson’s acumen behind-the-scenes at Motown Records and his longstanding partnership with the man at the head of the Hitsville U.S.A. empire, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was Berry Gordy, then an aspiring producer, who recorded the Miracles for their first single “Got a Job,” a minor hit for the New York City-based End Records in 1958. It was Gordy who signed the Miracles as one the first groups to his fledgling Tamla Records (later absorbed under the Motown Record Corporation aegis) and it was Gordy, too, who made Smokey Robinson the company’s vice-president in 1961.

If early Miracles records failed to catch fire, 1960’s million-seller “Shop Around” changed all that. It would be the first in a decade-long series of hits like “Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears of a Clown.” Robinson’s successes as in-house songwriter and, later, producer mirrored both the ascendancy of the Miracles as one of the decade’s great soul groups and the broader fortunes of Motown.

The little-known “I Care About Detroit” was Motown in full 1968 flower, the synthesis of social consciousness and soulful groove, the embodiment of young, interracial, turned-on America. Penned by Michigan labor attorney Jack Combs and Detroit R&B; vocalist Jimmy “Soul” Clark, this was the second of two Motown 45s produced for “Detroit Is Happening,” a summer-long education and recreation program implemented after the Detroit riots of 1967.

The record industry was not quite the cynical monolith in 1968 that it is today. Still, Motown Records was a mainstream tastemaker and hardly one to hurl itself at a cause without a certain reflexive measure of caution. If Motown is to be commended for their gesture to public service, then Detroit’s disillusionment was that much more acute when Motown Records abandoned the imperiled city for its sleek new Los Angeles headquarters in 1972. Coming together for unity and progress seemed like a good idea until everybody had tried out their new, leather-upholstered swivel chairs.

Officially parting with the Miracles in 1972 to pursue a solo career, Robinson’s success as an adult-contemporary R&B; singer – and unwitting pioneer of the dreaded quiet storm format – tapered off sometime after his biggest solo hit, 1981’s “Being With You.” A vice-president at Motown until the company’s sale to MCA in 1988, Robinson has remained semi-retired since, with a few albums of smoot
h ballads and gospel in the last decade-and-a-half.

4. Bishops of the Holy Rollers Fallout Shelter with Curtis Colbert, It’s Free (CAVDA)
This spoken-word gem was written and performed in part by Gylan Kain, a poet and a founding member of the Last Poets, easily the best-known spoken-word group in the pre-rap era. To the relentless beat of conga drums, the Last Poets spieled unsparingly about revolution, racist society, poverty and the plight of African-Americans. Kain, though he never actually recorded with the Last Poets, took their aesthetic one step further on his sole LP, 1971’s Blue Guerrilla, a potent stew of psychedelic, funky jazz and Kain’s incendiary poetry and surreal incantations.

Produced by Gylan and Denise Kain (his wife, presumably) for the Chicago-based Citizens Alliance for VD Awareness, “It’s Free” has moments that bear resemblance to Blue Guerilla’s colorful, stream-of-consciousness imagery. If the references to “johnsons” and pre-AIDS unprotected sex seem a bit quaint in 21st Century America, then the level-headed humanism and candor of “It’s Free” seem positively radical in cultural terrain presently mediated by sinister, regressive forces like the Christian Coalition. Still, “It’s Free”’s quandary is not unlike that of any organization attempting to connect with a younger demographic. It’s hip, it’s direct, “It’s Free” rises to the challenge of outreach with aplomb and intelligence. The problem was neither its message nor how it was conveyed, though. The problem, rather, was the stomach-turning imagery of “It’s Free.” No one ever, ever played this record, which explains why this 45 is always in perfect condition when you find it.

In recent years, Gylan Kain has collaborated with the Dutch jazz and turntablist group Electric Barbarian.

Posted in Jazz Obscura, Miscellaneous Flotsam, Soul | 3 Comments

Continental European ‘90s Garage Punk

This week a special guest post from a friend and true radio hero of mine. Scholar and dancefloor dynamo Scott Gardner has hosted Stronger Than Dirt at Austin’s KOOP radio (my old radio alma mater) since the station’s inception in early 1995. German synths and ‘60s British freakbeat, floor-busting glam and modern-day fuzz-pop: Scott’s playlists read like a survey of the world’s rock ‘n’ roll backwaters. Hear him every Saturday night from 8-10 pm (on KOOP radio, 91.7 fm), and check him out this week on Office Naps.

And now for something different. This week’s Office Naps delves into a sometimes maligned and not-too-distant era of music known as ‘90s garage. An umbrella term for sure, it encompasses various styles, from the lo-fi toga punk of the Mummies to the cleaner Mersey-tinged beat of the Kaisers to the swaggering punk of the New Bomb Turks to the alien surf tones of the Bombooras. I pretty much ate it all up at the time (except for the heavier bands like the Hellacopters), and am now in possession of way too many garage records that may not stand the test of time. Local record stores (we still have a couple here in Austin) have consignment bins stuffed with those of other former garageniks. (Word has it, that KBD guru Johan Kugelberg scoffs at the idea that 90s garage records will ever bring much in the world of record collectors. He’s probably right. Sigh.) Still, there are plenty of obscure blog-worthy nuggets out there that deserve a second listen. (Be sure to check out the Static Party blogsite for a sampling of the punkier/DIY side of the garage scene of the ‘90s.)

To that end, I bring you three of my favorites, all of them from the lower and grittier end of the production spectrum, and all of them from Europe. Following the Office Naps format of thematically related records, I hereby create a sub-genre: Continental European ‘90s Garage Punk. I’ll be honest, the designation is pretty much defined by geography, and not so much by a particular “Continental” sound, though when I listen to each of these, they sound to my ears vaguely European. One thing is clear, like their American (and Japanese) counterparts, the numerous European garage punk bands were looking to familiar groups from the past (and present) for inspiration, Sonics, Stooges, DMZ, Mummies, Headcoats. You know the formula, ‘60s garage plus ‘70s punk equals ‘90s garage punk. Maybe an oversimplification, but for the following three bands, it’s right on.

1. Daxls, Chickenshit (Pornogram 1)
Despite the German title of the EP (which translates as “I’m Drinking Myself to Death”) and the German “news” article on the cover, the Daxls were indeed Dutch, hailing from the city of Utrecht. Like many garage bands of the ‘90s they embraced lo-fi production values, but they were certainly no Mummies clones. (Though on the sleeve of their first EP, “The Daxls Go Way Out,” a scantily clad lass is using a “Radio X” toy rocket for purposes of sinful self-gratification, suggesting among other things, a connection with lo-fi royalty Supercharger.) Their sound was boozier, queasier, with more emphasis on the organ and a greater variety of tempo. Their output was limited to a cut on an obscure compilation (“Highs in the Mid-Nineties”) and two EPs.

“Ich saufe mich tot,” the second of the EPs appeared in 1996 in two editions of 200 copies each. The packaging is decidedly DIY, with different colored photocopied wraparound sleeves. Of the four songs on the EP, “Chickenshit” is certainly the most uptempo, and one that suggests that the Daxls might have been an amazing live band. You can find out more about them at their rather amusing Myspace site.

2. Blue Devils, Fooled by You (Makeface RiKordz 001)
The Blue Devils, from Limoges, France, played a decidedly more straight ahead brand of garage rock and roll. Their music was a little bit of Cramps, a little bit of Sonics, and a whole lot of ‘90s punk energy. From what I’ve been able to find out, they released two singles and had tracks on two compilations. “Fooled by You” comes from a 1995 split EP (with another French band, the Mini Cooper Gang) on the Makeface Rikordz label.

On this one, forget about the Cramps, this is a sweaty, pissed-off, propulsive Sonics romp, replete with screams and a squawking guitar break. It’s easy to see how they scored a gig at the Dirty Water Club in London, a 90s garage punk Mecca of sorts.

3. Doktor X, The Sickening Sound of Doktor X (self-released?)
Doktor X were/are (I think they’re still playing) from the St. Pauli district of Hamburg, Germany, and apparently had a reputation for pretty over the top wild live shows. I can believe it. As for their output, well, they have a four-song EP, a single and an LP on Fanboy Records. The Sickening Sound…” comes from the 1997 EP and falls under one of my favorite sub-genres, band theme songs.

This is another beer-soaked, sweaty 3-chord Neanderthal stomper with an organ that pounds away relentlessly. Maniacal vocals deliver a mostly indecipherable, but obvious message, get out on the “dance” floor and move your drunken ass. The tortured screams give the whole thing a creepy feel, but in a fun way, of course.

Posted in '90s Punk/Indie | 8 Comments

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