Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"Suburban Basement, 1970s: Study in Soundesign Stereo Eight Track Player, Made in the Shade, Atari (detail), and Pachinko

A couple of years ago, my parents moved out of the home they lived in for more than fifty years, and in which I was raised. On a last visit, I ducked down into the basement where I'd spent formative years and found things quite similar to how I'd left them three decades ago.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Malcolm Young, 1953-2017

I was saddened to hear about Malcolm Young, who died today at age 64. I can barely recall his voice—he rarely spoke in public, mumbling with a wry half-grin in this interview or that—but his voice wasn't his instrument. His growling and grooving Gretsch rhythm guitar work in AC/DC, from the band's inception in 1973 to his retirement from dementia in 2014, provided the chassis, the foundation, the earth's core, whatever metaphor's right for you, and that Malcolm would roll his eyes at. He simply went to work, with his younger brother Angus churning out one killer riff after another, reinventing Chuck Berry and the blues album by album. At their best, AC/DC's songs were perpetual motion machines, and Malcolm was the one who set them in motion. (If you're scoring at home, Malcolm was usually mixed in the left channel; turn down Angus on the right if you want a layman's course in the properties of engine transmission.) As I wrote in AC/DC's Highway to Hell, "Watch the brothers whenever AC/DC plays 'Highway to Hell.' During the verses, Malcolm stands with his right hand resting on his Gretsch, bobbing his head lightly, tapping his right foot, the job foreman who’s supervising Angus going down the manhole. It’s a job."

Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune quoted Angus on his brother's style: "In the beginning, we would sort of flip roles, then he took over on rhythm. His rhythm style is a style in itself."
I sit and watch and try to copy him but it’s still not Malcolm. He’s got this amazing left hand, y’know? It’s just so quick, so fast … he’s always three or four moves ahead of us all. The adaptability of it — there’s all the chords I’ll struggle with, and he’s already hitting ’em. And on top of that, he keeps that right hand going, and it’s so smooth that there’s never a note missing. When you look at it, you go, ‘Aw, he’s just filling in spaces.’ But when you look at it closer, you realize he’s not only filling them in, he’s playing in between them. We sound like we do because of him.
Dig Malcolm's opening riff in "Jailbreak," from the band's 1976 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and marvel:


And I gotta believe that Malcolm's the author of this killer riff:


At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, AC/DC was a dangerous band, but the danger felt fun and liberating, never toxic or destructive. Malcolm's on-the-job commitment was reassuring. If you were in junior high school as I was when Highway to Hell was released in the summer of 1979, Malcolm gave you hope, even as he scared you. He was small and wasn't great looking, but had the courage and cockiness to climb on stage in front of a bank of towering amps and let it rip with his band, the introverted foot soldier in the background who got smaller as the stages grew in size but who got as many girls as did the crazy singer out front. Malcolm's look was vivid, indelible to me ever since I glanced at the cover of Highway to Hell in Kemp Mill Record Store in Wheaton, Maryland, and caught the look of that guy on the left: "Five bad-ass guys are glaring at me. They’re definitely older than I am, but the guy on the left kinda looks like that kid at school, the one who’s given me problems. He’s got shoulder-length, greasy hair, a skin-tight, dingy white t-shirt on, and he’s wearing hooded eyes that look like he’s really pissed-off or really hungover, or both. He looks like a burnout, one of the public school guys.
But I know one or two of them at St. Andrew’s. The guys with bared-chests and skin-tight jeans who walk up and down the boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland, cutting through the night salt-air under the lights and past the kids on Trimper’s Rides, trying out moustaches and carrying huge stuffed teddy bears so that the girls will run up to them and go awww. The guys cruising up and down Coastal Highway in Trans Ams? He looks like one of those guys. Kinda scary, actually. I’d never talk to them. The two guys in the back must be his buddies. They look like they want to sell me something. Or buy something.
Malcolm had battled alcoholism for many years, but sobered up in the late 1980s. His dementia, as it is in all cases, was crippling, and sadly, bafflingly diminishing. The man who co-wrote such vivid and graphic rock and roll songs couldn't remember them anymore, let alone those written by his heroes. I'll crank "Bad Boy Boogie" and "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be" and" Riff Raff" and "Girls Got Rhythm" and many other Malcolm-steered classics tonight and raise a glass to Young's workmanlike, utterly necessary guitar playing, and to his ambition, commitment, and the fun he gave me and millions of others.

I'm not sure where Malcolm is now, but I know that he's plugging in somewhere. Maybe his older bro George is watching. And his old buddy Bon's been waiting for him for thirty-seven years. He can't wait to remind him that hell’s got a rocking band, while heaven's stuck with harps. RIP Malcolm Young.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Joe Tex, Sugar & Salt

I've been grooving to the rough and ready sounds of Joe Tex lately, loving his blend of Southern looseness and soulful gruffness. These three are faves. Never mind for now his one-again, off-again chart successes or his feud with James Brown, and just turn up these killer Dial sides recorded in Memphis and Nashville.

single, 1965

I've long loved the rolling, perpetual motion machine of this one, a number one R&B hit in 1965.

~~

b-side, 1966

Like many of my generation, I heard Rockpile's killer version of this first. Tex's muscular original—the flip side to "The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)"—is taken a bit slower, the dusty horns and loping beat impossible to resist. He had a hell of a band.

~~

Live And Lively, 1968

Some social consciousness in this, from a faux live album. An inspiring, mid-paced groove chronicling a poor childhood, Tex ends the tune with an exhortation both hopeful and melancholy: "I think this will be the year for underprivileged children." Alas....

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The fuse blows: Luc Sante on NYC

April 1977: a crowd outside CBGB
Luc Sante's "Maybe the People Would Be the Times," an expressionistic, urgent, affectionate remembrance of New York City in the mid-1970s for VICE magazine and Noisey's new music issue, reminds me again of why he is one of my favorite writers about New York City. With his characteristic blend of anthropological detail, scene knowledge, and deeply felt personal experience, Sante evokes the heady nowness of the street rock and poetry energies of the city in an epochal age.

Check out this passage about dancing in lofts below 14th Street, marvel, and then read the whole piece. "This is music that gives us seven-league boots to walk the streets in, loping 20-block miles faster than taxis, or else we dance in somebody's bare loft decorated with foil-sided insulation panels, with clamp lights scattered on the floor pointing up the walls, a single pole-mounted fan moving the air around the 1,500-square-foot oven, the turntable hooked up to a guitar amp and the music's echo redoubled by the cavernous echo of bricks and mortar."
We dance to reggae, and we dance to soul, or disco, or R&B. Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" and "Got to Give It Up," the Floaters' "Float On," Chic's "Le Freak," James Brown for days but especially right now "Papa Don't Take No Mess," and it's also the inaugural year of Funkadelic's anthem, "One Nation Under a Groove." Someday they will swap out Francis Scott Key's Bavarian drinking song for this stepping march that gathers all the strands—it's a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions, on a national scale. The song already seems to be under way when the needle hits the groove, and it might as well never end, since we keep taking the needle back to the start when it starts edging near the run out. It's a whole circus parade of sounds and effects: brass band, clowns, aerialists, prancing horses, confetti showers, giant papier-mâché monster heads. It will teach you how to dance if you don't know how. You let your ass fall into the central bounce path carved out by the bass and the handclaps, and then the rest of your body can align with whatever you want for however long you want: the half-tempo crooner, the squeaking synth, the chuckling guitar monologue, the drum fills, the whistles, the calls and interjections by what sounds like two dozen different voices. It's maybe on the sixth reprise that those of us who aren't completely fucked up start to notice that the floorboards are visibly moving up and down on the one, and this is no joke when you're talking about century-old joists and beams. We start to edge toward the walls, where long tables are covered with empty bottles and cans. From there the crowd looks like one body with 400 limbs. The air, redolent of sweat and spilled beer and tobacco and cannabis and unnameable musks, is maybe a third of the way toward transmuting into a solid. Somebody screams along with the falsetto wail that turns into "You can dance away." Just then the fuse blows.
A great companion read with "Maybe the People would be the Times" is the elegiac "My Lost City" which Sante wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2003, bookends on euphoria and loss.

The above photo and others in Sante's essay are from Meryl Meisler's terrific Paradise & Purgatory: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Some Qs, Some As

Here's a roundup of some conversations I've had this year about Field Recordings from the Inside, out now with Soft Skull Press. I've rapped with Counterpoint here, The Normal School here, Northern Public Radio (WNIJ) here, Vol. 1 Brooklyn here, and a thoughtful audience at Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago here, after a reading.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Watching the Fab Four in '64: A Conversation with Beatles Historian Doug Sulpy

The age-old question "Does the world need another book about the Beatles?" is answered monthly at Amazon: yes, apparently. But Doug Sulpy, a Beatles historian and longtime editor of The 910: the International Journal for Beatles Scholars and Collectors, has produced something different from the average Beatles book. Invasion! The Beatles 1964 Video Guide is a reference book that catalogues every second of every excerpt of circulating video documenting that tumultuous and unprecedented year. Reporting on numberless limo rides to and from airports, repetitive press conferences before and after shows, thousands of wailing girls, and snippets of concerts, these clips tell the mad story of Beatlemania and the relentless scrutiny the group experienced, an explosion of attention detonated seemingly over night. In the absurd fish bowl of 1964 the Beatles continued to write top-shelf pop songs, and recorded two albums (A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale), a non-album EP (Long Tall Sally), and a standalone single ("I Feel Fine" b/w "She's A Woman"). Oh, and they made a wildly-popular and influential movie.

On the trail of a good story, inspired equally by curiosity and cynicism, the relentless press was at the band's heels, filming them dashing in and out of hotels and concert venues, mobbed by fans, and waving from balconies, and lobbing inane questions at them in press conferences. (As Sulpy must've run dry on synonyms for "screaming" and "crying" early on while annotating these clips, so did the Beatles exhaust clever ways of answering questions about hair length, money, fame, regional differences among fans, and Ringo's rings.) Sulpy documents each scrap of silent or sound film down to the second, whether the footage runs twelve minutes or a few moments.

I devoured the book, and dutifully headed to YouTube and the odd online film archives site to re-watch many of these clips. Viewing them chronologically, I was astonished at the consistent level of professionalism exhibited by the Beatles—kids in their early 20s—while dealing with the onslaught from the press and fans. Sure they grew testy with reporters as the tours took them around the world and across punishing time zones, but they remained civil and remarkably patient given how tired and bored they were with the monotony. Of course the guys enjoyed the many—ahem, undocumented—perks of their success, escaping their prison-like hotels for private residences when they could, bedding groupies and basking in the intense adulation and their new-found sex appeal, yet their touring, recording, and promotional schedules were nothing short of brutal, and continued on, grimly, for two more years. That the band would turn out Rubber Soul and Revolver and push against the limits of pop music and expression while being tossed about in the draining hurly-burly of fame and attention never fails to amaze me.

Here are two pages from Invasion!, just another packed day for the band:


Recently, I virtually sat down with Sulpy to discuss Invasion! The Beatles 1964 Video Guide, forensic approaches to R&R history, and the nuttiness of Beatlemania.

~~

Let's get the inevitable question out of the way, Why another book about the Beatles? 

That’s really a question I would never ask myself. I do what I do primarily because I’m passionate about writing about whatever facet of The Beatles’ career interests me. If I had some kind of commercial focus, I’d be writing about Madonna or something. I also have enough confidence in my own ability that I don’t feel threatened by the existence of other books out there on the same subject. I’ve seen a couple of them, as you probably have, and they don’t come close to what I’ve done here, because I made sure I brought the same level of attention to this work as I did to my previous books on The Beatles' audio

More pointedly, why did you decide to write this book?

My friend Scott Kail, who was there as a sounding board every step of the way, has been trying for years to get me to write a book on the subject, and I’d always said, “I don’t care. I know what they look like.” A couple of years ago, though, I did a special issue of my The 910 that focused on the anniversary of The Beatles’ summer ’64 tour of America. Once I began compiling the video for that project, I suddenly realized that there was so much of it that, when it’s taken as a whole and put back into context, it constitutes a vast block of raw information, much as the hours of audio recordings that leaked out from their 1969 “Get Back” sessions. That excited me, because suddenly I realized that somewhere, in all that footage, lies the truth of what had happened fifty-odd years ago.

Doug Sulpy
You mention in the introduction that you're chiefly interested in a "forensic approach to rock and roll history." Why is that your preferred method? Are there any limitations to such an approach? 

I like to tell the story of how, when Ray Schweighardt and I were working on our book Drugs, Divorce and a Slipping Image, we ran into interviews with all four Beatles claiming that George had quit The Beatles in January, 1969 because of a fight he’d had with Paul. The only problem with this is that it’s definitely not true. The argument was with John, instead. So if you can’t believe all four Beatles on something as important as the reason that George quit the group, how can you believe what anyone says about anything, particularly when there’s the human tendency to make their part in the Beatles’ story more prominent than it might have really been. I remember Alistair Taylor, Brian Epstein’s assistant, insisting to us once that they’d dragged the piano up onto the rooftop at Apple and performed “Let It Be” and he knew this to be the case because “he was there!” This kind of thing taught me that the only thing I really trust, both for audio and video, are the things that I can hear and see and, as with my books on their audio recordings, you’ll note that nothing is given an entry in Invasion! that I haven’t actually seen—I guess you could consider that a limitation, but it’s self-imposed.

Were your sources mostly online, or did you a have access to actual film, professional or otherwise?

I was surprised that so much of what I wrote about in the book is actually available on-line somewhere. Much of it is on YouTube, but you can also have a great deal of fun hunting up other footage on the web pages of various film archives. Mostly, though, I used my own video collection, with Scott and others filling in some much-needed missing pieces. Needless to say, there’s more footage out there—but I did everything I could to acquire everything that’s circulating among collectors, and then some.

You offer little editorializing in what is essentially a research book. Having watched and catalogued many hours of footage, what are your takeaways?

Surrounded, Dallas, September 18, 1964
How exhausting 1964 must have been for them. Even granting the stamina you have when you’re younger, these four guys worked like hell for their success. But just as much as them, I enjoyed writing about the events surrounding them—the fan interviews and Beatlemania, sometimes, were more interesting to me than watching clips from The Beatles’ actual performances. It was also interesting to watch the excited and energetic Beatles of early 1964 and see how much they change over the course of the year.

You quote a young woman saying revealingly that she doesn't know why she screams and loses it when she sees, or even senses the possibility of seeing, the Beatles. After watching and assembling this footage do you have a clearer understanding as to why "Beatlemania" occurred? Do you have a better feel for its origins and reasons, or is the phenomenon essentially mysterious?

I have a clearer understanding of what happened, but not necessarily why it happened, because the genesis of that was really in 1963, the year before this book takes place. Remember, when they arrived in America in February, Beatlemania was already full-blown—in fact, I’d say it was at its peak. What becomes clear, studying the footage, though, is how real it all turned out to be. It wasn’t hype or publicity at that point, it was already something very special, and unique. And I think that’s why it’s endlessly fascinating to go back and study what happened and try to understand it, as best we can.
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