Friday, May 27, 2022

Review: The Sex Pistols' 'The Original Recordings'

Blame good timing, blame ineffable charisma, blame pure luck or Steve Jones for calling Bill Grundy a "fucking rotter" on live TV (at Grundy's prompting, mind you), but for better or worse, deservedly or non-deservedly, The Sex Pistols have long been punk's highest-profile poster boys. Yes, they had the look, Johnny Rotten had the definitive sneer, and non-musician member Sid Vicious was genuinely dangerous in ways that only a total asshole would romanticize, but their sole proper album never sounded that definitively punk to me. In fact, with its consistently mid-speed tempos and Chris Thomas's thick, classic rock production, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols always sounded way less punk to my ears than the speedy, raggedly produced debuts by those next in line punk definers, The Damned, The Clash, and The Ramones. Which is why I actually prefer a new Pistols compilation to their one and only album, which regularly finds a sacred place on all sorts of "Best Albums of All Time!!!" lists. 

By boggling up all but three tracks from Bollocks with weedier productions from the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle soundtrack and a quartet of non-LP B-sides, The Original Recordings is way less monotonous than Never Mind the Bollocks despite the utter genericness of its title. Hearing stuff like "Pretty Vacant","Anarchy in the UK", and "Holidays in the Sun" shuffled with covers of classics by The Monkees, The Who, The Stooges, and Eddie Cochran helps those great songs stand out from the murk better. I would have chucked the unfortunately timely "Bodies" (sorry, Johnny, but there's no way to read this song as anything but an anti-abortion belch, and your half-hearted protests to the contrary are as rich as Keith Richards's recent claim that "Brown Sugar" is about "the horrors of slavery" and not just a witlessly ugly joke) and the idiotically misplaced ire of "New York" (a confounding criticism of the spectacularly influential New York Dolls, loaded with homophobia Rotten later tried to sell as references to meatballs!) and brought in the more righteous anger of "EMI" and "Liar". But overall, The Original Recordings is a good way to get most of the Pistols' you'll ever need. Plus the mastering sounds great and the vinyl is perfectly cut.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Review: 'The Police: Around the World' Restored and Expanded Blu-ray

On the precipice of world domination, The Police embarked on a tour of all six populated continents with camera in hand in 1979/'80. When not blazing through numbers from their first three albums on stage, they were filming touristy skits involving Andy Summers sumo wrestling in Japan, Stewart Copeland arguing with a camel rider near the pyramids in Egypt, and Sting taking a fast-motion rickshaw ride in Hong Kong. The Police are often labeled as a new wave or punk-lite trio, but they clearly were a Monkees for the eighties. 

That's actually not entirely a joke and hardly an insult (faithful Psychobabble readers know I love The Monkees). The Police were heart-throb cute, had a bunch of exhilarating hits, made audiences crazy, liked to be on screen, and were incorrigibly silly and corny. All of these qualities are captured in the tremendously fun travelogue The Police: Around the World, which really does seem to use Bob Rafelson's "Monkees On Tour" episode as a template... though with a lot less sobriety. The doc's only moments of genuine off-stage sincerity seem to be when the guys lose themselves in a groovy raga jam (Andy plays sitar, Sting plucks tamboura, Stu taps the tabla) and when Sting expresses genuine horror at the sight a snake charmer feeding a live cobra to a mongoose. Around the World also captures The Police at a moment when they seem to actually enjoy each other's company, and that joy spills over to the stage where the band's musicianship admittedly outclasses The Monkees' by several kilometers. 

Originally released on VHS in 1983 and laser disc in 1989, The Police: Around the World is now making its DVD and Blu-ray debut. The picture and sound have been restored. There's lots of edge enhancement, although that isn't much of an issue when sitting at a normal distance from the screen. Bass can be overpowering when using the LPCM stereo audio option, but it's much mellower on the DTS-HD Master Audio track. A sequence in which Sting gets irate at a fan causing some off-screen trouble during a performance of "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" from the original VHS release has been cut from this "Restored and Expanded" version (it's on YouTube if you want to have a look), but four complete performances from the tour have been included as supplements.

The blu-ray also comes with a CD of twelve songs recorded live in Kyoto, Hammersmith, and Hong Kong. Sound is a bit muddy, but I certainly prefer that to overly bright audio, and the band sounds great (although Sting sounds a lot less fierce on a rendition of "Visions of the Night" caught in Hammersmith than he did on the studio version). Andy Summers also provides some must-read liner notes that explain how fraught the tour could get behind all the documentary's mugging and rocking.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Review: The Rolling Stones' 'El Mocambo 1977'

The Rolling Stones' most creative and vital period was well behind them by 1977. While young punk bands picked up the torch, the Stones settled into their role as a hardworking, reliable, arena rock band, and quite comfortably at that. Fans could expect a few manufactured thrills in Jagger's carefully composed off-color remarks into the mic and the fact that Keith Richards was still somehow standing, but they mostly received rote, overly mannered performances of safe warhorses like "Honky Tonky Women" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and limp recent numbers like "Fool to Cry" and "Hot Stuff". What could you expect from a band that had spent the past eight years playing to vast audiences that probably looked more like pink pinpricks awash in darkness than human beings from the distance of the stage? 

Playing a relatively small club gig was an odd choice for the world's biggest band, but it was a good one. After playing gigs at stadiums like Maple Leaf Gardens, the Stones stopped in at the El Mocambo Club in Toronto. Granted, no one is going to mistake the band mildly chugging through "Route 66" in '77 for the cro-mags who rampaged through it in '65, "Fool to Cry" was just as drippy as ever, and Jagger still sang like his mouth was stuffed with rubber erasers, but the Stones did sound more electrified at the El Mocambo gig than they did at the big shows preceding it. There was some evidence on 1977's Love You Live LP, which included a single side of blues, Berry, and Bo covers from the club gig and three sides testifying to the monotonousness of the stadium shows. At just four tracks the El Mocambo side was a tease, and fans of this period longed for the full gig's release.

45 years later, here it is. The complete, 23-song El Mocambo set is being released on CD and limited-edition neon-colored and black vinyl (I received the black vinyl edition for review), and El Mocambo 1977 is certainly a more appealing affair than Love You Live. Jagger even undercuts the smarm of "Fool to Cry" with a sincere-sounding, impromptu laugh (well, it sounds impromptu... you can never be sure with that guy). Assumptions that this is some sort of holy grail of ferocity and virility will be dashed, but it's still a solid set of Stones songs with occasional surprises such as those blues obscurities (most of which had been on Love You Live, but "Route 66" and a pretty good rendition of Big Maceo's "Worried Life Blues" are exclusive to El Mocambo 1977), a nice version of "Luxury" that's more rock than reggae, and an extended "Worried About You", which would be one of the very best tracks on Tattoo You four years later, that's almost worth the admission price alone. Bob Clearmountain's mastering is dynamic, clear, and detailed.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Review: 'It's Alive'

A film as timeless and iconic as James Whale's Frankenstein is going to stir its share of myths and mysteries. Why exactly did Bela Lugosi not end up playing the Monster? Why did Universal's studio chief, Carl Laemmle, allow son Junior to make another one of those gruesome horrors dad found so detestable? How did the virtually unknown character actor Boris Karloff land such a career-making role? 

I won't go into the multitudinous theoretical answers to all these questions because Julian David Stone already did it for me. His new book, It's Alive, is a work of historical fiction that provides confident answers to the big questions floating around Frankenstein. Since his book includes no foreword or afterword, just the story, I'm not sure what Stone's methodology was or what sources he consulted, but ultimately when dealing with historical fiction, it's best to treat the material more as fiction than history. Otherwise, you may come away from watching Ed Wood believing all the incredibly entertaining bunk Tim Burton slapped up on the screen.

So how does It's Alive hold up as a novel? Quite marvelously, actually. Stone knows his audience because he clearly is his audience. Only a full-blooded Monster Kid would write a book like this, with its geeky glimpses into the creation of Jack Pierce's iconic makeup, Lugosi's highly self-conscious quoting from his most famous role (which I really don't doubt he did), the cameos from Mae Clarke and John Boles, and such. But it also feels real because Stone does a broad yet authentic job of capturing the personalities and voices of his three main characters. If you know anything about Lugosi and Junior Laemmle, you know that they were both tremendously egotistical but also insecure. If you know anything about Karloff, you know that he was humble and good-humored. 

Stone also captures these characters at pivotal points in their careers, which is good for developing a high-stakes plot. Laemmle wants to keep Universal moving forward instead of floating away like a dead shark, which is likely what would have happened had he not fought to get Frankenstein made. Lugosi is a massive star, but that position is highly fragile, and though the book does not show us the consequences of his poor, ego-driven decisions, anyone who cares enough about this topic to read a historical-novel about it will likely already know how things turn out for the Count. They'll also know that Karloff will become a major star with a very long and high-profile career ahead of him, but It's Alive captures him right before that, when he was hungry and desperate and unsure of whether or not he'd get the role that would make him. 

A lot of the plot points are completely new to me, such as the idea that Whale threatened to quit the job because Junior agreed to put Karloff, Whale's number one choice to play the Monster, in the picture at the last minute. Such things make me wonder if Stone uncovered some previously unknown information or if it's all pure conjecture. So I wouldn't go using It's Alive as a source for that Karloff biography you're writing, but if you're a Monster Kid, you'll certainly get a kick out of it. And I am hoping that Junior's teasing thoughts about a Bride that end the book are a hint that a sequel is in the offing...

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Review: RSD Edition of The Rolling Stones' 'More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies)'

Sure Hot Rocks: 1964 - 1971 had "Satisfaction", "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "Honky Tonk Women", and plenty of other examples of what made The Rolling Stones such a superior blues and R&B-based rock band, but it was missing a really key component of the Stones' story: they could be pretty fucking weird. Aside from a bit of sitar on "Paint It Black", some dissonant guitar effects on "Mother's Little Helper", Brian Jones's pastoral recorder on "Ruby Tuesday", and that choir on "You Can't Always Get What You Want", Hot Rocks generally presented the Stones as a more conventional band than they'd been from 1964 to 1971 (more consistently conventional days were ahead of them after '71, but that's another, less interesting story). Where was the psychedelia? Where were the fey Elizabethan ballads? Where was whatever the hell "I'm Free" is? 

Well, the answer arrived just in time for X-mas '72 when ABKCO/London released More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies). Although the only really, really big hits were "The Last Time" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?"--the set's only top-ten hits--there were fazed cookies galore. The ominous, looming psych of "We Love You" and "2000 Light Years from Home". The florid music-box romance of "She's a Rainbow". The skeletal anti-romance of "Lady Jane". The pseudo-Appalachian folk of "Sittin' on a Fence". The delightful Stones-pretend-they're-The-Beatles experiments "Dandelion" and "Child of the Moon". The Jagger-experiments-with-weird-voices experiments "Let It Bleed" and "I'm Free". It even included an entire side of oddities previously unreleased in the U.S. Hot Rocks moved more units, but More Hot Rocks surely moved more minds.

For the comp's fiftieth anniversary, and for Record Store Day 2022, ABKCO has released a new edition of More Hot Rocks on glow-in-the-dark vinyl. While the track line-up matches that of the original release, as opposed to the expanded SACD version from 2002, the track versions conform to those on the 2002 disc. That means "Dandelion" and "We Love You" are in stereo instead of mono (the latter complete with John Lennon's strange exclamation unique to the SACD), "Have You Seen Your Mother" is in mono instead of fake-stereo, and so on. 

The mastering is quite good, with the music sounding sufficiently detailed and powerful, but the audio is too quiet by several decibels, which means that if you get a pressing with some groove noise, as I did, that noise will be especially pronounced. A deep, wet cleaning might cure what ails ya. 

The set also comes with a holographic obi and two lithographs: one a tinted version of the B&W photo on the cover of Out of Our Heads/December's Children and the other a contact sheet from the session that yielded the pic on the cover of The Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra's The Rolling Stones Songbook album. Oldham's groovy doggerel still adorns the cover, adding another layer of weirdness to the Stones' most charmingly weird compilation.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Review: The Police's 'Greatest Hits' Vinyl Half-Speed Remaster

The Police were one of the most reliable hit machines of the first half of the eighties. Sting churned out killer songs like "Don't Stand So Close to Me", "Spirits in the Material World" and "King of Pain". Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland kept his sappier tendencies in check and provided some of the most creative and off-kilter guitar and drum work (respectively) to adorn outrageously popular songs. All was right with the world until they broke up in a slow-fuse sonic boom of ego and acrimony at the height of their popularity. So The Police were no more, but they'd left behind five pretty damn perfect albums and a bushel of pretty damn perfect singles. It was all over but the greatest hits-ing.

The first shot at compiling the hits didn't quite get the job done. With just a dozen tracks, 1986's Every Breath You Take- The Singles probably should have been called Every Breath You Take- Some Singles since it was missing such essential short players as  "So Lonely", "The Bed's Too Big Without You", and "Synchronicity II". Replacing the lean, springy original version of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" with a busy, spongy remake was a crime that warranted a visit from the actual police. 

1992's imaginatively titled Greatest Hits did a much more satisfying job of rounding up the essential suspects. While not every single was present (the inclusion of their genuinely punky debut "Fall Out" would have been nice), there are no glaring holes. Sure the decision to make the weightless "Tea in the Sahara" the only B-side on the comp is a head scratcher, but Greatest Hits is still just about the best single-disc intro to The Police you could ask for... though anyone who stops there is missing out on a hell of a lot.

For it's first stateside release on vinyl, that single-CD comp arrives as a double-LP. All sixteen tracks were crammed onto a single record when Greatest Hits was released on vinyl in Europe back in '92. The extra LP means extra fidelity in 2022. So does the half-speed remastering, a task Miles Showell had done a few years ago for the release of Every Move You Make: The Studio Recordings, which rounded up all five of The Police's original albums and a disc of non-LP sides (still no "Fall Out"!). Geoff Pesche did the job for Greatest Hits, though I find his work too bass heavy in comparison to Showell's (which was already pretty bass-heavy compared to the original vinyl releases) and a touch of distortion is sometimes audible through headphones. Detail is impressive. The spindle holes are sufficiently well centered. Vinyl is reasonably flat and quiet.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Review: 'American TV Comic Books: 1940s-1980s'

We all know that Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, and The Crypt Keeper are classic comics characters. But what about Emma Peel, Davy Jones, and Ed Sullivan? Indeed, comic artists have transformed a whole bunch of TV personalities and characters into caricatures on funny-book pages. Most TV-based comics didn't last long, most were published by Dell, and most were written and illustrated with all the care and artistry one puts into something intended as a quick cash-in.

Peter Bosch collates these sundry cash-ins in his new book American TV Comic Books: 1940s-1980s. The book consists of very tidy entries on everything from a 1949 comic based on Suspense to well past his titles' timeline for an entry on Stranger Things comics. Each entry includes a short paragraph about the history of the given TV show and an even shorter paragraph on the comic adaptation, which mostly consists of a list of the involved artists and a critique rarely more extensive than "good" or "bad." 

Considering how goofy fun Bosch's topic is, it's a shame that his writing is so dry (paging Dr. Mark Voger... ). But the copious illustrations spread throughout the book, which include full comics pages and covers and such delightful oddities as a handy page translating Edd "Kookie" Byrnes's 77 Sunset Strip lingo for anyone unhip enough to not know what "fill me in" means, are a gas.

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