Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Farewell, Poly Styrene

Awful news: first lady of punk Poly Styrene died yesterday after a bout with cancer. Born Marianne Elliot-Said, she became a punk pioneer after changing her name and fronting the abrasive, exciting X-Ray Spex. Led by Styrene's shuddering voice, the band recorded their sole album, Germ Free Adolescents (1978), one of the greatest products of punk's first wave. With her braces and splashy thrift-store fashions, Styrene was also a major style icon. She was 53.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 2: The 1930s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

(Updated in September 2021)

12. Dracula (1931- dir. Tod Browning)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review: Kinks Deluxe Editions

Let’s just get right to it: The Kinks’ early work has never sounded as good as it does on Sanctuary/UME’s new deluxe editions. Until now, most of the band’s ‘60s records have sounded lousy on CD. First released on Castle Records in the late ‘80s when CD technology was still wetting the bed, The Kinks’ Pye catalog wasn’t subjected to a major remastering until 1998 when Castle put out its muddy mono mixes. Then in 2004, The Kinks finally received the care they deserve. Well, at least their best album did when Sanctuary released a sumptuous triple-disc edition of Village Green Preservation Society with a mastering job that couldn’t be beat. After a seven year wait, Sanctuary is giving The Kinks’ other albums similar treatment. Like that now out-of-print deluxe Village Green, these double-disc editions of Kinks, Kinda Kinks, and The Kink Kontroversy sound great; not unnecessarily loud, but louder, warmer, more detailed, and more fully dimensional than any previous versions. Stand back as Ray Davies’s harmonica slashes through the speakers like a straight razor on “Long Tall Shorty”. Listen to Dave Davies’s fingertips pulling off his acoustic strings on “Nothin’ in This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl”. Get knocked out by the mighty thwack of Clem Cattini’s drum kit on “The World Keeps Goin’ ‘Round” (Mick Avory sat out Kontroversy).

Andrew Sandoval and Dan Hersch put a lot of care and consideration into their remastering job. The proper albums and singles are pristine, yet the guys allow a bit of noise to crackle beneath some of the bonus outtakes rather than compress the life out of them. Compare the rich sound of “Time Will Tell” on the deluxe Kontroversy to the brittle master on the Picture Book box set. Clearly Sandoval and Hersch made the right decision to favor 3-D sound over overly compressed cleanliness. Few of the bonus outtakes on these discs were previously unreleased, but they sound so good here that you’ll believe you’re hearing them for the first time.

As for the albums themselves, Kinks may be the weakest debut album by a major British band of the ‘60s, but it is delivered with plenty of punk energy and includes the monumental “You Really Got Me” and the pretty “Stop Your Sobbing”. Kinda Kinks leaves the R&B covers by the wayside to make way for Ray’s songwriting, which blossoms on Kontroversy. These are not The Kinks' greatest albums (you’ll have to wait until June for those), but the latter two are very, very good ones. The bonus disc of Kinda is a real rarity in that it’s actually better than the album it augments. That disc includes such wonderful singles as “Set Me Free”, “I Need You”, and “See My Friends”; the marvelous, acoustic Kwyet Kinks E.P.; and a superb selection of “How did these end up as outtakes?” outtakes.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Track by Track: ‘Ramones’ by The Ramones

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

By 1976, Rock & Roll was in dire shape. The best work of the genre’s old guard—The Who, The Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Dylan, The ex-Beatles—was behind them. Pretentious prog rockers clogged arenas with their endless bluster. Crushingly dull soft poppers polluted the top twenty with “Dream Weaver” and “Let Your Love Flow”. Then up from the underground swooped a quartet of troglodyte supermen from Queens, wearing matching rags, sporting matching mop tops and matching names. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo 15 years before them, and Kurt, Krist, and Dave 15 years after, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy did not set out to rescue Rock & Roll. They were just righteously fed up with the noodling, pomp, and wimpiness pervading the scene and decided to play the kind of Spartan garage rock they dug.

As bassist, chief composer, and chief wack-a-doo Dee Dee Ramone was heard to crow, “I think Rock & Roll should be three words and a chorus, and the three words should be good enough to say it all.” This was barely exaggeration. The Ramones stripped away all of Rock & Roll’s pretenses that had accumulated since Sgt. Pepper’s. No guitar solos; just fun. All tracks kick off in simultaneous fury (“1, 2, 3, 4!”), all have sing-songy choruses. Some are nothing but choruses.

Although The Ramones are famous— and were initially criticized— for their simplicity, Johnny Ramones’s neck-breaking down strokes require tremendous stamina and precision, as does the drumming of Tommy Ramone, who learned the instrument simply because the group he helped assemble needed a drummer. Speed, simplicity, catchiness, thunder. This music The Ramones invented wasn’t called punk yet, but it would be soon enough.

The Ramones didn’t just sound like the psychedelic era had never happened; they looked it too. Their jeans, leather jackets, Converse One Stars, and T-shirts could have been stripped off a ‘50s greaser. Johnny and Dee Dee's bowl cuts were strictly pre-psych Beatles.

Like John Waters, The Ramones collected the raw refuse of trash culture and defiant bad taste and molded it all into a monumental new art form. Horror movies, junk food, comic books, amusement parks, makeshift drugs, turning tricks, boneheaded agit prop, and sleazy violence all became pop fodder. Also like Waters, The Ramones paid tribute to a crime ridden, scuzzy city. What Baltimore was to the filthiest man alive, New York City was to the scuzziest band on the planet. Their debut album simply stinks of the city. Aside from the infamous “53rd and 3rd”, specific references are sparer here than they would be on subsequent records on which they’d praise Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, and the like. But Ramones sounds like New York. The grinding gears of a subway train. The quick snick of a switchblade. The expletive shout of a passing cabby. The wicked giggle of a purse snatcher. These sounds fester between the lines of all 14 tracks that comprise the only record that mattered in 1976. And it couldn’t have been cut in a more appropriate place: Plaza Sound studio in Manhattan’s landmark Radio City Music Hall. The track line up was merely transposed from their set list at CBGB’s, the Bowery scum pit that spawned all of the American bands that would rearrange Rock & Roll’s face over the next few years. But without Television’s pretty flourishes, Talking Heads’ art school angularity, Blondie’s radio-ready polish, Suicide’s electro freakiness, The Dead Boy’s cock-rock strut, or Patti Smith and Richard Hell’s Bowery poetry, The Ramones embodied New York Punk’s essence the best.

The group cut Ramones for just $6,400 over the course of 17 days. Johnny spent fifty bucks on the Mosrite guitar he played on it. It all sounded equally cheap. On subsequent albums, The Ramones sound opened up a bit, becoming less murky, less compressed… and losing some of its otherworldly magic in the process. Produced by novices Tommy Ramone and Craig Leon of Sire Records, Ramones sounds like it was belched up from Rock & Roll’s primordial muck.

Brace yourself.

Ramones by The Ramones
Originally released April 1976 on Sire Records
Produced by Craig Leon and Tommy Ramone

All songs credited to The Ramones.

Track 1: Blitzkrieg Bop

No opening guitar lick. No opening drum beat to ease the listener into the onslaught. Everything pounding out in simultaneous, militaristic fury. The first track on the first real punk LP defines the genre as well as anything that would follow. No New York Dolls swagger. No Stooges windiness. No Modern Lovers cleverness. It’s grooveless, it’s short, and it is dumb. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is also

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ray Davies to Turn Meltdown into His Personal Village Green

OK, so perhaps I've been reporting way too much on an event I can't even attend, but Jesus Christ! In an interview in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Ray Davies revealed he'll be performing my personal favorite album in its entirety at his London Meltdown festival: The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. So who wants to buy me a ticket to London? Anyone? Anyone?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Full Line-Up of Ray Davies's Meltdown Announced

Just a quick follow-up on last month's announcement about the Ray Davies-curated, "Ready, Steady, Go"-themed, Meltdown Festival that will be hitting London's Southbank Centre on June 11. Vicki Wickham, original "Ready, Steady, Go" editor and manager of the late Dusty Springfield, lent a hand in selecting the festival's final artist line-up, and our friends across the pond should be most pleased. The already-announced artists --Davies, The Fugs, Arthur Brown, The Alan Price Set, Yo La Tengo, Nick Lowe, Lydia Lunch, and The Legendary Pink Dots--will be joined by Eric Burdon, Sandie Shaw, Nona Hendryx of The Bluebelles and Labelle, Ronnie Spector, and reformed members of Manfred Mann, The Manfreds. My envy continues to grow.

Hendryx and Wickham

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Who's a Mess

Considering that The Who have been slowly getting the deluxe treatment ever since Live at Leeds was issued as a double-disc edition a decade ago and a new Who comp creaks out of the vaults on a near-weekly basis, you’d think their back catalog would be in tip-top shape. It ain’t.

The Who discography is currently a great, big mess marred by too many poorly mastered, poorly mixed, and barely available recordings. Generally, the deluxe editions have been quite good, but they have failed to fill in numerous gaps, and in one instance –the deluxe edition of My Generation released in 2002—have left a poorly realized stereo remix as the only edition currently in print. Now, I’m no mono purist. I’m a child of the stereo age, and mono recordings tend to sound colorless and compressed to my ears. But the stereo remix of My Generation hobbles two key cuts by depriving “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” of essential guitar parts. The mono versions are included on the bonus disc, but not hearing them in their original context is jarring. It makes My Generation— one of the great debut albums— less great. The decision to go stereo rather than mono has also negatively affected the versions of “Circles (Instant Party)” (missing John’s French horn part), “Under My Thumb” (missing Pete’s corrosive lead guitar), and “Dogs Part II” (John’s bass is basically nonexistent) currently available.

Mixing issues have been a rampant problem in the Who catalog since the mid-‘90s when Jon Astley and Andy MacPherson oversaw remixes that left “Put the Money Down” with an overlong fade, “Postcard” with an inferior bass-line, “Music Must Change” with inferior guitar solos, and “The Dirty Jobs” devoid of its cool seagull squeals. Hopefully these errors will be corrected if and when Quadrophenia, Odds and Sods, and Who Are You get the deluxe treatment they desperately need.

Most troubling is the plethora of songs that have failed to achieve bonus-track status on this multitude of expanded and deluxe editions. In some cases, these songs only exist on out-of-print discs released during the first wave of Who CDs in the mid-‘80s. One track has never been available outside of vinyl at all!

1. Circles (1966)

This is the less powerful but better realized rerecording of “Circles” originally released on the Ready, Steady, Who E.P. Perhaps The Who’s ongoing legal problems with producer Shel Talmy was the reason this number was not included with its E.P.-mates on the 1995 expansion of A Quick One. Whatever the reason, this excellent version of one of Townshend’s best early songs—a track that was almost released as a Who single in ’66, but instead flopped when Les Fleur de Leys recorded it—needs a second lease.

Most recently released on: Two’s Missing in 1987

Could have been included on: The 2002 deluxe edition of My Generation

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of A Quick One

2. I’m a Boy (1966)

Already a big hit single in the summer of ’66, The Who cut an even better, extended version in the fall for possible inclusion on an LP tentatively titled Jigsaw Puzzle. When that record was scrapped to make room for Pete’s first full-fledged mini-opera on A Quick One, this superior version of “I’m a Boy”— with its more intense instrumental break, more deliberate playing, and extra verse (“Help me wash up, Jane-Marie…”)— was included on the definitive Who compilation, Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy (1971). 31 years later, it was released on a bonus E.P. included with certain versions of the Ultimate Collection compilation. But wait! What happened to the song’s opening bars? That 2002 version is a sloppy, in medias res edit peculiar to the mono mix. 

Most recently released on: The poorly mastered Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy CD from 1990

Could have been included on: The expanded edition of A Quick One from 1995

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of A Quick One

3. The Magic Bus (1968)

Here’s another extended alternate version originally released on Meaty, Beaty. Yet this more thoughtfully paced, better sang unedited mix of one of The Who’s best-loved goofs is completely missing in action. It wasn’t even included on the Meaty, Beaty CD from 1990. 

Most recently released on: The original, 1971 vinyl version of Meaty, Beaty, Big, & Bouncy

Could have been included on: Any of a number of compilations

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

One of John’s great, horror-themed B-sides has received truly horrific treatment on CD. Two distinct mixes of the song exist: the UK mix, which features a longer fade and some ghoulish giggling, appeared on the B-side of “Magic Bus”; the cleaner US mix sat on the back of “Call Me Lightning”. Neither is currently in-print on CD.

Most recently released on: The appallingly mastered Magic Bus: The Who On Tour CD from the mid ‘80s

Could have been included on: The expanded edition of Odds and Sods from 1998

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

5. Here For More (1970)

Not what you’d call the most essential recording, but the B-side of “The Seeker” is still historically valuable in that it is one of just three Who songs solely credited to Roger Daltrey. A pleasant enough country/rock number with a riff Townshend later recycled to better effect on “In Hand or a Face”, “Here For More” is no longer here for more.

Most recently released on: The 1985 compilation Who’s Missing

Could have been included on: The deluxe edition of Who’s Next from 2003

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

6. When I Was a Boy (1971)

One of John Entwistle’s most beautiful songs, “When I Was a Boy” is a fascinating predecessor to all of Pete’s ‘70s soul-searching. Even in its vinyl incarnation as the flipside of “Let’s See Action”, “When I Was a Boy” sounded flat and lacked dynamics. This one could really use a rebuffing to bring out John’s plaintive vocal and forlorn French horn. Alas it hasn’t been touched in over 25 years.

Most recently released on: Who’s Missing

Could have been included on: The deluxe edition of Who’s Next

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Odds and Sods

7. Wasp Man (1972)

Another B-side by a non-Townshend hooligan gets short shrift. Is “Wasp Man” a great song? Umm, no. Is it a hilarious example of Keith Moon’s bizarre sense of humor that allows him to make buzzing noises over the “Here For More”/”In a Hand or a Face” guitar riff for three minutes? Yes, indeedy. Originally released as the flip side of “The Relay”, Moon’s weird theme song for an imaginary superhero (err, I guess they’re all imaginary) could use some rescuing.

Most recently released on: Two’s Missing

Could have been included on: The expanded edition of Odds and Sods

Should be included in the future on: A deluxe edition of Quadrophenia

In addition to these most glaring omissions are the various songs that have not been refurbished since the so-so masters included on 1994’s Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. These tracks include “The Last Time”, “Fortune Teller”, “Dogs”, “Heaven and Hell”, and “Bony Maronie”. Some interesting live recordings—the full-length version of “Bargain” from Who’s Missing, a mediocre jam called “Goin’ Down” and a terrific version of “My Wife” from Two’s Missing—are also in limbo.

So, how about it, Faceless Corporation that Controls The Who’s Back Catalog? There’s money to be made here. You like money. Make some by selling us fresh, powerful (and not unnecessarily loud) remasters of these long lost Who treasures. Get cracking!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 1: The 1920s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

(Updated in September 2021)

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920- dir. Robert Wiene)
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