Monday, January 30, 2012

Too Beautiful: Steve Marriott and the Rise of British Soul

It’s no huge stretch to suggest Rock & Roll may have died the death had it not been for British musicians. Following a period when many of the first wave of rockers were out of commission—jailed, drafted, or fiddling with born-again salvation—America had Roy Orbison, Dion, and The Beach Boys but few other new rockers of depth (and some might argue that The Beach Boys didn’t even acquire much depth until after the British Invasion). The years immediately preceding The Beatles’ arrival were pretty dire. Chuck Berry eventually managed a respectable return with “Nadine”, “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell” in 1963. Back from the army, Elvis still produced tremendous work on occasion, such as “His Latest Flame” or “Little Sister”, but his spark was largely gone. The charts were dominated by old-fashioned crooners and vapid teen idols: Shelley Fabares, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Neil Sedaka, Tommy Roe, Steve Lawrence, Bobby Vee. There was also a horrid trend of novelty acts like Ray Stevens and The Singing Nun. By far the most vital American music of the period was coming from the soul and R&B artists enjoying their initial successes on new labels like Tamla/Motown and Stax or with wunderkind producer Phil Spector. They had their share of massive hits—The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy”, Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions”, The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”, The Contours’ “Do You Love Me”, The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof”, The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, The Impressions’ “It’s All Right” to name a few—but they had little affect on the pop singers marshalling together to make American radio as dreary and dull as possible.

In Great Britain, young musicians were listening intently to their more soulful neighbors. Americans tended to stereotype England as a tiny, quaint berg of manners and repression. Yet few American rockers of the period captured the spontaneity, excitement, and commitment of their R&B countrymen and countrywomen with the authenticity of the new wave of singers emerging in the U.K. Though none of them had anything on, say, Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, they were still capable of delivering their own impressive brand of fierce rhythm and blues. These are the artists who most assuredly gave Rock & Roll its second life.
The mightiest British shouters of the bunch—Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Reg King, Chris Farlowe, Steve Marriott—got their starts singing the American R&B of the period. Why this music resounded so thoroughly in the U.K. is a matter of debate. Class has often factored into the discussion, yet a zeal for American R&B flourished at the posh art colleges that churned out blues and R&B-influenced guitar legends Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend as powerfully as it did among cats like sheet-metal worker and James Brown-fanatic Roger Daltrey. Steve Marriott’s father owned a modest jellied eels stand and his mother was a factory worker. Whatever the cause, the results are beyond debate. The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, The Who, The Yardbirds, and other groups of their ilk completely resuscitated Rock & Roll and continued to keep it vital as their less soulful peers—The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Freddie and the Dreamers—fell by the wayside.

This new crop had its share of amazing singers, and the one to beat may have been one of the less successful and respected ones. Steve Marriott of Small Faces was more confident than Jagger, more skilled than Daltrey, less dependent on mimicry than McCartney, and possessed a wider range than Burdon, yet he and his band suffered a troubled reputation. They were major stars and chart regulars in the U.K., but were often dismissed as lightweights because some of their early material was deemed too poppy (not that “Love Me Do” or The Stones’ reading of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” were any weightier than “Sha La La La Lee”). Small Faces were branded teeny-bop pop early on, and the tag dogged them despite the tremendous power they always displayed throughout their brief career. The band’s eponymous debut album is only rivaled by The Who’s My Generation in terms of noisy excitement. To exacerbate matters, their indifference to touring the U.S.—and Ian McLagen’s international-travel-stifling drug bust— meant they didn’t make much impact in that essential market. Only the psychedelic “Itchycoo Park” cracked the U.S. top twenty.

None of this diminishes the case that Steve Marriott was England’s rawest, most effortless R&B singer. He was not an imitator like Paul McCartney, a technically superb and exhilarating singer who borrowed liberally from Little Richard, Fats Domino, Wilson Pickett, and others. He required no adjustment period as that other great mimic, Mick Jagger (his voice was fairly weedy until “Satisfaction”), did. From the very first Small Faces record, the Solomon Burke rip “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”, Marriott was in top form, tearing his larynx in two and still game to keep doing it all night. He sang in naturally, even allowing his Cockney to emerge whenever his voice descended from the hysteria stratosphere. As the band began experimenting with lighter forms of music during the psychedelic era, Marriott was always quick to remind listeners of what a stunning R&B shouter he was. “Itchycoo Park” climaxes in raging wails of its hippie refrain that might have been laughable if sung by anyone else. “IT’S ALL TOO BEAUTIFUL!” Marriott howled. The psych concept album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake levels many of its peers because it motors on the R&B power. Marriott brings as much force to “Afterglow”, “Song of a Baker”, “Rollin’ Over”, and others as he had to the cover of “Shake” (Sam Cooke by way of Otis) that opened the first Small Faces album. The fiercest, most R&B moment on The Stones’ own psychedelic opus, Their Satanic Majesties Request, comes not from Jagger but from Marriott’s guest cameo on the Bill Wyman-composed “In Another Land” (“THEN I AWOKE!”).

The critics could say what they will about Small Faces being bubblegummers. The band’s fellow rockers knew the score. In 1968, Jimmy Page considered Marriott (along with another great, underrated British R&B singer, Terry Reid) as frontman for his new band, Led Zeppelin. Today that bubblegum reputation has largely evaporated, though Small Faces are still relegated to cult-band status in the U.S. That may be so, but make no mistake, when it comes to shouting and raving, when it comes to going toe-to-toe with the great American R&B singers that inspired the single most important Rock & Roll movement of the ‘60s, Steve Marriott still stands in a class of his own.

Steve Marriott was born 65 years ago today.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Godzilla'

For many monster maniacs, Godzilla was a towering, rubber-suited ruffian with a heart of gold, practicing WWF moves with a giant moth and siring (or giving birth …what gender is Godzilla, anyway?) a cutesy pie, smoke-puffing baby-zilla. In other words, Godzilla was strictly kid’s stuff. This isn’t how the towering one got started. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Gojira was a somber, sober allegory about the H-bombs that rained horror on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was shot in artful black and white, Godzilla didn’t do any crowd-pleasing capering, and Takashi Shimura, the respected actor who was a favorite of Akira Kurosawa, starred. Gojira was a serious film with a serious reputation for being one of Japan’s greatest.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Through the Past Darkly with ‘Between the Buttons’

Tap your foot and rhyme, trip back 45 years time… Swinging London in full swing… floppy hats and foppish brooches… skinny drain pipes and big round sunglasses under sunless skies… paisley, pinstripes, pop art… acid and nightly clubbing with Rock royalty… The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks… the artists’ art: Rubber Soul and Revolver, My Generation and A Quick One, “Sunny Afternoon” and “Over, Under, Sideways Down”… visitors from across the Atlantic: Bob and Brian bringing Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds back home… Chuck and Muddy stacked in the attic… out with Chrissie Shrimpton like yesterday’s papers; in with Marianne and Anita… all these ingredients in the soup of late ’66… when The Rolling Stones consumed their peers and times, the styles, the sex, the drugs, the lifestyle, the retro vaudeville and prog psychedelia, spat them out on a vinyl time capsule called Between the Buttons… see it more clearer…

Between the Buttons starts as a laugh… a spate of writing in late 1966… Mick goes solo for the first time, discarding Chrissie with utmost cruelty on “Yesterday’s Papers”… Keith composes “Connection” without connecting with his mate, unknowingly foretelling

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: 'I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution'

With that barrage of commercials instructing 7-year-old me to call my cable company and demand my MTV, I was hooked on the new basic–cable channel showing nothing but music videos even before it finally came to New York in 1982. It was the classic scenario: my sister and I would come home from school ever day, ditch our textbooks in the nearest wastebasket, plop a few inches from the T.V. screen, and vegetate until our parents came home and read us the riot act about consuming so much sexed-up, violent crap starring weird-looking specimens like Boy George, Madonna, and the increasingly cadaverous Mick Jagger. That, of course, just deepened our addiction to MTV. Years away from even becoming a record buyer, I couldn’t consume enough music videos. I wanted my MTV, and when I got it, I OD’ed. By the time that initial golden age passed, my tastes evolved beyond new wavy one-hit-wonders and made no room for shitty hair metal. I’d pretty much had enough of MTV at that mid-‘80s turning point, even as I was still strangely compelled to spend hours and hours watching it. Perhaps Martha Quinn and J.J. Jackson were too deep in my bloodstream to purge them completely.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Heroes : 9 Artists Who Helped Shape David Bowie

“As early as 1972, Bowie was describing himself as ‘a collection of other people’s ideas’ or ‘a Photostat machine with an image.’”

Nicholas Shaffner repeated these quotes from the great chameleon in his essential primer The British Invasion, and spends much of his chapter on David Bowie discussing how the self-professed “actor” was more of a brilliant chimera of his influences than a model of “authenticity.” Of course, this was one of his great allures: Bowie was a master of slipping into guises, whether they were completely fabricated like Ziggy Stardust or subtler variations on the artists who most inspired him. More than any other artist of generation, David Bowie’s birthday could not be traced to a single day. He was born over and over again, first 65 years ago yesterday as the child of David and Peggy Jones— then as a mod, a chanteuse, a glam alien, a synthesizer swaddled glacier. Every year or so, David Bowie came floating back to earth after metamorphosing in the deepest regions of freaky space like the Star Child in his beloved 2011: A Space Odyssey. Here are nine surrogate parents who had hands in some of his rebirths…

1. The Who

David Jones launched his Rock & Roll career just as all his ‘60s peers did: as a mop-topped member of a hard-driving R&B groups. Unlike the far more successful Stones or Who, he failed to distinguish himself in groups such as Davie Jones and the King Bees and the Manish Boys (named for a Muddy Waters classic, just like Mick Jagger’s gang). He made a slightly bigger splash after following the flashy lead of The Who, a budding mod act with the incendiary stagecraft (Smashing guitars! Blowing up equipment! Outlandish costumes!) Bowie would refine in his future act. But for now (now being 1965) he was perfectly content to just swipe The Who’s sound with his short-lived group David Jones and the Lower Third. Like The Who, The Lower Third were fixtures at the Marquee Club (though usually relegated to opening act) and they played arrogant, slashing Rock & Roll best exemplified by “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”, which completely appropriates the mid-song freak out of The Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”. Though David Jones did not remain in mod garb for long, the period was near and dear enough to him to receive tribute on his 1973 L.P. Pin Ups, which includes covers of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “I Can’t Explain”. For that matter, he wouldn’t remain David Jones for long…

2. Davy Jones

Teeny-bop pin-up Davy Jones may be an unlikely player in the David Bowie stage play, but his role was one of the more decisive. And all because of a name. When music publicist Kenneth Pitt took hold of David’s career following his stint with The Lower Third, he became aware of an upcoming television series to star one Davy Jones of Manchester. Pitt was not about to have his new protégé vie for brand recognition, so he

Friday, January 6, 2012

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Charles Addams and “The Addams Family”

Charles “Chas” Addams didn’t crawl out of the womb on writhing tentacles or sporting an extra head when he was born 100 years ago tomorrow. Such irregularities would have been fitting considering the bizarre body of work he left behind. Addams is best known for the eponymous family he created for a series of peculiar New Yorker cartoons, but the lesser-known facts of his life are equally worthy of attention. Here are twenty curiosities about Charles Addams and the family he created that may be new to you…

Monday, January 2, 2012

21 Underrated Songs by The Kinks You Need to Hear Now!

The Kinks are an uncommon group. A plethora of bands seem to sit under that name: the pioneering heavy garage rockers who forged “You Really Got Me”, the distinctly British craftsmen who fashioned “Waterloo Sunset”, the olde tyme big band that made Muswell Hillbillies, the theatre group that staged Preservation Acts 1 and 2, the arena rockers who bludgeoned their way through Give the People What They Want, the ‘80s poppers who made a splash on MTV with “Come Dancing”. The Kinks’ reputation is equally schizophrenic (acutely so; not to mention paranoiac). They scored a wealth of hits in their U.K. homeland and enough in the U.S. to make them more than a cult band on both sides of the pond. Yet The Kinks are a cult band because the mass of their discography—and the mass of their greatest recordings—are barely known outside their fanatical following. And most Kinks die-hards do not worship the band for “You Really Got Me”, “Lola”, or “Come Dancing”. It is their peculiar, unashamedly sentimental, quiet masterpieces that moved Rolling Stone’s Paul Williams to scrawl that Kinks fandom is not just an enthusiasm for “some rock group. It’s more like a taste for fine wines from a certain valley, a devotion to a particular breed of cocker spaniel.” Williams wrote this astute observation in his review of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. If ever there was proof of The Kinks’ cultiness, it is the fact that their greatest album was a complete flop in both England and America. But the record has built a following over the years that now allows it to be spoken in the same breath as Pet Sounds, Revolver, Beggars Banquet, and Blonde on Blonde. As Ray Davies himself noted, “It’s the most successful failure of all time.”

So many of The Kinks’ commercial failures were artistic triumphs that they are poorly represented by the usual crop of “Greatest Hits” compilations. That means there are numerous treasures for the budding Kinks kultist to discover. The following is a starter list of twenty-one wonderful creations that never slipped onto singles or major hits compilations. For anyone interesting in traveling to the marvelously realized nation Ray Davies, Dave Davies, Mick Avory, and Peter Quaife founded, here are twenty-one splendid tickets.

1. “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along” (from the E.P. The Kwyet Kinks) 1965

We begin in a suitably untraveled, leaf-strewn nook of the Kinkdom. A spot where younger brother Dave huddles with his acoustic guitar, fending off winter winds and dreaming of summer. Dave’s first solo composition (he’d co-written the pleasant pop piffle “Got My Feet on the Ground” with Ray for the Kinda Kinks L.P.) is strong and mature, highly reminiscent of John Lennon’s recent dark country/folk numbers on Beatles for Sale. In his autobiography, Kink, Dave explains that he wrote “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along” “during a moment of depression and reflection” and that the song is “about loss and regret.” He was possibly reflecting on a girl named Sue, whom he’d gotten pregnant while still a teenager. His mother prevented him from seeing Sue again and kept him from knowing about his daughter for years. Dave's pain over the Sue situation inspired much of his work, and the first song in this sad series is likely “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along” (“Can it be that she never wanted to break some poor mother’s heart”). If so, it is an ambiguous but suitably fine forerunner.

2. “The World Keeps Going Round” (from the album The Kink Kontroversy) 1965

After delivering the usual Mersey Beat sentiments of love and lust on big hits such as “You Really Got Me” and “Set Me Free”, Ray Davies started expressing a more
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