The Cramps – “Bad Music for Bad People”

Founded in California in the early 1970s before relocating to New York and becoming part of the CBGB’s scene, The Cramps were one of the pioneering American punk bands, though one with a style outside of the mainstream even within scene.  Their sound is garage lo-fi and they were probably the first band to describe themselves as “psychobilly,” which is probably as good a label as any to put on their music.

Bad Music for Bad People came out in 1984 and was a compilation of previously released material, basically a “F You” and a money grab by label I.R.S. following the band parted ways with them.  That being said, it’s still a pretty good collection of the band’s early material, so for someone like me who doesn’t have any of their albums it’s not a bad starting point.  I was pretty happy to find this off-condition copy the same day it came into my local used vinyl shop, and at $2.50 I knew I couldn’t go wrong.

There’s some fairly wild stuff on here and the band does a good job in keeping a live feel to everything.  Nothing is fancy, and it’s all far from perfect, but that’s where it’s character comes from – The Cramps sound like a band who would be a lot of fun to see in a small bar after a bunch of PBR pounders.  Someplace with sticky floors, cracked and split vinyl barstools, and the smell of stale beer, bleach, and cigarettes in the air.  The kind of place where you probably hose down the floors at the end of the night.  It’s rockabilly surf punk, baby, so let’s have some fun!

Lux Interior’s voice is the key to The Cramps sound.  Sure, the music is good; but it’s Interior’s whooping and wailing and twangy delivery that creates the kooky vibe on these songs.  Nearly half the tracks on Bad Music for Bad People are covers, like Mel Robbins’ 1959 country hit “Save It” that Interior makes into something totally different with his spin on the vocals, taking what was once a straight forward song and twisting it into an oddity.  Of the originals I’m particularly partial to “Garbageman,” the heaviest and most driving song on the record with it’s relentless pace and echoing vocals.  “New Kind of Kick” is badass as well with it’s desperate singing in search of some new kind of kick, some new way to get wasted.

Overall two thumbs up for Bad Music for Bad People.  This is a solid collection of songs and The Cramps have a sound that works well both when you want to just have something on at low volume in the background and also when you want to crank it up and get after it.

Palooka – “She’s Speed” 7″ Single

According to Palooka’s website, “PALOOKA is big thick two guitar rock the way God intended it,” and frankly I don’t see any reason to argue with them about this claim.  This 7″ was an impulse buy as I was walking up to the counter at Easy Street Records – basically it looked cool so I bought it.  Turns out it is in fact cool, so that’s a win.

The A side “She’s Speed” gets right into it and right after it.  It’s guitars and fast and beer and leather and fast cars and chicks (“She’s everything I want, She’s not what I need”).  It’s a hard rocker that sings about a chick like she’s a car, a la Van Halen’s “Panama” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”  And at only 1:58, she’s a fast ride for sure.  The B side brings us “Under Control” which is a little slower in developing but is still a solid rocker.  A nice burst of power on a compact little 45.

Intelligence – “Boredom and Terror”

We’re staying local again today with another pickup out of the new arrival bin at Easy Street Records, this time with Seattle’s own Intelligence.  Apparently the band’s lead singer Lars Finberg used to work at a former Seattle music institution, Cellophane Square, the place where I cut my teeth on vinyl and amassed most of my Sub Pop records back in high school and college and which has unfortunately gone the way of the dodo, another victim of the CD and digital age.  RIP, Cellophane Square.

I’d never heard of Intelligence (insert joke here) prior to running across their 2004 debut Boredom and Terror, but their local ties and descriptions as both lo-fi and post-punk were enough to convince me trade some of my hard earned cash for their record.  Unfortunately while I thought it was cool that I found the red vinyl version of the record, what was decidedly uncool was realizing that this originally came with a CD that included 11 additional songs, which of course was nowhere to be found.  So there’s that.  But no worries because I’m pretty sure the 13 tracks on the record are more than enough for me.

Don’t take the above as a dis (at least not necessarily).  It’s just that this is some jarring and challenging music.  Lo-fi doesn’t do it justice.  The first song on side B, “The Night Belongs to Microphones,” is a perfect example of the band’s music, and sounds like an old, later era Beatles album that was being played back on a reel-to-reel tape that had probably been left out in the sun for way too long before being unceremoniously dropped into a bucket of water, in which it was then played.  The songs have that kind of warped quality with repetitive, sharp beats many of which are almost certainly drum machine generated and that would probably make for a seriously bad acid trip.

My favorite two tracks bookend the album.  The side A opener “The World is a Drag” is defined by it’s chorus of “Who gives a fuck if the world is a drag?” while the side B closer “Weekends in Jail” is by far the catchiest and poppiest on the record, sounding very much like a 60s garage pop song.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Spellers and Counters,” an insistent, incessant number that made me what to jam a screwdriver in my ear, which is not what you’re looking for in your music.

I doubt this one will get a lot more play – it’s interesting, but not terribly appealing other than a few tracks, and even then only in small doses.

The Blackouts – “Men in Motion”

Seattle hasn’t always had a reputation for being a music mecca.  In the pre-grunge years the city often found it difficult to even get bands on national tours to make a stop here, and the scene was made up of lots of bar cover bands much like the situation in the UK that helped kick off the punk scene there.  Seattle’s popular music claims to fame were limited to the garage sound of the Sonics, the surf sounds of the Ventures, Jimi Hendrix, Heart, and Kenny G.  And to be accurate, the Sonics and Ventures were from Tacoma, not Seattle, and as for Kenny G… the more that’s left unsaid, the better.  So we’re pretty much talking about Hendrix and Heart on the national radar over the course of maybe 30 years or so.  Yeah, there were a few others, but if you asked anyone in another part of the country to name a pop/rock performer or band from Seattle, that’s probably all you’d get until around the mid 1980s.

One of the bands that tried to break out of the gloomy bar cover scene was the Blackouts. Formed from the ashes of the punk band The Telepaths in 1979, the band navigated out of the punk sound and into post-punk and proto new wave (I’ve seen them described as no wave as well) with a more disjointed sound and the incorporation of synths and a saxophone.  Following their 1979 debut 7″, Men in Motion was the band’s first EP, a four-song 12″ released in 1980 and a sort of underground cult Seattle classic.  They lasted another two years in the city, releasing one more 7″ and contributing a track (“Young Man”) to the Seattle Syndrome Volume One compilation, before relocating to Boston and finally disbanding in the mid 1980s when some members joined Ministry.

Men in Motion certainly has a non-traditional sound to it.  Some of the percussive sounds on side A don’t sound like they come from drums, more like blocks of wood, while a lot of the guitar is more feedback than playing.  The bass lines provide the most stable, standard musical structure to the songs, and the regular drum sounds are pretty straight forward as well.  What does all this sound like?  I don’t know.  Probably a little like a less frenetic Oingo Boingo, with a dash of early Cars, and maybe just a touch of Purrkur Pillnikk.  “Being Be” on Side B seems to come closest to hitting the early new wave sound with it’s prominent synths and David Bowie-esque vocal sounds, but with a bit of a funk bass line, and it’s my favorite track on the record.

When I listen to post-punk records like Men in Motion I have to keep my focus.  It’s too easy to view the sound as a transition between the more widely popular punk and new wave genres, but that sells it short.  Post-punk was an important genre in its own right, and though the often disjoined and experimental sounds that emanated from that 1979-1982 period can be challenging to listen to, there were a lot of new ideas being explored on those albums.  Some of them were relegated to the dustbin of musical history (and rightfully so, in some cases), others were the genesis of the new wave sound, and a handful existed only in this time and were important in their own rights.  The Blackouts and Men in Motion were more than just a transitional step on the way to grunge.  They were trendsetters who took the first steps to break out of the stagnant mold of the local music scene and deserve recognition for that.

 

Flower Travellin’ Band

I’ve had very little exposure to Japanese rock and pop music.  Americans are quick to look to Europe for trends in music and bands to adore, but seldom do we look to “the East” and it’s not often that an Asian band or performer breaks through other than for a one-off like Psy and his meme-like “Gingham Style.”  That being said, a handful of Japanese artists have made it to the pages of the blog including the 5.6.7.8’s, Shonen Knife, Guitar Wolf, the Plastics, and Total Fury…. damn, that’s a longer list than I was expecting, though all those records and CDs were bought within the last two years.  I can’t remember even being aware of any Japanese bands prior to that.

A month or so ago I was searching Amazon for some music books to read and I ran across Julian Cope’s relatively new (2007) book Japrocksampler, and it seemed like a good primer into the rise of rock music in Japan through the 1970s, so I ordered it.  The 302 page hardback is a pretty good read and it appears, at least to a Japanese music novice like me, that Cope has not only done his homework but also listened to a ton of these albums from the late 1960s through the 1970s.  If you read the reviews of the book online you’ll find that Cope certainly has his detractors; but that’s they way it is.  I’m sure his book isn’t perfect and there are some mistakes here and there, but I’m not aware of anything else like it.  Cope gives us a bit of the history of popular music in Japan post-World War II, then focuses his attention on some specific bands before finally giving us his personal Top 50 Japanese rock albums of the psych era.

TANGENT! –>  I have to admit I’m not entirely comfortable with the title of Cope’s book, having long been taught that the term “Jap” is offensive and racist, something I may even be more sensitive to being that I’ve spent well over half my life in the northwest where we have a substantial Asian population.  To be fair to Cope, he also put out a seminal book (I believe in the 90s) called Krautrocksampler about the rise of the German electronic scene. Kraut is kind of questionable term when used to refer to German people… though I really have no idea if anyone actually finds it offensive or not, and frankly I’m not sure anyone even uses it any more.  That being said, “krautrock” is an actual musical genre much like punk or grunge and it exists in the common lexicon… though I don’t think the same is true of “japrock.”  We’ve got J-Pop, but that’s about as close as it gets, at least as far as I know.  Anyway, you can decide for yourself how you feel about the book’s title.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, probably the most captivating bands to me over the course of reading Japrocksampler were Les Rallizes Dénudés and Flower Travellin’ Band. Les Rallizes seemed more interesting due to their style and flat-out weirdness, but Flower Travellin’ Band sounded like they had some cool stuff going on so I decided to see if I could find any of their albums online.  eBay yielded some vinyl re-releases and I pretty much narrowed myself down to Anywhere and Satori, both of which were available for around $30-35 each… or I could get them on CD for less than $15 apiece.  Dammit!  I wanted the vinyl, but at the end of the day my frugal side took over, especially since I didn’t know for sure how much I’d like this stuff, so I went ahead and ordered the CDs, saving myself around $40 in the process.  Mind you, had I found these on vinyl at my local indie record store I probably would have bought the records instead because, remember kids, you have to support your local indie record store!  If you don’t, you’ll find yourself sitting around bitching about how you don’t have any good local indie shops to go to because they went out of business.  Buy local and shop indie.

Flower Travellin’ Band first came together around 1968 as part of the resistance to the pre-packaged, manufacturedness of the Group Sound bands in Japan.  Group Sound bands usually had all the members dressing exactly the same, much like a lot of American and British bands were doing earlier in the decade, and often performed covers.  There was a movement away from this commoditized music towards more free-form style that, while still highly derivative from American and European influences and featuring lots of covers, ensured that the artists would fall well outside the Japanese popular culture mainstream.

Cope ranked Flower Travellin’ Band’s 1970 album Anywhere #28 in his personal Top 50.  Technically six songs, the first and last are simply short (less than a minute each) intro/outro harmonica pieces and nothing more.  The core four songs are actually all covers:  “Louisiana Blues” (Muddy Waters), “Black Sabbath” (Black Sabbath), “House of the Rising Sun” (various), and “21st Century Schizoid Man” (King Crimson).  But don’t be fooled and think these are just straight covers, because they’re not; Flower Travellin’ Band puts their own spin on all of them, stretching them out into much longer versions than the originals with “Louisiana Blues” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” each lasting longer than 13 minutes, so really your six songs give you over 47 minutes of music.

And what music!  Holy crap this is some good stuff!  As Cope notes in his review:

It’s a dead cert that those who dismiss the Flower debut as a covers
album have never heard it, only heard about it.  For its grooves contain
such monstrous modifications that each track leaves the starting block a
full metre lower than the hoary jalopy originals, a Ferrari where once
was a Ford.  
(p. 270)

Nowhere is this monstrousness more evident than in the clover of “Black Sabbath,” which is hard describe as a Ferrari since it’s soooo sloooowwwww… a slow, plodding, doomed dirge of heaviness and darkness and apprehension and dread.  Joe Yamanaka has the perfect voice for pulling off this song with his high pitch that is very reminiscent of Ozzy himself.  The band made some great choices in picking these tracks as they’re all songs that fit Yamanaka’s plaintive vocal style.  Hideki Ishima’s guitar work drives all of the songs and it’s easy to hear his influences – late 1960s guitar gods like Clapton, Page, and Iommi – with long stretches dedicated to showcasing his skills with the axe.  His slow intro to “House of the Rising Sun” will actually make you think for a moment that he’s covering “Stairway to Heaven”… a song that wouldn’t be released for another year.  Add in Yamanaka’s slow wail and you have a piece that is best defined as desperate, almost painful.  The bottom line is this album kicks ass and you need to listen to it if you like late 60s/early 70s era hard rock.

As for Satori, Cope puts this 1971 release at the very top of his list of favorites (tied with Speed, Glue, & Shinki’s Eve).  It’s a more difficult album to approach for the novice, since while Anywhere offered at least a familiar framework with its covers of well-know, established rock tracks, the five tracks on Satori (all simply named sequentially – “Satori, Pt. 1,” “Satori, Pt. 2,” etc.) are all originals and a lot more difficult to pin down.  What does appear apparent, to me at least, is that while Yamanaka’s singing continues to be heavily influenced by Ozzy, it sounds like he’s been listening to a ton of Led Zeppelin III as well, particularly “Immigrant Song.”  Satori reminds me of what some type of hybrid between Black Sabbath, Cream, and Led Zeppelin would sound like if fronted by Robert Plant singing with a Japanese accent (to be clear, the vocals are all in English) who also plays a mean harmonica.

The songs are all fairly long, ranging from 5:25 to just over 11 minutes, and the longer tracks in particular have a tendency to move into some long sort of hypnotic instrumental sections reminiscent of “Kashmir,” a song that usually puts me into a trance and makes a good three or four minutes of my life completely disappear before I snap out of it.  A couple of times these sections go on for just a bit too long and I started to find them grating and annoying, but usually within about 30 seconds of that feeling coming on the pattern broke loose into something different.  The song structures are very loose and they sort of meander in and out of different styles.

I’ve got to say that overall I’m impressed with both of these albums, having just received them yesterday afternoon and already listening to each all the way through twice.  Personally I’d recommend checking out Anywhere first, unless you’re already way into prog and psych, in which case you’re probably more likely to be able to appreciate Satori right out of the gate.