RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: XX

(LEGACY/EPIC/SONY; 2012)

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If there is one thing that can be said about the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album, it is this: It is impressive. Impressive and awesome. Hmm… now, wait a minute. Let’s start over. There are two words that can describe the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. Those words are impressive, awesome and comprehensive. Aawww, shoot! There are several words that can be used to describe the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. Among those words are impressive, awesome, comprehensive and essential.

Enough of that, huh? I mean, nobody expects a Monty Pythonesque review of one of the seminal albums in the realm of rap-metal. Check that – Rage Against the Machine’s first record is THE seminal album of the then new genre of rap-metal. The politically charged lyrics of Zack de La Rocha and the unique guitar sound and phrasing of Tom Morello gave new meaning to the word “intense.” The imaginative yet rock-steady rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Timmy C (Commerford) provide a bottom you could caulk boats with. Well, then! Using the four words in the previous paragraph, let’s take a look at this set, shall we?

Rage Against the Machine (uncredited photo)

Rage Against the Machine (uncredited photo)

First, impressive. This is where the music is discussed. From the opening track, “Bombtrack,” it is quite obvious that we are listening to something special. For a band with less than a year under their collective belts as a working unit, that is impressive! “Killing In the Name” follows. This is, quite literally, the track that put Rage on the map and in heavy rotation on alternative radio stations and MTV. This riff-heavy tune along with others like “Bullet In the Head,” “Wake Up,” and “Freedom” gives a nod to the band’s forefathers (stylistically, if not lyrically), Black Sabbath. Morello strangles sounds from his guitar that will have you checking the credits for the name of the guy playing the synthesizer. His rhythm work mimics the bass line (and vise versa), blurring the line between the two, much like the interaction between Tony Iommi and Terry “Geezer” Butler. Brad Wilk has a jazzy sensibility that belies the music’s style, much like – again – Sabbath’s Bill Ward. Of course, Zack de La Rocha, is like nothing before – a seething, venom-filled voclist who wears his convictions like a badge. When you add all of this up, what else can you call it but… impressive?

And, so, we move on to awesome. This is where we discuss the breadth (if not the size, which we’ll get to next) of the material here-enclosed. I think that the awesome aspects of this release can be best exemplified by a DVD feature. A camera was rolling as Rage Against the Machine made their public debut on October 23, 1991 on the campus of Cal State, North Ridge. As the band works into “Killing In the Name,” you can see a couple of people milling about; by the time they finish with the second song, “Take the Power Back,” the crowd is growing. As we realize that this group of individuals have been together for just a handful of months, the power and scope of what they’re doing is mind-boggling. Now, you aren’t gonna watch this video for innovative camera angles or production value. You get one camera that appears to be mounted somewhere close to the soundboard. You also get 20 year old technology, a video shot on analog tape. You will, however, watch for the historic significance of the performance, as well as the music, which is fully formed at a very early stage. Take some of the best cuts from the debut album, toss in a few lesser known tunes (“Darkness of Greed” and “Clear the Lane” from the English 12” of KILLING IN THE NAME; “Autologic,” a song from the group’s demo tape; “Hit the Deck,” which I can’t find on any other official release) and a Clash cover (“Clampdown”) and this 52-minute piece of video alone makes this package – if not indispensable – awesome!

Tom Morello (Max Whittaker-Getty Images)

Tom Morello (photo credit: MAX WHITTAKER-GETTY IMAGES)

Up next, we have comprehensive. At this point, we’re gonna talk about the packaging. First off, the “official” name of this reissue is XX, which is Super-Bowlese (or Wrestlemanian, if you rather) for TWENTY. Somewhat fitting for a 20th Anniversary issue, wouldn’t you agree? Now… here’s what you’re getting: One CD with original album (including the three track live bonus EP that was offered with some versions of the 1992 vinyl); another CD of demos, originally given away free at early, pre-record deal Rage shows; a DVD featuring a live show recorded in London on June 6, 2010 along with 12 videos spanning the band’s first eight years (4 of which are either unreleased or are officially available for the first time) and live material from a 1997 compilation; a second DVD which features video of the band’s first public performance in 1991 and 10 more live videos from 1992-94, recorded at various venues. If that’s not enough, you’ve got a vinyl copy of the album, complete with lyrics and that famous 1963 cover photo of the Buddhist Monk who immolated himself in Saigon to protest the Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. There’s also a 40 page booklet with plenty of pictures, lyrics and an essay by someone who knows a bit about the power of music and politics, Chuck D. Toss in a large 2-sided poster, a postcard and other ephemera and you definitely have something that is… comprehensive!

Rage Against the Machine (Max Whittaker-Getty Images)

Rage Against the Machine (photo credit: MAX WHITTAKER-GETTY IMAGES)

Finally, we get to essential. Well… that’s an easy one. The original 10-track album alone is an essential piece to any music collection. Add to that all of the extras discussed above and a gloriously remastered sound for that original release and you have one of this (or any) year’s essential music purchases. By the way, if you’re not into all of that extra stuff (or if you don’t wanna shell out $100 for the full monty), there are two “smaller” versions of this release: one that features just the 2 CDs and a bonus DVD with six videos from the larger package and one that offers just the first CD (the original album and three bonus tracks).


GREG LAKE: SONGS OF A LIFETIME

(ESOTERIC ANTENNA/MANTICORE/CHERRY RED; 2013)

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I’m not sure how I feel about this album. I mean, this is the guy that sang one of the all-time great metal anthems (though, I’m sure Robert Fripp will shortly have a price out on my head for saying that), “21st Century Schizoid Man!” This is the “L” in not one, but two, ELPs! This is the man who replaced John Wetton in Asia for a six-show tour of… uh… Asia! Greg Lake is a musician of some considerable skill, on both acoustic and electric guitar, as well as his chosen instrument, the bass guitar. He also possesses one of the silkiest voices in rock, with a rich, resonant baritone that is as forceful as it is smooth. So, you say, “Alright! Enough already! We get it… Greg Lake is good! You like Greg Lake! Now, what about SONGS OF A LIFETIME?”

SONGS OF A LIFETIME, prompted by work on his biography, was recorded during Lake’s 2012 solo tour of the same name. When I say “solo tour,” I mean “solo,” as in on his own. No one else on stage with him. At this point, you might be wondering how such bombast as “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two,” the above-mentioned “21st Century Schizoid Man,” and “Touch and Go” sound with just a voice and an acoustic guitar (after all, that is the way most of these “solo” things are done, right?). Well… surprisingly full! Mister Lake wanted an intimate evening without the hindrance of a band onstage while he reminisced. He also wanted to give the listener a full concert experience. C’mon… we are talking about the Greg Lake from King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and, briefly, Powell). Even the soft, acoustic stuff from those groups was noisy! So, what to do? Why, take certain elements from the songs he would be performing, add new parts to make it sound close to the original, then flesh it out with his vocals performed live along with either the bass, electric or acoustic guitar and – if I’m not mistaken – piano on at least one tune. Don’t get me wrong! The sound and the performance are top-notch. It just leaves me feeling a slight bit cheated. While this type of show with these kinds of playback are nothing new, they don’t lend themselves to any spontaneity or interaction between musicians. They are almost too precise. In fact, for a little bit, I thought that I was listening to new studio recordings of some of Greg’s greatest hits.

Greg Lake (Lee Millward-GRTR)

Greg Lake (photo credit: LEE MILLWARD-GRTR)

Also, while I found his stories entertaining and somewhat enlightening as to the inner workings of a 50 year veteran of the music industry and a man who was a part of two of the most well respected rock bands of the past 45 years, I also found them rather strained, a little forced and more than a tad over-rehearsed. You just wanna say, “Geez, Greg! Lighten up, huh?” Okay… enough of the negatives, huh? While I did find them initially off-putting, they really did not hinder my enjoyment of the whole package. Lake was in fine voice for these recordings, sounding more like the 30 year-old version of himself than the well-traveled 64-year old version (his age when these shows were recorded). Also, while I would have liked to have seen (or, more precisely, heard) a few different tunes, especially from his Emerson, Lake and Palmer days (“Benny the Bouncer” from BRAIN SALAD SURGERY immediately comes to mind), the four Crimson tracks are solid enough and there’s enough good ELPalmer (the already-alluded-to “Karn Evil 9” piece, “Still… You Turn Me On” from the same excellent album, and the ubiquitous “Lucky Man” among them) and ELPowell (“Touch and Go”) to keep me happy. The fact that Greg also tosses in a nice grouping of songs that influenced his music and his career amounts to icing on a very tasty cake! As, apparently, every musician who ever picked up an instrument after 1956 or so is influenced by Elvis Presley, we are presented with a story and a song – “Heartbreak Hotel.” More understandable – to me anyway – is the influential aspects of the Beatles. Lake’s version “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” is spot-on and fairly awesome. The final “cover” is a little less immediately obvious for a progressive rock icon: the beautiful and oft-covered Curtis Mayfield tune,“People Get Ready.”

Okay, then… bottom line time, right? Can I recommend that you go out and procure (by any LEGAL means) Greg Lake’s SONGS OF A LIFETIME, considering some of my early qualms? Absolutely! Taken as a whole and considering the obvious thought and work that went into constructing this musical biography, the pluses far outweigh a couple of relatively minor minuses (that wasn’t a double negative there, was it?). This album is well worth adding to your collection.


JUDAS PRIEST: SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE (SPECIAL 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION)

(LEGACY/SONY; 2012)

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Until quite recently, I owned very few Judas Priest albums: SAD WINGS OF DESTINY and SIN AFTER SIN epitomizes the Priest for me… both are excellent; the unfortunate debut, ROCKA ROLLA, which was given to me as a gift; the killer live album, UNLEASHED IN THE EAST. Somewhere along the way I picked up PRIEST… LIVE, which was a little bit of okay. Then… nothing until 1997’s JUGULATOR, which introduced the world to Rob Halford’s replacement, Tim “Ripper” Owens… not a bad album, really, though it got the short shrift from Priest fans. The “Ripper” era band also produced a live set called ’98 LIVE MELTDOWN.

Now, of course, with Halford back and with the record labels reissuing just about anything, a couple of 30th Anniversary editions have cropped up, BRITISH STEEL and, more recently, this album, SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE. I think Priest fell out of favor for me with the album HELL BENT FOR LEATHER (or KILLING MACHINE, everywhere but in the States). Didn’t like the cover (either one, actually) and didn’t like the song “Hell Bent For Leather.” I did, as mentioned, come back for the UNLEASHED IN THE EAST album, but, by then, the band had veered further into the realms of MTV pop for me (yeah… I know… sacrilege! The very same crap that made Priest superstars made me wanna puke!). But I digress… kinda. I will get to the point of this review, which is the double disc SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE reissue (a CD with extra live tracks and a DVD of a live set from the ensuing tour), somewhere around the next paragraph.

Judas Priest (uncredited photo)

Judas Priest (uncredited photo)

And, so… here we are, 30 years later with an album that is beloved by every metal-head on the planet… except me. But, I have done my due diligence and listened to the thing again so I could be objective. And, you know what? It ain’t as bad as I thought back then. It ain’t no SAD WINGS… and definitely ain’t on a par with SIN AFTER SIN, but I can listen to most of it today without becoming nauseous. Tracks like “Bloodstone,” “Pain and Pleasure,” “Devil’s Child” and the title song hold up fairly well after 30 years, while the big hit, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” still sounds like New Kids On the Block to me. The “ballads,” “(Take These) Chains,” “Fever,” and the aforementioned “Pain and Pleasure,” are exactly what you’d expect from a heavy metal band during the early ’80s. Actually, under the steady hands of the Priest, they’re a tick or two above the generic “power ballads” of the day.

Halford’s vocal acrobatics hadn’t lost their edge (still haven’t today, as far as I can tell); the riffage and dual leads of guitarists KK Downing and Glenn Tipton are sharp throughout and the rhythm section of drummer Dave Holland and bassist Ian Hill – while not spectacular – are rock solid. The production, by Tom Allom, is crisp and very much of the time: a big drum sound and everything shined to perfection. Of course, even my favorite mid-’70s Priest albums were very well produced, eschewing the muddied sound that befell many metal records of that time, so the above statement isn’t a negative, just a fact.

Judas Priest (publicity photo)

Judas Priest (publicity photo)

Of course, what would an “Anniversary Edition” be without extras? Why… certainly nothing special (although there are some instances where even WITH the bonus material, the product is still nothing special). To fill out the original album’s less than 40 minute length, the CD has been expanded by six tracks, 5 live and 1 that I can only assume was recorded for use on the album or for a single B-side (I can’t find any information about that one anywhere!). The five live songs are SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE tunes that really add nothing to the originals, per se. I guess, from my perspective, the really cool thing about them is that they were recorded on September 10, 1982 (which happened to be my 24th birthday) at the San Antonio Civic Center (which just happens to be my home address… oops! That’s not right! What I meant to say is, “which just happens to be nowhere near where I was on that day”). The final cut is a ballady thing called “Prisoner of Your Eyes.” It’s kinda okay, but if it is an outtake, I can understand why: nothing spectacular or even particularly special. If it had turned up as a B-side somewhere, I don’t think people would have burned their copy of the record, but it may not have been played as often as some other minor Priest songs.

The second disc (aw, c’mon… you knew there’d be a second disc, right? I mean… there’s always a second disc!) is a DVD of the band’s full appearance at the Us Festival on May 29,1983. You remember the Us Fests, don’t you? Two holiday weekends of peace, love and drunken revelry that was supposed to bring the world together for a big ol’ bear-hug and a sloppy wet kiss to say, “I love ya, man!” So… anyway, the things were filmed by people who had no idea how to film a rock show. Throughout this performance, we get shots of Ian Hill’s back as Glenn Tipton shreds an awesome solo; then it’s off to a picture of Tipton’s guitar neck while KK Downing is soloing like a madman on the other end of the stage. And let’s not forget shots with the security guards blotting out everyone on stage or the crazy panning while they try to locate Halford as he comes onstage. Shouldn’t they have had production notes about such things? As far as the boys, themselves, there’s enough shiny spandex and studded leather to make Vince Neil and a whole herd of cows envious!

Rob Halford and Friend, Us Festival 1983 (uncredited photo)

Rob Halford and Friend, Us Festival 1983 (uncredited photo)

But enough about dubious wardrobe choices and the amateur-in-training visual aspects of the thing, how does it sound? Hmm… not perfect, but not bad. Not bad, at all. Halford proves early on that he owns one of the greatest voices in music (pick a genre, any genre) and, as mentioned regarding the studio recordings, Downing and Tipton play together and off each other superbly. Hill and Dave Holland may be boring to watch – especially the latter – but they keep the rest of the boys moving with a solid bottom-end. Set-wise, we understandably get a hefty dose of the then-current SCREAMING… album, a couple of my favorite Priest tunes (“Victim of Changes” and “Metal Gods”), two of the best covers I’ve ever heard (“Diamonds and Rust” and “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”) and all of their NKOTB tracks (“Heading Out To the Highway,” “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”). In a curious occurrence (maybe just to cement my New Kids digs), Rob Halford actually morphs into Madonna during “ …Another Thing… “ as he strikes one ridiculous pose after another. Even with all of the little (or medium-big) complaints, I did fairly enjoy watching one of the biggest metal bands of any era at the height of their popularity and, arguably, at the top of their game. If you’ve gotta own one CD version of SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE, make it this one!


THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY; MAKEUP TO BREAKUP: MY LIFE IN AND OUT OF KISS

(Fred Kaplan; 655 pages; DOUBLEDAY, 2003); (Peter Criss and Larry Sloman; 384 pages; SCRIBNER, 2012)

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One may ask (and rightly so), why are two such disparate (auto)biographies lumped together in one review? Well…

Short answer: These are actually the last two non-fiction books that I have read. Essay answer: I feel that, no matter how intriguing your subject matter (in Criss’ case, himself), at some point in the writing process, you’ve just gotta say, “Enough is enough!” In both instances, the story would have been much more enjoyable (and manageable) with… less! I mean, do you really care that on Clemens/Twain’s 63rd birthday, he was blessed with a healthy bowel movement? Yeah… okay… I’m exaggerating, but not by much. In the case of MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, a shaving (or, at the very least, a condensing) of a chapter or two wouldn’t have hurt. As far as Kaplan’s… uh… exhaustive (exhausting?) biography of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, shaving a couple hundred pages of minutia certainly would have made MY reading experience more enjoyable! His “no-stone-unturned” approach, while commendable, is fairly daunting. I mean, c’mon… in these hard economic times, everybody’s cutting back. Why not here?

Does that mean that I hated these books? No. Not really. At least, not completely. However, considering that I generally can read a couple of fair sized books in a week, the fact that it took over two MONTHS to complete THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN, certainly doesn’t appear that it will be on my list of favorites or list of “re-reads.” Mister Kaplan’s thorough examination of perhaps the first true rock star of American literature comes off as dry and just a little foreboding to the ordinary reader. Once you get past the 655 pages of minutia, there’s still another 70 pages of notes and an index to further dissect the information (if more you must have)! I have only found one book impossible to get through, even though I’ve tried on several occasions, but this one sorely tried my patience. I would be lying, however, if I told you that I didn’t learn anything about the irascible humorist. His early allegiance to the South during the Civil War and his beliefs regarding slavery, while well-known, nonetheless came as a surprise as to the depths of both. The support Clemens offered his older brother, Orion, and the loathing that he harbored toward that same brother as a result was also unknown to me. There is an indication that he felt the same way about the rest of his family, as well, including his much-loved mother. As much as he doted on his wife, Livy, and their three daughters, he also spent much of his time away from them, not caring to be bothered by the intricacies of a family life.

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

The struggles of the man Samuel Clemens to rectify his life and short-comings with the mythical Mark Twain and his celebrity are, as they say, the stuff of legend. But even a legendary life can surely be summarized in a more concise, entertaining form than is offered in Fred Kaplan’s THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN. Mister Kaplan is also the author of biographies on Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, among others. I mention those two because I was very interested in seeking them out, but after sinking chest deep into the morass of this book, I think I’ll look for other options regarding the life of those two.

Mark Twain (uncredited photo) Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

Mark Twain (uncredited photo); Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

I think that, like many others, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Peter Criss. At the height of KISS’ career, he seemed to be the most together guy in the band. When he fell from grace, I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. After reading his tell-all autobiography, MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, I still feel for the Cat. Not because he was wronged by band mates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, but because he was wrong in many instances himself and refuses to take responsibility. His cavalier attitude toward his sexual conquests collide head-on with his derision of Simmons’ and guitarist Ace Frehley’s sexual proclivities. He complains about Gene and Paul being all about the money, but he doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his abandoning his band, Criss, for the high-profile, high-profit KISS reunion tour in 1996 and quitting the band again – and turning his back on his one true friend in the group, Ace – when he discovered that Frehley was making more than he was per show. He attacks both current drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer for wearing the Cat and Space-Ace make-up when both he and Frehley signed their rights to the make-up over to the KISS corporate body (in other words, Gene and Paul) for a few thousand dollars. He spends paragraphs discussing how betrayed he felt by his second wife when he discovered that she was having an affair, but shows little or no remorse for the fact that he was having sex with two or three women every night on the road; to say that’s expected because he’s in a rock band just doesn’t cut it! My point is, we all make mistakes; it’s what we learn from our mistakes that matter. Unfortunately, for Peter Criss, all he’s learned is avoidance of guilt and buck-passing.

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

 

Now, like the Clemens/Twain book, there are some enjoyable – even uplifting – moments (actually, more here than there). In particular, Criss’ wife Gigi’s fight with breast cancer and the ultimate revelation that he, too, had breast cancer was a wake-up call to everyone, males included, to do a regular self-examination. There are also some moments that could have been condensed (or cut completely!). Just about every person who reads this book is a KISS fan; they wanna know about Peter’s time in what was once the biggest band on the planet. As such, the first three chapters or so of the book (BK: Before KISS) could be cut down to one shorter, introductory chapter. The constant and continual references to dicks, titties, pussy and sexual gratification in its many forms get tiresome unless you’re a ten year old boy. Okay, Peter… we get it! You were a big rock star! The overwrought bashing of just about everyone who has ever been in Peter’s life tends to make this more of a “oh-woe-is-me” book as opposed to a tell-all. Manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records owner Neil Bogart went above and beyond, financing the band and molding them into the juggernaut they became after the release of ALIVE in 1975, but one perceived slight from Peter Criss and they were finished in his mind. He never trusted them again and they became cannon-fodder in MAKEUP TO BREAKUP.

I have very fond memories of KISS and Peter Criss from their heyday in the ’70s. His raspy, Rod Stewart-like vocals were always a welcome surprise and his drum solo during “100,000 Years” on ALIVE is testament to his talents (and to his adoration of drum legend Gene Krupa). This book, though, leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth. (DT)


ANIMAL KINGDOM: THE LOOKING AWAY

(MOM AND POP RECORDS; 2012)

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The lead single to the new Animal Kingdom album, “Get Away With It,” suckered me in and, as I’d read nice things about the band, I thought… “Why Not?” Well… hows’bout I am not a little girl or an old woman or an emotionally fragile 20-something in need of a hug?

The album’s lead track, “The Wave,” actually had me thinking that I was in for a real treat! With “Get Away With It” (and how apt a title that proved to be) up next, I was really starting to get into THE LOOKING AWAY! Song number three, “Strange Attractor,” had a freaky, cloying vibe – kinda like that annoying Bruno Mars song (pick one, they all pretty much fit the bill). Still, it was only one song out of three, right? But “Straw Man” was worse! However, I was bound and determined to stick this thing out and find the good hiding amongst the goo! “Skipping Disc” and “Glass House” had me checking to make sure someone hadn’t slipped me a mickey in the form of that twit, the Bieb. “No,” I thought, “That can’t be it. Even the Bieb has more balls than this!” I’m fairly certain that somewhere toward the middle of “Glass House,” I started to lactate. I managed to make it through “The Art of Tuning Out,” something which I became adept at early on in the tune.

Even if I was concerned about looking hip and “with it,” there is absolutely no way on earth that I would ever sink low enough to listen to THE LOOKING AWAY again! Besides, I thought the government outlawed this kind of torture.


NECESSITY IS (THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION)

(Billy James; 223 pages; SAF Publishing; 2001, Revised 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

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Pieced together from various interviews with early band-mates conducted and compiled by the author, NECESSITY IS delves into the psyche of one of the true musical geniuses of the past half-century (maybe the only one, in fact): Frank Vincent Zappa. Mister James (a musician himself, who has worked with many of the Mothers quoted) is obviously a fan, and that’s alright. Really, unless an author wishes simply to vilify another person (or organization), why would he write about someone he wasn’t a fan of? It’s obvious, as well, that most of the gentlemen interviewed were/are fans of Frank and remained in contact with him until his death in 1993. That doesn’t mean that every quote or remembrance is pleasant. As is the case with many struggling bands (especially one with a dominant figure like Zappa), disagreements – and downright vicious fights – arose. The early Mothers (1964-1971) was a revolving door of jazz, rock, and avant-garde musicians, all struggling to be heard over (through?) the mayhem orchestrated by composer/arranger/guitarist Zappa.

The Mothers of Invention

The Mothers of Invention

Zappa was known as a task-master and this book confirms that estimation. Many of the quotes from original drummer Jimmy Carl Black, keyboardist/electronics genius Don Preston, multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, and others relay (sometimes humorously) the love/hate relationship between the band and Zappa. Indeed, as Frank’s dominance and creative genius materialized, the original core group – the band who recorded the first album, FREAK OUT (1966) – of drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, vocalist Ray Collins, and guitarist Elliot Ingber were either forced to take a back seat to more “advanced” musicians (those who could read music, like Gardner, Preston and Ian Underwood) or asked to leave the group. In the case of Ingber, the first to be ousted from the band, a predilection for drugs was his downfall (highlighting Zappa’s strong anti-drug stance and no nonsense approach to his leadership role, Ray Collins remembers, “…He maybe smoked a little bit too much.” in regards to Ingber’s “drug abuse” and subsequent dismissal from the band). Ingber famously became a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, as Winged Eel Fingerling. Ray Collins seemed to wander in and out of the group, as he and Zappa butted heads or he would become disillusioned by the direction Frank was taking the band. Another problem, apparently, was money. Zappa had the group on a rigorous rehearsal schedule – several hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included – for which there was no pay. Frank and manager Herb Cohen had a habit of funneling money from paying gigs back into the organization, promising an eventual big payday for the band.

All of this information, including background and history on the individual Mothers, comes in the first chapter of the book. Rather than rewrite the book here and now, I’ll leave you to imagine, from the above capsule, the breadth and scope of NECESSITY IS as Billy James takes you through the late ’60s, the infighting and insanity of the original group, the later versions of the band with Aynsley Dunbar, Mark Vohlman and Howard Kaylan, the frightening and life-changing on-stage attack by a fan in London that crushed Zappa’s larynx and left him in a cast for a year, and, inevitably to the dissolution of the Mothers in 1971. James also goes into extensive detail regarding the lives of the principal figures after “Motherhood.” Late in the book, there is an extensive section quoting an interview with Zappa that supplies his side of the Mothers’ story, which does soften and enlighten the reader’s previous views of the dictatorial band leader. As is true in any disagreement between two (or several) people, you can probably temper both sides a bit, meet somewhere in the middle and come up with your own ideas about what really happened.

Mother Frank

Mother Frank

Mister James, while not an absolute master wordsmith, has produced a highly enjoyable and easily read book, covering the early history of one of the most infamous and influential bands of the rock era. With an extensive “Where Are They Now?” section, an exhaustive discography of everyone who was a part of the Mothers (including design artist Cal Schenkel) during the period covered in the book, a tour history through 1972, and a well-documented list of source materials, James has given us a history of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that should be read (and owned) by every music lover on the planet. (DT)


ANT-BEE: LUNAR MUZIK

(DIVINE RECORDS, UK; 1997) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS (UPDATE BELOW)

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The entity known far and wide (and just around the corner) as Ant-Bee is actually a mad genius named Billy James, who has managed to cozy up to an unimaginable group of rock stars, including Gong’s Daevid Allen, every member of the original Alice Cooper with a name other than Alice Cooper (including the late Glen Buxton), and a slue of ex-Zappa sidemen who occasionally go by the name “Grandmothers” (Bunk Gardner, Motorhead Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, and Don Preston, among others). James himself is sort of a rock everyman: He plays drums, guitar, keyboards, bass; he writes… music and books (he’s written or co-written books about/with Peter Banks, Michael Bruce, Grand Funk Railroad, and – his latest – Todd Rundgren); he produces and, occasionally, he slices and dices (just like Sean “P. Doh-Wah Diddy-Daddy” Combs, only with talent); he promotes other musician’s releases. And, regardless of the involvement of the ex-Mothers, he has a definite Frank Zappa sensibility toward songwriting, production, and arrangement. Listen, for instance, to the album’s opener, “Snorks and Wheezes,” with its bizarre time changes, obtuse vocals in a psuedo-doo-wop middle section, and Ruth Underwood-style percussion, and tell me that you are not having a late ’60s-early ’70s Mothers flashback.

“Child of the Moon” is a pretty straight take on the old Jagger-Richard B-side, with some nice orchestration and vocals. It also features some nice acoustic work. Later, James and his uber-minions give the same treatment to Mike Nesmith’s amazing psychedelic country hit, “Love Is Only Sleeping.” There’s a wicked guitar solo – performed by Roy Herman – that weaves its way throughout “Love Is Only Sleeping,” adding to the overall psychedelic feel of the tune. Again, like Zappa, compositions/ideas tend to run together. The triptych nestled between “Child of the Moon” and “Love Is Only Sleeping” wanders between lunatic rave-ups (with a couple of wild backward guitar solos – which always seem to sound more impressive than they probably are – and a percussive coda repeated from “Snorks and Wheezes” on “Blew a Banana Thru the Sun”) and introspective balladry (complete with harpsicord, gongs, and lilting vocals on “The One Who Is Gold”) and back again (“Silicone Hump,” an ancient Don Preston piece of Turtles-esque lunacy). The album’s centerpiece, “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is a composition in four parts, encompassing Harvey Bainbridge’s (he of Hawkwind fame) “The Swan and the Horseshoe” and Neal Smith’s (he of Alice Cooper fame) “The Platinum God” sandwiched between original James music. The nearly ten minute piece continues LUNAR MUZIK’s thematic make-up: Pretty, almost pastoral vocals interspersed with manic percussion and noisy rock guitar. Bainbridge’s part is an almost ambient synthesizer wash, leading back to the main theme before giving way to “The Platinum God,” which features the four ex-Coopers – Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and some trippy guitar from Glen Buxton, undoubtedly one of the last things he recorded before his death.

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

The album ends – much as it began – with songs running together, themes repeated and overlapping into each other. “Diva Gliss (Are You Sirius?),” which flows out of the final movement of “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is by Daevid Allen and features him on guitar; the tune leads – seamlessly – into “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” a return, as it were, to “By-and-By… ,” which leads into a Michael Bruce/Billy James composition called “Return of the Titanic Overture.” The piece features themes and pieces of music culled from the very first Alice Cooper album, PRETTIES FOR YOU. It, like “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” features Bruce’s guitar work. “Son of Snorks and Wheezes” closes the proceedings with an even more bizarre take on the opening track. It features most of the Grandmothers, with Jimmy Carl Black’s prominent Indian chants and attempts to extort money and beer from the producer. Boys and girls, this is the type of inspired lunacy that one could regularly expect to find in the record bins as the 1960s phased into the 1970s: Nearly virtuoso performances coupled with adventurous arrangements, melding rock with jazz, doo-wop, classical instrumentation, and big-band phrasing. Though the album has been out for awhile, it’s so hard to come by that I only recently acquired this CD-R copy from James himself and I just had to tell you about it. Oh, yeah… the album artwork is by some guy named Syd Barrett! (Check out Billy James’ “Web Bizarre” at www.ant-bee.com and, if you’re really nice to him, you may be able to pick up your very own copy of LUNAR MUZIK… before it’s too late!)

(UPDATE) Gonzo Multimedia’s reissue of LUNAR MUZIK was released in June 2014. For ordering information, check Billy’s site.


AMBROSIA PARSLEY: I MISS YOU, I DO

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2012)

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This is what Elvis (the dead, fat one) would sound like if he were a lot younger, a lot hipper, a chick and not dead. The latest from former Shivaree front-woman Ambrosia Parsley, I MISS YOU, I DO, offers a divine taste of her next full-length, WEEPING CHERRY. Listening to the five songs, it’s easy to understand why the thing was originally going to be called FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING.

The first track, “The Other Side,” features a teen-angsty ’50s kinda vibe, but with bigger drums (think Phil Specter’s Wall of Sound) and a fuzzy, tremelo-laced guitar leading the charge. Ambrosia’s sweet voice almost gets lost in the bigness of the musical backing. Nonetheless, a great opener!

A gloomy, plaintive minor key piano backs Ambrosia to start “Whispering Pines,” an elegantly doom-laden little number. Eventually, a church organ, bells, acoustic guitar and bass join in. As a male counter-vocal enters at about the 2:30 mark, the song hits a third, separate feel – somehow more crushing and claustrophobic than the first two.

Ambrosia Parsley (publicity photo)

Ambrosia Parsley (publicity photo)

Nighttime” is a duet of sorts, featuring the same male voice (sorry… wish I had names to go along with voices and instruments, but all I have is music!) from “Whispering Pines.” Even though the music (featuring guitar – both acoustic and electric, piano and eventually, drums and bass) and vocals sound breezy at the start, by the time Ambrosia sings “Get me outta here/Get me outta here/I hate it here/Get me outta here,” a phobic paranoia settles in. The creep factor is high on this one which, even at only two-and-a-half minutes long, makes it an instant favorite around here.

With more loud guitars and drums, “Losing the Holiday” offers a more “modern” feel to the proceedings. Again, Ambrosia’s vocals are nearly lost in the din during the chorus. She does shine through brightly on the verses, in which a sense of hopelessness and loneliness and a certain tired resignation are evident. The fact that these songs are presented with an almost lighthearted airiness makes the underlying tone of despondency that much more ominous. This is GOTH music without the black backdrops and eye-makeup.

The Answer (Tim and Becky’s Wedding)” is supposed to be the happy song, but with lines like “When my hands are tied and my hair’s a mess” and “There’s no chance at all, I confess/The answer’s yes,” the picture painted is of a victim succumbing to her tormentor (rapist?). The song again hearkens back to that ’50s teen drama sound (almost a doo-wop feel, except for the presence of instrumentation).

I MISS YOU, I DO has definitely whetted my appetite for more. Bring on WEEPING CHERRY!