Skip to content

Rock and Roll

STAR ZERO: EVERLASTING LOVE

(SELF-RELEASED SINGLE; 2024)

Star Zero is new band formed by five seasoned veterans from San Clemente, California. They have recently released several singles of what has been termed “Nu-Grunge” or “post-Grunge,” which is a not-unappealing melding of Grunge (generally exemplified by artists such as Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) and Nu-Metal (down-tuned-guitar based Metal acts such as (hed) PE, Deftones and Chevelle). The group, channeling the more melodic side of heavy music (Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains immediately come to mind), features Josh Paskowitz, former vocalist for the Flys (1998’s “Got You (Where I Want You)”) alongside guitarists James O’Brien and Billy Murphy, bassist Jeff “Poppy” Poppenhagen and drummer Bernie Sanchez; they are augmented live and in the studio by keyboard player Reggie King.

“Everlasting Love” is Star Zero’s latest single. The quintet continues working with producer Cameron Webb (who has helmed projects by Linkin Park and Motorhead, among others) on a full-length album. The video, as you can see, is an artful, mind-bendingly trippy ode to the Old West; the music is stunningly melodic with gargantuan, beefy guitar and Paskowitz’ incredible vocals, evoking the memories of both Layne Staley and Chris Cornell (with a little Scott Weiland thrown in for good measure). This song, along with “You” and “King Saul,” has me excited for a full-length release! Make it so, gentlemen!

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: KING CRIMSON AT 50

(DISCIPLINE GLOBAL MOBILE (86 minutes; Unrated); 2023)

In the pantheon of so-called “progressive rock” groups, you’ll always find discussion of such bands as Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd and a few other titans of technological trailblazing and trickery. Prog rock has generally been revered and reviled in equal percentages, but that’s no big deal… EVERYTHING is nowadays. Mention King Crimson, however, and I suspect there’ll often be a pause before the expected opinion is uttered. There’s always been something DIFFERENT, something hard to pin down about this Robert Fripp-led ensemble. You can’t just say ONE thing about them. Were they the makers of that outstanding classic rock platter IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, the one with the cover of an enlarged mouth gone wild and the immensely pleasing vocals by Greg Lake? The unpredictable sonic architects of challenging platters like RED? The laboratory where some of today’s finest musicians, such as Bill Bruford, Tony Levin (looking cool as heck in his segments) and Adrian Belew went IN and came OUT as changed players forever? The often tyrannical experiment waged by mad overseer Robert Fripp who expected DISCIPLINE (pun intended), tireless dedication and an impossible sort of perfection from anyone he deemed worthy enough to be part of his ongoing alchemical adventure? The answer: YES. To all of that. And as the amazing documentary IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: KING CRIMSON AT 50 makes clear, there was a lot of suffering taking place to make that art over a half-century’s duration..

“I came back from making some of that music and my hair had fallen out,” said guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew, whom most associate with one of the most fertile and memorable phases of the band, from 1981 to 2009. “It was so stressful to be under the microscope that way.”

“It could be a very bumpy… and lumpy ride,” Bill Bruford offered about his time in the band. “Some people handle being winded, and WOUNDED, better than others.”

Guitarist/vocalist Trey Gunn, part of the band from 1994-2003, provides an even more memorable quote about the KC experience. He compared being in Crimson to having a low-grade infection. “You’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well, either.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (JAMIE MUIR) (screen shot)

Much has been written about King Crimson over the course of their volatile journey, and this documentary does a good job of trying to provide perspective on a fascinating musical story. A common element in any attempt to discuss the band is coming to terms with the uncompromising vision of guitarist/leader Fripp, who, as one of the most innovative guitarists of all time, had the right to pursue his musical goals and listen to what his ego commanded. But that was not always pleasant for the players, to say the least, and Fripp himself has often said he’s not always the nicest guy in pursuit of his musical ambition. Some contributors, such as percussionist Jamie Muir, didn’t last long; his work was mostly confined to the 1973 album LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC.

“It’s a maelstrom of electricity,” he said in a clip from the film. “You’re in the middle of a storm, and you’ve got to stand in the middle of this storm and coherently play music. And a roaring, bellowing, regal animal tries to emerge out of something.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (ROBERT FRIPP AND “THE GREAT SILENCE”) (screen shot)

There are plenty of clips of performances in the doc, although maybe not as many as you might want from the early days. But it’s the honest interviews with the many fabled musicians that make the biggest impression. Some, such as drummer Bill Rieflin, are not around anymore despite a prominent presence in the movie (Rieflin died in 2020 at the age of 59). There are quite a few segments that feature Rieflin, and he’s one of the more affable commentators we see. “Urgency is one of the main characteristics of Crimson music,” he relates. We see that powerful vibe in clip after clip, and Rieflin is among those who apparently thought the relentless challenge of it all was worth it, despite the “constant pain” he was in during his last couple of years. Rieflin was quite a storied musician already, having contributed his talents to bands such as Ministry, Pigface, REM and Swans among others. He was passionate about what Crimson was doing and said he was “made for it” when asked why he stayed when it was clearly so tough. “Music can restore grace, if only for a moment, in a person’s life,” the drummer related. He could have been referring to both the players and the fans. The doc shows us numerous crowd scenes of Crimson fans, clearly enraptured, bobbing their heads or staring at the band in awe. There’s a substantial segment featuring a nun, of all people, expressing her rabid enthusiasm for the band. “It goes over most peoples’ heads,” one pundit declares. “It is quasi scientific. If you get it, you really get it. Something like magic happens. But the conditions have to be so perfect. To get there… it’s so fragile.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (ROBERT FRIPP) (screen shot)

The film does not shy away from showing how bull-headed Robert Fripp often was. He was often quick to get angry, dismissive of early incarnations of the band, and actually somewhat insulting to director Toby Amies. A long and painful moment near the end of the doc shows the director waiting eternally for Fripp to answer a reasonable question. I had to check my screen a couple of times to make sure the image hadn’t frozen… but no, it was just a long, long closeup of Fripp thinking, composing some sort of response. And one of the last scenes is a direct insult, with Fripp obviously NOT quite appreciating the inherent uncertainty of what Amies was trying to do… putting together a sprawling and ambitious doc about one of the most singular and unpredictable bands in the history of rock music. Amies makes a wise decision to feature so many players in KC’s revolving door talking about their experiences… a sense of the genuinely personal and honest comes through, from pride to abject misery at times. “I just started to hate what I was hearing,” admits Ian McDonald, a KC member only in their first incarnation. “The really dark things. I hated inflicting it on the audience.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (KING CRIMSON LIVE AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL) (photo credit: TONY LEVIN)

But as the passing of time (and the countless changes) have shown, King Crimson has a dedicated fan base, who LIKE the “dark things” and the less easily accessible elements of this wild and weird music. Fripp always has an intense look on his face in the doc, like he KNOWS that attaining musical transcendence is possible, no matter the hardships for the rest of the band (and, to be fair, HIMSELF) in trying to get there. KING CRIMSON AT 50 serves the fan base well and does a remarkably balanced job at portraying the tireless pursuit of aiming for the sonic UNKNOWN by a truly ambitious innovator and his band of (mostly) sympathetic comrades. Whatever your opinion of any phase of Crimson’s long career, this well-paced documentary is absolutely worth seeking out.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: As an aside for readers in the Saint Louis area, if you miss Crimson’s “live actions” or just want to see a really good band playing some very challenging music, there is a great tribute band called THRAK performing locally for your listening and dancing pleasure. Check out their Facebook page when you need to scratch that Crimson itch.)

TEN YEARS AND KICKING: THE INITIAL KICK INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

INITIAL KICK (Steve Ojane, Frankie Schaffer) (publicity photo)

Angel is one of my all-time favorite “progressive” rock bands. The first time I heard “Tower” on the radio, I was hooked… went out and bought the debut album immediately. While I never saw the original band live, I did see them probably twenty-five years ago, when singer Frank DiMino and drummer Barry Brandt put together a short-lived version of the band. I had given up on ever hearing from the band again when it was announced that DiMino and the band’s incendiary original guitarist, Punky Meadows, were working on new material as Angel. Not long after, I had the opportunity to see this reconstituted band play live. This new Angel line-up was more in line with what the original band sounded like. Each member of the group was a stand-out musician, but I continually found myself focusing on the bass player, one Steve E Ojane. He had that beefy, muscular sound that drove most hard rock bands of the 1970s, including Angel, particularly the albums with Mickie Jones’ replacement, Felix Robinson. Steve recorded two albums with the group, RISEN and ONCE UPON A TIME. Recently, it was announced that Felix Robinson would be returning for select shows and that other players would be filling in on bass. Ojane’s time in Angel was apparently over. On the same day that I read the news about Felix, I received a promotional download of PLAYS WITH MERCURY by Steve’s new/old band, Initial Kick. I immediately requested an interview, the result of which follows…

ANGEL, circa 2022 (Charlie Calv, Billy Orrico, Punky Meadows, Frank DiMino, Danny Farrow, Steve Ojane (publicity photo)

THE INTERVIEW

THE MULE: So, the two of you formed Initial Kick about a decade ago… quite a while before Steve took up the bass duties with Angel. Steve, why did you decide to set IK aside and play with that iconic band? How has that experience influenced your work here?

STEVE OJANE: First off, I just want to thank you for talking with us today, Darren. It’s a pleasure. To answer your question – I was a big Angel fan since my early teens. Angel was five days shy of being my first concert. (The Meat Loaf BAT OUT OF HELL tour was my first, just five days earlier.) I had all the Angel albums, had their posters on my walls, et cetera. When this opportunity presented itself all these years later, there really wasn’t any question. I had to go for it. Frankie completely understood the decision to put Initial Kick on the back-burner temporarily. It would have been a bit too much performing live in two touring bands at the same time. But since we started recording the Initial Kick album before I joined Angel, we continued the recording and mixing during the interim.

THE MULE: Did Angel’s connections with Starz lead to Richie Ranno’s participation on PLAYS WITH MERCURY or did you know him before Angel?

STEVE: I met Richie through the shows we did with Starz and he’s been a good friend ever since. He’s a terrific guy and an incredibly melodic guitar player. His style blended perfect with the material on the Initial Kick album, and we are thrilled he generously offered to play on two of the tracks – “Tomorrow and Forever” and “Rock and Roll Saved My Life.”

THE MULE: Frankie, while Steve was touring and recording with Angel, how did you keep busy? Did you do any writing or work on other projects? Did Initial Kick continue to play and record during Steve’s downtime from Angel?

FRANKIE SCHAFFER: I’m so glad Steve got to live his dream and tour the world with Angel. That said, I’m very happy Initial Kick is back now and firing on all cylinders! The past few years for me have been filled with life, work, and lockdowns. Ha. Actually, I played in a Ramones tribute band for a while that was a lot of fun, and I’m always in the studio messing with things. Steve and I were always in communication and, although we placed IK, the live band, on hiatus for a bit, we continued working on making the record the best it could be. And we’re working on the follow-up now which, if you like the first record, you’ll love the next one!

INITIAL KICK (Steve Ojane, Frankie Schaffer) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve been listening to the album and there’s a certain… smoothness to the sound, particularly the vocals. I think that this approach serves the material quite well, especially on the singles. “Tranquilizer” is jarringly tranquil… not at all what I expected. And, the cover of “Sugar, Sugar” is a blast. First, is the sound a natural extension of working together or is it an intentional attempt to do something just a bit different within the confines of Rock and Pop music? Second, obviously, the Archies were next level cartoon performers – on par with another like-minded band, the Beatles – but have rarely been covered. What prompted you to cover the national anthem of Pop confection and how much fun was it to record? Is there a cover of the Groovie Goolies in IK’s future? Or, the Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Banana Splits, Jabberjaw and the Neptunes or Evolution Revolution from LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP?

STEVE: Maybe that “smooth” vocal sound you refer to is simply because I don’t have a particularly loud voice. So I would say it’s not a deliberate thing, just the way I sound I guess. Of course I belt it out on the heavier tunes. As for the bubblegum possibilities… I don’t know. Frankie, Is “Yummy Yummy Yummy” on deck for the next album? Ha!

FRANKIE: Steve and I both love upbeat, fun music and I’m a big fan of the original bubblegum genre – 1910 Fruitgum Company, Ohio Express, Bay City Rollers, Sweet, et cetera. I think it was Steve’s idea to cover “Sugar Sugar” and I was instantly onboard 100%. It’s just a great song and fits well on the record. I’m not sure about the Banana Splits but I do see some Partridge Family in our future. Ha ha!

THE MULE: Steve, I saw Angel a couple of years ago (at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, IL) and was quite impressed, not only with your playing but with the tone of your bass. That is the sound that I grew up listening to, with bands like Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Bad Company and so many others… a truly classic sound. Are you playing bass on the new IK album and will you play the parts live or are you concentrating solely on the vocals?

STEVE: Thank you, Darren. Yes, that classic bass sound is deliberate. That sound we all grew up on is still in my heart as the classic bass tone. I did play bass on the album but don’t play bass while singing live with the band. I’d rather be free to just sing, and I have limited attention bandwidth! Ha ha!

STEVE OJANE on stage with ANGEL, November 3, 2021 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

THE MULE: Tell us a bit about the songwriting process within the band. How do the tunes come together?

STEVE: Since you brought up “Tranquilizer,” that’s a good example. I had half an idea kicking around in my head for a while for a 3/4 timing song that spoke about finding relief for the things in life that ail ya. Then one day, Frankie started playing this sweet wah-wah guitar part that was perfect for the song. We fused those elements together into what became one of the standout tracks on the album. It was even used in a movie soundtrack – BOXANNE, directed by Brian Wild.

FRANKIE: Most of the material on the first record are songs, ideas, and melodies Steve had written over the years. I liken it to ice cream. Steve is the ice cream on this record. I am the sprinkles. Ice cream is great, but ice cream with sprinkles? Forgeddaboutit!!

INITIAL KICK (Alexx Reckless, Steve Ojane, Johnny Zabo, Frankie Schaffer) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve mentioned Richie Ranno. Who else plays on the album? Aside from the two of you, who else would be a part of a touring Initial Kick band? Have you considered putting together a permanent version of the band outside of the core? What does the future hold for the two of you and the band?

STEVE: In addition to Richie Ranno, we also have Charlie Calv (keyboards) and Billy Orrico (drums) from Angel playing on a few tracks. Also, Damian MonteCarlo and Phil “Mad Dog” Roberts make an appearance. As far as the live band, we have our original drummer, Johnny Zabo, back on board and we’re looking to start performing live again early next year. In the mean time, like Frankie said, we’re actually working on the second album. It’s really a one-two punch. We had so much material that we couldn’t fit it all on one album. So we split the material in two and, for the complete Initial Kick experience, you’ll have to check out the follow-up album which will be released in 2024!

FRANKIE: There’s a bit more collaboration writing-wise on the next record. In reality, we have so many songs to choose from, it will be interesting to see what makes the cut. Just looking forward to the next single off of PLAYS WITH MERCURY and moving forward. IK2 is in the works!

THE MULE: Finally, Steve, I’ve seen posts from the Angel camp stating that Felix Robinson will be returning for a few shows on their next run and that others will be filling in, as well. Does this mean that you have officially parted ways with the group or is this merely part of a push to get Initial Kick into the public consciousness?

STEVE: I’m thrilled that Felix is back in the fold. He’s a great guy and of course – a phenomenal musician. I’ll be in the front row cheering him on! This is actually what I’ve always hoped for. Although I love the time that I spent in Angel, I was always hoping it would serve as a catalyst for getting the original members back together. This is a great first step, I think. Who knows what the future has in store but, for now anyway, I am no longer in Angel and I’m really enjoying writing, recording, and performing my own music.

THE MULE: Thanks, guys. Oh, yeah… one last thing: Please tell me there’s going to be a vinyl version of PLAYS WITH MERCURY.

FRANKIE: Ha ha! It’s in the works!

THE REVIEW

INITIAL KICK: PLAYS WITH MERCURY

(DEKO ENTERTAINMENT; 2023)

Guitarist Frankie Schaffer and singer/bassist Steve Ojane, for all intents and purposes, are Initial Kick and their debut album, PLAYS WITH MERCURY, has been a long time coming. The original band formed a decade ago, taking a six year hiatus while Steve toured and recorded with one of his favorite bands, Angel. Realizing that the time was right, Ojane stepped away from his Angel duties to finish what he started with Schaffer and Initial Kick. So, was the delay worth the wait? Well… DUH!

 

INITIAL KICK (Alexx Reckless, Ray Ray D, Johnny Zabo, Steve Ojane, Frankie Schaffer) (photo credit THE MUSICIANS ROCK NETWORK)

“On the Inside” gets the proceedings off to a bombastic start with a bit of “stun guitar” from Frankie and Steve’s effortless vocal style. “Tomorrow and Forever” features a chugging rhythm and some very nicely-placed tack piano by (Steve’s former Angel bandmate) Charlie Calv occasionally pushing its way up from the depths of the mix. The lead work and solo (from Frankie and Richie Ranno from Starz) are of the type that one would expect from an Arena Rock band from the latter Jurassic Period (late ‘70s and early ‘80s), but tweaked just enough to make it fresh and new. With pounding drums from Steve’s battery mate in Angel, Billy Orrico, and a riff that would make Chuck proud, “Wish You Well (Once Upon a Time)” could be the ultimate “kiss off” song of all time… kind of the biggest “I loved you, you broke my heart, I’m so over you” song ever written. Plus… COW BELL! The first single from the record, “Tranquilizer,” was featured in the Brian Wild movie BOXANNE. It’s about keeping the demons in your head in check and chugs along at a dizzyingly lethargic pace even after the drums pick up over the last half of the tune. A chorus with lyrics like “Give me a tranquilizer/To steady my head/To feel good instead,” certainly makes it an odd choice for a lead single, but… it works. You almost believe that the drugs are working when Steve sings “I will be good/The way that I should.” It ain’t a toe-tapper but, it sure does get stuck in your head.

INITIAL KICK (Ken Mondillo, Steve Ojane, Alexx Reckless) (uncredited photo)

Another great riff, a catchy melody, an appearance by original IK drummer Johnny Zabo and more of Ojane’s old-school bass style highlight “Sotheby’s Wasteland (It’s a Mall World After All).” The tongue-in-cheek lyrics are merely icing on the cake of another excellent mid-tempo rocker. The opening guitar on “Me and Rock and Roll” is somehow very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” and the lyrics could be and updated version of “Beth” by Kiss. Given the name of the tune, both of those comparisons are quite apt. The guitars bite in a very laid-back way (as dichotomous as that sounds, that’s what I’m hearing). Frankie offers up another nice solo at the end. “Sloan Road Kids” is one of the more rockin’ tunes with a cool, almost familiar riff. With Steve, Frankie and the boys leaning into the Power Pop sound, it has a certain Cheap Trickesque magnificance. The instrumental harmonics of “’93” add a certain… here’s that word again… familiar warmth to what is the only actual ballad on PLAYS WITH MERCURY with a killer acoustic lead. The sound oddly brings to mind an old T Rex hand-clapper – especially the final minute or so – as the tempo picks up a bit, bringing a good song to a nice finish.

“At Home With the Animals” is an absolute rager compared to everything else here. And, like everything else here, it features solid licks, a cool solo and powerful though understated drumming. A true standout track among an album of standout tracks. I’m a sucker for cover tunes, the stranger the better. That, in a nutshell, is IK’s take on “Sugar Sugar,” that saccharine piece of bubblegum pop by the Archies, a cartoon group based on the ARCHIE comic books. In 1969 and 1970, it was almost impossible to escape the infectious song. Initial Kick adds a hard rock edge to the syrupy number, with rather tribal drumming and some stingingly awesome guitarwork. Of course, Ojane’s bass shines throughout and his smooth vocal delivery is almost a mirror of Ron Dante’s original. “Big In Singapore” is another lyrical gem, a track about the travails of a working rock band trying to find an audience in the good ol’ US of… in the 2020s. After quite a nice, melodic guitar intro, the lyrics take hold. With lines like “Thinking we passed the test/Then we get an F” and “We found our home abroad/Our US plan was a little bit flawed,” you hear a tinge of frustration, but also the ring of truth about the fickle state of the music industry (and its consumers) in this country. Steve gets bonus points for the line “Get your ass caned if you misbehave.” With a cool organ intro by Charlie Calv, aggressive power chords (are there any other kinds?) and the bass and drums as powerful as anywhere else on the album, “Rock and Roll Saved My Life” seems the antithesis of the previous number, extolling the healing properties of music and Rock music in particular. This is as close to a nod to Steve’s time in Angel as any of the previous eleven tunes. The song also has a snotty kind of guitar solo by Richie Ranno that fits perfectly here. Much like “On the Inside” was the perfect track to open PLAYS WITH MERCURY, “Rock and Roll Saved My Life” is the perfect set closer.

INITIAL KICK (Alexx Reckless, Ray Ray D, Steve Ojane, Johnny Zabo, Frankie Schaffer) (uncredited photo)

It only took ‘em ten years, but Frankie Schaffer and Steve Ojane have finally delivered the near-perfect debut album. Here’s looking to record number two. And… hopefully, a tour? What do ya say, boys?

NINEFINGER: BETWEEN EVERYTHING ELSE

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2023)

Ninefinger is a hard rockin’ band from North Hollywood (that’s a mythical place in a made-up country called “California,” I believe) that actually has twenty-nine fingers (20 belonging to guitarist Joshua Picard and drummer Buddah, the other nine adorn the hands of vocalist Mike Whinny); if you count Ian Shea (the band’s touring bassist), the finger count jumps up to thirty-nine. Though the band will not divulge how Whinny actually became the band’s namesake, I am convinced that it was an unfortunate Lego mishap… prove me wrong! The trio (quartet-in-the-making?) splash in the same pool as classic hard rock acts like Black Sabbath and newer (though no less classic) artists like Stone Temple Pilots (Mike sounds like nothing if not the second coming of Scott Weiland) and Soundgarden. Now, that’s some pretty heady comparisons to bandy about and some pretty big shoes to try to fill but, in this case, the comparisons are apt and the band is definitely up to the task of filling those shoes (no mention of a wonky toe count, so that makes it easier).

NINEFINGER (BUDDAH, JOSHUA PICARD, MIKE WHINNY) (uncredited photo)

Ninefinger’s recent four-song EP, BETWEEN EVERYTHING ELSE, kicks of with a swirling, grungy piece called “Breeze.” It’s a mid-tempo number that somehow manages to rage like a category 5 twister. When Mike sings “Maybe the winds will change/Maybe the winds still remain/Maybe the winds stay the same/Either way, I’m freezin’,” you just wanna grab a coat, hunker down and pray for the storm to pass. Picard has a beefy, fuzzed-out, “heavy strings” approach to playing (the master of that sound, Tony Iommi, would definitely approve) which almost makes his actual bass guitar parts unnecessary. That sound is on display throughout the four tracks here, but may be best exemplified on “Can’t Catch Her.” Buddah’s pummeling drum sound on “Breeze” is replaced here by a more nuanced thrashing, with the snare giving a satisfying crack beneath Joshua’s monster riffs. “Stop Trying” comes closest to an epic Sabbath/Soundgarden mash-up (something that you may not have known that you needed – nay, craved – until the second that Whinny’s vocals assail your aural sensibilities). The stifling heaviness of the tune nearly crushes you beneath its weight, matched only by the doom and gloom admonitions to “Stop trying to save the world.” Caught somewhere between the controlling, masochistic overtones of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” and the violent, possessive obsessions of the main character in the twisted Netflix series, YOU, “Threw It All Away” is the Nirvana song that all of Kurd Cobain’s fawning fans wish he could have written… in your face, forceful and visceral to the point of becoming uncomfortable. It’s almost like witnessing something so horrible that you know you’ll have nightmare images of the thing until the moment you stop breathing, but you still can’t turn away. There is an unfettered anger and an unspoken threat of violence in Mike Whinny’s lyrics and in his voice that, coupled with the thunderous (and infinitely catchy) backing from Josh and Buddah, would have anyone in his vicinity looking over their shoulder, waiting for the inevitable hammer blow to drive home the point. This tune would have fit in perfectly on any mid-to-late ‘90s Alternative or Extreme radio programming, nestled comfortably between STP and Soundgarden.

BETWEEN EVERYTHING ELSE is a raging slab of perfection that hits on cylinders (even if it is only a four-banger),leaving these ears straining for more. When can we expect a full-length, boys?

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT/COOL COOL COOL

(February 22, 2023; THE FACTORY IN THE DISTRICT, Chesterfield MO)


I have always been a huge Talking Heads fan, right from the beginning of their CBGB’s/weird art-punk days. I listened obsessively to their debut album when I was working at a record store, was thrilled beyond measure when my musical and creative hero Brian Eno started working with them on their second album MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, and was literally ecstatic by the transcendent weirdness of their artistic peak with FEAR OF MUSIC and the colossal REMAIN IN LIGHT. I could write pages about how much I adored those two albums, but… this is a concert review, so I gotta be disciplined here. But I’m just stating unequivocally how much David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison have meant to me as a music fan and still do. I saw the Heads twice in their heyday but never got to see the REMAIN IN LIGHT stuff performed live, until Harrison and Adrian Belew put together this amazing touring show with former members of Turkuaz, now renamed as Cool Cool Cool. I could not pass this show up, and although I had some personal circumstances that were daunting, I soon found myself venturing to the Factory in far St. Louis County for the first time. I was eager to see how these performers were going to make up for the lack of vocalist David Byrne and killer rhythm section Chris and Tina, one of the best EVER.

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (ADRIAN BELEW, JERRY HARRISON) (photo credit: MICHAEL WIEINTROB/REMAIN IN LIGHT)

Cool Cool Cool opened the show with their expansive ensemble rhythmic funk, impressing with sterling musicianship that include a three-piece horn section, two percussionists and the delightful high-energy vocals of Sammi Garett and Shira Elias. It was a pleasant danceable mix, and the audience responded with enthusiasm. But there was definitely a feeling of anticipation in the air about what everyone had come here to see. Jerry Harrison had planned a “REMAIN IN LIGHT” celebration since before the pandemic, when his plans with Belew were derailed by an industry-halting nightmare. Once things returned to relative normalcy, the two legends revived their inspired plans, and you could be forgiven by perhaps thinking that doing something like this without Heads leader David Byrne might be a daunting proposition. But two key factors made this an absolutely thrilling show. First, Harrison and Belew were aiming to recreate some of the feeling of the legendary STOP MAKING SENSE tour that Jonathan Demme captured so amazingly in his film, where an extended cast of players could add layers and layers of sonic details to the blend both vocally and rhythmically… as well as the notable 1980 concert in Rome that a huge audience blissed out to and that the Heads themselves have pointed out as a career high point (Belew was part of that show, and it’s still available to see on YouTube). Secondly, the smart decision was made to have different musicians taking lead vocals depending on the song and who sounded best on it. Hence Belew sang lead on “Psycho Killer,” a surprising “Drugs” and a genuinely riveting “Life During Wartime,” which gained obvious rich thematic resonance due to the savage ongoing war in Ukraine. Harrison sang lead effectively on “Houses in Motion,” which was fab. But maybe the biggest surprise of the night was the strength of the vocals by “Cool” member (and baritone sax man-handler) Josh Schwartz, a tall bespectacled fellow at stage right who didn’t “Byrne it” so much on lead vocals as he “interpreted energetically” on songs like “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Born Under Punches” and the utterly transcendent classic “Once In a Lifetime.” These three songs transported me somewhere I haven’t been in years: I wrote in my notes “shivers of joy,” as such were traveling up my spine especially on the latter two songs. Besides the effectiveness of the insistent rhythms we were treated to, I cannot say enough about the hypnotic backing vocals of Sammi Garett and Shira Elias on these and other songs here. Whether it was their repeated “I’m STILL waiting” on “Crosseyed…, ” or the unbelievably transfixing phrases like “All I want is to breathe,” and “and the heat goes on” in concert high point “Born Under Punches” and the insistent “letting the days go by” and various water references in “OIAL,” these two ladies absolutely killed it musically. As a fan of backing vocals and repeated refrains and a recording artist myself lately, I just LOVE this aspect of music, and part of the true GENIUS of the album REMAIN IN LIGHT is how much of that kind of thing listeners were treated to, courtesy of the Talking Heads’ evolved aesthetic by that point and the crazy machinations of producer Eno in the studio. The gals also had their bigger than usual moment on “Slippery People,” a gospel-flavored workout in which they essentially sing lead on much of the song. Truly wonderful. It was also wonderful to hear “I Zimbra” from the FEAR OF MUSIC album, another chance for Schwartz to take the lead at the mic, even though this is certainly a group-based number, with its singular challenge of chanting made-up lyrics over tribal-sounding sonics.

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (JERRY HARRISON) (photo credit: REMAIN IN LIGHT)
JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (ADRIAN BELEW) (photo credit: REMAIN IN LIGHT)

Okay, we gotta pause and single out Adrian Belew here. Holy effing shit. This guy is one of the most distinctive and trailblazing guitarists in the history of rock, and his leads are very much present throughout REMAIN IN LIGHT. Everything you were probably hoping to hear him do in this concert was firmly on display. I was writing down phrases like “great piercing lead by AB” in my notes on “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Houses in Motion” and others as fast as I could scribble, noting the smile on Belew’s face so much of the time, which I could see through my binoculars. Belew nodded to his long tenure with King Crimson by performing the band’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet” and sidling up to the fetchingly attired, chorus-sharing Garett, who was clearly having a ball all night. So was I, for sure! I was a happy man to be able to experience such tunes as “Cities” and my mega-favorite “Once In a Lifetime” and pretend I was approximating the joy any true fan must have felt experiencing the Heads at their performing peak. As for Harrison, he did a great keyboard solo on his own tune “Rev It Up” and served up the “quirk” on “Slippery People” and others. Harrison doesn’t always get credit for the delightful flavoring his insistent repeated keyboard parts added to the Heads’ oeuvre, and certainly classics like “Once In a Lifetime” wouldn’t have attained their legendary status without his work.

COOL COOL COOL (SHIRA ELIAS, CHRIS BROUWERS, MICHAEL CARUBBA, GREG SNADERSON, SAMMI GARETT, JOSH SCHWARTZ, CRAIG BRODHEAD) (uncredited publicity photo)

A spirited “Take Me To the River” found the whole ensemble wringing every bit of iconic juice out of a song that we all know extremely well, with the ladies adding drama by repeating the two-line refrain over and over, singing it more and more quietly (which the audience was noticeably riveted by) and then kicking up the volume at the end for a glorious climax. On both the floor and the balcony, contingents of people were dancing happily. There HAD to be an encore, of course, and Belew said “Are you sure?” to the audience when the ensemble was summoned for their expected callback. I was CERTAIN the song would be “The Great Curve,” the only RIL classic not already played, and I was right. It was thrilling, powerful and very much the rhythmic and danceable classic of its original incarnation. What an ensemble! What a show! Many people have listed REMAIN IN LIGHT as one of their “ten favorite albums of all time,” myself included. I was thinking about that in the waning moments of the concert, WHY that album made such an impact. Was it the reinvented afrobeat sound for a modern audience? Talking Heads leaping beyond their quirky art rock to another dimension? The timeliness of that album and its hit “Once In a Lifetime” finding a fresh audience at the dawn of MTV? Sure, all of that. But my own phrase is “transfixing weirdness,” captured on the album like few others at the time. Hearing Harrison, Belew and the very inspired members of Cool Cool Cool doing powerful justice to a beloved album which is unlike anything else ever released… weird, life-affirming, body-moving and consistently challenging and mysterious… made me very happy. Kudos to these immensely talented musicians for coming up with a great idea, and then carrying it off so thrillingly.

AVA TOTON: CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2022)

So, what were you doing when you were twelve years old? I started my twelfth year as a seventh grader and ended it as an eighth grader… worrying more about what was for lunch and what was on television that night than anything else; I was just getting into rock and roll. Ava Toton, at twelve, was writing and releasing her second (!) EP of hard rock, a destructive sonic force called CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT. The set features three blistering rockers, in the same basic vein as the Runaways (probably the most apt comparison, though they were four and five years older when they recorded their first album, with a lot of help from Kim Fowley and a bunch of other writers). I even find vocal comparisons to Cherie Currie… if Cherie had started smoking two packs a day and slamming a fifth of Tennessee bourbon at the age of five. Obviously, the point I’m trying to make here is that Ava has a husky voice that definitely suits the style of music that she plays.

AVA TOTON (photo credit: LAURA POORMAN)

The title track is a snotty, punky number that puts the listener on notice: This isn’t the type of girl that’s gonna play nice with the other, poppier kids. “I’m not like you/I’m gonna scream and shout/Won’t play by your rules/I’m a charm school dropout.” And, this doesn’t sound like someone PLAYING at being snarky and self-determined; it sounds like someone who knows what she wants to do and how she’s going to accomplish it. “I Told You So” is more straight-ahead hard rock, as Ava and her band (bassist and producer Jacob Light and drummer Gideon Berger) eschew the punkier sound without giving up the attitude. Ava has a beefy guitar style (bolstered by Light’s bass) that echoes back to the early and mid-1970s. And, that ain’t a knock! Some of the best and purest guitar rock was produced during those years. The track also features a moody middle section that leads into a short solo that puts an exclamation point on the tune. The next song, “Wake Up the Neighborhood,” offers a snarling vocal and displays a band going full-out, particularly Ava’s guitar and solo and Gideon’s drums. As the title implies, it’s a song about “partying like a rockstar.” I’m not sure how the now-thirteen-year-old parties but… she certainly sings the song with conviction. The final track is called “Take Me With You,” an acoustic number with accompaniment from Jacob on piano and Yoed Nir on strings. It’s an oddly appealing song about aliens and a need to be elsewhere because things are just too strange here on the home planet. Ava’s voice seems a bit strained at times, but not enough to distract from the overall vibe of the piece.

CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT is more mature and focused than a lot of records by people a lot older than Ava Toton (I’m looking at you, Motley Crue!) and it is definitely worth checking out. You can do so at avatoton.com, where you can learn more about Ava and her music and get your very own (CD or digital) copy.

FINDING A WAY TO ROCK: SARAH BORGES LIVE PREVIEW

We were all hit hard by the COVID-19 lockdown. Even if we managed to stay healthy, we all know at least one person who was sick; if we were lucky, we didn’t lose anyone close to us. Being separated from loved ones was tough, having to rearrange our lives because of this virus was maddening. A lot of people were forced to say home, work remotely or, in extreme cases, lost their jobs, their livelihoods. One of the worst hit industries was entertainment: We couldn’t go see a live show, they couldn’t play live. A working musician’s “bread and butter” is playing live, meeting the fans; selling their merchandise (T-shirts, CDs, albums… ) makes up a very large part of a touring musician’s income. The need to play and create new music is built into a musician’s DNA. So it was that Sarah Borges recorded her new album, TOGETHER ALONE, released earlier this year, working with longtime producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and several bassists and drummers remotely. The cohesiveness of the album’s ten tracks is testament to the drive and determination to create.

SARAH BORGES live with KEITH VOEGELE (photo credit: BRYAN BOLEA)

Now, with Sarah coming to Off Broadway, one of Saint Louis’ coolest (and my personal favorite) venues, we spoke to her about what we can expect on August 24. “Well, you know, we’re touring in support of our newest record, which is called TOGETHER ALONE. It came out in February. And we recorded the record pretty much remotely during the lockdown portion of the pandemic so, luckily for me, the guys who play bass and guitar on the record, which are Keith Voegele from the Bottle Rockets and “Roscoe” Ambel, who produced all those Bottle Rockets records… they’re in the touring band, too, so… and, it’s rounded out by our drummer Kenny Soule. But the way we work it is, I play some songs from the record and then Roscoe will sing a few, play ‘em… we kinda trade back and forth during the show, lots of harmonies, lots of banter in between. It’s really fun, ya know? I kinda feel like, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m so grateful to still be doing it. Every show is fun.”

SARAH BORGES (photo credit: LIZ LINDER PIX)

Packing in tunes from Sarah’s eight albums, as well as music from Ambel’s bands, the Del-Lords, Roscoe’s Gang and the Yayhoos and… maybe a few surpsises, the evening should be a good one! With traces of the Beatles – especially George Harrison – wandering through the remotely recorded TOGETHER ALONE, the new songs have a friendly, poppy sound that really allows Sarah to get into the vocal arrangements without being too in-your-face. I, for one, am looking forward to hearing these new tunes performed live. Nick Gusman opens the show. Tickets are available at offbroadwaystl.com, at the door day-of-show and from the usual ticket outlets; more information is also available at the venue’s website. See you there!

FINGERPRINTS: WHERE THE BEAT GOES ON

(BLACKBERRY WAY RECORDS; 2022)

You may not know this, but Fingerprints were a big deal… a VERY big deal. The Minneapolis five-piece formed in the mid-1970s and, after a few line-up changes, emerged as one of the first three bands signed by the soon-to-be heavily influential Twin/Tone Records (original home to such punk and post-punk bands as the Replacements, Pere Ubu, Babes In Toyland, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and the Mekons). Fingerprints released three seven inch records (FINGERPRINTS, DOWN and SMILES FOR SALE) between 1978 and 1979 and appeared on the legendary BIG HITS OF MID-AMERICA, VOLUME 3 compilation album. Between April, 1978’s DOWN and September’s SMILES FOR SALE, guitarist Robb Henry exited the band. His replacement, Jeff Waryan and the rest of the group – Mark Throne (vocals and saxophone), Steve Fjelstad (bass), Kevin Glynn (drums) and Mike Owens (guitar and vocals) entered Blackberry Way Studios (founded by members Owens, Glynn and Fjelstad) to record their debut full-length in 1979. The album was nearly completed when the band broke up and the project shelved. Now, more than forty years later, Owens and Blackberry Way Records have gussied up 24 tracks – including most of the tunes from the original Twin/Tone releases – and given us WHERE THE BEAT GOES ON, featuring both recorded versions of the band. To say that this collection is anything less than essential is like saying that Prince was an “okay” guitar player.

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1978 (Kevin Glynn, Steve Fjelstad, Robb Henry, Mike Owens, Mark Throne) (publicity photo)

Don’t Wanna Talk” kicks things off in a very ‘80s lo-fi Minneapolis Rock and Roll fashion. Fjelstad’s rumbling bass and Glynn’s unexpected and decidedly heavy drum sound underpins a simple but incredibly catchy guitar part that leads to some very nice interplay between Owens, Waryan and Throne’s sax. And, so, we’re off to a great start. Next up is one of seven tracks to feature Robb Henry, “(Now I Wanna Be a) Space Girl,” the lead track to the first Fingerprints 7” record released on Twin/Tone. It’s really hard to describe the beauty of the song without making a couple of oxymoronic observations: First, there’s a very non-guitary guitar running throughout; second, the sound is very post-punk before punk was pre-anything else; finally, the guys were in and out in an economically Ramones-tight fashion (less than three minutes). “Prisoners” features some nice backing vocals to bolster the enigmatic vocals of songwriter Mike Owens and a little piano-noodling from guest Harvey Ginsberg. There’s an actual guitar solo (and a right tasty one it is, too) which I’m going to attribute to Jeff Waryan, although Owens could more than hold his own in that department. The overall sound of this one is a bit of envelope pushing, ala the Replacements or Husker Du. “Boogada Bigadus (Big Reggie’s Theme)” is a little slice of meaningless surf music that is absolutely fraught with meaning. The instrumental again offers some wicked guitar and a Throne sax part that fades in and out of the mix and, all of this in a mere 2:10! Link Wray or Dick Dale woulda been proud… heck, maybe they were! The title track to the group’s final Twin/Tone 7”, “Smiles For Sale” features a more out-front screaming sax along with another cool guitar riff that punctuates one of the weirdest vocal performances ever (from Mark Throne or any other presumably human entity). At this point, everything is starting to take on a certain random simplicity and odd sameness in its brilliance… just like most of the great punk records of the era. Owens adds piano to his instrumental repertoire to the next track, as a simple, jangly guitar riff and massive drums punctuate “Illusions of Love,” a bizarre little ditty that forms an odd one-two punch with the like-minded “A Place In My Heart.” This one’s an oddly sentimental song that could be about jealousy, murder, an unhealthy obsession or a late night booty call… maybe all of the above. Throne’s vocals take on an eerie, otherworldly quality that is not unappealing. “Kind Affection,” featuring a cool Jeff Waryan vocal (he also wrote the thing) is one of the catchiest tunes in the first third of this collection and another in a series of the band’s odd take on love and its many shades. Once again, there are some great guitar parts that caress the listener’s ears while Kevin Glynn’s drumming threatens the sanctity of said listener’s eardrums. What’s more Rock and Roll than that, right?

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1978 (Kevin Glynn, Robb Henry, Mike Owens, Steve Fjelstad, Mark Throne) (publicity photo)

All manic drums, frenzied guitars and unhinged vocals (plus Mark making an appearance on the piano), “Uptown” might be a retelling of a secret liaison, a secret life or a tragic death. This band seems to have excelled at open-ended, ambiguous lyrical narratives. I like that! They were also good at delivering a memorable riff, a simple but effective backbeat, completely upbeat melody and vocal delivery for a rather maudlin subject. Such is the case with “Down,” an absolutely hummable tune that bores into your earholes and takes up residence in that little corner of your brain that – for better or worse – continually hits replay on the last catchy tune you heard. This one first made an appearance on the Twin/Tone double album BIG HITS OF MID-AMERICA, VOLUME 3. “Whose Side Are You On” offers a jackhammer guitar and drum sound, more great interplay between guitar and sax, a rumbling bass and an actual solo from Waryan, who wrote and sings the piece . Even a seemingly pedestrian song like “Hey Johnny” has something unique and unexpected to offer. In this case, more inventive six-string work (thanks to Mike Owens and Robb Henry) with an actual dual lead part that turns into a trio with the addition of Throne’s sax mimicking the twin guitars. Apparently giving the creators of SEINFELD the seed of an idea, “Nothing To Say” has a great riff, a great melody, and minimal lyrics (which fit the title perfectly). Just for kicks, Mike adds some organ to the mix. And all in a concise little package at just over 1:20. This song about nothing was originally released on SMILES FOR SALE. “Shake ‘n’ Roll” may be the truest punk song of the collection, with a snotty guitar solo courtesy of Owens and an indiscriminate use of the splash cymbal. Simply stated, it is pure fun for pure punks. A meaty psuedo-metal guitar intro leads into a moody “Young Love,” the oldest track here, predating Robb Henry’s coming. With another dose of ambiguity, the track could be about a stalker or a child molester or… Donny Osmond. Whatever the subject matter, the tune is creepy beyond belief! Mark Throne’s vocals sound particularly sinister over the grinding rhythm guitar (by Throne himself), Owens’ wah-wah laced leads and monstrous drums. It’s one of the longest tracks here, clocking in at nearly three-and-a-half minutes. A kind of Middle Eastern vibe is elicited from guest sax players Lynn Seacord and Peter Napoleon Barbeau and the tablas of Gary Waryan on “We Can’t Get In.” That rumbling bass and those forceful drums propel the swirling, mid-tempo number along at a Speed Metal pace. Dichotomous? Indeed. But, then, that’s what these Fingerprints were so good at!

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1978 (Robb Henry, Steve Fjelstad, Mark Throne, Kevin Glynn, Mike Owens) (publicity photo

A circular rhythm and repeating guitar lines drive “You Have To Push Them Over,” an instrumental from SMILES FOR SALE. There’s a lot going on here, with a slide guitar diving in before a nifty piano solo (compliments of the returning Harvey Ginsberg); a great kind of frantic guitar solo from Mike makes an appearance, joined by the return of the piano and the saxes of Barbeau and Seacord throwing down a few forceful notes just before the number ends. Robb Henry is back again for “Wasted On You.” This one has sort of an early U2 vibe with a very un-Edge like solo. All-in-all, it sounds very ominous… in the best possible way – I mean, “I was waiting for the world to die.” How much more ominous can you get? Mike Kearney adds some atmospheric sax, as well. “Must Be Me” has a nice, pedestrian chuga-chuga guitar riff that’s double timed by a steady, racing bass groove and imaginative lead guitar and another solid solo from Owens. Waryan’s vocals are nice and gritty and, all the while, Ginsberg’s piano hammers away just below the surface What a great little dose of power pop! Speaking of which, “Burn Those Bridges” is a very Who-sian piece in both depth and scope, with Townshendesque guitars (by Owens and Henry) and a lyrical bent to match. This is a solid effort from all involved, if a little weak on the backing vocals. Glynn’s drumwork on “Will You Be the One” features some absolutely massive fills (in fact, the drum parts are almost all heavy, muscular fills!). It’s one of the few songs to feature a sustained Mark Throne sax solo, who also delivers what may be is best vocal performance here, evoking Bowie. And, I shouldn’t have to mention it this far into a review, but the guitars are once again absolutely fantastic! “Made In the Shade” pumps the brakes, slowing down the tempo, which makes the Bowie comparison even more evident. Steve and Kevin find a nice pocket that allows the guitars (Robb and Mike, finishing off this set together), keys and voice to shine on what is a really nice tune. There’s an oddly pleasing little sax part that comes out of the woodwork toward the end of the four minute plus (!) track from the band’s debut EP. Next is “Back On the Street,” another four minute rocker. While I like the shorter, punkier stuff, I find myself wondering where those songs could have gone if they would have been fleshed out and extended like these two. This one offers a cool riff and a couple of really great guitar solos, the last one being somewhat diminished… lost in an overly long fade. The final track, “Half Past Zero,” almost seems like an afterthought or a simple work in progress. Another possibility is that it’s a demo that never really sparked anything creatively past the repeating riff. I know the guys have been playing around a bit lately and I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing a more fleshed-out version with vocals and solos and such.

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1979 (Mark Throne, Steve Fjelstad, Kevin Glynn, Jeff Waryan, Mike Owens) (publicity photo)

So, there you have it… what is, I believe, the entire recorded output of one of the most influential bands that you’ve never heard of. Fingerprints were there at the cusp of that great Minneapolis Rock scene of the early ‘80s but, unfortunately, didn’t stick around to grab some of the spotlight that shone so brightly on other groups like the Replacements, Soul Asylum or Husker Du. Ah, what could have been! WHERE THE BEAT GOES ON is available on CD and digitally here or at your favorite music dispensary.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK

(DISNEY PICTURES/APPLE CORPS LTD/WINGNUT FILMS (468 minutes; Rated PG-13); 2021)

You can’t really argue that GET BACK, the new three-part documentary directed by Peter Jackson about a pivotal month in the life of the Beatles during their last year together, isn’t THE cultural media event of Fall 2021. It’s been talked about for months, Paul McCartney himself did an NPR interview in which he discussed it, and it aroused the emotions of Beatle fans everywhere when the pandemic caused the project to morph from an intended theatrical film to a much longer documentary to be streamed exclusively on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, for three nights over the Thanksgiving holiday. Speculation in advance was intense, as one contingent of fans feared it would “whitewash” the long-discussed tensions of the Fab Four in their final days (which the previous LET IT BE documentary certainly left one with knowledge of), and another contingent waited for validation of long held beliefs: that Yoko broke up the Beatles, that Paul was a dictatorial tyrant in those last days, that George Harrison had simply had enough and stormed out in anger, and that the lads were simply incapable of working together creatively anymore after the many pressures of being the most successful and influential rock band in history.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (John Lennon, Peter Jackson) (publicity still)

Well, then. New Zealand’s legendary director Jackson, never having been shy about tackling enormous, “impossible” projects (remember that LORD OF THE RINGS thing?) has a mega documentary for YOU! And guess what? You can put everything you thought you knew about the Beatles’ final days aside, and marvel at the intimate scope and cumulative effect of this roughly eight-hour saga and the many revelations it contains. First, some clarity: This is not really a film about the “final days” of the Fabs. What we have here is a cinema diary of just over three weeks from January 1969, when the band was working on a planned project that became LET IT BE, intended to be a film, album and concert that would capture their intention to “get back” to a more youthful, spontaneous atmosphere that’d harken back to… well, when they were more youthful and spontaneous. A look at the ACTUAL last days of the Beatles would focus on the ABBEY ROAD recording, the massive tensions created by Allen Klein being hired to manage their financial affairs (a pivotal decision supported by all but McCartney, who fought it tooth and nail and had to sue the other three to put an end to Klein’s shady practices), and John Lennon’s increasing desire to be with Yoko and do his own thing instead of being wrapped up in the monstrous machine that was THE BEATLES. You see all the seeds of this stuff in Jackson’s doc: Klein is introduced in the latter half of it, Yoko is seen at John’s side throughout most of the footage, and songs that later appeared on ABBEY ROAD are indeed rehearsed and talked about in many segments. But no, this is NOT an investigation of what broke up the Beatles. Jackson was given access to 60+ hours of unseen video and roughly 150 hours of unheard audio, and from this massive trove, he culled together a day-by-day record of what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing during those fabled days first at Twickenham Studio (where they were under pressure to get stuff done before the movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN was to take over the place, starring Ringo and Peter Sellers), and later at #3 Saville Row, home to the Beatles’ own Apple Records label. The band had a reasonably interesting project in mind; you can’t fault their intentions, and all seemed eager to dive in and work after a fairly long break following the White Album. But things did NOT go smoothly, and we see quite clearly that they were in over their heads, unable to figure out WHERE to stage a live performance, WHICH songs to record and HOW to carry on efficiently without a “daddy figure” (as McCartney refers to Brian Epstein, who’d previously sheltered the boys to some extent from the worst tensions brought on by fame and industry pressures). Jackson had an absolutely daunting task here: All this footage has been buried in a vault for half a century, and the Beatles clearly had NO taste for delving into a pile o’ stuff that would, rumor had it, show them in their worst moments, unable to cooperate with each other long enough to simply record a new album and go on about the business of being the world’s biggest band.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) (publicity still)

Except, that is not what happened. The story was WAY more complex than that, and not nearly so bleak. This amazing documentary allows us to travel back in time and be “flies on the wall” at the daily recording sessions, where the four lads discuss various songs and impulses, jam spontaneously, and gradually shape the compositions that would eventually become the songs most of us know like the back of our hands by now. Repeated segments showing the evolution of songs such as “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Two of Us” are fascinating, and from a songwriting point of view, the insight into the process is invaluable. You may get sick of some of the repetition, but I’m pretty sure most committed Beatles fans won’t mind at all. To see how “Get Back” evolved from being a “protest song” about immigrants to a more aesthetically vague pop/rock tune that the boys agreed should be the next single, is captivating. And “Two of Us” has layers of resonance about the close relationship between Paul and John, both in the actual lyrics of the song (“You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches/Out ahead… “) and in the discussions we are privy to about the arrangement, in terms of whether it should be a simple acoustic song or something more sonically dense, with many scenes showing the two most famous songwriters working closely together to try to get it right. They ALL want to do that, and these things take TIME. Plain and simple. We see them getting impatient, making fun of themselves, and trying various things over and over. It could and does get tedious at times. The infamous exchange between Paul and George where the latter mutters that he’ll “play anything you want, or I won’t play at all if it will please you… ” that was a focal point in LET IT BE, occurs here with much greater context, that primarily being that Paul was trying to be the taskmaster and keep the group focused, not only on specific arrangements but on getting things DONE in a timely manner. With the full backdrop of the proceedings on display here, it’s pretty reasonable, and George’s impatience is understandable, not because McCartney was a jerk, but because “it’s all too much” at times. Plain and simple.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (publicity still)

George, of course, does walk out for a while; every essay about this documentary has talked about that. In 1969, Harrison was truly coming into his own as a songwriter, and there are two pivotal scenes that deal with this. A remarkable private conversation between Paul and John is captured on audio. John declares, “It’s like George said, he didn’t get enough satisfaction anymore because of the compromise he had to make to be together… it’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed to… and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.” Paul is listening, clearly, and responds: “Yeah, we treat him a bit like that. See, because he knows what we’re on about. But I do think that he’s right. That’s why I think we’ve got the problem now, the four of us. You go one way, George one way, and me another… “

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (photo credit LINDA MCCARTNEY/APPLE CORPS LTD)

The revelatory conversation continues with John openly stating he’s intimidated at times by Paul’s insistence on certain arrangements, and how he’s sometimes given up speaking out in favor of his own thing. He admits that “sometimes you’re right” to Paul, but that other times he has disagreed with the final results. In the context of all we know about the Beatles, this is just groundbreaking, to have this inside look at a tension-packed time. Meanwhile, we’re all aware of what was coming next for George Harrison. He was writing tons of new songs, including numbers like “All Things Must Pass,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and a little tune called “Something.” A much talked-about scene shows George struggling with the line to follow “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like… ” Lennon comically suggests singing anything at all until a good fit is found. “Attracts me like a cauliflower,” he suggests, and a different scene shows George singing “attracts me like a pomegranate.” This is all pretty amusing, but when you step back for a moment and realize you’re seeing one of the greatest songs ever written in its infancy, a song that was obviously one of the highlights of the Beatles’ soon-to-be final studio album, ABBEY ROAD, you can’t help but be totally caught up in George’s place in music history right here. There’s a separate conversation between John and George where the latter tells John he’s written about “20 new songs” and that it would take ten more Beatle albums to get them all out there at the current rate of “two George songs per album.” George suggests he may just have to do a solo album, something which at first surprises John, and then seems to turn a light bulb on in his head. We all know what actually happened, and it’s simply another revelatory moment. So is seeing George being the pragmatic one through most of this documentary. While the others are brainstorming ludicrous ideas like doing a performance at an ancient historical site in Libya, or taking a selected group of fans on a large ship across the ocean to be the audience for whatever they’re gonna do, George wryly declares “We can’t even get Fender to send us a free amp.” This documentary will almost certainly increase your respect for George Harrison and his importance to the Beatles…

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Billy Preston, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Yoko Ono) (photo courtesy: THE BEATLES)

Does the film show Paul McCartney as a raging egomaniac? No, because they ALL clearly were. Remember, they were already the most famous group in the world with endless expectations heaped upon them everywhere. We get to see various members reading their own press at the time, richly entertaining, including George reading a bit about him and John coming to physical blows, an event that did NOT actually happen. Paul is definitely shown paying the most attention to specific song arrangements, and the reality of trying to meet their deadlines, but he is about collaboration all the way. It’s amazing to see him and John working together closely; you really WANT them to figure everything out and keep making remarkable music. Songs that never became official Beatle songs are given bits of time, such as McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” and “Another Day” and Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and “Child of Nature,” which would in a couple of years morph into “Jealous Guy.” And wow, is there some fun seeing early versions of ABBEY ROAD tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (showing Beatles road manager Mal Evans banging a device gleefully), “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “Polythene Pam” enter the picture. Everything is a question mark in this film: WHAT songs will they record? WHAT songs will they play for whatever live concert they are going to do? How can they possibly deliver when they feel they only have maybe half a dozen songs with fully developed arrangements?

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy DISNEY PICTURES)

But what is NOT yet truly a question: Are the Beatles going to break up? NO, that is not yet obvious. There are no “fights” in the conventional sense here; the lads are having a good time, they clown around, they crack jokes. It’s surprising in particular to see how good-humored Lennon is most of the time. He’s happy to have Yoko around (SHE, by the way, is almost continually a gentle presence, never intrusive, and even defended by Paul in a couple of scenes (“they just wanna be together, you know… “). With remarkable foresight, Paul declares in one scene, “Wouldn’t it be funny if in 50 years people say, ‘Oh, Yoko broke up the Beatles because she sat on an amplifier?'” So there’s plenty of myth smashing in GET BACK. When this footage was being shot by original LET IT BE director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (looking more youthful than you’d think and probably a bit in over his head), there were still several possible futures for the Beatles. That is crucial, because this film is NOT a breakup film. It’s about ambition, mega fame, the ups and downs of collaboration, artistic egos stretched to the limit, and problem solving on a grand scale. Watch the happy look on John Lennon’s face when keyboardist Billy Preston enters the scene and shows effortlessly that he can spruce up the arrangements on some of these new songs. “You’re IN the band!” Lennon tells him. Watch a fetching Linda Eastman and her energetic young daughter Heather, respectively, holding hands with Paul and taking photos (Linda and Paul were two months away from their fabled wedding at the time of this footage) and dancing around the studio gleefully, exuberant as a young girl could be. And watch, for the first time, the legendary “rooftop concert” in its entirety, the Beatles’ final live appearance, which of course was filmed on top of Savile Row, to the delight of some on the street below and the consternation of many others, including the British bobbies, who amusingly try to shut things down because of complaints. People on the street are interviewed and shown in effective cross cuts as the Beatles play, reflecting a reasonable cross section of opinions. This is music history, folks. But it’s told in a fresh, fascinating manner that changes what we thought we knew about the Beatles. And Peter Jackson wisely avoids any present-day interviews… he stated his desire to avoid that sort of thing. Nope, this is time capsule stuff, our unique opportunity to experience what the Beatles were going through in January of 1969.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS LIMITED)

It’s amazing, honestly. What was to follow was the group throwing up their hands in despair at their inability to complete the planned album (in a still controversial move, the whole thing was handed over to Phil Spector, resulting in an album that almost no one would be completely happy with), a stunning decision to record a brand-new studio album that would give George Martin one more chance to fully produce the band, George Harrison a chance to show he’d finally equalled the others in songwriting prowess, and give McCartney a chance to spearhead perhaps the greatest medley ever featured on a rock album; a furious legal battle over Allen Klein and the failure of the other three Beatles to stop McCartney from releasing his debut solo album BEFORE the release of LET IT BE (the accompanying press at the time appeared to show McCartney “officially” announcing the end of the Beatles, even though that isn’t quite accurate), a disbelieving fan kingdom unwilling to believe it was “the end,” and of course, lots and lots of nasty comments and bad feelings. But that was what would FOLLOW the events in GET BACK. It is NOT what we see on screen, which is in fact an energetic, lively, mostly upbeat look at an intense collaborative period by four of the most famous musicians in history and their handlers, all trying to respond to the immense pressure of gargantuan fame. GET BACK really is a treat, if sometimes a patience-testing experience, that will be richly rewarding for dedicated Beatles fans. You won’t forget it if you watch it with focus and attention. There are scenes that are simply stunning in what they tell us, all these years later. And it’s invaluable as a detailed look at the creative process itself. Sure, it’s a pain to have to find a way to get Disney+ in order to watch this thing. But do it. Really. There has never been a documentary as insightful and surprising, in musical terms, as THE BEATLES: GET BACK. We owe Peter Jackson a debt of gratitude for pulling this off, and let’s be happy for Paul, Ringo and the wives of John and George, for seeing a critical record set straight at last.

UPDATE: Since this review was written, a DVD of the film was scheduled for release in February 2022. Apparently, a few copies managed to make it into the hands of some lucky fans, though once Amazon’s stock was depleted, the Disney Company pulled the package from its schedule and in April announced that the title has been delayed indefinitely due to “authoring challenges.” It now appears that the DVD and Blu-Ray editions will be released, at least in the UK, on July 26. The three-part docuseries is still streaming at Disney+.

HEADHUNTING FOR FUN AND PROFIT: THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS LIVE PREVIEW

They’re a little bit Donny and a little bit Marie… and a little bit James Brown and a little bit McKinley Morganfield… maybe even a little bit Woody Guthrie. The music of the Kentucky Headhunters is permeated with an amalgam of everything that is American music. The boys from the heart of Kentucky are a lean and not-too-mean Rock and Roll machine, hitting on all four cylinders. Like the rest of the world, Greg Martin, Fred Young, Richard Young and Doug Phelps found themselves with jobs that they couldn’t go to and, in a couple of cases, they were put low by the virus that held us all prisoners for nearly 30 months. Guitarist Martin said that the band was just “crawling out of the wreckage” in 2021, reconvening in February to record what became the album THAT’S A FACT JACK! and somehow managing to play about forty-five dates through the end of the year. Now, the Headhunters are back on the road and coming to the Effingham (Illinois) Performance Center, just a few hours up the road from Greg’s adopted home of Glasgow, Kentucky. With opening act Confederate Railroad in tow, he has guaranteed a good time for all. When asked what can be expected on April 2 in Effingham, Martin said, “It’s gonna be like somebody opened the corn crib and let a bunch of hogs in. It’s gonna be a frenzy of Rock and Roll, Country and Blues. Naw, man… we’re gonna have a great time. We always love playing that part of the state; it’s always a blast. We got a lot of fans. Yeah. I think you’re gonna see some guys just happy to be out playin’ music again.”

THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS (Greg Martin) (photo credit: CHRISTIE GOODWIN)

As excited as the guitarist was to get back to playing live, he was just as excited to tell us about his other career and, naturally, our conversation eventually ambled into a discussion about Greg’s LOWDOWN HOEDOWN program on WDNS radio out of Bowling Green. The three hour Blues-intensive show airs Monday nights beginning at 7:00 Central time and streams at wdnsfm.com. Brother Greg is a true musicologist and traditionally delves into the roots and the seedy underbelly of the beast we call Rock and Roll… don’t expect any type of genre segregation with this show as the man was raised on AM radio when it didn’t matter what kind of music was being played as long as it was good. You can expect the same type of show from the Headhunters. What a great way to spend a Saturday night! For ticket information, head over to the Performance Center’s site, the-epc.org.