Suburban Signals & Rock ‘n’ Roll Curios

07.) Morse Code * Don Woody * MCA Rockabillies

don woodyDon Woody is not anyone about which you should necessarily know, and even his place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame is more as a footnote than as a true heavy hitter in the story Rock & Roll. But his song “Morse Code” is not only entirely relevant to the conversation at hand, but is a good example of how many lesser known figures are also movers and shakers behind the scenes. Don was a support act for Red Foley, and Brenda Lee recorded a version of one of this tunes. Don’s backing band was none other than the Slewfoot Five, known for working with country legend Grady Martin (who popularized “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” among other things). But outside of his six or so songs released on Decca & Arco Records as cheap 45s, Don Woody’s career never broke into the national consciousness, and even in these MCA Rockabillies collections, he’s still more footnote than star.

People like this are often forgotten entirely if it weren’t for hardcore fans preserving music for future generations, and this series on Norton Records (picking up where Big Tone Records left off) deals with those forgotten gems and lost treasures that are not talked about much by modern fans. Music, like mythology, is dependent on the stories the culture is telling at any given moment, and while Don Woody’s tale – if there was ever much of one to tell – probably mirrors that of 100s of has-been artists who have put their hair up with pomade and tried to write a love song or two. The big difference here is that Don’s music, like all the artists featured on the MCA Rockabillies series, is as good, if not better, than anything that qualifies as well known from the same era.

A travesty? Maybe. If we knew enough about Don we could speculate more about what might have led to this minor god never gaining a reputation to make that of Hercules. Don’s career flamed out before the ’60’s really began, and maybe it was better that he took a shot and retreated to a simple down-home life, rather than become front page news when there’s nothing much worth reporting. His is certainly a more common story, and one that everyone can relate to to better than that of Carl Perkins, or Johnny Cash.

Don fell in love. Don wrote some songs about it. He made a small name for himself, and then went home to BE in love, on his own terms, and not just for his own sake.

How many of us can say that?

San Francisco’s First & Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band

09.) Hot Wire My Heart * Crime * Once Upon A Time Vol. 2: USA 1976

Crime07The B-Side to Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” is “Baby You’re So Repulsive.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

1975 was on the cusp of punk’s big debut, where a sea of rock bands that were stewing in the proto-punk beginnings were coming to a head in the big explosions happening in the UK, LA & New York, when Punk, capital P, legendarily “started.” But to say even that is a pretension that ignores the very, very obvious: it wasn’t in a vacuum. It wasn’t like there were no rock bands before Television first took the stage. The stage was there already, and other bands in the years between had climbed on it before them. The world was stewing in weridness that was as perverse as it was diverse: The Flaming Groovies, MX-80 Sound, Debris, Simply Saucer, The Gizmos, Zolar-X, The Memphis Goons, The Count Five, The Seeds. The list goes on and on. And during those in-between years, guys were growing up in the suburbs who were learning to play from copying Ventures records, filtering The New York Dolls through their own peculiar perspective. Those very guys turned into something that more or less approximates San Francisco’s First & Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, Crime.

Their story is as improbable as it is absolutely fascinating. The members of Crime all met hanging out at bars in San Francisco, all united by this strange mix of glam rock tastes that quickly led to photo shoots before they even had a name. After getting into a rigorous three times a week practice ethic, they burst into a studio one day and recorded a handful of tracks in front of a befuddled hippy engineer who was told outright he was cutting “the first west coast punk record.” (This same engineer stormed off after the band told him they wanted to record it live, without mixing anything.) Those tracks would make up their first two 7″s, which they self-released at a time when very few bands imagined such a thing was possible. Their records always sold poorly, in spite of the fact that the band thought it would be clever to market material as “punk” to jump on a trend that was up and coming, despite the fact that they saw it as a fad with no real substance. It was only when Crime decided to start playing for audiences that they dropped the punk label and insisted on being called the first and only Rock ‘n’ Roll band from San Francisco (at the time, a pointed dig at the way Jefferson Airplane used to promote themselves).

Their debut performance for an audience was on Halloween, 1976. It was a “GayPolitical fundraiser” (their words), where they played to movers and shakers in the activist community, and for a few friends that came with the band. Their willingness to play in unusual venues became as much a staple of their shows, as did the S&M Police Uniforms they wore on stage: a Tuesday night at a gay club on Market, San Quentin Prison (dressed in guard uniforms), and occasionally at the Mabuhay Gardens to befuddled audiences who never seemed impressed. When no where else would give them a gig, they rented their own venues and financed the shows themselves, DIY before there was even a name for it.

Their flyers featured war criminals and serial killers (including Hitler), all designed to send a very specific message that was confrontational in every way imaginable. When you experienced the band Crime, it was on their terms, period. It was the antithesis of everything that was hip and cool at the time, but a completely unsustainable way to conduct a band. After three obscure seven inches and six years worth of shows that almost all lost money, they packed it in before it was possible to consider selling out as an option (though some claim that they did so on the third record, where they were paid largely in drugs, and the songs on it sound different than the rest of their stuff). What they had left in the very end was a pile of glam-tinted stories to last the next 40 years, and an astounding gauntlet to be thrown down at a time when punk had barely even begun to start in earnest.

Crime were, by all accounts, drugged out, drunk, on too much coffee, all of the above, and argumentative, with each other and anyone who would engage them. This never really won them over a devoted fan base, but they had a circle of friends who came to the shows mostly so they could all get fucked up together. They did score some opening spots for touring acts, but their performances were mostly controlled violence, where the band played mid-tempo “rock” songs at a time when people wanted fast and loud. It seemed that they were a band without a home: outside of close friends, scensters active in pre-punk San Francisico ran in very tight circles.  Crime did not play their bullshit games, in a complete rejection of all things cool. Crime took the Suicide approach to performances: loud, plodding, and in your face. Crime took a fascist approach to their imagery, and made such a reputation for themselves that they were rejected by the scene itself.

Crime insist that they are too wild for radio, but the problem is that there’s a dirty, filthy pop song at the center of “Hot Wire My Heart,” a song with drugs and prostitutes, improbable bedroom talk in the form of a Velvet Turner Group reference, and this car radio metaphor as the narrative frame. “Got your eye on the main control / turn it on and let’s go.” Not the most subtle analogy, true, but neither is having to create a short in your own circuitry to get you to feel anything – sex, drugs, ANYTHING – at this jaded stage in your bored life. Through the sneering and slop they pour into the tune, the story of a stereo blasting to life after you finish twisting the wires to get the motor running, the band playing couldn’t be anyone but Crime, could it? The radio blasts to life, and its like a spike in your arm, a mean installation of dominating rhythm.

Crime is probably better known now than when they were initially around, and their reputation is easier to digest when they are old and on a reunion tour, rather than the drunken spitting hot mess they once were. But in their first release they admit that they don’t have a place on modern radio, in spite of their contrary belief that rock music needed, desperately, to be saved from itself, by any means necessary. They knew going in that their vision did not fit the format of their time, but now, in a post-Crime universe, radio is more than ready to Hot Wire the Hearts of people who missed this incredible band the first time.

In Lust With You

17.) Blue Spark * X * Beyond & Back: The X Anthology

X-Beyond_and_Back-_The_X_AnthologyAside from the loosest connection to Spark-gap broadcasting, I take every opportunity I can to include an X tune in a show, so I can again remind people that I got to meet Exene Cervenka, and interview her form my 12th Anniversary broadcast. It was one of the coolest moments in my career, and she was game to hang out and chat and make my night.

As a huge fan of X ever since I was introduced to them via The Decline of Western Civilization, I’ve seen them several times now, and I find their songs an endless well of inspiration and perfect rock music structure. In many ways X distilled the entire history of rock and roll into a hopped up unit of cool, painting these perfect and harrowing images in song form. There’s a reason I ended the program with “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” for so long, and I will find any reason to play X. They’re just one of those bands.

But like I was at 20 when my friend Lyra Cyst forced me to watch Decline, there was a point when I didn’t have most of their albums, and when I was completely new to their stuff. For someone in that theoretical position, who wasn’t sure about a new band as they were generally skeptical about all things new, the Beyond & Back two-disc set would have been a great entry point.  It not only gives you a very good overview of the band and their history, but offers treasures, unreleased tracks, all the hits, live bits, and other mixes of well known tunes.

What is genius about this collection is that it rocks all the way through – essential for hooking new accolades – and rewards long-term fans with treats you didn’t know you needed to own. A lot of collections like this tend to fall short of being anything other than a greatest hits shtick, or a contractual obligation release. To make it a two disc set that complements and introduces all at once is pretty fantastic, and a rarity for most artists.

“Blue Spark” has a sort of stop-start structure to it that you can imagine acting as an SOS Signal, sending out bum-bump message to someone across the bar. There is always an undercurrent of smoldering sexuality running beneath most X songs, a sort of pulse that vibrates in time with the rest of the tune. When X is firing on all cylinders they are sex, strutting around the stage with beers in hand and cocaine eyes that want to have their way in spite of the terrifying world that exists outside the club door. They’re looking to create a spark in the listener’s mind, to turn them on and make them dance and celebrate in this secret corner of the city, away from the pain and misery and violence and horror that the rest of city pummels them with each day. They just want to look you in the eye as they sway in ecstasy and know that you are feeling it too, in that moment. They paint a picture of a horny dude waiting for his famous wife to finally fuck him after a long day, but they do it in the most sexually propulsive way imaginable, ignoring the subtext of the loneliness and isolation both characters feel in their lives, separate and together in spite of their orgasms.

The build-up and release form does, when you squint at it, mirror the morse code that radio took before voices were seamlessly integrated into wireless broadcasts, and the penetrative power of radio itself could take the sex metaphor to other places, if I wanted to make that case. But I think X handles those with a little more deft that is not only the perfect rock song, but is more suggestive upon repeated listenings.

Cold War Composer

mescherin106.) No Kolhoznoi Ptitsaferme (On The Kolkhoz Poultry Farm) * Orkestar Vyacheslav Mescherin * Easy USSR

Vyacheslav was 16 at the onset of WWII, when he immediately joined and fought for the Red Army, and was decorated for his service, twice: the Order of the Red Star and the “For Courage” Medals.  Growing up on a soviet farm, he was happy to serve his country, and came out of the war a few years older & wiser, a well respected member of his community.  

orchestraUsing skills he picked up in the military, he became a radio and electronics repairman back home, where he would tinker and futz with the equipment he would pick up in his town, and help everyone make sure they could tune in to the Farm Report.  Vyacheslav had an interest in compositional music and modern composers, but western pop and dance music began to catch his interest, in spite of his dedication to his home country.  This eventually led to him getting a job as an engineer for the music department of the State Radio in early 1957.  He would help with the equipment, record music for broadcast with the gear and performers available, and create the radio ecosystem that the Russian people would experience through his work.  Their budget was huge in spite of their non-existent “pay,” but his studio was top of the line, with new electronic keyboards and gear that would put American studios to shame. 

sputnik-1__1Vyacheslav loved his new job, but it wasn’t until 4 October 1957, when he became obsessed with the radio reports about Sputnik (the first satellite launched into space) that inspiration struck.  Vyacheslav began to see things in a very new way, understanding that the modern man would live in a world with technology & leisure.  Somewhere in all of this, music – Vyacheslav’s music – would have to evolve with the man who was listening.  

The Orchestra of Electronic Instruments, largely using  MOOG-like keyboard and theremins, was largely Vyacheslav himself, with occasional studio engineers helping out with his compositions.  With an ear for turning a well known folk or western hit into a space-age lounge performance that was unlike anything in the USSR, Vyacheslav began to score the radio that was heard around the USSR.  

hqdefaultFrom the onset it was not well regarded.  While the state was not apposed to the music he made outright – and more pointedly was never in any danger of being asked to stop performing his “clothes irons” playing classical in public – the reviews were not kind up front.  It wasn’t even the idea that Vyacheslav was performing western music; rock & roll had caught on in the USSR as it had anywhere else in the world, and there were already state-sanctioned acts performing all over the country.  But on the whole no one believed, in 1958, that electronic music was anything more than a goof, or a novelty, if anything.  It worked well for these “space” reports, but not for the average citizen.  These synthesizers couldn’t possibly do anything more than a cute parody of what real instruments could provide.  

Nebo_Zovyot_film_poster_1959The following year, Vyacheslav recorded the soundtrack for the russian sci-fi classic, Nebo Zovyot.  The success of that film led to him recording more electronic music outside of the work he did for radio, and the response was positive to those releases, too.  

Over the next 10 years the music began to catch on all over the USSR.  Yuri Gagarin was said to have considered him his favorite artist.  Vyacheslav’s music went into the national archive, and was used by any number of broadcasters throughout his career.  The makers of the Russian Television used many of his songs in their shows, and made his songs favorites of kids and adults everywhere.  

Vyacheslav was given the title of “The People’s Artist”, and recorded over 700 songs in the 30+ years of his career.  When he retired in 1990, the music of Russian radio and television was of a much lower quality afterward.  For many, entertainment in the USSR was very obviously pre and post Vyacheslav.  It’s no wonder that the following year the Soviet Union disolved.  Vyacheslav’s music was holding it together.  

nu_pogodi_have_a_smoke_by_waylonsmithers“No Kolhoznoi Ptitsaferme” was the theme music to the very popular series “Rabbit and Wolf,” (“Nu, Pogodi!”) which ran from the late ’60’s through the ’70’s, and it’s likely most Russian citizens could hum the tune if you asked them.  This song is fairly emblematic of the sound Vyacheslav mastered in his career.  His rendition of “Pop Corn” was a huge hit, and his insistence on using all electronic gear to compose pre-figured the current climate of recording music using GarageBand.  

More importantly, it is embarrassing how unknown he is in the west, as he is not only the most well known early pioneer of electronic music in Russia, but is very well known by most artists outside of the US.  He was performing and composing in 1958 in ways that our western counterparts didn’t master until the ’70’s, and yet the Cold War has forever relegated his work to the “world music” section of most music fans collection.  

There is a fantastic two disc set – Easy USSR1366746978_cd-front-sm600 – that attempts to rectify this error, but the substantial body of his work is unknown to people outside of Russian Radio nerds, and is almost inaccessible in the US.  Hopefully I will live to see the day when we can hear his work mentioned along with Bruce Haack and Silver Apples.  Given the Cold War undertones in Chickenman (however muted they might be), I liked the juxtaposition (and perfect complement) these two pieces of art have when played together.