directed by Austin Rich. Music by MKUltramegaphone.
Here are some videos I show the other night as part of the show at the Fifty Pub & Grub on 9 February 2017.
Komodo Fried Chicken Blues * Sufian Abdullah * Music To Break Out of Jail By
From Peru we move to Ipoh, Malaysia, and the work of instrumentalist Sufian Abdullah. While the location may change, the story of a lone musician honing his craft for years is universal, and Sufian spent his spare time in Ipoh playing guitar, over and over again, practicing riffs endlessly, perfecting chord changes, mastering solos. Sufian’s story could have happened in any city in the world. The only difference is that modern technology allows us to discover artists like this when, even 10 years ago, we would have never heard of a rock musician from Malaysia. And, in a way, he is merely a voice in a sea of digital albums available across the web, one of hundreds that are all vying for attention and your appreciation. Without having a friend clue me into this record, I probably would never have found it.
Fortunately for me, I did.
Music To Break Out of Jail By is a collection of tunes that are all born out of blues-based rock music. Everything is in that Black Sabbath style vein, with a trace of eastern musicality and form. This western influence on the guitar playing of Sufian is clearly his attempt to break out of the expectation that someone from Malaysia would carry in their musical work. Stuff like the Nirvana cover, “School,” – a droney, extended jam on the riff that veers into doomy territory – illustrates that Sufian is not only skilled, but a connoisseur of guitar, and that includes music from home as well as from all over the world, too. For western audiences, an album like this embodies a similar kind of transition: I recognize the blues progressions, but the format is helping me see this music in a new way that I would have never imagined.
As the story goes, Sufian Abdullah practiced guitar for years at home, playing along to all his favorite punk and metal records. This was mostly a hobby to him, and he took to it like some kids take to video games, relentlessly practicing until he had a huge repertoire of songs he could play upon request. However, it wasn’t until home recording was as easy as getting a laptop with GarageBand on it that Sufian even considered making an album. Made almost entirely by himself, this is a fantastic first effort, and even if this is Abdullah’s only release, it’s a great statement about music in general.
I also enjoy the fact that “Komodo Fried Chicken Blues” contains every imaginable rock and roll cliche in a new and intimidating form, and thus, is perfectly suited for Chickenman.
12.) The Down Home Boys / Original Stack O’ Lee Blues * Little Harvey Hull / Long “Cleve” Reed * The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Along with lone mavericks like Lee de Forest and his friends were collectors, people who spent their time reading about and purchasing rare records. For these folks, a unknown 78 was just as important as the legendary statue that Bogart was talking about when he uttered the phrase that became title of this compilation. But there’s an irony to its use in the movie that the people behind this compilation probably shouldn’t have allowed to be associated with their album: the falcon, of course, was a fake, and Sam Spade delivered the line ironically when a cop asked what the fake statue was all about.
The plot thickens, as The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of claims to contain “previously unissued” recordings of music from the 20s and 30s, an allegation that ironically didn’t pan out too well for Yazoo Records in the long run, though in the wake of O Brother Where Art Thou? becoming a global phenomenon, netted them a few dollars. While the pairing of R. Crumb artwork with Richard Nevins liner notes is supposed to drive home the authenticity of these songs, among collectors it is clear that a few of these cuts have made their way to the public before, and perhaps only a handful were “unissued” in any meaningful sense of that word. The claim that some are mastered from unheard test pressings seems, at this late date, to be incredibly unlikely, but nonetheless, The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of persists as a collection for beginners.
Keep in mind, this was 2006, and the Inter-Web-A-Tron wasn’t as comprehensive as it has become. Old Timey Music was starting to become incredibly popular among the NPR crowd, no longer the realm of people who lived and breathed these recordings. But for new fans, you couldn’t just Lycos “Little Harvey Hull” any easier than you can now, and even still, the information is spotty. Without the deep knowledge of these collectors helping guide you in this largely forgotten world, it is easy enough to end up like Kasper Gutman and Wilmer, tricked by something that looks and sounds like the original, but is not. This does not mean that the fake has no value; in the case of The Maltese Falcon, prop collectors now shell out insane amounts of cash to own a replica that was meant to represent a fake. In the case of this collection, at least there is some great music on it, and the value of a good song – even one you’ve heard before – cannot be underestimated.
Starting here I begin my run of Lee de Forest songs, one of the bit-players in the story of Radio. This original tune has origins that lie in the deep forgotten past, but the “Stack ‘o’ Lee Blues” has taken a number of forms, contemporaneously to the release of this recording, as well as in the misheard forms of “Stagger Lee” in the years since. The beauty of these tunes is that they are reinterpreted by artists endlessly, creating a sort of ‘Song For Any Occasion.’ Considering that both the Lee of this song and Lee de Forest himself shared some of the same qualities, it not only seemed appropriate, but essential.
The incidental music for this episode is “Tremens.” Not only are Sonic Youth the musical heirs to the Captain’s throne of art-rock aspirations, they heartily acknowledge this indebtedness in their own rendition of “Electricity” on a fantastic Beefheart tribute record. “Tremens” holds quite a bit of significance for me, personally. I began my stint on radio when the SYR series began, and I listened to them as I was learning the ropes. This track is featured in an early episode of my program, too. But the title gets at the thesis statement problem too: in order to get us to a place where we can understand the transformative effects electricity has had on music, we may suffer the the aural DTs as we travel back to the acoustic era of recording.
I also use a chunk of “Two Golden Microphones” not only because microphones themselves are such a large part of the narrative, and were the innovation that allowed music to evolve out of the acoustic era of recording, and into the electric era of recordings, but to further acknowledge that Nurse With Wound are the true pioneers of the cut-and-paste music aesthetic. In fact, between them and Negativland – the DNA of which should be apparently audible in nearly everything I’ve done – I would have no other schtick to stand on. So for that, thank you.
From here on the musical selections are slightly less symbolic and much more literal, though I do hope that these can work on at least two levels as well. Bing Crosby was chosen only because he is a perfect example of the kind of artist that could only have a career post-microphone. His voice is very well suited for an intimate performance, where we is really singing at a quiet and personal way, something that couldn’t be done in the era of acoustic recording.
There is something incredibly charming about being able to listen to Beethoven while you wash dishes, but for this I decided that I should find an actual Edison Cylinder recording, because I knew I could actually take the extra step. As this song is in mono, it adds another level of simplicity to the program. There are a number of places online that you can find wax cylinders, and I do very much love listening to these .mp3 transfers of a 100+ year old record for the disjoinedness of it. Therefore, I encourage you to go to The Thomas Edison section of The National Parks website, and download some archived recordings of Edison Cylinders. It’s a lot of fun, and they are all really weird.
06.) Aria from Massanet’s “Le Cid”: O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere * Enrico Caruso * 1916
Something that is lost on audiences 100 years later is the absolute star power of an artist with a name of which you have never heard. Enrico Caruso released more records in his lifetime than most tenors could ever imagine being featured on, and was the opera singer of his time. He packed houses across two continents, and critics have spoken so passionately about the sound of his voice that there are some schools who have annual competitions by students who eager to take a shot at describing Caruso’s vocal performances. If you don’t go that deep into opera, then there’s no reason you would be able to recognize the caliber of his performances, and since the last time Caruso was popular in the US was 100 years ago (and I’m not kidding, it has been that long, precisely), I’m not surprised you don’t know who he is. I only came across his music when I started listening to The Ragged Antique Phonograph Music Program, and even then I can only really say I know of him.
Plus, opera ain’t really my bag. But, as a key player in the early days of recording music, Caruso is a perfect example – unlike Bing – of being able to perform for the acoustic era. It is said that his voice loved the horn, and he could belt out a tune the way no one else could. It is no wonder he recorded over 250 times in his career; the dude could sing.
Various corners of the Inter-Web-A-Tron can reveal some incredible things, so here’s something fun I turned up as I was researching this episode: a recording of Arthur Sullivan from 1888 talking about being “thrilled and terrified” by Edison’s invention. Hopefully you have the kind of ear that can dig through the grooves on this one and really “grok” what he’s saying, but the gist of it is something that I think is at the heart of the central conversation about recorded music: the old generation is excited and annoyed by the next generation all at once. It was just too perfect, not only as an artifact, but as a way of framing how long this generation to generation conversation has been going since the beginning. Edison’s later resistance to electric recording technology, then finally giving in and embracing it far too late, is entirely foreshadowed, symbolically.
09.) Alexander’s Ragtime Band * Billy Murray * EDIS 36065 (1911)
Caruso might have been the opera equivalent of a rock star, but Billy Murray has often been referred to as the Elvis of his time, mostly in the sense that Murray was known by everyone. Unfortunately, he was considered a novelty for most of his career, which spanned almost 45 years across two centuries. Unquestioningly the biggest household name of the 1900s and 1910s, he sang vaudevillian ballads and novelty songs, and for nearly 20 years made a living touring and singing to people all across the country. His singing style is considered “conversational,” and people really connected with his everyman style, unconventional compared to other artists working the similar circuit. While he continued to get work into the early ’40s, as electric recording techniques and jazz began to dominate the record industry, Murray had less and less star power. In the acoustic era of recording, Billy was the biggest star America had ever known in popular music, and it wasn’t until Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra that someone as huge grabbed the American consciousness. While his name is largely forgotten today, this is a sample of American Popular music at the beginning of the 20th Century. Hopefully, as we continue with more History Lessons, we can see this style and format evolve.
For a story like this, how can you NOT pick Beefheart’s “Electricity” to kick-start this mother, huh? If the thesis statement runs along the lines of: electricity is to music as punk rock is to pop — then you really have to put your cards on the table up front, dig? And truly, “Electricity” was the lighthouse beacon straight ahead across black seas, a song that laid bare a new path that rock and roll could forge through the saccharine formula that was prevalent across the musical landscape in 1967.
Already in the years between the early and late 1950s the world has seen an incredible revolution in the form of rock ‘n’ roll, and the ’60s see a massive array of miniature musical revolutions to match, each setting the course for a wide number of new interpretations. For Beefheart, it was the dirtiness of rock ‘n’ roll, it was the strangeness of The Blues (with a capital T & B) all mixed with this country shuffle, that really turned him on. But Beefheart wanted to distort both the recording of his vocals specifically and the artform as a whole intellectually, to return the music to its raunchy & rebellious origins. Ambitious? Absolutely. No small feat for any band of any era. Beefheart’s deconstruction of the blues/rock jam is so perverted it just oozes with the grime that is unmistakably punk in spirit and form. “Oh, they do it that way? Well, we do it this way.” There’s a sort of Troggs-y quality to the forward momentum and chord-progressions, true, but even that comparison only highlights the weirdness of the bass-line, a direct ancestor of the first Clash album, or some Ramones tunes. This, in many ways, is the source of the infection, patient zero, at least of this particular strain.
The myths surrounding this number are, themselves, larger than life, and the most appropriate pieces of foreshadowing if ever there were any. As it goes, Jerry Moss (the co-owner of Beefheart’s label) claimed the song was “too negative” for him to allow his daughter to hear it, leading to A&M Records dropping Beefheart. It is also said that in an effort to get the gritty vocals, The Captain shattered a microphone during one take. But the strangest legend of “Electricity” comes from one account of a legendary performance on 11 June 1967. The Magic Band was slated to play on Day Two of The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, by all accounts the first true rock festival as they exist in the modern form.
By way of an all too appropriate tangent within a tangent within an annotation, it is interesting to note that the promoters (Tom Rounds and the staff at KFRC 610) were inspired by the success of The Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California, who were putting together these multi-stage, two-day events with music and artists and food and drinks, packaged together as a weekend of renaissance style fun. They wanted to do a rock & roll / freeform radio version of their event, and out of this was born The Fantasy Fair, a less documented affair that happened a full week previous to The Monterey Pop Festival, and really kicked off The Summer of Love.
The Fantasy Fair was, for lack of a glamours way of putting it, trying to capitalize on the rise of Psychedelic Rock. Sgt. Peppers had just come out, and everybody was talking about the San Francisco scene, which was already a few years old by then, and was was already being considered old news by the hipsters who were moving on to the slightly “harder” stuff that was happening in the underground “garage rock” scene of the late ’60’s. KFRC figured they could squeeze a few dollars from these hippies and make a mark in a big way for freeform AM radio by covering the event. Everybody wins.
They were, of course, 100% right. While there were absolutely financial motivations, KFRC was also looking to reclaim rock and roll from the awful version that America was living with in those days. The early ’60’s had seen the rise of the disdainfully named “bubble gum” craze, called such not only for the association that the music was for children, but for the added insult that the music was also quickly flavorless, and ultimately disposable. The Pat Boone-ification of these baby-faced teen idols led to a very bland format, which at the time was parading as “rock and roll.” A lot of people remembered how exciting it was to hear Little Richard on the radio, and were not getting the same vibe from Paul Anka. At least with the scene at The Fillmore, it could be said to be about, and for, adults who liked to rock, and who remembered that rock and roll used to be fierce and seedy, and fun. The Rock Festival, as an artistic statement, was to draw a line in the sand and say, “over here, we try to expand our minds like real adults.”
Were we ever so naive?
The line-up at The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Festival is a veritable who’s who of late ’60’s rock bands: The Doors, Canned Heat, Chocolate Watch Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, The Fifth Dimension. It is in this insane time and place where Captain Beefheart performed his greatest version of “Electricity.” Here’s the scoop: The Seeds has just laid waist to the audience, themselves already declaring so-called “psychedelic” rock to be bullshit they produced their own hard-driving sound that was pretty formidable for audiences who were there to see Tim Buckley, or had heard that, “Mr. Tambourine Man” cover and thought it was “pretty.” The Doors had already begun to walk the darker side of rock music, and there was a small but dedicated group of folks who were exploring things that were new and different. The Magic Band sets up, trying to find a way to follow the propulsive set The Seeds had just offered. The crowd is ravenous. They are ready to rock. Time freezes. You can hear the sound of a pin dropping amplified through stage speakers.
The Magic Band winds up, rears back, and lurches forward. “Electricity” issues forth to a slightly perplexed crowd. They don’t know what to make of it. A few are just loaded, so they start to dance. Others just watch. Several wander off. One person is turned away slightly, eating. But most are trying to get into it, trying to figure it out. This whole weekend has been about something new, and they are eager. This song is a little shaky on the landing. Perhaps not the best song to open with, but Beefheart insisted. If they could just get to their next tune, “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which has been a bit of a hit when it came out and got a ton of radio play, perhaps they could win–
Beefheart signals, and the band lurches to a halt. They’re confused. What happened? The audience is stunned. They really don’t know what to make of the situation. Beefheart silently straightened his tie, and pointed to a girl in the crowd. Off mic he says, “she has turned into a goldfish.” Silence, quieter than before. Beefheart walks toward the girl, right off the front of the stage, pitching up face first in the mud and grass below. “That’s it!” yells Ry Cooder. “I have had it with your pretentious unpredictable bullshit, Don!” Cooder walks off stage, and out of The Magic Band forever. As Cooder leaves The Captain – still face down – signals again, and the band picks up the song (as best they could, sans one guitar), as if nothing had happened. As the show went on, you could see Beefheart smiling through the grass stains on his face.
The Seeds claimed it was the best performance they had every seen anywhere, and they should know, as they caught the whole thing from the side as they shared a joint.
Fuck the Summer of Love. This festival was the beginning of Punk Rock.