Sunday, October 02, 2016

Looking Back and Living in the Now: Good Times and 50 Years of the Monkees

I found a copy of Spy magazine from the mid-1990s when I cleared out some storage boxes the other day. Spy was a nothing’s sacred snarkfest for hip cognoscenti of the time. I don’t know why I kept this particular issue – probably some tenuous connection with someone who worked there, or who was related to somewhere who worked there.  I flipped through it, chuckling at some of the irreverent skewering of public figures and fads. That is, until I got to a page containing a calendar of “The Worst Events in History.” The calendar included events like the Hindenberg explosion, the Titanic, and "on December 30th, Davy Jones was born in Manchester, England".  

I tossed the magazine. (Yes, I know. It's all a hoot til they make fun of someone you like.)

 Davy Jones was to snarky music people of the ‘60s –‘00s what Justin Beiber is to today’s snarky crowd. A convenient teenie-bopper idol and scapegoat for all that was (perceived to be) uncool, Davy and the rest of the Monkees were relegated to the remnants table of musical history for a long time after the TV show ended.   

They were “the pre-fab Four, they don’t play their instruments, they don’t have any talent, blah-blah”. Reality proves the nay-sayers wrong on all counts. Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith had solo recording contracts before they were Monkees. Micky Dolenz played in a band and recorded a few singles, and Peter Tork was a folk singer in Greenwich Village. Of course, other musicians (Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia, etc.) defended them. They hung out with the Beatles. Tork introduced Buffalo Springfield at Monterey Pop and dated Janis Joplin.

Oh, and let’s not forget “Headquarters” the Monkees’ third album. Fed up with not being allowed to contribute more than a few self-penned songs or play their instruments on their first two studio albums, they rebelled. In a defining moment that would do a punk rocker proud, Mike Nesmith punched a plasterboard wall in a Beverly Hills Hotel room during a meeting with musical director Don Kirshner. He told Donnie (allegedly) “That coulda been your face, motherfucker.”

Kirshner went on to the Archies, and Headquarters went on to top the Billboard charts upon its release in May 1967 – until the Beatles Sergeant Pepper usurped it the following week. 

Still, some people persisted in trashing them.  And this continued throughout the 1970s, where any mention of the Monkees as an entity was greeted with a snicker, except by loyalists and young kids who watched Saturday morning reruns of the show.

This changed after the 1986 reunion. And even the reunion was short-lived in the mainstream. By the end of the 1980s, interest had waned for all but the loyal fans. Micky, Davy and Peter continued to tour as the Monkees for the next few decades. Mike joined them to record the Justus album (and tape a TV special) in 1996,  but both projects failed to capture the public's interest.  

P.S.- I still think “Regional Girl” would been a hit in ’96 if the Monkees had used a cloaked advertising campaign ala the Alarm  and used a young band in the video.

Fast forward to 2016. The Monkees and Rhino release the album Good Times. Produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, with new songs written by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge,  Ben Gibbard  and Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller. All cool young –ok-middle aged guys - with a bunch of indie cred. Micky sings with his old Hollywood Vampire buddy Harry Nilsson, through the miracle of digital technology on the title track.  There’s a reworked versions of Davy singing “Love to Love”,  Peter singing “Little Girl”, a song he originally wrote for Davy, and  the album-closing “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time),” based on one of Micky’s stock interview responses.

Ben Gibbard joins Micky to sing Me & Magdelena in Seattle

The release of Good Times coaxed out older Monkees fans who had remained undercover for years. It debuted at #14 upon its release in May the band’s highest charting album since 1968, and was #1 on Billboard’s vinyl release chart.

Legions of fans have now joined social media regulars to post about their love for the Monkees. The fandom-oriented site Tumblr is full of teens and twentysomethings who like the Monkees.  The Tumblr fandom was at its peak for a year or two after Davy died, and leveled out to a calmer pace for this year’s 50th anniversary. Now, Facebook and Pinterest host the brunt of Monkees’ photos and discussions.

To accompany the album and Monkees renaissance, a slew of books about the band have been released in the past few years The most recent, The Monkees, Head and the ‘60s by Peter Mills, examines the movie that closed out the bands’ first era and all the events of the 1960s that influenced its making and the TV series.

A Little Bit Me,A Little Bit You: the Monkees from a Fan's Perspective by Fred Velez is a memoir by a lifelong fan of the group.Interview with the author here. 

Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture by Roseanne Welch gives an academic look at the TV show and the Monkees phenomenon.

Monkee Magic: a Book about a TV Show about a Band by Melanie Mitchell is a fun look into the specifics of each episode, with no wardrobe choice or co-star left unexamined.

Michael Nesmith’s Last Show as a Monkee – September 16, 2016, L.A.'s Pantages Theater

A few weeks before the Monkees, I mean Twokees, show at L.A.’s Pantages Theater, the band announced it would be Micheal Nesmith’s last live performance as a Monkee. Tickets for the show, which were already scare, disappeared.

I attended the show, and it was truly sold out. I spied not one empty seat. People flew in from England, Japan, New York and all points in the U.S., and the crowd was in a boisterous mood.   

Micky, Mike and Peter took the stage and, after a preparatory huddle, the band blasted into” Last Train to Clarksville”. There weren’t any obvious references made about the show being Mike’s last.

Despite their ages (Peter’s 74), you get the feeling they’ll keep going, together or separately, til they’re 100, or maybe 105 in Micky’s case. (He just keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny.) It’s hard to believe any concert by any boomer artist is actually the last one. How many last tours have we seen from the Who, Kiss and Black Sabbath? With 20 years of farewell concerts under our belts, how can we believe anyone’s proclamation that this will be the last concert? It’s not over until someone’s dead and buried, and even then, their holograms make an appearance. 

Clips from the episodes played on the screen in the background; it was hard not to take your eyes off the stage for a sec and look. (I saw Peter sneak a peek a few times.)  

It was a flawless, fast-paced show from Micky, Mike, Peter and their backing band. Coco Dolenz (Micky’s sister) & Circe Link were sublime on backing vocals. Mike’s son Christian Nesmith on guitar, drummer Rich Dart, bassist John Billings , keyboardist Dave Alexander and lead guitarist Wayne Avers provided a rich and textured, but totally rock sound to the festivities. This wasn’t a “Vegas backing band” type experience.

Highlights - A softer, reworked version of Sometime in the Morning leading into Mike and Micky’s voices blending perfectly on the haunting Me and Magdalena.

Micky, Mike and Peter and the crowd at the Pantages singing the chorus to Daydream Believer as the Rainbow Room video of the song - with a recording of Davy singing - played.

Mike singing a heartfelt version of Tapioca Tundra and talking about what inspired the song (the band’s first live show in Hawaii).

The energetic versions of "Listen to the Band", "Circle Sky", "Mary, Mary" and "Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" verged on hard rock. The back-up band really cooked on these songs, and the guys belted out the vocals with gusto. How is it that the guys are in their early 70s and their voices are stronger than ever - even Peter!

In the lyric booklet for Good Times, Gibbard wrote “I spent countless hours in front of the TV in the ‘80s, watching Monkees reruns and wishing I could climb through the screen and be with them.” There’s not much difference between what a young, non-musician girl in the ‘60s or a young, musically inclined guy in the ‘80s felt when watching the show or listening to the music. When I was a kid watching the original broadcasts in the 1960s,  I hated it when the show ended. I wanted to go live with the band and share their adventures with all week.

The Monkees deserve to be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. While the value of the hall itself is debatable, we all know they should be enshrined with their peers. Maybe their trajectory was different, but they left an indelible imprint on pop culture, more so than many bands that were real from the start.

The guys have forged a musical and emotional connection with countless fans through the past 50 years. The bond is pretty intense and rivaled only by the affection and reverence felt by Beatles fans.

It looks like the Monkees got the last laugh on those snarky journalists and know-it-alls.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon by James Campion

Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon
James Campion
Backbeat Books, 400 pages

Released on March 15, 1976, Destroyer catapulted Kiss from underground sensation to constant media presence. The recording of Destroyer was as colorful and chaotic as the album itself, and every nuance is covered in James Campion’s book Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon.

Before Destroyer, Kiss attracted mostly male fans with songs about sex, sex, whores and more sex. (OK, so not that different from what they’d do later on.) With the single “Beth”, the band catapulted into mainstream consciousness and have remained there for over 40 years.  When Kiss Alive was released in 1975, it became an unexpected hit, and the recording of the next studio album took on new importance. 

The book covers the band or “The Act’s” (Campion’s term) pre-history and their first three albums for legendary Casablanca Records. Despite their outrageous appearance and a music press that lapped it up, mainstream success eluded them.  You’d think with all the facepaint, leather and platform boots they’d storm through mid-70s America immediately, but the road wasn’t that easy.

Bob Ezrin, the young Canadian producer who helmed Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare, signed on to produce the band’s fourth studio album. Ezrin greeted the band naked except for a bowtie (allegedly), but the recording sessions that followed weren’t always quite as light-hearted. Ezrin schooled the band in music theory and challenged them to expand their creative horizons. A stern taskmaster, he even refused to procure Gene’s hookers for him.

Ezrin ran the sessions like a musical boot camp, taking the demos and working with the band to improve them. Case in point - “Beth” started out as a demo from Criss’ old band, Lips. Originally a song called “Beck” about a nagging wife, Ezrin and the band reworked it into the ballad that saturated the airwaves in 1976.

The song, originally paired as the B side of “Detroit Rock City”, took off when DJ Rosalie Trombly of Windsor-based, Detroit-aimed CKLW started playing it, preferring it to “Detroit Rock City”. Listeners loved it so much Casablanca made it the “A” side, and the ballad became “The Act’s” best-selling single ever, reaching #7 on the Billboard charts.

The Destroyer sessions succeeded in turning the four distinct personas – previously relayed by just costumes and make-up, and breathed fire (excuse the expression) and life into them. The album - and “Beth” were the starting point of the “How Can We Miss Them If They Won’t Go Away?” Kiss empire. The songs weren’t just rowdy party anthems, under Ezrin’s direction, they took on mythic proportions. 

“Do You Love Me?” established Paul as the Starchild, the group’s romantic lead. Ezrin and the band reworked the Stanley-penned “God of Thunder”, into Gene’s theme song, giving his onstage demon persona the perfect soundtrack. “Flaming Youth” and “Great Expectations” were positioned as youth anthems.

Drawing from Stanley’s memory of a news story about a fan who died in a car crash somewhere in the South, Ezrin sandwiched “Detroit Rock City”, a raucous tribute to the Motor City, with an audio melodrama, complete with news radio snippet and car crash sound effects.  


Campion devotes quite a bit of detective work attempting to unearth the real story behind the tragedy that spawned “Detroit Rock City”, and the entire epilogue is devoted to this subject. The book consists of new interviews and tales from Ezrin, Jay Messina, Corky Stasik, Kim Fowley, Bob Gruen, Ken Kelly, (the artist who designed the iconic comic superhero cover),and lots of archival interviews.

Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon may be way too involved for the causal fan. If you’re looking for some quick gossip, or if the nuts and bolts of songwriting and the analog recording process bores you, this book’s not for you. There are the usual tales of Ace and Peter’s drinking and drugging, sex in the studio and such, but Shout It Out Loud concentrates on the writing and recording and subsequent promotion of Destroyer in minute detail. 

Devoted Kissaholics, however, will appreciate the look into every nook and cranny of the recording sessions, promotion and tour that accompanied Destroyer.        

Friday, February 05, 2016

Music Review: Fuzzy Vox: No Landing Plan

No Landing Plan
Fuzzy Vox
Fuzzy Vox Facebook Page

The second album from French power pop trio, Fuzzy Vox, No Landing Plan, is an upbeat collection of songs combining the best attributes of melodic power pop and hard-edged garage rock. The band travels out of their comfort zone into social commentary and psych-pop on a few of the tracks, without sacrificing the infectious beat. 

Fuzzy Vox formed in 2011 in Joinville Le Pont, France, on the outskirts of Paris. The band released a few EPs before releasing 2014’s On Heat, their debut album.   

Singer Hugo Fabri has the vocal chops to veer from melodic powerpop to raunchy garage rock with no detectable accent. And he supplies the album’s brisk, no-frills guitar work and keyboards. Drummer Nico Maia and bassist Gregoire Dessons form a sturdy musical backbeat, keeping the album’s groove consistent.

For No Landing Plan, the band ventured to California to record, enlisting producers Ryan Castle, who’s worked with Snow Patrol, Black Sabbath, Billy Idol, ZZ Top, etc., and Andy Brohard (Wolfmother, Tegan and Sara, the Hives). The songs were mastered by Howie Weinberg, who has worked with Nirvana, the Ramones, Herbie Hancock, and other legendary artists. The ace recording team renders the band’s well-crafted songs into crisp, infectious tracks for maximum danceability.

“Explosion of Love” kicks off the album with an infectious beat designed to make you move. The frenetic rhythm of “Distracted” is great for pogoing or frugging, a ‘60s garage rock revival that channels the Sonics. “Told You Before” with its out-of-kilter energy and gritty vocals, has that unapologetic brashness of mid-60s Kinks’ and Who. “Raw Evil” starts out a bit like Elvis Costello, then segues into heavier garage rock. “Bo Diddley” pays tribute to one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll with its frenetic beat. (The band’s featured a window-rattling version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” on their Technicolor EP.)

 “Don’t Leave Me Behind” is bouncy, skinny-tie power pop to the nth power, and “I Got a Girl” draws from Plimsouls influences with a wilder pace.

 The band proves they’re not afraid to tackle serious subjects in “They Shot Charlie”, about the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. The tone picks up again with the bouncy “Easy Street”. The album’s last track "A Reason to Love" is lush, psych-pop with a guitar theme out of a TV western.  A spoken word interlude near the end fades out with some distorted guitar, making it the album's most ambitious track. 

Pure, high energy songs, tight playing and production, and a groovy ‘60s era comic book album cover make Fuzzy Vox’s No Landing Plan a  30 minute joyride for fans of fun, unpretentious rock ‘n’ roll.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Music Review:Sci-Fi Romance: Dust Among the Stars

Dust Among the Stars
Sci-Fi Romance
Broken Image Entertainment

The new album by L.A. based alt-folk band Sci-fi Romance, Dust Among the Stars, creates a somber landscape that pulls you in without depressing you. The songs make you think more than brood, and ultimately, show a glimmer of hope. Another strong effort, it’s just as thought-provoking as Kotrla and company’s previous releases, including …and surrender my  body to the flame and The Ghost of John Henry.  

Singer-songwriter Vance Kotrla finds inspiration in found film, horror movies and quirky pop culture. There’s a sense of this, of the atmospheric and the unusual, on Dust Among the Stars, even when the songs themselves don’t deal with those subjects.

Most of the songs on Dust deal with love, the uncertainty of life – normal fodder for pop and rock songs, but the presentation gives it a depth not found in many rock releases.
   “If I Fell”, combines pop love song sentiment underscored with somber thumping rhythm. This gives it a haunting charm that’s neither mainstream nor pure Goth. “Everything Burns” reflects on the lost love and the passage of time, with Jody Stark’s plaintive cello emphasizing the message.

“Pale Blue Dot”, inspired by a photo of Earth taken by Voyager I, puts man’s place in the universe in perspective.(“All we are/ all we’ve ever been/ a pale blue dot on the head of a pin”) The track is dedicated to astronomer Carl Sagan.

“Shakespeare’s Lovers” features guest vocalist Kristen Vogel , an opera singer whose performed with St. Petersburg Opera and the Asheville Lyric Opera, among others. Her soulful but tender soprano brings this tale of star-cross lovers to life. She also adds vocals to the romantic “Let’s Run”, her warm, reassuring voice meshes with Kotrla’s baritone. The closing ballad “When You Wake”, consisting of only guitar and vocal, has the quiet comfort of a lullaby. 

Dust Among the Stars is the most accessible of the Sci-Fi Romance CDs, but that doesn’t mean Vance Kotrla has lost his edge. On the contrary, Sci-Fi Romance is just tapping the surface of their capabilities.

You can watch the video for “If I Fell” on YouTube

Friday, January 15, 2016

Music Reviews: Micky Dolenz:The MGM Singles Collection and The First Bobby Hart Solo Album

Micky Dolenz--The MGM Singles Collection
The First Bobby Hart Solo Album
7A Records

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Monkees TV show, and the introduction of Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter into music and pop culture history. The TV show’s two year run is the most beloved creation featuring the guys, but the following 48 years the guys stayed active, recording and touring either solo or together in various formations. The causal fan on the street may only remember the various reunion tours, Mike’s solo career, and have a vague recollection of “Pool It” or  Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart  You’d really need to be a hardcore fan to remember the other projects Davy, Peter and Micky participated in between the end of the 60s’ Monkees and their reunion in the ‘80s.  

England’s 7A Records, the brainchild of broadcaster Iain Lee  and music executive Glenn Gretlund, both long-time Monkees fans. The label’s name comes from the spoken intro at the beginning of “Daydream Believer”, when Davy asks, “What number is this, Chip?”, and receives the curt response “7A!”The label is dedicated to releasing long-lost Monkees related gems, including music by affiliated artists. 7A recently released The First Bobby Hart Solo Album by songwriter Bobby Hart of Boyce and Hart fame.   

The label’s first release, Micky Dolenz--The MGM Singles Collection arrived on July 15th , 2015, and is available as a vinyl LP and digital download. Most songs on this collection have been floating around Youtube and been shared as MP3s on various message boards for years. Thanks to 7A, they’ve finally gotten a proper release.

After being on a highly rated TV show, with a whirlwind of  hit songs and tours, Dolenz had to start over from square one (as did Peter and Davy), given how ex-teenie bopper idols were typecast  in the 70s (or anytime, really.) Writing and recording at his home studio and at other locations throughout L.A., he began recasting his music career.  

Admittedly, the songs on the MGM Singles Collection aren’t the cream of the crop, but Micky still had the vocal chops of his Monkees days. Any extracurricular activities with the Hollywood Vampires didn’t diminish it. Speaking of the notorious party animals, Dolenz’s Hollywood Vampire partner-in-crime, Harry Nilsson, wrote “Daybreak” a vibrant calypso number, and the album has four different versions of the song. 

There's the traditional, bouncy pop of "Easy on You", and the plaintive commentary on human nature in "It's Amazing to Me", songs that are easy on the ears, but not particularly memorable. The quirky “Unattended in the Dungeon” has some dicey lyrics, but, after all, it was the ‘70s, the decade of “Angie, Baby” and “Run, Joey, Run”

Dolenz and producer Michael Lloyd formed a duo they dubbed Starship in 1972, and worked together on their version of “Johnny B. Goode”, (the song Dolenz performed during his audition with the Monkees) and several other tunes. 

In the audio interview included with the download, Dolenz tells Lee says he recorded the songs just for fun, without any expectations of having a hit single. Mike Curb and MGM promoted the songs just the same, but despite the PR efforts, the records sank without a trace.

The accompanying booklet reveals some interesting tidbits abut the sessions. Among, them - the late, great Cozy Powell played drums on some of the recordings (which ones aren’t indicated), and Dolenz recorded “Family of Man” (later a hit for Three Dog Night) and “Since I Fell for You” and other American standards.

7A Records promises more Monkees-oriented releases, including (fingers crossed) a DVD release of Keep Off My Grass, a marijuana themed comedy from 1975 starring Dolenz. You can find more info on their website. (See links at the end of the review.)
Micky Dolenz- The MGM Singles Collection is an interesting addendum to Monkees history, sure to be enjoyed loyal Monkees fans and collectors of lesser-known musical side trips.

The First Bobby Hart Solo Album
7A Records 

You’ll do a double take when you hear “Funky Karma” the first song on the re-release of The First Bobby Hart Solo Album. When you think of Bobby Hart you think of “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” and other Boyce and Hart hits, or “Last Train to Clarksville” and other Monkees hits, so it’s a surprise to hear the R and B tinged songs on this album, originally released in 1980. Boyce and Hart wrote hundreds of pop songs, but left to his own devices, Hart’s material is urban R & B, with an equal mix of funky grooves and tender ballads. The album opener “Funky Karma” would be right at home on any R & B playlist. “I’m On Fire” is a sexy dance floor track, and “I Can’t Fight It” draws from the the soul hits of the Moments and Delfonics with disco on the side. “You’re Breaking My Heart/Street Angel”, about a carousing lover, is underscored with a slinky rhythm. “First Impressions” deals with the hopefulness of new love.

“Hurt So Bad,” penned by Hart, Randazzo and Weinstein, was a big hit for Little Anthony and the Imperials in 1965, and has been covered by Linda Ronstadt and many other artists. The composer’s take is pure slow jam as evidenced in this clip from a TV show in Hong Kong. 

The re-release has three previously unissued tracks –“Runnin”, “I’m Just Takin’ the Long Way Home”, and the upbeat disco of “You Can’t See Thunder”. All of the tracks were written or co-written by Hart, with collaborators Bobby Weinstein, Teddy Randazzo and Barry Richards. 
The 24 page booklet included with the CD contains many photos from Hart’s personal collection, lyrics, album credits, and an interview Iain Lee conducted with Hart.

Produced by Hart, with Richards as associate producer, the album was recorded in Hollywood in 1980. It initially received a limited release in a few countries, including Germany, Scandinavia and Italy. This 7A release marks the first time the album been officially available in the U.S. and UK.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Retro Album Review: UFO: Walk On Water,1995

Walk On Water
Released 1995
Good luck finding it on Amazon Marketplace or eBay!

I discovered Walk On Water a few months ago after cruising Youtube for UFO videos. The first studio album with Michael Schenker on guitar since 1978 eluded me when it was first released. That’s probably because Nine Inch Nails and alt-rock were my chosen musical milieu at the time. Had someone told me UFO and Schenker were back together, I would have dismissed the information with “Are those guys still around?” Ahh, the follies of youth.   

Now wiser and more open minded, I decided to listen to the album. I wasn’t expecting much, because the facts didn’t sound promising. A 1970s hard rock band’s classic line-up reassembles 17 years later, reuniting guitarist and singer who hated each other; the musical climate has changed, leaving hard rock forgotten by the mainstream; you’re older, they’re older, and so on and so on. It seemed like a set up for disappointment.

Boy, was I wrong! You know what happens when you assume. Walk On Water is a fitting follow-up to Obsession, the last Schenker-era studio album. Produced by Ron Nevison, who helmed Lights Out, Strangers in the Night and Obsession, this album packs a wallop. The classic‘70s lineup is here -  Schenker, Mogg, Way, Raymond and Parker. They all hung around for a few years of touring except Parker, who was replaced by Simon Wright for live shows. 

Schenker’s guitar playing on Walk on Water is as mesmerizing as ever, reeling you in from the first crunchy riff on the album opener, “Self-Made Man”. It’s like time stood still. The song is an indictment of greedy businessmen, with fierce vocals to match on the verses, and a softer, meditative chorus. This song has some of Mogg’s best lyrics and it’s become one of my favorite UFO songs. “Venus” is an ode to the ups and downs of love, with a pristine, melodic solo from Schenker.

The songs deal with more grown-up concerns, as the band members were around mid-life crisis age in 1995. “Pushed to the Limit” rages against the sands of time going through the hourglass “My doctor says it ain't right/For a man my age to fight”, Mogg proclaims, not ready for the rocking chair by a long shot. Schenker’s razor-sharp riffs are a perfect complement to the lyrics. “Running on Empty” covers the same subject matter with a bit of romance and sexy, bluesy guitar. The evil ex wife in “Knock,Knock” gets the house and the car and is back for more.

 “Dreaming of Summer” is a haunting tale of an unemployed man watching his life slip away.  It’s a real-life scenario a lot of people can identify with, balanced by Schenker’s tasteful acoustic guitar. It’s WOW’s “Love to Love.” Spiritual and uplifting despite the title, “Darker Days” is melodic rock at its best – once you hear it, it’s hard to get it out of your head.  

“Stopped (By a Bullet of Love)” seems to be about picking up and falling in love with a girl at a bar. What inspired it?  Never ask about a song’s backstory, just enjoy it. You may discover things you’d be better off not knowing. And what’s that bit about Arizona? Didn’t Schenker live in Arizona for awhile?

There are new versions of “Doctor Doctor” and “Lights Out” to end the album, but why try to improve on perfection?

I find myself playing this as much as Obsession or Lights Out. Despite the album’s quality, I have no interest in listening to the two reunion albums that followed - the one side live/one side original album Covenant and the all-original Sharks. The latter sounds a little too Spinal Tap-ish for my comfort, so I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

Twenty years have passed since Walk on Water. The reunion ended in the early ‘00s because, as the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

                                                                 Late 1970s UFO
Everyone’s doing great staying far away from one another as they enter their (semi) retirement years. Pete Way beat cancer and he’s working on his solo album, and both Mikey and UFO are touring non-stop. We have more musical output and nobody is getting punched in the stomach or storming offstage.    

Present-day UFO fares well with Vinnie Moore on guitar, but that je ne sais quoi (we know who that is) is missing. The synergy between Mogg, Schenker, Way, Raymond and Parker was absolutely electric back in the day. Another reunion is unlikely, but we’ll always have our memories.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DVD Review : The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years

                                                               Faster Pussycat

After remaining in official release limbo for decades, The Decline of Western Civilization: Part II: The Metal Years is now available as part of a  4 DVD (or Blu Ray) set of all three Decline movies directed by Penelope Spheeris – the original documentary about L.A.’s late ‘70s punk scene, the third installment, released in 1998, about gutterpunks in Hollywood and Decline II, about 80s Sunset Strip metal (aka hair metal). The set has a fourth DVD featuring additional footage from the documentaries.

The first and third documentaries dealt with Hollywood punk rockers, homeless or otherwise, and Decline II, the trio’s red-headed stepchild, looks at the style over substance days of Sunset Strip hair metal. The documentary features stars and wanna-bes of the Sunset Strip scene, fans, DJs, club owners, and several hard rock stars from the 1970s/early 1980s.

Spheeris interviews hard rock/metal icons the younger musicians hope to emulate. A chatty, level-headed Ozzy fixes breakfast and warns fledgling bands, “Be nice to everyone on the way up, cause you’ll see them on the way down.” The L.A. skyline gleams in the background as Lemmy talks about going for your dreams. Paul Stanley lies on a bed draped with groupies. Gene Simmons is surrounded by girls in lingerie buying lingerie. Alice Cooper notes "Punk (rock) was getting to be techno.. metal saved rock 'n' roll for the '80s." and Steve Tyler and Joe Perry talk about the millions they made and blew on cocaine.

                                                             Ozzy in the kitchen

In her June 17, 1988 review, the New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, 

In Miss Spheeris's earlier hell-in-a-handbasket documentary, the original ''Decline of Western Civilization'' about punk rockers, the brainpower quotient was somewhat higher than it is among heavy-metal fans. That's one reason that the new film is both so funny and so sad. For all the amusingly fatuous remarks heard here -and Miss Spheeris has a great ear for these - the overriding dimness of most of the fans and musicians is frightening.”

Giving the metal kids the benefit of the doubt, a filmmaker can spin the subject anyway he or she wants with leading questions and selective editing. Maybe there were smart kids who didn’t make the final cut or weren’t interested in being interviewed. If there were any honor students prowling the Strip circa 1987, they kept their IQs well under wraps. One of the featured bands, Seduce, seemed pretty pragmatic about the whole scene, including groupies. This earthiness didn’t translate into success or infamy. They released two albums on small labels, and are now nowhere to be found. Spheeris saves the only thrash band (and the smartest of the film's new bands) -Megadeth - for the end of the film.  Dave Mustaine may be many things, but he's no dummy. (Check out the extended interview with him in the bonus DVD.)

The newer bands have the gift of gab, but their subject matter is somewhat limited. There’s Nadir D'Priest and the band London, “the training school for rock stars” (Izzy Stradlin and Nikki Sixx, among others, went on to fame after leaving the group). They’re party monsters, but they come with a warning, as one bandmember exclaims “We are not role models for your life.” Odin, whose singer is touted as the next David Lee Roth, cavort in a hot tub with groupies, contemplating what will become of them if they don’t hit it big. Poison, whose first album was a platinum success, seem likeable and well-grounded in this early stage of their career. (The years, as we know, have not been kind.)  


As for Decline II’s girls of the Sunset Strip, the female musicians (Vixen, Jaded Lady) are just as ambitious but not quite as dim as some of their male counterparts. The female fans are another story. The girls participating in the Gazarri Dance Contest seem happy to strip, I mean, gyrate, for the ogling hair metal judges. The reigning “Miss Gazarri” says she hopes to continue with her modeling and “actressing” after  she passes on her crown. (Christina Applegate allegedly based her Married with Children character Kelly Bundy on this aspiring thespian.) 

The onstage segments with London, Lizzy Borden, Odin and Faster Pussycat make the viewer ponder “So is this is what an NC-17 Spinal Tap would look like.”  London’s singer finally lights a Soviet flag on fire after a few miscues, and the band’s political anthem, “Russian Winter” won’t put Bob Dylan or Neil Young out of business. The extra interview footage  has several X-rated revelations. (Now where was that chain hidden again?) 

Decline II’s most infamous interview, with W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, shows the dark underbelly to all the leather and studs bravado. Soused to the gills, Holmes sits in a raft in his swimming pool chugging from a bottle of vodka while his Mom looks on pool side. He jokes about groupies, being an alcoholic, and proclaims, “I’m a piece of crap.” Spheeris asks, “Think you might drink because you’re covering up pain?” “Yeah,” Chris answers, then dunks under the water, evading any self-analysis. (Watch the unedited interview on the bonus disc til the bitter end to feel really uncomfortable.) Update: Chris relocated to France and is still touring, recording, and making music videos. His latest album has the delightful title Shittin' Bricks

It’s easy to dismiss metal bands of the ‘80s Sunset Strip based on their looks and image. Most of these bands had musical skills and could entertain an audience. Unfortunately, 90% of them didn’t do anything but blindly follow the Aqua-netted path Motley Crue had paved (and not as well). Money talks – that’s one of the differences between the metal rockers in “Decline II” and the punk rockers in “Decline I”. In the original Decline, the kids made music their way and embraced rebellion against the norm. In Decline II, it was all about fame and money.

The fans and groupies who lived the scene look back at the time fondly. To the causal observer, it was a gold mine for derision and acerbic, play by play music video commentary. After awhile, even disparaging the bands got monotonous. There wasn’t a lot of deviation from the fluffy-haired sex and partying formula, and hair metal succumbed to overexposure (and grunge) around 1991.

Highly recommended as a reminder of the “What were they thinking?” 1980s, Decline II is all sex and drugs, alcohol and ambition, with none of the cerebral or societal discourse of Decline I or III. But sometimes, as another ‘80s icon sang, girls (and boys) just wanna have fun .