Sunday, November 3, 2019

And So It Goes

A newly published biography turns a rare spotlight on Nick Lowe, the clever British songwriter, producer and singer who influenced the New Wave and roots movements before crafting a second-act career that's become a refreshing display of cool dignity for aging rockers, with nearly all those developments taking place just below the radar.

CRUEL TO BE KIND, by musician turned writer Will Birch, features a lot of witty and wise quotations from the subject, with whom he has been acquainted since they each were struggling musicians in the 1970s (Birch was the drummer for the Records) and again as adults in lengthy interviews, funerals and projects with mutual collaborators. Birch relates an engaging if lengthy tale of a droll, versatile but fame-cautious pop craftsman who continues to evolve decades into a career of more near-misses than hits.

Nicholas Drain Lowe, born in 1949, was the son of a buttoned-up WWII Royal Air Force pilot, and a dancer mother from a long line of entertainers. He grew up in Surrey and for a time in Jordan and Cyprus, where his father was stationed in the RAF, taking an interest in the 50s rock and roll originating in America, and learning songs on a toy ukulele. At boarding school in England, teenage Nick played the banjo, spent more time discovering new music than studying, and assembles any number of bands as a means to attract attention from girls. Some of these groups would include fellow student Brinsley Schwarz, whom Nick joined with a homemade bass guitar he tuned with a pair of pliers.

A stint in a community college got Lowe a job as low-level gofer for a local newspaper, but that ambition took a back seat to a desire to sing in a band and drink with his Mod pals. Birch relates a tale of Lowe flaming out of the newspaper gig after sleeping through a film he was supposed to be reviewing. His school friend Brinsley Schwarz called asking Lowe to join his band, then called Kippington Lodge, and signed to EMI. Kippington played a brand of harmless post-Sgt. Pepper pop, and had a string of unsuccessful singles including the B-side "I Can See Her Face," Nick Lowe's first written-and-sung recording, at age 19.

Kippington was going nowhere, and after Nick is nearly killed in an on-stage electrocution, the band in 1970 rebrands itself after its guitarist's name and pursues a country-roots-and-harmony sound then becoming popular with the rise of Crosby Stills & Nash and The Band. A big-thinking Irish manager, Dave Robinson, pulls an elaborate promotional stunt-- flying a planeful of Brit music journalists to a showcase in New York where the rookie band was to make its stage debut. As Birch relates in detail, the promo was a monumental flop: The band encountered visa problems, the jet carrying the journalists ran behind schedule, and though the show went on, it badly underdelivered on the hype, with writers assailing them as "inept twerps" in Lowe's recollection and dooming them to a second-tier status.

So though Brinsley Schwarz had eyes on flying the world as a first-class attraction, they instead become a budget-friendly communal bar band, producing six albums over five years and performing not in arenas but in pubs. Lowe however was sharpening his pop songwriting chops, some in partnership with Brinsley's new addition, Ian Gomm. And in contrast to emerging arena rock performed by peers, the group developed a reputation as Britian's "quietest band," traveling with the smallest amps they could find to highlight the Americana/roots sound they were pursuing.



The approach yielded few hits but plenty of fans. Their influence helped to spawn a number of group with a similar grounding working the same circuit, including Graham Parker & the Rumour, Martin Belmont (of Ducks Deluxe), and Ian Dury. Fans included a Liverpool teenager named Declan MacManus, whom Birch says passed Lowe a homemade tape after a show and began a relationship that would eventually result in one of Lowe's Brinsley songs ("What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" becoming a breakout smash for MacManus under his performing name Elvis Costello. Lowe would become the producer of Costello's first five albums.

Lowe calls penning "PLU" as "the seismic moment" of his songwriting career. While there's obvious irony and hippy ridicule to the lyric, the delivery is just earnest enough. This sense of clever playfulness is a strain running throughout Lowe's writing, and can be seen in brilliant if sometimes over the top punmaking and wordplay that lent his work a sense that it was intended primarily for those who got the inside jokes ("The Abominable Showman," You Stabbed Me in the Front," "Time Wounds All Heels." He once titled an EP BOWI, a sly reference to a David Bowie album called LOW).

The Brinsley's broke up in 1975. Lowe fell in with manager Jake Riviera, penned and performed (as the Tartan Horde) a ridiculous novelty song "Bay City Rollers We Love You" and was recruited to produce the debut album for Graham Parker. Lowe had zero experience as a producer but didn't fret over the details, instead using his humor and his feel for musicians to inspire performances, earning the nickname "Basher" for the speed at which he produced.

Touring with Graham Parker as they opened for Thin Lizzy, the latter's "The Boys Are Back In Town" helped to inspire a Lowe original, "So It Goes" which became a Stiff Records single and a cut a 1978 debut solo album (called JESUS OF COOL in the UK and PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE in the US). Stiff was a spirited independent label co-founded by Lowe's manager Riviera and his former manager Robinson that collected a roster of pub-rock vets and others in the scene including Dury, Wreckless Eric, and MacManus, now known as Elvis Costello. The opening chords of "So It Goes" basically launched the New Wave movement on its own.




Lowe's records with Stiff drew strong reviews but the performer wasn't necessarily fit for stardom, Birch writes. Stiff package tours were to feature a rotating lineup of its acts but Lowe preferred to go first so as not to interrupt his post-show drinking time (Lowe spent much of the 70s and 80s drunk, Birch reveals, and his prodigious intake of acid interfered with Schwarz' success). In the studio he was frequently collaborating with older counterpart Dave Edmunds, the Welsh guitar whiz who'd produced Brinsely's last album. Those two, along with Billy Bremner, and drummer Terry Williams, backed Edmunds on two albums for Swansong and Lowe on 1979's LABOR OF LUST but Rockpile, as they would eventually be known, weren't billed as such due to competing solo contracts of its co-leaders.

Rockpile toured as Edmunds' anonymous backing band, regularly upstaging headliners Bad Company on a U.S. tour, gaining Rockpile a stateside following and critical praise. But between songwriting, a solo career, production work and his drinking, Lowe was never fully committed to the band and didn't always see eye-to-eye with Edmunds, himself an enigmatic and committed drinker. Edmunds eventually tangled with Riviera and Rockpile died after one billed album, SECONDS OF PLEASURE (1980).

Lowe had much more still to pursue. He'd met the American county singer Carlene Carter--whose mother, June Carter, was the wife of Johnny Cash-- during a London recording session in 1977. It would be many years before Nick would summon the courage to write a song for his one-time father-in-law, but when he did years later, "The Beast In Me" was a standout of Cash's chilling 1994 AMERICAN RECORDINGS comeback.

Lowe's work in the 1980s showed an increasing increasing influence of American roots and country even if his popular reputation as a new waver never really went away as "Cruel to Be Kind" -- one of only two Lowe singles to reach the Billboard Hot 100 -- endured in popular popular memory (it peaked at No. 12 in 1979; "I Knew the Bride" peaked at #77 in 1986). This tune from 1984's NICK LOWE & HIS COWBOY OUTFIT should have been a hit but wasn't:



As he had with Rockpile in the 1970s, Lowe fell in with a pack of like-minded roots musicians backing one another in the studio. Lowe, singer John Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Kelner played together on Hiatt's excellent BRING THE FAMILY (1987) and Lowe's PARTY OF ONE (1990) and eventually the group recorded and toured as Little Village in 1992 but like Rockpile, the project died after a single album and tour.

Lowe's obscurity was only deepening when a performance of "Peace Love and Understanding" by singer Curtis Stigers latched onto the bazillion-selling soundtrack LP for the 1992 film "The Bodyguard," and the ensuing financial windfall allowed Lowe the freedom to hone his songwriting craftsmanship and release a series of paced-out late-career albums beginning with terrific THE IMPOSSIBLE BIRD (1994) as a kind of hip white-haired grandfather of country-swing rock and songs with Sinatraeasque singing, Lowe-like wit and the ability to pack an understated wallop like the reflection on drinking from THE CONVINCER (2001). As Birch makes clear it's a refreshing break from the parade of contemporaries still trying the same act they did 40 years before. Most recently he is touring and recording with the American surf/roots band Los Straightjackets. That they perform while wearing Mexican wrestling masks goes unremarked upon.



Similar to the feeling I'd had reading Billy Joel's bio--another book relying heavily on after-the-fact reflections of the subject-- there's probably too much reflection on balance in Birch's book. Lowe gives great quotes but in his style they're arch and detached so much it reads more as look back then a as-it-happened bio, and it's awfully long even if you skip the family history in the appendix. But as a chronicle of a clever and important figure who's career is overdue for recognition and reflection, "it will make the hardest-hearted of critic's hearts melt."






Monday, January 21, 2019

Listenin' With A Young Man's Ear


“Any career disappointment I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the ‘New Bob Dylan’” Steve Forbert writes in his new book, BIG CITY CAT. “…In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

To the extent there’s blame to go around, Forbert confesses his part. He badly wanted success but was uncomfortable having attained it, and the same hard-headedness that allowed him to cut a path as a folksinger in New York’s punk-driven downtown of the 1970s played out in some bad decisions in the studio and in his personal life that eventually had professional repercussions.

Just as ALIVE ON ARRIVAL captured the energy of a wide-eyed Mississippi kid’s happy ambition to make it, BIG CITY CAT provides honest and at times funny perspective on that magical ascent, and then on a career once its trajectory had changed for good. Along the way Forbert conveys an underlying appreciation for music itself that has kept him going 40 years later.

The popular story Forbert fans (like me) knew until now was that he blew into New York from Mississippi with a denim jacket and acoustic guitar, but Forbert reveals that came only after years of trying to make it as a rocker down South. And New York was actually the second city he’d tried to establish himself, recounting a brief but futile trek to Atlanta with a bandmate.

Forbert was always absorbing a scene, listening and learning. “I began to see that one member with a discerning approach to material and some sort of original overall vision is worth at least three hot-shot guitar players,” he notes. Widening tastes lead him away from British-Invasion influences to Americana, he starts writing and playing more acoustic guitar, and departs for New York alone when he realizes his bandmates aren’t feeling it quite the way he is.

Forbert would render his struggle to make it in the city musically in ALIVE ON ARRIVAL, while the book provides the details including excerpts from a diary he kept then that are every bit as charming. He played anywhere he could, for anything he could earn, while holding down a day job as a messenger. He cracked the punk scene at CBGB’s on his personal appeal to owner Hilly Kristal, who fancied himself a country singer. Forbert soon picked up the same managers as the Ramones, who never got over the young singer beating them to a hit. A rave review of one of his performances in the New York Times – “Mr. Forbert is the kind of performer who makes you realize his worth the minute he begins to sing,” John Rockwell wrote – starts a label bidding war.

Forbert’s idealism could be his enemy. As a rookie recording artist, he brazenly overrules top-notch session sax player David Sanborn by keeping what Sanborn considered a goofed solo, and nearly sentences ALIVE ON ARRIVAL to death on arrival on an insistence that it not include reverb—only the opinion of Bonnie Raitt can convince him otherwise. He followed it up with the rockier JACKRABBIT SLIM (1979), containing his signature hit, “Romeo’s Tune” recorded with the same musicians he’d been touring with.

Forbert flubbed on “Romeo’s” momentum. He stunned management by refusing an offer of a ROLLING STONE magazine cover feature, and instead of giving fans more of what they wanted—there was more than enough material leftover from ALIVE and JACKRABBIT for a third record—opted for an abrupt sonic reinvention on LITTLE STEVIE ORBIT (1980). That record, led by the hard-drinking English producer Pete Solley, was a critical and commercial flop. And by the time he returned to ALIVE producer Steve Burgh for 1982’s STEVE FORBERT, his moment seemed to have escaped but his issues with the big time were only beginning. As an aside I’m one of the few people in America to have acquired that one, and I never had a problem with it (especially side A) or really with any of Forbert’s efforts.

Forbert attempts to restart with Columbia and engages Neil Girardo as a producer but the label rejects submitted tracks, and subsequently refuses to release him from his contract. Steve speculates that the freeze-out was personal in nature—he’d slept with the secretary of CBS boss Walter Yentikoff—and he’s in recording limbo for years but still writing and touring with crack bands, the Flying Squirrels and the Rough Squirrels. An encounter with a Steve Forbert fan--Springsteen’s bassist Garry Tallent—finally leads to a new contract with Geffen and STREETS OF THIS TOWN comeback, positioning Forbert somewhere in the Springsteen/Mellencamp arena, and a 1992 followup THE AMERICAN IN ME (1992), which leaned more toward Americana.

Back on the road as a solo performer Forbert has continued to release albums independently ever since, describing writing a new “manifesto” every couple of years. He describes raising a family—including twin sons who interestingly enough toured for a time in a death-metal outfit—in Nashville, a divorce, rehab for a drinking problem, a subsequent marriage to a Jersey girl, a budding photography hobby, and passing time between gigs listening to CDs in his car. “When you’re on top, the job—although stressful—is made as comfortable as possible for you, and it pays incredibly well,” he observes. “On less successful levels you do a lot of work all over the place but can soon wind up wondering if it’s all worth it.”


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

All About A Good Time On A Saturday Night

High-flying
It was 30 years ago today -- 8-8-88 -- that Tommy Conwell's debut album was released by Columbia Records, which if you were around Newark, Delaware at the time was something of a big deal.

Conwell and his band, the Young Rumblers, played a brand of party blues pop that sort of bridged the gap between area icons: the more traditional R&B of George Thorogood, who'd been at it for 15+ years by that point and was a national star albeit with an older audience; and the bright, heartland dance-pop of The Hooters, who'd only recently raced up the charts on the strength of a radio-loving debut the kids ate up.

Conwell had the same management firm and record label as The Hooters, and similarly got a deal after demonstrating skill as a crowd-pleaser in live shows and locally released recordings that attracted airplay from Philadelphia's then-influential WMMR. Especially around the Delaware Valley, Conwell looked as close to a can't-miss rookie as comes along.

But top prospects don't always become all-stars, and sometimes the hype is all that shows.

By the time I wrote this article -- nine years after Conwell's debut and seven since he'd last released a record -- he had long since returned to the local bar scene that birthed him and obviously had had plenty of time to put the whole experience into perspective. I'd done a little bit of background work before we met, but it was a single, extraordinarily candid interview with the artist that really carries the story. I read where some interpreted Conwell's remarks in this story as bitter but let me assure you he was anything but. I've always thought this was one of my better attempts at writing about music, and about growing up.

Here's the album in all its overpackaged glory.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sharing This Night That Will Soon Be A Blur


Ignorance of contemporary music can have its rewards if you're not scared to arrive at a party a 20 years too late.

That's sort of how I felt watching Rhett Miller perform at City Winery this week. It was the first time I'd seen Miller, who is best known as the front man for the Texas-based alt-country rockers the Old 97s. That band's 90s and oughts heyday was largely overlooked by me: I'd vaguely known who they were, but until a few years ago hadn't done enough to distinguish them from others in their ballpark. For a while there I conflated the Old 97s and the Old Crow Medicine Show, in a manner not unlike my brain tangled the Hoodoo Gurus and Husker Du in the 1980s. I just didn't know better.

It wasn't until 2014 and MOST MESSED UP -- the band's 10th album! --  that I finally caught on. That album is so good -- funny, hardrocking, full of goofy energy, a classic of the life-on-the-road genre and only the slightest bit Western twangy -- to inspire a journey into the past where I discovered these guys had lots of terrific stuff I'd overlooked.

In the meantime, I'd had a second connection to make: the name Rhett Miller had bubbled up through my power-pop feeds over the years, and I was familiar with his album THE INSTIGATOR (2002). Eventually I pieced it all together and realized the singer and the band belonged to one another and had parallel careers. The whole load of it eventually worked its way into heavy rotation around the house and so for me, going to this show was as though I was seeing a hot band.

Little did I know there were still more surprises ahead.

Miller is something of the David Lee Roth of solo acoustic performers, bringing a huge physical energy, charm and a bag of tricks -- most notably a windmilling strum hand and shag-shakes -- to the act. He's got an expressive yelp conveying the sad-sack, whiskey-dicked losers at the heart of most of his songs. I can't imagine there were many at the show like us who hadn't seen Miller before, but that was our reward. We rocked and we laughed, totally entertained.

Recently, Miller authored this sobering takedown of the modern music industry, wondering whether domination by gigantic streamers, "Swedish hit factories" and YouTube leaves anything for young musicians to aspire to. I wish I knew a solution. I will note that the stream -- particularly the late lamented Rdio -- is what I have to thank for having discovered the Old 97's and Rhett Miller to begin with. The economic model is most messed up, if you will; and so it's not without internal conflict I am sharing the below sampler.

Friday, May 25, 2018

He Is The Entertainer

I've written before about my complicated relationship with Billy Joel, who meant a lot to me when I was very young, but whom I rejected along with most everything associated with Long Island as I got older and worked a little too hard to be cool.

The time to scratch that itch for real came about this week when I finally cashed in the birthright of millions of my neighbors and saw the man perform a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden. There was something more satisfying to having "won" our tickets by bidding on them at a PTA auction for our son's school; it felt good to contribute but as it turned out, the seats were donated from the "band friends & family" pool and so we learned as we entered we had excellent seats in the lower bowl, very close to the stage.

Until now I'd only seen him riding his bike around Huntington and getting ice cream with Christie Brinkley at Baskin Robbins while they were still secretly dating 40 years ago.

Billy is front and center with a grand piano on a rotating platform. His seven-member band of course is top-notch; we'd seen Mark Rivera (sax, tambornie, vocals etc) lead the "Breakfast w/ the Beatles" band before. The guitar player, Mike DelGuidice, was an excellent singer who did some Zeppelin snippets (Kashmir, Rock n Roll).

We got a kick out of all the dressed-up Long Island Moms in attendance. 

Just like the outstanding SONGS IN THE ATTIC, recorded on the same stage 38 years before, he opened with a stirring "Miami 2017" and we were off. 

Billy was in good spirits and good voice, mentioning he'd just turned 69 ("I used to like that number."). My brother, who used to work at the Garden tells a story of watching Billy rehearse a show as part of his Elton John tour years back only to get so drunk during the course of the day he couldn't go on that night, but Billy is apparently clean and sober now and whatever he was drinking came out of a mug. He dedicated "Don't Ask Me Why" to a little girl in the audience I guess was a granddaughter seated near us. The first half of the show was what he called "fielder's choice," letting the crowd choose which of two songs off various albums they would perform. I won with "Vienna" (over "Just the Way You Are," thank the lord, and with "Zanzibar," (over "Stilletto"), but lost big time with "She's Got A Way" (over "Everybody Loves You Now"). I cheered for "Root Beer Rag" over "The Entertainer" but the latter was performed and turned out to be one of the better selections on the night.

It's Fleet Week here, and so as "Goodnight Saigon" starts a dozen uniformed sailors come out on stage and sing the chorus arm in arm. It was cheesy but the audience loved it and learned the True Meaning of Memorial Day. That's as political as Billy dares to be. I would have liked him to rip Trump a new one and challenge his fans in a new verse or two of "We Didn't Start the Fire" but Billy hasn't bothered. Twenty-five years without a new pop album!

I mentioned this to my friend Edward who in no time had penned a clever suggestion:

Mike Pence, Manafort, kneeling players ruin the sport
Sean Spicer, Kelly Ann, the truth about crowd size
Health care, got no plan, gotta do a Muslim ban!
Fox News, Hannity, parrot all my lies

Ronny Jackson says "Great shape!" Mueller, find the pee-pee tape
US Nazis, they're so fine, Putin is a friend of mine
Fuck our allies from the West, Mexico don't send the best!
Sheriff Joe gets a pardon! DAUGHTER GIVES ME SUCH A HARD-ON!

We didn't start the fire!
Obama lit it! O, Fake News, admit it!
We didn't start the fire!
There was no collusion! It was a spies intrusion!
Give it a shot, Billy. If I can change, you can change!

The hard bargain of the Billy Joel MSG phenomenon played out as he totally went "back wall" with "Stop in Nevada" off PIANO MAN and folks went flying to the men's room and hardly any remaining audience members even applauded. I thought, do you need to hear "New York State of Mind" again? Me, I got up and peed for "Italian Restaurant" -- another chestnut beaten into banality for me by way too many classic-rock radio spins.

I enjoyed the three-sax chorus in "Movin' Out" and the brass was activated again for "Half A Mile Away," which Joel described as a "fukuka" song the band had never before performed live. I could barely believe that was true; in my Southside Johnny-influenced youth that was one of my favorites. "I Go To Extremes" on the other hand came out after I'd already decided Billy Joel was the uncoolest guy ever and would never listen to him again on purpose, but everyone including me enjoyed that one quite a bit. 

After a while I feel into a spell thinking how much of Billy's Winning Streak material was just ripped off stylistically from others, performing the one he ripped off from the Cars ("Sometimes A Fantasy") and the one nicked from Graceland-era Paul Simon ("Middle of the Night"). Billy to his credit never considered being "derivative" a criticism. I guess we all have a idea of what Billy Joel ought to be (for me the post-singer-songwriter, pre-superstar TURNSTILES is the ideal) but he is what he is. There was just no way to stop him from playing Side A of his Greatest Hits at the encore.

He is The Entertainer. 

Setlist
Miami 2017
Pressure
Don't Ask Me Why
Vienna
Zanzibar 
She's Got a Way 
The Entertainer 
Allentown
Goodnight Saigon
Movin' Out 
(Followed by 'Kashmir' (Led Zeppelin) snippet)
Stop in Nevada
New York State of Mind
Half a Mile Away
She's Always a Woman
I Go to Extremes 
My Life
Sometimes a Fantasy
The River of Dreams
Nessun dorma
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

Encore:
We Didn't Start the Fire
Uptown Girl
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Big Shot
You May Be Right
(with "Rock and Roll" (Led Zeppelin) snippet)




Friday, May 11, 2018

Kihnetic Energy

Dear Sirs,
Lookihn back, my career went fuckihn nowhere.
Signed,
Greg Kihn
Workihn in a Burger Kihng
As far as I can remember it, that was the parody "letter to the editor" published in a mid-80s copy of the National Lampoon we had in the dorm room. I miss this kind of savage comedy today even if it took an unfair shot at Greg Kihn, whose career didn't really go nowhere. You might call him a "two-hit wonder" but that's not really accurate either. He wrote two songs you'll never forget, several other near-hits, and you probably also know his album titles were all puns based on his name.

Or so I thought. It turns out there were more Greg Kihn albums (most credited to the Greg Kihn Band) than I ever knew and not all of them came with a punworthy title. As I went back in time to listen to them I was somewhat disappointed to learn that he'd flirted with the idea, then dropped it, only to resume it in time for his midcareer breakout then lose it again.

Greg Kihn was born in Baltimore, though came into his own after moving to the Bay Area. Having grown up amid the British Invasion, its not surprising to learn he would come of age in the first wave of Power Pop artists, though Greg was by no means a purist; he was a stylistic borrower who had no problem mixing in the odd 50s style ballad, folk-rock, reggae beats, soul covers, keyboard-driven dance pop, and Springsteen Lite to his pop-rock core. He was considerably more mainstream than Beserkley labelmates the Rubinoos or especially the Modern Lovers.

The Greg Kihn Band was established following a self-titled singer/songwriter debut, and spanned most of the era: bass player Steve Wright; drummer Larry Lynch; guitar player Dave Carpender; and keyboardist Gary Phillips. Wright co-wrote a number of songs with Kihn including "Jeopardy" and 'The Break-Up Song." Wright also took lead vocals on some album tracks, as did Lynch.

Kihn made a lot of records. Exactly one every year for 11 straight years, 1976 to 1986. The good stuff was generally pretty good, the less-good stuff wasn't awful, and most of it presumably sounded better on stage than on record, since until MTV came along and a string of "concept videos" made him a kind of star, touring was the only alternative to Burger King.

I was inspired to go back and listen to the Kihn Katalog due to my admiration for an odd non-single, "Madison Avenue Man" buried on Kihn's second album, GREG KIHN AGAIN. I like everything about this song: starts off as a bush-league "Day In The Life" cowbell-clanger, then suddenly springs to life with an irresistible chorus straight out of "Ricky Don't Lose That Number" and goofy lyric I guess pokes fun at the music biz "Let me touch your money with my Madison hands."



Kihn was also among a group of 70s artists who recognized Bruce Springsteen's burgeoning songwriting chops sooner than most. He covered "For You" (AGAIN, 1977) winning the Boss's own admiration and a BORN TO RUN outtake, "Rendezvous" (WITH THE NAKED EYE, 1979). The guy had taste.

"The Breakup Song" (ROCKIHNROLL, 1981) hit No. 15; and the danceable "Jeopardy" (KIHNSPIRACY, 1983) went all the way to No. 2, but couldn't beat "Beat It." Beserkley folded following 1984's KIHNTAGEOUS, but he Kihn-tinued under EMI with the the very 80s sounding and solo-credited CITIZEN KIHN (1985), then got the band together again for LOVE ROCK N ROLL (1986). The latter two appear to be whatever the streaming-era equivalent of "out of print" is although you can still find some videos online.

Kihn became a deejay and part-time horror novelist following his run on the pop charts, and a year ago put out a new record that may or may not prove they write 'em like that anymore, but to celebrate the harmless, punmaking, reliable rocker here's a playlist with one handpicked track from each of his 9 Beserkley platters in the 76-84 Kihn Dynasty.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Up There on the Platform

I was a freshman in college and must have been talking up, I dunno, Dire Straits or something when a much cooler guy in my class said "well, if you like guitar you should listen to Midnight Oil."

So I bought "10-9-8" and later RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET and was brought into the world. They mixed Twin-Lead-Guitar Action with power protest anthems, and were really creative in the studio -- big 80s productions and effects but also with a bar-band feel. RED SAILS in particular had an oom-pah band and didgeridoo and psychedelic surf guitar. It was out there.

Moginie, Garrett, Rotsey, Hillman: Still in shape.
Everybody caught on by the time the confident and tune-packed DIESEL & DUST came out in '87 and made them stars; Midnight Oil at that point to me had become an alternative U2: each had a charismatic, passionate singer and Big Rock guitar and were occasionally too much to take. I always preferred the Aussies, though I'd fall in and out of the mood for their stuff over the years. Often I forget their songs, and how many of them I know, until I hear them again, so it was a treat to be reminded of their terrific body of work in the live reunion tour that hit Webster Hall this week.

I was surprised how easily they got the crowd to bash right into it, cleverly opening with "Sometimes" which I remember as the last song on D&D. They are all in their 60s now and singer Peter Garrett looked the oldest of them, not quite the dervish he once was and to me occasionally looked to be sucking wind, not that he wasn't working hard. He eventually had the career in politics he almost had in the 80s that might have derailed the band: Their themes -- environment, race, nukes, globalism -- are remarkably prescient and vital today. Peter didn't shy away from pointing out the sad reality that the CEO of Exxon -- whose former 6th Ave. headquarters was the reluctant site of the Oils' most famous appearance in New York -- is today the Secretary of State. We need bands like this.

They more or less broke up a decade or more ago. It wasn't that they'd run down musically, but I think, the very idea of the protest song had become a quaint notion. I've pointed this out before. I'm happy to report nobody got fat, and the classic quintet are all still there (bassist Bones Hillman is the newest member but joined in 1987). Drummer Rob Hirst, who's also a great singer, is about as ripped as any 60-year-old guy I've ever seen. They brought him out front with a tiny kit to sing "Generals" and "My Country." They employed a multi-instrumentalist to fill-in on drums, brass and keys so they didn't cheat their productions, I appreciated that very much.

They played for about 2 hours including several "new" songs I didn't know well -- new meaning, post BLUE SKY. The highlight for me was "Warakurna" which I also think of as the blood-and-guts of D&D but I don't think was ever a hit, or I ever heard on the radio. Jangle, thump and a big sing-along: I seriously got emotional when they played it. They tried a cover of "Instant Karma" on the 1st encore but Peter forgot the second-verse lyrics.

My friend Kenny remarked the other day Midnight Oil might be the most underrated band of all-time and ought to be easy rock Hall of Famers, and it's hard to hard to argue either point. Here's hoping the tour, which accompanies a re-release of their catalog, reminds us. Who can remember? We've got to remember!

Who's gonna save me

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