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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Monday, February 20, 2017

Oh Lord

How much Phil Collins is too much Phil Collins?

It's written in the book -- a new autobiography detailing his ascension from prog-rock drummer to mawkish 80s celebrity to a seemingly bitter industry dropout.

As NOT DEAD YET reveals, Phil Collins' enthusiasm for just about everything and everyone he encounters is endearing and genuine but leads him obliviously into one project after another his public image could have better survived without. In just about every case -- launching a Big Band with Tony Bennett, blurring and then erasing the distinctions between himself and his band, Disney soundtracks, a Broadway show, MIAMI VICE appearances, Royal Family charity hobnobbing, guesting on whatever, producing whomever-- his decisions invariably come down to asking himself "how could I say no to that?" That could be the title of the book, in fact.

Phil's not exactly apologizing for having overexposed himself -- to us at least. The years of sold-out stadiums and bazillion selling records in his wake would suggest he did us all a favor. Phil instead saves the regrets for his family -- three wives and a half-dozen neglected kids -- and for own health, ravaged by too many loud shows, too many steroid shots to save his voice and finally, to alcoholism that replaced his workoholism.

Phil Collins grew up in Hounslow, West London, and was a performer from the start. A toy drum he receives at Christmas when he's three years old "is the gift that keeps on giving," he writes. At 13, landed the role of the Artful Dodger in a West End production of OLIVER!, enrolled in a performing arts school, and was cast as an extra in A HARD DAYS NIGHT, but regretfully recounts how his appearance was left on the cutting room floor.

As a teenager in mid-sixties London, Collins absorbs the musical revolution around him. He gets a job sweeping up the Marquee club in Soho, where as a side benefit he's a witness to early performances by the Who, Yes, and the Yardbirds including the debut appearances of both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. His own musical apprenticeships include a variety of resort cover bands, R&B combos, original acts, unsuccessful auditions for Robert Palmer and Manfred Mann and finally, a doomed recording session at Abbey Road for George Harrison's ALL THINGS MUST PASS to which Collins devotes a funny chapter of youthful self-laceration.

In the summer of 1970, Collins responds to a classified ad and finds himself at the country estate of the Gabriel family, whose son Peter fronts a band of "immaculately bred" wealthy boarding-school mates called Genesis. He's the fifth drummer in the short history of the band, which already has two albums to its credit, and his outgoing personality -- and ability to sing background -- proves a valuable fit for the otherwise buttoned-up, ambitious and cerebral quintet.

Genesis make a series of well-regarded prog albums and Gabriel's surreal performance art becomes a focus of their live show but the leader departs for a solo career in 1975. Collins makes it clear he was not anxious to replace Peter himself, saying he'd prefer to perform as an instrumental quartet than sing -- but after hundreds of inquiries and more than 30 auditions, rehearsals with Collins as the interim lead vocalist, and the strength of the material making up the embryonic A TRICK OF THE TAIL record are convincing. Collins will disappoint those who were hoping to see mud slung between the past and future Genesis vocalists; he professes they share a mutual professional and personal admiration from the beginning. Phil likes Peter; he seems to like people in general.

The departure of Gabriel affects the Genesis sound in other ways, freeing up Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks to pursue pop songwriting only hinted at in Genesis recordings until then. "They've always wanted to write like the Kinks and The Beatles," Collins insists. This becomes evident when "Follow You Follow Me" off ...AND THEN THERE WERE THREE... becomes an international hit in 1978 and starting with DUKE in 1980, the trio-era Genesis peppers the pop-rock charts for years to come.

Collins owes his big-bang as a solo artist indirectly to his first wife Andrea, a one-time high school sweetheart and mother of his oldest son and adopted daughter. While Phil was out touring with Genesis, "Andy" took up with a decorator at their home, and Phil poured the ensuing heartbreak into home-studio experiments that became the basis of the FACE VALUE LP, including the explosive "In the Air Tonight." That song's enormous drum sound was arrived at so as to preserve the intimacy of the home-studio recordings through producer High Padgham's "gated reverb" technique, ironically first used on a Gabriel solo recording with Collins drumming a year before.

Phil summons an eclectic set of his musical heroes to back him on FACE VALUE revealing his enthusiasm for American soul music that seeps increasingly into additional solo records -- the smaltzy HELLO I MUST BE GOING (1982) and the dance-focused NO JACKET REQUIRED (1985). Padgham is meanwhile on board as a producer for future Genesis records and they too include blasts of brass, artificial beats and pop/dance arrangements first showcased on the funky FACE VALUE. "We wanted Phil to do well," Tony Banks remarks, as a means of a backhanded compliment. "Just not that well."



The recordings make Collins and Genesis stadium-filling superstars and accelerate Phil's transformation into a kind of Elton John of the 1980s.  Suddenly, he's everywhere, getting back into acting, indulging a big-band project in which he manages to have artistic differences with Tony Bennett, and Disney's TARZAN movie and stage show. He plays Live Aid in London and in Philly, managing to piss off Led Zeppelin along the way. He quits Genesis, and scuttles a second marriage by trysting with another former high-school sweetheart, then takes up with a half-his-age third wife. This draws an enduring backlash that blunted any and all appreciation for his considerable versatility, innovation or work ethic. "I will hold my hands up and admit that, with all the success, it's quite possible that I've been giving off an unintentional smugness," Phil writes of the initial critical backlash. And when a note faxed to his second wife regarding their marital troubles gets into the hands of the press, they have a field day. How 80s.

Decidedly no longer in style or in much demand, Collins vanishes to Switzerland -- home of his on-again, off-again third wife -- only to reveal in surprising final chapters that he'd filled the creative void by becoming a falling-down drunk and embarrassment to himself and his family, and that injuries endured over a lifetime of performing left him partially deaf, walking with a cane and unable to operate a drumstick.

I was out running in the neighborhood a few years back when I came across these hipster yuks engaged in a ironic "tribute" to Collins that illustrated how dated and uncool he'd become in the eyes of young people. The embodiment of earnest Dad Rock from 30 years back seemingly had no place in modern popular culture except as a joke.

But there's always time for re-examination -- not surprisingly, the book accompanies a re-release of his solo albums and cites their importance by mentioning their embrace by contemporary hip-hop and R&B artists like Kanye West, Bone Thugs n' Harmony and Lil' Kim. Phil himself is forthright with criticisms of his work, but as the book ends, he's unwilling to necessarily pack it in for good. How could he say no?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I'll Get Back Up Somehow

How does a talent as mediocre as Sammy Hagar become a phenomenon as big as Sammy Hagar?

It's all in a book I can't believe I just read, not to mentioned enjoyed a little bit -- albeit with the same guilty pleasure I get from some of his songs.

What I learned was the Red Rocker is possessed not only of extraordinary self-determination and confidence but a related inability to be discouraged or embarrassed when things go wrong. He's a happy-go-lucky and at times ridiculous star whose self-styled success is never really about hitting the right note, writing the perfect song or cutting a great album, but rather being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right guy, and making the right bets.

That he's become a resort restaurant magnate, millionaire and walking lifestyle brand for aging rockers all over provides an ironic contrast to his one-time bandmates in Van Halen who had a million things going for them musically but are basically incapable of sustaining successful lives.  Not that Sammy's bio is deep enough to point that out.

Sammy Hagar was born to a poor family in blue-collar Fontana, Calif., in 1947. His father Bobby was an abusive alcoholic and one-time prizefighter whom Sammy says once set the all-time record for being knocked down in a single fight -- 20. This and his mother's lesson in fighting off poverty forges young Sammy's determination. "Rock-and-roll and pussy," as he puts it, provides career aspiration.

At different times in the book Sammy confesses to wanting to be like Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck but one way or another always found himself alongside serious guitarists, starting with Ronnie Montrose, whose eponymous band and influential first record Sammy provided vocals for (then a young veteran of regional bar bands, Sammy opines he got the Montrose gig because the leader was an egomaniac frightened that a star would upstage him).

Financial problems and acrimony between Sammy and Ronnie ends Hagar's Montrose run after two LPs, but the nation-rocking debut would only gain stature in the years to come (inspiring the Van Halen brothers, to name two). I predict the first relief pitcher who uses "Space Station No. 5" as warmup music will record 59 saves.

Though Hagar is fired by Montrose, some leftover songs find their way to influential manager John Carter and soon enough Hagar is on an album-a-year solo career and supporting his young family as a touring rocker, building regional followings in places like St. Louis, Dallas and the Northwest (he never really penetrated New York that I could determine beyond newsstand appearances in Circus and Creem). These albums from NINE ON A TEN SCALE (1976) through VOA (1984) mix melodic rock, some metal edges, cover songs and plenty of filler. None are huge hits, but each give fans at least a little of what they like. He's fortunate to be in the thick of it when MTV debuts and his distinct if inelegant visual style (red clothes, red guitars, frizzy blonde afro) was video-friendly from the get-go.

Why red? Well, as Sammy's not afraid to tell you he's got a special thing for red. Along with the number 9. He believes a psychic foretold his entire career. He thinks UFOs are out there and that aliens walk among us. This strain of prideful ignorance -- in combination with what my friend Edward describes as the rich-guy libertarianism behind the dumb protest anthem "I Can't Drive 55" -- gives off a Trumpian whiff that turns me off but helps to explain that "Red" state appeal.

Succeeding the legendary David Lee Roth at the front of Van Halen wasn't a job for the feint of heart but Hagar takes it in stride, knocking out the band's best-selling if not most loved album right off the bat in 5150. At the same time he's under no illusions that he can save the band from the brothers' unstoppable drinking habits (Testimony to Hagar's own use is more than a little inconsistent, though he comes off primarily as a recreational user). Some of the most compelling passages in the book describe Alex Van Halen's drinking excesses and  Eddie Van Halen's sorry state of physical and mental health that spoiled a 2003 reunion tour.

Roth by the way comes off as a jerk too, refusing to share the spotlight in an ill-fated co-headlining tour while both singers were on the outs with the brothers. Hagar in the meantime grows closest to sacked bassist Michael Anthony, who provides an eff-you to the Van Halens in the guise of a foreword.

Beyond proudly blowing hundreds of thousands on sports cars, Hagar's entrepreneurial nose has him investing in Fontana house-flipping, the mountain-bike business, a travel agency, airport restaurants, bookwriting (this bestseller from 2011 and an even newer cookbook) and a resort property in Mexico. The latter took some time to succeed, with Hagar buying out early co-investors Edward and Alex Van Halen, only to find them interpreting the whole thing as an elaborate scam once it blew up. "Cabo Wabo" made Hagar a millionaire many times over (his share in a tequila associated with the resort sold for $80 million) and turned Hagar into the Jimmy Buffet of headbangers.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Bell In Your Head Will Ring

As I was saying, Todd Rundgren's a weird guy. An ambitious and prolific musical explorer whose 50-year output includes gorgeous Philly soul ballads, blistering guitar rock, dense psychedelia and prog, sugar-coated power pop, novelty songs, electronica, new-agey stuff, solo records where he played everything, bands where he was strictly a guitarist, you name it. Some of his work has been incredibly accessible, some barely listenable, some a little of both.

His parallel life as a producer and engineer for other artists is explored in Paul Myers' A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR, which argues for Rundgren's import in the golden age of rock studio recording, and details the steps Rundgren himself took to make such a job obsolete today. It is well-researched behind primary interviews with Rundgren himself and with many of the musicians whose albums he produced in the 1970s and 80s, with chapters devoted to albums produced for The Band, Sparks, The Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, XTC, Cheap Trick and others.

Though Myers' telling of the story is largely admiring of Rundgren's talents, the man isn't necessarily the hero of all of his stories. Musicians who have worked with Rundgren call him prickly, impatient and irritating, and at times describe frustration and tense disagreements in the studio. And like Rundgren's own musical career, their projects are a jumble of well-intentioned flops, surprise successes and shoulda-been hits.

As the book primarily focuses on the recordings Rundgren made, we get a brief introduction: Rundgren was born in 1948 in Upper Darby, Pa., was a disaffected teen with interest in technology, popular music and self-made recordings, and left home at 17 with a used guitar on his back. He joined and quit a blues-based jam band, Woody's Truck Stop, and brushed with success as a guitarist and songwriter with the Nazz, whose British Invasion influenced style was more up his alley.

Songs by Jim Steinman; Motorcycle effects by TR
Nazz made its first album in 1968 under a label-assigned old-school producer who had little interest in the project itself: While he was away, Myers writes, Rundgren would toy with the recording equipment, quickly developing a musical understanding of studio engineering. His curiosity -- and subsequent influence on the Nazz sound -- didn't sit well with bandmates and Rundgren departed the group to seek a behind-the-scenes job even before a second Nazz album could be released.

Rundgren found work as a house engineer and producer with legendary folk-rock producer Albert Grossman, and built a reputation as a "boy wonder" with a photojournalistic ability to pursue and then capture a sound even in difficult conditions: The Band, for example, was in disarray (drug use and internal disagreements) and didn't particularly like its young engineer's impatience and sarcasm (at one point, Levon Helm chased him from the studio with a drumstick) but Rundgren was able to guide its STAGE FRIGHT album to the finish line.

As noted, his projects were a mixed bag. Future hit-machine Hall & Oates' WAR BABIES was so free of anything resembling a hit it got them dropped from their first record label. Cheap Trick's NEXT POSITION PLEASE might be an overlooked gem, but it was overlooked for sure. On the flip side Rundgren developed a reputation for midcareer turnarounds for his work with Grand Funk (WE'RE AN AMERICAN BAND) and XTC (SKYLARKING), getting each of those bands unlikely U.S. hits.

He also took on unusual projects -- debuts for weirdos Sparks, the New York Dolls and an artist everybody passed on, Meat Loaf. Rundgren recognized BAT OUT OF HELL's theatrical grandeur, Myers writes, and brought it gloriously to life.

Night time is the right time
Myers shares tidbits from each of these sessions and reveals a few secrets along the way. Rundgren found the drum sound he was seeking when he placed his wallet on a snare drum during Sparks' debut recording. He encouraged Grand Funk to let drummer Don Brewer sing a powerful lead on "American Band." He strapped on a guitar and fiddled with amplifier knobs until he arrived at the "motorcycle revving" bit in "Bat Out of Hell." He papered over the vocal booth walls of Utopia Sound so that Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler could imagine it was night while recording within Rudgren's preferred daytime hours. He stood up to XTC's dictatorial Andy Partridge, choosing to record more of bandmate Collin Moulding's tunes for SKYLARKING than was typical.

If there was a signature Rundgren sound they can be heard on his 70s and 80s solo records and those of Utopia (multitracked harmony singing — Rundgren confesses Chorus was the only class he paid attention to in school; a taste for Philly soul and Beatlesque pop) — but also, a willingness to experiment with technology as demonstrated by pioneering video (he ran a spectacularly unprofitable TV studio); an "interactive" solo album the listener could choose to assemble at home under the TR-i name; and a charge into digital recordings that was ahead of contemporaries and hastened the demise of his own production career.

Testimony to Rundgren's talents at times is as grudging as his exclusion from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is baffling -- but Myers captures a good summary in the introduction from guitarist Lenny Kaye: "Todd's aphorism was 'If you know what you want, I'll get it for you. If you don't know what you want, I'll do it for you.'"

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Forgotten But Not Gone

What you have here just might be the greatest New Wave album of all time, and one of the most unusual to boot.

It came and went in a flash in 1982, and despite a minor MTV video hit, is easily overlooked among the varied projects and complicated narrative of Todd Rundgren, including the entire Utopia thing. It was released on a label doomed to a quick death and featured a helping of 15 would-be power-pop classics spread over 3 vinyl sides - A, B, C and a blank side D. Weird.

The Utopia of this early 1980s era was a far cry from the early assemblages under the same name in the 1970s, with only Rundgren participating across its lifetime. Utopia initially was Rundgren's touring band accompanying the leader's "psychedelic" era, and its first album -- then under the "Todd Rundgren's Utopia" moniker -- saw them performing dense, progressive songs including a single 30-minute song ("The Ikon") that ate up an entire album side.

Rundgren, described by some as a "genre tourist," never stayed in one place for long. He and Utopia gradually morphed from a prog outfit into a tight, pop-leaning quartet (Rundgren, McCartneyesque singing bassist Kasim Sulton, drummer John "Willie" Wilcox and keyboardist Roger Powell) with a goofy sense of humor where each of its members contributed songs and vocals. Powell dated to the psych era; Wilcox was Hall & Oates' drummer who joined following Rundgren's production of their WAR BABIES album; and Sulton was an up-and-coming player with Cherry Vanilla.

ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA (1980) bridged Utopia's evolving sound profiles with an album generating a few arena-like FM radio hits like "Caravan," the title track and Sulton's "Set Me Free" but that vibe didn't last either when they followed up with DEFACE THE MUSIC, a poker-faced pastiche of the Beatles where each and every song was a recognizable take-off of pre-1966 Fab Four classics.

By then quite busy serving as Rundgren's go-to backing band on a variety of his big and not-so-big production work (Meat Loaf's BAT OUT OF HELL for one, teen idol Shaun Cassidy's bizarre reinvention attempt WASP for another), Utopia drew well on the road but didn't sell many records, in part because the prolific Rundgren released slightly-more successful solo albums for each Utopia effort.

Bearsville Records was reluctant to pull the trigger on Utopia's next album, SWING TO THE RIGHT, a collection of off-kilter political pop-rock inspired by the dawning of the Reagan era. Utopia fled to upstart Network Records to establish itself again with the self-titled album reviewed here just as Bearsville relented and released SWING, resulting in a two-and-a-half new Utopia albums hitting shelves within months of one another, crowding a market that already had little appetite.

But if you could forget all that and just consider the album, UTOPIA was a stupefyingly taut, magnificently manufactured effort in which Utopia offered 15 variations on the three-minute, keyboard-and-guitar pop song, divided the songwriting and lead vocals in four easy pieces, harmonized beautifully and wrote particularly snappy lyrics making nearly every song a gigantic, awful pun. It wasn't exactly great art, but it was everything New Wave aspired to be.

Opener "Libertine," sung by Sulton, is one of the best rockers on the record, and should have been a hit. Others in that vein include "Princess of the Universe" sung by Wilcox, and Powell's ridiculous "Burn Three Times" which tells a lust story via awful kitchen metaphors: "I'm no Burger King/I'm no pizza pie spinner/It's a gourmet thing/not a TV dinner."

Rundgren's "Hammer in My Heart" -- an irresistible older cousin of his forthcoming solo smash "Bang the Drum All Day" -- was a minor dance floor hit based on the exact rhythm Utopia had laid down for Cassidy's bomb of a "Rebel Rebel" cover off WASP:



Wilcox's beat also anchors the psychedelic rave-up "Infrared and Ultraviolet" in which Rundgren and Sulton harmonize over the swirling noise of Powell's keyboards. "Chapter and Verse" "Bad Little Actress" "There Goes My Inspiration" "Neck on Up" and "Say Yeah" are jammed with power hooks and stuffed with silly metaphors. There's also a requisite Rundgrenesque ballad -- "I'm Looking at You But I'm Talking to Myself" -- and the country-ish "Forgotten but not Gone."

For pure goofiness it's difficult to beat the Powell-sung "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" and accompanying "state of the art" comedy video that early survivors of MTV should remember fondly.



Network Records folded only months following the release of UTOPIA and the band was largely forgotten when Rundrgren's EVER-POPULAR TORTURED ARTIST EFFECT solo album of 1983 produced "Bang the Drum All Day." Utopia hung around for a few more platters: OBLIVION (1984) and POV (1985) but they didn't have quite the spark.

Here's the entire glorious three-sided, four-singered thing:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Squeeze My Lemon

I was never going to be the biggest Led Zeppelin fan on my block, not with the Korf boys around, and between those guys, and New York rock radio in the 1970s, I never felt the need to get any more into them that what could be absorbed simply by arriving at the bus stop every morning before school, or tuning into Carol Miller at night. That was always more than enough.

And so it went for some 40 years till coming across a used book shop and this irresistible compact paperback with a NEW chapter on the Live Aid reunion!

I'd actually read Davis' more recent follow-up, LZ '75, as well as Michael Walker's reflection on their 1973 U.S. tour, a few years back but by dropping in in the middle of "the Led Zeppelin Saga" those books only illuminated brief moments following the establishment of their superstardom, and said little of what drove them, how they came to be, or whatever became of them. This book is that, and it's not all that pretty.

The strenuousness with which surviving Zeppelinites dismiss HAMMER OF THE GODS as sensational and exaggerated suggests to me Davis cuts closer to the bone than the band ever wished to be examined. It's undeniable that Zeppelin's rise to the top accompanied a hostility toward the press which was repaid in kind with harsh reviews of their art, and why Zeppelin took their sound directly to their audiences whose fervor broke down barriers of radio. It's also why skeptics like me figured a little Zeppelin was enough.

As you probably know, Zeppelin arose from the ashes of the Yardbirds, the U.K. guitar-rock pioneers whose alumni included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. A friend of Beck's named Jimmy Page was a young London studio wizard with hundreds of session credits recruited near the end of the Yardbirds run -- shortly before the band would disintegrate under personnel issues and years of dubious record-company interference that attempted to present them as a crossover pop act. Nevertheless, they still had a booked Scandivavian tour to complete in the fall of 1968.

With the help of Peter Grant, the Yardbirds' street-smart thug of a manager, Page sought to assemble "the New Yardbirds" in the image of its latest splinter, the Jeff Beck Group. They would traffic in a blues-based heavy rock sound they were convinced America would love, and were determined to do so free of the artistic shackles that had tripped up the Yardbirds.

New bass player John Baldwin, aka John Paul Jones, like Page, was a versatile London session veteran and arranger. A search for a dynamic frontman led Page to Robert Plant, a free-spirited, 19-year-old wailing blues fanatic who according to Davis "looked like a fairy prince" and had fronted several bands around the Midlands blues scene. Plant recommended hard-hitting, up-and-coming drummer John Bonham, with whom he'd previously played in Band of Joy. Bonham had little interest initially, but after Page saw him in action, a spirited recruiting effort secured his services when he might otherwise have gone on to play with another U.K. blues comer, Joe Cocker.

This group set off to complete the Yardbirds' obligations in September of 1968 and returned confident they'd make their own. The chemistry was there: Jimmy liked Bonzo's big beats; Robert's wailing voice could echo Jimmy's wild solos. They renamed the band after a skeptical remark by the Who's John Entwistle, taking out the "a" in Lead so that Americans wouldn't mispronounce it.

Conceived from the start to conquer America, Zeppelin didn't let anything stand in its way, including ethics. While they can't be faulted for their taste, their list of uncredited ripoffs, most from the early years, is a long one. Grant and road manager Richard Cole in the meantime felt the old rules of the touring game shouldn't apply to them and as a result revolutionized arena and stadium performances. When promoters didn't give Zep what it wanted, no problem: Cole, Grant and the roadies literally beat it from them.

Davis' story, appearing heavily sourced from Cole, is loaded with such wild tales from the road: Page's taste for young -- real young -- girls, and Plant and Bonzo's eye-opening introduction to American groupies of the early 1970s may have appeared salacious in 1985 but look practically horrifying today. The road gave license for the boys to forget they had devoted families at home, and for the drinking and drugs that would eventually destroy them.

Rock's version of the 1985 Mets
Zep's take-no-prisoners approach at times obscured the fact they had a sense of humor, but it afforded them the freedom to pursue musical visions and peculiarities together. The precocious Page had an interest in black magic and firebombing guitar blitzes. Plant had a thing for mystic Celtic folk (a cousin to American blues), and his lyrics could be dumb, but his effort can't be denied. Jones, who virtually escapes scrutiny amid Davis' larger-than-life profiles of his bandmates, brought textural versatility to the arrangements. Bonzo anchored it all with fearsome thump, but was dangerously wild and unpredictable when drunk, which was most of the time. They dropped sinister bombs-away thunder and folky acoustic psychedelia inspired in equal measure by blues legends and Joni Mitchell. Plant and Page traveled the world, absorbing exotic sounds in places like Morocco that would turn up in the grooves of their later records.

These enormous appetites would also be their undoing, Davis writes. On a tour break on an island in Greece in 1975, Plant was involved in a bad automobile accident that nearly killed his wife Maureen (who was driving while drunk) and resulted in serious injuries to Plant, their daughter, and the daughter of Page, who was also in the car. After a long break while Plant recovered, Zeppelin's 1977 U.S. tour was interrupted when Plant's young son died suddenly of a rare respiratory virus. Bonham, Cole and Grant in the meantime were facing charges that they assaulted and hospitalized a security guard at a concert in Oakland.

"It was as if the disaster that struck Robert Plant's family sapped Led Zeppelin of its remarkable good fortune and the group's insatiable will for domination," Davis writes. What's more, he said, the superstitious Plant may have blamed Page's dabbling in the occult for the tragedies that visited him. Page by this time had developed a heroin addiction and was working erratically in the studio and on stage: He rushed through production of 1976's PRESENCE, considered one of Zeppelin's lesser efforts, and by the time 1979's IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR dropped, Jones was leading the band musically.

The final tragedy came as Led Zeppelin prepared for a U.S. tour in 1980. Bonham was drinking heavily at Page's home in London, passed out, and never awoke. He was only 31. Zeppelin, after eight studio albums over a dozen years, essentially died with him.

I remember that day -- I was home from school faking an illness when the news came over the radio, and intercepted my friends after the school bus dropped them off my street. The Korf boys wouldn't believe it.

Like Zeppelin itself, HAMMER OF THE GODS is audacious, controversial, often brilliant and inspiring, inasmuch as it got me to consider Led Zeppelin for the millionth time, but also the first.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A New Sensation

Like Foreigner, INXS is one of those bands you'd never consider particularly remarkable until confronted with the sheer volume of songs of theirs you can't help but know by heart. But unless you really love them, and I don't, you may as well skip the autobiography.

Co-authored by the surviving five band members and American writer Anthony Bozza, INXS: STORY TO STORY at times reads like a 300-page article in Tiger Beat, impressed by just about everything about them (the songs, their looks, their fame, how much drugs they did, how many girls they slept with) while working hard to craft a narrative that they were musical revolutionaries of the 1980s, "intense, edgy and progressive in their compositions, poetic in their storytelling, and romantic in their outlook."

And then it gets to their good points...

There is a story there. The Farriss brothers (Tim, Andrew and Jon, oldest to youngest) were sons of an insurance executive who grew up in Perth, and later Sydney, where they encountered schoolmates and acquaintances that would complete the sextet -- jocky bassist Garry Beers, geeky sax/guitar player Kirk Pengilly and charismatic vocalist Michael Hutchence. They would remain a unit until Hutchence died in 1997, releasing 10 albums over that span but ultimately destined to be remembered as a "singles band" and phenomenon of the 1980s.

Performing first as the Farriss Bros., young INXS was a Pink Floyd influenced "groove band" whose character developed during punishing van trips back and forth across Australia (drummer Jon Farriss, then still in high school, accompanied his parents when they retired to Perth but the band found the scene there myopic and returned to Sydney, dropout Jon in tow).

In Sydney, they caught a break as an opening act and foil for fast-rising rockers Midnight Oil, whose manager gave them a new name (in-accessible? In excess?), and encouraged a flamboyant stage show before becoming a born-again Christian with designs on turning them into Jesus vehicle. Instead, INXS pivoted toward an abrasive young rival promoter, Chris Murphy, who’d grow into the into the band's “seventh member,” and ruthless and influential dealmaker.

Nearly all of the writing for INXS fell to Andrew Farriss and Hutchence, mirror images of one another. Farriss was introverted, chubby, a homebody and a Beatles fan and spent most of his stage time seated behind the keyboard; Hutchence the handsome sexed-up manchild with a taste for dance music and a magnetic presence. Their partnership crafted a modern sound suited for the "new wave" movement and distinct from their hard-rocking peers in Sydney's club scene. Their lyrics were rarely more than words to accompany Jon Farris and Beers' dance rhythms, augmented by three guitars and/or guitar/sax/keyboard, as the tracks from their self-tiled debut (1980) and 1981's Talking Heads-ish UNDERNEATH THE COLOURS demonstrate:



Producer Mark Opitz signed on for SHABOOH SHOOBAH in 1982, a record that squeezed out two home-run singles -- "Don't Change" and "The One Thing" -- the latter becoming the band's first U.S. hit and an early MTV staple.  Bozza describes their first trips to the U.S. as a kind of boys-club crusade, stealing Adam Ant's girlfriends and tour-bus trysting with various Go-Gos. They liked to party.

INXS knew it was onto something when their burgeoning dance-pop caught the ear of New York producer Nile Rodgers, who called on Darryl Hall to sing backing vocals on "Original Sin," the lead single from 1984's THE SWING and the band's first worldwide hit. It was a similar pairing of Australian brother act and dance producer that launched the Bee Gees to the stratosphere 10 years before. A string of similarly slinky funk-pop singles followed from 1985's LISTEN LIKE THIEVES (What You Need, Shine Like It Does); 1987's hit-jammed KICK (New Sensation, Devil Inside, Need You Tonight, Never Tear Us Apart, Mystify, four of them reaching the U.S. Top 10); and 1990's X (Suicide Blonde, Disappear) -- making them superstars.

Hutchence, raised by a celebrity make-up artist mother in Japan, Beverly Hills and Sydney, by then was a swaggering free spirit and embodiment of the 1980s front-man, with killer looks and a sensuous, confident, and often sad delivery. Offstage, he was a fool who could barely care for himself, maintain a healthy relationship, or turn down a drug. He never cleaned up after himself, or bothered to get a driver's license.

One late night in Copenhagen in 1992, Hutchence was knocked cold in a street fight with a cab driver. He hit his head on the pavement, triggering a brain injury that among other things, took away his sense of smell and left him thereafter prone to wild mood swings and violent outbursts, once pulling a knife on bandmate Beers.

Bozza speculates that his loss of smell -- a condition often accompanied by depression -- may have contributed for a thirst for stimulation that killed Hutchence, who was found dead in a hotel room believed to have been practicing autoerotic asphyxiation (he was ready for a new sensation. Too soon?). Hutchence was despondent at the time over his inability to win custody of the children of girlfriend Paula Yates. Their father, Yates' 18-year husband and British rock royalty Bob Geldolf, sensibly wouldn't allow it. The Hutchence-Yates relationship (they had a daughter together) was scandalous from the start and drew the paparazzi wherever they went.

The band by then was in a rapid popular decline. 1992's WELCOME TO WHEREVER YOU ARE saw them trying to keep pace with the alternative revolution in a manner not unlike U2 would at the same time. They live up to their name gloriously on "Baby Don't Cry" but the hits didn't follow, especially in the U.S.



Australian audiences in the meantime grew resentful of the band, particularly after they big-leagued a benefit festival in Sydney in 1992, demanding larger dressing rooms, a bigger budget and more elaborate equipment than the supporting acts, and then delivering an aloof performance (The star of that show was Crowded House, Chris Bourke wrote in his book: "Hutchence, dressed in white, struck messianic poses and finally deigned to speak to the crowd six songs in. 'Hello,' he said. 'You all turned up. Let's just play some fucking music.'")

Chastened, INXS deliberately dialed back the glitz on 1994's FULL MOON, DIRTY HEARTS, going so far as to break with a carefully crafted visual branding and feature a cover photograph of them wearing street clothes in the back of van, and booking small clubs on a tour, but the back-to-basics act only served to make them look further out of touch, and it was obvious Hutchence's heart and mind had departed.  ELEGANTLY WASTED, recorded between Hutchence's solo recordings and burgeoning acting gigs, was released shortly before his death in 1997.

Perhaps as a means of cashing in on whatever future Hutchence's death robbed them of, INXS has continued as brand if not a band, in the years since, cranking out among other things a made-for-TV movie, the reboot experiment of the ROCK STAR reality television show and the authorized biography reviewed here. They'll always have the singles.