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.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Old New Dylans

At some point in my mind, Steve Forbert and Willie Nile ceased to be distinct identities and merged into a single performer I remembered only as "Steve Forbert."

It was the turn of the 1980s, and both guys had shot out of New York as singer-songwriters, swimming directly against the current of punk and new wave. Each were delivered the "New Dylan" kiss of death, probably in the same article I'd read about them. Further conflating them was the fact that each of them had a minor radio hit in the form of a bight, jaunty moonlight serenade: Forbert's "Romeo's Tune" from JACKRABBIT SLIM reached as high as No. 11 in February of 1980;  Nile followed months later with the lead single of his self-titled debut, "Vagabond Moon."

Though not exactly dead ringers for one another, the thematic and aesthetic similarities were obvious and they became a single entity to me after both artists vanished from the popular landscape almost as abruptly as they arrived. Forbert had a bit more staying power -- he appeared as Cyndi Lauper's groom (Captain Lou Albano was the father-in-law) in the ridiculous "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" video -- and spit out four albums before conflicts with his record label prevented him from releasing anything for more than six years. Nile sputtered out after a second effort, GOLDEN DOWN, tanked in 1981.

They had significant differences too. Forbert, originally from Meridian, Mississippi, came from the folk tradition and would make the majority of his career as an acoustic solo troubadour with a string of big-label near-misses and modest indy successes, just about all of them gentle, funny-sad ("Good Planets are Hard to Find") and confessional. Nile at heart was a swaggering rocker from Buffalo, and his best work would be while fronting a band in the tradition of a AAA Springsteen.

Forbert came back to me first, re-emerging on Geffen with the terrific STREETS OF THIS TOWN in 1988, produced by Springsteen's bassist, Garry Tallent. The cover, pictured here, tells you all you need to know. Inspired, I went back and filled in the blanks -- his superb debut ALIVE ON ARRIVAL, the neglected followups to JACKRABBIT, and made it a point to catch him live on several occasions. You can spin nearly any of his 16 albums and have an exemplary folk-rock listen, with the ocassional hootenanny.

Grandpa Rocks: Willie Nile at Brooklyn Bowl, July 2016
It was 25 years before Nile reappeared to me. He'd chipped out only two albums since GOLDEN DOWN, but in 2006 released the astonishing STREETS OF NEW YORK, a crackling reflection on the thrills ("Asking Annie Out") and chills ("Cellphones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead") of a post 9/11 city. It was only then I'd rediscovered "Vagabond Moon," and just as Nile was launching a late-career renaissance -- six albums in the last decade including the new WORLD WAR WILLIE, jammed with call-and-response rockers, power-pop gems and the occasional piano ballad.

Like Forbert, Nile's perceptive and sometimes funny, and most of his material concerns the forgotten and downtrodden. And both men in recent years released tributes to members of The Band: Forbert's crushingly direct "Wild as the Wind" remembers Rick Danko as a hard-drinking virtuoso:

Rick was backstage loaded
I was kind of shocked
The man said 'Rick, it's show time'
He walked out and he rocked
And he rocked
Not one bad note, and he rocked

Nile's joyous "When Levon Sings" celebrates Levon Helm. Both included in the 10-song sampler below.

Friday, February 5, 2016

I'll Come Flying Like A Spark

I thought that maybe finishing the book and writing about it would cool this Crowdie jag I'm on but I have a few more observations to share, if only with myself.

* Neil's songs are just the sneakiest. At heart they're very simple but so many will take a subtle turn or unusual route and then blindside you hooks. I can't much explain how (and for all that went into that lengthy bio, that doesn't either) but it's definitely a skill of his, and something I now realize I'd pointed out before.

Often, this musical sneak attack is a match for introspective lyrics examining the dark reaches of the male psyche, as in this slow-burning but explosive cut from TEMPLE OF LOW MEN.

* That's Split Enz' Eddie Rayner in the corner on keyboards by the way (he played with them and sometimes toured in the band's early days). Thanks in part to Mitchell Froom's big bag of tricks in the studio (he was George Martin to Finn's Lennon/McCartney act) and guest musicians like Rayner and Tim Finn, Crowded House were a trio that hardly ever sounded like one.

* Notice too that song embeds a very obvious callout to other songs with the lines: People Are Strange/God Only Knows. Neil also does this a lot, even getting two Beatles references in the first couplet of "Don't Dream It's Over": Within/Without and catching the rain "in a paper cup." Can't be a mistake!

* Other songs nick bits of his influences, and they're all great too: The jangly "Weather With You" is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in disguise; peel back "Into Temptation" and find "A Day in the Life" while "Pineapple Head" is a more obvious "Norwegian Wood" tribute but with another sucker-punch hook.

* I probably came off too hard on "Chocolate Cake" below. I like it enough, and it doesn't offend me personally. But it was an odd choice for a single. Ultimately, the problem with seeking an "edge" for Crowded House was that their strengths were often so well hidden.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Blind Date With Destiny

They had a worldwide record contract before they'd ever played a gig, and a debut single that went top 10 on three continents.

Yet for a band designed to be a commercial endeavor from the start, Crowded House would find it difficult to sustain its early success, particularly in the U.S. There were any number of reasons for this, from fickle consumer tastes to an inconsistent lineup to record company politics and occasionally to the band's own indifference to it. But there was rarely any music to blame: Crowded House, Chris Bourke writes in the biography SOMETHING SO STRONG, was led by one of the world's most accomplished songwriters, if one of the least celebrated around here.

Crowded House arose from the ashes of the zany New Zealand art-pop outfit Split Enz, which mirrored its descendants by succeeding nearly everywhere but the U.S., where they're remembered popularly if not quite accurately as "one-hit wonders."

Tim Finn and his younger brother Neil were born to Irish Catholic immigrants in Te Awamutu, New Zealand. In the Irish tradition the family would sing together, and though six years Tim's junior, Neil would keep up with his brother's interest in music: they learned guitar and piano at the same time. Tim would found Split Ends (later amended to Enz, the 'NZ' referring to his home country) while a college student in Melbourne. Known in their early days for theatrical, avant-garde art-rock powered by virtuoso keyboardist Eddie Raynor, an 18-year-old Neil would replace guitarist and co-founder Phil Judd in 1977. In part because Neil was still mastering his instrument, the band pivoted to a simpler sound increasingly influenced by Neil's growing skill as a pop songwriter. Neil was partial to the classic British pop tradition (BEATLES FOR SALE was a favorite) and his contribution as singer and songwriter alongside Raynor's distinctive keyboard produced the band's biggest international hit "I Got You" off 1980's TRUE COLOURS album.

Two followups dominated by Tim's songs --  WAIATA (1981) and TIME AND TIDE (1982) -- included early MTV hits like "Six Months in a Leaky Boat," and encouraged the elder Finn to pursue a solo career. A Neil-led Enz released CONFLICTING EMOTIONS in 1983 (featuring his ballad "Message to My Girl") and finally SEE YA ROUND (1984), by which time Neil was ready to leave his brother's shadow and form his own group.

He took along Enz' most recent drummer, Aussie Paul Hester, with whom he'd developed a particularly good rapport. Their performance as a duo at a Melbourne party attracted young bassist Nick Seymour, who asked to join them.

Determined to avoid the common obstacle of Australasian music reaching international shores months after release in their home country, the trio purposefully sought worldwide label and distribution deals before they ever so much as toured, recorded or even had a name (they initially went by the Mullanes after Neil's middle name). In Los Angeles, they signed with Capitol, and recorded their debut album as Crowded House after the Hollywood apartment they shared while it came together.

Though dominated by Finn, who wrote and sang nearly all their songs and held the power to hire and fire (Hester referred to the band as "Two dorks and a dictator"), Crowded House were very much a sum-of-their-parts act, Bourke writes. Hester provided vocal harmonies and a wild sense of humor bringing life and character to the live act. The stylish Seymour was a talented artist and painter who crafted stage clothes, and influenced their image. He painted all of their album covers including the outstanding TEMPLE OF LOW MEN pictured here. Capitol appointed American keyboardist Mitchell Froom to produce: Froom would craft a refined, retro sound virtually free of the gaudy production of his mid-80s contemporaries. The "Whiter Shade of Pale" style organ solo highlighting "Don't Dream It's Over" was his, and Froom performed with the band as it set out to take on the world.

Capitol officials were reticent to debut the act behind a ballad, so initially promoted the rousing "Mean to Me" as the lead single off their first album. But there was no denying the appallingly gorgeous "Don't Dream It's Over" with its weary-but-hopeful message and gigantic chorus, heavenly organ and Neil's boom-chucka guitar known in New Zealand as the "Maori strum." Helped also by an award-winning video, the song reached No. 2 on the U.S. singles charts, No. 1 in in New Zealand and Canada, and as high as No.7 in Europe. Nearly 30 years later, it's proven one of the most enduring pop singles of all time.

The success of "Don't Dream" paved the way for follow-up chart singles in '87 like "Something So Strong" and "World Where You Live," giving the band plenty of momentum to plow into TEMPLE OF LOW MEN. Though nobody doubted TEMPLE was a fine record, an air of doubt surrounded it, with the band joking it should have been titled "Mediocre Followup" and Capitol kicking itself for being unable to convey ultimately borne-out fears that it lacked a comparable hit single. The Froom-produced disc is a somber affair carried by ballads "Into Temptation," "Better Be Home Soon" and "Mansion in the Slums" but lacks a punchy energy beyond the jazzy"Sister Madly."

Dismayed by the relatively weak reception for TEMPLE, Finn battled a case of writer's block (for which he blamed Seymour, who was temporarily sacked) and didn't regain his touch until a songwriting session with his brother Tim, whose solo career was also missing its mark. Contemplating their collaboration for a Finn Brothers project, but also under the gun to deliver a Crowded House disc that Capitol would accept, a compromise ensued whereby Tim Finn joined the band in exchange for using his co-collaborations for the 1991 WOODFACE album.

An airy, upbeat collection featuring brotherly harmonies, WOODFACE nevertheless proved problematic for Crowded House's identity. Now three-fourths ex-Split Enz members, it blurred an already cloudy picture. Who was the front man? Seymour and Hester weren't exactly on board with the change either. Capitol once again made a curious lead single choice, going with Tim's "Chocolate Cake" -- an uncharacteristically snotty song criticizing Americans for being fat televangelism worshippers. An American band like the The Hooters might get away with that; but who were these guys? As Bourke tells it, "Cake" was a compromise, ultimately won out by those believing the band needed more traction amid a growing taste for "alternative"rock. But it was nobody's idea of the best song on the record, with a half-dozen others easily better, ranging from Hester's quirky "Italian Plastic" to folky ballads like "She Goes On," to the irresistable, Beatlesque "It's Only Natural." (Check out Shea Stadium in the video!)

They all whiffed here, although the album was a bigger hit in U.K. and in Australasia. Despite lifesaving contributions as a collaborator, Tim Finn was an odd fit with the band's character; abruptly dropped out during a tour and was replaced by American multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart, then touring with support act Sheryl Crow.

For all the understated elegance of Crowded House records, none to this point had captured the energy and spontaneity of its live shows, a point Bourke makes repeatedly in describing show after show (after show). With Neil relocated to New Zealand with his family, production for fourth album TOGETHER ALONE convened at exotic Karekare Beach with producer Martin Glover (aka "Youth") of the British band Killing Joke. Fueled by massive intake of pot and a haphazard approach that was the complete opposite of Froom's fussiness, TOGETHER took months to complete but stretched the band out musically, incorporating a psychedelic mix of Finn's Irish and Maori heritage complete with native drummers and a brass band. Now a fulltime member, Hart encouraged Finn to turn up the volume on a ballad morphing into the lively, tambourine-shaking power-popper "Locked Out" (from the 'Reality Bites' soundtrack) but the album's highlight is undoubtedly "Distant Sun" including all the elements of a Finn classic: it's a dreamy, melancholy love song with a verse just as strong as the chorus. McCartney couldn't do any better. It is glorious.

Buoyed by the emergence of the "Adult Alternative" radio format, "Distant Sun" peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard alternative charts and helped to melt an undeserved reputation as middle-of-the-road kind of band before the strain of touring wore the group out. Suffering a crippling depression, Hester packed up and flew home to Australia during a tour stop in Atlanta. The band carried on with a replacement, but Finn officially broke up the group afterward, and they completed their commitment to Capitol with a greatest-hits package. Considered national heroes in Australia they would reconvene with one-offs TIME ON EARTH in 2007 and INTRIGUER in 2010 amid various Finn solo albums and a second collaboration with Tim Finn.

Seymour joined the band Deadstar and continues to work from time to time with Finn. The bon vivant Hester took a role as "Paul the Cook" on the Aussie kids' TV show The Wiggles among other acting gigs, but he never beat depression. He took his dogs for a walk in Melbourne in 2005 and never came home. He was found hanging from a tree in a public park.

Bourke's anguish in telling that bit of the story is palpable, reflecting a book borne of unparalleled access (a New Zealand-based music journalist, he was there from the start) and his personal admiration for the band. At times it's a bit much for the casual fan to take in, but certainly worth a spin.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Here Comes Trouble

Any Trouble were a quartet out of Manchester whose Stiff Records' 1980 debut, WHERE ARE ALL THE NICE GIRLS was jammed with lively, jangly, witty, irresistible new-wave pop AND a cool rockabilly cover of Springteen's "Growing Up." What more could you ask for?

The only track that casual listeners may remember was the reggae-influenced minor hit "Second Choice," promoted with a dull video in the early days of MTV that highlighted their shortcomings in visual appeal way more than it showcased their music. I'm sure the listening public got a load of these guys and figured they were a skinny-tie wearing Elvis Costello ripoff act with a shlubby balding singer who didn't even wear stylish eyeglasses.

Be that as it may, WHERE ARE ALL THE NICE GIRLS is just terrific. "Playing Bogart" one of the most unique and underlooked songs of the era (that song is actually a cover from an even less-known band known as 23 Jewels, I discovered). If there's a better young-guy-struggling-to-get-his-shit-together-before-you-go-out song I'd like to hear it.

 A couple more albums with similar stuff and results, and Any Trouble were out of business by 1984. Singer and songwriter Clive Gregson went on to a successful career as a songwriter and performer in England but has reformed Any Trouble twice: Once for 2007's LIFE IN REVERSE, and just now for PRESENT TENSE.

A couple spins would suggest little has changed with the jangle-pop formula. Although at an hour and 10 minutes I haven't gotten to the end yet, and the lead single is a countrified tribute to Glen Campbell, it's pretty good.