Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A New Yorker’s Guide to the Record Stores of Bologna

(Note: This was an unfinished piece which I started a year ago, haphazardly combining travel writing, music criticism, and psychedelic reminiscences. Realizing that I would never be able to put it into readable shape, I gave it a once over just so I could put it out simply for the benefit of American fans of Italian Prog Rock who will be traveling abroad and people who did a lot of drugs at Allman Brothers concerts. Caveat emptor and you're welcome. ) 

As a rabid record collector traveling abroad, I had high expectations of what I could find in Bologna, Italy. After all, there is a vibrant arts scene and, for an ancient city, a surprisingly youthful energy, due in no small part to student population from the University of Bologna. That institution being the oldest functioning university in the world, one might say that it is the original college town.

Bologna has other stuff too.
Obviously, I wasn’t planning the entire trip to the city around record shopping (at least, that’s what I told my girlfriend), and I certainly ventured to absorb some of the local flavor, get a feel for the architecture and culture of antiquity. Doing so, I do have to say that there was something that felt odd about the city. It some ways it felt like a city that had let itself go. In spite of the lovely architecture, Bologna has a feeling of disrepair. In many places, the crumbling walkways are haphazardly patched with blotches of cement, and the city has long since stopped trying to remove the crudely executed graffiti from its ancient buildings.

My girlfriend, Federica, who was born and raised in a village a few hours away, told me that the city was nicer when she was younger and that the graffiti wasn’t as omnipresent. She expressed sadness and frustration at the current state of the city, while arguing that if young people were going to deface the oldest and most venerated structures with graffiti , they should at least be good at it. (Living in New York we are accustomed to skilled and aesthetically ambitious vandals.)

Also, in places there were an alarming number of pigeons. I don’t know why.

In any event, leaving the train station, we took an inexplicably roundabout route to our first destination.  


La Piazzola di Bologna
Piazza dell Otto Agosto
40126 Bologna BO

This vast outdoor market has been a staple of the city for over half a millennium, popping up on weekends since the mid-thirteenth century. My girlfriend assured me that there we would find everything under the sun with hundreds of kiosks with books, records, and other unique memorabilia. However, most of what we found were cheap kitchen gadgets and ugly clothing. In the adjacent Montagnola Park, there were a few tables with some used CDs, but nothing rare or interesting. The only music memorabilia I came across were some mass-produced t-shirts, wallets, and the kind of chintzy mirrors with printed pictures and band logos like we used to win as prizes at carnival games back in the 80s. I wondered if there were better finds in the summertime or, in fact, at any time that wasn’t the end of December, but it wasn’t that there was a lack of venders, juts a lack of anything that I would ever want.  “It used to be better ten years ago,” my girlfriend repeated, somewhat crestfallen.


Disco D'Oro
Via Galliera, 23
40121 Bologna BO

This was a respectable spot. The main room of the store was dedicated to new vinyl and with copious amounts of it. Reissues, new albums, limited edition box sets. The walls were completely lined with CDs, while under an archway a rack of T-shirts hung just overhead. Painted on the archway were the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (translated into Italian, of course) reading: “Senza musica la vita serrabe un errore.(English: “Without music, life would be a mistake”) A thought came to my mind that it was the kind of place that one saw a lot more of before the Napster/Spotify revolution happened. I later found out that because of the significantly greater cost of Wi-Fi in Italy, music streaming had yet to catch on there in a big way, and thus CDs are not perceived to be as passé there as they are stateside.

There was a back room dedicated to used vinyl, but I don’t remember it being terribly well organized or curated. I may have seen a good title or two, but nothing I felt compelled to buy and lug back to America.
All said, it was the kind of record store that I would have loved back in 90s. Looking online, I discovered that the place has been there since 1976, so evidently it has been an asset to Italian music lovers for decades, and I hope it remains so for decades to come.


Back To Beauty Vinili e Vintage
Via deMonari, 1e
40121 Bologna BO
Reality does not do this picture justice.
 A hop, skip and a jump away, though not the easiest place to find, Back to Beauty is located in one of those narrow side streets that is the size of an American back alley. No new vinyl, which was fine for me; I didn’t embark on this quest to get things easily found at any number of places in my home city, or on (gasp) Amazon. Back To Beauty Vinili e Vintage, in contrast to our last stop, had a small but incredibly well selected section of classic records. However, most of these were by American and British acts, and on this trip I was mostly looking for original albums by Italian progressive rock bands such as Premiata Forneria Marconi, Area, and Arti & Mestieri. While there were a few records by Le Orme, they were less celebrated releases, and I got the feeling that the records were pretty overpriced anyway. Also, it should be noted that the Google image for the shop is quite misleading. Taking advantage of mirrors and angles, the photo of the shop found online makes the space look much bigger than it is. In actual fact, Back to Beauty is less a record store than a bizarre nostalgia outlet. There are many odd trinkets and beauty supplies, which should not have been surprising given the name of the shop, but still seemed incredibly incongruous. The used vinyl section was actually only a few square feet in a room full of strange knick-knacks. It felt like a place that was trying to sell a hip lifestyle far above the products that it actually retailed.


What’s All This About Italian Prog Rock, You Ask?
Okay, so I’ve been a prog rock geek since college. There’s something about being eighteen years old, studying theatre, and discovering the joys of marijuana and psychedelics that makes a young man indulge in feeding his inner-pretentious-pseudo-intellectual-peacock-child. Of course, at first, I was pretty rudimentary. I got started with the basics. Freshman and sophomore years, I was into what I called “the big three” : ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), Genesis, and Yes. Jethro Tull was right up there, too, and I did obtain King Crimson’s first album at that time, but it would take another ten years before I explored their catalog in earnest.

The one thing that these bands had in common was the fact that they were all English. Despite the fact that even then I knew that one of hallmarks of prog rock was a connection to classical, i.e. European, tradition, I still approached the genre as purely an Anglophile. By the end of my college experience, in spite of working in a music store for a semester, my horizons had not broadened significantly beyond the British bands to which I had been exposed freshman year. Sure, I knew that there were a number of mainland European progressive bands, and if drilled, I could probably have named one or two German and Dutch bands, but I didn’t have any recordings by them and could probably not have even named a song or album.

But even as such, I knew that Italy was a haven for prog rock. It made sense. This was the country that had produced Puccini and Paganini, composers and musicians who were unapologetic with their ornate sensibilities and displays of virtuosity. It stood to reason that prog rock, even that made by Englishmen,  would make an impact there before it became popular in the rest of Europe or America. In the beginning, even the English didn’t get it. Mike Rutherford of Genesis ruminated on the fact that their music went over huge in Italy at a time when it was greeted with indifferent confusion in their own country: “In those days no one really liked us apart from the Italians. So the more time we spent there, the better. The more we were cheered up.”

It wasn’t until I started seeing Federica, and meeting her friends, that I actually got a foothold in with Italian prog. One night I got to talking to Federica’s friend, Sebastiano, about music, and he told me that I had to check out the bands Premiata Forneria Marconi, and Area.

Not easy to find in the USA
In the days before I grudgingly obtained a Spotify account, Premiata Forneria Marconi proved to be the easiest to explore and obtain. Through my usual channels, I had found unreleased in-studio radio broadcasts from the mid 70s and was dazzled by their dynamics, weaving of styles, and musical dexterity. Also, having been discovered by Greg Lake during an Italian tour and subsequently signed to ELPs record label, Manticore, the band became the biggest export of the Italian prog rock genre, recording a handful of English language albums which brought them more international success than most of their fellow countrymen. Checking out my usual shops in New York and Boston, it wasn’t infrequent to find copies of these albums which were calculated to succeed in the larger world markets. However, stateside, the earlier Italian albums proved to be either elusive or prohibitively expensive.

And this is why, prior to our day-trip to Bologna, I had done a little online research of a few little spots to check out.


Back to the Subject at Hand…
So far, at this point, the Bolognese vinyl pilgrimage was a bust. Don’t get me wrong. We were enjoying the day, grabbing lunch at a little trattoria, wandered the streets taking pictures, dropping in for wine and negronis at little bars on side streets whenever the mood hit us.

There was, however, one more place I wanted to find, and it wasn’t so much that I wanted to save the best for last, but mainly because it was the most remote of any of my planned stops, and I knew that dragging my girlfriend two miles outside the center of the city on foot would take some convincing and even a bit of lying (“Baby, we’re almost there, I swear!”).


Discobolandia
Via Filippo Beroaldo, 26/B
40127 Bologna BO

After hoofing it for over a half an hour through residential areas and more graffiti covered buildings, we arrived at Discobolandia. It was, to use the words of Nick Horsnby from his book High Fidelity, “for the serious record collector… carefully placed to attract the bare minimum of window-shoppers ; there’s no reason to come here at all, unless you live here…”

When I entered the shop, it immediately felt different from the other places. It wasn’t catering primarily to European DJs, it wasn’t there to sell repressings of old records, even though it did have its share of new 180 gram vinyl. Mostly, it was a shop for people who liked old rock records. Those places feel different. They smell different. Maybe it was a little brighter and tidier than many of the stores in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but underneath the fresh layers of paint on the walls and bins which sported a South Beach flavored complimentary color scheme of orange and coral green, offset by black and white linoleum tiled floors, I could feel that this was the kind of grungy record store that I was looking for: By record freaks, for record freaks. In fact, it would have felt like any of my NYC haunts if it were not for the effervescent and refreshing enthusiasm of the proprietor, Emmanuele.

Don’t get me wrong. I have had some great conversations with record store clerks and owners in my adopted home city, and have made some great friends that way, but here there tends to be a greater sense of competition. You have to prove your meddle. You’ve got to hold your own in conversation, get their references, know their obscure bands, and stump them with a few of your own, all the while maintaining a distant cool.

Emmanuale, on the other hand, just wanted to turn me onto stuff. True, it could be that he may have been trying to sell me more records, but he seemed so genuine about it.

As I had walked into the shop, the song “Willin’” playing on the stereo. That old Little Feat song has been covered so many times, by so many artists, that it has basically become a standard. Still, this version made my ears perk up. To be honest, I am very picky when it comes to recording covers. I find that all too often people will try to stay too close to the original, or obliterate the spirit of the song by ignoring its original intention. And at first, I thought this version was too close to the spirit of the original, but the voice grabbed me. It sounded familiar, but new. The arrangement was crisper, cleaner than the original, though it still had a loose, down home feel. But this was more soulful. It was that voice, beautiful, wise, and sorrowful.

Scott Sharrard, days before.
Had I heard this album?, Emmanuele asked (with my girlfriend acting as an interpreter) as he held up a copy of Gregg Allman’s posthumously released final studio album, Southern Blood. I was embarrassed to say I hadn’t. As a hardcore Peachhead, I wasn’t about to have my first listen to the album be on Spotify or something like that, but in saving money for this trip, I wasn’t able to drop 50 bucks on the album. And even though it must have been available stateside first, Emmanuele heard it before me. (I assure you, that has since been rectified.)

That, of course, got me talking about how I had seen Gregg’s guitarist and musical director on that album, Scott Sharrard, in New York just days prior. I showed Emmanuele pictures I took at the show, but further conversation was difficult.


The Allman Brothers Band and Unreliable Memories of March 20th, 2001
If we spoke the same language, and I wasn’t relying on Federica to translate, I would have carried on with stories of my springtime ritual of seeing the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre back home. I’d talk about the time I met my best friend at the legendary Bottom Line music club downtown and dropped a bunch of acid before we proceeded to walk the seventy blocks north to the theatre.

I might have mentioned how we were definitely tripping balls by the time we passed by the random pet store somewhere near the United Nations (to this day, I don’t remember how or why we ended up on the east side) and how we challenged each other to see how far we could walk into the arcade of tiny, animated, arfing, chirping, meowing animals on display without completely losing our composure (for the record, I made it further back than my friend did).

How, in a dive bar near the venue, I made the mistake of looking in the mirror in the bathroom, and was greeted with a vision of my face warping, stretching, pulling, drooping, pulsing. I knew then that the rest of the night would be a delicate balance of maintaining composure and puncturing other dimensions.

How getting into the theatre felt like infiltration. To cover up my dilated pupils, I wanted to keep my sunglasses on, but my friend told me that was a bad idea, and that I would blow our cover. He was probably right, but it pained me. I felt like I was stripping away my coolness.  I don’t often feel cool.


How the walls of the ornate theatre moved and swirled. How the ceiling melted, dripped, and cascaded down to the orchestra seats. How we peaked at the end of the first set when the band segued from their ethereal, but fiery rendition of “Dreams” into the minor key opening passage of “Revival.” How my brain felt like it was in a vice, folding into itself, crushed under pressure, approaching the point of snapping , like when you cross your eyes and you intuitively feel like there’s a threshold, where if you go too far, your eyes will stay like that forever. And so I rocked back and forth, clutching at the arm rests, grinding my teeth, as the band accompanied the brooding guitar duet with images of violence and war projected on the screens above them, illustrating the horrors that man inflicts upon man, while a knot of sorrow, anger, and despair congealed in my chest, everything hitting me too intensely, until… until…

Until  the music shifted, and the guitars burst into a jaunty, harmonic decrescendo leading the band into a joyous major key groove.  The images of war were replaced by the smiling visage of Duane, the Allmans’ brilliant fallen leader, projected huge above the stage. Below, onstage, his baby brother Gregg sang in a growling, knowing voice, “people can you feel it? Love is everywhere.”

The ball of dark emotion shot out of my chest like a bolt of lightning. My soul felt cleansed.

These are things that are difficult to express through an interpreter.


Indexing and Classifications
In spite of the nature of my quest, my first stop at Discobolandia were the jazz and fusion sections, searching for a copy of Venusian Summer by Lenny White, but to no avail. I was somewhat surprised to have found that Discobolandia had separate sections for jazz and fusion, and that the records were as appropriately designated as could be hoped given the blurry line between. Though the sections were modest, there contained some interesting treasures. I found a lovely copy of an album by the Miroslav Vitouš Group, featuring John Surman, Kenny Kirkland, and Jon Christiansen. I was particularly excited by this find, having had obtained years earlier an unreleased live recording of this particular lineup that was positively brilliant. I had high expectations of their studio album.

It’s probably the same vanity that makes me pick up an obscure punk record to go along with the Hall and Oates record I found to show the hipster at the counter that I have informed and eclectic taste that makes me hit the jazz section first. I’m aware of my foibles. Still, Europeans always viewed jazz as a true art form, an attitude that American listeners only adopted later, and I knew that there was potential gems to be found.
Obviously I hit the prog section next. And there was a proper prog section, which I always respect even if I don’t know if it is for the shopkeepers to count the enthusiasts or to identify the undesirables. 

The day's haul.
To my disappointment, there were far fewer albums by Italian prog bands than there were Italian pressings of English bands. Not surprisingly, I suppose, there were copious amounts of interesting Italian pressings of Genesis and King Crimson records which I would have loved to have purchased if I had a pay grade that complimented my fetishism and the room in my apartment to store copies of albums I already had just because the covers were slightly different.

There were a couple of good finds: Performance, the live album by PFM, recorded in 1980 as the band was becoming a bit more poppy (but still, even the worst PFM records have dazzling musicianship), Collage, the second album by Le Orme, a bit before they hit their stride, but still a solid outing, and lastly an Italian pressing of the King Crimson live album, Earthbound. It was enough to justify the trip to me, if not to my girlfriend.

Their classifications of American music (outside of jazz) were a whole other thing. They had a definite love of American music, but there was a definite conflation when it came to genres. Their “blues” section had Muddy Waters in the same bin with Stephen Stills and John Mellencamp. It was tough not to laugh, until I stopped and thought that I probably would have been at a loss to explain the concept of heartland rock to Europeans who may not have a solid grasp of the geography of the North American continent. I imagine the conversation going a little something like this:


A Short Play Based on a Hypothetical Conversation with an Italian about American Popular Music Genres

ITALIAN DUDE: John Mellencamp is not blues?

ME: No, John Mellencamp is what we call “heartland rock.”

ITALIAN DUDE: And that is…

ME: So heartland rock is music of the heart of America, the center of it. States where agriculture is the main thing. It is the music of earthy, working class people. Rural, farmers, small towns, you know…

ITALIAN DUDE: So John Mellencamp is heartland rock.

ME: Yeah, John Mellencamp… Bob Segar.

ITALIAN DUDE: Bob Segar was a farmer?

ME: No, dude, he’s a musician.

ITALIAN DUDE: No shit, but his fans…

ME: He was more from Detroit. Car industry, factory workers.

ITALIAN DUDE: No farms.

ME: No farms. Still blue collar, though.

ITALIAN DUDE: Blue collar?

ME: Nevermind. Working class.

ITALIAN DUDE: Okay. And you said it’s called the heartland because it’s in the center of the country.

ME: Yeah.

ITALIAN DUDE: Isn’t Bruce Springsteen considered heartland rock?

ME: Oh absolutely. For many he epitomizes the genre.

ITALIAN DUDE: Where is he from again?

ME: Just check the name of his first album. Asbury Park, New Jersey.

ITALIAN DUDE: And Asbury Park is in the heartland?

ME: Jersey shore.

ITALIAN DUDE: Jersey shore? Like that MTV show?

ME: You saw that over there?

ITALIAN DUDE: Sadly.

ME: Sorry about that.

ITALIAN DUDE: You should be.

ME: Please don’t judge America based on that.

ITALIAN DUDE: As long as you don’t judge Italy from the Italian-Americans on that show.

ME: Deal.

ITALIAN DUDE:  But anyway, Asbury Park is like that?

ME: I guess. Beach side town. Amusement parks.

ITALIAN DUDE: So the heartland is on the beach?

ME: Well, not technically…

ITALIAN DUDE: So where is the Jersey Shore exactly?

ME: About an hour or so south of New York City.

ITALIAN DUDE: So the heartland is the center of the country, a rural place which is also a coastal locale within commuting distance from the country’s largest metropolis.

ME: Uh, I don’t know? Sort of? It sounds weird when you say it.

ITALIAN DUDE: But it’s the music of working class people.

ME: Right. Right. Yes, Exactly. People who do dirty jobs for far too little money.

ITALIAN DUDE: People who do dirty jobs for far too little money. So heartland rock in the music of slaves.

ME: No. That’s the blues.

And that was before we got into folk rock.

To be fair, I would wager that Americans would do far worse trying to define the subtleties of Italian genres. I’m certainly glad that I’ve never been asked.


Last Minute Impulse Buying
My glance through the classic rock sections (organized by decade) was pretty cursory. I could have stayed for another hour, but I was beginning to feel acutely aware of my girlfriend’s restlessness, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty. After all, I had dragged her two miles out of the center of town to a place that I knew she could hardly care less about.

This album is the fuckin' shit.
Emmanuele tried to sell me on a couple more things before I left, reissues of records by The Trip and Alphataurus, two Italian bands who never really got any exposure outside of their native country. Again, I wasn’t about to buy reissues, particularly of bands that I had never heard. This turned out to be a mistake, as original copies of albums by these bands are so exceptionally rare and prohibitive expensive  that they are probably only owned by rich douchebags who don’t even enjoy them. In the case of Alphataurus, when I finally had their reissued vinyl shipped from overseas, I ended up paying twice what I would have paid if I had just bought it in Bologna.

The soundtracks section was located by the register, a last minute impulse buy being Tony Banks’ soundtrack to the movie The Wicked Lady. Not recommended. Leaving only about ninety Euros lighter, I think I showed great restraint. Also, the walk back to the center of Bologna felt much shorter than when heading into the outskirts. We were able to find a nice little bar where we had a few negronis and I reviewed my purchases, telling Federica numerous pointless little facts about each one while she pretended to be interested.

How we almost got arrested at the train station, got on the wrong train twice and our roundabout route home left us stuck in a couple of quaint Italian villages, freezing our asses off in the middle of the night is really another story for another time.

Basically, though, if you find yourself in Bologna on a record buying pilgrimage, skip everything and go straight to Discobolandia.

And tell Emanuelle that Roger says “ciao.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Two Young Brothers Named George

Angus, Malcolm, and George 

Why the Easybeats Were No Flash in the Pan, and How AC/DC Sprung Up from Grapefruit Seeds


Pretty much everyone who knows anything about popular music knows that the Young brothers knew how to make potent, visceral, ballsy rock n’ roll. For decades Malcolm and Angus Young made feet stomp and eardrums bleed as the guiding forces of AC/DC. What fewer people know, particularly those outside of their home country of Australia, is that the band might not have existed if it were not for the influence and guidance of their older brothers George and… George.

You read that right. George and George.

George Young was a little bit more than six years older than Malcolm, and was a teenager when the Young clan emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1963, just one of many families seeking a fresh start and warmer climate in Australia. Adjusting to life in a new country, in which new immigrants usually lived in spartan “migrant hostels” consisting of barracks made of corrugated iron (it’s interesting to note that the Villawood Migrant Hostel in which the Youngs first stayed now functions as the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre), his social life was mostly based on connecting musically with other new arrivals, mostly kids from Great Britain and the Netherlands.

The Easybeats. George Young at right.
Thus The Easybeats were born.

To most Americans, The Easybeats may be a one hit wonder, but even so, what a hit it was. “Friday On My Mind,” is indisputably one of the great pop-rock songs of mid-sixties beat music. In their home country, though, they were beyond a sensation. They ruled the charts and ignited such a frenzy among the youth down under that “Easy Fever” became the Australian counterpart of “Beatlemania.” The band also experienced significant success in England and Europe after the band relocated to London in 1966.

It was there that George Young reconnected with his brother George.

George Alexander was born Alexander Young in 1939 and was already a working musician, playing sax with a band called the Bobby Patrick Big Six, when the rest of his family emigrated. In 1962, like several other British bands at that time, they traveled to Hamburg to do a residency at the Star Club. It was around that time that they played gigs backing English singer Tony Sheridan. Now does this career trajectory sound familiar? Then it should come as no surprise that the Bobby Patrick Big Six would cross paths with another band that was doing the exact same thing (I’m talking about The Beatles, just in case you hadn’t figured that out).

So at some point during this time, Alexander Young took on the stage name of George Alexander. Since both Georges have since passed on, one can only speculate as to why. It’s not like his name was some of kind of tongue twister or was (gasp!) too ethnic.  What is known is that is when the Young family emigrated and Alex stayed behind to pursue his musical career, it didn’t sit well with the rest of the clan. Whether it was out of insolence or hurt feelings, supposedly Alex told his family that they were a “bunch of mugs” for leaving. Apparently, that’s a serious insult to Scottish people. In any event, Alex would have no communication with his family for several years.

Alexander Young (bottom left), with his band, Grapefruit,
as rock royalty hovers over
Did he ditch his last name in response to that breach? It’s a thought but, again, mere speculation. It is interesting that he would take as his new first name that of his younger brother with whom he clearly had a musical affinity. Whatever the reasons, voila, presto, there you have it: The two Georges.

And when the Beatles launched Apple Publishing in 1967, one of the first outside artists signed was George Alexander. Lennon and McCartney were so taken with Alex’s songwriting that Apple basically assembled a band around Alex to showcase him. John  Lennon suggested a name for this new combo, borrowing the title of a conceptual art book of Yoko Ono’s entitled Grapefruit. Miles and years away from the clubs in Hamburg, the Beatles connection was bearing fruit. (Get it? Apples? Grapefruits? Sorry.)

So George and Alex were both riding high in swinging London when they reconnected in 1968. George Young recounted at the time: “Mum used to tell me he was a stubborn sort of fellow and we just didn’t communicate with him… [He] reluctantly agreed to meet me last week and we had a good old booze-up. He’s not such a stubborn bloke after all – although when Mum reads this, she’ll probably go mad at me, too!”

Evidently, Deep Water sank
As it turned out, even though the brothers had no idea at the time, both of their bands had essentially peaked by the time they reunited. Grapefruit’s newly released debut album, Around Grapefruit, was a fine record of sparkling, Technicolor, melodic pop, but it didn’t have quite the success it may have deserved. Their follow-up, 1969’s Deep Water, tried to break free of the Beatles-esque sound of their debut and leaned towards the heavier, bluesier, sound that was becoming popular, but sadly it fared even worse. Evidently the Beatles’ endorsement was both a blessing and a curse.

Meanwhile, George, along with his writing partner, Easybeats’ lead guitarist Harry Vanda, were writing songs for their band that were more and more melodic, thoughtful, and innovative, but they never recaptured the success of “Friday on My Mind.” As their band gradually disintegrated, for all too common reasons (increasing drug use, mental health issues, you name it), Vanda and Young seemingly became too ensconced in writing songs and recording demos to even notice.

By 1970, both brothers were bandless and exiled in London, and found themselves frequently working together. George and Harry Vanda would write songs, Alex would write songs, and they would all record them with a group of musician friends collectively referred to as “The Glasgow Mafia.” These tracks would be released under a variety of different names such as Tramp, Paintbox, and Haffy’s Whiskey Sour. They even put out one last single under the Grapefruit moniker, “Sha-Sha” b/w “Universal Party,” written and sung by Alex and featuring George and Harry Vanda playing just about everything else. Ultimately, though, the working relationship between the brothers would largely end when Harry Vanda and George Young returned to Australia in 1973 to embark on fruitful careers as songwriters and producers, become the most prolific and successful team in Aussie pop. Alex eventually would relocate to Germany and continue writing for other artists.

George Young and Harry Vanda
Though he does not have the same stature in America as in his adoptive home country of Australia, George Young is pretty well known to AC/DC fans and anybody who ever binge-watched a VH1 Behind the Music marathon (way back when they used to do that) for guiding the careers of his kid brothers Malcolm and Angus. Not only would he produce all their early albums (along with Vanda), but also help them hone their sound, all the while helping them steer clear of the more nefarious sides of the music business that George himself had fallen victim to.

Alexander Young, on the other hand, is today a largely unknown figure. Still, he was the first of the family to throw caution to the wind and pursue a career in music, and he was respected and admired by his younger brothers who would later go the same route. With all of this, I don’t think that it’s hyperbolic to say that AC/DC would not have happened without the influence of the elder Youngs. Drummer John  Proud, who worked with both George and Malcolm on numerous projects, put it quite succinctly: “I think Malcolm and Angus were lucky to have brothers like George and Alex.”


Exploring the Georges: Required Listening


The Easybeats

I have to assume that everyone reading this knows the glistening pop-rock glory that is “Friday on My Mind.” Some may even know “Good Times, though mainly from the cover by INXS and Jimmy Barnes that graces the Lost Boys soundtrack. However, for many, it usually stops there, and this is unfortunate as a deeper dive into their catalog will prove to be deeply rewarding. Though they were definitely more of singles band than an album oriented unit, Harry Vanda and George Young wrote ever increasingly sophisticated pop songs after they had hit their commercial peak with “Friday on My Mind.” Singles like the quirky “The Music Goes ‘Round My Head,” the gorgeously melancholic “Land of Make Believe” and lush despair of “Falling Off the Edge of the World” (a song which Lou Reed proclaimed to be “one of the most beautiful records ever made”) show how far they came from their early R&B influenced beat music, and are certainly worth checking out.

Grapefruit

The band’s 1968 debut album Around Grapefruit, is jam packed with sparking, paisley pop gems penned by Alexander Young. A personal favorite of mine is “Ain’t It Good,” also released as the B-side of their third single. The album also features a song called “Lullaby.” Intended as a single, the band had recorded another version prior to the album sessions with John Lennon and Paul McCartney producing. However, that original version of the song was never officially released until the 2016 compilation Yesterday’s Sunshine. Evidently a favorite of Lennon’s, a tape of the song was found among his possessions after his death, and for a time was assumed to be a lost Beatles track.

Marcus Hook Roll Band

Marking a unique moment in the story of the Young clan, The Marcus Hook Roll Band was the only project in which Alex, George, Malcolm, and Angus all participated in the studio. Mind you, this is not as profound as it sounds. The so-called band originally was really just members of the “Glasgow Mafia” getting together to record a couple of singles penned by Vanda and Young. The name of the “band” was simply an afterthought suggested by producer Wally Waller (formally of the seminal English psychedelic garage rock outfit, The Pretty Things) . Alex had played sax on one of these initial singles, “Louisiana Lady,” recorded in London in 1972 during Vanda and Young’s post Easybeats exile. Quickly forgotten by the public and band alike, Over a year later, Waller was approached by Capital Records asking that the “band” record an entire LP. Vanda and Young, by now back in Australia, and damned if they’d return to England, put together an entirely new band including George’s younger brother Malcolm, and also asked Angus to tag along, intending to give his kid brothers an idea of what working in the studio was all about. While Angus observed the sessions, and participated in some in-studio jams, it is unlikely that he featured on any finished tracks. So the claim that the Marcus Hook Roll Band featured all four brothers is a bit dubious and misleading. Still, the album and the previous singles are killer, bluesy, swaggering rock n’ roll, and should be listened to on their own merit.

I’m a Rebel

A coveted rarity to AC/DC fans, that band were coaxed into the studio to record brother Alex’s song after a gig in Germany in September of 1976. Supposedly, Alex himself handled the lead vocals, with a drunken Bon Scott backing him up. I say supposedly, because the recording was never released and memories of the recording are hazy. Members of the German heavy metal band, Accept, who recorded the song for their second album, had heard the AC/DC demo, and guitarist Wolf Hoffmann stated that he preferred that demo to his own band’s final version. In spite of the fact that it was never released, some claim to have heard it and if you go to YouTube you can find a recording that purports to the be the one made that night. However, the authenticity is unconfirmed. Jesse Fink, who wrote the book  The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, believes that recording to be authentic, and states that Bon Scott can definitely be heard providing backing vocals to Alex’s lead. I wasn’t so sure, and I actually reached out to John Tait, author of Vanda and Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory, the definitive book on the duo, to ask him what he thought, and he stated he had no real reason to doubt it, but I still got the sense that he was somewhat dubious. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Flash and the Pan

In spite of the duo’s utter disdain for touring and promotion, Harry Vanda and George Young’s new-wave studio project had significant success in Australia, was huge in Europe and, according to a friend of mine, had an inexplicable following in rural Pennsylvania. Flash and the Pan released their first album in 1978. Up to this time, Vanda and Young had spent most of the decade behind the scenes, writing and producing hits for other artists (it was around this time that Vanda and Young would let go of the production reins for AC/DC). Even if they initially tried to preserve their anonymity, recording under a cryptic but self-consciously punny moniker, it was still the first time in a dog’s age that the duo went into the studio to record their own material. A far cry from the earnest, rich, and tuneful songs of latter day Easybeats, Flash and The Pan’s debut album was robotic and cold, yet atmospheric, and eminently danceable. They seemed to eschew melody whenever possible, with the verses to the songs largely being spoken rather than sung, but still the record is packed with deep grooves and killer hooks, with lyrics that were sneering, snarky, and darkly satirical.

Their first album is fucking brilliant and the obvious place to start with this project. It contains their first single “Hey, St. Peter,” a enigmatic ode/condemnation of New York City which was released two years earlier. Could the song’s lyrics be interpreted as a psychic reading of the monumental changes then going on in the New York music scene coming from a couple of dudes on the other side of the planet? Doubtful, but it’s still a good song. “Walking in the Rain” is another highlight, though a cover by the exotic, androgynous pop diva Grace Jones would give the song greater visibility. “California,” the only song on the album not written by Harry and George, postulates the accidental nuking of the American west coast. Brooding, angrily hip, apocalyptic, the whole song is a dark cloud with a Cheshire cat smile. The writing credit went to an “M. James,” but it was just another pseudonym that older brother Alex published songs under (evidently the name of his wife). “I thought that song would be perfect for Flash and the Pan,” mused Harry Vanda, “I really liked Alex. He was very much his own man.”

Get through those and then we’ll talk.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Rutles: Novelty Act or Super Group?

It was 40 years ago, on March 22nd, 1978, that the rock mockumentary, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, aired on NBC.  It was a cult classic from the moment it aired, which is really just a nice way of saying that nobody watched it.

Of course, it wouldn’t be long before the lovingly scathing send up of the Beatles would go from obscurity to notoriety. And frankly, given the talent involved, how could it not? We’re talking about a show that featured the razor-sharp absurdist/satirical writing of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, memorable appearances by John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd…  And oh, by the way, George Harrison showed up too.

Arguably, though, the enduring quality of the show has more to do with the music. The songs that Neil Innes created for the soundtrack beautifully captured the feeling and style of the Beatles’ music without directly copying (mostly). The lovingly and expertly crafted pastiches reminded many viewers of what it was like to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time, and then pick up a guitar or tennis racket and pretend to be a Beatle in the bedroom mirror.  According to Innes, “Rutle” is a verb, meaning to emulate someone you admire.

It’s not surprising, then, that the movie was popular with musicians, many of whom were of the age that they were first inspired to learn to play by the Beatles, and loved how the irreverent parody humanized and demystified their heroes. “That was my Ed Sullivan show,” reminisced guitarist Ken Thornton, who currently plays with the reformed edition of the Rutles, comparing the broadcast of the 1978 special to the Beatles’ legendary first appearance on American television, “as a Beatles fan, a Monty Python Fan, as an SNL fan.”

It didn’t hurt that Innes recruited incredible players. Even if they originally came together for a comedy show, history treats them as a unique band in their own right. When one looks at the quality of the songwriting and the caliber of musicianship, the Rutles start to look less like a novelty act, and more like a super group.

Neil Innes aka “Ron Nasty” (guitar, keyboards, vocals, music and lyrics)

As keyboardist, guitarist, and musical director of the inimitable Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Neil already knew how to co-opt, adapt, and pervert different existing musical genres. Still, even when much of the Bonzos’ repertoire consisted of Dada-esque assaults on British trad-jazz, Innes already had an innate facility with Beatles-esque melodies (perhaps due to the fact that when the Bonzos were recording their first single, the Beatles were in an adjacent studio, and as Neil eavesdropped on the Fab Four in the process of recording George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You,” and a light bulb just went off).

Neil’s work after the Bonzos’ breakup in 1970 included straight ahead pop-rock (his sadly short-lived band, the World), performances blending poetry and music (the GRIMMS), and his work with Monty Python (“Brave Sir Robin,” anyone?).

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

The Bonzos’ debut album Gorilla (1967), is an audacious assault on the sensibilities of sense itself. Covers of old songs from the 20s (“Jollity Farm”) are side by side with original calypso inspired pieces about self mutilation during the process of courtship (“Look Out, There's a Monster Coming”). Meanwhile, Innes’ sublime “Equestrian Statue” sounds like it could plausibly be an outtake from the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, due in no small part to the fact that Innes’ voice naturally resembles Lennon’s.

Ricky Fataar aka “Stig O’Hara” (guitar, bass, sitar, tabla, vocals)

Fataar's facility with both western and non-western instruments gave the band the ability to execute the more densely arranged material as well as to emulate Harrison’s Raga influenced pieces. After the breakup up of his first band, the Flames, he was invited by Carl Wilson to join the Beach Boys as a full member in 1972. He took on most of the drum duties after Dennis Wilson (not the best drummer to begin with) drunkenly punched through a window in his house. Fataar and fellow ex-Flame Blondie Chaplin would be instrumental in punching up The Beach Boys’ sound, and updating the band’s image. His later work would include a laundry list of session work, as well as being the drummer in Bonnie Raitt’s band for the last couple of decades.

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

The 1973 live album, The Beach Boys in Concert, really shows off how much energy and funkiness Fataar and Chaplin brought to the band. It also includes the previously unreleased Fataar/Chaplin/Love composition, “We Got Love.”

John Halsey aka “Barry Wom” (percussion, vocals)

Halsey had previously been a member of Patto, a band that never achieved major mainstream success in spite of (of perhaps because of) its dizzying mix of hard-edged blues-rock, and progressive. Fronted by vocalist Mike Patto, and also featuring another future Rutle Ollie Halsall, the band released three well-received albums during its short lifespan between 1970 and 1973. After the split, Halsey would play on albums by the likes of Joan Armatrading, Roy Harper, Annette Peacock, and Lou Reed.

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

Arguably, Halsey’s most famous drum work would be his playing on Lou Reed’s Transformer album, but to hear Halsey’s playing at its most creative and muscular, check out Patto’s self-titled debut (1970) or its follow-up, Hold Your Fire (1971).

Ollie Halsall aka “Leppo” (guitar, keyboards, vocals)

Though in the film, he only appears for a second in a still photograph of “Leppo,” (basically a doppelganger of early Beatle Stu Sutcliffe) on the soundtrack, Ollie Halsall handled the lead guitar work as well as the vocals on the more McCartney-esque songs (to which Idle would lip-sync in the film). He was a veteran of a number of different British bands including Tempest, Boxer, and the aforementioned Patto, and also worked extensively with the mercurial Kevin Ayers. Never a household name, he was a guitarist’s guitarist, known for his innovative technique and outside thinking. Jon Hiseman, his old band mate in Tempest, would remark: “He was on a different planet to the rest of us.”

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

For Tempest’s second album, Living in Fear (1974) Halsall replaced (and was reported hand-picked by) original guitarist Allan Holdsworth, no small shoes to fill. Halsall’s playing flickers, and cuts like shards of shattered gems. The tracks “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and their cover of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” also illustrate that much like Innes’ innate vocal similarity to Lennon, Halsall’s resemblance to McCartney in terms of range and timbre was no put on.

Take a listen to some of these tracks and judge for yourself. Even if you still say that they are no super group (which, even I admit is pushing it a bit), you’ll have to admit that, parody or not, the Rutles are no joke.

Friday, October 13, 2017

American Mythology

How our Heroes Define and Divide Us 


I don’t like to post political stuff. While I believe that there is a profound need for open and intelligent political discourse, I get frustrated with the sheer number of people who “just want to add their two cents,” and through blogs and social media are able to give voice to their opinions in the most thoughtless, blunt, and belligerent ways, with little desire to add to meaningful discussion. Needless to say, however, recent events have weighed heavily on my mind, and I have been trying to sort through my thoughts the only way I know how.

The last few weeks have been heartbreaking. While historically it has been the tendency for Americans to come together in times of tragedy, I feel like those periods of unity are becoming shorter and shorter, the time of healing abruptly ending while different sides bicker about how we are supposed to unite and what to unite behind. Frankly, the divisions in this country are disconcerting and discouraging, and since the election last November I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out what happened and how we got here.

At some point a couple of weeks ago, during the window between Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I saw a video posted to Facebook in which Bill Maher broke down our cultural rifts succinctly by evoking the old Aesop fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” declaring that the divisions in America are not north and south, not red state and blue state, but urban and rural. To an extent I agreed, and frankly, it’s tough when I find myself agreeing with Bill Maher. He’s just so smug and self-righteous that it pains me a little to take his side. There are many in this country that view liberals as elitist and he does absolutely nothing to dispel this notion, even when he’s right.

So here he tried to explain his urban/rural schism hypothesis: “Something happens to you when you live in a city,” Maher asserted, adding that in an urban setting one has “a multicultural experience. Cities are places with diversity and theatre and museums and other gay stuff.”

Evidently he’s trying to needle liberals too. At least he’s being even-handed, even if it was smarmy and predictable. However, what followed was largely a tirade condemning country folk for being a bunch of unsophisticated rubes who were too dumb to realize that they were being conned by an egocentric, petty charlatan, concluding by admonishing that “you didn’t make America great again, you enrolled in Trump University.”

Way to get people on your side, Bill.

Still, again, I begrudgingly agree with Maher, but it is not as simple as he says (to be fair a stand-up monologue is not a dissertation and subtlety often gets in the way of laughs). The schisms in America are numerous, and in addition to the “rural vs. urban” divide, I will also suggest that the other main divisions are “instinct vs. reason,” and “individualistic vs. systemic.” Unfortunately, I do find that many of these divisions appear to fall along similar lines, a perfect recipe for an “us and them” society.

It’s as if we have polar opposite ideas of what it means to be an American.  We have different mythologies, different origin stories.

Essentially, we worship at different temples. One side worships at the altar of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Daniel Boone. These were men who explored dangerous territories beyond established settlements, who got along with their wits alone against the worst odds, and in the process, created the America we know, under beautiful, spacious skies. Rugged, individualistic, and cunning, these men epitomize the ideal of America as a land of opportunity, a land of endless bounty for those who work, who strive, and who dare. In short, it was the pioneer spirit.

One the other alter stands men such as George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Men who balanced action and reason, they built a new nation based on ideas and ideals, freedoms and civic responsibilities, and believed that we were all created equal, in spite of the fact that many of them did not express their full faith in the creator (many were deists, who believed that a “watchmaker God” created the universe, but took no interest in it thereafter , not unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent”). These were the men of the age that was dubbed “The American Enlightenment.”

As with most mythology, both of these are gross simplifications (i.e. bullshit). The most that can be said is that each represents a worldview, but both romantically misrepresent and simplify the realities of the times and environments. Still, they epitomize the diverging archetypes that Americans revere today, and I would argue that they are a significant root for the basic schisms in American culture.

A nation is created by a bunch of guys in leggings
We deify the founding fathers to such an extent that their human frailties and blatant hypocrisies become difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. They strove for a “more perfect union,” but ultimately tabled the conversation of equality (i.e. emancipation) until they themselves could no longer profit from the free labor that slavery provided (Washington and Jefferson included provisions in their wills to free some of their slaves). Still, the Constitution they created has become so venerated that, in spite of the fact that it was designed to be elastic and evolving (or amendable, so to speak), it now carries with it an air of ancient wisdom, making necessary fundamental changes to the laws of this country extremely difficult and unlikely. Even today, people refer to liberties addressed in the Bill of Rights as “God given,” even if they don’t know the specifics. "I think there are at least two constitutions of the United States," wrote constitutional law scholar and Harvard Law professor, Laurence Tribe. "There is a kind of mythic constitution that reflects widely held beliefs, slogans. And then there is the one that starts with a piece of paper at the Archives and has an extensive history."

As for our pioneer forefathers? While we can admire their grit and determination, we are talking about men who were largely uneducated, temperamental, and had, shall we say, strained relationships with the indigenous people of the continent. Some may idealize their relationship to nature, but I would argue that, for the most part, even that relationship was antagonistic. They battled the elements; They conquered the west. They lived in the wild, but I would argue, inharmoniously. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson would describe the dominant post-Industrial Revolution attitudes and relationship with nature by delineating a number of false precepts. These include that it is the individual above all else that matters, that we can and should seek to control our environments, and that the frontier is infinite (and infinitely exploitable). In his paper “The Roots of Ecological Crisis,” Bateson would emphatically state that: “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.”

Ecologically unsustainable, but it makes a great movie
Many still consider Bateson’s statements to be an affront to the American pioneer spirit, and in a sense they are. I know many who still believe in the myth of the wild west, and would suggest that I am somehow less American, perhaps less masculine, and generally a “snowflake” for questioning the sustainability of frontier principles. I get it. It sucks to find out there’s no Santa Claus.

So we see that in both cases the real history doesn’t quite live up to the myth, but it never really does. Still, it seems that we are stuck with these origin stories, and to whichever one a person gravitates appears to hugely influence how one relates to one’s surroundings and fellow citizens.

I’m not saying that all who live in rural areas exemplify the rugged individualism of the frontiersmen, nor do I suggest that that attitude precludes those in small towns from a sense of community. In fact, this sense is often intensified by virtue of the sparse population. However, I do believe that there is a mentality in rural life that values its isolation, that still views America as frontier territory, and has a wariness, and often an antagonism for those outside of their immediate families or communities. I kept reading last year that the Midwestern states voted red in order to “stick it those folks in the cities who make all the decisions, but they don’t know us.”

It’s true that city folk aren’t necessarily kinder or more hospitable people. In fact, cities have a higher concentration of assholes per square mile. That’s just plain math. While at best, living in a place in which there is such a multiplicity of cultures, races, and economic classes can make the empathetic or open-minded person realize that one must think about interests outside of one’s own immediate concerns, oftentimes the population density results in resentment and irritation. In my observation, even the most sage-like and best intentioned New Yorkers vacillate between empathy and urban rage numerous times in the course of a single day. Still, in many ways cities are microcosms of society in general, illustrating its vastness and interconnectivity. At the end of the day, the systemic nature of society is more observable in the urban world if one chooses to see it. When you live and work so closely to millions of other people, one doesn’t need to be an altruist to see the value of better public health and education.

I am not sure that that mindset flourishes in rural areas. I have met many kind people from the Midwest, but whenever I ask them to see the bigger picture, either socially or ecologically, they always say things to me like: “That’s too much for me to think about. All I can think about is what’s best for me and my family.” That expression seems to sum up so much of the conservative mindset. Empathy that ends with your bloodline is not empathy.

Beyond empathy, beyond charity, however, I believe one either understands how one’s own well-being is dependent on the well-being of those around us, as well as the overall health and efficacy of the systems in which we live (ecological, economic, etc.), or one doesn’t. And this, to me is the most difficult divide to address.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach a person to think systemically, and even more so if the person does not want to be taught. In this case, the “reason vs. instinct” divide is made evident by attitudes towards education. On one side there are those that put a premium on education, and on the other there are those who value “good old fashioned common sense.”

The Founding Fathers had a strong belief in education as a paramount necessity to participation in democracy. Washington stressed that  “it is essential that public opinion be enlightened,” while Jefferson warned that “[i]f a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

UVA album Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band
Jefferson, of course, would found the University of Virginia, with the aim that it be “so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other states to come, and drink of the cup of knowledge & fraternize with us."

As far as I know there were no universities established by Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. Now, I admit that I know little about the intellectual acumen of those two men. However, it cannot be denied that a negative attitude towards formal education that would fester in the American frontier that they helped to settle and develop. In his seminal book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hoffstadter wrote of the frontier society as one “of courage and character, of endurance and practical cunning, but it was not a society likely to produce poets or artists or savants.”

Furthermore, he wrote, that the seeds for the refutation of the virtues of education were being sown as “men and women living under the conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whisky and brawling, could not afford education and culture; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves."

The effects of these attitudes still linger, and there are still pockets in America in which state and local authorities seek to undermine scientific education in favor of thinly veiled religious dogma, and teach history that downplays the atrocities of American slavery. I am not so naïve to think that local history and community values will not have some bearing on the education that a child will receive, and to  which texts he or she will be exposed, but if we are functioning within the same democracy should there not be some significant overlap from one community or state to the next? How are we supposed to have a meaningful discussion if we are literally not on the same page?

I could go on and find a myriad of other things that divide us. I haven’t even touched on the “religious vs. secular” issue, I have avoided specifically discussing the gun control debate, and the issue of race is largely beyond the scope of these ramblings. Frankly, finding and detailing more cultural rifts becomes tiresome and discouraging. If anyone reading this believes I have not been even handed enough, frankly, it’s because I haven’t tried to be. I do have a side in this debate, but at least I like to think that I am tryng to be as thoughtful as possible in stating my hypotheses. Believe me, exploring the depths of the divisions in this nation brings me no comfort. The fact is that these schisms are so profound on an existential level, going so far back into our history and mythology, that bridging the gap seems impossible.

And sadly, maybe it is. As long as different sides remain fixated on their own ideas of the essential character of this country to the exclusion of all others, there will be no bridging the gap. As long as we remain defined by our myths, and view our history through rose-colored glasses, there will be no moving forward. And as long as we remain “us and them,” we will never form that more perfect union of which our forefathers dreamed.