Friday, August 19, 2011

The Modern Lovers CD

Once again I am astonished to discover another ground-breaking record that I have never written about here. As I’ve said, I’ve been fascinated with the Lovers since the 70’s and this record has enough darkness and madness from the usually child-like Jonathan Richman to ensure its place in my r’n’r heart.

Besides Jonathan, the band consisted of Ernie Brooks on bass, Jerry Harrison on keyboards (later of the Talking Heads) and drummer David Robinson who left when Richman continued to ask him to play quieter and removed his drums until he had only one left that he had to cover with a towel to decrease the volume! From here he went on to the garage-punk band DMZ (where he could – and did – play loudly and viciously) before fame and fortune in the Cars.

This record opens with Jonathan’s classic tune – with its classic opening of 1-2-3-4-5-6! – “Roadrunner”. This has been covered by many bands including the Sex Pistols (they, along with many early punk bands, cited the Modern Lovers as an important influence) and Joan Jett. A paeon to the joys of rock’n’roll and driving through the emptiness of New England. Fueled by Robinson’s insistent drumming, Harrison’s fuzz-tone organ and Jonathan’s cool lyrics with chants of “radio on!” by the band, this blasts out right from the start and never lets up.

A bit darker is “Astral Plane” – a minor key fantasy of stalking, but never getting, a girl in the real world, but meeting her in another dimension and discovering their shared past lives. Richman’s solo work is rudimentary, but highly effective and piercing in a Velvet Underground kinda way (he was a huge fan and friend of the band), and he intertwines with the keyboard to create multiple levels of sound.

Unlike many of the time, he was not afraid of proclaiming his love for days gone by, which is the basis of “Old World” and one of his many departures from other young people. This has a fine guitar/keyboard harmony solo and more Velvet rhythms. Oddly, the cool, staccato ending of “bye bye bye bye old world” is only heard at the end of the fade out. This was only meant to be a demo, so maybe there was a technical issue, but weird none-the-less.

One of his better-known tunes – and one that he continued to play throughout his career, unlike many of the Lovers’ songs – is “Pablo Picasso”. Wicked fuzz-tone guitars come and go through pounding keyboards (again, not unlike “Waiting for the Man”) as Richman sings, spits and slurs through lyrics of the famous artist, with the memorable lines “some people try to pick up girls and get called an asshole, this never happened to Pablo Picasso”. Of course, producer John Cale later did an frighteningly powerful take on this, which would become even more extreme in live situations.

His awkward insecurities are firmly in place in “I’m Straight”, where he tries to convince the girl that he would be a better beau because of his lack of drugs. Funnily, he changed the name of the girl’s boyfriend from “hippy Ernie” to “hippy Johnny” so as not to offend his bass player! Still eerie enough to know that though he didn’t take mind-altering items, Jonathan was certainly not normal! Of course, this was a highly unusual position to take and sing about at a time when very few kids were straight – and it goes without saying that this was long before the punk “straight-edge” movement.

Looking to a future where his problems of the day are resolved is another unconventional message song, “Dignified and Old”, where he again bucks the then-popular youth message. It can also be seen as an anti-suicide tune, telling kids that things will get better with time. Propelled by a single persistent chord, “She Cracked” ironically follows with a tale of a drug-addled girl who ends up institutionalized. This actually sounds psychotic, especially in the dissonant chord bashing middle section. “Hospital” logically comes next, with a sad, quiet tune of hope for the girl that he still loves. Another wonderful line: “I go to bakeries all day long, there’s a lack of sweetness in my life”. While it never gets manic, there is also a nod to the Stooges’ “1969” in the break.

Practically reprising the rhythms of “Old World”, the guitar drives “Someone I Care About”. Here he craves a girl he can truly care about, not a “cocaine sniffing tramp” who “appalls” him. Once again, the song is based on rhythms, not leads, and there are compelling changes within the unrelenting beat along with terrific lyrics, which are sung by the entire group to great effect at the end. Continuing in this lyrical line is “Girl Friend”, again detailing his hopes for the right girl – “g-i-r-l-f-r-e-n” – and including a truly lovely, harmony guitar lead.

From that ballad the band moves into another driving rocker, “Modern World”, showing that he cares about the present as well as the past. Lyrics move from being in love with the USA, to “put down that cigarette and act like a true girl” to shouts of “drop out of high school” and entreaties to “share the modern world with me”.

The CD closes with a tune that did not appear on the original album (which came out long after the recording, since these were only meant to be demos) but was from a later session with Kim Fowley (as was “I’m Straight”) and is much more indicative of his later, solo work. “Government Center” talks of bringing the band to this building to bring some much-needed joy to the employees’ drab lives. This is much more light-hearted than most of the other tunes and shows a bit more of his child-like charm that is highlighted in his solo work.

Absolutely a classic album that should be owned by everyone who loves real rock’n’roll made by true eccentrics.

There's Something About Jonathan - Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers - Tim Mitchell

As promised, after reading and enjoying the cool Sonic Transmissions, I picked up this book of Tim Mitchell's, as well. Having been a fan of Richman's Modern Lovers since one of my 70's bands covered "Astral Plane", I was interested in finding out more about the band and Jonathan's solo work. This eccentric character has been going strong since the early 70's and it's fascinating to discover the different changes he has gone through over time.

As with his other book, Tim does not indulge in gossip here, but does give the reader some personal information, such as Jonathan's obsession with a married fan of the Modern Lovers who later became his wife (and source of happiness) until the relationship dissolved (no details of either the seduction or the split are included). A great many of his songs are based on either his fantasy or the reality of this union.

Mitchell gives a good discography and overview of each record and the wildly varied styles and musicians involved (from full band to accapella songs, from country to Mexican - ! - to ballads to r'n'r) and recounts many live shows from personal memories as well as those of other fans.

Sometimes the details get hazy - I'm still not sure when John Felice, later of the Real Kids, was in the band, since he came and went more than once - but the tale is quite enjoyable and compelling and told from a real fan's viewpoint.

Through this book I also found out about a cool live Modern Lovers CD - more on that later!

Again, a good read for those who want to know more about Richman's musical journey - as long as you are not looking for dirt!

Monday, August 15, 2011


Vinyl Record Sales Jump 55% in the UK

Friday, August 12, 2011

Blues You Can Use – A Complete Guide to Learning Blues Guitar – by John Ganapes

This book is an excellent learning tool, with lots of theory and exercises as well as some cool tunes with some hip riffs. Most of this stuff is fairly easy for anyone who has played for a while, but – as with some of the other books that I have – this has given me some new twists and turns that I never came up with on my own. Again, there is a good variety of styles (major & minor blues, 9ths, dirty delta styles and slick urban licks), as well as plenty of information on theory, scales, chords, sixths, harmonies and more.

Each example goes through a complete blues progression (not just a snippet of a couple of bars as many of the books do) twice, which I like. So, the first time you can hear what it is supposed to sound like and maybe start playing and the second time through you can be comfortable with it. The sequences that they consider more difficult have a slowed-down version as well as a "normal" version. The exercises all build from the previous information and grow in difficulty as the book progresses.

I had little or no “proper” training when I started playing lo those many years ago, and this book has added a lot to my understanding of the licks that I already play, as well as giving me a lot to work on. I think this would be terrific for beginners and yet has a lot for everyone.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

B.B. King Guitar Play Along (Hal Leonard Volume 100)

This is a great book that is exactly what it says it is - a terrific lesson on how to play along with BB King songs (8 of them included) with the entire song tabbed for guitar. Everything seems accurate and so this is a great way to learn a lot of cool blues licks. No, BB is not a wild blues man like someone like Hendrix or Buddy Guy (though some of these are mighty speedy), but his riffs are right on the money and have plenty of soul.

Well worth the money! Songs include: "Just Like a Woman", "Paying the Cost to be the Boss", "Please Accept My Love", "Rock Me Baby", "Sweet Little Angel", "Sweet Sixteen", "Why I Sing the Blues" & "You Upset Me Baby". The CD sounds identical to BB's originals minus the vocals and each song has one version with the guitar and one version without so that you can play along with it. Great!

Solo Blues Guitar instructional book

This Dave Ruben book is another deceptively simple instructional tool that actually covers a lot of different ground and gives you plenty of good musical information.

The concept of the book is to teach you how to play solo - not play lead guitar necessarily, but play the blues by yourself and keep it full sounding. So each piece is a mix of chords (and parts of chords) and licks combined to make a whole tune and goes over the entire blues progression - sometimes more than once, which sounds you the variations possible on a theme. A lot of it is simple - running up or down a scale - but then there will be unusual and creative bits tossed in that makes you do a double take and want to figure out how to throw that into your bag of tricks.

Again, there is a nice variety of blues styles showcased and with 55 exercises, there is plenty to keep you occupied for a good, long time. Not for experts, but if you were an expert you wouldn't need instructional books, would you?!

Until the Light Takes Us (documentary)

I never knew much about the Norwegian Black Metal scene but had heard enough wild stories to be interested in learning more, so when this documentary popped up in Netflicks, I decided to check it out.

Black Metal started out much earlier than I imagined - in the 80's - and the originators are still revered to this day. Besides being an intense music genre that was the predecessor of the still-thriving Death Metal, it was also a philosophy and a way of life to many. This varies from extreme right-wing values such as white power, nationalism and anti-homosexuality to the other end of the spectrum with atheistic, pagan and anti-Christianity views. It was the former that caused much of the violence of the scene and the later that was the basis for the renown church burnings. Somehow this all fit together in the minds of some of these metal heads.

The film makers interview many of the originators, who speak frankly of one of their peers' suicide (a picture was taken of his brains spattered over the room which became an album cover - they thought it was too bad that he killed himself but at least they got some good photos!), of their violence (more than one murder is admitted to on film), and the burnings. Although I strongly disagree with the destruction of personal property, I can understand the latter as they are correct in saying that Christianity is the cause of much of the world's problems.

As it happens with many scenes, this one changed over time and is no longer what it originally was meant to be (including the additions of Satanic expressions - originally it was more Pagan and anti-Christian than Satanic) but many are still working in the genre - those who haven't been killed or are on the run.

This is a fascinating tale of extreme people whose music became their lifestyle - not unlike rap in some ways, though rap is less musical and sometimes even more violent - and how it transcended music to include politics, paranoia and anti-religious themes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

You're Gonna Miss Me - A Film About Roky Erikson

I've been a huge fan of Roky's for decades and love his work with the legendary 13th Floor Elevators as well as his harder, more metallic solo ventures. This film documents his career, from the meteoric rise of his first band - with tributes from such figures as fellow Texan Billy Gibbons - to his prodigious drug use and subsequent marijuana bust, which landed him in a local mental institute (his chose this instead of jail). Between his diagnosed schizophrenia, drug use and electro shock therapy, he was never quite the same after this. He retired from music for a while, returned in the 70's and early 80's with super-strong but much darker tunes and then went on a more downward turn.

This film shows recounts these stories and more and interviews his very dysfunctional family, who all - even the more "normal" ones - seem to have issues of their own. His mother, who was his guardian for a time, seemed to barely be able to take care of herself (and seems to have her own mental issues) and due to religious convictions, didn't want Roky to take medication for his schizophrenia. He eventually started getting treatment, but never seemed to have fully recovered. He is making music again, though I have not heard anything yet.

This is a fascinating story of a true mad genius whose insanity gave this world a multitude of wonderful music, but at a huge cost to the creator. Once again showing the fine line - that is all too often crossed - between inspiration and madness.