Friday, December 16, 2016

The Walking Dead: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part X

Back in 2003 I was privileged to work on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. As part of this project, we sent each of the voters a short of cheat sheet listing what we thought were the thousand or so likeliest LPs to show up on our list.

When the votes started coming in, there was one album that drew consistent support from the voters but had been overlooked when the august RS panel of experts (not including yours truly) compiled that list of all the canonical albums: the Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle. By the time all the ballots had been counted (by yours truly), Odessey & Oracle landed at Number 80 on our list, which makes it arguably the best under-the-radar album of all time.

In fact, the Zombies had split up before the album, their second one, was even released. Clive Davis originally chose not to release the record in America, but Al Kooper eventually persuaded him to release it on Date, a small CBS subsidiary label. It turned out to be a bit of a hit, featuring the Top Five single “Time of the Season.” But the Zombies were still kaput, and until a largely unnoticed reunion album in the 1990s, Odessey & Oracle was their swan song..

The Case For The Zombies were nominally a member of the British Invasion, but their sound was jazzier than any of the other bands in that group, featuring Rod Argent’s distinctive organ. Nobody else sounded like the Zombies. Their singles manage to be both fresh and emblematic of their time – “Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” have never really gone away, and no one has ever wanted them to.

The Case Against The Zombies’ career was very short. They released a debut album, called Begin Here in the U.K. and The Zombies in the U.S., then Odessey & Oracle, and that was it. Rod Argent went on to form his own band, called Argent, that had hits of its own, but I wouldn’t count that in the Zombies’ favor.

The Cool Factor The Zombies’ first album featured covers of songs by both Muddy Waters and the Gershwins. The band appeared in Otto Preminger’s Hitchcockish 1965 thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing; they’re listed right there in the opening credits: “Keir Dullea… Carol Lynley…. Noel Coward… the Zombies.” It’s quite good, although to be honest, the Zombies don’t do a whole lot in it - they’re just playing a song on TV in one scene. But it’s still worth seeing. Otto Preminger’s movies usually are.

The Verdict The Zombies were literally my last cut before I sent in my ballot. Their sound is so much their own, and their songs still sound so good, that I felt like I wanted to reward them for that. Then I checked their discography. I figured they must have had some substance to their body of work outside the recognizable three singles, but those were the only Top Forty action. Surprisingly enough, in the U.K., “Tell Her No” was their only Top Forty hit. More in sorrow than in anger, I vote no for the Zombies. But still, go see Bunny Lake Is Missing.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Fun, Fun, Fun on the Autobahn: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part IX

The pioneering German electronic music group Kraftwerk has always been as much an art project as a band. In their native Dusseldorf back in the 1960s, when founding member Florian Schneider was playing the electronic flute rather than the synthesizers that came to define the group’s music, they were more likely to play in art galleries than in conventional music clubs.

So no one should have been surprised when the band was enshrined in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in April 2012. Kraftwerk played an eight-night stand it called the Catalogue, performing songs from one of its eight studio albums each night, along with a futuristic stage show featuring glowing costumes, light shows and 3-D projections of robots in red shirts and black ties. The band had become literally a museum piece.

Other musicians have always loved Kraftwerk’s oddly funky electronica: Their work was used on Soul Sonic Force's “Planet Rock,” one of the earliest hip-hop hits, from 1982, and U2 covered Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights" in 2004. “A great soul group, Kraftwerk,” Bono said in 2009. “Really an enormous influence on me as a 16-year-old.”

“I was reading a book about Leonardo da Vinci, and it said he was like a man who had woken up in the dark before everyone else got up hours later,” Chris Martin of Coldplay once said. “That's like Kraftwerk.”

The Case For Kraftwerk invented electronic dance music, about three decades before anyone else got around to it. Their work still sounds relevant today; it’s so much removed from its own time that it will never sound old. Despite relying on the bleeps and bloops of the pocket calculator, it was never bloodless, and was always fun. They influenced the synth-pop of the 1980s, the hip-hop that followed that, the electronica that followed that, Bowie and Bjork and Afrika Bambaataa and Blondie all the way down to Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem.

The Case Against They didn’t really have any hits in the U.S., aside from "Autobahn," which went to Number 25 on the Hot 100 back in 1975. You were likely to hear “Tour de France” at a fashion show, but never on the radio.

The Cool Factor Come on. They're Kraftwerk. Here's something you may not know: In "Autobahn," they're not singing "Fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn," but rather  "Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn," which is like German or something. Ralf Hutter says, though, that the Beach Boys were an influence on Kraftwerk, and I believe him.

The Verdict In addition to being hugely influential - literally one of the most important bands in the history of rock & roll - Kraftwerk's music is still tons of fun to listen to. They need to be in there. I vote ja on Kraftwerk.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Can't Forget the Motor City: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VIII

The MC5 was featured in a very early article by Eric Ehrmann that helped put Rolling Stone
magazine on the map; when they collected articles for a 25th anniversary issue, the MC5 profile was the earliest feature selected. I worked for the magazine at that point, and what struck me about that feature was how retrograde the band was. They lived together in a house in Detroit Big Pink-style, where they were attended to by their old ladies, who I don’t believe were even granted names in the article. Their entire position was to serve the men, although the article did praise the “total destroy barbecue” they prepared for them.

At that point, the MC5 was one of the hottest acts in rock, even though their debut album, the live Kick Out the Jams, hadn’t been released yet. They were at the crossroads of the hippie movement and what would come to be called punk, all roaring guitars and political anger, propelled by the anthemic title single.

That was probably the high point for the MC5, when they were all promise and no delivery. Shortly after that article appeared, Lester Bangs reviewed Kick Out the Jams for Rolling Stone, and he was not impressed, calling it “this ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album.” It reached a rather wan Number 30 on the album charts, with the title single going to Number 87.

The MC5 released their second album Back in the USA, produced by future Springsteen honcho Jon Landau, in 1972. It didn’t do as well as Kick Out the Jams. Their third album, High Time, from 1971, did even worse, and the band was shortly no more.

The Case For The MC5 really were an important band. Their saga kicks off the indispensable punk chronicle Please Kill Me, and their mix of heavy metal thunder and political broadsides showed a new way for rock music to go. All the White Panther Party rhetoric seems silly now, but hey, it meant something back then. Lester Bangs notwithstanding, Kick Out the Jams has regained some luster in the ensuing years, being named to Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Case Against When was the last time you heard an MC5 song? Their music hasn’t aged well, and their career was really short. All that White Panther Party rhetoric seems silly now.

The Cool Factor They covered Sun Ra on Kick Out the Jams. Guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith went on to marry Patti Smith.

The Verdict Given the choice between cultural significance and musical quality, I’ll go with musical quality every time. I just don’t see enough of it in the MC5’s case. I vote no for the MC5.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Some'll Win, Some Will Lose: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VII

Journey was part of a family of rock bands who were big as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, along with Styx, Foreigner, and REO Speedwagon, who were variously called corporate rock or faceless rock or some other mildly pejorative name. They tended to be popular among suburban high school kids, ignored by the coastal critics,  unseen on their album covers (hence “faceless”) and victimized by especially poor bass playing.

Journey was clearly the best of these bands; guitarist Neal Schon and keysman Gregg Rolie were alumni of Santana and boasted some serious hops, and then they added the leather-lunged Steve Perry in time for their fourth album, Infinity, from 1978. Perry brought Journey a whole new level of success ,with “Lovin’ Touchin', Squeezin” becoming their first Top Forty hit in 1979. (Rolie was soon replaced by Jonathan Cain from the Babys, but I presume I'm the only Babys fan around here.)

From that point on, Journey was one of the most popular rock bands in the land, with 17 more top Forty hits, six of them reaching the Top Ten. And one of them was “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

I am old enough to remember when “Don’t Stop Believin’” first came out, and it was obvious from the beginning that this was a schlock classic. Among other things, it has a brilliant structure, building through verse after verse while not entering its chorus (and not using its title phrase) till the cathartic coda. Since its release on October 6, 1981, it has never disappeared, not even for an instant; according to Wikipedia, it is the most downloaded song from iTunes that was not recorded in the 21st century. The song has so overwhelmed the Journey catalog that I have heard a knowledgeable music fan (my son Jack) refer to the band as a one-hit wonder.

That’s unfair. “Don’t Stop” (I hate having to squeeze the apostrophe in before the close quote) was arguably not even Journey's biggest hit: It peaked at Number Nine, while “Separate Ways” went to Number Eight, “Who’s Crying Now” went to Number Four, and "Open Arms” spent six weeks at Number Two in early 1982. I wouldn’t even say it’s their best song, giving “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” (you’re doing it to me again, Journey) that honor. I can remember being at high school marching band practice and hearing that song roaring out of the rec center across the street, causing the senior tenor sax player standing next to me (who was so cool he smoked) to remark laconically, "Journey's kicking ass."

But if you have to be remembered for one thing and one thing only, “Don’t Stop Believin’” isn’t half bad.

The Case For It starts, obviously, with "Don't Stop Believin'," but Journey was the dominant MOR rock band in America from 1979 to 1986, if that kind of thing floats your boat. They had an awful lot of minor hits that still sound pretty good on the radio, like “The Party’s Over” and “Lights.”

The Case Against Let’s face it folks; Journey is a pretty schlocky band. They didn’t really transcend or transform MOR as much as they simply embodied it. They didn’t end up exerting much influence on the world of music, aside from the fact that we will never be rid of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

The Cool Factor I’m stumped here. Neal Schon's mustache?

The Verdict When I told people I was voting this year, the most common response was “Ooh, Journey is on the ballot! You have to vote for Journey!” And given the class that was inducted last year, I have no doubt that they’ll get in. This is, improbably, Journey’s first time on the ballot, but the landscape is obviously ripe for them. Looking over my ballot, there are acts I will have to leave off with a great deal of regrets, while I have just mild misgivings about omitting Journey. I vote no on Journey, but don't worry, folks - they're going in anyway.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pros and Khan: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VI

When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, I happened to drive past Chaka Khan Way, angling off of 53rd Street.  I took this as a sign that I needed to reassess Chaka’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame. She was on the ballot last year, and I voted no for her, noting, “It concerns me that declaring I will not vote for a certain nominee might be taken as some sort of indictment of them, but I have nothing bad to say about Chaka Khan.

She’s back this year, for what is really the third time, because Rufus was on the ballot in 2011. Chaka joined Rufus as a teenager, had just turned 20 when their first album came out, and was only 21 when they broke through with “Tell Me Something Good,” written by Stevie Wonder.  (She and Stevie later duetted on “1999” at the tribute to Prince [who also wrote a hit song for Chaka) in October of this year. )

Khan wrote Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” with guitairst Tony Maiden, taking it to the Top Five in 1975 – it was later covered by Mary J. Blige. After Rufus’ last big hit, “Ain’t Nobody,” Chaka hit solo with Prince’s “I Feel for You,” then on Quincy Jones' "I'll Be Good to You," in 1989. All in all, her hitmaking career spanned nearly 25 years, and all the hits are indelible, holding up very well.  

The Case For The Queen of Funk has left a huge imprint on the world of R&B. You can get a sense for how highly regarded Chaka was by the caliber of people who wanted to work with her: In addition to the aforementioned names, there was also Grandmaster Melle Mel and Steve Winwood and Ray Charles and even Rick Wakeman. All of her hits are great, but “Tell Me Something Good” is just spectacular.

The Case Against Rufus only had three Top Ten hits, and Chaka solo had just “I Feel for You.” There were 12 other Top Forty hits, but for a singles artist, that’s not a great deal of chart action.

The Cool Factor Here’s Rufus in their natural habitat, on Chicago’s own Soul Train, in what may be the coolest, funkiest, sexiest video I’ve ever seen. At first I thought Chaka was rocking a treasure trail here, but then I realized it was actually a C-section scar (her daughter, Milini, had been born earlier that year). Bono called Frank Sinatra “the champ who would rather show you his scars than his medals,” but Chaka got there long before Bono did.

The Verdict When I was compiling my framework for how to think about each vote, I realized that in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, coolness is the paramout virtue. Nobody was cooler than Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan and Rufus have been on the ballot once each, and fallen short; I don’t know if there will be another go-round for either. The time to vote for her is now. I vote yes for Chaka Khan. 


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dance Pop a la Mode: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part V

Depeche Mode seems like they ought to be the epitome of something, being one of the most popular and certainly the most long-lived of the British synth-pop groups that emerged in the early 1980s. They were stars in England almost from their first release in 1980, although they didn’t break through in the U.S. until “People Are People” went to Number 13 in 1985. But “Just Can’t Get Enough” – which, let’s face it, is a much better song – had hit the dance charts in 1981, coming off the band’s first album, Speak & Spell.

The primary songwriter on Speak & Spell was Vince Clarke, who wrote nine of its 11 songs, including “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but he left the band after that first record came out. “We basically just weren't getting on,” Clarke said later. "We were really young, and we did quite well very quickly, and it all became too much.” Starting with their second album, Martin Gore took over the songwriting, and he proved to be almost as good at it as Clarke. (Clarke, by the way, was born Vincent Martin, but changed his name because he was on the dole and would lose his benefits if the government knew he was making money via his band.)

Changing chief songwriters is as fraught a move as changing frontmen, and even moreso for a synth-pop band, where the material is pretty much the entire band. Pink Floyd changed primary songwriters and thrived, but it’s pretty rare for a band to succeed that way.

Certainly, Depeche Mode only got bigger with Gore as its composer, although it’s arguable whether they got better. The band’s 1990 album Violator spawned three hit singles in the U.S., including “Enjoy the Silence,” their only Top Ten hit, and “Personal Jesus,” arguably their best post-Clarke song. They had Top Forty hits as late as 1997, and had a Number One hit on the U.S. dance charts as late as 2013 with “Heaven.”

That should have made them some kind of grizzled legend in the electronic-dance music world, but they never quite seemed to attain that status. They were never as good as other 1980s dance titans like New Order or Pet Shop Boys, even though they outlasted those groups as hitmakers. God knows Depeche has its fans, especially in Europe, but here in the U.S., they never quite felt like they had much substance.

The Case For Depeche Mode blazed trails in EDM, arguably laying the groundwork for a genre that continues to be vital today. “Personal Jesus” is 26 years old and still sounds pretty fresh. They even established themselves as a must-see live act, which you wouldn’t expect from a synth-pop band.

The Case Against After Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode, he formed Yaz with Alison Moyet and released “Don’t Go” and “Situation,” both of which are better than anything in the Depeche catalog. Then he went on to form Erasure, which was a lot more fun than Depeche, especially with “A Little Respect.” And neither of those groups was the best British dance-pop group of the 1980s; New Order was.

The Cool Factor Lead singer Dave Gahan was a heroin addict. In 1996, he overdosed on a speedball at the Sunset Marquis, apparently not realizing that the place to overdose on a speedball is the Chateau Marmont across the street.

The Verdict I like Depeche Mode; honestly, I do. I just don’t see what they’ve done to differentiate themselves from other bands of their ilk. New Order hasn’t even ever been nominated, for pity’s sake. I vote no on Depeche Mode.