Thursday, November 21, 2019

Judas Priest: This Is Spinal Tap

You guys know that Judas Priest was widely considered a joke, right? I mean, you don’t need me to tell you this, but when Beavis was singing “Breakin’ the LAW, breakin’ the LAW,” that was a Judas Priest song. That’s who the band was thought to appeal to: degenerate Arizona high-school truants.

Somebody must have liked them, because the Priest was allowed to release a dozen albums by the time Beavis and Butt-Head rolled around. Then in 1998 lead singer Rob Halford, a pioneer of the leather-and-studs look, came out, and rendered the entire band’s career retroactively more deserving of attention. Unfortunately, it didn’t make their music any better.

What Makes Them Different: Obviously, Halford’s sexuality is the most culturally impactful thing about the band at this point, and I don’t mean to downplay that. The band always had a streak of barely contained violence about it – their 1978 album Killing Machine was renamed Hell Bent for Leather in the U.S., which I suppose is a little better – which becomes much more interesting when you know the songs are being sung by a closeted gay man.

That violent streak got them noticed by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Research Center in the mid-1980s, notably for the lyric “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.” “In a uniquely British way,” guitarist K.K. Downing later explained, “Rob’s S&M lyrics were intended to be tongue in cheek.”

When he was preparing to make This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner went to a Judas Priest concert as part of his research.

By the Numbers: Four platinum albums, although they never had a Top Ten album in the U.S. until the inevitable sporadic reunion albums started coming out in the last few years. No Top Forty hits; the Priest’s biggest single, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” peaked at Number Four on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts in 1981.

Will They Go In? This is the Priest’s second nomination, but if they didn’t get in the first time, I don’t know what’s going to be different this time. If you like 1970s-style metal, there are better choices on the ballot.

Should They Go In? Judas Priest is extremely not my cup of tea, but even given that, I don’t see the case here. Being a poor man’s Black Sabbath is not something to write home about. Ordinarily, my top priority for a band is their cultural influence, and Halford has certainly made their career – and the fans they drew in through the late 1970s and 1980s -  more fascinating to think about. But he hasn’t made the music fun to listen to. If Judas Priest gets in, the door is wide open for Uriah Heep. I vote NO.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Soundgarden: In Disguises No One Knows

Soundgarden was arguably the first of the Seattle grunge bands that emerged into national prominence the early 1990s. The late Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, the core members, were making music together as early as 1984, and put out their first recordings in 1986. They will be forever compared - unfavorably - to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but they predated both those bands. They were also the most metal-ish of the major grunge bands, once touring as the opening act for Skid Row.

Like most things grunge, Soundgarden didn’t show a lot of staying power. Their heyday consisted of five studio albums before the band combusted in 1997. Cornell, weirdly, blamed the fans: “You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them,” he said. “That's the point where we hate touring.” As with every band ever, they did regroup for the inevitable sporadic reunion albums and tours, before disbanding for good following Cornell’s death in 2017.

What Makes Them Different: Soundgarden’s music was melodic enough that my son’s high school marching band once interpolated part of “Black Hole Sun” into their halftime show. Given that, it’s a little surprising that they didn’t have more success on the pop charts, but “Black Hole Sun” didn’t even make the Hot 100, although it was a No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 2 on the Alternative charts.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in Mark Yarm’s book Everybody Loves Our Town where Cornell talks about Susan Silver, who would later become his wife but who was at the time managing several of the bands on the Seattle scene. The guys in Soundgarden were acting like regular rock & roll louts, peeing against a wall in some rock club, when Silver admonished them that someone very much like the boys’ mother was eventually going to have to clean that up, so they should cut that right out. I read this a long time ago, so if I have some details wrong, please correct me, but this struck me as the grunge version of the famed Motown charm school. That should have been their motto: Soundgarden – we won’t pee on the wall.

At first, the band was a real Rainbow Coalition: Thayil’s parents both emigrated from India, and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto was Japanese-American. Cornell was mostly a boring white guy, but at least he was half-Jewish.

By the Numbers: Three platinum albums, six Number One hits on the U.S. Alternative rock charts, two Grammys (for “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”)

Will They Go In? Without the cultural impact of Nirvana or the staying power of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden will always be a distant third in the grunge sweepstakes. I’m guessing they don’t go in, at least not yet.

Should They Go In? Their moment passed very quickly, and I haven’t felt a lot of reverberations from their legacy. They wouldn’t lower the standards of the Hall, but for the moment, I’m voting NO on Soundgarden.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Doobie Brothers: Ain't Got No Worries, Cuz I Ain't In No Hurry

Come on, admit it: You thought the Doobie Brothers were already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How could Chicago and the Steve Miller Band be in there and not the Doobies? Their own brand of 70s pop/classic rock has survived as strongly as those other bands, not to mention that of nonentities like Deep Purple and Kiss.

But the Doobies haven’t even been nominated before this year, which seems more like an oversight than anything else, not because they were so innovative or memorable but because they belong to a genre and generation that has been overly rewarded by the R&R HoF. So here, at last, they are.

What Makes Them Different: Maybe one reason the Doobies haven’t been recognized till now is that they were really two different bands, turning their personnel (and sound) almost entirely over between 1971’s Doobie Brothers, with its NorCal choogling boogie, and the yacht rock of 1980’s Minute by Minute (their last real album before the inevitable sporadic reunion records).  Ponytailed guitarist Patrick Simmons was the only connective tissue between the two. There aren’t a lot of bands that can survive turning over their frontman and lead songwriter, but the Doobies actually got stronger, at least in terms of the pop charts, when Michael McDonald took the helm.

McDonald, by the way, initially joined the band as a temporary touring member when original lead singer Tom Johnston took sick with an ulcer. McDonald was recommended by guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who had worked with him in Steely Dan. Baxter, of course, is the former chair of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

The most singular record in the Doobies’ career is Simmons’ “Black Water,” which went to Number One in 1974. With its use of wind chimes and viola as lead instruments, and an a cappellla bridge that producer Ted Templeman later claimed he stole from his old vocal group Harper’s Bizarre, “Black Water” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in 1974. It still doesn't sound like anything else on the radio. The Doobies really didn’t know what to do with it: “Black Water” initially surfaced as the B-side to the lead single from What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits; after the album seemed to have stiffed, “Black Water” was the third single released, and the Doobies had their first Number One hit.

By the Numbers: Six platinum studio albums, including one Number One (Minute by Minute); 16 Top Forty hits, five top Tens, including two number Ones (“Black Water,”  “What a Fool Believes”)

Will They Get In? This is maybe the biggest no-brainer on the ballot. The Hall of Fame has been exceptionally kind to bands like the Doobie Brothers.

Should They Get In? Not a lot of bands encapsulate two little eras of rock music, but the Doobies were one of the best of the post-hippie bands of the early 1970s and one of the best of the yacht rock acts of the late 1970s. And “Black Water” still sounds like magic. What the heck, I’m in a good mood: I’ll vote YES for the Doobie Brothers.