Thursday, December 26, 2019

The MC5: Total Destroy

The MC5 was featured in a very early cover story, by Eric Ehrmann, that helped put Rolling Stone on the map; when the magazine 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 function was to serve the men, although the article did praise the “total destroy barbecue” they prepared for the boys.

The MC5's debut album, the live Kick Out the Jams, hadn’t been released yet, but their reputation preceded them. 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.”

What Makes Them Different 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 that surrounded the band at the time 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.

Guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith went on to marry Patti Smith, and Patti Smith has really good taste. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that her involvement with the MC5 lends them credence in my eyes.
They covered Sun Ra on Kick Out the Jams. How cool is that?

By the Numbers Kick Out the Jams reached a rather wan Number 30 on the album charts, with the title single going to Number 87. Their second album, Back in the USA, produced by future Springsteen honcho Jon Landau, peaked at Number 137.

Will They Get In?  When was the last time you heard an MC5 song? Their music hasn’t aged well, and their career was really short. I'm not feeling any sort of groundswell for the MC5.

Should They Get In? The MC5 had a certain amount of cultural significance, but let's face it, it wasn't that much cultural significance.  And the music has mostly been forgotten. I vote no for the MC5.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Kraftwerk: Fun Fun Fun

Kraftwerk has always been as much an art project as a band. In their native Dusseldorf back in the 1960s, when 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.

They reached their apotheosis with an eight-nine stand at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in April 2012. Calling the show the Catalogue, Kraftwerk performed songs from one of its eight studio albums each night - one more trend they started - 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.

What Makes Them Different Is there anything about Kraftwerk that isn't different? They 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 Daft Punk and Max Martin.

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.”

Ralf Hutter says that the Beach Boys were an influence on Kraftwerk, and I believe him. In "Autobahn," though, 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.

By the Numbers  Their only hit in the U.S. was "Autobahn," which went to Number 25 on the Hot 100 back in 1975. Even in Germany, only two of their singles ("Autobahn" and "The Model") went Top Ten, and God only knows what West Germans were listening to in 1974.

Will They Get In? Probably not. They seem pretty diametrically opposed to the people the Hall has been inducting, aside from having their glory days in the 1970s.

Should They Get In? 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. I vote JA on Kraftwerk.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Pat Benatar: Another Notch in Her Lipstick Case

When Pat Benatar first came on the scene in the late 1970s, it was common for her to be described as “classically trained.” She certainly had a big voice, but I suspect this was more marketing gimmick than truism; her higher education consisted of one year at SUNY Stony Brook, studying health education.

Benatar sang in nightclubs, stage musicals and commercials for several years before releasing her first album, In the Heat of the Night, at the relatively advanced age (for a pop starlet) of 26 in 1979. The second single, “Heartbreaker,” was a MOR hit, and Pat Benatar has been a star ever since.

What Makes Her Different There weren’t a lot of women singing hard rock in the late 1970s and 1980s, but Benatar seemed to wear the responsibility easily. "For every day since I was old enough to think, I've considered myself a feminist," she said. "It's empowering to watch and to know that, perhaps in some way, I made the hard path we have to walk just a little bit easier."

The Hall of Fame should recognize more women, but my first response to Benatar is: Where are the Go-Go’s? They were hitmakers from the same era who arguably had a larger cultural impact (plus they wrote their own songs). The Go-Go’s had a jukebox musical on Broadway, Head Over Heels, which is an honor that seems unlikely to befall Pat Benatar. There’s even a Go-Go’s documentary film that will be at Sundance next month. Where’s your documentary, Pat?

"You Better Run" was the second video ever shown on MTV, after "Video Killed the Radio Star."

“Pat Benatar” the act is really Pat Benatar the band, since she has been with guitarist/songwriter/producer Neil Giraldo since her very first album. They’ve also been together in real life as a married couple since 1982, and that’s kinda sweet, isn’t it?

The turn of the decade from the 1970s into the 1980s was not a very auspicious time for pop metal, as anyone who has listened to Survivor or Asia lately can attest to. With their full-throated vocals and knotty guitar parts, Benatar’s early hits still sound pretty fresh, especially “Heartbreaker” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

By the Numbers Six triple platinum albums, including the Number One Precious Time, 15 Top Forty hits, including four Top Tens ("Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "Love Is a Battlefield," "We Belong," "Invincible")

Will She Get In? I mean, the Go-Go's were the first all-female band to make a real splash on the charts, and those songs still sound great. They snuck some surf-punk into pop melodies and harmonies - oh yeah, Pat Benatar. The Rock Hall has inducted an awful lot of people from Pat's era and genre, so I assume they'll do the same here.

Should She Get In? Probably, but this is only her first nomination. I think I'll wait for a different year, and for the moment, vote NO for Pat Benatar.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Whitney Houston: Learning to Love Yourself

I can remember, in the autumn of 1985, hearing a swooningly romantic song on the radio called "Saving All My Love for You," which swung without losing any of its yearning, and erupted into lust at the end. It was by a fresh young singer named Whitney Houston - her first hit, the relatively generic "You Give Good Love," had escaped my notice - who was clearly headed for a substantial career.

Her string of hit singles may not have lived up to the promise of her voice, but her hitmaking career was long and fertile, and that voice was always a wonder.

What Makes Her Different Whitney Houston simply had one of the greatest voices anyone had ever heard. "When I first heard her," Tony Bennett said, "I called Clive Davis and said, 'You finally found the greatest singer I've ever heard in my life.'"

Whitney opened her Number One cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" with 45 seconds of pure a cappella vocalizing. "I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song," Dolly said. That single stayed at Number One for 14 weeks.

Whitney had a knack for encapsulating a moment. Her "One Moment in Time" became the theme song for the 1988 Olympics (and was yet another Top Ten hit). In 2001, she went to the Top Ten with the freaking "Star-Spangled Banner."

With all her personal and drug issues, you might have expected Whitney to become a waiflike, self-pitying Judy Garland figure, but her vocal performances never stopped projecting toughness. "Learning to love yourself," from "Greatest Love of All," appears to be a lesson she could never fully accept, but she sure could sell it.

By the Numbers According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitney was the most awarded female musical artist of all time, with two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, and 22 American Music Awards, for a total of 415 career awards.

She had 31 Top Forty hits, an amazing 24 of which reached the Top Ten. She had ten Number Ones, and let's name them:

  • Saving All My Love for You
  • How Will I Know
  • Greatest Love of All
  • I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)
  • Didn't We Almost Have It All
  • So Emotional
  • Where Do Broken Hearts Go
  • I'm Your Baby Tonight
  • All the Man That I Need
  • I Will Always Love You
  • Exhale (Shoop Shoop)

Will She Go In? The only question about Whitney is whether she is "rock & roll" enough for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is arguably less rock & roll than Janet Jackson, who is more of an R&B singer. But hey, they put Joan Baez in, and Joan didn't have ten Number One hits.

Should She Go In? C'mon, it's Whitney Houston. I vote YES.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Thin Lizzy: Them Wild-Eyed Boys

As seen in the hit movie Once, there's a statue of Phil Lynott, the mastermind behind Thin Lizzy, in downtown Dublin. I've heard Lynott described as the Irish Bruce Springsteen, as he spun out a string of hits in Ireland and personified that underdog Irish attitude.

For me, Lynott and Thin Lizzy are more like Status Quo, best known here in the States for the 1969 hit "Pictures of Matchstick Men." In their home nation of the United Kingdom, Status Quo stayed on the charts into the 1990s. If we were voting for the British Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Status Quo would already be in, and if we were voting for the Irish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Thin Lizzy would be an easy yes. But we're not.

What Makes Them Different Phil Lynott's mother was a Dubliner, and his father was from British Guiana, allowing him to epitomize the postmodern Irish mutt. Lynott played bass and sang, and eventually enlisted two guitarists to support him in Thin Lizzy. That twin-guitar attack went on to be pretty influential, but it's not like they invented it, going back at least to "And Your Bird Can Sing."

That was the lineup that concocted "The Boys Are Back in Town," which went to No. 12 in the States in 1976 and has never really gone away. Rolling Stone put it at 499 on its list of the Greatest Singles of All Time, one spot ahead of "More Than a Feeling."

Thin Lizzy broke up in 1983, and Lynott died in 1986, of various diseases brought on by years of drug abuse. He was 36. The inevitable sporadic reunion tours and albums started up in 1996.

The BusBoys, an African-American rock & roll band from L.A., had an MTV hit in 1982 with their own song called "The Boys Are Back in Town," from the movie 48 HRS. I'm not sure what to make of that.

By the Numbers "The Boys Are Back in Town" was Thin Lizzy's only Top Forty hit in the U.S., but it's been heard in more than 20 movies and TV shows, including the Aubrey Plaza starrer Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. In their native Ireland, the band had seven Top Ten hits, with both "Boys" and "Whiskey in the Jar" going to Number One.

Will They Get In? Irish voters would definitely elect them. I don't think American voters will, but people sure do love "The Boys Are Back in Town."

Should They Get In? Let's face it: Thin Lizzy's American legacy consists of one song. It's a great song, but still. Hanson and the New Radicals and Beverly Bremer each recorded one great song, too. I vote NO for Thin Lizzy.