MUSIC

Celebrating a Half Century of the Music of Frank Zappa

by Doc Jeffurious Higgason

By the time Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention released their second album Absolutely Free in May of 1967, the group had already fixed itself as a strident, intelligent satirical mirror that reflected back the pretentious aspects of American pop culture. At that particular juncture in our history Zappa and The Mothers of Invention had plenty of fodder to expound upon.

The first Human Be-In was held in January of that year in San Francisco. A key moment that helped touch off the mythical doings that later became known as “The Summer Of Love”. Seemingly in an instant, thousands of farm kids were dropping out, farming hair, heading to California to expand their horizons (take drugs and bang each other) while thousands of other farm kids were receiving free trips to Southeast Asia courtesy of the American Military-Industrial Complex.

Existing concurrently beneath the reeking flowery vapors of peace and love, the country was also exploding against itself with large anti-war demonstrations and race riots spreading across the nation from “Hell to breakfast.”

The role of “The Mothers” within the cultural principalities of the late 1960’s could be considered a “third perspective” that pushed against the ideologies of not only the government establishment, but also the so-called “hippie” culture and it’s leanings toward superficiality and excess.

The Mothers of Invention gleefully pointed out the flawed logic and motivations of both sides to expose their overall phoniness. They had humor and rebelled against the hippie-dippy-flower-power factions.  They weren’t all dark and foreboding like the Velvet Underground, or clubfooted and planted firmly in the hole of faux-poetry like The Doors.

One of the first recognized “concept albums”, Absolutely Free embraces a format in which both sides are their own miniature musical suite. The album begins with “Plastic People”, a jolly stab at conforming and holding tight to materialistic status set to the tune of the Richard Berry classic “Louie, Louie”. Later, GZA used samples of the song for his track “Cold World”.

The sound of Absolutely Free also throws the spotlight more on Zappa’s fetish with classical music. The “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” begins with the saxophone paraphrasing the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Pieces of Stravinsky can be found sprinkled about “Amnesia Vivace” you hear elements of: “The Rites Of Spring,” “The Firebird,” “Petrouchka” and “A Soldier’s Tale.”

“Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” has been called a two hour musical performance condensed into only a few minutes. This tiny opera is a volley fired across the bow of  suburban sameness and greed that eventually fritters down to a tale about a perverted city hall official who draws out a fantasy of having sex with a 13-year-old girl and dousing her with chocolate syrup only to “strap her on again.”

The inspiration for the song reportedly comes from a story written by reporter Hugh Sidey for Time magazine in 1966 involving then President Lyndon B. Johnson, who perpetrated the fashion crime of wearing brown shoes with a gray suit.

Where The Mothers of Invention’s first album Freak Out! was heavily driven by moods of rhythm and blues and doo-wop, intermingled with experimental sounds, Absolutely Free became the vehicle that propelled Zappa’s fusion of avant-garde classical elements into modern rock music. It set the standard that was an ever expanding platform in later Zappa albums.

Absolutely Free celebrates it’s 50th Anniversary this month.

 

Beat the Beatles

As we celebrate, incredibly to many of us, the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic Sgt. Peppers album, this June 2017, let’s take a step back from the point of view of a 60s survivor who is now IN his 60s.

I was 12 years old at the start of 1964. It was a perfect age for the Beatles to come along, and grow up with. As I matured, so did they. What a great ride!

The 60s, an increasingly mythical era, arguably began on November 9, 1961, the date Brian Epstein decided to walk down the steps of the Cavern Club.

There were a lot of crucial moments in the history of the Beatles. One huge moment was John Lennon’s decision to let Paul McCartney join his precursor band, the Quarrymen. Another was Lennon’s allowing George Harrison aboard, despite Lennon’s feeling that Harrison was too young.

But the 60s would have been unimaginably different without the Beatles. And those in line at the Cavern who were annoyed as Epstein was ushered past them and down the soon-to-be historic steps of the dingy venue, well they could not have understood what a gigantic moment in western culture Epstein’s appearance meant.

Epstein was a complicated man. Both gay and Jewish in a time and place that was intolerant, he was looking for something, and found it in onstage at a noon rock show performed by four scruffy boys, which at the time included the handsome, popular Pete Best on drums.

His psycho-sexual attraction aside, Epstein saw the potential the group had, and after repeated viewings of the band, offered to manage them.

Epstein had never overseen a musical group before the Beatles, though he had successfully managed his parents’ phonograph record shop for a number of years.

The determination he brought to the effort to get the band a recording contract is legendary, as is his correct assessment that the Beatles would be “bigger than Elvis.”

Few others believed that at the time. Despite an enthusiastic local following in Liverpool (and to an extent in Hamburg, Germany) the chances that the future Fab Four would become the biggest music act of their generation and indeed the next half century appeared to be nil.

Epstein set out to make it happen by cleaning up their look and their stage act, and by bombarding England’s record executives with phone calls. He was able to get his calls returned due to the size of his retail music business, but was still rejected for months, including by Decca’s Dick Rowe, who rightly or wrongly has been made one of the biggest goats in music history: the man who turned down the Beatles!

In his autobiography, Epstein claimed Rowe told him “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein.” Rowe later denied saying those words, but they ring true. The pomposity and smug self-assertion are typical of record executives of that era, and beyond.

One hideous task the Beatles left to Epstein was the firing of Pete Best. In what may be the most sordid moment in Beatle history, the hapless Best was sacked in favor of the more talented Ringo Starr. The cowardly Beatles never spoke to Best again. Yet, the switch had to happen. Ringo was the right man for the job.

So then, Bigger than Elvis? It took the instincts of producer George Martin to take Epstein at his word, not to mention at first reluctantly allowing the Beatles to record their own material. Martin’s suggestion that they speed up the tempo of “Please Please Me” was critical, and his prescient words afterwards were: “Gentlemen, you have just recorded your first number one record.”

The Biggest Act of All Time

Claims to be the “biggest” are of course difficult to properly judge. How do you measure the Beatles against Bing Crosby, who sold 50 million copies of “White Christmas” alone, still the biggest-selling single of all time? Or how do we compare the Beatles to PSY on YouTube’s most-watched videos list, with some colossal ten-figure number of views?

The answer most often given is by raw total certified sales, where the Beatles reign supreme according to most sources. The numbers and claims vary, but let’s call it a quarter billion “units” in sales for Mr. Epstein’s protégés. Those are units people shelled out cash for.

But the sales amounts of the Beatles is just one aspect. The cultural impact of the Beatles is almost impossible to describe to those who didn’t live through it, male hairstyles being one monster example. Clothes, absolutely. But perhaps most importantly, attitude. You could now be who you wanted to be, and be “cheeky” about it.

The 20 number one singles by the Beatles may be topped someday. But not the total domination of the U.S. music sales charts by the Beatles in 1964. At one point the Fabs transcended belief by holding down the top five positions, a feat that is probably unbeatable.

How that happened is admittedly a fluke, thanks to another classic goat in the Beatles legend, Capitol records executive Dave Dexter, who passed on their early singles, giving them over to smaller labels. That “She Loves You” was a mammoth hit in the U.K. failed to impress Mister Dexter, and it took a bit of manipulation by Epstein, including the impending appearance by the Beatles on the highly popular Ed Sullivan show, to finally pressure the buzz-cut wearing Dexter enough to grudgingly release “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Much is made of the psychological impact the Beatles had on a North America still reeling from the JFK assassination. Again, having lived through it, I’ll verify it was a massive factor. Kennedy was the first young-looking president, and to many of us, he symbolized a new era. It’s impossible to overstate the grief we felt at the time after Dallas. The Beatles came along at exactly the right moment, that winter.

The Beatles never looked back from the Ed Sullivan appearances, and from then on, sold themselves. They were “good copy” and were in huge demand on all media. Their first movie was a smash, and won over many of the dubious adults. By mid-1964, Brian Epstein had been proven right: the Beatles were indeed bigger than Elvis.

Could it happen again?

The Case for “Bigger than the Beatles”

Due to the unique circumstances of the gestation and break-out of the band, it’s going to be very tough indeed to top the Liverpool Lads. The creative tension between Lennon and McCartney resulted in hundreds of brilliant songs, which their recording engineer Geoff Emerick recently compared to Mozart. He says such creativity comes along every couple hundred years.

Analysis of the Beatles catalogue is intimidating. The chord structures, the harmonies, and the delivery are nearly beyond belief, and playing them is electrifying. One is tempted to take Emerick, whose fine autobiography “Here, There and Everywhere” outlines the Beatles creative process as well as his own studio contributions, at his word. They can’t be topped.

And yet…

Somewhere out there, I believe, lurks a talent overwhelmingly potent. It’s probably a group of people who have been playing for a long time together, singing together. They have supreme love for each other, yet are challenged by each other. They may be multi-generational, even a family. They look good, sound good, and inspire fanatical devotion amongst their fans.

They write songs that are simply great, that transform us, challenge us. They will release album after album of astonishing material, that will rock our world and blow our minds.

And they will need luck, a lot of it, to find someone to handle the thankless task of promoting them. The next Brian Epstein will have to have the patience of a saint and a belief in his clients that will be comparable to a crusade. He or she will have to push and prod, using every trick in the book and some new ones besides.

The next Epstein will be obsessed yet measured, powerful but not overbearing. He or she will love his band, and they will love him or her. “Brian was one of us” as McCartney has said. But, it took until just a few years ago, in 2014, for the manager of the Beatles to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Better late than never, but still, that’s pretty sad.

Our current era is, to be frank, somewhat grim. Politically, culturally, even spiritually, there aren’t a lot of bright spots out there. If a band came along that was Bigger than the Beatles, it would mean a cultural paradigm shift. They would be more than great musicians, they would be cosmic ambassadors, announcing a new world, a better way to be.

We as a world need it.

So, as many of us honor the magic of Sgt. Pepper, I say come on, musicians young and old alike. Form up, shape up, sing and play like no one has ever done before. I dare ya.

Beat the Beatles.

 

by Kyle K. Mann

Topanga
June 4, 2017

Album Review: Ho99o9’s United States of Horror

 

by: Kidman J. Williams

Artist: Ho99o9

Album: United States of Horror

Label: Deathkult

Rating: 4.1

Ho99o9 is one of those mythical creatures that we call bands with talent. Much like the Unicorn or Bigfoot, we aren’t sure if they truly exist or ever did. True originality in a sea of mumble mouthed rappers looking for the next little hit on iTunes; we get the punk fueled hip-hop duo, Ho99o9 scratching through the vigorously polished pop that consumes our media.

Ho9909 was founded by members TheOGM and Eaddy in New Jersey and have been putting out material since 2012. They grew a cult following and then moved the operations out to LA like many groups do.

Their first EP, Mutant Freax Family came out in 2014 with rave reviews from the likes of The Guardian and Rolling Stone naming them among the “10 New Artists You Need to Know” in 2014.

The Hip-Hop Punk duo’s newest effort, United States of Horror paints their horrific look at our society with the heavy notes of the Gangsta Rap thumping of the 90’s, the east coast bashing of the hardcore punk scene, and even a splash of the dynamic personality of the late great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins thrown into their unique and powerful sonic assault.

The album takes on such social/political points as police brutality, racism, capitalism, and of course the media.

The song, City Rejects is a shout at everything that is wrong in this world and says so without any apologies to anyone…just like any good opinion does. Look at Trump and all his opinions!

The very beginning of the album starts with a child reciting their own Pledge of Allegiance, “I pledge my allegiance to the burning flag of the United States of Horror. And to the ….for which it stands one nation under 9’s for liberty and justice for the dead.” Which really starts the predictable tone that this album was going to take.

Not that predictability is a bad thing all the time, so long as it leads to something of worth and this album is worth it. The child’s pledge leads us into the cries of War is Hell.

My personal favorite highlight of this intense body of work is Street Power. Street power assaults your very being with an attack reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails, via Pretty Hate Machine. The song leads you into a heavy punk attack and then drops you down into these slow musical breaks proving that this duo has a full understanding of lyrical and musical theory.

The song sounds like a full come to arms kind of a chant. Even yelling to “look in my eyes,” daring the enemy to come at them with everything they have, but they will still prevail through their evil because they can be that much more evil in the face of annihilation.

This album does not stop there holding the intense movement throughout the whole album. There is no rest for the wicked and we will not be prey for these vultures.

Ho99o9 is one of the most interesting bands that has come out in quite some time. The duo’s blend of hardcore punk, Hip-Hop, and Industrial compliments the vocal war that they are waging against their enemies like Tomahawk missiles and the US the results are explosive and definitive.

BONUS VIDEO: Blood Waves single from 2016.

Album Review: Syrus’ Just Remember EP

 

by: Joe Siess

Artist: Syrus

Album: Just Remember EP

Label: Unsigned/Indie

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Syrus absolutely has a sound he can proudly call his own. The Syrus sound has got that bigger than life, South Florida, palm trees and shimmering Miami skyline by the pool with the fat Cuban cigar thing going on.

Yes.

But the music is uniquely American in the sense that it brings many different elements together to create some kind of order.

Syrus’ sound and message are upbeat, and like I said, bigger than life. My favorite track on Syrus’ debut EP entitled, “Just Remember” is for sure “Book by its Cover Feat. Brianna”. I can almost envision the song performed live on stage at some big ass open air amphitheatre filled with howling fans under a blistering South Florida sun on a particularly humid, boozy, afternoon.

Syrus standing mid-stage, with the shades and the hat, rapping his verses with the bigger than life swagger. The suspended cameras gliding overhead, panning off into the smokey crowd. Clutching the mic, he’d chuckle off a couple of those characteristic Syrus laughs as Brianna slides onto the jumbotron. The laser wall starts beating to life as the cameras pan back around and the light crew scrambles backstage.

Syrus and Brianna move down the center of the stage and the crowd goes apeshit. People with contorted faces cast themselves over the railings in a molly fueled revelry. Drunks claw at their ankles as they sing in unison, “Da da da da da da da da da da!” Syrus crouches down and extends the mic towards the sea of bodies, “Let me here you say it!”

“Da da da da da da da da da DA DA DA DA” LIGHTS…FIRE…CONFETTI…BOOM!

Screeching and howling from a crowd 20,000 deep flanked by sweaty, beady-eyed cops from the Florida State Police Department desperately trying to hold back the rabble as Brianna goes, “I got the weight… of the world sittin’ on my shoulders, there’s no wayyyyyAYAYAYYY you can hold me down, baby I’s a soldier, I’m like…. Da da da da da da da da da! Let me here you say it!” BOOM! Cameras pan away… Lights. Laser wall…BOOM! And the crowd goes manic.

Well, at least that’s how I would envision things. But what do I know? I can only use my imagination. What I do know is that Syrus and his music is going places. He sometimes kind of reminds me of Pitbull but with a fresher energy. And then Brianna… Oh my god, Brianna… Yah girl.

In the end, if you want some of that feel good, bigger than life sound that used to dominate the wavelengths a few years back, then Syrus is where it’s at. His energy is exactly what we need in these twisted times.

In the wake of the Great Disgrace (Trump’s election), we need this kind of enegy. Syrus provides that rise above it all in spite of them sound, and we all desperately need to feel like it’s possible to win again. To be a shining beam of swaggering positivity in the face of mind boggling arrogance and impending doom is no simple task, but Syrus does it with grace and style.

Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – Kids in the Street

 

by: Kidman J. Williams

Artist: Justin Townes Earl

Album: Kids in the Street

Label: New West

Rating: 4.4/5.0

Justin Townes Earle despite recording now for over a decade is not quite the household name that his famous father (Steve Earle) is. His new album Kids in the Street could just be the point of reckoning.

Earle has gotten a lot of publicity on this album, probably more than he ever has and with good reason.

Kids in the Street is a multi-level music smorgasbord of sound, emotions, and comic relief. Earle knows how to put perspective on the sometimes difficult situations of our lives with prophetic poetic prose.

The music itself is nothing that you haven’t heard in the almost 70 year collection of rock music. We have heard this blend of rock/folk/country/blues before, but not in the way that Earle opens up this can of down home black-eyed peas.

The most idiosyncratic part of this great body of work is the distinctive words and timbre of Earle.

The opening song on this album says it all. This is Earle’s answer to the dated “Pink Cadillac” as his object of lust rides by in an epic champagne colored Toyota Corolla in the appropriately titled, “Champagne Corolla.”

The song has that solid rock-n-roll beat accompanied by a horn section and an old school thump that your foot just can’t help but move to.

The fourth track “15-25” isn’t exactly what you might think. Earle cleverly points out those years with the idea of jail time while hitting you with a New Orleans blues sound that again forces you to jump up and shuffle.

The song is not about doing time in prison, it is about those crazy years. We all know them. When I was 15, I thought I knew exactly what the world was and how everything was going to work. Then I started learning just how life really was.

I lived a lot of life in those years, then 25 hit and I realized the party had to stop at some point and as Earle points out in the end of the song, “25 to life.”

There is a something for everyone on this great body of work. Earle explores his folk roots, old rock music, New Orleans swing blues, and even down home delta on the track “If I was the Devil.”

Kids in the Street is not just a country or folk album. This effort is what art should be and shows what music can really do for a persons’ soul. It has those great party songs, but is also the kind of album you take with you on a night drive after a huge argument with your significant other to just escape from it all.

Justin Townes Earle knows how to touch your heart and keep it dancing all through the night with a great bottle of wine.

Kids in the Street comes out May 26, 2017.