SSR Picks: August 12 2021

Zappa (film, 2020)

My partner was out of town all last week, so I spent more time in front of the TV than usual. Inevitably, I ended up watching some music documentaries, among them this Zappa documentary. I’ll watch a well-done documentary on just about any artist or style of music, and even though I’ve never gotten into Zappa’s music, the seal of approval from the hosts of the podcast You Don’t Know Mojack was enough for me to dial up this film on streaming.

Jeff, Dominic, and I were talking about music documentaries a few weeks ago, and I noted how the documentary seems to be an essential element in today’s playbook for transforming a has-been into a “legacy artist.” This occurred to me when I watched the recent HBO documentary on the Bee Gees. That documentary used a lot of footage from the Bee Gees’ episode of Behind the Music, which reran relentlessly on VH1 in the 90s, when I must have seen it a dozen times. Behind the Music presented the Bee Gees (at least partially) as kitsch, but the HBO documentary went to great lengths to argue that the Bee Gees were serious artists who left their stamp on the history of 20th and 21st-century popular music. I remember lots of shots of Barry Gibb gazing pensively over a body of water, presumably contemplating the triumphs and travails of a long and influential career, and of course a long string of talking heads attesting to the group’s brilliance. Which is all fine with me. I like the Bee Gees, and I’m happy to drag all of those copies of Saturday Night Fever out of the bargain bin and into the upper racks.

Zappa also seems at pains to cement its subject’s critical legacy. We see footage of Zappa jamming with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the usual smattering of talking heads proclaiming his brilliance, and many scenes that emphasize his credibility as a musician. He worked with the London Philharmonic. He was one of the first composers to rely on computers. There are several shots of Zappa’s massive archive where he stored master copies of nearly every piece of music he made. God knows he made a lot of music, and whether you value any of it, you have to admit at least some of it was innovative. The snippets that appear in the film even make Zappa’s music seem like something I might want to listen to.

A couple of weeks ago, Usman wrote in his staff pick about liking an artist’s music while feeling alienated from them politically. The Zappa film attempts to mitigate this issue somewhat by emphasizing that Zappa played music with women and people of color when that was uncommon. That’s great. However, what I come away from the film remembering is the way Zappa dehumanized other people, an issue that seemed to grow worse as he aged. It’s very taboo in our present culture to treat people differently based on categories they fall into, and Zappa didn’t seem to do that; instead, he treated everyone like shit. Not to get into Kantian ethics or anything, but Zappa seemed to view people as tools, as means rather than as ends that have value in themselves. Women were there for him to sleep with. Musicians were there to realize his creative vision. Everyone else just seemed to be in his way.

Obviously I didn’t know Frank Zappa, but he appears arrogant and self-absorbed. I see this not only in stories of people’s interactions with him but also in his approach to music itself. massive archive was testament to the fact that he thought all of his ideas were worth recording and saving (the film argues that this quest to document his ideas consumed him later in life, particularly after he realized he was terminally ill). There’s no sense that some of his ideas were better than others… they’re all valuable because they are Zappa’s ideas, and he had little time or patience for ideas that didn’t originate with him.

Zappa’s arrogance also comes across in the famous trope that his music was too difficult to play. His pioneering work with computers was borne out of his frustrations with getting human musicians to realize his ideas. In the early 80s, Zappa hired the London Symphony Orchestra to perform and record his classical compositions. The film shows footage from Zappa’s appearance on Letterman where he states these musicians were about 75% successful in delivering what he considered a “perfect” performance. The implication being that Zappa’s mind was so brilliant and his work so complex that even word-class musicians couldn’t wrap their minds around it.

Like a lot of arrogant people, Zappa also seemed insufferably whiny when things didn’t go his way. Zappa was bitter that his music wasn’t more successful and thought the media blacklisted him after he ended his contract with Warner Brothers Records. After he left Warners, he started his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records, and he touted the fact that his music was independent, insisting that it was only possible because of the freedoms afforded by market capitalism. In the film, he snidely notes that his music isn’t the result of government assistance or private patronage. However, believing in the power of capitalism didn’t prevent him from whining that his difficult, patently uncommercial music didn’t make him more money. To me, he sounds like the right-wingers who are against “big government,” except when it comes to their own entitlements and welfare.

I realize that I am talking out of my ass here, and that I am giving Zappa heads an engraved invitation to punish the shit out of me. I’m not really trying to talk shit or call out someone who has been dead for over two decades; rather, I’m trying to work through my own complicated feelings about Zappa’s music and the film (which I must note was enjoyable and gave me a ton of food for thought). Maybe someday I’ll even get into Zappa’s music. I joked to Dominic that I would probably love Zappa if he were British, and many of the criticisms I made above could be applied just as much to artists I adore (like Mark E. Smith, for one). I also appreciate the irony of criticizing someone for thinking their every musical whim deserves a hearing while flinging my half-formed musings into the inboxes of thousands of people who I’m certain couldn’t care less what I think of the new Zappa doc.

Hello to you all and thanks once again for checking in with us. I hope we find you well this week. Here in North Carolina, we are getting reminded that it is summer in the south with temperatures hitting the triple digits. Phew! Hot. Hopefully you are finding ways to stay cool and remember never leave your children, pets or vinyl in a parked car, even with the windows open.

This week I was inspired to pull some records off the shelf and give them a play based on a conversation I was having in the store with a customer the other day. The gentleman was buying some cool records, one of which was an XTC album – here at SSR we’re all partial to a little XTC – and we started talking about their side project, the fake 60s band The Dukes Of Stratosphear that released the awesome 25 O’ Clock LP in 1985. I mentioned to the guy that we had a record in the store compiling singles put out by English artist Nick Nicely and that he should buy it as his early singles had been a big influence on Andy Partridge and XTC and inspired them in some way to form the Dukes. His single Hilly Fields (1892) b/w 49 Cigars from 1982 is a great 60s psychedelic inspired 45 and you can definitely hear how it would have appealed to someone like Partridge, who also shared a love for records made in the original psychedelic era. Go give them a listen. The Dukes Of Stratosphear record is awesome and positively dripping in psychedelic sounds. Mellotron, fuzz guitar, backwards tape, phasing, you name it. All the 60s studio tricks are used. The cover art especially tells you what sort of record to expect, looking like a cross between The Nuggets cover and Cream’s Disraeli Gears. Although initially XTC didn’t announce that it was them, it’s obvious when you listen who is singing and playing. They adopted fake names for the project and appeared dressed in appropriate garb for press photos. By this time in the early 1980s, the nostalgia for the 1950s that had ruled the 70s had now switched to the 60s and it seemed kind of cool again. They followed up 25 O’ Clock two years later with another mini-LP called Psonic Psunspot which continued where the previous record had left off. Both records are essential listening for fans of 60s psych and XTC. Here are a couple of examples from each LP to check out.

25 O’ Clock and Vanishing Girl both the lead tracks from each record.

XTC were not alone in putting out a side project record inspired by the 1960s and, in fact, The Damned beat them to it by a year with their release Naz Nomad And The Nightmares: Give Daddy The Knife Cindy on Big Beat Records from 1984. This record was packaged to look like a lost soundtrack to an obscure 1960s low budget teen horror movie from America. On it The Damned cover garage and psych songs from the time plus throw in a couple that they wrote themselves. It’s not bad and if you are into this type of music, you will find a lot to like. Whether they bested originals like The Litter’s Action Woman or The Electric Prune’s I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) is debatable, but they gave it a good shot. For lovers of the Nuggets type 60s garage-psych, this is a nice addition to your collection. It is The Damned after all.

The tradition of groups being inspired by the 60s and forming side project bands to indulge their love continued and another cool record that captures the spirit of the original era was one that came out of the Seattle grunge scene in 1997 by a band calling themselves The Wellwater Conspiracy. This group was formed by members of Hater who were themselves a side-project featuring members of Soundgarden and Monster Magnet. They put out a record called Declaration Of Conformity that sips from the same spiked tea that the Dukes and Naz Nomad drank, but updates the sound just a little. For their inspiration, they drew from Syd Barrett mixed with some 13th Floor Elevators and even a touch of early Stooges. In fact, they cover Lucy Leave by Barrett. I picked this record up when it came out and didn’t really know who was behind it and just took it on face value. It didn’t really matter to me who was behind it, and I liked the mystery. Wellwater Conspiracy continued and put out more records in this vein, albeit with different line-up changes, with several notable names coming through the ranks. I can recommend checking into all their records if you are not already familiar with them. I only have the first on vinyl and it’s probably my favorite. The covers and originals are all well done. In addition to the Syd cover, they tackle Sandy by The Carnabeats and Nati Bati Yi by The Spiders who fans of Japanese Group Sounds era might be aware of and I think they do a decent job. Go take a listen.

Lastly, let’s jump to 2008 and the release of The Last Shadow Puppets and their The Age Of The Understatement LP which was another 60s inspired side project, this time featuring Alex Turner from The Arctic Monkeys and Miles Kane formerly of The Rascals and The Little Flames. Regardless of your opinions on Arctic Monkeys, I know they are not everyone’s cup of tea, there is no argument that Alex Turner is a terrific wordsmith and live the Monkeys put on a good show. I have seen them several times, more in the earlier years, including two great hot and sweaty shows here in Raleigh. Together with scouser Miles Kane they put together The Last Shadow Puppets as a side project to indulge their mutual love of 60s pop and garage. The two had met when Kane’s band had supported The Monkeys at early gigs and he added guitar parts to some of their tunes, notably the song 505. For The Last Shadow Puppets album, they added orchestra to the recordings and in some ways emulated the sound that artists like Scott Walker had on his great 60s pop records. The title track is a good place to begin to get an idea if you haven’t heard them and I like second single Standing Next to Me also. The whole album is good, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. They took a bit of a hiatus between this album and their next due to commitments to their main bands and solo careers, but did make a follow-up album. Not so good in my opinion, but not horrible either. The first one is the way to go, though.

Alright, that’s enough from me. Four examples of records that were made by artists in love with the 1960s and all four decent attempts, I think. Dig in and hopefully enjoy. See you next time. Peace and love- Dom

I saw this artwork and immediately recognized it was Joe B’s art. So I put the record on right away haha. His art is so amazing, on multiple layers. His illustrations are always so expressive to me, almost “theatrical” in a way. The way he lays his collage out is always so damn eye-catching. It always maintains a constant motion on the page. The foundation of his art is the most important layer to me, his meaning. The feelings and ideas expressed in his art always seem very intentional and thought-provoking. These three elements together make his art so damn powerful, and just straight up bad-fucking-ass. He is probably one of my favorite contemporary artists, and I hate art. Maybe I’ll elaborate on my hatred for art at a later date hehe. Most of my friends think I am stupid for having this opinion but whatever. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with the fact that I don’t view myself as a musician.

Alright anyway then, this Exil LP! I knew nothing about this record before I saw it in store. About 30 seconds into the LP I knew I would love it haha. I fucking gooooooos. It sounds like Swedish hardcore, on the catchy side. Well, the band is actually from Sweden. I do hear a slight “Japanese” edge to it though. I am always looking for an LP I can put on that fuckin’ bangs all the way through but doesn’t get boring with the repetitiveness. I like that; all bang, no bore hehe. I love EPs alot, I have many more EPs than LPs, but sometimes I don’t wanna be flipping every 5 minutes. This LP is not crammed full like like Ni Maste Bort or something, but it has ten tracks with an average of at least 2 minutes per song. Most of the tracks are fast-paced hardcore with urgent d-beat drumming, but they do have a few mid-paced songs. The slow song on the A side I actually like a lot. I am really inclined to hate mid-tempo songs (unless they are played Dischange/Meanwhile style) but this one gets me fucking amped. We actually had stocked this LP before I left town but I didn’t make time to write about it. I’m pretty sure we sold out of the initial copies and we are on the restock. Exil: Warning is definitely worth a listen and you can pick up a copy from our web-store here! Alright, thank you for reading and thanks to everyone for the support! ‘Til next time..

Various: West of Memphis- Voices for Justice

I briefly mentioned some true crime related records in another SSR pick and I’m feeling compelled to write about one of them. I was scrolling through Facebook and came across an ad for the app Cameo. For those of y’all that don’t know, different celebrities (I use that term VERY lightly) have accounts and you can pay them to record personalized videos for you. Scrolling through the app’s celebrity list is pretty wild; from TikTok users, 90 Day Fiance stars, and old washed up actors, there are some odd names on the list. The one that made me stop and laugh was Damien Echols. Yes, the accused Satan worshipper of the infamous ‘West Memphis Three’ case in the 90s is now making short personalized videos for anyone that will pay. He spent most of his life on death row where he studied magic and was later released after a lot of public outcry. The West Memphis Three is one of the most well-known cases of the Satanic Panic that hit small towns in the 1990s. If you haven’t seen the three part documentary ‘Paradise Lost’, it is a must watch. It was filmed during the height of the investigation and really brings to light how fucked the whole thing was. It’s also an amazing time capsule of a 1990s small town wrapped in fear.

Before Echols was released, there was apparently a benefit concert, another documentary, and this record was released to raise awareness of the injustice that happened and raise funds to help get this innocent man out of jail. I found this compilation and didn’t know any of that information. I just bought it because of its relation to a story I found fascinating. I still have yet to see the documentary of the same name but, like this record, there are some pretty impressive names attached to it.

I have to say, I’m indifferent about the majority of this compilation, but it’s worth owning for the tracks where Henry Rollins reads some of Echols death row letters backed by music from Nick Cave. It’s heart wrenching to think that this teenager’s young life was completely ruined by hearsay; even more frustrating is the incompetence of the justice system for allowing someone to be locked up for almost 20 years with minimal evidence against them.

Like every other slightly alt girl in the world, I love listening to true crime podcasts and the main theme I find, the main reason some serial killers were so successful, is from how shitty the police investigations generally were. I could go down a deep hole about how we need to abolish the prison system and police forces, but that’s not really what I’m writing about today. Although I fully believe in abolishment, I will say it is pretty nice to see the difference 20ish years makes for someone like Damien Echols. He went from an edgy teen to a death row inmate to one of the foremost voices on modern magic, and you can even personally connect with him through that silly app. I guess everyone needs to make a living somehow! He has changed his narrative and isn’t viewed as someone who missed out on 20 years of their life, but as someone who was strong enough to make it through that long of solitary confinement.

With so much negative shit happening in the world, it’s easy to get bogged down by hopelessness, but something as silly as a (kind of shitty) compilation can remind you that changes can be made with the right and enough voices behind it.

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