Saturday, May 31, 2014

Side Projects : College Radio Edition

In those heavy touring days of the mid 80's, musical collaborations and deep friendships bloomed between members of different bands. Here are some of my favorite results.

On 1984's Rainy Day, members of LA's Paisley Underground bands like The Bangles, Rain Parade, and the Dream Syndicate get together to pay tribute to the music that inspired them. The covers of Buffalo Springfield's "Flying On The Ground is Wrong" and The Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror" are especially nice. Susanna Hoffs still records albums of well chosen covers these days with Matthew Sweet.

In 1991 two of my favorite Australian songwriters, Grant McLennan of the Go Betweens and Steve Kilbey of The Church,  released the first of two albums they made as Jack Frost. This is the kind of  intelligent well-crafted pop that got washed away by the great grunge tsunami of that time. 

In 1985 Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Keith Streng of the Fleshtones released an EP as Full Time Men. The single "I Got Wheels" makes  my list  of the "5 All-Time Catchiest Peter Buck Guitar Riffs". Buck was also busy at the time producing bands like The Fleshtones and The Feelies as well as knocking out that distinctive riff in The Replacements's breakthrough "I Will Dare".

Here's one where the concept sounds just a bit better than the music. Snakecharmer finds P.I.L bassist Jah Wobble, U2's The Edge, Magazine's Ben Mandelson and Can's Holger Czukay combining forces to make alternative dance music.Very much of its time.

Friday, May 30, 2014

SIDE PROJECTS : Fairport Connections

Buy some early Fairport

OK, there is no such band as Fairport Connections, but, challenged by Darius' post below, I thought it pertinent to address the revolving door policy of UK folk-rock, in particular that arising out of the still going Fairport Convention, arguably the godfathers of the mafiosi still intrinsically associated with the tradition, even if not strictly still members of their former band.. Since 1967, starting off as an English Jefferson Airplane, if you will, within a year or 2 they had invented folk-rock, utilising and building on an electrified folk tradition of the british isles. Altho' this piece is not, per se, about them, here is the consummate example of their traditional stylistic progression, from Liege and Lief, the groundbreaking 1969 LP, voted "Most Influential Folk LP of all Time" at the British Folk Awards in 2006. This line up of the late Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings, Dave Swarbrick and Dave Mattacks was probably their anti-nadir, with a legacy that lasts to this day, usually most prominently at their yearly Cropredy Festival, where, despite Simon Nicol being the sole custodian of the original flame, those still able usually still attend, within whatsover role they are currently occupying in the musical world, culminating in a marathon all bodies on deck finale. Never has the Hotel California spirit of "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave" been more aptly realised.

Anyhow, to task, my plan today is to introduce the 2 earliest side projects of this dynasty, together with a couple of other tasters. The early 2 are about as far from each other as you can get, being faithful evocations, if a little modernised, of rock and roll and of morris dancing, unlikely bedfellows to say the least.

"Rock On" in 1972 was attributed to "The Bunch" and was a collection of their favourite covers by Elvis, the Everleys, Buddy Holly and many more. Featuring most of Fairport, this also included the later to be Linda Thompson and other past and future alumni. Here's Sandy Denny and the aforementioned Linda together. Was it a financial success? Probably not, but it sounded a lot of fun.

And The Bunch

Almost as a riposte, Ashley Hutchings produced the 1st of a dynasty of LPs, starting with "Morris On", later in that same year, roping in, again, Mattacks and Richard Thompson. A completely different kettle of fish, this remains probably an aquired taste. Unfortunately, I have that taste, in spades .This ran to Son of, Grandson of and Greatgrandson of, as well as a live outing, based on a touring version, still performing within the last 5 years or so.

And Morris On

So what else evolved from Fairport? Arguably the 2 biggest would have been Ashley Hutchings' Albion (Country/Dance) Bands and the whole phenomenon of Richard Thompson, starting off as a duo with his then wife, Linda, and subsequently his solo and band careers. Whilst distinct entities in their own right, I feel they fulfil a place in this piece, through the virtue of many a still active Fairporter concomitantly appearing in the ranks of either, or both, bands as well, and still also in Fairport. (As an aside, the later rhythm section of Dave Mattacks on drums, Dave Pegg on bass and Simon Nicol on guitar were virtually the houseband of Island Records in the 70s, appearing on just about everything.)  Here are examples of The Albion Band and of The Richard Thompson Big Band, and rather than describing the convoluted who's who, I direct you back to the family tree in the 1st link above.

Confused? So what, just enjoy. And why the picture of cricketers at the head of the page? Well, that is because the annual festival generally completes with a sunday cricket match, involving many of the musicians involved. Richard Thompson is said to be a demon bowler, which may mean little to US readers. Now you can't quite see the Grateful Dead doing that, can you?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Side Projects: Talking Heads ‘81 Edition

David Byrne: Eyes Wide Open


Tom Tom Club: Genius of Love


Jerry Harrison: Slink


What is a side project? How is it different from a solo album? In choosing a song for this week‘s theme, I have wrestled with these questions. In mind, the difference is intent. Here I present three side projects related to the Talking Heads, all from 1981. Each, as I will explain, qualifies as a side project for different reasons.

1981 was a scary year for Talking Heads fans like myself. We now know that some of the band’s best work was still in the future, but it looked at the time like the band might break up. Officially, they were on hiatus, but we have all heard that before, and many bands do not survive it. Talking Heads did, but the year also produced some great music while they were apart.

David Byrne was the most prolific. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a collaboration with Brian Eno, and it would prove to be a study of African rhythms in preparation for the next Talking Heads album, Remain in Light. But Byrne also released a second album that year. The Catherine Wheel was a commission for the Twyla Tharp Dance Company. Byrne and Tharp were a couple for a brief time that year, and Byrne created a set of songs specifically intended for the dance. I was lucky to find a video of one of Twyla Tharp’s dances from this work.

Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth decided to use their time off from Talking Heads to have some fun. They gathered some musical family and friends and formed what was intended to be a one-shot project, the Tom Tom Club. This turned out to be the most popular of the Heads related projects of 1981. Genius of Love and Wordy Rappinghood were hits, and the Tom Tom Club’s label wanted a follow-up two years later. Franz and Weymouth would then go back to Tom Tom Club when Talking Heads finally did break up for good.

Jerry Harrison was interested in exploring what could be done in a recording studio. The Red and the Black features a large cast of musicians, many of whom would be featured in later Talking Heads albums. Harrison used layered multiple instruments and vocals to create a dense but funky soundscape. There would be two more Harrison solo albums in later years, but The Red and the Black is probably more important for laying the groundwork for the producing career that Harrison has enjoyed since the break up of Talking Heads.


Spoilt for choice here, so I simply went through my singles collection, gathering dust up on the shelf. And there, resplendent in greeen vinyl was, and indeed is, this gem . I loved this and bought it ahead of buying any of his then other day job material. Klark Kent was the alter ego of Police drummer, Stewart Copeland, and always seemed a much more fascinating character than his somewhat severe and serious bassist. (Mind you, the guitar player was pretty interesting too.)

Like his bandmates, Copeland had already had quite a career ahead of the Police, much of which seems at odds with the desired youthful and, initially at least,  punky received wisdom thereof. For a start, in year zero of punk in the UK, which could be anything from 75 to 77 depending on your stance, he was already older than many of the bands around him, with a 1952 birthday. Of hybrid US/scottish stock, the son of a CIA officer, he spent a peripatetic youth in the middle east, before receiving his secondary education in the UK, at "progressive" and somewhat experimental school Millfield before returning to the US for college. Later, back in the UK he started his musical career as road manager for reformed prog-rockers Curved Air, top right in the picture, longer of locks than later, even if his clattering drum style is already in evidence in this live clip, having swiftly become their sticksman. Later he was to marry their frontwoman, Sonja Kristina, object of many a teenaged brits lust in their halcyon days. The Police he formed in 1977, but this isn't about them.

Klark Kent was born in 1978, issuing a flurry of singles and EPs in that year, and a later LP in 1980. "Don't Care", the song in the first clip from above was the most successful, rising to the heights of 48 in the british pop charts, via an appearance on my much loved Top of the Pops. Clearly realising that Sting was perhaps going to claim the stakes to the majority of the songwriting in their joint band, I think KK was as much to show that he could sing and play a bit too, and more than just drums: he plays everything on these recordings. There are one or two KK sounding songs on the first couple of Police LPs, graced by his twangy western drawl, but this grace seemed to peter out as they became huger and huger, making my green vinyl all the more to relish.

Subsequently, between spatty Police reunions, Copeland has amassed a steady volume of other projects, notably his soundtrack work, including for Rumblefish . This was followed by further soundtracks, as well as music for ballets and even operas. I have never got round to these, I confess.

Things I didn't know department: in 2007 he was appointed a Chevalier of France's Ordre des Arts et Lettres, along with Summers and Sting. Well I never!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Side Projects: Golden Smog

Golden Smog: V

For the next couple of weeks, we will be writing about “Side Projects,” the musical projects that are created when an artist decides to moonlight away from his “regular” band. These projects happen for many different reasons—the desire to explore a different kind of music, the opportunity to play with different people, the chance for a sideman to step to the front, or even just to fill time between releases.

Golden Smog appears to have developed because a bunch of friendly, similarly inclined musicians from different bands had fun playing together. As befits their name (which was taken from the second episode of The Flintstones), the origins of Golden Smog are clouded in the mists of history. They started in the late 1980s in Minneapolis as a loose collection of musicians who joined together to play mostly covers, possibly at first in 1987 to support Kraig Johnson, of Run Westy Run, at a solo show. According to Marc Perlman of The Jayhawks, and a member of Golden Smog, that show included guitarists Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, Perlman on bass and Soul Asylum vocalist Dave Pirner on drums. Other early members included Chris Mars of The Replacements and Jim Boquist of Son Volt, and they became a regular feature of the Minneapolis bar scene. Gary Louris remembers it all somewhat differently, and if you really want more on the band’s origins, read this article from No Depression.

The band’s first release was a 1992 EP of covers, On Golden Smog. Because of contractual issues, the band members used pseudonyms derived from their middle names and the street they grew up on, and included Murphy (“David Spear”), Pirner (“Anthony James”), Louris (“Michael Macklyn”), Perlman (“Raymond Virginia”), Johnson (“Jarrett Decatur”) and Mars (“Eddie Garfield”) who also created the cover art. The relaxed nature of the collaboration was demonstrated by the fact that one song had lead vocals from Soul Asylum roadie Bill Sullivan.

Over time, the members of the band started to bring original songs to the group, and this culminated in 1996’s release, Down By the Old Mainstream, in which Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (“Scot Summit”) replaced Pirner, and Mars was replaced with Honeydogs’ drummer Noah Levy (“Leonardson Saratoga”). The album contained mostly original songs, with two covers. At the time, Soul Asylum was already a couple of years past their breakthrough hits, The Jayhawks had released a couple of well received albums, but were reeling from the loss of singer Marc Olson, and Wilco was still gaining its footing. Tweedy, who as a Bellville West High School student had actually interviewed Murphy for a music magazine, reportedly appreciated the support he received from his fellow Smoggers following the breakup of Uncle Tupelo and the mixed reviews for Wilco’s debut.

As a fan of Wilco, Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks, I was inclined to like Golden Smog, and this album got me hooked. I especially loved the opener, “V,” featured above, a wistful remembrance of a friendly and supportive barmaid, that, nevertheless rocks. This was a disc that was played to death in our house. I know that some reviews, predictably, denigrated some of the songs as ones that were not good enough for the member’s regular bands, but I think that is too facile a critique. Not every song is a gem, but even the weaker ones are worthwhile.

It took a few years for the band members’ schedules to align to allow the recording and release of a second album, this time with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens instead of Levy. Weird Tales was released in 1998, and consisted of all originals (and all of the members got to use their own names). It has a somewhat more somber tone than the prior disc, but also has a few rockers, including my favorite track, “Until You Came Along.” One review described it as “long and sloppy and uneven and enjoyable, and thus easily pigeonholed as the kind of long, sloppy, uneven, enjoyable record that happens when a bunch of people who kind of know each other sit down with some guitars—yes, we understood, Golden Smog was a Traveling Wilburys full of people nobody really knew.”

My family enjoyed this album, and my wife and I saw the band put on a great show at Irving Plaza in New York. By that time, it was clear that Tweedy was getting most of the attention, as Wilco had released both Being There and the first Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Billy Bragg.

And that seemed to be pretty much it for Golden Smog, as the members’ regular bands and projects took precedence. I was, therefore, excited when the band announced a concert at the Bowery Ballroom in the summer of 2004, and my wife and I went. One of our favorite memories of that night was sitting in this little alcove in the balcony with our friends before the show started, and the actors Adam Goldberg and Christina Ricci, who were a couple at the time, came and sat with us. We became close friends and still hang out. Not really. They actually ignored us and we played the blasé New Yorkers and ignored them, but it was still pretty cool. It was a fun, very loose show, filled with Golden Smog songs and lots of random covers ranging from Carly Simon, to The Fugs to Neil Young to Talking Heads. No Tweedy this time, but the band included Louris, Perlman, Murphy, Johnson, Steve Wynn (of the Dream Syndicate) and his wife, drummer Linda Pitmon, David Poe, Jenni Muldaur, James Mastro (of The Bongos) and others.

The tour led to another album, Another Fine Day, mostly recorded in Spain, with additional material (including Tweedy’s contributions) added later. It is a good album, but I never really fell in love with it, nor did I love the also perfectly fine (but Tweedy-less) EP Blood on the Slacks. I can’t say that my lack of interest in these later discs is a result of their quality or just the fact that I didn’t listen to them over and over again, but it is what it is.

Golden Smog has turned out to be a pretty long-running side project, which allowed its members to have fun, try new things with different band members, but never seemed to get in the way of the members’ “day jobs.” And I think they put out a bunch of good music.