Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Which Group is most Conspicuous by its Absence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Since the induction of the first set of recording artists into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the process has not been without controversy. However, in recent years vocal minorities have put undue political pressure on the Hall, which has led to the the enshrinement of niche and marginal acts such as Rush and KISS. These machinations have brought into high relief the absence of some of the most pioneering rock acts. This blog post examines one of the most glaring omissions from the Hall.

One pioneering rock and roll group is the most glaring omission from
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Photo credit: Jason Pratt / IWoman / CC BY

Sunday, November 30, 2014

By the way, Which One's Pink?

All star tribute albums come and go, but one that's laced with rock 'n' roll heavyweights in homage of the great Pink Floyd is a horse of another color. Covering that one soon...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Who is the next up-and-coming Country star?

There are a lot of talented singer/songwriters in Nashville. Of them all, who is the next up-and-coming star in country music?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why 'Speak of the Devil' is the most Important Black Sabbath Album

"Speak of the Devil" is a solo live album by Ozzy Osbourne, but it proves to be the most important Black Sabbath album of all time. Find out here why soon.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Best Album of Which you have Never Heard

Many rock albums have come and gone since the 1960s
but only one is the best of which you have never heard.
Photo credit: Will Folsom / Foter / CC BY
When Bill Haley and His Comets were rocking around the clock in the 1950s, nobody knew if the new music form was just a passing fad or a revolution of youth culture that would upend the popular tastes that had endured since the 1920s. Somewhere along the way, rock ’n’ roll got taken seriously. Singles were no longer the only game in town. Long-playing (LP) records that could accommodate more than 20 minutes of music per side allowed artists to take what had been just loose collections of songs and think of them as more of a continuing story arc. Fast-forward to the post-Sgt-Pepper’s 1960s: magazines like Rolling Stone have come along, rating rock albums on their artistic merits and not just their booty-shaking quotients. These ratings were often left open to the very subjective interpretation of the individual reviewer but at least there was some effort to legitimize the work of the rock community.

However, for all their good works, rock reviewers have let many albums slip through the crevices down the decades. Some would cite The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, which contained the group’s posthumous hit “Time of the Season,” as the missing link of the British Invasion in 1968. Others might say that something harder edged such as Golden Earring’s 1973 album Moontan with FM favorite “Radar Love” deserves mention. And many hipster poseurs will pay homage to X with Exene Cervenka, John Doe, DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom but very few of them could be pressed to produce the title of any of their perfect post-punk-pop productions from the early 80s, with the possible probability of the critics’ pet Los Angeles.

Primal Dream from singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard
Barone in 1990 is the best album of which not many
people have ever heard. Photo credit:Derek Handova
We are worthy!
All these LPs would be worthy candidates for best album of which you have never heard. However, it would take a great epochal event of the early 1990s pop culture to seal the fate of that best album: Primal Dream from singer/songwriter/guitarist Richard Barone. Though not associated in any strong way with the musical excesses of the 1980s, Barone and Primal Dream were nonetheless collateral damage of the Grunge blowback affecting everything that preceded it. After Nirvana’s Nevermind, nothing would ever be the same again.

Primal Dream has everything a fantastic rock album needs: Top-notch songwriting, great guitar riffs, heartfelt vocals, sophisticated arrangements, intricate rhythms and not least of all attitude. “It was a coming of age album,” Richard Barone said in a recent interview regarding Primal Dream. “An album of discovery and rediscovery. It was an album about being a young dude at that moment in time (1989-1990) and what he was feeling. The world was basically his. He wanted answers to big questions, he wanted romance, he wanted freedom. And he was willing to break out of his comfort zone to get what he wanted.”

Barone, a former leading light of the now largely forgotten music scene in Hoboken, N.J., in the early 1980s, has always been well connected in the music business. And he has always shown his chops for bringing in the heavy hitters, for example enlisting the help of Fred Schneider from The B-52's for backing vocals on the “Mr. Used-to-be” track on Primal Dream. “I always enjoy working with Fred,” Barone says. “The Bongos (Barone’s 80s band) were special guests on the entire first B-52’s tour. “And we've collaborated many, many times since. I especially like Fred's version of Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’ that I produced for him in the 90s on the Nilsson tribute album.”

With  upheld guitar in hand, Richard Barone signaled his
intention to rock on 1990's
Primal Dream from the get-go.
Photo credit: Derek Handova
Let’s rock!
As fun and funky as “Mr. Used-to-be” is, Primal Dream is by far more about rocking out. “Primal Dream is most definitely a rock album, especially after the acoustic tones of its predecessor, cool blue halo,” Barone says. “The rhythm section on Primal was a total rock band—Jay Dee Daugherty (of Patti Smith Group), Ivan Julian, Thaddeus Castanis—augmented by the cool blue halo ensemble plus marimba and Mellotron (keyboards). It was a rather big band playing mostly live in the studio to create that sound. It rocked, but the melodies, harmonies and choruses were defiantly pop.”

Bodies of water
An overriding theme on Primal Dream is the idea water; specifically rivers. As I’ve written previously in review of Rainbow Warriors, water is a very powerful metaphor. In the context of Primal Dream, Barone intended to draw forth the idea of constant change. As quoted in Heraclitus, an early pre-Socratic philosopher, “No man ever steps into the same river twice.” And so Barone similarly viewed the presence of water in his songs “River to River” and “Native Tongue” on Primal. “The river themes were intentional. I had been spending time in Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River in Manaus,” Barone says. “The idea that the ‘black’ Rio Negro and the light-brown Rio Solimoes merge to form the mighty Amazon was nature at its most poetic to me.

“Coming back to New York, surrounded by the East River and the Hudson, I was again inspired. The symbolism and metaphorical potential of rivers and water is obviously inexhaustible! Constantly moving forces of nature. They barely stay the same for a moment. At the time I was writing this album, the notion of constant change was on my mind. Maybe I was just learning to go with the flow.”

Richard Barone usually prefers an acoustic guitar, but on 
1990's Primal Dream he revealed an underrated talent with
electric axes. Photo credit: wfuv / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Overall, on Primal Dream, the songs have an ebullient, optimistic tone, almost celebratory vibe. And of course, Primal Dream is a great album title. “The two things at play on this album title were the idea of ‘prime,’ about being in the ‘prime’ of life, and, secondly, a concept I had read and heard about via Joseph Campbell, which is a theory that the human race has always had the same dreams: The situations and specifics, of course, change as we enter different, modern eras,” Barone says. “But even the earliest humans had dreams of the chase, the hunt, anxieties, aspirations, etc. The same kinds of dreams we have now. I felt the songs I was writing at the time were ‘primal’ in that sense. The symbols are eternal, even if the lives and music are ephemeral.”

The best attribute of Primal Dream is Barone’s approach. In contrast to a lot of 80s and 90s music trends, Barone charted his own course, neither overly bombastic nor exceedingly moody, eschewing musical categories all along the way. Of his approach, Barone says, “It’s simple. I’m guided by what I like, and by whom I want to work with, and never by market trends or doing ‘what I’m supposed to do.’ ” As it should be.

If you are up for a treat, I recommend Primal Dream in the original CD format. Fortunately, you never have to worry about it being out of stock. Amazon has it available for ordering on-demand with its AutoRip recording technology. Very cool! Even cool blue halo cool!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What's the Most Underrated Album in Rock 'n' Roll History?

What's the most underrated album of the rock era? Photo credit:

No doubt, you are familiar with Rolling Stone’s series of Greatest Albums of the 70s, 80s, 90s, all time, etc. However, have you ever stopped to think about what are the most underrated rock ’n’ roll albums of all time? What would be on your list? Would you pick Pink Floyd’s Meddle, the album immediately preceding its commercial and artistic breakthrough on The Dark Side of the Moon? Or would it be something signifying the closing of an era such as Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Outdoor, which turned out to be its studio swan song after the untimely demise of drummer John Bonham?

While those may both be worthy finalists for the most underrated rock ’n’ roll album of all time, they would both be a bit too obvious. To get to the kernel of the idea, you have to think a bit more broadly about rock ’n’ roll. Think about geniuses bringing together influences from Tin Pan Alley, the greats of jazz and even the Beat poets. The most underrated rock album would be from a ridiculously successful band that shot out of the gate on their debut, striking gold—literally and figuratively.

Steely Dan's Countdown to Ecstasy is the
most underrated rock album of all
time. Photo credit: Derek Handova
The outfit of which I write is one Steely Dan, which debuted in 1972 with their best selling LP Can’t Buy a Thrill that was propelled by future FM radio staple “Reelin’ in the Years.” Of course, Can’t Buy a Thrill cannot be the most underrated album in rock ’n’ roll history given the foregoing. However, its followup disc, Countdown to Ecstasy, would be the song platter that is most underappreciated in the rock era.

As in many sophomore scenarios, Countdown to Ecstasy had the heavy burden of great expectations to fulfill coming on the heels of Steely’s first effort. Add to that the fact that Steely Dan constantly toured during its recording, which led to the retrospective belief by band founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen that their studio sessions were rushed and the material suffered in the process. While that sentiment is absurd it is true the compositions on Countdown to Ecstasy tended to be longer than average, with many of them clocking in at more than five minutes apiece, making time-sensitive radio programmers unfriendly toward them. Regardless of the length of these recordings, Becker and Fagen are merely suffering the 20-20 hindsight of pop perfectionists never satisfied and not familiar with Voltaire’s phrase “do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
were the brain trust behind Steely Dan.
Photo credit: Marco Raaphorst / Foter /
Creative Commons Attribution
2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
By way of comparison, Countdown to Ecstasy also endured the Middle Child Syndrome coming out as it did between Can’t Buy a Thrill and Steely’s next album Pretzel Logic, which charted at No. 8 in 1974 backed by No. 4 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” Countdown to Ecstasy, despite having densely cryptic lyrics and intricate jazz chord progressions, and its musical masterpieces were outside of the rigid three-minute pop music ideal of the time. But by bringing the touring band into the studio, Steely Dan caught all the energy and tight precision of a group doing one-night stands across the country. All the vibe of the live group is appropriately captured on Countdown to Ecstasy.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that songs like “Bodhisattva,” “Boston Rag,” “Your Gold Teeth” and “King of the World” off this 1973 album would assume a large portion of Steely Dan’s live set over the next couple of years before the brain trust behind Steely—Becker and Fagen—grew weary of the road and broke up the original lineup in favor of working with professional sidemen in the studio before they went on a nearly 15 year hiatus in 1981. The catalog of music on Countdown was so important to Steely as a live act that it has been described as having been the Steely Dan album most recorded for performance. For example, “Bodhisattva” was the only official live track available of Steely—and then only as a B-side—until Becker and Fagen produced the full-length live album Alive in America in 1995.

Steely Dan was not above targeting 
themselves for derision, singing
about the "Show Biz Kids" with
the Steely Dan T-shirts who don't
give a f*** about anybody else.
In addition to the four core Countdown to Ecstasy tracks that Steely Dan featured on tour in the early years, the songs “Show Biz Kids” and “My Old School” began to solidify Becker and Fagen’s reputation for inventive wordplay in their lyrics as well as cynically wry observations of the rich and privileged in Hollywood and East Coast private colleges. And they were not loathe to taking a poke at themselves as both progenitors and beneficiaries of the indulgent lifestyles of the well off, singing about the “Show Biz Kids” with the “Steely Dan T-shirts” who you know “don't give a f*** about anybody else.”

These same kids from 1973 with the Steely Dan T-shirts are now the Baby Boomers who routinely pay close to a hundred dollars—if not hundreds of dollars—for face-value tickets to see the Becker-Fagen duo in concert in intimate venues across the country. Even though they had not toured for nearly two decades, Steely Dan returned to the arena circuit without missing a beat, their devoted fan base only having been stoked by the scarcity of a supply of Steely. In the ensuing years, these people—shall we call them Steelheads?—only grew in force and enthusiasm while their heroes worked on side projects and rested and rejuvenated themselves.
The kids from 1973 now regularly pay 
top dollar to see Steely Dan in concert.
Photo credit: Howdy, I'm H. Michael 

Fully recharged, Becker and Fagen now find the road most inviting as a method to stave off creeping decrepitude, as a paraphrase of their contemporary attitude toward touring. If you have never had the pleasure of listening to Steely Dan—in particular Countdown to Ecstasy—you should do yourself a favor and catch them on tour or get the album.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why do we listen to Music? One group gives us the Answers

Why do we listen to music? To express regret? To get our nerve up? To relive a memory? Crimson Glory delves into feelings of recrimination, love lost, determination, horror and more on their little known masterwork Transcendence from 1988 (MCA Records/Roadracer Records). Caught up under the label of “hair band,” it was partially their faults—they looked the part—this group compares favorably to a better known 1980s progressive metal band, Queensrÿche, who thought enough of the group as to recruit one of their later lead singers when their own vocalist Geoff Tate had a falling out with the rest of the band.

Splitting into several camps during the 1980s, heavy metal evolved the genre with the emergence of speed metal and had forward motion in progressive rock, as well. Crimson Glory took on the mantle that some had thought handed off by Rush at the start of the decade with their more radio and MTV friendly compositions. More than up to the task, Crimson Glory put up amazing effort in Transcendence having an alternate-reality, forward-looking perspective of material with a science fiction/fantasy theme in large part.

Original Crimson Glory lead singer Midnight
looked the part of heavy metal singer
on 1988's Transcendence, but sang
with much depth and emotion.
Crimson Glory showed a lot of prescience in anticipating the explosion of fantasy themes in the media with their song “Where Dragons Rule,” which brings to mind a martial marching number with its rat-tat-tat-tat backbeat courtesy of drummer Dana Burnell. Before there were Lord of the Rings and Reign of Fire movies and other stories of reptilians of lore, Crimson Glory was singing of creatures rising from the lake of fire on wings of steel. And the chorus of all the members of the band answering to lead singer Midnight’s call, “In a world between myth and strange reality | In a world where dragons rule,” they answer, “Mission: Kill”. And in similar fashion, Midnight asks, “We die for the dragon—is there a reason?” This song really stirs the soul, striking a chord of defiance. When that Millennial blaring the latest 50 Cent Hip Hop iTune download comes barreling up alongside you in his daddy’s BMW, give him a blast of Old School Heavy Metal from Crimson Glory to snap him back to the real world.

The band also takes a very literary tack on “Masque of the Red Death,” which encapsulates the entire plot and character development of the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name into a mere four minutes and 15 seconds. We join the king and his guests at the masquerade ball while the pestilence ravages the land outside his high castle walls. But Crimson Glory relates how the personification of disease and death makes his way into the dance and takes all with him.

De rigueur mysterious symbols
accompanied Crimson Glory's
liner notes on the 1988 release
I am sure there must have been other groups that have interpreted other pieces of literature into song, but I would have to believe that Crimson Glory is one of the few groups in heavy metal who has done so. Vocalist Midnight sings of “feeling” the disease flowing through his veins. And you can nearly experience the terror of falling into the bleeding arms of the stranger. Midnight (John Patrick Jr. McDonald 1962-2009) performed exceptionally on Transcendence but perhaps with the most dramatic presentation and dynamic vocal range on “Masque of the Red Death,” hitting and sustaining high notes that would make operatic-style singing archetypes Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford proud.

On “Burning Bridges,” Crimson Glory really channels the emotional side. As a gut-wrenching ode to love lost and isolation, Midnight croons about never wanting to cause pain, never wanting to cause sorrow. Seriously, these lyrics made me misty, nearly bringing a tear to my eye. The metaphor of burning bridges makes a powerful statement of irrevocable loss and irredeemable regret:
Now I feel the bridges burning
Flames reflecting in my eyes
The feelings much too cold to share
Smoke clouds dream I’ve left behind
This song can really get under your skin after repeated listening—but in a good way. You may find your mind wandering to those who you might have wronged in the past. Could small slights lead to failed relationships? They say don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff. This song gives me pause to think that the reverse is truer.

Circa 2011, Crimson Glory now rock on without their
late and previously separated singer Midnight. 
Another outstanding track, “In Dark Places,” uses a sea-as-woman metaphor as an unnamed ingénue entices Midnight forward to a solitary and shadowy world beneath the waves. Clocking in at a little over seven minutes, it’s by far the longest cut on Transcendence and most haunting one, as well. It is really a cryptic hymn about someone considering ending it all by drowning, saying goodbye to the sunlit world for the permanent freedom of the great beyond—in dark places we will be free.

Transcendence seems to have been out of print for some time, but does list an import edition available on an orderable basis, though as of this writing it was temporarily out of stock. There are also numerous new and used CDs from individual sellers and MP3 download files for the entire album. If you are interested in mind-expanding music you missed the first or second time around Crimson Glory’s Transcendence is worth a look.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Saturday, May 17, 2014

4 Facts you do not know About David Bowie’s Young Americans

By the time David Bowie recorded and released his album Young Americans in 1975, he had undergone at least three previous transformations from the Space Oddity to Heavy Metalhead to Proto Punker to Ziggy Stardust. Now cooling his jets from leading the glam rock revolution, the tall Brit settled down in Philadelphia to cut the album that would define his next great transformation as The Thin White Duke. Someone at the time described Bowie as the whitest man he had ever met—translucent white. An odd sobriquet given that he was going to put down the grooviest work of his even-then legendary oeuvre. Working with future R&B Grammy winner Luther Vandross, Bowie successfully made his transition to the hip, laidback grooves en vogue in the mid 1970s where funkified rock-pop planted its flag in the Disco Era.

I bought Young Americans in the compact disc (CD) format in the used bin at The Wherehouse in Lakewood or Long Beach, California, circa 1997 or 1998. And as with a bunch of the other CDs I have been spinning in recent times, I was not completely familiar with this material despite having it on hand all of these years. Oh sure, I’ve heard the title cut “Young Americans” and “Fame” on and off over the years on classic rock radio stations. I have even seen the iconic performance of “Fame” from TV’s all-time hippest trip Soul Train, when Bowie became just the second or third white recording artist to make the reverse crossover.

So it was pleasant surprise to hear the depth of content on this set of songs. To be sure, The Thin White Duke is tied to the times of 1974 and 1975 singing on “Young Americans”:

Do you remember, your President Nixon?
Do you remember, the bills you have to pay?
Or even yesterday?
Have you been the un-American?

But the rest of the disc is packed with listenable and danceable tracks that transcend time and could feel at home in any decade that knows how to swing. You could probably even put Young Americans in the headphone album category—of course, that would be the iPhone earbud category nowadays. That’s unless you have some of Beats by Dr. Dre audio headphones.

An outstanding track that gets overlooked is “Fascination,” on which Bowie really gets down with Carlos Alomar riffing stylistically on guitar with syncopation in tow. Saxman David Sanborn, later to be hailed as one of the progenitors of Smooth Jazz, wails along—sho ’nuff, oh yeah—lending new credence to the by-then moribund theory that the instrument was the tool of Old Nick hisself!

As it turns out, Alomar would become a longtime collaborator of Bowie’s, working with the Human Chameleon over the many changes he would conjure forward for the next 30 years plus, but most heavily during Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” period on the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger culminating with his commercial mass-market MTV smash followup to Let’s Dance, Tonight.

Of course, as I have already alluded, what really makes all of Young Americans work is the omnipresent saxophone work of David Sanborn. On just about every track, Sanborn shines through with sultry sax lines that exude an atmosphere of elegant decadence amidst a world-weary attitude toward libidinous behavior.

Speaking of libidinous behavior, “Can you Hear Me” offers an interesting lover’s lament where Bowie could be chiding his ex paramour spurning him by not taking his affections to heart. Or it could also be read as a double entendre where Bowie asks, “Can you feel me inside?...Why don't you take it?” Perhaps, I digress.

There are several bonus tracks on the CD version of Young Americans: “Who Can I be Now?”, “It’s Gonna be Me”, “John, I’m Only Dancing Again”. These were all tracks that were recorded contemporaneously with the rest of the Philadelphia masters. But they were dumped in favor of “Fame” and “Across the Universe,” which were recorded a few months later in New York City, although “John” was released as the A-side of a single to work the promotion of the album in 1975. These tracks have merit, but obviously Bowie thought better of them during the original production and only reconsidered their release on the full album due to marketplace expectations for the number of songs to be present on a higher-cost CD in comparison to the lower cost/quality cassette tapes and vinyl records the then still dominant form factors for major label music releases in the early 1990s.

For all of its Philadelphia infused soul sound, the most famous song on this album was recorded in New York City at the site of so much rock music history, Electric Lady Studios. The track of course is “Fame,” which was a collaboration with former Beatle John Lennon. Resulting from a jam session, according to Songfacts, the music for “Fame” came together very fast with the track being based on the jam and Bowie quickly dashing off the lyrics in about five minutes. Lennon was given a co-writing credit as he gave Bowie the inspiration for the lyrics based on their discussion of the how fame itself takes a little piece of your personal life every day. Bowie was later quoted as saying:

I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.

While most people are aware that Bowie and Lennon co-wrote and sang together on “Fame,” Bowie’s first chart-topping No. 1 hit in America and his breakthrough to the pop mainstream, there are several other facts about Lennon’s involvement with Young Americans perhaps only the most ardent of Bowie fans will actually recognize, such as did you know that:

  • Lennon also played rhythm guitar on “Fame”?
  • “Across the Universe” on Young Americans is a cover of the Lennon/McCartney song of the same name?
  • Lennon also played and sang backup vocals on this Bowie cut?
  • And you might know—but it’s easy to miss—the nod to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band tune “A Day in the Life” in the title cut: “I heard the news today, oh boy”
So where does the legacy of Young Americans leave us today? There is so much to consider in the career of Bowie that it’s difficult to know where to start and stop. Perhaps, the answer is not to look too closely behind the curtain that this master illusionist of rock ‘n’ roll has woven but just marvel at the wondrous auditory landscape beneath our very ears. But if you like to indulge additional senses, such as vision, and you live in Europe, you may want to take in a new exhibit that has just opened examining the years Bowie spent in the German capital (though it was not at the time).

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Blow Your House Down: John Kay & Steppenwolf Huff and Puff into the 80s

There was a time when the name Steppenwolf was synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. With hits and significant movie soundtrack and album cuts such as “Born to be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride” and “The Pusher” Steppenwolf led by charismatic frontman John Kay ruled the airwaves in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Unfortunately, success could not be sustained and the group fell apart and broke up in 1972. But through fits and starts, Steppenwolf would regroup and disband again and again over the course of the next decade plus. But with the proviso that the only original member of the band in each incarnation would be gravelly voiced crooner Kay.

Rolling, or panting, into 1987, the group now booked as John Kay & Steppenwolf entered a new phase of their career. Perhaps inspired by the successful reunions of other veteran rock groups such as Aerosmith, Deep Purple and others in the 1980s or out just to re-establish his legal rights to the name Steppenwolf, John Kay decided to give it another try. Along with noted Hollywood session guitarist Rocket Ritchotte, keyboardist Michael Wilk and, allegedly, drummer Ron Hurst, Kay and the group put together “Rock & Roll Rebels” in 1987.

In a curious development, Kay and Steppenwolf did not sign with a major label for “Rock & Roll Rebels,” but instead decided out of principle or by necessity to use Qwil Music as the label, which was distributed through K-tel International, the infamous “As Seen on TV” purveyor of “20 Great Hits sung by 20 Great Artists” type compilation albums. But the contradiction of a once-ultra-cool, cutting-edge rock act on the kitschy television record label mostly featured in commercials during the “The Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” seemed a perfect-fit for the schizophrenic 80s, when First Lady Nancy Reagan preached “just say no” to drugs in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic.

In any event, the actual album “Rock & Roll Rebels” has a decidedly upbeat, fight-the-good-fight vibe in resistance to the jaded, seen-it-all ambiance that had taken hold by 1987. On “Give Me Life,” Kay and crew exhort us to grab some fun and not let the good times pass us by without grabbing all you can—you need to be bold. Ritchotte does some nice soloing and quick-fingered fretwork on this song. Even though online sources now list Ron Hurst as the drummer on this album, I’m pretty sure it’s actually a drum machine. This idea is reinforced when I recall seeing advertisements in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section showing only Kay, Ritchotte and Wilk for a local show.

John Kay circa 1972. Photo credit: Affendaddy /
 Foter / Creative Commons -NonCommercial-
ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
An anthem for those who have a chip on their shoulders against naysayers is “Hold on (Never Give up, Never Give in),” or what I like to think of as the Galaxy Quest song. While risking clichéd sentiment, Kay earnestly sings the chorus of “Hold on, never give up, never give in | Stay young and believe in your chance to win.” For those everywhere who have ever heard the wolf at the door at 3 a.m., these are powerful words indeed to steel your nerve and harden your resolve to triumph against incredible odds.

A most interesting track on the album is “Give me News I can Use,” which seems to completely encapsulate everything that made the Crazy 80s, with its literary device of an early evening newscast and highly improbable but very plausible incidents: a train hijacker is shot dead by a midget G-man dressed like Donald Duck at Disney World, the referee was crucified and tore limb from limb at a playoff game. Kay would have shown these live but they will have film at 5. Seems completely reminiscent of news anchor Jerry Dunphy coming on KABC-TV L.A. Channel 7 during the 10:30 station break breathlessly pumping the trainwreck story of the day, punctuated with the motivating “film at 11” signoff. Who could resist watching?

In 1970, Steppenwolf was on par
with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Photo credit: brizzle born 
and bred
 / Foter / Creative 
Commons Attribution-
NoDerivs 2.0 Generic 
(CC BY-ND 2.0)
While you will not find any howling, leather-lunged rockers in the spirit of “Born to be Wild” on “Rock & Roll Rebels” it is a divergent platter that went against the hedonism-for-its-own-sake grain of the Decade of Reagan. Speaking of platters, if you are into collector’s items or just like the warm sound of analog records, the Steppenwolf staff recently found some long out-of-print vinyl copies of “Rock & Roll Rebels.” It might be a good investment as well as good listening! Otherwise, you’d need to buy the CD reissue “Feed the Fire” on Amazon.
-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Change Your Evil Ways: Mark Farner Rocking for God and Against Injustice

In the long annals of rock and roll, no one stood larger in the hearts and minds of teenagers than Grand Funk Railroad in the late 1960 and early 1970s. Led by drummer Donny Brewer and guitarist Mark Farner, they set the standard for hedonism by which all following rockers are to be judged. The lyrics to their seminal hit “We’re an American Band” are a prime example of the hijinks they were up to in the 70s:
Four young chiquitas in Omaha | Waitin' for the band to return from the show | Feelin' good, feelin' right, it's Saturday night | The hotel detective, he was outta sight | Now these fine ladies, they had a plan | They was out to meet the boys in the band | They said, “Come on dudes, let's get it on” | And we proceeded to tear that hotel down
Grand Funk Railroad peaked out about 1976 and Farner and Brewer and the other members of the band went their separate ways. Farner tried his hand at a solo career without much success or acclaim. Brewer and the other Funkers remained together and released one album under the name Flint, an ode to their hometown, which went mostly unnoticed. Farrner, Brewer and Grand Funk reunited in the early 1980s and were included on the soundtrack to and in the 1981 full-length animated sci-fi movie Heavy Metal. After that, the band remained moribund until 1996.

In the meantime, Mark Farner underwent a spiritual awakening and became a born-again Christian. He reemerged on the musical scene in 1988 with his Christian-oriented rock album “Just Another Injustice.” I saw him on tour that year in support of this album, but unfortunately, he was unable to play the worldly “We’re an American Band,” although he did go through the repertoire of other Grand Funk hits that night in Long Beach at the Bogart’s nightclub.

Even while wearing his faith literally on his crucifix-encrusted armband, Farner does not come off as overly preachy on an album that has an admittedly niche audience. To show he was still capable of rocking it up Farner’s album opens up with “Airborne Ranger” and a set of double-meaning lyrics that can be taken either for a patriotic serve-your-country anthem or a faithful call to action against “the darkness all around you” Actually, the double meaning is not that cloaked, but it’s an enjoyable song to blast with the four windows down and blowing the doors off some lucre-loving snob in his new BMW. His solos are more restrained than in the 70s on FM heavy rotation album cuts such as “Shinin’ On” but he gets in his hot licks.

Perhaps a better cut is the pure blues jam “Judgement Day Blues.” Farner really blasts the materialistic culture of the late 80s as suffering from a “vast epidemic” of people breakin’ all the lord’s rules. A great day is a comin’, and Farner proceeds to explain it on his axe, sinfully soloing over the slow beat backed up at the bottom end by some funky bass playin’.

It’s probably just serendipity, but a track that still really speaks to me is “The Writing on The Wall” about a world full of lies, confusion and illusion. If the country was in a spate of moral crisis in the 1980s, what about today? Farner warns us not to watch it slip away again. If only we would or could learn from the examples of past generations. Every generation faces its own temptations—ours is no different from our predecessors. Hopefully, we’ll heed Mark’s warning and change our evil ways before the Day of Reckoning comes post-haste!

Whether you’re a believer or just a fan of overlooked rock albums from the past, “Just Another Injustice” is worth a look and a listen. If you’re a traditionalist, it’s available in limited quantities on Amazon, but if you tend to a more 21st century based solution iTunes and Spotify also seem to have at least the title track, if not the entire CD, online.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Not Who You Think it is: Getting it Wrong with Kingdom Come

By the mid-1980s, the music listening public was so thirsty for a Led Zeppelin reunion, any rumor of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the lead vocalist and lead guitarist of Zep, respectively, working together again would spread like wildfire. Flash forward to 1988. Hard rock radio stations begin playing a song that sounds very much like Zeppelin—something in the spirit of “Kashmir.” At the time in the Los Angeles-Long Beach market of Southern California, KNAC disc jockey Long Paul would introduce the song saying “It’s not who you think it is.”

The song being played was “Get It On” from the German heavy metal band Kingdom Come. Reportedly, the buzz from the song was so strong, someone at the recording studio released a rough demo to several U.S. rock radio stations even before the final tracks for the album were completely mixed. Legend has it that Kingdom Come lead singer Lenny Wolf and producer Bob Rock were at the board at the famous Electric Lady Studios in New York City when they heard their track on the radio.

Not to be caught flatfooted, they quickly rushed the finished master tracks to the record label and Kingdom Come’s eponymous debut album shipped Gold (i.e., 500,000 units sold). To further capitalize on their unforeseen good fortune, they were quickly signed onto Van Halen’s Monsters of Rock tour. With Van Halen, Scorpions, Metallica and Dokken on the bill, Kingdom Come was instantly legitimized as a rock ‘n’ roll heavyweight.

Unfortunately, the comparisons to Led Zeppelin hung heavily on Kingdom Come, with some wags tagging them with the moniker “Kingdom Clone.” Others came up with an epithet even more unsavory that cannot be repeated in polite company. The band persevered with their tour and a subsequent followup album. But they quickly disbanded with only Wolf remaining into 1992 still performing under the Kingdom Come banner. By that time, any heavy metal bands from the 1980s not named Metallica were speedily swept into the ashbin of history caught under the undertow of Grunge. That’s too bad.

Kingdom Come’s debut album showed much promise. Beyond the Zeppesque “Get It On” there are several standout tracks including “Living Out of Touch,” “Now Forever After” and “Shout It Out;” all hard rocking and blues based without any pretentiousness of the Led Zeppelin supergroup mentality of the 1970s. Not one to give up the dream, Lenny Wolf/Kingdom Come continues to release albums, with the 13th studio release “Outlier” coming onto the market in May 2013.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Man on Metal Mountain—Ronnie James Dio: This is Your Life

The dark poet of heavy metal, Ronnie James Dio, has been departed from those of us in the rock ‘n’ roll community for almost four years, having died in May 2010. Though a man of slight stature, he left behind a towering musical legacy to which all sectors of the metal brotherhood continue to pay homage. In that spirit, titans of the genre united to record cover versions of some of Dio’s greatest work from the Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio—his eponymously named group—eras on “Ronnie James Dio: This is Your Life,” with all proceeds dedicated to the Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. The record has been out since early April 2014 and has charted at No. 20 on the Billboard Top 200 list.

But for all his success as a member of supergroups along with the likes of Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow and Tony Iommi in Black Sabbath and phenomenal solo work, Dio’s music was about beautiful, surrealistic lyrics evoking paradoxical imagery of “shadows shining ever-bright” and “rainbows in the dark.”

But more than anything else, Dio wrote anthems that made people jump out of their seats and wave the two-fingered, so-called “devil’s horns” salute. Most of the cuts on this tribute to Dio are of the full-throttle anthem variety.

To prove the point, Anthrax comes out all guns blazing on “Neon Knights” to start. Just like the original version from Black Sabbath’s first collaboration with Dio on 1980’s “Heaven and Hell,” Anthrax sounds like a B-52 bomber with a full payload carpet-bombing the Viet Cong with napalm on the Mekong delta. Joe Belladonna channels the vocals of Dio spot on and Scot Ian shreds on the Iommi riff.

What may be the best track on the album is turned in by Adrenaline Mob covering, naturally “Mob Rules” from the Black Sabbath album of the same name. Anchored by Mike Portnoy, the drummer of Dream Theater fame, the Adrenaline Mob thunders ahead with this fist pumper. There’s nothing quite like cruising down the freeway with the moonroof open and this track singing your eardrums with the volume at 11! The full visual power of Dio’s lyrics comes to the fore as the song opens with “Close the city and tell the people that something's coming to call | Death and darkness are rushing forward to take a bite from the wall, oh.” Adrenaline Mob lives up to its name upping the pace and the volume in salute to Dio.

Garnering a lot of attention and a big piece of the room on this disc is Metallica covering not one but four Dio songs from the Rainbow era in a medley aptly called “Ronnie Rising Medley,” melding the original tunes “A Light in the Black,” “Tarot Woman,” “Stargazer” and “Kill the King.” Metallica hasn’t sounded this good in years, with James Hetfield back to his old surly self from the “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets” period, barking out lyrics like a drill sergeant. Kirk Hammett scintillates on lead guitar as always. And Lars Ulrich keeps it all very martial sounding on the kit. Hetfield has been quoted as saying the group couldn’t settle on one song and that jamming on all four was something they’ve done in the past, so it came together very quickly. A definite highlight for any dyed-in-the-wool Metallicat!

Other nice performances are turned in by Scorpions on “The Temple of the King” and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford on “Man on the Silver Mountain.” Both tap the spiritual energy of Dio with understated performances.

Overall, an excellent album. And an excellent cause. Well worth the price of admission. “This is Your Life” is available at Amazon and any record stores remaining near you!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

When it Pours: Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors (Disc 2)

The 1989 all-star double-CD set “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors (Disc 2)” is a fascinating collection of tracks by a who’s who of modern and roots rock at the time (for this review, only the second platter is discussed—I’ll get to disc 1 if I can find it). It continues the proud tradition of high-profile rock performers banding together to help a worthy non-profit cause that started with George Harrison’s 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh” recording and was continued by the 1979 “No Nukes” triple live album (double CD when reissued in 1997).

However, “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors” is not a live ensemble but a collection of some of the best of what the 1980s had to offer. Assembled to raise money for the mission of the Greenpeace non-governmental environmental organization to protect whales and other sealife and a raft of other ecological causes, artists like Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bryan Adams and Sade donated use of some of their best A-sides for this compilation.

Overall, the theme of the album is one of hope and sometimes defiance of authority—a natural attitude for the namesake album of a small ship that attempts to block large whalers in the open oceans. Another overriding subtext of the album is the reoccurrence of imagery of water.

The CD opens with Simple Minds doing a live version of “Waterfront.” Lead singer/guitarist Jim Kerr hoarse singing style and all revs up the crowd. Most famous for their top pop hit “Don't You (Forget About Me)” from the movie The Breakfast Club, “Waterfront” is more representative of their gritty, working-class sound but embellished with keyboards. Continuing on, Peter Gabriel croons his best on “Red Rain” with the water washing away all iniquity. As in baptism, the red rain has the power to expiate sin. Like much of Gabriel’s material, “Red Rain” has an ethereal, dream-like quality.

The liquid metaphor continues on “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors” with the Waterboys offering an ode on “The Whole of the Moon.” One of the rock critics’ favorites in the late 1980s, the Waterboys combine Celtic musical influences from their native Scotland with a light rock sensibility. It’s quite infectious as you singalong to the chorus of the title, keeping time as you tap your toes.

Irish group Hothouse Flowers follows up the water theme again with “Hard Rain.” Although heralding from the Emerald Isle, the Hothouse Flowers channel their inner soul effectively to survive the hard rain in the ghetto. The tune really pumps with the piano playing a central role. It has the feel of a good jam from accomplished jazz musicians.

The disc saves one of the most legendary performers for close to the end in the person of Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, Bob Dylan’s backing group on some of his seminal electric work in the 1960s. In a half-song, half-spoken-word performance, Robertson takes a journey “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” Throughout Greek Mythology and Biblical Scripture, rivers have played important roles as conduits, barriers, boundaries and sources of renewal. Robertson’s journey is more modern with the river standing in as a symbol for his urban meanderings to Nick’s Café. Robertson brings a quality of world-weariness to this track packed with allusions and other figurative language devices.

Considering this is the trailing CD in the two-disc set, it makes me wonder what I’ll find on “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors (Disc 1)”—provided it’s still somewhere to be found. It’s such a revelation and revitalization, the sound just washes over me. Hopefully you can hold on with me.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Friday, March 28, 2014

Journey of 1000 Miles Begins with a Single Step: King's X Gretchen Goes to Nebraska

If there were ever to be a wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for most underrated bands, one of the first inductees would rightfully be progressive metal act King’s X. This trio out of Texas has been trudging the club and small theater circuit since the late 1980s, never really breaking through, though they produced some of the most compelling videos on MTV at the time—when the M in MTV actually stood for “music.” And they are the musician’s musicians, well-respected by other members of the rock-and-roll community, but close to anonymous among the general public—even the head banging subgroups.

At the time, they produced three strong albums coming out of the gate: 1988’s “Out of the Silent Planet,” 1989’s “Gretchen Goes to Nebraska” and 1990’s Faith Hope Love.” Of these, “Gretchen” was overall the strongest. With Doug Pinnick on bass/vocals, Ty Tabor on guitar/vocals and Jerry Gaskill on drums/vocals, King’s X produced a wall of sound that many five-piece combos would be hard-pressed to produce.

Working in conjunction with manager Sam Taylor on organ and piano on some tracks, “Gretchen” has a very clean but unpolished production value that really rings true. It represented quite the antidote to the classic rock radio virus that broke out in the 80s and has ravaged the airwaves ever since. Taylor was a veteran of the ZZ Top organization so he was very familiar working with rocking trios on solid albums. As an allegorical journey, the album “Gretchen Goes to Nebraska” is quite the trip.

The standout track on “Gretchen” has to be “Over My Head” as Pinnick hears music, music, music over his head. While not a gospel-inspired song, it has the feeling of an old time faith revival meeting with the singalong chorus. Tabor really smokes on the guitar solo. To close it out, the three of them shift into fourth gear and push the pedal to the floor.

“Summerland” is a nice melodic mid-tempo number to simmer it down a bit from “Over My Head” with an aching for a forgotten place to which we need to get back. Seems a bit like “Paradise Lost.” You’ll notice that throughout most King’s X compositions there lies an undercurrent of Judeo-Christian figurative language. Fortunately, they don’t take it much beyond that, relying mainly on allusions and symbolism to get their point across to the listener.

An exceptional track on “Gretchen” takes form on “Mission” where the congregation is gathered behind the stained glass windows, but we’re not sure if they know why they are there. It could just be for an assembly of a social get-together. King’s X really makes the indictment that many parishioners simply go to church as an affectation and are not necessarily there for salvation—or could just be scared of hell!

“Pleiades” and “The Burning Down” strike a similar yearning chord. These are the most spiritual cuts on “Gretchen” with the latter one closing it into one of those Easter egg type hidden tracks at the end. It’s sped up and very faint, so you’ll have to crank up the volume to make it out, but the payoff could well be worth it.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Looking Back Through the Southern Exposure: Exposé Greatest Hits

Before there was En Vogue, TLC or a host of other 80s and 90s girl groups there was Exposé. Coming from the sound machine of Miami, these Southern-honed chanteuses taught girls of the Decade of Reagan how to groove on the dance floor and cry on their pillows in the middle of the night. Not that Exposé invented the infectious girl-group sound. They pay proper homage to their predecessors such as the legendary Andrew Sisters, The Shangri-Las and the queens of the girl-group heap, The Supremes, in the liner notes of “Expose Greatest Hits.”

Who hasn’t jumped up from their cocktail at the latest ultra lounge and rushed out to the dance floor when the opening notes of “Come Go with Me” come spinning out of the DJ booth? That seminal dance track sizzles with programmed synthesizers and thumping drum machine beats emblematic of the freestyle dance music sub-genre. But Exposé kept it real with an understated rock guitar solo in the middle. Even nearly 30 years on, the group’s sound seems as contemporary as anything coming from the likes of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. Every guy and girl who works hard all day only to come home late deserves a night out featuring these three gals.

Nearly as equally as good a dance number as “Come Go with Me” is “Point of No Return.” The formula retains its power with the girls sending up the siren’s call coaxing out the shy to lose themselves under the spinning ball and flashing lights. With big hair and big attitude, these divas can pump up a club crowd with the best of them.

But these princesses of the spotlight were no one-trick mares. They were able to put away the sequined gowns, crop tops and Spandex skirts and leggings, drop down and pull out all emotional stops on odes to unrequited and lost love. On “I’ll Say Good Bye for the Two of Us,” a girlfriend cannot stand to see the look in her lover’s crying eyes when she breaks it off. So she has to leave in the middle of the night while he’s sleeping to avoid the heartache. It literally makes me misty-eyed to listen to this powerful song of mourning.

And on their No. 1 hit single “Seasons of Change” the three women of Expose, Ann Curless, Jeanette Jurado and Gioia Bruno, rummage through an empty beach house packing it up for the low season. Each in turn laments that things cannot remain the same as yesterday. The sacrifice to have their loved ones by their sides today forces them to sacrifice tomorrow. Some may think this type of music shallow and saccharine but these sad stories do tug at the heartstrings.

After going on hiatus in 1996, the world of pop music seems to have mostly forgotten the history-making trio of Exposé. With their debut album “Exposure,” the girls surpassed the record of The Beatles and The Supremes by charting four Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 off their freshman effort. Exposé has since returned to active status in recent years. They can be caught on occasion at special events. So if you feel the urge to go back to the 80s, keep an eye out for dance club flyers on telephone poles. One of them could be about Exposé coming to a venue near you!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener