Archive for April, 2013

#488- KISS- Destroyer- 1976

April 28, 2013

kiss-destroyer

The Artists:

Kiss 2

When you look at those four guys in fantasy makeup, it is hard to believe that any of those guys ever came from humble beginnings.

Chaim Witz was born August 25, 1949 in Tirat HaCarmel, Haifa, Israel.  At the age of eight, Chaim immigrated with his mother to the United States, settling in the borough of Queens in New York City.  His mother, Flora Klein, was a holocaust survivor and had been abandoned by her husband back in Israel.  In order to make his name more pronounceable, he had his named changed to Eugene Klein.  Young Eugene spoke no English, and to learn it he began watching lots of fantasy movies and TV shows, and he really became enamored with comic books and superhero stories.

Young Eugene Klein

After seeing the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, Eugene became obsessed with rock n’ roll music and the adulation that they got from girls.  His mother bought him his first guitar when he was 18 and he joined several garage bands during his teens and early 20s.  Klein worked many jobs during this time including selling used comic books, substitute teaching, and he even worked as an assistant fashion editor at Vogue.

Somewhere around this time Klein wanted to have a stage name for when he became famous. He took the name of a rockabilly artist whose name he had heard and liked: Gene Simmons.

In 1970, Simmons decided to form a band with himself on bass, a childhood friend named Stephen Coronel on guitar, and a keyboardist named Brooke Ostrander.  They named their band Rainbow.  Coronel felt they needed a rhythm guitarist and he invited a guy to join the band who they had met when he auditioned for them months earlier.  His name was Stanley Eisen.

Young Stanley Eisen

Young Stanley Eisen

Eisen was born in Manhattan on January 20, 1952

Stanley had just recently graduated from The High School of Music and Art in New York City.  He too had been enamored with the Beatles as well as bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones.  He was drawn to music despite being deaf in his right ear.

After playing their first show, it was brought to the band’s attention that there was already another band named Rainbow.  Simmons came up with another name for the band, Wicked Lester.

Wicked Lester

Wicked Lester

The band recorded a few demos at Electric Lady studios and were signed by Epic Records in the winter of 1971.  The band began working on recording their debut album. Once it was completed, the Epic record execs hated the finished product and refused to release the album.  Wicked Lester decided to request their release from their recording contract.

Simmons and Eisen (who had now started to go by the more white-bread name of Paul Stanley) did not think that this version of Wicked Lester was going to be the band that made it big for them.  They wanted to go in a heavier direction as opposed to the more folky/poppy music that they were doing.  They fired the other musicians and started looking for a couple of new people to start fresh with.

The duo went looking through trade publications hoping to find a drummer that was looking to join a band.  One ad caught their eye in the back of Rolling Stone.  It said “EXPD. ROCK & roll drummer looking for orig. grp. doing soft & hard music. Peter, Brooklyn.”  Simmons and Stanley contacted the drummer to audition for them.  His name was Peter Criscuola.

Criscuola was born December 20, 1945 in Brooklyn.

Going by the stage name Peter Criss, he had already had a bit of success with the New York based band Chelsea, who had released a self-titled album in 1970 on MCA.

Chelsea had started to break apart after the recording of the album, and became a trio the next year, changing their name to Lips.  The trio didn’t last much longer and that led Criss to look for work.

Simmons and Stanley went to see Criss perform at a club for his audition.  Not only did they think he was a good drummer, but Simmons thought he had a “Wilson Pickett-like” voice.  Criss was invited to join Simmons’ and Stanley’s band.

They had decided they wanted to be a glam-rock band in the same vein as the New York Dolls and wanted to use makeup as part of their stage show.  Their first experiment was more a kabuki-styled facepaint.

The band as a trio in facepaint.

The band played as a trio, still using the Wicked Lester name, in front of execs from Epic Records in November of 1972.  The audition did not go well, especially after Peter’s brother puked on one of the executives.

The trio felt they needed to add another guitarist since Paul was handling lead vocals on most songs.  They put an ad in The Village Voice in January of 1973.  One of the first people to respond was Paul “Ace” Frehley.

Frehley was born in the Bronx on April 27, 1951.

AceFrehleyLive16

He was given the nickname “Ace” in high school for his ability to get girls for his friends.  He had started playing guitar around the same time.  He played with several local bands and had not had any success.  A friend had pointed out the Village Voice ad to him and they both went to audition.  Gene, Paul, and Peter were blown away by his playing, and within three weeks Wicked Lester was now a four piece.

Because this band was a new beginning, Gene and Paul wanted a new name for the band.  While the foursome thought out loud, Criss mentioned that his last band’s name was Lips.  Paul, using that as a reference, came up with a similar name: Kiss.  Everyone liked the name, and they all agreed that this should be their new band’s name.

They had already been booked to play a show as Wicked Lester and there were posters around town promoting the concert.  Frehley used a marker to write the band’s new name over the Wicked Lester name on the posters, using lightning bolts as the ‘s’s.  They decided that would be the band’s logo, styling the band’s name in all capitals.

kiss-classic-logo

For their first few shows as KISS, they wore little to no makeup and no outlandish costumes.  But just a few weeks later Paul and Gene decided to start wearing platform shoes, clad themselves in leather, and each would paint their face as a different fantasy character.

Gene was “The Demon.”

gene

Paul was “The Starchild.”

Although for a brief period he was “The Bandit.”

paul

Ace was “The Spaceman.”

ace

Peter was “The Catman.”

pater

After performing at several record label showcase concerts in New York, the band became the first people signed to the fledgling Casablanca Records label.  They started work on their first album in October of 1973.

KISS released their self-titled debut album in February of 1974.

The album was recorded and mixed in only 13 days.  Most of the album’s songs had been written for Wicked Lester and some even before any of them knew each other.

KISS is actually a pretty good debut for the band.  Lots of long time concert staples came off this album like “Strutter” and “Deuce.”  It’s not perfect as it has some low points most notably Gene’s ode to anal sex “Nothin’ to Lose” and the instrumental “Love Theme From KISS.”

The album did not sell well at all at the time, only moving about 75,000 copies.

The band kept up an intense touring schedule throughout 1974 to promote the album.

They went to Los Angeles to record their follow-up in August of 1974, which was released just 2 months later as Hotter Than Hell.

Hotter

The album is pretty poor.  The production lives up to its reputation as being muddy and dull.  It’s not horrible, but the negatives outweigh the positives.

The album did not get the promotion that their debut had and mixing that in with poor reviews, it sold quite a few less copies than KISS had.

The band continued touring, trying to promote the album, but due to the cold reception that Hotter Than Hell was getting.  Casablanca owner Neil Bogart asked the band to end the tour and get back in the studio to record a new album.  Bogart was desperate as not only was the band flailing as a commercial success, but the record label was losing money hand over fist.

The band released their third album, Dressed to Kill, in March of 1975.

Front

The album contained what would soon become their signature song, “Rock And Roll All Nite.”  Although, it would not become a big hit until after their next album.

Dressed To Kill did better commercially than Hotter Than Hell, but it still did not make a huge impression on the album charts.  Nor does it make much of an impression on me.  It has the classic “KISS sound,” but with the exception of a couple of songs it is pretty generic.

While the band was not selling many records, they were gaining a reputation as one of the best live acts in rock music. The band added theatrics that no one outside of, perhaps, Alice Cooper were doing at the time.  Gene would vomit blood and breathe fire, Ace’s guitar would burst into flames, Peter’s drum riser would shoot sparks, and Paul would smash his guitar.  These stunts spread their reputation throughout the U.S. as a band that was must see in concert.

The band wanted to focus on what they did best, which was stir up excitement during their live concerts.  They obviously were not exciting anyone with their studio albums, so they decided to release a live album which would try to capture that excitement on vinyl.

The band released a double LP Alive! in September of 1975.

I will not go into too much detail about this album since I will review it at entry #158.

However, the album was a success, reaching the top 10 on the Billboard chart and going Gold.  It also brought them their first top 40 hit with the concert version of “Rock And Roll All Nite.”  Not only was the album a success for the band, but it also saved the label from bankruptcy.

The band was now selling out auditoriums and their fan club the “KISS Army” was growing into the hundreds of thousands.  They hoped to capitalize on their new success by returning to the studio.

In August 1975, they set out to see if they could finally capture that magic they had in concert on a studio album.  To help them, they brought in Alice Cooper’s producer, Bob Ezrin to produce the album for them.  Thinking that they had been too slapdash on their previous albums, they spent several months recording demos and rehearsing before recording commenced in February of 1976,

The Album Cover:

kiss-destroyer

As a lifetime comic book fan, Gene wanted a comic book fantasy picture for the cover.  The band’s manager, Bill Aucoin, went downstairs to a newsstand and picked up some sci-fi and horror magazines.  The band looked at the covers and picked the one they liked the best and contacted the artist.  The cover they liked best was by fantasy artist Ken Kelly. Kelly had been an artist on such comics as Conan the Barbarian.

In this world, there is no body fat.

Kelly went to a KISS concert to get the “feel” of KISS, and was blown away.  He painted the cover with the knowledge the band wanted to name the album Destroyer.  He took that concept and painted the band leaping over rubble while buildings crumbled and burned in the distance.  However, the cover he submitted was not the one to be the finished product.

The original Destroyer artwork.

The record label thought the burning city in the background with smoke billowing under the band was too violent an image for their product and, also, in the time since he had completed his painting, the band had changed their costumes for the new tour to promote this new album.

Kelly changed the cover to a more subdued bit of destruction, there were now just a few burning buildings a bit farther in the background, and he re-did the band’s costumes on the cover to reflect their new looks.

The back cover shows the aftermath of the destruction, with more burning buildings and black smoke covering the sky.

600px-Cover_destroyer_large_rear

The innersleeve has an advertisement for their fan club on one side.

inner 1

And the band’s name with lyrics to “Detroit Rock City” on the other.

inner 2

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of Destroyer released on Casablanca Records in 1976.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)

The album opens with “Detroit Rock City.”  The awesome opening track streak continues!  Paul wrote the song about the true story of a KISS fan that was killed in an auto accident on his way to see them play in Detroit.  The track opens with sound effects of someone getting in a car with “Rock and Roll All Nite” off of Alive! playing on the radio, and Gene playing the role of a newscaster, which makes me laugh at how serious he is sounding. I just know that he thought that no one would put two and two together and realize this Demon is so intelligent sounding. One of their best guitar riffs opens the track and on the whole, it’s really awesome and a legendary track.

“Detroit Rock City” flows into “King Of The Night Time World” another Stanley song.  A perfect anthem for KISS’ many rebellious, male teenage fans of 1976.  It rocks harder than the preceding track.  Criss has some great drumming on this track.  The change in producers is already apparent just by hearing the first two tracks.  Both of these songs just sound so clear and musical, even with KISS’ usual 3 chord style.  Two great tracks to start things off.

Gene has his first song on the album with the concert staple (as all of these songs will become) “God Of Thunder.”  A very epic sounding opening.  I just get the feeling that a lot of Spinal Tap’s music had to be partially based on this track.

spinal

I think there is a lot of KISS in Spinal Tap.

Yes, it is a bit overwrought, but what else would you want from a guy who vomits blood and wags his foot long tongue, while breathing fire, painted like a demon on stage.  Ezrin’s influence definitely shows up here as it is quite an Alice Cooper-esque song. Good, good stuff.

Great Expectations” closes out side one.  The first time I heard this I was surprised that KISS did stuff this conceptual.  The chorus is based on Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor.” It is another Gene song, but a huge departure from “God of Thunder.”  Although, it is about his favorite thing in the world, sex with groupies, but it is hidden in a classy sound.  Many have called this KISS’ most Beatle-esque track.  I don’t know what to call it other than terrific.  A fantastic ending to the first side of Destroyer.

Side two of the LP opens with “Flaming Youth.”  Co-written by Ace and Paul with Paul on lead vocals, in fact Ace doesn’t sing at all on this album.  They really do a good job of writing songs for their fan base, they just might be the best band at doing that.

Which is why there are people 35 years later that will be buried in this.

Another rocking track and a great opener for a side.  There is a little addition of an organ, which is new to KISS.  Five great songs in a row to start the album.

Sweet Pain” is another Gene track, so that means it is another sex song, this time about S&M.  It has some great guitar work, but not by Ace.  Bob Ezrin did not like Ace’s playing on the original recording and replaced it without Ace’s knowledge by bringing in Dick Wagner, who had played on Alice Cooper’s albums.  Ace did not know he had been replaced until he heard the album completed the first time.  Despite what Ace might think about it, it is another great track.

Shout It Out Loud” is probably KISS’ second most famous track behind “Rock And Roll All Nite.”  Paul and Gene share lead vocals.  I remember first hearing this song as part of a TV commercial with KISS when they were on their reunion tour in the late 90’s.

The “Pepsi Girl” in KISS makeup put an end to any rumors that KISS stood for Knights In Satan’s Service or confirmed them…

It just has a rock concert feel to it, even on the album.  Fantastic stuff.

Beth” is the one Peter Criss song on the album, but, man, what song it is.  Most all of the instrumentation is from an orchestra.  I would like to have known what someone in 1976 would have thought about this track the first time they’d heard it and found out it was KISS.  I’d imagine it would be something akin to mind being blown.  It’s a really sweet song that is about long distance relationships and it does not involve talking about spreading someone’s legs or using silly double entendres, like, ya know, most KISS songs about women.  One of the best rock ballads of all time.

There was always something kind of funny about Peter coming out from the behind the drums to sit on a stool and sing this soft ballad in concert, while painted as a cat.

Do You Love Me? closes out the album.  Another one of KISS’ best known songs.  Truly great song, which even has a touch of psychedelic rock mixed into the fourth verse.  I like how KISS’ songs are very KISS specific.  I mean who else can write a song that includes the line “you like my seven inch leather heels” and sing that with a straight face? The production is so crisp with bells mixed in with the rocking at the end.  Great ending to a great album

Well that was sort of the ending.  The album has a hidden track usually referred to a “Rock And Roll Party” by fans. It is the instrumentation of “Great Expectations” played in reverse with a clip of Paul yelling “Rock and roll party!” sampled off of Alive!  Ezrin wanted to end the album on sound effects like the way they opened the album and the band thought it would be funny to use backwards sound since people were always trying to find backwards hidden messages in songs.

“esidnahcrem ruo yuB.” “esidnahcrem ruo yuB.”

What can I say?  It is a classic album filled with nothing but classic tracks.  This album proved that KISS could capture that spirit they had on concert on vinyl.  It is a true masterwork of rock.

I should also note that KISS released Destroyer: Resurrected in 2012.

large

It had the original artwork as the cover, and the songs were mixed differently, sometimes with new instrumentation such as reinstating Ace Frehley’s guitar work on “Sweet Pain.”  It also included unheard vocals on “Beth” and “Detroit Rock City.”  Usually, I say re-mixed versions of albums aren’t better or worse, just different, but this one just doesn’t work for me.

I like the album too much the way it was originally released to enjoy the remixed version.  I realize KISS loves making more money, but leave well enough alone, guys.  Have we not learned anything from George Lucas’ tinkering with Star Wars?

Have we not?

Aftermath:

Despite gaining such a huge following after the release of Alive!, this album was not quite the immediate huge seller that the band expected.  It did do much better than their previous three studio albums, going gold almost immediately, but it stalled as the three singles off the album did not make much of an impression on top 40 radio.  Only “Shout It Out Loud” made the top 40 and it topped out at #31 on the Billboard chart.

It was not until a radio DJ in Atlanta flipped the “Detroit Rock City” single and started playing its B-side “Beth” that things really heated up for KISS. The album had already started to move back down the charts, but once DJs across the country started flipping the single to play “Beth” it took off again.  The song became KISS’ first top 10 hit, reaching #7, and Destroyer became their first platinum record, and eventually it reached double platinum status.

KISS was now becoming one of the most popular bands in the world.  Their next two albums Rock And Roll Over and Love Gun both immediately went platinum.  A Gallop poll at the end of 1977 said that KISS was the most the most popular band in the United States.

They also became the top merchandising American band in the history of music.  Most notably they put out the KISS comic book (which advertised having real KISS members’ blood in the red ink) and one of the crappiest movies in the history of crap movies titled KISS Meets the Phantom.

Kiss meets the phantom of the park 3

You think the special effects look bad? You should see the acting.

In 1978, they took the merchandising even further by thinking that fans that like buying one KISS record would love to buy four KISS records.  So each member of the group recorded their own solo album and Casablanca released them simultaneously.

Well, KISS fans complied, and each solo album went platinum, reaching the top 50 on the Billboard albums chart all at the same time.  However, three of the four were not highly regarded by critics with Ace Frehley being the only exception.  Ace was also the only one to have a top 20 single from the solo albums with “New York Groove.”

Criss left the band officially in 1980 and was replaced by Eric Carr.  Their next album 1981’s, Music From “The Elder” was a concept album that told the story of a boy and knights and stuff.

That kind of stuff that was more suited for Rick Wakeman or Peter Gabriel.

At least they weren’t dressed as human flowers in concert.

Fans hated it, critics hated it even more.  Ace Frehley hated it too and quit the band.

Ace was replaced by Vinnie Vincent on lead guitar for the recording of their next album Creatures Of The Night, but he was still credited on the album and his picture remained on the cover.

1983 brought the biggest change for KISS in many years as the band decided to be introduced with their facepaint removed on an MTV special, showing their fans how ugly they had all been all along.  They had gone to extremes to protect their identity for years and the unmasking was worldwide news.

The National Inquirer had already shown their faces a few months before the MTV appearance, but there were at least four things wrong with their article.

The publicity stunt worked, as having their faces “naked” for the first time, on the hot, new cable channel, MTV, made the new album Lick It Up their biggest success in over three years, going instantly gold and eventually platinum.

The title track became one of the most played music videos on MTV for a couple of years and the song remains a concert staple of theirs.

The band remained successful throughout the 1980’s with several platinum albums and every album going at least gold.  However, most KISS fans wanted the original KISS lineup and the facepaint and costumes to return.

Finally, in 1996, the original four members Gene, Paul, Peter, and Ace came on stage together in the original costumes and facepaint at the Grammy Awards.

KISS with 2pac (not a hologram) at the 1996 Grammys.

A few weeks later, the group announced they would be doing a reunion tour.  The original lineup stayed together until 2001 when Criss left the band again, and then Ace left after performing with the band at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The band continues to perform with Gene and Paul, drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer.  KISS released their most recent album Monster in October of 2012 to decent reviews and good sales.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “By their fifth album, KISS were the most popular band in America, with sold-out stadium tours and eventually their own pinball machine, makeup line and a TV movie. Built around the proto-power ballad “Beth,” this is a ridiculously over-the-top party-rock album that just gets better with age.”

Hey, stop with the backhanded compliments. You guys are the ones saying these are the greatest albums of all time, act like you really mean it. Mentioning the pinball and the TV movie really tells us so much about the album, Rolling Stone.  Thanks for nothing, guys.

Conclusion:

There was a time that I had a list of the top 10 most overrated artists in the history of music.  I don’t remember who all was on the list now, but I do remember that KISS was the highest band on the list.  I do not think that anymore.  This album is fantastic from top to bottom.  Every song is great and shows that KISS was not just flash and style in concert, they could really put together a great work of art with Destroyer.  C’mon Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, put these guys in there.

5 Stars out of 5,  Perfect rating

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. KISS- Destroyer

4. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

5. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres

6. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

7. Outkast- Aquemini

8. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign

9. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

10. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show

11. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

12. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

13. Eurythmics- Touch

#489- Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show- 1987

April 24, 2013

Public_Enemy_-_Yo!_Bum_Rush_the_Show

The Artists:

public enemy

Carlton Douglas Ridenhour was born August 8, 1960 in Queens, New York.

Chucky, as he was known, considered Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, and his father as his heroes.  As he grew older, music became his life with the politicized music of Gil Scott-Heron being very influential to young Ridenhour. His parents wanted to instill black pride in the teenaged Chucky. They sent him to a summer camp ran by a former Black Panther party member, who taught him about black history.

After graduating from Roosevelt High School, he attended Adelphi University on Long Island getting a degree in graphic design.  While there, he used his graphic design skills to make posters for the local burgeoning hip-hop scene on Long Island.

Ridenhour joined the radio station WBAU, which was located on Adelphi’s campus, and was asked by the radio manager, Bill Stephney, to work with fellow campus DJ Hank Boxley.  Stephney gave them their own radio show which they named “The Super Spectrum Mix Show.”  Chucky Ridenhour took the name Chucky D and Boxley became Hank Shocklee for the show.

Elsewhere, out in Greenwich Village, at New York University, an 18 year student named Rick Rubin started his own record label from his dorm room, which he named Def Jam.  His first signing was a punk band named Hose.  But Rubin quickly became a fan of the new hip hop scene around New York.

Young Rick Rubin

Chucky D and Shocklee had begun deejaying local parties and roller rinks using the name Spectrum DJ Crew.  During their performances Shocklee started scratching while Chuck would freestyle over the music.

Chucky and Shocklee recorded a track to be used as a promo for WBAU, which they called “Blow Your Mind,” using a cassette recorder in the radio studio.  Chucky was working for his father as a part-time furniture mover and decided to play his cassette for his co-worker named William Drayton.

Drayton was born in Freeport, New York in 1959.  He was a child prodigy, playing piano by age 5 and eventually mastering 15 different instruments.

Chucky and Drayton had become fast friends after Drayton had come into the studio as part of a group called Sons of Beserk, for whom he was playing keyboards.  At that time, he was going by the name MCDJ Flavor while trying to get his own rap career going.

Chucky felt that his demo tape needed a new beginning and ending to it and he asked Flavor to add his own thing to “Blow Your Mind.”  With Flavor’s addition, Chucky renamed the track “Public Enemy #1.”  They played the track on WBAU and it was an immediate local hit and its popularity spread. This was due to the fact that their radio station was one of the most popular stations for DJs to record off air mixtapes. Those tapes began being traded all around New York.

During this time, Rick Rubin had become friends with another Adelphi student, Andre Brown.  Brown was part of a DJ Crew that Rubin had seen at several parties around Long Island.  Brown went by the moniker Dr. Dre.  (And yes it is that Dr. Dre…that is if you are thinking of the Dr. Dre that was partners with Ed Lover for years on the radio and Yo! MTV Raps.)

Not to mention the star of the multi-award winning piece of cinema known as Who’s The Man?

Dre had taken over Bill Stephney’s job as the station manager and was a huge fan of “Public Enemy #1.” He gave a tape of the song to Rubin.

Coincidentally, Rubin had also hired the guy who had given Chucky his start on radio, Stephney, as an A&R man for Def Jam.  Rubin was such a big fan of Chucky D’s rapping that he told Stephney to sign him to a contract.

First, Chucky dropped the Chucky moniker for the more adult sounding Chuck D, then he would only sign if they also signed his fellow Spectrum DJ crew members, too. The crew of Hank Shocklee, Hank’s brother Keith and their friend Eric “Vietnam” Sadler were now known collectively as “The Bomb Squad.” Stephney agreed, and they were signed to contracts to serve as Chuck D’s producers.

He also asked his friend Drayton to join him as a second voice on the record. Hank Shocklee suggested Drayton should have a name like legendary rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel.  So he dropped the MCDJ Flavor name and started going by Flavor Flav.

Chuck brought in a fellow local DJ, named Norman Rogers, who he felt was the best person he’d seen work the turntable.

Rogers was going by the name DJ Mellow D, but Chuck D changed his name to Terminator X since he was “terminating all the things we think we believe and don’t really know about.”

Chuck invited another local DJ crew known as Unity Force to join the group. They had done many of the same parties that Chuck’s crew had done in the area.  Re-branded “Security of the First World” or S1W.

They served as beret-ed bodyguards and/or dancers and/or lecturers at concerts or something. I’m really not 100% sure what it is they did, but they were there.  They were a rotating group of guys that sort of came and went.  The main member of S1W was Richard Griffin.

Griffin, known as Professor Griff, was born in 1960 in Roosevelt.

His official title in the group was “Minister of Information.”  He was the member of the group that gave the interviews and…ummm..did some other stuff I guess.

Chuck decided to name the group after the song which got him signed: Public Enemy.

In autumn of 1986, Chuck D, Rick Rubin, The Bomb Squad, and the rest of Public Enemy went to Spectrum City Studios in Hempstead, New York to record their debut album.

The Album Cover:

Public_Enemy_-_Yo!_Bum_Rush_the_Show

The cover of Yo! Bum Rush The Show shows the whole group gathered around a turntable in what appears to be a warehouse or a basement with an unseen person’s hand (Hank Shocklee’s?) about to push the button to begin the turntable, thus starting their music revolution. Flavor Flav is reaching over to grab the microphone.  Chuck D. is the only member dressed in white. According to Jeff Chang in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Chuck D is in “Muslim white” and is representing the “riot starter.” I’m not sure about that, but okay, if he says so. There is a bright light that is causing a lens flare which looks almost like a floating eyeball at the top.

This was also the first appearance of the Public Enemy logo.

It was designed and drawn by Chuck D himself.  The person silhouetted in the crosshairs is E-Love, a member of fellow Def Jam artist LL Cool J’s crew and not a police officer as some have speculated.  He was simply used a model for it; it was not meant to be a threat on E-Love.

The title is written in orange, and below that is the phrase “The Government’s Responsible” repeated over and over almost like breaking news scroll on a TV.  Which I think is what they were going for.

title

The back cover has a picture of the group leaning on their cars in a McDonald’s parking lot.

back cover

It is not intended to be a statement pro or con towards McDonald’s or anything.  The McDonald’s just happened to be the main hangout for everyone during their recording in Hempstead,

The track listing has something odd, interesting about it.

back cover track list

The two sides are listed ‘E’ and ‘F’ instead of 1 and 2 or ‘A’ and ‘B’ as they usually are.  You can tell by looking at the color scheme that they look like subway train logos.  Research tells me that the ‘E’ train goes from Jamaica, Queens to Manhattan, while the ‘F’ Train goes through Queens to Brooklyn including through Chuck’s area of Roosevelt.  The two sides are separated by the Public Enemy logo in red.  It feels almost like it is saying that “some of us took the ‘E’ train while the rest of us took the ‘F’ train, and we all came together to form Public Enemy.”

back cover pic

The back photo shows from left to right: Chuck D, (I think) Brother James Norman, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff, and (I think) Brother Mike Williams (the S1W guys are hard to identify.)  They are all leaning on their Oldsmobile 98’s with the lights on with Mickey D’s in the background.  The one part that is odd to me is that Chuck D. has a bag between his feet, I’m not sure what that is supposed to signify.  Also, notice that Chuck has a stopwatch around his neck and Flavor Flav is not yet wearing the clock around his.

back cover credits

The bottom of the back has the Def Jam logo and production credits.

The innersleeve has lyrics on one side and credits with a large Def Jam logo on the other side along with what appears to be a picture of a shooting target.

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of Yo! Bum Rush The Show released on Def Jam Recordings in 1987.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)

The album opens with “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” a song about his 98 Oldsmobile, which we saw on the album’s back cover.  It is kind of a lo-fi recording.  I really like the way it opens, you can tell something cool is about to happen.  Flav’s interjections add a nice touch to Chuck’s rapping.  The samples include wheels screeching sound effect.  I guess the awesome opening track streak continues.

Sophisticated Bitch” has a great guitar riff as Vernon Reid of Living Color plays on this track.  It is a story song about a woman who only cares about wealthy guys.  Kinda proto-“Gold Digger.”  I like the beat, but the story goes on too long and why does he care so much about hating on this chick?  I does come across as a pretty misogynistic song.

Unless the song is about Marge Schott, who should be hated on.

Miuzi Weighs A Ton” is one of the most famous tracks from the album.  The “uzi” in the song is his mind and his ability to make rhymes.  The track is great, as is the sampling on it. The hook is killer.  So far the opening three tracks of this album are not much a departure, subject-wise, than what other hip-hop acts were doing at the time: singing about their cars and wealth, sorta misogynistic, and “I’m the best rapper” stuff.  No matter what it is about, this track is really awesome.  I love it.

Remember that time John Kerry called an uzi an ooshee? Oh those wacky politicians.

Timebomb” is the first track with anything resembling the more political Public Enemy work. For example, the lyric “South African government-wrecker,” but mostly it is another “I’m the best” cut.  Reminds me more of Run-DMC’s style than Public Enemy’s.  Not bad, not great, but somewhere in between.  Let’s say that it is just okay.

“Timebomb” immediately transitions into “Too Much Posse.” It is the first track with Flavor Flav on lead.  Even the sample is a generic drum beat.  Nothing of interest.

Side One closes on “Rightstarter (Message To A Black Man)” is the first real socially conscious song on the album.  It is a really good track with great scratching by Terminator X.  Chuck D is calling for a revolution of the mind by the black people of America, which will lead to real revolution.  This is much more of what I want to hear out of a Public Enemy track.  Great stuff here.

Side Two opens with a redux of Chuck D’s first recording “Public Enemy #1.”  Due to its tape hiss at least some of this I think comes from the original radio studio tape recording, although I think Chuck’s vocals were re-done.  I kind of like the homemade quality of the track.  The echo chamber vocals reminds me of those cheesy local live read radio commercials.

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

It has a catchy hook, plus I like the droning synthesized sound in the background.  I admit it is a little basic, but still it is a good track.

M.P.E.” is another “I’m the best rapper” song.  I’m not a big fan of those usually.  I do like the repeating “Public Enemy” sampling, though.  Chuck D and Flav trade verses here, which I like.  Overall, not bad, but nothing too great. I will say, though, that you don’t hear too many ‘The Amazing Kreskin’ namedrops in rap songs anymore.

Yo! Bum Rush The Show” is the one track I think of when I think of this album, partially because it is the title track, but also it has a cool Herbie Hancock “Rockit“-esque vibe to it’s opening beat.  Apparently it samples “Shack Up” by Banbarra. I dig the samples and the deep bass here.  It is a really great song. This actually rocks for a rap track.  Flavor Flav acts real tough in this one. Honestly, I can’t think of anyone less intimidating than him.

Viking helmet notwithstanding.

Raise The Roof” a lot of stuff going on in this track, especially on the chorus.  It is interesting how different this early form of Public Enemy is than what would come later.  Good track.  One line in this song will be important soon for Public Enemy: “Takes a nation of millions to hold me back.”

Megablast” is about the, then, new problem of crack cocaine in the hood.  Odd use of vocals with Flav and Chuck rapping at the same time which causes a bit of chaos on the song, and the end is backwards masked. I think the style is supposed to exemplify the way someone on crack would talk and act. I like this track.  It’s unique.

The album ends on “Terminator X Speaks With His Hands” which is just a turntable sampling track.  Terminator is sampling “Just Kissed My Baby” by The Meters which was also used on “Timebomb” on side one.  It kinda makes the album end on an anti-climax.

So much of this album’s reputation is how it “dropped a bomb” on the rap industry by mixing loads of sampling with politicized lyrics.  But instead, it seems like much of the album is an example of young hip hop fans doing their own version of the music that was already around, however with a heavy dose of sampling beats.  Still you can tell this is a new group to pay attention to, and they really did some very good stuff here.

Aftermath:

The album’s sales were pretty good for a debut album, reaching #125 on the Billboard albums charts and New Music Express ranked it as album of the year.  It has long been considered one of the most influential hip hop albums of the 80’s.

They promoted the album by opening for another Def Jam hip hop group, The Beastie Boys, who were on their License to Ill tour throughout 1987.  This gave them much more exposure on a national level.

Public Enemy with the Beastie Boys

With their first album under their belt, Public Enemy would return to the studio, this time adding in much more politicized fare to their lyrics, and that’s when most people feel they hit their peak and truly changed the world of hip hop.

That part of the story will not be told until entry #48.  However, I will get to a later part of the Public Enemy story first when I reach entry #296.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “On the debut by Long Island’s hip-hop revolutionaries, rapper Chuck D and his production crew the Bomb Squad introduced a booming new sound and an urgent social and political message to rap, especially on “You’re Gonna Get Yours” and “Miuzi Weighs a Ton.”

I should first say that the album is no longer included on the updated 2012 Rolling Stone 500 list.

See this is exactly the kind of review that I keep reading all over the internet, but this was not the album that introduced “an urgent social and political message to rap.”  I wonder if whoever wrote this listened to the album or read the lyrics to those two songs, because neither really has a social or political message. Do they even try for accuracy?

Conclusion:

Despite not being as “socially conscious” as people seem to remember it as being, it is still a pretty solid album.  There are a few less than stellar tracks on the album, and in a way I think it would be improved as a whole with just a rearranging of the track listing.  I think if the album  closed with either “Miuzi Weighs A Ton” or the title track, it would be vastly improved. They really should’ve ended it on a song instead of a sample.  As I have said before, flow is important to an album.  Still, while it may not be as innovative as it’s reputation, it still has some great work throughout.

3.5 Stars out of 5, recommended with some reservations

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres

5. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

6. Outkast- Aquemini

7. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign

8. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

9. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show

10. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

11. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

12. Eurythmics- Touch

#490- ZZ Top- Tres Hombres- 1973

April 21, 2013

zz-top-tres-hombres-aotd

The Artists:

1973

Who are those tough-looking cowboys?  The title says this is about ZZ Top, but that can’t be them.  Those beards barely cover much more than their chin.  Also, where are their coats and sunglasses?

But of course it is them.  Those beards had to start somewhere, and before the age of MTV they were just good ole’ Texas boys playing blues-rock.  I do wonder if that hair that is on their chins there in that picture is the exact same hair at the end of their stomach-length beards now 40 years later.

Billy Gibbons was born in Houston, Texas in 1949.

gibbons

The son of an orchestra conductor and concert pianist, he began playing electric guitar at 13.  As he was growing up, he was inspired to play by the music he heard on the “outlaw” Mexican border radio stations which played all types of rock n’ roll and blues not heard on regular American top 40 stations.  At the age of 18, he formed his first rock band.  Named The Moving Sidewalks, they played psychedelic rock and in 1969 released an album, Flash.

folderub8

During this time, Gibbons became friends with Jimi Hendrix.  Hendrix brought them in to be his opening act during The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s American Tour.  While the story that Jimi once said that Christian guitarist Phil Keaggy is the greatest guitar player of all time on The Tonight Show is apocryphal, Jimi did once state on The Dick Cavett Show that the next up and coming great guitarist is Billy Gibbons.

Jimi with The Moving Sidewalks

Not long after the end of their tour with Hendrix, two members of The Moving Sidewalks were drafted into the army.  Gibbons and drummer Dan Mitchell were the only two members left.  Instead of continuing on with The Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons and Mitchell added an organist, Lanier Greig, to form a new band that Gibbons named ZZ Top.

Gibbons has given multiple origins for the name.  At one time, he said it came from the name of two types of rolling papers “Zig-Zags” and “Top.”  In his autobiography, he says he had a poster of Texas bluesman Z.Z. Hill on his wall and liked the Z.Z. part and wanted to name the band ZZ King to also pay tribute to B.B. King, but thought it sounded too much like B.B. King and would confuse people, so he changed the last part to “Top.”  A third origin story was that he read it on a dilapidated billboard on the side of a barn where only the letters “ZZ” and “Top” were legible anymore.  I guess the answer is, no one really knows which of these is the truth except Billy Gibbons.

The trio recorded one single “Salt Lick,” on the (unfortunately named) Scat label.  However, they weren’t really getting the sound that Gibbons wanted, as the organ was still giving them a more psychedelic sound than the blues sound that he desired.  So he replaced both Mitchell and Greig with bassist Billy Etheridge and drummer Frank Beard.

Beard was born in Frankston, Texas in 1949.

beard

He had played in many bands throughout Texas, mostly in the Dallas area, but at that time he was playing with the band American Blues.

Gibbons was hoping to get the band a recording contract.  Etheridge enjoyed playing with the band, but also liked working on side projects with other Texas bluesmen and was not interested in signing a long term contract with one band and amicably, he left.

On the verge of signing a recording deal, the band was in need of a new bassist.  Beard recommended a former bandmate of his in American Blues, Dusty Hill.

Hill was born in Dallas in 1949.

hill

He and Beard had known each other for some time even before they were bandmates as they had both been playing in various bands in the Dallas-Fort Worth area throughout their teen years.

The band signed with London Records in 1970 through the help of their manager Bill Ham, who became, in a way, almost a fourth member of the group.  He was the one that put together their image and co-wrote many of their songs as well as producing many of their albums.

Here’s an odd personal anecdote, one of my college accounting professors grew up in the same town as Bill Ham and talked about him quite often.  Mostly about how when Ham was young he was a complete screwup and nobody thought he’d amount to anything, but he was always a fast-talker, like a used car salesman, and could talk his way into anything including talking his way into becoming ZZ Top’s (or as my professor, who was in his seventies at the time, called them: “The ZZZ Tops”) manager backstage one night when he had merely originally gone back there only to complement their playing as a fan.

Ham talked the label into signing them by telling London’s people that the band would be “the next Rolling Stones” knowing that The Rolling Stones had just left London to form their own label.  London agreed to sign the band with limitations as they would only pay for mastering and distributing their albums, but the band would have to pay for everything else, supposedly only giving the band $1,000 to make their first album.

The band worked all through 1970 completing their first album, recording it in the very small Robin Hood Studio in Tyler, Texas.  The album was released in January of 1971.  Aptly titled ZZ Top’s First Album.

First Album

ZZ Top’s First Album is a good debut.  It starts out rocking hard with songs like “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree,” “Squank,” and “Goin’ Down to Mexico.”  The second side is good, not great, as it is more traditional blues rather than rock.  Still, it is an album worth checking out, though the original LP is somewhat hard to come by and has not been reissued.  Also the CD version released in 1987 is oddly remixed for the worse.

The album got pretty good reviews from the music press, with most of them impressed with the band’s mix of Rock, Blues, and Boogie to go with touches of humor in their lyrics.  One criticism some critics had was of Bill Ham’s production, as people thought it sounded too muddy.  The album was not a huge seller and it failed to break into the Billboard charts.

They began work on their sophomore album a few months later.  Returning to Robin Hood Studios, they wanted to keep what they did on their debut album, but now with more confidence, they felt freer to experiment and jam on some of the tracks.  The band released the album Rio Grande Mud in April, 1972.

1986_zz_top_rio_grande_mud

The album cracked the Billboard Top 200 Albums.  The opening track “Francine” became their first single to chart, reaching #69 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The second track “Just Got Paid” has remained one of the longtime songs on their concert setlist, and it rocks. “B-B-Q” on side two is pretty awesome as is the slow ballad “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell.”  Rio Grande Mud is very good, a definite step up, in my opinion, from their debut.  Also, avoid the CD of this album, too.  Apparently, the label wanted to remix these early albums to sound more like “Sharp Dressed Man” era ZZ Top.

My reaction to record label's ideas to "fix" things.

Why are record labels’ constantly trying to “make things better?”

While the band was having success locally in Texas and also in New Orleans, they still were not having much success nationally.

They decided to move to Memphis, Tennessee to record their next album.  The band wanted to get away from Texas for recording since it had yet to bring them much luck. They felt that the vibe in Memphis was almost mystical as far as music goes.  They have talked in interviews about how crossing the bridge into Memphis somehow heightens your music sensibility which allows you to get the most out of your musical talent.

The band went to Ardent Studios in Memphis and enlisted famed Stax engineer Terry Manning to work on the album.  (That’s his second appearance on this list as he also engineered Boz Scaggs.)  Bill Ham would once again serve as producer.  A few tracks were recorded in Texas at Brian Studio, though I’m not sure which tracks were recorded where.

The Album Cover:

zz-top-tres-hombres-aotd

The title Tres Hombres, much like their preceding album refers to their Tex-Mex background with the title being in Spanish.  The “three men” that the title refers to obviously being Billy, Dusty, and Frank.  The title has the pseudo-Aztec styled zig zag pattern on the lettering. The cover was designed by Texas counter culture artist Bill Narum, who designed all of ZZ Top’s posters, logos, and covers for the next few decades.

The trio is shown in three separate pictures each in sort of Texas-styled scenes.  Billy is shown from behind dressed like a rancher and obscured by light. If you look close, there is a little kid in the background.  Dusty is climbing a telephone pole with the ruins of what appears to be an old mission in the background.  Frank is sitting on an archway that looks like part of those same ruins.

The most famous part of the Tres Hombres album cover is the gatefold picture.

zz-top-tres-hombres-mexican-feast3-copy1

Mas queso! Mas queso!

The food came from ZZ Top’s favorite Houston area restaurant: Leo’s Mexican Restaurant.  The Tex-Mex food was real food and the band has said they polished it all off as soon as they finished having the pictures taken.  They made sure to include a bottle of Southern Select Beer, which was a Houston brewed beer, though it had not existed for about 15 years at that point, so the beer in the glass must’ve been some other brand.  According to Billy Gibbons, the radio in the background is tuned to station XERF, a Mexican border radio station.  The picture of the woman had some connection to Pancho Villa.  They included it in there since Leo, the owner of the restaurant, had ridden with Villa or at least claimed to have.

Of course this comes next.

back cover

The back cover is kind of styled like a menu with a drawing of a soup bowl and the little advertising banner in the corner saying “In The Fine Texas Tradition.”  The font appears to be handwritten on the tracklist and credits.  It is kind of interesting that Frank Beard is credited by his nickname “Rube” on the back.

The innersleeve has a collage of candid pictures of the band and other people around town with the state of texas and the band’s name stenciled over the pictures.

innersleeve

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of Tres Hombres released on London Records in 1973.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)

The album opens with a medley of sorts. “Waitin’ For A Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” which are two of ZZ Top’s more famous early songs.  “Bus” is a hard driving piece of blues-rock with a great harmonica break.  The second track “Jesus” flows right out of the first track making them into an odd suite of sorts.  For 40 years those two songs have always been linked as one opening track, but they were written and recorded to be separate and aren’t in the same meter or anything.  It just happened as the album was being mastered the spacer tape was accidentally left out between the two songs and the band liked the immediate transition so much that they still play those 2 songs that way to this day.  The awesome opening tracks streak continues!

“Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” is the only song that has Dusty Hill on vocals and even here he shares the vocals with Billy, alternating lines with each other.  Another great hard rocking blues song with a great guitar solo from Gibbons.

“Master of Sparks” is an odd subject for a song.  Written by Billy about this odd bit a misadventure that teenagers in the Houston area did when he was growing up. They would make a ball out of cage wire, weld an airplane seat to it, then attach it via hook to the back of a pickup truck.  The bravest (or dumbest) teens would strap themselves into the metal ball and be dragged down the road going 60 MPH which would cause sparks to go all over the place and nearly catch them on fire not to mention nearly sending them flying to their death.  Billy calls it “Redneck Road Surfing.”  The song kinda reminds me, oddly, musically of something Alice Cooper would do in the early days, with a touch of Tex-Mex of course.  It’s kind of hard to make out the lyrics, but still a pretty good song.

Imagine this, except with more fire…and cowboy hats.

Side one closes out on “Hot, Blue, and Righteous.” It is a slower, more ballad type song, and it is quite lovely and cool.  One of the album’s best tracks.

I liked every song on side one.  Let’s see about side two.

Side two opens with “Move Me On Down The Line” might be what Bill Ham was promising when he said that ZZ Top would be the “next Rolling Stones” to London Records.  This sounds so much like Exile On Main Street Stones.

It will be a long, long time before I get to this one. But it is great and it definitely influenced this album.

It is another great hard rocker.  I admit, I like this version of The ZZZ Tops much more than the MTV-era group.

“Precious And Grace” is a true story of how Dusty and Billy picked up two hitchhiking girls by the title names.  They propositioned the guys and took them to a secluded area where a compatriot of theirs came to the window of the car with a shotgun causing Billy and Dusty to speed off pushing Prescious and Grace out of a moving car.  Not bad, but the song is not as exciting as the story.

“La Grange” is far and away the most famous song on the album, and one of the most popular rock songs of all time.  It instantly became an FM radio staple, and missed the top 40 by one spot.  It has been used so many times in movies and commercials that it is hard to remember that this was how much of the USA was first introduced to ZZ Top.

I guess I think of it now as the Brett Favre playing backyard football song.

I think it is so well known that not many people think about how unusual Billy’s voice is on this song, have you heard any other ZZ Top song where he sings like this?  Still, after hearing it probably over 500 times in my life it still rocks hard, just awesome guitar work here.  Not to bring this song down at all, but I will say that the guitar riff isn’t original, as it is taken from “Shake Your Hips” which The Rolling Stones had recorded just a few months prior on Exile On Main Street and that song was based on blues riffs by John Lee Hooker and was a song originally recorded by bluesman Slim Harpo.

The story being told with “La Grange” is about the (in)famous Chicken Ranch bordello in Texas that was considered a very high class brothel.  Coincidentally, a Houston news reporter had been doing an investigative report on the Chicken Ranch way before the release of the song, and with the help of the District Attorney’s office, they got the place shut down.  Because the timing of the closing was so close to the release of the song, many local people blamed ZZ Top for the closing due to shedding national light on this place which had operated in plain sight for 140 years and was tolerated by the people of Texas.  In truth, the song had nothing to do with it’s closing and the band members were upset to hear about it.  The story of the Chicken Ranch and it’s closing was the basis for the Broadway and movie musical “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas.”

Because the whole world demanded to see a movie with Burt Reynolds singing.

“Shiek” is another good song. The lyrics are pretty funny, at the beginning he is stuck in Africa and just wants to eat a burrito. It’s really solid musically with very clear sounding production. I do like the last little bit of the song with wind chimes and a slow guitar strum, that is something different on this album.

“Have You Heard?” is a very bluesy track with some hard rock thrown in.  Not a bad track, though it might be the weakest song on the album, and yet it was what they chose to close it out, which may not have been the best idea.

Altogether the band put together a really great album that definitely sounds more lush than their previous two albums.  There is not anything to skip on the whole album.  I feel like the recording in Memphis gave them a richer sound and no doubt having a master engineer in Terry Manning there to mix the album really helped.

Aftermath:

The album was huge for ZZ Top.  It made the top 10 on Billboard’s album charts and went Gold.  No doubt fueled by the popularity of the hit “La Grange.”  The album made the band into one of the most popular touring acts in the country and gained many fans that just liked hard rock or blues or southern rock as they crossed many genres.

The band’s follow up to Tres Hombres was comprised of half live, half studio recordings titled Fandango!

Fandango! included the hit “Tush” which became their first pop hit reaching the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

They released their fifth album Tejas in 1975

Once they finished touring in support of Tejas they decided to go their separate ways as the band had been touring for seven years together and were burned out.

They were just originally going to go on hiatus for 3 months and then return to the studio, but instead they took 3 years off.

In 1979, when Bill Ham brought the band back together for discussions about recording a new album, both Billy and Dusty had grown their beards past their chest.

…and apparently they became butlers.

The band then returned the studio to record what would be titled Deguello.

It was a return to form as the album went platinum and spawned two hits “I Thank You” and “Cheap Sunglasses.”

With the band’s new image, Bill Ham suggested that they take their music in a slightly different direction to progress with the times.

Their 1981 release, El Loco was the first time the band used synthesizers and the first time they recorded tracks isolated rather than playing together live in the studio.  This marked the beginning of their direction which would bring them the biggest success of their careers, but also alienate many of their fans they just wanted to hear the early blues-rock of the Tres Hombres era.

The rest of ZZ Top’s story will be continued in entry #392.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “A decade before the Texas blues trio became MTV stars, ZZ Top got their first taste of national fame with this disc, which features one of their biggest hits, the John Lee Hooker-style boogie “La Grange,” as well as the boozy rocker “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and the concert anthem “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.””

Once again they give a blurb and not an opinion, so I have no opinion on their opinion.

Conclusion:

After listening to ZZ Top’s first three albums over the last two days I really enjoy that early era blues-rock boogie that they do. Tres Hombres is definitely the peak of their style. Really there is not one bad song on this entire album and the whole thing, frankly, just rocks. However, I can’t quite give it a perfect rating since there are a couple of tracks which I feel are good but not great. If I graded by tenths of points I might give this album a 4.9, but I grade in quarters and I have to stick with that.

4.75 Stars out of 5, highly recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres

5. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

6. Outkast- Aquemini

7. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign

8. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

9. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

10. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

11. Eurythmics- Touch

#491- Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign- 1967

April 18, 2013

cover

The Artist:

albert

If you have read my review of B.B. King’s Live In Cook County Jail, then the background info for Albert King will sound familiar, and for that reason the two are commonly confused with each other.

Albert was born in 1923 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi.  I know what you may be thinking, the answer is ‘no,’ despite being born in the same place 2 years apart and using the same last name, the two are not related, as Albert was born Albert King Nelson.  Nelson’s large family (he had 12 brothers and sisters) performed gospel music together in church, and he learned to play the guitar when he was 8 years old.

Albert became a professional musician in the late 40’s playing drums on some recordings with Jimmy Reed.  Influenced by T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Albert wanted to play the blues.  In 1953, he signed with Parrot Records out of Chicago, and recorded a few singles.  By this time, he had dropped his last name and was now just Albert King.

King had very little success on the Parrot label and left Chicago for St. Louis.  For several years King and his band played the local blues clubs before attracting the attention of another bluesman, Little Milton.  Milton was working in the front office for a small St. Louis Record label, Bobbin Records, and he signed King to a deal.

Around this time, King began playing a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar.

King looking like a badass with the Flying V.

If this picture was shown in a gallery it would be titled “Badass at Work.”

King was left-handed, but much like Jimi Hendrix would do a few years later, he played a right-handed guitar upside-down.  Albert named all his guitars “Lucy,” further confusing him with B.B. and his “Lucille.”

Bobbin loaned King out to the (somewhat ironically named) King label out of Cincinnati.  It was there that King had his first major hit with “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” in 1961.  The song reached the top 20 on the R&B charts.

In 1962, King (the label) released Albert King’s first LP, The Big Blues.

big blues

It was technically a compilation, as all of the songs on the album were songs that had been released as singles on both Bobbin and King over the past few years.

Actually the title The Big Blues couldn’t be more apropos, as King was a huge man.  He stood 6 foot 4 and weighed over 250 lbs.  That was larger than most NFL linemen in 1960’s.

I could see him taking on Butkus.

After a few more singles, Albert left Bobbin and King and signed with Coun-Tree Records, which was mostly a Jazz label, after a couple of unsuccessful singles, King went looking for a new label to sign with.

One of the premier R&B/Soul music labels was Stax, located in Memphis, Tennessee.  The label had only been around for a handful of years, but was gaining popularity with the music buying public with huge stars like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs.

There were not any other traditional blues artists signed with Stax at the time, and they were looking to expand into that market.  In 1966, King signed with Stax.  He was excited about the prospect of working with the young musicians that Stax employed, most notably Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs.

In his previous 13 years of being an artist, King had garnered only one solitary chart hit, but in just his first 3 years at Stax he recorded 5 R&B chart hits and had his first breakthrough on the Hot 100.

As Stax did with most of their artists at the time, they then compiled all of King’s singles recorded in 1966-67 along with the B-sides, and put them on one LP.

The Album Cover:

cover

Some have called this one of the best album covers of all time.  It’s a pretty funny cover with all of the “bad luck” signs of a black cat, ace of spades, dice rolling ‘snake eyes’, the skull and crossbones, and Friday the 13th on the calendar.

The cover was designed Loring Euterney, who actually worked for Atlantic as their cover designer.  At the time, Atlantic was partnered with Stax to release their albums at the national level.  That seemingly insignificant detail of who designed the cover may actually mean that it was Atlantic and not Stax that put together this compilation, or else the artwork would have probably been done in-house at Stax.  In fact, the album was released both through Atlantic and Stax.

The back cover has what was the standard Stax design at the time, as all of their LPs essentially had the same style back cover, the artist and title in bold at the top, the track listing on left and a short essay on the artist on the right side.

Note that the only picture I could find was of the back of the Atlantic release. The Stax version looks identical, except with the Stax logo instead of the Atlantic logo in the top right hand corner.

My favorite line of the essay “If you’ve ever been hurt by your main squeeze, deceived by your best friend, or down to your last dime and ready to call it quits, Albert King has the solution if you have the time to listen.”  Do I get a money back guarantee with that?

I have the Sundazed reissue of Born Under a Bad Sign and it has a second essay on the back by Bill Dahl written in 1998, giving more contextual information on the album, along with a picture of King playing guitar.

Sundazed reissue

The Album:

I am reviewing the 1998 Sundazed reissue LP of Born Under A Bad Sign.  As someone who lives in Memphis, TN, it is very hard to come by original Stax albums at non-astronomical prices, so I do not own an original copy of the album.  However, Sundazed is one of the best reissue labels when it comes to sounding just like the original as they put a lot of care into pressing their vinyl.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.  If you can get your hands on an original Stax S723 that is in good condition, then pick it up.  If not, the Sundazed vinyl reissue is fine.)

The album starts off with the title track, “Born Under A Bad Sign.”  The streak of awesome opening tracks continues!  The first thing that popped in my head when the song started is how much it is a perfect blending of the “Stax sound” and King’s blues.  It may be the quintessential blues recording.  Of course, it would even more famously be recorded by Albert King’s acolyte Eric Clapton with Cream a year later.

Eric Clapton, Cream, they will be discussed a lot over these reviews.

Ya know, when you listen to the lyrics it is actually a really depressing song.  He can’t read, write, has been living on his own since he was 10 years old.  Damn, that’s a rough life.  But I’m not sure that has anything to do with bad luck.

Next up is “Crosscut Saw.”  Which has very quiet vocals in comparison to the music, though that could just be a problem with the mix.  Again, it is interesting to hear the Memphis styled sound backing up King on what was a song he had recorded many years earlier.  The lyrics always have kinda confused me as the sexual innuendo on “Crosscut Saw” is odd.  “Just drag me across your log/ I cut your wood so easy for you.” I think this chick might have a dick.

Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” has a much more laid back sound compared to the other versions of the song I’ve heard.  There are great sounding horns on this track. Overall, though, it really isn’t one of King’s best vocals and not one of the album’s best tracks.

Oh, Pretty Woman” is a hard-driving blues song.  And, no, it is not the same as the Roy Orbison classic.  The bass really drives this song, though it kinda sounds like it may be Booker T. playing the bass notes on the organ rather than Duck Dunn on the bass. I’m not sure about that, though. Really an early funk-blues piece, with a great guitar solo.  Really, it’s a pretty badass song.

Down Don’t Bother Me” is the first song penned by Albert King on the album.  A decent, yet semi-generic blues song, although the Memphis Horns keep it from being totally generic.

The Hunter” is a song written by all members of Booker T. & the MGs.  It sounds so much like an MGs song, only with lyrics and blues guitar.  Quite cool.

Hearing “The Hunter” and noticing how much is sounds like Booker T. & the MGs makes just want to add this here: shame on the Rolling Stone voters for only voting this one album from Stax on the list. There is so much that needs to be said about Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Staple Singers, and loads of others.  There are three Otis Redding albums on the list, and while they are Stax albums, they bear the Volt logo.  There is not one album on the list with the best record label logo of all time, the famous “snapping fingers” logo, which didn’t appear until the year after Born Under a Bad Sign.

But at least I can acknowledge some of those artists’ contributions on this album, which, unfortunately, is not a traditional Stax album.  Although, I’m glad that it does have a touch of the Stax soul flavor mixed in with Albert King’s blues.

Like, seriously guys? You have 500 spots and this isn’t on there? (And yes I know this is technically on the Enterprise label.)

Oh yeah, Led Zeppelin took parts of “The Hunter,” sped it up, and made it into “How Many More Times” off their debut album.

led zep I

Writing credits: Page, Jones, Bonham. Hmm…

Actually this is where the original LP’s side one ends, but the Sundazed reissue includes a bonus track at the end of each side.  “Funk Shun” is an instrumental blues track that is pretty good and it is a nice ending to side one.

I Almost Lost My Mind” opens up side two.  I always like when someone can take a song that has been covered a million times and make it sound fresh, and King does that here.  I love the flute and horns, I honestly can’t remember ever hearing a flute on a blues song ever before.

Unless there is a parallel universe where The Marshall Tucker Band is considered blues.

Isaac Hayes plays piano on this track.  Everything works here, especially King’s vocal.  I wasn’t expecting to say this, but this might be my favorite track on the album so far.

Personal Manager” is another Albert King penned track as he wrote it with Stax’s resident songwriter David Porter.  It has that traditional blues sound, and here is the first time where he reminds me of B.B.  It does have an awesome guitar solo on it, bending the strings all over the place.  A lot of the time I don’t usually love the traditional blues style, but in this case it works really well.

Laundromat Blues” is just King, Isaac Hayes, and Duck Dunn playing a stripped down blues song for the most part, that is until the horns come in midway through the song.  The song is about his woman two-timing him with a man she is meeting at the laundromat.  I love the lyrics “I don’t want ya to get so clean, baby/ You just might wash your life away.”  Only in the blues can you say something like that with a straight face and it still makes you feel the man’s despair and anger.

Nothing sexier than a laundromat. What with all the vibrating and the underwear and stuff.

As the Years Go Passing By” opens with a great sax blast. This is a great track.   This song just has a feeling to it, it’s soft and cool, I imagine that they are playing in the studio with the lights turned out for some reason.  Kinda like how the Ohio Players used to do it.

Like, remember  the time they were playing in the dark and the woman from this cover busted in and was murdered, and her scream was heard on “Love Rollercoaster.” Or not.

Officially the original album ends on “The Very Thought Of You” which sounds more like a Brook Benton song than an Albert King song as it has a more R&B than Blues feel to it.  This may be his best vocal on the album. Also, it has a great sax solo by Andrew Love of The Memphis Horns. It is a lovely track to close out the original album.

Much like side one, side two of the Sundazed LP closes on an instrumental bonus track, “Overall Junction.”  Kind of a fun, bluesy guitar-driven song.  It’s good, but “The Very Thought of You” was such a great ending track, that I kind of wish they wouldn’t have put this here. It is great to have more tracks, but it kinda screws with the flow.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not the biggest fan of traditional blues.  I know it is something that requires an appreciation and time put in to “get” it.  That’s not to say I don’t like the blues, because I can appreciate it to a point, but much like classical and jazz music it takes time and effort to understand what keeps most songs from sounding just alike.  However, adding in the “Stax sound” into the mix does make the songs more palatable to my ears, and makes it an enjoyable album.

Aftermath:

The album (or at least the tracks from this compilation) immediately inspired many rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, who both acknowledged its influence and covered the title track.  Later people like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Walsh, and even John Mayer cited these King recordings as influences on their own guitar playing.

King’s follow-up to Born Under A Bad Sign was a live album recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco titled Live Wire/Blues Power.

The album was his first to chart on the R&B and Pop Charts.

His next studio album Years Gone By was his most successful on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, reaching #133.  Once again, Booker T. & the MGs backed King on that album.

King remained with Stax through 1974.  The label filed bankruptcy in 1975 and King signed with Utopia Records.

He continued to tour despite growing health problems throughout the 1980’s.  His final recordings came in 1992, after which he passed away of a heart attack at his home in Memphis in December of that year.

Coincidentally, I am posting this on April 18, 2013, and Albert King will be posthumously inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame later this evening.  Actually, considering his influence on so many people who are already in there, I’m surprised that it has taken this long for him to be inducted.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “King’s first album for the Stax label combines his hard, unflashy guitar playing with the sleek sound of the label’s house band, Booker T. and the MG’s. Hits such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Laundromat Blues” earned King a new rock & roll audience.”

I can’t really disagree with much of what they say here, although there are some times on the album where King’s guitar is quite flashy, and the truth is that really this is a compilation album, so I would have a feeling that a majority of the songs that “earned…a new rock & roll audience” were known before the album came out. Especially since the album itself was not a huge seller or anything.  However, these are the tracks that did influence a couple of generations of rock guitarists, whether it was from listening to the album on or listening to singles it really does not matter.

Conclusion:

There’s nothing bad at all on this album, but traditional blues is not exactly my cup o’ tea. There is a touch of funk and a lot of what I like best about the album is the contribution by the Stax crew. I don’t mean to knock Albert King in any way, because what he does is very good, too. I personally just enjoy the Stax sound more than the blues sound. Still, all of that makes up the album as a whole and despite being basically a compilation album it has a good flow to it. I will definitely recommend Born Under A Bad Sign to anyone.

4.25 Stars out of 5, recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

5. Outkast- Aquemini

6. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign

7. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

8. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

9. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

10. Eurythmics- Touch