Monday, May 10, 2021

Jim Steinman Song Showdown

 Who Covered It Best? 

For a guy so dedicated to maintaining a badass public image (still wearing leather jackets and spiked gauntlets into his twilight years), Jim Steinman is hopelessly square. His songs are unabashed music theater, he traffics in emotions only at their most operatic, and he has never once been accused of subtlety.

And for that I love his music, with all its bombast and drama. His work has shifted untold numbers of units since Bat Out of Hell debuted in 1977. In the midst of the Punk revolution, his first album with Meat Loaf became one of those inescapable cultural touchstones, like the Kennedy assassination or the last episode of M*A*S*H. It’s also incredibly uncool. Not content with the heightened teenage drama of West Side Story and Born to Run, Steinman pushed everything to its glittery neon extreme, not just abandoning good taste, but denying its existence altogether.

The thing is, for all his success, Steinman was only recently able to fulfill his lifelong dream: A musical based on Peter Pan. Initially written as part of his studies at Amhurst College, The Dream Engine was first produced in embryonic form in 1969. The musical’s theme of teens running amuck in a dystopian world was interesting enough to get him some heat from Broadway producers, and he spent the first half of the 70s toiling in the trenches, writing songs and working on other people’s musicals. By then his pet project was called Neverland, and was even more explicitly about J.M. Barrie’s eternal child. In 2017, nearly 50 years after his initial idea, Bat Out of Hell: The Musical finally premiered, though the seeds of the songs had already been scattered across his various collaborations.

That scattering is a common theme across Steinman’s career, with songs splitting off from his magnum opus to be covered by other artists, or in various projects he created during the decade-long legal battle between him and Meat Loaf. So I start to wonder, who did these songs best? Is Steinman really the best interpreter of his own music? Here’s some songs from his catalog that lived a couple different lives, from little-loved solo albums to huge pop hits.

Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through

Jim Steinman (Bad for Good, 1981)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

Bat Out of Hell II was supposed to come out in the late 70s. During the whirlwind support tour, the record company started bugging Steinman for another album. This was when the yearly tour/album/tour cycle was at it’s peak. Steinman didn’t need to tour with Meat Loaf, he was more of a behind the scenes guy anyways, so he took some time off to polish off other songs from his Neverland cycle. Now, anyone’s who’s seen the Meat Loaf Behind the Music knows that every conceivable misfortune befell the duo. Meat Loaf lost his voice, the excess of late 70s touring wore him down nearly to psychosis, and a notebook of lyrics was stolen from Steinman’s dressing room after he rejoined the tour. The wind out of their sails, and the combination of too much money & too many drugs eroding their partnership, they took the first of several long breaks.

When you make the record company the equivalent of several fortunes, they let you do whatever you want to do. What we got was Steinman’s 1981 solo album Bad for Good, which used the songs from the original Bat Out of Hell II. Meat Loaf may not have written the songs, but his undeniable skill and charisma is what sold the audience on mini rock operas about horny teenagers. Steinman… not so much. He tried, hiring a crack band and throwing a ton of money at the videos, but it wasn’t the same as when Meat Loaf was out front belting out his tunes.

Over a decade later, when the duo makes up and finally finished Bat II, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” was redone with Meat Loaf on vocals. So which version is better? Winner: Meat Loaf. Steinman’s version isn’t even all that bad, it’s just that Meat Loaf elevates the song to operatic heights, while the first version is more akin to the standard Album Rock of the time. It’s competent, if a little one-dimensional.

Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)

Megumi Shiina (Le Port, 1986)

Pandora’s Box (Original Sin, 1989)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

This one’s got the strangest trajectory: The first recording is actually a Japanese translation by pop singer Megumi Shiina. Three years later, Steinman’s project Pandora’s Box did their own version, and finally Meat Loaf did his another 4 years later. That’s seven years and a couple continents for a song about horny teenagers wrought in lyrics so purple only Steinman could do it.

Pandora’s Box is a weird beast, a solo project in all but name, containing songs that reach back almost 20 years to The Dream Engine, along with loose interpretations of The Doors’ “20th Century Fox” and Burt Bacharach’s “Little Red Book”. Not content to merely release an album, Steinman had several big-budget videos made, later released on home video as a mini-movie.

It’s not really a surprise that the Pandora’s Box version is the weakest, with its attempt at combining operatic rock and R&B coming off flat and boring. Winner: Meat Loaf. Both it and Megumi Shiina’s version use thick, palm-muted electric guitars and over-compressed tom-toms, but the former piles on even more riffs and instruments to really take it to epic territory. Opening with a cluster of saxophones is surprising, as they don’t appear on Bat II until then, and their slightly atonal, noir vibe is a nice contrast to the rest of the song. From there Steinman adds a descending chromatic guitar riff as Meat sells the hell out of the lyrics from the mountaintop.

And what lyrics. Rock & roll lyrics are not poetry, nobody expects a divine couplet in songs about getting wasted and having sex, but Steinman surrounds lines like “And every limb has been erotic'ly burned” with equally ridiculous music, so it works.

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

Pandora’s Box (Original Sin, 1989)

Celine Dion (Falling Into You, 1996)

Meat Loaf with Marion Raven (Bat Out of Hell III, 2006)

Winner: Celine Dion. Sometimes a songwriter is far from the best interpreter of their work, and besides, she’s Celine Fucking Dion. She’s got the pipes and charisma to deliver the drama of an epic musical that seems to just be one chorus after another. The Pandora’s Box version comes in second; Elaine Caswell’s voice (recorded as a guide vocal then later used on the final album, without compensating her) is a lot edgier than Celine’s cherubic wail, giving the song some gritty attitude. Way back in 3rd place is Meat Loaf’s eventual take, turned into a duet with Marion Raven. Raven does a good job with what she’s got, but it’s clear Meat’s voice is not the weapon it used to be. Whether it was to cover up his failing voice, or just to differentiate it from Celine Dion’s blockbuster version, making it a duet does not serve the song well. Meat and Raven constantly step over each other’s lines, and the lyrics never gave even a hint that it was a conversation between two people.

All three videos for these songs are bonkers, but the winner in that regard is hiring mad director Ken Russell (The Who’s Tommy, Altered States) for the Pandora’s Box version. Over-budget, nonsensical, and with a Cinemax-level of sexuality, it barely aired on MTV and the album flopped.

Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire)

Jim Steinman (Bad for Good, 1981)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

When Bat Out of Hell came out in 1977, hair metal didn’t really exist. There was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but Van Halen’s debut wouldn’t come out for another year, ushering in an era of hairspray, guitar acrobatics, and power ballads. It seems like a genre tailor made for Steinman’s vision, but in 1977 his music was still pretty firmly in the classic rock tradition, with boogie woogie guitars and soft rock piano. The funny thing is, by the time he reunited with Meat Loaf for Bat Out of Hell II, hair metal had already come and gone and become passé. That didn’t deter him, and the advances in recording technology meant he could take the proto-metal initial version of “Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire)” and crank every element past the point of good taste. Winner: Meat Loaf, but really just for the production, which buffed Steinman’s Wagnerian Metal vision to a fine polish.

Lost Boys and Golden Girls

Jim Steinman (Bad for Good, 1981)

Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II, 1993)

This piano ballad is incredibly sedate for Steinman, not far removed from that late 70s singer/songwriter milieu that took hold of the charts in America. To be honest I’m not a big fan of the song. Most of his work traverses huge peaks and valleys, running the gamut of dynamics, but this is just kinda… there. I understand that it’s supposed to be the emotional, stripped down finale for the original Neverland production, but his music doesn’t really scale down very well. Winner: Jim Steinman. Meat Loaf’s version may have the most advanced production 1993 could offer, but it couldn’t reproduce the chill 70s vibe of the first version. You can practically smell the Naugahyde furniture and hand-rolled cigarette smoke of the studio it was recorded in.

90s Soundtracks pt 3: Angus

Music Supervisor has been a job long before Seth Cohen played a Death Cab for Cutie song on The OC, but when Alexandra Patsavas started cramming the new Fox teen drama with all manner of pleasant indie-adjacent bands, it opened the floodgates to Music Supervisors being known tastemakers, able to break a band and crown the Next Big Thing with a crucial sync. Flaming Lips may have already played The Peach Pit, and Dawson’s Creek spawned two soundtrack albums, but The OC focused on Pitchfork-approved bands during the music site’s meteoric rise, giving it the kind of credibility teens gravitate towards. 

Producer and A&R guru Rob Cavallo tried a similar thing with the ascendant pop-punk scene with 1995’s Angus, a beloved (if little-seen) teen drama. Despite never producing a movie before, Cavallo finagled an Executive Producer credit, and along with The Muffs & Green Day managers Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman, proceeded to stuff the soundtrack with their own acts and other Reprise Records up-and-comers. The acts skew heavily towards Bay Area pop punk, with Dance Hall Crashers (discussed in a previous newsletter), Tilt, and of course, Green Day. 

When Green Day’s Dookie hit in 1994, pop punk became huge: Their old label Lookout! suddenly found themselves with more money and attention that they ever had before, there was the concert film Jaded in Chicago, the SNL appearance, and the laundry list of pop punk bands all over the country finding themselves getting winded & dined by industry A&R. 

1995 rolls around and the public is clamoring for more Green Day, and the stopgap before Insomniac came out turned out be one of their best songs ever: “J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva)”, written by bassist Mike Dirnt, about his childhood friend who died in a car accident. This was the lead single for the soundtrack album, and the only reason I even heard of the movie. It’s odd how siloed music & movies were at the time, where Empire Records could bomb at the box office yet have a big hit soundtrack. In any case, this is a great song about accepting death & moving on with your life, appropriate for a movie about dealing with the hand that life dealt you.

Angus is the type of movie that Hollywood used to come up with on a regular basis: a medium budget, down to Earth drama about normal people. Nowadays consolidation and massive franchises have all but decimated that segment of the industry. It also didn’t help that it opened when Braveheart and The Usual Suspects were still doing massive numbers.

For myself, the movie hits all the beats of my miserable school experience. I was fat, anxiety-ridden, and unable to relate to my peers, making me a prime target for bullying. We moved a lot because my Dad was in the Air Force, and for 8th grade we moved to a town in Ohio where seemingly everyone had lived there for generations, so my classmates were especially hostile to new kids. This was the type of town where the English teacher had taught 2 generations of the same shithead family and knew them all by name. Until I found my friends halfway through high school, with the help of our mutual love of pop punk, every torturous day seemed to stretch into infinity. Therefore I’ve only seen the movie once. Why do I need to rewatch something I lived through, minus the girl from Jurassic Park?

So the soundtrack album looms larger in my memory than the movie, and that success is due to most of the tracks following its emotional arc, despite almost none of them being written for it (more on that later). Young love, unrequited crushes, that bottomless despair specific to high school– all of these feelings show up across a relatively brief 12 tracks.

Ash stick out like a bit of a sore thumb, not just because they’re 1) Irish, or 2) way more of a bubblegum glam band, but because for some reason they get 2 songs on the album. “Jack Names the Planets” and “Kung Fu” are solid but unremarkable singles that managed to quickly get massive thanks to the UK music magazine machine. Ash weren’t (and aren’t) bad exactly, just a weird fit for this soundtrack, and in any case they have much better songs.

I don’t have much to say about “Enough” by Dance Hall Crashers except it’s what a lot of mainstream ska punk sounded like in the 90s: competent, but way closer to swing music than the marketing people would want you to believe. That’s not a knock on it: swing music is a lot more harmonically interesting than meat n potatoes pop punk, but like Phish and Dave Matthews Band, their fans made the scene more annoying than it could be.

The Riverdales and Smoking Popes (another band that appeared in a previous newsletter) are next representing the nascent Chicago punk scene. The Riverdales are essentially Screeching Weasel, a band massively indebted to Ramones, who broke up and immediately reformed to play, as they put it, more Ramones inspired music. I’ll admit that previous sentence is pretty odd, as it’s unclear just how Screeching Weasel could sound even more like The Ramones, but they did it! Their Green Day connection runs deep, as Billie Joe Armstrong mixed their first record (while pop punk mainstay Mass Giorgini produced) and the band opened for Green Day on the European leg of their 1995 tour.

Smoking Popes got another one of those sweet sweet 90s soundtrack placements with the midtempo “Mrs You and Me”, a perfectly sentimental ballad of unrequited love, reflecting the love story in Angus without rehashing the plot of the movie. That’s what Weezer did, submitting “Wanda (You’re My Only Love)”, a mellow acoustic song with lyrics that are just a description of the script. The song only exists as Rivers Cuomo’s acoustic demo, and by all accounts he was pretty torn up when the director rejected the song as too close to the movie. In the director’s defense, “Wanda” is not what Weezer sounded like in 1995, and the lyrics mention plot points (specifically Angus’ gay dad) that were cut from the film. “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” was chosen instead, a b-side from a band that regularly left its best songs off albums, forcing fans to buy overpriced CD singles to complete their collection.

Ain’t That Unusual” was an album track from Goo Goo Doll’s massive Boy Named Goo, and here it works perfect as another example of adolescent longing. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single from it’s original album, this is the kind of song music executives hear and immediately start calling radio stations. “Would you talk to me / honestly?” is such a great way to start a song, and it only gets better from there.

The Muffs contribute “Funny Face” from Blonder and Blonder and really what am I gonna say except listen to more of The Muffs (RIP). That said, it is surprising that a quarter of the songs on the soundtrack are by female-fronted bands, especially in the straight white male world of pop punk. I’m not sure how much of that was by design, since The Muff’s manager co-produced the soundtrack, and Rob Cavallo produced Dance Hall Crashers. Tilt’s “White Frame Homes” stands out not just as a great band, but tracing pop punk’s roots back to hardcore.

Within pop punk, there’s the smooth, melodic stuff (think NOFX or The Offspring) and the more rough n tumble type (more like The Descendants or The Ergs!). The former is what got huge in the mid 90s, but Tilt kept the flame alive for the noisier, out of tune pop punk for the hardcore fans not quite ready to give up their patch-covered vests. Naturally, a soundtrack about suburban angst also needed a song about how much the suburbs suck.

Queercore originators Pansy Division have a direct connection to Green Day; not only did they both play the Gilman Street scene, but Mike Dirnt wore their shirt (with a strategically placed patch covering up a picture of a penis) for Green Day’s SNL appearance. Pansy Division are unapologetically gay, a revolutionary stance in music at the time, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and within the punk scene, which despite its claims of liberal ideas was very (and lets face it, still is) hostile to anyone not white, straight, and male.

Deep Water” is just verse, chorus, verse, over and over, no bridge, nothing to distract you from the poetic yearning, from the horrible bottomless feeling that everyone has known. Desperate to escape their dead end town, unable to connect to anyone, counting the days til they escape: Pansy Division cuts right to the bone. The lyrics don’t attempt to make the theme applicable to everyone, this without a doubt a song about being lonely and queer, but that makes the song so good. We’re being led into the narrator’s hermetic world, with the anger and sadness particular to it, and the details from which the emotions are given a framework. We’re all the same in that we’re all different.

Am I Wrong” is a perfect closing song. It’s emotional, a little schmaltzy, but by the end of an album of desire denied, you just need to let all those emotions explode. For Angus, it’s the first thing you hear when the movie opens. I can’t tell if that’s cruel to start the movie out with the most emotionally charged song, or if it’s smart to get you ready for a movie that pulls no punches about the emotional damage that bullying causes. It’s a great way to end the soundtrack though, threading the various themes of the previous songs into one soaring power ballad.

In the end, Angus doesn’t get the girl, but he does stand up for himself, and by refusing to back down to a bully learns a much more important lesson about himself and the world: you can’t run away from your problems.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Let's play sax in a non-sax band

 Revenge of the Band Nerd

Let’s say you’re a tween being forced to join the school band, and the director decides they need another saxophone. Your only experience with the instrument is in the context of finger-snappin cocktail jazz, a genre that is generally not aimed at the discriminating 21st century child. So how do you get a kid into jazz when their only context is the boring academic jazz espoused by corny dudes like Branford Marsalis? Here’s a few that tickled my fancy before appreciating the perfection of Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Pharoah Sanders.

I’m aware that one person’s noise is another person’s jazz, but I’m trying to reach across the aisle, to build bridges, to let the younger generations know that saxophone is a cool instrument worthy of your respect.

Murder in the Red Barn - Get In Before the Rain

I was completely unaware of this band before seeing them open one of the last Lovesick shows at a Greek restaurant in Detroit. 404 Records was a force to be reckoned with in the harsher end of 90s midwest post-hardcore, but fitting a band named after a Tom Waits song, Murder in the Red Barn were closer to the creepy backwoods post-rock of Slint. In person, despite playing on a low stage in a well-lit second-floor bar, they were incredibly creepy. Two acoustic guitar players, an electric bass player, a drummer, and a sax player, the latter of which I and other audience members agreed looked like he was possessed.

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

The man gets around (Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson), but
his solo albums are an uncompromising aural assault, almost exclusively made with his arsenal of giant saxophones. Wired up with an array of contact mics, he conjures brutal soundscapes without the aid of looping pedals or overdubs. Live, he hunches over his instrument, lunging to the floor with the beat, channeling a carefully controlled fury. You see the guy and think “he kicks ass” then hear it and think “his music also kicks ass”.

Sweep the Leg Johnny - Tomorrow We Will Run Faster

The thing that unites a lot of the entries on this list is an intense physicality with an instrument not usually associated with it, after all you see more guitar players performing acrobatics with their instruments than saxophonists. Sweep the Leg, despite their sound being based more on noise, jazz and post-rock, were an integral part of the 90s emo scene, showing up on an Emo Diaries comp, and sharing members with bands like Swing Kids and Haymarket Riot. Part of this is due to their band connections, but it’s mostly due to their chaotic live shows, which could result in injury, damaged instruments, and in one legendary instance, an entire ceiling collapse. Kids can get into jazz-influenced weirdo rock as long as they can mosh to it.

Dickie Landry - Fifteen Saxophones

The most jazz-adjacent act on this list, Dickie Landry was part of the New York loft scene in the 70s and 80s, mingling with visual artists as well as performing with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Using a primitive looping system similar to Frippertronics, he folds layers of saxophones over each other, creating dense textures that don’t sound much like any traditional instrument. The three pieces here exist as a sort of musical cloud, melodically static but slowly morphing across the extended running times. While no one was going to mosh to this, it’s brutal in its own way, using the timbres inherent to a sax to create something new and surprising.

Music of 2020 (That I listened to the most)

2020 sucked (for global events) but was pretty good (for the kind of godless bleep bloop music I like). Here, in no particular order, are the albums I listened to the most during this horrible, no good, very bad year.

Rosa Pano by Luis Pestana

Weird (but good weird) even by Orange Milk standards, Luis Pestana combines glitchy textures and traditional melodies in a collage of organic layers split by hard metallic shards. Presented as a single piece, it flows through sections of noise, drones, melodies, and field recordings, but never feels piecemeal. We’re being led through a kaleidoscopic world where these disparate sounds reflect, bounce off, and complement each other in surprising ways.

Inlet by Hum

23 years is a pretty long gap between albums, but Hum never really broke up, they just went back to their normal lives after a brief fling with a major label. Free from the expectations of commerce, they made an album the way they wanted to: slow and patient. They still sound like Hum, but stretched out over (mostly) epic songs that near 9 minutes long. Besides the infectious “Step Into You”, they are more about vibe that melody, sketching out huge horizons and cavernous voids with their distorted, down-tuned riffs.

Be Up A Hello by Squarepusher

Tom Jenkinson returned to (mostly) straight ahead hardware breakbeat, after years in the wilderness making fusion, solo jazz bass, and DIY software music. This is about as close as you’ll get to the melodic hum and gritty beats of early stuff like Feed Me Weird Things, and for that we are grateful. It’s nice that he’s continually branching out, but, as he’s said in interviews leading up to this, Be Up A Hello has a melancholy undercurrent that perfectly matches this big dumb year.

Scis by Oval

2020 marked the (estimated) 30th year of Markus Popp’s Oval project, but 2010 was a watershed year, going from sampling damaged CDs to making original sounds of his own. O was a pretty abstract release, unfolding at its own pace, unencumbered by traditional son structure. In the decade since, his music has actually gotten more traditional, adhering to a steady beat, using clearly identifiable tones, and achieving something approaching catchiness. That’s not to say he’s lost any of the magic, and in fact Scis is full of aural surprises while maintaining his own glitched out version of four on the floor techno.

Speed Kills by Chubby & the Gang

When hardcore bands decide to do an Oi! throwback, it’s easy for them to come off like scientists in a punk rock lab, carefully trying to emulate the ancient 7”s they worshipped as kids. Instead of treating music with tweezers and microscopes, this London band takes the brute force of modern hardcore and straps on the catchy melodies of the punks of yore, before dissonance became an arms race. This is undeniably catchy and undeniably brutal, even the doo-wop song.

Suddenly by Caribou

Dan Snaith’s early one-man albums really struck a chord with me, but as he added live instruments it kind of turned into more of a straightforward indie rock thing. It was still good, and catchy, but seemed to be missing the slightly unnerving distance on albums like Up in Flames and Start Breaking My Heart. Suddenly finds a great middle ground between the two poles of his music, being catchy yet texturally interesting.

Rakka by Vladislav Delay

I’m a mark for everything this Finnish producer puts out, from his stripped down dub albums on Chain Reaction to today. Recorded while living with his family near the Arctic Circle, it describes the vast empty tundra in a way perfectly suited for his type of abstract techno. Vladislav Delay tracks always manage to make slick beats out of rough samples, and that juxtaposition always hits me just right.

The Common Task by Horse Lords

Hypnotic microtonal Saharan-influenced instrumental rock? Yes! The Common Task was supposed to be Horse Lords big break, but then Covid-19 happened, now they can say “well if it wasn’t for that damn pandemic!” *shakes fist*. There’s more of a loose 70s jazz rock feel to this album, like when Miles Davis drafted rock musicians or Santana did that album with Buddy Miles. The rhythms ebb and flow but never let up, as instruments sketch increasingly intricate lines around each other. Hopefully the next time this Baltimore band resurfaces, there’s not a damn global emergency happening.

Scacco Matto by Lorenzo Senni

Combining punk and electronic music usually ends up as some lame nu metal hybrid, but Lorenzo Senni successfully combines the energy of the former with the timbre of the latter. This new album is a bit less “artsy” than his last couple: instead of abstract repetitive rave buildups that refuse to reach the Drop, these are more song-oriented, with identifiable parts and a clear arc. While still using traditional hardcore aesthetics (there’s a song called “Xbreakingedgex”), this might be his Emo record, with elegiac songs named after Orchid and Mineral albums. Lorenzo Senni has rarely been this serious, but don’t worry, there’s also a song called “Wasting Time Writing Lorenzo Senni Songs”.

Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? by The Soft Pink Truth

Matmos’ Drew Daniel has used his The Soft Pink Truth solo side project for critical reinterpretations of punk and black metal songs, but for this Biblically-named new album he assembled a crew of avant garde luminaries for a meditative collection, far removed from the abrasive albums of past. There’s bits of noise, modern classical, ambient, and R&B flowing in the aether, traveling from hypnotic repetition to collage noise as a single seamless presentation.

Please Advice by Beauty Pill

Chad Clark’s multi-limbed project has always been a conversation with the eternal Present, dropping references to modern people & events in order to give a frame for the bigger questions. Beauty Pill’s music exists in the ecstatic options available with modern recording technology, throwing all manner of instruments & sound processing into the mix, then stripping things away until the core emotions of the songs reveal themselves. Despite being EP length, there’s more than a full album’s worth of ideas across the multiple formats (CD, vinyl, cassette) it comes in.

K.A. Music by The Chinkees

The ska-punk vets are back with a brief but killer EP of organ-driven tunes, with four tracks of all killer no filler. K.A. (Korean American) Music doesn’t just focus on third wave ska punk though, they go back to the first- and second-wave sources, embracing the Caribbean influence much more than their contemporaries. Above all, every song is a catchy, fist-pumping anthem, and we really need those now.

Skeleton Coast by The Lawrence Arms

I’m a Larry Arms lifer, from back when I saw them play in my friend’s living room in high school. There’s been a recent theme of pop punk bands singing about growing older, but this Chicago trio has always mixed their whisky soaked songs with an undercurrent of death’s eventuality. Concept albums are nothing new with the band, and Skeleton Coast links tracks with the sounds of whale calls, while lyrical motifs pop up across the album. I got love for the whole thing, but the standout for me is “Pigeons and Spies”, with its absolutely flooring chorus and seemingly random verses, which were influenced by rapper Immortal Technique.

Hot Wet & Sassy by Tobacco

Black Moth Super Rainbow got messier and messier until the main dude decided to change the name to Tobacco, the better to let listeners know to expect neon splatters instead of pastoral chunes. After a brief return to the sedate BMSR sound, Tobacco makes a 180 with an album that takes his hiss-drenched melodies into even spookier environs. The video of Falcor creeping around the forest is pure nightmare fuel.

Mass Cathexis by Krallice

Since going the full DIY route, Krallice have been pumping out progressive black metal at a quick clip, taking detours to prog epics and brain-melting complexity. This is a pretty brief, straightforward set from the Brooklyn kings of metal, but maybe that’s what we need right now, songs that cut to the bone and don’t mosey along with 100 riffs over ten minutes (which, mind you, they are very good at).

Sign & Plus by Autechre

Just when the world needs them the most, Booth & Brown drop two full lengths to sate the masses. At a combined running time of just over 2 hours, it’s short compared to their epic releases from the last few years, but that makes it all the easier to digest in one sitting. Autechre seem to be looking backwards with these releases, using their recent Max MSP software to grind up, splatter, and re-arrange the softer textures of early albums like Incunabula and Amber. The albums are split thematically, with one covering their ambient side and the other their off-kilter rhythmic side. Taken as one album it would be overwhelming, but split up it’s easier to see how the parts reflect on each other.

True False & The World Will Decide by Negativland

I’m a latecomer to the California satirical cut-up collective, this is as good a place to start with their unique take on cultural criticism. The thing I never knew about then was how often their tracks are built on jokes, like I was expecting shocking audio collages akin to Peter Sotos’ work? Negativland goes down a lot smoother, combining clicking beats and soundbites to show just how fucked we are as a society (a lot). 

Led Zeppelin DVD

 1 disc for the price of 2!

One of the things I’ve done during this global pandemic is finally listening to/watching the endless amount of media I’ve accumulated over the years. Led Zeppelin’s DVD was gifted to me many Christmases ago, but a lack of free time & my wife’s ambivalence to classic rock meant I never got around to watching it til earlier this year.

Besides a widely panned concert film, Led Zeppelin live footage was incredibly hard to come by for decades. Part of it was by design: Their manager Peter Grant considered live recordings detrimental to show attendance, and generally banned it. The other part was a combination of finances and Jimmy Page’s perfectionist tendencies, so the footage sat in vaults until the turn of the century.

But Led Zeppelin did tour a lot in their day, with a schedule that even high profile bands would balk at nowadays. The legend is that they were originally formed so Jimmy Page could fulfill a contractually obligated tour of his old band, The Yardbirds. The weird thing is, I never really understood how Page became responsible that tour. Sure the band signed the contract to tour, but then they broke up. Was the fee for cancelling the venues too much? Music Industry contacts have always been labyrinthine, even more so in the 1960s, but I wonder if Page just felt like this was an opportunity to make some money. His stinginess is legendary, though its important to remember that musicians then (and now) were constantly getting ripped off. It seems like his only indulgences back then were buying a haunted house, and uh… dating a child.

Zeppelin were thrown into the fire from the outset, but with half the band being seasoned session pros, and the other half an uncommonly gifted drummer and a singer with natural stage charisma, they fell together quickly. The old adage goes “Practice Makes Perfect”, and that is even more true of bands, who rely on that sort of unspoken psychic connection to make music sound easy. The quartet ground out a punishing tour schedule for the most of their career, stopping only for injury and death. That kind of nightly performance makes a band really tight, but what happens when these all-too-human musicians are pushed to the breaking point? Led Zep are as good an example as any that time apart is just as important as time together.

Royal Albert Hall, 9 January 1970

Whatever you pay for this 2-disc set, it’s worth it for this barnstorming homecoming set. The band is tight but expansive, fast but grooving, and the sound & film is miraculously pristine, despite some still shot inserts to make up for footage too damaged to repair. Their joy is palpable, and for good reason: The band had something to prove. Despite coming out of the gate with a massive album and garnering legions of adoring fans, critical reactions were pretty negative, especially in their native country. To play the storied Royal Albert Hall to a mass of screaming fans was a big Fuck You to the reviewers who lambasted them as yet another ripoff blues boogie woogie band. Zeppelin had found their people, and proved to the music industry that they could thrive without the support of music magazines.

Danmarks Radio (Gladsaxe Teen Club, Gladsaxe), 17 March 1969

Supershow (Staines Studio, London), 25 March 1969

Tous en Scène (Theatre Olympia, Paris), 19 June 1969

While interesting as a time capsule, these three live TV appearances are strictly for completists: the band is clearly bored, the audience (when there is one) doesn’t seem to know how to react, and all 3 have nearly identical setlists. Each includes “Dazed and Confused”, the band’s centerpiece in the early days. While it was a great way for them to stretch out live, within the artificial confines of a TV studio it comes off as rote, like “ok now its time for Jimmy’s violin bow part, we can take a break”.

Sydney Showground, 27 February 1972 (Splodge edit)

“Immigrant Song” gets a cobbled together music video of live footage spliced together over a soundboard recording. It’s not synced, but its probably as good an example as you will find of that very 60s/70s phenomenon of the daytime concert in a giant stadium before the concept of Stadium Rock was perfected.

The song is the brisk opener for the otherwise pretty sedate III album, notable perhaps for what it doesn’t have: a guitar solo. The live version rectifies this, along with galloping along at an even faster BPM than on disc. I’ve gone back and listened to it several times, as its rare to hear the band play ahead of the beat so much, since they made their name with grooves that were more plodding than swift.

Madison Square Garden, 27–29 July 1973

By 1973, the years on the road were starting to wear on the band. These four songs are from the same concerts that produced the legendarily panned The Song Remains the Same live album and concert film. Objectively, it’s bad. As a record of where the band was at this stage in the game, it’s remarkably accurate. Despite raking in millions and essentially creating the myth of 70s Rock Star Excess, they were annoyed with each other and the road. John Paul Jones wanted to quit, Robert Plant and John Bonham were homesick, and Jimmy Page was beginning his spiral into heroin addiction. Not to mention their iron-fisted manager, intense even in normal situations, was dealing with the (still unsolved) theft of nearly $200,000 in cash from a hotel safe deposit box. The band was near the height of their power, but no one was happy.

What strikes me the most about The Song Remains the Same footage is how small the band is within the cavernous venue. At the time, Madison Square Garden could hold 20,000 concertgoers, yet the band appears to be on a miniscule stage compared to the giant multi-tiered structures that eventually became the norm. Concert technology would eventually catch up, though for a while anyone past the first dozen rows was seeing tiny figures playing the music.

Earls Court, 24–25 May 1975

The band took 1974 off, and by 1975 the world of arena rock resembled what most people remember: a giant, rumbling, well-oiled machine criss-crossing the country. The break had re-energized the band, but with nothing left to prove as the biggest band in the world, their swagger was missing the haywire energy of their early days. They were kings, they knew it, and their five night stand in the UK’s biggest arena went off without a hitch, complete with a custom light show and, in one of the first instances of a now-common practice, a giant screen behind the band showing the action to punters in the nosebleeds.

Zeppelin may have been big, but the rest of the music world was catching up. Big expensive arena shows, pioneered by acts like Pink Floyd and The Who, were becoming an arms race for the loudest, most explosive event. Led Zeppelin didn’t need to struggle to keep up, but the band (especially Page) was concerned at the distance it put them from the audience. They had earlier attempted to rectify this with a small club tour, which proved impossible as thousands of fans mobbed the small venues. It was clear that the band was on a rarefied level, and there was no turning back.

If not for the death of John Bonham, this may have been what Led Zeppelin would have been like: a big stage show, competent performances, but none of the push and pull jamming that typified the bands early days. It’s hard to stretch a song out when you’re dealing with lighting cues, which look cool but leave many bands feeling trapped in the machine they created.

Knebworth, 4 August 1979

How big is too big? By 1979 Led Zeppelin was a wreck: Jimmy Page and John Bonham were knee-deep in their respective addictions, Robert Plant was still mourning the death of his young son, and to call John Paul Jones detached would be an understatement. Additionally, the advent of punk made dinosaur rockers like Led Zeppelin an artistic, if not so much popularly, dead-end.

Despite not having played together in two years, and not on English soil for four, the offer to play the Knebworth festival was too good to pass up. A huge demand for tickets extended the single show to two, and despite a lengthy rehearsal schedule, they only got two brief warmup shows in before hitting the giant field in front of their largest audience ever.

The band, especially Robert Plant, were frank in the assessment of the show. It was a disaster. The band, dressed like extras in Miami Vice, hobble through the hits, visibly shaken and drenched in sweat. Plant tries in vain to connect with the huge crowd, an emaciated Page acts like he’s in a completely different world, Bonham manages to keep it together only through his innate gifts, and Jones disappears into the shadows as often as he can.

The album they were ostensibly there to promote, In Through the Out Door, was just as detached as their performance. Mostly handled by Jones and Plant, it was a keyboard heavy excursion in excess that desperately needed Page’s, or even a strong producer’s, guidance. Unfortunately Page was absent more than not, nearing the apex of his heroin addiction and unreliable as Jones and Plant attempted to assemble the album.

The Rest

The rest of the DVD is a smattering of promo clips and truncated live performances, but honestly after the Knebworth stuff I was done. The success that Led Zeppelin chased, and ultimately succeeded in getting, turned out to be a golden cage they couldn’t escape. The magic of those early performances is evident, but a punishing tour schedule, personal tragedies, and addictions ultimately turned them into a shell of their former selves. They’ve reunited several times, resulting in disasters in the 80s and a competent showing for what became their final show. It wasn’t just that missing a drummer like Bonham disrupted the band’s chemistry, it’s that they were completely different people from when they started in the late 60s, and you can’t really bring that magic back once it’s gone.