Saturday, February 06, 2010


Before we begin with today's typically weekendish schpiel I thought it'd be a nice gesture to inject a little more regarding former Big Brother and the Holding Company guitarist James Gurley, who as you probably have found out by now passed away last December. I'm absolutely positive that many a devout followers of the rock as scronk form are already hanging their heads in misery, for Gurley was definitely one of the first and perhaps best of the high energy outta-control players to have emerged from the late-sixties rock scene. His primitive and atonal stylings definitely being some of the best to have been heard throughout the late sixties, and considering that this was an era which produced more than a few guitarists who were stretching the bounds of what was and wasn't acceptable in an ever-twisting rock scene that is no mere feat. And while most other musicians were making the transition into the "new rock" by making their sound "clearer" and studying jazz guitar in an attempt to look mature and perhaps even "break new ground", Gurley was acting the cromagnon that he truly was cranking out a total maddening fashion of guitar playing that combined not only his self-taught fretwork but feedback, amp noise and an overall sway that could be akin to the scraping of fingernails on a blackboard or the shattering of glass.

Like the best of the late-sixties rock mavericks, Gurley was a fan of avant garde jazz with the energy play of Ayler and Coleman easily heard in his far-from-smooth lines that vastly differed from fellow Haight denizen Jerry Garcia, who also approached the free jazz idiom yet from a totally different mindset. (In some ways it is startling that people who were using avant garde jazz as a rock [& roll] influence could come up with extremely varying approaches to basically the same music, but once you get down to it there just hadda have been some other cozmik forces at work. I mean, why else would groups like the Dead and Airplane be playing their particularly commercial brand of music while Big Brother, the MC5 and the Velvet Underground would soar for the outer reaches?)

No wonder Gurley's playing compares to what people like Lou Reed had been doing at the exact same time not to mention the antics of other hard-edged guitarists like Leigh Stephens and Ron Asheton. It does make me wonder why Gurley was never ranked with them or with any of the other "guitar heroes" of the sixties even though you might have read something here or there, like in the letter pages of BACK DOOR MAN where some astute reader would make the connection with ease. One can only imagine on what tangent rock in general would have headed had the likes of Gurley been taken to heart instead of that of Garcia and his technoproficient ilk, and the simple fact that he's not mentioned or honored in any wayshapeform only goes to prove that rock & roll's "success" (meaning a world where Journey rules while Lou Rone starves) was pretty much due to its stupider, more "proficient" aspects appealing to a load of braindead idiots these past four or so decades.

A man ahead of his time while defining the time that he lived in, Gurley is but one and perhaps the ONLY reason you should give a listen to Big Brother because if anyone can make you wanna sit through Janis Joplin wailing her dog-in-heat trashcan yammer (which I have come to love in my own peculiar fashion) it is he.

Oddly enough, if one were to have told me a good thirty earthspins back that I'd ever give this guy any sort of thumbs up I'd've cussed the man out in a way to make a Marine drill sergeant blush! Really, I could stand looking at mangled bodies that Larry Flynt published as the "real" pornography and all sorts of genetic and atomic bomb mutations while merely yawning, but back then even the mere sight of James Gurley with a feather in his long hair was enough to send me into unbridled fits of hippie-hating rage! It wasn't until after I read Lester Bangs' various articles mentioning Gurley's exemplary guitar work in the pages of NEW WAVE ROCK and even that whore-y old ROLLING STONE (a mag that pretty much ignored Big Brother throughout the group's life because they were too raw and aggressive for the peace-loving denizens of Marin County) that I came to think differently not only of Big Brother, but the early San Francisco scene no matter how kaftan and tinkle bell it might've gotten right before the switchover to 1970. Yeah, Gurley and the rest of the Holding Company were the epitome of hippie excess, but his prowess (as Bangs had mentioned) was clearly marinated in his Motor City roots and who knows, perhaps if Gurley hadn't skedaddled to San Francisco when he did the guy might have ended up in some boss outta-the-way local Detroit act that nobody would have ever heard of! Well, at least we'd have fun discovering some obscure single of his a good four decades after the fact!!!

If you still harbor any doubts you might find some halfway decent downloads on the web. First off, try getting an earfulla "Light is Faster Than Sound" from the group's Mainstream album which not only features Gurley's spider-y guitar line but this solo which sounds like a veg-o-matic shredding electrified bared wires. Even better is "Oh Sweet Mary" from CHEAP THRILLS which has this particularly good Stacy Sutherland-ish line circa EASTER EVERYWHERE. Come to think of it, this song wouldn't've sounded out of place on that epochal longplayer but whatever you do, don't listen to Gurley's "aww shucks" vocalizing on "Easy Rider" from that aforementioned Mainstream disc until after you've listened to the variety of exemplary solos throughout his career (including his playing on "Ball and Chain", even the one from the MONTEREY POP soundtrack where he can be seen tuning up mid solo!). It's total amateur hour (third-place at that!), and it just might lead you to believe that his voice box might be anything like his effects box.

The Grateful Dead-CREAM PUFF WAR CD (Red Robin bootleg)

Speaking of San Fran, everybody knows that the Dead were the winners in a scene where Big Brother, Moby Grape and even Blue Cheer were considered the losers! It only goes to show you the entire unjustness of it all...I guess being in the right place at the right time with all of the right "connections" (hint hint!) can make or break a group, and if any group's necks deserved to have been broken it was these guys!

All kidding aside, it's no big secret that I never did cozy up to the Dead even though when I was first buying records and reading rock mags during my mid-teens I was tempted to give 'em a serious try. If you must know, I was even under the impression around that time that these guys were yet another freakout Mothers of Invention avant garde over-the-edge aggregation from the vast uncharted late-sixties that would have pleased me the way those early Mothers albums had. Perhaps I was buying into the history, the influences (Cage, Sun Ra...) and the hype whole heartedly. A few television appearances on DON KIRSHNER and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE quickly changed my opinion before I could plunk down any money, which only proves that I had some discerning tastes even back then.

But that didn't mean that the Grateful Dead were totally out of my life even though I had certainly hoped so. For years people who should have known better were telling me that I should pay more attention to 'em and that their early records would really appeal to me if I only gave 'em that much desired chance. Of course a few trotted out that old argument that, being a fan of NUGGETS garage band ideals and all, I really would like the first side of their debut and maybe even some of their more extreme early material back when they were treading all of that territory that was bubbling under the youth movement scene even that early in the game. These same people were also telling me that I'd really enjoy Bruce Springsteen's early sides as well, so really just how much could I trust any of these pongos in the first place?

(Come to think of it, I did "plunk down" at least some spare change for that SEASTONES album when it hit the cutout circuit back in '79 after I read that this Grateful Dead in all but name album was not the hippie excess swill that the band had become famous for by the late-seventies! According to the write-up [in the WKSU-FM program guide of all places!] SEASTONES was a really engrossing, deep listening experience that even rabid Dead haters would enjoy and how could I pass a bargain like that up! Naturally I found that one to be more boring than an anal cavity seminar only going to show that if something is "avant garde" it doesn't mean it has to be good! The presence of David Crosby and Grace Slick sure didn't help much, and besides wouldn't you way that the Dead and their hippie friends taking a trek into experimental music were nothing but mere slumming, right?)

In preparation for a number of Dead bootlegs that Eddie Flowers sold me over a year ago (but hasn't sent out yet probably due to his using up all of his spare time house hunting) I decided to drag this particular one out of the compost heap to hone myself for what's to come more sooner than later (I hope). It's a live at the Fillmore November '66 offering that I had the sneakin' suspicion would have retained some West Coast garage aesthetics a la the Chocolate Watchband or at least some of those suburban groups who were on the way out while the Dead were truckin' on in. And maybe, on some higher plateau, it does. But mostly it's the Grateful Dead before they became the great spokesmen for a generation I never really wanted to bother with and all these years later all I can muster up to say is, so what else is old?

Overall it's got good enough sound and a performance that I must admit is...OK. Far from spectacular, on this disc maybe the Dead do sound like your typical mid-sixties punks that might have put up a good show at any local battle of the bands, but they would've lost to one of those BACK FROM THE GRAVE thudmongers hands down. That is, if they weren't laughed off the stage because Pigpen looked like an insane gypsy even then.

The West Coast trend of the day (folky post-garage) can easily be discerned, at least to the point where you can hear echoes of the likes of the Mystery Trend and Vejtables in the Dead's early oeuvre. However, in no way are these guys their equals. The Dead, from the lackluster vocals on all parts to Garcia's frankly bland playing and Pigpen's sub-sub-? and the Mysterians organ (actually sub-sub-Augie Myers, no slight meant to anyone), come off as if they're stuck in a genre-warp between the 1965 garage-punk scene and the Ralph Gleason-approved "San Francisco Sound" (TM) a few years before that fell into hack city. Yes it is pretty, pleasant enough at even driving in spots, but it was all done ten times better by groups who weren't exactly getting hyped up by Gleason as well as other out to overtake him on the old fogey hipster front. I dunno, there's just this dinge to it that doesn't sit quite too well even with their rip of Love's "My Flash on You" otherwise known as the title track.

Maybe the image of the Dead as what they became dance o' ecstasy and all still lingers on in my mind. Maybe they always were a buncha overrated hacks who just happened to appeal to some of the wimpiest, most anti-rock & roll people who only pretended to like it once it became respectable amongst the pseudo-intellectuals to do so. Maybe the boots Flowers sold me will suit me better? Only time will tell.
The Electric Eels-AGITATED: 1975 LP (no label bootleg?, Germany???)

In his tirade against your humble writer back in 2004, famed somethingorother Jay Hinman criticized me for what he perceived was my incessant repetitive praise o a variety of musical acts, some he claims he even liked. such as the Electric Eels amongst a few others whose names escape me at the moment. Kind of a foolhardy thing for the noted free thinker to say, especially since he's a guy who used to repeatedly namedrop his top notch amerindie heroes like Mission of Burma at the drop of a hat. The surprising thing about Mr. Hinman's smear was that frankly, at the time of his character assassination I hadn't written a word about the Eels for nigh on five or so years let alone given them a listen which only goes to show you that if you're gonna go out and ruin an upstanding guy's reputation and his chances at selling a stiff of a fanzine it don't matter what you say as long as you have an eager beaver audience out there to eat it up! Ketchup anyone?

But soldier on I must, and while I am doing just that I thought I'd clue you in on this strange affair, an Electric Eels album which I never even knew existed. It claims to be of kraut origin, supposedly only 1000 were pressed up, and all of the numbuhs here were taken from legit Electric Eels CDs which were in print at the time this was released and are probably easy enough to latch onto even now. There's even an enclosure with Michael Weldon's liner notes from the old HAVING A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION WITH THE ELECTRIC EELS album which only adds up to a great hunkerin' mass of redundancy in our collections. And with a lotta unreleased Eels material waiting to be released, especially some rehearsal tracks from the late-'76 version of the group going under the Eclectic Eels moniker featuring such stellar rockers as a cover of the Sonics' "Strychnine" as well as John Morton's "China Pig"-styled "In a Pig's Eye" why were/are we getting these reruns anyway?

Well, I'd rather have more Electric Eels in my collection than say, the repackaging of the Rolling Stones' greatest hits in fifty different variations and three formats t'boot, and although this is probably a bootleg consisting of previously and easily-enough available recordings I ought to admit that AGITATED 1975's a fitting homage that will at least give devout fans something to ponder about if not some newcomer wanting to hear a sweet taste. Even the more jaded amongst you must admit that tracks such as "Cyclotron", "Giganto" and "Refrigerator" are top notch high energy mid-seventies punk rock classics, and few have been able to capture the Eels' energy and snarl no matter how hard they tried being offensive and confrontational in their own acidic ways. And many, from the Dead Boys on through the Crummy Fags and Silver Daggers, have attempted to duplicate the Eels' prowess with all their might and even though I think none of 'em totally succeeded you must admit that they were pretty spot on in their attempts. You can't do wrong with picking up any of the easily-available CDs that are out but if you can latch onto this you'll really have a nice treasure in your stack o' wax, Jay Hinman's cries of redundancy to the contrary.
The Rats-"Don't Let Go"/"Dragon Child" 45 rpm (MAM England)

One thing about discovering various flotsam and jetsam dealing with the punk rock scene of the seventies is that more and more shards of information and pieces to the puzzle seem to be making themselves evident to people like myself as the years go by. Instead of seeing a past dying out before our eyes and rapidly disintegrating before we can save it like some shards of old nitrate film it looks as if more magazines, myspace pages, recollections and general ephemera regarding groups both well known and obscure is being revealed right in front of our very eyes. Really, for a guy who spent a whole lotta time combing whatever resources were available just so's I could discover whatever about my favorite obscurities, I sure know a whole lot more about this music and what it doth represented now than I did then even to the point where I wish I could take all of my seventies punkism knowledge and somehow inject it into my 14-year-old bean so I could have enjoyed it right as it was happening rather than latch onto the bulk of this underground swing of things a long time after it was all dead and gone only to be replaced by this corporate conglomeration that went under the moniker of "new wave".

I ain't exactly sure which Rats these guys are out of many sporting the same name, but they do typify what a good portion of punk rock groups, or at least those who kinda got shoved under the weight of the Ramones and Dead Boys, sounded like in the mid-to-late-seventies. And these Rats put up and really good hard rocking bomp here even if the vocalist tends to sound like Jon Anderson about midway through puberty. "Don't Let Go" is a boogie-ish yet steady enough rocker that, with the Anderson-ish vocals, might have sounded like what Yes coulda had they gone punk around '70 after repeated spins of FUNHOUSE and a few personal lessons courtesy the Pink Fairies. In some ways this reminds me of the English group Mustard whose "Good Time Comin'" was a snat hard crunch punker with some boogie tossed in though don't let that scare you away. "Don't Let Go" even features a strange solo from what could be a saxophone or a melodica, or even a synthesizer going to show us all that a $2000 instrument can do what a cheap ten buck one can do just as easily!

"Dragon Child"'s equally bone-crunching with a weird sound that could be any of the above instruments filtered through each other for all I know! Hopped up rock & roll which Robin Wills said sounded like Van Der Graaf Generator at 78 but I kinda think it comes off like some 1975 punkers at CBGB who never went anywhere but they still did a good job sorta bridging the old and new guard with their metallic glam slam style.

It's not that funny that EMI-subsidiary MAM released this, because even though they had such outright wimps as Gilbert O'Sullivan and Julio Iglesias on their roster they also sported Dave Edmunds and Slowload going from one extreme to the other! And the Rats fit in with it all just beautifully. Hopefully this will end up on one of those mid-seventies punk collections that have been all the rage, but until then you'll just have to gnash your teeth like I've been all these years!


Robert Cook said...

Like you, I was first led to believe the Grateful Dead were some sort of massive freakout noisemakers of mind-shattering when I heard their tuneless, tempo-free noodling for the first time, I couldn't believe it. "This has to be some sort of sad dissolution of what they once were!" I thought. However, without ever having ever heard overmuch of their ouevre--and thankfully never having been suckered into exchanging any money to have their lame sound of paint drying "music" (sic) laid on me--I've never had my mind changed about them. A guy I used to wash dishes with on my first summer job (age 15) rhapsodized about how superior they were to so many lunk-headed rock bands who could "only" play two or three chords per song--as opposed to the apparently profligate chordage of the Dead. Oy! People sneered at bands such as Grand Funk Railroad, but the Funk at even their most bunk stomped all over the Dead. (And the Funk's "red" album still stands as primo neanderthal rock...Mel Schacher's intestine warping bass tone is reason enough to buy the album, but lucky for us it's not the only reason.)

The adoration of the Dead by so many is proof that drugs fry your brains.

The Electric Eels are another matter. If there were a god, the Eels would be chosen for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the surviving members would reunite to play the event, at which they would send the assembled stiffs running for the exits with their patented "music extermination" stylings.

Anonymous said...

saw some folks bringing up yr name on the terminal boredom forum. thought you'd like to know.i don't think it was dave lang or jay himnan either.

Christopher said...

What's "Terminal Boredom"?

Bryce said...

Whatever happened to Dave E anyway?

Christopher said...

According to the Scat website: "McManus retired from music in the early 1980s, returned to the Catholic religion of his youth and formally disowned the music he had made."