Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Velvet Underground, Live at Max's Kansas City

This frequently derided live album marks the end of the road for the the Velvet Underground. It's a cassette-recorded, nearly bootleg affair, in which the band plays to what sounds like a dozen Max's regulars who are audibly more interested in scoring than checking out Lou's last show with the band. Although the band's better-known and cherished 1969: Velvet Underground Live is objectively "better," Max's has always gotten more spins on my turntable.

I won't harp on relative negatives, but let me first deal with 1969. Granted, 1969 has a butt shot on the cover; the once all-important a gatefold sleeve; Mo Tucker pounding away on drums; Doug Yule playing organ, when necessary; and songs not available on any of the band's studio albums (before the release of those great outtakes albums in the 1980s), but to me it always sounded like a lesser version of how I wanted the band at that time - both in their career, post-John Cale, and in my record-buying life at the time of purchase, post-having-bought-all-the-studio albums, to sound. On 1969, the Velvets sound like a competent, sometimes great touring band. They lack the intimacy of the third, s/t Velvet Underground album, and they lack the fire of the Cale lineup. Too often, on all those "Lisa Says We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together With Bonnie Brown" songs, they might as well be filling time with limp-wristed Chuck Berry covers, like the Grateful Dead might do to fill out their audiences' collective peak drug cycle. No offense, Deadheads, I'm just trying to make a point.

The Max's album is the sound of failure and resignation. However, this version of the Velvets, with Doug Yule's underskilled, overplaying teenage brother Billy sitting in for the pregnant Mo, is not beyond gentle moments of joy and remembrance of musical accomplishments of more vital days. "Good evening," begins Lou, "we're called Velvet Underground. You're allowed to dance, in case you didn't know. And...ah, that's about it." Then the band launches into a thoroughly decent version of "I'm Waiting for the Man", on which Sterling Morrison riffs away as easily as he might have when he and Lou first played in their dorm rooms. This is the sound of humans doing their best to make something happen when nothing much is left capable of happening.

I was discussing this album with a friend, who felt this is the Velvet Underground as the garage band Lou and Sterling may at one time have intended it to be. Could be, and I would add that this live album and the 1969 live album illustrate a fork in the road that would eventually face future punks and indie rockers who bought the next 1000 copies of the first VU album after the first 1000 copies had been bought by the likes of Brian Eno. 1969 is a side of the band that relies understated ensemble playing; propulsive rhythms; some cool textures, using the limited resources on stage; and frequently Lou's tough-guy, leather-jacket-wearing voice. To my ears, it's the sound that would launch many fine indie bands like The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, and thousands more. Max's, on the other hand, is carried by little more than the songs and singing of Lou Reed and the awkward dynamic of Lou and Sterling's guitars. No rhythmic or stylistic safety net is in place. No leather, no shades. Lou sings with more expression than usual. This is the road less traveled in VU terms. Early Modern Lovers knew this path. Early Talking Heads would venture down it on occasion. Television and Patti Smith would embrace this clumsy, open-hearted side of this Velvet Underground. There are plenty of good reasons why this path is the least traveled. The brush hasn't been cleared and the destination is not certain, but it's a road to somewhere.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Makin' Lemonade with The Easybeats

There's a wise saying, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Australia's The Easybeats, a '60s beat band extraordinaire that's best-known for its weekend anthem "Friday On My Mind" and, in hipper circles, the pounding, Who-like "Sorry" and the massively Mod-rockin'
"Good Times", took this to heart. True, the band was blessed with lead vocalist Stevie Wright, who possessed the balls-out rebel yell of a young Roger Daltry; the tiny, cute-guy, former child actor appeal of Davey Jones; and the enthusiasm of a cheerleader on crystal meth. And true, the band was blessed with the in-house songwriting and production team of Harry Vanda and George Young (the latter the big brother to Angus and Malcolm) who would go on to produce artists including AC/DC, Suzi Quatro, and Grace Jones as well as their 1-hit wonder, "Hey St. Peter", under the name Flash 'n the Pan. But if you've been thinking about checking out the complete works of The Easybeats based on their few best-known songs, prepare yourself for a tall glass of lemonade.

I own a lot of Easybeats recordings, and for fans of supercharged British Invasion pop, I'd highly recommend the 2-CD collection, The Easybeats: The Definitive Anthology (Repertoire). However, if you're looking for any number of special characteristics treasured by fanboys of many of the second-tier '60s bands, such as displays of subtle songwriting and deft vocal delivery (eg, The Zombies); ringing guitars and sweet harmonies (eg, The Hollies); influential, proto-70s guitar pyrotechnics (eg, The Pretty Things, The Creation); or bombastic psychedelia (eg, The Move), you may find yourself disappointed. Frequently, the songs of The Easybeats are pastiches of other British Invasion and Motown hits of the day. Songs are often built around an off-kilter, tinny guitar riff and a rockin' beat. Backing vocals are usually high and nasally, often making great use of nonsense syllables. In many ways, their aspirations were as straightforward and fun-filled as those of the Dave Clark Five and The Rascals, but The Easybeats usually lacked the discipiline and focus of the former band's hit and they lacked the soulful, native groove of The Rascals. Check out this grainy clip of
"Made My Bed Gonna Lie in It" for an example of the rickety, awkward pop that I describe. When you're done with that nearly embarrassing (for anyone over the age of 22) delight, check out what they make of one of the most inherently awkward, failed soul songs of the era, Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High". To me, this is the definitive version of this song that effectively killed the career of writer-producer Phil Spector. The Easybeats bypass the song's pomp and circumstance and bring out the nervy heart of the song, perhaps all that was worth bringing out.

I have a friend who asks me what it is I see in this band beyond a couple of songs. He can't take the patchwork song structure and the
frequently inane lyrics. Typically I agree with him on these charges as they relate to countless other second-tier British Invasion bands, but in The Easybeats I hear the sound of a band doing all they can with what little they've got in a concise 3:00 or less per song. I hear a band pushing against its own strange boundaries yet smart enough, for the most part, to stay within them. I hear the sound of lemonade. Across the 8 sides of Easybeats material that I own, there are few desparate attempts at Relevance: little psychedelia for psychedelia's sake; no bearded, back to the country odes; and only a few surprisingly decent attempts at Humble Pie-like maximum heaviosity. They rarely hit the highs of their 3 best-known songs, although "Falling Off the Edge of the World" is not to be missed for fans of melodramatic '60s pop (eg, The Bee Gees)!