An Early Autumn Almanac

Wake up people, I know I have something to convey to you; it’s late September and I really should be doing a new installment from the Grotto. As skirmishes between the Sun King and the Fog Prince for meteorological dominion over the Bay Area ran their seasonal course, though, I took the opportunity to immerse my being in an obscure form of Far Eastern vision questing.

To the layman, naturally, I may have appeared to be spending mornings scribbling caffeine-fueled dribs of rough drafting for my next poetry chapbook, with afternoons absorbing negative ions at Ocean Beach and tipsy midnights posting links to cult-figure-level rock videos on Facebook. But honestly, what do such philistines know about spiritual enlightenment?

Feh on them, I say; but to you, I suggest a quest for the following creative ventures your reporter’s recently been hipped to.

For instance, both discs by London combo The Fallen Leaves, It’s Too Late Now from ‘08 and last year’s That’s Right (Parliament Records, UK): unfussy bursts of ageless garage rock clatter in high Modernist style. Fallen Leaves guitarist Rob Symmons would know about such things, having been guitarist for the original Subway Sect. That group’s arty-primitive scrawls – ‘Ambition’, ‘Nobody’s Scared’, ‘Double Negative’ – were a unique bloom in the hothouse of London’s Punk scene of the Seventies, thus sounding undated and intriguing as all hell even now. Clearly, Symmons’ muscle memory of that time remains gloriously intact, as he leads the quartet (also featuring lead singer Rob Green) through stormers like ‘Did You See Her’, ‘Why Don’t You Go’ and their Sonics/Link Wray-inspired debut single ‘Trouble’. The Fallen Leaves: revitalists, not revivalists.

Revitalizing garage rock, similarly, is something in which the folks at BOMP! have maintained a long and intimate interest. They have certainly kept the flag flying since the late Greg Shaw began publishing its namesake fanzine in the early Seventies.

As seen in the recent excellent pair of books collecting and detailing BOMP’s history (Saving The World One Record At A Time and Bomp 2: Born In The Garage), it began very much a product of the sci-fi fandom community, with incidental music coverage, a holdover from Shaw’s involvement with San Fran-based hippie-era mag Mojo Navigator. Selections from early issues reprinted in Bomp 2, in fact, make the scifi-fandom connection delightfully explicit, right down to having included cartoons by skiffy doodle-god Bill Rotsler.

Shaw’s passion for the Real Rock, however, gradually assumed focus, fueling both the magazine (until its folding in the early Eighties) as well as its offshoot record label. BOMP (the label) brought out a succession of discs by everyone from the Flamin’ Groovies to the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Its present incarnation, Alive/Naturalsound, has among its roster such modern practitioners as Brimstone Howl and Outrageous Cherry; they’re also responsible for some of trash-blues duo Black Keys’ earliest sides.

All the same, they’ve not abandoned their Seventies roots, having also recently salvaged some astonishing vintage recordings by two pioneers of Power Pop, The Nerves and The Poppees.

The Nerves were three California dudes – Peter Case, Paul Collins and Jack Lee – who chose to break from the lockstep of aspiring rock stars contorting and demeaning themselves for a Major Label Deal. Inspired by like-minded pockets of grassroots rockers getting attention in Creem, Trouser Press and of course BOMP, in 1976 the Nerves pressed their own 4-song EP. They then loaded up a station wagon and hit the road, playing in any and every cross-country dive that would have them, their three piece suits and solid, Beatles-meets-Ramones/10-songs-in-20-minutes pop attack.

Common enough practice on this side of Myspace, the DIY ethic of Hardcore Punk, and the imminent toppling of the music industry Goliath, perhaps. But for back then, it was an admirable display of guts, artistic confidence and sheer blind faith.

Fortunately, the tunes on the Nerves’ EP held up and remain thus; you might have heard of at least one, namely Jack Lee’s ‘Hanging On The Telephone’. The new One Way Ticket compilation includes the EP along with equally worthy demos. An exciting bonus is a blazing live set from the aforementioned ‘76 tour that includes another tune later mined for Top 40 success, ‘Come Back And Stay’. What transpired as airbrushed, smoochy neo-soul in UK singer Paul Young’s pulpy palms is revealed in the Nerves’ original as jet-propelled, rattletrap rockabilly. Wild stuff.

A/NS has also put out a vinyl-only live Nerves set, this one recorded on their tour stop in Cleveland (at Pere Ubu’s live HQ, The Pirate’s Cove), in addition to a CD by The Breakaways, Case and Collins’ short-lived but equally lively follow-up combo. Both Case and Collins moved on with the Plimsouls and the Beat, respectively, and pilot well-regarded solo careers to this day – but these early recordings make for compelling living history in sound.

Then we have NYC quartet The Poppees; formed in ‘73, they eventually found their way into the CBGB’s/Max’s underground circuit where they shared stages with Blondie, the Ramones and all the rest. And holy wow, did these guys love the Beatles.

The first band to be signed to BOMP, the Poppees’ total output till now consisted of only two 45’s, ‘If She Cries’ and ‘Jealousy’, the latter produced by Flamin’ Groovie Cyril Jordan. And while undeniable that the tunes Arthur Alexander, Rob Waxman and cohorts laid down were sublimely, supremely Beatles-damaged, they presented – hell, inhabited – the early Fabs vibe with such accuracy and panache that, if one is so inclined, it’s damned near difficult not to fall under its spell.

Pop Goes The Anthology fleshes out the Poppees’ legacy most handily, with a batch of fine demos that include a heart-melting stroll thru R&B standard ‘Since I Fell For You’, and early arrangements of ‘If She Cries’ and ‘Jealousy’ that are remarkably even more Beatlesque than the official takes. There’s also a bunch of live material, highlighted by a hard-rocking mini-set from CBGB’s in ‘76, possibly taped for Atlantic Records’ Live At CBGB’s anthology and with Greg Shaw and then-wife Suzy hollering from the peanut gallery.

Another set of chancers that frequented the CB’s/Max’s circuit – in fact one of the brighter spots on that original Live At CBGB’s album – were The Miamis, led by the not untalented brothers Tom and James Wynbrandt. Their forte was harmony-based smart pop possessed of an irreverent charm, at times reminiscent of NRBQ in that band’s sweeter moments. One even hears echoes of the Lovin’ Spoonful, which no one these days ever considers a NYC band, which is a bit of a shame. (Really, if you think of it, a case could be made for the Spoonful being one of the first No Depression/Americana groups.) In any case, there’s a CD anthology finally out of The Miamis, available through CD Baby and most enjoyable.

Tight for space, but did want to recommend this new DVD documentary Mellodrama. Directed by Dianna Dilworth, it’s a history of the Mellotron, the analog tape/keyboard-activated contraption responsible for bestowing sounds both ethereal and creepy onto the work of innumerable rock groups since the 1960’s.

It’s altogether informative and not at all dry, with the film’s chosen interview subjects covering both ends of that sonic spectrum: everyone from the members of Goblin (who composed music for Dario Argento splatterfests like Suspiria) to former Mellotron factory tester (and future Moody Blue) Mike Pinder. Other musos like Patrick Moraz, Rod Argent, Matthew Sweet and a sadly superfluous Brian Wilson also weigh in. Enough here to entrall both serious gearheads, and those that just want to know more about that weird sound at the beginning of ‘Strawberry Fields’.

One final shoutout in the general direction of Crazy For You, the debut CD (on Mexican Summer) from SoCal duo Best Coast. Imagine, if you will, the Jesus And Mary Chain meeting up with Celebrity Skin-vintage (i.e. reined in) Courtney Love in the Bangles’ hot tub. In other words, a dozen tuneful tracks of fuzz-infused, sun soaked, ecstatic rock action, fronted by the dusky pipes of one Bethany Cosentino: a girl singer to die for, or at least offer a Corona and the shade of a parasol.

No time left for books, then, so more anon. (And on and on…)


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