Capital Land Crate Digger Round-Up: Devo, Punk Rock & Alex Chilton
Reviews by Ross Marvin
While I am a vinyl addict, I don’t discriminate against inferior media. I consume it all with gusto! In this special summer edition of the Crate Digger column I’ve gathered a few non-LP goodies sure to entertain all the pale-faced basement dwellers out there who would prefer to stay inside and obtain obscure pop-cultural knowledge while the pretty people hit the beach.
“Hardcore Devo Live!”
Directed by Keirda Bahruth
In what amounts to a loving tribute to guitarist/keyboardist Bob Casale, who died of heart failure in February, 2014 before the band could reunite, this concert film shot at the Fox Theatre in Oakland last year revisits Devo’s early work dating from 1974-1977. Back then, Devo were basement rock freaks in right-wing Akron, and according to leader Mark Mothersbaugh they were more often paid to stop playing their local gigs than they were asked to play encores. Still, the story here is one of fierce self-belief and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. On songs like “Mechanical Man,” Devo’s computerized krautrock sets the table for later hits like the ubiquitous new-wave anthem “Whip It.” Others standouts like “Space Girl Blues” and “Baby Talkin’ Bitches” suggest a harder-rocking blues influence (albeit whacked-out de-evolutionary blues) that all but disappeared in the later mainstream recordings.
Filmmaker Keirda Bahruth, who also directed the Thelonious Monster rock-doc “Bob and the Monster,” intersperses talking-head interviews with band members and Akron scenesters between the 21-songs included in this 84 minute-set. The interviews paint Devo as true rock underdogs, and remind this reviewer how influential Devo’s vision was in shaping the DIY culture of the 80s that bred off-beat bands like Blotto here in Albany. There isn’t a tounge-in-cheek song like “Metal Head” without Devo’s anything-but-PC offerings like “Midget.” Believe it or not kids, there was once a time when musicians, comedians and even regular folks could make a joke or poke fun at something and not have it blow up on Twitter as an offense against humanity.
The modern incarnation of Devo contains three original members (Mark Mothersbaugh on lead vox, synths, keyboards, EFX guitar; Bob Mothersbaugh on vox, guitar; and Gerard Casale on lead vox, bass, percussion). In demand drummer Josh Freese joins the band here on drums, and just as he has done with his touring work with the Replacements, he is propulsive, clean, and probably an upgrade over earlier tub thumpers Jim Mothersbaugh and Alan Myers (who passed away in 2013). On “Clockout,” Bob Casale’s son Alex Casale plays bass with his father’s band, suggesting that even the robo-tronic dudes in the jumpsuits have more emotion than they let on. Completing the Devolutionary Revival are the inclusion of near-hits like the stripped-down, lean and perfectly herky-jerky cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and the sexually charged “Uncontrollable Urge” with its guitar-based hook that reminds listeners that despite the gimmicks, the Akron boys can rock. They are also still weird as shit as evidenced by the appearance of the Booji Boy suit (which might well give you a nightmare if you share Cosmo Kramer’s fear of clowns).
The film’s soundtrack is also available on vinyl and CD through MVD Entertainment Group.
“Crate Digger: An Obsession with Punk Records” by Bob Suren
Microcosm Publishing; June, 2015
For the first 100 pages or so of Bob Suren’s memoir, the life of the Burrito Records founder sounds like a punk dream. Small town Stuart, Florida skater does good, leaves his parents house, and makes his love of punk music into a career when he opens Sound Idea Records in nearby Brandon. He makes his store into a haven for local punks, introducing otherwise rowdy teenagers to the joy of records and giving them a place to gather with their pals at the in-store all-ages shows he would host each week.
Suren tells his life story record by record, acknowledging everything from the obvious influences of first wave punk (Ramones, Dead Boys, Dictators, Sex Pistols) to American hardcore (Black Flag, D.O.A., Bad Brains). These aren’t mere band biographies or record reviews, though. Each of Suren’s chapters deal more with the emotions and memories associated around the experience of listening to and acquiring particular records. True collectors resonate with Suren’s sentimentality — I know that I experience my own collection this way. Particular albums remind me of concerts where I grabbed them or the trips I’ve made to my favorite stores. The pleasure of memory gets mixed with the artifact. Perhaps that is why Suren’s chapters on regional acts like the Florida punks F and Suren’s own bands like Failure Face (both of which have releases on Suren’s own label Burrito, which is sadly now-defunt) are most effective. It takes the reader deep into the suburban scene in the 1980s-early 2000s and makes it clear that Suren was kind of a Peter Pan figure who refused to grow up and get an office job. His office becomes a stip-mall record store inhabited by a plethora interesting characters. The employees seem ripped from the script of “High Fidelity” and the customers range from iconic punk musicians to teens dipping their toes in the dirty punk waters. The most hilarious passage of the memoir centers on a shoplifting attempt that Suren thwarts with more athleticism than I thought any record shop owner possessed (sorry guys, but you sit behind a counter for ten hours a day!).
Those looking to discover new bands will benefit from Suren’s chapters on the international punk that influenced him and broadened his musical worldview. The author’s work as a promoter, musician, and sometimes road manager took him on tour with Finnish punks Rattus and brought Italy’s Raw Power to play a local pizza parlor in suburban Tampa. Living the life of a forever-teen, Suren took his local (and often unfortunately named) bands on tour, getting supporting bills and sharing instruments with larger international acts. In 2003, Suren’s band Murder-Suicide Pact had the opportunity to tour Brazil where he met his idol Fabio Sampaio, the former lead singer of Olho Seco, considered by Suren to be the “godfathers of Brazillian hardcore punk.” Suren is surprised to learn that Sampaio (who owns a record store of his own) can’t listen to music at volumes above a whisper due to the severe hearing damage he suffered in his early years as a hardcore hero. Along with the death of a close friend, several of the anecdotes remind Suren of his own mortality and raise questions about how to be an aging punk.
The memoir takes a surprisingly melancholy turn when the economy tanks and Suren is forced to close his store. Simultaneously, his marriage falls apart after years of arguing over money and Suren’s addictive (and expensive) record habit. To find happiness and start fresh, Suren decides there’s only one option left — to sell his records. While vinyl fetishists may scream “Judas,” the end of Suren’s book reminds all of us with cluttered shelves the space (both emotional and physical) that large collections invade. Having unloaded his life’s pursuit, Suren unexpectedly buys an iPod (because it is the MUSIC and not the THING that matters) and enters the world unencumbered. Maybe I’ll learn from this when my wife and I finally move out of our apartment and into a house — but probably not.
Live at the Ocean Club ‘77
Norton Records; June, 2015
Okay, so this was available on vinyl too, but I had to have it on the much-maligned-of-late CD because I was a touch skeptical as to the sound quality. I also wanted to play it in my car because Big Star’s power pop is about the best thing to listen to with the windows down on breezy summer nights. Still not sure why Toyota hasn’t perfected an onboard record-player for my Corolla, but this will do for now.
I can happily say the sound is great (I never should have doubted it as Norton outsourced the mastering to Brendan Ford of Coxsackie’s own Sundazed Music) and though these Chilton shows from ’77 have long been available on bootleg, the rare photos of Chilton in the booklet and excellent liner notes from Michael Hurtt are worth the price of purchase.
Playing as a trio here with Lloyd Fonoroff on drums, and the DBs’ Chris Stamey on bass, Chilton absolutely shreds on guitar. His parts were always tasty and as evidenced in Ryko’s old Live album, he could pretty much play both rhythm and lead parts at the same time in a live setting. As usual for a Chilton show, the set list runs from the obvious to the obscure. Covers include an incredibly average take on the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” a slowed-down version of Sky Saxon’s “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” and a better-than-you-would expect take on the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. Chilton also digs into a fantastic psychedelic reworking of his Box Tops hit “The Letter” (though of course he sings not with his teenage blue-growl, but his latter-day Big Star high whine, giving the song an ironic twist).
Of course, the Big Star songs standout and will be the ones I play loudest for the next few weeks of summer fun. There are takes on the classic “September Gurls” and “In the Street,” which aren’t essential unless you love Chilton’s playing like I do. Sure, the originals were feats of production wizardry — I still contend that Fender guitars have never sounded better — but this live show is a product of a time when Chilton had still only been truly rediscovered by a very small and insular group of in-the-know musicians and record collectors. Basically he was a guy who couldn’t get a record deal with Elektra in an era when other New York City acts like Television and Patti Smith were signing with major labels. Perhaps the most astounding part of this recording is the lack of crowd noise. I don’t think it was removed — I just don’t think many people were at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club on that summer night in 1977. I mean it’s hard to listen to “September Gurls” end without hearing at least some clapping from the audience after a pretty inspired performance.
As was common in those days (and for pretty much all the years to come until his untimely death in 2010 at the age of 59) the atmosphere at the show was loose and unrehearsed, but the rhythm sections holds their own with the unpredictable Chilton, who calls out each song (suggesting there wasn’t a prearranged set list) and orders Canadian whiskey from the stage. Chilton was probably pretty jaded and hazy in this era, but he still penned some great tunes — notably “My Rival,” which stands up here as a pretty straight blues shuffle with hilariously cutting lyrics. The song later appeared in a ramshackle-but-right version on Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbet, which is either a deconstructionist masterpiece or a product analogous to studio masturbation depending on who you talk to.
Still rarer are the appearance of original tunes from that era like the near-reggae of “Windows Hotel” and the soulfully excellent “She Might Look My Way.” After a few years of inactivity, you could sense that Chilton was reinvigorated by the punk movement and mining new ground with the release of his Ork Records EP Singer Not the Song. Though the years that followed produced some bizarre work, Chilton continued to be an unpredictable pioneer for years to come. Ocean Club ’77 captures his spirit as an iconoclastic rock n’ roll outlaw and makes clear why he was idolized by the New York punks and new wavers, even if record labels weren’t smart enough to give Chilton his third act.