Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones [extended]

  • Good Taste Is Timeless [Metromedia, 1971] B+
  • Armchair Boogie [Raccoon, 1971] A-
  • Hi-Fi Snock Uptown [Raccoon, 1972] B-
  • Alleged in Their Own Time [Rounder, 1975] B
  • Have Moicy! [Rounder, 1976] A+
  • Long Journey [Rounder, 1977] B+
  • Spiders in the Moonlight [Rounder, 1977] B+
  • Last Round [Adelphi, 1979] B+
  • Snockgrass [Rounder, 1980] A-
  • Going Nowhere Fast [Rounder, 1981] A-
  • Blue Navigator [Rooster, 1984] B
  • Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps [Rounder, 1986] A-
  • Watertower [Fundamental, 1988] B+
  • The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll [Homestead, 1989] B+
  • You Must Remember This [Gert Town, 1995] A
  • Wolf Ways [Koch, 1995] Choice Cuts
  • Too Much Fun [Rounder, 1999] A
  • Weatherhole [Field, 1999] ***
  • I Make a Wish for a Potato [Rounder, 2001] A
  • The Jig Is Up [Blue Navigator, 2004] A-
  • Bird Song: Live 1971 [Water, 2004] *
  • Ida Con Snock [Gnomonsong, 2009] *
  • Dook of the Beatniks [Piety Street Files & Archaic, 2010] A-
  • Outertainment [Red Newt, 2010] ***
  • Ass in the Air [Jolly Olga, 2010] ***
  • Come on Board [no label, 2011] A-
  • The Sound of America [Red Newt, 2013] **
  • Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band [self-released, 2013] A
  • The Cambrian Explosion [MRI, 2017] ***
  • The Ordovician Era! [Don Giovanni, 2019] **
  • Demo '84 [Don Giovanni, 2020] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Holy Modal Rounders: Good Taste Is Timeless [Metromedia, 1971]
A sextet who put the communal principle into practice--five of them sing lead, four write. They celebrate meat ("Pork liver, lambies tongues, vienna sausage"), boobs ("They're big they're round they're all around"), and a bunch of farmers who danced till dawn one night in the spring of '65. They're not crazy about horoscopes, "cute antics," or city wimmin who live with dogs. Except for the timeless reel of "Spring of '65," their great moments are fast and relatively loud, probably because projecting soft and sweet isn't something any old communard can do. But their collective spirit is touched with poetry nonetheless. B+

Michael Hurley & Pals: Armchair Boogie [Raccoon, 1971]
The man is seductive. His fast songs aren't steady enough to win any races, and when he gets to wandering I often get lost--only to notice him dying or offending Shulamith Firestone out of the corner of my ear. I don't believe the werewolf loves the maid as he tears off her clothes. But Hurley makes me want to hear his side of the story, lupine high notes and all. A-

Michael Hurley: Hi-Fi Snock Uptown [Raccoon, 1972]
When Hurley is good, his tunes snake up on you. When he's not, they snail right past, disappearing forever behind that cabbage leaf there. B-

Holy Modal Rounders: Alleged in Their Own Time [Rounder, 1975]
I love the Rounders chronicle and the theory of Western civ and the pornographic reminiscence but I wish there were times and credits in the liner notes too because I don't feel like putting a watch on what I estimate as fifty-plus minutes of random canon and also because I wonder whether Steve Weber and maybe Luke Faust and Robin Remailly are putting out and in addition I prefer Dave Van Ronk's "Random Canyon" to Peter Stampfel's and would just as soon Peter recut "Nova" and "Synergy" as well but he probably designed the album to sound like a field recording which I'm sure is just what the Folks-with-a-capital-F at the Rounder collective wanted since this isn't traditional enough for them and maybe it's also too traditional for me but I doubt it. B

Have Moicy! [Rounder, 1976]
A dynamic trio. Hurley's sleepy LPs for Raccoon flaunted their homemade triviality, while the work of Peter Stampfel (and Steve Weber and the other Rounders) for Prestige and Metromedia and Rounder managed to make music out of chalk scraping a blackboard, or a needle scraping an old 78--quite a feat, but not one I ever wanted to witness daily. This time, however, both forces combine with Fredericks for thirteen homemade, chalky, fit-for-78 songs that renew the concept of American folk music as a bizarre apotheosis of the post-hippie estate. No losers, though--just loadsa laffs, a few tears, some death, some shit, a hamburger, spaghetti, world travel, crime, etc. A+

Michael Hurley: Long Journey [Rounder, 1977]
Fingers trembling, the oft-cynical critic opened the new LP by the playful, sardonic folkie recluse. Without the Rounders or Jeffrey Fredericks to change paces, there was no way it could be another Have Moicy! (Aw.) But it might be woozy and charming, like Armchair Boogie. (Hey!) Or cute and dull, like Hi-Fi Snock Uptown. (Duh.) Also, the critic might fall asleep before finding out. Four months and many snoozes later, he arrived at a verdict: sardonic, charming, playful, cute, woozy, and only rarely dull. Highly recommended to Have Moicy! cultists. Hitbound: "Hog of the Forsaken." Whoopee. B+

Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones: Spiders in the Moonlight [Rounder, 1977]
Fredericks is the secret hero of my beloved Have Moicy!, but I had to penetrate a whole lot of received music before I could be sure that his own album was more than hippie cute. What it is instead is insanely funny. Dedication: "We would like to apologize to our mothers." B+

Holy Modal Rounders: Last Round [Adelphi, 1979]
In which Peter Stampfel and friends--including veteran Rounders Steve Weber and Robin Remailly, many Clamtones, and Antonia, composer of "That Belly I Idolize" and "God, What Am I Doing Here" (with "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown" yet to come)--prove that the counterculture still exists. Strange drug experiences are detailed, ooze is embraced, girls without underwear consume hoagies and juice. In short, Head Comix live. B+

Michael Hurley: Snockgrass [Rounder, 1980]
More songs about dying and food--and rambling, mustn't forget rambling--from the old-timey existentialist, whose oblique wail recalls both Jerry Garcia and John Prine because all three are more obsessed with mountain vocal styles than most mountain vocal stylists. "Jole' Blon," "Tia Marie," and a few others are more or less what you'd expect, but if you ever expected "You Gonna Look Like a Monkey" or "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop," you're two up on me. A-

Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast [Rounder, 1981]
Seventeen years after the original Holy Modal Rounders first recorded for Prestige, the same two voices and three stringed instruments actually sound better. Well, Weber doesn't--check out "Junker's Blues." But I've never heard anyone--anyone--sing with the sheer enthusiasm for singing that Stampfel puts out here, and where he once channeled his passion for song into folk material, now he'll take on anything from Shakespeare, with Antonia collaborating, to Phil Phillips's newly atonal "Sea of Love." A-

Michael Hurley: Blue Navigator [Rooster, 1984]
Us snockgrass fans didn't await this long-awaited album quite long enough--sounds as if Hurley padded over to the studio before he was done with his nap. I know it's always sleepy time up north in Wolfville, and Hurley obviously spent part of his four-year vacation thinking about seven new originals. But except for the . . . climactic "Open Up (Eternal Lips)," even the best of them get lost on their way to the outhouse. Inspirational Insert: "Feel free to tape this album: Blue Navigator is not soley [sic] a commercial venture but is intended for a spiritual life far out traveling the destination of one arrow." B

Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps: Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps [Rounder, 1986]
At his best, Stampfel does a kind of slack-wire act, striking his own crazy folkie balance between soul and satire and his own crazy rock and roll balance between hell-bent enthusiasm and musicianly effect. H ere he plays it closer to solid ground, falling less often but relying a hair-and-a-half too much on satire and effect. Which doesn't hold down the mind-expanding covers, including a protectionist drinking song and an obscure Lloyd Price ditty featuring a spoken coda in which a smitten, pimply-sounding Stampfel explains the orbit of the moon to his date ("Hey, you wanna talk about something else?"). Nor harm his own "Surfer Angel," which crushes "Wipe Out" and "Endless Sleep" down into a surf death song, a subgenre I'm surprised no one got to in the '60s, or the actively uncompassionate "Lonely Junkie." Inspirational Verse: "My bowels are in stasis/My atrophied ass/Is heavy and leaded/And loaded with gas." A-

Michael Hurley: Watertower [Fundamental, 1988]
His core audience couldn't be much over 2000, and since I'm on its fringe, I don't much care that this typically unheralded, offhand, and tardy acoustic collection will make no converts. He still writes more calmly and curiously about the great beyond than anyone. What's more "Broadcasting the Blues" and "I Paint a Design," break thematic ground--television and professionalism, respectively. B+

Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps: The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll [Homestead, 1989]
The title and no doubt the intermittently "commercial" sound are about band democracy, or maybe dictatorship of the proletariat--Stampfel gives up three lead vocals and five songs and gets the most uneven record of a career that's never confused consistency with virtue. The division is almost too neat--only one Stampfel loser, and also only one non-Stampfel winner, the John-Lee-Hooker ad absurdum "Mindless Boogie," which together with Stampfel's democratically romantic "Bridge and Tunnel Girls" may actually earn the college-novelty rotation he's always deserved. Which I hope doesn't prevent all concerned from learning their lesson. B+

Peter Stampfel: You Must Remember This [Gert Town, 1995]
Stampfel has never known the meaning of the word respect, which is OK because he's never known the meaning of the word disrespect either. And if this made him a misfit among folkies, that was OK too--he was a misfit everywhere else. For his entire three-decade "career," the last half of which has had a distinctly not-for-profit aura, his own lyrics have celebrated the normality of his misfit life while his intense, eccentric, comic, loud, sincere vocal interpretations imparted to the widest range of pop songs ever negotiated by a single performer the beauty and wonder he originally discerned in Charlie Poole, Charlie Patton, and other icons of authenticity. Stampfel's enthusiasm is so unquenchable you figure he's got to be making fun of such understandably forgotten copyrights as "Haunted Heart" and "Cry of the Wild Goose," and for sure he's not above it. But he is above belittling a song--any fun he may fashion from one is just another facet of its mystery. Stampfel the inveterate fakebook collector says he loves the chords of the impossible favorites he resuscitates here, and I believe him. I also believe he's such a sucker for music that once he falls for a progression he wants to tie the knot for life. A

Michael Hurley: Wolf Ways [Koch, 1995]
"I Paint a Design" Choice Cuts

Holy Modal Rounders: Too Much Fun [Rounder, 1999]
Peter Stampfel is the intense seeker, Steve Weber the mellow layabout. Where Stampfel is all comic focus, whether comic ha-ha or comic-as-opposed-to-tragic, Weber is someone who can just not give a fuck while remaining both charming and musical. Their magic isn't eternal youth--they're as much old codgers as John Hurt and Clarence Ashley in 1963. It's their argument that play is the fundamental life-principle. Among the exhibits: the Henry Clay Work emancipation hullabaloo "Kingdom Coming" rewritten to lay more insults on the massa, the scatted dog-yip solo and verse about Simulac-boosting junkie moms that bedecks the psychedeliprop "Euphoria," a sea chantey that climaxes "Don't you rock me daddy-o," a celebration of Buddha's fondness for caffeine and twisted '50s chord progressions, and a girl-group obscurity in which a sweetly love-struck teenager goes gaga over a "Bad Boy": "He'll sell your heart on St. Mark's Place/In glassine envelopes/He'll cut it with a pig's heart/And burn the chumps and dopes." A

Michael Hurley: Weatherhole [Field, 1999]
Shoebox of American folk music ("Nat'l Weed Growers Assoc.," "Your Old Gearbox"). ***

The Holy Modal Rounders and Friends: I Make a Wish for a Potato [Rounder, 2001]
This 20-song megacomp steals three songs from 1976's impregnable Have Moicy! and four from 1999's vulnerable Too Much Fun. But I'm too big a fan to blame it for cramming two secret coded messages into one package proving that, as the Bard once put it, age cannot wither nor custom stale their infinite variety. The variety part came with an indelible classic cut on no money and less forethought by whoever dropped in, the age and custom part with a career album cut in their dotage and rural Quebec or vice versa. "Friends" include the ageless Michael Hurley and the late Jeffrey Frederick, fully credited cocreators of Have Moicy! who chime in here from their own stubbornly inconsistent solo albums, and Steve Weber, the not unholy rounder who's been Peter Stampfel's opposite number for 40 years. But Stampfel's spirit dominates, as it should. It's he who discovered that Henry Clay Work's 1862 "Kingdom Coming" was the first true pop song. And it's he who put one of 20 otherwise awful-I-bet songs called "Nova" on the Rounders' spotty-I-know 1975 Alleged in Their Own Time: "Time is on my side/Slime is on my tide/I ride my time slide all the time/I'm a lazy [ellipsis in original]." A

Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps: The Jig Is Up [Blue Navigator, 2004]
Two wondrous songs: "You Stupid Jerk," as in "You are the kind of guy who hates support groups/But you're the kind of guy who needs support groups/That is so typical of those who need support groups/You clichť-monger stupid jerk," and "Squid Jiggin' Ground," a Hank Snow oldie set against a countermelody of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" about the jolly time to be had stabbing squid to death and then they squirt you. Estimable also-rans include "the first song ever about a repo man" (it's traditional), the misanthropic "Song of Man" (it's not), an unsentimental adieu to William McKinley, and Stephen Foster's rarely heard "Old Dog Trey," to which Stampfel provides a follow-up. There are also some lousy songs by various of the artiste's wasted '60s posse, perhaps to demonstrate (or celebrate) the limits of what his notes dub "Psychedelic Drug Wisdom." Recorded 1989-1999, sung with Stampfel's signature lust for life, and released by conniving alt-folk mogul Michael Hurley, whom Stampfel bribes with a cover of "Werewolf." A-

Holy Modal Rounders: Bird Song: Live 1971 [Water, 2004]
Different songs, good drummer ("Boobs a Lot/Willie & the Hand Jive," "Smokey Joe's Cafe"). *

Michael Hurley: Ida Con Snock [Gnomonsong, 2009]
He's been hitching the eternal to the silly ever since he gave up running for the bus in 1965 ("Ragg Mopp," "I Stole the Right to Live"). *

Peter Stampfel: Dook of the Beatniks [Piety Street Files & Archaic, 2010]
Having caught half these songs on the fly at gigs, I was so eager for the 1999 recordings to reach the marketplace that I volunteered to help Stampfel clean up his liner notes. Run through the excitable yelp that's mellowed and roughened only slightly in the ex-rounder's hi-NRG dotage, the lyrics get better still when you're able to dial back and make sure that that's what he just said. Two big sloppy marital love songs flank two outbursts of wordplay to kick-start the proceedings at a high that trails off for nine relatively mortal tracks. But the last four songs are zoom zoom zoom zoom, climaxing with a New Year's Eve rewrite of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin'" and a morning-after rewrite of what those notes call "the wackest and most amazing gospel song" Stampfel's ever heard. Its sole remaining original line: "Holy terror's gonna blow you up for Jesus." A-

Peter Stampfel & Baby Gramps: Outertainment [Red Newt, 2010]
"way over a century of knowledge of American music, way over a century's common ground," but also, "I enjoy the possibility of going nuts" ("Bar Bar," "Ghost Train of Freak Mountain"). ***

Peter and ZoŽ Stampfel: Ass in the Air [Jolly Olga, 2010]
the new originals are precious, the remakes worth the reminder ("Demon in the Ground," "We're Still Here"). ***

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis: Come on Board [no label, 2011]
Stampfel will be 73 this year, hence perhaps his get-it-while-you-can production surge. Not only are albums tumbling out of him, he's gigging like crazy and sitting in with one of his many friends whenever he can. In fact, that's how this keepsake came about--as something to sell on an already scheduled U.K. tour, recorded in two dark days at the winter solstice. The equally hyperactive young Lewis proves an even better fit than his harmonizing daughter ZoŽ--the Sparrow to his Tuli, only each has more to say. The unrehearsed band make for a discernible improvement over Stampfel's recent Uncle Gramps and ZoŽ records and a drastic one over his Worm All-Stars record, as do Lewis's not-quite-nonsense songs for Jules Verne and Madame Tussaud and his fiddle-fed 10-minute earworm of a strophic closer. Stampfel's contributions include two of the dreamsongs he writes whenever he wakes up with a melody bouncing around his brain, several welcome remakes of old Antonias, and a lovely, loving throwaway called "Love Love Love." And here's the 72-year-old fun part. Lewis has a website and Stampfel a MySpace thingy. But the only simple way to obtain this enduring work of whatever-it-is is to buy a postage stamp and send a brief note and a check for 15 smackeroos to Peter Stampfel, Post Office Box 223, New York NY 10014. In the note, which can include words of love and encouragement if you like, ask him to mail you one. Hell, ask him to sign it. You have nothing to lose. A-

Peter Stampfel & the Ether Frolic Mob: The Sound of America [Red Newt, 2013]
Old coots sit around their virtual porches reinventing the hootenanny, young folks step up ("Shake It Break It," "Deep in the Heart of Texas") **

Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel: Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band [self-released, 2013]
To borrow a keyword from the "Mule Train" finale, you could complain that this clippety-clops. Presumably the revised version the liner notes promise will move at a smarter clip, because the drummer who spent a single weekend recording 13 songs she'd met a week before will since then have spent long sticky nights with them on tour. But that's only if the revised version materializes, which cannot be counted a certainty even though 37-year-old stripling Lewis is the least occasional of Stampfel's life list of weird birds. And however shambolic the songs are or aren't, you'll want to hear almost every one anyway. Where to begin? "All the Time in the World" redefining immortality? "Indie Bands on Tour" redefining folk culture? "Do You Know Who I Am?! I'm %$&*?in' Snooki!!" celebrating a reality Stampfel has never really encountered? The Tuli parody, the Stampfel remake, the Patti Page rewrite, the Tommy Jackson lyrics-added, the one that has the 74-year-old Stampfel apologizing that he doesn't "yet have the skills to write a '64-'65 Beach Boys song"? Put it on shuffle and decide for yourself. A

Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans: The Cambrian Explosion [MRI, 2017]
Polyphony spins dizzily awry as fearless leader plus ad hoc nonet reel off protest songs, pop standards, banjo improvs, nursery rhymes, etc. ("This Is My Country," "Blue Moon," "Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase") ***

Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans: The Ordovician Era! [Don Giovanni, 2019]
"Featuring Shelley Hirsch," a free-improvising singer who puts the stamp of the semi-official avant-garde on some of Stampfel's woolliest notions. ("Here We Come," "Marshmallows," "Queen of Romania") **

Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps: Demo '84 [Don Giovanni, 2020]
Released vinyl-only in 1986 by the folkie standard bearers at Rounder and a quarter century later on a briefly available Rounder CD, Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps features four songs not on this abortive demo including the lost working-class speed threnody "Screaming Industrial Breakdown" and three Stampfel didn't write that are stuck on the back end for a reason. Although the personnel doesn't change much from record to record, you can understand why Rounder wanted torerecord--the production here booms and echoes in a most unfolklike manner, particularly on a nonconformist anthem called "Impossible Groove" that could have begun its life with a Chic tribute band. But before too long I realized I preferred it, mostly because Stampfel's voice, which in his forties remained a more puissant thing than the scrawny cartoon hillbilly of the '60s Holy Modal Rounders and as his seventies turned eighties finally began weakening scratchily, has welcome muscle in this iteration. If he recorded this session in hopes of "going commercial," as we used to say, his ambition had benefits, and the many ace songs are now otherwise available only at vintage vinyl prices. "Surfer Angel" may just be a joke whose time was overdue, but "Random Violence" is all too timely. And although Stampfel thought it fitting to rerecord "Lonely Junkie" after Steve Weber came back into his life, "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" has become a period piece all too soon. A

See Also