Subjects for Further Research
Arrow: I could be wrong, but I'm not physically attracted to soca. I find that unlike competing Caribbean grooves--from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Antilles, Haiti, Jamaica for damn sure, though maybe not the Dominican, there's something in the up-up-up of merengue that hits me the same way--it has no give in it. That's why I never followed up the middecade foray into the style that taught me to love Sparrow, and also why the attempted U.S. breakthrough of this strong-voiced, weak-minded Trinidadian left me lukewarm lukewarm lukewarm.
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: Though Mission of Burma's answer to hearing damage slipped into bombast and soundtrack even on the ace Magnetic Flip, they were usually good for a nice postmodern version of the kick vintage fusion or art-rock used to provide occasionally. Debussy meets the electric guitar, sort of. Rykodisc's Sonic Geology collected their works. And of course there were offshoots, too.
Bobby Bland: After MCA hung him out to dry he found a home at Biloxi-based Malaco, where Z.Z. Hill had become a belated hero by reproducing his mannerisms. He got good songs in a sympathetic environment, but with Bland the physical instrument was always crucial, and near as I could tell it had lost its edge. Hope I was wrong.
Brave Combo: Carl Finch's conceptual conjunto starts with norteño's unlikely polkas and makes connections--to "pol-ska," which I guess is obvious, and to "Skokiaan," and to "O Holy Night Cha Cha Cha." And to "Rosemary's Baby" as a waltz. And to "People Are Strange" as a hora. In short, he interprets universal humanism as the dance music of a thousand cruise ships. The idea is wonderful live--getting this silly in the company of a crowd that's half in on the world-music joke (and statement) can border on euphoria. But the records are too cute: not since 1982's Urban Grown-Ups EP have they made a serious stab at normal songwriting. The 1987 Rounder CD Musical Varieties is a representatively excessive selection for truly modern fun-seekers.
The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir: Bulgaria used to be Thrace, a wellspring of Greek music in the Golden Age, and there are those who claim (with less historical logic than metaphorical flair) that the singers who dominate the unearthly cult hits dubbed Mystère des Voix Bulgares are as close as we'll ever get to that fabled, unheard stuff. When I'm in the mood I find the cutting calm of their concertized version far more vibrant and arresting than the nation's neoauthentic mountain styles. When I'm not I can be heard muttering, "Meet the new age, same as the old age."
Nick Cave: I admit it, I have a problem with death freaks. And since I also have a problem with Americans who obsess on America's "dark side," I have more of a problem with non-Americans who follow suit. Death fans compare the Birthday Party to P.I.L. even though Cave's band was palpably cornier, which took some doing. They compare the Bad Seeds to, well, the Gun Club--only better, you know? Damn straight. There are strong songs on Tender Prey, and occasionally I think I might appreciate the covers album Kicking Against the Pricks when face to face with terminal illness. But somehow I suspect I'll have other priorities.
Ray Charles: His abortive South African tour in 1981 defined the public outcry of both American and South African blacks, and he's been on the U.N. register ever since, which isn't as much of a loss as you'd think or maybe hope. For a long time now, the Genius has sounded best singing other people's songs or, better still, guesting on other people's records. He's a headstrong man who does as he pleases, so I'm sure it's just coincidence that his only strong album of the decade preceded the boycott: 1980's Brother Ray Is at It Again.. Since signing to Columbia in 1983, he's pursued the country market. That's just coincidence, too, right? So was entertaining at the 1984 Republican convention. And getting that Kennedy medallion from Reagan in 1986.
The Crass: As someone who listened to all of the boxed two-record Christ--The Album, I can report that the most politically hardline of all left-anarchist punk bands once hit it just right, with the furiously obscene single "Sheep Farming in the Falklands" ("Fucking sheep in the homelands," "Balls to you rocket cock," and so forth). The legend that they sent James Chance to the hospital when he put one of his audience-battering routines in their faces says something I like about their style of militance.
Hank Crawford: Nobody records r&b instrumentals of more easeful mastery or deeper pocket than the former Ray Charles bandleader and Creed Taylor alto sax peon. Anchored by Crawford's drumming counterpart Bernard Purdie, Dr. John collaborations like Roadhouse Symphony (1985) and Night Beat (1989) will speak to any rock-and-roller. But as someone with zero tolerance for Hammond-organ funk, I'm opened wider by his Jimmy McGriff bands. "River's Invitation," on Steppin' Up (1987), actually taught me to appreciate Billy Preston, who guests on piano.
Miles Davis: Miles came back in the '80s. No longer a recluse, he pursued a recognizable recording career, even changed labels, as he cashed in on the fusion movement his brilliantly unreadable post-Bitches Brew work transcended in advance. Star People reinvented blues cliches, and even schlock like Tutu and Amandla showed gratifying groove and class. But his best album of the decade was the serialist tribute Aura, in which Palle Mikkelborg wrote the themes, arranged the music, and picked the players, and Miles just soloed. It's at least as tasteful as anything Mikkelborg's mentor Gil Evans ever put his mind to. And I'll take 1976's classic, ad hoc, out-of-print Agharta in a minute.
Die Kreuzen: Sympathizers cite a single-minded if not mad formal acuteness that never narrows into hardcore rant, and 1985's October File reveals an uncommonly riffy-hooky band with a standard sound. Also with the predictable mental tendencies, unfortunately, which seem just fine with Shriekin' Dan Kubinski, though he later denied it. Later, I should also mention, they sounded thrashier.
Michael Doucet: I love New Olreans rock and roll and all its African-diaspora cousins, but not for the French in them--maybe for the Latin, or for the seaport, the city. I've always had trouble with the bayou blues called zydeco, and I've always had trouble with Cajun, which I hear (ignorantly and perhaps absurdly) as country music with a lot of Normandy in it--dance music in a variety of meters, and still I find the rhythms wearing. Near as I can tell, this man is the class of a genre now hellbent on raking in the Yankee dollar. I prefer his more traditional group, Beausoleil (try Arhoolie's Allons a Lafayette), to Cajun Brew, which goes up against rock-oriented contenders like Wayne Toups. Either way he's a hell of a violinist, and he has a gentle touch.
Einstürzende Neubauten: Collapsing New Buildings, who in case you didn't guess are German, invented industrial, which by decade's end was an important strain of dance music, although they themselves were never disco-friendly. The rock-concrète experiments on 80-83 Strategies Against Architecture, replete with banging radiators and other new-metal timbres, are certainly worth hearing once. The oft-praised 1/2 Mensch intersperses arresting moments with seemly din. And though they never developed a pulse or a sense of humor, by the first side of 1989's Haus der Lüge they had achieved a symphonic grandeur that wasn't stupid or irrelevant, which in a rock context is always news.
Fearless Iranians From Hell: On their seven-inch EP they were an anti-American joke about racist paranoia, no less cathartic for the possibility that they would be taken literally by some racist somewhere--one of the Butthole Surfers int he band, say, or maybe the Iranian-Americans. The album wasn't so funny.
Franco: Dead of AIDS in late 1989, the Zairean instrumentalist-vocalist-bandleader will be remembered as a crucial 20th-century musician. He invented rumba guitar, which came to mean Afropop guitar, and always stayed on top of the changing rhythms of Zairean pop, which came to mean Afropop. The hot, sweet, soaring, exquisite Omona Wapi, a collaboration with his vocal counterpart and archrival Rochereau, is reviewed within. But though I own half a dozen of Franco's hundred-plus solo albums (as well as a tape of the renowned Sam Mangwana collaboration Coopération), sorting through them is like distinguishing among James Brown albums without knowing English. I do find the 1956 recordings on Originalité rather, well, primitive. Mélodie's Ekaba-Kaba definitely benefits from its Brussels production. Two on Makossa that both seem to be called On Entre O.K. On Sort K.O. (Volume 1, with a green cover, and Volume 5, with an orange cover) are gentle and sustaining.
Game Theory: Obsessed not just with the Beatles but with sometime Beatle obsessive Alex Chilton, rendering the ostensibly public essentially private, Scott Miller was a prototypical '80s rock artist--serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand. His Mitch Easter-produced albums were like dreams of the early dB's, before their rhythm section began to cook, which isn't to say Miller and cohorts didn't also develop a groove as they got older. He was literary, too--loved Joyce. Adepts recommend 1987's Lolita Nation, which is said to make sense, though I don't know exactly what sense. At the level of attention I can afford, I kinda like 1988's excessive Two Steps From the Middle Ages, which sounded a little . . . funkier, I guess you'd call it.
Giant Sand: For years I couldn't tell his band from Naked Prey or Thin White Rope, though I confess I wasn't trying very hard, but both of Howie Gelb's 1989 releases on Homestead (his fifth label, and not his last), the collector's compilation Giant Sandwich and the eccentric's extravaganza Long Stem Rant, merited 1989's all-purpose kudo, the Neil Young comparison. He reminds me more of Green on Red's Dan Stuart, only without Stuart's sentimentality and mythopoeia. Also without his song sense, maybe. But unlike Howie (and Neil), Dan doesn't play guitar.
Emmylou Harris: In 1984 I wrote off her second best-of ("pristine neobluegrass, pristine rock oldies") even though I'd already put 1980's pristine neobluegrass Roses in the Snow on my A shelves. But 1986's rockish Thirteen impressed me almost as much as 1987's Parton-Ronstadt-Harris Trio, which Harris held together--this reformed folkie always sounds great on other people's records. She's genuinely at home in Nashville, and put into relief by competition like Nanci Griffith, Kathy Mattea, and Lacy J. Dalton, she may well deserve to stand up there between Rosanne Cash and Reba McEntire. That best-of sounds better now.
Robyn Hitchcock: Hitchcock is the kind of English eccentric who becomes impossible to bear when he's taken up by American Anglophiles. I admired the Soft Boys' 1980 Underwater Moonlight and Robyn's own 1981 Black Snake Diamond Role from a distance, but my enthusiasm dimmed as he and his Egyptians became college-radio idols, and once I noticed the one about the guy who keeps his wife's corpse around for company, his considerable talent meant nothing to me. I have no doubt that scattered among his albums are songs strong enough to withstand his professional-oddball attentions, and if I were more spiritually advanced I might even swallow my prejudices and learn to enjoy him for what he is. Which is what? A rock and roll cross between H.P. Lovecraft and Kingsley Amis? Way too kind, but that's as much thought as I intend to give the matter.
Incredible Casuals: A wacko-retro club band who worked Cape Cod and environs as hard as NRBQ worked Woodstock and environs, they also recorded a bewildering profusion of obscure product, including cassettes they presumably peddled at gigs. Since Cape Cod is kinda near New York, permitting them to visit occasionally, they sent me a few, which were kinda good but not remarkable enough to get on. Ditto for their LP on Elvis Costello's Demon label. But "Yeah, a Little" and "No Fun at Parties," on their twenty-minute 1982 Eat EP Let's Go!, are strong enough to persuade me there was at least an album's worth of material in all that roadwork. I wonder how many bands working closer to San Diego or Miami or Toronto and environs could say the same. Maybe none--maybe a dozen.
B.B. King: He's seldom been terrible, and when in 1978 he stopped trying for AM ballads and disco crossovers and moved on up to nightclub funk, he started making good albums again. There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (1981), anchored by Pretty Purdie with plenty of fine Hank Crawford sax and Dr. John piano, featured fine new songs from Dr. John and Doc Pomus. The voice was no longer exquisite and the licks might as well have been copyrighted, but for King, standard means classic. Then again, it also means predictable, and the only one of his well-made later albums I got into was Fantasy's 16 Original Big Hits, a reissue of Galaxie's 1968 best-of. Now that's classic.
The Kinks: At around the time Steve Van Zandt was organizing Artists United Against Apartheid for "Sun City," the Kinks were playing there, not exactly a surprising move from cultural reactionaries long past their prime. The "survivor" in Ray Davies having swallowed the songwriter years before, his anomalously autumnal U.S. ascendancy was a disaster--attitudes forgivable in one of the great dotty Englishmen turned ugly and mean, and tunecraft so delicate it threatened to waft away on the next zephyr assumed an unbecoming swagger. The title tune on his depressing 1986 best-of Come Dancing was his biggest hit since 1964 because it expressed a perfect pop sentiment. Second-best is by Dave Davies, not Ray: "There's no England now," he opines, which explains a lot. Ray Davies--not the other Kinks--remains on the entertainers register of the U.N. Centre Against Apartheid. He's such a contrary chappy that he probably likes it there.
Love and Rockets: Three-fourths of Bauhaus atop the college charts--until "So Alive" in 1989 I refused even to listen to such a horrible idea. First play established that Bauhaus was Peter Murphy's baby (never listened to his college smash either). Closer study revealed that guitarist Daniel Ash writes a good dumb ditty at fast or medium tempo (that means not slow, Dan--got it?). Maybe he could ditch the others (they're brothers, it's a natural) and form a macho Flock of Seagulls.
Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly: Nobody having told this long-running Oakland pro that soul music was dead, he racked up noncrossover hit after noncrossover hit, singing in a relaxed church-of-the-immaculate-cocktail-lounge tenor similar in general feel to whatever Isley brother you think you like. Totally uncountry and not even secondhand Southern, he cultivated a light funk bottom, a few years behind the times rather than proudly conservative; he sang about Africa and the pain of the ghetto without irrelevance or self-righteousness. All of which reads great but doesn't sound all that compelling unless you happen to be one of the middle-class black folk who turned him into gold. If you still think he reads great, try his 1986 live double, his 1989 greatest hits, or his 1989 Warners debut.
Malcolm McLaren: I always preferred Fans to Duck Rock myself--rap-mbaqanga big deal, but Puccini-disco was a marriage this old reprobate was born to broker. Still, when I discovered that his mbaqanga rips ("Song for Chango," said to date to "before Jesus Christ was born," is credited like almost all the other compositions to Malc and Trevor Horn) had landed him on the U.N. register as a violator of the cultural boycott, my only regret was "Algernon's Simply Awfully Good at Algebra." That's the one good song as opposed to idea on 1989's Waltz Darling, which romanticized the rich just like he's always romanticized the poor whilst pumping the only message he's ever cared about--teen sexuality as liberation, especially for old reprobates.
Minor Threat: In theory I agree that Ian MacKaye's D.C. crew was the definitive hardcore band. In theory I love "In My Eyes" and the Dead parody. But those tracks aren't altogether breakneck, and I'm afraid I'd rather theorize about Minor Threat than hear them--they were too fucking pure. Maybe this will change as I get older--or maybe I'll discover MacKaye's mature band, Fugazi.
Pamelo Mounk'a: In the fall of 1982 my friend Sue Stewart took me to an African disco in Soho, London. The DJ played five or six songs that sounded real fine, then put on something by this Congo-Brazzaville soukous veteran, I know not what. I jumped, I raved, I gibbered. Six months later Sue brought me a copy of Mounk'a's Propulsion!, on French Sonics, thirty-plus minutes of soukous whose understated floodtide grew into my groove record of the year. Utilizing my scanty research facilities, I determined that Mounk'a's most famous song was the niftily entitled "L'Argent Appelle l'Argent," with an album of the same name attached. I never found it, to my knowledge never even heard it: never saw Propulsion! anywhere else either. I did eventually locate something called 20 ans de carrière, and bought it against the advice of Ronnie Graham's Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music. Graham was right. If you run across Propulsion!, scarf it up. And if you find "L'Argent Appelle l'Argent," tape one for me.
Milton Nascimento: I don't understand Portuguese, and nothing in the way Nascimento sounds or translates makes me regret it. In pop, not to mention rock, there's often not much difference between those hailed as great artists and those remembered as pretentious artistes, and until he storms the pantheon, I'm pegging him as the Brazilian Peter Gabriel. If you like, you can believe Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, and Spyro Gyra.
Ozzy Osbourne: I have no interest in his albums, but I've enjoyed and admired his travails. He mooned the PMRC every chance he got. And his egg-frying sequence in Penelope Spheeriis's Decline and Fall of Western Civilization Part II should be a video.
Augustus Pablo: Before either route was more than a gleam in the zeitgeist's eye, the world's greatest melodica player set up house at the corner of "world music," with its vaguely folkie-futuristic aura, and "world-beat," a term favored by rockers dancing their way to the next big thing. By the middle '80s he was the greatest of all new-age musicians even though the new-age market didn't know he existed. It's entirely conceivable he'll prove reggae's most enduring artist a century from now, but I often feel he's a little beyond me, which I don't necessarily mean as a compliment, and would no more try to parse his oeuvre than I would, oh, Steve Reich's. When I'm in the mood for mood music, I think about him sometimes, only to put on Another Green World or something. King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown, which in 1976 made dub possible as a (highly specialized, I insist) subgenre, has the mark of greatness upon it. Also in my A shelves are 1980's Original Rockers (bracingly abrasive), 1987's Rockers Comes East (poppishly upbeat), and 1986's Rebel Rock Reggae (simply sui generis).
The Residents: Once I listened with respectful pleasure to the mechanical, displaced nature of these anonymous San Francisco cutups, but when Ralph took me off the mailing list around 1981, presumably for lack of enthusiasm, I didn't complain. Later Rykodisc sent me God in Three Persons, an obscure or banal fable about pain 'n' pleasure narrated by an avant-garde cousin of Stanard Ridgway, and Enigma sent me The King and I, in which the same fella casts aspersions upon Elvis Presley in between covering his songs. Some will tell you these are great works. Which is why I myself m no longer dying to hear their much-praised Gershwin-Brown tribute George & James.
Linda Ronstadt: Since May 1983, Ronstadt has been on the U.N.'s register of entertainers who have supported apartheid by performing in South Africa--specifically Sun City, a showcase for the homeland policy at the heart of Pretoria's economic strategy. To get off the register she need only promise not to return until apartheid is ended, but she has steadfastly and self-righteously refused. So I stopped paying this stiff-necked middlebrow art singer much mind, which from her skinny-tie period to her Aaron Neville exploitation was no great sacrifice. I was especially revolted by the way she stifled pop standards beneath Nelson Riddle's arrangements and her moderately gorgeous voice. Genteel neoconservatives, knee-jerk pluralists, one-upping convolutionists, and out-and-out ignoramuses all got off on the idea of a "rock" performer validating the prerock values such songs signal. And with Linda singing, you'd never know they had anything else to say.
Santana: Though he'll never be as facile as Page or Clapton, Carlos Santana is a guitar god on sound alone, and in the '80s he probably did more honest work than any of them. As a bandleader, however, he's always had trouble distinguishing between the near-great (Armando Peraza, Coke Escovedo) and the abysmal (Neil Schon, Sri Chinmoy). I enjoyed his solo 1983 Havana Moon (the Willie Nelson cameo is the best vocal of Santana's career), admired his comradely Blues for Salvador, and listened all the way through 1988's smart three-disc coffee-table compilation, Viva Santana!. But even in 1968 he had too much dinosaur in him.
Adrian Sherwood: I enjoyed the African Head Charge album that came my way without ever seeking out another, mostly because everything else I heard from this mixmastering onetime Fall producer--by the Dub Syndicate, by Mark Stewart and Maffia, by Sugarhill permutations like Fats Comet and Tackhead--sounded better when I only heard about it. A possible exception is Tackhead's 1989 Friendly as a Hand Grenade, which may yet teach me to love the deconstructed groove--and to fully understand De La Soul.
Siouxsie and the Banshees: She has her cult--an army of black-clad college students eagerly waiting for the world to end. But though many Johnny Rotten fans proved smarter than Johnny Rotten, Siouxsie Pseud wasn't one of them. Since like Jim Morrison she disguises the banality of her exoticism with psychedelic gimmicks best consumed at their hookiest, the nightmare vignettes on her 1981 best-of were of a piece even though they spanned three years of putative artistic development. After that I kept waiting for Siouxsie to end. But she left a lot of product in her wake, and for all I know it conceals another best-of.
Sweet Honey in the Rock: Six politically correct black women, including one who signs (that is not a typo). The other five, er, vocalize, unaccompanied, except occasionally by yet other politically correct black women singers. Until they led and nearly stole Columbia's Folkways tribute, I found their congregation suspect and their lack of a backbeat fatal. But on 1988's Live at Carnegie Hall, and quite possibly elsewhere, they join as beautifully as vintage Persuasions or Miriam Makeba overdubbing Sangoma. And "Are My Hands Clean?," for instance, is ideologically stringent enough to make even a good lefty like myself wince a little.
The Treacherous Three: From Bobby Robinson's defunct Enjoy to Sylvia Robinson's defunct Sugarhill, from dance-party basics ("The Body Rock") to up-the-race traditionalism ("Yes We Can-Can"), their only rivals among the seminal rappers were Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. They spawned the record-holding Kool Moe Dee. Will some music-loving entrepreneur please buy the rights and release a compilation? Immortality awaits.
Caetano Veloso: The most credible explanation of why this soft-sung João Gilberto acolyte has more art-pop cachet than middlebrow icon Milton Nascimento or pop-r&b genius Gilberto Gil compares Veloso to Andy Warhol: supposedly he puts a lovingly ironic twist (you know, minor chords) on the sappy melodiousness of Brazilian music. No doubt it helps if you know the native language of this certified left-internationalist pop intellectual--the title song of 1989's Arto Lindsay-produced Estrangeiro (translations provided, and definitely where any American should begin) adduces Gauguin, Levi-Strauss, and Cole Porter in the first three lines. To me he just sounds soft-sung and sappily melodious. Guess I'm just wrong.
Papa Wemba: Wemba is probably the most famous and certainly the most flamboyant of the many graduates of Zaiko Langa Langa, the band that turned rumba into soukous with hard guitar and traditional rhythms and structures in the early '70s. Motto: "La ville et le village: deux visages que j'aime!" His high, harsh voice cuts like it's serrated, and the harmonies are almost acrid sometimes, just like Nguando Milos's lead guitar lines, which break away from the merely engaging competition both sonically and melodically. An admirer of the old discursive song forms, Wemba milks soukous's bipartite conventions for something very much like drama. Unfortunately, his easiest-to-find record--Papa Wemba, on Stern's Africa--synths up songs I prefer electric, having first heard them on Belgian Gitta's L'Esclave, which was findable as 1990 began. Two import albums on Disques Esperance, Ekumani and (thanks a lot) Papa Wemba, are also recommended.
The Who: The relatively stylish and passionate sex songs Peter Townshend wrote for 1981's Face Dances sounded forced from the aging pretty boy who mouthed them, and between the synths and the chorales and the writing in parts and the book-club poetry, 1982's It's Hard was the nearest thing to classic awful English art-rock since Genesis discovered funk. After that they broke up, thank God, but for me it was ruined--I could barely listen to the outtakes and arcana they continued to feed their fans, some of which I'd hoarded on tapes and U.K. pressings for decades, and their CD-market best-of made me sad. After that they staged a reunion.
Yellowman: Voice, timing, enunciation, and entertainment value made this unbleached blond the premier toaster of the '80s, but as his sexism and homophobia became more virulent, his rise to prominence with the reactionary Edward Seaga seemed less coincidental. At his best he's an unwitting amalgam of Eddie Cantor, Mae West, and Pigmeat Markham, but when his albums don't run together they distinguish themselves for the worst reasons. Live at Reggae Sunsplash, with its postclimactic "Sit Under Me," is suitably waggish and blue. Michael Manley should nationalize him and release a politically correct compilation.
John Zorn: Postmodernism done to a turn, Zorn's highbrow-lowbrow fragmentation made him the most broadly respected avant-garde composer of the '80s--a Philip Glass for our time, such as it is. He epitomized a generation of classical musicians who claim rock and roll as part of their heritage. But actually it's only a segment of a generation--nobody ever got smart underestimating the hermeticism of classical music. And perhaps because I epitomize a generation of rock and roll fans who don't know shit about classical music and don't especially care to find out, I find him highbrow. The only Zorn I respond to viscerally is the Ornette Coleman tribute Spy Vs. Spy. Ornette is hard to frag.
Buckwheat Zydeco: I'm not a reliable judge of the style (cf. Michael Doucet), and without doubt the ranking blues accordionist qualifies as Clifton Chenier's great inheritor on modernized rhythms alone--I've seen him bring them all the way up to Stax-Volt live. But at various times I've found his records too flat, too cluttered, and too eager to please.
Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, 1990