Saturday, June 19, 2010

Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush - "Johnny B. Goode" from the Album Live

I. Best Single Live Rock Albums in the History of the Universe

  • Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush - Live Marino's, ummm, skillz, made this a cult classic for the guitar freaks way back when a 'z' was only very rarely used to denote the plural. Not everyone had the album, but you knew that those who did were, like, really, really into guitars. See below.
  • Cheap Trick - At Budokan I bought my friend Jerry Spector this album for his birthday in 1979; he'd told me, get me the Cheap Trick or get me The Knack, and to this day I'm like, fucking ay, I nailed that gifting opportunity spot on.
  • The Who - Live at Leeds "Magic Bus" is, let's face it, really really silly. But "Summertime Blues" and "Young Man Blues" and "Shakin' All Over" are as powerful as anything recorded out of a remote truck ever.
  • Blue Öyster Cult - Some Enchanted Evening Always thought BÖC were a little too mannered in the studio; the single live rocks out much more satisfactorily to my mind. I'm a fan of "Astronomy" and the way Eric Bloom says "we nevah fohgot!" when addressing the Atlanta crowd.
  • Robin Trower - Live Doing research for this piece and I found out that James Dewar re-recorded all the vocals in the studio. You can hear the erased originals as echo in the monitor. But I totally don't give a fuck; "I Can't Wait Much Longer" still gives me chills, hundreds of listens in.

    Cheap Trick At Budokan album coverBlue Oyster Cult Some Enchanted Evening album cover

    II. Crowd Noise Bands

    A very famous rumor--though one that I can't cite internet references for as I look, unfortunately--is that Kiss Alive II was actually recorded in the studio, and was augmented with the crowd noise from "Monday Night Football" games.

    Kiss Alive 2 back coverI really can't comment. I was just a little too old for Kiss. When I was 12 or 13, I had a buddy named Greg Grossman who was a year behind me in school, and he was a big Kiss fan, had Double Platinum, both live albums, comic books, lunchbox, etc., etc. But I was on the outside looking in then, and later on, as I began building my album collection with cornerstones like Rush and Aerosmith and Styx* and Ted Nugent, the idea of a band in makeup seemed kind of quaint to me.

    As did the fake blood, and discussions about the length of Gene Simmons' tongue.

    So, then, OK, whatever: Just from having read what I've read, the silly things that Gene Simmons seems to say, I wouldn't put it past Kiss to have overdubbed the football crowd noise onto their ostensibly live album, but the fact remains I've never heard the thing and can't judge.

    But I can judge Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush's Live album. That one I have heard, and on that one I can say: Listen, jack, that crowd noise is 70,000 strong. Which is about 60 grand stronger than any crowd Marino might have played for when these recordings were being made.

    Don't get me wrong: it's all very artfully done. It doesn't sound real, but it sure sounds great. Frank (who is of course an amazingly fast and crisp player) goes apeshit on some modified blues scale solo, and it sounds like the Cowboys just scored from 40 yards out. Frank does some stage patter ("Alright!"), and it's as if the home team just won the coin toss. Marino rips into the chords that introduce "Johnny B. Goode" and it's as if John Elway's just thrown the pass that's gonna take him to Disneyland. These are awesome sounds, over the top and psycho, perfect for getting you all pumped up to maybe smoke a joint or see a live rock 'n' roll show, or--what the fuck--both.

    But there's no way those sounds are representative of the crowds Marino and his band played for during the tour that birthed these recordings.

    It's true that Marino played Cal Jam II in March of 1978, and it's also true that show drew something like 300,000 people, but the album's liner notes tell us that Live was recorded on the band's "1977 tour" in the "Southern United States." Those same notes specify that some of that material was actually recorded in South Florida. This would have had to have been at the Hollywood Sportatorium; there was no other sizable venue for rock 'n' roll shows here at the time. It varied from show to show, but the Sport's seating capacity for rock shows was nine or ten thousand, which is not to say that Marino and his band were drawing those kinds of numbers in '77.

    I remember that sometime in the early '80's, Marino came down and played the Sport in a package tour with Head East, the reformed Humble Pie, and one other band I don't remember. Unfortunately, I did not go, but I do remember that tickets were astoundingly cheap, even for the time, at $5.00. Pretty sure I also remember reading an interview that Jon Marlowe of the Miami News conducted (was it with Marino, or with Steve Marriott?) where the guy was saying how important it was to him to do these five dollar shows. Later on, when I became introduced to Fugazi, and became familiar with their policy of five buck shows, I would think of Frank Marino and that package tour.

    Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush What's Next coverWhich brings us back, I think, to live music, like the kind that is on the Mahogany Rush album we're looking at today. Of course, Mahogany Rush was ALL ABOUT Frank Marino. The backing band, Jimmy Ayoub on drums, and bassist Paul Harwood, were extraordinarily loyal to Marino, but not really otherwise distinguished. There's actually a really good song on What's Next called "Finish Line," where Marino goes off on this flight of the bumblebee solo, all classically influenced, and the guy is flying, he's soaring, but what keeps the track from becoming absolutely transcendent was the rhythm section, who frankly have trouble keeping up.

    Like with Neil Young with Crazy Horse, like with Robin Trower and his bands, especially after James Dewar left, like with Ritchie Blackmore after he left Deep Purple to a certain extent, there's a big drop off in talent from the star to his backing band. Fortunately, most Marino songs, and all of them on Live, are straight ahead, and all Marino is really requiring from his sidemen is a framework against which he can jam.

    Frank Marino's Gibson SGAnd he does jam. The riffs which issue crystalline from his beloved SG may not always be the most original, and in fact, there's a lot of times when he's playing a phrase and you think to yourself, 'I've heard that before.' But it's rare that you've heard it played so well. Marino's playing style is infused with all the whammy bar divebombs and wah wah transforms that percolated through hard rock guitar before Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads changed the game.

    But the '70's era flash never overwhelmed, and always served Marino mostly as contrast and counterpoint to the clean, fast technique that really dominates his playing.

    In doing my research for this post, I took a look through Rolling Stone's list of its 100 Greatest Guitarists, and without getting sidetracked by too much criticism of the um, venerable, magazine's rankings, let's just say that, though Marino unsurprisingly does not appear on their list, there are players on the list (and high on the list, too) whose attack is sloppier, less soulful, and slower than that brought forth by Mr. Marino.

    Marino (to his detriment, I think) has always dropped the name of Jimi Hendrix during his concerts and interviews, so writers in a kind of sympathetic resonance to that often call Marino's playing psychedelic. But if a shadow of Hendrix' approach trickles through to Marino's playing, it's at the blues end of the spectrum, where Hendrix was most at home, anyway. Paul Leary plays psychedelic leads; Marino was simply the shred guitarist of his era, with more crystal clear speed and more metal face soul than most all his contemporaries.

    Though I've come to quite like "Dragonfly," one of the four vocals on the album we look at that gets an "F. Marino" writing credit, Marino is plainly less of a gifted songwriter than a soulful interpreter. Like his hero, he probably never wrote a song as great as "Johnny B. Goode." But his interpretation of Berry's tune, as he marries the '50's rhythm and blues cool to the crazy-as-fuck enthusiasms of 70's arena hard rock, is indisputably of the first rank for anyone who bothers to listen.

    File under: Songs with parts recorded on a Monday night in Oakland

    * Yes, it's true: I bought The
    Grand Illusion
    at Sears, and got Pieces of Eight through the Columbia record club. (Return)

  • Monday, June 7, 2010

    Two by Alice in Chains -- "No Excuses" from the CD EP Jar of Flies and "Would?" from the CD Dirt

    Jar of Flies CD coverAlice in Chains Dirt CD cover

    If it ever comes to pass that you fall in love with a girl, yet still somehow understand that there are fundamental differences you'll never get past, well, "No Excuses" would be a real good song for the two of you to pick as your own.

    When Gravity Fails by Geo Alec Effinger cover by Jim BurnsI've been re-reading an SF classic by the name of When Gravity Fails lately; once upon a time, it taught me the Arabic word Inshallah, meaning, 'if Allah wills.' It is used by speakers of Arabic, if George Alec Effinger is to be believed, as a way to frame their dealings, their actions, and their relationships, in such a way that they can remove the worry and the heartache from them. Many Americans say, "it is what it is" in a less successful attempt to frame things the same way.

    Anyhow, when the bad shit goes down as it inevitably must for the two of you, you each can look to "No Excuses" to cut through the lifetime of hatred and bitterness.

    It works, sorta.

    Amazing that a band most known for its anguished heroin anthems could provide something so . . . utile . . . for damaged hearts and dashed dreams, but there you have it. You're my friend I will defend, even after the whole thing turns to shit.

    * * * * * * *

    A funny thing about that heroin anthem reputation, too: the band received it because of their addicted and doomed lead singer, Layne Staley. But Staley didn't have a writing credit on everything the band did. "Would?" was about heroin just as surely as most every other Chains song was, but was written by Jerry Cantrell, not Layne Staley.

    Not that you can figure it out from the opaque words ("Teach thee on child of love hereafter"), but Cantrell has said that "Would?" is about the death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. But really, I think "Would?" is one of those songs that represents a little stronger if you let the vocals wash over you devoid of meaning; that way you never have to consider the possibility that it's all so much anguished gibberish.

    I can't help but think of "Stairway to Heaven," not just for the music's depth but for the way it progresses orderly through its chapters. "Would?" has a real opium den kind of vibe as it begins, intoxicating, Middle Eastern, our friend Marid Audrin invoked once more. Then it speeds up some and gets heavy, then it gets dreamy again, then it speeds up, then it speeds up some more, and then it ends, one of the few songs I can think of where its last note is the heaviest of all.

    "Would?" was one of the best songs of the '90's, I'll say it to my grave, produced at that very special time when rock radio was playing better music than college radio was. In thinking about that time, in thinking about Alice in Chains, people invoke the word grunge, but in reality, Alice in Chains did so many things well it's not fair to circumscribe their legacy in such a fashion.

    Cantrell--influenced in his youth by Okie country/western, mind you--always refers to AiC as "metal" and never as "grunge." Though his band and many of the Sub Pop groups did have a shared fascination with heroin, I think Cantrell's distinction is an accurate one.

    Stevie Guitar MillerI remember an interview with Steve Miller I once read. The interviewer asked Miller some question or the other about Jimi Hendrix, and referred to Hendrix' tragic death or some such. I have never forgotten Miller's response. As our truths have more and more been drowned out by the politically correct niceties, his response was a classic of contrarian plainspokenness. He said that no way was Hendrix' death a tragedy. All it was, was a big waste, and that his (Miller's) primary emotional response to it was anger that such a talent could ever be so stupid as to throw himself, his gift, and all the work he might have done away for no good reason at all.

    I don't remember where I was when I heard Layne Staley had died. But I do remember my immediate response, which was: what a fucking idiot, for doing the exact thing everyone had predicted for him. What a fucking loser, with all that ability, to end up dead, and therefore precisely unable to surprise us in our jaded predictions. Like Hendrix, Staley threw it all away for no good fucking reason that I can see. And like Miller, my immediate response is anger.

    This anger is, however, mediated somewhat, and you can be sure not by the AiC reunion that's been going on since last year.

    In the end, I think that Alice in Chains is best represented not by their best song, which is pretty clearly "Would?" but by their most melancholy one, which at least to my mind is "No Excuses." Layne Staley was incredibly selfish for disrespecting his fans and his talent in such a way. But Cantrell, on consideration, had built forgiveness into the band when he wrote "No Excuses." And if Cantrell can forgive the guy, then I suppose that Layne Staley is equal to at least the same forgiveness his band's song enables me to find for my long-ago love.

    Alice In Chains - Jar of Flies - 04 No Excuses.mp3

    File under: Surcease

    Alice In Chains - Dirt - 13 Would.mp3

    These files were removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

    File under: Heroin Rock