Michael Heonig / Departure from the Northern Wasteland / 1978: The Kosmische Hell Hound of Berlin

Repetition is the image of eternity in music / The music of the past justifies itself for its limitation / The music of the future is sparing itself this effort

American blues musician, Robert Johnson (1911-1938) recorded only 29 songs during his short life. An remarkably limited catalog for an artist when you consider the major impact Johnson’s legacy has had on music and culture. Twenty-nine songs recorded over a five day session in a hotel-room studio about one year before his death. Humble output for a musician who’s songs have become staples in the rock and blues cannon. With tracks like Love in Vain, Cross Road Blues, Me and the Devil Blues all being recorded by notable rock bands, including Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream. Of course, Johnson’s legacy has as much to do with the folklore of his life as it does his music. That is, the story of a young Robert Johnson‘s meeting with a certain Prince of Darkness.

According to the legend, Robert Johnson, then aspiring bluesman, took his guitar to the intersection of Highways 49 and 61, near Dockery Plantation in Clarkdale, Mississippi at midnight. The place he had been told to wait at those crossroads for the arrival of an dark stranger. After a long, torturous wait Johnson was indeed visited by a demon; Beelzebub, the fallen angel who ranks second only to Satan himself. And there the two agreed that Johnson would be given a very special gift; to be greatest guitar-playing bluesman alive. And in exchange for this gift, upon Johnson’s death, his soul would face eternal damination in hell. It’s an amazing story and it touches on something deep within the human psyche. After his death in 1938, word of Johnson’s deal-with-the-devil story slowly spread; it was a great, sinister rumor that musicans on the blues-curcuit told that also encapsulates the betrayal and hopelessness that accompanies a life on the road. Eventually, that rumor became an important part of the cultural and musical folklore in the American South. Folklore with an origin that can be traced back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s magnum opus of German literature, Faust I (1808). In fact, the premise of the Robert Johnson‘s Deal with the Devil is directly lifted from Goethe’s drama; with Satan sending his right-hand man Mephistopheles to luring the ambitious Faust into a wager for his soul. Nearly a direct match to the deal Beelzebub offers to Robert Johnson.

Of the 29 songs Johnson recorded, perhaps the most notorious is Hell Hounds On My Trail; a song that seems to directly addresses the topic of the deal with the devil legend. The story adding a level of mystery and weight to each word and phrase of the song. But we need to move beyond the title and lyric to discover the true importance of the music. To begin with, the Hell Hound recording is filled with a troubling atmosphere; the crackling surface noise of the original recording gives the song the ambience of a lost transmission from the underworld. In an artistic sense, Johnson vocal is transcendent; leaving behind the small musical circuit of the Mississippi Delta where Johnson spent most of his life. Instead, the vocal is thick with the lonely life of every man. Johnson conveying the most important aspects of the song indirectly. The words and music hinting at the Faustian bargain so many people make with their lives. The assumptions are ours to consider. And it’s these unspoken aspects that take us deep into the music. There are no screams of torment from Robert Johnson on Hell Hounds on My Trail. Instead, the vocal is gentle, almost melodious, in its delivery. His attitude is casual and his pain is forever unmentioned. Like Goethe‘s Faust, Johnson accepts the bargain and signs his fate with blood;

“I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree / Tremblin’ on the tree / I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree / Hmm-hmm, hmm-mmm / And the days keeps on worryin’ me / There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail / Hellhound on my trail…”

Departure from the Northern Wasteland is Michael Hoenig‘s solo debut from 1978. Born from the Krautrock/Berlin community, Hoenig had already earned an amazing reputation by the time of the albums release; his keen interest in experimental music got him an invitation to join the German Krautrock band Agitation Free in 1971. Recording with the band on the ground-breaking debut album, Malesch in 1972. Then touring with the group throughout Europe, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Even performing at the Munich Olmpics in 1972. Eventually, Hoenig’s concepts began moving beyond the standard “motorik” of the Krautrock sound. His electronic keyboards developing in a new direction; the Berlin School of experimental music or Kosmische Musik developing a more space-bound, electronic-keyboard template. Combining ambient soundscapes with the minimalist classical traditions of composors like Steve Reich and Moondog. Oddly enough, on Northern Wasteland, Hoenig‘s also incorportate a distinctly American character. But let me explain; the music rides the edge between adventurous kosmische music, modern classical and the New Age sound associated with the Windham Hills crowd. It’s a combination that really shouldn’t work. The New Age sound creates a (non-)musical relaxation / enviromental lifestyle slickness that plagued music that fell under the moniker. Nevertheless, Hoenig maintains the balance perfectly. Creating an album that sounds like nothing else at the time.

Hoenig uses the dry, studio slickness to his own advantage; providing the compositions on Northern Wasteland with a rich commercial platform that enhance the details of his experimental music. Taking a cue from the work of both Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, Hoenig and Conny Plank (who helped with the album’s sound production) use the full studio as a musical instrument. Creating vast towers of icy-sound and then peppering the template with irregular sequencer rhythms that wouldn’t seem out of place on a techno-pop record. On Voice of Where, Hoenig uses a series of melodic, rhythmic keyboard-phrase to create a pulsating heartbeat at the center of the music. Then adding a singular, soothing progression of free-formed keyboard fills. These strangely beautiful synthetic fills or themes rise and fall with a simple, steady repetition. Each waves of sound then descending into the watery ether of the sound. The entire pattern eventually disintergrating into a distorted cluster of odd voices and repetitions. It’s a remarkable piece of music. And these repetitions are key to understanding Hoenig‘s philosophy of making music. Unlike many musicans within the electronic realm, Hoenig‘s music remains based on the simplicity of repetition and familiarity. Maintaining the music’s humanity and emotion qualities.

On the surface, the pulsating beats of Michael Hoenig would seem at the opposite end of the (musical) specrium from the delta-blue of Robert Johnson. And some readers will struggle to understand the connection between the two. That’s understandable. But when we look beyond the issue of style, the similarities reveal themselves. On Northern Wasteland, Hoenig creates an atmosphere of detailed, structural sound that captures a sense of humanity within its ornate atmosphere. And although very different in style from the complex emotional performance of Johnson, Hoenig creates electronic music that stirs the same emotions of human struggle and loneliness. Both musicians enveloping the listener with their heartbreaking account of life on an endless highway; the place where all men seek to hide from their fate.

Looking for more? There is great electronic music to be found under the moniker of New Age. Among the dozens of bland non-music albums, you can find mis-labeled gems. If you look. For examle, try to find the brilliant Interior S/T album from 1982. Produced by the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haroumi ‘Harry’ Hosono, Interior is a mindblowing ambient / techno-pop record original released in Japan. However, Interior was released in the U.S. on the aforementioned Windham Hills label in 1985. Worth the hunting).

Gil-Scott Heron & Brian Jackson / Saturday Night Live / December 1975

Nearly everything that American poet / vocalist Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist Brain Jackson recorded together between 1971 – 1980 spoke of the personal struggle against tyranny. Not only did they create the finest soul-jazz music you will ever hear on albums like;  Pieces of a ManWinter in America and The First Minute of a New Day. Their music gave a voice to the pain and resiliency at the heart of “resistance”. These are the stories many Americans don’t want to see and hear; a truthful examination of oppression in the “land-of-the-free”. There is nothing forced or compromised about this music; the songs unfold naturally and expand with heart-breaking detail. Gil Scott-Heron articulating the inhumanity behind the economic abandonment and social alienation caused by systemic racism and classism in society.

The music is a dose of radical-poetry; words and music that create a precious honesty about a repressive society. Woven between the soulful melodies is the radical foundation of revolution. The realization that the time for reform has past and the only solutions will come in the form of collective action. Heron brings us to this revelation through the deep reflection and love for humanity within his music. A “love” that seeks to radicalize our thinking. Just as musical innovations challenge the way we hear music; radical thinking challenges the way we understand race, society & culture (& politics). And once you hear and see clearly, there is no turning back

We have been taken over by the season of ice
Very few people recognise it for what it is
Although they feel uncomfortable
Very few people recognise the fact that somehow the seasons don’t change. 

You start to, you start to relate everything to the season of ice
And so your dreams become frozen, and your ideas become frozen
Your promises become frozen in this
Frozen days, and frozen nights
Frozen aspirations and frozen inspiration

There’s something wrong, I mean, there’s something wrong

On December 13 1975, comedian Richard Pryor hosted Saturday Night Live with Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson as the musical guests. Pryor had been invited to host SNL but had one firm demand; Pryor insisted that Heron and Jackson be invited to perform. Initially, the powers-that-be at SNL refused. They wanted a more commercial musical guest that would attract a larger audience. SNL wanted to take advantage of the fact that Richard Pryor was the most popular comedian in the country. But Pryor was unwavering and threatened to withdraw for the show. His refusal to appear on SNL would have been a significant embarrassment for such a “hip” television show.  Eventually, SNL relented and invited Gil Scott-Heron and Brain Jackson to perform two songs. The first was the anti-apartheid, Johannesburg. Performed immediately after the shows first sketch with Pryor;

They tell me that our brothers over there are defying the Man
And we don’t know for sure because the news we get is unreliable, man
Yes, I, I hate it when the blood start flowing
But I’m glad to see resistance growing

Although they had already gained a positive reputation among music fans and critics, Gil Scott-Heron and Brain Jackson were hardly household names. Heron was mostly known as a jazz-poet; performing improvised spoken-word poetry with only sparse rhythm or beats as his musical backing. It’s a poetic form most people would associated with the American beat-poets of the 1950s, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. And a style that would later be adopted by early members of the hip-hop community who had a more political or social message. A community heavily influenced by Heron’s own poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”;  

The revolution will not be right back
After a message about a white tornado
White lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom
The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was first recorded in 1970 for Heron’s solo album “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox“. A version recorded with only the accomplishment of a Congo drum. Heron took the poem’s title from a slogan used by the Black Panthers and other black-power organizations. And the lyric uses language similar to popular television commercials, advertising jingles and mainstream news as ironic examples of what a revolution would not be or do. Heron was inspired to write the poem by the proto-rap group “The Last Poets”; a group of revoluntionary poets that considered themselves the “last poets” before the real, (possibly) violent revolution comes to the streets. Their track, “When the Revolution Comes” is another highly regarded and influential song/poem amoung the hip-hop community.

The performance of Johannesburg on SNL was inspired; giving late-night America a chance to see the two musicans in their radical and soulful prime. But it was Richard Pryor’s intervention that made the appearance possible. SNL was forced to accept the inclusion of their radical message only because Pryor risked the wrath of a major corporate television network. The story of their  performance is an important reminder of how much ground has been lost over the last 40 years. For all the talk of freedom across the American political spectrum, radical and revolutuonary voices are now nonexistent. 

Before his death, Malcolm X was the preeminent critic of American civil-rights and foreign policy. A national spokesperson who had the stature to demand changes from the liberal political class. Malcolm X was a true revolutionary who regularly participated in public debates at universities and public television; and he used the power of his voice to force concessions from the system. A voice that was silenced by political assassination. In the aftermath of his death, there was a profound silencing of all radical reasoning and ideas; a cultural and politcal death occurred in America. And worse of all, that policy of ”silencing” has been expanded and exported.

The killing of journalists Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia in 2018 and Shireen Abu Akleh by Israel in 2022 are two recent examples of how political assassination is used by client states of the empire. There are many others. And we don’t need to look very far to see how revolutionary voices are dealt with in the U.S; both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden live with exile or imprisonment for exposing the crimes of the empire. All of these actions taken with complete immunity from prosecution or criticism. The fairytale of “freedom and justice for all” is revealed to be nothing more than meaningless propaganda. Much has changed across the cultural landscape since 1975; with radical and critical thinking limited to those independent writers that refuse to be compromised; author Chris Hedges, professor Cornel West, Matt  Taibbi or the brave people at the Grayzone, Black Agenda Report or reporter Richard Medhurst

Unfortunately, we lost Gil Scott-Heron in 2011. But he continued to make important music until the very end of his life. When he was imprisoned multiple times in the early 2000s, Heron refused to allow the jail-time prevent him making music. Always resisting the forces that de-humanize a forgotten population. That’s no small achievement. Because it is the resistance of the artists and creators that is most needed today. Their resistance can be the spark of revolt. Brain Jackson remains active. Even recording a new album in 2022; “This is Brian Jackson”. Jackson’s warm voice a reminder of Heron and a partnership that was more the musical. The cultural and politcal message of their music continues to influence the next generation of revoluntionary thinking.

Resistance is not only about battling the forces of darkness. It is about becoming a complete human being. It is about overcoming estrangement. It is about our neighbor. It is about honoring the sacred. It is about dignity. It is about sacrifice. It is about courage. It is about freedom. It is about the capacity to love. Resistance must be become our vocation – Chris Hedges

Hot Stuff / Rolling Stones / 1976

Diane had the long blonde(ish) hair and feminine features of the ultimate 70s Girl; a Cybill Shepherd-type with her short skirt, tan legs and halter-top. She was the neighborhood college student who would come home for the summer break. And Diane wasn’t afraid to let her freak flag fly; having pot-smoke fueled parties whenever her parents were away. She also kept the younger boys of the neighborhood captivated during those endless summer months. I can still picture her washing the car or dancing on the front porch; music blasting-out for the whole world to hear. All the boys on the block gathered on the curb across the street. All hoping to get just a moment of her attention. I’m not sure whatever became of our Diane, later in life. And honestly, I don’t care to know. She is forever there in my memory, dancing her way through another perfect summer day. Golden and beautiful. And always listening to her favorite song; a red-hot live version of Hot Stuff by the Rolling Stones. The music (and the girl) dripping like sweet-honey from the heat of the day. Hot Stuff, indeed. 

1976 was the year the Rolling Stones released one of their least impressive albums; Black and Blue was the product of a band at the crossroads; with Mick Taylor exiting the band and Ron Wood not yet a full time recruit, the Rolling Stones were a band that needed more than just a replacement guitar-player. They were a band searching for a renewed purpose. The overall effect of the album was another step-down from the lackluster It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll in 1974. Of course, there are charms to be found on Black and Blue; both Memory Motel and Fool to Cry have their worthwhile pleasures. But more important than those minor gems, Black and Blue contains one song that symbolized a pivotal break from the band’s past and their evolution into the future; ”Hot Stuff” was initially released as a promo-single in the summer of 1976. And reached only the lower end of the Top 50 in the United States. An unsuccessful single at the time but an important sign that the balance-of-power had shifted within the band.

On the surface Hot Stuff shows a band ready and willing to experiment with the fundamental style of their music. But the track also reveals internal developments happening beneath the public veneer; the external sign of Mick Jagger‘s accession to the band’s creative leadership. Most fans had long considered Keith Richards the musical director for the band. His steadfast commitment to guitar orientated riff-rock kept the band on a steady course of R&B and Blues influenced rock music. However, by 1973 / 1974 the Rolling Stones were at a creative stand-still. They even recorded the useless Motown cover Ain’t to Proud Too Beg for inclusion on It’s Only Rock n’ Roll. An embarrassing artistic low-point. A new approach was desperately needed and only Mick Jagger had the ability to navigate the changing cultural landscape. After all, Jagger was already the Stones front-man and general spokesman. He alone had the vision and ability to grab the reins and incorporate the new sounds and styles emerging from clubs and streets. In many ways this was a natural progression; the Rolling Stones had long considered New York City to be their second home. Both Jagger and Richards lived in the city part of the year. And Mick Jagger was inspired by the vibrancy and artsy-decadence that the city had to offered.

Mick Jagger took full charge of Hot Stuff’s development in the studio. Skillfully managing the politics within the group by recruiting respected musicians from outside the band’s inner-circle to work with the band. Augmenting both the sound of their musical output and reshuffling dynamics between the band menbers. Hot Stuff came together slowly over the course of three recording sessions. This extended version of the Stones’ building the track piece-by-piece from a heavy four-on-the-floor drum pattern developed by drummer Charlie Watts and percussionist Ollie Brown. The tight disco-groove was exciting new territory for the Rolling Stones. Musical territoy that Watts and Brown would solidify during the band’s 75 -76 tours of America and Europe. Ollie Brown becoming an important member of the band’s expanded entourage during this period. Hot Stuff also showed why bass-player Bill Wyman was such an under-appreciated component in the band’s chemistry; rather then playing it safe, Wyman crafted a bubbling, funky bass-line that makes the entire song stand-up to the flashy drum pattern. The bass-line giving the song the nasty punch-in-the-ass bounce needed for Jagger‘s loose vocal-rap. Finally, guitarist Harvey Mandel of Canned Heat employs a wah-wah pedal technic that becomes the song’s signature; a shifting-electronic, downtown disco-vibe. It’s worth noting that Mandel was actually a leading contender to replace Mick Taylor before Ron Wood made his intentions clear. Finally, the backdrop of Hot Stuff is peppered with the tasty piano fills of Billy Preston. Preston’s talent was another important addition to the Stones; often providing the strong musical back-up needed for the swirling, adventurous atmosphere that had become their live shows. Only during the final mix was Keith Richards and Ron Wood brought into the track to provided background vocals. Their limited contributions bringing the entire song full circle.

Hot stuff
Play it rough
I can’t get enough / Cause music is what I want
To keep my body always moving
Yeah, shake it up, hot stuff

Those were the lyrics that our neighborhood 70s Girl had found so inspiring. Mick Jagger channeling the late-night atmosphere of the New York underground. His performance tapping into the pulse of a city torn between the desperation of economic decline (NY was on the verge of bankruptcy in October ‘75) and the artistic renaissance happening deep within the boroughs. His voice riding the sophisticated disco-funky wave the musicians had created. Driving the song forward as he struts through the complexity of the mix. Creating drama and dynamics with each grunt and shout. The success of the entire track relying on the primial integrity that Mick Jagger brings to the music. The singer embodying the new sounds of the city; the exploding underground of disco, punk and a new electric-funk that would soon take the form of early rap music. All the while making music that was uniquely and undoubtedly the sound of the Rolling Stones. Eventually, this important musical progress would prove to be a danger for the band’s future; exposing an artistic schism between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that would threaten the bands existance in the years ahead. But that’s another story.

For the time being, Mick Jagger’s leadership had brought new life into the middle-age band. Of course, Hot Stuff wasn’t the first time that the Rolling Stones had flirted with disco-funk; the closing track from It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll provides us a glimpse of their future ambitions; Fingerprint File takes a more traditional Sly and the Family Stone approach. The song includes a unique phase-pedal effect added to an electronic synthesizer played (again) by Bill Wyman. Fingerprint File was another experiment that inched the band closer to the artistic glories of Hot Stuff and later, their massive disco hit Miss You. The release of Miss You in 1978 finally found an audience ready to accept this new disco-influenced Rolling Stones. A situation Mick Jagger summarized nicely after the song’s commercial success;

There were a lot of people that were very narrow-minded about it. To me, I wasn’t brought up on rock music so much as blues and soul music, and lot of that music was dance music. It was specifically made to dance to…You don’t really play the grooves of yesteryear when you make records, you play the grooves of now. And that sort of beat was the thing that was going around at the time. For some people it was a very big hit, but not everyone liked it“.

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The Brian Jonestown Massacre / My Bloody Underground / 2008

Seems every established band has that one album; typically an ”experimental” album that either symbolizes: 1) a one-off studio indulgence or 2) a complete lack of engaging ideas. We have all suffered through an album of studio or live “noodling” by rock-stars that had finally wrestled artistic control from the record label only to find they don’t have a damn thing to say. There are lots of examples; everyone from George Harrison to Willie Nelson to Frank Zappa have indulged in this practice. But it’s Pink Floyd’s 1969 album, Ummagumma that rises to the top of our list. More then just an “experimental” record, Ummagumma is special only in the sense that it is the most treasonous and pointless of these indulgences. An album that represents a band at the crossroads; and without a cue as to how to proceed forward without the (acid-soaked) genius of departed member Syd Barrett. On Ummagumma, David, Roger, Richard and Nick just didn’t know what the they wanted from a new album; perhaps a unnecessary live album of Barrett material? Or a pretentious studio wank-off? Maybe both? Ultimately, the record is just a desperate attempt to buy a little extra time. And maybe you think that’s being a little harsh. But I challenge the reader to listen to the band’s appropriately titled “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” without giving up a good laugh. Enough said.

Of course, there are exceptions to this (rather cynical) rule about experimental albums. And sometimes an artist needs to make a purposeful left-hand turn with their art. For a true innovator such a move may be unavoidable. The experimental musings adding depth and character to their entire discography. Such is the case with Brian Jonestown Massacre’s My Bloody Underground (2008). Anton Newcombe has always been a musican that insisted on constructing his own template for success. Writing his own script for his career (and his life) right from the beginning; staying true to the core of his vision without ever getting trapped by his own good intensions. Still, My Bloody Underground came as a surprise upon it’s release 2008. Most of the audience seemed to dismiss the album of lengthy drones, piano dirges and eastern experiments as a one-off project or a returned to the Shoe-gaze sound of their early records. An “interesting record” that just doen’t get the playing-time it deserves. However you see it, My Bloody Underground even gets overlooked by hardcore fans. And that’s a unfortunate mistake. Because on MBU, fans and listeners alike have the opportunity to hear Newcombe’s music truly take flight.

The album starts off on more traditional ground with the track, “Bring Me The Head of Paul McCartney on Heather Mill’s Wooden Peg”. A smart, snarky jangle that is really everything we have come to expect from BJM. But something is different. The production is noisy and crude with layers raw guitar that sounds like the more energetic passages of Metal Machine Music. But it’s the lyric that sets the tone; 

Oh man, it’s dropping out of heaven and it’s bringing the word.
The wicked fucking sound that you never have heard…Now it walks Edith my soul and it lives with my mind
And it’s got a big gun and it’s hunting mankind…While it’s fucking your girlfriend and it’s flying in space
As it puts you to shame as it spits in your face
Here it comes.

Indeed, something was different. My Bloody Underground is filled with the bitter wisdom of a man in full rage; “Who Fucking Pissed in My Well?” or “My Last Night in Bed With You”. Suprizingly enough, many of these songs are uniquely titled sound-experiments that take the album in a much different direction then you may expected. Collectively, these tracks come from a place deeply personal and feel oddly overlooked. But let me explain. MBU plays like a cosmic-dialogue between the artist and the entire world around him. A world completely unaware of what lays just beneath. Music, intelligence and art; these can be very lonley places to live and work. So instead of producing meaningless studio wizardry, Newcombe has found a creative escape within the wordless beauty and sonic stilliness of these psychedelic-drones. This is best demonstrated on the album’s final piece of music; more then a blank mystery, Black-Hole Symphony is an open window that allows the music to grow and fly well beyond the walls of the recording studio.

In 1976, Krautrock pioneers, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius created the final classic Cluster’s album, Sowiesoso (Anyway). An album of amazing beauty and surprising grace. They too sought an escape from the complexities growing around them; Moebius and Roedelius sought to create “ambient electronic soundscapes for natural pastoral living”. And despite the provocative titles, My Blood Underground has a settled, repetitive groove (motorik) that is much closer to those Krautrock pioneers than anything related to the shoe-gaze movement. This may indeed be difficult emotional territory that MBU explores; personal territory owing much to a collective feeling of loneliness and alienation . But when we listen a bit closer, BJM and specifically, Newcombe, seems to have found a safe harbor through the process of creation. My Bloody Underground represents that achievement. The music taking the listener deeper within the story of a creative soul; and how he has found the process for his own escape. 

Freakwater / Old Paint / 1995

Freakwater began life as a side project; a country-cover band born from the Louisville, Kentucky’s punk scene of the late 1980s. It’s a project that went so well that the charter members, Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean decided to make their brand of contemporary Appalachian folk music into a full-time endeavor. It was good timing. The was a pent-up demand for country-music that reflected the reality of what was happening in rural America; economic decline, disintegrating social institutions and, so course, lots of public drunkenness. Many of the same topics that had made punk and hardcore music so appealing a decade earlier. Unlike Nashville’s “Ford Truck” approach to country music, Freakwater kept the spirit of their music close to the minimum-wage life of their audience. All of the band’s independently produced albums stick close to their signature musical style; a stark instrumental background with raw (female) harmonies and lyrics that echo the everyday struggles of late-period capitalism. 

Officially formed in 1989, Freakwater quickly signed to Amoeba Records for two (great) albums before signing with Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label in 1993. Janet Bean had previously been the drummer/vocalist for Eleventh Dream Day. Another Chicago area band that acquired a national following in the late 80s with their Neil Young-ish alternative sound. Bean used those relationships to help build a quick transition to the label. Freakwater went on to record nine albums with Thrill Jockey before making the move to Bloodshot Records’ in 2016. That’s an amazing discography for an independent band releasing some of the finest and most important country music since the 1970s.

And we’ll go out walking ’till our boots are run down
We’ll walk through this town where all the alleys are haunted
Though the streets are deserted these ghosts remain undaunted
And you’re laughing louder in my ear with every bottle of beer
My old drunk friend, it’s good to see you again

After releasing and touring their third album, Feels Like the Third Time (1993), Freakwater moved back to Louisville for a well-deserved break and begin the writing process for their next album, Old Paint (1995). An album that was a significant jump forward both musically and lyrically. Featuring a cleaner, fuller sound with lyrics slightly more personal. Focusing on the heartache of failed relationships and the difficulties of loneliness as we grow older. Unlike so many bands that flirted with the sound of country music in the 90s, Freakwater stayed at the foothills of Appalachia; a culture that predates the birth of the United States as a nation. Providing Freakwater’s music with historical context without the nasty right-wing sloganeering that has become so associated with commercial country music.

It’s not difficult to describe the music of Catherine Irwin, Janet Bean and David Gay on Old Paint. The words flow freely enough; simple, beautiful, effortless, earthy and rooted. The difficulty begins when trying to describe the complexity of the sound. Or it’s militancy. Freakwater is the MC5 of country music. And their music is a testimonial. Words like “rooted” or “effortless” do not properly address the purposefulness of Freakwater’s attack on what Nashville has become. Let’s try to say it this way; Freakwater is the antidote for all that has gone wrong in country music. The medicine needed to counteract the poison of the Nashville establishment stripping country music of it’s meaning and it’s voice. Beneath the beautiful harmonies of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin is the struggle for the soul of an important musical treasure. The Big Hat/ Bro-Country idiots’ like Toby Keith or Garth Brooks or, Allah help us, the Florida Georgia Line is the antithesis of all the beauty, poetry and heartbreak that Hank Williams brought to his audience. The music was cheap and real. When Nashville became more concerned about selling big trucks and beer to suburban housewives, the soul of country music died. NowKick out the jams, motherfuckers! 

I wasn’t drinking to forget
I was drinking to remember How I once might have looked
Through the eyes of a stranger When all hope should be gone
Still the dream somehow lingers Like the ghost of a snowstorm
In frostbitten fingers. Ten thousand backwards glances
Won’t bring second chances I never knew I was wasted
I was way too far gone The face I think is mine
Is not the face that I see The worried face in the mirror
Whose worried eyes are fixed on me

Muslimgauze / Hussein Mahmood Jeeb Tehar Gass / 1999

Hussein Mahmood Jeeb Tehar Gass is the 1999 album by Muslimgauze; a music project by the British experimental-electronic artist, Bryn Jones. A musician who has released dozens of albums and EPs that focus on the artists’ interest in the Middle East and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in particular. Jones first began releasing music in 1982 but did not begin using the Muslimgauze moniker until the late 80sThe name meant to bring the issue of Western Imperialism to the forefront of thepublic’s attention and create a greater understanding of the Wests’ complicity in the use of terror and mass incarceration against the Palestinian people. 

One of the many unique characteristics of the Muslimgauze catolog has always been the fundamental resistance to any affiliation with the larger music industry. Even when his records began selling in larger amounts, Jones stayed clear of the majors labels and their money. Preferring to work with smaller, independent labels that gave him the flexibility he desired for his music. That small-label affiliation even had Jones releasing material on (nearly) every independent label that approached him. A business decision that cause a great deal of frustration for Jones when some labels took advantage and issued unauthorized tracks. Or producer’s editing and/or remixing his music without permission and, very often, the label never paying royalties for the music they use. Let’s just say that, Jones had very strong beliefs. And he was willing to stand by those beliefs even when his music and livelihood were put at risk .

Byrn Jones stated early in his career that he had little or no time to think about or listen to other people’s music and often refused to mention any outside musical influences. Nevertheless, we can clearly hear the sounds and influences wrapped into the unique Muslimgauze sound. In a 1992 interview with Impulse Magazine, Jones’ finally revealed some of the music he found most inspiring; traditional Middle Eastern music, as well as bands Faust, Can, Wire and Throbbing Gristle. That’s a damn fine list of music/bands that gives us some insight into the textures and colors Jones’ wanted to incorporated into his music. Still the Muslimgauze catolog is difficult to define; nearly every record blends together the obvious influence of early techno & ambient with the wholly unique experiments of Jones. Weaving together a tapestry of analog live music with the digital sounds of a modern bedroom studio. Jones creates sharply textured but old-school music that really has little in common with the sounds of the club or dance floor. Muslimgauze is a experimental, hypnotic and earthy electronica that samples and layers muted beats and found sounds into an intentionally obscure mix. There’s almost nothing else like it. As if Jones was insisting that his listeners pay close attention to the detail as the music flows through your head. The real impact of the music only emerging when time and consideration are invested

Jones first became politically aware after learning about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The injustice of the conflict triggered Jones to learn more about the deeper origins of the conflict. Eventually leading him to the conclusion that the Palestinian struggle should be the focal-point of his music/work. Jones further concluding that it is actually the presence of U.S. and British imperialism that is at the center of the conflicts throughout the region. In a 1994 interview Jones stated; “It is music. Music with serious political facts behind it. There are no lyrics, because that would be preaching. It is music. It is up to you, to find out more. If you don’t want that, it is up to you. You can listen to only the music or you can preoccupy yourself more with it”.

In 1999, Byrn Jones died in Manchester, England of a rare fungal infection in his bloodstream. However, the legacy and importance of his unique vision and music has continued to grow through an vast underground of musicians and listeners that understood the rare gifts Jones presented to the world.

Frank Sinatra / Watertown / 1970

Frank Sinatra never really warmed to the idea of doing a “pop” music record. He did try his hand at recording two Beatles’ songs to satisfy a younger audience but the idea of dedicating a full length album to material from the rock-music era was never under real consideration. Besides, by 1970, Sinatra was already 54 years old. Not exactly “elderly” by today’s standards but certainly well outside the youth market. 

The Watertown album has been pitched to Sinatra as a new “concept” record acompanied with more contemporary instrumentation. Not so different then other “concept” records the singer had previously recorded. Albums like, In The Wee Small Hours and Only The Lonely, were “concept” albums in a sense. They may not have a linear story-line like, Watertown but they do have general ”themes”. More importantly, those records had taken Sinatra to the top of his artistic and commercial powers. So perhaps a full commitment to the Watertown project could return the middle-age singer to that lofty position on the charts. If successful, Watertown would cement Sinatra’s status for a new generation. In addition, Watertowns’ “heavy” topics and depressive/melancholy songs would appeal to music-critics and show the singer still making a serious artistic statement. Sessions for the record began in the summer of 1969 and continued through the fall. Unfortunately, the backing instrumental tracks were recorded in a New York studio and later given to Sinatra to provide the vocals. This was not the way the singer preferred to work. Sinatra had always felt that the interaction between the vocalist and musicians was a vital aspect to his art. The live collaboration allowed him the time to develop a stronger attachment to newer material. Once recording began, the singer was given very little time to find his own voice within the new songs. Adding to the dilemma, the lyrics for Watertown were espesially complicated and required a full understanding of the overall “concept” behind the individual songs. Immediately it seemed Watertown was off to a difficult start.

The central “concept” behind Watertown is that of a man who’s wife (& love) had recently abandon him. Leaving him alone in Watertown to raise their small children. But more than a time-line chronicling this sad emotional territory, Watertown is focused on a life after the initial loneliness and despairWhat then? What is a man to do after the lose of romantic love in his life? Remaining proud and strong was never in question but what comes next? Sinatra presents us with the voice of a man broken yet unafraid of a deep pain that had always been his only real companion. Obviously, this is complex terrain to examines. And despite the many obstacles, Sinatra articulates those difficulties as if they were part of his own character. The singer managing the rare feat of taking the listener deeper within the story through his own troubled and struggling soul. 

Unfortunately but almost predictably, when Watertown was release in 1970, the album was a embarrassing commercial letdown. And soon became known as the worse selling record of the singer’s career. A planned television special was quickly cancelled and the vocalist went into semi-retirement after the commercial failure. One industry report noted that Watertown may have sold as few as 35,000 copies upon its initial release. A significant embarrassment for a singer that had previously released some of the most popular albums of the past three decades. However, this is were the story gets interesting; despite the commercial woes, Watertown is a significant and important artistic statement. The material may have been very unusual and difficult to record. Taking the singer outside his comfort zone. But there is absolutely no denying that the Watertown sessions brought something very special out of the vocal performance. Sinatra demonstrating his unique ability to understand the desperation and solitude of a man abandoned within a life. The complexity of the story’s main character required Sinatra to build subtle layers of withheld emotions using only his voice. Articulating understanding and sympathy for the character with subtle inflections. Not an easy task for any vocalist. But Sinatra is able to find the authority for a unmatched performance on the Watertown album. In fact, the performance is so powerful that Watertown can be an uncomfortable listening experience. But also a worthwhile one. 

Frank Sinatra would never come close to recording a real rock-album. But on Watertown, we hear elements of what such a project may have sounded like. Watertown incorporates electric guitars, keyboards and drums, that give the project a very different emotional range from other Sinatra records. The cold, strip-down instrumental music is actually an important asset. The music allowing the lyric and vocal performance to dominate the soundstage. Watertown is a strange and beautiful album that does not really fit easily within the rest of the singer’s discography. Frank Sinatra’s performance may not have been appreciated by fans in 1970. But Watertown has aged well; proof that the singer remained ready to experiment and keep his music alive and pushing forward.

Upstairs Asylum Recordings / Detroit Unity

Brian Eno, what the fuck does he know? Doodling away with a fuckin’ alien haircut mate / Head louse / I built a swimming pool in my living room and I called it “Deep House” / You’re so edgy mate / you’re so edgy” 

Let’s try this for a solid definition of the deep-housesound; largely instrumental electronic dance music with the occasional soulful vocals (often female) with a generously lush aesthetic, slower tempos, ambient atmosphere, muted bass, spacious percussion and soft keyboard pads. The background structure is a sophisticated and complex repetition of rhythmic beats that keep the groove moving forward. Great dance-floor music, of course. But also music that, when done right, can appeals to the head, the body and the heart in equal measure. Interestingly, the Deep House sub-genre is at least partially responsible for moving dance music away from the Kraftwerk-ish electro-funk of early Techno. Taking dance-music back to the origins of discosoul, R&B, funk and tropicana. To put it another way, Deep House humanized dance music while remaining firmly in the underground. Most importantly, the current generation of producers have returned the music to the backyard house-party vibe. Assuring that both the audience and the artist can share an atmosphere of artistic freedom from a truly independent music underground. Any influence or compromise from a corporatized music industry is simply nonexistent. Think of Detroit House & Techno as a soulful, groovy rebellion against a generic and homogenized music industry.

Upstairs Asylum Recordings is the record label/imprint established by a legend of the Detroit house scene, Norm Talley. Often described as the renaissance man of a scene that is exploding across the clubs, festivals and independent music-shops of the city. As if the UAR label was founded with the specific intent of celebrating the tradition of house/techno music AND growing the subterranean music community. Talley managing the near impossible task of pulling together the various styles and influences of the legendary Chicago-Detroit alliance under one unified label. With music ranging from the sharply-textured beats of techno to the cool-dreaminess of deep-house. And the team at USR has certainly has been busy; producing 11 top-quality releases since the labels inception in 2021. Did we say “top quality”? The music pouring out on their various albums, singles and 12’s is classic Detroit electronic music: innovative, melodic and endlessly danceable. USR is a label that deserves our attention.

So were to begin? The freshly released compilation’s Unity Vol 1 & 2 would be a fine, fine place to focus our listening. (Although, all the releases are worth investigating). The two compilations feature a cross-section of music by local producers; Jon Dixon, Darrin Abrams, Rick Wade, Dorian Gig, Kyle Hall, Ataxia, Mike Clark, Kai Alce, Eddie Fowlkes, Santonio Echols, Brian Kage, Gari Romalis, Delano Smith and Tyree Cooper, as well as Norm Talley himself on the outstanding La Beaunienare. Talley brings that special melodic rush with a chilled, hypnotic keyboard-line. The melody sharing time and space with a tight techno-beat that makes standing still an impossibility. This is music that works on the dancefloor, in your car or on the livingroom floor. Other standouts tracks are Kyle Hall‘s Pico with it’s atmospheric 80s synth-riffs. And then there’s Darren Abrams’ amazing Detroit Ur My Star; a track that is everything great House music could be and should be. That is, soulful electronic music. The Unity albums are released separately as two 2×12″ collections; together they are the must-own albums for those interested in jumping into the “deep-end” of the current Detroit House / Techno scene. These are two damn near perfect compilations overflowing with great tracks produced by the brightest stars in the electronic music universe. Each track brings a fresh perspective to the music that will keep the discerning listener interested throughout the summer of 2022 (and beyond). The Unity 1 & 2 albums provided a useful window into the tradition of artistic innovation that has always been at the heart of Detroit’s electronic music underground.

The Detroit Escalator Co. / Soundtrack [313]

The Detroit Escalator Co. / Soundtrack [313]

Neil Ollivierra is the Detroit Escalator Company. Ollivierra first grabbed the publics attention promoting the new sounds of techno music during those strange & beautiful years of Detroit’s (after-)after-hours scene. The music that would soon become an important part of the vocabulary of electronic music across the globe; Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Carl Craig or Transmat and Metroplex. At the time, nobody understood just how important the new “Detroit sound” would soon become. For many Detroiters, techno music was our own exclusive soundtrack. As if, by some incredible twist of fate, Detroit clubs had exclusive access to the music that would soon start a musicial and cultural revolution.

Keep in mind that in the early 1980s Detroit had become a national punch-line for media and politicians. Not only was the city “down-and-out” with high unemployment, skyrocketing mortgage foreclosures and the crime-rate that always accompanies poverty. Nobody, not one national leader, seemed interested in rescuing the city that had once been proudly called, the “Arsenal of Democracy”. The national political climate had shifted away from big cities and now neither public or private-sector was interested in the future of a “post-industrial” Detroit. And don’t discount the role that race played in the abandonment of the city. The term “white flight” was practically invented to describe the racist reaction of the white population toward the election of the cities first black mayor. Almost half of the cities population left the city between 1960s and 1980. The end result is predictable; Detroit was allowed to fall into deep poverty and economic rot. The near disappearance of the automobile-industry was the final wound from which the city would not recovered. And oddly enough, this was the economic, cultural and political climate that gave birth to the innovation of the House and Techno music.

Soundtrack (313) was first released on the Feroz Record label in 1996. During the second phase of Detroit’s electronic music renaissance. Mixing that early techno sound with the more melodic music coming out of London and Berlin. The pacing is different; slower with a deep, more European aesthetic. But don’t get the wrong idea; there is much more happening with the Detroit Escalator Company then the divergence of sounds and culture. Much more. Like the original (313) telephone area-code of the city, Soundtrack (313) is that direct communication into the soul of the city. Ollivierra projecting his brilliantly disintegrating melodies into the smooth nighttime atmosphere that was flourishing during those early years. Soundtrack (313) stands as a vast, glistening shrine to a music scene that somehow found refuge inside the discarded auto plants and abandoned buildings of a declining city. Ollivierra embraces that nocturnal environment; that hidden, after-hours buzz that was inspiring a new generation that was looking past the desperation of economic decline and ugliness of racism

With sparse, ornate tracks like Gratiot (Ave), The Inverted Man and Fate (as a Chasm) the music of Soundtrack (313) is separated only by broken bits of ambient noise; flowing disjointed voices, sampled moving vehicles and random conversations . Although the ambiance of the record is often dark and melancholic, Soundtrack (313) has a mournful resiliency weaving through it’s grooves. tA resiliency that looks beyond the twilight days of a now forgotten love. This is sublime, abstract and cutting-edge music that is so much more then a particular genre called techno, ambient or club music. Soundtrack (313) re-captures that shared feeling that was in the air. A defiant-optimism that nobody even realized existed until it was gone. Unfortunately, life is like that. As the liner-notes of the album reissue mention; “For fans of Global Communication, Black Dog, Manuel Goettsching, Trangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze”. Those influences sums up the music wellMusique Pour La Danse. 25 years after the original vinyl release, the Detroit Escalator Company’s Soundtrack (313) hasn’t lost any of the street magic that made the album so exciting and unexpected in 96. Highly, highly recommended.

Impossible But True: The Kim Fowley Story

Sound Sample: Kim Fowley / The Trip

Most music fans will recognize Kim Fowley’s name as the exploitive Svengali behind the Runaways; the all-female rock band that release four studio albums between 1975-1979. And perhaps best known for the lolita-single, Cherry Bomb from their debut. According to the band members, whose were intense years they spent together. Signed to a major record label, Mercury Records, and touring the globe. The Runaways never really achieved the breakthrough to fame and fortune which they had been promised. And there are those who would say that was true of everything Kim Fowley touched. He never had to mainstream success the music industry expected. Somehow, Fowley was always the guy standing on the outside of the party looking in at the beautiful people. Fowley was the ultimate outlier. I suppose it all depends on your point-of-view. Because long before he ever met the Runaways, Kim Fowley had secured a place for himself in music history. Writing, producing and performing a string of unique cult rock songs throughout three decades.

Born July 21, 1939 in Los Angeles, California, Fowley began a career in music at the tender age of 18. By his own account, he took a job as band manager for a local group, the Sleepwalkers and began “assisting” with music producer’s Phil Spector, Alan Freed and Berry Gordy. Eventually producing a single with the Renegades in 1959. An impressive achievement for an ambitious young man. Within the year he produced a number of singles in the Los Angeles area. Notably, recording the single “Alley Pop” with Gary Paxton for a band that never existed, the Hollywood Argyles. The track went on to reach the number-one song on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The music industry certainly seemed receptive to Fowley as a fresh, new talent and he continued to produce singles throughout the early sixties; including; Like, Long Hair for Paul Revere and the Raider and Papa-Onm-Mow-Mow for the Rivingtons. Eventually Fowley relocated to London, Engalnd to take advantage of the exploding music scene. Even writing a b-side single with Yusuf Islam (Cat Steven) and working with Richie Blackmore, Soft Machine and member of Them. 

In 1965 Kim Fowley wrote and recorded his first song as a solo artist; “The Trip” becoming (perhaps) Fowley’s most unique and intersting contribution to music. A genuinely outstanding single, The Trip is fine early example of the experimental and psychedelic music that was becoming so popular. Incorporating distortion, reverb and guitar effects that attempt to evoke the altered consciousness of the true psychedelic experience. All produced safely in just 2 minutes; “Summertime’s here, kiddies, and it’s time to take a trip. If you feel so bad, if you feel so sad…” The song is actually much more strange then any psychedelic track I have ever heard. Providing the listener with a very unique (flying dogs anyone?) description of what hallucinogenic experiences would be coming their way. The song feels more like a fake come-on or exploitation then an actual endorsement of the drug experience. Which is exactly why the song is so brilliant and uniquely Fowley. Whatever The Trips actual intent, the song is a wonderful slice of trash-psych rock still sounds great today. Even earning a place on the expanded Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era compilation and, in a different versions, on the Pebbles album series, Volume 1 and 3. And finally, the song was feature in the 2008 Guy Richie’s film, Rocknrolla. 

Impossible but True: The Kim Fowley Story is a unique listening experience that really shouldn’t miss. The CD on ACE Records pulls together 32(!) tracks that journey through forgotten and overlooked portion of Fowley’s amazing career in music. This is music for anyone who can appreciates the strange and brilliant vision of a unique talent. Great tracks like the Seeds’ “Fallin’ off the Edge of my Mind” and the Hellions’ “Dreaming of You” sharing space with all the obscurities, novelties and oddities that Kim Fowley helped to create. One additional point, if you are taken by Kim Fowley’s iconic career then check out Caroline Now! A tribute album dedicated to the songcraft of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Why the connection to our hero, Kim Fowley? Hidden away on the final track is Fowley’s rendition of Almost Summer from the band Celebration. A group front by none other then the Beach Boy’s own, Mike Love. With the original track being co-written by Brian Wilson and Al Jardine. Making Almost Summer an (Almost) Beach Boy’s reunion. Worth seeking out, if you are inclined to indulge such frivolities.

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