Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day(s) 7: 3/14/1794 and 6/14/1798

My dear GNABB readers, I know it has been awhile since the last installment of my 31 Days list. Due to the unprecedented excitement and response, I decided that I needed to let things cool down for awhile before hitting you with another thrilling episode. I count this as one entry, although I have two dates, four years apart, listed here. But they are related. Since it has been awhile, a review of what has come before:

* Intro and Getting By the Obvious
(Yes, I know it says 30. Changed it to 31).
* Day 1: 7/28/1588
* Day 2: 3/4/1628
* Day 3: 2/10/1763
* Day 4: 8/29/1786
* Day 5: 9/11/1789
* Day 6: 9/17/1796

Now to the newest entry...

What Happened:

You can blame the country being torn apart at its very foundation, the continued enslavement of African Americans after slavery had disappeared from the rest of the Western world, and the slaughter of over 700,000 Americans on one man. He didn't mean to cause so much trouble. He was just a creative inventor and entrepreneur. His name was Eli Whitney.

ABOVE: Eli Whitney. Inventor. Entepreneur. Key cause of the American Civil War.

Slavery had been in the Americas ever since the Europeans arrived. It flourished in the Southern regions of North America mainly due to the type of crops that were grown there. Sugar in the Caribbean, rice, indigo...and cotton. Cotton was labor intensive, though. It took a man all day to get one pound worth of cotton, as he had to painstakingly separate the seeds from the fiber by hand. Slavery had been banned in most of Europe by the early 1800's, and it was on the decline in the United States as well. Most predicted, including our Founders who had owned slaves themselves, such as Washington and Jefferson, that slavery would die a slow and natural death in the U.S. as well. But on March 14, 1794, inventor Eli Whitney was granted a patent on the cotton gin, pictured BELOW:

Now, one man churning a cotton gin, could produce 50 times as much cotton in a day as before. This changed everything. The gin separated the fiber from the seeds, and the seeds could then be replanted for more cotton.

Whitney also popularized in the U.S. (although he did not invent) the idea of interchangeable parts for muskets. On June 14, 1798, Whitney signed a contract with the United States Treasury Department as a manufacturer of firearms. Now rifles could be mass produced.

Why It Is Important:

You might ask, as my students do when we cover this period, with the cotton gin, then wouldn't you need fewer slaves? No. Now that cotton could be produced in much larger quantities relatively cheaply, the cotton industry exploded. Hundreds of thousands more acres were planted, and the South became a monopolistic economy, all cotton all the time. Slaves were needed to plant the cotton and pick the cotton. Cotton, and therefore slavery, became the backbone of the region and an integral part of everyday life. It was the key to the wealth of the planter aristocracy. There were more millionaires per capita in Natchez, Mississippi than anywhere else in the world. One landowner there owned a plantation that was the equivalent size of five Manhattans. So whereas slavery was on the decline in the South before the cotton gin, the trend was reversed and slaves were in more demand than ever. The Constitution had specifically banned the importation of slaves after 1808, but many slaves were still smuggled in to the country. Also, natural reproduction (some forced) increased the slave population as well.

Cotton can be a harsh crop on soil, and so there was an ever increasing demand for more land for cotton production. This coincided with our biggest push West. The Civil War was as much about slavery as it was about regional power struggles. But it was not just about North vs. South power. It was about North vs. South vs. West. Would this new western territory (Lousiana Purchase in 1803, Mexican Cession in 1848) be slave territory or would it be free? The South had already lost the battle for the House of Representatives (due to the North's larger population), but there was a fierce fight to maintain a balance at least in the Senate. The new states carved out of this Western territory, being flooded by new settlers spurred by manifest destiny and many push/pull factors, would be key in the power struggle. Such milestones as the Missouri Compromise, The Mexican War, the California Goldrush, popular sovereignty in the Kansas territory, The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, The Great Compromise of 1850...all were caused by or played a part in the regional power struggle, based on slave vs. free.

By the Civil War, the Southern United States was the largest cotton producer in the world. Cotton was in high demand, especially in Europe, due to the textiles boom. And the North's hands were dirty too. Northern textile mills were just as dependent on Southern cotton as Europe. Northern banks loaned money to Southern landowners. Since the South was only concentrating on cotton, Northern merchants sold to Southern customers all of the other necessities. Southern cotton wasn't just key to the South's economy, it was the fuel of the American economy as well in the first half of the 19th century.

So Whitney's cotton gin was the impetus as to why the Civil War occurred. Whitney's interchangeable parts for muskets then provided the means of mass slaughter.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dez Reviews the Book 'Makeup to Breakup' by Peter Criss, 2012 (plus KISS Analysis)

Recall (as I am sure you do) that I reviewed original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley's autobiography awhile back. I decided to move on to original drummer Peter Criss' tome next. (Gene Simmons has one out too, and Paul Stanley supposedly has one in the works). The common perception regarding the original KISS line-up is that Simmons and Stanley were the more sober, reasonable organizers, while Ace and Peter were the drunken, drug-adled creative wild cards. After reading both Frehley's and Criss's accounts, I'd say that is probably true.

I have to say that I was genuinely surprised by how engaging Criss's book was from start to finish. Even the non-KISS parts held my interest, which I did not expect. His stories of growing up a street tough in Brooklyn, being abused by repressed nuns at Catholic school, playing gigs in mob-run bars, and getting into the music biz were interesting. Also his post-KISS life held my interest as well, especially his ultimately successful battle with breast cancer. But, of course, his decadent stories of KISS are why we are here. And The Catman delivers. It is a no holds barred, explicit rock and roll memoir that can get pretty sleazy, even for a rock and roll memoir. You have to hand it to Criss for at least coming across as honest about his rock and roll days in the fast lane.

Cross referencing Ace and Peter's accounts, some truths emerge...

1. Gene Simmons is an a-hole. Most of you knew that, but the depth of his a-holeness is truly infinite. As with Ace's book, Peter is is happy to dish on Simmons' sex addictions on the road. The stories are prolific. At their peak, the band had a separate hotel suite at each stop on the road where the groupies would all be waiting. While the others would at least clean up after a show before indulging, Simmons would not even bother to shower or completely take off his make-up. He would show up, declare that he was "ready for a hot meal," and grab whoever was available.

2. Ace and Peter were definitely viewed as the junior partners, yet Frehley was a key songwriter and often a fan favorite. Criss wrote and sang their biggest hit, "Beth." While Ace was bothered by Gene and Paul's condescending attitude, Peter is absolutely seething throughout the book. You can tell that he is genuinely hurt by their attitude and he feels wronged.

3. For the second KISS book I've read now, Paul Stanley still comes across as a ghost. Gene Simmons is drawn in vivid colors in both books (even showing moments of kindness and thoughtfulness amidst abhorent behavior), but Paul Stanley (the most frequent lead singer and "front man"), has very little personality, other than Peter describing him as "Machiavellian." "Gene was crass and brutal, but he had a real naivete about him. But Paul could cut your throat and he'd be out of the room before you even realized you were bleeding...Gene might have been a control freak, but Paul usually got whatever he wanted."

4. Both Ace and Peter feel as if they were done wrong by the other two. And they were. Yet, after reading both books and their entirely frank accounts of their own (and eachother's) substance abuse problems, I can also see things from Gene and Paul's points of view. As the sober two trying to keep the machine going, working with Ace and Peter would have been maddening. Ace and Peter both only partially acknowledge that.

As with Frehley's book, Peter Criss gives lip service to warning the reader about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but also clearly revels in telling of his drunken exploits. (For good reason, they are extremely entertaining if they are all true...especially some stories involving John Belushi). One part that I found especially amusing was his description of some of the dives that he played once he went solo in the 80's and early 90's. Like a place called The Sandbox, that literally had sand for its floor and was about the size of a large playground sandbox. From Madison Square Garden to the Sandbox. Also, however unintentionally funny it was, where he discussed how disappointed he was that a solo album full of ballads for some reason flopped. He goes on about being despondent about this record not reaching the masses, and how he was particularly proud of a version of "Send in the Clowns."

ABOVE: KISS Pez dispensers

ABOVE: The KISS putt putt golf course in Vegas.

But in the end, what saves Peter's book is his frank, down to earth writing style. He is often as amazed as the reader is at the crazy rock and roll lifestyle of the 70's, and so it doesn't really come across as bragging as much as him just telling you what happened. He never does lose that average guy persona of a lucky musician from the streets of Brooklyn who happened to make it very, very big. There are no amazing revelations or deep messages here, this is just an engaging rock and roll memoir from a true survivor.

*** out of *****.

Since KISS has been nominated for a second time for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, here is my criteria breakdown for their Hallworthiness...

Influence: 8/10...As much as many critics and Rolling Stone is loathe to admit it, almost every hard rock or metal group who came after KISS acknowledges a debt to them. Simmons and Stanley make it hard to like them these days (especially with their hired guns wearing Ace and Peter's make-up), but the KISS of the 70's was huge for their genre. Alice Cooper and others broke the ground with the glam show before KISS, but KISS took it to new heights. A lot of guitar players love Ace Frehley too.

Innovation: 4/10...musically, none. This is meat and potatoes c*ck rock. Any innovation would have to be on the business/marketing side of things, with the KISS Army, the action figures, etc. Rock and roll as marketing machine has never been done this masterfully before or since. I'm not saying that is necessarily a plus, but it is a fact.

Quality of work: 5/10...I mean, this ain't Dylan or the Beatles. But for straightforward radio rock, they've got some fun stuff and you could do worse. A couple of their records do hold up as pretty great hard rock records too (KISS, Destroyer, and the live juggernaut Alive!, which was one of the key double live records of the decade of big double live records).

Intangibles: +1 Bonus Point for being one of the biggest bands of the 70's, commercially speaking. The Rockhall proudly boasts that commercial success is not part of their criteria. Perhaps not. But I have always argued that since Rock and Roll is a popular music for the masses, massive commercial success should be a (small) part of the equation if an artist reaches Himalayan commercial peaks. And in the end, I bet it factors in for the voters as well.

Rockhall Credentials: 7/10 (averaging them all plus bonus). Borderline, perhaps, but they deserve induction primarily due to influence.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Link Wray Is Awesome

One of my favorite things about following the doings of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that each year when the nominees are revealed, I try and listen to and learn about any nominee that I am not all that familiar with. Each year there is at least one whom I investigate and then become a fan of their work. This year it is Link Wray. With Wray, as with most of these artists I am talking about, I am generally familiar with who they are and I’ve probably heard some hits. But I don’t really know their music well.

Link Wray was an interesting dude. He is one of the few really important pre-late 60’s guitar heroes who still needs to be inducted (Dick Dale is another). He was way out there, using his native American heritage to add a bit of mystery to his persona. He may or may not have invented it, but Wray is widely credited with unleashing the power chord upon the world. For this alone he was a pioneer in the field. If you have ever played rock on a guitar, you owe a debt to Link Wray, as power chords are part of the basic vocabulary of rock guitar playing. His most lasting influence lies with his string of raw instrumental hits from the late 50’s and early 60’s. Listen to his stuff, and it is absolutely primal. His biggest song, 1958’s “Rumble,” was banned in many parts of the country for awhile. Now, that is not that unusual for that era, but I think what makes this situation wholly unique is the fact that “Rumble” is a freakin’ instrumental! Most banned songs are banned or censored due to lyrical content. But Wray’s guitar sound was so menacing that some radio stations felt that it alone could corrupt the youth.

ABOVE: "Rumble." Apparently this song is so sinister that if the youth of America hears it they will become instantly corrupted.

ABOVE: Here is "Deuces Wild," one of his tunes that has a killer rhythm to it.

Perhaps this is a sign that I am getting old and my memory is fading. I was searching on iTunes for a good Link Wray compilation to download, and when I found what looked like the best one, I noticed that the album cover looked familiar. So before I hit “purchase,” I went down to my CD collection (now mostly in storage under the stairs) and dug through and found the disc. I had apparently bought it a couple of years back. Obviously it hadn’t made much of an impression on me. I loaded it all onto my iPod and have not been able to stop listening to it. It is so great, so primal, so kickass. Track after track of mesmerizing rhythms from his Wraymen and killer grooves and riffs and solos from Link himself. I cannot recommend it strongly enough, it is an essential building block in rock and roll’s foundation.

ABOVE: Go get Rumble! The Best of Link Wray ***** right now.

Link had an interesting career detour in the early 70’s when he decided to go all Americana/Band/JJ Cale on us and recorded some highly regarded but hard to find records. The best of the lot is Link Wray from 1971. I highly recommend this as well, although it is miles away from “Rumble” or “Jack the Ripper.” He converted a chicken coop into a primitive three track recording studio and found an earthy sound that would make the likes of Jack White or The Black Keys salivate. It is such a great record (the best way to get it is to download it from Amazon for about $10).

ABOVE: Link Wray (1971) **** is worth the search.

I may have to revise my Rockhall wishlist for this class, because I probably need to make room for Link. With the large amount of older guitar players that are inductees and voters, he’s probably got more of a shot that I originally gave him as well.

Taking the Rockhall’s criteria:

Influence: 8/10…He was one of those touchstone early guitarists who was a big influence on the late 60’s generation of guitarists. Pete Townshend once said that he first picked up a guitar because of “Rumble.”

Innovation: 9/10…Anytime an artist introduces a key musical component to the basic rock vocabulary, that is going to earn high innovation marks. The power chord for rock guitar is one of the most basic and essential.

Quality of work: 8/10…This stuff still sounds awesome and rocks hard (I was playing it in my class the other day while the students were working on an assignment, and you could see the heads bobbing and feet tapping). Add his fantastic early 70’s work that is completely different, and you’ve got an impressive and eclectic body of work indeed.

Rockhall credentials: 8/10 (averaging Influence, Innovation, Quality). He should be in.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dez's Record Guides: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Between 1968 and 1970, John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival released an astonishing six studio records (I am mercifully not considering ‘72’s dismal Mardi Gras). Three of those six rank among rock’s greatest albums. CCR didn’t quite fit in with the late 60’s Summer of Love ethos. John Fogerty unashamedly always aimed for the commercial jugular, and while they did jam here and there, his strength was the three and a half minute single. In many ways he was a throwback to the 1950’s rock and roll era that he so loved, yet ironically his songs still feel fresh and timeless while much of the other late 60’s rock is hopelessly of its time (take his protest songs, for instance. “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” work for any era and still crackle with energy and rage, while other protest songs from the 60’s are almost as museum pieces for the 1960's). They were the ultimate swamp rock band, yet they hailed from California. And while John Fogerty is justly revered as one of America’s great rock and roll songwriters, CCR was most definitely a band. Fogerty’s songs absolutely depend on that deep, swampy groove of Doug Clifford, Stu Cook and brother Tom Fogerty. As much as he is loathe to admit it these days, CCR was all four of them, not just John Fogerty and some session guys.

Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968) ***
While there are some sparks here and there, they had not quite figured out what they wanted to do in the studio just yet. The extended jam on “Suzie Q” is groovy, but at eight and a half minutes, it is also clearly filling space. The furious cover of “I Put a Spell On You” works, but the only great Fogerty-penned tune here is “Porterville.”

Bayou Country (1969) ****
A huge step forward, “Proud Mary” is an American standard at this point, and “Born on the Bayou” is the pinnacle of their swamp rock sound. The Clifford/Cook rhythm section on “Born on the Bayou” is something you can’t fake, as simple as the song is. “Bootleg” may be one of Fogerty’s best non-hit album tracks, and is a song he has revived in his recent live shows. The playing time is dominated by two jams/songs, “Keep on Chooglin’” delivers with its one chord vamp and a dark hypnotic energy, while “Graveyard Train” just goes on way too long, therefore docking an otherwise perfect record one star.

Green River (1969) *****
The ultimate A.M. album. Concise, with all but one tune under the four minute mark, it harkens back a decade to when the single was king. Each one of these songs could have become a radio staple (and five of the nine did). I’ve argued that John Fogerty is one of the great American songwriters, masterfully evoking American themes, hopes and fears, and even the landscape (“Green River” is absolutely wonderful in its imagery), and GR is a textbook on how to write within those themes and in this format. The commercial charms of CCR are probably best represented here. It has been pointed out by others how dark Fogerty’s lyrics often are, filled with a sense of doom, yet the music balances that out to sound like jaunty radio rock. For instance, “Bad Moon Rising” is infectious, but it has lines like “I hope you have your things together / I hope you’re quite prepared to die.” It is an interesting dichotomy.

ABOVE: The happy street musician cover of Willy and the Poorboys belies a band already frought with internal tension

Willy and the Poor Boys (1969) *****
I go between this one and Cosmo’s Factory as peak CCR. WATPB is their most country-influenced record, dialing back the swamp rock of the previous three. “Cotton Fields” is simply joyous, while “It Came Out of the Sky” displays some humor and plays on America’s UFO/sci fi fixation of the 50’s and 60’s. “Effigy” is the spookiest song in their entire repertoire, but “Fortunate Son” is the real stunner here. Beyond any other Vietnam protest song of the era, it transcends the times and stands just as powerful today. This is because Fogerty dials into the class issues of the war with anger and defiance, and those things don’t change. It is a remarkable two minutes, and remarkably direct. Protest music doesn’t get any better (or more concise) than “Fortunate Son.”

The Concert (live) (1970/1980) ***
While their live recordings are spirited, they do not stray far at all from their studio arrangements, and this suffers from muddied recording quality and a lack of precision that is Fogerty’s forte in the studio.

Cosmo’s Factory (1970) *****
Even with a couple cover songs too many, CF is CCR’s tour de force. Fogerty had long conquered the 3 minute A.M. single, but he also revisits the longer jam format of their early days, and here he masters both. Opener “Ramble Tamble” burns for seven minutes, jamming on a simple progression but inexorably ratcheting up the energy. The other jam, 11 minutes on Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” brings Motown to the swamp and lets Fogerty stretch out on the guitar solos. Other than those, tight A.M. magic is the name of the game, with “Travelin’ Band,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” the menacing “Run Through the Jungle,” “Up Around the Bend”…killer track after killer track. “Who’ll Stop the Rain” is a gorgeous and powerful anti-war song, and “Long As I Can See the Light” offers a prayerful close. And by throwing in spirited covers from America’s early rock and roll songbook (“Before You Accuse Me,” “Ooby Dooby” and “My Baby Left Me”), Fogerty boldly proves that his originals stand toe to toe with them.

Pendulum (1970) ***1/2
You’ve got to hand it to Fogerty here for trying to broaden the sound. For the first time, CCR features organ and some horns. It mostly works, with “Chameleon” and “It’s Just a Thought” using these new textures especially well. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” is one of my all time favorite songs. “Rude Awakening #2” is the only place where they really overreach, and a sign that they might be finally losing some steam.

Mardi Gras (1972) *
AKA ‘Fogerty’s Revenge.’ Relations within the band had become truly toxic by this point. Tom had already left, leaving them a trio. Cook and Clifford had been asking John to allow them more input in the songs, and so John decided, fine, it would be a true democracy. As in, they would each be responsible for a third of the record. Each band member would write and sing his own songs, and Fogerty refused to play lead guitar on any of Cook’s or Clifford’s songs, only rhythm. I don’t think this is what they had in mind. Predictably, Cook and Clifford fail in spectacular fashion, much to Fogerty’s delight, I am sure. I think Fogerty was already looking towards a solo career.

Live in Europe (live) (1971-72/1973) ***
An interesting live document of CCR as a trio, but not essential.

ABOVE: CCR's Chronicle is one of the greatest compilations by any artist ever released

I counted 38 CCR compilations on Wikipedia. Most were budget packages, and there are really only two that you need if you want to go the compilation route. Chronicle (compilation) (1976) ***** stands as one of the most potent compilations by any artist in rock and roll, featuring 19 absolutely essential radio hits. Companion Chronicle vol. 2 (compilation) (1986) **** delves deeper into the album cuts, and is essential as well. Together, with a handful of essentials still missing, they paint a pretty complete picture.

John Fogerty solo

The Blue Ridge Rangers (1973) NR
John Fogerty (1975) ***
Centerfield (1985) ****
Eye of the Zombie (1986) NR
Blue Moon Swamp (1997) ***
Premonition (live) (1998) ***1/2
Déjà vu (All Over Again) (2004) NR
The Long Road Home (live/compilation) (2006) NR
Revival (2007) NR
The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (2009) NR
Wrote a Song For Everyone (duets) (2013) NR

Fogerty’s solo career has been a stop and start affair, but he still displays some of his prodigious talents here and there. His best solo outing was the hit record Centerfield, containing a couple of tunes that can stand next to CCR’s best (“Old Man Down the Road,” baseball park perennial “Centerfield”). The whole record is very good, and fueled by Fogerty’s rage both at his former bandmates and especially his former management after a brutal court battle over copyrights (“Mr. Greed,” “Zanz Kant Danz”). For the great song "Old Man Down the Road," for instance, Fogerty was sued by his former management for plagiarizing himself. They owned the CCR catalogue, and "Old Man Down the Road," apparently, sounded too much like some CCR tunes, all of which Fogerty had written. You can probably understand the frustration. The rest of these records have their moments, but are uneven.

Bottom Line: CCR put together some essential albums that flow together wonderfully and should be owned in their entirety (Green River, Willy and the Poorboys, Cosmo's Factory), but they were also the ultimate singles band from the late 60's. So with them more than most others, a great compilation does them justice. It is hard to go wrong with the double whammy of Chronicle and Chronicle, vol. 2.