Thursday, January 27, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Fanny - Fanny Hill (1972)

Before there were The Runaways, The Go-Gos, or The Bangles there was Fanny, the first all female rock band signed to a major label. They played hard rock 'n roll the way men do: with power and guts.

Fanny hailed from California but they were more popular in the U. K. where they were eventually banned from playing in the London Palladium for being too sexy. (By today's standards they dressed like nuns). The band consisted of June Millington on vocals and guitar with her sister Jean on bass. They were joined by Nickey Barclay on keyboards and Alice de Buhr on drums. Originally named Wild Honey, George Harrison suggested to producer Richard Perry that he change the group's name to Fanny, a word with much filthier connotations in Europe than it has in America. Unfortunately, the group didn't know this.

Fanny Hill, the ladies' third LP, was taken seriously by Warner Brothers. The sessions were produced by Perry who also worked with Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Leo Sayer, and more. The album was recorded in Apple Studios in London, England with Geoff Emerick, The Beatles famous engineer, spinning the knobs. It was recorded after they played behind Streisand on her 1971 rock record, Stony End.

The eleven song album opens with a kick-butt version of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" and they rocked hard on two originals, "Blind Alley" and "Rock Bottom Blues." They also showed their sensitive, feminine side with the story of a young child on the acoustic "You've Got a Home."  Side two opens with another cover, only this time they picked a more obscure song, The Beatles' "Hey Bulldog," that for my money ranks as one of the best covers of a Fab Four song ever put on vinyl.  To the band's dismay Perry added horns and strings to a few of the tracks, which softened up the arrangements and made them sound more mainstream and commercial. Long out of print, this gem was never released on CD.

After two more albums and a couple of personnel changes Fanny broke up and was forgotten by almost everyone even though they led the way for the better known girl rockers who came later.

Fanny Hill was one of my favorite records of 1972 and during my days as a college DJ I overplayed these tracks regularly.  First up is Hey Bulldog. Then listen to June Millington play some wicked slide guitar on Ain't That Peculiar. Finally, here is an old TV clip featuring this long forgotten band.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hall & Oates - Abandoned Luncheonette (1973)

Hall & Oates have always been an enigma. To this day they remain an immensely talented duo capable of some of the greatest white R&B vocal harmonies ever put down on vinyl. Yet during their heyday of the 80s, when they surpassed the Everly Brothers as the biggest selling duo in history, they succumbed, just like everyone else, to the excesses of the synthesizer. To me, during their hitmaking years they often sounded more like a new wave act than one playing blue-eyed soul while tallying up a ton of hits that included rock standards such as "Kiss on My List, "You Make My Dreams," "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do), "Maneater," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and many more.

Don't misunderstand me. They're good songs. It's just that the 80s production values washed most of the urban grit out of their arrangements. More recently, when H & O have performed the same songs properly with a drummer that isn't a robot, they have become masterworks of the genre the two Philadelphians love so much.

Hall and Oates began their career with so much promise. After a listenable, folky debut LP, Whole Oats, they achieved greatness with one of the best albums of the classic rock era, Abandoned Luncheonette, released in 1973. The best way to describe this record is to use the term "acoustic soul" because so much of it sounds like folk music with Philly soul harmonies.

The album opens with one of their greatest tracks, Hall's "When the Morning Comes" and moves gracefully to Oates' "Had I Known You Better Then," in which his rich baritone nicely complements Hall's higher register. The same can be said of "Las Vegas Turnaround (The Stewardess Song)." Their classic collaboration, "She's Gone," follows and although it wasn't an overnight success it eventually became a huge early hit and one of the finer accomplishments of their career. Side one, in which Oates is both an equal and outstanding contributor, closes with his excellent "I'm Just a Kid (Don't Make Me Feel Like a Man). If you stop listening here you'll wonder why Hall became the star while Oates' contributions were pushed into the background.

The four songs on side two are dominated by Hall and, while he was still working with Oates as a true team, they are less memorable when compared to the genius of side one. If the flip side stands all by itself, the title track, "Lady Rain," "Laughing Boy," and the album's closer, "Everytime I Look at You" (complete with a banjo, an instrument the duo is not known for using) are also quite enjoyable.

After almost a decade long sabbatical in the 90s Hall and Oates returned in the new century, ditched most of the computerized gadgetry, and released some of the best work they ever recorded including Home for Christmas, one of the greatest rock Christmas CDs of all time.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Danny Seraphine - Street Player: My Chicago Story (2010)

Danny Seraphine served as the drummer for Chicago from 1967 to 1990. He may not be one of the more famous drummers in rock 'n roll history but he is definitely on the list of the most respected skin beaters of the classic rock era. Twenty years after the band dismissed him amid great acrimony he and collaborator Adam Mitchell offer us Street Player: My Chicago Story, a 281 page autobiography that also doubles as a history of this outstanding rock septet.

As many celebrity memoirs do these days, Seraphine's book does not start at the beginning. Instead it opens with a tragedy that had a profound effect on his life and on the lives of all of his bandmates: the unexpected death of guitarist Terry Kath. Kath's demise is discussed in more detail later in the book but before that sad chapter Seraphine takes you back to his childhood, to his ethnic Italian upbringing in the city his band was named for, and how he became a delinquent. He dropped out of high school and joined a violent street gang which served as a training ground for his probable graduation into the Outfit, the name given to the local chapter of the Mafia.

Instead, Seraphine's extraordinary talent as a drummer changed his life. He received an offer to play in one of Chicago's top local rock bands and, while he never completely lost touch with some of his street pals, he did manage to right himself, become a huge success, and avoid a life of crime. From there he details how he met Kath and woodwind player Walt Parazaider, both of whom helped him form Chicago.

Seraphine explains how close of a bond the members of Chicago formed with each other. They benefited from a brotherhood that most bands could only dream of. For a long, long, time, just like The Three Musketeers, Chicago was, "All for one and one for all." As expected, that bond eventually became unglued beginning with Peter Cetera's departure in the mid-80s. Until then, the band was always highly loyal and supportive of each other.

Seraphine tells us how Chicago moved to Los Angeles to break into the big time and how they met and played with rockers who were already icons: among them were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, and Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.

The sixty-two year old drummer talks about sex, drugs, fame, the Hollywood lifestyle, and the business side of the music world. He tells us how he became more and more involved in Chicago's business matters because the drugs that became a part of their daily lives had far less of a negative impact on him than they did on the rest of the band. Management often came to Seraphine on many important issues because he was the most lucid member.

While Kath had his troubles trumpeter Lee Loughnane and keyboard player Robert Lamm were eternally strung out on cocaine. Later, trombonist Jim Pankow almost lost his job because of alcoholism. Unfortunately, Seraphine readily acknowledges that his own problems, often created by what he describes as his "Italian temper" and his quasi-leadership of the group, were ingredients that resulted in his devastating dismissal from the band with the unbreakable bond. It took him many years to recover from his loss and he allowed it to almost destroy his life.

The drummer takes us right up to current times by celebrating his return to performing with his new band, California Transit Authority, (CTA) even while he still wishes for a reconciliation with his old bandmates. It must have given Seraphine a real thrill when Lamm called him after the release of CTA's debut CD to congratulate him on how well the new group reworked Chicago's old songs.

The book is not perfect. What's missing is detailed discussion about Chicago's music and how it was written, recorded, and produced. The narrative often feels like Seraphine was sitting around a campfire telling stories while someone turned on a tape recorder to capture his thoughts. The book also lacks proper editing. Frequently, entire words are missing from sentences causing you to read them again to make sure you understand their meaning.

Unlike Keith Richards' recent memoirs, a book that appeals to a lot more people, you won't be interested in Street Player unless you are a Chicago devotee. If you are, the book is a must read, even with its flaws.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Woozy Viper - Rock & Roll (2010)

The mysterious Luke and Mitch Meseke, who comprise the duo Woozy Viper, are back with more tunes that sound as if it they were recorded in their bedroom on a small cassette recorder.  If your mind conjures up images of early period Kinks (as it should easily do on "She's Mine") and 60s garage rock with even muddier production standards then usual, you'll understand Woozy Viper. The sparse sound and arrangements of Rock & Roll are quite similar to their virtually unknown eponymous debut of 2009 that is a very enjoyable excursion into the land of unpretentious rock and strange lyrics.

Woozy Viper's juvenile side comes through on the very short acoustic romp "Party Town U.S.A." in which the lyrics barely say anything more than "There's a party going on, gonna have so much fun." I'm certain the Mesekes' anger toward a certain girl who broke their hearts on "I Want to Strangle You" is a joke.  If it isn't the boys need to see a shrink right away.   Maybe it's a good thing the lyrics aren't easily discernible.  "It's Such a Drag" ignites memories of so many different 60s bands I can't list them all.  Lyrically Woozy Viper could be the Rolling Stones in a foul mood but musically, in addition to The Kinks, you may hear The Monkees, Paul Revere and The Raiders, and The Stangeloves' mid-60s ditty, "I Want Candy."

There is no biographical information or gig schedule anywhere on their website or Myspace page so one can only guess at the brothers' motivations, influences, and musicals goals (if they have any).

If you want something offbeat but fun, you need to check these guys out.

This short, ten track album clocks in at under thirty minutes and it's only available in the MP3 format through Amazon or on iTunes.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Jay Geils - Toe Tappin' Jazz (2009)

Toe Tappin' Jazz, released near the end of 2009, is the most outstanding new jazz CD I've heard in many years. The band leader is guitarist Jay Geils, formerly known as J. Geils, founder of Boston's famous party band of the 70s and 80s whose biggest hits were "Lookin' For a Love," "Give It To Me," "Must of Got Lost," "Centerfold," and "Love Stinks." Who knew the hard-rocking Geils had this much love for jazz in his heart?

The disc is the former rocker's second jazz release (the first one is Jay Geils Plays Jazz) and both have received high praise from the few people who have heard them.  If not online Geils' little gem is hard to find.  I only stumbled across it at a souvenir shop's CD kiosk while on vacation in Lennox, MA this past summer.

The music featured on Toe Tappin' Jazz is nothing fancy, nothing experimental.  It's just superbly played traditional jazz with the emphasis on melody and song structure.  Sure, there is plenty of improvisation (what is jazz without it) but it's all very tastefully presented. The soloists never run amok or lose sight of the rest of the band because the group performs as a true ensemble.

Geils plays all of the electric and acoustic guitars, plus some vibraphone on three tracks, but he does not hog the limelight. None of the rest of the band are household names but everyone turns in a warm and loose performance that is truly a labor of love.  Among them are drummer Gordon Grottenthaller. Reed man Billy Novick plays alto, tenor, and clarinet. Doug James plays baritone sax and Jeff Stout is the trumpet player.  John Turner provides acoustic bass.  Also featured are trombone, piano, and organ.  Sugar Ray Novick adds vocals to one of the twelve tracks.

Tunes include two Johnny Hodges compositions, "Good Queen Bess" and "Funky Blues."  The band also covers Benny Goodman's "Don't Be That Way," Roy Eldridge's "Fish Market," "Stuffy" by Coleman Hawkins, and Count Basie's "Theme From M Squad."  There is also a nice version of Jimmy McHugh's standard "On The Sunny Side Of The Street."

Geils has admitted his first loves have always been jazz and blues but he never believed he was good enough to play either, until recently. I'm glad he changed his mind.