Left of the Dial “Straight To Number One With A Bullet”
Written by Chris-R on May 3, 2019
Remember when DJs would declare a song making an unexpected dent in the Billboard charts as “Shooting straight to number one with a bullet”? I’ve just been reminiscing on that turn of phrase, some of that 70’s radio lingo is pretty fun. This is Left of the Dial, where your radio host Chris-R is playing deep cuts from the classic age of vinyl and beyond.
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“Out In The Street”
Fun House -1970
How is it possible that the preliminary movement to the first wave of Punk is way more aggressive and boundary-pushing than what would become classic Punk . Yeah, before Old School Punk was rupturing ear-drums, the early incarnation of Proto-Punk/Garage Rock was more Punk than the accepted first wave of Punk. MC5 said their mission statement was to make enough noise to fill an entire room, playing loud and mercilessly, influencing countless musicians scrambling to catch up to them.
Enter The Stooges to the picture, terrifying suburban moms everywhere since 1967. Iggy Pop and The Stooges served as the antithesis of all that Rock music was at the time. When every other band was trying to ultra-polish their sound in order to come across as clean-cut professionals, The Stooges played music that was loud beyond belief; ugly, gritty, and just plain raw.
Fun House just might be the Stooges defining moment in that regard. Sandwiched between their debut and the monstrously popular Raw Power, both of these albums eventually finagled their way into the popular consciousness at large, despite the uniform revile they received upon release. Standing as the black sheep of the Stooges discography, Fun House still hasn’t received this treatment from casual listeners today as it is still a brash and at times horrifyingly abrasive collage of torturous tendencies set to tape.
The reason why Fun House is such a success can be pinpointed from track 1: “Out In The Street”. Although it seems near-impossible on paper, they were actually able to achieve their legendarily unruly live sound in a studio setting, surely peeling the wallpaper off the walls from their sheer sound alone. This is the music your parents warned you about, music that is self-destructive at its very core. They want to terrify you with this disastrous sound they’re introducing to the world, clearly laughing at any listener who’s tempted to tap out and listen to their favorite Strawberry Alarm Clock records instead.
It’s hard to explain, but there is most certainly a certain “ethos” that fuels much of this music, it’s not just strung-out weirdos noodling around in the studio. I feel this is best exemplified by album closer “L.A Blues”, a purely primal Noise Rock song that is astonishing in its sound and innovation . . . and absolute dreck to listen to. Unlike what The Velvet Underground was doing, I feel as though their sonic abrasion ushered in by the Velvets still had tact and thought to it despite its unruliness, whereas “L.A. Blues” is just loud noise for noise’s sake, and something I’d personally describe as actually unlistenable to these ears. But I can’t deny its brilliance all the same, it’s not meant to be listened to per-say, but instead begs to be analyzed instead. It’s more than a song, it’s a “statement”, you see? Pretty bold aspirations from a man probably smothered in Jif peanut butter at the time of recording.
Due in part to saxophonist Steve Mackay’s involvement with the band, I genuinely feel as though this is the missing link between Punk music; or even Rock n’ Roll at large, to what Jazz is as a whole. That decaying, spiritually inclined improvisation found on this record can be easily traced back to Hard-Bop, or obviously enough Free-Jazz. The unbridled chaos of a proper Charles Mingus track can be heard in this album’s DNA. The Stooges WANT to annoy you.
You could also be led to believe that the first wave of Hard-Core music would look entirely different without Proto-Punk’s fingerprints all over it. It’s almost impossible to imagine a band like Black Flag existing without the influence set by Iggy Pop. Break out your copy of Black Flag’s My War and flip it to side B; that sludgy sound wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
That all being said, despite how effective the album still is 40 years later, there has been enough music in years past to give distance to this sound and provide a more palatable sound at times. “Out In The Street” works in this regard, heavily favoring drones and grooves instead of melodicism from chord progressions. That drum beat is the go-to sound for much of rock music since, and the guitar is able to play its own game and be effective for what it is. Heck, the Sex Pistols guitarist full on admitted that he wouldn’t have played guitar at all, if it hadn’t been for this band. And of course, the man himself, Iggy Pop, is a magnet for all things charismatic. I’m not going to lie and say I think he’s necessarily “talented”, but he certainly brings his own unique spin to his songs.
Like the way a funhouse mirror can distort your outlook and turn something perfectly natural into a warped looking sight to behold, The Stooges will both entertain and make one question the very fundamentals of rock music itself.
“(I Know) I’m Losing You”
Every Picture Tells A Story -1971
Last week I promised that I’d try to give Rod Stewart some more credit on this episode, after I roasted the artist somewhat mercilessly for unauthorized stealing of the Brazilian song “Taj Mahal” for his deeply embarrassing “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” (but it’s still a pretty enjoyable listen despite everything working against it).
But it is true that Rod did have ambitions he could fulfill when he decided to set his sights higher than lazy schmaltz or a pale imitation of that new fangled thingie called “rock… music?” (did I spell that right??? send love to the grandkids, Barbara. google garlic bread recipes).
On “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, Stewart reminds everyone why he was able to etch his own place in the world of rock music and find a comfortable enough position as rock royalty. Or better yet, how’s about ACTUAL royalty? The Queen of England appointed him as a literal knight in 2016: one of only five English musicians to receive this honor (Paul McCartney, Elton John, Ray Davies from The Kinks and Ringo Starr are the others in knighthood)
If there’s anything Rod Stewart can do very well, it’s his uncanny ability to direct a band of backing musicians. More often than not, it’s his hand-selected band members who can elevate a quaint tune into a recognizably effective rocker. The band on this song absolutely rips, they turn this song into something so much more effective than it has any right to be, really. Just listen to the band interplay and you can hear the formidable chemistry they all have together.
And Rod adds a lot to the song too. Once you get past the very dated rasp he adds to his voice, you can tell just why he’s gotten to the point he’s at today. This man has an immaculate control of his singing that most other rock frontmen just don’t have. His phrasing is great and he leans into the song just enough to actively give some direction to the full group. The tinny quality of the production helps the song as well, it’s like nobody told the production team that they weren’t making Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night. Instead, it’s a raucous performance from the group, very inspired and sounding absolutely filthy at times.
What could’ve very easily have been a phoned-in cover of a well-worn The Temptations single turned into a showcase for the group and proved how he could reinvent a song into something unique.
“Danny Elfman was in a rock band?!” is a conversation I’ve had with people more times than I can count. Yes, years before he was composing some of the most famous movie scores of all time and palling up with director Tim Burton, Danny Elfman got his start in an absurd band called Oingo Boingo.
Oingo Boingo were pioneers of the California Ska scene and left behind a pretty impressive legacy through their idiosyncratic music and legendary live shows, prompting a large word-of-mouth attraction to the band. Funny enough, the first exposure they’d gotten to the world was when they won an episode of The Gong Show, championed under their original, even more ridiculous name: “The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo”.
Still though, the ecstatic and fun-on-overload of the band had to mature eventually, right? Whilst in the midst of his composing career at this point, Elfman renamed the band to a brisk “Boingo”, dropping the Oingo from the name and signalling a change in direction for the band. When he left the band on hold, New Wave was the music of the time which allowed for the group to flourish and play to their strengths. When the band was picked back up, the music landscape at large was dominated by dark, moody, Alternative music. Elfman saw this as a new direction worth taking, and presented an entirely new sound to the band on their final release: Boingo. (not to be confused with their 1987 album Boi-ngo.)
On one hand, I’m almost tempted to try and paint a parallel between the likes of a Danny Elfman to other rockstars who had famously deviated from the Pop song formula. Along the likes of the recently departed Scott Walker who’d shelved his 1960’s chamber-pop music teenybopper persona to make a reemergence decades later making music as a highly difficult avant artist, Tim Buckley who’d shredded his “new-Dylan” characteristics apart in order to make Avant-Folk music with albums like Starsailor, or how Mark Hollis (also recently departed, it’s been a tough year for reclusive auteurs) rerouted his Synthpop success with Talk Talk into music that was increasingly minimalist and described by multiple sources as “completely unmarketable”.
I WOULD like to try and compare Elfman’s career trajectory to the fables told through the likes of these musicians, but the comparison just isn’t there. For starters, the actual popularity of Oingo Boingo is kind of uncertain –the band had mainstream appeal but their fanbase was mostly a cult following, considering how bonkers their music usually was. The band splashed into certifiable chart success a couple times, like with “Dead Man’s Party” becoming a Halloween staple, or John Hughes’ theme song to the film “Weird Science”, a song that Elfman detests beyond belief to this day. Oh, and they have a really fun cameo in the Rodney Dangerfield starred vehicle “Back To School”.
So when he began his decision in making film scores, it only proved to enhance his popularity instead of being a nail in the coffin like the aforementioned career 180’s. Placing his name atop the box office smashes “Batman”, “Beetlejuice”, and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” arguably brought him more success and introduced him to a wider audience than ever before.
Anyway, back to this last album. Right from the album opener “Insanity”, it sounds like exactly what it is: imagine if the guy who made the Batman soundtrack made a rock album. That’s enough of a selling point right there. The rock instruments are mostly gone now, replaced by sweeping orchestral parts playing very ambitious music. This song and parts of the full album can come across pretty hamfisted at times, not least in the lyric department, but it’s very hard not to appreciate the scope of what they’re doing here.
“Hey!” is simultaneously a more standard rock song and a boundary pushing opus. Elfman wears his Zappa influence on his sleeve here, further enhanced by guitarist Steve Bartek’s guitar strangeness. Unusually for the group, acoustic guitars take front and center stage on this track, providing a very creepy atmosphere that’s only furthered by Elfman’s cold and chilling vocals. It might just be me, but his cadence on this song very much reminds me of the vocal stylings from Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan but I might be alone in thinking that. The structure is winding and strange, always leaving the listener guessing to where it’s going next.
Unfortunately, Danny Elfman disbanded Oingo Boingo for good and has seemingly given up on Rock music entirely. Elfman’s dissociation from rock music reminds me of how System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian refuses to make new material with the group as he is much more satisfied being a composer instead, going as far as to claim he’d be content with never singing again.
I sincerely hope that this final album by Oingo Boingo will get some reassessment in the future, as it is definitely unique and unlike near anything else from its era.
The Nightfly -1982
How meta: a radio host playing a song whose lyrics are entirely about a disgruntled radio jockey, what a novel concept.
The title track from Steely Dan keyboardist Donald Fagen’s first solo album is a fictionalized story about if Fagen were a late night DJ instead of a multi-platinum musician. A DJ who spends his time engaging in banal conversations with callers, while binging pot after pot of dark coffee and chain smoking some good ole Chesterfield Kings. Musically speaking, The Nightfly picks up right where the Dan’s final album Gaucho left off, with it’s masterfully rounded production sound and a dub tinged instrumental.
The biggest question one might have about a Dan solo effort is what their yin would do without the yang by its side: one Walter Becker. Surprisingly, it really is not distracting as one might imagine. After-all; Steely Dan were the undisputed kings of selecting session musicians for their studio albums. On “The Nightfly”, that’s Rick Derringer of “Rock and Roll Hoochie-Coo” fame playing guitar behind Fagen, who is a wonderful addition to the track.
Fagen’s sly sense of storytelling is as compelling as its ever been, embodying the same sense of reluctant complacency of mundane life that’s been heard in plenty other songs from him. It’s snarky, but the attitude is kept below the surface.
I’d also like to recommend the other solo album Fagen made years later, Kakamiriad, an 8 song cycle about a foreign sports car. This project was the one that reunited him with his former partner in crime Walter Becker. The duo would reunite under the Steely Dan name in support of this solo album and the rest is history, as their return to form under the Steely Dan banner “Two Against Nature” garnered them the Grammy Award for Album of the Year …infamously snubbing out what may be the most important album of that year: Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP and also controversially winning over what could legitimately be the most important album of this century so far: Radiohead’s Kid A. You can’t hold that against the band though, the album was still pretty darn great!
Unlike “Lester The Nightfly” from radio station WJAZ, Left of the Dial may only play a marginal amount of Jazz, but we do have conversation! Maybe I could learn a thing or two from this guy…
Day Of The Dead -2016
First things first, a quick R.I.P. to singer Charles Bradley. Secondly, let’s show respect by spinning some of the music he’d left behind.
Like many of the great soul singers, Bradley uses cover songs to spice up and build from an existing groundwork. This excerpt right here is taken from a large gathering of bands covering songs by Psych-Folk freaky-deaky wonders The Grateful Dead. This selection of band to cover is a genius move for Bradley, the established tune helps to inform his performance and makes a lotta sense. Despite being recorded this decade, everybody involved with Bradley makes an incredible effort to tap into an authentically vintage sound. Compare this track to a sampling from 1968’s Electric Mud, the first Electric Blues album from Muddy Waters –the similarity is palpable, really showcasing these musicians talents in tapping back into a time long past.
Charles Bradley is a tried-and-true Soul singer, one of the few genres in which artists get better with age. He unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve and sheds his soul through his vocal cords. It’s always refreshing to hear Bradley’s recordings, they sound so authentically vintage and doesn’t sound forced at all. The grainy aspect of the music isn’t heard too much anymore, and it helps provide another level of sincerity to it all.
It’s hard to listen to this song without a smile on your face, Grateful Dead fan or otherwise.
“State Of Love And Trust”
A Pearl Jam great that you might not have even heard of! Taken from the prolific 90’s Grunge soundtrack to the flick “Singles”, “State Of Love And Trust” is full of piss and vinegar and is more than eager to impress the listener.
Starting off with some mighty guitar chunking, the full band makes their entrance and the sparks begin to fly. The hook for the verse sections of this song revolve around just two chords, leaving plenty of room for lead guitarist Mike McCready to solo around this two chord romp. It also leaves the stage open for singer Eddie Vedder to provide a gutbucket performance, some of the most energetic singing I’d ever heard from him. Just listen to him on that bridge, that’s some real convincing stuff.
The chorus is wonderful as well, with a nicely harmonized vocal line that’s bringing some additional melody to the song. The guitar tone really benefits with switching to open chords during this section, really opening the song up even further.
And what better way to end a song than with a wild guitar solo? Pearl Jam brings the full package on this one.
Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Music From Penguin Cafe -1976
A bright and ethereal moment of levity in the wake of our other music selections. Penguin Cafe Orchestra is one of the defining Orc-Pop acts of the genre, and the music they make is expansive and easily veers off the beaten path for the time –more closely resembling something akin to a Post-Rock band i.e. Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The orchestral sounds are used as wall painting timbre, helping to guide the emotion of the track and provides some differing perspective on these musical ideas being presented.
“Hugebaby” is a choice cut from Music From The Penguin Cafe, notably centered around a flanger-laden guitar for the rest of the unit to weave in and out of. It may seem counterintuitive to claim music made by such a large band to be “minimalist”, but its restraint is felt mostly through the song’s direction; choosing to forgo some of the more bombastic sounds that would have been very easy to fall into. Like some of the best Ambient music, it proves to be entertaining both at face value and when held away at arms length. Its beauty is unassuming and reaches further than its pleasant sound may lead you to believe.
“Precious and Grace”
Tres Hombres -1976
ZZ Top give a teeth-rattling number with “Precious and Grace”, one of the slickest grooves from a notoriously groove-centric band. The southern boys are back at it again, laying down the law of the land through stacked guitar chords and a down n’ dirty rhythm section that packs a mighty wallop.
This is a song that boils down to the meanness of its riff which admittedly does most of this song’s heavy lifting. This riff is transplanted over a general 12 bar blues format, but it still feels fresh when traversing these changes. Billy Gibbons slides right into his heavy-metal-grandpa persona when he’s behind the microphone, slurred vocals and all. The song kicks it up a notch with the solo section, giving the audience just want they’d want from ZZ Top on a track like this.
Yes, “Precious and Grace” further hones in on that signature ZZ Top sound that we’ve all come to know and love so well.
Everybody worth listening to must enjoy Miss Nina Simone’s music. I refuse to hear any argument against her, it’s near unthinkable. But still, it’s easy to offhandedly write off Nina Simone’s late period career, but there is still some quality stuff if you know just where to look. For instance, her 1978 album Baltimore is a breathtaking affair that lets us view her through a different lens than her previously recorded material from decades past.
For starters: the music of “Baltimore” is unusually a breezy Dub Reggae infused instrumental, rife with detail but still maintaining a sparse atmosphere. Nina effortlessly rides atop the song, chiming in with her vocals in a very relaxed and effortless way which benefits the mood of the song. This could be partially chalked up to her older age at the time of this song’s recording, she’s a well weathered Jazz veteran and wise with her vocal contributions.
Unfortunately, it’s been documented that Nina expressed an extreme dissatisfaction with this particular album, it seemed unrepresentative of her taste in music and she believed there was little need for her to be doing these songs. So it would seem that the album’s legacy precedes its artist in this case, as the music does the talking for itself and the music speaks wonderfully. There may be a couple missteps on here sure, I think I could have happily lived my life without hearing her sing Hall and Oates”Rich Girl” but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is that we were able to get a different glimpse from someone as essential as Nina was, and that’s got me feeling good.
“She Lives In My Lap”
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below -2003
Wow, this song is a trip and a half. Selecting a song from an established Rap duo might sound like a headscratcher for this program, but this song takes a sharp left turn from much of their existing career and works extraordinarily well outside the Hip-Hop setting that you’d expect it to be placed in.
You see, the near inexplicable weirdness of “She Lives In My Lap” is the direct result of Andre 3000 doing his best Prince impression. You could convince me that this was plucked straight from Sign O’ The Times and I’d most likely believe you. The twisted “auteur” mindset is in full effect here, breaking all the doors down and letting the art take prominence.
Andre 3K is one half of Outkast alongside Big Boi, and he’s notable for constantly pushing boundaries for his music ever since the sophomore release ATLiens, reaching an adventurous, outer-space sound for his music. This arguably all culminated in the bizarre release Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, effectively the last Outkast album. In an unprecedented move for the music industry, both members made completely solo albums and released them on the same album still billed as “Outkast”. With fewer restrictions than ever before, Andre followed his muse and returned to our mere mortal world with something undeniably inventive.
This track in particular might be my favorite of the bunch, the instrumentals are so unearthly sounding and every track placed down fights against the norms of rock music. The main buzzing synth line that propels the song should’ve be near unusable for any other song, but it actually works in this context. Airy keyboards whoosh in and out of the mix, syncopated bass riffs act as the backbone to this piece and electric guitars bounce to and fro with random liberties taken. And every artist that tries to push for the “avant” might as well be contractually obligated to include an atonal horn section, and this one is pretty darn mesmerizing as it closes the track out.
Andre 3000 further pushes his ideology of using the voice as an instrument, notably featuring zero rapping on this song but instead uses sped-up pitch correcting to give his sung lines an inhuman quality; a page taken straight from Prince’s “Camilla” persona, in which he’d sped his voice up to resemble a female/androgynous vocal. Even with the manipulation, you can tell that he knows how to mold his voice into one seeping with emotion in his delivery.
Although Andre dropped off from the music biz shortly after this album, it’s clear that he capped his career off with something of an artistic peak for himself.
“It’s Only Money (Part 1)”
In Deep -1973
Now this is a working man’s “deep cut”. Argent is a band mostly relegated to the back piles of record shops, usually the records building up dust on its sleeves. They’d of course been known enough to a certain extent: “Hold Your Head Up” was 1972’s 50th most played song according to Billboard and still pops up on the odd vintage AOR radio stations here and there, and the band had a surprising second claim to fame when KISS covered their wondrous “God Gave Rock And Roll To You”. The less said about their cover, the better…
But there’s still a wealth of overlooked greatness the band had to offer, not the least of which is “It’s Only Money (Part One)”. Right from the opening seconds, there is an undeniable energy felt in the song. The real hero of this song is the dynamics it has to offer, providing a sense of journey and intrigue. It’s hard to tell if I’m more entertained by the instrumental sections or the areas where vocals join the fray, it’s a compelling affair any way you slice it.
“I See You”
Old-School Yes? Yes, please!!
The idea of Yes without keyboardist Rick Wakeman or guitarist Steve Howe may seem downright blasphemous, but the different incarnations of this band are quality and most certainly of interest. It should be noted that the band had a rocky lineup until it solidified around the time of their beloved Fragile album, setting the template for the iconic lineup for the band. After-all, their commercial breakthrough was only two albums later: Yes The Album (not to be confused with THIS album which is just the album Yes).
Unlike the early days of some other Prog bands, Yes mostly found their footing right off the bat, –possessing the technical skills and band chemistry we loved the band for, even if the personality is hidden beneath the surface at times. It wasn’t until their third album where they’d be writing solely original songs, but they still know how to put the right spin on a cover track. Take for instance,”I See You”, an exhilarating pass-through of The Byrds psychedelic song from Fifth Dimension. Not quite “proggy” in a traditional sense, but is more influenced by the music proficiency of the Jazz side of music. Still instantly recognizable as Yes from Jon Anderson’s stacked vocal harmonies, the song steers off into uncharted territory where the guitars get to come out and play. Although he’s no Steve Howe, their original guitarist Peter Banks still brings the thunder and provides some perplexing guitar lines to the table –nearly playing completely unaccompanied at times.
Chris Squire and Bill Bruford still give a pummeling sway to the song on bass and drums respectively, you can’t get much better than Squire’s bass tone and Bruford’s mad scientist drum fills. The spacious middle portion of the song doesn’t meander, instead it helps connect the song all around. By the time we reach the outro, it feels like an earned ending to the song.
Even from their earliest offerings, you just can’t say “no” to YES.
Hope you enjoyed the program!
If you want more, you can check out last week’s episode “Don’t Annoy The Soundguy”.
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