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Loco

Flashback: I’m reading the cracked and fading labels on a stack of 45s I nabbed from my grandma when I was younger. I remember thinking, with a name like that, The Righteous Brothers must be some pretty fucking tight funk band. Boy, was I wrong.

RighteousBrothers1

Rock Hall of Fame or not, they pretty much just did a white-bread version of blue-eyed soul. No edge. That picture…it’s like that scene from Almost Famous in reverse: “Look at their eyes–they’re NOT on pot.”

But the records were pretty warped, making it fun and creepy to listen to their voices’ sad warble over the already schmaltzy ballads, so, years before I could appreciate the impressive vocal work and Phil Spector production on the corny “Unchained Melody” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” I listened to them for laughs.

Years later I’m in Boston, trying to learn more about the city’s rock ‘n’ roll history, picking the local bin at Looney Tunes, which I’m still pissed had to move. On suggestion from the staff (they were damn good at that), I grabbed a record by Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band. The first track is a cover of The Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but with all the fucking schmaltz trimmed away. It kills.

Since he’s aware the song is pretty corny, Willie’s able to be playful with it–the way he stutters that “I can’t…I can’t go on” part that wasn’t in the original, the way he turns that lame breakdown into something desperate and dirty, all over snarling guitars. If you cover someone else’s shit, you have a responsibility to turn that shit inside out, or else it’s a dick move, a kind of foul musical plagiarism that sucks ass no matter how you look at it, because you’re either stealing someone else’s work outright, or your ‘tribute’ stinks too much of you trying to insert yourself into the glory of something someone better did. But Willie covers this song by covering it in himself, covering it in sleaze and attitude. Makes it his own. There’s little trace of the boring thing it came from. Shit, this might be my favorite cover of all time.

(Speaking of people making boring Righteous Brothers songs awesome, Al Green’s slow-burning soul version of “Unchained Melody” is probably the best cover of THAT one).

A little on Willie ‘Loco’ Alexander: Fronted Boston garage band The Lost in the mid-60s, played in a few other bands after, and through those somehow got a spot filling in for Sterling Morrison in the final, doomed lineup of The Velvet Underground, formed to fill booking obligations after Lou Reed struck out on his own. Man, VU’s ‘Loaded’ was a killer album, with Reed jams like “Sweet Jane” and “New Age”; Imagine touring on it when you had no part in making it. That has to be weird. Nice Guy Willie even told Doug Yule he should change the name of the band now that Reed wasn’t around anymore, but Yule didn’t listen. He came back to Boston and had a bunch of rad bands and solo projects, too many to list, but probably the most important thing he gave Boston is “Mass. Ave,” which sounds like what would happen if you got Marc Bolan shit-hammered at TT The Bear’s. Enjoy:

-jp

You Can’t Go Surfing When It’s 20° Below

Once, I totaled a Ford Explorer while listening to “Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio?” by The Ramones.

Wait, let’s back it the fuck up a bit, I’m trying to write about how I like to listen to End Of The Century, The 1980 Ramones album (their fifth) produced by Phil Spector. It is corny. It isn’t their best. But in addition to the bad hitz, it has some rad hitz on it. Now that the last Ramone has left us (RIP Tommy), I felt like revisiting it.

Spector and The Ramones are a weird match. The producer, a legend in hizzown right, invented the whole “Wall of Sound” thing in the ’60s, worked with The Beatles on Let It Be, and produced a bunch of girl groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals. He’s also batshit crazy.

I mean, the pairing made sense on some level. The band idolized Spector and the signature sound of his records, all those golden radio hitz like “To Know Him Is To Love Him” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Baby, I Love You” and all those songs with “love” in the title, which they grew up listening to. Put on “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” from The Ramones’ self-titled, and you can hear their admiration of him. Spector hadn’t done anything good in years, and The Ramones had already done four albums of the hard-and-fast they were known for, so both parties looking in a new direction made sense. As future vee-jay Kurt Loder wrote in Rolling Stone‘s 1980 review of End of the Century:

What was Spector to make of the Ramones in the studio? He had already bequeathed them his celebrated sound some fifteen years earlier, via all those booming, jangling smash singles he created for the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, et al. Johnny Ramone could duplicate that sound just by jacking his guitar up to ten and letting it rip — no problem. What the Ramones needed now was something new. So did Spector.

In terms of personality and image and such, band and producer were a strange combination. But that’s what makes the album quirky and awesome, like a peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwich. The ingredients don’t sound like they go together, but the end result is tasty. Some people don’t think the album is tasty, though. Robert Christgau said it was “Sad.” Some people think the production is awful. Some people think the whole album is kind of a wreck…

…which reminds me. Totaled SUV. Yeah. Black ice, careless driving, careening downhill out of control and such. Ford Explorers, man. Those things are like tanks, which is why I’m still here. That beast of a road machine was all smoking and mangled when I got out, but the radio was still blasting Joey Ramone yelling about how rock and roll ain’t shit now that Hullaballoo and The Ed Sullivan Show aren’t on the TV no more, and somehow I remember that better than the accident itself, which is probably a good thing. That shit was traumatic. But so, apparently, were the recording sessions for this album. Just check the video interview above, wherein Johnny and Marky go off on what a nutcase Spector was.

There are famous stories about Spector pulling a gun on the band, and making Johnny play the opening chord of “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” hundreds of times, but who knows about the truth when it comes to shit like that (Marky says the gun thing never happened, but it ain’t as if Spector never pulled a gun on anybody). Whatever the band went through to make that album, I’m glad they went through it. “Danny Says,” with it’s sage wisdom about how you can’t surf in below-zero temperatures, is my favorite song they’ve ever done, and even though Spector having them do his “Baby, I Love You” is a bit like the professor assigning you his own work to read for class, I treasure the corniness of it all. The fact that this doesn’t sound like a Ramones album (Where are the count-ins? The songs about sniffing glue? Why are there so many songs over two minutes long? Why does everything sound so…glossy?) makes it even more of an artifact. 

Also, “Chinese Rock” is on here. That’s a song about drugs! Dee Dee Ramone cowrote it with Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls. Thunders did a version of the song first with his band The Heartbreakers on the album L.A.M.F. His version contains the line “Somebody called me on the phone, said, hey, is Dee Dee home?” while The Ramones’ version asks if Johnny (Thunders) is home. Cool little swap they did there.

-JP

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” Is My Fucking Turkey Day Jam

When I was in high school, I took a class called Rockin’ Out. It was on rock history, but as interpreted by our high school band teacher, so we listened to a disproportionate amount of Chicago. Anyway, there are two things I remember from that class: 1.) the fucking stoners that sat behind me borrowed my Tom Petty greatest hits compilation for a class project and never gave it back, goddamnit, and 2.) we listened to all of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie in class, and I found out that the subject of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition was actually a funny little anti-establishment ditty, which made angsty high school me love the fuck out of it even more.

As far back as anyone can remember (I guess since 1967), Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” has been played on classic rock radio stations every Thanksgiving. We’d arrive at Thanksgiving dinner at grammy’s house just as it was coming on the radio, and we’d stay in the car until it was over, because, well, that 18-and-a-half minute beast is just as much a part of Thanksgiving as the overrated food and family bickering, and we’d ride that thing out, and we’d know all the words, so we’d ramble along with Arlo and we’d walk in to a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat feeling all giddy. If you’ve never listened to the satirical monologue about a bullshit arrest/secret message to the Youth of America to avoid The Draft by committing minor crimes, you should, because it is a piece of history. I always wonder how many people hear it each year and think it’s just a goofy Thanksgiving-y song, though…maybe I was the only one not listening hard enough.

Almost 50 years ago, Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo dumped a pile of trash onto an existing pile of trash in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, got picked up by the cops for littering, later got to avoid the Vietnam War because of it, and wrote this rant about it over a catchy ragtime guitar phrase. True story – listen to Arlo explain it and talk about the song’s meaning and legacy back in 2005 on NPR’s All Things Considered. Because he had a criminal record for littering, he was seen as unfit to serve in the military. Even small shit like that could keep you from getting drafted. You’re hearing this back in 1967, and he’s letting you know about a loophole, man. Guthrie’s called “Alice’s Restaurant” more of a song against stupidity than an anti-war song, though, so I like to think of it his way. I mean, aside from the anti-‘Nam stuff, throughout the whole thing he’s lampooning authority and bureaucracy and all that.

Sidenote: Did you know that they made a film about the story in the song, and that Arlo and the officer who arrested him both play themselves in it? Woah, Pete Seeger’s in it, too. And Alice Brock of actual Alice’s Restaurant fame (Remember Alice? This is a song about Alice…and the restaurant…) wrote a cookbook, which is now far out of print, but the fucking awesome website Aquarium Drunkard purchased a copy and posted about it, so check that out. It’s goofy.

I’m working today, six hours’ drive away from my family. Not my first Turkey Day away from home, but that doesn’t make it any less shitty. The one thing that’ll make it feel like not just some other day, though, is when I get home and spin Alice’s Restaurant, the 1967 LP on which “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” takes up the entire A-side, on my record player. It’s a fun record; the other side has a song that rhymes “pickle” with “motorcycle,” which tells you what kind of fun person Arlo is. I’m going to have a beer and a cold turkey sandwich and the memories are going to flood on back. When he gets to the part about the people on the Group W bench, I’m going to think about how I used to not know whether to laugh when he said “There were all kinds of mean nasty ugly people…mother rapers…father stabbers…father rapers!” in the car with my mom. When the chorus comes around, I’m going to think about how I sang it in the cell after my own bullshit arrest ordeal, which probably took up even less time than Arlo’s trash thing, until they told me to shut up and try to sleep. I’m going to think about how, when I brought this record to college, I played it and found out that most people I know grew up with it being a Thanksgiving memory, too. And while it’s playing, I’m going to think about how old Arlo, whose wife Jackie just passed, is doing, and hope he’s surrounded by friends and family and such. You ought to do that, too.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

–JP