Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Unlucky figures in Popular Music #17: Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin in concert
"Harry who?", I hear you ask?

Yes, Harry Chapin - the American folk-rock performer best known for his 1970's hits "Cats In The Cradle" and "Taxi" - is today's entry in a new series imaginatively titled "Unlucky figures in Popular Music".

A gifted songwriter & performer (and noted humanitarian), Chapin released over 9 albums in his lifetime, before his untimely death at age 38 in 1981.
The circumstances of his death were bizarre - a tragic series of events unfolded whilst Harry was on his way to perform at a free concert in New York, ending his life in an appalling way.

The following account is taken from Wikipedia:
“On Thursday, July 16, 1981, just after noon, Chapin was driving in the left lane on the Long Island Expressway at about 65 mph on the way to perform at a free concert scheduled for later that evening at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, New York. Near exit 40 in Jericho he put on his emergency flashers, presumably because of either a mechanical or medical problem (possibly a heart attack). He then slowed to about 15 miles (24 km) per hour and veered into the center lane, nearly colliding with another car. He swerved left, then to the right again, ending up directly in the path of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck could not brake in time and rammed the rear of Chapin's blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, rupturing the fuel tank and causing it to burst into flames.
Harry at his best: "Greatest Stories Live" (1976)
The driver of the truck and a passerby were able to get Chapin out of the burning car through the window and by cutting the seat belts before the car was engulfed in flames. Chapin was taken by police helicopter to a hospital, where ten doctors tried for 30 minutes to revive him”.

Wow. So Harry didn't only endure a (suspected) heart attack, but a car crash as well, and a resulting inferno that required some heroic efforts from people on the scene to prevent him from being incinerated???  Unbelievable, but it happened, and the music world lost a major talent that day in 1981...

Perhaps the unluckiest part of Harry's legacy though concerns his best known song, "Cat's In The Cradle".

A test for your consideration: ask any 10 people between the ages of 25 and 55 the question "Who sung Cat's In The Cradle?" and invariably you will get the following results:

- 7 out of 10 people will tell you "Cat Stevens" (some type of subliminal word-association involving the word "cat" is probably to blame here, although I'm sure a psychologist could explain it better)
- 2 out of 10 people will answer "Harry Chapin"
- 1 out of 10 people will answer "Ugly Kid Joe" (!)

Obligatory Ugly Kid Joe photo.
I urge you to try the test on friends, family & work colleagues. You heard the result here first...

So there you go. Pretty heavy stuff.
But enough of Harry's awful string of bad luck - let's leave this on a positive note: grab a copy of his 1976 live album "Greatest Stories Live" for an entertaining dose of the man's talents...

And if you can't find it then I'm sure you can dig up Ugly Kids Joe's half-assed "Cat's" cover version on YouTube. Whatever floats your boat.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Great Ape

Just picked up the new Gorillaz Singles Collection 2001-2011..

It's been spinning a few times now, and whilst listening I am again reminded what an incredibly talented dude Damon Albarn is.

Remember when he fronted Blur and had to endure the whole "Britpop" thing in the 90's? And the rivalry with Oasis? Well, while Noel Gallagher was busy making the same whiny, tired-sounding album over & over again over the last 10 years, Damon has taken things to another level with this incredibly inventive "virtual band", in partnership with Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett.

There's 15 tracks on this Singles Collection -and it's all gold. In fact, one could argue it's not even a collection of the best tracks Gorillaz have put out over the last decade, which is further testament to Albarn's skills.

"Clint Eastwood", "Feel Good Inc." "DARE", "Stylo" - they're all here - plus it even has "Doncamatic"! Oh hells yes!!

My tip for the unfamiliar? Pick this up, plus last year's low-key The Fall while your at it, and enjoy the good vibes.

Some of these tracks are 10 years old - but they still sound fresher than anything Liam Gallagher/Beady Eye have been putting out recently - especially that poor reworking of Lennon's "Instant Karma!" called "The Roller". Just awful.

Anyway I'm getting sidetracked. One final thought: get the special edition with all the video clips on DVD. You'll go apesh*t...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reissue Were Here

So Pink Floyd have reissued their whole back catalogue. Again.
Now don't get me wrong: I'm the ultimate Pink Floyd fan, but I'm livid because 2 years ago I went out and bought the Oh By The Way box set, containing all 14 albums with mini-vinyl replica sleeves and no new tracks, thinking this was surely the "final cut", as it were, when it comes to definitive formats of the entire Pink Floyd studio catalogue - and then the whole "Why Pink Floyd?" campaign gets unleashed on us in 2011...
This time around there is a "Discovery" edition - where all 14 albums have been reissued - and again there are no new tracks. There are no Meddle or Animals outtakes to be found anywhere - but you can get the "Experience" edition of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here (released tomorrow) which contains live tracks and a few rare studio out-takes.
If you're really keen, you can get the "Immersion" box set of Dark Side of the Moon (with Wish You Were Here and The Wall sets to follow soon), where you get a 10,000 page glossy book featuring 2 pictures you've never seen before, surround sound 22.1 mixes of the original album and the rare outtake of "Speak To Me", where if you listen closely you can hear Nick Mason fart between the bass-drum kicks.
So am I gonna shell out yet again for another format of some of my all-time favourite albums - all of which I already own??

Yeah, probably.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Back In Blax

Blacula Soundtrack (1972). It bites.
It seemed an innocent enough question...

About a year ago I found myself in a fairly average record store in the suburbs, and as I approached the young lady at the front counter I found myself uttering the following words:
"Hi, do you have a copy of the Blacula Soundtrack by Gene Page?".
Just before she answered she shot me that look - you know the one: that mixture of disgust & bewilderment that seemed to suggest "Is this guy for real??!"
Taking cue from her bemused state, I quickly added: "It's the soundtrack to that early 70's movie about the black Dracula.."
"No. We don't." she said abruptly, her tone insinuating that I had crossed some line of decency and/or political correctness courtesy of my left-field request.
Blackenstein (1973). One bad brutha.
I was disappointed at the prospect of leaving the store empty-handed and was just about to ask if they had the soundtrack to Blackenstein instead, but thought better of it...

Blacula - the motion picture - was just one of many American films released in the early 70's that made up a new controversial genre of film known as "Blaxploitation". In a nutshell, these films were typically low budget dramas full of crime, sex, violence (and horror) produced specifically for the young, urban, African-American market. The genre drew criticism from many for being simply a perpetration of white stereotypes about black people, while others praised the films as being examples of black empowerment. More often than not these films were set in urban ghettos and featured a rotating cast of hit-men, pimps, corrupt cops and random "honkys" all intent on keeping the hero on his or her toes.
Although the plot lines were spread thin (ie: black protagonist and his trials against the oppressive "whitey"), the film producers in this genre had an ace up their sleeve that was used to attract a ticket-buying public: the Soundtrack.
Between the years 1971 to 1975 (ie: the golden era of Blaxploitation) many of the biggest acts in soul music lent their names to some of the funkiest, groove-laden soundtracks you are ever likely to hear. Names like James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye & Quincy Jones created some of the era's finest music and, in the process, left behind a perfect time capsule of that controversial epoch for future generations of wah-wah guitar aficionados to nod their Afro to.
But where to start?? Well, below are 5 albums that best capture the essence of the period - in all their funky, jive-talking glory...

Isaac Hayes, Shaft (1971). You're damn right.
5. Isaac Hayes, Shaft (1971)

Before he was known to the world as the voice of Chef in South Park, Isaac Hayes was a soul legend who won an Oscar for Best Original Song for the superb "Theme From Shaft" - one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of 20th century popular music. Isaac's silky smooth vocals kick in on this opening track at around 2:42, introducing us to John Shaft through a series of memorable questions (ie: "Who is the man who would risk his neck for his brother-man?" "Shaft!" "Can you dig it?") - all backed by a relentless and extremely cool muted wah-wah guitar.
This double-album soundtrack of mostly instrumental cuts serves as the perfect backdrop behind images of detective John Shaft patrolling the mean streets of Harlem. Some super-phat bass lines and superb horn arrangements are just some of the highlights here - but the centrepiece is the near 20-minute funk tour de force, "Do Your Thing" - a great vocal performance from Hayes followed by an amazing funk jam that transports you to other areas of the cosmos. Yes, Isaac - I can dig it...

Roy Ayers, Coffy (1973). Coffy is the colour..
4. Roy Ayers, Coffy (1973)

If you're a Tarantino fan, you'll remember Jackie Brown, right? Well this is her, AKA Pam Grier, in 1973's Coffy - a film about a female vigilante wreaking havoc on drug dealers & various underworld figures - something she's apparently very good at. Although the film was never destined to make any "greatest films of all time" lists, it does boast this corker of a soundtrack from jazz/funk artist Roy Ayers.
This record has a more jazzy feel than many others in the genre, and Ayers' awesome vibraphone playing gives it a touch of class that only a master musician can deliver.
Some of the vocal passages haven't aged well, but the quality of the musicianship on this record is to be respected.
This is a great one to listen to on the headphones late at night - smooth & soothing, with a little bit of harpsichord thrown in for good measure.

James Brown, Black Caesar (1973).  Who's "The Boss"?
3. James Brown, Black Caesar (1973)

The soundtrack to this 70's remake of the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar was James Brown's first attempt at a movie soundtrack, and judging by the results we should all be thankful he decided to have a crack at it...
Gritty and pulsing with the sound of the street, this album is the hidden gem in the impressive discography of "The Godfather of Soul". Standout track "The Boss" has been sampled by numerous rap artists, including Ice-T and Nas, and "Mama Feelgood" features a sensational lead vocal from soul singer Lyn Collins.
Brown's killer band The J.B's are in fine form on this record, and there's heaps of interesting, funky guitar chops peppered throughout, until James winds things down nicely with the bluesy  "Like It Is, Like It Was" - the perfect ending to a near-perfect album.
And they had the nerve to call Bruce Springsteen "The Boss"....
Marvin Gaye, Trouble Man (1972). Great music, bad film.
2. Marvin Gaye, Trouble Man (1972)

After the initial success of his 1971 masterpiece What's Going On, Marvin went to Hollywood with the idea of recording a movie soundtrack - and Trouble Man was the worthy result.
More bluesy and atmospheric than most other soundtracks in the genre, this one is mostly instrumental with the odd vocal phrasing from the man himself scattered throughout. The title track "Trouble Man" is simply a classic: Gaye plays the drums and piano on this cut, and also turns in the kind of falsetto vocal performance that only justifies his reputation as "The Prince of Soul". Just great.
While the movie was a stinker, the soundtrack is all class. Marvin went on to release some other great albums in the 70's - notably Let's Get It On (1973) and Here, My Dear (1978) - and was riding the success of his "comeback" album Midnight Love in the early 80's when his life was tragically cut short: he was shot dead by his own father on April Fool's Day in 1984 - one day before his 45th birthday. A sad end to a true soul legend.

Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly (1972). Super Funky.
1. Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly (1972)

The standard by which all others should be judged...
Not just a great soundtrack album: this is a superb artistic statement that has stood the test of time.
Curtis Mayfield, multi-instrumentalist and one of the pioneers of socially-aware, politically charged music, left soul group The Impressions in 1970 for a solo career which hit its peak with this 1972 masterpiece - a soundtrack album that made more money than the film!
Tracks like "Pusherman", "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly" are funk/soul classics which have stood the test of time and influenced many other artists over the years - from Prince to most of the hip-hop generation.
The album has aged incredibly well too. It is not just an artifact of its era, but an artistic milestone in the development of African-American music and culture - so much so that it was even voted the "69th greatest album of all time" by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003.
If you only check out from album from this hastily assembled Top 5 - make sure it's this one. An essential addition to any music lover's collection.

Well, about 2 weeks after that awkward social interaction created by my unyielding search for the Blacula soundtrack, I finally tracked a CD copy of the album down in a local record store.
Curiosity had got the better of me and I had high expectations, however it didn't take long to realize that this record wasn't in the same league as a Shaft or Super Fly. Yes, it's funky and it has all the trademarks of the genre - but the thrill of the chase for this elusive gem had far outweighed the actual experience of listening to the music.
I don't know what to make of this, but it has caused me to postpone my hunt for the Blackenstein soundtrack indefinitely.  Some things can never live up to one's expectations....

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Get your filthy hands off my Obi-Wan"

"Walrus Man" action figure (1977). Provocative.
Ok, this is where I'm gonna lose everyone........

There are very few topics across the broad spectrum of the pop-cultural landscape that continue to capture my interest as consistently (and overwhelmingly) as that most special of "specialist nerdy fields": Star Wars "Vintage" Action Figures produced by Kenner between the years 1977 & 1985.

There I said it.

Now before you roll your eyes and navigate to a new web page, please hear me out. When I mention Star Wars figures I don't mean those infinite, soulless, over-manufactured "Prequel Trilogy" Star Wars figures you can pick up at any toy store these days - which cost the earth and have 16 articulation points (and that's just on the left upper limb) - I'm talking about the good old Star Wars figures we mid-thirties male-types used to have as kids in the 1980's.
These are the droids you're looking for...
We now call them "retro" because that's the cool thing to say and we like anything that's seemingly "old skool", but back in the day these action figures were anything but old skool. On the contrary, these babies were at the cutting edge of technology in the field of science-fiction-related entertainment merchandise. If you need any proof just check out the intricacies of the techno-exterior on the 1977 vintage R2D2 action figure: a cartoonish print produced on a white sticker deftly stuck to the little rotund droid's white plastic garbage-can body. Brilliant! Kudos to Kenner for giving the late-70's toy buying public this superbly bold vision of futuristic realism...

But seriously folks, the R2D2 figure aside, Kenner should be commended for bringing so much detail and life to their range of nearly 100 different figures from the original Star Wars trilogy, produced over the 8 year period between 1977 and 1985. Immensely popular the world over, they really set the standard for the modern era of movie-related merchandise, and are still sought after by zealous, possibly unstable, individuals such as myself to this very day.
"I bent my Wookie"
As a kid in primary school in the early 80's, I was right in the midst of "ground zero" of the Star Wars Action Figure phenomenon. It was pretty much all my mates and I used to talk about in those days: How many Star Wars figures have you got? Which ones do you have? Can I come around after school and play with them? It was relentless. Such information sharing would ultimately lead to varying displays of human emotion - from smug contentment to irrational envy - but such information sharing was necessary to determine where one stood in the great Star Wars Action Figure Ownership pecking order.
I was somewhere in the middle: I had a modest assortment - not the best, but definitely not the worst collection - but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't in awe of those who few kids who "had everything". You know the ones I'm talking about - there was usually at least one in every class. Every figure you wanted, they had. All the "hard to find" figures, they had. Some of them even had two of each figure. At recess some of these kids used to regale us mere mortals with tales of the "older brother" who had even more than they did - plus the vehicles and accessories that you couldn't even buy anymore - while we salivated over jam sandwiches and dreamt of having such a privileged life.
Imperial Gunners, or the latest incarnation of Daft Punk?

I distinctly remember attending a schoolmate's 6th birthday party in 1983, not long after the Return Of The Jedi movie was released. The custom at the time was to bestow a Star Wars figure on the birthday boy, but this kid seemed to have them all. After some deliberations at the local shops, I took a punt and bought him (and by "I", I mean my Mum) a nice new "Squidhead" figure from the newly released movie. I loved "Squidhead". I wanted "Squidhead" myself so bad, but my Mum told me to focus and mumbled some rubbish about "it's better to give than receive blah blah blah", and I eventually rocked up at the party to hand over "Squidhead" - only to find that the birthday boy in question already had two "Squidhead's". He said thanks and threw it on the pile.
This vulgar display of resource misallocation haunted me for some time afterwards, but I learnt a valuable lesson about the economic realities of life under the Western Capitalist system. I couldn't beat this system so I joined it and toiled away for 20 long years until I finally outbid some pitiful loser on eBay and became the proud owner of my very own second-hand "Squidhead" action figure in 2004 - at the ripe old age of 27.
Bounty Hunters. My kind of scum.

I'm not really proud to admit the fact, but I managed to track down some original, unopened Star Wars figures from the early 80's a few years ago - and they cost me a small fortune. They are, of course, in what one of my ilk would refer to as "mint condition" and are safely stored away from evil threats such as direct sunlight, prying hands and even the occasional wandering eye. Just looking at them takes some of the value away, I feel, so I advise all admirers to take a quick 5 second look and then move along briskly. That way nobody gets hurt. And these figures get to remain in their "mint condition". And if I've played my cards right, my son will one day inherit these, sell them off and be able buy his very own home - provided of course that he wouldn't mind achieving the "Great Aussie Dream" of home ownership until he's a 56 year old in the year 2065...
The elusive "Squidhead" (1983)

When the "new wave" of Star Wars action figures appeared in the mid 90's - followed by the diabolical "Episode I-III" action figures which were released between 1999 & 2005 - the whole crazy fad started again, and a new generation of kids got swept up in the excitement of collecting all things related to the mammoth Star Wars movie franchise. This also renewed interest in the original "Vintage" figures that crazy old dudes like myself were so smitten with, which subsequently sent their values skyrocketing on eBay as we all threw down outrageous bids for oddities such as the incredibly rare "big head" Han Solo, or the Jedi Luke Skywalker from Return Of The Jedi that came with a blue lightsaber instead of a green one. Sure, go ahead and laugh: you've obviously never experienced the thrill of the chase. The hip-pocket pain is always excruciating in hindsight, but when you're focused on getting a "fix" you'll gladly shell out more than reasonable amounts of your hard earned for that little bit of plastic. It wasn't until my family and friends organized an intervention for me that I realized my habit had escalated out of control. I'm better now, of course, but even the glimpse of a stray Yoda figurine at a weekend swap-meet still has the power to send me into a downward spiral...
Jedis: Always comparing sabres...
Actually, speaking of Yoda, I dimly recall an unfortunate incident that occurred in late 1985 when a friend of mine staying at my house on a sleepover was caught "lifting" my Yoda. This 2-inch figure was a popular item in the Star Wars action figure universe - often coveted by those who did not own a Yoda. To give you some idea of the value, you would need to trade 7 to 9 plain Stormtroopers in return for a Yoda - depending on how hard a bargain you drove. Anyway, a tense altercation ensued before the Yoda was returned to its rightful owner and the accused repented - but not before receiving a double dose of "The Force" from his irate contemporary. All was forgiven within minutes though, probably just as the night's episode of A-Team was starting, I'm guessing....
Millennium Falcon: The Holy Grail.

Anyway, all these recollections are stirring up some uneasy feelings in my being so I'd better start to wind this up. As I reflect back over this life of mine, there is one burning ambition that rises up within me from time to time. I realize there is one final goal I would like to reach on this earth before I pass on: before I become too old to appreciate the wonder and magnificence of finally owning what many regard as the "Excalibur" of the entire "Vintage" Star Wars universe. I am of course talking of the original Millennium Falcon spaceship. I've never had the opportunity to hold one, yet alone see one up close. All we ever heard at school were hushed whispers and rumours of kids who may have owned one - no-one was ever sure. Kids who owned the Millennium Falcon never seemed to want to reveal themselves to others for fear it would mean having to field requests to bring it to school or, worse yet, have a heap of uninvited guests over after school.
So I have two choices: do I continue to be a dreamer, or do I take out a second mortgage, jump on eBay and search the online galaxy for a shady dealer in "Vintage" Star Wars vehicles who I'm sure wouldn't look out of place in the Mos Eisley Cantina?
Time will tell.....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Ace of Space

Ace Frehley: The "Space Ace". Guitar Hero #1.
Any budding psychologists reading my recent posts would probably have something to say about my preoccupation with childhood memories and dudes in make-up, but I feel I have a few more things to say on these matters before moving on...
The reason is as follows: my childhood hero /role model/ idol, Ace Frehley: guitar legend and member of 70's rock group KISS, turns 60 years old this month. And to mark the occasion, I wanted to share some thoughts on this individual who had a massive influence on my formative years: the dude from outer space who came down to Earth and showed me how to rock a guitar.
I remember, as a five or six year old, kids at school talking about their favourite superheroes out in the playground, always coming up with the usual suspects like Batman, Superman and Spiderman. Occasionally there was an Incredible Hulk thrown into the mix (usually by one of the chubbier boys), but on the whole it was these types of heroes that my contemporaries aspired to emulate.
KISS Alive! (1975). Best. Album Cover. Ever
But not me. My hero was real. He came from outer space, had cool cosmic make-up, wore a space suit (with an optional cape) and played the meanest guitar I'd ever heard. And his name was Ace.
While kids were swinging one-handed off monkey bars, pretending to shoot some imaginary web from their upturned palms, I was off standing by the drinking fountain pulling guitar solo poses like Ace from the cover of KISS Alive! - trying to get the facial expressions right, and usually up on tip-toes to compensate for my lack of platform boots.
Superman may have been faster than a speeding bullet, but I figured that was nothing next to the ability to tear-off an insane guitar solo in a pentatonic minor scale in front of thousands of screaming fans. And nothing to this day has ever convinced me otherwise.
I'll never forget the vision I once saw on Countdown long ago of Ace playing his guitar so furiously that smoke started pouring out of it until it caught fire. I remembered it for years afterward - I thought it was literally the coolest thing anyone had ever done. Ever. No kryptonite was going to stop the Space Ace - he was invincible. He could destroy guitars simply by playing them! Of course video-on-demand was hard to come by back in those days, but now thanks to YouTube I am able to share the magic with you. Check out Ace's chops right up until around the 2:42 mark when the smoke kicks in, and then through to the 4:25 mark where he pulls out another guitar and seemingly commands the old one to burst into flames. Finally! A superpower I'm interested in obtaining....

Now some of you hardcore superhero faithful out there (nerds mainly) may raise an objection at this point: how can Ace Frehley of KISS be classified as a "superhero"? Well, I'm glad you asked....
KISS Marvel Comic Special (1977). Bloody.
Firstly, everyone knows that all superheroes need to appear in a comic book, and Ace made his first appearance with the rest of KISS in a Marvel Comics "Super Special" released in 1977. Just before the comic's release the band staged a promotional event in full costume & make-up at Marvel's Borden Ink plant in New York, where they posed for the cameras whilst a nurse drew blood from each of their arms into glass vials. Once collected, these blood-filled vials were then added to the big vat of red ink that would eventually be used to print the KISS comic. The cover of the released final product proudly stated that it was "Printed in real KISS blood". This morbid stunt outraged parents all over America at the time, but the fans (and the media) loved it. Seriously now, would Batman & Robin literally give their own blood for their fans?? Hells no! They should take a leaf out of KISS's book. Never mind what thousands of haemotologists the world over would say about such a stunt these days. Adjectives like "shocking", "outrageous" and "downright irresponsible" should be dismissed as the ravings of over-zealous hacks. The point, however, remains clear: Ace always went above and beyond for his fans. Even if it did mean the potential risk of hepatitis B.
Ace Frehley Action Figures. Awesome to the max.

Secondly, if you're a legitimate superhero, there needs to be an Action Figure fashioned in your likeness. Ace has no less that 5 different action figures to his name, which prove he's no "one hit wonder" in the world of collectibles & merchandise. These are quality items and certainly a lot more interesting than a boring old X-Men figure. I should know because I own a few. You don't want to know how many. Or even how old I was when I started collecting them....
Anyway, one particular Ace action figure comes with a wikid futuristic guitar which "transforms into a space sled", with bonus rockets which attach to the side of his platform boots, giving him the ability to unleash bloody hell on his mortal enemies. Good, clean, wholesome fun for kids of all ages.
Ace always gives that little bit extra too - there's not many action figures you can buy these days that come with a replica gold record of the subject's very own solo album. Nice!

Finally, Ace and the rest of KISS also appeared in a movie, "KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park" in 1978, which featured the band as superheroes trying to solve a mystery in a theme park, before performing a big concert at the end in front of a frothing audience. Sure, it was a straight to TV movie with an absurdly dodgy plot, but hey, Ace is in it! And it also came out the same year as the first Superman movie - an example of another superhero who appeared to be following the "comic/action figure/movie" trajectory.
My all-time favourite performance from Ace, however, comes from the small screen, in his cameo appearance in a 2007 Dunkin' Donuts TV commercial. We've all wanted to respond this way whenever our boss asks us about the P&L statement, right?....


Every superhero has a mortal side however....
After 9 years in KISS, touring the world and performing to thousands of fans, Ace seemed to run out of steam. He wasn't a big fan of KISS's movement into more poppy / disco-oriented musical territory in the late 1970's ("I Was Made For Loving You" - Yeah!), and his strained relationship with the rest of the band - particularly Gene Simmons - caused him to withdraw from the band gradually before eventually quitting in 1982. He developed a certain fondness for alcohol during his later years with KISS, and even appeared on The Tom Snyder Show in 1979 noticeably inebriated. This didn't stop him delivering some comedy gold though, much to the seeming disgust of Gene Simmons. Check out Gene's face at 0:45...

Solo album, Ace Frehley (1978). Total Spaceout...
After 20-odd years of a solo career, plus a 6 year "original KISS" reunion, Ace returned in 2009 with his latest album Anomaly -  a hard-rockin' return to form featuring the signature guitar licks that made him one of the best in the business.
The make-up and the space suit are long gone - but the chops remain....

Whenever I see an old KISS clip on Rage or MTV I always stop to watch Ace, regardless of how many times I've seen the footage before. I still come to the same conclusion I came to way back in the old days: no-one is cooler than the Space Ace. Why didn't he ever get an invite to join the "Super Friends"???

So Happy 60th Birthday, Ace, from a humble Earthling who chooses to believe that Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America and heaps of other so-called "superheroes" should suffer in their jocks at the mere mention of your name. Here's to many more years of great music, and if another "original KISS" reunion isn't on the cards, how about just one more TV commercial??
Ace in 2009. Couldn't he have retained the cape??

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unleash Your Inner Bon Jovi

Jon Bon: Loves a good blow wave
I was watching MTV on Foxtel the other night - one of those 80's flashback specials they frequently trot out - when without warning I was assaulted by visions of guys with big hair wearing tacky jackets with comically over-sized shoulder pads. I thought I'd accidentally flipped over to the Comedy Channel without realizing, but no. It was just the music video to Bon Jovi's 1986 smash hit, "Livin' On A Prayer".
I had a bit of a chuckle watching as Jon Bon Jovi hammed it up onstage in the clip - twirling mic stands and performing over-the-top acrobatics that failed to dislodge his man-scarf - when suddenly I had a horrible realization. It's now 2011 - and Hair Metal is due back.
Those who have been around long enough know that when it comes to popular music everything is cyclical. Musical styles emerge and recede and emerge again roughly every 10 to 15 years. There are heaps of examples.
"Whoa, we're half-way there". Stop! Turn back!!!
Take the Punk Rock phenomena from the mid-to-late 70's. It came back as Grunge and other derivative forms in the late 80's/early 90's: basically the same ethos & DIY attitude, but repackaged and marketed for the masses. New Wave in the late 70's/early 80's came back as the Alternative/Indie rock boom in the 90's. And now we seem to be going through the whole New Romantic phase from the early to mid-1980's again: basically guys with dyed hair in gothic make-up playing synth-driven electro-pop songs.
What makes me so sure that Hair Metal is coming back soon is the fact that it has already come back once. First there was Glam Rock in the early 70's. Bands like the New York Dolls started appearing on the scene playing standard rock, but they had big hair and wore make-up. KISS were in the same boat: more standard rock, but with bigger hair and more make-up. The clothing and stage shows of these bands had to be suitably outrageous for them to attract attention in an already over-crowed rock market. So they got flashy. They developed flair. And Glam was cool until it was displaced by Disco & Punk in the late 70's. But the seeds for the 80's Hair Metal explosion had already been sown...
The New York Dolls (1973): Dudes in lippy
 I started hearing names such as Def Leppard, Twisted Sister and Motley Crue in the mid-80's. Somewhere around that time I also first heard the words "Bon Jovi", which to me sounded like something one might accidentally tread in at a local dog beach. It wasn't until later that I discovered that Bon Jovi were just the aural equivalent of something you may tread in at your local dog beach. The re-emergence of this new wave of Glam Metal (or Hair Metal) coincided with the birth of MTV in the early 80's, so now we all got to see what these bands looked like. And (surprise, surprise) most of them looked like the New York Dolls. Big Hair was back, baby. The scene exploded again and more bands jumped on the Hair Metal bandwagon. Poison, Warrant, Guns N' Roses, Skid Row & Ratt were the big name bands which ruled the late-80's scene. Excessive make-up usage was rampant and a gratuitous display of poor fashion sense pervaded the scene. The days of taste and restraint were dead & buried. The Hair Metal bands embarked on a shameful display of ego, decadence and excess, milking it for all it was worth before it all came crashing down in the early 90's. Many of the guilty parties then disappeared into the ether or their nearest rehab clinic to dry out.
So now I feel it is my duty to do the right thing and prepare you all for the "third coming" of Hair Metal. It's time to ask yourself: "What would Jon Bon Jovi do?". Well, to assist you I have compiled the following list. Ignore it at your own peril.

The 10 Essential things you need to do to prepare for the return of Hair Metal
Axl Rose's bandana: Stanky...

1. Buy a Bandana
Any Hair-Metalhead worth his weight in coke needs to own at least one bandana. And not just any bandana: it is crucial that it is loud and tasteless. Axl Rose didn't get to where he was by wearing any plain old bandana. It needs to scream to the world "Look at me! I'm bad-ass" - and plain just doesn't cut it.
Paisley is popular. So too is the "flag bandana". Millions of Americans can't be wrong: what is more patriotic that wrapping the nation's sacred emblem around your forehead and belting out "Sweet Child O'Mine"?
One word of advice here: no matter how sweaty and stained it gets, never wash it. If you're serious about your dedication to the genre you need to keep that stank on there so you can be distinguished from the casual Hair Metal fans in a large crowd.
Jon Bon Jovi: Snow Leopard Public Enemy #1

2. Find a Man-Scarf
Before it became the essential "must have" fashion accessory for the 21st century metrosexual male, the man-scarf was a popular adornment for those exponents of Hair Metal who strove for sartorial elegance.
While the metro male prefers the neat-&-knotted look, the exact opposite applies in the world of Hair Metal. It must be long & flowing, and preferably with an African fauna inspired print. Zebra or leopard spot patterning is extremely popular. Tassles at the ends are optional - the decision to "tassle or not to tassle" is at the discretion of the wearer. Have fun trying different patterns & colour schemes. Mix & match as much as you want, but don't mess with the Golden Rule of the Hair Metal man-scarf: "Length matters" (..cough..).

Remember Winger? Didn't think so. "Spiral Perms For All"

3. Get A Perm
That's right - get a perm. Even better, get a spiral perm. Nothing screams Hair Metal authenticity better than a light ginger spiral perm. If you're not a natural redhead then get it coloured. Don't cut corners. Your integrity is at stake and everyone is watching. Don't end up like that creepy looking dude from Nickelback or Michael Bolton - there's a big difference between a curly mullet (or "crullet") and a sensational spiral perm.
"Do these pants make my hips look big?"

4. Invest in a Blow Dryer
The "bad hair day" is the only known natural enemy of Hair Metal, so it makes sense to plan ahead and mitigate potential risk. Buy a blow dryer - and don't scimp on the expense. If you're going to spend hundreds of your hard-earned dollars on a blow wave, perm or spiral perm at a salon then you also need the tools at your disposal to keep it looking fabulous 24/7. You never know when that sudden change in weather will come and wreak it's havoc on your perfectly sculpted coiffure, so plan ahead. The blow dryer should be with you at all times, and preferably in its own carry case so casual observers will know you're not messing about.

"Ye Gods! My freakin' eyes!!"
5. Procure some Spandex
Spandex, Lycra, bike pants - whatever, it's all the same thing. As long as it's stretchy and looks like it was sprayed on. Just make sure it doesn't leave absolutely zero to the imagination. Serial offender Axl Rose changed the way we felt about cyclists forever with his on-stage get-up - but he was a man committed to the cause. With no shame whatsoever.
Get in early and stock up on spandex now because prices are set to go through the roof once Hair Metal "Phase 3" hits us. When it comes to colours, the most sought after will be the old favourites such as hot-pink, leopard skin and anything remotely zebra-looking. My hot tip? Turquoise. I think turquoise will be the new hot-pink. Either way, choose your colours wisely.
Bonus tip: If you don't get in early enough and end up having to fork out a bit extra to get the pants you're really after, fear not - most spandex garments come in handy when choosing an appropriate Halloween costume, so it's win-win.

"I said acid-wash - not washed out on acid!"
6. Acid-wash your denim
Denim is very "rock & roll". Denim is also timeless. Acid-washed denim, however, is a quintessential cornerstone of Hair Metal and, if we're talking specifically about jeans, they need to be a few sizes too small so that you have to be poured into them.
If you don't have any acid wash jeans in your closet, then just do it yourself and turn your old jeans into the latest (recycled) fashion trend. Impress your friends with your initiative. Just go online and Google "How to Acid Wash" and away you go. There's heaps of tips & pointers on how to get the best results. And for those who are really daring: try the acid wash denim vest. Don't buy one, make your own. Tear the sleeves off a standard denim jacket - you need that frayed look for it to look genuine anyway. Just remember one thing: don't wear white denim. Unless of course you don't mind persistent questions about your "orientation".

Derek Smalls: "No, it's a cucumber. Your Honour."
7. Package your "smallgoods" appropriately
Ladies, please skip this section. This is some sage advice for the guys out there...
With all this talk of spandex pants and tight-fitting jeans, we need to discuss the delicate subject of how to deal with the inevitable man-bulge. There's a few schools of thought on the subject: at one extreme is the "modest approach", where a man-scarf or instrument such as a guitar can be used as a "prop" to cover the offending area during performances and photo shoots. At the other end of the extreme is the "Axl-Rose-in-bike-pants-no-holds-barred approach" - which is guaranteed to not win you many fans, regardless of whether the area in question has or hasn't been augmented by a pair of cleverly folded gym socks. Somewhere in between is the "Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap approach", where a foreign object such as a cucumber wrapped in tinfoil is always within arms reach to use whenever the situation dictates. Guys, the decision is in your hands. May you choose wisely.
One guy who didn't choose wisely and got it horribly wrong was Joe Elliott, lead singer of British band Def Leppard. My mate Benno stumbled across the music video to Def Leppard's massive 1987 hit "Pour Some Sugar On Me" on Classic MTV recently, and hasn't been the same since. Check it out: 15 seconds in and it's on for young and old. If you can make it past the first minute-and-a-half without attempting to gouge your own eyes out then brace yourself for the 1:57 to 2:03 mark. If that's not his car keys in his right pocket then I'm taking my bat and going home.


Poison: Power-dressed to impress
8. Pimp your Jacket
Everything about Hair Metal is about being "larger than life". What matters is having the biggest hair, the most make-up, the flashiest clothes - the list goes on. In the tradition of amplifying your physical characteristics, get some shoulder pads under your favourite loud jacket. The bigger the shoulders the better. Every Hair-Metalhead wants a commanding physical presence, and shoulder pads are a cheap, no-fuss, essential tool of the trade. If you're on a budget then use cardboard inserts. A few cricket boxes in the off-season can also prove invaluable. Pack them right in there and thrust your chest out. Turn your standard-issue, off-the-rack Hair Metal jacket into a customized, pimped out, cotton suit of armour.

T.Rex's Marc Bolan & Slash: Top Hat troubadours
9. Try a Top Hat
T.Rex were one of the original Glam Rock bands in the early 70's, and lead singer Marc Bolan was frequently spotted sporting a top hat over the obligatory big hairstyle. Fast-forward fifteen years and Guns N' Roses axeman Slash picked up the torch, so to speak, and in the process made his silhouette one of the most recognizable in Hair Metal history. Even today he's still rarely sighted without it. Of course the top hat won't be for everyone, but you'll never know if it's for you or not until you try it. No other accessory authenticates one as a member of the Hair Metal aristocracy more effectively than the top hat. Except maybe a monocle, but I can't see that one catching on...

Poison's Bret Michaels: Poutylicious...
10. Practice your Pout
When it comes to Hair Metal, posing comes naturally. It goes with the territory. Performers and fans alike have an in-built "poseur gene", which is often triggered by visual stimuli such as the sight of a stray jar of lip-gloss, or a sleeping leopard in the cat enclosure at the city zoo. But when you're in a group full of posers what do you do to stand out in the crowd? The answer is simple: your pout needs to be your competitive advantage.
Get those lips as big and full as you can. Learn to apply your lippy like a professional. And for the girls: same rules apply.
Too many thin-lipped wannabe's come and go in this genre. If you want to make your mark on the scene then gloss those lips up to the point that you start blinding people with reflected light. If you're lacking in natural lip fullness then it's worth either looking at surgical enhancement or praying to a deity (ie: Mick Jagger) for divine intervention.
However you choose to approach it, your pout needs to communicate the following: "I'm sensitive, yet mysterious, and deeper than a thousand oceans", as opposed to "Mum & Dad won't let me take the car out this weekend". The difference is subtle, but critical.

Poison, Open Up And Say... Ahh! (1988). Definitive.
Well, there you have it. I'm sure that we've covered the important basics here to get you ready for the impending return of Hair Metal. The list is by no means definitive, but it should at least help you on your way.
One final piece of advice: it's probably prudent to do some musical research too, and to assist I've narrowed it down to one "Essential Hair Metal album" that you need to study in preparation - Posion's 1988 masterpiece Open Up and Say .. Ahh!. It has all the elements that define the genre. Remember the rocking "Nothin' But a Good Time" and "Your Mama Don't Dance"? This is Hair Metal heaven. And it also features "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" - the biggest, most transcendent power-ballad ever written. If Hair Metalheads had their own country then this would be their National Anthem. So blow wave your hair, apply some lip-gloss, don the bandana, close your eyes, lift a lighter to heaven and sway slowly from side to side as you immerse yourself in the moment. It doesn't get any better than this.

Inside of all of us there is that inner Bon Jovi that needs to be tenderly nurtured, frequently pampered and then released upon society at large when the time is right. And that time is nearly upon us. My advice is to embrace it: holster your blow dryer after use and get out there and be the best damn walking advertisement for spandex you can be.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Welcome To My Childhood Nightmares

Alice Cooper: Master of the Macabre
Back in my salad days, in the early 1980's, it was tough for parents to keep their 6 year old kids indoors. Of course this was well before the home computer revolution kicked in and changed the concept of "recreational activity" forever, but back then it was the norm for young kids to get outside with toy guns and stage mock wars, build tree houses and maybe even organize a one-day international cricket match with the rest of the kids in the street. This is what the normal kids did. But not me.
Being the pasty indoors type I was (and try to kid myself I am no longer) I preferred to spend my time indoors surrounded by books, assorted comics and a limited supply of Star Wars figures. Sure, I may have even dabbled in He-Man figures too, but there was one other source of entertainment in the house that used to hold my attention for endless hours during those formative years: my parents big stack of vinyl records.
I was lucky that my parents were of an age that meant that this stack wasn't filled with cheesy Perry Como or Pat Boone records - on the contrary, I was blessed with a bounty that included a mixture of classic rock, progressive rock, pop & new-wave albums - a veritable smorgasbord of wax from the years spanning 1967 to 1983: the Golden Age of Popular Music.
I used to spend hours sitting quietly looking at the albums, reading the liner notes, examining the artwork in the gate-fold sleeves and having a listen to the ones that I thought would be worth the effort, and it was here that my lifelong interest in music was nurtured. However amongst this stack were some images that were bound to leave an impression on an inquisitive 6 year old with an overactive imagination, and now over 25 years later I can finally bring myself to confront these disturbing images of the past which bore their way into my sub-conscious and made me wake up during the night on more than one occasion in a cold sweat...
Alice Cooper,  Killer (1971). Slithery...
There was this one big, red-looking album in the pile which I always approached with caution. It was called Killer and it was by a creepy-looking dude called Alice Cooper. And it also had a picture of a big freaking snake's head on the cover. It used to give me the shivers, yet I couldn't turn away. Everything about this album cover seemed to scream out "Danger!" (I guess the redness should have tipped me off, right?). I remember thinking to myself "Who would do this??". I couldn't understand what would possess someone to put such a horrific image on the front cover of their album. Didn't they want us to listen to it??  And this was in the days before CD's remember, so it was a BIG snake's head on that 12" album sleeve. To top it off, there was also a track on there called "Dead Babies"!! What manner of evil was this anyway?!? It got into my 6 year old brain. I used to peel back the sheets in my bed every night before hopping in - just checking to make sure that there were no serpents with slithery tongues lying in wait, silently plotting my demise. I later discovered that this Alice Cooper character liked to wear a hangman's noose and was known to decapitate live chickens on stage. My young brain also worked out that songs like "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "Welcome To My Nightmare" weren't just clever titles - they were warnings. If anyone could order a reptilian hit on me in my own bed it was Alice Cooper. So I kept checking the bed.....
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970). Ghoulish...
There was another album cover that used to flash across my mind as I lay in bed, eyes closed, trying not to think about snakes - and it was called Black Sabbath. I didn't know what a sabbath was but that seemed irrelevant. I was much more interested in trying to work or who (or what) that was, standing in what looked like a church graveyard, silently looking back at me with those hollow black eyes. It looked like a woman but I couldn't be sure. Was it living? A ghost? What did it want?? This one genuinely gave me the creeps. Like the Mona Lisa the eyes seemed to follow you around the room no matter where you stood. I would even leave the room and close my eyes and BAM! - there it was again right back with me. I saw this apparition night after night in every shadowy recess of my bedroom for months. Something had to be done, so in an attempt to regain my sanity and neutralize the effects of this image I decided to put the album on and have a listen. Maybe it was full of bright happy songs that I could sing along to? Maybe the creature on the cover was the singer who actually sung in a nice sweet voice? WRONG! The first song was called "Black Sabbath" and it opened with the foreboding sounds of pounding rain, thunder and the tolling of a funeral bell, before a doom-laden three note guitar riff literally exploded out of the speakers.
I yanked it straight off the turntable and into the nearest drawer before collapsing into the foetal position.

KISS, Dressed To Kill (1975). Sinister..
Speaking of foetal positions, I had an uncle who used to be a big KISS fan. On a particular visit to his house as a kid I was unfortunate enough to be quietly minding my own business, when out of the blue he suddenly sprang out from behind a nearby wall wearing a full rubber Gene Simmons mask (with a long blood-red rubber tongue) and screamed loudly in my face. At least that's what they told me he did later, after I was revived and helped up off the floor from said position. It's hard to maintain your dignity  when you're frantically trying to cover a damp wet stain slowly spreading across the crotch of your pants. It's for this reason that I approached every KISS album with a certain degree of caution from that point on. But to be honest none of them really bothered me as a kid too much - except the Dressed To Kill cover. KISS didn't seem threatening when they were in their glam-rock stage outfits - but there was something extremely sinister about them in suits standing on a street corner. Especially Gene. The evil look on his face on that cover is another image that stayed with me after dark. I assumed that every noise I heard outside during the night was Gene coming to "get" me, so I did what any desperate kid would do in that situation - I prayed to Ace for deliverance.

Skyhooks, Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, 1975
Terror wasn't the only undesirable feeling I experienced while going through the record stack - some images caused slight nausea. There's the severed finger from an over-zealous female fan on the back cover of Skyhooks' Ego Is Not A Dirty Word album. Even though it's animated its still has a gross kind of detail. I also realized that some images are capable of causing that unique gut-nausea that one only experiences when looking at something too appalling to describe adequately. Lionel Ritchie on the cover of his Can't Slow Down album is a classic example. It's not only those snappy white pants & matching shoes that had me reaching for a bucket - it was that shocking 80's mo' and that smug look on his face, which seemed to be taunting me: "Hey kid, I wrote "All Night Long (All Night)" - what have you done with your life??". Damn you, Lionel - damn you and your finely crafted pop songs to hell!!
Lionel Ritchie, Can't Slow Down (1983). Horrific...
 As a wise Beatle once said, all things must pass, and as I grew up I started to outgrow the childish reactions I had to these album covers as a 6 year old. Slowly but surely I began to regain my confidence - even managing to get outside with my mates to kick the footy around once in a while. I eventually became a relatively well-balanced primary school aged boy. All was well until one day in 1990 when I caught a glimpse of Vanilla Ice on the cover of To The Extreme.
It was about then that The Fear returned.
"The horror..... the.. horror.....".

"Aww yeah... VIP in full effect"