Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fiona: Squeezing Out Sparks (1992)

This article appeared in a spring '92 issue of the Chicago Area Metal Magazine (CAMM) and was one of my first features. Enduring thanks to Fiona Flanagan, who generously gave me more phone time than CAMM's relatively limited readership probably merited....

“Who do I like to listen to?” muses Fiona Flanagan, the veteran hard-rock siren whose new album, Squeeze, is about to be released by Geffen Records. “I just bought that Sandi Saraya record, When the Blackbird Sings. I listen to old Rod Stewart. And I love the Ozzy Osbourne record that’s out right now.”

She pauses.

“Oh, and I just bought ‘I’m Too Sexy,’” she admits, laughing. “I bought the single last night. I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”

Flanagan laughs a lot these days. But while life looks pretty good for her at the moment--new album, new label, new band (named Fiona, by the way)--she hasn’t always had a lot to laugh about.

Take, for instance, 1985, a year that, by all rights, should’ve been a really big one for her. Atlantic Records released her solo debut (the now out-of-print Fiona), she sang all over the No Small Affair soundtrack, and she opened for the ever-hot Bryan Adams on the U.S. leg of his megabucks Reckless tour.

But by year’s end both her album and the film were in the bargain basements, and Bryan Adams’ predominantly teenage female audience had apparently decided not to turn Flanagan into their latest role model.

1986 was better--for awhile. Not only was she
slated for some big-time top billing opposite Bob Dylan and Rupert Everett (of Dance with a Stranger fame) in Richard Marquand’s Hearts of Fire (Marquand’s follow-up to Jagged Edge), but the release of her second album (the still-in-print Beyond the Pale) was also scheduled to capitalize on the interest that the film would no doubt generate.

And, just in case Plans A and B should somehow fail, Flanagan landed the role of a “kinky hooker” who kills herself on what was then TV’s highest-rated show, Miami Vice.
But her character’s suicide proved uncannily symbolic: For the second time in as many opportunities, her promisingly multi-faceted career bit the dust.

First off, during the editing of Hearts of Fire, Marquand died of a stroke. “It
kind of freaked everybody out,” Flanagan recalls. “I think the film was problematic before that, but once he died, the film was orphaned. It was really his baby.”

More problematic than Hearts of Fire’s failure, however--at least from the standpoint of Flanagan’s music career--was the debacle that Beyond the Pale turned into before it was done, especially considering how well it could’ve turned out.

“I ended up marrying the producer, Beau Hill, so the recording of it was enjoyable,” she says. “It’s just that the record was pretty bad. There were too many cooks, not enough communication, not enough pre-production, not enough rehearsal with the band.”

It didn’t help either that the “band” was really just an assortment of studio pros coming and going through a revolving door. “It was a mish-mosh. People were
getting fired. And that’s what the record sounds like.

“But,” she wants to know, “why is that record what we’re talking about?”


It’s easy to understand why Flanagan wants to talk about Squeeze. Ten songs packed with walloping hooks and juiced to life by Marc Tanner’s metallic echo-chamber production, it sounds like what you might hear if that guy in Roxette were to ditch his current partner for Lita Ford.

In other words, if Squeeze doesn’t ring the bell at the top of the strongman pole that is the pop-music business, then maybe the world’s just plain unworthy of it and Fiona should pack it all in for a career in modeling.

“I took my time with this one,” she explains. And how much time exactly did she take? “Eighteen months. Not eighteen months of actual recording, but I wanted to put a band together. I started out with just me and [A&R man] John Kalodner. Then I solicited players.”

Did she have trouble finding musicians who’d want to play with someone who, despite being born and reared a Flanagan, had been as untouched by the luck of the Irish as she’d been up to that time?

“No,” she laughs. “There are lots of unemployed musicians, believe me. And, anyway, I didn’t
exactly try to get Eric Clapton on guitar. I just wanted people that were interested in the same things I was.”

The lineup that solidified about six months into the Squeeze project included guitarist Dave Marshall, ex-Y&T drummer (and Wayne’s World bit player) Jimmy DeGrasso, and bassist (and long-time Flanagan cohort) Laura McDonald. It’s a lineup, according to Flanagan, that feels more like a band everyday.

“It’s more of a democracy now than it was twelve months ago just because everybody’s been in it longer. I mean, Jimmy’s getting the band together now with Laura and Dave while I’m on the road promoting the record. Everybody’s really divvied up the responsibilities. Everybody’s in for equal splits and equal say.

“But,” she adds, “you get out what you put into it. So as more time goes by and the more these guys put in, the more we’re a band. That takes time, but from when we went into rehearsals to the actual recording, and then afterwards and now, it’s just like a train that’s really picking up steam.”

By the time you read this, Flanagan, McDonald, DeGrasso, and Marshall, will have just finished shooting its first video, “Ain’t That Just like Love.” They will also be in the middle of rehearsals for an as-yet-unspecified touring itinerary.

“There are two ways to go with that,” says Flanagan of the concert
circuit. “You could play clubs, or you could open for someone”--preferably someone with a large-venue contract and an audience of potential Fiona fans.

But, whichever route Fiona takes, one thing crowds should notice live even more than on record is the added flexibility and resilience that Flanagan’s opera lessons have added to her already remarkable voice. So why did she sign up for lessons in the first place?

“John [Kalodner] suggested that I take them. And once I went to the first one, I realized what a good idea it was. The guy [professional opera singer Ron Anderson] obviously knew what he was doing, and I obviously didn’t know what I was doing. So I thought, ’Bingo! I can learn something here!’”

What did she, a veteran of three solo albums and several soundtracks and live tours, feel she could learn from an opera singer?

“Well, my voice was really stiff. I’d taken it as far as I could personally. This guy knew a lot more about singing than I did. He knew a lot about the human body. He’d been studying all his life, and I just thought it was a brilliant idea.”

But back to the prospects of touring with an already-
established act: Whom does Flanagan think Fiona might appropriately warm up for?

“I don’t really know,” she admits. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to open for Skid Row. I don’t think that audience would like what I do.”

But why not? The music on Squeeze is loud and hooky, like Skid Row at its best, and Flanagan’s cheekbones are more photogenic than Sebastian Bach’s.

I think Skid Row’s a little bit heavier. They’re darker, especially with the second record.”

How about someone a little lighter, then, like Cher?

“If the money was there, sure!" Flanagan says without hesitation. "I think her audience would like this record.

“People have broad tastes,” she continues. “I think it would surprise everybody to go to somebody’s living room and see what records they listen to or what concerts they want to attend. People don’t have to define themselves by one particular strain of music anymore. I think all of this really narrow marketing is a mistake.”

But are there enough broad tastes to help Squeeze turn a profit? After all, Lita Ford’s equally worthy Dangerous Curves recently died an early death.

“I can’t answer that,” Flanagan says. “This business is a mystery to everyone. I mean, who could’ve called Nirvana coming out of nowhere and selling 200,000 records a day?

“It’s a drag about the Lita Ford record because I really liked it. But that’s really got nothing to do with me as far as I’m concerned. If it does, I might as well quit.

“Besides,” she says, “I don’t really think about who’s making records and what’s on the charts when I’m doing my work. Basically, I think about tomorrow and what’s for dinner.”

And what is for dinner?

"Probably McDonald's," she laughs, somewhat interview weary. "I think I need some red meat."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

God's Jukebox: A Fourth Testament (1991)

The following piece and its accompanying graphics appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of the Door.
..... ..... .....

In his book A Third Testament, the late British curmudgeon and one-time Door interviewee Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, and Dostoevsky as “God’s spies”--men “in search of God” whose “special role” it was “to relate their time to eternity.” While they were, he wrote, “quintessentially men of their time” (men who, like actual spies, merged “into the social and political scene … echoing the current consensus”), they nevertheless provided a “bridge … between the darkness of the will and the light of the imagination … and a prophetic voice calling on us to cross it.”

Now, Augustine, Blake, Pascal, et. al may have been God’s spies at one time, but mention their names to a Baby Boomer and watch his jaw go slack. It’s clear that God needs new spies, and at the risk of blowing their covers, I propose, from the field of rock ’n’ roll (common ground between the literate and the il-) the following canon: T Bone Burnett, Bob Dylan, Al Green, Little Richard, the Mercy Seat, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, and Sam Phillips. Consider the evidence …

T Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma ’80). Another Door interviewee, Burnett has seen it all, done most of it, and written about it with the goofy abandon you’d expect from a guy christened after a steak. By the time he made this record, he’d already made three country-rock, gospel-inflected LPs with his fellow crazies Steven Soles and David Mansfield as the Alpha Band, toured with Dylan, and returned to the church of his youth. Truth Decay bridged the carnal-spiritual divide by marrying Tom Waits-ian piss-factory narratives to Sun Studio rockabilly and leavening its preacher talk with seaminess and wisecracks. It’s true that later albums found naked women occupying more and more of his attention, but better babes than an obsession with the Rapture or some other Evangelical black hole.

Bob Dylan: Shot of Love (Columbia ’81). Born-agains know all about Slow Train Coming and Saved, but this album has always smelled of bad faith. The problem was the middle of side one, where the world’s most famous “completed Jew” followed the right-on “Property of Jesus” with a hymn to Lenny Bruce. Born-agains didn’t know who Lenny Bruce was, so they went out and bought How to Talk Dirty and Influence People and maybe Albert Goldman’s exhaustive bio. When they found out that Bruce had been an unregenerate drug addict, a sex fiend, and a foul-mouthed comic whose jokes didn’t strike them as all that funny, they were sure Bob had lost his Christian marbles. In a sense they were right. But in another sense he was reconnecting with a world in which the unregenerate call the shots. Further proof of Shot of Love’s greatness: Rolling Stone hated it.

Al Green: Live in Tokyo (Motown’81). For the complete scoop on Green, one of the greatest soul men ever, rent The Gospel According to Al Green from your local video store. Meanwhile, this recording, made in ’78 but unreleased for three years, captures plenty of Green’s legendary transition from sexual healer to Pentecostal pulpiteer. There are strong versions of “Belle” (“It’s you I want, but it’s Him [sic] that I need”), “Love and Happiness” (in which Jesus gets a name check before the fur starts to fly), and “You Ought to Be with Me,” a come-on to a woman that on this night metamorphosed into an ecstatic sermon replete with KJV quotations. Don’t know whether the cultural Buddhists in attendance got the gist, but they cheered anyway. Question for the ages: Were they moved by the Spirit or by a premonition that in fifteen years they’d own our corporate butts?

Little Richard: Lifetime Friend (Warner Bros. ’86). Talk about a man ahead of his time. According to his own bad self, Little Richard Penniman has spent much of his life overdrugged and oversexed every which way. But, according to his good self, he loves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On this all-but-ignored major-label “comeback,” his bad self kept the music rockin’ while his good self kept the lyrics biblical. Every song bespoke a faith at least as big as Sandi Patti (er, Sandi Patti’s), yet church folk were quicker to buy the Police instead. Maybe they were put off by Richard’s effeminate leer as captured in the cover photo or by that trace of eyeliner. (Goop it on like Tammy Faye and you’re O.K.) Or maybe they didn’t think that a man with whom they wouldn’t trust their sons could be trusted with God’s one and only.

The Mercy Seat: The Mercy Seat (Slash ’87). Fronted by Gordon Gano, the leader of the acoustic sleaze-punk trio the Violent Femmes, this oddball quartet’s gimmick was to sing gospel, traditional and new, to acoustic sleaze-punk rave-ups. Actually, that was just gimmick number one. Another was to have guitarist Gano, drummer Fernando Menendez, and bassist Patrice Moran dress in matching tuxes. Gimmick number three was to have the lead singer, a statuesque black bombshell named Zena Von Heppinstall, wear dresses so tight and short that you couldn’t help wondering what Gano really meant by “mercy seat.” But it was the husky spunk of her singing as much as her great legs that sparked the concept. Best line ever about being ready for Judgment Day: “I don’t wanna be caught doin’ my nails when the world comes tumbling’ down.”

Van Morrison: Common One (Warner Bros. ’80). This album is regarded by most as the Morrison not to own because it’s weird and amorphous. Besides, he’s sung more snappily about Jesus on Into the Music, Avalon Sunset, and Enlightenment. Yes, but remember this about God’s spies: They’re often up to more than they seem. Morrison has always been weird, from his go-to-hell attitude toward fans to his freakish overnight corpulence. As for amorphousness--well, when one sets out to convey the instant of conversion in a fifteen-minute song with few words and no melody (“When Heart Is Open”), he will sound somewhat “out there.” Out there for Van means growling and wheezing and howling and otherwise almost speaking in tongues. Or maybe he just had to sneeze really bad and didn’t want to funk up the mic. Stuff costs money, you know.

Maria Muldaur: Live in London (Making Waves/Stony Plain ’85). Homiletic excerpt from the final three minutes of the last song: “Y’know, people, something might seem so very tempting to you, something might seem so very attractive to you, something might seem so very irresistible to you, ’til you feel like you just can’t rest, ’til you go out there, and you try that thing, or you buy that thing, or you, I don’t know, maybe you smoke that thing, or, mmmmm, you might drink that thing, or maybe you think it’s cool to go out and snort that thing. Whoa! You might even shoot that thing in you arm. I know temptation comes in a lot of different sizes and shapes. Yes it does. And, y’know, you might not even have to wait ’til the hereafter to pay the price--you might start payin’ the price as soon as tomorrow morning’! So before you do it, you better think about it twice! Before you do it, people, you oughta think about the price! What about the price? What about the price? Whoa, people, I want you to steal away to the quiet of your room sometime and have yourself a little private talk with God and just ask him from the bottom of your heart, ‘Oh, Lord, what is it you want me to be doin’ down here?’”

Sam Phillips: The Indescribable Wow (Virgin’88). As Leslie Phillips she was a bright spot on CCM playlists. As Sam Phillips she recorded this gorgeous folk-pop hookfest with some knob-twiddling and band-member selection from her producer (and future husband) T Bone Burnett. No, Leslie didn’t get a sex change. She just thought that “going secular” merited a new appellation, and in her sweet innocence she didn’t even know that rock ’n’ roll already had a Sam Phillips. Like her namesake (who produced Jerry Lee Lewis, after all), she knew that sexy music, when it was good, could feel like a struggle between flesh and spirit. Unlike her namesake, she was something to look at (and probably still is).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The CAMM Chronicles: The Reviews (1992)

In 1992 I had the privilege of writing for the short-lived Chicago Area Metal Magazine (or CAMM) under its editor John Everson. Besides the two features I wrote for it that allowed me to interview Fiona Flanagan and Ted Nugent respectively (to be posted here as soon as I can type them in), I also got to review albums (see below) that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to. The best perquisite, however, was getting to write for CAMM's big-sister publication--the Illinois Entertainer--after CAMM folded, a gig I began in 1993 and that I still value and enjoy. Thanks, my Windy City friends!

Black Sabbath
Dehumanizer (Reprise)

Paranoid is the best Sabbath ever because, twenty-two years on, it still lives up to its name. On it, the Ozzy Osbourne-led lineup boiled irrational fear about Viet Nam, the afterlife, and a future with or without drugs into a caldron of bad vibrations so strong that even now most metal sounds pansified next to it. This album, which reunites the Dio-Iommi-Butler-Appice lineup of Mob Rules under the under-exploited production hand of Mack, tries hard to resurrect the old dread, and at times it comes close. The twin eternity-in-hell songs, “Too Late” and “Buried Alive,” might spook unbelievers in a weak moment, and “TV Crimes” (a metal “Personal Jesus”) works up a lather as well as a sweat. Take it as a testament to the group’s former glory, then, and not as an affront to its current mechanical heaviness, that nothing here will make you forget how Sabbath used to come on like a force of nature.

King’s X
King’s X (Atlantic)

By now the themes (redemption and its discontents) and the sound (soulful heavy-metal thunder shot through with Beatle-esque lightning) that made this power trio’s songs unique have lost their novelty--if not necessarily their entertainment--value. Whether the blame lies with Messrs. Pinnick, Tabor, and Gaskill or with their longtime producer Sam Taylor is hard to say. But four albums on the same job can dull even the sharpest reflexes, and the absence of both sparkling ballads (cf. “Summerland”) and lengthy instrumental freak-outs (cf. “Moanjam”) suggests someone should take a break. Or a hike.

Monster Magnet
Spine of God (Primo Scree/Caroline)

Of the dozens of long-haired, spaced-out, zombie-metal bands currently citing Sabbath’s Paranoid as an inspiration, these boys are the only ones who seems even remotely capable of improving on it. From their motto (“It’s a Satanic drug thing--you wouldn’t understand”) to their well-chosen cover tune (Grand Funk’s “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother”), they churn out a dark, seething murk that’s only intermittently lit up by David Wyndorf’s gutturally emoted “explicit lyrics” before they’re swallowed right back up again by the clouds of locomotive breath sprawling forth from John McBain’s guitars.

March or Die (WTG)

The pre-release publicity made much of Philthy Phil’s latest abandoning of the drummer’s chair and of Phlegmy Lemmy’s plans to cover “Cat Scratch Fever.” Well, anyone who after fifteen years of listening to Motorhead still has hearing acute enough to notice the new drummer has been missing the point, and although Lemmy says his “Cat Scratch Fever” sounds the way Nugent’s should’ve, he’s wrong. The real news here is that “Bad Religion” wins the best-in-show prize among the current crop of anti-TV-preacher songs (cf. Black Sabbath, Genesis) by sampling Robert Tilton and that Lemmy’s duet with Ozzy Osbourne (“I Ain’t No Nice Guy”) proves he can go all mellow and heartfelt without succumbing to the melodrama of “1916.” Elsewhere, Wurzel and Zoom live up to their names, and the band still sounds the way it looks: mean, ugly, and in no mood for crap.

Wrenched (Hollywood)
Their name guarantees that stores will file them right after Motorhead, which is no accident, I'm sure. But surly, unkempt appearances aside, this quartet's still a few musical miles shy of Lemmy and the gang. The problem's not the sound; the veteran metal producer Jim Faraci gets serious juice out of the standard two-guitar-bass-and-drums attack. Neither do the guys lack chops. Larry Hernandez howls and growls like a truly unpleasant fellow, and the guitarist Dave Krocker plays like one to the solo born. The problem is the formulaic, post-modern biker-metal songs. Nothing here sounds like the next big thing. Or the next little thing, either. The next tiny thing, maybe. Here's hoping they grow.

Transmutation (Axiom)

This noisy exercise in metallic free jazz recalls the voodoo vibeology of those ’70s Miles Davis LPs that Chuck Eddy called “metal” in Stairway to Hell. Everyone--including (and maybe especially) a mad guitarist named Buckethead--sounds as if he’s improvising while on acid, and if the combo sometimes skronks its way into the abyss, there’s no denying the metal crunch of “Blast/War Dub Machine,” “Interface/Stimulation Loop,” or “Crash Victim/Black Science Navigator.” (How could there be with titles like those?) Bernie Worrell’s organ is more souped up than Keith Emerson’s, and there are fewer quiet parts than on Houses of the Holy. If you’re still not sure this disc belongs between Poison and Prong on your shelf, remember that its producer, Bill Laswell, also oversaw Motorhead’s Orgasmatron all those years ago.

Rhino Bucket
Get Used to It (Reprise)

Unwashed, unkempt, and fueled by too much booze, nicotine, and sex, these four Van Nuys guttersnipes probably don’t have long to live, and they sing and play as if they know they don’t. Georg Dolivo pushes his shredded vocal chords past the threshold of pain, and both he and Greg Fields slap together power chords from the bottom of the rock-and-roll barrel. Titles like “She’s a Screamer,” “The Devil Sent You,” and “This Ain’t Heaven” summarize their experience with groupies, and the closest they come to a ballad is the affectionately titled “Stomp,” in which they strip Guns N’ Roses’ “Rocket Queen” of everything but the rhythm track and the orgasmic chick. So call it scuzz-metal to die for and hope they survive long enough to get the joke.

Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed (Megaforce)
From the groupie who kicks things off with beat poetry to the Jim Carroll impersonator who’s horny for evil, from Critter and Fluffy’s postmodern sampling to Phildo Owens’ way with a rap, this album reclaims the artsy high ground from techno-wimps without conceding one Richter Scale degree of skate-metal’s woofer-rattling power. The lyrics, meanwhile, manage the considerably less impressive trick of encrusting the Good Ship Anarchy with those pesky barnacles called clich├ęs.

Soul Kitchen
Soul Kitchen (Giant)
They look like metal and they're named after a Doors song, but their roots, as Jeff Wilson sings in "Carry Me," stem from their being "raised on blue-eyed soul," by which they apparently mean Small Faces, Humble Pie, and early Rod Stewart. Such influences might explain Wilson's raspy-throated belting but not necessarily why he's good at it, why the band prefers electrified boogie to metal cliches but not why they sound unusually accomplished for a rookie act. Obviously, this stuff's a throwback, but like the Black Crowes, Soul Kitchen transforms their love for British Invasion blues-rock and Southern-fried funk into songs whose riffs, hooks, and verbal imagery challenge rather than worship the conventions. And it's definitely significant that, although the songs range from four minutes to six, none of them feel as if they go on too long.

Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds
Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds (Geffen)

If it’s hard to imagine from the sound of it that Stradlin could’ve cut his Guns N’ Roses stuff sitting down, it’s harder yet to imagine that he could’ve cut this stuff standing up. In striving for the burned-out, hung-over, raspy-throated groove that his idols Keith Richards and Ron Wood achieve naturally, he captures too much of their punch-drunk wooziness and not of the moss-dislodging fight that keeps Stones rolling. In other words, Stradlin sounds about twice as old as he is, a sound rendered doubly sad because that’s how he probably feels. But at least as an ex-Gun N’ Rose he has an excuse, something his second guitarist, the ex-Georgia Satellite Rick Richards, doesn’t--considering how long he’s been unemployed, he should have lots of fresh energy stored up. On the plus side, both “Buck o’ Trouble” and the Hounds’ take on Toots Hibbert’s “Pressure Drop” pack a punky punch, and the Gratefully Deadened Bo Diddley shuffle of “Time Goes By” feels all right too, in a burned-out, hung-over, raspy-throated kind of way. It’s just weird to realize that these songs are all the guy who wrote “Pretty Tied Up” wants to use his illusion for.

Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance (Intense)

Album number three finds Guy Ritter and his fellow vegetarian, Jesus-worshiping, non-fur-wearing mosh monsters whipping their splattery squall into a ferocity only hinted at on albums one and two. Not only do drummer Ted Kirkpatrick and bassist Victor Macia pound like an impending embolism, but the frazzled high end glistens like gelatinous tubercles of purulent ossification. (No, I don’t know what any of those terms mean--I was just quoting song titles.) The lyrics are better too. Instead of the likes of “Jesus came once to save you. / Turn away and he’s gonna slay you” (from Stop the Bleeding), we get spooky narratives. In one a soldier who feels a body part where he shouldn’t because it got blown off in the war; in another some kids are haunted for years by nightmares resulting from their having played Uncle Wiggily. Add to these ingredients Ritter’s improved hell-hound singing and the emergence of hummable melodies, and you have an example of ruminating virulence--or is that spectrophobic dementia?--at its finest. (Ya gotta love those titles.)

Manic Frustration (Def American)

Why does this greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts album sound better than it is? Because by excavating and lubricating an actual groove from beneath Trouble’s raging tonnage and layering everything else on top of it, Rick Rubin has tooled this band into a heavy-metal locomotive that only derails when it slows down.