Nov 302012

Press for the reunited Graham Parker & The Rumour tour (and album) focuses much attention and credit on the band’s appearance in Judd Apatow‘s upcoming movie, This Is 40. I’m sure that played a small part, but longtime members of the Halls of Rock know this 2010 interview with Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont is the main reason the band is back together and playing at Philadelphia’s Theater of the Living Arts tonight. OK, our interview is a distant second to the documentary Belmont discusses in the following interview, but let’s give ourselves credit ahead of Apatow. Next thing you know the Farrelly brothers will be taking credit for exposing Jonathan Richman to a mainstream audience. Go Graham! Go Martin! Go Rumour! I will be at tonight’s show with bells on.

This post initially appeared 3/19/10.

The guitar playing of Martin Belmont has graced recordings and concerts by Graham Parker & The Rumour, Ducks Deluxe, Nick Lowe, Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, and many more. He continues to keep a busy schedule, playing the music he loves with a reunited Ducks as well as three other Americana-oriented British artists. In 2009 Belmont released The Guest List, a collection of covers sung by most of the singers he’s backed for a significant time over the years. For someone like myself, who grew up listening to Belmont’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s an intimate, low-key way of catching up with the old gang and getting introduced to some Belmont collaborators who are not as well known in the States.

The first sign that Belmont might get into the spirit of a Rock Town Hall interview is when, as we settle into our trans-Atlantic, webcam chat via Skype, he wants to describe his “top-shelf” CD collection lining the walls behind him. There’s a Beatles box set, a Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, a couple of Elvis Presley box sets. Then he wants to know how we operate in the Halls of Rock. After I basically run him through our mission statement, in which Rock Town Hall serves as a sort of methadone clinic for rock ‘n roll addicts with increasingly busy lives, he says, “I know exactly what you mean.”

I describe my experiences finding out about Graham Parker & The Rumour as a teenager, trying not to come off too much like Chris Farley’s mouth-breathing Paul McCartney fan from Saturday Night Live. Belmont asks if I’ve seen Parker perform solo in recent years – I have. He raves about his old friend’s abilities as a performer and songwriter, and then we get down to talking.

And talk we did. There are a topics we didn’t have time to cover, but as we chatted, rock lover to rock lover, I hope you get a sense of Belmont’s ultimate sideman’s dedication, warmth, and regard toward his collaborators. At one point he talks about the importance of the guitarist serving the song and being able to weave into whatever situation the song and its musicians requires. It was clear to me that these abilities to weave extend well beyond Belmont’s fretboard.

The patented Rock Town Hall Dugout Chatter segment that concludes this interview is presented in audio form. Through my space-age, retro technology for recording this interview, I hope the audio Chatter gives you an added sense of Martin’s enthusiasm and passion for rock ‘n roll. Take it away, Martin!

Jun 222012

Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3

That I am a co-producer of this blog-thing that led to some dude emailing me to ask if I wanted to interview Steve Wynn actually and truly is one of my proudest accomplishments. The music of Dream Syndicate founder and solo artist extrodinaire, Steve Wynn has played an important part in my musical and creative evolution. All of us here likely have at least one artist or band that has made a big personal difference. Well Steve is one of my top few and I’m still giddy that he actually answered my questions. Living proof that the 18 year-old rock nerd in me is alive and thriving.

Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3 are going to be playing Saturday night in Philadelphia at the North Star Bar with The Fleshtones (see Peter Zaremba interview here), Palmyra Delran, and Stupidity. You can go here, for more info and to buy tickets.

The only band that I’ve seen live more than Steve Wynn is Meat Puppets, mostly ’cause of time in Arizona. Wynn puts on a great, fun, tight, energetic and engaging show. Honestly, some of the best live shows that I have ever seen. And I’ve seen Foghat! True, unfortunately.

So without further ado…

Jun 222012

Do the math. New York rock ‘n roll primitives The Fleshtones have been in existence since 1976! Although I knew they dated back to the late-’70s and Marty Thau‘s old Red Star Records label, I didn’t have them pegged back quite so far as 1976 and the legendary New York punk scene of CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City, etc. To me they were pioneers of the second wave of garage rock that would blossom in ’80s underground rock circles. When I first saw the band at a small club in Chicago in 1981 or ’82, it was the closest I would get to stumbling across an actual Yardbirds- or Animals-inspired American ’60s band off the Nuggets compilation. They were sweaty, in-my-face exciting that night as singer Peter Zaremba swiveled his hips and swung his young Mick Jagger-style forelock over the crowd. Skinny guitarist Keith Streng rode his twangy chords and guitar riffs for all they were worth. He wore a turtleneck under a wide-collared shirt with a medallion to boot! Drummer Bill Milhizer and founding bassist Marek Pakulski laid it all out, implying nothing, avoiding anything remotely tasteful or subtle in their rhythms. Townsman Slim Jade wrote about our youthful attempts at defining ourselves through rock ‘n roll styles the other day. The Fleshtones really spoke to my initial efforts at becoming a new version of myself freshman year in a city far from home. My friend and I managed to get backstage after the show. We partied with the band. They seemed much cooler than us, but they were incredibly approachable. Shoot! Maybe, I thought, it wasn’t that far of a stretch to get a few notches cooler.

I saw The Fleshtones another 4 or 5 times through the ’80s, then lost touch with their activities. They were always a guiding light for me and my friends and our own band. It was always cool to know they were keeping things going as my friends and I kept our humble vision alive. Rock ‘n roll offers so many opportunities for community. That’s not to be missed or overlooked, no matter how frustrating any number of larger scenes may be. In chatting with Peter Zaremba the other day it was clear he and his mates are keeping things in perspective, doing what can and what needs to be done. Playing their patented brand of Super Rock. Taking it to The People in small clubs as they have always done.

The Fleshtones play Philadelphia’s North Star Bar this Saturday, June 23, with Steve Wynn and Miracle 3 (also interviewed here in the Halls of Rock), our old Philly music scene friend Palmyra Delran, and Sweden’s Stupidity. Tickets are available here.

Rock Town Hall: We interviewed Lenny Kaye just last year, but I did not know about your 2011 album with him, Brooklyn Sound Solution. The album sounds cool. How did he come to work with you?

Peter Zaremba: We’ve been admirers of Lenny’s since before Nuggets. He put together a compilation of Eddie Cochran stuff in the early ’70s that my friends and I thought was fantastic. When the Fleshtones finally got together, the first ‘cover’ we ever learned was “Nervous Breakdown” from that LP. Fast forward, we got word through mutual friend Phast Phreddie Patterson that Lenny really dug the band and would love to record with us—do some stuff that he couldn’t do with Patty. Of course we said yes!

RTH: Your “Super-Rock” sound and show can’t miss live. What does it take to capture it on record?

PZ: When you find that out, tell me. We’ll make a million bucks! Actually, it seems we look at our recordings a bit different than our “shows.” The show has the visual element, kinda like a “distraction” as used by a slight of hand artist or magician. You can get away with a lot when there’s so much going on. Now a record, you just sit and listen to. We’ve grown up listening to records and realize you have all sorts of opportunities to create whatever sounds you want. It’s a different thing entirely.

RTH: Did you fit in as you came about during the golden age of the CBGBs punk scene? In retrospect you seemed to be kind of “retro before your time.”

PZ: We really didn’t fit in, but I think we were more a taste of what was to come than a lot of what was considered “cool” at CBGBs at the time. However, we did fit in with the Blondie bunch, and oddly enough Suicide recognized us for what we were—distilled rock and roll, just like they were. The Johnny Rotten poses got old—quick.

RTH: Did that matter to your peers, critics, the scene?

PZ: Except for what I just said, I guess it did matter. We are pretty much written out of the history of that era.

RTH: How did your old MTV gig come about, as host of The Cutting Edge? How open was the network to your style and vision?

PZ: We were signed to IRS Records, who produced the show for MTV. We had appeared on the show already a few times and when the host decided to go to Fiji on an art grant (who wouldn’t!?!), they offered me the job. I took it. At first MTV didn’t care what we did, but when we became the highest rated “special” on the network, they really changed their minds! They wanted their hour back, and then tried to copy our formula with 120 Minutes. People are forever telling me how much they loved my show 120 Minutes! Anyway, we were the orphans of the network, even with our high ratings. I never get any acknowledgment from MTV, or invited to any of their anniversaries or events. It’s as if we never existed.

RTH: Have you ever done another solo record or offshoot record beside your old Love Delegation album? How did that come about?

PZ: No, The TWO Love Delegation LPs were enough to cure me, although I wouldn’t mind doing some sort of solo LP that would be 100% different from what we do in the Fleshtones. That takes money! How did the Love Delegation come about? Are we writing a book here? Lets just say that the Fleshtones were between labels at the time, we were in the middle of the Pyramid Club scene, with all of that incredible talent, energy and crazy ideas, and I had piles of material that I wanted to use.

RTH: The Fleshtones have endured for more than 35 years, doing your own thing, your own way. Is there an old record or artist the band taps into to help keep the faith?

PZ: At this point, we are our own inspiration, and for others!

RTH: Have you ever been tempted to veer off into some new direction? Have you or Keith had to put aside any stylistic urges for the good of the band? For instance, is there a closet prog rocker in the band?

PZ: I hope there isn’t a closet prog rocker in the band. You’d think I’d know if there was by now, but you never know! We love basic rock and roll. There’s a lot you can do with that. No big changes.

Continue reading »

Apr 262012

Photo by Dan Burn-Forti

Nick Lowe’s 45-year career as a singer-songwriter, record producer, and all-around musical instigator is a one-man Village Green Preservation Society, to quote the Kinks’ 1968 mission statement. After brief spell in a Cream-influenced psychedelic rock band, Kippington Lodge, Lowe and his fellow UK mates, including future standouts in the late-’70s new wave scene, got an early start on “preserving the old ways” in the Americana roots-rock band, Brinsley Schwarz. A big push to launch the band in the States flamed spectacularly, and in the US their records would be left for music nerds to dig out of the far reaches of used record bins for the next decade.

In 1976, following the demise of the Brinsleys, he hooked up with veteran Welsh musician and producer Dave Edmunds and carved out a role for himself “protecting the new ways,” as house producer for fledgling punk/new wave label Stiff Records. His “So It Goes” b/w “Heart of the City” was the first single on Stiff, and it heralded the artist’s devil-may-care approach to writing subversive takes on AM Top 40 hits of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. His solo output at this time peaked with his second album, Labour of Lust, on which he was backed by Edmunds and fellow members of Rockpile. The single from that album, “Cruel to Be Kind,” with the shaggy video including scenes from his wedding to Carlene Carter, is the most vibrant expression of the new wave era’s cheerful sense of fatalism. He must have been a good fit for the June Carter-Johnny Cash clan.

As a producer, Lowe made his mark helping Elvis Costello & The Attractions craft a diverse, high-octane run of 5 straight albums in 5 years, including their unexpectedly sincere take on one of Lowe’s Brinsley Schwarz-era hippie goofs, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Known as “The Basher,” for his no-nonsense approach to both work and play, Lowe wasn’t messing around, although frequently it just seemed that way.

By the mid-’80s, despite a few minor hits and continued successful production work, Lowe was losing his way. His records lost their snap. The jokes were growing stale. The snappiest of that run, 1990’s aptly named Party of One, was nevertheless the end of the line for Nick the Knife.

I suppose with my advancing age I’m not quite so interested in tricks in the studio, sort of wham-bam-thank-you-m’am.

A few years later, financially secure thanks to a Curtis Stigers cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” being included on the soundtrack to Whitney Houston’s schlock smash, The Bodyguard, a mature Nick emerged. He was done chasing pop stardom, done with dick jokes. He embraced his pop classicism on albums like Dig My Mood, The Convincer, and At My Age. His latest album, The Old Magic, goes even further in this vein, skirting the raunch of rock ‘n roll, soul, and country music for something more akin to early ‘60s dinner club pop balladeering. The new album has been a tougher sell for me than his last few gems, but Lowe’s craftsmanship and comfort in his own skin are impressive. Over the phone, Lowe was as warm, open, and engaging as his music might suggest. He made a couple of mentions of the thrill of meeting and playing with one of his own heroes, the recently deceased Levon Helm, and his new musical friends, Wilco. A thrill’s a thrill, whether it’s the thrill of looking backward or the thrill of looking ahead.

RTH: I was looking at your tour schedule and was saddened to see that this coming Saturday you were supposed to play a Midnight Ramble show with Levon Helm. I know you’d appeared with him on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle, which I didn’t get to see. Had you met Levon before, say in the Brinsley Schwarz days?

NICK LOWE: Yes, I sure did. The Brinsleys had a house just outside of London., where we all used to live together. One day some people phoned up and said the Band, who were doing a big show at Wembley, in 1972 or ‘73, needed a place to rehearse. These people said, “Can they come out to your house and rehearse?”

They hadn’t played for a while. We just couldn’t believe it, we were such big fans. Anyway, they all turned up, they played on our equipment, you know, ran once through what they were going to do on the show, and off they went again. I might have said, “Hello.” It was a huge thrill.

RTH: When you played with Levon on Spectacle was that the only time you’d performed with him? Continue reading »

Nov 122011

Sounds of the Hall in roughly 33 1/3 minutes!

In this week’s edition of Saturday Night Shut-In ladymisskirroyale hosts the airing of a hand-selected post-punk mix offered to the Hall by noted rock historian and Friend of the Hall Simon Reynolds! This is some cool stuff that you may or may not be familiar with—and definitely something different than the Richard Baskin-oriented fare for which your regular host is known to spin.

If ladymisskirroyale, Simon Reynolds, and input by the legendary Mr. Royale are not enough to make you set aside some quality time with your computer, then you’ll want to tune in for your chance to win The Gift, perhaps the most treasured contest prize Rock Town Hall has known to date. Tune in and find out from ladymiss how you can win! (And if you missed the details, the goal is to identify the tracks played: artist and title. Post the playlist in the Comments section or email Mr. Moderator at mrmoderator (at) rocktownhall (dot) com.)

[audio:|titles=RTH Saturday Night Shut-In, episode 53]

[Note: The Rock Town Hall feed will enable you to easily download Saturday Night Shut-In episodes to your digital music player. In fact, you can even set your iTunes to search for an automatic download of each week’s podcast.]

Oct 152011

Simon says, "Be here, now!"

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Royale and I were able to see one of our favorite music critics, Simon Reynolds, discuss his most recent work, Retromania, and field general questions about music and his other books. The man is well versed in a wide range of musical topics, having written about the Post-Punk era, the “Blissed-Out” era of the late ’80s and early ’90s, rave culture, gender influences in rock, and hip-hop culture. Mr. Royale and I arrived a bit early at the bookstore for the reading and noticed him already there browsing the stacks in the music section. We approached him and started chatting, and he was kind enough to answer some of our nosey questions. For instance, his favorite music writers/books include Griel Marcus and Wompbopalubomp, by Nick Cohn. He got into the music writing business indirectly, first studying history at Oxford but continuing his interest and discourse about music, especially in relation to some of the 20th Century French philosophers. He also likes science fiction, and his wife, who is also a music critic, started out by publishing a Duran Duran fanzine.

A central thesis of Retromania is that there is no innovation in music now and that we are overly fixated in looking backwards and making ironic winks to previous time periods. There are technological advances, but they not used to further music, just make it sound like what has come before. He hates mixes/remixes/mash ups as he feels they don’t offer anything new. He despairs about reunion tours, rock museums, and retrosound. He gave an example that if a new writer wrote in the style of Faulker, walked around dressed like Faulkner, and quoted Faulkner all the time, we would laugh. But when musicians do it, it’s given a pass. However, he admits that he is ambivalent about his theory and wrote the book to engage others in discussion about his perceptions. 

After the talk, he agreed to field additional questions from The Hall, including some sent in by my trusty colleagues. I submitted several via email and he promptly wrote back. 

Rock Town Hall: I’ve read some interesting research that suggests that half of all humans tend to peak early in their creative/artistic growth, and half are of the “slow and steady wins the race” type. Examples of these two types might include, say, Prince on the one hand and Jackson Pollock on the other. One flamed out with astonishing brilliance fairly early in life, and the other didn’t paint anything of interest until he cracked his personal creative code in his 50s. I think one of the reasons the field of pop music lacks so much creativity is because the prevailing A&R system only recruits young talent—a strategy that virtually guarantees that most pop music artists will be relevant and interesting for only a brief time. I believe the pop music industry is ignoring all the “late creativebloomers”—50% of all potentially great music makers—and I think that most people who are only latently brilliant when young don’t think they’llever “make it” in pop music, so they stop trying. Of course, I understand issues related to sex appeal, spending habits, and so forth are at the root of the “recruit only when young” method, but… I’d be curious to get your thoughts on this. 

Simon Reynolds: Hmmm, that is interesting. I don’t know if it connects to my preoccupations in Retromania, though, because a lot of older artists are still recording, either for major labels or in the musical indie leftfield, which is what most of my attention is on—and I don’t particularly hear great breakthroughs coming from the older set! But it’s true that record companies did use to invest in talent long-term more, they had the equivalent of “mid-list” artists as in the publishing world, an artist would be allowed to put out album after album after album. And they developed artists, like Kate Bush, who was very young when she started, was put on a wage, and put up in some kind of house or apartment with a piano for a year or two to develop her thing. EMI saw as a female Pink Floyd or something, a long-term major artist. This kind of development I’m sure still goes on but is more likely to be grooming and dance lessons, and all the other things required to be a transmedia-dominating pop star. And artists tend to get dropped really quickly if they don’t make, which must be crushing to many people who are talented and would bloom later. 

RTH: I am having a hard time formulating this question, but if you look at the history or jazz or blues or other forms of music, don’t they all reach a point where they are pretty much “played out,” at least as phenomena with massive audiences, and become niche entertainments and recyclers of the past? What makes us think that rock music is immune to these cycles of growth, evolution, and diminution? I am not suggesting you are trying to make that case, by the way. But there are jazz bands that go around and play the music of various bygone eras, or in the general style(s) of past eras; there are jazz artists striving to create something new that is still part of the tradition, but for the very few people who are interested, etc. Will rock as we (vaguely defined, older people “raised on classic rock”) understand it not go the same route, if it hasn’t already? 

SR: Yes, there is a case for the argument that musical genres, or major musical movements—jazz, rock, hip hop, electronic dance—have a kind of life-cycle. First phase is the emergent one, where often the music is considered juvenile or lowly in some way (jazz being connected with lowlife, brothel music). Then it breaks through to wider acceptance and becomes the dominant popular music of its age, influencing everything else that’s going on. Then you have the fragmentation phase, where it is looking for ways to develop and it is itself influenced or even looking for influences: one way is to combine with the more recent popular styles and dance rhythms (in jazz’s case that would the ’70s fusion era, when it combined with rock, funk, etc), another way is various paths of extremism or abstraction (free jazz, fire jazz, non-idiomatic improvisation, etc); there is also another kind of fusion, which is merging with musics from outside the American tradition (in jazz ECM did with various European flavours and world/exotic flavours, also people like Don Cherry did similar kinds of moves). Then the final phase of the music is a kind of classicism—in jazz terms that would be Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center and the critic Stanley Crouch, the idea of building on a very strong knowledge of and basis in the past, a return to fundamental principles (so in jazz, according to Marsalis and Crouch, that is “blues” and “swing”). Jazz players stop trying to look trendy (all those ’70s fusion snazzy threads!) and dress in suits and ties again. This kind of neo-classicism in jazz tends to blur into a heritage mindset, where it’s all about the classics, almost like the classical music world idea of repertory, whether it’s old performers wheeled out again onstage or it’s young, very respectful and reverential players playing the classic tunes. And indeed the argument is that jazz is America’s classical music. So there is an emphasis on preservation and history: books, documentaries, museum exhibitions. And even with composers and players making new music, the music teems with ghosts of its earlier glory days. Well you could see similar four-phase narrative unfolding within rock and even in hip hop and rave culture. 

RTH: Is there an artist you most regret “not getting” at first who you would eventually dig years after you first had the chance? 

Continue reading »

Sep 092011

As our recent playoff series to determine, once and for all, the Best Song on the Original Nuggets got underway and Townsfolk began debating the essential “Nuggetness” of the entrants, I thought to myself, Wouldn’t it be funny if, like Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a wall to correct a pontificating moviegoer in Annie Hall, I could pull Lenny Kaye out to set us straight on our interpretations of the Nuggets collection he compiled for Elektra Records under the direction of Jac Holzman? Of course the regulars at Rock Town Hall are not the type to pontificate unduly, right? We keep it all in perspective, but still, Lenny Kaye had struck me as a sort of godfather to our shenanigans. He’d get where we’re coming from.

In short time he wrote me back, saying he’d be happy to chat. “Sounds like fun,” he wrote. “Went to the link, seems everybody has different ideas on what actually is Nuggets…” I was psyched.

A week later we were on the phone, waiting for the near-hurricane that swept through the northeast to hit. Lenny was as cool and friendly as his work and stage demeanor would suggest. His enthusiasm for his work in compiling this landmark collection of oddball psych-pop singles 40 years ago was impressive. Nuggets wasn’t some youthful fling for Lenny Kaye; the experience was clearly a springboard to and, to this day, a guiding light in his work with Patti Smith and beyond.

On our best days, as I see it, much of what we work to culture and share in the Halls of Rock is our initial, personal sense of love for music and the role it’s played in our lives. I couldn’t help thinking, while talking to Lenny Kaye, of my initial experiences with Nuggets in my late teens, how the album helped validate my childhood take on music and give me and my like-minded rock friends a toehold in developing our musical identities. My childhood friend and musical partner in crime Townsman andyr and I knew the significance of his old Disco Teen ’66 hits collection, which we used to analyze as yon’ teens. By freshman year in college, however, a thousand miles away from my blood brother, that album meant nothing to the new rock nerds I was befriending. Nuggets spoke to all of us, regardless of shared experiences and regional differences. The hyper kid from North Jersey, the wiseass from the suburbs of Chicago, and the long, lanky, laconic kid from Colorado all found this collection as stimulating and inspiring as I did. It was a happening.

As for my silly Annie Hall fantasy, fear not: Lenny’s not the type to put down any of us. I hope you’ll enjoy this chat at least half as much as I did. Read on!


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