THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mad Habits

Mad Habits cassette

1. Monkey On His Back
2. No News
3.I Don't Like You
4. Too Selfish
5. When Will I Learn
6. Career Girl

Mad Habits was a Chuck Gross synthpop band or solo project - I don't know if it was just Chuck because the man keeps such a low profile that he's virtually subterranean. All I know is, Chuck gave me a six-song cassette tape back in the day that I never really listened to all the way through until quite recently, when his name came up in casual conversation at The Peanut Shoppe. I had just seen Chuck at Baltimore Soundstage for The Specials show and, in the course of gabbing about the concert, my Peanut Shoppe gal pal Stacey asked if I knew how to contact him. She was a fan of his days playing with Rupert Wondolowski in Little Gruntpack, whereas I knew Chuck mainly from his days playing with Mark O'Connor in The Toys and The Beaters. I went home after this conversation and dug out the Mad Habits tape and...it's great!

My wife Amy heard me playing it and said it reminded her of Henry Badowski's similarly light-hearted electronic pop. Or, I would add, like Patrick D. Martin (remember his hilarious 1981 single "Computer Datin'"; most people first heard it on the IRS Greatest Hits Vols 2 & 3 compilation). "No News" is her fave ditty ("No news is always good news to me...I don't want to know if it rains or snows/Or if Russia invades Tokyo" - and boy is it ever topical today, what with the 24/7 news - both real and "fake" - cycle), while my pick has to be the dating nightmare "Career Girl," about a Material Girl on the prowl for a guy with a fast car and lots of money ("She is counting, 1-2-3"). But all the tunes are throwback-to-the-80s synthpop classics.

Click here to listen to the "Mad Habits" tape in its entirety.

Amy was sold the minute she heard the zany electronic squonks and and squeals on the first track, "Monkey On His Back," that made her blurt "Wow, that's sooo DEVO!" So Devo and so like the best practitioners of '80s synthpop - but always with a sense of humor (more Devo and Silicone Teens than, say Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark); any of these songs would be at home on the 4AD or Mute Records labels. Now we can't stop singing along to this six-pack of unknown songs on an unknown tape by an unknown musical genius. I assume it's Chuck playing all the instruments, which are mostly synths and electronic drums, though I definitely hear snatches of real electric bass (especially that great bass line on "Monkey On His Back") and guitar (the Exacto knife-sharp Gang of Four riffs on "Career Girl").

"Monkey On His Back" opens with an ominous-sounding undercurrent, as befitting the subject matter: a drug addict's best friend, the monkey hunched on his back. Monk keeps his BFF dressed in sunglasses and long-sleeve shirts even when it's 110 degrees in the shade. "He insists he'll never bother you, just as long as he gets what he needs/But then again he says he'll do most anything/He'll always keep the friend that he feeds." So true, dat.

"No News" describes the folly of following the world's foibles and failings, no doubt one reason Gross has dropped off the social media grid. He'd rather being making music than listening, reading or watching the world go by. "I could care less why they are on strike, or why workers need a fat payday hike/No news is good news that I am always looking for/And I don't need my paper all wet, left by my front door/Please don't you tell me that the end is drawing near/No news is good news, that's what I always want to hear - I don't like the...NEWS!"

The remaining four songs all deal with dating and relationships, with tones ranging from serious ("I Don't Like You") to self-reflective ("Too Selfish"), but mostly just humorous ("When Will I Learn," "Career Girls").

"I Don't Like You" peels away a failed romance to its core: "Sometimes we don't realize, that we just keep on living lies/We don't seem to realize the feelings in our hearts/We dance around and smile at each other, underneath the nightclub cover/We gave it all we had, it was a nice start." Chuck sings "It's hard to come to terms with the way we feel" but admits "I don't like you, you don't like me anymore, there's nothing left to do or say/Please don't teach me, try to reach me anymore/And then we'll both be on our way." Love isn't always meant to be and, once gone, is only legacy.

In "Too Selfish," Chuck laments that "you want me all to yourself, but I'm afraid that's impossible my dear," confessing that he's "too selfish to love only you." Amy and I refer to this as the "Skynth" song because it lays a guitar-driven Ska beat over a synthesizer base; the playful rhythm takes the edge off the "It's not you, it's me" romantic drama.

Being stood up is only one of Chuck's complaints in "When Will I Learn." "When will I learn/I'm really getting tired of being burned by you - yeah you!" He's "really glad that I met you, but I soon found out I'd rather forget you/I didn't know what I was getting into." Now he's looking for an escape clause...

"Career Girl" chronicles the plight of a single man fighting off women with their eyes on the prize: a sugar daddy who brings home the bacon."This girl pursues a man, she'll never take a rest/Don't care what they look like, his money makes him best/ Avoiding these girls seems to be the only key/Or you could wind up losing all your best friends, most of your hair and your sanity." I like the interlude where Chuck has two "Career Girls" talking shop about their prey: "What's his name, how's he dress?" "Name is Dion, Barclay James...a rising exec, I gave him the test."

And while Chuck documents his romantic setbacks, it's never dire. "Mad Habits" is consistently entertaining and enjoyable and full of infectious hooks and memorable lines that Amy and I can't stop singing!

But as far as contacting Chuck Gross, Stacey...well, he is totally off the grid and n'exist pas as far as the Internets are concerned. You can't find one picture of him: nada. So, for the purposes of this review, I'm going to substitute this picture of Peanuts character Pigpen playing bass to represent him (the real Chuck Gross would be wearing a hat, of course, and he'd be very clean):

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Peanut: Chuck Gross

Yet he has a storied musical history, especially with "GOHOG Revue"-related bands - that collection of performing and recording musical pseudonyms whose ranks included members of OHO, Food For Worms, Dark Side, Trixy & the Testones, Razor, The Toys, Unyflow, BLAMMO and the Beaters. And Chuck Gross references abound throughout Joe Vaccarino's local music tome Baltimore Sounds (2nd Edition, 2012), where you can find listings for Chuck's former bands Laff Clinic (circa 1984-1985; they released one single, "Pariah" b/w "Action Figure Knickknacks"), Little Gruntpack, the Toys, and (my personal fave) the Beaters.

Mark O'Connor of The Beaters (and countless GOHOG bands)

The Beaters were a short-lived local New Wave supergroup, a 1980 "Marble Bar All-Stars" ensemble comprised of O'Connor (keyboards, guitar & vocals) and Gross (bass) from the Toys, drummer Joe Manfre and guitarist Mikel Gehl from Neige, and Cindy "Bobby Sox" Borchardt (later of The Monuments) on vocals. The Beaters billed themselves as "the fastest band in town," and they mixed clever originals ("I Wanna Be Like a Woman," "Fun In Nicaragua" - the latter an O'Connor song from his days in Dark Side with a great shout-out to Orioles pitcher "Dennis Martinez, your home is where the heat is!") with a diverse selection of covers (Beatles, Blondie, The Fugs/Holy Modal Rounders' "Boobs A Lot," The Vibrators' "I Need a Slave," The Eyes' "TAQN" (Take A Quaalude Now), and The Curse's "Killer Bees," the latter a showcase for the insouciant vocal stylings of Cindy Borchardt).

The Killer B: Cindy Borchardt

Of course, any band with O'Connor and Gross in it is also going to be funny, and the Beaters were no exception. I recall them being heckled at one Marble Bar gig by Thee Katatonix frontman Adolf Kowalski and O'Connor responded by dedicating a song about unwanted pregnancies with the bon mots, "This one's for you Adolf!"

Before that, Chuck and Mark O'Connor were in the Parkville-based Toys, whose original name was Concert (allegedly in response to hearing there was a local band called Audience). Concert/Toys were a Top 40 rock band that played at high school dances and area clubs from 1974-1980. According to Baltimore Sounds, they were the weekend house band at the Red Balloon on Belair Road and would also don Sgt. Pepper's costumes to double as a Beatles cover band. Their highest profile gig was headlining a New Year's Eve show at (the now long-gone) Painter's Mill Concert Hall. O'Connor replaced original keyboardist Tim Kilgore and was himself later replaced by Ed Weber (ex-Seed, Shane); the other members were Gross (bass), Randy Hammond (vocals), and Bruce Crawford (guitar).

Chuck Gross is probably most associated with Little Gruntpack, the Captain Beefhearty Blues-Boogie Art-rock band whose other members included leader Rupert Wondolowski (guitar & vocals), his Normals Books & Music cohort Alfred "Angus" Merchlinsky (guitar), Chuck (bass), Chris "Batworth" Ciattei (drums), Scott "Swede" Larson (accordion), and Ralph Stewart (harmonica), with contributions from journeyman horn player John Dierker (sax). The band reflected the literary and avant-garde influence of the Normals-Shattered Wig-Red Room "poets-'n-painters-with-guitars" mindset, as many members and contributors were published authors and artists. Gruntpack released a single and two albums: 1997's Slipping Off the Map and 1999's Lurking.

Little Gruntpack 45 - "Slipping Off the Map" b/w "New year's With Guns"

Little Gruntpack 45 back cover

Little Gruntpack - Slipping Off the Map (1997)

Little Gruntpack - Lurking (1999)

Lurking was the only Gruntpack album I ever owned (curiously, I picked it up from a "Free Music" pile at a Govans yoga studio on Bellona Avenue that I suspect was left there by nearby resident Batworth or his wife Jenny Keith!), and it's pretty good. My fave songs are "B-Side Shenanigans" and the two instros, "Caution Your Head Samba" and "My New Pants," which are guitar-bass-drums workouts highlighting the technical skills of Rupert, Angus, Gross and Batworth. And the closing "Lonely Motel 6" lets John Dierker release his inner Ornette Coleman, as he honks, squonks, squeals and blows with wild abandon over a steady Gruntpack groove that would not be out of place at a Red Room jam. At times, Dierker's sax even sounds like Chris Wood flavoring an extended Traffic tune. After about 30 seconds, this final song is followed by a gem of a "hidden track," as Rupert turns into Choo Choo Charlie, singing a folk paen to a "freight train, freight train" rolling down the tracks. Propelled by Batworth's locomotive beat and "Swede" Larson's accordion, Rupert pleads "Don't tell them what car I'm on, so no one will know where I've gone."

In 1997, "Chuckie" teamed up with Little Gruntpack mates "Batworth" (drums) and Ralph "Stoo" Stewart (guitar) to form the surf instrumental trio The Soul Gamblers; they disbanded to go back to Gruntpack before reforming in 2000 to record their lone album, Souled OutThe Reverb That Wouldn't Die web site described them thusly: "Inspired by the traditional surf music of the 60's, B-movie schlock, and the garage/neo-surf sounds coming out of the Pacific Northwest via Estrus Records, The Soul Gamblers put together a sound that has been described by noted film/music critic Rudolph Carresso as 'the aural by-product of a three-way collision between a Woody Wagon, a '65 Pontiac Hearse, and Dracula's record collection.'"

The Soul Gamblers album features a 50/50 split between classic surf covers and Ralph Stewart originals. They were a worthy addition to Baltimore's resurgent garage/instro-surf-rock scene, which at high tide included Garage Sale, The Diamondheads, The Tridents (another Batworth band!), the Delmarvas, and countless others.

As you can see, Chuck Gross has a varied - and very interesting - musical C.V. Let's hope he revisits his electronic phase sometime in the future because his "Mad Habits" are habit forming!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Poets with Guitars: Markman & McQuade

Howard Markman & Acoustic Palookaville at Village Square cafe
After a recent social media post about Club Charles closing and attendant lamentations over other Charm City institutions that have bitten the dust over the years, I dug out Howard Markman’s Palookaville ditty "Between Glasphalt and the Stars," which name checks several Baltimore cultural landmarks. Like Rafael Alvarez and Tommy DiVenti, Howard is a deft chronicler of the many charms of Balti-lore, and I am glad I got to see his recent gig with Acoustic Palookaville (aka Howard, bassist Thom Huntington, and guitarist Andy Thurston - with backing vocals by Celeste Thurston) at Cross Keys' Village Square Cafe. (Non-acoustic Palookaville is Howard, bassist Chas Marsh, drummer Jim Hannah, and keyboardist Glenn Workman.) In songs like "Glasphalt," "Welcome To Smalltimore," “Baltimore To Bethlehem” and "Anna," he recalls bygone haunts like the Marble Bar, Martick's, and No Fish Today, images that still evoke what Howard would call "half smiles" and "blue skies." In his song "If I Were a Poet," Howard sings "Poems are forests and words are trees"; if so, Howard's songs are like splinters that get under one's skin and stay there, embedded as ear-worms
The Dharma Bums at the Village Square Cafe

Village Square Cafe's live music series is great (and so is the food - featuring the town's best Black Bean Burger!) and at Howard's show we sat with Helene Cooper and Brian McQuade of The Dharma Bums. The Dharma Bums had played there just two weeks before and I got to thinking how similar Brian McQuade and Howard Markman are. In the musical equivalent of Ancestry.com, both are descendants of Dylan, poets with guitars, oral story tellers who make us want to turn the page with them. They're part of the great American singer-songwriter tradition, one in which peers Dylan, Newman and Nilsson would look down on their graying heads with approval and give them a hearty thumbs up. And what great stories they tell! Both Howard and Brian can rock out (viz Howard's "Big Hair" and "Pennies On the Floor," Brian's "Johnny Says" and the Swingin' '60s spy spoof "Black Russian"), but at their core they're introspective, sensitive souls whose most intimate songs are tinged with melancholy and self-reflection - like all great artists (see: Chilton, Cohen, Keene, Lennon, Reed, Pete Ham). Howard even manages to half-smile at his blues in songs like "Glasphalt," "Sashimi To Go," and "Carla Bley."

And both do interesting takes on other artists' songs, Howard slowing down Prince's "Little Red Corvette" to cruising speed while Brian deconstructs Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" to its gnarly roots in Americana folk-blues. The Dharma Bums are also big time Stevie Nicks fans, so it's a given that they would utilize Brian's guitar prowess to back Helene's heartfelt vocals on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Brian also covers or pays homage to Dylan (obviously), The Beatles ("Norwegian Wood" and his Lennon tribute "Johnny Says"), Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and his guitar idol Richard Thompson. Howard gives props to his tie-dyed past (yes, before he had his eyes opened wide by the Punk and New Wave movements, he was a member of the late '70s jam band Milton Freewater/Freewater) on the Grateful Dead's "Brown-Eyed Women" (on 2010's Welcome To Smalltimore album).

Howard has released four albums, as shown below, all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Three of them are even available at Baltimore city's central library (I wonder how that happened?).

Symptom Recital (2002)

Half Smiles Blue Skies (2006)

Half Smiles Blue Skies is my favorite Markman release, a solid long player of poignant love - and l'amour perdue - songs ("Anna," "I See the Rain") and uptempo rockers, with "Stuck In the Middle" standing out as arguably the best tune Howard has ever penned. It's a perfect mid-tempo pop song, packed with memorable images and clever wordplay. Flawless. "Anna" would fit nicely on a John Prine record (that's high praise in my book!), "Almost Home"'s fluid guitar lines would be at home on a Dire Straits album, and the snarly "Big Hair" ("Big hair, no brains/After sex, nothing remains...Big chest, no heart/Is this where the trouble starts?") is a total buzz-cut with a downright nasty guitar solo. "Almost Home" and "Iowa Skies" are intriguing on-the-road stories, while "Sashimi To Go" shows that even when life gets you down, there's always something worth living for. Who can argue with raw fish as salvation?

Welcome To Smalltimore (2010)

Another Day (2016)

Brian recently gave me his 2002 solo album, Lone Wolf (which I hope was NOT inspired by the 1983 Chuck Norris movie Lone Wolf McQuade - though both men appear bare-chested on their respective covers)...

Lone Wolf (2002)

...and I think he should either re-release it or upload it to the Cloud, because it's one of Baltimore's great undiscovered albums, as is Howard's 2006 magnum opus Half Smiles, Blue Skies (which gets bonus points for the back cover picture of Howard reading a book - a book with words! - outside Club Pussycat on The Block!).

"There's no one like McQuade" - except Chuck Norris!

Brian - the other "Lone Wolf" McQuade

Howard likes to read

Brian donned his Todd Rundgren Something/Anything hat for Lone Wolf (which he co-produced with Mac Walter), playing most of the instruments - guitars, drums and percussion, piano, organ, harmonica, accordion, even digeridoo (!) - with a little help from his friends Ralph Reinoldi (bass, mandolin), Bill Phelan (playing majestic electric 12-string guitar on "Givin' Up On Love"), Mac Walter (classical guitar on "Sky Is Bleeding," violin on "Children of the Wind," bass), Chris Weaver (drums on "Lone Wolf"), and Helene Cooper and Jim O'Hara (harmony vocals on "Sky Is Bleeding").

The snarky "17 Syllable Blues" is the album's highlight, a clever mesh of words and music that the Bard (the one from Hibbing, Minnesota, that is) probably wishes he had written, while "Sky Is Bleeding" and "Givin' Up On Love" (fave lines: "Well I got a good car with a stereo and the tunes I can't forget/I can walk around naked in my living room just like Alanis Morissette") are also standout tracks. "Givin' Up On Love" is a really upbeat breakup song, with Brian looking forward from the past ("I'm gonna let this go through me, I won't hold on, I'll forget what she said/I'll just let the wind blow through me, but I'll still hold on just like the spider's web") and even name-checking Dylan: "Well I got the new Dylan and some bongo drums and a good six-string/I'm writing these words in the woods, so no one can hear me sing."

There's a nice variety to the album, with instrumentals ("Blue Walkabout," the sparse piano and guitar interlude of "Dreamtime"), the topical ecological concerns of "Green Planet Blues" ("No ozone, the layer is blown/I better own some sun screen 30"), Middle Eastern-flavored worldbeat on "Children of the Wind," straight-up blues on "Medicine Girl," a philosophical acceptance that "All Things Must Pass Away" ("All things must pass away/to the sun, the darkness must give way"), and a celebration of the things that make Brian happy - nature and the joys it affords those who seek solitude far from the madding crowds ("Lone Wolf," "Wolfsong," "On the Beach"). Or, as he sums up in "Waltzing in the Snow": "The world's a cake and the frosting's all there." The only song I recognize from the Dharma Bums' set list is "La Vie Boheme," which makes sense because Brian and Howard are both, at heart, modern day Boho's, marching to the beat of a different drum. I hope one day others will join their parade and that their songs will be appreciated for the little gems they are.

Related Videos:
Howard Markman - "Welcome To Smalltimore"
Dharma Bums - "Black Russian" (Live at Village Square Cafe)
Dharma Bums - "A Brand New Song" (Live at Village Square Cafe)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lost & Found: The Cabal/Null Set EP

(Awf-Trak, 1984)

Cabal EP (Awf-Trak, 1984)

On two successive weekends, my wife Amy has spotted Cabal's self-titled six-song EP in two different record stores in Frederick, Maryland. Amy now has multiple copies of this album (as do I), leading her friends to joke that she must leave some in the record bins for future fans to discover!

Amy scores "Cabal" at Rock & Roll Graveyard on E. Patrick Street, Frederick

Amy spots "Cabal" at Record Exchange on N. Market Street, Frederick

Cabal was basically a continuation of Null Set, the early '80s Baltimore band formed by her ex-husband, the dearly departed guitar whiz "Mark Harp" (Mark Linthicum, 1957-2004) and singer Bill Dawson, minus bassist John Chriest and drummer Louis Frisino (who was replaced by Rich Dickson). Null Set had to change their name because there was a New Jersey group, the synth-pop Nullset, recording under that name in 1983. (Ironically, there are now countless bands listed on Discogs.com using both the Null Set and Cabal monikers.) Though only Harp, Dawson and Dickson are credited on the record, Cabal the live band was augmented by a rotating cast of sidemen, including: bassists Les Hendrix, Dave Zidek, and Dick Hertz; second guitarist Mark King; keyboardist Danny Brown; and Steve Palmieri, a sound engineer who played synths.

Null Set debuts at Baltimore's Marble Bar (October 30, 1982)

Cabal: Mark King, Rich Dickson, Bill Dawson, Les Hendrix, Mark Harp

Bill Dawson steps to the mic

Bill Dawson's Napoleon impression

Bill Dawson, smoking live!

Null Set frontman Bill Dawson rocks the plaid

Null Set singer Bill Dawson contemplates Nordic Ennui in Dundalk, Wintertime 1980s

Mark Harp, Null Set

Mark Harp (in his "Choose Death" tee) with Cabal

Cabal: Les Hendrix, Mark Harp, and Mark King

"It's a sign from Mark," Amy remarked when she spotted a copy of the record in an E. Patrick Street store called (appropriately enough) "Rock & Roll Graveyard." If so, Cabal has taken up residence in this DC Bedroom community of Frederick County, for she sighted yet another copy the very next week around the corner at Record Exchange on N. Market Street.

Back of 6-song Cabal EP

The tracks on this rare EP are:

1. Null Theme
2. In Touch
3. Future In Pain
4. Blissful Trust
5. Fall Flat
6. New Horizon

The CD reissue of the 6-song EP featured 10 remixes and bonus songs from the Cabal/Null Set era 1981-1985, including two Cabal tracks recorded live at the Marble Bar in 1983 and three Null Set demos (including "Perception," arguably their best and most commercial song) recorded in 1981 and produced by Sam Prager at Eastern Studios in Glen Burnie, MD. It's available for downloading from the web site 24 Hours with Mark Harp, where Mark himself described the Cabal record as "Dark post-punk." That's an understatement. Whereas humor was always part-and-parcel of Mark Harp's musical output, Null Set/Cabal was dead serious business. As Bill Dawson sang in Null Set's signature "Theme" song, "Paint it black/You know where we're at!" Performing live, Bill sometimes even bit down on fake blood capsules for added dramatic visual effect. The music may have been all Mark, but the lyrical narrative was all Bill, and the songs that resulted from their collaboration reflect the influence of the UK post-punk bands they were listening to at the time: Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Joy Division, Gang of Four, PiL, and John Foxx's Ultravox, to name but a few. The synth-heavy "Open Up" (originally available only on cassette) even channels a Devo vibe, while the radio-friendly "New Horizon"'s danceable beat suggests Cabal could be a pop band when they wanted to be.

The Cabal record was recorded in Spring 1984 at Studio North in Fallston, MD,  with Buck Awf (Bucky Baum) credited as the executive producer, though Mark Harp produced and mixed the music with engineer Steve Palmieri. The EP came with a picture sleeve insert, designed by Bill Dawson with original artwork by Andrew Goldys, caligraphy by Paul Yu Rek, and photographs of the musicians by Mark King.

Cabal EP insert, sleeve design by Bill Dawson

At the very top it said, "This record is dedicated to the memory of Roger Anderson." Roger Anderson, owner of Baltimore's legendary rock club The Marble Bar, had just passed away from a heart attack in April 1984. At the time, the Marble Bar was the reigning home of alternative rock music, a place that - in the words of City Paper music critic Michael Yockel - provided "spiky-haired punks/punkettes and skinny-tied new wavers a sanctuary to play/dance/hang out." Early on, Roger Anderson committed to providing an outlet for groups like Null Set/Cabal as opposed to the cover bands and mainstream rock ensembles appearing in clubs around the Beltway circuit.

The insert listed the band as Bill Dawson (vocals, backing vocals), Rich Dickson (drums, percussion), and Mark Harp (guitars, basses, Casio, Oberheim, percussion, backing vocals, and drum programming). (I admit that I had to look up "Oberheim" - it's a synthesizer, named after its inventor Tom Oberheim; Oberheim Electronics also manufactured the DMX drum machine, which was a staple of early hip-hop records.)

Mark Harp (photo by Mark King)

Bill Dawson (photo by Mark King)

Rich Dickson (photo by Mark King)

Thanks were given to "a cast of thousands," including Bill's girlfriend Michelle, Mark's sweetie Amy, LesLee (Anderson, who continued to operate the Marble Bar following her husband Roger Anderson's death in 1984), Pam (City Paper writer Pamela Purdy), Lizard (Ed Rosen), Louie (Louis Frisino, original Null Set drummer) and, of course, "Bob" (Church of the Subgenius avatar J.R. "Bob" Dobbs).

Cabal says "Thanks!"

Watch Bill Dawson sing "Null Theme" and "Fall Flat" with the Mark Harp All-Stars at the May 26, 2013 SoWeBohemian Festival in Baltimore:

Ceil Strakna and Bill Dawson with the Mark Harp All-Stars, SoWeBohemian Festival (May 26, 2013)

One of the best and most detailed reviews of the Cabal record can be found at "Fantod Under Glass" which, for convenience, I've inserted below:

*************** CABAL/NULL SET REVIEW ***************

Cabal 6-song EP (Awf-Trak, 1984)
By some accounts Baltimore's first and greatest postpunk band, Null Set was the brainchild of singer Bill Dawson (previously seen here with Black Pete) and guitarist Mark Harp. Null Set's highest-profile gig was opening for the Ramones at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall, and they were semi-regulars at the Marble Bar and DC's 9:30 Club in the early 80s. Their Bauhaus fandom shows pretty clearly in their early recordings; "An Evening In Town" is their "Bela Lugosi's Dead". Null Set came to an abrupt end when an identically-named band from another city put out a record; Baltimore's Null Set ended up changing their name to Cabal. In 1984 they released their only record, a self-titled 6-song EP on Buck Awf's ad-hoc Awf-Trak label; on it they started to come out from under the Bauhaus influence and expand their sound, even approaching synth-pop on "New Horizon." Commercial success did not ensue, however, and the band drifted apart. Mark Harp went on to record hundreds of hours of music in a myriad of different projects; he eventually divided them into 24 hour-long thematic sections and posted them on his website (and at the Internet Archive) as 24 Hours with Mark Harp. Mark died in December 2004, but his website is still there. What I am presenting here is the 12:00 AM hour of 24 Hours, containing all the Null Set and Cabal recordings; I have renamed the files and added ID3 tags for better playback display, and put them into a single zip file for easy downloading. The tracks are:
  1. Cabal - Null Theme (Tracks 1-6 are from the Cabal EP)
  2. Cabal - In Touch
  3. Cabal - Future In Pain
  4. Cabal - Blissful Trust
  5. Cabal - Fall Flat
  6. Cabal - New Horizon
  7. Cabal - Open Up (Cassette only track from the Cabal EP release)
  8. Cabal - Assistance (Live at The Marble Bar Baltimore 1983)
  9. Cabal - Brash Finale (Also live at The Marble Bar 1983)
  10. Cabal - Check This Out (Recorded live in Bill's basement 1984)
  11. Cabal - No Way Out (Recorded live in Bill's basement 1984)
  12. Null Set - Null Theme (Tracks 12-14 from Null Set's demo recorded 1981 at Eastern Studios in Glen Burnie, MD, produced by Sam Prager)
  13. Null Set – Perception
  14. Null Set - Go!
  15. Null Set - An Evening In Town (synth thanks to Jack Heinicke)
CABAL - Bill Dawson - Vocals, Mark Harp - Guitars and stuff, Rich Dickson - Drums, Dave Zidek - Bass, Dick Hertz - Bass, Danny Brown - Keys, Steve Palmieri - Synth and sound, Les Hendrix - Bass, Mark King - Guitar & keys
NULL SET - Bill Dawson - Vocals, Mark Harp - Guitars & Stuff, John Chriest - Bass, Louis Frisino - Drums
Get the zip file here or here. (New links)


By the way, I was lucky enough to be at that near-capacity Johns Hopkins University Shriver Hall show (March 1, 1982) mentioned above where Null Set opened for The Ramones (Mark wouldn't allow Amy to go, for some reason - a missed opportunity she's always regretted), and it wasn't just their highest-profile performance, it was perhaps their best.

I recall that it was very dramatic, opening in pitch blackness with the "Null Theme." The four-piece band came onstage one at a time, timed to match their musical contribution to the song. Mark came on first playing the guitar riff and illuminated only by his lit cigarette glowing in the darkness; next, Louis Frisino took a seat behind his drum kit as the percussion kicked in; he was followed by John Chriest laying down the bass; finally, the lights came up as Bill Dawson stepped to the microphone to sing "We are null, there is nothing/Nothing clapping, no one dancing/We are the preset, mental incest/Paint it black, you know where we're a-a-a-at...Null Set, Null Set, always gray/Null Set, Null Set, nowhere today, Null Set, Null Set, floating bodies/Null Set Null Set, a new something now!"

It was electrifying and all the locals gathered there that night were convinced that this might be the one rock band to break out of Baltimore and make it nationally. (Ha! How were we to know it would be The Ravyns, albeit briefly, with their '82 hit "Raised On the Radio," as featured in the Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack? Foo!) Well, maybe everybody except Johns Hopkins University News-letter writers Hunt Salisbury and (future City Paper scribe) Granville Greene. In their "Gabba Gabba Ramones" review (March 5, 1982, Volume 86, Number 19), they described Null Set as follows:

 "Embodying some kind of nihilistic, conceptually-obnoxious philosophy (the band wore only black), Null Set, its lead singer resembling both Gary Numan and Herman Munster, played a loud and strident set concerned with (what else?) alienation and the decline of society...Null Set opened up with a few hot trendies and blasted our poor little ears. Their first couple of songs were pretty good, but they went steadily downhill from there, ending their last song with the words 'it's just not funny anymore,' defining themselves in a nutshell."
Null Set blurb from JHU News-letter review

"Gaba Gabba Ramones" full review, page 1

"Gabba Gabba Ramones" full review, page 2

Ouch! I totally disagree, but then the reviewers seemed to have a New Wave chip on their shoulders, given headlines like "Drugged Punks Pogo Between Seats" and this description of Null Set's fans:

"On the left aisle were bopping boppers, Gabba-Gabba Heying to their hearts content, while on the right, trendy Null Set fans continued to strut their stuff. When the Ramones came on, this group of people bashed and crashed in the aisle, while simultaneously being given probable permanent ear damage by the ridiculously loud speakers. The game was to push and be pushed, slam and be slammed. How punk. I got hit in the balls twice. What fun."

Null Set fans at Shriver Hall (photo by Michael Fitzgerald)

Admittedly, there was a rather dour, downbeat feel to most Null Set/Cabal songs, and I'm sure they were one of the bands indirectly referenced in Food For Worms' clever send-up of Goth/Industrial music, "Gloom Club" (available on 2001's The Ultimate Diet).

By the way, "Null Theme" is structured musically like a pop palindrome. The song begins and ends the same way: opening with solo guitar, guitar + drums, guitar + drums + bass, guitar + drums + bass + voice, and then subtracting each element  one at a time (first voice, then drums, then bass) until returning to the solo guitar riff that started it all.

In accordance with musical catch-and-release principles, Amy has now vowed to return any subsequent Cabal records she finds to their respective record bins so that they may be discovered by future generations of discerning post-punk rock cognoscenti.

Finally, reflecting on that pic of Amy outside Frederick's Rock & Roll Graveyard record store, I realized that the store's sidewalk sign depicted the cover of Mountain's Climbing! LP, the album whose lead track was Leslie West's cowbell-propelled hit "Mississippi Queen."

Mountain - "Climbing!" (Windfall Records, 1970)

How curious that after Cabal broke up, Bill Dawson teamed up with George Hagegeorge to form Black Pete and play guitar-driven industrial music in the vein of Ministry and Skinny Puppy - and release a 12-inch single cover of "Mississippi Queen" (Calvert Street Records, 1989)!

Black Pete - "Mississippi Queen" b/w "Vicious" & "Ablaze" (Calvert Street Records, 1989)

According to Hagegeorge's wife Cherly Fair, the lyrics were modified to make the song's character a vampire. Cheryl adds that Black Pete was strictly a studio project. The 12-inch received some airplay and appeared on several compilations. Though they were interviewed on the radio and were popular with club DJs, they never played live or made a music video (though you can listen to "Mississippi Queen" and the B-sides "Vicious" and "Ablaze" on her YouTube channel).

And as blogger Burl Veneer (former WJHU DJ Bill Barnett, who now broadcasts at WVUD 93.1 FM) points out, Ministry later followed Black Pete's lead, covering "Mississippi Queen" on their 2008 collection of classic rock covers, Cover Up!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Apple a Day (Various) ***

An Apple a Day: More Pop-Psych Sounds from the Apple Era 1967-1969 (RPM Records, 2008)

My wife Amy spotted this compilation in the used CD racks of Record Exchange in Frederick for a mere $5 (she has a real gift for thrift!).

Outside the Record Exchange in Frederick, MD

This was RPM Records' second release of material (demos, singles, and unreleased songs) by artists signed by "Apple Publishing" (not necessarily by Apple Records). Not every artist represented in the series attracted the Beatles' interest, though a select few - The Iveys (later to become Badfinger and have Paul McCartney write their first hit "Come and Get It"), Focal Point (fellow Liverpudlians Paul Tennant and David Rhodes were discovered in Hyde Park by McCartney and became the first group signed to Apple Records), and Grapefruit (the second band signed to Apple, with John Lennon producing their debut) - could claim legit Fab connections. The first was 94 Baker Street: The Pop-Psych Sounds of the Apple Era 1967-1968 (2003), named after Apple's original street address; it's now out-of-print and goes for outrageous sums ($50+ !) on Amazon. RPM's "Pop-Psych Sounds from the Apple Era" series continued with 2008's Treacle Toffee World and 2010's Lovers from the Sky. And just this year, RPM released Grapefruit's Yesterday's Sunshine: The Complete 1967-1968 London Sessions.

94 Baker Street: The Pop-Psych Sounds of the Apple Era 1967-1969

Just to clear things up right away, "Pop-Psych Sounds" is pure marketing: the songs here are purely "pop" with only the occasional lyrics or song title (e.g., Gallagher & Lyle's "Technicolour Dream," The U (Don't) Know U's "Strange People," Mortimer's "People Who Are Different" - produced by then Apple A&R man Peter Asher, Goldrush's "Somebody's Turning On the People") even remotely suggesting "psych"-edelic music, though the wild, distorted guitar solo in The Cups' "Good As Gold" probably comes closest. And Denis Couldry's wonderfully brassy "James in the Basement" (about a notorious local drug dealer) also suggests chemically influenced pop - albeit using horns! Couldry's basement dwelling ditty (the B-side of his "I Am Nearly There" single) sounds like the Bonzo Dog Band if they had been less artschool weird and more mainstream pop. The backing band on this track is actually Second Hand (Ken Elliott, Kieran O'Connor, Bob Gibbons, Grant Ramsey), considered one of the first (and most underrated) progressive rock bands of this era. (They even played a Mellotron!) Second Hand's "Fairytale" also appears on this compilation.

Listen to "James in the Basement."

But be that as it may, the main selling point here (for two admitted Beatles fanatics) was curiosity about the Apple-related artists represented, with four demo recordings by the pre-Badfinger Iveys the deal-maker. Of the four, the standout track is clearly Pete Ham's "Black and White Rainbow," a swinging affair that showcases the melodic craft and vocal harmonies that would later make Badfinger a critical success and elicit all those Beatles comparisons.

Listen to The Iveys play "Black and White Rainbow."

Ironically, Ham's "Girl in a Mini Skirt" is an out-of-tune mess of a song, with embarrassing lyrics and a musical  structure that can't make up its mind what it wants to be - pop, Northern Soul, Mod, what have you. There's a reason why this one remained a demo. It's the kind of dumb song I might have written in my punk days. (Yes, that bad!).

The Iveys - "Maybe Tomorrow" (Apple, 1969)

But Tom Evans's "Tomorrow Today" is a lovely ballad that features pretty boy Tom's lilting vocals and anticipates his future Iveys/Badfinger power ballad "Maybe Tomorrow," which appeared on both the Iveys's Maybe Tomorrow and Badfinger's Magic Christian Music. (It was allegedly Tommy's voice and tunes that initially turned the Beatles' heads and led to Apple signing the Swansea quartet.)

Iveys bass player Ron Griffiths - who would be replaced by Liverpool guitarist Joey Molland, with Evans taking over bass duties, when the band became Badfinger - is represented here by "Mr Strangeways," which is quite the humorous Mod-Art curio. Its R&B beat and goofball lyrics make it like it would not be out of place on an early Who album, like The Who Sell Out.

A newly discovered Iveys track is always a reason to purchase a record, and four in one package is a no-brainer. The only other thing I ever had by them other than their debut long-player was their "Maybe Tomorrow" single, which had the amusing B-side "And Her Daddy's a Millionaire." The later is now available (with three additional bonus tracks) on the 1992 CD reissue of the Maybe Tomorrow album.

Iveys "Maybe Tomorrow" b/w "And Her Daddy's a Millionaire" (Apple, 1969)

OK, as for the rest of the songs...

The album kicks off with the perfect Apple Records house song, The U (Don't) Know U's "An Apple a Day," an engaging slice of chamber pop that, alas, did not get the band signed to Apple Records!

Jigsaw's "Great Idea" (B-side of their "Mr Job" single) is also a tasty pop confection, its plonking piano riffs sounding like a variation of "Penny Lane."

Listen to Jigsaw's "Great Idea."

Gallagher & Lyle follow with the first of three songs on the compilation, the pretty folk ballad "Ivy Unreheased." "Technicolour Dream" and "In Your Wonderful Way" are also pleasant, with Crosby, Stills & Nash soft-rock harmonies, though "Wonderful Way" is a little on the wimp-rock side. At their best, L&G conjure the soulful ballad-rock of The Walker Brothers. The duo of Graham Lyle and Benny Gallagher also wrote songs for Mary "Those Were the Days" Hopkins. Another band on this compilation, The Cups, was actually Lyle and Gallagher recording with John's Children's bassist John Hewlett, who was an Apple Publishing employee.

Listen to The Cups play their 1969 single "Good As Gold".

Portsmouth pop band Lace are represented here by the would-be epic downer "Soldier," which stands out only because its singer sounds like a gloomy Davy Jones (the Monkees tambourine-shaker, not the future David Bowie Jones!).

The Goldrush song "Somebody's Turning On the People" is one of two songs on this compilation written by George Alexander, leader and vocalist of Grapefruit and one of Apple Publishing's most prolific songwriters with over 50 compositions (many of which his own band hadn't even heard of!). "Goldrush" were a studio project of American producer Terry Melcher, and the backing musicians may well be Grapefruit. Grapefruit actually recorded a version of "Somebody's Turning On the People," but it was never released (until RPM's 2016 Grapefruit release Yesterday's Sunshine: The Complete 1967-1968 London Sessions.) According to Grapefruit's Geoff Swettenham, lead vocals may be by American actor Christopher Jones and the song may even have turned up on the soundtrack of the 1968 movie Wild in the Streets. Interesting, that.

"Wild in the Streets" (1968)

The other Alexander tune is "Charlotte Rose," credited here to Majority One. (For more about this group, check out RPM's Rainbow Rocking Chair: The Definitive Majority One Collection, RPM 307).

Turquoise: Rhythm & Greenish-Blues

I had never heard of Turquoise, but I'm glad I've finally discovered them. "Sister Saxophone" (curiously lacking a saxophone!) is a solid pop romp recorded in the summer of 1968 but never released until its appearance on An Apple a Day, while "Woodstock" may be the compilation's stand-out track. While it dates from the Apple Publishing days, the single actually came out on the Decca label in 1968. At once sounding like a Ray Davies-penned Kinks classic  from their late "Golden Era (circa The Village Green Preservation Society, I'd say), it features an off-note-perfect vocal parody of Bob Dylan over a rock-steady melody. Sadly, the group released only two singles and disbanded after 1969, though a compilation oftheir recordings was put out by Rev-ola Records.

Listen to Turquoise play "Woodstock."

Jeff Peters and Ewan Stephens were the main songwriting team behind Turquoise, who had three songs picked up by Apple Publishing's Python Music subsidiary.

The album closes out with yet another Kinks-y tune (circa Muswell Hillbillies), Peter Cooper's "Evil Loving Woman." Not bad, not bad at all.

"Those Were the Days by Stefan Granados

To explore more of the core of Apple Publishing and these bands and recordings, see Stefan Granados's "Those Were the Days: The Unauthorized History of the Beatles Apple Organization" (Cherry Red Publishing, www.cherryred.co.uk).