One sign you that you had overbearing egotist parents is that you have “Junior” after your name. Maybe a similar rule applies to rock bands that are titled “[Frontman’s Name] Group”.
Michael Schenker is known for his guitar skills, as well as his turbulent personality. He’s fortunate that he had most of his crack-ups in the days before social media: otherwise he’d be the heavy metal Kanye West: 30% musician, 70% source of amusement.
We’re talking stints in rehab, near homelessness, hunger strikes, feuds with with singers and producers and journalists and his own brother, cancelled tours, and a long list of other bizarre behavior.
Wikipedia advises me that forty-one musicians have played in Michael Schenker Group and have since quit or been fired. Schenker would probably fire himself from his own solo project, were such a thing were possible.
But he’s definitely brilliant. I listened to power metal for years, and one thing I’d always heard was that the style’s guitar playing owes a lot to Schenker. This is correct. There’s a straight line between most of what Schenker plays on this album and Helloween, and in the case of “On and On” – with its harmonized bends and cod-Bach synthesizer lines – it’s not even a line, it’s a dot.
This is one of the best-produced 80s albums I’ve heard, particularly the deep, thudding character of the drums. MSG has a real sense of precision and space in its mix, with everything built on top of each other like layers on a cake. It’s like you can throw a fishing line into the album and find where the vox are, where the guitars are, where the drums are, etc. Listening to MSG is a seriously good time before you even appreciate the notes.
“Ready to Rock” is an okay-ish cock rock anthem. “Attack of the Mad Axeman” seems like more of the same…but then Schenker pulls a drag-chute on the song and turns it into something adventurous and fascinating. His shredding over the final 32 or so bars…you are listening to power metal, at least five years before. Seriously revolutionary stuff.
“On and On” continues down this path, trading ethereal keys for smoldering wah pedal soloing. I’m struggling to think of more hard rock/heavy metal from 1981 that sounds like this. The Michael Schenker Group was an odd band: they didn’t sound out of place on MTV, but on a compositional level they had a quality that nobody else really possessed. Some quality of uncaring naffness and unfocused coolness.
“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “I Want More” are forgettable. “Never Trust a Stranger” is the power ballad, and sounds like Elton John covered by Aerosmith. “Looking for Love” is a burning and agitated uptempo track with some great hooks and guitar moments. The final track is pretty good too, except for when the music drops away and they let Gary Bardem sing unaccompanied. He’s one of those guys who sounds great, but only if he’s located somewhere in a pile of 200 watt Marshall stacks.
The Argument, Grant Hart’s final solo album, was released in 2013, four years before his death.
Who is Grant Hart? If you know him at all, it’s probably as “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. There are worse obituaries, but if you ask a group of children who they want to be when they grow up, few will say “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. Not many will say “the more famous guy from Hüsker Dü” for that matter, either.
Hart deserved better than he got. Overshadowed both by Bob Mould’s pyroclastic distorted guitar chords and forceful personality, it was easy to see him as a lesser talent. But one day I took stock of my ten favorite Hüsker Dü songs, and about seven of them were written by Hart. From “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” to “She Floated Away” to his solo albums, he was a genuinely brilliant pop songwriter.
And he was weird. Bob Mould would never and could never have made The Argument.
It’s a 20-song adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, based on a treatment by William S Burroughs. It sounds (and is) cheaply made, consisting of noisy guitars, synth loops, and found sounds apparently recorded around Hart’s house (such as a barking dog). Seldom has such ambition been realised through such humble material. Hart has created a tableaux of the Original Sin out of carpet fluff, dryer lint, and spilled breakfast cereal.
There’s not a trace of hardcore punk to be seen, and little alternative rock. It’s just Grant Hart’s stripped-back and heartfelt (Hartfelt?) songwriting, which always seemed to exist beyond influences. Sometimes the cheapness of the album works against it: “Morningstar”, for instance, features a loud programmed drum loop. It’s distracting, and all I can focus on. But far more often than not an entrancing mood appear. “Awake, Arise” is dire, and builds up like a thundercloud. It’s followed by “If We Have The Will”, a military march of painted toy soldiers written in 9/8 time. “Sin” goes heavy on the blues.
By the time “Letting Me Out”, “Is the Sky the Limit?”, and “So Far From Heaven” roll around, the album is (metaphorically) on fire. None of these songs contain a single dull or uninspired moment. “War in Heaven” is woven from agonizing jagging synths and samples. “Underneath the Apple Tree” is focused around lyrical storytelling – Grant Hart’s devil is far more avuncular and likeable than the Rolling Stones’ or Marilyn Manson’s. The six minute title track is boring and can be skipped. But the album ends on a high note, the energetic and frantic “Run For the Wilderness”.
One of Hart’s goals for the adaptation was to remove explicit references to religion – a blind listener might not even make the Paradise Lost connection. Lyrically, the story jumps around a bit and is kind of out of order. I think he might have taken inspiration from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters – you think you’re reading the demonic missives in chronological sequence, but the celestial method of dating need not overlap with that of mundanity.
But mostly, Hart hasn’t recreated the world of Milton, or Burroughs, or even Moses, but has created a self-referential cosmos that’s entirely his own. Obsessive, detailed, and tuneful: The Argument could be a concept album about its creator’s mind. Grant Hart is gone, but will not be forgotten. Hüsker Dü. Do you recall?
Drop a stone in a pond. Ripples will spread out. Cultural events are similar, but sometimes the ripples occur before the stone falls. Facebook, iPhones, and The Lord of the Rings (books, not movies) are stones. Myspace, Blackberries, and The Hobbit (book, not movies) are ripples. Although important in their own right, they had the misfortune to occur before a similar (but much bigger) thing, and have been swallowed by it within the public mind.
Cassette tapes (and the culture surrounding them) were ripples: the stone would would fall twenty years later. They were ugly plastic rectangles containing about ninety meters of magnetic tape. Music recorded on them usually sounded hissy and noisy (this itself became an aesthetic), but the tapes were so cheap that it was now possible for the average child to copy music. People would tape songs off the radio (complete with hacky DJ voices and commercials), as well as make illegal bootlegs of live bands. This led to a full-blown kulturkampf between tapers and record labels in the 1980s, culminating in the BPI’s often-parodied “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan.
Some labels fought cassette tapes, but others embraced them. C81 (a compilation cassette released by NME at the start of the tape boom) is an example of the latter, containing twenty-four tracks of British and American “indie” music circa 1981. I’m sure that all the bands involved were branded as sellouts until their dying day.
The tracklisting is as schizophrenic and scattered as any fourteen year old’s mixtape: legends like Pere Ubu and Scritti Politti exist alongside bizarre “art” projects like Furious Pig that apparently did nothing notable except appear on C81. It’s both ethnically and musically diverse, with selections of funk, ska, reggae, dub and so on. Also, whoever put this together clearly wanted to fuck Lora Logic, because she’s on here twice.
As with many compilations, it sprays and it prays. “You won’t like everything, but you’ll probably like something.” I enjoyed the apocalyptic mini-epic “The Seven Thousand Names of Wah!”, the histrionic but understated “Shouting Out Loud”, the Scritti Politti song, and “Parallel Lines”, which is a thesis on everything punk should be: taught, fraught, and small.
But the best piece of music C81 has to offer is Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising the Count”, which initiates the listener into a kind of electronic Satanic ritual: a black mass powered by 200 watts. The song is as destructively repetitive as a pneumatic drill rammed through your basilar membrane. You will either turn it off in confusion, or get sucked into a hypnogogic state. Cabaret Voltaire had existed for most of a decade by the time C81 came out, and would continue to release music for about twelve more years (although I find their later techno/house music to be less interesting than their early experimental work).
So, good music, and good capture of a particular moment in British musical history. C81 is now most easily acquired in digital form, which was the next evolutionary stage of tape culture. Cassette tapes were ripples, and digital piracy was the stone, doing everything cassettes had done (including killing the music business) about two orders of magnitude more successfully. The record industry profiting off tape trading seems gruesomely poetic in retrospect. It’s as though Louis XVI, before the French Revolution, had invested royal money in guillotines.