(Note: Click on any image for full-size view)
PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:
(Note: Click on any image for full-size view)
PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:
Who They Are: Split Enz were founded in 1972 as an art-cabaret group by singer-songwriters Tim Finn and Phil Judd, who were then university students in Auckland, New Zealand. From their inception, Split Enz crafted an amalgam of striking musical and visual elements, including strange promotional videos and marketing materials (mostly by Judd, a deeply talented visual artist), unusual song structures with twisted pop elements and ripe arrangements, and garish stage costumes designed by percussionist Noel Crombie, who was also known for (among other things) his old-timey spoons solos during live shows. After a pair of albums (the second of which was essentially a major-label international re-recording of the first regionally-released record, with production by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera), Judd left the group and was replaced by Tim Finn’s younger brother Neil. The group also added an English rhythm section around that point, featuring Nigel Griggs and Malcolm Green, formerly with the exceptional (and, sadly, mostly forgotten) Octopus. The line-up of Finn, Finn, Crombie, Griggs, Green and keyboardist Eddie Rayner produced their period of greatest global commercial and critical success, following Neil’s breakthrough 1980 smash single, “I Got You.” Tim Finn eventually left to begin a successful solo career, and after one half-baked album without him, the remaining Enz went their separate ways. Neil continued his chart-topping success with Crowded House, while Judd had massive (but brief) success in the early ’80s with his group The Swingers, then formed the under-appreciated Schnell Fenster with Crombie, Griggs and guitarist Michael den Elzen, then also went on to a solo career.
When I First Heard Them: My introduction to Split Enz came as a result of a memory mistake. During my most fervent Brian Eno phase in the late ’70s, I would regularly read the liner notes of Eno’s albums and seek out records featuring his chosen collaborators. (For the younger readers, that’s one of the key ways that we found new musical things, pre-Internet era, hard to believe as that might be). Eno’s magnum opus, Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) featured a keyboardist named Nick Judd on two tracks, along with Eno’s former Roxy Music band-mate Phil Manzanera as a key contributor. At some point in some cut-out bin, I picked up an album with a really weird band photo on its cover, flipped it over, saw Manzanera’s name as producer, saw “Judd” as a major songwriter, and assumed this must have been Nick Judd’s band accordingly. Oops. As it turned out, Nick Judd was actually the keyboardist for Free bassist Andy Fraser’s band, Sharks, and not the Judd of the Enz. I didn’t realize my error for quite some time, but I did buy that record (Second Thoughts, 1977) on false presumptions at the time anyway, liked it, filled in the Enz back catalog and kept up with the group on a go-forward basis thereafter. Their somewhat twisted family tree also provided lots of ancillary listening, with precursor bands and posthumous bands providing equal enjoyment. Neil Finn is currently a member of Fleetwood Mac, and has re-launched Crowded House. Phil Judd continues to record and release his quirky and fractured pop gems, and also continues to produce exceptional visual art; he’s always worth keeping up with. Tim Finn has released a long series of solo records, generally critically rewarding, with varying degrees of commercial success; I am most fond of his 2008 release The Conversation, which is an acoustic record featuring Raynor and Miles Golding, one of the original university-era Enz members who went on to a successful career in England as a concert violinist.
Why I Love Them: I tend to think of the Split Enz story as being somewhat analogous to the Genesis story: both groups made deeply strange music with visually extravagant stage shows for niche audiences in their early days, before latter-day members emerged to carry their respective groups to massive international pop stardom, with key founding members dropping out along the way. Phil Judd-era Enz often featured unusual instrumentation and shambolic arrangements of strange pop songs with a mostly-acoustic air permeating the proceedings, while the “classic” era band turned into an incredibly tight rock ensemble, capable of punching an audience into euphoric surrender with a never-ending sequence of memorable singalong tunes. The group’s visuals were, and remain, one of a kind, and they tend to evoke strong “love it” or “hate it” reactions from people. Here, you can judge yourself, with an early Judd-fronted video, “Spellbound,” and a contemporaneous Tim Finn-sung one, “Time for a Change.” Pretty over-the-top, huh? And the wardrobe and hair actually got more florid and garish as the years went on. I certainly appreciate the creative audacity of what they were doing, and the fact that they managed to carry something so odd and unique and magical from remote New Zealand to such great global success, then went on to do other interesting things when the group’s story had run its course. While most folks who are familiar with Split Enz and their spawn would hold the early-’80s Neil Finn-era as the group’s high-water creative mark, I actually personally prefer the earlier Phil Judd-Tim Finn period, in retrospect, and note with adjacent admiration the fact that they adored and were inspired by Mervyn Peake and his works, as was I. All of those various spin-off groups, and their own creative successes in a variety of musical idioms, play a key part in my appreciation of what the core group was capable of, together, or on their own. Among the ten songs listed below, I note when one of the other groups makes an appearance, and if no specific credit is provided, then it is the Enz themselves.
#10. “Counting the Beat” by The Swingers, from Practical Jokers (1981)
#9. “Late Last Night,” from “Last Last Night” single (1976); later reissued on Second Thoughts (1977)
#8. “I Hope I Never,” from True Colours (1980)
#7. “Matinee Idyll (129),” from Second Thoughts (1977)
#6. “History Never Repeats,” from Waiata (1981)
#5. “Charlie,” from Dizrhymthia (1977)
#4. “Another Great Divide,” from “Another Great Divide” single (1976); later reissued on Dizrhymthia (1977)
#3. “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” from Time and Tide (1982) (Note: the video also includes the “Pioneer” instrumental intro, a separate track on the actual album).
#2. “The Sound of Trees,” by Schnell Fenster, from The Sound of Trees (1988)
#1. “Titus,” from Mental Notes (1975)
Who He Was: As I noted in my recent article about Neil Diamond, I generally open pieces like this one with a bit of conceptual framing, because I know that my tastes can be arcane much of the time, and I feel a duty to explain some of my more obscure topics and choices to readers. But I’m guessing that if you’re culturally literate enough to bother reading a website like mine, then you know who David Bowie was, and any additional explication will be needless fluff. David Bowie was David Bowie, at bottom line. He was a cultural anchor and reference in and of himself, and so should not require links to other, lesser reference points.
When I First Heard Him: The late Casey Kasem became something of a joke trope late in his life and career, but I cannot stress enough how influential his weekly American Top 40 broadcasts were for me in the 1970s. I am all but certain that I would have first heard such Bowie hits as “Young Americans,” “Fame,” and “Golden Years” on Kasem’s Sunday morning AT40 broadcasts, which (to their credit) my parents would put on the house and car radio before we headed to church, and then again after we emerged from the sanctuary, conceptually sanctified. I can actually remember a number of Sundays when we sat in the parking lot outside the church building listening to catch the next song on the list, or rushing out when the service was over to try to catch the top of the list for the week. (We lived in both Eastern and Central Time Zones at various points of my childhood, so sometimes AT40 was over before we went in to church, and sometimes we’d miss most of the final hour). While Bowie’s first hit single, “Space Oddity,” would have come out pre-AT40 era, I do know that I was aware of it as a youngster, perceiving the thematic drama within it as a direct adjunct to my contemporaneous fascination with the American space program. I also have a very distinct memory of being in my grandparents’ kitchen in Ridgeland, South Carolina circa 1972, intently reading one of my grandmother’s pop culture magazines that had an outraged feature article about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era persona, and my grandmother looking over my shoulder, asking “You don’t like that, do you?” I hemmed, I hawed, I dissembled, I awkwardly put the magazine aside and fled to another room, because (of course) I was utterly fascinated by Bowie/Ziggy, but was not sure at the time that one should admit such a fact to one’s Gran. For the record, since she’s long since flown away from this mortal coil: Yes! Yes! YES! I do like that! Very, very much, indeed!
Why I Love Him: In my earlier article in this series about Frank Zappa, I celebrated the fact that Zappa was “a full package, real deal Artist (with a capital “A”), who left behind an incredible legacy of music, words, and deeds that could and should inspire generations and generations of artists in the decades, if not the centuries, ahead of us.” I’d say exactly the same thing about David Bowie, who spent his entire creative life probing and pushing into places that nobody had gone before him, judiciously self-curating not only his musical output, but also his image, his recording partners, his work outside of music (mostly cinematic and theatrical in Bowie’s case, plus his forays into extreme fashion), and his personal life. Bowie was also a key for me as I moved beyond the sorts of pop music that AT40 offered into more eclectic and eccentric fare, e.g. my early interest in King Crimson and Brian Eno largely coincided with the time when Eno and Crimso main-man Robert Fripp were working with Bowie on what’s now known as the Berlin Trilogy of albums, arguably Bowie’s creative high point. (As a parent, I take it as a point of pride that my only daughter counts David Bowie as her favorite artist, and actually has a tattoo from the first Berlin album, Low, on her shoulder. Good job, Dad! A Parenting Gold Star for me!) I also have long celebrated Bowie’s skills as a band-leader, and I consider his late ’70s rhythm section of Dennis Davis, George Murray and Carlos Alomar to have been one of the most incredible bands ever assembled, utterly perfect for what he wanted to achieve in that time, and an essential (if under-appreciated) component of many of his finest albums. Finally, how about that narrative arc of Bowie re-emerging after a long period of creative quiet with two of his career’s finest works, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016), then dying immediately after the release of the latter work? Wow, that was just like something from a pop culture novel or film that should have damned as unrealistically trite, but, then, those beyond-reality types of experiences were often endemic with Bowie in so many times and so many ways that we almost could have expected something like that from him, on some plane. I’m not normally moved or saddened on a personal basis when famous people who I don’t actually know die, but in that particular case, Bowie’s passing gutted and haunted me for quite some time, as I wrote about in the moment here. David Bowie’s catalog, soup to nuts, is an utter motherlode of creative brilliance and genre-defying genius. And, to be fair, occasional creative clunkers, but he who will not risk, cannot gain, so even those failures play their important parts in his story. He was one of the most distinctive and important artists of the second half of the 20th Century, at bottom line. He saw a creative future that didn’t exist, and he made it real. We’re all better for his vision, and the ways in which it was made manifest.
#10. “Young Americans” from Young Americans (1975)
#9. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” from Blackstar (2016)
#8. “African Night Flight” from Lodger (1979)
#7. “Heroes” from “Heroes” (1977)
#6. “Aladdin Sane (1913–1938–197?)” from Aladdin Sane (1973)
#5. “TVC 15” from Station to Station (1976)
#4. “Sons of the Silent Age” from “Heroes” (1977)
#3. “Where Are We Now?” from The Next Day (2013)
#2. “Sound and Vision” from Low (1977)
#1. “Look Back in Anger” from Lodger (1979)
Who They Are: An ever-evolving, ever-dynamic musical collective founded and helmed by the great George Clinton for well more than half-a-century at this point, and still counting. Clinton’s original group was a doo-wop inflected vocal quintet called The Parliaments, who scored their first chart hit in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify.” Label, legal, and financial issues later inspired Clinton to develop the heavier rock-inspired instrumental group Funkadelic, and the more soul-oriented Parliament, as parallel acts, who just happened to feature the same core and key players for much of their histories. I’d cite the Funkadelic line-up of Eddie Hazel (guitar), Billy Nelson (bass), Bernie Worrell (keys), Tawl Ross (guitar), and Tiki Fulwood (drums) as one of the greatest instrumental ensembles to ever tread the world’s stages, with the vocal crew (Clinton, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, and Ray Davis) being equally thrilling. And that was all before folks like Glenn Goins, Bootsy Collins, Gary Shider, Walter “Junie” Morrison, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson, Michael Hampton, and Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey joined the team. Eventually, the fluid collective evolved into an amorphous, and gigantic, crew under the “P-Funk” moniker, not only issuing albums under the two flagship brands, but also creating records under a wide variety of related imprimaturs, e.g. The Brides of Funkenstein, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet, etc. I had the great opportunity of interviewing Clinton in 1996 (see here), which was utterly delightful, and I saw him and his latest incarnation of the P-Funk Mob in Chicago in 2018; it was a big, fun, wonderful mess, and it looked like this:
P-Funk were admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, with more members specifically inducted than any other act, before or since. Clinton’s crew are among the most sampled and widely-influential artists in recent hip-hop, pop, and modern rock history, and even if you haven’t heard any of their songs, directly, odds are that you’ve heard bits of their work in dozens of popular songs inspired by and built upon their work over the years.
When I First Heard Them: Mid-1970s, after we moved to Central Nassau County, Long Island, New York, when my Dad’s Marine Corps career sent him there, and we all dutifully followed. I was a little Low Cackalacky country cracker at the time, for the most part, and my limited personal experience with strongly Afro-centric music was primarily focused on Southern Gospel, as per this post. My friends at Turtle Hook Junior High School in Uniondale, on the other hand, were deeply attuned to the R&B Charts of the day (where, alas, the music industry of the time ghettoized a lot of brilliant black artists), and that rubbed off on me, quickly, with P-Funk and Earth, Wind and Fire (who I will cover later in this series) as particular favorites. I can specifically remember listening to “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” and “Flash Light” with friends when they were charting, and went from those crossover pop singles into exploring the Funk Mob’s album catalogs, which were mind-blowing both musically and visually. Pedro Bell‘s landmark album covers were absolutely perfect for a teenage boy, as I was then, appealing (like Frank Zappa) to both the smart and dumb quadrants of my developing cultural mind, with trenchant social commentary, high concept art, and pee-pee/poo-poo humor merged into a brilliant creative whole. That introduction was deeply cemented and imprinted on my brain’s permanent registry when I had the chance to see one of the Mothership shows at Nassau Coliseum in the latter part of the decade. It moved me deeply and probably warped me permanently, and I was tickled to pieces when I had an unexpected second encounter with some of those same visions during a visit to Washington, DC in 2017, as per this post.
Why I Love Them: Lots of artists I listen to are “influential” from critical and cultural standpoints, but a lot of them can (admittedly) smack a bit of intellectual wankery when it comes to the way that regular radio listeners receive music, independent of the deep thought that music nerds like me might apply to it. P-Funk, at their best, were always able to find that sweet spot where really smart music played by really talented musicians also appealed really strongly to folks who just liked a good jam, feeling the music warmly and openly without having to think about anything too very hard. I have long considered George Clinton to be the same sort of musical genius as Mark E. Smith, or Captain Beefheart, or David Thomas, or Brian Eno. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles. Unlike Smith’s Fall, Beefheart’s Magic Band, Thomas’ Pere Ubu, or Eno’s solo outings, though, Clinton managed to make pure popular music magic within such an eclectic and ethereal rubric, and I count him as one of the greatest American creative geniuses of my lifetime accordingly.
#10. “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton, from Computer Games (1982)
#9. “Mr. Wiggles” by Parliament, from Motor Booty Affair (1978)
#8. “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing” by Funkadelic, from Funkadelic (1970)
#7. “Chocolate City” by Parliament, from Chocolate City (1975)
#6. “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks” by Funkadelic, from Maggot Brain (1971)
#5. “Ride On” by Parliament, from Chocolate City (1975)
#4. “Funky Dollar Bill” by Funkadelic, from Free Your Mind . . . And Your Ass Will Follow (1970)
#3. “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic, from Maggot Brain (1971)
#2. “Cosmic Slop” by Funkadelic, from Cosmic Slop (1973)
#1. “Biological Speculation” by Funkadelic, from America Eats Its Young (1972)
Prior Articles in this Series:
Who He Was: The late Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was arguably one of the greatest composers of the second half of the 20th Century, and maybe well before and beyond his working career. He worked within the rock, jazz, pop, and classical idioms with equal success and ease, and he often managed to make his deeply complex and innovative music accessible to folks who would never normally pay attention to such fare by including funny, dirty, and/or funny-dirty lyrics atop his dense music, rightly recognizing that the mash-up of high-brow and low-brow fare has been a key to long-term cultural relevance, where punters and patrons are viewed by artists with equal respect and value. See also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on that front, along with many others found in your college music textbooks. Beyond his work as a composer and a band-leader/organizer of exquisite talent (the list of Zappa-alumni musicians is truly jaw-dropping), Frank Zappa was also a talented writer, film-maker, philosopher, and artist, and he was a fervent and effective champion of creative free speech, testifying against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in its offensive heyday, and also later serving as a Special Ambassador to the post-Soviet Czech government and people, who (smartly) recognized him as a titanic pioneer of transnational arts and culture, and a strong opponent of government’s roles in mediating and moderating the cultures of the people they rule. Zappa was tragically cut down by prostate cancer in what should have been the glory days of his long and convoluted career, and it’s hard to do him justice in a single paragraph. That said, I’m a big fan of and highly commend to you Alex Winter’s 2020 documentary about his life and work, Zappa, which in two hours does about as fine a job as I can imagine with capturing the various fascinating and inspirational aspects of his personal, political, and creative lives. Sample the songs below, then go watch that film. You will be a better human being for doing so.
When I First Heard Him: Mid-1970s, on the radio when I lived on Long Island, at Mitchel Field. I’m not sure exactly which song I would have heard first, but it was either “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” or “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” both of which were regularly played on WLIR (92.7 FM) at the time, again demonstrating how his incredibly complex and rich music could be served up to the general listening population (including teenage boys like me, who liked the “heh heh, heh, heh heh heh” marginal smuttiness of the songs) through that crucial merger of high-brow and low-brow material. Soon after my introduction to his work, Frank Zappa experienced his commercial high-water marks when the singles “Dancing Fool” and “Valley Girl” crossed over onto the pop music charts. I kept up with his work (as much as anybody could, given how prolific he was) in the years that followed. I distinctly remember the day he died, when I was working in Schenectady, New York for Naval Reactors, and used my lunch break after hearing the news to go to the local record store and pick up a couple of his CDs (a format which was still a novelty to me at that point, given my reluctance to adopt such new-fangled technologies), which I spun incessantly in the months ahead as a small act of memorial. During that time, for reasons I can’t quite explain, my then toddler daughter became fond of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” which became a family sing-along song accordingly. She’s pushing 30 years old at this point, and I’d wager that if I quizzed her today, she could still sing every word of that brilliant little work, expressing fond memories associated with doing so.
Why I Love Him: I’ll keep returning to the points made above: nobody did a better job than Frank Zappa at merging incredibly complex instrumental work with incredibly fun and goofy and (yeah) stoopit lyrics, that made his works, well, work on multiple planes, all of them appealing to me. Also as noted above, Zappa was extraordinarily prolific. I’ve heard a lot of his catalog, but certainly not all of it, and I’d frankly (heh heh, no pun intended) be skeptical of anyone who claimed to be fully aware of and fluent in everything that he issued over his three-decades-plus long working career. Personally, his catalog has three titanic tent-post albums for me, We’re Only in It for the Money (1968), One Size Fits All (1975), and the Joe’s Garage trilogy (1979); the lion’s share of my favorite cuts cited below come from those three vastly-different records, though I love many other points and things issued between them. Beyond his compositional skills, Zappa was also an incredible guitar player, and he had an insane talent for finding and engaging other musicians with the profound chops required to bring his music to life. Finally, as a person who deeply values creative freedom, I was and remain impressed by the ways in which Frank Zappa was willing to put himself forward, often at deep personal and professional risk, to defend the rights and privileges accorded to creative types by our Constitution, even as our elected officials (and their wives, in the case of the PMRC) wanted to strip them away from listeners and creators. At bottom line, Frank Zappa was a full package, real deal Artist (with a capital “A”), who left behind an incredible legacy of music, words, and deeds that could and should inspire generations and generations of artists in the decades, if not the centuries, ahead of us. What’s not to love, when you get right down to it? He was an elemental force, like the weather . . . if you don’t like what’s happening right now, give it a little bit of time, and things will eventually, inevitably change for the better, however you might choose to define that.
#10. “Montana” from Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
#9. “Help I’m A Rock” from Freak Out! (1966)
#8. “Room Service” from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 (The Helsinki Concert) (1974)
#7. “Trouble Every Day” from Freak Out! (1966)
#6. “Florentine Pogen” from One Size Fits All (1975)
#5. “Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage, Act I (1979)
#4. “Inca Roads” from One Size Fits All (1975)
#3. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” from We’re Only in It for the Money (1968)
#2. “Sofa, No. 2” from One Size Fits All (1975)
#1. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” from Joe’s Garage, Acts II and III (1979)