Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #37: Roxy Music

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: An English art-pop band formed in 1970 by singer-songwriter-keyboardist Bryan Ferry, running as a recording concern (bar one late-’70s hiatus) through the early ’80s, with occasional live reunions since that time. The original version of the group included synth player Brian Eno, while Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, reeds/keys-man Andy Mackay, and drummer Paul Thompson provided the core of the group throughout its studio and live career, with support from a variety of bass players and keyboardists along the way. Roxy Music were big, important, and influential in the UK in their early years (aligning with the peak of the glam period), but didn’t score a (mild) crossover hit in the United States until “Love Is The Drug” (barely) broke into the American Top 40 in 1975. The group went into hibernation for a few years after that breakthrough, then re-emerged in 1979 for a three-record run that culminated with 1982’s Avalon, their biggest seller in the States, and the source of their most widely played and popular single, “More Than This,” which featured notably in the 2003 hit film Lost in Translation. Bryan Ferry has maintained a solid solo career during and since Roxy’s heyday, while Phil Manzanera has long been a go-to session guitarist and support player, atop his own interestingly eclectic solo career, including his stint (with Eno) in the group 801, which issued one of the finest in-concert albums (801 Live) ever recorded in 1976.

When I First Heard Them: When “Love Is The Drug” was a demi-hit on pop radio in the mid-’70s. To be honest and frank, it didn’t do anything for me, and still mostly doesn’t. Given the group’s name and cheesecake album cover art, I sort of mentally lumped them with the likes of, say, The Average White Band, or The Ohio Players, or Ace, or The Climax Blues Band, or the Atlanta Rhythm Section, all of them pleasant enough one-or-two-hit wonders, but not of a variety that seemed to be of any particular interest to me. But over the next few years, as I got deeply into Eno and King Crimson, and discovered that the former had been a founding member of Roxy, that the latter’s (then)-final bass player depped in Roxy for their last pre-hiatus tour, and that Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield had produced Roxy’s debut album, my curiosity was duly piqued. My first Roxy purchase was their 1977 Greatest Hits collection, and I must say that my mind was well and fully blown by what its grooves contained, requiring me to go back and nab their original five albums, the first four of which are still, to my mind, stone-cold masterpieces, the fifth of which (Siren, of “Love Is The Drug” fame) left me a bit cold. My experience with the three post-hiatus albums was similar: I enjoyed the first two (Manifesto from 1979 and Flesh And Blood from 1980), but their final studio album, Avalon, seemed way too slick and dull to me. That said, it was immensely popular among my peer group at the time, so it is definitely a key sonic piece of its era in my life, and I’d wager that for most Americans my age, if they know anything by or about Roxy Music, it’s based on that album and its singles. Sigh.

Why I Love Them: Nobody has ever merged experimental art noise, iconic visuals, and pop music as thoroughly and effectively as Roxy Music did at the peak of their powers, and my favorite songs of theirs are all pretty much culled from their potent collection of weird wonders. Eno’s synthesizers were most extraordinary on their first two albums, and his replacement, Eddie Jobson, did a fine job of integrating strings and orchestral touches into the group’s dynamic to replace his predecessor’s bleeps and bloops and whooshes. Ferry was also, at his best, a deeply unique songwriter, with profound and clever lyrics and curious song structures and chord charts that rarely hewed to standard pop-rock verse-chorus-bridge structures. But I’ve always felt that somewhere around the time of Avalon, somebody pointed out to him that his songwriting was wrong, somehow, and that he’d be better off positioning himself as a crooning song-stylist of the Frank Sinatra variety, rather than as a truly exotic musical beast of his own insular and inimitable style. And, sadly, Ferry seemed to accept that advice. (Most of his earlier solo albums were largely or wholly composed of covers; they’re not bad, but it’s as if David Bowie chose and replicated Pin-Ups as his defining album of the early ’70s, in lieu of Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust). So while there’s a fair volume in the Roxy catalog that I’m not particularly wild about (and in the case of their cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” I actively, positively loathe it), I remain a fond and fervent fan of the group on a macro basis, and still spin their best bits regularly, experiencing them just as enthusiastically and with as much wonder as I did in the late ’70s.

#10. “Flesh and Blood,” from Flesh and Blood (1980)

#9. “Editions of You,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#8. “Virginia Plain,” from “Virginia Plain”/”The Numberer” single (1972)

#7. “Do The Strand,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#6. “Manifesto,” from Manifesto (1979)

#5. “The Thrill Of It All,” from Country Life (1974)

#4. “Beauty Queen,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#3. “Casanova,” from Country Life (1974)

#2. “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#1. “Mother of Pearl,” from Stranded (1973)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #36: Swans

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: An intense experimental ensemble formed in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1982 by stalwart member and visionary Michael Gira, following the demise of his former band, Circus Mort. The group’s early music was grinding, brutal, and violent, with some truly horrific and debased lyrics adding to the transcendent discomfort of their work. In the mid-’80s, Gira’s creative and personal partner Jarboe joined the group as a second vocalist, songwriter, arranger and keyboard player, and the pair slowly moved the group toward more traditional song-based structures, though the darkness of the words and music remained potent, even in more acoustic or melodic settings with Swans and/or their side project of the era, Skin. Swans dissolved in 1997, with Jarboe and Gira embarking on satisfying solo careers, and Gira launching the influential Young God Records. While the group’s following in its initial run was fervent, if small, by 2010, their legend and influence had grown to a point where Gira’s announcement of their re-activation (without Jarboe) was warmly covered by the likes of such “respected” outlets as National Public Radio and The New York Times. Swans have issued five studio albums since their reformation to critical acclaim, and their epic live shows have come to carry legendary status as thrilling, exhausting, exhilarating exercises in creating other-worldly experiences for audiences through battering repetition, volume, and intensity. A 2019 documentary called Where Does A Body End? provides an absolutely stellar overview of their career, catalog, and creative processes, and I highly recommend it. Here’s the trailer:

When I First Heard Them: 1984-ish, around the time of their second long-player, Cop, and the game-changing Young God EP. While the value and impact of album cover art has been dramatically diminished in these our sad streaming days, I often bought records way back when based solely on imagery and close reading of liner notes on exterior covers, without having any idea of what the grooves inside the record sleeve actually contained. Swans’ cover iconography grabbed me immediately; it was stark, scary, and striking, and the presence of early song titles like “Big Strong Boss” and “Weakling” and “Butcher” and “Thug” and “I Crawled” and “Raping A Slave” gave a dark preview into what one was going to experience within those records’ tracks. The first record of theirs I actually purchased was Filth (1983), and, Holy Moly, was that dark preview sense borne out in garish, painful audio-technicolor when that and subsequent records were actually acquired and consumed. The group went into a highly prolific period over the next few years as they stabilized around what I consider to be their greatest line-up: Gira, Jarboe, guitarist Norman Westberg (the only close-to-permanent member of the band throughout its history, other than Gira), bassist Algis Kizys and drummer Ted Parsons. After their sole flirtation with a major label on 1989’s atypical, Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World, Swans went on to issue a steady series of stellar releases that balanced the beautiful and the debased throughout the remainder of their original run, with a variety of rhythm sections working around the Gira-Jarboe-Westberg core (except for a brief period when Clinton Steele served as the featured guitarist in Norman’s place).  The post-2010 group has featured Gira and Westberg with a mostly-stable collection of superior collaborators and colleagues, and it’s been pleasing to see Gira earning so many well-deserved plaudits from “reputable” media outlets after decades of personal and creative struggle in the dark spaces of the musical underground. Best of all, while the structures and sounds of his songs have evolved over the years, their intensity (lyrically and musically) has not faded, and that’s an accomplishment truly worthy of respect and honor and admiration.

Why I Love Them: Just before I discovered Swans, I had written and recorded a song called “Meat,” (I’m dismayed to discover today that I do not have a digital copy of that song to share), which featured these words as its final verse:

Meat, soul. Soul, meat.
All we are is where they meet.
God can satisfy the spirit.
Hear His message? Hear it? Hear it!
Meat is happy stimulated.
Through sex and pain the meat is sated.

Without delving too deeply into the dark spaces of my personal psychology, then or now, I’ll note that explorations into extreme physical vs spiritual dynamics were deeply important to me at that time, and highly relevant to how I viewed and experienced the world around me. So it was an utter thrill to discover Swans, who took such explorations to the deepest, hardest, darkest places, where bodies and souls were punished, or pleasured, or processed in ways that combined those two states, blurring the distinctions between them. Gira’s early lyrics were often truly horrifying, and his musical settings were sublimely suited to framing them, punching their impact and their meaning into your body with sledgehammer power and dental drill precision. When Gira and Jarboe (a fellow native Southerner, which I always appreciate) began to openly blend the language and culture of my own strict and strange Christian upbringing into Swans’ music with 1987’s Children of God, it raised the impact of their work and music to fever-state levels for me, speaking to and through me in ways that few other artists ever have. And saying that, I also have to note that early Swans were possibly the one and only group that nobody in my personal circle of music nerds could stomach or tolerate, so they never played on any communal stereos anyplace that I lived through the ’80s, further cementing their status as a deeply personal obsession and inspiration for me. On a slightly lighter note, while there were few things to be tickled about during the Anno Virum, I did very much appreciate the fact that Michael Gira produced protective face masks inspired by the cover of my very first Swans album, Filth, all those years earlier. My favorite mask, without question.

While I’ve diligently followed Swans’, Gira’s and Jarboe’s careers and catalogs over the years, the profoundly personal impact of their early albums and songs means that my personal top ten list below certainly skews harder in that direction than toward their more contemporary releases. But sometimes that’s how music works, speaking to us just where we are, profoundly, in specific moments, ages, and places in our lives. It remains deeply cathartic and satisfying to occasionally pummel myself with these great Swans songs (and many others), uplifting in their debasement, righteous in their wrongness, and healing in their hurt, then, now, always.

#10. “The Great Annihilator,” from The Great Annihilator (1995)

#9. “Failure,” from White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

#8. “Time Is Money (Bastard),” from Time Is Money (Bastard) EP (1986)

#7. “A Screw (Holy Money),” from Holy Money (1986)

#6. “Stupid Child,” from Greed (1986)

#5. “Weakling,” from Filth (1983)

#4. “The Other Side of the World,” from Love of Life (1992)

#3. “Your Game,” from Body to Body, Job to Job (1991)

#2. “Thank You,” from Filth (1983)

#1. “A Hanging,” from Holy Money (1986)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #35: Pere Ubu

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Cleveland’s great Pere Ubu were the first, and are still the finest, purveyors of what they’ve dubbed “Avant Garage” music, situated at the sweet spot where four-on-the-floor rock, highly-literate lyrical narratives, and experimental electronic music clash, collide, and combine into something greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Formed in 1975 from the wreckage of the influential-after-the-fact Rocket From The Tombs, and named after the vile protagonist of Alfred Jarry’s surrealist/absurdist play Ubu Roi (1896), Pere Ubu issued five landmark albums and half-a-dozen superb singles in their original 1975-1982 run, then have been a going concern since front/main-man David Thomas reconvened the group in 1987. Membership has been fluid over the years, with Mr Thomas as the sole constant; he has also maintained a vibrant solo career with a variety of collaborators, some of them also Ubus. The singularity of their creative approach, and their unparalleled success in merging outré and popular musical forms, have both stood as consistent baseline parameters over their long and rich creative run. Pere Ubu have also always rightly recognized the importance of what most groups would deem “supporting” roles in a group’s narrative, with graphic artist/designer John Thompson (a.k.a. Johnny Dromette) and the late producer/engineer Paul Hamann (1955-2017) of Cleveland’s Suma Recording Studio standing as particularly important “non-playing” members of the Pere Ubu creative core, along with various others over the years. At bottom line, Pere Ubu are a group who can rock you hard, while making you think about what you’re listening to, lyrically, conceptually, and musically. They’re good tasting, and they’re good for you. And that’s a perfectly blended recipe for long-term creative success, even if the “Grocery Police” of the world may choose to under-stock Pere Ubu, as a less-demanded source of cultural nutrition than some of their (far) less-accomplished peers.

When I First Heard Them: During the early part of their hiatus period (1982-1987). For the younger readers: I repeatedly stress in this series how different the musical world was in those pre-Internet days, when you could read about exciting groups in various musical press instruments, but could then spend months or years searching record stores for samples of what you’d read about. At some point in late 1983, I think, I finally found the final two albums of their initial run, The Art of Walking (1980) and Song of the Bailing Man (1982) in a single shopping trip at a warehouse style record store in Maryland, and they both blew my mind just as well as I’d hoped and expected from what I’d read months or years earlier. I acquired the three earlier Ubu albums over the next year or so, along with some of the solo albums that Mr Thomas was issuing in real time through the early-to-mid ’80s, which also moved me deeply (my fave is 1986’s Monster Walks The Winter Lake); I was most tickled to discover that he was working with such favorite musicians as Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson and Henry Cow’s Lindsay Cooper and Chris Cutler. Come 1988, the then-current version of Mr Thomas’ solo band looked, sounded, walked, and burbled like Pere Ubu, so he restored the group name for 1988’s The Tenement Year, and they’ve been going steady and hard ever since, just as I’ve been going steady and hard as a stalwart fan and supporter. In 1996, the group issued a stellar career retrospective box set, Datapanik in the Year Zero, that also documented a variety of obscure-to-influential Cleveland-area bands with family tree ties to their Pere. I was a working music critic at the time, and I was most happy to be able to work on a feature piece based on a group interview with Mr Thomas and the late Ubu guitarist Jim Jones (1950-2008). The print-edition synopsis of those paired interviews is available here. The more in-depth elements of my online conversation with Jim Jones continue to reside at the official Ubu Projex website, here. I’ve seen Pere Ubu live multiple times, including one of the very best shows from our four years living in Chicago, documented here. Mr Thomas experienced a serious health scare soon after that show, and it appeared that Pere Ubu might have finally run its course on this coil, but he thankfully seems to have recovered well, and the group’s Datapanik TV has emerged as one of the finest virtual responses to the Anno Virum that I’ve encountered or experienced.

Why I Love Them: Honestly, they had me at “avant garage.” That philosophical and creative merger of nominally high-brow and low-brow forms was just perfect for my personal aesthetic at the time I discovered them, and it works brilliantly for me to this day. (My own creative group of the early ’80s offered what I had dubbed “industrial folk” music, similarly trying to link and merge literate, lyrical song-based elements with noisy overtones and experimental structures; Pere Ubu were much better at it than we were!) A key to the Ubu sound over the years has been their prominent deployment of synthesizers, not as cheap substitutes for string or horn sections, nor as sequenced rhythm engines to hold their bassists and drummers in line, but rather as fully formed instruments in their own rights, percolating beneath the surface of some tunes, rising above the horizon in others to frame whole songs (or even albums) in deeply and truly unique fashion. Beyond the synths (offered most regularly by Allen Ravenstine in the early years, and Robert Wheeler since the early ’90s), Mr Thomas provides the most obvious sound of Pere Ubu as its vocalist, declaiming his literate lyrics in a warbling tenor, his distinctive voice the one constant in the group’s long run. I’ve often compared Mr Thomas to the likes of Captain Beefheart (The Magic Band), George Clinton (P-Funk) and Mark E. Smith (The Fall) as group leaders who may not ever win academic or pop culture awards for the strictly dry and technical element of their individual performances, but who stand unparalleled as distinctive singers and brilliant conceptualists, arrangers, and group directors. All of them have managed ever-evolving casts of players over long careers to create truly unique works, with their groups’ members typically offering the very best efforts of their often long and varied careers under their respective singers’ unique guidance and ministrations. I’ve also frequently cited Mr Thomas alongside King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp as the two very finest thinkers and writers when it comes to examining and explaining just what it means to be a working musician within the rock idiom. Mr Thomas has published several book-length treatises on the subject, and the Ubu Projex website is chockablock with fascinating short pieces about the group’s protocols, policies, and philosophies. I’ve fallen into and been unable to extract myself from its holds many times over the years, entertained, amused, and provoked in equal measure by what I’ve found there. I wholeheartedly endorse a trawl through its back pages if you want to read some truly smart and always well-written explorations into the state, form, and meaning of modern rock culture. It will be time well spent, I promise.

#10. “Dark,” from St. Arkansas (2002)

#9. “A Day Such As This,” from Song of the Bailing Man (1982)

#8. “Come Home,” from Story of My Life (1993)

#7. “Misery Goats,” from The Art of Walking (1980)

#6. “The Modern Dance,” from The Modern Dance (1978)

#5. “Final Solution,” from “Final Solution”/”Cloud 149” single (1976)

#4. “Wasted,” from Story of My Life (1993)

#3. “Street Waves,” from “Street Waves”/”My Dark Ages” single (1976)

#2. “Woolie Bully,” from Pennsylvania (1998)

#1. “Golden Surf II,” from Carnival of Souls (2014)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #33: Devo

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: A conceptual art-rock band formed in Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s, blending strikingly experimental yet accessible music with stellar pre-MTV-era visuals, all designed to advance their prescient social theory of “de-evolution,” wherein humanity has begun to regress, rather than evolve, in these sad modern times. Those social elements were framed around and in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings; stalwart member Gerald Casale and early member/manager Bob Lewis worked on the basic parameters for their group’s philosophy while students at that university, then expanded and enhanced the concept through the highly surrealistic lens added by fellow Kent student Mark Mothersbaugh. Fluid early membership eventually stabilized around the group’s classic line-up, with Lewis departing, Mothersbaugh and Casale being joined by their brothers, both named Bob (the Mothersbaugh sibling became “Bob 1,” the Casale brother “Bob 2”), and drummer Alan Myers. After a high-profile creative bidding war involving a variety of would-be labels and producers, the group issued its debut album in 1978, and by 1980 were placing highly on global charts with their breakthrough pop hit, “Whip It.” The classic line-up continued with diminishing commercial and critical success until 1986, when Myers departed. After a pair of albums with ex-Sparks drummer David Kendrick, the group went on a long recording hiatus, finally re-emerging in 2010 with their (as of now) final studio project, Something For Everybody, with Josh Freese on drums. Myers died in 2013, and Bob 2 died in 2014. Bob 2 has since been replaced by Josh Hager for subsequent live shows; I guess this makes him “Josh 2” to Freese’s “Josh 1.” Throughout Devo’s later career, Mark Mothersbaugh has emerged as a go-to soundtrack composer and creator for a vast list of television, video and feature film projects through his Mutato Muzika studio. I’m always happy to see his name appear in opening credits, as I know fine sounds will follow.

When I First Heard Them: I can answer this question down to the exact date: October 14, 1978. Devo appeared on Saturday Night Live that evening, and their performance was one of the most incredible, mind-warping things I have ever seen on television. They played two songs from their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, that night, along with some bits from their short film The Truth About De-Evolution, and I was fascinated, thrilled, appalled and legitimately frightened by what I saw, knowing nothing about them in advance of that unexpected breach in my cultural consciousness. When I went to the local mall record store the next day and discovered that their debut album had been produced by Brian Eno, who I already loved, I was sold, hooked, converted and convicted on behalf of their cause. (This was not a popular position with my peers, but what else is new, then or now?) Over the next couple of years, various Devo video bits emerged via HBO’s Video Jukebox and other late-night outlets of those quaint pre-MTV days, and Devo’s video deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (which they’d played on that SNL performance) was another strange-to-disturbing visual highlight of the late ’70s for me. I post videos of those two transformative SNL performances below, and I recommend you watch them now. I still marvel at the insectoid, twitchy choreography, the technology, the use of film, and the wonders of Mark’s guitar on “Satisfaction,” with pedals and God knows what else taped all over it. It’s still a massively other-worldly moment.

Why I Love Them: They make delightfully strange music, for sure, but it’s almost always anchored in killer hooks and melodies that leave your brain singing words that it probably shouldn’t, over and over and over again. I also always tend to love groups which see their creative bodies of work as being something greater than their albums or singles, so Devo’s pioneering video work, and deeply-elucidated philosophical approaches have always appealed to me, as they make me think while I’m tapping my toes and humming their tunes. Given the ways that our Nation’s politics, social interactions, mass media, entertainment, and artistic arcs have curved in recent decades, I have to say that Devo’s early insistence that we were collectively regressing rather than growing was pretty spot on in many ways. The great film Idiocracy has become a verbal short-cut to describe the phenomenon, but Devo beat Mike Judge to the post on this particular front, and The Truth About De-Evolution could and should have become the cultural rubric that we cite when we want to decry a world where vapid influencers, dishonest racists and rightists, plasticine film stars, and “famous because they’re famous” cultural personas shape and shame the culture within which we are so often forced to swim today. As is the case with Kraftwerk, I have also always appreciated Devo’s advanced technological prowess in the studio and on-stage; their early ’80s albums featured Fairlight CMI and Synclavier II electronic musical instruments and various vocal processing applications and sequencing/sampling synths that were rare and precious and close to sci-fi in their time, even if they might sound quaint and dated today. As digital and computerized as their music could be, they recognized the importance of the big guitar moment in their songs, and Bob 1 has been a deeply under-appreciated soloist and rhythmic engine for their work over the years. At bottom line, Devo are smart in a generally stupid idiom, pointing out the ways we were stupid in smart fashion, all atop beats you can dance to. Not many other acts can claim success in hitting so many marks in so many ways with such success. (Note: In my Top Ten lists, I normally just post links to studio versions of the songs I select, but given Devo’s strong video skills, I share their own visuals below when they are available).

#10. “Come Back Jonee,” from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

#9. “Please Baby Please,” from Something for Everybody (2010)

#8. “Through Being Cool,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#7. “That’s Good,” from Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982)

#6. “Race of Doom,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#5. “Gates of Steel,” from Freedom of Choice (1980)

#4. “Enough Said,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#3. “Fresh!,” from Something for Everybody (2010)

#2. “Beautiful World,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#1. “Jocko Homo,” from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #32: ZZ Top

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: A blues-based trio from Texas, active since 1969, featuring Billy Gibbons on guitar and vocals, Dusty Hill on bass and vocals, and Frank Beard on drums. Since the early ’80s, they’ve been most visually recognizable via Gibbons’ and Hill’s majestic beards, sunglasses and Stetson hats, while their drummer (remember, his name is “Beard”) goes clean-shaven. Ha ha ha, I get it! Having emerged as a popular live and rock radio act in the ’70s, the group peaked in commercial popularity in the early-to-mid-’80s, when the MTV-ready videos from their synth-fortified album Eliminator (1983) made them a ubiquitous visual and musical presence. They (mostly) bailed on the electronics in the  early ’90s, but have continued to release (mostly) interesting blues-based albums over the ensuing decades. While the group’s admirable chemistry and lack of personnel changes over half-a-century are historically and culturally admirable, it’s also important to note that they had made some deeply influential (if only regionally popular, in its time) music in the ’60s as members of psychedelic rock ensembles American Blues (Hill and Beard) and Moving Sidewalks (Gibbons). A 2019 documentary called ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas provides perhaps the best summary of their long history and impact, and I commend it to your attention.

When I First Heard Them: I am sure that I would have heard their early hit singles “La Grange” (1973) and “Tush” (1975) on the radio when they were charting, though it wasn’t until that later ’70s that I really focused on them, largely through the influence of my Dead Head friend Glenn from Hicksville United Methodist Church on Long Island, who really tuned me into their early work (and peak-era Dead, too). They were obviously unavoidable during the first half of the ’80s, when MTV was wreaking magic and havoc on the music world, and ZZ Top were doing their weird part to craft the visuals and synthetic sounds of the era. I appreciated and enjoyed those ’80s hits in their time, but they do really tend to be specifically of that time, all these years on, their sequencer-based grooves screaming “1984” just as loudly and clearly as, say, New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Which isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it means that the songs of that era aren’t necessarily going to score highly on my “all-time favorites” charts.

Why I Love Them: Sadly, here in this our American of 2021, the word “Texas” can often be used as short-hand to describe loads of social, political, cultural, and musical things that are simply abhorrent to  me. But if you peeled off the things that I actually really like about Texas, and boiled them down into their pure, raw essence, they’d probably sound a lot like ZZ Top. (Or look a lot like the traditional/historic Spanish/Mexican bits of San Antonio and/or El Paso). I truly and deeply appreciate the fact that these three dudes have been making music together for more than 50 years without a line-up change, which results in a magical musical chemistry that’s precious and rare in the sad auto-tuned, pro-shopped, songwriter-milled, and studio-hacked musical landscapes within which we all too often labor of late. Beyond their longevity, I also applaud and commend their technical proficiency: Gibbons is a guitar hero by any definition of that phrase, and the Hill-Beard rhythm section swings like nobody’s business. While their catalog is rooted in the most-traditional idiom of the American blues, ZZ Top have never been afraid to foresee and embrace the future, grafting synthesizers, sequencers, and video visuals onto their roots-rock super-structures long before it was considered commercially or critically savvy to do so. Their pre-Top bona fides as members of a pair of highly-influential Texas psych-rock bands also pay tribute to their prescience and persistence in the face of a music industry that has never really quite known what to do with them, allowing them to do just what they want to do, in just the ways that they want to do it, throughout their long, successful, and entertaining career together. And “entertaining” is a key word there: these dudes put on a show, always, in the best sense of that word. Their visual and musical shticks are trite on one hand, but sublime on another, the net wash of which is a group that makes music, live and in the studio, that’s guaranteed to force a listener to tap her toes or wiggle his hips, happily, while being implanted with some truly epic ear-worm hooks and melodies that are tasty enough to make return visits pleasurable to the max. They’re deeply talented, they’re musically tight, they write (or cover) and play great songs, and they’re fun, fun, FUN, all the time. What’s not to love about that? Even outside of Texas?

#10. “Groovy Little Hippie Pad,” from El Loco (1981)

#9. “Dusted,” from Mescalero (2003)

#8. “Goin’ Down to Mexico,” from ZZ Top’s First Album (1970)

#7. “Bar-B-Q,” from Rio Grande Mud (1972)

#6. “Tush,” from Fandango (1975)

#5. “El Diablo,” from Tejas (1976)

#4. “La Grange,” from Tres Hombres (1973)

#3. “Cheap Sunglasses,” from Degüello (1979)

#2. “I Gotsta Get Paid,” from La Futura (2012)

#1. “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” from Tres Hombres (1973)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #31: Bauhaus (And Related Artists)

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Bauhaus are (were?) a rock band formed in 1978 in Northampton, England. Named after the influential early 20th Century German art school and movement, the group includes (included?) vocalist Peter Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash, bassist David J, and drummer Kevin Haskins. (The latter two are brothers). Their debut single, 1979’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” pretty much invented “gothic rock” from out of nothing, in one quick “live in the studio” take, codifying so many of the looks and sounds of the genre instantaneously. The group issued four studio albums and numerous singles and EPs in their original incarnation before fracturing into a variety of solo and group endeavors. Murphy first paired with Mick Karn of Japan (the band) to form Dali’s Car, then embarked on a long solo career. Haskins and Ash formed Tones on Tail with bassist Glenn Campling, while David J joined the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. A few years later, the instrumental trio at the heart of the group (Ash, J, Haskins) reunited to form Love and Rockets, who scored some pleasantly significant pop chart success in the United States and elsewhere. Love and Rockets eventually fractured, and Ash and J have since had long solo careers. The original quartet reunited for a new studio album in 2008, and have played some live tours since then, though relationships have remained parlous among them, hence my use of “are” and “were” to intro this paragraph; I’m not sure whether they are or ever will be a going concern again. Just before our Anno Virum, Haskins and Ash had reunited in Poptone (with Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompé on bass) and David J was touring as part of Peter Murphy’s live band. So for now, that’s the current (final?) iteration among them.

When I First Heard Them: Two incidents sit strongly in memory, though I am not quite sure which one came first. I went to see Tony Scott’s film The Hunger soon after its 1983 release; it was great, and its opening scene featured Peter Murphy performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” to thrilling effect. (Check it out. Bowie! Deneuve! Sarandon! Bauhaus!) Of course, in pre-Internet days, it took me ages to figure out what that song was, who had performed it, and where I could score a copy of it. Near that time, I was in the epic Oceans II record store in Annapolis, and a punk-speed version of Brian Eno‘s classic “Third Uncle” was playing on the store’s stereo. It stopped me in my tracks, and when it ended I checked in with the clerk and discovered it was from Bauhaus’ 1982 album The Sky’s Gone Out. I left the store with that record that day, and it remains my favorite in their canon. I spent the remainder of their original run scoring a variety of often-hard-to-find singles, EPs and albums, all of which moved me, in various ways.

Why I Love Them: While I was sorry when I read of Bauhaus’ original break-up fairly soon after I first discovered them, I couldn’t really complain in the years that followed, as the four of them continued to issue a huge variety of great albums in their varying solo and group configurations, some evoking the Bauhaus paradigm, some moving into completely different directions. While I can’t claim to be a “goth,” nor to particularly like a lot of the “gothic rock” that Bauhaus inspired, their original albums are truly great and distinctive and original, and they hold up really well, all these years on. They were dark, dark, dark, which certainly appealed to me at the time; I remember playing The Sky’s Gone Out at some point while at the Naval Academy, and a friend who was in my room studying with me stood up quickly at some point in the proceedings and announced that she had to go elsewhere, as the sounds spilling out of my speakers were evil!! Yeah, they kinda were, I couldn’t really argue with her. All four members of the band were talented and distinctive, and from their original “goth” foundations, they went on to explore a variety of styles, sounds, genres and approaches together and apart, ranging from the accessibly poppy to the deeply deranged, though in pretty much every case, it was still clear that the sounds were recognizably theirs. That breadth of approach and their interwoven discographies and musical family trees have kept me engaged and interested all these years on, and I’ll pretty much be guaranteed to nab and at least try anything that any of the four of them issue, ever. That long and varied approach to music-making means that my Top Ten list below actually contains a relatively small number of Bauhaus songs, since the “related artists” part of their catalog is as interesting (and is much larger than) the original group’s recorded offerings. I note the credited creators of each song accordingly.

#10. “Who Killed Mr. Moonlight,” from Burning From The Inside (1983), credited to Bauhaus

#9. “Hang Up,” from Lion (2014), credited to Peter Murphy

#8. “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything,” from The Sky’s Gone Out (1982), credited to Bauhaus

#7. “Crowds,” from Telegram Sam EP (1980), credited to Bauhaus

#6. “Burning Skies,” from Burning Skies EP (1983), credited to Tones on Tail

#5. “Kick in the Eye,” from Mask (1981), credited to Bauhaus

#4. “The Dog-End of a Day Gone By,” from Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven (1985), credited to Love and Rockets

#3. “Dark Entries,” from “Dark Entries”/”Untitled” single (1980), credited to Bauhaus

#2. “Twist,” from “Christian Says”/”Twist” single (1984), credited to Tones on Tail

#1. “The Three Shadows (Parts One, Two, and Three),” from The Sky’s Gone Out (1982), credited to Bauhaus (Note: Another possible cheat; these are three distinct tracks on the original album, but hey: one song title = one song, yeah?)