Day 60: Speed Niggs & The Weirdness Of German Rock Music

originally published February 29, 2012

Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humor?

Today I’ll be checking out the German indie rock scene, or at least as much of it as I can fit into a kilograph. My interest was immediately piqued by the card I pulled from the Wiki-deck today: Speed Niggs.

Is that an offensive name? Is it offensive that I’m even asking that question? I don’t know, but these guys came out of a freshly united Germany (they formed in 1989), so I’m sure they were still getting a grasp on Western Capitalist Culture.

Their first album was called Boston Beigel Yeah! I ran the middle word through Google Translate, and it turns out ‘beigel’ is German for ‘beigel’. I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. Or if you can put lox on it.

Apparently their music ‘can be classified between classical rock acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and songwriters like Neil Young’. Alright, I’m intrigued. I watched a video for one of their songs, and while the quality sounds like it’s being played on an Edison wax cylinder that either is or has recently been on fire, the song itself isn’t bad. It’s a shame I can’t locate a track off their third album, entitled 667 – Right Between The Dicks. I’m sure that stuff is downright haunting.

Another band from recently-de-commied Germany is the 90s rock group known as Fuckin Wild. They apparently cite blues, progressive rock and middle eastern influences, which sounds like something a band would say if they want to be considered as high-brow rock. Their first album was called Live Fast, Love Hard, And Get Into The Boogie, which may explain why they weren’t more successful. Nobody in the 1990s was interested in the boogie. The rest of the world had officially checked the boogie into the musical retirement home in 1982.

I checked out a video for a song called “Time of Sleeping”. This band is quite possibly the greatest band I have ever heard, provided you measure greatness solely by how much they use a smoke machine. I heard no trace of middle eastern influence in this track, and even less of the blues. Granted, it’s a ten-minute track and I didn’t listen to all of it, but that was 98 seconds so full of delay-pedal madness, I just couldn’t handle any more. If you are deeply into music that you vaguely nod your head at while making a frown of concentration, Fuckin Wild might be for you.

The Baseballs are apparently a German rock ‘n roll band. By looking at them, I’m not entirely sold on that description though. They do appear to be German, I won’t dispute that. But is a three-man band that covers Katy Perry and Rihanna songs a ‘rock ‘n roll’ band? Also, they aren’t a band. They are three singers, so they seem to be as much of a band as ‘N Sync (kids, ask your parents).

Here’s where Wikipedia’s editorial standards are a little weak. Note this magnificent use of math:

“Their version of “Umbrella” was a hit in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Iceland, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway and charted in all seven countries.” (I guess Denmark is big into dubstep right now or something)

Alright, math aside, I’m going to jump back a few paragraphs and take back my criticisms of the Baseballs. (NOTE: I could just do that, delete what I already wrote, but I don’t want to deprive you of this special glimpse into the process. Also, it’s getting late and I’d like to finish this article in time for Jon Stewart) These guys are awesome. They are rock ‘n roll in the purest, most classic rockabilly sense of the word. They apparently take new songs that have more to do with image and marketing than quality musicianship, and cover them (with their backing musicians) as if they were vintage rock ‘n roll tunes. Check out this video of their cover of Perry’s “Hot And Cold”.

I’m getting too nice here. Let’s see if I can track down another band that I can mock.

Here we go. Slapp Happy, a German ‘avant-pop’ group from the 70s. They formed in 1972 when British composer Anthony Moore suggested to his girlfriend that they start a group with their American buddy Pete. Pete called their sound ‘naïve rock’. I can say with certainty that I will never in my life know what the hell that means.

I found a video for a collaboration they did with something called Henry Cow (it might actually be a cow, I’m not sure). The song is called “Some Questions About Hats”. It sounds like an excerpt from a confused piece of musical theatre. “Can a hat aspire to higher things? Can one dismiss hats as simple things?” This is the kind of lyric you’ll find in naïve rock, I suppose.

Any band that has a song called “Dancing in the Sunshine of the Dark” deserves a mention in an article such as this. This is a track by Fury In The Slaughterhouse. I’ve got a hunch they don’t do any Rihanna covers.

Next in the litany of ridiculous band names comes Improved Sound Limited, which is admittedly an improvement on their original name, Pyjamas Skiffle Group. These guys formed in 1961 and while their bio is pretty limited on Wikipedia, their discography indicates that they were still producing as recently as 2004. I checked out a song called “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter”.

The song sounds like generic 60s rock, either from before music got trippy and wild or from a band who didn’t like the long-hair music of 1966 and beyond. This is the generic music they used to play in movies and TV shows when they wanted some ‘youth music’ that sounded happy and Monkee-ish. (An astoundingly topical reference; I wrote my rough draft before his heart attack this morning.)

For the chorus, ISL has children speaking the song’s title. Somehow they did not feel that this would make people weep from their ear-holes. Maybe these guys were on drugs that the rest of society couldn’t get – the strong stuff that makes crap like this sound good, even in retrospect.

I’ve learned more today about German bands than on any single day of my life, except for that one day back in 1985 when I did a tremendous amount of exhaustive research on Falco. Who, it turns out, was actually Austrian. Dammit. I’m going back to Youtube, see if the Baseballs cover any Lady Gaga.

Oh look! They do!

Day 14: Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulettes

originally published January 14, 2012

The early 1960s was the era of the girl group. It’s estimated that as many as 6.3 million girl groups were vying for a record deal, and that’s just in Detroit. Down in Florida, a quartet of girls got together and called themselves the Mar-Vells, either not thinking that anyone could possibly confuse them with notable Motown girl group the Marvelettes, or hoping they would. They played some live shows around the state, and finally hit it big with a record deal. By ‘hit it big’, I mean they put out a couple of singles. I don’t actually mean anyone bought them.

That was mean, I’m sorry. You can listen to one of their tracks here – they had changed their name to the Fabulettes (probably because the potential for a name mix-up was cute for a live-performing girl group but lawsuit bait on a record sleeve), and put out a small selection of 45s. If you’re a fan of 60’s-era soul, you’ll probably enjoy it. The band is tight, and the song has a nice hook in the chorus.

Sadly, the Fabulettes were not destined for stardom, partly because the charts were overtaken by other groups who were whiter and Britisher. The girl-group phenomenon will probably never go away though. Yes, I found a list, and yes, some of them sound ridiculous.

Ever hear of the Gonnabees? If you do, then we probably share zero common songs on our iPods. They’re a trio from New York who hit number one with a song called “Queen of Pop”, in which they make fun of Britney Spears, Madonna, Janet Jackson and others. Their bio states that they have been banned everywhere but New York because of their profane and taunting music, then tells us that they performed at the 2004 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. With William Hung.

I couldn’t find a clip of that live abomination (I assume all copies have been ritualistically destroyed in order to preserve humanity), but I did find this clip of the Gonnabees singing their aforementioned hit. As you can see, the ‘girl group’ concept has degraded from harmonies overtop musicians into skankiness overtop electronic sounds.

Unfortunately, the brilliant girl group Huckapoo (whose name was derived from an Olde Englishe term meaning ‘to throw a mound of one’s own feces’) has never released an album. They were manufactured by some shmuck named Brian Lukow who took the Spice Girls formula of hiring autotune-able singers to portray stock characters. Huckapoo girls are high school stereotypes: the cheerleader, the hip-hop princess, the punk and the hippie. Wait – the hippie? That’s still a high school stereotype? Maybe they should recast her part as ‘the goth’ or ‘the emo girl who cuts herself in chemistry class’. Oh wait, they record for Disney.

This video, for their wonderful, Mahler-ish single, “Crash The Party”, is a fine taste of the exquisite joy of Huckapoo. It starts with some A-level acting that suggests the opening exposition scene of an old VHS porno, followed up by a concert scene in front of a bunch of excited teenagers who were hopefully paid to exhibit their phony enthusiasm. Huckapoo demonstrates such an impressive lack of understanding about high school girls, a new Grammy Award should be created just for them. This song is so bad it makes my teeth hurt. I didn’t know that was possible.

Butta Creame is another modern group that I immediately regret looking up. I think the name is a play on ‘Butter Cream’, the delightful yellowish center in an assorted box of chocolates. But I have to be honest – I read their name and immediately thought of ‘Butt Cream’. I picked this video in hopes it would impress me – it’s a capella, so devoid of studio tricks. That said, it’s not… well, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever heard. As far as voice-only group-work goes, I was more impressed by these guys. But then they aren’t wearing shiny gold bras.

The Jackson Sisters tried to cash in on their name in the 1970s, hoping to get confused for relatives of the Jackson brothers. They are not. They put out a handful of records almost no one has heard of, then lucked out in 1987 when one of their tracks, “I Believe In Miracles”, was discovered as part of the ‘rare groove’ fad in the UK. The song climbed to #72, so that’s something. This video features some great 80’s-style breakdancing overtop a wholesome disco groove. It’s not going to get me to race to the nearest torrent site or anything, but it’s a welcome relief after the sonic flatulence toward which this article appeared to be building.

Let’s drop our hopes once again, shall we? I wanted to pick one of the dumbest names on this list, and came up with a group called Trin-i-tee 5:7. Oh, now I feel bad. They’re a gospel group, and they named themselves after a specific piece of Bible-ness that refers to the Holy Trinity. Also they’re pretty good. I’m not known as an aficionado of gospel R&B (at least not outside the gospel R&B newsgroups in which I post hourly), but they have gorgeous voices. Also, it’s nice to see something in the ‘modern girl group’ world that is not about excessive sexualisation.

Okay, let’s get back to the excessive sexualisation. Y?N-Vee – no, that’s not a typo, you pronounce it ‘why envy’. Why indeed? – is a group that released something called a “posse cut” for someone named Johnny J, then followed it up by recording with 2Pac. This song, called “Chocolate” and clearly only about their love for chocolate (and rubbing themselves), is very mid-90’s flavoured. It’s a fine video if you’re in the mood to gawk at attractive women in low-hanging pants, but if you’re hoping to find your next great musical obsession, this probably ain’t it.

Girl groups, it seems, just ain’t what they used to be. For the most part, it’s about looking the right way, wearing only what you have to, and running your voice through a computer if you’re a bit stronger in the boob department than in the voice department.

For anyone else who actually listened to all these links, my gift to you is this. You’re welcome.

Day 7: WCBS-FM, New York City’s Oldies-Folks Home

originally published January 7, 2012

Bringing you the Stax of Wax from way back in the Pax(t), I present today’s topic: New York City’s WCBS-FM, 101.1 on your dial, provided your dial is located in New York City.

I have clicked through numerous radio stations on Wikipedia in search of writing material, and this is the first time I’ve found one with enough history to fill a column. WCBS has been broadcasting on the FM band in America’s biggest radio market for more than 70 years. They have probably played “I Want To Hold Your Hand” over 300 million times.

And we can’t fault them for that.

The station launched less than a week before Pearl Harbor, seventy years and one month before the historic launch of this writing project. The format back then was fast, 40’s-style talking, featuring lots of expressions like “Big Cheese”, “Cat’s Meow” and “A one-way ticket to Palookaville.” It was a popular format, but never quite nailed down the bobby-soxer demographic.

Like most radio stations back before television and crazy 1950’s sex took away their audience, WCBS played a lot of serialized shows, talk shows, and a small selection of music. In 1966, they tried out a format called “The Young Sound”, which was an easy-listening format for young people. Specifically, they focused on soft, elevator-esque instrumental versions of current pop songs. So if you really wanted to listen to the Kinks sing “You Really Got Me”, but didn’t want that awful cacophony of electric guitars hurting your 17-year-old eardrums, you could tune in for crap like this.

The part where they smash their instruments is fucking insane.

After three years of being so far from cool it was medically dangerous for anyone under 30 to enter their offices, WCBS switched over to the increasingly popular “Freeform Rock” format. This was a great time for music and a golden age for radio. DJs could play what they wanted, which allowed bands like The Swingin’ Medallions, 13th Floor Elevators and The Chocolate Watchband to hear themselves on the radio, despite being very non-chart-friendly and having somewhat goofy names.

For whatever reason, WCBS’s transition from horrific to hip was rocky, and they clearly sucked at rolling with the Freeform format. They were running third in the market (out of three) in the Freeform world, and in 1972 they opted to try a new approach. On July 7, the radio station re-launched as one of the first Oldies stations in the world. An “Oldies” station now will focus only a portion of their playlist on pre-1972 music – back then, they had to reach back before the Great Musical Shift of 1964.

So lots of hardcore Elvis.

Initially the station stayed true to the years between 1955 and 1964, while mixing in the occasional soft (meaning ‘non-frightening’ or ‘not Hendrix’) hits from ’64 on. They played two songs every hour which they deemed “Future Gold”, so probably safe hits from Donny Osmond or Tony Orlando – stuff you could chew on if your ears didn’t have any teeth.

The Oldies format was a hit, more so as popular music began to degenerate from Led Zeppelin and Elton John into KC & The Sunshine Band and Elton John & Kiki Dee. WCBS conducted a survey of its listeners in 1973 to come up with the top 500 songs of all time. They ran the same survey every two years on through 1995 and the number one song every single year was the same: “In The Still Of The Night” by the Five Satins. Nope, that isn’t a joke, that was picked above every other song in existence as the greatest for more than two decades. I mean, it’s a fantastic piece of music, but wow.

In the early 80s WCBS shifted their concept of ‘oldies’ more into the 1964-1969 period. They cut back on their Future Gold selections, probably because Hall & Oates sounded really out of place next to Sonny & Cher. Also, a number of well-known New York DJs were brought in, including Bob Shannon (who was discovered by Marv Albert), Ron Lundy (whose style was described as a mix of ‘crawfish and country’, so… yeah), and “Cousin” Brucie Morrow, whose blistering cacophonic yammering can still be heard on Sirius Satellite Radio’s ‘60’s on 6’, often in the middle of the songs he’s playing. Because everyone really wants that.

Seriously Cuz, just let the song play.

The station’s ratings continued to climb in the 1990s, most likely because the popular music heard on other stations was getting increasingly horrid. I can imagine that the brass at WCBS still refers to the “Achy Breaky Spike” in the ratings in 1992 when pop-country hits drove rational people away from top-40 radio in droves.

(NOTE: Musical opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions of everyone involved in managing and maintaining this site. Except, in this case, they do. Come on, people. Billy Ray Cyrus?)

In 2005, ratings were still good for WCBS, except that the denizens of listeners were discovered to be “not exactly un-old,” which did not please the advertisers. So, shortly after ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz finished up his 100th show on June 3, the format changed to an “Adult Hits” format known as JACK radio.

Most people are familiar with this joke of a format. They proclaim “We play what we want”, which suggests a return to the freeform rock-anarchy of the late 60’s and early 70’s, but actually the playlist is specifically cropped from overplayed hits of the 60’s through the 90’s, with no more than 2000 songs in their repertoire. The adult hits scam has been repeated in markets all over the place, with names like “FRANK,” “JOE,” “MIKE,” “ED,” “MAX,” “DAVE,” “SIMON,” “SAM,” “CHARLIE,” “BEN,” and “MOOSE.”

Moose???

Our local equivalent, called JOE, used to advertise that they’d play “anything.” I have tried requesting Mozart, Duke Ellington, and noted dark metal band Anal Cunt. No such luck.

The good news is that JACK tanked in New York, finishing at the bottom of the ratings in the ‘People Who Are Not In A Persistent Vegitative State’ demographic. Even mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted in the New York Post as saying he would “never listen to that fucking CBS radio again.” Talk about a ringing endorsement.

In a surprisingly stylish move, on July 12, 2007 WCBS chose to terminate the JACK experiment by playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, cutting it off precisely to recreate the series finale of The Sopranos. They returned to the Oldies format, and all was well and good in the village again. (Greenwich Village, of course)

But they still won’t play this.