Monday, December 6, 2010

The Christmas Letter; Randy Holden: Population I

The Secret Museum
Jim Webb & Michael Mooney

The Christmas Letter

I’m sure you are familiar with the practice of old friends filling you in with a little too much information as regards the trajectory of their life and children during the past year in a Christmas letter. Triumphant tales of job promotions or high school class achievements from the kiddies are added to what their Golden Retriever is up to for a recap of their important events from the last year. It’s nice to hear that Jennifer made the lacrosse team, or that an old acquaintance is now higher up the corporate ladder, but if someone was a friend you would’ve talked to them (or emailed etc.) occasionally for these updates. Sending an Xmas letter seems like a great cover for not wanting to actually speak to a person, but you make sure they know all about your “big accomplishments” from the past year. The only problem is that you never get to hear about the really important stuff. I’m talking about what new musical infatuations they’ve gotten into; like a late adult entry into Glam, or finally having a deep Sinatra immersion. In response to such routine letters I have decided to compose my own year end Holiday recap that will bring everyone up to date on what I consider to be the key music events that I have experienced in the last twelve months.

2010 will be remembered by me as the year when Taos favorites Manby’s Head played their first live shows. Mr.’s Greenberg, Mooney, Reid, and Whitlock broke out of their rehearsal space near Arroyo Seco and brought their brand of garage / psych- rock to the masses. They played several shows at Seco Pearl, and also raised hell at The Shadows Bar & Grill, as well as playing through a minor dust storm outdoors at the Kannaroo Festival near Questa in June. Add in their Santa Fe and Albuquerque gigs and they became a thirst quenching drink for New Mexicans that were parched by the continually dry local music scene. Two other club shows stood out during the year, The Meat Puppets at the Santa Brewing Co. in May, and a series of shows in September by Barrence Whitfield & The Savages. The Puppets brought their mangled sound of hard rock, punk and psychedelic cowboy tunes up from Tucson and entertained a packed crowd with a great set. Barrence Whitfield is a soul shouter that hails from the Boston area, his good friend and guitarist Peter Greenberg of Arroyo Seco reunited the original Savages for three gigs in New Mexico, and the KTAO Center show in September was a welcome blast of fresh air for these parts.

A lot of new infatuations did occur (Blue Note record label - see earlier Secret Museum /Horse Fly), but certainly the biggest was a 100 CD collection that I stumbled upon from the German Membran Label. Every jazz song that charted from 1917 to 1954 was included on this epic compilation of old Ragtime, Swing and Jazz tunes. Detailed liner notes helped bring the music of Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and hundreds of others back to life. We are now quite a bit away from the original 1935 – 1940 explosion of the Swing Band era, but all I can say is that current bands like Arcade Fire and Maroon 5 forced me into cannon balling toward the past for new kicks. The biggest disappointment has to have been the recent cd from Hobbs, New Mexico native Ryan Bingham titled “Junky Star”. He was on an upward flight after releasing “Roadhouse Sun”, and sharing a Grammy for his song in the movie “Crazy Heart”, but this was a step in the wrong direction. He abandoned his slashing rock band sound, for a mostly dull collection of late night campfire songs that could only be recommended as a sleep aid.

The best concert of the year was a no brainer – Roger Waters “The Wall” was a spectacular multi media extravaganza that had epic ticket prices ($99.00 - $250.00) as well. This intense story from the ex-Pink Floyd bassman included a German Messerschmitt fighter plane smashing into the wall early on, and the huge mechanical puppets and other effects surprisingly never dwarfed his core tale of alienation, and rage at all forms of institutional control(All in all we’re just another brick in the wall). Part Broadway show, part Rock concert, a total success in creating thought provoking entertainment. A dream come true for progressive rock music fans, grab the DVD when it finally comes out if you didn’t make it to one of the shows.

I didn’t get promoted at work, my car has over 100,000 miles on it, and I’m trying to downsize everything in the wake of the continuing economic recession (except buying CDs and concert tickets of course). The good news is that 2011 is just around the corner, and there’s still a lot of great music to be discovered.

Merry Christmas,
-Jim Webb

Randy Holden’s Sonic Adventure: The Fender IV, Sons Of Adam, The Other Half, Blue Cheer, Population II

Self-proclaimed (with justification) Guitar God (and gear head), Randy Holden’s recording career began in 1964 with Los Angeles’ Surf-influenced Fender IV. Signed to Imperial Records, their entire output consists of six reverb-drenched songs that owe more than a nod to Dick Dale. 19-year-old Randy already shows a tremendous command of his instrument on these early cuts, though I can’t listen to much Surf Music— kinda makes me edgy (there’s a weird Kenneth Anger/Jayne Mansfield/Big Daddy Roth air about early— and mid AND late—60s L.A. that’s difficult to explain, but it’s evident in everything from dingbat apartment buildings to the Beverly Hillbillies to Ed Kienholz. The whole place reeks of such a creepy pre-memory I’ve-seen-this-somewhere-before vibe that I eventually found it impossible to live there.) Fender IV are particularly spooky sounding, with their proto—ska beat, Middle-East melodies and small room recording atmosphere.

Sons Of Adam trade reverb for sustain, add vocals, and increase the garage factor. The results occasionally sound like The Leaves, or Love minus the songs (and Arthur Lee), plus Jeff Beck on guitar. I also detect traces of The Misunderstood, Beau Brummels and Shadows Of Knight in the mix (none of the dozen cuts I’ve heard would sound out of place on Nuggets.) A pre-Love Michael Stuart contributes some very sharp drumming, and Holden continues to evolve as a guitarist—Beck comparisons aside-— while beginning his initial experiments with volume, feedback and alternate tuning. Good L.A. Pop/proto-psych with Freakbeat leanings.

Transplanted from So Cal to San Francisco, The Other Half’s main claim to fame is Punk classic Mr. Pharmacist. Their lone album suffers from sludgy production and unnecessary cheesy canned audience applause on the opening track, but there’s some great stuff here, notably Flight Of The Dragon Lady, Morning Fire, and Wonderful Day— a Summer of Love stunner about, in Randy’s words, “this guy who's really happy, generally just happy about everything in life. And he's got some girl that is just pissed. So it's a conflict.” With the exception of What Can I Do For You (a BIG exception to some), nowhere is the LP reflective of the contemporaneous San Francisco sound. This is tough psychedelic street punk, similar in certain aspects to the first Amboy Dukes album, and Holden’s work is outstanding. Too bad the record was released in 1968, at least a year past it’s sell-by date.

Randy’s complete Blue Cheer output, consisting of Side Two of 1969’s New! Improved! (three Holden-composed and sung tracks totaling fourteen minutes forty-two seconds), is, ironically, his best-known work. Suffice to say that Holden’s inclination toward heaviness is well matched by Cheer rhythm section Dickie Peterson and Paul Whaley. Drummer Whaley in particular has never sounded better. If Blue Cheer had continued in this vein, they wouldn’t have ended their career playing their first two albums exclusively on the live circuit. Instead, they opted for the prevailing California Mellow approach on the remaining other half (!) of the LP, and future recordings. Randy, meanwhile, just got heavier.

Population II teams Holden with Kak’s Chris Lockheed on an unparalleled study in guitar extremism, or the heaviest record you’ve never heard. Lockheed plays drums and keyboard (simultaneously!!) and Randy does the rest. Sixteen two-hundred watt Sunn amps and a 10-hour-per-day-every-day rehearsal schedule in an empty opera house- the only place big enough to handle the power- set the stage for one massive slab of Strat-fired bedlam (the Sunn getup didn’t do Randy’s Gibson justice, so he switched to Jimi’s axe of choice. Comparisons abound.) Holden takes up the story: “Chris first searched me out after Blue Cheer… So when he had a meeting with me, he said that he also played keyboards. And loving sensationalism as I do, I asked him, ‘Can you play both at once, drums and keyboards?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I thought okay, if this guy's got the confidence and the nerve to say that, he's gotta be able to do it. But it was really laborious for him... It was very numerical and mathematical and calculated. It was very difficult to do. And I realized that the job he faced sucked. To me, it would have been no fun at all. Because you're totally restricted. On one side you have to have this soft touch on keyboards, and the other side, you have to be slamming. So your personality’s divided right down the middle. It's amazing that he didn't overdose on schizophrenia.” Consequently, Population II has a slowed down feeling, almost leaden at times (and just about perfect for the emerging Quaalude generation.) And it’s unbelievably loud. Had it been given a proper offical release in 1970 instead of never (there have apparently been more than a few bootleg pressings over the years, and a questionable “legitimate” Swedish cd issuance), this album might be mentioned in the same breath as Black Sabbath’s first or Paranoid, instead of Bloodrock’s second or Kingdom Come.

Partial discography:

Randy Holden Early Works ’64-’66 (Captain Trips CD 1997)
Sons Of Adam- Moxie EP (7” 1981)
The Other Half (Atco LP 1968)
Blue Cheer- New! Improved! (Philips LP 1969)
Randy Holden Population II (unreleased 1970)
-Michael Mooney

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