Rocks In The Attic #541: The Mothers – ‘Filmore East, June 1971’ (1971)

rita541If there’s one musical artist I think I’ll never understand, it’s Frank Zappa. It isn’t through lack of trying either. Several people have tried to turn me onto him, and it just hasn’t happened. Not yet, anyway. Interestingly, it’s always been musicians who have passed on their recommendations.

I was first handed a copy of Joe’s Garage, but it was just too ‘out there’ for me to comprehend next to my diet of ‘70s classic rock and ‘90s alternative rock. Too comedic, and I don’t think I was in on the joke. I was then handed a live DVD of him playing the Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post, I think from just before he died, and it sounded too much like a headache for me to enjoy.

I picked this record up recently for $5, and it’s instantly more accessible than anything else I’ve heard before from him. Perhaps I’m a fan of earlier Zappa and the Mothers, and I just didn’t know it…

Hit: Happy Together

Hidden Gem: Little House I Used To Live In

Rocks In The Attic #540: George Fenton & Jonas Gwangwa – ‘Cry Freedom (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

rita540Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom told the tale of the white South African journalist Donald Woods. Against all odds, Woods reported on the struggles, and subsequent death, of black civil rights activist Steve Biko. It’s a compelling picture, typical of that type of late-‘80s ‘message’ film and remains just as powerful today.

Kevin Kline plays Woods, opposite Denzel Washington as Biko. After his long-standing tenure on TV’s St. Elsewhere, Cry Freedom served to be Denzel’s breakthrough into starring roles in films. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role, an award he would win two years later for Edward Zwick’s Glory.

I met Donald Woods once. He came to our sixth form as part of what I presume was a speaking tour of the UK. I remember a touch of awkwardness as he sat down at the front of the assembly area at a desk that was prepared for him. The teachers had decorated the desk with a pot plant that was probably a little too large for its purpose, and after sitting down, Woods looked quizzically at the plant, removed it and placed it on the floor next to him. “We’ll just move this down here,” he said, and everybody chuckled. This was the humanity of the man that Kline captured so well in Cry Freedom.

In the decades since, whenever I meet South Africans, I always tell them I’ve met Donald Woods. This should impress them, I think, but I’m always met with the same response: “Who?” To this day, I’ve never met a South African who has heard of him. Now, apart from their cartoonish depiction in Lethal Weapon 2, there can’t have been too many Hollywood films about South Africans in the late ‘80s. As a measure of how unseen – and unheard – South African voices were in that decade, Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon sequel can’t even describe the accent of the South African men who have broken into him home. It’s just so unfamiliar and alien to him (and the rest of the American cinema-going public).

So either I’ve met a bunch of uncultured South Africans in my life, or the film was somehow glossed over and ignored in the country in which it is set. I’m not sure what the answer is.

Hit: Crossroads – A Dawn Raid

Hidden Gem: Gumboots

Rocks In The Attic #539: Glenn Miller & His Orchestra – ‘The Glenn Miller Carnegie Hall Concert’ (1983)

rita539I need to get to Carnegie Hall. It sounds out of place, like it shouldn’t exist anymore. Built in 1891 and still going strong 125 years later, it more than justifies a pilgrimage before it gets shut down and turned into fancy New York apartments.

Glenn Miller, Harry Belafonte, and erm…Florence Foster Jenkins, it’s a venue steeped in history. Only the other day, WTF’s Marc Maron – one of my favourite podcasters – did a show there. What a place. Just imagine what has been seen and heard there over the years. The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, the list is endless.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Glenn Miller was the first rock and roll star. Not only are these catchy swing tunes, they’re tight as hell. And with the back line of drums, bass, guitar and piano, Miller’s orchestra contains no less than five saxophones, four trumpets, and four trombones. No wonder the brass section sounds really fat. I bet Carnegie Hall was rocking that night in 1939.

Hit: In The Mood

Hidden Gem: Running Wild

Rocks In The Attic #538: Jack White – ‘Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016’ (2016)

rita538Does the world need a collection of Jack White’s acoustic recordings? I’m not sure. The whole concept of a compilation album seems to be everything White stands against. It’s music for product. Remember, this is the guy who – in the early days of the White Stripes – never told the press anything truthful because he wanted to remain enigmatic.

Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 is a double-LP collection of White’s acoustic-leaning songs with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and assorted solo recordings. The real gems are the rarer songs taken from b-sides or soundtracks, and these leave you wanting more. I’d kill for an album worth of b-sides and unreleased material – a White Stripes Past Masters next please, Third Man Records.

The real gem of the album is City Lights, a previously unreleased leftover track from Get Behind Me Satan. Previous White Stripes collaborator Michel Gondry surprised White by filming a lovely little music video for the song, and only notified White’s Third Man records when it was completed.

At least it’s not just a straightforward ‘Best Of The White Stripes’ compilation. That really would be a little too hard to stomach. But we do get something almost as mawkish – a cover photo of him looking all moody, in monochrome of course. He looks like a handsome balladeer, and his mournful good looks probably wouldn’t look out of place next to this Christmas’ undoubtable Michael Bublé release.

The liner notes, by Greil Marcus – who else? – paints a picture of Jack White as the next in a long line of Delta blues guitarists, passing the torch down from the likes of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Hmm…maybe…you think. But then you read the song credits and notice that White wrote one of the songs specifically for a Coca Cola commercial in 2006. Hmm…maybe not then.

Still, Jack White means a lot to me and always will. He was a key component in the shift back to the roots of rock music. After grunge, alternative rock became stagnant with nowhere to go, but then a couple of players – most notably the White Stripes and the Strokes – seemed to reset the dial.  They brought analogue recording back into the mainstream, and shorter, sharper running times of records; thirty minutes rather than the CD-bursting 50- or 60-minute snoozefests.

But I still can’t get over the fact that a compilation record just feels wrong for White…

Hit: Hotel Yorba

Hidden Gem: City Lights

Rocks In The Attic #537: Bill Cosby – ‘Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right!’ (1963)

rita537The other week, during the Auckland leg of A Conversation On Making A Murderer, with lawyers Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, the talk turned to the subject of jury selection.

The problem in the second decade of the 21st century is that smartphones are everywhere, and access to social media and instant news media is so high that it’s getting to be harder and harder to find a truly impartial set of jurors for some cases.

Strang’s great example was the raft of sexual allegations against Bill Cosby. He claimed that of the thousand or so attendees to the show that night, any judge would find it hard to select twelve impartial jurors to stand at Cosby’s trial.

“This is Mr. Huxtable, or whatever he’s called…” Strang said.

Dr. Huxtable!” I wanted to shout out.

“…he was our friend,” Strang continued. “He came into our house every night and made us laugh.”

And he did. He made people laugh around the world. In America though he would have been more than just a household name, he would have been part of the household. It’ll be interesting to see how America deals with Cosby, if a trial ever happens…

Hit: A Nut In Every Car

Hidden Gem: Noah: Right!

Rocks In The Attic #536: Styx – ‘Paradise Theatre’ (1981)

rita536A year ago, I knew nothing by Styx. But now, thanks to a spot-on homage by Jimmy Fallon and Paul Rudd, the fantastic Too Much Time On My Hands has become my song of the year.

The timing of that when I saw that video on The Tonight Show also helped. I caught it just before I spent a long weekend in Sydney, and it’s always good to have a new song to soundtrack a trip away. It might not be a new song, per se, but it was new to me.

Styx don’t sound a million miles away from Aerosmith, so I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get around to listening to them. Tommy Shaw, the guitarist / vocalist from Styx, was even a song doctor for Aerosmith during the Geffen years (he co-wrote Shut Up And Dance from 1993’s Get A Grip), but even that fact didn’t turn me onto them. There are a number of dusty rock bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s that didn’t travel well, both figuratively and literally, to English audiences and I would regard Styx as one of these for sure.

Paradise Theatre is album number ten for the band, their only #1 album in the U.S., so I have a lot of catching up to do.

Hit: Too Much Time On My Hands

Hidden Gem: Rockin’ The Paradise

Rocks In The Attic #535: Various Artists – ‘Six Presidents Speak – A Profile Of The Presidency’ (1972)

rita535This record seemed apt, given what happened last Wednesday. Donald Trump winning the U.S. election feels like some kind of bad dream – like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, or the alternate-1985 Biff Tannen from Back To The Future Part II writ large. Surely we’ll all wake up from our collective nightmare soon…

A couple of friends and I were in Auckland city attending a show when Wednesday’s results were coming to a conclusion. We were watching A Conversation On Making A Murderer, with Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, the lawyers of Steven Avery from the Netflix show. What an odd thing to be at, while the western world was slowly falling apart.

Not surprisingly, the conversation regularly switched from the specifics of the Avery case and the documentary, to a wider discussion on justice and the present state of America. Strang and Buting made many a reference to the election, and it almost seemed to make some kind of sense when they suggested that any country where an innocent man like Avery can languish in prison all his life can elect a man like Trump.

My friend Justin had a quick surreptitious check of the results on his phone during the show, but despite expecting the big comeback from Clinton – because surely, surely, Trump can’t win – we turned our phones back on at the show’s conclusion to the horror that it had been called in Trump’s favour.

Who knows what’s to going to happen now? It’s scary enough that a Republican is in the White House, but Trump isn’t even a Republican, despite what it says on the ticket. He’s not even a politician; he’s a businessman. Half of the Republican party seems to have turned their back on him in the run-up to the election. I wonder if they’ll greet him with open arms now.

I picked up this record from a charity shop for a dollar. It features soundbites from each of the six presidents between 1933 and 1974 – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S .Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.

Tricky Dicky almost sounds like a saint now, compared to you know who…

Hit: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country – John F. Kennedy

Hidden Gem: The fact that Nixon’s middle name was Milhous – I’d forgotten this!