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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Tim McIlrath of Rise Against answers our 20 Questions before heading out on the road with Rancid later this year (tour dates below).

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Turtles Can Fly. That’s a sad fucking movie.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Tyler Durden from Fight Club.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Fugazi’s 13 Songs. Nobody has ever done anything like this record, or like this band.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, I mean, have you seen Trekkies?


5. Your ideal brain food?
A good book in a small mom and pop cafe sipping on a hot chocolate…


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
A look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


In 1972, two days before starting the Ziggy Stardust tour, David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars stopped by the Old Grey Whistle Test to tape what would become a historic performance. When it was broadcast on February 8, 1972, no one had ever seen or heard anything like him. With his androgynous look and lyrics like “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that”, Bowie really was an alien as far as the British public was concerned. Kids in 1972 though, were starving for something unique and exciting and this legendary performance of “Five Years” is both of those things.


Magazine’s appearance on Whistle Test is nothing short of spectacular. Starting with a drum beat and bass hook that quickly gets enveloped in a mess of synthesizer noise, the song suddenly explodes with soaring guitar and keyboards. It’s somehow both dark and upbeat, angry and happy, pop and avant garde. Music that doesn’t tell you how to feel but rather lets the listeners make their own interpretation. Post-punk at it’s best.


The first thing that struck me when I first saw King Crimson’s 1982 performance of “Frame By Frame” was how much singer Adrian Belew sounded like Chris Cornell. Or rather how much Cornell sounds like Belew. The second thing I noticed was Robert Fripp’s guitar playing blowing my mind. Bassist Tony Levin, looking like Doctor Mindbender, plays an incredible instrument called the Chapmin Stick. Besides Cornell, you can hear where Thom Yorke, Tool, Primus, and countless other bands drew inspiration from.


Perhaps my favorite Whistle Test performance I’ve seen is Orange Juice doing “Rip It Up” in 1982. Edwyn Collins seems so full of nervous energy and youthful exuberance. The band sounds great and this song is a classic, somehow mixing motown, punk, ska and soul with Collins quoting the Buzzcocks and immediately acknowledging “my favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’”. Towards the end he’s bouncing around so much his guitar falls off. He simply puts it down and continues dancing.



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Friday, Feb 27, 2009

Economopocalypse got you down?  Banish the gloomies by slurping up a Chipwich® or a Bomb Pop™—American obesity has already pressed on beyond epidemic levels into pure comic Nutty Professor territory, after all, so why hold back in your time of need?  If you’re among the few still watching your girlish figure, however, you can instead dip into Virginia composer Michael Hearst‘s adorable little Songs for Ice Cream Trucks project, which pays homage to the beloved nuggets of dairy delight and the remarkable mobile delivery infrastructure that carries them throughout suburbia with nostalgia-riddled melodic pointillism delivered via wobbly bells and xylophones.  It’s also a remarkable study in self-restraint: these songs had to work with only the technical underpinnings of what is essentially just a giant music box on wheels. And even though ice cream is always awesome, the songs aren’t always upbeat, sometimes opting instead for creepy minor keys that remind you that at least a few of the truck drivers from your childhood were probably borderline pedophiles and Mister Softee kinda looks like a bow-tied turd.  But you can grab these songs for free, so if you ultimately decide that rainbow sprinkles aren’t a suitable substitute for your 401k (imagine that!) and still need a pick-me-up at the other end, you’ll have plenty of money left over for the Jim Beam.


Michael Hearst
“Where Do Ice Cream Trucks Go in the Winter? [MP3]
     


“Chocolate, Vanilla, or Swirl?” [MP3]
     



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Friday, Feb 27, 2009
Nils at the piano.

Nils at the piano.


Neil Young’s seminal 1970 record, After the Goldrush, yielded so many classic compositions, many would be surprised to find out it was panned by critics upon release. Now, the album routinely occupies “top 100” and “best of” lists by fans and critics alike.  It is a record I’ve heard so many times it often goes unnoticed by me when played, sinking into the background like the wallpaper on my grandmother’s kitchen walls; familiar and comforting but long since removed from piquing any real curiosity. Some records are like that, essential but no longer warranting of examination.  Or, so I thought.


Recently, I mindlessly reached into the stack of vinyl I have next to my stereo. Retrieving the worn, frayed, musty scented copy of “Goldrush”—bearing more than a striking resemblance to the patchwork jeans displayed on the back cover—I decided to put it on while I folded the pile of laundry gathered on my couch. T-shirt in hand, out of the speakers the folksy strums of Neil’s acoustic guitar filled the room. He plaintively asked to be “told why” and I reflexively hummed along.


Suddenly, with the opening piano chords of “After the Goldrush” my ears stood up at attention. I must have resembled a dog that hears the word “TREAT” go un-spelled from his owner’s lips, I was struck by how simply the progression was rendered. Having seen Young play this many times before on piano, I assumed he was also on the recording. The back of the album, however, revealed Nils Lofgren was credited with piano.


Lofgren, a guitar player and Chicago area native, was only 17 and had virtually no experience playing piano. He reportedly practiced his parts around the clock during breaks in recording. His rapport with Young would last overtime, appearing next on guitar for the recording of Tonight’s the Night. But it was his turn as piano player on “Goldrush” that would serve as his introduction into rock music’s pantheon.


Nils and Neil live onstage.

Nils and Neil live onstage.


Originally, Young sited inspiration for the songs on the album came after reading a screenplay written by Dean Stockwell and Herb Berman entitled After the Goldrush. The film was never released but the songs generated for the soundtrack were.  “Goldrush” came out just fifteen months after Young’s Everybody Know This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse and his collaboration with Crosby, Stills, and Nash Déjà Vu. He recruited members of Crazy Horse and tapped relative unknown Lofgren to play piano on the record.


With each track on the album I was drawn to the economy and restraint of Lofgren’s playing. His chordal approach added heft to Young’s vocal delivery while providing foundational support for the songs melodies. It’s the type of playing that suggested nods and eye contact amongst the participants. Langdon Winner, in his original review of the record for Rolling Stone in 1970, described the band’s performance of “Southern Man” this way; “By today’s standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected. The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others’ footprints now and then, they never really come together.” This “half-baked” quality-as Winner further characterized it- become the hallmark of Young’s work with Crazy Horse and went on to inform subsequent alt-country playing in further decades. Lofgren was integral to this dynamic.


You need only listen to “Cripple Creek Ferry” to hear its echoes in the work of Wilco, Ryan Adams, Old 97’s and others. The piano comps along just behind the beat, lending the rollicking atmosphere of a honky tonk to the track. “Oh, Lonesome Me” features reticently delivered fills bridging the gaps left by guitar and bass. The playing throughout is earnest and textural, framing some of Young’s best-known melodies, without clogging up the space.


On the more up-tempo track “When You Dance, I Can Really Love”, the staccato plinking of single notes drives the tune forward. He tackles each song more like the guitar player he is better known for being.  It is this sensibility that lends “Goldrush” a vacuole quality. Less self-aware players might have tried to overcompensate for their lack of experience by trying to prove too much.


There is no better evidence of this type of restraint than on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, one of Young’s best-known vocal melodies. The vocal is simply augmented and nurtured along by Lofgren’s piano line. A more virtuosic and accomplished player could easily have cluttered this song.  Instead, the lullaby at the song’s core is left unmolested. That may be precisely what Young saw in the neophyte.


By album’s end I was filled with the type of excitement I seem to only get from discovering a new band these days.  In a sense I had.  Now, when I listen to After the Goldrush, I hear melodies I had never considered before. Lofgren has of course gone on to achieve fame as both a solo artist and as one of the most heralded sidemen in rock.


Nils with his new \

Nils with his new “Boss”.


Bruce Springsteen, whose E Street Band Lofgren has been a member of since the mid-‘80s, once quipped that the best guitar player in his band was relegated to third-string status.


I’ve since begun to take a different view of albums I’d written off as fully explored. Given the right frame of mind, a mundane, distracting task, and open ears, undiscovered wonders lie buried just beneath the surface of records you’ve heard thousands of times before. It only takes one more listen.



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Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
Long before the Runaways, the Slits, Hole, and Sleater-Kinney took the stage, the members of Fanny proved to the narrow-minded masses that a group need not the Y chromosome to rock harder than Led Zeppelin. Fanny co-founder Jean Millington reflects on the last days of a band that truly are "rock and roll survivors".

If you don’t know who Fanny is, you will by the end of this article.


Though debate continues about whether the discourse of “Women in Rock” reinforces gender separatism in popular music, the fact is that female musicians, historically, have endured a plethora of issues completely foreign to their male peers. Women have had to wage combat in the male-dominated medium of rock and roll, fighting sexual objectification and condescending remarks of the “You play good for a girl” variety. Fanny was among the first bands to fight the status quo head on and illustrate to the narrow-minded masses that a group need not the Y chromosome to rock harder than Led Zeppelin.


Signed to Reprise in 1969, Fanny included sisters Jean Millington (bass) and June Millington (guitar), with Alice DeBuhr (drums) and Nickey Barclay (keyboards). June Millington proposed the name “Fanny” to the band members, thinking it represented a female guardian angel watching over the group as they endured the inevitable sexism. Reprise capitalized on the band’s name in a marketing campaign that nearly rendered the music secondary to the obvious double entendre – “Get Behind Fanny” (the slogan was actually a joke suggested by Barclay that management took quite seriously).


Producer and pop marksmen Richard Perry helmed production on their first three albums—Fanny (1970), Charity Ball (1971), and Fanny Hill (1972) – but brought their sizzling stage show down to a simmer in the studio. Matters improved little when Todd Rundgren was enlisted for Mother’s Pride (1973). The albums simply did not accurately convey the true measure of each band member’s musicianship nor did they contain the rawness of their concerts, which were among the most heralded rock and roll events of their time.


Jean Millington recently spoke with me about the tail end of Fanny’s career that culminated with their last album, Rock and Roll Survivors (1974). By then, June Millington and Alice DeBuhr had left the band and were replaced by Patti Quatro and Brie Howard, respectively. With the advent of glam rock, Fanny’s stage show had become more theatrical. Fanny joined a roster of similarly glammed-up and costumed acts like T. Rex, KISS, and Parliament when Rock and Roll Survivors found a home on Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records. Fanny gave the label its second Top 40 hit when “Butter Boy” charted at #29 in February 1975. Unfortunately, Fanny had disintegrated by the time the song reached its chart peak.


Though our conversation focused on the end of Fanny’s career, Millington reflected on some of the group’s earlier work for Reprise, all of which was released on a deluxe four-CD set by Rhino, First Time in a Long Time (2002). In listening to the music four decades later, and hearing Jean’s vivid recollections, let the record show that long before The Runaways, The Slits, Hole, and Sleater-Kinney took the stage, the members of Fanny were blazing trails and emphasizing that there was more to a name than cheeky sloganeering. (Note: additional portions of this interview will appear in PopMatters’ forthcoming retrospective celebrating the 35th anniversary of Casablanca Records.)


Did the band consciously approach Rock and Roll Survivors as a conceptual piece?
Yes. Nickey was always extremely influenced by the English rock and roll scene. I still consider her to be quite a musical genius. At that time, it was the whole glam rock era. With the addition of Patti into the band, who was very theatrical, that was just the direction it was taking. We thought, Why don’t we go ahead and make a cohesive thing and have a direction. It’s really about after all that we’d been through, we had still survived. We were rock and roll survivors. It really was a conscious thought.

Describe your relationship with Vini Poncia. Was he selected by you or management to produce Rock and Roll Survivors?
He was selected by management. We hung out a lot with Vini on a very personal level.  Basically, in retrospect, I understand what had happened. Richard Perry collaborated a lot with Vini. I don’t remember what project Richard was involved with at the time but I kind of get the feeling that we were handed over to Vini because Richard was really busy.  Plus, I don’t think the rock and roll thing was Richard’s forte at that time.  I think he thought that Vini could do a better job for us.


I don’t think he really got who we were. He’s a really great guy, and we had a lot of fun with Vini, but as a producer, I don’t think he was really as strong as what we actually needed.


Did you interact much with the other acts at Casablanca?
Not really. I think that the most that the band stayed together after June and Alice left the band, whatever configurations that we put together, was a year and a half, maybe just a year. The band fell apart. We didn’t have time to build relationships within the context of the record company, like it happened at Reprise Records.


In retrospect, would you have done anything different with Rock and Roll Survivors?
Yes! (laughs) We just really lost the hard-rock edge we had with (the original) Fanny. The original Fanny, there was just so much real, deep musicianship and such a groove that happened with the four of us. As far as the musicianship of it all, June definitely is a heavyweight. Patti, she’s fine and all of that, but she’s just much more about the appearance and the theatricality of it. To me, there just wasn’t enough “meat”, if you will. I listened to it within the last year and I was just kind of appalled of how “non-groove” it sounded to me. For heaven’s sake, cutting “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” with Brie singing the lead vocal, that should have kicked ass. I cringed when I heard the track. I said, “Jesus I can’t believe we sounded that wimpy!”


Going back to your earlier work, what are your impressions now of the albums you did with Richard Perry? What was it like with him in the studio?
I really was kind of loathe to listen to those tracks because what would happen is that Richard was very much pop-oriented and, frankly, I don’t think he did the band justice on record because we would cut these tracks that were really biting and big and then Richard would “pop-ify” them. Of course, we’d be sent out on the road and he would mix while we were gone. There was nothing we could do. We felt like he took the starch out of a lot of the tracks.


I just have to tell you a quick story about my sister June. We were recording in Apple Studios and Geoff Emerick, who was The Beatles’ engineer, was engineering the tracks. There was this one song – I can’t remember which one it was – and June had her amp turned up to ten. Richard went into the studio, he turned her amp down to three or four, and June was just fit to be tied. Somehow the dialogue came up with Geoff, and June said to Geoff something along the lines of, “How did George (Harrison) get that sound?” and Geoff replied, “Well…he had the amp on eleven” (laughs).


For the most part, I don’t go back and listen to the tracks. Then, when we had the reissue with Rhino Records (First Time in a Long Time 2002), I actually listened to the stuff and I was quite impressed. I really was. I was surprised because we had been so upset by being locked out of the studio.


Tell me about working with Todd Rundgren on Mother’s Pride (1973).
One of the major reasons we went with Todd was because we had these meetings with him and he knew that, with Richard, we had been locked out of the studio. We thought, He’s a musician, he’s hip, he’s cool, he’s one of us. At the end of the day, he locked us out of the studio because he wanted to get it over and done with and go record with his band. We were absolutely pissed.


Do you own the masters to any of the Fanny material?
I have no control over it. Right now, June is really trying to work with a man named Tim McHugh. He’s in L.A. and I think he’s quite a well-known film editor. He’s got quite a bit of heavy credentials. June is working with Tim with getting the rights to different things. Between him and Alice, they were able to get copies of a show we had done in Germany called The Beat Club. It was a whole hour. At the time, we had been on the road. That show was just absolutely slamming. They’re trying to figure out how we can get the rights to it. She’s making inquiries. We’re trying to find out from Warner Bros. what we can do. I think at present time it’s something ridiculous like $150 for every ten seconds of a tune.


You really have such an important legacy.
Not to be egotistical or anything, but I don’t there has been a women’s group since Fanny who played with as much depth, musically, as Fanny did.


Is there a chance that Fanny would re-unite?
It would be an interesting thing to come together and do that. I just don’t know…Nickey is in Australia. From what I understand, she still harbors a hell of a lot of resentment. For the longest time, June was just mad as could be and could never, ever think of working with Nickey but June’s really been working on her emotional issues and I think June has gotten to the point where she’d consider it. I honestly don’t know if Nickey would be able to do that. I’d be up for it. I’m sure Alice would be up for it too. I just don’t know at this point about Nickey because she said some pretty vitriolic things in an article that came out about two years ago.


The April before last, we went to Berklee School of Music and we were presented with a lifetime achievement award. They contacted us. Me, June, and Alice rehearsed for about a week. The three of us performed as a trio at the presentation. I must say, it really rocked. Alice, at that point, had not played in forever. She really just didn’t do music at all whereas of course June has IMA (The Institute for the Musical Arts) and the Rock and Roll Girls Camp. She’s producing and she still plays and I’ve also been playing pretty much once, if not twice a year with June and my son, Lee Madeloni. He’s a great drummer. When June and Lee and I perform, it’s pretty unbelievable I have to say. We still absolutely kick butt.


When Fanny was in our heyday, what was always wanted of us was to go into that T&A and sell the sex. We resisted for a long time. One of the reasons June left the band was she felt like we were pushed too much into looking like sexual objects. She hated it. The thing is, it did happen to us. At the time, I thought, Okay well we’ll break barriers and we’ll do such and such, and I thought for sure by 2009, things would have changed. They’re worse than they were in the ‘80s, I think. Women are just exploited and it’s not about the talent.  It’s so disrespectful to women what’s come about. A lot of the young girls either have anorexia or are incredibly overweight. There’s this whole thing of where do we fit in? What are we supposed to be? In the arts, music, theater, and in movies, women are still considered that the more sex appeal you have, that’s what’s going to sell.


If me, June, and Alice resurge—we’re all almost 60—there ain’t gonna be a lot of T and A! (laughs) It would be on the merits of who we are, musically.


(For more information about Fanny, visit www.fannyrocks.com)


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