Funny how Krautrock was always based in the boogie--pardon me, das bügie. Or at least a theory of das bügie. Can's metallic minimalism is as avant-funky as the electric Miles of Down on the Corner. And even the staunchest rap historian is proud to offer Kraftwerk's "Trans Euro Express" as the seedling for generations of electro-funk, from Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" right up to whichever snaky strain of U.K. party drones come our way next weekend. But none of these tail-shakin' Teutons were as oddly forward-thinking as Neu!, easily the weirdest (and, in a way, the coolest) of the increasingly influential Krautrock set.
Formed in 1971 by short-term Kraftwerkers Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, Neu! played a droning fuzz-rock that, underwritten by a relentless 4/4 pummel, served as a palate for a mostly lyricless, cerebral trance 'n' dance. At its best, that sound oddly adhered to Dinger's, um, aesthetic fiat: "After having practiced music for a long time we now make NEU! music for mind and pants." (I swear to God I'm not making this up.)
Their debut, Neu!, sold pretty well in the mother country, but English and American success wasn't really a consideration for a band with a sound minimal enough to make hardcore punk seem cluttered. Still, Neu! 2, released just as Kraftwerk was beginning to hit here, stands as a fascinating piece of progressive rock. Its opening track, "Für Immer," contains some of the prettiest drone-rock ever recorded, taking the dreamiest possibilities of the Velvet Underground to their nth degree while stretching a jangle and fuzz-tone above their rhythmic careen. Stereolab would rip off that sound nearly 20 years later, and in fact, if "Für Immer" was released tomorrow, it would still sound new.
The rest of the album finds the band fooling around with tape loops, taking two of the album's coolest "songs," "Super" and "Neuschnee," and committing them to vinyl at 16, 33, and 78 RPMs. The results are predictably unlistenable (although the 78 RPM versions do sound kinda punky and the 16 RPM ones almost laughably like industrial). Yet, considered in the context of an era in which 40-minute drum solos and Tolkien references were not just accepted but expected, Neu!'s introverted experimentalism not only had taste but flava. (Dolan)
Doing It to Death
I n spite of James Brown's 1974 hit "The Payback" and his future canonization in rap, 1973's Doing It to Death was, as the title now suggests, the sound of James Brown obsessing the almighty funk into commercial irrelevance. His tight circle of musicians was still creating a brand of R&B as distinct as it was influential. (You can hear it in the music of artists as disparate as Nigeria's Fela and Germany's Can.) But on his home turf, James was already competing with post-Superfly wah-wah pedal hoppers and the pre-disco Philly sound. So it's not surprising that he soaked up loose change from his pre-sold followers with cut-'n-press JB's albums like this one on his indie label, People.
Though composed by bandleader Fred Wesley and a bigger hit than any single released by James under his own name that year, the talky 10-minute title cut is still pure Godfather. And the unexpectedly solid album constructed around it is every bit a classically Jamesian combination of loose lip and tight ship. The boss man's mug is missing from the sleeve, but if there's any doubt who's in charge, just listen to the way he introduces the bass solo on "More Peas," relinquishing the groove only after giving the band notice that "if he lose the funk we gotta chunk him out." (Or "chuck" or "chump" him out--it's hard to tell which.)
The theme song, "You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks and I'll Be Straight," is ironic given James's re-election endorsement of the vulnerable funky president. JB had hoped to pressure Nixon for a Martin Luther King holiday ("You can't change a house from the outside," he'd told hecklers at the Apollo). By '73, he just wanted his 40 acres. Instead, he got a call from the IRS and belated thanks "for inventing modern music" from DJ Shadow, some 23 years later. (Peter S. Scholtes)
Gram Parsons and Fallen Angels
So much mystique surrounds the legend of Gram Parsons that it's easy to forget the following: He wasn't so much brilliant as lucky. Indeed, his family's massive orange-farming dynasty--which sent Gram to Harvard and lavished him with a $50,000-a-year trust fund after he decided to drop out--spawned a fiscally freed, countercultured kid who could choose his countercultures the way others of his ilk chose tennis instructors.
Having invented country-rock in '68 on the Byrds' classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, he solidified his cachet a year later, appearing on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin with marijuana leaves stitched on his country singer's rhinestone suit. On songs such as the Burritos' "Wheels" and the Byrds' "Hickory Wind," Parsons lent his vulnerable, folkie voice to a new kind of roots music in which he'd cut California rock's decadent dreams of post-Woodstock escapism with the stark loner's realism learned from Merle Haggard and the Biblical sense of impending doom found in Appalachian mountain music.
The two solo albums he made before his death in 1973 at age 26--the patchy but essential GP and the warm, lovely Live 1973--are steeped in songs about longing, the best of them sung with neotraditionalism's Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris. GP isn't as great as 1974's posthumous Grievous Angel, but it's more diverse, with Parsons striving to render the J. Geils Band's glossy Detroit-soul ballad "Cry One More Time" as something of a piece with Tomhall Glaser's "Streets of Baltimore"--a song about a Tennessee farmer who migrates to the coast only to lose his woman to "those city lights." The thematic inversions must have been as sexy to Parsons as Harris's voice, but his almost reportorial delivery and pure talent transcend historicity's tendency to frame his ambition as hokey.
Today, Parsons's songs don't exactly sound fresh, but at least they feel lived in--which is more than you can say for many of his inheritors. (Jon Dolan)
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