Punks various origin stories have been documented ad infinitum, and through them, the movements myriad influences have been enshrined in a familiar proto-punk canon. It includes everything from the snotty 60s garage-rock bands compiled on Lenny Kayes Nuggets compilation to the metallic Motor City soul of the MC5 to the sleazy glam of the New York Dolls to the proletariat pub rock of Dr. Feelgood. But while theres no denying the impact these groups had on punks inaugural class-of-76, to 2018 ears, a lot of them can sound, well, a little tame. Sure, a Nuggets standard like The Standells "Dirty Water" oozes bratty attitude, but its really no more threatening than the average golden oldie. And while the brash swagger of the New York Dolls still resounds, they essentially sound like a more irreverent Rolling Stones.But in this playlist, we highlight the pre-punk songs that, to this day, sound every bit as violent and visceral as what followed. Certainly, theres some expected names: Iggy and the Stooges 1972 thrasher "I Got a Right" actually blows past punk completely to invent hardcore a good six years early. And the nastiest of Nuggets, like The Music Machines "Talk Talk," still hit like a leather-gloved fist to the face. But there also are a number of classic-rock icons here who, in their most unhinged and primordial states, rival anything punk coughed up——listen to John Lennon shred his throat into a bloody pulp on "Well Well Well," or Deep Purple fuse 50s hot-rod rock and 70s metal on "Speed King." Punk may have preached "no future," but these songs still blaze like theres no past.
Get set to realign what you thought you knew about some of your favorite songs—specifically, their origins. The past several decades have been loaded with widely loved tunes that have secret pasts. From rock staples to pop anthems to soul milestones, heres a heavy batch of classic cuts you never knew were not the original versions.Some one-hit wonders even built their entire careers off a stealth cover. Toni Basil’s lone success, the 1982 No. 1 “Mickey,” was the result of gender-tweaking a 1979 tune called “Kitty” by British glam-rockers Racey.You wouldn’t have wanted to be a member of Motown group The Undisputed Truth when their minor 1972 hit “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” found a place in the R&B pantheon courtesy of The Temptations’ version later that same year. The New Wave era brought plenty more. Blondie’s 1978 single “Hanging on the Telephone” first found life as the opening cut on power-pop cult heroes The Nerves lone release, a self-titled 1976 EP. Bow Wow Wow’s ’80s smash “I Want Candy” was originally written and recorded in 1965 by The Strangeloves, a band that included future Blondie producer Richard Gottehrer. Even some artists famous for revamping classic tunes have been known to slip one by. Though Joan Jett scored a bunch of hits by rebooting other artists’ songs, most people are unaware that her biggest track, “I Love Rock ’N Roll,” was a 1975 glam-rock nugget by The Arrows.A decade later, The Lemonheads were another act known for covers whose biggest single was widely mistaken for an original. “Into Your Arms” originated not with Evan Dando but with the Australian duo Love Positions, who released it in 1989, after which band member Nic Dalton joined The Lemonheads, eventuating their version of the tune.Even ex-Beatles were part of the phenomenon. One of the biggest hits of George Harrison’s solo career was 1987’s “Got My Mind Set On You.” The song never gained much traction in its 1962 release by R&B singer James Ray, but George became familiar with it and retained it all those years later. One of the things this goes to show is that you never can tell where a great song will wind up.
On one level, 1972’s “Suffragette City” is pure simplicity, an amphetamine rush that proves David Bowie could unleash high-decibel intensity just as potently as he could spacey ballads or post-modern artiness. Yet things aren’t so simple underneath its glittery crunch, where a tug-of-war is waged between nostalgia and futurism. If the pounding ivories and greasy boogie long for the ’50s, then the slashing chords and razor-sharp execution lunge toward the punk revolution that’s still a few years out. This tension, acting like a slingshot, shoots the penultimate song from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars clear out of the march of history and into that archetypal realm commonly referred to as rock music that’s so badass it’s timeless. Here are five facts to help you better appreciate Bowie’s hardest rocker.Science fiction and rock ’n’ roll.“Suffragette City,” like the rest of Ziggy Stardust, is inspired by Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. (Director Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation arrived during the album’s making.) Bowie certainly wasn’t the first rocker to embrace sci-fi (see producer Joe Meek or Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd), yet he clearly was ahead of the curve by soaking up Burgess’ uniquely dystopian vision. It’s a quality that would seep not just into punk and post-punk, but also industrial and even techno in the following decades.Mick Ronson’s killer guitar.Perhaps no early Bowie track better displays his love of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground; it all begins with brilliant guitarist Mick Ronson’s opening riff, roaring and clawing like a famished tiger. It’s an aesthetic Bowie would bring with him when he mixed Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 landmark Raw Power, a record that helped kickstart punk and hardcore.Sexuality and gender.The live version took on a life of its own, generally becoming faster and more sneering. It also adopted a performative edge, as Bowie, during concerts, often would drop to his knees and pretend to suck on Ronson’s guitar. When a photograph of this wonderfully flamboyant exhibitionism made it into Melody Maker in 1972, it helped cement glam rock’s reputation as a movement steeped in transgression and decadence.Those blaring horns aren’t really horns.It may sound like horns during the cut’s first half when they fall somewhere between vintage Memphis R&B and The Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle.” But the sound reveals its source-—an ARP 2600 synthesizer—during the static-caked surge that ripples across the final 60 seconds. You can be sure that bands like Pere Ubu, The Stranglers, Tubeway Army, The Twinkeyz, and any other punk(ish) band experimenting with the cyborg impulse were taking notes.Film and television legacy.As with many other Bowie tunes, “Suffragette City” has racked up several IMDb credits, including Gilmore Girls, Vinyl, and Californication. The most telling, however, is 2005’s Lords of Dogtown, a period piece chronicling the Venice Beach teenagers who revolutionized skateboarding in the mid-’70s. The fact that these early shredders jammed Bowie along with The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Deep Purple stands as a testament to the artist’s lofty stature not just among punks and alternative kids, but longhaired surfers and heshers as well. There’s no messing with David Bowie.
There’s something uniquely satisfying and majestically meta about a hard rock classic whose core subject is the transformative power of rocking out. An unbeatable demonstration of Foreigner’s brand of no-apologies and no-holds-barred AOR, “Juke Box Hero” demonstrates that fact with all the cocksure swagger you could possibly demand.Over a stark, almost metronomic beat and a burbling, ominous synthesizer, frontman Lou Gramm devotes the first verse to a cinematic vignette about a downcast dude who “couldn’t get a ticket” to “the sold-out show” and now finds himself stuck in the rain. Nonetheless he gets all he needs by putting his ear to the wall and hearing the one guitar that “just blew him away.” As the tension rises through the second verse, he arms himself with the proverbial “beat-up six-string” and gets down to business. And you can tell how good all that rocking makes him feel because the song makes damn sure you feel it, too, especially when a series of windmill-ready riffs leads into a chorus that seems scientifically engineered to elicit fist-pumping, hard-strutting and anything else you need to do to cope with the surge of testosterone in your bloodstream. Formed in 1976 in New York by former Spooky Tooth and Leslie West Band sideman Mick Jones and King Crimson co-founder Ian McDonald with a cluster of burly Americans like Gramm, Foreigner undoubtedly knew they were never going to be cool. After all, they emerged as unrepentantly old-school rockers at a time when disco still ruled the airwaves and the critical establishment was far more interested in punk and new wave. There was little respect afforded to any band doing – as Jones later admitted – “the exact opposite.” Of course, that hardly meant there wasn’t an audience for their sound, which – thanks to the match of Gramm’s muscular vocal style and Jones’ flair for crunchy riffs and sticky hooks – was a big cut above most of the AOR that would become predominant on American radio through the ‘80s. On early hits like “Feels Like the First Time” and “Hot Blooded,” Foreigner managed to be beefy without being bombastic and dramatic without being overblown. They’d fine-tune the formula even further while somehow doubling its force when they joined forces with the era’s two most innovative rock producers: Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars) for 1979’s Head Games and then Robert John “Mutt” Lange (AC/DC, Def Leppard) for 4.Alas, in the wake of the success of the globe-conquering but hardly strut-worthy power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the alliance between Gramm and Jones splintered. Though they would periodically re-team over the ensuing decades as Jones worked hard to maintain Foreigner’s health as a reliably rockin’ staple of the amphitheatre, county-fair and casino circuits, neither man would reach the heights they did in Foreigner’s ‘80s golden age. That said, Gramm did unleash one final iconic burst of AOR glory in 1987’s “Midnight Blue,” a pretty much perfect solo hit that may be the mightiest ever example of jukebox heroism. With all that in mind, we present this celebration of the Foreigner Strut, full of all the hits and deep cuts that you need for the ‘80s-movie training montage that may already be running in your mind.
Two Brits and an American met in New York City in 1976. Nope, it’s not the setup for a joke, rather, it was the beginning of a band—Foreigner—who, thanks to more than a dozen indelible hits, became one of the most enduring lineups in rock history. Foreigner has stayed the course for more than 40 years, thanks to a mix of working-class anthems and tender but never wimpy ballads including the mega-hit “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The melding of the musical “foreigners” –the original lineup of Brits (Mick Jones, Ian McDonald and Dennis Elliott) and Americans (Lou Gramm, Al Greenwood and Ed Gagliardi)—would prove to be one of the most fruitful musical cross-cultural collaborations ever. Foreigner’s songs provide the soundtrack to many of life’s memorable moments, from the lustful (“Hot Blooded”) to the aspirational, the latter exemplified in the powerful 1981 hit “Jukebox Hero.” The song tells a lyrical story wherein our young hero, “standing in the rain … couldn’t get a ticket to a sold-out show.” But the behemoth rock from inside the arena inspires the rock fan to buy a beat-up second-hand guitar to create his own music to inspire the masses. And boy, did the masses relate to “Juke Box Hero,” its four minutes and twenty seconds of rock goodness downloaded more than a million times, the iconic song finding its way into film, TV, video games--and hearts--the world over. Below we’ll break out the track’s lasting impact, from appearances in skatingboarding video to the song’s lasting impact on the band and its fan.Jukebox Hero and the Skateboard KingAs Foreigner spent years selling out stadiums and topping charts the world over, internationally known snowboarder Shaun White likewise was shooting (skating/boarding!) to the top of his profession. So it made perfect sense that in his 2004 documentary The White Album, “Juke Box Hero” would be part of the soundtrack, along with other classic high-energy/inspiring rock songs. If the legendary “Flying Tomato” skates/snowboards to the tune, that’s a darned good testament to the song’s power.The Concert StapleYou’ll never see a Foreigner concert where “Juke Box Hero” is not played. Neither the audience nor the band would allow it. It’s as crucial a part of the lineup’s legacy as “Freebird” is to Skynyrd or “Hotel California” is to the Eagles. And, in the tradition of saving the best for last, “Juke Box Hero” is nearly always the last song in the set, the eagerly anticipated sing-along capper to a night of enduring radio hits. From Glee to Soul AsylumForeigner may be arena rock superstars, but proof that huge mainstream success trickles down to alternative rock—and other genres—is in the varied artists who have tackled “Juke Box Hero.” It’s been covered by no less alt-rock band than Soul Asylum (2006), while in 2012, the buoyant cast of TV’s hit show, Glee, (Season 4) reinterpreted the song, the cast’s dramatic take on the tune bringing “Juke Box Hero” to a new generation of fans. The band themselves even recorded an Unplugged—and a “nearly unplugged!” version, offering a different sense of dynamics to the classic take. And yes, there’s more than one live version, including a 15-plus minute mash-up with Led Zeppelin that’s titled “Juke Box Hero / Whole Lotta Love.” And let’s not get started on all the karaoke permutations! Foreigner and the Great White WayThe apogee of live theatre is Broadway, and Foreigner is aiming for the Great White Way in a big way. After a 2018 debut in Canada, Jukebox Hero: The Musical is aiming to be Broadway bound. The stage show features 16 of the bands Top 30 hits, including, duh, “Juke Box Hero.” As Foreigner founding member and lead guitarist Mick Jones said: "In an era in which there have been a lot of what they call ‘jukebox musicals,’ I figured, well, Id like to squeeze ours in there and make it the musical of all musicals.” The most unlikely version of the tune hit in 2012, in the big-screen version of the Broadway hit musical Rock of Ages. No less acting/comedic talents than Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin sang “Juke Box Hero” in a medley with Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll,” another jukebox-themed chart-topper. The soundtrack debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Soundtracks chart, providing the unstoppable tune with yet another cultural touchstone.
This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.A revolution in music arrived in April of 1976. And like all good revolutions should, this one began with bongos. The extended percussion break was just one exciting element of the remix -- or “disco blending,” as the credits put it -- of Double Exposure’s “Ten Per Cent,” the handiwork of DJ Walter Gibbons and engineer Bob Blank and the first-ever commercially available 12-inch disco single. When the sales for this seven-minute masterpiece outstripped those of the regular 45 by two to one, the music business swiftly realized the new format’s potential.It’s no accident it was an independent record company, Salsoul, that first gave record buyers a chance to experience the musical mutations that DJs like Gibbons and Larry Levan were concocting in such clubs as the Paradise Garage and Le Jardin. Unencumbered by the girth of the major record companies, the indies had the agility and street-smarts to fully capitalize on the phenomenon, which began in the early ‘70s in Fire Island’s hotspots and David Mancuso’s Loft and pretty much swallowed America whole during Saturday Night Fever mania at the end of ‘77.By then, most majors had their own disco departments eagerly churning out 12-inches, sometimes by rock acts like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and pretty much anyone else who wanted to get a song on the radio or in the clubs. But the big gears it took to move units for them meant that disco’s greatest innovations were by smaller operators. They didn’t mind the very limited lifespans for fleeting dancefloor faves and hastily assembled, studio-only acts, which didn’t suit majors more interested in the bigger profits that came with album sales and touring artists.This action was its most feverish in New York, disco’s birthplace and epicenter, where companies like Salsoul, Prelude and West End all fought hard for disco dominance. Labels based in other parts of the country -- like Casablanca in L.A. and TK in Florida – got their pieces of the action, too. By staying on top of the latest advances of DJs and the changing tastes of dancers, these labels were able to maintain a steady stream of 12-inch magnificence. And that lasted well after the majors abandoned the dance-music marketplace at the end of the decade, chased away by the disco backlash. There was also such a glut of product, many marvels only got a fraction of the exposure they deserved, which is why these tracks are so coveted by collectors and compilers today.The long-unheard mixes collected on For Discos Only: Indie Dance Music From Fantasy & Vanguard Records: 1976-1981 demonstrates how much incredible music was out there, and how little disco’s much-publicized death impaired the scenes in New York and the West Coast. The enterprising ways of many key indie labels had everything to do with that. Like Salsoul (which began by licensing a chunk of CBS’ Latin music catalog), Fantasy and Vanguard both started with very different kinds of music on their rosters than disco. Fantasy was founded in San Francisco in 1949 as a home for jazz great Dave Brubeck before hitting big with the Creedence Clearwater Revival. Founded in N.Y.C. the following year, Vanguard released many of the most iconic folk and blues recordings of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Listen closely and you can sometimes discern traces of those histories in the labels’ disco-era output, whether it’s in the irresistibly smooth jazz-funk the Blackbyrds cut for Fantasy or the impeccably performed tracks by the Players Association, which got its start when drummer/arranger Chris Hills and producer Danny Weiss began enlisting some of New York’s best session musicians to record covers of smashes like “Love Hangover” for Vanguard.But there are flashes of the future too, especially once Harvey Fuqua – a former Motown producer behind Fantasy/Honey, an Oakland-based disco imprint for the label – united his protégé Sylvester with young electronics whiz Patrick Cowley. With their synth-heavy, ultra-orgasmic sound, Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” spawned their own subgenre: Hi-NRG. Fantasy/Honey’s slate also included similarly exhilarating singles by Two Tons of Fun, two back-up singers for Sylvester – Izora Armstead and Martha Wash – who’d get a lot more famous when they changed their name to the Weather Girls.Meanwhile back in New York, Vanguard became a haven for some of the city’s most skilled disco purveyors. Rainbow Brown was the brainchild of Patrick Adams, a producer and arranger responsible for killer cuts for Salsoul and Prelude. A studio project modeled after Chic and Adams’ Musique by former Weather Report drummer Alphonse Mouzon, Poussez! was more sophisticated than its salacious-sounding name would suggest (but then it would have to be).It’s a testament to the era’s abundance of creativity that so much of this music has been little heard -- especially in their “disco-blended” incarnations -- since they first appeared. To mark the release of For Discos Only, here’s a playlist that relights the fuse for that original indie disco explosion.
Subscribe to Bill Brewsters Spotify playlist of the best San Francisco disco tracks here. Or, better yet, check out the full YT playlists here, which includes tracks not available on Spotify.It’s not surprising that San Francisco’s disco heyday has become a source of fascination for subsequent generations. Like New York’s undergrounds clubs of the ‘70s and ‘80s, San Francisco’s scene offered LGBTQ people, straight women, bohemians, racial minorities, and other folks facing discrimination a community that provided a safe space and a chunk of freedom. The music reflected the audience’s diversity, and you can hear that on For Discos Only, a compilation that features a cross-section of New York and SF disco from that era. But the SF dance scene didn’t suddenly materialize the night its most famous star and international LGBTQ icon Sylvester first walked on stage in a fabulous thrift-store gown, and it wasn’t principally about platform shoes, poppers, or any other superficial signifiers that would ultimately characterize it. The scene grew out of a culmination of sociological, musical, political, and economic factors rooted in related liberation movements of the ‘60s. San Francisco represented a mecca that welcomed all the beautiful freaks Middle America tried to flush out, and the city’s disco scene was first and foremost about sexual, communal, and spiritual love.If there was a single San Francisco birthplace for that kind of amorphous, amorous experience, it has to be the Stud, which still exists today. Originally situated on Folsom Street, this funky 1966-originated dance bar was one of several South of Market clubs that followed the Tool Box, an even earlier leather bar, to court a new kind of gay man who flouted stereotypes. Stud patrons were largely hippies who lived in communes, took drugs, preached revolution, and created what we now consider cultural institutions like the bygone Cockettes and the ongoing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – radical drag troupes that celebrate gay liberation, community service, and pan-gender outrage as elements of the same countercultural movement. Even Janis Joplin hung out at the Stud.This was when SOMA, the Tenderloin, and Polk Gulch neighborhoods showcased much of SF’s queer nightlife. The Castro had just started absorbing a gay crowd during 1967’s Summer of Love when thousands of kids from all over the US descended on the Haight. In the early ‘70s, a wave of Castro bars and clubs opened. Among these was the Pendulum, which welcomed a black clientele, and Toad Hall, which signified the earliest transition from dance bars to disco by becoming one of the first spaces to shun jukeboxes in favor of pre-recorded tapes featuring segued, continuous music.Opening downtown in 1972, The City offered another evolutionary step with a sizable dancefloor and cabaret where Sylvester performed. Three other SF disco pioneers worked there – DJs John Hedges and Marty Blecman, as well as its lighting man Patrick Cowley, who’d studied electronic music, composed gay porn soundtracks, and recorded hypnotic mixes of disco hits augmented by his own synthesizer parts. Boosted immeasurably by Cowley’s electronic contributions to his records and live band, Sylvester made the leap into the pop Top 40 with “Dance (Disco Heat),” here included on For Discos Only in its churchy 12-inch mix. Sylvester’s success meant that Fantasy – a Berkeley-based label previously known for jazz and Creedence Clearwater Revival – embraced disco in a big way, with several releases featuring Cowley, Sylvester, or his backing vocalists Two Tons o’ Fun in subtle and sometimes overt ways. Listen closely and you can hear Two Tons’ Izora Rhodes growling through the climax of Paradise Express’s “Dance,” or Cowley’s synth arpeggios percolating through Fever’s heated “Beat of the Night.” Around this time, SF’s club scene exploded with hugely popular dance venues like the End Up, the I-Beam, and arguably the most beloved in the city’s history, the Trocadero Transfer, where DJ Bobby Viteritti’s frenzied, Pan-like mixing style inspired a devotion exceeded only by New York’s Paradise Garage and its legendary DJ Larry Levan, who championed many of the Vanguard grooves also found on For Discos Only.When disco was declared dead in the early ‘80s mainstream, Cowley started his own gay-targeted, SF-based label Megatone, which began releasing Sylvester’s subsequent, defiantly queer output. Shortly thereafter, Cowley died in 1982 of a mysterious disease then not even known as AIDS. Consequently run by Hedges and Blecman, Megatone along with other local indies like Moby Dick carried the torch with hi-NRG club tracks until Sylvester, Blecman, countless other DJs, and much of SF’s original disco revelers also perished in the plague.The next dancers embraced house music and other harder sounds that reflected their experience. But as AIDS subsided when treatment and prevention methods improved, yet another generation came of age, one curious about the city’s illustrious nightlife past. Homegrown DJ collectives like Go Bang! and Honey Sound System have, in recent years, helped revive vintage SF disco; the latter’s Dark Entries label even issued Cowley’s porn soundtracks and other previously unreleased experimental work. The technology that currently defines San Francisco may have changed the cultural landscape of the city, but the sounds and spirits of love and liberation captured in For Discos Only remain a gateway not to paradise lost, but to hard-won ecstasies of the past, preserved for the present and future alike.This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.
This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.Sylvester James Jr, better known simply as Sylvester, was one of the boldest and most memorable figures to emerge out of the late ‘70s disco scene. His signature song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," remains not just one of the most recognizable songs of the era but possibly the most exhilarating, too. Sylvester was more than just a hitmaker -- he was an icon for both the LGBTQ community and the San Francisco dance music scene. His life is the stuff of legend. During his far-too-few 41 years on the planet, the distinction between factual incidents, apocryphal stories, and fantabulous fabrications is often difficult to discern -- and where’s the fun in trying to do that, anyway?My favourite of these legends reflects the ongoing inability of the music industry of the ‘70s and ’80s to figure out what to do with a natural-born star with such a singular sensibility. Frustrated by one of these record companies’ efforts to tone him down and repackage him as a Teddy Pendergrass-type – whose husky voice Sylvester could actually emulate when not doing his trademark falsetto – our hero had no recourse but to burst into the president’s office while wearing a blond wig and negligee and exclaim, “This is my image and I’m not changing it!” Gestures of defiance don’t come much fiercer than that.Regardless of whether it actually went down like that, the story is in keeping with the unapologetically lusty bravado that Sylvester brought to many classics of disco’s golden age. The recent arrival of For Discos Only: Indie Dance Music From Fantasy & Vanguard Records -- a compilation featuring rare versions of many of these tracks, including “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “Over and Over” -- is one of many recent signs that Sylvester continues to loom large. Another is the near-weekly namechecking he receives on RuPaul’s Drag Race, whose host was inspired by the bravery and brazenness Sylvester displayed in an era that was far more closeted than its hedonistic reputation may suggest. Though producer Jacques Morali populated the Village People with symbolic representations of members of New York’s gay subculture and initially marketed the group to LGBTQ audiences, the record company and performers (all but two of whom were straight) still played coy with mainstream listeners about the true inspiration of songs like “Y.M.C.A.” Openly gay performers – like Tony Washington of the Motown act Dynamic Superiors or the utterly singular Klaus Nomi – remained surprisingly rare.Of course, things were different in San Francisco, disco’s West Coast epicenter. Later memorialized by writers like Armistead Maupin, the city’s clubland was a far wilder and bolder place than even New York’s. The scene’s music makers had no choice but to keep pace. A former songwriter and producer at Motown, Harvey Fuqua showed a keener understanding of Sylvester’s potential than most of his music-biz peers would when he signed the singer -- who’d been a member of the gender-bending avant-garde theatre troupe The Cockettes – to his imprint on Fantasy. He also made a deal with Sylvester’s backup singers, a duo named Two Tons Of Fun who’d have their greatest success as the Weather Girls with “It’s Raining Men”.But Fuqua’s smartest move was teaming Sylvester with Patrick Cowley, a San Francisco synthesizer boffin with a knack for increasing the intensity of the kind of sultry, machine-made grooves that Giorgio Moroder had first fashioned for Donna Summer. When Sylvester’s gospel-influenced yet unabashedly carnal vocals topped Cowley’s sleek synthesizer throb on hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, the results were so extraordinary, they birthed their own subgenre: hi-NRG.At the height of his success at the end of the ‘70s, Sylvester was a sensation among gay and mainstream audiences alike. But like many artists of the era, he struggled to find a new direction when the disco backlash caused record companies to be more skittish about the kind of flamboyance that had been de rigueur just a few years before. More gospel and soul influences came to the fore on Sylvester’s final albums for Fantasy and subsequent recordings. He also showed off other aspects of his voice, his natural baritone having been long obscured by his show-stopping falsetto.By then, the gay community that had made him a star had begun to suffer the ravages of the AIDS plague. After one final triumph with the singer on 1982’s exhilarating “Do You Wanna Funk,” Cowley became an early casualty. AIDS would also claim Sylvester in 1988, though he defied another taboo by going public about his condition in an interview published before his death in the Los Angeles Times. “It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” said the singer. “The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when weve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”The songs Sylvester was working on at the time of his death were posthumously released on an album named Immortal. Given the long shadow that his music and style cast on the present, the title seems like more than the usual hyperbole, and the cover photo of him in flaming orange hair and a pair of black heels captures his timeless spirit. Here’s a playlist of Sylvester at his finest.
Progressive metal first emerged in the late ’80s, a whirlwind of ambitious themes, sprawling concepts, aggressive precision, ambitious arrangements, off-kilter time signatures and wild displays of chops. Bands like Queensrÿche and Fates Warning would have varying intensity of the spotlight, but nothing matched the commercial and critical success of Tool, the uncompromising band that released the biggest rock record of 2019, the 86-minute Fear Inoculum.However, the seeds of lofty, lateral-minded metal churn go back to the ’60s and ’70s. Pioneering prog artists (and Tool influences) King Crimson and Pink Floyd would often venture into the heavy and strange. Lesser-known bands such as Britain’s Atomic Rooster, Germany’s Lucifer’s Friend, and Los Angeles’ Captain Beyond sunk deep into proto-metal moods. Jazz artists like Tony Williams, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and ’70s-era Miles Davis mixed bonkers playing with abrasive rock energy. French “zeuhl” bands like Magma and Belgian “rock in opposition” band Univers Zero played with time signatures in disorienting ways. Here are some bands that paved the way for prog-metal’s lofty ideas.Photo Credit: Travis Shinn
Around the 2007 release of Wilco’s sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky, Jeff Tweedy talked a lot about classic rock. Sky Blue Sky eschewed much of the experimentation that had characterized the album’s immediate predecessors (2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born), favoring a more straightforward musical and lyrical style. In several interviews, Tweedy insisted that he preferred not to give too much credence to the “alternative country” and “experimental” labels that had followed him since his earliest days as a founding member of Uncle Tupelo. Instead, Tweedy insisted, Wilco should be known as a rock ‘n’ roll band.For a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Tweedy acknowledged the influence that 1970s rock had on Sky Blue Sky, listing his five favorite albums from that era. The first five songs on this playlist are sourced from that article, wherein Tweedy confesses he “often tries to emulate” Nick Drake’s picking style and claims The Clash’s “Train In Vain” “was huge” for him growing up. Considering Wilco’s sound, those choices—as well as the inclusion of Dylan and Wings—make sense. The outlier in his list is Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” which Tweedy calls “a great pop record.” However, despite all the talk of experimentation surrounding Wilco, Tweedy has always known how to make catchy music.The remaining tracks on the playlist were added based on covers Tweedy has done, both live and on record, with Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. A version of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” appears on Uncle Tupelo’s swan song Anodyne*, and a cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” appears on the 2003 reissue of that album. Wilco has frequently covered Bill Fay** and Big Star, including the latter’s “In The Street” (a.k.a. The theme song to That ‘70s Show). During an all-covers set at 2013’s Solid Sound Festival, Wilco played the classic songs by The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, and Television that are featured here.Sticklers may note that The Band’s “The Weight” was technically released in 1968. However, this version with The Staples Singers was recorded at the group’s 1976 farewell concert and released two years later as part of the Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz. Tweedy, who has collaborated with Mavis Staples throughout the years, joined an ensemble of musical greats—including Nick Lowe, whose “Peace, Love, and Understanding” Wilco covered for Spotify’s Singles Series—to perform a rendition of “The Weight” in 2014 in honor of Staples’ 75th birthday.Tweedy is gearing up for the June 2017 release of Together at Last, which features acoustic versions of songs by various bands throughout his illustrious career. By playing in a stripped down form, devoid of any attempts at musical experimentation, Tweedy will likely reinforce just how influential this decade of classic rock was on the formation of his own, unique sound.*This song isn’t on Spotify, and was replaced with Sahm’s “Don’t Turn Around,” from his 1973 album Doug Sahm and His Band.**Tweedy typically covers Bill Fay’s “Be Not So Fearful,” which isn’t on Spotify, so I’ve replaced it with Fay’s cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.,” which, of course, was not released in the ‘70s.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.