Monday, October 18, 2010


Written by Sombra Blanca

Time Life’s Soul Train set worth the trip.

The comparisons to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand are inevitable. But Don Cornelius, the “conductor” of Soul Train, long surpassed his cracker counterpart, creating a showcase for black entertainers that would become the longest-running, first-run syndicated program in television history.

With more than 1,100 episodes between 1971 and 2006, where does one start to dig in and dig the sights and sounds of Soul Train? Time Life has done some of the work for you with an eight-volume best of set that is labeled “the hippest trip in America.” Or, as the show’s infamous animated opening declares, “60 non-stop minutes across the tracks of your mind into the exciting world of soul.”

Exciting, indeed, and the curators put together a well-rounded selection for Volume 1 (the only one viewed so far by this author, although I’m anxious to delve into the rest).

The best place to start with the first volume is the interview with the man himself, Mr. Cornelius, in the bonus features of the first of three discs. Cornelius tells of how he wanted to get away from insurance sales and the news business and work his way into music, and he even explains how the “train” concept came about. It’s a bit hard to believe his claim Soul Train did not emulate American Bandstand, but Cornelius settles the matter by contradicting himself soon after.

The interviews with Smokey Robinson, Jody Watley, Brian McKnight and others are pretty standard “I grew up on it, it paved the way for black entertainers, it was great” fare. The reason why Soul Train was such a success is the music, and Volumes 1-3 deliver some great, though occasionally fake, performances from shows between 1972 and 1991.

Personally, I thought the Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, and Soul Brother #1, James Brown, were the standouts. Ernie Isley has some wonderful guitar moments, even though his getup is stolen from Hendrix. (Ironic, since Hendrix got his start with the Isleys.) There’s also great call-and-response with Sly and the Godfather. Mr. Barry White – complete with the full Love Unlimited Orchestra – and Bill Withers also put in some strong performances that can’t be seen elsewhere.

All of the above stand out because they were actually live. For reasons that aren’t really explained, some of the performances had to be lip-synched, which is unfortunate. The result is studio versions of “Superfly” with Curtis Mayfield pretending, and three tracks from Marvin Gaye. At least Gaye still engaged the crowd, and manages to call out Cornelius on the fakery.

Also fun to see is the six-year difference between an Afro-Aretha Franklin in 1973, belting out the extra funky “Rock Steady,” and the toned-down Disco Aretha from ’79. But it the latter version, and her collaboration with Smokey Robinson, is one of the moments that make this best-of collection worth watching.

Aside from the musicians, there is, of course, the Soul Train dancers. If Time Life edited Soul Train shows from ’71 to 1976, with just the dancers, I’d be first in line. Beautiful afros and other natural hair styles, and the fashion is, to use a back-in-the-day term, really together. The dancers get just enough attention to round out the shows, including the occasional, and now famous, Soul Train line where couples dance down the human gauntlet to strut their moves and their threads. Their Q and A sessions with the musicians gives the young crowd a chance to ask questions Cornelius doesn’t try, such as why James Brown voted for Nixon and Marvin Gaye’s hobbies away from music. Thrown in for good measure in this collection are commercials from long-time sponsors Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen, which aren’t quite as funny as the Coming to America Soul Glo spot, but a nice piece of nostalgia nonetheless.

All in all, if you are a fan of soul, R&B and funk music, Time Life and Don Cornelius have put together a strong package important for music, history and television buffs. To paraphrase Mr. Cornelius’ signoff, “You can bet your last money it’s a stone gas.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Second Edition) by Steven Blush

Written By Dos Cervezas

The 2001 publication of American Hardcore: A Tribal History was a welcome event for aged former punks like myself. Prior to its appearance, the prospect of an in-depth analysis of the hardcore (HC) punk world seemed remote at best. HC was a culture that existed well below the radar of most of Americans. If the average Joe knew anything about the scene at all, it was likely the “punk rock riot” stories the press breathlessly reported.

The significance, and ongoing influence of HC on the culture at large, had never been articulated as well as it was in American Hardcore. Author Steven Blush’s experiences as a HC promoter in Washington D.C. (or HarDCore) proved invaluable to the writing. Not only did Blush witness key events first-hand, he met practically everyone who was involved in the scene. American Hardcore was recognized as the definitive word on HC, and it seemed likely to hold that position for some time to come.

With the just-published second edition of American Hardcore, Blush has delivered a book that is superior to the first in nearly every way. All of the chapters have been updated, and a new one titled “Destroy Babylon” has been added. Blush conducted over twenty-five fresh interviews, has included loads of previously unseen artwork, drafted two hundred band bios, and dramatically increased the discography section. The bottom line? The original 328 pages have grown to 408, and most of the text has been substantially rewritten.

For those who like to argue, Blush offers plenty of opportunities. Not in the facts department, the man clearly knows his stuff when it comes to basics like band names, members, and gigs. But when it comes time for a critical appraisal of the music, he loses it. Like assholes, everybody has an opinion. A great many of Blush’s seem to come straight out of the Politically Correct Punk Rock Bible. I would wager that every reader will find something they disagree with in here. What’s more, I have a sneaking suspicion that is exactly what the author’s intentions were.

Still, I had to wonder sometimes if Blush liked any of the bands at all. For starters, everyone who “went metal” in the mid-eighties are dismissed as sell outs, and will forever suck. Groups who signed with major labels, like Husker Du and The Replacements, are obviously worthless. And in regards to the few remaining bands who pass muster, most were never worth a damn in the first place it seems.

This crotchety old punk rocker is like that geezer Andy Rooney with a Mohawk. With the glory days of HC becoming an ever distant memory, maybe 60 Minutes will do a feature. If so, the second edition of American Hardcore is the only reference they would need. It is the definitive word on HC, and should remain so for quite a while. Or at least until Blush decides to do another update.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Various Artists - We Wish You A Metal Xmas & A Headbanging New Year

Written by Dos Cervezas

Take a good look at Santa Claus and you will see his dirty little secret. The dude is an old-school metal head. Just like Robert Plant, he’s trying to hide it, but all the tell-tale signs are there. Long white hair? Check. Monsterous ZZ Top-style beard? Yup. Beer gut? You betcha. And most tellingly of all, is he wearing the exact same clothes as the last time you saw him? Jackpot! Why it took the metal community so long to recognize a fellow traveler is beyond me, but the situation has been rectified with the new We Wish You A Metal Xmas & A Headbanging New Year collection.

This two-disc, 16-song collection of Christmas classics gone metal is about as various as various-artist compilations get. Rather than choosing a bunch of different bands to submit their versions of the tunes, the producers took things a step further. With one exception, none of the line-ups on this set have ever previously recorded together. You may find that a couple of the individual musicians have played together before, but not the group as a whole.

In most cases, it is the signature vocals that define each cut. There is no mistaking Lemmy’s sandpaper growl on “Run Rudolph Run,” for example. And Chuck Billy from Testament shreds his vocal cords in trademark thrash style during the aptly chosen “Silent Night.” Even Hard-Hearted Alice (Cooper) joins the fun with “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”

I was pretty happy to discover that the late, and truly great Ronnie James Dio was included. On “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,“ we not only get Dio, but the guitar of Tony Iommi as well. The group is rounded out with a couple of old friends and former Dio bandmembers, Rudy Sarzo on bass, and Simon Wright on the drums. The presence of Dio and Iommi is too powerful to sound like anything other than Heaven And Hell, making it something of an exception to the rule. For me, this track alone makes the collection a must.

There are plenty of other highlights as well. Another memorable grouping goes the classic power-trio route. On the aforementioned “Run Rudolph Run” Lemmy is joined by ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on guitar, along with the guy who used to drum for Nirvana, Dave Grohl. Probably the funniest (or saddest) combination finds former Ratt-man Steven Pearcy teamed with professional Sunset Strip gargoyle Tracii Guns on “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”

While there are plenty of egg-nog-sipping Christmas songs present, there is only one headbanging New Year’s one. But it is a great choice, and could be set on auto-repeat for hours if need be. We’re talking about the one and only Girlschool, who lay into “Auld Lang Syne” with a vengeance.

The executive producer is Wendy Dio, and there is information in the liner notes about the “Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund.” It does not say whether the proceeds of this collection will go to the fund or not, but my guess is that at least some of them will.

Turn the volume up to eleven for We Wish You A Metal Xmas’ screaming guitars and louder-than-God vocals. That too old to rock ’n roll, too young to die Santa dude will appreciate it, even if your neighbors won’t.