Friday, June 26, 2020

The Exciters-Caviar and Chitlins

While the records of the Exciters continue to reign supreme in England’s Northern Soul scene, the Jamaica Queens-based quartet is reduced in their native country to one-hit wonder status and soundtrack appearances.  Pop music doesn’t get much more catchy and dynamic than their 1963 #4 smash hit “Tell Him” featuring the commanding and consummate voice of Brenda Reid. Her voice seemingly leaps off the 45 issued by United Artists.  The dashing song, written by Bert Berns, is one of the highest peaks of the Girl Group era and borders on punk rock with its propulsive drive.  Follow-ups like “He’s Got the Power” bubbled under the Top 40, but lack of chart action is by no way indicative of the quality of their enduring songs. They went on to open for the Beatles in 1964 and recorded for Roulette, Bang and Shout Records before landing on RCA Records and working with producer Larry Banks in 1969. With soul going into every direction at that time, I was curious about the approach and orientation of this record found behind an appealing front cover. “Turn Me On” and “I Don't Have To Worry (No More)” are immediately evocative of mid-sixties soul pop in their arrangements and provide a sense of continuity with their older material. Surprisingly, a few of their songs actually seem a few months to a few years ahead of their time as they are on the cusp of what would be big once the ‘60s flipped over to the ‘70s. For instance, “Fight that Feelin’” seems to prefigure 1972’s chartbuster and current TV commercial warhorse “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers, while the fuzz-driven “You Don't Know What You're Missing ('Til It's Gone)” has a stutter and swing similar to what would later appear in “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight. “Always” frequently gets maligned as being too Middle of the Road and supper club schmaltzy, but its straightforward melodic beauty works for me and would sound just right flowing effortlessly along with “Precious and Few” by Climax and Heatwave’s “Always and Forever.” The highlight of the album is the kinetic “Movin’ Too Slow” as it works both as a dance floor filler and as an early anthem of women's empowerment. Granted, there are some lackluster songs (e.g., the two numbers where Herb Rooney takes lead vocals) which results in the album being uneven. However, there is enough surging energy delivered with a sense of finesse to make Caviar and Chitlins well worth exploring.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Phil and the Frantics-Frantically Yours


The Nuggets compilations have featured a preponderance of bands from California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Washington and rightly so as it comes down to largely a numbers game based on population and socio-economics in the mid-sixties. Breaking Nuggets down by state also reminds me that there has never been an appearance of an Arizona group on one of the many iterations of this series. However, the case could’ve been made for the inclusion of the Grodes or the Dearly Beloved from Tucson or Phoenix’s Phil & the Frantics. In the '80s, Greg Shaw astutely amassed these mid-sixties recordings and brought this previously deeply buried Arizona music history to the surface from the Bomp!/Voxx Records offices in Burbank, CA. Shaw proceeded to introduce these regional Arizona rock 'n' roll acts to a worldwide audience by including a few tracks on his Pebbles compilation series and even giving the Grodes, the Dearly Beloved and Phil & Frantics the full album anthology treatment in the mid-'80s as part of his Rough Diamonds:The History Of Garage Band Music series.

The Sound
They could be as rousing, feral and stomping as any Pacific Northwest armory band and also etch somber, reflective, but still resolute ballads that were usually the domain of earnest beat combos who operated under the dismal and overcast skies of New England. While the mid-sixties were a time of vast musical possibilities, it is still confounding that the Zombies would cast the largest shadow on a band from Valley of the Sun. The remastering of Frantically Yours presents a bold and upfront sound with the pronounced Vox Continental keyboards rightfully placed on the forefront. The keys played by Rick Rose in the original line-up of the Frantics and Ted Harpchek in the second version of the band provide the overall characteristic of their sound while casting a moody, flickering and otherworldly atmosphere. Phil Kelsey’s idiosyncratic voice is also a major distinguishing factor. While I have a hard time placing it somewhere on the nasally continuum between Gerry Marsden of Gerry and Pacemakers and Sammy Davis Jr., it’s well suited and fittingly works in the context of their layered sound. The band was truly at a transitional phase of the mid-sixties combining the elements/sounds of the early sixties while looking around the corner to the sounds of things to come-sometimes within the space of the song itself. The closest contemporaneous comparisons would be some sort of combination of the Gestures, Butch Engle and the Styx and with an undercurrent of the Summer Sounds if we wish to go truly obscure. 

The Songs
“Theme,” “I Must Run,” “Pain,” “Where Am I Running To,” and “I’ll Do It Again” all have an entrancing, transcendent and an almost liturgical quality to them. “Theme,” the backing track to “Where Am I Running To” is top notch with its descending melody, echoing drums, and ringing guitars recorded at the cavernous sounding Audio Recorders of Arizona. Their immortal "I Must Run” is a study in contrasts being in minor key, with lamenting poetic lyrics (written by Phil Kelsey and Jim Musil) that transforms the heartbreak into a crescendoing chorus before a modulation that elevates the profound song to another better realm. In addition, the organ break rates right up with the solo in “Kind of a Drag” by the Buckinghams in the pantheon of ‘60s roller rink greatness. “Pain” is their sideways approximation of “It’s Only Love” by the Beatles and comes close to the peak glory of “I Must Run” and subsequently would go on to directly inspire Jeff Conolly’s Lyres who covered it on their 1993 Happy Now...album. With guitar accents that anticipate Jefferson Airplane’s “Today” by over a year, “Till You Get What You Want” also incorporates an incessant and hypnotic Vox Continental keyboard riff that would later become the bedrock sound of ? and the Mysterians. There is also a clear emulation of Dave Clark Five’s Mike Smith vocals in Phil’s tone and phrasing.

1985-Rough Diamonds: The History Of Garage Band Music-Voxx Records
On 1985’s Rough Diamonds album, Greg Shaw devoted the majority of side 1 to their R&B-infused rock & roll which made them a top live draw.  Frantically Yours places these sides right in the heart of the collection and this positioning works in contrast to their more recognized British Invasion-inspired songs that start the collection in mono and later reappear in stereo to conclude the disc.  My particular favorite from the early era is their original “Give Up” as it’s sort of their slanted take on Len Berry’s “You Can’t Sit Down.”  “New Orleans”  most associated with Gary ”U.S.” Bonds is another standout of their earlier recordings.

 1999 Bacchus Archives collection
First Line-Up of Phil and the Frantics
Bill Powell (guitar), Joe Martinez Jr. (drums), Phil Kelsey (vocals/sax) Rick Rose (keys), John Lambert (bass)
The previously unreleased “Exclusively Yours” and the buried “Whenever I’m Alone” showcase Phil Kelsey’s ability to tap into his inner Peter Noone. These two tracks flow well in the context of the overall presentation. The finest rarity in my perspective is the instrumental  “I’ll Do It Again” as it has all the classic hallmarks of “I Must Run,” “Pain,” and “Theme” that set the group apart from their fierce competitors. While it might be only a backing track, it stands on its own mesmerizing merits and would be a great lead-off track on one of those Arf! Arf! compilations of psychedelic instrumentals.

John Lambert second from left, Bill Powell third from left. 
Exclusive to this deluxe edition are “Laugh at Me” and “Happy Man” by Beethoven Soul which are slightly oblique ‘60s pop songs without all the treacle later lavished on by Dot Records for their 1967 long player (shown above). The band featured Bill Powell (guitar) and John Lambert (bass) who exited Phil & the Frantics right after a Dec. 31, 1965 flood which temporarily closed JD’s nightclub as they were supporting families and needed to keep working a stage each night. On this 45, Beethoven Soul’s sound has a continuity with the overall Phil & Frantics aesthetic sans the unmistakable voice of Phil Kelsey. The flood and the departing band members sent Phil scrambling to reconstitute a new version of the Frantics.  Phil was sagacious as he selected two musicians from the Vibratos, Steve Dodge (guitar) and Ted Harpchek (keyboards), who had just broken up, in addition to adding Tommy Miller on bass. Before disbanding, the Vibratos were Phil & the Frantics’ major rivals and also the gold standard of Phoenix-area bands due to their vast proficiency playing and recording Beatles-esque pop.

 The Second Line-Up of Phil and the Frantics
Phil Kelsey (sax), Joe Martinez Jr. (drums), Steve Dodge (harp), Ted Harpchek (keyboards), Tommy Mller (bass)
Southwestern Frontier Sound
The floorboards of the double-decker JD’s nightclub literally connected the notes of  rock ‘n’ roll to country.  Country was featured on the main floor while rock & roll took place downstairs in the Riverbottom Room that experienced that aforementioned flood on New Year’s eve 1965. One can imagine the booming sounds of Waylon Jennings and the Waylors seeping down through the ceiling as they were the house band on the main level 7-nights a week. Phil and the Frantics absorbed these country inflections and captured moments of confluence between country and rock 'n' roll in their sound. By circumstances and proximity, they could be said to be on the vanguard of country rock ‘n’ roll-a few moons before Nashville West (featuring future Byrds Clarence White and Gene Parsons) over in El Monte, California. Their most overtly country number “What’s Happening” is a jagged barn burning hoedown which anticipates ‘80s college rock cow-punk movement by 20 years! Their cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” by way of the Beatles captures an early 1965 reunification between country and rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that a majority of their songs were co-produced and co-arranged by Waylon Jennings (with Jim Musil) meant jack to me when the Bacchus Archives CD was released in 1999. (I would have then mixed up Merle Haggard with Waylon.) Now, I think of it as one of the remarkable and singular musical overlaps to occur in the Southwest during the mid-sixties! Waylon’s deft hand in shaping these songs into something mysterious and ahead of their time can also be found in the ambitious and inventive arrangements which approach those heard on the New Colony Six records. It is now a point of pride that I work in the same city, Chandler, that Waylon called home for years.

Panel featured in The Tempe Sound exhibit that ran at the Tempe History Museum during 2014 & 2015
Seismic Shifts
Phil & the Frantics were a quintessential regional band that could not quite break through to the national level due to several factors inside & outside of their control.  It could be said that Phil was seemingly mostly adept at navigating the twists, turns and exhilarating rapids of music during the mid-sixties Their backstory of near misses and lost opportunities, “could haves” and “would haves” is messy, but contains some of the common elements, music industry characters (e.g. Bob Keene of Del-Fi Records), radio stations and accelerated changes that played out on the Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas circuit during the mid-‘60s. In order to eradicate the myths and misinformation which have built up over the years, journalist Dan Nowicki turned over new sources and re-examined previous documentation on how everything went down. His detailed and comprehensive liner notes included in the 24-page booklet will get those up to speed who are familiar with a few of their songs, but not much of their captivating story which took place in the thriving and teeming Phoenix music scene with its epicenter being the unincorporated “county island” strip somewhere between Scottsdale and Tempe. 

Capturing the Vanished Past
In proverbial Arizona fashion, this lost era is now represented by a vacant strip mall structure as the former JD’s currently stands empty after years of being a mattress/furniture place. Phil & the Frantics were ultimately prevailing as their distinctive sound has stood the test of time and their best songs continue to make a considerable emotional impact.  Belated credit must be given to Greg Shaw for introducing the Arizona sound of the mid-sixties to an international audience in the ‘80s. In the late '90s “Arizona’s unofficial music historian,” John P. Dixon recaptured the lightning with his commendable and tireless efforts which resulted in a Phil & the Frantics retrospective CD released by Dionysus Records/Bacchus Archives. Dixon is the co-producer, along with Dan Nowicki, of this definitive anthology packed with 26 songs.

Front and Center
Sometimes in the midst of exploring unmarked trails in hopes of chasing down some of the most arcane (e.g.,Thirst) and elusive (e.g., 5d) Arizona bands, there is momentary inattention paid to the groundbreaking combos that initially plowed the low desert grounds and left a high stack of records which sound better with each passing year. Releases like Frantically Yours rectify this situation by bringing forth the mid-sixties sounds recorded by Phil & Frantics that are as evocative, overlapping, and expansive as the Sonoran Desert itself.     

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Aislers Set-live in Phoenix, AZ at Modified-Nov. 2000

After hearing their Spector-ish, Brian Wilson-esque wall of pop song "Hit the Snow," I starting searching around for more music and information about this current San Franciscan band.  While they may be a little too twee for some, they find Spector's place through the quiet neighborhood side streets.  Their first album, Terrible Things Happen is an introspective and ornate recording that seems (on the surface) far removed (and sometime sheltered) from the blunt & repetitious weekday world of work, congested freeways and forms. Their second and much stronger release, Last Match decides to "Don't Worry Baby" and go out to re-explore both the narrow & wide world. The album seems to be a restatement that beauty can be found and experienced (both from the past and now) with the acknowledgement that the dispiriting factors will always continue their tired cycles.

Their live show last night (Nov. 18, 2000) in Phoenix at the "art space venue" (Modified) was a bit incohesive, but it did contain some moments of illumination that make this band stand on the vista of Spector's vision over the "lower case" underground of indie-pop bands. The Aislers' show does not go "all out" or "break through the artificial facades" in the way that many of the riveting garage bands do, but they could get a whole room dancing (if others left their attitudes at the door). Their live sound, layering a happy Vox Contential organ, trebly and sprinting Fender guitar, beat-surf drumming, wrecking crew Fender bass and a chiming Guild 12 string, created both an atmosphere of hope and a smile. 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

P.P. Arnold-The New Adventures of...P.P. Arnold

Sometimes when doing yard work, you hear a song streaming over the phone that stops you in your tracks and makes you put down the equipment to check the playlist.  “Baby Blue” by P.P. Arnold was recently one of those halting songs. While I have previously heard this strong album upon its 2019 release, re-encountering  the uplifting, sweeping and lush “Baby Blue” spurred me to revisit this release and further explore Arnold’s back catalog and storied career. "The First Lady of Mod" was at the epicenter of ‘60s Swingin’ London working in the overlapping musical circles of Immediate Records' Andrew Loog Oldham, Mick Jagger and Steve Marriott of the Small Faces. Being an Ikette and contributing backup vocals on the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” Ike & Tina Turner’s "River Deep, Mountain High" and Del Shannon’s Home & Away album are just a few highlights from that heightened time within a long and legendary musical career.  The New Adventures of...P.P. Arnold is her return to the forefront and first solo album in 51 years! It’s a fitting and appropriate title as these 15 songs express new stages in an already remarkable life. With the aforementioned “Baby Blue” setting the tone, her musical momentum continues with the horn-driven “The Magic Hour” featuring her heartfelt vocals which soar in the top-tier stratosphere of Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love. Her sublime reading of “Different Drum” continues her tradition of rendering some of the ‘60s' most endearing and enduring songs (e.g., “As Tears Go By,” “Angel of the Morning.”) “Daltry Street” presents a microcosmic window into a past scene fastened to a cinematic Bacharach-ian arrangement and delivered with calm, cool and collected vocals reminiscent of Dionne Warwick. The ballad “You Got Me” is the album’s sleeper.  Originally recorded by Jaibi (aka Joan Banks) in 1967 and two years later by the Exciters, “You Got Me,” showcases Arnold’s timeless and stately elegance along with her protean abilities. After its initial splash when it was released in the rushed world of 2019, this expansive comeback album has proven to have lasting reverberations. Not that you would expect anything less than eternal from P.P. Arnold.