Sets like Hanoi Rocks’ “Strange Boys Box” are always worth the wait

Hanoi Rocks: the band had so much hope of being the next big thing during the ‘80s.
Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

By Dave Thompson

It all got a little silly at the end, but for a couple of years at the beginning of the ‘80s, it was very easy to believe that Hanoi Rocks were set to inherit any number of thrones. Their musical lineage, after all, was unimpeachable — the misbegotten sons of The Rolling Stones, raised on The Stooges, dressed by the Dolls and then corrupted in darkened alleyways by any number of passing punk rockers, before being hauled out of their native Finland and given the freedom of a hair product warehouse.

They were one of those bands that really didn’t need to make records; they looked good simply posing with their instruments. But wBy Dave Thompson

It all got a little silly at the end, but for a couple of years at the beginning of the ‘80s, it was very easy to believe that Hanoi Rocks were set to inherit any number of thrones. Their musical lineage, after all, was unimpeachable — the misbegotten sons of The Rolling Stones, raised on The Stoogeshen they did cut an album, 1981’s “Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes,” it emerged as scintillating as their stance, a slathering slice of dissident delinquency that made the remainder of the era’s so-called rock ’n’ roll rebels feel like a vicarage tea party. “Tragedy,” “Lost in the City,” “11th Street Kids”… ”Bangkok Shocks” sounded like the cover of Silverhead’s “16 and Savaged” LP looked, and if Hanoi Rocks had self-destructed immediately after it was finished, they’d have remained untouchable forever.

But they didn’t, and “Strange Boys Box” (Cleopatra Records) tells the whole story; that debut bleeding into a sophomore set that matched its predecessor almost kiss for kiss; two other albums that were not as revolutionary, but certainly turned up the sleazoid flash several more sonic notches; and a double live album, “All Those Wasted Years,” which summarizes everything Hanoi Rocks ought to have been, digging back into their influences (Johnny Thunders, Alice Cooper, The Stooges), looking forward to the future, and kicking in every door and window that even threatened to stand in their way.

Ignore their ultimately tragic role amid the grotesqueries of Hollywood hair metal, and the ease with which they were seduced by the superficialities of tight riffs and tighter pants. Like the (early) Stones, like the Dolls, like The Stooges, Hanoi Rocks started out as a rock ’n’ roll band that instinctively understood what rock ’n’ roll meant.  And well over 50 percent of this 6-LP box set will remind you of that, as well.

And if it doesn’t … well, either you’re a hopeless case or, you’ve not watched Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges documentary yet (“Gimme Danger”). In which case, run out and give it an eyeball (we’ll wait), and then pick up the accompanying soundtrack. Which, if you buy it on vinyl, might have a few less songs, but is consequently one of the most powerful slabs of noise that your needle will encounter all year.

It’s Stooges through and through (the CD adds some related artists), nothing you’ve probably not heard before, but enough semi-oddities that you can file away the old singles and comps “Asthma Attack,” “I Got a Right,” “Lost in the Future,” from the “Fun House” sessions and, best of all, “I’m Sick of You,” a seething, screaming two-part distillation of The Stooges at their most brutal, a half-dismissive ballad, half-demented Yardbirds, the old “I’m A Man” riff turned upside-inside-down-and-out and then left on the sidewalk to freeze.

According to legend, “I’m Sick of You” (like “I Got a Right”) was part of the album that would have become “Raw Power,” had management not dismissed all the songs as being too violent for them to associate with. And, for once, it doesn’t matter whether or not the legend is true. You listen to this, and you know it ought to be.

Which, in turn, delivers us neatly into the clutches of The Feelies, emerging hot on the heels of a recent reissue program with a new album, “In Between” (Bar/None), which you could pick up on CD, but the vinyl feels far more authentic. Sounds great, too, because this isn’t an album that fits on a silver disc. It needs 12 inches to spread out and ooooooooooze.

First things first. “In Between” follows so deliciously on from all you loved about The Feelies in the past (but, most specifically, their “Good Earth”/”Only Life” late-’80s heyday) that it’s hard to believe it’s their sixth album in almost 40 years. Most bands stop sounding this good, this fresh and this exciting after one.

But The Feelies aren’t, and never have been, most bands. Like Hanoi Rocks, you can instantly grasp their antecedents, only now it’s a middle ground betwixt The Velvet Underground circa “Foggy Notion,” The Stooges locked on the riff from “Loose” and the first Modern Lovers album if those songs were all they played. All night long.

The opening “In Between” establishes the album’s parameters, and the closing “In Between (Reprise)” confirms them, a driving, writhing riff that just won’t stop (and the latter almost literally doesn’t), circling and blurring, a moment of menace locked into perpetual motion. Which is great in itself, but add the rest of the album, and its associated moods, and you’re catapulted back to a time when all new releases made you feel this enthralled … well, not all, but all the ones that were worth lending ears to and all new bands were cut from a cloth that you instinctively knew your parents would object to.

The Feelies have been making noises like this for almost as long as they’ve been with us, and were probably still making them during the years we thought they’d gone quiet. But “In Between” is unimpeachably, irrevocably and in every meaning of the phrase-ingly the sound of midnight on the wrong side of the tracks, with the ghosts of Warhol, Reed and Rimbaud as your tour guides.

Okay, out of the darkness, into the light. New from Geffen, a couple of albums that made such a stir in the early-mid ‘90s that it’s odd that they receive so little attention today … a brace of Counting Crows double LPs, “August and Everything After” from 1993, and “Recovering the Satellites,” from three years on.

Both catch the band at a time before whatever went wrong had started to happen before the crowds that grew up on “Mr. Jones” found new toys to play with and fresh angst to adore; a time when the band’s balladic pop packed a punch that a few writers tried to align with Springsteen, but which had a lot more character than such glibness let on. 

They do, perhaps, suffer from that ‘90s obsession with loading CDs down with way more songs than should really have been included —even at the time, in love with the band, it was easy to find your attention drifting as the disc played on and on and on. And that’s not just the Counting Crows’ problem, it goes for almost every album of the age. So two slabs of vinyl remedies that quite nicely — you just neglect to play one side of the four.

Where they’re good, however, they’re great, reminding us just how far out of the early ‘90s college-rock-metamorphosing-into-sundry-grungey-substances norm the Crows flew, and how much higher they might have gone had whatever happened to them not happened. “Mr. Jones” had a lot to answer for.

And finally it’s not vinyl, but it used to be, and if your lottery numbers ever come up, maybe you could own the originals. For now, though, two new Bear Family compilations, Great Guitars at Sun” and “Great Drums at Sun” between them spread 56 vintage Sun Records singles across a CD apiece, and then draw our attention not towards the named performers (Warren Smith, James Cotton, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Elvis, of course), but to the guitarists and drummers that accompany them. 

It’s a novel way of selling what you might dismiss as “the same old stuff,” and it’s that novelty which will keep both albums on your playlist; you already know this is primal stuff, the rock ’n’ country-billy blues before the rules were written, and all scratched from one of the greatest catalogs of them all.  But play them with the liner notes and you will find yourself focussing on the instrumentation, Van Eaton hitting the ride cymbal throughout Billy Riley’s “Red Hot”; Pat Hare’s shredding solo on James Cotton’s “Cotton Crop Blues”; and so many flourishes and flickers that you’ve probably not noticed in years of hearing them.

The 56-page booklets are an artwork in their own right, beautifully illustrated, sensibly designed, and the uniformity of the digipacks makes you hope this is merely the dawn of a continuing series. Sun is not a label that anyone can afford to overlook, and these two CDs refocus the spotlight in dramatic fashion.

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