Reviews: Replacements, Cars, Devo, Bad Company, Velvets, Ork Records

1Don’t look now, but the eighties are back.

Okay, theoretically, they never went away – not really.  Such a monumental lack of taste, after all, could scarcely be remedied by the mere turning of a calendar page, and besides, some people enjoy being stupid and crass.  What’s why we were given the Cars.

Shudder and shuffle the review pile.  Let’s start with a smile.  Four Replacements albums resurface on vinyl, and not, hallelujah, the ones you might expect.  Famously, Tim was the LP that launched the band to whatever degree of stardom they ultimately attained, and the discs that preceded it tend to remain in the darkness.

No longer.   Dating from 1981-1983, Stink, Hootenanny and the still brilliantly-titled Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (all Twin Tone/Rhino) were all recorded with the band deep in thrall to mid-western hardcore, a mach ten blur of breathless noise, with only Paul Westerberg’s nascent pop toned vocals to raise them far above the pack.   

Hindsight has lightened the load a little – exquisitely reproduced repackagings of all three have just hit the deck and, playing them today, the band’s future can be determined.  But it’s the fourth album, Let It Be (Twin Tone/Rhino) that truly places the Replacements at the forefront of mid-eighties Americana, particularly if snot-nosed contrariness, angst-driven punkiness and a sheer love of rock’n’roll be our guide.

Catch their take on Kiss’s “Black Diamond,” and the adolescence simply oozes from the grooves; “Gary’s Got a Boner” is as bratty as its title (“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” ditto); “Answering Machine” is every teenaged romance drama you’ve ever read, crushed into one glorious wail of rage; and then there’s “I Will Dare” that opens the show with hip swinging savagery, a Stonesy groove shot through cheap beer and cigarettes, and one of the all time pop classics of any age.  Regardless of everything else they did, earlier albums or later accomplishments, Let It Be isn’t simply the best album the Replacements ever made, it’s the best album ever to bear that title.

It’s funny, though.  At the same time as the mid-western Replacements were restoring rock to its rightful place as a sound and storm that made you wanna rock, the Cars were driving out of the East Coast sounding so smug and self-assured that it was hard to believe they were ever even a band.  Stockbrokers, maybe.  Architects possibly.  Real estate agents for sure.

They didn’t write songs, they penned advertising slogans; note-perfect, inch-perfect, anodyne anthems for that peculiar period when people wanted rock and pop that made them feel as safe-as-houses as the AOR giants of the seventies had. but allowed them to wear bizarre hairstyles and clothes.  And so, thirty-plus years after it first arose to soundtrack our nightmares, this hideous confection’s self-titled debut album (Elektra) reawakens on wax and guess what?  Neither time nor nostalgia have changed a note.

Devo, too, touch those edges of the musical psyche that should maybe not have been encouraged way back when – that eerie feeling that somewhere, songwriting and chemistry class got muddled up, and now they’re putting a beat to a scientific formula.   Freedom of Choice (Warner Brothers), the 1980 home to the little beasts’ “Whip It” hit, is out again now, as shiny and sleek as ever it was, and so self-consciously “look at us, we’re really weird” that it’s hard to believe anyone even fell for its nonsense in the first place.  Let alone that they’re still listening today.

We shiver and turn to Bad Company for solace – seventies rockers whose refusal to die saw them scratch into the new decade with just one album, Rough Diamonds, but whose impact lingered on through the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and a lot of what followed that, as well.

Perhaps tellingly, there’s just one cut from that final set included on Rock’n’Roll Fantasy: The Very Best of Bad Company (Swansong/Rhino) and no more than four from the two LPs that preceded it.  Before that, however… on a double album package, three sides are dedicated to the band’s first three albums, four songs piece, plus unreleased goodies from the first and third sets.

And you can say what you like about hairy men in denim, baring chests and going “hhhnuuurrgghhh” a lot, when Bad Company were at their best, and that rounds up 75% of these three sides, there was very little to compare with them.   In fact, if Spin Cycle had any patience at all for bad puns, we’d say we can’t get enough of them.  But we won’t. 

2Another band that made a mark on the eighties, without actually bothering to be there, was the Velvet Underground, whose vinyl reissue catalog finally gets around to their swansong, the posthumously released Live at Max’s Kansas City. Famously recorded on Lou Reed’s final night with the band, and infamously taped on a mono cassette recorder from the audience, Live at Max’s is the sound of a smokey bar, with spirits in the air and who-knows-what going on beneath the table, and a band playing for the fun of it, to an audience of friends and worshippers.

Even better, the original ten song single album has been expanded into a fifteen track double, while whatever remastering might have been performed has done nothing to detract from the sheer scuzziness of the original release.    Genius stuff… and, if we fast forward seven years from that 1970 evening, a four LP box set of the Velvets’ very own children preserves for us the full output of New York’s Ork Records.

3Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group) is not a box to look upon lightly.  The label itself was shortlived enough that many people missed it completely.  But the first Television single was an Ork release; the first Richard Hell as well.  The Feelies were an Ork act and, just so we can play six degrees of separation with the Replacements, so was Alex Chilton.

The Marbles, Chris Stamey, Lenny Kaye, journalists Lester Bangs and Mick Farren (whose “Lost Johnny” remains one of the most fiery 45s ever cut anywhere), Cheetah Chrome, the Student Teachers… okay, there’s probably a few bands on here you won’t have heard of, but that doesn’t change the fact.  Eight sides of vinyl and a monstrous 100+ page hardback book tell the story not simply of an independent record label, but also, of why people start independent labels in the first place.  And that is to remind us that, even when we seem to be drowning in reissues and remasters of every record you never bought in the past, there’s still a few people putting out new music that you owe it to yourself to hear.

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