There have been many great albums recorded over the last 40 or so years.  Since we are (relatively) new to publishing our opinions on rock music, we will periodically share here with you our thoughts on some of these seminal releases.  Some of these are widely acknowledged classics; others are records that somehow just clicked for us, even if they are not appreciated by everyone.  

Agree/disagree?  Like to see us talk about a specific record?  Let us know what you think.  

FUNHOUSE  (The Stooges)
Funhouse is a perfect title for the distorted and breathtaking experience of listening to these 36 minutes of raw power. For rock fans who appreciate harder-edged music (whether industrial, punk or grunge), this record sounds as contemporary today as ever.  Released in 1970, it likely struck the "peace and love" crowd like a Joe Frazier uppercut.  Dazed and confused, indeed.


By this time, the snarling bite of the Stones' Satisfaction and the Who's My Generation had gone away.  While both groups would make some of their finest music in the early 70s, they were no longer the upstarts barging through the door of the elite.  They were the elite.  The Rolling Stones were millionaire jet-setters who fled to the French Riveria for the lifestyle (and to avoid British taxes.)  The Who was focusing on "rock operas," an ambitious, although ultimately ridiculous concept.  (Never mind that it produced some of their best music on Tommy and Quadraphenia, the rock opera was a late 60s/early 70s conceit, probably fueled by rampant drug use.)

The Stooges cared little about opera, whether rock or not.  They just wanted to play as loud and brutal as possible.  Lead singer Iggy Pop gave legendary live performances, where he would be covered in blood from cuts, and would dive into the audience (yes, kids, this happened before Nirvana.)  No peace and love for Iggy, 

The Songs 

Their first record had yielded the classic I Wanna Be Your Dog, but only with Funhouse did the Stooges really let loose.  Seven songs in thirty-six minutes leave the listener simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated.  The rhythmic propulsion of the music never lets up, from the opening of Down on the Street to the chaotic free-jazz conclusion of L.A. Blues.  On Loose, when Iggy rants "I'll stick it ...deep inside," you are not sure whether he is making a sexual reference or talking about a knife through the skin.  Either way, there is no doubt that he'll stick it wherever he wants.  The bass playing on this song (and most of the record) roams like an elephant rampaging through all in its way.  At a time when the flashy lead guitarist was the rock idol, the lead bass lines throughout Funhouse provided a radical departure.  

On 1970, the riffs come so fast that the musicians almost trip over themselves, barely staying out of each others' way.  If they tracked beats per minute back then, this song would have rivaled some of the techno music of today.  Iggy sings "Out of my mind, Saturday night/1970, coming in sight," sounding as if his bandmates are chasing him through the studio.  The saxophone on 1970 and L.A. Blues was rooted in 50s and 60s jazz, rather than the blues-based saxophone that had been a hallmark of rock music since the beginning.

The Legacy

Where do I start?  The Stooges were the bridge from the Stones and Who to the punk rock of the Ramones and Sex Pistols.  They reminded the audience that rock was more about urgency than precision, at a time when most rock fans were heading in a direction of trying to legitimize the music as a serious art form.  Funhouse's emphasis on bass guitar as lead instrument and use of elements of free jazz would resurface in the 80s with the Minutemen.  The insistent rhythms and raw lyrical content presaged the drum machines and industrial rock of Big Black and Ministry.  Their emphasis on physicality in the music and performance would prove to be more durable than the attempts at grand meaning from the likes of Yes and Genesis.  

The Stooges never worried about seeking approval; they did what they wanted.  Great art was never the goal, but was most certainly the result.


Retro Review Archives

RAMONES MANIA  (The Ramones)

Joey Ramone is dead.  He was 49.  I am 43.  I never thought about it, but I certainly never would have guessed he was older than me.  Because when you get older, you mature, your music "evolves" and "progresses."  Evolution and progress meant nothing to the Ramones.  They were too busy merely (re)inventing punk rock and putting a pop sheen on it.  The masses never got it, but their music remains a joy to hear over 20 years later.  

Me and the Ramones

I bought their first album in 1976, because I read a review in Rolling Stone extolling the virtues of this new "punk" band, and I needed to know what this was all about.  I was a college sophomore, and my favorite bands included Yes, Jethro Tull, Robin Trower and Supertramp (yes, Supertramp - I didn't really know any better.)  I brought it back to the dorm, put it on the turntable.  Things were never the same.

Sure, there was the initial shock of hearing 14 songs fly by in less than 30 minutes, in an era in which 30 minutes usually meant 4 or 5 songs.  Did I understand it in the context of the other music I was listening to at the time?  Nope.  And the guys on my floor thought it was hilarious.  The consensus was that it sucked.  They just played guitar, bass and drums; three chords and two speeds - fast and faster.  Where was the art?

But, a funny thing happened.  When I wanted to listen to a record, I kept grabbing The Ramones.  One day, I came back from class to see my roommate listening to it - and he wasn't even high at the time.  He just stared at me with a stupid grin on his face (OK, maybe he was a little high), and shrugged his shoulders.  

You see, that was the Ramones' secret.  The melodies were always there, once you got over the shock of hearing something so wildly different from the normal rock of the 70s.  They distilled rock down to its basic elements - good songs played as fast and loud as possible.   

More about Me and the Ramones

Skip ahead 11 years.  It's 1987, and I am in Houston, traveling in the low-level corporate job I had at the time.  After yet another room service dinner, it dawned on me that today I was 30.  Well, I couldn't just sit in my room, but I didn't know quite the right way to celebrate such a momentous occasion.  Leaving the hotel, driving past the bars on Richmond Avenue, I noticed a now-shuttered club called Xcess (no, not that kind of club, although that would be a fine name.)  I had been in there a couple times before, but things did not usually get going until after 11:00 - and there was work tomorrow.  But tonight, there were people milling about outside.  Pulling up to see what was going on, I saw the poster - The Ramones!  Tonight Only! 

Walking to the door, it was a sure thing they would be sold out, since the place only held 500 people or so.  But tickets were available for $10.  I walked in, had a couple of beers, and then there they were.  Shredding through God knows how many songs in a little over an hour that November night, the Ramones gave me a birthday present that I'll always remember.  

Oh, Yeah, the Music

I feature Ramones Mania, although the individual albums (especially the first four) are tremendous.  But, the Ramones were really a singles band, ironic since the Ramones never had a hit single.  All of the essentials are here - my favorites are Sheena Is a Punk Rocker, Blitzkrieg Bop, I Wanna Be Sedated, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, Rock and Roll High School, Rockaway Beach.   Don't miss an underrated 80s Ramones song, Bonzo Goes to Bitburg, a bitter rant against Reagan's controversial visit to a Nazi cemetery.

This band directly instigated punk rock, from the Clash and X to Nirvana to Green Day.  Some of it was political, some was just stupid, but most of it was honest and not about being a rock star, but about playing rock and roll.  And every time rock needs a slap upside the head, every time I think that this music I love is dying, some kid will hear a Ramones song.  She will think - "Hey, I can do that!"  And the kids, even the 30 and 40 year old ones, will be all right.


EXILE ON MAIN STREET  (Rolling Stones)
This is my favorite record.  It was recorded in a basement in France, the culmination of a journey that had started with the Stones as "bad-boy" alternatives to the Beatles, moved into a weary survivor mode with Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed, and then began to move into despair and nastiness after the Altamont concert.  This all came together on Exile on Main Street.  

The Rolling Stones were a real band, in the way that the Who was a band, and the Beatles were not.  (I know that not all of these groups should be referenced in the past tense, but, based on the last 20 years of output, it is unavoidable.)  The Beatles were essentially two stunningly good songwriters and vocalists.  Without any undue disrespect to George and Ringo, the Beatles would have been just as great with almost any other musicians.  It is  

impossible to imagine the Who without Moon's drums, Townsend's guitar, and Daltrey's voice.  Similarly, the foundation of the Rolling Stones is Charlie Watts' drumming, Keith Richards' rhythm guitar, and the Jagger/Richards vocals.  


This road to Main Street began with Beggar's Banquet, the first Stones album that began to show who these guys really were.  Until Beggar's Banquet, the Stones seemed to be in competition with the Beatles, the jealous younger sibling trying to imitate, yet distance themselves from, the Fab Four.  Their Satanic Majesties Request was the release just before Beggar's Banquet, and it was their most direct response to the Beatles.  Its failure to garner the sales or acclaim of the Beatles record (despite being more adventurous and nearly as good as the overrated Sgt. Pepper's) gave Mick and Keith the excuse to go back to the music that provided their greatest inspiration - American blues and, to a lesser extent, country.

By the next record, Let It Bleed, Brian Jones was out and Mick Taylor was in.  Many critics lament the departure of Jones, but by this time the band needed something different at the lead guitar spot.  Like any successful organization, a great band has one or two visionary leaders, backed by superb and creative "technicians" who can help realize the vision.  When one member, in this case, Brian Jones, disagrees with the vision, and tries to force the organization in another direction, this must be addressed.  Keeping Brian Jones in the band, and accommodating what he wanted would have prevented the Stones from realizing the triumph of Let It Bleed and the next two records.  Richards' rhythm guitar work was becoming increasingly aggressive and a key feature in the Stones sound, and he needed a top-notch guitarist to play off of.  Taylor was the ideal choice - technically superb, but with no expectation of squeezing his personal musical "visions" into the band.  

In 1971, the Stones released Sticky Fingers, itself a top 5 record of all time.  This laid the musical foundation for Exile on Main Street.  The key elements are here - piano, horns, and above all, the drumming of Charlie Watts.  He had always been a key part of the band's sound, but, with Sticky Fingers, he became the best rock drummer ever.  Keith Moon may have pounded harder, but no one else approached Watts' ability to contribute anything and everything the song needed.  His subtle percussion on Moonlight Mile is the key focus of the song, and established him as a lead musician, not merely part of a superb rhythm section.  

Just one year later, Exile was released, and it found the Stones in personal upheaval.   As tax "exiles" from England, they sunk into a dissolute French lifestyle.  This does not come across through the lyrics - let's face it, lyrics have never been a strong point.  Rather, the vocals, playing and production combine to convey an overwhelming sense of where the band was at this time.  Initially, it sounds sloppy - the album was not greeted with critical acclaim.  However, with each listen, the strength of the songs and performances emerge.  The Stones surpassed Sticky Fingers by stripping away the remaining cocky veneer of Brown Sugar and Bitch, leaving an emotional honesty about who they really were.  After this record, the Stones became all about the Benjamins, but here they were just the greatest rock and roll band in the world, recording in a basement.  OK, a basement on the French Riviera, but, still...

The Songs 

You would be hard pressed to find two stronger opening songs than Rocks Off and Rip This Joint.  My friend and colleague, Steve Herlihy, once told me that the only problem with Rip This Joint was that it was over too soon.  While I would not go so far to propose that this was an early "punk" song, it was very different for the early 70s with its speeded-up tempo, and barely 2 minute length.  Every instrument is driving forward with full force and these two openers feature the best use of horns on any hard rock song.  The band was augmented by Bobby Keys on sax  and Nicky Hopkins on piano, both of whom deserve credit for realizing the vision of Main Street.  

Casino Boogie (with tremendous vocals) and Tumbling Dice slow it down just enough to give full effect to the weariness edging into despair that will come through later in the record.  Sweet Virginia is a good old-time country stomp.  Loving Cup has the most inspiring piano intro in rock, and luminous drumming.  Happy is Keith Richards' at his best, pleading with a desperate insistence - "I need love to keep me, won't you keep me happy."  I Just Want To See His Face is a short, but affecting gospel chant, hardly a fully formed song at all.  All Down the Line rages full on, picking up the pace before the soulful finish of Shine a Light and Soul Survivor.  All through, the harmonizing of Jagger and Richards was better than it had ever been or would ever be again.  

Lyrically, we grab at the lines that resonate here and there.  "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me" (Rocks Off), "I'm fumbling, and I know my car won't start...Yes, I am nitty-gritty, and my shirt's all torn" (Loving Cup),  "Say now baby, I'm the rank outsider/you can be my partner in crime...You got to roll me, call me the tumbling dice" (Tumbling Dice).  

The Legacy

It would never be this good again for the Stones.  Sure, there were great songs here and there for the next several albums, but never again would everything coalesce as it did on Exile.  Did Mick and Keith run out of energy and inspiration?  Probably - just like Lennon, McCartney and Townsend did in the early 70s.  The times were about to change with punk just around the corner, and 10 years is pretty much as good of a consistently great run as rock has seen.

Ultimately, Exile on Main Street should not be viewed as the dawn of some new trend in music.  The Stones were ushering rock into a relatively dormant creative period before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols came blasting through all of the bloated music made after Exile.  I see this record as a sad, yet joyous New Orleans-style funeral for the first great creative wave that rock had experienced.  


THE REAL RAMONA  (Throwing Muses)
The Real Ramona was released in 1991, the same year as Nirvana's Nevermind.  While it was not the commercial success or cultural landmark that Nevermind became, it opened my eyes to what singer/songwriter rock could be in the 90s.  The naked emotions  were not mere confessionals, but became cathartic through a fragile, yet dynamic, musical interplay.  More downbeat than the music associated with the subsequent "emo-rock" genre, it was similarly inwardly focused.  And they had a drummer who was one of the very best of 90s alt-rock.  

Throwing Muses featured two female vocalists, songwriters and half-sisters (Kristin Hersch and Tanya Donnelly) whose songs of quiet frustration were propelled by one of the best and most unsung drummers in rock, David Narcizo.  Whether the songs were autobiographical and sprang from personal demons (Hersch had a mental illness), or not, they felt real.  Hersch and Donnelly became slightly more successful after the Muses' demise, Hersch as a solo act, and Donnelly with Belly.

It is rare that I have to laud the drummer so early in the discussion of a record's virtues, but Narcizo provides Charlie Watts-like drumming throughout - muscular when needed, but always versatile and supple.  He is always hanging a half-step behind the vocals to supply the emphasis that drives home the lyrics.  There is certainly credit due to producer Dennis Herring and engineer John Beverly Jones for the way that the drums come to the fore on The Real Ramona, but Narcizo accomplished the unusual feat of being able to overshadow two wonderful vocalists.

OK, let's talk about the two more well-known members of Throwing Muses.  Kristin Hersch spells her name right (two "i"s, like my daughter), and has a haunting vocal style that draws you into her often oblique lyrics.  The album leads off with Counting Backwards, a title that reveals much of what Hersch was working out in her lyrics here, and on later solo outings.  This is followed by the brief, but revealing Him Dancing.  Later in the album, Hook in Her Head provides the best example of how Hersch is able to convey despair with utter clarity, and without feeling sorry for herself.

Tanya Donnelly was the revelation on this record.  Still ceding most of the songwriting duties to Hersch, she contributed two of the strongest songs to The Real RamonaNot Too Soon presaged her more pop-oriented work with Belly, an absolutely riveting exercise in songcraft.  Honeychain showed the influence that Hersch had on Donnelly lyrically (and, did I mention the drums?)  

The Legacy

Throwing Muses disintegrated after The Real Ramona.  Tanya Donnelly formed Belly, who issued the superb, pop-oriented Star.  Hersch continued with the Throwing Muses name after Donnelly left, but did her best as a solo artist with Hips and Makers, featuring a haunting duet with Michael Stipe on Your Ghost.  

The best album of the 90s was Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, but I am not sure that would have been possible without the progression of The Real Ramona.  Proving that you could discuss feelings intelligently in a rock song (with thundering drums, no less) without reverting back to the sappy depths of the 70s, Throwing Muses influence is present on some of my favorite late 90s music, from the raw personal lyrics of Rainer Maria to the grownup punk of Sleater-Kinney.