CAMERA OBSCURA #1
Master of the Airwaves & Nite City
By Mark S. Tucker
I'm not exactly sure how the evaluative process will run in this column due to a genre-based problem: progrock, my favorite form of music, is almost entirely obscure save for the very few bands who achieved superstardom (Yes, Genesis, ELP, King Crimson, etc.). Yet, to its fans, very little is obscure in the forum, as audients tend to a lifelong pursuit of the style, ferreting out releases well beyond what's easily had. Therein, I think one segment of the PSF readership would delight in such selections, not being all that familiar with the progfield, while progficionados themselves will think I've gone insane (too late!, happened years ago).
There are also problems with unusual prolificities. City Boy, f'rinstance, released 5 LP's and even had a hit ("188.8.131.52."), but I've found only three people in all my sonic peregrinations over decades who knew who the hell CB was when the subject was broached - one of ‘em even saw the band in concert, lucky bastard! - so are they really obscure? I mean, when a label will issue that many discs? Perhaps it was the times (‘70's) or...? I have to think the matter over.
This PSF column is named, BTW, not after Nico's LP nor the several indie bands who claimed the sobriquet but after my 50-issue samizdat from the ‘80's (some of which were issued as cassettes), titled for the actual camera obscura precursor to photography. I merely twisted the parlance to mean "focus on the obscure". At any rate, I'm starting with LPs that not much of anyone would argue are obscure (and if you're one of the those who would, write yer mother instead; she needs to hear from you, bubbaleh, and I could care less about your objections to my selections, yo). Here are the first two:
Masters of the Airwaves Masters of the Airwaves
Few know the original Led Zeppelin vocalist was supposed to be the astounding Terry Reid, who got screwed over by fuckhead management – shock! - and ended up himself obscure even though Aretha Franklin at the time called him one of the three most happening things in England. Robert Plant, yodeling for Alexis Korner down at the pub, was recommended, and history was made. I've often asked myself who, in all rock larynxdom, could possibly have supplanted The Plant had he, say, ODed on one of the many drugs he & Jimmy were big time abusing. I've found only one: Masters of the Airwaves' Jon Flak, who possessed tremendous lungs. The more-than-once idiotic Bad Cat Records derogates the guy, but, should you possess decent ears and any taste at all, one listen to this gent will knock you sideways and then backwards; Flak (birth name: Jonathan Frederick Boring, a miscognomen if ever there was one) was among the very best the rock field ever produced.
I should point out that there appears to be an element of semi-bullshit to MOTA's cover notes, one I've never been able to clear up: the claim that Jimmy Berick played, and only played, a 16-string steel guitar. "16-string steel guitar" is usually rhetoric for "pedal steel" but that's not the case here. It's been noted that what Berick actually slung was a double-neck and I'm damned if I can figure out what the configuration would've been, but, man o man, was he ever a great player, writer, and co-writer. It's obvious in the listen that Jim's playing 6-stringers, 12-strings, and so on (bassist Randy Rand took up the acoustic) as well as whatever that 16-string bastard may have been. No matter how I work the math, though, a 6-string and a 12-string doubleneck never add up to 16. Maybe I should just stick with Language Arts.
Where the Bad Cat crit appears to be mentally challenged and required many listens to hip himself up (in fairness, his site, BadCatRecords, is pretty damned cool, and he appears, on his home page, to be an okay guy, but lord almighty, some of them thar friggin' reviews!!!), I was blown away on the first listen and have played the LP 100 times or more. Mr. Cat makes a number of ill-chosen comparatives but also came up with a really great one: REO Speedwagon, and if he's referring to the Mike Murphy period, then good on ‘em, ‘cause I agree; the degree of energy and feel-good is evident. The overall tone of MOTA is hard rock/metal but with a very high degree of spot-on arrangement and cool-ass perversions of some funky ilk of reggae mutation.
The highlight of the record is the exultant burner "Gettin' Tight" with ballad-cum-powerhouse "I Believe in God" (co-written by uber-ass-hat Kim Fowley), a close second, commencing as a reflection upon the Christian fantasy-godthing before breaking into prime Captain Beyond territory. In fact, the good Capt. may well be the best RIYL for this quartet, and I'm pissed as hell that Epic Records neither continued to carry them nor secreted away an unreleased second issuance. Only Randy Rand (Randy Schuchart) later went on to any degree of glory in the band Autograph, if'n ya wanna call that "glory," while the rest inexplicably faded to non-existence. Berick recently passed after a long slide into illness and poverty. He apparently was also quite the wit and might well have made it as a stand-up comedian. The failure of the ensemble to make it on the scene seems to have been due to the usual coterie of extent a-hole critics coupled with the equally omnipresent label PR failures. Web commentary pretty much dumps on the disc universally...but that only makes the release all the more delicious in a lamentable irony upon the general degree of aesthetics in the rockfan world. Is everyone a goddamned Donald Dukketrump nowadays?
Nite City Nite City
After the post-Morrison Doors tipped, slanted, and fell apart, keyboardist Ray Manzarek went into production duties (X, etc.) and started a few bands, the Butts Band and Nite City among them. None of the combos ever went anywhere or did much of anything for Da Manz, despite significant strengths, but Nite City stood out among them all. Fronted by vocalist Noah James, who, when caught just right, bore a fair resemblance to Ray's late mate Jimbo, the combo was one of those AOR units taking the mode a step or two further, mainly due to the writing team of the pair.
Every cut here is hit-list worthy – were hit-lists, that is, halfway sane – but several tracks beam forth due to the rest of the unit being so well chosen: Paul Warren (gtr., Rare Earth, Paul Warren Project), Nigel Harrison (bass, Blondie), and Jimmy Hunter (drums, Steppenwolf). "Angel with No Freedom," a threnodic anti-drug song deserving placement alongside Dion's "In Your Own Backyard" and others, is my fave slice for its airy-eerie atmospherics and building urgencies plateauing into recurring pensivities. In all, the group was a rockin' buncha catz and might be said to join such ensembles as Detective (obscure, and I'll be getting to them), though, um, my second favorite track is "Bitter Sky Blue," which oscillates between plaint and butt shaker.
The instrumental "In the Pyramid" brings da funk alongside generous portions of Sea Level and Les Dudek while the closer, "Game of Skill," rips a lead line out and launches into a well-paced blazer prompting a beer bottle foot-shuffle. The band had a preference for getting down to the ground, often revolving around gritty life dramas, regrets, anger, and melancholy with plenty of catchy hooks, change-ups, rhythms, and punctuations. Nite City stands well to this day, and James should've gone on but, as far as I've been able to discern, hasn't. More's the pity, but then...the times aren't what they used to be, (are they?) and innumerable considerations weigh on artists in the ongoing race to the capitalist bottom. More than one very talented player has emitted a resigned "Fuck it!" and taken a job at the mill.
There apparently exists a second LP (going by the moniker of Ray Manzarek's Nite City and titled Golden Days, Diamond Nights) but, in 44 years of record hunting, I've never seen a single copy and only recently learned of its arguable existence though the Net shows cover photos and even sales of the disc while... oops! ...wait ...hmmmm ...yep, there's even a CD two-fer re-issue, so I guess that settles the matter, and now I have reason to head back up to Amoeba Hollywood or hit Amazon. Sigh! A good aficionado's money never wants for expenditures... thank God.
Also see Camera Obscura 2
Camera Obscura 3
Camera Obscura 4
Camera Obscura 5
Camera Obscura 6
Camera Obscura 7
Camera Obscura 8
Camera Obscura 9
Camera Obscura 10
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