CAMERA OBSCURA #6
by Mark S. Tucker
"This PSF column is named 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 LP's 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)."
TAX FREE Tax Free (1970 / Polydor)
This band's sobriquet derives half from the surname of Wladimir "Wally" Tax and half from... well, I haven't a clue save for the use of a euphemism common to the business world (uh, a "free market" certainly ain't free, y'all, and merchandise given for "free" is rarely worth the time it takes to pick it up and pocket it, just a business snare). Based in Holland, the band came to the attention of Polydor Records, was produced by Lew Merenstein, and featured sidemen John Cale on viola chockablock with famed jazz bassist Richard Davis. Throughout the record, one can't help but note Davis is a particular stand-out. Tax Free existed for only three years ('69 - '71), a mellowsiding outfit with considerable compositional powers, though, interestingly, no attribution is given anywhere in the LP as who wrote what. Since Wladimir captured the naming, I'm guessing he also wrote everything, that's often enough the case, but, if anyone has data to the contrary, please write, as I'd be VERY interested in knowing what's what.
Tax played acoustic guitar and flute and sang (there are some angelic backing vox as well, but, like the writing, those are also uncreditted; obviously, someone wasn't paying a hell of a lot of attention to detail in this release) within very creditable cuts standing up well today, albeit with a noticeable tang of yesteryear, especially in "Amsterdam." He hailed, however, from the Dutch-notorious Outsiders band, famed for creating havoc wherever they went, banned in many towns. No mention has been made as to whether the upstart continued his heinous ways into Tax Free... but one can hope, can't one? He also issued solo records concurrent with the Taxers, then, after TF's dissolution, returned to and stayed in solo mode, oft accompanied by The Watermen, The Mustangs, Bamboule, and George Cash.
Tax Free is dominated by a melancholic mood, well-paced lazy instrumentation, hints of psychedelia, and lightly jazzy atmospherics. I place this LP highly in my collection, alongside Kenny Rankin, Barnaby Bye, Edu Lobo, Tom Rapp, Dean Friedman, America, Janis Ian, and a number of other deft mello-rockers, though not for the same reasons. Mellifluity, after all, is capable of a wide range of variation and manifestation. This is not an easy LP to find, running $50 or more in top condition. It was re-issued on CD, not easy to nail either but will empty your wallet to the lesser tune of $25 or more (standard, I guess, for imports) if you manage to run one down.
I've only ever physically seen two vinyl copies in my life: the first had just been purchased by a guy coming out of Record Surplus (West L.A.) in the '80's, and then I found my own copy years later at the same place, not in terribly good condition but listenable enough. Like most other things, I'd say don't shell out the collector throat-cutting of 50 bone (that tune'll swiftly change if I decide to start offloading items from my collection) but DO check the album out via YouTube, a friend... even an enemy perhaps?
LEYDEN ZAR Leyden Zar (1981 / A&M), II (1985 / Unidisc)
Leyden Zar arrived tight with chops and comps after first serving in the mid to late '70's as the backing band for one of Montreal's reigning pop kings, Robert Leroux, and then struck out on its own. In the latter, despite the status of the prestigious Leroux gig, the lads were turned down by almost every management operation in the province, later happening to nudge into Robt. Blagona & Andre Perry and releasing the eponymous debut. Two singles issued from the endeavor, "Money Talks Loud" and "Backstreet Girl," one-offs unfortunately typical of record labels acting as poor managers of art because "Life is Bizarre" and "Where's the One?" were clearly the choicest cuts. "Money" and "Girl" failed to light up the charts, and the LP found itself rapidly fading back into the obscurity from whence it came...
... which was a shame because the slab touted an array of quite good chart rockers, alt rock, New Wave, and electro-rock, what one Net-zine has cited as examples of the "rock sensibility of the day, creating a unique blend of keyboard-driven commercial pop" and another claimed as "power pop". Though "unique" is a slog too far, I couldn't agree more in both cases, and one might well place it with Gary Numan, The Cars, City Boy, Reggie Knighton, a bit of Russ Dashiel, Le Roux circa So Fired Up, and so on.
Keyboardist Pascal Mailloux was the most muscular and prolific writer with Paul Grondin (bass) coming in second. Mailloux possessed an ear sporting the ability to adeptly slide in twee keyboard patches well in contrast to meatier guitar parts (Brian Wilson), making for that strange Euro-pop sound so prevalent in the era. He also oft simultaneously inserted much meatier lines strengthening atmospherics while counterpointing his own cheezaloid factors.
In '85, the band, after splintering and re-forming, issued Leyden Zar II on Epic, replete with single, video, and scary-ass LP cover art (I don't know who that chick is, but I hope to God I never meet her at a bar), an LP produced by solo musician Walter Rossi, a well known Canadian figure and a gent who was offered a job in David Bowie's band in the early '70's but turned it down (!!!). I've never located a copy of the group's sophomore slab and so cannot review it, but that release also failed to make its mark, and LZ disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. Both issuances, however, were re-released on CD in '96, and thus I suggest collectors repair to Amazon or some other exploitive slave labor outlet for the best chance at snagging the pair ‘cause yer local record shop sure as fuck ain't gonna be carrying it.
DOCTOR ROCKIT Live!, Great Big Fun (1981 / Perfect Circle)
There's not much data on this area-popular good-times party band save for a single Feb. 2014 article in hometown newspaper The Houston Chronicle (an asshole venue demanding subscribership if you try to read the friggin' page more than once) wherein the good Doctor, Roger "Rock" Francis Romano, is shown emerging from his home studio – Rock Romano's Red Shack Studio, indeed a detached well-ordered tool shed painted crimson with a bomb shell hanging curiously above the entry. An affable old man at this point (his words, not mine... though I don't disagree with him for a second; as of this writing, he's 71, and 2014 saw the 35th anniversary of the group) with guitar in hand and in good spirits; it's immediately cognizable that the gent's possessed of an earthy humor.
Doctor Rockit was/is a covers band composed of talented musicians with high spirits and accomplished chops. The selections for this one-off LP were wisely captured - Bobby Troupe's "Route 66," Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown," Leon Russells' "I'd Rather be Blind," etc. – and delivered with spunk and verve. Though the audience reactions are recessed way far back in the mix, it's obvious the band was well received and had no trouble selling out venues accommodating crowds in the hundreds – yea, even unto 1,000 (!), pretty goddamned good for "amateurs." This particular gig featured the lissome backing duo the Sisters of Mercy who would later become an incorporate element of the band and to the side became involved with heavyweight endeavors: Rocky Horror Show, A Chorus Line, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, etc.
Harkenings of Commander Cody, Sha Na Na, Elvin Bishop, a hint or two of Root Boy Slim, David Bromberg, and similar others spill out all over the place amid blues, country twang, R&B, early rock, and the tinges of jazz which oft work their way into all those genres, everything well in evidence. The good Doctor knew how to make a ditty swing, and the rest of base quintet fell in line right behind him. Romano was born for this sort of thing, loves playing for people, and the band in ensemble possessed that ungraspable keystone which pops up so frequently in musical acts: on their own, all members were more than passable, but, once they came together, the sum vastly outweighed the parts. Thus, when you're in the mood for some toe-tappin' feelgood, this LP will fill the prescription... and you don't even need ObamaCare!
Also see Camera Obscura 1
Camera Obscura 2
Camera Obscura 3
Camera Obscura 4
Camera Obscura 5
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