Deep Cuts and Forgotten Songs from the Shadows of Classic Rock- Part 2
Status Quo and X
Book excerpt by Darren Barakat
This is an excerpt from an updated re-release of Darren Barakat's book Greatest Misses, which covers great lesser known classic songs of rock music from the 1960's up through the 1990's. You can see all of the rest of the book at Amazon. PSF had run previous excerpt from the book (featuring Zombies, BOC) in our April 2015 issue.
The funniest rock 'n' roll movie ever made, This Is Spinal Tap, satirizes the fictional English band Spinal Tap. Fans speculated about what real-life band was the main inspiration for the mockumentary and rockumentary; Uriah Heep, Saxon, and Black Sabbath were mentioned as candidates. English rockers Status Quo might be the top candidate, even though no one in Status Quo died of "spontaneous human combustion" or in a "bizarre gardening accident."
Like Spinal Tap, Status Quo recorded a big hit when flower power was in full bloom, then slid from the American charts into the dreaded "Where Are They Now?" file. After that, Status Quo dropped the psychedelic facade. They adopted the straightforward rock approach that yielded "Down Down" and dozens of other songs that were Great Misses in the United States but big hits in Quo's homeland.
Singer and guitarist Francis Rossi was strumming at a cheap hotel in Los Angeles and came up with the introduction and the melody. Later, Rossi and Bob Young, a harmonica player and unofficial band member, struggled to write lyrics.
Rather than try to be profound, they picked words whose sound fit the music. "[I] couldn't get anything that makes any sense," Rossi told Greg Prato for Songfacts. "Bob said, 'Well, we'll write "down down."' I said, 'Yeah, it sounds good. It makes no fuckin' sense at all, but it sounds great.' That's always been the key. I'm not very well educated or particularly into poetry or read much. To me, the lyric has to sound right. When you're singing, there's a tone that comes out, and you have to go with that tone."
One line in the song that does make sense is about shaking off being laughed at, which Rossi said was directed toward his soon-to-be ex-wife and the British press. The song's appeal is in the music, which makes you want to crank the volume to 11.
"'Down Down's' greatest pleasure... is the glorious texture of those guitars," wrote Ross Palmer, a freelance musician and recording engineer in London, in his blog Songs from so Deep. "Rossi's tone on its own is ear-grabbingly gorgeous, but what makes 'Down Down' really great is the blend of Rossi's sound with [Rick] Parfitt's. Parfitt's tone is fatter, more distorted and fills in the bottom, underneath Rossi's guitar." Drummer John Coghlan and bassist Alan Lancaster drive the song's fast beat.
"Down Down" and parent album "On the Level" rocketed up, up to No. 1 in Britain, and "Down Down" made the top 5 in several European countries. Overall, more than 20 singles and 20 albums by Status Quo made the top 10 of the British charts.
In the United States, "Pictures of Matchstick Men" rose to No. 12 on the Billboard singles chart in 1968. Status Quo's self-titled album, named "Blue for You" in Britain, limped to No. 148 in 1976. None of their dozens of other albums or singles appeared on the American charts.
"Burning House of Love"
X's fifth album, the sarcastically titled Ain't Love Grand, lives as the bastard child no one wanted.
The fans who adored X in Los Angeles's early 1980's punk scene disdained it. The young, mainstream rock fans listening to Van Halen and Motley Crue viewed it with suspicion. "Aren't they a punk band?" Critics, who loved X's early albums, panned it. Even Michael Wagener, the producer hired to turn X into a mainstream monster, called it a mistake.
"X was an underground punk band, and I was asked by the label to make them pop," Wagener told Chris Dunnett of AirGigs. At the time, Wagener had produced Dokken and Great White. After Ain't Love Grand, he worked with Alice Cooper, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row, and Warrant. "I was inexperienced enough back then to believe that the label knows everything, and we tried to make them pop, and I think that was a mistake."
X rarely plays "Burning House of Love," the minor radio hit from Ain't Love Grand, in recent years. It's difficult to reproduce live without the studio tricks Wagener used to gloss it. "There are like 25 or 30 guitar tracks and different parts and stuff," guitarist Billy Zoom (born Tyson Kindell) told record reviewer Mark Prindle in an interview published at Prindle's website.
In the mid-1980's, X's world was moving in several directions, like the tangle of freeways in the city where X made their name. X's primary songwriters, singer Exene Cervenka and singer and bassist John Doe (born John Duchac), were divorcing after five years of marriage (hence the album title). Former Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek, who produced X's first four albums, was pushed out. Doe started a career as an actor. Zoom needed money and decided he would leave X if Ain't Love Grand bombed.
The Billboard chart run for Ain't Love Grand burned out at No. 89, lower than X's most recent previous two releases. The disappointment came despite X's performance before 80,000 at the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, and with "Burning House of Love" the first and last X song on the radio nationally.
X were "sellouts," and "Burning House of Love" was the official sellout song.
Never mind that the song rumbles and smolders along dramatically with Zoom's guitar and Doe's smoky vocals. D.J. Bonebrake (supposedly his real name) keeps time on the drums. Is it arson, passion, or a marriage burning to the ground and turning to ash? It's mainstream rock by a punk band done better than mainstream rock by the pros.
Still, as Zoom told Spin magazine shortly before leaving X: "If you didn't get a bunch of money, you didn't sell out."
The awful MTV video, which does nothing to capture the song's dark drama, hurt promotional efforts.
X released just two more albums, in 1987 and 1993. Doe acted in TV shows such as Roswell and Law and Order, and movies like Boogie Nights and Great Balls of Fire! He co-wrote a couple of books about Los Angeles punk. Cervenka peddled conspiracy theories on social media.
ED NOTE: Thankfully, among the few bright notes of 2020 was the band's comeback album Alphabetland.
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