Author Archives: Billy L

Turkeys, Hamm’s, and Pepperoni Eyes: Personal & The Pizzas at the Knockout

Between 2/26 and March 7, two Narcs were out vacationing working on a piece on Portland’s and San Francisco’s music scene. This second of three parts finds our young adventurers in search of San Francisco’s best New Jersey-style pizza.

Knockout flyerIt’s always a nice surprise: You go to a show to see one band, but another band on the bill gives such a killer performance that the other sets pale in comparison, and you wonder why you weren’t there to see that band all along.

During Noise Narcs’s visit to San Fran back in early March, we hopped on a bus on a Wednesday night and headed down to Bernal Heights to hit up a show at the Knockout. It’s a no-frills dive bar & venue, with the bar and the stage/dancefloor separated by a cut-out wall. A tight grid of album covers adorns the top section of the bar side of that middle wall, and below that, “LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL” is painted right-to-left in backward letters, which become legible when you look into the big mirror above the bar.

Hamm'sThe bar had an okay selection of draft beers, but the most popular beverage choices seemed to be Tecate tallboys and 12-oz cans of Hamm’s, which was a new one for me in the pantheon of cheap, hipster-certified brews. Wikipedia says it’s a Minnesota beer but that it had plants in San Francisco:

The Hamm’s brewery in San Francisco opened in 1954 at 1550 Bryant Street, close to the Seals baseball stadium. The brewery closed in 1972. In the early 1980’s, the beer vats were rented out to punk rock bands, and it was a used as music studios until the building was renovated and turned into offices.

Also, you must check out this old Hamm’s commercial.

When we first walked in, we caught the tail end of Tim Cohen’s Magic Trick. The little we heard was gentle, pleasant rock; it would turn out to be quite a contrast for what was up next.

As the second band was setting up, a few things diminished our expectations for their set: (1) The drummer took his sweet time to tune his snare, and played a loud flam after each turn of the drum key; (2) The guitarist’s strap was made of chain — like, regular chain.

Personal & The Pizzas

Rocking Wayfarers, the lead singer/guitarist, greeted the crowd with, “Alright, you turkeys. We got some music for ya,” and launched into some straight-ahead rock’n’roll, a I – IV – V tune called “Pepperoni Eyes,” as in, “Pepperoni eyes / She’s got those pepperoni eyes.”

Personal & The Pizzas, “Pepperoni Eyes”

[Buy]

The band was called Personal & The Pizzas, as in, “I’m Personal, and this here’s my band, The Pizzas.” The jokey name, dumb lyrics, and strict adherence to the Stooges/Ramones formula of no-frills, two-and-a-half minute songs could have gotten old fast, had it not been for the band leader’s compelling stage presence and the gusto with which he served up his Jersey greaseball shtick.

When an audience member rudely called out the bassist — a tall, lanky, balding, gum-chewing dude in a leather jacket — for sporting a slightly uneven handlebar mustache, the singer turned to his bandmate and said, “You just stand there and look pretty and blow some bubbles for me.” It might not be that funny on the page, but when delivered with an exaggerated Jersey accent from another era (cf. intro to “Brass Knuckles”), it killed.

The band has an album, Raw Pie, out on Oakland’s 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. It’s a slice of what they’re about. But for the full meal, this is a band best experienced live.

Personal & The Pizzas, “Brass Knuckles”

[Buy]

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John Barry: 1933-2011

With all the posts about film music for David Lynch Week, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the passing on Jan. 30 of John Barry, an Oscar-winning film composer best known for his work on the 007 franchise.

I’ll make this post short and sweet — my three favorite John Barry themes:

Basie Meets BondCount Basie Orchestra, “From Russia With Love” [Buy]

As recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra for its 1965 album Basie Meets Bond. A very Basie interpretation of one of the best Bond themes. I first heard this on the Ultra-Lounge compilation Crime Scene (one of the best Ultra-Lounge discs), and immediately began hunting eBay for the then-out-of-print LP.

John Barry, “Body Heat Main Title” [Rare original available here; or buy the 1998 re-recording]

Kathleen Turner, Body Heat, 1981As steamy as the South Florida heat, as sultry as the young Ms. Kathleen Turner, fully in the noir idiom, but with enough tasteful synthesizer to let you know it’s from the early ’80s. That’s Ronny Lang on alto sax, a soundtrack veteran who can also be heard in Peter GunnTaxi Driver, and other classic film scores.

John Barry, “Midnight Cowboy” [Buy]

A bittersweet, lonely, loping theme, featuring exquisite harmonica playing. It’s just as memorable as Harry Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which plays as Joe Buck is “headin’ up New York City, ma’am.”

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Staten Island Girls

No, not the Katy Perry parody that lit up Islanders’ news feeds last summer…

The Bad Mouth Betties are a quartet of talented young ladies from the fifth borough. Boasting three superb singers who regularly swap lead vocal duties, the Betties are at their best when performing close, tight harmonies and nailing classic girl-group backup vocal arrangements.

They released a four-song EP in the fall, and recently debuted a video for the single “Sunglasses,” written by my good friend and longtime bandmate Nicole Pignatelli.

Bad Mouth Betties, “Sunglasses” [Buy]

“St. George,” a gospel-pop number penned by the group’s keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Tina Kenny, is the other standout track on the EP.

Bad Mouth Betties, “St. George” [Buy]

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“Sing Hallelujah, Come On Get Happy!”: Performing Pop in the Worlds of David Lynch

In honor of David Lynch’s release on vinyl of his single “Good Day Today” (and our love of all things Lynch), Noise Narcs is posting on the music of, for, and about David Lynch this week. See our intro post (and claim of Lynch as a Philadelphian) here, and see the rest of the DLW posts here.

When thinking about the music in David Lynch’s works, the first element that comes to mind is, of course, Angelo Badalamenti’s composition. A close second is the director’s fondness for foregrounding his characters’ performances of classic, 1940s-1960s, pop.

“Twin Peaks”

Leland Palmer is the most conspicuous pop performer in the series. Actor Ray Wise’s manic performances of familiar and well-loved pop music brilliantly heightens the comedy and tragedy of Leland’s breakdown. An early and important example is his heart-wrenching dance with Laura’s photograph to the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s 1940 hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”

But for a more exuberant performance, we fast-forward to the first episode of the second season, when Leland’s hair turns white. He sings the 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats,” made famous by the Merry Macs.

Then later in the episode, at dinner with the Haywards, he makes a request — the Harold Arlen classic, composed in 1929, “Get Happy.” [Sinatra’s version of the tune, from his 1954 album Swing Easy!, is below.]

Blue Velvet

One of the most haunting and indelible performances in Blue Velvet takes place at the end of the scene where Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his entourage pick up beer (“Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) and stop by Ben’s house. This revealing scene, as sexually- and violently-charged as any in the film, culminates in a performance from Ben (Dean Stockwell) who lip-syncs the wonderful, and complex, 1963 Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams.” It’s utterly transfixing, for us and for Frank. Here’s the NSFW (unless you use headphones) scene. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, watch the entire scene. Notice how Lynch foregrounds the sound effects of Frank popping in the cassette and Ben clicking on the light. “In Dreams” starts at 5:20.

This is another example, like Leland Palmer playing his “Pennsylvania 6-5000” record, where a character selects and plays their own recorded music. But in this case it’s Frank who starts and stops the recording, giving us another glimpse at the dynamic of his relationship with Ben.

Continue reading ““Sing Hallelujah, Come On Get Happy!”: Performing Pop in the Worlds of David Lynch” »

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Charlie Louvin: 1927-2011

The Louvin Brothers

Charlie (left) and Ira Louvin

Before this weekend, I didn’t know about Charlie Louvin, or the Louvin Brothers. But I should have.

I have to give many thanks to WKCR (89.9 FM in NYC), the Columbia radio station, for preempting their regular programming on Saturday, Jan. 29, to celebrate the life and work of Charlie Louvin, who died on Jan. 26. WKCR filled six commercial-free hours with the sublime sounds of Charlie and his brother Ira, who died in a car accident back in 1965.

The Louvin Brothers are country legends. Their style of close harmony, as the sub-genre came to be known, with Charlie’s tenor as the bottom voice, and Ira’s amazingly high tenor as the top, was absolutely entrancing to me this Saturday, first in my car, then in my apartment. And Charlie’s guitar-playing and Ira’s mandolin-playing are excellent.

I should mention that Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, which I had watched for the first time a few days prior, really grabbed my ear and had it wanting to hear more American, country-tinged, Protestant church-inspired music. The scene where Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin sing “Goodbye to My Mama,” and the melody shifts, mid-song, to that of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” was such a beautiful moment, that I cracked an old hymnal from my family’s Methodist church and flipped to “When I Survey” so I could play in on the piano.

I’m really glad I was introduced to the Louvin Brothers’ amazing repertoire of country gospel, and, later in their career, more pop-oriented songs, and I hope you enjoy it too.

(If WKCR ever gets their act together and posts archives online, I’ll be sure to update this post with a link.)

The Louvin Brothers, “The Family Who Prays”
The Louvin Brothers, “When I Stop Dreaming”
The Louvin Brothers, “Satan is Real”

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The Voice From Another Place: Jimmy Scott and the Black Lodge

In honor of David Lynch’s release on vinyl of his single “Good Day Today” (and our love of all things Lynch), Noise Narcs is posting on the music of, for, and about David Lynch this week. See our intro post (and claim of Lynch as a Philadelphian) here, and see the rest of the DLW posts here.

Cooper enters the LodgeWhen Special Agent Dale Cooper enters the Waiting Room of the Black Lodge in the final episode of “Twin Peaks,” he is greeted by two mysterious figures. One we, and Cooper, have met before, in Cooper’s dreams. He is the Man from Another Place, the backward-talking, shuffling, dancing dwarf who acts as a sort of demented guide to the mythological realm of the Lodges. The other is a face new to Cooper, and probably to most viewers as well. It belongs to Little Jimmy Scott, “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century,” according to a New York Times Magazine profile from 2000.

If someone knows anything about Scott, it’s that he has an impossibly high voice due to a rare genetic condition, Kallmann’s syndrome, that prevented him from reaching puberty. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a talent regarded as a singer’s singer, someone who has worked with luminaries like Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, and Ray Charles, to name a few.

Jimmy Scott, “They Say It’s Wonderful” [Buy Falling in Love is Wonderful]

In episode 2 of “Twin Peaks,” the Man from Another Place tells Cooper, “Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air.” From what we can tell, that air, like most of the air in Twin Peaks — the town and the show — is filled with the sounds of Angelo Badalamenti. And sometimes, Jimmy Scott.

In the final episode of the series, Cooper, with the help of Sheriff Harry S. Truman and Pete “fish in the percolator” Martell, figures out how to enter the Black Lodge — via Glastonbury Grove, a circle of 12 sycamore trees in Ghostwood Forest. (Note the circle of 12 candles in Cooper’s dream.)

Cooper enters the grove, parts the red curtains and enters the Lodge. We immediately hear Jimmy Scott’s voice accompanied by synthesizer and bass. Cooper walks down the hall and into the next room. What follows is the most amazing two minutes of scripted television ever.

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Shaolin dance party: Paragraph’s “Powernap”

ParagraphBack in the summer of 2005, my brother, some friends, and I started performing a few cover tunes each Monday night at an open mic at Martini Red, a dive bar in Stapleton, Staten Island. A quartet of college students called Paragraph also performed each week, and they were by far the most exciting original act I had seen on the island. Their early stuff was mostly quirky dance-punk — angular, Gang-of-Four-type guitar stabs, driving bass lines and disco beats — fun, catchy, and always danceable.

The quartet became a trio, and over the years they honed their sound, experimenting with drum machines, adding layers of keyboards, working with other local musicians, and in 2009 they released a self-titled eight-track disc. “Body Part(y)” is one of the standouts.

PARAGRAPH by ParagraphParagraph, “Body Part(y)” [Buy PARAGRAPH]

Paragraph recently released a video for their single “Powernap,” which is available on a three-song EP, Chic Punk One. As with their self-titled album, the vocals are too buried in the mix for my taste — I have some trouble actually making out what singer Danny Lane is saying — but it’s a fun club-banger of a tune, and the video is slick. (Plus, it employs a variation of my all-time favorite music video conceit: the band traveling to the gig, where they eventually perform the song we’ve been hearing all along [see Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug”].) It’s been a thrill watching these guys grow as a band, and I’m glad they’re around to rep Staten Island.

Paragraph - Chic Punk OneParagraph, “Powernap” [Buy Chic Punk One]

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Fretboards & Circuit Boards

Chico Mann - Analog DriftBack in March, pop critic Oliver Wang posed a question to readers of his blog, Soul-Sides.comCan any of my musicological-oriented readers out there opine on why “electro” production is appealing? By “electro” I mean things like synthesizer chords that are clearly mechanical in source (i.e. can’t be created using any acoustic instrument, amplified or not).

It’s a great question — what’s the appeal of inorganic sounds? Thinking back to that Raymond Scott collection that came out a while ago, I’d have to say novelty and otherworldliness are two big elements of that appeal, or at least were at the start.

In Jon Pareles’s review of this weekend’s Moogfest he covers this very topic, and drills down further. There’s the analog vs. digital synthesizer debate — do you prefer your synthetic tones to be continuous electronic signals or chopped up into 0s and 1s? Which is more real? Pareles seems to come down on the side of the analog purists, writing that “Analog sounds are a funky corrective to sterile digital tones; colliding waveforms make a beautiful noise.” But overall, for Pareles, the festival was one of “synthetic tones that grew to feel natural.”

Of course, now certain synthetic sounds are just another part of the pop palette, they do feel natural, and thanks to their widespread use, especially in the ’80s, they can readily evoke a host of meanings, from retro cool (think 808 hand claps) to straight-up cheese (see “Red Rose for Gregory” in my previous post).

Antibalas guitarist Marcos Garcia has been mixing afrobeat and Latin grooves with drum machines and synths for a few years now under the moniker Chico Mann. Last week his latest album, Analog Drift, was released on Wax Poetics Records.

Chico Mann - Analog Drift: Muy...EsniquiAn earlier version of this album, called Analog Drift: Muy​.​.​.​Esniqui, dropped in 2009, and I listened to it a lot when it first came out. It was released on CD in limited quantities, and it was also available on the Chico Mann bandcamp page. That album has since been taken down, but the individual tracks are still up and findable with some Googling (e.g., here and here).

The songs on the new Analog Drift, like the old version, and most of the stuff on the artist’s Manifest Tone series, follow a simple formula: one or two guitars lay down an afrobeat-style groove, an 808-sounding drum machine provides the beat, synth bass, leads, and pads fill out the sound, and (sometimes) repetitive, chant-like vocals (in English and/or Spanish) float on top. Some of the tracks have enough bleeps and boops and buzzes for an old-school video game, and the album art of both versions — Sim ziggurat and 8-bit caricature — clearly evokes that aesthetic. It’s fun and hypnotic. Novel and retro. Warm analog and cool digital. Spacefunk en Español.

Chico Mann, “Guardalo (El Silencio)” [Buy Analog Drift]

Just ’cause, here’s some Earth-bound, down-and-dirty Antibalas:

Antibalas, “Pay Back Africa” [Buy Who Is This America?]

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In Memoriam: Gregory Isaacs, 1951-2010

Gregory IsaacsHello, Noise Narcs massive! The passing this week of one of my all-time favorite singers, reggae legend Gregory Isaacs, is a sad but appropriate subject for my long-overdue first Noise Narcs post.

My first introduction to Gregory Isaacs was back in 2002 when I discovered that the Penn State library had a trove of Heartbeat Records reggae reissues and compilations ripe for ripping. Rip I did, and pretty quickly I realized that the Gregory Isaacs stuff was among the best in the Heartbeat catalog (matched, in my mind, only by Dennis Brown). Known as the Cool Ruler, Gregory is most closely associated with the romantic “lovers rock” style — soulful lyrics of love and longing backed by lilting beats. This was the first Gregory song I remember hearing; I loved it immediately:

Gregory Isaacs, “My Number One” (version feat. DJ Trinity)

His voice, ever-so-slightly nasal, was gentle, clean, crisp, and intimate, and he was a master at conveying romantic longing or aching heartbreak with just a few syllables.

Gregory Isaacs - Cool RulerGregory Isaacs, “Party in the Slum”

Recorded at Channel One with that studio’s matchless house band, the Revolutionaries (anchored by Sly & Robbie), Gregory’s 1978 album Cool Ruler features some slightly harder-edged themes backed by the band’s signature aggressive, driving “rockers” style. Turn up the bass!

Gregory Isaacs - Slum in DubGregory Isaacs, “Slum”

Sound engineer Prince Jammy remixed the tracks on Cool Ruler, producing Slum in Dub, one of my favorite dub records.

Gregory Isaacs, “Night Nurse”

Gregory Isaacs - Night NurseReleased on Island Records, 1982’s Night Nurse, with the Roots Radics Band, introduced the singer to a wider audience. Gregory was heavily into cocaine and crack around the time of the album’s release and subsequent success, and a veteran Jamaican musician once told me that Gregory’s “night nurse” was, in fact, his crack pipe. Regardless, the entire album is great. The synths are used tastefully, making the album sound less dated than a lot of ’80s reggae (see below). Other highlights include “Cool Down the Pace,” “Material Man,” and “Stranger in Town.” Also, note that he weaves his own name into the lyrics. Which brings us to…

Gregory Isaacs, “Red Rose for Gregory”

Last Sunday morning, as news of Gregory’s deteriorating condition spread, DJ Jeff Sarge of WFMU dedicated a portion of his weekly three-hour reggae show to the singer. One tune he played was “Red Rose For Gregory,” a late-’80s number that I wasn’t familiar with. Beyond the trappings of ’80s reggae production — cheesy synth leads, orchestra hits, synth bass, synth drums… synth everything really — it’s a really sweet song about a secret admirer, and features Gregory in his best and most familiar role — the aching lover. Plus, I love that his name is in the title. Try to imagine writing a song in which you refer to yourself by your proper name.

I wrote a little reggae tune this summer (shameless plug). It was my first songwriting attempt, and it’s a pretty blatant Gregory Isaacs rip-off, down to the bass line, which is somewhere between “My Number One” and “Native Woman.” But now that he’s gone, I’m especially proud of that fact — my own tribute to one of my favorite singers.

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