CHARLY’S ROCK COLUMN: THE KINKS – SINGLES HISTORY – Part 1: Early Kinks (1964)

Written by: Charly Saenz

It’s almost a thrill to listen to that clumsy version of “Long Tall Sally”, their first single.. It’s really an amateur band sound in retrospect (George Martin said that newer bands tend to record in a higher speed.. Emotions out of control?), and not necessarily in the bad sense. They *mean it*, like The Beatles in their stuff pre “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, they’re hungry for more, baby. Ray wrote the flip side, and it’s hardly any better you know, but hey, family, friends, we were recording!

It’s in the second single “You Still Want Me” (and the similar sounding “You Do Something To Me”, both sides written by Ray), where they really shine – a precious melody and hooks, and well, let me tell you, it’s the kind of frame of mind in the recording companies those days you had to change. Why recording covers? Not everyone could, but Ray COULD write.

Those were harsh times and you had to get a hit, so we did that razor thing with the speaker and Dave came up with that feedback storm (it’s 1964, get this in your system!), that piercing sting called “You Really Got Me”. In those times The Kinks were about electricity you know, so no big words from Ray, but he wrote a musical anthem for the early Kinks. It was a monolithic achievement. “It’s All Right” on the other side, was unremarkable: another “let’s all scream in concert” tune (a cousin of “I’m Alright” by the Stones, probably).

Same year, The Kinks released an EP called “Kinksize Session”, with a “Louie Louie” cover; much better than “Long Tall Sally”, at least Ray sang in his own gritty voice, not like a suicidal lamb. Can’t say much about “I Gotta Go Now” but it’s marginally better than the cover (they’d perfect this style on albums like “Kinda Kinks” or even on “Kontroversy”). “Things Are Getting Better” is another frantic number, quite disposable.  But “I’ve Got That Feeling” with that pretty piano (Nicky “Session Man” Hopkins perhaps?) is a beauty. Going slower is sometimes a great decision…

.. But we accelerated a bit for “All Day And All Of The Night”. Certainly a successful clone, a sombre child of “You Really Got Me”, and I usually prefer the child, as it’s slightly darker, more intense, and obsessive. The B-side, “I Gotta Move” is very good, with a pretty crescendo at the end, as it never leaves the original punching beat (kudos to Mick Avory’s hi hat); also a much better realized song for a dynamic concert number (in this case, the Stones title-alike would be “I’m Moving On”).

This was, dear friends, a single year in the life of The Kinks.. Evolution? Well I’d say quite some big steps for them and humanity, but they would be bigger steps next year.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Subcultural Explorations Vol 1, Part 2: RondoNumbaNine- Rondo Lane (2012)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Aww, yeah – this is some proper subcultural realness right here! Dreadful, muddy mastering? Check! Album art that looks to have been designed on a budget of maybe six dollars? Check! Incomplete and/or misspelled tracklisting? Check! Ratings on RateYourMusic? Six! The closest this guy ever came to a brush with fame was a terrible guest verse on a terrible song by the terrible Lupe Fiasco, and that only came out after he was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison for first degree murder. Psht – and people like The Game have the balls to call themselves gangsters?

Yeah, this is for the enthusiast only, and even for us weirdos it can be kind of a slog sometimes. That stretch from “Savage Up” to “Ridin Dirty” is so littered with horrible guest spots and forgettable beats that it really takes a bite out of the energy, and that’s kind of a mortal blow ‘cos the energy is really all this thing has. Lines like “Choppa spittin’ like a water gun, I’ll spray a nigga like a water gun” really test the limits of my affection and/or tolerance for simplistic drill lyrics, and I’m pretty sure Rondo himself isn’t even on a couple of these tracks. And of course, as with most drill, I really have to be in the mood for it or else the ceaseless, senseless repetition really does drag me down and leave me feeling kinda depressed. Still, it’s only about forty minutes long, and when I am in the mood there are some real gems in those forty minutes.

Rondo’s a nihilist, but unlike Keef he at least he usually comes off as an actual human being rather than a degraded puddle of primordial sludge. Mind you, I’m not entirely convinced he’s all human, ‘cos he displays a level of raw, unfiltered aggression more commonly found in velociraptors, angry male bears, and hardcore punk vocalists. He’s got a gravelly, harsh voice, usually made harsher by the gloriously inexact doubling effect applied to his vocals on most tracks, and he’s also got an ear for rhythmically catchy hooks. “My Team Winning” doesn’t really sound like it should be catchy or memorable, but it is nonetheless, and it’s been stuck in my head for days, as has “Ridin Dirty” (though, to be fair, I can’t actually be totally sure he’s the one rapping there). His adlibs are also hilariously appropriate – behind every main vocal track is a bunch of animalistic “rrrrAHR!”s and “grAWWH!”s, and on “No Question” they’re so loudly mastered that they occasionally overwhelm the rest of the track and drag the whole thing into hilarious cacophony. It should sound awful, but somehow it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Is it amoral to be so charmed by the music of a proud murderer? I mean, it’s not my fault it’s so endearing!

It’s not all unintentional comedy, though. All the horrendous mastering and nonexistent mixing in the world can’t get in the way of just how ridiculously hard this stuff goes, and I found myself properly headbanging – not just bopping, but seriously banging – to it at multiple points. If Back From The Dead was no wave, then this is proper DC hardcore, and it packs as much abrasive, raw energy as that suggests. There’s not much use describing most of the tracks, because the majority of them are exactly the same – there’ll be a brief, ominously sweeping intro until the harsh, drilling hi-hats and filthy synths come in, with Rondo snarling out a bunch of aggressive boasts and territorial postures until some guest rapper comes in and does much the same. It’s proper trunk banging music, but it’s also way too harsh, lo-fi and abrasive to fit into any Atlanta party trap playlist. Sometimes those big, booming basslines are barely even audible, and the synth chords are way too macho and powerful to work in any strip club. Nah, this isn’t music for parties – this is music for killers, and not the calculating kind. After all, killing tends not to be a very intellectual business; mostly what you need (so I’m told) is a lot of raw rage and testosterone, and this has those in abundance.

There are definitely a few notably great tracks, though. “Money, Power, Respect” has a surprisingly delicate keyboard riff coexisting with all the bass & drum cacophony, and the way it interlocks with the main synth melody in the hook might actually be described as intricate. “Face Down”, meanwhile, has this sassy little plinky-plonky piano riff that lends the track a stylish swagger, but there’s still a wailing whistle synth soaring above it and some harsh, distorted keyboard notes thunking underneath it in case you forgot where you are. “We Savage”, meanwhile, sounds like it could almost fit on a God of War OST, with those huge, choral synth chords presiding over that thunderous, percussive riff that rolls under the whole thing. Rondo’s really great on that track, too – he inflects his rage with just a touch of spicy contempt, and it really goes that extra mile in pushing the track from yer average nihilistic drill banger to something more memorable and fun. “We in that field, we totin’ drill/ we’a whack a nigga for nothin‘!”, he proclaims, unfiltered disgust twisting the last word like a knife. It’s brutal, uncompromising, and fucking awesome. Drill can be mind-numbing, soul-crushing stuff sometimes, but at its best this tape energises me like little else in the musical world. Great stuff.

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Subcultural Explorations Vol 1, Part 1: Chief Keef – Back From the Dead (2012)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Exploring self-contained musical subcultures has long been a passion of mine. I find something deeply fascinating about them; they’re usually completely divorced from the trends of the mainstream, but if they stick around for long enough they usually end up influencing the mainstream in at least some small way. Exploring a musical subculture is like delving into a separate world, but it’s also a way to see the world through new eyes; subcultures have their own rules, their own conventions and their own ideas of the way music should be, and they tend to reflect a thoroughly non-mainstream way of thinking. As such, I’m now starting a series called Subcultural Explorations in which I shall delve into various different musical subcultures and try to get to the bottom of what makes them tick. It’s not gonna be organised and I’m not gonna keep to any sort of regular schedule, but I’ll try to update frequently.

So, without further ado, here’s the inaugural post!

THE INAUGURAL POST

So – drill music. Nihilistic muck flowing from the streets of Chicago like blood. This mixtape holds the dual distinctions of being both the scene’s breakout moment and a definitive summary of its general philosophy and aesthetic, so I feel it’s as good a place to start as any.

Make no mistake: Chief Keef really is as utterly, all-encompassingly nihilistic as the harshest noise artist. He’s a rapper, technically, but he doesn’t really come across as one; it’s more like he’s leading a series of baying, primal chants, slowly forcing out each syllable as if they’re getting caught behind his teeth. He packs each word with such contemptuous, vindictive force that after a while he starts to sound demented, like a dumb war-beast on some rage-enhancing drug, gutturally barking out the word “Bang!” through a layer of hot spittle while mindlessly brandishing his firearm. At no point in this mixtape does Keef express anything resembling a complex sentiment, and very rarely does he use a word that goes significantly over the two-syllable mark. He’s a soulless, barbarous brute, and he operates entirely on instinctual lower functions. It’s a damn good thing this mixtape is only forty-two minutes long, ‘cos any longer and all the bludgeoning would start to become genuinely numbing.

I don’t buy the idea that it takes no talent to rap like this, though. Soulja Boy and some guy called Yale Lucciani deliver their guest verses like they’re trying to cop Keef’s style without fully understanding what makes it tick, and in both cases the end result is dismal. SD and Lil Reese do better – Lil Reese’s “You not with the shits, you could die tonight” might be the most quietly frightening moment on the whole tape – but they’re still not as effortlessly captivating on the mic as Keef himself. I don’t know exactly what talent Keef possesses that makes him such a fascinating presence, but he’s definitely got something; the guy really does manage to sound like he’s been dredged out from the base neanderthal sludge at the bottom of human nature. It’s a very one-dimensional aesthetic, but it’s very convincing.

Besides, he’s got Young Chop behind him to keep things interesting. That guy’s beats surround Keef like dense fog, packed so full of rich sounds and conflicting little motifs that he sometimes almost disappears behind them. On “True Religion Fein”, he has to spit his epithets through a dense collection of hi-hats and snares that take up so much space they threaten to drown him out entirely; on “Sosa”, he’s accompanied by a synth ostinato that sonically metamorphoses into something different for every segment, sounding like a piercing digital siren one moment and a distant mechanical whine the next. There’s some soft little pianesque synths on “Designer” that somehow still manage to sound kinda foggy and dirty, and some reverent tones emanating from a church organ on “Trust None” as he wields his mace and destroys the pews. Then, of course, there’s “I Don’t Like”, with that little synth metronome chiming ceaselessly away like it’s part of the fabric of the universe while percussive bass notes erupt from underground, surrounding and subsuming Keef like a pyroclastic flow as he spits and bays. It’s all very grandiose, sweeping and ominous, but the strength and density of that rhythm section keeps it grounded. I mean, listen to the hi-hats on “Everyday” – they’re so fast they’ve all blurred into one continuous tone!

Of course, even judged on its own merits it’s not perfect. A good number of Keef’s lyrics dip below his usual nihilistically mindless level and end up outright cringeworthy; “Realnigga.com, bitch nigga log in” is a proper facepalm moment, and Yale Lucciani’s “You don’t have a chance/ Bitch I shop in France” is no better. The autotune that creeps in on a couple of tracks towards the end is very amateurish, and sounds deeply unpleasant in a way that doesn’t really add to the aesthetic. “Save That Shit” is pretty much an entirely pointless throwaway, and King Louie just sounds weird and out of place on “Winnin'” – he’s always been the most Atlanta-esque of all the Chicago drill rappers, and his feelgood materialism doesn’t quite gel with Keef’s pure destructive nihilism. And on a broader level, you can’t listen to this too many times in a row or you really do start to feel yourself degrading to a primordial state; after finishing this review I think I’m gonna blast some 80s synthpop or maybe 70s funk & soul, ‘cos I’ll need it to purge all the soul-blackening muck Chief Keef poured down my brainstem while I was writing it. But that’s drill, and that’s why I find it so fascinating. The blackest depths of Michael Gira’s output in the 80s don’t match the sheer, mind-numbing intensity of the nihilism you can find in this kind of music, and I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. Expect more on it soon, for sure.