From Prince to Peter Laughner, dig into this hot and trashy list from the dark corners of the music department in Santa’s Workshop
For the holidays, it’s easy enough to run into Urban Outfitters and buy a $42 dollar copy of Led Zeppelin IV (that could be found for $10 at the used record store two miles away).
But if you really want to impress the vinyl fanatic in your family – especially those impressionable young ones – you’ve got Google, Amazon, and I assume two legs or a car to help you get to your local mom ‘n’ pop shop and snag far more intriguing curiosities. Me, I’m of the mind that no one needs to buy another Led Zeppelin record ever again. There are many more acts and ages worth exploring. So here are a few cool gift ideas for you to place under the Kwanza wreath, Xmas tree or what have you.
Peter Laughner – 5x LP / CD box set (Smog Veil Records)
This is without a doubt THE most important release of 2019. Shut up, it is. Well, certainly the most important archival release.
Had you grown up punk in Cleveland, or ever investigated the whole concept of “proto-punk” over the last 30 years, you’ve probably heard of Peter Laughner’s early-70s Cleveland band, Rocket from the Tombs (which splintered off into punk touchstones, Pere Ubu and Dead Boys – no big deal, right?). After only one extremely impossible to find self-released LP and a few similarly rare posthumous records around the latter ‘80s, the heaving belief that there was more Laughner material out there somewhere was waning. Until around 10 years ago, when Cleveland-rooted/Chicago-based label, Smog Veil Records, floated that they were working on a compilation set.
Saying this box set is a “retrospective compilation” is like saying the Book of Revelation is just a third act. Smog Veil leader Frank Mauceri and company really played James Ellroy here, and dug up every damn thing they could find, and put their curatorial brains to work on concocting this massive set of good-to-mostly great sounding studio, bedroom, and live recordings; plus a gorgeous, hardcover book of fond remembrances, photos, vintage reviews, and rock journalism from Laughner himself. They picked the best stuff, mastered it expertly, and crafted it all with the heart of a father who lost his son in a war.
This set not only supports the notion of Laughner as the Great Lost Midwest Songwriter of the 1970s, but exposes a character who drunkenly soaked up and spewed out wherever the hell rock might go from the early blues-loving reinvention of early Dylan, through the psych-blues deconstructions of the dead end of the ‘60s – especially the dark response of the Velvet Underground/Stooges/MC5 axis – and through the burningly bored, oily banks of the Cuyahoga River.
It’s a monolith to that fleeting moment when we did not have the words “punk,” proto-punk,” “new wave,” or whatever to describe that yearning, hidden away in some desolate urban alley, musical groping desire to get away from all the tedious stadium jamming and coked-down and fading peace-sign patch placidity that “Rock” was sinking into, and, so, fuck, how do we save Little Richard’s soul?!
After falling in love with and frequently traveling to NYC – and a failed attempt to join Television – Laughner, as it turns out, was even ahead of that Bowery explosion. Much of this material was pre-1976. If Jesus didn’t die for Patti Smith’s sins, Laughner seems to have. He was one of those ‘70s figures who did the dirty work of fucking himself up completely, and dying of cirrhosis at the age of 24. I am never one to glorify drug addicts, but I do have an appreciation for those who had to lay groundwork that broke their backs.
Hence, there’s not a lot here that is going to perk you up on a Monday morning. Not unlike the dying downtown of Cleveland where Laughner spent his brief years, there is a lot of overcast, smoggy, rusty, and rainy atmosphere that passes in and out of here. But there is also some great, fevered rock’n’roll (especially the Rocket from the Tombs and Friction band action), fun radio show dialog, and artistic inspiration that survives the storms Laughner’s body couldn’t.
If you still don’t believe me, just put “Peter Laughner Smog Veil” into Google, and check out the endless fawning press this box set has deservedly garnered since its spring release. After decades of Killed By Death compilations, countless documentaries, and quarterly books about punk’s history, it’s become really hard to find a true, proto-punk revelation. This one feels like the revelations’ revelation.
The Heartbreakers – Yonkers Demo 1976; LP/CD (Cleopatra Records)
Slipping under the proto-punk archivists’ radar, Cleopatra Records ( http://cleorecs.com/home/ ) recently released a way-cool Johnny Thunders Heartbreakers rarity. It is the full, 13-song recording session at a studio up in Yonkers in 1976, featuring the original lineup, with Richard Hell on bass. A few of these tunes have eeked out on bootlegs and Thunders comps over the years, but as far as I know, this is the first proper release of the whole thing. Featuring well-recorded, trashy takes on all yer Heartbreakers faves – with some notable tempo and lyrical switcheroos – the 2xCD adds 22 (!!!) circa 1975-76 live blasts with that same lineup. Liner notes and pix too! This will NOT disappoint the diehards who are always on the lookout for more Heartbreakers nuggets. And yes, it seemed for a while that that river had run very dry, so consider this a full glass of water, or whiskey, as it were. Check the ID of the snot-nosed cousin who you’re thinking of getting this for.
Prince – Originals; 1999 (Rhino)
Now that he has passed, us rabid Prince fans have to face some tough truths. We know that our dear leader loathed to release anything he wasn’t 137% okay with. We always knew there was an Egyptian pyramid full of demos piled up somewhere, but, ok Prince, we get it. No YouTube bootleg links, fine, whatever. Of course, his death now means that his estate will plunder the vaults for the coming 137 years – and honestly, dammit, we can’t wait! And anyway, when you hear something as good as this set, the guilt subsides quickly.
Like I’m the only one who ever thought of it, but I always thought a comp the original Prince versions of songs he gave to others would be a great idea. And here it finally is. As known by bootleg-searching fanatics, Prince often had the basic tracks done, and whatever act he gave the song to, he mostly just mashed in their vocal takes and remixed a bit. There’s the story of how he was to give “Kiss” to his Paisley Park Records act, Maserati, but liked it so much he kept it for himself, and it’s basically the same song.
Needless to say, Prince is often a better singer than other people. But a minor revelation here is, on the tracks that are quite different than the more well-known covers, they’re sometimes stripped-back versions that are definitely not just “demos,” but slink around in that great mid-80s area where Prince still retained some of that minimalism that got him slated into “the new wave” early on; and highlight the amazing way Prince could get more deeply funky with one drum machine and some air than Earth, Wind, and Fire could whip up with an orchestra.
The double purple vinyl / CD and lovely hardcover book of the expanded set is well worth having, but there’s the fine single CD set too. Okay Rhino, now get going on that comp of Prince’s rockabilly songs! (And I am now copywriting that idea right here!)
Oh, and if you think that’s something, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Rhino has also dropped an unprecedentedly gargantuan expanded reissue of the Purple One’s 1982 classic, 1999.
I remember, Prince was bringing the 1999 tour to Cleveland, in a 1,000-seat theater, and I couldn’t find one dumb friend to go. “Oh, you and your weird music.”
“Hey, guys, um, he’s playing a huge theater, this ain’t exactly the Residents. Plus, he’s amazing!”
A little over a year later, “Little Red Corvette” is huge, and Prince comes back to a much larger venue for twice the price. Oh sure, now you guys want to go! Ugh.
I’m not complaining, I eventually got to see the Purple Rain tour. But one could argue that 1999 was the early height of Prince’s exploding creativity. How explosive? For the Super Deluxe edition of this 1999 reissue, Rhino has added 35 unreleased songs from the sessions! There’s a DVD added too of a full concert from that tour, and the standard remaster of the original album. And in a nice nod to Prince’s habit of not wanting all his stuff out there for free, the DVD content will not be officially available in download or streaming versions. So if you want it, you’re going to have to get all tactile, pal! There are the usual trimmed-down editions too, for us broke types.
Let’s just agree that for this Xmas, the official colors will be temporarily changed from green and red to purple.
The Futureheads The Futureheads Limited Edition Vinyl (Rhino)
Can you believe the Futureheads’ eponymous 2004 debut ( https://store.rhino.com/the-futureheads-2lp-limited-edition.html ) is already old enough to get a reverential reissue? One of the better bands of the brief “post-Strokes” signing frenzy of the early 2000s, the Futureheads, along with Franz Ferdinand, Hot Hot Heat, Bloc Party and others, slapped some New Wave angles onto the Strokes’ suave skeleton. It’s a sound that got old quick (yea, dancey indie rock! – because we look to gawkish, pasty white college boys for dance moves). But as with the Futureheads, it was a smart, fruitful move at first, as this 2xLP with copious B-sides proves.
Various Artists Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival/Live at the Roxy WC2 (Rhino)
Going back to the future, Rhino has also pulled a surprise by rescuing the hard-to-find, 1977 live punk compilations, Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival and Live at The Roxy WC2, for nice vinyl reissues. One of the earliest live releases from the UK punk explosion, Live at The Roxy features sizzling songs from leading lights like X-Ray Spex, Wire, and the Buzzcocks. But the real treat here – as it’s even more rare and more sizzling – is Hope & Anchor. The then-brand new bands that played there made the old Hope & Anchor pub a ground zero for a hot minute. Featuring the Stranglers, the Only Ones, Steel Pulse, and more, the tracks from legendary Australian band, the Saints, alone make it worth owning. No extras here, but if you even have these records, they’re probably in need of an upgrade by now. At the least, they’d make great introductions for the budding punk teen in your brood.
MC5 – Total Assault box set & The Hard Stuff book Bundle (Rhino)
And back further, that teen’s gonna need this Holy smokes Grail. Featuring exact replicas of the three original MC5 albums (colored vinyl), in a sweet hard-shell case with new liner notes and photos. Plus, the bundle comes with guitarist Wayne Kramer’s crazy 2018 biography, The Hard Stuff, that details the rise, fall, and rise of his infamous proto-punk band, his life in and out of jail, and surviving it all to tell the tale.
Simply put, the MC5 made some of the top shelf rock’n’roll of all time, and their three albums are essential for any fan of said shelf. But that box set case better be well-made, because the music is so powerful, don’t be surprised if you walk into your record room one morning and the set has exploded all over the room.
VIDEO: MC5 Total Assault unboxing
Speaking of the MC5, the suddenly spazzily active label, Modern Harmonic – a sub-imprint of revered reissue label, Sundazed, has issued new, well mastered reprints of the earliest MC5 recordings. The two 7”s – “I Can Only Give You Eveything” / “I Just Don’t Know Why” and “Looking at You” / “Borderline” – come in white vinyl, and slid into cool sleeves with rare pictures. Not to mention, these rare, early recordings are some of the most fuzzed and frazzled of their amazing canon.
But what will really flip the lid of the vintage oddities-loving friend on your gift list are the incredible B-film soundtrack/DVD sets that Modern Harmonic has concocted.
AUDIO: William Castleman Space Thing: Motion Picture Soundtrack
In a retro-obsessed marriage made in Hades, Modern Harmonic have paired with ever-cool DVD imprint, Something Weird ( https://rockandrollglobe.com/?s=something+weird ), to craft a bofo idea. They found the original soundtrack sources of some rare, subversively goofy ol’ B-flick faves from the ‘50s, and mastered them into full albums that can then be played along to the DVDs of the films – included in the record! Plus, they toss in either info-packed, fanzine-like liner notes, or full-color posters of the film.
These are the kind of 360-degree Pandoras Boxes that ooze with true love of the always fruitful, weird underbelly of America’s midcentury, slop-culture sins. We can only hope Modern Harmonic keeps pumping these out past the snowy season…
AUDIO: Nicholas Carras Date Bait OST
R.E.M. – Monster 25th Anniversary Expanded Edition (Craft Recordings)
I had a pal who worked at a great record store in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived when R.E.M. were at their pinnacle. A big college town like Columbus would seem to be the perfect place for the world’s greatest and most famous “college rock” band to ply their wares. And sure enough, said pal told me, circa early 1996, that Monster and Green Day’s Insomniac were the most traded-back CDs in the store. That has become the basic reputation of this, R.E.M.’s 1994 big return record – a huge seller at the height of the CD explosion, quickly becoming a $3 bin staple. Maybe that was the expected fate of a follow-up to the band’s arguably best, and highest selling album, Automatic for the People – a simple matter of numbers. Or maybe it was because, on first through third listen, Monster fell a little flat.
The album displayed a decibel ferocity the band needed to counter Automatic’s lingering, lush shadow that was clouding the band’s early, scraggly, DIY roots. And, as Michael Stipe noted in a recent interview, the band needed some big, loud anthems to play to the back rows of the Monster arena tour, the band’s first proper tour in nearly five years.
But songwriting-wise, it wasn’t quite the master class that Automatic was. And their newer fans – mainstream types who can be fickle and fleeting – often don’t listen past the third try (odd, since CDs then cost around $20; but then, mainstream type music fans often have, like, jobs and stuff, so I guess they could afford to toss their CDs in the back seat and slide in the newest thing). There was really only one bonified hit off Monster, the initial single, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” – hits being another thing that keep fair weather fans around.
The ensuing, long Monster tour, cool videos for the follow-up singles, and, sadly, drummer Bill Berry’s aneurysm and temporary departure from the band, kept R.E.M. on MTV news and the charts. 1994-95 was a media blitz year for the band, though it was perhaps the oddest career apex for any band in rock history. Their early diehards had mostly jumped ship, new fans didn’t get their “Everybody Hurts Part !!,” and the “alternative rock explosion” that R.E.M. basically inspired in the latter ‘80s was moving on to other bands.
This is not to say Monster wasn’t a successful album. As those bloated $3 bins and tour receipts proved, R.E.M. were as big as they’d ever be. And it was interesting to see them use that spotlight to try on kooky stage outfits, let Peter Buck hit power chords, and push their righteous political beliefs. And as this expanded box set reveals – especially during producer Scott Litt’s new 2019 remix and the tour film, Road Movie – Monster does expose some fun, glam rock starbursts that were integral (if somewhat unnoticeable previously) to the members’ upbringings.
As per usual with R.E.M.’s incredibly smart and fruitful post-life reissues, this one has a few different “deluxe,” “special,” and vinyl-included versions – not to mention lovely artwork reimaginings and photos – so much so that I’d rather not take up half the space of this gift guide detailing them. Suffice to say, you can choose which one you want for the fandom level of you alternative rock-loving friend.
Whatever you choose, just don’t give Pink Floyd, the Beatles, or Kanye West any more money. Search out the weirder stuff, people!
VIDEO: 1979 Sound Warehouse/CBS Records Christmas Sale Commercial