While I normally resist the temptation to weigh in on a new year’s recap, this past year was an interesting year for the type of stuff I tend to cover in this column. If you’re like me and have a reverence and a fascination for the sounds of yore, then read on for a few highlights from 2014, listed in no particular order, mind you.
Looking for Johnny Soundtrack
While Johnny Thunders’ legacy as the feral degenerate junkie spawn of Keith Richards and the inventor of punk guitar is ironclad, he hasn’t exactly been a hot topic of discussion over the past few years. That’s all changed—2014 saw the departed axe-man’s legend revived with some new releases, including a feature documentary film, Looking For Johnny. This companion soundtrack features a wide spectrum of numbers from both the ex-New York Doll’s solo career (“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” “Little Bit of Whore”) and with his band The Heartbreakers (“Pirate Love,” “One Track Mind”), all rounded out with excellent remastered sound. The vinyl version comes complete on two red LPs. (Jungle/MVD)
For true Thunders diehards, also check out the Real Times EP on 10-inch pink vinyl featuring some unreleased studio takes from 1978, from Remarquable Records.
Shock Proof: 1976-1979
If you read up on the history of the early days of LA punk, you’ll more than likely see the usual suspects—The Germs, X, Weirdos, Fear, et al. One band that always seems to go criminally missing is that of four-piece combo SHOCK. With a sound that incorporated a healthy dash of pop into its punk grooves, the band had a rock star quality à la The Sex Pistols and Generation X that made it a standout in the scene. Per said image, the sleeve from the band’s iconic EP This Generation’s on Vacation adorns bootleg T-shirts and has become a must-have artifact for collectors of the era.
This killer comp features both of the band’s EPs, plus demos, live recordings and even a track from the reunited band from 2013, all tightly packed in a slick white-vinyl LP, with a booklet outlining the band’s history. (Artifix)
Along with the aforementioned Mr. Thunders, Cheetah Chrome—our esteemed fellow columnist, ex-Dead Boy and all-around badass—sowed the seeds of punk guitar, inspiring hordes of bastard broods to pick up the axe and start bands. The impetus of Solo can be traced back to 1996, with original Dead Boy producer Genya Ravan at the helm, and then finally finished in 2010 with ex-New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain contributing. The results are a seamy concoction of solitary and literate rock ‘n’ roll with a well-worn edge and some razor-sharp axe-work, courtesy of Mr. Chrome. (Plowboy)
Upon its original release in 1991, Motörhead’s 1916 evoked quite a response. While some metal purists cried “sell-out,” the US mainstream finally took notice, elevating the band’s status in these parts. As far as I’m concerned, 1916 revitalized the band with its bountiful production values, flawless musical execution and greater depth to the songwriting, as exemplified in “Going To Brazil, ” “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” and “”No Voices In The Sky.” This sweet reissue comes with bonus tracks and is housed in a plush digipack with expanded photos and artwork. (Cherry Red)
Rock Or Bust
While I have always loved AC/DC, I really haven’t seen the need for a new album, especially one that lacks founder Malcolm Young’s signature riffage. Honestly, I’ve got at least four or five other great records to pull from if I need a fix, so what’s the point?
Per Rock or Bust, I’m happy to report that the aforementioned mindset no longer applies. Upon hearing the new album, I was pleasantly blown away by its energized sounds and renewed sense of purpose. In spite of the somewhat lame title, the album is lean and mean, busting with frenetic riffs and hooks as in the upbeat “Play Ball,” and the eerie burner “Dogs of War.” Surprisingly, the album showcases many of the classic aspects of the band, yet sounds completely fresh—even without brother Malcolm in tow. The 2-LP version includes a 3D cover and CD companion. (Columbia)
Live In Boston 1989
Along with Guns N’ Roses, LA Guns were part of the underground Hollywood glam scene comprised of social deviants and ex-punks during the mid ‘80s. While the band would be nowhere near as successful as their former rivals, LA Guns would in turn create one gritty and brash street-metal debut that would grab the public consciousness by the neck and throttle naysayers with its musical prowess.
This recent release features the band in its full glory, just after the release of its second album, Cocked and Loaded. The bad attitude still remains and while the mood is rife with possibility, this would ultimately be the band’s most successful period, before internal strife and the advent of grunge would signal its decline. While the sound quality wavers in spots, the band comes across loud and proud on a set dominated by its second album. (Cleopatra)
Red Dragon Cartel
Jake E. Lee has probably seen more heartache and frustration in the workplace than most of us ever will. Stepping in to replace the matchless Randy Rhodes in the guitar slot in Ozzy’s band during the ‘80s was no easy feat.
But Lee’s ample playing and skillful solos blew critics away and helped to elevate the Ozzman even further during the mid ’80s. But out of nowhere, Lee would get sacked and replaced by Zakk Wylde, who’s profile has enjoyed wide acclaim ever since. After his next band Badlands failed to gain lasting longevity, Lee did some work here and there before effectively dropping out of the scene and falling on hard times.
The Red Dragon Cartel is his comeback, and it does not disappoint. The album features a clutch of guest vocalists ranging from Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander to OG Iron Maiden vocalist Paul Di’Anno and Maria Brink from In This Moment. While the production values are modern and very techy sounding in spots, Lee’s playing is stellar, further distinguishing him as the undervalued axe-man he truly is—his versatile playing sounding as at home on this very “now” sounding album as it did on Ozzy’s Bark At the Moon. (Frontiers)
Redeemer of Souls
A few months ago, I reviewed Redeemer of Souls in this radical rag, praising this comeback album of sorts to the high heavens. All puns aside, it was a surprisingly solid effort, especially given the band’s inner turmoil and its previous offering, the somewhat disastrous Nostradamus album. It seems as though the mighty Priest has found its voice again, packing this release with enough screaming riffs and searing vocal acrobatics to satiate all the non-believers. (Epic)
While Dick Wagner (RIP) is probably best remembered for his axe work with Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, the man’s resume goes far deeper. The ace session guitarist was the un-credited player on many major ‘70s records, including those from KISS and Aerosmith, elevating the public perception of their players while humbly collecting his fee, and then on to his next anonymous gig.
This newly unearthed reissue presents his obscure 1978 solo album on sterling CD. While the man’s credentials as a hard rock player par excellence are indisputable, this album is more or less a singer-songwriter offering, loaded with introspective ballads and rootsy refrains. But there are a couple rock numbers to chew on, as in “Go Down Together” and “Motor City Showdown,” that make this an interesting artifact. (Real Gone)
Culture Factory reissues
The good folks at reissue label Culture Factory are obviously very much in love with what they do. Not only is the label still dedicated to the cause of churning out physical products, each CD they reissue is painstakingly replicated down to the finest detail, including reproducing the original album covers as svelte mini-LP sleeves. This past year saw the releases of a few proto-punk and alternative must-haves.
At the top of the 2014 list is The Runways’ Live In Japan album. Virtually impossible to find on CD—unless you’re prepared to shell out a fortune for a Japanese import—the album captures the young preening punkettes at the peak of their powers, sounding loud, gritty and snotty as all hell. Others standouts from the year include key reissues for Iggy Pop, The Stranglers and proto-punk axe-man Chris Spedding. (Culture Factory)
Kings & Queens of the Underground
While I will always prefer Billy Idol’s Generation X stuff to his somewhat dicey solo career, there’s no denying his rock star status, and even more so, his hits. The man has cranked out a number of infectious goodies over the years, yet as he’s been out of the limelight for so long, it’s been hard to gauge what he’s still capable of.
Kings & Queens of the Underground is a rousing statement of intent, and a respectable re-entry back into the spotlight. A throwback to his glory days of the ‘80s, it’s a hybrid of flashy guitars (courtesy of long-time foil Steve Stevens), serious hooks and layers of synths. While I can do without much of the syrupy synthy stuff, songs like “Can’t Break Me Down” and “Whiskey and Pills” are rife with big choruses, loud guitars and a renewed sense of purpose. (BFI Records)
Billy Thermal was a power-pop band from Los Angeles that is far more famous for its members’ future achievements than its own brief accomplishments. Playing a fairly standard brand of quirky, crunchy pop alongside the likes of The Knack and The Plimsouls during the late ‘70s, the band recorded this previously unreleased album in 1980.
As the band began to fall apart, lead songwriter Billy Steinberg would go onto massive mainstream success writing radio hits for the likes of Madonna and Heart, while band mate Bob Carlisle would astonishingly, score his own hit much later on in the Christian rock arena. While neither would particularly be my cup of tea, the newly unearthed Billy Thermal album contains its fair share of sneering pop hooks, clever lyrical twists and punchy riffs to make this a standout. (Omnivore)
Alan Parsons Project
The Complete Albums Collection
In spite of a few massive pop hits during the ‘80s, Alan Parsons has been responsible for creating some interesting prog pieces that straddle the line between avant-garde and radio rock. A pioneer in the true sense of the word, his decades-old I Robot album still sounds strange and a bit off-kilter even today. This set features all of his key albums in one tidy little package, with remastered paper-sleeve covers that replicate the original artwork. Standouts also include the Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Pyramid. (Sony)
Fans of power-pop got a boost in 2014 with the long-overdue reissue of late-‘80s purveyors The Posies. Failure (1988) was little more than a full-length demo cut by a couple of teenagers, but managed to turn more than a few heads with its sophisticated melding of British Invasion affectations and the then thriving indie-pop scene; songs like “Blind Eyes Open” and “Ironing Tuesdays” being perfect examples. This reissue comes with bonus tracks and expanded packaging. (Omnivore)
I’ll Have Some of That
When it comes to categorization, The Babys were destined to be misfits. Known for sophisticated hooks, infectious riffs and the distinctive vocals of John Waite, the band wasn’t quite heavy enough to fit into the metal scene proper, while a little too ballsy and off-kilter to be 100% radio-friendly.
When I first heard the news of a new Babys record, I couldn’t believe it. Could these surly Brits bury the hatchet and make nice for a new record? Not really. While original guitarist Wally Stoker and drummer Tony Brock are in tow, the band is missing one massive key element: John Waite. New singer John Bisaha does a valiant job, but the band sounds like so many other Americanized radio staples such as Foreigner and Survivor—the kind of formulaic rock that would’ve propelled them much further back in the day. There are a few catchy numbers, but Waite’s eerie melodies and distinctively British approach are sorely missed. Ah well, the idea of a new Babys record was still enough for at least a mention this time out. (All In Time)
The Cryan’ Shames
A Scratch in the Sky
Underground garage heroes The Cryan’ Shames made a small splash in and around the Chicago area during the mid-‘60s. And like many of their back-room brethren, the band never made much headway on the major scene, in spite of issuing a couple albums worthy of far more acclaim. Second album A Scratch in the Sky plays up the pop instincts the band obviously harbored, going for an all-out Californian approach, with big harmonies and breezy psychedelic undertones. This stealth reissue contains the full album in its original mono state—the first time on CD—along with a slew of bonus tracks and a full-color booklet. (Cherry Red)
Bay Area group Game Theory has always faired better with its diehard followers than actual commercial sales. In fact, sales on CD were so thin at the time of release that you’d be hard-pressed to find a used copy anywhere, and when they do turn up on eBay and the like, they fetch serious sums. (I was lucky to score one at Amoeba Music in Hollywood some years ago.)
The band’s sound was a fusion of jangly guitars, psychedelic flourishes and the idiosyncratic lyrics of leader Scott Miller (RIP). Key retro label Omnivore released the first series of reissues including Blaze Of Glory and Dead Center, plus the EPs Distortion and Pointed Accounts Of People You Know. (Omnivore)
Hey, before I go, I wanted to make note of a few honorable mentions worth checking out. There were some mammoth deluxe reissues from the likes of Led Zeppelin, KISS and the Beatles, plus long-overdue comebacks and comps from the Buzzcocks, Kix, Enuff Z’nuff, UDO, Johnny Ramone and others to check out.
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a line at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz