Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Unlegendary Fanny.

So I’ve been listening to the Complete Recorded Works of Fanny.

This is the point where you say, “who?” and I go into a spiel about Fanny being the first all-girl rock & roll band (who played their own instruments!) to be signed to a major label, and they’re quite good, but not as good as the bands they were inspired by: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Band, etc. But that’s bullshit, because the First All-Girl Rock & Roll Band doesn't matter at all, at least to me, and comparing anyone to the Stones and Zep and the Band is just stupid because they were all major cultural movers in very unique and specific ways and no one who was dropped by their label after four albums can compare to that.

So. Fanny was June Millington, guitar; Jean Millington, bass; Nicky Barclay, keyboards; Alice de Buhr, drums. The Millingtons were tall, rangy Filipinos who rocked hard; June has an impressive range, and I'd compare her to a great second-tier guitarist like Ron Wood. Jean provides a greasy backbone; she’s more James Jamerson than John Entwistle. Barclay was probably the best instrumentalist as well as the most convincing songwriter; she played in a funky, complex style that puts her in a category with Nicky Hopkins, Ian Armit, and Ian Stewart; she was the piano pounder for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Alice’s drumming was more Keith Moon than Charlie Watts, but I’d place her closest to Kenny Jones with the Faces.

They were not great songwriters. Although I love several of their original songs and know them by heart, they excelled at covers, and they easily outshine the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Randy Newman, and Cream with their versions of “Hey Bulldog,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Last Night I Had a Dream,” and “Badge” (though, sure, those are all second-string songs for the originators). When they wrote their own songs, they did best when they latched onto a Stonesy groove and rode it wherever it took them; their slower numbers tend towards sub-Carole King smarm.

Probably the LP where they reached their highest-water mark was the third, Fanny Hill, recorded in England, which contains “Hey Bulldog” and “Ain't That Peculiar.” (Also “Borrowed Time,” “Rock Bottom Blues,” and “Blind Alley,” their hardest-rocking studio productions.) It’s not a wall-to-wall great album, though, marred by the sentimental single-mother ballad “You’ve Got a Home” and the preachy ecology anthem “Think About the Children.” But their best single song may well be the towering, glammy “Hey Bulldog.” You need to hear it.

They all trade vocals, and only Alice probably shouldn’t be singing lead (though on the fourth album, Todd Rundgren uses her flat pitch to trippy effect). Nicky’s got a decent soulful howl, and June and Jean harmonize well together, as sisters do; but none of them have the immediacy, the grabs-you-by-the-short-hairs-and-demands-you-listen quality that Janis Joplin, Maggie Bell, or Tina Turner (and on the distaff side, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, or Roger Daltrey) had. They’re better than, say, Foghat or Grand Funk Railroad, but they were never allowed the room to stretch out the way the boys did; girls were supposed to be pop, not rock, in the 70s, and their label (Reprise, which had the same trouble with Randy Newman and Long John Baldry) didn’t really know what to do with them.

Richard Perry, famous for Carly Simon and Harry Nilsson records, was their producer for their first three albums, and Todd Rundgren the producer for their fourth. The fourth is really more of a Rundgren album with Fanny as the studio band; it’s interesting, but not really the band, except in a few cuts. Perry watered the first two albums down a great deal (June tells a story about how Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick finally convinced Perry to stop turning her guitar amp down), so I’d recommend getting to know the studio songs and then listening to their live versions; it’s thrilling in a way rock & roll only rarely is for me any more.

(Fanny isn’t in print, by the way. Outside of vinyl, the only way to listen to studio Fanny is to order a Rhino Handmade box set, of which only a few thousand were made, but which has everything they released at Reprise and plenty of extras. Going fairly cheap now, too. There’s a live-at-a-radio-station album which is easily available, and which is probably their best collection of tunes, but it’s badly mixed at times, and the DJ introducing the band is tres annoying. There was a 1976 album with Suzi Quatro’s sister Patti substituting for June; it’s only on vinyl. I have it but haven’t yet listened to it. There was an almost-hit on it called “Butter Boy.” Just for completism’s sake.)

The essential Fanny songs, for the downloaders out there, are, in order of release: “Badge,” “It Takes a Lot of Good Lovin’,” “Charity Ball,” “Cat Fever,” “Place in the Country,” “Summer Song,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Blind Alley,” “Wonderful Feeling,” “Borrowed Time,” “Hey Bulldog,” “Rock Bottom Blues,” “The First Time,” “Last Night I Had a Dream,” “Long Road Home,” and “Polecat Blues.” The last three are Rundgren-produced, so there’s plenty of studio weirdness, but that’s probably as good a best-of lineup as there could be.

Fanny remains essentially mystifying, no matter how many times I listen to them. I can’t place them in any overarching narrative or “if you like these guys, then you’ll love those people” category. Regardless of all the comparisons above, Fanny are Fanny, and don’t sound like anyone else. They don’t try to beat the boys at the cock-rock game (thank goodness), but they’re not interested in being Janis Redux, either: they want to write their own songs and play them the best they can. They have most in common with cult acts like Little Feat (June was musically mentored by Lowell George for a while); still, they’re girls, and owe much of their sound to classic girl groups and singer-songwriters as well as to rock & roll. Of course, they’re second-generation rockers, so that they’re inspired by the Beatles, the Stones, and Motown rather than by the blues, country, and r&b that had inspired the Sixties generation.

But I love good early-70s rock & roll, before the form had become exhausted by cocaine and studio polish; and Fanny is a great addition to any eclectic playlist.

In fact, here’s one of my most frequently-spun mixdiscs, recommended for those who love classic rock but have grown bored with classic rock radio. The period is roughly 1969-1974, and there’s soul and country in the mix too, but:

01. The Rolling Stones “Rip This Joint”
02. Dusty Springfield “Natchez Trace”
03. The Everly Brothers “Three-Armed Poker-Playin’ River Rat”
04. The Temptations “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”
05. Warren Zevon “Desperados Under the Eaves”
06. Candi Staton “Too Hurt to Cry”
07. Rod Stewart “Mandolin Wind”
08. Ike & Tina Turner “Workin’ Together”
09. The Band “Rag Mama Rag”
10. Van Morrison “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”
11. James Luther Dickinson “Wine”
12. John Baldry “It Ain’t Easy”
13. Delaney & Bonnie “Country Life”
14. Gram Parsons “Brass Buttons”
15. Fanny “Borrowed Time”
16. Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927”
17. Faces “Flags and Banners”
18. David Ackles “Love’s Enough”
19. Maggie Bell “Caddo Queen”
20. Leon Russell “Tight Rope”
21. Nicky Hopkins “The Dreamer”
22. Labelle “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Aw, hell, I gotta listen to that again.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Many Happy Returns.

I’ve shamefully neglected this blog; if I thought anyone was reading it, I’d aplogize.

Ive been listening to a lot of the Jack Benny Show from 1948 and 1949, when it made the switch from NBC to CBS. The show had been on the air for about sixteen years by then, and the formula had been pretty well perfected (as had transcription technology, which means that these shows often sound much better than older ones). It’s pretty much domestic humor by this point, only a half-step away from something like Leave It to Beaver — whose name might very well have come from the Beverly Hills Beavers, the boys’ club that idolizes Benny in several of these shows. But the beautifully-conceived premise — utterly Jewish in essence, and passing for all it’s worth — keeps it from devolving into schmarm.

The premise, for those benighted souls who haven’t heard the show (and who aren’t reading this, remember?) is simple: Jack Benny, the star of the show, is an egocentric, cowardly, bullying, smarmy, jealous, irascible, clueless, vain, unappealing miser. The female lead, Mary Livingstone, serves no purpose but to make wisecracks (usually aimed at him). The announcer, Don Wilson, is fat and therefore has a large appetite. The bandleader, Phil Harris, is a drunk and a skirt-chaser. The tenor, Dennis Day, who always sings a song at some point in the program (which is rarely comic or even interesting), is dumb. And Benny's manservant, Rochester, is — well, I guess he’s the most fully-realized human being; or at least he’s the least caricatured of the bunch, after Mary. Even his few traditionally “black” characteristics, such as his love of parties and girls, end up sounding more like a corrective to Benny’s stinginess and lack of sex appeal than as comic devices in themselves. These could easily be very unpleasant people; I can imagine a nasty, tell-it-like-it-is novel with the same characters whose flaws rather than being comically overblown were tragic and vicious. Instead, I can listen to eighteen shows in a sitting without any dimmunition of laughter.

Or fall asleep to it. Falling asleep to Old Time Radio can be a rewarding experience in itself, especially if you've listened to enough of a program to have a feel for the ryhthms of the dialogue and structure of the show; at this point I can listen to the Jack Benny Show without actually hearing it, just chuckling at the appropriate moments until I wake up some time later to discover that I've slept right into the next episode and have no idea where I left off.

That would probably not fit into a lot of people's idea of what creates a valid aesthetic experience; but I love it.