Saturday, June 4, 2011

“The Knights Of Fuzz: The Garage & Psychedelic Music Explosion 1980 To Now” (Dionysus Records)

A short time ago, I reviewed the DVD “Romantic Warriors”, about modern-day progressive rock bands who are keeping alive the sounds of the cutting-edge rock of the 1970’s. It’s not too difficult to draw a parallel or two between that disc and this one, about bands who have kept alive the cutting-edge rock sounds of the 1960’s. True, the prog film is a documentary, while “The Knights Of Fuzz” is primarily a collection of music videos with added documentation. But both DVD’s celebrate musical artists who have continued to perform the types of music they wanted to play, long after their respective idioms ceased to have commercial potential, and who have stuck to their guns despite a lack of recognition outside of a small community of like-minded fans.

“The Knights Of Fuzz” carries a 2006 date, but is new to me and, I suspect, to most other people as well. It opens with a too-brief, ineffective stab at a short documentary, with pictures of neo-garage/psychedelic bands compared to the first wave of 60’s bands, with the caveat that we shouldn’t confuse the “hipsters” of the garage-band revival with the late-60’s “hippies”. The point is a valid one, as the sounds and visual images associated with most of the bands on this disc strike me as relating more to the mid-60’s garage bands and what some folks have tabbed the “garage-psych” era which served as a bridge between the first garage band and psychedelia, rather than full-blown psychedelia per se. Don’t look for Jefferson Airplane or Big Brother-type bands here; think Seeds and and Count Five instead. This mini-documentary intro also includes quick interview segments with 80’s band members. This opening section might have had more impact had it gone into greater informational depth. But that’s not really what this collection is about.

The great bulk - and real meat - of this set is the aforementioned music videos, the great bulk of which are by bands who proved to have no presence whatsoever on the national sales and airplay charts. Indeed, their music is so lovingly anachronistic, one might wonder why they would invest in making music videos which - in the pre-Youtube era - not a whole lot of people would have had the opportunity to ever see. (I would guess more were seen in clubs than on t.v.) Thank goodness, they did, though, as there are some real gems and no outright bummers here. These are bands whose level of success ranged from local-hero to underground cult status, not because they were in any way unworthy of success. It’s just that they simply chose to play an older style of music which was no longer fashionable. While one can instantly recognize these bands as being stylistically rooted in 60’s garage rock as a genre, there are very few outright imitations of specific records by specific bands. Even when one hears a riff or a tonal quality that one can finger as being derived from such-and-such by so-and-so, it will be followed a few seconds later by a different influence or an original concept. The key here is genre identity, not direct theft.

To those of us from Western New York, the “big name” here is the Chesterfield Kings from Rochester, who get the set started with “99th Floor”. It was recorded in 1983, but sounds so much like it should date from 1966, it’s uncanny. But that’s precisely the idea, and one which musically dominates the DVD, to the delight of anyone who might be attracted to the disc by its title.

Most of the videos are the original promo clips. But “You’ll Know Why”, by the Miracle Workers, a Portland, OR band with a “jangly” guitar sound, is a new production, constructed from vintage footage and a 1985 recording. I’m also very fond of “I’ve Seen You Walking” (1985) by Yard Trauma from Tucson. But then I’m abnormally fond of that old combo-organ sound, whether Vox, Farfisa, or wherever it may come from. Perhaps my favorite of all the 80’s videos is “Hey!” by the Gruesomes, essentially a garage-surf instrumental, aside from frequent shouting of the title. The band, which hailed from Montreal, put together a humorous Monkees-flavored video to go with this little gem. Occasionally, one hears a 70’s punk aggressiveness mixed in with the garage sound, as in The 10 Commandments’ “Not True”, from 1989.

The videos are mostly arranged chronologically, and continue on through the 90’s all the way to 2006. The Cynics, from Pittsburgh, doing a strong song written by Buffalo legend, Bernie Kugel, are one of the best-known bands here (along with the Fuzztones). Fortune & Maltese, from Michigan, have a Byrds-like vocal blend, but with more energetic guitars. Untamed Youth, from Columbia, MO, brought back the California hot-rod sound in 1990, adding a garage-style organ. Jonny Chan & The New Dynasty Six, from New York, also do a song called “Hey!” (not the same song), with a vocal that reminds me of Sky Saxon, but the band has no keyboards, which sets them apart from the Seeds; another example of a fresh approach to a recognizable influences.

Probably the most purely psychedelic band from a late-60’s perspective is Milwaukee’s Plasticland, seen live in 2001. Freddy & The Four-Gone Conclusions, from Detroit, bring back the Del Shannon sound in 2003. Their version of Shannon’s “Stand Up”, features a guest appearance by none other than keyboardist Max Crook, whose high-pitched solos on an early electronic instrument called the Musitron were such an important contribution to Del Shannon’s 60’s stardom. The Woggles, from Atlanta, 2004, are a real romp ‘em, stomp ‘em band with a hard-fuzz guitar sound and a singer who reminds me of a more conservative Van Morrison. Les Breastfeeders (i’m not making that name up), from Montreal, are the only band here singing in French, and once again strike me as close to late-70’s punk energy, but they’re not totally out-of-place. Timothy Gassen, who put this whole compilation together, is heard on the most recent track, by his band Marshmallow Overcoat, with a signal-splitting guitar sound reminiscent of the Electric Prunes, but with enough originality to keep it honest.

As if the 17 videos which make up the primary presentation weren’t enough to whet the appetite of the garage-band fan and rock historian alike, there is a ton of bonus features. On your home t.v., you can see three more videos, a live clip by pioneering garage-band revivalists, the Cheepskates; two exciting songs by the Vipers, rescued from an old video tape - the picture is tiny, but the music more than makes up for it; and an additional track by Marshmallow Overcoat, showing their versatility, as it’s in a very different vein from their previous one. There are some old audio-only spoken-word radio broadcasts. While I’m not sure of the importance of someone telling you who-was-playing-where-when 25 years ago, there are also a few interviews, including one with my late friend and mentor Greg Shaw.
For the rest of the features, you have to put the disk into your computer’s DVD-ROM drive. Mr. Gassen has generously reprinted the entire text of his 300-page book “Knights Of Fuzz”, which includes individual descriptions of hundreds of bands. An amazing amount of research and effort must have gone into this tome There are also loads of photos of album covers, a large collection of articles written by Gassen for obscure publications you simply won’t be able to find anymore, a handful of interviews (including Greg Shaw again), reviews, contributions from readers, and an excellent collection of mp3’s, some by bands seen on the video portion of the disc (though the songs are different), most by other bands, all of whom have something worthwhile to offer.

The “regular” video portion of this DVD would alone be worth the money. The material on the DVD-ROM is likewise worth the money in and of itself. Put the two together and you have one heck of a bargain. If you have any interest whatsoever in the topic - or simply think you might - this is a package deal you should not resist.

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