The Kingsmen – Up and Away

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Although they once dominated the airwaves with their single “Louie, Louie,” by 1966 the Kingsmen were struggling to maintain relevancy in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of rock ‘n’ roll music. Numerous line-up changes combined with the waning popularity of garage rock forced The Kingsmen to venture beyond their garage rock style. Released in 1966 on Wand Records, Up and Away would be the Kingsmen’s final studio album. While this album definitely contains some strong garage rock numbers like those that fans of the group have come to cherish, the driving force behind the album is covers of rock, pop and R&B singles that were popular at the time. For example, two of the most well-known songs on the album are “If I Needed Someone” and “Under My Thumb,” songs written and recorded by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones respectively. While both covers are decent, neither does anything to really separate the covers from the originals. Unfortunately, this theme is a little too common on this album. The Kingsmen also recorded covers of “Wild Thing,” “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Mustang Sally,” all of which already had popular versions by other artists that were dominating the charts. Some critics have blamed new producers––Paul Tannen and Mark Wildey––for pushing the band toward these covers and toward a more pop rock sound all together. This theory seems very plausible as these covers lack any resemblance of that classic Kingsmen garage sound. Although these covers do make up most of the album, there are several hidden gems on the album including the opening track, “Trouble” and the hard-driving number, “Little Sally Tease.” Both songs are much more raw and genuine than most of the tracks on the album. Fans of early Kingsmen albums will definitely appreciate these tunes, and the album as a whole is still worth picking up for garage rock fans. As a whole package, the album is fairly decent. While not oozing with originality or surprises, the covers are solid and the original material is quite enjoyable. This album is typical of a great underground band on its last legs––perhaps it could be better, but at least it’s not worse.  B-

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Vanilla Fudge – Vanilla Fudge

ImageAlthough Vanilla Fudge has often been described as one of the greatest cover bands of the 60s, this self-titled debut album remains exquisitely unique. Released on Atco Records in 1967, this Vanilla Fudge is composed of almost entirely covers except for a few short interval instrumental songs. Despite the fact that most of these songs are considered cover songs, Vanilla Fudge is able to inject such an exuberant amount of psychedelic sound into the very core of each song, warping and distorting the sound so many times over that the word “cover” no longer seems very accurate. For example, the opening track is a cover of The Beatles’ famous song “Ticket to Ride.” However, it is immediately clear that this version of the song is unlike any other version of the song previously recorded. For starters, the entire song is played at a much slower tempo. Slowing the tempo of songs would become the signature style of Vanilla Fudge. This technique allows the band to explore more distortion, extend solos and jams, and tap into the very depth of sound. “Ticket to Ride” is a psychedelic combination of all of these features, including Mark Stein’s extensive keyboard jams. Most of the album continues in this exploratory vein with each cover song having its own highs and lows of experimental psychedelic exploration.  Perhaps one of the most unique and personally gratifying covers is that of Cher’s “Bang Bang.” It contains a variety of quick guitar jams and dominant keyboard numbers all while maintaining a loosely centered core of this Cher’s original song. While their unique covers are usually what draws fans in, they can also have the opposite effect on listeners. After going through an entire album, their experimental psychedelic sound can become nearly formulaic and even burdening. While their ability to explore the depth of popular rock songs is unquestioned, this can act as both a gift and a curse depending upon the listener’s mindset and sensibilities. That being said, this album is worth picking up purely for its one-of-a-kind approach to rock ‘n’ roll.  B

The Cyrkle – Red Rubber Ball

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To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of The Cyrkle before I picked up this album. I was flipping through the 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll section of my local record store when I saw that this album had a cover of “Bony Moronie”on it. Released in 1966 on Columbia Records, Red Rubber Ball is the debut album of the short-lived American pop rock band, The Cyrkle. Knowing that “Bony Moronie” had been covered by many good garage rock bands, I was confident that this album couldn’t be too disappointing. I was wrong. Almost every song in the album is an extremely cliché mid-60s love song. The sound is generic, the lyrics are uninspired and recycled, and the harmony does nothing to leave a positive impression on the listener. Although I would hesitate to call any of the songs on the album bad, I would not call a single one of them good. The best word to describe the sound of this debut album is bland. Each song makes the listener think that they’ve already heard it one million times before; it is familiar and generic to the point of boring. The Cyrkle did have a minor hit from the album in “Red Rubber Ball,” but I cannot say that I’m moved by it anymore than the others. Even when I reached “Bony Moronie,” I was dismayed at The Cyrkle’s decision to fragment the lyrics and slow the tempo. They would have been better off if they had just straight copied any number of the garage rock renditions. The sole saving grace of the album comes from some of the mildly talented guitar playing. Tom Dawes has a few short but solid riffs throughout the album, most notably on “There’s a Fire in the Fireplace.” Perhaps the most disappointing fact about the band is that they toured with Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles at different times in their career. Upon learning that they had toured with such great names, I had pretty high hopes for the album. In fact, John Lennon is said to have taken such an interest in the band that he even came up with the unique spelling of their name and pushed for their success within the record company. Overall, I would not recommend picking this album up if you’re looking for something fresh or interesting. Having said that, there always has been and there always will be a place in the music industry for generic poppy love songs. The reason is, some people do indeed like them. If you’re one of those people, this album is for you; if not, read some of my other reviews for more creative underground 60s music.  D+

The Outsiders – Happening “Live!”

ImageHow about some “live” music? The Outsiders’ first and only “live” album (not counting the brief 30-year reunion), Happening “Live!” was released in 1967 by Capitol Records. I put “live” in quotes because this is on of those fake live albums that were popular with garage bands in the mid-60s (see The Standells review below). All of the songs are actually alternate studio takes of previously released material with fake crowd noises dubbed in. I’m not sure if anyone actually believed that this was really a live album even when it was first released, because the crowd noises are obviously unnatural and jarring. Actually, I’m really not sure what the point of releasing such an album is at all other than to make a few more bucks. This album’s intentional deceptiveness is perhaps my only complaint with it. Although the band would disband shortly after the album’s release, Happening “Live!” might be my favorite Outsiders’ album. In composition, it is like a greatest hits album without all of the cheesy greatest hits feel. Of course, the opening track is the band’s one and only major hit “Time Won’t Let Me.” This song is catchy and fun and can still be heard on most Oldies stations today. The albums also contains the follow-up minor hit, “Girl in Love.” This song is much slower, softer, and less catchy. It’s more like something that gets played at a high school dance rather than on the radio. It’s okay for what it is. The Outsiders also were well-known for covering Motown songs and soul music from the African American community. Their version of The Temptations “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is excellent. I think I prefer it to the original; it’s actually pretty similar, but this version has an extra garage style kick. The band also covers Joe Tex’s “Show Me” and The Isley Brothers’ “Respectable.” “Show Me” is a good demonstration of The Outsiders’ guitar work. The Outsiders also show their love of soul by covering “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” and James Brown’s “Good Lovin.'” “Good Lovin'” is an extremely good rendition. It carries all the power and soul that James Brown laid down and adds a sprinkling of raw rock. The Outsiders also cover some more mainstream 60s rock songs like The Beatles’ “Michelle,” The Animals’ “Help Me Girl,” and Cavaliere’s “Come On Up.” The stand out hit of the three is “Come On Up.” This song is faster and more powerful than anything else on the album. It is actually reminiscent of early punk rock bands like The Stooges. My personal favorite song of the album is the cover of Them’s “Gloria.” I’ve never heard a version of this song I didn’t like; however, this version has even stronger vocals than most. Overall this album is extremely solid. The musicianship and song choice is superb. The only drawbacks are its structural flaws. Like I stated before, I don’t like the fake live record format. In addition, I wish that The Outsiders would have included more original songs. I know that covering songs was extremely common in this era, but I feel like there could have been a better balance. Nonetheless, if your just looking to listen to  great music, this album has it.  B

 

The Fabulous Knickerbockers – Lies

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For my next album, I’ve decided to go with Lies by The Fabulous Knickerbockers. The Fabulous Knickerbockers (often referred to as just The Knickerbockers) are a mid-60s garage rock band from New Jersey. This album, their last studio album recorded together, was released in 1966 on Challenge Records. The band became briefly famous for a single released from this album, “Lies.” As the first song on the album, “Lies” thrusts the listener right into the heart of middle 60s rock ‘n’ roll. The song has become infamous for its similarity to songs of The Beatles from this same period. In fact, many listeners have often mistaken the song for a “lost” Beatles track upon first hearing it. Buddy Randell, the lead vocalist, has a voice uncannily similar to John Lennon’s. It’s a great song for an imitation. If you’re going to imitate another artist though, it might as well be the best there is. The second song, “I Can Do It Better” is a solid garage rock love song. It has nice simple, fast beats that capture mood perfectly. It also boasts a brief but challenging guitar solo. “Can’t You See I’m Tryin'” is a slower love song. It sounds quite typical of the era, but it’s ordinariness doesn’t make it a bad song. The fourth song on the album is by far my favorite. “Please Don’t Fight It” is broken down into simple chords for most of the song but then explodes into a harmony of noise which harkens to protopunk. The final song on side one is “Just One Girl.” It’s faster and heavier than most songs on the album. This is the kind of song that must have influenced other early punk bands. Side two is actually quite different from side one. “I Believe in Her” is heavy on the vocals, almost like a hymn. It’s almost as if side two is a different band than side one. “Wishful Thinking” enters the blue-eyed soul genre. It sounds like a song that would be played as a slow dance at a high school prom in the 1960s. By the time you reach “You’ll Never Walk Alone” you may be thinking that The Fabulous Knickerbockers forgot that they’re a garage rock band. This song is another slow song with deep heavy vocals. With “Your Kind of Lovin'” The Fabulous Knickerbockers remember that they can play faster, but still more of a soul harmony than garage rock or protopunk. As if side two wasn’t already weird, the final song, “Harlem Nocturne” is a sax-heavy jazz song. It’s an instrumental, and Buddy Randell is a pretty decent saxophone player, but I have no idea what in the hell the song is doing on this album. Overall, this album is strange. Side one is solid garage rock. It’s nothing spectacular but the songs are worth listening to. By side two the band was out of material or just wanted to experiment or something, because it doesn’t fit. I’m not saying that side two is bad, just that it’s completely out of context. The songs might be great on a different album. I have to give this album a lower rating even though I really liked side one. It’s just not cohesive.  C

The Kingsmen – The Kingsmen in Person

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For my next album review, I’ve decided to go with something that everyone probably knows but doesn’t fully know. Most everyone would recognize the song, “Louie, Louie,” but only a small number of people could actually name the band who performed it, and even fewer could name another song by that band. Thus, this 1963 album by The Kingsmen seemed like a great choice for this blog. The Kingsmen in Person, the group’s first album, is a live album released by Wand Records. The Kingsmen would go on to record several more albums in the mid-60s until fading into obscurity in the late 60s. An interesting thing about this album: Jack Ely, the lead singer on “Louie, Louie” quit the band after the song was recorded (A studio version of the song was released as a single before this album) but before this live album was recorded. Thus, Lynn Easton would lip-synch this song in live performances until a lawsuit put an end to that practice. This infamous song opens up the album. Of course it’s amazing. It was and remains a garage rock standard. Very fews band were as pure garage rock as The Kingsmen. The next song, “The Waiting” is also a spectacular garage rock song. “Mojo Workout” follows with a predominately instrumental sound that flows well in the album. The fourth song of the album, “Fever” is a love song with bluesy influence and a heavy keyboard. It’s just as strong as the previous tracks. Although it may espouse a slightly greedy sentiment, “Money” is straight to the roots of that garage sound. “Bent Scepter” closes side one of the album as an instrumental jam that helps round out all the other tracks thus far. Side one of this album is just truly amazing. Side two of this album opens with “Long Tall Texan.” This song is extremely interesting because it’s much more of a rockabilly number than a garage rock song. Although The Kingsmen very rarely strayed from that pure garage rock sound, this song proves that there is an exception to every rule. And it’s a very good exception. The next song, “You Can’t Sit Down” is an instrumental that does exactly as its name implies: it makes you want to dance. The song that was covered by every band in the early 60s, including The Beatles and The Who, “Twist & Shout” follows. Their version is quite similar to the popular version recorded by The Beatles; nonetheless, it’s a fun song. A song titled “J. A. J.” follows as an instrumental. It, too, is a solid track. The next song, “Night Train” is also an instrumental. It’s a little faster and a little more fun. The album closes with “Mashed Potatoes,” yet another instrumental. (I guess the band wasn’t much on vocals after Jack Ely quit.) This one, too, has a strong garage rock, danceable sound that does much to equate The Kingsmen with the garage rock movement. Overall, this album is fantastic. If you’re at all interested in garage rock, this album is a must. This album could stand as a model for other garage rock albums. Go buy it now.  A