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Special CD Review: The Bacchanalian music of Dionysus

By Brian L. Knight

In this time when funk, jazz-fusion, swing and progressive rock seem to be reaching their revival peaks, California’s Lee and Aime Joseph feel that there is much better music that should be revisited. Through their two labels Dionysus and Bacchus, the Joseph’s have collected the best new and old artists that to them, define modern American music. While Dionysus is responsible for new up and coming acts, Bacchus digs into the vaults. Like the two label’s namesakes (In a nutshell - the Greek and Roman gods of partying.), the Joseph’s goal is to represent the more excessive music in American history. The music itself is not too extreme, but rather the subcultures that it attracts. Through its 200 titles, the Joseph’s have amassed an impressive collection of surf, punk, and lounge music which all honor a less PC dominated era. Here are some of the highlights:

 

Lester Bangs with Birdland

Lester Bangs gained notoriety throughout the 1970s as the "gonzo" journalist for Rolling Stone, Village Voice and Creem magazines. Instead of talking about how good the bands were and who everybody’s influences were, Bangs wrote about the inner working of the band, the debauchery they lived through and the ups & downs of being a musician. In particular, Bangs was a staunch supporter of the developing punk scene and used the underworld music movement as the background to the majority of his writings. Lester Bangs was nothing more than a music fan who ended up writing about his hobby. Underneath his extensive record collections and endless musings, there was also a man who wanted to play music. In 1977, at the famous New York City nightclub, CDGBs, while talking to guitarist Mickey Leigh, the idea for Birdland came to fruition. Although they both had their roots in jazz, the two wanted to create good old rock & roll. Leigh, who was the brother of Joey Ramone, brought in his post-punk band, The Rattlers (David Merrill on drums; Matty Quick on drums), and cut Birdland with Bangs. The recording took place at the under renovation Electric Lady studios. Bassist David Merrill, who was working on the construction of the studio, had the keys to the building and they snuck the band in on April Fool’s Day, 1979 for an impromptu and somewhat illegal recording session. The end result of the session was a completely uncut and un-dubbed recording that displayed completely raw music. Mickey Leigh obviously had a little Ramone in him while there is also evidence of the Who and the Rolling Stones. Bangs shows his songwriting skills with "I’m In Love With My Walls" which is a tale of dementia and you can hear his harmonica playing on "Fade Away". "Killer" is a tune of anger and disillusionment: "I guess I squandered my life/Where is the love to be found/Build up my own wall of strife/Living for these fists that pound and pound" There is also a cut of "I Fought The Law" which has been covered by fellow post-punk rockers The Clash and The Dead Kennedys. Birdland broke up within two months of this rare recording (in which the cassette tape from the April Fools Day session became the master) and Lester Bangs was dead from a drug overdose within three years. Like his writing, Bangs had a lot to say in his singing. There was no peace and love in his lyrics, just a lot of anger, dissociation and self-destruction. All of these attributes were also unfortunately reflected in his personal life as well.

 

The Fiends/Gravedigger

The Fiends first came together in some garage in Canada but then moved down to the Los Angeles area. The Fiends, who use horror and creature movies as their "theme", has the following band members: Jason Voorhees plays the human skins (drums that is); Michael Meyers is on the bloody organs (keyboards); the Brain is on the fuzzbass (hopefully, self-explanatory); Vanishing Grog plays the Wirez & Skeleton Keys; and Grey Gory is responsible for screamin’. Along with their monikers and alter-instrumental egos, the band don themselves in costumes, makeup and pretty outlandish duds. On a musical level, expect some sinister Phantom of the Opera-like keyboards, sounds of people digging graves, twanging distorted guitars and screaming singing. Although this sounds like some GWAR-like musical nightmare, it is exactly quite the opposite. The thematic approach to their music may be ghoulish; the music resembles the psychedelic-garage sounds that popularized the west coast in the 1960s. Michael Meyer’s keyboards (I mean, bloody organs) are similar to the effects of 60s band like the ? and the Mysterians and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. While Meyers returns us to the beauty of the Farfisa organ, the fuzzy guitar work Vanishing Grog is equally reminiscent of an older more evil era. Unfortunately for both horror movie and retro-fuzz music freaks, the Fiends have disbanded and Gravedigger serves as their swan song.

 

The Surf Trio/Forbidden Sounds

 

Expanding upon both the punk rock ideals of the punk rock and the twangy surf sounds of Dicky Dale and Link Wray, Oregon’s the Surf Trio had a whole new element to the term music fusion. To alleviate any initial confusion, the Surf Trio is actually a quartet consisting of Pete Weinberger (guitar), Ron Kleim (guitar), Jeff Punk Martin(bass) and Ramon LaMadrid (drums). With titles like "Vibro-surf", "Surfin’ With Mountain King", and "Surfwalk" the influences of the west coast are all over the place. With instrumentals such as " Agent Invisible Goes West", the Surf Trio sound like they collaborated with Gene Autry. "Catskanie" is straightforward surf a la the Trashmen while "Little Death Coupe" adds a little bit of the ghoulish keyboards practiced by the Fiends. The vocal number "Party In My Dorm" is where the Ramones enter the equation. The Surf Trio also crack a little fun at themselves with "(Hey, we’re the millionth band to do) Tra-La-La (The Banana Splits Song). If there was a soundtrack to movie that combined Rock and Roll High School, Pulp Fiction and anything starring Annette Funicello, the Surf Trio would be the preferred band.

 

Davie Allan & the Arrows/Loud Loose and Savage

If the guitarists from the Fiends and the Surf Trio had a guitar hero, it would have to be Davie Allan. Along with his band The Arrows, Allan first came to popularity with his fuzz-laden guitar playing for the biker movie The Wild Angels (starring Peter Fonda) in 1966. With subsequent albums called The Devil’s Angels, Teenage Rebellion, Mondo Hollywood, Riot on Sunset Strip and Cycledelic Sounds, only the imagine can tell you what Davie Allan is all about. Throughout the 1960s, Allan did the soundtracks for countless B Movies about surfing, bikers, and teen angst. Loud, Loose and Savage is the soundtrack to a lesser known 1980s movie. Davie Allan may be one of rock's most underrated guitarists, as his 17 instrumentals that comprise this album would make Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson all enviousness. Allan took the innovations of Dicky Dale and kept on going. Instead of focussing on just the "surf" lifestyle, Allan penetrated into the world of the bikers, which resulted in a slightly heavier more psychedelic sound and a little less of the Beach Boys. Through his reverberation and fuzz, Allan has kept the concept of surf rock alive and well for the last 30 years.

 

Len Baxter/By Popular Request

So far there has been emphasis on band with loud guitars, scary costumes and dark lyrics. There is a calmer side to Dionysus and Bacchus Records, and that comes with the cools sounds of the lounge. With bands such as the Cardigans and Combustionable Edison gaining mass popularity through their variations of lounge music, we must look back into time to the man that was responsible for putting exotica on the map. Exotica references a type of music that recreated the sounds of Polynesia with the use of modern keyboards and Les Baxter was responsible for its creation. Baxter, who started off as an arranger for Swing bands, broke into a new style of music with his 1948 album Music out of the Moon which was one of the first forays into space music and the first use of the bizarre musical instrument -the Theremin. (Sun Ra and Phish’s Page McConnell have also flirted with the eerie sounds of the Theremin). From this album forward, Baxter refined these sounds to create exotica, lounge, cocktail and bachelor pad music(The terminology is for you to decide) which were the rave in the 1950s and now have attained a revival in the 1990s. By Popular Request features standards such as "Autumn Leaves", "Calcutta" and "Exodus", which have all been given Baxter’s exotic touch. The one thing that was certain with Les Baxter was innovation and foresight. At the time, his music was unheard off and he subsequently created a whole slew of followers. Along with the Martini, the music of Les Baxter has come to a second peak in the 1990s. The excesses of society have returned.

Dionysus and Bacchus undoubtedly have a diverse collection of music in their catalog, but it is a distinctly American collection. Through the surf, punk and lounge recordings, significant periods in American history have been captured or re-created. The psychedelic-surf sounds of the West Coast tell a story of both teen angst and fun. Les Baxter’s music harks to both an age of primal space exploration and great cultural affluence while the punk sounds of Birdland signify a revolt against the orthodox. With these great American stories, who needs Smithsonian when you have Bacchus and Dionysus. For more information, contact Dionysus Records, PO Box 1975, Burbank, CA 91507 818-848-2698.