Television still seem to divide people right down the middle - even 30-odd years on it's a not-so-simple case of love or hate for most people. Inevitably (because I'm bothering to write this afterall) I love 'em - though I can see why some folk are determined to write them off as a "punk Dire Straits". Tom Verlaine & Mark Knopler were in similar orbits around Dylan's ouevre at this (seminal) point in time I think, & it does make you wonder which direction the band might've taken if Television's second LP, Adventure, hasn't flopped so spectacularly (Making Movies, perhaps?). Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here...
Television, of course, are rightly lauded for their unassailable/inescapable Marquee Moon 1977 debut, an album that I'm still regularly listening to despite owning it since the late 80s (I won my copy off of a mate in some kind of bet & have never looked back). What's interesting is discovering how old some of the songs on that album already were, & how long Verlaine & co. had been playing them. The Poor Circulation boot has a couple of drummer-less rehearsal excerpts from terminal '73 (including an embryonic version of "Venus" with Richard Hell on bass, etc) & a year later at least half of that legendary debut was already well established in their live set. Double Exposure is a bootleg of genuine reknown & a real gem - the first five songs are the oft-referenced Fairfield demo, recorded by Eno in late 1974 with the (failed!) intention of getting the band a recording deal. Richard Hell was apparently still in the band, though Verlaine's repeated requests for him to stop "jumping around" (!) & otherwise diverting attention from the songs have reduced him to a spectral presence at best (he's much more evident on Poor Circulation) - he buggered off to form The Heartbreakers with various ex-New York Dolls immediately afterwards. The remaining tracks are from the mid-1975 session they recorded for Terry Ork's label, from which the "Little Johnny Jewel" 7" was excerpted, & incude the otherwise unavailable "Hard On Love" which joins the long list of class "A" songs the band dropped once they'd signed to Elektra. What's immediately noticable is how tight a reign Verlaine was already imposing on the band's sound - no more sidesteps into improvised semi-chaos ala "Fuck Rock'n'Roll" or "Horizontal Ascensions" from here on - & how the route towards the torpid Adventure was, perhaps, already unavoidable.
N.B. A slap on the back to Burning Aquarium for this one.
Like me, you've probably come across umpteen mentions of Don Van Vliet's idiosyncratic working methods: giving The Magic Band cassettes of his untutored piano playing to construct entire albums from, or whistling melodies directly into his musicians' ears. And, like me, you've probably never stumbled across any actual documentary evidence of any of this 'til now. I found this link over on the Sonic Youth forum - it's apparently Don warming up for the Trout Mask Replica sessions. I dunno where folk keep digging this stuff up from but surely only a twerp'd complain!
From the same source, there's this link to what remain Don's most recent recordings: a fragmentary collection of spoken word pieces (c.1977-99) included as part of a signed, super-exclusive deluxe package called Riding Some Kind Of Unusual Skull Sleigh (initially retailing at a prohibitive £300 but going for w-a-y more than that nowadays) - nope, I'd never heard of it either. He sounds terribly frail on this later stuff but, it being The Captain, it's never less than 101% captivating. Long may he prosper.
Another holy Smog relic (re: this), namely the original, bedsit-scuzzy version of his classic ('round my humble abode anyway) "My Shell", recorded during his formative &, some might suggest, superior nil-fi era. Released in 1991, it's from an impossible-to-find 7" on his own #1 Hits! label, a split with a couple of Suckdog songs on the other side (Bill & Lisa were an item at this point I believe?). It's a little known fact that this version of "My Shell" was actually extracted from Bill's collateral Tired Tape Machine cassette, one of the rarest Smog artefacts. "Astronaut", his other track on the 7", has since been anthologised on the teeth-grindingly incomplete Accumulation: None compilation, a collection that ultimately creates as many frustrating new loose ends as ties-up old ones (it's a frustrating selection, to put it mildly), but I'm sure that was Bill's intention from the off? Tsk.
The Sundowners (named after the Robert Mitchum film presumably) was a semi-"secret" side project devised by the mindfuckingly beguiling Drag City organisation. Mistakenly pegged as a collaborative side project by Will Oldham & Smog's Bill Callahan* (they're actually responsible for a 7" apiece rather than appearing together, with Edith Frost steering the third*, I believe?) they pseudonymously released a trio of lowkey 7" EPs back in the mid 90s on Drag City's now defunct* Sea Note offshoot. Of the 3, only the inaugeral Goat Songs is out of print (hence it's inclusion here), due to of Prince Will's prominent presence no doubt. It comprises six short songs, all recorded in dramatically reduced circumstances, one of which ("Tonite Will Be Fine") manages to make Songs From A Room-era Leonard Cohen sound like Third Reich-era Residents (fine by me). Personally, I prefer Bill Callahan's installment - The Thing With The Girl In Her Hair, which you can still buy here - but Goat Songs takes me back to the time when I still hung on every off-pitch syllable that the infamously prolific Oldham issued. How times change. Less is more Will, less is more.
*Citation: It's Rachel Brooks from Movietone, not Edith Frost. It is an Oldham/Callahan collaboration afterall (according to Wikipedia anyway). Sea Note is not officially defunct.
Back in the early 90s, when I was still signing on & holed up Assault On Precinct 13-style in my dodgy (but cheap!) council flat on the edge of town (& civilisation it often seemed like) with approximately 47 English pence per week of disposal income at my grubby fingertips, I managed to accumulate a rather large hoard of cassettes. Many of them I traded for my own humble offerings - I operated a tiny, very hands-on tape label of my own at this point (I had nothing else to do FFS) so I had hours of poorly recorded, badly dubbed aural vom of my own to offload - but there was a handful of labels whose releases I'd always manage to scrape the dosh together to actually buy. My life was so bereft of cultural & social stimuli at this point that the prospect of stuffing a few dollars into an airmail envelope & packing 'em off to other skint misanthropes overseas held as much excitment as your average night down the pub, I 'spose?
The cassette label of all cassette labels 'round about then was Shrimper, run out of Upland, California by the almost legendary Dennis Callaci. Already documenting the scene there via his Crump 'zine, Shrimper essentially developed out of Callaci's dubbing cassettes for his friends' bands Nothing Painted Blue & WCKR SPGT, & through several mega-budget tape compilations of musicians he initially came across while working the counter at the neighbourhood record shop. It was these compilations that I heard first - scratchy, hissy little missives titled Pawnshop Reverb, Back To The Egg Asshole or Hardcore Acoustic, all of 'em jampacked with oddly named "acts" such as Goosewind, Simon Joyner, Bugskull, Diskothi-q, Messengil, Ah Bus, Primordial Undermind, Secret Stars, The Extra Glens, Buzzsaw, Shoeface, Junket, Will Simmons Guitar Army, Soul Junk, Fishstick, Amps For Christ, The Goblins, Oar, Furniture Huschle, Folk Implosion, Creeper Lagoon, Paste (Callaci's solo project), Guffey (actually Callaci's wife, Catherine) & literally dozens of others. Most comps included Callaci's own band, the consistently great Refrigerator, alongside The Mountain Goats (whose Shrimper recordings I much prefer to anything they've done since) & Lou Barlow's Sentridoh - a solo companion act to the emo-indie behemoth, Sebadoh (meh!). However, whereas Sebadoh's full blown angst pop has long since descended into dispicable xerox mediocrity, his off-the-cuff Shrimper recordings remain relatively untainted & listenable (almost). A handful of these Shrimper-endorsed weirdos actually went on to release "proper" records & attain a degree of extra-curricular (i.e. post-Shrimper) recognition but most disappeared straight back to whence they came. Shrimper, inevitably, moved onto vinyl & CD releases too, notably this excellent round-up of their roster circa 1993. Stylistically, it runs the gamut between lo-fi indie, Dada-inspired cabaret & beligerent experimentalism but retains a throwaway &, yes, "lo-fi" charm throughout. Dig in (or don't).