Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Rationals

I originally bought the Rationals' self-titled debut LP for 99 cents out of an E.J. Korvettes bargain bin after reading about it in Rolling Stone and Jazz & Pop when I was 13 -- about a year after its initial release in 1970. (The J&P reviewer was none other than then-incarcerated ex-MC5 manager/White Panther overlord John Sinclair.) I foolishly parted with it one of the times over the years when I sold my whole collection, but I could still remember every song on it in '97, when I paid $25 for a copy from an ad in Goldmine so I could have Larry Harrison dub it to a cassette for me. During SXSW 1999, I got to meet and spend a couple of days hanging out with Rationals frontman Scott Morgan, and he signed my copy at 3am outside his motel room, where he'd just played me a tape of the then-unreleased first Hydromatics album.

Big Beat, the Brit label that brought us the magnificent career-spanning Think Rational! 2CD comp back in 2009 and a coupla vinyl artifacts since then, just reissued the "Crewe album" (so-called because it originally appeared on the mostly-MOR label helmed by Bob Crewe of Four Seasons songwriting/"Music To Watch Girls By" fame) -- the first time it's ever been legitimately available on CD (a bootleg Italian version was briefly available in the late '90s).

The cover photos were taken by Tom Wright, who'd been Pete Townshend's art school roommate before getting deported from the UK for pot possession, and went on to serve as official tour photographer for the Who and the Faces. In between, Wright managed Detroit's Grande Ballroom for a spell, during the time when the Rationals, who'd been voted the most popular band in Detroit as high schoolers back in '66, were having to open shows there for bands they'd previously headlined over, like the MC5 and the Stooges. (Jim Osterberg had done session work on one of their singles, as had Bob Seger, and Scott Asheton was once considered as a replacement for Rationals drummer Bill Figg.)

It's hard to say what made this record so resonant for my teenage self. Perhaps it was the vocal harmonies, which made the Crewe association seem less incongruous. In the German, Irish, and Italian working class neighborhood where I grew up, the Four Seasons, the Young Rascals, and the Vanilla Fudge, in turn, were all more popular than the Beatles, because of their Italo-American roots. All of those groups based their sounds on the vocal harmony-rich Northern soul tradition that appealed to white kids like those from my 'hood, who would have been terrified to encounter an assertive African-American male like James Brown or Wilson Pickett in person (although they all dug JB and the Wicked One as much as they did Mitch Ryder and the Rascals).

Scott Morgan is surely one of the best blue-eyed soul shouters of his generation, in the same league as Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart, with less of the former's histrionic tendency and more of the latter's wistful edge. In the Rationals, he was Eddie Kendricks (smooth) to guitarist Steve Correll's David Ruffin (rough). Scott played a lot of instruments on the album -- guitar, keyboards, harmonica, flute -- after a period when he'd concentrated on straight standup singing. The late Terry Trabandt on bass and drummer Figg formed an engine room worthy of the Motown hitmakers with whom the teenage Rationals shared stages.

The Rationals' exuberant cover of Robert Parker's R&B classic "Barefootin'" explodes out of the gate like a secular revival meeting, in the grand manner of Motor City bands whose mission was to kill in their first 15 minutes onstage (think of the first side of the MC5's Kick Out the Jams). Trabandt's stuttering bass line locks it in the pocket with Figg's drums, Morgan roars with controlled fervor and lays down choppy chords while Correll zips up and down the fretboard. Their version of the Knight Brothers' "Temptation 'Bout To Get Me" is blue-eyed soul at its finest, and one of my all-time favorite recordings. It's funny the things that stick in your mind after several hundred spins: in this case, the kick drum hits that lead into the second verse, as well as the singers' passion.

Besides supplying the intro that's been my sound check noise for the past five years with Stoogeaphilia, the Rationals original "Guitar Army" is the polar opposite of the MC5's revolutionary rabble-rousing: a celebration of music for its own sake. You can hear the influence of West Coast outfits like Big Brother and Moby Grape in Morgan and Correll's guitars, in the same way you can on the first SRC album. The bass-and-drums break that leads from the instrumental jam into the out-chorus is classic. The revival continues with Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold On Me," highlighted by a tonsil-tearing vocal by Correll. The guitarist also sings lead on the odd, melancholic acoustic number "Deep Red" that closes side one.

The West Coast influence really comes to the fore on "Sunset," which opens the second side with an extended meandering jam that culminates in a transcendent harmonized guitar part. The next two songs are the album's zenith: Dr. John's existential rumination "Glowin'" in a Curtis Mayfield-like arrangement, and Mike d'Abo's "Handbags and Gladrags," which Rod Stewart also covered on his solo debut (and was supposedly scared to death when he heard the Rationals' version during a visit to a Detroit ratio station). In a just universe, both of these tracks would have been huge hits, instead of winding up in the discount racks within a few months of their release.

The closing "Ha Ha," snippets from which served as segues between the other tracks, is a contemplative slice of acoustic-guitar-and-flute-driven R&B, with lead vocals by Correll on the verses and Morgan on the bridge, sketching an evocative city scene: "Under the streetight / He sat on the curb / Fast moving headlights / Try to disturb him / Walk and don't walk lights / Help with the words / Chalk on the sidewalk / Really absurd."

The Flash Italian bootleg was filled out with a dozen tracks from singles that subsequently turned up on Think Rational! Big Beat's CD, curated (as was their previous Rationals release) by ace scribe and garage rock historian Alec Palao, includes alternate single versions of "Guitar Army" and "Sunset," and studio recordings of Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" from Disney's Song of the South (the latter of which was previously heard on Real O Mind's long-unavailable Morgan comp Medium Rare) as bonus tracks. If you've ever bought a record on this scribe's recommendation and not been disappointed, then trust me now: You need this.


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