Sunday, June 17, 2012

The McCoys' "Human Ball"


I woke up with a song from this album in my head a few days ago, even though I hadn't heard it since 1974 or so, during the "bargain bin" phase of my record geekdom, and found a clean copy online for a reasonable price. Hooray!

The McCoys were, of course, the Union City, Indiana punks whose Tin Pan Alley-penned '65 hit "Hang On Sloopy" is now the official state rock song of Ohio. (Who knew there was such a thing? If Texas had one, would it be "You're Gonna Miss Me?" Or "Tush?") They also hold the distinction of being among the few 'Meercun '60s bands to have their songs performed by their Brit contemporaries: the Yardbirds covered "Sloopy," while the Merseys and later David Bowie did the same for McCoys B-side "Sorrow." (Others similarly honored: Love, Moby Grape, Nazz.)

Their main asset was a guitarist-singer-songwriter called Rick Derringer (ne Zehringer), who was a superior technician to -- if not as distinctive a stylist as -- guys like Leslie West and Joe Walsh. His fleet-fingered fluidity was almost equal to Brit fireball Ollie Halsall's (in the same way that a friend once said that Allan Holdsworth sounded like "Billy Gibbons with ideas"). Anyway, that was the league he was in. I first became aware of Derringer post-McCoys, when he was in Johnny Winter And, a band in which he was a somewhat muted presence (except on his feature "Rock and Roll Medley" from Johnny Winter And Live, an album wherein Richard Hurley says "you can hear the cocaine in the grooves"), and Edgar Winter's White Trash, in which he played the extrovert exhibitionist. He penned "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo" -- a song that I played in just about every band I had as a teenager -- for Johnny, and later had a poppy radio hit version himself.

The Winter connection and subsequent commercial missteps came about because after leaving the tutelage of Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Feldman-Goldstein-Gottehrer (aka the Strangeloves of "I Want Candy" fame), the McCoys fell into the orbit of NYC entrepreneur Steve Paul, owner of a Manhattan musicians' haunt called The Scene and manager of Johnny and Edgar Winter. In fact, the opening and closing tracks of Human Ball, originally released on Mercury in 1969, were recorded live at The Scene: a Freddie King-esque instrumental called "Human Ball Blues" and a version of T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues" that isn't as good as the Allman Brothers', but does let you see how Derringer got the Winter gig.

Stylistically, the album's all over the map. The song that was stuck in my head was "Only Human," a hipi country song with lilting steel guitar (played by Derringer?) and words that I remembered for close to 40 years even though I'm not a lyric guy: "Only human with your car and your gun / Only human with your race and your nation / If this is human, I've been incorrectly placed / To me it's just a waste of your time / And ain't it sad to see them kill their own kind?" It's followed by "Epilogue," a bit of Brazilian jazz pastiche in which Derringer effectively impersonates Astrud Gilberto while continuing the previous song's lyrical tack: "There's no need to worry any more / The people here have never heard of war / Waking up each morning's such a thrill / For people that don't know how to kill." A little dated and hackneyed, perhaps, but so damn catchy. And there's a rollicking cover of "All Over You," a ribald Bob Dylan song that was demoed in 1963 but not officially released until 2010, which Derringer presumably heard on a bootleg. It's my favorite obscuro Dylan cover besides Thunderclap Newman's "Open the Door, Homer," boasting some fiery Derringer improvs in between lines of verse and a hot solo to cap it off.

The LP's two best cuts come at the bottom of side one and the top of side two, and both of them are examples of "jazz-rock" in the pre-Bitches Brew sense of the term (think Blues Project "Flute Thing," early Jethro Tull and Tull spinoff Blodwyn Pig), replete with horn charts by Blood, Sweat & Tears saxman Fred Lipsius. "Daybreak" opens with some Electric Ladyland-ish backward tape and wah-wah action, with organist Bobby Peterson getting all atonal on piano. The rhythm boys (Derringer's brother Randy on drums and Randy Jo Hobbs, whom I saw with Johnny Winter in '74, on bass) are clearly out of their depth in a jazz groove and play it safe, but Peterson and Rick don't disgrace themselves in their solo spots. Towards the end of his ride, Derringer kicks on the wah and takes things back into Hendrix territory.

Speaking of which, "It Really Doesn't Matter" opens with stratospheric sonics that sound like some of the studio things Jimi was working on around the same time, which wouldn't see release until after his death. Was Derringer a fly on the wall at Electric Lady...or could the influence have been the other way around? The mind boggles. (Nah.) The song itself is a blues with enough chords to anticipate Steely Dan, for whom Derringer did session work in the '70s (although he didn't play the solo on "Black Friday," which this song resembles structurally).

The remaining two songs on side two are a bit of a comedown. "Love Don't Stop" is an okay soul ballad that could have come off an SRC album, and "Clergy Lies" is Peterson's sole songwriting contribution here, a heavy-handed anti-religious rant that anticipates Black Sabbath in the same way as the Yardbirds' "Ever Since the World Began" did. And it ends with the sound of a toilet flushing. The songs, at least, are well played.

A period piece, perhaps, but it was my period. It's nice to have it back on my turntable.


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