Wednesday, November 07, 2012

SRB on vinyl

Sonic's Rendezvous Band might be my favorite band of all ti-i-ime. I wrote a history of the band that Easy Action Records in the UK borrowed a chunk of to use as liner notes for their monumental six CD box set (currently out of print) that's the most complete compendium of SRB recordings extant. However, being a vinyl junkie, I had to start seeking out SRB releases in my preferred medium, and found a few.

The most commonly available is Bomp's Live, Masonic Auditorium, Detroit, January 14, 1978, which, to these feedback-scorched ears, isn't the best of the four complete shows included in Easy Action's box. That distinction belongs to the better-recorded and longer April 4, 1978 show from SRB's home base, the Second Chance, which Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts released as Sweet Nothing in CD, red and black vinyl formats back in '98. (A black vinyl one goes for about 40 bucks now.) Mack Aborn also released a 12" City Slang that includes one song that didn't make it onto Easy Action's box: the soundcheck instrumental "China Fields," which has replaced the "Guitar Army" intro as my warmup noise. That one'll set you back around 30 bucks, if you can find it.

Masonic Auditorium, available in purple and black vinyl editions, documents a compact, energetic show (headlined by the Ramones), opening with Scott Morgan's "Electrophonic Tonic" and closing with Fred "Sonic" Smith's masterpiece "City Slang," as was SRB's custom. Both men were more varied songwriters than their latter-day imitators have been, penning hard rock songs with more chord changes than anyone this side of Blue Oyster Cult and capable of a range of dynamics that seems to have left the music in the last 30 years.

The emphasis here, however, is on high energy. Fred's "Sweet Nothing," like "Slang," is rock 'n' roll trance music, driven by once and future Stooge Scott Asheton's tribal thump, with Fred attacking his guitar like a man possessed. Morgan's "Asteroid B-612" careens ahead with the momentum of a speeding locomotive, and is the only rock song I'm aware of that was inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery's children's classic The Little Prince. Here and elsewhere, Smith solos with unbridled abandon; by the time SRB was off the ground, he'd progressed a long way from the Berryisms he'd favored back in his MC5 days, ripping off fleet-fingered runs of remarkable melodic invention with a thick, midrange-heavy tone. The band fairly rages through Morgan's "Love and Learn" and Smith's "Gone With the Dogs" and "Song L." Blink and you'll miss 'em.

Too Much Crank, released by Brit label Devil's Jukebox in white (edition of 666, 2006) and black (edition of 500, 2009) vinyl versions, skims the cream from the sixth disc of the box set. It includes both studio tracks that SRB recorded during its existence: "City Slang," their only official release, and "Electrophonic Tonic," which got bumped from the B-side of the single in favor of the mono version of "Slang" because Morgan had the effrontery to record some demos while the rest of the band was touring Europe with Iggy Pop. (Michigan rock 'n' rollers must be the most fractious people on Earth.)

I'd have picked the cover of Jagger-Richards' "Empty Heart" over Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" included here, but that's quibbling. Covers weren't always SRB's strong suit; the Stones' "Heart of Stone," sung by Fred, is the one duff track on Sweet Nothing. My favorite is Fred's hilarious take on Claudine Clark's "Party Lights," but that was on a different disc in Easy Action's box. Wha-wha.

Too Much Crank's a great showcase for Fred's songwriting, less so for Scott's. Morgan's only represented by one tune, "Love and Learn," in a hot version from a performance at the Executive Ballroom in Sterling Heights, MI, which also supplied the version of "Sweet Nothing" that's included here. Morgan, a soulful shouter, was perhaps the greatest unheralded American rock singer, having beaten Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding's "Respect" with his teenage band the Rationals and passed on an offer to replace Al Kooper in Blood Sweat & Tears. Smith, on the other hand, only possessed a serviceable guitar player's voice, but he sang everything he wrote, which probably did as much to diminish SRB's chances of scoring a recording contract as its members' past in bands as controversial as the MC5 and the Stooges.

"Clock With No Hands" is a slow, sleazy version of Fred's observation of "the serious side of drug addiction, and lives destroyed on the streets of a big city in the Midwest." The same song is also included in its faster incarnation as "It's Alright." Myself, I find the latter less effective, but they're both here, so you can take your pick. Fred's lengthy mood piece "American Boy," featuring its composer on saxophone, wasn't included in this compilation -- it'd have taken up a whole LP side by itself -- but his "You're So Great," an ace pop song recently covered by Wendy James (with Stooges guitarist James Williamson), was, to good effect.

Bottom line: Do yourself a favor and lay hands on any SRB music you can. You owe it to yourself.


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