Friday, January 04, 2013

Scott Morgan's "Three Chords and A Cloud of Dust"

i. 10.18.2012

This time it's personal.

Scott Morgan is one of my very favorite musicians on Earth, a diminutive white Midwesterner with improbably powerful soul pipes, a knack for hard rock and R&B songwriting, and a dedication to music that's kept him treading the boards for 50 years in relative obscurity. But while most American listeners remain unaware of his existence, he's revered by those who know in places as far from his Ann Arbor, Michigan home as Australia and Sweden.

I've been a fan of his music since 1971, when I stumbled on a copy of the Rationals LP in the bargain bin at E.J. Korvettes, about a year and a half after its release. It quickly became one of my favorite records, and remains so today. I dug it so much that in 1997, when I didn't even own a record player, I bought a copy through an ad in Goldmine and had my buddy Larry Harrison tape it for me. (Larry was an old-school record man who hooked me up with Scott's latter-day recorded output.) A couple of years after that, I met Scott at SXSW and got him to autograph it for me.

Scott had made a detour in Austin enroute to L.A. from Ann Arbor. He was going to make a guest appearance with Wayne Kramer, and I had the pleasure of driving him around for a couple of days. In the event, I missed the BellRays' set listening to Scott discuss with Frank Meyer what MC5 songs he might sing with the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs (he wound up singing none), and Scott only got to sing the first two verses of "Kick Out the Jams" before Wayne took it back. It was still worth it for me for the chance to hang out with Scott and hear the rough mixes of the first Hydromatics album on his van's cassette player in the motel parking lot at 3 o'clock in the morning. Scott also gave me a copy of a cassette with five songs he'd recorded with his L.A. band, the Jones Bros. Later, he sent me a dub of the Rationals legendary "fan club album."

Back in the mid-to-late '70s, I'd read reports in Creem magazine about Sonic's Rendezvous Band, the Detroit supergroup that Scott played in along with Fred "Sonic" Smith from the MC5, Scott Asheton from the Stooges, and Gary Rasmussen from the Up. It'd be the '90s before I heard any of their music, though, after I'd started writing about music on the internet and found my way into the fan pipeline where cassette copies of SRB's music circulated. One of the most knowledgeable people I met through those associations was Geoff Ginsberg, a Philadelphian who'd managed Scott in the '90s. Geoff had a record label, Real O Mind, on which he released a reissue 7" of Scott's first solo single, "Take A Look"/"Soul Mover," and a CD compilation, Medium Rare, that I consider one of Scott's finest albums.

Geoff and I met in the flesh for the first time in April 2002, when I flew up to Cleveland to see Scott's band Powertrane play at the Beachland Ballroom, then rode with Geoff and Powertrane drummer Andy Frost to see the band play at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. The Blind Pig show was an all-star affair, with guest artists including ex-Radio Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek (who was touring with Powertrane for the season), singer Hiawatha Bailey from the Cult Heroes, and one of my all-time heroes, original Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. It was also one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life. I was so high from the experience that it didn't even faze me when I got shitcanned from my corporate job a week later. Geoff released the recording of that night on Real O Mind as Ann Arbor Revival Meeting.

In 2006, Easy Action Records in the UK released a comprehensive six-CD box set of SRB recordings, using an excerpt from a history of the band that I'd written as liner notes. I got acquainted with Easy Action honcho Carlton Sandercock, whom I later learned was instrumental in releasing the Yardbirds' BBC sessions and the essential Page-era Yardbirds document Cumular Limit on New Millennium (not to mention MC5, Stooges, Steve Marriott and Marc Bolan on his own label), and we collaborated on a couple of other projects. This past August, Carlton reached out to me with the idea of doing a full-on Morgan anthology. Scott had been diagnosed with severe liver disease at the end of 2011, and Carlton wanted to move fast. Unfortunately, I had to bow out of the project a month later due to a family matter, but not before introducing Carlton and Geoff.

Now it's a month later, and I have the mastered tracks on my iTunes. Three Chords and A Cloud of Dust is a labor of love, and I'm in awe of the efforts that Carlton and Geoff put forth to make it happen so quickly. Geoff’s detailed insider’s liner notes tell the story much better than I could, but here’s my two cents anyway.

ii. The details

So here's what you get: Three CDs. Sixty-two tracks, 20 of them unreleased, with five more appearing on CD for the first time. More to the point, you're not going to find most of the previously available stuff without searching really hard, because most of Scott's releases have been on small labels that didn't stick around long enough to repress them.

The glorious exceptions are the Rationals material on Ace/Big Beat, the SRB stuff on Easy Action, and the Scott Morgan solo album on Alive. The Rationals are represented here by five tracks. Garage rock nazis prefer the earlier, Brit Invasion-influenced stuff; myself, I'm a sucker for the Rationals' sweet and sophisticated soul harmonies. (There's also a track included from the Rationals' early '90s reunion.)

The first great discoveries here are four tracks from Guardian Angel, the band Morgan and Terry Trabandt formed in the wake of the Rationals' demise: solid rock from back when blues and R&B were essential elements of that equation, with stinging lead guitar from Jeff Jones and assertive drumming from Morgan's brother David. A piano triplet-driven version of Morgan's "Cool Breeze" and a guitar-heavy cover of Wilbert Harrison's "Let's Work Together" are from a smokin' unreleased 1971 album that should now see the light of day. Johnnie Taylor's "Hijackin' Love," recorded live at the 1971 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, was originally released as a single on John Sinclair's label. Pick of the litter, however, is a Stones-y, warehouse-recorded version of Eddie Floyd's "Things Get Better."

Morgan's debut solo waxings, "Take A Look" and "Soul Mover," were Guardian Angel tracks with overdubbed lead guitar by Fred "Sonic" Smith. Their volatile partnership in SRB lasted from 1975 until 1980, and is represented here by five tracks that include an unreleased basement tape of Morgan's loose-limbed "Mystically Yours" and a Morgan song from late in their run, "Power and Glory," which sounds more like a heartland ballad than the balls-out rock that was SRB's stock in trade. Listeners who want more but can't afford to pony up for the SRB box set are directed to Easy Action's double-disc The Second Chance, from whence the storming "Succeed" was drawn.

Brothers of the Road was an early '80s bar band, but one for which Harry Phillips (ex-Catfish/Mitch Ryder's Detroit) tickled the ivories with wild abandon and Morgan penned tunes like the great "Pirate Music" and the peculiar "Gypsy Dancer." With a couple of personnel changes, including the addition of bluesy guitarist Mike Katon, that outfit morphed into the Scott Morgan Group, which cut demos in '84 including "Come On Baby," an upbeat anthem that could have been a hit in the Springsteen-mad climate of those times.

Paring the lineup down to a foursome (with the Asheton/Rasmussen rhythm section from SRB and second vocalist Kathy Deschaine), Morgan cut the underrated Rock Action album -- his first solo album, just 20 years after the Rationals LP -- for the French Revenge label. While Rock Action gets a bad rap for its '80s production sound, the album wins on the basis of songs like the hometown homage "Detroit," SRB retread "Heaven and Earth," and "Everything," which starts out as Drifters-style Latin-tinged R&B before chiming chords herald a return to rock.

From '92 to '95, that unit worked under the rubric Scots Pirates with a succession of guitar players. Particularly noteworthy are two tracks from an acoustic cable TV performance by Morgan, Rasmussen, and guitarist Brian Delaney: "Josie's Well" (a bonus track on Medium Rare) and "The Road Home," a hardscrabble communique from society's margins. While I'm not a fan of the drum sound on 1993's Scots Pirates (Action Now in its French incarnation), the compilers have picked two of its best tracks. The sound on 1995's Revolutionary Means was more in line with what post-grunge rockers wanted to hear: lots of brutal, fuzz-and-wah-oozing guitars from Morgan, Katon, and Bobby East. In retrospect, that album was probably Morgan's summit up until that time. The two tracks here support that assessment.

A version of the Stooges' "I Got A Right" comes from Dodge Main, the '96 Wayne Kramer/Deniz Tek collaboration on which Morgan sang four songs. Myself, I'd have chosen one of the two MC5 High Time songs, but there's a live version of "Future Now" with Tek and the 3 Assassins (a nom de tour for Italian punkers the A-10) included here. An acoustic take on SRB's "City Slang" by Morgan-fronted cover band Motor Jam sounds better than you'd imagine. And a very pleasant surprise indeed is the inclusion of two tracks with Michigan garage revivalists Fortune and Maltese from a '98 radio broadcast. Scott sings his ass off, and the Farfisa-driven backing lets you hear him.

The Jones Bros. material from '98 ranks with some of my very favorite Morgan stuff. It featured a modern sound and unusual song ideas. "Endless Summer," included here, is the only unreleased song from that session. Inspired by recording in the Beach Boys' studio, it juxtaposes a light, jazzy melody with zooming fuzzy octave runs from guitarist Manny Alvarez.

In the late '90s, Morgan toured and recorded with MC5-inspired Swedish rabble-rousers the Hellacopters, singing on their "Downright Blue" single and covering his '87 shoulda-been hit "16 With A Bullet." Morgan also formed the Hydromatics with 'Copters frontman Nicke Royale on drums and Dutch punk rock pioneer Tony Slug on guitar (who'd had the idea of forming an SRB tribute band and did a credible job of playing Fred Smith's parts). Copies of their debut album Parts Unknown go for over a C-note now; four songs are included here. Their second album, Powerglide, was even better, showcasing Scott's soulful side (see "Tumblin' Down") as well as his rockin' one (cf. "RIP Rock 'n' Roll"), and featuring young Ann Arborite Andy Frost on drums. A live Hydromatics version of SRB's "You're So Great" has different lyrics than both the ones Fred Smith sang and the ones Wendy James made up for her recent cover.

"Satisfier" was cut for Medium Rare in a shambolic Y2K session where journeyman guitarist Robert Gillespie (ex-Rob Tyner/Mitch Ryder/Motor Jam) saved the day. The version here has a different guitar solo than the released version. The Stooges' "1969" from my wish-fulfilling Ann Arbor Revival Meeting show has dueling lead guitars from Ron Asheton and Deniz Tek.

I'll admit that I came late to an appreciation of the Solution, Scott's Swedish soul band, active between 2004 and 2007. While I still don't rate them as highly as, say, Sharon Jones' Dap Kings, their horn-and-background-vocal based R&B sound let Scott's voice breathe in a way the turbo-Rawk of the Hydromatics didn't. There are two songs from each of their albums here, plus a live cut from a 7" and another that's previously unreleased.

Powertrane was Scott's hometown band from 2001 to 2009, with Gillespie and bassist Chris "Box" Taylor as the other constants. Their 2005 album Beyond the Sound barely saw release; its title track is included here. Better still is their unreleased 2008 demo of Bob Seger's powerful antiwar rant "2+2=?" -- unfortunately still as relevant today as it was in '67.

Chris Taylor played his main instrument, guitar, on Scott's self-titled solo album from 2010, in a band of Detroit (relative) youngbloods that included White Stripes producer Jim Diamond. Scott Morgan was the R&B homecoming I'd always dreamed of, with a sound as redolent of Funkadelic as it was of Motown. It's represented here by two cuts and two outtakes, including a haunting acapella version Nolan Strong's "The Wind" that closes the album. Scott's falsetto on the track is as otherworldly as Elvis' on "Blue Moon" and will flat break your heart.

iii. 1.4.2013

Easy Action plans a March 18th release. Welcome home, Scott. And thanks for all the music.


Anonymous miss josh emmett said...

as a fan from the beginning, thank you being so faithful to one of our great michigan singers.

what you wrote was a really nice tribute, to a really nice guy.

luv, miss josh emmett

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Hurley Brothers(HURLCO)of Detroit stand in gratitude for having been with Scott through most of his reincarnations as a player. We're humbled by having been major contributors to a large portion of the SRB Box Set and will never regret hitting "record" when Scott took the stage. Kick Out The Jams.

6:17 PM  

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