Scott Morgan's "Three Chords and A Cloud of Dust"
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Easy Action plans a March 18th release. Welcome home, Scott.
And thanks for all the music.