Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sonic's Rendezvous Band: An addendum

Nothing makes an obscuro music geek happy like validation, so I was happy beyond all reason when a muso bud of mine, a young cat who leads a funk band and whose tastes generally run toward prog and technical metal, told me how much he digs Sonic's Rendezvous Band -- which, if not my favorite band of all ti-i-ime, is definitely up there in my personal pantheon. I wrote an oral history of SRB that wound up getting excerpted in the liner notes to Easy Action's 2006 SRB box set, but it occurred to me that I've never actually written about SRB's music. So, here's a little addendum to rectify that.

1) The Band. Fred "Sonic" Smith had only started to come into his own towards the end of the MC5's trajectory, writing half of the songs on High Time (the first Five LP to feature individual songwriting credits) and playing plenty of chugging, Chuck Berry-influenced lead (as well as showcasing his 16th-note prowess on "Gotta Keep Movin'). He had a couple of false starts as a bandleader with Ascension (featuring his Five-mates Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis) and the earliest incarnations of SRB (with bassist Ron Cooke and a revolving door of drummers). In 1975, he teamed up with ex-Rationals frontman Scott Morgan and ex-Stooges drummer Scott "Rock Action" Asheton. Ex-Up bassist Gary Rasmussen replaced Cooke the following year.

Morgan was a dynamic, soulful singer in the classic Detroit mode, not as raspy as Bob Seger or as histrionic as Mitch Ryder and more reserved onstage than the MC5's Rob Tyner, but maybe more expressive than all of them. (For proof, see the versions of Dr. John's "Glowin'" and Mike d'Abo's "Handbags and Gladrags" on the Rationals' self-titled LP.) It would have made sense for Morgan to do all the singing, but instead, Smith sang all of his own songs in a baritone bellow (probably figuring that it made no sense to try and cater to the marketplace, since having former members of the Five and Stooges in the lineup mitigated against a major label recording contract in the mid-'70s). He'd also developed dramatically as a guitarist, with a thick, midrange-heavy tone and a staccato attack that he'd picked up from listening to jazz saxophonists. In the engine room, Rasmussen was solid and supportive and Asheton, while not as exploratory as he'd been in his Stooges Funhouse days, was relentless and powerful.

They started off heavy on Chuck Berry-isms and Morgan originals, but gradually over the years, Fred's confidence grew, and his compositions became more numerous than Morgan's in their set lists. Their finest hour was probably 1978, when the best onstage balance existed between Smith and Morgan's songs and vocals.

2) The Songs.

American Boy (Smith, ‘80)
Asteroid B-612 (Morgan, ’76)
China Fields (Smith, ’80)
Chungo of the Asphalt Jungle (Cooke, ’75)
City Slang (Smith, ’77)
Clock With No Hands (Smith, ‘79 – “It’s Alright,” fast)
Cool Breeze (Morgan, ’71 – Guardian Angel)
Dangerous (Morgan, ’76)
Detroit Tango (Smith, ’75 – same as “Hearts”)
Do It Again (Smith, ’75)
Earthy (Morgan, ’75)
Electrophonic Tonic (Morgan, ’76)
Getting There Is Half the Fun (Morgan, ’77)
Goin’ Bye (Smith, ’75)
Gone With the Dogs (Smith, ’78)
Hard Stoppin’ (Smith, ’76)
Hearts (Smith, ’75 – same as “Detroit Tango”)
Heaven (Morgan, ‘79)
Irish Girl (Morgan, ’76)
It’s Alright (Smith, ’75 – “Clock With No Hands,” slow)
Keep On Hustlin’ (Morgan, ’75)
Love and Learn (Morgan, ’78)
Mystically Yours (Morgan, ’75)
So Sincerely Yours (Smith, ‘78)
Song L (Smith, ’76)
Soul Mover (Morgan, ’72 – Guardian Angel)
Space Age Blues (Cooke, ’75)
Step By Step (Smith, ’77)
Succeed (Morgan, ’76)
Sweet Nothing (Smith, ’78)
Take A Look (Morgan, ’72 – Guardian Angel)
Thrill (Morgan,’78
You’re So Great (Smith, ‘79)
NOTE: Fred “Sonic” Smith wrote 16 songs (including two that were retitled), Scott Morgan wrote 15, and original bassist Ron Cooke wrote two (which were dropped when Gary Rasmussen replaced him in mid-’76). Of these 33 songs, three were carryovers from Guardian Angel/Lightnin', ten were introduced in ’75, seven in ’76, three in ’77, five in ’78, three in ’79, and two in ‘80. All songs were sung by their authors.

COVERS - All sung by Morgan except as noted
Empty Heart (Jagger/Richard, MC5)
Flight 505 (Jagger/Richard – Rasmussen sings)
Heart of Stone (Jagger/Richard – Smith sings)
Heavy Makes You Happy (Bloom/Barry, Guardian Angel)
Hijackin’ Love (Taylor, Guardian Angel)
I Believe To My Soul (Charles, MC5)
Let the Kids Dance (McDaniel)
Like A Rolling Stone (Dylan)
Part Time Love (Hammond, Rationals)
Party Lights (Clark – Smith sings)
Promised Land (Berry)
Roberta (Smith/Vincent)
Sweet Little 16 (Berry – Smith sings)
NOTE: This list is limited to recordings I've heard; there were probably others. For instance, Morgan remembers Smith singing a song from the first Who album.

3) Discographical note. Fortunately, while they only recorded two songs in the studio, and only released one of those at the time, SRB was well documented via basement demos, soundboard and audience recordings.

The most comprehensive collection is the six-CD Sonic's Rendezvous Band box set on Easy Action, which includes four complete shows (one each from '75 and '76 and two from '78, including the one from the Second Chance that was previously released on Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts as Sweet Nothing), as well as the studio recordings of "City Slang" and "Electrophonic Tonic," and a generous selection of other recordings, in good quality. (Among the most interesting are "American Boy," a 17-minute opus from 1980 that features Smith soloing on saxophone, and a raucous live version of Claudine Clark's "Party Lights" that includes examples of his low-grade humor. Good liner notes, too.) Easy Action also released The Second Chance, a complete '77 performance from that venue spread across two CDs. Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts also had City Slang, a good cross-section of the band's repertoire not included on Sweet Nothing. (All but Morgan's "Heaven" and a 1999 remix of "City Slang" are included on the box set.) The CD of Sweet Nothing included a bonus track which, in the manner of the times, is preceded by ten minutes of dead air after the end of the "last" song -- a 1980 sound check recording of a Smith instrumental, "China Fields."

For vinyl lovers, there are three long-playing artifacts available, all of which include versions of "City Slang," "Love and Learn," "Song L," and "Sweet Nothing." The vinyl Sweet Nothing omits a crucial song (Morgan's "Getting There Is Half the Fun") from the '78 Second Chance show, but also a duff cover (Smith singing the Stones' "Heart of Stone"). The '78 "Masonic Auditorium" show from the box set (which Easy Action subsequently learned was from another venue) is out as a standalone artifact on Bomp. And Devil's Jukebox in the UK has released Too Much Crank, culled from the last disc of the box set. While omitting "American Boy" due to length, it does have the studio versions of "City Slang" and "Electrophonic Tonic," plus a couple of other essential tracks ("Clock With No Hands" and "You're So Great") that make it my pick of the available vinyl options.


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