Friday, September 18, 2015

"I Hope It's Not Our House": The Craig Bell Story

Music's such a deep well that you can follow a thread of history as obsessively as you want for years and still find new strands. So, a few days after penning the X_X review below, I'm sitting here listening to a heap of new-to-me recordings, some vintage, some recent, by Craig Bell...Craig Willis Bell, to use his full name.

Born in Elmira, NY, 1952, Bell moved with his family to the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, OH, in 1961, and was a key player in the fecund and highly incestuous rockaroll underground that sprung up, fungus-like, in those environs during the early '70s, playing in two of Clevo's triumvirate of proto-punk originators -- Mirrors (his participation interrupted by two years of Army service) and Rocket from the Tombs. While with those bands, Bell wrote the first of a bagful of tunes he'd carry with him, like Richard Hell and Scott Morgan, through a succession of other bands: "Frustration," "Muckraker" (inspahrd by a challenge from Mirrors leader Jamie Klimek to write a song better than early reality TV star Lance Loud's band, the Mumps), "Read 'Em and Weep" (a song so obscure it's not even on the released RFTT recordings), and "Final Solution" (with RFTT/future Pere Ubu mastermind David Thomas).

In 1976, Bell took a job with Amtrak and moved to New Haven, CT, where he'd hang his hat until 1989. While in the Land of Steady Habits, Bell led a succession of bands, beginning with Saucers -- beloved of punters at New Haven's Shandy Gaff, Oxford Ale House, and Ron's Place, and around the East Coast -- who released an EP and a single, the latter on Gustav Records. Bell started the label with a friend and another financial backer. (Gustav went on to release It Happened But No One Noticed, a 13-song compilation of Connecticut bands. Grand Theft Audio released a Saucers compilation, What We Did, in 2002.)

From 1981 to 1984, Bell -- now on guitar -- fronted Future Plan (later shortened to The Plan), a new wavy outfit that more or less evolved into the Bell System (1984-86), a band that included Bell's wife Claudia on bass. (You can see video of the Bell System from a 1985 radio session on the Gustav Records Youtube channel and Bell's Youtube channel.) When that band folded the tent, Bell continued to record sporadically under the rubric "The Rhythm Methodists" (a name they confusingly share with at least one Brit outfit). In 1989, the Bells relocated to Claudia's native Indiana, from where Craig rejoined RFTT for their still-ongoing resurgence in 2003. Most recently, he's played with the Down-Fi (two albums available via Bandcamp) since 2008 and Deezen since 2010. Since retiring from the railroad earlier this year, he's resumed touring in earnest, including a recent stint with the reformed Gizmos. Whew!

The last few days, I've been listening non-stop to a couple of new (to me, at least) sets of Bell recordings. His DIY-label days done, he's hoping to find a label to release 'em.

aka Darwin Layne (named for Bell's occasional pseudonym) is an LP-length compilation of Bell recordings, including tracks by Mirrors, Bridgeport Badboys (a tough, taut version of "Muckraker" from his first, pre-Saucers Connecticut recording session from 1977), Future Plan/The Plan, the Bell System, and the Rhythm Methodists. The common threads running through the tunes are Velvet Underground, Kinks, and early Eno, with occasional forays into jangling power pop and anthemic heartland rock.

Highlights abound. "Slow Down," as played by the Mirrors, is a beguiling slow number like something left off Loaded, sung by Klimek in a voice as bruised and wary as Springfield-era Old Neil. Saucers are represented by "You Won't Like It," a live-at-Ron's rave-up that pounds and stomps like the Velvets at Max's. Future Plan's "Let It Go" has the relentless forward motion (and cheesy organ) that made "new wave" irresistible to many. "I Hope It's Not Our House," by the same band after they'd dropped the "Future" tag, is a tongue-in-cheek anthem worthy of Tin Huey or the Tubes, in which Bell's narrator starts out celebrating a night out with declarations that "The world is going to get smashed up tonight" and winds up cowering in terror from a real riot.

"America Now" was the title track of the Down-Fi's second Bandcamp-available (hint, hint) album. Myself, I prefer the Bell System's version of what might be Bell's finest song -- imagine if Uncle Lou, not Brooce, had written "Born In the USA." (Oh yeah, that's right, he did, and called it New York. But Bell's tune still rocks out topically. "Where is this place?" indeed.)

Turning the virtual record over, Future Plan's "'62 Hawk" is the obligatory car song, replete with Roxy Music sax, while "How Can I Tell You" manages to encapsulate an inarticulate Everykid's longing and wonder. The Rhythm Methodists' "You Be You" and "I Think I'm Falling" are Nuggets/Pebbles-worthy blasts of garage-rock sweat and grease. The Bell System's "It's Over" trawls the same territory as "How Can I Tell You," ending things on an emotionally unsatisfied but aesthetically very rewarding note.

The Down-Fi are a no-frills trio (formerly a quartet) versed in unhyphenated rock fundamentals: guitars that crunch and chime, whiplash riddim, and hook-laden songcraft. The five new songs (working title: The Down-Fi Go Postal) run the gamut from valedictory kiss-off ("Enough of You") to edgy character study ("Chatelain") to stoic's self-disclosure ("Emotion") to a survey of emotional wreckage with Link Wray guitar ("Let It Rain") to what sounds like Old Neil guesting a la Hunter-and-Wagner on the climactic track from an Alice Cooper album ("Sleep").

Somebody with a couple grand in pocket, puh-leeze take the bait and release this stuff. And bless Craig Bell's rockaroll heart.

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