Hidden Gems: The Minutemen And Black Flag’s “Minuteflag”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

“I’ll tell you about ‘punk rock’—‘punk rock’ is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators, about music that takes up the energies, and the bodies, and the hearts, and the souls, and the time, and the minds of young men, who give what they have to it, and give everything they have to it. And it’s a term that’s based on contempt; it’s a term that’s based on fashion, style, elitism, Satanism and everything that’s rotten about rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know Johnny Rotten, but I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did.” —Iggy Pop, 1977

I was going to start this piece by warning that it has a sad ending. I would have explained that it’s the story of two of rock history’s most innovative, engaging and important groups; two groups that never set out to do anything else but voice their opinions and have fun in the process. It would go on to state that these two bands seemingly put their music ahead of all else, which would warrant the title of “true artists.” But I would again remind the readers that this story has a sad ending.

In fact, I wrote most of the article like that. Though I was coming from the right place, the result was boring and saccharine. I tried to be a “real writer” by being self-important, but when I read it back, this was extremely obvious. So I scrapped it all at the last minute.

I deeply revere all the artists that I cover for Hidden Gems, but I especially wanted to do a good job on this one. That’s because this story involves Black Flag and the Minutemen, two bands that had a disparate sound (even if it did branch from the same place), but shared similar ideals. Two bands that all together made up a ragtag bunch of goofy misfits—“fucking corndogs”—who shared a label, a van and the belief that anyone could and should brave the bullshit to express themselves. The music they made and the groundwork they laid is the reason why so many people of my generation have a venue to showcase their thoughts—be it bands, painters, filmmakers, or even schlubs like me who get to write about what they love. “Our band could be your life … ”

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Hidden Gems: Led Zeppelin’s “Coda”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

By the mid-to-late ‘70s, punk music had left the underground dungeons of New York and London—the unofficial headquarters—to blanket the rest of the world with its abrasion. Even more afraid of the oncoming wave than parents were the aging “dinosaur” bands. Rock royalty was forced to stand by the sidelines as “snotty boys with lipstick on” (to quote Frank Zappa) made the overwrought mysticality and 12-minute solos that many of them practiced seem unnecessary. Entire punk records were made using no more than six chords, revealing that anyone could do it, everyone was doing it, and that you didn’t need to sell out arenas to change the world. In the Clash’s “1977,” there was “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones.” In the real 1977, this was pretty much true—Elvis was dead, as were the Beatles, and the Stones were swiftly losing their relevance. However, some of these superstars, the same ones who paved the way for the new breed, soon came out swinging: The Rolling Stones released Some Girls in ’78, blending the era’s new sounds into one of their biggest hits, while the Who looked the punks in the eye and asked, “Who the fuck are you?” But Led Zeppelin remained silent.

While the new kids went off to kill their (appropriated) musical fathers like some Oedipal fever dream, Robert Plant was still mourning the death of his son. Karac Plant, just five years of age, had passed away in July ’77 of a stomach infection while Zeppelin was on tour in the States. Understandably, the rest of the tour was cancelled, and the group immediately went on hiatus. During this time, with the band continuing to live outside the U.K. as tax exiles, a traumatized Plant pondered his future, Jimmy Page’s heroin addiction grew increasingly worse, and the public wondered if Zep was on its last legs.

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Hidden Gems: Hall & Oates’ “War Babies”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Instead of writing about neglected albums every week, I could just as easily use this column to rap about things I don’t understand. (Of course, Hidden Gems’ modest readership would plummet tremendously, and rightly so.) Here’s one for you: For some reason, Hall & Oates are not only popular again, but over the past five years or so, they have been appreciated by a new generation of audiences. But why? Let me preface this by explaining that this is in no way a dig at the duo; I’m a giant H&O fan. My confusion lies in the fact that although Hall & Oates are the biggest selling duo in the history of popular music, for many years, their legacy outside of the mainstream was one that was filled with great disdain. If you went back in time to the early ‘90s to ask grunge fans who they thought was the least cool band of all time, chances are Hall & Oates would be a common response. (Also, what a supreme waste of time machine usage, dude.) To many creators and fans of “real music,” the group was seen as schmaltzy corporate-rock whores who made corny songs/videos and had even worse facial hair.

So why the recent change? Whoever decides what things are cool now would be the best place to find an explanation, but I’m certainly not one of them. I don’t have the answer, so I can only theorize that it’s a mixture of these three things:

1. Time/Ingrained Nostalgia. As the years goes by, what’s considered “classic rock” or “oldies” naturally begins to take a different shape. People who came of age in the early-to-mid-’80s have since had kids, and these children have been growing up in the vicinity of what their parents listened to. Presently, many teenagers and people in their early 20s (including members of new bands) have developed a fondness for Hall & Oates’ music, since they’ve grown up hearing it. (It’s also our parents’ fault that young, drunk girls know about “Don’t Stop Believin’”—something else we can blame on them.)

2. Irony? Let’s face it, Hall & Oates aren’t cool, but in a lot of people’s eyes, that’s what makes them cool, because of irony or something. Not gonna lie, I’m not entirely sure how this works either, but like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it. (As with most things, The Simpsons explains this perfectly.) For example, a few years ago,The Cool Powers That Be decided that canning/preserving food is the hip thing to do, even though it’s an incredibly uncool hobby that was seemingly picked at random—comparatively, food canning makes yo-yo’s look like Iggy Fucking Pop. [The views expressed on canning in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MAGNET or its employees. —Ed.]

3. The Music. New fans might have first heard “Private Eyes” or “Rich Girl” from their parents, and maybe there’s a small percentage of Hall & Oates’ fans who do like them to look cool (or uncool?), but it would be very cynical to not give most of the credit to their music. Try as you may, it’s hard to ignore the pure pop brilliance of “I Can’t Go for That” or “Kiss On My List” without getting hooked. The band churned out earworms better than almost anybody, especially during their remarkable hot streak in the early ‘80s—you don’t sell massive copies of decades old albums for any other reason.

The bad part about retroactively gaining a new audience is that new fans might automatically gravitate toward getting a best-of collection or download a few of their hits, especially with a single-heavy group like Hall & Oates; for a large amount of these folks, this might be the only amount of the band’s output that they’ll ever hear. As is the case of most artists, a greatest-hits collection can only give you a small portion of what the band can do, and with H&O’s large discography, much of their most interesting music will be passed over. Although the perception of the duo is that they were the ultimate radio-friendly unit, Hall & Oates were actually more experimental than people give them credit for. Case in point—their third album, 1974’s War Babies. Although it had no hit singles and was dismissed by much of their fan base, War Babies is a strange and fascinating look at their early expanding sound.

After the disappointing sales of folky debut Whole Oats and the slow-burning soul of Abandoned Luncheonette, Philly natives Daryl Hall and John Oates began work on their follow-up. With growing pressure from their label, Atlantic Records, they were frustrated with their lack of a hit song. (Ironically, they had already written one; “She’s Gone” appeared on Abandoned Luncheonette and was released as a single, though it didn’t become a mega-success until it was re-released in ‘76.) Instead of swinging for the fences once again, their third album would be a vast departure. Their first two records had already utilized a wide-range of styles, but the guys had an even harsher left turn planned, facilitated by multi-talented solo artist/producer Todd Rundgren.

For all the parties involved, War Babies was a unique work—a loose concept album about the perils of touring, as well as a look at the struggles of the baby-boomer generation. Hall and Oates had recently moved to New York City, as had Rundgren, so the frantic noise of their new home inspired the record a great deal. Hall, who wrote the bulk of the LP, found some wild, new influences from the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie’s recently released Diamond Dogs. Much of the musicians used on the record were members of Rundgren’s newly formed Utopia, including the guitar work of Todd himself. And even though most of the songs had already been written by Hall & Oates, Rundgren always manages to leave his imprint, and his musical and production influence are a major factor as a result.

The album opens with “Can’t Stop The Music,” Oates’ only solo credit on the record. Inspired by his disillusion with touring, his lead vocal portrays the life of an aging, senile rock star who has forgotten much about his heyday, detailed in the repeating hook, “And he can’t stop the music or remember the ending to his song/He played it much too long.” It’s a perfect example of the irresistibly catchy songwriting skills that pervade the duo’s work, enough to make you wonder why this wasn’t a hit, in and of itself. (The same could be said about several other songs on the album, especially “Better Watch Your Back.”) Although Hall was the more experimental member, Oates’ melodic touches could add sugariness wherever it was needed. For an album that Hall later claimed was his first solo work, it’s Oates who walks away with one of its best moments. (The tune fades into “Is It A Star” using an echoed drum machine, the first use of an instrument that would later become a foundation of their sound.)

In Paul Myers’ 2010 book A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, Rundgren calls “War Baby Son Of Zorro,” the “centerpiece” to the album, and the epitome of its sound: “There was no intention, at all, of making anything resembling a pop song; this was high-concept music at this point.” Over distorted guitars, deep synth tracks and television sound effects, Hall attempted to create what Myers calls a “musical collage of their shared memories of childhood in ‘50s Cold War America.” Even though they were only kids, baby boomers had already “been through momma, the Bomb and ‘Nam,” giant events they had no control over. The group’s harmonies vary from sweet to manic over Rundgren’s dense production, which is simultaneously sad and unhinged (“He’s a scared baby, afraid of a plane/Hid under his desk in a hundred air raids/Dug in dirt, watched Wyatt Earp, in the atomic age”).

A few years back, I fumbled around on the car radio when I came across a funky and prog-ish instrumental tune being played by a local radio station in Philly, WXPN. I instantly enjoyed it, but had no idea who the artist was; it was my first interaction with War Babies, and I didn’t even know it. I was very shocked to learn that it was Hall & Oates, and I hunted down the record immediately. The song was “Screaming Through December,” the album’s longest track, and possibly the most radical departure for the group, before or since. Although the tune is bookended by a very strange, psychedelically warped description of life on the road by Hall, the large breakdown in the middle section is its highlight, held down by Utopia bassist John Siegler, future Utopia drummer Willie Wilcox and guitar work from Rundgren.For fans that are only familiar with “Maneater,” it’s definitely a trip.

War Babies was released in November ’74, and despite becoming Hall & Oates’ first Billboard charting album (number 86), Atlantic dropped the group soon after. Amidst the shakeup, the label, angry fans, even the band’s manager (future Sony head Tommy Mottola) wrongly blamed Rundgren for what they perceived as the album’s artistic and commercial failure. Almost immediately, Hall & Oates would sign to RCA and release their self-titled 1975 album, which featured massive hit “Sara Smile.” Although they toned down their weirdness for their subsequent works, War Babies is a unique highlight for the duo, and a weird detour on their road to master pop music.

Bryan Bierman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. He’s very quiet and enjoys puzzles. You can e-mail him here.

Hidden Gems: Can’s “Flow Motion”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Before starting this piece, I emailed the editors at MAGNET to ask if they thought Can was well-known enough to warrant a Hidden Gems. Not that they are an incredibly unknown band, but this column celebrates “big name” artists and Can is surely the most obscure artist I’ve detailed yet. To further complicate things, these Hidden Gems articles celebrate albums that are aren’t as popular as some other items in a group’s catalog, when in fact, Can’s 1976 LP Flow Motion is probably its highest selling release, even scoring a hit single. So it’s clear I have some ‘splaining to do.

First, a history of Can: After studying musical composition in his homeland of Germany, including some time with legendary avant-garde pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, pianist Irmin Schmidt traveled to New York City in early 1968. There, he would not only come in contact with the radical work of composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young, but also the revolutionary rock band who they inspired: the Velvet Underground. Back in Germany, now armed with the knowledge of American rock and funk sounds, Schmidt formed Can with bassist Holger Czukay, guitarist Michael Karoli and drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Taking a free-flowing and improvisational approach to rock music with even more emphasis on rhythm, Can joined up with American artist Malcolm Mooney, who would become its singer. The band’s first release was 1969’s Monster Movie, a psychedelic masterpiece that sounded like little else of its era. Though some more work with the group soon followed, Mooney suffered a breakdown during rehearsals, in which he repeated the phrase “upstairs, downstairs” ad nauseum for over three hours, long after the band had stopped playing. He returned to his home of New York on his psychiatrist’s orders soon after.

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Hidden Gems: Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die!”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

In November 2011, the four original members of Black Sabbath—Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward—announced plans for a reunion tour, along with a new studio album. It would be the first time the four regrouped since the late-‘90s (with two previous one-off performances before it: Ozzy’s “retirement” concert in ’92 and 1985’s Live Aid.) However, the proposed reunion hit two significant stumbling blocks in 2012. Firstly, drummer Ward could not agree on what he called a “signable contract” that “reflects some dignity and respect toward [him] as an original member of the band.” Ward was originally a part of the reunited Ronnie James Dio lineup of Sabbath—renamed Heaven & Hell—but left that project in 2006, citing musical differences. Also in 2012, guitarist Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma, which halted preparations for the album and concerts, though they plan to continue eventually. (While Iommi is recovering, Osbourne will tour with various musicians, including Butler at several shows, as “Ozzy And Friends.”)

With all these setbacks, one might wonder if it’s worth it. To be frank, 1998’s Reunion live album was solid at best, and old age is historically unkind to most bands, as it has been to Ozzy’s voice. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Black Sabbath has had a notorious amount of lineup changes, quittings, firings, health problems, drug problems and even deaths, with Dio’s passing in 2010 to stomach cancer. So, although none of this drama is anything new, is it really worth it? Can the band create something that will be nearly half as good as it once was? The odds are certainly stacked against ’em, but keep in mind that they’ve done it before, particularly with the Ozzy lineup’s final album in 1978. If anything, the group’s resilience is commendable, and like the name of that last record, it appears that Black Sabbath will—here it comes—Never Say Die! (Apologies all around.)

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