PLAGUEDOGGIN' DOWN RABBITHOLEZ
Tony Williams Lifetime, The Trap Set with Joe Wong, Nikel Pallat vs. Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, Ton Steine Scherben, Exodus, Venom, Slayer, Sun City Girls
A single sentence on the Wikipedia page for the Tony Williams Lifetime about a 1971 performance of theirs in France, filmed in color and broadcast on the French television program Pop2, sends me to YouTube. I don’t find that Tony Williams Lifetime color footage, but I do find this Tony Williams Lifetime color footage from the same year, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, featuring probably the same lineup, maybe even on the same overseas trip, and this band is on fire, right up there with contemporaneous ensembles like Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Carlos Santana’s Santana for pure burning African/indigenous polyrhythmic intensity. MVP besides Tony is Warren Smith on vibes, percussion, and other auxiliary moves. I didn’t really know who he was before watching this video, but he’s a Chicagoan in the house, and is a perfect sparring partner with Tony throughout. Oh, and just as much as Williams & Smith & Alias (Don, on congas, who played on Bitches Brew) are driving the rhythmic aspect of the music, Larry Young’s Hammond B-3 organ is driving the harmonic aspect. Funny that you don’t actually see him on screen very often (he’s perched in the upper stage right corner, straight-up wearing a keffiyeh, just like on the cover of Lawrence of Newark):
Have you been checking out the Trap Set podcast lately? They’ve been unbelievable during the shutdown, with new episodes every day (Makaya McCraven, Meg Baird, Billy Gibbons, Dave Mattacks, Britt Walford, Brian Chippendale, Flea, and seriously, that’s like all in one week). The reason I was even going down a Tony Williams rabbithole in the first place is because of another recent Trap Set guest, Mike Bordin, you know, Puffy from Faith No More, talking about how as a young teenager he would run into Mr. Williams sometimes. (They both lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Bordin’s uncle, or maybe cousin, was Tony’s manager for a time? Did I hear that right?) Bordin keeps saying how good the 1975 Tony Williams Lifetime album Believe It is, singling out tracks with heady titles like “Proto-Cosmos,” “Red Alert,” and “Mr. Spock,” and I’m like, I used to pass over that one in used bins because I thought it was “too slick” and I wanted the “heavy” Lifetime albums with Larry Young and John McLaughlin. Now it’s time to hear it, which I can do on Spotify. Didn’t realize it was Allan Holdsworth on guitar, and I’ve always appreciated Holdsworth, but I think Believe It is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed his guitar playing, probably because this is the best band I’ve ever heard him playing with. Williams is just SO GOOD, he and bassist Tony Newton locking into these smooth but utterly piledriving low-end riffs throughout. On top of that keyboardist Alan Pasqua sprinkles some very smooth fusion tinsel, but he’s also a very good musician, and the contrast with those relentless rhythms is lovely. Then thread Holdsworth into that, and let him prune the tinsel with some edgy/distorto cyclo-patterning; indeed, this record is a kaleidoscope of surprises, one which Williams and Company keep spinning at a steadily satisfying pace.
And hey, check this other insane bit of footage I read about today, in the book Future Days, a superb 2014 history of “Krautrock and the building of modern Germany” by David Stubbs. On page 377, Stubbs describes a certain episode of a talk show that aired on German television station WDR in 1971. Any head knows that WDR showed all kinds of crucial krautrock footage back in the day, and this oddity can go in that file too: an intense political discussion where the Cosmic Courier himself, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, in plump decadent hippie liberal mode, is challenged by Nikel Pallat, the rather more rugged manager/spokesman/activist with the hardcore leftist German-language rock band Ton Steine Scherben. The discussion is in German without subtitles, but in his book, Stubbs helpfully translates their conversation into English. To summarize, Kaiser (in the tangerine jumpsuit) is talking about how real social change is incremental, and would most likely take 100 years; Pallat (with the big intimidating beard) replies that Kaiser’s attitude will always implicitly support the oppressor. This veers into an argument about the level at which TV is an instrument of capitalist oppression, and Pallat gets so heated that, well…
By the way, Ton Steine Scherben are kinda good, considering I’d never really heard of ‘em until reading this page of this book. Pretty raw and primitive sound, nothing cosmic about it. Not too far off from the Stooges, to be honest. Here’s some sort of German television news segment on them, where they play a couple songs, do an interview, etc. No subtitles.
And from these videos I go off into a What’s In My Bag mini-vortex. I’m 100% sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. This time, the Lightning Bolt episode kept coming up in the ‘Up next’/ ‘Related videos’ sidebar, so I finally watched it (it was excellent), and then the High on Fire episode kept coming up, so I watched that, and from Matt Pike learned about a VHS tape from 1985 called Combat Tour Live: The Ultimate Revenge, featuring Exodus, Slayer, and Venom. This music was insane in 1985 when it came out, and was insane in the early 2000s when it all re-hit Blastitude HQ very hard, and it’s still insane now, even as the times have gotten more insane. This whole scene was a ritualistic apocalypse predictor, about 30 years ahead of the curve, and I will always maintain that metal belongs to the 80s. Sure you’ve got the ham-fisted proto-metal hard rock of the 1970s, and you’ve got the black metal tarpit of everything after the mid-1990s, but none of it sounds quite as right as the perfect power/speed/melodic/studded storm that was the 1980s. Give me a few shitty Metal Massacre comps, the VHS tape above, and the Death by Metal documentary on the death metal band Death, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and, as Evil Chuck himself might say: let the metal flow.
And finally, anyone else remember how superb the Sun City Girls track “Man Without a Harmonica” is? You know, their closing track on the 2005 CD release 98.6 is Death? Power trio Morricone funeral dirge, sounding very much like it could be a loose cover version of an actual spaghetti western theme, but also like it could be 100% improvised. The title suggests the latter, but who knows?