Real American Graffiti
Rhino Records has done it again—and how! Following last year's revelatory Nuggets box set (in which the esteemed label unearthed four CDs' worth of scary '60s protopunk), they've come back swinging a brass-knuckled fist with LOUD, FAST & OUT OF CONTROL:THE WILD SOUND OF '50s ROCK.
Rhino's statement of purpose expresses a hope to reintroduce a new generation to rock & roll's bone-chilling natal screams; to erase decades' worth of pop-culture propaganda, which has marginalized, homogenized and castrated '50s rock in the eyes of today's youth—many of whom now equate the music of that era with the benign nostalgia of Grease, Happy Days and Sha Na Na.
In fact, more was at stake for the first rock & rollers than any subsequent breed—including the mods, hippies, punks, new wavers, Goths and hip-hoppers to follow. That first group had no rebellious leader from whom to grab the torch; this was the first generation of American youth to stand up and offer society a collective "EAT ME!" through music. And a noble effort Rhino's revision of history is: coming during an era of numbing, Eisenhower-managed postwar "prosperity," the pioneering rockers in this set were seen in their day as a genuine, commie-inspired threat to the standing order. They deserve to be remembered as such, rather than as the lovable Norman Rockwell paintings the pop media would have you believe.
To that end, Rhino has eschewed the romantic doo-wop and cutesy novelty songs of the time to present the real stuff—subversive sonnets that turned the apple-cheeked, wholesome youth of '50s America into juvenile delinquents who greased up their hair, drove hot rods, drank beer, smoked reefers, got into gang fights, fucked like monkeys with purple boners, and (gasp!) mingled with "coloreds."
This was dangerous music for baaad boys and girls. Wanda Jackson screeched like a woman with third-degree burns. Gene Vincent was engaged in a race with Satan, and if he lost, he'd cut Lucifer's ass up with the shiv he had in his cuff. All Little Richard wanted to do was ball tonight, and he didn't seem picky about which gender took him up on his offer. Screamin' Jay Hawkins was more interested in cannibalism than carnality. Big Joe Turner intoned what remains the best line of sexual innuendo in rock history: "I'm like a one-eyed cat, peepin' in a seafood store" ("What does he mean by that, Effie Lou?!?").
Many songs you'd expect are here:teen anthems like Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody," Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," Link Wray's "Rumble" and Vincent's "Be-Bop-a-Lula." But experienced in this context—beautifully remastered, in-your-face, and sandwiched between significant obscurities—the chestnut dust gets blown away. They sound fresh and threatening once again. Like your rarities? More than 10 percent of these tunes are making their CD debut. And, as with the Nuggets set, some of the singles are so mysterious that nothing is even known about the artists who made them. Yet tunes like "Rockin' This Joint To-Nite" by Kid Thomas, "Sunglasses After Dark" by Dwight Pullen, "Duck Tail" by Joe Clay, "Number Nine Train" by Tarheel Slim and "Love Me" by the Phantom throb with an intense, demented vision that rivals anything considered "classic" rock by name-brand musicians.
As for those familiar artists, there's more than just the expected hits afoot: Vincent's "B-I-Bicky-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go" and Hawkins' "Little Demon," for example, may not be these guys' best-known tunes, but they're among the most hellaciously rockin', for sure. There's 104 songs all told, and unlike the Nuggets box, there really ain't a stinker in the bunch. (I could have done without the Bobby Darin shit, but that's a minor complaint.)
For the uninitiated, Loud, Fast & Out of Control constitutes an indispensable primer on what the best rock sounded like when the form was still being shaped; the surprise is how relevant the music is today. For the collector, this set offers the best-sounding remasters of the familiar available, along with some great new discoveries. In other words, any self-respecting rock fan risks dorkdom if they don't have this anthology in their CD collection.
On a related (but less successful) note, Rhino has also released the four-disc box set THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF ALICE COOPER. The Coop has had the most two-sided career of anyone in rock history, as one of its most seditious and influential artists and as one of its most pathetic and cheesy. There's no denying that Cooper's Love It to Death and Killer are two of the most important albums in rock. Without these snarling, trailblazing blasts of hedonism, violence, voodoo, death obsession and pure showmanship, the existence of such acts as Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Aerosmith, the Plasmatics, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, New York Dolls, Kiss, and Iggy Pop & the Stooges is unthinkable. But there's also no denying that Cooper went on to become an abominable, embarrassing parody of himself, as well as rock & roll's biggest sellout. The problem with Rhino's set is that it grants equal attention to both elements of Cooper's career.
There is good news as well. Early demos and singles from groups before Vincent Furnier became Alice Cooper are oodles of ear-wracking fun. "Don't Blow Your Mind" is psychodelia on the 13th Floor Elevators side. "Nobody Likes Me" drips with fuck-you-Jack sarcasm and sneering alienation worthy of the Trench Coat Mafia. "Refrigerator Heaven" is a snarky poke at Walt Disney's cryonically preserved head. But why is it that we have more demos than cuts off Cooper's neglected first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action? And why, why, why do we only get four lousy songs from Cooper's transvestite-punk masterpiece, Love It to Death? An Alice Cooper boxed set sans "Black Juju," "Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "Long Way to Go" is one thing, but to lose those tracks at the expense of the highly varnished caca Cooper released in the '80s and '90s is nigh-unforgivable.
Some people think Cooper was Cooper through Muscle of Love, but I'm not one of them. As far as I'm concerned, he lost it after the success of School's Out, and he never looked back to his roots in the dark side again (although Billion Dollar Babies was admittedly one helluva fine album). By 1975, Cooper was appearing on The Hollywood Squares, singing the atrocious PC anthem "Only Women Bleed," and golfing with George Burns. Never has there been a more prominent rock & roll turncoat, and to this day, it's difficult to forgive him. Sure, Cooper still had songs like "Cold Ethyl" in him (which celebrated necrophilia to amusing effect), but he was done outraging anyone this side of Ann Landers; it was all a stale joke now. The threat was unplugged.
Cooper has gone on to try his hand at new wave and metal as trends have come and gone, each bandwagon-hopping attempt more transparent and pitiable than the last. That two of this set's four discs are dedicated to chronicling that downfall makes it negligible and ultimately does a disservice to the importance of Cooper's real legacy as rock & roll's first—and best—sick fuque.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.