A compilation of early, primarily unreleased tracks from rock godd TODD RUNDGREN’s first bands, Evolution: From Woody’s Truck Stop to Nazz 1966-1968 is a welcome addition to any Toddfan’s collection. With a fistful of tracks from Woody’s Truck Stop (recorded in June 1966) followed by numerous Nazz demos, alternate mixes and even a radio commercial collage, this single CD compilation has been newly mastered and approved by the artiste himself.
The five tracks from Todd’s pre-Nazz group are standard Nuggets-style psychedelic tunes: they’re pretty much what you’d expect from a ’66 rock group. The lead-off cut, “That’s Right You’re Wrong,” is narrowly the best of this bunch, followed by “She Must Be Blind,” which features a fairly blistering guitar solo but it’s not clear who played it. Could be Todd, could be a dude named Alan Miller. The lead vocalist (not sure which guy it is from the liner notes, but it’s not Todd) is nothing special and neither is the rest of Woody’s Truck Stop; it’s not surprising that Rundgren jumped ship over a directional dispute.
Nazz is where Todd Rundgren started to really find the voice (whether from his mouth or via his fingers) that we know and love. And on Evolution there are numerous Nazz-tastic takes on familiar Todd tunes. From a ballad-tempo “Hello It’s Me” audition tape from late ’67, to a “long version” cover of the Paul Revere & The Raiders hit “Kicks,” to an alternate take of this group’s best known tune, “Open My Eyes,” the Nazz is what gives this release pizzazz. Beyond those there are a handful of unreleased songs (including a killer tune called “Forget All About It”), the aforementioned demos and the finale, a tune called “Cissy Strut” which can’t be The Meters’ tune (because it wasn’t released until 1969), nor do the liner notes indicate any kind of provenance of its creation. Doesn’t really matter – I excel at nitpicking! – because ultimately it’s the historical relevance of this release that is our main concern.
If you’re new to the Nazz then this is not the “greatest hits” you seek. (Likely the 2002 Open Our Eyes anthology is still available, or else a used copy of Rhino’s 1984 Best of Nazz.) However, if you’re a Todd fanatic then this Nazz-centric CD should be on your shelf.
In the last few months I’ve reviewed two different box sets of albums by THE JAZZ BUTCHER. The first one, The Wasted Years, covered Pat Fish’s first four elpees under his nom de plectrum. Album number one, In Bath of Bacon, has just been reissued on vinyl for the first time since, ever?, and now I’m the proud owner of a copy. Complete with an English OBI, this vinyl treat is a glimpse at the nascent Jazz Butcher, circa 1983, fumbling towards greatness. Recorded primarily as a solo project by the man himself, the songs range from silly ditties about love kittens and girls who keep goldfish, to zombies in love, grey flannelettes and gloop jiving. What does all this mean? Well, as noted by the music press at the time, it’s “reminiscent of… the Modern Lovers,” (NME) and “[conjoins] Todd Rundgren’s DIY home recordings [with] a guitar from Wes Montgomery’s cupboard.” Together these make up a pretty apt description of the sound of Bacon.
Finding this album on vinyl has been a difficult ordeal, with original copies in decent shape fetching $25-30 easily. It was pretty obscure in the first place, at least here in the States, though it was issued at one point on CD (and even that’s been hard to find). And, while not The Jazz Butcher’s best album (I vote for Cult of the Basement or A Scandal in Bohemia), Bath of Bacon is worth checking out as a vital piece of the Butcher puzzle, especially now that you can get it either as a singular vinyl record or as part of a totally worthwhile 4CD box set. Buy it, enjoy its lo-fi charm, and then start awaiting the massive awesomeness of A Scandal in Bohemia and its return to vinyl.
Second in a series of archival releases culling THE JAZZ BUTCHER’s albums together, The Violent Years delves into the first half of the group’s tenure at Creation Records, from 1988 to 1991. As with The Wasted Years, this one is a 4CD book-bound set, and includes longplayers Fishcotheque, Big Planet Scarey Planet, Cult of the Basement and Condition Blue.
By the time The Jazz Butcher’s residency at Glass Records came to an end, the band had turned in Distressed Gentlefolk, their most polished elpee to date. After realizing that his contract was up – and he had basically disbanded the band – Butchie signed to the hot Creation Records and decided to do an album with more of the indie sound of the early records. He didn’t quite achieve that. 1988’s Fishcotheque came off as an almost identical record, production-wise, to Gentlefolk. As for the songs, yes, Pat Fish had written some real barn-burners, like “Looking for Lot 49,” “Next Move Sideways” and “Chickentown,” the type which were sorely missing from the previous outing. But others, like “Get It Wrong” and “Susie,” were kinder and gentler, despite a new group of musicians. He achieved a bit more of the distress he was looking for on the following year’s Big Planet Scarey Planet, at least in sound, but the songs themselves were mostly of the same two veins – either kinda rockin’ (“Burglar of Love”) or kinda personal (“The Good Ones”). What did stand out, though, were new things like “Do the Bubonic Plague,” a stab at creating a new dance craze (which was a thing back in the day!) with all kinds of dialog samples and a pretty funky rock groove, and “The Word I Was Looking For,” which, though of the fastest tempo on the record, is also one of the smoothest tunes on the release. Fishcotheque and Big Planet delivered both the clever/humorous wordplay and the beat group sound we’d come to expect from anything attributed to any group with the words Jazz and Butcher in its name. Cut from the same cloth, then, these first two Creation releases were indicative of a band that really needed to shake things up.
And that happened on 1990’s Cult of the Basement, which figuratively and literally closed the door on the first era of The Jazz Butcher. Opening with the sound of an actual door shutting, the album ushers in a new, fully realized sound drenched in reverb and perhaps a bit of disgust, tempered by Fish’s usual verve with words. “The Basement” has a sinister, spy-theme vibe motif that is expanded upon a few times on the album, and is followed by the should’ve been hit single, “She’s on Drugs,” a tune that epitomizes the man/band’s ability to house his wry observations about the current pop scene in a spot-on corker of a song. Other JB classics are “Pineapple Tuesday” and my favorite, “Mr. Odd,” both slow/medium tempo songs, the latter somehow encapsulating just what makes The Jazz Butcher one of my favorite bands from the ’80s/’90s. At that time I not only played their records as much as I could get away with on my college radio show (KCMU birthed many a Pacific Northwest JB fan), but also reviewed the album in local music magazine, The Rocket. [Click here for a post of that review.] Further standout tunes on Basement include “Girl Go,” “Turtle Bait” and “Panic in Room 109,” which takes the aforementioned spy theme idea and cloaks it in a complete song of its own. I still can’t get enough of Cult of the Basement, even nearly thirty years later.
Condition Blue, from 1991, is a further expansion of what Fish & Co. created in the Basement. This time the songs are built more around grooves, and the musicians let these grooves go until conclusion (instead of fading them out). That concept doesn’t always work out well, but it does here. My faves on Blue are “Shirley Maclaine,” “She’s a Yo-Yo,” “Our Friends the Filth,” and the super groovy “Harlan” and “Racheland.” The guitars and vocals are pushed into maximum reverberation, creating more of that badass atmosphere that The Jazz Butcher had patented a couple of years earlier.
From here, The Jazz Butcher story goes kinda wonky – and I’m guessing that it will be told in a further box set. However, I must reiterate here that a collection of the JB’s singles and B-sides would be a welcome addition to the two anthologies we’ve been treated to so far. Call it Wasted Violence, or Violent Waste, or whatever you want. As I’ve said before, there are a solid three or four CDs worth of Jazz Butchery that deserve to be preserved before releasing things in a physical format becomes a thing of the past.
[Originally published in The Rocket, Seattle, September 1990]
Once again, Pat Fish proves he’s the penultimate modern pop eclectic. Continuing from where last year’s  overlooked but outstanding Big Planet Scarey Planet left off, Cult of the Basement is THE JAZZ BUTCHER’s latest go-round and it’s one hell of a ride.
Cult opens with the spy-themey “The Basement,” a recurring theme at that. Then, with a curt “and you can dance” a la Madonna, Butchy delivers “She’s On Drugs,” which may or mayn’t be about America’s bullet-braed diva. Lest we believe the Jazz Butcher’s always got something wacky up his sleeve, there’s “Girl Go,” released earlier this year  as a single (in the UK) and a quintessential take on JB’s patented guitar-heavy reverb ballads. “Pineapple Tuesday” is in the same mode, but hardly a copy.
As a guitarist he’s great, as a singer, supreme. But first and foremost, Fish is a songwriter second to none. And if the world were a fair place, he and his band would be everywhere in 1990 except the basement.
Gaz and Danny from Supergrass, THE HOT RATS’ Turn Ons is an album full of cover versions. Perhaps taking the idea from David Bowie’s 1974 Pinups album, or even more recently any number of other all-covers albums, the two-man band and producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney) put together a dozen or so songs for the occasion, and twelve of them appear here.
The festivities get started with a shot at Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” and The Kinks’ “Big Sky.” Things lag a bit on The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” and then you get to the first single, “Fight for Your Right,” which sounds nothing like the Beastie Boys’ original. In fact, the Rats do a great job of completely changing it… for the better, really, since that song—so closely associated with the silly video that accompanied it—is ultimately a childish, bombastic thing. (And I’m not saying I don’t like it!) Stabs at Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, The Cure, and Bowie himself follow, and then comes “EMI,” which is great because, as you know, the Sex Pistols cut that song as a swipe at the first label that signed and then dropped them. And it makes you wonder, does Supergrass still have a contract with EMI, whose Parlophone label they have been on since 1995? (The band did this song on the Craig Ferguson late night show with Pistol Steve Jones—look it up on YouTube!) Well, anyway, the disc ends with a very nice, melancholy version of Squeeze’s “Up the Junction,” with an arrangement that really does justice to Difford & Tilbrook’s sad story-wrapped-in-a-happy-melody that was a chart topper in the UK in ’79.
All in all, a pretty great covers album. Some songs are awfully close to the originals, some aren’t, and some are in between. They all sound like The Hot Rats, though, a crunchy, sorta lo-fi vibe quite different from Gaz & Danny’s other band’s sound, so you’re not gonna confuse these versions with the others when they come up randomly on your iPod. My only qualm? They didn’t include the Rats’ version of “Drive My Car” on the album, even though there’s a video for it. Where can a Supergrass/Hot Rats fan get this, I wonder? I hope it’ll be on a single or something…
3/5 (Fat Possum [US], G&D Recordings [UK])