Death, destruction, pain and depravity: yes, it’s the perfect gift for the metal fan in your life

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Dan Nelson’s epic 243-page book All Known Metal Bands is full of death, destruction, pain and unspeakable acts of depravity. You won’t find any graphic descriptions or wordy explanations, however, just a list of more than 50,000 bands that the author claims are associated with the endlessly fascinating metal genre.

Nelson, a conceptual artist from Oregon, spent a significant amount of time researching the names before printing them inside a beautifully designed book, which features gothic typography on the cover and silver print set against black pages inside. It should be noted that most of the names could be found on the website Encyclopaedia Metallum long before All Known Metal Bands was published in 2008. Nelson acknowledges this, but as he explained on his website, no one else had the idea of publishing the names in such an elegant fashion in a book that he considers more of a work of art than a mere encyclopaedia.

Dedicating so much time to compiling such a list might seem unfathomable to non-metalheads but there’s something deeply captivating about Nelson’s labour of love. Leafing through page after page of bleak-sounding names such as Bound by Entrails and Premature Autopsy on a cold winter’s night is much more fun than it should be. Plus, you can’t help but be intrigued about the stories behind the names.

The most entertaining way to view the book is as a study of the bizarre naming conventions and recurring themes found throughout the mixed-up world of metal. For example, there are 170 bands featuring the word “dead”, 68 beginning with the word “goat” and nine bands that share the name Scum. More than a whole page is taken up by bands featuring the word “blood” somewhere in their name.

So what does All Known Metal bands tell us, if anything, about its subject matter? In the book’s endnote, Nelson states: “The names in this book are invisible tokens to be uttered aloud, each conjuring a group of humans formed to play rock in its extreme form – with the greatest impact of sound, in which the floorboards shake and walls quiver, and ears split and leak blood.”

As terrifying as that sounds, it doesn’t ring entirely true. There are plenty of acts featured in All Known Metal Bands that purists would refuse to accept as true metal bands. Perhaps the most obvious is Led Zeppelin, whose music is loud and occasionally ear-splitting but not particularly extreme (except for those 12-minute drum solos). Meanwhile, the fact that Guns N’ Roses are notably absent, despite their keen embrace of various aspects of hair metal during the 80s, is sure to raise a few pierced eyebrows. Nelson does not provide his reasoning, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

As the the title acknowledges, providing a definitive list of every metal band in the world is an impossible task. Metal is made up of many constantly evolving sub-genres from the relatively well known (thrash metal, melodic metal) to the utterly obscure (dinosaur metal, goblin metal). This contrasts with the persistent myth that metal bands are stuck in the past, unwilling to innovate or embrace technological change. Metal’s huge breadth of variety, coupled with a longstanding tradition of boundary pushing, is what makes it a truly fascinating subject, but also one that can never be truly defined.

Much like metal itself, All Known Metal Bands isn’t for everyone, but it holds up well as a celebration of some of the most daring, absurd and amusing band names to be found in any genre – and, if nothing else, it will look absolutely beautiful on your coffee table.

Twitter: @Tola_o

All Known Metal Bands, described by Rolling Stone as “the best bathroom book ever”, is still in print (although Amazon in the UK says it is currently out of stock). You can get it online from The McSweeney’s Store for a bargain $15.

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You were in a band that once supported Eddie & The Hot Rods at the Hope & Anchor? Me too

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I used to be in a band. Impressed? Don’t be. Many of my friends have also been in bands, as have lots of people I follow on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, who am I kidding? You’ve probably been in a band, too.

My son’s in one. His friends, their parents, his school teachers and his driving instructor – they’ve been in bands, too. The bloke who runs the corner shop; Alex the dreadlocked postman; Angela the goth next door; and both Stuart and Freda, who I met on holiday in Spain last summer – all in bands.

Yet even though there’s nothing special about being in a band, no matter how brief a person’s musical career is, you can bet that they’ve got a story to tell about when they were in a band. And tell it they will, at length.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet some quite successful musicians, whose stories are worth hearing. But with heavy heart, I can report that (unless they’re being interviewed) the more successful the musician, the less likely they are to tell you all about it. And vice versa.

The most vocal, the ones who’ll tell you chapter-and-verse about it, were in a band for a few weeks when they were at school. They played mostly covers. But they’d also written a couple of their own, called things like Total War and Let’s Destroy Everything, damning indictments of the capitalist system. Decades later, they can remember every word. Sometimes they actually sing bits of these compositions to me, to illustrate just how hilarious they were. No, they hadn’t got as far as playing any gigs, but did rehearse a few times. Actually, they did once tape one of their rehearsals, and would I like to hear it?

Then there are those whose group did get as far as playing three or four gigs to their mates at the school disco or local pub. It was 30 years ago, but they can – and will – still recount every detail at length. Which member of the band broke a string; the wrath of the pub landlord when their set went on too long; the backstage recriminations.

Others took things a bit more seriously. Maybe their bands had played some out-of-town gigs, or some support slots at central London venues. They’ll spin well-rehearsed tales of how they once played at the Hope & Anchor with Eddie & the Hot Rods, or third on the bill at the Dublin Castle, where they’d met the bass player from Suede, who was really a great guy.

Some, of course, are active in bands now. Men – again, they are usually men – playing pointless 12-bar blues in bands with names like Tumblin’ Dice and The Penge Po’ Boys. (What is it with those apostrophes?) They insist on recounting how they used to go and see Alvin Lee “back in the day”, and how he’d been the equal of Eric Clapton.

OK, I concede that there are people who’ve been in bands – pretty good bands – and who don’t go on about it. My friend Kev, for instance. I’ve known Kev for years, but discovered only recently that he’d been in a skinny-tied band called The Aerosols (“everyone used to call us The Arseholes”) who released a single in 1978 on the Jet label. I was impressed. Not just with the single, whose monochrome paper picture-sleeve oozes new-wave cool, but with Kev’s modesty in not mentioning it.

The trouble is, I made Kev up. Because, let’s be honest: if you had such a string to your bow, you’d tell everybody you met for the rest of your life, wouldn’t you?

I do understand the impetus to relive these youthful glories. Because, you know – being in a band was kind of fun, sometimes. I like to think that I’ve recovered from the many disappointments and setbacks I suffered during my musical career. Still, I find it hard to sympathise with those less successful than my band, or to share their glee in their lack of ambition. And the many musicians who were more successful and ambitious than my group probably don’t need my approval.

So yes, I was in a band. But I won’t bore you with the details.

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We could build the dream with love: a 70th birthday tribute to Laura Nyro, part two

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This is the second and final part of my tribute to the great singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, who had she lived would have been 70 years old in October 2017. Part one featured some of the many cover versions of Nyro songs. This post focuses on her artistry as a performer as well as songwriter. I’ve avoided the better known songs, such as And When I Die, Time and Love, and Stoned Soul Picnic, in favour of some of Laura’s lesser known, but equally brilliant, compositions – one from each of her solo studio albums, plus a bonus rare TV appearance.

He’s a Runner (1967)

This song from Nyro’s first album, More Than a New Discovery, features a simple but beautiful melody and a vocal performance of exceptional conviction and maturity by its teenage singer. Not for the last time, she is warning about a bad guy. Unlike the “Flim Flam Man” on the same album, who at least had “daily charm”, this one is really bad news. She knows this from personal experience: “Why oh why did you leave me and run off with tomorrow? Now I’m in chains till I die.”

The lament is given added poignancy by the chromatic harmonica work of Toots Thielmann, one of many leading jazz musicians to grace Laura’s albums; others included Alice Coltrane, the Brecker brothers, Joe Farrell, Zoot Sims and Lew Soloff. (Jazz players found it easier, perhaps, to handle her complex chord structures and frequent time changes.) The superb guitar and haunting oboe complete this perfect track.

There are excellent covers of this song by, among others, Mama Cass Elliott and Blood, Sweat & Tears but Laura’s remains the definitive version. Later in this post you can see her performing it, along with Save the Country, on one of her rare TV appearances.

December’s Boudoir (1968)

Aspiring lyricists should sleep with this song under their pillow every night. The first verse runs:

Kisses from you in the flames of December’s boudoir,
They fill me like melons,
Touch me with chivalry,
Truly I know, truly I know who you are.
December will bear our affair,
Running on streets of delight and Decemberry ice.

Nyro’s imagery, however unorthodox, always sounds just right – “trains of trust, trains of gold and dust”; “red yellow honey, sassafras and moonshine”, “tassels in the morning sky” –  and if the word or phrase didn’t exist, she’d simply invent one: Decemberry, surry, Tendaberry, blackpatch. As for those December kisses, she sings of “love coloured soul, love coloured soul kissing spice”; then with a daring switch of tempo characteristic of Nyro the song speeds up, before a final paradoxical, intoxicating image: “mainstream marzipan sweet, baking out in December heat”.

The penultimate track on the album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, December’s Boudoir is complemented by the final song, The Confession, which takes those kisses to a logical conclusion in an astonishing (especially for its time) expression of female sexuality. “Love my love thing, love is surely gospel” was not, I can assure you, the kind of thing we were used to hearing on Shindig! or Top of the Pops.

Charlie Calello, who arranged and produced the album, said: “You look at a great painting and say, ‘Ah, this is Monet, this is Renoir.’ Well, when you heard a Laura Nyro song, you knew it was Laura Nyro.”

Captain for Dark Mornings (1969)

What a great title. And the song hasn’t even started yet. When it does, we are once again brought face to face with feelings of almost overwhelming intimacy and intensity. And there’s an apparent paradox: Laura may be a strong, independent woman, but her love for this man makes her “soft and silly”; she would “lay me down and die for my captain”. The fadeout, as she whispers “Captain, say Yes” over descending chords, is the musical equivalent of the last page of Joyce’s Ulysses.

New York Tendaberry, Laura’s masterpiece, is full of special moments like this. From the opening bars of the stunning You Don’t Love Me When I Cry to the final whispered “New York Tendaberry” of the closing title track, it’s a hymn to the ambiguous appeal of her beloved New York City, to its dangers (“the devil is hungry”) and delights (“the devil is sweet”).

Blackpatch (1970)

The New York theme continues on this track from the next album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Blackpatch is another vivid evocation of the city, where “tugboats paint the river” and “clothes spin on washropes, window to window tie”. Such vivid imagery enhances an upbeat song in which the typical Nyro shuffle beat really gets into its groove.

Columbia, her record company, generally allowed Laura almost complete artistic freedom but tried to persuade her to change the title of the album because people might think it was a Christmas record, and the stores would only stock it in the holiday season! She refused. Christmas in My Soul, the strongly political closing track, is not exactly Frosty the Snowman. The album, co-produced by Rascal Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin, features some amazing musicians including Alice Coltrane on harp, Duane Allman on guitar and the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

Stormy Love (1976)

After Gonna Take a Miracle (1971), in which Laura and backing singers Labelle superbly reimagined her favourite soul songs, such as You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me and Nowhere to Run, she did not release an album for five years. When Smile appeared in 1976, her life had changed drastically: she had married and divorced, and moved from New York to a rural idyll in Connecticut. Stormy Love deals with the former: “I’ll pack my boots and pearls, baby it’s a stormy world, and you were my everything.” But she is defiant – “I might spread my wings, gotta do so many things” – and the mood of the album, captured in the achingly beautiful title track, is positive.

The Sweet Sky (1978)

Spoiler alert: if you don’t know this song, prepare yourself for nearly a minute and a half of pure bliss after the key change at around 2:15 as a multi-tracked Nyro repeats the refrain “sweeter than the sweet sky”. If that suggests a mellower Laura than on some of her earlier work, the album, Nested, was recorded in her home studio in Danbury, Connecticut, when she was pregnant with her son Gil. Pregnancy seems to have agreed with her: “Brown shiny nest, up in a tree, maple and warm, like the nest in me” she sings in The Nest, and when she toured the album, heavily pregnant, she told the audience: “We’re both really happy to be here.”

To a Child (1984)

With a gorgeous melody that somehow sounds as if it was always there and Laura just plucked it from the sky, the first track on the 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual is dedicated to Gil, her “elf on speed”. It’s a deeply touching song about parenthood that is both honest (“I’m so tired, you’re so wired”) and uplifting: “I smile as you reach above the climbin’ bars, to see the stars, you are my love, child my love.” This song meant a lot to Nyro as she rerecorded it for her next album, nine years later, and continued to perform it live for the rest of her life. Overall, the album exudes a calm and peace as Laura comes to terms with motherhood, her relationship with her lover, Maria Desiderio, and issues that had become increasingly important to her such as feminism, animal rights and the natural world.

A Woman of the World (1993)

From the excellent Walk the Dog and Light the Light, the last studio album released in Laura’s lifetime. “I was a foolish girl, now I’m a woman of the world, wisdom be mine” she sings above a lilting melody and chord structure that might have been composed in heaven. Broken Rainbow, another song from the album, contains as pure a vocal performance as any in Nyro’s career.

The point about these later songs, which some (usually male) critics compared unfavourably with the passion and intensity of Nyro’s earlier work, is that throughout her career she took us on a journey, mirroring the kind of life events that happen to us all. Her songs invite us into the most intimate places at every point of her life in a way that is rare in a pop artist. Love won, lost, lasting; friendship, joy and sorrow; birth, death and bereavement – she takes us into all these places and when you listen to her, it’s like a conversation with a close friend (or in my case – I’m six years younger than Laura – a big sister).

Triple Goddess Twilight (2001)

On this lovely song from the posthumously released album Angel of the Dark, Laura sings movingly about her late mother, Gilda Nigro:

Mother, you died young and left me
Your twilight colours
Rose, ah, burgundy, coral mist
What are the shades of loneliness.

Triple Goddess Twilight
Late sky violet and pink
All roads lead to Venus
I’ll meet you there
In your dream of progress.

Save the Country (1969)

There are lots of live albums of Laura’s concerts, the best of which are Season of Lights (1977) – the complete version, not the badly edited one that appeared on vinyl – and Live at the Bottom Line (1989). You can find tantalising snippets of live performance on video but Nyro refused to appear on television. Although she made a lot of money from songwriting royalties, she wasn’t particularly interested in money and she certainly wasn’t interested in fame or playing the game.

It seems barely credible that her highest chart positions were No 32 for the New York Tendaberry album and No 92 for Up on the Roof (a single which, though charming, was not one of her songs). This is someone who at one time was managed by David Geffen, who could have made her into a different kind of star if she had wanted it.

But if she was disappointed that her records did not sell more, it was because she wanted people to hear her music, not turn her into a superstar. “If musical talent was the sole criterion by which pop musicians were judged, Laura Nyro would be up there with The Beatles and Frank Sinatra,” wrote the distinguished British critic, Robert Sandall. “Innovation and originality on the scale she preferred do not always get their just rewards.”

Anyway, to finish where we started, here is a rare treat: introduced by Bobby Darin, TV performances of He’s a Runner and her gospel anthem, Save the Country.

No one else would have written the line “Babes in the blinkin’ sun sang ‘we shall overcome’ … ” Twenty years after her death, Laura still speaks to those of us whose lives have been touched by her genius, and inspires us to believe that we can indeed “build the dream with love”.

With thanks to Michele Kort’s biography, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro (Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002).

Twitter: @AAA_Band_Names

 

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