Contributions to Alternative Rock SIG (1988–94)

Published by Sigourney Street

[Comments in square brackets are newly added.]

Rap lyric about what the fanzine's title should be
Commentary on the availability of music on CD
Review of The Real Frank Zappa Book
My answers to a survey
Artists I did/didn't want to buy more of
Albums I bought in 1990
Reviews of Lyres, Swirlies, X Japan
Reviews of Sky Cries Mary, Connie Champagne, Northern Exposure
Reviews of April's Motel Room, No-Man
Reviews of Blur, Superstar, Denzil, Boingo

Volume 1, Issue 9, July 1988 (titled AltaRock)

[Sig had expressed boredom with the fanzine's continuing title and would begin changing it with every issue.]

Welcome to our issue with the number 9
If you want a revolution, now is fine
For the past eight issues we've been "AltaRock"
We thought it made us cool, but now it sounds like schlock
We've been trashin' 'round for a cooler title
That'll make us sound better in recital
But the thinking process makes us all so weary
So we turn to you hopin' you're not dreary
Now come alive, all you wimps and wusses
And stop acting like a bunch of platypuses
Take a listen now to the men who edit
It's the Rap-Ed page. We take full credit
We're the sucker MC, whatever that means
When it comes to rock we know more than beans
Our communal sense makes us so expansive
That we think your input might not be rancid
So we ask you now for some suggestions
Give some snappy answers to our stupid questions
Do you think we ought to name this rag Brunhilde
Wilbur, Velvet, or Clotilde
Would you care for something like the Mean Street Journal [Sig used this one for March '89]
Or the Deep Blue Notes for the more nocturnal
How's Off the Rocker for the more simplistic
Or would Alter Natives be more realistic
Your imagination is appreciated
We don't even care if it's rudely stated
But you better act fast 'cause we got this deadline
Got to go to press 'fore it's past our bedtime
Get your titles to us before we chuck 'em
If they're late we might just tell ya to...
(Sig, what's a good rhyme for this?)

Volume 2, Issue 4, July 1989 (titled Obscure Muzik)

Dwindling Supply? What Supply?

The May article "Why I Hate CDs" by Lawrence Dworin had the uncommon effect of making me want to express my own views on a subject. [Dworin accused music companies of being more interested in getting people to replace their LPs with CDs than in issuing new music.] First of all, I enjoyed the piece and agree with most of the major points made. Where I differ is in the degree to which I feel personally affected by all of this.

Virtually all of the music I want to buy is obscure, except perhaps to members of this SIG. I listen only to college radio stations and do all of my shopping in used record stores, so from my perspective, CDs have not begun to dominate the landscape at all. On the contrary, I can't buy as many CDs as I want because records are much easier to find. My favorite artists tend to lie outside of the world of the major labels and make commercial outlets a waste of time. This was true long before there was any such thing as CDs.

Whether you're talking about music or anything else, the best is always going to be elusive. The difficulty of finding the music I want is something I have long accepted as part of the adventure of shopping. This is why I shamelessly continue to tape much of my music off the radio.

As it happens, I also buy orchestral music, and while CDs would seem to be a gold mine in this area, I don't live near any of the stores that specialize in it. Even here my tastes lie outside the mainstream, and it is exhausting to wade through stacks of Mozart and Haydn — what I call three-chord classical music — only to come up short on Schoenberg and Respighi. This kind of music is hard to find even at a big library.

So even though I read that records account for only 10% of sales, I also know that very few people are snatching up anything that I want. Incidentally, none of us really knows for sure that CDs last forever. Only after 10 or 15 years have passed can we begin buying them with confidence. [The first CD I ever bought — in fact, the first CD player I ever bought — both are now 21 years old and sound no different.] In the meantime, the one thing that remains permanent and unchanging is the knowledge that obscure music is hard to find by definition.

Volume 2, Issue 5, September 1989 (titled Rockzine)

The Real Frank Zappa Book

On the June 7 "Today" show, the following exchange took place, containing highly generalized statements (and I know these quotes are accurate because I TAPED THE SHOW ON MY VCR):

JANE PAULEY: Do your fans read books?


JP: If I hadn't known your answer was gonna be that, I might have hesitated to ask the question … so why did you write the book?

FZ: Well, because I thought it might be fun to do, but I was wondering while I was writing it, who does read books, whether it's my fans or anybody's fans?

I should like to point out to Mr. Zappa that while I can't speak for the majority of his fans, I personally paid full price for his new book at a major outlet, and read every one of its 352 pages in less than twenty-four hours. When one considers that I could just as easily have been watching my VCR, this becomes a rather telling statement about the diversity of this man's fanship that is unknown even to him.

As a matter of fact, among my close acquaintances, Zappa is somewhat more popular among those who read a great deal than among those who don't. My wife, who likes him, reads even more than I do, and he's met her, even. The above exchange, though fleeting and amusing in context, suggests that Zappa, like the people he satirizes, tends to overlook any evidence that contradicts his worst-case scenario, in order to stay in character.

Frank Zappa has recorded something like 50 albums, about HALF OF WHICH I HAVE OWNED at some time or another. Among older rockers, I believe he just about the only major California act whose music is truly international in scope (the Beach Boys and Steely Dan are too regional, and the Tubes aren't really from California), so when I heard he had written a book, I knew I had to buy it, even though some of the passages have appeared before in newsprint. To paraphrase him in his introduction: I don't really want to be a reviewer, but I'm going to become one long enough to write this because I am dissatisfied with the OFF-THE-MARK TREATMENT he tends to get from reviewers, and I think it's about time he got written about by someone who likes him.

I read this book in less than a day not to prove anything, but because I was enjoying it. Zappa's outrageous wit is intoxicating enough to overshadow the occasionally unpersuasive logic and misplaced emphasis, which his fans have learned to accept for its entertainment value.

"The Real Frank Zappa Book" (cowritten with Peter Occhiogrosso) chronicles his life fairly thoroughly up through 1971, when a violent incident on a London stage permanently lowered his voice and kept him in a wheelchair for nearly a year. Most of the other events covered are from the last five years or so. There is relatively little about the years during which he sold the most records, which is another example of his bias in favor of the negative, even though he often uses it to make positive points.

"Valley Girl" isn't even mentioned (not necessarily a bad thing), except in the course of quoting a computer information service text, which not only pluralizes the song's title (a common mistake, like saying "Sally Fields") but gets his birthdate and given name wrong (it's 1940, not 1941; Frank, not Francis). FZ has left it to me to point out these mistakes, which as a typical scumbag editor I am only to happy to do. There is also no mention of a 1963 appearance on "Steve Allen Playhouse," a photo of which I saw in Creem — does FZ have a copy of this show? [Being a scumbag, I originally misidentified this as a 1964 appearance on "I've Got a Secret"; I have since located the audio.]

There is a lengthy section titled "All About Music," in which he actually manages to get in some legitimate musicological observations and shows himself to be quite knowledgeable, without talking down to those of us who have some musical rudiments. This text is not about to replace Walter Piston in orchestration classes, but it's a lot more fun to read. None of this elevated theorizing, though, sticks in the memory so much as his summation of the musical experience: "If it sounds GOOD to YOU, it's bitchen; and if it sounds BAD to YOU, it's shitty" (emphasis not added). This sentiment is what comes to mind whenever I learn that, say, Frank Zappa has done something to infuriate Morton "Horse Apples of the Moon" Subotnick, an alleged electronic composer. [In an infamous 1984 incident reported in the Los Angeles Times but omitted from the book, Zappa was scheduled to conduct a live performance, but he and the orchestra pantomimed to a prerecorded tape at the last minute. I wasn't there, but it was reported that Subotnick had been in the audience and was outraged to learn of the deception.]

Sometimes it seems to an objective observer that Zappa feels most fervently about things that ought not to concern him that much. Why, for example, does he get so worked up about the PMRC, a group that, if it has any influence at all, would affect only the most commercial forms of mainstream rock, ignoring (or being powerless to stop) the serious music that he and I care most about? Is it really in his interest to come to the defense of hacks who make more money than he does, especially when he admits that none of his own work has been targeted?

The book is liberally sprinkled with hip illustrations by Awest that are reminiscent of William Stout (forgive me, I know it's tacky to compare one person's work with another's, and I don't even know which artist has been around longer, but so help me, this is what I thought of before I knew who did the pictures), as well as photographs. All in all, a highly entertaining package to those who are receptive.

As a writer, Zappa may not be quite the genius that he is as a composer, but he does a lot better at attempting both than I can, and probably better than you too.

[My responses to survey questions Sig sent out, to which 18 other people also responded.]

What was the best year for r 'n r.?
I have no strong feelings about this.

What was the worst year for r 'n r.?
I have no strong feelings about this.

Name the most overrated band/performer of today. Of all time.
The Dead Kennedys; Janis Joplin.

Name the most underrated band/performer of today. Of all time.
Steve Reich; Procol Harum.

Name the best band/performer of today. Of all time.
Cocteau Twins; Todd Rundgren.

Name the worst band/performer of today. Of all time.
The Pogues; Queen.

Even if the music is lame, name the cutest, most handsome, most beautiful, sexiest performer(s) today. Give as many names and qualifications as needed.
Dale Bozzio, Danielle Dax, Michael Steele (Bangles), Kate Bush.

What are the best and worst things happening now?
Sampling; sampling.

What is the best band name ever?
The Hanging Uvulas.

What is the worst band name ever?

What is the state of community radio in your area? Is it improving or deteriorating? Is it stagnant?
The more political-minded stations have stronger signals and get more attention than KXLU, which mainly just plays music. To me, however, KXLU is enough.

Apparently, a while back an audio company announced the creation of a laser turntable that plays regular vinyl discs without anything physically touching the disc. It seems the company decision-makers withdrew putting this into production because CD sales led them to believe that vinyl would eventually be a lost recording medium thereby making this product a loss. Do you know anything about it and what is your feeling about it?
A careful person who is concerned about needle damage might benefit from this, but most people would just find some other way to damage their records.

What do you like best about the newsletter?
It's funny.

What do you like least about the newsletter?
It reveals my ignorance.

What would you like to see more of?
Female contributors.

What would you like to see less of?
Geraldo Rivera.

What would you do if you were the editor?
Crack down on bad check writers. [My check to Sig had bounced.]

Are these questions really as stupid as they seem to be?
What if they are? It's fun.

This is one of the questions that celebrities get tired of being asked all the time.

What is the best cheap beer around?
Cheap, expensive — it all tastes the same, except that brown bottles are better than green.

Volume 2, Issue 10, July 1990 (titled The Queen of Whales)

How to Cut Your Losses and Move On

As a college student in the mid-seventies, I was newly profligate, being as close as I would probably ever be to possessing great wealth (I must have had a few hundred dollars at least); and at two or three dollars a shot, used records could be bought by the dozen. Out of this came a collector mentality; if I liked a few albums by one artist, I had to have all of them, even if none of the others were any good. I suppose this display of loyalty was one way of demonstrating that I was not an altogether superficial person.

Thus, by the end of the seventies, I had amassed more than 500 albums. But I was out of school by then, and hard times struck. Because I really do care about new music, as money became more scarce, I began to tire of some of my older records and took them back to resell. Within a few years, my collection had dwindled to under 200. A vast portion of my musical legacy had been lost.

The nadir hit when I actually had to sell my stereo. Left with only a ghetto blaster, I began listening more to the radio in the mid-eighties, discovering the newer sounds and making physical and mental notes of what I liked. As I drifted more and more away from commercial stations, it became apparent that my musical tastes would be harder and harder to fulfill, because what I was hearing was not available in most stores.

Every so often I think about some of the records I parted with, and wonder if I would like to have them back. When I meet someone who is into an artist I used to like, it would be nice to show that I had all the records, instead of just remarking that I used to have them. For the most part, though, I don't miss them, particularly the stuff from the sixties, of which I have virtually none. (I have more stuff from the thirties than I do from the sixties.) A few moments of recollection is enough to convince me that I don't really want to own that stuff, thought it might be nice to hear it again just once. I don't want my collection to consist primarily of dead weight, and you all know how heavy records are.

Now that I am doing better financially, the last few years have caught up with me, and most of my recent purchases have resulted by way of filling in the gaps that resulted from this gradual evolution in my musical tastes. Inadvertently, I am still a collector when it comes to some artists, because no matter how many albums I buy, I still don't have the one song I wanted whose name I didn't write down.

But enough of this. What you all want to know is, what do I like, anyway? Well, here are some of the "old-new" artists that I would like to have more of, or recently bought more of:

Some older artists that I got rid of, but am seriously considering buying again: [All these artists are ones of which, by the early '80s when I started selling off LPs, I had a complete or nearly complete collection.]

Some artists I have no intention of buying again:

Some artists that I never bought in the first place:

And how was your day?

Volume 3, Issue 2, March 1991 (titled The Sobriety Roadblock News)

(A not-so-disguised list for 1990 that's being sent in too late)

I don't have ten items for a list, for the simple reason that I didn't buy that many new recordings all year, and in fact have not done so for some time. I liked all of the ones I did buy, however, so here they are:

1-5. Angelo Badalamenti, Soundtrack from Twin Peaks
Julee Cruise, Floating into the Night
Various artists, Wild at Heart soundtrack
Kyle MacLachlan, "Diane..." the Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper (audio cassette)
David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, Industrial Symphony No. 1 featuring Julee Cruise (video)
With these purchases it appears I can rest secure in the knowledge that I have a complete set that nicely complements my complete set of Twin Peaks episodes taped off the TV. But I think all of these entertainments are enjoyable in themselves, even without the tie-in to TV. (In fact, I haven't even seen Wild at Heart.)

6. The Carl Stalling Project: Music from Warner Bros. Cartoons 1936-1958
An absolute must for anyone who grew up on these cartoons, which is practically everybody. The music is every bit as inimitable and immediately recognizable as Mel Blanc's voices, which for the most part are absent here, and listening to these choice selections cannot fail to produce grins, guffaws, and nostalgia.

7. Was (Not Was), Are You Okay?
It's too early to tell whether this album will stand the test of time and prove the equal of its predecessor, as I believe it is now. When the group appeared on David Letterman a while back, Dave erred by introducing this as their third album; it is in fact their fourth. Maybe they'll get Lee Atwater to guest solo on the next one. [Atwater, who died the same month this item was published, had appeared on Letterman's show as a guest guitarist in Paul Shaffer's band; Was (Not Was) feature similarly surprising guest performances on their albums.]

8. Danielle Dax, Blast the Human Flower
The arrangements are somewhat denser and more ornate than on the earlier Dark Adapted Eye [which was a compilation], and it's always nice to discover that an album you were perfectly willing to buy turns out to be even better than you would have settled for.

9. Cocteau Twins, Heaven and Las Vegas
I haven't bought this yet or even heard any of it, but it should be around for a while. The title is sort of a turnoff, lacking the usual beauty of their imagery, which is generally inspired by nature. And their last album sounded like they were beginning to become formulized and staid. But they've never let me down completely.

Volume 4, Issue 3, May 1993 (titled Ewe Tu)

I told Sig that the only way he'd get me to write anything was to send me something to review and let my conscience to the rest, so now that he's sent it I'd better make good on my word.

Singer-organist Jeff Conolly has reformed the original 1979 lineup of the Lyres for the group's first LP in five years, Happy Now... (Taang! T66). While I am generally sick of the real thing, I don't mind the sixties if they turn up in the form of new music, and this upbeat collection goes down easy. The opening track, "Baby (I Still Need Your Lovin)," is structured much like Van Morrison's "Gloria," but who am I to say it's intentional. "But if Your Happy," besides being misspelled, has some rather clumsy chord changes, but "Never Be Free" features some nice parenthetical asides by bassist Rick Coraccio. Side two opens with a competent remake of the Human Beinz hit "Nobody but Me" that incorporates the guitar opening of the Beatles' "I Feel Fine." Conolly's cheery Farfisa permeates throughout. Enjoyable.

What the Lyres provide in safe predictability, the Swirlies make up for in varied experimentation on Blondertongue Audiobaton (Taang! T67). All the other reviews compare this band to My Bloody Valentine, a group that is itself derivative (but good); and while the comparison is generally apt, especially on side two, at other times the Swirlies are more closely miked and have a more basic punk sound. The electronic noodling is reminiscent of Fred Frith. In any case, this group is more willing to surprise and change sounds in the middle of a song rather than settling on a single formula and never varying from it. Twenty-four hours after listening to this, I heard one of the cuts played on the radio here in Los Angeles. The announcer said the band is from Virginia, but their promo package mentions only Boston. Well, it's all the same to us out here, I guess.

The Japanese heavy metal group X is not to be confused with the American band of the same name. I do not know what name they go by in Japan. I know them because I allowed curiosity to get the better of me in a Japanese-language bookstore and put down far too much money for the 1991 release Jealousy. Not that it's bad — I've listened to it several times — but it is not worth the price of an imported CD. It is pretty much generic metal, with the obligatory soft piano and guitar passages à la Black Sabbath, only not as funny. I should go back and check out the even more expensive cassette with the nature photo on it, which plays longer and has even less copy in English. Or I could buy 150 used 78s.

Speaking of "alternative" versions, I am told that the 1966 bubblegum hit "Rhapsody in the Rain" by Lou Christie had to be partially rerecorded because the original version contained lyrics that threatened to get it banned from the airwaves. Has anyone else heard this story, and if so, is it possible to get one's hands on the unexpurgated version?

Volume 4, Issue 4, July 1993 (titled Apologia)

The sky within

Sky Cries Mary: A Return to the Inner Experience. Capitol CDP 0777 7 80136 2 4. Reviewed by Richard Carson.

Apparently Capitol Records thought this album was good enough to warrant an extra long catalog number. It is the Seattle group's second album (there also have been two EPs), and it's good, all right, recalling the lugubrious resonance of Dead Can Dance but without that group's quasi-religious pretensions. One member is credited with "ambient noise" and another with "spiritual noise," but I lack the sophistication to detect any "noise" at all on this album, much less tell what kind it is. The group has enough of an identity that it can throw in a familiar Stones number ("2000 Light Years from Home") and have it fit seamlessly into the continuity with no drastic change in style. That song, combined with artwork that resembles nothing so much as "Axis: Bold as Love," threatens to make the whole enterprise either self-consciously dated or humorlessly reverential. Well, I can't say there's much humor, but there's not a lot of pomposity either; just the right amounts of straightforward rock and special effects to satisfy both needs.

Connie Champagne is a purported cult figure among gay audiences because of her role in the stage musical "Dolls," a send-up of "Valley of the Dolls." The 1991 release La Strada includes material by Lou Reed (ick), Iggy Pop, They Might Be Giants and other big names, but none of it resembles rock and roll. This is strictly cabaret, which I rank somewhere between Irish and Hawaiian music. The extramusical baggage renders criticism irrelevant; if you know who this is you'll want it, otherwise you'll feel totally excluded and not regret it very much. [Champagne's publicist took offense and sent Sig a second pile of positive reviews, from which I guess I was supposed to learn something. Later, I recused myself from reviewing a rap CD he sent me.]

The "Northern Exposure" music CD includes three themes by David Schwartz, who does the show's incidental music, plus eight other selections from sundry other sources. Given the deliberate eclecticism of the show's soundtrack, it would seem impossible to capture the mood of the show on a CD, rather than just sounding like a lot of random unrelated items. As it turns out, that randomness is exactly what makes you feel like you're watching the show. The sounds range from a couple of cheerful reggae numbers to an operatic solo to Lynyrd Skynyrd, all calculated to make you feel very global and well-rounded. It would be interesting to find someone who hates the show, put this on minus the theme music, and see how they react. Then again, such a person might be dangerous.

Volume 4, Issue 11, September 1994 (titled Misha)

April's Motel Room. Epic. This tight and technically proficient group from Simi Valley, California, employs a number of different guitar styles: acoustic strumming, lots of distortion (what I call mid-seventies suburban lawnmower), and Hendrix-style noodling. Some songs are vaguely punkish, but to me, except for "Get Her Way" and "Needs," their sound predates punk by a few years. "Chrysanthemum" is what the Meat Puppets might sound like if they could sing. In fact, to anyone who isn't Andy Rooney's age, this might sound rather conventional and old-fashioned, but it's all quite listenable.

No-Man: Loveblows & Lovecries. Sony 550/One Little Indian. Sophisticated, romantic '90s disco and then some, with a vocalist (Tim Bowness) who at times sounds almost exactly like Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout. "Taking It Like a Man" is a natural single that has you thinking you've heard it before, even though you're not through hearing it once yet. The other single, "Days in the Trees," emphasizes violinist Ben Coleman in a varied number that breaks into rock just at the moment Windham Hill starts crossing your mind. (All the other sounds are provided by keyboardist Steve Wilson.) As with the above group, I did not personally hear all the influences this group claims to have, but I like the result.

Volume 4, Issue 12, November 1994 (titled The Choptank News)

Four cassettes in descending order of merit:

Blur: Parklife (SBK/ERG). Easily one of the best albums of the year and the most varied of those mentioned here. Somehow, it manages to incorporate 30 years of musical influences while sounding like more than just a hollow echo. There isn't a single bad cut, but the two best come early: "Tracy Jacks" and the title cut (featuring Phil Daniels). The better of the two singles, "To the End," features arranging by film composer John Barry. And hey! one of the producers is named Street. If lately you've been thinking, "Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm burned out and don't appreciate music anymore" — pick this up.

Superstar (SBK/ERG #4PRO-28819). A name like that sounds like the kiss of death for a band, but once you get over the distaste, the album actually has some impressive credentials: Leader Joe McAlinden is classically trained, Jim McCulloch (Soup Dragons) and Alex Chilton are featured, and the band is represented by the same guy who represents Blur. The album sounded much better the second time, with many kinds of instruments in a fairly dense mix. It could have been cheesy, but the musicianship is adept and asks to be taken seriously. Too bad about the name …

Denzil: Pub (Play/Giant #24530). Radio promo copies of this are already turning up in bargain bins here, often a bad sign, but you could do worse. Lots of guitars, some Beatles-like harmonies, mostly moderate volume levels. A certain sameness to it all makes it a not particularly moving experience, but the sincerity saves it.

Boingo (Giant). This band presumes to drop its first name, like Zappa and Starship, but it was never that great to begin with. The only interesting cut here is the first, "Insanity," which has a complex arrangement suggestive of Elfman's film work. But this merely raises one's hopes; it's a disappointment to realize later that it's the best thing on the album. Not until the last cut, "Helpless," do things get interesting again (mostly because of the expressive vocals), but by then it's too little and too late. There's the godawful "Mary," the pointless cover of "I Am the Walrus," and the rest is just dull. Why didn't I like this when I find Elfman's film scores so effective? Maybe he's just outgrown rock, or maybe film music and rock are two very different talents, unlikely to coexist in one person for very long.


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