Friday, 25 July 2014

News Flash! Manager rips off musician

Reports this week are that a conman calling himself Harry O'Connor has shut down his 6 week old Sydney-based touring and booking agency amidst fraud allegations. The musicians who were signed to the label are said to be not out of pocket, however a number of large debts for studio time were about to be assigned to the artists in question, potentially costing them thousands of dollars.

This has become big news in Australia. I'm not sure why, but there haven't been too many of these sorts of stories in the music media lately. The allegations of fraud by this guy are well documented on other music industry websites. The thing is, this isn't the first industry scam, not the will it be the last.

This got me thinking of some of the most famous music industry scams. Band managers and other industry types have a reputation as rip-off merchants. And while that is not true of everyone in the industry, it's not an undeserving reputation.

It has been said that Colonel Tom Parker (not his real name) was siphoning off 50% of Elvis's royalties during the latter half of his career. It may be true that Tom helped Elvis's career and kept him a profitable star, but 50%? seriously?

The Beatles struck gold with Brian Epstein as a manager. Brian looked after the band like his own family, until his own suspicious death in 1967. This left the Beatles quite rudderless. When they wanted to form Apple Corps, the band ran it themselves, and found that money was walking out of the venture at a rate of knots. Mick Jagger recommended his manager Allen Klein to sort things out. McCartney hated the idea and didn't sign the contract, while the other three did.

Klein started off well, negotiating the highest royalty rate in the industry at the time. However it was soon apparent that he screwed both the Stones and the Beatles out of heaps of money, making a mess of the business affairs of both bands. Post Beatles, Klein helped George organise the Concert for Bangladesh. Klein was found guilty in 1979 of having defrauded both the accounts of the Concert for Bangladesh and UNICEF.

The rumour going around, at least according to Eric Burdon, with whom he shared a manager, that Jimi Hendrix was killed off by hired goons set upon him by his then manager Mike Jeffries. And what was his crime? Jimi wanted to find a new manager because he thought he was being ripped off...

Recently, R&B singer Beyonce has dropped her manager, on the grounds he was ripping her off to the tune of millions of dollars. The plot thickens when you realise her manager was actually her dad...

Billy Joel, Chicago, Bob Dylan, Soundgarden, Aerosmith, Leonard Cohen, Bo Diddley and heaps of others have been dudded by their managers as well.

However, probably the worst of them all was Welsh band Badfinger, who got screwed over twice. Firstly, on a number of occasions by Allen Klein as a part of the aforementioned Apple Corps, and then by manager Stan Polley. Stan ensured all money they made was funneled into holding accounts of his own and then doles out proceeds to himself. Between late 1970 and the end of 1971, a financial statement claimed that each band member was paid between $6,000 and $9,000, while the business got a profit of $24,000 and Stan's management commission was $74,000. Go figure.

When the band left Apple to sign with Warner Brothers, there were more money issues between the three parties and lawsuits flew around like confetti. The lack of fair dealing, legal confusion and income held in escrow lead the two main songwriters to commit suicide within 8 years of each other, citing Stan Polley and money problems as a main source of despair.

In the 1960s, in the wake of the Beatlemania explosion, managers and record labels sprung up out of nowhere hoping to cash in and sign what they thought might be the next big thing. Unscrupulous minds took on naive young artists and ripped them off blind. Van Morrison claims his first band Them was never paid. Joan Jett and the band she was in as a teenager The Runaways couldn't get money out of their manager Kim Fowley. Vocal group The Coasters were paid next to nothing through their label and management deals in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But why?

Largely, I think, because they could. There was a lot of money to go around and those with the know how cleaned up through dodgy deals and trick accounting practices. It was usually the bands, every trusting of these people, who lost out. The manager, with the intimate access to the finances, were usually able to fleece the naive. It's truly sad, but that's how it has been for years.

It is encouraging somewhat to hear from students in Music Industry courses today that lecturers implore future managers to "do the right thing" and look after their artists. They want to get rid of the concept of being rip-off merchants and, quite rightly, the only way that perception will change is when the actual business practices of managers start changing for the better.

Here's hoping things change soon then.....

Little Quirks - "Neverland"

A family fun day on a Sunday in a local pub is not necessarily the place to discover new musical talent. But, in amongst the petting zoo and the jumping castle, a handful of young performers played. One group was a group calling themselves Little Quirks, an all female group with 13 year old lead singer/guitarist Abbey, a 16-year old mandolinist/vocalist Jaymi, and a 10 year old drummer Mia.

Hailing from the New South Wales Central Coast region, they are currently doing busking sets at market days around the place. The vocal harmonies these ladies produce are astonishing. The talent within is pretty obvious. Currently their set consists of covers of recent indie folk tunes by the likes of Angus and Julia Stone and Of Monsters and Men, as well as classics by Fleetwood Mac (their cover of "Dreams" is particularly cool) in a style that compliments the song choices well.

At their appearances they are selling their debut EP, home recorded and printed, entitled "Neverland". A professional sounding recording, containing the core of their main set. Containing six songs, it's a great sampler of what the girls are about, with some bass overdubs from Dad to fill out the sound. The package is nicely presented with each copy having the side seams machine stitched together. It's a nice touch. All told, it's certainly worth laying down the asking price of a fiver next time you happen to bump into them around the place.

With this much talent, I hope they go far. It'd be great to hear them work up their own material as they experience life a bit more, if they haven't already. Certainly a band to watch.

Here's a couple of tracks for your perusal, via their soundcloud page. Enjoy.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Calling All Astronauts - "Hands Up Who Wants To Die?" EP

So here's the latest from Calling All Astronauts.

"Hands Up, Who Wants to Die?" Cheery imposition, isn't it? And, not surprisingly, I don't see too many hands up either.

What's interesting about this release is also one of the more confusing aspects to it. The contents of the EP are made up of 6 remixes of the eponymous song. Each remix is retitled after the style of music it has been remixed into - "Hands up who Wants EBM?", "Hands Up Who Wants Metal?", "Hands Up Who Wants Dubstep?" and so on. A novel concept, to be sure. But it's confusing because what does the original version sound like? Which version on the EP is actually the original version?

Still, what you have here is a version in one of 6 different styles, playing to the strengths of the band and cleverly using a broad knowledge of music in which to transmute their sound. The result allows the song to be played in different arenas for different purposes - on alternative rock radio, in a goth club, in a warehouse rave party DJ set.

The "Metal" version is probably the closest to the Astronauts signature sound. Chugging guitars, swirling synths and David Bury's strangled-seagull vocal delivery. He tends to oscillate wildly between a man channeling Johnny Cash in goth makeup and someone having their teeth extracted as the numbness wears off. Seriously, it's a very arresting combination, and it's the version that works best in my view. That's not to take anything away from the remixes, each of which have their own unique character and flavour, while staying true to the core elements of the band's sound.

It's an interesting experiment, and one worthy of a serious listen. Get into it below.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Frank Zappa - "Stairway To Heaven"

Today's post looks at the equally celebrated and maligned Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven".

Well, one interpretation of it at least.

I say "equally celebrated and maligned" because it is the most played, listened to, discussed, talked about and covered 8 minutes of the entire Led Zeppelin catalog. For anyone getting started with the band's music, this is usually the entry point. The band themselves have cited this as a milestone in their career.

It has also been played more times on American radio than any other song. This may go a long way to explaining why it is so maligned. In the year 2000, Triple J estimated, in the absence of official numbers, that the song had been played over 3 million times. Let's assume in 2014 that the song has been played 4 million times, as a conservative estimate. If you were to play it end-to-end constantly (that is, as soon as it finishes it starts again) it would last for 60 years, 10 months and 19 days. In the film Wayne's World, the music shop had banned the playing of the song by customers trying out guitars - largely because staff would be sick of people attempting it and routinely stuffing it the intro.

In short, familiarity breeds contempt. It may as well be tattooed on our collective psyches.

We're not looking at the original today, but rather an obscure cover, And to be fair, you're looking into very murky waters when investigating "Stairway..." covers. There's country versions, cod-reggae versions, versions by the Russian Red Army Choir. Australian TV presenter Andrew Denton took the idea to a ridiculous extreme in 1990 with musical guests on his program "The Money Or The Gun" having to take on the song and do it in their own style. He released a CD with 22 versions and a home video with 25 versions of the song from the show. One just happened to be by Rolf Harris, but let's not go there...

Still, the version of the song I have unearthed is one of the standouts, in my view. Frank Zappa played it as one of the centrepieces of his last ever concert tour in 1988, and first released in 1991 on the double album "The Best Band You've Never Heard In Your Life". This version has elements of Frank's trademark humour and oddness in it, to be sure. in between vocal lines he throws in strange synth-noise interjections, as well as short, sharp and frantic guitar solo blasts.

The band plays the entire thing with various reggae grooves throughout. He starts off with a slow roots reggae feel, speeding it up slightly and ending with a fast ska/rock-steady feel at the end.

This version is not notable for Frank's contribution, although his soloing is amazing. His skills as an arranger are the star here. How he manages to get a twelve piece ensemble to play such a tightly crafted arrangement is a true testament to the calibre of musicians in the band. And the way he treats the iconic guitar solo in the latter half of the piece is a revelation - a completely novel way of recontextualising within the piece.

As an arrangement, it is a thrill-a-minute ride around a piece we all know by heart. I genuinely think it's worth multiple listens. The clip below is a dodgy audience shot film from a performance in Vienna that has been re-dubbed with the version taken from the aforementioned live album.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Vale Tommy Ramone

The first Ramones LP. Tommy Ramone, second from left.

It was with some sadness that the world received reports of the passing of Tommy Ramone. It's one thing for a musician to die. But what makes this one remarkable (and not necessarily in a good way) is the fact that Tommy's passing means that all the original members of the band are no longer. Vocalist Joey Ramone was the first to go in 2001, followed by bassist Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004 and now Tommy.

Love them or hate them, The Ramones established the format for punk music for the next few decades. We're still hearing echoes of the sound now, if not always in sound, but in energy and in spirit from the likes of Green Day, Descendents, NOFX, The Donnas and heaps more..

Tommy Ramone, or Tommy Erdelyi to his mum, was truly remarkable in as much as he wasn't supposed to be the band's drummer. He was their early manager, booking and organising the gigs and rehearsal spaces. When auditioning drummers, he was forever showing the prospectives how to play the songs. Eventually it became tedious as no-one they tried could quite get the feel right, Tommy just played the drums himself.

Tommy played on the first 3 Ramones albums, as well as co-producing the first 5 of them. He also managed the band during those years. He'd tired of touring and vacated the drum stool before "Road To Ruin" was recorded. He went on to produce records for The Replacements (the essential album "Tim") and Redd Kross ("Neurotica"). Tommy was also instrumental in getting The Replacements signed to the Sire records, home to the Ramones.

It could be argued that Brisbane band The Saints established the punk sound first. And maybe they did, but the Ramones were doing the same thing on the other side of the world, oblivious to the other, and were the first to commit the sound to vinyl. Regardless, the world is a better place for the contribution of the Ramones in my view.

The first Ramones LP, with the surviving members

And now all the original members of the band that launched a million more are no longer with us. As with most of these things, it is inevitable, but it still sucks.

Vale Tommy. Thanks for the music.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Shifter - "Butter"

Triple J Unearthed will be celebrating 20 years of discovering new Australian music in 2015. It started as a competition that focused on regional areas of Australia, but this model was revised to focus on each Australian state after 2002, and since 2006 it has been a website and, more recently, a digital radio station playing 100% unsigned and/or independently signed Australian music. It has been a great initiative and some of our more revered acts have been "unearthed".

Conversely, for each band who becomes successful, there have been many others that have been lost to the annals of history. For some, it's for the best that they're forgotten. For others, it's criminal that they didn't become huge. Today's band is one such band who belongs in the latter camp.

Shifter were a Brisbane band who won one of the last winners of the second incarnation of Unearthed. They won in 2004 with this kicking power-pop track written in honour of a cocktail they created containing vodka and butterscotch schnapps.

There seems to be very little information around about the band. After this song was released, I have no idea what happened to the band. If any member of the band is reading this, please get in touch and let us know about Shifter's career trajectory.

For now, enjoy this furious blast of Brisbane rock.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Underworld - "Underneath the Radar"

Pre-"Trainspotting", pre-"Born Slippy", pre-Techno, Underworld were a band. They even used, god forbid, guitars!!!

In my estimation, while Underworld have been hugely successful in the acid house/rave music scene in their Mark II lineup, they have all but buried their Mark I lineup. From what I have read, they acknowledge that part of their history enough to identify it as "Mark I", but they must be embarrassed about it as the music is out of print and very hard to come by.

In the view of this writer, the Mark 1 period was worthy of more than a cursory listen. There is plenty of great music within, especially on their first album under the Underworld moniker, "Underneath the Radar". The title track from the album still gets played in Australia on classic hits radio. The single barely troubled the UK charts at all, made #74 in the US and #5 in Australia. The album also sold well and is full of great tunes, while not all as strong as the lead single.

Here for your enjoyment, is Underworld's first success in Australia, "Underneath the Radar".