The Vinyl File returns and it’s again focused on The Blasters. This was not intentional. I was recently interviewed by Peter Zimowski II of Now Spinning and as the name of his website might suggest, we discussed collecting vinyl and discovering music. If you wanna know how a 7-year-old boy solves the KISS vs. Fleetwood Mac dilemma, check it out. Anyway, during the Q&A, Peter and I had this exchange:
NS: What’s a holy grail record(s) that you don’t have?
LD: I’ve been thinking about this for the last day or so and I’ve come up with a big, fat goose egg. Honestly, I’m not really a vinyl collector for the collector part. It’s just that vinyl is how I prefer to hear music if given a choice. But if I only have an mp3 of a song or album I’m fine with that, too. I just want the music, not some totem that I can say I paid xxx amount of dollars for. So, I mostly refuse to overpay for a record just to have it. Not saying that won’t change, but it’s exceedingly rare. Which I suppose makes me a shitty record collector haha.
Within a week of making that statement I found myself on the business end of a holy grail purchase. Sorry about that, Pete. Thing is, I’d never seen an original vinyl copy of The Blasters’ American Music for less than $75, and it was typically pushing $100 with shipping. Keep in mind that fewer than 2,000 units were pressed by Rollin’ Rock Records in 1980, so the priceyness is just basic supply and demand. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kinda scratch. I did, however, have the 1997 American Music reissue, an essential CD for those of us outside the capital gains tax bracket. So, imagine my surprise when I was browsing Discogs a few weeks ago and I found a vendor in New Zealand selling a “Very Good Plus” copy of the original vinyl for $30. THIRTY! It wasn’t scratched with a chunk bitten out. It wasn’t missing the record sleeve. And it wasn’t smeared with hobbit blood. Media VG+, sleeve VG, with shipping only $45! Mmmm … that’s good grail.
The previous Vinyl File looked at Phil Alvin’s 1986 solo debut, Un “Sung Stories,” which revealed the mostly pre-WWII influences he brought to bear on The Blasters. For this Vinyl File we’re going back 2 the base, to 1980, when The Blasters were hitting their initial artistic peak. People forget that before Lone Justice (Adios Lounge link), Rank And File, Los Lobos, and Dwight Yoakam, The Blasters were one of the first bands in Los Angeles who credibly straddled punk rock and roots-rock. Granted, Levi And The Rockats got there first and X certainly flirted with roots. Billy Zoom played killer rockabilly licks and John Doe mixed country covers into X sets. But, he and Exene weren’t writing rockabilly songs. They were writing art-damaged, punk rock poetry. The Blasters drew on the energy and freedom of the Hollywood punk scene — not to mention the Class of ’77 UK punks — but sounded like they emerged fully-formed from an early ’60s R&B/rockabilly wormhole. The fact that they played at biker bars and shitkicker hoot nights means they weren’t the least bit afraid to compete with the punks on their own occasionally hostile turf, a fact that earned them a ton of respect in the LA scene.
According to Billy Davis’ “Blastory” — the history of the band from the very first Blasters newsletter (Issue 1, Feb 1994) — American Music was recorded in two days on Ronny Weiser‘s 16-track for about $2,000. They cut 22 songs, many of them covers, whittling it down to 13 for the final product. Released in February 1980, A.M. sold out quickly because The Blasters were the real fucking deal, but with fewer than 2,000 albums pressed, it didn’t take long for the record to enter the witness protection program. Thus, Bill Bateman’s classic line about their time on Rollin’ Rock. When asked why they signed with the label, Bateman said, “Mainly for promotional reasons.” When asked why they soon jumped ship for Slash, Bateman said, “Mainly for promotional reasons.” Ba-dum-SSSH!!!
Rollin’ Rock’s distribution woes aside, both parties should be proud of American Music. Yes, there are bum notes and barking dogs. Yes, the band quickly got better with the addition of Gene Taylor on piano and the Lee Allen and Steve Berlin on horns. How could you NOT improve significantly with that influx of talent? But, the LP is a fucking powerhouse. It just is. Swinging rhythm section, killer guitar leads, memorable lyrics, a profound sense of music history, and Phil Alvin was (and is) a soulful-ass motherfucker. American Music is shamelessly retro AND reflective of its punk rock origins. It was also the by-product of luck as much as talent.
The Blasters owe a lot to a truck driver whose name I’ve forgotten.
Phil, Bill, John, and I were working day jobs, rehearsing at night in a factory in Garden Grove and trying desperately to find any steady gig that paid more than free beer. Our friends, James Harman and Mike Foresta, had recorded a demo tape of us and we’d taken copies to every “cool” nightclub in the Hollywood/West LA area, but no one was interested in a roots band, especially one from Downey, California, with no hip credentials.
I read somewhere about “Rockin” Ronny Weiser and his small rockabilly label (Rollin’ Rock), so Phil called him about the possibility of recording us. Ronny was skeptical until Phil sang and played guitar over the phone and within an hour Phil and I were sitting in Ronny’s living room playing him our tape. Ronny dug the tape, but still wouldn’t make a commitment to record us because we’d only played in biker and country bars on the decidedly untrendy southeast side of LA County. We knew none of the Hollywood scenesters and tastemakers and they definitely didn’t know us. That is, until this truck driver came by Ronny’s to pick up boxes of records to be shipped.
“Who’s this playing?” he asked Ronny.
“It’s us,” Phil said.
“Is this what these records are? If it is, I’ll buy a copy. My wife and I dig this kind of music. You can’t find music like this anymore.”
We couldn’t have asked for more even if we’d paid him a million bucks. Once he left, Ronny quickly discussed when we’d record our first album and within a few weeks we were in Ronny’s garage/studio. James and Mike were with us for moral support. We drank a lot of beer. Phil, the most experienced, led us patiently and sang his heart out. James let me record with a white Fender Stratocaster that he swore once belonged to Magic Sam. I made mistakes I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to forget, but Ronny kept pushing us to quit thinking too much and just keep it rockin’ (and with a rhythm section like John and Bill, that was no problem). After that first day of recording, we drove back to our side of town punching each other in excitement and jumping up and down in the car seats like little boys. we yelled at strangers in passing cars that we’d made a record and we were gonna be famous. I remember at one point all four of us had our heads out the car windows, laughing cursing, screaming, and howling at the moon.
Wherever you are, Mr. Truck Driver, thanks man.
—Dave Alvin in the American Music reissue liner notes, Hightone Records, 1997 (light editing by LD for flow)
Today I’m going to analyze each of the 13 tracks on American Music. I’m only linking to a few because I want people to buy it, even if you already own it. Hell, just give it to a friend. What are they gonna complain about? “DAMN THE BLASTERS AND THEIR DEEPLY FELT EMBRACE OF AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC!!!” Anyway, let’s watch a few videos, hear original versions of AM songs, and celebrate one of my favorite debut LPs in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Phil Alvin – vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica, Philface
Dave Alvin – lead guitar, songwriting, cigarettes
John Bazz – electric and standup bass
Bill Bateman – drums
AMERICAN MUSIC – SIDE 1
1. Blasters – American Music
The title track is 1 of 3 songs to appear on both the debut and the next year’s self-titled masterpiece. It’s also a throwback manifesto clearly written in the spirit of Chuck Berry. Can you imagine hearing this song in February 1980 when disco, yacht pop, Led Zeppelin, and the fucking Eagles ruled the roost? Is it any wonder that the following 3 albums — all released in the first 4 months of 1980 — have stood the test of time?
- The Clash – London Calling – Released January 1980 (released December 1979 in the UK)
- The Blasters – American Music – Released Feburary 1980
- X – Los Angeles – Released April 1980
I know that London Calling and Los Angeles are better records and certainly in higher cotton from a lyrical and thematic standpoint. But, it’s neck and neck in terms of no bullshit, forward-thinking traditionalism during an era of so much pointless, coke-fueled jackoffery.
2. Blasters – Real Rock Drive (Bill Haley)
Pretty great rendition, although Bateman’s drums are a bit lost in the wash. Not sure that’s his fault, it could just be recording limitations. Phil is Phil, of course, but I think the two stars are Dave and Bazz. Brother Dave lays down textbook rockabilly leads while Bazz holds down the pocket with slapping doghouse bass. FYI, this was the first cover on a Blasters record and it’s perfectly representative of the Blasters aesthetic. They dug for the obscure deep cut and came up with this gem from way back in 1952, one of Haley’s first recordings with The Comets.
Bill Haley is pretty easy to overlook, if not outright dismiss. He was a goofy looking old guy whose group wore plaid jackets and included an accordion. Compared to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, early Elvis, even Chuck Berry, Haley and The Comets were squares whose danger quotient was zero. However, songs like “Real Rock Drive,” “Crazy Man Crazy,” and “Rock This Joint” are legit early rock ‘n’ roll. Danny Cedrone was a fantastic lead guitarist, Joe Maphis-influenced, proto-Danny Gatton, if his ridiculous solo on “Rock Around The Clock” is to be believed. Tragically, Cedrone died TEN DAYS after recording “Clock” when he broke his neck falling down a flight of stairs. An underrated rock ‘n’ roll death, I have no doubt Cedrone would’ve kept working long after the Haley gig ended, he was too good a player.
3. Blasters – Barefoot Rock (Junior Parker)
“Barefoot Rock” is a unique document of the Alvin dynamic. It starts out anchored by Dave’s sweet riff, but once the badass harmonica solo drops from :59-1:18, the song is all Phil’s. Ironically, the driving harmonica leads make it sound more like Sun-era Junior Parker (“Mystery Train,” “Love My Baby”) than it does Duke-era Parker, even though the original “Barefoot” was recorded by Parker shortly after he joined Duke.
Little Junior Parker – Barefoot Rock (1958)
By 1958, Junior was a more sophisticated, Bobby Bland type of bandleader. He cut “Barefoot Rock” for Don Robey‘s (and Bobby Bland’s) Duke Records. It’s driven by horns and New Orleans swing, but sounds more like Ernie K-Doe than it does Fats Domino. Listening to Duke-era Parker is instructive because he’s a common reference point for another Adios Lounge fave, Doug Sahm. Both the Alvins and Sahm internalized the Parker/Bland/Robey school of uptown, 7-piece-band R&B and brought it to bear on their respective sounds.
4. Blasters – I Don’t Want To
A kickass group effort. Great vocals, great guitar work, Bazz power walks on bass, and Bateman just takes over the final 30-40 seconds. If you like this, check out the live version on the Over There: Live At The Venue, London EP, itself available in expanded form on Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings.
5. Blasters – Marie Marie
Another gem from the Chuck Berry playbook, including similar guitar riffage, car references, and the clever use of Marie as the object of narrative affection. (See “Memphis.”) Easily one of the best, what, 50 songs ever to come out of Los Angeles? 30? 20? 10? One of those songs that seems less written than channeled. Love the recent variation, “Maria Maria,” with Phil singing solely in español.
6. Billy Boy Arnold w/Phil Alvin – I Wish You Would (1993)
Art Fein’s Poker Party June 23, 1993
“What we learned is not just what a 9th chord played in a walking style is. We learned that when Big Joe Turner gets up in front of 1,000 people, he’s the same guy that he is in front of 10 in some shitty bar. Most of these guys didn’t get back financially what they put in, but they still kept doing it. So, it was a lesson that playing music, especially this music, has nothing to do with financial rewards. It has to do with love and you do it for the sheer joy of sharing.”
–Dave Alvin, Testament liner notes, p. 13
Such a great artifact. I’m pretty sure Billy Boy was on Art Fein’s Poker Party to promote his then-new album on Alligator, Back Where I Belong, an album that led off with “I Wish You Would.” Phil’s old-time slap rhythm is a great touch and listening to Arnold play harmonica, it’s obvious where Phil learned some of his phrasing on the instrument.
7. Blasters – She Ain’t Got The Beat (Dave & Phil Alvin)
As far as I know, this is the only song credited to both brothers and maybe that’s for the best. This is the album’s weakest song and I wonder if it’s because neither guy would relinquish control, meaning neither vision got realized. It reminds me of that old saying about a camel being a horse designed by committee. “She Ain’t Got The Beat” is a camel. Oh well, they can’t all be “Marie Marie.”
AMERICAN MUSIC – SIDE 2
1. Blasters – Flat Top Joint
“You know they got the best jukebox
With Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee
Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed
And the machine, it plays for free
Down at the Flat Top Joint”
Like “Barefoot Rock,” “Flat Top Joint” was re-recorded for Non Fiction, but unlike “Barefoot” it didn’t make the final cut. (It was finally issued with the release of the Testament comp in 2002). I think the two versions are slightly different, but comparable. Bateman swings a little more on American Music and Dave’s guitar playing is a little more ferocious on Non Fiction. I also like the background shouts that punctuate the end of a few verses on the remake. I find the production and feel of Non Fiction strangely off-putting. American Music is no frills and there are obvious flaws — tape fluctuation and dogs barking — but that rawness serves the songs well. These are rockabilly songs, not Queen songs, for fuck’s sake (more on them later, believe it or not). Set up a few mics, get your levels, and get the hell outta the way. Lyrically, the song is almost a genre exercise for Dave, with its references to squares, real gone cats, a jukebox, ribs, beer and wine, all familiar touchstones in the rockabilly universe.
2. Blasters – Crazy Baby (The Rockin’ R’s)
The Brothers Alvin doing more deep cut archaeology. The original “Crazy Baby” is a very good song (see below), but The Blasters take The Rockin’ R’s to another level. Of course they do. The 4 guys in The Blasters were better versions of the guys in The Rockin’ R’s. No offense to the R’s. This is science. The Blasters are locked in tight here, approximating not just the Elvis sound, but the Elvis/Scotty Moore/Bill Black/DJ Fontana sound. You might also know this as the best version of the Elvis Presley Band — no offense to the TCB crew — and one of the tightest 4-piece rock ‘n’ roll combos ever. Like “I Don’t Want To,” there’s an even better “Crazy Baby” on the live EP, Over There: Live At The Venue, London (1982).
3. Blasters – Never No More Blues (Jimmie Rodgers)
With apologies to Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell, I think this is my favorite Jimmie Rodgers cover of all-time. It features Dave’s economical, Carl Perkins-style picking, the totally swinging Bazz/Bateman rhythm section, and Phil’s yodelriffic vocal. Phil’s singing has a little Jimmie in it, but seems more influenced by Tommy Duncan‘s classic croon on the 1935 recording by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys. You like Bob Wills, don’tcha???
Bob Wills – Never No More Blues (1935)
It’s entirely appropriate that Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and The Blasters are all connected by this song. All 3 acts liberally drew from multiple genres, including blues, country, folk and pop. And while Jimmie recorded with Louis Armstrong and Lil Armstrong (“Blue Yodel No. 9”), it was Wills who brought a defined swing jazz feel to his arrangements because the Texas Playboys were first and foremost a swing-era dance band. Meanwhile, The Blasters drew upon postwar R&B, blues, and punk because they were options.
Fun fact: The aforementioned Doug Sahm also recorded “Never No More Blues” during the Doug Sahm And Band sessions. You can hear his skeletal rendition on the prohibitively expensive Genuine Texas Groover compilation.
4. Blasters – Buzz Buzz Buzz (Hollywood Flames)
I love when my instincts are backed up by facts. All I knew of this song was that it was a hit for an LA doo wop group called The Hollywood Flames and that it reminded me of “Rockin’ Robin.” “Buzz, buzz, buzz goes the bumble bee/Tweedlee deedly dee goes the bird” echoed the “tweedlee deedly dees” and bird references in “Robin.” As it turns out, “Buzz” charted in October 1957 and “Rockin’ Robin” charted the following May, so mystery solved, right? (To be fair, both songs probably descended from “Tweedly Dee,” La Vern Baker‘s first hit for Atlantic back in 1955.) In fact, the connection between the two songs runs far deeper. “Buzz Buzz Buzz” was actually co-written by Bobby Day, aka Bobby Byrd*, who at the time was a member of The Hollywood Flames. Day left the group shortly after the release of “Buzz” to go solo. Of course, “solo” is a relative term because guess who the backup vocalists were on “Rockin’ Robin.” That would be The Hollywood Flames, though I believe for that record they’d changed their name to The Satellites, probably for contractual reasons.
* Not to be confused with the Bobby Byrd from another set of Flames, The Famous Flames of early James Brown vintage.
5. Blasters – She’s Gone Away (Phil Alvin)
The only Phil Alvin-composed Blasters song until the 4-11-44 title track in 2004. Eh, what’s 24 years among friends? A Bill Bateman-centric train beat country tune, I hear echoes of Maddox Brothers And Rose or even solo Rose Maddox. Now that I’m thinking of Rose Maddox, I can definitely hear a young Maria McKee singing this with pre-Geffen Lone Justice. “She’s Gone Away” has rare (for The Blasters) steel or slide guitar (I’m guessing played by Phil?) and Bazz’s bass is like a punk rock tuba in a New Orleans brass band. Brilliant.
6. Blasters – Barn Burning
“A happy song about death, murder, and mayhem.”
–Dave Alvin, as quoted in The Blasters/Dave Alvin newsletter, February 2001
The final song on American Music is rockabilly with a sinister, Creedence-esque purpose. This isn’t as crazy as sounds when you consider that CCR covered Sun classics like “My Baby Left Me” (Elvis) and “Ooby Dooby” (Roy Orbison), not to mention created rockabilly stompers like “Cross-Tie Walker.” “Barn Burning” later appeared on Dave’s 1994 album, King Of California, but the feel there was more early Dylan crossed with a little Chess Records (think Howlin’ Wolf).
PLAY THE GAME
“For the first couple years I booked the band and my attitude was, ‘We’ll play ANYwhere.”
–Dave Alvin to Marc Maron, WTFpodcast, October 4, 2012
With American Music released, the next challenge was getting gigs to promote the album. Opening for X in April meant that the impregnable Hollywood scene was finally accessible. As Dave notes above, The Blasters had a philosophy of playing anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, so the band found themselves on a surprising range of bills. What kind of range? Over a span of a few weeks in the summer of 1980, The Blasters played with X, The Go-Go’s, Asleep At The Wheel, and The Cramps (who moved to LA in 1980 after a few years in NYC).
As if that’s not impressive enough, they also opened at least 7 shows for Queen in July and August. Wait, QUEEN??? “We Will Rock You” Queen?!?! That is correct. Here’s the itinerary:
July 1, 1980 – Seattle Coliseum, Seattle, WA
July 2, 1980 – Portland Coliseum, Portland, OR
July 5, 1980 – San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego, CA
July 7, 1980 – Compton Terrace, Phoenix, AZ
July 8-12, 1980 – Fabulous Forum, Inglewood, CA
July 13-14, 1980 – Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, CA
August 5, 1980 – Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis, TN
How the hell did The Blasters end up opening for Queen? They were playing a gig at Flipper’s Roller Disco in West Hollywood in May or June when the members of Queen not named Freddie Mercury showed up. Say what you will about Queen’s ostentatious arena rock, they had good enough sense to hear The Blasters and be blown away. So, the day after Flipper’s, someone from Camp Queen contacted the band and asked them to open some west coast dates … and Memphis. That simple. Granted, the Queen audience demanded far more chest hair and rock opera than The Blasters were willing to give, but I bet they had a few converts. Can you imagine this bill happening today? It would be like Radiohead in 2013 asking Glossary to open a handful of shows in the southeast. Of course, Radiohead would have to clear this decision with 3 publicists, 2 booking agents, 5 managers, a “social media liaison,” and a financial backer from Chechnya.
By August 1980, The Blasters arc was clearly and definitively pointed up. Having a Queen tour on the resume meant they were finally able to headline shows in LA and over the next 18 months, they’d ask Gene Taylor, Lee Allen, and Steve Berlin to join the band, they started touring, signed with Slash, and in November 1981, released their masterpiece, The Blasters. But, it was the debut album that set the table and I think to some degree it’s been lost in the historical shuffle. Whatever its flaws, American Music is a vibrant document of a crack 4-piece combo contributing to the lineage of its titular subject. Real rock drive. Played in a real gone way.
Buy American Music reissue (Amazon)
Search for American Music on vinyl (Discogs)
It is because of LD that I am a Blasters fan.
Great piece. Great album. Thanks.
PS – Rollin Rock was distributed by Bomp, hence the poor distribution. They still had boxes and boxes of those records when I worked there so I never thought about it being particularly rare. I hear a lot of the Blasters in my two fave bands of the era – Gun Club and Tex & the Horseheads. Definitely trailblazers, they made the whole neo-redneck thing cool and everyone else was quick to follow. Nice to have a lookback and make those connections.
Thanks Sean, I love to hear your take on this stuff. In my early drafts I actually had a parenthetical note about two other bands in Los Angeles in 1980 also deeply influenced by American roots music: Gun Club and The Cramps. As I note above, The Cramps weren’t natives, but they were way more influential here — everywhere, really — than typically credited. I definitely see a connection between all 3 bands, though. Gun Club and Cramps shared Kid Congo Powers and Cramps and Blasters shared Bill Bateman (though Bateman played with The Cramps much later, in 2004 and 2006). Also, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Brothers Alvin obviously loved blues, country, early rock ‘n’ roll AND punk, it’s just that Gun Club poetically trashed up those roots, while The Blasters paid homage in more traditional forms. Two sides of a similar coin.