Thursday, January 14, 2010

On Uriah Heep and the lack of passion in music journalism.

When it comes down to it, music is truly the only thing I've ever been obsessed with. Since I was a kid kneeling before my Fisher Price record player, the sound is what's kept me going throughout my 29 years on this planet. While other youngsters were playing touch football, sneaking peeks at dad's Playboys, or hunched over Nintendo controllers, I was absorbing every piece of music that came my way. Whether it was Casey Kasem's weekly rundowns of the radio Top 40, the mysterious records stolen from dad's collection, or the classical anthologies I proudly carried away from the library, I treated them all with equal respect and reverence. Each discovery was a revelation. It might have been naive, much like any childhood thought is in retrospect. I thought every new amazing song I heard belonged to me, and me only...

My parents made decent scratch in the '80s, both working 60 hour weeks to afford the expansive, concrete-pillared porch that served as my barrier to the outside world. I got a 10 dollar weekly allowance in elementary school, and my family took a weekly Saturday trip to Johnny's Toys so I could recklessly drop that dough on the latest Transfomer or Atari game. My head was filled with soft, pliable mush which was bent, spindled, mutilated, and beaten into submission by the flashy commercials wedged in between the cartoons I avidly watched as a lad. I was six, what the fuck did I know?! At that point, movable plastic parts kept me fascinated for days on end. Whatever my parents couldn't afford, my grandfather supplied. He owned several low-income rental properties in the mid '80s, where dirt-poor families set up camp for a few months, got behind on rent, then took off and left their shit behind. Jackpot! I spent more time than I'd care to remember sliding through basement windows past defaced walls, stacks of soiled diapers, ugly furniture, and random piles of clothes to find buried treasure. Sure, I ended up with a mint condition GI Joe battleship, but it was the crates of records that ended up being more important. Those old records had a certain smell that I can remember even today. Of course, I'm older now, and I know it's a mixture that's equal parts mold, water damage, aged cardboard, weed, and cigarette smoke. Even so, it takes me back to the sheer naive joy I had flipping through those stinking plastic crates, opening up random gatefolds, and placing those slabs of black wax on my Fisher Price turntable, bracing myself for what came out of that tiny speaker. I didn't have the Allmusic Guide to tell me what was good and bad, just a set of eager, unbiased ears.

Uriah Heep's Demons and Wizards was one of my favorite albums pulled from those dusty crates. In elementary school, I had teachers drilling vocabulary and times tables into me, but I didn't have smug know-it-alls telling me that the music I was discovering was a load of plodding, inconsequential shit. Listening now, of course I can see why the general consensus hates it so much. The lyrics tread a fine line between pretention and ignorance, the music is both derivative and clueless, and the Roger Dean cover art is like a scarlet "A" driving intelligent music fans away with vigor. Remember, I was six! Demons and Wizards was cool as fuck, right up there with Snagglepuss, my 3rd grade teacher, and the dude that hosted Double Dare. It had a gatefold, but it was a really neat one with an extra page stuck in the middle, full of lyrics I didn't understand. My unbiased ears and eyes pored over that record and sleeve like it was a sacred text passed on by '70s stoners, deadbeat dads, and sell-out yuppies that dabbled in the counterculture. Its value wasn't apparent to me at the time, since I was busy grasping the concept that I didn't have to pull my pants down all the way to pee at the big boy urinal. I used records as makeshift frisbees when the real thing wasn't available, and Demons and Wizards met a grim fate one weekend afternoon when it rolled on its side into the back wheel of my mom's exercise bike, breaking into pieces. Oh, fuck yeah I cried about it, and I wonder if that's why I hold a fierce allegiance to that album to this day. In fact, I now own it on vinyl, cassette, remastered CD, and mp3 format, mostly to punish my friends who think their tastes are beyond reproach, always thinking they will see the light if I throw on "Easy Livin'" during the car-ride home from the bar. Fuck, the guy that reviewed it on Allmusic compared it to the Elecric Prunes, and they were on Nuggets, so it's valid, right?!

It never works, though. I can ramble on about how the last thirty seconds of "The Wizard" is so totally locked in, with a lurching groove so thick that Black Sabbath would be jealous, but the closing line still mentions "a million stars that guide me with their light." Fucking lame, right? Geez, just looking at Uriah Heep's current website makes me cringe, so I can only imagine what a conditioned hater would think. Try telling a pair of tightly folded arms that Uriah Heep was the first western rock band to play communist Russia in the mid-'80s. Wow man, really? The average moron digests a few years of musical innovation in a few minutes each morning, so how can you really explain in words how a pretentious, plodding proto-metal band could effect a bunch of deprived and depraved teenagers halfway across the world?! At the same time my six year old self was pulling my prized copy of Demons and Wizards from some Section 8 reject's basement, Russians were losing their shit to a Uriah Heep lineup missing their crucial singer and keyboardist. They didn't really care, OK? Waiting for hours in a bread line or having their houses ransacked by the government police puts things in perspective right quick. Decades of communism had skewed things so much that music derided by privileged westerners seemed like water in a desert. Right now, that's where we've arrived as a culture. So many people have fed their Fender guitars into Marshall amplifiers than the simple joy of making a loud, noisy racket has become insignificant. We have it so good that we don't know how good we have it. We've reached a point where an honest Uriah Heep fan is ashamed to proclaim his love for a band everyone else has dismissed as a joke.

Well dammit, I love Uriah Heep and I'm not afraid to say so. Nowadays, I trawl blogs looking for the next big thing, desperately trying to find something that might actually MOVE ME! It doesn't work, so I listen to simplistic, fun basic rock n' roll with the emotional depth of a thimble. It gets you through those tough times, for sure. Since I write for blogs, I hate to blame them for this but I just can't help myself! Back in the day when I was forming my tastes, those obsessive nerds really knew what was going on. '60s garage bands, the Velvets, Stooges, New York Dolls, Big Star, Orange Juice, the Shop Assistants, and other once obscure bands were kept alive by music critics who simply wouldn't shut the fuck up about them. Remember that time you downloaded a Beach House album and listened to it a few times? Does it really match up to that one album you heard when you were a kid that blew your mind and possibly changed your entire outlook on the world? How did that album made you feel, why do you feel the need to tell the world about it, and why I should give a fuck? Is it better than the one you posted yesterday? I'll tell you what, you're not gonna be listening to that album in three years, but some kid is discovering the pure joy of Big Star's #1 Record for the first time as I write this. I remember impassioned writers telling me how Big Star made them feel, and feeling is what's lacking from the blog landscape right now. If you're just gonna cough up a few sentences of hyperbole and a Mediafire link, then what's the point? It might be entertaining for a few hours, but that's all it's ever gonna be.

Wow, this certainly turned into an impassioned screed. Point being, the talented writers of Boil It First truly believe in the music, movies, and other things they write about. They're not gonna shut up about it, and they won't lead you astray. At least this one won't!

Zach B. is the dude behind Random Old Records blog and podcast. He's probably drinking and listening to Big Star right now.


  1. Brotherman, The Heep rules. Do not doubt it. However...

    I like Beach House a lot. It's like a more decayed, rounder Silver Apples. If you subbed in Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors, you get a lot more mileage with me. But that's just me. There's folks around here who would string me up by my testicles for such libel. I see what you're saying.

    The Heep, though I love them, might be a little too nerd-ball for most folks, but don't apologize. Your unguarded mind might have been wrong about Marc Summers, but you were right on here. It's like an Unpretentious Styx, or a a more formal Hawkwind. Lord knows, both of them could have used a little better direction, though they may have had there moments.

  2. Nicely written. You guys definitely know your music.

    Dan makes a good point about better direction for the pretentious Styx since the musicianship was there... and I may just dig out my Heep albums and give a listen. It's been a while...