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All reviews - Music (12)

Punishment Of Luxury - Laughing Academy (1979)

Posted : 9 months, 4 weeks ago on 29 September 2023 06:21 (A review of Laughing Academy)

Punishment Of Luxury formed around late 1976, initially for the “Mad Bongo Theatre Group” in Newcastle, England. Amongst the members of the early line-up that performed on John Peel’s show in 1978, were Brian Bond (vocals, keyboards), Neville Luxury (guitar, backing vocals), Malla Caballa (guitar), Jimi Giro (bass) and Jeff Thwaite (drums, percussion). The inspiration behind the moniker of the group came from Italian artist Giovanni Segantini‘s 1891 painting, The Punishment Of Luxury (which was originally known as “The Punishment Of Lust”, until it was purchased and retitled in 1893 by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England. The reason for the title change was allegedly because folks from this epoch thought that it was “too provocative”). According to Brian, the group originally “got together for musicals – One based on Orwell’s '1984', another for a nasty factory owner in Cumbria“. In 1978, the first single, Puppet Life, was released through the Small Wonder record label (which more acclaimed groups such as The Cure, Bauhaus and Crass also released material on). Steve Sekrit later replaced Thwaite on drums, while Caballa is also reported to have departed around this time. The newfound incarnation of Punishment Of Luxury released their first album, Laughing Academy, in 1979 through United Artists records.

This quartet plays an eccentric style of music that is like a cross between artsy Punk Rock and New Wave (with bits and chunks of Funk, Progressive and Hard Rock thrown in here and there. I feel somewhat compelled to also say Glam Rock, but that might not be very accurate). Punishment Of Luxury are often compared to the likes of XTC, Wire and Gang Of Four, and while that’s actually not too far off, I still think that they have their own sound. However, just like most musicians and bands, Punishment Of Luxury do have a wide and rich array of influences which include the likes of Sparks, Devo, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Robert Fripp, 10CC, Roxy Music, George Formby, Todd Rundgren and Charles Trenet. Science-Fiction and “the idea of people trying to do something different being laughed at” are some of the concepts behind Laughing Academy (there also appears to be some themes of the political variety present here). The lyrics are quite humorous and abstract (they can probably be interpreted in a number of different ways), yet they are also serious, logical and intelligent at times. Some might argue that this album hasn’t aged exactly well, but it has a slick production of sorts, and the amalgamate of creative songwriting, competent musicianship and comedic yet smart lyrics all make for a winning combination. Despite that, the music could still prove to be somewhat of an “acquired taste”, as for some it might be a tad too quirky. For other individuals who tend to be more adventurous with their music, lots of potential sonic euphoria is to be experienced on Laughing Academy.

The first track is a re-recorded version of “Puppet Life”. This version is more polished, and in my opinion, definitely surpasses the original one from 1978 in terms of overall quality. As it commences, one hears a nervous man mildly hyperventilating, referencing someone or something, saying “here they come. They’ll never take me away. I won’t go to Room 16”. A stentorian, disembodied voice proceeds and says to him, “YOU WILL” (a cartoon-ish voice then exclaims, “you’re already there!“. Disarrayed gibberish follows soon after). Neville Luxury then propels the whole thing forward with his aggressive guitar. While it may appear that the protagonist in the song is suffering from a strong case of paranoia, he actually seems to find himself existing in some type of George Orwell-ian 1984 universe. Both the music and lyrics happen to give me visions of a carnival-esque, dystopian world. The lyrics in particular do make mention of feeling enslaved by a powerful authority (or a metaphorical “Big Brother”). Bassist Jimmy Giro once stated in a 2008 interview that “Puppet Life” was about “state oppression because that’s how people ruled“. Even after four decades, I think this song still remains highly relevant (especially in these current times where many humans all over the world don’t fully trust their governments, feel that their privacy is being invaded and natural-born rights diminishing with the passage of time).

"Wires stick through my soul, my actions are controlled
Turning me from free man to puppet life
Suspended in puppet life"

“Funk Me” turns out to be more fun and quirky (definitely much less anxious). Playful melodies introduce the tune along with jangly, Disco-fashioned rhythmic guitar and the pulsating, funky bass of Jimi. Brian and the gang make it more outrageous by making an assorted array of whimsical voices (I'm also fond of that cacophonous, discordant guitar solo that shows up around the 2:02 minute mark). With lyrics like “funk me ’til I’m crazy, sex is just a dream, I drink your gaze and dream of dust and cream“, I am not entirely sure what “Funk Me” alludes to (perhaps it's poking fun at the Disco subculture of the 1970s?). Punishment Of Luxury‘s fascination with Science-Fiction becomes apparent on “The Message”. Musically, this tune aligns itself more with Punk than Funk. The very anthemic “All White Jack” also rocks quite hard with a similar Punk-infused attitude, sporting a set of socially-aware lyrics as well. The keyboards heard during the short interlude in the middle add a slight touch of psychedelia. “Obsession” may be softer in tone, but it has a darker aura lingering around it, featuring flimsy, pseudo-symphonic synthesizers, which at times can sound a little creepy and others regal. This is the story of an insecure, introverted young man who is desperate for romance. He appears to obsessively admire one particular girl from a distance. Passionate feelings for her exist within his heart and mind, but he is hesitant to let her know of this for fear of being rejected and humiliated. Well, the outcome is quite grim: As daylight dies, he slips outside and proceeds to stalk the girl. He then abducts her, eventually becoming the one responsible for her murder. At the end, the killer frantically claims it was all just an accident, but simultaneously also remains in constant denial, believing that she is only sleeping (frustratingly demanding her to wake up). 

"It only seems to happen with a corpse or a dream
Dead bodies don’t betray you
They never try to scream"

“Radar Bug / Metropolis” is primarily a New Wave track (with some Disco and Hard Rock weaved into it as well). Its bouncy beats and groovy rhythm are really contagious, in turn making the tune a very danceable one. The way that Brian sings here gives the impression that he may have inhaled a small quantity of helium at some point during the recording session. Punishment Of Luxury draws a nugget of inspiration from Devo in “British Baboon”, another straight-up wacky and funky tune. Brian resorts once more to those zany vocal histrionics here (monkey screeches and wolf howling? Get out!). “Babalon” tears a page from the Progressive Rock playbook. Starts rather slow with a set of staccato guitar riffs before rocketing off, presenting odd time-signature changes and some other creative arrangements. Great musicianship on everyone’s part here (especially Neville with his acrobatic guitar antics). The theme appears to be centered around religion and “The Whore Of Babylon” revelation.

"I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-coloured beast
Full of names of blasphemy
And written on her forehead was 'Mystery'
Babalon the great
Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth"

“Excess Bleeding Heart” bursts out with much hyperactive energy, bearing an almost metallic sound. Finally, the title track arrives. Compared to the two previous tracks, “Laughing Academy” is lighter and more mellow with its poppy vocal harmonies. It's not necessarily the strongest song to finish the album with, but it's kind of a suitable one. Shortly after Laughing Academy, Punishment Of Luxury released various singles including "Secrets", "Brain Bomb" (what I would personally describe as a weird proto-Thrash/Speed Metal cut), "Baby Don't Jump" (basically Mike Patton-era Faith No More, only an entire decade before that), "Engine Of Excess" and "Jellyfish" (a wacky, aquatic tune that REALLY reminds me of SpongeBob SquarePants!), all of which can be found again on the Dojo and Lemon reissues.


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Blue Cheer - Vincebus Eruptum (1968)

Posted : 9 months, 4 weeks ago on 29 September 2023 04:54 (A review of Vincebus Eruptum)

Blue Cheer was founded around 1966 in San Francisco, California. At the very beginning there were a bunch of different members, but the band (who allegedly took their name from a potent form of LSD that was derived from a laundry detergent) ultimately became a power trio consisting of vocalist/bassist Dickie Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens and drummer Paul Whaley. In the latter half of 1967, these young men stepped inside Amigo Studios in North Hollywood, California and with the assistance of producer Abe “Voco” Kesh, they recorded Vincebus Eruptum (some say the title is Latin for “controlled chaos” or “conquering explosion” while others say it is a nonexistent term). On their first album from 1968, Blue Cheer radiates extreme decibels of noise as they turn up the volume on their Marshall amplifiers to maximum capacity. Managed by Allan "Gut" Terk (who once had connections with the notorious motorcycle gang known as "Hell's Angels"), Blue Cheer opted to be loud, aggressive and "counterculture", especially at a time when the whole “flower power” thing seemed to be rampant in Rock music (amusingly enough, Dickie once stated that “we were the ugly stepchildren. Everybody in San Francisco scene was all ‘kiss babies and eat flowers’. We were sort of ‘kiss flowers and eat babies’“). I think most individuals already familiar with this power trio would agree that they were indeed one of the hardest and loudest bands to come out of the 1960s (along with the MC5 from Detroit, Michigan). As a matter of fact, Blue Cheer was the first band to ever be listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the “Loudest Band In The World” (that title would later be taken by Deep Purple). In an interview, Dickie reminisced about all these things and stated some insightful anecdotes:

People thought we were just making noise. They thought we were a detriment to the scene. I just knew we wanted to be loud. I wanted our music to be physical. I wanted it to be more than just an audio experience. This is what we set out to try and do. We ended up being in a lot of trouble with other musicians of the time. I remember Mike Bloomfield came up to me at the Avalon Ballroom, and he says, ‘You can’t do that’. I said, ‘C’mon, Mike, you can do it, too. All you gotta do is turn this knob up to 10’. He hated me ever since. He was this great accomplished musician and I was this 18 year old smartass. We did have a bit of an arrogance, but it was nurtured by people like that criticising us.

With Vincebus Eruptum, this power trio also inadvertently attained a primitive Heavy Metal sound by combining their passion for Blues with hearty portions of Psychedelic Rock, Acid Rock, Hard Rock and Garage Rock (one could even argue that their sound had some type of vague Proto-Punk/Noise Rock flair to it as well). Although Blue Cheer‘s music was still primarily rooted in psychedelic, Blues-y Rock (similar to that of Cream or Jimi Hendrix, only noisier and sloppier) and it wasn't truly definitive Heavy Metal (like Black Sabbath or Judas Priest, for example), it did introduce various of the elements that now characterize this genre/style of music. Despite being innovative for their time, Blue Cheer were not the most “refined” of musicians. The musicianship on Vincebus Eruptum tends to be primitive and disheveled at times but Dickie, Leigh and Paul still perform with a lot of spirit and energy (besides, whoever said that pioneers had to be “perfect”?). While the crude, low-fidelity production also takes away some potency from the music (at least on the compact disc reissue), at the same time it also gives it some grit. Anyway, this vintage Psychedelic Rock/Blues/Proto-Metal/whatever-you-want-to-call-it album contains six tracks: Three are covers and the other half are original compositions. Kicking off Vincebus Eruptum is a hard-hitting cover of Eddie Cochran‘s “Summertime Blues” (which became the band's only hit despite having better, more electrifying songs. This cover made it to #11 on the Billboard singles charts). Blue Cheer makes “Summertime Blues” their own by implementing abrasive guitar riffs, thick bass and a rumbling avalanche of drums.

The second cover present on this album is the sultry “Rock Me Baby” (which was first recorded by BB King a few years earlier, although there are rumors that he re-worked this song from that of another Blues musician. Who really knows for sure). This Blues-based tune initially rolls around with a much slower tempo, only picking up the pace near its boisterous finale. These guys do well in playing the covers of other musicians, but I think their efforts are best displayed on their very own original material such as “Doctor Please” (supposedly about LSD and drugs), which commences with pounding drums and clashing cymbals courtesy of Paul Whaley (whose style at times reminds me a little of Cream‘s Ginger Baker). The droning guitar heard in the first thirty seconds sounds like some type of old, corroded engine struggling to operate. “Doctor Please” gets even more hyperactive in the middle when the speed accelerates with Paul‘s frantic Proto-Punk-infused drumming. Leigh Stephens' wild, extensive guitar solo here ranks among one of his very best on this album as well. On “Out Of Focus”, Dickie Peterson appears to ponder his mental state of well-being. Compared to the previous jam, this one is a whole lot more mellow and groovy, featuring thumping beats that sound like a jangling tambourine (Led Zeppelin surely must've taken a few pointers from "Out Of Focus").

Originally written in 1940 by Delta Blues musician, Bukka White (and later made popular by Jazz musician Mose Allison), “Parchment Farm” is the third cover this trio take on. This is a catchy tune about the old, notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary. It usually makes me want to move around (or wiggle a little). Things that make this one a blast is the gratuitous dose of cacophonous guitars and heavy bass-lines, not to forget the swift drumming. Out of all the covers present here, I would say that “Parchment Farm” is by far my personal favorite. “Second Time Around” closes Vincebus Eruptum, and it might just be the cream of the crop of this album. Leigh's guitar performance on here is simply insane (especially considering what year this was). Dickie gives a scalding performance as well, shouting and hollering throughout like a madman, all the while Paul pulverizes the hell out of his drum kit. The raucous finale only further cements Blue Cheer's legacy as being one of the loudest and wildest bands to ever exist in the 1960s. In summary, Vincebus Eruptum is a great record, even if it has too many covers (these are still competent enough for my tastes though). Blue Cheer may not have also been the most musically advanced or technically proficient band of their time, but what they lacked in that area they compensated with pure spirit and raw power. Unfortunately, Dickie Peterson and Paul Whaley aren't with us anymore as they both passed away in 2009 and 2019 (due to prostate cancer and heart failure). While it's sad that the classic members of Blue Cheer will all eventually pass away some day (just as everyone else), I am comforted by the thought that their music and history will still be preserved. They will also continue to be fondly remembered by fans for their explosive take on Blues and Rock.


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