Wednesday, September 12, 2007

SLUDGE IN THE 70's: Flash -- The homeless man's Yes

In the mid '80s I hosted a weekly college radio show at Lehigh University called "Sludge in the '70's." DD played classic hard rock, but my classic hard rock wasn't "classic rock FM." If it was a name band, I usually played something from before they were famous — or after they'd slid out of favor. But mostly it was devoted to the hard rock acts which had little or no hope of headlining arenas but which were still quite capable of making enjoyable albums.

In other words, the primary stuff of my record collection.

These bands all had some crucial things in common: A love of the guitar, of simply doing hard rock for the sake of it plus a desire to be loud and exciting. They could be musos, stumblers or anything in between, and they didn't even necessarily have to be from the '70s. That era was merely a golden time for my tastes, when imposing a "now" sound on the music — like the inappropriate disco-ey gated machine drum sound on ZZ Top records — wasn't an overwhelming practice. In other words, '80s acts were fine, too, as long as the records didn't sound like they catered to passing fancies in pop-rock production.

Sludge In the 70's bands were acts most wouldn't consider buying an album by. They were the bands who always made up the undercards of the shows you may have seen. Occasionally you may have been surprised by them and momentarily thought of buying a record if you spied it in a store during the next couple weeks.

Most often, even if you saw that record, the reaction was, "Nah, maybe next time." And there was never a next time.

To expand the show, I often read one paragraph entries from rock 'n' roll books, now out of print, which cataloged such bands and their discographies. Or mediocre-to-bad reviews from issues of Rolling Stone.

If you would compare your tastes to mine, consider mine an upside-down barometer. I like music most shun. A band whose record I drag out once or twice a year twenty-five years after it was unsuccessfully first published is a success in my book, a piece of the very necessary gravel making up the never-ending road of hard rock.

Consider Jimmy Page's unauthorized "No Introduction Necessary," a grab bag of cuts assembled from the guitarist's studio work BEFORE he became famous.

The last six tunes on No Introduction Necessary come from 1970's Lord Sutch & Heavy Friends. This was an album dubbed "the worst of all time" in a BBC poll about a year before Lord Sutch committed suicide.

That was harsh and wounding.

The Sutch record, a natural for Sludge in the 70's, featured most of pre-Led Led Zeppelin and there presence is unmistakable on "Thumping Beat" and in the jaunty "Union Jack Car." David Sutch was clownish antic party fun set to hard rock.

None of that "Stairway to Heaven"-like stuff and songs from Tolkien. You'd probably had heard that enough by 1983 although I'd bet you still haven't heard Lord Sutch & Heavy Friends.

I've always wanted to make a review book of Sludge In the 70's records. The blog is a convenient way to put some of it down in a scratch pad.

Already pissing off people they couldn't afford to, rock critics, in 1972 with this cover which was somewhat more memorable than the grooves.

Flash, an English band, had four albums. Only two are worth owning. Hmm, maybe one. Almost two, though, if you're a little like DD.

Flash was Peter Banks' band. Banks was the first guitarist for Yes, the lead axman on the Yes albums you don't own. Banks did, however, leave Yes with its signature guitar sound, one which would be copied by Steve Howe and put to much better commercial use on Fragile.

Banks surrounded himself with musicians just a cut below those he played with in the more famous band, the result being a homeless person's Yes. Yes got Roger Dean for cover art. Music fans stared into the famous illustrations for hours.

Flash got Hipgnosis. Rock critics scorned the salacious cover shots on the first two albums.

Flash's instrumental attack was more direct with the guitar far more front and center than in Yes. Any benefit in this was largely offset by the fact the writing wasn't nearly as catchy.

"People who love Yes will probably like this spinoff and imitation," wrote Robert Christgau in reviewing Flash's debut in 1972.

Christgau, who has never been good at judging anything even remotely hard rock, was wrong. People who loved Yes didn't give any of it to Flash.

Christgau was not impressed by the Hipgnosis cover, harrumphing: "Nor do I believe music gains body (or sexuality) by capillary action from its cover --the 'advance' from Yes's psychedoodles to Flash's rear-view crotch shot only make me wonder whether this band comes by its name lysergically."

Way too much declaration and speculation!

Flash got no respect and it seemed to annoy them, protesting in one magazine interview that they were not like Yes when everyone else was insisting they were.

"From the minute Flash comes on stage there is little question that Peter Banks is the star," wrote R. Serge Denisoff in a 1972 issue of Phonograph Records Magazine.

"[Banks] stands alone on the far corner of the stage picking Hendrix runs. Each song features a long — very long — solo. Dreams of Heaven [from the self-titled first record] is a showcase for the lead guitar. The lightning bolts and other electronic effects only highlight Peter. He raises his arms as a Teutonic demigod while washed with flicking strobe lighting ... The bolts and other electronic effects now focus on Peter Banks as they never did with Yes."

" 'They're just like Yes,' someone says. 'Yep, they are,' I respond, resisting the obvious pun."

"Flash, as in 'he's a flash,' exists due to the generosity of English film financiers who feel that collecting rock groups as an investment is nearly as good as stocks and bonds," continued Denisoff, amusingly but somewhat uncharitably.

"Peter talked Bolting Brothers of British Lion Ltd. — and all that — into bankrolling him as he was the lead in 'the greatest rock and roll band in the world.' With $15,000, he was ready to go."

You're not allowed to write stuff like that in rock journalism anymore. It's be stricken prior to publication.

Flash's debut contained five tunes -- three long loud ones separated by two short and relatively soft numbers. If there is one to remember, it is "Small Beginnings," which received some play on FM radio.

"In the morning when you start your day," sings vocalist Colin Carter. It's the only lyric you can remember from the entire record, an LP that worked best when given completely over to Banks and Ray Bennett duking it out on lead guitar and lead bass.

"Dreams of Heaven," the other signature Flash tune, is Yes tanked-up on cheap beer and brawling in a pub, crunching bass morphing into delicate acoustic guitar, senseless interludes of twee singing stitching together the rest of the number between furious passages of guitar careening between jazz fusion and fuzzy early metal. It's thirteen minutes long.

Flash didn't give much thought to song composition. The idea was to beat the audience over the head with energy and virtuosity. This Flash did very well.

It being the case, the album to start with is the live CD, Psychosync, issued in 1997, put together from bootlegged radio and TV broadcasts in the US in 1972.

The sound is raw and rough in front of a small audience at an FM radio station in New York.

"In the morning you ja dart ya day," sings Colin Carter in a familiar way, muffing the only memorable line from "Small Beginnings" to no ill effect before Banks'six-string volume swells. Everything including the kitchen sink is tossed into "Dreams of Heaven" which includes Banks inexplicably playing "Oh, Susanna" in the middle of the tune just because he can.

" ... Jon Anderson was prettier," writes someone on Amazon where copies of the second album appear to be selling for an unreasonable $44.00.

Who needs pretty, though?

Flash's "In the Can." Art once again trumps content.


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