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Following the intense and bloody Nigerian Civil War, a vibrant musical revolution bloomed in the country, with emerging groups and performers creating a fusion which blended funk, R&B, and hard rock. The beginnings and end of this fertile scene is documented incredibly by a new two-volume collection out on Now Again Records, Wake Up You Vol. 1 and 2: The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, 1972-1972. 

Featuring artists like Ify Jerry Krusade, the Strangers, the Hyykers, OFO the Black Company, the Funkees, War Head Constriction, and dozens more, the collections illustrate the heavier side of Nigeria’s counter culture. While the music itself is enough to warrant diving in, the accompanying books by scholar Uchenna Ikonne — the producer behind many key releases, including the recent collection, Who is William Onyeabor —  feature insightful details and illuminating quotes from many of the artists themselves.

“About nine years ago, I teamed up with Uchenna Ikonne, when he was starting to work on his William Onyeabor anthology for Luaka Bop,” says Now Again main-man Eothen “Egon” Alapatt. “I’d been trying to get in touch with the remaining members of the Nigerian rock scene to try to figure out how the fuck such an incredible scene could have sprung up there in the early 1970s. I’d seen Ginger Baker in Africa, so I’d seen the footage of the bands getting down and I knew about the Biafran Civil War…. But the idea that a bona fide Nigerian rock scene could come into existence right after the death and destruction of the Civil War was almost unfathomable to me: America’s Flower Power hippies were shouting peace and love many thousands of miles from the jungles of Vietnam: were Nigerian hippies really doing the same thing….as combat raged in their back yards?”

Egon says that he ripped off by “middle man after middle man” trying to reissue music from this era, so he turned to Ikonne. “He knew more than anyone, was more pissed than I was about his own countrymen robbing not only these musicians – but their brethren of this untold story, of this forgotten scene.” Egon says. “He had this Onyeabor idea that he wanted to try out, and he said if I helped fund his trip he would do it right. And he did. He spent a year there, and he found every band we were interested in, and we licensed the music we wanted directly from them, got their stories down pat, and started to put together the direction for an anthology.”

War Head Constriction :: Graceful Bird

AD caught up with Ikonne to discuss the compiling of the albums and the personal connections that fueled his work in illuminating and preserving it.

Aquarium Drunkard: This collection is fantastic, and your notes are deep and fascinating. You were born in the States but lived in Nigeria as a young man. In the notes of Wake Up You, you describe a lot of the music featured therein as lost for forgotten. How did you first discover it?

Uchenna Ikonne: I was peripherally aware of much of it when I was a kid in the 1980s. You could still find a lot of old copies of these records in shops then. Cultural revival trends tend to work on a two-decade cycle—it usually takes around twenty years for old stuff to come back around and become cool again. So when I was coming up, these records were around ten years old and definitely were not cool. They were quaint, corny things that took up precious shelf space in the record store and frustrated you by slowing your access to the new Shalamar and Musical Youth LPs.

It was much later, around 1999 or 2000 that I was developing a movie set in early 1970s Nigeria that I started to research music for the soundtrack and I started rediscovering this stuff, realizing how incredible this music really was. And serendipitously, at this very moment record companies in the West like Soundway and Strut had started exploring this music too. So that just gave me more impetus to dive into it.

(Welcome to Videodrome. A monthly column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema — from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)

Every so often, I go back to Quest for Fire. Whether it’s to ground me in visceral reminder of man’s wild natural state, or to put modern technology into perspective, or most commonly, just to enjoy its savage charms as a standalone piece of art, I return to watch it again. Usually late at night, almost always alone. Since my first viewing in 1988 (six years after its American debut), I’ve reveled in the scope of this film and its capacity to inspire awe and curiosity.

I once heard someone describe Director Jean-Jacques Annaud as the world’s best director of films in which no one speaks. It’s a fair characterization, as his works also include famously quiet films such as The Bear and Seven Years in Tibet. But upon deeper consideration, this isn’t just a snarky criticism—there is a distinct skillfulness required to tell a moving story with little or no language. It’s a feat that demands the capture of raw emotion and intellect through context. And Annaud has mastered the art.

It should be said of prehistoric films that the genre itself is a bit of an outlier. Sitting somewhere between sci-fi and historical non-fiction, Quest for Fire also has the element of fantasy going for it. After all, with no empirical record to fact check for accuracy, who can call out a filmmaker for depicting a colorful arena of mythical megafauna, cannibalistic troglodytes, and environmental hazards of the fairy tale variety?

On a surface level, that is what this movie is about. A fantasy adventure in the style of the great epics of the big screen, with sweeping landscapes and orchestral crescendos. It’s the saga of three cavemen who are forced by necessity to trek into the wilderness in search of their tribe’s only salvation, fire.

Transcending their primal utterances and ape-like gestures, the main characters gradually become enjoyable to watch and easy to root for. On this familiar hero’s journey, like so many action yarns, they find danger, treasure, loss and love. And symbolically, we feel a shared pride in their redemption, as theirs is the story of us.

But it’s so much more than that.

a4049598838_10Since we’ve been on a bit of a Soft Boys kick lately, it’s become apparent that very few groups have managed to approximate that band’s sparkling guitar sound. Plates of Cake come close — and if you go back a bit, they even tackled “Underwater Moonlight” on a previous LP. The Brooklyn band’s latest LP, Becoming Double, is packed with sharp songwriting, catchy tunes and more than enough chiming guitar action from Jonathan Byerley and Joshua Carrafa.

Check out the dreamy “She Wants To Disappear,” with its Hitchcock/Rew-worthy opening hook and pleasingly eccentric harmony vocals. Not sure if Plates of Cake really fits into any current scene, but that’s just as well — they might be more at home with the early 80s Postcard Records roster: Orange Juice, the Go-Betweens and Aztec Cameras. Wherever you slot them, Plates of Cake deserve your attention. words / t wilcox

Plates of Cake :: She Wants To Disappear

ChuckJohnson_VelvetArcBay Area guitarist extraordinaire Chuck Johnson’s recent (mostly) solo acoustic LPs have proven him to be one of the most reliable players on the new-Takoma School scene. His new album, the utterly fantastic Velvet Arc, shows that Johnson is just as masterful in a more fleshed out band setting. The album’s seven songs offer shimmering electric guitar blending with gorgeous pedal steel and folky fiddles fading into mesmerizing minimalist pulses, backed up by a sturdy rhythm section.

It’s a widescreen vision of Americana that fits in with what William Tyler has been up to for the past few years, but Velvet Arc delivers its own unique reveries. Even though the album is less skeletal than on his previous solo work, Johnson never lets his songs get too lush or soft focus; each moment feels perfectly devised, as the guitarist guides us through one absorbing soundscape after the next. An album that just gets deeper the more you spin it. words / t wilcox

Chuck Johnson :: Velvet Arc

FlaminGroovies

Dig it. In celebration of their 50th(!) Anniversary, San Francisco’s legendary Flamin’ Groovies have released their first tracks since 1992’s Rock Juice. And in a move that rings full circle, from a band that inspired numerous nascent punk rockers and power poppers, the record is being released via the guys carrying the torch at Burger Records.

The A-side finds “Crazy Macy” — a track deeply rooted in British Invasion sounds, with a charming accompanying video channeling the vibe of a Hard Day’s Night. The echo-heavy production is straight out of the band’s magnum opus, the immortal 1976 lp Shake Some Action. 2nd Generation vocalist Chris Wilson (who replaced original vocalist Roy Loney in 1971), belts out a soulful lead in between the accompanying harmonies.

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Ah yes, to prefer the demo or the finished product. Where I typically have a firm opinion on such matters, the below, Les Olivensteins’ “Fier De Ne Rien Faire”, is an example of…not having one. I dig each, individually, in a way that the two feel unrelated. Anyhow, that’s just a longwinded way to entice you to explore these Frenchman, via their 1979 ep, as I always receive emails when I spin either version on the SIRIUS show. So — dig in if you have yet to engage. Voilà

Les Olivensteins :: Fier De Ne Rien Faire.
Les Olivensteins :: Fier De Ne Rien Faire (demo)

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It’s 1976. Beer comes in pull-tab cans and Miles Davis has taken a leave of absence. People don’t really know it, but jazz fusion is nearing the end of it’s creative streak: Mahavishnu Orchestra has burned through two lineups and Weather Report has just enlisted Jaco Pastorius, who’ll help propel the band into the stratosphere and towards glossy, slick jazz-pop.

For most of this year, Billy Cobham, George Duke and Alfonso Johnson toured together. They had impressive resumes: Cobham played with Davis and Mahavishnu, creating a reputation as a furious yet accurate drummer, while Johnson’s funky electric bass helped move Weather Report from the spacey, ambient grooves of their first few records towards the driving, funky fusion of Mysterious Traveler. Meanwhile, Duke had worked with Cannonball Adderley, but came into his own with Frank Zappa’s mid-70s Mothers of Invention, where he expanded into synthesizers and vocal duties, and left a unique mark on Zappa’s music. Rounding out the quartet was John Scofield, their the wild card: young, with a short resume and killer guitar chops.

As they toured, the Cobham and Duke band could’ve taken their lead from any of their members past: comedy rock, hard-driving funk or rhythmically complex jazz-fusion. Instead, they drew on all of these to become something else: a band who could be funky and pulsating with energy at one moment and only go off into a spoken interlude or weird spacey improvisations. At their best, they jammed hard and fast; at their worst, their antics were probably fun in person, but don’t translate to records.

Which, unfortunately, was how the only official document of this band shows them. “Live” on Tour in Europe is a mixed bag, an out-of-focus snapshot of a band dwelling on what doesn’t work and offering only glimpses of the band in full flight. “Space Lady” is a Zappa-esque monologue by Duke about an alien; “Frankenstein at the Disco” is a extended drum solo which overstays it’s welcome.

Fortunately, there are bootlegs of this tour, in, particularly a very good one from Hempstead on March 19, 1976. Let’s dive in.

Things in Hempstead start in full swing with a version of Cobham’s “Panhandler,” where Scofield unleashes on an extended solo, and the band deftly segues into an energetic “Floop De Loop,” and the slow groove of “East Bay,” each song giving them ample room to solo and jam; after nearly half an hour, they finally take a breather and Cobham introduces the band.

Billy Cobham & George Duke Band :: Panhandler

“This ain’t no Frank Zappa concert,” says a laughing Cobham. It’s not: it’s driving, it’s funky and it’s a full of tight musicianship: Scofield’s sizzling guitar, Johnson’s electric bass and Cobham’s propulsive drumming. There aren’t any cheesy jokes, any ironic covers or 10-minute guitar solos. At the same time, the influence of Zappa on Duke’s stage presence is undeniable: the silly monologues and spacey keyboard improvisations are all holdovers from Duke’s time as a Mother. Later, they’ll even cover two Zappa songs: “Echidna’s Arf,” blasting through its tricky passages with élan, and the slow groove of “Uncle Remus” (both also appeared on a then-recent Duke record). The evening closes with a slow, extended version of Johnson’s “Involuntary Bliss,” where the band stretches out and Scofield’s guitar sizzles against Duke’s keyboards.

The band plays well throughout, but Cobham’s drumming is especially on point: he’s all over the place, drumming fast and hard, but never overwhelms the rest of the band. Things really come together on “Earthlings,” where his drumming pushes the band forward and raises the tension. Before long, he’s going so hard and fast you’d swear there was a second kit. This was an interesting tour for Cobham; in an interview with Down Beat, he claimed he’d get so deep into a groove he’d have astral projections and watch himself drumming from up above the stage.

Billy Cobham & George Duke Band :: Earthlings

After this show in Hempstead, the band continued playing: there was a string of dates in Europe, including a nice set at the Montreux Jazz Festival and finally some more shows in the US that fall. But after about a year, everyone went their own ways; “Live” On Tour In Europe would be the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band’s only official release.

With Cobham’s solo records getting the reissue treatment – Rhino/Atlantic released a box of his early 70s records last year – maybe there’s some more of this band still in the vaults. And given the popularity of Weather Report’s recent live box set, there’s a market, too. But until then, this set’ll do nicely. words / m milner

Willie_tyler

Nashville guitar journeyman William Tyler is set to release Modern Country June 3rd via Merge Records. His fourth full-length, the record is self-described as “a love letter to what we’re losing in America, to what we’ve already lost.” Tyler guests on my SIRIUS show this Friday, his set presented here as Sebastian Speaks – A Mixtape. The artists, in his own words, below . . .

I woke up this morning from a dream about the end of the world. It started in a coffee shop in Nashville, there’s a long line out the door and the credit card machine won’t work. There’s a big boom and all the electricity goes off. I run out of the coffee shop, get to my car, and start driving out of the city as quickly as I can. Only one radio station comes through and I can deduce there has been a catastrophic series of earthquakes, knocking out most of the nation’s big cities and power grids. As my car eases into the Tennessee countryside the radio station disappears into a melodic hum of static and I chase the sunrise. As I write this I am at my friend Michael Slaboch’s house in Berrien County, Michigan. We’re only an hour from Chicago, I can hear the morning traffic report on my radio, but in the measured calm of the countryside it feels a universe and a century away. I spend a lot of time driving through the front roads and back roads of the country and like most  people harnessed to cars, I gauge music by how good it is for driving. This mix is meant to mirror a back roads drive, catching an oldies station or a sermon or a baseball game on some unknown AM frequency. Hope for spring time and yearning for the stillness of the rural contrast to the anxiety of the city. – William Tyler, April 2016

Aquarium Drunkard Presents: Sebastian Speaks – A Mixtape

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The Brian Jonestown Massacre may have just celebrated a 25th anniversary, but it’s little surprise that there wasn’t a big to-do, as Anton Newcombe has always believed in pushing forward and not looking back. We caught up with Newcombe via Skype last week, from his home in Berlin, to discuss (among other things) his thought on recording, the music industry and…war.

Aquarium Drunkard: So, you’re in the middle of recording a new record…

Anton Newcombe: Well, several of them, yeah.

AD: And the Jonestown one, since you’ve been posting a lot of the previews online via twitter and such, it looks like it’s the first time that the touring members of the BJM have been in the studio with you in a while. And you’ve got Tess Parks.

Anton Newcombe: Well, all kinds of things are happening. I just write. The band happened to be here to track after we played Manchester, so they did some stuff. Now Tess is here doing some stuff helping me out.

AD: Just this morning you shared “Fingertips” with Tess on vocals and it sounds great. You brought out a side of her voice that I’d never heard before — she’s singing in a higher register, which made me think about how you’ve worked with so many different people on various projects and how you bring out unique things in them. How do you feel about that?

Anton Newcombe: Well, I don’t know. You know that’s up to the song inspiring. She felt the same thing. I mean, we were just talking a minute ago and she said, ‘Oh, I can hit those high notes, I just don’t.’ (laughs)