By Mark Keresman
Brian Eno was quoted as saying, "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."
Rock history is filled with bands and albums that were somewhat unappreciated in their time yet occupy an enviable (by some people, at any rate) position as a cult favorite, a disc that will be treasured long after This Year's Cool has been consigned to the dustbin of history (or the bins of thrift stores). These are albums not widely known but anticipated what was to come, and most are available in that popular CD format...
In the early 1970s Bill Wilson had the balls to knock on legendary producer Bob Johnston's (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen) door and ask to play him a song. Johnston reluctantly said OK. That led to Johnston and Wilson recording an album with some of the same Nashville crew that'd backed Dylan on his '60s sessions. Wilson's Ever Changing Minstrel was released in 1973 and found its way into the obscurity of the discount album bins of America. Minstrel might be more "at home" in '12 than '73--Wilson, like Gram Parsons, prefigured the blending of folk, country, rock, gospel, and blues styles that the Hip We now refer to as Americana. Wilson's slightly raspy, world-weary singing recalls Bonnie Prince Billy, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker, and like those gents he had a knack for vivid storytelling. There's keening after-midnight slide guitar, creasy/greasy harmonica, and mellow but purposeful acoustic guitar. If people still made mix-tapes, Wilson would fit with Son Volt, Waylon Jennings, James McMurtry, and Patty Griffin. The late Wilson clearly deserved better than he got--his time, belatedly, is now, thanks to the Tompkins Square label. [tompkinssquare.com>]
In the 1960s the Velvet Underground was not the only three-ring psychosis in town--The United States of America was superficially similar. Both bands had members with backgrounds in classical music, both shared the aim of bridging the spheres of rock and contemporary avant-garde music, both sang about sadomasochism--and neither achieved much commercial success at the time. But the USA's sole self-titled album (reissued on the Sundazed label) is a puzzling, chilling, exhilarating collision between the Jefferson Airplane at their most rebellious and the harrowing early excursions of industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. [sundazed.com]
The Real Kids were a Boston band combining the then-uncool (in 1977) influences of 1950s rock (Buddy Holly, Frankie Ford, Eddie Cochran) and mid-'60s rock (pre-psychedelic Beatles and Byrds) with the trip-hammer approach of the early Ramones. They still might be around under main-man John Felice, but their first self-titled debut platter was BOSS then ('77) and is boss NOW -- thank you, Norton Records, for its CD edition. [nortonrecords.com]
Call them a supergroup of edgy jazz: Last Exit was comprised of the late Sonny Sharrock, guitar (perhaps the first six-stringer to transfer the unfettered "out" approach of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler to the electric axe); Peter Brotzmann, reeds (an acolyte of Ayler), Bill Laswell (producer of PiL, Iggy Pop, etc.) bass, and R. Shannon Jackson (played in Ornette Coleman's Prime Time), drums. They conjoined searing, ferocious free jazz with the focus and brutality of a metal band. Try Downtown Music in NYC to track down their excellent Headfirst into the Flames. [downtownmusicgallery.com]
Human Switchboard, Who's Landing in My Hangar?
Mixing Nuggets-type song-craft and styles with judicious bits of VU dissonance, the Human Switchboard (1976-1982) were THE sound of the American heartland, not John Whatsiscamp. There's a great anthology on the Bar None label. [bar-none.com]
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