Category Archives: HIDDEN GEMS

Hidden Gems: Iggy Pop’s “American Caesar”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

“Parental Warning: This Is An Iggy Pop Record”: There was a time when reading this would have harpooned fear straight into the hearts of any red-blooded American mom or dad unlucky enough to know who Iggy Pop was, or what they imagined he stood for. Every incessant nightmare or despair held by the baby boomers—from Charles Manson to Mad magazine—were projected onto Iggy and his Stooges during their seven-year life span, and they responded by spewing it right back, in a torrent of heroin and glitter, blood and peanut butter. As Dictators guitarist Scott Kempner described, “This was living and being born and coming for your fucking children in the middle of the night right in front of you.”

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But to parents reading that same warning in 1993? The same Iggy Pop who played Johnny Depp’s goofy backwoods uncle? The same Iggy Pop who recorded an ode to campy horror villain Freddy Krueger? The same Iggy Pop who sang that love song to the gal from the B-52’s? Really, how bad could it be?

Swinging between these two ends of the spectrum was somewhat deliberate, but mostly a by-product of Jim “Iggy” Osterberg’s wild personal, and career, path. After the Stooges disbanded for the second time, in 1974, Pop was left a broke junkie who spent the next two years floating from couch-to-couch in L.A., trying to get clean, finally winding up in a mental hospital. He soon moved to Germany with his old pal, and fellow addict, David Bowie to sober up—a period in which both men would arguably create their best work. 1977 saw the release of Pop’s first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life, which received rave reviews and have since become classics. Along with a newfound respect as an artist, he shed his image as a drug-crazed madman (which countless up-and-coming punk bands simultaneously attempted to imitate).

Unfortunately, this artistic upswing didn’t last, and after 1979’s great New Values, Pop spent the next few years with a reinvigorated heroin addiction while making mostly terrible records, ranging from watered-down new wave (Soldier) to clunky synth-pop (Party). Though these didn’t sell well, Pop lived off of royalties from songs he penned with Bowie, who had recently turned them into worldwide hits. Pop cleaned himself up, started an acting career, even scoring commercial success with the Bowie-driven Blah Blah Blah in ’86, which he followed with the overproduced hard rock of Instinct.

Hardly anything from Pop’s ‘80s work stands out with the same vigor that he once had. Although they may have started with interesting and experimental intentions, the records were cold and neutered, unfit for a man of his talent. With a now un-hazed perspective, Pop seemed aware of this, and in 1990 recorded his “comeback,” Brick By Brick, with help from producer Don Was. The songs were focused, showing a lyrical maturity not before seen, though the production was a tad too slick. However, the formula worked, and with the help of a hit pop single (the aforementioned “Candy,” a duet with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s), the record became the biggest hit of his career.

But still, something was missing. In a 2010 interview, Pop explained, “I peaked commercially. I’d done pretty well with Brick By Brick and Blah Blah Blah, and I’d lined up a lot of apples in a certain way, but that sort of professionalism—that professional West Coast type of American career that I was beginning to put together—just was a drag … I didn’t wanna do “Candy” live onstage; I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get some kid who can play “Raw Power.”‘ And the next thing I knew, from 1990 on … Stooge-ism and amateurism started slipping back into my life.”

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Hidden Gems: Captain Beefheart’s “Unconditionally Guaranteed”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

It’s hard for anyone in the music business to make a living, but it was especially hard being in the Magic Band. Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) was always more of a sculptor then a musician, even as a child, when he would spend hours making clay elephants in his room. This approach was how he created most of his music, by “sculpting” band members who would decipher his grand ideas and limited musical ability into the compositions that changed the fabric of music (and, possibly, space and time). This shouldn’t belittle the Captain’s genius songwriting (because no one could write music like he did), but it should give more emphasis to the talent and contributions of the Magic Band.

Instead, Beefheart drove them to tears with insults, beat them, pushed them down steps, took away their food and deprived them of sleep. Then, he would tell interviewers fantastic lies, including that he wrote the entire Trout Mask Replica album note-for-note in eight hours. (For followers of the Beefheart legend, this author included, that might be hard to accept. No one wants to hear vilifying things about their idol—it’s akin to learning your dad clubbed seals to pay for your first bike—but it is the truth.) For the members that stayed, there can only be one explanation why—it’s hard to leave one of the best bands in the world.

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It had to be hard on the good Captain, as well. He had spent the past eight years creating some of the most brilliant and original rock music ever made, before or since. For people that came in contact with his music, it was either the worst shit they’d ever heard or the work of an absolute genius; there was little in between. He didn’t make any money, because combined with his habit of signing any contract that was placed in front of him, the music was so challenging that not many copies were sold. It was high art, yes, but sometimes, that don’t pay the bills. Van Vliet and the rest of the group were living on food stamps, loans from the parents of band members and what little money they made from touring for the better part of ’72 and ’73. Although it’s nice to be called a genius, it’s even nicer to have a hot meal.

So in late 1973, the Magic Band secured a deal with Mercury Records, along with what it perceived as its “big break.” With the deal came new management, Andy and Auggie DiMartino, two brothers who persuaded Beefheart into making more commercial music with the promise that it would make him a huge star. But the group had tried before, and it didn’t work. When the Magic Band gave the audience “something to hold their hat on” by making more accessible, though nonetheless great, records like 1972’s The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, it still remained a niche market. So why would it be any different now? The answer the band was fed was the clichéd record-company sleaze, blaming the producer, the marketing and the distribution. Unfortunately, Beefheart ate it up.

For most in the rock business, compromising one’s art for the sake of money would be looked upon as pure greed, but it’s hard to fault the man, at least too much. As Lester Bangs put it, “No matter how brilliant you and your limited circle of fans know you are, it’s never going to matter as much as it should if it’s not universal enough to be relatable to people who don’t want to be bothered with something that doesn’t hit them over the head and get their gonads right away.” Plus, if writing some love songs is making a deal with the devil, then you’re getting off easy. At least, it seemed like it.

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Hidden Gems: George Harrison’s “Wonderwall Music”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

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On Dec. 26, 1967, the Beatles’ new film Magical Mystery Tour premiered on BBC television; the next day, almost every newspaper in Britain ravaged it. The Biggest Band In The World had its first real taste of critical failure; of course, they were being a bit harsh. The consensus was that the movie was an unfocused, psychedelic mess—which it most certainly was—but that only added to its goofy charm. No matter what the critics thought of the film itself, its music was undeniably great, and the accompanying soundtrack (an EP in U.K., an LP in the U.S.) fared much better. Many thought the Beatles should get out of the movie business and stick to music. George Harrison was already at work, doing both.

Earlier that year, a budding young director named Joe Massot had hoped to talk to Harrison about composing the soundtrack to his debut film, Wonderwall. The plot centered around Oscar Collins, a middle-aged scientist played by Jack MacGowran (who had previously starred with John Lennon in How I Won The War) and his obsession with his young next door neighbor, hippie supermodel Penny Lane, played by future Serge Gainsbourg protégé Jane Birkin. It was a metaphor for a changing Britain: The stuffy, bowler-hatted era was being ushered out, in favor of the new, swinging psychedelic scene, which the Beatles had helped to create.

And like Britain, the Beatles were in a state of change themselves. On Aug. 27, 1967, while in Wales learning about Transcendental Meditation, the band received word that Brian Epstein, their manager and the glue that held them all together, had died of an accidental overdose. In just the year prior, they had: become bigger than Jesus, quit touring, changed the world with Sgt. Pepper, experimented with drugs, got married, had kids, etc. It was their most important period, when they went from pop stars to artists; from children to men. Now, for the first time, they were on their own.

The Beatles used their newfound independence by constantly trying new things, which for them, was simultaneously exciting and nerve-wrecking. So when Massot finally asked Harrison to compose the soundtrack, he was reluctant to accept, as he had never scored a film. But after the director assured Harrison, promising to use whatever music that was submitted, he signed on.

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