Power Pop PPPPPPPerfection: The Scruffs (1977)

The Scruffs live in 1978

The Scruffs live in 1978

Power Pop is easily my favourite r’n’r sub-genre. Chiming guitars, killer vocal harmonies, the hard punch of the rythm section aiming at fast-and-forward 3-minutes-3 tunes with great hooks. The late great Greg Shaw thought the foundations of power pop rested in that majestic batch of singles The Beatles, The Who, The Creation delivered in 1965-66, just before they turned “psichedelic”. Power pop is the anti-americana: neat, anglo-centric melodic pop songs vs. elongated jams (kick’em out…) inspired by country and/or blues roots.

The first wave of Power Pop band was made by r’n’r giants as The Badfinger, Big Star, The Raspberries, the second incarnation of The Flamin’ Groovies during the 1971-1975. The second wave appeared in 1978, just after the punk rock explosion and was mainly an all-american affair: sharp, catchy tunes played hard’n’fast by bands as The Shoes, The Knack, The RuBinoos, Dwight Twilley Band, The Nerves… (You can find a well-done compendium here).

… And The Scruffs, fiercely devoted to The Beatles and The Kinks in the bluesest and soulest town in the Usa (Memphis), they really didn’t come out of the blue. Friends and cognoscenti of Power Pop luminaries as Alex Chilton and Tommy Hoehn, they recorded their pristine, fabulous debut album at the Ardent Studios under the supervision of John Fry: the same location and team that helped forge the Big Star masterpiece no. 1 record.

Wanna meet the Scruffs? it’s a great, great hilarious record, a r’n’r precious artifact of Power Pop PPPPPerfection…

 

Here are the liner notes of the japanese edition of Wanna Met the Scruffs?:”The debut album of the Memphis’ legendary, The Scruffs “Wanna’ Meet The Scruffs?” will, at long last, be released here in Japan. Most of you may rank Big Star on the top of the Memphis power pop list. Big Star had seemingly amassed a cult following nowadays, being the favorite of numerous contemporary bands, and enjoying wide popularity as diverse as old rock fans and indie kids. But hold on, they were not the only ones. At the time, Memphis had a music scene where Big Star would hang out with brilliant talents such as Tommy Hoehn, Van Duren, and also The Scruffs. Sadly enough, those fellow musicians have yet to receive the public attention they deserve.

1977 is best reminded as the year punk rock revolution exploded out in UK. The very same year, The Scruffs released their debut. However, ill-timed or what, they failed to make any splash and hurtled into oblivion, while the likes of Alex Chilton and Flamin’ Groovies gained props from the punk generation as well. When Rhino released “Come Out And Play” compilation which got the cream of American power pop, small numbers spotted The Scruffs and started digging their record, but the band still remained underground. It’s indeed a tragedy taking the title from their classic track, a great pity not only for The Scruffs but also for rock music.

A few years ago, I discovered The Scruffs among those used LPs, and the very first time I heard them, I was mighty shocked, struck, and moved, from the bottom of my heart. Then I wondered why such a great band has been passed unmarked. What are those so-called music critics and writers doing? Open your eyes wide and doubt everything you swallow, otherwise you would miss the top ranks. Especially in Japan, The Scruffs has been totally ignored. Some people might say, ‘Who cares about power pop?’, but it mattered great with my friends and I. The Scruffs became a sought-after among us power pop fans, striking out huge on their own. We kept on talking about them all the time, fancying the men and their music. This album was amazing, breathtaking, and soul-stirring to such an extent, and the first impression has never to fade.

It seems obvious that The Scruffs were influenced by their predecessors and like-minded neighbors, such as Raspberries and BigStar. Maybe one of the reason is because this album was recorded at Ardent, the same studio where Big Star recorded their ‘#1 Record’, ‘Radio City’. Though it was self-produced, we can smell the Big Star flavor and the scent of their Memphis. However, I must tell you that this classic holds distinctive originality with all. Stephen’s somewhat twangy voice is full of emotion, sometimes showing anger, and sometimes burst with heartrending sorrow. And the band, they know how to play. They adopt their style to varying rhythms from slow to the hard, with great arrangements and playability. Their sound contains the angst and pain of disillusion, and yet they’ve got the guts to fight against it. Yes, power pop do need the guts. Ecce Dwight Twilley, Ecce Eric Carmen. Even those like The Rubinoos and Gary Valentine are not as weak as they look. Behind the pop feel, their music has the ring of a tender-hearted man living the tough realities of life.

A brief listen to the opener ‘Break The Ice’ proves it. You cannot find such a rock’n’roll song so often, simple, gutsy, and quite original. Every time you play ‘My Mind’, the impression of the sound and lyrics deepens. ‘This Thursday’ has the punk rock disorder, and we can feel the overflowing passion from the sensitively restrained ‘She Say Yea’, ‘Bedtime Stories’ ―An album so rich incontent, the essence of the pre-punk era power pop crystallized within. Listening to those musical gems over and over again, it almost gushes tears from my eyes. I just can’t understand why this masterpiece has been remained unknown. Moreover, take a look at the sleeve. Don’t you think they’re cool? Just imagine this foursome playing their hot stuff―it really thrills me up. Stephen Burns (vo) wearing sunglasses and a smart jacket, the guitarist Dave Branyan dressed in uniform, handsome young Rick Branyan on bass wearing a leather jacket and a scarf, and the loose appearance of Zeph Paulson (dr) in a rock ‘n’ roll manner reminding us those 70’s rocksters such as the Rolling Stones. It flashes to my mind that perhaps Stephen Burns is hiding his tears behind the shades. Well, maybe I’m being a little too romantic. I wish I could see any video materials featuring these guys play live. I bet they are cool.

Nowadays power pop has made its way through revaluation and reissue led by those small record labels in US, and the day finally came as well for The Scruffs to see the light. The LP was originally released from the Memphis record label Power Play, but it is Stephen ‘The Main Scruff’ Burns himself who led the van for this reissue. The disk from his own label Northern Heights features the single versions of ‘Break The Ice’, ‘She Say Yea’. Especially ‘Break The Ice’ sounds so wild, performed and recorded in a rather rough manner than the album version.

Now I would like to make note of this Japanese version. On one occasion, Alex Chilton sent a tape copy of The Scruffs songs to Shoeshine, the Glasgow record label which had released his own single. Upon hearing their stuff for the first time, the Shoeshine proprietor Francis Macdonald(also known playing with the Pastels, BMX Bandits, Radio Sweethearts) got all taken up with The Scruffs. The Japan release happened thanks to the coordination of Shoeshine(Shoeshine will not release The Scruffs so far). 4 out of 5 disks will be released under the name of The Scruffs including this one, and another is the album of Stephen Burns’ latest project Messenger 45. Besides, Stephen Burns visited Glasgow to record his own album with the likes of Francis, Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian, V-Twin members. Frankly speaking, this line-up seems far from my expectation. However, it will be sure to attract public attention and turn the eyes on Stephen, hopefully leading him to success. One thing is that I am totally against of kicking him up on a wobbly cult hero pedestal. Looking forward to hear a piece with plenty of guts.”

Annunci

Lesa Aldridge (Why not?)

Lesa and Alex. Judging from their punkish haircut it could be datet in !077-78.

Lesa and Alex. Judging from their punkish haircuts it could be dated in 1977-78.

may be just a footnote in the big star myth, famously namechecked (and begged for…) in the hit-that-never-be “Kizza Me” (“Kizza Me/ Lesa, Why Not?), Lesa Aldridge (or Lisa Aldredge as she’s often spelled) was the main inspiration behind Third.

The nephew of one of the greatest american lensman, William Eggleston, who portraied the sheer, breathtaking beauty of her youth in a famous shot titled “They needed to Talk” and published in a previous post (you can read its complete story here). Lesa (Elizabeth) Aldridge was a senior in high school when she began to date Alex Chilton. That stormy, often violent relationship provided the main body of the songs that made Third one of the best record ever. 

Their first encounter is mYthologized in “Kanga Roo”, their erratic nightlife in memphis is narrated in “Nightime”, the purity and uniqueness of their romance is sung in “Dream Lover”. But Lesa wasn’t only an unlikely teenage muse, she collaborated in many ways during the recordings. As Rob Jovanovic wrote in his Big Star: The Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band: “Lesa Aldridge added the High- School-French backing vocals which Dickinson was adamant should stay on the album. ‘Lesa was a big, big part of the record,’ he said. ‘Alex reached a point in his creative process where he started to go back and erase her -there was a lot more of Lesa on the album than there is now but I stopped him. I said you can erase this, you can erase that, but this stuff is staying’. (…)”. She co-wrote “Downs” and Sung main vocals in the Kinks cover “‘Till The End of the Day”. Her vocal take was eventually erased and replaced with Alex’s.

Lesa with an unidentified girlfriend.

Lesa with an unidentified girlfriend.

But Lesa’s version ended up in a rare EP titled Barbarian Women in Rock published around 1980, along with an other Velvet Underground cover, “That’s The Story of My Life” (Lesa was credited to have introduced Alex to the VU, transforming him in a Memphis Lou Reed) and a Beatles one, a rough, ramshackle “Twist & Shout”.

The Ep cover plus insert.

The Ep cover plus insert.

After she split with Alex she played (and still does…) in the Klitz, an all female punk rock band from Memphis (check here and here), married another musician from memphis, the late Tommy Hoehn and she teaches English in a college.

The transiction from the lush, dissonant but melodic, almost avant-guarde sound of third to the low-fi, almost whimsical punkabilly of Like flies on Sherbert perhaps can be explained with the absence of Lesa. one of the most moving part of the big star documentary Nothing can Hurt me is when photographer stephanie chernikowski talks about meeting Alex in the late-’70s and asking him why he didn’t write songs like Big Star anymore, and how Alex just said “I can’t,” and then Chris Stamey says how that was because of losing Lesa. That’s how much important Lesa was. Not just a footnote…

Alex Chilton goes solo

A rare outtake of "Bangkok" single cover shot

A rare outtake of “Bangkok” single cover shot. Alex in NYC in 1977.

Four years are already passed since the untimely death of the great alex chilton (1950-2010). teenage idol with the box tops, power popper turned freaked songwriter with big star. by 1975 the latter band split for good, a disenchanted alex tried various daily jobs (dishwater in a restaurant, cab driver)

until he left memphis for new york city in early 1977. in the last days of big star he bonded with cris stamey and peter holsapple (later founders of dB’s) who travelled to memphis to meet their heroes alex chilton and chris bell just to find that big star was ready to implode. He teamed up with stamey and with richard Lloyd (television) as part-time guitarist and under the name Alex Chilton and the cossacks played several times at CBGB’s. Ork records (the same label who has issued “little Johnny Jewel”, the first Television single) released a great Ep: The Singer not the song, containing the Jagger-Richards penned title-track, “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran and three great, rocking originals.

After seeing the Cramps at the forementioned venue, he cut a inspirational, almost perfect single “Bangkok”, backed by a cover of the Seeds classic “I can’T seem to make you mine”, as narrated to the late epic soundtracks in this wonderful interview.

In late 1977 with Jim Dickinson at the controls cut the ragged, lo-fi classic Like Flies on Sherbert, an exercise in fucked-up tempos, microphone pops, out of tune guitars, frenzied vocals and… beautiful tunes, as someone stated, the stubborn deconstruction of the big star myth. It was released by the tiny Peabody records in 1979 and then by aura records in 1980 with a little different tracklist.

But just before entering the phillips and ardent studio to record Like Flies on Sherbert, alex recorded a bunch of demos for elektra. They are most sedated, polished versions of several songs that would appear on the Flies on Sherbert lp, the missing links between big star and following patchy chilton’s solo career. you can find it here.

Big Star heyday

Big Star Third Master Box. On the spine is just labeled "Alex and Jody"

Big Star Third Master Box. On the spine is just labeled “Alex and Jody”

Big star’s third is a ragged, deranged masterpiece that everyone of you should love and know note for note. it’s still debatable whether it is the last big star output or the first alex chilton lp. Even its exact title is uncertain: beale st? third? sister lovers? the fact is that the sessions were erratic at their best and jody stephen’s effort in the recordings is minimal at last. producer jim dickinson (rolling stones, bob Dylan, Flamin’ groovies, mudhoney, ry cooder among others) was a master in creating a chaotic but creative atmosphere even when working on a layered, multitracked song. alex chilton, disenchanted for the commercial flop of both Number 1 Record and Radio City, stressed by the implosion of stax recors (distributor for ardent records, the label that signed big star back in 1971), fueled by alcohol and drugs, entangled in a stormy relationship with the enigmatic, very young memphis scenester lesa aldredge, delivered a bunch of masterful songs of love and despair, laced in feedback noise as well as in lush orchestrations. The sessions burdened by chilton’s temperemental ups and downs were stopped by ardent mogul john fry. a tentative master version was mixed by larry nix on 13th february 1974.

Rare promo sheet of Third. The setlis is still to be finalized

Rare promo sheet of Third. The setlis is still to be finalized

All the efforts to market it failed: mayors execs literally refused to touch it, until pvc in 1978 and then aura records acquired the tapes. too late to save the big star as a band… during the 80’s indie darlings supergroup This mortal coil covered “holocaust” and “Kang roo”, the latter covered in the 90’s by the late jeff buckley. Since then Third has exited the cult status and has reached that of undebatable masterpiece it deserves. it has been reprinted several times, the ryko disc cd encompasses almost all the songs recorded in 1974. A couple of years ago, omnivore records released for the record store day a test pressing edition on transparent vinyl in a lavish box with a precisely annotated booklet (don’t try: it’s sold out…).

A rare photo by Bill Eggleton of Chilton's muse Lesa Aldredge. The other girl should have been Holliday Aldredge, Lesa's sister who dated the Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, hence the working title "Sister Lovers" for the record.

A rare photo by Bill Eggleton of Chilton’s muse Lesa Aldredge. The other girl should have been Holliday Aldredge, Lesa’s sister who dated the Big Star drummer Jody Stephens at the time, hence the working title “Sister Lovers” for the record.

Another rare shot of Lesa, taken at Friday's, the bar where the pics for the cover of Radio City were taken.

Another rare shot of Lesa, taken at Friday’s, the bar where the pics for the cover of Radio City were taken.

Alex Chilton, Steve Cropper (who played guitar on the cover of Velvet’s “Femme Fatale” on the record), Jim dickinson, chris bell, andy hummel are all long gone. But the fragile, aching beauty of third is still intact. And the world still need it.

So a vast and ever changing group of musician decided to tour the big star masterpiece around the world. It has included among them: michael stipe and mike mills (r.e.m.), jeff tweedy (wilco), chris stamey and peter holsapple (db’s), ken stringfellow (posies, r.e.m. and big star touring bands), mitch easter (let’s active), robyn hitchcock, sharon van etten and the great jody stephens himself. Here some highlights.