Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A Short Guide To 10 AAA Spin-Off Bands (News, Views and Music Issue 162 Top 10)

What do you do when you’ve left a multi-million selling band and yet you still feel the pull of the road and the tours and the playing to audiences night after night? Well, some people take on solo careers and some people leave the business altogether to return later, while others still fall in love with the idea of a ‘band of brothers’ and seek to start all over again. Which is why we’ve come up with this week’s top 10, which seeks to give you a brief career overview of what happened to some of the AAA members after they were famous (or continued to be famous in some cases). Now we use the term ‘spin-off group’ in this feature simply to tell you which band our chosen ten groups came from – in many cases the later banda are better than their parent ‘group’ and indeed in some cases are already covered on this site (CSN could be counted a spin-off from the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies, for instance, while others – like Jack The Lad, a splinter group from Lindisfarne – were strong enough to be covered already elsewhere). For the most part, though, these 10 groups don’t have their ‘own’ place in the list, either because I don’t know their records as well or don’t rate them as highly as their parent bands. Still, that said, all that talent doesn’t disappear and there’s usually at least one gem there in their back catalogue:

CPR (CSN spin-off featuring David Crosby active between 1999 and 2003)

Among several other seminal events in David Crosby’s life in the early 90s (release from prison, birth of a son, liver transplant, work as a surrogate father, his house being demolished in a storm, discovering he owed several million dollars in back taxes) was his meeting up with the song he’d given up for adoption in 1962, shortly before The Byrds broke big. In a story that sounds like a fairytale and definitely proves the ‘nature’ rule over the ‘nurture’ one, son James Raymond grew up to become a sophisticated pianist with the same jazz-rock tendencies as his dad. When the pair finally met in the mid 1990s it made perfect sense for the two musicians to start playing together and – with extra money to earn and CSNY on another extended hiatus – they did just that, adding a ‘P’ from CSN tour guitarist Jeff Pevar. The result was two studio albums and two live albums that are as majestic and beautiful as anything in Crosby’s back catalogue. Folkier and more acoustic (for the most part) than the majority of CSN, their two albums ‘CPR’ and ‘Just Like Gravity’ contain some of Crosby’s most autobiographical and moving moments, along with even weirder time signatures and tweaked guitar tunings than ever before. The biggest revelation of the records, though, was how good a songwriter James Raymond was in his own right, creating several of the trio’s highlights which were each and every bit as good as his dad’s work. Alas lack of interest and a continuing interest in all things CSN meant this band was woefully short lived, although Raymond still tours with CSN and played a key role in the ‘Crosby*Nash’ record of 2004 while Pevar occasionally tours with another AAA band, Jefferson Starship. My reason for not covering the albums is simple – I’m reluctant to cover live LPs because they cover so much old ground (though the ‘Wiltern’ CD, in particular, may well be the best CSN-related CD of the past 20 years) and the albums were only ever made available freely in America. The songs I know have all been gathered from Youtube, Soundcloud and various other ‘less official’ sources so I can’t write a ‘full’ review about either album just yet (I own about 75% of each). It goes without saying, though, that if you love Crosby’s work then both albums are a must and deserve much higher praise than any of Crosby’s other period work (on ‘Oh Yes I can’ ‘1000 Roads’ and the 1990s CSN albums).Career highlight: ‘Time Is The Final Currency’ (CPR), a delicious acoustic discussion of what it means to live, written by Crosby on his death-bed dying from liver failure, where the title line is followed by ‘not money, not power – there will come a time when you will give anything for one more hour’. Raymond’s ‘Eyes Too Blue’ (‘Just Like Gravity’) is another masterpiece.

Crazy Horse (Neil Young’s band featuring Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro active from 1967 to date)

Strangely enough Crazy Horfse started off as an a capella doo wop group ‘Danny and The Memories’ before mutating into a six piece acid garage rock band The Rockets, who released a self-titled rather patchy LP with many painful moments but where guitarist Danny Whitten really shines (the sighing poverty discussion ‘Hole In My Pocket’ is the highlight). We have already covered the Horse’s one crowning moment , their self-titled album ‘Crazy Horse’ from 1971 (see News, Views and Music no 48). Recorded at a time when lead guitarist Danny Whitten was slipping into a heroin-induced decline, it makes for harrowing yet gripping listening, highlighted by the two majestical moments ‘Look At All The Things’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’, two of the best ‘drug denial’ songs ever written. The addition of AAA member Nils Lofgren and Jack Nitzsche temporarily to the ‘core’ trio line up was also a great move, giving Whitten a foil in the former and the band’s raw sound a surface sheen in the latter that they badly miss on later albums. The collapse of Whitten, who never recorded in a studio again after making the album, came as a huge shock to fans who knew Whitten best as the livewire guitarist who was Neil’s foil on several of his career defining moments (‘Cinammon Girl’ ‘Down By The River’ ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’) but whose addiction came on so suddenly and so deep that Neil had to sack the Horse from the ‘After The Goldrush’ album and his 1972 ‘Time Fades Away’ tour. Legend has it that Danny died from a fatal overdose with the money Neil gave him for a plane ticket home. As Neil said afterwards ‘You only get one guy you play with better than anyone else your whole career – for me, that was Danny and I lost him’. Crazy Horse reunited in 1975 for Young’s ‘Zuma’ album after Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina discovered Frank Sampedro, a guitarist with all the fire of Whitten’s performances and continued their own band career whenever they weren’t need by Neil (who ‘borrowed’ the Horse on the ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ ‘Life’ ‘Ragged Glory’ ‘Sleeps With Angels’ and ‘Greendale’ albums to date). Surprisingly the Horse generally drop the noise and rock songs they were best known for in favour of folk-rock, hiring and firing several lead singers along the way who never quite fitted in with the band’s sound. ‘Loose’ (1972) is actually an album too polished and self-indulging for its own good, ‘At Crooked Lake’ has a couple of interesting moments but several really poor ones and even the return to the band sound on ‘Crazy Moon’ and a guest appearance by Neil Young can’t make up for the sheer banality of much of the lyrics. That’s a shame because, in drummer Ralph Molina, the band have a hidden vocal star who deserved to sing much more often. Renewed interest in the Horse’s work meant that Rhino released a 2 CD set comprising the first two albums (originally on Reprise) along with several B-sides and a couple of outtakes, which is probably the best single Horse product you can buy. Career highlight: ‘Look At All The Things’, a happy song about all the wonders of life, sung so sadly and arranged so scarily that it’s obvious the singer isn’t long for this world and is saying goodbye to all the things he’ll miss.

Flying Burrito Brothers (Byrds spin-off featuring Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons and Michael Clarke active between 1969 and 1978)

I must be honest, I’ve never really ‘got’ Gram Parsons’ work. His album with the Byrds ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ is for many fans the band’s crowning achievement, uniting country with rock for the first time, but for me it’s not an album vivid enough to make a good country album and it doesn’t rock enough for, well, rock. Parsons was only ever ‘playing’ at being a Byrd anyway, leaving at the earliest opportunity (a misguided tour of apartheid South Africa, something which never seemed Parsons until the day before he quit), but he did at least stay long enough to ‘win’ longterm Byrds bassist Chris Hillman over with talk of making the first country-rock band The Flying Burrito Brothers. I only own the first album and selections of the rest, but it seems to my ears as if Parsons was ‘playing’ at this too, with poor Hillman doing most of the elbow work while Gram trounced around pretending to be a star (he reportedly spent more time hanging round with the Rolling Stones than with his own band – ‘Wild Horses’ is, effectively, a Parsons/Richards composition despite the credit to Jagger/Richards). That’s a shame because at times the first album (simply called ‘The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ) really shines, usually on the songs where Gram and Chris, two men who couldn’t be more different and from rich and poverty stricken families respectively, swap lyrics and work together. It’s a shame, too, that Parsons stayed such a short time with the band, as his two solo LPs (‘GP’ and ‘Grevious Angel’, although really they’re duet albums with Emmylou Harris an equal star) come the closest of any of his recordings to showing me what his updated take on country was all about – and how good it could have been and the third record might have been every bit as groundbreaking and career-defining as many fans have claimed since. Alas it was not to be and Gram died in the Joshua Tree desert, of still unexplained circumstances that most likely was to do with drugs despite the many conspiracy theories since. Parsons’ stature grew in death, with a film made about his life and more especially death, ‘Grand Theft Parsons’, about the fight between his roadie and his family over where Gram should be buried. Hillman carried on with the Burritos, even bringing in Byrds drummer Michael Clarke into the band for a time, but never gained the same respect and eventually knocked the band on the head to join Stephen Stills’ band Manassas. Never quite living up to their potential, the Burritos were still a forcve to be reckoned with and, given a break and a more stable line-up, could easily have become the Byrds of the 1970s. Career highlight: the opening song of the debut record ‘Christine’s Tune’, where Gram and Chris trade lyrics on a song that combines a country feel with a rock rhythm, miles better than anything on the Byrds’ own ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’.

Godley and Creme (10cc spin-off featuring – surprise surprise – Kevin Godley and Lol Creme actrive between 1976 and 1988)

When 10cc split at their height of their fame in 1976 it was a surprise to many. Some bands fester for years before the big moment comes (Pink Floyd spring to mind), others have one big row that destroys years of work (Lindisfarne are a good example). But with 10cc there was a slight disagreement over the direction of their material – and suddenly the band were in two. We’ve concentrated on the later 10cc albums led by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldmann on this list, mainly because I consider them some of the most unfairly overlooked gems in anyone’s back catalogue (especially the last two, more serious works). But that’s not to say that Godley and Creme were inferior in any way – the best of their work continues the early 10cc theme of giving you something you won’t be expecting and taking dangerous risks with their comedy and their production work. While their first two records as a duo are arguably two of the strangest works on this list (‘Consequences’ being a triple LP about the end of the world, half of it instrumental and a quarter of it featuring actors – the duo’s complaints about the others ‘restraining’ them from finishing it seems in retrospect like a sensible move), their third ‘Freeze Frame’ is a work of genius. More melodic than their other albums, there’s still a whole heap of sonic trickery from the singing toaster who sings ‘I Pity Inanimate Objects’ to the hallucinatory patient of ‘Get Well Soon’ whose only kept alive as long as the batteries in his radio last. A powerful statement about what music can be when it reaches far enough, its sadly followed by a couple more unlistenable horrors and a final triumph in last album ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ an exotic mix of harmonica and soul choir with a whole album’s worth of songs about death and the afterlife, some bouncy singalongs, some troubled philosophising. Godley and Creme are better remembered today for their music videos than their music, which is a shame because the best of their work (some of the hit singles and ‘Freeze Frame’ is as good as anything on the first four 10cc albums). You have to be a pretty committed fan to get through it all though – I still have nightmares about the one time I sat through all three hours of ‘Consequences’! Career highlight: ‘Golden Boy’, a single that should have been one of the best-sellers of the 1980s, being a beautiful song about jealousy with a spectacular melody and a clever quirky video (and I do mean video – the duo sing as a one dimensional hologram while a video plays, alas it loses its effect on DVD!), but instead didn’t even reach the charts.

Heaven 17 (Human League spin-off featuring Martyn Ware and Craig Ian Marsh active 1981 to date)

The ‘serious’ side of the first two Human League albums drifted off to form their own synthesiser based band, leaving Phil Oakey behind to hire two unknown girls from a club to fill their roles. Ware and Marsh added their old friend singer Glenn Gregory, ‘borrowed’ the name of a futuristic pop group mentioned in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and for a time rivalled the Human League as the best known singles act of the 1980s. To date they’ve released eight albums, with an extended hiatus between 1988 and 1996, with ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ seemingly everyone’s favourite Heaven 17 (a concept album about the ‘haves’ on one side and the ‘have nots’ on the other). For me, though, third album ‘How Men Are’ is their most successful record out of the four I own and is the best at working as an overall mood piece throughout – it might not have any songs as good as the others albums but hasn’t a bad track on the whole album. Many fans of the League and the 17 rate the latter higher, despite their slighter lower sales, but for me the League are slightly less mainstream (the ‘Dare’ album aside), with less attempts at glossy productions and common denominator songs as well as being a little more fun to listen to too (well, maybe not ‘Crash’ but most of them!) That said, there are still plenty of interesting moments on Heaven 17’s albums and I look forward to tracking down the four albums I’m still missing... Career highlight: ‘Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry’ (‘The Luxury Gap’), a marvellous jaw-dropping rollercoaster ride of a song that manages to deflate the 80s sense of style and power over love in one fell swoop.

Hot Tuna (Jefferson Airplane spin-off featuring Jorma Kaukanen, Jack Casady, Papa John Kreach and Joey Covington active 1970 to date)

Again I only own five of the – gulp – 18 albums Hot Tuna have released to date so I’m no expert, but there’s already much to love in my collection. Jorma has always been an under-rated guitarist whose moments on the Jefferson Airplane records were always special, so the idea of giving space to their jazzier, bluesier songs seems like a good idea (the early version of Hot Tuna actually served as the Airplane’s opening act on their last few tours). Kaukanen’s songs also get more lyrical and more prog rockfish as the 1970s wear on, as if he’s looking over his shoulder at Jefferson Starship and the two band’s albums are actually quite similar, being rather hit and miss with some great and some ghastly moments on each. However Jorma’s wordplay is often inspired and his guitar playing never less than magnificent, brightening up even the most leaden track.The one thing that bothers me is that bassist Jack Casady, an occasional writer with the Airplane, is all but silent, with even his trademark rumbling bass sounds muted in the mix and the emphasis this puts on Jorma, with no other ‘voices’ for variety, is not necessarily a good thing. Papa John Kreach, a 50-something violinist who often drowned out several good Airplane songs, is also given far too much leeway at times, dominating the band’s sound without adding to the texture. That said, when this band is good it’s very very good indeed and third and fourth albums ‘Burgers’ (1972) and ‘The Phospherescent Rat’ (1974) are especially good. Hot Tuna originally called it a day in 1976, after seven albums, but have reunited several times since and have included various other Jefferson family members in their line up over the years, including Pete Sears, Paul Kantner, their original drummer Joey Covington and Airplane lead singer Marty Balin’s son Joey. Career highlight: ‘Watch The North Wind Rise’ (Hoppkorv), a delightful pop-folk-rock song that’s everything this slightly off beat band were all about, a strong hook matched with wordy philosophical lyrics about needing to move on and knowing when a chapter in life is ending.

Humble Pie (Small Faces spin-off featuring Steve Marriott active 1969 to 1980)

There are two ways of looking at Humble Pie. The first is how incredible it is that Steve Marriott should front not one but two well received best selling bands and how many years he managed to write killer pop songs. The other is to go ‘he ended the Small faces for this?!’ In the studio Humble Pie show up their weaknesses (lack of subtlety, repetition, a slightly stodgy rhythm section) as often as their strengths (power, charisma, Steve Marriott’s voice) and far from being the greatest and heaviest rock and roll band (as Marriott and a then unknown Peter Frampton dreamed of, even to the extent of walking out on the Faces) Humble Pie too often substitute being the loudest rock band for being the best. Live the band are a different matter, with all that uncertainty and similarities turned into a magical powerhouse of a band with Steve Marriott at least a nomination for best charisma ever (the Pie’s 10 minute magnum opus take of ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ from ‘Live at the Filmore’ rates alongside The Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’ and Neil Young’s ‘Weld’ for best live track ever in my opinion). Most surprising of all, Marriott dropped his heavy rock star front at least once an album for surprisingly gentle and melodic ballads which stand alongside the best of anything Marriott ever wrote for the Small Faces. Third album ‘Humble Pie’ is probably the best of the studio albums (with two classics the heartfelt yet hilarious ‘Theme From Skint’ – the subtitle ‘See You Later Liquidator’ will give you everything you need to know - and a sterling elongated cover of ‘Live With Me’ that will give you goosepimples) Alas the band was ill-fated almost from the beginning, losing Frampton as Marriott’s one great foil before a series of increasingly desperate reunion albums as Marriott falls further and further into debt (by the late 70s he’s reduced to poaching food to feed his family – several of the Pie’s best songs are about poverty and money). The story comes to a particularly sorry end when Marriott dies in a house fire in 1991 (disorientated, he appears to have become trapped in his airing cupboard and died from smoke annihilation). However that end shouldn’t take away from the energy and excitement of the Pie at their peak, a band that in concert had the energy of The Who and the excitement of the Stones together with a special magic that was all their own. Career highlight: ‘Song For Jenny’ (‘Rock On’), a love song as romantic and poignant as any Small Faces track, with ’30 Days In The Hole’ (‘Smokin’) close behind.

Looper (Belle and Sebastian spin-off featuring Stuart David active 2001-2003)

Not the album I was expecting when I purchased it, this collection of spoken word loops and sound effects is as hypnotic and lyrical as all the Belle and Sebastian albums certainly, but for entirely different reasons. Stuart David, bassist for B+S, ‘is’ Looper, who released three albums between 1999 and 2002 (alas I only own the first) and its similar to the occasional spoken word moments on B+S records. The story goes that Stuart met his future wife Karn after she ‘borrowed’ a university flatmate’s address book and randomly wrote Stuart a long and a rambling letter. Intrigued he asked for another and the pair soon struck up a friendship – a fact that’s referred to a lot in Looper’s sweet but rambling spoken word parts. It’s hard to describe why first album ‘Up A Tree’ works, or indeed whether it works at all, but so sweet is the content and so personal and poignant is the album at times that it’s hard not to feel moved, even if the ‘music’ is in a completely different form to anything else I’d normally listen to. Their new music is available for free from their website ‘Looperama’ at the time of writing. Career highlight: ‘Dave The Moon man’ is a fascinating basic keyboard riff elevated to trance masterpiece thanks to a great riff and comes complete with the chorus ‘You’re all a bunch of loopers!’, which is either a big insult or a comment on the audience ‘becoming’ the band in the same way John Lennon designed the Plastic Ono Band.

Poco (Buffalo Springfield spin-off featuring Richie Furay and Jim Messina active 1969 to date)

For a time Poco were close to the superstardom of Richie’s Buffalo Springfield colleagues Stephen Stills and Neil Young, thanks to a string of hits and a series of albums tghat captured the later 60s country-rock vibe far more successfully than the Eagles’ later take on the same niche market. If you know the last song on the last Springfield album ‘Kind Woman’ then you’ll know what to expect from Poco, lovely mellow folk-rock with an emphasis (in the early days at least) on Richie’s warm vibrato vocals and love songs. Legend has it the band tried to sign to the Beatles’ label Apple under the name ‘Pogo’ until John Lennon suggested the name change (‘poco’ means ‘a little’ in Italian musical terms and is a suitable choice for a band who, like the Small Faces, were of less than average height). Instead the band signed to Epic in a straight swap with Graham Nash (who left The Hollies on Epic in the States to join Crosby and Stills at Atlantic). On the face of it its a fair swap: Poco’s first album ‘Pickin’ Up The Pieces’ comes complete with several excellent Springfield outtakes and a couple of re-recordings and is still the best of the – gulp – seven Poco albums I’ve bought to date. However be warned – while the band started off very much as a vehicle for Furay he gradually gets less and less to dfo as the band become more democratic and for my ears at least later members like Timothy Scmidt (later to join The Eagles) and Rusty Young, while talented, don’t have the range or scope of Furay’s material. Richie left the band after ‘Crazy Eyes’ in 1973 (probably their second best LP) to join the even shorter lived ‘Souther-Hillman-Furay Band’ with the Byrds/Manassas Chris Hillman whose cropping up on this list yet again! The one album I own without Furay in the band – ‘Rose Of Cimarron’ - is awful, apart from the title track which is one of the band’s greatest recordings and deserved to do better. In total Poco changed line-ups so many times that there are a ridiculous 23 versions of the band between their formation in 1969 and now, some with old membersw returning, some with new members joining for a single album. Career highlight: I don’t normally plump for a band’s biggest successes but there’s no getting past hit single ‘A Good Feelin’ To Know’, which mixes the pop and poise of the Springfield at it’s best.

The Travelling Wilburys (Beatles spin-off featuring George Harrison active 1988 to 1991)

Some bands are started for power, some for money, some for music. This one was started for fun. The Travelling Wilburys, if you read the back cover of the LPs, are descendents of Charles Truscott Wilbury Senior and are a species that evolved from the ‘perambulating Wilburys’. The truth is actually that George Harrison wanted to record a B-side with eff Lynne, invited Roy Orbison to sing on it and borrowed a guitar from Tom Petty, who happened to have a house guest that day named Bob Dylan. The five friends, tired of living up to their multi-millionaire images on their solo careers, wanted to record music for fun for a change and so recorded two albums of largely retro 1950s doo sop songs. The five collaborated on all songs so fans have spent years trying to pick out who did what, although the curious thing about the two Wilbury records is how similar the five men (who all sing at different times) sound to each other (Dylan even sounds like Roy Orbiosn in places!) The first record is funner and freer than the second, recorded after Roy Orbison died of a heart attack (rumours that Nils Lofgren was about to become a ‘fifth wilbury’ sadly never happened) and without his vocals and a surprising lack of Harrison songs/vocals on the second album (named ‘Volume 3’ after a bootleg of the first album outtakes came out titled ‘Volume 2’) it sounds in places like just another bad Dylan solo LP. At times, though, the band really shine, especially on the funner, lighter moments of the two records. Alas the loss of George means we probably will never get to hear a volume four – and in fact ‘Volume 3’ became the last full record of George’s released in his lifetime (in 1991 – his next record wouldn’t be till ‘Brianwashed’ in 2002). Career highlight: ‘End Of The Line’ is prime Wilburys, a Harrison song the others all jumped on and tweaked, with a rousing chorus about ‘living the life you please’ but acknowledging the harsher side of life in the verses.

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