Hello, My Name Is: Justin F. Farrar
A quick scan of my 10 picks reveals that, yes, I did indeed apply affirmative action when determining my all-time fave Frisco jammers. I got the punks, the hippies, the blacks, the gays, the Mexicans, the indie rockers, and so on. Sure, that's liberal cornball behavior. However, if I ever had to call a desert island home, which maybe I will considering how we're flushing our environment down the toilet, then all that diversity will surely come in handy.
The Beau Brummels
Nobody in San Fran knows just how good the Brummels really were, and that's a total pisser, because this “new wave of psychedelic Tin Pan Alley” song cycle about one man's journey through a “magic forest” has aged far more gracefully than that almighty concept record from '67, Sgt. Pepper's … . In fact, Triangle is the only pop album from a Bay Area outfit that can be uttered in the same breath as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Love's Forever Changes.
From '89 to '90, the Trux called our little urban vortex home. While here, this former boogie-noise duo constructed Twin Infinitives, a sprawling psychedelic mind-fuck possessing more free-form psychosis than the Dead's Anthem of the Sun, more junked-out street desolation than Flipper's Gone Fishin', and more stoned Beat spirituality than Alan Watts' This Is It.
The Dead and the Airplane defined Frisco psychedelia as wandering, acid-induced improvised jamming, while the Grape, with its triple-axe attack, searing rhythm section, and three soulful lead vocalists, crafted concise, tense, and fast pop tunes fusing country, rhythm and blues, folk, and hard rock. This debut might be a Summer of Love artifact, but the nervy desperation of punk lurks just beneath the surface.
Half Machine Lip Moves
Straight-up punk rock is dullsville (no Avengers on my list). However, raw punk energy processed through druggy, sci-fi production wizardry, proto-techno dance grooves, sample-heavy alien soundscapes, and shattered rock structures make this skull-fuckery one of the most surreal releases of the early-'80s new wave.
Sir Douglas Quintet
Circa '69, SDQ, a bluesy, country-rocking Tex-Mex outfit from San Antonio, relocates to San Fran, immerses itself in psychedelia, and records Mendocino — a song cycle revolving around a Texan who falls deeply in love with our city's colorful street life as well as the mystical countryside. But then that Lone Star fella realizes something: San Francisco will never be where his heart is, and eventually, when the party's over, he'll return to that “local bar in my hometown.”
Sly & the Family Stone
There's a Riot Going On
Alexander “Skip” Spence recorded Oar in Nashville, and Sly recorded Riot in Los Angeles. Regardless, both musicians are genuine Bay Area characters, and each one released a record that was a brief glimpse into a fragile and often tormented mind. So I'm listing both discs but only mentioning Sly's in the header.
I'm Not Fascinating
The Ickies turned themselves inside out, exposing their raw, throbbing nerves, pounding hearts, and frantically buzzing brains as they pounded lo-fi punk-noise into hideously twisted sculptures ultimately resembling the utter train wrecks each of their lives had become. I'm Not Fascinating is far from pretty, but it's honest, almost beautifully so. (Shout-outs to Monoshock and Liquorball.)
The sinewy, 6-foot-plus Sylvester was an absolutely innovative artist and skilled, gender-bending chanteuse and/or crooner who in the early '70s joined the Cockettes, a hippie-fried, cross-dressing song and dance revue, and then, by the end of the decade, had teamed up with this remix whiz kid by the name of Patrick Cowley. Together they crafted mechanically pulsating disco jams featuring Sylvester's impassioned, operatic gospel love howl.
After Bathing at Baxter's
Any Frisco Top 10 should include one record from either the Airplane or the Dead. The Dead's new Fillmore West 1969 is an instant classic, but it's the Airplane's most “out there” freakout from '67, After Bathing at Baxter's, that truly lives up to the mind-altering promises of psychedelic acid rock. This is one of the great marriages of free jazz-inspired improv and the electrified aggression of hard rock.
The German Shepherds
Music for Sick Queers
Between the years 1975 and 1985, San Francisco was the stomping ground for numerous electronic freaks and industrial artists, including the Residents, Tuxedo Moon, Minimal Man, Bay of Pigs, and Factrix. But the strangest of them all had to be the German Shepherds, because their percolating buzz, snap, and howl don't feel like a well-executed, postmodern art project but a very intuitive, unrefined externalization of three rather perverse minds.
Hello, My Name Is: Mark Keresman
If “San Francisco Bay Area music scene” were an image in a Rorschach test, it could represent many things: psychedelic flagship, vital hip hop testing ground, home to the most caustic (and funny) punk bands, a woefully underappreciated jazz community, etc. But whichever you identify with the most, be aware that there are kids across town with a whole different set of vital documents. Here are mine:
Fifty Foot Hose
(Ace/Big Beat import)
New York had the Velvet Underground, we had Fifty Foot Hose. From 1967 to 1970, FFH made jams that anticipated the sonic experimentalism of Einstürzende Neubauten and Pere Ubu, combining musique concrète and noise with Jefferson Airplane-like psychedelia.
New E-Z Devils
Digging for Bones
This '90s East Bay foursome presented kitsch- and paisley-free, white-hot psychedelic pop/rock, recalling mid-'60s Who and Yardbirds over, under, sideways, down. Unlike most neopsych pretenders, the Devils had chops to spare, disallowed noodle-y soloing, and always remembered to rock. [page]
In 1973, veteran jazz trombonist Priester picked up where former employer Herbie Hancock left off with his albums Mwandishi and Sextant, melding aspects of the avant-garde and groove schools with Pink Floyd's interstellar overdrive for a batch of electric jazz with a most human cry. (ECM reissued Love last year.)
Imagine a cross between an Eastern European women's choir, early-'70s Jethro Tull, and a supercaffeinated King Crimson, singing lyrics writ by a teenage, glue-sniffing Camille Paglia — listen, then imagine no more. Invigorating, brilliant, and fun!
Even some Deadheads aren't aware of this disc, which contained no name on the cover and subsequently dove into bargain bins shortly after its 1972 release. Reissued last year, it contains some of Garcia's best songs (“Bird Song,” “Loser”) and some atypical instrumentals that presage the surreal Americana of Pelt, Calexico, and Jim O'Rourke.
In business since 1990, the unaffectedly roots-y Naked Barbies feature one of the most distinctive female voices around, Patty Spiglanin, whose wise, whiskey-tart tones make the yearning “Marry Me” sound like a veiled threat, then epitomize elation on “Roy Orbison” and late-night desolation with “Junkie.”
The Beau Brummels
Formed in 1964, this S.F. group predated even the Byrds with its mixture of folky melancholia, jangling guitars, terse, snappy songcraft, and distinctive vocal harmonies, with the compellingly plaintive vocals of Sal Valentino front and center. Try to get “I Want You” out of your head after but one listen.
Meet Red Meat
Red Meat is not a band of rockers who “went country,” but rather a hard-core honky-tonk country act that sounds like the wise-ass bastard child of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, with a slightly satirical bent and proclivities for Bacharach pop and Stanley Brothers-style bluegrass. If ever you see these guys, be sure to thank them for being Americans.
Third Reich 'n' Roll
These are some of the weirdest, most artfully warped parodies of pre-1970 AM-radio rock 'n' pop songs since the earliest Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention albums.
The Bay Area's finest (only?) saxophone quartet joins with eclectic, improvisation-savvy homies (Chris Brown, Carla Kihlstedt) and compatible out-of-towner pals (Fred Frith, Otomo Yoshihide, Wilco's Nels Cline) for a dazzling, unpredictable, cathartic reimagining of John Coltrane's seminal Ascension.
Hello, My Name Is: Dan Strachota
There's not a single record made before 1972 on my list. Shocking, I think, especially considering how much I love '60s music (or how nearly all the acts included were influenced by those artists). Maybe it's generational: All of these discs feel more like the bay to me than Surrealistic Pillow ever will.
The Aislers Set
Terrible Things Happen
Amy Linton set the indie-pop world on its ear with her first (mostly) solo disc (the full band played on only four songs). A return to garage rock (literally and figuratively), the 1998 LP channeled everything from Stooges strut to Shop Assistants punky pop to girl group harmony, all with offhanded charm.
Camper Van Beethoven
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
The band's fourth LP and major-label debut continued to show that world music could be punk instead of hippie dippy. Only here, David Lowery proved himself a smartass with something to say (hello Grace Slick's jumpsuit), and the group's Led Zep fixation comes to fruition.
The 1990 debut full-length that made Oakland famous for the P-Funk sound is one of the few records to be funny, funky, and sexy all at the same time. More than just the LP that unleashed “The Humpty Dance” on many a frat party, the disc made big noses and funk riffs popular all over again.
Before he made the misanthrope fashionable in Quasi, Sam Coomes led this post-punk trio (with Melanie Clarin and Reinhold Johnson), fashioning downbeat lyrics about death and getting lost in Hoboken over hellbent guitars that buzzed out equal parts Replacements and R.E.M. Misery never sounded as good as on this eponymous LP from 1988.
Ed's Redeeming Qualities
More Bad Times
This local trio's 1990 debut is full of off-key singing, rinky-dink ukulele/bongo/violin playing, and songs about distributor caps — and yet it's still brilliant! Mainly because the record features some of the best storytelling ever, with shaggy characters who never quite seem to get what they want. Anything this simultaneously mournful and gut-busting is genius.
Originally released on 7-inches and compilations, these tunes — recorded by Rose Melberg after fronting Tiger Trap and before starting the Softies — were collected on CD in 1996. The sound's somewhere between Melberg's two bands, featuring the speed-jangly hooks of the former and the superduper sweet singing (and lovelorn lyrics) of the latter. Adorable and catchy as hell.
This folkie doesn't do anything fancy — no giant harp, no weird animal imagery, no out-there playing — which is probably what makes his songs so good in the long run. His third album, from 2003, is full of heartbreak sung (and played) the way it should be: miserable and confused and a little bit beautiful.
Holland's first studio album (from 2004) perfectly captures what makes the Texas native such a unique performer: haunting playing, otherworldly songwriting, and a voice that shivers and purrs. Few people can do bucolic folk, boozy blues, spooky country, or Irish jigs as well; even fewer can do all of the above. [page]
Saint Dominic's Preview
Van the Man's fifth LP (from 1972) found him splitting time between euphoric R&B and, um, mystical shit. Some of it sounds as '70s Mill Valley as Morrison's bell-bottom trousers, but it's worth it for the 10-plus minutes of transcendental Irish-ish folk of “Independence Day.” If this disc doesn't make you a believer, there is no God. Even if there really isn't.
Slanted and Enchanted
Sure, Stockton is stretching the bay a bit, but Pavement always seemed very much of the area. Besides, this 1992 debut LP is so good it's impossible not to have on here. Like Lou Reed making Sonic Youth play British post-punk: oddball refrains, gnarly riffs, recorder grime, fantastically enthusiastic suburban angst.
Hello, My Name Is: Mike Rowell
After plowing through my music collection and trashing my apartment in the process, I've settled on these Bay Area classics. While there are scads of artists, from Blue Cheer to Six Organs of Admittance, that are list-worthy, these best represent San Francisco for me; this is the kind of stuff that compelled me to move here in the first place.
Fifty Foot Hose
Back in the heady hippie days, Cork Marcheschi and crew included homemade instruments and electronics on this amazing amalgam of sci-fi sound-effects experimentalism and flower-power psychedelia. It took decades for the world to catch up with Fifty Foot Hose, and the CD reissue of Cauldron is well worth seeking out.
Pre-eminent guitar squall. People used to argue passionately over this record's validity. Was it genius or trash? Both actually, which makes it so essential. “Sex Bomb” is a big punk mile-marker, but existential anthems like “Life Is Cheap” and “Way of the World” still provide an apropos soundtrack to the urban experience.
Duck Stab/Buster and Glen
While an argument could be made for, say, the warped pop deconstructivism of Third Reich 'n' Roll [Editor's note: Which it is above, incidentally], this expansion of an earlier EP is a Residents benchmark, featuring a cornucopia of classics like “Constantinople,” “Blue Rosebuds,” “Bach Is Dead,” and every other track on the album. A fortuitous masterpiece.
Escape From Noise
These culture jammers have put out a lot of smart, important recordings over the years, but Escape From Noise is their archetypal album. From clever collage and silly snippets to such classic tracks as “Christianity Is Stupid” and “Time Zones,” this is the linchpin from which all later Negativland springs forth.
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
Despite the tinny production, this snide, surf-tinged masterwork galvanized an entire generation of West Coast punks. Songs like “Kill the Poor,” “Let's Lynch the Landlord,” “California Über Alles,” and “Holiday in Cambodia” are crucial punk classics, but let's not forget that the whole thing makes for a fun listen. Still.
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282
Strangers From the Universe
There are no real dogs in the discography of this innovative quintet, but this release on Matador is oft acknowledged as the high point. Ingeniously compelling, from “My Pal the Tortoise” to “Noble Experiment,” Strangers is TFUL282's most satisfying start-to-finish listen. While it's sadly out of print, used copies aren't too hard to find locally.
Caroliner Rainbow Hernia Milk Queen
Rear End Hernia Puppet Show
Choosing the best of the many Caroliner offerings is a challenge, but this first album set the standard and still sounds dementedly great. It came in a box of weird detritus, and laid down an influential template of DIY hallucinatory freakiness that would inspire many a noise band in subsequent years.
Rarely has an album title been so on-target; this effects-slathered oddity sure didn't sound like it came from this planet. The bizarre, random atmospherics of Soundtracks trump later, more rocking Chrome albums, plus the disc was originally conceived as mood music for the newly established Ultra Room at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre. Weirdest sex music ever.
A haunting, beautifully brooding album similar to early Cabaret Voltaire, full of scrabbling guitar, distorto-bass, metronomic drum machine, and half-spoken vocals, all drenched in reverb. Hell, the term “industrial music” was coined by sometime Factrix collaborator Monte Cazazza. Scheintot was included on the recent German double-CD anthology Artifact, but now that's out of print.
Camper Van Beethoven was vital, but someone needs to throw a bone to this truly fun and criminally underrated band. While musically solid, what made Spot run was the hilarious free verse of charismatic vocalist Joe Sloan, singing about things like space-traveling cats, gnarly little surf machines, and “Dinky Dog the Demon Master.”
Hello, My Name Is: Tamara Palmer
Here are some of my top souvenirs from a life spent marinating in the Yay Area's funky music stew. While I wouldn't suggest that these are everyone's meat and potatoes, they still stick to my ribs just fine. And this isn't a highfalutin music-critic chart — as OutKast's Andre 3000 says, I'm just being honest.
More than a decade and a half after Sex Packets' release, its freaky humor still pokes out like nipples through a wet T-shirt. DU opened for Public Enemy at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in 1990, and seeing who I'd later learn was Tupac Shakur humping a blowup doll to the title track really sealed the deal for me.
Damn, I wish the Pointer Sisters were still busting out electro-jams like “Automatic.” R&B has never been that cool since. These Oakland sisters were really very much quite hyphy back then. I even love the bigger hits like “I'm So Excited,” “Jump (For My Love),” and “Neutron Dance.” [page]
This debut from a group of San Francisco-based digital knob twiddlers is the soundtrack to the cutest little cartoon you never did see. Bright and buoyant, it's a sure-fire mood elevator.
All Eyez on Me
While Eyez includes Tupac's solo joints like the passionate post-prison missive “Ambitions Az a Ridah,” it also features some of the bay's most distinctive underground rappers. It's great to hear E-40, B-Legit, Rappin 4-Tay, Richie Rich, Dru Down, and C-B0 sounding like one big happy family.
Sly & the Family Stone
I wasn't around when Sly originally did his thang and so have this impression of him as a platinum-mohawked crazy. But this is one hell of a Greatest Hits. It's got “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” and “Stand!”
Huey Lewis & the News
I'd be lying to myself if I didn't come clean and simply admit that I got a lot of singing practice belting out these tunes along with Huey at age 9. “I Want a New Drug,” y'all. I'm just sayin' ….
In a Major Way
E-40 is pretty consistent; I like all of his albums, but this is the one that made me a fan. It's got several of his most enduring songs (including “Sprinkle Me,” “1 Luv,” and “Sideways”). And smell what he's cooking on the cover, too — that shit's raw.
Steve Perry had the shiniest hair. I wonder what type of hair products he used? And did you know Randy “American Idol” Jackson used to tour with Journey as a bassist? Journey rocked and did us proud with this masterpiece. I never stopped believing — until I had to, that is.
Pete Namlook and Jonah Sharp
This is a live recording from Germany's Namlook and S.F.'s Sharp (known for his ambient-jazz experiments as Spacetime Continuum). I was lucky enough to be in the house (at the old King Street Garage), and it remains a treasured time capsule of the San Francisco rave scene at its most chill.
My father owned this album as well as Volunteers (back when they were still the Jefferson Airplane). Volunteers had the kick-ass cover art and the gatefold that had all kinds of stuff to look at, but Red Octopus had the fly, textured cover. And “Miracles.” Starship wins.