Friday, March 28, 2014

Happy Birthday to Star Maker Machine

On this date in 2008, a blog formerly known as "Six Songs" was renamed "Star Maker Machine."  Here's the first SMM post.

As we start our seventh year, we will be celebrating our history while looking to improve and reinvigorate SMM for the future.  More details to follow soon.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: Rocket to Russia

The Ramones: Sheena is a Punk Rocker

A bit of a cheat here, because the theme reference is to an album title, not a song, but honestly, when I first heard the theme, this is what came to mind. The third studio album by The Ramones, it was released in 1977, when the Cold War was still in full swing, so the picture on the back cover, of a “pinhead” riding a rocket from the U.S. to Russia, was pretty provocative. And the original artwork is currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The album showed a bit of growth for the band, with some slower and poppier songs, and includes a number of classics, including “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” and a couple of covers.

Actually, this is really an excuse to write about Trenton’s City Gardens, a somewhat legendary (mostly) punk club that closed in 1994, but is currently in the midst of a wave of nostalgic publicity. I’ve written about the club a couple of times, here and here, as has my fellow SMM’er, Central New Jerseyite Darius, here and here. But what is feeding the renewed interest is the recent publication of No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, an oral history of City Gardens, which you can buy here, and the soon-to-be released film, Riot on the Dance Floor. You can see a trailer for the movie here. Earlier this week, one of the authors of the book was on The Daily Show, being interviewed by former City Gardens bartender Jon Stewart, along with Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers, who appeared at the club, often with disastrous consequences.

No Slam Dancing is a fascinating read about a club that was, for the most part, the lone outpost of punk and new wave music between New York and Philadelphia. The anecdotes from club management, particularly the brains behind the operation, erstwhile mailman and DJ Randy “Now” Ellis, employees, regulars and musicians give an interesting insight into the 1980’s punk scene, in the era before you could hear anything and find out about anything on the Internet.

One of the key points that keeps getting made in the book, and in the interview with Jon Stewart, is that City Gardens, despite the fact that it was a dump, and dangerous, provided a haven for disaffected fans and musicians, a safe place (psychologically, if not always physically) for outcasts. And I’m glad that it served that function. I have to say, though, that my experience was a bit different. First, I was going to shows there in 1981 and 1982, before the more hardcore and skinhead bands began to play, so while I do remember it as being a shit hole, I never felt any danger in the club. Outside, maybe, but not inside. Second, I was a Princeton student and college radio DJ who was coming to hear music that I liked, not to find a tribe of fellow punks. I usually got in for free, sometimes got to interview the bands and even introduce them on stage, so I didn't qualify as a disaffected youth.  As a result, some of the nostalgia for City Gardens as a refuge is beyond me, but I certainly have very warm feelings for the place.

It was fun seeing references in the book to shows that I attended and to WPRB (although not as many as I would have expected). I’m particularly fond of Randy’s discussion of driving members of Romeo Void to do an interview at the station, drinking beer with them in the car before the interview, and having to pull over to allow singer Debra Iyall to “piss behind a tree.” It explains her truly obnoxious behavior during the interview that I tried to conduct, including her blurting out profanities and doodling penises on scrap paper. And makes me wonder why she didn’t just wait until she got to the interview to use the Holder Hall basement toilets, which, while not luxurious, were better than squatting behind a tree. But she was a piece of work.

To bring it back to the Ramones, one of my favorite City Gardens memories was getting the chance to interview Johnny Ramone backstage along with one of my fellow staffers, Chuck Steidel, before getting to introduce the band from the stage. Although not a life event as important as, say, my marriage or the birth of my kids, the chance to stand up in front of an audience and say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Ramones,” probably still makes my top ten.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Rammstein: Moskau

Reveling in gritty imagery, fiery demonstrations of power, and constantly overt sexuality, Rammstein are no strangers to mixed messages. Vocalist Till Lindemann loves allusion. In the song "Dalai Lama," for instance, the old Danish folk tale "Erlkönigs Tochter"is commingled with the Dalai Lama's fear of flying. In the lyrics of "Moskau," the recontextualization happens between the city and the appearance of a prostitute.

Lindemann's gravelly, German vocals are contrasted by the sharp, crisp Russian chirps of Viktoria Fersh, who sings "Это песня о самом красивом городе в мире. Москва!"("This song is about the most beautiful city in the world. Moscow!") while Lindemann adds "Sie schläft mit mir doch nur für Geld / Ist doch die schönste Stadt der Welt" ("She sleeps with me but only for money / It's still the most beautiful city in the world"). (full translation from

Russia's notorious political favoritism, cronyism, and nepotism suffered no diminishment during the recent Winter Olympics, an apt reminder of Lindemann's fitting commentary from the 2004 album Reise, Reise.

RUSSIA/UKRAINE: Yes, "Siberian Khatru"

Yes: "Siberian Khatru"

During my junior high and high school years in the late '70s and early '80s, I became something of a Yes fan, probably primarily because a few of my close friends were into them. I'm pretty sure I liked "Roundabout" prior to that anyway, but this more extended exposure hearing my friends' albums gave me an appreciation of some of their less radio-friendly fare. I grew to know all of their album titles -- I'm pretty sure I could even list them in the correct order -- even if I didn't care for all of them to the same degree as my friends. To this day, hearing such album names as Tales from Topographic Oceans will always evoke an immediate visceral reaction flashing me back to that period of my youth. Not that I progressed much farther into the prog rock scene than Yes, a (very) little Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and, later, some Rush. Even prior to the punk explosion, I could tell that almost by definition, much of prog rock was pompous and bloated. I only cared about the bands among them who managed to blend something of an appreciation for pop hooks into their pretentiousness. I didn't need to hear bands trying to rewrite classical symphonies for rock instrumentation; if it didn't have some form of hook, I quickly lost interest.

Which is why a handful of Yes's albums appealed to me: The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge, the three albums I ended up growing to love, all have their share of great hooks. And my favorite songs were scattered across the albums, so they ended up drawing me into the more long-winded songs that might not have otherwise grabbed my attention. "Siberian Khatru" was most certainly one of those, a sprawling epic of a song, much like its namesake geographical region, dominating a massive portion of Russia. The song, despite its nearly 9-minute length, moves along at a brisk pace and keeps coming back to Steve Howe and Chris Squire's hooky riff and Jon Anderson’s melodious singering. (Just made that term up!) I certainly don’t know how I’d feel about it if I hadn’t had the appreciation for the full Close to the Edge album (from 1972), but for those not familiar with the album, this fact might be of interest: “Siberian Khatru” is the shortest song on the album! Side 1 contains a single, 18-minute track, and Side 2 kicks off with a 10-minute multi-part song, making the third and final album track, “Siberian Khatru,” seem like a radio-ready single by comparison.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Enlivened by the extension of this theme a further week, I decided to investigate a truism, at least on this side of the sea, that being that you can add "the" to literally anything, and come up with the name of a british indie band. (Add an incongruous adjective and you have an american garage band of the 60s). So into google I go and, lo and behold, not only is there a group called the Crimea, but they also produced a song called "White Russian Galaxy"! How cool is that? Here it is. It is even quite good, with a lively video, somehow a cross between, visually, Low and, bizarrely, the heads rocking part of Boho Rhapsody, which, seeing as I dislike Queen muchly, I will show only in parody. Sonically, of course, it is like neither, but has a certain minor charm. I would love them if I had bought this as a single in 1986. Unfortunately it came out in 2003. But ignore my faint damnations, it's OK. Really.

Buy it here

Reading about them, it seems they managed a good 10 years of, broadly, disinterest, outwith the support of maverick british DJ, John Peel, champion of the unwashed and unsustainable. They had a brief major label surge in 2005, following appearances at the SXSW. 3 well applauded singles, including the one showcased above, and a solitary album came out before Warner Bros dropped them, a year later. So much for nurturing promise and talent. However, undogged, the band put out a 2nd disc as a free download. And it is still available, here , at the same price. I know, 'cos I did it last week. It shows some progression from the more frantic earlier songs. And, to continue a russian theme, the original download version had Regina Spektor, spooky soviet goth chanteuse, on spoken interludes. (The current link is one re-recorded for better sound quality, it seems.)

A final release came out last year, the day before they announced they were calling it a day. Somehow I can see them as being rediscovered, 20 years hence, as there becomes an outpouring of all the other "the" bands of that day. Maybe if "Nuggets" celebrated the lost american 60s garagebands, this future retrospective could be called "The Nuggets."