Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Send In The Clowns"--An ersatz tribute to 'Circus' magazine

Okay, I lied, I decided to get off my ass and post something new here after all!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m currently in the process of going through my personal archives, inventorying old belongings, purging stuff and reorganizing the rest, which includes the old Rock ‘N’ Roll periodicals I used to collect.  Circus magazine, “The Leading Rock & Roll Bi-Weekly”, and/or “The Voice of American Youth” as they alternately dubbed themselves, is the one I read the most (along with Creem and Hit Parader, to a lesser extent), and it was my primary source for Rock news and music features back in the day.  I bought my first copy of Circus in the summer of ’76 when I first got into Kiss and spotted Gene Simmons’ tongue on the front cover, and was a regular reader until the nether end of the ‘80s when Circus featured nothing but hair bands ad nauseam and ceased writing about under-the-radar musicians like Nick Lowe, John Hiatt and Dave Edmunds like they used to.  Thumbing through these old issues here lately has brought back a ton of memories, which I will share here (in no particular order)…

CONCERT GUIDE  Circus featured a Concert Guide in each issue with the latest tour dates for every major group/artist.  And I do mean EVERY group or artist—along with the usual suspects like Aerosmith, Z.Z. Top and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Circus also included listings for people they never even featured in the magazine, like Waylon Jennings, Steeleye Span (who?) and Shirley Bassey (WTF?!?).  Predictably, the guide was usually very inaccurate and already outdated by the time each issue hit your newsstand.  The funniest part was how these editor clowns constantly mangled the names of the event venues in their listings.  Kansas City concert-goers supposedly went somewhere called “Chief Stadium”, there was a “San Diego Coliseum” (aka, San Diego Sports Arena) and a “Ridgefield Stadium” near Cleveland, better known as Richfield Coliseum, former home of the Cleveland Cadavers.  Toronto had a “C&E Coliseum” and Vancouver had a “P&E Coliseum” (to wit, CNE and PNE, respectively) and Seattle’s new domed stadium at the time was listed as just plain “Dome Stadium”.  But my favorite bon mot of all was Chicago’s “Kaminsky Park”, home of the White Sox!  Renamed for Electric Light Orchestra’s Mik Kaminsky, I suppose.  In addition, in 1978, the Concert Guide had some intrepid upstart band called Van Halen listed alphabetically under 'H'!  I give Circus an A for effort, but it was a bit lacking, all the same.

LETTERS  The Letters column in Circus was almost a forerunner of today’s Internet message boards/forums as it was a breeding ground for the never-ending pissing matches between Kiss and Aerosmith fans, not to mention the snoody Prog. Rock fans who looked down their noses at those same Kiss and Aerosmith fans and acted as if they were better than everyone else just because Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, et al, were all such virtuoso musicians.  I’m already on record here about my distaste for much of ‘70s Progressive Rock—I found a lot of it to be cold, overblown, soulless and downright boring—give me Black Oak Arkansas any day over that pretentious lot!  At least Jim Dandy and the boys were fun to listen to, which is often far more important to me than musical virtuosity when it comes to Rock ‘N’ Roll, but I digress…

I’m really kinda stunned at some of the stuff Circus actually accepted from readers and printed in the Letters section, like the following classic from Tony in Stirling, Ontario:  I would like to tell you that your column “Into Your Head” is a ridiculous waste of space. Who the hell is interested in some crazy bopper’s sexual hang-ups? You’re supposed to be a music magazine. Also, I just want to say that I think Elton John is a fag, and the Beach Boys suck.

Classy guy.  I’m real curious to see what all they edited out from Tony’s original letter!  Letters like this one really have no place in a first-class national periodical, but oddly enough, Tony was right on all three counts—Sir Elton is indeed a homosexual, the Beach Boys pretty much did suck in the ‘70s minus Brian Wilson, and “Into Your Head” fit in Circus magazine about as well as a nun at a frat party.  IYH was a Dear Abby-esque advice column compiled by some psychiatrist hack who seemingly got his degree from Hazzard County A&M.  One of the correspondents to his column had issues with “fagits”, whatever those are...

Here’s another gem of a letter from Issue #150, February 28, 1977 by Stephen from Mississauga, ON:  In regards to John Casale’s letter in CIRCUS, which insinuates that Freddie Mercury is queer, sorry to disappoint you fella, but I am now going to quote from the book ‘The Queen Story’ by George Tremlett, renowned rock biographer.  "No one could be more heterosexual than Mercury, who had been living with his girlfriend Mary Austin…"  So go back to your Bowies and Jaggers and leave Fred alone ‘cause you’re barking up the wrong tree!

Fella?!?  How gay is that? Excuse me, fella, but both you and the book author were shoveling more bullshit than highway workers in the wake of an overturned manure truck.  And as we all know from our homework, Freddie Mercury was most decidedly gay, and hardly tried to hide it.  Mary Austin was indeed a longtime girl friend and confidant of Fred’s but she was never his girlfriend.  He half-heartedly tried to make it appear that way to get the press off his tail, but everyone knew he was busy with X-number of boys of his own…

In a semi-related item in the same issue, Ed from Bloomsburg, PA chastises Robert Duncan (whom I chastise below here) for a feature he did on the just-released Led Zeppelin concert flick in which he (for some bizarre reason) referred to Robert Plant’s talleywhacker several times:  ...since you have an obsession to keep mentioning Robert Plant’s cock so many times dealing with movie sequences, you should have entitled the article '"The Dong Remains The Same.''

Friggin’ brilliant!

A Kansas City letter-writer, Clare, ripped Ted Nugent a pretty good one following a 1977 article in which Nuge—true-to-form—bragged on himself a bit too much about his appearance at Arrowhead Stadium in ‘76:  First of all, he didn’t break any attendance records here in K.C. that I know of.  The 41,000 people came, for the most part, to see REO Speedwagon because they have been K.C. favorites for years.  A lot of people including myself left midway through Nugent’s set.  Ted also boasts that “police received complaints [about the noise] from people 15 miles away.”  Because of that, stadium concerts were almost banned here…He has blown it for himself because he will never play an outdoor concert here again.

I think that whole “15 miles away” business is a pure B.S. urban legend that Ted chose to create.  We lived five miles from the Truman Sports Complex and I never heard a thing.  And Nugent has indeed played outdoors in K.C. several times since then, including my first major Rock concert at Arrowhead in ’79, at which I was rather miffed and disappointed with the lack of volume—the powers-that-be obviously made Ted turn it down a bit by that time.

ALBUM REVIEWS  And then there were the atrocious album reviews.  It was through these often-pompous, condescending, sarcastic and grating reviews (as well as those found in Rolling Stone, which were ten times worse) that I developed my healthy long-standing loathing of Rock music critics.  And just as with today’s ESPN-dominated sports media, there clearly was/is a definite East Coast bias amongst these critics.  Everything the Ramones, Patty Smith, J. Geils Band or Bruce Springsteen ever did was the cat’s ass with these schmucks, but except for Cheap Trick and a scant few others, most Midwestern and Southern acts like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Kansas or Z.Z. Top never got a fair shake from these assholes.  Some reviews were so overblown and snarky that the reviewer (Lester Bangs, atten-shun!) would prattle on for ten paragraphs about totally unrelated crap before finally getting around to talking about the record he/she was reviewing.  Some never even mentioned the LP in question at all!  I much prefer a track-by-track analysis over three columns of unnecessary (and usually unrelated) prose in an album review.

The single-most asinine album review I’ve ever read appeared in Issue 138 of Circus, August 24, 1976, Robert Duncan’s hatchet-job of the Kiss classic Destroyer, in which he proclaimed “The new Kiss album stinks.” Yes, I know opinions are like assholes and all, but this review was such utter stoat excrement, and it was blatantly obvious that Duncan’s sole purpose was to mock the band just to make Aerosmith’s Rocks look that much better in the same review.  Personally, I think Toys In The Attic was the far superior Aerosmith platter compared to Rocks, but that’s just me.  What I never got is how the critics ripped the first three Kiss albums because they sounded too amateur-ish, yet here they came along with a very slick and sophisticated record, and the critics still ripped it to shreds anyway.  I maintain to this day that Destroyer is Kiss’s finest hour in the recording studio, and it remains my second favorite Kiss album of all-time, right behind Kiss Alive!

Anyway, check out a couple more of Duncan’s witticisms here:

In "King Of The Nighttime World", they have this little bastard kid talking in the background as if Kiss themselves were unable to relate any more to what a drag it is living at home.

Uhhh, Bobbo, there are no children talking in KOTNW.  No doubt, the little bastard kid he refers to is the one who appears on the following track, “God Of Thunder” (producer Bob Ezrin’s son, to be exact), and he wasn’t relating to what a drag it is living at home, either.  Evidently, Duncan Donut was too stoned here to know what song he was reviewing.

In "Shout It Loud" [sic], they have a grand piano playing the descending riff, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the grand piano is an acoustic instrument!

Wow, what a shocking revelation this was!  And guess what, Bob—I have actual photos Kiss without their make-up on!  Was it some sort of unpardonable sin for an acoustic instrument to appear on a Kiss album?  This certainly wasn’t a new phenomenon—they had previously utilized acoustic guitars on both “Black Diamond” and “Rock Bottom”, not to mention another piano on “Nothin’ To Lose”.

As one might expect, this thing instigated a lot of tongue-wagging in the Kiss/Aerosmith pissing match forum, but letter-writer Holly from Joliet, IL probably summed it up best in a later issue:  “All I can say is this Robert Duncan is so full of shit he can’t hear the records he reviews.”

I do realize all this analysis and hair-splitting on my part is 35 years too late and fairly pointless, but I didn’t have a blog in ’76, and besides, I love doing shit like this!  Duncan authored a similarly-scathing review of Love Gun in ’77 that I thought was uncalled-for.  What cheeses me off is this is the same man who authored (and I assume made money off of) a suck-up biography book about Kiss in the fall of ‘76.

MISCELLANEOUS  The full-page album ads (especially for Kiss) were often highlights of each issue of Circus.  I especially liked the ones that said “Alive II is coming…”…Circus ill-advisedly tried to get into the socio-political and culture realm for a brief time by featuring non-music people like Caroline Kennedy, The Fonz and Chevy Chase on their covers, but a fair amount of backlash from readers quashed all that in a hurry…I remember how Circus made a major effort to hype two bands who had Kiss connections that are now long-forgotten, Angel and Starz.  The all-white-clad Angel were label mates of Kiss on Casablanca Records, and featured one Punky Meadows on guitar and another guitarist named Greg Giuffria, whose self-named band had some success in the mid-'80s (with a little help from G. Simmons).  Angel had a cool logo that looks the same when viewed upright or upside down, but they never really went anywhere.  Same goes for Starz, who were stable mates of Kiss at Rock Steady Productions.  Mostly style over substance, I think.  Yet another Casablanca act, The Godz, suffered a similar fate, although Rock Steady did produce a promising band called Piper that featured a young hot-shot singer-guitarist named Billy Squier…I’ve found it rather fun to go back and read stuff about bands that I really dig now whom I ignored, overlooked or just plain dismissed back then like Rush, The Band, Rainbow and Aerosmith…Circus was good as misidentifying songs and people over the years, like when Cheap Trick’s perennial concert closer “Goodnight Now” was labeled “Good-Bye There”, the album released by the The Doors featuring Jim Morrison's poetry was An American Dream instead of An American Prayer in Circus, and in a 1981 feature on Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Rudy Sarzo was referred to in the photo caption merely as “Rudy from Cuba”.  Sarzo himself was quite miffed over this in his autobiography book.  When Circus reviewed Z.Z. Top’s Eliminator in ’83, they inexplicably titled it Destroyer!...Photographs were often reversed in Circus, like in the 1976 feature about Black Sabbath and Nugent in concert together where Ted is depicted as a lefty guitarist and southpaw Tony Iommi is shown as a righty in the same spread!  It also wasn’t uncommon to see Paul Stanley’s star over his left eye…

I found the following quote rather fascinating:  “This is the Rock & Roll album of the year, my friends…It’s a son of a bitch.”Frank Zappa (Issue #138, August 24, 1976, regarding Grand Funk Railroad’s Good Singin’, Good Playin’, which he produced)

THE Frank Zappa?!?  Anti-establishment Frank Zappa?  Funny-looking moustache Frank Zappa?  Father of Dweezil and Moon Unit Frank Zappa?  Talk about strange bedfellows—I never knew about this unholy alliance before now.  I just can’t fathom Mr. Avant-garde/Anti-establishment/corporate music-hating Frank Zappa producing a commercial Arena Rock band like Grand Funk!  I have yet to actually hear this LP (which was GFR’s debut on MCA after Capitol Records let them go), thus I can’t speak to the quality of it, but I do know that it didn’t fare well at all and Grand Funk were sadly already on the downside of their career by then.  As for Zappa, he never struck me as being such a chest-thumper, either.  Sorry, Frank, but I gotta give Album of the Year for ’76 to Destroyer.

Circus was published from 1966 to 2006, and I read it regularly from '76 through about '88 or so when it devolved into a shell of what it once was.  The album reviews—crappy as they were—were reduced to little drive-by short-attention-span blurbs, the feature articles on the bands were all-hype and no substance, and the rest of the mag featured nothing but full-page photos of Poison, Bon Jovi, Ratt, Def Leppard and Whitesnake, et al. I swear, they used the same in-concert photo of Motley Crue’s Vince Neil in three straight issues at one point!  It was at this point that Rock ‘N' Roll started circling the drain anyway, with the impending Grunge malaise, so it’s probably just as well.  I’m still perusing the old issues currently, and if I find some more juicy quotes and oddities, they might make it into a future post here.  Meantime, I found an interesting Circus tribute site should you desire further background.