Thursday, November 12, 2015

Moments in Mormon Rock '73-'89

Q: How can you tell if someone's a Mormon?

A: They'll let you know a bunch of times.

Rolling Stones - Steel Wheels, Rolling Stones/Columbia 1989
Rock Context: In the grand Stones narrative, Steel Wheels marks the reunion of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards after an acrimonious split. Though conceived as a conscious throwback to the "classic" Stones sound and responsible for launching the group's biggest world tour to date, musically Wheels lacks the hooks and hedonistic grit that made their 70's material so compelling. Still, while hardly essential, "Almost Hear You Sigh" and "Slipping Away" stand as two of the 80's best Stones ballads, in a decade which saw much of the original magic fade.

Mormon Context: In 1989, Mormon apostle Gene R. Cook (allegedly) sat beside Mick Jagger on a plane. The encounter has worked itself into the annals of Mormon lore, mostly because Cook shared the (alleged) encounter in a devotional at Rick's College (now Brigham Young University - Idaho) and because it provides an anecdotal witness to the inherent dangers of a rock n' roll. (Allegedly) Jagger met Cook's friendly conversational advances with scorn and derision by denouncing the mormon church as a fraud (claiming his mother once met Mormon missionaries in London), scoffed at Cook's case for the validity of the Book of Mormon and declared The Rolling Stones music as a vehicle "calculated to drive the kids towards sex" and wild futures of moral relativism.

Ever since hearing the account, I've always suspected it was exaggerated, so I wasn't surprised to find a Snopes page deconstructing the alleged encounter. Why was Jagger sitting coach on a commercial airline (or was cook riding first class)? If Jagger actually said any of what Cook says he did, can we assume he was simply yanking the chain of a stodgy old mormon apostle? Had Cook been aware of the events at Altamont in '69 would he have worked those into his narrative? (methinks it would've made for a more interesting talk). Perhaps only god really knows and it's our job to ask him in the millennium.

Alice Cooper - Billion Dollar Babies, Warner Bros 1973
Rock Context: Like the Stones, Alice Cooper's critical "boom" period stems from one slew of great records in the '70s ('69-73 to be specific). It'd take Muscle of Love's inclement sexual weirdness to kill off the original Alice Cooper band, which would essentially launch Cooper into the stratosphere as a singular shock rocker, but also lube the gate for a spate of dull and disappointing tripe throughout the '80s and '90s.

Like most early Alice records, Babies features a whole mess of retooled material from the band's inception in the late '60s, glued together by "exploiting the idea that people do have sick perversions." It's the album that spawned the infamous "guillotine-at-live-shows" bit, a classic rawk radio staple ("No More Mister Nice Guy") and the biting assortment of hard rock, perversion and political satire ( "Hello Hooray,""Elected,""Raped n' Freezing", "I Love the Dead.") that would come to define the group's legacy.

Mormon Context: Rumors of Alice Cooper's mormonism have existed since the '80s. Growing up, I always attributed these rumors to white whale wishful thinking on the church's part ("We got Alice Cooper! We don't need Ryan Gosling!" - the Mormon hesher), but have recently discovered that these rumors relate to a kernel of truth. Alice Cooper (born Vincent Damon Furnier) was actually raised in the Church of Jesus Christ (AKA the Bickertonite church), though he was never formally baptized. His grandfather was the president of the church from 1963 to 1965. The Bickertonite church is significant to Mormonism because it was led by Sidney Rigdon, the spiritual successor to the organization after the assassination of Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith. It should be noted that the official Mormon church (which continued on under Brigham Young after Smith's death) does not acknowledge this (or any) offshoot as an officially "mormon" church.

Warren Zevon - Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Elektra 1980
Rock Context: If Zevon's known for anything by the layman it's the eclectic jaunt of "Werewolves of London" or possibly his bizarre friendship with David Letterman. However, for all the praise heaped on 1979's The Excitable Boy, it's his 1980 album that's gotten me through more failed relationships and faith crises than anything else. Perhaps it's the context of the album, written during a chaotic period in Zevon's life as a result of his fame. As a result, Bad Luck Streak charges through itself with a lean focus that no other Zevon album has. Critics will laud everything else, but this will always rank as my favorite. Zevon's collaboration with Springsteen on "Jeannie Needs a Shooter", the Skynyrd send-up of "Play it All Night Long" and the painful admittance of his own shortcomings on "Bed of Coals" and "Wild Age" make for a strange self-deprecating heartbreak confessional, the kind I wouldn't find till years later when I'd discover Sheer Terror's Love Songs for the Unloved.

Mormon Context: According to Wikipedia, Zevon was raised in England by a Mormon mother from the midwest. I've not read I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (though it is on my Amazon wishlist) or else I'd share something else about his childhood. What I do know is that he plays a mean piano, just like every other mormon kid I know. I don't exactly know what it is about mormon kids and playing piano (or basketball...weird, right?), but I'll tell you that the only regret I have in my life is that I broke my Mom's heart to quit lessons. Now, all of my brothers and sisters are accomplished musicians and I'm writing a blog about dumb old music.

Bachman Turner Overdrive - Not Fragile, Mercury 1974
Rock Context: This is hard ass meat-n-taters rock from up north. My Dad told me I'd dig this record a lot and I ignored him on it for years (my bad). In fact, it wasn't til late college and a chance encounter with Acid Witch's harrowing cover of the title track that I fell headlong into an anachronistic obsession with it. The unrelenting groove of "Not Fragile," breakneck pace of "Givin' it all Away" and the anthemic "Rock is my life, this is my song" (Who doesn't love rock n roll songs about rock n' roll?) make for a record that's more than solid, but actually quite exceptional. I long for the era when I hear Not Fragile spoken of in the same reverent tones reserved for Black Sabbath and UFO but I'm hardly counting on it. Critics of the day were hard on the likes of pre-metal hard rock of the Grand Funk, Blue Oyster Cult ilk but we love 'em for it now. Oh! the album title itself a parody of Yes's Fragile, a deliberate dis by band leader Randy Bachman who wanted none of that namby pamby prog rock posturing.

Mormon Context: Randy Bachman is the first verified (ex)Mormon to make this list. He's been quoted as leaving his original band The Guess Who due to conflicts with other band members concerning his Mormon beliefs, though it's unlikely that he's still a member of the church today. His son Tal (responsible for that one radio hit single in the '90s) served a full time mormon mission in Argentina and was featured prominently in the 2007 PBS documentary about Mormonism. It should be noted that the majority of Bachman's interview concerns his leaving the faith.

Boston - Greatest Hits, Epic 1997
Rock Context: It's nearly as ubiquitous a greatest hits album as Madonna's Immaculate Collection, only it sports a hilariously dated CGI cover, the kind that makes the Simpson's Treehouse of Horror VI look like Avatar in comparison. It's a more-than-decent collection of tunes from a band who basically made one really great album and then one kinda OK album and then nothing. I won't slag them for including 5 of their 8 debut album tracks (know where your bread is buttered), nor will I for crediting Francis Scott Key on their rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Mormon Context: There's something to be said about a group of MIT students who built their own amps and laid the musical blueprint for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I once had some friends who's Dad bought them this CD but threw away the lyric booklet because of the nekkid ladies on the cover. I've known plenty of strict mormon parents in my day, but hey, at least he met 'em halfway. Those kids grew up listening to Bat Outta Hell and Sheer Heart Attack while you and all your stoner reprobates were feeling your way around rap metal and trance-core.

Dylan Chadwick is a writer who occasionally pays his bills as an illustrator. His rated R twitter is @drugdogs and his rated PG twitter is @dyl_chadwick. In 6th grade he wrote a book report on Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin story and that's how he learned about MLA formatting.
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