Heard some news this morning that set my wheels a-churnin': Johnnie Johnson, the guitarist/lyricist who helped design the rock-and-roll-song template by co-penning tunes like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "No Particular Place to Go," has filed a multimillion-dollar suit against his former songwriting partner, Chuck Berry. The suit alleges that Johnson -- perhaps best known as the namesake behind "Johnnie B. Goode" -- was financially gutted after Berry claimed sole copyright on the tunes the two had written together in the '50s. Berry lived high on the hog (a notorious bit of footage wherein a person who looks a heck of a lot like Chuckles is seen urinating on a woman in a hot tub suggests just how high) while Johnson disappeared into poverty before resurfacing in 1986, after Keith Richards discovered him driving a bus for the elderly in St. Louis. Johnson, you may recall, could play a guitar like he was ringing a bell, but he apparently didn't have much of a head for business.
For lack of a more poetic phrase, what happened to Johnson really sucks. But it shouldn't come as a terrible surprise. There has been so much talk lately -- by artists screwed by major labels, by fans tired of being gouged by an increasingly homogenized industry -- about how money-hungry, dehumanizing and greedy the music business has become; the Great Napster Debate of 2000 has done much to heighten and enliven the discussion. Yet Johnson's case only serves to illustrate that the music business has always been a cesspool of greed and ego, where those who never learned to read or write that well (contracts and deals, at least) have had their bones picked clean by people who specialize in fine print and fuckovers. Zack de la Rocha (whose former band, Rage Against the Machine, has become the kind of franchise that crusty collegiate Boulderites have recently been protesting on the Pearl Street Mall) would probably suggest that artists have simply gotta tayke the powah back! But a more thoughtful analysis reveals that more often that not, the little guy actually hands his power over on a plate: And for every bandleader who comes bearing warnings of the major-label myth, there are fifty thousand kids with sunglasses and mediocre songs just dying to sign the dotted line.
Like Regis Philbin, or venereal disease, or T-shirts with amusing sayings on them, the music industry is not going to go away anytime soon. But it is going to change. As insufferable as she can be, Courtney Love recently delivered an articulate speech at the Digital Music Festival conference in San Francisco that outlined some of the ways in which this might happen. (A transcript of the speech is archived at salon.com.) In addition to breaking down the numbers that major labels use to systematically hijack their artists -- a pretty fascinating read in itself -- Love suggested that, in order for musicians to truly gain creative and financial independence, they must reconsider every aspect of what they do. They must give up the idea of "making it" in the grand rock-star tradition. They must sell and market their own music and treat their art as a small business. They must take the power back, yes, but meticulously, armed with a spreadsheet as well as a Stratocaster, so they don't wind up like Johnnie Johnson did -- driving a bus in St. Louis...or Syracuse...or wherever, haunted by radio stations where their songs ring on into infinity without them.
Backwash learned of Love's speech through the online home of Pop Sweatshop, a label operated by Chris Barber of Spiv. Pop Sweatshop -- which is named after the dilapidated office/concert space where the company began and is one of the more clever monikers from recent memory -- is itty-bitty, and its band roster reflects the company's philosophy of self-determination: It enlists hardworking, hard-touring acts only, thank you very much.
Of course, in the case of Hemi Cuda, the Sweatshop's most recent signee, fabulous wardrobes and an I-dare-you-to-fuck-with-me persona are an added bonus. The Denver trio, led most glamorously by guitarist/lead vocalist Anika Zappe and bassist/vocalist Karen Exley, has become known as much for its hooker fashion and spaceship hair as for its nearly perfect power punk and tough eroticism. While lots of bands use the notion of sexual empowerment as a gimmick or a joke, Hemi Cuda's feels pretty real; one of the band's newer songs, "Thick and Tasty," extols the pleasures of performing fellatio to a seesaw beat that couldn't be more jolly.
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This weekend, Hemi Cuda releases Classics for Lovers, a twelve-song gem that leaps out of the speakers like a hot rod in a qualifying round. These are quick blasts, over in a minute or two, sweet and lethal, as good pop songs should be. "After School Special" needs to be on the radio immediately (someone make a note of this), while "Jimmy West" and "Fucked Up" are catchier than nasal drip. Drummer Scott Padawer's playing is exceptional (sadly, he's left the band because of an inability to tour regularly; the ladies are looking for a replacement), and Zappe and Exley's vocal harmonies are a perfectly sweet counterpoint to the often irreverent or silly words they're singing ("Cool Hand Luke/Has chains on his legs/Cool Hand Luke/He'll eat fifty eggs!").
With their pink wigs and leather minis, Zappe and Exley know they are hot stuff -- more important, though, is that they know how to play. Classics for Lovers may not be music for a quiet romantic evening, but it will definitely put you in a mood. The disc's release party is Friday, December 8, at the Bluebird Theater, with King Rat and Shrank. Check popsweatshop.com for more info.
We love the Bug Theatre. It's right in the middle of the fun stuff happening on Navajo street: two of Denver's best restaurants (Patsy's and Café Brazil) and two of its best art galleries (the Edge and Pirate). We also love Bug Unplugged, a semi-regular acoustic music cabaret that debuted one year ago this week. The almost-monthly series has brought unique local artists to the Bug stage for stripped-down readings of their material. As Reed Weimer, who books bands for the series (and also toils in local act Saw), notes, "We knew we had to do it. The alliteration was just too good." (Actually, it's a handy rhyme, but we know what you mean.) The series celebrates one year of unplugged life this Thursday night, with performances from the Janet Feder Trio, Sarina simoom, Marie Beer, Preacher Boy, Buffalo Roam and Perpetual Motion. That's a fittingly disparate lineup for such a funky venue. You'd be wise to let the Bug bite.