When we last checked in with our hero, James “The Skull” Williamson, he had just begun his post-Stooges recording career with the Re-Licked LP and a wildly successful one-off live show at the Bootleg Theater in L.A. in January 2015. The Stooges’ legacy is still an A-list topic: Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger documentary is currently in the theaters and Stooges tunes continue to blare from TV commercials and movie soundtracks.
Williamson has issued a handful of recordings in the last year; all different from each other (and from anything else he’s ever done) consisting of three 45 RPMs and one EP, which I shall attempt to evaluate here (in chronological order of release).
First let me say, I personally love 45 RPM records and think they may be the best format for rock ‘n’ roll. Two tunes: they spin fast (lower noise ratio) and they are cheap to make and buy (I still buy ‘em). Rock ’n’ roll (and R&B, blues and C&W) would never have been able to emerge without them.
These new releases from Williamson are mastered particularly hot—they sound loud, punchy and the songs just about jump out of the grooves (just the way a 45 RPM should).
I Love My Tutu
The first 45, far and away the most unusual item in Williamson’s recorded catalog thus far, is a collaboration with singer Lisa Kekaula from the Bell Rays (who is also one of the highlights of Re-Licked and the MC5 reunion), “I Love My Tutu” b/w “Never Far From Where The Wild Things Are (Leopard Lady)” are both done in the style of traditional Hawaiian music, with James playing ukulele and bass.
The A-side is a lovely mid-tempo piece co-written by James’ wife Linda; it’s about as musically far from Death Trip as you can get, but it’s a perfect tune for staring off into the ocean and sipping a cold drink, or maybe building sand-castles with your grandkid. The flipside, written with Williamson’s son Jamie, is a rocker — a strong electric guitar riff and Kekaula’s Stax-Volt style shouting keep the thing cooking, a bit of exotic percussion give it a nice Exile era Stones-like feel; hard to imagine Stooges fans not liking this one.
Blues Jumped the Rabbit
The second 45 – a collaboration with Petra Haden, whose a cappella version of The Who Sell Out is something you really have to hear to believe – consists of two gut-bucket blues workouts. The A-side is the traditional “Blues Jumped The Rabbit,” with a bit of a nod to the iconic Karen Dalton’s version. It’s the most subtle item in Williamson’s entire catalog, and Haden’s eerie vocal is about as good as it gets; she wraps her voice around the barest lyric with great finesse. Don Rooke’s sublime lap steel helps produce something like a musical version of a bittersweet sunset. The flip side has perhaps my favorite of all his recent work: Williamson and Haden approach, or maybe attack is a better word, Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ “Last Kind Words,” as if they were playing it in the last bar open after the nuclear holocaust. Williamson takes three brutal electric guitar solos, each one more jagged and angular than the preceding one.
Williamson has always been one of the most unique guitar stylists in rock ‘n’ roll. To be able to come up with new and surprising blues licks on a tune that is nearly a hundred years old is a tribute to not only his eminence as a player, but also how truly unique his sound and style are. In the time between the emergence of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn, I had fantasies about shooting every white blues guitar player with a record deal. But this recording just goes to show there are those musicians whose own sound is inside them; the thing they used to call soul; the way all the electric blues greats from the post-war era, from Guitar Slim to Robert Nighthawk to Wild Jimmy Spruill all sounded totally different from each other. I’d put James Williamson in that category for sheer individuality. Haden’s vocal, doubled in spots, is just plain spooky.
To even attempt to cover a record as perfect and sublime as the original Geechie Wiley Paramount 78 RPM is a brave move, but they turn it into something very different and very moving. I’m pretty sure this was the last recording the “Leopard Lady,” Williamson’s black Les Paul Custom (used on Raw Power and Kill City) saw before it was retired to a glass case in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it went out on a high and nasty note.
Sickkk and I Made a Mistake
The third 45 is done in collaboration with a nineteen-year-old singer named MAIA. “Sickkk” b/w “I Made A Mistake (Leopard Lady)” are two straight-ahead rockers. The A-side has a Stones-like groove, and MAIA’s vocal finds the middle ground between Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las and Joan Jett. The B-side is another hard guitar rocker with a slightly more melodic vibe and a classic Stooges-like riff. Both sides are about as straight-ahead as rock ‘n’ roll gets; I’d like to hear more from her.
On the Acoustic KO EP (Off White), James collaborates with Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman (not to mention ER surgeon, former U.S. Marines flight surgeon, solo artist, and more. See Todd McGovern’s interview here, a match that couldn’t be more musically fitting.
They revisit four of Williamson’s 70’s classics — two tunes from Raw Power (“Penetration” and “I Need Somebody”) and two from Kill City (“Night Theme” and “No Sense Of Crime”). The opener, “I Need Somebody,” brings them back to the start of Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, a John Lee Hooker-like blues (the Stooges sometimes used to morph into Hooker’s “Boom Boom” at the end of this song while performing it live), sticking fairly close to the original. Subtle but soulful horns, and Petra Haden’s lonesome violin, along with some pointed guitar punctuation from Williamson, give it new life.
“Penetration” revisits the first tune Williamson brought to the Stooges. Deniz Tek keeps his vocal pretty close to the original, growling against Petra Haden’s high harmony line. The acoustic guitars pound out the menacing riff (the celeste part buried in the original mix but becoming nearly the loudest thing on the track of Iggy’s ill-advised 90’s remix is played on harp, and I don’t mean a harmonica….). Horns and pump organ again act as punctuation and give it an R&B style thump. Let’s face it, tackling tunes from Raw Power is a pretty daunting task, but these stand up on their own as unique interpretations.
Next up is “Night Theme”, which I think really is better than the Kill City original (keep in mind, Kill City was originally recorded as demos and never meant to be a real record). The original is a noir-ish piece of instrumental mood music; here, it begins pretty much like that too, with an eerie high harmony vocal from Haden and Tek’s gravelly voiceover, but a few minutes in, it shifts into a full-blown orchestral piece that would be the perfect soundtrack for a massacre scene, if the decades-rumored film of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” ever gets made. The set closes with “No Sense of Crime” – here, Tek trades off lead vocal with Annie Hardy (of Giant Drag, “You Fuck Like My Dad” fame). As is the original, this version is a straight-ahead rocker, and the one track closest to what Stooges and Radio Birdman fans would expect. Once again, Petra Haden is present with a moody fiddle, and the rhythm section (for all four tracks) of Bob Glaub on bass and Michael Urbano on drums, really gives it a kick in the ass. I can’t imagine any fans of Williamson or Tek who won’t find something to like about Acoustic KO.
Acoustic KO and all three James Williamson 45’s are well worth buying – especially since the nature of a 45 is that it’s here today, impossible to find tomorrow. (Try finding a stock copy of ANY Stooges 45 today, if you can locate one, have your gold card handy). Williamson and Tek keep making interesting music, now off to the side of the mainstream music business (which never knew what to do with either of them anyway), and that’s a good place to be. To make the music you want and get it like you want, for those who have ears enough to hear it; it has always been the Stooges way. In my house, these four discs ain’t getting filed for a long time, they’re gonna sit right in that box next to the turntable, because they’re great and I’ll be playing ‘em til I go deaf.