Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Musiquarium:David Werner, Part I

I've been fortunate to have some excellent conversations about music with Chris Hornbostel over the last few years, and when I say "conversations", I mean he taught and I listened. It's not just that he knows so much about music, it's that he knows all the interesting things, too. So I pitched him on the idea of writing a guest feature called "The Musiquarium", focusing on obscure musicians.

Much to our good luck, he agreed.

From this point on, it's all Chris.

As an introduction, I want you to consider the ubiquitousness of digitized music in our day and age. It’s everywhere:  if music isn’t on CD now, it likely was at some point before going out of print, or it’s likely at least available in some downloadable and portable digital format.  Consider also that any three yokels with a crappy laptop have access to recording tools more sophisticated than anything George Martin or Geoff Emrick had in the 1960’s and early 70’s and can in the span of an afternoon create downloadable digital tunes.

With that in mind, here’s the artist I want to talk about: David Werner.  Werner enjoys a distinction that--if not totally unique, is at least incredibly rare:  he was a high-profile signing by a major label who recorded three albums and has never had any of them available in any digital format. No CD reissues ever, no career retrospective, no nothing--including digital reissue via download services. Werner’s three-album career in the 1970’s was a vinyl-only affair, and so it remains as of this writing.

David Werner was a teenage music prodigy from Pittsburgh who was a bit early and a bit young to be anything more than on the cusp of that city’s rich 1970’s music scene.  Instead, sometime in 1974 he relocated to Los Angeles and recruited a solid band to back himself which included ace guitarist/string arranger Mark Doyle.  Meanwhile in the music world, David Bowie was all the rage. Every label was interested in signing their own version of Ziggy Stardust, and after something of a bidding war, David Werner ended up signing with RCA.

This was sort of a problem, because RCA already had their version of a David Bowie, and he actually was David Bowie. Werner certainly fit the mold, though: on his debut album he’s wearing more foundation, mascara, rouge, and lipstick than Joan Rivers ever has. His publishing company was called “Sassy Brat Music”.  Even the debut album was called Whizz Kid, the name lifted from a song by then-glam rock heavies, Mott The Hoople. Werner’s similarities to his more famous glam rock seniors went deeper than the surface. In Mark Doyle, Werner had himself a talented guitarist and wingman who was almost a match for and every bit the foil that Micks Ronson and Ralphs were for Bowie and Mott respectively.  

Werner recorded Whizz Kid at no small expense to the label.  RCA dutifully swung its hype machine into full gear, attempting to give the record a breakthrough marketing push and as such apparently a huge number of copies were pressed.  Thing was, times were changing for glam-rock in late 1974.  Bowie’s latest album, Diamond Dogs, had underperformed expectations badly. T. Rex couldn’t break loose in the States. The buzz around the label was that glam was dying.  That notion was likely reinforced when the A&R folks at RCA heard early mixes of Bowie’s next record, Young Americans, which dispensed with glam entirely for a blue-eyed soul sound.

As such, the label found little purchase for Whizz Kid with the record buying public. Despite continuing to flog the album, it just didn’t move and eventually all those those vinyl copies  ended up as returns. See, back in the day, if a record didn’t sell,  stores simply sent them back to the wholesale warehouses or the labels themselves. In the case of Werner’s debut album, RCA ended up writing the album off as sunk costs, and it headed for its biggest claim to fame as the undisputed king of the 1970’s cutout bin.

If you’re under the age of 40, there’s a good chance you’ve no idea what a cutout bin is, and I feel terribly sorry for you. Every record store had cutout bins. In them were housed--usually for $1 or less per album, “cutouts”. In those days, when retailers wanted to return un-sellable records to a major label, the label usually didn’t actually want them.  They’d reimburse the retailers for the wholesale prices by check and tell them to keep the product. Retailers could then dump the un-sellable records into a dumpster...or put a notch--the “cutout”--in the jacket (which was a contractual signal that the label had no claim on sales of that record) and sell them off and pocket the money themselves.

The cutout bins of the 1970’s and ‘80’s were a joy for music nerds. You’d go diving into those bins of cheap, $1 records and wade through hundreds and hundreds of Gino Vanelli and Tony Orlando records if only in the hope of finding gems like Sensational Alex Harvey Band or the first Scorpions album or late period Badfinger. In the realm of the cutout bin, David Werner’s Whizz Kid album was legendary and king. It was ubiquitous.

The reason for that is simple: Whizz Kid is one hell of an album, a great lost 1970’s glam-rock treasure. From the fuzzy, fizzy opener, “One More Wild Guitar” (which offered Mark Doyle a chance to show off his ample skills right from the start) and right into the title track, listening now it’s hard to understand why radio never gave this a chance. The  album detours easily from that straightforward Ziggy-ness into a gorgeous ballad called “Lady In Waiting” before hitting its magnum opus, a sprawling, ridiculous, campy, and utterly amazing song called  “The Ballad Of Trixie Silver”,  a song that sounds like what you’d get if an 18-year-old kid was trying to reinterpret the sexuality of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” period with a touch of Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”...which was likely exactly the case.

It’s hard for me to put a finger on why this record didn’t find an audience when it came out. Everything’s here:  great songwriting, superb arrangements, and Werner has a pleasingly fey, Bowie-ish voice. Perhaps--beyond the institutional problems with the record business that were outside his control--the problem lies in the melodies themselves. These are songs that twist and turn to get from point a to point b. Often--as on “Wild Guitar, “Whizz Kid”, and “Love Is Tragic”--it feels like you’ve joined a song in the middle of the melody.

That’s a feel I get from another David Werner contemporary, and that’s 1970’s alternative rock progenitors Big Star. I’d love to know whether Werner was aware of Big Star creative icons Alex Chilton and Chris Bell and the first two albums of that band when he was writing Whizz Kid.  On a great Big Star song like “Back Of A Car”, as it begins there’s a weird sensation that you’ve walked into the chorus of a song that’s been playing for a couple of minutes already. A lot of Big Star songs are like that, and honestly, so are a lot of Werner’s. I’d go as far to say this, and I’ll defend this comparison to the death:  if the 1972 lineup of Big Star decided to make a glam rock album in the mold of Ziggy Stardust, it’d sound an awful lot like Whizz Kid. (The bridge halfway through “One More Wild Guitar” absolutely brings to mind at least conceptually of what happens on the bridge of “O My Soul”, as an example).

Next up: the desultory follow-up with the best 1970’s rock song you’ve never heard, plus answers for the “where are they now?” questions...and how you can actually find ripped versions of the albums online, apparently with the blessings of those involved.

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