The Mr. T Experience's Dr. Frank : 10 albums you should love as much as he does
Thursday, March 12, 2020 - 17:12
- by Tom Dumarey
The Mr. T Experience’s history spans over 30 years and eleven studio albums, not to mention countless singles and EPs. All of which you can now relive thanks to ‘Mtx Forever,’ a 24-song compilation that kicks off a reissue of the Mr T Experience's entire remastered catalog (order here).
Through the decades of gradually evolving line-ups and their contributions, the one consistent element of the band has been Dr. Frank: guitarist, wordsmith, and melody maker. And the man who was kind enough to spare us a moment of his time to come up with a list of 10 albums you should probably love as much as he does. Brace yourself though. There are some deep dives here that will make you feel like you don’t know the first thing about music.
1. The Wombles – Keep on Wombling
The Wombles might have been an unremarkable children’s TV program had it not been colonized by pop genius Mike Batt, who turned the underground-dwelling litter-collecting creatures into a furry suit-wearing rock band and provided a soundtrack of breathtaking brilliance. This is the third Wombles album, the most fully-realized work of the Wombles corpus, and it is orchestral psych-pop at its finest, a wide-ranging collage of stylistic pastiche, inventively conceived and arranged, each song a little work of art all its own, yet part of an integrated whole. And that’s even without the added-on “Wombling Merry Christmas,” probably the finest, most moving Christmas song ever conceived in the pop idiom. Golden tears falling from heaven.
2. Rufus Harley – King/Queens
The first (only?) jazz bagpipe player in the world, Rufus Harley made several strange, surreal, and, by my lights, utterly charming records beginning in the mid-60s. One of music’s great originals, he reputedly decided to take up the instrument after seeing the Royal Scots Regiment’s Black Watch marching in JFK’s funeral procession. He regularly performed in kilt and tartan (though occasionally with a horned Viking helmet.)
It is arguable that 1966’s Scotch and Soul is the best of his records, but I am immensely fond of King/Queens, his fourth album, because it’s the first one I heard. The cover of the Association’s “Windy” is guaranteed to shift my mood in an upward direction whenever needed. I used to play it frequently on my radio show in college, during which time I was frequently in need of uplifting, and it never failed. As it did not fail when I played it just now.
3. The Hi-Fives – Welcome to My Mind
Of the small handful of records by my Lookout Records contemporaries that I can still manage to listen to for fun, none holds up as well as this ‘60s-punk-evoking garage-pop rock and roll barn-burner. With great, hooky songs end to end, and a jittery energy throughout, it pulls you right in and is over all too soon. I doubt I’ll ever get tired of it, which certainly places it in a unique category.
4. The Hardy Boys – Here Come the Hardys
The Hardy Boys cartoon series was meant to compete with Scooby Doo, and aired on Saturday morning for a single season in 1969. Frank and Joe Hardy and their bandmates Chubby, Wanda, and Pete were a rock and roll band that solved crimes in between the gigs they drove to in their way out, funky van, after which they would perform a song. Unlike many cartoon bands of the era, the Hardy Boys was basically a real (if “assembled”) band, whose members the cartoon images were obviously drawn to resemble. They included a member of the Grass Roots, a classically trained pianist and Playboy Bunny (Wanda), and, most surprisingly, the great Robert Crowder of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame on drums.
These songs are terrific, and I consider this album a neglected gem. It brings joy to my sad little world. I don’t recognize any names from the songwriting credits outside of “Loizzo”, who must be Gary Loizzo of the American Breed. For me the highlights are “Namby Pamby”, “My Little Sweetpea”, “That’s That”, and especially “Those Country Girls.” I never saw this show when it was on, though possibly I could have. I investigated it retrospectively after discovering the album in a bargain bin. I do have a great fondness for that style of far-out TV psychedelic animation, particularly on the musical segments. All the cartoons of my youth were like that, reflecting a real life psychedelic world that I’m very fond of as well. Stuff like this taught me how to write songs, so it’s a good thing they were great. The songs, I mean.
5. The Osmonds – The Plan
This astonishingly ambitious concept album (intended, quite sincerely it appears, to explicate a particular Mormon doctrine of metaphysics and salvation) is surely one of pop music’s strangest artifacts. Its twelve tracks cover a wide range of styles and approaches, surprisingly “heavy,” and pretty (and only occasionally cutesy) by turns. And while much of the content is intriguingly beyond my comprehension and over my head, I have no doubt that is, in its way, a genuine masterpiece, the Pet Sounds of Mormon metaphysics, if you like. This context gives the contemporary-classic rock and roll tropes of “It’s Alright” and “Traffic in My Mind” a mysterious undercurrent and depth, especially when “Goin’ Home” is preceded by “The Last Days.” But I have no trouble grasping the meaning of “One Way Ticket to Anywhere,” something for which I often find myself wishing – and it is, in fact, all Mormonism aside, one of my favorite songs.
6. The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
Few will need an introduction to this from me, I know, but it’s celebrated for a reason and has only gotten better and more compelling with age. As a mopey adolescent, I could find no better theme music, no better soundtrack for my angst and loneliness, no better backdrop for the elusive sense that there was, somewhere, a beauty and meaning in the world, ungraspable though it might seem. As a mopey old guy, I find that to be still more or less the case, and maybe even moreso.
7. The Television Personalities – ...And Don’t the Kids Just Love It
What Jonathan Richman started, Dan Treacy picked up and finished, at least in my little mopey teenaged world that somehow seems to continue to this day. Just take that stuff I said about the Modern Lovers and repeat it in a London accent. I had heard “Part Time Punks” on a Rough Trade compilation, but I bought this album mainly because I liked Twiggy and John Steed on the cover, and wasn’t prepared for the tidal wave of rough beauty, honest pain, and sheer eccentricity that hit my when I got it home. I’ve never got over it.
8. Ethel the Frog – Ethel the Frog
Sometimes you stumble on a record that might have been tailor-made for you, and while Ethel the Frog may not make anyone’s top ten greatest albums of all time list, it certainly ticked a lot of my boxes and still does. The obscure Monty Python referencing name, the surprisingly effective, out-of-left-field cover of “Eleanor Rigby”, the low-key production that evokes the garage more than the studio or the stadium — I have loved this record dearly, while acknowledging its arguable flaws, ever since the above-mentioned stumbling. It was the Monty Python reference that did it, mostly, plus the hard-to-construe, kinda sexy cover that did it too. (In both cases, it didn’t take much.)
Hull’s Ethel the Frog was formed in 1976, and was an obscure but notable “node” in what would come to be known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Like many such groups, they labored in squalid, sweaty obscurity, surfaced briefly to emit a single, an album, and a compilation track, before a quick disintegration and dissolution into the ether. The “Eleanor Rigby” single was self-released (in 1978), instantly becoming a collectors’ item because of novelty and scarcity. The follow-up LP released on EMI in 1980 on the strength of this success was probably bought by most mainly on the basis of this opening track. While the rest of the album is uneven, it does have its moments, and includes some great double leads and satisfying rock and roll energy. The relatively low-fi production lends a dark tone to the proceedings. It also arguably makes the complexity of some of the arrangements more impressive. You can really hear the real band behind the noise. It’s only rock and roll, but… well you know…
9. Witch – Lazy Bones!!
Psychedelic hard rock doesn’t come any heavier or groovier than this Zambian group, and I can almost guarantee that this, their fourth album, will knock anyone who likes heaviness and grooviness sideways. The band’s name is an acronym for “We Intend to Cause Havoc,” and cause it they do, like an African Grand Funk Railroad or Deep Purple but with a little bit of something extra. If you’ve never heard “Zamrock” before, this is a great place to start.
10. Emitt Rhodes – Emitt Rhodes
Emitt Rhodes is one of those guys where you hear the music and think, why the hell didn’t he make it big? The fact that he’s not a household name calls into question the rationality of the universe, or at least, that of the record business and popular culture (the questioning of the rationality of which is, of course, not at all counter-intuitive.) In fact, it’s something of a tale as old as time, of a young genius chewed up and spit out by the music biz before he stood a chance of satisfying the commercial obligations and expectations placed upon him. As singer-songwriter of the brilliant yet short-lived psych-pop outfit the Merry-Go-Round, he had already penned an enduring classic “Time Will Show the Wiser”, later made famous by Fairport Convention.
This, his subsequent solo release, was a critical smash and a modest commercial success, but his contract with ABC/Dunhill called for an album every six months for three years, which was much more than the young pop auteur was prepared to deliver. The label sued him for a quarter of a million dollars (far, far greater than the $5,000 advance he spent on recording equipment.) They withheld royalties, and (in one of those self-defeating shoot-yourself-in-the-foot strategies labels so often seem to adopt) refused to promote the two follow-up albums. That’ll show him, they said, I suppose. Needless to say, his career as a pop star didn’t survive.
What did survive, however, is this quite amazing 1970 album, recorded in solitude by the artist over the course of a year in his parents’ garage. It is pretty much the perfect pop album, the best Paul McCartney record you never heard. Indeed, I’ve heard him dismissed as a McCartney imitator, which is not an inaccurate description by any means; but it really fails to get across the unique and subtle brilliance of the songwriting, performance, arrangements, and production. (Not gonna lie though: his voice is uncannily like Paul’s, and when I first heard “Promises I’ve Made” I assumed it was some weirdly neglected McCartney b-side.) The compositional subtlety is hidden by the praeternaturally confident and assured execution. Just try to sit down and learn to play these songs on the guitar. When I did it, I learned chords and voicings I’d never theretofore imagined, a concealed, almost baroque foundation underlying the seeming simplicity. It is the most perfect, most neglected, and almost most forgotten pop album I know.