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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the three THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, October 14, 2016

THE EVERLASTING FIRST, Part 9: My First Exposures To Some Singers And Superheroes


Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock 'n' roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it's the subsequent visits--the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time--that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

TODAY'S LETTER IS I:

  

THE INFERIOR FIVE:



In the '80s, a writer named Mike Tiefenbacher was working on some funny animal comics for DC. Tiefenbacher was using a pair of supporting characters he'd named Sacco and Vanzetti, but his editor objected, pointing out that kids wouldn't get any reference to Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists convicted and executed (perhaps wrongly) in the 1920s. Tiefenbacheer agreed that, of course the kids wouldn't get the reference, but that the names were inherently distinctive and funny in context, and that the kids would respond to that. (The editor won the argument. Editors always win arguments.)

But Tiefenbacher was right. Kids do respond to what seems funny, to what strikes them as delightfully silly, regardless of whether or not they understand the motivation, the relevance, or the back story. They just think it's funny; they just know it makes them laugh.

I was seven years old when DC published Inferior Five # 1 in 1967. It was loaded with references I didn't get, including direct parodies of the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show I knew about but didn't really know. None of that mattered. Inferior Five was silly, busy, energetic, frantic fun. It was funny. It made me laugh; I understood that fact just fine.

   

The Inferior Five's name was a take-off of Marvel's Fantastic Four, but that was where the similarities ended. The I5 was created by writer E. Nelson Bridwell, a DC staffer who'd been basically the first comic book fan to break into the comic book industry in the '60s. The team had made three previous appearances in DC's try-out book Showcase before debuting in its own title. I didn't see any of the Showcase appearances until years later, but those issues revealed the back story that the earnest but inept members of The Inferior Five were all legacy heroes, the sons and daughter of various members of a Justice League doppelganger called The Freedom Brigade: the 97-pound (and still losing weight) weakling Merryman, the powerful but clumsy Awkwardman, the cowardly archer White Feather, the corpulent, slow-flying Blimp, and the beautiful, super-strong but dim-witted Dumb Bunny.



When I first met this intrepid quintet in Inferior Five # 1, the I5 was summoned by good guy spy outfit C.O.U.S.I.N. F.R.E.D. (Competent Organization Utilizing Scientific Investigation for National Fiend, Ruffian and Evildoer Defense)--it was the '60s, and super-secret acronyms were everywhere--to thwart the evil machinations of H.U.R.R.I.C.A.N.E. (Heinous, Unscrupulous Rats and Rogues Initiating Criminal Anarchy and Nefarious Evil). By page 10, The Inferior Five (along with Merryman's grandfather, the elderly Green Hornet counterpart Yellowjacket) were being debriefed by characters lampooning The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s Mr. Waverly, Napolean Solo, and Illya Kuryakin (Mr. Ivanhoe, Caesar Single, and Kwitcha Belliakin).




Did I understand all of this when I was seven years old? No. Did I find it amusing? Oh God, yes! Action! Chills! Spills! Thrills! Plus, I learned what the word "indolent" meant! My favorite line in the whole damned thing was when the evil "Tabby" Katz, seeking to avoid a beat-down from Dumb Bunny, held up an artificial plastic baby and implored, "You wouldn't hit a woman with a baby, would you?" "No," Dumb Bunny replied, "I'd hit her with a grown man!" And. She. DID!

  
 





I next caught up with the inept avengers in Inferior Five # 3 (guest-starring a Tarzan clone called Darwin of the Apes), and again from Inferior Five # 7 through its tenth and final issue in 1968. I absorbed the I5's encounters with seemingly familiar characters like Cobweb Kid, Allergy Queen, The Kookie Quartet, Sub-Moron, and Iron Pants, plus SupermanGroucho Marx, and Norton from The Honeymooners. In the '70s, I went back and completed my Inferior Five collection. And, with or without pastiches of other characters, I loved the individual heroes of The Inferior Five.



Um...especially Dumb Bunny. Even at the age of seven, a couple of years before sneaking my first look at Playboy, I understood the appeal of a beautiful woman wearing rabbit ears on her head and a cotton tail on her curvy derriere. See, kids understand more than ya might think.


     
From Dumb Bunny to Barbi Benton--a kid's gotta start somewhere....

      

THE ISLEY BROTHERS:



I don't remember the precise year, nor am I sure which TV show I was watching, and I can't even guarantee I have the right group. But I can tell you it was a Friday night, some time in the early-to-mid '70s. I think I was watching ABC's In Concert, a weekly live rock music showcase; I don't think it was Don Kirshner's Rock Concert or Midnight Special, the other two Friday night rock 'n' roll TV programs airing in that approximate time frame. But I vividly remember watching a black group perform a simply searing version of the Seals & Crofts pop hit "Summer Breeze." I mean, this version just cooked, and I was immediately impressed with it. I liked the Seals & Crofts hit just fine, mind you, but this? This was outta sight.



I didn't catch the name of the group performing this song on In Concert. Many years later, I would figure out that it was probably The Isley Brothers. Some Google cross-checking reveals that the Isleys were indeed on an episode of In Concert in 1975, performing that very song. I'd love to see that clip again, and compare it with my memory of watching it when I was 15. Although I didn't hear the Isleys' studio version of "Summer Breeze" until a long, long time afterward, it's now one of my all-time top pop songs. Still, even that terrific record doesn't quite match the sheer intensity that I think I remember from the live version I witnessed playing on my TV some long-ago Friday night.

But the In Concert appearance was not my first exposure to The Isley Brothers. "That Lady (Part 1)" had been a huge AM radio hit in 1973, and I was certainly aware of that song. I thought it was okay, even though it wasn't specifically one of my favorites. In the summer of '73, I was more interested in AM hits by former members of The Beatles than in any kind of soul music. Little did I realize how much that soul music had influenced my beloved Fab Four.



The Isley Brothers had their first hit in 1959 with the classic "Shout," followed in 1962 by "Twist And Shout." Both songs were favorites of The Beatles, and The Beatles' version of the latter song is itself a classic (though it's a coin toss to decide which version is better, Isleys or Beatles). The Isley Brothers spent the mid '60s on Motown's Tamla label, earning a # 12 hit with "This Old Heart Of Mine" in 1966 (and somehow only scratching up to # 93 with the incredible "Got To Have You Back," which deserved at least a Top Ten berth). The group formed its own label, T-Neck Records, and finally did have a Top Ten hit with "It's Your Thing" in 1969.



I was oblivious to all of this.

But I learned better in time. "Fight The Power" was another hit for the Isleys in 1975, and I for damned sure knew that one, even if WOLF-AM bleeped out the "bullshit" line. Can't say I was an Isley Brothers fan yet, but I was intrigued by 'em, at least. The release of the film Animal House in 1978 brought the song "Shout" back into the national consciousness, albeit via a cover version by the (originally) fictional Otis Day and the Knights. But the Isleys' nonpareil original was also rediscovered by many at this time, paving the way to its current welcome ubiquity as a staple at weddings and bar mitzvahs. It's a great record that stands up to repeated play, the way great records are supposed to be played over and over again.

In the '80s and '90s, I also discovered the wealth of superb sides The Isley Brothers released in the '60s; not just the best-known hits, but less-recognized gems like "Nobody But Me" (a # 8 hit as covered by The Human Beinz), "Respectable," "Why When Love Is Gone," and the above-mentioned "Got To Have You Back." "Got To Have You Back," though an original Motown song, almost seems to return the favor of The Beatles' respect and admiration for the Isleys by bringing a little frenzied Mersey moves to the Motor City. I still can't understand why this wasn't a monster hit.





And, decades after my initial exposure to The Isley Brothers' smokin' live version of "Summer Breeze" on a Friday night TV show, my This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn played the single version on our radio show, and I knew it was The Greatest Record Ever Made. I came to love the Isleys' '70s material just as much as I already loved their '60s material. See the curtains hanging in the window, in the evening on a Friday night. It had been a few decades since that Friday night, but I knew everything was all right. "Summer Breeze" still makes me feel fine.



Quick Takes For I:



THE IDES OF MARCH: This Chicago group's only real hit was "Vehicle," which made it to # 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 in early 1970. I'm sure I knew it from during its hit reign. I guess I kinda liked it then, but I have no use for it now. Plus, the lyrics seem...well, creepy. In the mid '80s, when I was investigating '60s garage groups with the intensity of Lois Lane trying to figure out whether Clark Kent maybe possibly had a secret of some kind, I purchased a copy of the various-artists sampler album Pebbles Vol. 10; that LP contained a 1966 Ides Of March track called "Roller Coaster," which just floored me with its confident, soaring rockin' pop goodness. That wonderful record allowed me to forgive The Ides Of March for the sin of "Vehicle" (though I'm still not hopping inside your car, ya "friendly stranger" pervert).


THE INVADERS:



The roots of my interest in this '70s comic book about the adventures of Marvel's World War II-era heroes should be traced to the vintage reprints I'd read years before in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes and Fantasy Masterpieces, and to my general interest in superheroes of the '40s. I also read The Invaders' first appearance in The Avengers # 71 (December 1969), when three time-tossed Avengers found themselves battling Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner in Nazi-occupied Paris circa 1941. Writer Roy Thomas returned to his Invaders concept in 1975 with the one-shot Giant-Size Invaders, followed immediately by The Invaders ongoing series. I was enthusiastic initially, but I confess I lost interest before long. (I was a bigger fan of Thomas' All-Star Squadron in the '80s, which attempted to do for DC's WWII heroes what The Invaders had done for Marvel's WWII heroes.)





WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST Returns: J is for