Friday, October 27, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: ROCKIN' WITH RAT FINK

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 27, 2006


Did The Beatles kill Rat Fink? That’s the implication of Ron Mann’s documentary Tales of the Rat Fink, a loving tribute to visionary hot-rod artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth that was released on DVD this month.

Mann calls the film an “animentary,” an animated documentary in which still photos magically come to life (and Roth’s “anti-Mickey Mouse” gets the cartoon treatment he always deserved). Actor John Goodman gives Roth his voice, telling the story of Roth and the custom-car culture he helped create.

Roth, who died in 2001, rose to fame as a designer of some of the craziest automobiles ever known. “He and his fellow Kar Kustomizers worked in the only uniquely American art medium, the automobile,” Tom Wolfe wrote of Big Daddy.

“Personally, I flunked everything but auto shop and art,” Roth/Goodman says. He not only built cartoonish cars, but he also became famous as a cartoonist, creating hilarious bug-eyed, fang-toothed, green-skinned creatures like Rat Fink, Mr. Gasser, Mother’s Worry, and Drag Nut, who zipped around in their even more fantastic vehicles. Roth started out airbrushing T-shirts and jackets for California car clubs. By the early ’60s, his characters and their cars invaded mainstream America in the form of plastic models, beloved by a generation of glue-sniffing American youth.

So how did the lads from Liverpool put an end to this? According to the movie, after the great British Invasion of 1964, kids across the country transformed their garages — once used mainly to soup up their cars — into rehearsal spaces for their new Beatles-inspired bands.

That interpretation is a bit too neat. As a fifth-grader during that time when the freedom cry of “yeah, yeah, yeah” was first heard across this land, I remember the Fab Moptops co-existing quite comfortably with Big Daddy in my personal pantheon. Rock ’n’ roll, monster movies, professional wrestlers like Sputnik Monroe, and Big Daddy’s stable of finks all were important cultural touchstones in a well-rounded American kid’s life in the mid-’60s.

But maybe there’s a grain of truth in the idea that The Beatles signaled the end of the Big Daddy heyday. When “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became No. 1 on my local AM rock ’n’ roll station WKY in Oklahoma City, it displaced “Surfin’ Bird,” the garage-band classic by the one-hit wonders known as The Trashmen.

The Trashmen had the manic, surf-slop sound that Rat Fink himself could appreciate. I’ve always felt that The Beatles robbed them of the glory they deserved.

Actually Big Daddy had his own band, Mr. Gasser & The Weirdos, a studio outfit that included lots of respected ’60s Los Angeles studio cats. But let’s just say that as a singer, Roth was a great car designer and cartoonist. Tales of the Rat Fink wisely chose to have The Sadies, a Canadian alt-country group, do most of the music on the film. The Sadies have released the soundtrack album with 26 short, twangy, surfy instrumentals, closer in style to Duane Eddy than Dick Dale.

If The Beatles really did kill Rat Fink, Mann’s film is a fun-filled attempt to resurrect Ed Roth to his rightful status as a rock ’n’ roll hero.

More from The Sadies: Just a few weeks before the Rat Fink soundtrack, The Sadies released a two-disc live set, In Concert Volume One.

Normally, I complain when guest stars overrun albums. (See nearly all my reviews of The Chieftains over the last 15 years or so.) But this might just be the exception that proves the rule.

Because their instrumental abilities are the major strength of The Sadies, the addition of this cast of singers seems natural. Among those appearing here are Neko Case, Jon Langford, Jon Spencer, and Kelly Hogan.

Not only that, but Garth Hudson of The Band — yes, the bushy-faced guy I always think I see on the fourth floor of the Capitol every time I pass those pictures of New Mexico’s territorial governors — joins the group with his majestic and mystical keyboards.

I especially like the second disc. There you find Langford and The Sadies’ version of The Mekons’ “Memphis, Egypt” (with Case and Hogan doing Sally Timms’ shout-along harmonies) and Spencer, with Heavy Trash partner Matt Verta-Ray, leading a crazed Bo-Diddley-like “Back Off” and a Chuck-Berry-on-angel-dust tune called “Justine Alright.”

And it’s Disc 2 on which you find Case’s best moments — The Band’s “Evangeline” and “Jason Fleming,” a little-known Roger Miller song that she performs like a rockabilly goddess.

Also recommended

* A Stitch in Time by The Twilight Singers. First the real news for fans of Greg Dulli and the Twilights: the group plays The Launchpad in Albuquerque on Saturday, Oct. 28, with none other than whiskey-voiced crooner Mark Lanegan helping Dulli on vocal duties. This tour is officially to support the band’s magnificent album Powder Burns, released only months ago, but the group is also hawking this new five-song EP.

A Stitch in Time starts out with Lanegan at the mike on “Live With Me,” a Massive Attack cover. Like the best material of Lanegan and Dulli, it’s dark, brooding, and menacing. When Lanegan intones, “I’ve been thinking about you baby, come live with me,” you’re almost tempted to call the cops.

The album also includes a guest vocal by Joseph Arthur on the relatively tame “Sublime.”

But the true highlight here is “Flashback,” a cover of a song by the New Zealand group Fat Freddy’s Drop. It starts off with a bass line similar to that on Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days” and is colored by sly blaxploitation wah-wah.

If you don’t already have Powder Burns, by all means start with that. And if you’re hungry for more, seek out this EP. A Stitch in Time is available at Twilight Singers shows and on iTunes. Next month, you can get it at their record company, One Little Indian.

The Twilight Singers with Mark Lanegan perform at The Launchpad, 618 Central Blvd. S.W. in Albuquerque. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door and are available at Natural Sound in Albuquerque and www.Virtuous.com.

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