In high school, I knew as little about good music as I did about life.
The real music nuts in my high school were miles ahead of me. They were listening to R.E.M., the Violent Femmes and Public Image Ltd. while I was obsessing over Warrant and Slaughter. I went from a contemporary Christian phase right into a metalhead phase, passing over the good stuff in the process. My record collection at the time included Carman and Ride the Lightning, and little between those two extremes.
And by the time I was a sophomore in high school, if you had long hair and could shred on a guitar, I probably owned your tape. Trixter. Tora Tora. Badlands. Kik Tracee. Britny Fox. Dangerous Toys. Band after terrible band found its way into my plastic cassette-carrying case, and virtually none of them have survived the switch-over to CDs. Here’s another one: Steelheart. Who the hell are Steelheart and why did I listen to them? I have no idea.
The change in formats has really shown me the nuggets of corn floating in that ocean of shit. I would never buy Hurricane’s old albums in pristine digital editions, but I have snapped up CD copies of the bands that, to me, stood out. And one of them was Boston’s Extreme, one of the most ambitious and talented acts of the hair metal era.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “More Than Words,” right? It’s the only Extreme song most people know, a wimpy acoustic ballad that sounds like the Everly Brothers with a bad hangover. It’s not that awful, but it took me years before I could play it and enjoy it again, so thoroughly did it infect the airwaves in 1991 and 1992. Things you should know: “More Than Words” was an anomaly on an otherwise pretty heavy record (1990’s Pornografitti), and to the band’s credit, they never wrote another one like it.
Extreme started out as a funky metal band, writing little ditties about cannibalism and pedophilia. In Gary Cherone, they had a strong vocalist with a flair for off-the-beaten-path lyrics, especially in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And in Nuno Bettencourt, they had a guitar player who would make Eddie Van Halen weep. I’m not one for flashy playing much anymore, but when I was, man, they didn’t come flashier than Bettencourt. Blistering solos, syncopated riffs, just an all-around mastery of pop-metal guitar heroics, and to top it off, he could play piano too. His versatility blew my 16-year-old mind.
Earlier, I called Extreme one of the most ambitious bands of the era, and no album exemplifies that more than 1992’s III Sides to Every Story. It’s just about 80 minutes long, divided into three sections – a heavy, funky powerhouse of an opening act, followed by a clever, mainly acoustic middle eight, and a grand finale. The last section is called “Everything Under the Sun,” and it’s a 20-minute epic performed with an 80-piece orchestra, arranged by Bettencourt. It’s amazing, still.
Naturally, with Saint Cobain’s Flannel Army routing all competition on the airwaves at that time, III Sides flopped. Extreme made one more album, 1995’s live-in-the-studio Waiting for the Punchline, then broke up. Cherone joined Van Halen for a disastrous album and tour, then formed Tribe of Judah. Bettencourt made a solo album, then recorded with three other bands, mostly flirting with a dark industrial sound. And famously, he was the holdout on VH1’s Bands Reunited, the one who wouldn’t agree to get the band back together.
Yes, I know a little too much about Extreme, but I liked them a lot, and still admire their records. Which is why the news that after 13 years, Bettencourt had at last agreed to make another Extreme album filled me with giddy joy. I can’t explain it. Extreme were silly and often laughable, but they also helped a 16-year-old kid see beyond hair metal to other types of music, so they have a special place in my heart. And also, III Sides is still an amazing piece of work.
I can’t say I knew what to expect from Saudades de Rock, the reunion album. But you know what? It’s great, probably Extreme’s second-best record. The title is Portuguese, and loosely translated means “a nostalgic yearning for rock.” Dumb title, I agree. But the record lives up – this is a ROCK RECORD, loud and tight and melodic, with virtually none of the sugary pop-metal of the band’s past. Seriously, just give a listen to “Comfortably Dumb,” the second track. It’s like Audioslave, if they were awesome.
Bettencourt, bless his long-haired heart, hasn’t lost a note – he still plays these lightning-fast solos that easily type him as a child of the ‘80s. But he also brings his trademark versatility to bear on Saudades. Sure, “Star” and “Comfortably Dumb” are pretty typical riff-rockers, but “Take Us Alive” is almost a hillbilly shuffle, and “Last Hour” is what critics in the ‘80s used to call “power blues.” “Learn to Love” combines a whip-smart metal riff with a southern rock chorus, then segues into a tight, technical, almost progressive middle section. Check out new drummer Kevin Figueiredo – Extreme has had more drummers than Spinal Tap, but they’ve found a good one here.
There is no “More Than Words” on this record, either, thank God. The closest is “Interface,” a mid-tempo love song with those Cherone-Bettencourt harmonies, but it isn’t drippy. The closing song, “Peace,” nearly steps over the line into goopy sentiment, but a long, joyous coda rescues it. Best of the slower songs is “Ghost,” which starts as a piano ballad but evolves into a U2-style minor-key anthem.
I would never suggest that Saudades de Rock is one of the best albums of the year, but I quite like it. As a reunion album for one of 16-year-old me’s favorite bands, it exceeds all of my expectations. As much as I like more “serious” music, bands and albums championed by the likes of Pitchfork, some part of me has a nostalgic yearning for rock too, and this album does it for me. It’s more than just a rock record, though – Saudades de Rock ably shows just how versatile and ambitious Extreme were in their day, and apparently still are.
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I was hoping to review the Levellers, another band I loved in high school, but as of yet, their new album Letters From the Underground hasn’t hit my mailbox. (The perils of still buying physical CDs, I guess…) So instead, I’ll talk about something else I loved during my younger years.
I’m still plowing through my Doctor Who DVDs, but in addition to watching the last few Doctors chronologically, I am picking up the new classic series releases as they come out, and slotting those into my viewing pattern. I’ve kind of put off diving into Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor until his final batch of stories, under the heading The Trial of a Time Lord, hits stores in October. So it’s Doctors one through five for me for a while.
Luckily, DVDs are coming out at an amazing rate these days. We’re on pace to have 13 classic stories released this year, not counting the modern series stuff, and I’ve been frantically trying to catch up with the flurry of Time Lord goodness. Back in June, the Beneath the Surface box set… well, surfaced, and I’ve finally made my way through all three stories in this collection. Two of them star Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor, and the other features my Doctor, the fifth, Peter Davison.
These three stories are linked by their villains, the Silurians and the Sea Devils. They are two species of prehistoric reptiles that once ruled the world, and they’ve come out of hibernation to discover that the apes have evolved into these two-legged resource hogs, running rampant over the planet they still consider their home. The Silurians live in caves, the Sea Devils in underwater caverns, but their motivation is the same.
And it’s a neat one. As early as Jon Pertwee’s second story as the Doctor, the production team was finding new ways to do alien invasion stories – Pertwee’s Doc, you’ll remember, was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, leaving the writers very few Who-ish story types to choose from.
That second story is called Doctor Who and the Silurians, though not really – that was a mistake the credits producer made, appending the series title to the real name of the story, The Silurians. It’s a seven-parter, a hallmark of Pertwee’s first season, and as such it’s a slow build. It starts in a nuclear power station, one that has been experiencing strange power drains. The Doctor and UNIT are called in when a pair of scientists explores the caves under the station, and encounters… something.
Over two long episodes, the Doc picks up clues, then heads into the caves himself, meeting a cheap plastic reptile… I mean, a fearsome monster. After that, the story picks up steam – the opening episodes are painfully slow, but important, and the buildup is masterful. By the end, the Doc has met the Silurians, and discovered their claim to the Earth, and he tries to broker peace between them and the humans, who are itching to drive what they see as invaders from their lands. Things boil over when a rogue Silurian infects a human prisoner with a deadly virus, and releases him back to the surface.
Overall, this is a successful story, although it’s marred by the squonking music. Pertwee’s on form, Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier is typically excellent, and Caroline John proves that her Liz Shaw should have remained as a companion after the seventh season. Director Timothy Combe wisely keeps the cheap rubber Silurian costume out of view for four whole episodes, as the story suffers once the screen is crawling with the buggers. It’s seven parts, meaning almost three hours long, but it deserves it, and the final shot, as the Doctor watches the Brigadier blow up the Silurian caves, is devastating.
Initially, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between The Silurians and the season nine story, The Sea Devils. For three of its six episodes, in fact, the story could have been titled The Master (And Also Some Sea Devils). This tale is a showcase for Roger Delgado, the first and best Master – you’ll remember, he’s the renegade Time Lord who plays Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes. At the start of the story, the Master’s been locked up in an island prison, but of course, not for long…
The Doctor and Jo Grant, his bubble-headed assistant of the time, sail out to see the Master, and to investigate a series of attacks on ships near there. Slowly, we learn that the Master has taken over his prison, playing the warden like a piano, and has plans to contact the Sea Devils, the prehistoric race of amphibians that has been attacking those ships.
It takes a long time, but we finally learn that the Sea Devils are cousins of the Silurians, and want the same thing – they feel they have a legitimate claim to the Earth, and the Doctor agrees. The British military, on the other hand, doesn’t, and treats the Sea Devil attacks as an act of war. Of course, just as the Doc is brokering a peace treaty, the military attacks, blowing up the Sea Devils’ underwater base. Mayhem ensues from there.
Yes, it’s essentially the same story again, and yes, both The Silurians and The Sea Devils came from the pen of the same writer, Malcolm Hulke. But this one is better, by far. For one thing, there’s Delgado, slippery and stylish as ever, stealing every scene he’s in. For another, the production team lavished a ton of money on this story, gaining the cooperation of the Royal Navy and using real military equipment and soldiers. The battle sequences in episode six are among the best Doctor Who ever put on screen, and while the story has a similar ending – the Sea Devils’ invasion is routed, with much loss of life – it benefits greatly from the telling of it this time.
So the stage is set, then, for the two prehistoric races to combine their forces and engage humanity in one last, fantastic battle for the planet. Right? Um, right?
Yeah, there are many words to describe Warriors of the Deep, the premiere of the show’s 21st season, but “fantastic” isn’t one of them. On paper, it’s exactly what you’d hope it would be – the Silurians and the Sea Devils team up to attack an underwater base on future Earth, the first step towards wiping out the humans and taking back the world. The plan, actually, is a good one – they will use this underwater base to launch nuclear missiles, igniting another world war, and then rise from the depths when humanity has finished obliterating itself.
Of course, the Doctor, here played with trademark energy and wit by the great Peter Davison, gets caught in the middle, and tries valiantly to save the day. As this is the final season of Davison’s run, however, things go badly, and by the end, both prehistoric races lie dead, victims of the humans’ last resort weapon against them. The story should have been an emotional buildup to the towering last line – “There should have been another way,” delivered with great feeling by Davison. It should have been a triumph.
Sadly, this is yet another of those stories for which nothing, absolutely nothing, went right. The seabase sets are well-built, but astonishingly overlit. The Silurian and Sea Devil costumes have been redesigned, and somehow look cheaper than their 1970s counterparts. The entire guest cast has the acting chops of a block of wood. The script is painful – writer Johnny Byrne often had great ideas regarding character motivation and back story, but they never translated to the page, and hence never made it to screen.
And then there is the Myrka. It’s supposed to be this gigantic reptilian beast, a last-resort secret weapon, a terrifying monster from the depths. In reality, it’s two guys playing pantomime horse under this green latex and rubber thing, with a googly-eyed head and ineffectual little arms. It’s unintentionally hilarious, and because the set is so overlit, we get to see it in all its glory. It’s amazingly bad. You hear a lot about the cheapness (or, as Frank Zappa would say, cheepnis) of ‘80s Who, and it doesn’t come cheaper than the Myrka.
At least, I hope not.
And then there is the bit where Ingrid Pitt’s character tries to stop the Myrka with awful martial arts moves. I can’t even describe this scene, it’s so godawful. Warriors nearly pulls it out in the fourth episode, which actually lets the prehistoric reptiles give their side of the story, but by then it’s too late. At only four episodes, Warriors of the Deep is at least an hour too long, and sitting through it is sheer agony punctuated by moments of hysterical laughter.
Taken as a trilogy, Beneath the Surface starts strong, gets stronger, and then sticks the landing. You’ll enjoy the slow burn of The Silurians, cheer the great performances and storytelling in The Sea Devils, and then want to throw Warriors in a landfill. It’s an intriguing reversal of the alien invasion story, all told, but I wish the ‘80s team had let it lie. As Davison’s Doc said, there should have been another way.
One last note – I took my Doctor Who fandom to a new level this month by obtaining all the Loose Cannon reconstructions. There are 108 episodes missing from the BBC archives, the tapes wiped simply because television was more ephemeral in those days. But off-air audio recordings exist, and photographs from the set, so we have an idea how these stories may have looked and sounded. Well, there’s this crazy group of fans called Loose Cannon who have taken it upon themselves to reconstruct the episodes, using every available tool.
And trust me, these things are awesome. Far from being boring slideshows, the Loose Cannon recons are fascinating glimpses at episodes I never thought I’d see. I’ve watched Marco Polo, the fourth-ever Doctor Who story, and even though my copy’s audio is very soft, the recon is amazing. (The story, as well, is fantastic.) And I’ve seen Galaxy 4, a William Hartnell story with a lousy reputation. It’s not bad as a story, and the recon is unbelievable – for this one, the Loose Cannon team built props (including the robot baddies) and shot new scenes. It’s a wonderful labor of love, and I’m grateful for all their work.
Loose Cannon recons are free, and only available on VHS – otherwise, the BBC would probably crack down on them. I wouldn’t recommend these to any but the hardest of hardcore fans, and I suppose having written that, I now number myself among them. I’m not thinking about it, though. I’m off to watch Mission to the Unknown, lovingly reconstructed for my viewing pleasure.
Next week, some of the most complex pop you’ll ever hear.
See you in line Tuesday morning.