Soul & Swagger: The Complete "5" Royales 1951-1967 (Rock Beat)
Here come the “5” Royales at #149 on the Not In The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list, Winston-Salem’s signature contribution to 20th century popular music (sorry Mitch Easter, I still love you). Sixty-plus years since their debut, the Royales' accreting reputation has something to do with testimonials by those in the know and a few well-chosen compilations (which have tended toward label or genre exercises, although the Ed Ward selected Monkey Hips and Rice: The “5” Royales Anthology is the short version of this story). The never-too-late recognition of Lowman Pauling as a formative post-Elmore/pre-Hendrix guitarist has lent a hand to dismiss the Royales’ reputation as merely a southern doo-wop band. And let’s just go ahead and say it: Despite all the “who belongs in the Hall of Fame” foofaraw (of course Kiss does, it’s the Hall of FAME, and you bet there are desecrations—Gene Pitney, Brenda Lee, Red Hot Chili Peppers???), it’s pure musical negligence to place the Flamingos or the Moonglows (or the Dells or even the often boring Drifters, but I digress) in line ahead of the “5” Royales.
A better space for the Royales would be within a finite but crucial niche bracketed by Ray Charles (a fellow traveller of the sacred/profane dichotomy) and James Brown (who may well have built his career and band on the back of North Carolina’s own). I’d never have gotten to this triangulation without diving deep into Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales (Rockbeat), five CDs that traverse labels (Apollo, King, Federal, etc) and genres (pure gospel, quasi-doo wop, hard R&B, and definitely early rock and roll) to bring history to music one time for these butt-shaking innovators. Funny like the Coasters, wicked like Ike Turner, lurid like "60 Minute Man", and never ever ever New York-sweet, the “5” Royales overshadow all of doo wop, skanky mid-50’s R&B, and better known lesser lights like Hank Ballard and the Moonlighters, who the Royales had a tussle with over naming rights (Ballard’s band was first called the Royals) and who somehow got two RnR HOF slots to the “5” Royales’ none. Feh.
Soul & Swagger gives you the life story of a band whose genius appeared out of nowhere in a way that the complete works of, say, Steely Dan or Led Zeppelin don’t, because among other things Soul & Swagger has a beginning and end to it that would be clipped off any post-hoc rendering of high-net-worth name brands. And the density and acuity of information in the accompanying extended liner notes-cum-historical overture to Soul & Swagger is just about perfect: there’s not much else I need to understand the permutations of band members, labels, competition, and general music biz transactional analysis.
So let’s get down to the music. For everything that’s been said about Lowman Paulson’s guitar, you won’t hear any of it until well past the first CD of this compilation, so I’d like to retire the idea that Paulson’s six-string pyrotechnics are the modern advertisement for the “5” Royales. Their first sides for Apollo under various versions of the Royal/e franchise start with group gospel and explode once Pauling figures out the divine inversion of “Baby Don’t Do It” (“If you leave me pretty baby I’ll have bread without no meat”). These early sides (1951-1954) display a vocal group style that, being more gospel-aligned, was rougher (and also funnier) than either ballad band precursors like the Ink Spots or the Royales’ doo-wop contemporaries.
By the time the Royales moved to King Records in 1954, Pauling had come into his own as a songwriter, shifting between the uptempo novelty lyric “Mohawk Squawk” (their first song to prominently feature Pauling’s lead guitar) and minor chord blues (“When I Get Like This”). From here on, it’s crazy tune after crazy tune, most of them vehicles for the Royales' sadly unacknowledged tenor Johnny Tanner (or, later, his brother Eugene), some now classics (“Think”, “Dedicated To The One I Love” covered by better knowns) and others that should be (the feedback-historical “The Slummer The Slum”; “I’m A Cool Teenager” with it’s “House Of The Rising Sun” chord progression; “It Hurts Inside” which is basically uber-surf music).
By 1960, the marketplace for the “5” Royales (to the extent one existed) was supplanted by rock and roll, and out of desperation or necessity the band iteratively hopped labels and recorded in various permutations. Pauling’s guitar takes an increasingly central role in the arrangements and gets stranger and more tormented as the band unwittingly records its own denouement. And yet there's a great argument that the band's talent and Pauling's demons brought the band to the peak of their powers. Take a moment to pay attention to 1961’s “Please, Please, Be Mine” (released cryptically under the moniker El Pauling, Royal Abbit, the Royalton), which could just as easily have been an early Lennon/McCartney stomp—rhythmically unrelenting, vocally histrionic, with chord changes we all thought were invented in Liverpool.
Most of the tracks on this set have been compiled before, so if you have the key “5” Royales CDs (the aforementioned Monkey Hips, Collectables’ The Very Best and Laundromat Blues) there won’t be much music new to you here. But sometimes collectorama has it’s own rewards, and this is one. Soul & Swagger includes everything the band recorded in almost exact chronological order, so both the development and astonishing consistency of this jubilantly twisted band are out in the open across these five CDs. The liner notes are probably the most extensive annotation of the band outside of academia, with serious sessionography and memorabilia compris. Hall of Fame-worthy? Come on.
The Dictators: Faster. . . Louder, The Dictators Best 1975-2001 (Raven)
The Dictators belong everywhere and nowhere in the history of NY punk. Stoogish, they nipple-twisted Blue Oyster Cult, thought Lou Reed was a creep, and had roots in cheesy American pop culture (pro wrestling, Coney Island) that the Ramones would bring to full blossom (but hey the Dictators got to “California Sun” first). Neither Dolls nor Voidoids but probably the guys you’d want to meet at the kind of bar that Handsome Dick Manitoba now runs over toward Alphabet City, Raven’s Faster. . . Louder: The Dictators’ Best 1975-2001 makes the case for the band as comic book-reading, snot-nosed, surprisingly power-pop musical historians who would one day become members of notable bands like the Del-Lords, Twisted Sister, and of course Manowar. Big fans of their debut Go Girl Crazy! will be pleased to learn that this CD keeps it up impressively beyond track #6. Inspirational lyric: “Edumacation ain’t for me”.