Tuesday, April 16, 2013

No Rest for the Wicked: Music Ramblings & A Tribute to Helix

There are few types of art that fans get more clannish about than music. Fans can be downright dogmatic. The classic rock fans sneer at the heavy metal fans, then the heavy metal fans sneer at the country fans and rinse repeat. After awhile it can start to sound like one annoying SAT question. I was lucky enough to be raised in an environment where all sorts of music was played. My Mom listens to the Statler Brothers and AC/DC with everything in between, so sonic schizophrenia is something I come by quite righteously. The beauty of this is that the odds of missing out on some truly great music becomes significantly lowered. It also grants me the opportunity to horrify some of my less broadminded friends.

One of the best genres to do this with is rock & roll. Sure, most love The Beatles, but when it comes to hard rock, that's when it can get elitist. That's why artists like The Dictators still don't get the critical love that they deserve, and yet folks wet their collective pants over dinosaurs like Eric Clapton. Face it, Clapton was a born dinosaur, especially after the dissolution of Cream.

In the pantheon of underrated hard rock bands, one of the greatest examples is the Canadian group Helix. While they did receive some airplay with their anthem, “Rock You,” they ended up flying under the radar as inferior bands got bigger notice. In a era where Bon Jovi was huge, you can feel my dismay. One of the best things about Helix is that while they didn't exactly reinvent the wheel, they instead took the wheel and made it the best damn one that they could. Like alchemists of rock, they were even able to get away with one of the biggest cardinal sins of 1980's...the dreaded ballad! Yet, when Helix does a ballad, say something like “Make Me Do Anything You Want” or “Dream On,” it has texture and heart. So many bands were like a dead eyed stripper grinding dutifully for your money, whereas Helix is the one that will actually make eye contact, perform like they mean it because maybe,just maybe, they do actually mean it.

My first big exposure to Helix was landing a copy of the video compilation, “Red Hot Rock.” At the time, the main selling point for me was more based on The Tubes content than anything else. It may seem strange nowadays with the blessed advent of sites like YouTube and Vimeo, but accessing certain music videos back a few years ago was more the luck of the draw than anything else. Stranger still, there were a handful of videos made that were definitely not MTV friendly. While the PG versions of these clips would occasionally play, their more R-rated incarnations were left in the ether of the occasional showing on the then brand new Playboy channel, in nightclubs and the burgeoning frontier of VHS.

One of the bands that took advantage of this new format was Helix, who had not one but two music videos on “Red Hot Rock.” There's the wonderfully goony clip for “Rock You,” featuring the band on some kind of post-apocalyptic chain gang. They break free early on and are greeted with lots of fire, greased up topless warrior women and some of the worst background dancing in music video history. This is the kind of case where the biggest boobs in the video are the non-Helix dudes. 

The second saucy video is their cover of Crazy Elephant's 1969 hit “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin,” featuring the time worn plot device of a Miss Rock Fantasy beauty pageant. Like “Rock You” before it, there were two versions, including a PG one as well as an R-rated one. You can guess which one made it on “Red Hot Rock.” Hint: it's the one with the titties.

The video is a fleshy splendor of lovely girls, ¾ of which cannot dance to save their lives, echoing their brethren in “Rock You.” Some like to focus on the obvious aspects here, namely the jiggle factor, some of which included scream queen Brinke Stevens and Traci Lords, who gets to look smashing in an S/M style getup while destroying produce with a sledgehammer. Hey, it's still better than “Blade.” But forget all that, because the inner core of amazement belongs to the band, between the song, which is that rare cover that improves upon the original, and the fact that lead singer Brian Vollmer can out dance any of the girls. For proof, check out the PG rated version featuring one of the man's famous somersaults, which is slowed down for the most epic effect.

From then on, I ended up picking up a vinyl copy of their 1984 album, “Walkin' the Razor's Edge,” which featured “Gimme Gimme” and it was solid love after that. Each subsequent album bought just got better with nary a bum track. Given that we're talking about a band that continued to make solid rock & roll in the bloated waters that were the 1980's, this is an amazing fact. Hard rock and metal bands that once had some modicum of integrity sold their souls to Satan to create chart topping “power ballads.” (Ironic name for something that usually lacked power or any kind, unless you count the power to suck ass.)

A huge part of my love for this band is also the feeling that these are guys that truly love what they do. When artists, whether it is poets, actors or musicians alike, are genuinely into what they are expressing, then they will never play you for cheap. Seeing some Madison Avenue friendly “rockers” like the aforementioned Bon Jovi, complete with perfect hair, white teeth and insipid music that plays it as safe as any boy band, is so depressing. Helix, even in the spandex and fringe era were defiantly unpretty, with Vollmer almost gleefully displaying his missing tooth in at least a few videos (“Rock You” immediately comes to mind.) That is way more sexy than the ole bait and switch of much of the fare that passed as rock back in the days of MTV.

Speaking of which, everyone needs to kill any nostalgia they may have for MTV. Sure they used to play music videos but keep in mind they would usually play the same five clips over and over again. While you would patiently wait, hoping to maybe catch a glance of something actually good, whether it was Siouxsie & the Banshees or Motorhead, you would have to endure 8 hours of the latest Whitney Houston video. Don't let the haze of age cloud your memory, folks. MTV sucks now but it kind of sucked back then too.

Something that definitely does not suck is the sheer tenacity of Helix, especially in the form of the man, Brian Vollmer. Despite line-up changes, losing a key member with the untimely passing of guitarist and song writer Paul Hackman in 1992, being mugged and, at one point, having his vocal chords heavily damaged only to get back to full singing capacity by learning the classical vocal technique of Bel Canto, the man has still kept the band alive and kicking.

Even better, while they may remain a cult band here in the States, Helix has had some resurgence in their native Canada thanks to the brilliant television show, “Trailer Park Boys.” If a show as great as “Trailer Park Boys” can show some love to Helix, so can you.

For more information on Helix, check out their official website: www.planethelix.com