Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Ponderosa via Memphis: Falco, Chilton and Burnside

Tav Falco's Panther Burns - Blow Your Top
Tav Falco's Panther Burns
Blow Your Top (4 song EP)
rough trade (1982)

If any old time TV character was in need of "A Very Special Episode", it was probably ol' Pa Cartwright, the rageaholic patriarch of the popular TV Western Bonanza who would Blow His Top at the drop of a cowboy hat. He never could take Lil' Joe or Hoss's word on anything and try as they might, they couldn't do the right thing without breaking a few rules. But Adam, the first son, was a pure suck-up, always pointing out when Joe or Hoss broke the rules and thereby further enraging his tightly coiled father. Despite this, Enabler Adam was kind of okay - after all, he dressed the best and would always show up in the end with a well-aimed shot at whatever varmit was trying to do bad. He always seemed to be silently snickering when Pa went hog wild.

Lorne Greene became more touchy-feely in later years by appearing in dogfood commercials and Wild Kingdom. I always watched the dogfood commercials thinking that there were probably a couple dozen outtakes with Greene strangling the dog, spitting out the caterer's coffee and kicking the director's ass around the set. The rumor that an alligator had bitten off one of Greene's nipples during a Wild Kingdom filming only makes us wonder if something like this happened. Unlike the Bingster or Joan Crawford (or Michael Landon!), no child has stepped up to characterize Greene as anything but a kindly old man prone to writing poetry and displaying a deep love for animals. But come to think of it, Lorne's other big character was the patriarch of the roving tribe of Battlestar Gallactica, another character who would occasionally go into irrational rages. Despite attempts to portray him as contrary, he just seemed like a bitter old fuck no matter how you cast him.

But back to the Ponderosa sons. I know its a stretch but Tav is kind of like Adam here, mostly pure suck-up to the original chord progressions and rules of Memphis Sun Studio rock and roll. Here he covers four semi-obscure rockabilly songs. There's nothing wrong with them - perhaps the recording could have been cleaner - but its a bit traditional for my taste. Why not just track down the original tracks is what I'm saying? Not to say, there's not a little contemporary sound embedded in the songs (listen to the guitar in beginning of "I'm on This Rocket", the background vox in "Bertha Lou" or Falco's scat-vox in the middle of "Pantherman"). But it's like Adam wearing black and looking hip as compared to Lil' Joe's rube hat or Hoss's baggy brown pants. He still a bit of a jerk and Joe and Hoss are the guys you wanna hang out with (well, maybe just Hoss).

While the comparisons others have made with The Cramps may make sense with Falco's other releases in this period, this EP has more in common with the Texas Playboys than Lux and Ivy. It's more swing than psycho, more Sun studios than Swampabilly crunch. Considering Falco was the toast of the No Wave scene, it's either endearing to think that he didn't bother to incorporate any of their influences or just frustrating that we had to wait for another record or for Jon Spencer to do so. At any rate, Tav Falco is what he is and just like Adam you can't really make the dog do a new trick if he doesn't want to.

And if Tav is Adam, then surely his pal and discovery Alex Chilton is Lil' Joe, much more adventurous and willing to take a chance albeit a teenybopper at heart. Falco, who started out as a film/video maker first ran across Chilton in Memphis and they became fast friends. Chilton encourage Falco to pursue music and collaborated with him on Panther Burns and solo projects. Their mutual friendship was helpful for both and while its possible that Chilton, former Box Tops singer and Big Star, would have been re-discovereddiscovered without Falco's help, it's unclear where and when that would have happened given that Memphis was a big place with lots of similar songwriters. When they worked together, they worked best for Falco at least. Not surprisingly, Chilton is nowhere to be found on this record even while he is credited with starting Panther Burns (by Jim Duckworth in his memorium linked below).

Finally, we have to give Falco props for also making R. L. Burnside into the known entity he is today, plucking him from obscurity and a probable early anonymous death by making a film about him in the '70s. You would hate me if I extended my loathsome Bonanza metaphor and labeled Burnside as our Hoss but there is some of Dan Blocker's sadness in Burnside's voice (or vice versa), though I would hardly call him the comic relief of music.

At any rate, Chilton and Burnside have successfully synthesized the Memphis sound into something uniquely their own, something different and exciting and Falco, at least at the time this was released, was still only an Adam, looking good in black, precise in his shooting but still a relative musical straight arrow, pretty much following through on the book written by Elvis, Jerry Lee and Carl so long ago.

Adam Cartwright tries to impresses Pa with his rock and roll expertise in:

"I'm On This Rocket" (160 kbps, 3.1 Mb)
"Pantherman" (160 kbps, 3.1 Mb)
"Love Is My Business" (160 kbps, 2.6 Mb)
"Bertha Lou" (160 kbps, 3 Mb)

"Oogum Boogum" - Alex Chilton. Imagine Michael Landon doing the Teen Beat thing in the '60s releasing a single and then singing it on the Andy Williams show, black shirt open to the naval, Ray-bans and, of course, cowboy hat, boots and buckle.
Note this is a legal download but bypasses the silly Epitonic Black Box nonsense. If you insist on going through Epitonic, here's the referring page.

"Bad Luck City" - R. L. Burnside reimagined as Hoss coming back from a bad time at the gambling table.

Again this is legal but bypasses all the nonsense you have to go through to download it. Amazon's MP3 download page (search on "burnside").

"Hardtime Killing Floor" - R.L. Burnside (also courtesy Imagine if Pa, Adam and Joe were massacred by the Virginia City folks (whom I always thought were portrayed as rotten city-dwelling parasites). Well, Hoss might have sung this while he drank a barrel of whisky.

  • Trouser Press Panther Burns page
  • A Tav Falco fan page of note
  • Vinyl Mine hero and NextBigThing's Pa, Lindsay Hutton, explains the origin of Panther Burns' name and reviews their first EP here way back in 1981
  • Tav reportedly lives in Paris and is rumored to be a dance instructor. His own label (Frenzi) is supposedly still releasing his records. Here's another fan page that has news about it on their discography page.
  • Blow Your Top was combined with the Panther Burns' first album Behind the Magnolia Curtain and re-released as a CD by Triple X Records in 1994. It is currently out of print and searches on Froogle and Amazon have been fruitless - checked e-Bay as well and no joy. That said, his collaboration with Alex Chilton, World We Knew was a masterpiece creating a whole new sound for Falco. It can be found at Gemm on vinyl and begs for a CD re-release.
  • Bob Willis and The Texas Playboys home page.
  • Where are they now:
    • Jim Duckworth played guitar with Panther Burns. He was another Alex Chilton pal and no doubt was introduced to Tav. He went on to play in the Gun Club
    • Drummer Jim Sclavunos stuck with the formula of playing with a frontman and is now drummer for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
    • I've been unable to track down anything recent from Ron Miller who played Bass fiddle on this record.

And finally, in loving memory of Lorne, Michael and Dan:

The Cartwright Boys (and Pa)
(img courtesy

Saved Rounds:
- So does all this make Hasil Adkins Hop Sing, the offensive rockabilly stereotype? Answer: No but it does call into question The Stray Cats.
- Jason from Mystery and Misery has Vinyl Mine in some good company in his Top 10 Music Blogs of 2004. Jason's blog links to free and legal cuts with the awesomeist of discretion because he actually listens to the cuts beforehand! He's also one of my early supporters - giving me advice and encouragement earlier this year. I can't say how many times I've stopped cold in the street and pulled out my iPod to figure out what was playing only to discover its a song I downloaded via M&M.
- Bonus Mp3!


KS said...

Tav Falco didn't discover Alex Chilton. Alex had been in two major label bands (one with hit records!) and recorded several solo records by the time he met up with Gustavo. If you have not heard "Bangkok", the 45 Alex did with Chris Stamey in 1977, go find a copy now!

Jim H said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim H said...

Maybe I should have said "rediscovered" - Chilton having quite a history before he met Falco (Box Tops, Big Star) - my stupid bad for not registering. Also, according to Jim Duckworth's article (linked above), Chilton founded the Panther Burns and handed it off to Falco (much to Duckworth's dismay). There's alot of history here - has anyone ever written a book or do we have to rely on Internet bios?

KS said...

I did not know that AC started the Panther Burns. I guess I should get around to reading the recommended websites.

The whole incestuous Memphis scene is fascinating. You’ll hear about what sounds like a little pickup group and find out that they have 2 or 3 great records.

If you like Big Star at all you need to find the ROCK CITY record that came out last year. This is the band that turned into Big Star when Chilton joined. Great songs, several of which got rerecorded (or just used again) on the first two Big Star LPs. Also Norton Records put out an EP of the Jynx, which was Chris Bell’s high school garage band.

All of the Scruffs records are worth hearing and so is the Memphis Goons record if you can find a copy.

And I can’t recommend Jim Dickinson’s DIXIE FRIED enough. What a great record.

paris chilton said...

Hi, first time visiting your great site - For the full story on how Chilton discovered Falco (not the other way around - I believe Chilton had already produced the Cramps at this point), read It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon - there's tons of great anecdotes about the Memphis scene from the 50s to the late '70s. Also, the Alex Chilton album Like Flies on Sherbert really exemplifies the incorporation of those no-wave influences into basic rockabilly.

Thanks for these mp3s... cheers!

Jim H said...

I probably get alot wrong and the more I find out yes it's Chilton who discovered Falco not the other way around (and isn't it true the Lil' Joe's choleric personality was exactly what Adam needed to be human?)

- thanks I will check that book out.

I think the thing about Mp3 blogs is that they take the R. Meltzer approach to rokrit a bit further in that you can listen to the tunes they're writing about and come to the conclusion on your own whether its total bullshit.

By the way, check out Margot's band The Assault at and her blog at (I really like the brown Craylola color design).