Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Harvey Milk - Special Wishes

Harvey Milk
Special Wishes

AOTM #78, November 2006ce
Released 2006 on Megablade Records
Side One
  1. I’ve Got A Love (3.44)
  2. War (3.12)
  3. Crush Them All (5.28)
Side Two
  1. Once In A While (3.22)
  2. Instrumental (3.22)
Side Three
  1. The End
  2. Love Swing (6.04)
Side Four
  1. Old Glory (4.20)
  2. Mothers Day (8.39)

Note 1: Although this band take their name from San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor, tragically assassinated back in 1978, this is an album of superb heathen sheet metal stomp. Apparently, this lot split up back in ’98, but have now reformed at the behest of bassist Steven Tanner.

Note 2: Casual listeners please give this record a chance to unfold – these guys know what they are doing.

Crush Them All

I’ve never heard any of Harvey Milk’s previous material, and, as evidenced from my note above, had no idea what to expect from this American trio. Their records are extremely difficult to find and appear to have been released on a whole bunch of right old disparate indies. But, from the proof of this record alone, Harvey Milk is a gigantic beast of incredible power, a rock machine comprised of equal parts Glam Rock (which occupies the second part of the record) and Slow Slow Metal (which takes up most of the early stages). At first listen, Harvey Milk appear to occupy a singular place in the rock pantheon standing directly between the slow trudge of The Melvins, the post-trudge of Thrones and the ecstatically pedestrian glamour of Mick Ronson’s ‘Angel Number 9’, off his second solo LP PLAY, DON’T WORRY. Indeed, four songs – ‘Once In A While’, ‘The End’, ‘Old Glory’ and ‘Mothers Day’ – exhibit the kind of Mick Ralphs-meets-Bill Nelson-meets-Ronno Glam Descent that only the truly sentimental could be capable of. And yet the members of Harvey Milk have gone out of their way to obscure this fact by cleverly sequencing SPECIAL WISHES so as to give the listener the initial impression that it’s gonna be monomania from start to finish. And so I include this here note to the fainthearted: give this record a chance and you’ll reap your reward in Rock Heaven (ie: Hell).

On SPECIAL WISHES, the sealclubbing drums and blunderbuss bass collide with the same tectonic plate crushing as Joe Preston's highest levels of Thrones programming; indeed, in places even approaching the cranium death of the recently-deceased Khanate. Featuring a rhythm section comprised of Paul Trudeau on Dale Crozer-level numbs’n’concussion and Steven Tanner on sub-bass fury, remember never to invite these two to a summer sleep-over as their fly-swatting techniques would inevitably bring down the walls of your house. Harvey Milk is, furthermore, propelled by the post-Glam, post-Grunge, post-apocalyptical visions of songer/writer/axe-wielder Creston Spires, whose singing sounds something like John Cale, Kurt Cobain or High Tide’s Tony Hill; that is: traditional, Middle English/Transatlantic, masculine and baritone, but drawn out to garrotted levels like every verse was performed with his head already in the noose and a be-hooded executioner in attendance. The band’s southern roots and double-tracked wailing guitars immediately suggest that Lynyrd Skynyrd influences should be somewhere in evidence, but that’s far too easy a call, and is no more than a mirage that fades like heat haze on a summer road when investigated fully. In truth, nothing about Harvey Milk is laid back enough to be Skynyrd-informed. Even at their most pissed off, Ronnie Van Z’s boys still had the funk and considerable amounts of it. For the three gentlemen of Harvey Milk, however, the closest any of them could ever get to cutting a rug would be getting up off the couch to grab a beer. Sure, if Harvey Milk had been around in the early ‘70s, they’d most probably have signed to Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records but, even then, you can just guess that these contrary motherfuckers would have rejected the Allman Brothers party line in favour of bunking off for an evening of fake pagan rites with the late Ron Goedert’s White Witch. From time to time, this SPECIAL WISHES album also invokes the spectre of heavy duty progressive rock, as the three protagonists often take their arrangements into pure Yes territory and keep it there for minutes at a time. However, just as Flower Travellin’ Band’s enormously barbarian take on King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ eradicated every last drop of jazz jizz from the original, so do Harvey Milk banish all of the la-de-da chorale Jon Anderson/Rick Wakeman elements in favour of a Chris Squire/Bill Bruford mathematical balls-to-the-wall approach. Ja, mein hairies!

SPECIAL WISHES is a stunning record that begins in the kind of pure metal territory that reveals no sentiments whatsoever, and remains there for the first three songs. ‘I’ve Got A Love’ and ‘War’ are harsh and gleaming stentorian assaults on the listener of the kind that suggest that this will be the monolithic standard of sonic attack throughout. However, the arrival of the cartoon senselessnes of ‘Crush Them All’ unites those same metal hammer attitudes of the first two songs with a hugely pop sensibility, as though Kurt Cobain was waving a copy of The Melvins’ HOUDINI in front of their noses. This is the pivotal turning point of the whole album, the point where Harvey Milk emerges from behind its Buzzo’n’Dale fixations and demands a whole other lane on the rock’n’roll highway. Once ‘Crush Them All’ finally subsides, the outrage continues in an entirely different manner, as swooping and sentimental Glamrock twin lead guitar announces ‘Once In A While’. From here on in, Harvey Milk exhibit a Zen attitude towards their arch display of dynamics, ranging from total and utter nihilistic destruction to pin drop silence. ‘Instrumental’ is a stone classic, shit, these guy’s could do something off E.L.P.’s BRAIN SALAD SURGERY and still make it sound current. And when, on ‘The End’ (my personal favourite) they combine Thrones’ methods with a ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’-style megaballad, even this Floyd-hating psychopath has to admit they’ze on to something. ‘Love Swing’ sounds like Speed Glue & Shinki’s ‘Stoned Out Of My Mind’, I mean that slow (though nowhere near as cunted and punky, but then could anything be?), it’s even like The Move at their slowest (‘Brontosaurus’-meets-’When Alice Gets Back to the Farm’ (roots-of-glam or watt). Admittedly, The Melvins always remain close at hand throughout this record, except for the dodgy anti-war honesty of ‘Old Glory’, which contains lyrics so gauche, so unutterably arch and cringeworthy that I gots to love it. On ‘Old Glory’, Creston sounds about as genuine as Gary Numan on that album sleeve where he’s shocked by the little pyramid. Moreover, from the manner in which he orchestrates this song, it’s clear that Creston Spires himself is obviously aware of its embarrassingly twee side. Still, I’m the last person who can ever complain about such things, and the song’s tail-out is a magnificent racket to encounter. The album concludes with the eight-minute orchestrated epic ‘Mothers Day’, whose gorgeous organ-and-strings introduction prepares us for a pleasantly settled John Cale-style elegy, only to cut us to the quick with the kind of Glamrock intensity that The Melvins exhibited circa HOUDINI’s version of Kiss’ ‘Goin’ Blind’, but multiplied sevenfold to include all the guitar strangling so beloved of James Williamson’s ‘Joanna’, Neil Merryweather’s Space Rangers and High Tide’s Tony Hill at his most raging. Apparently, this record took an age to write, rehearse and release, and it shows. Gentlemen, you’ve wasted nothing and made every second count. This music is essential and should be on everyone X-Mass list. One final comment though: I wish the sleeve wasn’t so shit. I mean you’re supposed to be making some dosh off this and everyone’ll just burn copies because there’s nothing essential on the cover. Okay, that’s my only complaint, and that’s only because I’m an old motherfucker who believes that rock’n’rollers should get their dues, not play as amateurs because their fans didn’t feel the ‘item’ itself was not essential and a burn was enough. So picture disc next time, and plenny o’glamorous shots and pop biogs (Creston’s favourite percussionist, etc), got me? To the wider world, these guys are back and – though most of us never even knew they’d been away – their return is guaranteed to make the Western world an unsafer place. Right On.