Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Can’t Control Himself: Deceased Artiste Reg Presley

I wanted to do a tribute to Reg Presley upon his death, but the single best paean to his band the Troggs, and to Reg’s own sexy growling vocals, was already written by Lester Bangs in 1971 — it can be found in the book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung from Vintage, which I urge you *go out and buy* right now.

Lester starts the piece by “calling out” his readers: “…You can talk about yer MC5 and yer Stooges and even yer Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zep, yep, all them badasses’ve carved out a hunka turf in this town, but I tell you there was once a gang that was so bitchin’ bad that they woulda cut them dudes down to snotnose crybabies and in less than three minutes too… They not only kicked ass with unparalleled style when the time came, they even had the class to pick one of the most righteous handles of all time: The Troggs.”

Lester’s article runs a mammoth twenty-seven fucking pages in the book (it originally appeared in a mag called Who Put the Bomp), and it is quite possibly one of the best-ever rambles by a rock critic about one of his fave underrated bands (oh, except for every other blissfully indulgent piece by Lester about yet another one of his favorite criminally underrated bands). The title of said piece? Why, “James Taylor marked for death” (with a short but effective plan to off “sweet baby” JT).

Lester left us three decades ago, but his writing is just as vibrant and enthusiastic now as it was then — and please don’t blame him for the thousands of pop-culture critics who’ve attempted his style without having consulted his sources (the Beats and innumerable poets) and without having a millionth of his talent. Reg Presley was equally unique, although he at least got 71 years to share his rare talents (and singular preoccupations) with us.

Presley died a week back in the same town he was born in, Andover, Hampshire. Lung cancer claimed him, after a series of strokes had only slowed him down (he was still on tour in Dec. 2011 when he got the cancer verdict). Here he is singing one of the Troggs’ best slow numbers “Love Is All Around” in 2009.

Reg (original last name Ball) came from a working class background and worked as a bricklayer until he was SURE that Troggs were actually taking off (i.e. had entered the charts). He had only one wife and remained married for half a century with two kids — a very normal life for one of the nastiest-sounding dudes to wield a mic in the mid-Sixties.

What Bangs taps into in his tribute to the band is the raw tone that the Troggs had. Their best songs have a provocative “garage” sound that set them apart from a lot of the other British invasion bands — the Stones probably were the only British group that bested them in terms of sounding over-modulated and legitimately nasty while selling lots of records (the Kinks and Who were far too well-produced acts with terrific lyrics front and center).

Reg developed other interests as the years went on. He patented an automatic fog-warning device (!), but it was only after his patent expired that it was used at Heathrow. He also became obsessed with UFOs, crop circles, lost civilizations, and alchemy. His 2002 book on these topics was called Wild Things They Don’t Tell Us. (I imagine Lester would’ve been pleased and amused by all this.)

“Wild Thing” was obviously the single biggest Troggs hit, but Presley didn’t write that one (Chip Taylor did). He did, however, write the very memorable “Love Is All Around” and “With a Girl Like You.” The line “your slacks are low/and your hips are showing” from “I Can’t Control Myself” got the song banned from BBC Radio.

Here the Troggs perform “With a Girl Like You” (a lipsynch) on French TV, standing in front of posters of James Brown, Elvis, Brando, and Dean:

The Troggs singles were very well-produced and grungy as fuck, but their vintage live performances were also pretty damned garage. Here they perform “I Can Only Give You Everything” for a live, screaming crowd:

In his epic Troggs tribute, Bangs goes off on these lyrical rambles about what the Troggs’ most carnal-sounding songs were really about. He imagines “I Just Sing” as a come-on sung by a depressed teenage boy on a date, “Give It to Me” as pre-feminism ode to giving pleasure to one’s partner, and “66-5-4-3-2-1” as being a nasty countdown to orgasm.

Those are Lester’s own discursive takes on these tunes (prob composed under the influence of Romilar, or an upper, or a particularly bright moon), but the Troggs’ best singles did seem particularly “possessed” of a kinky fervor:

The Troggs fit snugly into the category of “garage rock,” but they did also take excursions into psychedelia, despite the fact that Reg and his mates weren’t drug-oriented (they drank — and Reg once noted he smoked up to 80 cigs a day at his worst). Here is their trippiest hit, “Night of the Long Grass”:

The Troggs performed together on and off for four and a half decades, but their time in the limelight was waning by the end of the Sixties. At that point, they had an argument in a recording studio that became the infamous “Troggs tapes” (the plural is incorrect but it’s always used).

Presley later said that they were kidding when they were having that “fuck”-filled discussion, but the tape was heavily circulated in the Seventies, becoming a favorite among rockers and fans alike, to the extent that it is said to have “inspired” This Is Spinal Tap. I’ve never found the recording all that funny (it’s just an interesting chronicle of guys who liked to curse cursing), but there is one line that remains: drummer Ronnie Bond declaring that for a song to be good, you’ve got to “put a little fairy dust over the bastard.”

One of the hands-down best latter-day Troggs song was this nasty little item written by Reg — which does perfectly reflect Bangs’ views on the band being a bunch of sex-crazed muthas. It’s a killer and is very rarely heard:

Given my cinematic preoccupations in the Funhouse, the only way I could end this piece clip-wise is with a moment that makes me deliriously happy every time I see it. Two of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s three early shorts exist, and I am very glad he (or his mother?) preserved “Das kleine chaos” from 1966.

The film shows RWF’s debt to Godard and also to American gangster cinema. Its plot concerns three bored young people who decide to rob a rich woman. At the end when they discuss what they’ll do with the cash, Fassbinder devilishly smiles and says “I’m going to the movies” and then the Troggs absolute-killer “I Can’t Control Myself” plays as they run out to their car and ride away.

Music was always an integral part of Fassbinder’s cinema — I’d argue that the composer Peer Raben was perhaps his most seminal crew member, next to his cinematographers. He also used pop-rock from many countries, from Elvis and Janis to Kraftwerk. This sudden, unexpected use of the Troggs is the first example of his perfect use of music in his films, and I can’t recommend the short highly enough as a result — esp. if you like watching people who act like they’ve seen a lot of old movies, as with Godard or Mean Streets. The bit in question kicks in at 8:13:

I can only close out with Lester’s words about Reg’s voice (which he said was linked to “groin thunder” – Bangs was nothing if not a coiner of brilliantly picturesque terminology). Again, this comes from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, published by Vintage:

“Reg Presley didn’t have the Tasmanian-devil glottal scope of an Iggy, but he did have one of the most leering, sneering punk snarls of all time, an approach to singing that was comprised of equal parts thoroughly digested early Elvis, Gene Vincent and Jagger… the best way to describe it would be to say that he sounded raspy and cocky and loose and lewd.” Amen.

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