Chopper Franklin’s “Spaghetti Western Dub Vol. 1” Was The Post Punk Dub Album I’d Waited Over 40 Years To Hear – postpunkmonk.com
Let me begin the tale in the following way. It was 1981 when listening to WPRK-FM the college radio station that I kept my ear glued to in the holiest of musical years. Slipped into the playlists was a single by a band new to my ears: Theatre Of Hate. The single was the stentorian fusion of Post-Punk and Spaghetti Western ethos and most importantly, the 12″ version was the song mixed into a massive dub concoction as produced by The Clash’s Mick Jones. I’ve had that 12″ single and the “Westworld” album for over 30 years.
Then a few years passed and at the decade’s midpoint, I was enamored of the 4AD band Colourbox. I bought everything I could get my hands on. In 1986 there was a CD compilation simply called “Colourbox” and it had another tantalizing glimpse of the mesmerizing fusion of Spaghetti Western music and Dub in “Looks Like We’re Shy One Horse/Shootout.” I couldn’t help but think that the two disparate styles of music got on like a house on fire. So when was someone going to really deliver the Spaghetti Western Vs. Dub goods that made all the sense on the world to my ears? As it turned out, I had to wait another 37 years, but ex-Cramps bassist turned Gothic Gunslinger Chopper Franklin has dared to venture in the dusty arroyos of the Spaghetti Western genre and has fused it with Dub to deliver a cinematic musical vibe chock-full of wild hybrid vigor. Ladies and gentlemen; we present “Spaghetti Western Dub Vol. 1.”
Moreover, he’s dared to create mostly vocal songs in the styles we’re talking about. I was astonished because the Spaghetti Western genre was primarily an instrumental groove. I love great guitar instrumental music, so I have a few Spaghetti comps I picked up in the 90s on the heels of the resurgence of surf rock I was enjoying at the time. These songs sported narratives every bit as evocative as the films of the genre itself, with antiheroes riding to their doom in a desperate moral vacuum not unlike the one in Film Noir… only set in the lawless West.
As Mr. Franklin has been helming the Gothic Americana group The Heathen Apostles for years, he wisely enlisted his vocalist in that group, the multifaceted Mather Louth, to sink her teeth into these songs. There were also male vocals courtesy of The Phantom Of The Black Hills, a Gothic Desperado band also on Franklin’s Ratchet Blade Records label [the man is a one man industry unto himself!]. When I pressed the play button I was rewarded with an album that I had high hopes for that easily surpassed my expectations.
“Blood, Tears, And Thunder DUB” featured the intro to the song rising in the distance like a cloud of dust as synth drones and reverberating vocal snatches came into focus like a whipcrack as Ms. Louth provided the omniscient narrator role to the tale of desperation and violence over the Dub Reggae rhythms that afforded Franklin a spotlight for his powerful bass work. Power which was absolutely matched by the verve of Ms. Louth who was blissfully, surprisingly, channeling the bold, brassy delivery of Dame Shirley Bassey on these songs! It was not enough to merely mix Spaghetti Western and Dub in this cauldron, but the element X of the vocals came in at a third angle to create an absolutely spellbinding fusion of genres. Gleefully mashing up wildly disparate vibes from the sixties and the seventies. Listen here.
The first song had been a pre-release single. So too was “The Scorpion Says DUB.” The interplay between the dubbed out, skittery rim hits and the rolling bassline was an evocative foundation for which Ms. Louth added the cream of her intoxicating vocals. Damnation has never sounded so luxurious! And while I think of Spaghetti Western, and Dub, for that matter, as instrumental music, the incisive lyrics from Mr. Franklin’s pen slice right to the dark heart of the genre with such poetic examination of the ripe themes we find in the Spaghetti Western genre. “Cowards and maggots” indeed!
Then the fever peaked on “The Day The Men Died.” The dubbed out melodica added a mournful mien as subterranean bass drone painted the bleakest of pictures. The only glimpse of hope in the soundstage was the subtle mandolin that was almost trampled under hoof. Throughout it thus far, Ms. Louth had been the dispassionate narrator, but the stakes got really high on this track and she was spitting out the lyric like Grace Jones in dominatrix mode. Eventually crossing the line into seething instead of singing. Biting down with violence on the lyric. The heartless reverb of the Dub mix only salting our wounds further. And then, in a masterstroke, the second vocalist entered the song.
The Phantom Of The Black Hills sang the point of view of a condemned prisoner of the song’s title. Here he reminded me of Zodiac Mindwarp’s grizzled delivery as he sang the tale of a vicious and unrepentant man of violence as he profanely spat in the eye of propriety to his very last breath. What a song and what performances! The singers here were singing like they meant every word.
The next track gave the spotlight to The Phantom Of The Black Hills after his, uh, arresting star turn in the previous song. The dark energy of the last song receded somewhat as “Gold In Every Hand” proffered The Phantom singing the verses in a very lazy Lee Hazelwood fashion as a world weary narrator before roaring more defiantly on the song’s chorus. Tar pit bass and vocal samples from actual Spaghetti Westerns pulling us along for the ride.
A dialogue sample of “String him up, muchachos!” opened the instrumental Dub of “You Can’t Drown Your Sorrows In Blood.” Mournful peals of tubular bells added their desolate vibe to the melodica that took the tuneful lead here in the absence of a singer this time. This track was along the lines of what I had been expecting up front by the project, but I hadn’t know what singing we’d be in store for on the album when I first was looking into it.
The perfect point between a vocal and instrumental number was reached on the haunting “The Ghost Of A Believer DUB” where film dialogue of a woman was given counterpoint by the mournful refrain by The Phantom Of The Black Hills, barely there in the mix as indeed, a ghostly presence in the song, singing “lay me down, in fields of stone.” Crafting a hook that gets caught in my mind for hours at a time.
The final “The Return of Revenge DUB” gave the bass guitar the last word on the album for an instrumental coda before the album had two bonus tracks added to the mix. It had been a radical tactic for Franklin to offer dub mixes of vocal songs in the first place, but the methodology of the album called for each track to gradually give way to Dub dissipation by the end of the cut as the version energy took over. On the last two tracks, we got to hear what were the “straight” Spaghetti Western versions of the first two tracks in all of their defiant majesty. All strings, horns, and rolling tympani. Does it work? Absolutely! But the world has no shortage of Spaghetti Western compositions already.
The great leap here was not only in making Dub mixes of such material, but then putting strong and charismatic singers in the songs. Giving me three different vectors of pleasure every time I listen to it. Marveling at how my wish for a full album of Spaghetti Western in Dub has finally been granted; magnificently, by Chopper Franklin with Mather Louth and The Phantom of the Black Hills. There are 200 signed and numbered CDs of this one in the band’s Bandcamp store with rich screen-printed artwork just begging to be taken home. And there’s an international version CD that features affordable postage to Europe! They have thought of their audience! If you’ve ever thrilled to a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, or chilled to a Dub version, then brother, have they got the album for you! You know the score. DJ hit that button!