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11 Jun 2016

Ron Nagle “Bad Rice” 1971 US Classic Southern Rock

Ron Nagle “Bad Rice” 1971 US Classic Southern Rock


A pretty radical departure from his work with first-wave (and decidedly non-psychedelic) San Francisco group the Mystery Trend, keyboardist and singer Ron Nagle unleashed this superb little masterpiece in 1970, which then promptly disappeared without a trace. Perhaps the album packaging (see the last photo at bottom of this post) had something to do with it. Nevertheless, somebody believed in this project. Just take a gander at the liner notes, and you’ll see that the collaborators on Bad Rice included Sal Valentino on back-up vocals, Ry Cooder on guitar, Bruce Botnick handling studio engineering duties, and Jack Nitzsche and Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue serving as producers. Truth be told, I never cared much for the Mystery Trend, so it was a genuine surprise and pleasure to find out how enjoyable this album is.
Brimming with characters like Chuckie, Matilda, Eddie, Frank, Dolores, Sister Cora, and Joe Carioca (Disney’s dapper Brazilian parrot?), the story-songs of Bad Rice bear at least superficial similarity to some of Lou Reed’s comparable works with subject matter that focuses on eccentric personalities. Whatever Nagle had been doing since the Mystery Trend’s demise in 1967, he had evidently engaged in a lot of people watching and lyric writing during his downtime. To wit, he is the sole songwriter on all but two of the LP’s 11 tracks, with guitarist and longtime associate John Blakeley being one of only two other co-writers. From everything that I’ve read, Nagle was not into the hippie drugs of choice, but it does not necessarily mean that Bad Rice will not appeal to those who enjoy mind-expanding music. The album is very much a product of its time, when it seemed like most of the country was high on one level or another anyway. Intentional or not, much of this music can be appreciated as psychedelic.
Introduced by some blistering slide guitar, the cryptically-titled “61 Clay” gets the LP off to a rocking start, that’s for sure. Whether it was inspired by the address of an infamous locale, Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” (as some writers have suggested), or material used for his artwork (Nagle is best known for his ceramic cups), the song remains appealing in spite of its somewhat inscrutable lyrics. An anti-drug piece, “Marijuana Hell” completes a powerful one-two punch of opening cuts that both feature guest musician Ry Cooder. I still can’t get the refrain of this one out of my head. Does that mean I’m addicted to “Marijuana Hell”? The string arrangements on “Frank’s Store” are vintage Jack Nitzsche and reminiscent of the work he did on Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly” from Buffalo Springfield Again. “Party in L.A.” is another fine rocker, while the solo piano piece “That’s What Friends Are For” almost sounds like something Billy Joel (!) could have done. The lush “Dolores” has Nitzsche written all over it and is probably something that I would have not liked ten years ago for sounding overly-produced. Funny how time changes one’s perspective on things. “Capricorn Queen” and “Sister Cora” provide two more sublime rocking moments, with the former kinda sounding like something off of the lone album by John Cipollina’s early 1970s group, Copperhead, and both showcase the underrated guitar talents of John Blakeley. “Somethin’s Gotta Give Now” has a country feel to it by virtue of the steel guitar supplied by Steve “West Virginia Creeper” Davis (from Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen), whereas “Family Style” almost sounds like an English music hall composition. The bipolar “House of Mandia” veers from hard horn-based R&B to ersatz samba and somehow works, at least in my book.

I should also mention that, later in the 1970s, Nagle began a fruitful musical partnership alongside Scott Matthews, with whom he recorded as the Durocs and wrote songs for an extremely diverse group of musicians including the Tubes, Michelle Phillips, and Barbara Streisand. And while I’m dealing with some random subjects here, if you want to read another analysis of this album and a damn fine essay to boot, check out this post on fellow music blogger Johnny Pierre’s site, Rock and Roll Is a State of Mind. Thanks, Johnny, for providing me with the inspiration to seek out Bad Rice in the first place.

As usual, this won’t be for everybody. But give it a chance, and you might find that this collection of exquisitely crafted tunes will grow on you.
Ron Nagle — keyboard, vocals
John Blakeley — guitar, percussion, backing vocals
Brad Sexton — bass
Ry Cooder — electric bottleneck guitar, rhythm guitar (01, 07)
West Virginia Creeper — steel guitar (09)
Jimmy Getzoff — strings
Mickey Waller — drums
George Rains — drums (04, 06-08)
Sal Valentino — backing vocals
Jim Barnett — backing vocals
Jack Nitzsche — percussion, producer
Tom Donahue — producer (02, 04, 08)

1. 61 Clay
2. Marijuana Hell
3. Frank’s Store
4. Party in L.A.
5. That’s What Friends Are For
6. Dolores
7. Capricorn Queen
8. Sister Cora
9. Somethin’s Gotta Give Now
10. Family Style
11. House of Mandia  

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