In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.
The Vintage Years
Format: Double LP
File Under: Cro-Magnificence
Key track: "Feels Like A Woman"
As legend (read: that old burnout that used to come into the record store I worked at) has it, Jimi Hendrix was once asked in an interview what he thought about all the neuron-blown bands like the cosmically sloppy Blue Cheer that had sprung up in his wake in the late '60s–bands who frequently dropped Hendrix's name as their main inspiration. Jimi allegedly said something like, "Please, kind journalist sir, don't ever mention Jimi Hendrix and Blue Cheer in the same sentence ever, ever again." (Oops, sorry, Jimi.) Regardless of whether that story is fact or apocrypha, it's easy to imagine Tony Iommi expressing a similar sentiment in 1972–that is, if he'd been asked about Black Sabbath's possible influence on the God-with-a-lobotomy greatness of The Troggs' "Feels Like A Woman."
When "Feels Like A Woman," the B-side of the single "Everything's Funny," came out in June of 1972, The Troggs were broken down, washed up, and screwed sideways. "Wild Thing," of course, had become an instant rock 'n' roll anthem on its release in 1966, but by the summer of '72 they were already a nostalgia act (that is, minus most of the nostalgia). The listening public by then had outgrown such dunderheaded gut-punches in favor of smoother, more laidback grooves. Although heavy metal–still being brutally carved from the belly of blues-rock in some ghastly, protracted C-section–was on the rise, it was mostly gaining traction among the knuckle-dragging and acne-stricken. Black Sabbath was one of the few truly heavy bands making inroads to the mainstream, which is probably why The Troggs decided to enlist Rodger Bain, the producer of the first three epochal slabs of Sabbath, to helm the recording of "Feels Like A Woman."
I first heard "Feels Like A Woman" many moons ago when I bought a secondhand copy of Sire's 1976 Troggs anthology, The Vintage Years. I probably picked it up and put it back down again five times before finally deciding to purchase it. That cover–some pink-and-blue, proto-new-wave crime against elementary design principles–is just so fucking ugly. I had maybe a couple dozen LPs in my fledgling collection back then, so one atrocious album cover really blew the average. See, that's the double-edged sword of vinyl: Compared to all other formats, the artwork is HUGE. Which means great covers look really, really great, and bad covers look really, really bad.
The thing was, I couldn't stream or download or assimilate or anally insert The Troggs' music back then. I knew "Wild Thing" from the oldies station, and I knew Lester Bangs thought they were punk, but that was all the knowledge I could glean about the band in that primitive year, 1991. So I gritted my teeth, held my breath, turned my head away, and threw down five bucks for The Vintage Years.
I'm sure you see where this is going. I though the cover was ugly? 'Tweren't nothin' compared to the music inside! But that, dear reader, is where you done out-thunk yourself. See, despite what Lester Bangs or Lenny Kaye or any other I-see-a-punk-around-every-corner rock scribe of the '70s ever said, The Troggs were not as hideous as their cave-dwelling namesake, the troglodyte. They weren't retarded. They weren't a bunch of Limey Fred Flintstones banging away on dinosaur eggs. Okay, so maybe they were all that. But they were also just some regular dudes trying to make a buck off rock 'n' roll and perhaps avoid real jobs for a few years in the process. Despite the fat royalty checks that (I hope) they still receive every month, it's almost too bad "Wild Thing" became their signature song, and in fact one of the dozen or so most recognizable rock songs of all time. How can you live that shit down?
The sprawling, eye-straining liner notes of The Vintage Years–seriously, they take up the entire inner gatefold and take about as long to read as it does to listen to both LPs–were written by Ken Barnes, one of the contributors to Greg Shaw's classic zine, Who Put The Bomp (which, of course, Bangs and Shaw and Greil Marcus, Troggs fans all, wrote for). Barnes does a pretty good job at ignoring the caricature and accentuating the mundanity of the band. For instance, he pulls out two Troggs quotes that say more about the group, for better or worse, than all exegeses past and present:
Troggs leader Reg Presley (no, that's not his real last name–aim high, guy), when asked about the band's lyrics being "dirty": "Earthy, yes. What else could a laborer from Andover in Hampshire be? Earthy, but not dirty." [Author's note: British A.V. Club readers are welcome to translate the above quotation for the benefit of their Colonial cousins.]
Troggs drummer Ronnie Bond, when asked about being handpicked by David Bowie to appear on the latter's Midnight Special TV show: "It was the contrast, like. Bowie is, y'know, effeminate, like. An' the whole show was a bit effeminate. So for us to go on must have been a contrast."
Blunt? Yes. Macho? Just a smidge. Mildly homophobic? Um, pass. Poetic? I submit "Earthy, but not dirty" as the most efficiently eloquent description of The Troggs anyone will ever devise (i.e. yes, I know I'm rambling). In fact–despite The Trogg Tapes, the notorious recording of profane, in-studio banter that helped keep the group in the public eye after it surfaced in the '70s–The Troggs made some downright pretty music. It could even be pretty AND dumb AND pounding, like the achingly horny, downright gorgeous "Give It To Me." But even when pop music accelerated with the advent of psychedelia, Reg and crew tried to keep up by crafting sinister psychotropic slithers like "Night Of The Long Grass" (the type of grass, I suspect, that my mom once got arrested for growing in our back yard) and "Cousin Jane" (the type of Jane, I suspect, that… ah, fuck it). When disc jockeys rode The Ohio Express to a wonderland of Dayglo and bubblegum, The Troggs reciprocated with helium-brained hum-fests like "Hip Hip Hooray" (which provided the primary sample for Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray. In my dreams).
In a sense, "Feels Like A Woman" is just as shameless a stab at chart action as the fake psyche and trick gum. After all, "Woman" blatantly and even kind of emptily apes the ur-metal of 1972-ish. But here's where things turn ironically postmodern for our staunchly quotidian Troggs: By '72, rock as a whole had finally caught up with the inveterate heaviness of "Wild Thing," and Reg Presley and crew found themselves being pushed aside by the very bands they wet-nursed. The Troggs likely felt quite entitled–and who could blame them?–to try ripping off Sabbath. But a funny thing happened in this serpent-swallowing-its-own-tail scenario: "Feels Like A Woman" is heavier, weirder, and more menacing than anything in Ozzy's worst nightmares (which, you have to imagine, were probably pretty bad back then). Presley sings like his head is a pimple being popped. And the guitars? It would take ten more years and the heyday of hardcore before guitars would sound that pants-shittingly dangerous again.
Context is everything, though, and that's why "Feels Like A Woman" blows "War Pigs" away every time. "War Pigs" is how Sabbath is supposed to sound. There's no shock there–just another hellishly bowel-trawling Sabbath song, God bless it. But The Troggs were never, ever meant to sound like that. Like their contemporaries The Kinks and The Faces, they were supposed to be making campy concept albums or good-time boogie-rock as they slipped into their 30s. To hear Reg's cute, reedy little snarl so pissed and insinuating is just plain scary. I'll hand it to Presley, though–there's a savage deconstruction of The Kinks' "Lola" lurking in his ostensibly stupid lyrics for "Woman": "You've got the face of an angel / And there's love in your eyes / Now I know only too well / THAT IT'S JUST A DISGUISE!!! / You walk, you talk, you act like a woman / You look like a woman to me / You move, you groove, you love like a woman / You feel like a woman to me." Read into that what you will.
So there you have it, folks. The Troggs: Clueless opportunists who failed worst when they tried hardest, and who only ever seemed to succeed by accident. Yes, they wrote spunk-splattered, groin-centric teen screamers and had some serious hormones pickling their hypothalami. They could also crank out vivisecting riffs with one hand and angelic hooks with the other. They've been cartoonified, deified, covered ad nauseam (one more version of "Love Is All Around" and my lunch is gonna be all around), and they've had their one moment of eternal glory overplayed to the point that no one wants to hear it ever again. But they've survived. Which is more than you can say for the caveman.
Current whereabouts: The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame? Not quite:
Availability: As of this writing, some guy's trying to sell a used copy of The Vintage Years on vinyl for $35 on Amazon and eBay. Good luck with that.
And for your further reading pleasure: Below is a list of The A.V. Club's Vinyl Retentive entries so far. Collect 'em all.