Sunday, May 19, 2013

An Appreciation: THE LAST

An Appreciation:


NOTE: As with my other entries in my An Appreciation series, this is not a history of The Last.  It is written from the perspective of a fan, not an insider.  So, if you are wanting to find out more in depth info on The Last, please visit their website HERE!

In August of 1979, The Last literally changed the way I listened to music. Before then, I would not give a second glance to anything released on an independent label. But then I bought The Last's debut album, L.A. Explosion the very week it was released... and my view of the music world changed....

At the time, I was 15 years old and heavily into New Wave, Punk and Power Pop music. Growing up, I had been an avid fan of The Beatles, Glen Campbell, Badfinger, The Monkees, Queen, Neil Diamond, The Osmonds and many other '60s and '70s acts that I had encountered on the radio and TV. But when I first saw The Jam on TV in '77, they blew my mind and I started following this new kind of music.   But being a pre-internet young teen, I didn't know much about independent labels.  I just assumed that they were pretty much the same thing as private press albums you'd find eccentric multi-instrumentalists like Bobby Brown selling at the swap meet on Sunday mornings. 

And no, I'm not referring to the same Bobby Brown that led Whitney down her self-destructive path... I'm referring to this psychedelic folkie who played crazy instruments and sang crazy songs... well, at least that was my impression when I first saw him when I was in my early teens. Nowadays, I love this stuff:

Bobby Brown

Anyway, I would take my weekly allowance and head over to Licorice Pizza (on Brookhurst and Chapman in Garden Grove) and buy things that were released via major labels.  This is in the days when I'd buy albums from The Records, The Cars, Yachts, Bram Tchaikovsky, The Jam, The Clash and any other band of that ilk signed to a major label.  Most of the time, I bought things based on album covers, labels, etc. I had never heard of most of the bands and I was always searching for something that would excite me. If the band members looked cool and they were signed to Polydor (for example), then I'd buy it.  I would even buy things based solely on who produced it! Anything on and indie label was avoided.  Funny thing is, many of the albums I bought were actually on indie labels in the UK (Stiff, Radar, Chiswick, etc) but were being distributed by majors in the U.S.  I was not aware of this fact at the time. 

So, one day in August of '79, I made my mid-week trek to Licorice Pizza and started going through the bins like I usually did time and time again. I was always in search of anything new that had arrived in stock. In the 'Miscellaneous L" section, there was an LP that I had not seen there before: an album called L.A. Explosion by a band called The Last.  I was vaguely familiar with the name by seeing a 7" single or two, but had not heard them, let alone knew that they were a 'local' (ie: LA.) band. Remember, I was 15 and unable to attend many gigs because of age and transportation, so I never bothered to look at gig guides to see who was in town.  Maybe in the Calendar section of the L.A. Times, but that was about it...   

But let me tell you, for some reason, the album covered grabbed me.  Their logo... the shadowed photo of the band members on the front cover.... the lyrics printed on the back... it all hit me as being really cool. When I saw it was on Bomp! Records, I was surprised.  "How could a band that looks this cool be on an independent label?", I probably said to myself.  The Bomp! name and logo were cool, too. Regardless, it wasn't in my budget for the day (which was zero) but I figured I'd think about it and MAYBE consider buying it when I got my allowance the following weekend. 

By the time I had walked out of Licorice Pizza that day, my mind was made up: I was going to buy L.A. Explosion!  The next few days were torture to be honest: I couldn't wait to get my allowance and go buy this album with the cover that had become permanently tattooed in my brain. What would they sound like?  Would it be Punk?  Power Pop?  New Wave?  I had no clue, but I was hoping it'd be a melodic delight. So, I went down the following Saturday, plunked down my money and bought L.A. Explosion. Fuck, yeah!

L.A. Explosion contained everything I love about music: great melodies, a nice variety of styles (Power Pop, Punk, Baroque, Psychedelic, etc) and songs that did not overstay their welcome. I knew then and there that Joe Nolte was a songwriting genius. He took his '60s influences, mixed them up, added a shot of Punk and then wrote from the heart. But there was more to The Last than his amazing songs. Here's what I had to say some 25 years later about the album on All Music Guide

"Perhaps the least known of the late-'70s L.A. pop acts, the Last rose from the ashes of the Los Angeles club scene alongside bands like 20/20, the Knack, the Nerves, the Plimsouls, et al. Releasing their debut album on a small, albeit influential, indie label didn't help them gain exposure outside of California, but the music contained on this platter is as brilliant as anything that came from that era. Led by Joe Nolte and featuring his brothers Mike and David amongst its members, the Last's secret weapon was the keyboard/flute-playing Vitus Matare, who added extra texture and flair to Joe's engaging songs. Heavily influenced by '60s pop, this album has it all: pure pop ("This Kind of Feeling," "Someone's Laughing"), sunny beach pop ("Every Summer Day"), punk-pop ("I Don't Wanna Be In Love," "Slavedriver"), psych-pop ("She Don't Know Why I'm Here"), etc. Thinly produced, this album has a charm and innocence to it that not many other artists have been able to match."

It wasn't until later that I found out that folks were unhappy with the production of the album. Live, the band were a melodic Punk band for the most part, but the album smoothed out all the edges and made them sound a lot more polished than they actually were. I've read in other places that the thin production put some listeners off. Whatever. L.A. Explosion remains one of the finest albums of it's era... and there were a lot of great albums released during the late '70s. I can assure you that almost every mix tape I made for friends back in the '80s contained a song by The Last.

It was another three years before we heard from The Last again when Bomp! released the four track Fade To Black 12" EP in 1982. The title track was written, but not used, for the motion picture Fade To Black starring Dennis Christopher, which had been released in 1980. While "Fade To Black" was a good song,  the other three tracks blew me away: "That's Just Life", "Obsession" and "Subway Song" were incredible slices of '60s influenced Pop with the added bonus of Joe Nolte's distinctive spin on things.


Years later, I discovered that the band had recorded, but never released a complete second album in 1980 called Look Again! And lo and behold, "That's Just Life", "Obsession" and "Subway Song" were taken from that album while the rest of Look Again's tracks languished in a vault somewhere.  Actually, the tapes probably languished in shoe box, but 'vault' sounds more dramatic.  When I finally heard Look Again some 25 years after it was recorded, I was devastated as I listened to it: not because it was bad... far from it.  It was amazing! I was devastated because it could have been the album that brought the band to the attention of a much wider audience.  It's everything I've already said about The Last and more.  Sadly, it still remains unreleased.


In 1983, a year after the Fade To Black EP was released, I was shopping at Aaron's Records on Melrose when I stumbled upon an import pressing of an album by The Last called Painting Smiles On A Dead Man. What? A NEW album from The Last?  I think I shat my pants then and there!  For the rest of the night, I barely thought of anything else but getting home and putting that album on. And, boy, was I pleased with what I heard. The band had continued in the same direction as the Fade To Black EP, but everything was much more raw and exciting.  Perhaps the production was not as clean as earlier releases, but the band made up for it in their energetic and passionate performances.  Joe Nolte and mates were on fire at this point.  It was such a shame that the band was getting better yet their future prospects were dimming. This was the final album from The Last before they disintegrated.

(By the way, according to The Last's official website, Joe Nolte has a completely different opinion of Painting Smiles... pretty much the opposite of mine!)

Since I didn't have an inside scoop on the band, I was not aware that they had split after Painting Smiles...  If I had known that, I would have tattooed at least two tears on my cheek in honor of the band... or not. A year or so after Painting Smiles... was released, I attended a party in Redondo Beach where my brother Mike Schnee and his band, The Leeks, were playing. The party was at the house of Leeks keyboardist Bob Mest. Bob knew I was a huge Last fan and told me that Joe Nolte was thinking of stopping by (somehow, either Bob or a roomate knew Joe).  Later in the evening, Bob took me aside and pointed to the corner of the room and said "Look, there's Joe Nolte!"  For the second time in my Last-loving life, I shat my pants!  I was far too nervous to go up to him and and say "Hi". Bah.


In 1988, The Last suddenly reappeared with a new album called Confession on SST Records. From the original line-up, only Joe and Mike Nolte remained.  The album was well-produced by Bill Stevenson (All) and contained some great songs, but Vitus' keyboards and musical input was sorely missing.  Still, Joe proved that he was a great songwriter and passionate performer. It may have been a different Last, but under Joe's control and with Mike taking a bigger role, it was still The Last and this album reintroduced their talent to their old fans and a new generation who missed them first time around.  Sure, it was only five years since their last album, but music years are like dog years and it certainly seemed like a lifetime since Painting Smiles....


The band returned pretty quickly the following year with Awakening, which continued on in the same tradition as Confession. The album had a load of great songs, production by Bill Stevenson and appearances from original members Vitus Matare and David Nolte. Once again, a fantastic album but missing that spark that made The Last so unique. No fault to the songs, by the way, but the band didn't seem to interested in progressing from their previous album. For any other band, Awakening would have been an effin' great album but for The Last, it was just a really, really, really, really good one. 


Seven years passed before a new album from The Last appeared.  Gin & Innuendoes was the musical step forward that the band should have taken after Confession. The songs, although darker, were superb and there was plenty of the old Last to be had here, at least musically.  The album was produced by the legendary Earle Mankey and his work behind the boards helped flesh out Joe's great batch of new tunes.  Oddly enough, the album had been finished since '94 but remained unreleased for two years.  That seemed to be a classic case of The Last's (bad) luck.

Since the album's release, the band has been active but has not officially released any material in the 17 years since Gin & Innuendoes hit the shops.  There was a great acoustic album from Joe and Mike Nolte (Joe 'n' Mike) that might still be available through the band's website, but that remains the final release to date.

A new version of The Last did head into the studio in the early part of the millennium and recorded an album called Shank, which remains unreleased.  One track, "I Know", was released on the Of Hands & Hearts benefit CD that I put together back in 2005. I caught them live during this period and all of their new songs were shining examples of the Joe Nolte magic.  By the way, the bill that I saw them on also featured 20/20 and John Wicks & The Records!

A few years back, most of the original line-up (including Vitus) reformed and played a series of live gigs over the span of a few years.  Most recently, Joe and Mike have been fronting a new version of the band.  

One can only hope that The Last release a new album... or at least finally issue the unreleased Look Again album from 1980 or the Shank recordings. Or maybe if I beg, they could at least send a copy of their unreleased stuff to ME!??  I promise not to shit myself again!

Oh, and I totally forgot to tell you WHY The Last changed my outlook on music: from that point on, I started buying indie albums and supporting indie labels.  There was a whole new world of music available to me once The Last showed me that it was OK to be on an independent label! L.A. Explosion was a revelation for me and remains one of my fave albums of all-time.  

Peace, love and pancakes, 
Stephen SPAZ Schnee


Gwynne kahn said...

Thank you for this.
I was Joe's (underage) girlfriend from '79-'82. Look Again (the song) was written about my (predictably) disapproving mother, who wished Id been a preppie/ debutante, not a punk/ groupie/ musician!
My favorite Last album is Gin & Innuendos and my favorite song is Going Gone. They did release another album circa 2013 called Danger, probably on SST, with the rhythm section from The Descendents.
BTW, my real name is Gwynne. I used the "Marla Singer" (from Fight Club, my fave film) pseudonym as a way of remaining anonymous when I was a career criminal.
P.S. I think my friend Mary (aka Bev Ridge) knows your brother.

Gwynne kahn said...

P.p.s. There are 2 more great Last songs on the comp Warfrat Tales and one on The Radio Tokyo Tapes (which also features tracks by Three O'Clock and The Bangles).