Panther Burns PhotoFor folks who prize unspoiled simplicity in rock'n'roll (and especially in rockabilly), Tav Falco's Panther Burns may be the ultimate band. On the early records, his voice drenched in echo, Falco goes through a familiar repertoire of Presley-derived whoops, mutters and coos, while an amateurish backing ensemble that often includes Alex Chilton grinds away laboriously like high-school rockers struggling through their first rehearsal. The deliberately slowed-down tempo and brazen sloppiness invest Behind the Magnolia Curtain with an intriguing conceptual purity, but the rawness turns prolonged exposure into a painful experience. The four songs on Blow Your Top provide more of the same frayed recklessness. But thanks to cleaner sound and playing that verges on being professional, this set almost has commercial potential. (See "Love Is My Business" for proof.) There's still plenty of ground separating Falco's sweaty hysteria and the well-oiled appeal of the Stray Cats, though.

Falco recorded Sugar Ditch Revisited at Sam Phillips' Memphis studio with "Lx" Chilton and a few other Panther Burnsmen; the six tracks are well played, well sung, well recorded, under control and somewhat underwhelming. The countrybilly spirit and sincerity is there, but the performances start and stop without ever really heating up, and the absence of chaos leaves the simple (if esoterically sourced) material to stand alone, which - until the frisky finale, "Tina, the Go Go Queen" - it doesn't do all that well.

The Now! cassette, issued by Falco on his own label, contains seven numbers (including ten minutes of "Jump Suit") taped absolutely live in Memphis in 1984. New Rose subsequently included that material as a bonus disc in original pressings of the killer 12-inch Shake Rag EP: studio recordings with Jim Dickinson that include one original (the stomping "Cuban Rebel Girl," also on the live tape/disc) and three typically swell obscurities.

Chilton's revitalized production and playing on The World We Knew helps make it one of Falco's all-time best showings. Using a rotating collection of sidemen, the carefully annotated songs - a scholarly combination of R&B, Sun rockabilly, blues and other wondrous musical inventions ("desert skulk fugue; decorticated cycle tune; the Stuttgart, Arkansas sound," to quote the liner notes) - get a thorough and affectionate workout that remains surehanded without ever slipping down off the rustic funk meter. (There are no originals on this non-didactic history course.) All concerned sound as though they're having a blast, and that feeling comes right through the speakers. The CD adds Shake Rag.

The 10-inch Red Devil signals a measured return to the uncontrolled wildness of early Panther Burns' records. Falco lays some truly soulful hollerin' over noisy electric guitars and a thumping backbeat on tracks produced individually (not to mention artlessly) by Chilton, Dickinson and others. Red Devil - ten songs and an abundance of hellacious energy - features esoterica by Chuck Berry, Lee Hazelwood and others, adding the songwriting talents of Dickinson and even Tav himself to the party. (The French CD also contains Sugar Ditch Revisited.)

The tenth anniversary album - a two-disc live-in-Memphis (February '89) extravaganza with Chilton, Dickinson, other alumni and assorted guests - confidently covers a broad variety of vintage material, from "It's Only Make Believe" to "Goldfinger" to "Train Kept a-Rollin'," but generally lacks the fiery excitement of Panther Burns' fringey best. The years have evidently been too kind to Falco: the former rockabilly loony has become - of all things - an accomplished entertainer. (Could his small role in Great Balls of Fire have anything to do with such a shocking transformation?) Despite a few flat notes, an out-of-tune guitar and some offbeat song introductions, the performances are kind of colorless - calm and controlled where they should be frantic.

Not to worry. Return of the Blue Panther is wonderfully crappy-sounding, an edgy three-day session in reverb-land as raw as you please. (In keeping with the music's fast'n'loose spirit, the sleeve has its share of mistakes.) Considerately performing material people outside of swap meets are likely to have heard, Falco rips through a fine R&B-oriented program that includes "Rock Me, Baby," "Got Love If You Want It" and "I Got a Woman." Falco's back!

Mud Boy & the Neutrons are Dickinson's band. Known Felons is Elmore James and Sleepy John Estes, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley as cranked out by white Memphis boys in the late '80s. Considerably more rigid and fratlike than Tav's excursions into like territory, Mud Boy could be NRBQ's little cousins with twice the reverence and half the talent. Spring Poems, the second volume in a Memphis compilation series helmed by Dickinson, unexpectedly offers him solo for ambience with a paucity of songs, perhaps effective in their intent as soundtracks but fairly pointless on album. ~ Phillip Ewing, 80s Retro Music