underheralded gems from the (post-) punk era, v. 7

Secret Affair’s “Time for Action”

In my weekly archaeology of pop in the years that truly mattered, I’ve found some real gems, but nothing quite like Secret Affair, who were kept a secret all too well, as far as we Yanks were concerned. These guys charted five tracks in the UK from 1979 through 1982, and this track, their self-produced debut single, apparently sold over 200,000 copies and reached number 13 in the UK chart. On this side of the Atlantic, not a peep, not even the slightest ripple of press or airtime as far as I can tell. They appeared on the covers of the major music rags, rode the mod revival through mid-1980, and then Seb Shelton bailed to bang-on-the-drums-all-day for Dexys Midnight Runners.  They’ve reunited, too, as of 2002, and still gig here and there.

The mod revival, as you may know, was largely displaced by the Two-Tone movement and–speaking of tones–apparently  The Specials are tone-deaf to Cleveland’s yearning for some skinhead moonstomp, so their first midwest gig on this year’s North American tour is Chicago–oh, the humanity!

Enjoy!

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When Albums Ruled the World (BBC4 documentary, Feb 2013): a review of sorts

Welcome back to Sunday’s version of S-A-T radio, and I hope you have–or have already had–a proper day of rest or play (or both).

I’m grateful for Tim @ TheClashBlog for bringing this excellent documentary to my attention. (I look forward to also reviewing “The 12 inch Single,” an audio programme by Paul Morley, who is too smart for his own good.) Steve O’Hagan of BBC, The Guardian, et. al. takes a break from his documentary film on Central America’s Christian civil war to provide us with this comparatively light-hearted ditty–although to those of us who came of age in this era (or a wee bit later), the stakes rarely seemed light-hearted at all. O’Hagan and his crew offer a compelling narrative of the different strategies of album composition in the old sense–i.e., putting it together–both in terms of the studio recordings (Hendrix at the mixing board for Electric Ladyland), the artwork (the excess of Yes) and, when things got rough financially in the mid-seventies, the relative affordability of the live album (see Frampton Comes Alive–or not, depending upon where your affinities lie).

The story begins with Bob Dylan’s break from traditional to modern folkie. For his 2nd album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  (1963), Dylan flipped the strategy from his first album, which only contained two originals. Here there are only two covers, and Dylan thus charts a path that will eventually be trod by Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and Pete Townshend. The Beatles, for example, turned in a no-covers LP on their 3rd go round (A Hard Day’s Night), but the pressures of the assembly line (2 albums and 4 singles a year, I believe, were the initial expectations) drove them back into the business of covers on Beatles For Sale and Help!. Ray Manzarek of The Doors gets a good quip in on his first impression of the LP cover for Rubber Soul: “Oh, The Beatles have been psychedelicized!”

O’Hagan, too, does a fine job of drawing the thread from Sgt. Pepper’s through Marvin Gaye’s battle with Berry Gordy over What’s Going On (eventually 2M in sales its first year) and onto the conceptual brilliance of LPs by George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. One interview subject imagined Funkadelic as the black American version of The Grateful Dead, and I think they meant it as a compliment.

What doesn’t get captured in this documentary, which is a breezy 93 minutes or so, is the long shadow cast by Western concert music (or “classical music”) on the domain of rock. This influence weighed heavily upon George Martin and, in turn, upon The Beatles and on the subsequent direction of rock and the emergence of punk. George Martin, as you may know,  earned his music performance degree at London’s Guildhall School of Music, as an oboist with considerable ability on the piano. He possessed the cultural capital prized in middlebrow and upper-middlebrow circles, which were occupied by–among others–music critics of The New York Times. The Times’ Theodor Strongin, for one, argued that The Beatles drew upon more than the usual pop repertoire to build their own repertoire. In 1964, Strongin writes:

“The Beatles have a tendency to build phrases around unresolved leading tone. This precipitates the ear into a false modal frame that temporarily turns the fifth of the scale into the tonic, momentarily suggesting the mixolydian mode. But everything ends as plain diatonic all the same.”

The value of pop was recognized in terms of Western concert music, and this condition would reach its apex with Sgt. Pepper’s, Beggars Banquet, and What’s Going On.

In brief: Martin maintained the duty of LP sequencing, subject to final approval by The Beatles (Summer of Love: 128). In one version, Martin gave cursory regard to this duty, noting that he simply assembled the tracks randomly a few times, and the order on the LP is the order in which they sounded best. I consider this suggestion rather disingenuous, and reflective of Bourdieu’s concern with the “ideology of natural taste”:

“[Taste] naturalizes real differences, converting differences in the mode of acquisition of culture into differences of nature; it only recognizes as legitimate the relation to culture (or language) which least bears the visible marks of its genesis, which has nothing “academic,” “scholastic,” “bookish,” “affected” or “studied” about it, but manifests by its ease and naturalness that true culture is nature—a new mystery of immaculate conception.” (Distinction 1984: 68)

I think Bourdieu’s after how taste erases the history of how something is deemed good–it simply is good, and if you can’t recognize that, then you must not be a cultured person. The songs on an album might be arranged in a host of ways: alphabetically; tempo, slow to fast; harmonically; or by songwriter. For Martin (or any producer, for that matter), to impose such a “bookish” scheme onto the LP would be unnatural, especially for a classically trained musician, who of course wanted the LP itself to sound great–i.e., like a multi-movement composition in the Western concert tradition. I’ll pick up this thread in full next Sunday, and flesh out these claims a bit more.

Other highlights from “When Albums Ruled the World”:

29:00 — Jimmy Page’s refusal to release a single off LZ II.

51:00 — from prog rock to P-Funk

54:00 — the audacious, effectively unlabeled, LP cover for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon

70:00 — the beginning of the end of free-form radio: tight playlists through corporate ownership of radio, and how this development produced the odd composition history  of “More Than a Feeling” and the group deemed Boston, for the purposes of live concert revenue

I hope 900+ words is enough for today’s ditty, and that you found it worth your while. Have a lovely, lovely week!

another punk gem, volume 6, part 2 (and 3)

Here’s a couple bonus tracks for your Friday — I was a big Bongos’ fan back in the day, but couldn’t find anything beyond their EP cassette at my local shop. YouTube, apparently, has got it all, including a host of tracks by bands that have yet to be captured on the equally voracious wikipedia.

The Bongos hailed from Hoboken, NJ, caught some interest in the UK, signed to Fetish Records, and released the track above backed with the track below.

Once again, I’m relying on memory for inspiration and George Gimarc’s Punk Diary for the facts: Trouser Press regarded The Bongos as “Paul Revere and the Raiders crossed with Television and a dash of Merseybeat.” Well said — and well played, Bongos!

Have a delightful Friday and smashing good weekend! See you on Sunday with another note about things I learned putting together Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash.

another punk gem, volume 6, part 1

Hey hey! It’s hump day, and I hope you’re doing fine.

I had The Bongos on my mind recently, as I was in NYC, and the lovely Meg Griffin helped break The Bongos in the US by featuring them in a series at The Bottom Line back in the day. I’ll do another post on The B.’s soon, and wanted to toss another music video your way I just found a couple days back. I figure if Paul Simonon can keep up with Stevie Wonder’s rhythm section, he was more than a capable bassist.

May your uptight be outta sight.

Clash serendipity and the US Festival 1983

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m recently back from New York, where I got to see a host of old friends and comrades. I also did a reading/signing at KGB, which went off great. Much gratitude to those of you who made it (and, of course, to those of you who had hoped to make it, too). I want to say a few words about that morning, though, for it offered a great moment of Clash serendipity.

I was in town to attend a conference, and on Friday morning the conference organizer mentioned my book & reading, and then we broke for our next round of plenaries. When we reconvened, the sound guy — who had previously relied on the esteemed *Kind of Blue* for incidental music, cued up “The Magnificent Dance,” which of course got the two of us talking. He clearly remembered the summer of 1981, when WBLS cued up different mixes of “The Magnificent Seven,” and even rattled off the names of the DJs responsible for the more popular remixes. The gentleman then revealed that the sound tech gig was merely his day job, and that Track 1 Entertainment keeps him busy on nights and weekends. Thanks Mr. Mason for getting my Friday started on the good foot!

For the reading, I reprised my own position on The Clash vs. Van Halen circa 1983, and how frequently I encountered back in the day the triangles of homosocial male bonding around muscle cars, after market stereos, and VH’s Diver Down. I have more sympathy for Diamond Dave’s decadence now, but back then, it seemed so reckless and absurd, so “cheap and real phony,” so complicit.

us festival 1983

One of the real pleasures of putting together Stealing was my review of primary sources by way of google books, which provides full-text search capacities for Billboard magazine, Spin, and a host of others. In Sweaty & Filthy & Crazy & Drunk, Steven Russell employs the oral history method to capture the joy and absurdity of US Festival 1983 and, of course, doesn’t get to the complexity of the showdown between the festival organizers (including Apple’s Steve Wozniak) and The Clash camp. The New Wave Day included, in order of appearance, The Divinyls, INXS, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, Stray Cats, Men at Work, and, after a long band-inflicted delay, The Clash.

Between the more rigorous accounts of Marcus Gray and Pat Gilbert, it seems safe to conclude that Bernie Rhodes orchestrated quite a bit of the mess, which ended far worse for The Clash than anyone else. As fate would have it, it was the last live appearance of Stan Ridgeway with Wall of Voodoo, and the last concert appearance of Mick with the band he started.

Lastly, it was 36 years ago today that The Clash made their NYC debut, at the Palladium, of course, with Bo Diddley as the opening act. Andy Warhol and other glitterati made an appearance, and later Andy took Joe over to Studio 54.

Breaking news: the song Paul Simonon allegedly wrecked during his initial meeting with Bernie, Tony James, and Mick is up for consideration as the official state song of Massachusetts. “I’m in love with Massachusetts” indeed.

Have a lovely week!

underheralded gems from the (post-) punk era, v. 5 (and a bit of news)

Welcome back rude boys, rude girls, and all y’all.

First, the news: I’m off to NYC today and I’ll be reading at KGB Bar in the Village on Friday at 7pm — find the vitals here, and do join us!

There’s also a nice review of my book at The Clash blog, which you might find of interest. Tim keeps an active watch on all items Clash-related, and don’t miss the comments, which on occasion come from folks once deep in the camp of The Clash.

For this morning’s clip: it’s been 35 years and a month since the first set line-up of Liverpool’s Monochrome Set. They were a minor super-group of sorts, with members drawn from Adam and The Ants, Art Attacks, and The B-Sides (an early combo of Adam’s). They would, over the ensuing years, release a host of whip-smart LPs over the next 12 years.

The Peel Sessions, per usual, offer up a great sound, and these guys could really keep it complex rhythmically on a sweet, sweet groove. Enjoy!

 

NYC appearance, odd fact, and VU’s rock’n’roll

Happy Sunday morning to you all, and thanks for checking out my weekly post.

Public service announcement (with keyboard, rather than guitars): I’m off to NYC this week, and I’m doing a reading/signing at 7pm, Friday, 2/15, at KGB Bar, 85 E. 4th St. (near 2nd avenue). It should be loads of fun — do come!

(A word from our sponsor: The book’s got a pink back cover, too, so it makes the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that ex-punk lover of yours.)  More info on the FB event notice here.

Random thought: as technology-induced attention-deficit disorder gets more pronounced, pop songs get longer. A recent comparison of the pop songs that charted on Pazz & Jop polls prior to the peer-2-peer file-sharing era reveal that pop songs are getting considerably longer. I don’t know that it’s simply an American phenomenon, but it seems peculiarly American somehow to demand quantity — e.g., a 4-5 minute song for $.99-1.29  — rather than quality. Do (dis)abuse me if I’m wrong here.

I’m delighted to be returning once again to NYC, where I lived for 5 years during the irrational exuberance of the dot.com era (1995-2000). Perhaps there’s a connection, but I’ve had this VU track in my head for days now, which this musicological writer suggests is about radio back in the day, following the advent of rock’n’roll. History might suggest it’s a recollection of the arrival of Alan “Moondog” Freed at WINS in 1954, and his shaking up the airwaves of the tri-state region.

(Reed turned 12 that year, learned to play guitar while listening to the radio and, shortly after, was administered shock therapy to “cure” him of his homosexual desires–if not “the death of us all,” Lou’s parents were certainly a social hazard. See Please Kill Me, pp. 3-4.)

I’m cool with that reading of the song, although the free-form deejays at WNEW-FM circa 1970 were serving up a heady mix of rock, folk, spoken word, and jazz. By the time Meg Griffin arrived, though, that sound might have easily been mistaken for “nothing happening at all,” and Meg and Pam Merly, at WLIR in East Quoque, LI, offered some righteous violations of the key credo of free-form radio: anything but punk and disco. Television, The Clash, Blondie, and The Ramones: it was all up for grabs.

Merly seemed to encounter less resistance from her fellow deejays than Griffin did, and both stations–save WNEW’s Alison “the Nightbird” Steele—had all-male staffs in the DJ booth. With female deejays serving up platters with lead vocals by Patti Smith, Kate Pierson, and Deborah Harry, I can only imagine how inspiring it must have been for that generation of “Jennys” (and Johnnys, for that matter).

With regards to the clip above: rocknroll at its best inspires risk, art, and desire — you can find a less arty video accompaniment here.