McLaren, New York Dolls, Walter Benjamin, New Music Rules in 82

Happy Sunday, music people, and thanks for tuning in to Radio K-SAT!

In my efforts to get the word out about Stealing All TransmissionsI have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of former Clash associates, one of whom recently suggested that I hadn’t give Malcolm McLaren his due in terms of the New York-London connection. Granted, McLaren arrived to elaborate the abject qualities of The New York Dolls (see below), by dressing them up in red leather, providing a Soviet-inspired stage backdrop, and thereby extended by a few months their demise. As Jerry Nolan noted, “Malcolm caught us at a very vulnerable moment” (Please Kill Me, p. 191).

McLaren, likewise, tried in vain to recruit Sylvain Sylvain to front an early line-up of The Sex Pistols, and he stepped in to perform one-man interventions with Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, and Arthur Kane. According to Bob Gruen, McLaren saved their lives.
Still, I like to imagine McLaren as a poacher of the New York scene, rather than either a shaker or a mover. He inserted himself into the ebb and flow of proto-punk life on the mean streets of New York, but he did little to sway the tide.
McLaren’s post-Pistols’ success with Bow Wow Wow and on his own reflect a real vision of mass/pop culture, as exemplified in the clips below from the July 31, 1982 of Billboard.
Billboard -- kozak July 82 - 1
If McLaren drew liberally upon the politics and aesthetics of the Situationists for the Pistols, he channeled here his inner Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s writings from the Weimar years, including “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” inspired the generation of intellectuals coming of age during punk and after. In “Work of Art,” Benjamin sees the aura of the unique objet d’art under assault, and posits “the reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie” (Illuminations, p. 234).
Likewise, Benjamin notes,
Billboard -- kozak July 82 - 3 “The characteristics of the film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment” (Ibid., p. 235).
 McLaren, as noted in the clip on the left, celebrates the boom-box-toting kid in New York City, and the virtues of the cassette. “That fellow can become, in his own right, his own DJ … they can collate their music without the added neurosis of having to go out and purchase musical instrument or records of expensive studio time.”  The shift is on, from reproduction to composition, and with music in its digital form, consumers can produce in a rich variety of creative ways–if those ways do, in many cases, minimize the physical movement once entailed in making music.
(If these images appear too small, you can find them here, on pp. 3 & 58.)
I’ve included below more coverage from the New Music Seminar of 1982 on the matter of marketing (dig the pic of X in the upper right), which includes notes on the importance of record shop workers knowing the actual music (!). “People would come in asking about the song with the waitress in the cocktail bar when the Human League song first came out,” recalled Bruce Godwin, from the Record Rack, in Houston. (See p. 14 from the link included above.)
 billboard -- kozak July 82 -- retail - 1billboard -- kozak July 82 -- retail - 2
And, now that you’re thinking about The Human League …
Thanks for checking out the whole set here at Radio K-SAT! Do let me know if there are sections of the book that you think deserve elaboration here, or related subjects you’d like to see taken up here.

post-punk gems v. 15 — Alternative TV

So, it’s (post-) punk gems’ time again, and I’ve got Alternative TV in my sights this time ’round. Alternative TV was the musical project of Mark Perry, the publisher of the seminal fanzine Sniffin’ Gluewhich, of course, was inspired by a tune sung by Perry’s muse, Joey Ramone.

(Yes, posted punk-like without permission.)

Here’s Alternative TV with one of their more melodic tunes, “A.T.V.,” which came out on Deptford Fun City Records, back on May 5, 1978.

So, 35 years ago this week, Alternative TV played the last punk show at the 100 Club, which hosted the landmark “Punk Festival” of September 1976, among other great nights in punk history. The festival’s first night included, in order, performances by Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols, and that night especially  inspired Caroline Coon to offer the following audacious coda in her book  1988: New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (1977): “Whatever happens now, the force of punk rock will be felt in society at least until 1988.” Or at least until the Metropolitan Museum celebration of punk couture finishes its run next August.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art   PUNK  Chaos to Couture


Boston, Matthew Shepard, and Hamell on Trial

Welcome back to radio SAT, where I’m feeling a bit low following a recent tango with food poisoning, and looking for recovery and redemption–hence today’s topic, the redeeming power of art.

In between news bulletins about the mess in Boston, I took in a local production of The Laramie Project, which was composed by the Tectonic Theater ProjectThe Laramie Project drew upon hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie and the surrounding area, court transcripts, etc., following the torture and death of Matthew Shepard, a student at University of Wyoming, Laramie, whose murder is rightly characterized as a hate crime. Mr. Shepard was gay, and it was clear that his assailants were guided by their hate for homosexuals and, in this case, a well-heeled homosexual male. (In brief: while it’s largely glossed over in this production and nearly every representation of the crime, the class divide between Mr. Shepard and Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson seems, if secondary, still significant.) In the wake of the crime, friends of Mr. Shepard’s transform themselves into heroes of decency and compassion.

The Laramie Project is hard-pressed to get into the heads of the killers, but one of them alleges that Mr. Shepard made a pass at him that night–which seems trivial, considering the brutality that followed. But the darkness that haunts young men is so difficult to parse. Lord knows what prompted the alleged Boston bombers to such rage and, in turn, to focus that rage on marathon runners and their supporters. We know so little, and it’s difficult to imagine how any narrative offered by  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19 (!), will help us make sense of this ghastly act.

Artists, though, may have their say, and here I’m thinking about Hamell on Trial, and “Hail” in particular.

On some songs, Hamell on Trial = (The Clash + George Carlin ) * acoustic guitar. On other songs, such as this one, he’s as earnest as they come, and yet offers a prelude of riffs on music education and The Grateful Dead, and thereby exemplifies the conflicted nature of the unconscious. “Hail,” as you’ll see, imagines Brandon Teena (see Boys Don’t Cry), Brian Deneke, and Matthew Shepard at a coffee shop in heaven, talking about everyday life now, and then. I don’t know if one can glean much about Hamell’s vision of heaven or religion in general, but–like Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Frank Zappa, to name a few–he has little tolerance for cruelty and hypocrisy, especially when perpetrated under cover of the banner of righteousness. His alternative to the pledge of allegiance (see below), which I’ve heard live and on disc dozens of times, still inspires.

Have a playful week!

underheralded pop/punk gems, v. 14 — Jonathan Richman

Welcome back to radio SAT, where of course our thoughts are with the good folks of Boston. 

For this week’s gem, I turn to Sir Jonathan Richman, one of Boston’s favorite sons, and a track from his debut, self-titled LP Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

The most heralded LP in the Richman oeuvre, of course, is The Modern Lovers, which charts at no. 48 on the recently compiled 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time, courtesy of the folks at this odd periodical called Rolling Stone magazine. There’s lots to savor here, and plenty to gnash teeth about, but I’ll save that for another day. 

Meanwhile, I hope Jonathan’s dancing proves infectious, and that you have a playful rest of your week.

“She has important hair” — and so does he: notes on the genius of DeLillo and important rock ‘dos

Hello, readers! I hope you had a fine weekend, and that the rising threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t getting you down.

After dedicating Wednesday’s underheralded gem to Graduate, the precursor to Tears for Fears, I got to thinking about hair, its importance, and Don DeLillo. DeLilllo and George Saunders are the currency, and the latter’s about as punk as you can get and still get paid to publish in the New Yorker. (More on Mr. S. in the next few weeks.)

I got started on DeLillo through White Noise (1985), worked my way through Mao II (a prescient commentary on political leadership and terrorism) and Libra (fictionalized bio of L.H. Oswald), and then was blown away by Underworld (1997). A tour de force with few peers, and the hardcover is cheap used, and it’s laid out gorgeously.

So, in White Noise, our protagonist is a professor of Hitler Studies who can’t speak German, and his wife is Babette, who’s general presence has left quite the impression on his colleague Murray:

“Your wife’s hair is a living wonder,” Murray said, looking closely into my face as if to communicate a deepening respect for me based on this new information.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“She has important hair.”
“I think I know what you mean.”

Rarely, if ever, in White Noise, does one character know what the other means, in part because of the white noise of the media–and this was in 1985.

In the world of rock, of course, plenty of people have important hair, and sometimes that hair was seemingly more important before their moment in the brightest lights of the music industry.

We begin, of course, in 1962, the year Richard Starkey abandoned Rory Storm and the Hurricanes to take over for the recently deposed Pete Best.

starkey -- pre-B    Ringo Starr, 1st US Concert, Feb 1964

And here’s his bandmate before his hair, too, was disciplined by the tyranny of Brian Epstein.

Chronologically, we check in with The Delinquents, whose lead guitarist, second from the left, encountered “good hair days” less frequently than his Beatle predecessors. (On the right he’s accompanied by Viv Albertine and Keith Levene.)

jones -- delinquents   

His eventual fellow-front man, stage center, drew upon Elvis’s up-style before dismissing him in 1977.

mellor -- 101ers  

Before she joined Dragon’s Playground, which was followed by The Tourists, Ms. L.’s ‘do bided its time, waiting for just the right moment.

lennox -- early  

Fellow moptops-with-unrealized potential occupied duties in Graduate (1 & 2, L to R), before morphing into the well-moussed purveyors of “Cold Shelter” in a “Mad World.”

graduate -- smith orzabal     

Okay, then. It’s been fun keeping things light (or lightly gelled) this week, and I look forward to sending out more tweet tributes to The Clash’s debut LP (@stealingclash) over the next two weeks. Enjoy!

post-punk gems, v. 13 — Graduate

Whoa. My little project honoring the anniversary of the April ’77 release of The Clash on twitter @stealingclash kept me busy this morning, and I forgot it was Wednesday and time for post-punk gems!

Graduate emerges from the Two-Tone scene in Coventry, gets a nice review in NME for this track, their second single, and release a full-length LP in 1980 on Precision Records. The quintet abandons the second LP, breaks up, and the bassist and guitarist get important haircuts and seek success as an uptempo, melancholy duo called Tears for Fears. You may have heard of them.

Here’s Graduate, lipsynching ferociously on their first single, “Acting My Age.”

Thanks for tuning into SAT radio, where it’s all modern music, every Wednesday! If you have any requests, do drop me a line.

On the virtues of Clash dynamics — input by Bangs, Christgau, and the hilarity of Killer Tracks

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m going with a new look for the blog for a spell, which I like for the colors (yeah!) but less so for smaller images (hmm). This past Friday, I received a lovely letter from the inimitable Ms. Pennie Smith, of greatest rock photograph ever fame (and there’s plenty more in her oeuvre worthy of celebration), in which she offered a few kind words about the book, so that was definitely the highlight of the week.

Killer Tracks   Browse Catalog

A distant second or third was the discovery of Killer Tracks, which is this amazing web site for you commercial directors, as well as pop aficionados who appreciate the codes of popular music and, first and foremost, those musicians who sublimely transgress those codes. (I figure if you’re reading this page, you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.) Killer Tracks, as noted on the About page, “is a leading provider of production music for use in film, television, advertising and interactive media.” There’s a host of fun tracks here, from the “Sports: Dramatic 2” page, which promises “Powerful, dramatic sports tracks with orchestra, drums and guitars.”

Sports: Dramatic 2

The translation: the music you want to accompany receivers scoring touchdowns, linebackers laying bone-rattling hits on less evasive receivers, and the occasional postering via a slam dunk. No strikers on a breakaway or keepers making a diving save need apply. Likewise, on the basketball page, you can find on disc NM308, track 1: “heart of a champion,” which promises “punchy low strings, synth bass and a driving programmed beat with orchestral percussion provide the foundation for a sweeping high strings, brass, and choir melody. Let the games begin!” Boy I’d love to land a job writing this copy. I wonder if she’s the same gal (or guy) behind the inspirational prose on bags of Bear Naked Granola. Once you tune in, you realize you’ve heard it hundreds of times before, and the listening experience speaks to the banality of “canned music,” and to our appreciation of the contrarian sublime.

… which brings us, of course, to the virtues of The Clash. For this note, I want to observe in part Martin Mull’s edict on how “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”–a quote widely attributed to Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, and others). The proof of course is in the creme caramel, but let us imagine that words can help us understand how “London Calling,” or “White Man in Hamersmith Palais,” or “Radio Clash” put an extra lilt in our step. That lilt is closely connected to the force behind The Clash that led Robert Christgau to tell me,

“[The Clash] really figured out a way to make effective political art, which as we know is very difficult. It’s very difficult. And what do I mean by effective? I don’t mean it changed the world. I mean it was aesthetically effective.”

Stealing All Transmissions, p. 29

The politics, of course, were smart as smart gets, and even the moments in which melody was sacrificed for pedantry (see “Know Your Rights”), the convictions of the band were rarely–if ever–subject to question. (The matter of gender might be worthy of review at a later date. ) The connection here, though, between the nearly laughable codes that dictate the form and content of the tracks available at Killer Tracks and the merits of The Clash is how the Strummer-Jones(-Simonon-Headon) songwriting team never ran the risk of self-parody. Even in the darker moments, even when the UK press issued broadsides against the band with the release of *Rope* (“so do they squander their greatness”–Jon Savage; “The Clash is a dying myth”–Ian Penman: SAT, p. 45), the band could not be accused of formulaic production.

On their debut LP, the took what they wanted from the codes of punk, re-worked them as they say fit, expanded its parameters with the inclusion of “Police and Thieves,” added joy and humor to the mix and, for the subsequent LP, wrote songs in a different vein, turned over too much control to Sandy Perlman, perhaps, and produced a rock LP nearly any other band would have been delighted to claim as their own. In between, these two LPs, they produced a couple singles Lester Bangs described as “white hot little symphonies,” including “Clash City Rockers” and “White Man in Hamersmith Palais” (live below).

For the next LP, a mostly self-guided venture, they looked to the past for inspiration, imagined their future as a band busking between bah mitzvahs, and produced arguably the best LP over 60 minutes long, ever. Sandinista!, of course, has its questionable moments between gems that still glitter brightly, and Combat Rock–on the strength of “Rock the Casbah” and “Straight to Hell” alone–is worthy of selective heavy rotation on any iTunes playlist.

As Mick Jones noted, “Sandinista! is the big reaching out. I knew we were going to make a different record every time. It had to be different. I liked that with other groups like the Rolling Stones: you knew each record was going to be different. We loved the Ramones, but we didn’t want to be like them, doing the same thing” (Redemption Song, p. 302). Unlike so many punk bands, who opted for purity over, well, creativity, The Clash operated like a great white shark, fully aware that to stop moving meant certain death.

To honor the humor and brilliance of the anniversary of The Clash’s debut LP (8 April 77), I’ll be offering a series of tweets, one per track of the LP, over the course of the next two weeks. Please follow me @stealingclash to join in an example of the “dancing about architecture” discourse taken to the extreme.

Thanks again for checking in.  Have a spirited week!

(post-) punk gems v. 12 — The Belle Stars

With baseball season underway, it only makes sense that it’s snowing, and that my close comrades and I have been felled by cursed virus. Ah, climate change: you’re an iron-tough mistress.

After seeing some of the most remarkable cathedrals in the UK, and some of most amazing urban centers of Europe, one keepsake above all left a lasting impression on my 13-year-old self: the mix tape my Coventry host made for me, back in 1982. As I described in the opening chapter of *Stealing,* that tape included The Clash, of course, The Selecter, The Specials, Captain Sensible and a host of other bands I had never heard of prior to my visit. Among those songs was “The Clapping Song,” by The Belle Stars, who emerged from the ashes of The Bodysnatchers, whose track “Let’s Do Rock Steady” is part of The Two Tone Story collection. The Bodysnatchers’ origins are a fun tale: first opened for Shane McGowan’s The Nips, then played Debbie Harry’s birthday party, toured with Madness, The Selecter, et. al., and never released an LP.

The Belle Stars, who formed in 1980, saw little success west of the Atlantic, but–like so many great bands of that era–had their moments in the limelight in the UK.

“The Clapping Song” has its own fun history, too. It was first released in 1965, playing off the riff of a 1930s tune, and was  covered or sampled (if you will) by Gary Glitter, Tom Waits, UB4o (see the toasting in “Red Red Wine”), and on and on and on. The Belle Stars’ version came out in 1982, and was in heavy rotation that summer in London and Coventry, especially.

Thanks again for checking in on hump day, and I hope you tune in again on Sunday. The anniversary of The Clash’s debut LP is upon us next week, so I hope to cook up something fun for that occasion.