#punk etymology / the DIY spirit and #marriageequality

Welcome back to the Sunday edition of Radio K-SAT, where I’m happy to report that the dance-drink formula for youth–i.e., dance late into the night to avoid a hangover–still works episodically for those of us getting medium-long in the tooth (if not in spirit). Spirits of a different sort have been high among my family and friends following the recent Supreme Court decision about DOMA, etc., and it was especially fitting that this weekend that two dear friends of mine tied the knot after 13 years together.

As I note in the opening chapter of Stealing, there is a rather unflattering etymological connection between punk and homosexuality: the derogatory use of “punk” begins in the sixteenth century, and is used as a synonym for “prostitute” in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1623): “She may be a Puncke: for many of them, are neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife.” Punk’s use became elastic enough to include “male homosexual,” “contemptible person,” “weakling,” “amateur,” and “male companion of a tramp,” by the pen of Jack London, in 1907: “A boy on The Road … is a road-kid or a ‘punk’.” In V. (1963), Thomas Pynchon employs “punk” with a neutered connotation: “There was nothing so special about the gang, punks are punks.”

There is nothing contemptible Jared and Joseph’s love and devotion for one another. In Ohio, of course, our celebrated couple did not have the option of descending upon the local probate for a quick (and dirty?) wedding, as was the case in SF this weekend. Gay folks in fly-over-land, though, embrace the do-it-yourself spirit of punk (and the civil rights movement, in which the DIY spirit reigned supreme), and gather friends and family to embrace the rites of civil partnerships and the like. As one of the groomswomen noted, “I’m so glad that Jared and Joseph didn’t wait around for some politician to see the light.” Amen, sister.

jnj

I had the honor of ministering the wedding, and a real tear-fest commenced in the procession, as Jared and Joseph made their way down the aisle together–dressed to the 9s in dignified black, white, and hot pink–and gathered members of their immediate and extended families in the front pews in earnest bear-hugs and kisses. The oratory and readings included the standard (if still important) platitudes, and one text invited them to “seek wonder together in the sublime.” For we who bore witness, the wedding itself–and all it represented–was sublime indeed.

post-punk gems, v. 23 — The Feelies

Welcome back to radio-K-SAT, and I hope you’re having a nice kick-off to summer. Today I turn our attention to the western edge of the Atlantic to hail The Feelies, the paterfamilias of the Hoboken scene (see: Yo La Tengo and others), just across the Hudson from Manhattan isle. In September 1979, Stiff Records announced the recording deal on the same day Bauhaus released their nine-minute (!) debut 12″ single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” The Feelies’ arrangement with Stiff/Rough Trade got started with the October 1979 release of the super-fun “Fa Ce La,” the lead single of the appropriately titled debut LP, Crazy Rhythms (Feb 1980).

If bands like Monochrome Set and Pere Ubu were already modeling new and anxious modes of shoe-gazing masculinity, The Feelies upped the ante in terms of the emotional timbre (tremble?) of the times, leaving their mark on bands such as R.E.M., The Smithereens, Sebadoh, and Sonic Youth.

It was de rigeur, of course, for bands in the UK & US to cite the Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls as key influences, so it was especially gutsy for The Feelies to speedily cover this track by The Beatles on their debut LP, and to infuse with more energie nervosa than even Lennon displayed in the fab four’s final concert at Shea Stadium. Enjoy!

lazy Sunday — Carson’s review of London Calling in Rolling Stone, April 1980

Happy sweltering Sunday folks. It’s not yet 730am where I hang me head, and it’s already plenty sticky. The birds enjoy it, though, and if you listen just right, you can pick up a thread of the melody of “Guns of Brixton.”

I’m inclined for the moment to remain agnostic about The Clash box set due out in September, but since its release date nearly coincides with my birthday (hint-hint kind readers 😉 ), I’m confident I’ll get swept up in the hoopla at the end of summer. In the meantime, I’ve got a different release on my mind: London Calling in the US, which of course was just over 33 1/3 years ago, and its reception in the US. London Calling, of course, yielded The Clash’s first single to chart in the US (“Train in Vain,” #23) and, in turn, secured the band’s footing  among a “popular” audience west of the Atlantic. (Here’s a touching rendition by Mr. Jones at the Rock and Roll Public Library from August 2009. I just dare you not to sing along.)

As I explore in more detail in Stealing All Transmissions, Tom Carson’s nearly 1800-word review (April 3, 1980) in Rolling Stone was a big deal, and is nearly 30 times longer than many of the LP reviews in what remains of a once-proud magazine. Reading Carson’s description of “Death or Glory” today still gets my skin a-tinglin’. The review is, like the record itself, “so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.” There’s an innocence to the review, too, for it’s not prisoner to the cross-references available via google or wikipedia, and we can forgive Carson for not realizing “Brand New Cadillac” is a Vince Taylor tune. I hope we can also dig Carson’s insistence that there might love, even unrequited love, in a revolution, and that distinctions between the two in life and popular music criticism (e.g., the “good” English Beat of Wha’ppen? vs. the sell-out English Beat of Special Beat Service) are fraught at nearly every turn.

(The review is also available here, but with more typos, and lacks the decency to note that, in-house, London Calling was proclaimed the finest LP of the decade.)

Enjoy!

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Tom Carson, The Clash, London Calling (Epic)

By now, our expectations of the Clash might seem to have become inflated beyond any possibility of fulfillment. It’s not simply that they’re the greatest rock & roll band in the world–indeed, after years of watching too many superstars compromise, blow chances and sell out, being the greatest is just about synonymous with being the music’s last hope. While the group itself resists such labels, they do tell you exactly how high the stakes are, and how urgent the need. The Clash got their start on the crest of what looked like a revolution, only to see the punk movement either smash up on its own violent momentum or be absorbed into the same corporate-rock machinery it had meant to destroy. Now, almost against their will, they’re the only ones left.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band’s last recording, railed against the notion that being rock & roll heroes meant martyrdom. Yet the album also presented itself so flamboyantly as a last stand that it created a near-insoluble problem: after you’ve already brought the apocalypse crashing down on your head, how can you possibly go on? On the Clash’s new LP, London Calling, there’s a composition called “Death or Glory” that seems to disavow the struggle completely. Over a harsh and stormy guitar riff, lead singer Joe Strummer offers a grim litany of failure. Then his cohort, Mick Jones, steps forward to drive what appears to be the final nail into the coffin. “Death or glory,” he bitterly announces, “become just another story.”

But “Death or Glory” – in many ways, the pivotal song on London Calling – reverses itself midway. After Jones’ last, anguished cry drops off into silence, the music seems to scatter from the echo of his words. Strummer re-enters, quiet and undramatic, talking almost to himself at first and not much caring if anyone else is listening. “We’re gonna march a long way,” he whispers. “Gonna fight – a long time.” The guitars, distant as bugles on some faraway plain, begin to rally. The drums collect into a beat, and Strummer slowly picks up strength and authority as he sings:

We’ve gotta travel – over mountains
We’ve gotta travel – over seas
We’re gonna fight – you, brother
We’re gonna fight – till you lose

We’re gonna raise –
TROUBLE!

The band races back to the firing line, and when the singers go surging into the final chorus of “Death or glory…just another story,” you know what they’re really saying: like hell it is!

Merry and tough, passionate and large-spirited, London Calling celebrates the romance of rock & roll rebellion in grand, epic terms. It doesn’t merely reaffirm the Clash’s own commitment to rock-as-revolution. Instead, the record ranges across the whole of rock & roll’s past for its sound, and digs deeply into rock legend, history, politics and myth for its images and themes. Everything has been brought together into a single, vast, stirring story – one that, as the Clash tell it, seems not only theirs but ours. For all its first-take scrappiness and guerrilla production, this two-LP set–which, at the group’s insistence, sells for not much more than the price of one–is music that means to endure. It’s so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.

From the start, however, you know how tough a fight it’s going to be. “London Calling” opens the album on an ominous note. When Strummer comes in on the downbeat, he sounds weary, used up, desperate: “The Ice Age is coming/The sun is zooming in/Meltdown expected/The wheat is growing thin.”

The rest of the record never turns its back on that vision of dread. Rather, it pulls you through the horror and out the other side. The Clash’s brand of heroism may be supremely romantic, even naive, but their utter refusal to sentimentalize their own myth – and their determination to live up to an actual code of honor in the real world, without ever minimizing the odds – makes such romanticism seem not only brave but absolutely necessary. London Calling sounds like a series of insistent messages sent to the scattered armies of the night, proffering warnings and comfort, good cheer and exhortations to keep moving. If we begin amid the desolation of the title track, we end, four sides later, with Mick Jones spitting out heroic defiance in “I’m Not Down” and finding a majestic metaphor at the pit of his depression that lifts him – and us – right off the ground. “Like skyscrapers rising up,” Jones screams. “Floor by floor–I’m not giving up.” Then Joe Strummer invites the audience, with a wink and a grin, to “smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat” in the merry-go-round invocation of “Revolution Rock.”

Against all the brutality, injustice and large and small betrayals delineated in song after song here – the assembly-line Fascists in “Clampdown,” the advertising executives of “Koka Kola,” the drug dealer who turns out to be the singer’s one friend in the jittery, hypnotic “Hateful” – the Clash can only offer their sense of historic purpose and the faith, innocence, humor and camaraderie embodied in the band itself. This shines through everywhere, balancing out the terrors that the LP faces again and again. It can take forms as simple as letting bassist Paul Simonon sing his own “The Guns of Brixton,” or as relatively subtle as the way Strummer modestly moves in to support Jones’ fragile lead vocal on the forlorn “Lost in the Supermarket.” It can be as intimate and hilarious as the moment when Joe Strummer deflates any hint of portentousness in the sexual-equality polemics of “Lover’s Rock” by squawking “I’m so nervous!” to close the tune. In “Four Horsemen,” which sounds like the movie soundtrack to a rock & roll version of The Seven Samurai, the Clash’s martial pride turns openly exultant. The guitars and drums start at a thundering gallop, and when Strummer sings, “Four horsemen …,” the other members of the group charge into line to shout joyously: “…and it’s gonna be us!”

London Calling is spacious and extravagant. It’s as packed with characters and incidents as a great novel, and the band’s new stylistic expansions – brass, organ, occasional piano, blues grind, pop airiness and the reggae-dub influence that percolates subversively through nearly every number – add density and richness to the sound. The riotous rockabilly-meets-the-Ventures quality of “Brand New Cadillac” (“Jesus Christ!” Strummer yells to his ex-girlfriend, having so much fun he almost forgets to be angry, “Whereja get that Cadillac?”) slips without pause into the strung-out shuffle of “Jimmy Jazz,” a Nelson Algren-like street scene that limps along as slowly as its hero, just one step ahead of the cops. If “Rudie Can’t Fail” (the “She’s Leaving Home” of our generation) celebrates an initiation into bohemian lowlife with affection and panache, “The Card Cheat” picks up on what might be the same character twenty years later, shot down in a last grab for “more time away from the darkest door.” An awesome orchestral backing track gives this lower-depths anecdote a somber weight far beyond its scope. At the end of “The Card Cheat,” the song suddenly explodes into a magnificent panoramic overview – “from the Hundred Year War to the Crimea”–that turns ephemeral pathos into permanent tragedy.

Other tracks tackle history head-on, and claim it as the Clash’s own. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” updates the story of Stagger Lee in bumptious reggae terms, forging links between rock & roll legend and the group’s own politicized roots-rock rebel. “The Right Profile,” which is about Montgomery Clift, accomplishes a different kind of transformation. Over braying and sarcastic horns, Joe Strummer gags, mugs, mocks and snickers his way through a comic-horrible account of the actor’s collapse on booze and pills, only to close with a grudging admiration that becomes unexpectedly and astonishingly moving. It’s as if the singer is saying, no matter how ugly and pathetic Clift’s life was, he was still–in spite of everything–one of us.

“Spanish Bombs” is probably London Calling’s best and most ambitious song. A soaring, chiming intro pulls you in, and before you can get your bearings, Strummer’s already halfway into his tale. Lost and lonely in his “disco casino,” he’s unable to tell whether the gunfire he hears is out on the streets or inside his head. Bits of Spanish doggerel, fragments of combat scenes, jangling flamenco guitars and the lilting vocals of a children’s tune mesh in a swirling kaleidoscope of courage and disillusionment, old wars and new corruption. The evocation of the Spanish Civil War is sumptuously romantic: “With trenches full of poets, the ragged army, fixin’ bayonets to fight the other line.” Strummer sings, as Jones throws in some lovely, softly stinging notes behind him. Here as elsewhere, the heroic past isn’t simply resurrected for nostalgia’s sake. Instead, the Clash state that the lessons of the past must be earned before we can apply them to the present.

London Calling certainly lives up to that challenge. With its grainy cover photo, its immediate, on-the-run sound, and songs that bristle with names and phrases from today’s headlines, it’s as topical as a broadside. But the album also claims to be no more than the latest battlefield in a war of rock & roll, culture and politics that’ll undoubtedly go on forever. “Revolution Rock,” the LP’s formal coda, celebrates the joys of this struggle as an eternal carnival. A spiraling organ weaves circles around Joe Strummer’s voice, while the horn section totters, sways and recovers like a drunken mariachi band. “This must be the way out,” Strummer calls over his shoulder, so full of glee at his own good luck that he can hardly believe it.” El Clash Combo,” he drawls like a proud father, coasting now, sure he’s made it home. “Weddings, parties, anything… And bongo jazz a specialty.”

But it’s Mick Jones who has the last word. “Train in Vain” arrives like an orphan in the wake of “Revolution Rock.” It’s not even listed on the label, and it sounds faint, almost overheard. Longing, tenderness and regret mingle in Jones’ voice as he tries to get across to his girl that losing her meant losing everything, yet he’s going to manage somehow. Though his sorrow is complete, his pride is that he can sing about it. A wistful, simple number about love and loss and perseverance, “Train in Vain” seems like an odd ending to the anthemic tumult of London Calling. But it’s absolutely appropriate, because if this record has told us anything, it’s that a love affair and a revolution–small battles as well as large ones – are not that different. They’re all part of the same long, bloody march.

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(post-) punk gems, v. 22 — Delta 5

Thanks for checking out my latest bit of patter on post-punk paraphernalia–namely the music, of course, as we seek out little rays of sunshine to get us up and over “hump day.”

Delta 5’s two-bass funk-punk had the spacing and room to breathe I associate most closely with Thelonious Monk, and like their Leeds-based brethren Gang of Four (and, if less so, The Mekons), members spent time in art school and formed bands that were critical darlings that found that one hit ever-so elusive. As Roz Allen recalled, the basses were set up “one trebly and funky (Bethan) and one more double-bass-like (me)”–see full interview here. Delta 5 started out on Rough Trade Records, hung out at the BBC in February 1980 with John Peel and, over a year later, released their lone LP, See the Whirl (PRE, July 1981). The critics reacted with mixed reviews. Mick Sinclair in Sounds noted, “… this is frighteningly good … The whole thing is just too intoxicating …”, while Graham Locke in NME found little upon which to hang his hat: “The songs rush by, waving flags of bright noise, shiny and smart but imparting nothing.”

Here’s Delta 5 on their first single (and Allen’s favorite track), “Mind Your Own Business” (1979), with the arresting lyric, “Can I interfere in your crisis?” Were we really so polite back in the day?

I don’t know what it was like to be at the musical heart of the post-punk era, when so many great singles and LPs fought for the attention of critics, DJs, and fans. The result, of course, was plenty more losers than winners and–in some cases–even the winners didn’t hang around terribly long. It’s nice to be able to mine the archives to discover underheralded gems, but also bittersweet, knowing how many bands emerged and vanished all-too-quickly. A good hook matters, but often not as much as happenstance.

Enjoy the rest of your week, and I hope you’ll tune in again come Sunday!

White Man in Hammersmith Palais — 35 years ago (!) this week

 Thanks for checking out today’s track on radio K-SAT, and happy father’s day to the male breeders among you. If the options are to age gracefully, or to rage against the fading of the light, I figure you’re probably striking a nice balance between the two, if you’re still reading about punk, post-punk, and assorted effluvia. Either way, time waits for no homo sapien, and it was 35 years ago this week when The Clash, alone at the eye of Hurricane Punk, released “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”/”The Prisoner” (17 June 1978). (The single’s wikipedia entry currently notes that it was produced by Sandy Pearlman. If one of you guttersnipes is up for it, please change it to say “Mick Jones (producer) and Simon Humphries (engineer)”–or simply “The Clash,” as noted on the single itself.)

 

Following their eponymous debut LP, upon which they affirmed the pleasures of the pro-cegenation of punk and reggae with their cover of “Police and Thieves,” “White Man” finds Sir Strummer, 25, as a default punk patriarch, sharing the lessons learned from the days of yore (i.e., 1976-1977).

From the opening bars of “ooh-ooh” harmonies to the final self-effacing verse, “White Man” still resonates politically and aesthetically, and it’s no wonder that Strummer included this song on many-a-Mescaleros’ playlists. According to Pat Gilbert (Passion is a Fashion, pp. 371-372) in Strummer’s final live appearance it served as the encore’s coda–and it simply hadn’t been reserved for encores in previous gigs.

“White Man” is often cited as one of The Clash’s best, and today I try to imagine myself as a UK punk encountering “White Man” upon its release. The opening bars are trebly, like all punk circa 1977, but the tempo’s slow, and the melody-and-rhythm’s Caribbean. The “ooh-ooh”s extend the sense of humor from the debut LP, and Jones and Simonon come in strong vocally for  “white youth, black youth” (full lyrics here), in order to hammer the point home. And, by the time Strummer’s singing about my life on the dole, he’s already schooled me on the limits of armed revolution, the tonnage of the British army, and the perils of projecting onto black Britons a more developed revolutionary consciousness. When I hear Strummer snarl, “Punk rockers in the UK,” I get excited, thinking, yes–the reprise of “White Riot”!, only to learn that Strummer figures me-and-my-lot aren’t paying close attention, due in part to our inclination for “fighting”–and male youth is so inclined, because there’s so much at stake, right? But then, in the next line, Strummer suggests that the stakes comprise little more than “a good spot under the lighting.” Oh … ouch. And yes: I suppose the Teds weren’t the real enemy (thank g-d for the reprise on the day of Elvis’s death), and maybe punk masculinity had run amok by 1978, and, well, damn — now what, Joe?

(post-) punk gems, v. 21 — The Vibrators

The days are getting nice and long in our neck of the woods, and I hope you too are getting your share of Vitamin D.

I’m kickin’ out this jam from work, so I’ve got to be quick as a Ramones’ b-side.

The Vibrators were there at the get-go, playing the 100 Club, backing Chris Spedding, put down wax with John Peel over and over, and their debut LP, Pure Mania (Epic, June 1977), led the critics to gush about the resuscitation of rock energy, and eventually ended up on the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music top 50 punk LPs of all time.

The following summer, The Vibrators released “Judy Says (Knock You In The Head)” / “Pure Mania” (Epic, 9 June) which rocketed up the UK charts to, well, #70.

The Vibrators kept it real, energetic, and not terribly reflexive, and that was fine for 1978–for most bands, but not The Clash. More on that question come Sunday. Cheers!

au pairs reprise — new punk (gender) history book

Greetings, all, with a special shout-out to those of you tuning in from Slovakia, Argentina & Peru!

It’s been quite a weekend, with yours truly performing his debut as a wedding officiant for some former students of mine. It was a delightful affair, and if you’ve got secular friends in the region of northeast Ohio looking for an officiant with punk historian credentials, I’m your man.

After Wednesday’s entry for post-punk gems, I simply can’t get The Au Pairs out of my head, and found that there’s even less information about them than most female-led punk combos, alas. I did track down this feature in Mother Jones, from June 1982, on lead singer Leslie Woods, in which she affirmed the punk credo of DIY: “The message we put over is anybody can do it.”

Mother Jones Magazine - June 1982 -- 28

Few bands, though, left us with as many danceable, aesthetically effective, and politically astute songs as “We’re So Cool,” “It’s Obvious,”   and “Pretty Boys”–to name just a few tracks off Stepping Out of Line, the 37-track collection on iTunes for a modest $17.99. A host of these tracks combine the propulsion of The Clash, the melodic funk of Gang of Four, and the feminist urgency of The Slits.  Woods is a big part of it, of course, but bassist Jane Munro (later Nick O’Connor) and drummer Pete Hammond work beautifully together, and on “wax”–a la  their Birmingham comrades The English Beat–the bass is kept high in the mix, and to good effect.

And yet: yesterday I picked up Punk Rock: An Oral History (2012), by John Robb, of Membranes fame, and long-time contributor to Mojo and Louder Than War (in which Stealing All Transmissions was recently reviewed). Give me a few weeks with this impressive beast, and I will offer a more elaborate impression, but it looks to be a solid UK complement to the Big-Apple-centric Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, and a solid contribution to punk rock historiography. The book devotes 400 pages to 1950-1977, and only the last 160 or so to 1978-1984, so perhaps we Au-Pairs aficionados should be satisfied with a fleeting mention as an example of a female-fronted band. Certainly a lot of forces weigh upon a figure like Robb when he’s assembling a doorstop-sized collection of this sort, and odd omissions are endemic to the process. As Jacques Lacan once noted, “I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail.”

And yet, as the Situationists implored, “Be reasonable, demand the impossible!” So it’s up to folks like you and me, when we’re putting ink to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, to recuperate the histories of our finest “Three Minute Heroes.” See you, Wednesday!