#postpunk gems, v. 28 — The Rezillos

Happy mittwoch, readers!

It’s rare that a band circa ’77 gets its start with a cover of a Fleetwood Mac tune, but bless The Rezillos, who made a few waves back in the day with “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight.” The band hails from lovely Edinburgh, and a reconstituted line-up just toured the US for the first time in 2012. Perhaps the American scene in the late 70s had its share of artifice with The B-52s, most notably, and listeners couldn’t get their minds around the tongue-in-pierced-cheek-glam element of The Rezillos. Too bad for us, really, when you consider the virtues of musical warnings about a “Flying Saucers Attack” (which apparently did reach the nethers of the UK singles chart).

Here they are performing on RockPop (?) to a well quaaluded audience, it seems.

Have a rockin’ good week as we say goodbye to July!

culture wars — Clash, Van Halen, and hip-hop (masculinity run amok)

Happy Sunday, folks, and hello Thailand! Thanks for checking in. It’s that time of the summer when it becomes clear that the days are getting shorter. At 41+N latitude, we get a full 6 hours more daylight at summer solstice v. winter solstice and, while the latter’s still a-ways away, when I notice where the sun sets or rises in relation to a tree or a roof line, I’m reminded that we are leaning towards winter evermore.

A recent chat with friends old and new about the music industry got me thinking about the history of the “centers” of popular music, its margins, and how the landscape has changed in 30 years, and the battles that transformed it.

In the pages of Stealing All Transmissions, I suggest that:

“The key lesson to be gleaned by the commemorations of ‘eighties music’ on VH1 and elsewhere is fairly clear: in the battle for historical memory, The Clash beat Van Halen, Duran Duran trumped Bon Jovi, and even Kajagoogoo trounced Poison. Put another way: punk/post-punk/new wave hold victorious sway” (p. 5).

I also give Van Halen their due (sort of), explaining how,

“I needed The Clash to get through adolescence, but I needed Van Halen, too, if only to construct my sense of self in contrast to the opposition. The changes in the music industry noted above seem likely to prevent the emergence of another Clash or Van Halen” (p. 75).

Regardless of where you fall in terms of the virtues of Van Halen, they charted 14 straight singles in the top 50 of the “Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks” with David Lee Roth at the helm–and then 11 more consecutive singles after he left the band! Van Halen, along with Led Zeppelin, dominated the sonic landscape of the parking lot of my high school, blaring from the aftermarket speakers of American muscle cars owned by the football players–who dominated the cultural landscape of our high school.

For those sensitive to the signs, though, it was clear the times were a-changin’. While there may have been 10 male new wave devotees in my cohort (700 or so), the next cohort had 50 easily, maybe a hundred. After Van Halen burned out (or faded away), Metallica seized the helm, and their 1991 LP Metallica sold 16x platinum in the US, and went no. 1 in 10 countries (including Japan!?!). (Let’s guess that reports of 11x platinum sales in Canada are overstated. That would be one copy for every household.)  But metal became an odd beast, splintering into different subgenres (thrash metal, death metal, black metal, power metal–yawn …), and many Clash fans celebrated Kurt Cobain’s October 1991 appearance in drag on The Headbangers Ball.

Check out the first 60 seconds, at least, and in the next minute Novoselic goes all social theory on us. It’s nice to know that ball host Riki Ratchman knew of L7.

The coincidental peak of Metallica’s sales and Nirvana’s ascent were no coincidence. Some folks claimed that Nirvana killed heavy metal, but Rachtman saw it otherwise:

“People say, ‘Nirvana killed heavy metal,’ and they didn’t. If you had any type of music scene that is so weak that another band can come on playing a different type of music and kill your scene, then your scene wasn’t good enough in the first place … You come out with this crazy hair and all glam, look like a chick, you know, if you do that, OK, that’s fine, but after awhile, you’re going to need some sort of substance behind it. And what happened was, here’s somebody new that really doesn’t care, that picks up dirty clothes off the floor, wears ’em, has no stage show, goes on camera, does concerts and just plays rock and roll.”

For punk and post-punk: both had their own forms of artifice, and it was never simply about “keeping it real”: but the artifice lacked the pretensions of “crazy hair” and the decadence of Diamond Dave, Nikki Sixx, and their well-rouged rivals. Even Cobain, bless his heart, had a profound drug problem, but it never entailed one or more of the following elements: mountains of cocaine, a phalanx of call girls, land mammals or sea creatures, and a penthouse suite (see Led Zeppelin’s “shark incident“). The self-indulgent virtuosity, combined with the celebration of decadence–I think that’s what punks, post-punks, and new wavers found objectionable about heavy metal.

Parallel to the rise of Nirvana (and grunge) and the slow descent of heavy metal was the rise of hip-hop. By the mid-1990s, the street-wise ethos of Run-DMC, the “black medallions / no gold” paradigm of De La Soul, and the “we’re the black CNN” broadsides of Public Enemy were largely displaced by gangsta rap from the west, and the urban beats of conspicuous consumption from the east. Many post-punk fans got hip to rap, finding its codes of masculinity to be more inviting than heavy-metal masculinity, only to see the musical codes–and its articulations to masculinity and cultural politics–narrow quickly into the gin-and-juice paradigm. That conspicuous consumption brought with it another form of disenchantment: like Diamond Dave, who professed, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it,” many hip-hop artists nakedly pursued the Benjamins and the vices they afforded. In turn, musical fandom was stripped of its “idyllic relations,” and hip-hop artists repeatedly identified the importance of “self-interest” and “(callous) cash payment” in the creative process (to borrow a few phrases from Marx).

When Joe Strummer decried the decadent and thereby anti-populist stance of Van Halen at the US Festival in 1983, the claim carried its own contradictions, but The Clash at least tried. Once hip-hop became the dominant paradigm, who was in position to regard rap’s representations of masculinity and consumption as dominant and worthy of critique? Radiohead? Amy Winehouse? U2? Madonna? Hardly. The segregation of beats in the grunge v. rap era of the second half of the 1990s included some of the whitest rock since Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, as a phobia of cultural appropriation informed the imaginations of white rockers on both sides of the pond. In turn, rap absorbed a record segment of the popular music marketplace and, in rhyme and prose, and bragged about the conquest. The acquisitive masculinity that punk found so problematic and, in part, helped bury, was largely transposed into the cultural field of hip hop.

Jay-Z, for example, echoes the ethos of David Lee Roth–even distilled it, and the following quotes from Dave and Jay-Z, respectively, are effectively interchangeable:

I take my personal upkeep real seriously; my sense of organization and attention to detail; my memory; my business–I love the business.”

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”

Jay-Z is effectively a better-coiffed, better-dressed, neo-liberal version of David Lee Roth.

Separated at b-school?


#postpunk gems, v. 27 — Heaven 17

Well, finally, the Heat Miser has taken his wares elsewhere. He chased us out of Ohio, up to Ontario, and even to Quebec City. Merci, but no merci, Mr. Miser.

As you may know, Heaven 17 included Human League ex-pats Martin Ware and Ian Marsh, and the band took its name from the fictional pop group mentioned in passing in A Clockwork Orange. As reported in NME, the inspiration for their debut 7″ came from an afternoon of persuing Record Mirror, “picking out all the words from those absurd disco song titles. We were laughing at those phrases, thining they’re pretty good and then we just chucked in ‘How Much Longer Must We Tolerate This Fascist Groove Thang.’ We were pissing ourselves for days.”

Following the single’s spring 1981 ascent to #30 on the UK charts, the BBC found it considerably less funny, and dropped it. Why? Their legal department deemed it libelous to say “Reagan, Fascist guard.” So, they recorded another version substituting the phrase “Stateside cowboy guard.”

Like Elvis Costello’s SNL appearance in 1977 (in place of the Sex Pistols, who couldn’t get visas), when he launched into “Radio, Radio.” Lorne “they broke their promise” Michaels banned EC from SNL for 12 years. I love these moments when “the man” feared popular music, offered testerical reactions, and confirmed for all of paying attention that this music deserved closer attention. Fun times! And definitely way more fun (and political) than wardrobe malfunctions.

Here are the gents, avec La Roux, at it more recently at Abbey Road:

Have a dance-worthy week!

Armagideon Time — a meditation on Trayvon Martin and what it means to be human

Trayvon Martin’s death is, above all else, a family tragedy, a personal loss for a mother and father. No parent should face the prospect of mourning the loss of a child, especially if that child is killed in an act of violence. Likewise, Martin’s death is social and political, for parents of Black American males are considerably more likely than other parents to lose their sons to violence, be it accidental or deliberate. The gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks in the US is shrinking but persists, and serves as evidence for a claim by Charles Shaar Murray–a name familiar to many Clash devotees–regarding the central drive of American popular music: “the need to separate black music (which, by and large, white Americans love) from black people (who, by and large, they don’t).” (Kudos to Jack Hamilton for reminding me of this quote.) Here I offer a few thoughts on what it means to be human, racialized, and technologized in contemporary America.


(From a series of images by Baltimore street artist Justin Nether, at East Baltimore and Caroline streets.)

It’s Murray’s job, of course, to make claims such as this one, but is it a useful claim and, if so, how so? I don’t know whether this phenomenon is “the central drive” or a the logical consequence of other forces at work. Is American popular music an undifferentiated thing, and is Jay Z as complicit as Pat Boone in sustaining this separation? Music is never just music, of course: it’s inextricably cultural, economic, and political. Even “absolute music”–i.e., music that claims to be non-representational–maps out certain stakes (rather than others), and elevates one set of principles (rather than another). The category of “absolute music” was coined to describe Beethoven’s ninth symphony by Wagner (who knew a little something about representing Germans to Germany), and is the counterbalance to program music: opera, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and the whole of contemporary popular music. With his call to boycott Florida due to the “stand your ground” law (one of 30 states that has such laws), Stevie Wonder aims to apply economic pressure to the legal conscience of Floridians, their representatives, and–with any luck–American law writ large.

Our devotion to The Clash persists because Strummer-Jones-Simonon-Headon understood what it meant to offer one set of principles (rather than another), and to abide by those principles as best as they could. The stakes, of course, included an understanding of the history of the diaspora of black music, and entailed the responsibility of reminding their American fans (especially) of their own musical forebears, including Willi Williams, who gave the world “Armagideon Time,” and its sentiment about hunger, struggle, and justice remains apropo.

I figure this track means something more specific to a Jamaican audience, but the titular reference to Armageddon–which, in various iterations, refers to  the Messiah’s return to earth and his defeat of the anti-Christ and Satan–and Gideon, a young man from the tribe of Manasseh, who was selected by God to condemn the worship of (false) idols by the people of Israel and to lead their liberation, looks ahead to a day of true reckoning. In Williams’ view (as modified by Strummer’s improvistaions in The Clash’s rendition), Armageddon was not a spectator sport:

A lotta people won’t get no a supper tonight
A lotta people a won’t get no a justice tonight
Remember, a kick it over
No one will guide you through Armagideon time

With President Obama chiming in with a heartfelt meditation on blackness, whiteness, and the law, one might argue he effectively offered to be that guide. The insight Obama offered was distinctive, and was on the mind of demonstrators across the country who withstood heatwaves to stand-up-and-be-counted, to register their anger/frustration/abject exhaustion with the pernicious persistence of racialization in the US. Here I want to highlight one passage in particular:

“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

The law, though, is only part of the problem, as is its head-slapping application in recent years. (See the the case of Marissa Alexander, to begin.) It is a particular challenge to find the language for complex cases, and for the moment “race-and-youth” serves as the dominant framework for this discussion and, in turn, the NRA-inspired adage of “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”  has been subject to only fitful scrutiny.

As Evan Selinger notes, in a 2012 Atlantic piece following the Colorado “Batman” shooting, this absolving claim “assumes an instrumentalist view of technology, where we bend [technology] to our will.” In this view, the technology is regarded as a neutral tool, capable of carrying out the actor’s will. The alternative posed by Bruno Latour is the transformative view: “when humans interact with objects, they are transformed by that interaction.  A gun changes how a person sees the world.” With your hand wrapped around a Glock or Kal Tek 9mm (Zimmerman’s technology of choice), the field of possible actions is transformed. Selinger writes, “To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets.” People become potential targets. In the most tragic situations, the person-gun embraces certain stakes (rather than others), and elevates one set of principles (rather than another).

Do we have the capacity to speak about humans and techno-humans this way? Are we capable of saying race-class-law-technology in the same sentence, or even the same paragraph? As a country, our republic was unable to sustain a telling conversation about the perils of the person-gun after the tragedy at Newtown. Let us hope we can soon honor the memory of Mr. Martin (and the victims of countless other shootings in the US) by speaking in a different, more durable register.

post-punk gems, v. 26 — Guadalcanal Diary

Welcome back to radio K-SAT! A day on the train kept me from posting earlier today, but I hope you’ll enjoy this gem from back in the day by Guadalcanal Diary. This combo hailed from Marietta, GA, and benefitted from being associated with the usual suspects of the “Athens scene” (REM, B-52’s, Pylon, et. al.). They embodied the Americana-jangle sound, and put out four LPs for Elektra before things went south for them. I caught them at a gym at UC San Diego in September 1986 when they opened for REM on the Lifes Rich Pageant tour. (That fun show featured REM’s huddling up after each song to decide what to play next, and Michael Stipe throwing a shoe in the general direction of the frat guy who was non-plussed by the show.)

Here’s the track that got G. Diary on the radio, back in 1985:

Have a lovely week, and–for my fellow northern hemisphere dwellers–keep applying your sunscreen!

#punk protagonists — where are they now, v. 2

Happy Sunday! I hope your weekend’s going well, and that you’ve got moderate temps in your patch of the shire.

Last Sunday I reviewed the whereabouts and what-not of Meg Griffin, Joe Piasek and — ever so briefly — the equally delightful Bob Gruen, “who gives all his credit to his mother,” according to Meg. (Gruen, as you may know, got his start at the fated 1965 Newport Folk Festival, at which Bob Dylan plugged in and pissed off (nearly) all the folkies.) Today I want to get you, my gracious reader, up-to-speed on the post-Clash business of Clash-de-campers DJ Scratchy and The Baker.

Barry “Scratchy” Myers toured with The Clash from 1978 through 1980 and, like his brother-in-arms The Baker, settled in New York following his departure from the band, and then joined a couple different combos: Rank & File, Khmer Rouge (tunes here), The Tall Boys, and–with Jayne County–The Trash County Dominators, respectively. (Mr. Myers plays bass and sings, too.)

He also added thumping cadences to Junior Manson Slags, formed. produced, and disbanded the TCDs, and then went back to school to study film and video. He eventually returned to the wheels-of-steel, touring with one Joe Strummer in 2002 and, following that fateful December, kept busy at Strummer tributes through 2003. He also got into the compilation business, with Trojan and Sanctuary (see the reggae set here), and staffs the decks at fests at Glastonbury and elsewhere. Check out this lovely mix (he took a big turn to all things gypsy awhile back), and then double-back to find an older set at http://scratchysounds.co.uk/.

Lastly, Barry Auguste, a.k.a. “The Baker,” has surfaced anew and offers his own take on life with The Clash and after at http://thebaker77.wordpress.com/ (he’s in the front row on the left, of course). I’ve spoken with The Baker a few times, and he’s a right decent chap, rich with honor and a war chest of history. Do leave a comment at his blog if you like what he’s up to. He takes seriously people who take a serious interest.

Have a lovely week!

post-punk gems, v. 25 — Plastic Bertrand

Happy Wednesday, readers! I’m back with another gem from back in the day — nearly 35 years to the day, actually. Plastic Bertrand — nee Roger Allen François Jouret — played in a Rolling Stones cover band, studied music at school, and released his first solo LP in the UK 35 years ago this week. Included on J’tte Fais Un Plan is one of the greatest one-hits of the era, “Ca Plan Pour Moi.”

Years later, on one of the most delightful compilations by primarily American bands of punk-iness, Freedom of Choice, Sonic Youth took a go at this track.

While this cover rocks, I think this irascible one’s my favorite from this collection. It should be played loudly.


where are they now, v. 1 — Toronto, anyone?

Greetings from radio K-SAT! I’m still waiting for a single hour in the 2-day forecast that doesn’t include a chance of rain, but in the meantime the tomato plants look awesome! (Speaking of tomatoes (and potatoes), does anyone else yearn for those bygone days when Dan Quayle was the most polarizing figure in US politics?)

As some of you know, Stealing All Transmissions tidies up a limited number of loose ends, and I figure it’s about time I apprise you of the whereabouts of a handful of the protagonists, aides, and abettors. Meg Griffin, of course, is still spinning discs for Sirius-XM Radio, and is also one of the key subjects of a new documentary, I Am What I Play. (Roger King is one of the masterminds of this project, and he’s a good guy, so do check this out when it arrives in your city.) Here she is with rock photographer extraordinaire (and insanely sweet guy) Bob Gruen, who still keeps busy on the other side of the camera. They’re pictured, of course, with Mr. G.’s book on John Lennon.


Joe Piasek, Meg’s partner-in-crime at WPIX, followed up their “Elvis-to-Elvis” experiment to work at Nickelodeon, where the management better understood the ethos he fomented at WPIX. As of August 2010, Piasek is behind the scenes (and occasionally on the air) at radio station WIOX-FM, out of Roxbury, New York. The station is this odd public-private partnership that broadcasts 24/7, with roughly 19 hours a day of live programming made possible by more than 80 volunteers. The facility is a former Masonic Lodge with plenty of space for in-studio performances, dances–the works. I had the chance to visit Joe there in 2012, and he’s still as properly restless as he was circa 1980 when it comes to business-as-usual. If you’re looking for a good cause to support, tune into WIOX, and consider joining their underwriting forces. (I’m presently tuned into Lizzie Douglas, who’s just schooled listeners that the inspiration for The Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning” was a Corn Flakes commercial in the UK–just the thing that US historians might miss.) The transmission is analog and digital, and you can download the WIOX App for free at the iTunes Store. Given the struggles of radio in general, watch for this model to spread–all it takes is a few more mavericks who are willing and able.

Two more items of note: check out this lovely Clash fan site, which hosts over 3000 photos of the lads and descriptions in French.

Toronto, of course, played a big role in Clash history. As the tour bus readied in September 1979 to return to the US, Mick staged a sit-down strike until someone secured some marijuana. Luckily, some fan procured the necessary goods, and I’d like to offer my thanks to that person, as the legendary shows at the Palladium a few nights later might have otherwise never commenced. In case there’s interest: I am making a quick visit to Toronto on Thursday, 18 July, and while I wasn’t diligent enough to arrange a reading/signing that evening, I’d be delighted to meet folks for lunch and a chat about The Clash, the book, aging with punk and dignity, etc. If you’re interested (or know someone who’s interested), please e-mail me by 12 July, so we can make arrangements at a downtown eatery. Cheers!

(post-) punk gems, v. 24 — The Pop Group

Good morning to you folks in the western hemisphere — and happy belated Canada Day to you up north, and merry Independence Day eve to my country-folk.  I thought about staying on this side of the Atlantic for today’s gem, but, well, no.

It’s round about June ’77 when The Pop Group forms, and in early ’78 they mark out what they’re about for the NME: “We want to create something that is capable of being good and evil at the same time. We want to be the beatniks of tomorrow.” The Nietzschean influence is evident on their first single, “She’s Beyond Good and Evil,” and amid the echo-y washes of guitar and vocals and Joy-Division-y drums, they rearticulate ol’ Friedrich’s ideas for post-feminist ends, with one of the finest lyrics of the era: “Western values mean nothing to her / she’s the girl of my dreams.”

Members of The Pop Group, which disbanded in 1981, and then re-formed for a few gigs just a few years back, would take up instruments in bands as wide-ranging as Head, The Slits, Rip Rig + Panic (with Neneh Cherry), Maximum Joy, and Pigbag–whose 1981 single “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pig Bag” brought maximum joy to my early adolescence. Little can go wrong in a pop group with multiple drummers!