(post-) punk gems, v. 43 — Riff Raff

echo84One of my fondest concert memories is from September 1984, when I saw Echo and the Bunnymen on the Ocean Rain tour at the Berkeley Community Theater. My dear friend Brian and I were in row 3, just close enough to be ordained by the sweat shaking off of guitarist Will Sergeant, who that year had some of the best hair in the business. (That’s him at 6 o’clock.)

As I noted in post-punk v. 38, Billy Bragg  made an unannounced appearance after the opening act (the fun-loving Fleshtones), who had made a bit of a stir in the UK already as part of Riff Raff. It was 34 years ago this week that Riff Raff released four singles, including “Little Girls Know,” on their own Geezer Records label.

I dig the simplicity of this track, of the resonance of young kids with guitars, making a go of it, DIY-style, in the post-punk genre of sub-folk.

So the book is out, and getting some modest attention at this point. If you’re interested in a preview of sorts, check out this interview I did last week with the fantastic folks who put together the New Books in Popular Music podcast.

Theses on Sleater-Kinney, pt. 2

Happy Sunday, poptimists and rockists alike! As I noted on Wednesday, in celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), here’s the second part of what we used to call “experimental writing” in 2003.

SK

As I noted earlier, there’s a rough correspondence here to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found All Hands on the Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.

7

Previous affirmations of grrl power have offered pliant interrogations of masculinity. Gender is merely girls, and the boys are written out, not fully problematized, nor fully implicated—nor theorized as irreducibly sexual and redeemable. For Sleater-Kinney, desire and the desiring apparatus are not deferred but opened, and expanded into new structural arrangements.

And as she split in two
Was she coming straight for you
And do you have a camera for a face?
Was she your TV show
Was she your video

“Was It a Lie?”

And the gaze of the male listener, with CD booklet in hand, finds Carrie, Corin, and Janet glamorous and demure, absolutely fashionable—wielding guitars, sticks, and picks, plugging in, turning on. A woman size 8, lovely with and without her technology. The politic? Problematize your voyeurism, and pass me my lipstick, s’il vous plait.

8

All post-punk musical life is essentially practical. All singer-song-music problematics find the solutions to heteronomy in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

And will there always be concerts
where women are raped?
Watch me make up my mind
instead of my face
The Number One Must Have
is that we are safe

“#1 Must Have”

9

In their cover of “Fortunate Son,” a song I sang in my own incipient days of white-collar, working class consciousness, Sleater-Kinney re-casts the terms—neither son nor fortunate, other to Other—in radical amplification. On the live version, you hear female screams from the audience, and its almost the same voices, same pathos, when I see Sleater-Kinney two years after, in the basement of Oberlin College’s “Sco,” and there emerges an elusive quality: no matter how exhilarating I find this tune, this sound, there is a glass ceiling of gender present, keeping men a notch below on the hierarchy of practical, joyful autonomy.

10

The standpoint of the old cultural revolution was civil society (“C’mon people, now, smile on your brother …”). The standpoint of the new is autonomy and responsibility, an ecology of joyful noise and pleasurable decency.

Go back and tear the pictures from the page …
History will have to find a different face
And if you’re ready for more
I just might be what you’re looking for

“Male Model”

11

Previously, the heroines of post-punk have only criticized the world of rock; the point, however, is to seize it critically and joyously, and to liberate it.

# # #

I also name-check Sleater-Kinney and a host of other righteous folks in an interview this week regarding Stealing All Transmissions, which is now out in fine US bookstores. Have a rockin’ good week!

Theses on Sleater-Kinney, pt. 1

In celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), I’m sharing in today’s post an experimental writingsk-box-set-records piece of mine from 2003, which appeared in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Late in summer 2000, in a basement club at Oberlin College, I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. They put on amazing, amazing show (The White Stripes opened!), and repeated listenings to All Hands on the Bad One (2000) inspired me to subject the inspiration to prose, and to try the format of a set of theses.

As I note below, my ideas below have some correspondence to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.

This piece long precedes, of course, the current debates about rockism and poptimism, and reflects my own becoming as a thinker. Below I’ve included six of eleven theses, and I’ll post the remaining five on Sunday. Enjoy—or let my younger self have it, via the comments below.

Theses on Sleater-Kinney (2003)

Abstract: Marx wrote the “Theses on Feuerbach” in 1845 in preparation of The German Ideology, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. Engels only discovered the “Theses” after Marx’s death, and he regarded them to be “the brilliant germ of the new world outlook.” In postmodernity, our outlooks are certainly less sweeping, and here I offer a set of cultural materialist theses on the sound of the all-female rock trio Sleater-Kinney, in a dialogue often faithful to Marx’s original work.

1

The chief defect of much previous post-punk (Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Pavement, to begin) is that the materiality and responsibility of subjective, everyday life is conceived from standpoints of the abstract subject—urban dweller, riot grrl, or suburban malcontent. The preservation of the dialogic force of rock, in which the singer-song-music—the text, if you will—is phantasmatic extrapolation, refraction, a fiction, into which the lyric-music listener can situate herself comfortably: think Cibo Matto’s “Working for Vacation,” or nearly every song by every singer, in which love/disappointment/anger is ideal, idealized, preserved perfectly for negotiated readings. One size fits nearly all.

In the opening verse from All Hands on the Bad One (2000), Sleater-Kinney in word and sound collapse the parallel planes of the dialogical imagination to implicate and position both singer and lyric-music listener in a new, practical-critical location.

Eye cream and thigh cream, how ‘bout a get
high cream?
Nothing I do smoothes out the feelings
of being used

“The Ballad of a Ladyman”

2

In the rock canon, the question of objective truth is not new: think Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” John Lennon’s “God”—“Yoko and me, that’s reality”—or Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage.” In S-K’s “The Ballad of a Ladyman,” in the narrative, the straight male listener is on the outside, de-scribed from the responsible, practical activity of the narrator or object of desire, situated anew, in a condition naked, objective, and distant.

I could be demure
like girls who are soft
for boys who are FEARFUL
of getting AN EARFUL
but I GOTTA ROCK!

But the sound’s a bit different, one relatively autonomous from Patti Smith’s androgynous confrontation, or PJ Harvey’s banshee blues. This sound undermines the text, invites him in, to stand where she stands, with crimson lips, dacron skirt, and polyester blouse. It’s the affirmation of desire, as singular and social. Pop as political once again becomes urgently personal, generating material effects.

3

Amid a crunch of vocal chords and drums and wires, Sleater-Kinney’s “show us your riffs” doctrine displaces the ironic detachment of postmodern affect, affirming the integral nature of self-change and revolutionary practice—i.e., strumming, picking, singing, and pogo-ing, be it onstage, on the club floor, or in the bedroom.

You don’t own the conversation, honey
You don’t own the stage
We’re here to JOIN THE CONVERSATION
and we’re here to RAISE THE STAKES
Now do … you … hear that sound
as the Model bre-hey-hey-eaks
TAKE THE STAGE!

“Male Model”

The shift in voice is from narrowly autobiographical to openly dialogical, for the stage is actual and metaphorical, always already multiple, and there for the taking.

4

Forerunner as foil: Liz Phair on Exile, for example, for contemporary suburban boy listeners, starts out from the fact of private self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into the private and public spheres. Her work reifies the personal in the realm of intimacy, discrete from the social, secular world. The former must, therefore, be understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Certainly, Phair’s voice, lyrics, and sound disrupt old notions of gender, power, and sexuality, and in concert she invites audience members to breach the footlight divide, to join her onstage, among props comprising house beautiful. Her invitation into her home, however, reproduces the private-public problematic. In this moment, sensuous affirmation by a different mode of practical, human activity is deferred, rather than affirmed in the negative.

5

In contrast, in concert, in Sleater-Kinney’s forceful ushering of belligerent men from the center to the edges of the floor, the band problematizes the gender privilege of height, creates space for grrl power in practice, and fosters practical, egalitarian power as possibility in the rock formation.

6

The ideological gap between art and commodity often bemoaned so clumsily is tarried here with sharp eloquence. Rather than deny the ubiquity of the circuits of production, Sleater-Kinney cast themselves in each moment of that circuit, as raw material, commodity form, and consumer.

But they took our ides to their marketing stars
and now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com
trying to buy back a little piece of me

“#1 Must Have”

But this condition is merely the raw material for new songs, new affirmations, the soundtrack for sensuous, creative activity.

And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next
marketing bid
Culture is what we make it Yes it is
Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time
To invent, invent, invent,
INVENT, INVEN-HEN-HEN-ENT, invent

“#1 Must Have”

 # # #

(post-) punk gems, v. 42 — Celia and the Mutations

Happy Sunday, readers. It’s post-punk gem time again, as I gain my bearings here with my Wednesday and Sunday posts.

It’s 37 years ago this week that Celia Collin secured a favor from The Stranglers and ex-Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson to appear on wax as the Mutations for “You Better Believe Me,” the second single of Celia and the Mutations. (“Mony Mony” came out in July.) Caroline Coon of Melody Maker (and eventually The Clash) expected big things for Celia, and Sounds’ Chas de Whalley — in perfectly bad-lad prose — had ideas of his own for Celia. (Dirty Chas.)

The sound, of course, is ’77 thru-and-thru–3 chords of joy at a quick cadence, fun hooks, minimal ornamentation, and just a wee bit of call-and-response. So happy to have discovered this gem, and I hope it’s either new — or new again — to you.

The book is out in the US, spotted in stores from Pittsburg, CA, to Pittsburgh, PA (The Big Idea Bookstore, for those of you in Steeltown, USA). Enjoy!

the covers themselves — snippet from 9 Oct show

Happy Wednesday, readers. Today’s post simply offers the musical accompaniment to Sunday’s post on punk covers, and includes a few of my favorite covers by boy bands, including The Specials, Devo, Elvis Costello, The English Beat, The Clash, and another ruckusly-inclined band to wrap things up.

More news about the book is coming soon. Until then, please stand up and pogo around the office to this musical selection. Enjoy!

how to make a great punk cover (reprise, updated)

Happy Sunday, people! I hope you’re having a lovely, lovely weekend. I’m in a reuse/recycle mode, and figure if it’s new to you, that’s what counts. I dedicated this past week’s radio hour on wobc.org (5-6pm, EDT) to great punk covers, and I’ll post a clip or two from that show on Wednesday, but wanted to update a post from last year at this time. (From October 6, 2013.) Enjoy!

… So, let me offer something short and sharp for your consideration: five key punk covers, in order of historical appearance. One of the virtues of punk was its recuperation of the cover song. In the rock-as-art movement commencing with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965), the turn to the original composition was a key factor separating rock from pop and, in turn, away from the black influence of blues, R&B, and even jazz, for which the cover or the standard was a key part of the repertoire. The Rolling Stones, of course, took steps to “keep it real” as the bluesy bad-boys foil to The Beatles by offering a cover song on nearly every disc post-1967 (not Goat Heads Soup–1973), for those of keeping score at home).

Rather than the cover song as something a combo played before they got better, punks held onto covers, and The Clash blazed the way in this regard, offering up lovely renditions of Mose Allison’s “Look Here” and Eddy Grant’s “Police on My Back” on Sandinista! The Sex Pistols didn’t last long enough to bother, but their posthumous releases, including The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, documents their (disdainful) affection for The Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner”–a punk standard, if there ever was one–and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” The Who’s “Substitute,” and, regretfully, Sid’s interpretation of “My Way.”

For a punk cover to rise to greatness, I suggest it needs to do one or more of the following things:

1) it takes a somber song and makes it joyful.
2) It offers a fun challenge to our sensibilities, by disrupting our notions of racialization, class, gender, or sexuality.
3) It offers a renaissance of the joy of rock’n’roll before rock-as-art and draws a connection between early 60s rock (or before) and the present.
4) It takes something that appears to be powerful and makes it wimpy, but with total “badassery”–my favorite recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The results, of course, can be unsettling and, in turn, provide immeasurable inspiration to make it through the day.

I’d be happy to hear your version of this history, but I believe it commences with Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” and the unrivaled opening verbal gambit. From SNL 1976:

A year later, of course, The Ramones release their debut LP, which includes a cover of “Let’s Dance,” but it’s the second LP when The Ramones truly shine as interpreters of rockabilly and surf guitar classics. Here’s a brief–although I suppose with The Ramones, it’s always brief–rendition of The Ramones doing “California Sun”:

The Clash, legend has it, had nearly wrapped up the recording of their debut LP and, with 13 songs in the mix, they had 28 minutes of material. They decided to record Junior Murvin and Lee Perry’s “Police and Thieves” (live super-snarl mix included here) for the album and, in doing so, made history by insisting on the inimitable blackness of their musical forebears.

I’m not sure this track rises to the historical significance of the others included here, but I have a real soft spot for decidedly groovy interpretation of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by The Slits. It insists on the imperative of joy, and what could be wrong with that?

There are certainly some brilliant covers between 1979 and 1985, from The Clash’s “Police on My Back” (The Equals), to Costello’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” (Sam & Dave), and Wall of Voodoo’s “Ring of Fire” (thank you, @MickeyUndertone, for weighing in earlier). But I’ve got to give a nod here to Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump,” which I recall hearing on rock radio in Sacramento and Stockton back in the day. The DJ would play some, if not all, of the track, and ask listeners to call in to weigh in on this travesty. They all hated it. I loved it. Roddy Frame and co. stripped bare David Lee Roth and co. of the bluster, the guitar and keyboard virtuosity, the spandex and the hairspray to show the world in plainspeak what exactly the song was about. (Of course a song is more than its lyrics, but not in this rendition.) In turn, they produced one of the purest, if mellowest, punk gestures ever.

Et tu? What are your favorite punk covers?

spirit of ’77, Oct 2 show

Ah, yes, I’m a tad late getting this segment together. A bit of The Specials, UB40, OMD, The Clash, and a couple other tracks–maybe 25 min. in length or so.  A bit mellow for ’77, but I’ll turn up the volume in today’s show, which is going to be focused on punk covers. It’s wobc.org, or 91.5 on your FM dial in Lorain County, 5-6pm, EDT.