post-punk gems, v. 59 — Kurtis Blow

I’ve got upcoming gigs in Roxbury, NY (3/21) and Amherst, MA (3/25), so I’m thinking about The Clash more often than I usually do, as I put together my talks. Of particular interest is the band’s May-June 1981 residency at Bond International Casino–17 dates of sold-out shows, lots of exposure for uptown bands like The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and a host of others.

Kurtis Blow DJ’ed alongside Grandmaster Flash in Harlem and the Bronx in the late 1970s, and was the first rapper signed to a major label in 1979. His second single, “The Breaks” (after “Christmas Rappin'”), must have captivated Joe, Mick, and co., with the west African rhythm guitar, Blow’s flow on the mic, and plenty of drums.

In August 1982, among the final performances with Jonesy still onboard, The Clash The Akron Civic Theater 17 August 1982The Clash played the Akron Civic Theater and introduced Blow to a whole new market, one that couldn’t even get his name spelled right on the marquee. (Thanks to Don Frederick for sending this image–not his–my way.)

If anyone knows the guy flexing guns below the marquee, let me know: I’m happy to give him a shout-out.



From middlebrow rock to punk: the bridge of Bruce Springsteen

Happy icy Sunday, folks! Not even in the days of icy fog in my youth in Stockton, CA, might I have imagined that I’d be celebrating a day’s high temperature of 28F as perfectly balmy. In fleeting moments, we’re all Bostonians now.

For today’s bit, I’m digging deeper into the themes of chapter 2, “From Sgt. Pepper’s to Born to Run: The Rise of Free-Form Radio,” from Stealing All Transmissions. Free-form radio, of course, had a key role in celebrating The Beatles, The Who, and others as artists, rather than worker bees making popular music, and I suggest that Bruce Springsteen played a key role in bridging the divide between the artistic pretensions of classic rockers and the pretensions of authenticity of the punks, including The Clash.

It was in Boston’s Real Paper, of course, back in May 1974, that Jon Landau pronounced “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” BSAbout the same time, Ken Emerson in Rolling Stone gave high marks to The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, celebrating the “punk savvy” of the lyrics of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” I have little idea what “punk” might mean here, other than representations of the working class, which perhaps in 1974 were in short supply, thanks to the artistic turn of rock, led by The Beatles.

Now I’m a devotee of the The Beatles (and Springsteen), but The Beatles’ growth as musicians forged a divide between pop and rock. If they were, in 1964, a threat to youth morality (and eventually Christianity in particular, with Lennon and his “we’re bigger than Jesus now” quote), by 1967, they were regarded anew as purveyors of middlebrow art.

Following the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, Time magazine did a big feature on The Beatles, beatlesand framed the new rock in the rhetoric of the middlebrow aesthetic: “With characteristic self-mockery, the Beatles are proclaiming that they have snuffed out their old selves to make room for the new Beatles incarnate. And there is some truth to it. Without having lost any of the genial anarchism with which they helped revolutionize the life style of young people in Britain, Europe, and the U.S., they have moved on to a higher artistic plateau.”

Yes, on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon suggested that “a working class hero was something to be.” It couldn’t be him, though. And Springsteen, with his 1975 appearance at the Bottom Line, which was broadcast live on WNEW-FM at Richard Neer’s behest, solidified this feature of WNEW-FM, and–four years later–would be the source of The Guns of Brixton bootleg, from the September 21, 1979 concert of The Clash at the Palladium.

The Clash The Guns Of Brixton Back

Keep warm out there, Clash-o-philes of the north. The winds have been more biting than Joe Strummer circa 1984!


post-punk gems, v. 58 — Wire

Welcome back to Radio K-SAT, where every Wednesday I cue up a great tune from back in the day, and a bit of the tune’s back-story (as time allows). Once again I’ve been paging through John Robb’s Punk Rock: An Oral History, learning about tales and tracks I wasn’t privy to the first time around.

Wire’s Pink Flag (1977), of course, remains a staple on best-o-lists for the time and punk writ large, and casts a long shadow on subsequent LPs (and their key tracks). Wire’s label was EMI, and of course all the labels were still learning what to do with punk and its arty offshoots. In summer ’78, Wire released “Outdoor Miner,” which charted ahead of a scheduled appearance for the band on Top of the Pops.

As Colin Newman recalled, after the TOTP slot was cancelled, “that was our big moment gone, where we could have been weird and pop at the same time!” The situation was complicated by the pulling of the single from the charts due to rumors about “the possibility that inducements had been offered for the sale of the single to be exaggerated in chart return shops.” For the Yanks among you, read: rumors of payola, which might as well have been confirmed, and the single and the LP never recovered. The single, though, deserved a real shot, and heralds the fine work of many bands, most conspicuously Pavement. Wire’s still at it though, and good for them. I hope the music’s paying the bills.

For readers of Stealing All Transmissions: even if you didn’t buy the book from amazon (US link, UK link), it’s where people look for reviews, etc. If you have a few minutes, please consider leaving your feedback. It makes all the difference for little books of little publishers. Thanks!

From 45 to 33 1/3: cadences of the AM and FM DJs

Good morning, readers. I hope your Sunday’s shaping up well. If you’re on the US continent, east of the Rockies, and north of Louisiana, I imagine you too will have a snow shovel in your hands before too long.

Fab Four plus one.

Wednesday’s punk and post-punk gems will stay the same, but on Sundays I want to share a few more thoughts of themes from the book. For month two, then, I’m looking at chapter two, “From Sgt. Pepper’s to Born to Run: The Rise of Free-form FM Radio.” Through the  50s and into the 60s, the hysterical DJ dominated the AM airwaves, with promises of another “twin-spin sound sandwich” on a largely song-ad spot-song sequence. I couldn’t find an early aircheck for Murray the K. (also known as “the  5th Beatle”), but here’s one from 1966, just before Murray metamorphosed into a free-form DJ.

Rosko_WNEWIn the next year, though, the model has changed completely, and “Rosko” Mercer (not the UK’s Emperor Rosko), on WOR-FM, has turned things down, cadence-wise and volume-wise, and the corresponding change in music-as-pop to music-as-art leads to changes on the airwaves, too. Mercer, along with Scott Muni, led the charge at WNEW-FM into free-form FM radio, and he would segue from Coltrane to Shel Silverstein, and — as you can hear on this shorter segment — would improvise extended raps between songs and commercials, and share his own rather critical thoughts about the Vietnam War.

The 33 1/3 ethos, with minimal interference from commercials, made new demands on the listening audience, and upon advertisers to be more patient in terms of the frequency of their spots on the air. So, when Richard Neer at WNEW-FM raises the prospect of the live at the Bottom Line series to boss Mel Karmazin (now the head of Sirius XM), Karmazin couldn’t imagine how to make it happen — 90 minutes without commercials? It made little sense, but enough sense, and the Springsteen show ahead of the release of Born to Run sealed the deal. Four years later, The Clash were also included on the WNEW live series, now also at the Palladium, and we have the Guns of Brixton bootleg as a result. Thank you, Richard Neer, Rosko, and Muni!

For the rude boys and rude girls among you, check out Two Tone Britain. It’s not thorough by any stretch, but it does a solid job of unpacking the importance of the music and the politics of The Specials’ brigade against the backdrop of the rise of the National Front.


post-punk gems, v. 57 — Rudi

Happy Wednesday, punkers and punkettes. I’ve got two writers on my mind today, and one great single. Dave Hickey is one of the best we’ve got in the states on art, culture, and democracy, and he’s prolific poster on facebook. Among his recent gems he offered a resonant question for viewing art: “In what social context would this work be considered good art?” And, “would I prefer that society to this one?”

I love the digital age and all its gadgets, but when I get turned anew onto a track circa ’78 a la Rudi’s “Big Time,” I get a certain longing for record bins, a pittance of an allowance, and the ritual disc cleaning involving a ZeroStat gun. (Last click release away from the disc, of course.)

(Not quite sure why youtube is cueing up its “Jesus is Lord” ad to accompany this video–maybe I’m missing a subtext?)

It’s a great tune, with an in media res beginning, and then a more “natural” opening gambit a couple dozen bars later. Fun stuff from a band that barely made it out of Ireland, and never touched the shores on this side of the Atlantic. Too bad.

The only snapshot I can find of this melodic bunch.
The only snapshot I can find of this melodic bunch.


sporting lads — when style trumps success

I know, I know … I said I’d write Sunday pieces about the book, and I’m hoping this interview will satisfy any *Stealing* related hunger. (Thank you, too, for picking it up — sales remain steady.)

Two things, though, came together to get me thinking about the impact of culture on income and sports. I’m reading Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ’n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968, by Michael James Roberts, which is a fun and smart analysis about how the American Federation of Musicians excluded rock’n’rollers by insisting upon the status of notated music over the oral tradition, and ensured its own demise. Roberts deftly analyzes how the celebration of leisure by rock’n’roll, R&B, and jump blues posed a threat to the American work ethic (run amok), and — if you’re a punk fan — the lead-up to NBC’s paranoia over Elvis Costello’s performance of “Radio Radio” on SNL back in December 1977. It’s a quaint moment, if only to recall that rock’n’roll was deemed dangerous back in the day. (And now it’s unavailable on youtube, for some reason.)

Arsenal's Goalkeeper (C) punches out the
Ospina punches — could he have made the catch?

Second, Arsenal’s 2-1 loss to Tottenham might have been prevented had the keeper Ospina actually caught the ball, rather than punched it meekly to the Tottenham player who knocked in the first goal. I’m looking for help here, but I think it’s a lad-culture thing for keepers to punch the ball (looks more aggressive), rather than catch it. Yes, the current ball when struck without spin wobbles more in the air than the old model, I get that. But when it’s spinning, keepers should be able to track the ball well enough, catch it, and take possession of the ball.

Style counts in pro sports, as in US football, when defenders lay big hits on receivers (and fail to wrap them up), and the receivers bounce off of them and continue on down the field. In baseball, the snatch catch (Barry Bonds’ signature defensive move) or the one-handed catch in the outfield has become routine. I was delighted to see Pablo Sandoval pretty much make this a two-handed grab.

B-ballers avoid use of the backboard, even if it might improve their shooting percentage. Those who do, a la Tim Duncan, you get the nickname “The Big Fundamental,” which isn’t much fun on social media. Big defenders, too, when it comes to blocking shots, are like goalkeepers — the ball ends up in row 3 or higher, and insures that the opposition retains possession. That’s changing a bit, but ever slowly.

The soccer penalty kick, though, offers the most compelling case where culture trumps success. According to the good folks in the Freakonomics enterprise, going either left or right, randomly or not, will not produce maximum yield the way going down the middle would — since the keeper almost always dives one direction or the other. I like the comments below in this article, and certainly the method of Landon Donovan and others, who watch the keeper dive and go the other way, seems quite smart.

If there’s a number cruncher out there, though, who can share some data on my punching vs. catching question, please be in touch. Cheers!

post-punk gems, v. 56 — Pere Ubu

Hi folks! I’m a bit late on the draw today, but I’m happy to share this recent interview with The Plain Dealer. While I was wiling away summer days at the public library in Stockton, CA, I used to peruse the reader’s guide to periodical under “punk,” and I was duly impressed with the coverage of the Cleveland and New York scenes by PD reporters.

On the matter of Cleveland rocks, then, here’s a track from initial encounter with Pere Ubu well into the 80s, from their Cloudland LP. (Kind words here by the chronically cranky Bob Christgau.) It’s a bit poppier than most of their stuff, but I sure dug the odd grooves and synth flourishes on a host of tracks from that LP during a summer of sweltering fun in Cambridge, Mass., with some brilliant mates of mine.

“The good and the bad / now it’s parking lots.” Heady, heady stuff. Enjoy!

the voice of punk, ’77

Good morning, fine readers. I’m trying to be disciplined here, and stay true to my hope to connect my Sunday posts to Stealing All Transmissions (the book) by post elaborations of key points or something “multi-media” connected to chapter 1 in January, chapter 2 in February, etc.

Today, though, I’m still in chapter 1, thinking about punk vocal styles, and their connection to Paul Morley’s vital words on Kraftwerk (see full quote here): “The source of [Kraftwerk’s] pop … was art, noise, technology, ideas … a fantasy of what pop music might have sounded like had it not begun in the blues, in wood, in anger, in lust, in sexual frenzy, in poverty.”

Here’s the single version of “Autobahn” (1975), their first track to reach the US charts:

And sure, we might be concerned when Germans (or anyone for that matter) is making aesthetic choices that reflect racialized categories, but that’s not the prime mover here, of course. The different styles of black American music — R&B, soul, jazz, and blues, gospel, etc. — cast such a long shadow on popular music in the West that it was difficult to forge something new (see: The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, et. al.). By the mid-1970s, a desperation for something new arose in Dusseldorf, London, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and elsewhere, and singers like Tom Verlaine, Joey Ramone, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, the gents in Devo and, of course, David Byrne, were onto something.

So, when Talking Heads make their way from the Rhode Island School of Design to the Bowery, they confirm — as they sing on their debut LP — “It’s not, yesterday, anymore!” David Byrne’s vocals are the most definitive departure, sound-wise, and here’s how Stephen Demorest’s described his approach in his Rolling Stone review of ’77:

“Vocally, Byrne’s live-wired personality vibrates his precise musical framework like a caged tiger rattling its bars. (That he sings in a stiff, reedy, ‘bad’ voice, grasping for higher notes like a drowning man lunging for air, only heightens the drama.)”

Not bad, I’d say, and it heralds a question I hope to pursue in a future post: of the American bands in the punk and post-punk era, how come only Talking Heads dared reinvent themselves from album to album (or every other album)? What is it about American notions of masculinity, authenticity, and musicality that allowed bands to mellow (e.g., Husker Du and The Replacements, and often begrudgingly), but not dare pursue metamorphoses? Think of Brits such as John Lydon (from Pistols to PiL), The Clash (Rope to London Calling, or Sandinista! to Combat Rock), The Damned (Strawberries to Phantasmagoria), to begin. I’m sure art school and notions of artifice play a big role.

Thanks for tuning into K-SAT!