post-punk gems, v. 68 — Gang of Four

"Entertainment!" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
“Entertainment!” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

For nearly all of my purchases of vinyl before the age of 25 (and even a fair share of my CDs and tapes), I can recall the moment of acquisition, the ripping open of the cellophane, and the debut rotation on my turntable. On occasion, though, I have only faint traces of that history, and such is the case with my coming to own the absolutely brilliant Entertainment!, by Gang of Four (1979).

In my collection it sits astride GO4’s Another Day/Another Dollar (1982), which was in rotation on San Francisco’s KQAK circa 1983. I so often recorded my vinyl onto Maxell XL II 90s, and on the flipside of this tape (which I still have, although most of the high-end’s gone–or is that my hearing?) is Husker Du’s Candy Apple Grey (1986), so I figure I came to Entertainment! a bit late in the game. It certainly stuck with me, though, and probably was a key factor years later in my attending one of the more left-leaning graduate programs in sociology here in the states.

The Leeds combo first gigged in May 1977, and guitar-wise, Andy Gill modified Wilko Johnson’s angular rhythm-as-lead style. The overall sound–as lovingly noted by Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up and Start Again–started “stark and severe,” and remained defined as much by avoidances (cymbal crashes, guitar fuzz and distortion) and T. Monk-like spacing, as it did by its constitutive elements. Here’s two versions of one of my fave tracks: the John Peel version (with a bit more resonance on the vocals) and the LP version. Enjoy!

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punk’s greatest night — april 23, 1976

Writers quibble over year-zero of punk: ’76, because that’s when things started rolling, or ’77, because that’s when key platters of vinyl by The Clash, the Pistols, Blondie, Television, and so many others hit the shops. The hardcore look back to Iggy and the Stooges, of course, or even Velvet Underground at Cafe Wha? way back when.

The night noted above, though, has got a decent claim to the most important weekend in punk history, in terms of guts, glory, and serendipity. On both sides of the Atlantic, the eponymous Ramones’ LP hit the shelves and, as Generation X’s Tony James noted, “The Ramones were the single most important group that changed punk rock.”

In London’s Nashville Room, The Sex Pistols opened for the 101’ers, and Mick Jones accompanied Bernie Rhodes to check out the 101’ers’ lead singer, Joe Strummer. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, the crowd at CBGB was treated to the debut documentary of the punk scene: The Blank Generation, by Ivan Kral, then with Patti Smith’s group, served as the opening act for Johnny Thunders’ The Heartbreakers, just before Richard Hell set out on his own with his band, the Voidoids. 

Kral’s film was a truly DIY affair, as you can see here. I do, of course, shine a bit more light in my book on one of the most important nights in the history of rocknroll. I’ll give the coda over to Richard Hell. Cheers!

post- punk gems, v. 67 — Jesus and Mary Chain

Just a short entry today, folks, as I seem to have contracted a mean case of this virus, largely ineluctable, called “age.” A simple move at the gym last Wed. has me all crosseyed and pain-ridden.

So, back in the day, I certainly turned up the radio on the odd chance that the airwaves were blessed by select tracks by ol’ Jesus and Mary Chain, and “Head On” in particular. (The band apparently took their name from a cereal prize: “Jesus & Mary chain.”) It’s got a nice balance of late-80s breath-ready spacing in the mix, as well as enough guitar crunches to honor the perfectly Springsteen-esque sympathy of

“and the way I feel tonight / I could die and wouldn’t mind”

Rarely did those shoe-gazers of the 80s get a whole lot more earnest than this.

It ended up a modern rock hit in the states, and inspired a rockin’ good cover by The Pixies before they got all dissolute.

Ah, beautiful pop! Cheers!

the punk stance — pigeon-toed singers, unite!

Good day, readers! I’m diggin’ in deep again today into bits from chapter 4 of my book on The Clash breaking America, going back 38 years and few weeks, to a March 11 gig of The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, The Slits — and get this — “Late Night Kung Fu Films.” Awesome! So rock writer extraordinaire Nick Kent was on-hand, and noted for NME:

“Strummer’s stance sums up this band at is best, really: it’s all to do with real ‘punk’ credentials–a Billy the Kid sense of tough tempered with an innate sense of humanity …”

Kent proceeds to discredit Johnny Rotten and his “clownish co-conspirators,” but my

The transcendent pose (Chris Walter, 1972).
The transcendent pose (Chris Walter, 1972).

interest here is in Strummer’s stance–i.e., the way he and other punks actually stood onstage. Now, we don’t actually have pix of Billy the Kid’s shooting stance for reference, alas, and since it’s a blog post, I’m not aiming for an exhaustive sample here, but the punk stance was fundamentally different than the classic rock stance, as embodied by The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and Paul McCartney.

Daltrey and Plant, of course, didn’t pick up the guitar (as a rule, in Daltrey’s case), and were free to move about however they saw fit. One of their favorite poses, though was the transcendent pose: feet apart, leaning back (which just happened to emphasize the elasticity of their jeans in particular places), with chin tilted towards the sky.

The voice (and the hammer) of the gods (photographer unknown).
The voice (and the hammer) of the gods (photographer unknown).

And it’s not just the singer’s inclinations, of course: these singers had to do something to rival the impressive solos turned in by their virtuosic band mates. It also had to do with art, which allegedly transcends the street and the marketplace. The rock gods and the hippies favored leaning back, and swaying from side to side (see Janis Joplin, and even Patti Smith to a certain extent).

Wings, taking it easy (photographer unknown).
Wings, taking it easy (photographer unknown).

In his tenure with Wings, McCartney rarely struck the transcendent pose, but rarely performed with true urgency, either, and even found it appropriate to take up a chair during certain interludes.

Rotten leans in (1977, AP Photo/Virgin Records).
Rotten leans in (1977, AP Photo/Virgin Records).

Punks, of course, especially in the early days, didn’t take it easy at all. Johnny Rotten appeared a true original in this way, but his pose here recalls teen idols leaning out over the audience–but this time, of course, it’s to egg on their disdain, rather than to solicit affection.

 

No Beatles, Stones, or transcendent poses, in 1977 (photographer unknown).
No Beatles, Stones, or transcendent poses, in 1977 (photographer unknown).

The Clash struck intricate poses, more pigeon-toed than bow-legged in the beginning, as if the urgency of the message and their affection for their fans drew them right to the lip of the stage. (Strummer recedes here, to honor Mick’s take at the mic.)

 

Get the balance right (1977).
Get the balance right (1977).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pigeon-toed pose, of course, owes a-plenty to Elvis Costello, and the cover image for his first LP (before we got to see him reproduce this pose–and the accompanying dance steps–live and on MtV).

Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1977 (photog unknown).
Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1977 (photog unknown).

I’ll leave you with two more images: Siouxsie in stark black-and-white, from 1977, Paul Weller with The Jam in 1978 — not quite pigeon-toed, I suppose, but the mic placement, the urgency of the music, and the crowd had him up on his toes, channeling anger as an energy.

Send along your favorites if you’ve got ’em.

The Jam in Boston, 1978(Jeff Albertson/CORBIS).
The Jam in Boston, 1978(Jeff Albertson/CORBIS).

 

post-punk gems, v. 66 — A Certain Ratio

“This is the birth of rave culture … ”

Thanks to the demented and brilliant 24 Hour Party People (and many a fine book), we have a fleeting sense of the musical vigor of Manchester back in the day, and the connection between punk, post-punk, and rave culture.

It’s Joy Division, of course, and Happy Mondays, and others, including A Certain Ratio, who are described in the film as “having all the energy of Joy Division but better clothes.” I can’t attest to the clothes part, but you can hear the influence of Ian Curtis’ voice, and the energy and aesthetic of Gang of Four and the Leeds crowd (Delta 5, et. al.). In good analog fashion, A Certain Ratio released their first album on cassette only in 1979.

“Do the Du” remains danceable from beginning to end, includes A-Certain-Ratio-Madonna-@-Danceteria-1982plenty of space to breathe, and sounds absolutely fresh today. And to think Madonna opened for them! (I do miss the 10pm buffet supper.)

(See Simon Reynolds’ very smart Rip It Up and Start Again for the best account of the post punk funk bands in the UK.)

Glad the lads are still at it now and again.

The loudness is the message — on the 70s sound of WPLJ

Hey there! I’m sticking to my pledge to offer more in-depth stuff on chapter 4 during April Sundays, ch. 5 in May, etc., and today’s bit is about the sound of WPLJ, which I explain in Stealing All Transmissions benefited from an engineer’s error, and the Dorrough audio processor. The topic ranges into the obscure, I suppose, but really heralds the concerns of audiophiles in the mp3 era, in which all that glitters is not gold.

Back in the 1960s, WABC-AM in New York City employed an echo box 24-7, and its reverb-heavy sound distinguished their sound from their rival stations, and aided “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and Scott Muni while they broke new discs by The Beatles and Motown’s line-up. At this time, Mike Dorrough was engineering for Casey Kasem, and realized that he might be able to devise a solution for the mixing problems of pop/rock discs in the studio. So, when a bass drum kick coincides with a voice singing falsetto, and the whole sound needed to be compressed as a matter of mechanics. Otherwise, the needle on your phonograph would jump from the groove and, over the air, the sound would over-modulate (it’s not good, I’m sure), and engineers at radio stations made the necessary adjustments.

berger
Berger, with DJ Tony Pigg, at WPLJ. From Billboard, July 26, 1980.

Dorrough realized that if the track could be separated, though, into low-, mid-, and high signals, then processed, and then sent out over the airwaves. These “multi-band signals”  sounded cleaner, found an audience in folks playing rock from Fresno (where it started) to New York City, where Dorrough closed a deal with Larry Berger, who used the machine to boost the volume of the signal, and compress its dynamics down to a narrow range, which would sound fine on portable transistor radios, but might fatigue listeners who were actually listening on home stereos. “We were going for a young audience,” Berger reported, “and we weren’t worried about fatigue. I just didn’t see it in the ratings.”

The use of the Dorrough “discriminate audio processor” to boost loudness rather than promote clarity dismayed Dorrough, and he was there the day Berger and his engineer tested the DAP on “Bennie and the Jets,” a song with great dynamics between the ambient crowd noise and the fat piano chords.

On WPLJ, though, the volume of those moments was basically equal. Berger didn’t want some kid imagining that he had lost WPLJ while driving outside the city during the quiet opening passage of the track and, as a result, change stations. Plus: they juiced the turntables, as I explain in ch. 4.

I pulled quite a bit of this information from the very smart Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, by Greg Milner. He’s also on twitter. Good stuff.

Thank you for reading this far before changing URLs and, if you missed Wednesday’s post, do check it out: I just adore this band.

post-punk gems v. 65 — The Judy’s

Wow. How did I miss The Judy’s the first time around? With their minimalist sound, nasal-and-earnest vocals with irony-laced topical texts, these guys are right in the wheelhouse of my musical sublime — and they hailed from Pearland, Texas, of all places (which is not the Austin region of Texas).

The Judy’s got together in ’79 and, after a name change or two, released the EP Teenage Hang-ups in 1980, which in its original design included the track ““Will Somebody Please Kill Marlo Thomas?” (of Free to Be … You and Me fame), but the guy at the pressing plant balked.

Their wicked sense of humor is in full effect in this clip, when they baptize the audience in Kool-Aid. Goodness, gracious.

Check out their web site, where you can pick up vinyl, CDs, and other merch–I have no affiliation, of course. This site is a public service.

Here’s a short documentary you might like, too — punks in cut-off jeans and Hawaiian shirts? Does it get any better, ever?