well, then: what can a poor boy do? punk and authenticity

Greetings, readers! So I’m back at the book again here, mining chapter 3, “1977: Clamor, Exposure, and Camaraderie,” for another gem related to the DIY spirit. The clamor, of course, was ringing from speakers on the stage and in bedrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, as 1977 saw the release of the 2nd Ramones’ LP, Talking Heads: 77, Television’s Marquee Moon, The Clash, two LPs each by The Damned and The Stranglers and, almost late in the game, came the debut LP by The Sex Pistols. 5.0.3The DIY ethos informed the fanzines, too–most notably Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue, which popularized the cut-and-paste ransom-note aesthetic and, for better or worse, fomented the yer-either-with-us-or-against-us ethos that led to a narrow definition of punk.

Perry’s search in ’76 for written coverage of his new favorite bands turned up almost nothing. “One time I was at [the record shop] Rock On, trying to find out if there were any magazines I could read about these bands in,” Perry recalled. “There weren’t, so the people behind the counter suggested flippantly that I should go and start my own. So I did” (Stealing, p. 42). And did so quickly, and with a sensibility that’s been confirmed nearly four decades hence, as the cover of issue #6 from January ’77 rightly confirms. Perry, too, knew that before too long, his subjects were also his readers. “John Lydon had it, Strummer had it, Rat Scabies had it,” Perry reported. “I thought, ‘If I say this in the Glue, it’s going to happen.’ I knew that, and that’s what fueled me, knowing that it was being taken seriously” (Ibid.).

Perry, alas, took himself too seriously, and did so for years. You might think after a couple decades he might back away from punk-inspired claims such as, “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS,” but no. For John Robb’s Punk Rock, Perry stuck to his ideological guns:

“These guys weren’t about to smash their Gibson & Fender guitars all over the stage, were they? … they manipulated punk into ‘OK, we won’t have a riot, we will sing about it instead.’ Which is cool, at least someone’s singing about it — but don’t try to make out that are some hard revolutionary. You’re just in a pop band — which the Clash ended up being. They were a great pop band, but nothing to do with punk. The real punk bands came a couple of years later, the bands we all hated like the Exploited and all those nasty working-class people [laughs] that have convictions and have been in trouble with the police …” (p. 340).

So, the requisite credentials include: smashing expensive gear, trouble with the law, and you need to be as tedious as The Exploited? As a period piece, The Exploited were perfect, but how many times can you listen to songs that repeat the same phrase in a chorus and construct musical bridges from watered down heavy metal riffs?

Mick
Mick, with Paul, and an “authentic” hair style, circa 1977. Photo by Syd.

Punk is a many-a-splendored thing and, as guitarist Marco Pirroni rightly noted, “This whole Mark P thing that [the Pistols] should sign to Bumhole Records for no money was stupid — that would never work.” The Clash’s refusal to become a self-parody by making the same album over and over again is a testament to their greatness, not a failure. And please: if we’re talking about class credentials, lay off Mick Jones. “Rock’n’roll Mick” did what any poor boy with enough pounds for a guitar and an unassailable work ethic would do: he dedicated his life to rock’n’roll, and made the world a better place.

I will give Mark P. due credit, though, for rocking Alternative TV well into the 21st century–and tonight, 8 March, in Brighton. Cheers!

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What a difference a year makes: ’76 to ’77

Good morning, K-SAT readers. It’s month 3 on the calendar, so I’m mining chapter 3 of Stealing All Transmissions for a couple more gems that I hope you’ll fancy. In “1977: Clamor, Exposure, and Camaraderie,” I move through ’76 and the formation of The Clash into 1977, and map what’s happening in the new periodicals popping up in New York, including Punk and New York Rocker.

Short, sharp, and not too sweet. Brevity and vinyl rule! (April 1977) Photo by Kate Simon.

Robert Christgau reported that he and Richard Goldstein picked up The Clash’s debut on import vinyl at Bleecker Bob’s, put it on the turntable, and the response? “‘This is fucking great!'” There is, of course, so much that is great about their eponymous debut (I love using the word “eponymous”), and I think about Simonon having just learned his parts, and the joy and the frustration and the catharsis in “Janie Jones,” the (ironic) contempt of “Hate and War,” and the beautiful treble-y-ness of it all. I also think about the question of duration. You’ve got 14 tracks here: four are up-and-done in under two minutes; five more take but 30 seconds more.

At the time, Christgau and his comrades at the Village Voice loved popular music, but they also liked to celebrate newcomers, too, as reflected in the Pazz and Jop polls of 1976 and 1977:

1976

  1. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)
  2. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)
  3. Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)
  4. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)
  5. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)
  6. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)
  7. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)
  8. Ramones: Ramones (Sire)
  9. Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)
  10. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)

1977

  1. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)
  2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia)
  3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra)
  4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.)
  5. Steely Dan: Aja(ABC)
  6. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire)
  7. Talking Heads: Talking Heads: 77 (Sire)
  8. Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.)
  9. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M)
  10. Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic)

Now there’s a more scientific way to do this, of course, but let’s just look at the #1s here: Stevie Wonder’s Songs:  17 tracks, 85 minutes, and The Pistols’ Bollocks: 11 tracks, 34 minutes. Certainly Graham Parker and The Ramones heralded a shift in median song duration, but wow: what a difference a year makes.

The Clash doesn’t make the list, I believe, because the folks at the Voice, including Christgau, discovered the album in early 1978. (He would later claim it as his favorite Clash LP, and even his favorite punk LP, if I recall correctly.)

Ramones_-_Leave_Home_cover
The name of this band is … Ramones. Image by Moshe Brakha.

You can find the full polls here and here. And, if you’re paying close attention, you’ll see that the LPs included here by the band “Ramones” did not include a definite article. Like “Talking Heads.” Now, you might find the occasional book that identifies (correctly) “CBGB” rather than “CBGBs,” but I’ve never seen a book refer to this band as “Ramones,” without the “the.” The iconic t-shirt, of course, notes “Ramones,” but all the writers got it wrong. Pretty wild.

punk celluloid on my mind — Clash, Blank Generation and more

Happy 2015, K-SAT readers, and thanks for tuning in. Let me do a quick 2014 wrap, and then offer a few words about punk film stuff, brand spankin’ new and old.

2014 was a lovely year, with accolades for Stealing All Transmissions coming in from London, Boston, Los AngelesChicago (and elsewhere). C’mon New York, c’mon Rolling Stone: I’m thinking of you Kory Grow! Sure, I suppose some of my comments about the current state of “the Stone” in Stealing were sub-flattering, but I assure you it’s business, not personal.

There’s much fun to be had with Julien Temple’s The Clash: New Year’s Day ’77. Mr. T. stays true to form to his collage aesthetic, with juxtapositions of clips from a variety of sources to take stock and make sense of more-Moderate-than-Great Britain 38 years ago. It’s a solid companion piece to his London: The Modern Babylon, which streamed on Netflix briefly, and now is unavailable. Modern capitalism can be so baffling–and I’ll get a more in-depth review of this gem soon.

With the new year commencing, I am going to switch things up a bit on my Sunday posts: drawing on the depthless resources of youtube, to begin, I’m going to dedicate Sundays in January to an elaboration of stuff reviewed in chapter 1, February for chapter 2, etc. I will, of course, provide enough framing for folks who haven’t read Stealing. Here goes …

April 23, 1976, is a watershed day in punk lore. On the east side of the Atlantic, proto-Clash members attend a Pistols-101ers gig to size up Joe Strummer, and Vivien Westwood decks a concert-goer and the dust-up gets a big write-up in Melody Maker. On the west side of the pond, folks in NYC celebrate the release of the Ramones’ debut album and the weekend premiere of *The Blank Generation,* Ivan Kral’s home-movie project featuring footage of Television (here), Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and a dozen or so other acts making rock’n’roll fun again at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.

As you can see, it’s truly a DIY affair, with Kral with a light in one hand and his Bolex in the other, crawling around the stage (and staging some footage in the Village) to capture the gorgeousness of Tom Verlaine, Debbie Harry, Wayne County, among others.

Wayne County, of course, had close ties to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, which thrived on provocation, genre-bending staging, and gender-bending themes. Patti Smith was there, and so was Candy Darling and other Warhol doyen. As Penny Arcade recalled in Please Kill Me: “Anybody could be in … the Ridiculous Theater. It was all street stars. Homosexuals, heterosexuals, lesbians – it didn’t matter, nobody cared about those things. It was all outsiders.”

John Vaccaro is not a name well-known in punk history, but like Chrissie Hynde, Mark Mothersbaugh, and a host of others, he made his way from Ohio and made his mark on the Lower East Side, by directing a host of beautifully trashy plays for the Playhouse. Vaccaro wanted performers, not actors, and as he quotes himself here, was fond of aphorisms such as, “Most people lie in their beds. I like the truth in mine.” I don’t know much about the genesis of this clip, but it certainly speaks of the fun history you can produce in the digital age. Definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

Have a great week!

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!

key punk covers — not a best-of list

Happy Sunday, people! I hope you’re having a lovely, lovely weekend. I wish there were some pithy way to riff on the absurdity of the posturing in DC, with the continued separation of keywords  (“negotiate,” “good faith,” “will of the people,” “Americans for Prosperity”) from their historical meaning, but it is distinctive, awe-inspiring and, in the end, I figure, alas, brutal and debilitating.

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 there’s rarely anything wrong with that.

It seems impossible that there isn’t a great punk cover between 1979 and 1985, 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.

Enjoy!

On the virtues of Clash dynamics — input by Bangs, Christgau, and the hilarity of Killer Tracks

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m going with a new look for the blog for a spell, which I like for the colors (yeah!) but less so for smaller images (hmm). This past Friday, I received a lovely letter from the inimitable Ms. Pennie Smith, of greatest rock photograph ever fame (and there’s plenty more in her oeuvre worthy of celebration), in which she offered a few kind words about the book, so that was definitely the highlight of the week.

Killer Tracks   Browse Catalog

A distant second or third was the discovery of Killer Tracks, which is this amazing web site for you commercial directors, as well as pop aficionados who appreciate the codes of popular music and, first and foremost, those musicians who sublimely transgress those codes. (I figure if you’re reading this page, you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.) Killer Tracks, as noted on the About page, “is a leading provider of production music for use in film, television, advertising and interactive media.” There’s a host of fun tracks here, from the “Sports: Dramatic 2” page, which promises “Powerful, dramatic sports tracks with orchestra, drums and guitars.”

Sports: Dramatic 2

The translation: the music you want to accompany receivers scoring touchdowns, linebackers laying bone-rattling hits on less evasive receivers, and the occasional postering via a slam dunk. No strikers on a breakaway or keepers making a diving save need apply. Likewise, on the basketball page, you can find on disc NM308, track 1: “heart of a champion,” which promises “punchy low strings, synth bass and a driving programmed beat with orchestral percussion provide the foundation for a sweeping high strings, brass, and choir melody. Let the games begin!” Boy I’d love to land a job writing this copy. I wonder if she’s the same gal (or guy) behind the inspirational prose on bags of Bear Naked Granola. Once you tune in, you realize you’ve heard it hundreds of times before, and the listening experience speaks to the banality of “canned music,” and to our appreciation of the contrarian sublime.

… which brings us, of course, to the virtues of The Clash. For this note, I want to observe in part Martin Mull’s edict on how “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”–a quote widely attributed to Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, and others). The proof of course is in the creme caramel, but let us imagine that words can help us understand how “London Calling,” or “White Man in Hamersmith Palais,” or “Radio Clash” put an extra lilt in our step. That lilt is closely connected to the force behind The Clash that led Robert Christgau to tell me,

“[The Clash] really figured out a way to make effective political art, which as we know is very difficult. It’s very difficult. And what do I mean by effective? I don’t mean it changed the world. I mean it was aesthetically effective.”

Stealing All Transmissions, p. 29

The politics, of course, were smart as smart gets, and even the moments in which melody was sacrificed for pedantry (see “Know Your Rights”), the convictions of the band were rarely–if ever–subject to question. (The matter of gender might be worthy of review at a later date. ) The connection here, though, between the nearly laughable codes that dictate the form and content of the tracks available at Killer Tracks and the merits of The Clash is how the Strummer-Jones(-Simonon-Headon) songwriting team never ran the risk of self-parody. Even in the darker moments, even when the UK press issued broadsides against the band with the release of *Rope* (“so do they squander their greatness”–Jon Savage; “The Clash is a dying myth”–Ian Penman: SAT, p. 45), the band could not be accused of formulaic production.

On their debut LP, the took what they wanted from the codes of punk, re-worked them as they say fit, expanded its parameters with the inclusion of “Police and Thieves,” added joy and humor to the mix and, for the subsequent LP, wrote songs in a different vein, turned over too much control to Sandy Perlman, perhaps, and produced a rock LP nearly any other band would have been delighted to claim as their own. In between, these two LPs, they produced a couple singles Lester Bangs described as “white hot little symphonies,” including “Clash City Rockers” and “White Man in Hamersmith Palais” (live below).

For the next LP, a mostly self-guided venture, they looked to the past for inspiration, imagined their future as a band busking between bah mitzvahs, and produced arguably the best LP over 60 minutes long, ever. Sandinista!, of course, has its questionable moments between gems that still glitter brightly, and Combat Rock–on the strength of “Rock the Casbah” and “Straight to Hell” alone–is worthy of selective heavy rotation on any iTunes playlist.

As Mick Jones noted, “Sandinista! is the big reaching out. I knew we were going to make a different record every time. It had to be different. I liked that with other groups like the Rolling Stones: you knew each record was going to be different. We loved the Ramones, but we didn’t want to be like them, doing the same thing” (Redemption Song, p. 302). Unlike so many punk bands, who opted for purity over, well, creativity, The Clash operated like a great white shark, fully aware that to stop moving meant certain death.

To honor the humor and brilliance of the anniversary of The Clash’s debut LP (8 April 77), I’ll be offering a series of tweets, one per track of the LP, over the course of the next two weeks. Please follow me @stealingclash to join in an example of the “dancing about architecture” discourse taken to the extreme.

Thanks again for checking in.  Have a spirited week!

parsing punk covers–and why Lester Bangs was right about James Taylor

Welcome back to W-SAT, where I’ll be spinning some punk and post-punk platters in just a few more syllables.

The boys over at Crave-online have come up with their 100 kickass songs under two minutes (it’s always boys, isn’t it, making allegedly definitive lists?), and there are plenty of tunes to celebrate here. I’m not sure how Beck’s “Cyanide Breath Mint” or anything by Soundgarden gets in above The Clash’s “White Riot,” but each her own–unless you omit The Replacements, then I’m taking issue. When half the songs on their debut LP start-n-stop within 120 seconds, they’ve earned the right.

Back in the day, amid many glorious and inglorious-ly drunken performances, The Replacements were regarded as the best cover band in the 1980s. The reputation was solidified one night when their road manager confiscated a newly recorded tape from a fan in the balcony and, after the band found the recording to be decent, sound-wise, and representative of their live shows, they released it on cassette as When the Shit Hits the Fans. Oddly enough, no one’s put the whole thing up on YouTube yet, but here’s a sample to whet your aural appetite.

The gesture of the cover, though, is more than merely indulging a few vocal fans. Once The Beatles–and, as a result, seemingly every other white band of that era–stopped offering tributes to their forebears, and started composing everything themselves, rock celebrated artistry. In turn, (white) people grew more earnest, stopped dancing, and abandoned joy altogether–i.e., they bought albums and went to concerts by Jackson Browne and James Taylor. The “singer-songwriter” appellation is not only racist, as a rule–e.g., Smokey Robinson sang and wrote songs, as did Stevie Wonder and George Clinton–but their music largely codified boredom, celebrated narcissism, and encouraged people to sit down rather than stand-up.

Punk as a great refusal p-shawed such navel-gazing, and reclaimed the joy of dancing and the glory of interpretation with fantastic and–in the case of the ‘Mats–fantastically blasphemous cover songs. As they did on so many fronts, The Sex Pistols arrived early, and helped ensure successive generations would offer The Modern Lovers their due.

The Clash followed suit, in part, with more earnest adulation for their Black Atlantic musical forebears. (Check out the brilliance of Topper herein.)

The Ramones, too, were a helluva cover band, and Joey is so adorable live in their version of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”:

I don’t know how The Slits have so effectively escaped their due attention in punk annals, so let me make another nod in their direction, via their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Before Chrissie Hynde offered the greatest act of fandom-devotion to Ray Davies by having his baby, she offered a brilliant cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.”

Right around that time, The (English) Beat took stock of their influences and dialed up a lovely cover of a late 60s by Smokey Robinson, in a time when even the best bands had to lip-synch through TV appearances.

Their comrades from Coventry also dialed up some brilliant covers–including this double-time tribute to Toots and the Maytals:

I’ll wrap up with one of the more poignant tracks, in which one of the shabbiest bands pays tithe to true masters of rock artifice:

If spring’s arrived in your neck of the woods, please send a bit of it to your brethren here in the midwest. Have yourself a week rich with melody and delight.