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!

post punk gems, v. 41 — The Specials’ “Ghost Town”

Happy weekend, people. It’s turned bitter-ish up north, and I expect that the bustling sidewalks of the past few months will thin considerably as the days get shorter, colder, and icier. How fortuitous, then, that 33 1/3 years ago, The Specials released “Ghost Town,” which was still all the rage on the radio when I had a home stay in Coventry (home base of The Specials) in July 1982.

A trip to Jamaica inspired the narrative and, of course, the de-industrialization of English metropoles was also on their minds. As Lynal Golding told the NME, “Kingston is a real ghost town. The place is a complete wreck … It was the first time I’d been to Jamaica in 20 years and it was frightening … people begging for a dollar, people begging you for the shoes on your feet.”

The 12″ single, I figure, was backed with “Why” and the sweet adagio swing of “Friday Night / Saturday Morning.” (You can find more recent live performances of this track, but I’m fond of the low-fi herein.)

The book’s available at most big online stores, but if you’re interested in the book (and its politics), please consider buying from somewhere other than amazon, including your local bookshop, whose hip cashiers may even be inspired by your fine tastes to order a couple of extra copies for the shop. I’m sure amazon is full of lovely people and all, but if half of what Hightower writes here is 25% true, it’s a bit of a mess.

post-punk gems, v. 31 — The V.I.P.’s

Good morning folks, from radio K-SAT, where we’re celebrating Joe Strummer’s birthday and, fittingly enough, the anniversary of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, which heralded a revolution of a different sort.

This week’s post-punk gem is “Things Aren’t What They Used to be,” by the V.I.P.’s (January 1981). These V.I.P.’s are an elusive bunch, as another band from the UK in the 1960s made tracks under this name, and a well-polished cover band from Jersey also employs this moniker.

The V.I.P.’s released a few tracks on Gem Records, which readers of *Stealing* may recall, had a well-connected distribution service in the US. They not only helped DJs break singles ahead of schedule (much to the chagrin of the domestic label), they also ensured that DJs were in the–ahem–proper mood to keep things in rotation.

I dig the semi-grungy opening bars, and how the uptempo sound yields to clean vocals, gorgeous horn charts, and ebullient harmony vocals. As you might have guessed, these guys toured in support of Secret Affair (check ’em out here) and Madness, respectively, and even got Bob Sargeant–who lent marimba and production savvy to *Special Beat Service*–to produce “Need Somebody to Love.”

“Things,” alas, proved prescient, and it was the band’s last effort.

Do tune in on Sunday for part deux of the feature piece on The Clash in *Punk* from 1979.

Let’s exit, of course, with a  by Mr. Strummer:

White Man in Hammersmith Palais — 35 years ago (!) this week

 Thanks for checking out today’s track on radio K-SAT, and happy father’s day to the male breeders among you. If the options are to age gracefully, or to rage against the fading of the light, I figure you’re probably striking a nice balance between the two, if you’re still reading about punk, post-punk, and assorted effluvia. Either way, time waits for no homo sapien, and it was 35 years ago this week when The Clash, alone at the eye of Hurricane Punk, released “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”/”The Prisoner” (17 June 1978). (The single’s wikipedia entry currently notes that it was produced by Sandy Pearlman. If one of you guttersnipes is up for it, please change it to say “Mick Jones (producer) and Simon Humphries (engineer)”–or simply “The Clash,” as noted on the single itself.)


Following their eponymous debut LP, upon which they affirmed the pleasures of the pro-cegenation of punk and reggae with their cover of “Police and Thieves,” “White Man” finds Sir Strummer, 25, as a default punk patriarch, sharing the lessons learned from the days of yore (i.e., 1976-1977).

From the opening bars of “ooh-ooh” harmonies to the final self-effacing verse, “White Man” still resonates politically and aesthetically, and it’s no wonder that Strummer included this song on many-a-Mescaleros’ playlists. According to Pat Gilbert (Passion is a Fashion, pp. 371-372) in Strummer’s final live appearance it served as the encore’s coda–and it simply hadn’t been reserved for encores in previous gigs.

“White Man” is often cited as one of The Clash’s best, and today I try to imagine myself as a UK punk encountering “White Man” upon its release. The opening bars are trebly, like all punk circa 1977, but the tempo’s slow, and the melody-and-rhythm’s Caribbean. The “ooh-ooh”s extend the sense of humor from the debut LP, and Jones and Simonon come in strong vocally for  “white youth, black youth” (full lyrics here), in order to hammer the point home. And, by the time Strummer’s singing about my life on the dole, he’s already schooled me on the limits of armed revolution, the tonnage of the British army, and the perils of projecting onto black Britons a more developed revolutionary consciousness. When I hear Strummer snarl, “Punk rockers in the UK,” I get excited, thinking, yes–the reprise of “White Riot”!, only to learn that Strummer figures me-and-my-lot aren’t paying close attention, due in part to our inclination for “fighting”–and male youth is so inclined, because there’s so much at stake, right? But then, in the next line, Strummer suggests that the stakes comprise little more than “a good spot under the lighting.” Oh … ouch. And yes: I suppose the Teds weren’t the real enemy (thank g-d for the reprise on the day of Elvis’s death), and maybe punk masculinity had run amok by 1978, and, well, damn — now what, Joe?

Clash @ US festival — Mick’s swan song was 30 years ago today

Happy holiday weekend, for those of you in residence in the greater (or lesser?) US o A. It’s a day of remembrance, of course, and for honoring folks who lost their lives in battle. Perhaps, in an alternate, more just universe, there would be at least a symbolic ritual damning the politicians who rushed the country headlong into war–and then another war and then another war, knowing that their sons or daughters would rarely, if ever, be put in harm’s way. Just the sorta stuff that really rankled Mr. Strummer, in particular. Check out George Saunders’ short story “Home,” about life after wartime, excerpted here.

Following the aftermath of Altamont, in December 1969, rock fans largely shied away from big music fests in California for quite awhile. Folks still gathered for music in large numbers in Iowa for the Wadena Rock Festival and Wisconsin for Sound Storm and the People’s Fair, but much was quiet on the western front in terms of music fests.

So Steve Wozniak of Apple fame decides to organize a big rock fest in 1982, over Labor Day weekend, and heck, it’s groovy southern California, so what could go wrong? Some sources claim the temperatures were up to 110F, one life (and $12M) was lost, but an opportunity to get bands such as Gang of Four, The Ramones (both late additions, it seems), English Beat, Oingo Boingo, The B-52’s, Talking Heads, and The Police on one bill couldn’t be all bad, right?

The following year, Wozniak ups the ante (adds a country day), and gets The Clash–or what’s left of it–to headline the bill. This incident is well-documented in biographies by Gray and Gilbert, and is worth checking out in terms of the impact of the return, like a cursed phoenix, of Bernie Rhodes. So here’s the allure of US, which stood for “Unite Us in Song,” for Rhodes and Kosmo Vinyl: get the band working again, 150,000 fans, $.5M, and heck: since Pete Howard’s willing to work cheaply (roughly $200 / wk.), and he’s got no power in the group, it made it easier for the Joe-Paul-Bernie brigade to make things harder for Mick–although Mick seemed to have plenty in reserve for (self-inflicted) marginalization, too.

Driven by Bernie’s (megalo)mania, Joe pitches a pre-concert fit over ticket prices and remuneration, delays the band’s taking the stage for two hours (complete with press conference), and for what?: as Gilbert notes, “It was the social banditry philosophy again: The Clash burst in like a bunch of crazy outlaws, shoot the place up, take the cash and then redistribute it among the needy” (p. 335). In the end, some of the $$ did go to London pirate radio stations.

Upon taking the stage, Joe jack-hammers the mic stand, tries to make a point, but the Americans aren’t listening. They just want to rock’n’roll. (The clip below cuts in-and-out, but it’s good footage of how the show begins, the sound quality is good, and there’s a clear shot of Joe and Paul swapping guitar and bass in advance of “Guns of Brixton.”)

The fact that Paul dons a Clash t-shirt for the gig is not a good harbinger, and the show ends badly: at the immediate close of the set, deep into the night, the side-stage DJ addresses the crowd, and Kosmo Vinyl imagines he’s trying to prevent The Clash from taking an encore. So he clocks the guy. Mick’s second into the scrum, and it ends almost as quickly as it’s begun. It boosts Vinyl’s spirits, but the ebullience is short-lived, and it’s not widely shared. As roadie Digby recalled, on behalf of himself and The Baker, “It left a really nasty taste in our mouths … No, it wasn’t a good Clash gig” (Gilbert, p. 337).

By the fall equinox, Mick received his walking papers, and ran with it. Within a few hours, he identified the next course of action. Within a span of 25 months, the brilliant This is Big Audio Dynamite was on the shelves and the airwaves.

The Bottom Line? In the mid-80s, Joe needed Mick more than Mick needed Joe, and–while this claim may merit a longer piece–you need not look further than the first two BAD LPs. The first LP has nary a weak spot, and the strongest tracks on the follow-up are the ones not co-penned with producer Joe Strummer. From my informal polling, a US/UK divide emerges on which album is more beloved, as my English comrades prefer No. 10 Upping St. Your thoughts?

Thanks for reading to the end, and have rock-steady week!

Coda: if you liked this post, and you’re up for an affectionate, literate insider standpoint, click here.

Clash serendipity and the US Festival 1983

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m recently back from New York, where I got to see a host of old friends and comrades. I also did a reading/signing at KGB, which went off great. Much gratitude to those of you who made it (and, of course, to those of you who had hoped to make it, too). I want to say a few words about that morning, though, for it offered a great moment of Clash serendipity.

I was in town to attend a conference, and on Friday morning the conference organizer mentioned my book & reading, and then we broke for our next round of plenaries. When we reconvened, the sound guy — who had previously relied on the esteemed *Kind of Blue* for incidental music, cued up “The Magnificent Dance,” which of course got the two of us talking. He clearly remembered the summer of 1981, when WBLS cued up different mixes of “The Magnificent Seven,” and even rattled off the names of the DJs responsible for the more popular remixes. The gentleman then revealed that the sound tech gig was merely his day job, and that Track 1 Entertainment keeps him busy on nights and weekends. Thanks Mr. Mason for getting my Friday started on the good foot!

For the reading, I reprised my own position on The Clash vs. Van Halen circa 1983, and how frequently I encountered back in the day the triangles of homosocial male bonding around muscle cars, after market stereos, and VH’s Diver Down. I have more sympathy for Diamond Dave’s decadence now, but back then, it seemed so reckless and absurd, so “cheap and real phony,” so complicit.

us festival 1983

One of the real pleasures of putting together Stealing was my review of primary sources by way of google books, which provides full-text search capacities for Billboard magazine, Spin, and a host of others. In Sweaty & Filthy & Crazy & Drunk, Steven Russell employs the oral history method to capture the joy and absurdity of US Festival 1983 and, of course, doesn’t get to the complexity of the showdown between the festival organizers (including Apple’s Steve Wozniak) and The Clash camp. The New Wave Day included, in order of appearance, The Divinyls, INXS, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, Stray Cats, Men at Work, and, after a long band-inflicted delay, The Clash.

Between the more rigorous accounts of Marcus Gray and Pat Gilbert, it seems safe to conclude that Bernie Rhodes orchestrated quite a bit of the mess, which ended far worse for The Clash than anyone else. As fate would have it, it was the last live appearance of Stan Ridgeway with Wall of Voodoo, and the last concert appearance of Mick with the band he started.

Lastly, it was 36 years ago today that The Clash made their NYC debut, at the Palladium, of course, with Bo Diddley as the opening act. Andy Warhol and other glitterati made an appearance, and later Andy took Joe over to Studio 54.

Breaking news: the song Paul Simonon allegedly wrecked during his initial meeting with Bernie, Tony James, and Mick is up for consideration as the official state song of Massachusetts. “I’m in love with Massachusetts” indeed.

Have a lovely week!