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.

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!

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!