post-punk gems, v. 80 — The Dead Kennedys’ “Viva Las Vegas”

Got my time machine set on 1980 again, and lo! — it’s now 35 years since The Dead Kennedys’ debut LP hit record bins in the UK. The LP cover image of a row of burning motorcars–from the aftermath of riots following the light sentence for homophobe Dan “it was the Twinkies” White, for the murder of SF Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk–evokes the flipside of The Clash’s LP cover from the Notting Hill riots, and the sound in the grooves is equally disruptive.

From the opening passage of “Kill the Poor,” to the final bars of “Viva Las Vegas,” Jello Biafra and his gang cook up a rousing pot of humor, dissonance, and melodic hooks at a blistering pace.

I have a real soft spot for “Viva,” one of the finest covers in the punk canon, since Vegas itself signifies so boldly the opposite of the DIY spirit embraced by DK and Alternative Tentacles and punk writ large. The opening drum bit, along with the rollicking bass and guitar riffs, are punk classics. Biafra’s vocals, too, in their spoof of Elvis’s vocal timbre in the verses and enthusiastic bite in the chorus, are simply fantastic. Enjoy!

post-punk gems, v. 79 — Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”

Come aboard the way-back time machine, where it’s the summer of ’76, and NYC proto-hipsters are abuzz about 7″ of vinyl just released on Ork Records. A la John Coltrane’s Ascension LP, Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” their debut single, unfolds over 7 plus minutes, so it’s split down the middle (or so). It offers a whole new guitar vocabulary in the timbres and phrasing, with echoes of the Velvets and the Byrds, and heralds the craft of the axe-folk of Talking Heads, Wire, and Gang of Four. Robert Christgau was on-board from the get-go, regarding “LJJ” as “dynamic and spooky … its dissolute aura is difficult to shake off.”

“Jewel,” too, served as a jewel-of-a-connection between New York and London early on. It made its way across the Atlantic and into the hands of Rat Scabies, who had a failed try-out with The Clash and eventually became the drummer of The Damned. “The first thing we heard from New York was the Television single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel.’ I remember listening to it and being blown away.” (Stealing, p. 47)

Just as so many of us did through the 1980s, Scabies constructed his fandom from bits and pieces, with the whole remaining ever elusive. “No one had seen the Heartbreakers live, but we thought they looked great. We had seen pictures of Television, Richard Hell and Blondie but nobody had heard anything. Because Danny Fields was involved with the MC5 we knew [The Ramones] had to be the right kind of thing.” The right kind of thing, indeed.

Enjoy, and rock on!

post-punk gems, v. 78 — Orange Juice

Greetings, fine readers! Right ’round 35 years ago today, the offspring of punk were charting a host of compelling directions. Sure, the loud-fast-snotty aesthetic was still the rage among the most full of rage, but the bloom was also on the New Romantics, by way of Orange Juice (among others). Against the gloom of the eyeliner and trenchcoat contingent, Edwyn Collins and crew charted a pop-friendly course, with cheery, cheeky lyrics, reverby rhythm guitar, and cymbal crashes of ebullience.

Orange Juice, freshly squeezed. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns.
Orange Juice, freshly squeezed. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns.

“Blue Boy,” their second single, came out in August 1980 on Postcard Records (think Josef K, too), and sustained one of the real trademarks of new wave commodities: the secret message in the run-off groove: side A asked, “When is an artist at his most dangerous?” Side B answered, “When he’s drawing a gun.”

Ah. That helps, doesn’t it? Enjoy the week!

post-punk gems, v. 77 — The English Beat

So, rude boys, rude girls, it’s been 35 years now, since The English Beat released single #4, “Best Friend,” backed with “Stand Down Margaret”–perhaps the most danceable anti-Thatcher tune of the era. (Nuclear anxiety produced some damn fine music, as did anxiety and angst toward Thatcher-Reagan writ large.) All proceeds from the tune went to the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, which was one of a host of righteous causes the Beat supported back in the day.

I caught Dave Wakeling and his 20-something ska all-stars under the name of English Beat back in 2000 at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom, and again in 2013. The first time ’round remains one of my favorite moments of fandom amidst my Cleveland rock’n’roll brethren. At the age of 32, I was among the youngest people in the crowd and, when they played the opening bars of “I Confess,” the 800+ of us started into pogoing. Mikey Mike, our surrogate Ranking Roger for the evening, went backstage, grabbed his video camera, and started recording us. I imagine it was the first time he’d seen that many people that old have so much fun before. Indeed, Cleveland rocks.

Cheers!

post-punk gems, v. 76 — New Order

Hey folks! It’s a slow summer, prose-wise, for me, but I am keeping track of our musical history, and it’s been 35 years since New Order — appearing under the name “No Name,” since they had no name — made their live debut, opening for A Certain Ratio in Manchester, just two months plus after Ian Curtis’ demise. In front of 100 folks or so, prior to deciding upon a vocalist, they played instrumental tunes, novel, but somehow familiar, according to the write-up in New Music News:

“… we were all agreed that the intensity and novelty of the performance conspired to produce an overall effect rarely equaled. If the band can maintain this level then their future is secured, whatever their name …”

Their brilliant first single, “Ceremony,” would come out the following year and, in the years that followed, I spent many hours parsing the images of their record sleeves while the vinyl spun ’round the turntable. More so than any other band I knew at age 14, their music sprung from the alternate track of pop–not from Elvis Costello back to The Beatles, but from The Velvet Underground through Kraftwerk.

Enjoy!

post-punk gems, v. 75 — The GC5

Thanks for tuning in to Radio K-SAT after an unexpected break. I’m surfacing after wrapping up the first stage of another project (under wraps for now, but more info soon), and I’m delighted to be better acquainted now with the more recent history of punk in northeast Ohio (which is affectionately referred to as “NEO” ’round these parts. Although “neo-punk” is something else entirely.)

The GC5 (Grady Coffee 5), a Mansfield, OH quintet, got rolling in the mid-90s, released a couple LPs and an EP, and broke up circa 2003. Singer-guitarist Doug McKean is regarded by many as one of the best songwriters from the area of his generation. Their sound begins with the hard-and-fast Orange County aesthetic, but quickly takes on a bit more subtlety, especially around song structures and vocal phrasing. There’s a clear debt to Stink-era Replacements: they do an affectionate cover of “Bastards of Young” and offer a homage to Chris Mars by taking his debut album title for their 1st EP: Horseshoes and Handgrenades. Bob Stinson (RIP) would have been properly, and colorfully, impressed.

This past Saturday, GC5 alum appeared in their current form as The Boys from the County Hell (a Pogues song title) at Cleveland Calling, a fundraiser for the Joe Strummer Foundation at the Euclid Tavern. (Full disclosure: I was a late add to the bill, and read a few passages from *Stealing.*) With a line-up of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass and drums, with intermittent use of a horn section, mandolin, and accordion, BCH offered a rousing, faithful homage to The Clash–and, in the case of “Rudie Can’t Fail” and “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”–offered the crowd a more faithful homage than The Clash ever did to the songs on vinyl. As far as I know, The Clash never made room onstage for a brass section.

Boys from County Hell, Euclid Tavern, July 18, 2015.
Boys from County Hell, Euclid Tavern, July 18, 2015. (Photo by Brian Asquith.)

BCH ply their wares seasonally as a Pogues tribute band. For you NEO residents: catch them while you can! And a big shout-out to All Dinosaurs for kicking off the event and riling up the crowd. Cheers!

Clash debut — too noisy for American radio?

Freud was right: the narcissism of small differences permeates nearly all of human history, and our ability to find those small differences (musical taste, of course), and to magnify the something into everything (see Nick Hornby’s *High Fidelity*), is something we’re all familiar with. This tendency typically prevents a real dialogue, and so the person who draws these boundaries (“I am here in the righteous zone, and you are over there in the suck zone”) rarely gets properly schooled on the complexity of motives–including the profit motive–that inform, say, not releasing The Clash (1977) in the U.S. in its original form.

Bruce Harris, second row, on the right.
Bruce Harris, second row, on the right.

Luckily, Paul Doughtery, @ https://punkbeforepunk.wordpress.com/about/, put pen to paper to let Bruce Harris, director of A&R on the east coast for Epic, to impugn his character and rail against “the man” for his bean-counter mentality.

Astonishingly, Bruce (RIP — taken from us much too early) wrote back. The full letter is here and here.

Harris affirms the most basic duty of a record guy (make, rather than lose, money), his affinity for The Vibrators, The Adverts, and Blondie, and rightly dismisses the organizing principle of Paul’s original letter, that the LP would change the complexion of the American marketplace.

In November 1977, Bruce knew what we would know a bit later, as I describe on p. 62 of Stealing All Transmissions:

Punk's initial failure, according to the punk-o-philes in the US, circa Sept. 1978.
Punk’s initial failure, according to the punk-o-philes in the US, circa Sept. 1978.

The success of The Clash (UK) as an import–allegedly the best-selling import of the time, according to Robert Christgau (and not cross-verified anywhere)–does not contradict Harris’ claim. It supports it, since the import LP is more sacred than the domestic LP, and it gets more New York punks fired up with indignation about guys like Bruce Harris. It also inspires promoter Wayne Forte to figure that if 1000 import LPs had sold at Bleecker Bob’s, that he was not going to bother with The Bottom Line, which seated 400 (p. 82).

Forte rolls the dice.
Forte rolls the dice.

And, in part because of Forte’s hubris, which was in part inspired by Harris’ crazy-like-a-fox pragmatism, The Clash played the Palladium on their 1st three visits to New York City, and the rest, well, is one most exciting chapters in the history of rock’n’roll.