DJ Lou Reed, at WPIX-FM, January 1979

Good morning rude girls, rude boys!

I’m sticking with the general theme of the past few months of Sundays, where I elaborate a theme from my book — which, as folks on twitter may know, just received a silver Independent Publisher Book Award in the popular culture category. Thanks to many of you for helping get the word out.

November 1978 (Arista) -- artwork credited to Nazario.
November 1978 (Arista) — artwork credited to Nazario.

I’m keepin’ today’s spot from ch. 5 short and sweet–WPIX-FM’s “Radio Radio” show on Sundays included spots with dozens of (often NYC-based) musicians in the role of DJ, and Lou Reed made a couple of appearances during the “Joe from Chicago” era. It proved to be a transitional era for Reed: he and his long-time partner Rachel split, and soon thereafter he married Sylvia Morales. On January 28, fairly fresh off the release of Live Take No Prisoners, Reed and his entourage crashed the party, and played a bunch of fun tunes from 1954 to 1962, including:

And, his own one-off novelty hit from 1964 with The Primitives, in which you may be able to glean a germ of the punk sensibility of humor and anti-virtuosity:

And here’s a little ramble from Reed, once John Cale arrived in the studio that evening.

Have a rock-steady week!

Coda: I went for a quick drive after this post and, after a listen to Velvet Underground’s eponymous third LP (March 1969), felt compelled to add a few more thoughts about Mr. Reed.

Of their LPs, I dig Velvet Underground the most, in part because Reed’s growing influence in the band means good things for pop, as early as “Candy Says,” the opening track. With the Beatles-inspired turn to pop as serious art, Reed tarries in affirmative pop forms (with lyrics of existential dread), and draws upon his affinity for doo-wop to mix in the signature “doo-doo-wa” that closes the track.

For a host of good reasons, including Reed’s a-tuneful approach to singing, and the beautiful darkness-in-plain-sight of tracks such as “Some Kinda Love,” The Velvet Underground represents the logical bridge between Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) and The Sex Pistols’ decimation of “Johnny B. Goode” (1979).

 

how to make a great punk cover (reprise, updated)

Happy Sunday, people! I hope you’re having a lovely, lovely weekend. I’m in a reuse/recycle mode, and figure if it’s new to you, that’s what counts. I dedicated this past week’s radio hour on wobc.org (5-6pm, EDT) to great punk covers, and I’ll post a clip or two from that show on Wednesday, but wanted to update a post from last year at this time. (From October 6, 2013.) Enjoy!

… 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 what could be wrong with that?

There are certainly some brilliant covers between 1979 and 1985, from The Clash’s “Police on My Back” (The Equals), to Costello’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” (Sam & Dave), and Wall of Voodoo’s “Ring of Fire” (thank you, @MickeyUndertone, for weighing in earlier). 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.

Et tu? What are your favorite punk covers?

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!

Punk vs. reggae, subculture, and The Clash (and Echo and the Bunnymen, too!)

Happy Sunday, folks! I hope that you Americans with an hour less sleep are still smiling.

My wife and I have a modest collection of books between us and, when I did a bit more traveling, the book along for the ride might accumulate a ticket stub from a shuttle bus, or a boarding pass, or even a receipt from an airport café. The ticket stubs with one matte side remain my favorites, and make the best bookmarks. If I were to empty the bookshelves of their occupants and shake them by the spines, I’d find a nearly comprehensive account of dates traveled and money spent.

I recently found my copy of Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, for which a stub from the Olympia Trails bus line between Newark and Port Authority marked one of my favorite passages. Subculture represented a key work in semiotics, for it offered a decoding of the signifiers–musical, sartorial, and gestural–that differentiated punk, mod, the Teds, and reggae in the UK. It was published in 1979 and went through 10 printings in the next eight years. Rolling Stone considered it “the first book dealing with punk to offer intellectual content.” (I like Caroline Coon’s 1988: New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (1977).) Hebdige is especially eloquent on the connection between punk and reggae, and does an amazing job of unpacking punk’s debt to Rasta Britons in terms of its politics of refusal and regard for “Britishness.” In terms of music, though, Hebdige finds more counter-affinities than homologies.

“Despite the strong affinity, the integrity of the two forms – punk and reggae–was scrupulously maintained, and far from simulating reggae’s form and timbre, punk music, like every other aspect of punk style, tended to develop in direct antithesis to its apparent sources. Reggae and punk were audibly opposed. Where punk depended on the treble, reggae relied on the bass. Where punk launched frontal assaults on the established meaning systems, reggae communicated through ellipsis and allusion.” (Subculture, pp. 67-68)

Musically, especially circa 1977, punk rejected the sources of prog rock and rock-as-art by affirming rocknroll that embraced a more working-class aesthetic via homages to Eddie Cochran (The Pistols’ “C’mon Everybody”), The Trashmen (The Ramones’ “Surfer Bird”), and Bobby Fuller (The Clash’s “I Fought the Law”). The Pistols, though, in their less-than-earnest cover of Chuck Berry, indicated that their adoration for the blackness of popular music history fell far short of fawning, if predictably disrespectful.

Hebdige continues: “Indeed, the way in which the two forms were rigorously, almost wilfully segregated would seem to direct us towards a concealed identity, which in turn can be used to illuminate larger patterns of interaction between immigrant and host communities. To use a term from semiotics, we could say that punk includes reggae as a ‘present absence’ — a black hole around which punk composes itself.” (p. 68)

Outside of Bad Brains, perhaps, and maybe Fishbone (if you’re willing to make that stretch), this black hole proved massive in US punk: from New York to LA, by way of Minneapolis, any trace of black aesthetics was left on the cutting room floor–even though, from the get-go, The Clash demonstrated that the history could be otherwise.

With the inclusion of “Police and Thieves” on their debut LP, and its regular appearance in their live shows, The Clash did a much better job than the Pistols in terms of their adherence to a key maxim of The Situationist International: “be reasonable, demand the impossible.” In terms of politics and aesthetics, few did it better, as demonstrated below, in a live clip from Birmingham, 1 May 1978.

(Youtube looks askance on embedding clips of The Clash it seems — so here it is.)

A Strummer-centric camera man finds Joe and Clash fanatics at their jittery best. On the LP, alongside a host of other great tracks, “Police and Thieves” allows the listener to imagine the greatness that will follow. Listening today to the first recorded tracks of so many bands from that era — Scritti Politti and Echo and the Bunnymen, e.g., — there’s no sense from the early tracks that either band will eventually produce something as sublime as “Wood Beez” or “Never Stop.”

Thanks for reading all the way. You American motorcar commuters be careful on the roads tomorrow.