the voice of punk, ’77

Good morning, fine readers. I’m trying to be disciplined here, and stay true to my hope to connect my Sunday posts to Stealing All Transmissions (the book) by post elaborations of key points or something “multi-media” connected to chapter 1 in January, chapter 2 in February, etc.

Today, though, I’m still in chapter 1, thinking about punk vocal styles, and their connection to Paul Morley’s vital words on Kraftwerk (see full quote here): “The source of [Kraftwerk’s] pop … was art, noise, technology, ideas … a fantasy of what pop music might have sounded like had it not begun in the blues, in wood, in anger, in lust, in sexual frenzy, in poverty.”

Here’s the single version of “Autobahn” (1975), their first track to reach the US charts:

And sure, we might be concerned when Germans (or anyone for that matter) is making aesthetic choices that reflect racialized categories, but that’s not the prime mover here, of course. The different styles of black American music — R&B, soul, jazz, and blues, gospel, etc. — cast such a long shadow on popular music in the West that it was difficult to forge something new (see: The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, et. al.). By the mid-1970s, a desperation for something new arose in Dusseldorf, London, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and elsewhere, and singers like Tom Verlaine, Joey Ramone, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, the gents in Devo and, of course, David Byrne, were onto something.

So, when Talking Heads make their way from the Rhode Island School of Design to the Bowery, they confirm — as they sing on their debut LP — “It’s not, yesterday, anymore!” David Byrne’s vocals are the most definitive departure, sound-wise, and here’s how Stephen Demorest’s described his approach in his Rolling Stone review of ’77:

“Vocally, Byrne’s live-wired personality vibrates his precise musical framework like a caged tiger rattling its bars. (That he sings in a stiff, reedy, ‘bad’ voice, grasping for higher notes like a drowning man lunging for air, only heightens the drama.)”

Not bad, I’d say, and it heralds a question I hope to pursue in a future post: of the American bands in the punk and post-punk era, how come only Talking Heads dared reinvent themselves from album to album (or every other album)? What is it about American notions of masculinity, authenticity, and musicality that allowed bands to mellow (e.g., Husker Du and The Replacements, and often begrudgingly), but not dare pursue metamorphoses? Think of Brits such as John Lydon (from Pistols to PiL), The Clash (Rope to London Calling, or Sandinista! to Combat Rock), The Damned (Strawberries to Phantasmagoria), to begin. I’m sure art school and notions of artifice play a big role.

Thanks for tuning into K-SAT!

caught between (hard) rockism and a poptimistic place, pt. II

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m still abuzz from seeing producer/engineer Glyn Johns last night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archive, where he shared a few stories from Sound Man, his memoir out this week, and offered brief but telling replies to questions such as:

Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.
Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.

Q: “What was the most amazing thing you saw John Bonham do in the studio?”

A: “Show up.”

No more elaboration was forthcoming, and none was needed.

Johns is a rock hall inductee, 2012, and few others can claim to have been front-and-center to the making of so many albums in the rock canon. He worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, Exile, et. al.), Led Zeppelin, The Who (Who’s Next, Who Are You), and The Clash, and he spoke affectionately about capturing what the band was capable of, not what he was capable of once the band had left the studio.

For Johns (and for many fans of a rockist variety), the resonance of the beauty was possible because of the labor time entailed in musicianship, in part, but more so in what the band is capable of together as a unit. That unit proved its mettle (to paraphrase Joe Strummer) in front of audiences, and thereby figured out what worked (and what didn’t) by way of their fans. (The late Beatles, of course, are the compelling exception.)

On the drive home last night, I had my first listen to a live rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for my Man,” circa 1968, from the forthcoming anniversary packaging of Velvet Underground. This rendition of “Waiting” isn’t quite syncopated, but it abandons the drone quality of its vinyl version, and represents a band, well, I’ll turn it over here to Dave Hickey and a quote from his brilliant essay on jazz vs. rock’n’roll in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997)–which, if you don’t own it, should be the book you buy right after that book on The Clash (fun review here) that just came out.

Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.
Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.

“Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us–as damaged and anti-social as we are–might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t. The song’s too simple, and we’re too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, whether we want it to or not. Just because we’re breathing, man. Thus, in the process of trying to play this very simple song together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated, fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.

“And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically ‘perfect’ rock–like ‘free’ jazz–sucks rockets. Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community. And it has its virtues, because jazz only works if we’re trying to be free and are, in fact, together. Rock-and-roll works because we’re all a bunch of flakes. That’s something you can depend on, and a good thing too, because in the twentieth century, that’s all there is: jazz and rock-and-roll. The rest is term papers and advertising.”

Now, there’s a good case to be made that the conditions available to be that sort of rock band were not democratically available back in the day–today, well, that’s a good question, one I hope to return to before too long.

Thanks for tuning in this week to Radio-SAT. On this week’s version of The Spirit of ’77 (Th., 5-6pm, EST, @ wobc.org), the theme is punks grown-up: I’ll be spinning discs 15 years+ into their careers, by bands and musicians who embodied the spirit of ’77. It should be fun.