post-punk gems, v. 51 — Big in Japan

Well, it’s a wrap, 2014. Thank you, readers, for checking in from around the globe–rocknrollers from 67 countries spent a few minutes or more here at stealing all transmissions, and for that I’m especially grateful.

Like the best of punk tracks, though, I want to keep today’s entry short, sharp, and sweet. Today’s subject, Big in Japan, included at various times provocateur Bill Drummond (later of KLF, and he once set 1M pounds afire), Jayne Casey, and the terribly shy Holly Johnson, who went onto sing lead for Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Big in Japan — Jayne, Kevin Ward, Holly Johnson (in tie), , Bill Drummond (front), Ian Broudie and Phil Allen (Kevin Cummings, photographer, 1977; used without permission)

Big in Japan hailed from Merseyside alongside Echo & the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, & OMD, and focused on the slash-y minimalist guitar work that resonates in some of the most brilliant tracks of the punk era, and “the minimum” was a big theme for Big in Japan: they only produced seven tracks, including “Suicide a Go Go” (1978):

And that folks is a wrap. Thanks for tuning into Radio K-SAT in 2014, and look forward to producing more dispatches for your edification in the coming year. Cheers!

(post-) punk gems, v. 43 — Riff Raff

echo84One of my fondest concert memories is from September 1984, when I saw Echo and the Bunnymen on the Ocean Rain tour at the Berkeley Community Theater. My dear friend Brian and I were in row 3, just close enough to be ordained by the sweat shaking off of guitarist Will Sergeant, who that year had some of the best hair in the business. (That’s him at 6 o’clock.)

As I noted in post-punk v. 38, Billy Bragg  made an unannounced appearance after the opening act (the fun-loving Fleshtones), who had made a bit of a stir in the UK already as part of Riff Raff. It was 34 years ago this week that Riff Raff released four singles, including “Little Girls Know,” on their own Geezer Records label.

I dig the simplicity of this track, of the resonance of young kids with guitars, making a go of it, DIY-style, in the post-punk genre of sub-folk.

So the book is out, and getting some modest attention at this point. If you’re interested in a preview of sorts, check out this interview I did last week with the fantastic folks who put together the New Books in Popular Music podcast.

post-punk gems — Echo and the Bunnymen (33 1/3 years ago!)

Happy Wednesday, all.  I’m still basking the audio glow of the mini-box set of The Clash, but thinking about a different band I got turned onto back in the day: Echo and the Bunnymen. Following a trip to the UK and Europe in 1982 with the Boy Scouts of America, I returned home with a mix tape with all sorts of bands I didn’t know, including The Clash and Echo and the Bunnymen.

Two years later, just a week shy of my 16th birthday, I somehow convinced my parents to drive my buddy Brian and I to Berkeley Community Theater (60+ miles–thanks mom & dad!) to see Echo and the Bunnymen on the Ocean Rain tour. (It proved to be the soundtrack of choice when The Fleshtones were the opening band, and they did just fine, touring in support of the brilliant Hexbreaker LP. The crowd was absolutely primed for the Bunnymen when–lo! a special guest appearance by Billy Bragg, who of course no one had heard of. (Does anyone know if this night, ~9 Sept 84, represented Billy Bragg’s US debut?) He played a solo electric guitar, sang a handful of fun tracks including “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and, alas, was booed off the stage. I thought he was brilliant, but my fellow concertgoers must have imagined that the longer he was onstage, the longer the delay of the Bunnymen, so he had to go.

Brian and I secured a space just a row shy of guitarist Will Sergeant, who regarded the lot of us with a bemused grin throughout the evening. Ian McCulloch clutched the mike stand and swayed fore and aft just a few feet away, and the whole evening was sublime. The crowd pressed across the rows of seats toward the stage, sang along to mystical lyrics we could scarcely make sense of, and thoroughly enjoyed Sargeant’s effort to reproduce the string section bits on his Rickenbacker guitar. The light show must have been awesome, but I mostly remember Sergeant’s smirk, and McCulloch’s voice, delivering a perfect balance of urgency, outrage, and bemusement for the sorting out of life during adolescence.

33 1/3 years ago this week, the Bunnymen made their initial Peel Sessions recordings, which you can find below.

Have a delightful week!

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.