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!

25 Sept — Spirit of ’77 show (most of it, anyway)

‘allo, music mavens! Here’s the audio part of most of last Thursday’s show. It starts off well before ’77 with The Fabulous Counts, and includes tracks by Iggy Pop (from ’77), Game Theory, Costello, Guided by Voices, English Beat, Big Star, The Fastbacks, and The Corin Tucker Band. A bit more ‘merican than I usually do, but I think it’s a decent set.

I’m spinning discs every Th. for an hour, 5-6pm, EDT, @ wobc.org this fall. Send me requests via @stealingclash or, if you’d like, give the station a call — 440.775.8139.

post-punk gems, v. 31 — The V.I.P.’s

Good morning folks, from radio K-SAT, where we’re celebrating Joe Strummer’s birthday and, fittingly enough, the anniversary of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, which heralded a revolution of a different sort.

This week’s post-punk gem is “Things Aren’t What They Used to be,” by the V.I.P.’s (January 1981). These V.I.P.’s are an elusive bunch, as another band from the UK in the 1960s made tracks under this name, and a well-polished cover band from Jersey also employs this moniker.

The V.I.P.’s released a few tracks on Gem Records, which readers of *Stealing* may recall, had a well-connected distribution service in the US. They not only helped DJs break singles ahead of schedule (much to the chagrin of the domestic label), they also ensured that DJs were in the–ahem–proper mood to keep things in rotation.

I dig the semi-grungy opening bars, and how the uptempo sound yields to clean vocals, gorgeous horn charts, and ebullient harmony vocals. As you might have guessed, these guys toured in support of Secret Affair (check ’em out here) and Madness, respectively, and even got Bob Sargeant–who lent marimba and production savvy to *Special Beat Service*–to produce “Need Somebody to Love.”

“Things,” alas, proved prescient, and it was the band’s last effort.

Do tune in on Sunday for part deux of the feature piece on The Clash in *Punk* from 1979.

Let’s exit, of course, with a  by Mr. Strummer:

lazy Sunday — Carson’s review of London Calling in Rolling Stone, April 1980

Happy sweltering Sunday folks. It’s not yet 730am where I hang me head, and it’s already plenty sticky. The birds enjoy it, though, and if you listen just right, you can pick up a thread of the melody of “Guns of Brixton.”

I’m inclined for the moment to remain agnostic about The Clash box set due out in September, but since its release date nearly coincides with my birthday (hint-hint kind readers 😉 ), I’m confident I’ll get swept up in the hoopla at the end of summer. In the meantime, I’ve got a different release on my mind: London Calling in the US, which of course was just over 33 1/3 years ago, and its reception in the US. London Calling, of course, yielded The Clash’s first single to chart in the US (“Train in Vain,” #23) and, in turn, secured the band’s footing  among a “popular” audience west of the Atlantic. (Here’s a touching rendition by Mr. Jones at the Rock and Roll Public Library from August 2009. I just dare you not to sing along.)

As I explore in more detail in Stealing All Transmissions, Tom Carson’s nearly 1800-word review (April 3, 1980) in Rolling Stone was a big deal, and is nearly 30 times longer than many of the LP reviews in what remains of a once-proud magazine. Reading Carson’s description of “Death or Glory” today still gets my skin a-tinglin’. The review is, like the record itself, “so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.” There’s an innocence to the review, too, for it’s not prisoner to the cross-references available via google or wikipedia, and we can forgive Carson for not realizing “Brand New Cadillac” is a Vince Taylor tune. I hope we can also dig Carson’s insistence that there might love, even unrequited love, in a revolution, and that distinctions between the two in life and popular music criticism (e.g., the “good” English Beat of Wha’ppen? vs. the sell-out English Beat of Special Beat Service) are fraught at nearly every turn.

(The review is also available here, but with more typos, and lacks the decency to note that, in-house, London Calling was proclaimed the finest LP of the decade.)

Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~

Tom Carson, The Clash, London Calling (Epic)

By now, our expectations of the Clash might seem to have become inflated beyond any possibility of fulfillment. It’s not simply that they’re the greatest rock & roll band in the world–indeed, after years of watching too many superstars compromise, blow chances and sell out, being the greatest is just about synonymous with being the music’s last hope. While the group itself resists such labels, they do tell you exactly how high the stakes are, and how urgent the need. The Clash got their start on the crest of what looked like a revolution, only to see the punk movement either smash up on its own violent momentum or be absorbed into the same corporate-rock machinery it had meant to destroy. Now, almost against their will, they’re the only ones left.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band’s last recording, railed against the notion that being rock & roll heroes meant martyrdom. Yet the album also presented itself so flamboyantly as a last stand that it created a near-insoluble problem: after you’ve already brought the apocalypse crashing down on your head, how can you possibly go on? On the Clash’s new LP, London Calling, there’s a composition called “Death or Glory” that seems to disavow the struggle completely. Over a harsh and stormy guitar riff, lead singer Joe Strummer offers a grim litany of failure. Then his cohort, Mick Jones, steps forward to drive what appears to be the final nail into the coffin. “Death or glory,” he bitterly announces, “become just another story.”

But “Death or Glory” – in many ways, the pivotal song on London Calling – reverses itself midway. After Jones’ last, anguished cry drops off into silence, the music seems to scatter from the echo of his words. Strummer re-enters, quiet and undramatic, talking almost to himself at first and not much caring if anyone else is listening. “We’re gonna march a long way,” he whispers. “Gonna fight – a long time.” The guitars, distant as bugles on some faraway plain, begin to rally. The drums collect into a beat, and Strummer slowly picks up strength and authority as he sings:

We’ve gotta travel – over mountains
We’ve gotta travel – over seas
We’re gonna fight – you, brother
We’re gonna fight – till you lose

We’re gonna raise –
TROUBLE!

The band races back to the firing line, and when the singers go surging into the final chorus of “Death or glory…just another story,” you know what they’re really saying: like hell it is!

Merry and tough, passionate and large-spirited, London Calling celebrates the romance of rock & roll rebellion in grand, epic terms. It doesn’t merely reaffirm the Clash’s own commitment to rock-as-revolution. Instead, the record ranges across the whole of rock & roll’s past for its sound, and digs deeply into rock legend, history, politics and myth for its images and themes. Everything has been brought together into a single, vast, stirring story – one that, as the Clash tell it, seems not only theirs but ours. For all its first-take scrappiness and guerrilla production, this two-LP set–which, at the group’s insistence, sells for not much more than the price of one–is music that means to endure. It’s so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.

From the start, however, you know how tough a fight it’s going to be. “London Calling” opens the album on an ominous note. When Strummer comes in on the downbeat, he sounds weary, used up, desperate: “The Ice Age is coming/The sun is zooming in/Meltdown expected/The wheat is growing thin.”

The rest of the record never turns its back on that vision of dread. Rather, it pulls you through the horror and out the other side. The Clash’s brand of heroism may be supremely romantic, even naive, but their utter refusal to sentimentalize their own myth – and their determination to live up to an actual code of honor in the real world, without ever minimizing the odds – makes such romanticism seem not only brave but absolutely necessary. London Calling sounds like a series of insistent messages sent to the scattered armies of the night, proffering warnings and comfort, good cheer and exhortations to keep moving. If we begin amid the desolation of the title track, we end, four sides later, with Mick Jones spitting out heroic defiance in “I’m Not Down” and finding a majestic metaphor at the pit of his depression that lifts him – and us – right off the ground. “Like skyscrapers rising up,” Jones screams. “Floor by floor–I’m not giving up.” Then Joe Strummer invites the audience, with a wink and a grin, to “smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat” in the merry-go-round invocation of “Revolution Rock.”

Against all the brutality, injustice and large and small betrayals delineated in song after song here – the assembly-line Fascists in “Clampdown,” the advertising executives of “Koka Kola,” the drug dealer who turns out to be the singer’s one friend in the jittery, hypnotic “Hateful” – the Clash can only offer their sense of historic purpose and the faith, innocence, humor and camaraderie embodied in the band itself. This shines through everywhere, balancing out the terrors that the LP faces again and again. It can take forms as simple as letting bassist Paul Simonon sing his own “The Guns of Brixton,” or as relatively subtle as the way Strummer modestly moves in to support Jones’ fragile lead vocal on the forlorn “Lost in the Supermarket.” It can be as intimate and hilarious as the moment when Joe Strummer deflates any hint of portentousness in the sexual-equality polemics of “Lover’s Rock” by squawking “I’m so nervous!” to close the tune. In “Four Horsemen,” which sounds like the movie soundtrack to a rock & roll version of The Seven Samurai, the Clash’s martial pride turns openly exultant. The guitars and drums start at a thundering gallop, and when Strummer sings, “Four horsemen …,” the other members of the group charge into line to shout joyously: “…and it’s gonna be us!”

London Calling is spacious and extravagant. It’s as packed with characters and incidents as a great novel, and the band’s new stylistic expansions – brass, organ, occasional piano, blues grind, pop airiness and the reggae-dub influence that percolates subversively through nearly every number – add density and richness to the sound. The riotous rockabilly-meets-the-Ventures quality of “Brand New Cadillac” (“Jesus Christ!” Strummer yells to his ex-girlfriend, having so much fun he almost forgets to be angry, “Whereja get that Cadillac?”) slips without pause into the strung-out shuffle of “Jimmy Jazz,” a Nelson Algren-like street scene that limps along as slowly as its hero, just one step ahead of the cops. If “Rudie Can’t Fail” (the “She’s Leaving Home” of our generation) celebrates an initiation into bohemian lowlife with affection and panache, “The Card Cheat” picks up on what might be the same character twenty years later, shot down in a last grab for “more time away from the darkest door.” An awesome orchestral backing track gives this lower-depths anecdote a somber weight far beyond its scope. At the end of “The Card Cheat,” the song suddenly explodes into a magnificent panoramic overview – “from the Hundred Year War to the Crimea”–that turns ephemeral pathos into permanent tragedy.

Other tracks tackle history head-on, and claim it as the Clash’s own. “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” updates the story of Stagger Lee in bumptious reggae terms, forging links between rock & roll legend and the group’s own politicized roots-rock rebel. “The Right Profile,” which is about Montgomery Clift, accomplishes a different kind of transformation. Over braying and sarcastic horns, Joe Strummer gags, mugs, mocks and snickers his way through a comic-horrible account of the actor’s collapse on booze and pills, only to close with a grudging admiration that becomes unexpectedly and astonishingly moving. It’s as if the singer is saying, no matter how ugly and pathetic Clift’s life was, he was still–in spite of everything–one of us.

“Spanish Bombs” is probably London Calling’s best and most ambitious song. A soaring, chiming intro pulls you in, and before you can get your bearings, Strummer’s already halfway into his tale. Lost and lonely in his “disco casino,” he’s unable to tell whether the gunfire he hears is out on the streets or inside his head. Bits of Spanish doggerel, fragments of combat scenes, jangling flamenco guitars and the lilting vocals of a children’s tune mesh in a swirling kaleidoscope of courage and disillusionment, old wars and new corruption. The evocation of the Spanish Civil War is sumptuously romantic: “With trenches full of poets, the ragged army, fixin’ bayonets to fight the other line.” Strummer sings, as Jones throws in some lovely, softly stinging notes behind him. Here as elsewhere, the heroic past isn’t simply resurrected for nostalgia’s sake. Instead, the Clash state that the lessons of the past must be earned before we can apply them to the present.

London Calling certainly lives up to that challenge. With its grainy cover photo, its immediate, on-the-run sound, and songs that bristle with names and phrases from today’s headlines, it’s as topical as a broadside. But the album also claims to be no more than the latest battlefield in a war of rock & roll, culture and politics that’ll undoubtedly go on forever. “Revolution Rock,” the LP’s formal coda, celebrates the joys of this struggle as an eternal carnival. A spiraling organ weaves circles around Joe Strummer’s voice, while the horn section totters, sways and recovers like a drunken mariachi band. “This must be the way out,” Strummer calls over his shoulder, so full of glee at his own good luck that he can hardly believe it.” El Clash Combo,” he drawls like a proud father, coasting now, sure he’s made it home. “Weddings, parties, anything… And bongo jazz a specialty.”

But it’s Mick Jones who has the last word. “Train in Vain” arrives like an orphan in the wake of “Revolution Rock.” It’s not even listed on the label, and it sounds faint, almost overheard. Longing, tenderness and regret mingle in Jones’ voice as he tries to get across to his girl that losing her meant losing everything, yet he’s going to manage somehow. Though his sorrow is complete, his pride is that he can sing about it. A wistful, simple number about love and loss and perseverance, “Train in Vain” seems like an odd ending to the anthemic tumult of London Calling. But it’s absolutely appropriate, because if this record has told us anything, it’s that a love affair and a revolution–small battles as well as large ones – are not that different. They’re all part of the same long, bloody march.

 # # #

post-punk gems: English Beat, Cleveland Courage, etc.

Welcome to mid-week folks! I hope all’s well on your end.

I’m happy to report me head’s a bit foggy, having stayed out later than usual to check out The English Beat last night at the inimitable Beachland Ballroom on Cleveland’s east side.

beat

Good cause, good times and, as always when former punks and mods gather in Cleveland, a host of good people.

While I usually reserve Wednesdays for underheralded gems from back in the day, today’s an exception, and back in the day this gem reached #9 in the UK, and #22 on the US dance charts.

Nice work, gentlemen.

And, for those of you in the Cleveland area looking to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the release of Combat Rock, I’ll be reading this Saturday at 7pm at Visible Voice in Tremont. Do join us. It should be a hoot!

parsing punk covers–and why Lester Bangs was right about James Taylor

Welcome back to W-SAT, where I’ll be spinning some punk and post-punk platters in just a few more syllables.

The boys over at Crave-online have come up with their 100 kickass songs under two minutes (it’s always boys, isn’t it, making allegedly definitive lists?), and there are plenty of tunes to celebrate here. I’m not sure how Beck’s “Cyanide Breath Mint” or anything by Soundgarden gets in above The Clash’s “White Riot,” but each her own–unless you omit The Replacements, then I’m taking issue. When half the songs on their debut LP start-n-stop within 120 seconds, they’ve earned the right.

Back in the day, amid many glorious and inglorious-ly drunken performances, The Replacements were regarded as the best cover band in the 1980s. The reputation was solidified one night when their road manager confiscated a newly recorded tape from a fan in the balcony and, after the band found the recording to be decent, sound-wise, and representative of their live shows, they released it on cassette as When the Shit Hits the Fans. Oddly enough, no one’s put the whole thing up on YouTube yet, but here’s a sample to whet your aural appetite.

The gesture of the cover, though, is more than merely indulging a few vocal fans. Once The Beatles–and, as a result, seemingly every other white band of that era–stopped offering tributes to their forebears, and started composing everything themselves, rock celebrated artistry. In turn, (white) people grew more earnest, stopped dancing, and abandoned joy altogether–i.e., they bought albums and went to concerts by Jackson Browne and James Taylor. The “singer-songwriter” appellation is not only racist, as a rule–e.g., Smokey Robinson sang and wrote songs, as did Stevie Wonder and George Clinton–but their music largely codified boredom, celebrated narcissism, and encouraged people to sit down rather than stand-up.

Punk as a great refusal p-shawed such navel-gazing, and reclaimed the joy of dancing and the glory of interpretation with fantastic and–in the case of the ‘Mats–fantastically blasphemous cover songs. As they did on so many fronts, The Sex Pistols arrived early, and helped ensure successive generations would offer The Modern Lovers their due.

The Clash followed suit, in part, with more earnest adulation for their Black Atlantic musical forebears. (Check out the brilliance of Topper herein.)

The Ramones, too, were a helluva cover band, and Joey is so adorable live in their version of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”:

I don’t know how The Slits have so effectively escaped their due attention in punk annals, so let me make another nod in their direction, via their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Before Chrissie Hynde offered the greatest act of fandom-devotion to Ray Davies by having his baby, she offered a brilliant cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.”

Right around that time, The (English) Beat took stock of their influences and dialed up a lovely cover of a late 60s by Smokey Robinson, in a time when even the best bands had to lip-synch through TV appearances.

Their comrades from Coventry also dialed up some brilliant covers–including this double-time tribute to Toots and the Maytals:

I’ll wrap up with one of the more poignant tracks, in which one of the shabbiest bands pays tithe to true masters of rock artifice:

If spring’s arrived in your neck of the woods, please send a bit of it to your brethren here in the midwest. Have yourself a week rich with melody and delight.

post-punk gems v. 9 — the virtues of The Vapors

Toppa the morning to ya! I hope all’s well for you in the northern hemisphere, as we inch ever closer to spring. I’ve been working on a new addition to the site, so I’m a bit behind in my review of the catalog of gems. Wreckless Eric and Four Be Two are candidates for future posts, but today I’m revisiting a couple tracks from one of my favorite LPs from the era — Magnets, by The Vapors.

The Vapors, of course, established their pop presence with “Turning Japanese,” and thereby joined a host of great bands doing songs about auto-arousal (The Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom” and The Replacements’ “If Only You Were Lonely,” to begin). Magnets, the follow-up LP to New Clear Days, received critical praise but sales fell short of critical mass, and it effectively resulted in the band’s demise. If they more material like these tracks in ’em, it’s a real shame to have them disappear so quickly.

Alas, I cannot find “Live at the Marquee,” my favorite track from this album, on YouTube. EMI is not my ally today, it seems.

Happy Wednesday (Pooh!), and thanks again for checking out stealingalltransmissions.