What a difference a year makes: ’76 to ’77

Good morning, K-SAT readers. It’s month 3 on the calendar, so I’m mining chapter 3 of Stealing All Transmissions for a couple more gems that I hope you’ll fancy. In “1977: Clamor, Exposure, and Camaraderie,” I move through ’76 and the formation of The Clash into 1977, and map what’s happening in the new periodicals popping up in New York, including Punk and New York Rocker.

Short, sharp, and not too sweet. Brevity and vinyl rule! (April 1977) Photo by Kate Simon.

Robert Christgau reported that he and Richard Goldstein picked up The Clash’s debut on import vinyl at Bleecker Bob’s, put it on the turntable, and the response? “‘This is fucking great!'” There is, of course, so much that is great about their eponymous debut (I love using the word “eponymous”), and I think about Simonon having just learned his parts, and the joy and the frustration and the catharsis in “Janie Jones,” the (ironic) contempt of “Hate and War,” and the beautiful treble-y-ness of it all. I also think about the question of duration. You’ve got 14 tracks here: four are up-and-done in under two minutes; five more take but 30 seconds more.

At the time, Christgau and his comrades at the Village Voice loved popular music, but they also liked to celebrate newcomers, too, as reflected in the Pazz and Jop polls of 1976 and 1977:

1976

  1. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)
  2. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)
  3. Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)
  4. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)
  5. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)
  6. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)
  7. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)
  8. Ramones: Ramones (Sire)
  9. Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)
  10. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)

1977

  1. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)
  2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia)
  3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra)
  4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.)
  5. Steely Dan: Aja(ABC)
  6. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire)
  7. Talking Heads: Talking Heads: 77 (Sire)
  8. Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.)
  9. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M)
  10. Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic)

Now there’s a more scientific way to do this, of course, but let’s just look at the #1s here: Stevie Wonder’s Songs:  17 tracks, 85 minutes, and The Pistols’ Bollocks: 11 tracks, 34 minutes. Certainly Graham Parker and The Ramones heralded a shift in median song duration, but wow: what a difference a year makes.

The Clash doesn’t make the list, I believe, because the folks at the Voice, including Christgau, discovered the album in early 1978. (He would later claim it as his favorite Clash LP, and even his favorite punk LP, if I recall correctly.)

Ramones_-_Leave_Home_cover
The name of this band is … Ramones. Image by Moshe Brakha.

You can find the full polls here and here. And, if you’re paying close attention, you’ll see that the LPs included here by the band “Ramones” did not include a definite article. Like “Talking Heads.” Now, you might find the occasional book that identifies (correctly) “CBGB” rather than “CBGBs,” but I’ve never seen a book refer to this band as “Ramones,” without the “the.” The iconic t-shirt, of course, notes “Ramones,” but all the writers got it wrong. Pretty wild.

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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.