punk’s greatest night — april 23, 1976

Writers quibble over year-zero of punk: ’76, because that’s when things started rolling, or ’77, because that’s when key platters of vinyl by The Clash, the Pistols, Blondie, Television, and so many others hit the shops. The hardcore look back to Iggy and the Stooges, of course, or even Velvet Underground at Cafe Wha? way back when.

The night noted above, though, has got a decent claim to the most important weekend in punk history, in terms of guts, glory, and serendipity. On both sides of the Atlantic, the eponymous Ramones’ LP hit the shelves and, as Generation X’s Tony James noted, “The Ramones were the single most important group that changed punk rock.”

In London’s Nashville Room, The Sex Pistols opened for the 101’ers, and Mick Jones accompanied Bernie Rhodes to check out the 101’ers’ lead singer, Joe Strummer. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, the crowd at CBGB was treated to the debut documentary of the punk scene: The Blank Generation, by Ivan Kral, then with Patti Smith’s group, served as the opening act for Johnny Thunders’ The Heartbreakers, just before Richard Hell set out on his own with his band, the Voidoids. 

Kral’s film was a truly DIY affair, as you can see here. I do, of course, shine a bit more light in my book on one of the most important nights in the history of rocknroll. I’ll give the coda over to Richard Hell. Cheers!

punk ’77: the inclusive genre

Happy Sunday, folks. For the fifth and final Sunday of March, I’m taking a last look at chapter 3 of Stealing All Transmissions, and thinking about how inclusive the designation of “punk” was on the front end. I figure the criteria for deeming something punk included:

  • anti-virtuosic musical gestures
  • any mention of social class
  • weird hair or clothing
  • a sound people didn’t know how else to categorize.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Bruce Springsteen is deemed “baroque-punk” by the New York Times (March 1978) because he sings about the working class (2).
  • Blue Oyster Cult is written up in the debut issue of Sniffin’ Glue (4) and, due to the connection between’ BOC’s Allen Lanier and Patti Smith, The Patti Smith Group and The Ramones (!) appear on the same bill in February 1977.

Bands designated “punk” also ended up on some pretty amazing concert bills, including:

  • AC/DC doing an impromptu set after a performance by The Marbles (a pop-punk combo, and even that’s a stretch) at CBGB.
  • Springsteen on acoustic guitar, opening for the New York Dolls at Max’s, back in August 1972.

    Big Star, 1974.
    Big Star, 1974.
  • Big Star (okay, punk forebears) as the warm-up act for comedian (?) Ed Begley, Jr., at Max’s, March 1974.

(And, apparently a combo called Sirius Trixon and the Motor City Bad Boys hit Max’s in 1977, with The Dead Boys and The Cramps as opening acts, and Trixon’s facebook page is under construction and has been for awhile. It’d be good to get some of their tunes online, if anyone can help.)

  • Sleepy LaBeef, opening up for The Cramps, at Max’s in December ’78.
  • At LA’s Starwood, in April 1977, The Quick opening for The Damned, who were well out in from of every other UK act in terms of leading the next wave of the British invasion.

Okay. I’ve now been home for a night, and I think it’s time I make some time for listening to some punk ’77 to help usher in the warmth and joy of spring. Cheers!

Also: Did you see this?

 

Theses on Sleater-Kinney, pt. 1

In celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), I’m sharing in today’s post an experimental writingsk-box-set-records piece of mine from 2003, which appeared in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Late in summer 2000, in a basement club at Oberlin College, I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. They put on amazing, amazing show (The White Stripes opened!), and repeated listenings to All Hands on the Bad One (2000) inspired me to subject the inspiration to prose, and to try the format of a set of theses.

As I note below, my ideas below have some correspondence to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.

This piece long precedes, of course, the current debates about rockism and poptimism, and reflects my own becoming as a thinker. Below I’ve included six of eleven theses, and I’ll post the remaining five on Sunday. Enjoy—or let my younger self have it, via the comments below.

Theses on Sleater-Kinney (2003)

Abstract: Marx wrote the “Theses on Feuerbach” in 1845 in preparation of The German Ideology, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. Engels only discovered the “Theses” after Marx’s death, and he regarded them to be “the brilliant germ of the new world outlook.” In postmodernity, our outlooks are certainly less sweeping, and here I offer a set of cultural materialist theses on the sound of the all-female rock trio Sleater-Kinney, in a dialogue often faithful to Marx’s original work.

1

The chief defect of much previous post-punk (Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Pavement, to begin) is that the materiality and responsibility of subjective, everyday life is conceived from standpoints of the abstract subject—urban dweller, riot grrl, or suburban malcontent. The preservation of the dialogic force of rock, in which the singer-song-music—the text, if you will—is phantasmatic extrapolation, refraction, a fiction, into which the lyric-music listener can situate herself comfortably: think Cibo Matto’s “Working for Vacation,” or nearly every song by every singer, in which love/disappointment/anger is ideal, idealized, preserved perfectly for negotiated readings. One size fits nearly all.

In the opening verse from All Hands on the Bad One (2000), Sleater-Kinney in word and sound collapse the parallel planes of the dialogical imagination to implicate and position both singer and lyric-music listener in a new, practical-critical location.

Eye cream and thigh cream, how ‘bout a get
high cream?
Nothing I do smoothes out the feelings
of being used

“The Ballad of a Ladyman”

2

In the rock canon, the question of objective truth is not new: think Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” John Lennon’s “God”—“Yoko and me, that’s reality”—or Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage.” In S-K’s “The Ballad of a Ladyman,” in the narrative, the straight male listener is on the outside, de-scribed from the responsible, practical activity of the narrator or object of desire, situated anew, in a condition naked, objective, and distant.

I could be demure
like girls who are soft
for boys who are FEARFUL
of getting AN EARFUL
but I GOTTA ROCK!

But the sound’s a bit different, one relatively autonomous from Patti Smith’s androgynous confrontation, or PJ Harvey’s banshee blues. This sound undermines the text, invites him in, to stand where she stands, with crimson lips, dacron skirt, and polyester blouse. It’s the affirmation of desire, as singular and social. Pop as political once again becomes urgently personal, generating material effects.

3

Amid a crunch of vocal chords and drums and wires, Sleater-Kinney’s “show us your riffs” doctrine displaces the ironic detachment of postmodern affect, affirming the integral nature of self-change and revolutionary practice—i.e., strumming, picking, singing, and pogo-ing, be it onstage, on the club floor, or in the bedroom.

You don’t own the conversation, honey
You don’t own the stage
We’re here to JOIN THE CONVERSATION
and we’re here to RAISE THE STAKES
Now do … you … hear that sound
as the Model bre-hey-hey-eaks
TAKE THE STAGE!

“Male Model”

The shift in voice is from narrowly autobiographical to openly dialogical, for the stage is actual and metaphorical, always already multiple, and there for the taking.

4

Forerunner as foil: Liz Phair on Exile, for example, for contemporary suburban boy listeners, starts out from the fact of private self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into the private and public spheres. Her work reifies the personal in the realm of intimacy, discrete from the social, secular world. The former must, therefore, be understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Certainly, Phair’s voice, lyrics, and sound disrupt old notions of gender, power, and sexuality, and in concert she invites audience members to breach the footlight divide, to join her onstage, among props comprising house beautiful. Her invitation into her home, however, reproduces the private-public problematic. In this moment, sensuous affirmation by a different mode of practical, human activity is deferred, rather than affirmed in the negative.

5

In contrast, in concert, in Sleater-Kinney’s forceful ushering of belligerent men from the center to the edges of the floor, the band problematizes the gender privilege of height, creates space for grrl power in practice, and fosters practical, egalitarian power as possibility in the rock formation.

6

The ideological gap between art and commodity often bemoaned so clumsily is tarried here with sharp eloquence. Rather than deny the ubiquity of the circuits of production, Sleater-Kinney cast themselves in each moment of that circuit, as raw material, commodity form, and consumer.

But they took our ides to their marketing stars
and now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com
trying to buy back a little piece of me

“#1 Must Have”

But this condition is merely the raw material for new songs, new affirmations, the soundtrack for sensuous, creative activity.

And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next
marketing bid
Culture is what we make it Yes it is
Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time
To invent, invent, invent,
INVENT, INVEN-HEN-HEN-ENT, invent

“#1 Must Have”

 # # #

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?

U2’s “The Miracle”: Homage or Requiem?

The good folks at Louder than War picked up this post — check it out here. Thanks!

DJ Aphasia, 18 Sept set

Happy Wednesday readers! After close to eight years away, I got back in the DJ booth last week at WOBC, our local college and community radio station, for an hour of “The Spirit of ’77.” I’m rusty, and It’s a mixed bag, of course, with great tracks from ’77 and after, some of the tracks that inspired all that gorgeous noise in ’77, and a few foils, too, just to remind us what that joyous ruckus was about.

 

Do get past the first 45 seconds certainly, which is a non-punk prelude, and then you’ll encounter a host of fun items without DJ patter this time, including The Au Pairs, the Dolls, Costello, The Clash, Scritti Politti, Pixies, Public Image Ltd., Patti Smith, Lorde (yes Lorde!–outside of hip hop, she’s best we’ve got today on social class), Television, Sleater-Kinney, and Gang of Four. Send me a note if you need info on any particular track. I’d post them in order, but that prevents a bit of serendipity, yes?

And here’s a link to a show that just went up in NYC, with great images of the Beasties, Madonna, and others, as just kids. And some of The Clash in various iterations, too.

BAD --
image by Josh Cheuse, used without permission.

Thanks for tuning in. I’m back on the air Thursday, 5-6pm, EDT, at wobc.org, and 91.5 FM in Northeast Ohio. Thanks for checking in!

(post-) punk gems, v. 40 — Bad Manners

The autumn equinox has been a rich one in terms of music history, and punk history in particular. Patti Smith first retired in mid-September 1979, at age 32, after playing before 85,000 people in Florence, which nearly coincided with the dissolution of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the first single of Graduate (see here), who eventually morphed into Tears for Fears.

A mere 34 years ago this week, Bad Manners served up “Special Brew” (backed with “Ivor the Engine”) on 7″, and it became one of the biggest hits.

And really: if you’re going to lip-sync (which is fine by me), why not have a fun go of it and wear grass skirts? I do miss the horn sections of BM and their brilliant brethren.

Tomorrow, 18 Sept, 5-6pm EDT, I’ll be hosting “The Spirit of ’77” and spinning discs at http://www.wobc.org, 91.5 FM in Northeast Ohio. Send any requests to @stealingclash. Cheers!