Come aboard the way-back time machine, where it’s the summer of ’76, and NYC proto-hipsters are abuzz about 7″ of vinyl just released on Ork Records. A la John Coltrane’s Ascension LP, Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” their debut miss single, unfolds over 7 plus minutes, so it’s split down the middle (or so). It offers a whole new guitar vocabulary in the timbres and phrasing, with echoes of the Velvets and the Byrds, and heralds the craft of the axe-folk of Talking Heads, Wire, and Gang of Four. Robert Christgau was on-board from the get-go, regarding “LJJ” as “dynamic and spooky … its dissolute aura is difficult to shake off.”
“Jewel,” too, served as a jewel-of-a-connection between New York and London early on. It made its way across the Atlantic and into the hands of Rat Scabies, who had a failed try-out with The Clash and eventually became the drummer of The Damned. “The first thing we heard from New York was the Television single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel.’ I remember listening to it and being blown away.” (Stealing, p. 47)
Just as so many of us did through the 1980s, Scabies constructed his fandom from bits and pieces, with the whole remaining ever elusive. “No one had seen the Heartbreakers live, but we thought they looked great. We had seen pictures of Television, Richard Hell and Blondie but nobody had heard anything. Because Danny Fields was involved with the MC5 we knew [The Ramones] had to be the right kind of thing.” The right kind of thing, indeed.
Lots and lots of anniversaries today, as you twitter-ing will know: TH’s *Little Creatures,* the debut LP by a band called Duran Duran (whatever happened to them, anyway?), and I’m sure there were a couple more, too.
Talking Heads, though, and the whole aura around their artiness, began to wear on Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth: hence the birth of Tom Tom Club, and their first single, released 34 years ago this week: “Wordy Rappinghood.”
The impulse behind the side project had everything to do with, well, David Byrne, and New York in general, according to Chris Frantz, who’s one of the real gentlemen of the music industry:
“We wanted to make a real musical anti-snob record because we’re fed up to here with all the seriousness which surrounds Talking Heads. It’s as if just by being in TH you’re expected to think very heavily about everything … We were consciously trying to get away from … being influenced by heavy philosophies and drugs and … nihilistic attitudes … it’s the only kind of emotion they can get behind in New York.”
They did, of course, draw heavily on the hip-hop aesthetic shaping New York at the time. Sessions took place in the Caribbean, and the duo were joined by Monte Brown, Steven Stanley, Adrian Belew (one of the happiest performers I’ve ever seen), and Tina’s three sisters. Their LP from much later, *Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom,* has to be one of the most underrated LPs of the late 80s. Cheers!
Plenty o’ rain has us indoors for now, on this side of Lake Erie, and — since it’s the last day of May — I’ve got a few more thoughts about ch. 5 in Stealing All Transmissions. Come August 1979, The US version of The Clash is finally out, and the band is mixing and wrapping up their work on London Calling. That September, they arrive in the states for the Take the Fifth tour and, come 19 September, arrive in New York City.
It’s a weird year in pop, as you can see below in John Rockwell’s end-of-the-year summary
for the New York Times. (I’ve also written about importance of Rockwell here.) It’s also a tough year in pop, business-wise. The Clash’s UK label, CBS, had a tough first quarter, and pink-slipped 52 employees shortly thereafter. Net income dropped, and CBS blamed its record division.
It’s difficult to imagine it was a quality issue, with so many great LPs by Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Clash, and others. (Maybe it’s important, too, that the Stones-lawd have mercy–and Springsteen released nothing that year.)
Is home-taping the culprit? Does this theme sound familiar? The industry of course rebounded, and did well for ages, but it’s difficult to imagine 2015 (or any year after) holding good news, profit-wise, for the music industry.
No big surprise to see Talking Heads and The B-52’s in the mix, but especially nice to see The Clash, Ian Dury, and even Steve Reich mentioned–and perhaps because of the dip in humor of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, imagining The Clash as less fun than Joe Jackson or The Police. I figure Rockwell changed his tune, though, once he heard London Calling.
Greetings, readers! So I’m back at the book again here, mining chapter 3, “1977: Clamor, Exposure, and Camaraderie,” for another gem related to the DIY spirit. The clamor, of course, was ringing from speakers on the stage and in bedrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, as 1977 saw the release of the 2nd Ramones’ LP, Talking Heads: 77, Television’s Marquee Moon, The Clash, two LPs each by The Damned and The Stranglers and, almost late in the game, came the debut LP by The Sex Pistols. The DIY ethos informed the fanzines, too–most notably Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue, which popularized the cut-and-paste ransom-note aesthetic and, for better or worse, fomented the yer-either-with-us-or-against-us ethos that led to a narrow definition of punk.
Perry’s search in ’76 for written coverage of his new favorite bands turned up almost nothing. “One time I was at [the record shop] Rock On, trying to find out if there were any magazines I could read about these bands in,” Perry recalled. “There weren’t, so the people behind the counter suggested flippantly that I should go and start my own. So I did” (Stealing, p. 42). And did so quickly, and with a sensibility that’s been confirmed nearly four decades hence, as the cover of issue #6 from January ’77 rightly confirms. Perry, too, knew that before too long, his subjects were also his readers. “John Lydon had it, Strummer had it, Rat Scabies had it,” Perry reported. “I thought, ‘If I say this in the Glue, it’s going to happen.’ I knew that, and that’s what fueled me, knowing that it was being taken seriously” (Ibid.).
Perry, alas, took himself too seriously, and did so for years. You might think after a couple decades he might back away from punk-inspired claims such as, “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS,” but no. For John Robb’s Punk Rock, Perry stuck to his ideological guns:
“These guys weren’t about to smash their Gibson & Fender guitars all over the stage, were they? … they manipulated punk into ‘OK, we won’t have a riot, we will sing about it instead.’ Which is cool, at least someone’s singing about it — but don’t try to make out that are some hard revolutionary. You’re just in a pop band — which the Clash ended up being. They were a great pop band, but nothing to do with punk. The real punk bands came a couple of years later, the bands we all hated like the Exploited and all those nasty working-class people [laughs] that have convictions and have been in trouble with the police …” (p. 340).
So, the requisite credentials include: smashing expensive gear, trouble with the law, and you need to be as tedious as The Exploited? As a period piece, The Exploited were perfect, but how many times can you listen to songs that repeat the same phrase in a chorus and construct musical bridges from watered down heavy metal riffs?
Punk is a many-a-splendored thing and, as guitarist Marco Pirroni rightly noted, “This whole Mark P thing that [the Pistols] should sign to Bumhole Records for no money was stupid — that would never work.” The Clash’s refusal to become a self-parody by making the same album over and over again is a testament to their greatness, not a failure. And please: if we’re talking about class credentials, lay off Mick Jones. “Rock’n’roll Mick” did what any poor boy with enough pounds for a guitar and an unassailable work ethic would do: he dedicated his life to rock’n’roll, and made the world a better place.
I will give Mark P. due credit, though, for rocking Alternative TV well into the 21st century–and tonight, 8 March, in Brighton. Cheers!
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.
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:
Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)
Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)
Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)
Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)
Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)
Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)
Ramones: Ramones (Sire)
Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)
Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)
Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)
Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia)
Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra)
Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.)
Steely Dan: Aja(ABC)
Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire)
Talking Heads: Talking Heads: 77 (Sire)
Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.)
Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M)
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.)
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.
So I thought this item was up on Sunday, but apparently not. It’s been a great week for me, with esteemed kudos for Stealing All Transmissions coming from unexpected places (here and here), which has left me nearly speechless. I did want to offer a few words, though, and pick up the theme of poptimism/rockism (see here, pt. 1 and here).
I am happy for the most part with the poptimistic turn of music criticism, and I’m fine with the attack on specious hierarchies–good stuff. Still, with the “everything-is-awesome” ethos of poptimism (okay, I know it’s not quite fair, but bear with me), we don’t have the type of rockist criticism that created the sacred cows of the rock pantheon, including Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. The kind of sacred cows that Abbie Hoffman once noted, make the best hamburgers.
Now, the best practitioners of punk passed their O(edipus) levels, and set their sights on more trenchant issues, but even Sleater-Kinney, on their fifth LP, were taking the piss out of Led Zeppelin IV’s best-known track (“You always play the same old song / play another song”).
(And, if you want a less pitchy version, here ya go.)
There’s also Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” which takes on the Zep tune, for it “plays all night long.” And my hometown favorites, Pavement (Stockton in the house!), who find the “elegant bastards” of The Stone Temple Pilots to be stone-deaf and tedious.
Ah, the good old days … have a delightful holiday from work, lovely readers, especially if it’s the equivalent of a paid holiday!
Happy new year, dear reader! I hope your 2014 is kicking off well. I’ve put together a rebirth-themed mix of stuff ranging from 1968 to 2013 for your enjoyment (artists listed in the tags below). It starts off with The Breeders, then X, and, well — it’s a mix, and I want it to be a bit of surprise. If you need names for artists/tracks, reply below and I’ll get back to you straight-away.
New Year’s Mix 2014 (I tried to embed this item, to no avail. Please right-click to save–or the Mac equivalent.)
Should good news be forthcoming about the 2nd edition of *Stealing,* I’ll let you know. Otherwise, you can keep up with my oddities and occasional insight via twitter @stealingclash. Thanks again for checking out my temporarily-dormant blog!