post-punk gems, v. 79 — Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”

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 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.

Enjoy, and rock on!

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the voice of punk, ’77

Good morning, fine readers. I’m trying to be disciplined here, and stay true to my hope to connect my Sunday posts to Stealing All Transmissions (the book) by post elaborations of key points or something “multi-media” connected to chapter 1 in January, chapter 2 in February, etc.

Today, though, I’m still in chapter 1, thinking about punk vocal styles, and their connection to Paul Morley’s vital words on Kraftwerk (see full quote here): “The source of [Kraftwerk’s] pop … was art, noise, technology, ideas … a fantasy of what pop music might have sounded like had it not begun in the blues, in wood, in anger, in lust, in sexual frenzy, in poverty.”

Here’s the single version of “Autobahn” (1975), their first track to reach the US charts:

And sure, we might be concerned when Germans (or anyone for that matter) is making aesthetic choices that reflect racialized categories, but that’s not the prime mover here, of course. The different styles of black American music — R&B, soul, jazz, and blues, gospel, etc. — cast such a long shadow on popular music in the West that it was difficult to forge something new (see: The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, et. al.). By the mid-1970s, a desperation for something new arose in Dusseldorf, London, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and elsewhere, and singers like Tom Verlaine, Joey Ramone, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, the gents in Devo and, of course, David Byrne, were onto something.

So, when Talking Heads make their way from the Rhode Island School of Design to the Bowery, they confirm — as they sing on their debut LP — “It’s not, yesterday, anymore!” David Byrne’s vocals are the most definitive departure, sound-wise, and here’s how Stephen Demorest’s described his approach in his Rolling Stone review of ’77:

“Vocally, Byrne’s live-wired personality vibrates his precise musical framework like a caged tiger rattling its bars. (That he sings in a stiff, reedy, ‘bad’ voice, grasping for higher notes like a drowning man lunging for air, only heightens the drama.)”

Not bad, I’d say, and it heralds a question I hope to pursue in a future post: of the American bands in the punk and post-punk era, how come only Talking Heads dared reinvent themselves from album to album (or every other album)? What is it about American notions of masculinity, authenticity, and musicality that allowed bands to mellow (e.g., Husker Du and The Replacements, and often begrudgingly), but not dare pursue metamorphoses? Think of Brits such as John Lydon (from Pistols to PiL), The Clash (Rope to London Calling, or Sandinista! to Combat Rock), The Damned (Strawberries to Phantasmagoria), to begin. I’m sure art school and notions of artifice play a big role.

Thanks for tuning into K-SAT!

post-punk gems, v. 55 — The Weirdos

Happy Wednesday, folks! I’m quite enjoying We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, which along with Please Kill Me and John Robb’s Punk Rock, comprise a solid trio of punk oral histories. The book’s title is lifted from a song by The Weirdos, who were at it in early ’77, and solidified their reputation at an Orpheum show in a matter of months as the premier LA punk band du jour.

I dig the traces of surf guitar bubbling up in the mix, and the drum style that heralds the use of Burundi drums by so many UK bands in the early 80s. Oddly enough, the aforementioned show coincided with The Damned’s first visit to LA for a string of shows at the Whiskey opening for Television. Now, of course, I have less than half the story, but apparently Tom Verlaine kicked them off the bill, and they were stranded in LA without funds. But yes: a name familiar to anyone living in LA in the 80s: Rodney Bingenheimer was there at the beginning.

Thanks for tuning in!

(post-) punk gems, v. 53 — Eater

When I did v. 1 of (post-) punk gems, back in 2012, I believe, I had no idea I’d still be at it, 2 1/2 years later, in part because I had scant idea how much great punk (and post-punk) I hadn’t laid me ears on. Certainly, I’ve been aware of most of the tunes on this list for years, but then I’ll comb the footnotes of *Punk Rock,* by John Robb, and discover a band as magnificent as Eater. (And I’m now at an age where I’m not afraid to admit such oversights, thankfully.)

Eater took their name from a T. Rex tune, got out onstage early enough to have The Damned open for them (!), and made the final cut in Don Letts’ Punk Rock Movie.

“Lock It Up” was their 3rd single, from 1977, and didn’t quite get the notoriety of  “Thinkin’ of the USA,” which Mojo magazine included on its “100 Punk Scorchers” back in 2001.

The sound of course is what you’d expect, but Eater held it down, and there’s some real lockin’ in by the rhythm section, and it’s all gorgeous, raw, and imperfect–which is exactly how your band should sound when you’re in high school and it’s 1977.

If you’re in Northeast Ohio and you’re looking for something to husker on 1/22, join me at the Rock Hall Archive/Library for my talk on Stealing All Transmissions. It’ll be a hoot, I promise!

(post-) punk gems v. 11 — Captain Sensible, effortless interpreter

Happy mittwoch, reading listeners!

Each Wednesday, as many of you know (welcome first-time viewers!), I dig up a typically under-heralded gem from the (post-) punk era for your listening pleasure.

This week, though, I want to share one of the worst–or best, depending upon your take on punk aesthetics–tunes associated with folks who constituted the cacophonous beauty of 1977.  On June 17, 1982, the day I departed the US for my first-and-only visit (so far) to the UK, A&M Records released “Happy Talk,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune from South Pacific, by Captain Sensible of The Damned. (Warning: ribald language to follow.)

As you can tell, the tune is maximally insipid, and the Captain assures a reporter from New Music Express that, first, The Damned aren’t breaking up and, second, that tedium is the whole point of The Damned–but in a different register. “The whole point about The Damned was always to be as pathetic as possible and just be as childish as we could. It was always just one big tantrum, there wasn’t anything we actually wanted to say. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t carry on.” And lo: they’re scheduled to appear at Rebellion Fest 2013, along with Sham 69, The Buzzcocks, Peter Hook’s new band, The Exploited, among others.

After “Happy Talk” spends two weeks at number one (July 1982), the Captain reports to NME: “I’m there because the rest of the music in the Top 30 is just a pile of shit. It’s just a pile of crap, just drivel. It’s all so meaningless isn’t it? … Like Visage who were on (Top of The Pops) today, did you see them? They walk around all po-faced and pretentious … They’re just trying to hide from the truth that all they’re doing are three chords songs like everyone else and it doesn’t mean a fucking thing.”

Whether “Happy Talk” deserves to be cast upon said pile, too, is difficult to say. It’s artifice without pretensions, but maybe on vinyl–or on the radio–it’s more difficult to parse than on the telly, where it’s clear the Captain is determined to mock rather than rock.

You can find the movie version of “Happy Talk” here and–oh, why not–here’s Visage that same summer, on TOTP:

This history, of course, is lovingly documented in George Gimarc’s Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter’s Guide to Underground Rock, 1970-1982, which I can’t recommend highly enough to the fanatic fans among you. It’s got to be among the top two books on that era (wink wink) available at fine bookstores everywhere.

I hope to see you Sunday!