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?

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key punk covers — not a best-of list

Happy Sunday, people! I hope you’re having a lovely, lovely weekend. I wish there were some pithy way to riff on the absurdity of the posturing in DC, with the continued separation of keywords  (“negotiate,” “good faith,” “will of the people,” “Americans for Prosperity”) from their historical meaning, but it is distinctive, awe-inspiring and, in the end, I figure, alas, brutal and debilitating.

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 there’s rarely anything wrong with that.

It seems impossible that there isn’t a great punk cover between 1979 and 1985, 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.

Enjoy!

post-punk gems, v. 37 — Dalek I Love You

Welcome back to Radio K-SAT, where on Wednesdays I track down lost gems from the punk and post-punk era. Many of these underheralded tunes come from bands whose members you know from their associations with other bands — you might recognize the lead singer of Graduate, who later formed a band called Tears for Fears, which you may be familiar with (smile).

Dalek, I Love You was the brainchild of young gents out of Thingwall, and included (eventually) Alan Gill (of Big in Japan & Teardrop Explodes fame) and Andy McCluskey (who’s still kicking around with a unit called Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark). The moniker represented an amalgam of Dalek, the Doctor Who cyborgs, and Darling, I Love You. It’s a unit that takes the notion of Bernard Sumner (of Joy Division and New Order fame), upon seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time, to its next extension: “I saw the Sex Pistols. They were terrible. I thought they were great. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.” It’s a raucous, synthetic aesthetic, and on “You Really Got Me” (a Kinks’ tune, yes), from May 1980, they drain it dry of the Van-Halen-infused virility from just a couple years before.

I would argue it even heralds the lounge-act qualities that David Lee Roth would embrace following his departure from Van Halen–which, as readers of *Stealing All Transmissions* know, was a key band in my youth, since they seemed to be the mirror image of The Clash, and represented all that was wrong with popular music. So, when Aztec Camera’s cover of “Jump” hit the radio in the US, it was the object of much DJ ridicule on the classic rock stations, but I savored every bar of it, even though Roddy Frame’s hair was only slightly less ridiculous than DL Roth’s mane at that point.

I dig the tuning of the lead guitar on this track, along with the sensitive piano comping during the chorus. Fun stuff!

I appreciate your checking in today, and hope to see you again on Sunday. Enjoy the week!

culture wars — Clash, Van Halen, and hip-hop (masculinity run amok)

Happy Sunday, folks, and hello Thailand! Thanks for checking in. It’s that time of the summer when it becomes clear that the days are getting shorter. At 41+N latitude, we get a full 6 hours more daylight at summer solstice v. winter solstice and, while the latter’s still a-ways away, when I notice where the sun sets or rises in relation to a tree or a roof line, I’m reminded that we are leaning towards winter evermore.

A recent chat with friends old and new about the music industry got me thinking about the history of the “centers” of popular music, its margins, and how the landscape has changed in 30 years, and the battles that transformed it.

In the pages of Stealing All Transmissions, I suggest that:

“The key lesson to be gleaned by the commemorations of ‘eighties music’ on VH1 and elsewhere is fairly clear: in the battle for historical memory, The Clash beat Van Halen, Duran Duran trumped Bon Jovi, and even Kajagoogoo trounced Poison. Put another way: punk/post-punk/new wave hold victorious sway” (p. 5).

I also give Van Halen their due (sort of), explaining how,

“I needed The Clash to get through adolescence, but I needed Van Halen, too, if only to construct my sense of self in contrast to the opposition. The changes in the music industry noted above seem likely to prevent the emergence of another Clash or Van Halen” (p. 75).

Regardless of where you fall in terms of the virtues of Van Halen, they charted 14 straight singles in the top 50 of the “Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks” with David Lee Roth at the helm–and then 11 more consecutive singles after he left the band! Van Halen, along with Led Zeppelin, dominated the sonic landscape of the parking lot of my high school, blaring from the aftermarket speakers of American muscle cars owned by the football players–who dominated the cultural landscape of our high school.

For those sensitive to the signs, though, it was clear the times were a-changin’. While there may have been 10 male new wave devotees in my cohort (700 or so), the next cohort had 50 easily, maybe a hundred. After Van Halen burned out (or faded away), Metallica seized the helm, and their 1991 LP Metallica sold 16x platinum in the US, and went no. 1 in 10 countries (including Japan!?!). (Let’s guess that reports of 11x platinum sales in Canada are overstated. That would be one copy for every household.)  But metal became an odd beast, splintering into different subgenres (thrash metal, death metal, black metal, power metal–yawn …), and many Clash fans celebrated Kurt Cobain’s October 1991 appearance in drag on The Headbangers Ball.

Check out the first 60 seconds, at least, and in the next minute Novoselic goes all social theory on us. It’s nice to know that ball host Riki Ratchman knew of L7.

The coincidental peak of Metallica’s sales and Nirvana’s ascent were no coincidence. Some folks claimed that Nirvana killed heavy metal, but Rachtman saw it otherwise:

“People say, ‘Nirvana killed heavy metal,’ and they didn’t. If you had any type of music scene that is so weak that another band can come on playing a different type of music and kill your scene, then your scene wasn’t good enough in the first place … You come out with this crazy hair and all glam, look like a chick, you know, if you do that, OK, that’s fine, but after awhile, you’re going to need some sort of substance behind it. And what happened was, here’s somebody new that really doesn’t care, that picks up dirty clothes off the floor, wears ’em, has no stage show, goes on camera, does concerts and just plays rock and roll.”

For punk and post-punk: both had their own forms of artifice, and it was never simply about “keeping it real”: but the artifice lacked the pretensions of “crazy hair” and the decadence of Diamond Dave, Nikki Sixx, and their well-rouged rivals. Even Cobain, bless his heart, had a profound drug problem, but it never entailed one or more of the following elements: mountains of cocaine, a phalanx of call girls, land mammals or sea creatures, and a penthouse suite (see Led Zeppelin’s “shark incident“). The self-indulgent virtuosity, combined with the celebration of decadence–I think that’s what punks, post-punks, and new wavers found objectionable about heavy metal.

Parallel to the rise of Nirvana (and grunge) and the slow descent of heavy metal was the rise of hip-hop. By the mid-1990s, the street-wise ethos of Run-DMC, the “black medallions / no gold” paradigm of De La Soul, and the “we’re the black CNN” broadsides of Public Enemy were largely displaced by gangsta rap from the west, and the urban beats of conspicuous consumption from the east. Many post-punk fans got hip to rap, finding its codes of masculinity to be more inviting than heavy-metal masculinity, only to see the musical codes–and its articulations to masculinity and cultural politics–narrow quickly into the gin-and-juice paradigm. That conspicuous consumption brought with it another form of disenchantment: like Diamond Dave, who professed, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it,” many hip-hop artists nakedly pursued the Benjamins and the vices they afforded. In turn, musical fandom was stripped of its “idyllic relations,” and hip-hop artists repeatedly identified the importance of “self-interest” and “(callous) cash payment” in the creative process (to borrow a few phrases from Marx).

When Joe Strummer decried the decadent and thereby anti-populist stance of Van Halen at the US Festival in 1983, the claim carried its own contradictions, but The Clash at least tried. Once hip-hop became the dominant paradigm, who was in position to regard rap’s representations of masculinity and consumption as dominant and worthy of critique? Radiohead? Amy Winehouse? U2? Madonna? Hardly. The segregation of beats in the grunge v. rap era of the second half of the 1990s included some of the whitest rock since Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, as a phobia of cultural appropriation informed the imaginations of white rockers on both sides of the pond. In turn, rap absorbed a record segment of the popular music marketplace and, in rhyme and prose, and bragged about the conquest. The acquisitive masculinity that punk found so problematic and, in part, helped bury, was largely transposed into the cultural field of hip hop.

Jay-Z, for example, echoes the ethos of David Lee Roth–even distilled it, and the following quotes from Dave and Jay-Z, respectively, are effectively interchangeable:

I take my personal upkeep real seriously; my sense of organization and attention to detail; my memory; my business–I love the business.”

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”

Jay-Z is effectively a better-coiffed, better-dressed, neo-liberal version of David Lee Roth.

Separated at b-school?

  

Clash serendipity and the US Festival 1983

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m recently back from New York, where I got to see a host of old friends and comrades. I also did a reading/signing at KGB, which went off great. Much gratitude to those of you who made it (and, of course, to those of you who had hoped to make it, too). I want to say a few words about that morning, though, for it offered a great moment of Clash serendipity.

I was in town to attend a conference, and on Friday morning the conference organizer mentioned my book & reading, and then we broke for our next round of plenaries. When we reconvened, the sound guy — who had previously relied on the esteemed *Kind of Blue* for incidental music, cued up “The Magnificent Dance,” which of course got the two of us talking. He clearly remembered the summer of 1981, when WBLS cued up different mixes of “The Magnificent Seven,” and even rattled off the names of the DJs responsible for the more popular remixes. The gentleman then revealed that the sound tech gig was merely his day job, and that Track 1 Entertainment keeps him busy on nights and weekends. Thanks Mr. Mason for getting my Friday started on the good foot!

For the reading, I reprised my own position on The Clash vs. Van Halen circa 1983, and how frequently I encountered back in the day the triangles of homosocial male bonding around muscle cars, after market stereos, and VH’s Diver Down. I have more sympathy for Diamond Dave’s decadence now, but back then, it seemed so reckless and absurd, so “cheap and real phony,” so complicit.

us festival 1983

One of the real pleasures of putting together Stealing was my review of primary sources by way of google books, which provides full-text search capacities for Billboard magazine, Spin, and a host of others. In Sweaty & Filthy & Crazy & Drunk, Steven Russell employs the oral history method to capture the joy and absurdity of US Festival 1983 and, of course, doesn’t get to the complexity of the showdown between the festival organizers (including Apple’s Steve Wozniak) and The Clash camp. The New Wave Day included, in order of appearance, The Divinyls, INXS, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, Stray Cats, Men at Work, and, after a long band-inflicted delay, The Clash.

Between the more rigorous accounts of Marcus Gray and Pat Gilbert, it seems safe to conclude that Bernie Rhodes orchestrated quite a bit of the mess, which ended far worse for The Clash than anyone else. As fate would have it, it was the last live appearance of Stan Ridgeway with Wall of Voodoo, and the last concert appearance of Mick with the band he started.

Lastly, it was 36 years ago today that The Clash made their NYC debut, at the Palladium, of course, with Bo Diddley as the opening act. Andy Warhol and other glitterati made an appearance, and later Andy took Joe over to Studio 54.

Breaking news: the song Paul Simonon allegedly wrecked during his initial meeting with Bernie, Tony James, and Mick is up for consideration as the official state song of Massachusetts. “I’m in love with Massachusetts” indeed.

Have a lovely week!