Posts Tagged ‘punk rock’

“London Calling” by The Clash (1979)

The first time I remember hearing about punk rock, I was a sophomore in high school and some classmates were talking about the absurdity of the Sex Pistols and their song “God Save the Queen.”

“She’s not a human being,” they quoted the epic line growled by John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon.

The premise sounded moderately interesting, so I kind of was looking forward to seeing the Sex Pistols on “Saturday Night Live.” Of course, the band broke up before making it to New York, and Elvis Costello took the SNL gig. The rest is history.

I also was aware of Britain’s other major punk band, the Clash, but can’t say I heard very much until “Train in Vain” hit the airwaves when I was a senior. That seemed more like a typical pop-rock tune than anything as extreme as I understood punk rock to be.

So I didn’t hear the album that contains “Train in Vain” until a year or two after its release.

It turns out the single is kind of an anomaly as far as “London Calling” is concerned. It wasn’t even included in the track listing on the original LP, as the song was added at the last minute.

The rest of the album shows Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon and the late Joe Strummer coming up with as fine a recording as punk rock had to offer, even if the band had evolved beyond it’s punk roots at that point.

The Clash, in fact, probably reached it’s apex with the title track, which kicks off “London Calling.” The song captures an apocalyptic vision of despair as well as anything recorded in the rock era and is especially poignant for those of us who grew up near Three Mile Island, which nearly melted down around the same time the Clash was starting work on the album:

“The ice age is coming, the soon is zooming in/Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin/A nuclear error, but I have no fear/London is drowning, and I live by the river”

Next on the track list is a vicious take on British rock pioneer Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac,” with Strummer channeling pure desperation as his woman, in her fancy car, announces: “’Balls to you, Daddy’ … She ain’t never comin’ back.”

The album continued with a song that fully displays the Clash’s affinity for reggae, first evinced on the band’s debut album with a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” Law enforcement also figures prominently in “Jimmy Jazz,” the third track on “London Calling,” as police come looking for the title character, whom no one claims to have seen.

Throughout the album, Strummer and company address a wide variety of issues: racial strife (Simonon’s first songwriting venture, “The Guns of Brixton”), the shortcomings of capitalism (“Clampdown”), generation gap (“Rudie Can’t Fail”), rampant consumerism (“Lost in the Supermarket”), drug use (“Hateful”) and the long downward spiral of actor Montgomery Clift (“The Right Profile”), among others.

The album concludes (besides the last-minute “Train in Vain”) with a version of Danny Ray’s “Revolution Rock,” another reggae-flavored song, featuring a full horn section and lyrically summarizing the Clash’s musical mission.

As does the cover art: Pennie Smith’s photo of Simonon bashing his bass against the stage at New York’s Palladium, framed in typography reminiscent of that used on Elvis Presley’s debut album.

The Clash was so rich with prime material that “London Calling” works tremendously as a two-record set. The band tried to up the ante with its follow-up, “Sandinista!”: The general consensus is that one good record is somewhere amid the three slabs of vinyl contained therein.

Its scope certainly is a long way from the couple minutes’ worth of thrashing that constituted “God Save the Queen” and the other songs that set the standard for punk rock.

“Marquee Moon” by Television (1977)

Back in the day, your typical rock star had a certain look about him: Picture Robert Plant or Mick Jagger, or David Bowie or Elton John. They either made the stereotype or fit the mold.

The first time I saw the cover of Television’s debut album, “Marquee Moon,” I thought something along the lines of, what the (expletive deleted). Punk Rock or New Wave or whatever they wanted to label it hadn’t quite caught on yet in Harrisburg, PA. So seeing the stark Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Tom Verlaine (né Miller), Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca and Fred (not Sonic) Smith wasn’t going to make me plunk down $6 to take the album home.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the genius behind the quartet, which recorded only two LPs in its original incarnation before Verlaine decided he’d be better off in a solo capacity. While his subsequent albums that i’ve heard are enjoyable, they don’t quite measure up to what he did with Television.

“Marquee Moon” actually is neither Punk nor New Wave; it’s much more musically complex than either of those genres have to offer. Because Verlaine and company hung out with a lot of those types – he dated Patti Smith for a while, and Richard Hell was in an embryonic version of Television – his music generally was assigned to a certain category. But listen to the music, and you’ll hear a lot more than the usual three-chord thrash.

Let’s cite the title track, which is one of the more complex songs of the era. Each of the musicians plays a subtly different motif, melding together to utterly the basic 12 bars of rock ‘n’ roll to that point. Each plays slightly off the beat from one another, creating a fascinating tapestry.

Verlaine’s singing might be an acquired taste, but his scratcy, higher-range voice rings true compared with the processed vocalizing that’s prevalent today. In fact, I usually cite him among my favorite singers, with the likes of Lou Reed, David Byrne and Jerry Garcia: guys who lack/lacked golden voices but convey their material superbly.

That being said, the guitar playing of Verlaine and Lloyd is what makes “Marquee Moon,” the album and particularly the title track, a huge cut above most of Television’s contemporaries. They famously steer clear of traditional rock chord changes, opting instead for scales that simultaneously sound familiar and off the beaten path, creating a sound that for all intents and purposes hasn’t been duplicated.

Beyond the title track, the other seven songs live up to the established standard, albeit in a more familiar rock ‘n’ roll vein: from the riff-driven “See No Evil” to the more introspective “Venus” to the minor-key epic of a closer, “Torn Curtain.” And the reissued CD adds some essential material, included the band’s debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel (Parts 1 & 2),” an integral release in the context of the New York City music scene in 1976.

OK, I’ll admit my musical horizons weren’t broad enough to embrace “Marquee Moon” in 1977. But 35 years later, I highly recommend it to anyone who has a sense of adventure … which, of course, is the title of Television’s second album.

“Fun House” by the Stooges (1970)

As the 1960s drew to a close, Elektra Records looked to Detroit in an attempt to replicate the success it was having with its rock ‘n’ roll roster, particularly the Doors.

One of Elektra’s signings was a group that took its named directly from the Motor City, the MC5. That association was cut short by the ramifications of the band using a certain four-letter word.

At least the Stooges had the opportunity to cut one more album for Elektra than the MC5.

“Fun House” was the band’s second and final recording in its original incarnation of the late Ron Asheton on guitar, the late Dave Alexander on bass, Scott Asheton on drums and James Newell Osterberg on lead vocals.

Actually, “Fun House” represents the point where Osterberg started using the stage name of Iggy Pop; he’d been labeled as Iggy Stooge on the band’s debut. By any name, he’d already become something of a legend for hist live performances, during which he went shirtless and often one-upped the antics of singers like Alice Cooper in the early stages of his career and the late Jim Morrison in his latter.

The Stooges didn’t try to rein in the chaos of their concerts on their records, with Iggy’s snarling vocals, Ron’s buzz-saw guitar and the solid foundation of the rhythm section providing a bridge between ’60s psychedelia and ’70s heavy metal and paving the way for what became punk rock.

Probably because it sounded unlike anything else at the time, “Fun House” sold poorly, as had its predecessor. Critics were prone to deride the Stooges’ relatively simple approach to song structure, and Iggy’s vocal stylings never resembled easy listening in any way, shape or form.

Then there was the subject matter of the songs, which often focus on the seamier side of life. The album opener, “Down On the Street,” sets the tone simply by dint of its title, let alone the lyrics: “I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m lost, yeah/Faces shine, real low mind, real low mind, I’m a real low mind.”

The album continues in a similar vein with “Loose,” even more so: “I took a record of pretty music/I went down and baby you can tell/I took a record of pretty music/Now I’m putting it to you straight from hell.”

The LP’s first side continues with “TV Eye,” which explores the primal urge from the female point of view, and “Dirt,” Iggy’s chronicle of self-disdain: “I’ve been hurt, and I don’t care/’Cause I’m hurting inside/I’m just dreaming this life.”

Not quite “Sugar, Sugar,” to cite one of the big hits of 1970 …

Side Two contains the title track, a lengthy jam augmented by saxophone player Steve Mackay, during which Iggy growls, hoots and hollers about his vision of an ideal fun house: “I came to play, baby, yeah I came to play.”

The proceedings conclude with five minutes’ worth of “L.A. Blues,” which is an ironic title considering the song’s complete lack of structure: Iggy screams over a wall of sound, Ron Asheton’s guitar wailing away on one side and Mackay’s sax squawking on the other. I’m guessing the guys either were listening to a lot of Albert Ayler and late-period John Coltrane at the time, or some kind of “substances” may have been involved. Or both.

“Fun House” hits its apex with “1970,” the LP’s first track on the second side, a song that sums up the Stooges’ whole package: “Out of my mind on Saturday night/1970 rollin’ in sight/Radio burnin’ up above/Beautiful baby, feed my love/All night till I blow away.” Throw in a killer riff, and “1970” should’ve been a hit.

Well, at least Elektra tried to release it as a single. No one was buying.

Lack of sales doomed the Stooges, as did various personal problems of the band members. A particularly high-profile fan, David Bowie, sort of brought everyone back together in 1973 – substituting James Williamson on guitar for Alexander, with Ron Asheton switching to bass – for “Raw Power,” the title of which says it all.

But that was it for the Stooges, until a growing number of impact musicians started citing the group as a primary influence. Eventually the Stooges were recognized as ahead of their time instead of talent-deprived noisemakers, and for what it’s worth, the band wound up enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Now, if only they’d have sold more records …

“High Time” by the MC5 (1971)

For those who associate ’60s-era rock with flowers, beads, incense and peppermints, I present the MC5.

The Motor City Five, as the Lincoln Park, Mich., band once was known, melded overt political rhetoric with what probably was the loudest music of their day: If you’re discussing the roots of heavy metal, the MC5 had better be prominent in the conversation.

On Oct. 30 and 31, 1968, the tape recorders rolled at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for what eventually became the MC5’s first album, “Kick Out the Jams,” which at the same time represents one of the few live debuts and one of the most incendiary. If John Lennon’s “Revolution” poked fun at would-be subversives, members of the MC5 – and particularly their manager, John Sinclair – were serious.

If you’re connecting the dots, you’ll recall that Lennon later recorded a song called “John Sinclair,” who indeed was the victim of “10 for two”: a decade-long prison sentence for two marijuana cigarettes. That was the price paid for expressing radical views at the time.

Along with running afoul of the “establishment,” the MC5 managed to alienate a much more important entity with regard to its short-term interests.

When Elektra Records released “Kick Out the Jams” in 1969, the introduction to the title track contained a certain term, the first half of which was “mother.” As a result, Hudson’s, a major Detroit department store, refused to carry the album. And as a result of that, the band took out an ad to the effect of “Stay alive with the MC5 – and @#%& Hudson’s.”

Hudson’s responded by refusing to carry any Elektra products, which meant big-time sellers like the Doors weren’t going to move as many units in Detroit. So Elektra settled the matter by dropping the MC5.

Atlantic Records promptly signed the band, and its first studio album, “Back in the USA,” was on par with its live predecessor on several levels. The political commentary still was there, albeit in a more subtle form, and the sonic quality was muted somewhat by producer Jon Landau’s decision to mix everything with high-end equalization; you can hear Michael Davis’ bass playing, but it doesn’t exactly boom through the woofers.

“Back in the USA” didn’t sell particularly well, and Atlantic gave the MC5 one more chance to redeem itself. The result was yet another stylistic departure.

“High Time” – yes, the cannabis-oriented magazine takes its name from the album title – veers away from the metallic assault of “Kick Out the Jams” and the trebly roots rock of “Back in the USA” by incorporating a variety of elements that were rather innovative for 1971.

Along with the core quintet – Davis, guitarists Wayne Kramer and the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, drummer Dennis Thompson and the vocalist, the late Rob Tyner – the album is augmented by more than a dozen musicians, including keyboard players, female backing singers, a horn section and (listed as playing percussion) future truck-commercial staple Bob Seger.

No, it’s not your imagination: Jennifer Aniston sports an MC5 T-shirt on an episode of “Friends.”

The band gives no quarter with its subject matter, as the kickoff track, “Sister Anne,” amply illustrates: Smith writes about a nun who “never tries to tease, she always aims to plase/She’s gonna squeeze you tight and make you feel all right.” To provide the song with a quasi-religious element, it wraps up with the horns playing rather loosely in the manner of a Salvation Army band, reminiscent of what Syd Barrett incorporated into his Pink Floyd swan song, “Jugband Blues.”

If “High Time” had a chance of yielding a hit single, it might have been “Baby Won’t Ya,” which kind of cops Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads” lick, although nowhere near blatantly as Steve Miller later did with “Jet Airliner.” And the chorus is as catchy as they come. Then again, the lyrical content would have stood in the way, with Smith penning such lines as “Sweetly, serenely, she showed me her gun/Baby let’s go get high.”

“Gotta Keep Movin'” hearkens back to the rhetoric of “Kick Out the Jams,” as Thompson pulls no punches regarding his worldview: “Presidents, priests and old ladies, too/They’ll swear on the Bible, what’s best for you/Atom bombs, Vietnam, missiles on the moon/And they wonder why their kids are shootin’ drugs so soon.”

“Poison” continues in the same vein, with the guitar interplay of Smith and Kramer providing a suitable foundation for the shared vocals of Kramer and Tyner, who sound rather desperate as they recount the plight of many of their contemporaries, including Sinclair: “Used, abused, locked up, beaten and fined/But I got free, copped a plea, and i can see/That there ain’t no freedom bell gonna chime this time.”

“Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)” wraps up the album with an appropriately heavy jam augmented by the horn section, as Smith seems to sum up the band’s career at that juncture in time: “Oh, baby, off we go, headin’ for a brand new place/The song’s been sung, the deed’s been done, staring you right in the face.”

The high point of “High Time,” though, probably is the song that opened the LP’s Side Two, “Future/Now.” Tyner continues in a paranoiac vein but offers a way out: “If you’re drifting or wandering lost, you’re perfect for the double cross/Freedom is yours right now, if you rule your own destiny.”

The first part of the song rocks along at the MC5’s usual furious pace, until that’s supplanted by subdued guitar arpeggios and Tyner’s spooky incantation: “And our mind will explode in a post-atomic dawn/The future breaks like a tidal wave, engulfing everyone/Confusion and chaos, the trauma of birth/A strange new day for the people of earth/Traditions burned away by that rising sun.”

The “Future” quotient of the song wasn’t in the cards for the MC5. “High Time” failed to make the charts, and Atlantic dropped the band. An attempt to keep going in Europe failed, and by 1972 the MC5 was history. It wasn’t until later that the band’s influences, especially on the sonic and political aspects of punk rock, gained widespread attention.

I’m not a great believer in the concept of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but sometimes I really pull for certain artists to receive their due recognition. And the MC5 deserves a place of honor in Cleveland.