Ruby: 40 Years of My Aim Is True

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Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True

Released July 22nd, 1977 on Stiff Records

BestEverAlbums:  #329

In the early 1970s, Declan MacManus was another weekend-warrior pub rocker in the London club scene, working day jobs as a data entry clerk in order to fund both his family and his love of playing music.  The man came by it honestly; his father, Ross MacManus, played jazz trumpet under the stage name of Day Costello, and the two of them did a commercial together for lemonade three or four years before My Aim Is True thrust the younger MacManus onto the rock ‘n’ roll stage.  It was also the result of gobs of hard work, of course; the man who would be Elvis Costello spent his time after his wife and young son were asleep writing songs.  Those songs were painstakingly recorded into demos, and those demos shopped around.  Meanwhile, he continued to toil in obscurity for much of the 1970s, playing in a pub rock band called Flip City until one of his demos caught the attention of Stiff Records, an independent London label that convinced him to change his name.  Elvis, from The King, and Costello from his father’s stagename = Elvis Costello.

Success was anything but a sure bet, even with indie label interest.  At first the label wanted him to write songs for someone else.  Then when they realized that Costello’s own songs came off much better, they decided to let him cut a record and release a couple of singles from it, “Less Than Zero” and “Alison”.  Both singles failed to do much damage in the charts, but Stiff Records pressed on and released the entire album; they also went all-in with a promotional campaign that gave away free copies (special edition free copies, at that) to friends of people who bought the album.

Such tricks – great marketing strategies though they might be – are not, strictly speaking, completely necessary to sell an album like My Aim Is True.  Sure, they help, but the strengths of the album are readily apparent immediately.  “Welcome To The Working Week”, the poppiest bit of sarcastic bitterness you’ll ever hear, starts off with the line “Now that you’re picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired”.  He literally starts the record off with a crack about masturbation.  And that’s not even the best part!  Throughout the album he bangs out a series of songs that are part pub rock, part 50’s rock ‘n’ roll inspired genius (check out the Buddy Holly pose on the album cover for more on that inspiration) and all cynical asshole.  The first two are the result of his upbringing and his toils in rock ‘n’ roll obscurity.  The last goes a long way toward explaining why he was slotted in to the white-hot punk rock movement in the summer of 1977.  My Aim Is True may not have the snarl and viciousness of the Sex Pistols or the Clash, but it was just as frustrated, just as bitter, and in places just as political.  “Less Than Zero” was the anti-fascist anthem, a big concern in Britain where the economy was teetering on the edge of collapse by the late 1970s.  The song itself would become famous when Costello began playing it on Saturday Night Live, before cutting out to “Radio, Radio”, declaring that the song was meaningless in America (and earning himself a Lorne Michaels ban for nearly ten years).  “Watching The Detectives” was another such track, outlining the absurdity and obsession of TV violence while borrowing some of that Clash-inspired 1977 reggae bounce (literally inspired; the song came about after 36 hours of coffee and the first Clash record on repeat).  “Alison”, meanwhile, was a soulful ballad about infidelity that Costello claims contains a secret homage to the Detroit Spinners (and also gave the record it’s name) and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is pure pop bliss with a sour interior.

My Aim Is True was a stellar debut, a record that made Costello feel as though, after years of grubbing away in the underground, he’d become something of an overnight success.  It would be the beginning of a run of similarly great albums that would carry the man and his burning cynicism into the mid-1980s.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Rattus Norvegicus

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The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus

Released April 15th, 1977 on United Artists Records

The Stranglers came up rough-and-tumble in the English pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, and it shows.  The band formed in 1974 after drummer Brian “Jet Black” Duffy made a ton of money operating a fleet of ice cream trucks.  His business success convinced him to get back into drumming, something he had done semi-professionally through the 1950s and 1960s, and he scoured the region looking for potential bandmates.  What came together was originally called the Guildford Stranglers and played a regular gig at The Jackpot, an offie that Duffy also owned and operated.  After gaining a bit of a following they managed to merge in with the emergent punk rock scene in 1976-1977 to become one of the more memorable First Wave bands.

Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with the external identification of the band with the scene they found themselves in.  First, what is wrong.  The Stranglers, unlike their contemporaries, were not afraid to get crazy with the keyboards; the band’s sound is as much Dave Greenfield’s manic-Doors keyboard playing as it is Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bouncy, fiercely melodic bass playing.  The intro to “Princess Of The Streets” is a gorgeous, haunting arpeggio feature that you would never catch the Clash using, and it’s written in 6/8 time, which is about as un-punk as you can really get.  Their music was as much about the Doors and the Kinks as it was about ripping the pub apart and getting the lager lads going.

Then again there are aspects of their music that fit right in with where everyone else was at in 1977.  For one thing, Rattus Norvegicus is an incredibly violent record.  “Sometimes” is about a knock-down, drag-out physical fight between boyfriend and girlfriend.  “Goodbye Tolouse” is a raucous good tune about Nostradamus’ predicted destruction of the aforementioned French city.  “Ugly” is a clashing, destructive song that lives up to it’s name in spades.  It has great depictions of the “street scene” of the time:  “Hanging Around” and “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” are both descriptive songs about the life the band was leading during the recording of the album.  There’s also the English punk preoccupation with reggae:  “Peaches” is heavily influenced by contemporary reggae records although the use of Greenfield’s brittle-glass keyboard sound adds a keening, paranoid vibe to the bounce.

The Stranglers would go on to hit greater heights (peaking with 1982’s “Golden Brown”) but Rattus Norvegicus sets them up as a band – propulsive and yet oddly romantic, violent and a little jaded from the streets.  1977 featured some very impressive debuts – and this definitely ranks among them.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of The Clash

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The Clash – The Clash

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

BestEverAlbums:  #174

RYM:  #224

1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this.  The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed.  The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year.  Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock:  The Clash.

That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons.  For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks.  The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band.  Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.

I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal.  We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up.  “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted.  “Punk rock is awesome!  The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!”  This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners.  The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there.  This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were.  Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar.  The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for.  From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well.  They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without.  They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling.  The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.

The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version?  The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame.  The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”.  The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks:  “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel.  The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.

The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.

 

 

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Cheap Trick

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Cheap Trick – Cheap Trick

Released February, 1977 on Epic Records

Sometime in February of 1977, one of the more interesting journeys in rock ‘n’ roll began.  Cheap Trick, a power pop band from Rockford, Illinois, released a self-titled debut with a black-and-white cover; unassuming as hell, and yet as vital as anything else released during that fabled year.  The band would go on to get big in Japan, want you to want them, and flame out in the Eighties on a power ballad, only to achieve a weird kind of undead half-life from the mid-Nineties onward.  Cheap Trick is where that starts, however, and their lasting power is directly evident from the start.

 

First of all, power pop is sort of a problematic term for them.  It’s a term used to dance around punk rock without having to hold your nose about it.  Punk rock is indelibly coded as requiring a certain look:  spiked hair, ripped clothing, blatantly anti-social imagery.  Also a necessary factor:  a certain speed of song, a certain tone of guitar, a certain snarled English accent.  Thanks Malcolm McLaren.  Thanks Rancid.  Thanks Exploited (sincerely).  Power pop, then, is what you call a punk band that doesn’t look like UK hardcore circa 1981.  You’ve got that loud guitar and that edgy lyrical outlook, but you don’t pound away at three chords and you might not be from Leeds.  Think of Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cars, and so on:  they were, in 1977 (or a year later for the Cars), just as cutting-edge and pointed as the stuff typically labelled “punk rock”.  With regard to the above definition, however, how can you call Blondie “punk rock”?  It’s half disco ferchrissakes.

 

This is a roundabout way of saying that Cheap Trick is just as punk rock as the Sex Pistols and the Clash.  In that strangely portentous year (birthing punk rock and hip hop in the same squalid atmosphere), it is highly reflective of the cynical, jaded themes being generated by Western culture as a whole.  “ELO Kiddies” is pure teenage degeneracy, delivered dripping with menace.  “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School” shows Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed And Confused to be a pure creep.  “Taxman, Mr. Thief” is anti-government; “Oh Candy” deals with the suicide of a close friend of the band.  “He’s A Whore” turns Robin Zander into a gigolo; “The Ballad Of TV Violence (I’m Not The Only Boy)” turns him into Richard Speck.  It’s not all edgy material and heavy guitar, of course; tracks like “Cry, Cry” and “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace” manage to get by with just the heavy guitar. The only reason that this album isn’t considered a punk rock classic is because Robin Zander sang a little too classic rock and the band’s lover of checker design and five-necked guitars made them seem perhaps a bit too nerdy and overindulgent.  Plus, Bun E. Carlos looks like an insurance salesman and Rick Nielsen goes out of his way to be as utterly corny as possible every given moment of the day.  Still, music is about music at the end of the day, regardless of how one’s perception of the makers colours and shapes the music for the listener.

 

Cheap Trick would be the start of an impressive five-album run that took them to 1979 and include the best live album ever recorded, At Budokan.  This debut is on the whole edgier than their later recordings, although of course “Auf Wiedersehen” would outsnarl anything here or elsewhere.  It’s a perfect match in tone, however, for 1977, a year that in retrospect seems as though it was dominated by menace and a sense that, under the modern sheen of the contemporary capitalist world-economy, there was serious turmoil bubbling under.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Marquee Moon

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Television – Marquee Moon

Released February 8th, 1977 on Elektra Records

BestEverAlbums:  #47

RYM:  #28

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met in boarding school.  Later, they moved to New York City, chasing poetry.  Then, because it was NYC in the 1970s (or, rather, NYC at any time) they formed bands – first Neon Boys, and then in 1973, Television.

 

The story of Television is the story of a lot of seminal punk acts from the late 1970s on the Lower East Side, only they were there first.  Their manager convinced Hilly Kristal, owner of the legendary CBGB club, to give them a gig in 1974; within two years the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and a zillion other acts would make their name playing there, but Television built that stage (literally).  From 1975 onward they had a regular gig at CBGB’s, and in early 1977 they released the founding document of the era, Marquee Moon.  It would be released without Richard Hell, however; Verlaine had gotten sick of Richard’s continual need to be the center of attention on stage (and, for the mostly-sober Verlaine, probably Richard Hell’s prodigious heroin usage).  Hell would go on to inspire Malcolm McLaren (and thereby the entire “punk fashion” thing) as well as involvement with two other albums we’ll be celebrating this year.  Television would become the playground of Tom Verlaine and the band’s other guitarist, Richard Lloyd.

 

As a “founding document” for punk rock, Marquee Moon can seem a little strange.  It eschews a few things that people take for granted as being part of the basic construction set for punk.  There are none of the “wall of sound” power chords that the Ramones and Sex Pistols were built on; there aren’t even the ragged open chords that The Clash made their own.  Blondie perverted disco, Talking Heads appropriated funk and African rhythms, but Television built themselves on entwined guitar melodies, twisted leads, and a bizarre sense of trained music theory.  A lot of Marquee Moon could be described as “prog-garage” – nicotine stained, recorded lo-fi, but very obviously put together by people who knew their instruments well and knew how to wring disturbed passion out of them to a great extent.  Contrast that with Sid Vicious, who didn’t have the first idea how to play even a bass guitar.  Secondly, the lyrics were obscured, comprised of snippets of poetry, impressionist prose, and a balance between urban and rural sensibilities that mixed insider Manhattan references with boats, oceans, and caves.  Contrast that to the straightforward “I’m so bored of the USA” of the Clash, or even the “SCREAMING BLOODY FUCKING MESS” of the Sex Pistols, and you start to wonder what Verlaine and Television have in common with the rest of their scene.  The truth is that they share a time and a place, and that’s about it.  Marquee Moon, in terms of pure musicianship, a cut above the rest.

 

One consequence of this has been that Marquee Moon has been been relegated to an also-ran status, a remembrance that is more obscure than luminaries like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones.  The album sold poorly at the time (only 80,000 copies) and the band only recorded one follow-up before disbanding.  While critics have always held it in high esteem, it wasn’t until The Strokes reintroduced the world to NYC punk in 2001 that people seemed to really start discussing the band in a wider sense.  The internet may have helped with this as well; certainly very few pre-internet publications would have ranked it to a level that the users of Rate Your Music have (#28 on the all-time list).  Either way, The Strokes’ love of Television’s guitar leads gave Marquee Moon new life, and deservedly so.  It’s influence was felt more subtly before then anyway:  The Edge considers them an influence, as does Joey Santiago (The Pixies), John Fruisciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Stephen Morris (Joy Division), and Will Sergeant (Echo & The Bunnymen).  Chances are you’ve heard something that originally derived from a line on Marquee Moon, you’ve just never realized it before – unless you’re a Strokes fan, and then it’s been beaten into your head from day one.

Ruby: 40 Years of Animals

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Pink Floyd – Animals

Released January 23rd, 1977 on Columbia Records

BestEverAlbums:  #47

RYM:  #31

If Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s extremely successful followup to their legendary breakthrough album Dark Side Of The Moon, contained the first hints of Roger Waters’ growing disgust and misanthropy, Animals is the full-on document of it.  Animals is, to put it bluntly, bleak.  Waters divides the whole of British society into three categories, in an homage of sorts to Orwell’s Animal Farm:  the pigs that rule over society, the dogs that bully society, and the sheep that comprise the rest.  The three main suites are lengthy, nihilistic jams that eschew radio-ready hooks for slashing blues guitar, lumbering bass, and vocal lines that sound as though Waters is literally chewing off the words and spitting them out.  To say that 10-minute-plus slabs of dark, misanthropic guitar music was rather unfriendly to radio is an understatement.  There are two reasons for this change-up in the sound of the band:  first, as “Welcome To The Machine” and “Have A Cigar” on Wish You Were Here indicated, Waters and the band were growing sick of the record industry’s increasingly banal demands on the band; second, the underground punk rock movement that had grown throughout 1976 had set it’s sights on “dinosaur rock” prog movements, who were perceived as bourgeois and decadent.  The latter is not entirely the case – Johnny Rotten was actually a fan of a lot of prog acts, and his infamous “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt was a sort of joke – it was enough for the band to think that keeping their art separate from industry concerns was probably a good thing.

Animals has remained something of a black sheep in the catalog for many less hardcore Floyd fans, stuck as it is between the (relatively) radio-ready sound of Wish You Were Here and the generational majesty of The Wall.  The sound of the latter album has it’s roots in Animals, though, and the concept emerged from the In The Flesh tour the band undertook to promote Animals.  The tour was even more of a slog than recording the album had been, with many members of the band at odds with each other and the whole concept of being in Pink Floyd to begin with.  Keyboardist Richard Wright, feeling shut out by Roger Waters, feuded constantly with him, at one point flying back to England and threatening to quit entirely.  Promoters tried to cheat them out of portions of ticket sales; the inflatable pig they used as a stage prop kept getting filled with a continually more dangerous mix of gases; David Gilmour lapsed into a low point of his professional career after realizing that he’d reached the top with nowhere left to go.  Waters, for his part, began arriving alone to the venues and leaving before the rest of the band; as the tour went on he became increasingly more hostile to the audience.  This culminated in an incident at the last show of the tour in Montreal, where Waters spit on a group of fans who were irritating him in the front row.  Afterwards, he spoke about the utter alienation he felt from the people in the audience and how he would like to build a wall between him and them, “brick by brick.”

Ruby: 40 Years of Low

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David Bowie – Low

Released January 14th, 1977 on RCA Records

BestEverAlbums:  #67

RYM:  #37

In the aftermath of Station To Station, the Thin White Duke, his musings on fascism in the summer of 1976, and the Victoria Station incident, it became clear that L.A. – and cocaine – was proving to be far too toxic for David Bowie’s own good.  His solution was to decamp to Berlin, a city with a drug problem in the form of a drug Bowie didn’t much care for (heroin).  Two other things Berlin had in 1977 were Krautrock and the beginning vestiges of ambient electronic music, and it’s no coincidence that the two forms show up on Bowie’s first record of the year, Low.  The album – originally born out of an aborted attempt to make the soundtrack for his film vehicle, The Man Who Fell To Earth – is rather disjointed.  The first half is comprised of song-sketches built around prog riffs, borrowing in tone and vibe from Faust, Can, and Tangerine Dream.  The second half is a collaboration with ambient wizard Brian Eno, and is largely synth-driven exercises in electronic music (a theme Bowie would return to a few times throughout the remainder of his career).

The two halves can be seen as a divide that would have been glaringly obvious for the artist during his stay in West Berlin: the divide between Western Europe and the Eastern Soviet Bloc. The first half, the West half, is stylish on the surface but fascinatingly broken when it’s delved into.  “Speed Of Life” rides a futuristic riff but remains defiantly voiceless; “Breaking Glass” addresses the excesses of his Hollywood year but doesn’t stick around to dwell on the details, assuring it’s writer of his inherent goodness before moving on.  “Sound And Vision” finds a poppy jaunt that would show up in many of the songs on 1979’s Lodger; “Be My Wife” was sourly romantic at a time that his first marriage was crumbling; “A New Career In A New Town” addressed “starting over”, which Bowie was no stranger to, being first an English, then an American, and by 1977 a German artist.  All of it is crisp and cutting-edge by the standards of the day, but there are real problems lurking between the notes.  The songs speak to a certain disorientation: fracturing relationships, rapid progressions, confusion, regret, and fundamental change are all apparent in them.  The West was no different.  A generation after the end of the war, Western Europe still bore the scars and shadows of the biggest armed conflict in human history, Germany most of all.  To paraphrase Jim Morrison, the future was uncertain and the end was always near.  Labouring under the rocky aftermath of the supply shocks of 1973, stagflation had become the economic order of the day and the resulting recessions were brutal.  The reason punk broke in 1977 is because the cracks in the veneer of the economic system had become glaringly apparent by then; the youth responded to Johnny Rotten’s snarl of “No Future!” because it didn’t look like there would be one.  Caught in a world where youth unemployment was desperately high (especially in Bowie’s native Britain) with the only way out seemingly a devastating and impersonal nuclear war between the superpowers, confusion, fracture, and fundamental change where what everyone was talking about.  Even though old-order artists like David Bowie were looked down on for being dinosaurs (witness Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt), the first half of Low is saying the exact same thing that all the first-wave punk artists were saying – “Everything is fucked and it’s not getting unfucked soon” – only in a much more subtle manner than, say, “Bodies”.

The second half, then, would be the Eastern half, and there’s something in this notion.  The second side is taken up by ambient electronic compositions that were both completely alien to Bowie’s music and to mainstream American audiences at the time.  While Europe was (and continues to be) no stranger to synthesizers – disco never gained it’s unsavoury reputation there, after all – your average American rock ‘n’ roll fan thought synths were unmanly, as though only guitars could be fashionable and manly.  It was an attitude that persisted for a long time, even though New Wave (and, again, David Bowie) kicked the door in on that in the early 1980s.  In 1977, though, when Kraftwerk was still underground and white-hot, the sort of music on side two of Low would have been as utterly foreign as, well, Communism.  The names also suggest something from the other side of the Iron Curtain:  “Warszawa”, “Weeping Wall”, “Subterraneans” – Warsaw, walls, tunnels.  Barricades and escapes.  The wall that divided West from East in Berlin, and the desperate souls who tried to make it across.  On a less theme-focused note, the influence of this album on ambient music to follow may be hard to see now, since it’s pretty routine by ambient standards, but Low represented Brian Eno making great strides in the form at the time, and if it sounds generic now it’s because it set the standard for the genre in 1977.