The Idiot was Iggy Pop’s first release since the final (epic) Stooges album four years previous. The intervening years had been, to put it mildly, chaotic; the last Stooges show in 1974 had been highlighted by a brawl between the band and a group of bikers, and Pop had delved into cocaine in a heavy way in the years afterward. At one point in 1976, unable to keep himself from shoveling drugs up his nose, he checked himself into a mental hospital. An old friend and collaborator, David Bowie, visited him there often and when he was released Bowie took him out on the Station To Station tour, which probably didn’t do wonders for his inability to stay off drugs. They got busted together in Rochester, NY (although just for marijuana) and in 1977 decided to decamp to West Berlin to kick their habits. While there, Bowie started playing with the ambient, electronic textures that would inform his Berlin trilogy, and in many ways The Idiot is the first album of Bowie’s Berlin era. It is entirely unlike much of the rest of Pop’s discography, and musically it is far more reminiscent of, say, a connection between Station To Station and Low. It’s a funk-influenced R&B and soul album written and recorded by musicians surrounded by German electronic pioneers (Kraftwerk’s seminal Trans Europa Express also came out in March of 1977).
The Idiot may not be the most “Iggy Pop” album, per se, but it is a great album nonetheless. Bowie’s work in Germany is presaged in most ways by his work here, and he admitted several years later that he used Iggy Pop as a sort of guinea pig for the sound that he wanted to flesh out on his own records. As such, it features Iggy Pop crooning like the sort of deranged android Lothario that the Thin White Duke himself was at that time. Bowie himself would in fact nick a couple of the songs a few years later: the grinding “Sister Midnight” would become “Red Money” on 1979’s Lodger and of course the Bowie version of “China Girl” from 1983 was a much bigger hit. The Idiot is a perfect summation of where both of them were at when a desire to get the hell out of L.A. hit them in very early 1977: drugged-out, discoed-out, dragging themselves through the night and generally feeling as though the entire world had been struck down an octave or so in pitch (or, how “Mass Production” sounds). It would go on to have great influence on a number of up-and-coming goth, post-punk, and eventually industrial groups. Siouxsie Sioux and Martin Glover (of Killing Joke) both singled the album out as a favourite and it was still spinning on Ian Curtis’ turntable when he hung himself in 1980. The drum beat from “Nightclubbing” was reworked as “Closer”, the biggest hit Nine Inch Nails ever had; it was also appropriated by both Oasis and the Sneaker Pimps, proving a sort of bizarre cross-genre affection for The Idiot‘s Pop-Gone-Bowie charm. While the Sunset Strip bands would try to manufacture and sell a flashy, inclusive sort of sleaze, The Idiot was a piss-take of sleaze-rock that skewered all of those bands ten years in advance.
The Damned beat the Sex Pistols to punk rock by mere months. Popular recognition goes to Johnny Rotten and Co. because of the visual aspect: the Sex Pistols looked like something you would decry as “punk rock” in the tabloid newspapers while the legislature was issuing proclamations banning them. The Damned just looked like smart-ass kids, theatre students who were really into Alice Cooper and the Rolling Stones. They avoided Clash-like posturing and politics as well, preferring to sing about getting laid and being degenerate. Regardless, their lead single “New Rose” established the scene, and the success of that single brought them into the studio to record their album. Damned Damned Damned feels like a defining document, even though it never gets treated as such. “Neat Neat Neat” and “I Fall” set the pace for every band that came after, though; the compact, gut-punch guitar work of Brian James makes the genre’s aggressiveness known right away, and his buzzsaw playing drew contemporary comparisons to Pete Townshend. The drummer, Rat Scabies, is of note as well, with an early look into the tightly controlled pounding he would become known for. This is especially true of the riveting intro to “New Rose”, which batters down all opposition in favour of pure rock. “Fan Club” and “Feel The Pain” touch on the aforementioned Alice Cooper influence, and also presage the band’s eventual turn toward gothic rock. “Born To Kill” is the opening salvo in what punk rock would sound like within five years. The Sex Pistols may have won the fashion show, but The Damned defined the sound in a visceral way.
Devin Townsend is fully aware of how completely ridiculous many of the tropes in metal are. Think about it for a second. They are. There’s a reason that the genre is most popular among 14 year old boys – it’s because those are the people most willing to swallow absurdity in the face of pure, naked aggression (see also Trump supporters). Townsend knows how ridiculous the tropes are because he lived them; before forming Strapping Young Lad, the Vancouver musician was best known for providing the vocals to Steve Vai’s uneven 1993 album Sex And Religion. His experience with record labels and the music business led him to his awakening: metal is absurd, the business is absurd, so you may as well have some fun with it. A little burned out and feeling like a “musical whore” for working his muse at the command of other people, he recorded Heavy As A Heavy Thing, an album lost on it’s contemporary listeners, even in 1995. People sat up and took notice when City came out, however, and it marks the beginning of the metal community’s embrace of Strapping Young Lad and their balls-out, “twist-the-dial-back-and-forth-until-it-snaps” version of extreme metal.
City is a solid trash metal album buried carefully in a really stellar industrial noise album. For every moment of straight-ahead pummeling (like the beginning of “Home Nucleonics”, or the massive breakdown in “AAA”) there are layers of digital textures and those Townsend vocals that sound like they were lifted whole and breathing off of dank, bloody German industrial records. The influence isn’t particularly surprising – Vancouver is, after all, the home of Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, and a bajillion other industrial acts – but Townsend’s mixing of it with his obvious mastery of metal forms is what puts City over the edge into being a bona-fide classic.
Doug Martsch attracted major label attention for his Boise, Idaho band Built To Spill on the basis of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, the group’s second album. That album was full of light and whimsy, comprised of solid indie pop songs overflowing with nostalgia and good vibes. Upon signing to Warner Bros. he decided instead to concentrate on squalling, lengthy epics more in line with vintage “Cowgirl In The Sand”-era Neil Young. While this is not precisely recommended behaviour for a band that just inked a major label deal, Perfect From Now On is the best Built To Spill album by a country mile. The follow-up, Keep It Like A Secret, was as concise as Perfect From Now On was sprawling, and after that Martsch put out a series of solid enough albums that showcased moments of brilliance but could mainly be described as “workmanlike”.
Perfect From Now On, though, is a heady trip. Gifted with the same deft touch for screaming, grungy lead guitar that J. Mascis put to such good use ten years prior, Marsch and the band hover and strike like stoned professionals. The leadoff title track is a textbook exercise in how to craft a rock song that seems made to be heard in the moon’s gravity. “I Would Hurt A Fly” is Built To Spill at their moodiest, turning cliches on their heads and getting close to snapping at that noise you’re making. “Velvet Waltz” and “Kicked It In The Sun” both glide by on skates in the cloud, built on jams that flirt with singularity and then reform in more solid states. The closer, “Untrustable,” snaps that dreamy melodies that dominate the rest of the album into solid focus before switching to an almost carnivalesque instrumental jam that closes out the album in a weirdly Elephant Six fashion.
The album was actually recorded three times; what you hear is the final form of these songs after being jammed out again and again. The first time Martsch played everything except the drums but was unsatisfied with the results. The second time the full band played and while the producer was driving from Seattle to Boise to record some further takes the master tapes were destroyed by the car’s heater. Thus the album had to be recorded a third time, the end result being that the songs were as good as they were going to ever be. In 2008, between albums, the band took Perfect From Now On back out on tour, acknowledging the indisputable high point of their catalog.
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.”
Twenty years ago MTV (MuchMusic here at home) started playing a weird video where a bipedal dog in a dirty jacket and a leg in a cast took a gander at the nightscape of an urban neighbourhood he’d just moved to while he carried around a radio blasting some dirty, distorted synth-funk. That song was “Da Funk” and it, along with “Around The World” were the sort of crossover radio-club staples that most electronic groups could only dream of. The key, of course, was that it eschewed Euro Pop formulas in favour of hard French house, and brought French house shuddering into mainstream American attention.
The duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter weren’t always stylish and cool futurists playing house music for an audience stuck in the past. Prior to picking up synthesizers and drum machines, the two played in an indie band called Darlin’, who played, as Melody Maker put it, “a daft punky thrash.” After that band fell apart, the duo took up electronic instruments, ultimately presenting their music to a DJ at a EuroDisney rave (tell me that doesn’t make sense). They recorded a slew of tracks, intending them to be a long series of singles, but eventually they realized that they would be better served releasing a full album since there was just so much music recorded. The result was Homework, a relentless barrage of pounding house music that sounds as at home on the festival main stage as it does in the club, which would become very influential on DJs as the 21st Century began to unfold.
Homework was the opening salvo in the rave invasion of suburban North America, one of the albums released in 1997 that would strip away many of the alt-rock fans that hadn’t by then turned to hip-hop. One could make the argument that the initial shots were fired by Becoming X and Better Living Through Chemistry (and, in a sense, by Aphex Twin’s “home-listening techno”) but neither Fatboy Slim nor the Sneaker Pimps would become really big until 1998, after Daft Punk, the Crystal Method, the Prodigy made executive housing developments safe for rave culture. While the repetitive hooks of “Da Funk” and “Around The World” probably annoyed the hell out of the Boomers who had to listen to them even peripherally, they galvanized their kids and brought a whole new form of expression to their creative ideas.
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.
Leave Home, the Ramones’ second album, was so named because it marked the band leaving their squalid NYC origins to go say hello to weirdos around the world. To aid in this transition, the band took the hard-ahead pummel of their 1976 self-titled debut and welded it to beachy, sun-soaked melodies, as though the Beach Boys had suddenly started taking amphetamines. “I Remember You” and “Oh Oh I Love Her So” are pure bubblegum pop played at a million miles per hour; the guns-blazing cover of “California Sun” cements this completely. “Carbona Not Glue” took the concept of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” (the band’s first composition) and asserted that Carbona (a cleaning fluid) made for a better high than glue; the company behind Carbona was not amused. The Ramones didn’t care, though; they were aiming squarely for the weirdos, the misfits, the awkward kids who didn’t meld well with the mainstream. These were the people the band was connecting to on “Pinhead”, with it’s cry of “gabba gabba we accept you one of us, one of us,” (taken from a 1930s movie about carnies). These people – the art-damaged kids in NYC and the glue-huffers around the world – were the early adopters of the punk music, and while they took to 1977’s other Ramones album, Rocket To Russia, much more, Leave Home is a solid document of the direction of the band as the punk era dawned.
It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Ramones on punk rock. For a huge number of bands that took up the torch in the 1980s and 1990s, they were the ultimate punk band – the complete package, three chords and an attitude. Everything that got big in the mid-Nineties – Green Day et al. – owes an allegiance in one form or another to the sound that the band pioneered between 1976 and 1981. Leave Home is leather jackets, unwashed hair, cheap beer, and getting high inexpensively – it’s greaser music for kids who had to run when the football team came calling.
The Doors hurled mainstream pop music into the mystic unknown, launching missives of darkness, poetry, and power on the unsuspecting masses. Fittingly, the album began on a beach, with Jim Morrison appearing back into Ray Manzarek’s life and singing the melody to “Moonlight Drive”. After hooking up with a flamenco guitarist (Robby Kreiger) and a jazz drummer (John Densmore) the group spent a time perfecting their act as the house band at the Whisky A-Go-Go in L.A., where they expanded nightly on their songs until they included the stretched-out jams found on “Light My Fire” and “The End”. The latter would cause the group to lose their gig at the Whisky due to the Oedipal nature of the song and Morrison’s heavy willingness to scream the word “FUCK!” in the middle of it. It would go on to have a searing second life in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! where it would soundtrack Martin Sheen’s descent into his final madness and his assassination of Colonel Kurtz. Following the recording session for the song, Morrison returned to the studio high on acid and mistook the studio’s red lights for a fire, resulting in all of the recording equipment being sprayed down with a fire extinguisher.
Elsewhere, “Break On Through”, the album’s first single, failed to make much of a dent in the charts but “Light My Fire” (the first composition Robby Kreiger ever penned) drove the album to #2 in the U.S. Ray Manzarek’s autobiography (Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, highly recommended) contains a passage where he gets his first royalty check for $50,000 and he thinks that it’s supposed to be split among the whole band and his girlfriend breaks the news that it’s actually just his share. Also of note: the two covers, “Alabama Song”, a German opera song from the 1920s and “Back Door Man”, a slick, sleazy Willie Dixon song that the band hones into a finely-edged switchblade; the party-all-night swirl of “Soul Kitchen”; and the hard-charging bounce of “Twentieth Century Fox”. The combination of hip, blues and jazz-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and eerie, mystical psychedelic unease would, er, light the fire of an entire generation of kids; that half-mad nighttime beat would inform both the more direct homage of the Psychedelic Furs and the more subtle insanity of Joy Division, as well as the vampires of 1987’s The Lost Boys.