Radio Birdman – Radios Appear
Released July, 1977 on Trafalgar Records
1540 KHz on the AM band: that was the original broadcasting position of legendary Sydney radio station 2JJ (later 2JJJ, or “Triple J” when it crossed over into the FM market). From it’s inception it was a home for the experimental, the odd, and the alternative – stuff that wouldn’t get played on other Australian radio stations. The growth of Australian cool starts from it’s inception in 1975, when it was founded to be a government-funded radio station meant to appeal to the 18-25 demographic. Radio Birdman, a group of Aussie Stooges fans, were among the bands the station championed at the very beginning of the punk rock era.
Radio Birdman were unlike anything else that Australian radio was playing at the time; while it might be somewhat correct to call them “Australia’s Sex Pistols”, this does Radio Birdman a disservice. The band weren’t cobbled together, they could play their instruments, and they didn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to sell their records. In fact, Radio Birdman’s early success was as much a result of their hands-on work ethic as it was their killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes; their records were initially sold out of their trunks, before and after shows. The band provided the example, and from them the punk DIY ethic was born into Australia.
Those killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes, though: Radios Appear had them in spades. The band name and album title give key clues as to their influences. “Radio Birdman” came from a misheard lyric on The Stooge’s “1970”, and tracks like “T.V. Eye” and “Murder City Nights” bear the scars of a definite Stooge’s obsession. “Man With Golden Helmet”, however, shows another side of the band, one that is hinted at in the title of the album; “Radios appear” is a line from “Dominance And Submission” by Seventies hard rock icons Blue Oyster Cult. “Descent Into Maelstrom” and “Love Kills” combine the two, marrying a harrowing, relentless beat to a more free-wheeling and progressive melody and structure.
Radios Appear is both the debut and the highwater mark for the band. Their second LP, 1981’s Living Eyes, was released three years after the band broke up, and while the band reunited in 1996 and continues to tour intermittently, new music has been spotty at best. For a pure rock ‘n’ roll experience – filtered through Michigan proto-punk – however, Radios Appear is one of the finest efforts of that legendary year of 1977.
Blink-182 – Dude Ranch
Released June 17th, 1997 on Cargo Records / MCA Records
Anyone over the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is solidly immature – and the older they get, the more you can be assured that they’re existing in a state of suspended adolescence that just gets sadder the closer you get to grey hair. Anyone under the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is probably riding on a crest of Le Wrong Generation smugness, hating on the musical offerings of their generation simply to be contrarian and faux-cool. I mean, you kids know PUP exists, right? Pissed Jeans? There are much better punk bands out now than Blink, you don’t have to suck up to Xinneials for brownie points.
So why are we celebrating the twentieth anniversary of an album that pretty much strikes one note over and over again until you just want to scream “I GET IT DELONGE YOU MANIAC! YOU GREW UP IN THE SUBURBS AND YOU HAD A TYPICAL SUBURBAN TEEN UPBRINGING! I’VE SEEN CAN’T HARDLY WAIT I KNOW HOW THIS WORKS!”? Well, for one thing, it’s to say holy shit Dude Ranch is twenty years old and you are soooooo old! For another, it’s to remark that, while Dude Ranch is basically NOFX with the edges sanded off, the personification of suburban skater punk, it’s also the perfection of that form. “Dammit” is the pop-punk song of the Nineties, and if the rest of the album is basically just fourteen more iterations of “Dammit” it’s okay because that formula works here, and it works exceedingly well.
The rest of the songs also have their charms, of course. “Dick Lips” is about getting drunk and kicked out of high school; “Apple Shampoo” is about getting your heart broken (and about Elyse Rogers of Dance Hall Crashers); “Emo” is about Jimmy Eat World; “Josie” is about the perfect girlfriend, while “A New Hope” is about the perfect girlfriend, who just happens to be rebelicious Princess Leia Skywalker (RIP Carrie Fisher). It’s all juvenile, of course, fitting for a band who were still mentally in high school and and for a fanset who largely were still there as well. It’s girls, drinking, hanging out, and being goofballs – something the band would continue to tackle right up until their 2003 self-titled swan song, which should have been their Rubber Soul but wasn’t.
This is closing in on 500 words now, which begs the question, “who the hell unironically writes 500 words about Blink-182?” I guess I do, who knew? I will straight-up admit to unabashedly loving this album as a 16 year old, who was that age right at the time they were doing records like Dude Ranch. I had a pirated copy, too, burned onto a CD-R that I copied from a friend long before Napster came around to revolutionize that sort of thing. I might even still have it somewhere; it’s one of those artifacts of youth that have sentimental value, if not precisely musical. Sometimes nostalgia doesn’t need a sacred reason; sometimes it just about where you were at when you were a kid. I guess this is growing up.
Iggy Pop – The Idiot
Released March 18th, 1977 on RCA Records
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.
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.
The Damned – Damned Damned Damned
Released February 18th, 1977 on Stiff Records
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.
Wavves & Cloud Nothings – No Life For Me
Wavves’ Nathan Willaims used to make the oddest sort of punk rock back in the weird old days of 2008. It was briefly fashionable at the time to write poppy punk songs but to record them so loudly that they clipped, producing a heavy distortion over every sound in the recording. Songs like “Teenage Super Party” and “Beach Goth” and “California Goth” were strangely catchy; underneath the thick, nearly unlistenable layer of distortion were genuine Weezer-indebted songs of being young and lusty and enamoured with the beach. Later, he would record these kinds of songs without the clipping, and would garner a significant indie rock following.
Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings first put his name to digital wax producing bored jaded suburbanite songs that were recorded in an almost ambient fashion, garnished with tape hiss and tailored distinctly lo-fi. Since then he’s struck out in his own direction, writing some of the most bleak and emotionally powerful punk rock of the 2010s. Given Williams’ regrettable tendencies towards Weezer-esque crunch pomp (most notably on 2013’s Afraid Of Heights), Baldi seems like the perfect foil for his songwriting. No Life For Me bears this out to a remarkable extent. The best moments, as on “How’s It Gonna Go” and the chorus of “Hard To Find”, involve both Baldi’s tactic of launching out into full head-on abandon and Williams’ easy-going but somewhat eerie ear for melody. There are no real mediocre moments on No Life For Me, but there isn’t much room for them, either; the album gets in and out in 21 minutes, feeling like a split EP more than anything else.
Nathan Williams has spent his career post-2008 slowly working up to writing schlock like “Beverley Hills”, but on No Life For Me Dylan Baldi steps in and brings him back to his hissy, jaded roots, and both of them sound better for it.
Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
New Jersey punk rockers Titus Andronicus first appeared fully formed, as a balls-out whisper-to-a-scream theatrical unit on The Airing Of Grievances. For me it was love from the first moments. They were a band that was more than willing to add off-kilter bits to their songs – quotes from Shakespeare, references to Camus, snatches of Springsteen, doo wop, and late-70s guitar-worship heroics. It was as though Conor Oberst had taken up fronting Fucked Up in order to bring it out onto a stage and perform, and their follow-up, The Monitor, doubled down on this. The Monitor was a full-blown epic, taking the American Civil War and comparing it to New Jersey circa 2010. It’s an album of widescreen guitar fireworks, teetering back and forth between shaky whiskey-soaked balladry and full-out punk firebreathing. It’s easily one of the five best albums of this middle-aged decade, which makes the sharply reduced scale of 2012’s Local Business all the stranger. Frontman Patrick Stickles seemed to dial back his ambition in favour of being more accessible, or maybe just in favour of being able to play the songs correctly live. Either way it was a misstep for a band whose strengths lie in being utterly ridiculous with regards to their songs and their whole albums. It is without (much) hyperbole to say that when the band announced that it would be recording a new album, it was tacitly suggested by nearly everyone that it would be their make-or-break moment. They needed something big and ambitious to cement their legend.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy delivers on this.
29 songs over an hour and a half. A five-act rock opera about Our Hero (a stand-in for Stickles) and his struggles with manic depression. Seventies bar stomping, modern punk fury, ballads, intermissions, Zeppelin-esque nine-minute riff mining, a Pogues cover, “Auld Lang Syne”…there is literally something for everyone in the sprawled-out fences that mark out the album’s territory. “Dimed Out” leads the charge as the standard-bearer of the punk heroics that marked the band out as one to watch in 2008, with “Look Alive” and “Lookalike” rushing headalong with it. The “No Future” saga ends with parts IV and V; IV kicks the door open on the album with the screamed slogan “I hate to be awake”, while V sets up the ending of the album before the slow, falling-apart ballad “Stable Boy”. Tracks like “Mr. E. Mann”, “Fired Up”, “Funny Feeling” and “Fatal Flaw” feel like stretched out takes on the cleaner, poppier sound of Local Business. “More Perfect Union” and “(S)HE SAID/(S)HE SAID” set out on a different direction entirely, mining slow changes and moods over the course of nearly ten minutes each. 2012’s “My Eating Disorder” could be considered a precursor to these sorts of songs, although both are more complicated and atmospheric than that song. What’s most surprising, however, is Stickles’ melodies. He’s always been more of a screamer than a singer, but “Lonely Boy”, “I Lost My Mind (+@)”, “Come On, Siobhan”, and the closer “Stable Boy” all speak to his strengths as a sort of corrosive pop vocalist, like Kurt Cobain with a better sense of theatrics and a musical vocabulary that extends beyond ripping off Black Flag and Killing Joke.
There’s a desperation to the band that plays well to its audience. After all, unless you’re settled into a career and are making good money, the future projected out from 2015 is starting to look a little desperate all on it’s own. The Sex Pistols screamed about “no future” but Patrick Stickles has taken up that line as a mantra, alternately raging against the brick wall of nothing that awaits and tiredly accepting it. It’s a back-and-forth that seems all too familiar to those trying to balance part-time work with rising costs and seeing no appreciable relief coming in the future. Stickles’ take on his state of being is grim: While “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” begins the album screaming about how he hates to be awake, and “No Future Part V: Endless Dreaming” closes the saga by whispering that if hates to be awake, he should just end it all and sleep forever. Fittingly, the final track on the album, “A Moral”, is silent. The Most Lamentable Tragedy takes the bands nihilism to its logical conclusion and it’s hard to imagine where they could go from here. They’ve spent their past doing everything within the range of ragged-edged punk rock, and on this album they bring it all together into one big blowout. Afterwards, there’s something akin to a hangover: a lost feeling, confused ideas about what to do next, and the slightly more positive generalization to Stickles’ main theme: if you hate to do something, why are you still doing it? It’s a question you can apply to so many aspects of your life, even when Stickles is applying it personally to life itself.
“We live on the island called Montreal, and we make a lot of noise because we love each other”. This is how the album starts, a declaration of purpose voiced by the young son of bandleader Efrim Menuck and violinist Jessica Moss, and it fits exactly. There is a lot of noise, and there is a lot of love.
Silver Mt Zion began as a sort of diet version of Menuck’s better-known band, post-rock’s 800 lb gorilla Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The pieces that Silver Mt Zion dealt in were shorter, more (!) experimental, but equally as apocalyptic in their tone. As the band continued they deviated from this. They gave interviews and did the odd hamster-wheel industry event, something Godspeed would never do (as the 2013 Polaris Prize ceremony proved). Sometime around 2005’s Horses In The Sky Efrim began to put his shaky, quavering voice to a purpose, and actual singing became a part of their repertoire. Nearly ten years and three albums later he’s grown into that voice; Fuck Off Get Free is the first Silver Mt Zion album where his vocals seem to work with the other instruments rather than buck against them in an odd way – there’s a lot of PiL-era John Lydon in it. Part of this is likely due to the downplay of the kitchen-sink approach to music-making; 2010’s Kollaps Traditionale debuted a leaner, more focused Silver Mt Zion and Fuck Off Get Free continues in this tradition. There are only six of them but they make a maelstrom of noise that would befit a band three times that size. The effect comes off as a sort of dark, political post-hardcore group using the themes and motifs of post-rock to make their impact – as though Fucked Up dropped the growl and made the violin more prominent, if you like.
Anyone who’s ever followed Menuck’s work for a while will be unsurprised by the lyrical topics (the Godspeed family are avowed socialists and can usually be found railing against the state, late period capitalism, austerity measures, and the like) but the content and delivery is also refined now. Far from 2008, when Menuck was bellowing “Your band is bland!” over near-metallic guitars, we get images of dreams on fire, pale men with boots on our collective necks, and the Occupy-ready chant of “all we want is what we’re owed, we’ve all of us carried this load”. Silver Mt Zion is, as per usual, the experimental band of choice for an uncertain world of struggle and possible collapse.