I may have skipped a day. Eh.
This one is a filler track from Temporarily Abandoned Profiles, but one that I remember fondly. Brash, aggressive, noisy, almost punk rock. Good times.
I may have skipped a day. Eh.
This one is a filler track from Temporarily Abandoned Profiles, but one that I remember fondly. Brash, aggressive, noisy, almost punk rock. Good times.
Feel free to check out some books: today’s featured titles include Disappearance, only 99 cents, which if you enjoy the action bits in books and you like apocalypse fiction you’ll enjoy; What You See Is What You Get, which manages to combine the specter of ag-gag laws with criminal trials that look more like reality TV than anything else; and 9th Street Blues, about a kid delivering cobbled-together drugs in the near future ruins of Woodward, OK (and is also the jumping-off point for my new serial novel, coming soon from ATM Publishing).
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.
The years following Kurt Cobain’s suicide marked a sea change in the makeup of popular music in England and North America. Hip hop and electronic music ate up market share until a rough sort of equality emerged; “the kids” were just as likely to be into dirty south or drum n bass as they were rock ‘n’ roll, signalling that the Boomers were finally old and ready to be put out to pasture. One of the key drivers of this changeover was the popularity of big beat between 1996 and 1998. This movement – a product of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim Crystal Vegas, and helped along by the equally-brash sounds of other electronic acts like Daft Punk and the Sneaker Pimps – brought the slamming sound of drum breakbeats into the bedrooms of suburban teens from coast to coast.
The Prodigy were a little different from the others in that they incorporated a definite punk rock influence into their music. The most obvious of these influences was of course singer Keith Flint, who wore a pink mohawk and looked like he’d just crawled out of a bender in the basement of Malcolm McLaren’s haberdashery. There was also an aggressiveness to the way Liam Howlett arranged and programmed the songs, a certain je ne sais quoi that put the group more in the realm of anarcho-electro-punks Atari Teenage Riot than other English big beat acts that were jamming up contemporary rave culture. “Smack My Bitch Up”, with it’s controversial Kool Keith sample and it’s car-chase propulsion, was discussed endlessly as to whether it was misogynistic or simply a reflection of the culture. “Breathe” and “Firestarter” took the clenched-fist industrial energy of Trent Reznor and made it okay for kids tripping on E and glowsticks. “Funky Shit” and “Naryan”, meanwhile, were closer to what the Chemical Brothers had been doing on Dig Your Own Hole. Regardless of which direction the album took, it had the energy and edge that kids went for in the late Nineties.
It was such a success that at one point, probably around 1998 or so, I overheard a big farm kid claim that AC/DC wasn’t a real rock band and that real rock bands sounded like The Prodigy. He was objectively wrong (and dumb as a rock to boot) but there you have it: proof that, for the thrill and excitement that “the youth” craved, big beat was doing what rock ‘n’ roll acts couldn’t.
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.
The debut album from The Jam was lumped in with the first wave of punk rock, partly because of the year of it’s release (that fabled year of 1977) and partly because of the crisp speed and attitude that the songs on it are played. Underneath that Spirit of ’77 shine ‘n’ grime, however, beats the heart of the early British Invasion: Maximum R&B, just like The Who used to play it, mods over rockers forever and ever. They played their songs with an eye toward the jaded angst of the under-20 set, but so did The Who; the Sex Pistols and the Clash didn’t have a complete lock on youth revolution. The band’s penchant for smartly ironic ties, tongue-in-cheek Beatles get-up for a world where phony Beatlemania had bitten the dust. While the band would go on to produce much stronger albums, In The City is a portrait of a young band who, having grown up on British distillations of American music, set out to reclaim the spirit of the music entirely for a new generation.
The Color And The Shape was the moment in which Dave Grohl stepped out of the shadow of Kurt Cobain and assumed the mantle of a rock star in his own right. The year was 1997. Cobain had been dead for 3 years, and by and large grunge rock had died along with him. 1996-1997 had been a bad year for bands who had tried to keep the genre going; Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and Live’s Secret Samadhi both failed to live up to sales expectations, Pearl Jam’s No Code drove off the casual music fans in droves, Layne Staley’s crippling heroin addiction ground Alice In Chains to a halt, and in April of ’97 Soundgarden broke up. Hip hop, big beat, and ska were the big things for mainstream music, and in the midst of this Nirvana’s drummer came out and laid down a searing slab of what would demarcate the beginning of “post-grunge”, where the genre was deconstructed and reformed as whatever the song demanded.
(Yes this is their goddamn Intimate & Interactive performance. Old school Much 4 Lyfe)
That Grohl could write songs was only apparent during the Nirvana era to superfans; one song, a cobwebbed B-side called “Marigold”, was attributed to Grohl. Foo Fighters, Grohl’s 1995 debut, came as something of a pleasant surprise, then, and it spawned several strong singles that rode a wave of goodwill in the wake of Cobain’s suicide. Goodwill will only take you so far, though, and so The Color And The Shape was a do-or-die moment for Grohl and his new band. “New” is not a miscategorization, either; Foo Fighters had been recorded and toured on with Pat Smear, who had been Nirvana’s de facto fourth member for the last part of the band’s career, and the rhythm section from second-wave emo heroes Sunny Day Real Estate. Smear and drummer William Goldsmith left during the recording process of The Color And The Shape, the latter after Grohl re-recorded all the drum tracks himself in order to get the sound in his head down on wax. Studio time (and therefore expenses) ballooned, and there was some concern on Captiol Record’s part about the band’s ability to deliver quality on time.
The extra time, in the end, was quite obviously worth it. Led by the barnburner lead single “Monkey Wrench”, the album delivered crunchy, screamy tracks that were nonetheless drenched in melody and delivered with such winsome charisma that the fans couldn’t help but love it, even if the critics were so-so on it at first. It was Nirvana, without the existential weight of Cobain’s genius, replacing that instead with hard work, emotional turmoil, and craft. On it’s best moments – “Monkey Wrench”, “Up In Arms”, “Hey, Johnny Park!”, “Everlong”, and “My Poor Brain” – it hit much harder than anyone else in the second wave of grunge had managed. “Everlong”, especially, has become a musical touchstone for a generation; even those who don’t particularly like the band or even the genre tend to like “Everlong”, because of it’s raw, emotional appeal to a twilight sensibility of love and yearning that feels positively adolescent in it’s urgent energy. The lyrics on Foo Fighters had been obscure and nonsensical, which Grohl himself admits; the lyrics on The Color And The Shape, meanwhile, were much more in-your-face, dealing with his 1996 divorce from photographer Jennifer Youngblood as well as his feelings on stardom and fame in the wake of his experience with the life and death of Kurt Cobain. The emotional honesty resonated with listeners and brought the band to much greater heights than any of their contemporaries.
Fans might disagree with me, but The Color And The Shape is the only truly great album in the Foo Fighter’s discography. Grohl himself would guest on some stellar albums – normally filling in as the drummer – but in terms of his own voice, this record is the peak. Later Foo albums would rely more on the balladry that Color tracks like “February Stars” and “Walking After You” would point the way to; Wasting Light, from 2011, was a good album, but not necessarily a great one. Maybe it’s personal bias; the first time I fell in love was to a steady diet of “Up In Arms”, and the song always brings me back to those heady early days.
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.
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.
Straight-up: Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago. They’re a barrier to entry, for sure. You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.
Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time. A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords. Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic. Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords. Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of. They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.
Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously. Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll. Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.
Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional. That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.