Saturday, June 28, 2008

My Shortlist of Punk Albums

Musing about punk's impacts in yesterday's post, which I found myself endlessly expanding today, I figured I'd put an end to what could turn into a 10,000 word bloated exegesis. Instead, to staunch the logorrhea, here's a list off the top of my head. I'm far from my shelves, and due to Leo's misguided attempt to upload the best of Black Sabbath (whom I never have listened to except for the same two songs everyone's heard) from his iPod onto mine, my iPod, painstakingly primped for the vacation I'm now on, failed to keep any but three hundred songs I'd separately saved for sampling and then ruthlessly deleting most (as is my wont) after hearing the previously unheard music. So, relying on fading memory, here's some that float into mind, in who knows what order. More Brits than Yanks, I can't stand the cartoonish xerox tunes of the caricatured Ramones, and forget 95% of The Clash, who've dated badly.

"The Scream" by Siouxsie & the Banshees remains a monument. I liked the proto-metal of John McKay's strident guitar swoops and Kenny Morris' insistent doomy drums. I like this original version of the band best, although I admire John McGeoch's later guitar equally. The band, in my opinion, never recovered totally from the loss suddenly on tour for the turgid follow-up LP these two members. They were forced to evolve into a different band, and while this ensured that they outlasted punk, this also prevented them from realizing what continued exploration of this metal-punk sound might have revealed for its heightened sustain of tension without release.

As any fan of punk knows or knew, the band did not have their first LP released until practically two years after the likes of The Damned, The Clash, Gen X, or the singles that the Sex Pistols had begun issuing. As Siouxsie remarked in that Vice interview I cited in yesterday's blog entry, the wait proved worthwhile. Punk had already begun to diversify and splinter. So, the heavier, less accessible, more doom-laden style that permeates this monochromatic record bodes well for the willingness of the band and its fans to depart from the limitations of the genre. Also, you can imagine that Warsaw, in the process of becoming Joy Division, must have listened carefully to this production, as must have Martin Hannett, in preparation for post-punk's first masterpiece a year later. I imagine Robert Smith and The Cure also were taking careful notes, and John Lydon and his new PiL mates.

"Moving Targets" by Penetration is a lesser-known album, and probably overshadowed then by Siouxsie and her band's similar fusion of harder rock stylings with punkier attitude, not to mention another singer with frightwig black hair, pale skin, sexily defiant allure, and a piercing voice. From the extreme North of England, they must have labored to get noticed and signed, but they made an impact with fine singles, and even covered fellow Northerners the Buzzcocks, along with Patti Smith, on this début. It's indicative of the band's refusal to conform totally to the new orthodoxy that they looked a bit longer-haired, a sign then that they might be more allied to the mainstream than to the safety-pinned conformists. It's a solid set, not as bold as "The Scream," less flashy. It pinpoints where up-tempo rock bled into what became punk, where music devoid of prog or R&B led to a purified, simple set of tunes. More guitar noodling than McKay and the tunes drift away more given the lack of complex arrangements, but that's part of what you'd get on a punk LP anyway. For its effort, it's compact, energetic, and forthright. Also, more modest. Not as memorable track-by-track as "The Scream," but for me it survives as a half-crafted, half-awkward souvenir of the transition made in countless bedrooms by numberless teens who tried to convert their minds and fingers and mutterings from Top 40 to the rumblings that began a few hundred miles to the south in their island.

Halfway down the island, but halfway from London, Manchester's Buzzcocks put out the first indie label DIY four-song 45, "Spiral Scratch." This, if you can find it appended to demos and early studio songs re-issued more recently on CD as "Time's Up" is essential. Howard Devoto's still with the band then. His quavering warble whining about boredom marks, for me, as distinctive a proclamation as John Lydon's more media-savvy calculations. They cover Captain Beefheart, tellingly.

The band's jittery, annoyed, and happy as can be to be on record, when you feel that they felt that this was their first and only chance. Blaring winding strums, wailing shouts, raw drums, half-heard bass made for pocket money on a week's of stolen lunch times. The delight of hearing one's self go on and on and on, and playing it endlessly, turns infectious. 999 out of 1000 supposedly open-minded rock listeners would toss this into a bin after a few seconds, but if you think his pal's Pete Shelley's voice too commercial (which it's not as any of you know, only for hyperbole here by comparison) you'll warm to Devoto as this frigid wannabee ambiguously gay Berliner lecture you about his neurosis for two minutes, backed by equally uptight, marvelously martinet music. This amateur spunk defies the likes of punks further south signed often ignominiously to uncaring majors. It's not as polished (sic) as their first proper LP, which ranks on my all-time Top 20 (you can see the list on the right side of my blog), "Another Music From a Different Kitchen," but both share the art-school meets spare room-studio aesthetic magnificently.

Since we're in Manchester, we need to mention The Fall, who already by '77 had issued their first LP, "Live from the Witch Trials." This sounds to me today rather straightforward. They never were really a punk band, and that's their appeal. They took the opportunity to enter the fray but their musicianship and lyrical ambitions would never be satisfied so tersely.

Compared to the late 70s LPs "Dragnet" and "Grotesque" the ghosts of Germany aren't as prominent at first. I prefer their longer, more Krautrock-meets-"Country 'n' Northern" excursions such as "Container Drivers," which start after the band loses the restrictions of punk. I cannot recommend a punk-era CD that stands out from the others, as for me the band works better heard for the beginner with their vast discography of songs compiled rather than as blocks of half-a-dozen tracks, but "Early Fall 77-79" serves as a sort of best-of for this ramshackle period of an always shambling career. The best of The Fall comes in the next decade, with the more post-punk "Perverted by Language" for me their first classic in a long march that continues, with many hits and more misses, today, with an album a year, past twenty-five studio recordings by now.

Nearby in Leeds, the Mekons, with more classroom (art school) education than The Fall's leader Mark E Smith but with equal erudition. These knowing lefties managed to ridicule punk's manufactured images from the start. The Clash-- led by a public school boy turned prole (shades of Mick Jagger's regression)-- boasted about "White Riot," but the college boys and girls assembling into a coalition even more loosely configured than the ever-mutating Fall, decided to admit "Never Been in a Riot." It's as if Sparticists listened to Rosa Luxemburg and decided instead of manning the barricades to buy instruments at a toy store and start the four-track tape player rolling that evening after too many pints in a pub.

Their early album cover for "The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strenen" typifies their intellectual agenda. The title's garbling "The Merchant of Venice" and the photo shows that monkey trying, infinitely attempting, to type the Bard on his QWERTY keyboard. Chimp's almost there. Damn typo.

It's not as bad an LP, as far more numerous "streetwise" imposters of that period. Considering the band's about as talented as random chimps at this point. That's the spirit! Truest to the punk aesthetic, as The Fall and Buzzcocks, in that Northern dissenter tradition. As with early Fall, these are not consistently amazing albums. They're artifacts, jumble stores, commonplace books, bric-a-brac in a Joseph Cornell piece. Rummage and take what you like. They won't mind. Communal sharing and all. 1967's freaky ideals meet 1977's welfare state. Squatters take up camp where the free clinic failed.

I recall that this and the ragtag odds-and-sods "The Mekons Story" anticipate for me a welcome evolution, speaking of primates, into the English folk-protest strains of music and ideas three hundred years before. Fiddles mesh with bashing. The first punk survivors, I estimate, to dare to be different by looking back. The ideas are as fragmentary and misleadingly presented as happenstance as some cut-up John Heartfield satirical Weimar collage that would have inspired Siouxsie. Lurking within, as the graphics hint, there's a cleverness and control to the intentionally haphazard order that does Darwin's adepts proud.

Over in Liverpool, a quick nod to Julian Cope, his one-time brief mate and long-time half-serious (read "Head On" & "Repossessed" as stunningly detailed, defying any claim that a druggie lost his total recall, memoirs of the period) rivalry with sullen Ian McCulloch, and their increasingly eclectic bands The Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen. As these names show, these bands came too late for punk, but they each earn a nod for transforming, as did The Cure, PiL, Siouxsie, The Fall, and Mekons the energy of that latter decade into the more daring experimentation of the '79-'84 period. Read Simon Reynolds' "Rip It Up" and to a lesser extent Clinton Heylin's misleadingly titled "Babylon's Burning" (both reviewed on Amazon; I also reviewed Heylin on this blog) for lots more words on this '78-'79 sonic shift.

Then, I suppose given the paucity of regional sounds that survive, it's hard to think of others worth the cut. London gave us first LPs by The Jam, "In the City," and Wire's "Pink Flag." I like these still today, but I rarely listen to either compared to later albums by either. Both bands matured into more interesting directions later; neither outfit fit into the molds already forming. Vibrators, Stranglers, and Gen X I admit all had a few good tunes before they sold out or wore out, but any collection from this eruption of sounds testifies how few truly impressive songs emerge from thirty years on, no different than any other efflorescence of cultural promotion.

For me, any remaining interest lingers still in gestation outside of the capital, say in Cambridge as in Liverpool, where The Soft Boys grafted punk into psychedelia. Wales unfortunately as before with rock trends lagged well behind (see Sarah Hill's "'Blerwytirhwng?' The Place of Welsh Pop Music" for how and why-- it's reviewed by me here and on Amazon). Scotland's Skids had to wait to improve. Dublin's Radiators (from Space) would create a fine second album in "Ghostown" that reminded many of Joyce meets Wilde, but-- produced by Bowie helmsman Tony Visconti-- it's far distant from punk in its literate compassion. I'd glance north of that same island to nod to the Undertones' first ramalama burst from Derry on their self-titled début, or Belfast's "Inflammable Material" from Stiff Little Fingers, but in retrospect these play like echoes of the Ramones and the Clash respectively, witty or earnest in turn as they remain. They are fine LPs, but not as original as the Brits who slightly beat them onto record.

The only group who issued a NYC LP I'd salvage today as essential predated all the CBGB crowd, spanning the dregs of the post-Velvet era in NYC and the influx of, well, more art schoolers into the Big Apple in the mid-70s. Suicide, on what's called today "The First Album," prepared the way for electro-clash and performance art and in-your-face assaults on the one album that sounds truly confrontational to me today. It makes any protest by pampered trust-funders or part-time scenesters ring, as Buzzcocks later protested, feel "hollow inside."

Working as did Suicide practically out of their mid-70s loop in their own hermetic obsession, Cleveland's Pere Ubu's far ahead of any post-punk veteran in their powerful incorporation of theater and pose into "The Modern Dance" and "Dub Housing." These aren't punk LPs, somehow pre- and post-dating the punk era that they lived in but not with. However, as every critic yammers on, they'd be unimaginable without punk. As The Gun Club did in my hometown for blues or Minutemen for jazz, and Hüsker Dü would in the Twin Cities for what would become hardcore or Replacements for confessional angst, so Suicide and Pere Ubu for punk shook up other non-conformist conformist orthodoxies. Even those already hardened practically months after their invention, so fast did punk's subculture spin off rivalries and factions as numerous and bitter as Protestants or anarchists or commune members.

I wrote the above from memory. Writing this, I recognize I align more with the following five years as regards to my musical preferences, which built upon the foundations laid by punk. That may be my next entry here. I guess I found punk in its L.A. varietal far too uniform as it (d)evolved into debates over hairstyles, fashions, violence over what was allowed and not allowed that aped bickerings done to death by hippies and beats ten and twenty years previous.

However, for more about this pivotal era, with more familiar names, A.S. Van Dorsten beats Heylin and Reynolds to the punch, and with lots less effort, with this 1990 essay, "The History of Punk." He critiques Marcus, Frith, and their theoretically beholden tenured ilk cogently. "The History of Punk." Photo: sticker labelled: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" sticker from stalwart Minutemen lifer's website. He should know. I suppose that's dboon as the icon? Amen, bro/brah. Mike Watt's Hoot Page

No comments: