Friday, August 31, 2012

Nóiméad ciúin ina Ghleann Mór

D'imigh mise leis mo bhean a tí Lena, mo mhac níos oige Niall, agus ár chara Risteard go ár teach go dtí Tarzana ar feadh an sheactaine deireadh seo caite. Thiomaint siad go teach Sheáin ansuid. Is scannánoir turgnamach é.

Chuaigh mé an uair amháin roimh ansin. Mar roimh, fhreastail dream de lucht leanúna gearrscannáin den cineal chéanna ansin. Ar ndóigh, bionn dith leis an grupa sin a fheiceáil réamh-mheasta scannáin annamh.

Ina theannta sin, bhí bréa liomsa a chonaic an suíomh seo. Tá fáth agam ar siúl mar gheall an clós ann. Is cuimhne liom an ceanntar an t-am i gcéin a bhí Califoirnea Thuas níos mó chomh faoin tuaithe ag imeall an Ghleann Mór. De dhíth orm sós a chun teach ar riantaí bideach ar nós de síochána.

Is fearr liom a dul ar shiúl ó slua. Rugadh mé ina gCathair na Áingeal, ach caithfidh mé a fháil amach go minic--más rúd ar feadh é nóimeadh . D'fhéach mé suas ar an ghealach an tsamraidh thar na crannaí ardaí de eucalyptus.

Bhí capaill i gcónaí uair amháin ansin. Chodail cearc ina bothán. Shíl mé faoi an péinteál os cionn.
Fhill mé ar ais an dream a chun tús a chur scannáin.

A quiet moment in the Big Valley.

Myself with my wife Layne, my younger son Niall, and our friend Richard went from our house to Tarzana during last weekend. We drove to the house of John in Reseda out there. He's an experimental filmmaker.

I had gone there one time before. As then, a large crowd of fans of this kind of short films gathered there. Of course, that group had a desire to view projected rare films.

Furthermore, I had a love myself to see this site. I had a reason to walk about the yard there. The district reminds me of a faraway time when Southern California was more open countryside around the great Valley. I need a pause to find such tiny remnants of peace.

I prefer to go away from a crowd. I was born in Los Angeles, but I must get away often--if for a moment. I looked up at the summer moon over the high eucalyptus trees.

Horses lived there once. A hen slept in a shed. I thought of the painting above. I returned back to the gathering to begin the films.

Péinteálte le/painted by Andrew Dickson. "Bóithre tuaithe/A Country Road" 2012.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Disappears' "Pre Language": Music Review

The third album introduces Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) on drums; it starts with insistent pounding straight out of Joy Division. It then erupts into a jittery guitar riff and doomy bass in an echoed monolith of produced, chilly sound. If this intrigues you, this will delight you.

"Replicate" signals the intentions of Disappears. They copy those who made the original robotic frameworks to house what seems human in its fragility and sustained heartbeat underneath a severe first glance. The title track opens up more of a postpunk approach, but it ramps it down to a more streamlined entry, edging in a more accessible guitar fill over a more conventional beat. "Hibernation Sickness" continues this direction adroitly, and "Minor Patterns" plays into the delay features of a Martin Hannett-era late-70s production, but admirer of that style as I am, it may wear down less ardent hearers well before its four minutes-plus end. It's a self-selecting audience for this astringent mood, certainly.

"All Gone White" with a shivery guitar, grim vocal and an evocative title hearkens to Goth; "Joa" snakes through related atmospheres. "Fear of Darkness" reminds me of the New York sound of '00s revivalist bands nodding back thirty-odd years, but I found it rather monochrome. "Love Drug" lurches about until its final minute, when a danceable rhythm emerges, a rarity on this record so far. This allows Shelley to show off a bit more than many songs allow him to, in their rigidity.

"Brother Joliene" turns to a distorted, downbeat twist recalling Mark E. Smith and The Fall--like them, it for this song prefers to stick to a stern style, until it makes a clever shift to letting out the tension into the guitar surge. It ends this short album intelligently. I doubt if "Pre Language" will excite many not already warmed up to a chilly style, but as the influences I mention in this review tend to be among my favorites, you can judge if this album will satisfy you as well.

Songs tend to be three-five minutes; I hear a "late Joy Division" mood here dominating, in the shifts of emotion instrumentally behind what continues to be a severe (but appropriate) vocal alternating commands and chants. On earlier albums, the Velvet Underground, Krautrock, The Fall, post-punk, drone, and space rock enriched or at least drew comparisons the contents; this time, "Pre Language" appears to want to follow Ian Curtis closer. (See my reviews of #1, "Lux" and #2, "Guider". I recommend hearing these before "Pre Language," which chooses a less diverse mood by comparison, if consistent.)(Amazon US 7-6-12)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Disappears' "Guider": Music Review

This picks up where the debut album "Lux" left off the year before. "Superstition" channels John Lydon's early PiL style with an approach recalling The Black Angels as contemporary proponents of drone and density in a post-punk, drone-stunned wail. "Not Romantic" dips into a similar style, but slows to allow a darker, cavernous mood in a measured, more Goth mode which fits the title. It sways back and forth between a wall of sound and an opening into space beyond, showing the band's interest in expanding within the confines of the short songs dominating this sophomore 2011 record on the great Kranky label.

"Halo" locks into a Krautrock groove behind the singer's chants to show off their ability to keep a pulse behind the anthemic, if dour, vocals. These do not grate, however, but match the intensity of the simple, happily repetitive, but energetic and surging sounds, in homage to their German influences. The title track speeds it up, with a more anthemic quality added to another Krautrock beat mixed into a more punk-flavored insistence again conveyed by the vocals and the guitar's attempt to rise above. For the first half of the album, it's the most accessible invitation to the band's intentions.

"New Fast" starts with a scratchy guitar and more ominous warm-up before a very Goth direction takes control under shimmering waves. It also recalls an earlier version of a darker My Bloody Valentine, and the title of the CD reminds me of "Glider," I admit. It's not as rousing as the previous songs, but it does show the variety of Disappears, beyond their preference for a louder post-punk snarl. They wisely choose short song lengths and this keeps the dyspeptic pace peppy.

"Revisiting," at more than fifteen minutes, is about as long as the previous songs combined. This mini-epic opens, as you might expect, with a Krautrock guitar groove over electronic effects and a percolating bass backed by steady drums. It gradually builds with elongated vocals that hearken back to the title track of the 2010 album "Lux." These frame neatly an rolling, instrumental section of what veers near space rock. But, at four times that song's length, what value's added?

Well, it's the first long song from Disappears. It allows them space to dig deeper into a rhythm, and their experimental side favoring more than the two- or three-minute (post-)punk needs a hearing on record, too. I admit this kind of sound pleases me and it could go on and on, so if you share my attention span, seek out this record which will reward you, too. (P.S. See my reviews of "Lux" and the 2012 album "Pre Language") (Amazon 7-6-2012)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Disappears' "Lux": Music Review

Punchy, catchy, doom-laden, this brief album packs a lot of gloom into sinister riffs recalling Joy Division's sepulchral power combined with the Velvet Underground's experimentation, Spacemen 3's drone, the Black Angels' intensity, and The Fall's chants. To name a few influences. As I love those bands, I love this.

Yes, it may not be totally fresh, but its attention to detail from its forebears enhances the rush of these short terms barked and hammered out. Lots of reverb, a bit of Krautrock (not much as the songs are so short), and while two slower ones ("Little Ghost" for Velvets in one mood; "No Other" for another Velvets mood!) seem longer than they are due to a more sluggish tempo, they don't drag the pace of the more frenetic ones, even if it ends on a weary note. Strongest for me is the yammering "Marigold," which could go on forever, and the first three tunes: the opening postpunk of "Gone Completely," "Magics," which somehow makes me wonder what a sexier PiL early on might have stumbled upon, and the swaggering "Pearly Gates," which almost derails itself with a propulsive beat.

The sound of related bands such as The Men and Crystal Stilts from NYC can be heard here, also, as on "Not Nothing," which reminds me of early New York punk as well as today's admirers. The title track echoes like a subway through a tunnel in that German style (the album cover evokes Neu!, too). "Old Friend" amps it up into a frenetic post-punk assault, and "New Cross" recalls Mark E. Smith's later efforts.

I recommend this 2010 release from the eminent Kranky label highly, if you are a fan of the bands referenced above. It careens and caroms into bursts of power. It's brash, it's confident, and it's solid. (See also my reviews of albums #2, "Guider" and #3, ""Pre Language") (Amazon US 7-6-12)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Men's "Open Your Heart": Music Review

"Turn It Around" starts with a "Suspect Device" riff from Stiff Little Fingers, and then expands into a rama-lama punk-pop song reminiscent of the Buzzcocks. As I like those two bands a lot, I liked this. That shows the strengths or limits of this album. For those of us who heard the bands thirty years ago, it's a solid homage to a variety of punk styles. To take that first song, it does wander even in a few minutes as the guitar does not seem to know where to go, and it feels as if editing might have helped. The Men lock into a direction for a few seconds, and then they shift. Not sure if this is restlessness or inspiration. Yet, for this time and place, this music fills a niche even if it's not groundbreaking.

Shorter songs can be traced back. "Animal" in its spareness reminds me of Feedtime, a little-known Australian blues-punk trio from the '80s (See my review of their The Aberrant Years) "Please Don't Go Away" loads on the layers, as if a fast shoegazing tune.

"Open Your Heart" could fit into American college rock from the early Dinosaur Jr. era, or the Replacements. "Cube" pushes towards a hardcore style, tinged with poppier touches, as those same bands once delivered. "Country Song" uses effects to sustain its guitar, and this textural experimentation shows a movement towards structure that may bode well for future albums. "Ex-Dreams" closes the album in similar fashion--the longer songs take time to experiment for a few seconds to their benefit--blending however the Krautrock with a Sonic Youth-filtered Daydream Nation vintage vocal mood.

Speaking of longer songs, the appeal of the Brooklyn (of course) band's style deepened for me as it was for the original punks by nods to Krautrock, as in the longer songs such as "Oscillation." I'm a sucker for Krautrock, I admit. "Presence" does this with more of a Spacemen 3 or Loop hint, an obsessive build-up akin to another band who returns to such sounds, Oneida.

"Candy" apes a countrified or fried Mick Jagger too much for me. Still, even as the weakest track, it's not awful. These days, such qualifies for praise in a music scene where such bands as The Men mash together the best of their record collections. It's fun for those of us who had been there, heard that, and it may blend in well with a mixtape of their inspirations. (I also reviewed their earlier album, Leave Home, which is rawer, fuzz-driven, and bolder.) {Amazon US 7-3-12}

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Men's "Leave Home": Music Review

Dronier and fuzzier and angrier than what appears to be their breakthrough album following this, Open Your Heart, this aggressively combines shoegaze, drone, hardcore, Krautrock, late 70s British punk-pop, and the American college rock of thirty years ago. Great influences for me, and while as with Open this is not original in its styles, it blends them well. Actually, I like this better as it's more aggressive.

Leave Home does not cover the Ramones, but this New York (Brooklyn, unsurprisingly) band channels the idealism of the early punk era with the experimentation of later post-punks, enriching a hardcore-pop combination with energy. "If You Leave" channels shoegaze into post-punk promisingly; the band often uses longer songs to explore such avenues. "Lotus" as an instrumental kicks in winningly with a well-mixed bass riff after its rousing anthemic start in a Husker Du meets slightly chiming hardcore overlay that grows on you with repeated playings.

"Think" follows in well-sequenced form with another thunderous song. It reminds me of Feedtime (I heard this in a song on "Open" too; see that review and Feedtime's The Aberrant Years for more on this) crossed with a metal-punk short riff. I have heard The Men compared to black metal, but to me it's more a very compressed punk with a metal vocal style tucked in, and a bit of guitar noodling in the same manner. Like some of their songs, it does not know where to go or how to end, and the talent in their riffing at times leaves them circling around looking for an exit from a limited song structure. Like some songs, it feels much longer than it is. Not a bad quality!

"Ladoch" wears out its welcome early on, however. It too imitates the metal approach, but noise annoys. The song titled only "()" (shades of Sigur Ros?) quotes from Spacemen 3 "Take Me to the Other Side" and it naturally applies that band's obsessive workouts. The intriguingly titled "Bataille" may be a rarity: a French philosopher inspiring what may be the lyrics (hard to make them out) for a riff-heavy workout in indie-rock punk fashion of the 80s, while "S****ing with the Shaw" does the same for a song lurching from drone to a slightly surf-rocking explosion in its last minute.

The album closes with "Night Landing." Reminds me somehow of the later Faust (see my review of "Something Dirty" last year) crossed with what PiL might have morphed into if the line-up had been intact decades on. I find this a stronger, if messier, album than Open, and both discs indicate The Men as a band worth hearing and watching. (Amazon US 7-3-12)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Soundtrack of Our Lives' "Throw It to the Universe": Music Review

I've always been impressed by this Swedish band's consistency. Each record sounds as if The Who's anthems swirl and swell, circa 1970. While this sextet grew up as punks, since the mid-1990s they have delivered a series of solid albums hearkening back to classic AOR and FM staples forty-odd years ago.

This sixth studio album sustains their approach. (I commend the past four releases for clever cover art.) Since I favor The Who over not only The Rolling Stones but The Beatles, my bias shows. Humbler than Pink Floyd, more concise than progressive rock, TSOOL sharpened early on a talent for catchy, stadium-friendly riffs. Ebbot Lundberg's vocals recall Roger Daltrey's shift between bellow and croon, with a touch of John Lennon's snarl or Mick Jagger's whine, and maybe a hint of Iggy Pop's drawl. Ian Person, Kalle Gustafsson, Fredrik Sandsten, Mattias Bärjed and Martin Hederos back up Lundberg with a nimble grasp of comparatively concise hard rock which, with cosmic analogies and timeworn phrasing of what admittedly are lots of stock phrases and basic rhymes, expresses the common touch which transmits the mystical longing within the music while remaining simple enough to transcend linguistic or cultural barriers as a lingua franca accounting no doubt for the band's broad appeal throughout Europe.

How this music avoids slavish imitation or arena-rock cliche puzzles me. All I can say is that it remains fresh even as every note nods to a predecessor. On Throw It to the Universe, no new terrain is charted, no innovation introduced. While this may disappoint those craving novelty, for other fans content with quality, more of the same satisfies. As finicky as I am about rock music and what I like in an era in which everything new reminds me of something old, somehow still, I like this.

The title track opens with a hint of spaceflight chatter, but that's it for found sounds. Otherwise, it's a signature build-up from a slow start to a soaring end. "Faster Than The Speed Of Light" provides a mid-tempo chance to hear more interplay between the spacious keyboards of Hederos and the efficient percussion of Sandsten as they mix within the intertwined guitars of Person and Bärjed.

"Freeride" stays closer to a spaghetti Western or The Doors in its somnolent, sparklingly hushed mood, before as typical, "If Nothing Lasts Forever" returns to a guitar-based, slightly pedal distorted steady tune. "When We Fall" recalls Pink Floyd both in its quieter moments and as it stretches out towards the higher realms that surround these song titles and the album's apparent theme of flight.

The middle of the disc slows down with "Reality Show" in a woozier modulation; this continues the dominant spirit of their previous double-album Communion (2008) which attempted to give in twenty-four tracks the feel of all hours day and night, although to me it felt more like a rainy day spent in bed. Well, the band is Scandinavian. "What’s Your Story?" in two minutes cannot make much of an impact, but it concludes with a nice touch on the slide guitar, as if Keith Richards in "Street Fighting Man" resurrects for a moment.

Similarly, "Where’s The Rock?" picks up the pace with another guitar arrangement edging into a gently Latin-influenced beat with Gustafsson's bass, horns blended into the keyboards, as if Love returned for backing this late-1960s, jaunty if downbeat tune. "Shine On (There’s Another Day After Tomorrow)" features a guitar backing hinting of "Wild Horses" and that song's elegiac atmosphere combines with keyboards and a stolid rhythm to summon up regret and command endurance.

TSOOL often sprinkles Beatles and Stones motifs into its structures, and while these rarely imitate the originals for more than short passages, they do linger over any album created by this band. They enrich the texture rather than glom onto the songs as a cheap veneer. The love the band has for their influences manages to endear itself to the listener, as homage and not mimicry, yet how this occurs challenges articulation.

"Solar Circus" certainly shows its Pink Floyd tinge, with a graceful, terraced filigree of keyboard and hushed vocal over an austere melody. "You Are The Beginning" remains another mid-tempo song full of longing and reflection, creating a wistful sense of suspension, again fitting the album's concept.

"Busy Land" is delightful, as the band looks past earlier than Tommy even as this song has the same lyrical "de-de-de" stuttering outbursts of joy featured on that rock opera by The Who. Lundberg and comrades seem energized. It reminds me of playful music-hall moments on The Who Sell Out; what is not so reminiscent is the song's lyrical allusions to omnipresent digital dwarfs. From a band hunkered down in the realm of Bluetooth, perhaps a parable awaits the careful explicator.

"Waiting For The Lawnmowers" looks back to the contemplative airs of much of this album, wrapping it up rapidly. The album does not reach the heights of its breakthrough Behind the Music (2001) or its most accessible and boisterous phase opening Origin, Vol. 1 (2004), but as you can see, the time taken by the band to make its music indicates the craft they contribute. TSOOL may be growing more understated as they mature, but this dependable album demonstrates again that classic rock played by its attentive fans can remain dignified and confident. (Featured as "Classic Rock, Lovingly Restored" at PopMatters 6-29-12 + Amazon US)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ag déanamh macnamh

Bíonn an radharc seo nuair ag bhí mé suí deireanach i dtí Dhonáill. Thóg mé grianghraf a amharc sin. Tá mé ábalta bhreatnaigh amach ar lár na gCathair na hÁingeal.

Anois agus ansin, dul mé anseo. Éistim go Donál ag plé faoi déanamh macnamh. Tá dream beag eile fréisin ann.

Roinnean siad a dtaithí déanamh macnamh meabhrú leis an muintear, Donál. Treoirann sé le comhrá de réir an seisiún ag suí roimh. Tá an modh sé deartha chun feasacht a mhéadú a bhí gcéist cad.

Ní féidir liom a liopóid féin níos mó. Ach, is maith liom an modh a fás leis mo feasacht istigh. Tá mé ag iarraidh é ag oscailt.

Laistigh den radharc, bíonn ospidéil d'aois leis fuinneogaí beag bídeachaí go leor agus baillaí arda ar bharr an chnoic go díreach ar aghaidh. Is cuimhne liom go raibh an mainistir na Himíleach. Measaim faoi nasc go minic nuair a lorg amach ansuid an fuinneog seo ina Loch ar Airgead.


This is the view when I was last sitting at Dan's house. I took a photograph of that vista. I'm able to look out over the center of the City of the Angels.

Now and then, I go here. I listen to Dan discussing about meditation. There's a small group there also.

They share their experiences meditating with the teacher, Dan. He directs a conversation about the matter of the session sitting before. This method is designed to increase awareness of what was contemplated.

I don't label myself anymore. But, I like this method to grow with my inner awareness. I'm open to trying it. 

Within this view, there's an old hospital with many tiny windows and high walls at the top of the hill straight ahead. It reminds me of a monastery in the Himalayas. I mull over this connection often when looking out beyond this window in Silver Lake.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Brad Warner's "Hardcore Zen Strikes Again!": Book Review

I've reviewed all four of Brad Warner's "hardcore Zen" memoir-explications since I found his "original" version dog-eared, a good sign, I figured. As he writes in this "demos" and "bonus tracks" sort of sequel (I'd been thinking just that when he made the same comparison in these pages), he as of around 2001 had not found anyone who'd made a punk-Buddhist comparison. Neither had I, years later, until I read his spirited book. Since then, he and I found out about Noah Levine's "dharma punx" coming out on the West Coast, and as with punk once upon a time, the regional quality of its versions apparently keeps some of us hearing what others don't early on. That changed, however, with the Net, and these seventeen "blasts from the past" feature entries from his "Sit Down and Shut Up" blog. They blend ambitious searches with conversational topics.

He prefaces all of them, and a chapter excised from "Hardcore Zen" on vegetarianism that merits reincarnation, with a nod to his angrier, testier past. Like many of us, he's matured since an initial encounter with an alternative movement or two. This insight, coupled with characteristic determination to encourage his readers to practice zazen and experience Buddhism as it must be, firsthand, infuses this short collection with energy. Some entries have afterwords, and there's a final section on Ultraman and Warner's monster movie job in Japan. I liked the diversity of this "director's cut" edition, as in typically diverse nods to the Monkees' "Head," Mother Teresa (not "Theresa"!), 9/11, the Sugarhill Gang, and hypnotism. 

I assume most readers will seek this out after his earlier accounts. These delved gradually deeper into what as of a decade ago in some blog entries was forming as a more brittle, confrontational, and less nuanced exposition of the truths Warner finds at the heart of Dogen and his own teacher in Japan, Guru Nishijima. Particularly refreshing are Warner's takes on the too-often blindly accepted assertions of reincarnation, belief, faith, afterlives, and carefree if naive optimism. As with his other popular books, he's able to refine his writing skills as he goes along the past ten years. He corrects some overreaching here and his chapter on writing advice is casual but sensible, and often funny. Certainly, he deploys a casual sense of humor well. This is not as jokey as parts of his memoirs tend to be, and this may work better, in fact. I like his wit, still. (I've read his "serious" translation of Nagarjuna's the "Middle Way" with Nishijima but that's very advanced.)

Warner fits well between the stoic, more dogged, skate-punk turned sobriety Tibetan-trained stance of Levine, who is also coming of age in his writings (also reviewed by me) and (the guitarist from 80s Philadelphia hardcore band Ruin) Glenn Wallis' intellectual editions of Pali suttas and his erudite, anarchic approach to the fundamental representations of the dharma. These three, despite differences ideologically and philosophically, stand for inquiry from punks who grew up after the hippies and blissed-out years, and who may in my opinion stand for the now middle-aged (but still younger!) generation confronting the illusions and delusions of what has been packaged and made safely Buddhist teaching in America today. (E-book via Amazon US 6-24-12. Check this blog for entries on Warner, Levine, Wallis by typing their names in a search box, and mentions proliferate!)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jesse Jarnow's "Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo + the Rise of Indie Rock": Book Review

It took guitarist Ira Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, fifteen tries before they found the right bassist, James McNew. This happened over a decade into their career. It began, perhaps apocryphally, with a Village Voice ad: "Guitarist & bassist wanted for band that may or may not sound like the Soft Boys, Mission of Burma, and Love." They formed Yo La Tengo at the end of 1984, when he was twenty-eight and she was twenty-five. This proves their devotion to their craft, and to their endurance as one of America's most innovative rock bands, beloved by a devoted few.

As The Onion summed up their fan base: "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." This is one band where the audience mirrors the performers, for nearly thirty years. But, Yo La Tengo benefits by their maturity, growing up involved much more deeply responsible for the indie rock movement as they constructed its formation behind the scenes as well as on stage. Journalists, artists, managers, 'zine writers, sound engineers, roadies, label managers, DJs, promoters: this adds up to only a brief resumé. 

In 1964 at seven, Ira Kaplan fell in love with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the car radio. As Jesse Jarnow phrases it, all of the band "inhaled the spore" as this music consumed them. Kaplan barely graduated from Sarah Lawrence. He wrote for the New York Rocker in the days when CBGB and Patti Smith ruled, and championed local talent around the Hudson against musical Anglophilia, yet his favorite band arguably remains The Kinks. 

Still, along with many early-1980s rock musicians, Kaplan admired the punk movement, their alternative heirs, and their common idols, The Velvet Underground. Georgia Hubley, the daughter of avant-garde animators John and Faith Hubley, inherited their quirky, artistic sensibilities and fit with Kaplan's suburban, earnest, yet countercultural sensibility. They began their career, bidding farewell to maybe as many bassists as Spinal Tap had drummers, with a jangle which epitomized their adapted home in a pre-gentrified Hoboken across the river. They hung out at Maxwell's, near the coffee factory of the same name, and, jittery, learned to play better and worry less about nervousness. The modesty of their approach has never left them, and it attests to the quality of their music for so long.

Their chronicler devotes much space and extends earnestly an analogy of the Jersey trio to the roots of the Major Leagues in Hoboken as an alternative predecessor well over a century before. For a band who craves baseball, barbeque, and an intimate relationship with used record stores, roadhouses, and off-beat pop culture which fills their leisure time between gigs, this suits Jarnow's diligent tone. This book will please those already in the know, as with collector-driven pursuits. It crams pages with songs, bands, records, fanzines, comedians, brands, and all the detritus of the past fifty years which nourished the band and its audience. One wonders how David Lee Roth's riposte that all the critics loved Elvis Costello because he looked like them translates for these unassuming three musicians.

Certainly, Jarnow shares their immersion as a record-store habitue. His density of references accumulates; he turns his subject into a symbol of indie rock as it leaves the clubs, courts MTV, faces the demise of vinyl and the rise of Napster, peruses the fine print of lawyers and the connivance of big labels, deals with iTunes, and learns to buy in and not sell out. Yo La Tengo scores movies with original contributions, and you can hear a few seconds of them in a Coke ad for the 1992 Atlanta Olympics and an episode of The Gilmore Girls. Yet, the three manage to keep a low profile and in their rumpled hoodies, jeans, and Converse shoes, they look no different than their audiences, at least from my firsthand experience. This study will please those who seek a comprehensive account of the band, as well as a cultural representation of how Yo La Tengo stands for the very movement they helped form, in far more diverse and dedicated ways than most fans or musicians could ever sustain. 

Jarnow's biography blends a fan-oriented account of the band with a survey of how the trio established as individuals first and then as a band the template for indie-rock survival.  They emerged among the vanguard of what started out as "college rock" via the free-form New Jersey station WFMU in the aftermath of hardcore and post-punk. Husker Du, R.E.M., and The Replacements sought an international audience, along with hundreds of bands from, well, many college towns.

As Jarnow sums up their debut LP, Ride the Tiger (1986): they surprised with eclectic cover tunes in concert (they never repeated a set list) and on record they captured "the sound of good taste". Gradually, they incorporated noise and feedback over folk, and like the Velvets, veered from pop to assault, high-art to novelty, Tin Pan Alley to thrash, masterfully. The past decade, their albums have edged into be-bop, jazz, and sultrier, more sullen moods. Jarnow skims over the first half of their discography on labels smaller than Matador, and a reader who is not a listener may wonder why they stand out sturdily on record and slyly on stage as a nimble, witty trio, infatuated with their obsession.

While critical acclaim slowly grew, as with many indie rockers, they could not cash in plaudits for a paycheck. Typically and for a long time, music brought in less than half Kaplan and Hubley's income, as they did the odd jobs in the music business and labored as part-time copy editors of often wretched pulp fiction. One song, "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss", typifies the way Kaplan's mind works under whatever circumstances it found inspiration from a series of "bawdy old Western tales". Kaplan's sleepy attempt to correct a mangled manuscript's phrase: "The mushroon cloud of hiss penis." A leading Spin critic sniffed of their first full-length that it was music to copy-edit by, an inside joke, I suppose, for a band whose sense of humor and comedic flair receives welcome attention here. 

All the same, despite the origin of their often misspelled and garbled name from a typically hapless Mets Spanish-speaking fielder's call for "I've got it," the mild-mannered, thoughtful, erudite, and wryly funny band's private life gains no sustained exposure. The three keep their distance from even their allies, among their audiences and the critics. Jarnow notes when Kaplan and Hubley were in their forties, finally making a living at music, they "built a public career on the notion of a priori love--an engine hidden from view, its only evidence every record they ever released".

One gains less sense over more than three-hundred pages of narrative how the band comes across in concert with their rotating wheel of fortune to pick songs--or how the loud-soft dynamics the band excels in engage their audiences as much as themselves in unpredictable shifts. Kaplan's ability, as with Lou Reed, to overlap lead and backing lines on guitar, Hubley's mingling of delicacy and bash, and McNew's harmonies and textures receive nods, but these skills merit applause and deeper analysis. Their confident forays into more hushed dynamics and retro-pop sensibilities, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), And then nothing turned inside-out (2000), and I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (another sports phrase, 2006) receive limited song-by-song notice, but overall, the emphasis on the culture Yo La Tengo thrives in rather than the contexts their own music contributes constitutes the main content. 

Fans will not need a reminder of why their music matters, but newcomers may supplement this with the albums themselves. They provide an understanding of why this band not only covered (at their debut Hanukkah charity concert series at Maxwell's in 2001, they played 123 songs over eight nights) "We're An American Band" but epitomizes it in typically good-natured yet encyclopedic fashion. This fits their status as between "tumble" and "logic" on stage and in whatever comprises the rest of their life, if there is one beyond soda pop, TV jingles, comedy reruns, the diamond, or platters of ribs. (Amazon 6-15-12; PopMatters 6-18-12)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die": Book Review

To be fair, great to browse, start arguments, and spark what you liked (or hated) about pop music. It lacks much jazz, world music, country, folk--it's rock mixed with what you'd expect from its general editor, Robert Dimery, a founder of Rolling Stone. It's what mainstream critics acclaim, mixed with a carefully sifted tilt to "diversity" in electronica, rap, R&B, pop, and what used to be labeled "alternative." It has some offbeat British choices: "H.M.S. Sugar" by Shack, two Barry Adamson discs, and Sensational Alex Harvey Band typify this angle.

However, that kind of idiosyncratic range, beyond the usual choices, makes this worthwhile. I was delighted to find Boo Radleys, Ash, Os Mutantes, Bert Jansch, The Fall, and The Gun Club--all "critic's darlings," admittedly. Dexy's Midnight Runners (all three albums) on the other hand typifies over-praising of certain British (and U.S.) acts. The sense of innovation lessens as this gets closer to the present, or is it just me getting older? A few discs were jettisoned to make room for this (last few) year's models, but Amazon's commenting classes hazard that the ones dumped were, ironically, from earlier in the 2000's. As in "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" (reviewed by me), there's a significant tilt towards the near-present, but I doubt so many of these deserve immortality. Critics dazzled by the latest (critically acclaimed) sensation, I suspect.

Many of their mini-essays lack depth, moreover--this editorial limit may have been imposed harshly. Entries cram in to allow space for full-page covers, snaps of musicians, so often four entries jam into text-only pages as recompense. The space given the music player-like insets with tracks listed in full with writers and times, and key ones marked, takes up a lot of the page and appears unnecessary, if eye-catching for skimmers and scanners.

I'd have liked more words about the music, especially for those records less familiar, than the few paragraphs allotted each entry. An awful lot of these are obvious to most of us who listen to popular and rock music, and a significant amount (as lamented by Mr. Ryan in his [Amazon] review) are predictable and must-haves. But as with classic rock stations and countdowns of the greats, it gets tiresome to have them appear yet one more time, even if they merit it. This feeling of inevitability weighs down such massive projects, on air or in print. How do you include the ones everyone has heard and agrees upon--yet leave room for surprises and neglected standouts deserving a place in the spotlight--without making this book more massive than it is? You really got me.

That being said, delights linger. I found myself, after dashing through it to greet old favorites, going back to read each page. In entries by artists I had zero interest in, I found gems like that starting Cypress Hill's entry: "Richard Pryor is to Cheech & Chong as David Bowie is to James Taylor." There's a lot of sassy wit buried deep here, so part of the reward of this uneven but fun volume is, as when scrutinizing a friend's library (musical or text), you start making your own mental list to compare and contrast. It also, in this age of musical subscription services, allows you to dive in to (legitimately) retrieve on your own key tracks or to skim an album that you've put off hearing but have been curious about--for instance, Belle & Sebastian's "Tigermilk," Jefferson Airplane's "After Bathing at Baxter's," and The Grateful Dead's "Live/Dead," in my case.

While this panoramic report on pop music has lots of blind spots, such an inability to please everyone appears inescapable in such an endeavor. I checked this out of the library, perhaps a wise choice. So, I acknowledge this for sheer effort. It'll never surpass your Top 1000 or mine, sure. Despite a persistent lack of attention to certain acts and subgenres (I leave out my "improvements" so as to keep this brief), it's worth a perusal. (Amazon US 12-28-11--on revised & updated ed. 2010)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Garry Mulholland's "Fear of Music": Book Review

This starts with the Ramones' debut and halts with 2003. 261 ["greatest albums since punk & disco"] ensures no criterion except what matters to the author. This type of willful individualism makes this attempt to make talking about music fun again; as he warns in the preface, "Critics turned jazz into academia." You won't get song-by-song summaries or who played what; you get him reacting to what he likes, and what goads him on record into having an opinion and making a fuss.

I have a great affection for many of the earlier LPs (as they appeared as such for we who first heard them then) here; Garry Mulholland's less than two years younger than me; he and I bonded, vicariously, over many of these records. Mulholland's keen on the frustrated adolescence, the furtive sex (or lack of) in Pere Ubu, Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Elvis Costello, or Wire. He's excellent on revealing what forced Siouxsie and the Banshees, Devo, X-Ray Spex, Young Marble Giants, or Pere Ubu on "Non-Alignment Pact" (discussed at appropriate length) to put what they had to sing and play on vinyl. He channels more his own reflections on growing up in London (and getting to know some of those mentioned here as musicians) through hearing and learning from such recordings, and this combination of subjectivity and objectivity succeeds.

As he matures, and as he continues to intersperse bits of his life into his mini-essays, the music often surges or fades in equivalent interest for me, perhaps since I was paralleling his own trajectory through his albums, rejecting some and embracing others. Since I never gravitated towards the dance-oriented, trip/hip-hop, or mainstream pop that comprise many selections herein, I admit my own tastes differed, more and more as the decades progressed in this volume. Yet, Mulholland strives to sustain the tone that opened his account, with his own teenaged years coinciding, nearly, with punk's first sparks.

He counters the usual critical impositions that fetishize an often hit-and-miss original LP; he adds greatest-hits or compilations. Roxy Music's collection earns deserved acclaim; "Wanna Buy a Bridge" from Rough Trade label's singles (I have it too on LP) typify this expansion. Fine assortments "Hatful of Hollow" by The Smiths, Can's "Cannibalism," Buzzcocks' "Singles Going Steady," Jesus and Mary Chain's "Barbed Wire Kisses," and The Fall's "458489 A-Sides" gain appropriate mention.

Mulholland leans against the usual critical pressure; he defends My Bloody Valentine's "Isn't Anything" rather than "Loveless" and often overlooked works like Young Marble Giants' "Colossal Youth" and Wipers' "Youth of America" prove refreshing choices. Even if The Fall's "Extricate" & "Live at the Witch Trials" or Husker Du's "Candy Apple Grey" appear odd as the only original LPs from these two stalwarts of (post?)punk from this era.

I step aside when it comes to half of the entries. These didn't interest me as much--I'd heard what I liked here long before, and despite Mulholland's introductions to hundred-odd other (mostly British and U.S.) obsessions, they left me unmoved to seek out different genres and markedly new sounds now. I can't fault this volume for that--it takes on a wide swath of modern music. I may not like as much as he continues to admire, that's all.

Maybe it's part of me and Mulholland as contemporaries growing older with the music. I wonder if he'll keep returning to what moved him as a teen or young man, or whether a post-'03 volume will sum up 261 more come 2030? Today's musicians, amidst similar access to recordings, listen more and more of the past. They may try to leave it behind, or improve it, or pay homage to it. Is this a reason to blame this idealistic and impulsive messenger for his own fervent messages about his beloved stacks of wax and shiny discs?  (Amazon US 12-28-11)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Steve Taylor's "The A-to-X of Alternative Music": Book Review

Take the letter "K": Kenickie, Killing Joke, Kraftwerk, Ed Kuepper, Fela Kuti. That exemplifies the range of this thoughtful essay collection. (It goes up to "Z.") Steve Taylor's criteria for inclusion are three: "Working It"--not letting "self-conscious arty behaviour," commercialism or "cultural bandwagon hopping" get in the way of creative fidelity to one's muse; "It"= overcoming verbal and musical limits, either by sticking to a deft aesthetic that works for the artist (Sonic Youth) or upending expectations album by album (The Fall); Consistency-- it speaks to the original audience, yet it attracts new listeners over a career determined by the band or musician's control over image, presentation, and commodification.

I liked Taylor's set-up. An introductory paragraph or two sums up not the usual name-birthdate-hometown-discography of many reference works, but a context and background that goes a bit beyond, into why the musician or band emerged at that time. Taylor emphasizes the way a discography and a presence lifted each musician or band out of the era, while defining it to a discerning audience. He ends each entry with a "first team," the best lineup of the group, and then a "place-time-scene" pinpointing where and how they emerged. Finally, what to hear first and then after guides a reader who wants to become a listener.

Some sudden shifts in style and content in entries, and a few typos or usage slips, trip up Taylor's insistent, often rambling or snarky prose. Also a d.j., you can imagine him slipping in such comments on air after he plays a track by so-and-so. As first of all a thoughtful, passionate, but sensible and discerning fan, his perspective here favors an impressionistic survey of each artist rather than a comprehensive one. Many key albums or songs are barely mentioned, but instead you may learn a fresh factoid or get a snippet from an interview or press release by the artist as compensation. It makes the approach uneven, but certainly personal.

Taylor strives for a blunt, no-nonsense evaluation. He may lurch about as suddenly as the contents, but what unites them, he explains in his introduction, is "bucking the trend of the moment." As a record-store habitue, he notes with members of Ride or R.E.M. (Michael Stipe has a four-paragraph preface musing about "alternative" as "an attitude and approach to what was clearly at that point a business" when his band began) or Tindersticks to name a few how a vision and attitude coalesced in the formative years of those who'd craft a new sound, combining past influences while blending them with their own fresh flavor.

That innovation spans Portishead to Primal Scream to Prince to Public Enemy, and the range of these idiosyncratic, even awkward, but heartfelt and principled essays refreshes. They range from the beats-turned-hippies to the mash-up manipulators on dancefloors today. Taylor does not exclude major-label signings or successful figures, and any "purity" that brings its own lack of popularity brings its own warning. Instead, from Dylan to DJ Shadow, Taylor seeks out the milieu that makes these determined musicians matter. (Amazon US 12-28-11)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Simon Reynolds' "Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews & Overviews": Review

For American consumers of his "Rip It Up and Start Again" post-punk history, this raw material and added fiber's nourishing. A chapter was cut there that appeared in the British edition, so I enjoyed SST's inclusion along with "interviews" (thirty-two singers, players, producers, provocateurs) and "overviews" on Ono-Eno-Arto along with Malcolm McLaren and NYC "concept rock"; John Lydon's autobiography and his stint with PiL; London's glam-club revival, SST Records' "progressive punk;" and two films on Manchester's scene, "24 Hour Party People" + "Control." Reynolds concludes by interviewing himself, expanding and refining his definition in "Rip" of why post-punk matters as "a space of possibility" opened up 1978-84 by the assault of punk, but eclectic and inventive enough for individual voices and very diverse desires.

Tony Wilson of Factory Records early on defines what set punk apart from post-punk. He riffs off of Joy Division-New Order's Bernard Sumner and distinguishes the "F[---] you" of the former movement's music with its anger but its limitations aesthetically and ideologically, with the "I'm f[---]ed" of what followed. I agree with David Thomas of Pere Ubu: rock music represents the culmination of modernist art, and however avant-garde such music as his band created sounded to many, it was mainstream. That is, it spoke to everyday issues and real people, made not by the likes of Mick Jagger singing in his fifties about teenaged girls. Also, such groups as Pere Ubu had ambitions far outstripping those of the manufactured Sex  Pistols and their ilk. Thomas insists he wanted to "create something worthy of William Faulkner and Herman Melville," and it's hard to fault him when you read his prickly, intelligent reflections.

I was impressed by the quality of those interviewed, and the in-depth knowledge of their interviewer. I learned a lot from PiL's Jah Wobble and Suicide's Alan Vega, but I also appreciated the thoughts of the late (more than one person included has died not long after) John Peel as elder statesman, and ZTT Records "aesthetician" Paul Morley as much as those who actually made the music that others promoted and played. Groups that for me stayed on the fringe, such as Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk, Swell Maps + Jacobites' Nikki Sudden, Josef K's Paul Haig, and the Associates' Alan Rankine, kept my attention due to their articulate accounts of how provincial scenes and local friendships spurred many to follow the lead set down by London and New York. A strength of this anthology is that Sheffield and Glasgow, Bristol and Cardiff, Cleveland and Leeds earn as much if not more attention than the usual metropolitan voices and labels.

As Reynolds comments, the trio of music papers weekly in England mattered, since in the provinces, records were discovered as if hidden treasures imported and hoarded and worn out, and word of mouth carried songs and ideas into the workplace, the classroom, the pub, the tearoom. Before the net, outside of nearly all radio, with hardly any record stores or alternative networks nationwide, the shock of the new and the tension with tradition spread slowly, by conversations, record-playing and Penguin paperbacks. Week by week, within a few months or years, these transformative possibilities percolated into the minds and through the instruments and lyrics of those who were scattered, bored, and desperate for renewal.

The power of these years lingers. Even those whose music I have little or no interest in proved very eloquent and well worth hearing about their own experiences, such as Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice, Phil Oakey of The Human League, Green Gartside of/as (a telling transition as Reynolds shows, from the socialist, squatter Rough Trade collective of late-70s post-punk to the capitalist pop of the ZTT, New Romantic, MTV neon dancefloor) Scritti Politti. Also, juxtaposing, say, two members of Devo, Mancunian Wilson and Liverpudlian Bill Drummond, transplanted New Yorkers David Byrne, James Chance and Lydia Lunch, or The Fall + Blue Orchids' Martin Bramah with Ludus' Linder Sterling and JD + NO's Steven Morris make for great counterpoints that tease out connections and reverberations about how local scenes and bands (r)evolved.

Reading how Oakey looked at increasingly meticulous (and pre-computer, very exacting) production as a leader of his band vs. how his producer Martin Rushent did proves instructive. So many of these individuals were self-taught, crafting their sounds and words in near-isolation, and learning from a few other outliers how their instruments worked, how songs grew, and how DIY could jumpstart a whole new system, for a while, of record distribution, community pride, and heady talent.

My quibble, although I admit I'm a glutton for this genre, is that I wish Reynolds had taken the opportunity to restore the other missing "Rip" material from the British original printing. Goth and industrial music, and especially Howard Devoto & Subway Sect's long-lasting impacts are heard only at a distance by those interviewed. Devoto and Vic Godard merited their own spotlight. Maybe the publisher here's at fault, but given the reactions of disappointed fans stateside (like me) to what we were sold as "Rip," I'd hoped for all the missing material to have been restored in this follow-up.

Also, some of the overviews added, as in the John Lydon review of his "No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs," sound (as did "Rip" at times) too term-paper-ish, even if Reynolds gets around to some provocative comments on the singer's abandonment of PiL's vision to cash in on "filthy lucre" and the "flogging the dead horse" (my phrases, borrowed not from the book) of Pistols' reunion tours. I  wondered, if he added these largely previously published articles to his collection, why he could not have appended the excised material from the "director's cut" (his phrase for some pieces) of "Rip"'s British original.

Even if the second half of the book, the New Romantic-dance stage, interests me far less as music than as movement, Reynolds provides a fine testimony to what he admits is an overlooked generation. Much as I as with anyone interviewed admire the music of their predecessors, this revision and re-examination of previous music and modern trends provides too a welcome antidote to endlessly self-satisfied books on the Sixties, I agree. Those of us who came of age later (he's two years younger than me) deserve our pop culture moment.

(P.S. I've read "Rip It Up" only in its US edition, 200 pages shorter. I suspect that the US "Totally Wired" may also differ slightly from its British predecessor in content. Like those import vs. US Beatles LPs?)

(P.P.S. Posted to & Amazon US 4-26-11. Reynolds has "Rip" hype" and "Rip" footnotes;  his "Totally" blog confirms my suspicion, but only his SST chapter was restored to the US edition.)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Jon Savage's "The England's Dreaming Tapes": Book Review

I admired "England's Dreaming," the essential study of punk's birth from music critic Jon Savage, who watched. For me, it's the best account of its rapid rise and, post-Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols, fall as the small vehicle of artists, intellectuals, students, toilers at dead-end jobs if they were "lucky," and I suppose even a few bonafide working class kids turned into a media-hyped bandwagon where many leaped on, eager to cash in on by what after that TV appearance by the Pistols and pals the end of '76 transformed into a cynical case study in capitalism harnessing an "alternative" subculture. Not that some who were there, alongside Savage, resisted the lure to sign with big labels and reach wider audiences, but this conflicted among purists with the art-school, hermetic, and countercultural (often reflexively anti-hippie, but many older punks had dodgy pedigrees in other bands, in the days of flared trousers: "sub-heavy metal played badly" in Pete Shelley's phrase shows up along a love for Iggy, Bowie, and Roxy) suspicion of selling out.

I write this review the day manufactured publicity rolls out for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and I reflect on how little protest occurs compared to the punks the summer of the Silver one in '77. The final section of these conversations deals with the post-Jubilee Pistols, the major labels, the drugs, the tours, the fatigue, and it makes dispiriting if necessary reading after earlier idealism. Savage in this compendium provides perhaps a fans-only companion to his own narrative, but the tapes-- transcribed here from his interviews edited with those featured in the original "England's Dreaming"-- convey nuance and offer necessary testimony on what I find are three reiterated, key issues.

First, the Grundy interview: this marks a before-and-after moment for the fledgling punks. Marco Pirroni sums it up with Sham 69 as "an excuse to be stupid" (359); Steve Jones separates the music before the publicity with the media; Paul Cook charges Malcolm McLaren's manipulation of the band's tensions that sapped its musical energies. As many repeat, after Glen Matlock was sacked, the Pistols only wrote four songs in their Sid Vicious stage. Matlock himself explains how the earlier band emphasized a slower power, not a Ramones speed. The Who and Small Faces influences gave the trio of musicians a less strident, but forceful foundation for Johnny Rotten's sneering vocals.

Second, this leads into how well the Pistols could play, and why that mattered--or not. Jordan notes how Rotten developed the authority "to sing with conviction, those sorts of powerful words every night, words that were black and white, not clouds and rolling hills." (51) But, she thinks he lost that "need"; John Lydon regarded himself in Malcolm McLaren's hands as "Jack-in-the-Box" figure who could be wound up and taken out for an onlooker's shock or a staged surprise--unlike Cook and Jones, Lydon resented this pose. To be fair, Lydon acknowledges his own faults in furthering this pose, but he does not dismiss the culpability of many others in what became extended legal battles and personal betrayals of trust. He increasingly rebelled against his public image, limited.

McLaren's partner Vivienne Westwood questions the shock value of another symbol, the swastika. Many mention its presence in early punk iconography, and it's disturbing for me that some interviewed still take its presence in their own stance so lightly; Westwood notes the strain of supposedly devaluing the crooked cross to take out its rigor, aggression, and puritanical associations, and how the principles of punk were challenged by contradictions of feminism as well. Captain Sensible takes another view: punk meant neither a thing nor a sound, but an attitude. For some, this act could be constricting, and the compassion underneath the exaggerated despair or cartoonish anger might unsettle those next to them, as the desire to upend expectations took its emotional toll on punks. Those who could project their voices, talents, or music adapted, but others gave up and/or conserved their energies for what they yearned to find as more expansive approaches for fulfillment.

Siouxsie says the brandishing early on of such a potent symbol as the swastika might be one way to express this frustration with identity and meaning among a new generation. Those coming after the hippies sought a platform or a voice. Putting on an armband, for her, was getting back at the values unthinkingly clung to by an older, postwar generation. Poly Styrene counters that a "lack of vision" led punk into a dead-end, without a "positive solution" to the "hellish planet" it delighted in peddling. Steve Walsh agrees that punk's futility overshadowed idealism. Nils Stevenson has a last word on the Pistols and their role as the vanguard as their prowess proved anyone could not imitate them, and that the Pistols were not the same but better than the rest. (The Clash, The Damned, and The Jam by the way all come off the worse for wear among many interviewed from within the sympathetic Pistols contingent.) McLaren has his say, before sixty-one others, and none here might think that unearned!

Third, the debate over art vs. commerce, finding a wider audience to play to and to sell to. As one who heard delayed this nearly "unheard music" 6000 miles away, from pricy import vinyl and scant airplay even in L.A., I had to glean what I found intriguing from hints in reviews in the mainstream press or the emerging fanzines I read at record shops before I risked my pocket money as a teenager on the "Punk-New Wave" section often found tucked away at the back of the store. So, unless bands found distributors able to place their product, and get stores to stock it, great music languished.

Certainly, the struggles, as Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley tell from their Mancunian predicament, left punks away from the London scene more at odds in how to make if not a living than a few pounds playing in places that were repulsed, confused, or ignorant of the new music trickling out from the capital northward. These regional differences, first in Manchester, spawned small indie scenes. It's intriguing to hear of Morrissey and Ian Curtis slowly joining in to find their own niche.

Journalist Jonh Ingram stresses the loss of the artistic and the easy indulgence as punk turned a fad. Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon agrees but acclaims as does Shelley the media's pioneering role (Ingram and Caroline Coon notably) in popularizing punk beyond its cult, as Linder and Devoto addressed in their "The Secret Public" art-pamphlet. Devoto in typically aphoristic form observes: "Pretentiousness is interesting. Your ambition has to outstrip your ability at some point." (525)

The ambitions often were fueling egos enticed by what, for once, the Americans had done first. While as the title promises, most of this book recounts the English leaders, their New York predecessors are also heard from. Politics, perhaps perversely or tellingly here, gains little attention and anarchism no index entry. John Holmstrom equates punk with an "old" sound, and Legs McNeil defines it as failure. He finds Manhattan's version filled with humor and satire vs. the British political anger. Mary Harron links her Warhol-era bohemianism to mid-70s boredom by a celebration of junk culture that ignited the proto-punks, eager to find an escape from American complacency even as they revelled in its consumerism and trashy 50s and 60s t.v. shows, comics, films, diversions, and marketed poses.

A few of the interviews flagged by comparison, but this is inevitable over more than 700 pages. It's a sign of how skillful Savage's editing and direction is that so few were less interesting. The regional tilt's telling, as the provinces get less attention, but they (as with Simon Reynolds' books on post-punk--he like Savage has a study "Rip It Up and Start Again: 1979-1984" and a later interview anthology, "Totally Wired" also reviewed by me) took time for the initial impact of New York and then London to echo northward and westward, the next few years, across Britain and then beyond.

A helpful appendix, similar to the discography that makes the original text so engrossing (yet here the photos are scarce and smallish), gives brief "where are they now?" wrap-ups and often links to websites (although I fear they may be outdated as some are MySpace--one sign of again how no media remain secure in this changing era....). Cheap speed appears to increase, while thrashing wears players out--see The Adverts as cautionary tale. Music mellows or simmers, as the years progress those interviewed make less music, or inevitably music that endures. Wire appear late on herein, exception to this rule: Graham Lewis locates the "desire to be in the future rather than in the place where people were" as punk's spirit. (621). A thorough index eases fact-checking and topic-hunting, and enhances the value of this as a "director's cut" of the shorter narrative history from nearly two decades ago that remains the standard source on punk.

(Amazon US 6-2-12; see also there from 7-22-12 my Punk Rock: An Oral History review of John Robb's interviews. Compare my longer PopMatters 7-3-12 review of Robb with a link to my take on Nick Rombes' intriguing collage A Cultural Dictionary of Punk:1974-1982)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

John Robb's "Punk Rock: An Oral History": Book Review

Imagine 150 pioneering musicians, managers, artists, and fans settled into a commodious pub. The oldest are well into their sixties, the youngest have recently passed fifty. Their spiky hair might be grey, if they still sport some. They tell one by one (if such order might be imagined in politely logical, topical and chronological sequence) of what they heard in the 1960s and '70s on vinyl and the singers they watched on television. Gradually, they speak of their involvement in what would be peddled--if not in British cities and on tabloid and official media until the summers of 1976 or 1977--as punk.

This scenario came to mind as I read over five hundred pages of John Robb's lively volume. As a member of a minor band, The Membranes, and then as a music journalist, he's well placed to listen. Jon Savage's England's Dreaming for over two decades remains deservedly the standard narrative, also by one who was there, but as Robb notes in his introduction: "It's not just a bunch of Bowie freaks creating punk whilst hanging around the Sex shop. It's not just the Clash's heroic quest. It's also the foot soldiers of the revolution: the smaller groups, the less-hip groups." It's also the kids, the energy, and the dream of liberation from a dismal future and a stagnant present across Britain and Ireland. For, Robb examines the reach of punk beyond London, which dominated Savage's telling.

Therefore, Robb begins with Elvis, rockabilly, the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, and mixes these familiar influences with those who tell of their love for music-hall and comedy routines as well as popular televised and printed entertainment. A hundred pages of such memories, spanning postwar popular culture before the rise of glam rock, enrich the context with a timeline stretching back from the usual Velvet Underground-David Bowie-T. Rex-Roxy Music-Iggy Pop-New York Dolls-Ramones opening gambit common to punk histories. The Damned's comic foil Captain Sensible frequently emerges as one of the more eloquent and witty tellers of such monochrome or psychedelic times. His affection for Syd Barrett endures. he laments how today's sponsored idols will never produce a Crazy World of Arthur Brown with its lead singer proclaiming "I am the god of hellfire," hair set ablaze.

But such invention simmered. By the mid-1970s, bloated Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd appeared as corporate monoliths and concept albums shunted out every year or so to arenas and mass adulation. For a few, such spectacles soured. Careers in short supply, economies in decline, cities in decay: John Lydon positioned himself among the discontented youth. "Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us."

The rise of the Pistols under manager Malcolm McLaren, designer Vivienne Westwood, and the crew at their shop will be familiar to any student of this era. But how many remember that at their first concert, the lead act, a covers band, was fronted by the singer who would become Adam Ant?  McLaren captures the grunginess of the setting in which punk sparked while pub and prog rock blazed in 1975 London in such unpromising circumstances as an stageless, open common room on the fifth floor of an art college. "It was not necessarily a plan to play art colleges first and avoid the pub. I hated beer. And that's all you got in those stinking pubs in Anglo-Saxon land. Art school preached a noble pursuit of failure. It was part of the legacy laid down by William Morris: art for art's sake. which we attempted to create and indeed succeeded at one level. We made ugliness beautiful."

At one level: this phrase reverberates. Filmmaker and d.j. Don Letts discusses the transition that bridged the hippie vision to the punk potency, with McLaren and the equally clever and conniving manager of the Clash, Bernie Rhodes. "They could see the idea manifest itself before its musical expression," adding the strategies of the Situationists and artistic calculation to target visual appeal and media attention. The two masterminds sought a third band to make a movement. That proved The Damned. 1976 opens as others read in the NME of guitarist Steve Jones' boast after an February Pistols show: "We are not into music. We are into chaos." Some readers form their own bands, first in Manchester, then Birmingham, and across the sea in Derry, Dublin, and Belfast.

In Bristol, Mark Stewart watches the Clash's new bassist Paul Simenon (chosen more for looks than talent) play onstage with letters stuck on his instrument to guide his fingers. "It's not the arrogance of power, it's the power of arrogance." For Stewart, Simenon's stance symbolizes the do-it-yourself spirit that animates ambition and rewards commitment, not by those who could already play, but by those who could not--those whom punk inspired to learn three chords, and to form a band.

Poly Styrene finds encouragement, and after a failed reggae (a genre with considerable overlap on punk, as interviewees attest to repeatedly) single, she turns away from the Zep and Floyd and Yes and Genesis offerings sold to her generation as art. She comments how before punk, rock musicians resembled classical musicians, patrons of the French aristocracy, marrying into royalty and acquiring country estates. No room for the likes of her opened in the music business, so she created X-Ray Spex. Her song "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" was penned before punk, as a paean to spiritual liberation, but in its release in the punk boom, it was seen understandably in a different interpretation. The associations of punk, Lydon notes wryly, with the "bum bandit" of an American prisoner came into British parlance and musical attribution later than they had for the Ramones and the New York scene.

Such ties, as media attention grew in the wake of a November 1976 televised appearance by the Pistols when profanity was said to have been uttered, linked punk with outrage. Gavin Friday over in Dublin, fronting provocateurs The Virgin Prunes, summed it up: "Punk looked like the abortion Ziggy [Stardust] had." The glam predecessors beloved by many fans merged with the considerable poverty most punks endured, and a fashion sense emerged, if very quickly co-opted by the likes of a Zandra Rhodes safety-penned dress selling for a thousand pounds. Lydon snipes that if people wanted a uniform, the army makes the best ones. The bandwagon assembled, and opportunists flocked--what he derides then as now as "sheep".

However, the impact of how punk looked rather than how it sounded mattered to the Pistols and their manager, as well as their sneering singer. A year after the Pistols' debut gig, their skilled bassist Glen Matlock would be shoved out for the more photogenic and parodied Sid Vicious. Matlock uses the television debacle as a milestone. Before that, the music; after that, the media. Punk had turned, rapidly, into a caricature, and Sid's sad fate represents the pivot around how rapidly a more individualistic, idealistic subculture turned into hype, as the image replaced the invention, and the ideas collapsed into imitation, as Lydon laments often. A movement, he jibes, might look great, but it generates too many pedestrians.

Robb patiently allows each side its say. He keeps his own asides to footnotes, but he places congenial and dissenting recollections side by side adroitly. His questions hover as invisible--unlike those which controlled Savage's "director's cut" when he published the original transcripts of his book as The England's Dreaming Tapes. So, Robb's version feels less top-down as the received wisdom from London than Savage's, and more spontaneous. Both journalists sought a wide range of respondents, and their accounts intertwine, but Robb opts for a more pan-British and Irish coverage.

This edition (neatly indexed and with far fewer typos than many music-related volumes, even if some misspellings persist) does not keep each interviewee separate in his or her own chapter. This structure conveys a live feel, open to counterpoint and debate. For instance, Lydon and McLaren bicker (if safely via their paired explanations) on how the band or the shop should take credit for the Sex Pistols' moniker. In turn, Lydon sides with Wire's Colin Newman against the Clash's slick first album's sound on a major label, while impresario Tony Wilson and a footnoted Robb defend the distribution by CBS of an album that merited sales in far-flung places outside London, as a way to get punk's message out to the masses. This then flips a few pages on as the Ants' Marco Pirroni and the Prefects' Rob Lloyd (both steady voices well worth including) square off over the Pistols' own major-label signings first to EMI and then to Virgin!

These signings gained prominence as "God Save the Queen" appeared the summer of the Queen's Jubilee in 1977. Guy Trelford in Belfast recounts how two of his mates in a Loyalist pub rose to sing the Pistols' version rather than the traditional anthem rendered at closing time, and the sectarian reaction. Robb's incorporation of such perspectives highlights the predicaments in which the few punks in public met a difficult time in sinister situations. Billy Bragg notes how you could be beaten up for not wearing flares. Violence began to follow some punks, from those who hated their sight.

As the punk energy sputtered amidst the weariness of repetition and the lack of innovation among those copycats the Pistols and their ilk spawned unwittingly, the scene fragmented. Musicians tended to revert back to what they heard before punk, and to blend that. That might be reggae, ska, dub, goth, power pop, New Wave, and post-punk: all gain attention here as 1978 signals a dramatic shift. The Pistols open the year with Lydon's departure; The Damned break up (if not for long), and soon a second wave of street-wise, inner-city London, and "dole-queue" punk and Oi will confront new policies of Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. Politics enters this punk movement more forcefully. Penny Rimbaud of the anarchist collective Crass articulates the enduring hope of the progressive resisters to the norm, and how punks and hippies have in common a positive notion of a more uncompromising refusal to capitulate. Many admire Crass even if few can meet its exacting demands. The left sways punk's majority, but some on its extremist right drift toward fascist and racist banners.

A teenaged Bragg comes from the provinces to London and finds himself at a Rock Against Racism concert to counter a Nazi-affiliated skinhead faction, and he cherishes more than any song there the sight for the first time of men kissing openly as Tom Robinson's "Glad To Be Gay" plays. Sexuality gains furtive glances here, often, as in the early Adam and the Ants or those who would front Frankie Goes to Hollywood, more of a suggestion than full exposure. Many punks, it seems, in their defiant appearance, felt grateful for whatever affection they could grab in a dismal time, often cold and lean.

Lydon holds his own throughout, one of a large crowd he helped create. He keeps the last word. Don't copy, think for yourself: these are the truest of punk's transmissions. "You should make your own of everything."

Robb, in an ambitious compendium, with brief forwards by Michael Bracewell and (not Rancid's Lars Frederiksen as originally promoted for this U.S. release of a 2006 British publication but) Black Flag's Henry Rollins, provides those who were there and many of us who listened from a distance in time or space the sensation of freedom. When so few chances to hear this music in its original setting were present, a radio's sudden song or a concert's rare opportunity revealed the promise of transformation. Those gathered here reveal once again how exciting the sporadic connections to a bold and strange music carried fresh ideas and odd choices that many of us, teenagers across the world in the late 1970s, never would have conceived. Robb's collection of spirited voices will remind readers today to become listeners to these tellers.

(In shorter form, published under the British Ebury Press release at Amazon US here on 7-22-12 and with Rollins' intro for the PM Press ed. here. Featured in the entirety as above 7-30-12 at PopMatters. Cf. my take on Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg's "The Art of Punk" on 10-14-12 at Amazon US.)