Punk-Rock-O-Rama

In my post about “Favourite Bands Through Time” I mentioned how I’d discovered the Sex Pistols then had lots of fun raking through the punk compilations albums (which are ten-a-penny, of course, but then most punk bands only had one or two good songs, so most of the music lives on through these hodge-podge collections). I thought then I’d give a flavour of these songs. Everyone still remembers the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and to a lesser extent The Damned, The Jam, and The Stranglers, but are Discharge, Sham 69 and The Adicts as much in the public consciousness? I doubt it. Here, then, are twenty punk songs which I think are tremendous.

1. The Damned – “I Feel Alright”

A cover of The Stooge’s “1970”, this version is swampier and has a far, far more intense outro, the only time a UK punk band ever approximated the Velvet Underground. It simply KICKS ASS.

2. The Adicts – “Chinese Takeaway”

For me punk means total unabashed relish, not cynical negativity. The song exemplifies that!

3. Jilted John – “Jilted John”

Similarly, there are lots of humourous punk songs: “Maniac” by Peter and The Testtube Babies, “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps” by Splodgenessabounds, hell even the Buzzcock’s “Orgasm Addict” is great fun. But this novelty hit is all-out wally-ish pisstaking.

4. Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”

The adrenaline and energy of punk is rarely better captured than on this.

5. Public Image Limited – “Public Image”

Though PIL quickly became a post-punk band (best achieved on their second album Metal Box, which I think one of the best albums of the 1980s), this is a genius blast: Keith Levein’s aluminium guitar (to deeply influence The Edge), Jah Wobble’s ocean-deep bass, and Lydon’s outraged nasal shriek.

6. Discharge – “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing”

HEAVY. AS. FUCK.

7. The Boys – “First Time”

I keep having to explain to people that pop-punk was NOT invented by Avril Lavigne or Sum 41 or whatever kiddy music they think it was. From the off, punk had some bands with a melodic aspect to them – the Buzzcocks, for example, Talking Heads, and obviously Blondie. This British group are one of the great lost pop-punk bands.

8. Manic Street Preachers – “It’s So Easy”

This version is actually punkier than the Guns N’ Roses original, and all the better for it. (Not saying it’s better, but amplifying the punky aspect gives it its own character).

9. 999 – “Feelin’ Alright With The Crew”

Don’t know much about them. Love the song though. Punk wasn’t all ra-ra-ra Ramones-on-speed riffing, yer know.

10. Bow Wow Wow – “C30, C60 C90, Go!”

Same with this – tribal drums yeah! It was so depressing to see Malcolm McLaren’s funeral hearse surrounded by rent-a-punk twats in mohawks and leathers. The man was far more diverse than that, as seen by this, his (as it were) comeback band.

11. Talking Heads – “Love –> Building On Fire”

This song could hardly be less punk, which somehow makes it all the more punk. With David Byrne’s falsetto, the fey tone and the absence of CHUGGA-CHUGGA riffs, it somehow still encapsulates the otherness of punk.

12. Big Black – “The Model”

Covering Kraftwerk’s wry tale, Big Black turn the treble up to 11 and everything to 0. True dissonant abrasion. You won’t be surprised that Big Black’s main man, Steve Albini, later produced Nirvana’s In Utero.

13. Sham 69 – “If The Kids Are United”

This song just about exemplifies punk – the military beat, the rousing riff, the veneration of “the kids”, the football-crowd chorus, the raw zest.

14. Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hong Kong Garden

Though Siouxsie quickly shifted to a Ballardian examination of the English (sub)urban darkness, this early classic is just all that’s right about punk.

15. Vice Squad – “Stand Strong, Stand Proud”

Dunno much about this band either, but this is a killer song.

16. X-Ray Spex – “Art-I-Ficial”

Dear Poly Styrene! Her take on consumerism and capitalism crucially expanded the vocabulary of punk – there’s still lots of that stuff in the crusty/grebo subgenres. Adding a saxophone is a bloody simply but killer move too.

17. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – “I Love Rock And Roll”

I’m sure some smart-arse will comment how JJ isn’t really punk, etc etc. Meh. Punk certainly did encourage a whole lot of women to get up on stage, which (given the homogeneity and blandness of post-millennial rock) can only have been a good thing.

18. The Saints – “Stranded”

Australia produced some pretty kickin’ punk bands, and this song is one of the best to come from there.

19. The Exploited – “Dead Cities”

I’m not keen on hardcore (for which read: simplify to absurd levels) punk, but this song has got an amazing riff which just never stops driving. Can you believe this was actually on Top Of The Pops? Different days!

20. Undertones – “Teenage Kicks”

OK, everyone knows (or SHOULD know) this one, but it can’t be denied! 2.27 of perfection.

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Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

*

To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

BANGIN’

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly. Well, maybe so, but at the same time I really love a slamming track, the kind that gets the dance floor bouncing with manic FUCK IT LET’S GO CRAZY energy. With a raw punk edge or pounding four-to-the-floor beats (or ideally both!), there’s nothing like the mad rush and adrenaline thrill of a killer tune. Music in its ability to unite people emotionally and spiritually is an incredibly powerful force, able to generate immense resevoirs of emotion or energy. Here are some that get me out my seat and leaping about like a goon.

1. Leftfield – “Phat Planet”

AKA “the song from that Guinness advert”. Simple, and brutally effective. The image of vast banks of tribal drums being beaten by some immense jungle-dwelling African demigod is hard to resist. What’s great is that there’s no melody at all, just crushing rhythm, occasionally augmented by minor details (the mosquito buzz that starts at 2.36, for example). Similarly, the structure is bone-headedly simple. But hey, it takes great intelligence to create music this basic, this focused. I saw Leftfield do this at a festival and it was to my mind an absolutely epochal event, like seeing Hendrix at Woodstock.

2. Armand van Helden – “Koochy”

Obviously this just pinches the riff from Gary Numan’s “Cars”, with some stratching and a thumping beat. Got quite a kick, though, huh? I have a particularly fond memory of this song: I had gone to a party to celebrate my friend’s final undergraduate exam, and come 5am or so, we had ran out of music and were watching MTV’s late night selection, in a this-is-crap-but-can’t-be-bothered-changing-it kinda way. The video for “Koochy” came on, and I was blown away by its relentless simplicity, and the  genius of the video – all bad 70s style, explosions, car crashes and the “plot” sections from porn (so wooden and yet so ripe with tension, though not of the dramatic variety). “THAT’S IT!” I wanted to scream. That amazing stupidity, like The Ramones for the ’00s. But everyone else was falling alseep and nobody seemed to get it. Still, cracking song.

3. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Sprit”

Sorry if this song seems like a dead-dodo cliche to you, but I was 12 years old when it came out. Like so many people, it shifted me from being a full-on hair metaller (with all the gormless intolerance endemic in the caveman metalhead mentality) towards something a bit more open and less prejudiced (musically and otherwise). Nirvana’s role in freeing a generation from sexism and homophobia doesn’t get enough praise, it seems to me. But this is only to discuss the ideology (though it is important). “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first song powerful enough to get me to MOSH. I’d always wanted to go batshit to songs like it, but was always too shy. (I was quite the wallflower when at school). But eventually I discovered a nightclub where likeminded people went who liked the same music and did the same things and had the same frame of references. (It was here I developed my test for a good nightclub – “To what extent are people milling about outside talking after it closes?” – which I maintain is the key indicator). I’m sure I don’t need to explain the song. It remains a song of immense power and abandon – maybe the only time Kurt Cobain ever equalled John Lennon’s vocal in “Twist And Shout”.

4. The Prodigy – “Voodoo People”

Can I please correct a common misconception? The Fat Of The Land is not (by a fucking country mile!) The Prodigy’s best album. That title belongs, as any Prodigy fan will tell you, to Music For The Jilted Generation (though, okay, you might get some old school ravers going for Experience). It endlessly irritates me how FOTL gets cited as the key Prodigy album. It may have their three most famous singles, sure, but the rest of the album is mindless filler at best. (I don’t even think “Breathe” is all that). MFTJG on the other hand is crammed with killer tune after killer tune – “Their Law”, “Poison”, “Voodoo People”, “Break And Enter”, the genius gear-change that is “Three Kilos”, “No Good (Start The Dance)”… brillant, all. Combining punk attitude, techno beats, a fairly crusty philosophy and outlaw badass imagery, MFTJG is the only album I know where indie kids, technoheads, oldskool ravers, crusty hippies and rockers will all get up to dance. The one that endlessly does it for me is “Voodoo People”, with its opening riff taken from Nirvana’s “Very Ape“, its surging momentum and gleeful breakbeats. Everything you could ever want in a messy dancefloor moment.

5. Madness – “Baggy Trousers”

I could be cool and list a punch of brilliant raw punk obscurities like “Hong Kong Garden” or “I Found That Essence Rare” or “I Feel Alright” or “Dead Cities“. But fuck it – how brilliantly fun, how joyful, how utterly danceable, is “Baggy Trousers”?! ‘Nuff said, huh?

How about you – what gets your motor running?

Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?