New Wave / Punk / Etc.
aka What the Late 70s and Early 80s have wrought
The Buzzcocks, The Cars, The Clash, The Jam, The Modern Lovers, Pere Ubu, The Sex Pistols, Television, Wire.
The reviews on this page are in a greater state of flux than others. All of these artists merit their own pages, but because I am doing a sampler round first, some of the scores may be adjusted. It is my intent to alternate US and UK bands in doing this, and yes I realize I haven't reviewed the Ramones (or the Damned for that matter). That is only because I haven't gotten my hands on a copy of their debut - I own Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin and a couple other albums. Also, I am not really blindly giving out 4 star ratings.
Modern Lovers (rec. 1972-3, rel. 1976), ****1/2
Garage rock for the early 70s, with an avid Lou Reed follower at the helm. Singer/guitarist Jonathan Richman positively evinces the angst-ridden teenager (and looks about 15 in the photos) while using a delivery blatantly borrowed from Reed, all in a delightful Boston accent that is a combination of George Plimpton and a head cold. Richman certainly isn't writing songs like Reed, instead it's a lot of first-person loves, likes, dislikes, etc. sounding remarkably similar to the garage rock of the 60s ("Astral Plane" is about as close as you can get). Richman occasionally drops in some real lyrical curios ("Girlfriend" which is spelled out "G-I-R-L F-R-E-N" in the chorus, or "Hospital" which he tells us that he "goes to bakeries all day long") amongst his longings, and there is a good number of fun, more rocking tunes ("Modern World", "Roadrunner", "Dignified and Old") that show how talented a songwriter Richman was. Possibly because these were only demos it is very clean sounding, with a general aversion to solos (although a couple of VU-like messes show up like on "Pablo Picasso" or "Someone I Care About") which make them sound like professional garage rockers (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Outside of the production, the band is suitably crisp in their playing as well. Future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison plays a lot of puny organ lines that sound like they were directly lifted from Pearls Before Swine, and when combined with a rhythm section (including future Cars drummer David Robinson) that sounds only a couple steps removed from fellow Bostonians Aerosmith, the album does a good job combining the past with their present. The bulk of this album was produced by John Cale, but the funniest two tracks are done by Kim Fowley - ("I'm Straight" whose lyrics are phone message applying to be someone's boyfriend because he's "not stoned / like hippy Johnny," and "Government Center").
It's also funny to see future New Wave bigshots with long 70s hair.
Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Nov. 1977), ***
Along with the Ramones and the Clash, the Sex Pistols are widely considered the pioneers of punk. The Ramones predate the others, but I have some qualms about anointing them the original punks. Admittedly, I haven't heard their first two albums, but although they nail down the stripped-down sound of the punk movement they lack any substantial emotion. They play loud, fast and short, but what they say isn't anything special at all - it's usually just dumb. The Clash were more political, more traditional, and more diverse musically. The Sex Pistols took the underground pub-rock sound, made it more hard rock, but all built around in-your-face irrationality. Like a televised riot where societal values are inverted, Never Mind the Bollocks is abhorrent, absorbing and ultimately fascinating as long as you aren't the one doing a Reginald Denny impression.
It is really fascinating to consider a band focused more an abstract idea (chaos, anarchy) rather than sound. Self-destruction is paramount to the Sex Pistols' message, and if this music could eat away at itself and dissolve into dirt, it would be fitting. This, they say, is punk music, but what does that mean? Sound-wise, it is the principles the Ramones established - guitar, bass, drums, vocals and little else. It's hard rock without the glamour --what little guitar solos exist are buried along with the rest of the guitar sound in the back of the mix, allowing Rotten's half-crazed snarl to grab the lion's share of the attention. Rotten sounds like he's one of the gang from A Clockwork Orange loosed in a vengeful knife-fight - a fascinating idiosyncratic attack (the evil cackle in "Anarchy in the UK", or the harshness of "EMI"). What sets the Sex Pistols apart is their attitude, and by extension, their lyrics. From the boot-stomping introduction it is clear these guys are angry, and have no time or respect for the rest of us. Great art is often the product of the put-upon and the Sex Pistols give them a voice here, essentially demanding to be heard. Take the song "Bodies" - sure it's a graphic song about abortion, but at the same time it's about silencing. Anarchistic and Self-Destructive? Sure ("Anarchy in the UK" pretty much says it all). Bitter? Hell, these guys make Ray Davies look like a guy coughing comments down his sleeve. But where Davies mocked the peacocks and rich-kids, the Sex Pistols dislike everyone else and pride themselves in ignorance and depravity ("Pretty Vacant", "No Feelings", the chorus of "Seventeen" which goes "I'm a lazy sod"). Combined with the music it's not simply a gut-punch to society, it's a big whollop to the forehead with brass knuckles which leave an imprint saying "I'M ****ED" ("Problems"). But for all their anger and anarchist mouthing the Sex Pistols are a remarkably competent band. No flash is the formula, although they stick a Raw Power-esque intro onto "Bodies", and they don't need flash. When they keep things fast and uncompromising, that's good. The danger is always that with such a basic sound the songs can sound the same, which is a trap they do a good job of avoiding. There are a couple of blah tracks ("Seventeen" and "New York") and one that admittedly mystifies me - "Submission" (a good song, but it's hard to tell if it's just plain hard rock, or a mockery of it, with lines like "I can't figure out your watery love"). That being said, it works either way. In conclusion, it would be hard to understate the enormous historical importance of this album. Producer Chris Thomas (yes, this Chris Thomas) understands what's going on, and does a damn fine job.
Clash [US Version] (1977 ), ****1/2
From this album's opening chords you knew it was going to be different. This wasn't art rock. This wasn't metal. This wasn't misogynistic hard rock. This wasn't even the Sex Pistols. This was rock rock - fast, basic and infectious. Two guitars and a rhythm section. No pomp, no circumstance. For their political and age dividing message the Clash draw on loud power chords and infused it with reggae ("(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "Police & Thieves"). The album's opening with "Clash City Rockers" explains it in a nutshell. Intentional or not, the first three chords are the same as the Who's "I Can't Explain", thereby drawing on that mid-60s image of crackerjack R&B to call forth all the old generational divide frustrations previously expressed. But the chord sequence goes on, for this is no mere homage or revival - the Clash took that traditional sound further. Clean, simple production - none of the mess of the Sex Pistols, but no Rotten on vocals either. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones are both fine guitarists (try the alternating guitar lines on "Complete Control"), and Strummer (who has a distinct voice - slightly gruff) sings most leads with Jones doing clear traditional backing vocals. But despite having legions of progeny that consist of 14 year olds with spiked hair complaining about love gone bad over abysmal playing, the original punks stick to social issues ("Hate & War", "Remote Control" among others). This is a triumph of songwriting, with one great song after another (no, I'm not going to list them parenthetically), and only a few lesser moments ("Garageland"). A couple of killer covers later ("I Fought The Law" and the reggae masterpiece "Police & Thieves" with perfectly synched falsetto oh yeahs from Jones) and you couldn't ask for more. Short, punchy songs that never lose their social conscience or their focus. The US version replaces a few original tracks with UK singles, but I haven't heard the UK version. Produced by the group and Micky Foote (for the most part).
Marquee Moon (Feb. 1977), *****
Clean. Very clean. Precise. Quite precise. Two guitars with little tones added, a drum set, a bass and a small amount of piano. The guitars are not opposites, not opposing, but a sort of joint tenancy of sound. Partners, if you will. Accordingly, Andy Johns' production is incredibly crisp. You hear each note, each tap of the symbol, each vocal inflection. This is an album of notes, not of chords. This is hip music. A certain presence permeates Marquee Moon, drawing on both Lou Reed and Bryan Ferry (and even some Van Morrison). These are not broad strokes, or a populist billboard like early punk; this is pointillism on a canvas framed. But it is strong, vibrant, and definitely rock. These are men drawing on a wide variety of sources in rock, but being suckered in by none of them. While the sound is simple and straightforward like most New Wave acts, there are subtleties. No fractals here, but well sequenced details ready to emerge for the discriminating ear. Guitarist/vocalist/songsmith Tom Verlaine might have been his generation's equivalent of a "guitar hero," except that badge solely denotes a combination of technical skill and self-importance. Verlaine is subject to the sound, not only in conjunction with co-guitarist Richard Lloyd, but to the attitude of the music evinced by everyone. Lloyd has an important role, scoring some nice leads here and there, and holding down the fort during Verlaine's adventures down the neck of his guitar. With one guitar (and bassist Fred Smith, of course) usually in rhythm mode, drummer Billy Ficca may just be the counterpart to Stewart Copeland, effortlessly changing the beat around, and varying his fills. Even the rhythm section is not simply rhythm. The sound is less layered then other bands, making the bass and second guitar more partners than Yertl the Turtle style subjects. From the sweeping epics of rock (title track, "Torn Curtain") to more pop songs like ("Guiding Light", "Prove It") it is clear this is an album not only for guitar lovers, but for music lovers. While some tracks may be easier to grasp on first listen ("I See No Evil", "Venus"), like stirred sediment in a jar - after a time all becomes clear.
The Jam, In the City (May 1977), **1/2
Dear Pete Townshend,
Hey, I really liked the work you guys did on your debut in 1965. I've tried to capture the same sound of R&B, Motown and distorted guitar on my own album, but sped up a bit. Please find a copy enclosed for your enjoyment.
It used to be that musicians directly covered their influences, penning little love letters or tributes to their idols. Paul Weller was no different, and Weller was the man behind the Jam as their guitarist/singer and songwriter. Who does Weller like? The Who, and in particular the very early Who. This is no vague Valentine's Day card scrawl - Weller has big non-sexual man-crush on Pete Townshend. Yes, this could be titled The Jam Play The Who Sing My Generation, as In the City is a pile of R&B rock songs a la Who, but sped up to keep apace with the times ("Slow Down", "Sounds From the Street"). Weller may have actually stopped listening to music after A Quick One (The "Batman Theme"?!? -- straight from the 1966 Ready Steady Who EP). Power chords, feedback, a lack of soloing - the Who down to a T as in Townshend (the roaring "I've Changed My Address"). It would be much better if Weller didn't fall into the trap of having the songs sound alike ("Bricks and Mortar" is the only markedly different track). A distinct album, but merely torch-bearing. Their later work is far better than this. Produced by Vic Smith and Chris Parry.The Cars (Jun. 1978), ****
Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (rec. 1977-9, rel. 1979),
Sometimes music is just too simple. Singles Going Steady has the double curse of being inherently likeable and simple. Why is this a curse? Because stupid reviewers like your humble author keep thinking they might have been missing something, and it's very painless to go back and listen the album again. That's why for the better part of what - two months now? - I've been listening to Singles Going Steady on and off. While as a general rule I don't review compilations, this is a single collection, which is different. Specifically, this is the bands first eight singles, all the A-sides followed by the B-sides. The Buzzcocks, led by Pete Shelley, wedded the nascent punk sound to 60 Brit-rock, and cranked out a pile of short, snappy songs dealing with love and the like. To my admittedly non-British ears, Shelley sings like the rebellious son of Ray Davies, and the rest of the band (Steve Diggle on guitar, Steve Garvey on bass, and drummer John Maher) are as good as they need to be. The album opens up with "Orgasm Addict" which is exactly what the title implies - fast, smutty, and hilarious. The first singles are all in this hook-laden vein (although not so explicit), and all damn excellent ("What Do I Get?", "I Don't Mind", "Love You More", "Ever Fallen in Love?", "Promises"). As time wears on, they grow faintly darker and reaching out beyond the massive rhythm guitars of their earlier works ("Promises"), until their final A-side finds some angry yelled lyrics sung like Mick Jones ("Harmony In My Head"). The band consistently cranked out excellent songs, up to the last two singles ("Everybody's Happy Nowadays" and "Harmony in My Head"). B-Sides are almost by definition an odd lot. "What Ever Happened To?", the B-side to "Orgasm Addict" is sort of the punk equivalent to "The Village Green Preservation Society" - with Shelley repeated asking "What ever happened to"? This is the band's more frenzied punk side ("Oh Shit" has classic lines like "Admit admit you're shit you're shit", "Autonomy" is built around a killer riff). But there's some fluff as well ("Noise Annoys" has a throw-away guitar solo at the beginning. Some of them could have easily passed for A-Sides ("Just Lust", "Lipstick"), except they are a shade darker. But for the most part, these tracks are also more complicated than the A-sides ("Noise Annoys" is pretty much filler, but still intricate enough to grab my attention). Again, there was some fundamental shift for the last two singles. "Why Can't I Touch It?", the flip side to "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" is built around a infectious bass riff, and grooves (grooves!) on for about six and a half minutes. Unexpected, but welcome. The final track, "Something's Gone Wrong Again" is just a litany of shitty things happening, and is set to some dark and creepy music, and has a strangled guitar solo. Maybe they should have made the album the first seven singles. Popular legend has it that the group was primarily a singles group, although they did release a fair number of albums in the UK, while Singles Going Steady was their first album released in the US. The band broke up a few years later (actually over a dispute regarding this album), but reunited in the late 1980s, and still going today.
Ubu: The Modern Dance (Jan. 1978), ****
Naming yourself after a highly influential surrealist play is a big move, and Pere Ubu justify it nicely. Alfred Jarry's play incorporated nonsense, the impossible, and bickering in a highly experimental format, making a sharp contrast with the realism that dominated most stages at the time. While the play may have introduced large pieces of irrationality into the theatre, Pere Ubu incorporated man's irrational side into their music. Their sound is full of those erratic impulses that are contained within everyone. Shrewdly, the band keeps them contained as well, although it is a struggle that encompasses the entire album. From the synths stuck on feedback that open the album on "Non-Alignment Pact" to the jerky rhythms that show up, oftentimes this music is the equivalent of perception through a spinning head. Part avant-garde, part New Wave, part performance art, it is what you would expect from a group with a leader who penned art manifestos and was fueled by a desire to push music forward. Every track is almost a musical representation of one person's mind - with Thomas acting as the inner voice, and the emotional and other urges given life by the rest of the band.
David "Don't call me Clayton" Thomas's voice is full of manic energy leading to an outlet for all that pent up irrationality, and makes a more neurotic frontman than David Byrne. He sounds rather unhinged, and you can picture him with all sorts of physical ticks, bulging eyes, and you don't know what he's going to do next. He isn't menacing, just the sort of person you want to give a wide latitude. He is entertaining as hell for all these reasons. The occasional horns match his voice, squiggly energetic lines that are of the avant-garde/nonsense variety. Blurry and indistinct synthesizer sounds that are all over the place ("Real World"), and Allen Ravenstine uses the instrument not as a musical device, but as a noisemaker, as if someone had their radio tuned to alien interference. The band's sound is relatively clean, with occasional feedback here and there, and sonically there is some resemblance to Television. Tom Herman's guitar solos can be jagged whammy bar affairs (the title track) or straightforward bluesy affairs ("Street Waves").
Certainly the band's ideas are taken from more of the avant-garde types out there. Crowd noises or feedback as a solo (the title track), intentionally maddening atonal horn noises instead of a verse ("Laughing"), the band keeps their rhythm underpinnings to explore madness. Some work better than others (the dark, anguish filled "Sentimental Journey" is the aural equivalent of a drunken man smashing the reminders of his ex-wife left in the home and feeling the anger grow and subside through both the radio interference synthesizer, the atonal horn and occasional mumbles from Thomas make a highly effective track. Elsewhere when they get quiet, it's quite effective, with Thomas acting almost shell-shocked ("Over My Head"). The key is that the band really can rock when they want to ("Non-Alignment Pact", "Street Waves") , and Thomas can whip up a frenzy ("Life Stinks") and all the band members are excellent at what they do.
Crazy, but not in an intimidating way.
Band is: David Thomas (vocals), Tom Herman (guitar), Scott Krauss (drums), Tony Maimone (bass), Allen Ravenstine (keyboards).
Pink Flag (Nov. 1977), ****
Pink Flag is one of the intersections of punk, pop, rock and art. That's right, art. Paul Weller may have sung about art school, but Wire was formed by art students. This is not punk music, and it would be tough to call it post-punk (which is more of a historical term than a descriptive one anyway) since it arrived alongside most punk music. Wire was inspired by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but instead of imitating or building on their work, Wire used the elements of punk music for other ends. The band had recently dropped their lead guitarist when they recorded Pink Flag, and had refocused their sound accordingly. Thus, these tracks are designed and constructed rather than written. Embracing minimalism, by not replacing the departed guitar, the band usually introduce a rhythm and then build on it, before quitting. Thick layers of distortion are layered in the form of guitars. Their lyrics are frequently incoherent and intentionally so, while their playing is precise and glued to their rhythm. At points you might wonder if the guitars are programmed - the band members may be robots designed by actual art students combining a strange love of Kraftwerk and punk. This is not a sloppy or obnoxious mess. They stop playing when or before their ideas run their course. The key is that Wire had a sense of drama - the measured buildups, the short stopping points of some tracks. All of this leads to hit and run music, leaving the listener wondering what they had just encountered.
Well, what is it they encountered? Dark glimpses of man? Aural repression? The horrors of war ("Reuters")? Whatever it is, it bubbles and then evaporates, often within a couple of minutes. Yet, what it is may not be important, as often they intentionally make their lyrics unintelligible. This is art or theatre, and its impact may be greater than the words in the message. When you can understand the lyrics, frequently they consist of biting social commentary ("Reuters", the title track, "Field Day for the Sundays"), but Wire has a sense of humor as well. The cleverly titled "The Commercial" consists of 50 seconds worth of instrumental music. Or the delightful nonsense lyrics of "Three Girl Rhumba" ("a numbah's a numbah") providing contrast to some of the darker material. Still, there are several purely dramatic moments - the brief break in "Lowdown", the odd shrieking sounds in the background of "Strange", or the odd repeated phrase "How many dead or alive?" in the title track or the grinding down on "Reuters".
Musically these songs approach both the hard rock or the 60s oriented areas becoming popular. For example, "Three Girl Rhumba" takes an old fashioned chord pattern and then repeats it (similar to the backing used by rap music?). There's almost a Velvet Underground feeling sometimes in their approach to older rock ("Feeling Called Love"). There's some short, loud punk tracks ("Mr. Suit", "Field Day for the Sundays", "Surgeon's Girl") as well as excellent poppier ones (the single "Mannequin" where their rhythm is infectious, "Fragile") and a bunch of songs with excellent hooks that lie somewhere in between ("Champs", "Ex-Lion Tamer", "Three Girl Rhumba"). The downside to all the rapid-fire running times (5 of the 21 tracks clock in at under 50 seconds) is that by the time the twentieth track rolls around, you might feel you have heard the chords before. (You probably have.) Also, some songs may be an appropriate length for their ideas, but that does not mean their ideas are particularly good ("Start To Move" is one example). Still, Wire's overall approach is unique. I can completely understand why some people would rate it higher, even if some of the hit and runs do not make much of an impression.
The band is Colin Newman (guitar, vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Robert Gotobed (drums), Graham Lewis (bass). Produced by Mike Thorne.