Friday, December 24, 2010

What We Do Is Seasonal - A homemade punk comp part two

Here's part two

The (inevitable) second disc begins with what is probably my favorite punk rock song. I refuse to say best for a bunch of reasons, but mainly that it would mean the genre peaked in 1976. "Stranded" by Brisbane Australia’s The Saints chugs and riffs with sludgy, heaving tension/release acrobatics and at its core is a youthful, snotty defiance that paved the way for so much that followed. Seriously, this is one of the cornerstones of the punk pantheon (For the record, the others, none included here, would be "New Rose" by The Damned, "We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb" by The Weirdos, and any song from the 1st Ramones LP that hasn’t been bludgeoned into intensive care by classic rock radio. The floor is "Cyclotron" by Electric Eels. Ceiling: "Love Comes in Spurts" by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Mantelpiece: "1 2 X U" by Wire. For the sake of brevity [HA HA HA HA!!] I’ll stop). Probably the best signifier that these guys were on a trail not marked Accidental Greatness comes at about the 2:20 mark, where the band gives the song a deft collective increase of instrumental intensity that’s comparable (to my ears) to the adrenalin rush you’d receive after getting an ass slap from God’s left hand (he’s a southpaw, you know). If they’d kept their heads down and continued plowing through this kind if sweet junk (instead of branching out into more pop-oriented territory) they’d be looked upon with the same kind of reverence as The Ramones. But they didn’t, and they’re not. Such is life, and history, and all that jazz.

Staying Down Under, we move on to the Psycho Surgeons, who waxed "Horizontal Action" via 7” in 1978. A non-subtle ode to the male libido, featuring production values that Phil Spector would probably deem unacceptable, it’s the kind of sloppy, grokky, headed no place in a hurry stunner that is the raison d être of bootleg compilation albums. The band’s lack of professionalism is really what makes this such a joy. Any cover version that displayed more polish or complexity would be in crucial error, I think. They may act like a bunch of cads, but something tells me it’s just acting.

Tactics were from Canberra, Australia and "Standing by the Window", from a 1979 7”, is a fine example of agitated abrasion. By the date this was recorded, much of what was then known as punk or new wave was sanding down its edges to a smooth finish that many observers took as a betrayal or an insult (or both). Knotty, wiry music like this was often in direct reaction to the general increase in accessibility taking place around the globe during this period, coming across to varying degrees (depending on who you are, natch) as a provocation to this shift/drift. This is all fine and dandy, but if you don’t have an integral substance underneath the attitude, you’re not going to stand the test of time that’s seen the likes of Norwegian Black Metal rear its’ pagan skull. It seems to me that Tactics are high on substance (double meaning intended). Bottled up in liquid form, this track could serve as the antidote to a skinny tie allergy or any of its subsequent maladies.

"More Suicides Please" by Sydney Australia’s The Thought Criminals is so swanky in its low-fi aura that it’s like an actual slap in the face to the very concept of recording on more than four-track equipment, the soundtrack to a fireside telling of the possibly (but oh how I hope it isn’t) apocryphal tale of The Kingsmen recording "Louie Louie" in a barn with one microphone hanging from a ceiling beam. Which is to say that the sound conjured in this song is most definitely deliberate. One result is that the track achieves a striking approachability, a kind of buzzy/muzzy/cheeky warmth that I normally associate with extended listening to the fruitier/paislier end of ‘60s psyche/pop (think John Fred & His Playboy Band’s "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)"), which is quite an odd (yet agreeable) place to end up. The lyrics are obviously encouraging an increase in self-inflicted negation, but not in an apocalyptic Jim Jones Death Cult manner. This is a more-or-less light-hearted take on the subject of suicide, which is surely tasteless, but is also undeniably catchy and quaint in its shambling aura. This was released on 7” in 1979.

There exists no greater contrast on this compilation than the one between this song and the last. Even at low volume, Perth Australia’s The Victims’ "Television Addict" sounds loud. It shares a sensibility regarding heaviness with many early ’70s blues-based hard-rock bands, the type of groups that often alienated listeners/critics with their lack of subtlety and restraint. This is a punk single that AC/DC fans can appreciate on their terms. The singer’s declamatory style reminds me of Pete Shelley on the early, vital Buzzcocks singles, the band is in total in control of the song’s dynamic range, and the lyrics leap and bound over the triteness so many punk songs succumb to. This was engraved in 7” plastic in 1978, and I’m betting that whoever heard its riotous racket either embraced it like a lover long-lost, or rejected it as ample evidence that the kids had finally went off their collective rocker. No no no no. The kids are alright.

Swell Maps take us on a trip into one of the UK art-punk’s scene’s sweet spots, which is to say that "Read about Seymour" is about as close to anthem status as anything in the canon of edgy experimentalism. Sounding held together with scotch tape, thumb tacks, and rubber-bands, the Maps proffer the sort of time friendly oppositionist blat that rings out with the same gusto as a Dadaist poem swirling off the lips of Kurt Schwitters. Gulp down some coffee (black), slither into a turtleneck sweater (black), and light up a clove cigarette (lungs: black) in tribute to these sounds cut to 7” in Birmingham, England in year zero for this kind of liberating musical anarchism, 1977.

"Life" by Alternative TV is a personal favorite, not only for the brainy heft of its overall sound, but also due the self-awareness that’s on offer in its lyrics. Life’s so bad it’s wonderful in the cold/Life’s so bad it’s wonderful it’s growing old!!! There sits the sweet/sour friction inherent in so much of the creative impulse. Fluffy ducks and sail boating weekends aren’t going to do much to inspire great art, at least not anything I’d want to contend with. Extended boredom, waiting in the dole queue, missing meals, industrial despair, and the angst of an uncertain future: now these are some of the things great art is made of. Mark Perry and ATV know what’s up, specifically that while one of punk-rock’s main tenets is rebellion (as well as a clarion-call of independence) against certain conditions and situations, it’s also just impossible without those very factors. This may not seem like a big deal, but I find it rather refreshing that amongst all the shouters of No Future there was someone, in 1978, who really grasped the parameters of the landscape. From the band’s 4th 7”

Another often neglected tenet of punk is having some knowledge of your antecedents. The Milkshakes, one of the numerous groups led by musician/writer/painter/publisher Wild Billy Childish (from Kent, England), are utterly immersed in the kind of raw, hard murk that has always been the basis of any unhyphenated punk action of the post-’77 era. Any group that Childish gets involved with is a bit of a history lesson, yet they always avoid even the slightest whiff of nostalgia. No, what it all about is showing how Link Wray is more essential to the punk whatsis than an army of bands like The Exploited. But relax, the wisdom of Wild Billy is never overbearing. I mean, how overbearing could a righteous cover of Link’s "Run Chicken Run" actually be? From SHOWCASE, a 1984 LP.

The Killjoys featured Kevin Rowland, who later went on to Dexy’s Midnight Runners. "Johnny Won’t Go to Heaven" is from a 1977 7”, and is one of the most raging songs of the original UK wave. From England’s Midlands, they only put out that one single (plus a couple comp tracks) on Raw Records (still the best kept secret in UK punk pre ’80), but it’s a stone cinch that many groups with multiple albums to their credit would just die to have one song that swaggered with the intensity and bravado of being basic that The ‘joys briefly mastered. Some might denigrate them for lacking ingenuity and for not coming up with more lyrics, but I think that’s missing the point. To these ears, rock solid simplicity never sounded so inspiring. Come on, Eileen.

Another glorious example of early Brit punk at its most elemental and fleeting could be "Get Your Woofing Dog Off Me" by Leeds’ The Jerks. But on further inspection it’s rather shrewd. First, they take the primary punk impulse to sound pissed-off and bend it in a direction that’s more in accord with the punchy, vigorous jubilance that you’d find in some ‘60s teen gal’s plastic snap-case of dance craze 45s. Second, just when they arrive at the point of the song where even the most dubious people at the party are starting to nod along with the joie de vivre, they pull a bait-and-switch and swing into a Stooges song. These are the kind of small scale, non-obvious moves that sometimes go unnoticed. But once you hear it a few times, I think you’ll be singing along: WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!!! From a 1977 7”.

"When the Tanks Roll over Poland Again" by The Automatics was a rather large UK hit in 1978, so it’s a bit perplexing why the song isn’t more revered today. It’s really a top-notch example of pop-punk in its early incarnation, before the boundaries of the genre became codified to the point of almost universal worthlessness. The singer’s accent is so thick that I still haven’t grasped all the lyrics, but even without a full handle as to exactly what he’s on about, it’s still quite prickly that this tune predicts Martial Law in Poland by roughly three years. I wonder if Lech Walesa heard it. This was released by Island Records on 7”.

Edinburgh Scotland’s The Rezillos were quite a popular band in their day, which isn’t surprising since they were a group that really personified the punk=fun ideal, being a bit like Pop-Art cousins to the likes of early B-52s. "Glad All Over" provides a nice example of what they were shooting for: instead of being yet another band mining territory blazed by the likes of the MC5, they transform a nifty chestnut by The Dave Clark Five into an infectious, speed-freak party anthem. This can be found on 1978’s CAN'T STAND THE REZILLOS LP, the band’s only studio album.

To be blunt, the Brit Oi! Scene isn’t one of my favorite areas of the punk-rock geography. Largely populated by people so preoccupied with being genuine that it ended up, to me, like some sort of reverse-pretentiousness, and coupled with a wrongheaded musical sensibility that actually encouraged a clone-like facelessness as a virtue, I feel it was predominantly an overly self-conscious misstep. But hey, they’d surely call me an art-fag, so let me extend an olive branch from a distance that insures it won’t get swatted out my hand. Early on, Oi! spat out some fine singles, like this one from London’s Menace, their debut from 1977. "Screwed Up" is one of the template songs for this whole movement, and luckily it’s handled by characters who know how to turn up the sonic heat. Anthemic, eschewing finesse, and wearing its hard-life fixation like a snug leather-jacket covered in metal studs, it may not be the most intellectually stimulating moment in British punk, but it still sounds quite happening.

The Angelic Upstarts put out far too many records, but their 2nd 7” wasn’t one of them. "I’m an Upstart", from 1978, shows how many of these working-class, pre-National Front skinhead bands were actually on to something before they stomped-out all the traces of Sir Charles Berry from their sound. Yeah, the Berry here is quite bastardized, run through ‘60s freak-beat and garage, Detroit proto-punk and UK pub-rock, and plenty of the amped-up heat of the class of ’77, but that’s not at all a bad thing. It’s not enough to make me start a riot at a football match, but I’m a peaceful fellow, what these guys would probably call a fookin’ ‘ippie. Yeah, me and Elvis Costello.

This one some of you have heard before, some not. "Borstal Breakout" by Hersham England’s Sham 69 is, for some Brit-punk aficionados, simply the grail. Thundering like a herd of hooligans wearing seven-league Dr. Martens while trashing a fish-and-chip shop, this is about as great as this particular strain of UK punk gets. The band’s name has subsequently been dragged through so much low-quality mud (and influenced so many lackluster records) that the goodwill generated by their early stuff was seriously strained. But that’s okay. Sandwiched in between all these other songs, this goes down like a belt of strong hooch after seven or eight beers, and would doubtlessly be a grand addition to a soundtrack for a night of serious drinking. From the band’s 2nd 7”, released by Polydor in 1978.

But enough of Oi!, let’s go to Ireland. Stiff Little Fingers are often the first band people mention regarding the subject of Irish punk, but I think the best single to come out of that domain was "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones (The late British DJ John Peel went even further, ranking it as his favorite record of all-time). It’s a doozy, melding thick guitar splooge and well-developed rhythmic dexterity to the kind of songwriting sensibility that might make Lenny Kaye crack a smile, while Feargal Sharkey’s vocals quiver and quaver atop the whole thing with a conviction that makes it seem like he’s actually about to make out with the cutest chick in Northern Ireland. Pretty life-affirming stuff, I think. Releasing this as the A-side of your debut single in 1978 is the first step in a recipe for diminishing returns, but these guys didn’t do too badly. Minus the singer, they later morphed into That Petrol Emotion.

The Valves, from Edinburgh Scotland, got in on the tacky Nazi-shtick pretty quickly, and got out just as fast, for their subsequent work displays none of those dubious ideological shenanigans. "For Adolphs Only", the B-side to the debut 1977 7”, doesn’t reek quite as badly of the foul-taste and stupid clothing choices that many of their peers succumbed to, and ends up being a pretty hot slab of growling motion by some guys who should’ve paid closer attention in history class. There I go, acting like a hippie again.

Canadian punk has a substantial history that’s been well documented, but a band that tends to slip through the cracks a bit is Ottawa’s The Bureaucrats. They have a complicated sound, melodic and layered with killer dual guitars and perfectly rendered textural shifts that add up to a whole lot of value. I can understand why some songs (real contenders) never catch on with the wider public, but can’t be anything but perplexed that "Feel the Pain" didn’t spread like the clap at a rouge swingers’ convention into wide mass appeal. It’s true that by 1980, the year this came out on 7”, there was a major shift away from guitars towards synths and keyboards, but MAN this song is the proverbial cat’s PJ’s. It shoulda been huge.

As a group, Calgary’s The Hot
Nasties are about as handsome as a pimple on the right ass-cheek of Stiv Bators, but if that’s what’s necessary to come up with a song as tweaked and gorgeous as "Invasion of the Tribbles", then I say viva the non-handsome men. This monster has the gauze of low-fi in spades, and it takes a Ramonesy rock knowledge as a basis and then stretches it out with a loony, loopy non-profundity that’s got high-school loner written all-over it. If I moved into a house and while rummaging through some stray junk left behind in the garage, found a small box that held a cassette tape marked DEMO that had a song this strange and great on it, I’d feel like the luckiest guy in town. And I’d never sell it on E-Bay. From a 1980 7”.

We touch back down in the US in the state of (mind that is) Kansas, with The Embarrassment, from Wichita, and "Sex Drive", the A-side of their 1980 debut 7”. This one has been a favorite of mine for over ten years now, partly for its hard-edged pop sensibilities, and also for the bookish, cutting irony in its lyrics. Scott’s Trans Am has the windows down/But he’s in a jam when the girl’s around………stops at the curb and he opens the hood/He’s on the main drag and he thinks that’s good……..(and then the chorus)……I’m going on a.......SEX DRIVE!!!! All the while, the band’s riffing and hitting like champions. Some crabs might carp that no song that approaches the five minute mark should be classified as punk, but I say they don’t understand heartland America. The Embos (as they were called by their small, yet dedicated fan-base) carved out quite the impressive legacy, including a two-CD retrospective of their discography and Bill Goffrier going on to help form college-rock mainstays Big Dipper.

"Living Downtown" by Albany New York’s A. D.'s has its roots firmly planted in the street-rock of New York Dolls, Richard Hell, and Johnny Thunders, but it’s speedier, more driving, and is far less likely to paint a mental picture of someone in the band wearing a leopard-print scarf. This was the A-side of a one-shot single that these days go for around $30. Maybe if they’d worn some of those scarves, they could’ve managed to release more than one record. From 1979.

Like the Saints, San Francisco’s Crime was active and recording in 1976. "Hot Wire My Heart" is the A-side of their classic 1st single, and it shows how wide-open the whole concept of individual sound was in those turbulent early days of the punk impulse. These guys were known to get decked-out in cop suits while playing (flash forward a few years, and this would be a serious fashion no-no), and they actually played a show at Alcatraz prison (can’t say I wish I’d been in attendance for that one). Not everything they recorded was as aggressively ruling as this song, but they did belch out enough top quality junk-as-gold to be considered far more than a footnote. The punk scene’s later large infatuation with speed leaves Crime’s sound as a sadly underutilized influence, but that’s alright. Sonic Youth covered this song on their SISTER LP, so if you’re thinking you’ve heard this before, maybe that’s it. Or you could’ve been at The Blue Moon Café in Shephardstown WV a few months back, where the DJ was gracious enough to spin this for my full appreciation.

By 1980 Los Angeles had more punk bands than you could swing a multi-colored and stickered skateboard at. Not all of them were worth listening to. Agent Orange was worth it, however, and "Bloodstains" is quite possibly the band’s best straight-up punk moment. This band had a substantial interest in instrumental surf music that pre-dated Quentin Tarantino by more than a few years, but here they just let it all hang out while maintaining a judicious use of speed, a loose handle on precision, and throwing down a (some would say metallic) riff-chug AND sing-along-no-shout-along lyrics for the ages. The topic of hedonistic over-stimulation and the resulting psychosis never sounded like such a worthy life goal. There are a couple different versions of this song; this one is from the RODNEY ON THE ROQ VOLUME ONE compilation LP. Dig that cool Brooke Shields opening.

Regarding punk bands, they make them different in Texas. Or at least they used to. A lot of (even great) punk groups can’t help but give off the vibe that they were being just as non-conformist as they could afford to, and not a whit more. And that’s cool, but in Texas, the bands often seem death-wish defiant. It’s no accident that the two greatest anti-cop songs (yup, better than Black Flag’s "Police Story") come from this state. Here’s the first: AK47’s "The Badge Means You Suck". Instead of dead-end sloganeering, this song’s lyric gush has the kind of almost folkist pointed quality that could inspire the late great Phil Ochs to sleep well in his grave. It’s combined with a non-flash bordering on bluesy pummeling that I’m thinking could get a hard taskmaster like Dylan to doff his cap (I’ll only add that back around ’84 Dylan played on Letterman backed-up by the Plugz, and they covered "Don’t Start Me to Talkin’" by Sonny Boy Williamson, so it’s no stretch to consider old Bob being down for punk-blues synthesis). This was released on 7” in 1980. They were from Houston, and this song is like a dare to some of that city’s non-finest to try and get ugly with their billy-clubs in a dark alley somewhere.

Led by a pushing 300 Lbs. homosexual transvestite communist lead singer named Gary Floyd (he of Butthole Surfers fame), Austin’s The Dicks were the kind of band that, were they a fictive creation, would strain the concept of suspension-of-disbelief. They definitely make me scratch my head and wonder just how they all (or at least Gary) didn’t end up dead or at least crippled. Because The Dicks "Hate the Police" was the A-side of their debut single, released in 1980 with a not-a-bit subtle Hammer and Sickle on the cover forming the letter D in the band’s name. Because in interviews, Floyd would describe the group as a Commie Faggot band. Because while onstage, Floyd would sometimes splatter the crowd with chocolate frosting flung from his panties (DUCK!). And because the band also laid down some of the best protest-punk of the era. This song was later covered by Mudhoney in an even bigger, louder version that I must confess to hearing first and being slightly partial to (there goes my hipster cred), but there’s no doubt that this is as incendiary and in your face as punk gets.

It’s rather cool that one of the songs that really kick-started the whole obsessive interest in pre-hardcore punk singles that nobody bought when they were first released comes from a state not known as a punk rock paradise. That would be Florida. The Eat’s "Communist Radio" 7” was released in 1979, and at the time I doubt that anybody outside of the southern part of their home state even heard the thing. These days it’s been known to fetch +$500 dollars from rabid collectors who really should know better. But at least the song is actually a great one, a low-fi blast of historically rich sonic flailing that sprints to the finish line with nary a flaw in sight. This sits at the smack dab center of punk rock’s obscure underbelly and is almost peerless in its uncut beauty. It’s nice that modern technology can allow us to hear it without breaking the bank.

Probably one of my missteps in putting this comp together is only including one band from Ohio, specifically Cleveland. Unlike some of the locales visited here, it really was a major scene in punk’s growth era. But oh well, maybe next time. Clevo’s Pagans will just have to suffice, and "Street Where Nobody Lives", from their 2nd 7” (1978) is pure punk nectar. Rumbling like a bunch of dissatisfied miscreants who are all drunk on $2 bottles of wine with each of them holding a tattered, rolled-up copy of CREEM magazine in their back pocket, this is perfect soundtrack music to some grainy 8mm footage of a burning Cuyahoga river. The A-side of this band’s 1st record was called "Dead End America", so you know what kind of tree they’re barking up. Strikingly formidable.

BACK FROM SAMOA by LA’s Angry Samoans was probably my most listened to LP of 1988 (the only contenders were HALLOWED GROUN by Violent Femmes and IIT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK by Public Enemy). The undisputed sultans of snot, the Samoans’ could elevate the rudiments of wise-guy punk into a fine broth like nobody before or since. "Posh Boy’s Cock" is an undisguised attack on DJ Rodney Bingenheimer that eventually turned up on the outtakes and live collection RETURN TO SAMOA, which documents the band’s sound before they moved into their garage-psyche period.

So it’s only fitting to include a song from one of the classic Posh Boy records releases, specifically the debut self-titled 7” by LA’s Red Cross, from 1980. "Annette’s Got the Hits" is a brief and pretty perfect summation of the young McDonald brother’s fascination with sun-baked trash culture, and the sweet thing is that it hold’s none of the bad decisions and fashion catastrophes later versions of the band were plagued with (I saw them open for Sonic Youth in the early ‘90s at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, and it was a painful thing to witness). This is just bold bratty riffing and pounding from some kids who were still a good four/five years away from being able to (legally) drink. Yowch!

Flash forward to 1984 and you can see that some folks were getting rather board with the recently imposed restriction of what punk was supposed to be. LA’s Painted Willie is a good example of this. "Ragged Army", from their 1st 7”, moves all over the place , and while so doing provides a template (one of many) for much of the worthwhile underground action that was set to explode in that decade’s second half, what was soon to be called indie-rock. I love it’s scattershot explorations of non-generic terrain, the vocalist’s movement from post Darby Crash throat motion to giddy high-school gulp-emoting, and the cowbell………Mark Farner’s unavailable for comment.

Too bad more people didn’t hear "Let’s Get Let’s Get Tammy Wynette" by San Francisco’s The Maggots back when it was released on 7” in 1979, because it’s one of the greatest one-shot punk singles of all time. Ratty keyboard driven muck doesn’t get any better than this. The chick singer sounds like her nostrils are full of concrete, the guitarist appears to have been playing for about a week, and the rhythmic motion is like a fever-dream from the bed of Mo Tucker. Plus, from a lyrical standpoint, it’s one of the better examples of prankish glee I’ve ever heard.

But The Maids, also from San Fran, can give The Maggots a run for their money in the one-shot singles competition. "Back to Bataan", from their 1979 7” is just cathartic in its blasted aura. From the special punch of its drum intro to its off-center shouting and the curiously homoerotic lyrics to its egghead on speed guitar solo and the song’s wailing conclusion, this is like manna dropped from my personal musical heaven.

And thing’s come to a hopefully satisfying conclusion with The Gizmos and "The Midwest Can Be Alright". From Bloomington Indiana, friends with Dow Jones and the Industrials, their song from the 1981 RED SNERTS compilation LP is basically a response to this compilation’s opening track. It’s a nice, shambling run through pop-rock territory of a distinctly American flavor, and if I owned an Ipod and had nothing to do, I’m thinking this would sound great in my ears as I canvassed Downtown Winchester on an overcast autumn afternoon, taking in the buildings and the people and the whole rather non-exciting atmosphere, and for a few moments I could reach a level of acceptance. But never contentment.

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