Day Whatever – Flipper, Album Generic Flipper

Written by guest editor, John Edge.
Subterranean Records ■ SUB 25

Released in April, 1982

Produced by Gary Krimon

Side One: Side Two:

  1. “Ever” (Loose) – 2:56
  2. “Life Is Cheap” (Loose) – 3:55
  3. “Shed No Tears” (Shatter) – 4:26
  4. “(I Saw You) Shine” (Shatter) – 8:31

  1. “The Way of the World” (Shatter) – 4:23
  2.  “Life” (Shatter) – 4:44
  3. “Nothing” (Loose) – 2:18
  4. “Living for the Depression” (Ant/Loose) – 1:23
  5. “Sex Bomb” (Shatter) – 7:48

Or perhaps the album title is Album and the band name is Generic Flipper.  Who cares?

Anyway, RC roped me into writing these dopey record reviews which I really don’t have time for.  I’ve got a full time job, a kid, and all kinds of other shit begging for my time.  But whatever, I’ve had a particularly hard day at work and have about five brain cells to work on, so now’s the perfect time to write a review. 

This is one of those great punk albums I really cut my teeth on as a teenager.  The sludginess, the depressing/uplifting lyrics, the general us vs them attitude all made me think I wasn’t the only one who thought and felt that way.  Seem cliche?  Give me a break, we were all teenagers once and I was a damn good one.  Anyway, this album still stands lyrically as the closest to my personal worldview as any other I’ve ever heard in the intervening years.  

A little background on Flipper (the band, not the insufferable show): In the early eighties, punk rock bands and especially the offshoot hardcore groups were ratcheting up tempos and honing their sound to razor sharp clarity and tonality, Flipper hazily veered off in the complete opposite direction.  Their sound is mired in a drug fueled stupor. Flipper’s songs take the breakneck hardcore of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat and slow it to a slug’s pace.  Maybe they loved Sabbath?  Maybe they were just not good enough to play fast?  Or maybe they were just the perfect foil to Minor Threat: slow, sludgy, long songs, gleefully drunk and fucked up on all sorts of chemical entertainments.  They have two bassists.  That’s all you really need to know.  

Album represents the first LP offering scattered among various single releases, a sophmore studio album and two live albums before the untimely death of co-songwriter, co-bassist, and cocopuffs-singer Will Shatter of a drug overdose in 1987.  Unlike my usual M.O., one of my favorite things about this album is the lyrics.  Not that they are particularly nice or poetic, but their general tone veers from the pessimistic and depressive (Ever, Shed No Tears) to the (almost) bright and life affirming (Life) and the outright defiant (Living for the Depression) but also with a great dry sense of humor (do I really need another example in parentheses?)  The lyrics represent a wonderfully nuanced view of the world that was realistic and grey while still acknowledging that, as we’re all alive and in this world, we may as well make the most of it, right?  

The album starts with screeching feedback that quickly plunges into a rumbling, jaunty drum and bass led groove.  Perhaps ‘groove’ sounds too funky.  Think of it as a punk groove, down and dirty, rhythmic and repetitive, sloppy and uncoordinated.  Yet it all hangs together.  “Ever” asks the listener if they’ve “ever lived a life that’s real/full of zest and no appeal”.  Bruce Loose/Lose or Will Shatter or whoever paint life as a depressing set of contradictions (“ever wished the human race didn’t exist/then realize, you’re one too) and then nullify everything in the end (“have you ever? I have. So what?”)  It’s exactly this combination of barely controlled musical calamity and raw, yet flippant, lyrics that make Album (and Flipper) so appealing.  

Life is Cheap brings the lyrical tone down even further (“life is pretty cheap/it’s sold a decade at a time) while paradoxically cleaning up the sound somewhat (very somewhat).  Then, Shed No Tears kicks in with a similar feedback blast to Ever, leading one to believe more of the same is coming about.  However, the lyrics of Shed no Tears highlight one of the more interesting (and somewhat unusual for punk) positive facets of Flipper’s outlook.  Sure, singing things like, “shed no tears for the martyr dying/only in pain, suffering, and death/can the martyr become what he’s chosen to be” doesn’t necessarily come off as being too happy (well, maybe it depends on your personality), but in some ways it makes perfect sense.  Not every sad thing is necessarily so terrible when you think about it.  A martyr fulfills their role by suffering, despots being murdered frees their subjects (ok, it’s cops and prisoners in the song, gimme a break), a suicide frees a depressive from a cruel world.  Sometimes awful things fulfill a great purpose in life.  Or some shit like that.

(I Saw You) Shine (with random parentheses) somehow manages to slow things down a bit more before dying out at the end of side 1.  The record reaches funeral dirge like levels of speed.  Yet, despite the (lack of) tempo, the track still manages to find a groove and lock it in.  Perhaps this is one of the great triumphs of Flipper: the music sounds so sloppy you wonder if they even rehearsed beforehand.  Yet, the grooves stay so grounded it’s impossible that Will Shatter flopped out a beer-soaked bed and grabbed a bass before the engineer hit record.  

Ted Falconi… maybe.  

Which brings me to another great thing about Flipper.  Much like Gang of Four (who I imagine to be a powerful influence) but completely unlike other punk groups, Flipper are not led by guitar in the least.  Twin bassists Bruce Loose and WIll Shatter (see, I got around to actually describing who these people are) led the way, with drummer Steve DePace holding down a groove so tightly you’d think Jaki Liebezeit of Can had forsaken Germany for the Bay area.  Meanwhile, Ted Falconi sprayed feedback laden guitar riffs with wild abandon, adding a feral and uncontrolled sort of texture to the songs.  So, again, Ted may have just joined the proceedings straight from a previous night’s hangover.  

Onward to side 2, The Way of the World strips Will Shatter’s sense of humor bare for all the world to see… or something like that.  The song works up a bleak sense of how the world works (thus, the ‘way of the world’).  Such lines such as “there are eyes that cannot see and fingers that cannot touch” are inevitably demolished by the line, “there are hearts no longer beating and there’s entrails spilled on the floor/that’s the way of the world”.  The final verse paints a picture with such absurd colors that one can’t help but view the words beforehand as being just as absurd.  The deadpan singalong chorus probably doesn’t help matters much.  

Life is probably the most standout song on the record from a thematic perspective.  Here, Shatter lets loose an absolutely positive song exhorting listeners that “life is the only thing worth living for.”  Of course, he couldn’t keep his tongue out of his cheek the entire song.  Claiming that he has sung of death, chaos, mayhem, and depression (my words not his) but he’s “not going to sing that song anymore” (his words, not mine).  I’ll give him four minutes and forty-four seconds before he starts singing about that crap again.  

Nothing and Living for the Depression bring the pace up quite a bit with the latter almost becoming a hardcore punk song.  Too bad Flipper still manages to screw it up and make it sludgy and bassy.  Oh well, why defy expectations now?  We’re almost through!  By the way, I have no idea who the Ant guy who co-wrote the song is.  It’s probably Adam Ant.  In fact, it is Adam Ant.  I’m sure of it.  

Finally, we have Sex Bomb.  The Sex Bomb.  The “we’ll play Sex Bomb if you throw one more beer onstage” Sex Bomb.  Take a rolling, churning bassline.  Add a metronomic drum beat.  A pinch of synthesizer (or something) for flavor.  Add a dash of saxophone.  Shake well and yell “sex bomb baby, yeah (or waaaah)” over and over.  Repeat until the whole thing clatters to a stop.  

Ok, are you happy now?  Here’s a song by song overview for those who are still reading this crap.  

Ever is good.
Life is Cheap is depressing.
Shed no Tears is also depressing, but somewhat reassuring.
(I Saw You Shine) is long.
The Way of the World is hilarious.
Life is reaffirming.
Nothing is nothing much, but I want out.
Living for the Depression is almost hardcore.
Sex Bomb, baby, yeah! (Repeat x26)

Oh yeah, it was released by Subterranean Records or some shit like that.
[Editor’s Note: Sorry, John, I added the info above, I’ve got to have some consistency here!]

Now, in the immortal words of Will Shatter: “Is that enough?  Can we go home now?”

Postscript: all jokes aside, I really am quite honored that R.C. selected me to contribute to VoV in his absence.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my awful, contrived writing in the meanwhile.  Anyway, there should be more to come if I don’t drink too much scotch.  

Various Artists – Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volumes 8-11 (1997)

  Amphetamine Reptile Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released April 22, 1997

Technical Credits Unknown, Likely Varied

Side One (Vol. 8 & 9): Side Two (Vol 10 & 11):
  1. Superchunk – “Basement Life”
  2. Guzzard – “Bites”
  3. Jawbox – “Low Strung”
  4. godheadSilo – “Lotion Pocket”
  5. Bordeoms – “Pukuri”
  6. Supernova – “Sugar Coated Stucco”
  7. Chokebore – “Brittle & Depressing”
  8. Love 666 – “You Sold Me Out #2”
  1. Bailter Space – “Glimmer Dot”
  2. Steelpolebathtub – “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo”
  3. Chrome Cranks – “Dead Man’s Suit”
  4. Brainiac – “Cookie Doesn’t Sing”
  5. Today Is the Day – “Execution Style”
  6. Rocket from the Crypt – “Tiger Mask”
  7. Calvin Krime – “Fight Song”
  8. Gaunt – “Kiss Destroyer”
  9. Servotron – “Matrix of Perfection”

I’m often wary, wandering into any record store for the first time. There’s no real guarantee of what anyone has or will carry, and in a used store it becomes even more complicated, as they can only carry what records they’ve acquired to sell. And that, then, depends on the locals. The first time I walked into Dead Wax Records, I wasn’t sure what to think. Between the place I now live and the places I work, there’s not a lot of music to be found. Even the oft-ignored (for financially justifiable reasons) FYE and similar “TWEC” (TransWorld Entertainment Company, who owns FYE, Coconuts, etc) stores make no appearances. There’s a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, a Target–certainly nowhere you’d find vinyl (beyond the semi-kitschy ‘7″ with a t-shirt’ thing Target is doing–but I owned most of the ones that looked interesting to me, or saw no reason to get the 7″), and nowhere you’d find a good chunk of my music collection, vinyl or otherwise.

I found a small used record and used/new CD store about fifteen miles away and had a very strange experience there, locating both upstate New York’s Immolation’s third album and some Split Enz albums I was looking for on CD. I found some Throbbing Gristle material, too, which is only appropriate for this particular entry–well, parts of it. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the place, though I’ve intended to go back a few times (never managing). When I started my current job just a bit further out, though, someone there mentioned a local record store, which piqued my interest immediately. I swung by after work that day, only to find it was closed on Mondays, deciding to come back the next. That next day, I wandered in and found it comfortably cozy and close, as you’d expect from a fledgling (only a few months old!) record store. However, its walls were papered with posters and fliers for bands I knew well–but knew well from my forays into music in the last few odd years more than anything else. Snapcase. Gluecifer. The Murder City Devils. The Supersuckers. Turbonegro. Mudhoney. All the sorts of things I’d tried (sometimes successfully) to push on a very picky person I know.

When I started flipping through the records there, I found I was in a store I could definitely see myself returning to. I brought a stack of 7 12″s up to the counter and was told I had really good taste. I was buying Prince, Black Flag, Alice Donut, The Church, Leon Russell, and The Fall albums–and this one. I later went back for a single volume that was hanging out there, Vol. 6 in the “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” series, too. But that set–including my favourite Church album, Heyday–basically informed me this was a worthwhile stop. And, along the same lines, it was confirming that this set included Jawbox’s “Low Strung” that sealed that purchase and left me shrugging and stacking everything else in (Heyday was a no-brainer, mind you, and was the “gateway” to accepting that I would purchase more that day).

I knew the series, vaguely, because tracks from it will often appear on compilations now, such as the Sub Pop reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, or, most pertinently, Jawbox’s My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. My habit of relentlessly parsing out the bonus tracks on CD releases was fruitful, as it often is: it informed me both of the series’ existence, and its particular approach to art, meaning I recognized them as soon as I saw them–and it was that that sealed the store as worth digging in for me. Many bands have appeared there, the ones familiar to me including the above, Rocket from the Crypt, the Melvins, Helmet, Lubricated Goat, Tar (who did a split with Jawbox, which I own), Superchunk, and the Jesus Lizard. The last is a stretch insofar as familiarity, but those were the names I knew–in most cases, bands I owned full-fledged releases from (Lubricated Goat quite by–hilarious–accident).

If any of those names mean anything to you, then this is probably an interesting-sounding compilation. If they don’t, this is probably a scary-sounding compilation. And that’s probably fair–while Superchunk and Jawbox are by no means known for anything ultra-noisy, abrasive, raucous or otherwise “difficult” and largely any bands “known” for that aren’t known in the first place, unless you’re asking people who like that kind of thing (or they know the more popular and largely more accessible works of those groups–like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”, for instance). But this isn’t a noise compilation–at least, not completely. It’s a mix of alternative, noisy, post-, and various other kinds of independent music, though it largely eschews the “indie” variety, if you’ll allow that rather expansively-narrowed definition.¹

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eight
(Superchunk, Guzzard, Jawbox, godheadSilo)Originally released in April, 1994

Naturally, Volume 8 was of supreme interest to me. Most of the Dope-Guns series is 4 tracks on a 7″, two per side, but there are variances throughout. Volume 8 was not an exception to this layout, though–even as it does have seemingly the strangest appearance that could be managed, starting from my own experiences.

Despite living in Durham and working in Chapel Hill for the majority of my adult life (no longer, in case the “there are no record stores here” wasn’t a tip-off), I never really listened to Superchunk. I kind of filed them with Guided by Voices and Pavement and a bunch of other bands I heard spoken of in awed tones with respect to indie rock in the 1990s. I tried a few out about ten years ago and nothing caught my ears, but the newfound love for Pavement in the past some-odd years and growing love for GBV has led me to soften my disinterests and try things. I picked up a few Superchunk singles in my last wanderings through used CDs, and liked what I heard. “Basement Life” is a bit more buzz-y than the singles (“Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”) I’ve picked up, which didn’t bother me and seemed quite fitting for a release on a label that has “NOISE” built into their logo. It’s a stomping roll through a rumble-bass-focused track of fuzzy, catchy fun. What strains it has of indie rock–the only instance on this compilation of compilations–is the full-on Pavement kind (I’m betting also the Superchunk kind) that still carries the genetic trace of punk in its semi-sneering vocals and snarky tone–less “Revolution”, more “whatever”.

Guzzard apparently didn’t last much past this compilation’s original release (indeed, not long enough to see the release of the three volumes combined), but sounds more like you might expect from a label associating itself with noise, though it’s still pretty accessible. “Bites” grinds and buzzes a little more, and has a forward-leaning aggressive tone to it than “Basement Life” by far. Nice, strong, clear drumming that wasn’t always present or as well-produced in hardcore acts appears and backs a strained yell of a voice, as well as very clear hardcore origins for the group. It’s a nice, tight, buzzsaw follow up to Superchunk.

Jawbox’s contribution is a nice bridge between the work on their first two full-lengths (Grippe and Novelty) and the works for which they’d become best known and loved (For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox). Original drummer Adam Wade had left to join Shudder to Think (labelmates of Jawbox on Dischord–interestingly, both being the Dischord bands to hit major labels in ’94) and now the great Zach Barocas had joined and added a ton of spice to the group with his unique drumming style. He’s not quite in the front seat he’d be in the albums that would follow this recording, but his “voice” is clearly present. J. Robbins’ voice is “punkier” than it would be on most of those next two albums (with the possible exception of Sweetheart opener “FF=66”). It’s a smart contribution to the release, as it, too, is like the noisier edge of their range.

godheadSilo were a peculiar group, being one of few to work with the “bass and drums” set-up, lacking a guitar, keys, or other ‘focal” instrument. The track sounds like a strange amalgamation of the low-end droning of bands like SunnO))) and some of the (knowingly) sloppier garage rock of the last two decades. It’s the first clear sign of “noise” on the album, though it’s a clearly defined song, built on a(n admittedly repetitive) bass riff and simple drumming, with vocals shredded by distortion themselves. It’s a catchy number despite that–maybe the years of metal and rapidly increasing years of noise rock have inured me to those things and let me hear the underlying guts of a song, I’m not sure. Still, it works well, and feels like a nice comfortable medium stance between “noise” and the kinds of genres that didn’t quite cross that line, but sat snugly against it.

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Nine
(The Boredoms, Supernova, Chokebore, Love 666, Bailter Space)Originally released (later) in 1994

Spacial concerns obviously pushed the fifth track on this one onto the second side, but I can’t complain too much, as it’s still 4 of these put together, and each was a wild mix of artists, anyway.

I can’t say I’ve heard of a single one of these bands–maybe Chokebore, but that could just be the fact that my research around this has taught me that they, like many of the others, were Amphetamine Reptile “natives”, and would release their singles and albums through AmRep, too. Indeed, they did a split release with Guzzard and Today Is the Day the same year as these first two Dope-Guns. Still, otherwise? Completely new.

The Boredoms’ appearance with “Pukuri” immediately gave me a better impression of what AmRep was interested in including. Kazoo-like sounds and a tromping beat bring to mind the kinds of weird melodies and instrumentation that would sometimes meander through early Zappa/Mothers records (particularly “Mothers” ones), especially the brief “interludes” that appear between songs. It devolves into screaming, dissonant and semi-random guitar distortion and even more distorted recordings of drums–but seems to inevitably circle back to the same marching melody that it started with in spite of that. The drumming gets “tribalistic” at some point, and sort of takes on a kind of focus, though the track wanders through a variety of “movements” and sounds, wah-wahed guitar, strange wails–this is not the kind of track most people throw on for a good time, but it’s appreciably intentional, despite its chaos. I’m gaining a bit of a taste for this kind of controlled insanity, I have to say, though it still comes out a bit weird sandwiched in with “normal” songs, even if from punk-related bands.

“Sugar Coated Stucco”‘s intro makes it sound, at first, like it’s going to be even weirder than “Pukuri”, but breaks off into extra-nasal pop punk of the kind I’ve grown to like a lot (think Screeching Weasel, not Blink 182, if that helps at all–though I realize it probably won’t for most I know to read this). The vocals are so nasal, though, that they almost disappear into themselves. It’s catchy like all that stuff should be, though, simple and built on guitars and drums that are perfunctory–they’re there to build the beat and melody and nothing more, really, and that’s what they should do here. Interestingly, they were responsible for “Chewbacca”, the song in Clerks (which isn’t nasal at all–go figure). Hayden Thais ended up joining Man or Astro-man? though–and later Servotron, who appear on volume 11 here.

While their name implies something aggressive, speedy, and thought-to-be headache inducing, or perhaps the inappropriately aggressive name for a pop punk band (that sound just doesn’t seem to work as intimidating, despite the occasional name implying it ought), they’re more in the Mudhoney vein than anything else–sludgy, just-above-plodding and fuzzy as hell, with a vocal totally uninterested in sounding “pretty”, but staying firmly where it is placed, it might even bring to mind that of Alice Donut’s Tom Antona, too.² “Brittle and Depressing” doesn’t sound much like either musically, though–it’s strong, and has a nicely cranked out, unobtrusive lead guitar.

Love 666 contribute “You Sold Me Out #2”–it’s a great little track, that seems to somehow wind its way between hints of shoegaze conventions and sludge-rock ones. I’m not sure what, exactly, that adds it up to–but it’s interesting. Drums thump and guitars buzz loosely, while the vocals are clean, clear, near-spoken and very upfront. There’s a clear chorus, where the voices reach a kind of weird, amateur harmony that is endearing and lovely in its strange little way. The way the thumpy fuzz of guitar hammers down after it is really great, though–confusing what the track actually is without ever losing sight of itself in the process.

When Bailter Space’s “Glimmer Dot” drops, it’s totally unexpected. Unabashed shoegaze (!), it warbles along in the shoegaze vein of My Bloody Valentine, washes of guitar and production that seems to blur everything into a single stream of sound, despite the still recognizable variation in instruments. Vocals are in the half-lidded, drugged-out style that marks most shoegaze, and the whole track is great, but wildly unexpected. It’s entirely possible this track would be worth the whole compilation to someone who couldn’t stand the rest, if they liked shoegaze enough. 

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Ten
(Steel Pole Bath Tub, Chrome Cranks, Brainiac, Today Is the Day)Originally released (later) in 1994

I guess these records were coming fast and thick in ’94, which makes sense as the whole series of 11 came out between ’91 and ’94, but, dang, that’s three, and I know 11 came out years later…I figured they were spaced out more than that.

The name Steel Pole Bath Tub rings only the faintest of bells–nothing helpful, but something that insists I’ve heard the name before in the context of a band. I’m not sure how, why, or what context it came in, but I don’t think I would’ve gone with their actual sound if I was asked point blank before I’d heard this what they sound like. “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo” at least is a track I’d be inclined to call instrumental even if it isn’t–a nice fat bassline opens the track and carries it a long under semi-unnerving guitars and over a steady drumbeat. Vocals are seeming babbles, distorted and distant, acting as a layer of sound more than a perfectly clear expression of thoughts as words. It sounds a bit like a story, but it’s hard to peel out of the music, seemingly on purpose.

The Chrome Cranks ride a rather rockabilly beat in “Dead Man’s Suit”, with the scattered slide of many of the more twisted modern interpretations of that genre. The vocals are like the more frantic and unhinged Nick Cave vocals–but with layered echo and even more punk influence. It’s like a rockabilly band through a carnival mirror and the spinning room of chemical influence. For all that it does seem ramshackle, the guitar finally takes off on a solo that is sharp and pointed in its quick run, deflating the song for a moment, before it takes off again. A fun track, and rather in contrast to what has come before on both of the previous records.

Brainiac has the frenetic drumming of a punk band, but the proximity-distorted (is he eating the microphone, perhaps?) vocals and the elliptical swing of the guitars makes the placement of “Cookie Doesn’t Sing” next to “Dead Man’s Suit” terribly appropriate. It’s a wonderfully weird track, in more the Birthday Party (I don’t know why Nick Cave’s on the brain right now) than the Butthole Surfers sense. It’s not an effect I haven’t heard before, but it’s exactly the right one in context, like a spitting flurry, slurred into a deceptively steady swing.

 It’s no surprise that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher floated through Today Is the Day at some point, even if “Execution Style” isn’t an example of their time there. I’m reminded most immediately of the peculiar choices of time signature and stylistic variation in bands like Coalesce and Botch–the most aggressive, abrasive, and heavy ends of hardcore, but filtered through tight musicanship. The guitar here is beautiful in its knowingly unsteady vibrations–I cannot think of what it reminds me of (despite hearing it for the third time now) but it’s a sound I know, not derivative enough to feel obvious, though. It’s an odd track here, but aren’t they all?

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eleven
(Rocket from the Crypt, Calvin Krime, Gaunt, Servotron)Originally released in 1997
 Man, where did time go?

Now this band, while I’m still only just getting a good feel for them, is the other that I felt assured in purchasing this record for–Rocket from the Crypt. I picked up Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime on recommendation a few years back, and quite liked it. DLJ’s John Reis would of course become “Speedo” of Rocket from the Crypt (as well as plain ol’ John Reis in Hot Snakes) and there we have the connection for me. “Tiger Mask” is a fantastic example of RFTC for sure, the semi-dramatic rumbling rock and roll that defines much of their work, under Reis’s affectedly rocking vocals, which turns more melodic and shaky for that great and catchy chorus. It’s probably the most fun song on this whole record–and I mean 8-11, not just 11.

Calvin Krime is apparently the band Har Mar Superstar was in before being Har Mar, and it’s actually a kind of cool song they contributed–“Fight Song”. It’s a series of layered “conflicting” tracks: multiple vocalists and a stop-start drumbeat, guitars gluing the two together. It’s actually very tight and solidly played and interesting. Unexpected and interesting, but fitting with the RFTC track, stylistically, in many ways.

Perhaps AmRep had abandoned a lot of their noisier strains by 1997–I don’t know. Gaunt continues the heavily rock/punk feeling of both RFTC and Calvin Krime, with the rapid patter of pop-punk drumming but a rather windmill-chord style rocking guitar. Vocals cross somewhere between the sneer of pop-punk and the sandpaper edging of a vocalist like RFTC’s Reis. The guitar is great, its lead loose and bendy, never showy, just pointy enough to make itself known. There’s a brief interlude for some cool tom drumming, and then a perfect ending.

Servotron may be the most interesting find, band-wise–even if not necessarily sound-wise–for me. One of those groups (actually like Supernova above) that decided to go whole-hog, naming themselves all with robot names and dressing up in costumes to emphasize their chosen subject matter and mythology, they sound like they listened to a lot of the B-52s, down to the choked-down male-female alternating vocals, but with hints of rather more Devo-style weirdness slathered over the whole thing. There’s a deliberate monotone to their vocals that is even given the “robo-voice” treatment here and there. Of course, the whole song is about robotic genocide of humans (so long as robots remain as limited as they do, we can find this weird and amusing instead of terrifying–but really weird for such devoted lyrics writing, I’d say anyway). The song actually ends up breaking down into something smoother and less stilted toward the end, with a rather warm and soft synth coating it, their vocals finally reaching the title: “Initiate! The matrix of perfection!” repeated until the song ends in a cleverly placed sudden stop.

When you find someone talking about the Dope-Guns series, they usually speak rather highly of it–and now I can see why. I’m going to have to resist the temptation to explore a number of these bands in greater depth now, but I doubt that resistance will last long. It’s a great mix of styles, never seeming like it wants anything more than to showcase interesting sounds from interesting bands–not force you to buy other records (indeed, these tracks are exclusive to the series, in most if not all cases, barring modern compilations and reissues), nor to give you that record to make you seem “cool” by annoying the hell out of anyone else with weird noises. The weird noises, instead, seem like just another iteration of interesting sounds.

Give this thing a spin, actually. You’ll probably find something you like in here somewhere!

  • Next Up: Guest Writers!

¹There are at least three largely useless genres I know of–not useless for content, but useless as labels, they’ve been stretched and abused so significantly that little if any clear thread is left to connect them. “Indie”/”indie rock” is one of those. It means way too many things, yet there’s a vague, nebulous idea there, of some kind. And it’s not on this record. Mostly. 

²I’ve been accused of writing things that require too much music knowledge to make sense to the unfamiliar on my last blog, but it’s hard to think of appropriate voices. Mudhoney was relatively popular during the early grunge surge, though never as popular as they were hoped/expected to be. Alice Donut have never left the underground, not really, so I’m sorry for that one. But it’s what I hear! And if you know those bands, cool–I’m talking to the lots-of-people-I-know don’t, and operating on statistical probabilities. Besides, it’s a footnote.

Day Forty: The Clash – Combat Rock

CBS/Epic Records ■ FMLN 2/PE 37689
Released May 14, 1982
Mixed by Glyn Johns

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Know Your Rights
  2. Car Jamming
  3. Should I Stay or Should I Go
  4. Rock the Casbah
  5. Red Angel Dragnet
  6. Straight to Hell
  1. Overpowered by Funk
  2. Atom Tan
  3. Sean Flynn
  4. Ghetto Defendant
  5. Inoculated City
  6. Death Is a Star

There has not yet been a poll more frustrating than the one for The Clash. I own four of five albums on vinyl (no, there aren’t six, you’re imagining things), and at no moment was there a completely clear choice from the people I know who participated. I had three people whose votes I could guess, and all ended up confirming to me that I’d guessed correctly. One unsurprisingly went up for Sandinista!, not because it’s weird, but because he likes weird things. Another went for Give ‘Em Enough Rope because he felt he’d paid it the least attention, and undeservedly so (I’m inclined toward the same, and my copy was a rather special gift, actually). Another went for Combat Rock because it was a favourite of his (which I knew). I had a few more conversations–two who noted their Clash-y inexperience, one suggesting his exclusive familiarity with London Calling meant perhaps he should choose a different record to learn something, another suggesting that because she only knew London Calling, it would be most comfortable to read about. And let’s face it: usually we all read about the records we know already unless we’re deliberately seeking one out.¹ There’s not much frame of reference to understand the description of the unfamiliar, after all.

I was asked by one person what my vote was for–I admitted that I don’t actually vote in these. It would be silly, in a way: the point is to remove my opinion from the choice, as my opinion is the end result, and that would pre-colour it. I also couldn’t really decide. Rope was a present and I often defiantly name it as a favourite (though Side Two occasionally loses me). Sandinista! is a cool and absurdly varied album, but it’s also a 3xLP, and, unlike the Caustic Window compilation, those LPs play at 33 1/3, not 45rpm. I can’t help but cover every track in the interest of talking about a whole album, so that would’ve been masochistic. Combat Rock is an album my friend Brian and I agreed was one we both lost interest in pretty easily. London Calling I found myself inclined to think of as I did Pet Sounds: what in the world am I supposed to say about one of the most influential and important rock albums ever? I love it a little more personally than Pet Sounds (or even Abbey Road), but it’s still daunting.

In the end, it came around to Combat Rock–by a hair, squeezing out over the classicists and London Calling. This is the only Clash reissue–as opposed to those I’d term “repress” as they came within the standing heyday of vinyl as the primary format for recorded music–that I own, and London Calling has a few issues in the copy that sits on my shelf. It’s also, as I always like, an excuse to give more time to an album I’m not otherwise inclined toward. I actually forgot I didn’t own it on CD for some years, only managing to purchase it years after acquiring the rest, and even doubling up with–yes, intentionally–compilations (Super Black Market Clash, The Singles, and The Essential Clash). It did just squeak in before I got the completely ridiculous 19 CD singles collection (no, that isn’t a typo), but the fact that I really couldn’t remember I had it says something about how much I listen to it.

Of course it’s all very weird: London Calling is, by far, the strongest album they produced. The Clash (the one I do not own on vinyl) is confused by its rather striking differences in U.S./U.K. release, with a number of tracks dropped and added in the standard “Quick, put some more singles on there!” fashion. Sandinista! suffers more sprawl than any 2xLP (and London Calling is one of those) possibly could, running for almost two and a half hours. Give ‘Em Enough Rope has an amazing opening trio it couldn’t live up to afterward no matter how good what followed was. And, to be totally honest, a lot of my favourite Clash songs are B-Sides, if I really think about it. I threatened at one point to pull out my Black Market Clash 10″ instead, but a shortened EP when I have four albums would be silly. Still, it does have “The Prisoner” and “The City of the Dead”, so it would be the sweetest of “punishments”.

“This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” Joe Strummer yells as “Know Your Rights” starts, and then the clatter of staccato, metallic guitars begins slashing downward on each beat, Paul Simonon’s bass thumping along happily and more melodiously, Topper Headon keeping the beat steady. Sarcastic and clearly angry, Joe lists the rights of the disenfranchised and destitute: the right to not be murdered (except by policemen and aristocrats), the right to food (after a little “humiliation, investigation”), and the right to free speech (unless you exercise it). Which, of course, covers it, so far as the world seems to be concerned, as Joe (quite publicly) saw it. Simonon makes the song pop, in spite of the bitter satirical nature and the near-atonal guitars–something of the nature of the Clash as a whole to marry the two.

“Car Jamming” has big, tight, “tub” drum sounds and semi-Diddley² guitars, though this time Simonon largely follows Topper. The backing vocals contrast with Joe’s rough, throaty-vocals, with a cheerful “In a car jam!” answer to his lead vocals. Strange synths wobble and warp, theremin-style, through the middle of the track, as Joe continues his description of the variance of the social strata’s experience, largely focusing on characters representing the homeless and the lost veterans. The slightest of ties to the Congo (the beat, the choral nature of the backing vocals) are subtly emphasized with references to Missa Luba (a Congolese arrangement of the Latin Mass), and the idea of a “multi-national anthem” drowning it out, as means of affirming the greater pride and majority of the common man, as it were. That sounds a lot more pretentious than Joe manages, who successfully avoided the sense of being anything but, if you’ll pardon me, a “regular Joe”, in all his life.

There are two Clash songs that I think everyone might know, whether they realize it or not. Oddly, neither is on London Calling, and both are here. The first is the third track on the album, and that is “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, a Mick Jones-led stomper that calls back to the “hidden” track “Train in Vain” that is on London Calling. After the politicization of Strummer’s opening vocals (and probably lyrics, though the album as a whole is credited to “The Clash”), Mick’s half-plaintive, half-eye-rolled request for clarity in a relationship is a big jump in tone. It manages to squeak its way into place with a matching production style, but still stands out. While the song maintains the rhythmic emphasis that precedes it, the melody of the guitars, as well as the little touches of lead in them, set the song distinctly apart in its distinctly poppy nature. The riff is monolithic at this point, readily identified, and easily so, because it plays along when the song opens, the second guitar that joins just playing a slightly more distorted version of it. Mick’s voice is also more interested in melody than Joe’s, and Topper’s drums are bigger and more arena-ready, which is only right for the song. When the song turns its speed up a few notches, Topper’s drums sound something like Motown-style barn-burners (though the echo on them is a bit more Stax–the overall production being neither, though). Handclaps work their way in appropriately, and Joe, ever-unusual, sings the backing vocals in Ecuadoran Spanish (the only translation available to him at the time).

And this is the other Clash song of endless popularity: “Rock the Casbah”. Neither one of these songs would make anyone say, “Oh, right, punk!” despite the fact that the Clash’s punk credentials (even if rarely self-described) are questioned only by the most (rather ironic) uptight of punk purists. Topper Headon plays a wild and boogie-woogie piano tune to open the song that is one of the best intros around, especially married as it is to handclaps in enthusiastic rhythm that just barely avoids “Take the Money and Run”³ levels of need to clap along. Joe finds a bit more easy humour in his lyrics here, the theme not too far from “Car Jamming”, but more absurd. The king of an unknown land attempts to shut down all attempts to boogie, and is thwarted by all his subjects’ refusal to follow his orders (despite the actual reality of Kohmeini flogging owners of disco records in real-life Iran, the inspiration for Joe’s lyrics). Mick’s Pac-Man watch makes a bewildering set of appearances halfway through the song (no, it’s not a cell phone), but the whole thing is stupidly joyous and danceable. The chorus–largely Mick’s voice–and the way “Sharif don’t like it!” is a hook like few others, and “Rockin’ the Casbah/Rock the Casbah” is thrown back at it with a hint of rebellion that one cannot help but join in with.

The first of a few rather odd vocal guest appearances, Kosmo Vinyl (sometime manager of the Clash) appears in “Red Angel Dragnet” quoting Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle in the middle of a Paul Simonon-sung song–the dub-like inflections that recall “Guns of Brixton” make this a rather logical choice, and the spoken-word style, near-monotone delivery Simonon favours fits quite well over this backing (especially the organ flavouring and backing vocals that sing their gentle, restrained but energized chorus).

The slow downward slide of muted guitar chords, the thumping beat of bass drum and the sustained whine of electronics that open “Straight to Hell” are actually quite pretty, and when they become a rather African-influenced beat and clean forward pushes of laidback guitar, it’s only that much more. Joe sings a bit more at ease, playing a bit more with a voice that is distinct and capable of more than the near shouts that mark a lot of his work here. The subject matter is pure Clash-era Strummer: cynical, critical, and empathetic with steel mill workers, abandoned children, and those who see the darker or nonexistent facets of the American Dream. The music and his voice, though, hint a lot at the work he would do with the Mescaleros fifteen and twenty years later, and it’s actually a great song–which I guess the band knew, as it was part of a Double-A with “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. As pretty as the song is, especially the guitar work (which sounds more like Mick Jones’s, unsurprisingly in this), is very bleak and dark.

I was actually inclined to suggest that “Overpowered by Funk” did not remind me of funk at all, but the first thing I thought of at the intro was actually James Brown. Whoops! That said, it moves off into mostly other territory following this: a lot of the album is extremely dance-y, and this song is probably the most emphatic example of it. The hi-hat-dominated drum beat, and the bowing synth noises, the suggestion of “funking out” as a response to all of the homogenization of people and culture, and those dance-y guitars–it’s all more on the line of music as rebellion against control. Graffiti artist Futura 2000 drops a near-rap (!) near the end that explains both his own motivations for his art and the essential sensibility that informs the song. It’s not the idealistic (and rather naïve) understanding of music as a weapon (I’d really like to say something really weird about SDF Macross here, but that would confuse almost anyone who read it)–per se–but rather that it can act as both an  act of rebellion and as a symbol or expression of it. And, of course, it simply couldn’t be without complete without an extraordinarily funky bass run, which appears just before Futura’s verses.

“Atom Tan” lurches and leans, the guitar seeming to teeter with all its weight falling forward, before a scramble of drum roll rushes in to push it back up–only to see it falter again. An interesting vibe, to be sure, as are the double-tracked vocals of Mick’s alternated responses to Joe. Though he’s back to more cynical material, Strummer himself puts more music into his voice again, maybe egged on by Jones, or maybe just feeling it for the song–and who could blame him? The song is sheer momentum, even when it breaks for walking bass that goes up to a drop for the chorus.

Apparently it was a long take of “Sean Flynn” that inspired Bernie Rhodes to question whether their songs need all be “as long as this rāga”, the phrase that led to Joe’s re-write of Topper’s abandoned lyrics for “Rock the Casbah”. It is no surprise that this song was once played at great length by the band. Flutes, smooth saxophone and marimba (I believe; I’ve played the darn things, but I’m by no means expert at clarifying which set of percussive keys is being played) are the majority of the song’s sound. Drums  are almost all kick, bass working its way into that beat. It’s atmospheric and scattered, and quite strange indeed for the band. As I listened to it again, probably paying attention for only the first time, I was reminded of a sardonic defense of appreciation for the album, despite its “pop” and “not punk” nature–though it is these things, it’s actually a much wilder experimentation in places than Sandinista! ever was. Sounds slip in and out of the song, occasionally reflecting the weirder moments of even prog rock bands (?!), though the sounds tend to be more pop in origin (this is not the wild experimentation on sax, and in another context would be utterly schmaltzy). It’s actually enjoyable, but mostly worth hearing for the sheer sense of “Where in the world did this come from?” Of course–this, too, hints at Joe’s Mescaleros period in the 90s.

Reggae bass that unexpectedly works its way upward, unified keys and guitars playing a melody that hits the scratch-a reggae sound only briefly–“Ghetto Defendant” isn’t exclusively odd for its spoken word portion, nor even the fact that those words are spoken by none other than Allen Ginsberg. Where “Red Angel Dragnet” functioned more as backing to the spoken style of Simonon, it sounds more as if the music of “Ghetto Defendant” is arranged around Ginsberg’s recitations, or as if he spoke in keeping with it. That Joe sings between and sometimes over his lines even more emphasizes the feeling of a “sampled” recording being interwoven into a song that seems to momentarily think of itself as reggae and then immediately forget it. The rattling gallop of Central or Southern American percussion, and a harmonica enhance the sound of a song that actually has one of the most unique sounds on Combat Rock.

Occasionally found (as it is on my copy) in an edited form for legal reasons (thanks, 2000 Flushes…), “Inoculated City” resembles, in some ways, my favourite song on London Calling: “Lost in the Supermarket”. Like that track, Mick Jones takes over the lead, and the song is mostly relaxed and kind in sound, catchy and poppy, and rather friendly. The political content is more hopeful and encouraging than jaded and sneering like much of what Strummer sings.

Rounding out the album, “Death Is a Star” is more weirdness: crickets chirp and Joe begins to tell a story, speaking with the rhythm of a storyteller, before adding a tune to his voice for a moment, a waltzing rhythm joining him for those few moments, and the beautiful piano work of future Mescalero Tymon Dogg. Up-front finger-snapping and the sway of background strings keep the song both light and pretty, as the drums are kept to brushes and calm, the choruses usually Mick and Joe singing in a harmony that manages to smooth out the rough bits of Joe and the awkward, semi-nasal bits of Mick. A lovely but very odd way to end the album, and, other than a scattering of B-sides, the band itself.

Okay, okay. There was Cut the Crap in 1985. But Mick had left, and the album is generally ignored (at best) or derided, seen as a shadow of the band and nothing on its preceding work–indeed, Joe had started to doubt their ability to authentically sing about the issues he held so dear after their new-found successes.

I’m not sure what to make of Combat RockSandinista! may well have covered more genre-ground, but the variety and the space between them is more starkly contrasted on Combat Rock. In some measure, this sounds like a more mature work for the band, with a refinement of the sounds and ideas that first inspired “White Riot”, but now both more understood and more carefully delivered. I don’t think it’s going to displace…whatever my favourite Clash record is, but the more I think about it, the more I think–You know? Actually, it might.

  • Next Up: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP

¹I’m going to have to call an exception for my known Sandinista! voter, as that’s John, who I mention here a lot. He has always had one of the most voraciously curious personalities I’ve known, which I oddly developed independently years later. When around him, I just picked up the results of his experimentation and exploration.

²That’s Bo Diddley for the unfamiliar: the man responsible for the “Bo Diddley Beat”, which is an extension/renaming of son clave rhythms. It’s really quite distinct, though I could not personally wow anyone with a technical description of it. It’s kind of shuffling, and emphasizes non-standard beats (ie, not 1,2,3,4 or 1&2&3&4&, etc).

³”Take the Money and Run” being the Steve Miller Band single, which I’ve been told has prevented people from completing jobs or art, due to the need to stop and clap along. I can’t blame them.

Day Thirty-Three (and a Third): Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I.R.S. Records¹ ■ SP 001
Released September, 1979
Produced by Martin Rushent
Engineered by Alan Winstanley (S1 – 1,8; S2-1,8), Doug Bennett (S1 – 2,3,5,6; S2 – 2,3,5,6), and Martin Rushent (S1 – 4,7;S2 – 4,7)
¹International Record Syndicate. Abbreviation not used on this record, but used on most releases from this label.

Side One (A-Sides): Side Two (B-Sides):
  1. Orgasm Addict
  2. What Do I Get?
  3. I Don’t Mind
  4. Love You More
  5. Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?
  6. Promises
  7. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays
  8. Harmony in My Head
  1. Whatever Happened To…?
  2. Oh Shit!
  3. Autonomy
  4. Noise Annoys
  5. Just Lust
  6. Lipstick
  7. Why Can’t I Touch It?
  8. Something’s Gone Wrong Again

As we go, if you were to check, you’d find there are very few compilations in my record collection, and an even smaller percentage amongst my CDs. I don’t normally go in for compilations, as, sometime around Rubber Soul, the album became the preferred format and was eventually considered as the construction in which people bought, enjoyed, experienced, and were provided music. Of course, not everyone (including some artists) had any interest in the idea, but it’s less harm to have an album that isn’t definitively an assembled, crafted set than it is to have parts excised from one that is and doled out by popularity. As it stands, a single compilation has appeared here. Another was mentioned in polling, and a small number will appear later. Largely, though, I leave them be, for fear of missing interesting interesting deep cuts, or getting things out of context that have very real contexts like Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave. Still, Singles Going Steady was my introduction to Buzzcocks, at the hands of–to the surprise of no one–my friend John.

While we were in college (and rooming together), John took up a variety of bands–Can (to the chagrin of another friend, not appearing in my vinyl, though I have a healthy CD collection), Captain Beefheart (wait a few hours…), Gang of Four, and Buzzcocks. Plenty more, of course, but those were ones that tended to stand out. I tended to lump the last two together for some reason, despite being almost polar opposite branches from the same tree. The Buzzcocks would never have written a song like “Anthrax”, nor any like “Natural’s Not in It” (which some may remember from its hilariously inappropriate appearance in an X-Box Kinect commercial, if they don’t know it already). The subject matter and sounds of the bands were very different, but they did their best work (and most of their work) after the earliest considered end of punk–the demise of the Sex Pistols in early ’78. Quite accurately for Gang of Four, they are considered post punk. The Buzzcocks, however, were still pretty distinctly a punk band, albeit an extremely popular (in the U.K, at least!) one.
Both bands were in my ears semi-regularly, but neither made a huge impression for a while. We will leave Gang of Four for later, and come to what brought the Buzzcocks to me–or me to them, I suppose. While I was unwittingly hearing nothing but singles, it was “Promises” that most appealed to my ears, as well as, somewhat oddly, “Why Can’t I Touch It?” As I began to listen to the tracks around the two–this was after I’d learned this tended to be a good idea–I found I was doing things quite correctly in doing so. I ended up being the first of us to own one of their actual albums, once I found out Singles Going Steady was indeed a compilation. I actually ended up selling my copies of both–three wonderful reissues of their three full-lengths were released a few years back, including all of the non-album singles, b-sides, demos, BBC session tracks, and basically more demos. The other CDs were redundant.
Much like with Kate Bush, I picked this album up during one of my visits to Hunky Dory, paying about the price of a cheaper-end new release (at this point, a bit of a deal for this record!). I’d long since learned that, while the record is indeed a compilation, it is one that appeals to the more ordered side of my nature: The A-Side of the record is actually all of their first 8 A-Sides in chronological order. The B-Side is all the accompanying B-Sides, also in chronological order. While I.R.S.’s “lineage” (such as a founder named Miles Copeland III, brother of the Police’s Stewart Copeland) meant they did have major label distribution, they weren’t an imprint or vanity label, so a bit less intense “marketing” was involved and gave us this more sane approach. Cleverly, the inner sleeve has a column of sleeve art for the singles, with the first side’s tracks and recording information to the left, and the second side’s version of the same on the right–in essence, marrying A-Side and B-Side back to each other. Release dates, studios, and engineers are included for each track, appealing, as well, to my more pedantic side (previously alluded to when discussing Burning Airlines’ Identikit).
“Orgasm Addict” is actually one of the most famous Buzzcocks singles–or, at least, I have the impression it is. It’s about exactly what it sounds like: “You’re a kid Casanova, you’re a no-Joseph/It’s a labour of love fucking yourself to death”. People question songs like “Turning Japanese” and “She Bop” (at least some do), but not a soul, beyond the intensely pretentious, could mistake the meaning and topic here. Pete Shelley’s voice is on the higher end of things, doesn’t really carry any sneer or swagger, just a “shockingly” straightforward admission of something normally left coded, if mentioned at all. And let’s not forget the mock orgasm he himself let’s out, midway through the song. John Maher’s drumming keeps a beat that means Pete wasn’t the only one emulating the topic. It’s one of the only remnants of Howard Devoto’s time in the band (the studio portion of which ended with Spiral Scratch much earlier in the same year).
Used in a few commercials in interceding years, “What Do I Get?” was proof that the Buzzcocks (particularly Pete, who wrote it) were not interested in conforming to standards, traditions, or expectations of even the semi-nascent punk scene. The subject matter is not far from the dramatic, world-ending kind of teenaged response to rejection and failed attempts at finding love: “I only get sleepless nights/Alone here in my half-empty bed/For you things seem to turn out right/I wish they’d only happen to me instead”. Like a lot of the Shelley-penned singles, it’s an energetic, buzzing sort of sound: he and Steve Diggle man guitars and riff rapidly, while Steve Garvey (replacing alcoholic Garth after the “Orgasm Addict” single) mans a steady bass and John Maher plays somewhat unusually varied drum beats with lots of great little fills and touches that are severely under-appreciated in a band known more for its catchy melodies and lyrics.
Maher gets another nice moment as he introduces “I Don’t Mind”, which is self-deprecating, self-loathing, and self-doubt married to submission to a stronger personality in another of the many love-oriented tracks the Buzzcocks recorded (many of which appear on Love Bites, which does help to characterize the largely Shelley-written attitude toward it). The pleasant melody of the guitars and the backing vocals (courtesy Diggle and Maher) that “ooh” and “woah-oh” in rather un-punk fashion stands out a good bit more on this one, though it’s also fun the way Pete’s voice seems to chase that melody down until his semi-bored call out “I don’t mi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yind”, gives him top billing in the moment.
The guitars of “Love You More”, galloping their way into a sudden harmonic are some of my favourites. While the lyrics of most Buzzocks are brought to mind readily from a song title alone, “Love You More” is not one of Pete’s best vocal constructions–but it’s a great riff, rattling cheerfully up at the higher end of its range. Maher’s practically out of control if you stop and listen to him–or, well, not control, but just as if he got bored and decided to make things way more interesting for himself. Unbelievable variety in there! The final line, though, is a great one, especially as recorded to be a very abrupt end to the song.
So far as I can tell, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” was the biggest single for the Buzzcocks in terms of lasting appeal. It was the song chosen to represent BBC DJ John Peel in eulogy, appeared in his infamous box of at-hand 45rpm 7″ records, and was later re-recorded by a variety of artists, including a rather interesting one (released as a single) from the Fine Young Cannibals. It’s deserving, as the earliest of their singles to feel most fully-realized. While the previous four are catchy and fun and witty, “Ever Fallen in Love” has a sort of gravitas to its sound, a musical progression, a good riff, a catchy chorus, and a perfect example of the attitude Pete puts into his vocal performances. The song blasts in first, driving forward unrelentingly, but eases up and let’s a semi-casual guitar lick cross in front of it, bouncing from note to note, heading ever upward. Pete’s describing a doomed romance, a relationship that shouldn’t’ve been, but sings about it in an unusual way: “You disturb my natural emotions/You make me feel I’m dirt/And that hurts/And if I start a commotion/I’ll only end up losing you/And that’s worse”. The most affecting line of each triplet is the one he adds the most flavouring to, moving upward in a stylized way, then adding the “And that…” qualification as if it’s an aside, with a tone that’s sort of condescending, or somewhat precious. It’s really infectious, and deserves the accolades and attention it does continue to receive.
My original favourite Buzzcocks song (and it remains so now), “Promises” starts with guitars running up four rimes as quickly as possible before counterbalancing by peaking twice and coming back down at about half that speed. Pete begins to sing about the joyous beginnings of a relationship but, “Oh”, he sings, and John Maher answers with an absolutely awesome trip around his drumset at lightspeed. “How could you ever let me down?” he continues after Maher’s run around, “Down!” Diggle adds as echo (sometimes I amuse myself thinking this is the sole reason he gets co-writing credit, but it actually does have tinges of his approach throughout). After the chorus comes around a second time, there’s a short bridge, with riffs that slowly move upward a step at a time every few strums. “Oh what a shaaaame…” Pete’s voice goes up and sort of cracks and fades off, to take us back to the song proper. While I have had experience in percussion and guitar, neither amounted to anything (and I mean that in a realistic sense, not a self-deprecating, false modesty sense), there are handfuls of things that get me every time in music if done properly. A good tom-based fill (anyone who reads this blog consistently will notice that quickly) is one of those things, and the way that it’s sandwiched between the lines of a good chorus, and is opened with such a simple but catchy riff means this song remains worth all I’ve always felt.
The growing variation in songwriting makes itself most apparent in “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”, their first single from 1979. Alternating beats are marked with the slow descent of notes from guitar, letting Garvey and Maher really control the song’s opening and verses. Garvey handles the melody for the verses, while Maher keeps the feeling of the song both uptempo and kind of upbeat. Shelley brings his falsetto in for the chorus, a sudden rush of guitar and a flattening and speeding of Garvey’s bassline, drawn upward by Shelley’s voice as it rises up the range of his falsetto, dropping for the final syllable of “nowadays”. There’s a certain optimism to the song, in a strange way, as he goes from calling life an illusion and love a dream, to denying that they are either, from not knowing what it is, to knowing “just what it is”.
The only A-Side that lacks a credit from Shelley is the last one included here (they did record further singles, but they would have no prayer of fitting on a record that is already relatively close to capacity on particularly the second side). “Harmony in My Head” is a Diggle track, and is also the only one (even amongst the B-Sides Steve also wrote) that features him as lead vocalist. The guitars of Diggle and Shelley trade styles back and forth through a few simple riffs and licks, as Diggle sings a throatier, yell of a vocal. The chorus is actually one of the second handful to catch my ear. Diggle’s gruffness disappears, for a low pitched, almost Joe Strummer-esque recitation of the song’s title. After its second appearance, the guitars turn to palm-muting and let only Pete sing the quiet backing harmony (ahem) of the chorus. While rapid paces are not foreign to the band, and Maher certainly doesn’t take any opportunity to slow here, the overall feel of the song is lower and slower, contrasting nicely and establishing the variance in approach Steve takes to songwriting, as compared to Pete.
“Whatever Happened To…?” has one of the most openly featured basslines, somewhat odd as it is the only other track (besides “Orgasm Addict”, its A-Side) recorded with the removed Garth and not the stalwart and longer-playing Steve Garvey. Garth opens the track alone, with short strikes of guitar announcing the entrance of the whole band. Pete lists a variety of things, questioning what happened to each of them, before coming to his real question: “Whatever happened to you and I?” It comes closest to Gang of Four territory lyrically, yet skewed by the romantic angle. Vengeful and dismissive, Pete notes that the object of the song (defiantly refusing to establish gender to buck trends, Pete later making his bisexuality more apparent and open in his solo work) has love most resembling a product–“Your love is a cashed in check” he sings as if this were a loving lyric. It’s a good companion to “What Do I Get?” balancing the self-pity against anger.
“Oh Shit!” furthers the B-Side trend of dismissive anger, a rather dispassionate interjection (which you can probably guess) followed with explanations for the “surprise” defines much of the verse. This is the shortest song in all of the album, and indeed in all of their career (barring the outro bit of fluff “Radio Nine” from A Different Kind of Tension, which is just the sound of a radio tuned through static-y plays of various Buzzcocks songs). One of the most normal solos appears in the middle of it, The exclamation is later pushed into another usage, implying an original intent and a set up: “Face it/You’re shit”. The mock surprise attached to the blunt declaration of the worthlessness of the song’s object works perfectly, as an affected guitar echoes out into the ether.
The other Diggle-penned track, “Autonomy”, was another of my second “wave” of appreciated tracks (until the list became “all of them”). Maher starts off with a galloping beat that a careless ear might actually mistake for the galloping drumming of Clive Burr in “Run to the Hills”, followed by the crunchy sound of riffing guitars that keep the same pace (as does Garvey’s bass), before each line of the verse evens things out for a moment. A quick guitar descent turns to the slow build of the chorus: “I…/I want you-oo-oo/Autonomy”. The guitars and bass slow their pace considerably for this, despite Maher’s continued rapid beat. Despite Diggle writing the song, Shelley sings it largely alone, harmonized with (probably) Diggle for the chorus alone. Despite Pete’s higher voice, this track shares the lower-end orientation of Diggle’s other track, as well as the slower feeling–despite the galloping instruments.
A bit of a swinging beat turns to a gnarly lead that falls downward to muted riffing that turns to a lead that predicts Shelley’s vocal melody, and then accompanies it directly. Each line ends with a variation on, “Have you ever heard your mother say/’Noise annoys’?” and everyone stops immediately at the end of the second word, until Pete instead asks if she has been heard to scream it, nearly doing so himself, guitars let ring this time as the song briefly runs into instrumental territory, and the best guitar solos on the record, traded between the two players for a good few bars each. For a song called “Noise Annoys”, this is a catchy little number, which I doubt many would mistake for “noise”. Though what some consider noise does surprise me on occasion.
Co-written with their manager (using a pseudonym), “Just Lust” is in the vein of the first few A-Sides at first, all catchy riffs and to-the-point rhythms. There’s a brief slowing for four lines–“You shattered all my dreams and/My head’s about to bust/Is it all real-that’s how it seems/But it all comes down to dust”–that gives that moment an illusory quality, the guitars seeming to slide around each other just a bit, and an effect overlaid on Pete’s voice to make it seem as though it is not quite real itself, an effect that becomes more prominent as the song comes to a close, the instruments eventually also dissolving and separating from each other.
The B-side to “Promises” I always remember is just that, but often cannot recall easily (similar to “Love You More” for me in this sense). The way the song starts suddenly, and Pete raises the pitch of his voice at the end of each line in the verse gives it a sense of lost context. Of course, that’s not entirely strange: the song is a relative of “Shot by Both Sides” (and shares the rising riff that is so signatory of that song, though it’s hidden in the background here), the first single Magazine recorded–after Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form that band (that song credited to Shelley and Devoto). The verses are actually the catchier vocal lines, in one of those strange instances that feels as if, perhaps, something was inverted.
Absolutely strange in the context of this collection, “Why Can’t I Touch it?” is twice as long as most of the songs on the album, more than three times as long as some, and a full two minutes longer than the next longest. Garvey finally gets a chance to be the spotlit bass, a catchy groove that Maher just plays in lockstep with, letting it shine and relaxing for just the one track. Two semi-harmonized guitars, one in each stereo channel, announce themselves, playing similar but slightly different riffs that occasionally blend together. Pete begins listing the senses he can use to recognize “it”, but wonders “Why can’t I touch it?” with vowels dragged out over numerous beats, his voice following the gentle downward movements of Garvey’s bassline. At only a third of the way through, echoing, strange guitar sounds manifest themselves, tweeting and whistling in the background. After the second verse (somewhat synesthestic) and chorus, Diggle and Shelley begin trading their riffs from channel to channel, giving the groove-oriented track an extended and more varied atmosphere than it would have if simply repeating all parts. Maher begins to fill more on the drums, Shelley and Diggle continuing to experiment with the space Maher and Garvey have left them, playing with the chords and pieces of their previous riffs. The riffs are kind of bright and cheerful, and weirdly happy, and a single-picked variation on them echoes out to finally close the song–a better choice than a simple fade, I think.
The second longest track is actually the next one: “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” which makes use of a high piano note jabbed over and over and over for all but the chorus, giving a kind of tense insistence to the song itself–like it’s that pinprick of realization that something’s gone wrong, though Pete’s lyrics and delivery of them implies a more “c’est la vie” attitude toward the inevitable failures of life. Slightly phased guitars shift in and out throughout the verse, but turn to a sort of warbling consistency over the chorus, where the piano drops for just a little while, the thudding, sigh and groan of the verses turning upward in tone for just a moment–odd, for the moment where Shelley repeats “Again/And again/And again and again again…” A second chorus turns into a shambling, disjointed, atonal solo of deliberate awkwardness. It’s interesting to think of a deliberately steady, repetitive song doing so to emphasize the monotony of things going wrong. Outside the chorus, the only relief is the pointed bass lick that starts quite high and picks up speed as it heads downward before ending on a note somewhere between its peak and its valley. It’s another complete jump away from the “Orgasm Addict”s and “Love You More”s of the album, hinting further at the curiosities that appear in their albums (like instrumentals as peculiar as “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”).
The Buzzcocks are inexplicably lesser-known as punk bands go, rarely coming in the same breath as the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones, or the Clash, or the Damned (also criminally under-remembered, despite the relative fame and acknowledgment). Perhaps it’s the pop-oriented approach of their (ludicrously catchy) music, or the musicianship and “arty” end of things like their instrumentals–not a surprise Devoto was once in the band, enough to imply some camaraderie with Shelley and Diggle (who was bassist for the group, before Shelley moved up, with guitar, to frontman status, leaving Diggle to take on guitars, too). Now, like many things, this is probably a cultural divide across the ocean, but most of the named early punk bands are British, so there’s really not a great excuse for dropping the Buzzcocks out here.
They have released albums since their initial (1981) breakup, smatterings of them here and there since that time. Some are actually pretty good, though the Shelley/Diggle divide has both balanced into a more even split of writing credits, and into a more “consistent” feeling per each. Perhaps it’s the loss of Maher’s more complicated drumming, or the absence of a brilliantly in-tune rhythm section of Maher and Garvey both–not that their current crop are amateurs, but the feeling inevitably changes. Devoto did actually come back to work with Pete again later, for the “Shelley/Devoto” album Buzzkunst (haw haw).
If you like catchy, pop-oriented music, and especially like it with a side of deadpan and wit, make sure this band has some kind of place in your library. If you aren’t allergic to compilations–or even if you are–this record is a brilliant starting place, as it has all the hooks to put in you.
  • Next Up: Captain Beefheart – Safe As Milk

Day Fifteen: Bad Brains – Bad Brains

Reachout International Records (ROIR) ■  RUSLP8223

Released ??, 1982¹

Recorded by Jay Dublee
Mixed by Jay Dublee and Bad Brains

Engineered by Wayne Vican [Mixing] and Stanley Moskowitz [Mastering]

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sailin’ On
  2. Don’t Need It
  3. Attitude
  4. The Regulator
  5. Banned in D.C.
  6. Jah Calling
  7. Supertouch/Shitfit
  8. Leaving Babylon
  1. Fearless Vampire Killers
  2. I
  3. Big Take Over
  4. Pay to Cum
  5. Right Brigade
  6. I Luv I Jah
  7. Intro

While you can’t (easily) read it, the sticker in the top left proclaims this “the best punk/hardcore album of all time” in the words of the late Adam Yauch (of the Beastie Boys). It also advertises the solo debut of bassist Darryl Jenifer. It’s a bit weird, simultaneously having that attempt to get the attention of people who know nothing about the historical relevance of the album, while also encouraging (in familiar marketing techniques, but semi-reversed) additional purchases by association. Weird in that someone who is not familiar with the album would not, most likely, think to buy something that was created by a person involved in this unfamiliar release. While I can break it down, I may never truly understand advertising.

On the face of it, this doesn’t look astonishingly different from a lot of the punk albums that cropped up in the U.S. in particular in the early 1980s: hand-created art, with just enough splash and crudeness to remind you it’s just that, as well as a clear indication of anti-establishment kinds of political sentiment. But, beyond the blinding yellow of the thing (I hadn’t turned the lights on in my music room when I went in to listen, and I could still pick it out as soon as I looked in there), there’s a tiny indicator of one of the bits that is “off” from expectations: the colour scheme of the external art–that is, outside the central image of a lightning bolt striking the Capitol Building–is one that may seem familiar: it’s the red, green, and yellow of Ethiopia, colours appropriated by both the Rastafarian movement and many other African countries. And that’s the giveaway for the big shocker in a scene that was dominated by whites, regardless of their country of origin. A scene that also had endemic racist problems–problems which led to things like Dead Kennedys’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” single the year before this album, which one would think should’ve gone without saying, as drummer D.H. Peligro is black.

Bad Brains were originally a jazz-rock fusion band, but, through their introduction to punk turned toward the more aggressive, definitively faster, rock-based music, even naming themselves after a Ramones song. They released a single in 1980 (“Pay to Cum!”) and recorded an album the next year, and this is, of course, that album, as eponymous albums often are debuts.

Bad Brains is peculiar as an album, too, not just for the novelty of an all-black punk band, but because it comes at the early end of hardcore punk, before it was most completely congealed. It came at a time where the term had only recently gained its most probable source of popularity and familarity, D.O.A.’s Hardcore ’81. Dead Kennedys had only just released their most definitively hardcore release, In God We Trust, Inc. at the very end of 1981. Sure, Black Flag had been around for a while, and had finally released their debut full-length, Damaged, at the end of 1981 as well. But, overall, it was nothing like an established genre yet.

Though it was not yet a conrete term, Bad Brains operates in a space that defies even developing expectations while remaining inarguably hardcore in its approach, in retrospect if nothingi else. Certainly the inclusion of reggae and dub tracks like “Jah Calling” and “Leaving Babylon” made for an anomaly in the hardcore scene, but reggae’s ties to punk were established long before that, with, for instance, the Clash and their cover of “Police & Thieves” on their own eponymous debut in 1977, following it with a cover of Toots & the Maytals’s “Pressure Drop” in 1979 and even original compositions after that. Instead, the way that H.R. (“Human Rights”) sang, the way Dr. Know played guitar, the way Darryl Jenifer played bass and even the way Earl Hudson drummed kept them in a new space.

“Sailin’ On” starts with a rapid count-off from Hudson on his sticks, and moves at a breakneck pace through less than two minutes of song, using heavy riffing and frenetic but very full drumbeats to remove space for any kind of breath. Dr. Know lets out a solo halfway through that lets anyone listening know these four are a force to be reckoned with musically, if the absurd speed of the song’s failure to reduce their precision wasn’t obvious enough for anyone. H.R.’s voice is mixed around the middle, and doesn’t distinguish itself completely until he reaches the chorus and it sounds as if his mouth is motorized and moving almost past the control of his tongue. A little bit of melody and hook enters for the chorus, eventually having made this the song I identify most closely with the album, which isn’t unusual, considering how many times it has been covered since then.

“Don’t Need It” places the band very firmly into the punk mindset, immediately ranting against the ideas of materialism defined by “the newest and the best” and their lack of need for anything of the kind. The pace is not let up for a moment, the song barely topping a minute in runtime, with Hudson left the only one playing as the song transitions immediately to “Attitude” where H.R.’s yelps and squeaks make themselves more apparent, some nonverbal and rising quickly and sharply to make him more instrument than spewer of words. The song establishes the abbreviation that reappears throughout the album and helps define the intent of the band: P.M.A.–Positive Mental Attitude. If you can catch it, it tells you that the musical aggression is a choice not intended to insist on actual aggression, and that the band’s religion (they make their association with the Rastafari movement apparent, writing on the album, “All praises to the All Migghty Creator Jah Rasta Far I”) is intended for positive action (their contemporaneous run-ins with homosexuals in the punk scene and their regrettable actions that followed this notwithstanding–they have since recanted their judgment of MDC’s Dave Dictor and Big Boys’ Randy Turner, et. al.).

After the punch of continued furor in anti-authoritatian “The Regulator”, the band hits “Banned in D.C.”, referring to their “unofficial ban” from clubs in Washington, D.C. where they formed. It has one of Dr. Know’s best solos on the entire album, hinting at the sound they’d approach nearer the end of the decade, one that incorporated the stylings of heavy metal and the emphasis on instrumentation associated with it.

And then suddenly it all almost stops: “Jah Calling” starts, which is noted as “a dub” in the lyrics for the CD version. An instrumental track, Darryl plays a bassline that will have a familiar feel to anyone who has ever listened to dub, with Hudson’s drums distant and heavily spread out across the track. It’s mostly a showcase for Dr. Know’s meandering, sunny guitar lines. The production will help many with the dub claim, as most snare hits carry the echo and eventual distortion that makes dub so readily identifiable.

But the break is brief, and the side ends with “Supertouch/Shitfit” and “Leaving Babylon”. “Supertouch/Shitfit” is interesting because that divided song title is actually indicative of a divided song: about one minute in, the song shifts tempos and gears entirely, with dragging, heavy guitar riffs and pounding drums that announce a mutation: now we enter “Shitfit” itself, and H.R.’s vocals become so fast they are almost impenetrable, an effect that lasts throughout the song, even as a second shift to that transitional riff allows for another of Dr. Know’s most powerful solos.

“Leaving Babylon” is one of the less dub and more reggae “break” tracks on the record, and makes for a solid ending to Side One, using a sound that is admittedly still more on the dub side of things, but plays a lot more like reggae with H.R.’s vocal and the palm-muted ratcheting guitar of Dr. Know reminding more of most reggae than “Jah Calling” ever would.

Side Two opens with an intro to “Fearless Vampire Killers” that reminds us of what a musical force we’re dealing with, before it spins back into that cyclone of hardcore that the band does so well–maybe better than anyone else. “I” and “Big Take Over” keep us in the same groove, though “Big Take Over” acts as a mild reprieve from the pacing of the majority of the record, using another instrumental intro (partly defined by Morse code credited to “Dave Id”) to give us a moment’s rest, if not a moment’s peace. When it does launch itself, Hudson gets his shining moment, with drums that sound as if they could be mimicking the heartbeat of a hummingbird, so much bass thumping along it’s almost like the rest of the band doesn’t notice how fast he’s setting the pace.

“Pay to Cum” was released, as I mentioned, as a single prior to the album itself. It is 1:25 of rejection of societal clamping on art and expression of the soul–though you’d be hard pressed to follow H.R. in this. The song is absurdly fast–even with lyrics, I realized I was consistently a few lines behind H.R. at any given moment.

“Right Brigade” may be the only one of the hardcore/punk tracks that doesn’t run the risk of whiplash, fittingly placed near the end of the record and carrying with it the zig-zagging solo of Dr. Know that seems to be the only part that doesn’t realize this tempo.

“I Luv I Jah” is the closing song on the album, and is one I most readily identify with the band, even if I Against I is the album I think of first (indeed, I actually wrote about it almost a year ago). It’s another dub/reggae hybrid and is possibly the most relaxed of these tracks on the album, having no insistence to it, just a sound that feeds the song’s message: finding peace, a center in self and love despite the chaos and influence of the external world–despite the temptation to respond to those who say you are “not their brother”. It’s also–by far–the longest track on the album. Indeed, were it not for the three reggae/dub tracks, the album would barely top 20 minutes. The song is a langorous 6 minutes and seems to be in no hurry to end itself, turning to vocal improv from H.R. at the end.

Now, there’s actually one last track on the album, the oddly-yet-appropriately titled “Intro”. Obviously, this isn’t the place for an intro–at the end of an album. But, if you listen to it, you get the definite feeling that it belongs as an intro, without question. It builds briefly, and then stops at only a hint, telling you there is more to come–maybe it’s a mistake, maybe it’s a joke, maybe it’s a deliberate decision to hint at the future (uncertain as that was–their follow up, Rock for Light, was only produced at the insistence of the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, and still didn’t stop a break up that lasted until I Against I was released in 1986).

While the playing of Hudson, Jenifer, and Dr. Know (aka Gary Miller) is impressive and ear-catching, H.R. is best at helping to define a new sound. The rest of the band establishes them clearly as hardcore and pushes the boundaries and limitations of a genre that, even before it was subdivided, was known for its lack of emphasis on musical expertise. But H.R. uses a voice that manages to do the same thing, only more obviously–yet with skill enough to lend it a kind of subtlety. While it has become almost a defining characteristic for some modern bands, the “snotty” vocals of punk were not definitive. Still, the nasal element is present in H.R.’s singing, but without the tone that makes them snotty. It’s nasal and higher-pitched, but it is more free and shameless than a lot of the more simple, to-the-poin, or heavily affected voices chosen by many other punk bands–including some of the big ones. Together, they have a sound that remains fresh and unique, not just because they could play their instruments so well, but because they could do it without sacrificing the energy, the messiness and the vibe that defined punk as a sound for so many then–and now.

Next Up: The Band – ?

¹My copy of M.C. Strong’s The Great Indie Discography lists the release as being in December of ’82, while someone has constructed the Wikipedia page with the month of release listed as February. Both have experienced errors I know of on this front, so I’m just going to leave it alone.