Saturday, 28 May 2011

So Scratched into Our Souls #2: Ramones - Love Kills

The Ramones. I have a fair bit to say about them but I'm focusing on this particular song at the moment. Love Kills. It's off Animal Boy, which I always associate with Too Tough to Die, the album that preceded it, but was actually closer in time to Halfway to Sanity. Like all those 80s Ramones albums, it's not an entirely cohesive affair, but it has some great stuff on there. It's got Richie's finest hour in the angry swirling shout of Somebody Put Something in my Drink, my favourite Ramones song in My Brain is Hanging Upside Down, possibly their finest pure pop song in Something to Believe In, a classic simple Ramones number in Crummy Stuff, and this song, Love Kills, a Dee Dee sung ode to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Punk rock's very own star-crossed lovers.

When I was about 17/18, I was really anti-Sex Pistols. I was on a forum at the time and that was the dominant opinion of them there and I agreed with it, and not just from a desire to fit in. On this forum there would be a lot of polls about the best punk band ever, or the best punk album, or the best punk bassist, or the best punk song about domestic violence. That sort of timewasting Hornbyesque listmaking that is a fun way to find new bands and have good arguments about the differing scrappy slapped-together ideas of a canon, to immerse yourself in the scene and history and find your place within it. It's a pastime that I of course completely reject in my old age (Hickey, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Dave Blood, The Toy Dolls' My Wife's a Psychopath or Chumbawamba's Stitch That). One of these polls was for the bottom eight punk bands, which came out as Crass, The Germs, Sex Pistols, Rancid, Pennywise, Anti-Flag, GG Allin and The Casualties. Some controversial choices there. Some glaring omissions. But who cares, it was what about 50-60 teenagers thought of the shape of shit about six years ago. The point is, in summing up the bands on the list, this is what I wrote at that time about the Pistols:

The Sex Pistols are often revered as the greatest punk band ever. Well if making crap music, having a murdering idiot junkie as a bass player and putting your 'shocking' image ahead of your music are measures of greatest then they are. The Sex Pistols are to blame for every idiot punk band talking about 'anarchy' and 'the antichrist' just because they sound cool. They're too blame for every idiot punk wearing stupid shirts for shock value. In the few years before they imploded with the bitterness and spite that comes with being a bunch of crap musicians who make it big due to having an extremely smart, manipulative manager they put forward the idea of punk as talentless, undeducated music that still lingers today.

I was not a fan, but I've mellowed. Just as someone who spent this period of their life obsessed with The Exploited and The Casualties who now rejects the sloganeering street-punk spit of their youth and embraces the more positive community activist aspects of the culture, I have softened my stance on the dumb shock games of this music and culture that I love. I like a few Sex Pistols songs. Pretty Vacant is fucking great. I've also come to accept the live fast, die young rock and roll tradition which I used to constantly fall in and out of love with because even though I thought a lot about dying young, I was acutely aware that a combination of rereading Catch-22 for the sixth time and fantasising hopelessly about a girl in English class I was too scared to talk to was in no way living fast. I would leave a geeky awkward corpse.

Lately I've seen a lot of people, mostly of the age I was when I penned that little rant, react in that fashion to Sid Vicious and his sad addict ilk, and I'm not going to say you can't feel that way, it'd be horrendously patronising to do so, but I'm gonna try and argue the other side. The side of people who didn't cheer as I did when they first read the Nothing Nice to Say strip 'Sid Vicious is So Punx' because someone totally got their distaste with him.

So I say this from a position of sympathy towards the Vicious-haters, but the fascination is pretty obvious. Sid and Nancy were dumb and pretty and fast kids who lost themselves in the old and slow way of the dulling gnawing of junk. No-one wants to be them, except maybe that brief moment as a 14 year old with morbid fascinations because you don’t have anyone to crush on and a conviction that there is nothing punker than Never Mind the Bollocks, no-one wants to be them, but everyone would die for a Ramones song written about them, and one sung by fucking Dee Dee no less. Another punk rock junkie growling glib Shakespearean allusions and deeply ironic handwringing anti-drug lines over the simplest of riffs. Because that’s one of the attractions of punk rock, the notion that if you invest yourself in the love, the cool, the look, in the self-destructive unsustainable chaotic mythos of the thing then you’ll get an anthem of your own, a eulogy penned by your own cultural heroes. There are dozens of punk songs dedicated to the weird acquaintances of punk bands, the arsehole friends and dumbass scene kings and queens, from The Bouncing Souls singing about Johnny X bound by only six strings to this world, to the seemingly endless selection of Less Than Jake’s oeuvre about people they’ve got drunk and shot the shit with. It’s like an infomercial, INVEST NOW AND YOU TOO CAN HAVE POP-CULTURE HISTORIANS AND PISSY PUNK NUMBERS PRESERVING YOU AS A SNEERING HERO, POURING OVER YOUR SHORT RAMBUNCTIOUS BEING, YOUR BREATHLESS STUPID PASSING THROUGH. Like I said, I’ve never really given much of a shit about the Pistols, whether it was Matlock or Vicious on the bass, and I never didn’t think that the outcome of Vicious and his girl was fucking horrendously pointless, but fuck, a Ramones song. To get a Ramones song, I’d do a lot of dumb shit.

In discussing this matter with my friend Tommy, we came upon an even simpler explanation for the appeal of Sid Vicious. Sid's cool because the Ramones wrote a song about him. The Ramones are cool because Motörhead wrote a song about them. Motörhead are cool because Motörhead wrote a song about them. Quod erat demonstrandum, punks and punkettes.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Culturcide - Tacky Souvenirs from a Pre-Revolutionary America

"Oh, say can you see in the blinkless electron-gun eye of the mainstream media mirage that what we hail are the hallucinations of authority and progress and righteousness whose sweet and stern voices have captivated and conditioned millions of human creatures, stimulating in them a passive acceptance of technological disruption and destruction of environment, of history, of possibility of alternative ways of being? Whose seven stripes are broken swastikas, whose fifty stars are black holes sucking 200 million atomized existences into the daily routine of the human herd, of hamsters rolling the great wheels of death machine, squeaking at the shocks and nibbling the cheese and reciting and discussing and delighting in their shared programming history, in their stupid lives, in their cancers, their deaths, their TV shows, their jobs, their ignorance, their endless, pointless, forward creeping, their glorious, blithe nose-dive into their pay-check's pleasures, into an ecstatic emptiness: a glowing incinerator: a parking-lot full of business-men conspiring and colluding on the big lie, the big dream, the big nauseating screaming sweating nightmare of Business America/Consumer America/Corporate America/Media America/FASCIST AMERICA...." - Culturcide, Star-Spangled Banner

No-one likes feeling like their essential culture that they love and respect and have invested themselves in is being co-opted by forces who are just seeking to capitalise on the saleabilty of some trite simplication of germinal notions of otherness and rebellion contained within that culture and do so without any of the effort and alienation and history really required to understand those concepts and their pained births. I have read some incredibly awesome angry diatribes on the idea of the 'hipster headdress'. I once stumbled across a discussion on the racist implications of the failure to explain the concepts of east-Asian wisdom in Hong Kong Phooey. Just yesterday (though it doesn't exist on the same societal level in any way, obviously) I walked past an immaculately coiffured bro wearing a yellow and pink Never Mind the Bollocks t-shirt and though I was never particularly into the Pistols, it still sort of pissed me off a bit, but it's pretty much always been this way. How else could the proto-anarchist teachings of compassion espoused by Jesus Christ exist as a central tenet of the unashamedly capitalist authoritarian-right packed to the gills with hate preachers greasing the shadowy machinations of big-business motherfuckers.

They co-opt. We reclaim. They defang and sanitise. We remix, sample, recontextualise and subvert. With spraypaint and stencils, literary theory, rogue codes and a soldering gun. We take this fucker apart from the inside out and rebuild it in a distorted cubist rendition that fits our fragmented view of ourselves and our fucked-out, romantically fuzzed and slickly-shitted aesthetic. We find our icons in odd places. We change the meaning of words and symbols. Scrape them down to the etymological base or pull them out of their hateful past. Altering and dragging up the rough edges hidden by airbrushed perfection, ridiculing the robotic distortion of the flawed human form that is everpresent in the shiny mass media realm. Humanising the inhuman, both in bringing to light the sparks of beauty in the disgraced and in highlighting the ridiculous folly of pitch-perfect PR-managed pop stars and movie stars and politicians who march in meticulous rhythm under the shaming destructive banner of THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD BE.

It's great to exist on a planet where Luther Blissett, a 1980s Watford striker who by any stretch of the imagination should be remembered solely in wistful pub discussions in centre sections of Hertfordshire, is known by most people as an anonymous anarchist icon. When you walk past a telephone box in Farringdon and notice someone has replaced the text reading TELEPHONE at the top of it with WRAP UP WARM and CALL YOUR MUM it gives you the sense we're living in a slightly nicer world. It's fun to laugh whenever we hear the name 'Santorum'. This happens, not just through collective and individual effort, but almost by happy accident nowadays. We live in a world where you can wake up one morning and find that the playful hands of history have turned a silly Bangles karaoke classic into a revolutionary call-to-arms. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world (in Joey Vindictive's voice).

This is the internet era. Memetic mutations are the norm. Culture jamming is the culture. Reappropriation is an appropriate response. How many jokes have you read in the last few days that have equated the sad death of a now mostly-past it 80s professional wrestling legend with the ridiculously overhyped moronic end-of-the-world ravings of some sad little cultists locked in their homes and even further locked in their denial and turned this coincidence into something that's both an honest celebration of a childhood icon and a bygone era and further gleeful gloating over the idiocy of blind moralistic ranting and taking apocalyptica seriously. This is how we do things. Situationism is the situation.

Culturcide are one the many many precursors to this rearrange-the-world-in-your-bedroom ethic which fills up the culture today, where we determinedly curate and defend what we love and the same time as we repurpose, mock and mutate what we hate. Except Culturcide don't really love a lot. Or anything here. Including the concept of love. Apart from the opener, their 1986 album Tacky Souvenirs of a Pre-Revolutionary America consists of pop songs with sloppily overdubbed scathing lyrics, radio reports and adverts cut in and bursts of industrial noise dotted about to spice up the proceedings.

Here is a selections of the messages I got from Tacky Souvenirs of a Pre-Revolutionary America: Love sucks. Heroes suck. The media sucks. Punk rockers suck. The music industry sucks. Corporations suck. Pathetic fanboys suck. Critics suck. New York sucks. LA sucks. Cops suck. Trite humanitarian platitudes from multi-millionaire rock stars really really fucking suck. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you. This is a screaming joke. A culture war where weapons are sharp. Pikes, maces and nerve gas and everyone is already wounded. This is a pitched battle on a fast-food forecourt. This is a riot. A fucking giggle.

The first song is an deadpan intonation of the speech at the top of the page over a wall of noise and the faint strains of the Star Spangled Banner in the background. It really reminds me of the opening and closing monologues of the Dead Kennedys' Plastic Surgery Disasters. The whole tone of this album is pretty similar to Jello's searing scattershot satirical tone, with less of the silly horror songs that DK used in I Kill Children and Funland at the Beach. Maybe Culturcide feel there is enough inherent disturbing horror in the song We Are the World without having to further establish their credentials as unflinching romeos to the void.

There are some shit artists parodied on here (Grand Funk's American Band is blown apart as Industrial Band). There are some great artists (Bowie and Springsteen). There are some things I just could not give a fuck about (Was there ever a band as bland as Huey Lewis and the News? And Ebony and Ivory, anyone? The song which I have an odd personal relationship with as having it sung at me and my girlfriend by a couple of pricks outside a bar but for most people is notable only for somehow being an even more vapid plea for racial equality than Blue Mink's Melting Pot and its hilariously misguided non-PC lyrics of "Curly latin kinkies, mix with yellow chinkies). But whatever the state of the song being parodied, everything is approached with the same juvenile sense of outrage and nihilistic philosophical certainty, the same kick of dizzy anger.

I like Bruce Springsteen a lot. I think at his best he's something approaching genius in the way he can synthesise all the human ache of the shortcomings of the American endeavour and the slippery moments when life coalesces into a flashing second of hope and warmth, where you sit behind the wheel of the car and can feel the whole world's blacktop under the tires, where you walk down the road with such a bounce in your step you're afraid to jump for the fear you'll take off for outer space, waving at airplanes and patting weather balloons on their flank as you pass them by. I think the lyric "We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school" on No Surrender is one of the quintessential rock and roll lines. I do like the way a bunch of current punk bands have taking the best parts of Springsteen's unashamedly romantic posturing and combined it with the drive of punk rock, I think the first three Gaslight Anthem releases are really great music, Senor and the Queen especially. Despite all this, I still fucking love it when Culturcide fill Dancing in the Dark with a load of extraneous feedback noise and sneer over the top of Bruce's earnest singing and big synth-lines: "We sit around gettin' older, listening to Bruce's new LP. Dig the glorification of our own passivitity. Cos on the streets of this town, everybody's given up the fight. You're hungry for entertainment, Let's play the new Springsteen album tonight!"

Wichita Lineman is a classic, but it's still thrilling to hear it as Houston Lawman, with a long news report about the use of 'throwdown guns' by the Houston PD and their tendency to plant weapons on unarmed suspects they got trigger-happy with. It does have a couple of bonus tracks from a Christmas single, which exist in the long tradition of bonus tracks that are kind of interesting but do fuck with the rhythm of the album which finished fucking strong on a cover of Chicago's Colour My World entitled Colour My World With Pigs which is the only song on the album that they just straight-up parody without any grinding clamor or silly voices thrown into the mix.

It's a heroically single-minded shrieking vision of a inexorable slide into beige despair and oppressive social order that paints the group as the sole inheritors of the tradition of intellectual and social validity. Or maybe as the fresh new lords of an ironclad renegade morality, without any precedence whatsoever. It's pretty fucking stupid. You know that there's no way they're not tainted too, that they're not as sucked in my the whole neon human quagmire as the lazy punks they excoriate on They Wish They All Could Be California Punks. You know they can't really consistently believe that love is just another form of control because that sort of nihilistic totality cannot sustain itself. But that's kind of the point, this album is not really supposed to offer solutions or effect a positive change, it's a SHIT OFF! like a clarion call. A teenage fuck-the-world without refuge. No 'Fuck the World, I'm Hanging Out With You', more like 'Fuck the world! I'm fucking the fucking world!', 'Fuck the world til it fucks you back! It's a shout of NO GODS BUT TRICKSTER GODS! NO MASTERS BUT YOU BETTER FUCKING MASTER YOUR DESTINY, MOTHERFUCKER! NO COMPROMISE!

This gives the album more of a fun feel than anything, which could be taken as undermining their own message, but really just gives a vision of that disgusting lonely arrogant second where you feel like you're the only person who gets it, who sees past the curtain. You know really that there are dozens of valid ways of looking at the world, but right now you want to call bullshit through a hundred megaphones strapped together. And there is a little bit of hope dug deep down in there, evident in the forward looking title and bits of They Aren't the World. It's a great artifact but not just that, much of its anger and sophomoric cynicism needs to be appreciated for how relevant it remains. It's not the smartest approach, but its a tentpole of blunt truth for us to circle, lean against and futz around with. It challenges us to build on the slogans. To develop our mockery into methods of resistance. And it's fucking illegal as anything. Fuck tha police!
Somehow we get by without ever learning, somehow no matter what the world keeps detourning.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Hounds - Demo

So my friend Scott asked me to review his band's demo tape and I said yes, because journalistic integrity is apparently not even for journalists anymore. So here we go. This could be the end of a beautiful friendship. Scott is, unimaginatively, from Scotland. As such, he enjoys heart disease, depressing stories about homeless animals, horrendous sectarian violence and badly cut opiates (the rat poison gives it a 'right wee kick' apparently.)

The first song called Old Dog. Presumably named so in dedication to all Scottish women. Boom. Sorry, it's actually about Greyfriar's Bobby. Possibly. There might be some weird social contract in Scotland where all creative endeavours must be laced with the message "Our animals are more depressingly loyal than yours, you cunt." There is a song called Rainmachine, with the chorus "SHUT OFF THE RAIN MACHINE!" which speaking from my experience of Scotland, is actually called 'the sky' by most people, and Young Heart, Old Soul, about the battle between a proddie greasy spoon and a papist chippie. Probably not.

Alright, enough with the lame jokes. Let's get serious. There are lots of different little sounds stuck in here, like offal into a cow's stomach (that was the last one). There are bits of the spindly/shouty Latterman sound (which is becoming so popular we're going to have to come up with a proper name for it: Lattercore? Long Island pop-punk? Riot Grrrwl?), hardcore, mid-90s emo, punk rock and a few other things. There's a bunch of surprisingly acceptable straight heavy rock in Old Dog, for example. It doesn't always gel convincingly, but it's a first demo, so maybe that's to be expected. The transitions between sections of songs are a bit clumsy and stop-start sometimes and the solo at the end of Young Heart, Old Soul is a nice solo but the guitar tone on it doesn't really fit the song so it feels like it's sitting on top of the other music, rather than rolling with it.

The vocals are pleasingly strained and tortured, but not to the point where they're completely indecipherable. Though there is some confusion at times. I'm not sure if one particular line on Rainmachine is "I'm not journeying home", "I'm not jogging hard" or "I'm not Johnny Ramone". I don't have the lyrics at hand, so I can't really judge them on that, but they're yelled with enough conviction that I'm fairly sure it doesn't matter too much. I still enjoyed it.

I enjoyed these three songs. They're not completely fully formed, but it's promising, maybe sometimes they could do with sticking a bit longer with one of the really solid punk riffs they occasionally lock into, rather than jumping about quite so much, but that's really just my personal taste. If you like screamy mildly-gloomy punk rock that draws equally from three decades of punk rock, then this could be for you.

And at the end of Rainmachine we get a minute or so of noise and studio chatter, which consists of people screaming "FIGHT BACK!" at each other. If I wanted that, I could watch Scottish parliament videos on Youtube, thank you very much.

Hounds Demo available here

Monday, 16 May 2011

Direct Hit!

"We must write the story of our own life, and play the soundtrack to it too! Our culture will die, nay, it is already on its deathbed because we do not invest our own life in it! We do not include ourselves in the history! We do not take the responsibility to make it into something we can truly call our own! Stand up and make your heroes proud! I need a rallying cry! A flag to unite us in our desperate struggle to stay true and stay together! Give me a slogan!!" - Aaron Cometbus, Double Duce
"FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!" - Direct Hit! (passim)
Direct Hit! was a band that I was planning on getting around to writing about sooner or later, because I absolutely fucking adore them, but the initial impetus for this post comes from reading a piece about Direct Hit! on some obscure punk rock blog (not quite as obscure as this one) which claimed that Direct Hit! had a motto and that motto was 'Get pumped!'. Which it is not. At first I made a short comment pointing out the problem, which was responded to with an attempt to burn me which is never a good idea as I'm kind of a sad fuck who has spent a lot of time on internet forums exclusively populated by witty arseholes, so I then I comprehensively took apart their response, pointed out that it raised further questions about his commitment to writing well about punk rock and tried to offer some helpful suggestions, all comments were then deleted and replaced with a comment about how they'd had to delete comments while setting up a strawman distortion of my argument to justify themselves, which I then responded to again clarifying my position and pointing out the problems with obliviously ignoring constructive criticism, after which they then deleted all comments and left the post commentless. Checking back, the author also deleted a comment I made on a completely unrelated post about bands altering their musical style which contained no criticism of anything and was just an honest attempt to engage with the points raised in the piece which explicitly asked for responses, but apparently was so tainted by my unappreciation of the fact that they are always right and not to be questioned that it had to go. Ah, the internet. We're really changing the world on here. Of course, I was more eloquent than that dry account of the exchange implies, and also much more of a sarcastic dick. Needless to say, I take the fact that I had my argument deleted as evidence that it was a truth too searing to be seen, like the Ark of the Covenant melting Nazi faces off, not that I'm just an overly sensitive idiot who got inordinately worked up on the internet in an unduly aggressive manner.
I would like to set the record straight here, Direct Hit! have a motto. Or a slogan. Or a maxim. Or an apothegm. Or whatever you want to call it. And it is not 'Get pumped!'. It is 'FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!' To which anyone reading this is going, "You got that fucking angry about someone missing out two measly words when describing a band. What the fuck is wrong with you?" There are a lot of things wrong with me, it was probably a mistake to immediately assume that someone was demonstrating a moralistic urge to sanitise that which I do not believe should sanitised rather than just an example of accidental bad writing ill-defended (Hanlon's razor and all that). Perhaps one of the things wrong with me is that I put far too much store in loud stupid fast songs generally so caught up in their own force that they don't have the stamina to reach 180 seconds, but I'm sticking with that flaw, because that's the one that always feels alright and makes all the other things wrong with me not matter if even for a moment.
EDITED TO ADD: I showed this whole piece the guy who wrote the original blog post that had annoyed me and while he did make a mistake, it was a completely accidental one, and it turns out I really wasn't clear enough in my first complaint so the whole thing was a genuine misunderstanding. So we are both now totally cool, united by the power of Direct Hit! and punk rock. I understand that these sorts of edits should probably go right at the end of an article, but I don't want to fuck with the rhythm of the piece too much (which is just getting into gear at this point, honestly) and I think it has a pretty nice build to a really good climax that would suffer from a corrective epilogue. And I bet you can't guess what that finale is.
See I like writing about punk rock, I like taking the thrill that it gives me and trying to examine it and recreate it apart from itself, but the problem is, I’m always elaborating on something that it sometimes seems you either feel instinctively or you don’t. I’m always trying to take apart something that is perfect in its own retrograde little way and then rebuild the essential tempest of the sweet combination of passion and intelligence expressed in rough music, strained voices and fuck-up pure lyrics using a few dry overused words and phrases scratched into a notebook or shimmering on a computer screen. I’m always trying to use 500 or 1000 or 10000 words to sum up a sentiment that is never expressed in a better way, in a truer fashion than the group vox choruses, than the simple riffs and pounding drumbeats, than four words screamed at the start of a punk rock song. A Direct Hit! punk rock song. Stupid as fuck and fun as dumb hell. I could witter on for ages about the juxtaposition of hate and love, the scrambling bedfellows of angry inspiration and scattershot expletives, the parallel emotional sparks of adolescent rebellion and brief teenage camaraderie, about how joy and a shining sliver of a greater meaning is demonstrated to the few ready to embrace it in songs about prison escapes, drunken escapades and being a werewolf, all I would ever really be saying would be:
There are a lot of punk rock slogans, mottos, maxims, aphorisms, axioms and apothegms. GABBA GABBA HEY! MORE CLIT IN THE PIT! REVENGE OF THE VILLAGE IDIOTS! TRUTH, ADVENTURE, LOVE AND RAGE! NEVER TRUST A HIPPY! KILL FROM THE HEART! PUNX IS HIPPIES! GET PISSED, DESTROY! PUNK IS DEAD, LONG LIVE PUNK! A.C.A.C! WE GOT THAT PMA! DIG THAT GROOVE BABY! SLIM JIM! PLEASE KILL ME! ONLY ANARCHISTS ARE PRETTY! FAGS HATE GOD! FUCK THE BORDER! 45 STORY HOUSE, 34 BRICKS! etc. and we shout all these phrases at each other as shibboleths and in-jokes, fall back on them when we're too wasted on cheap whiskey or by cheap jobs to construct an argument, to properly spend the time we need to fully elucidate our artistic and political positions, our angers and ideals and desires. We sew them into our clothes, into our fucking hearts. We also love these little lines so much because the complex parts of ourselves, the ideals and struggles and stands we're not sure we want to take, are in a constant state of flux, circling around inside ourselves, altering subtly, dulling or sharpening with our responses to day-to-day events. And often the only constant in these internal ruminations is a slogan sturdy like an island in the void, clear beeping signal in the noise. Something we can grasp on to and know that despite all the swirling confusion of our lives and our place in the universe, there is this one little thing that makes some sense. And in this case that little morsel of unerodable sanity is:
That Cometbus quote at the top of the page comes from Double Duce, the best punk rock novel ever written (I am planning a future post laying out the conventions of the punk rock novel as a distinct genre akin to the Latin American dictator novel). The quote comes from a section when the lead character gets pissed off with his friends just reciting old punk slogans and quotes and exhorts them to create their own. "Who knows what the hell 'Sten guns in Knightbridge' means?" he asks. We all want to make our own mark, take our own injokes forged in online discussions of Against Me! or The Thorns of Life, coined accidentally in drunken conversations in between the openers at shows in the backrooms of pubs, we want to take those quips and build them into the mythos of kids the world over shouting the words to Cock Sparrer songs in sweaty basements. I know I have a few lines that if I ever get my band properly together, are fit for singing along and sticking on t-shirts, pithy enough to go in a one-line message board signature or daub on a skateboard grip to distinguish the nose and tail, but until I get that sorted out, and even after that, it's fucking great to hear someone else come up with a new perfect slogan and to see it permeate the consciousness of punk rock. A chant for our age, our punk rock generation, to echo back alongside FIGHT WAR! NOT WARS! or PLAY FAST OR DIE! that will endure in patches and tattoos, a particular basic template for the music we love maybe more than we should. A particular stripped-down template along the lines of:
Warren Ellis wrote about writers "Deep down, there's a little James Joyce homunculus in our hearts, presumably chatting up a saucy-looking ventricle and asking it if it shags, and also spreading the beautifully toxic notion that his book Ulysses actually contains all of Dublin in it and, should it ever be destroyed, a new Dublin could be generated from it like a backup copy, if needs be. And so we peer around at everything, to see if we can image it on a hard drive of a book, ghosting the real world." I know I do that, I try and work out the little aspects of things so common they're usually left unseen and I try and structure them in my head so that they make a kind of pattern. When applied to punk rock, this deluded romantic idea that I can never really shake leads to me leaping at certain screwily dazzling lines which I feel manage to encapsulate something perfect and essential about the genre and culture I love and have invested myself so wholly in, where I feel like as if somehow if almost all evidence of the music and the movement surrounding it was destroyed you could extrapolate its whole, all its contradictions and shittiness and drama and fleeting perfection, from one great line, one statement of punk rock purpose, like the universe contained in a piece of fairy cake in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You could find the whole of punk rock in World/Inferno's chant of "Because I can, 'cause no one can stop me, 'cos it makes up for things I lost. Because I'm addicted to bad ideas and all the beauty in this world". Or The Ramones intoning "Everyone’s a secret nerd. Everyone’s a closet lame." on Mama's Boy. Or Mojo Nixon exclaiming "Let me tell you, real rock and roll’s about cheap electrical guitars and nasty secret places that serve underage kids in bars!" Or the very title of The Grit's I Came Out the Womb an Angry Cunt. D4's "In this frustration we find our salvation" (a lot of fucking D4 songs actually). Black Flag's Rise Above. Bomb the Music Industry!'s band name. The Buzzcocks repeating "Pretty girls, pretty boys, have you ever heard your mummy scream noise annoys?" Rivethead's eleven second blast of Sleepless in St. Paul roaring "I’m a fuck-up who fucks up, gets too drunk, won’t shut up. I’m hopeless, I know this. I shoplift. I’m homeless. I love you, it’s stupid, sounds sappy, it’s true but it could pass, might be that cheap speed makes me think fast." I could provide endless examples of this, because I'm a huge fucking nerd and I invest a lot of time in seeking out these little wonderful fragments of a larger broken, but amazingly broken, whole. I would argue semi-seriously that you can pretty much sum up the essential nature of punk rock and my love for it in FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED! The combination of excitement and snottiness, youthful enthusiasm and sneering petulance, profane noise and profound bliss. Romantic cynicism. That's why I felt aggrieved to the extent that I was willing to forcefully argue my corner when someone cut the slogan in half thinking it still meant the same thing. I think pretty much every great punk band has some part of that four word shout in its genetic make-up, and the punk bands that I dislike or just can't get into are generally ones that I feel have neither enough FUCK YOU! or GET PUMPED! to their being. Let's look at some examples:
  • The Velvet Underground: FUCK YOU!
  • The Stooges: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • The New York Dolls: GET PUMPED!
  • The Dictators: FUCK YOU!
  • The Ramones: GET PUMPED!
  • The Sex Pistols: FUCK YOU!
  • The Clash: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • The Damned: FUCK YOU!
  • Stiff Little Fingers: FUCK YOU!
  • Cock Sparrer: GET PUMPED!
  • The Jam: GET PUMPED!
  • Sham 69: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Crass: FUCK YOU!
  • Conflict: FUCK YOU!
  • Dead Kennedys: FUCK YOU!
  • The Germs: FUCK YOU!
  • Black Flag: FUCK YOU!
  • Minor Threat: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • The Toy Dolls: GET PUMPED!
  • The Anti-Nowhere League: FUCK YOU!
  • Discharge: FUCK YOU!
  • Disclose: FUCK YOU!
  • Death Side: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Almost every KBD band: FUCK YOU!
  • Bérurier Noir: FUCK YOU!
  • Bad Brains: GET PUMPED!
  • The Misfits: FUCK YOU!
  • Angry Samoans: FUCK YOU!
  • The Dicks: FUCK YOU!
  • The Big Boys: GET PUMPED!
  • Culturcide: FUCK YOU!
  • Hüsker Du: FUCK YOU!
  • The Minutemen: FUCK YOU!
  • The Replacements: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Dayglo Abortions: FUCK YOU!
  • The Dead Milkmen: FUCK YOU!
  • Gorilla Biscuits: GET PUMPED!
  • The Queers: FUCK YOU!
  • The Mr T Experience: GET PUMPED!
  • Screeching Weasel: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Jawbreaker: FUCK YOU!
  • Bikini Kill: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Rancid: GET PUMPED!
  • Good Clean Fun: GET PUMPED!
  • Off With Their Heads: FUCK YOU!
  • Bomb the Music Industry!: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Hickey: FUCK YOU!
  • Bent Outta Shape: FUCK YOU!
  • The Copyrights: GET PUMPED!
  • The Vindictives: FUCK YOU!
  • The World/Inferno Friendship Society: GET PUMPED!
  • The Gateway District: GET PUMPED!
  • Dear Landlord: GET PUMPED!
  • The Bouncing Souls: GET PUMPED!
  • F.Y.P.: FUCK YOU!
  • Dillinger Four: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Apocalypse Hoboken: FUCK YOU!
  • The Measure (SA): GET PUMPED!
  • Boris the Sprinkler: FUCK YOU!
  • The Dwarves: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Used Kids: GET PUMPED!
  • Guitar Wolf: GET PUMPED!
  • Leftover Crack: FUCK YOU!
  • Operation Ivy: GET PUMPED!
  • Evan Greer: GET PUMPED!
  • Ghost Mice: GET PUMPED!
  • Against Me!: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Johnny Hobo and the Freight-Trains: FUCK YOU!
  • Propagandhi: FUCK YOU!
  • Soophie Nun Squad: GET PUMPED!
  • Paintbox: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
  • Integrity: FUCK YOU!
  • Inmates: FUCK YOU!
  • Agnostic Front: FUCK YOU!
  • Fleshies: FUCK YOU!
  • Fancy Pants and the Cellphones: GET PUMPED!
  • Future Virgins: GET PUMPED!
  • Direct Hit!: FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED!
I could go on. Needless to say, these labels are not an exact science. Black Flag have a bunch of GET PUMPED! songs despite being a complete FUCK YOU! band most of the time. Bikini Kill are a FUCK YOU! band if you're an unthinking misogynist prick, a GET PUMPED! band if you're a rad progressive punk rocker smashing the patriarchy. The Dwarves started off as a pure FUCK YOU! band, but have incorporated a whole range of GET PUMPED! influences while retaining the essential FUCK YOU!itude. I could go on, and in fact I am sort of tempted to qualify every single one of my judgements above (maybe I should draw a graph!), but I will not, because I am not quite that crazy.
I realise now that I've spent the entire article thus-far talking about the first three seconds of Direct Hit!'s oeuvre. All the epigrammatic reckless mottos in the world don't mean shit if they aren't backed up with music that makes you want to yell and dance around your room in weird contortions like you're wrestling with an angry ghost. Direct Hit!'s songs are fucking amazing. Pop-punk classics, every one.

There's not a single one I'd skip. I bought the triple cassette anthology of their first 5 EPs which gave you a chance to vote for which ten songs I wanted to hear rerecorded for their first proper album, and it was an unreasonably stressful hour or two spent narrowing it down.
I love Arson Hero, a burn shit down punk song as sung by Sesame Street's Count von Count. I love Werewolf Shame, a song about simply being a werewolf, but of course anything dealing with lycanthropy is inevitably going to deal with the central metaphor of struggling to contain an inner beast, just as the zombie theme of They Came for Me works both as a fun lock-and-load singalong about the living dead, and also about attacking the overwhelming power of mainstream society in the way that Dawn of the Dead does. There's a Reaganomicsesque fuck you to self-pity on Mom and Dad. In Orbit is basically a sappy "I want to spend the rest of my life with you" nation-of-two style love song, with that emotion both subverted and intensified by placing this desire in the context of it happening on an isolated space station (where presumably they'd watch bad b-movies over and over again and make snarky comments about them). Mutant Drunk has the stumbling intoxicated rhythm and fury of a screaming bender. My favourite song is Snickers Or Reese's (Pick Up The Pieces), which reminds me thematically of a song I wrote when I was 15 called They Still Want Me Dead about having ex-girlfriends want to kill you, long before I'd even ever worked up the nerve to talk to a girl. Snickers or Reese's has an amazing moment (a bit like AM!'s We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules) where it feels like the noise and enthusiasm of the song is so intense that it flames itself the fuck out, a momentary pause, a restless 'fuck' delivered somewhere between frustration and exhaustion and straight back into the chorus, like the second when you're accidentally thrown tumbling out of the pit and need a brief second to check yourself for broken bones or lost shoes before hurling yourself back into the dancing morass.
Whatever level you take the songs on, the collection of monsters, drunkenness, silly decisions, and wry reminiscing about monstrously silly drunken decisions, they all work first and foremost as an amazing uplifting poppy noisy FUCK YOU! GET PUMPED! punk-fucking-pumping-rock anthem. The only bands I've even come close to listening to as much in the past year as Direct Hit! are Hickey (Hickey are the best band ever) and Paintbox and all their demented intensity. I love this band, I love the defiantly juvenile purity of purpose, I love that every song seems to be constructed solely out of fantastic choruses bolted on to one another, as if there's no reason that the great moment in a song where the verse revs up into the singalong section shouldn't be every single moment of the song, I love the homemade merch and the sheer enthusiasm they seem to radiate. And when I am approaching something like an acceptable level of solvency, I am going to put my money where my mouth is, and have those four words that represent the most succinct possible summation of my entire philosophy with regards to punk rock, art and life seared indelibly into my skin for the rest of my stupid, inevitably snotty and hopefully exciting life. Chances are it will be a monstrously silly drunken decision, but shit, this is what we are. Punk rock, man. In all its tender fuckheaded glory. One more time from the top:

So Scratched into our Souls #1: Fuckboyz - Rock and Roll Problem

This is a new series I have decided to start for those times where I really just want to talk about how much one specific song just fucking rules.

Fuckboyz are a band generally known today (if they are even known at all, which usually they're not) because they featured Matty Luv, later of Hickey. Hickey are the best band ever, and I plan on explaining exactly why that is at a later date, but for now I'm gonna focus on this particular Fuckboyz song, because it proves that they weren't just a dry-run for the sloppy chaotic majesty of Hickey (Hickey are the best band ever), like The Lazer with Bent Outta Shape, they may not have quite developed the amazing sound that made me fall in love with them but they've still got plenty of pure talent and the ability to write some great fucking punk rock.

The closest song I can think of to Rock and Roll Problem is the Dead Kennedys' Pull My Strings, but Pull My Strings doesn't really work on its own. It's a broad juvenalian satire more than an actual song, the context of the song is what makes it so amazing. Their one-time performance of it at the Bay area music awards is one of the most punk rock things anyone has ever done, informed socio-cultural outrage distilled into noisy and hilarious blunt critique delivered right in the face of people who want you to conform. In fact the only thing I can think that was comparable in the realms of sheer punk rockness is the Voodoo Glow Skulls split by Hickey (Hickey are the best band ever). But as I said, I'm not sure Pull My Strings works without its context. DK never recorded it in a studio or even played it again, and I think that was entirely the right decision. It's a song built on the combination of history and place, like Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. More an artifact of an attitude perfectly expressed than something to love for its actual sound. Rock and Roll Problem is not like Pull My Strings, in that it works as a completely great song on its own, but it is like Jello's finest hour (yes, Pull My Strings is even finer than destroying Tipper Gore on the Oprah Winfrey show) in that its a broad parody of mainstream rock and roll which has a completely awesome solo in the middle of it.

The solo is interesting, in both these songs, as the point of it seems to be, "Look, we're not playing punk rock music because we can't play anything else. We're playing punk rock music because we love punk rock music." Now I love punk rock music that springs from the inability to play anything more complex, but the idea that those are its only practitioners is completely false. I love punk rock music because of how it sounds, its attitude, its politics, its intelligence, its stupidness, its speed, its rhythm, its power. A whole fucking host of other reasons, not just its simplicity.

A good instrumental or solo is really great. And I'm not talking about the self-indulgent aural masturbation of a prog rock keyboard marathon, not the heavy rock drum solos of the early 70s played only to show off how many beats someone can play, described by my dad (a big fan of that era and sound) as bands helpfully working in toilet breaks into their set. What I'm talking about is a section of a song, however brief or extended, that takes the thrust of the song and carries it forward without words, that recognises that there are times when a sensation is wordless, when, no matter how important the words are, the reason we're listening to the song is because of the verve and manner with which they're delivered. You can hear all the squealing fun of the Toy Dolls jokey lyrics in Olga's guitar solos, all the cross-cultural anger in the bounce of a Cobra Skulls bridge. Just any fucking good song, really. That's pretty much what good pop music is, the perfect marriage between music and lyrics, form and function, style and content. And in Rock and Roll Problems you can hear all the pissy anger, driving rock and roll and satirical sniping at Lynyrd Skynyrd and their ilk all rolled into that searing solo which is at first insistent and before rising into a real wailing crescendo, dropping back again to let the bass bumble about for a bit, before kicking back in briefly before the music drops down to its simplest for the final lyrics of the song.

The lyrics are a great mixture of a rock music macho parody and punk rock posturing. It begins "I've got a girlfriend and it's alright. sometimes we get along and sometimes we fight. sometimes I think I dig her but I'm not really sure. if she's different from the others or she's just another whore." It's not just a satire on the excesses of rock music, but pointing out that the dumbness of punk rock lyrics isn't really particularly special, that transplanted into a mid-tempo rock anthem they might be just as tired and stupid, but there it kind of fails, because it's such a good rock song makes you want to sing along to the studiedly dumb lyrics like "I've got a guitar that won't stay in tune. I've got a car that won't run and a cool tattoo. some people think I'm stupid and some people think I'm not. some people want to meet me in the parking lot. gabba gabba hey let's make a bomb. will you suck me off if I play you this song?" and then after all the solo when it drops back to the stark simple beat and the back-up singer starts screaming the lyrics with throat-burning intensity behind the simple enunciation of the lead singer it's a really thrilling moment, instilling genuine emotion into the line "What does it mean when I say I'm in love? Does it mean anything at all?" which works both as an honest self-examination and as a commentary on the cheapness of emotion in rock music. The persuasively good nature of the music means that even as you realise it's stupid you still want to spend all you money on alcohol and spray paint, and paint this city black. You still want to steal a car and drive to the world's end and jump right in the sea. It's an amazing song that can jump between singing along to some ironic statement about the dearth of well-characterised women in all rock music, to spouting punk rock non-sequiturs that you've romanticised and built up all your life (it's got a Ramones slogan, and an apparent reference to the time Joe Strummer got arrested in Germany) and sort of point out the lack of real distinction between the two, but also leave you sure of the parts of rock and roll you love, and the parts that piss you off. It's fucking complicated, but above all that, it's an amazing song that maintains its tension perfectly over its seven minute runtime and you can't help but bounce and sing and play air guitar along to it, like the worst rock cliché in the world. There are problems with most rock and roll and we've all got a rock and roll problem.

Also, it ends on the line 'If I leave here tomorrow' and we all know where that's going. This is the song that bands should play when dickheads request Freebird.

Like all Hickey (Hickey are the best band ever) and Fuckboyz songs, it's available here.

Rock and Roll Problem

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Gateway District - Perfect's Gonna Fail

The first album by this band, Some Days You Get The Thunder, is a complete favourite of mine, as you really may have guessed. Like Caves and The Measure (SA), they could broadly be described in exactly the same way, as scratchy pop-punk with female vocals in the Discount tradition. The way I sold people on their first album was by telling them that it was like The Measure (SA) if you replaced all the spindly indie/folky influences with rollicking country ones.

There is practically no country influence on this album, in fact there are bits of the album (especially in the opener) that at times reminds me of an oft-overlooked pop-punk album that is put down because of its origins, and that's the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack album. People get sniffy about it, which is fair enough, because it is the slick product of a team of Hollywood screenwriters and major label musicians working for hire and we all want to believe that something is inevitably going to be better if it comes from a place of desire and naive unstudied creative impulse, but if you retagged that album, knocked off the titular closing track and sent it to someone really into that late-70s power-pop Runaways/Joan Jett style or even the classic Lookout/Ramonescore sound telling them it was by The Battledykes or The Spazzys they would lose their shit over it. This Gateway District album is infinitely better than Josie and the Pussycats and it's nowhere near as saccharine sweet but in its moments of sheer fun and infectiousness it bears a few recognisable strands of the same bubblegum DNA.

A far more prominent part of their sound is Jawbreaker. That certain feel that comes from the thick prominent chugging bass, that sort of rolling train rhythm, the clunk and clang of metal on metal twisted into a propulsive motion. That's the central sound here, but, like last year's brilliant Dead Mechanical album, they eschew the more sprawling tendencies of Jawbreaker, ending up somewhere near what the short pop-punk Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault on the slightly slicker major label Dear You might sound like if it had been sung with the painful vocal exasperation, the rawness of feeling and production of their earlier albums. There's not a bad song on this album, but a few do really stand out.

New Hands has a slow tense opening over which your hear "When they cut off my hands threw me money. I grew new hands so I could pick it up. When they cut off my legs they all came for me. I grew new hands, to escape this love." where the guitar chords are like the tolling of a bell. The whole intro reminds me of a dolorous Soviet worker's anthem sung in ironic defiance, the power of a single voice erasing for just a moment the cold trudge of totalitarian unity, before the whole situation snaps into raging life and blasts through the rest of the song in the same punk tone that dominates the album.

Fishman's Story is a song that trades off the mystery and appeal of the sea and the long history of art dealing with that topic, like Mark Richard's Fishboy or that Simpsons joke where Homer announces "I'll live out at sea. The sea forgives all! Not like those mean old mountains. I hate them so much!" The humour in Homer's announcement comes from a physical counterpoint highlighting the absurdity of the way we do tend to anthropomorphise such a huge geographical object, such an unknowable elemental force and assign it human characteristics and personality, but we can't help it. The sea is such a large potent image, such an awesome physical presence that its metaphoric power is almost unlimited. Here are some mad-libs for you: The (object) was like the sea. She (past tense of a verb) like the sea. He had the (emotion) of the sea inside him. Kind of always works, doesn't it? The song here starts off in the same slow manner as New Hands, building and falling, speeding up and slowing down. She sings "No-one knows there's a wrecking that's shifting under there/No-one knows it's the wreck not the wind that causes waves to tear" equating the depth and blackness of the sea with the depths of the human soul, as many have done before. As far as an approach to the topic, of course it works and the song is really great, one of my favourites on the album, but my personal favourite song dealing with this broad topic is (you guessed it) a Jawbreaker song, The Boat Dreams From the Hill, which deals with the yearning for purpose, in which the sea is not a moonlit mass aswell with human desire and emotion, but the place where we can return to, the sea is a simple home where the boat dreams of 'fishy flutter on its rudder'.

File this paragraph under not particularly relevant but whatever: There's a brief moment in Fishman's Story that reminds me of Jimmy Ruffin's What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and when writing this review I had to pause my constant playback of the album to open up Youtube and croon along to some absolutely fucking stellar classic Motown, which is probably better than whatever you're listening to right now. Now if I had any sort of technical knowledge of music I would be able to tell you in precise terms exactly why this similarity leapt at me, or why I made that comparison on New Hands to Leninist people's hymns (or maybe, I just realised, it really only reminded me of that Wat Tyler song which pretends to be a Leninist people's hymn), but for me I can only just stumble on with my little connections, unsure of quite what the proper reasons I have for music sparking off all sorts of touchstones, propinquitous memories and imaginative leaps, never quite sure whether I'm just fantasing a real connection like when the start of Against Me!'s Don't Lose Touch seems to recall Jimmy Cliff's You Can Get it If You Really Want for a few seconds or while waiting for the next episode of Wizards of Waverly Place to start on the Disney channel I found myself subjected to Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana/Biggie's finest collaborator and her song He Could Be the One which made me think that None More Black's Oh, There's Legwork had been licensed to the company of ol' icebox Walt and his mousy descendants.

The Gateway District have constructed a well put-together album that never runs out of steam or drags as it works that thick overdriven Jawbreaker base into an insistent cohesive work, but it isn't perfect. While it has some real high-points as I've mentioned already, none of them quite grabbed me by the throat as the way the music peters out for a second on the title track of Some Days You Get the Thunder before the titular lyric is screamed. Or the drumless bit on Lake Street is for Suckers that draws you down into this small dreamy and seductive vision of getting stoned with on Motorhead's tour-bus travelling through Georgia, treating Lemmy as a combination of a confidant and some growling bewarted sage. I think I do still prefer the first album which did all that Perfect's Gonna Fail does sonically and also incorporated some Pretty Boy Thorson style country shunt into their sound. You could describe the first album as roughly somewhere between a speeded-up version of Kiss the Bottle, and a speeded-up version of Lucero's cover of Kiss the Bottle, whereas here they've stripped away the Lucero and I'm not entirely sure why, maybe they just got bored with it.

But if we're talking about Jawbreaker so much, why not just listen to Jawbreaker, why does this album not fit into that selection of music that generally makes me go "Yeah, this is pretty good, but it just reminds me of something better that you're not doing that anything more than." The Riverdales stuff with the exception of a couple of great tracks (Rehabilitated, Werewolf One, I Don't Wanna Go To the Party) never really catches me enough to forget that I'm listening to a band that really wants to be the first couple of Ramones albums, so I just go back and listen to Leave Home again.

Similarly, Flogging Molly are a great fun live band, and while they have more obvious heavier drive than the Pogues and something like Drunken Lullabies or What's Left of the Flag is a well-constructed blend of celtic-folk, misguided Republican pride and punk rock attitude, no-one is under the illusion that they're doing something that wasn't done miles better by a man who had his ear cut off at a Clash gig and was drunk enough all the time that his songwriting seemed to commune with the social and self-loathing spirit of alcohol itself. These aren't massive criticisms really, the first couple Ramones album are the basic sonic template for most of the music I like, no matter how weirder or noisier or faster or heavier or more complex it gets compared to Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. And Shane McGowan is in that hallowed group of songwriters that have such skill and ability to root themselves in musical traditions while interpreting them in new ways, like Waits, Dylan, Jason Webley and Erik Petersen. These people are capable of writing songs that sounded like they've been around forever from the first moment they're played, songs hewn from the giving flesh of a whole culture, songs so artful they can't have been constructed by one man, they must have organically formed themselves in gutters, long walks home and barroom singalongs, coalescing from pain and camaraderie and misremembered stories retold a thousand times, imbued with all the same mythic and modern pressure as Joyce's Sirens, afternoon-drunk in the bar and restaurant of the Ormond Hotel. "A low incipient note sweet banshee murmured: all. A thrush. A throstle. His breath, birdsweet, good teeth he's proud of, fluted with plaintive woe. Is lost. Rich sound. Two notes in one there. Blackbird I heard in the hawthorn valley. Taking my motives he twined and turned them. All most too new call is lost in all. Echo. How sweet the answer. How is that done? All lost now. Mournful he whistled. Fall, surrender, lost." That's the fucking Pogues. That's not Flogging Molly, and it never ever will be. Just as The Gateway District will probably never reach the level of Schwarzenbach's lyrics, which are capable of springing effortlessly between literate late-night musings, artful metaphorical constructions and simple universal evocations of secret moments.

These aren't big putdowns, they're an inevitable damnation springing from unrealistic but warranted comparison to the perfect ur-sound that someone's try to evoke, so Perfect's Gonna Fail would be a very good, extremely listenable piece of work if all it did was call up memories of Blake Schwarzenbach and co, but it doesn't just do that. So why does Perfect's Gonna Fail, shorn of the country twang that was blended seamlessly into their basic rolling punk rock sound on its predecessor, not just make me want to put on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy again. And it's simple, it's the voice.

It's an amazing voice. It would have to be to evoke even for a second the lovelorn spell of Jimmy Ruffin's one moment in the spotlight. It's a pair of amazing voices, I should say. The Gateway District has two duelling singers who are both pretty similar, to the extent where I can't actually tell which one is singing until they're both singing at the same time and one is usually at a slightly higher-pitch than the other. It's confusing sometimes, like someone performing a duet with themselves. But they're both fucking great. The vocals are so key to the whole appeal of this band. They yelp and sneer and drawl. They croon and howl and talk. They ache. They really fucking sing. Look back to my Caves review and recognise what I say when I say that the vocals combine both the integral collaborative nature of way The Measure (SA)'s vocals work in concert with the music and the fierce blustering power present in Caves. The Gateway District vocals don't just work perfectly with the music though, they play brilliantly off of each other, one working as a slightly discordant reflection placed either as an airier version of the deep furious scope of the lead vocals, or a thick booming shadow of their lighter force, a wild polyphony of sound focusing a taut harmony of emotion. In this they remind me of the way the Vindictives so fantastically utilised the voice as a structural tool in songwriting, whoa-ohs dipping and diving around the lead singer, sometimes used for wordless wailing like another instrument, sometimes jumping in with poppy echoes to repeat a phrase, sometimes joining in for just the emphasis of a word or two like a hip-hop crew. The raucous phrasing, the way that Carrie and Maren know exactly when to drag a word out with a single lonely howl and when to spit it quickly with a twinned shout, lends the lyrics far more weight and meaning than they would have not just as written, but as sung by just one person throughout in a smoother voice.

I have actually seen them live but I can't quite remember who sang most of the songs as I was slightly-pissed and dancing madly with my one friend trying to distract myself from the fact that most of the crowd who had gone nuts for some of the opening bands had fucked-off, or if they stayed just formed the indifferent semi-circle of arms-crossed doom around my effusively bopping self and my mate Rich. They deserve such a better response than that. They're a band full of talent, just listen to the way they build atmosphere with the escalating repetition of "You worthless piece of shit. You worthless piece of shit" on Blue Halls as it crops up through the song first as a murmur of doubt and then later as a shrieking hateful accusation. Just listen to the way they have pull off the almost Sinatran snap of an approximated 'do-be-do' thrown into the racket on Queen Avenue. Despite the fact I prefer Some Days You Get the Thunder, this is fine punk songwriting shining and sucking you in with the fun, the tightness and fullness of their sound and then blowing you away with the conviction of their lyrics conveyed though the utterly mesmeric power of the human voice.

Post script:

Lessons learned from this review: I would make things a lot easier on myself if I made more of an effort to remember shit precisely. I did have a great quote for the bit about the Josie and the Pussycats, something about how Joan Jett is a robot or secret agent designed to trick and seduce little girls into liking rock and roll. I'm fairly sure I read it in a Razorcake interview, I skimmed through all my issues and couldn't find it. That wasn't so bad though, it's cool to skim through all your Razorcakes now and then. What wasn't so fun was failing to remember precisely which Miley Cyrus song resembled None More Black so to make sure I wasn't going nuts I had to go to the List of Miley Cyrus songs on Wikipedia and listen to the first ten seconds of every single one of her songs on Youtube only to find that it wasn't on the list. In doing so I learned, the first ten seconds of every single Miley Cyrus song sound like some other song, in every genre from hip-hop to classical to reggae to country to ragtime to college rock, I can only hope that this soulless musical pillaging (which exists as a sneering capitalist distortion, a toxic corporate parody of the reckless roaming spirit behind Tom Waits or The Clash or the World/Inferno Friendship Society) inspires at least one happy tween on the verge of adolescent breakdown to connect with a particular genre and delve into it, finding themselves in a few short years with an encyclopedic knowledge of Peter Tosh records or reliving in their mind the beautiful rebellion of the swingjugend possessing a deep denial they ever sang along with the spawn of a man about whom we can only lament that Bill Hicks died before his titty-filled fevered ego slaying pilot got produced. In the end I discovered that the song wasn't on that list because it's not a Miley Cyrus song, it's a fucking Hannah Montana song. God, I felt like someone who hated horror but read Stephen King's entire bibliography looking for a particular book that their father told them to read from his death bed so they could finally understand their family traditions and genetic place in the world, only to find it was actually a Richard Bachman novel. Fuck you, dead dad. And fuck you, whichever Disney motherfucker came up with the idea of bolting the central tension of all superhero fiction on to an updating of the Monkees which amplified all the cynical cross-media marketing to an apocalyptic gargantua of prickvertising 'synergy' whilst surgically removing all the mad naivete and enthusiasm that led Mickey, Davey, Petey and Mike to burn their career to the fucking ground in the batshit psychedelic firestorm of an early Jack Nicholson movie.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Caves - Collection

It's impossible for me to talk about this band without comparing them to The Measure (SA). Lauren Measure has talked about how much she's a fan of this band and when I first encountered them in an underground London bowling alley I was wearing a Measure (SA) shirt that the lead singer talked to me about when I bought a shirt and 7" off them. It's not just a set of trite coincidences that equate these bands in my mind though, they do both play a similar sort of scratchy melancholy-tinged pop-punk with female vocals in the Discount tradition.

They're a very different sort of female vocals though. Lauren Measure's voice works because it's this almost light and airy thing which seems incongrous in the way it's far more melodious than the music around it and it sort of ducks and dives through the thrashy-pop that surrounds it, struggling to emerge on top. Louise Hanman's vocals in Caves are a different beast entirely, while searching for a word to properly sum them up I kept coming up with 'monotonous' which just really sounds like a criticism but I don't mean it as one. I'm trying to get to the idea that while they're incapable of the intricacies you get in the The Measure (SA), they're far more powerful in a way. They don't work as a counterpoint to the music, they power forward, dragging the music behind them in their wake. They're properly shouty in the way that a good punk vocalist can be, strident and exciting, turning its technical limitations into its emotional strength.

Like I said, the music seems to follow the vocals, and in that way again it's less complex in its structure than the The Measure (SA), they don't like to let a song run around through different styles with slow-intros building into bigger angrier sounds, or faking endings only to stomp back into action. Caves prefer to hit a certain sweet spot and work it, repeating a couple of lines of lyrics over the same riff, grinding out a little repetitive groove and eeking all the tension and meaning out of that simple little refrain. It's like a more complex less explicit take on the Herman's Hermits/Judy is a Punk announcement "Second verse, same as the first!" This album is a really enjoyable listen and perfect proof that while two bands can appear to be doing the same sort of thing, the way they approach it and execute it is completely different.

Fucked Up - David's Town

Fucked Up specialise in ideas that really shouldn’t work. Their latest album is a fake compilation of imaginary ‘77 UK bands from a fictional town. They really capture the loose garagey fuzz and snotty drive of a lot of the peripheral bands of that time that never quite broke through into the mainstream when they could and now are generally only remembered for a song or two that crops up on real versions of this sort of compilation, or because the band members went on to other more prestigious endeavours.

The era that they’ve imitated so perfectly is that odd point where suburban bands were blasting out numbers in every dingy basement on every dingy street that didn’t always fit the standard punk rock template we think of now because the definite notions and conventions of a punk song hadn’t really been properly codified yet, so there’s invention born out of both a desire to just play what sounds cool, and also out of an inability to imitate Pretty Vacant or Janie Jones perfectly and you get a lot of slightly weird, off-kilter stuff that prefigures the later more deliberate sonic explorations of more obviously post-punk (and later indie-rock) bands. And Fucked Up have made an album that really sucks all those sounds together, just as they’re simultaneously coming together as a definite scene and breaking apart as a cohesive genre. It’s kind of amazing.

Of course the strengths of the album are also its weaknesses. The sort of compilations that it's aping will always feature a combination of really great stuff and things you just couldn't give a shit about. I love the pub-rock stomp lifting into the happy wailing of pop-punk of the opening track here. I like the fuzzy Unrequited Love which starts off like it was made by a bunch of people too enamoured with 60s music of girl groups and psychedelia to commit to a simple punk song, but so full of the exuberance of the time they can't help but make something that also works as well in this punk rock setting as any song off Damned, Damned, Damned. I can't stop listening to Do You Feed (The Curry Song) which somehow grasps the oddly important position that curry takes in the British national psych as a crossroads of culinary machismo and a wholehearted embrace of the benefits of multiculturalism (in the same way that the Goodness Gracious Me 'Going for an English' sketch does where a drunken Indian boldly announces to the catcalls of his friends "I'll have the blandest thing on the menu!") and then makes a really great punk song out of it that comes the closest of any on the album to that retroactively applied notion of the typical '77 sound. In contrast, I found that the closing track It's Hard to Be a Dad was far too twee for me, but the appeal of this album is its diversity and the excitement of the first listen is going through the different styles and finding out its surprises for yourself.

The Reaganomics - Lower the Bar

The first line of this album is "WELL I DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR BAND!" which sets the tone fairly comprehensively.

This is a punk rock album for people who are into punk rock for the hate, not the sort of painful damaging morally void hate of post-All Skrewed Up Skrewdriver, but the petty but very real sense of outrage and irrationally intense loathing that springs from what really should be a minor annoyance that, instead of just dismissing and forgetting as stupid, you allow to fester and grow into an unfathomably important all-consuming despair at how anyone in the world can live their life like that. The Reaganomics just write fun arsehole songs about how everyone and everything sucks, eviscerating trend-followers, the faux-Irish, Ed Hardy wearers, critics, yuppies, other punk bands with equal relish. There are a few positive numbers that are conducted with the same sense of glee as the sophomoric diss tracks, but while you get brief happy moments when The Reaganomics really want to party with Robocop or visit the Renaissance Fair, you're soon back to learning that they don't want to end up at a bar with someone they don't like, they don't want to go work, they don't want to go to school, they don't want to read your blog (so I really could say what the fuck I want here with absolutely no chance of retribution).

The great thing about this album is that they're so scattershot in their targets that it's inevitable they're going to hit upon some niggle of modern society, some little tribe or attitude that just gets under your skin and though you know it's stupid to care so much about it you just can't help it. There's probably going to be a song on this album that you don't just like because it's fun and stupid and easy to sing along to, they'll be something where you'll genuinely feel the sense of ridiculously inflated malice towards its intended target.

There's a sort of self-defeating sense to it because it's a profoundly negative album for the most part, but it's the sounds of a bunch of nerds in their basement putting the world to rights and while that doesn't really sound appealing, they're talented enough musically to get you on their side, so you get to vicariously enjoy their pet hates streamed into 90 second pop-punk songs full of brief angry solos and really big choruses. It's the maelstrom of minor frustrations that can slow you down or impede your journey through life cathartically channeled into creating something incredibly dumb and incredibly catchy.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Paintbox - Trip, Trance and Travelling

Maybe the strength of this album is diluted if I actually talk about what it sounds like before you listen to it. Certainly some of the strongest reactions that people I know have given it come from the utter shock of its sound. So I will beseech you to fucking trust me on this and just get this bloody album.

Okay, that's not really enough for some people, and fair enough. So here are some pithy sonic comparisons to get you to listen to it: GISM if they allied their searing solos with a forthright melodic sensibility rather than their low-fi minatory drone. Motörhead if they covered the songs you generally get over the ending credits of Japanese beat-em-ups. Chinese Democracy if it was worth the wait.

I don't have a huge grounding in the history of Japanese punk, so there may be some factual errors here, but as I understand it, Paintbox were a Japanese hardcore band who traveled in a particular subgenre known as burning spirits, apparently named after a certain tour in Japan, the characteristic sound of which is basically a defiantly uptempo punk thrasher featuring the sort of solos you haven't heard since the last time you stumbled across the Beat It video on a Sounds of the 80s marathon and listened to Eddie Van Halen make his guitar wail over the sight of a bunch of extras from The Warriors abandoning violence in favour of meticulously synchronised dance moves. The band that defined this style was Death Side who existed from 87-94 before disbanding and all their members going on to further develop the sound in the bands Judgement, Forward and Paintbox.

Out of those three bands, Paintbox are by far the easiest on the ears, on their albums Singing, Shouting, Crying and Earth Ball Sports Tournament they begin incorporate a myriad of other styles and sensibilities into the core of their burning spirits sound, but when I first came to Trip, Trance and Travelling I didn't know that. I had never heard of this band. All I knew was that I was listening to what I had been assured was a completely rocking album which began with a whole lot of mellow spacey guitar noodling and I was just starting to wonder whether I'd been prog-rolled when, almost two minutes in, the song bursts into angry thrashing life and I found myself swept up in a current of an irresistible hardcore punk rhythm, rough throaty vocals, marvelling more with each seamless sonic development, a chugging guitar part, a rumbling wandering bassline, a huge nonsensical chorus (one of the few bits of English on the album), a delirious guitar solo, keyboards, heraldic trumpets, a mellifluous lullaby of female vocals. After the first song, I was entranced, but I thought they surely couldn't keep up this intense and insane blend of styles for the whole album, there have been many bands where I've encountered a thrilling song only to find it to be the one moment when their talents and intentions transcended their limitations and they produce something amazing before collapsing into a generic samey mush. That is not Paintbox. This entire album, from the first note to the last, is imbued with the same nutty thrill of the first track, even on the mellower songs which are perfectly placed throughout the album for breathing space in the galloping onslaught punk rock that dominates the album. And this album lasts over seventy fucking minutes. Seventy!

Now when I listen to that first song I find the intro filled with tension, the bass swelling underneath, the soft guitar rising and falling, expanding and contracting, teasing you for the joyous moment when it rips into gear. It's one of those little bits of music, like the chorus in Dear Landlord's Three to the Beach, like first time the backing vocals kick in on The Vindictives' Assembly Line, that never fails to elicit a completely shit-eating grin from me. The most effective use of establishing and then subverting the expectations of a tender aural caress since the Butthole Surfers shouted SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! at the start of Locust Abortion Technician and then ploughed into a massive blast of Black Sabbath's Sweat Leaf tastefully retitled Sweat Loaf. There are far too many beautiful giddy moments like that on this album to catalogue them all, and part of the joy of this album is being constantly surprised by it, constantly finding bits where if you were were going to describe them to someone you would be constantly bookending your assessment of the sound with the panicky phrase 'but good', but here are a couple of bits that stand out to me:

  • the mariachi horns on Mental Picnic
  • the whole of Fields in the Moonlight, which for large parts of its seven minute duration gives itself over to the more melodic influences of the album until the screaming inevitably kicks in and its like you were listening to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack on Winamp when someone linked you to a webpage which autoplayed Dangers. In fact, possibly the pithiest musical description of this entire beautiful mess to stand next to my previous comparisons would be four words: Yoko Kanno's hardcore album
  • the way the riff (which bears an odd resemblance to Jona Lewie's Stop the Cavalry) on the final track speeds up
  • the Chemical Warfare-esque squealing madness at the end of Raw Ore
  • the brief bass break in the middle of Retribution
  • the little tinkle before the guitar solo at the start of Praying
Lyrically I don't really have much to say about this album. I fell in love with it before I knew what the hell they were singing, which is fairly unusual for me. Even if a band's lyrics are completely dumb, I like to be able to singalong with them, but that's just another testament to the overwhelming power of the music. Since I first heard it, I've purchased the gorgeous gatefold double LP which comes complete with lyrical translations, and while its a relief to know I haven't been madly besotted with a concept album endorsing the Rape of Nanking, I still don't really care about what they're singing. The lyrics are kind of clunky in translation, but are perfectly workable fun punk exhortations of freedom. They don't completely work on paper, but few punk lyrics do. It's always about the way they're sung, the force put into them. I'm sure if you knew Japanese it would be a lot of fun to sing along to lines like "It's not enough/Destroy all the rules/ You will strike a mine called shyness and explode yourself/We are making preparations steadily" or "Going to the ends of the endless world/Using every trick to coax my rickety body/Swinging paralysing gasoline/Let's become ape-men with an engine and go" but for me they're sadly just a peripheral part of the whole experience.

I have utterly no problem with a band that just wants to play punk rock and never alter their style. I love The Copyrights more and more with each release and never expect them to change much. I'm enamoured with The Lillingtons, Guitar Wolf and Threatener and countless other bands that stick rigidly to a particular basic punk rock template, but there's such a complete feeling of delight to hear a band push the envelope of punk rock so far beyond its conventional bounds without ever losing the vim and fury that makes it so appealing. I've never been much of a metal fan, but this album is like everything I would always sort of want metal to sound like in its noise and bombast streamlined perfectly into happy bursts of infectious cacophony.

In the making of this album, Chelsea, the guitarist of Paintbox and before that Death Side, died, as did Mayuko Sakai, the woman responsible for the beautiful ethereal female vocals that perfectly counterpoint the angry growl of the lead singer (whose name remains unstranslated in the lyrics booklet). Now it would be jejune and probably offensive to speculate that the decade long struggle to produce this album in all its epic scope contributed to their death (Chelsea by all accounts had a pretty big drug problem for a long time (online you can find a report of someone seeing him play a show with a heroin baggie hanging from the mic) and died after apparently spending several days getting drunk and not eating in a hot apartment without adequate air-conditioning), instead I'll say that in the searing beauty of this album, the glorious derangement of the whole endeavour, the way it makes the absurd sounding mix of psychedelia and punk rock, J-pop and thrash, lounge jazz and metal, prog and hardcore sound like the most natural thing in the world and never gets tired or boring over a running time about the same as Buster Keaton's The General, there exists a testament to the astounding skill and artistry of all involved in making this masterpiece, and to the assimilative powers of all punk rock, and ultimately to just the way that music itself is constantly evolving and constantly surprising and constantly finding strange and madcap new approaches to soundtrack the fractal delirium of the human condition.