Saturday, 16 July 2011

So Scratched Into Our Souls #7: Los Olvidados - Something New

"I just want to hear something I haven't heard before" - John Peel

I recognise the irony of using a song which is 30-odd years old to make a plea for inventiveness and freshness, so there's that.

This Los Olvidados track is an early 80s skatepunk number mainly about the restlessness of youth. That essential drive for something better, at one level it's an already thwarted cry for the greener grass on the other side, the smoother pavements, the pools you never get kicked out of, but more than that it's about getting the feeling that's you've been sold a false bill of goods but twisting that frustration and betrayal into a driving force for change, more than "Do they owe us a living?" or even "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" it's (until the very end) a positive take on those lamentations. It's a push for a place to find yourself, escape, a break with tradition, away from "I just got a job/Not feeling too alive/It's like working in a funeral home/Everyone has died". The central cry of "I'm just looking for something new!" builds and build until it's screamed so loud it warps and snaps into "I got nothing new!"





Such is the permanent nature of teenage rebellion, the athanastic renewal of the longing for escape, for freedom, for relevance and meaning that cannot be comprehended by those who have defined relevance and meaning for the short blissfully ignorant life that is falling apart as self-awareness dawns like a fresh painful day; such is the drive for more than they have been handed, than they have been told they deserve or should aspire to; such is the fuck you; such is the belief, strong and pure and still childlike in its strength and purity, that life can be different, better somehow; such is the sense that something is being lost and slipping through their fingers every day that they do not scream at the night, every day that they waste following the paths laid down for them by progenitors who will never ever understand, never ever. Such is life, in all its intricacies and burning passion, with souls fired at the heavens like AK47 oblations from street corners and bedrooms, from clubs and park benches with bottles of liquor, cheap shitty weed, patchwork ideals and hate, love so tight it constricts the arteries and needs stents of beer and bullshit and punching walls to keep them open. Such is life, as it remains, beautiful and collapsing in on itself like waves throwing themselves at the beach determined to soak one grain of sand that has not yet been wetted. The youth revolt, the revolutions spin, the heads and hearts and fingers of a billion strong pour aimlessly and beautifully at the sky and earth. The sky splits. The earth cracks. Then it heals and the scars fade, but there’s still a story to them.

That's the long of it, the short of it is that I latch on to that desire for newness, the climb before the fall, and always kind of relate it more to my approach to music than any wider sweep of revolving life.

In a fuckload of places I have seen this image surrounded by righteous cries of 'Yeah!'.





And fuck that.


Fuck that not because I like dubstep, I only have a vague idea of what it is, or dislike punk (chief creative and moral force to my existence, yo). Fuck that because no genre is inherently better than any other (FUCK ROCKISM!), and as soon as you dismiss something new as shit and immature and noisy, you’re stepping into the exact role that punk is on many levels a reaction against. Whatever you think of the music in itself, any art that speaks to people because it’s being made by people like them is vital and exciting, the same way punk rock was in its initial blast of popularity and the same way it persists today in its own underground sphere. When British students and kids occupied Parliament Square in December in protest against the prohibitive raise in tuition fees, they weren’t playing punk rock but there was a portable soundsystem blasting out dubstep and grime, they were dancing wildly to a pounding beat produced by their own peers and heroes that nobody else really gives a shit about as they're trapped in the cold a couple hundred yards away from the seat of the country’s power while hordes of riot police stand all around you. And tell me that's not fucking punk rock.

John Peel was a fucking amazing man. One of the few people I'd regard as a hero. I will never approach anything like the beautiful anarchic spirit he had with music because I am fairly locked into one scene, one genre and culture, but he brooked no such bonds. Most cultural figures have a moment of relevance and then fade away looking lustfully back at their glory days, think Chubby Checker producing inumerable twists on The Twist (Let's Twist Again!, Twistin USA, Slow Twistin, Yo Twist!). John Peel remained relevant and brilliant for decades by constantly searching for that something special, the feeling of g, he pioneered, punk, ska, reggae, post-punk, rap, grunge and dozens of smaller and weirder subgenres. He was a man who would play grindcore on the biggest radio station in the country. (An oft-repeated story is of him getting forced to cover for a mid-afternoon DJ and on receiving complaints about the dismissive tone he adopted for the pop pap he had to play responded by playing a Bolt Thrower record during drivetime.) He also was the first person to play dubstep on the radio, and if he was around today I'm sure he'd be playing a bunch of stuff that wouldn't be picked up on by most people until a few years from now.

So while I'm stuck fast into punk rock, attached limpet-like to its crusty stinking heart, I'll always try and bring his restlessness to the way I listen to music, because cultural calcification is the fucking enemy to me. I'm on the look out for new bands and new albums, old bands and old albums that I missed on my last sweep around, and I know that if I look hard enough then I'll find it. I know that somewhere in the world there is a bedroom with a kid thrashing about badly on their guitar who in 6 months or 6 years can produce something amazing and beautiful and silly that'll make me feel the good parts of sixteen again, but I've got to keep looking for it, I can't let it just come to me because it fucking won't. Every year brings new pleasures. Every year brings new sounds, new punks, and I always want to be on board for that something new, clawing forward in bursts like a breaking wave. Maybe I'll slip out at some point, just get tired or bored or just too old to get the slashing new thing, but I'm gonna try my hardest not to dismiss it out of hand, because fuck being that guy.

There are countless great punk bands. There always have been countless great punk bands. There always will be. Punk rock is in a constant state of renewal and reinvention. A hydra built on frustration and ineptitude and loathing and hope and love, both immutable and transitory, obsessed with sincerity and silliness, aping the Ramones, ripping apart The Germs, building up the Circle Jerks, shredding the Minutemen or Husker Du or The Dicks, leaping from Crimpshrine with a line wound tight in its heart and spit in its eye, screeching vindictive oblivion over riffs stolen from F.Y.P., throwing the best parts of The Clash into a huge giant clustering fuck of melody and power, poetry and bile and dumb fucking attitude. Punk rock is dying, dead, birthing, alive in every single 4-beat count-off and song sung like it was the last one. And the most interesting stuff to me will always be what’s going on right now because it’s fresh, fresh as a wound, and falling over itself because it doesn’t know where it’s going. It’s a van full of kids in the dark and there’s a show somewhere out there full of people who also know the words to Propagandhi songs. Despite all its forebears and all the tradition and shite it's aping and building from, it's the fresh unsteady rush of Something New.

"What emerged from reading Rose's book was the affirmation that every generation feels this way about its music, whether it's Grieg or Simon and Garfunkel or Girls Aloud. It's a feeling written down in the rings of our grain. And in the generations to come we'll still be singing along in the kitchen, and buying records while drunk, and leaping down the aisle, feet round our ears. It's a human condition, I think, to be always stumbling out of concert halls feeling as if we have been drugged, to be forever finding ourselves back on our front step, surprised we have not been run over." - Laura Barton

Guitar Wolf

"The trend toward narcissistic flair has been responsible in large part for smiting rock with the superstar virus, which revolves around the substituting of attitudes and flamboyant trappings, into which the audience can project their fantasies, for the simple desire to make music, get loose, knock the folks out or get ‘em up dancin.’ It’s not enough just to do those things anymore; what you must do instead if you want success on any large scale is figure a way of getting yourself associated in the audience’s mind with their pieties and their sense of “community,” i.e., ram it home that you’re one of THEM; or, alternately, deck and bake yourself into an image configuration so blatant or outrageous that you become a culture myth." - Lester Bangs in the essay James Taylor Marked for Death from the absolutely essential collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

So I try not to quote Lester Bangs too much, and I fail all the time, because he's the sort of person that when I started reading them seriously I was already leaning towards something approaching their style and approach in my own writing (I feel the same way about Le Clezio and his cascading torrent of words echoing the noise of society) and so reading them was a mixture of "Holy fuck! This is amazing! I'm not alone or insane! Someone is doing exactly what I want to do and doing it brilliantly!" and "Ah shit. This is amazing but it means I'm completely unoriginal. Someone is doing exactly what I want to do and doing it brilliantly." It's even worse with Bangs than Le Clezio because Bangs is not only offering far better writing than me, he's also often writing about the same shit. He hangs heavy over everything I pen. He is, after all, the man credited with the term 'punk rock'. So I try not to quote him too much because he frequently renders any insight I have utterly pointless (like Bill Hicks I can only thank my lucky stars he died horrendously young and thus did not have time to supercede everything and anything I want to say about shit) but it's unavoidable here, because if anyone has taken the culture myth approach to rock music, it's fucking Guitar Wolf.

You know how I should really conduct this review? I should just put the words GUITAR WOLF in screen-filling size and animate it so it flashes black and yellow and everyone who gets it will be like "FUCK YEAH!" and everyone who doesn't can go die in an office.

GUITAR WOLF, MAN! FUCKING GUITAR WOLF! GUIIIIIITAR WOLF, BABY! ROCK AND ROLL! GUITAR! WOLF! WOLF! GUITAR! WUITAR! GOLF! J-J-J-J-JET GENERATION! GUITAR WOLF! GUITAR WOLF! 1-2-3-4! GUITAAAAAAAAAR WOOOOOOOOOOOOLF!

That right there is a pretty accurate summary of the state of my brain as I walked out of the Islington Academy last Friday having seen the most awesome (in its original meaning before dumb fucks like me and the rest of the internet dulled it through inane overuse) display of pure rock and roll that I have ever had the ungodly fortune to experience.

Okay, so sonically, Guitar Wolf are the bastard children of Joan Jett, Motorhead, The Ramones and Link Wray, although they're probably stylistically more monomaniacal than even Lemmy's 35 years of making songs that go dananananaNAH! and they certainly have none of the attempts at pop hits that the Ramones indulged in from time to time. They are ascetics to the religion of rock and roll. Aesthetically, they are the bastard children of Joan Jett, Motorhead, The Ramones and Link Wray. They are garage punk, with the volume and attitude cranked so far off the dial that they trample carelessly around the shadowly borderlands of noisecore. And they look fucking cool doing it.

Every single Guitar Wolf album sounds pretty much the same (okay, so I haven't picked up the new one yet and didn't have enough cash to the other night but I don't think it breaks any new ground), but that's what's so wonderful about them. "Every time you do it, you dig deeper" as Ross MacDonald said when critics accused him of writing and rewriting the same novel over and over again with his Lew Archer series. Guitar Wolf are digging deeper into this almost primal rock and roll. Their song titles are built from a compendium of rock cliches, Midnight Violence Rock'n Roll, Machine Gun Guitar, Kung Fu Ramone Culmination Tactic and Sex Napoleon but they do it with enough unwinking verve that you just want to believe in it all again, all the 'yeah baby's and '1-2-1-2-3-4's and guitar solos and drum flourishes. All that silly stuff. The best starting place is probably the album Jet Generation, generally considered to be the apotheosis of their sound, possibly because it is claimed to be the loudest album ever recorded. Matador records claim "When we sent the new GUITAR WOLF record to the mastering lab for inclusion in our recent in-store play sampler, the mastering engineer called back, mystified by the volume level on the CD-R. The levels exceeded the theoretical maximum possible on compact disk audio. In other words, JET GENERATION is the loudest CD in history." How fucking cool is that? If you don't think that is cool, then maybe we cannot be friends.






The other possible starting point for Guitar Wolf is not an album, but their b-movie Wild Zero. In which they fight zombies and UFOs and look so fucking slick. Senji, Billy and Toru AKA Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf. Shooting shit, shouting "ROCK AND ROLL!", riding motorcycles with flames coming out the back, blowing shit up, delivering a stringent anti-transphobia message, rocking the fuck out, saving the world, somewhere between spirit animals and rock and roll superheroes.




So the band took the stage. First Bass Wolf (U.G. since the death of Billy a few years ago), then Drum Wolf, then Guitar Wolf himself. Here are some of the things that happened during the next hour and a half or so:

  • I've listened to almost everything they've done and they only played three songs I recognised, the opener UFO Romantics, Jet Generation and Link Wray's Rumble.

  • They did play something that resembled the Dead Kennedys' Police Truck though.

  • The guitar cable was fucked so the sound went out a couple of times but nobody appeared to notice (I didn't even notice this, I was informed by someone I was with after the gig).

  • They did every single rock and roll posture, pose and move that should've gone out of style 40 years ago but made every single one look unbearably fucking cool, especially the whole "hold your guitar like a rifle and spray bullets of rock into the crowd" one.

  • They were so completely into it from the very first moment that a couple of the guys we were with had popped out for a cigarette and when they came back in to see the band writhing about and playing guitar behind their heads they were like "Oh shit. This looks like the last song." when in fact it was the first song and the entire gig proceeded like that.

  • They barely ever stopped making noise, each glorious rock and roll cacophony would be drawn out into a stumbling wind-down but before they did the synchronised blunt rock and roll ending they'd pump it back up into another song without stopping.

  • Guitar Wolf dragged a guy out the crowd and gave him his guitar, which the guy clearly could not play but his thrashing around made no real difference to the sound being produced and it took a long time for Guitar Wolf to communicate to him in his limited English exactly which rock and roll moves he wanted him to do (it was basically like that scene from School of Rock where Jack Black teaches rock stance to the kids, but enveloped in huge colliding continents of noise), but it was still all deliriously entertaining.

  • Drum Wolf did the ol' James Dean 'look cool while combing your hair' thing while just playing the bass drum.

  • Bass Wolf had no G string, not even a tuning peg for one, lest he be tempted by the evils of something that clearly wimpy.

  • Guitar Wolf broke a string and the guitar techs tried to give him a new guitar but he was like "Fuck it. I can still thrash this one".

  • They did two encores, the first one really short, the second one after the PA had started playing music to signal the show was over but people were booing and chanting for more and I could see Bass Wolf arguing with the stage manager for one more. FIGHT THE POWER!

  • This one more went on for fucking ages as Guitar Wolf pulled a load of the crowd on stage to form a four tier human pyramid on stage which he climbed to the top of and bestrode like a powerchord pharaoh briefly before it collapsed.

  • After the show had finished, the house lights had come up and half the crowd had left, Guitar Wolf came back on stage just to pick up his shit but the people lingering about who'd just been rocked out of their mind cheered him and inspired by this he grabbed his unplugged guitar and with no mic or amp thrashed out a song in exactly the same sweat-shedding dramatic pose, grimacing as though being exorcised by the music, that he had adopted for much of the show when he was not thrashing about on the floor or leaning into the crowd, in almost COMPLETE FUCKING SILENCE while the audience stood and cheered "WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!" as though they could still hear the majestic racket that had just flayed them of their senses.



I know I'm forgetting some of the other delirious acts of rock and roll madness that took place, they may have been erased by the dark swirling mass of clamor and chaos that filled the room and got itself worked into the rustling fabric of my being. ROCK NOT LEST YE YOURSELF BE ROCKED!



Seeing them live changes the way you view the band, it makes you think even more than you ever did that they are actually rock and roll superheroes, but it also makes you stop thinking about individual songs as separate artifacts of that rock and roll. It makes you really understand why they're classed as noise-rock as much as they are garage-punk, because that constant onslaught of sound eats into you until silence feels utterly unnatural.

"The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words stat forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop…" - Tom McCarthy, C

In contrast to Killer Dreamer and a lot of that sloppy garage-y pop-punk, where it does feel like a single perfect burst of mellifluous pop taken apart from the inside and also in contrast to something like Husker Du's New Day Rising where it often feels likes a song built hardy, smooth and true and then thrown screaming like a bag of cats into that sea of fuzz so it has to struggle and splutter to keep itself heard. It feels as if we're coming from the other side, delving into the dingy discord of the world, the latent thrum of the cosmos, pulling a brief harmonious moment out of the primordial clang. We're not talking taking a Chuck Berry song and filling it with the crackle of basement souls, not wrapping a sweet teenage love song in acidic folds of hiss, it's the molding the background noise of the planet and beyond into something you can scream along to, exposing the true rock and roll heart that lives inside the deafening rumble of rocketship lifting off, the faded roar of distant traffic and the static buzz of a thousand electro-magnetic signals degraded and spattering invisible against bodies and buildings, going further and further into the dancing soul of things, unearthing rock and roll as the sound of the tick of the universe until they're grasping the echo heard by Penzias and Wilson and shoving it into a Bo Diddley beat.

Near-pure noise music like Hanatarash is possibly the closest to this idea of bringing into the light the sound behind it all, amplifying that low-level echo of existence as one drawn out, stretched and mutilated rock and roll song, like that version of Justin Bieber's inane platitudinous sexless Baby slowed down 800% until attains an odd scraping beauty, we're looking at everything from the big bang on up until the heat death as a version of Overkill lasting aeons with a billion false endings, but Guitar Wolf are a step away from that, often live it seems as there is no structure to what's going on, like these adventurers and cosmonauts of the sonic void are aimlessly rolling around in the distortion and thrash, but then they'll grab onto a groove, snatch a drumbeat from infinity and shackle it, they're plucking guitar solos from the murk. "Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world." as Stalker had it, or at a less wholly mythic level (it's a hierarchy of noise and Guitar Wolf are drawing both from the base big bang echo and the assorted descendant static that has followed and intermingled with it) it's something akin to GX Jupitter Larsen's noise novel Sometimes Never which starts with "Most thought the radio static was empty. They were quite wrong..." it says before 20 odd pages of phonetically rendered static, pages and pages of letters smashed together briefly asserting themselves into half-recognisable patterns that scamper away from your comprehension designed to be read out loud and make you like hissing/fizzing madman if you do it in public. Entering into this churning noise, they're bringing back melody and rhythm from the brink and passing it on to us as only true heroes can.

Because here's where the culture myth gets interesting, Guitar Wolf are not us. Jeff Rosenstock is. Lauren Measure is. Mikey Erg is. Biscuit Turner was. Even an exulted a figure as Mackaye or Rollins is still us. Still that ordinary person who does ordinary things, goes to the shop, stubs their toe, they just go out at night and play stunning angry beautiful music rather than relaxing with a boxset of Mork and Mindy, a cool Coors 16 ouncer or a Yukio Mishima novel.

But Guitar Wolf drag audience members on stage and hand them a guitar and then they're part of it, they've got the crowd cheering them on. One move and you're a rock god, Auxiliary Wolf, let me hear you howl. What Guitar Wolf do, and this is explicit in Wild Zero in which the main character is not the band but a fervent fan named Ace, is they make you a fucking sidekick to the madness. They draw you in. Like a Dr Who companion, or Willy DuWitt in Bucky O'Hare, or whatever lucky kid gets to visit the Justice League HQ this week and help save the day, you're just the odd little human drawn into this mission, this romantic excavation of sound with the tools of poses and postures and three-string basses, part of the crew even if your job is just to keep the radio on the right station, you're part of the myth, the Guitar Wolf gang. Get your jacket and sunglasses and point the axe at the nearest star, with the ache and groan of space-time behind us, there are rock and roll songs out there swirling between nebulae and black holes and it's our job to go and get them. We've all got a little overdrive and garage noise in our heads so let's use it, shape it, exploit it. Count us in Drum Wolf, we're along for the ride.




"Some religions say that the universe was started with a word, a song, a dance, a piece of music. The Listening Monks of the Ramtops have trained their hearing until they can tell the value of a playing card by listening to it, and have made it their task to listen intently to the subtle sounds of the universe to piece together, from the fossil echoes, the very first sounds.

There was certainly, they say, a very strange noise at the beginning of everything.

But the keenest ears (the ones who win most at poker), who listen to the frozen echoes in ammonites and amber, swear they can detect some tiny sounds before that.

It sounded, they say, like someone counting: One, Two, Three, Four.

The very best one, who listened to basalt, said he thought he could make out, very faintly, some numbers that came even earlier.

When they asked him what it was, he said: 'It sounds like One, Two.'
" - Soul Music, Terry Pratchett

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

So Scratched Into Our Souls #6: Killer Dreamer - Black Metal Band

"They have names like Igor, Meldorf, and Tor/Black metal is not like, is not exactly like Living Color/I kinda hope they move here, so I don't have to pay import prices/But I'm kinda fear them being near me, because, they're not nice!/I befriended them/Bye bye mom, it's now me and my black metal friends/I befriended them/Bye bye Franklin, it's now me and my black metal friends" - Atom and his Package, Me and My Black Metal Friends

A lot of my favourite music sounds a lot like this song. It's that sort of lo-fi scratchy pop-punk that draws a lot from FYP, Hickey (Hickey are the best band ever) and The Mummies. The first FYP releases are really rough stuff, but they undergo a process of refinement throughout their career until they're playing fairly straight pop-punk, but it doesn't feel like a band choosing to change their sound, but one learning to play their instruments as they continue, that they always wanted the slicker stuff but just couldn't manage it at first. Hickey (Hickey are the best band ever) were a sloppily experimental band who often sound as if they wanted to write a simple pop-punk song but got bored and wandered off. The Mummies sound like a Sounds of the Sixties station with the dial carelessly thrown halfway off into the mid-band static. All three bands share the fact that they sound like they've reached their own distinctive mix of structure and fuzziness through a seemingly accidental careless process. They always wanted to play something the kids could bop to, but they were the wrong sort of kids, so they could only play something the wrong sort of kids would bop to, the freaks and weirdos and corner lurkers learning life lessons from this cartel of fuck-ups, learning brevity doesn't mean simplicity and that simplicity doesn't mean smoothness, learning beauty comes in burning packages, learning that distortion is a cure-all and that the top forty and its mass-market pretty faces cannot croon a broken, confused heart in the way that these pissy fucks can when they pack all the anxiety into the songs so that they bubble over, they black-lung cackle and sting.

Garage bands, who don't wanna hear about what the rich are doing, don't wanna go to where the rich are going, soothsaying guttersnipes. There is that criticism of punk that it's people who can't play their instruments, but it leads to this lovely oddness and degraded glorious sound, the first wave of that is what David's Town was aping. On Westway to the World Paul Simonon talks about how the reggae feel of Guns of Brixton came from the fact that he'd grown up listening to reggae so when he tried to write a song, whatever he did naturally leant that way. In the cases I'm talking about here though, it's music leaning into the louder angrier stuff that gives its edge rather than punk being unable to escape another sound but leaving some of its threat and menace in the song that we see in Simonon's pissed-off reggae masterpiece. I'm talking happy accidents for unhappy people.

So all those bands playing rough approximations of a more refined sound (and those three were by no means some classic example of this, just three bands that I like a lot that I associate in my head with this phenomena), led to a lot of the bands I love today which all dance around that style, Stymie, Dude Jams, Fancy Pants and the Cellphones, The Bananas, The Credentials, Killer Dreamer, Shang-a-Lang, Sass Dragons, The Exploding Hearts, Future Virgins, The Measure (SA). It's the classical notion of a three minute pop song torn apart by feral children and put back together roughly by enthusiastic incompetents. A slick thing pushed loud enough for the cracks to appear and the churn and shit inside to shine through. All of these bands have different sounds and genealogies but they can all be described in this fashion, pop songs for malcontents and howlheads, a crumbling silly little ditty that stomps and thrashes in a sweet dumb fury, unstable material, brief half-lives that decay and rot and break things because they'll never be prom queen.



Killer Dreamer are the perfect example of this sort of thing and I chose Black Metal Band because it's my favourite song of theirs. A short punk stomp that fizzes and spits and dies nasty. It reminds me of my friend Graham's admission that he only formed a pop-punk band because he was not a good enough guitarist to be in a thrash metal band, and he ended up playing amazing low-fi scratchy pop-punk with Fancy Pants and the Cellphones that contains all the brevity and vim of The Undertones but is nowhere near fit for mass public consumption. Black Metal Band is a somewhat noisy song about being very noisy. It's a pop-punk song about a black metal band that sounds as if it's been infected with the pull of the violent evil sound it's describing and is transforming into it. The smooth skin of something easy and clear picked at relentlessly until it begins to itch and break apart. Musical dermatillomania. Still catchy and hummable but nothing near pop. Noisebursts you can shimmy to.

Plus, I just love the bit where the snotty garage yelp slips into a satanic growl to intone the song title. Form and content, mothers and fuckers!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Night Birds - Fresh Kills Vol. 1

"I met a wave head-on as it broke and took the cold shock running. My feet kicked out behind me and I swam straight out for a quarter mile. There the kelp-beds stopped me, a tangled barrier of brown and yellow tubes and bulbs floating low in the water. I hated the touch of underwater life. I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I got from all the people. They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through mountains, cut down a thousand year of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted. There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean couldn’t cure. Except there were too many Ararats, and I was no Noah. The sky was flat and empty and the water was chilling me. I swam to the kelp-bed and plunged down through it. It was cold and clammy like the bowels of fear. I came up gasping and sprinted to the shore with barracuda terror nipping at my heels." - Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool

I once read an article about Monty Python which posited as its main point the idea that while everyone cites Monty Python as an inspiration, it wasn't actually that directly influential for the things that are cited as revolutionary about it. Its formal innovations and deconstruction of the sketch show genre were so complete that no-one else could risk doing things like letting sketches bleed into one another without being accused of simply aping the Pythons and so if it did have influence on the many who cited it, then it was more in its general tone, its anarchy of spirit.

The same, for me, can be said of the Dead Kennedys. I think Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is quite possibly the greatest punk album of all time, and everyone I know loves it, but you won't find much that sounds like it. You'll find dozens of bands trying to be The Clash or The Sex Pistols, hundreds trying to be The Ramones, thousands trying to be Hot Water Music or NOFX, but not many people seem to be reaching for a sound resembling DK. That's partly because they did not have one definitive sound, they were constantly shifting and experimenting with genres and sounds, but FFFRV is what you might call the 'classic' sound and there's just not that much that resembles it.

(Of course, they're not unique in bringing in surf influences to punk. The Ramones covered Surfin' Bird and later spawned their own gimmicky but fun hanging ten tribute band The Ramonetures and The Livingbrooks later took this early Beach Boys feel of some Ramones stuff a lot further. There are the eponymous Surf Punks who are actually kind of a precursor to the goofy careless genre-hopping sarcasm of The Dead Milkmen. A bunch of early skatepunk has the odd surfy song or cover (like JFA, despite their Yodaesque cry of 'Surf punks we're not!'), then you have the other side of surf bands drawing in punk influences, like rock and roll fighters The Tijuana Bibles, garage-surf trash women The Trashwomen or intergalactic travellers Man or Astroman? but none of these bands sound much like Fresh Fruit (though The Ramones are obviously a formative influence on it.) )






And then here come Night Birds with Fresh Kills Vol. 1 which is a collection of their previously released seven inches, and everyone who hears them goes "Wow, it's just like DK!" They're not solely drawing from DK though, they clearly have a bit of Adolescents in the way they underpin their choruses with lots of aaaaaaahs on the backing vocals. The mid-tempo darkness of Living in the Middle calls to mind something like the Drunk Injuns' Mental Holocaust and its naked desire to aurally paint the trudging threat of a mind slipping into itself. They seem to be dedicated to recreating the beachviolence noises of this particular branch of the early 80s punk sound I initially assumed that must've been a California band, but they're actually from New Jersey.


The combination of surf sounds into punk subverts it. In general, in surf-rock the sun, sand and sea all roll together into a friendly fun day out with wholesome smiling faces, white teeth, tanned skin. The whole odd little subgenre of beach party movies like Beach Party, Gidget, Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party. "Help save the youth of America/Help save them from themselves/Help save the sun-tanned surfer boys/And the California girls" as Billy Bragg sang. The addition of punk rock is a horror movie take on the genre, like The Horror of Party Beach, but extending that horror past just a guy in a dodgy suit preying on women in bikinis into a pervading sense of danger and loathing and psychosis that threatens to consume the world. This surf/punk melding paints the sun as a burning ball of oppressive heat burning your face, not a happy smiling greeting to the day, the sand as dirt, grit thrown in your eyes, the sea as malevolent energy personified, a place of drownings and shark attacks, breakers crashing down on your head. It drags the surfers out of the sea and into the city and then gets them fucked-up on pills, mugs them and leaves them wandering about the supermodernist nightmare of Los Angeles descending into madness, the joy of a Ventures or Volcanos song rippling round the edges of their mind until they're subsumed into the underclass of the city, spanging for changes and humming the Hawaii 5-0 tune into the cracks on the sidewalk like they're worm-charming for that wave to come wash it all away.




Night Birds are doing nothing new. They have songs about being in thrall to b-movies that echo the grindhouse cinephilia of the Misfits and The Lillingtons. They're writing first person serial killer songs. Surf-punk instrumentals. Paranoia and social detachment. Apocalyptic fantasies of mega-tsunamis. It's all been done before, but they're so tight and well-constructed that you really want to listen to it, and like I said, the fact that the sound they're mostly going for isn't actually one that was done that much, as familiar as it sounds.

Punk rock has this odd mixture of being associated with this mad lunge towards a dystopian brutalist future in a lot of its early iconography and the way it was drawn into the whole cyberpunk literary movement and its high-tech/low-life obsessions, but also in its classic sound and simple song structures it's defiantly retrograde a lot of the time. It's stripping down the virtuosity of classic rock, laughing at the archness of metal, kicking the shit out of the self-involved pomposity of prog screaming "THE ONLY THING THAT SHOULD BE PROGRESSIVE IN ROCK MUSIC IS POLITICS!" Night Birds are this sort of snotty manic musical necromancy, a perfect example of the desire for safety and security within a sound that is built of unsafeness and insecurity in its thrash and violence. The aping of a past sound which engages with it perfect sincerity and never lapses into gimmicky parody. This is just pure concise 80s hardcore style punk rock, and at a time where we're building Reagan statues in London, watching Thatcher in the cinema, rioting in the streets against the Tory cunts, what could be more perfect? I can't wait for the full-length.