23 April, 2014

never mind the bollocks

The year is 1978. I’d just returned to the UK from four years in Hong Kong, and for me the popular music scene was an alien landscape. I’d heard about punk rock, of course, but even though as TV critic for a local listings magazine in Hong Kong I probably knew more about what was happening elsewhere in the world than the average for listeners in the territory, I hadn’t heard any examples of what had already taken over the US and UK charts. When I did finally hear a few pertinent examples, I hated it.

This wasn’t a surprising reaction, because part of the political subtext of punk rock was a derisive attitude towards the kind of music I had been listening to at the time, typified by the overblown flatulence of Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans. By 1977, so-called progressive rock had lost its way, and the high point reached by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung had become a distant memory. Instead, fans were being offered pretentious rubbish such as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, a prime example of the then-fashionable ‘concept’ album. My only excuse is that with albums in Hong Kong a mere third of the price charged in the UK, I was often buying them unheard.

What would have been a surprise in 1977 is being told that thirty years later I would be listening to, and enjoying punk rock, although I remain unmoved by some of what other commentators have described as quintessential examples of the genre. I even have a punk rock compilation CD in my car that I haven’t changed since we moved to Fanling six years ago, although this lack of change does have something to do with the limited amount of driving I do nowadays.

Nevertheless, I thought that it might be interesting to compile a list of what I regard as the top ten punk rock records. Unlike my Sixties Music: The Top Ten, in which I tried to identify the ten most significant records of that decade, this is merely a list of my personal favourites, with a few comments thrown in about why I like them. I should add a caveat before I begin, because when I arrived in the UK in 1978, punk rock wasn’t the only new thing around; it was merely part of what was, at the time, labelled ‘new wave’. This included reggae-influenced bands such as the Specials and art-influenced bands such as Talking Heads. The Police also appeared around this time, and the band’s name and apparently minimalist style made it easy to mistakenly label them ‘punk’, except that this apparent simplicity disguised a complexity that went well beyond the three-chord stereotype. Finally, there were strange records that defied categorization, such as Devo’s Jocko Homo, which appeared to me to be an attempt to combine gay culture with religious experience by a band that believes the human race is de-evolving (hence the name). None of these records make the list, which is in no particular order.

Clicking on each title will bring up a YouTube video.

1. The Clash — I Fought the Law (1979)
Although the Clash are best known for their political songs (e.g., White Riot, London’s Burning, Career Opportunities), I have selected this song mainly because it is a brilliant rendition of a little-known classic from an earlier era, the 1960s. The Bobby Fuller Four version was not the original (it had been written in 1958 by Buddy Holly’s replacement in the Crickets), but it was the first to be a nationwide hit, and it was the Fuller version that members of the Clash heard during a visit to Los Angeles and decided to cover. The Clash’s version is much heavier than recording technology would have allowed in 1966, and to that extent it is an improvement.

2. The Stranglers — Nice ’n’ Sleazy (1978)
What do you do, as an emerging band, when the zeitgeist emphasizes nihilism, limited musical competence and contempt for establishment values? The answer? Name your band so that it fits in with other bands emerging at the same time. I’ve included my favourite Stranglers track in the list, even though it isn’t easy to identify the band as a punk outfit, even though they made all the right noises (No More Heroes, Peaches, etc.). For a start, keyboards feature prominently in their music, and no casual listener is likely to identify Golden Brown or Strange Little Girl as ‘typical punk’.

This track is also atypical, with a lyric that would not have seemed out of place in one of Rick Wakeman’s extravaganzas of a few years earlier, and a melodic bass line that would have been out of place in anything by any other punk band.

3. Sham 69 — Hersham Boys (1979)
This record could almost qualify as romantic nostalgia, from a time when inner-city gangs wore uniforms (‘laced-up boots and corduroys’) and were more likely to be football hooligans than out-and-out criminals. After all, how many modern gang members would describe themselves thus?
That’s right guv’nor, Jack the Lad
Know what I mean, eh? Know what I mean?
While this is in most respects a typical punk record, the instrumental break is straight out of a western barn dance (‘They call us the Cockney cowboys’). I think they were taking the piss.

4. The Skids — Into the Valley (1979)
This also sounds like a typical punk record, except that the lyric deals with the death of soldiers in battle; the title is a clear reference to Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade (‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’). Listening to the guitar solo reminds me of the Drifters’ On Broadway (‘I can play this here guitar’), because what starts as a basic, repetitive riff is concluded by a short but flamboyant flourish that echoes the Drifters’ sentiments.

5. The Ramones — I Wanna Be Sedated (1979)
It would be difficult to overrate the influence of the Ramones on the wider punk scene, at least until Phil Spector became involved in recording the band. I could have chosen several other tracks for this list, so the selection of this one is entirely arbitrary. Good rockin’.

6. The Members — Sound of the Suburbs (1979)
It may be a myth that so many punk bands hailed from small provincial towns or the suburbs of large cities, but this track articulates perfectly the point of being in a punk band:
Johnny’s in his bedroom sitting in the dark,
Annoying the neighbours with his punk rock electric guitar.
7. Iggy Pop — The Passenger (1982)
Iggy Pop was a punk long before punk rock was a recognized genre. His confrontational style is right out of the punk playbook, but this record shows another side of the singer: as a passive observer of all that’s wrong with modern society. It’s an interesting concept: the passenger can look out of his window but is in no position to influence what he sees (cf. George Orwell, Inside the Whale).

8. Wreckless Eric — Take the Cash (1978)
Wreckless Eric and I have at least one thing in common: neither of us can sing. However, unlike Semaphore Signals, where the vocal is excruciatingly out of tune, the singing on this jaunty number won’t set your teeth on edge. And it does offer some sage advice on financial matters:
When they say they’ll pay next week,
You know they never will.
9. The Boomtown Rats — Lookin’ After No. 1 (1977)
The band that brought Bob Geldof to national attention was another whose musicality went far beyond what was required, and it’s probably not a coincidence, given Geldof’s later charity work, that its name was lifted from Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, where it described a gang of street children. I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiments that are expressed in this song, but I do like it.

10. The Sex Pistols — Pretty Vacant (1977)
At the other end of the spectrum, what the Sex Pistols lacked in musical talent they more than made up for with their provocative attitude. This track encapsulates that attitude perfectly:
We’re so pretty, oh so pretty, we’re vacant
…And we don’t care.
And I don’t care either. Having lugged around a social conscience like a ball and chain for most of my adult life, I’ve now reached an age where, although the human race may be going to hell in a handcart, I feel no urge to try to do anything about it. Like the song, I’m pretty vacant. At my age, schadenfreude is a wonderful thing.

11 comments:

  1. I still don't care very much for so- called punk rock and I detest Iggy Pop with a vengeance
    I might add also thst music is like candy - the wrappers should be thrown away

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    1. Your prejudices are depriving you of a lot of good stuff Keith. I do agree that rappers should be thrown away though (except Eminem).

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  2. Not really my scene. I lost contact with English music in 1976. Must admit that Lamb lies down on Broadway was underwhelming. Is there a contemporary Pink Floyd?

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    1. Pink Floyd disbanded 30 years ago Peter, although they did get together to perform at Live Eight a few years ago.

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    2. A semantic point Keith, but as far as I’m concerned Pink Floyd broke up in 1983 following the release of by far their worst album (The Final Cut). Of course, a rump of the band continued into the 1990s, but for me Roger Waters’ ‘firing’ of Rick Wright and his taking of the rest of the band to court to prevent the continuing use of the Pink Floyd name constituted a de facto break-up.

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  3. GREAT to watch the music from Youtube!!! I like to have rock music to lighten mood of the day ;-)

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  4. Contemporary, meaning any band like them today?

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    1. I don’t know Peter. I shall have to consult my son Tristan. I don’t listen to modern music unless he recommends it.

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  5. To me, punk rock was totally hit and miss. There was some good bands, a some great bands and some memorable songs, but never (in my opinion) has there ever been a period with more bad bands. Where I lived at that time, it seemed that every third garage had a group of fringe kids in it, trying to learn how to play their instruments AFTER they formed a band.

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    1. The good thing about 30 years of hindsight is that I’ve forgotten all the bad bands. Mind you, learning to play after forming a band reminds me of when I was growing up.

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