IN A NUTSHELL:Amyl and The Sniffers is a loud, fast, short record that offers old-school sounds and throwback themes. These Aussies could’ve been plucked right out of 1977 London. Vocalist Amy Taylor is more of a rhythmic shouter than a singer, but it fits perfectly on top of guitarist Dec Martens’ riffs and crunch. It goes by quickly, but it leaves you happy, and ready to kick the whole world’s ass.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80.
~ ~ ~
The very first song that Billboard magazine deemed Number 1 in the USA was “I’ll Never Smile Again,” by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. The song featured a young Frank Sinatra crooning, “I’ll never smile again/ Until I smile at you/ I’ll never laugh again/ What good would it do.” It’s syrupy and wispy, with tinkling bells and a chorus of characterless voices backing up Ol’ Blue Eyes. It was huge, holding down the #1 spot for three months in the summer of 1940. So, when I graduated high school, any peers who didn’t like the contemporary 80s sounds, but instead had a thing for 45-year-old music, might’ve been jamming to this bop.
But let me tell you something about 80s teens: we may have been lame, but we weren’t that lame. Nobody was listening to that crap[ref]Not to say the song is crap.[/ref]. However, I was in the marching band, so I knew many musicians who did listen to, and enjoy, and PLAY 45-year-old music. They liked jazz music by artists like Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. This was music that was far afield from the the pop[ref]Short for “popular,” after all.[/ref] hits of the day. Songs like “I’ll Never Smile Again,” or Bing Crosby’s “Only Forever,” which bumped Dorsey off the top spot and held it for over two months, sound primped and frail next to those other muscular, sweaty jazz sounds. The top of the pop chart, generally, has never been where the interesting music is found.
In 1974, Billboard‘s Number One song of the year was “The Way We Were,” by Barbra Streisand. In 1975, it was “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tennille. Wings held the spot in 1976 with “Silly Love Songs.” However, far beyond the pop charts in the early to mid-70s, something more dangerous was bubbling under. The Stooges, The New York Dolls, and The Ramones were putting out records in the US, and in the UK, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were doing damage. Modern musicians are more likely turn to these acts when pilfering 45-year-old styles than any of the watery, safe sounds from the era’s Top Ten. I offer to you the following evidence: Amyl and The Sniffers.
Amyl and The Sniffers are a mulletted Australian band featuring three men with a woman singer who reminds me of the trailer park girls I knew in high school who I was afraid would kick my ass. They play loud, fast, catchy songs with vocals that are more shouted than sung, equal parts fury and fun blasting straight out of the speakers.
I first heard them over the summer of 2020, in the early part of the Great Lonesome. Spotify randomly played them, and I was hooked on their bouncy, aggressive clamor. The band is named after the street drug amyl nitrate, or “poppers.” Singer/shouter Amy Taylor told the BBC, “In Australia we call poppers Amyl. So you sniff it, it lasts for 30 seconds and then you have a headache – and that’s what we’re like!”
I haven’t done poppers, but I can’t disagree with her assessment of the band – although I like the ensuing headaches. Loud, fast punk rock is fine with me, but I do need some melody and something to interest me beyond speed and volume. Amyl and The Sniffers are melodic and interesting. I also like a variety of sounds and styles, and while they don’t mix up the style much, at least the songs are all about 2 minutes long so it doesn’t get old.
Apart from Taylor’s shouting (which I’ll get to), the most interesting thing about the band is guitarist Dec Martens, who gets to show off his skills right off the bat on “Starfire 500.”
About 0:53, Martens plays a solo that’s bouncy and catchy, and perhaps unusual in a punk song. The band plays through a verse and chorus before Taylor finally joins in about 1:48. She speak-sings lyrics about an attractive sex worker, and her style is somewhere between Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney, and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. She kind of sings the chorus (2:11) on this song, and Martens gets to play some cool licks about 2:30, and the boys all shout along to the chorus in their Aussie accent. It’s a good song to introduce the band.
The lyrics are great, and the clicking, crunching guitar is great. This one really is a “30 seconds and a headache” type song. The same can be said for “Cup of Destiny,” in which Taylor breaks out the signature grunt (0:23) – sometimes a squeal – she uses for emphasis. The song’s an update on the grim 70s UK “no future” sentiments. Martens gets to wedge in a brief squawky solo at 1:35. The energy is ramped up even more for “GFY,” propelled by Fergus Romer’s distorted bass guitar. It’s a song about dealing with douchebag people, with the chorus “… go fuck yourself.” Punk rock has no use for subtlety. (Here’s a cool live clip of the song.)
Amyl and The Sniffers have more to them than snotty rage and stomping beat. They have a bit of 70s hard rock and glam in them. For example, “Angel.”
It’s melodic in spite of Taylor’s style, and allows Martens to do more than a Johnny Ramone impression. His riff makes this one of my favorites on the record, and Drummer Bryce Wilson adds nice fills, too. Lyrically, it’s an unrequited love song, although Taylor doesn’t exactly try to sell the emotion of the song. She’s more comfortable yelling about the joys of playing a show in the rain, as in “Monsoon Rock.”
The band speeds up The Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun” riff, and basically runs wild with it. Martens plays a buzzing mosquito solo at 1:35 (after another of Taylor’s grunts), and the band just has the most fun possible in under two minutes. (Another kick ass live clip here.) It’s another favorite of mine. “Control” is a driving, X-ish rave-up about being in charge, and it ends with plenty of grunts and squeals. “Got You,” is a love song, actually, and has a fun, shouty chorus from the band, but gets a bit repetitive.
I really love the entirety of Amyl and The Sniffers, its energy and power, but the album closer is my favorite: “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled).”
The opening guitar riff is an immediate classic, rising menacingly. Romer’s bass ramps things up, and drummer Wilson crashes in (0:28) and then it’s just a head-banging frenzy! The band pulls back a bit for some more Martens riffage, then plows ahead, Taylor asking the musical question, “You got a new dog/ Do you remember me?” It’s a scorching scorned-woman song with few words (two of which are “Woof! Woof!”) and lots of attitude. Martens lets loose a bunch of punk/hard rock crunch. Check out one more live clip.
There you have it: eleven songs, twenty-nine minutes. A perfect punk morsel. Amyl and The Sniffers are making my old(er)-man heart happy. The musical future is in good hands with terrific throwbacks like this.
London Calling. The Clash. 1980, Epic Records (U.S.). Producer: Guy Stevens, Mick Jones. Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL: London Calling, by The Clash, is, in my estimation, a perfect record. It’s got multiple styles, fun, catchy songs, thoughtful and emotional lyrics, and top-notch performances from the entire band. The songwriting/singing pair of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is among the best songwriting duos in rock, and bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon are unsung heroes behind it all. It’s earnest but fun, careful but sloppy, and it has 19 songs, so you’re getting a lot. It’s my favorite album ever.
One thing I’ve come to understand about myself after 52 years as a human is that I’m really not very competitive. Sure, I enjoy playing games, and I played lots of sports when I was younger, and I’ve always tried to do my best to win. And yes, I’ve always rooted for certain sports teams. And while it’s true that winning can bring some joy, particularly when one of my kids is a participant, the reality is that it doesn’t provide me with much long-lasting satisfaction. Winning doesn’t motivate me.
This is true in my personal and professional life, as well. I do try to ensure that my family and I are treated fairly in life, and I try to make sure that my career isn’t stagnating. I suppose these facts mean that I am aware of, and invested in, the sort of Competition of Life that one enters simply by choosing to be part of a society. But I’ve never been much of a scorekeeper, tallying successes and failures, credits and debits, breaks and slights, of myself and the people around me[ref]As a white man, I’m the only group in America who is afforded this luxury, despite what whiny bigots like the current president think.[/ref]. Scorekeeping doesn’t interest me.
However, where competition intersects with my life, I do expect it to be fair – despite the fact that most of what passes for “fair competition” in American society is not really fair. For all the talk of an “American Dream” and an equal playing-field, and mythology like “self-made” successes, the fact remains that family wealth, not hard work, is still the best predictor of “success” in America.
I’ve written before about getting into The Clash. I worked with a guy who couldn’t believe I was in a band and the only Clash songs I really knew were “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah.” He let me borrow the box set The Clash on Broadway, and they immediately became one of my favorite bands.
I don’t really remember purchasing London Calling. I think it was soon after I returned the box set to my friend, but I’m not really sure. With nearly every other record on this list (perhaps every single record), I can recall how and when I got it. But London Calling just feels like it’s always been with me. I know for sure I had it in the early 90s, when I first got a CD player and upgraded my album and cassette collection to this new format.
London Calling has everything I want from an album. It’s got great guitars and tremendous lyrics, and each song has a power and energy that stick with you long after the music ends. The vocals are cool, whether it’s Joe Strummer’s tune-less snarl or Mick Jones’s reedy tenor, or, best of all, when the pair sing together. Even bassist Paul Simonon gets to sing one, and he makes it sound cool, too. The rhythm section is always correct – sloppy when it needs to be, tight at other times – with drummer Topper Headon showing himself as the band’s unsung hero, keeping everything intact as the album careens through multiple genres and sounds. Listening to it is a moving experience, covering any emotion you can think of. To me, it’s the perfect record.
And it’s long, too – 19 songs – so I’m going to stop blabbing and get to the songs, starting with the title track: “London Calling.”
It opens with a guitar fanfare answered by Paul Simonon’s mighty bass riff, calling listeners to attention. Simonon, famously, had never played a note before joining the band in 1976, but the London Calling album shows he learned a lot in a few short years. Joe Strummer furiously spits out the song’s “it’s-all-going-to-hell” lyrics, while Mick Jones softens the “London Calling” refrain with his melodic backing vocals. Jones is a great guitar player, but instead of a solo the album version of the song has backwards-guitar, creating an eerie sound[ref]In live performances, Jones played a real solo.[/ref] that heightens the song’s desperation. It’s a standout opening track among rock albums, the type that makes the listener wonder, “How will they top that?”
“Hateful” rides a Bo Diddly beat to its sing-along chorus. It features terrific vocals, and once again stand-out drumming from Headon. Joe Strummer writes all the band’s lyrics (usually), and he’s known for his political messages. However, this song is a personal song about drug addiction and its effects. Next is what may be (I’ll say this about five or six songs, I’m sure) my favorite on the album: “Rudie Can’t Fail.”
There’s flanged guitar all over London Calling, and it appears in the opening of “Rudie Can’t Fail.” I love how Joe encourages, “sing, Michael, sing!” and the terrific horn part in the intro. The rhythm section once again are unsung heroes, keeping afloat a ragtag song about young folks who don’t want to hear the complaints of the adults around them. They’ve got their chicken-skin suits and pork-pie hats, and that’s just fine. It’s a fun, bouncy, reggae-ish song, with chugga-chug guitars that’s fun to sing along. And not only can the band do fun, they can do serious, too – as on the awesome “Spanish Bombs,” another song that is my favorite.
The voices of Jones and Strummer blend so well on this song – one of the few where Strummer carries a tune. There’s a cool acoustic guitar strumming throughout, however I’ve heard that it was actually Jones’s electric guitar strings mic’ed separately from his amplifier, creating an acoustic sound. It’s really cool, as is all of Jones’s subtle guitar work throughout. The lyrics describe the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and makes connections with the IRA, whose efforts were in full force in the late 70s. The pair sing in pigeon Spanish on the chorus, roughly translated as “I love you forever, I love you oh my heart.” Strummer demonstrates his lyrical range by following this song up with “The Right Profile,” a horn-driven affair with great guitars, about the sad story of former matinee star Montgomery Clift, whose beautiful face was badly scarred in a car accident.
The genres and styles keep piling up on London Calling, as the excellent dance/pop, XTC-esque “Lost in the Supermarket” is up next. The lyrics, about a childhood in the suburbs and the false promise of consumerism, were written by Strummer, but he wrote it from Jones’s perspective, for Mick to sing.
The bass and drums provide a near-disco rhythm that Jones’s riff sits atop. The band has a penchant for opening songs with a chorus or bridge, as opposed to the typical verse, and here the chorus begins things. Mick’s chiming guitar, at 0:39, when the verse starts, sounds great. He plays and sings brilliantly throughout. Topper Headon’s dance beat is insistent, providing the sound of Jones’s “giant hit discotheque album.” It’s sad but upbeat, personal yet universal. And it leads into another song that is my favorite on the album: “Clampdown.”
This is perhaps the ultimate Clash song, the type of song I associate with the band: angry and righteous, yet fun and singalong good. It’s Joe Strummer at his best, from his mumbling opening through the final “I’m givin’ away no secrets!” It’s about the connection between fascism and corporate life – something anyone who’s had a corporate job has felt. I’d love to go line by line through all the lyrics, because they’re brilliant. But in particular, as a guy reflecting on 30 years of personal corporate bullshit, lines like “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power,” and “You grow up and you calm down …/ You start wearin’ blue and brown/ And working for the Clampdown” really resonate. The music behind the lyrics is excellent as well. Mick Jones sweetens Strummer’s vocals with his harmonies and backing vocals, and as usual, Topper Headon’s drumming is brilliant. Plus there are plenty of guitar licks that add the perfect touch, such as the call to action at 1:15. (Here’s a clip of them playing it live on the old US TV show Fridays.)
But after those two digressions, they’re back on the punk power bus with the excellent (and once again, my favorite song) “Death or Glory.”
It’s a song about failing to live up to the punk and rock ‘n roll ideals, when “Death or Glory becomes just another story.” It’s a song with an interesting structure, as it begins with the pre-chorus and chorus before starting in on the verses. This song is another Topper Headon tour de force – his fill at 0:20 is brilliant, and the drum break from 1:33 to change style to disco is tremendous. It’s also one of Strummer’s best vocals on the record. He stays close enough to a tune as he ever does, and his emotion can’t be contained.
The next song, “Koka Kola,” is a quick, fun Mick and Joe collaboration with excellent guitar stabs from Mick, a bubbly bass from Simonon, and clever lyrics about cocaine’s unacknowledged place in the corporate world. “Know wut-a-mean?” After that, “The Card Cheat” brings some Wall of Sound production pomp to the record.
I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, but in his autobiography[ref]Which is excellent, whether or not you’re a fan.[/ref] he mentioned his admiration for Joe Strummer and The Clash, and this song – with its opening piano, horns and 60s-girl-group drums – sounds like the band is paying homage to The Boss. Each instrument was recorded twice so that the sound would be as huge as possible. Mick Jones carries the lead vocals and does a wonderful job on a consideration of what really matters in life. It’s a powerful song that I grow fonder of as I age.
While I have plenty of songs on the album that I think of as my favorite song, I only have a couple that are my least favorite, and the band kindly put them next to each other on the record! They’re not awful, but “Lover’s Rock,” a cheeky celebration of the birth control pill with a disco breakdown, and “Four Horsemen,” a straight ahead rocker about making the most of your life, are just okay, in my opinion. Certainly not skippable – but just a bit less than the others.
“I’m Not Down,” on the other hand, displays everything I love about London Calling – except for not much Strummer.
Mick Jones carries the vocals and plays great guitar throughout. Simonon and Headon are at their best, for example at about 0:55, when the song suddenly develops a calypso beat, or 1:31, when it takes on a Motown-style breakdown. And check out Headon’s fill at about 1:41! Jones wrote the song about persevering in the face of depression and hardship, lyrics that reference real events in his life, such as being beaten up by a gang of rockers in 1978.
It’s another song written by Mick Jones, and it famously was nearly left off the album because it was recorded so late in the sessions. (Original pressings didn’t list the song’s title.) It’s a fun, catchy number, with a great Simonon bass. But what I particularly love (it’s also my favorite song on the album!) are the honest, heart-achey lyrics. The following lines have always stuck with me as very good: “Now I’ve got a job/ But it don’t pay/ I need new clothes/ I need somewhere to stay/ But without all of these things I can do/ But without your love/ I won’t make it through.” It’s a soulful number, which is really evident in Annie Lennox’s great cover version. It’s a perfect closing track to what – to me – is about as close to a perfect album as any non-Beatles band ever made.
So there it is, folks. 100 Favorite Albums. It’s been so much fun writing these the past five or six years! I plan to keep doing some other music writing, but I’m not sure what. Whatever it is, it will appear here at 100favealbums.net. I really appreciate you reading, and I invite you to reach out and say hello.
And if you want to hear more from my list: here’s a Spotify playlist with a few songs from each album.
TRACK LISTING: “London Calling” “Brand New Cadillac” “Jimmy Jazz” “Hateful” “Rudie Can’t Fail” “Spanish Bombs” “The Right Profile” “Lost in the Supermarket” “Clampdown” “The Guns of Brixton” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” “Death or Glory” “Koka Kola” “The Card Cheat” “Lover’s Rock” “Four Horsemen” “I’m Not Down” “Revolution Rock” “Train in Vain”
1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
I used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes[ref]And my arguments against them certainly weren’t coming from an angle of concern.[/ref].
I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud of my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.
My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay relationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader[ref]The Googles tell me it was titled “Some Of My Best Friends Are …,” and debuted in October, 1976.[/ref] with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.
As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? They were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant[ref]Of course, I mean it was irrelevant to me in my appreciation of people as human beings. As a characteristic that has caused people to be excluded and degraded, thrown out of homes, beaten, killed, etc., it is quite a relevant distinction![/ref]. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!
Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to awaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”
When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. But if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors[ref]Assuming, of course, that I’m not a teen-age boy in an 80s movie who moves in next door to a sorority house whose residents regularly pillow-fight.[/ref]? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.
So, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”
As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. I came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.
In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at your grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.
Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.
Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release with a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation[ref]Generation X!! We were cool once, too, Millennials and Post-Millenials!! Although, to quote most Gen-Xers … “Whatever.”[/ref], were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us[ref]And don’t let people fool you. MOST folks were content radio-listeners in 1991. The college radio/punk thing was still way underground. You talk to 50 year olds now, and they all claim they were a fan of college radio all along. Like how 200,000 people attended Woodstock, but 12 million claim to have been there. Be skeptical.[/ref], Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.
Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.
It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write[ref]Of course, in 1991, Nirvana were three out of a few hundred thousand people who’d ever heard a Pixies song. However, it’s true that the Quiet-Loud-Quiet structure featured in “Smells …” is so related to the Pixies that a documentary about them a few years back was called loudQUIETloud.[/ref]. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after our set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching some spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.
Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people[ref]I’ll never forget the local AOR DJ Hawaiian Chris James blasting the band on the air for its lyrical nonsense every time he had to play the song.[/ref] and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.
While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”
The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! But what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.
The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”
The vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.
“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs[ref]”Smells Like Teen Spirit” is another one.[/ref] without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided excellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”
“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.
“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feminist “Territorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was always pleasing.
I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out[ref]Cobain wasn’t too happy about some evil folks’ reaction to it, either, as he described in the liner notes to the album Incesticide.[/ref]. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end[ref]In a futile attempt to mimic the album, in which a final hidden track plays ten minutes after “Something In The Way,” I’ve put a footnote here to mention the real final song, “Endless, Nameless.” While the rest of the album today sounds tame and acceptable, this one STILL sounds like INSANITY!!![/ref].
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA[ref]Shamefully, it wouldn’t happen in any other country.[/ref], were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.
But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.
Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“Come As You Are”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)
The Clash. The Clash.
US Version: 1979, Epic. Producer: Mickey Foote.
Purchased ca. 1994.
IN A NUTSHELL: A record full of energy and fun, even if the lyrics are serious. Strummer/Jones is one of many binary characteristics of the group and their sound, and these create a tension and uniqueness in their sound. It’s a record of quick songs, with different styles, and all of them sound like they could fall apart any second, but it’s hard not to love the chaos.
Within social groups there are few condemnations as malicious as the epithet “Poser.” Attacks on appearance, style, family members, taste, intelligence … all of these can be mean and hurtful. But the term “poser[ref]Or “Poseur,” for those who prefer a Continental panache to their hurtful terminology.[/ref]” assesses all of these characteristics – a person’s total self-image – and dismisses them entirely in a single word.
It is a word that at once a) observes the distinction between “us” and “them;” b) emphasizes that line of demarcation; and c) unconditionally places the object of the term on the “them” side. But the Poser is not only one of “them,” the Poser is even worse: a spy, possibly a double-agent; a non-believer simply playing a role among strict disciples of the faith – whether it be punk rock, skateboarding or football team fandom – who is quietly mocking the devotees by constantly sitting on the edge of the conviction pool even though dressed as if ready to take the plunge. To people who have their entire “self” completely invested in an identity as part of a group, there may be no greater crime.
Even people apart from a group tend to sneer at The Poser. In mainstream, Wonder-bread, American society for the past fifty years, about the only thing worse than being a real hippy or punk rocker or Wiccan has been to be a PRETEND hippy/punk/witch. Google the words ‘why people hate posers‘ and you can read all about their reasons. People don’t appreciate it when they believe someone is trying to be something they are not. To be a poser is to be reviled. But like everyone else, each poser has a unique story, and maybe the poser’s story is useful in understanding any particular Pose.
When I was twenty-two, I nearly died. Not in some “Oh my gosh, my fly was down for the entire job interview!!” kind of way, but in a “Do we know his next of kin?” kind of way. In a way in which friends are screaming “Holy shit!! OH MY GOD!!! HANG ON, E!! HERE THEY COME!!” while you – shivering and naked in a cold, dark forest campground at midnight, resting your head against the cool metal of the hood of your friend’s light-duty pickup, hear faint, distant sirens. In a way in which, as your friends’ shouts begin to sound muffled and slow, as if they’re shouting under water in a slo-mo replay, and the darkness you see inside your eyelids turns yellow and bright, you start to feel as if you’re weightless and floating and warm and you know that everything is going to be just all right for the rest of …
In a way in which you wake up on a hospital bed shivering so hard that you feel you might rattle off the edge, and you discover the joy of warmed blankets, while your buddies stagger into your emergency room and joke and laugh and say “You really had us worried there, E!” You were with your friends – five neighborhood buddies who you’ve played pickup sports with since fourth grade – because one of them invited you to go on their annual early Spring weekend fishing trip out to a secluded campground at Raystown Lake. Sure, it’s nearly a three-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, and it’s supposed to be unseasonably chilly, even for the last weekend in March, and you’re not really much of a fisherman[ref]Despite your dad’s best efforts, including days and days of early-morning fishing trips as a child over to Speedwell Forge Lake.[/ref]. But it’s an opportunity to drink beer in the woods and joke around. And besides – you’re a year out of college, supposedly looking for a biology teacher position, but still working at that dumb summer job that’s been extended through winter, and you have no idea of what else you’re going to do, either this weekend or the rest of your life. So you say, “Why not? Let’s fish! What’s the worst that can happen?”
Of course, since you’re going to the woods to drink beer, and since both the woods and beer have at times given you asthma attacks like the ones you’ve had since you were a kid, you are sure to pack your trusty inhaler. You never had an inhaler as a kid, but when you first got one in college you were AMAZED at how quickly and thoroughly it knocked out any wheeze of any size. It’s often called a “rescue inhaler,” and it’s rescued you many times over the past few years.
You had fun the first night, Friday, even though you drank a lot more than you probably should have – not uncommon for you. Saturday was too windy to be enjoyable in the boat on the lake, and it seemed to suppress the appetite of the fish, as well, but you and the guys goofed around some more, hiked up a big hill/little mountain, and generally had fun. And as the day wound down, and a new fire was lit, and more beer passed around, you weren’t feeling all that great, so you finished your one measly beer[ref]Which elicited much gentle mocking from the gang.[/ref] and climbed into your sleeping bag fully dressed, inside the old, moldy canvas tent J. brought with him.
Having had asthma since you were a child, you’re very familiar with the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps and diarrhea – a peculiar symptom of your outbreaks that your doctor has told you is particular to your body’s response to allergens. But upon returning from the dark campground lavatory, everyone else having gone to their tents, the embers in the fire pit still smoldering, you just know that the puffs you’ve had on your inhaler are not going to stop the tingling wave now rushing up from your diaphragm, you know that this is a different feeling than any you’ve had before, that the electricity running down your arms and legs isn’t a usual asthma symptom. So, hoping the others aren’t passed out from too much booze, you wake them up with squeaky gasps intended to be shouts and let them know they’d better get an ambulance out here to the wilderness pretty damn quick. Emerging groggily from the tents, they’re all a little confused, but when you start disrobing because you’re so fucking hot, and then lean against a truck and defecate because you’ll never make it back to the latrine, well, they start to figure out that it isn’t a prank. And T. – who’s recently graduated from State Trooper school, and so trained in emergencies – takes over the situation and sends D. off to the payphone located way over at the campground’s main building. And you just lean against that cool truck and try to breathe, even though each breath feels like you’re trying to suck a billiard ball through a drinking straw[ref]You also crack a very dark joke or two, which greatly disturbs your buddies. You’ll feel bad for that later, as it was probably weird for them to hear you make jokes about death while you were dying, but you won’t feel sorry: a comic must stay true to his muse.[/ref]. And the next thing you know, you’re shivering in the E.R.
So that’s what I mean when I say I almost died. And before it happened I’d always had vague notions of doing creative things. I’d dreamed of being a stand-up comic, but I also wanted to act in plays and write songs in a band and write stories and … geez, I don’t know, just get out and make stuff and do stuff and say yes to life. But I felt trapped in my little Pennsylvania town, and I had no idea how or where or even if people did these kinds of things that I wanted to do. But lying in intensive care for 3 days gives a person a lot of time to think. I realized that the rest of my days were a gift from my friends, the paramedics, and the ER staff. It was time to take advantage of that gift and look for opportunities to do the things I’d always imagined. My decisions over the past 27 years or so have been greatly influenced by the belief that I’d better say yes today, ’cause I might not have the chance tomorrow. I’ve kept a grainy photo taken the morning I left on that trip as a sort of reminder of my gift.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/fish-truck.jpeg” captiontext=”The author (L) and J. (R) in what was very nearly the last picture ever taken of the author. Photo by author’s mom, through her kitchen window.”]
So several months after the camping trip, when an opportunity to join an established rock band came along, one that was writing its own songs and playing out regularly, I couldn’t say no. It was the pre-Nirvana era of jangly college rock and trippy guitar pop, and this band, The April Skies, was ambitious and good. I dove in head-first, started wearing clothes like the other guys did, cut my hair in weird ways[ref]In my defense, I was going bald early and knew I didn’t have much time left to experiment with it.[/ref], and began listening to music I’d never listened to before. I discovered The Replacements, The Pixies, and The Stone Roses, and I found I really loved them. I wasn’t doing it to be cool or to be part of a group, I was just enjoying myself. I took a temp job at an aspirin factory so I could take days off when the band played out of town.
That’s where I met R., who, it turned out, despite being a genius-level chemist basically running part of the analytical lab at the ripe old age of 23, and despite looking perhaps more like a Romanov than a Ramone, was a soaked-to-the-bone punk rocker. He was intrigued by my band and our music, which I typically described as “pop-punk-alternative” and hearing this he said, “You must be a Clash fan, right?” Now, obviously, I’d heard of The Clash, and I knew such songs as “Rock the Casbah” and “London Calling” and “Train in Vain” (aka “Stand By Your Man”), but that was the extent of my knowledge. So I told him. He didn’t freak out, he didn’t turn away in disgust, he never once uttered the word “poser.” He simply said, “I have to bring you something.”
The next day he brought in the CD box set The Clash On Broadway, an extensive compilation that had recently been released. I knew about the superhuman reviews and comments and opinions that had been stated about the band for years. I figured they were probably pretty good. I had no idea they were as amazing as advertised. I took that box set home, and I must have played it 4,000 times if I played it once. I couldn’t believe how fun, tuneful, serious, loud, diverse and incredible the band was. As one did in 1991, I immediately transferred the CDs to cassettes, and I played them relentlessly. The Clash were actually better than advertised. And if R. had simply dismissed me as a “poser,[ref]Which maybe I was, but I think the term “Dilletante” is more apt, although even that makes me sound far less devoted to my artistic pursuits than I’ve been.[/ref]” I may have never found out. I began buying Clash albums, and their self-titled debut[ref]Okay, it was their debut in the U.K., but in the U.S. it wasn’t released until after their SECOND album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, so technically wasn’t their U.S. debut. The U.S. version also has a few different songs and a different running order. The version I bought is the U.S. version. Whew![/ref] was one of the last ones I got.
It’s been observed many times over the years that The Clash’s main songwriting team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones followed a blueprint established by The Beatles’ Lennon/McCartney, and it’s a pretty decent analogy. Strummer was Lennon’s rocker with a poet’s soul, and Jones was McCartney’s melodic, musical genius. And The Clash kicks off with a song, “Clash City Rockers,” that immediately establishes the beauty of this configuration.
After a quick run-through of the song’s chords, Strummer starts spitting out lyrics in something close to a tune, but with an insistence that implies more concern for lyrical content than melody. Then, at about 28 seconds, Jones brings a (relatively) nicely sung melody to the song, and backing vocals, that keep it from being a simple shout-fest. The lyrics are a type of celebration of the new (in 1977) punk/D.I.Y. culture, and include a couple tweaks of contemporary music like Disco and David Bowie in a parody of a British nursery rhyme. There’s an energy to the entire song, an energy that continues through the album, that makes it feel important and necessary.
Of course, the band became well known for their politically-charged songs, as in the title-says-it-all “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”
What I really love about this song is Mick Jones’s guitar work. Just as he made “Clash City Rockers” more interesting with his vocals, he raises this song with the cool fills and leads he plays throughout. At 15 seconds, he throws in a syncopated riff that plays nicely against the driving rhythm of Strummer’s strumming and becomes a counter-melody for the song. He also again adds harmony vocals that lift the song to something more than angry lyrics and a couple chords. There’s a definite synergy to Strummer and Jones, which to my ears makes the whole greater than its parts. But there are other parts besides Strummer and Jones.
Bassist Paul Simonon and drummers Tory Crimes[ref]Nee Terry Chimes.[/ref] and Nicky “Topper” Headon were the rhythm section, with Crimes leaving the band after recording The Clash[ref]Although it’s a bit more complicated, as Headon re-recorded some drum parts on the US version. It’s like a friggin’ soap opera.[/ref]. The drumming is great throughout the album, and Simonon’s bass is particularly strong on the reggae and reggae-influenced songs, for example “Police & Thieves.” It was written and originally recorded by Jamaican singer Junior Murvin, and is one of my two co-favorite songs on the record. Simonon plays sloppily but melodically, a style that perfectly suits the band. And the lyrics of this cover, expressing a view held by many people on the fringes of society, fit perfectly for a band like The Clash, as well.
The left-wing, populist lyrics are a mainstay of The Clash. And as great as they lyrics can be, one of the beauties of the band is that their locution and pronunciation are so poor when singing that even if you’re annoyed by such views, they’re easy to ignore because you can’t understand them most of the time anyway! A song that combines all the characteristics I’ve described is the wonderful “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” my other co-favorite song[ref]Although, there are so many greats here it’s hard to pick one.[/ref]. It has intelligible vocals by Strummer, with lyrics about wealth distribution, racial harmony, and put-downs of a system out to value profits over people, excellent harmonies and cool guitar fills by Jones, a strong, reggae bass line and terrific drumming.
All of these songs, the entire album, have a nearly-off-the-rails feeling that gives them an immediacy, like hearing your favorite band live playing a song they just wrote. But the production and arrangements make the songs sound complete and finished. It’s one of many dichotomies within The Clash[ref]Poet Strummer/Musician Jones; Great Lyrics/Unheard Lyrics; Punk Rock/Good Production; etc, etc.[/ref], and they create a great tension that elevates the band. Take for example “Jail Guitar Doors,” a song about drug laws and prison. It’s got a raucous fury to it, but it starts with a drum beat that almost sounds like a drum machine. It’s controlled chaos.
Similarly, “Hate & War” is a pop song with a slight disco feel, but it’s thoroughly 70s punk rock as well.
And speaking of punk rock, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the straight-ahead, safety pin through the lip, 11-inch mohawk songs that also reside on The Clash. They sound powerful and angry, especially when placed alongside the more melodic efforts. I’m talking about songs like “White Riot,” and “London’s Burning,” and “Career Opportunities“. It’s an album chock full of great songs. Complete Control and Janie Jones are two others that stand out, along with a cover of the great 60s gem by The Bobby Fuller Four, “I Fought the Law.” And “Garageland” has one of the great opening lines in rock n roll.
The Clash is a record for everyone. Fun songs, great energy, thoughtful lyrics, diverse sounds and styles … It’s a record that gives the appearance of being a punk rocker, but there is so much more to it – which is an excellent lesson. Many things in life are more than what they appear to be. That mild-mannered chemist might be a punk rocker. Your goofy friends might be heroes. And there might even be more to that “Poser” than his outward appearance suggests!
“Clash City Rockers”
“I’m So Bored With the USA”
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
“I Fought the Law”
“What’s My Name”
“Hate & War”
“Police & Thieves”
“Jail Guitar Doors”
Dig Me Out. Sleater-Kinney.
1997, Kill Rock Stars. Producer: John Goodmanson
IN A NUTSHELL – Peppy punk pop from a band with no bass, two guitars, a cool drummer and a voice that gets better each time you listen. They seem to have a formula for good songs, and can pull them off without sounding formulaic. Emotion and urgency and lots of fun. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I was pissed off more often – it always sounds best when I’m in a lousy mood!
“Just gotta get used to it/
You irritate me, my friend.”
Whatever “it” may be, the phrase implies that this thing you now find annoying or terrifying or disgusting or risky or unconscionable will – with just a bit of time and repetition – become, at worst, tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable. When someone you trust tells you “You’ll get used to it,” the implication is that you will be changing, significantly.
This is frightening for a few reasons.
The first is that most people – well, people who are free from mental illness – spend most of their time feeling pretty satisfied with who they are at this moment. They may have some characteristics they’d like to improve – drop a few pounds, volunteer more, finish that degree – but on the whole, they feel like they know themselves pretty well and feel good about who they are. Informed that a change is coming, many people will naturally wonder if they’ll still like themselves after the change.
For the sake of this ridiculous blog, let’s use the following ridiculous example: From now on, all peanut butter will have to be CHUNKY instead of SMOOTH. It’s just how it’s going to be. People decided there could only be one type, and after much debate the decision was CHUNKY. In an imaginary place, where people will have cared enough about peanut butter textures to participate in public debates on the matter, many folks will have a self-identity strongly tied to their peanut butter choice. There will be folks who’ve always thought of themselves as the type of person who only likes smooth peanut butter, and more than this, they’ll have enjoyed viewing themselves as a “smooth” type of person. They’ve likely considered Chunky-lovers to be, well, a little arrogant, with their whole “oh, MY peanut butter has real hunks of peanut blended right in” demeanor and their “you actually have to CHEW to eat my peanut butter” condescension.
So telling a smoothie “You’ll get used to Chunky” will elicit more than just feelings of disappointment over having to either chew bits of peanuts or comb through their peanut butter sandwiches with a lice pick before eating. It will elicit feelings of despair that “I’m losing my identity, and one day I’ll become a CHUNKY-LOVING ASSHOLE!!!”
Getting used to Chunky is about so much more than simply mouthfeel.
I understand the fear of becoming what we despise. Among the types of people who used to annoy me were fans of the time-wasting game Sudoku, who would constantly tell me how much fun the game is. “Ugh,” I’d say. “I don’t really like math games.” Invariably, the reply would be, “But it’s not really math!” I would smile and repeat, inside my brain, “It’s not really math! It’s not really math!” in a satisfying elementary-school-playground-mocking voice.
Eventually, curiosity (and great respect for a number of the game’s enthusiasts) drove me to an iPhone app that included a convenient version of the game. I played a game or two to kill some time, and before you could say “addictive personality type” I became hooked. It wasn’t long until I heard myself repeating to an acquaintance those dreaded words “… but it’s not really math.” I cringed a bit, in a familiar manner – the same as I’d cringed when I heard myself say “… but The Next Generation isn’t really Sci-Fi,” or “You know, back when I was your age …” I had become a member of a club I’d resisted – or more than resisted, a club whose existence I’d actively agitated against!
When you “get used to something,” you risk joining such a club.
Another reason “You’ll get used to it” is frightening is because the implication is that the speaker may know you better than you know yourself. In addition to feeling satisfied with ourselves, we also all like to believe that we are complex individuals, with intricate emotions and beliefs, inscrutable to the outside world. “True,” we think, “you may have known several other Smoothies who’ve grown accustomed to – and maybe even eventually preferred – chunky peanut butter. But you don’t understand the depth and elaborate nature of my own devotion to Smooth.” We don’t want to believe that our attachment to Smooth is as tenuous as every other peanut butter eater who’s ever slathered some Wonder Bread. “I am different!” we confidently declare.
It’s shocking to find out that our human nature can be so predictable, so identical to those around us. I remember when my kids were small – 2004 or 2005 – taking them to some kind of chain restaurant – Applebee’s? Uno’s? Whatever … it was some kind of restaurant whose name would cause most of my fellow New Yorker-reading parents to gag on their homemade hand-rubbed organic cage-free quinoa-infused root vegetables (a reaction that is the most enjoyable part of eating at such a place). But it was cheap and the kids could get actual vegetables with a meal, so it worked great for us when nobody wanted to cook. As my family sat down, I heard Roxy Music’s “More Than This” playing.
“Wow,” I thought. “This is a rather obscure, somewhat hip song for such a place to be playing.” As we ordered, I noticed that now The Smithereens were playing, and again I thought, “All right, Big Chain Restaurant! This location sure does play some great songs!”
A parade of similarly obscure but cool 80s and early 90s songs followed, bands from Talk Talk to Material Issue, and I ate my food amid happy memories of MTV’s 120 Minutes, drinking Natty Bohs, and passing out in neighbors’ doorways. I imagined the cool restaurant manager who must have painstakingly scoured his record collection to put together such a nice selection of songs, and I wondered if I should ask the waitress to talk to him [her?] so we could compare musical notes. As I sat there bobbing along to the music, reassessing my disgust with conglomerate-owned restaurant chains, reassessing my disgust at myself for patronizing them, and enjoying the fact that the place included tater tots on the menu (and who else but me would order tater tots, right!?!), I looked around and noticed that a fair 70% of the patrons were – like us – white families consisting of parents in their mid-30s with children under 6. A significant proportion of the parents bobbed their heads along to JoBoxers as they admired their kids’ placemat artwork. And ate tater tots.
“Am I really this predictable?” I wondered. ” Can I really be such a true distillation of my demographic???”
As “Don’t Let’s Start” popped up next on the now-obviously-computer-generated playlist, I dejectedly signed my receipt and shuffled out to the mini-van.
This is what “you’ll get used to it” implies – that you can be known. That you already ARE known … That some big corporate boob can hire flunkies with spreadsheets to write a couple algorithms and come up with a music playlist that will help to herd you and the rest of the flock through a little doorway to a plateful of warm, greasy slop. (And delicious tater-tots, let’s not forget.) Repeatedly.
The term itself – “used to” – is an odd one to see written. When spoken, the words flow together. “Eustu,” we say. “I’m eustu it.” As spoken, the meaning of the individual words are lost, and we’re left with a phrase that we hear and recognize as “accustomed to.”
But when you see the words written, you’re forced to reckon with what the term really entails. “Used,” it says. To use. To be used. I, a human, have been used. I have been used, and now that use has left me different. Like a broken tool, I have become the product of use. Through use I have been inured. A callous has been worn onto my soul, a scar on my very being. My former self no longer exists. I have been used.
As in the sentence, “I have gotten used to Eric’s overwritten paragraphs.”
To get used to something doesn’t usually connote a positive development.
Perhaps most offensive of all, “You’ll get used to it” also implies that your tastes and opinions are insignificant. “But wait,” you say. (Whine?) “I REALLY LIKE smooth peanut butter! I don’t WANT TO get used to Chunky!!” Maybe your dad gave you a jar of Skippy Original on his death bed, and so the issue hits close to home with you. Maybe you’ll indignantly hold onto the affront, start to agitate, politically, for Smoothie rights, or work with the Smoothie Underground. You could come to personify the struggle for Smoothie inclusiveness. And good for you, if your feelings on a matter are so strong. But it could also be true that some of your tastes and opinions are, when viewed objectively, indeed insignificant and could use a little bit of reconsideration.
Because after you’ve gotten used to something, you may actually find it enjoyable, and you may realize you didn’t have to give anything up when you came to appreciate something new. Beets, Little League baseball, dance recitals, Microsoft Excel, driving standard transmission, What Not to Wear, Senior Residential Communities, Unitarian Universalism, Ikea … these are all aspects of my life that twenty years ago I would have told you I’d never get used to, but that have come to be, if not enjoyable, then certainly more than just tolerable. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be open and resist the urge to immediately say “No.” If you’re unsure of yourself, that can be a scary idea – like a teenage boy, considering if he could accept the fact that a friend is gay, wondering, “But what if he asked me out on a date, and I accidentally said yes, and he accidentally kissed me, and I accidentally liked it?!?”
And sometimes you have to give some things more than just one chance. People continue to change, and those changes can allow you to appreciate more of life, leave you exposed to richer experiences and a wider array of possibilities. As you get used to more things, you have more opportunities to experience more things. It’s what you might call “maturation.” And some of the things you get used to will become – with experience – important favorites. And if you’re ever inclined to make a list of favorite things, you may wish to include it on the list.
Such is the case with album #88, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out.
In the late 90s I approached 30 … and then rushed right by it, into middle age, like spotting a gas station on the highway, down an exit you just passed. Up through about 1995 I kept a close eye on what was happening musically. I saw lots of great shows by a lot of cool bands of the era – acts like The Lemonheads, Hole, Matthew Sweet, The Breeders, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. … I bought a lot of music, too, and attempted to find new acts to share with and impress my friends – acts like Guided By Voices, The Sea and Cake, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion … But sometime in 1996 I noticed that I hadn’t seen a show in a long time, and I hadn’t bought a new CD since Neil Young and Pearl Jam put out Mirror Ball.
I was very active in theater and comedy at this time, and somehow all that activity pushed aside my music appreciation. As my 30th birthday approached, I saw my musical drawdown as convincing evidence that I was becoming an Old Fuddy-duddy, and I vowed to kick my music awareness into a higher gear to forestall the inevitable. I bought more musicmagazines, and started frequenting a record store where all the workers were utterly pompous assholes, and most of the music they sold was entirely unlistenable, but which sent out a cool new thing called an “e-newsletter” listing new albums via this cool new thing called “email.”
I vowed to get back on musical track.
By the end of 1997, I realized I had failed. The only new records I bought that year were Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams (hardly a new artist), When I Was Born for the 7th Time, by Cornershop (a cool record, but hardly evidence of a deep dive into the now sounds of ’97), and Dig Me Out (which I hardly even liked.) But even though I didn’t buy a lot of new records that year, I liked what I got … eventually.
What I found most memorable about Dig Me Out on first listen, and what you will too, is that the lead singer tends to shriek and warble. At the same time. Don’t believe me? Try the opening track, particularly about 30 seconds in:
At first listen, it was hard for me to appreciate the song because I kept being distracted by that shriek. The track has a great opening riff that is strident and memorable, like some kind of call to arms. The drums begin a tom-tom pounding and within a few bars the song is barreling ahead with pace and urgency. Corin Tucker’s vocals mimic the guitar pattern, and are intense and powerful. When she begins the “Dig me out! Dig me in!” the third time, the vocals have a shrill nature that might be hard for some listeners to hang with. It was hard for me to hang with, I know that!
But the drumming on the track is excellent, and the song’s two melodies – the first one aggressive, the second one sweet – work together in a satisfying way. This is a great song with great guitar and drum performances.
There was something about the music on the album that pulled me in, but I was also repelled by Tucker’s cacophonous singing style. I played it a few times, but it wasn’t in my main rotation of music. Over time, I began to see the album show up on “best-of” lists, and friends whose tastes mirrored mine also spoke highly of it. When I mentioned my difficulty with Tucker’s voice, most said … “You’ll get used to it.”
Now, I like some annoying singers that others find really objectionable, and I dislike some annoying singers that others find unassailable, but I can’t really tell you why certain annoying singers are okay and others aren’t. I guess that it mostly has to do with the context in which the voice is presented. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m a big guitar/drums/melody guy, and I love songs with energy. Sleater-Kinney fits the bill there, and the more I listened to the band, the more I did – indeed – get used to Tucker’s voice. It fits with the music, and certainly brings out the emotions of the songs. The entire album sounds best when I’m pissed off and I have it cranked loud. I’m not even sure what all of the songs are about, but when I’m in the right/wrong frame of mind, and I hear her start to wail, I want to go out and KICK SOME ASS! (A statement which – if you know me – may have just caused you to fall over with laughter.)
Slowly the album worked its way back into my music rotation, and when I was re-listening to all my CDs to create this list, I was struck by just how great I think this record is, and how much I really love listening to it!
The one song on the album I always loved is probably the catchiest song on the album, “Little Babies.”
The lyrics are either about the joys of motherhood or the oppression of women rockers by their male counterparts, depending on who’s listening. And the counter-melodic backing vocal provides a cool undertone to the lines – however you wish to interpret them. (I tend to think the latter interpretation was intended …) I like how the band kicks right into the song with no buildup, giving it an urgent sound. And the drums in the verse are coolly sparse, but interesting, using the toms to accent the vocals. It’s a fun, danceable song – even though the band doesn’t have a certain key necessity for playing dance music …
Sleater-Kinney is a three-piece band – two guitars and a drummer. As a bass player myself, this lack of what I think of as “complete” instrumentation saddens me. However, the arrangement suits the band’s songs. They are aggressive, fiery songs and I don’t find myself missing the bass in them.
As if to show me that they can, indeed, play dance songs, they named one of their songs “Dance Song ’97.”
This is probably my second favorite song on the record. The drums propel the song, and the piece again features the characteristic Sleater-Kinney motif of catchy guitar riff and cool melody. This one also features some moody keyboard thrown into the chorus, as well. It’s a very poppy, danceable song, even without a bass. The lyrics are straight-ahead “you’re the one that I want” lyrics, the type that are right at home in a “Dance Song.”
A song that greatly demonstrates the interplay between the three instruments is the song “One More Hour;”
To set the tone, there’s a bouncing guitar riff, a line that might be played on the bass in a different band, and a cool, hiccupping snare beat to support it. The second guitar enters with a discordant flourish, and Tucker sings a song about the end of a relationship.
The song features another thing I like about the band’s songs, which is a counter melody from the backing singer, Carrie Brownstein. In many songs, while Tucker is ferociously belting her lines, Brownstein provides a balance – in both lyrics and melody. When this album came out, it was still a big deal, culturally, that Tucker and Brownstein had previously been in a romantic relationship together – they were both women, after all (!!) – and that this song was apparently written about the breakup. But many bands – Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, The White Stripes – have former couples in them, and nearly 20 years later, the “Oh my goodness, they’re lesbians!” angle has been filed down significantly. The stresses endured by former couples rocking together have generated some coolsongs over the years and this is another one.
(I didn’t find a lot of great music videos or live clips of songs from this record, but here’s one that I like of “One More Hour,” with the band playing in a record store.)
Sleater-Kinney has a “riot grrrl” reputation – a label that connotes to many songs decrying the patriarchal hegemony, and destroying the gender-dualistic paradigm. But as with most labels, this one doesn’t exactly fit. Most of Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics are indirect and open to interpretation. And many feature that most time-tested theme since the 1950s – a simple desire to ROCK!
This is a song that captures everything I’ve been writing about the band – the voice – particularly strident and keening here – the dueling guitar lines playing off each other, and Weiss’s interesting drumming. It also has the countermelody backing vocals from Brownstein, which I love.
It’s easy to hear why some macho dudes might feel threatened by the band and toss them into the Riot-Grrrl pot. “That chick’s screaming about feminism and shit like that. They’re always angry. I don’t like them.” But as with most bullshit concerns some men have with feminism, those concerns are not based in fact, but more likely a projection of more personal fears.
While the style of the music does have an angry edge (and I must say again that I enjoy this album most when I’m pissed off) most of the lyrics on the album don’t particularly have much venom in them. The lyrics aren’t patriarchy-smashing, penis-chopping, Lifetime TV Movie-inspired anti-man rants. They’re really oblique and open to interpretation. Even songs whose titles sound like they might be polemics – like “Things You Say” and “Not What You Want” and “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” have lyrics that are indirect and unexpected.
Also, the stereotypical Riot-Grrrl band would have, according to the way some tiny-dicked men describe it, no sense of humor. However, guitarist Carrie Brownstein is now most-recognizable as a comedienne starring in, and writing, with Fred Armisen, the hilarious TV show “Portlandia.”
Here’s a funny little clip.
The songs on this record all have a definite “Sleater-Kinney Sound.” They hit on a formula that works – excellent drumming with a fast, driving beat, dueling guitars and multiple vocal parts create songs with energy and urgency, that evoke big feelings. The only song on the record that doesn’t exactly fit this bill is the, well … I guess it’s kind of Sleater-Kinney’s version of a ballad? Maybe? It’s called “Heart Factory,” and it’s Sleater-Kinney with a slower pace:
Dig Me Out is a record that took me more than one listen to appreciate. It has a lot of what I look for in a rock record, but it was hidden beneath a voice that kept me away. When I finally “got used to” the voice, I found I didn’t mind saying I’m a Sleater-Kinney fan. I also found I wasn’t much different than I’d been before – a fan of rock music. I got used to it, and everything was fine. Existential Crisis?
Dig Me Out
One More Hour
Turn It On
The Drama You’ve Been Craving
Words and Guitar
Not What You Want
Buy Her Candy
Things You Say
Dance Song ’97
New York Dolls. The New York Dolls.
1973, Mercury Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren
Purchased ca. 2004.
IN A NUTSHELL – Frantic, fervent, fabulous Rock and Roll. The double guitar attack and against-the-guardrail vocals create a nearly out-of-control mess that is at once inspiring and hilarious. The boys write catchy songs, too, and make music that sounds like it should be the dance mix tape at the coolest rock and roll high school party in town. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – there was a little more variety. It’s all three chords, hang onto your hat, and let’s go! but it could use a change of pace.
That Dude who is a little out of control, kind of crazy, maybe not really scary in a way that makes you fear for yourself, but definitely scary in a way that you worry for him. The severity of That Dude-ness ranges from “gets a little wild when he has to much to drink” all the way up to “probably psychotic, and he really needs professional help.”
That Dude is typically in his 20s, still unfocused career-wise, usually without a long-term girlfriend (although sometimes That Dude dates That Chick …), and has a tendency to drink too much alcohol or consume too many drugs. You never are sure what That Dude might do, but you know that – whether you end up accompanying him to the Party of the Century, or the Hospital – it will be a memorable time, and you’ll likely have good stories to tell.
That Dude isn’t ALWAYS out of control – people who are constantly out of control are too self-centered to maintain a friendship, and are more drama than they are worth. (Even if – again – they leave you with a good story.)
That Dude is generally a nice guy, fun to hang out with, interesting to talk to … but has a streak of “holy shit!” in him, particularly when a few drinks (or many) are involved. That Dude has a few close friends, but tends to easily skate along the surface of different groups of people, until he crashes through, making a splash, providing a story or two for all to tell, and then disappears beneath the surface, leaving folks to ask years later, at parties and reunions, “Remember That Dude? Remember that time he …”
That Dude is envied by shy, retiring folks with low self esteem; mocked by confident, goal-oriented folks with ambition and drive; feared by uptight, moral folks with no self-awareness; and tolerated by artsy folks with holy-shit-streaks of their own.
That Dude seems like a dude who is so comfortable with himself that he doesn’t give a shit, but just lives his life like he wants to live it and doesn’t worry about what others might think. This is how “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges’ great character in the fine Coen Bros. movie The Big Lebowski, is portrayed.
But That Dude is different from “The Dude.” For one thing, That Dude is a lot younger, and a lot wilder, than “The Dude.” He is a lot more out of control. “The Dude” shuffles around a grocery store in his bath robe and discreetly swigs half-and-half. That Dude sprints through the produce department in his underwear and grabs three limes and juggles them out the door.
That Dude is more focused on impressing others, as well. His act requires an audience. “The Dude” got that half and half because he needed to make a White Russian for himself. That Dude stole those limes because a friend said he needed them for margaritas at his party, and That Dude wanted to make it interesting.
That Dude is also drunk more often than “The Dude.” Although “The Dude” drinks throughout The Big Lebowski, he never appears drunk and is certainly always in control. But That Dude … well … anyway.
“The Dude” truly is comfortable in his own skin. That Dude is desperately uncomfortable, and trying to figure out why.
That Dude may become “The Dude” later in life, but it’s only one possibility for him. No one is ever really sure what ever became of That Dude.
So … what DID ever happen to That Dude? He was so crazy! I wonder if he survived into adulthood? I wonder if he got arrested? I wonder if he got killed in some freak accident, like maybe he tried to balance on top of a trash bin to enhance his impression of Chewbacca but fell off and was accidentally strangled by his fuzzy sweater? (As his drunken comrades laughed hysterically, thinking it was another part of the wacky bit?)
So many possibilities… I wonder if he’s writing a blog about listening to all his CDs and ranking his 100 favorite?
I was trying to recall That Dude who I knew. “Everybody knows That Dude,” I claimed at the top of this post, but do I remember That Dude from my past? Nobody jumped out at me, so I kept thinking. It took a while, but finally it came to me.
I was That Dude! Indeed I was. I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth. That Dude was me. Ask anybody who knew me from age 19 to about 25. It’s actually rather embarrassing. I want to rush out and tell everyone who knew That Dude that nowadays I’m just me. I have a strong desire to tell folks who knew him that That Dude is gone, and that he didn’t turn into “The Dude” and he didn’t strangle himself with a warm sweater. That Dude is dead, but I’m still around.
I know all the psychological reasons behind why I was That Dude, but blah blah blah. Who cares?
All I know is that there are a million stories about That Dude, and I can’t seem to recall any of them right now. There were injuries, there were close calls, there were inappropriate moments, there were embarrassing stunts, there were police, there were accidents (never in a car, luckily), there were fights and ejections, and long trudges through the rain, and climbing in windows, and above all … there were lots of really funny friggin’ times … But I’ve lost touch with That Dude. He hasn’t come around in years.
I think about That Dude whenever I hear album #94, The New York Dolls’ self-titled debut. The music immediately brings to mind a funny, out of control dude who you are compelled to hang with, just to see what might happen next.
It could be ugly, it could be beautiful, but you won’t forget it – whether you wind up in a hospital bed (with a rock and roll nurse!!??) or having the time of your life.
New York Dolls is an album of energy and fun, with a double guitar attack, driving drums, and vocals that don’t really carry a tune as much as drag it along behind, while it writhes and pounds the dirt. It is straight-ahead rock and roll, and get out of the way ’cause it’s stopping for no one. The songs are catchy, the music sounds good, and every song makes me want to get up and … and … I don’t know, just get up and do something out of control!!
But before I get into the record, let’s just hear, and watch the band perform, the first song on the album: “Personality Crisis.” This is a live version of the song, so it doesn’t sound exactly like the record, but it gives a good idea of what’s about to unfold:
This album was released in 1973. Go back and look some more at this band, and listen to the song. And think about 1973. 1973 was “Have a Nice Day.” It was “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” And The Partridge Family.
Try to put yourself in a place where those are the top three songs of the day, close your eyes and travel back to a time when Tony Orlando was popular enough to get his own TV show, to a place where The Carpenters and Helen Reddy are cranking out top ten hits like they have a secret machine … and when you get there, slowly open your eyes and watch that New York Dolls clip once again.
++++++++++++++++++++HOLY SHIT! The singer’s in high heels! The bass player wears blue leather boots up to his crotch!! They all wear makeup and have haircuts straight out of a Saturnine beauty salon, and nobody on stage is even ATTEMPTING to actually sing!! This music must have sounded like it came directly from hell in 1973, with Satan himself in purple glitter ass pants and painted nails.
To give a little more perspective, here are a couple bands who 3 years later shook up the music industry with a new style of music called “punk rock,” The Sex Pistols and The Ramones:
Now watch The New York Dolls play “Bad Girl” three years earlier:
The Sex Pistols and Ramones sound downright tame compared to the Dolls three years before.
This band was ahead of its time, and even though the music press liked them, that didn’t translate into album sales. America virtually ignored them. The band put out a couple albums, then splintered into punk rock and solo projects (The Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s band, Johnny Thunders’ band), Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen) and didn’t ever reach mainstream success (of sorts) until well after the band had dissolved.
I had heard of The New York Dolls at times throughout my musical life, but it was just a name of a band to me, I didn’t know anything about their music. I had heard they dressed up in women’s clothes in the early 70s but that fact didn’t make me interested in what their music sounded like. Then, during the horrible 80s, a horrible song by a horrible singer was released, and like a fart in an elevator or the Ebola virus, there was no escaping it. 1987’s smash hit … “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter. “Who is this evil person, and why is he doing these horrible things?” I wondered. It turns out he was none other than David Johansen, former lead singer with The New York Dolls, and he now had a new generation of music fans believing him to be Satan incarnate. (Except unlike our parents, we were right!)
Actually, I recognized his face from his days as a solo artist. His solo band used to get some serious MTV airplay in the first year or two of that channel, with cover songs that I never liked. So between Buster Poindexter and the crappy cover songs on MTV, I figured there was no way I was ever going to listen to The New York Dolls – there was NO WAY that shit could’ve been good, right??
In the early 90s I lived with a very cool, very great guy, a punk rocker named Eric. He owned a million CDs, most by bands I had never heard of. I thought I was a pretty educated music lover, but seeing his CD collection opened my eyes. He had Nirvana CDs and singles well before Nevermind. He had Green River CDs well before Pearl Jam. His own band, Gumball, was making a name in New York City, and he became part of the 90s “grunge revolution,” which I’m sure he never meant to do. But anyway, I listened to some of his stuff, bands like Stiff Little Fingers and The Plimsouls, and I really liked them. But I shied away from his New York Dolls records. I didn’t trust Buster. “It’s really good,” Eric assured me, but … “Hot Hot Hot” kept rolling through my brain. My brain said Not Not Not.
Skip ahead a few years, and I have this boss, and he is very boss like, seems straight-laced and mellow, and I assume he’s likely a country-western fan, or maybe a light-jazz kind of creep, but one day we get to talking about music, and it turns out he’s a punk rocker! He tells me of seeing the Ramones in the 70s, and how he followed The New York Dolls all over New England. He said he thought I’d like them, but I remained skeptical. Then one day he heard me playing a CD by The Replacements, and he said to me, “You really should get The New York Dolls’ first record. Tell you what, I’ll bring mine in.”
He brought in the CD, I listened to it at work in the lab, and went out and bought it for myself within the week. It is just that good.
All of my damn record reviews talk about “melody” and “guitar,” so much so, in fact, that I felt it necessary to place the words in quotation marks because they’ve started to sound like phony baloney terms used by HR professionals and sales weasels. It seems every album on my list so far is all “Melody” and “Guitar.” So why should album #94 be any different?? (At least I know what I like!)
Although you’d be hard pressed to really describe what David Johansen does for the Dolls as “singing,” you certainly can say he carries a tune (sort of.) At the very least, he gives the impression of the tune that should be carried by you and your friends as you sing (or shout) along with him. In the song “Looking For a Kiss,” the simple tune bounces along from Johansen’s lips, and he screams and grunts and sounds really … enthusiastic! I mean that in an un-ironic way. He sounds very happy to be shouting out these tunes.
But what makes a tune like “Looking For a Kiss,” or “Subway Train“work for me are the guitars! Both Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders play interesting fills and riffs behind the lyrics. On their surface, these songs sound like three-chord blast-throughs, with the guitars bashing out power chords. But listen closely, and you’ll find that’s not the case. “Subway Train” has dueling guitar solos from about the 2:00 mark all the way until 2:30, and they continue to wail once Johansen comes back to the verse. And while one guitarist makes subway sounds, the other supports with arpeggiated chords that sound better than a pounded out power chord. The band has two guitar players, and they use them both effectively. For me, the guitar work of the Dolls is what sets them apart from The Ramones or The Sex Pistols or many other punk bands.
Another song with excellent guitar work is “Vietnamese Baby.” This song also features lyrics that seem to deal with issues facing soldiers returning from Viet Nam – a rarity for the era. Most songs about Viet Nam were more focused on stopping the war, and on the evil of war, but very few actually dealt with the plight of the returning soldiers. It’s another straight ahead rocker, with furious pounding drums, and it gets me singing along whenever I hear it.
In fact, all of the songs on the album feature furious, pounding drums except one – the slow ballad (well, a Dolls version of a slow ballad) “Lonely Planet Boy.” This song even features acoustic guitar and a saxophone buried in the mix. It’s a song of loneliness, and Johansen does a good job on the vocals – not attempting to croon, but letting the emotion come from his natural vocal style. It’s a welcome slow song, surrounded by all those 100 mph burners.
One of my favorite songs on the album is a cover of a Bo Diddley song “Pills.” The album version is great, but there is such terrific footage of the band playing these songs live that I thought I’d share another. Here Johansen wears his best Oscar night strapless sequined number at a club in NYC.
The Dolls always have good backing vocals. I mentioned in my post on album #95 how much I love Keith Richards’ backing vocals, and Johnny Thunders has a bit of Keith in his vocals, as well. They’re kind of strained, sort of in tune, but always sound great. I read on the interwebs that Johnny idolized Keith, and I guess I can hear that in the vocals, and probably in the guitar as well (although – who wasn’t influenced by Keith??)
The New York Dolls were only together a few years, and they only put out two albums during their time together. I don’t know an awful lot about them, but it seems like they were a rather “hard-partying” band. In this clip of them playing “Trash,” in 1974, the havoc that’s been wreaked among the band is clearly evident in Johansen’s face. The song also features Thunders’ guitar and backing vocal work.
The band was clearly out of control by the time their second album, Too Much Too Soon, was released in 1974. They never fully lived up to the promise of their 1973 debut. Then again – maybe they did. Maybe the path they took was expected. Just like That Dude, maybe a change was necessary for the band to make it to adulthood. Maybe that’s why I identify so strongly with the record.
I can hear the conversation taking place at a reunion somewhere …
“What ever happened to That Band?”
“Oh my god!! I forgot about That Band! Remember that song “Jet Boy” about the dude’s gay lover who steals his girlfriend?”
“Holy shit! That was crazy! Or what about the song “Frankenstein (Orig.),” listed that way on the album, with “Orig.” in the title, because they were pissed that Edgar Winter had a hit by the same name!!”
“I wonder what ever happened to That Band? I had forgotten all about them.”
The New York Dolls are worth remembering. And the album New York Dolls is unforgettable.
Looking For a Kiss
Lonely Planet Boy