Friday, January 20, 2017

Band Review: Ramones

Yesterday I said that The Clash were musically better than the Ramones. It kills me a little to say that, though Johnny was pretty deprecating of their music too, including to The Clash. That's one of my favorite stories from The End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones.

I loved it, because there was my favorite band inspiring my next favorite band, but also there is something to learn from that. Johnny knew that they weren't exactly virtuosos - "Wait till you see us—we stink, we're lousy, we can't play..." - but he also knew it didn't have to hold them back. "...Just get out there and do it." The Ramones inspired The Clash and the Damned and so many other bands with that attitude.

Johnny was also selling them short, in a way. There were things that they lacked in technical proficiency, but it didn't stop them from being effective. They were knowledgeable in terms of what music could do, and how they wanted it to sound and even in the image that they wanted to present. They consciously chose what stances to adopt when playing. They never sold as many records as they deserved, but they played a lot of shows and they played great shows. They earned a loyalty which a lot of acts with huge sales never managed.

And they were messed up. I hate it so much, and feel so sorry thinking about it. They brought damaged selves into the band, hurt and offended each other during their time in the band, and I'm not sure if any of the rifts were mended in life. The biggest one wasn't.

It is still a remarkable story of hope. They took that damage and they made it work. They meant something. Even on the day that our new racist-in-chief is sworn in - and with my speakers going out so I am starting to get these distorted pops - their music lifts me up.

Some people - in their understandable quest for a bright side - have said that they look forward to the music and art that will be produced under the new regime. I admit there have been times when I wondered if Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could have been the driving force behind the wonderful music of the '80s.

I also think it was still easier to get by then. There wasn't as much concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and it was also still really common for people to pay for music. Don't think that doesn't make a difference. I can imagine many people capable of producing wonderful music not getting a chance.

I stand by the importance of art, the importance of music, and the importance of punk. I stand by the legacy of the Ramones.

We did need them then, but we still need them now.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Band Review: The Clash

I have loved The Clash and been listening to them for years, so reviewing them is a different experience. We are way past an introduction, but of course there are still things that can be new. After all, they had already been broken up for a while when I really got into them, so I missed a lot.

Right off the bat, I had never listened to Cut the Crap before. I don't regret listening now, but since I had heard "This Is England" many times from The Essential Clash, I wasn't missing much. You can tell they aren't working together as well. Having seen Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, and knowing this is after Topper and Mick are gone and their disintegration is in progress, well, of course the album sounds like that. You can give a lot of credit to Bernie Rhodes for the engineering work on "This Is England", but I suspect that could only be successful because the content of the song matches the mood of what had been left.

I had known about "The Only Band That Matters". While I could kind of concede the point - except that it's obviously forgetting the Ramones - it goes against my general nature and beliefs. Well, that was a promotional slogan from CBS, and I appreciate learning that. I guess it never bothered me as much as it could have; that level of brash is pretty punk.

Most important for me was finding this quote from Mick Jones. He was talking about reunions, and how there was never a time when everyone wanted to at the same time. I guess I knew that, because I knew there had never been a big Clash reunion, but I hadn't known this:

"Most importantly for us, we became friends again after the group broke up, and continued that way for the rest of the time. That was more important to us than the band".

Band relationships can contain a lot of angst, perhaps even more so for punk bands. I am glad they found their friendship again, and that they valued it. I wish that would happen for more bands.

While I love the Ramones more (maybe it's a USA thing), I have to admit that I think The Clash are better musicians. They have a wider range, bringing in more influences and instruments. Going over their catalog now, I notice that their track lengths are frequently longer than standard punk. There are bands who have albums with that many tracks, but then those tracks are all two minutes or so, and you can get through them pretty quickly. There are 36 songs on Sandanista!, and they bring in an amazing variety of sounds. Listen to just "Hitsville U.K." and "The Sound of Sinners" for an example of that.

You could say they are not typical punk. I certainly know people who love to declare various bands "not punk" or "no longer punk", but I don't think I've heard anyone pull that on The Clash, and they'd better not. They were punk. They were also more than that. That helped them influence a lot of musicians, far outside of one genre.

As I think about it, I can only think of three songs of theirs that got much radio play, and only one of theirs I ever saw on MTV*. That probably is a result of the punk label. Those are all good songs, but The Clash has many, many more. There is so much that is worth listening too and worth being heard.

That will never change.

*Yes, of course the three are "Rock the Casbah" (also the video), "Train in Vain", and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go".

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Being a punk

I came to punk late. It took a while for me to realize how much I loved certain bands, but also for me to reconcile with punk's negative aspects. I mean, sometimes they are really obnoxious.

I'm not really into that. One of the irritating things I remember from Our Band Could Be Your Life was one band - I don't remember which - that bragged about playing halls and people asking for something a bit more dance-able, you know, for the dance they were being paid to play. Mind you, that was an alternative band, not punk, but there was this attitude of looking down on these stupid ordinary people who don't get us that could have been very punk. I just remember thinking that they could have still played their music mixed in with other stuff. Maybe the audience would have liked them, given a chance.

Let me throw out some random things that I have read over the years, and I'll see if I can make it all fit together.

One was about the origin of the name. "Punk" is an archaic term for prostitute that got used more recently to describe the person who got used for sex in prison. It's a position where you are low and unsupported and therefore abused. To accept that title is to take being low and embrace it.

Another comes from Mad World, and their interview with Marco Pirroni. I have quoted this before, but it bears repeating:

"I was completely done with punk by the end of '77. It became an excuse to be stupid. It lost style; it lost subversiveness; it got really conformist. I thought the early punk thing was that old Oscar Wilde thing: 'We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' Well, the second generation was basically just 'We're all in the gutter.' They never moved on. A lot of them still haven't."

Finally, I had started to learn some things about the DIY (Do It Yourself) aspects of punk culture, like gardening, but a lot of it clicked in while reading Billy Idol's memoir, Dancing With Myself. They were trying to be independent from mainstream culture. That could be done on a principled anti-establishment basis, but it was often practical due to a lack of funds. So growing your own food is a way of eating, and scavenging and thrift shops and the safety pin repairs are a means of survival as well as a protest. Punk fashion's form did indeed follow a function, and sometimes the function was to repel, but that wasn't the only function.

So here we are.

Growing your own food, storing it, regular preparations for the (non) zombie apocalypse - those are probably all good things to do. The economy has been dangerously tilted toward the upper level for a while, and that's getting worse.

Being able to accept a lowly status and then embrace it as your way of rising above it - that won't hurt you. Be ready to be subversive and to create and make a scene when needed. But also keep your eyes on the stars.

Being punk is being anti-establishment. There are always reasons for that, and it looks like there will be better reasons on the way. But it's not enough just to be against. There are politicians that define themselves by their opposition, and they tend not to improve anything. I want to make things better. For everyone if possible, but for one person at a time if that's the best I can do.

I need to be fighting for something, not just against.

I may not be completely punk rock. I am fully me.

Related posts:

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The music year in preview

I had a really good blogging week a few weeks ago, getting positive feedback four days in a row. That included a huge response to one Sunday post, the Twitter account for Winter Wonderland retweeting my review of them on the travel blog, and both Steven Battelle and Ray Toro saying nice things about my reviews of their music.

I love the positive feedback (especially from Ray), but it had felt like a good section anyway. Those two band reviews, plus the previous two reviews (for Lostalone and Frank Iero's new album) both felt like really good writing.

I have grown as a writer, but I have also grown as a music listener: This week I review my 405th and 406th bands. (I am going back to some old favorites because it seems like a good time.) Given how much variety that has included, I should have learned a few things now.

It was not only that though, because this was better music. Music with more interesting lyrical content and playing choices and more thought into how the album is put together - I come up with more interesting things to say.

There were other interesting things there. I was supposed to see Frank in concert, which has always been kind of jinxed for me. A bus accident in Australia canceled the rest of the tour (I take no responsibility for that), but I still wanted to review the new album, and Ray's as well. I decided to put Frank and Ray on subsequent weeks, and put bands they had recommended with each one. (If I had seen Frank, his opening band would have run in his week.) I'd had Steven and Lostalone on the recommendations list for a long time, but I had not looked into them enough to know that Steven was in Lostalone. Having just reviewed his former band probably gave some extra context to his review. Knowing stuff helps.

(FYI, Lostalone had toured with My Chemical Romance, which makes it a less astounding coincidence.)

The songs of the day play an important part in everything too. Giving each band a song of the day after reviewing them helps cement them in my mind. I mean, after listening to them enough for a review, they are kind of there anyway, but going back after a while to pick a song makes a difference too. Plus, the bands often feel good about it.

Not all daily songs are from bands reviewed. Sometimes I pick a theme (November 2015 was Muppet Month), but twice in the past year I have been going from books. I am almost done with Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s. That will not end there. I found a few bands there that I don't remember and want to take a deeper look at. That includes Cock Robin and Anything Box, but also some I kind of remember. I totally remember Thomas Dolby, but it sounds like he is doing interesting things now, and I will check that out.

Of course figuring out what happens when is always a question, because there is so much, but I like that. I like that there are still young bands trying to establish themselves, and that I get a chance to listen to them. I like that there are older bands still going around and holding up. Some are still creating new music, and some are focusing more on the old, but they can still put on a pretty good show. You should see how the Psychedelic Furs hold up!

Music is as much an area of learning for me as the academic stuff I do, and for a long way down the road there is still more coming. That excites me; maybe I still have some vitality too.

It is always full of surprises, so I may be wrong, but here, on my 45th birthday, is what I think will be happening musically over the next year.

I have 21 bands waiting for review from Twitter follows, and 37 on the recommended list (though that list always has some ideas that I haven't written down yet). I could do them all this year, but new things always come up, and I do have four concerts scheduled: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Modern English, Reggie and the Full Effect, and Green Day.

The daily song from Mad World will go up on January 20th. I will then start doing songs from the last batch of artists reviewed, maybe throwing in a few other relevant songs. That should take me to about where I finally do a James Dewees week, which should be a great kickoff to starting songs from Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. I will write about emo, and about that book, but probably not until April.

I also hope to do a country week at some point (I don't I can come up with a full month of country songs that I like).

And at some point - maybe this year, maybe not - I hope to do a me week. Recording is an unknown area for me, with a lot of technical questions and obvious concerns about performance, but yeah, at some point I need to do that.

So, there's lots to look forward too. It's not a bad way to start another year.

But please, no more bus accidents!

Monday, January 16, 2017

No one band is my life

While currently I am focusing on improving me, the long reading list started as a way of being better at helping the young people I was encountering. The ones who befriended me first did it because I liked their bands.

They loved those bands, plus others that I had never heard of before, and at a deeper level than I did, even as someone who has written hundreds of pages inspired by some of those bands. Reading Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michale Azerrad, seemed like an obvious fit.
It didn't go how I thought it would, but how often does it?

This book focused very much on specific bands, and I didn't like most of them that much. It made me happy that Sub Pop Records exists, but the biggest benefit was that it filled in some of the missing pieces in a different book I had read, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo by Andy Greenwald. (That was valuable, but there will also be a lot of writing about that book eventually.)

"Our band could be your life" comes from a Minutemen song, "History Lesson Part 2". The lesson is the history of that band, and an important part of that history is the effect that other musicians (primarily seminal punk musicians) had on them. The song doesn't develop the thought that much, but I believe the point is that they want to have the same inspirational effect on someone else. They have, even if not on me.

For an understanding of music history, the book was really helpful. For an understanding of sad teens who love music, it wasn't particularly helpful, but I kind of did already know that part, and I learned more about it on my own.

I saw the movie Inside Out fairly recently. Inside Riley, Joy has learned the value of Disgust, Anger, and Fear, but still does not see the point of Sadness, which she learns throughout the course of the film. When you see Riley's parents' minds, all of the feelings are working together pretty harmoniously, having figured that out.

The adolescent developing brain has really intense emotions, and not enough life experience to have full perspective on them. When a song touches our feelings on an emotional level, that is huge.

We don't necessarily lose that in adulthood, but we usually get a lot more responsibility. That occupies our time and our mental energy, but that also often comes with some gratification. Ideally, we are doing things that matter. That's something we don't give teenagers often enough.

I just finished a book unrelated to the list, but one of the coauthors was the driving force behind Model United Nations for our school, and for many other extracurricular activities that helped participants understand the world better. I know I didn't appreciate it enough at the time, but also, I was working a lot of hours and doing a lot of other activities. Together they did enrich my life and keep me going at a time when I needed it.

(That book was Unfettered: A Philosophy of Education by James B. Barlow and Anil B. Naik.)

I still love music, and studying it and writing about it has been an enjoyable part of my life. The next post will be more about that. I am glad for the connections I have made.

I also wish many activities and responsibilities and discovery of abilities for friends, hopefully sooner rather than later. The creative artists who give us emotional boosts are important, but the listeners are important too. They also have something to give. The sooner they learn that, the better.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Band Review: Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith is a musician, but he first came to my attention as a purveyor of terrible puns. As someone who often recognizes that the pun that just sprang to mind is awful, but says it out loud anyway, I can appreciate that.

His catalog goes back to 1991, and with so much to listen to, I was not able to repeat a lot, which is often where the better insights come. The music is primarily rock with folk elements, kind of mellow and often sounding downbeat. The best comparison is probably Paul McCartney solo.

I want to say it's not always so serious, but the level of gravity lyrically versus musically does not always match. If some songs are more fun or less fun than the content would suggest, well, this is a guy who makes a lot of dad jokes.

With such a lengthy career, it can be hard to know where to start, but I think the most logical place is the most recent, with 2015 release Carousel One. Then, if you get into that groove, you can spend hours and hours finding more. 

Although there are currently only two upcoming shows scheduled (for April), several past dates indicate that more touring is likely.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Band Review: Camryn Wilson

Camryn Wilson is a 17-year old singer/songwriter from North Carolina.

Her age may be best reflected by her son "Blah Blah Blah", where parental things are said but not really heard. It was the song that stood out the most to me, but it also annoyed me. This is jaded teenage attitude, not adolescent exuberance. The reason she isn't listening is that she can't stop thinking about someone else, but instead of feeling the heartbreak, there was just the moping lack of respect. I may be too old for it.

The song I liked best ended up being "It's Christmas"  which brought in more child-like sentiments. That is, it does until the end, when she starts talking about all of the things she wants for Christmas. It's no worse than "Santa Baby" but that is also an annoying song.

None of which makes Camryn Wilson horrible, but she probably needs to grow up a little.