The Damned, Damned Damned Damned, 1977 (New Rose and Neat Neat Neat)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks... Here's The Sex Pistols, 1977 (Anarchy In The UK)
The Clash, The Clash, 1977 (White Riot)
The Jam, In The City, 1977 (In The City)
As a welcome to and celebration of all the folks who joined the blog's new Facebook group (thanks, everyone!), I thought I'd tackle a big one today.
These five songs are the first singles by England's most important punk bands, released from October 1976 to April 1977. Taken together, they represent the first definitive chapter in the history of punk rock in thirteen minutes. (Before you Ramones fans start writing angry emails, the equivalent American moment would be Chapter Two.)
I can't add anything about the history of punk rock that fans of this genre don't already know, but for those of you coming to these songs fresh, here's some quick context. In 1976, the British economy was in the tank. Unemployment was rampant, the far-right National Front party was gaining momentum, and a generation of kids was bored and bereft of ambition and any sense of a prosperous future. Moreover, rock music was no longer a music of the people. In 1966, you could become a band once you had a garage in which to practice. By 1976, rock was slick, big business. The music industry made more than the film, television and print industries COMBINED. To break in, you had to be a "musician," and you had to have connections. The angry young men of the 60s had become rich, distanced celebrities in the 70s, and those early heroes' albums about the pains of bring rich were falling on deaf ears. (As an example, David Bowie and Eric Clapton both made cryptic, pro-fascist comments in 1976, which they druggily retracted weeks later.) Moreover, rock shows were now happening in 20,000 stadiums instead of 2,500 seat theaters; the band was expensive to go see and far away once you got there.
Looking for a way to get in on the party, younger Brits started to play a style of music called "Pub Rock." It was essentially a revved-up version of old rock 'n' roll and rockabilly from the 50s played in bars for people who couldn't afford to go see shows in rock's new palaces. Future New Wave stars like Nick Lowe and Joe Strummer cut their teeth in regionally successful but now-forgotten pub rock bands from 1974-1976.
Here's a perfect example of pub rock, from Joe Strummer's band The 101ers:
In it, you can hear what I'm talking about. It's a 50s rock song at punk speed. It has the energy, but it's basically just another song about rockin' and girls and good times.
By the end of 1976, though, kids were sick of singing about good times. Bands started to come together and sing about being poor and on unemployment, of living in run-down public housing, of feeling oppressed by England's strict, conformist caste system. They started to rip up their clothes and pierce themselves. When they tried to play in pubs, they were laughed away, so they rented warehouses and put the shows on themselves. An anarchic spirit ruled-- the distance between band and audience disappeared. Audience members jumped up on stage, screamed into the mic, and jumped back off. Rather than dancing in couples, the audience just pogoed in place or slammed into one another. One night, the audience started spitting at the performers. The band spit back, and the dreadful British tradition of "gobbing" was born.
Unlike a lot of the American punk movement, these weren't bored suburban kids tired of hanging out in malls or art-school students. These were poor, angry urban kids. They were slight and artsy, but they were also tough and uncompromising. And in about six months, they shook British society to its knees in a way that's inconceivable today.
How much of a change of pace was punk rock in its time? It's really hard to remember listening to these songs now-- they sound like regular ol' rock music, don't they? Do they sound like the end of civilization to you, as they were described as being?
One has to remember and consider the context-- Studio 54 opened the same week that "In The City" came out. Fleetwood Mac's Rumours was the #1 album in the world. The #1 song of 1977 was "Tonight's The Night" by Rod Stewart. While Rolling Stone named the Sex Pistols' album as the best of 1977, the next three albums on its list were Hotel California by The Eagles, Rumours, and JT by James Taylor. Bob Seger's "Night Moves" was their single of the year. (The readers added Jackson Browne's The Pretender to those choices.)* Disco was just beginning to replace singer-songwriter confessional rock as the the most popular music on earth. Music was quiet and slick and professional. Go back and listen to some of the earlier 70s blog entries; it sounds like a different world.
In that universe, these songs were atomic bombs. They were recorded in hours, released in days, and then discarded for the next event just as quickly. I think the speed with which punk rock overtook England was perhaps the most fearful thing about it to English society. In a country famous for slow-moving social change, punk rock must have seemed like an invasion from another planet. The Beatles had broken up only six years before this music announced itself. In 1969, the police stopped The Beatles from performing at lunchtime on the roof of Abbey Road because it was inconveniencing and distracting drivers and pedestrians. Six years later, The Sex Pistols went on TV and called their interviewer a "dirty f**er" and a "f**king rotter" without remorse or apology. The loss of control, the "Anarchy In The UK" that these pimply, filthy little ungrateful gits were calling for must have seemed imminent.
An anecdotal example of how fast things were moving: young Paul Weller was in a band, but wasn't sure what he wanted to sound like. In late 1976, he saw The Clash live. In April, he had already transformed The Jam, played enough shows to attract label attention, and released "In The City." That's less than a year from "My mates and I have a high school band" to a major-label, top 40 single. That's how fast things were moving, and it freaked slow-moving England out considerably.
I've been listening to these tunes over and over for the last few hours (combined with a few cups of strong coffee-- I've got my own kitchen table mosh pit going here), and they are remarkably transporting for me. I was not old enough to experience these songs in real time. When I discovered them in 1981 (through falling in love with The Clash and working backwards), both The Damned and The Sex Pistols were gone, and by 1983, The Clash and The Jam were done as well. It didn't matter; the music sounded like a fresh, immediate call to arms to me. Even as a suburban bored American kid, these songs were unlike anything I'd heard up to that point; it was music that made me want to DO something. I felt challenged to care about stuff by it. It was punk rock that turned me from a guy who played music into a musician.
Let's take these tunes one group at a time. The Damned were actually the first punk band to put out any so-called "punk" music. I don't know why they have never received the same critical love as their fellow 1977 contemporaries. They definitely never made a dent in America, and even by 1981 when I started to devour this stuff, nobody mentioned The Damned to me. It wasn't until I went to England for the first time in 1986 that I could find any of their albums and realized that, over there, The Damned were considered essential pioneers.
The only Damned album I ever found in an American record store until the late 90s.
To my 2010 ears, The Damned have aged well, far better than a lot of one-hit wonders from the era. These two singles for me bridge the gap between pub rock and punk rock. Punk rock's new energy and aesthetic are definitely in place. I love the way "New Rose" ends, with a crescendo and everyone playing as hard as he can. The drums sound fantastic still, especially at the top of the song. In "Neat Neat Neat," the band shows an understanding for dynamics, bringing things down after the guitar solo. (The second track was produced by Nick Lowe, who went on to produce Elvis Costello, and then have hits of his own.) The lyrics have yet to progress beyond rock's major preoccupations, though. "New Rose" sounds like it must be about something weighty, but it's just about a new girlfriend. I can't tell what "Neat Neat Neat" is about-- it sounds cool, but it's fairly impenetrable: it strikes me most as a bad attempt at sloganeering.
Be a man, can a mystery man,
Be a doll, be a baby doll,
It can't be fun not any way,
There can be found no way at all
A distant man can't sympathize
He can't uphold his distant laws
Due to form on that today,
I got a feeling then I hear that call, I said
Neat neat neat, she can't afford a cannon,
Neat neat neat, she can't afford a gun at all
Neat neat neat, she can't afford a cannon,
Neat neat neat, she ain't got no name to call
Neat neat neat
No crime if there aint no law
No more cops left to mess you around
No more dreams of mystery chords
No more sight to bring you down
I got a crazy, got a thought in my mind
My mind's on when she falls asleep
Feelin' time in her restless time
Then these words upon me creep, I said
Perhaps The Damned didn't make it over here because they were seen as not serious enough (they also didn't have the songwriting chops of The Clash and The Jam). They were funnier than most punk bands-- the rhythm section went by the names Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies. They also were not as interested in anarchy and destruction of the past as their peers. The Sex Pistols fired original bassist Glen Matlock for saying in an interview that he liked The Beatles. In contrast, the B-Side to "New Rose" is a cover of "Help!" In the end, The Damned are probably more beloved in America today than ever, and I think both these tunes hold up. They were simultaneously the first punk and last pub band.
Just a month later, The Sex Pistols raised the stakes for good. "Anarchy In The UK" has to be up there with just about any other first single as the most shocking debut in rock history. ("Straight Outta Compton" belongs on that list too.) The band's story is available in tons of places, so let's focus on the tune itself. The musical intro is fairly pedestrian, actually-- it's a mid-tempo arrangement with a guitar sound that would have fit in on plenty of any other 70s albums. Throughout the song, the band's surprising competence and plodding groove now sounds a little funny. If all you played someone was the backing track, I don't think this song would scare anyone; you might be able to use it to sell cars or cell phones.
It's singer Johnny Rotten that steals the show here completely. His "Right!" that announces his presence establishes the confrontational nature of the song, the band, and the punk movement from that moment forward. Unlike The Damned, The Sex Pistols announce open war on British culture in these four minutes; "I am the anti-Christ / I am an anarchist / Don't know what I want but I know how to get it / I'm wanna destroy the passerby / Cause I wanna beeeeeee / Anarchy!" Now THAT'S a punk lyric. In the song's final verse, Rotten lists a bunch of governmental acronyms that annoy him. I still don't know what he's talking about, but it doesn't matter. It's a song about rage and frustration as government and systems in general.
The Sex Pistols came to represent everything shocking about the punk movement. They were in the papers or on TV almost every day in 1977. As a result, they imploded immediately, and their one album is as much of a cultural artifact as a listening experience. I like it, but I'll probably never listen to it on purpose again. It's the aural equivalent of The History Channel.
While the Pistols took all the attention, The Clash and The Jam had the chance to develop into actual bands. with something musical to say. Over its six year existence, The Clash would make a series of albums that showed a prolific growth, innovation, courage and musicality that rivaled The Beatles. They were without question the best band in the world from 1979-1982, and outgrew the punk scene and its limitations almost immediately. In fact, even on the first album they sought the universality of being a rock band for everyone-- the last song on the album was about coming from "Garageland."
None of that is very clear from The Clash's debut single, "White Riot." To American audiences, "White Riot" must have been confusing at first-- with all of the skinhead imagery connected to the punk aesthetic, it would be easy to hear this song as a call for a race war. In fact, it's Strummer challenging white London teenagers to stand up for change in the way that blacks had in a standoff with police at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. Instead, "Everyone's doing just what they're told to / 'Cause nobody wants to go to jail!" Horrified by the US' misinterpretation, The Clash would embrace reggae music and musicians throughout their career, and played one of its final shows as the only white band on the bill at the Jamaican World Music Festival in May of 1983.
While "White Riot"'s lyrics are certainly dated, the music is still breathless and exciting. When people think about punk rock in its most elemental form, they should consider this track Exhibit A. I love the sloppy lead guitar playing by Mick Jones on the end of this track-- it sounds like a bad imitation of "You Really Got Me," and it totally works. Strummer's vocal is also impassioned, even if you need a lyrics sheet to follow him most of the time. My favorite line: "All of the power in the hands / Of the people reaching out to buy it / While we walk the streets / to chicken to even try it." Strummer was always so honest in his lyrics-- while he wants to be a revolutionary, he acknowledges that he's just a rock guitarist. That integrity, I think, is what made people love him so unconditionally.
Paul Simonon becomes role model for Jeff Symonds, 1979
If you don't own London Calling, then you have some shopping to do, my friends. And if you do, go put it on! You know you want to!
Finally, unlike their peers, The Jam were not from London, but Woking, a suburb. Paul Weller was not a poor, unsupported kid. HIs dad bought him a guitar, some cool suits to wear, and was his son's manager and greatest champion until his death in 2009. Perhaps as a result, Weller did not hate the music that had come before him; he idolized The Who and other power pop 60s bands, and the band did hopped-up soul covers in their sets. "In The City" shows the difference between Weller's view and the nihilism, anger, and desire for confrontation of his peers' music. Weller, only 18 when the song came out, is celebrating youth culture in a different way:
In the city there's a thousand things I want to say to you
But whenever I approach you, you make me look a fool
I wanna say, I wanna tell you
About the young ideas
But you turn them into fears
In the city there's a thousand faces all shining bright
And those golden faces are under 25
They wanna say, they gonna tell ya
About the young idea
You better listen now you've said your bit
And I know what you're thinking
You still think I am crap
But you'd better listen man
Because the kids know where it's at
In the city there's a thousand men in uniforms
And I hope they never have the right to kill a man
We wanna say, we gonna tell ya
About the young idea
And if it don't work, at least we said we've tried
In the city, in the city
In the city there's a thousand things I want to say to you
This song is an update of the hippie anthems of the late 60s. "Come on, everyone! We can change the world with youth power!!" In fact, on their next single, Weller yells "YOUTH EXPLOSION!" before his guitar solo. It's charmingly naive. It's also the best-performed track of these first five songs. The band is terrific, and would only get better over the course of its career. Bassist Bruce Foxton is a true unsung hero.
The Jam also never hit it big in America (in England they were unquestionably the biggest band in the country from 1980-1982). Like The Kinks, The Jam's viewpoint was unfalteringly English (The Clash, in contrast, became fascinated with America) and as a result, they never had the crossover breakthrough. Weller also suddenly broke up the band at its zenith in 1982 right before the American tour that might have made the difference, and did not speak to his bandmates for 27 years, so that cut into sales just a bit.
So there you go. Six months of music history in fifteen minutes. Hope that was as fun for you. Angry punkers who want to argue for Sham 69 or The Adverts' inclusion, comment away. I'm off to a barbecue-- maybe I'll ask them to put on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours to balance me out.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91rAHIb8BwY (New Rose, Released 10/76)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQkActP-isE (Anarchy, 11/76)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iE-UbbTjcGY&feature=related (Neat Neat Neat, 2/77)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzXkbV4lEKU (White Riot, 3/77)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcK5Go8CzRc (In The City, 4/77)
* Full disclosure: my personal Top Five for 1977: The Clash-- The Clash; Elvis Costello-- My Aim Is True; Cheap Trick-- In Color; Television-- Marquee Moon; Talking Heads-- '77