Monday, October 14, 2019

7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, The Sex Pistols

My first two years in college, my central musical interests continued to revolve around bands who had come to fame fifteen or even twenty years earlier. My closest pal during those first two college years, Dan Neuburger, still one of my favorite human beings, was similarly taking his cues from the past. His taste ran towards what we then called art rock (Progressive rock? Come on? There was nothing hugely progressive about the longing of most such bands to claim the cultural authority of classical music) and the singer songwriters of the early 70s, while my focus was still heavy metal and electric folk rock. And of course both of us loved the obvious Beatles / Stones / Who touchstones.

It was getting along into the 80s. I knew a certain amount about new wave and a bit less and only a little about punk. I was a big fan of Blondie’s Parallel Lines (another album that could almost make this list) and I’d even heard a few Clash songs. But suburban Maryland, when I’d left there, was still country rocking and choogling and boogieing until it dropped. Beyond one or two people, including my friend high school friend Dave who had turned me on to Blondie and the B-52s, no one out there went near anything that sounded too urban. So I didn’t know anyone much who had ever pointed me in the direction of all that was going on with contemporary urban sounds.

I was soon to get an awakening that was, no doubt about it, rude.

In my third year, Dan connected me up with some of his other friends, a year younger than us, including Andy Rosenau and a bunch of other people who don’t hang around Facebook. Andy’s pals in his band Nixon’s Head, including Jim Slade, came to campus at times to hang around or to play shows. These guys had totally different tastes, developed through British pub rock, new wave, Elvis Costello (more on that later) and yes, punk.

I remember clearly the day my relatively new friend Greg Bologna told me, huffily, to “Take that stupid shit off!” when I started playing Deep Purple’s Machine Head. It was a call out long before that sort of thing existed as a named concept. He was still worked up about it several days later when he demanded that I listen to The Jam’s All Mod Cons. And yeah, that was an excellent record. Urban and up to date and energetic and, most of all, smart. Really really smart. Even if the Jam sometimes resemble too much The Who 2.0

I’m not sure who first played me Never Mind The Bollocks but soon I was playing it constantly.

So, I get it that The Clash is a band with a much bigger range of sound. I get the power of their influence. They’re the punk band that really established the clear-eyed progressive social critique that was what my literary friends often loved about them and that was a big influence on many many bands, including another punk band I love, Stiff Little Fingers.

The Sex Pistols, though, are not a band with progressive politics. In their lyrics, their goals are destructive. They call for anarchy and not of the theoretical kind. They want to fuck shit up, and that includes you. In “Holidays In the Sun” they go to the dark heart of everything that’s wrong with European history and roll around in it for some deeply psycho kicks. The infamous “Bodies” is, yeah, a song attacking abortion, it’s that backwards, but it’s also using abortion as metaphor for what’s happened to them, and to the dispossessed and forgotten in young in England, a song that wants listeners to know they’re all being aborted together, that they were never allowed to be born. And, okay, maybe it was partly all a pose, but listen to “Anarchy In the U.K.” and tell me these people in this song don’t mean it.

I don’t think I really need to analyze all the songs on the record, but I will point out that even the lesser known songs on the record are as nasty and unapologetic as the others. “No Feelings” (think the singer Johnny Rotten is kidding? maybe?) and especially “Submission” with its hard-edged minor key groove are among my favorites of the not-automatically famous songs on this album in which every song is infamous.

I’ve never been sure whether the Sex Pistols wanted to turn England into a cesspool or knew it already was. Both, I think. I guess the goal was to make that cesspool so clear that people would not be able to forget about it again, ever, but were forced to acknowledge that they were already drowning in it.

What makes this record so unmatchable though, along with the destructiveness signaled perfectly by Johnny Rotten’s voice, is the sound of the band. Guitarist Steve Jones and bassist Glenn Matlock keep up a focused roar on top of the drumming by Paul Cook that never bogs down.

And I do mean a roar. I don’t think there’s any rhythm section in the history of rock and roll that can match it for unrelenting intensity. There are better rhythm sections (the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Attractions) and some that are just as driving and tight (AC/DC), but Never Mind The Bollocks holds together its lyrics about everything falling apart with a sound that is thick and driving and that never lets up. The music isn’t sloppy, never falls apart. It propels its chaos at listeners and doesn’t let go.

Listen to it these days, and it sounds slower and heavier and more precise than much of what came later in punk music. I can see that what’s heavy about it appealed to my earlier interests, even though the danger that this record exudes makes almost all heavy metal bands sound like little boys noodling around. But don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing slow really about anything on this record.

Johnny Rotten famously said that he wanted the band to be the end of rock and roll. I’ve always taken that to mean that he wanted everyone to understand that as a supposedly revolutionary counterforce to capitalist and totalitarian cultures, rock music had become a pathetic parody. But it’s not really The Sex Pistols that made that obvious. A record like Boston’s first album did more than Never Mind The Bollocks to show that rock and roll (even very good rock and roll) was usually little more than another corporate product.

And to point out the obvious, the more politically future-oriented punk music that was rising at the same time, a music for which The Clash are only the most obvious representative, was crucial in forming the rise of a new counterculture that was directly involved in connecting music to political protest and to the formation of alternative social communities based on values different than the mainstream values of their cultures. The Sex Pistols have some role in generating that, but they also stand outside it. Mr. Johnny Lydon is not exactly these days a spokesperson for progressive politics

I think The Sex Pistols are maybe the only band in the history of rock to release only one record in their life as a band and to have that record become one of the most essential albums in the history of its genre.

By the way, just in case anybody cares, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols sounds as great in the car on the highway in California as it does in a small east coast apartment. The roar of the apocalypse can go many places and sound just as dangerous.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

6) Fairport Convention (United Kingdom title: What We Did On Our Holidays) (10 Rock Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is)

10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is

6) Fairport Convention (United Kingdom title: What We Did On Our Holidays), Fairport Convention

It’s hard to overestimate how much I love this album. I don’t really have a favorite album in the history of rock and roll, but if I did, this album might be it.

Freshman year of college, I read in a magazine somewhere (maybe Rolling Stone, or maybe in an early Rolling Stone record guide?) that Fairport Convention was the “British version of Jefferson Airplane.” With my combination of love for British literature and for Jefferson Airplane, finding out about this band became a must. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The comparison to Jefferson Airplane isn’t bad at all. Fairport Convention is a rock band with a close connection to folk music. Multiple singers and songwriters. A fantastic lead guitarist (Richard Thompson). A daring and varied sound held down by a solid rhythm section that, as the band develops, learns to really stretch out. And a woman singer, Sandy Denny, of overwhelming power--but who, unlike Grace Slick, is also a singer of incredible precision and ethereal beauty.

Curiously, and partly because Jefferson Airplane was meant to be futuristic, Jefferson Airplane’s sound now feels more dated to a particular time and place. As innovative as they were, early Fairport Convention stayed connected to its folk roots and to its relationship to British history. That gave their music a sense of rootedness in long repeated human experiences that creates the sensation that people usually misrecognize as “timeless.”

The other difference: part of what was brilliant about Jefferson Airplane was that they never entirely let go of the experimental amateurishness that helped them resist the music professionalism that would dominate Jefferson Starship. But although the first Fairport Convention record shows a very good band still searching for what its sound is going to be, by the time of this, their second record, there’s nothing amateur about their music. What We Did On Our Holidays is filled with precise and occasionally virtuoistic music which takes British Isles folk influences and creates a new kind of rock and roll, one that would lead to generations of music to follow, both from the band itself and from all the other British bands that developed or became more prominent in its wake.

The records that followed this one, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief, and Full House (the first record without Sandy Denny) show the band becoming ever tighter, better players. But to my mind, What We Did On Our Holidays has the biggest range of textures, the widest variety of songs, and a broader array of surprises than any of the later, more tightly controlled records.

Sandy Denny’s singing on “Fotheringay” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is impossible to match. “Eastern Rain” (a Joni Mitchell song) and the non-traditional version of the folk traditional “Nottamun Town” are filled in with unique sonic textures. The two Richard Thompson tunes, “No Man’s Land” and “Tale in a Hard Time” mark his brilliance as a songwriter and guitarist while foreshadowing his coming expansion of abilities. Ian Matthews’ “Book Song” is wistful and fragile, and his singing elsewhere on the record provides a brilliant counterpoint to the singing of Denny and Thompson. “Meet on the Ledge” is a beautiful song, with great ensemble singing. It’s a little funny that these musicians are performing a song about the best years being behind them when they were just emerging as a band of genius, although the song also takes on a powerfully poignant feeling when one considers that the band’s then drummer Martin Lamble would soon die in a car crash. The closing bit of precisely toned guitar melancholy, “End of a Holiday,” played by Simon Nicol, seems nearly a perfect ending.

If the album has a weakness, it’s that two of the numbers sung by Denny, “The Lord Is In This Place” and “She Moves Through The Fair” are maybe a little too monotonous, yet her voice is so stunning that the lingering tone of these numbers remains quite haunting.

In the years that followed, I explored a lot of the electric folk and then folk music produced in England and Ireland and discovered a lot of great bands, Steeleye Span and Planxty being two of my favorites. And I’m a big fan also of the solo careers of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson and of course also his work with Linda Thompson.

This is the record that started me down that path, and it remains one that I play very often. The powerful dream-like mood it creates is really unlike any other record I can think of, even others by the same band. The music on it feels both in this world and beyond it and has the power to heal.