Just because everybody and his twitchy New Wave brother likes to go on about how Magazine’s 1978 LP Real Life is, like, one of thee finest examples of early post-punk, end of discussion, doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sure, the melodies are fetching and the musicianship is stellar, but I intend to argue, in this here review, that Real Life ain’t all that, for the simple reason that it’s slick as black ice. And I have a confederate who has my back in the personage of legendary muz-crit Robert Christgau, who swam against the currents of acclaim being garnered upon Real Life way back when by saying, and I quote, “Back in the old days we had a word for this kind of thing—pretentious.” He also labeled band leader Howard Devoto “the ultimate art twit” before tweaking Devoto’s English nose with the mean-spirited brush-off, “We hate you you little smarty.”
I should add that I like several of the songs on Real Life, which made England’s Top 30, bunches. Pretentious, sure, slick, for damn sure, but Real Life, which was released by Magazine (the band formed by Devoto after leaving the Buzzcocks in early 1977) featured some notable exceptions, including the raucous “Recoil” and the “so-glam-it positively-glitters” anthem “Burst.” The first could pass for punk because that’s what it is, while the latter is a pink monkey bird of a throwback to the days of Ziggy Stardust, et al.
Unfortunately Real Life also includes the insufferable “The Great Beautician in the Sky,” a carnival-like atrocity which I can find nothing positive to say about, except that I find Devoto’s imitation of a shit-faced git who just got off the merry-go-round and is about to hurl his fish and chips amusing indeed. And “Parade,” with its music school piano opening by Dave Formula and Devoto’s vocal affectations, irks. It’s not helped any by the limp saxophone solo by John McGeoch either.
My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees fact; the early band, primitivists to the core, ditched axe player Peter Fenton because he was a “real rock guitarist.” Can’t have one of those gussying up one’s primal punk rawk sound, not if one wants to create something truly unique and new. Which is what Siouxsie and the Banshees created with their celebrated 1978 debut, The Scream. So revolutionary was their music that critic Clinton Heylin held that the post-Fenton iteration of Siouxsie and the Banshees, along with the formation of PiL and Magazine, marked the “true starting point for English post-punk.”
On The Scream, Siouxsie Sioux (aka Susan Janet Ballion), guitarist and saxophonist John McKay, bassist Steven Severin, and drummer Kenny Morris created a sound that perfectly melded discord and harmony—a twitchy, spiky, and seemingly chaotic ruckus that was actually filled with beguiling melodies. Siouxsie’s vocals were by no means “pretty”—on The Scream she’s more attack dog than traditional female vocalist, and that’s a large part of the LP’s charm. But the real beauty of her vocals is the way they perfectly mesh with the band’s jagged yet catchy melodies; she’s in total synch with McKay’s remarkable guitar lines, and the pounding and throbbing of Morris and Severin on drums and bass, respectively.
McKay in particular is brilliant; I listen to his surprisingly ornate guitar work on, say, “Jigsaw Feeling,” and I marvel. The same goes for his magnificent guitar riff on “Carcass,” which is undoubtedly the catchiest song on The Scream. Between his guitar and Siouxsie’s alternately choppy and flowing vocals, this baby is a keeper, especially when you throw in the glam handclaps. His guitar work on the band’s cover of “Helter Skelter” is also a marvel; he meets Siouxsie’s stridently harsh vocals with a guitar that is more battering ram than six-stringed instrument, while Morris and Severin contribute to what is less a song than a wonderfully extended car crash. I love the song’s slow and clunky opening, and I can’t conceive of any finer moment than the one where Siouxsie sings, “You may be a lover but you ain’t no fucking dansa!”
It was Hunter S. Thompson who said, “When a man gives up drugs he needs big fires in his life.” Me, I quit drugs back in 1988. Not because I had to: I was fine with blacking out, looking for my car the morning after only to be informed by the police it was parked in a shallow pond in another time zone, and talking a pilot friend into letting me take the controls of his small aircraft only to attempt the suicidal “Lomcevak” maneuver (that was some Denzel Washington shit there.)
But quit I did, and alas, unlike Thompson, I’m no fire bug. Lucky me, I found something better: Cows. No, not the dairy animals. I’m a pervert but not that kind of pervert, and the closest I’ve ever come to a cow was the night some frat dicks corralled one into my dorm, where it wandered from room to room looking for the source of the pot smell. When it finally found me, I declined to offer it any. It’s a well-known fact cows can’t handle drugs. No, the Cows I’m talking about were a noiz-rawk band from Minneapolis, who never got what they deserved, which was to be lined up against a wall and shot. Naw: what they really deserved was the undying affection of every caterwaul-crazed chaos freak on the planet. Instead they got a star on the sidewalk of First Avenue in Minneapolis. It’s not much, but it’s something.
From 1987 to 1998 Cows released nine albums—including Daddy Has a Tail, Sexy Pee Story, and Peacetika, the cover of which features an image that is half-swastika, half peace symbol—and played the best live shows I’ve ever seen, thanks to the absurdist antics of Shannon Selberg, vocalist, bugle savant, and the most deadpan comedian this side of Andy Kaufman. Selberg always hit the stage in outrageous outfits, sporting a penciled-on handlebar mustache, an impossibly battered cowboy hat, and the crudest tattoos ever produced outside Death Row. He often wore mousetraps on his ears, one of his arms was oddly bent from a fall through a skylight, and he looked like a deranged redneck, despite his being from Minneapolis.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the pasture, Amphetamine Reptile Records has reissued Minneapolis noise legends Cows’ immortal second LP, 1989’s Daddy Has a Tail! Pressed on piss yellow vinyl, no less, and with a download card! Daddy Has a Tail! Includes many of Cows’ most repulsive and annoying tunes, including “Chow,” which Amphetamine Reptile inexplicably omitted from its combined reissue of the band’s second and third LPs, Old Gold 1989-1991.
Shannon Selberg will always get my vote as the best front men in rock history, having perfected what I call “the Comedy of Terror.” With his fake tattoos, drawn on handlebar mustache, crushed cowboy hat, and truly bizarre stage outfits (check out the YouTube video for “Organized Meat” for proof), Selberg was a comedian and showman who, with that psychotic glint in his eyes and his discomfiting habit of staring the audience down, made you think that maybe this guy wasn’t all shits and giggles, but a bona fide lunatic. Who else would wear a wig and mousetraps on his ears? And those were minor fashion accoutrements. When he really dressed up, things got truly scary. And have I mentioned he played a mean bugle, or sometimes a bugle (always battered) and trombone at the same time? It’s all there in “Organized Meat.”
Amphetamine Reptile Records is giving you a second chance to become a member of the exclusive Cows fraternity. With its 11 raucous and degenerate tracks, Daddy Has a Tail! may not be Cows’ best release (I lean toward the following year’s Effete and Impudent Snobs), it is their noisiest and most chaotic LP, with guitarist Thor Eisentrager, bassist Kevin Rutmanis, and drummer Tony Oliveri going out of their way to produce a veritable caterwaul of epic and intimidating dimensions. This is post-hardcore at its gnarliest, and a guaranteed room clearer; in short, it’s damn brilliant.
John Stabb is dead. Anything I add to that is likely to sound trite, so let it just be said Stabb was a hardcore punker with extraordinary gifts and a sweet side, and that on a good night, Stabb and his long-time band Government Issue could blow the doors off anybody, fellow DC stalwarts Minor Threat and Fugazi included. I only met Stabb—who succumbed to stomach cancer at the young age of 54—once, to interview him for The Vinyl District, but he was kind and charismatic and very funny, and it’s a damn shame the man and his band never achieved the acclaim they so richly deserved.
From the 1981 “Legless Bull” EP, a seminal slab of in-and-out, slash and burn harDCore if there ever was one, Government Issue proceeded to go through a mind-boggling series of personnel changes as they evolved musically from hardcore to a more complex sound, one that combined elements of metal, Goth rock (Stabb loved The Damned), new wave, and psychedelia, none of which endeared them to the dyed-in-the-wool mosh pit monkeys who wanted GI to sing “Asshole” until the day they died. And even as a harDCore band, Government Issue failed to play by the rules. Stabb went in for flamboyant stage attire and demonstrated an actual sense of humor, both of which ruffled feathers in DC’s deadly serious hardcore scene.
As Stabb, the self-proclaimed “Clown Prince of Punk” told me, “My goal was always to shake people up and also just to confuse the punk rockers.” He added, “We started out doing the hardcore thing… and people thought we were this super hardcore band that was angry and frustrated with the world, but we always had a sense of humor, compared to SOA with Henry Garfield and Ian [MacKaye of Minor Threat] and all these other people. They were really, really angry bands. And we wanted to mix the anger with humor.” Which opinion coincided with mine at the time, and was the reason I gave a lot of hardcore bands a pass.
Anybody who expected Robert Pollard’s post-Guided by Voices band, Boston Spaceships—which I will hold to my dying day is a salute to Boston album covers, and not a type of Krispy Kreme donut as Pollard claims—to sound in any way different from GBV is bound to be disappointed. Boston Spaceships is just GBV by another name, and the pleasure you take in listening to their epic 2011 LP Let It Beard will depend wholly on how fanatical a GBV fan you are in the first place.
That said, Let It Beard is a different critter from most of the miraculously prolific Pollard’s previous 2,142 LPs, in that he called a whole parcel of big talent into the studio to lend a hand on separate tracks. (The band’s 2009 release, The Planets Are Blasted, also featured a few guest musicians.) J Mascis, Colin Newman of Wire, Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate, Mick Collins of Dirtbombs, Dave Rick of Phantom Tollbooth, and former GBVer Mitch Mitchell all make cameos, and that’s a prestigious bunch for sure. And as albums go Let It Beard is cool, not Pollard’s best but damn good nonetheless.
Twenty-six songs in length, Let It Beard is definitely Boston Spaceships’ magnum opus, and there’s no way I’m talking about every song. It opens with the multi-sectioned “Blind 20-20,” which grows on you like a flesh-eating virus before segueing into “Juggernaut Vs. Monolith,” which is every bit as primitive, loud, and raucous as you’d expect. “Tourist U.F.O.” is as characteristically Anglophilic a Pollard song as you’ll ever hear, and includes a J Mascis solo that will blow your earth shoes off. “Minefield Searcher” is a melodic tune featuring strummed guitars and Pollard repeating, “Wild child.” When he sings, “I’m the searcher” his Who fetish comes to the forefront, and I can think of few things cooler than a Pollard-Townshend collaboration.
The Grateful Dead: God invented ‘em at the same time he invented the sloth. They were renowned for their shambolic jams, lethargic grooves, and endless noodling—when I saw them I saw ‘em with Bob Dylan in 1987, they played a version of “Joey” that lasted longer than The War of Jenkin’s Ear. One critic wrote of the show I attended, “Pity anyone who actually sat through [it]… with a clear head.” Well, my head was about as clear as stained glass, and it didn’t much matter. There simply aren’t enough narcotics in the world to make “Drums and Space” anything but torture. I’d have asked for my money back if I hadn’t seen, with my own eyes, an acid casualty try to snort a Birkenstock.
Truth is, I saw the Grateful Dead decades too late. Because it’s a cold hard fact that the Dead were a spent force in the studio by the mid-70s, and definitely dead in the water by the time they released those twin abominations, 1977’s Terrapin Station and 1978’s Shakedown Street. Even their famed live shows went downhill—Donna Godchaux, anyone?—as they cycled through keyboardists the way Spın̈al Tap went through drummers and Jerry Garcia gradually dedicated more and more time to his various pharmaceutical side projects.
Still, theirs is a fascinating history. The Grateful Dead began their career playing Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, and through their connection with Merry Prankster Neil Cassady bridged the Beat Movement of the Fifties and the Hippie Culture of the Sixties. The early Dead played a psychedelic soup of the blues and acid-trip-length explorations of inner space, but by the late sixties had tightened things up to become a stellar, if notoriously erratic and self-indulgent, live act. I love large chunks of 1969’s live Grateful Dead (which the band wanted to call Skull Fuck) and Europe ’72, but my favorite Grateful Dead albums were both released in 1970—namely, those two studio masterpieces, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Many Deadheads, and by this I don’t mean all Deadheads but only many many thousands of Deadheads, suffer from an alarming lack of quality control. To them, the monstrous Shakedown Street is every bit as listenable as Workingman’s Dead. Me, I love the Grateful Dead, but I have by no means swallowed the electric kool aid. Terrapin Station, for instance, makes me want to nail two-by-fours over my ears, and if I hear it coming, I run. Like Hell.
But I adore a half-dozen or so of their LPs, and their 1967 debut is one of them. I love the album for many reasons, but first and foremost I love it because it is, compared to many of the Grateful Dead’s later, more lackadaisical LPs, a real firecracker. The boys are energized, and most of the songs are psychedelic rave-ups that highlight the brilliant playing (I’m not sure he ever sounded better) of guitarist Jerry Garcia. Many Dead albums, including a few I like, are long-winded slumber parties, but on their debut they’re in and out, and traveling at light speed, even on the sole lengthy number, “Viola Lee Blues,” which includes some of the best rock improvisation I’ve ever heard.
I’m not the only one who thinks the LP is uncharacteristic of the Grateful Dead. Bassist Phil Lesh commented in his autobiography that “the only track that sounds at all like we did at the time is ‘Viola Lee Blues,’” before adding that the recording was rushed. To which I can only reply that all of their recordings should have been rushed. The key to their debut is velocity, a characteristic that no one, and I mean no one, would attribute to the mature Grateful Dead. Only two of the LP’s nine songs are originals, but only the bluesy “Good Morning, Little School Girl,” which highlighted the vocals and harmonica of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan sounds like a cover; remarkably, the Dead do a fantastic job of making a potpourri of other artists’ material sound like their own.
Washington, D.C.’s Government Issue should be a household name. G.I. put out some of the best pioneering hardcore to come out of the District or anywhere else, then kept going long after the demise of the Minor Threats and most of the rest, moving away from hardcore’s constricting hard and fast rules to produce more melodic and stranger material that was great but confused their hardcore base and (for various reasons) didn’t win them the bazillion new fans they deserved either.
Government Issue was formed from the ashes of The Stab, from which vocalist John Schroeder took his stage name John Stabb. Much like fellow Washingtonians No Trend, G.I.—which from 1980 to 1989 featured a frequently changing cast of players, including such noteworthies as Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion); J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines); Pete Moffett (Burning Airlines, Wool, Braid); and Stabb, the only original member to stick it out to the bloody end—demonstrated that staying one step ahead of your fans may not be the best way to achieve rock stardom.
But as Stabb told me during the course of an interview at 4-star dive bar (it would rate 5 stars if only the little jukeboxes in the booths worked!) The Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant, “My goal was always to shake people up and also just to confuse the punk rockers. We did our own thing. GI was never about pleasing the people. We pleased ourselves. And if people were pleased by what we did, then that was just icing on the cake.”
Look, I’m going to come right out with it; I have every reason to slam Riot Grrrl stalwarts Bratmobile. It all stems from a notorious article I wrote about Fugazi for the Washington City Paper a long time ago, which received what I’m certain is that publication’s greatest amount of hate mail ever. Bratmobile singer/songwriter Allison Wolfe was one of the more vitriolic haters, describing my piece as “one failed musician’s resentment toward a band that actually helped create something where there may have been nothing.” She went on to add, “Hey dude, you are miserable because you were in a band with the idiotic name Lesbian Boy, not because Fugazi or “the scene” did anything to you!”
I was hurt, I admit it. I still like the name Lesbian Boy, and while our humble band of losers never went beyond a single gig at CBGBs, which we fucked up, we sure did sell a lot of t-shirts. Even Rod Stewart wanted one, but that’s a story for another time. But I am largely impervious to insults, and I’m not going to let Ms. Wolfe’s comments stop me from saying I really like Bratmobile, because they personify rock’n’roll at its rawest, and helped definitively prove that the girls can rock as every bit as hard as the boys, although I will add they were a bit strident for my tastes. I believe only in absurdity and futility, which is why I loved Lesbian Boy so and wrote that parody of a screed that was my Fugazi article in the first place. Fugazi have been rightfully praised for a lot of things, but their sense of humor was never one of them.
Bratmobile included Wolfe, Erin Smith on guitar, and Molly Neuman on drums. Formed as a “fake band,” they finally picked up instruments and released 1993’s fantastic Pottymouth, a collection of short, raggedy, and defiantly feminist tunes that put them smack in the middle of the burgeoning Riot Grrrl scene. Wolfe’s vocals were wild and untamed, and she wasn’t afraid to sing out of tune. The following year they released “The Real Janelle,” an EP named after Janelle Hessig, a former Bratmobile roadie and East Bay zine creator. That’s her on the cover, looking impossibly cool. The EP consisted of six songs, one of which was a cover of The Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare.”