Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mechanics and the Fullerton Scene

Fullerton's answer to the Dictators:  the Mechanics

As I mentioned in my most recent post, I was a child of the punk/post-punk/new wave era.  My connection to music prior to about 1979 or 1980 was mostly indirect through my parents or others, and its only been as an adult that I’ve gone back and explored in more detail the music from that era. 

In my junior high and high school, there was an extremely sharp divide between the punk/post-punk/new wave era and what came before it.  Literally everything that came before punk was considered “lame” and “uncool”, and anyone professing to like anything from that “B.C.” (before cool) era was considered lame.  There was no worse appellation than to be labeled as “70’s”.  And hard rock and heavy metal?  Forget it!  Only a tiny handful of non-new wave acts were considered acceptable (though for the life of me I can’t think of a single one right now; maybe Pat Benetar although she has always leaned toward a new wavish sound to me anyway). 

But its always made me wonder, what came before punk?  I obviously know what was POPULAR before punk, what was signed and recorded and played on the radio, and I know the big acts that toured arenas.  But what was being played in the regular local clubs?  I’ve always wanted to know.

Well, a year or two ago I stumbled upon a magnificent web site that addresses this question.  I was reading up on the Fullerton, CA punk band Social Distortion and I ran across a quote by Mike Ness about a band that preceded Social D on the Fullerton scene:

“There was this band called The Mechanics from Fullerton who never (recorded) anything cause they were so far ahead of their time.”

I then found a link to an outstanding web page  ( maintained by former Mechanics lead guitarist Dennis Catron that gave me more insight into this band and the music scene in Southern California on the eve of punk.  The Mechanics formed in 1977 from the ashes of two other Fullerton bands,  Head Over Heels and the Brats.  They weren’t particularly influenced at this early date by punk (which was in its nascent form at this time in Los Angeles and pretty much non-existent in Orange County) but instead played a mélange of protopunk, hard rock, and bar band rock.  Guitarist Dennis Catron was apparently a big fan of 70’s hard rock maniac Ted Nugent, while singer Scott Hoogland was influenced by Iggy, the Dolls, and the Velvets.  The Mechanics therefore played a wild, high energy hard bar band rock with elements of protopunk.  They also had a crazy gimmick:  they dressed in actual mechanic’s blue shirts, drank booze out of oil cans, and performed in front of a “Penzoil” banner. Talk about your blue collar rock!!!!!!!

Dennis Catron has uploaded several MP3s by the Mechanics, including their one and only song committed to vinyl, “No Brakes”.  This is a nice slab of fast, crisp 70’s hard rock.  Unsurpisingly it sounds a lot like Ted Nugent; it’s far too slick and accomplished to be punk but has a wildness to it that makes one see how they could play at places like the Mab and with acts like Crime or Fear.  What it reminds me the most of is the late 90’s output of Scandinavian bands like the Hellacopters, who's sound is based on the big guitars and wild frontman aspects of Iggy, Kiss, the Dolls, Motorhead, Slade, Nugent, AC/DC, etc.    “Carburation Generation” is a little wilder and rougher, straddling the line between punk and metal; it sounds a little like the early 80’s work of Hanoi Rocks, particularly the vocals.  “Love Will Keep Us Together”  (NOT the Captain & Tennille version!) has a terrific bass rumble and an almost Deep Purple feel to it but again Scott’s vocals keep it rooted in the Iggy/Germs vibe.  Overall the band that they most remind me of are the Dictators, whom I love, and who also were always considered "too punk for metal and too metal for punk".  Anyone who loves 70’s worshipping guitar rock by bands like the Dictators, Kiss, Nazareth, the Stooges, Foghat, Nuge, as well as contemporary acts like Gluecifer, the Hellacopters, Riverboat Gamblers, and the Flaming Sideburns should definitely check them out.  Dennis has several more Mechanics MP3s (of varying sound quality) and over a dozen entire shows on his site.

Dennis has also extensively documented his band and the various shows they played in their 4 year existence.  What’s particularly interesting to me is how widely varied the different bands are that they played with:  one night they might play with legendary SF punk band Crime, the next with a heavy metal band like Snow; the next still with new wavers Missing Persons.  They also opened for the Runaways, F-Word, the Plugz, the early (pre-Terri Nunn) version of Berlin, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, Blackie Lawless’ pre-W.A.S.P. band Sister, Social Distortion, the Real Kids, Rubber City Rebels, the Plimsouls, Fear, Suburban Lawns, and the George Lynch (future Dokken member) band Xciter.  Catron’s log of their various shows—at venues as widely varied as punk meccas such as the Masque, the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Mabuhay Gardens;  new wave clubs like the Hong Kong Café; general rock clubs like Club 88, the Rock Corporation, and the Starwood; metal venues like Gazzarri’s  and Jezebel’s; the folkie mecca the Troubabour; local bar band dives like the Handlebar Saloon; and various frat houses, birthday parties, parties, and high school gigs--also shows how eclectic this band was.   

What sticks out about both the bands they played with and the venues they played is how fluid the genres and definitions are—the whole “punk vs. new wave vs. metal” thing clearly wasn’t etched in stone at this time and bands from very different backgrounds could and often would play with one another and at different venues.  Plus even as punk was becoming the dominant musical paradigm in Los Angeles, there remained a thriving metal, hard rock, and bar band rock sub-culture that continued to play the clubs (particularly in hinterland cities like Brea, Fullerton, La Vida Hot Springs, etc.). 

But getting back to the point of this post is that Dennis also has an outstanding page on his site where he extensively catalogues many of the lesser-known bands that were also playing the LA/OC bar band circuit with the Mechanics back then.  The sound is similar to that of the Mechanics themselves, ranging between hard rock, protopunk, punk, metal, and bar band sounds.  I don’t need to go into excruciating detail here since Dennis has done such a fantastic job of documenting these bands himself, but I have listened to most of the MP3s he has up and here’s my two cents.   

A La Carte is a hard rock outfit in the Van Halen mode, but the guitar sound is even crunchier and less fussy and complicated.  “Old Number 7” has a hard, repetitive riff but the rhythm occasionally veers toward a lounge-y feel just like classic Van Halen; the vocals are like a gruffer David Lee Roth.  “Leave the Backdoor Open” is slower, sleazier, sounding like Black Oak Arkansas.

Naughty Women were a legendary band that often dressed in women’s clothing.  “Lines Lines” sounds like early Motley Crue crossed with Raw Power era Iggy and the Stooges, a fast, punchy, sloppy guitar onslaught.  I love the rough, wild riff of this song—it reminds me of something guitarist Cheetah Chrome from my favorite punk band ever, the Dead Boys, might have come up with.  This must have been terrific live.    “Live By the Sword” is more complex but less urgent; it builds eventually (and after an extended recorded spoken word intro) to a series of ominous, almost stoner/gloom metal sounding chords.  The vocal isn’t as good; it sounds like it was recorded without a vocal playback monitor.  But “Lines Lines” alone is worth the effort, definitely check that one out.

Another Fullerton band, the Strand, play a swaggering cock rock that isn’t too different from Hanoi Rocks, Crue, or even AC/DC, but with better vocal melodies.  “All I Ever Want To Do” has a chattering, simple but effective riffing structure that to me sounds a lot like some of the stuff being recorded a few years later in England during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, as well as the band that took the NWOBHM banner up in America, Metallica.  The riff here evokes “Sweet Dream Maker” by Gaskin or “Jump In the Fire” by Metallica, but the vocals soar like Wishbone Ash.

Sleeper have a slicker, more anthemic rock sound similar to such 70’s metal acts as Starz and Cain.  “Mine Tonight” has a subdued guitar but big vocal harmonies; this reminds me of something else from the 70’s but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is.  “On The Run” is another pretty, melodic hard rock song that should appeal to fans of arena-friendly 70’s hard rock. 

Dennis has one song from another local group, Smile, called “Sailor”:  this is a mellow, melodic ballad that reminds me of Styx or Journey.  The vocals are high pitched, almost like Leo Sayer (but not quite as cringe-inducing as that sounds).  Not bad though clearly not my cup of tea.

According to Dennis Catron, Calico Jack were one of the most popular hard rock bands on the OC club circuit.   “Dog Eat Dog” certainly is capable bar band rock, as is their bottom-heavy cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak”.  “Cities On Fire” almost reminds me of “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix

The Mechanics recorded only one 45 before breaking up in the early 80's.  Several members have continued to make or produce music.  As mentioned, they were a huge influence on Social Distortion as well as other emerging punk acts like the Adolescents and Agent Orange.  Though they never achieved widespread success, their high energy punk/hard rock fusion being a little too ahead of its time, they nevertheless live on in the memories of people who saw them back in the day.  Dennis' web site is a fascinating look into a barely documented scene that became marginalized when punk rock became dominant.  However, many artists who played in bands in this hard rock/metal scene, including Carlos Cavazo (Quiet Riot), George Lynch (Dokken, the Lynch Mob), Blackie Lawless (W.A.S.P.), Mick Mars (Motley Crue), and Matt Sorum (Guns n' Roses, the Cult), went on to form/join bands that achieved success.  I'm sure every town has its own lost 70's rock history; I'm glad Dennis was able to shed some light on this one.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Musical Memories

Janis Joplin, photographed in heaven (or so I thought in 1971).

My parents were young when they had me (my mom was 19, my dad 20) and they were children of the 60’s and were big fans of the music of the time.  My mother, like most American teenagers, had been captivated by the Beatles (her father used to tease her about having a crush on Ringo Starr, and even made up a song “Ringo Ringo Little Star” set to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, but my mother actually liked Paul).  My dad had his mind blown by Dylan’s mid-60’s albums and also liked Jimi Hendrix.

My biggest “almost” musical moment is that in 1969 my parents ALMOST attended Woodstock.  We lived in upstate New York and it was just a few hours’ drive downstate but for whatever reason my parents decided not to go.   I was two years old at the time and if they’d gone they were probably going to bring me.  Wow, bummer.

I was born in 1967 and one of the first musical memories I can recall is when I was 3 or 4.  When I was 3 we flew from upstate New York where we were lived to visit my dad’s father in Southern California; I have this vague memory of the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul, and Mary; this is my first recollection of any music at all.  I loved jets and was excited about traveling on one for the first time and so this song really resonated with me.

I also remember around the same time my parents owning Janis Joplin’s album Pearl and them telling me she was dead.  I remember this because I vividly remember the picture of her sitting on an old-fashioned love seat in front of a blue backdrop that looked so otherworldly to me that I thought that it was a picture taken of her in heaven.  She died in 1970 and that album was released in January 1971, so this was probably in spring 1971 when I was not quite 4 years old.  I also remember my parents playing “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz” (the latter particularly sticks out because I can remember asking my mother what a Mercedes Benz was (we were poor, I had no idea).

Another weird memory I have from this time is of my mother and I waiting in the car for my dad outside some bar or restaurant or something and having the radio on, and my mom alternatingly turning the volume up on “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin to ear-splitting level then back down while I shrieked with laughter (I do the same thing with my own son now and he finds it as hysterically funny as I did).  That album came out in late 1971 so this probably would have been early 1972 (I have a vague recollection that it was cold out, so this sounds right), so I would have been 4 going on 5.

The Panasonic Panapet

Shortly after this my parents moved us from upstate New York to Western Michigan (my dad attended Western Michigan University for his master’s degree).  My biggest musical memory of that time was of my parents buying me a spherical Panasonic Panapet transistor radio that I would use to listen secretively to music after my supposed bedtime.  I can still recall that my favorite song at that time was “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by the Temptations; I loved all the different movements of this song, the funny voices, and the compelling storyline.  It, in fact, sparked a fascination with so-called “story songs” that has lasted to this day, and which drives my wife nuts since she HATES story songs.  But me, I love just about any story song, everything from “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphy, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by the Marshall Tucker Band, “Same Auld Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot, and “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe are all on my iPod.

(Another weird pop culture memory from about this time was of seeing commercials for the theatrical release of the movie “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster”; according to Wikipedia, this movie was released in April 1972, which would make me around 4).

In 1973 my family moved from Michigan to California.  My dad had gotten a job with a small geological firm; he and my mother (who worked as a secretary) worked in a small town called Wasco, which is about 20 miles northwest of Bakersfield.  We lived in a crummy apartment in Bakersfield and commuted to Wasco every day, where I went to first grade for part of the year.  I have two musical memories of this time:  The first is I can remember my parents owning the album Where Is the Love by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway; I can remember this because I recall the album cover, which was black with white handprints all over it, but I don't recall any of the songs on it.  This album was released in summer 1972.  The second memory I have of this time was of driving to Long Beach to visit my grandfather and hearing the song “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers; I can remember again feeling that the song was very apropos of my situation, since it seemed like we were constantly “ramblin’” back and forth to Long Beach from Bakersfield to visit my grandfather. 

Soon after this my family moved again, this time to Long Beach, California.  The geological company my parents both worked for opened an office in Long Beach, California, so we moved into an even crummier apartment near my grandfather in the Paramount area.  We only lived there for a few months but any time I tell people I lived in Paramount, however briefly, they are amazed, as this is a very bad part of Long Beach.  Back then it wasn’t quite the blighted ghetto it has since become but it was no prize pig either.  We lived in this area that consisted of block after block of apartment complexes, all two story, all surrounding a courtyard with a pool, all very run down.  However, our apartment building was much crummier than the one my grandfather or my two sets of cousins lived in, and I can never remember the pool being heated or cleaned (and thus I can never remember swimming in it).  The other kids who lived there were juvenile delinquents in training and I remember being VERY afraid of most of them since they were violent bullies.  I can still remember myself, these two older bullies who were twins, and another kid a little younger than us ramming the roads through the garages and back alleys (Christ, I can’t imagine ANYONE letting their kids ram the roads as much as we did back then in a GOOD neighborhood, let alone a soon-to-be ghetto like that), and we came across an unmarked bottle of liquid in some greasy carport.  The twins wanted to know what was in it so they made the younger kid TASTE it; I can remember being terrified that he would drink it and instantly DIE.  Anyway my main (actually only) musical memory from this time was of my dad buying the album War of the Gods by soul artist Billy Paul (most noted for his song “Me and Mrs. Jones”, which was not on this album).  I can remember quite vividly the surrealistic album cover, with its snakes and dragons and masks, and also the gatefold, which showed Billy in a green dashiki photographed against a tall cliff.  I can also remember hearing two songs from this album, “The Whole Town’s Talking” and “War of the Gods” (both of which I have on my iPod).

War of the Gods by Billy Paul

A few months after that we moved to Costa Mesa, California.  This was a HUGE step up in the world, massive, for us; Costa Mesa was and still is a very affluent suburb in Orange County, and we were renting, actually sort of sub-letting, a house from one of my parents’ work colleagues, who was moving his whole family to the isolated island of Catalina 26 miles off the California coast.  Our house was on a cul-de-sac and was HUGE, opulently furnished (it even had a baby grand piano), with a giant back yard and a dog (the first and only time I ever had a dog as a kid).  My main/only musical memory of that time is of the John Denver album Poems, Prayers, and Promises, which had come out a few years earlier; we “inherited” the record along with all the other furnishings in the house.  I can remember liking the album, and listening to the title track, the hits “Sunshine On My Shoulders”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, and the Pandora (the mythical goddess, not the music subscription service)-inspired spoken word piece “The Box”.

Finally, in summer 1975 we moved back to Long Beach but to the much nicer area of Belmont Shore.  It is in this house that I spent the biggest chunk of my childhood, and my musical memories and awareness really took off.  My dad was a major record collector type who always had a pretty expensive hi-fi stereo system; for the first 10 years of my life the most expensive thing my family owned besides our car was the speakers for his stereo.  The records I remember him having were Goat’s Head Soup by the Rolling Stones,   Electric Mud by Muddy Waters, and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung (which I bought for him as a birthday present with my mom’s help).

At around this same time I can recall being introduced to the Beatles.  My friend Leslie had the Beatles’ Red Album, which collected all of their singles from 1962-1966.  Many of the songs on this album are still my favorite Beatles songs, including “Please Please Me”, “She Loves You”, “All My Loving”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “I Feel Fine”, “We Can Work It Out”, “Day Tripper”, “Norwegian Wood”, and “Paperback Writer”; these were the first songs I bought of theirs on iTunes when the Beatles’ catalog became available there last year.    A year or so later my parents took me to see “Beatlemania”, a theater tribute (well before there were such a thing as tribute bands) up on Los Angeles and I LOVED it.

We didn’t have a ton of money so my parents almost never went to concerts.  The only one I ever remember them attending was a 1975 Rod Stewart and the Faces concert at the Forum, and of course they didn’t take me.  Contrasting with this is the experience of my wife (who is the same age as I am and who had very young parents too); her parents went to all kinds of concerts and took her with them when they went, so she saw the Eagles, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and others during their mid-70’s heyday.

It was also around this time (circa 1977) that I first got exposed to Kiss.  A cousin of mine had Destroyer and played “Detroit Rock City” for me.  I remember thinking the music was okay but I HATED the concept—I thought Kiss seemed silly and childish.  Which is weird, because literally everything Kiss was inspired by—comic books, Japanese monster movies, science fiction, etc.—was stuff I totally LOVED as a kid.  Still not sure why they never did it for me.  I can still remember just LAUGHING at the 1978 made-for-TV movie “Kiss and the Phantom of the Park” and how stupid and lame it was, and how pathetic it was that Kiss seemed to actually be taking this foolishness seriously. I've come around to Kiss musically and now they're one of my favorite groups.

I can also remember in 1976 seeing a review of an Alice Cooper concert in the LA Times; I was struck by the picture of Alice being carried around by a large furry Cyclops.  This was for his “Welcome To My Nightmare” tour.

Alice Cooper and the Cyclops.

Also in 1976-1977 I can remember “Nadia’s Theme”, the piano composition that became the unofficial theme song of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci  during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, being played on the radio.   In 1977 or 1978 my friend Jeff had the Beatles Blue album, which compiled all their singles from 1967-1970.  My favorite songs were “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Penny Lane”, “A Day In the Life”, “Hello Goodbye”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and my favorite was “I Am the Walrus”. 

It was probably in late 1977 or early 1978 that I first remember hearing about new wave music.  A school acquaintance named Tom was telling me about this great new group called Devo who were really outrageous and wild.  Because I had absolutely no conception of punk rock or new wave,  I can remember picturing Devo as being like Kiss or Alice Cooper, with long black hair, campy makeup, stage effects, etc., since that was what was considered "shocking" at that time.  I think I would have been utterly floored if I’d seen a picture of Devo, who looked (and still look) like a bunch of scientists or accountants.  I can also still remember him telling me that he was getting a “Devo beach cruiser” for his birthday; I’ve Googled this endlessly and never found anything on this, not sure if this was something I misheard or am  mis-remembering or if something like this actually existed (perhaps some weird one-off 70’s promotion or something?).

What’s interesting to me about this now is that barely a year or so later, new wave was the biggest thing to me musically and remained the biggest thing for nearly a decade.  By 1979/1980 my aunt Kris (who is only two years older than me and is more like a big sister) had gotten me big-time into Blondie’s second, third and fourth albums (Plastic Letters, Parallel Lines, and Eat to the Beat); she also owned the Knack’s Get the Knack and Gary Numan’s “Cars” on 8-track and I loved those too.  My first year of junior high, 1979-1980, the two biggest songs were “Whip It” by Devo and “Rock Lobster” by the B-52’s.  As mentioned in a previous post, my first two album purchases (on cassette) were Parallel Lines by Blondie and New Clear Days by the Vapors; Plastic Letters and Magnets were probably #’s 3 and 4.

By the time I was in 8th grade (1980/1981) I totally self-identified as a “new waver”, and was actively searching for radio stations that played new wave music.  I eventually stumbled onto KNAC and KROQ at 105.5 and 106.7 on the FM dial.  KROQ is the now-legendary Los Angeles (actually Pasadena) radio station that pioneered the all new-wave format in the late 70’s and became the standard bearer for alternative music for the next four decades (and counting).  KNAC is the Long Beach station probably better known for its later all-metal format, when it was one of the only stations in the world to play things like Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Megadeth, but before this switchover (which occurred in 1986 and which was a HUGE cultural divide between kids of my year/generation and our younger brothers and sisters) they were an incredibly eclectic station that played a very open format which leaned heavily on punk and new wave but which also included occasional classic rock and even blues songs.  Even KROQ at this period in the very early 80’s played a wider variety of music, particularly since at that time it wasn’t 100% clear what genre some bands fell into; in particular I can remember two very non-new wave songs being played on KROQ:  “Let’s Get It Up” by AC/DC (which was released in 1982 and which I love to this day) and “Destroyer” by the Kinks (which was released in summer of 1981). Everyone listened to KROQ at my high school but everyone claimed to like KNAC better, though it had a much spottier signal.  Later, it became cool to claim to like 91X, KROQ’s sister station that broadcast from Tiajuana Mexico and served the greater San Diego area but which could occasionally be captured in the LA area. 

Another song I recall hearing on KROQ around this time (actually slightly before, in 1981) was “Bang Bang” by Iggy Pop from his Party album (released June 1981) ; this album is now widely considered one of the worst (if not THE worst) album in Iggy’s notably uneven catalog, but this song is still one of my favorites by him and was one of the first I acquired on MP3.  I still find it sad and touching when Iggy says "Lonely?  Ha ha ha!  What does it mean?  Who, me?" toward the end of the song in a very unconvincing way.  Also around this time I remember the song “Red Light” by Wall of Voodoo (which is off their Dark Continent album released in August 1981) and “Lunacy” by the Plasmatics (off Metal Priestess, released in 1981) being very popular and being played on KROQ.  I can still recall being fascinated with the album cover from the Plasmatics’ 1980 album New Hope for the Wretched, which showed lead singer Wendy O. Williams’ bare breasts (with her nipples barely covered by duct tape). 

Iggy Pop's Party Album featuring "Bang Bang".
In 1982 my two most salient musical memories were of Romeo Void and Fay Wray.  Romeo Void released “Never Say Never”, which was hands down the most erotic and arousing piece of music I’d ever heard; Debora Iyala’s raunchy, arousing vocals and the sleazy lyrics absolutely dripped sex.  I can remember hearing this quite often on KROQ.  The other memory I have of this time was seeing the first music videos.  At this time MTV wasn’t available on the west coast (it wouldn’t be until around 1984) and the seminal Southern California video show MV3 hadn’t yet started broadcasting; pretty much the only place you could see music videos was on cable TV, where they would show them after the end of movies to fill out the time before the top of the hour when the next movie started.  My best friend John would tape these videos on videocassette and we would watch them.  My impression is that there wasn’t much in the way of programming being done, it was simply whether or not the cable station had the video and how long it was and how well that filled the time before the next movie.  One of these utterly random videos was for the song “Modern Lovers” by the extremely obscure Welsh new wave group Fay Wray; for literally DECADES I looked endlessly for this album and could never find it; the best I could do was a couple years ago somebody posted the original video on YouTube and I ripped the song from it (it has since been taken down).  There’s nothing particularly good OR bad about this song or its video; the female singer has kind of a high, almost strident voice (she sounded a little like Siouxsie Sioux), the guitar is high and fast and it has a catchy beat but its otherwise not particularly notable, but it was still a happy day when I found it. 

Still from Fay Wray video for "Modern Lovers".

The other songs I remember from 1982 are “Everywhere That I’m Not” by Translator (a great SF group), the first Duran Duran album (“Girls on Film”, “Planet Earth”, and my favorite at the time, “Is There Something I Should Know?”), Men At Work’s ascent (“Who Can It Be Now?”, “Down Under”, and “Be Good Johnny”), “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Tainted Love” and “Sex Dwarf” by Soft Cell,  "A Million Miles Away" by the Plimsouls (which was huge during spring break of 1982), “Grey Matter”, “Private Life”,  and “Nothing To Fear” by Oingo Boingo (wow, I just had to go and download these, I can’t believe I didn’t have them; Oingo Boingo were HUGELY popular at my junior high school), “I Melt With You” by Modern English, “Johnny, Are You Queer?” by Josie Cotton, (the latter two songs achieved more widespread popularity following the release of the popular movie “Valley Girl” in 1983 but were being played by KROQ well in advance of this).

The other huge event of 1982 was the premiere of the show MV3.  As mentioned, MTV was not available on the west coast at this time, and MV3 was HUGELY popular and influential.  In addition to showing video clips, the show featured an “American Bandstand” format, with three hosts (including popular KROQ DJ Richard Blade) and a group of teens dancing along to the music.  They also had “live” (usually lip synced) performances by local as well as international bands; I can remember the LA bands the Bangles, X, and the Three O’Clock, and Scottish band Altered Images (I had a crush on lead singer Claire Grogan;  I think their album Pinky Blue was the 5th album I ever bought, I loved the song “See Those Eyes” and also liked “Happy Birthday” and “I Could Be Happy”) being on the show.  They also occasionally had comedians perform as well as weird games and the like; in addition, local music writer Shredder would often give a run-down of upcoming punk and new wave shows. 

Its hard to over-state the importance of MV3 on youth culture in Southern California and even America.  This was our pipeline to the latest and coolest music and, almost as important, fashion.  The MV3 dancers were a mix of the various post-punk tribes, from mod/ska to goth to surf punk to new wave, and I can remember my friends and I watching religiously, picking up new fashion trends.  These were the coolest of the coolest LA kids and were on top of every trend, and we all idolized them (and occasionally ridiculed them) and noted and copied their fashion styles.  It was required viewing and the ultimate arbiter of what was cool or in.  Several clips of MV3 are uploaded on YouTube; man, seeing them takes me back in a MAJOR way, I can remember vividly watching these videos and performances and just feeling that there was this really cool world out there filled with outrageous fashion and cutting edge music and this was my window into it. 

1983 was the year I finally appreciated punk rock.  Before that I felt that punkers were angry, ugly, unpleasant people (actually, I still think that).  There was a definite socioeconomic divide in my junior high between new wavers (richer, more popular) and punkers (poorer, less popular).  I actually lived in a less-affluent neighborhood that had more punkers than new wavers but I was a new waver.  Metal, of course, was so unpopular that it wasn’t even mentioned in polite society; only the biggest losers, the scum of the earth, the worst kids from the worst neighborhoods, were into metal.  I still remember the first time I heard of Ozzy Ozbourne was when this really big loser kid walked onto school grounds blasting “Blizzard of Oz” on a boom box and was promptly suspended from our junior high.   But in 1983 or early 1984 my friend John and I rented “The Decline of Western Civilization”, Penelope Spheeris’ now-class documentary on the then-almost collapsed LA punk scene filmed in 1979-1980, from the video store.  We thought it was hilarious, and we laughed at a lot of the punkers who were interviewed for the movie.  Shortly thereafter I bought the soundtrack, initially because of our juvenile interest in the cartoon “rebellion” of bands like Fear, but the more I listened to it, the more I found myself liking bands like Black Flag, X, and the Germs.  By 1985 I would say I was equally into punk and new wave music; English new wave bands like OMD, Depeche Mode, and Blancmange were still my favorites but I was also buying (and liking) albums by X, TSOL, and the Germs.  After my first year in college I’d grown tired of new wave for the most part and was pretty obsessed with punk rock and post-punk, specifically Black Flag, X, Husker Du, the Replacements, the Sex Pistols (I think it was around 1984 or so that I first bought Never Mind the Bollocks, though I’d been exposed to it through a friend who loved it as far back as 1981 or 1982), Generation X (an outgrowth of my obsession with Billy Idol), etc. 

The other band I got into in late ‘84/early ’85 was the Smiths.  I bought Hatful of Hollow, the compilation of their early singles, very early on; at that time I was good friends with an older girl who was really up on all the latest English music and who haunted the local independent record store (White Slug Records in Seal Beach, CA; she and I worked at a candy/ice cream store down the street and she lived nearby).  She had gotten me hooked on this compilation cassette put out by Warner Bros. called A Survival Sampler, which came in a camouflaged K rations can, and which contained songs by several then-lesser known English groups, like the Church, Scritti Politti, Aztec Camera, China Crisis, and yes, the Smiths.  So when Hollow came out I was all over it, and MAN, I was OBSESSED with that band/album for several months, but then TOTALLY got bored with them.  By the time I got to college the next year I was so sick of that cassette that I basically gave it to my roommate , who promptly played the shit out of it, making me even MORE bored with it.  By the time Meat is Murder came out in 1986 I was sooooo past the Smiths, and more or less detested them from that point onward, particularly as Morrissey became more and more self-righteous and arrogant.  I’ve only recently gotten beyond this over-exposure to the point where I actually like some of those songs again.

 I was a total late-bloomer with respect to concert attendance.  And I had chances to see three legendary LA acts very early on and didn’t.  The first was X, who played the CSULB music festival in like 1982 or 1983, but I was too lame/lazy to walk a mile or so to see them (pretty ironic since they ended up becoming one of my favorite bands of all time).  In addition, at around this same time my friend John wanted us to attend the CSULB winter concert and he bought tickets and everything and I wussed out at the last minute.  Why?  Because I had it in my head that this was a SCHOOL DANCE (as if large colleges have school dances) like a formal or something and I was afraid to go because I was afraid everyone would see us and know we were still in high school and/or would think we were a couple of homos going to the dance together!!!!  LAME!!!!!  Why was I such a wuss??   But who was playing, you ask?  The Untouchables, the most revered LA mod/ska group of all time (and a hellaciously awesome live act).  And who was opening for them?  A then-totally unknown band called Fishbone (their self-titled EP, released in 1985, was MASSIVELY popular with me and my friends).

So as a consequence of my youthful foolishness, I didn’t attend either of these concerts.  My first concert was Billy Idol on his “Rebel Yell” tour, in summer of 1984; I believe my second concert was Depeche Mode on their “Master and Servant” tour that same year/summer.  In 1985 I saw several concerts, including General Public (Dave Wakeling and Rankin’ Roger’s post-English Beat group; the Three O’Clock opened), Madonna (on her “Like a Virgin” tour; the Beastie Boys opened), and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  By the next year, my freshman year in college, the concerts I saw were mostly smaller post-punk acts like Husker Du (on their “Flip Your Wig” tour), the Meat Puppets, Redd Kross, Frightwig, John Doe of X, and obscure LA acts like the Super-Heroines, the Fiends, and Bobbi Brat.  However, in the later 80's I saw the Cult, Madonna again (at Anaheim Stadium; the "Who's That Girl" tour I believe; the Breakfast Club opened), R.E.M., and Peter Gabriel.  I also saw Jane's Addiction several times and in the 90's I saw such first wave punk acts as the Dickies and Weirdos and Legal Weapon, I saw Nirvana and Hole (with Sister Double Happiness) just before Nevermind blew up globally, L7 probably a dozen times, and Carla Bozulich's first band Ethyl Meatplow.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Skinny Ties and One Hit Wonders

Tommy Tutone.

Its funny how we often think we know someone or something when we really don’t know them at all.  A band has a huge hit that everyone on earth can recognize, and we think we are all experts on that band.  But actually we only know one or maybe two songs at most of their entire catalog. 

Its also interesting to me how dismissive we all are about bands that we designate as “one hit wonders”.  As I’ve gotten older, this has puzzled me more and more.  First of all, how many of us will ever know what its like to write even a single successful song, a song that moves people, that they enjoy, that thousands or even millions of people are willing to pay money for?  Shouldn’t we CELEBRATE these bands instead of denigrate them?? 

This becomes even more ridiculous when you consider how capricious the music industry, and the market for popular music in particular, is.  Think how rapidly people’s tastes change; in months or even weeks the entire musical zeitgeist can change completely.  What was cool or interesting today is almost ludicrously lame tomorrow.  This is compounded by the very fact that over-exposure can make something seem uncool to many people.  By simply having one hit song, an artist can set up a backlash against themselves that actively works against them ever achieving anything close to the same popularity on subsequent singles and albums.  Really, if you think about it, the rarest of all possible birds is the musical artist who is able to establish long-term popularity for years and decades and continue to either release successful selling albums or who are able to continue to tour in large venues.  In the past 50 years I can honestly only think of a comparatively tiny handful of artists who have managed this feat:  the Rolling Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, and to a lesser extent REM.  But most artists have a much more finite half-life, whether that half-life is measured in years or weeks. 

Whenever the musical culture changes it seems like this volatility increases.  There’s a reason for this:  when a new musical trend becomes dominant, record companies rush to capitalize on it, and will sign, record, and release as many new artists as possible in hopes that one of them will become the next _____ (fill in name with whatever band started the trend).  In addition, in the early phase of the trend the record company personnel will not have the requisite expertise to judge whether acts are “good” or not.  Also, as the trend gains momentum, artists who had nothing to do with this genre before it was popular will flood in to cash in on its popularity, and new acts will form inspired by the act or acts that started the buzz initially.  A wealth of new product and looser filters means a lot of content of widely varying quality gets spewed out onto the public.

An unfortunate consequence of this increased volatility is that most bands are given an even smaller window before the public tires of their sound.   Sadly, this is true even if the band DID have a hit song, perhaps because of the backlash issue mentioned above or perhaps because the public simply has moved on.  It certainly doesn’t mean the band isn’t good, making good music, and so forth.  But capturing that lightning in a bottle becomes even harder.

However, it also meant that a lot more artists were able to slip through the filter whom otherwise might not have had a shot at reaching an audience.  In the new wave era, there were a lot of acts who had nothing more going for them than a funny haircut, weird band name, and a synthesizer but were given a record contract and released a single or an album.  Most of these made only the tiniest impact on most listeners then faded away under the inability to sustain any sort of career success, but many of them made music that was catchy as well as interesting.

In a recent post I discussed the “angry young men” movement that followed punk, which consisted of artists and/or bands characterized not by the amateurishness, sloppiness, and semi-inarticulate rage of punk, but who did however play quirky and passionate music that resonated with both the energy and the independence of punk.  Artists like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and others had little in common sonically with punk acts created to scandalize and shock like the Sex Pistols, but they used the flux in the music industry during this period to create records that were cynical, angry, exuberant and exciting.  Lyrically and musically these were not untalented teenagers bashing out their boredom and frustration on cheap guitars, they were adults (in their 20’s or even 30’s) who were literate, intelligent, and experienced and who forged lyrics based on their better informed world view.

Several other bands came out during this period (circa 1978 through 1985 or so) who, while not technically angry young men, were nevertheless talented musicians and songwriters who created catchy, interesting music that might not have ever been recorded or heard had punk not widened the filter.  Most of these bands, however, were only given the briefest of windows for success before the new wave backlash occurred.  If lucky, they might have hit it big with one or two songs before the music buying public moved on.  But many of these so-called “one hit wonders” had much more than one good song, and most have been unfairly delegated to

Say “one hit wonder” and most people over a certain age will often come up with one of two names from this era:  Tommy Tutone or the Knack.  Both came up in the early days of new wave’s ascendancy in the late 70’s/early 80’s.  Both played music that was similar:  Tommy Tutone played new wave flavored rock that had elements of powerpop, and the Knack played powerpop flavored rock that had elements of new wave.  Both are famous primarily for one song:  “867-5309/Jenny” and “My Sharona”, respectively, which of course were MASSIVE hits at the time.  Both songs also generated backlashes, which was particularly vicious in the case of the Knack, and resulted in the “Knuke the Knack” movement that followed on the heels of “My Sharona’s” success. 

The first thing to understand about Tommy Tutone is that it is not the name of a person, it’s the name of the BAND.  Granted, lead singer Tommy Heath’s first name is the same but Tommy Tutone was a band first and foremost.  The second thing to keep in mind is that they, like the Knack, were not in fact technically a one hit wonder at all:  “Angel Say No”, from their first album, hit #38 on the Billboard charts in 1980, two full years before “Jenny’s” popularity. 

I’ll admit, though I LOVED (and still DO love) “867-5309/Jenny” back in the day (and it was one of the first songs I, uh, “found”, on the internet back in ’99), I never bought anything by Tommy Tutone then and never saw them in concert.  Well, I actually SORT OF saw them in concert, though “saw” isn’t the right word.  In the mid-80’s—well past their popular time—I happened to be in Avalon on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California for spring break and Tommy Tutone was playing the one club in Avalon and my friends and I, being poor students, couldn’t afford tickets but we stood around outside listening through the wall.  Lame, I know, and I don’t even recall hearing anything I recognized or particularly liked, but I think of it a lot now because I recently went back and re-explored Tommy Tutone’s music and I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT.  Granted, “Jenny” is far and away their best song—hell, in my opinion it one of the catchiest and most likeable songs ever recorded—but pretty much the rest of their music from this time is utterly fantastic guitar-based new wave rock. 

In a previous post, I commented on how new wave is like pornography—its hard to make an all-inclusive definition of it, but you definitely know it when you see/hear it.  There are, of course, a few fairly common markers, including crisp guitars, a prominent (often dominant) synthesizer element, quirky time signatures and/or stop/start rhythms, often an emphasis on the bass guitar as a driving force rather than drums or guitars, distinctive vocals that often have a geeky or suburban feel, quirky lyrical subject matter, a de-emphasis on the blues as a musical starting point, and so forth. 

Tommy Tutone’s music did not have all of these elements but it definitely had a bass-heavy feel with unusual rhythm meters and a crunchy guitar sound.   But these aspects were mere accents to their music, which was really just excellent bar band rock with a new wave feel.

One thing they did have was distinctive vocals.  Singer Tommy Heath may well have the most unique and interesting voice in the history of rock.  High pitched but with a bluesy growl, his voice veers between Steve Winwood on one hand and Bob Seger on the other, with elements of Bruce SpringsteenTom Petty, Elvis Costello, Tonio K., and John Mellencamp.    What’s more, Heath pours his heart and soul into the singing of each song; he never seems to give anything but his all and never takes a track or even a chorus off, belting out every word with as much feeling and soul as is possible.

As mentioned, “Angel Say No” off their eponymous first album was their first hit, reaching #38 in 1980, and this is a magnificently simple song with a basic, pulsing beginning that reminds me a little of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, then builds to a big, catchy chorus highlighted by Heath’s wonderfully unique and soulful vocals on the chorus.  This is a phenomenal song, but its just one of many on this first album that are similarly, uniformly excellent.  Right now, “Rachel” is my favorite, with its catchy riff and Heath’s incredible voice.  My next favorite is “Dancing Girl”, which has a similar riff and structure and slow tempo to “Rachel”; I love Heath’s shouted line “She’s my dancing girl!!!”  This song ends with an extended instrumental jam that’s very pleasant.  Finally, “The Blame” is another slow/mid tempo rocker with a big, pulsing, bass-driven riff and shouted chorus.  Along with “Angel Say No”, these three songs all are similarly, consistently catchy and fun. 

It was on their second album, Tommy Tutone-2, that the band achieved their big breakthrough, with “867-5309/Jenny” becoming a top 5 hit in America and charting nearly everywhere else.  On this album the band definitely moved away from the signature new wave aspects of the first album and toward a more general rock sound that is saved from being derivative by Heath’s as-always excellent vocals.  But the sound of the band definitely veers toward a more mainstream rock sound similar to that of Bob Seger or John Mellencamp; in fact, “Baby Its Alright” is perhaps the best song Bob Seger never recorded, and Heath’s vocals sound eerily similar to those of Bob on his hits like “Against the Wind” or “Main Street”.  Only the boppy chorus of “Its alright, you know, I’ll never leave you alone” does this song even sound remotely new wave-ish.    This Midwest/heartland feel continues on “Shadow On the Road Ahead”, which again sounds like mid-era Bob Seger circa “Hollywood Nights” (which I personally love) .  The fourth and final song I adore off this album is “Why Baby Why”; Heath’s voice has a yowl to it here that almost sounds like the bayou twang (by way of California) of John Fogerty, particularly on his work off Centerfield.    

Both Tommy Tutone and Tommy Tutone-2 are available on iTunes, but one song that is not is “Teen Angel Eyes”, which was featured in the 80’s teen sex comedy “The Last American Virgin”.  This song sounds very similar to the mid-tempo songs from their first album but has a Caribbean lilt to it as well and a very memorable chorus.  There is a version of this up on YouTube (accompanying a video tribute to said “Virgin”), plus there’s a version up on the Tommy Tutone official web site :, go to “Songs” then “video and bonus tracks”).

Most people remember Tommy Tutone fondly, harboring at most a mild resentment for his hit “Jenny” because it was so relentlessly catchy.  However, at the time no band was more reviled than the Knack, who for many middle America meatheads became a whipping boy for the entire new wave movement.  The Knack also got knocked for their sophomoric, almost misogynistic lyrics and their arrogant demeanor (they had a famously prickly relationship with the press, often refusing to give interviews; in addition, their album cover, which was modeled on that of the Beatles’ first album, struck many as pompous).  But they made some outstanding new wave inflected powerpop, and “My Sharona” remains one of the catchiest songs of the entire new wave era.  The big, pounding drum beginning, the heavy bass-driven rhythm, the Who-inspired stutter of the chorus, even the extended, indulgent guitar solo middle—its hard to deny that this was what music was supposed to be like—catchy, fun to dance to, etc.  I have to admit, when it was featured in the movie “Reality Bites” in the mid-90's, I rolled my eyes, but now I think of that scene and smile, because, as much as it pains me to admit it, that’s EXACTLY something my friends and I would do if it came on in a convenience store too (feel free to make fun of me endlessly for this).  I’m sorry, but for anyone who grew up in that time, that songs was SUCH an era-defining song and its still just so marvelously fun to pogo around to. 

As good as “My Sharona” was, the Knack had several other outstanding songs.  Not quite as popular but still a big hit (it hit #11 in 1979), “Good Girls Don’t”, their second single, was nearly as catchy, with its harp intro and the twangy guitar almost sounding vaguely country-ish.  The lyrics have been a point of controversy since its release, with lines about girls sitting on your face and so forth, but the band was singing these with a wink and a smile.   And while they weren’t released as singles, other songs on the album are similarly memorable.  “Your Number Or Your Name” is an excellent example, with its rumbling rhythm (drummer Bruce Gary’s skin pounding is particularly propulsive here) and sweet guitar; the bridge harkens back to the pulsing throb of “My Sharona”.  This is actually my (second) favorite Knack song.   “Let Me Out” is up-tempo and reminds me of “Tonight Tonight” by Cheap Trick, which came out around this time.  “She’s So Selfish” almost sounds like something off Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, with its syncopated rhythm and funky guitar flourishes.  “Heartbeat” has the big bass of “Sharona and shimmering guitars and is another fave.

The Knack’s followup to their debut Get The Knack, But The Little Girls Understand, mostly tried to follow the same formula.  “Baby Talks Dirty” has a jerky rhythm and bass punch similar to “My Sharona” and lyrics similar to “Good Girls Don’t” but only made it to #38 on the charts.   But the song I like is “I Want Ya”, which contains bass flourishes but has a more Who-like sound and feel.  “Tell Me You’re Mine” has a quirky structure and here singer Doug Fieger’s vocals sound like a warped homage to Elvis Presley, with the King’s trademark Memphis sneer to most lines.  This is a strange and fun song; it reminds me of some of the stuff Blondie was doing around this time, which was an update on 50’s/60’s songs with a new wave twist.  “The Hard Way” has a frenetic new wave tempo and alliterative lyrics and is probably the next best song to “I Want Ya” on this album, though it was never released as a single.

The magic was starting to run out by the Knack’s third album, 1982’s Round Trip, which only cracked the top 100, despite the fact that it still had the same signature features of previous Knack releases.  “Boys Go Crazy” has the same Elvis-inspired drawling vocals as “Tell Me You’re Mine” and a similarly countrified guitar sound.  “Just Wait And See” is sweet and pleasant, like a G-rated version of “Your Number Or Your Name”, and “Another Lousy Day In Paradise” is a standout track, punchy and catchy and downright fun.  Soon after this album was released, the Knack broke up, but they reformed several times over the ensuing three decades.  Sadly, vocalist Doug Fieger passed away last year after a battle with cancer. 

At the same time that the Knack and Tommy Tutone were crafting intelligent but catchy new rock in America, a much lesser known band was exploring similar musical territory in Britain.  Fischer-Z’s music was more prog rock influenced and had occasional reggae undertones but was most noted for their thoughtful, well crafted new wave songs highlighted by frontman John Watts’ extremely distinctive high register vocals.  One of their first minor hits is a fascinating song called “Pretty Paracetemol (First Impressions)”, which has a minimalist sound, with a repetitive keyboard riff and softly thrumming bass and guitar leading to a burst of sound on the chorus.  This is another fun romp of a song.  I first fell in love with Fischer-Z about a decade ago when I discovered their “big” hit, “So Long”, while surfing around.  This song, like “Pretty Paracetemol” is very low key and minimalist, with a very mellow bass and guitar strumming punctuated by shimmering keyboards and Watts’ fey, affected vocals, but the chorus is large and ear-grabbing, with Watts’ shrieking vocals.   I still love this song a lot; it walks the line between early Police and Tommy Tutone’s work in America.  “Red Skies Over Paradise” has more of that early Police reggae feel of Regatta De Blanc, and is the title track from their third album.  "Going Deaf For a Living” (perhaps a reference to Pete Townsend, who’s 70’s solo work seems to have been a source of inspiration for FZ?) has staccato bursts of guitar and a country backbeat but the vocals aren’t quite as enjoyably quirky as on their other songs.  And finally, “I Smelt Roses (In The Underground)” is much catchier and enjoyable, with its grandiose, pleasing chorus.  Sadly, none of Fischer-Z’s many albums (they continued making albums throughout the 80’s and even 90’s) are available on iTunes, but these and other songs are posted on YouTube, often as the original music videos.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find many other guitar-driven new wave bands who's music holds up as well as these three. Two of my other favorite new wave songs from the early 80's are "Jukebox (Don't Put Another Dime) by the Flirts, and "Goodbye To You" by Scandal, but not much by either band sticks out like these two hits.  "Love's Got A Line On You" by Scandal off their first EP (which contained "Goodbye"), is catchy but more of a ballad and has a mellower energy than "Goodbye".  You should check out the video for this on YouTube though; famously made for 20 dollars, it got them signed to their first contract (talk about a good return on your money!) and features John Bon Jovi on guitar.  "Never Enough", the title cut off former Scandal frontwoman Patty Smyth's first solo album (i.e., her album after the horrible one with "The Warrior" on it) is catchy and has that big 80's arena rock feel (you can see why Van Halen asked her to join their band after parting ways with David Lee Roth around this time); I remember this song mostly because my girlfriend at the time's sister Leslie was OBSESSED with Patty Smyth at this time and attended the shoot for this video; Leslie later corresponded with Patty after this album sank without a breakout hit, during the period in which she was dating Richard Hell, THE Richard Hell of Television, Heartbreakers, Voidoid fame, and Leslie passed along to Patty my appreciation for Richard's music, so I very indirectly have a minor connection to this legendary NY punk pioneer!!!  The song I REALLY like off this album is Patty's incredible, high energy version of "Downtown Train" by Tom Waits; her huge, brassy vocals kick the flabby old ass of Rod Stewart's much later cover of this same song.  The Flirts had other flashes of chart success, but these were typically very cheesy disco songs that had none of the flair or spunk of "Jukebox".

Friday, March 25, 2011

Angry Young Men

Clive Gregson and Any Trouble

One of the greatest consequences of the punk explosion of the late 80’s is that it opened the door for a lot of musicians who, while not exactly punk, were edgy and different and probably wouldn’t have gotten a shot at making a record before this cataclysmic event.  These artists were not sloppy amateurs reveling in freedom and rebellion, many of them were accomplished musicians and adults who had something intelligent and interesting to say but who brought the energy and DIY ethic of punk to their work.  Many of these artists have been categorized as “angry young men” as a direct comparison to the explosion in youthful authors in England in the 50’s who were referred to by this same name. 

Probably the best known of these angry young men was Declan McManus, AKA Elvis Costello.  Costello was not exactly the spitting image of a rock star in general or a punk rocker in particular; skinny, dorky, and bespectacled, he had worked as a computer programmer before launching his music career.  And while his work was light years away from the rough, raw, sloppy sound of classic punk, Elvis Costello brought a fierce passion and savage wit to his work that drew upon the energy and feel of punk.  Interestingly, on his first album, My Aim Is True, he was not backed by what would become his long-standing band the Attractions; instead, his backing band was Clover, which was essentially the band that would eventually back Huey Lewis as the News and achieve huge success in the 80’s with their working class bar blues rock.  This remains one of Elvis Costello’s greatest albums, with several outstanding cuts, including “Less Than Zero” (which was used as the title for Bret Easton Ellis’ brilliant first novel), “Watching the Detectives”, and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”.  

For his second album, This Year’s Model, Costello put together his own backing band, the Attractions, and released an album that was even more rocking and wild than his debut.  “Pump It Up” and “Radio Radio” are high energy blasts of 60’s garage rock; the organ on “Pump It Up” giving it the feel of 60’s garage anthems like “96 Tears”, and of course “Radio Radio” is his scathing attack on the complacency of radio programs in the 70’s. 

Costello would go on to release a flood of albums with the Attractions into the mid 80’s and as a solo artist to the present day, which explored nearly every niche of modern rock, including pub rock, punk/new wave, soul, torch songs, blues, country, folk, and traditional.  I particularly like “Everyday I Write The Book” off Punch the Clock and “Veronica” off Spike.  But to me his best work was his early frenetic stuff off the first two albums, which was so angular and intense and showed that punk/new wave could be as intelligent and literate (but still passionate) as anything by respected pre-punk singer/songwriters like Randy Newman.

Another artist who started as an angry young man but who swiftly moved beyond the limitations of this appellation was Graham Parker.  Parker and his backing band Rumour started from the ashes of the English pub rock scene (members of Rumour came from such respected pub rock bands as Brinsley Schwartz and Ducks Deluxe) and released a flurry of albums on the Stiff label in the late 70’s, all of which were intelligent and had intelligent lyrics and a thrumming musical feel, and none of which are presently available on iTunes.  But it was his fifth album, Shooting Out Sparks (which is available on iTunes), that set the bar the highest.   Filled with edgy lyrics and catchy hooks, this album is a bona fide classic.  “Discovering Japan”, the lead track, has an almost frantic energy to go with its repeating and catchy musical hook—its my favorite song by him; he spits out the words almost as if he’s racing to the end of the song and the lyrics are strange, merging Asian themes with what sounds like an anti-love or failing relationship rant.  This is by far my favorite song by Graham Parker, but this album has some other standouts as well.  “Local Girls” has a quietly rocking beginning before launching into Parker’s angry sarcastic lyrics.  “Saturday Night” has a chiming guitar lead and a propulsive beat, almost sounding like a more cynical, new wave version of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting”.  “Don’t Get Excited” is another bitter rant about how boring life and other people can be. 

He was never truly angry, but Nick Lowe was also part of the same stable of Stiff singer/songwriters in the late 70’s.  I’ve only recently started to touch on his work; I’ve always been a fan of his sweet pop song “Cruel To Be Kind”, which has always reminded me of something by George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord” perhaps?) with its soft strumming guitars and sweet chorus.    I recently downloaded “So It Goes” from iTunes, which sounds a lot to me like a mash-up between “The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy and “Instant Karma” by John Lennon.  I definitely need to download more of his stuff.

While eventually his work became more known for his jazz- and blues-infected lounge piano player style, Joe Jackson also was part of the angry young man crowd in the late 70’s as well.  From the angular, syncopated funk rhythm of “Sunday Papers” to the rapid-fire lyrical blast of his rocking “I’m The Man”, his earlier work crackles with energy similar to Costello’s and Parker’s.  “I’m The Man” is one my all-time favorite songs, a hilarious romp in which Jackson claims to have been behind every fad in recent memory, from yo-yo’s to hula hoops to kung fu, skateboards, and yes, even punk rock.   It is interesting to hear someone who was able to gain exposure primarily through the musical revolution punk produced could see that much of punk as a musical and culture movement was nothing more than the latest fad; in this way this song is a cynical take on the topic of punk rock in the same way Billy Joel’s “Its Still Rock and Roll To Me” seeks to diffuse the supposed newness and revolution of punk rock by showing that it was really just part of rock and roll as a whole.  Another great Jackson song is “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, with its slow, loping bass line and Jackson’s plaintive lyrics.   Jackson’s later work pulled more on his training in classical and jazz, including “Breaking Us In Two” and “Stepping Out”, which incorporated bossa nova rhythms, and a lounge-y piano feel.

One of the less heralded angry young men of this era was Clive Gregson, leader of the band Any Trouble, who produced some outstanding music for Stiff at this same time period.  His work falls almost perfectly between that of labelmates Costello and Parker and Joe Jackson’s early work.  His voice is smoother and more soulful than either Costello’s or Parker’s, and his songs often are less hard rocking and angular, instead having a sweet pop sheen, with jangly guitars and a poppy rhythm section.  They only released two albums with Stiff and two albums with EMI in their heyday, with their first album, Where Are All The Nice Girls? by far their best.  “Yesterday’s Love” has the jangly feel of Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers, but the frantic tempo of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio”.  “Second Choice” starts with a pulsing mod/ska guitar and rhythm that sounds like “Poison Ivy” by the Lambrettas or “Ranking Full Stop” by the English Beat; Gregson’s voice here sounds very close to Joe Jackson’s but is more soaring and emotive.   The chorus is simply magnificent, an excellent example of the lyrical craft of these artists:

A simple life is all I need
Two shots of fantasy and one of make-believe
I never tried too hard to make this succeed
You're the only one I need
I never felt the need to cry or rejoice
I never felt the need to raise my voice
I only wanted to be one of the boys
Now you made me second choice

“Playing Bogart” is simple and funny, a tale of a man wanting to meet a woman who is told by a friend she’ll be at a party and how he ends up not even talking to her but instead going home and smoking a cigarette.  “Foolish Pride” has a country edge to the guitar and a quieter, almost “Alison” feel to it; “No Idea” is more up-tempo and a clanging beauty that reminds me of Lloyd Cole and Commotions.  “Romance” also has a mod/ska feel to it with its rapid rhythm but again has a Lloyd Cole feel as well, like “Perfect Skin” with more literate lyrics. 

Any Trouble’s second album, Wheels In Motion, was slicker and more polished, but I do like “Another Heartache”, which captures some of the frantic but heartfelt feel of their first album.  I really just discovered this excellent band and anyone who likes Elvis Costello and/or Joe Jackson’s early work will truly enjoy this stuff.  Thankfully, both Stiff albums are available on iTunes.

In America, the angry young man movement didn’t reach nearly the same critical mass.  However, one obvious candidate is Tonio K.  Tonio K started his musical career in the 60’s playing with A Raik’s Progress (amazingly, their one single is uploaded on YouTube), and played with Buddy Holly’s former band the Crickets in the early 70’s.  By the mid-70’s he’d gone solo and released his first album in 1978, Life In the Foodchain, which contains several songs with trenchant wit and a sonic snarl, including the title track.  Tonio’s voice here sounds similar to David Bowie’s from his Berlin trilogy and the music has a bar band/R&B feel to it similar to “Young Americans”. “H.A.T.R.E.D.” starts slow, almost spoken-word intro but then launches into what has to be the angriest but also funniest breakup song of all time before collapsing in snarls of guitar feedback.  This song clearly captures the fury of punk and channels it into a breakup song rather than at society.  Hysterical.  “Sons of Revolution” is a sad, cynical look at the futility of youthful rebellion and how impossible it is for angry young men to change a world that’s greedy, unhelpful and discouraging.  Depressing but Tonio K. still sings it with fire and passion; his bitterness and cynicism don’t appear to stop him from trying to warn all the youthful optimists that the world will destroy them in the end. 

Tonio K. mellowed somewhat on subsequent albums but still retained his edginess and ability to turn a phrase.  In 1988 when his fifth album Notes From the Lost Civilization came out I was working as a college DJ in Southern California and I fell in love with his song “Without Love”; here Tonio has traded in some of his bitterness for a more optimistic mindset that nevertheless warns “It ain’t worth nothin’ without love”.  This song is beautiful, sweet, jangly 80’s pop with a strong positive message.