October 6, 2017

Book Review: Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture by Curran Nault

cover Queercore.jpg The idea of writing about something as anarchistic as punk, either the music or the attitude, has always seemed to be self-defeating. How can an author encapsulate on the page something which had/has the tendency to explode like a beer bottle tossed off a fire escape? Yet this is exactly what Curran Nault has not only attempted, but succeeded in doing with his book Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture, published by Routledge Press.

Initially some might find the fact the book is an academic study of the subject somewhat off putting. However, after becoming accustomed its formality you come to appreciate how the distance it creates from the subject matter not only lends the book a great deal of credibility it also allows to read the material in a dispassionate manner. This in turn ensures someone like me (who lived through the periods described in the book) doesn't allow sentimentality or memories to interfere with an appreciation of the author's work or the fresh perspective he brings to the subject matter.

As the title implies the book traces the history of the intersection of Queer expression and punk. For those who wonder, Queer has as much to do with straight (and yes I've used that word deliberately) LGBTQ+ as punk has to do with anything mainstream. As Nault shows Queercore has its roots in the infamous Stonewall riots of the late 1960s. Here, drag queens, gays of colour, and others marginalized among the marginalized, said enough is enough and took to the streets after cops raided their club at the Stonewall hotel in New York City.

Queercore is a reaction and a goad. It is no surprise the term was coined in the mid 1980s when the conservative Christians were calling AIDS a judgement on homosexuality and the American government was attacking artists like Robert Mapplethorpe for daring to be true to himself. What might be surprising to some is the term was originated by a trio of Canadians from Toronto. However, after New York and London, Toronto's punk scene was one of the most vibrant in the 1970s and would have been fertile ground for artists frustrated with the mainstream.

However, as Nault makes perfectly clear Queercore isn't just a reaction against the those normally considered the enemies of "different", its also a means of protesting those who society would normally assume were their allies. For not only does it attack homophobia in punk, and lets be real, with few exceptions, punk has always primarily been the domain of straight white men, it continues to this day to challenge mainstream gay and lesbian politics. The ones who want to blend in, not make any waves and hope by keeping their heads down they won't get bashed the next time they walk down the street.

Queercore is laid out in a nice logical progression from the introduction which not only supplies us with working definitions of both "Queer" and "Punk" (as an aside, and as someone who will always consider himself punk, he's provided one of the best definitions of punk I've ever read: "In the best of circumstances punk aims to be a wakeup call to a public otherwise anesthetized by the suffocating conformity of daily existence.") to the chapters on its forebearers, sex, confrontation, and its depiction of bodies. The latter being not only in reference to whether someone has a penis or not, but the inclusion of people of size and the disabled in media representations.

With each chapter carefully footnoted, whether the source is anecdotal or textual, Queercore has a credibility often lacking in books dealing with contemporary culture. Having lived through the times described in the book it's easy to find omissions and disagree on minutiae. However, as someone who spent the 1980s reading obituaries seeing colleagues death's described as complications from pneumonia, Nault does a fine job capturing the times and feelings that gave rise to Queercore.

He also does a superlative job of describing the intricacies of the subculture and why each are so important. We might not 'approve', 'like' or even understand some of what's described, but that is irrelevant. The in your face attitude of Queercore is meant to shock, and Nault makes sure readers know why that's important.

Even better, as far as I'm concerned, in his concluding chapter, "A Queer Elegy For The Future", he steps out from behind the shelter of academic language and tells us personally why Queercore is just as important today as it was in the mid 1980s. Marginalization still exists within the LGBTQ+ community - he cites examples of Pride committees telling participants this is a family event so dress appropriately - and for that matter everywhere. There is still a need for those brave souls willing to celebrate their differences in public to shake up the status quo.

In Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture Nault offers readers the chance to enter into a world few will understand or tolerate. However, he makes it abundantly clear to any thinking, caring, person, why exactly this subculture is so important. Change happens because of those pushing from the bottom and the outside. Without the people mentioned in this book, change would never happen.

As we enter a new era of repression, books which welcome and embrace what the mainstream ignores and reviles are more and more important. Queercore might be written about a specific subculture, but the philosophy it espouses is one which applies to all of us.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Queercore: Queer Punk Meida Subculture by Curran Nault)

October 21, 2015

Music Review: Made Of Light Tymon Dogg

What do you mean you've never heard of Tymon Dogg? The man's only been playing and creating music for longer then most of you have been alive. Hell, he played with The Clash, for whatever sake you want to insert. (Sandinista, lead vocals and violin on "Lose This Skin") He also played with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in case you've never heard of The Clash. If, by some chance you've not heard this mad man play, now's your chance, as his first solo album in more than twenty years, Made of Light, is being released October 20 2015 on the Thin Man Music label.

One of the first things you have to know about Dogg is while he's one of those folk who seem to be able to play any and every stringed instrument invented, the violin is his weapon of choice. When he plays on the violin he creates a storm of passion in his listeners. He can break your heart or raise your ire to the extent you'll march off to war. His dragging the bow across the strings can create a banshee wail that will cut a path through any opposition or drag a note from its depths that would wring a tear from a rock.
Cover Made Of Light Tyman Dogg.jpg
Than there's his singing voice. It isn't what you'd call dulcet - in fact some might call it a high pitched screech. However, you can't be listening properly if you say that. Yes his voice is much higher than you'd expect (the first time I heard "Lose This Skin" I thought it was a woman singing) but oh is it compelling. It reaches out and grabs you by the throat and forces you to listen to what Dogg is saying. No one is going to claim that Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Woody Guthrie have or had great voices, but that's never stopped anyone from listening to them.

Musically Dogg's influences range far and wide. As you'd expect from his previous associations with Strummer there's plenty of the raw energy associated with punk. However, you can also hear everything from traditional British Isles folk to the most avant garde of jazz in his music. While there's some studio tricks and effects used on the recording, the majority of what you hear on the disc comes from what he is able to accomplish with his voice and instruments.

All of which makes for a perfect underpinning of his lyrics. There's the sarcastic and biting "Conscience Money", track one, which makes fun of those who give a pittance in charity to ease their guilt about their accumulated wealth: "Conscience money, conscience money/I made a million, I'll throw a penny back/I'll give them a crumb from a bursting sack/ When I drink Champagne I offer them the fizz/Conscience money, we all know it is."

The wealthy aren't his only targets though. He also takes aim at society's eating habits in general, specifically they way we produce the meat that we eat with the third song on the album, "Pound of Grain". What's good about this song is the fact he doesn't condemn the eating of meat or act all sanctimonious about being a vegetarian. (no idea if Dogg is or isn't one) Rather, he's simply attacking the waste and cruelty involved with its manufacture. "The hunter doesn't hunt anymore/He gets his meat like a vulture from a corner store/He must feel brave as he goes in for the kill and gets out his credit card and approaches the till."

However, he's not just a satirist, he also writes beautiful and hopeful songs like track seven, "As I Make My Way". As with all the best folk music its deceptively simple both musically and lyrically, which makes its message all the clearer. "When I was a young man my friend said to me/ Remember you're just a part of all humanity/Well I forgot, I strayed, in ego games I played/Now I recall that simple truth as I make my way". Throughout the course of the song Dogg shows how there are plenty of opportunities along the way for all of us to remember this simple lesson of compassion. We just have to listen.
Tyman Dogg Live sm.jpg
With Dogg you need to rid yourself of any expectations when it comes to what you're going to hear, because he's going to defy them. He keeps you off balance with both his lyrics and his music as he explores new motifs in both from song to song. What's even better is while he definitely has something to say, he's also a gifted enough musician to blend the music and the message into a seamless package.

Some people may not be overly thrilled with what he has to say or how he says it. But the world needs voices like Dogg's to keep us on our toes and to remind us of how much better we could all be as people. Without preaching or being overbearing, and with a great deal of humour at times, Made of Light does all of those things. If you've never listened to Dogg before, or you just haven't heard him in long time, now's the time - you won't ever forget the experience.

(Photo Credit for picture of Tymon Dogg performing Alison Clarke)

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Made Of Light by Tymon Dogg - (A True Indie))

September 9, 2015

Music Review: Public Image Limited - What The World Needs Now

After a nearly 20 year hiatus Public Image Limited (PiL) has just released its second album in three years. What The World Needs Now, on their own PiL Official label, is the successor to 2012's This Is PiL and is everything, and more, you'd expect from one of the most talented, versatile and unpredictable bands in the business.

Fronted by the indomitable John Lydon, the rest of PiL's membership is made up of fellow veterans of the music wars. Lu Edmonds, former guitarist for The Damned, plays guitar and a multitude of other stringed instruments. Bruce Smith has played drums with everyone from The Slits to Bjork and has been with PiL in various incarnations since 1986. Rounding out the band is Scott Firth on bass and keyboards whose career has seen him play with Steve Winwood, John Martyn, Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls.
Cover What The World Needs Now PiL.jpg
While one might expect a certain world weary cynicism to be part of the band's collective conscience, you could never tell by listening to this release. Not only is this disc a refreshing collection of musical styles and genres, lyrically it ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. Even better is the sense of fun that seems to pervade the entire release in spite of the seriousness of some songs' lyrics.

You only need to look at the disc's cover with its stylized trickster figure (not only painted by Lydon's but wearing his shoes) to have a clearer idea of what's going on inside the sleeve. Tricksters traditionally hold up mirrors to society in order to show us how ridiculous we've become. These images aren't necessarily funny, but if we pay attention to them we can always learn something. Lydon has always been one of pop music's ultimate tricksters and on What The World Needs Now he and the rest of PiL have out done themselves.

However even tricksters have their serious side and PiL are no exception. The song "One" is a poignant delving into the personal nature of sadness. This is PiL and Lydon we're talking about, so don't expect cheap sentimentality, but a sharp and intelligent homage to the times in our life when we're down or sadness threatens to overwhelm.

Lydon still doesn't pull any punches lyrically when it comes to those he considers fitting targets for his anger. Just listen to the lyrics of the song "Corporate" and you'll see he's not lost any of the volatility he's famous for. "Not global villages, but one globe/Not itty, bitty little villages of pity and learning how to survive in the 21st century and looking at WWlll/Because all humans seem to hate humanity."

While "Corporate" attacks the mentality that has allowed corporations to dictate what the direction the world takes, "Bettie Page" is an attack on the hypocrisy of the public when it comes to sexual images of men as opposed to women. "Bettie Page/Front page with Bettie Page, remember when you were the rage?/But you were censored in the greatest pornographic country in the world/Well, welcome to America/Land of the free/The pure absurd well served/Led by Betty Boop.../They all were naked 'till Maplethorpe shamed the heart of the Christian core/so get your cover off/Strip it down to the sergeant's stripes/God bless America".
Pil Small.jpg
However, for a true taste of the absurd, the disc's closing song, "Shoom", is a classic. A stream of conscience diatribe about nothing and everything, which Lydon says he wrote as a kind of requiem to his father, it also answers the question implied in the disc's title: "What the world needs now is another fuck off"..."Play me, play bollocks/Pay me, you pay me bollocks/Contracts, well they are bollocks/Contacts are fucking bollocks/Success is bollocks/Botox you fucking bollocks/Sex box, fucking bollocks/Sucking lemons, fucking bollocks ...What the world needs now is another fuck off".

All of which is sung/chanted over a rather laid back dance beat save for the chorus of "What the world needs now" which comes out as a rather guttural scream. While the lyrics may prove a little challenging for some people, although I think anyone who'd be offended by them won't be listening to a PiL, taken all together they capture the irreverence towards societal norms which has epitomized Lydon's career.

Musically PiL are one of the most accomplished bands you're going to hear these days. They draw upon almost every style and genre of pop music and then make them their own. You'll everything from house to glam and art rock to punk - sometimes in the same song - on this disc. What makes it great, is the fact you're not even aware of what they're doing until you sit back and think about it later. Even within a song their segues from one style to another are so seamless it just seems like the song's natural progression.

Of course, overtop of it all rides the sound of Lydon. He's been a part of the collective unconscious of pop music since 1975, keeping us all from becoming too complacent. Whenever it seems like the world of music is becoming too corporate, too smug and too full of itself, along comes Lydon with his fistful of pins to poke holes in the balloon. He never specifically bites the hand that feeds him, but just by being his opinionated self he shows us how the medium's potential is being wasted.

What The World Needs Now is the perfect antidote for those grown sick of the pablum of the pop music machinery. Not only is it musically great, its lyrics will make you think. PiL is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, in fact they are sure to offend right thinking people everywhere. Just what good rock and roll is supposed to do.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: What The World Needs Now - Public Image Limited)

August 30, 2015

Interview: John Lydon - Truth, Integrity and What The World Needs Now

John Lydon, lead singer of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited (PiL) is one of the seminal figures in pop music history. In the 1970s he and the Pistols stood the moribund music industry of Great Britain on its head and planted the seeds which would influence countless bands at home and around the world.

PiL was formed in 1978 after the Pistols imploded. While the band has gone through line up changes and experienced a close to 20 year hiatus, both it and Lydon have continued to produce continually challenging and exciting music throughout their history. Mercurial and intelligent Lydon has taken great delight in defying people's expectations both musically and personally for his entire career. An icon for iconoclasts and nose thumbers everywhere, he continues to be the unpredictable and brilliant figure who burst like a comet on the music scene forty years ago.
Interviewing someone like Lydon is a difficult proposition. Not because he's difficult, but because he's one of those people who you'd really like to converse with without being constrained by a question and answer format. Like his songs, thoughts spill out of his head, and it feels churlish to try and impose any sense of order on him. However, after our few opening exchanges - mistrust of technology and our common problem with inverting numbers - we began with some questions about PiL's forthcoming release, What The World Needs Now

What The World Needs Now, was it recorded on PiL's own label? Why your own label?

Yes, this is the second one we've done on our own. We'd all had enough of large record companies, getting the boot to the back of the file and so on. I wasn't able to do any music for almost two decades because of contractual disputes which was hard. I had to buy my way out of the former label. There were a lot of people there who I loved and admired, but it was just too much. But my childhood illness (spinal meningitis which caused him to lose his memory and be hospitalized for six months) taught me to cope with the cards life deals you. Everything you endure and work through makes you stronger.

The great thing about no label is there's more lack of control. Nobody breathing down your neck saying you can't do this and can't do that and you have to finish this now - can't have an accounting department telling you what to do. It kills spontaneity and creativity.

We have a work lab, that's what I call going into the studio, where we can create freely and do the hard work of turning accurate emotions into music and words.

Sounds like when I was working in theatre in the 80s, there were theatre companies who called themselves Theatre Labs

Yeah, I can see that. A few years ago and I tried something new for me and did some theatre. I was offered the role of King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. Years ago I might have sneered at theatre, but now I really respect the way theatre people look out for each other. I made some great pals there, but the show never happened - money pulled plug.

All you can do is laugh at this sort of stuff. Comedy is the best way to deal with the up close and personal issues and the things which can run you down. Clowns who speak truth are a great way of dealing with what the world throws at you. Look at the cover of the new CD, every culture has one of these clown figures who keeps people honest.

It looks like a Hopi Koshare

Yeah that's where some of the inspiration came from, but the tricksters are in almost every culture and it was supposed to reflect that. Of course you can see its wearing my shoes. (laughs)
Cover What The World Needs Now PiL.jpg
Title of the new album - What The World Needs Now - aside from another fuck off as you say in "Shoom". What does the World need now?

Everybody has an answer to that, fill out the postcards and send them to the appropriate person. That song is a requiem for my father who died a couple of years before we did the recording. He knew how to annoy people and get them thinking and make them laugh at the same time. I was trying to reflect what that was like. Some of the language in this song might bother some people, but we were working class and this was how we spoke. We used every word in the dictionary, except the Latin ones. (laughs)

I'd like to ask you about some of the other songs on the new album starting with "Double Trouble". I remember you writing something in Anger Is And Energy (His recently published autobiography) about fixing a toilet which features in the song's lyrics?

Yeah, that was some of the inspiration for the song. Its a discussion on domestic issues. How if there's no humour when you're dealing with stuff it can bring resentments further on down the line. Little things can affect you in a much larger way. But's a matter of learning self control and stop trying to control. Sometimes an irrational argument is the most powerful tool in a relationship as it allows you to see how ridiculous you're being.

I am my own worst critic. I want to be right in the world. Get away from the world of snakes - I don't need to be part of lies. Story of my life - I don't like lies. Comes from my illness when I lost my memory and had to rely on adults to tell me what the truth was. When my memories returned I could tell who lied and who had told me the truth.

History is my favourite subject and I've loved reading about stuff like the American Civil War. But I found out that much of what I've read hasn't been completely honest. The stuff in so many books covers over opinions. I've taken to reading letters people wrote to each other during the time period I'm interested in - gives you a much clearer idea of the reality of a situation.
Pil Small.jpg
PiL is in the process of not lying to each other which makes for a healthy work lab. Eliminates ego when you know people are going to call you on shit. Nothing to hide and nothing to fear.

C'est La Vie? There's something troubling and sad about this song - where did it come from?

It's a song of regret, a sad song. Sometimes I go through those periods in my life and I have to respect them. I don't want to push them under the carpet. It's important to be able to see yourself for who you are, to be properly introspective..

"The One", what's that about?

Teenage angst, feelings of anxiety, septic spots on the face and all that. Its me sharing my spotty moments. Musically it reminded me vaguely of glam rock which makes sense as I came of age during glam rock. Hey did you know T-rex is British street rhyming slang for sex? Mark Bolan was really smart and funny. All the girls were dancing to the music and I'd try and be cool and come across as a fool. Imagine a rap group now a days doing a song about feeling insecure.?

I used to really like rap in the late 70s - Grand Master Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, but now...

Yeah me too - did a song ("World Destruction" in 1984) with Afrika and became friends with him. (long for song title)

I was really impressed by your enunciation and vocal range on this release.

I've always been one to properly emphasize my words. While some might think I exaggerate I don't like singers who mumble. I don't want to listen to mush and if I don't want to listen the lyrics become irrelevant. What's the point of a song if that happens?

In Anger is an Energy you describe your songwriting process when you were with the Sex Pistols, free form improvisation/stream of conscience as the music inspired you. Have you changed this in anyway or do you still work in the same way?

I tend not to write down a lot in advance, write most of what I sing in the studio. Panic and stress of the situation bring out the lyrics. Somebody will drop an instrument and it will inspire something, a phrase will inspire a song. Don't fantasize in songwriting. try to keep it real. When I first started with the Pistols I was writing about the politics of the time - and since then it's been whatever else I see disenfranchising people.

And then my thirty minutes were up. I could have kept on talking, mainly listening, to him for hours. I did briefly ask him about Malcolm Malaren, former Sex Pistol manager, right at the end, and all he would say was now Malcolm is dead he won't say anything about him - "It's not right to speak ill of the dead" - and regrets having done so previously.

John Lydon is one of those rare figures in public life who aren't afraid to speak their minds but who is also aware of the consequences of both their actions and words. He dedicated Anger Is An Energy to integrity, and the lasting impression you get coming away from talking to him is how important that is. Whether in his music or in his personal life Lydon is a man who cares about being as honest as possible no matter how much it hurts, especially with himself. We could use more people like him. What The World Needs Now will be released on September 4 2015 digitally, on CD and on vinyl.

(Article originally published at as Interview John Lydon -Truth and Integrity in Life and Music)

February 22, 2015

DVD Review: The Last Pogo Jumps Again

When people talk about the early days of punk rock London, England and New York City (NYC) always feature prominently in their conversations. CBGBs and Max's Kansas City in New York and the 101 in London are club names spoken of with almost as much reverence as the names of the musicians who made the venues famous. However, in 1976, about twelve hours north of NYC, across the border in Canada, the sleepy little city of Toronto, Ontario was starting to wake up and discover it wasn't just a cultural outpost for Europe and the US. In a country with no record labels of its own, where theatre performances were primarily touring road shows from England and the US and the only films being made were deliberately awful so they could be used for tax write offs by their investors, an explosion was needed to jump start its circulation.

That explosion was punk, and the epicentre was a few square blocks in the city's downtown core. From 1976 - 1978 the first wave of punk hit Toronto with all the grace and power of a beer bottle thrown from a fire escape exploding on the street below. Sure there were casualties, but the aftershocks sent reverberations through the cultural make-up of the city, and by extension the country, which helped to redefine the arts in Canada forever. Those who didn't live through the times, or even the six or seven years following them, might not realize the impact punk and its Do It Yourself ethos had on Canadian culture.

The documentary film, The Last Pogo Jumps Again (named for an infamous concert in 1978 called The Last Pogo which gathered a number of local bands together for a final two day blow out concert at the immortal Horseshoe Tavern after the owners balked at letting promoters book any more punk bands - it ended with the police shutting the bar and fans smashing the furniture) directed by independent directors and producers Colin Brunton and Kire Paputts does an amazing job of not only recreating the atmosphere of the times, but also in depicting the scene and its major players warts and all.
The Last Pogo Jumps Again Cover Art.jpg
Probably very few outside of Toronto have ever heard of Nazi Dog (Steven Leckie) and The Viletones, The Curse, The Demics, The Diodes, The Forgotten Rebels, Teenage Head, The B-Girls or many of the bands who appear in the film. A couple of them managed to attain some status beyond the city's borders; Martha and the Muffins were fortunate enough to sign with a British label. (The irony of having to buy a Toronto band's album as a British import was a sad commentary on the state of the Canadian record industry at the time) Those few bands, Teenage Head and The Diodes, who did manage to get record deals were screwed over by the industry. In spite of the former selling over a 100,000 copies of a single album, they never really made it big or any money.

Through present day interviews with former members of the various bands, the promoters who booked the spaces for them to play and various others who were part of the scene, the film makers chronicle the key years of 1976 - 78, punk's fermentation in Toronto. At three and a half hours (cut down from its original five) you'd think this movie would be over long, but you don't notice the time passing at all. The people, the subject matter and the way the movie has been pieced together pulls you in so beautifully you're completely involved with the story. For those of you who want even more, there's a DVD of special features included in the package which is the over 100 minutes cut from the film.

What makes the movie so fascinating, and so poignant, is the wonderful mix of personalities and people we meet. Some of them remain the defiant and witty selfs they were nearly forty years ago. They are still working on their own terms as artists but not hanging on to whatever brief glory they had in the past. They have obviously moved on with their lives but continue to draw upon the same creative energy which fuelled them in the beginning. Unfortunately others haven't been so fortunate. We see men who have obviously had their lives ravaged by booze and drugs. Guys who once lit up a stage and a room with their presence who now look like wrecks of their former selves.
Last Pogo Aftermath Horseshoe Tavern 1978.jpg
It's unfortunate because these were the men and women who were directly responsible for bands like Arcade Fire and The Metrics being able to forge careers. Without them there wouldn't have been an independent music scene in Canada. Back in the 1970s the major labels, CBS, RCA and the others, all had affiliates in Canada. However, none of them, save CBS, could sign a Canadian band without approval from head office in Los Angeles. While they might have all been signing New York punk bands, none of them were interested in Toronto. This forced most of the bands to form their own labels and produce their own records. Heck The Diodes even built their own club, The Crash & Burn, as there were almost no venues initially for the bands to play in.

One thing the documentary makes clear, is that the punk scene in Toronto wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful as it was without the men who became known as The Garys. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier got seriously into promoting music when they took over operation of a run down cinema on Toronto's main drag, Yonge St. In 1976 they booked The Ramones into The New Yorker for their first ever Canadian concert. They were followed by The Talking Heads, Wayne County, The Cramps and Tom Waits. When the New Yorker became too expensive, they moved onto the Horseshoe tavern and threw it open to local as well as international bands. They went onto to open The Edge, which continued to mix local talent with out of town groups like Gang of Four, B-52's, XTC and even Nico - former Velvet Underground singer.

However, concert promoters can only nurture a scene, they don't create it. Without the individuals who had the nerve to want more than what was on offer at the time and to do something about it, there wouldn't have been anything to promote. The Last Pogo Jumps Again delves into the heart of that scene and tells us the stories of the people who made it beat to its unique drum. The legacy of Toronto's punk scene can be heard and seen in everything from cover bands in Japan playing songs by Teenage Head, Nirvana's cover of a Viletones song and a thriving independent music and arts scene in Canada forty years later. As Steve Leckie says near the end of the movie, "Punk maybe dead but its still bleeding". You can buy this fascinating piece of music history through its web site's shop. Its worth every penny and more.

A version of this review first appeared at as The Last Pogo Jumps Again: Punk Toronto Lives)

November 3, 2014

DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders

It's been a long time since the hay-days of punk rock in New York City, and even a longer time since the original line up of the New York Dolls took to the stage. Yet that period, since the dolls formation in 1972 and the subsequent punk scene centred around the East Side of Manhattan starting in 1976, produced some of the most influential and controversial pop music artists of the late 20th century. One of the most enigmatic and talented figures of the era was the Doll's original lead guitar player, singer songwriter Johnny Thunders

Born John Anthony Genzale in 1952 he died under strange circumstances in a New Orleans Hotel on April 23 1991. Known for his heroin habit and hard living it has been generally assumed he died of a drug overdose. To those not familiar with his story Thunder's life and death can be dismissed as just another case of a rock and roller wasting his life and potential via a needle in his arm. However, as the documentary Looking For Johnny: The Legend Of Johnny Thunders from director Danny Garcia recently released on DVD and distributed through MVD Entertainment Group shows, there's more to his story than you'd think.

The documentary is the usual mix of interviews and archival footage we've all come to expect from this kind of film. However, director Garcia and his editing team have done a great job of seamlessly cutting the interviews and other footage to give us a chronological account of Thunders' life. They've also done an excellent job of establishing the background against which his early career played out against. New York City was a much different place in the 1970s and early 1980s than it is today. Close to bankrupt, crime riddled, Manhattan, especially its Lower East Side, was a haven for drug dealers and struggling musicians needing cheap housing. It was here, in old warehouses and cold water walk-ups the new music scene developed.
Cover Looking For Johnny DVD.jpg
As the movie follows Thunders' musical trajectory over the course of his life, from high school bands through his membership in the New York Dolls, the seminal punk band The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell and his attempts at a solo career, we learn how he was not only a dynamic performer, but also a prolific and accomplished song writer. As his former bandmate in The Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain says when talking about arguably Thunders' best known song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory", when someone like Bob Dylan says they wish they wrote a song, you know its great.

However, even more importantly we learn how much he was loved and/or respected by those who knew him. While he might have careened through most of his adult life addicted to drugs, the majority of those interviewed in the movie only speak of how much he meant to them. Sure, he pissed them off at times, and he was impossible at other times, but they still stuck by him and remember him with affection and or sorrow. The impression we are left with is of a vulnerable individual who was his own worst enemy, but was deeply loved in spite of his faults.

While there is no escaping the fact drug and alcohol abuse was responsible for killing his potential for a financially successful career, there's also no denying the influence he had on popular music. He might never have achieved fame in North America save as an underground star, he toured extensively through-out Europe and Japan both as a member of his various bands and as a solo act and his music influenced everyone from The Sex Pistols to Morrissey. Any question you might have about Thunders' abilities will be laid to rest by the archival footage of his solo acoustic performances. There is something so incredibly raw and vulnerable about the sight and sound of him standing on stage with his guitar it can bring tears to your eyes.

When he was able to open himself up to his music, rid himself of the demons which tormented him and drove him into the arms of addiction, he shone with the light of true inspiration. It would be easy to dismiss Thunders as another example of a great talent gone to waste through the deprivations of drugs and alcohol, but as the movie makes clear his death was more than a case of another guy simply overdosing. Garcia and his crew were able to obtain a copy of the coroner's report on Thunders' death and it puts things in an entirely different light as it indicated his body showed all the signs of him being in the later stages of leukaemia.
Johnny Thunders sm.jpg
Interviews with friends who saw him in the months leading up to his death confirm they were worried about his health. He had admitted himself to a detox centre and was on a methadone program in an attempt to get himself clean, yet he looked to be sicker than ever. Phyllis Stein, the former partner of his long time friend and fellow Doll and Heartbreaker, the late Jerry Nolan, talked about the last time Nolan saw Thunders before he left New York City for New Orleans. She says Nolan came home shaken and described Thunders as being covered with bruises where there shouldn't have been any. Stein then tells us how her mother had died of leukaemia when she was a child, and how in the later stages of the disease she displayed the same symptoms.

Yet in spite of knowing he was very sick, and probably knowing he was dying, from all accounts Thunders was doing his best to get clean. Instead of doing his best to continue with his seemingly endless quest to escape reality, he seems to have in the end resolved to at least attempt to meet his death face on. Nobody knows for sure what happened the night he died in a New Orleans hotel. The police never looked into why his room had been picked clean of all his money and possessions, or why riga-mortis had frozen him in a foetal position when they finally found him. They just dismissed it as another junkie death.

As Searching For Johnny - The Legend of Johnny Thunders makes perfectly clear, Thunders was more than just another junkie. Nearly 25 years after his death he is still remembered and talked of fondly by his friends and those he played music with. Music he wrote more than thirty years ago is still being played and sought out around the world. You might not be able to put your arms around a memory, but this movie helps to keep the memory of Johnny Thunders alive and reminds us of what he meant to both popular music and those who loved him. If you've never understood what all the fuss is about, watch this movie and it will give you at least a glimmer of understanding into the life and times of one of rock and rolls' great talents. If you did know of him, or know him, watching this movie will break your heart all over again.

(Article first published at as DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders)

December 14, 2013

Music Review: The Clash - Special Edition Releases

I remember a conversation I had with my brother when I was a teenager. He asked me if I thought I would still be listening to any of the music I liked then when I was 50. At the time it seemed like it was an eternity in the future, our parents weren't even that age. However, it did make me think. What would happen to my tastes in music as I aged? Looking at my parents record collections didn't bring me much solace as it was predominately classical music with a couple of token collections of old socialist/union songs.

As the years passed I forgot the conversation and never really gave it much thought again. My musical tastes have broadened and I listen to material from all over the world. I've come to appreciate the sublime beauty of a Brahms concerto but am equally moved by classical music from Persia (Iran) and India. However, like most everyone else these days, a quick glance through my iPod's playlist is probably the best indication of where my heart really lies. While you'll find an eclectic mix of music reflecting my various interests, you'll also notice a predominance of music from thirty to forty years ago, with one band in particular standing out among the others.

In their heyday The Clash were referred to as "The Only Band That Matters". While that may not be a title any band can legitimately lay claim to I listen to them today at 52 just as often and with as much enjoyment as I did over three decades ago. I still say the best rock and roll concert I ever saw was seeing them in 1982. They might have been on the downward end of their career as a band, but they were still the most dynamic rock and roll band I'd ever seen. This may sound like the typical nostalgia of an old geezer going on about the bands of his youth, but I'm not the only one who thinks they were important as Legacy Recordings has just re-released all five of the band's original studio recordings re-mastered by the band's surviving members and in their original album packaging.
Cover The Clash sm.jpg
The Clash (1977), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) are the legacy of the original core of the band: Joe Strummer guitar and vocals, Mick Jones guitar and vocals and Paul Simonon bass. Terry Chimes (credited on the first album as Terry Crimes) played drums on the first release and returned to the band for their 1982 tour after Topper Headon, who had replaced him on drums for all the subsequent albums, was fired because of his heroin addiction. Crimes then left the band again prior to 1983 and was replaced by Pete Howard for what would be the final tour. Strummer fired Jones in 1983 and the band staggered on until 1986, releasing Cut The Crap (an album Strummer later disowned) before they finally broke up.

In many ways The Clash were the epitome of the punk scene. They were raw energy which couldn't be contained and eventually self-destructed like the scene itself. Punk's "do it yourself" ethos couldn't stand up to the corporate reality of the music industry as even signing a recording contract would mean surrendering some of your independence. Becoming successful would almost contradict everything punk was supposed to have been against - the bloated self-importance of rock stars living in old castles and driving around in Rolls Royces while their fans were kept at a distance by managers, promoters and record companies.

However, The Clash weren't your typical punk band, or band of any kind for that matter. Strummer, the driving force behind the band, was a committed social activist who idolized political songwriters of the past like Woody Guthrie - even calling himself "Woody" for a time. While bands like the Sex Pistols were singing songs about anarchy and destruction, Strummer pushed The Clash in a different direction attacking what he saw as the inequities and injustices in Britain and the world. Songs like "White Riot", about riots by white supremacists during the West Indian celebration of Carnival in 1976, "I'm So Bored With The USA", condemning the Americanization of the UK, and "Career Opportunities" about the lack of real employment for young people in the UK, on The Clash were an early indication of the direction the band was taking. Instead of just being angry, they articulated the reasons for people's dissatisfaction.

There were also indications right from the start they were going to be more than just your average thrash and burn punk band musically as well. Their cover of "Police and Thieves" shows both Jones' and Strummer's interest in reggae. The social and political themes continued on the second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, as did the continued development of a more sophisticated sound. While there are still straight ahead blast the walls down punk songs like "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun" there were also tracks like "Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad" with its slower pace and more intricate harmonies and "All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)" whose almost catchy beat is only offset by the song's rather bleak chorus, "All the young punks/Laugh your life/Cos there ain't much to cry for/All the young cunts/Live it now/Cos there ain't much to die for".
Cover Give 'Em Enough Rope sm.jpg
It was their third and fourth albums, London Calling and Sandinista, when the band really kicked out the jams both musically and lyrically. London Calling, a two album set, featuring songs like the title track, "London Calling" and "Waiting for The Clampdown" continued the band's assault upon the establishment. However, it also featured songs which were far sophisticated then any other punk band had previously attempted. Jazz, rockabilly, and reggae influences could be heard on songs throughout the album. However, it still retains the same sense of urgency and social outrage which had infused the first two albums making it punk in spirit if not necessarily musically.

Those who felt The Clash were straying too far from the basic punk structure of three chords played extra fast with London Calling discovered they hadn't seen anything yet with the release of the triple LP Sandinista. While the album's title, and songs like "Washington Bullets", with their support of the overthrow of the American dictatorship in Nicaragua by the left wing Sandinistas, made it obvious their politics hadn't changed, musically the material was light years removed from the material on the first two albums and even made London Calling look safe. They went in almost every musical direction possible. From the straight ahead funk of "The Magnificent Seven" to their homage to Motown with "Hitsville UK" and experimentation with reggae dub style music.In fact most of side six are dub versions of other songs on the album and songs they had previously released which they recorded in Jamaica with producer Micky Dread. They even did their version of a gospel tune, "The Sound of Sinners", although its lyrics would have left most Christians gasping and reeling, "After all these years/ To find Jesus/After all those drugs/ I thought I was him".

They also showed they had developed a surprising amount of political sophistication on this release as they didn't limit themselves to easy political targets in order to score points with the converted. They tackled the thorny issue of England's neglect of those who fought in her wars in the past with "Something About England". While the title "Washington Bullets" would make one think the song was only about America's history of propping up dictators, the band also included lines in the song like, "Ask the Dali Lama up in Tibet/ How he feels about voting communist". They also were the first band to sing about how Western commercialism was impacting the developing world with the biting and satirical "Charlie Don't Surf".

Sandinista may not have appealed to those fans who thought the band should have stayed firmly stuck in the past playing the same music they had started out with. However, unlike many bands who had put out three album sets before, each disc remains, interesting to this day. You can't find anything you would even remotely call filler or wasted space anywhere. The band also insisted their label at the time charge no more than the price of a regular single album when it was first released, ensuring everybody would be able to afford to buy it. This combined with their continued refusal to conform to anyone's expectations musically and their insistence on sticking to their political guns marked them as punks in attitude and spirit.
Early Clash.jpg
While Combat Rock might have been their most commercially successful album, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and "Rock The Casbah" are the two songs you'll hear played most often on "Classic Rock" radio stations, to my mind it was their weakest album and the one I've listened to the least. Although still far more interesting than what most bands were putting out at the time, there was something about the disc which felt almost half-hearted. Maybe it's only applying 20/20 hindsight, but when the news came out that Mick Jones had been fired from the band in 1983, it didn't come as much of a surprise. It had really felt like the band was only going through the motions and the end was near.

The Clash released five albums during the five years the band contained the core of Strummer, Jones and Simonon. Not only does that work out to an album a year, two of those recordings were multi-disc releases making a total of eight albums. They also released a couple of EPs of material they weren't able to fit on other recordings. Listening to these five albums more then thirty years after their release it's amazing to hear the amount the band progressed in such a short time. Musically and lyrically they singlehandedly redefined punk rock by showing it could be more than the simplistic sound of bands like The Ramones or the pure anarchy of The Sex Pistols. They were one of the few bands who demonstrated punk was more than just a style of music, it was an ethos. Speaking out against injustice, spitting in the eye of authority and always playing by your own rules. Which is probably why I can still happily listen to anyone of their albums at the ripe old age of 52. It's not a matter of recapturing my youth, it's a matter of reminding myself what's important. For me, they will always be The Only Band That Matters.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: The Clash Special Edition Releases. A version of this review was also published at as Music Review The Clash - 'The Clash', 'Give 'Em Enough Rope', 'London Calling', 'Sandinista' and 'Combat Rock' [Remastered])

November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film

When people talk of the genesis of punk rock they usually refer to bands like Television, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the ones at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes it seems like the music sprung out of nowhere, as if all of a sudden people like Richard Hell, John Lyndon and Joe Strummer came up with the idea our of thin air. While these bands and individuals were vital to the genre's success and their role in its history can't be denied, there were others who laid the groundwork for what would become punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the recently deceased Lou Reed are the names mentioned most frequently as being their inspiration.

However, a new documentary movie by acclaimed director Julien Temple, Oil City Confidential, distributed in North America by MVD Entertainment Group, tells the story of a band whose contributions have largely been forgotten, but who probably had just as much influence on the punk scene as any of those mentioned above, Dr. Feelgood. Temple has made a career out of charting the history of British punk through a series of documentary movies including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols and The Future is Unwritten about Joe Strummer, so he's not someone's who opinion you can dismiss lightly.

While a version of Dr. Feelgood continues to exist and tour today, it was the original line up and the period between 1971 and 1977 which concern us and Temple's movie. However, Temple does more than just focus on the story of a band and rock and roll, he creates the context for both their birth, character, success and failure. Employing the band's original guitarist, Wilko Johnson, as a kind of tour guide and oral historian, Temple sets the stage for their beginnings by taking us back to the land of their birth, Canvey Island. Thirty miles east of London in the county of Essex, Canvey Island is located offshore in the Thames River. While a type of holiday resort for Londoners in the early part of the 20th century, 1936 saw the construction of the first oil terminal in the region and since then refineries and terminals have sprouted up like boils until they now cover the landscape.
Cover Oil City Confidential.jpg
So when the band (Aside from Wilco members included The Big Figure (John Martin) drums, John B Sparks bass and Lee Brilleaux (Lee Collinson) vocals, harmonica and occasionally slide guitar) formed in 1971 the smokestacks of gas refineries and the huge oil storage tanks dominated the landscape. As the oil business loomed large in the life of those from Canvey Island, so Canvey Island loomed large in the development of Dr. Feelgood. In order to establish what the island meant to these four guys and how it figured in the character of the band, Temple spends a portion of the movie telling us the history of the island.

Using archival footage dating back to pre-WW II we learn the island had a wild reputation. It was a place where you went to do things you wouldn't do back home. Loose women, booze, gambling - almost anything went on Canvey Island. In 1953 the below sea level island suffered its worst recorded disaster when it flooded killing 58 people and forcing a great deal of the population to be evacuated. The flood hit the tourists areas, including the amusement parks and holiday camps, hardest as they were closest to the Thames. Following the flood a new concrete flood wall was built. As a result the island now closely resembles pictures you see of fortified beaches in France during WWII as its completely surrounded by concrete.

Interspersed with the history of the Island we learn the history of the four original band members and how they found each other. Brilleaux had formed a jug band when he was a teenager. They would take their instruments around in an old baby pram to various tourist spots and pubs and set up outside and busk for some extra cash. Temple has unearthed some great footage of them wheeling a pram piled high with instruments as they head out to gigs. However, it was the blues and R&B Brilleaux really wanted to play. So he, Sparks, and Martin approached the older Wilco - he'd actually been a teacher in the local school- who'd they heard played guitar to join them.

As Temple reminds us pop music in the early 1970s in the UK was dominated by progressive rock groups playing longwinded synthesizer pieces which had nothing to do with rock and roll. It would seem to have been the worst time in the world to form a band who wanted to play down and dirty blues and R&B based music. However, it was also the time when pubs in London were just starting to book bands. So instead of having to book venues, bands were cramming themselves into whatever corner of a pub they could fit and playing for a crowd who was right in their face.

Dr. Feelgood, dressed in cheap suits, looking a little like low rent gangsters, and playing their raw blues and R&B were very much the antithesis of the progressive rock bands on the radio. They'd climb into their old beat up van after work and drive the 30 odd miles to London to play a gig and at the end of the night make the return journey. When describing this juncture of their career, Temple intercuts current interviews with members of the band with footage from black and white British crime movies. In doing so he creates the atmosphere surrounding them in those early days. They, like the criminals in the movies, were making smash and grab raids on London before retreating to their hide out on Canvey.
Dr Feelgood.jpg
Watching footage of the band playing live there's a definite element of menace to their stage presence. Brilleaux looms over the centre of the stage, a large figure hunched over his microphone while Wilco glides around stage playing his guitar with his eyes boring into the audience like he's sizing them up for his next victim. In a brief clip Richard Hell of Television sums up by saying about Wilco something along the lines of "He had this whole crazy stare which was awesome." Hell wasn't the only one impressed by the band. During their times playing the pubs in London, people like John Lydon and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer were catching their act.

While you might think it hyperbole before you see the movie, Temple's description in his notes accompanying the DVD of Dr. Feelgood being John The Baptist to Johnny Rotton's Anti-Christ, is quite accurate. They were the initial tremor foreshadowing the shockwave of punk in England. Even if they didn't have the same status in New York City, they were treated as fellow travellers and compatriots when they played there in 1976.

Unfortunately, by then Wilco was starting to fall off the rails. He had been the band's primary songwriter on their first two albums and when it was time to go into the studio for the third album, he had nothing. He was isolated from the rest of the band by his use of drugs and not being a drinker. When he was supposed to be writing songs he was merely sitting in a room doing drugs. He's completely candid about his behaviour today, and how it caused him and Brilleaux to fall out. As Wilco says, there's always one guy in the band who falls in love with being a rock star when they first start achieving success, and he was the guy in Dr Feelgood.

Temple has created some of the finest documentaries about punk rock ever made. They don't just do a good job of capturing their subject matter warts and all, they allow audiences to understand the context which created the music and how the various individuals developed. With Oil City Confidential he has not only created a movie which captures the spirit of the times and tells the story of the band, Dr. Feelgood, he has created a movie whose form itself is a tribute to the anarchic nature of punk.

One thing you'll notice during the movie the interviews done in the present never have all four original members of the band together. This isn't because of any lasting acrimony between them, it's because Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994. The interview footage of him has been taken from a BBC interview done in the early 1990s. As well as other clips not included in the movie, one of the bonus features included with the DVD is this interview in its entirety.

Dr. Feelgood's original line up put out three studio albums, Down By The Jetty (January 1975 ) Malpractice (October 1975) and Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) and one live album, Stupidity (1976), which went to the top of the UK Charts. Their hay-day may have only lasted three years and four recordings, but their place in the history of rock and roll and pop music can not be underestimated. Would punk rock in England have happened without them? Of course it would have. However, without them there wouldn't have been an audience ready and waiting for the bands who came after. As the film shows they set the table for others to reap the rewards of fame. Hopefully Oil City Confidential will help ensure the names Lee Brilleaux, Wilco Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure will now be remembered and given their due place in the annals of pop music.

(Article first published at as DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film)

June 28, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride

The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac's On The Road to quasi philosophical works like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America's love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover its a country whose identity changes from region to region.

While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces singer song writer Willie Nile's latest release, American Ride, on Loud and Proud Records not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile's personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he's made during the course of his journey.

Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, "This Is Our Time", exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn't exactly original. However, as with all of Nile's songs intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
Cover American Ride Willie Nile.jpg
Yet Nile isn't blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn't sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. "Holy War" is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because it's God's will his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, "God's holy, your not". It's not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.

Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, "God Laughs". In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. "God laughs, God cries, God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes, God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he's God". Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they do they're missing the point. Nile's God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we're created in his image, doesn't that mean we and He reflect each other?

While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, "American Ride", has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his "American Ride". Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there's also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. "Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as any where to make our stand/Some might say it's all a dream/Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/You're untamed beauty got me on my knees".

His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he's not blind to the country's less than noble past or the problems it still hasn't been able to solve. However, that doesn't mean he can't see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country's people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile's ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says "my country right or wrong".

Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what's basically a traditional folk song, "The Crossing". As you journey through this album you'll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.

Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it's easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you'll realize there's more to his material then what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful as at first listen they sound rather straight forward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song's theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn't try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what's being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan.jpg
Like the great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straight forward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight from the heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers.Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they're always going to be truthful.

American Ride is the latest instalment in Nile's recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It's been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there's still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride)

(Photo Credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)

May 22, 2013

Music Review: Pinata Protest - El Valiente

Prior to the Internet most of us wouldn't have any idea of what was going on musically in the city two hundred miles away from us let alone across the continent. Now with bands having access to You Tube and sites like Soundcloud allowing them to post music on line for audiences around the world to hear you can be living in the Yukon and listen to a bar band from Southern California. While this means bands who can now reach people around the world it doesn't necessarily mean they will become any more popular or well known because of it. Faced with the work of having to sift through thousands of hours of music on line, sorting the gems from the dross, most people will elect to stick with what they already know.

As a critic I receive countless press releases each day regarding bands of all genres from all over the world. To be honest if I don't already have an interest in what's being promoted it will take something quite extraordinary to prevent me from hitting the delete button on my email program let alone requesting a copy of a CD. Reviewing anything is a sizeable investment of time and energy which I'm not about to expand lightly. However, once in a while I'll get a feeling a band might be something special and request a copy of their disc. Such was the case with the newest disc from the San Antonio based Pinata Protest, El Valiente, released by Saustex Media and Cosmica Records.

Maybe it was the words, accordion fronted punk rock band which attracted my attention, or the fact they supposedly combined the raw energy of punk with the music of their Chicano heritage. Whatever it was I'm glad I took a chance on listening to these guys. Front man Alvaro Del Norte, vocals and accordion, J. J. Martinez, drums, and twin brothers Marcus and Matt Cazares on bass and guitar respectively have created some sort of perfect alchemy which allows them to inject the anarchy and berserker tendencies of punk into traditional Latino music. The results are an odd mixture of four guys having a really good time creating musical havoc and pointing a not so subtle middle finger at American stereotypes of Hispanic culture.
Cover El Valiente Pinata Protest.jpg
Being from the northern reaches of North America not only don't I speak a word of Spanish I couldn't tell the difference between norteno and conjunto if you paid me. Probably the closest you can get to a Latino cultural experience in Eastern Ontario, Canada where I live is whatever is on the menu of the local plastic "Mexican American" franchise eatery. My only exposure to Latin music has been whatever has managed to seep into American pop music courtesy of people like Willy DeVille, seeing Tito Puente the one time I was in New York City and the cliches which show up in television cartoons. Of course, like anyone else, I can recognize a Mariachi tune when it hits me in the face, but otherwise the music and the history is as alien to me as if were from another planet.

However, none of this prevents me from recognizing Pinata Protest is doing something special. Maybe it's the fact an accordion features in both band's sound, but one of my first impressions was these guys are a Latino version of Irish punks The Pogues. If anyone ever doubted there was a cultural connection between the Spanish and the Irish listen to a song from each band right after each other and you'll be amazed at the similarities. It's not just because both bands have taken traditional folk music and ramped them up to warp speed or even the in your face attitude they share. Listening to Pinata Protest you're as liable to want to dance a crazed jig a la Lord of the Dance on speed as anything else.

It's not who they sound like though which makes these guys great. It's what they do with their sound which blows me away. First of all they might play fast, loose and loud, but they are also incredibly tight. While Del Norte is pummelling the accordion and letting loose with rapid fire vocals - unless you listen closely there are times when you can't tell if he's singing in Spanish or English - bass, drums and guitar are laying down the solid foundation required to keep the music from descending into chaos. They do their job so well even at the speed they are playing you are able to distinguish the differences between their music and straight ahead punk.
Pinata Protest 1.jpg
I may not be able to tell one type of Latin music from another or be conversant with the varieties of traditional Mexican folk music, but I can tell when the melodies and rhythms a band are using for the basis of their sound aren't typical blues based rock and roll. In the case of Pinata Protest the band does an amazing job of ensuring whatever flavour of music they happen to be interpreting is never lost in their chaotic presentation.

As for their lyrical content I had to rely on Del Norte's ability to communicate intent through vocal inflections and the way in which he sang the songs on the disc rather than listening to what he was saying. Thankfully his voice, well rough, is also remarkably expressive. Whether he's singing in Spanish or English it doesn't make a difference for he is able to modulate his tone and his delivery in such a way as to ensure listeners get the general idea of what he's trying to communicate. In part I think this is because he's most concerned with ensuring his audience remembers the purpose of popular music is to inject a little anarchy into our lives. If you think of his vocals as another instrument, and not worry about what he's saying, it's hard not to let yourself get caught up in the wild fun of what you're listening to.

However, that doesn't preclude the band's music from occasionally having a rather pointed message. There's probably never been a song more associated with American stereotypes of Latinos than "La Cucaracha". Pinata Protest perform a version of this song done at the speed of light and with a snarl that turns it into declaration of defiance and anger. It's like they're daring you to think of them as cute little sombrero wearing mice. This is one mouse who isn't going to be pushed around by anyone any more. Watching the video for this tune will not only give you a good idea of what I mean, but it's a quick introduction to the band and their sound.

El Valiente is the name used to refer to the masked Mexican wrestlers, but it also loosely translates as the valiant one. Pinata Protest's music may or may not be valiant, but it sure as hell is strong, powerful and a whole lot of fun to listen to. For those used to a diet of the Serena Gomez's and the plastic world of Chi Chi's, this might be a little hard on the digestion. But if you've got the stomach for something hot, spicy and spiked with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle, you're in for a treat.

(Article first published as Music Review: Pinata Protest - El Valiente on Blogcritics)

May 14, 2013

Music Review: I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House - Mayberry

The idea punk rock and country music could find common ground must seem pretty unlikely to most fans of popular music. However, it shouldn't really be too much of a surprise. If you think back to the early days of rock and roll when the music was still a hybrid of country and blues. Rockabilly was simple three chord music which captured the imagination of young people because it was different from anything that had come before. It was music stripped down to the basics usually played by three to four musicians. It was fast and furious, full of energy and didn't sound like anything anybody's parents were listening to.

The 1970s saw rock and roll becoming a big business. Its rebellious nature had long since been tamed and neutered and the music was now safe for mass consumption. So when punk came along with its whiff of anarchy and revolution all wrapped up in three minute three chord songs, a new generation of rebellious teenagers had something they could call their own. It definitely wasn't the music their parent's listened to. It was raw, powerful and in your face in a way music hadn't been in years. However, you didn't need to look very closely to see the similarities between it and what had come out of Sun Records in the 1950s. Three or four musicians playing stripped down music at speed.

While the folks in Nashville might not like it, but Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis have more in common with Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer than any of the rhinestone set who appear on stage at the Grand Ole Opry these days. Thankfully there are still some bands out there who understand this connection and one who I've just come across now are the in your face named I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House. While the band's name might lead you to believe they're a bunch of good ole boy red necks who sing about the joys of bar fights and moonshine, listening to their soon to be released new CD, Mayberry, quickly dispels that impression.
Cover Mayberry I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House.jpg
Musically they're a hard driving rock and roll band who mix the earthiness of country with the anger and danger of punk. Their line up might resemble your average blues based rock and roll bar band; lead singer/guitarist (Michael Dean Damron) harmonica (David Lipkind) drums (Flapjack Texas) bass (Mole Harris) and second guitar (Jon Burbank), but you only have to hear one song to know they are not your average anything. In fact, it's pretty safe to say average would take one look at these guys and run away screaming with its tail between its legs.

It's not that their music is abrasive or they look particularly odd - no noticeable piercings, strange clothes or any of the so called badges of punk to be seen among them - but their lyrics will make quite a number of people uncomfortable. Starting with the opening and title track of the disc, "Mayberry", and with a only a couple of exceptions, each of them has something to say about the state of life in the United States, and the world, which doesn't jibe with the vision espoused by the family values/ National Rifle Association crowd.

The title of "Mayberry" is a reference to the name of the town in the old Andy Griffith Show but it's sure not a song of praise for small town rural America. Contrasting the idealized world of the television show with reality depicts the breadth of the gap between fact and fiction. "I saw my mama get beat again/he put her head right through the door/daddy always cleaned his guns in front of me/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/They don't make men like Andy Griffith any more/Mayberry is dead and gone"

If "Mayberry" doesn't raise people's hackles, and maybe it could be construed as wishing for a gentler, kinder America, which only ever existed in the minds of television executives and conservative politicians, there's no mistaking what's being said in "Bones", the disc's sixth track. "Go on now tell me about religion/why we all choose a side/got our flags and our weapons/tell me why so many die in your name/in your name.../we're all just bones in the end/all just bones". Of course some people may not be able to get past the first verse of the song where Damron address God directly without having an apoplectic fit, "If I'm made in your image/don't want to be a bit like you anymore/anymore".
I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House.jpg
The thing is, unlike other bands Damron and company aren't trying to shock people. No there's something far more powerful at work here. These are songs about disillusionment with the bullshit we're all fed about country, god and whatever way of life is espoused by the politicians in your neighbourhood. Sure he's singing about America, because that's where he lives, but the lyrics could apply to any country, any religion and any political system on the face of the earth. However, what makes them so potent is you come away from listening to their songs left with no doubt as to their sincerity.

Even a song like "My Guitar", a basic praise song to those musicians who influenced Damron, escapes being the sentimental tripe these types of things normally turn out to be. In part this is due to the style of music the band plays. Rough hewn rock and roll with its country and blues roots showing and not an overdub or electronic sound to be heard. While there are plenty of bands who do the same thing, these guys bring something extra to the table which elevates their sound into something special. It's hard to describe in words, but maybe its how the music works in concert with the lyrics and Damron's voice and delivery which takes them out of the realm of merely being another bar band.

Damron has one of those voices which can only be described as raw passion. There's nothing refined or pretty about it. He strains and pushes to reach notes and his voice sometimes cracks with the effort involved in getting the words out. However, this is no artfully constructed artifice nor some sort of affectation. Each word sounds like its being dragged out of his heart and spat out with all the passion of his soul. He's one of those rare singers who sound truly possessed by the spirit of his music and the need to sing his songs. It wouldn't matter if there were ten people or 10,000 in his audience, you just know he would sound exactly the same.

Punk rock isn't necessarily a few people on stage playing as fast as they can and screaming incoherently into their microphones. It's about the willingness to do things your own way and express thoughts others might not be willing to say. Rock and roll in the 1950s was something threatening because it challenged the established notions of what constituted popular music and encouraged its audience to express themselves in ways their parents didn't approve. In the 1970s punk did much the same thing and tossed the social/political content of folk music into the mix.

I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House might not sound like we've been told punk is supposed to sound like. Yet the spirit, verve and sincerity they bring to their music makes it just as dangerous and frightening to those who value conformity as anything Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Sex Pistols or The Clash gave us. If that ain't punk, I don't know what is. While Mayberry won't be officially released until early June 2013 the band is selling copies of the disc at gigs from now until then. For details about upcoming shows where the disc will be for sale check the band's web site.

Photo Credit: Band photo by Jocelyn Dean

(Article first published as Music Review: I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House - Mayberry on Blogcritics.)

April 17, 2013

DVD Review: Repo Man - The Criterion Collection

Some movies don't age well. You see them twenty, thirty years after they were made and they feel dated. The plot doesn't work, the characters aren't relevant and because whoever was making the film was so conscious of being hip and cool everything sounds and looks out of date. In fact, that's what usually happens when the mainstream tries to capture the underground or outsider subculture on camera. They make something based on trends and fashion and didn't bother to go beneath the surface. However, when a movie is made where those involved understand what's happening in the world they are attempting to recreate on the screen and do their best to bring that to life, you end up with something enduring. It's not a good 80s film or a good punk film, its just a good movie.

A great example of a movie made during the early part of the 1980s that was part of a particular sub-culture and has stood the test of time is Repo Man. Just re-released in a brand new remastered edition as part of The Criterion Collection in a two disc special edition DVD set, the movie sparks with a life and creative anarchy you don't often see in a mainstream movie. It's a reminder of how there was a time when the words independent film meant small budget and experimental, not Hollywood patting themselves on the back at Sundance.

Directed by Alex Cox Repo Man is set in Los Angles of the early 1980s. Not the glamourous LA, or even the fake seediness of Sunset Strip, but the down and out of the dispossessed and directionless. The story follows a young punk, Otto(Emilio Estevez), as he stumbles through life failing at work and romance. A chance meeting with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) draws him into the world of repossession men. Bud takes Otto under his wing and teaches him the basics on how to survive in a job where they basically steal people's cars. If you miss more than three car payments chances are you'll wake up one morning to find your car has been repossessed by these erstwhile agents of finance companies.
Cover DVD Repo Man Criterion Collection.jpg
Into this world comes a mysterious Chevy Malibou. With a reward of $20,000 going to whomever manages to repossess the car it quickly becomes the focus of everyone's attention. Both the guys who work with Bud and a couple of mysterious dudes named the Rodriguez Brothers are after it for the reward. There's also a bunch of really obvious government agents, led by a female agent with a metal hand, who are going to stop at nothing in order to get their hands on it. When Otto meets a young UFO enthusiast, who is somehow mixed up with the car, she tells him it is carrying the remains of four aliens a scientist has snuck out of a secret American base. However it quickly becomes apparent what's in the car's trunk is a little more lethal than dead alien corpses.

While in a normal movie the car and its contents would quickly take over as the central focus. Either it would become some sort of race to save LA from whatever was in the car or about a couple of brave people trying to prevent the government from covering up some big secret or other. What we have is the Chevy Malibou careening its way haphazardly in and out of the action and only staying on our lead's radar because of the money its worth. For Bud it represents his ticket to independence and becoming his own boss. For Otto, well, we're never quite sure if it means anything to him. He likes the rush of stealing cars legally and doesn't seem to be thinking beyond that.

The movie depicts an America where all that matters is you make your payments on time. Credit is the glue holding society together Bud intones with great seriousness to his pupil Otto. To him its a sure sign of how badly America has stumbled when people run out on the money they owe. Driving past a street filled with down and outs, drunks and the homeless he wonders out loud how much money they owe and accuses them of running away from their responsibilities. "Most of them don't even use their Social Security numbers" he says to Otto. Of course he's ignoring the fact these people have fallen so far through the cracks it's doubtful they're ever going to be worrying about their credit rating ever again.

Ironically, while the movie is obviously set in a specific era, the message about the dangers of what happens when a society is encouraged to live beyond its means is perhaps even more resonant with audiences today then when it was originally released. With America still recovering from the fallout of overextended banks calling in loans and ruining thousands of people who were living far beyond their means, the picture painted of economic hopelessness is way too familiar. The music, the clothes and the hair styles may be close to 30 years old, but nothing much else has changed.

While previous editions of Repo Man, even those digitally remastered, haven't always been of the best quality that's not the case here. The movie lives up to Criterion's claims of having hand cleaned an original negative of the film prior to digitally to cleaning it up digitally in order to give viewers the highest quality images possible. Not only does it look great played through a home theatre system, it sounds great as well. The balance between soundtrack and dialogue is perfect as everything comes through crystal clear through a 5.1 surround sound system.
Emeilio Estevez & Harry Dean Stanton - Repo Man.jpg
The soundtrack itself is great. With the inestimable Iggy Pop having written the movie's theme song and bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks contributing numbers, its probably one of the most accurate representations of the LA punk rock scene of the early 1980s you'll hear on screen. The music also reflects the general anarchic nature of the film and helps propel listeners along for the ride.

The two disc package the folks at Criterion have put together for this release is much better than the usual special features accompanying films these days. Along with the newly remastered version of the film, disc one contains interviews done in 2012 with cast members and Iggy Pop talking about their memories of working on the film. Iggy Pop is his usual candid self, talking about how grateful he was to director Cox for giving him the gig considering the shape his career was in at the time. The second disc features Cox and his two producers talking about the process involved just trying to have the picture made and an interview with Harry Dean Stanton. Both of these were recorded in 2005 and included on an earlier reissue of the movie. The second disc also includes a version of the movie Cox cut for television. I guess that's there for the morbidly curious, but to be honest I can't see the attraction. I guess the only fun in watching it would be seeing how inventive they were able to be in finding replacements for dialogue not permitted on regular television.

The real treat among the extras is the booklet included with the set. Put together like the underground comics which flourished during the 1980s, it contains all sorts of goodies. One of my favourites is the couple of pages of Repo Man the comic book written and drawn by Cox. He claims to have given up on that project as it was easier to make a film than go to all the painstaking work involved with drawing a comic. The booklet is filled with anecdotes about the making of the moving, the actors and the musicians and is almost worth the price of the set on its own.

It's hard to believe watching Repo Man that it was made by Universal Studios. Not only does it feel more like an independent movie than most of the so called independent movies being made today, it epitomizes the spirit of free wheeling anarchic artistic creation I've always associated with punk rock. It's this latter detail which makes the movie as interesting to watch today as it was when it was first released. In spite of it being set in a very specific time and place there's nothing dated or antique about this film. So, kick back and get ready to enjoy the wild and weird ride and remember: "A repo man's life is always intense".

(Article first published as DVD Review: Repo Man - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012

I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

November 11, 2012

Music Review: Joe Stummer and The Mescaleros: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-G0 & Streetcore

It's been nearly ten years since Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect at the age of fifty. Born John Graham Mellor he took the name of Strummer just prior to joining Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in forming one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain's punk movement, The Clash. For six years they brought their politically charged combination of punk, reggae, ska, dub and pop music to the world.

In the all or nothing world of punk rock the band had remarkable longevity compared to most of their contemporaries. However, the departure of Jones as lead guitarist in 1983 marked the beginning of the end. Coupled with the lose of their drummer, Topper Headon, a year earlier to heroin addiction, the band was only a shadow of its former self. While Strummer and Simonon limped on with replacements on guitar and drums for another three years it just wasn't the same.
Rock Art And The X-Ray Style.jpg
For the next decade or so Strummer vanished from the public eye. He composed the soundtrack for a couple of movies, acted in a few others and stood in for Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues when MacGowan's drinking forced him out of the band. Yet when he returned to the world of pop music full time in 1999 it was with a vengeance. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were cut from the same cloth as The Clash playing high energy socially and politically conscious music. However, as the band's name implies, they were also far more a reflexion of Strummer's interests and taste than The Clash had ever been.

Over the course of three years and three albums the band's line up was constantly being shuffled with Strummer, Martin Slattery (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and Scott Shields (guitar and bass) being the only consistent members. However, this lack of a consistent line up doesn't seem to have had a negative effect on Strummer's creativity. Listening to Epitaph Records' newly reissued versions of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A GoGo and Streetcore you'll be amazed by both his ability to write in a multitude of musical genres and songs that were both meaningful and musically interesting to listen to.

While there are obvious similarities between Srummer's work with The Clash and The Mescaleros, these releases weren't an example of somebody trying to recreate the past. Instead this later body of work continues on and expands upon what he had begun to establish with the first band. Later Clash albums saw the band experimenting with different styles of musical expression. Living in London England Strummer was surrounded by people from all over the world, listening to an amazing variety of music, and couldn't help but be influenced by what he saw and heard around.

The first Mescaleros' disc, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, feels like it picks up where The Clash left off. The second last song on the original recording, "Yalla Yalla" has a groove which hints at Jamaican dub but without the heavy bass line. At the same time it has an urgency you'd never hear in reggae or any of its offshoots. It's hard to describe as on the surface the song ebbs and flows with an easy beat, but there's the feeling of a deeper current, a hint of danger, lurking just out of sight. Perhaps it's the sound of Strummer's singing voice, rasping out the lyrics, which gives these lines an added intensity. "Well so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show/not in my time/Not in my son's/And daughter's time."
Cover Globabl A GoGo.jpg
Even sung to the melodic tune of the song those are opening lines guaranteed to grab your attention. The tune almost lulls you into not noticing its a lament for the way so many wars fought in the name of freedom and liberty end up replacing one form of tyranny with another. Like all of Strummer's best work "Yalla Yalla" isn't just an issue song but is a commentary on human nature. Some might find his rather pessimistic take on the world, not giving it much of a chance of getting better anytime soon, as being a downer. However, given the state of the world in 1999 when this was written and the way things are now, I'd say he was pretty accurate in his assessment of what the future held for his kids and their generation.

Global A Go-Go saw the band's line up changed to include Strummer's old friend and musical mentor Tymon Dogg. While it might have been coincidence but this disc also saw their sound and vision become far more global. While the immediacy and intensity that was always characteristic of Strummer's music didn't change, the scope of the band's means of expression certainly expanded. In liner notes written for this reissue film maker Jim Jarmusch comments on the appropriateness of the disc's title: "Strummer's world wide musical influences and appreciation are certainly well known...Global A Go-Go deftly represents his outlook, his intuition, his enthusiasm, and his concerns."

Yet what continued to make Strummer's music special was the human qualities he was able to imbue his songs with. Not very many people could write a song extolling the virtues of multiculturalism, let alone write one that's as funny and cheerful as "Bhindi Bhagee". Simply by listing the variety of food and musical styles on offer in a neighbourhood he creates the image of a multitude of nations living side by side in harmony. "Welcome stranger to the humble neighbourhood/You can get inspiration along the highroad/Hommus, cous cous, in the jus of Octopus...Welcome stranger, there's no danger." Typical of Strummer the song has a point, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way.
Cover Streetcore.jpg
Strummer died before the release of the band's third album, Streetcore. Fortunately after a series of gigs in November 2002 the band had headed right into the studio and had recorded enough before he died the remaining band members, Simon Stafford, Luke Bullen, Shields, Slattery and Dogg, were able to finish it off and release it in 2003. This disc really shows the many and diverse musical directions Strummer was beginning to head in. From his reworking of an old British pop song from the 1950s, "Before I Grow Too Old", retitled here as "Silver and Gold", to his writing of "Long Shadow" in the hopes of it being recorded by Johnny Cash. It was the type of song that would have fit into Cash's repertoire seamlessly with its tale of a long struggle artistically couched in biblical terms. "Well I'll tell you one thing that I know/You don't face your demons down/you grab them by the collar/and you wrestle them to the ground."

Strummer ended up recording it with Smokey Hormel, Cash's guitar player. Also included on the disc was a recording he made of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" that he had made in Rick Rubin's studio (the man who produced and recorded Cash's "American" albums). It seems eerie that both Marley and Strummer recorded this song as solo acoustic numbers and in both cases it was released posthumously. However, in case you think these tracks were an indication of Strummer mellowing, the opening two cuts from the disc, "Coma Girl" and "Get Down Moses" will quickly disabuse of the notion. The first is a satiric look at the whole music festival scene while the second tells Moses he needs to come down from his mountain and check out reality before making his pronouncements.

As lead singer for The Clash Strummer had stardom and international acclaim thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. While there's no denying The Clash were a great band and Strummer did some incredible work with them, The Mescaleros and what he created for them was just as deserving of recognition. While they obviously didn't produce the same volume of material as his first band, what they did record was every bit as good as the best stuff The Clash ever made. Hopefully the reissuing of these three discs will ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-Go & Streetcore on Blogcritics.)

September 27, 2012

Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros -Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years

The performers I've always admired the most are the ones most willing to change and or experiment with the type of music they play. As far as I'm concerned it was a willingness to experiment that made Joe Strummer a cut above a lot of the musicians who had their start in the punk era of the 1970s . From his days as front man with the The Clash to his work with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros he never stood still musically. From mixing reggae and punk to utilizing Latin rhythms, he always pushed his music in new directions. However, one thing that stayed consistent throughout his career was the emotional commitment to social and political justice that motivated the majority of what he wrote.

A recent release from Epitaph Records, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years offers listeners a great opportunity to experience the extent of his musical diversity. Put together in commemoration of what would have been Strummer's 60th birthday (August 21 2012) its only available as a digital release. However it offers an almost complete retrospective of his career. For not only does it compile material from the three Mescaleros albums on the Hellcat Records label (Rock Art And The X-Ray Style,Global A Go Go and Streetcore) it also includes close to 25 bonus tracks consisting of b-sides, live material and dub versions of songs. While they are all played by the Mescaleros, they come from various times throughout his career, including covers of songs by The Clash, The Ramones and the Specials. The last 18 tracks are taken from a concert the band gave as a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union of London in 2002. Not only are there some wonderful live versions of Mescaleros songs in this concert, but it also contains new versions of some old Clash favourites.
Cover Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros The Hellcat Years.jpg
With 57 tracks in total this collection gives new meaning to the word comprehensive. However, what I find remarkable is that not only does it manage to demonstrate Strummer's musical diversity, it also captures the energy and emotion that made him so compelling. Even better, there are also tracks which show he could be a lot of fun as well. People can't focus on changing the world all the time, and Strummer was no exception. A great example of this is a live version of the old Specials song, "Rudi, A Message To You". He starts off by teasing the crowd, asking them which of them had owned a pork-pie hat (emblematic of ska music lovers in the 1980s) back in the day, and then leads them all in a sing-a-long of the tune. In fact he doesn't really have to do much leading, as the crowd starts singing of their own volition, he just has to encourage them.

"Rudi" is sandwiched between live covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and the Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop". The three were originally released as the b-side for the single of the Mescaleros' song "Coma Girl". Listening to those three tracks one right after each other is like listening to the different sides of Strummer all at once. There's the social political statement of "The Harder They Come" followed by the still political, but light hearted fun of "Rudi" and finally the raw anarchy/power of "Blitzkrieg Bop". From reggae to ska to power pop/punk without missing a beat - it's almost his career in a nutshell.

I say almost, because while those are aspects of what he was, he was also much more. Listen to his version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or to his 17 plus minute "Minstrel Boy" and you'll hear a completely different artist. With minimal musical accompaniment he sings the former as if its a heartfelt explanation of his motivations for making music. "So won't you help to sing/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/redemption songs/these songs of freedom/these songs of freedom". He sings it so simply and honestly it's hard not to think its his way of telling people what he's been trying to do all for all he years of his career..

On the other hand "Minstrel Boy" is an instrumental, one of the few if not the only one Strummer ever wrote outside of music he created for movie soundtracks. Aside from its novelty, as an instrumental, its interesting musically as well. It shares many similarities with a Celtic folk song including rhythm, atmosphere and instrumentation, but there's also something about it that makes it markedly different. First is its length of course, far longer than most folk songs, but even more important is what doesn't happen in the song. For while a great many of these types of folk songs (think of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and songs like that) celebrate or commemorate events in history and have a certain romanticism to them, "Minstrel Boy" doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. There's no mention of any great victories or tragic defeats for people to become worked up over, its just 17 plus minutes of almost slow dirge like music. It's like Stummer wants to remind everybody there's nothing romantic about war or killing people, no matter what the cause and no amount of stirring songs will change that fact.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros Backstage Rockplast.jpg
While the material on this collection includes songs Strummer wrote when he was with The Clash and covers of material from that time period, all of them were recorded with the Mescaleros. So that means you have Tymon Dogg playing violin on tracks like "Rudi, A Message To You" and the Clash's "Junko Partner" and breathing new life into them. Still, it's hard not to be stirred by the final three songs of the collection where Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for the first time since he left The Clash twenty years earlier. Hearing them tear through three classic Clash tunes, "Bank Robber", "White Riot" and "London's Burning" is a treat. Yet even then, the songs aren't just faithful copies of what had been done previously as the new band puts their own take on the material.

The concert at Acton Town Hall in London England from which these live tracks were taken was on November 15 2002 and turned out to be the second last live appearance Strummer would ever make. On November 22 2002 the Mescaleros played Liverpool and Strummer died of a congenital heart disease December 22 2002. Strummer was fifty years old when he died and there's no telling what he would have gone on to do if he had lived. The final Mescaleros recording, Streetcore, was released almost a year after his death in October 2003. As you can tell from the tracks included on this compilation it was classic Strummer. A mix of the hard driving and political; "Get Down Moses" and "Coma Girl", the introspective; "Redemption Song" and folk music; "Long Shadow", written for Johnny Cash and recorded with Cash's guitarist Smokey Hormel.

Joe Strummer is still probably best remembered as the lead singer of The Clash, but his career continued for almost fifteen years after they disbanded. The new digital only collection Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years is not only a compilation of material from his post Clash career, its a reminder he was much more than just a punk rocker. His work with the Mescaleros was as political and socially conscious as anything he did with The Clash but he also continued to take risks musically as he aged. It's probably about time his work in this second part of his career is recognized as being equally important as anything he did as a member of The Clash. If listening to this collection can convince even a hard core Clash fan like me of the truth of that statement, it should convince anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years on Blogcritics.)