The Asexuals got me kicked out of Wellington’s, one of Winnipeg’s sleaziest bars. I was sixteen and my brother-in-law lied for me but to no avail. So I bought their L.P., Be What you Want, and spent the next six months just listening.
Like me; the Asexuals’ John Kastner came to the (North) American hardcore party a tad late. By 1984 the movement was splintering. As a result the rather conservative Asexuals adopted an ultra-clean sound dominated by a metallic but tinny guitars, sing-along choruses, forced tempos and ill-considered socio-political lyrics. Perhaps, it was kind of a punk-lite sound like the one that NOFX and one-hundred thousand other Fat Wreck-Chords tainted bands would bleed dry well into the next millennium. However, the Asexuals made something of it all.
Their first single (get it here), from1984, was on Og Records (discussed ad nauseum here at MRML). Be What you Want (get it here), came out later that year and got good notices from places like Maximumrocknroll.
By the time I got past the hairless and tattooed behemoth that guarded the door at Smellington’s and actually got to see the Asexuals tear up the stage, they’d moved towards a more mid-tempo Husker Dü sound. In fact, I taped Husker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey and Contemporary World onto a cassette back-to-back and they mixed well. The album still trades in speedy, catchy vaguely-political punk songs like “Where Were You” and “Stop the City” but Kastner was hitting upon the sound that he’d soon hone.
Speaking of vague politics, let us pause to remember Bob Dylan’s anthem of generational revolt, “The Time s They Are-A-Changin’”, a song that in the master’s own hands has changed its meaning many times. In the scabrous early 80’s HxCx milieu that the Asexuals inhabited the song, despite its quasi-biblical language, became another “one-two-fuck-you” sorta song. I have my doubts the teenage Asexuals even listened to Dylan’s original before they recorded the version for Contemporary World (Modern Times anyone?). Their blueprint was clearly the version by The Wanderers, a band comprised of ¾ of Britain’s Sham 69 and ¼ of Cleveland, USA’s the Dead Boys (that 25% being front man, Stiv Bators). Despite their pedigree, the band's sole album sunk without a trace, rendering it a less than wildly influential work. Nonetheless, minus the jarring use of a string section, the Wanderers' basic arrangement (especially those backing vocals!) was clearly stolen wholesale by the Asexuals. Brazen musical theft? There’s a crime Bob himself would understand well.
The Decoy era of the MC4 was rounded out by the underwhelming Who Cares Wins, a model of the infamous Second Album Slump. While the 1990 album is much less apathetic than the title might indicate, it does still seem like the band is losing the battle with their own formula. It's hard to get a bead on the precise weakness here. This is still a band going full tilt yet their momentum is limited by a certain sameness of playing and production that occasionally marred even their greater work. Some of the songs, such as "No Such Place as Home", still soar high but something has come to an end. A re-invention was coming but that's a story for a future post.
For the fanatic Wiz-ite, here's a wee little bootleg called Extras that contains two tracks from a 1988 compilation called Undeground Rockers, the B-side to a late single (Android Dreams) and a cover of the Beatles' "A Hard Days Night".
The final single of the MC4's first and, possibly finest era (the Decoy era lasted till 1990) was actually a four-song e.p., referred to as either the There Goes My Happy Marriage e.p. or simply Finish. Side one's tracks, "Finish" and "Severance" seem marked by bitter resignation and workmanlike song-writing. Side two, however, contains the gracious but flat-out rocker that is "Thanx" and the haunting shape-of-pop-to-come ballad, "Square Through a Circle". It's like another brilliant MC4 single but with two outtakes attached.
On the 1989 single Awkward Kid, Wiz and co. moved closer to what the Brits call "bed-sit angst" ("naval-gazing" and "Morrissey" are possible synonyms) and the small-scale melodrama detracts a bit. Primary A-side "Awkward Kid" is a touch over-confessional ("Deep down I'm still an awkward kid... I'm as lost as I ever was before") but it still crams a lot of pop smarts into 1:54.
In "Cradle" the band's clingier, self-pitying side almost trumps what is still a pretty fair tune.
How many Number One Hits do you have to write before anyone bloody-well notices? For their their third single, 1989's Less Than Senseless, the MC4 again topped themselves to little commercial avail. In "Less Than Senseless" all the instruments seem to be battling Wiz's vocals for supremacy, as if the band applied metal legends Motorhead's mantra of "everything louder than everything else" to pop music. When that indelible chorus finally wins out, it's a great rush.
The next a-side is "Dancing Days are Over", an all-adrenalin 1:50 blast whose chorus echoes forties film dialogue, while its verses dissect a lost friendship ("It would be funny/If it weren't so sad").
Perhaps the shy humility of the band doomed them publicly. After all, the British music press' insatiable thirst for outrageous slurs is so strong that they continue to quote the Brothers Gallagher (Oasis), each of whom cannot construct a single slurred sentence without using some permutation of the verb to fuck as adjective, noun, verb or conjunction. For evidence of the the MC4's early awkwardness, see this interview and the accompanying video for "Occupation".
P.S. Speaking of the MC4's songs of rain and sadness, listen to the folk-punk-rock of "January", a fitting song if you're enduring an inclement January (mine involves -44 with the windchill and if you don't understand that say a little prayer of thanksgiving).
The MC4 grew stronger. Their second single, 1988's Clear Blue Sky is more frenetic than ever. On "Clear Blue Sky" Wiz lets the rain clouds depart for a host ringing guitars and an expansive chorus that just keeps building as the song winds up.
"Distant Relatives" is another song of sweet sorrow. While Wiz, with his vocals dominating the mix, laments the absence of his family, the chorus still cries out, "Don't ever leave me, Don't ever wander, don't ever let me slip away". A masterwork, only made sadder by Wiz's early passing.
Mega City Four played punk for rainy days. Loud songs of loneliness, betrayal and alienation may sound like like 21st century Emo but they're just common elements of the rain-soaked melancholy that affects much of British pop-punk from the Buzzcocks to the Zatopeks. Their American light wasn't the cartoon-punk of the Ramones but the feedback-soaked pop of Husker Du. (The MC4 in fact covered what may be Husker Du's greatest song, "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely".)
The year I forsook the sun-swept flatland for the damp, mountainous coast, I spent a lot of time under an umbrella with Walkman continuously auto-reversing through those early Mega City Four albums. Just listening to these albums again makes me feel a little damp.
Madly, the MC4's early singles remain out of print, so MRML has elected to post each of them in their double a-sided glory.
"Miles Apart" which starts with the line, "I'm standing in the rain/And I'm thinking once again/How the way we see is never quite the same", sets the tone for the first few years with its bashing tempo, amped-up guitars, sing-along melody and that all-pervading sadness that the singer never fully succumbs to.
"Running in Darkness" repeats the trick of the a-side and adds one of those little bursts of defiant optimism ("I've got to win a race") that Wiz tossed off so well.
It’s only days before the inauguration of the 44th American president, Barrack Obama, so it’s last chance time.
It's last chance for irony, for a few hundred miles anyway. The election of Obama has, strangely, mimicked the effect of 9/11, when rumours of irony’s death were widely circulated.
And it does seem like everyone’s in a sincere mood these days doesn't it? It’s kinda like watching that besotted couple who, in their first flush of passion, offer loud, wild promises that make you wince with the pain of regret to come. So, when the inauguration spectacle is packed away, when the word historical gets a well-deserved rest, there’s gonna be some ugliness. The American Right thinks everyone(but them) is a communist and the American Left thinks everyone (but them) is a fascist and they both love political bloodsport. America may well be in a better place in four years but by then the axe-grinders that dictate public discourse in the U.S. will have tossed all this non-partisan sincerity aside.
Then, back to punk rock, it’s also, temporarily, the last chance for anti-presidential outrage. After all, a Rock Against Obama movement is unlikely. However all artists do thrive on dissatisfaction and therefore creative protest will resume soon (despite all the quasi-Socialist Realism coming out of the hip-hop camp lately).
So now, in celebration of The Tenacity of Irony, Punk Rock and the Bush Clan (Jeb anyone?) here is Coffin Break’sKill the President.
Seattle’s Coffin Break (David Brooks,drums, Peter Litwin, guitar and vocals and Rob Skinner, bass and vocals) were, depending on the vocalist, a punk or metal band from the early 90’s who wrote some good songs but only one great one.
That great one, 1991’s “Kill the President”, isn't exactly a punk song (though, ironically, it starts out that way), it’s not actually even anti-Bush Sr. song; it’s a bright pop song about insanity. The narrator is like Travis Bickle just as the Prozac wears off. Again and again the cheery melody clashes with the hostility of the words of the narrator who is “so happy, the world’s gonna ex-plode”.
So any U.S. secret service who have a Google Alert on "kill the president", can rest assured this is not a song about assassination but a catchy novelty tune that one can return to again and again.
Now, sing along and remember that irony, like punk rock, isn’t dead; it just smells that way.
"Life is strange," Billy Bragg once said, "and you gotta learn to take the crunchy with the smooth". With that admonition in mind let us survey those mixed blessings, those maddening, yet compelling works of 2008.
Bob Dylan's Tell-Tale Signs
The Upsides "Things should start getting interesting right about now," promises Dylan in the song "Mississippi" and even with the blatant filler (most of the live tracks) he delivers. Witness the evolution of his song-writing (“Mississippi” gets three versions) and hear Dylan turn another one of his public-domain re-workings (“Red River Shore”) into a meditation on the resurrection of the dead.
The Downsides The padding turned a double album into a $169.99 three-disc monster with an accompanying coffee table book. Hello illegal download. Note to Sony ("So cheap and real phony"): I have legal copies of almost every Dylan album but this triple set. The sad implication is that before the slow death of not just the CD but hard format in general (it's hard to pay for music with no physical form) the die-hards will be gouged by the big labels without mercy.
From the There is No Eye sound track here’s the man himself with "Roll On John" from a 1961 radio broadcast
Glen Campbell – Meet Glen Campbell
The Upsides A flawed but fascinating album that's loaded with moments both excellent and strange. For the latter, check out the attempt to flesh out the pleasurably thin Green Day ballad, “Good Riddance” which oddly ends up providing this album’s mission statement: “It’s something unpredictable but in the end it’s right”. These Old Country Guys Return albums have their flaws (aiming-for-cool cover choices, ironic marketing, production trickery and the fingerprints of one Tom Petty) but they speak volumes about the never-say-die attitude of those old Opry shitkickers. Musically, Campbell cleaves pretty close to his sixties peak with big open tunes, restrained strings and and his melodic guitar figures. Lyrically, however...
The Downsides After hearing this cover of the Replacements' “Sadly Beautiful”, the former leader of that band, Paul Westerberg, told his manager, “Tell Glen I'll be his next Jimmy Webb'." And therein in lies one of the flaws of this album; too few of the songwriters here can match Webb. The verbal subtlety of Webb, who wrote most of Campbell's biggest hits, is such that the schmaltzy arrangement cannot overpower the taut, mysterious lyrics of "Wichita Lineman” (let’s ignore the inscrutable "McArthur Park” shall we?) While Westerberg and Jackson Browne give some finely crafted words, clunkers like Petty’s “Some days are diamonds/Some days are rocks” and John Lennon’s "Spending our lives together/Man and wife together” can make you a little queasy.
Walk Hard (Unlike in Oscar land, December, 21 st 2007 counts as 2008 here at MRML)
The Upsides Dan Bern, prolific protest-singer-songwriter, gets to pretend to be Bob Dylan (via the never-disappointing John C. Reilly) a fewtimes and we music geeks get to play Spot the Musical Allusion (“Hey, a punk version of “Walk Hard”.”)
The Downsides Some cheap repetition ("The wrong kid died") and a few shots of too-broad-by-half satire (take your pick) veered too close to Epic Scary Date Movie territory.
Now, the Zucker Brothers circa Top Secret, coulda taught these guys a lesson in rock parody:
The Clash - Live at Shea Stadium
The Upsides Among the many highlights of this album is Mick Jones' once again attacking "Police on my Back" and delaying the onset of BADness for a short time. However the key track here is the furious "New York to Jamaica" mash-up of the "Magnificent Seven" and "Armagiddeon Time".
Strummer’s mid-track cry of "Cheeeeese-burger” is hilarious as is his extemporizing on the epic length of the track they’re in the midst of laying down. Whatever their excesses on vinyl, the Clash rarely noodled about on stage but rather hit hard on every note.
The Downsides This is Stadium Clash - after Topper Headon's firing and not long before Mick Jones' sacking - and not their finest hour. (How about releasing more from their epic run of seventeen shows at Bond's in New York in 1981?) Strummer, suffers from the cavernous confines of Shea, sounding tired and on the defense during "London Calling" and Simonon's vocals on “Guns of Brixton” feel thrown-away. As well, it’s only a forty-ish minute set with no encore, so that the Who could launch their sad, interminable victory lap which would not only outlast any sense of triumph but also finally smother it.
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