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The Birth of Hardcore Punk In New York City (Part 2)

March 13, 2015
    The End of the Beginning
    (Or, Bitte, Kann ich haben eine Fribble?)

As discussed in Part 1, the first generation of New York City Hardcore Punk bands (1980 – ’82) were essentially musicians trying to reclaim punk and post-punk for a younger audience. Most of the contributors to the budding hardcore scene had been 12 – 16 years old when the Pistols and Ramones emerged, and had therefore been too young to actively participate in that “first wave.” But circa 1980, these same people (now in their late teens and early 20s) were very eager to create their “own” punk rock and post-punk, informed by the earlier music yet inclusive of a musical and iconographic style that reflected a changing social and creative environment.

Few of those ’80 – ’82 NYHC bands played music that would now be recognized as pure hardcore, and nor did they want to. I believe they considered themselves punk acts, post-punk acts, art-rock acts, activist rock acts, funny-rock acts, etcetera, but as they were swept away by the momentum of an exciting national movement, virtually all of them adopted some aspect of the iconography, lyrical harangue, and hyper-kinetic rhythm that was characteristically hardcore. In some ways, it is unfortunate that virtually every American “third wave” punk band (the first wave being the initial ’75 – ’77 explosion, and the second wave being the ’78 – ’80 group, typified by Stiff Little Fingers, Undertones, Ruts, et al.) were engulfed, to some greater or lesser degree, by the hardcore thing; ideally, a “pure” punk third wave should have been allowed to flourish in America, as it did (to a certain degree) in the U.K. (and although much of the U.K. “third wave” was lumped under the Oi Movement, in general there was more of stylistic and philosophical continuum between first/second wave punk and Oi then there was in the U.S. between first/second wave punk and hardcore. Now, that sentence sounded a bit academic, but if you stuck with me, I’ll buy you a Fribble one day).

False Prophets, Even Worse, the Undead, and Stimulators (to name four) were pretty much straight punk rock acts, each with differing stylistic and ideological accents; Reagan Youth, AOD, and Kraut were more-or-less straight-up punk bands, too, but they occasionally integrated double and quadruple-timed hardcore rhythms; and the wonderful Nihilistics seemed on one hand to borrow from Crass and on the other anticipate the Swans. In fact, in this “first” generation of New York Hardcore, the only acts I would label as being (more or less) “pure” hardcore would be Heart Attack, the Mob, and the Beastie Boys (let me note here that Heart Attack were a blunt, often stunning group, shattering and direct, and they’ve never quite gotten their due; after Misfits and Bad Brains, they were probably the best band on the scene).

(It’s important to note that the groups who are most frequently identified as being “early” NYHC bands – say, Murphy’s Law, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front – evolved after this first wave. Those bands were a distinct and very powerful second generation of NYHC…but right now, we are discussing the diverse and occasionally shambholic first generation.)

Out of this small list, the clear leader was the Bad Brains; none of these groups could ever hope to hold a candle to the explosive, radical, original genius and nearly miraculous level of craftsmanship and showmanship the Bad Brains brought to every gig during this time.

The Bad Brains constant gigging provided the centerpiece for the first era’s socializing (and band forming), and the Bad Brains were also extremely supportive of the scene growing up around them. Although New York also laid a somewhat tenuous claim to New Jersey’s Misfits (who were also very damn fierce in terms of performance, songwriting, and iconography), the Misfits more or less abdicated as potential scene-leaders, choosing instead to focus on a more global and long-term game plan.

It is also very important to note that the Bad Brains changed radically towards the end of this first era; by the end of 1982, their gigs were largely oriented towards their reggae compositions, and by mid-1983 they had made a more-or-less full transition to reggae. I could theorize that the Bad Brains absolutely unchallenged musical superiority intimidated this first generation of bands from playing pure hardcore (and it’s true that the explosion of area bands playing music clearly identifiable as hardcore happened only after the Bad Brains stopped playing so damn fast); but I don’t think that’s true.

I think it’s far more likely that the ’80 – ’82 NYC scene bands played a more “traditional” form of punk simply because a) they wanted to, b) their prime desire was to interpret ’75 – ’79 punk in their own Lower East Side way, and c) their main interest was in the teen empowerment and generationally distinctive inconography implied by hardcore, not in the caricature hardcore sound itself.

By mid and late 1982, the next generation of New York hardcore was becoming established. This would be the generation that would perform music immediately identifiable as hardcore, and would later be more firmly identified with the story of NYHC. Personally, I lost interest; by late 1982, the on-stage efforts of any band you saw — even if it was a well known national or international act — were overshadowed by the antics of the audience, and personally, I couldn’t quite make sense of a musical scene where the moshpit and the stage-divers seemed more important than the music itself. I am not looking down my nose at that behavior, I’m really not; it’s just that not my, uh, thing. Circa ’82 I had also noted that some of the first-generation hardcore bands were trying to take steps away from their original sound, and were being (at best) ignored, and more frequently ridiculed; a perfect example of this was TSOL, whose outstanding, pre-goth, keyboard-driven second album, Beneath the Shadows, was largely ignored; similarly, Bad Religion’s second album, the synth-heavy, slower-rhythm’d Into the Unknown was subject to so much ridicule that the band later virtually denied that it had ever existed. A scene in which an act was prohibited from growing creatively was of little or no interest to me.

Now, none of this is to denigrate the next (post ’82) generation of New York-based ”pure” hardcore bands; not only did these groups contains some mighty players and some extraordinary characters (John Joseph of the Cro-Mags is one of the great frontmen in New York rock history), but the ultimate success and staying power of speed metal and death metal has validated these groups hunches and innovations.

Looking back, I recognize that the first generation of NYHC was, to a great degree, hardcore only in name. We had a tremendous desire to link the new “third wave” punk coming out of the East Village with the maelstrom of new punk (labeled as hardcore) coming out of the rest of the country. Ultimately, I believe that it may have been unfortunate that we had to “tag along” on a national movement (as ferocious as that movement was); it’s very interesting to consider what would have happened if we had allowed this “new” third-wave New York punk to assert itself without the stylistic and ideological limitations of hardcore and without having to be tagged with the label of a movement that ultimately became creatively restrictive.

Finally, Sting is a tool, and we warm ourselves with the salty tears he sheds over the failure of Come Sail Away or Ship’s Ahoy or Capeman, or whatever that musical he wrote was called.

In Part 3: New York Hardcore and My Part in it’s Upfall

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Die Toten Hosen: The World’s Biggest Punk Rock Band

February 5, 2015

I have just learned of the death of Jochen Hülder, who passed about three weeks ago.  I ask for your patience as I write a few words about the passing of a man you’ve likely never heard of, who managed a band whose name probably only a few of you will know.

Jochen Hülder managed a band called Die Toten Hosen.  Die Toten Hosen are likely the biggest band you’ve never heard of.

Jochen Hulder, 1957 – 2015

Under Hülder’s extraordinary, creative, inventive guidance, Die Toten Hosen (who formed in Düsseldorf in 1982) grew to become (by far) the biggest rock act in German history, and one of the most successful rock acts in the non-English speaking world.  And it isn’t just that DTH were/are big (and they are really, really big; it would be safe to say that in Germany, they are bigger than U2 and the Foo Fighters combined, and when it comes to their place in German rock culture, perhaps the only effective comparisons would be Queen or the Stones); it is how they are big.

Die Toten Hosen (which translates as The Dead Pants) were The Clash who became the Beatles, and under Hülder’s guidance, they never forgot, not for one moment, the musical, political, social, economic, cultural, and stylistic values that lay at their origin.  Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, those of us who supported punk rock knew a secret:  that if the world could actually hear the music un-adulterated, they would really like it.  It often seemed there was an active conspiracy to prevent a large-scale American audience from hearing the beautiful, powerful, melodic, passionate, meaningful music of America (and Britain’s) punk bands; it was taken for granted that Joe Plumber and the programmer at Joe Plumber’s radio station would never play true punk rock.  Nirvana, amongst others, changed that perception dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

You will dig this. I promise.

Hülder and Die Toten Hosen took the logic of the mass acceptance of punk rock for granted.  They accepted as fact the idea that every rock fan in the country would want to hear the sound of classic UK/U.S. punk rock, and they took it for granted that including advocacy, charity, and compassion in that mission was an absolutely requirement; they also embraced the controversy that their left-wing and pro-immigrant positions engendered not only without fear, but with joy.

Hülder took a band whose primary musical models was Sham 69, Johnny Thunder’s Heartbreakers, the U.K. Subs, etcetera and not only said “This band can be bigger than Led Zeppelin,” he actually made it happen (note:  Johnny Thunders’ last performance was as a guest on DTH’s version of “Born To Lose”).  He did this via remarkable, corny, aggressive, and sometime ridiculous marketing tricks, all based on the idea that everyone in Germany needed this music and this message in their home.  Some might compare Hülder to Malcolm McLaren, except we must recall that McLaren was a charlatan and a thief who ultimately cared far more about his own self-promotion and his own sense of concept than he cared about the success or well-being of his artists, and the last thing McLaren cared about was using his music to effective positive social, economic, and cultural change.  Hülder never forgot the big picture.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that DTH’s music was pure as the driven snow – ultimately it evolved, quite effectively, into a high-quality and ballad-laden punk/pop/classic rock hybrid that (to American ears) might sound like Bon Jovi guesting with the Real McKenzies and playing Vibrators and Lurkers songs – but they did it the right way, they were a punk rock band that took over the world (at least the considerable parts of it that spoke German), and never sacrificed the values and joy that made them start off in the first place, and they recognized that an essential part of being a punk rocker was standing up for the oppressed.  Oh, and some of their best songs are just the kind of extreme, riotous, fist-in-air singalong drinking songs you always hoped a German punk rock band would play.

I have written, on a number of different occasions, of how completely and utterly important it is to make this extraordinary cultural meme called rock mean something; about how obscene it is to appropriate the clothes and words of the disenfranchised, without actually working for the disenfranchised; about how rock’n’roll is the almost magical distillation of the artistic, melodic, and rhythmic innovations of people who had nothing, who were the utter dregs of society, and how we must honor that legacy.

Die Toten Hosen actually pulled this off.  And we have to recognize Jochen Hülder as one of the greatest rock managers of all time.

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Tim Sommer’s Letter to Blink 182 Fans

January 29, 2015

I understand that Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 has written a long and heartfelt letter to his fans, explaining and apologizing for his group’s dysfunction and inactivity. I respect that kind of outreach.  In fact, I respect it so much I thought I would write my own letter to Blink-182’s fans.

Dear Blink-182 Fans: 

I have never really listened to Blink-182, but I respect them.

Maybe that surprises you.  Well, a long time ago, I learned there was an unspoken brotherhood amongst musicians and music geeks.  Whether you are a member of Bon Jovi or Lightning Bolt, chances are you were the guy or girl in your high school who had the coolest record collection, who new insane and arcane details about your favorite musicians, who followed about fourteen weird bands for every one group in the pop charts.  Seriously, it’s an odd secret, but I guarantee it’s true: Pretty much anyone who’s put the time and effort into learning an instrument, pursuing a career, and putting up with all the bullshit surrounding the music business is bound to be a serious lover and student of music. So, regardless of any personal relationship I may or may nor have with Blink-182’s music, I respect them as brothers, people who cared deeply about music, and who made that obsession into a lifelong career.

And I respect their fans.

See, I am not going to play that game where I look down on you because you like Blink 182 but don’t like hipper, older, more obscure, or more credible bands.  For instance, I enjoy 20th Century neo-classical music; I like, oh, Aaron Copland, Krzysztof Penederecki, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, etcetera.  But there’s definitely someone out there who will go “That guy is a douche!  He doesn’t know any Morton Gould or Benjamin Britten!  What a Neanderthal that Sommer cat is!”  Now, the fact that I can’t name any compositions by Benjamin Britten doesn’t mean I love or enjoy Terry Riley any less.  And the same goes for you.  Just because you can’t name any songs by, oh, the Dils or Crass or the Weirdos or the Pointed Sticks doesn’t mean that you aren’t as moved when you hear a song by Blink-182.  If a song reached your heart, if you heard something and thought “I cannot wait to share that with my best friend!” or “Looking forward to hearing that song got me through class today,” that’s all that matters! What possible difference does it make how famous or how obscure it is.  Shit, I spend a lot of my time listening to music you probably couldn’t even spell, but it still makes me deliriously happy to hear “Ray of Light” by Madonna, and I have no trouble screaming that fact to the world.

I am not going to look down on anything that moves anyone, provided it doesn’t espouse any hurtful or hateful bullshit or dogma.

See, there’s nothing wrong with popularity, nothing wrong with liking the popular.  Regardless of whether you listen to the most obscure noise from Brooklyn or the most mainstream pop, you probably listen to it for the same reason:  it moves you, it distracts you, it makes your day better, it gives you something to talk about with your friends or the people you want to be friends with, it says something for you that you cannot say yourself.  I feel that way when listening to “Fiery Jack” by the Fall or “Brando” by Scott Walker; someone else may feel the exact same thing when listening to Nickelback or Darius Rucker.  The messenger may change, but the listener’s motivation and heart stays the same.  A song that creates an amazing shared memory for someone is a spectacular gift, and I am not going to ridicule it, whether it’s by the Mekons or Miley Cyrus.

Now, as long as I have your attention, let me tell you a little about punk rock.

To me, more than anything else, punk rock means the freedom to be yourself and have your own opinion, and dream big dreams and love those dreams with all your heart, despite the naysayers; I believe punk rock is literally the opposite of conformity and bending to peer pressure.  More than a “sound,” it is just the idea of an unfettered, un-tethered imagination.  I also believe it is essentially a simple art form, where you discover and express beautiful, strong, powerful, intensely creative dreams that others might say are “too obvious” to express; in other words, people looked at the work of Picasso, Mondrian, and Pollock and said “My kid could do that,” or they heard the Ramones and said “Shit, anyone could play like that.”  But NO ONE had painted like that, no one had played like that. If you could do it, why didn’t you do it?  If your kid could have done it, why didn’t you encourage him or her to do so?  Often, beauty, genius, and invention are as obvious as the air we breathe. Punk Rock artists discover a new country, the one that was in front of us and under our feet and in our dreams the whole time; the one whose beauty and power was so obvious, it was like discovering a delicious, nutritious fruit just sitting there hanging from a low branch of a tree, and everyone else said “If it’s that easy to pick, why hasn’t someone already eaten it?  It must suck.”

Having said that, consider your love for Blink 182 a doorway.  Let that door lead you to the soul, spirit, joy, compassion, simplicity, artistic adventure and discovery, and immediate magic of Punk Rock.  Don’t mourn the demise of your favorite band; instead, celebrate what you loved about them and let that door lead you…

To the truth:  Punk rock, first and foremost, is an expression of what moves you, without the shadow of peer pressure.

To the visceral:  punk rock is about discovering the beauty and power of the obvious and everyday; the hum of a refrigerator can be punk rock; the ticking of a signal indicator can be punk rock; the one-chord passion of an old rockabilly song can be punk rock.

To the adventurous:  blow it all up and put it back together any damn way you want, any goddamn way that has the power to move you; and if it moves you, there’s a very good chance it will move someone else. That strange sound you want to hear over and over?  I bet someone else wants to hear it, too. Trust your ears and heart.

Perhaps you have the desire to be a “real” punk.  If so, please note:  A lot of the visual and iconic language of your “movement” is borrowed from the language of rebel politics and the battles of the disenfranchised to gain equality and socio-economic power.  Go to the roots of this iconography:  Don’t just “say” fight for your rights; actually fight for your rights, and other peoples. Literally nothing is “more” punk rock then helping those who have less, those who have no power, and protecting those who are in harms way. It’s not enough to “give the wrong time/stop a traffic line” as the brilliant Johnny Rotten wrote in “Anarchy in the U.K.”  Ideally, a punk should give the right time to someone who can’t afford a watch, and clear traffic in front of an abortion clinic.

Oh…if a band you like has ever done anything intentionally racist, sexist, homophobic, or refused to condemn any section of their fans that have done the same, then none of this applies.  Any band that doesn’t defend the disenfranchised, that is the artistically, economically, socially, sexually, politically disenfranchised, are just posers.

Good luck to you.  Timothy A. Sommer

P.S. Here are some records you might like:  “Teenage Kicks” or “My Perfect Cousin” by the Undertones; “Where Were You” and “Memphis, Egypt” by the Mekons; “Into the Valley” and “The Saints are Coming” by the Skids; “Babylon’s Burning,” “Staring at the Rude Boys” and “West One” by the Ruts; “Hurry Up Harry” and “Hersham Boys” by Sham 69; “Endangered Species” and “New Barbarians” by the UK Subs; anything at all off of the albums Damned Damned Damned, Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album, or Strawberries by the Damned; “Nobodys Hero” or “Alternative Ulster” by Stiff Little Fingers; “One Chord Wonders” by the Adverts; “The World the Day Turned Day-Glo” by X-Ray Spex; the entire Pink Flag and Chairs Missing albums by Wire; “This is the Modern World” by the Jam; and a thousand and eight more, especially the Metal Box/Second Edition album by Public Image Limited, the greatest and most creatively brave punk rock record of all time.

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Derwood Andrews, and the sound of a post-punk, post-blues Catcus Acid Milkshake

December 16, 2014

Let’s put it this way:  If TONE POET, VOL. II was a new album by Beck, it would almost certainly be a serious contender for the Grammy for Album of the Year; if it was by, say, Bob Dylan, it would be the certain winner.  If Tone Poet, Vol. II was a new soundtrack to a Coen Brothers film curated by T Bone Burnett, it would be a much-talked about evocation of 21stCentury Blues; and if it was a new release by, oh, Mark Lannegan, post-grungers all over this great land would be getting stoned and telling their friends it was the best album of the year.

Bob Derwood Andrews, 21st Century Ambient Blues Hero.

But Tone Poet, Vol. II is the extraordinary new album by a relatively little know artist named Derwood Andrews.  This deeply sensuous and luscious exploration of ambient blues and Americana is rootsy, meditative, and utterly magical to listen to; if you have ever pressed your ear against an acoustic guitar and just heard it ringing, if you’ve ever just wanted to live within the sound of an open tuned steel guitar, if you ever wanted to hear the sound of Clarksdale meeting the sound of Joshua Tree (with a very, very heavy dose of surround-sound hydrophonic/acidphonics), you will love this album. Tone Poet, Vol. II is an album for people who love the SOUND of the guitar, by which I mean the deep, rich, natural ambience and harmonic of a beautiful, open-tuned instrument; it’s also an amazing exploration into old American forms, made dreamlike yet tactile, new, and resonant to the heart.

Derwood Andrews is an English ex-pat living in the California desert, and he exists in that strange, sometimes frustrating netherworld between cult artist, undeserved obscurity, and intentional mystery.  I will admit that I know a lot about his work between 1977 and 1981, and relatively little about what he’s done since then.  However, what he recorded between ’77 and ’81 contains great power and magic, so I’ll devote a few words to it:

Generation X (Derwood Andrews 2nd from Right)

Bob Derwood Andrews was the guitarist for Generation X, and plays on their first two (essential) albums (their self-titled debut and the sensational, deep, and much overlooked Valley of the Dolls).  After leaving the band in 1980, Andrews and Generation X drummer Mark Laff went on to form the band Empire and record one truly remarkable record.  That album, Expensive Sound, is very goddamn close to being a classic, and Empire may be one of the best “single album” bands of all time (i.e., bands that only lasted long enough to make one album — I generally rate Empire right up there with Young Marble Giants and the Rich Kids). Expensive Sound is a deeply personal take on punk, turning the shout of punk into an intimate bedroom murmur; it presents a series of deep confessions over hushed riffs and loaded spaces, and it is like no other album of it’s time.  On one hand, it summons the bittersweet sepia whispers of the Go Betweens or Big Star, on the other hand it anticipates the highly personal riff, rip, and confess style of Nirvana (it is highly speculated that Kurt Cobain was greatly influenced by Empire).

Additionally, around the same time, Andrews helped make another extraordinary album.  In 1980, Andrews and Laff collaborated with Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey to record Pursey’s first solo album, the sadly overlooked and rather wonderful Imagination Camouflage.  Solid yet artistic, Imagination Camouflage album combines the bite of Valley of the Dolls with the sandy, sad depth of Expensive Sound, but with a bit of PiL and Peter Gabriel hanging over the proceedings.  I have long advocated that Valley of the Dolls, Expensive Sound, and Imagination Camouflage need to be viewed as a rare and extraordinary trilogy, the sound of Andrews and Laff trying to wrestle a new kind of artistry out of punk that blends classic ‘70s britrock dynamics with a deeply emotional mindset that anticipated both Grunge and Emo.  Fucking remarkable work, and this “lost” trilogy really deserves its’ own column (maybe at another time, when I am not so distracted by the continuing horror of those ads for Sting’s Lost Sailboat or Trouble Down At The Mill or whatever the fuck that atrocity is called).  But anyway…

I sadly didn’t keep track of what Derwood Andrews did after the early-ish ‘80s, other than I knew he moved to the Southwest, and he played a one-off reunion gig with Generation X in London in 1993.  I am quite damn sure that there was a lot of wonderful work that I missed, but I am catching up with the story again in 2014, with the amazing Tone Poet, Vol. II.

Deeply modern, deeply old, this is a motherfucker resonator of an album.  Tone Poet, Vol. II is full of songs that are so lightly but perfectly sketched they feel almost as if Andrews just transcribed them out of the desert air; this is complimented by a Lanois-esqe attention to depth of sound that is absolutely mega-sensuous, like a cactus milkshake poured slowly over a crossroads where the devil and the hi-def meet.  The landscape is completed by a frisson of ultra-simple synths effectively swooping in every now and then and occasionally goosing the rhythm.  Unlike the more tightly-wound, Beck-esque Tone Poet, Vol. I, Vol. II is pure Ry Cooder-in-a-planetarium National Guitar opium blues; in fact, if you ever wished that Ry Cooder, Chris Whitley, and Daniel Lanois made an album together while chewing on about a dozen Benadryl, then this is the album for you (and you can listen to excerpts and/or buy Tone Poet, Vol. II here).

Like Scott Walker and Sunn O))) in their Everest-high and Marianas Trench-low Soused album, Andrews is finding an effective new vocabulary for traditional American melodies and musical/lyrical topics; the slow, sighing, echoing, whisper-in-the-ear blues of Andrews recalls scratchy old 78s, sassy medicine show whistles, lonesome yodelers and lonely twelve-bar bar bands, but it sounds naked, rich, and fresh.  More than anything else, Tone Poet, Vol. II is just gorgeous to listen to, and wraps around you like a thick, slightly scratchy, sleepy blanket.

I’ll add one more thing.  Very recently, Billy Idol told me that he would happily reunite with Generation X.  Whereas I am not advocating that (as much as I’d like to see it), it would be fascinating to hear Idol, a vastly underrated and sensitive melodicist and lyricist, bring his penchant for big-screen prom-night pop into the mushroom-laced abandoned drive-in in the desert world of Derwood Andrews. Both artists are exponents of different caricatures of the American Musical Dream, and it would be very interesting to hear what they would make together.


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