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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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FIVE GREAT SONGS (Just Because!)

August 13, 2014

Because it’s Wednesday, and because it would simply be tasteless to engage in a detailed discussion of the Rule of Threes, I am presenting the FIRST edition of Tim Sommer’s Five Great Songs Just Because list.  Which is exactly what it sounds like. Now, the theme today is, uh, guitars, with a sub-theme of SONGS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN GIANT HITS THAT YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD BEFORE (there are two of these here).   Let’s begin, shall we?

“BLUE BOY” by Orange Juice

Orange Juice were Scottish (which is obvious from the first few bars here), the flag-bearers for the extraordinary Postcard label, and the prime exponent of a kind of vaguely tennis-racket-strummy thinking man’s guitar pop that quite significantly influenced the work of Aztec Camera, the exquisite Go Betweens, (very notably) the Smiths, and probably at a later date Arcade Fire.  In fact, it surprises me a bit that more people haven’t picked up on the Orange Juice influence in Arcade Fire, since Arcade Fire kind of sound like Orange Juice + Pere Ubu multiplied by the Feelies (have I ever mentioned that I think most bands can be effectively reduced to an equation?  But that’s another story).  I wonder if Layne agrees with me about the depth of Orange Juice’s influence.  I must ask him.  Anyway, this is from 1980 and has the most wonderful and difficult blend of grace and clumsiness, vulnerability and cave-stomp, and I LOVE how the opening vamp-up chord subtly moves up a half-step.

The Rule of Threes in regard to Celebrity Deaths, that is.  Of course you already knew that.  You’re a smart reader and it did cross your mind that, oh, Mary Tyler Moore just might be looking over her shoulder.

“JUST ANOTHER DREAM” by The Professionals

Shortly, perhaps, I will write about the enormous tragedy of the Sex Pistols; by that, I mean that thanks to the presence of three world-class songwriters and distinct musical talents (Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, and John Lydon), each evolving fast circa 1977 and growing in a direction that could have been harmonious to the whole, the Pistols need NOT have been a one-album band; with three people like THAT in a group, each capable of leading yet each clearly able to collaborate, they could have been The WhoBut that AWFUL, AWFUL MAN, Malcolm McLaren, had a different plan; in one of the most TRULY MORONIC band management moves of all-time, he replaced one of the band’s primary writers (and best musician) with a guy who couldn’t play or write, JUST BECAUSE HE LOOKED BETTER AND WAS EASIER TO MANIPLUATE.  Imagine if Chris Stamp had replaced Pete Townshend after “My Generation” with some dumb, good looking mod who couldn’t play, but “looked” right; that’s what McLaren did when he engineered the ouster of Matlock in February 1977, and the Pistols were dead in the water from that moment on.  Evidence of the universal brilliance and talent of Jones, Matlock, and Lydon would come very shortly, via the Rich Kids, Public Image Limited, and the Professionals; imagine if all that talent could have gone into one band.  Often overlooked when telling the post-Pistols story is this track, the first single released by Jones and drummer Paul Cook as the Professionals (it also features a different line-up than the later Professionals recordings).  Although the Professionals went on to do some very damn good work, it never got better than this, perhaps the only Professionals song that can stand up to the best of the Pistols.

Is Nancy Reagan still alive?

“HEADS ARE GONNA ROLL” by The Stunning

I was an A&R person for a little while, during which time, to be honestly immodest, I had enough success to indicate that I vaguely knew what I was doing.  Sometimes, both in and out of that context, I would hear a song and go ‘WOW.  THAT IS A HIT RECORD.”  For reasons that may be simple to explain or might be very complex indeed, perhaps that song doesn’t become a hit record (and in the cases noted here and immediately below, I did not sign nor was involved in the release of the record in question).  The Stunning were Irish, and when I first heard this song about 20 years ago I thought it was a certain hit, and when I hear it now, I feel the same.  Hell, it still could be, if someone wants to cover it.  I don’t fully recall WHY I didn’t make an attempt to sign the Stunning, and I know few details of their career, so any effort to stretch this into an amusing or tragic anecdote is not realizable.  So just enjoy.  Oh, please note the gorgeous, melancholy, and ridiculously hummable single-trumpet melody line; British bands seem to do these kind of parts very well, and I have a theory why: I suspect it has something to do with classic English TV Themes – seriously, follow me on this – which have long contained just these kinds of melancholy but melodically compelling solo melody lines, usually played on horn or harmonica (as heard in the theme tunes to Coronation Street or Last of the Summer Wine, to name just two).

I’m going to put some “outside” money on Al Molinaro.

“REMOTE CONTROL” by The Age of Electric

As noted above, every now and again a song that you’ve never heard before stuns you, inciting a desire to hear that damn thing over and over again, and share it with as many people as possible, friends and strangers alike. I was strolling through a field of happy Molson-guzzling foreigners under a blue Canadian sky sometime in the 1990s, at some incomprehensibly large rock festival, when somewhere way off in the distance I heard this song; I think it was actually being played live. I turned to my companion and said, “THAT is a HIT record.”  My friend explained to me that the tune was “Remote Control” by Age of Electric.  SOMEONE COVER THIS FUCKING SONG, OKAY?  By the way, Age of Electric was led by the amazing Todd Kearns, who has played bass with Slash for quite a few years now; I will also go on the record and state that I have met very, very few people who deserved to be a rock star as much as dear Todd.  Seriously.  When you Google “rock star,” a picture of Todd Kearns should come up.  In the annals of all-time great up-beat furiously fulsome heavy guitar pop songs, “Remote Control” should be RIGHT UP THERE at the top, alongside the best work by Undertones, Buzzcocks, and Cheap Trick.

Now, I just peeked at a site that sets odds on such things, and the name at the TOP of the list was Wilko Johnson.  Seriously.  And that just pisses me off.


There’s a lot one can say about Blue Öyster Cult, the band who sought to bridge the gap between the Doors and the MC5 with a little bit of Floyd and a lot of biker acid mixed in.  They kind of succeeded at that mission, too.  In general, they are a vastly underrated band, from the twisting Motor City-esque boogie of “Hot Rails to Hell” and “ME 262” to the proto-Stoner rock mega-sludge of “Cities on Flame With Rock’n’Roll” and “Godzilla” to the Classic Rock treasure of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You.”  Goddamn good band, and, in fact, if you don’t have Secret Treaties or On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, you probably need to remedy that problem somewhat immediately. Anyway, when the genius of BÖC is discussed, this song is often not included in the conversation, which is terribly unfortunate; that’s possibly because “Going Through the Motions” (from 1977’s erratic but still essential Spectres album) sounds like one of those instances when a band records a song that sounds very little like them just to get a hit; but rarely does such a mercenary endeavor lead to such happy results. There were other times, before and after this track, when BÖC aspired to pure contemporary pop, and with many varying and sometimes comic results:  but on this occasion they knocked it OUT OF THE PARK, very likely due to the presence of co-writer Ian Hunter. An insanely atypical BÖC song, but a toothy and sugary and utterly memorable delight, and I love how at the 2:00 mark they throw in three BIG FAT GUITAR CHORDS just to say “Fuck you, we are Blue Öyster Cult, in case you might have forgotten, which, uh, you probably did.” 

I’m just going to put a fin on Garrison Keeler and be done with it.

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