154

154

Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.

three-half

The Woods

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Album: The Woods

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: May 24th, 2005

Highlights: Jumpers, Modern Girl, Entertain, Rollercoaster

As they grew out of the underground punk rock scene where the band had gotten their start, a few notable elements began to emerge as defining characteristics of Sleater-Kinney’s sound. For starters, slowly but surely, Carrie Browstein and Corin Tucker developed an intertwining pattern of guitar-playing which on its apex, reached in “The Hot Rock” from 1999, recalled that of Television during the “Marquee Moon” era; with the caveat that though equally clean and clashing, the girl’s method was not as technically flashy and – making use of that trait – they used the style to build tracks with a greater pop rock inclination than the ones produced by the New York quartet. Furthermore, as they played their instruments almost like two independent leads, Browstein and Tucker also sang in dissonance, rarely harmonizing and often going for melodic lines that could have easily been used as the base of two different tracks.

It sure was a lot of content to unpack, especially when it came in short yet potent packages of three minutes, but by 2002 that recipe had yielded four albums of great music. And these records, besides being excellent, had allowed Sleater-Kinney to bring their work to an audience that was not there to hear the punk rock gems which were their self-titled debut and its sequel, “Call the Doctor”. However, following such run and maybe realizing that the recipe had gotten slightly tired, the band took a three-year break between new material (their longest one up to that point) and came back into view with a rather retooled musical outlook, producing – in the process – their most widely acclaimed album: “The Woods”.

The seventh studio release by the trio is so jarring that it takes a good while for one to notice that, deep down, there are remains of the old Sleater-Kinney sound under it. To a lesser degree, the band’s two guitarists still play disjointed parts that somehow gel; likewise, they frequently switch lead vocals and occasionally go their separate ways melodically. However, in “The Woods”, the lean punk rock the girls used to do is replaced with a towering powerful pounding of suffocating stature. Strength and ferocity were never absent elements in the Sleater-Kinney formula; they were always there, even if wrapped in the quirky catchy charm of records such as “Dig Me Out”. But here, it seems that the anger that had always driven the trio rose to the surface and gained a visible physical shape of mighty proportions.

Released during an era plagued by excessively loud recordings that caused much of the music to lose its audio fidelity, “The Woods” could be listed as yet another victim of that tendency. Not only does the album bang, but it does so at a volume so extreme that it creates a thick layer of distortion which permeates all pieces that compose it: Browstein and Tucker, drowned in what seems to be a symphony of static, have to either scream to be heard or resign themselves to the fact it is all too much; Janet Weiss, always a masterful tasteful drummer, is forced to hit her kit as if she were part of a heavy metal band that constantly plays in overdrive; and the guitars seem to come out of cheap amplifiers that cannot handle them, with much of their constitution being sheer feedback.

It could be disastrous, but “The Woods”, differently from its contemporaries that stumbled on poor mastering, actually uses loudness as a stylistic choice. While many albums of the era were clean-sounding records whose crispness was lost somewhere in translation, in the case of Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 release that characteristic is actually there by design. Sure, at some point when listening to it one has to wonder how the music would have sounded if “The Woods” took a more controlled approach in relation to volume. However, although it could be argued a few of the tracks would have been improved by a cleaner presentation, the album would likely not be as interesting and strong if that path had been chosen. Corin and her signature vibrato screams would not have to be so fierce; Carrie, always one quite talented in the art of sounding mad, would not take her craft to new heights; and Janet would lose out on a great opportunity to sound trashy and thunderous.

More serious, perhaps, would be how Sleater-Kinney would not be able to explore new perspectives on their songwriting. A track like “The Wolf”, for instance, which opens up the album, has a large plodding riff of a magnitude that is nowhere else to be found in their discography. “Steep Air” is so lo-fi and drowned in feedback that even its vocals are distorted beyond recognition, giving birth to a moment of such untamed noise that groups like The Velvet Underground and Pavement – which are quite familiar with soundscapes of the sort – would blush. And nearly all of the album’s tracks are eventually broken by moments of instrumental freak-out so dizzying that they could be compared to the live assaults of loudness famously carried out by “My Bloody Valentine”; an experiment that reaches its peak in audacity when the girls violently jam to extend “Let’s Call It Love” to the eleven-minute mark.

Contrarily to what its rough presentation may indicate, though, “The Woods” also carries moments when Sleater-Kinney strongly flirts with the mainstream, as if the knowledge they were going to work towards imploding these tunes via an aggressive aesthetic made them free to write for a wider audience. “Jumpers”, which came to life when Browstein read an article about the suicides that take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, has her and Corin harmonizing on the verses over slinky guitars until the tune bursts into a chorus that feels like a cry for help. “Entertain” is a catchy percussive march in which Browstein (sounding more furious than ever) rants against artistic staleness and cheap entertainment. Lastly, “Modern Girl” is a ballad – a rare sight in the Sleater-Kinney catalog – that might as well be the most beautiful and heartfelt song the trio has penned; with a mildly sarcastic tone, the cut wistfully narrates the mundane life of the titular character, and as it becomes increasingly evident that the beauty seen there is both fake and deceiving, the tune is slowly overrun by feedback.

Although in disguise, “The Woods” still presents a handful of tracks that have a more notable Sleater-Kinney signature, like “Wilderness”, “What’s Mine Is Yours”, “Rollercoaster”, and “Night Light”. In tunes such as these, the guitar interplay is more pronounced and instead of pounding mindlessly or flirting with accessibility, they carry speed and energetic bounciness that can easily be related to the previous era of the band; one where they escaped from the confines of underground punk to break past the riot grrrl movement in which they started. Regardless of the songwriting style it is approaching, however, “The Woods” is an album that simply erupts, turning the loudness that was so prevalent in the music around the time of its release into a weapon and giving a physical listenable manifestation to the sheer strength that had always been present in the work of Sleater-Kinney.

Give ‘Em Enough Rope

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Album: Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Artist: The Clash

Released: November 10th, 1978

Highlights: Safe European Home, English Civil War, Tommy Gun, Stay Free

Although strong and significant, the punk rock movement did not last for too long, with most of its representatives either burning out spectacularly or abandoning the boat quickly. In hindsight, it was not a surprising turn of events. After all, while the fast, furious, and reckless ethos of the genre created an environment that fueled the self-destructive behavior of many of its artist, its stylistic limitations – and the public outcry coming from the faithful who saw any new sounds as betrayal – chained musicians to a very tight scope that must have felt like a large ball and chain to those who wanted to explore their musicality more thoroughly. From the very start, however, even if qualifying as a punk band, The Clash seemed neither bound for a wreckage nor willing to pay too much attention to the constraints of that prison.

Even though their third record, “London Calling”, is generally considered to be the moment when the group turned their backs on the punk phenomenon, there had been – prior to that point – plenty of signs that The Clash did not care about the style’s rules. Their 1977 debut, for instance, which was absolutely filled with the roughness of the English genre, carried “Police and Thieves”, a reggae cover that rather than transforming the Caribbean rhythm, respected its characteristics and relaxed tempo. Meanwhile, midway through 1978, the band would release a single – the fantastic “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that took the flirtation one step further by actually mixing punk and reggae not only in sound, but also in theme, as the tune recounts a day when Joe Strummer went to the titular club to catch popular Jamaican artists.

Compared to the eclecticism of “London Calling”, which would come one year later, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is rather tame when it comes to musical evolution. In fact, many are bound to label it as a punk record, which is not entirely out of the mark. Nevertheless, even if it does so far more lightly than “Police and Thieves” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, the album reconfirms the reality hinted at by both of those tracks, which is that Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon – whether because they understood punk was limiting or because they refused to stand still – were not the kind of guys to dwell in the same place for far too long.

In a way, the change presented by “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” can be easy to miss, for – as a whole – the record is even louder and more aggressive than its rebellious predecessor, “The Clash”. Vocally, Joe Strummer, likely the most genuinely angry and politically engaged man in punk rock, takes the reins in nine of the album’s ten songs, and although frequently drowned by the sound and fury of the instruments, he alternates moments when he sounds bitter with sequences when he comes off as utterly wrathful. As a consequence, Mick Jones, the guy with a pocket full of melodies that lean towards the pop and a softer voice, only gets one chance – which is unquestionably taken advantage of – to shine at the mic. More significantly, however, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is simply an album that was produced to slay, as where in “The Clash” the instrumentation came off as if it were being played in a tacky garage; in their sophomore work, the boys seem to be on a stage with mighty amplifiers.

Filled with fierce riffs that attack as directly as possible, whilst not forgetting that energetic punk spirit, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” could qualify as a hard rock work. Jones, displaying a better sense of the unique ringing guitar leads that he unleashed in “The Clash”, comes up with another strong set of lines that hold a sweeping quality. Headon’s drums sound gigantic and cutting. Simonon’s bass is thick, clear, and creative. The rhythm guitars deliver heavy pounding punches. And, in the middle of it all, Strummer shouts so his message can be heard, as he approaches both critical worldwide matters, such as misguided foreign policies and terrorism, to local themes, like the state of the punk rock scene. It is a mixture that turns tunes like the fast and explosive “Safe European Home”; the marching “English Civil War”; and Tommy Gun, with drum fills that emulate the sound of shooting, into some of the heaviest and most vicious tracks the band ever produced. And, though not up to the same quality standard, “Last Gang in Town”, in which the whole band cooks a massive groove, and “Guns on the Roof”, which borrows the riff from “Clash City Rockers”, are a thrill as well.

As consistently loud as it may be, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is not devoid of moments that, much like “Police and Thieves” on the debut, stick out rhythmically from the pack to blatantly reveal The Clash were not purely about punk. And further proving the band’s flexibility, they all land incredibly. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, featuring a playful loose piano, is a shuffle that provides a sarcastic look at a major drug bust that took place in Wales. Even if electric, “All the Young Punks” is nearly a ballad; boasting a yearning melody and sweet backing vocals by Jones, it is a homage to the band itself, analyzing their role as trailblazers and even defending their signing of a contract with a major label. At last, “Stay Free” is the record’s climax: written by Jones to a friend who had been arrested, it reads like an honest heartfelt letter and sounds like a pop rock anthem, with four verses that build to a cathartic chorus in which – hoping his buddy is free and part of the crowd – he urges the guy to have a drink on him.

Crushed, in the band’s discography, between one classic debut and a third effort that is repeatedly ranked among the ten best records of all time, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is often seen as a second-rate The Clash album, and two of its tunes – “Drug-Stabbing Time” and “Cheapskates” – give support to these arguments, as they do lack inspiration and feel like lesser tracks that got left out of “The Clash” for not being as good as the rest of the compositions. The status the band’s second effort carries, though, is more revealing of the group’s value than of its quality, because many are the artists that would kill for a work like “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”: one that does not rest on the laurels of its greatly praised predecessor and fearlessly challenges expectations, preparing the crowd for the wild musical trip that was imminent.

Hootenanny

hootenanny

Album: Hootenanny

Artist: The Replacements

Released: April 29th, 1983

Highlights: Color Me Impressed, Within Your Reach, Buck Hill, Treatment Bound

As defined by the dictionary, a hootenanny can either be an informal folk music session at which artists perform for their own enjoyment or a placeholder word to refer to an object whose name the speaker has forgotten. It is hard to think a term could have two meanings that are so divergent; yet, regardless of the reason why The Replacements opted to select the expression to dub their second album, many listeners will come to the conclusion that the two definitions apply perfectly. The first description clicks because “Hootenanny” is as informal as it can be, and its loose nature indicates that the Minneapolis boys are playing and recording these tracks for nobody’s sake but their own; meanwhile, the second is suitable due to the fact “Hootenanny” is so wild and incongruent that putting a finger on what it is exactly turns out to be a challenge.

Anyone who is familiar with The Replacements’ debut, the excellently titled “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash”, ought to know that ingredients such as informality, looseness, and wildness are not exactly news for Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars. They are elements that have always been part and parcel of the band’s package, as The Replacements simply do not exist without the good and the bad that are an inherent part of the careless demeanor of four boys that were outsiders among the outsiders and who, despite understanding that rock and roll was the only possible salvation for their lives, were simply unable to keep it together for long enough to grab a hold of that opportunity as strongly as they should have.

“Hootenanny”, however, deserves the name it carries more than any other record by The Replacements because it amplifies the innocent recklessness to a degree that was not reached by the group either before it or after it; and, to boot, it adds fuel to the fire by being stylistically errant to a point that makes it impossible for someone to classify it with any level of certainty. “Hootenanny” is a musical contradiction of the rarest kind: an album that is clearly a step forward in comparison to its predecessor, but that, at the same time, is far more clueless about what it wants to be.

“Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” was brutally focused: it packed a whopping eighteen songs into less than forty minutes because they were played in the fast and furious tradition of the American hardcore scene, and it was able to give the genre a unique sway by anchoring itself on the rock and roll flavors of the punk sound of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. It may have been monochromatic, like most rookie efforts in the style, but it sure was exciting and knew what its purpose was. “Hootenanny”, contrarily, simultaneously breaks away from that mold, hence leading the boys much closer to the kind of music that would give them three borderline masterpieces, and staggers around aimlessly and drunkenly. Its performances are so all over the place it feels like a rehearsal for an album rather than an official release; many of its tunes are so underwritten they could pass for demos; and it shoots towards such a ridiculous amount of targets it feels like a work-in-progress.

Shockingly, though, even if such nature definitely holds the record back tremendously, it does not demolish it entirely. As history would go on to prove, The Replacements sure knew how to write gigantic statements whilst hanging on the very edge of utter chaos; and although “Hootenanny” does not prove that ability, as it simply is not good enough to have numerous tunes that could be considered unquestionably excellent, it at least hints at that unlikely skill.

The cuts “Run It”, “You Lose”, and “Hayday” – though exciting and energetic – show the group treading water and revisiting the vicious punk spirit of their debut. The soul of “Hootenanny” is actually found in its other nine tracks, which have The Replacements having an absolute blast by seemingly doing whatever it is that came to their minds when the tape started rolling. Obviously, such irresponsible mindset gives birth to moments that, in spite of being clearly fun for the performers and somewhat endearing for the audience, are not exactly successful: the title track and opener is built on a traditional blues progression that gets more chaotic by the second as Westerberg shouts “It’s a hootenanny” repeatedly; “Willpower” is an unexpected shot at post-punk which, mixing the atmospheric drum-and-bass darkness of The Cure and Joy Division, stretches for too long; and “Mr. Whirly” breaks up a standard punk number with a mid-section taken straight out of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.

The unbridled madness, however, does have its notable results. Even if based on hardcore instrumentation, “Color Me Impressed” has such a sweet melody it is almost bubblegum pop, making it an undeniable The Replacements’ classic. “Take Me Down to the Hospital” has a fantastic running bass line by Tommy Stinson, turning a punk track into a bouncy boogie. Over the beat of a drum machine and decorated by textures produced by guitars and keyboards, “Within Your Reach” is an excellent power pop ballad. “Buck Hill” is a stellar jangly instrumental that nods to early R.E.M. and gives signs of some of what was to come for The Replacements in the future. “Lovelines” is downright hilarious, as it is impossible not to laugh with Westerberg as he reads – and mocks – classified ads of a personal nature found on a local newspaper while the rest of the group executes one playful shuffle. And closer “Treatment Bound”, recorded precariously, is a marvelous acoustic song that shows how strong Westerberg’s songwriting could be.

“Hootenanny” is awfully hard to pin down. While most albums tend to be a very static portrayal of artists during a certain period of their lives, The Replacements’ second effort might as well be a picture that was taken with the target in motion and that, as a result, came out as a blurry unidentifiable mess. There is failure and there is success; there is moving forward and there is standing still; and there is both proof that it was a haphazardly put together product, which arises in its lack of focus, and also evidence of some careful planning, as the album carries a good deal of lines that are so smartly crafted it is hard to consider they were made up on the spot in spite of how impossibly sharp Westerberg can be with a pen. Regardless of those irregularities, “Hootenanny” is – in the least – a fun ride, because although its overall amateurish vibe can turn some away, there is something infectious about listening to a band like The Replacements have such a blast. And it is exactly such a feeling that “Hootenanny” encapsulates.

Machine Gun Etiquette

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Album: Machine Gun Etiquette

Artist: The Damned

Released: November 2nd, 1979

Highlights: Love Song, Melody Lee, Plan 9 Channel 7, Smash It Up

The Damned were great pioneers. After all, not only were they the first punk rock group from the United Kingdom to release a single, 1976’s “New Rose”, but they also – beating both The Clash and the Sex Pistols by some months – hold the distinction of being the first representatives of the genre based on the Queen’s islands to put out an album, 1977’s “Damned Damned Damned”. History, however, ended up not being too kind to the blokes from London, for while The Clash and the Sex Pistols seem to be eternally interlocked with the idea of British punk rock, The Damned remain too obscure to have their name recognized by a wider audience.

Perhaps, such a fate can be attributed to the fact that, despite writing some pretty remarkable tunes, the band clearly lacks that transcendental track that refuses to fade into the abyss and succeeds, therefore, in reaching new generations; or maybe what The Damned truly miss is that one defining record that leaves such a considerable mark in history that its title and quality resound through time strongly enough for it to be rediscovered over and over again by young music lovers. The most accurate answer, however, is probably a combination of these two factors and a few others, but regardless of the solution to the mystery, the fact remains that The Damned are relatively unknown.

If there is an album by the band that could carry their name forward, though, it would be their third effort: “Machine Gun Etiquette”. One could easily argue that “Damned Damned Damned” is a more relevant piece due to its historical value and its truer adherence to the fast, raw, and basic ethos of punk. And that evaluation would not be too out of the mark, because “Machine Gun Etiquette” – as its release date indicates – sits right in the middle of a transition, one where the world was abandoning the tight confines of the genre’s smoking wreckage and heading to the much wider palette of sounds of the post-punk movement.

And The Damned, as a living organism that existed in that context, was not immune to that change, because the album shows the group beginning to shed their original skin for something different, a much needed transformation considering the disaster of their sophomore work, “Music for Pleasure”. Certainly, the position of “Machine Gun Etiquette”, stuck right between The Damned’s fast-paced origins and their unexpected turn towards gothic rock, makes it a weird pick as the band’s signature work, for transitional albums rarely feel sufficiently well-formed and focused to reach that status, but the bottom line is that it encompasses the best of the two worlds The Damned would end up embracing during their career, for its rougher tunes are nicely written, vicious, and varied; while its stylistic experiments in post-punk, still not straying too far from pure rock, stand as nice complements to the record’s most aggressive moments.

On its more raucous side, “Machine Gun Etiquette” exhibits an excellent nose for matching brutal strength with catchiness. “Love Song”, the opener, is very much punk in speed, but it pairs the simplicity of its verses with a chorus that is poppy in melody and a constant soaring guitar that delivers an abundance of short solos; the call-and-response format of the title track works like a call to arms, a characteristic that is accentuated by a short instrumental interval that evokes the image of marching rioters; “Melody Lee” opens with a sweet piano introduction, an annunciation of the odd sweetness of its melody, before the band blasts recklessly into a relentless attack; “Anti-Pope” is sung so quickly that the group appears to stop in the middle of it for some improvisation in order to allow Dave Vanian to catch a breath; “Looking at You” is a very well-executed MC5 cover; finally, both “Noise, Noise, Noise” and “Liar” have fantastic choruses built for some angry sing-along.

Meanwhile, the album’s cuts that completely go beyond the boundaries of punk rock, which are a minority, seem to anticipate some of what was to come for rock music in the 1980s. “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” and “These Hands” use keyboards to evoke very distinct feelings, with the former going for an apocalyptic vibe in its darkness and structural chaos, as if it were a lost Echo & the Bunnymen track, and the latter assembling an unexpected circus tent that attracts demented clowns.

The highlights of that diverse bunch, however, are two tunes that are more grounded in straightforward rock. “Plan 9 Channel 7” is punk rock for the cemetery, as the junction of its church-like keyboards and expansive guitar sound creates a dense gothic atmosphere that gains contours of vampirism thanks to Vanian’s baritone vocals. Aiming towards a rather different target, “Smash It Up” – broken into two parts – slowly builds to a destructive conclusion: the guitar of its opening instrumental segment rings with a cleanliness that would make it fit like a glove in an R.E.M. or The Smiths track; the song, however, soon speeds up into music that is the perfect soundtrack for an audience to do exactly what its title and chorus urge one to before ending on a drunk choir that seems to be performed by individuals that are about to realize they may have gone too far in their inebriated outburst.

With that aggregation of odd parts, “Machine Gun Etiquette” does ultimately come off like a document that captured a creature right in the middle of its metamorphosis, as it is clearly leaving behind the past whilst not having its feet totally planted in the future. Still, the quality of its pieces (with “These Hands” being the sole weak tune) as well as the strong show put on by the band, as both Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible pull off the performances of a lifetime while drummer Rat Scabies appears in much better form than he did in the debut, make “Machine Gun Etiquette” not just the definitive The Damned album, but also an excellent portrait on how the bridge between punk and post-punk was constructed.

Combat Rock

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Album: Combat Rock

Artist: The Clash

Released: May 14th, 1982

Highlights: Should I Stay or Should I Go, Rock the Casbah, Straight to Hell, Inoculated City

When The Clash gathered to lay down the bases of what would turn out to be their fifth full-length studio work, the band certainly had a problem in their hands. The punk rock movement that had guided the group through their first two releases was, by then, long gone. To make matters worse, the ground they had explored in their subsequent works, “London Calling” and “Sandinista!”, was so vast that almost nothing they could potentially produce would be revelatory, because where the former had been an eighteen-song stylistic shift that saw the quartet embrace genres related to rock as well as the black rhythms they encountered in the multicultural arms of London; the latter was a delightfully indulgent trip through world music that, via the natural ups and downs contained in the vastness of its thirty-six tracks, dynamited every single barrier between the band and the styles that existed outside of their geographical confines.

Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon could, therefore, not really produce anything that would come off as being bigger than what they had already done; likewise, they could not put together a more varied package than those of their previous two efforts. Their answer to the tight corner into which their past excellence had taken them was “Combat Rock”.

When compared to “London Calling” and “Sandinista!”, “Combat Rock” feels almost inconsequential: it only has twelve tunes and it runs its course before the fifty-minute mark is reached; in other words, it is a normal album rather than a notably ambitious product. However, there are bridges that can be built between it and its predecessors. For one, “Combat Rock” is not hermetically shut. Surely, even during their punk days, The Clash always showed awareness regarding what was musically going on outside the domain in which they operated; however, the influence of “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” can be felt in the sense that, here, no walls whatsoever stand between “Combat Rock” and the world.

Unquestionably, the blood that runs through its veins is still politically engaged and socially conscious; its tunes, after all, approach matters such as the fight against authoritarianism, the existence of rampant inequalities, the proliferation of atomic weapons, the cruelty of the capitalist engine, the love society has for violent entertainment, the damages caused by wars, among many others. Still, that punk aura is diluted in the music itself, which mostly abandons aggression for the sake of stylistic flexibility. In hindsight, though, where “London Calling” and “Sandinista!” – due to their releases in 1979 and 1980, respectively – seem to boldly foreshadow the world music tsunami of the 80’s, “Combat Rock”, in the way it lets diverse rhythms freely seep into its heart, feels like it is merely riding the dominant wave of globalized sounds. The absence of a more prominent trailblazing nature, however, does not stop “Combat Rock” from feeling audacious.

African percussion, recalling the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”, emerges as an integral element of many tunes, often fighting for the spot of ranking as those songs’ leading instrument; unusual composition structures abound; spoken passages are not a rarity; and, melodically, Strummer and Jones appear to take some inspiration out of the Middle East. It is a cauldron of influences that gives “Combat Rock” an exotic vibe, as if it had been crafted by a group of Englishmen that exiled themselves from their home country for a while in order to get in touch with the world, losing some of their British aura in the process and gaining a beneficial cosmopolitan spirit along the way.

As such, there is a degree of Englishness to some of the tracks: “Know Your Rights” is as ferocious and as punk as The Clash ever got; “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, with its classic riff and famous call-and-response format, is an unashamed and successful shot at chart-friendly rock; and “Atom Tan” is a shiny piece of guitar-oriented pop. What dominates “Combat Rock”, though, is the worldly. The dancy reggae catchiness of “Car Jamming” almost makes the capitalist horrors Strummer sings about come off as amusing. “Rock the Casbah” is part disco and part Middle Eastern rebellion. Both “Red Angel Dragnet” and “Ghetto Defendant” pair up rhythm-centered instrumentation with a blend of singing and talking, with Paul Simonon and Kosmo Vinyl narrating and acting out the violent event that the former talks about and writer Allen Ginsberg beautifully spilling his own poetry over the latter. Meanwhile, “Overpowered by Funk” dives into the genre that names the song; “Sean Flynn” is a very weird atmospheric piece of free jazz; and the start-and-stop cinematographic nature of “Death Is a Star” makes one feel like they were transported to a charmingly decadent theater.

“Combat Rock” does not work completely. “Know Your Rights” may be powerful in lyrics, but it lacks the sharp melodies and dynamic shifts Strummer and Jones used to create with so much ease, and that missing extra spark can be noticed in many other tunes that rather than reaching for greatness are merely satisfied with achieving some quality. Furthermore, “Red Angel Dragnet” gets lost amidst its narration, “Overpowered by Funk” is clunky thanks to its genuinely annoying sound effects and melodic hooks, and “Sean Flynn” is pointless indulgence.

These issues make the album be inconsistent; its high points and interesting experiments, though, make it worth it, with its two major hits (“Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah”) and the pair of “Straight to Hell” and “Inoculated City” appearing as highlights. Out of that final duo, the second stands out due to how its mechanical marching army-like progression matches the content of its lyrics; meanwhile, the first is a unique anthem whose existence could not have happened without the focus “Combat Rock” puts in rhythm. Lyrically approaching English and American resistance towards immigration, especially the latter’s treatment of Vietnamese children fathered by soldiers during the war, it is a dark, atmospheric, and moving number that speaks volumes about The Clash’s firm position as a heavily political and musically inventive group. And although “Combat Rock” does not capture that machine at the peak of its powers, those two elements gain fantastic traction in the tracks where they meet true inspiration, which makes “Combat Rock” a good farewell from a lineup that would fall to pieces soon afterwards.

All Mod Cons

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Album: All Mod Cons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 3rd, 1978

Highlights: To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time), Mr. Clean, ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

No other band had as much of an influence over the mod revival movement that took place in the United Kingdom during the late 70s as The Jam did. And, of course, no revival of note could happen without the execution of some sort of alteration on the subculture that is being brought back to life. For the group formed by Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton, and Rick Buckler, the extra ingredient they employed in the reanimation of the comatose mod genre was none other than punk. The original mods – namely, The Who and the Small Faces – had built their tunes on what the 50s and 60s had brought forth in terms of R&B, pop, and soul.

Comparatively, with one extra decade of musical history behind them, The Jam had the opportunity to drink from those same sources while giving them an energetic and rough edge that English punk rockers had proven to be a viable commercial alternative. As such, with their feet firmly set on two major musical currents from two distinct eras, Weller and his peers crafted a sound that had the shambolic honesty of The Clash’s early phase and simultaneously boasted a killer instinct that allowed it to bite on major pop hooks as soon as they hit the water.

Punk with pop affectations was by no means new, as both the Ramones and The Clash had – each to a degree – dabbled in that realm. However, it was the mod inspiration that set The Jam apart. Their aggression, though certainly powerful, landed with sweet notes thanks to their melodic inclinations, cleaner production values, and a instrumentation that knew how to kick and punch as well as it knew how to create mellower moments; and much of their career was spent traversing a bridge that led them further away from punk and progressively closer to pop.

As the third piece of a six-album arc, “All Mod Cons” stands numerically towards the middle of that journey; however, in many ways, it feels like its true beginning. “In the City” and “This Is the Modern World” were solid records with a lot to say musically and lyrically; yet, in between them, little to no evolution is perceived, as in both the band appears not to be confident enough to truly merge the movements that had influenced them. In “All Mod Cons”, contrarily, the gear unmistakably shifts, as Paul Weller merges anger and sweetness to build a record of power pop that carries a pocket knife under its immaculate clothing, being as prepared to charm as it is to attack.

In “All Mod Cons” The Jam does not completely abandon punk: the opening title song clocks in at under eighty seconds and shows Paul Weller complaining about the fact their label will surely drop them if they fail to deliver a hit this time around; “Billy Hunt” is so fast-paced it can make one’s head spin; and “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street”, which looks at how cultural degradation and the disintegration of freedom walk hand in hand, has as its main hook a simple catchy riff that would have been right at home in The Clash’s debut record.

However, signs that the pop vein is finally standing in equal footing alongside the band’s aggressive tendencies abound. “English Rose” is a sweet, yet perhaps a bit too flat, folk ballad whose lyrics are smart enough to make one wonder whether Weller is writing a love letter to his home country or to a girl; “Fly” also ventures into balladry, but gains energy in how the acoustic picking of its verses makes way for an electric chorus; “It’s Too Bad” is so poppy it could have been on an early The Beatles LP if not for the bitterness of its words; and “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” are masterpieces of dynamics. The former matches moments when Weller, over gentle guitar-playing, looks smitten by the delights of fame only to eventually break down into explosions of frustration when the condemns the emptiness of it all; and the latter, one of the best tunes of the era, grows ever more pulsating and paranoid as it travels through its five-minute length, going silent when the protagonist reveals his fear of being beat down by thugs hanging around the station and speeding up when he is in fact struck into unconsciousness.

“All Mod Cons” is filled with those moments of power pop delight: they come in how The Jam mixes fierce riffs with ringing arpeggios that recall the work of Elvis Costello in “My Aim is True”; in how the record’s melodies are strong and smooth in equal parts; and in how the band targets accessibility without compromising candidness. It is not all about aesthetic beauty, though, as Weller infuses brains into his songwriting as well. Social and political matters still are of great importance to the singer, but here, inspired by Ray Davies, as the inclusion of a frantic take on The Kink’s “David Watts” indicates, he goes all out on character studies, whether it is the middle-class smugness of the protagonist of “Mr. Clean”, which makes Weller so mad he resorts to threatening the man’s integrity; the loss of individuality perceived by the narrator of “In the Crowd”; and the miserable members of English society that lead such dull lives that the only relief they find is in their imagination, as seen in both “Billy Hunt” and “The Place I Love”.

More than providing social insight through music, the acidity generated by themes such as those solidify The Jam’s position as a band that had the political concerns of their biggest punk influence, The Clash, but approached them via a very different pair of lenses while carrying these ideas to a poppier spectrum. It is a blend that allowed the group to stay in perfect consonance with the two cultural phenomenons they drank from in order to build their sound, and “All Mod Cons” marks the moment when these branches were truly merged into a full-fledged musical concept.

Horses

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Album: Horses

Artist: Patti Smith

Released: December 13th, 1975

Highlights: Gloria, Redondo Beach, Free Money, Land

As the 70s reached their midway point, the music scene that had been incubating inside New York City’s legendary club CBGB started to claw its way out of the confines of the East Village. Out of a class that included numerous acts that would write their names in music history, such as Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, Patti Smith was the first one to have a record published. Due to its pioneering nature, and given it was the primary work coming out of a house that would shape both punk rock and its highly varied child, post-punk, “Horses” – Smith’s debut – is sometimes singled out as the recorded birth of the former genre. However, trying to attach the punk label to the album is the same as attempting to adjust facts to fit them inside a preconceived narrative. Where punk was a reaction to the indulgent turns popular music had taken during the preceding decade, “Horses” has two tunes that last for more than nine minutes, not to mention an opening six-minute multi-phased track; where punk was about simple instrumentation, “Horses” leans as much towards guitars as it relies on pianos and keyboards; and where punk had objective lyrics, “Horses” flirts with poetry.

That is not to say Smith lived inside a bubble that protected her from the musical revolution that was boiling around her. She was (and still is), by all means, a punk, whether due to the emotional rawness of her performance or because of how she challenged the social and musical establishment; her free poetic spirit, though, led her to grounds only she could reach. “Horses” carries a rather unique combination of rawness and artistic impulse: Smith sings her lyrics as if she were an actor on a stage or a poet who, in an explosive recital, declaims their work like a fiery preacher reads a bible; her band, meanwhile, sounds reckless; and producer John Cale, of The Velvet Underground fame, makes them strike a perfect balance between a hard rock and roll edge and fine art, an equilibrium he knew quite well as the viola player of a group that merged the rock universe with avant-garde aspirations.

“Horses” opens up with a track that perfectly captures that mixture. “Gloria”, the cover of an anthemic Them song, has the energy of its three-chord construction preserved; Smith, however, preludes it with an original piano segment that slowly builds up to the moment her band kicks in. What follows is a sequence of seven songs that, sometimes within the same track, wildly navigate between a highly artistic spectrum and a realm where confrontational punk rock towers over everything else. In “Birdland”, “Break It Up”, “Land”, and “Elegie, Smith makes one question the limits that separate lyrics and poetry; she evokes powerful clashing images and launches them upwards with great power, creating dream-like explosions where thousands of shards of feelings and meanings float in the air waiting to be captured by attentive listeners. She does it solely by using a piano and the sound of her moving voice (as in the brief “Elegy”; or in the lengthy “Birdland”, that starts out quietly and eventually makes its way to a cathartic gripping climax); by going for sheer rock in “Break It Up”, which features the skilled guitar playing of Television’s Tom Verlaine; or by merging both strands of her sound in the three-part epic that is “Land”.

At the same time, Smith also emerges victorious when a more straightforward pop rock vein takes over. In “Redondo Beach”, she uses a reggae backdrop to tell the story of woman desperately looking for her lover, whose body has appeared on the titular location following suicide by drowning; in the dramatic “Free Money”, she talks about the relentless poverty her family was stuck in during her youth; and in “Kimberly”, written for her baby sister, verses that are guided by bass and drums anticipate the post-punk sound a couple of years before it became mainstream. In just eight tracks, then, “Horses” holds more value, variety, and artistic courage than many bands and songwriters are able to achieve in their entire careers. In slightly more than forty minutes, Patti Smith exposes punk rock to the world, shuns the limitations of the movement, experiments (and succeeds) in an astounding variety of styles, proves that writing lyrics can work as an exercise in poetry given the right amount of talent, and shows her worth both as a rock and roll singer and as a declaimer that makes her voice be heard amidst the urban chaos. It is no wonder “Horses” is often proclaimed to be one of the greatest albums of all time.

Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols

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Album: Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols

Artist: Sex Pistols

Released: October 28th, 1977

Highlights: Holidays in the Sun, God Save the Queen, Anarchy In The UK, Pretty Vacant

Whether or not one considers “Never Mind the Bollocks” to be the classic the mass music media claims it is usually hinges on how one perceives the punk rock phenomenon. If the album is seen as the starting point of the movement, and therefore as a mind-blowing new kind of music, it will receive the accolade of being the musical equivalent of discovering a new continent (one inhabited by infuriated and wild youngsters). On the other hand, if it is analyzed as yet another punk rock record in a line of albums by various groups that were taking a page from the MC5 and The Stooges and revolting against overly pompous music, it is bound to be anointed as average or rubbish. As it is often the case, the most balanced way to look at “Never Mind the Bollocks” lies somewhere between those two extreme poles, and through that view it is possible to see that while it is indeed a rather derivative work, it is easy to understand why it is seen as so revolutionary.

Musically, there is absolutely nothing new about “Never Mind the Bollocks”. The Sex Pistols are, through the eleven tracks contained here, emulating – whether they admit it or not – punk bands from the United States that had come before them. The reckless fast pace in which the tunes are played, the constant and uniform guitar-strumming that is virtually the same in all songs, and their bare-bones construction with few chords that are played in a never-ending cycle until the band runs out of things to say had already been forged – and rather well-explored – by both the New York Dolls, in their 1973 debut and 1974 follow-up, and the Ramones in their self-titled 1976 record. Moreover, by the time “Never Mind the Bollocks” was released, other groups in Britain itself (The Clash, and The Damned), in Australia (The Saints), and in the United States (The Heartbreakers) had beaten the Sex Pistols to the punch by publishing albums that ran head-first into that formula.

The difference is that the Sex Pistols broke into the mainstream in a way none of those groups did, and they achieved so by not only having a pretty efficient marketing machine spinning behind the curtains, but also by producing tracks that were as catchy as they were angry. “Holidays in the Sun”, “God Save the Queen”, “Anarchy in the UK”, and “Pretty Vacant” have more hooks in their repetitive melodies and guitar riffs than one can count, and it is no wonder each of them have become timeless classics. Additionally, similar to what The Clash did, the Sex Pistols were original in putting politics into punk; however, where Joe Strummer was a political activist with a clearly leftist program and a goal in mind, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were unapologetic nihilists: they did not give a damn about anything, and they wanted to watch the world burn for the sake of it.

That is why, throughout the album, the Sex Pistols aim a cannon of vitriol towards pretty much everyone, and their goal is clear: to offend as much people as possible (the queen, the conservative British society, their former label, the New York Dolls, futile teenagers, Londoners, politicians, those who were afraid of discussing sex and abortion, and more). And by doing so they garnered the attention of teenagers and young adults who saw, in that relentless venting, the escape valve to their frustrations and anger. In the voice of Johnny Rotten and in his mad singing, the musical highlight of the album, those people found a way out of whatever hole they were stuck in and even if “Never Mind The Bollocks” features more average tunes than it does great ones, it is quite hard not to notice it and be somewhat entertained by its shameless madness.

Fun House

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Album: Fun House

Artist: The Stooges

Released: July 7th, 1970

Highlights: Down on the Street, Loose, 1970, Fun House

Although The Stooges’ self-titled debut is gigantic in historical terms, for it is usually appointed, along with the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, as the albums that spawned punk rock and all kinds of music that are played with more focus on instinct and anger than technique and calculations, it is a flawed product. The Stooges became notorious for their ferocious live performances and, when taken into the studio and produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, much of that energy was lost. The problem was not the quality of the songs (they were pretty excellent for the most part) or the fact Iggy Pop couldn’t smear meat on his body, attack the audience, or stage dive on record. The issue lay in how the band seemed to be just going through the motions when locked up in a room, as if they were so far out of their natural environment that they were too bored to care. Less than one year after that album came out, though, The Stooges would redeem themselves, and allow those who could not go to their shows to witness their might, in “Fun House”.

The line that would define Iggy’s persona (“I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”) would only appear in the successor to “Fun House”, the impressive “Raw Power”, but it is here that such a character was fully forged and first shown to the major public. Iggy and the band sound like caged animals trying to break free, and it is not just because the vocalist emits animal growls and howls like a maniac in all of the album’s songs. The Stooges’ rage is palpable; the guitar riffs are so threatening they likely walk with a concealed pocket knife; and listeners who turn on their stereos in a volume that is worthy of the record will likely find themselves jumping around their living rooms punching the air while secretly hoping they will hit something, or at least they will wish doing so were socially acceptable. “Fun House” hits like a ton of bricks, and despite its dark contours, it is ridiculously alluring; one can easily picture Iggy Pop himself standing in front of a decrepit garage door with a worn out sign that reads “Fun House” while inviting passer-byes in with a wicked smile on his face.

Iggy Pop may be the Grand Master of the party, but the only reason he is able to come off as an impossible-to-tame combination of man and animal is because The Stooges are a train that threatens to come off the tracks at any second due to its uncanny momentum. Few riffs in the entire discography of rock music pack as much menacing energy as the one from “Down on the Street”. The double guitars of “Loose”; the circular pounding riff of “T.V. Eye”; and the mad eight-minute jazz-rock jam of the title track – which combines a thumping bass, cutting guitars, and a wild saxophone – are bound to make those who bear witness to their power lose all control of their senses; and the perfectly recorded drums, which appear to be in the same room as the listeners, are heartbeats that feel like powerful punches.

By being the album in which The Stooges are finally let loose, “Fun House” also contains incredible bits of improvisation, and although the group is not exactly technical, it is their impeccable primal instincts that take over in these occasions. Both “Dirt” and “Fun House”, which run past the seven-minute mark, are classic examples of shining gems that emerge because the guitars and the saxophone, in the case of the latter, are allowed to run free; however, even tunes that are more straightforward, such as “Down on the Street”, offer opportunities for improvised guitar licks and shouts that lend uniqueness and wildness to each riff repetition. The extreme culmination of all of that is “L.A. Blues”, the album’s closer, and an instrumental about chaos that sends its message by producing a cacophonous rock symphony. The Stooges wrap up their wild party by tearing down the garage, and the ending is suitable, for – after this one – no other celebration could live up to such greatness and be worthy of the location.