Friday, April 01, 2011

Children Of July (MRR # 335 - April 2011)

You might have noticed it’s been a couple of months since I contributed a column to this magazine. I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching and have discovered a few truths about myself that I think I’d been avoiding, to the point that I debated whether or not I should really continue writing this column; whether or not I really have a place here. But I’ve discussed it with Layla and Mariam, and they’ve assured me that MRR is a place for diverse views and opinions, and that they welcome all sorts of opinions.

I’ve mentioned in this column before that I grew up in a Protestant household, and I went to church regularly as a child. I was a member of an after-school Bible study group called Scripture Union, and have read the Good Book cover to cover. In fact, even as I grew disillusioned with organized religion as a teenager (primarily due to the ugliness of religious sectarianism in the west of Scotland) I still have always turned to the Bible for support during difficult times. As I became a punk rocker and involved in the class struggle I soon learned to keep this part of my life a secret, as religion was extremely unpopular amongst the punks, but I consoled myself with the realization that who was Jesus, if not the first punk?

More recently, I have branched out; towards the latter half of 2010 I was having something of a crisis of spirituality. A lot of evil is said and done in the name of Christianity. I had a hard time reconciling the Jesus I thought I knew with so many of the acts done in his name. In something of a tailspin, I reached out desperately for solace. First, I studied the Torah and the Koran. Then, I attended introductions to Zen Buddhism and practiced yoga. I read the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text followed by the Hare Krishnas. I devoured books on Rastafarianism. With each chapter, with each class, I was slowly realizing something that, deep down, I knew all along: at their core, all religions share pretty similar tenets, but each has seen their message distorted along the way to serve the needs of some human leader. Religion is not the problem: hierarchy, leadership, human frailty. The scales had fallen from my eyes.

My calling, then, seems to be to create a world religion that distills the natural goodness from the existing religions, but which has no hierarchy, no difference between the oldest sage and the freshest acolyte. Since the beginning of the year I have been holding daily prayer meetings with similarly-minded people I have met here in San Francisco: disillusioned Christians, alienated Muslims, angst-ridden Buddhists, and assorted soup-kitchen celebrities. We have been sharing ideas, thoughts, and fears. Fear is probably our biggest enemy, but the very depth of our fear tells us we have stumbled upon something righteous and holy. Something essential: something that will finally change the world for the better. We call our group The Children Of July, for reasons that will become clear later.

Anyone with any experience of working in cooperatives will tell you how difficult it is to run any kind of organization without a hierarchy. For the purposes of keeping things moving efficiently, the group unanimously voted to appoint myself as temporary ‘coordinator’, or de facto leader. Everyone involved has accepted my assurance that I will step down as soon as we feel we have a sufficiently strong grassroots organization.

The reasons I was chosen so unanimously are somewhat important to the story of the genesis of the Children of July. While the group started with around twenty members, the less committed among us fell away as the pressures of daily prayer meetings became too demanding; eventually we were left with a hard core of seven members. As I learned about the world’s major religions, I discovered that the number seven is significant not just in the Bible, where it appears many times over (Seven days of creation, seven days of famine, seven spirits of God mentioned in Revelation, the seven deadly sins, etc) but also in Hinduism (seven Chakras), Islam (e.g, seven levels of heaven and hell) and Judaism (the seven branches of the Menorah to give but one example). This felt especially significant to me, as I was born on the seventh day in the seventh month (July). In fact, I was born in 1970, so I turned seven years old on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year 1977. Therefore, the number seven has always carried a little extra weight for me. The more I read the holy scriptures of the world’s religions, the more I realized why: I was put on Earth to unite the people of the world under one umbrella of peace and love. I say that not as any kind of religious guru: I am just a regular guy. I’m not the second coming of anything. But I feel this as my calling and I can no longer fight the urge to share this with as many people as possible, starting with you, the readers of Maximumrocknroll. I hope that over the coming months I can use my column to disseminate some of the findings that come out of our regular prayer meetings, and to encourage readers to form their own chapters of the Children Of July.

So far, we have tried to distill the basics of what we believe to be the foundation of the future one world religion. We have come up with some basic tenets, but they are not commandments in the traditional sense. Being part of the Children Of July is a choice, and once you’ve made that choice, following the tenets is almost self-fulfilling. In fact, our tenets are more like group affirmations, with which we begin every prayer meeting.

1. We will honor our Mother and our Father.

By now, there can be no doubt as to the existence of some kind of deity, who for the sake of argument we will call God, or the Holy Father. However, we also feel strongly that there is a living, breathing force at the heart of all life on the planet; for now, we will call that force Mother Earth. This is central to the belief system of the Children Of July: we are all children of the Holy Father and Mother Earth. Everything we do must honor them. For two long, humans on this planet have disrespected our Mother, and as such have enraged our Father. War, famine, ‘climate change’, disease: these are our punishments for continuously mistreating our Mother. We feel that this can go on no longer. The first step in changing the planet is to adopt a completely vegetarian diet. All members of the Children of July are encouraged to follow this path.

2. We will drink the wine.

Unlike more orthodox religions, we see nothing inherently wrong with enjoying pleasureable foods and substances, as long as they don’t infringe on the first tenet. Growing up in Scotland, I was introduced to a particular brand of wine made by Benedictine monks at Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Acolytes of The Children of July find that sharing the wine leads to a more convivial atmosphere at the prayer meeting and will be an important factor in the future unification of all world religions. A word of caution, though: over-indulgence in the wine led to some heated arguments at early meetings and may be one reason our numbers have been so greatly reduced.

3. We will spread the word.

It took me a while, but eventually I figured it out: From the earliest Gospel singers, to the most conscious Reggae musicians, to the Bad Brains, by far the most intense music is made by those who are answering the call of a higher power. Each member of the Children of July has vowed to start a band as a way to get the message across, and we ultimately envisage COJ bands and musicians of all genres and types in each city and town across the world, spreading the word and unifying the people scene by scene, until we are all living in peace.

4. We will love each other.

It sounds so simple, yet we make it so complicated. Just love each other. Learn to forgive. Drink the wine (See no. 2). It feels good. The number seven crops up again here. As I said, there are seven core members of the Children of July. The possibilities, the miracles that can be achieved when seven people just love each other will blow your mind. I encourage anyone who is interested in anything I have to say, to go out and start their own chapter. Find six more like-minded people and watch the sparks fly.

5. We will actively seek the seventh son of the seventh son.

As I said earlier, the number seven is significant. While I have written a lot about peace and love, the truth is the world is at war, and unfortunately, no one is listening to you or me. What the masses respond to (besides TV talent shows) is a miracle. We intend to do all we can to bring one about. As we grow a grassroots network, especially one built on love and peace such as we are, I have no doubt that couplings will arise and families will naturally develop. We feel it is beneficial that male acolytes father as many children as possible, with the express intention that ultimately one lucky female acolyte will carry the miracle baby, the seventh son of a seventh son. The arrival of such a child will cast shame on those who continue to wage war and disrespect our Mother Earth. While it contradicts many Western codes of decency and morality, in order to maximize the chance of this happening, we have agreed that each male acolyte may keep up to seven wives.

This may sound as if we are emphasizing procreation over recreational or homosexual lovemaking: on the contrary. See tenet 4: We will love each other. If we can do it in groups of seven, all the better.

So those are our first five tenets. I have to admit, it is difficult for me to share this with the public so soon, but I feel that it’s time. I hope that at least some of you can appreciate what we are trying to do; with any luck, you’ll be inspired to get in touch and start your own chapter. I would like to host a gathering of all world chapters of the Children Of July here in San Francisco, if not this year, then hopefully in July 2012. See you there?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stop Taking Me For Granted (MRR #328)

7 Seconds may have sung “I Hate Sports” but in my experience punks do not hate sport. Punks may definitely hate jocks, but almost all punks I know love sport. In the US, baseball seems to be the punk sport of choice, from Tim Yo’s longtime love for the San Francisco Giants, to Al Quint’s die hard Red Sox fandom. I can get into a little baseball from time to time, especially going to see the A’s play the Red Sox at Oakland Coliseum, but really, there’s only one sport that punks the world over are really into, and that is football, or soccer. And, at least here in America, that is never more apparent than during the World Cup.
In Scotland, the passion felt by the majority of the populace for football is inversely proportional to how well our national team can play the game. From an early age my dad kitted me out in a Rangers strip and purely by default became a fan of that team. We never went to a game or anything; he was a regular at Ibrox before he was married but once the kids came along he had better things to do on a Saturday afternoon. Namely, spend all day in the pub. I’d have to go round the Pine Lodge at dinnertime and ask the old guys going in if they could tell Big Davey McNaughton it was time for his tea. “Aye right ye are young shaver!”
I digress. My dad was a Rangers fan so I was a Rangers fan, there was really nothing else for it. Motherwell were the closest team in proximity but strangely most kids chose either Rangers or Celtic, based on religion as much as anything else. If you were a Protestant, you were Rangers, if you were Catholic, Celtic. It’s stupid when you look back on it but the rivalry was ferocious. We had loads of Catholic friends so we avoided the Sectarian shit at all costs. Neither my mum nor my dad would go anywhere near an Orange walk, but my next-door neighbors Janet and Alec took me a couple of times. I just thought it was a parade. The colors, the marching; the flute bands sounded good although I didn’t really know the songs. The fat, red-faced men in the bowler hats and orange sashes looked really pompous and self-important. I didn’t understand why the march would pause outside the St. Brigid’s Chapel and the drummers would pound the big bass drums on their chests extra hard. I told my best mate Brendan Burns all about it later.
We played football every day. Me and my brother Ross, Brendan and Anthony, Greg and Kenny Aitken, Stuart Broon, and others. All summer, every day from right after breakfast til it got too dark to see: at the height of Scottish July, that could be as late as 11pm. We mostly played in front of the garages at the end of our lane, with a lock-up garage door for a goal. One goalie and two teams trying to beat him, or ‘World Cup’, which was every man for himself. We had two full football pitches less than five minutes walk away but if you went up there you ran the risk of encountering kids from other streets, which could end up in some territorial aggro. It was safer to stick to your own scheme, which is what we did.
Following in my Dad’s footsteps, I joined the Newmains Primary School football team, trained by Mr. Quilter. We played at Dallie’s park, an actual football ground with terraces and everything. It was home to our local basement-league team, Coltness United, nicknamed The Dahlias. Don’t ask me how they got that girly nickname but maybe it’s because they never won a game. Still it was exciting to play on their ground. I’ve been back there since and in reality it was tiny and decrepit, but coming out of the Ralgex-smelling changing rooms onto the grass turf it may as well have been Wembley or Hampden to us.
I hardly got a game for the Bumble Bees (our school ties were black and yellow stripes) despite my best efforts. I tried to get my dad to practice with me and help me improve but he never found the time. My school report card was one long column of ‘A’s until you got down to a ‘C’ for PE. “Team games are not Allan’s forte” was the comment. Back then, not being good at football was basically akin to wearing a tutu to school. Luckily, my brother went on to become a star player, saving the family name from disgrace.
I half-heartedly follow the Scottish and English premierships throughout the season, but every four years the World Cup comes around and I once again get caught up in the youthful excitement I felt in the 70s for the competition. I grew up during a good period for Scottish football. It might be hard to believe from our poor showing in recent decades, but we qualified for five world cups in a row from 1974-1990. Argentina 1978 is the first one I have real memories of. Most of us boys were already fitba crazy: the World Cup pushed us over the edge to insane fanaticism.
My interest in the game waned in the early 80s, as I got into bikes, music, and girls. By the mid-80s though, something was in the air that almost drew me back. There was a fresh buzz on the street around football games that was pretty alluring. Football violence was nothing new: Old Firm games (Rangers vs. Celtic) were well known to be particularly brutal. But a new breed of hooligan was starting to emerge: gone were the shaved head, Docs, and team scarves of the stereotypical soccer thug, and in came the Casual, decked out in designer gear and fashionable sportswear. Although my friends and I were more into BMX and skateboarding, we had neighborhood connections with guys who were Motherwell Casuals. As it turned out, Rangers and Celtic were late to the party on the Casual thing. Their fans were probably too deep into the sectarian thing to see what was happening. Second-tier Scottish teams like Motherwell and Aberdeen ended up with the best-known Casual firms. We farted about on the outskirts of the scene, buzzing gas, breaking the odd window, and nicking designer gear from shops in Glasgow, but as someone with no stomach for violence I was more into clothes and girls than actually going to games and causing trouble. Just wearing the clothes would invite trouble though. What you wore sent a secret signal to other Casuals and if someone didn’t recognize you as one of their crew you were asking for bother. You wore the clothes anyway because they looked good and it was exciting to be part of this secret subculture that was so hated by society. The media had a field day over the Casual phenomenon and it was the common mainstream opinion that these thugs were ruining the game. So for a while we donned our Patrick and Nike cagoules, Pringle jumpers, Farah slacks and Adidas running shoes to ride our BMX bikes. Typical teenage fashion dabbling. We were looking for an identity.
Eventually we drifted away from the casual thing but continued to attract attention from the local hard-cases, even though we really just wanted to ride our bikes and be left alone. Mindless thugs don’t like to see people doing anything fun or creative.
Eventually most of us moved away, and now I’m watching the World Cup online on my laptop. We’ve come a long way since 1978 and obviously Scotland are nowhere to be found but I still get a buzz when someone breaks away from his mark and makes a burst towards the goal. Football fever is at an all-time high here in the States and it’s been a great time. The final is tomorrow and even though I’m all the way in California, in my head I’ll be watching it on a rare warm July evening in Scotland with Ross, Stuart, Greg, Kenny, Brendan, Sandy, Russ, Gib, Rab, and the late Chris Rooney (RIP). We will remember the good times forever!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Gang Of 40 (MRR #327)

You can stubbornly avoid resetting the clock on your VCR after a power-cut, but the battery-powered clock on the kitchen wall ticks on resolutely. The idea of freezing time at a certain point in our lives has such allure; during those golden years of teenage freedom, or perhaps at that elated moment when our team scored the winning goal at the final whistle to bring home the European cup. In case you can’t guess, I’ve been indulging in bouts of nostalgia lately. Partially brought on by an impending birthday, partly from looking at old photos posted on the Internet, and partly from spending time reminiscing with my oldest friend. If I could once again recapture the feeling of that first band practice in a garden shed, or that first road-trip with friends to a BMX contest in England. How about that first time I saw Snuff and Leatherface, or my first trip to San Francisco and the pilgrimage I made to Maximum Rocknroll magazine, meeting the legendary Tim Yohannan for the first time?

I spent my youth without much thought for the future. When prospective employers or representatives of State oppression unearthed that hoary old chestnut about where I saw myself in five years, I could only lie and make up something that I thought they’d want to hear, something that would result in some kind of income-producing labor or at the very least a guarantee of continued dole money. I made choices by not choosing, by following whatever path seemed most interesting at the time. Not that I never took any risks or anything but I’ve managed to be pretty lucky so far. When I moved to San Francisco in 1995 I never imagined I’d still be here 15 years later, but I didn’t have an alternative in mind either. And so here I am. Could be a lot worse. I’m living many peoples’ dreams, I suppose. I could be drinking away my redundancy money from a long-gone factory job, or wearing the tinfoil cloak of smack addiction, or lying dead in a gutter, killed by hyper-aggressive Burberry neds. Perhaps that’s overly dramatic; it’s not like the only options open to me were A) move to America or B) fail at life. But the option to move to the US seemed the best thing at the time and it’s worked out okay so far.

Of course when I look back through the green-tinted bottom of the Buckfast bottle of nostalgia I don’t want to freeze time completely: there are a few changes I’d like to make… I may never have to jump in a customized DeLorean and go back to the late 60s to make sure that my parents actually get together, but I would certainly love to go back and make a few tactical haircut recommendations to my tonsorially experimental teenage self.

The aforementioned old friend, Sandy (who has enjoyed guest appearances in this column many times before) lives in Austin, Texas. So as well as our shared upbringing dodging gangsters and casuals in a small former mining village in the West of Scotland, we have the common experience of navigating life as Scots in America. We talked about this a lot during my recent trip to Austin. It’s funny, I don’t think either of us ever articulated a desire to live in the States when we were younger: it was unspoken but there was an unmistakable draw, fuelled by BMX and skate magazines, as well as American punk records and zines. I think I mentioned in an earlier column about how we imagined life in the US to be one endless sunset pool session, like an infinite JFA ad from Thrasher. I wish I was still that naïve and hopeful, but many years have gone by since those days and at times it definitely seems like the negative aspects of life can get the upper hand on the positive. I mentioned an upcoming birthday earlier in this column, and indeed, by the time this sees print I’ll have turned the ripe old age of 40. I once told myself I’d stop doing this column when I hit that age. I felt like there were enough old men dictating the ins and outs of punk rock on the pages of Maximum Rocknroll. However, I only just got back into doing the column after a self-imposed hiatus brought on by issues in my personal life. I don’t feel quite ready to throw in the towel just yet. Plus, given the demographic makeup of our esteemed and benevolent leadership cadre, it’s been a long time since the direction of the magazine rested solely in the hands of grey-haired white men. But I promise not to turn my column into yet another monthly orgy of nostalgic self-absorption. In these last throes of my thirties I have continued to experience new ‘firsts’ to add to those listed in the first paragraph: First, after years of BMX riding, I finally mountain-biked for the first time in my life on some technical single track one balmy sunset evening in an area of Austin green belt. I’d ignored mountain biking for years (even though I live only a few miles from Marin, where the sport arguably started) but it was a lot of fun, if hard work: my own fault for going out for the first time with a couple of hard-charging seasoned vets; Secondly, despite being a fan of their records, I never had the chance to see early 90s NY hardcore legends Rorschach live. I finally rectified this in Austin and they were even louder and heavier than their recorded output. Getting to see them was better than I could have imagined.

Okay, so seeing the reunited Rorschach had a certain nostalgia factor to it, but I saw many current bands that I’m excited about in Austin too, many of them for the first time. Some highlights for me included Give and Lion of Judah from DC, Brilliant Colors, Grass Widow, Wild Thing, the Young Offenders of course, Arctic Flowers, and The Marked Men. Notice how many of those bands are from the Bay Area too: there’s a particularly vibrant scene here right now with an amazing variety of bands. Hopefully MRR will have our ‘locals only’ Bay Area comp LP out fairly soon with a sampling of what’s been going on around here.

I suppose the purpose of this column is to say, OK, I’m going to be 40 soon, and despite maturing and growing up in a lot of ways, I’m determined to keep racking up ‘firsts’. Perhaps these days I do live my life with a thought to the future, and I’m always happy to reminisce about the happy times of the past, but I do have both feet firmly planted in the here and now. So let’s have it.

Ever Get The Feeling You've Been Cheated? (MRR #326)

Public Image Limited were playing here in San Francisco on their way back from the Coachella festival, which takes place in the desert in Southern California. I’d never seen them live and to be honest I find their catalog spotty: while their many ‘hits’ are top-notch, their ‘misses’ can be downright unlistenable. Not to mention, tickets were $60. No opening band or anything. I’ve never paid that much for a show in my life. I’ve come to regret that though. If I look back at the times in my life where I’ve passed on a show because the ticket price was too high, am I actually richer now because I didn’t see them? Or would I be richer for having seen The Pixies even though it was eight quid (which was more than double the price of a DIY punk gig at the time)? Or Johnny Cash, James Brown, or The Stooges? Who knows? Anyway, as luck would have it, just as I was discussing the pros and cons of splurging on a ticket with Mr. P. Rooney, I get a call from one Sean Dougan, or (SD) of this very rag, and he’s phoning to offer me two free tickets to the Public Image Ltd concert that he scored off some beer rep in the pub, but can’t use. Back of the net.

We get to the gig and the venue is only three-quarters full, if that. Price you pay if you set the price that high Johnny. Once the lights go down it looks a bit more full. I buy my first and last $7 Stella at the bar and note that the T-shirts are $35. What’s the percentage markup on that? A ticket, a t-shirt, and a couple of drinks and you’re well over a ton in! What is this, arena rock? The show commences and the band is in good form. Lydon seems to be in a cheerful mood: something about playing in PiL agrees with him. He’s not the catty, sneering lout we’ve come to expect from his public persona. Just as well, considering how much most of these folk have paid to be here. They play most of the songs I’d expect (or want) to hear, and a lot more besides. The set lasted about two hours, which is an hour and a half more than I want from pretty much any band. They lost me, the momentum wasn’t there, but the bulk of the crowd (predominantly late 30s and up) was chuffed and loving every minute, so fair play. Still, I’m glad I didn’t pay for my ticket. I wonder if coming to San Francisco is weird for John Lydon, considering the Pistols broke up here?


The past couple of weeks have seen a number of Banksy pieces pop up around San Francisco. Banksy is famous for his distinctive style of graffiti, or ‘street art’. He was apparently in town to coincide with the premiere of his film. When I first caught wind of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” I was pretty excited. Banksy is one of the few street artists that I feel is actually saying something important with his work. The art itself, the way he goes about it, and his anonymity have combined to generate unprecedented interest in the work of someone society at large still considers a vandal. Not to mention the unprecedented sums of money the sale of his work has generated. I wasn’t sure what form a Banksy film would take: he goes at great pains to protect his real identity from the media, although he no doubt has a circle of friends, family, and co-conspirators (many of whom appear in the film) who know who he really is. I’ve read that his own mother denied having a son when confronted by a reporter from the Daily Mail.

As it turns out, there is footage of Banksy in the film, but with his features masked or blurred, and his voice distorted. The scenes of him and other artists working nocturnally in the streets are the best parts of the film. The story is less about Banksy, however, than it is about Thierry Guetta, the filmmaker who captured all of this footage, and his unusually fast rise to the top of the graffiti art world. Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA, is a street art hanger-on who happens to constantly carry a video camera with him. Eventually he starts dabbling in art himself, and if the storyline of the film is to be believed, Banksy suggested that he should have a little art show in order to get him out of the way while the film could be finished. At this point the film started to remind me of a very different movie.

In “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle”, Malcolm McLaren attempts to deliver a how-to of sorts, a guide to ripping off the music industry for as much money as possible. McLaren was a genius at marketing, promotion, and hype. “Find yourself a group. Make sure they can’t play.” The Pistols obviously could play, but it certainly worked for Malcolm to market them as inept thugs. As “Exit Through The Gift Shop” plays on, it’s easy to imagine Banksy as a McLaren-type svengali. Thierry Guetta’s ‘art’ is shit: almost a pastiche of the work of the likes of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, etc. However, with the help of some promotional blurbs from the likes of the aforementioned artists, interest in Guetta’s (now Mr. Brainwash) art show reaches Beatlemania levels in LA. He’s on the front page of the paper, people are queuing up for days before the opening to get first look at this brilliant new artist on the scene. He ends up bringing in over a million dollars from his first ever art show.

It’s hard to believe, but it really happened, and the film definitely feels like a commentary on how easily something genuine can quickly become co-opted, hyped, and sold to an eager public. The question is, how much of this was engineered by Banksy, and how much of it is just an interesting coincidence that just happened to end up getting filmed?

Once I’d made the connection with Malcolm McLaren in my mind, it was hard to not see clues throughout the film. Banksy’s stencil work isn’t a million miles removed from the cut’n’paste detournement of Jamie Reid’s work for the Pistols, and Shepard Fairey has routinely used ’77 era punk iconography in his own work. Still, McLaren was a master manipulator whose own artistic output didn’t live up to his ego. Banksy is an accomplished artist in his own right already; if he did create Mr Brainwash, it’s hard to see how it would really benefit him.

YouTube: PiL Press Conference in San Francisco, 1980

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Films, more zines, Barack Obama (MRR #308)

I don't consider myself a film buff of any description. The wife and I have a Netflix account but have a tendency to keep a DVD for at least a month before returning it unwatched. A complete waste of money. I think watching films is an impulse thing for me: if something happens to come on the telly that looks interesting I'll watch it, or if I feel like watching a film I'll go to the video shop and see what tickles my fancy. Unfortunately the video shop nearest us closed recently (prompting the switch to Netflix) although there is a really good one that's not that far away. I hardly ever go to the cinema these days, despite living in a place where you can hardly move without passing a great art-house theatre or multiplex mall. You get the best of all worlds here, the latest special effects blockbusters play next door to the most obscure indie documentaries, so choice isn't the problem. Price might be though; it's ridiculous what they charge for films nowadays... when I was knee-high to a grasshopper you could go to the matinee and catch a Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial, the latest Charlie Chaplin, and a newsreel about good old Tommy knocking the Hun for six (all enjoyed while sucking on a bag of jujubes), for under a shilling.
Like most red-blooded boys growing up in the Seventies, I loved Bond films. The first ones I saw in the pictures starred Roger Moore as Bond, which was confusing because I was used to him on TV as The Saint. However, there is only one true Bond, and that's Sean Connery. There was the added thrill that he was from Scotland, so it wasn't totally unrealistic to think I could grow up to be like him. Like most red-blooded boys, I wanted to be a secret agent when I grew up. The fact that I am not a secret agent (or an actor) is probably the only department in which I am not exactly like either Bond or Connery. James Bond films shaped me into the hyper-nationalistic, violent, xenophobic misogynist I am today.
My next great love was kung fu films. Bruce Lee became another hero of mine and I had a massive poster of him from the final scene of one of my all-time favorites, Enter The Dragon, on my bedroom wall. I remember being really bummed out that I was blond and definitely not Chinese so I knew I wouldn't grow up to be just like Bruce Lee. I have a hazy recollection of seeing Enter The Dragon at the cinema but since it came out in 1973 (when I was 3) I'm either wrong or I saw a re-release of it. I definitely remember my dad taking me to see The Big Brawl (1980) starring Jackie Chan. I used to come out of films like that so excited and full of energy. The film wouldn't quite leave me for a while: part of me would believe that I was in fact a kung-fu master, and that any passer-by on the rainy Scottish night-time street was a potential enemy from a rival Shaolin temple.
I think I came to the realization that there was more to the pictures than action films around the time the UK finally got a fourth television channel. Channel 4 was initially started with a remit to focus on obscure, fringe programming. They also had a reputation for showing a lot more skin than the other channels. As my adolescent self stayed up far too late watching Channel 4 on my little black and white portable telly in the hope of seeing some tits (or even the odd patch of pubic hair) I was inadvertently exposed to all kinds of artsy-fartsy experimental film making, not to mention plenty of social realism, documentaries, and a lot more queerness than I was comfortable with at the time.
As I got older (right up to the present I suppose) my tastes have centered around the sort of gritty social realism exemplified by Ken Loach or the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 50s and 60s. I love Ealing Comedies. Film Noir. Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Comfort And Joy, Local Hero). What list of film favorites would be complete without Spinal Tap?
I almost forgot to mention one film that dominated just about every kid's psyche around my school: Quadrophenia. I wasn't a Who fan before I saw it and it actually took me a while after it to become one. I also was never really a mod, I wasn't anywhere near cool enough, but that film came along at just the right time for me and many others, shaping musical tastes, fashion styles, and aesthetics for years to come, in the UK at least. I doubt whether The Jam and other mod revival acts, not to mention 2-Tone, would have been anywhere near as big without the movie version of the Who's rock opera.
Do yourself a favor and seek out some of the stuff I've mentioned above, and now you know the sort of stuff I like, get in touch with your own recommendations.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner:

I'm writing this just after the voters of America elected their first non-white president, Barack Obama. It's still early days obviously (he doesn't take office for a couple of months!) and a lot of folk seem to have lofty and slightly unrealistic expectations for the man, but the mood is hopeful. I've said before in these pages that I don't put much faith in 'democracy' or party politics but at the very least it's encouraging that the leader of the free world is African-American.
Less encouraging is the success (by a slim margin) of Proposition 8 here in California. Proposition 8 contained an amendment to the California Constitution defining marriage as a purely heterosexual institution. This measure was sponsored by a cabal of conservative, right wing, and religious groups in response to the Supreme Court's ruling that same-sex marriage was legal in this state. As someone who's been married for over thirteen years I often tell my queer friends that it's not all it's cracked up to be, but in all seriousness marriage (rightly or wrongly) bestows certain rights on people and to deny those rights to a class of people is discrimination. 'Defenders' of the 'sanctity' of marriage insist that the Proposition was not about discrimination or about taking away anyone's rights, citing that gays could attain all the same rights as married straights by entering into civil unions. This is not just a smokescreen; it's an outright lie. While a civil partnership does bestow some of the same rights as marriage, some crucial rights are still left out. For example, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't yet recognize civil unions. I have been able to live and work (and pay taxes) in the USA for so long because my spouse is American. If I was gay, forget it. Still, the fight against Prop 8 isn't over: the Yes on 8 campaign was funded heavily by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons, who not so long ago promoted polygamy), but as a religious organization with tax-exempt status, they're not supposed to use their money to try to influence legislation. At the very least they should lose their tax-exempt status, but let's face it, it probably won't happen.
As a result of writing about some of my old favorite zines a few issues ago I heard from my old friend Adam of Go! fanzine, who was pleased to be able to demonstrate to his girlfriend that he was once at least "a wee bit famous." Glad to be of help Adam. See ye in the Halt. I was also grateful to receive the latest issue of Seven Inches To Freedom, an entertaining read out of Florida. This issue (#6) is in fact dedicated to the best of the Florida scene. Considering that the only decent thing out of Florida is Tom Petty and I can only stand him in small doses, I expected a pretty thin issue, but in fact the zine is crammed with stuff, including an extensive discography of almost every Florida label since 1989 and an argument for the first Scrotum Grinder 7" being the best Florida record ever. I'm going to have to take your word for it on that one, boys and girls. If you want to check it out yourself I believe one US dollar will suffice (double it if yer forrin): Joe Lachut/SITF, PO Box 457, Fort Myers, FL 33902-0457)
While on the subject of zines, a recent visit to Issues (a great magazine store in Oakland) reminded me that I was remiss in not mentioning Chunklet when discussing my appreciation of mean-spirited humor. Although it doesn't come out very often, Chunklet never fails to entertain, despite the fact that it consists almost entirely of indie-rock inside jokes. Also, for some reason, they take a lot of digs at MRR even though none of the writers (and certainly none of the readers) have probably read an issue of Maximum since the mid-90s, if ever. The issue I just picked up, #20, is, predictably, dense with jokes in type so tiny you'll need a new prescription by the time you've finished it. I can't even begin to start listing some of the contents so just take it from me: you need it. It's a little pricey at $10 but one issue goes a long way. This will be in your bathroom magazine rack for months. Go to
Wow, I think this might be one of the longest columns I've done for the mag. Still, I missed last month's deadline so I've got some making up to do. PO Box 22971, Oakland, CA 94609, USA. I surf my ego at I've also been a somewhat irregular contributor to Bricks And Mortar, the music blog started by MRR's own cheeky mockney chappie Tim Brooks. See what Tim and I (and some other familiar faces) have got to say for ourselves at Cheers!

Skate Muties & Riot Grrrls (MRR #306)

I was enjoying an after-work Stella Artois along San Francisco's scenic Embarcadero with young Timmy Brooks the other day when we got to reminiscing (as we often do) about the good old days. We got onto the subject of our favorite UK punk zines from the 80s and early 90s, especially the best of the bunch, Skate Muties From The 5th Dimension. It's been noted that they 'borrowed' a lot of their schtick (not to mention their entire layout) from Rev. Norb's (Sic)Teen zine, but no-one did a better job of skewering the UK punk and skate subculture at the time. That period was a grim one in the world of UK punk zines. I was obsessed with zines for a while. I wrote off for a new one just about every time I got a crudely mimeographed advert in a letter from someone (in those days every letter came in an envelope stuffed with extra dross in the form of distro lists, adverts for tapes, records, or zines, or pamphlets about animal rights - they would have cost a fortune to post if the entire British punk scene wasn't using the same half-a-dozen second class stamps, barely held together by the soap and glue used to render the postmaster's franking machine useless). A succession of flimsy, badly written, one-or-two issue punk zines found their way into my letterbox. I'd get something in the post every day, but for the most part there was very little worth wiping one's arse with. There must have been a list of rules and regulations somewhere about what you could or could not include in your zine. The first thing that had to be excluded at all costs was any sense of humor. However, as long as you had some reprinted Hunt Saboteurs pamphlets, articles on a woman's right to choose (written by a bloke, obv.), interviews with anarcho celebs of the day (our very own R. Kanaan of Political Asylum was a popular choice) and condemnations of any band that charged more than 50p to get into their gigs, you were alright. Screeds of poorly photocopied, cataract-inducing miniscule type were produced condemning so-called anarchist activists for putting milk in their tea. Debate raged over whether or not Colin Conflict was seen patronizing the local McDonalds. Hundreds of dour, insipid metallic thrash bands without a tune between them were celebrated in crudely stapled zines that appeared to be printed on the same paper used as toilet paper in Soviet gulags.
This was the environment that Bristol's Skate Muties attempted to liven up with their mean-spirited, irreverent humor. Although they themselves were skateboarders and punk rockers, they made no bones about pointing out and ridiculing the more embarrassing elements in those scenes. Students, crusties, shit bands, skate posers, BMXers, foreigners of all stripes, Welshmen, northerners, and southerners all came in for a well-deserved slagging, but it was all done in such a unique, funny way that even if you were the object of humiliation, you had to laugh anyway. I think there are issues of this on the internet to be downloaded if you want to see what I'm talking about, although I don't know if it would have the same impact today. I think someone should compile all the issues into a book though. After SM5D some of the Muties went on to start a magazine in a similar vein called Bugs And Drugs that was just as funny but less about punk or skating and more about British culture in general if I remember. I think they tried to capitalize on the popularity of the adult comic Viz but maybe they were a bit too clever to be that successful.
Naturally, SM5D wasn't the only zine that tried to inject a sense of humor into an otherwise tedious and boringly self-referential world. Some others that came up during my chat with Tim included the infamous Have A Good Laugh (even if you didn't always agree with him, Trev HAGL wasn't afraid to ruffle a few punk purist feathers), Raising Hell, and 666 1/2. One of Glasgow's three straight-edgers (though none of the three of us can claim it any more) Adam Johnston put out a funny zine focused on international hardcore called Go!
By the early 90s (with a few exceptions) most of these zines had called it quits, having been replaced by Riot Grrrl zines. The zines that weren't done by Riot Grrrls were very much influenced by that scene, so while there were many (no doubt worthwhile) articles on how to string together a couple of guitar chords, put on your own gigs, and take back the pit from macho white men (all while having a herbal abortion), there was a distinct lack of humor. After that the zine scene seemed to pretty much spiral into an abyss of introspective, naval-gazing 'personal' writing and I lost interest in it, bar the odd issue of Cometbus.
It might seem (yet again) that I'm just being an old man griping about the good old days, but I do think that there's nothing going on these days that has the element of wicked humor that was so good about Skate Muties, HAGL, etc. If there is, I'm just not aware of it. I think people are reluctant to say anything negative about each other, even in jest, for fear of offending the wrong person. Everyone takes themselves so seriously. Are people are all nicey-nicey in their record reviews and blogs because they don't want the free records to stop coming, or because they don't want to piss off their famous(!) friends? Come on, let's all have a laugh while having our say, eh?

PS I should point out that Trev HAGL continues to publish zines under the names Savage Amusement and Negative Reaction, so hats off to him. He must be the UK's longest-running zinester. Cheers!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Everything Turns Gray... (MRR #305)

Except for the singer for Agent Orange's hair. Do you think he dyes it? He must be getting on a bit. Agent Orange was my favorite band for a while. They were among the first American punk bands I was exposed to, thanks to their skate-rock credentials. I had a skater friend called Campbell who subscribed to Thrasher and had an auntie that lived in America and would send him records and tapes of bands he read about in the Pus Zone. Thanks to this relative, Campbell was also one of the few people I knew who wore actual Vans shoes, not just the copy ones that only cost a fiver from the cheap shop and fell apart after one attempted ollie.
I'd lie on my bunk bed with the rain battering the window, blasting my Agent Orange tapes and reading Campbell's old Thrashers or well-thumbed copies of Freestylin' (the BMX magazine that Spike Jonze worked on before becoming a famous film and music video director). Agent Orange's beach-baked surf-punk sound promised the perfect, endless bitchin' summer that I was sure existed on the other side of the world. Sunset pool carving sessions with the Bones Brigade, Miami hoppers on Venice Beach with Woody Itson and Martin Aparijo, or airing out of the huge bowl at Pipeline Skatepark with Eddie Fiola and Brian Blyther. Agent Orange were my imagined soundtrack for all my teenage California dreams, as well as appearing on the soundtrack of many 80s bike and skate videos. They were also my introduction to surf music, leading me to seek out such surf classics as Dick Dale's version of 'Miserlou' long before it became a dorm-room staple thanks to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
Agent Orange released two albums in the 80s, several years apart and sounding quite different, trading in the buzzing SoCal punk sound of 'Living In Darkness' (Posh Boy) for a glossier 80s pop sheen on 'This Is The Voice'. When I first heard that album I thought it sounded like U2. It grew on me though and wimpy as it is, some of those songs are still favorites to this day. After that they seemed to disappear and I suppose I forgot about them. Their albums were squeezed onto the shelf and only occasionally got pulled out for nostalgia's sake.
When I moved to America I didn't meet many people who had shared my childhood love for Agent Orange. I got the impression they were considered a joke amongst too-cool-for-school hardcore hipsters. Admittedly, the early 90s was a time of us-vs-them, and admitting to enjoying a band with such brazen pop sensibilities could be considered a crime on a par with enjoying Green Day's major-label output. From time to time I'd see ads for Agent Orange shows in or around San Francisco, usually in weird venues that punk bands never usually played. I'd heard that it was just Mike Palm (singer/guitarist) and a couple of hired guns. People who had caught this later incarnation of the band hadn't exactly given them rave reviews. That, coupled with my reticence for reunion tours and nostalgia, prevented me from ever going to see them, although I always had a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I ought to at least get to see this band, my one-time favorite, at least once in my life.
So, a couple of weeks ago, Agent Orange was playing at the Uptown in Oakland, about five minutes from where I live, on a Saturday night. There was pretty much no excuse for not finally taking the plunge and seeing them.
The wife and I got to the Uptown (an unremarkable but decent-sounding black box of a rock club) too late to catch the opening band but in time to catch local streetpunx The Sore Thumbs. They were great, if somewhat derivative; some good guitar playing and catchy melodies. They played for too long for an opening band though. It seriously felt like an hour. I was a little bit confused by the crowd. Looking around at the amassed handful of skater bros, Burning Man hacky-sack types, and Hot Topic punk chicks, I felt like I was at a midweek bar show in a Northern California hick town, not seeing a legendary American punk band in a major metropolitan area.
Agent Orange took the stage and performed to a half-empty venue. I felt a pang of sympathy for Mike Palm that at this point in his career, after being a major part of one of the most influential scenes in American music, he can't fill a small venue in the San Francisco Bay Area. He didn't seem to care though; the band soundchecked with surf instrumental 'Mr. Moto', then launched straight into the classic 'Everything Turns Gray', and from there ploughed through a swathe of greatest hits from both albums, their EPs, and pre-'Darkness' demos, as well as a couple of tracks from their (unknown to me) 1990s self-released CD. Every song was tighter and faster than on record (sometimes to their slight detriment, especially on some of the poppier stuff from 'This Is The Voice', which could have benefited with a softer touch). The bass player bobbed up and down energetically like a Muppet the entire time, but was pretty harmless, except for screwing up the intro to 'Living In Darkness', which is the one time the bass has to take a really prominent role. The drummer stole the show though. Mike Palm is unquestionably the captain of the ship but the drummer was at the rudder that night. For all that it was small and somewhat unusual, the audience met the band's energy with boundless enthusiasm. The 'pit' was made up of computer-programmer types in Birkenstocks and glasses.
At their core, Agent Orange is a solid, tight live act with a repertoire bursting with timeless, classic punk tunes. So where were all the punks? I think Agent Orange just isn't cool enough for some people. I admit, the on-stage banter verged on the corny. I think that if the band had broken up just after 'Living In Darkness', or maybe even before releasing it, and then got back together right now for a reunion tour, punk scenesters would be wetting themselves at the thought of seeing them. They could have broken up after appearing on the Rodney On The Roq compilation, and they might have become another Middle Class or Rhino 39: ghostly touchstones that had faded into punk lore only to be resurrected by a future generation of hardcore historians.
So instead of stoking the loins of eBay-scouring message-board punk enthusiasts, with their sophisticated palates refined by copious obscure kbd rarities, Agent Orange play the Warped Tour or half-empty places like the Uptown, serving up 80s nostalgia to knock-kneed ageing skaters and a dose of what poppy punk could have sounded like before all those NoFX clones got hold of it to neophyte mall-punks. I'm not sure who's missing out more.
I'm not trying to make a case for Agent Orange's relevance in 2008. 90% of MRR's readership will think I'm lame for liking them or for writing this column about them, but too bad. I may never see them again, but I'm glad I went to see them this once, and that it wasn't a total bummer. Now that little voice in the back of my head has finally been appeased.

Seven Inches of pure pleasure (MRR #304)

I know it's a far from controversial opinion, even in the era of the digital download, but the seven-inch single is by far the superior format for recorded music ever invented. That's not to say that all seven-inch singles are great, but done correctly, e.g. one perfect, two-and-a-half minute pop nugget on the A-side, and a carefully chosen B-side (especially an equally great non-album track), it cannot be beaten. (Due to the comparative shortness of most hardcore songs, the EP naturally becomes the preferred format, but still on a 7" please).
That said, I came to this realization pretty late in the game. My introduction to collecting music came via cassettes, as we didn't have a record player in the house. I went through a succession of cassette players that my dad bought off some guy in the pub. The first one came with a Johnny Cash tape, the first piece of music I ever owned. My wee brother and I played it over and over again. I don't know if it occurred to us that we could go out and get more tapes. Those songs are embedded in my memory, never to be forgotten. It could have been worse I suppose. The mind boggles at the thought of the utter garbage that could have been on a tape deck bought off some random boozer in the Pine Lodge. (Later, in a moment of desperation for blank tapes, I recorded The Stupids' Peel Session over the Johnny Cash tape. Still got it though). Eventually I got a cassette player that also had a radio, exponentially expanding my musical exposure. I spent the summer listening to BBC Radio 1 all day, and taping the hits off the Top 40 rundown on Sunday afternoons. Inevitably, I ended up listening to the radio into the late evenings, when the pop DJs went home and the night shift came on–Tommy Vance with his metal, Janice Long with her weird indie stuff, and of course John Peel. I'd hear all sorts of stuff that I didn't understand or thought was too weird (or, in the case of 'White Riot' by The Clash, too fast. Too fast? Have you listened to that song lately? It plods along).
At some point a record player turned up in our house. It was a behemoth of a thing. It probably weighed fifty pounds and came equipped with a non-functioning 8-track player, which were already completely out of vogue by then. So much for taping records for friends.
I had started buying albums on tape, but now I could finally purchase vinyl. I continued to buy LPs though. For a while, I was especially fond of singles collections, greatest hits albums, and 'Now That's What I Call Music' compilations. I viewed these releases as offering the best value for money. All hits, with minimum filler. Given that I was spending my hard-earned paper round money, that was a huge consideration. Singles just didn't cut it. Two songs for a quid, when you could get a whole album for a fiver, or sometimes less? Do I look thick? It took several years of buying albums with two or three good songs (the singles, naturally) and a bunch of tossed-off piss takes for me to realize the error of my ways. I still couldn't bring myself to spend a lot of money on records though. Luckily, I discovered the joys of the Woolworth's 50p record box. The slightly out-of-date hits of the 80s at 1970s prices! I snapped up singles by Madness, The Jam, and Adam & The Ants, as well as a few guilty secrets I won't mention. And while you were in there you could help yourself to as many Kola Kubes and Strawberry Bon-Bons as you could stuff in your mouth from the Pick'n'Mix (or Pick'n'Nick) aisle. (After a considerable dry spell in the mid-80s, Woolies' cheapo box later yielded scores along the lines of Public Enemy and Run DMC singles).
Once I started getting into harder-to-find punk and hardcore, my main sources were taping stuff off the John Peel show, and trading tapes with friends, both locally and through the post. Amongst the few of us in our area that shared similar tastes, it was unheard of for all of us to buy the same record. One person would buy an LP and at least five of us would get a tape of it. There are some albums that I consider among my favorites to this day that I still only have on the tape someone made me in 1985. It still throws me off to hear some of those records played somewhere and not hear the extra tracks tacked on by Sandy at the end to fill the space on the C90.
This process of acquiring music led to many disappointing purchases, and the discovery of second album syndrome. Someone would tape me a copy of some band's blistering first LP, and then I'd see a later record by said band in the shop. Since I liked the album I had on tape, I'd dutifully purchase this later release, only to get home and discover that the band 'crossed over' in between the two records. Suicidal Tendencies' 'Join The Army' and 'You Got It' by Gang Green are two purchases that particularly smarted at the time.
I was still passing up any singles that weren't in the bargain bin at this time, on the grounds of value for money. I did eventually start gravitating towards singles and EPs later, but only when they were fairly cheap. I've never really been much of a record collector. For most of my music-loving life, I've been pretty happy to just have the music, in whatever format. Nowadays, that's become easier than ever. For a while, I found myself 'sharing' (ahem) the complete discographies of bands I already liked, filling my hard-drive with album after album I already possessed in some form or another, whether on a cassette dub, CD, or LP. I also downloaded records I'd always wanted to own but had never seen available for a price I could (or would) pay. Once the novelty wore off, and I got over my excitement at finally getting my (digital) ears on some of those long-lost or forgotten gems, it really felt kind of empty. I could listen to 3000 songs in a row on shuffle on my iPod, but most of the time I'd really rather just listen to one perfect single on my record player. So nowadays, if you're looking for me, you can find me in the 7" racks, indiscriminately picking up any old shit on 45 that I passed up first time around when I was skint. Most of what I pick up is still under $3 and I rarely go over a tenner though.
If you've got 70s/early 80s punk and post-punk for sale/trade, send me your list: PO Box 22971, Oakland, CA 94609,

Chaos In Tejas 2008 (MRR#303)

Sandy and I sat up until 4am, out in the shed in the garden of his Austin home. We chinwagged long into the night to a soundtrack of John Peel Session tapes recorded many years ago on a cheap ghetto blaster in a Newmains bedroom. The Prong peel session was they best thing they ever did, and that night it sounded like some kind of sonic bulletin from the distant days of the mid-80s. Yeah that's right, I said Prong. Blistering, is how I'd describe the guitar sound. We also jammed the HDQ Peel Session. HDQ were a funny band: starting off as spiky-topped Discharge noiseniks and turning into Sunderland's answer to Dag Nasty. It wasn't until Dickie Hammond twinned those Brian Baker guitar riffs with Frankie Stubbs' dreary, rain-and-gin soaked Coronation Street songwriting that melodic hardcore finally reached its true potential. Listening to that HDQ session in the shed was definitely a heavy nostalgia trip, but it was ultimately more satisfying than watching Dickie (in full Eric Bristow darts regalia) back on stage with Frankie and turning in a greatest hits set. Leatherface weren't bad at all, in fact both sets I saw at the Texas fest were solid, but it's not 1988 any more, for us or for them. The nostalgia just felt empty. Memories; ghosts of passions first stirred in the bloom of youth.
The next evening we set out on bikes. A twenty mile party on wheels, through the hills above Austin with a messenger bag of beer. The circuit ended with a swim in the creek amongst ducks and turtles. Two little kids asked us to keep an eye on their fishing poles - bent safety pins tied to two tree branches and a slice of Wonder Bread for bait. You should have seen the one that got away. Huck Finn was hiding in the bushes.
At sunset we dodged sightseers and rode past clouds of leathery bats as they began their blind riot charge into the warm Texas evening. Secret samosas were consumed before stopping at a bar called the Hole In The Wall. It's unlike the Hole In The Wall in San Francisco: different dicks hang out in this one. The bartender stood Sandy and I to free whisky beverages, which we enjoyed just before local alt-country act Lonesome Heroes took the stage. I can't stand the term 'alt-country' but the band was really good. They call themselves psychedelic country but I couldn't tell if any of them were actually tripping. In a town whose musical legacy includes the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Butthole Surfers, everyone has to be a little psychedelic, right?
We spilled onto the street after the show and went for more tasty samosas at the secret samosa spot. There wasn't anything that secret about them, they were right there in the counter display. I suppose it's the fact that you don't expect to be able buy a samosa in a donut shop at 2am.
Maybe I should backtrack a bit, to the actual fest itself? Do you really want to hear about the bands and who played what? Roky Erickson was basically the same as the first time I saw him last year in San Francisco. It's still amazing to get to see him play those old songs. People were stoked that Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top joined him onstage for the last two numbers. I have to say, although I'm aware of ZZ Top having a respectable body of work prior to their 80s MTV video fame, I basically only know them from that era. Sorry, but that stuff is shit. All of it sounds like it was programmed by a sleazy, bourbon-drinking robot. Which, now I actually type that, sounds like a recipe for the best music ever. Maybe they got the wrong software for the robot or something.
Anyway, I didn't mean to go on about ZZ Top. Let's move on to London's answer to ZZ Top, minus the beards, Hard Skin. Blistering set of classics on the Thursday night, straight off the bus after another short tour bringing the sounds of fake Oi to spoiled Yanks. Best line from Fat Bob: "I liked Los Crudos when they were just Mexican, but I like them even more now they're gay." The next day they played on a party boat out in some Texas lake to a 100 unhealthy, sunburned miscreants. It was like a recovery program for people with regrettable tattoos. Tall Dan from punk HQ (eg the MRR house) took a tumble on the kiddie chute, sliced his arm, and stirred up some chum for the freshwater sharks. Later that night he was all stitched up and putting on a brave face. After Hard Skin played on the barge the coast guard had to come out and spirit Johnny Takeaway back to shore so he could jet back to jellied-eel land. Genius can't hang about getting a suntan. Criminal Damage just about managed to get through an impromptu set as a three-piece with the drummer throwing up into her mouth all the way through. As soon as they were done she heaved her ring over the side, only to hit some poor unsuspecting punk swimmers. Oops!
Back on dry land there was more punk nonsense to take in. I managed to miss a bunch of bands I'd wanted to see but what can you do? There's too much to take in. At my advanced age I can't see ten bands a day any more. Afternoon shows. After-parties. Inside shows. Outside shows. Bloody hell.
Once things calmed down a bit and most people had gone home, there was a wee gig at a pizza parlor with The Young and Social Circkle, who were both brilliant. It turned into a mini-fest of its own, with just about every band still left in Austin jumping on the bill. Crude and Fy Fan played two of the best sets of the fest, and even Los Crudos turned in a few songs. It ended up being one of the most fun parts of the weekend, because it was so much like a normal show.
That's when my real holiday started, and where we came in at the start of the column. Thanks to Timmy for organizing the fest, and to Sandy & Jen for putting me and the missus up for all that time.

Cut The Crap: The Clash on PBS (MRR # 302)

I suppose it should come as no surprise to me at this point that whatever small element of danger or revolutionary potential that punk ever had is long gone, but every TV commercial or Hollywood soundtrack featuring the incendiary music of the late seventies serves as a fresh reminder that it has more or less become the classic rock for my generation. It was par for the course then when I was flicking through the TV channels the other night and came across a PBS fundraiser centered around the broadcasting of some recently released compilation of Clash performances called "The Clash Live: Revolution Rock." For those readers outside of the USA (or without a TV), PBS is public television, funded by subscriptions and donations from the viewing public (as well as, increasingly, from corporate sponsorship). The channel usually features the kind of programming (documentaries, BBC costume dramas, etc) that let smug middle-class people feel smarter and better than the kind of people who watch American Idol and Survivor. Their pledge drives are usually built around four-hour specials of the protest music of the sixties and shit like that. PBS is all about the sixties–most of their donations probably come from millionaire ex-hippies. At least, they were all about the sixties.
Picture the PBS studio, with its rows of phone banks for accepting donations, decorated for the evening with flashing police lights, camouflage webbing, and blown up Clash album covers. In between songs, the hosts encourage viewers to call in or go online to make donations of anywhere from $75 to $250. Guest 'experts' have been called in to expound on how important the Clash were to rock history: hippie DJ Pierre Robert, and "rock critic" Alan Light (of Spin, Rolling Stone, Vibe, etc). The PBS host comes on to give us the hard sell. "As an intelligent person, you appreciate and enjoy all different kinds of music, and we're happy to bring it to you." In other words, the Clash are just one more group that can fit on the PBS viewer's CD shelf alongside other PBS-approved fare like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Buena Vista Social Club.
The film itself is a mixed bag. Documentary sequences pair a clueless, sensationalist voiceover ("taking their name from the headlines of the day" ... "they changed the musical landscape forever") with the same hoary old recycled Don Letts footage you've seen a hundred times. Cue the banner being unfurled at Bond's in New York, then Joe Strummer with his ridiculous 80s Mohican taking a photograph from the back of a convertible. Repeat ad nauseam. There are some cool performances though: what looks like a promo video from 1976, shot on a soundstage with amateurish lighting. Mick's out of tune, and the band perform intensely for the cameramen and probably a couple of mates. You can imagine Bernie Rhodes behind the scenes, exhorting his boys to give it all they've got; The band performing "Radio Clash" on the Tom Snyder show with a genuine NY graffiti artist getting up on the corrugated iron backdrop.
Don't get me wrong. I like much of the Clash's music and I think that Joe Strummer was a genuine and thoughtful man. But they were the first punk band to really milk the revolutionary posturing and political rhetoric of the early punk scene and turn it into a massive cash-generating industry. I'm not saying they didn't mean it, maaan... Just that whatever they may have "meant" was probably lost on the crowds at Shea Stadium.
I'm sure that the smiling happy TV presenters were or are fans of The Clash, as are probably a lot of PBS viewers, and obviously The Clash don't represent the be-all and end-all of punk rock in any way whatsoever. It's just that the fact that someone at PBS thought that this was a good way to try and raise money is another nail in the coffin for punk as a movement, for punk as something that stands apart from the rest of society. I've spent a large chunk of my advancing years feeling like an outsider, so it's weird when I hear the music that gave me something to believe in used to sell cars, cruises, retirement plans, or PBS subscriptions.
To contradict myself in the first part of this column, I'll go on record here as saying that the new 'reality' TV show following NOFX on their recent world tour is one of the best shows currently on the box. The best part of the program is their manager Kent. He gets totally plastered all the time but still manages to hold it together enough to string together a sketchy tour that takes in places around the world that bands rarely get to. I doubt these guys could make it to the corner liquor store without Kent holding their hands. Well, actually, I think Fat Mike seems to have his shit together, but watching this I can't help thinking that the two guitarists are lucky they ended up getting into a successful band, because it definitely seems like their alternative would be flipping burgers. I mean, they've been playing for over twenty years but in the first episode one of the guitarists has a problem with a pedal and basically just gives up, like he's helpless. I think what warms me to the show is that despite all their success, for the most part they come across as pretty average normal punk guys that any of us might know. They seem to have their hearts in the right place and for the most part appreciate that they are pretty lucky to be in the situation they're in. The show might be more for readers of Punk Rock Confidential than MRR, though. TiVo it yourself and see what you think.
By the time you read this, Chaos In Tejas 2008 will have come and gone. I don't usually do 'fests' but I'm making an exception. Actually I've wanted to try and get to this one for the past few years but other commitments have always gotten in the way. There are always good bands and Austin is one of my favorite places in the US. Mostly I'm looking forward to hanging out with friends I haven't seen in a while, going swimming, and eating some good food. The main musical attractions for me this year are Hard Skin, Leatherface (with Dickie Hammond back on guitar!), the Marked Men, and especially Roky Erickson. Can't wait.

Wire: Read & Burn 03 (MRR #300, May 2008)

WIRE - "Read And Burn 03" (Pinkflag)
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me when I say that I am a huge fan of Wire. It started, for me, with the song "12XU", which appeared on some punk compilation a friend of mine had and was my first exposure to the band. The record that song came from, Pink Flag, is a perfect album, and still my favorite of theirs. In fact, I put off listening to anything after that record for years. I would pass on Chairs Missing and 154 as they turned up in the record bins, suspicious that they originated from the 'lost years' I'd heard about, when Wire got derailed a bit. I think this worked to my advantage. By the time I got around to picking up those albums, not only had my tastes widened (mellowed?) a little, but I feel like I'd absorbed so much of the band's earlier music that I could pick out the essential Wire-ness of even the least Pink Flag-like of their tracks on the two subsequent records. So there I stayed, for a long time. I adhered steadfastly to those first three albums, eschewing all later output. Sure, I dabbled in bootleg issues of 77-79 stuff like their demos and the Live At The Roxy tracks, but no Wire sounds from those dark detested 80s every graced my ears. Since then, I have grown to appreciate some later stuff: if you can get beyond the slick production of A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck you can detect the strain of controlled tension that run through all their work.
Which brings me to the controversial subject of Wire's production. I think Harvest knobsman Mike Thorne did a great job with the first three records, although the earlier, live, stripped-down versions of the Chairs/154 songs as they were performed on German TV and released on the Wire On The Box DVD/CD package (highly recommended by the way), I can't help wondering if maybe he wasn't a bit heavy-handed with the synths etc.
Wire broke up and then got back together again a couple of times, at one stage with only three of them so they called themselves Wir, which I remember thinking was a bit strange at the time. Then in 2000 they reformed once again and have been a band ever since, although they don't seem to play or release records on a very aggressive schedule. Their post-reunion recordings, for the first two "Read & Burn" EPs and the "Send" album, were hailed as something of a return to form, and while they did mark a renewed and welcome readoption of both velocity and volume, something about the production was still a bit off. They (or at least Colin Newman, who appears to handle most of the post-production these days) seem fascinated with processing sounds digitally, so that guitars sound not so much like individual instruments played by humans, but like some robot supercomputer's nano-engineered idea of what the perfect guitar should sound like without any messy interference from pathetic inhabitants of meatspace. It's almost the opposite of the too-lush production of the 1980s but it serves the same purpose: it dilutes the band's core strengths, which are to be found in its superior songwriting, structure, minimalism, and kinetic energy.
Which brings me to their latest release, something of an appetizer for their upcoming eleventh(! - really?) studio recording. I don't recall seeing it in our review section since it came out, but then the chances of me actually making it all the way to the "W" section of any issue of MRR are pretty slim. I've found myself listening to at least the first track of the EP on the way to work almost every day, so I thought I'd talk about it here. Coming in at roughly the same length as Pink Flag even though it's only got four songs, Read & Burn 03 could almost count as an album in its own right. The first track, "23 Years Too Late" nips under the wire at just under ten minutes long. The remarkable thing is that once it's over I want to listen to it again right away (and have), and I usually get bored if a song goes over two minutes. It's almost a spoken-word piece set to music (usually the use of the term 'spoken word' is a massive red flag, I know): bassist and lyricist Graham Lewis reads a long piece describing a decadent continental scene as a three-note guitar and synth figure builds tension behind, exploding into a propulsive, angry Colin Newman-sung chorus and a squall of bass, guitars and drums. Lewis's terse, pointed delivery could earn him a spot doing voiceovers for documentaries about serial killers, while Newman, quite simply, is still the second best vocalist to come out of the '77 punk era (Rotten of course, since you asked) and is possibly the only one still putting out interesting, exciting music. Of course, the record's not perfect: the processed production makes Robert (Gotobed) Grey's already robotic, metronomic drumming sound like a drum machine most of the time. In fact, I think there might be a drum machine in there as well at times. Still, for a band that's been around for as long as they have to still be producing music this good, skirting the edges of pop with the vitality of much younger men and no small dose of intelligence and wit, is quite a feat. Especially while contemporaries seem content to mine the revival circuit.
It has to be added that as a group Wire seem to be a little far up their own arses much of the time. Don't get me wrong, I think they come pretty close to genius but in interviews it sometimes seems like they do as well. There was an amusing snippet of an interview with Colin Newman in the Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo (Mike Watt has often cited Wire, along with The Pop Group, as one of the biggest musical influences on the Minutemen, especially for their short songs) where it looks as if the producers have collared him on the street unawares. His body language resembles someone trying to extricate himself from a pair of Jehova's Witnesses. On apparently being asked about Wire's influence on the Minutemen he expounds on how much Wire influenced American hardcore bands, saying something along the lines of "especially the way we would do a whole song of just one note." It's here that he demonstrates how out of touch he is with how Wire actually affected people. I'm going out on a limb but I'd guess pretty much the only Wire song that influenced US hardcore was the aforementioned "12XU", and even then probably more because Minor Threat covered it than anything else. That "one note" quote shows that he probably hasn't even listened to very much hardcore, since I can't think of many hardcore songs that stay on one note for very long. Hardcore is about fast riffs, not exploring the sonic possibilities of deconstructing a chord down to its essential spatial coordinates or something. The American bands who really owe a debt to Wire are the 'post-punk', artier bands like Mission Of Burma. In fact, Burma have said that it was only after seeing Wire reform as older men and not look stupid up there that they decided that they might be able to get back together as well. So there's that to thank Wire for too.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

April fool...

So yeah, that last post/column about the iPhone was an April Fool. 
iPhone Punks are real though:

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Maximumrocknroll #299 April 2008

I have seen the future and it is now. Technology has changed DIY punk rock forever. One single technological breakthrough has revolutionized punk, bringing it into the 21st Century with a bang. Not since Iggy stepped from behind the drums in '67, or since Dee Dee learned to count to four in '76, or since Discharge popularized the d-beat in the early 80s, has there been a development that promises to affect punk rock so profoundly.
What is this groundbreaking advance in punk technology I hear you ask? Is it online radio? Is it the mp3? Is it the availability of cheap home recording on PCs? No, it's not any of those things, but you're getting warm.
The single most important event for the future of DIY punk rock as we know it was the introduction last year of the Apple iPhone.
"He's lost his mind", I hear you say. "The iPhone costs four hundred dollars, how can anything that expensive be punk?" Well, punks have been known to buy guitars (and records!) that cost several times that amount, and an iPhone is five times more punk than a Flying V with a GBH sticker, and ten times more hardcore than a Fix 'Jan's Room' with insert. Bear with me.
Apple's iPhone allows you to go about all your punk rocker business, anywhere you want, any time you want. You're on the bus home from work and you want to check on the status of your eBay auctions? No problem! You can also surf message boards to keep up on the latest punk and hardcore news. No longer do you have to wait until you're home in front of your computer to enjoy the benefits of Terminal Boredom, Shit-Fi, or even! You can stream your favorite punk podcasts, or download the latest hardcore hits right from iTunes.
No self-respecting punk rocker is without a MySpace page these days. Keep track of your friend requests and comment wars 'round the clock via the iPhone's wireless Internet access.
Going on tour with your band? Touring will never be the same again. From your iPhone, you can connect with other bands on MySpace to book the tour itself. Keep up with the bookings as you travel, and alert fans to any changes via MySpace bulletins–again, sent from your phone. Getting lost on the way to the show is a thing of the past: some hippy bands may prefer to 'wing it'... not so the modern iPhone-equipped touring unit. You've got maps and directions right there in the palm of your hand. And when you're onstage, don't worry about going out of tune - you can download an application that turns your iPhone into a guitar tuner. That saves you $100 on a regular guitar tuner right there. The iPhone just became an even better deal. (I realize that many punks regard tuning your guitar to be an unnecessarily frivolous show of rock-star like 'chops', so if you fall into this category, feel free to ignore that last part). Using the iPhone's 2-megapixel digital camera, you can document the tour as you go, and post the best pics to your blog. And speaking of blogs, let's face it–zines are a relic of the past. Rather than writing a zine about sitting in the 24-hour diner drinking muddy coffee all night, then wasting hours of your time at Kinko's trying to scam copies, wouldn't you rather just publish your thoughts and feelings directly to thousands of readers AS THEY HAPPEN from the diner itself? Talk about revolutionary.
I haven't even gotten to the mp3 player part yet. Your iPhone can carry thousands of songs. That's way more songs than anyone but the most pretentious of record collectors could ever need. (In fact, according to a list on, there are only ten essential punk albums. Those are:
1. RANCID - "And Out Come The Wolves"
2. NOFX - "Pump Up The Valium"
3. FUGAZI - "Repeater"
4. PENNYWISE - "Land Of The Free"
5. BOUNCING SOULS - "How I Spent My Summer Vacation"
6. RX BANDITS - "The Resignation"
7. BLACK FLAG - "Damaged"
8. GREEN DAY - "Dookie"
9. BOX CAR RACER - "Box Car Racer"
10. OFFSPRING - "Smash"
Shit, I'm only 2 for 10. But fire up the iPhone, and I could download the ones I'm missing from iTunes and complete my punk collection! See how easy and convenient Apple has made it to be punk? CRASS said pay no more than 2.99. Apple says pay no more than 99 cents (per song)!)
I don't think there's any aspect of the life of your average punk rocker that couldn't be improved by the use of an iPhone. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if it's not already, in very short order an iPhone will be essential for any truly DIY punk. With the technology of the iPhone at our fingertips, there's nothing we can't do. We can finally and instantly mobilize to make a punk takeover of the online airwaves a reality. We've been waiting for this a long time. The struggle has been long and many have been lost along the way. But with the introduction of the iPhone, we have finally won.

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