Real Life Rock (07/81)

It’s wrap-up time–by way of a cross-country, then Caribbean, then cross-Atlantic excursion. Since no one is making summer singles anymore, that’s as close as I can come to a seasonally appropriate note. We be­gin at SFO, transfer at LAX, and…
Club Foot (Subterranean) documents the local venue of the same name, offering five in-house bands (personnel overlapping extensively) in sidelong pursuit of 1950s kitsch jazz–which, by a trick having as much to do with mad humor as an infusion of present-day funk, is turned into pop music. The result is a perfectly produced studio LP that combines addled vocals, melodramatic instrumentals, bits of the West Coast “cool” sound, echoes of old jazz-flavored cop show themes (The Line- Up? Dragnet?), even Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Af­rica”–an homage to beat generation North Beach that ends up as an episode on The Twilight Zone.The Longshoremen, with vocals by one Dog, set the tone with “What Does It All Mean?” (pronounced “mee-un”)–which, one can imagine, represents a 1981 post-punk rocker chancing upon the November 30, 1959, issue of Life and innocently opening it to the spread on “Beatniks.” “‘Sick’… ‘beat’… ‘cool’… ‘jazz,'” Dog recites in wonderment. “‘Addict’… `main’… ‘horse’… ‘Bruce’… ‘hungry i’… ‘Stan Getz?'” But now the pages are getting mixed up; he’s flipping through the magazine with growing fascination, an archaeologist on the verge of deciphering a tablet inscribed in an unknown tongue. “‘Existential rebel’… loungewear’… `Bob & Schultzie?’… ‘The Car of the Future’… ‘custom satellite-style dash’… ‘luxury recessed interior.'”After this, everything on Club Foot makes sense–because while the beats thought their white-Negro America and the America of sitcoms and singing commercials were different cultures, after a quarter of a century the artifacts of both give pleasure for the same reason: they’re weird.

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Wild Gift (Slash) is the second LP from X, the town’s premier punk outfit. Only one tune immediately jumps out with the force of half a dozen from last year’s Los Angeles, but it may do: “Back 2 the Base,” a battering, scari­fyingly naturalistic tale of a psychotic bus rider railing curses on the corpse of the King, is the best song ever written about Elvis Presley–and likely the only song ever written about the Big E’s place in the national subconscious.

The summer, however, belongs to an­other icon, because with “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI America), four Angelenos–singer Kim Carnes, writers Jackie De Shannon and Donna Weiss, and arranger Bill Cuomo (who seems to have listened closely to the U.K. band Joy Division)–have produced the most seductive pop single in recent memory. An almost instantaneous number one, this tale of a femme fatale (“Roll you like you were dice,” Carnes rasps) carries the nervy suggestion that the woman with the Bette Davis eyes doesn’t use them on men–or is there another reason “all the boys think she’s a spy”? The record is a fantasy machine, and for their sake, I hope De Shannon and Weiss kept the movie rights.

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Off the charts for nearly twenty years, Gary U.S. Bonds is back with a hit album, Dedica­tion, and a hit single, “This Little Girl”–both thanks to production and songwriting aid from Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, who have long used Bonds’s epochal “Quarter to Three” as their untoppable encore. Bonds began singing in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1558, with a high school group called the Turks; at 42, his voice sounds little different than it did in the hit-making days of the early 1960s. The free-swinging, unfakable enthusiasm is still there; what’s new is an edge of experience, of worry and compassion, that can transform rock into soul.

Dedication (EMI America) is anything but a standard comeback album: the material includes not a single period oldie. There are three new Springsteen tunes (“This Little Girl” being precisely the sort of natural AM hit Springsteen can’t write for himself); there is a version of Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” that brings off the surrealistic lyrics as if they were straight from a commonplace blues. Strongest of all is Van Zandt’s “Daddy’s Come Home.”

This is, almost, a period oldie: suggestively close to a rewrite of Shep and the Limelites’ “Daddy’s Home,” a hit at the same time as “Quarter to Three.” But this rewrite, set as it must be in the context of a marriage, draws on all of Bonds’s compassion to speak to the disrepute into which compassion has fallen; in a line easy to miss on first listening, the song is, plainly, about “the changing of the palace guard.”

“I hope I don’t show how afraid I am,” Bonds sings from the romantic gloom. “The country’s gotten hard.”

So it has, and so, in his way, has U.S. Bonds.

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Yes–but the city the tourists never see! In other words, the South Bronx, in the persons of Funky 4 [male] plus 1 [female]: black teenagers who have made one of the richest and most exuberant pieces of rock ‘n’ roll vocal music since Music From Big Pink. This is “That’s the Joint” (Sugar Hill twelve-inch), a nine-minute rap record–a party made out of conversation, really–with loose and bop-prone funk as a frame.

Blondie’s “Rapture” is a clumsy render­ing of rap; Grandmaster Flash’s “The Ad­ventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” is rap at its most tech­nically ambitious, a collage of riffs and phrases lifted from all sides of radio pop, including “Rapture” (“Flash is bad,” says Debbie Harry). The form can be traced back at least as far as the cutting sessions that brought forth such proto-R&B toasts as “The Signifying Monkey” (itself the di­rect inspiration of Bo Diddley’s “Say Man” and the Coasters’ “Run Red Run“), or linked to the talk-over vocals of 1970s Jamaican dub. But as Funky 4 plus 1 step forward in turn on “That’s the Joint” to tell us what they want out of life (money, travel, sex, friendship), they recall nothing so much as the keening optimism of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers–with the contradictions of 25 years of black rock and black history etched into the confidence and the freedom of the sound.

Released six months ago but only now making itself felt around the country, this irresistible celebration–listen to the way F4 + 1 egg each other on–is firmly linked to the beginnings (Sylvia, once of Mickey &, who gave us “Love Is Strange” in 1956, produced), and it has a claim on the future: the sound may be loose, but it’s the looseness of baseball’s best double play combination. As Plus 1 cracks after countless variations on “That’s the Joint” (which can mean, “Here we are,” “What’s the news?” “We’re the news!” or “See you later”): “Get the point?”

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If you think of the soundtrack to The Harder They Come when you hear the word reggae–or miss hearing music that’s simultaneously ominous and catchy–The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) will come as a godsend. Leslie Kong produced much of that soundtrack, and he produced the nine art­ists (the Maytals, the Melodians, and Des­mond Dekker among them) on this indel­ible LP. Every one of the sixteen tracks, cut between 1968 and 1970, has that feel­ing: musicians bursting with melody, singers bursting with heart.

Leslie Kong was a Chinese Jamaican (one of those denigrated as “blackhead” on numerous reggae recordings); he got into the record business in 1960, as did a Lebanese Jamaican, an ultimately much less important record producer named Ed­ward Seaga. It was, both discovered, a promising hustle for an ambitious young man whose skin was not too dark. Color was caste, and the producer was precisely the middleman: he had to deal with the blacks who made the music and those whites of British ancestry who ran the Ja­maican economy. Kong died in 1971, at 38, at the height of his career; Seaga moved into Kingston’s worst black ghetto, built a strong black constituency, emerged as the leader of Jamaica’s conservative, procapitalist party, and is now prime min­ister. It will be worth asking, some years from now, which man made the greater contribution to the life of his country.

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No London band was ever more aptly named than the Raincoats, and no London band has made a more provocative record in 1981 than their Odyshape (Rough Trade US).

The Raincoats are three women cur­rently in search of a drummer (Vicky As­pinall, violins, guitar, piano; Ana da Silva, bass, guitar, and percussion; Gina Birch, guitar and bass; various drummers appear on Odyshape). Their first album, The Raincoats, came out in 1979; it was rough, sometimes crude, always emotionally compelling, and it went further than any other postpunk music in demystifying the presence of women in rock ‘n’ roll. Ody­shape takes full advantage of the band’s enormous technical improvement without sacrificing the sense of note-to-note, phrase-to-phrase discovery that gave The Raincoats its life.

Voices on Odyshape swirl, meet, fade away into a dub subconscious, or oppose the open emotions of singing with the stern warnings of a sort of conversational superego, but Aspinall’s violins may be the key to the music: she takes every crucial change past itself. “Shouting Out Loud,” like many numbers on the LP, seems to be about a woman who wants to resist social norms but is left violently uncertain as to where that resistance leaves her, and the “meaning” of the song is in the way the instruments talk to each other: no thought is allowed a moment’s peace. As the vocals drop off, Aspinall leads the band into a theme that takes over the tune, swallows it. Tension rises, as in a bad dream that hangs you between waking and annihilation, and then violin and guitars seize the theme with a passion, a timing, that joins the conflicting elements of the music: melts them. What you hear is fate–no choice but to seek its clues and follow them. It’s a moment of release as complete as any I’ve ever heard, and it’s only the first five minutes of Odyshape.

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With Bow Wow Wow–fronted by Annabella Lwin, a fifteen year old that ex–Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren claims to have discovered in a London dry cleaner’s–we get down to theory and practice. The theory (legacy of the Situa­tionist International, European anarchist writers who had an enormous influence both on the Paris student uprising of May ’68 and on McLaren) is that Western soci­ety can be subverted by the intentional withdrawal of men and women from the work force; the practice is “W.O.R.K.” (EMI import).

As she proved on “Louis Quatorze,” a remarkable account of teenage sex that appeared on Bow Wow Wow’s eight-song Your Cassette Pet, Annabella is impossible to tune out. On “W.O.R.K.,” throwing away lines with more flair than most singers can muster for their big moments, she puts McLaren’s situationist principles (“Work—is not the golden rule… reverse all the roles!”) across by turning them into pop sound, which makes the case for pop ethics: fun versus responsibility is no contest.

That this irrepressible manifesto will much threaten our own supply-side future is dubious; that it will have its effect on the legion of disaffected youth–squatters, dropouts, and other members of the postindustrial lumpen proletariat–now rioting in England, Berlin, and Zurich is almost certain, and almost certainly McLaren’s goal: the parallels commentators have been drawing between Europe in 1981 and Paris in 1968 are parallels McLaren means to capitalize on, as hype, as music, and as politics.

RETURNING to California, one finds that life goes on as before. The Club Foot bands are still trying to figure out what “Ugly American” has to do with “James Bond,” and X sounds better than ever.


Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Penelope Spheeris: The Decline… of western civi­lization (Spheeris Films)
  2. Burning Spear (Studio One reissue, 1972)
  3. David Lindley: El Rayo-X (Asylum)
  4. Rick Springfield: “Jessie’s Girl” (RCA)
  5. The Platters with Kool and the Gang: Schlitz Malt Liquor TV commercial (Benton & Bowles)
  6. Robert Gordon: “Someday, Someway” (RCA)
  7. T-Bone Walker: T-Bone Jumps Again (Charly R&B reissue, 1942-49)
  8. Cure: Faith (Fiction import)
  9. Gang of Four: “What We All Want,” from Solid Gold (Warner Bros.)
  10. ESG (99 12″ EP)

New West, July [dd?] 1981


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