Real Life Rock (05/07/79)

The inclusion of previously unheard studio dialogue on oldies reissues continues to provide flashes of revelation for those concerned with the true sources of rock ‘n’ roll and the hid­den motives of its creators. Already en­shrined in the Return of the Repressed Hall of Fame is a moment from Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1957 recording of “Lit­tle Village,” wherein the black bluesman and his white producer get into an argument over what, exactly, constitutes a village===an argument resolved only when Williamson shouts, “Little village, mother­fucker! You name it after yo’ mammy if you like!” This explains why Williamson proceeds to take up much of the song with a discussion of what distinguishes a village from a hamlet, town or city; it also explains a fair amount about the evolution of the master-slave relationship. Even more famous are those encounters from the very dawn of the music that reveal Scotty Moore responding to an early take of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by calling the nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley a nigger, or Jerry Lee Lewis and his producer Sam Phillips prefacing “Great Balls of Fire” with a hysterical donnybrook over the question of rock ‘n’ roll as music of salvation or damnation. Those moments explain most of American culture.

Recently, two more of these accidental epiphanies have surfaced. The first, dating from 1959, can be found on Ace Story, Volume Two (Ace import), a collection of hits and obscurities from New Orleans; its author is Jimmy Clanton, much loathed over the years as a classic example of the white pretty-boy who forced authentic black rockers into oblivion. Here, begin­ning “Go, Jimmy, Go,” his most loathsome hit, Clanton pauses. “Bop bop bop ba da da,” he lilts to the control booth. “Am I singing Mickey Mouse enough yet?” “A little bit more!” comes the answer. “Geez, I’m not Frankie Avalon,” says Clanton, just before turning himself into Frankie Avalon. This explains that Clanton’s heart was in the right place.

And then there is The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (Virgin import), a two-record documentary—one should perhaps say orchestration—of the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, offered as an act of self-promotion by the Pistols’ ex-manager and would-be Svengali , Malcolm McLaren.

The idea the set means to get across is that the stunning emergence of punk in the United Kingdom was conceived and deliv­ered as a mere shuck, nothing more than McLaren’s little joke on the world. That is, if Johnny Rotten really meant it when he railed, “We mean it, man!”, then the joke was on Rotten—or on anyone who believed him.

It’s a good try. Swindle includes a lumbering “God Save the Queen Sym­phony” with fey narration, various depressing post-Rotten rave-ups with stupid vocals by the then nearly late Sid Vic­ious, “Anarchy in the UK” done Michel Legrand–style and sung entirely in French by one Jerzimy, and a truly bizarre disco medley of Pistols hits by the “Black Arabs.” (Both the French and disco numbers are actually quite arresting: “Pretty Vacant” played as elevator music is not an uninspired fantasy.) But McLaren’s effort to show up the Pistols as a fraud is blown by several real Sex Pistols recordings, none released before. There is “Belsen Was a Gas,” from the band’s final performance in San Francisco in January, 1978; a terrify­ing alternate take of “Anarchy”; a defin­itively rewritten version of the Who’s “Substitute.” Most remarkable of all is the combination of “Johnny B. Goode” and Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner.”

This seems to date from the Pistols’ very beginnings: late 1975 or early 1976. It sounds like a rehearsal tape—not a rehearsal for a recording session or a concert, but a rehearsal of the idea of the band itself. You can hear Rotten, drum­mer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones and original Pistols bassist Glenn Matlock reaching back for the most primitive rock ‘n’ roll voice in order to destroy the smug parody rock ‘n’ roll had become; at the same time, you can hear them reinvent­ing the music, as if out of whole cloth, with a new harshness, a new bitterness, a new humor. Listening to them now is as strange and unsettling an experience as is listening in to Elvis and Scotty Moore as they invented rock ‘n’ roll for the first time.

The Pistols head into “Johnny B. Goode,” but Rotten doesn’t know—or won’t sing—the words. “Ah, fuck, it’s awful!” he moans, but the band charges on and takes hold of the song. “I hate songs like that,” Rotten announces: “Stop it, stop it!” The band won’t stop and he screams: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” “Is there anything else we can do,” he asks hopelessly—and then up from the associative synapses of his subconscious comes “Road Runner.” The band effortlessly makes the tiny switch, and Rot­ten panics. “I don’t know the words! I don’t know how it starts, I’ve forgotten it!” There is such weary embarrassment in his voice that you’re half-afraid he’s going to turn and run out of the studio, abandoning pop history then and there. It’s absurd, but the band has already made its claim on the music, and so has Rotten: The crazy heroism of what the Sex Pistols were out to do has never been more apparent than it is at this suspended moment.

“Stop it, stop it,” Rotten cries again, cynicism fighting to overcome the desperation and desire in his voice, and failing—but the band hasn’t stopped for a second during his whole agony. He gives it one more try: “What’s the first line?” And Paul Cook, courtesy of Jonathan Richman, calls back with an answer only rock ‘n’ roll could provide: “One, two, three, four, five, six.” First line in his head, the rest spills out, and Rotten, not yet Anarchy, or Antichrist, not really anyone but a kid making new culture out of old chords, takes the tune home. And this explains where rock ‘n’ roll came from, and where it tried to go.

It’s no accident “Johnny B. Goode” suggested “Road Runner” to Johnny Rotten; both are elemental rock statements, with the latter virtually the story, infused with a lot of seventies irony, of listening to the former, and of how good that felt. “I walked past the Stop & Shop/Then I drove past the Stop & Shop/I liked that much better than walking past the Stop & Shop/Because I had the radio on.”

Like no one else currently making records, Jonathan Richman can write and perform in something like the style of a very old kind of rock ‘n’ roll, and yet never sound nostalgic, revivalist or even revisionist: He just sounds right, complete—accurate.

Richman’s latest album, Back in Your Life (Beserkley), is in the blithe rockabilly vein of his wonderful Rock ‘n’ Roll With the Modern Lovers of almost two years ago. He’s been working for a long time to produce acoustic rock that hits as hard as the electric stuff (up against Richman’s best, electric rock does come off as just another genre), but he’s never made a recording as perfect as the new “Lydia.” It recalls Sam Cooke’s “Won­derful World,” Dion and the Belmonts’ “I Wonder Why” and the Crests’ “Step by Step,” but after a bit it seems to have always been there—as true, as found, as “Road Runner.” Jonathan leads the Modern Lovers through the simple I­-found-a-girl lyric, floating on the harmo­nies and the effortless rhythm, talking to you, himself, the band, and then he calls off the instruments. The pure vocal sound of Jonathan and the Modern Lovers is so impossibly pretty that it can send chills down your back even as a smile appears on your face. “Really rockin’,” Jonathan half-murmurs, half-commands, as the voices head into a turn—and they are. It’s a heavenly moment, and few albums released this year will contain anything to match it. Of course, few albums released this year will contain a song like “I’m Nature’s Mosquito,” either. As for Rich­man in the flesh, New West‘s Nancy Friedman reports on a show I was sorry to miss:

Matthew, who is seven, likes Elvis Presley but thinks Jonathan Richman is “terrific,” so we took him to International House on the UC Berkeley campus March 11 to see Jon­athan give his last U.S. concert before a month-long European tour. We like Jon­athan for reasons possibly identical to Matthew’s: He delivers us straight to the pure grace of childhood. You may call it escapism; we prefer to think of it as brav­ery. What else but brave can you call a performer whose voice sounds as though it were traumatized into permanent adolescence; who sings about dinosaurs and leprechauns and the Abominable Snow­man; who wobbles between mystery and mawkishness on lines like: “The lake and the lilies whisper their song to me/I am, I am, I am/Doo bop doo tommy toot bop”?

Jonathan has dispensed with the Mod­ern Lovers, and seems more self-assured without them (they always played too loud for his liking anyway); he’s returned to playing electric guitar on stage, some­thing he’s rarely done in the last eight years. He’s a fine, but not flashy, musi­cian who takes manifest delight in the sounds he can produce—the swoony romanticism of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk,” the intentional muffle effect of a single channel of stereo. He performed at least half of the 30-odd songs accompanied only by some primitive hand jive and the happy chorusing of the crowd. Jonathan’s relationship with his audience is disconcertingly unpretentious: He’s the kid down the block in the garage band, the camp counselor who knows all the words to all the songs.

Jonathan refused to do “Dodge Veg-O­-Matic” or “Government Center,” two rockers that have become subcult anthems, but he did surprise us with lightly mocking renditions of “Peggy Sue” and “That’s All Right, Mama,” done as tributes to youth itself rather than to a couple of dead heroes. But his new material regresses even from these teen dreams. “I’m so glad for rock ‘n’ roll,” he confides. “Makes me feel like I’m five years old.” And in a song not yet recorded—Jonathan chanted it; he didn’t have the melody yet—he offers the world-view of a two-year-old rock ‘n’ roller: “How can you expect me to sleep/When Oldsmobiles are speeding from town to town?” So this is what they meant by “Be My Baby”! Will Jonathan Richman next be doo-wopping to us from the womb?

Real Life Rook Top Ten

  1. The Police, “So Lonely,” from Outlandos d’Amour (A&M)
  2. The Rublnoos, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” from Back to the Drawing Board! (Beserkley)
  3. The Plastic People, Prague (Invisible import)
  4. Raydio, Rock On (Arista)
  5. George Jones, White Lightnin’ (Ace import reissue)
  6. Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock (pirated RCA reissue)
  7. Heart, “Straight On,” from Dog and Butterfly (Portrait)
  8. The Clash, “Pressure Drop” (CBS import)
  9. The Beach Boys, “Good Timin’,” from L. A. (Light Album) (Caribou)
  10. Magazine, “Give Me Everything“/”I Love You Big Dummy” (Virgin import)

New West, May 5, 1979

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