Punk and New Wave

Grace Jones “Warm Leatherette” (Island, 1980)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Grace Jones’ cover of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette.” It must’ve been on a specialized program via Detroit public radio in the early ’80s. I was familiar with the original, by future Mute Records boss Daniel Miller. I loved—and still love—its relentless minimalism and abrasive synth tones going off like a haywire car alarm—apt for a song about the unexpected eroticism of a vehicular accident. (Thanks, J.G. Ballard.) Miller sings the macabre song with all the emotion of an automaton, which was somehow perfect for its lyrical circumstances. Jones, a black Jamaican woman, made “Warm Leatherette” sound even colder and more menacing than the nerdy white Englishman mustered.

How could this happen? The short answer is, Grace Jones is a freak of nature, an enigmatic woman who’s more man than most men will ever be, while also being a legit goddess. Why did this happen? Because, if I may conjecture, Grace Jones loves to take risks and subvert unlikely songs until she overshadows the original versions. The result with the title track of her fourth album is supremely unnerving and riveting.

Jones’ decision to cover “Warm Leatherette” must’ve seemed like a total WTF?! to Island Records’ execs, but in hindsight, it was a genius move. With a band full of session badasses like Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Wally Badarou (keyboards), Barry “White” Reynolds (guitar), Michael “Mao” Chung, and Uziah (Sticky) Thompson (percussion), Jones’ “Warm Leatherette” is bound to sound vastly different from the Normal’s synth ditty. She and the band use a crescendoing power chord to sub for the original’s synthesizer wheeze, while Badarou quotes James Brown’s “Sex Machine” riff. The rhythm is a juggernaut of funky skank, helping to transform this “Warm Leatherette” into a vastly different vehicle, as guitars and keys emulate siren sounds near the end. You could almost party to this rendition, if you were perverse enough.

Whew, it’s exhausting just trying to do justice to that Normal cover. Warm Leatherette has seven other tracks, most of them covers that deviate with almost as much idiosyncratic panache. The Pretenders’ “Private Life” sounds like a Sade tune, but with much more dubwise gravitas. Jones & co. inhabit Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” as if it’s a skintight blue-velvet jumpsuit, slightly skanking up the disco-funk rhythmic chassis and adding staccato guitar-clang punctuation.

The silky Motown soul of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” gets an uptempo revamp with much more robust drums and bass and an extended percussion breakdown. Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” lends itself easily to slouching into a laid-back Jamaican groove, and Jones stretches her usual taut delivery as far as it can go. It can’t surpass the late Mr. Petty’s yowl, but she gives it a valiant try.

The two songs originating from Jones and her band—“A Rolling Stone” and “Bullshit”—are, respectively, rollicking R&B that bubbles with erotic promise and strutting R&B that bumps and throbs with S&M promise. To be honest, though, everything here pales besides “Warm Leatherette.” It is simply one of the greatest covers ever, a radical transformation of such unlikely provenance that it feels and sounds like a cosmic joke. But as a later Grace song put it: cry now, laugh later. -Buckley Mayfield

Snapper “Snapper” (Flying Nun, 1988)

 

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Snapper came to my attention with their 1988 debut EP; it was awed love at first hear. This was at a time when anything from New Zealand—Snapper hailed from Dunedin—carried a wonderful mystique, but here was a band that didn’t really sound like the other Flying Nun groups whose records somehow made it to the US. They radiated much more sinister vibes than did bands like the Chills, the the Clean, and the Bats.

The four songs on the Snapper EP are Möbius strips of mantric Kiwi surf rock wreathed in barbed-wire guitars and ornery organs. If you care about meticulous, traditional rock songwriting as blueprinted by the Beatles et al., Snapper will frustrate you. However, if you think the idea of British Stooges acolytes Loop jamming with synth-punk innovators Suicide is smashing, you’ll love Snapper to death.

The EP—which Captured Tracks reissued in 2013—kicks off with its best-known track, “Buddy,” which Wooden Shjips have covered live and on record. The number’s all razor-sharp organ ostinato, cut with stinging shoegaze-rock guitar and metronomic drumming, topped with subliminal female/male vocals by Christine Voice and the late Peter Gutteridge. The chorus goes, “No more buddy buddy/No more messsin’ around/I’m not gonna be your, be your fucking clown.” You’d best believe they mean it. “Cause Of You” is a full-on speed-freak rush down death’s highway. You can totally hear how this paved the way for bands like Stereolab, Moon Duo, and Thee Oh Sees.

“Death And Weirdness In The Surfing Zone” offers relentless waves of organ and guitars riding one lethal chord for the song’s duration while drummer Alan Haig does his best Klaus Dinger impression. Like everything here, it induces a kind of adrenalized hypnosis. The grinding throb of “Hang On” sounds like Suicide transposed to Loop’s psychedelic-rock grandeur, then fed a fistful of leapers. If these descriptions are becoming repetitive, well, it’s because repetition is Snapper’s lifeblood. In order to pull off this sort of monomania, you have to zero in on the most compelling chords and timbres; Snapper do that over and over. If your eyes don’t become two kaleidoscopic pinwheels by the end of “Hang On,” I feel bad for you. Gutteridge’s mantra of “You gotta feel good about doing wrong” could be his band’s motto.

Snapper’s brand of minimalist, one-chord jams that have no beginnings, endings, or many variations would sound dull in most other bands’ hands. But they found a way to turn these limitations into assets, injecting an unlikely sort of charisma into monochrome drones. Martin Rev would approve. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Pussy Galore “Sugarshit Sharp” (Product Inc./Caroline, 1988)

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If you can only own one Pussy Galore record, make it Sugarshit Sharp*. This six-track EP represents the most potent distillation of the New York City group’s raunchy, rambunctious rock moves. It also contains the greatest Einstürzende Neubauten cover ever; “Yü-Gung.” (Some versions of Sugarshit Sharp contain a bonus track, “Penetration In The Centerfold,” originally by Devo and rendered by Pussy Galore with teeth-gnashing ferocity.)

The entire A-side of my Caroline Records copy of Sugarshit Sharp is consumed by “Yü-Gung,” which in Neubauten’s Teutonic hands was a stark, industrial nail-biter that wanted to scare the shit out of you. In Pussy Galore’s grimy mitts, the song becomes a fiery noise-rock/quasi-disco fusion, with samples from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” humorously surfacing amid the chaos. Jon Spencer is at the end of his tether, screaming “Feed my ego!” as he, Julia Cafritz, and Kurt Wolf crank out rusty-toned, power-chord avalanches and Bob Bert gets wicked on the drums. This was some of the wildest party music of that great year of 1988, and it still sounds rowdier than anything current indie rock’s producing.

“Handshake” is a hell-raising soundtrack for violating the speed limit and flipping off cops on freeways. Again, Pussy Galore remind us how timid and tentative most current rock sounds by comparison. “Sweet Little Hi-Fi” is so menacing and sexy, it should receive a restraining order. The part where Spencer barks in muffled tones, “Indivisible! Outstanding! Eternal! One riff!” is aptly meta and descriptive. “Brick” gives trash rock a fistful of amphetamines and a hot foot, to boot, cohering into a perfect merger of Hasil Adkins and Motörhead. “Renegade!” is another raw grunt of primal rock, in case the preceding five tracks haven’t sated you. Mercifully, this EP’s only about 18 minutes long; anything more and you’d be a mere husk of a human afterward. -Buckley Mayfield

*Honestly, you really should own more than one Pussy Galore record. Also crucial: Right Now!, Dial ‘M’ For Motherfucker, Groovy Hate Fuck.

Einstürzende Neubauten – Zeichnungen des Patienten O. T (Some Bizzare, 1983)

220px-ZeichnungenDesPatientenOTAlbumCoverRight out the grinding gate, Neubauten sound slower paced, more deliberate and focused. While these derelicts still use any and all metallic material they can get their hands on for sounding, they get around to using some primitive samples, and sound bytes too, for a somewhat smoother experience…

With rhythms placed, there is no need to go white-hot in industrial noise. Still not synth-popping or going new wave, Neubauten just get a bit more spacious in their delivery, slowing to a plod or a throb. At this point Blixa and company were really getting out of native Germany, and instead of getting safer in recording they stretched songs out, panned everything to extreme ends and generally made themselves less approachable despite their new use of meter.

What’s the use of inept horn wafts, air conditioner rhythms and muffled vocals backed with skittering cutlery? I guess they were the first to pick it up and take it semi-seriously, before others got into it (industrial) wholesale or whole-sale. And it got less fun. Coil, Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F. all soured. SPK or Nurse With Wound? Depends on how serious or how camp you want to take it. Still pretty solid with Throbbing Gristle. Einsturzende? They had quite a few good ones after this. -Wade

Throbbing Gristle “Heathen Earth” (Industrial, 1980)

220px-ThrobbingGristleHeathenEarthAlbumCoverI think this best represents TG’s sound: improvised noise in a controlled studio environment. You get a real White Light / White Heat intensity from this set. Chris and Sleazy push the live tape manipulation / sequencing / synthesis envelope to the max.

Anyone who is into the early schematics of actual industrial should give this a listen — it’s a wonder what a couple modified tape decks and a few synths can do. Gen-P and Cosey add a rather unsettling, [physical] / animalistic feeling to the mix; …, Gen-p coming off as a dictator. You might also want to find out who was present in the studio during this recording; a who’s who of the post-punk / avant-industrial elite, with just their presence adding an air of mutual-ritual to the whole thing. -Phillipe

Royal Trux “Cats and Dogs” (Drag City, 1993)

Cats_and_dogs_royal_truxAkin maybe only to Guided By Voices for their non-ironic use of classic guitar rock fodder, Royal Trux came together out of noise dirges and suspended clangor when they pushed “Cats And Dogs,” making steps toward indie-rock stardom (yuck, gag) that would never really come (still gag).

What’s for real though is Neil Hagerty’s playing. Bluesy riffs, heavy riffs, nonsense noise interludes, all skewered or unwound… “incendiary” is the word and so is “unique.” Sure it’s only two people, guy-girl combo, plus a friend? Session drummer? Anyway, the stand-in holds the beat and can be driving or plodding. Just enough to support distorted spillage.

Not only do you get a three-piece on “Cats and Dogs,” the best possible line-up in a rock format, but you get referential hard rockin’ material mostly free of the tounge-in-cheek. And it makes the cut: more grit than crit. -Wade

The Flesh Eaters “A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die” (Ruby, 1981)

R-516396-1349396002-2440.jpegThe Flesh Eaters is the name behind one Chris D. Taking his stage name from a 1964 cult film, Chris D. wrote for legendary fanzine Slash in the late ’70s and assembled the first of many Flesh Eaters lineups from heavyweights in the burgeoning L.A. punk scene. After releasing a ravenous EP and heart-ripping debut album, The Flesh Eaters unleashed their era-defining statement…

Originally released in 1981, “A Minute To Pray…” brings together the greatest band in American rock history: Dave Alvin (Blasters) on guitar, John Doe (X) on bass, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) on sax, along with Bill Bateman (Blasters) and DJ Bonebrake (X) providing the album’s trademark percussive backbone. Chris D. leads the group like a man possessed. Through a series of grotesque vignettes, his lyrical prowess and indelible growl stand toe-to-toe with the music’s powerful shifts.

From opener “Digging My Grave” (resembling a diesel-charged Magic Band) to the gothic groove of “Divine Horsemen,” each song is its own hairy beast. Inspired by African tribal music, ’60s garage-rock churn and Funhouse-era Stooges swing, A Minute To Pray remains (according to author / archivist Byron Coley) “the best rock record ever recorded.” -Superior Viaduct

Blurt “Beneath Discordant Skies” (Metadrone, 2015)

R-7711828-1447237295-8380.jpegThey’re back, though they never went away, really… Equal parts punk, noise performance and square-one rock racket, Blurt is a band that always has a pulse and it’s always pumping. For those that don’t know, Blurt is usually a trio run by sax player Ted Milton, and has been one of the most inventive groups to grace us from the late Seventies onward.

Normally this would be a capsule review of one record, but I have to touch on their self-titled LP and “Live In Berlin” because they are just so unique. In Manchester they were briefly on Factory and I dare say their records outshine the flashier groups like Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and the rest from that time pretty easily. Those records don’t sound the least bit dated. And as a live act, they were probably more rough and raucous than The Fall.

So here is the new one, with Ted as an old man, but he STILL sounds as inventive as ever. His playing is a unique spew and can’t be summed up as an Ayler/Ornette imitation. Lyrically he’s great and he always sounds wonderfully garbled. Longtime rhythm guitarist Steve Eagles is here. New drummer David Aylewood pumps along diligently. What more should I say? If you haven’t heard what some would call a post-punk gem, I’d give Blurt some attention. I’d also just call them a heck of a modern band. -Wade

D.A.F. “Die Kleinen und die Bösen” (Mute, 1980)

DAF_Die_Kleinen_und_die_Bösen_LP_sleeveThe very first Mute release was of a group pushing exactly what the label set out to do; a break with rock tradition. Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft started as a five-piece before moving into a more total dance direction, and the collection of songs, sketches and soundscapes presented here might as well be from an alien planet.

Side one is a grouping of noisy dirges and surges such as opener “Osten Währt Am Längsten” and “Co Co Pino,” respectively, but what really sets D.A.F. apart from other industrial clangers of the day is their use of subtlety in tracks like the quiet and plaintive “Kinderfunk.” Despite it’s morose sound, the chirps and whistles and bells give the song a playful alone-in-my-room sort of feeling. This melancholy is revisited in tracks later released like “Der Räuber und der Prinz.”

Side two is another surprise, switching to choice live cuts. Here D.A.F. are much faster, harsher and generally raw. As a full band D.A.F. were tight and tough to approach, using rhythms seldom heard before and consistently surprising us with new form standards. Mute continues to build off this stuff to this very day. -Wade

Wang Chung “To Live And Die In L.A.” (Geffen, 1985)

To_Live_and_Die_in_L.A._album_artAfter the release of “Dance Hall Days,” Wang Chung had the fortune of being discovered by director William Freidkin, a man known for his recruitment of bands to produce film scores. Wang Chung joined the ranks of Tangerine Dream and The Germs when they scored “To Live and Die in L.A.”

They prove to be an excellent and integral part of the film, a self-aware macho action flick with plenty of action tropes set to punchy drum machines and thick synth lines… though the film’s more subdued moments show Wang Chung’s interest in classical music (use of flutes, cellos, no drum machine accompaniment). “Lullaby” is a laidback pop number with plenty of great changes for a seemingly sleek and simple number, but “City of Angles” on side two is the real track that showcases Wang Chung’s musical knowledge and modern craft. At just more than nine minutes, they provide most of the score for the entire film, and the feeling is as immersive as L.A. is expansive.

Not just a film score but a stand alone album of experimental pop, “To Live and Die in L.A.” is an OST to own if you’re a fan of synth, classical or new wave sounds. -Wade

Scritti Politti “Cupid and Psyche 85” (Virgin, 1985)

Scritti_Politti_-_Cupid_&_Psyche_85A change of attack was needed for Scritti Politti when pop form went back into vogue. Green Gartside ditched the first version of his group to work with session musicians, crafting perfect pop on top-of-the-line equipment. No longer presenting the jumble of styles heard on earlier singles, Scritti 2.0 would be crisp, clean, and pristine beyond recognition.

Green’s own living habits changed to reflect his new music as well. Originally a squat-dwelling punk with circles under his eyes, Green had kicked speed, started a workout routine and took much better care of his hair. He made the switch from ripped up blazers to sweaters and track suits. He still waxed lyrical of far-left ideals, but these statements are much more esoteric in this new pop format… It’s easier to focus on his vocal ability now, all saccharine-sweet in the mix next to sleek and dizzying sequencer beats.

All across the country, the U.S.A. played “Perfect Way” and “Wood Beez” on the air? It’s strange messages were pressed overseas by someone who once thought of himself as a Marxist, but the singles pressed beforehand with his first group were much harder for the average listener to swallow. Half listening, Scritti here sound like a rather innocuous pop act… but what were they subjecting us too beneath this shiny new surface? Hearing the contrast between the Rough Trade material and this monolith of a hit album is startling, but it’s similarities even more so. -Wade

Meat Puppets “Up On The Sun” (SST, 1985)

220px-MeatPuppets_-_UpOnTheSunFrom Simon Reynolds:

One of the strangest, fastest mutational odd-yseys taken by a single band, from the thrashadelic punk of the debut through the countrypunk furore and dewdrops-on-cobweb delicacy of Meat Puppets II to Up On the Sun ‘s brutal plangency and frenetic speedfunk (a manic, flashing secateur snip’n’clip, a dragon-fly shimmer like sunbeams chasing each other through your veins, a peyote-and-desert-sun crazed Talking Heads with Jerry Garcia and Tom Verlaine as dueling lead guitarists). Awesome.

Say no more? By “Up On The Sun” the Puppets had gone away from breakneck hardcore speed and cooled down, guitar work improving to the point of jam band virtuosity, still keeping tracks within relative rock brevity. I can’t help but mention that SST insider Joe Carducci saw a period between albums where they resembled Steppenwolf and he (we) have yet to hear that phase of their career on recording.

Until then, third effort “Up On The Sun” remains their strongest stud in their discography, before they started playing around with drum machines you know… Unswinging funk bass with perfectly meshed frantic-sounding guitarwork, and a drummer that keeps time because someone had to keep their feet on the ground. And oh yeah, they are earnest and joyful. -Wade