Punk and New Wave

The Damned “Machine Gun Etiquette” (1979)

Up to a point, there is no faulting the genius of the Damned, and Machine Gun Etiquette is the culmination of their (r)evolution. A debatable point, of course, as their Damned Damned Damned album could be considered their first, last AND greatest… BUT, Machine Gun finds the band expanding their cheeky short-loud-fast into something… well, grander! They expanded their song writing beyond what, at the time, had already become cliché 1-2-3-4 punk rock. Perhaps it was Captain Sensible’s (melodic) move to guitar? Maybe they were just getting (ahem) older? I don’t know for sure, but tracks like Plan 9 Channel 7, Love Song…even the faultless cover of MC5’s Looking At You, were some of the first punk songs I could call…(don’t laugh) beautiful! And the songs still hold up, I can put this on anytime and it makes me really happy. –Nipper

The Gun Club “Fire of Love” (1981)

More than any other white musicians in the latter half of the 20th century, the Gun Club embodied the true spirit of American blues music. Members of the musical intelligentsia like to point to 1960s as a period of revitalization for the blues, the decade in which major British Invasion rock groups like Cream and the Stones, having cut their teeth on the recordings of Robert Johnson and Skip James, paid tribute to their idols and introduced the quintessentially American art form to a new generation of enthusiastic young fans. In reality, however, the true legacy of the ’60s Brits, however great their music and sincere their adoration may have been, was to sanitize and whiten the blues, to minimize the ragged starkness and raw emotion and instead to emphasize technical proficiency and a sense professionalism that bordered on sterility (in the process giving rise to flashy guitar-wizardry-as-blues, exemplified by the likes of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan). The result was a product more commercially accessible to the record-buying public (mostly white teenagers), but it was drained of the visceral power that had made the blues such an authentic and enduring form of cultural expression.

Ironically enough, it took the Gun Club, a bunch of white California punks, to recapture some of that lost essence. Coalescing in 1980 around lead vocalist and songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the Gun Club were, along with bands like X and the Flesh Eaters, a staple of the Los Angeles punk movement, a regional music scene that spawned some of the most intriguing, enigmatic, and downright weird music of punk’s golden age–stuff so garish and surreal it could only have come out of Hollywood. And the Gun Club were perhaps the greatest and weirdest of them all.

On their 1981 debut Fire of Love, Pierce and company strip away the veneer of politeness that had infected the blues since the ’60s and restore the raw intensity that one finds in the recordings of early country blues artists, demonstrating themselves to be the real heirs of the blues legacy that Eric Clapton and other polished veterans of the British Invasion tried to claim for themselves. Most music writers point out that the Gun Club were among the first groups to combine punk with blues, but such a simplistic description does the band a grave disservice. Incorporating punk, noisy garage rock, swampy Delta blues, and even gothic country and rockabilly, the Gun Club crafted a sound that is completely unique and almost impossible to describe. Though music writer Denise Sullivan takes an admirable stab at it by coining the phrase “tribal psychobilly blues,” even this fails to do justice to the band’s threatening swagger, to Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s sinister, demonic howls, and to the eerie, unsettling voodoo rhythms that throb and pulse like blood pounding deafeningly in your ears.

Pierce, whose depraved poeticism and shamanistic persona draw inevitable comparisons to the Lizard King himself, fully embraced the macabre subject matter so pervasive in early blues music–mysticism, murder, violence, and the occult–and penned some of the most startling, imaginative, and nightmarishly surreal lyrics in all of rock music. Every song on this album is outstanding, from the perverse country bounce of “Sex Beat,” the terrifying murder-sex ballad “Jack on Fire,” and the explosive punk assault of “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” to the frenetic energy of “For the Love of Ivy” (the album’s magnum opus) and the slashing slide guitar of “Preaching the Blues,” one of the most inspired reinterpretations of a Robert Johnson tune that I’ve ever heard.

Jack White hit the nail on the head when he claimed that Fire of Love should be “taught in schools.” Nothing before or since has ever sounded like this. Fire of Love is one of the greatest albums ever, a collection of recordings that sounds simultaneously fresh and timeless, that stands alone as a uniquely visionary work and also fits effortlessly into the populist tradition of American roots music. If the great Skip James had fronted a garage rock band before he died, I have a feeling that it would’ve sounded something like this. —Adam

Section 25 “Key of Dreams” (1982)

By applying the Joy Division dogma to the most far-out acid psychedelia of the 60’s, Section 25 created one of the definitive psychedelic records of the era with The Key Of Dreams. The drum patterns, disjointed guitar and electronic noises in “Always Now” sound quite far ahead of their time; this is almost trip-hop. The industrial mantra “Visitation” is again pierced by the nightmarish guitar, in what is an acid trip for the new dark age. “Regions” takes a less intense but no less hypnotic approach (with a relaxing coda of piano and saxophone). “The Wheel” marks a return to dark-wave psychedelics, albeit in a more minimal way. In all these tracks, the guitar playing in particular is highly original and effective. Then the last four tracks take a turn for the even more abstract. “Once Before” is yet another mantra, but this time focusing on a moody melody carried by acoustic guitar, ritualistic tom-toms and a percussive hiccup; a distant cousin to Bauhaus’ “Spy In The Cab”. “There Was A Time” is another chant carried only by the vocals, excellent drumming and a sub-bass drone. “Wretch” is a relative departure, a crossover between the album’s dark psychedelia and garage-rock, again distinguished by some wild guitar leads. “Sutra” is without doubt the centerpiece of the album (15 minutes), characterized by ominous drones, abstract guitar noise and disturbing harmonic changes. —Ily

Suicide “Suicide” (1977)

In the year 1977, a few (albeit obvious) punk rock groups come to mind that brought the genre to the forefront: The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and (more or less) Television. (More or less in the sense that Television was arguably the first band to break free from the conventional punk rock mould and venture into more artistic territory.)

However, Suicide seemed to have taken a step back ten years, copping the garage rock swagger of Iggy Pop, the meandering psychedelic drones of the Doors and the Velvets, while at the same time utilizing a swirling, adventurous musicality one could only find on a Brian Eno record…but with the production cost of a carton of cigarettes. ((And since I’m rolling, I’ll go ahead and proclaim foreshadowing of the shoegaze boom ten years LATER (“Cheree” sounds eerily like the Spacemen 3 doing a version of “Louie Louie.”))

Finally, all of these influences and pre-cursors have been packaged into an album that’s barely half an hour long.

Pinheads, this is a punk rock album like no other. Believe it. —The7thSon

Pet Shop Boys “Please” (1986)

This is the first, and considered by many, to be the quintessential Pet Shop Boys album. Anyone familiar with the popular music of the 1980s will know the dominant track on the album, West End Girls. Still considered their greatest hit, the Pet Shop Boys capitalized on the synthesizer and sample-heavy sound conjured up for this song by producing a slick London-based video that catapulted the PSB into the limelight around the world for the next several years.

The music of the Pet Shop Boys defies easy explanation. The lyrics are witty and urbane, very much a product of the disco and consumer-big-money culture of the 1980s. Songs like Opportunities/Let’s Make Lots of Money became a sort of capitalist anthem, spawning two different video versions and countless remixes for the disco environments. Taking a cue from the popular television of the time, the song Suburbia has a piano overlay that sounds similar to the then massively-popular Eastenders, and the lyrics recount a East End-esque storyline which sparks familiarity with those immersed in the pop culture. The song Love Comes Quickly highlights both synthesizer effects and masking as well as simple and elegant poetic lyric. No base or screaming lines in this disco, no banal or forced words simply to serve as fronting for a drum-machine-produced rhythm, this song perhaps shows the Pet Shop Boys at their early height in development of words to music.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have continued their collaboration to produce ever more complex and interesting albums, not all of which have been successful, commercially or artistically. While Please is not their best album, it is certainly a classic, and very much the seed from which all the rest of their sound derives. Everything on any future album of the Pet Shops Boys is present in some form here. A must have for any collector of the Pet Shop Boys or of 1980s pop culture and music. —FrKurt

The Jam “Sound Affects” (1980)

Weller and company return to the muscular, yet polished, mod-fed pop of All Mod Cons, while continuing to stretch lyrically and intellectually on Sound Effects. As on All Mod Cons, Weller explores elements of his life and environment, but two years further along his lyrics take a more abstract and poetic approach. Brilliant songs like “Man in the Corner Shop” meditate on class envy through a linked series of vignettes, while “That’s Entertainment” brings the world’s ills to the foreground with its scathing sarcasm.

Musically the band is as sharp as they got. The energy of their earliest works is channeled in a way that makes the rage simmer just on the edge of boiling, rather than exploding. The result is a more fervent and sustained backing for Weller’s singing. Think of Revolver-era Beatles minus the psychedelic excess and plus the introspection of their White Album lyrics.

While other Jam LPs hit brilliant peaks here and there, “Sound Affects” sustains their genius from start to finish. —Hyperbolium

Gang of Four “Entertainment!” (1979)

It’s hard to recognize the importance of music like this in an era when Marketing is considered a legitimate university degree. So we have to have a little historical imagination to look back to a time when political possibilities weren’t limited to corporate tyranny, mindless technocrats, and buzzwords worthy of Nazism. Yes, kids, politics used to be funky, and music even sometimes had brains.

If you don’t agree with their politics and you like their music, you just don’t know it yet that you agree with their politics. You’ll either come around or you’ll stop listening to Entertainment! Further to that point: you don’t have to be a Marxist to acknowledge the falseness of commercial culture and the “globalized” post-modern neurotic subject. So you don’t have to worry about being called a Red. Which if you’re worried about it, you aren’t ever gonna get the message, anyway.

Though I suppose the lazy-fair types are always gonna think that economics is a science when it’s under critique and a board game when it’s not, and that art’s a form of entertainment, subject to market competition just like antidepressants and military contracts. Which is why Marketing is such a goshdarnit important substitute for Marx in today’s active lifestyles. —Will

Lizzy Mercier Descloux “Press Color” (1979)

Ah, what it must have been like to hear this in 1979. Avant garde pop with funk basslines and frenzied start-stop percussive overtones; a chanteuse that is menacing as often as she is playful (no wonder she was heralded by Patti Smith), this was one of the best first listens I’ve had of an album as of late.

It was recorded over a mere week and a half and consequentially, sounds compact, tense and nervous. There are no lyrical themes whatsoever – the wonderfully odd “Jim on the move” just consists of Lizzy mumbling the title over and over again, the morbid ‘Tumour’ accentuates Lizzy’s love for the minimal and experimental, one that’s exemplified in her later work – the more colourful, worldbeat influenced Mambo Nassau. Also present is the immaculate ‘Mission Impossible’ theme, and a stunning reworking of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” that should throw any preconceived notions of no-wave you have right out of the window.

Don’t get me wrong, the sound of the record is rooted in no-wave, but this defies categorization for the most part; it combines Lizzy’s art-funk leanings and combines it with a cinematic punk aesthetic that ends up being entirely her own. And no, this is not a a covers record – Lizzy’s own songs (most notably the club flavoured ‘Wawa’, the bass propelled “Aya Mood” and the infectious groove of ‘Torso Corso’) hold their own with anything else on the album.

All in all, this is one of the finest albums of the late 70’s NY underground scene. It is pop music striving to be progressive and radical; and succeeding. I was completely enamoured on the first few listens and only expect this to get better with time. Should appeal to all fans of Talking Heads, Blondie and ESG, though Lizzy sounds very little like any of them. Rashed

The Sound “From the Lions Mouth” (1981)

From the Lions Mouth should be heralded as one of the most important albums of the 80’s. Unfortunately, The Sound never achieved a cult status on the level of Joy Division, and were therefore confined to obscurity. Few albums I would ever refer to as “perfect”, but this one makes the cut. When talking about my favorite albums, I mention this one alongside Joy Division’s “Closer” without skipping a beat. However, unlike “Closer”, which sounds as if it is written by a man who is spirtually bankrupt, this album shows Adrian Borland, the singer/guitarist and primary songwriter, as a troubled man with hope. The result is an album that, while dark, is also subtly uplifting. He explores the darker side of humanity while simultaneously enciting us to use our arms and our brains to find our own sense of purpose, and warns us of the new dark age impending if we don’t. This album is lyrically and musically ahead of its time, and easily one of the best albums of the post-punk era. Get this lost classic while you still can. —Erik

The Birthday Party “Junkyard” (1982)

The Birthday Party reached their peak with Junkyard. It soars on a pulsing energy that never fades. It is goth rock. Punk. Frightening rockabilly. Angular funk. Gospel and blues. Demonized cabaret lounge jazz. These and other styles collide in a gruesome, purposeless, and—above all—glorious spectacle. But the darkness in which this music dwells is entirely stable. It is confident at least. The album is mixed to emphasize the low end and the high end, with little mid-range. There are no compromises.

The Thatcher-Reagan era has, in many ways, turned out to be the beginning of the end (or at least another milestone in the world’s continued march towards an easily avoidable doom). Junkyard plays like The Birthday Party intuitively knew this. The slow groove of “She’s Hit” reveals from the beginning that this group was more aware than most. They absorbed the maddening energy of the times, without becoming bound to them. Unlike the living dead of the world, who are modeled on an image of the past, The Birthday Party were in a state of regenerative flux, continually rebuilding decaying happiness.

“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” is a sleazy literary come-on, and Nick Cave sings, “Where for art thou baby-face.” Still, the words come out more like a warning to a future victim issued too late. And yet, The Birthday Party can be trusted. Despite rubbing down and rubbing out simple hopes and pleasant dreams, the band’s resolve is never spent. If something on this album doesn’t arouse something in you, then you might already be spiritually bankrupt. But at least you will wonder what you are made of.

Barry Adamson guests on “Kiss Me Black” (filling in for the jailed Tracy Pew). His bass blasts to the forefront immediately with mangled tones that bend enough to engross listeners as much as whole songs or albums often do. Matched with Cave belting out, “Hey hey hey hey,” the song reveals no intention of relenting. The song is a small representation of all the band was.

Easily the most important band to ever emerge from Australia, The Birthday Party later disbanded after recording a few EPs but no other full-length albums. While there is a saying about wicks that burn brightest burning the shortest, that quip doesn’t quite capture what The Birthday Party were about. They were a black hole that sucked life and the universe into a seeming nothingness. What that leaves us with is anyone’s guess. In a black hole, no known laws of nature apply. —Azuege

Eurythmics “In the Garden” (1981)

Eurythmics 1981 album ‘In the Garden’ is a fascinating and generally forgotten record. Recorded with Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank and featuring Blondie’s Clem Burke and Can’s Holger Czukay ‘In the Garden’ was the first record they recorded after the demise of The Tourists and before they had major commercial success. ‘In the Garden’ failed to chart and, sadly, remains largely ignored to this day.

‘In the Garden’ is new wave, no wave, psychedelic, experimental and pop, if pop comes from outer space (and it’s good when it does). Themes include dreamy reverie (English Summer), Kraftwerkian love songs (Take Me To Your Heart), desperate housewives who behave like calculators (She’s Invisible Now), female body image (Caveman Head), and, that’s just for starters. Annie sings in French on the bizarre and catchy ‘Sing Sing’ and most tracks are punctuated with all manner of sound effects, animal impersonations, trains, crickets and sirens. Vocals are processed, mixed up, mixed down, sound like they were recorded underwater, surrounded by cushions, or beamed in from another galaxy, or era, or mental state.

‘In the Garden’ is a great example of the sound of a band experimenting with an Everest of ideas. They wisely stop short of overloading the album though, as it could have been a complete mess. I’ve been finding new things in this album every time I hear it, and that is an awful lot of times. From here came Sweet Dreams and later, it must be said, a general move away from experimental pop towards a generally more commercial direction (which is where I become a little less excited about their music). —Wayne

Wire “Behind The Curtain” (1995)

Where haaave you been hiding this, life?! Uhh, Behind The Curtain. Heh heh.

Believe it or not, we had no idea this lil’ corker existed until the other night, when after already extending the gentlemanly gesture of giving us a lift, our buddy lays this one on us for the ride home. Sand In My Joints! Map Ref 41 N 93 W? Underwater Experiences, and a bunch of other songs we’d never heard?!?! Driver, you really know how to talk to a girl.

Behind The Curtain, it turns out, is a collection of demos, live, and, unreleased Wire material from 1977-78 – i.e., songs that would wind up on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, a near-flawless triumvirate of albums if ever there was one. Rawer, and even more urgent than their album versions, some of these takes may actually get a leg up on their better-produced counterparts. While some of this stuff has surfaced here and there over the years, there is a lot of material that hasn’t, with 13 tracks unreleased in any form. Even this compilation seems to be in short supply, having only seen release in the UK, and languishing in out-of-print purgatory for years.

Collections like these often serve little purpose beyond the label’s ongoing compulsion to get more product into the market. With Wire though, it’s an essential document (and eyewitness) of a band’s all-too-brief formative stages. Unlike many of their peers, Wire’s progression from the trappings of punk into a bolder, more experimental sound occurred at a staggering clip. It’s mind-boggling to think that this band went from the 1-2-XU, barely-holding-it-together snottiness of the early live tracks here to the stark and nuanced ambient mood pieces of “A Touching Display” in a span of 18 months. Which makes this material all the more crucial. After Pink Flag, one of the more cohesive statements to come out of punk, Wire would tear up the map, never to return for the most part. Behind The Curtain puts this in perspective, connecting the dots for those that care to follow. This is how it started, and how they got to where they were going. —Jonathan