Thursday, September 25, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Tex & The Horseheads "Life's So Cool" (1985)

Tex & the Horseheads always struck me as if they just came stumbling out of a saloon in some post-apocalyptic future version of the mythical Old West, laughing and slapping each other on the back and falling down sloppy drunk and looking for their next drink, score or fight - whichever they happen to run across first.  They were cowpunks before cowpunk was a subgenre, both in musical style and in lifestyle.

They were led by a pint-sized whirling dervish by the name of Texacala Jones, a female version of Stiv Bators wearing Adam Ant's makeup who sported a sleepy "C'm'ere darrrrlin'" hick drawl worn raspy from an equal mix of whiskey, cigarettes and heartbreak with which she belted bootstompers like "Tumbleweed" and purred bluesy ballads like "Big House Part III."  They were ragged, amphetamine-fueled, and authentic.

The best of their three albums was 1985's Life's So Cool, which contains the two titles mentioned above among its collection of hard hitting redneck punky rock-n-roll. Tales of drunken escapades ("Bartender Sam"), promises of rehabilitation ("I'll Quit Tomorrow") and the inevitable backslide into bleakness ("Jailed Again") combine for a helluva gut punch - you have no doubt at all that they have lived every word of it.  Add to that a 40-second slice of Cream's "Cat's Squirrel" (Texacala's Southern Comfort-slurred "AWWWWrightawrightawrightawrightawright...all ri-i-ight!" is the perfect intro to the album's festivities) and one of the greatest break-up songs ever, "The Slip," and you've got a platter that is damn hard to beat.

Their earlier self-titled debut album is also good, but not nearly as self-assured; the import-only concert album that followed should have been a better document of the band in action but suffers from poor sound quality.  Life's So Cool is the one to look for.

Check out two of my faves from the album, "Lucky Hand" and "Big House Part III."  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Angry Samoans "Back From Samoa" (1982)

The Angry Samoans were abrasive, irreverent, sarcastic, crude and, as often follows, damn funny. On their second album, Back From Samoa, they were absolutely brilliant.

Fronted by the snarling "Metal" Mike Saunders, the Angry Samoans were part of the first wave of L.A. hardcore bands in the late 1970s.  While they played as hard and loud and fast as any of their contemporaries, they stood apart from the crowd in attitude. Other bands may have taken the political route or tried to deliver some sort of message in their music, but not the Samoans. Instead, they reveled in B-movie schlock, class-clown antics, and a devastatingly sharp skewering of the very scene they were a part of. They refused to take themselves too seriously, but they had enough of an edge to make you think that they just might be dangerous.

On  top of all that, they were good. Damn good. Their songs were short and punchy (Back From Samoa's 14 songs fly by in just over 15 minutes!) but solid, and the musicianship matched.  Even at top speed, the riffs are crisp, the rhythm on point, and the energy just crackles through the speakers.

Taken at face value, especially in today's Politically Correct world, the album could be seen as jaw-droppingly offensive; in the context of its time and place on the musical spectrum, the calculated shock factor is so defiantly over-the-top as to go beyond cartoonish and into the realm of self-parody. Songs like "They Saved Hitler's Cock," "Homo-Sexual," and the staggeringly foul "Ballad Of Jerry Curlan" (in which the title character's perverted sins, including incest and bestiality, are listed in specific detail) are so far over the line that only the most purposefully obtuse could possibly take them seriously.  The band isn't actually encouraging you to  "put a fork in your hand/poke your eyes out" (from "Lights Out"), they're just having fun (and poking fun at) being a stoopid punk band. Remember, in those days mainstream America thought punk rock was going to take us all to Hell in a hand basket.  The Angry Samoans played right up to that fear and had a good laugh about it.

There are real gems to be found on the album as well:  "Gas Chamber" is in the running for best hardcore song ever written; the sci-fi drenched "Not Of This Earth" foreshadows the direction the Samoans would go musically as the years went on; their cover of the Chambers Brothers' hit "Time Has Come Today" is not to be missed.

Back From Samoa is a classic punk album through and through.  It has been reissued many times on many labels over the years, so tracking down a copy is not difficult at all.  Obviously, the easily offended should stay away; those who can look past the surface and are willing to wallow in the muck for a bit will have a blast.  To give you a taste, enjoy a clip of the Angry Samoans performing "Gas Chamber" and "Not Of This Earth" on New Wave Theater (with a brief interview that includes Saunders grabbing the microphone for an important message) and the actual video the band made for "Time Has Come Today."  Enjoy!

Friday, September 12, 2014

You've Been Comped!
10 of the Best Compilation Albums from the Punk/New Wave Era

The compilation album is a wonderful thing.  In the times long before you kids had your newfangles digital doohickeys that allowed you to set up playlists of your favorite songs we had, of course, the mix tape.  But before even the mix tape, the compilation album was the only way to go to have a mix of artists and songs all in one place.  Part musical sampler platter, part musical buying guide, the compilation was a great way to be introduced to new bands that you were pretty much assured you were going to at least tolerate, if not like enough to go out and find their record. (One friend of mine built the foundation of his record collection on his stated goal to buy "every record by every band on that fuckin' Burning Ambitions album!")

My collection, too, experienced growth as a result of more than one compilation album brought into the house, and I can say from my own experience as a DJ on WDCE in Richmond, VA, that the comp is certainly the disc jockey's friend - a portable record collection in itself if you will.

Today, we celebrate the compilation album with this round up of ten of the best.  You could begin with these ten and branch out from there to create a record collection that would be the envy of all your friends. So let's get to it! In no particular order:

1.  Burning Ambitions: A History of Punk (1984) – If you are looking for one compilation to point to as a basic primer on UK punk rock, this double-record import on the Cherry Red label is the one to pick, hands down.  Though they weren’t able to get the licensing to include the Pistols, The Clash or Siouxsie & the Banshees (a fact bemoaned in the album’s liner notes), they were able to include just about everyone else!   The Exploited, The Damned, Adam & the Ants, Generation X, The Stranglers, The Lurkers, Cockney Rejects, Sham 69 – they’re all here.  Even a couple Yankee acts (Dead Kennedys, The Heartbreakers) show up in the mix.  I remember whole weeks going by when this album did not leave my turntable.  Why would it? It’s a virtual punk rock jukebox!  Essential.

2.  Rodney on the ROQ (1980, 81, 82) – As young punk I remember being pissed off that I lived on the wrong coast to hear the legendary radio station KROQ out of L.A.  I read about the station and the fact that they played -- an actual radio station that actually played -- all these bands I was into.  Longtime DJ and scenester Rodney Bingenheimer led the charge with his Rodney on the ROQ show.  The closest I ever got to hearing the show live was in the form of the three comps put out on the Posh Boy label under Rodney’s name.  All three are excellent, with the first being the best of them:  when you begin with Brooke Shields leading into Agent Orange’s “Bloodstains,” you know you’re in for a helluva fun ride.  Volume One also features The Adolescents, Black Flag, The Simpletones and Cristina’s killer rendition of “Is That All There Is ?”  Volume Two keeps the pace going with Social Distortion, Shattered Faith, The Minutemen, The Little Girls and The Stepmothers; Volume Three counts Ill Repute, Kent State’s killer “Radio Moscow,” Channel Three and a very early cut from The Bangles (when they were still called The Bangs).  Each splits the difference between a definitely punkier side one and new-wavier side two, and each contains a special issue of Flipside magazine.  All three are well worth picking up.

3. IRS’s Greatest Hits Vols. II & III (1981) – A two-record set that begs the question, “Whatever happened to Volume I?”  (Bonus points to the first person commenting with the correct answer.)  IRS (The International Record Syndicate, silly) was one of the most awesome record labels of the early 1980s, and this compilation of artists on their roster at that time is flat-out mind-blowing array of talented artists with the chops and the attitude to not only ride that somewhat tenuous line between punk and new wave, but to stomp it fully into submission.  The Damned, The Cramps, The Fleshtones, Oingo Boingo, The Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Payola$, Squeeze, Skafish, Alternative TV, The Humans, Fashion, Klark Kent and more!  This one was a standard party album for many years around these parts…

4. This is Boston Not L.A. (1982) – A wicked good encapsulation of punk rawk done Boston style and, honestly, one of the best hardcore albums ever.  With bands like Jerry’s Kids, The F.U.’s, Gang Green and The Freeze, how can you possibly go wrong?  Loud, hard, fast and fun – we used to call this stuff “skate punk,” and while it certainly was a youthful scene this old punk still smiles when he hears it.  The Freeze’s stuff is the best here, in my opinion, including classics like “Idiots at Happy Hour” and an otherwise unavailable version of “Trouble if You Hide,” but there really aren’t any duds here either.  The CD adds the 7-inch Unsafe at Any Speed comp released not too long after the album. 

5. No New York (1978) – In the late 1970s, New York City was not a pretty place.  But there were a lot of scenes happening all at once.  You had the Studio 54 disco scene, you had the CBGB’s punk scene, and you had your mind-melting, ear-splitting No Wave scene combining the best parts of both with a little (OK, OK, a lot) atonal saxophone skronk added to the mix.  And you had Brian Eno there to document the latter in this nearly indescribable album.  The Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (featuring a shrieking Lydia Lunch on vocals), DNA, and Mars each contributed four cuts of mutant funk-punk squawking and screaming and searing sound.  Some will find it painful to listen to, others (like me!) will revel in its anti-art defiance, but anyone who hears it will not forget it.

6. Not So Quiet On The Western Front (1982) – 2 records. 47 bands in 74 minutes. An insert booklet that doubled as the first issue of Maximum Rock’n’Roll.  About the finest damn hardcore compilation you’re ever going to hear, and proof that those who said all those bands sounded alike either weren’t paying attention or were fucking posers, man.  Just a recitation of the band names will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was into the scene at the time: 7 Seconds, Pariah, Code of Honor, Bad Posture, Flipper, Angst, No Alternative, MDC, and on and on.  It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s excellent.  And oh how we used to laugh (and still do) at the Naked Lady Wrestlers’ “Dan with the Mellow Hair.”  This one has been given a really nice CD reissue with every track intact.  

7. Marty Thau’s 2 X 5 (1980) – Marty Thau had been around the record business forever, and was an early proponent of New Wave, helping many artists get heard through his Red Star record label.  For this compilation he selected two songs from each of five New York City-based bands (hence the album title) and damn if he didn’t go 10-for-10 picking them!  Your big name band here is The Fleshtones, who check in with an early version of “Shadow Line” and a typical ‘Shtones romp, “F-F-Fascination.”  Bloodless Pharoahs go a bit over the top with their purposefully odd vocals, but they did count a young Brian Setzer among the cats in the band.  Neither The Student Teachers nor The Revelons ever made big splashes on the scene, but their contributions here are fantastic (especially Student Teachers’ “Looks,” centered around the great couplet, “I know I got my looks and  you got yours/I guess it just wasn’t what I was looking for…”  A couple of tracks from The Comateens, who would go on to become a second-tier band of some note, round out the collection nicely.  A must-own. 

8. Declaration of Independents (1980) – This early comp collecting assorted regionally well-known independent label acts looking to break big nationally is thoroughly undeserving of its relative obscurity nowadays. (Granted, being on the fairly small but perfectly named Ambition label meant the album wasn’t headed for a high-profile life from day one.)  The biggest name on the album then – and now – would be Pylon, whose debut single “Cool” is found here.  But the music is start-to-finish solid, ranging from the sparkly power pop of Luxury’s “Green Hearts” to the bar band toughness of Robin Lane & the Chartbusters’ “Rather Be Blind.”  There’s rockabilly from Tex Rubinowitz, surf instrumental goodness from D. Clinton Thompson, Kevin Dunn’s giddy synth take on Chuck Berry’s “Nadene,” and – only a few months removed from the Three Mile Island nuclear scare – Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band teaching us to do “The Meltdown.”  Don’t miss Washington DC’s Razz (featuring a young Tommy Keene, trivia buffs!), whose contribution “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)” is a song begging to be covered for today’s crowd.  

9. Let Them Eat Jellybeans (1982) – Jello Biafra curated this collection released smack dab in the midst of the classic hardcore era. The big names here read like a who’s who of that scene: Circle Jerks, Black Flag, D.O.A., Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys themselves all make appearances slashing along at top speed.  From Flipper’s “Ha Ha Ha” providing an uneasy funhouse-mirror opening to Voice Farm’s eerily unsettling closer “Sleep,” the album never lets up.  Even a brief side-step in pseudo-reggae (The Off’s wonderful “Everyone’s A Bigot”) is a bit jolting in its frankness, and the guaranteed-to-offend track from The Feederz (“Jesus Entering from the Rear”) simply has to be heard to be believed.  A stunning collection. 

10. URGH! A Music War (1981)  - Soundtrack to the movie of the same name, the double-LP set compiles live performances by a simply fantastic collection of new wave bands ranging from the famous (The Police, Devo and Joan Jett are all here) to the infamous (Skafish’ s “Sign of the Cross” nearly got the whole project banned in some places).   Interesting to note who was left off the album despite appearing in the film:  punk poet John Cooper Clarke, the utterly mysterious Invisible Sex (seriously, has anyone ever heard anything else from them apart from their URGH! performance?) , and the only true punk band in the picture, the Dead Kennedys, were all left off the vinyl.  Still, it sits now as a nearly perfect time capsule of what early 1980s radio would have sounded like in a perfect world.  Avoid the truncated CD reissue and seek out the original vinyl. 

So, there's my list - how about yours?  What are the compilations that got your record collection started?  Which ones do we just have to hear?  Tell us about them in the comments!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Last Cigarette - Celebrating Ten Years Smoke Free!

"Yea I know its killing me
Yea I know its killing me
Yea I know I know I know I know I know I know I need a
Last cigarette, last cigarette, last cigarette, one before I go to bed..."

 - Dramarama, "Last Cigarette"

Last Cigarette by Dramarama on Grooveshark

At my worst, in my junior year of college, I was on a two pack a day habit.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  20 cigarettes in a pack means 40 cigarettes a day.  To maintain that level of smoking, I had to pretty much constantly have a cigarette going. And I pretty much did.

My smokes were always within arm's reach of the bed when I went to sleep at night – you know, for those wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night cravings – so the morning routine involved having my first smoke of the day lit and half gone before I even got out of bed.   If it was a weekday, there were the before and after class clutches of smokers to join in with.  I smoked while I walked between classes.  I smoked before and after meals in the dining hall.  I smoked while playing pool in the commons building.  I smoked while I studied back in the dorm room.  If it was a weekend, well, there were parties all over campus, and you couldn't have a drink without a smoke.  Hell, I even mastered the art of smoking in the shower.

Back then, though, most people I knew smoked.  I knew more people who smoked than people who didn't.  It was something we just did.  It was relaxing, stress-reducing.  It was a social activity.  It looked cool and chicks dug it, or so we told ourselves.  Hey, what better way to break the ice with a cute co-ed than to ask if she had an extra smoke – or better yet, to come to her rescue with an extra of your own if she was smokeless and nic-fitting. 

We coughed up black stuff, we hacked and wheezed, we smelled like chimneys, our clothes were permeated with the stench of stale tobacco, our fingers were yellowed with nicotine stains.  And yet we smoked, smoked, smoked and smoked some more.

I had smoked on and off pretty regularly since I’d guess about age 13 (confession: as a third or fourth grader I had experimented a little bit thanks to neighborhood friends’ older brothers and sisters letting smoke some of their cigarettes – usually as part of the pact made with the younger siblings in exchange for their silence around their parents), but it was in college where I became a true smoker.  Never mind my terrible sinuses or semi-annual bouts of bronchitis – smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

One year, a particularly bad bout of bronchitis brought my smoking to a temporary halt.  I physically could not breath in regular air without launching into an extended coughing fit, much less inhale a lungful of tobacco smoke.  After about a week, I was at my wit's end, decided I was feeling well enough, and broke down and had a smoke.  And another.  And then another.  As coincidence would have it, the bronchitis had run its course, and within a day or two I was feeling much more like myself again.  When I recounted for anyone who would listen that finally smoking was surely what had cured me, my roommate simply shook his head and said, “Bryan, you have no friend in the Surgeon General.”

After college I wound up spending a few years in the restaurant industry – again finding myself among a group of people who smoked.  Heavily.  By now I was down to a more manageable half a pack a day, but still I smoked.  My girlfriend at the time and I lived in a tiny two-room apartment, and we both smoked - she probably more than I, although with a drink or two in me I could still run through a pack or more in an evening if the mood was right.  We’d tell each other that we really should quit; we’d make pacts to quit together, but we never did quit.

Now, fast forward a few years.  That girlfriend and I had split up; I was out of the restaurant biz and doing very well in my marketing career.  Well enough, in fact, that I was ready to move out of that cramped apartment and buy my first house.  As my friends and I were moving things out of the apartment,  I saw a sight I will never forget.  We pulled the sofa away from the wall, and there was a nearly perfect outline of the sofa on that wall – clean wall where the sofa had been, soot- and smoke-stained wall where it had not.  I vowed at that moment that I would not treat my new house that way.  I made a rule for myself that I would not smoke in the new house. I would go outside to smoke.

Over the course of the first two or three years in the house, that's exactly what I did.  There has never been a cigarette smoked inside this house since I've owned it.  I either went out on the front porch or the back patio if I wanted to smoke.  Slowly, over time, without realizing it, I was finding less and less desire to stop whatever I was doing to go smoke a cigarette.  Soon I was pretty much only smoking at work on lunch break. 

The Day came at the end of week's vacation from work.  As usual for me, it was a stay-at-home vacation.  One night I went out on the patio and lit up a cigarette.  After just a drag or two, it occurred to me that this was the first cigarette I had lit up in a week.  Not intentionally, not consciously, it just hadn't occurred to me to smoke; I hadn't needed to smoke. “I don't need this!” I said to myself and crushed out the nearly unsmoked cigarette.

That was September 4, 2004.  Ten years ago.  I have not smoked another cigarette since that day.

I vowed that I would never be one of those militant ex-smokers. I’m of the live and let live school: you want to smoke?  Go ahead, enjoy.  Believe me, I know how good that smoke can be.  You're trying to quit?  Believe me, I know how hard the habit is to break.  But I am living proof that it can be broken – for good.
Ten years smoke free.  That’s worth celebration.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New On The Turntable: Songs For Snakes "Year Of The Snake"

After a stellar debut LP, Charcoal Heather (recommended in one of my earlier round-ups of bands you really ought to hear), San Francisco’s Songs For Snakes are back again with their sophomore effort, Year Of The Snake.  Released both digitally and, for those of us who prefer our music on vinyl as God intended, a truly nifty blue and white splatter disc whose colors perfectly mirror those of the cover art, making the kind of beautifully cohesive package presentation that can never be achieved with even the highest quality digital download.

That cohesion isn't limited merely to the record’s aesthetics; Songs For Snakes plays as tightly as any band. They are a single unit building shimmering walls of thickly layered sound, in turns grinding and buzzing like Hüsker Dü circa New Day Rising or jangling and humming as R.E.M. might have had they come from anywhere other than the South. 

There’s no sophomore jinx here. Year Of The Snake picks up right where Charcoal Heather left off and continues on, expanding outward from that core rather than trying to reach too far above it (the mistake many bands make in delivering a second LP).  Sure there are new ideas being tested here, little arty touches that indicate there is more to this band than the rest of what we've heard so far (“4 Way Right Of Way Giveaway” and “Minutes Into Years”), but there is – as they say – something to be said for consistency.  They know where their sweet spot is and return to that home base constantly throughout the album.  Those hints of other tricks up their sleeve only whet the appetite for future works.

They've obviously studied their cultural touchstones.  The aforementioned Hüsker Dü comparison is the most obvious, but damn if that opening guitar riff on the lead off track “Painted Lawns” isn't nicked from The Pixies' playbook (as is their tendency to build songs on the soft-loud-soft blueprint).  There’s a lot here that hearkens back to the '90s, but that's not to say it sounds dated or derivative.  Rather, it's a present-day wall of sound made by musicians who are old enough to know what was good back then and smart enough to make it work again in a modern setting.

This one is well worth picking up and spending some time with.  Here are my personal faves:  the previously noted “Painted Lawns,” “A Caffeine Sugar Mean” and the stunning “She Is Not Impressed.”