I am a committed, happy socialist whose career has primarily involved business marketing strategy and analytics.
Newsflash: Modern economies are not set up to cater to an individual’s talents or interests.
For those of you unfamiliar with the field, “a marketing strategy refers to a business’ overall game plan for reaching prospective consumers and turning them into customers of the products or services the business provides,” while “marketing analytics is the practice of measuring, managing and analyzing marketing performance to maximize its effectiveness and optimize return on investment (ROI).”
Those are the standard definitions, but I have my own. Marketing strategy is the overall game plan for how best to capitalize on human greed, egotism, fear and stupidity. Marketing analytics is designed to measure how many of the suckers born every minute you can transform into addicts for your particular product or service.
It’s an interesting if somewhat distorted lens through which to view life, but I do believe knowing a little bit about marketing can help every average Joe and Jane understand how they allow themselves to be manipulated into believing they need something that they rarely need or even want. Whether it’s a big company or a political party or a nonprofit agency helping the homeless, their messages are all marketing messages designed to get you to buy, vote for or donate. Marketers are particularly interested in enhancing your self-image because we are all the heroes of our own stories and we like to feel like we’re winners or at least on the winning team. Your ego is your most vulnerable appendage, and all good marketing strategy targets that weak spot.
Yes, I’m getting to Buzzcocks. Keep your pants on.
The first step in marketing whatever shit you’re trying to peddle to the public is to determine the current state of the market. This is a crucial step: in marketing, timing is everything. The Beatles provide a good example of that fundamental truth. Six months prior to their arrival in America, there was no way in hell a band of Brits could have conquered America because Americans were happy living on the New Frontier and didn’t need what they had to offer. JFK’s assassination changed everything by making everyone (except right-wing racist nuts) very, very sad. After two months of mourning, all those teenage Baby Boomers grew deathly tired of sad and wanted to have some fun—particularly all those pre-pill horny teenage girls who needed something to substitute for the sex they craved . . . something that wouldn’t get them knocked up and disgraced. With an uncanny sense of timing, Brian Epstein and Ed Sullivan provided the goods that met the new need: a product guaranteed to provide the safe and wholesome release of pent-up hormonal energy by allowing girls to scream at the top of their lungs in the secure confines of auditoriums and stadiums. Epstein was brilliant at the art of the marketing rollout, selling Sullivan on three back-to-back performances and urging Capitol Records to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at just the right moment to amp up the buzz. The Beatles did the rest by seducing the press and the listening public with their Liverpudlian wit, good cheer, catchy music and cute haircuts.
This was such a perfect marketing launch that I have to wonder if . . . wait a minute . . . let me check the historical record . . . Wow! Epstein met alone with Sullivan to cut the deal at the Delmonico Hotel on Monday, November 11—just eleven days before the tragedy in Dallas. And then Brian Epstein died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later . . . Wow! Ed Sullivan was CIA! Then Brian Epstein must have been MI6! I get it now! The CIA wanted to get rid of Kennedy for blowing the Bay of Pigs thing and the British were desperate to boost their economy through the only products they had to offer—James Bond and rock ‘n’ roll! When Epstein became too unstable a few years later, the CIA offed him! Why haven’t the major conspiracy theorists followed up on this incredibly promising angle regarding the crime of the century?
Stop whining. I’ll get to the goddamned Buzzcocks when I’m good and ready. Sheesh! You’re an impatient lot! Alright already!
After achieving UK chart success with some great singles, EP’s and a couple of albums, management decided it was time to launch Buzzcocks in the American market. Management felt that rather than releasing either of their first two studio albums, it would arrange eight of the singles in a neat little package of sixteen songs with the A-sides on side one and the B-sides on side two. It gave the album the clever retro title Singles Going Steady. A US tour was arranged to coincide with the release of the album. Management poured itself a brandy, lit its cigars and patted itself on the back for developing what was clearly a can’t-miss marketing strategy.
Oops. It missed. It missed big time. Singles Going Steady failed to chart.
It failed to chart because the fucking idiot who came up with the marketing strategy failed to determine the current state of the U.S. market. The yanks had already decided that they had little interest in this punk rock thing. The Ramones never charted higher than #66 on Billboard and Never Mind the Bollocks peaked at #106. CBS refused to release the first Clash album because it was too rough for sensitive disco-ized American ears; when they released Give ‘Em Enough Rope, it “peaked” at #128. The Clash broke through a few months after Singles Going Steady, but London Calling is hardly a punk album. Did anyone on that crack management team even bother to look at the Billboard charts? Guess not. Here’s the list of top 10 singles the week Singles Going Steady was released to no fanfare at all:
1. MY SHARONA –•– The Knack (Capitol)-15 (6 weeks at #1) (1)
2. SAD EYES –•– Robert John (EMI-America)-20 (2)
3. RISE –•– Herb Alpert (A&M)-10 (3)
4. DON’T STOP ‘TIL YOU GET ENOUGH –•– Michael Jackson (Epic)-10 (4)
5. AFTER THE LOVE HAS GONE –•– Earth, Wind and Fire (ARC)-13 (2)
6. LONESOME LOSER –•– Little River Band (Capitol)-11 (6)
7. I’LL NEVER LOVE THIS WAY AGAIN –•– Dionne Warwick (Arista)-15 (7)
8. SAIL ON –•– The Commodores (Motown)-8 (8)
9. THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA –•– The Charlie Daniels Band (Epic)-15 (3)
10. DON’T BRING ME DOWN –•– Electric Light Orchestra (Jet)-9 (4)
The greatest one-hit wonder of them all, a white guy singing faux soul with his balls in a vise, lots of funk and late-era Motown, downhome country rock and ELO in their Commercial Crap phase. Lesson #1: Never launch a punk album when Herb Alpert is in the top ten.
The story highlights another marketing truth: the best product doesn’t always win. Back in the early days of personal computing, everyone who was anyone agreed that the Macintosh operating system was more elegant and user-friendly than the clunky, ugly, bug-prone MS-DOS offspring called Windows, but Bill Gates wound up with 95% of the market anyway. There is no question in my mind when I listen to Singles Going Steady that Buzzcocks had a superior product—the problem was the market had gone in a completely different direction, away from blistering rock to smooth and mellow.
The tale does have a happy ending: Singles Going Steady eventually earned consideration from critics and fans alike as one of the greatest punk albums ever released. The music is surprisingly melodic and quite catchy without crossing the line into insipid commercialization. The lyrics are well thought-out and deeper than they may appear in the first go-round. What knocks me out about Buzzcocks music is that it is immediately obvious that these guys worked their asses off to get it right: the tightness of the band as they work at supersonic speed is breathtaking. The quality of collaboration between the members of the classic line up of Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, Steve Garvey and John Maher comes through loud and clear. There’s a brightness in their sound that is somewhat unusual for punk (in part due to their melodic bent), but they still manage to kick rock ‘n’ roll ass. Singles Going Steady deserved a much better fate than the one generated by cold, cruel marketing illogic.
And now, without wasting another second of your precious time, here’s my blow-by-blow account of Singles Going Steady:
“Orgasm Addict”: Their maiden single clearly differentiated Buzzcocks from the archetypal punk band by daring to deal explicitly with the taboo topic of sex. Although I’ve always found punk to be intensely sexual music, the vast majority of British punk bands avoided the subject entirely, focusing on social injustice and the existential ennui inherent in modern society. “Orgasm Addict” might lead you to believe that the band had more in common with the Stooges (particularly “Loose”) than the Sex Pistols, but Pete Shelley also wrote about relationships and the complications inherent in budding love, a topic more common in pop than punk.
The “hero” of our story is a guy who gets himself off any way he can (“Sneaking in the back door with dirty magazines/Now your mother wants to know ’bout all those stains on your jeans”) and is not particularly discerning when it comes to choosing a partner (“You’re makin’ out with school kids/Winos and heads of state”). Add religious cult members and butcher’s assistants and you get a clear picture of a guy whose protruding member is completely out of control. Personally, I’m proud to be an orgasm addict, and find masturbation a valuable technique for releasing tension instead of letting it fester and get ugly—but I’m certainly not out to fuck anyone with a pulse and I always fuck with discipline and intent. This meat-beater is totally focused on his own pleasure (“It’s a labor of love fucking yourself to death”) which certifies him as an A-1 loser when it comes to sex.
Needless to say, the song was banned by the BBC. Goddamn I wish people would grow the fuck up and talk honestly and openly about fucking.
Although the band isn’t quite as tight as they would become in their prime (at this stage they’re still missing one important piece to the puzzle), they rock hard to the stutter-step beat and demonstrate their ability to drive it home, particularly during the passage when Pete Shelley successfully reproduces the vocalizations common to orgasm. Shelley’s voice is quite unusual for a punk band, a higher-pitched voice with greater melodic capability. What gives him punk cred is the slight sneer you hear in his voice when he encounters absurd situations and people who seriously need a wake-up call.
“What Do I Get”: Although the sounds are punk, the feel here is more girl group—The Shirelles on steroids. The song is essentially an ode to the sleepless nights one experiences when there is no one else occupying your bed, and what raises the song above the level of your typical I’m-so-lonely pop song is Shelley’s vocal, sung in the slightly plaintive tone of the innocent facing a cruel injustice . . . a teeny bit on the campy side, but it works. This is the song where you really begin to notice John Maher’s drumming—the man is all over the kit and doesn’t miss a beat or a crash. “What Do I Get” also marked the first appearance of Steve Garvey on bass, a major upgrade that will reap dividends in short order.
“I Don’t Mind”: Maher opens the piece with a four-second high-to-low intro before the band kicks in, every member in perfect sync. Steve Garvey sticks closely to the base rhythm, forming a seamless relationship with Maher that marks the trademark tightness that would carry the band going forward. There are few things in life that thrill me as much as a tight band ripping it at breakneck speed, and “I Don’t Mind” has that . . . and more! Pete Shelley delivers the vocal in an almost apologetic, sorry-to-bother-you tone with a few splashes of latent anger, reflecting the passive-aggressive self-deprecation of the lead character. This is a man with little confidence in himself but certainly enough to believe he deserves better treatment from his intended, who is sort of an updated version of Cathy from the Everlies’ classic “Cathy’s Clown.” The melodic movement is subtle, almost off-hand in nature—pleasing little bursts of notes riding the driving drone underneath. The band departs from the pattern at the end, adding a second bridge with a slightly different melodic line accompanied by near-dissonant slicing guitar from Steve Diggle. The arrangement builds steadily towards a crescendo that is deeply satisfying, leaving the listener absolutely delighted that a band could pack so much variation into two minutes and nineteen seconds and nail every change, beat and cue. “I Don’t Mind” merges beautifully merges pop and punk sensibilities, giving truth to the lie that the early punks kept it simple because they couldn’t handle the complex.
“Love You More”: Pete Shelley spends all but the last split-second of the song trying to convince himself that he’s found true love, this time fo’ sho’, despite a lengthy record of consistent relationship failure. Though the song sounds breezy and happy, there are several hints in the lyrics that Pete has a heart problem—not a blockage or a weakened aorta—but with his emotional centering. “It’s my heart again/That drives me so wild,” he croons, later adding “With every heartbeat I want you madly/It’s in my blood to always love you more.” The song ends with Pete in full manic depression marked by either suicidal ideation or murderous intent:
And it means more to me than life can offer
And if this isn’t true love then I am sure
That after this love there’ll be no other
Until the razor cuts
And then dead fucking silence. We don’t know if he offed himself or his intended; we don’t even know if there was any foul play at all. Baby, I love ambivalence.
“Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)“: This one has an interesting and unexpected origin . . . it was inspired by a musical, of all things:
The song dates back to November 1977. We were on a roll. It was only six months since we’d finished the first album. Up in Manchester this was what we used to dream of… a whirlwind of tours, interviews, TV. We were living the life. One night in Edinburgh we were in a guest house TV lounge watching the musical Guys and Dolls. This line leaped out – ‘Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?’ The next day the van stopped outside a post office and I wrote the lyrics there.–Pete Shelley, interview with The Guardian, February 24, 2006
I recently shared my loathing of musicals with one of my readers, but inspiration does tend to come from some pretty odd places, so I’ll give Pete kudos here for taking a line from such a ridiculous art form and turning it into a great piece of melodic punk. Leading a song with a minor chord always catches the ear, adding a touch of erotic mystery in the context of rock. John Maher is really on fire here, bashing the drums with a sense of unbridled urgency that contrasts beautifully with Pete’s offhand delivery of the melodic line.
Because I suffer from violent allergic reactions to musicals, I’d never seen Guys and Dolls, but me being me, I had to research it . . . and are you kidding me? Marlon Brando was in a fucking musical? I can take him has a rapist who used butter as an anal sex lubricant, but Marlon Brando in a musical? That’s obscene.
“Promises”: This zippy little number is in perfect sync with one of my core life principles because it succinctly summarizes why I never intend to get married. I don’t know how anyone can honestly commit to staying in a relationship forever. People change. Shit happens. Getting stuck in a relationship because of a promise you made when you were either overdosing with emotion, drunk, feeling tired of being alone, or because you were getting too old to be single is as dumb as dumb gets. Shelley accurately captures the inevitable result when one half of the relationship breaks the promise: the injured party screams “YOU PROMISED” and then goes into the you-never-loved-me bullshit driven by misplaced feelings of betrayal. No problem with the music here—strong melodic movement over a solid rhythm section banging away at autobahn speeds is always a winner in my book. I just wish the closing line would have been, “Look, we’re both being stupid about this. It’s been great—take care—see ya!”
“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”: Borrowing a phrase from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the single represented a slight departure from the classic punk formula but not as big a departure as the punk purists would have you believe. The Buzzcocks gradually expanded their sonic reach, but more in the form of slight variants from punk norms rather than giant leaps into the unknown. I can’t imagine a more perfect soundtrack to accompany life in the World State—there’s a pleasant numbing effect from the music that is eerily cheerful. The slicing downward movement of the primary guitar riff stands in opposition to the bustling distortion of rhythm guitar to form a troubling, dystopian soundtrack. Pete’s tone is one of shoulder-shrugging fake complacency, a tone he indirectly explained in an interview with Sounds:
I’ve come to the idea that nothing exists. There is no world. Or it doesn’t really matter if there is. The way I’m affected by things is the way by which I want them to affect me.
I have a hard time getting my little blonde head around such deep thinking, but I will give Pete credit for crafting a song with a mood that so completely complements non-existence.
“Harmony in My Head”: Steve Diggle takes over the vocal chores for one of his own compositions. The timbre of Diggle’s voice is certainly more along the lines of what we expect from British punk—gruff, raspy and with no attempt to disguise the patois. Diggle’s delivery lacks the clear articulation prominent in Shelley’s vocals, and given the American aversion to British accents that fail to qualify as “posh” (a topic covered in my review of Blur’s Parklife), the song certainly wouldn’t have helped the band in its futile attempt to gain American market acceptance. As befits a song written by a lead guitarist, the guitar dominates the arrangement, integrating siren sounds with classic punk roughness over the relentless drive supplied by Garvey and Maher. The casting of the song in a minor key adds to the feeling of a dystopian soundscape, which may seem like an inappropriate background for a stroll down high street during shopping hours, but I think Diggle’s message is that our obsession with money and material goods has already taken us far down the road to dystopia.
We now flip the disc for the B-sides . . . and in the interests of full disclosure, I like the B-sides a bit better because they demonstrate the potential the band pissed away when they decided to part ways after A Different Kind of Tension.
“Whatever Happened To. . . ?”: Having listened to seven tracks featuring Steve Garvey on bass, it’s a genuine disappointment to listen to the second pre-Garvey number. Garth Smith simply couldn’t keep up, and man, is it ever noticeable. Diggle and Maher wind up driving the rhythm while the bass sort of muddles along in another plane of existence. Too bad, because this is a fun song, a tongue-in-cheek look at old reliable standbys (hi-fi’s, the yellow pages, train sets, Chairman Mao (?)), comparing their durable dependability with commercially-driven mating:
Your passion is a product of highlight and detail
That come-hither look, bonus offer retail . . .
Your emotions are cheap, cut-price cash-and-carry
You wear your heart on your sleeve for any Tom, Dick or Harry
Your love is a cashed-in cheque
Oh, oh, that’s the way of all flesh
All you have to do is hang around the clubs in Vegas today and you’ll see plenty of balloon-sized lips and silicon tits that confirm Shelley’s worst fears.
“Oh Shit”: I find it amazing that this was the first song titled with a phrase that every human being on the planet has used at one time or another. The Pharcyde (cute) did a hip-hop song with the same name but punk has much more oh shit in its veins than hip-hop. It’s one minute and thirty-seconds of the release of pent up early British punk frustration. Enjoy the refreshing honesty of the vernacular, wipe the sweat off your brow and thrill to the burgeoning bruises from the mosh pit. Fucking delightful.
“Autonomy”: Steve Diggle was a pretty conservative guitarist in general, a long way from the virtuoso types like Satriani and Malmsteen. But goddamn that man knew how to get the most out of a few chords and simple riffs, and in a piece with very sparse lyrics like “Autonomy” he gets a chance to take center stage. The high-speed strum on quickly descending chords certainly draws your attention, but I find myself entranced by the power and confidence he displays in the delivery of the dominant riff. His distortion tone is dampened just a teeny bit, resulting in a cleaner tone that isn’t too clean, allowing for that grinding, rough sound to still thrill you right down to your clit.
Well, at least my clit.
“Noise Annoys”: The Buzzcocks could get the most of a song, even when there isn’t much there there. The lyrics consist of extremely modest variations of the line “Pretty girls, pretty boys, have you ever heard your mommy say noise annoys.” The dead stops after “noise annoys” are a positively brilliant validation of female power. Diggle dominates once again with striking riffs, and Maher gets a helluva workout on the kit. A bit manic, but still a gas.
“Just Lust”: Another attack on superficial sex a la “Orgasm Addict,” this piece feels a bit darker due to the dissonance of the guitar in the bridge and Shelley’s choice to sing in a key at the lower in the range. The lyrics clearly communicate his disgust with sexual mores that emphasize physical performance and stylistic garnish, but even Shelley has to admit that “she looks like the real thing/tastes like the real thing” (with a nod to Thom Yorke and the advertisers at Coca-Cola):
I was slow to catch on
And that just makes it worse
If passion is a fashion
Then emotion is a curse
I’ll say one more thing about Maher, though: if he fucks like he drums, I want him.
“Lipstick”: The boys shake things up a bit, flipping the typical order followed by many a rock songwriter when a minor key is involved. Here the verses are in a major key while the chorus downshifts to the minor. As Shelley decided to use the exact same lines for both verse and chorus, the effect is darkening, as if someone slipped a shade over the music. I’ve rarely heard a rock song amplify the different moods of major and minor so strongly. Adding to the strength of the piece are the seamless transitions in both key and rhythm, moving from major to minor while shifting from bouncy to overdrive. Damn, this was one helluva band!
“Why Can’t I Touch It?”: I love it when albums end well, largely because it’s so damned rare. The last two songs are my two absolute favorite Buzzock numbers, in part because they break one of the fundamental tenets of punk: keep it short. “Why Can’t I Touch It?” is the greater offender, clocking in at over six-and-a-half minutes. While I think the band could have taken more risks given the infinite possibilities for jamming presented by the baseline rhythm, the stereo call-and-response of the guitars works well and actually intensify the listener’s awareness of the rhythmic efforts of Maher and Garvey. The result is a hip-swaying, thigh-grinding experience that gives dancers plenty of room to improvise. The only break in the rhythm comes in the chorus, where the band lowers the volume, drops the pattern and builds to a terribly exciting crescendo featuring Pete Shelley soaring on the line, “So why-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay can’t I touch it.” Shelley’s upper-register, passion-filled vocal is so engaging that the listener feels his frustration at coming so close to grasping whatever “it’ is. Being the tactile type, I always have to touch things to confirm their reality, but I can also see the line applying to the astronauts who flew to the moon and just orbited the fucking place. Close enough just ain’t good enough.
“Something’s Gone Wrong Again”: Let’s face it: modern life is a fucking hassle full of tedious, irritating micro-annoyances that can throw you off and ruin your whole fucking day. When you look back on your reaction to these tiny shitstorms, you wonder, “Why did I have to make such a big deal out of little nothings?” “Because of the accumulation of stress particles,” I scream, adding, “Someone should write a song about this.”
Well, Pete Shelley already wrote that song, and it’s an absolute gas that gives you two possible ways of dealing with these existential mini-crises. First, the next time someone tells you “It’s the little things in life that make it all worthwhile,” you are within your rights to kick that person’s ass. Second: you may be the cause of your own frustration, so look in the mirror for answers.
Oh, this poor bastard . . .
Tried to find my sock
No good, it’s lost
Something’s gone wrong again
Need a shave
Cut myself, need a new blade
Something’s gone wrong again
And again, and again, again and something’s gone wrong again
Something’s gone wrong again
He tries to fry an egg and breaks the yoke, checks his watch to find the hands are broken . . . it’s one thing after another, his blood pressure reading looking like one of those cartoon thermometers that explode over the hapless toon. In a nice little twist, Shelley posits that these things might be going wrong because we expect things to go wrong . . . these pinpricks are a manifestation of our frustration in not having the means to avoid the draining drudgery of daily life:
Nothing ever happens to people like us
‘Cept we miss the bus, something goes wrong again
Need a smoke, use my last fifty P.
But the machine is broke, something’s gone wrong again
I guess the updated PC version of the song will feature the inability to find one’s yoga mat. Afterthought: pulling out a yoga mat instead of lighting a cigarette would have ruined film noir.
The music is intense, featuring thumping bass, strong drums and a combination of distorted and flanged guitar. Diggle’s solo is his best on the album, a ripping, dissonant tour de force, an audio depiction of frustration. Pete Shelley gradually becomes more and more manic as the song proceeds, and by the end it sounds like he’s ready to jump out of his skin . . . and I think, “Is that how I sound WHEN I’VE FUCKING HAD IT WITH THIS STUPID SHIT?” I sure as fuck hope so.
There are times when writing reviews are painful and other times when they feel more like a chore than a choice. Neither of those apply to Singles Going Steady: I had a great time! The music is endlessly engaging, the band is totally committed to everything they’re laying down and the album works on multiple levels: emotional, intellectual (here she goes again), sexual. I wish they hadn’t quit the business when they did and I really wish they’d had better marketing advice to facilitate that American breakthrough—that might have given them the validation any artist needs to move forward.
Hmm. They should have gone guerilla. Oh, you haven’t heard of guerilla marketing? Well, it’s . . . oh, fuck the shop talk.
I was only fourteen when this album came out in ’95, a year or so after I’d fallen in love with Liam Gallagher. Once a slut, always a slut, so I forced Liam to accept that my virtual relationship with him would never be monogamous, and began trolling the airwaves for other lovers. Lucky for me, I found several promising candidates right in my own backyard. The San Francisco Bay Area was one of the epicenters of the punk revival, and it was during this period that I became a committed punk rocker, just like Sheena. Unlike the Sheenas of the 1990’s, though, I didn’t shave my head, get a pomade-shaped mohawk or color my hair pink, purple and green. I didn’t pierce anything other than my ear lobes (the nipples came later) and I didn’t have any visible or hidden tattoos (the tattoo came later, too). When I first showed up at an all-ages punk show at the age of sixteen with my long, classically-styled hair falling over the tank top straps on my shoulders with my lower half comfortably ensconced in a pair of new leather pants, people immediately stereotyped me as a pretty-girl poseur—until the action started in the pit and they saw I could take it, dish it out and then some. At the end of the night, some of the people started calling me “Princess,” but they meant it with sadistic affection.
I followed Rancid closely from the moment I heard And Out Come the Wolves, but it was just my luck that they spent a good chunk of the years following its release on tour, playing only a few dates in the Bay Area. I didn’t get to see them live until 1998, at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. It was a great show, but I felt somewhat disappointed that I had to settle for seeing them in an outdoor amphitheater. Punk rock is best experienced in small rooms where you can feel the walls shake, where your bodies have nowhere to go except into other bodies. I would have given anything to have seen them at Gilman, but it was not to be.
Rancid appealed to me for two reasons: intensity and musicianship. People who don’t know punk generally get the intensity part but they look at me with narrowed eyes when I mention musicianship, and it’s true that not all punk bands display the level of skill that bands like Rancid, $wingin’ Utter$ and Fugazi have in bulk. To my ears, though, those guys were the rock version of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, playing revolutionary music at breathtaking speed. The basic chords of a punk song aren’t nearly as complex as the chords in bebop, but the sheer physical demands of punk combined with the ability of certain practitioners to create surprising variations within the mix gives the music a depth that casual listeners often miss.
You certainly can’t miss the musicianship in “Maxwell Murder,” the one-and-a-half minute welcoming track that opens with ethereal sounds that are quickly engulfed by a high-speed explosion of sound. Brett Reed is all over that drum kit, maintaining the drive while slipping in high-speed fills and cymbal play that would leave most drummers in the dust. Listeners often miss his contribution because it’s easy to get distracted by Matt Freeman’s super-charged bass work. His backing during the verses is enough to qualify him for whatever hall of fame you’ve got, but the stop-time solo is one for the ages, perfectly designed to intimidate the shit out of any amateur who thinks he or she’s got the chops. I mean, we’re talking about a guy whose speed on those fat bass strings is close to Coltrane’s speed on “Giant Steps,” so don’t fucking tell me that punk rockers can’t cut it as musicians!
Now for the intensity part. What I sought in punk were moments of total immersion in sound and rhythms so demanding that moving in sync with them would activate every nerve, tendon, ligament, muscle and blood cell in my body. Above all, I didn’t want it to stop or slow down: I wanted the sonic analogy of a hard, non-stop fuck where I come to orgasm every thirty seconds. What I love most about And Out Come the Wolves is these guys don’t shit around—they give us nineteen drivers in a row without backing down once. Like many punk songs, the lyrics deal with social reality from a naturalist perspective combined with an eye to the absurd that have the force of a whack upside the head, guaranteed to knock you out of your bourgeois comfort zone. And what makes it all even more satisfying is that Rancid had more musical flexibility than many other punk bands because of their ska-core roots. Ska is like a door to many genres—R&B, Calypso, jazz—and to greater rhythmic and melodic possibilities. The moving bass line of ska was a perfect complement to punk’s emphasis on rhythm, and the integration of all these influences is on full display on And Out Come the Wolves.
“11th Hour” features front man Tim Armstrong’s street-wise, anti-enunciation vocal style and some fabulous rock guitar work from Tim and Lars Frederiksen. The chorus, “Do you know where the power lies and who pulls the strings? Do you know where the power lies? It starts and ends with you” is such an irresistible shout-along mantra that I always accompany the boys with passionate self-validation whenever I hear it. A split-second later, they jump into “Roots Radical,” a paradoxical tribute to their reggae influences as they ride Bay Area buses—paradoxical because this song seriously fucking rocks! Ripping guitars, more incredible bass, kick-ass drums and plenty of opportunities to shout “yeah!” while you’re slamming into your squeeze. Fuck yeah!
Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman were co-founders of one of the best ska punk bands, Operation Ivy, and here they give us one of the best examples of the genre with “Time Bomb.” The catchy chorus, “Black coat, white shoes, black hat, Cadillac/Yeah, the boy’s a time bomb” sounds like it could have been written by Chuck Berry in the 1950’s, but the hero of this story isn’t Johnny B. Goode getting ready to storm the ramparts on his way to stardom. This kid spent time with the youth authority, runs numbers and either winds up dead or causes the death of a rival:
He’s rollin’ in the Cadillac it’s midnight sunroof is down
Three shots rung out, the hero’s dead, the new king is crowned.
Either way, the image is a dark version of the JFK assassination and the decision to go without the bubble top. The music is hardly dark; it’s a hip-swaying delight driven by a rhythm that hooks you from the get-go, and the introduction of a Hammond organ to the mix was an inspired choice.
“Olympia WA” gets us back to kick-ass rock with a ripping lead guitar solo in a song describing alienation in the Big Apple, and though I can’t understand why anyone would want to go back to Olympia under any circumstances, I love this song and Tim Armstrong’s lost boy delivery. “Lock, Step and Gone” is a dystopian call-and-response rocker where the narrator is getting the uneasy feeling that the world as we know it is spinning out of control:
there’s a fire on the corner and it’s never gonna stop
killer in the neighborhood never got caught
I lock up my door step out and I’m gone
waitin’ for the buses but the buses won’t come
As someone who grew up in the Bay Area dependent on mass transit, “waitin’ for the buses but the buses won’t come” is not the signal that the world is about to end, but business as usual. I spent half my fucking youth freezing my ass off waiting for Muni buses to show up, and from all accounts, things weren’t that much better with AC Transit in the East Bay. To me, the message of the song is that we’re already living in a dystopian society . . . the future is now, and all these common irritants we accept as normal are indications that total collapse may be more imminent than we think.
You hear a similar message in “Junkie Man,” with the killer line “when you’re brought up you’re caught up in a system that’s goin’.” This one features one of the best lead vocals on the album, combining fabulous phrasing, belt-out passion and a poetry-slam narrative that features the album title and Joycean word play:
my hand went blind
you were in the vein, clairvoyant/you were in the vein, clairvoyant
my hand went blind
i make love to my trance sister my trance sister
and my trance parents see from the balcony
I looked out on the big field
it opens like the cover of an old bible
And out come the wolves! Out come the wolves!
their paws trampling in the snow the alphabet
I stand on my head and watch it all go away
It’s also said that the title refers to the major label bidding war that whirled around the band as their popularity grew. Thankfully, they told the record companies to piss off and stayed independent. Their pals from Green Day went the other direction and wound up with Grammies and world renown, and while I don’t begrudge anyone from making a buck in the dog-eat-dogshit world of capitalism that we’re apparently stuck with for a while, I have a hard time understanding how the punk ethic can coexist with the power structure and survive.
We’ll leave that argument to the musical sociologists and get back to Rancid, who now kick some serious ass with “Listed MIA,” a song that defines the word “relentless.” “God damn it, man I almost had it” is the story of too many people’s lives as they try to break out of the lower reaches of the social system, and find they’re stuck in an endless loop:
God damn it, man I almost had it
I did it again, yeah, I do it out of habit
Well, I’m numb, it ain’t no fun
I’m less than zero when you add up the sum
After a while, you just have to say “fuck it” and get away from that “courtship built from anger,” even if you know you don’t have any options. The combination of great lyrics, Lars Fredericksen’s take-no-prisoners lead vocal and that relentless guitar attack make “Listed MIA” my favorite Rancid song of all time. Here’s a rather jiggly video of them playing the song at Le Trianon here in Paris . . . nine months before I moved here. Shit, I missed them again!
Much more popular with the fans is “Ruby Soho,” definitely one of Rancid’s catchier and more melodic numbers that adds diversity to the mix without sacrificing intensity. And god damn, do they explode on the chorus, or what? The group vocals on this one are super, and damn if it isn’t a great song for sing-alongs, slamming or just making yourself feel good for a change. The experience described in the song is one of listening to life in an apartment building, something you can always experience in California apartments because of the cheap-ass walls they build to squeeze every last dime out of their real estate investments. Ruby Soho made the mistake of falling in love with a forever-itinerant musician, and spends her life helping him out when he’s around (“He’s singin’ and she’s there to lend a hand”), then waiting for him to return from his eternal road trip to eventual fame and fortune. The bittersweet goodbye scene contrasts with the bouncy, energetic music, but hey, it’s life, and we all do what we gotta do to survive: enjoy the “warm gesture” while you can.
“Daly City Train” is a ska skipper that forms an ironic eulogy of an “artist and a writer and a poet and a friend” who died young from drug and alcohol abuse, but rather than whine and shake their heads like all the do-gooders who think death is some kind of sin that’s entirely the fault of the individual, Rancid celebrates the life of a guy who “rolled the dice” but “never thought twice about being him.” Our hero did something that our health-nazi, paranoid, play-it-safe culture considers insanity: he lived.
Jackyl was one of the one’s that perished
He was one of the one’s that was already saved
Through all the evil and wreckage
He maintained a sense of himself
In addition to the fabulous, life-affirming message, the guitar solo on this song is terribly clever, adding just the right touch of dissonance to support a message that the average person will have a hard time hearing.
These guys never quit—not live, not in the studio. “Journey to the End of the East Bay” opens with another dazzling display of dexterity from Matt Freeman before you hear the sound of feedback coming at you like you’re the trussed-up heroine headed for the buzz saw and then WHAM! Let’s kick some rock ‘n’ roll ass! The song is a playful retelling of Operation Ivy’s brief career and the ups and downs of trying to make a living in music. Some of the lines provide back story to their (Rancid’s) decision to remain independent (“too much attention unavoidably destroyed us”), and describes what it’s like to live and play in a place that the media has identified as a musical hotbed (“Matty came from far away/from New Orleans into the East Bay/He said this is a mecca/I said this ain’t no mecca man, this place is fucked!”). Tim Armstrong’s vocal is right on target, and you get the feeling that he’s reliving it all right there in the moment. Absolute fucking knockout of a song.
Tim has to catch his breath now, so Lars Frederiksen steps up to the mike for “She’s Automatic.” If there’s one song that brings my teens back into the present, this is it. The tight, pounding music provides a perfect background to the description of the punk club scene I knew and loved. Here are the full set of lyrics (the handwritten liner notes omit a couple of key lines) with my recollections in italics:
The way that she moves, well I was aroused (that was always my goal—I wanted every guy in the joint to get a hard-on watching me move)
Impowered, impassioned by every move (and I wanted every girl to drip and maybe reach between her legs for a quickie)
It’s so cold outside, we need a place to hide
Go into the club to thaw out for the night (yes, it gets fucking cold in California, especially when the wind and the fog are pouring through the chute from the Golden Gate to the Berkeley Hills)
She’s automatic, so automatic, the way that she moves (2) (I always wanted to give my best performance, like a punk Olympian)
Situation’s so tricky, I was feeling so proud
The bass and the drums, the music’s so loud (surround sound is a pale imitation of a punk venue when the band’s hot; it’s like swimming in sound and electric fire)
She asked me if I would stand by her side like glue
That I would till the end of the night (sometimes I’d go to SF shows alone and immediately attach myself to any guy with big arms and a few spiked accessories)
My head was spinnin’ a million miles an hour
The chance I was takin’ I get anxious around her (they may have looked like tough guys, but I found most punk men very respectful, a bit on the shy side and often submissive—yes!)
She put her head on my shoulder I started to hold her (believe it or not, there was a lot of tenderness, bonding and camaraderie beneath the noise and the slamming)
Swingin’ and swayin’ the morning began (a good chunk of my swingin’ and swayin’ took place afterwards on some guy’s futon, but that was NOT automatic)
We go back to high-speed ska dominated by Matt Freeman’s amazing bass for “Old Friends,” the most mellow song on the album—and that is a very relative term. It’s followed by the ass-kicking, poetically economical and enlightening experience of “Disorder and Disarray,” where the act of signing your life and your music away to the music industry is compared to getting your ass nailed to the cross. Hey, we just want to make fucking music! Don’t you suits get it?
Say goodbye when you see me sign
Now I’m crucified
The ground is fertile and the grass is green
So many things to be seen
So many bands to be heard
Just for once can I be ignored?
“The War’s End” deals with the war of the generations; at this time in history, parents (not mine!) had pretty much bought into Reagan’s patriotic bullshit and American militarism, while one faction of the punks began to foment revolution from the left. Rancid gives the kid at the center of the story the best advice possible: get the fuck out of that house! “You Don’t Care Nothin'” is all about the music: the rhythmic variation in this song is so compelling that the lyrics fall into deep background for me. Brett Reed seems to come in and out of nowhere with rolls, skips and stutter-steps, and frequently the band plays off-rhythm for a few seconds to build up the tension and make the experience of coming together the sonic equivalent of a thick cock in just the right place at the right time.
Sorry if that offends you, but read À Propos de Moi! I frequently experience music on a sexual level, so piss off!
“As Wicked” matches any of the other songs on the record in terms of musical power, but the real power of the song lies in the lyrics, describing an everyday occurrence in the rich and painfully expensive cities of the Bay Area, where people who can afford to pay millions for homes stick their noses high in the air when they confront the ghosts of American society:
I saw an old man on the street
he was in a dumpster lookin’ for somethin’ to eat
he moved so slow like a dyin’ dream
ike a machinist who got caught in the machine
I saw this lady and she was cryin’
she said it’s hard when someone you love is dyin’
I saw this kid who was about 5 years old
he was in the park all alone he was cold
there’s something coming around
as wicked as it may seem
as wicked as anything could be
This is one quality of great political punk: it forces you to look at the things you don’t want to see, primarily your failure to live up to your responsibilities to other human beings who are down on their luck. This theme of convenient blindness is echoed in the first line of “Avenues and Alleyways,” a no-bullshit wake up call to those who are satisfied with the way things are and think that because they passed a few laws to protect minorities that everything’s hunky dory:
I figured out the problem yeah the problem is you
You didn’t see us comin’ now there’s nothin’ you can do
Times are gonna change, change or step aside
It’s my point of view that took you by surprise
The sun’s coming up yea the new dawn arrives
New generation standing stand with anger in their eyes
No love in the city ’cause there’s no connection
Been stricken with disease a racial infection
I’m a battering ram comin’ through to you
In every alleyway on every avenue
Actions could erase all the fear that we suffer
People segregated no one understands each other
He’s a different color but we’re the same kid
I will treat him like my brother he will treat me like his
The “Oy-oy-oy!” shouts on this song must be accompanied by clenched fists raised in unison. I only wish that the line, “the force is unstoppable” was true. With everything going to shit in this world and unsolved problems continuing to pile up, where the fuck are all the revolutionaries? And I don’t want to hear from psychopaths masquerading as saviors, I want collective action to “erase all the fear we suffer,” not spread more fear.
Boy, great punk music is thrillingly radicalizing! I haven’t felt this good in months!
Speaking of feeling, the seemingly nonstop barrage of extraordinary music ends with “The Way I Feel.” The opening is a stutter-step killer, where they hold onto the notes a few milliseconds longer with building speed before kicking it into high gear; it’s a fabulous time-suspended passage that they repeat midway through the song and again at the end. The song has serious attitude, rocks with a passion and has a shout-to-the-top-of-your-lungs “na na na na” passage guaranteed to get everyone in sync. It’s another killer song and the perfect end to a killer album.
Both Rancid and $wingin’ Utter$ are still alive and kicking, proving that age has nothing to do with attitude. My review of $winging Utter$’ 2013 release Poorly Formed was decidedly positive, and when I’ve had time between reviews to go back and simply enjoy some newer music, I always play Poorly Formed first. The word on the streets is that Rancid has a new album coming in June called Honor Is All We Know, and I’ll be all over it when it comes out. If their relatively recent performance videos on YouTube are any indication, they’ve still got the chops and they’ve still got the attitude . . . and punk’s revolutionary message is more relevant than ever.