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Joan Jett and The Blackhearts – I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll – Classic Music Review

Another 80's album I'm rather fond of. Ha! Click to buy.

Rock ‘n’ roll and personal validation in one package! Click to buy.

My mother swears that I was born on August 2, 1981 during a rare thunderstorm in San Francisco. The facts do not support her claim. The historical records show that San Francisco went through a record cold spell from July 6 through August 11 and there are no mentions of thunderstorms during that period. My father only remembers my mother showering him with abuse in multiple languages for being the perpetrator of the heinous act that forced her to endure such agony. My theory is that giving birth probably feels like an attack of thunder and lightning, and she probably wanted to attach special significance to the birth of her only child so she could feel I was worth the effort.

I will let her story stand out of respect for her willingness to endure all that for little ol’ me.

Other than that, 1981 was a pretty blah year. I have to live with the shame that I was born during the first year of The Reagan Revolution and can compensate for that social disaster only by citing two other significant events: Bob Gibson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Joan Jett came out with I Love Rock and Roll.

The two events have a common thread: Bob Gibson and Joan Jett symbolize attitude. Gibson would knock anyone on their ass if they showed him up, and he devoted an entire chapter to the art of the close one in his fabulous biography Stranger to the Game. Joan Jett sang about kicking ass, not putting up with anyone’s shit and not giving a fuck about what anyone thought about her sexual proclivities and whether or not she was a switch-hitter.

I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll is an album dripping with attitude. This is obvious right from the start with the title track, where the drum intro leads to those kick-ass power chords in stereo backed by get-off-your-ass-and-onto-the-dance-floor hand-clapping. The rhythm settles into the groove and a slashing riff from the lead guitar introduces Joan Jett on the mike. Her voice is sullen, smart-ass, cheeky, street-wise and fucking hot. When the band fades and it’s just the drums and the claps, I love the way she delivers that line, “And I can tell it wouldn’t be long/That he was with me, yeah, me,” growling that “yeah” with defiant confidence. After the chorus I wait in great anticipation for that little scream she gives in between the verses: a scream telling you, “Yeah, I’ll fuck you, but I’m going to dig my fingernails into your fucking back.” She sounds like a cougar getting ready to tear into your skin. Although The Blackhearts stick close to the basic structure of the original by The Arrows, they bring a hell of a lot more attitude to the mix . . . and that’s why Joan Jett is famous for this song and people say, “Who the fuck were The Arrows?”

The Blackhearts weren’t a band to sit around on their asses, and the next song “(I’m Gonna) Run Away” keeps the beat driving and the guitars flying. Joan’s full of attitude on this one, as she bemoans the game-playing that often accompanies relationships and states she has no intention of putting up with any crap (“We’re fakin’ it, it’s time to admit it/You make me feel like an idiot”). More melodic than the opening track and supported by falsetto harmonies, this track expresses the intensely satisfying experience of calling bullshit when necessary.

John Lennon expressed his vision in “Imagine,” and Joan Jett expressed hers in the self-penned “Love is Pain.” I received I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll as a present for my seventeenth birthday—surprisingly from my mother, who had always left gifts of music to my father. Oddly enough, I didn’t remember ever hearing it before, though my dad showed me his original vinyl version that day. I held the CD in my hands, smiled awkwardly and asked her, “Why?” “Because it’s all about what you’re going through right now,” she explained succinctly. What I was going through was the sexual awakening that indicated that I liked girls as much as I liked guys and that I seemed to enjoy the experience of giving someone pain during sex. At this point in my life, I felt insecure and uncertain about those feelings. I had told my mother about my experiences, and she responded by lending me Story of O and giving me I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll for my birthday.

If I were religious, I would get down on my knees every day and thank God for my mother.

And you too, Dad!

“Love Is Pain” is a no-apology anthem for the integration of sex and pain. The punk movement had always stood in support of physical pain as part of the experience, something that parents of the time—conveniently ignoring their obsession for watching grown men maim and injure each other playing American football—found disturbing and bizarre. Joan Jett says, “Fuck that!” and sings about the joys and paradoxes of sadomasochism with positive pride:

Hey, you must obey

While you will bleed you know I need to get my way

So now, you listen up

You are my pup, I’ll beat you up in every way.

And when I speak to you

You answer true or I will make you black and blue

I love to make you wait, you take the bait

I know you hate and love me too.

We are not to blame,

In seeing love is pain,

We are not ashamed

To say that love is pain!

And we’ll do it again

The repetition of the words “We are not ashamed” meant everything to this confused teenager, and along with my visits to the Folsom Street Fair, helped me feel a little less demented.

Next Joan flips the American stereotype of the nagging wife on its ass in “Nag,” complaining about her whiny-moaner male partner. But her most powerful gender-bending statement comes in her cover of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover.” Going way back in the time machine, it was standard practice in the 50’s and 60’s for an artist covering a song previously recorded by a member of an opposite sex to change the pronouns to honor the predominant dogma of heterosexuality. Joan Jett says, “Fuck that!” I knew the original version and I was terribly excited when I heard Joan Jett’s and realized with delight what she hadn’t done. She didn’t change the pronoun! This was about a girl loving another girl!

Ah, now I don’t hardly know her

But I think I could love her

Crimson and clover

Ah when she comes walking over

Now I’ve been waitin’ to show her

Crimson and clover over and over

Yeah, my, my such a sweet thing

I wanna do everything

What a beautiful feeling

Crimson and clover over and over

Another thing I love about this version is how much respect she shows for the original, which is also a beautiful piece of work. Still, I love Joan’s rendition a bit more because of its incredible tenderness: her voice sounds like she’s in the zone, completely entranced by the woman before her eyes.

Joan and the boys go back to kicking some ass in “Victim of Circumstance,” where Joan’s shouting call-and-response vocal in the chorus and a hot lead guitar solo make this one a certified ripper. Next up is their cover of Dave Clark’s “Bits and Pieces.” This one’s difficult to evaluate because I do prefer the pounding percussion of the original and there are few lead singers I love as much as the horribly underrated Mike Smith. On the other hand, Joan Jett’s take maintains the forward movement of the song, particularly on the transition to the bridge, where Dave and the boys had a bit of a hiccup. Let’s call it a wash and thank Joan for rescuing this solid rocker from oblivion. Here are two contrasting renditions: the original and Joan Jett’s version performed with the John Mellencamp band a few years back. Try not to cringe when you see the choreography on the Dave Clark Five performance on Top of the Pops:

Next is the slam-dance masterpiece, “Be Straight,” where The Blackhearts not only do a great job with the rhythm but a killer job with the background shouts of “Be straight!” The guitar rhythm is an echo of “I Want Candy,” but who gives a shit? Joan’s on a roll with her cat-scratch screaming and the drummer makes up for sleeping through “Bits and Pieces” with a solid effort. Next they really ramp it up with “You’re Too Possessive,” recycled from her days with The Runaways and the Waitin’ for the Night album. Having come out for S&M on “Love Is Pain,” you may wonder how Joan Jett had the gall to accuse anyone else of being possessive. Well, there’s a positive aspect of possession (as an expression of intense desire) and a negative aspect (trying to restrict another person’s choices). “You’re Too Possessive” exposes the dark side: the guy is obviously an insecure pussy who tries to use the mythical male birthright to enforce obedience. Fat fucking chance, dude! That’s Joan Jett you’re dealing with!

At this point in the record, I begin to feel sorry for my dad. His original vinyl version ends with “Little Drummer Boy,” one of the worst ideas a band ever had, even if it was only included to cash in on the upcoming holiday season at the time of its release. Later releases wisely featured the far superior “Oh Woe Is Me,” a song about how the rock idols of the 60’s had sold out and drifted away from the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, a development that fueled the disgust and anger behind the punk revolution:

What happened to my heroes?

They seem to disappear

The idols keep on singin’

But they don’t sound sincere.

The lead guitar on this piece, courtesy of the obscure Irvin Arifin Harahap, is pure rock ‘n’ roll nastiness. No sellouts here!

The 1998 CD release featured a few bonus tracks worthy of mention. Joan does my all-time favorite version of “Louie Louie,” because she attacks it with the raw energy the song requires. There’s a live version of “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” that’s certainly worth a listen, but their version of “Summertime Blues” is hampered by weak background and fill vocals while suffering from comparison to Eddie Cochran’s exquisite original and Roger Daltrey’s Live at Leeds rendition. They also slapped on an alternative recording of “Nag” with The Coasters which lacks the spark of the original track. Overall, I think the record is better without the bonus tracks.

The combination of raw energy, female power and a full commitment to no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll make I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll one of my favorite albums of all time. Even though I discovered it seventeen years after its release, it had as much of an impact on me as any record I can recall. Joan Jett brought an attitude with her that makes her music scorching hot, but also sent a message that not only is it okay to be different, but that we should be proud of being different. That resonates perfectly with the anti-establishment orientation of great rock ‘n’ roll and it resonated with an insecure girl of seventeen who desperately needed to master the attitude of “Yeah, I’m different. Wanna make somethin’ of it?”

This should be the end of the review . . . but I can’t resist. I miss baseball so much! Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Gibson:

$wingin’ Utter$ – Poorly Formed – Review

Poorly Formed Swingin' Utters
There are three things I miss about San Francisco:

  • The food. Seattle’s okay, but it sure ain’t The City. The bread sucks, the pizza sucks, the delis suck, you can’t get good Chinese or Mexican and the fucking place is obsessed with salmon. I hate salmon. The only purpose of salmon is to provide oil for capsules that men can take regularly to decrease the possibility of erectile dysfunction.
  • The whole leather scene, from the omnipresence of kink shops, BDSM instructional resources to the Folsom Street Fair. Seattle is kink-friendly, but horribly lacking in infrastructure.
  • $winging Utter$.

I owe a lot to the Utter$, my favorite local punk band during my high school years. In concert with the whipping and bondage demonstrations at the Fair (for which I was an eager volunteer), the Utter$ provided me with valuable assistance in my efforts to raise my pain threshold, something I felt was absolutely necessary in order to develop a full understanding of BDSM from both ends of the riding crop.

My education progressed by leaps and bounds one weekend when the Utter$ played back-to-back nights for an all-ages crowd at a venue called Bottom of the Hill. This was one of the few places in the City that forced me to insist that my parents provide the transportation. The neighborhood gave me the creeps. Situated at the foot of Potrero Hill in an area populated by auto body shops, construction companies and big rig trailers taking up all the parking spaces, Bottom of the Hill was off the beaten path when it came to reliable public transportation (not to imply that reliable public transportation exists anywhere in San Francisco), and it was a long, unpleasant walk from Noe Valley, day or night. I didn’t drive then, and none of my girlfriends wanted to drive there. So, after agreeing to do the dishes and clean the toilets for a whole month, my mother agreed to chauffeur two girlfriends and me to the dark side of The City and back so we could slam our bodies into strangers to the glorious sound of the $winging Utter$.

This was totally unfair by the way, since it was my mother’s fault I got into BDSM in the first place by leaving her copy of Histoire d’O in plain sight. I blame negligent parenting for the kinky slut I have become.

After two late-night shows featuring two opening acts and the main attraction, I had more bruises than an overripe banana due to my rather enthusiastic moshing style (I never needed a pit). Now, don’t get the impression that this was all about the delightful physical stimulation, because it wasn’t. The Utter$ were a damned good band featuring a lot more variation than most of the punk rockers on the scene. Oh, yeah, they played loud and growled and pounded away at high speed, but they’d also throw in an accordion, a fiddle and hints of Celtic influence. They had expressionist range, too: they could do pure outrage and they could do funny as fuck. I must have seen them half a dozen times (visits occasionally facilitated by a fake ID), and I had a great time every time.

Anyway, in a couple of years I was off to college, and when I returned, San Francisco was well on its way to becoming another soulless financial center with a shit arts-and-music scene and, worst of all, the Utter$ were no more. It seemed that all the stars had aligned to ship my beautiful ass to Seattle, so I left the chilly fog of my youth for the chilly drizzle and sub-par cuisine of the Northwest.

So, it was much to my chagrin or cautious delight that I learned a couple of years ago that the Utter$ had rolled away the stone and experienced rebirth. It wasn’t quite enough to get me to move back home, but it was good to know that they were still kicking ass, as shown on their 2011 release, Here, Under Protest. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the altrockchick back then, but I now have the opportunity to atone for my poor timing by reviewing their new release, Poorly Formed.

It’s an ass-kicking, laughter-shaking, paradigm-breaking blast!

They “shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot” out of the gate with “The Librarians Are Hiding Something,” a song that indeed made me “drip-drip-drip-drip-drip” (the quotes refer to the ending lines of the verses). Johnny Bonnel still has that natural distortion gate on his voice that gives his vocals an immediate intensity, and he’s perfect for get-your-ass-out-of the-seat openers like this one. The dual vocal on the bridge adds a touch of power-pop to the mix, showing the Utter$ aren’t afraid to piss off the purists. The band is tight, the song sticks in your head and the whole concept of librarians hiding something makes me want to giggle; it’s such an absurd, provocative image, and the lyrics are a hoot!

She said you’re never alone with a schizo
Picked up the phone and said “Is not, is so!”
She’s here to stay I’m here for a visit
The other line will know who the fuck is this?
Just then I make out a sign
And the small print on her book’s spine
One says we’ll never close
The other one belongs to Edgar Allen Poe

The next song, “Brains,” is another great song, both for the vocal interplay and a series of quotable gems, like “If you don’t mind, I’ll say it bluntly/I’ve been acting kind of cunty.” The chorus features a back-and-forth vocal with lines I’ve always wanted to whisper in the ears of all the stupid people I encounter in daily life: “If you want to know a secret, come closer . . . make one wish for brains.” While Johnny wrote these brilliant lyrics, I have to give a kudos to post-hiatus addition Jack Dalrymple for writing a great piece of music with a melodic line that’s both smooth and sufficiently diverse.

Darius Koski gets into the act with his composition “Stuck in a Circle,” a song that begins with a lovely melody over a subdued background before shifting to power mode on the choruses. The song deals with the complexities of relational communication, a topic vulnerable to a flood of traditional clichés, but one which Koski revitalizes with freshness and poignancy:

Sometimes the only things I stumble on are words
The pain is worse than falling down a flight of stairs
We’re all in a circle, it all comes back to you
We’re all recycled, put together with old news

“Pour Beans” provided me with unpleasant memories of airhead young girls invading Union Square in limos to spend a night on the town barfing all over the sidewalks. Despite the grim trip down Memory Lane, I love the sardonic humor of the song. My mood perked up pretty quickly with a C&W tune replete with banjo (!) and slide, “I’m a Little Bit Country,” a first-person exposé of dumb-ass red-state belief systems, full of killer, tortured rhymes:

I’m a little bit country,
And a little bit of an asshole
I’m a little bit hungry
With this little bit of casserole
I’ve a little bit of Sundays
In my little bit of rigmarole
I’ve a little bit of controversy
In this little bit of turmoil

Beneath the humor, though, is a clear disgust with the stupidity of the American yahoo, and their belief that life is better with a “little bits” approach, creating a culture where getting by is preferable to doing anything about the fucking mess we’re in and the mediocrity towards which we continue to slide:

It’s watered down and yet it’s fortified with everything you need
Don’t be bogged down unless you’re horrified with everything you see

The rest of the album displays both the Utter$’ versatility and willingness to surprise us. “In Video” brings the sound back to street punk, featuring a soaring lead guitar solo and counterpoint. It’s a good lead-in for the title track with its memorable theme and intense drive. We then experience an abrupt shift to violin, accordion and acoustic guitar in the introduction to “Greener Grass,” but the song’s middle is a solid rocker about conflicting desires between escaping the bullshit and immersing oneself in the action. “Temporary Contemporary” kicks ass, pure and simple, and the song “A Walk with the Postman” is a hoot with a great fist-shaking crowd response opportunity with the “Hey, Hey” shouts in the final chorus.

“Military Barbara Billingsley” (what a great title!) in an exercise in absurdist punk, contrasting contemporary faces such as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert with the everlasting image of Beaver’s mom. “Dreadlock Dread Reggae” and “The Fake Rat of Dave Navarro” are solid power punk tunes that would make for great back-to-back live performance piece. The album-ender “Sevita Sing” is a sweet duo with Latin touches and lyrics in English and California Spanish.

Never having been one for nostalgia and always skeptical of groups who re-form (see my review of the latest Cranberries album for confirmation), I approached both Here, Under Protest and Poorly Formed with my wariness turned up to full volume. On both albums, these guys broke through my defenses in about 11 seconds, making me want to get up, dance, shout, sing and laugh. The new lineup is their strongest yet because Jack Dalrymple gives them three first-rate songwriters and some very exciting possibilities for new directions. Although purists may frown at the relative eclecticism of the album, I think Poorly Formed is one of their best. Even the most tone-deaf, emotionally-inhibited listener has to be moved by sheer energy of the band and want to share in the fun they’re having making this great music.

Johnny Bonnel said it best in an interview with SF Weekly: “Working together to create something unique should be the world’s motto!” It’s a great motto for Poorly Formed.

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