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The Ramones – Rocket to Russia – Classic Music Review

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Way, way back in the mid-70’s when the rock world began to split into sub-genres like hard rock, progressive rock, glam rock, heavy metal and the like, two common characteristics united the lot. The music was often seriously overproduced to amp up the drama and the songs tended to be on the long side. While some of the music of the era justified the complexity of production, a lot of it didn’t, and the endless drawn-out jams favored at the time had to be getting tiresome. Yes, rock had come a long way since Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent, but in doing so it had lost touch with its core. Similar to what happened to jazz when Bebop came to the fore, Rock was no longer dance music, which may explain why desperate, latent butt-shakers of the era turned to that abomination known as disco. While disco allowed people to strut their stuff on the dance floor, it adopted a style of slick production that would render it a lifeless and temporary fix at best for people who really wanted to let loose.

Then along came a bunch of guys who named themselves Ramones. Two-minute songs played at high-speed with high intensity. A no-frills just-drive-the-fucker-home rhythm section. A singer with limited range unlikely to try and wow the crowd with histrionics. No weird time signatures or complex chord patterns. Keep it simple, keep it moving, kick some ass. Get back to the primal urges, strip the lyrics of any traces of pomposity, add a playful sense of humor and create strong hooks so people can sing or shout along while they shake their energy-starved bodies.

While their arrival did not prevent Saturday Night Fever, the Ramones would re-establish the beachhead for jukebox-style rock ‘n’ roll that would form the structural basis of punk and its variations, and make it possible for other get-back-to-the basics styles like power pop. There was never any threat that the Ramones would develop beyond their core: it’s impossible to imagine a Ramones equivalent of Sgt. Pepper. What their long career proved was that basic rock ‘n’ roll has eternal life, because when it’s played right and tight, it taps the endless reserves of sexual energy within the human species.

I feel so damned good when I listen to the Ramones. I feel alive and happy. They make me move and they make me laugh. No matter what kind of bullshit I deal with during the workday, I can put on an album like Rocket to Russia and say, “That shit doesn’t matter. Let’s have some fun!”

“Cretin Hop” kicks things off big time. I love the silliness of the premise, and god damn I love the way these guys commit to hard-ass driving rock ‘n’ roll. The message that even cretins need to hop is sublimely ridiculous and strangely liberating: just go with it and have a good time! When they get to the call-out “1-2-3-4, cretins want to hop some more/4-5-6-7, all good cretins go to heaven,” shout along with them and I guarantee you that all your troubles will vanish into thin air. There is an ironic subtext here, but we’ll save that discussion for the end of the review . . . right now I want to rock!

If for some reason “Cretin Hop” doesn’t do it for you, “Rockaway Beach” certainly will. I’ve never been with anyone who doesn’t start involuntarily singing “rock, rock, Rockaway Beach” when it comes up on the stereo or the radio. The theme of “this scene is a drag, let’s get out of here” is a classic rock theme that the Ramones cleverly update with the lines, “The bus ride is too slow/They blast out the disco on the radio.” You don’t need any fills or frills with a song like this, it runs on its own energy and the Ramones were smart enough to just let that energy carry the music across the finish line. Two minutes of absolute bliss!

“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is as close to a ballad as you’ll get with these guys, and the detour away from standard chord structure with the dominant D to F# pattern is fairly complex for the Ramones. Although I tend to prefer the high-speed flights, Joey Ramone’s vocal really holds this song together with its intense commitment. You never have to wait long for the Ramones to ramp up the speed, though, and “Locket of Love” delivers with Joey’s fabulous sense of phrasing and straightforward but very effective harmonies sweetening a song about sweet revenge. “I Don’t Care” is more of a groove song with very simple lyrics expressing the classic reaction to rejection: denial. I love the way this song gets my ass moving in a circular grind: kudos to the rhythm section of Dee Dee and Tommy for warming me up for the inevitable afters.

If Eddie Cochran had been alive in 1977, he could have easily written “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” as the groove is “Summertime Blues” with a touch of methamphetamine. The lyrics in the single verse refer to previous rock fads (surf and a-go-go rock) that no longer scratch the itch the way this new manifestation of rock energy does with its rougher, rawer distorted sound. The words establish the link to the core and the sound establishes the new direction:

Well the kids are all hopped up and ready to go (they’re ready to go now)

They got their surfboards and they’re going to the Discotheque Au-Go-Go

But she just couldn’t stay

She had to break away

Well New York City really has it all

Sheena is a punk rocker . . .

The barrage of dysfunctional family images dominates the high-speed “We’re a Happy Family,” the only track on the album where I think they add too much to the arrangement with the chattering voices in the fade. It’s followed by the wild ride of “Teenage Lobotomy,” describing a world where brainlessness is guaranteed to get you the girls and likely to lead to a Ph.D; it’s a song designed for body slamming and the delicious release that comes from shouting “Lobotomy!” with Joey.

Next up is the best cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” I’ve ever heard; shit, it’s even better than the original, where the fire was diminished by the bossa nova fad of the time. The arrangement is simple, pedal to the metal rock ‘n’ roll and captures the kinetic excitement of letting your body shake and shimmer. When done right, dancing is really a form of shadow-fucking where eye contact communicates desire better than anything anyone can say in words, and the Ramones’ performance here makes me want to get up and shadow-fuck right now!

The pounding rhythm that drives of “I Wanna Be Well” come next, echoing the rhythm of a child’s tantrum in the chorus. I think they cover the theme of pursued obliviousness better in “I Wanna Be Sedated,” my favorite Ramones song. They shake up the instrumentation with less distortion and ride cymbal on “I Can’t Give You Anything,” resurrecting the classic rock theme of the boy who doesn’t have the cash reserves to make the girl happy. For me, those songs are just the warmups for “Ramona,” with its sexy groove and minimalistic harmonies supporting a first-class vocal performance from Joey Ramone.  The Ramones then take on the novelty song, “Surfin’ Bird,” a hit for a group called The Trashmen who capitalized on the surf craze by putting “surfin'” in the title of a song that has nothing to do with surfing. Americans are so easily manipulated! It’s pure gibberish and the original was loaded with irritating sound effects and clichés, but I’ll be damned if the Ramones don’t make this sucker work.

Rocket to Russia ends with the upbeat number, “Why Is It Always This Way.” The harmonies, the happy-go-lucky rhythm and the grind-it-out guitar from Johnny Ramone give the impression that this is a “we’re having a good day” kind of rock song, but the lyrics tell a different story:

Last time I saw her alive

She was wavin’, wavin’ bye bye

She was contemplating suicide

Now she’s lying in a bottle of Formaldehyde

The Ramones loved to fuck with conventions and expectations, and their lyrics often contradict the feel of the music they’re playing. You can take these lyrics one of two ways: a.) There’s nothing we can do about this shit, so let’s rock or b.) We live in a society that is so anesthetized that human tragedy and waste no longer affect us. If there’s a dominant theme on Rocket to Russia, it’s brainlessness: cretins, lobotomies, drugs to ease the pain. In one sense, that’s not a bad thing when you’re playing core rock ‘n’ roll: you don’t want to think, you want to feel it inside and move your fanny! In another sense, the feel you get from the songs is often satiric and ironic, so it’s equally possible that the Ramones were exposing the punk scene for its cultural and artistic limitations in celebrating the moronic to excess. In a paper written for the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, a gentleman by the name of Alex Taitague poses some fascinating hypotheses about the Ramones’ lyrics and punk in the context of culture.

My take is that punk is stripped-down music, not dumbed-down music, and that of all the genres in existence today, punk tends to be the most ironic, humorous and socially conscious. While the Ramones may not have the lyrical depth of Fugazi, $wingin’ Utter$ or The Evens, their songs definitely have more depth than meet the eye.

And even if they didn’t, it’s nice to give your brain a rest every now and then and just get your ass moving to kick ass rock ‘n’ roll, an art form that the Ramones mastered with surprising discipline and boundless energy. Rocket to Russia is the perfect cure for the spirit-draining effects of our increasingly regimented world.

$wingin’ Utter$ – 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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