Monday, March 10, 2014

Bad Records by Great Bands

2014 is the year my hair turns gray.  It’s an excuse to shave daily, to keep my sides cleanly cut.  Staring in the mirror one recent morning with a few days of growth loosely littering my face revealed a snow streak across my once proud jaw line.  A few more moments of studying and I was able to pinch and pull a strand or two (or three) of white from the sides of my head.  So either it’s time to expand the barber shop budget or break-out the trusty clippers. Or the alternative - just fucking deal with it and stop complaining. I’ve got hair after all! As well as, my family, my health and my records.  The latter being a living, breathing, ever-expanding entity.  While I add new bands to the roster as often as possible, I also have obsessive-completist tendencies for the bands I love.  And that, my friends, brings us full circle to today’s topic…

In addition to the encroachment of gray across my noggin, a frequently sore back, and the catastrophic loss of my ability to sleep past 8:00 am, my advancing age can be rightly assessed by how far down the bench my record collection goes on a particular band.  To put it bluntly, I’m listening to more bad records by great bands with old age.

I like a lot of The Damned’s records now.  I used to like one.  Damned, Damned, Damned was once all you needed to rage.  But it didn’t take long for someone (I believe, Chris Strunk) to put Machine Gun Etiquette on my radar. And that is a flawless record.  Not a bad note on that album.  I’ll even take “These are the hands of a demented circus clown…” The album is perfect. It sustained me for years.  And that’s why it was years later that I decided to give the much-maligned second LP a spin. Music For Pleasure. It’s not half-bad.  Yeah, the sophomore slump and all, but it’s still by and large a very listenable record with some legitimate winners. Then comes the Black Album in all its effort and ambition.  The Damned try to be The Who.  Big production, big ideas, big songs.  It took me almost 10 years to get to this one – I was well into my 30s – and it’s fucking phenomenal.  What a great, great record!  Would young 20s me agree or would he roll his eyes?  Young 30s me thinks young 20s me is out-of-his mind for passing on this one.

Before my split-personalities take me off to alternate realities, let’s stay with first-gen British punk and delve into one of the most lividly debated catalogs in all of rock-n-roll.  I’m speaking, of course, of The Clash.  That first LP is unstoppable.  Me in my mid-20s dashing off to Europe with a middle-finger held high towards Bush II, couldn’t get enough of “I’m So Bored With the USA.”  Three years later, I just had to pick up London Calling, the double LP that the entire world appears to enjoy.  Well duh.  It rules.  The punk, the ska, the funk, the rock-n-roll.  That dude I used to see at the mall when I was a kid with a T-shirt that boldly declared that The Clash are “the only band that matters,” upon reflection, appears sagely and wise. But wait, if that’s true, why did “Rock the Casbah” annoy the shit out of me still?  So I reached back in time and got my hands on Give ‘Em Enough Rope (hat tip, Graham Vanderveen) and eventually the EP turned compilation (Super) Black Market Clash.  Mostly listenable and often great.  I didn’t need anything else…did I? 

More than a decade later yours truly picked up Combat Rock.  I just turned to my old iPod to see how many songs from this way-too-famous, totally uneven LP made the cut and I actually had to fish my current iPhone out of my jeans to complete to task.  That’s how recent an investment this is.  The answer is 8 of 12.  8 tracks!  Am I crazy?  It’s not just “Know Your Rights” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now.”  It’s “Atom Tan,” “Innoculated City,” and (gulp) “Rock the Casbah.” Young me just trashed his Fred Perry and bought a tie.

When Eric Yu first played Husker Du for me I didn’t get it at all.  Sloppy, noisy and god-awful production values.  Eric went on and on about the heart and suffering that lay underneath it all.  It took a full six years of false starts to finally understand.  It took me going through a divorce and hitting a temporary low to appreciate Zen Arcade or that second verse in “I Apologize.”  Armed with those and the full speed ahead of Everything Falls Apart, I felt confident that I had what I needed from Bob Mould.  Wrong again.  In my early-mid 30s I went on a Bob-binge soaking up everything I could.  Got all the Husker Du’s, the Sugar’s, the solo records.  Stood outside last year in the pre-dawn hours for the Record Store Day version of the Amusement/Statues single.  What a guy will do for a double 7” in gatefold sleeve with an unreleased song!  Yeah, I even got one of his electronica, um, experiments (LoudBomb, Long Playing Grooves).  To be fair they were giving it away at the merch table at his Irving Plaza gig.  I appreciated (at the very least) most of the dedicated shelf in my record collection of his mournful vocals and fuzzy guitars.  I rooted out the redeemable tracks on Hubcap, I cringed-through, but understood the auto-tune on Body of Song, I got a handle on the amphetamine-induced wall of noise that is Land Speed Record, and hey, in weird way, I dug the fact that the Huskers’ first major label offering had an equally bad recording as their SST efforts. Though I found some of my favorite Mould on Last Dog and Pony Show, I won’t kid you, Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, Workbook and Copper Blue are the high water marks.  Each of these, early efforts for their respective musical incarnations.  Side A of New Day Rising is music perfected. These are my go-to releases.  Not Warehouse: Songs and Stories or Modulate.

So why did I torture myself with the later work?  What in my old age is causing me to do this?  Is it a more (ahem) sophisticated palette? Surely not. Yet, there I go again picking up X releases not produced by Ray Manzerak.  Another taste creditability test: how many tracks off of Ain’t Love Grand are on my iPod?  Answer: 7. Seven. IIII II.

Perhaps this is linked to the same thing that now allows me to tolerate Bad Brains’ reggae songs; why I now find Jello Biafra’s voice less irritating than Ray Cappo’s; why I now own Patti Smith records; ditto Meat Puppets.  I’m still as excited about punk and hardcore as I’ve ever been and I’m definitely not hip enough to like music out of sheer irony alone. 

My love for all the bands mentioned here is still paramount.  In fact, that may actually be the root cause – loyalty spurred on by love.  The question I should be asking myself is, why wouldn’t I want to listen to every fucking note put to tape by my favorite bands? Why should I ignore albums just ‘cuz they aren’t the best one?  Yeah there are warts aplenty in most cases, but there are jewels among them (apologies for mixing metaphors).  And the uneven output makes me appreciate those golden releases where every second is a gem.

Despite what my younger, angrier, more finicky self thinks, this has always been manifest.  I own, love and listen to more Kiss than I should.  I have been a fan since my 5th birthday. Of those already questionable releases, the embarrassing Music From The Elder gets far too much attention from me. Those of you in the know when it comes to Kiss will understand what a confession this is; equally as it is blasphemous.  It does prove my point though.

Circling back to The Damned and The Clash, I have never listened to Phantasmagoria or Anything. Not one lick.  I have also owned Cut The Crap for more than 20 years; even before I was in to punk.  It came with plenty of strange bedfellows in box of forgotten, discarded records given to me years and years back.  It’s sat on my shelf ever since.  I only held on to it because it was The Clash.  It has never, ever made a single revolution on my turntable.  Perhaps I’m saving something for the retirement home.

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