Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tales From the Crypt

Okay, I'm going to get a little self-indulgent for a minute now, so bear with me.

Those of you who've been hanging around here since NYMary first gave me the spare keys to the car may recall that one of the things I talked about doing early on was using the blog to rescue various things I'd written about pop music over the years for various dead tree media, primarily the old Stereo Review (now Sound & Vision). In practice, however, I've only done it once or twice, partly because it's a royal pain in the ass to transcribe the damn things, but mostly because upon re-reading some of my early stuff I've come to the conclusion that a lot of it is either dated, embarassingly wrongheaded or both, and that I really didn't learn how to write until the early 90s.

That said, the other day I got an e-mail from Eschaton chum/World's Most Aggravating Velvet Underground Fan/blogger of note The Kenosha Kid. The Kid informed me that he had found an old copy of SR featuring my review of the Sex Pistols "Never Mind the Bollocks" album, and that he had intended to give me grief about how lame it was but that to his surprise he thought it was actually pretty good. A few days later I found a copy and reread it myself; to my surprise, I discovered that I kind of agreed with him, so I've decided to share it with you. I've made a few cosmetic changes -- mostly involving punctuation, although I've altered the odd phrase I found insufferably pompous -- but this is essentially 99.9 percent word for word the way it appeared on newstands in February 1978, back at the height of the Jimmy Carter administration.

If one is slightly cynical about things (and in America in 1978, I can't conceive of being otherwise) it's hard to view the meteoric rise of the Sex Pistols to the status of Genuine Phenomenon as anything other than the result of shrewd managerial reading of the public mood. Except for their visual trappings, they're certainly not doing anything that could be remotely called original, either musically or in their public pronouncements. So they're loud, crude, minimally skilled at their instruments; so they spit at queen-and-country, at the rock-and-roll tradition, at the music business, and at anyone rooted in the values of the Sixties. So what? The idea that kids should reclaim rock from the clutches of arrogant superstar tax exiles and balding corporate moguls dates back at least to David Bowie's All the Young Dudes and its contemptuous sneer at older brother "back at home with his Beatles and his Stones." The Pistols' stance of calculated obnoxiousness and musical primitivism is the same ploy countless rockers from Elvis on down have utilized to get noticed in a hurry.

But even granted all that, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Pistols as just this season's hype; there's art lurking beneath the artifice of their debut album. Of course, to appreciate "Never Mind the Bollocks" you have to have a certain tolerance for loud noises. You also have to understand something perhaps not readily apparent, which is that the Pistols are wittily well aware of the contradictions in what they're attempting, the most obvious of these being that to reach the mass audience they want they will have to seduce the very types they detest, especially once they invade America. But they go ahead anyway, in E.M.I and New York, knocking the record company that dropped them (because some execs believed they were seriously advocating anarchy) and sneering at the "bored old faggots" who are habitues of Max's Kansas City (i.e., the trend setters who have helped make punk rock, at lest in the U.S., the Next Big Thing). Unless we're being kidded on some level, how else to explain the theatrical panache with which the Pistols deliver such utterly ridiculous lines as "I'm a lazy sod." Or the very idea of giving themselves surnames like Vicious and Rotten?

The blatant put-ons notwithstanding, however, the Pistols' political message comes across with undeniable power. It should be noted that, among other things, they happen to be the most legitimately influential protest songwriters in over a decade, and as with Bob Dylan it hardly matters whether they're completely sincere or not. God Save the Queen, which they released as a single just in time to spoil the Silver Jubilee for a lot of their countrymen, is something of a small rock masterpiece in that regard (as well as the strongest track on the album); it's also a remarkable revival of the kind of spleen-venting the Angry Young Men of the British theater were doing twenty years ago. As James Walcott observed, there isn't that vast a gulf between John Osborne and Johnny Rotten, and if you doubt it, I suggest you listen to the way Rotten yowls "God save the Queen...we mean it, man."



As you may have gathered by now, I don't find the Sex Pistols particularly threatening, for all their revolutionary fervor. Rotten is a first-rate rock-and-roll singing actor (his Cockney whine is almost cute), and though the band still has some growing to do, when they're on they have a drive and power reminiscent of the MC5. "Never Mind the Bollocks" may be a little repetitious at times, but the best cuts are viscerally exciting and easily accessible rock by any standard. Still, by the rules of the game the Pistols are playing, if somebody like me (who represents a lot of what they claim to be rejecting) comes to terms with them, it smacks of co-optation. And so, that I do rather like them indicates a failure on their part, it seems to me. I hope that when they bring their peculiarly English brand of sonic assault to these shores in person, they'll do their damndest to make me uncomfortable about my endorsement. After all, if I read them right, that's their job. -- Steve Simels

SEX PISTOLS: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
WARNER BROS. BSK 3147 $6.98


For what it's worth, I really wouldn't change much except for that bit about them being minimally skilled at their instruments. In fact, other than that, by and large I think I nailed it.

Et vous?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

The punks at my high school worship the Pistol especially Sidney V.

Us oldsters hear a good rock band, the punk teenagers see themselves as the Pistols in Chemistry class or in the cafeteria. They want to wreck havoc out of being bored (and forced to show up to school early in the morning).

And who can blame them.

ROTP(lumber)

dave™© said...

IIRC, you did a review of the first Ramones' album that kinda cheesed me (I could be wrong about this).

And I'm still looking for that incredibly bad Hirschfeld-esque caricature of you that used to grace your SR column!

dave™© said...

$6.98 list for that album! Pretty sure I got it on sale for $3.99 at Tower... *sigh*

TJWood said...

I remember this review very well. I can't say I totally had bought into the punk rock thing yet, and can only admit to having heard one or two Pistols songs at the time. I do remember this as one of the more intelligent things written about the band up until that time. I'd agree that this review--as well as the album--still holds up.

In another review in the same issue (I can't remember which one, unfortunately), you stated that the Pistols made exciting singles but only so-so albums. You also did an article on punk rock in late 1978 for SR in which you gave a sidebar review on the punk acts of the day. For your Sex Pistols entry, you stated that the band would probably be remembered more as an influence than for their music. I'd say both opinions are arguable, but I suppose I would als have to ask if you still stood by them as well.

Finally, this brings up a question I've had for awhile as to whether the old Stereo Review issues could somehow be revived in digital form, as is the case with the old Rolling Stone magazine issues. Any insight on that?

Rinjo Njori said...

A record cost $7 back in the day? That is prety expensive if you think about it. The record companies must have really been raking it in back then. You can pick up the whole album now for just 50% now on iTunes.

Gummo said...

I have vague memories of reading that review "back in the day", Steve, and you pretty much nailed it.

It did bug me at the time, as a New York punk chauvinist, that more wasn't made of the Pistols' obvious debt to the Ramones, without whom etc. etc. Most old-guard music writers seemed to think the Pistols had sprung from the mire of English class resentment full-blown and without antecedents of any kind. Your review was a good corrective to that attitude.

Kid Charlemagne said...

Gummo is absolutely right about the band's debt to the Ramones.

Also, even though they slag off NYC, it is ironic how much their music steals from the Dolls, especially Steve Jones' wholesale lift of Johnny Thunders guitar sound.

Obviously they were listening to them.

steve simels said...

dave™© said...
IIRC, you did a review of the first Ramones' album that kinda cheesed me (I could be wrong about this).

To be brutally honest, I completely didn't get the Ramones at first, although in my defense, I still don't think they're worth listening to until the third album (a not unreasonable position, I maintain).

But in any case, the brief dismissive review of the first Ramones album was not by moi. That was my late colleague Noel Coppage, a lovely guy and a terrific writer who nonetheless didn't have much use for loud noises.

steve simels said...

BTW, I'm surprised nobody commented on the weird Stereo Review style thing in the review -- you'll note that song titles were in italics while album titles were just in quotes. The exact opposite of the way it's done pretty much everywhere else in the world. Used to drive me, and my writers, completely bonkers.

Gummo said...

Okay, steve, just for you:

What's with the goofy reversal of italics and quotes? Usually songs are in quotes and albums, like books in book reviews, are in italics.

Is that some weird Stereo Review quirk or what? I bet it used to drive you, and your writers, completely bonkers!

steve simels said...

Nobody likes a wiseguy, Gummo.
:-)

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

One of my city's best singer songwriters often does what can only be considered oldies shows, combining the Beatles and the Stones, Charlie Rich, Pink Floyd and many others. "God Save the Queen" is always a highlight. You nailed the Sex Pistols with your first punch.

Cleveland Bob said...

Brilliant then, Steve...brilliant now.

Yes, consider it nailed. I particularly liked, "But even granted all that, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Pistols as just this season's hype; there's art lurking beneath the artifice of their debut album. Of course, to appreciate "Never Mind the Bollocks" you have to have a certain tolerance for loud noises. You also have to understand something perhaps not readily apparent, which is that the Pistols are wittily well aware of the contradictions in what they're attempting, the most obvious of these being that to reach the mass audience they want they will have to seduce the very types they detest, especially once they invade America."

Ha. That was exactly why I loved the record and would put it on the turnatable for everyone I knew at the time.

The saturation of Steely Dan's Aja was epic around then and I LOVED ripping that cheesy dreck off of the player and pouncing the stylus onto Holidays In The Sun. The looks of horror and shock were priceless then and in some ways, there are people who still hate this kind of a record.

Personally, my favourite cut was always, Bodies, but nothing, and mean nothing, clears a room faster at the end of an evening like the opening screech of Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance.

steve simels said...

nothing, and mean nothing, clears a room faster at the end of an evening like the opening screech of Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance.

I always use Marty Robbins' "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs" album, the one with the seven minute version of "El Paso." But I know what you mean....

TMink said...

Reading the review I think you took them seriously and dealt with the challenges they presented fairly and honestly.

One thing I like about your work is that you take a big picture and philosophical approach without forgetting to say if it rocks or not.

In the end, they rock, and while it is difficult to figure out just how many levels of irony build up with them (and Alex Chilton too) the music works for me as music.

Maybe because the attitude is part of the music too. I mean, the John Cage piece where he starts the timer and closes the piano is interesting, but it does not work as music. Interesting thought, but no emotional communication, and that is the musical brain hack.

Trey

Mrs. Peel said...

New category for a Listomania: Music to Clear a Room With.

Seriously, though, nihilism for its own sake and an "anti-anything that came before me" attitude never did anything for me. It's just as narcissistic as what it's complaining about. Me! Me! Notice me! And fuck you for noticing me!

These days it's all bullshit anyway. If I see one more punk kid with magenta hair and a lip piercing who thinks he's being rebellious and/or individualistic, I'm going to smack him. There are people old enough to be his parents who had magenta hair. Bor-ing.

But then, I suppose there's nothing new under the sun ...

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

Mrs. Peel, I saw a punk kid with magenta hair in San Francisco with his proud mother-- I do not remember whether her hair was magenta. Anyway, they were soooo cute. As he was not being rebellious, I suppose it was not so boring.

Mrs. Peel said...

Anyway, they were soooo cute. As he was not being rebellious, I suppose it was not so boring.

Then the entire movement has been co-opted.

Ironic.

steve simels said...

Hmm. Blogger just ate a comment, so I'll try it again.

But then, I suppose there's nothing new under the sun ...


My fave Nick Tosches quote:

"The illusion of newness is pop culture's greatest sucker racket."

Mrs. Peel said...

My fave Nick Tosches quote:

"The illusion of newness is pop culture's greatest sucker racket."


Brilliant. And you touched upon that very thing in this piece ...

Anonymous said...

You guys forget it is all new for teenagers. Rebellious and safe at the same time.

When a kid at my high school goes punk, goth or jock for the first time they are very proud and at the same time self-conscious. When I was able to grow my hair down to my shoulders I was so proud of myself. I thought it was very daring and new at the time.

Rock and roll was self-renewing for 30 years and it felt great. Only now when there is nothing new for traditional rock and roll to create (only refine) does it finally seem to be getting old to us oldsters.

During it's time the Pistols' style of rebellion was very exciting. Yes it was based upon the past but the Pistols were able to create a fresh mix and move beyond the NYC punks. Of course a few years later the LA punk scene trumped the British scene. And on and on it went reinventing itself until there was nothing left fresh to cannibalize.

ROTP(lumber)