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Monday, Jan 26, 2009

Human depravity, sexualized violence, macabre desires come to life in two dimensions; this is the world artist Raymond Pettibon renders in pen and ink.  It is a world mirrored sonically by the band he formerly played with, Black Flag, and the label where he acted as visual curator, SST, for much of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.


Most familiar with the hardcore punk scene of this time will remember Pettibon’s comic book influenced drawings.They adorned telephone poles, streetlights and album covers.


Flyers depicting police officers with guns lodged in the their mouths, nuns brandishing shiny steel hedge clippers, and other disturbing scenes accompanied by cryptic captions, advertised shows by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, DOA, and many other bands of that period.  In 1990 he did the artwork for Sonic Youth’s Goo.

The album cover has been both one of his most enduring and typifying images.


While his artwork has since become iconic and synonymous with this period in punk music, few know the artist responsible.  Fewer still know he was the original bassist for Black Flag; a band started by his older brother, guitarist/songwriter and SST label founder, Greg Ginn.Pettibon was responsible for suggesting the name Black Flag reasoning, “If a white flag means surrender, a black flag represents anarchy.”  He also created the four black bar logo that served as the band’s emblem.


His art conjures R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman, two other artists whose illustrative approach are often attached to a literary narrative.  Crumb and Steadman partnered with writers Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson respectively, while Pettibon borrows text and verse from a variety of sources, including those of his own creation.  He cities Henry James, Ruskin, and Mickey Spillane asliterary inspirations, whose prose, often inspire and accompany his drawings.  The noir themes and world the characters in his art inhabit dovetails perfectly with the grit and naked aggression associated with hardcore.  His art helped to inform the gutter poetry and paranoia inherent in the genre.


Pettibon has since gone on to earn the prestigious Bucksbaum award in 2004, given to artists every two years that have exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.  His work is part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the MoMA in San Francisco, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Despite achieving some renown in art circles he is still relatively unknown beyond the underground subculture.  Recently, he has begun recording and playing music again with his band the Niche Makers.  The music is described as, “New Orleans on cheap wine and canned martini’s” and a record is slated for an early 2009 release.


His art seems particularly timely today and worthy of exploring.  On a recent trip to New York City, a visit to the Chelsea art galleries revealed several artists working in Pettibon’s graphic cartoon style.


The violent themes, sexual content, and hard-boiled view of life on display were undeniably influenced by his uniquely American vision.  Given the resurgence in hardcore, with bands like the Gallows and Fucked Up looking back to bands like Black Flag for inspiration, some of Pettibon’s imagery is sure to seep into the popular consciousness.  God help us all.


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Friday, Jan 23, 2009
"Work All Week" is the third Mekons single and it finishes the outstanding triumvirate by this underrated post punk group.
Work All Week

Work All Week


The third single put out by the Mekons is “Work All Week”, an anti-materialist anthem disguised as a love song.  Like “Where Were You”, it’s a song that reveals its true identity after repeated listens (you’ll have to get this song on your own as copyright does not allow me to post the original version, only the 2004 folk reggae version).  Though the song can, at first, seem to be a typical love and marriage tune, upon closer examination it bears that signature post punk cynicism and satire.  In most love songs the object of the speaker is to woo their potential partner, or to express their love/devotion/affection in some way, “Work All Week” shows that love and marriage seem to be impossible without killing yourself trying to make the money to buy the materials which signify happiness.  In a love song the object of the speaker’s affection is a person, in “Work All Week” the object of the speaker’s affection is the objects needed to barter for love.


The songs starts with a ‘70s-sounding “oriental” riff straight out of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”, then moves into a lilting chord progression that’s a bit out of time with the drums.  An excellent bass run fills in the simple chord progression and gives a good background to the misleading lyrics.  The refrain of “I work all week” is a constant reminder that most things that the speaker discusses are impossible without constant labour. 


The first lyric is straight forward enough: “I work all week to buy a ring / I work all week / Extra hours to get real gold / I’ll buy you anything / You know I’ll buy you anything / I work all week / Not put off by signs saying sold.”  Love is supplanted with a ring—there’s no mention of who he’s buying the ring for or what the ring symbolizes, the goal of working seems to be the acquisition of a ring made of real gold.  The song is boastful when the speaker says “You know I’ll buy you anything”, as if these possessions are enough, the cost of love is the value of his person.


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Friday, Jan 23, 2009

How many times have you heard a b-side of one of your favorite bands and thought “WHY wasn’t this on the album?” It is even more frustrating/confusing when there are tracks on the album that are weak and if replaced with this hidden gem of a song, could elevate the album to a great (or at least considerably better) record.


The four-disc b-sides and rarities collection Join the Dots, released in 2004, showed the Cure to be a band that consistently casts aside great songs to b-side status, often in favor of questionable experiments. I’m all for variety on an album but 1996’s aptly-named Wild Mood Swings could have done without “Club America” and it’s bizarre low-octave croon from Robert Smith. As the second song on the record after the strong opener “Want”, it was probably seen by first-time listeners as an early sign of a disappointing album and seems to cast a dark cloud over the rest of the (actually quite good) record. If you ask me, it’s one of the main reasons Wild Mood Swings is so looked down-upon.


Now if Smith had replaced “Club America” with the “Mint Car” b-side, the gorgeous “A Pink Dream”, the album just might have been received a little differently and perhaps remembered more fondly. It is an almost ridiculously upbeat, sunny slice of pop. It starts out with heavy cymbal crashing and a mix of electric and acoustic guitars, fooling you into thinking it’s darker than it is. Then the momentum picks up and the clouds break. The bright, fiercely strummed acoustic guitars recall “Inbetween Days” and Robert spits lyrics like “I rub my head and stumble out the door / Head into the bright new beautiful day”. The production is pristine with every cymbal hit sparkling, every guitar strum exuding rays of sunshine. Not only should this have been on the album, this should have been a single. 


There’s an abrupt shift of mood in the last verse when Smith sings “It was all so far away, so long ago / I hardly ever think about her anymore / Except sometimes when the summer twilight breeze carries me the scent of faraway rain…”, showing off how easily the Cure can slip from mindless joy to nostalgic melancholy. These two emotional extremes have always been what the Cure does best. The fact that the same guy who wrote “Pornography” also wrote “The Love Cats” (and within a year of each other!) is proof of that. I can’t help feeling Wild Mood Swings would have been a better showcase for these two strengths if “A Pink Dream” had been included in the tracklist. Alas, it remains a song I can put on mix-tapes/CDs I make for people knowing they’ve probably never heard it, thereby introducing them to a perfect piece of pop.


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Thursday, Jan 22, 2009
They didn't gain the post-punk popularity of Gang of Four and Delta 5, but the Mekons' first three singles will make you wonder why.

In 1978 in Leeds, England there were three excellent post-punk groups emerging from a group of friends in an art program at the University of Leeds.  Of course the biggest was Gang of Four, then the catchy and dancey Delta 5, and then there was the Mekons.  As a post punk band they emerged and quickly faded away releasing a series of excellent singles and a couple of inconsistent albums from ’78 into the early ‘80s. Once they disbanded and reformed things were a lot different as they focused on trad folk and soon got into country music where they have stayed until this day. 


As a post punk band, the Mekons were never a success like their compatriots in Gang of Four or, even, Delta 5; they didn’t even put out the consistently good material like their friends, they never even released a decent album. But the singles! The singles were outstanding. Songs like “Where Were You” and “Work All Week” were like amazing ‘76/’77 styled punk with the self


Never Been In a Riot

Never Been In a Riot


awareness spawned by the post punk scene. Near enough to punk’s origins to sound exciting, raw and legitimate, but removed, allowing them to stray from spitting political rhetoric.


Their first three singles were an exciting progression from snotty and noisy to more focused and still sloppy punk rock. The first was “Never Been in a Riot”, an off tune, off time, slacker anthem with the memorable lyric: “I’ve never been in a riot / Never been in a fight / Never been in anything / That turns out right”.  As a direct response to the Clash’s suspect “White Riot”, it embodied post punk’s awareness, not to mention its conflict with punk’s original ideals.


The following two singles explored the vulnerability, uncertainty and defeatism first introduced here. Where punk groups were only able to show two emotions: anger and outrage, the Mekons and other post punkers were able to reveal emotions outside of that narrow scope, moving on to often complex and conflicting conditions. Beginning with “Where Were You” and moving onto “Work All Week”, we’ll go through a lyrical exploration of the Mekons’ early singles.


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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009

The scream is blood curdling. It sounds like something from a horror film. But it’s not. It’s Jerry Lott, better known as the Phantom, and that scream is the first thing you hear on one of the most ragged, raw, frantic songs my ears have ever heard. “Love Me” was recorded live in one take in the summer of 1958 and is an explosion of out of control ramshackle energy. Lott was a country singer who turned to rock ‘n roll after hearing Elvis Presely for the first time in the mid-‘50s. Calling himself the Phantom and wearing a lone ranger-style mask he apparently spent three months recording his first song “Whisper Your Love” and decided he wanted to do something quick and loose for the other side of the record.  Thus, “Love Me” was born.


After Lott’s opening howl the guitar starts playing a sinister-sounding rockabilly riff and Lott makes an unintelligible noise before commanding to his bandmates “Let’s go!” The bass slides in, then the drums and the Phantom starts his Elvis-like singing. When the music stops and he moans the title he sounds desperate and out of breath. At forty-three seconds in we’re already halfway done and a guitar solo starts off unassumingly, sounding like it could be any other rock ‘n roll solo. Is it possible Lott’s noticed too that it was somewhat formulaic and tepid? Because just after the solo starts you can hear him away from the mic yell “Come on, let’s go!” and suddenly the band is tearing into their instruments with such intensity that they seem to fall out of your speakers. “Keep going!” Lott calls out as the drummer wails on a cymbal that sounds more like a garbage can lid. On the last verse Lott is barely able to get the words out and when the music stops he’s breathing like he just ran a marathon. As he repeats the title the “love” simply becomes a grunt and only the “me” remains.


Tragically, the Phantom’s music career was cut short in 1961 when he sustained severe injuries in an accident that sent his car tumbling 600 feet down a mountainside in South Carolina. “Love Me”, however, lives on as an example of ferociously fun, chaotic, rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form.


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