Various: Dirty Water 2 – More Birth of Punk Attitude

Various (Kris Needs, compiler)
Dirty Water 2: More Birth of Punk Attitude
Year Zero

You may very well need this stuff at some point. And there’s little sense wasting space on an introduction to this music, since there’s both so much and so little to introduce. Long story short: writer Kris Needs, editor of ZigZag during the golden age of British punk rock, has put together a second volume for his (hopefully continuing) series of punk compilations. But while the title and Needs’ own writing background give the impression of a very rock-oriented outlook, these collections are anything but. On the contrary, Needs has put together a smorgasbord of artists from the ’40s to the ’80s, all exemplifying what he thinks of as “punk attitude”. Major artists are drawn on as pieces of a very large puzzle, but there is no narrative here, and the tracks on Dirty Water 2 aren’t just reiterations of Sex Pistols demos. Over two discs, Needs gathers psychedelic garage-rock singles of note as well as free jazz, scratchy folk, and power pop (among other genres). Needless to say, this isn’t Nuggets. When was the last punk collection you heard with Dizzy Gillespie on it?

Nuggets is the collection that the Dirty Water discs will be likened to, and Needs makes fond reference to that landmark set in his extensive liner notes, not to mention the comp’s title. But while Nuggets collected songs from a specific era and connected them fairly seamlessly, Dirty Water is all over the map. The most noticeable connecting thread here is actually those liner notes, which are lengthy and well-researched. Needs gathers interview material, including some from lesser-known figures like Jayne County, and they throw the progressions (and/or regressions) into context. But moreover, his tracing of the history behind the music here shows great passion and a surprising sense of immediacy — he talks about the Velvet Underground as if none of us have ever heard of them before, which helps make this an ideal gift idea (more on that later). This is all quite impressive in a package where the only truly awful thing is the cover. (Seriously, who’s been choosing those? Very un-punk.)

So, how’s the music? In a word: excellent. The tracks themselves are too numerous and varied in nature to adequately explain here, but Needs begins the collection with Captain Beefheart: “Zig Zag Wanderer” (what else?). Beefheart, who died during the assemblage of Dirty Water 2, provides an appropriate start-off point to the rest of the album — that throaty howl of his grasps itself around the nonsense lyrics while the Magic Band somehow manage to sound like they’re swirling around him with only a few notes and some fantastic guitar tones. Like the rest of Dirty Water 2, “Zig Zag Wanderer” is abrasive, and abrasive in a real annoy-the-hell-out-of-your-parents sort of way … but it’s also deeply groovy in an absurd sort of way. (“Groove” is something that often gets overlooked with Beefheart, especially when Trout Mask Replica is the only thing that many listeners are familiar with.)

If the inclusion of the Beefheart song was the respectful (and fun) dedication to a fallen great, then the rest of Dirty Water 2 is the celebratory culmination of that song’s spirit. Every single track here is at least interesting if not great, and they’re all varied to such a degree that even picking out highlights is a dodgy task. But take note of these: The Human Expression’s 1966 “Love at Psychedelic Velocity” combines a surf guitar riff with womb-envy singing and charging snares, slowing down and speeding up again seamlessly (fans of Deerhunter should seek this one out). A pre-Kick Out the Jams MC5 play a live version of “Black to Comm” that goes on for 11 minutes and sounds like a jet trying to take off until the last two. The Tidal Waves rip off the Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” so shamelessly that it’s amazing how it doesn’t even matter. The Hammersmith Gorillas (what a name) take “You Really Got Me” — which you may think you never needed to hear again — and turn it into a stoned half-shuffle while somehow still sounding very similar to the original. Patti Smith rails in that young voice of hers about the “Piss Factory”, providing a great transition away from the Velvets’ live version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” (although including the 10-minute Quine Tapes version instead might have been an even “punk-ier” move). And Doctors of Madness’ “Waiting” is just phenomenal, combining an unstoppable pummel with bright guitar figures and a hook that defines the very word.

The first Dirty Water collection gathered a bit of jazz, and the sequel repeats that. While these may be skipped by some, they shouldn’t be. If anything, it’s a shame there isn’t a little bit more jazz spread out here, as Needs obviously has a great feel for what makes the music hit you in the gut. The aforementioned Dizzy Gillespie is represented by an early-’70s version of his “Bebop”, compressed here into four minutes of the tightest playing you’ll ever hear by anyone — and they’re not even trying to hit every note — hence the “punk attitude”. (The drumming, however, is almost alarmingly terrific.) Needs also includes Albert Ayler’s “Wizard”, capping off the first disc with appropriate flair and proving that the most guttural flailings of punk require neither hooks or a three-minute length.

I’ve already mentioned that nearly every track here is great (although I think Needs overestimates both Edgar Broughton and Blue Cheer, the latter of whom would have been nothing without the guitar of Leigh Stephens). And only about a quarter of them have been mentioned so far in this review — so the material is not a problem with Dirty Water 2. The drawbacks of this comp, however, are twofold. For starters, the track sequencing is often questionable, and while this may make for “edgier” listening (this is punk attitude, after all), it also gives the package a leaden vibe. This would be fine if the album were arranged in a purposely scatter-shot way, hurling genres around in a blurry, frenzied celebration of the titular “attitude”. But despite the avowedly “anti-narrative” structure, some of the segues are clearly intentional (Velvets to Patti, Bowie to Mott, etc.), even if it does take until the end of the second disc for any reggae to appear (which had more influence on punk attitude than Parliament’s “Oh Lord, Why Lord”, that’s for sure).

The problem is that these tidier transitions seem natural and earned, while the other ones are spontaneous and jarring. There’s nothing wrong with either tactic, of course, but when I say “jarring”, I mean jarring. Big Star to Flamin’ Groovies I understand, but Faust to Eddie Cochran? And what about the jump from the Silhouettes, the 50s doo-wop group, to … Suicide?!?! Sure, the former group’s mention of money “turning brown” in “Headin’ for the Poorhouse” may indeed be a heroin reference, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that there isn’t a single song from the 1950s that would make a fine transition to Suicide. (Maybe something by Perry Como.)

In the long run, though, these are minor quibbles. The much more substantive problem is a simpler one to gauge: you might already be familiar with many of these songs. Great songs, of course, and it’s not as though hearing “Suffragette City”, “In the Street” or “C’mon Everybody” will ever be a waste of time. But albums like Ziggy Stardust, #1 Record, Spiritual Unity, Safe as Milk and 1969 are all records worth owning, or at least being aware of.

All of this is phenomenal music, of course, and damn near every track on Dirty Water 2 reflects that and deserves your time. The real question is who this compilation is for. Presumably, most of the people who would come to investigate a punk compilation of this ilk would already be aware of several of the artists, and would be seeking lesser-known singles and album cuts from more idiosyncratic performers. They will likely be pleased with the results here, but they might also wonder (as did I) why the rarer tracks are thrown into relief by the more obvious ones. By the same token, the newbies to this music (let’s call them “the unconverted”) would probably wonder why they spent 20 bucks (yeah, right) on a bunch of songs that rarely sound like full-fledged “punk rock” at all.

But hey, who the record was compiled for is hardly the point. It’s telling and important, but it’s not the reason that Dirty Water 2 is highly recommended — it’s highly recommended because it’s full of great music. No matter what Kris Needs’ definition of “punk” is, or what your own definition is, there’s certainly a sense of spirited abrasion to every song here, one that defines not a singular ethos (as suggested by the album’s title), but a singular sense of exuberance. A willingness to try something that might be disconcerting or not even worth trying in the first place, but trying it anyway and achieving something indelible (no matter how forgotten). “Well”, you might say, “that could be said about any great piece of music, not just punk”. Precisely. Woody Guthrie and Captain Beefheart await your shuffled playlist.

RATING 8 / 10