Various Artists: Kris Needs Presents... Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude
Kris Needs's compilation of proto-punk and the music that influenced the late '70s punk music movement often feels like his own personal mixtape, and not a cohesive collection.
An interesting idea, for sure, with eclecticism to spare, Kris Needs, the editor of Zigzag magazine, compiles a double-disc foray into what he feels was the inception of punk rock (including '60s garage, bonafide proto-punk, glam rock, avant-jazz, and... rap?), focusing less on the style of the selections, but more on the "attitude" of the punk to come, which nobody has really ever figured out, and is entirely subjective. Featuring classics we all know (look at the title), obscurities that are welcome but hit-and-miss, and some complete head-scratchers, follow me on a tour of this intriguingly perplexing excursion.
The best tracks on this record are, for the most part, songs we already know, or are from bands that have reached legendary status. Sometimes they feel out of place due to the amount of rarities, and I found myself wishing he had chosen at least lesser known tracks from these groups. As the title suggests, the album commences with "Dirty Water" by the Standells, which is a predictable choice but always great to hear. "I Hate You" by the Monks (the 1960s Monks -- you know, the American GIs stationed in Germany) is again probably their most recognizable song. In the case of "Teengenerate" by the Dictators, I am pleased, as it is the only song I like by that completely unworthy semi-novelty act.
A live track by the MC5, who I've always considered culturally important but musically overrated, "Rocket Reducer no. 62", makes me reconsider my feelings as it literally kicks out the jams in ways that modern dross like the White Strips, Jet, the Datsuns, et. al., only wish they had the blazing testosterone to accomplish. "I'm Stranded" by the Saints appears on 99% of punk compilations, and is a great punk anthem, but I'm not sure why it's included here, as the Saints were an actual punk band. "Teenage Head" reaches pretty far back into the Flamin' Groovies' catalog, and its brand of sleazy rock is totally welcome. Supreme Los Angeles weirdos Zolar X are fantastic to hear, with the track "Space Age Love" coming across as a garage-rock Devo or a sleazy, early Gary Numan.
"Subway Train" by the New York Dolls is one of their strongest compositions, and "Outside My Door" by a young Can showcases the definite influence of certain krautrock bands on punk rock, although I feel Neu!'s "Super 78" would've been a more appropriate choice. As for the more obscure or confounding numbers, the Hollywood Brats' "I Need You" reminds me of the Nuns in a garage and a few years back in time. "I'm Never Gonna Kill Myself Again" by Rocket from the Tombs is searing, energized punk rock 'n' roll, perfect for a sweaty, beer-soaked party. Peter Hammill's "Nadir's Big Choice" plays like Desolation Boulevard-era Sweet with some Dictators thrown in (sans their penis-drive stupidity) -- a magnificent song by an artist with whom I need to get acquainted. The Silver Apples, one of the most innovative groups of the 1970s, give us "Confusion", a track I've never heard that doesn't even include their signature oscillators. With Jook's "Oo Oo Rudi", just imagine the Bay City Rollers taking a beating from the New York Dolls. It's a great handful of songs ranging from solid to excellent.
Most of you might as well start getting angry, because my opinion on some "legends" transcends contempt and negativity. As for the better known acts, Mott the Hoople's "Moon Upstairs" is just a downright poor selection. Like it or not, glam rock played an integral part in the formation of punk rock, but Mott were never really good at it. I mean, their best song was written by David Bowie. This particular track is completely uninspired. A real gift for me is a 9-minute live version of "Elemental Child" by a band I've always despised, T. Rex. The whole damn thing is even less appealing that picking up dog shit. Another live atrocity is "Do You Want My Love?" by the Stooges, purportedly extremely rare. In this case, however, rare means a godawful recording, where you can't even hear the vocals, and instead get 12 fucking minutes of guitar riffing, and the poor quality sucks all energy out of it. The inclusion of this is a total cop-out, filling up space that 3 or 4 better songs could inhabit. Put it on a Stooges rarities collection for the completists, not here. Then there's Suicide, and I have never understood the appeal. Here they do "Do It Nice", where the synth player can't even keep a rhythm and anyone else involved is either too cool for school or just don't give a good goddamn.
As for the more obscure, a live recording of "Sisters Sisters" by the Up is simply a lousy recording of a lousy song, and "Garbage" by the Deviants is admittedly an interesting artifact, akin to a garage-rock take on the first Soft Machine album mixed with some Gong whimsy. However, there's no cohesion, and whoever wrote the song seems to have run out of ideas and found the appropriate solution was to fill it up with extended psychedelic jams. It's more suited for the Nuggets collections. Death's "Politicians in My Eyes" is too long at 6 minutes, especially when it sounds like an alcoholic Blue Oyster Cult outtake. Joy.
And now for The Twilight Zone...
The Last Poets. To hip-hop connoisseurs, they're probably not unknown at all, and may be well remembered for "White Man's Got a God Complex" from their first LP in 1970. Needs's selection is "On the Subway", a few minutes of black Muslim ex-cons doing spoken word (or "spiel", a predecessor to rap as we know it) over hand drums. And how is this relevant? Needs, along with many other music historians, feel the Last Poets laid the groundwork for hip-hop. Hmm.
Then we're treated to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing "The Hot City Symphony, pt. 1". What??? Sure, they wore makeup and leather jackets, but they have nothing to do with punk, proto-punk, glam rock, or anything of the sort. And the song sucks anyway; it might as well be Deep Purple. But the most out-of-place song on Dirty Water may be rockabilly legend Gene Vincent's "Bluejean Bop". I kinda get its purpose, as a lot of punk rockers, X for instance, were influenced by rockabilly, and consider the psychobilly movement, with bands like Demented Are Go! and the Meteors. But it just sounds so weird amongst these other things.
Sun Ra's "Rocket Number Nine" is a great track, but still confuses me. In subsequent listens, I did begin to hear something like Pere Ubu in the frantic avant-jazz, and a possible influence on the no-wave movement to come. The collection ends with the well-known reggae/dub act Culture. Of course, the second wave of ska, with groups like the Bodysnatchers, the Selecter, and the Specials, were indebted to earlier reggae recordings, and I couldn't help but think of Sandinista! by the Clash. Still, I opine that Augustus Pablo, Junior Murvin, or the Skatalites would've been better choices.
Needs takes chances here, and I admire that -- this collection is like no other. Yet the complete lack of cohesion is a detriment, and my honest opinion is that he should've spent more time on his selections as
well as the order of the tracks. I understand what he's trying to do; he just didn't quite pull it off.
Dirty Water is like a proto-punk Killed by Death collection. It's frequently surprising and is a valiant effort, despite its flaws. And there's a lot I didn't discuss here: tracks by the Seeds, Third World War, David Peel & the Lower East Side, Red Krayola, Pink Fairies, and Dr. Feelgood. They all fall somewhere in the middle, and I've said enough already. But they may please you more than they pleased me. The 2xCD comes with a 76-page book, which I did not receive. That's a shame, because it may have offered me more insight. But the package is surprisingly readily available, and I still recommend it, especially if you want something truly different. Now, if we could only figure out what "punk attitude" really is...