70’s Pick of the Week
“Train in Vain” by the Clash (1979)
He is not likely going to be posthumously knighted ‘Sir Joe Strummer’. One of the central figures in punk rock, Strummer was viewed as an extremist and mocked the government. You don’t get knighted for that. The Clash would sit around another round table though – that of Punk Rock.
From the womb of a nation wracked with economic turmoil and political and social unrest came writhing, spitting, sneering and swearing, a youth with only anger, fear and contempt for anything that smelled like authority - that was the essence of punk rock.
The U.K. had its problems: high unemployment, stodgy politicians that spoke about things yet to be done. The monarchy represented everything that the youth of a spasming nation did not have – wealth, and with that opportunity, prosperity, education, comforts and a future. The unemployed youth on dirty streets in disrepair with no prospects in sight had little else to do. The working class had few luxuries save maybe music. That music was being held tighter and tighter in the hands of the commercial machine that was cranking out a narrowing scope of music in Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and other large commercial enterprises.
Although arguably the seeds of punk were germinated in the U.S. via garage bands and that sound culminated into a rock performed by the likes of Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and the Ramones their counterparts in he U.K. seemed to raise the bar on the subculture that would become a global phenomenon.
Screaming insults and playing the same two or three chords over and over was standard in Punk rock. The important thing initially was not, in fact the music, but rather the rage against the authority, the media, and whoever else got in their way. The lyrics were simple and direct, the drumming incessant rapid-fire pounding, electric guitars driven like machine guns. Insulting the audience was not uncommon - the audience often giving it back with spitting and swearing. The credo was like: I hurt, therefore I am. And since I am miserable you should be too. Anarchy is good and actually quite fun. Anyone can have a band, you don’t need talent.
In the early sixties from the ‘Fugs’ on the lower east side in New York and then Lou Reed and “The Velvet Underground” came a rebel sound spawned from ‘Beat’ poetry and the Greenwich Village folk scene. Iggy Pop and the Stooges were formed after hearing the Velvet Underground and decided to experiment with diving into the audience, and other self destructive behaviour such as self -mutilation. Derived of a similar boredom, also in Detroit, the MC5 demonstrated their more political revolutionism sounding a lot like ‘The Who’ at times.
By the 1970’s Frank Zappa and Alice Cooper (Vincent Frunier) were attracted by the Detroit scene and Cooper developed his own brand of theatrics with makeup derived from the glam scene and props to shock the audience. When the New York Dolls came along in 1972 with feminine appearance/glam they visited England, opening for Rod Stewart. Is this where the true inspiration for punk in England came from? Or were they already listening to the Modern Lovers, and seeing the influence David Bowie had already been under?
Malcolm McLaren had a clothing stores in the U.K. that originally appealed to the ‘Teddy Boys’ but after exposure to the New York Dolls, and Iggy Pop, shifted to more of a glam and fetish clothing line. He then took Steve Jones a regular to his shop and a thief who selectively stole from those he idolized in David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Roxy Music, and had him form a band. Jones a rocker from before, came to tout that it was not the music that was important (i.e.: the progressive, commercial rock) but the style. The Sex Pistols were born.
Back in the U.S. the New York Dolls pretty much self-destructed but others rose to take their place in Bands like Television, Blondie and the Ramones who were forming and had been influenced by the cross-pollination of U.K. clothing and ideology. CBGBs in New York became a focal point.
Journalist Dave Marsh used the term ‘punk rock’ in the May 1971 issue of Creem magazine, coincidentally the same issue that introduced the term ‘heavy metal’. The term ‘punk rock’ is credited to Nick Tosches and very soon after, Lester Bangs in 1970.
The breakthrough of true punk rock came in the form of the ‘Damned’ in 1975 who seemed to represent the voice of downtrodden youth. You no longer had to wait for the next big thing – you could make it happen yourself, talent or not.
Playing in a neighbourhood called “Bromley”, the Bromley Contingent were adamant followers of the “Sex Pistols” who then got put out in vinyl by 1976. Bands like the Clash, the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Buzzcocks, Public Image, and Generation X (fronted by a young Billy Idol) followed.
The Clash formed shortly after the Sex Pistols in London. Their debut album “The Clash” was released in 1977 in the U.K. but did not see the light of day in N.A. till 1978, when they also released “Give 'Em Enough Rope”. On the heels of this they released their most successful album “London Calling” which is considered one of the best rock albums of all time by many. It is also what took the consciousness of punk rock outside the nucleus of the hardcore scene.
The core band with Joe Strummer (lead vocal, rhythm guitar), Mike Jones (lead guitar) and Paul Simonon (bass guitar) would have drummer Nicky Headon till 1982 and then various others till they disbanded in 1986.
‘London Calling” as an album went to #9 on the charts in the U.K. and #27 in the U.S. “Train in Vain” was a last minute addition to the album but my favourite Clash song. Often introduced as “the only band that matters” they went on to produce such commercially successful songs as “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay of Should I Go”. They were much more than this to true Clash fans producing a number of solid albums including “Sandinista” and “Combat Rock”.
The lasting effects of the royalty of punk is seen and still heard every day – bands like the Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, and Green Day kept the royal tradition alive.