Thursday, October 18, 2007

30 Years of Ignoring the Bollocks

There's been a lot of typing this year in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Let's take a moment to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Autumn of Hate. Well, no, punk's not really about hate. Maybe we can call it the Summer of Outrage. Not quite as catchy, but whatever.

1967 was an important year, to be sure, but 1977 was also one of the most important (and just plain best) years in rock. Is that even a controversial statement? (EDIT: I guess not, since the current issue of SPIN is dedicated to a retrospective tribute to that year.) Let's review the record: The Ramones' Leave Home AND Rocket to Russia, Never Mind the Bollocks, The Clash, Damned! Damned! Damned!, Television's Marquee Moon, Richard Hell's Blank Generation, Talking Heads '77, The Dead Boys' Young Loud and Snotty, and Wire's Pink Flag all came out that year. And for each of these great punk albums, there were probably several bands that only managed to put out a great punk single: in Britain, classics like The Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict", Generation X's "Your Generation" and X-Ray Specs' "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" In America, more obscure stuff like The Pagan's "What's This Shit Called Love?", The Avengers' "We Are The One" and Pere Ubu's "The Modern Dance."

Now how much would you pay? Don't answer, because you also get Iggy Pop's best post-Stooges album, Lust for Life; David Bowie's first collaboration with Brian Eno, Low; Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (not the one with "Roadrunner", but the second album, with "Here Come the Martian Martians" and "Abominable Snowman in the Market"--which are so much cooler than "Roadrunner"); Fela Kuti's best record, Zombi; Bob Marley's best studio album Exodus; arguably the best reggae album of the 70's, The Congos' Heart of the Congos (and probably several other important reggae records if I knew what I was talking about); Parliament's Funkplicity vs. the Placebo Syndrome (the one with "Flashlight"); Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express (I don't know much about Kraftwerk, but I think that's supposed to be considered a masterpiece); Pink Floyd's dark satire Animals; and John Williams' Star Wars score. And for good ol' frat boy rock, how can you resist a year that gave us Van Halen I, KISS Alive! II, AC/DC's Let There Be Rock and the first two Cheap Trick albums?

Obviously, it's Bollocks (released October 18, 1977) that stands out on that list as THE 1977 album (even though I personally prefer Rocket to Russia). When I was in high school (early-to-mid 80's), it was the one album that EVERYONE I knew had in their collection. Well, everyone who was in any way into punk, from the nerdy kid with the DEVO buttons on his Izod shirt to the most hardcore mohawked dude. It was like the gateway drug for punk rock. But 30 years later, how does it stand up? After all, it sounds awfully timid after you've heard Black Flag, Bad Brains or Bikini Kill. It seems to fall into that category with Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust--albums that are most loved by the people who were "there" at the time, for whom it's not just a collection of songs but the soundtrack to their reckless youth. It's an album that I've heard so many times that it's hard to listen to with fresh ears, to hear as something other than sonic wallpaper.

Well, if nothing else, I think you have to agree that Never Mind is a great pop album. It's just wall-to-wall hits, 12 great songs...well, let's say 11 great songs, since "New York" is pretty much a throw-away.

The album starts with "Holiday in the Sun," with Steve Jones' best riff. It's about a guy planning to escape over the Berlin Wall, so I guess it's a political song. The Sex Pistols were a political band, but their politics could basically be described as "anti-authoritarian." They didn't seem to have any important ideas about how to fix things, they just wanted to tear it down. Politics, for Johnny Rotten, are personal and emotional. He feels them, he doesn't think them. Leave that for The Clash to figure out.

"Bodies" is the most difficult song, lyrically, since it sounds like an anti-abortion song, which would seem to be in direct conflict with their political orientation. I finally came to the conclusion that Johnny is expressing his personal frustration through the narrator, a fetus about to be aborted. Makes sense to me, because again, Rotten's politics are personal and emotional. It's not about specific political ideas, it's about how he feels rejected by society.

"No Feelings" is my favorite on the first side. A great example of the Pistols' strengths, both as pop songwriters and as musical abrasive. Johnny's voice is harsh and nasty, but the melody is as simple and catchy as any Monkees song.

I never thought much of "Liar" until one day I was talking to Jason about the Sex Pistols, and he said that "Liar" was his favorite, and I made a funny face and said "Really?", but I went back and listened to it, and I'll be damned if it ain't one of the best songs on the record. Steve plays a chunky riff, and Johnny's voice cuts across it in quick chops: "Li-li-li-li-liar, you li-li-li-li-liar." So many of these songs rely on Johnny's voice to make them work, or at least to make them work in the way they do.

You can't write a song like "God Save the Queen." It's too hard to just write that simple--your own cleverness gets in the way, and you want to add stuff to it. Songs like "God Save the Queen" just show up in the songwriter's head. In fact, in some cases they seem to just be plucked out of the air, and could that be more true of any song than of this song in lower-class England in 1976?
Is "Problem" the last song on side one, or is it before "God Save the Queen?" I think I've seen different pressings with the two songs reversed.

"17" is another one that I used to fast forward past, but that eventually grew on me. It's noisy and obnoxious, and as good an expression of the band's collective personality as any.

I swear the first time I heard "Anarchy in the U.K." I thought it was a "live" recording. I guess that's evidence that this stuff was kinda far removed from what you could hear in mainstream rock at the time. No record I'd heard had sounded so rough and reckless. I've heard this song so many times that I forget how wild it sounded that first time.

I used to really love "Submission." It's funny, but I listen to it now, and I can remember everything I liked about it, it's all still there, but it doesn't excite me like it used to. It wasn't really something I could explain in the first place, but the tune was so pleasing, and there was something about how the song became a little more alive in the bridge that gave me shivers. Now it's gone. That's what I love about music. There's that level of unexplainable magic that you don't find in any other art form.

"Pretty Vacant" is OK, but a little dull in my opinion. Clearly, I'm the minority, as this song actually seems to get used as background music in movies and commercials sometimes. And like I said, "New York" is pretty lousy (feel free to leave pro-"New York" arguments in the comments). But that just makes "EMI" sound so much better when it explodes out. It's got that pogo bounce you find in the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated." I'm guessing due to circumstances alluded to in the lyrics that this must be the last song written for the album, which shows they were maybe getting better as they went along, which is a little sad.

We were pretty psyched when Zane got ahold of a copy of the Sex Pistols' documentary The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, which had been commissioned by their weasley manager Malcolm McLaren. Even in my gullable teens I could tell that McLaren was full of shit in the extent to which he took credit for "creating" the Sex Pistols, but the reality is that I bought into the part of them that he did create, the idea of the Sex Pistols as not a band, but a controversy machine. I--and, I think, a lot of people--thought that one of the greatest things about the Pistols was that they were together for two years, put out one great album, and self-destructed before getting old and putting out a bunch of lousy albums so that every time you listed your favorite bands you'd have to say "early Sex Pistols." They were always perfect.

When I watched the newer documentary, The Filth and the Fury, which Julian Temple put together using much of the same footage he'd shot for Swindle two decades earlier, I realized just how wrong I was. It was an opinion that only an adolescent could have. The line that drove it all home for me was something Steve Jones said. The title of Swindle refers to the fact that the Pistols signed contracts first with A&M, then with EMI, and were dropped from each label before they'd recorded anything, just for being "controversial." But, of course, they had to get payed a shitload of money by each label. And of course McLaren makes it out like that was a great victory, "we swindled the record companies!" In Filth, Jones says, "we didn't form a band to swindle record companies--we formed a band to play music." You look at the decisions McLaren made for the band--recruiting Sid Vicious to replace Glen Matlock (certainly the worst thing that ever happened to the Sex Pistols, and likely the worst thing that ever happened to Sid), booking the U.S. tour through the South, egging the band on to more outrageous behavior--all those things that were part of the Sex Pistols legend, the things that I loved about them as a teenager, now seem so sad. They never had the chance to grow, in the way that The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, The Clash, The Replacements and so many other great bands did. What if they had replaced Glen with the guy Johnny got for PiL? What if they had gone on to release a second album, one that would have the harsh experimentalism of PiL but retain the rock n roll spirit and accessibility of the Pistols? Maybe it would have sucked, but they deserved the chance!

I remember one day, I came home from work, and Bobbie asked me "What's Johnny Rotten's real name?" I told her "Lydon," and she said "I knew it!" Turned out Johnny had been on Judge Judy with some small claims suit, and had been acting exactly like 18-yr-old Johnny Rotten, making faces when Judge Judy turned her back and being snotty and obnoxious and rebellious. Only this was a guy in his 40's! I couldn't believe how pathetic he sounded, but when I watched Filth, I kind of understood. It's like he's stuck in that moment, because he could never complete it the way he wanted to. Then again, maybe he's just an asshole.


Blogger Sonic Safari said...

Chris, you should amend your spelling to "Bollocks," as Bullocks looks like you're referring to Sandra's family.

While it's lamentable about how the Sex Pistols went down, I don't wonder about what could have been (more cash-grab efforts like Sid's solo album, maybe?). Even today we still get the groan-inducing reunion tour announcements and absurd posturing like their juvenile rejection letter to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame. However, there's no law about aging gracefully, and John Lydon's current behavior could be forgivable. His appearance on Judge Judy was pure promotion. How lame would it have been if he'd just been quiet and polite?

Malcolm McLaren may have had sabotage on his mind when he orchestrated the band's movements, but the instability had less to do with him than it did its members. They went full bore to their demise. Fortunately, the legend and controversy surrounding the band has nothing to do with the quality of "Bollocks," which is why it still holds up today. PiL, while not an understandable leap (to my then teenage ears), could be like the Pistols after they ditched the tattered bondage look for suits, sat down with Can records and stretched out their sound. "Early PiL," at least.

10/20/2007 6:49 AM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

Thanks for the correction. Misspelling "Bollocks" with the album cover right in front of me may be the dumbest thing I've ever done on this blog, which is saying something.

10/22/2007 8:29 AM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

And to answer "how lame would it have been if he had just been quiet?"--exactly as lame as Johnny Rotten appearing on Judge Judy in the first place!

10/22/2007 8:30 AM  

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