I don’t know where I learned about this. It’s been sitting on my Kindle for a while. I have a feeling that a friend recommended it on Facebook. It’s subtitled “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986,” which annoys me, but only because of that “An Hallucinated.” Not because it’s a subtitle. I like subtitles.
And this subtitle describes its book extremely well, especially with respect to that incorrectly-articled vision. It’s the fictionalised biography of a band called Memorial Device. Or at least that’s partly what it is. It verges on magic realism at times. It’s presented as a series of interviews and parts written by other contributors (as opposed to the supposed author, “Ross Raymond”). The actual author does a fine job of presenting those different voices and making them sound different. The whole thing reads like an actual music biography where the author has drawn on the experiences of a range of people as well as their own experience.
The hallucinatory part comes from the way some of those people speak, or write. They are variously damaged or otherwise otherworldly, and their mental strangeness comes across well — or is it the world that’s strange?
Airdrie is in the west of Scotland, not far from Glasgow, so it’s very much the same part of the world I grew up in. This feels very realistic: there was a similar swathe of bands inspired by punk and the post-punk/new wave/new romantic scene around Dumbarton and environs. None of the characters were as much larger-than-life as some of the members of Memorial Device — or at least not that I knew — but that’s why this is fictional, I guess.
Not the best thing I’ve read this, year, but not bad.
My recent and forthcoming live music experiences all involve bands of my youth that have reformed and are touring their old material.1 Wallowing in nostalgia, some might call it.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with bands getting back together. It can be problematic if you are the band that tours as the Dead Kennedys, of course. There’s a whole saga there that I won’t go into, but if Jello Biafra’s not involved, and in fact is actively against it, then it’s not the Dead Kennedys.
Indeed, in his song “Buy My Snake Oil” Jello suggested that a way for old punks to make money off their history would be to
Ride the punk nostalgia wave
For all it’s worth
Recycle the name of my old band
For a big reunion tour
Sing all those hits from the “good ol’ days”
‘Bout how bad the good ol’ days were
Which is a fair criticism of old bands doing their thing in modern days, I guess. But I see two arguments to counter it, from a gig-goer’s point of view.
The first was made by my friend Andrew, around the time that the Sex Pistols reformed and toured. This would have been in 1996.
“I missed them first time round,” he said when I challenged him about it. “This is unfinished business for me.”
Which was a good point, and kind of made me regret playing the purist and not going.
In 1993 I had investigated going to see the reunited Velvet Underground. But I really didn’t want to see them at an all-seated venue. Partly because I’d had a bad experience seeing Lou Reed a year or so before (despite having had a very good experience with him a year or two before that).
I recall that I phoned the venue — Earl’s Court, I think — and found that it did have some standing room. But those tickets were sold out. So I didn’t go. Regretted that, too. So I’m taking the chance to see bands like the Rezillos, or The Beat and The Selecter, that I missed first time around.
OK, But What is it Really?
The second point about the “punk nostalgia wave” (or any similar accusation of nostalgia) is: that is not what it is.
Because here’s the thing: it isn’t nostalgia if you’re carrying on with something that was always there.
Nostalgia (noun): a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past
But this isn’t that. Because while those bands’ heydays might have been in the past, their music has remained available and frequently-played. You can’t be nostalgic for an album you listened to last week, or last night.
And a live performance always happens in the present.
This train of thought was kicked off for me a couple of years back when there was an article in the Guardian, prior to The Force Awakens coming out. I can’t find it now,2 but it claimed that “nostalgia” was part of the cause of the excitement for the new film.
And I thought, no. Well, maybe for some people. But for many of us, if not most of us, Star Wars never went away. We’ve watched it, talked about it, read theories about it, and so on. It has been part of our lives.
Or take Doctor Who. Sure, there were the wilderness years before 2005, but The Doctor never really went away. The Tardis and Daleks are burned into Britain’s cultural memory, and I think they always will be.
Now if I were to see an episode of, say, Marine Boy: that would be nostalgic. I remember it fondly from my childhood, and have never seen it since. I’ve never even seen it in colour, because those were the days of black & white televisions.3
But I can’t be nostalgic for punk bands or Star Wars or Doctor Who, because they never went away. The sense of warmth and shared experience they bring: that’s not nostalgia, it’s something else. Familiarity, at worst. Or better: community.
It has recently been brought to our attention that you are claiming legal ownership of the word ‘punk’ and are sending threatening legal notices to those you feel are infringing on that ownership by using that word.
I hadn’t heard this about Brewdog. If it’s true, they’re being beyond ridiculous (or possibly winding people up). I’ve got a lot of time for a Scottish company making craft beer, even if it’s only OK (and too damn strong most of the time: I like a beer you can drink a few of without falling over). But like the Garageland people, I thought their “Equity for Punks investment portfolio did raise some eyebrows.”
The open letter ends:
Definitions of punk are varied and debates over those definitions have been going on since before you were born. However, one thing punk is not is a bully! That goes against everything punk stands for. If you continue in this vein your punk credentials will be revoked and you will be called upon to cease and desist.
Kind regards and a middle finger salute
and is then signed by hundreds of bands. So many that I can’t really believe the website got agreement from all of them. But I heartily endorse the message.
I saw a hashtag on Twitter this evening: #InternationalClashDay. Well, it doesn’t take a lot, and now my actual favourite Clash song is blasting out of the Sonos: “Death or Glory,” from London Calling.
I say “actual” because if asked I would usually say that “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” is my favourite Clash song (if not overall favourite song, and very probably that too). And then I listen to London Calling again, and am reminded of the glory of “Death or Glory.”
If anyone ever asks who my favourite band is I’ll unhesitatingly say, “The Clash.” Almost unthinkingly, which may not be good; but some things become part of us.
I can almost remember when I first heard them properly. It was at Bob McGarry’s house. He played a single and then tried to impersonate John Peel, saying, “Those were The Clash,” which is how Peelie often used to back-announce things in those days. I don’t recall what track it was: “White Riot,” probably. I wasn’t overwhelmed, to be honest. It certainly didn’t have a life-changing feeling; not like when I heard Stiff little Fingers’s “Wasted Life,” possibly in the same house, or maybe it was in Brendan Conroy’s. I must write about that one someday.
But other songs and albums were waiting. I can’t honestly say what it was that finally did it for me. Maybe “Tommy Gun” or “English Civil War.” Maybe “White Man” itself. I do know that shortly after London Calling was released, my friend Steven Watt said to me, “I envy you: you haven’t heard London Calling yet.”
Somewhere in there, though — after I bought my first copy of London Calling for £3.991, and before I bought Sandinista for the same price — I was fully onboard, and searching for all the old singles in Glasgow record shops.
Writing that makes me think that the point of transition might actually have been when I saw my friends’ band The Varicose Veins2 doing “Clash City Rockers.” In which case a cover version was key. Which is fine. One of The Clash’s most famous songs, “I Fought the Law,” was a cover, after all.
I should probably be able to explain why they mean so much to me, but I’m not sure I can. It’s probably a combination of affinity for their viewpoint, the sheer raw energy of their early songs, and their lyrics.
But maybe not. Maybe it’s just that the golden age of music is around 14-15, and lessons learned then — lessons burned on the soul — stay with us.
“The only band that matters.” It’s been quoted so often it’s become a cliché. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
It later got stolen during a party in Edinburgh. I replaced it with a second-hand copy for the same price. [↩]
A Christmas present: started on Christmas Day and finished just after midnight on the 3rd of January. So I could call it 2015 number 1, but it makes more sense to go with the year in which I started it and read most of it. Anyway, it’s all a bit arbitrary.
Viv Albertine, as I’m sure you know, was the guitarist in The Slits. They had only a short time in punk’s limelight (though as I learned from this, they released a second album, not just the one I’m familiar with).
This book is half about her early years and the punk days, and half about after. She went on to work as a filmmaker and then struggled to have a child, had serious health problems. Eventually she re-taught herself to play guitar, and started performing again (I saw her supporting the Damned a couple of years back, and then supporting Siouxsie at Meltdown a year and half back).
It’s really interesting reading about a time I lived through, events I experienced — from afar, true, but still ones I felt part of — from someone else’s point of view. Especially that of someone who was at the heart of many of the events.
And she writes with some style; it’s a compelling read. She makes some strange choices: for example, she only ever refers to her sister as “my sister”; we never get her name. Similarly with the man she marries. At first he’s “The Biker”, and then “my husband”.
I suppose it’s a matter of protecting the privacy of people who are still alive — especially in the latter case, because he doesn’t come out of it terribly well. Indeed, it may be the case that the only people who are named are those who were already in the public eye to some degree.
Any road, if you are into music, especially punk, at all, I would highly recommend reading this. I plan to get her new album — which came out two years ago, it turns out — The Vermilion Border.
My friend (Wee) John(ny) called a couple of days ago and said, “Do you fancy seeing The Damned at the Roundhouse?” I’d never been to the Roundhouse, though it was one of those legendary London venues from my teenage years, like the Rainbow and the Hammersmith Palais. And I hadn’t seen The Damned in (I thought)1 about 26 years. Not since a seated gig in the Edinburgh Playhouse the night before I had a High-Energy Physics progress test the following morning.2
I said “Yes”. I mean, why the hell not? I only really know Machine-Gun Etiquette and a few singles, but what the hell. They’re bound to do those, right? It’s a 35th-anniversary thing.
[The Roundhouse](http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/) is an amazing place. As a former railway shed, it’s just a stunning space. But it’s not the seedy old-school venue I half expected, because it’s been closed down and refurbished and reopened since the seventies. So it’s really nice: more like The Barbican, say, than The Forum.
[Viv Albertine](http://www.vivalbertine.com/) was supporting. I expected her to have a band, but she just stood up there on her own, with a Telecaster as old as punk, and sang us songs of non-love and stuff. She was great.
The Damned were… pretty much as I expected, actually. They came on, and the [Captain](http://www.vivalbertine.com/) said, “We’re going to do two ‘classic’ albums.” (He did the air-quotes.) I’m not sure about this recentish trend of doing a whole album live, but expect it could be good. Mostly, though, I’m amused that for classic punk albums, one would be too short.
So they kicked off into ‘Neat Neat Neat’, and I realised that we were much too close to the front: actually _in_ the moshpit. [As I’ve said](http://devilgate.org/blog/2011/08/26/hardcore-knows-the-score/), I’m really past that — much though I might enjoy dancing in the abstract, or in private.
Anyway, it was all very wild and excellent, and there were many people with t-shirts of bands I’ve seen or haven’t seen but wish I had or don’t mind that I haven’t but recognise anyway. In short, I was with, as Neil Gaiman describes it, my tribe.
It was all monstrously fine. Two albums with a break, then a few encores. Which included, as expected, several non-those-album tracks. ‘Love Song’, of course, they could hardly have avoided playing. A couple of others, and then came ‘Eloise’, which, punked-up though it was, we could frankly have done without,
Then they played ‘Anti-pope’ and were gone. I realise that the Roundhouse must have a strict 11 o’clock policy, but surely they were coming back…? No. DJ music and house lights… and no ‘Smash it Up’. I must admit, if you had asked me before I went out tonight whether there was any chance that they wouldn’t play ‘Smash it Up’, I would have laughed at you.
Very strange. And then there was a crazy queue to get out of the venue, because so many people had taken up the option to get an instant double CD of tonight’s gig. They obviously burn them straight from the sound desk while the gig is on. But it meant that you could hardly get out of the venue. There has to be a better way than that.
Anyway, my ears are sizzling, and I still owe NaNoWriMo a load of words, so I’ll call it a night here.
Johnny reminded me that we saw them at a festival in Milton Keynes Bowl in about 88 or 89. [↩]
Though it’s entirely possible that I’m conflating that with my friend Andrew’s 21st birthday, which I also remember as being the night before a HEP exam. [↩]
For the last two months or so, it seems, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to a single album.1 That album is David Comes to Life by a Toronto hardcore band called Fucked Up.
That’s hardcore in the punk sense, not rap, or anything else. All genres have a “hardcore” subgenre, it seems. I’m sure that somewhere there’s hardcore pop.
Anyway, this album causes me to put together three words that I never thought I’d see in the same sentence, never mind describing the same thing: punk rock opera.
I know, I know, rock operas are the bloated detritus of prog rock, and part of what we fought the punk wars against. Though truth be told, I’ve always been quite fond of Tommy. But in a sense it was always something that was going to happen eventually. When a genre or a medium has been around for a while, people will try to take it further than it has gone before, and that’s no bad thing.
And when you get right down to it, it’s all about storytelling, and who can complain about that?
So I was pointed in the direction of this album by a post on Mike Sizemore’s blog. Sizemore is a scriptwriter; I probably started reading his blog when someone like Warren Ellis pointed me at a teaser or “sizzle” video he and some other people made for a prospective science fiction series.
Anyway, he posted a link to the video for the second track off the album, ‘Queen of Hearts’, and spoke very highly of it, as you’ll have seen if you followed the link. If you haven’t, you should. Go on, I’ll wait. I watched it a couple of times, and though, “That’s OK, interesting premise, I wish I could make out the words.”
And then I forget about it for a while.
But one day something made me go back. I listened again. I downloaded the album. I fell in… not love, exactly, but fascination.
North American hardcore bands have a certain vocal style, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. In that way, I realised, it’s not unlike actual opera. Sure, the vocal stylings are about as far apart as possible; but they are both very stylised. And my biggest two problems with opera are that it’s hard to make the words out (even when they’re singing in english), and that I don’t really like the vocal stylings.
Not to everyone’s taste, as I said.
Luckily, operas tend to have surtitles; and albums have lyric sheets. The lyrics for David Comes to Life are available on the web, as you might expect.
Anyway, I’m writing about this now because I haven’t got round to doing so before, but especially because I’ve just got back from seeing Fucked Up live. They were playing at a Shoreditch venue called XOYO in a “co-headliner” with a band called OFF!.
I tweeted a lot about it, and among other things, I expressed a degree of concern as to what it would be like going to a hardcore gig:
Hmm. Not seen a hardcore gig since Napalm Death? That may well be true, but they’re British (and technically grindcore, according to Wikipedia). I began to wonder whether I’d ever seen a US (or Canadian) hardcore band live. The only one I could think of were Hüsker Dü, whom I saw in Edinburgh in — oh, 84 or 85.
I feel sure there must have been others, and yet the only such band that I was really, really a fan of was the Dead Kennedys, and if they ever played the UK it happened either without me knowing about it, or they only played far away from where I was, or both.
I needn’t have worried, though. The venue was just the right size, and comfortably packed. The crowd were gentle and lovely. The moshpit was pretty wild, but I turned 47 yesterday, which is officially way past too old for the moshpit, and I was well able to stay clear of it.
And it was a totally brilliant night. The first band, Cerebral Ballzy, were on when I arrived, so I heard three or four of their songs. They sounded pretty good, and more to the point, the sound in the room was excellent. Clear, and powerful, without being so loud as to be overwhelming.
OFF! were classic hardcore, in that if you didn’t like a song there’d be another along in way less than three minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed them.
And Fucked Up just ruled. I was thinking before they came on that I would leave happy as long as they played ‘Queen of Hearts’ And they duly opened with it! They then proceeded to play edited highlights from David Comes to Life, interspersed with a few other tracks. There was stage-diving, crowd-surfing, the singer diving topless into the audience and walking almost to the back of the venue while still singing (and using a wired mike, with a very long cable).
Anyway, if you’ve read to the end of this rambling thing, you should go and listen to some things. Here’s the ‘Queen of Hearts’ video, and it’s the first time I’ve ever embedded a video. Let’s hope it works. Note that this version has the kids in the video singing on it, which is not how it is on the album, but is very cool nonetheless.
And the second video from the album, ‘The Other Shoe’, which they also did tonight.
Though in old-school terms it would almost certainly be a double album. [↩]
I just listened to The Gun Club’s first album, Fire Of Love. They’re a band that I heard of all through my student years – at least one good friend was a fan – but I somehow never managed to hear properly until now. It’s a scorchingly good album, and I’d recommend anyone who likes either punk or blues (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) to download it from Emusic forthwith.