Category Archives: punk

Vol.32: Joey Ramone Wanted to be in a ’50s Girl Group (Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?”)

ramones do you remember rock 'n' roll radio sire single cover punk phil spector

The Ramones holding the actual instruments they played on the track.

Ramones – Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? (1980, Sire)

Why It’s Perfect: Recalling the recording of the Ramones’ legendary Sheena is a Punk Rocker single in Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever, popular ‘70s record producer Tony Bongiovi was adamant that the faint timpani he insisted be included in the chorus was some sort of watershed for the band. Now, it’s easy enough to dismiss the word of Jon Bon fucking Jovi’s cousin, even if you’re among the infinitesimal fraction of listeners whose first takeaway from Sheena was “Hey, nice timpani,” but maybe he had a point. We’re used to reckoning the Ramones’ musical evolution in geologic time, but by the end of the seventies/century, band leader Joey Ramone had become much more interested in the recording studio, even hooking up with mad Wall of Sound genius Phil Spector for 1980’s divisive End of the Century.

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Filed under 1980s, punk, rock n' roll, Wall of Sound

Vol.12: Homicide


999 – Homicide (1978, United Artists)

Why It’s Perfect: Take the melodic sense of tough ‘50s and ‘60s R&B, goggle at it through the bottom of a pint at the pub; then watch it strut about the place like Bon Scott, grinning cheekily at every moody tough around. That’s about the sound of Homicide, 999’s sole skin o’ the teeth entry on the UK Top 40 chart. Though the band is remembered, if at all, as part of the legendary late ‘70s UK punk scene, don’t come in expecting the Clash. Homicide isn’t the sound of a riot, white or otherwise, but of little kids playing power pop cops and robbers. I mean, at first blush it all sounds provocative enough to piss off the parents (“Guh-Good God honey, are these thugs advocating murder? We made little Graham promise us he’d be a good boy!”), but everything is laid on so wonderfully thick, from the squad car-cruising rhythm to the blaring police siren riff to the gleefully malevolent backing vocals. Like spiritual sibling Watching the Detectives (Elvis Costello), or Radio Birdman’s delicious Hawaii Five-O send-up Aloha Steve & Danno, Homicide looks to TV detective shows for a muse and for amusement. Vocalist Nick Cash may be in possession of a real rough punk snarl, but he punctuates his increasingly absurd commentary with a sort of beery aplomb that undercuts any sense of conviction:

“I’ll take your number, I’ll take it down!
What’s your address? I’ll write it down!
I’ll be in touch, so don’t leave town in a BIG BLACK CAR.”

It’s almost like sitting around with your friends poking fun at the gaping plot holes in a police procedural. Of course, I wouldn’t care about some random thirty-year old pisstake if it weren’t also a damned fine piece of pop songcraft. Guitarists Cash and Guy Days have a wonderful dynamic interplay, and Days could tear off a few mean licks when he wanted to. The pair find ways to accent and push off of the sparseness of the arrangement, filling in those gaps with a lot of off the cuff fucking around that somehow still sounds dead on. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, focus on the guitars next time you listen to the Stones’ ‘70s rockers; Keith Richards was (and, I suppose, is) the master of wandering just slightly off rhythm and having it still sound right. Homicide is a good deal more tightly played than most anything Richards has ever found himself involved in, but the link remains; when good, rough rock bands are on, they don’t just play a song straight. They find spaces for themselves to do what they do best as players, and then they deliver a take that seemingly could never be played exactly the same way again. And that, I think, is what lifts Homicide from clever, catchy jam to the upper echelon of its day. 999 fucking nailed it, and when you hear it, you just know.

Defining Moment: One of my favourite opening lines in any song: “I believe… in homicide! I rest my case.” Just a great gag that sets you up for all the other nonsense that goes on in this song. No one who is listening closely should be surprised when the song ends with Cash tearing apart the word “homicide” until it becomes a jumble of manic syllables. Within the context of the media, and by extension this song, that word never meant a thing anyway.

Other Great Songs by 999: 999 was started by a coupla veterans of the UK pub rock scene named Guy Days and Nick Cash (Fun trivia: real name Keith Lucas, used to run with Ian Dury in a pre-Blockheads act called Kilburn and the High Roads). When the hype started building around the Pistols and Damned, 999 were among those edgy pubbers who managed to capitalize on the zeitgeist via a streak of excellent singles. For anyone interested in nervy riff rock somewhere between Eddie & the Hot Rods and the Jam, minor classics like Nasty, Nasty, Emergency, Hollywood and Found Out Too Late will be just what the doctor ordered. More surprising, given their “one-hit wonder” status, is the quality of their early LPs, with 1978’s Separates (issued in the US as High Energy Plan) being for my money one of the best power pop records of the late ‘70s. Hell, a few album cuts from that one like Rael Rean and Tulse Hill Nights are better than some of the singles.

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Filed under 1970s, power pop, pub rock, punk

Perfect Pop Singles Vol. 9: Suspect Device


Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device (1978, Rough Trade)

Why It’s Perfect: I’ve often made the argument in these PPS reviews and elsewhere that qualities like “integrity” and “authenticity” are not a legitimate source of critique for pop songs; after all, it’s entirely contrary to Lady GaGa’s artistic intent to sound like she’s recording live to two-track in her parents’ garage. But sometimes a song just sweats such honesty that I feel like it’s connecting with me on a personal basis. Such is Stiff Little Fingers’ stone cold classic single Suspect Device, a fistful of power pop with brass knuckle guitars and barbed wire vocals served direct to the temple. Hailing from the periodic warzone that was Belfast, the Stiff Little Fingers had little in common with sweet-natured Northern Irish peers like The Undertones. Hardcore well before hardcore, their debut LP Inflammable Materials has a jagged quality to it quite unlike the deceptively well-behaved Clash, Sex Pistols or Damned records of the time, and the band on the whole seemed less interested than any of those groups with irony and aesthetic criticisms of rock and roll as a form. There’s a sense of politicized street-level seriousness to their early recordings, like Jake Burns’ strangled shout is being forced out through the throttling grip of the British establishment.

Suspect Device was quite possibly the angriest song ever recorded as of 1978, an absolute masterpiece of spluttering, inchoate rage; just listen to the post-My Generation stutter of the chorus, with Burns reducing the IRA bombing-era buzzword “suspect device” to a single venomous syllable, and then turning it into a demand that the listener think about the issue for himself. In fact, there’s a surprising amount going on in the lyrics, penned by Burns along with journalist Gordon Ogilvie. Sure, there’s the usual anti-authority position one expects of punk rock from Alternative TV through Green Day, but when SLF tell you to “question everything you’re told” they actually mean it; just consider the subtle shift in the last chorus, Burns’ rallying cry of “don’t believe them” changing to “don’t believe us.” That is an amazing degree of sophistication for what is ostensibly just a balls-out 115db venting of frustration. It surrenders the authoritarian position a singer holds over his audience, admits that as strongly as the band feel they can’t claim to know all the answers and won’t pretend they do.

But hey, enough pseudo-lit crit of the poor little song. What I love most about it is the music, man, the way it makes me feel like headbanging a hole in the wall. Guitarists Burns and Henry Cluney just tear ass from start to finish, creating such a frenzied momentum that I imagine the producer having to pull a ripcord at the end of the track so they didn’t end up splattered into hamburger on impact. I’m a bit of a sucker for good, melodic bass runs and Suspect Device has a doozy, with Ali “Amazing Name” McMordie’s work here serving to sweeten the chorus just enough to make you want to set the sucker on repeat for a few minutes/hours/days. This is the epitome, maybe even apotheosis, of classic punk rock.

Defining Moment: Is there any doubt?

”YOU GOTTA SUSS
SUSS
SUSS
SUSS
SUSS OUT,
SUSS-SUSPECT DEVICE”

The way the whole band locks together from the guitars on down to hammer home that syllable… it’s one of the fiercest moments in ‘70s rock. It’s like all of SLF’s kinetic power, all their energy comes together for a moment and threatens to shake itself apart. Other than maybe Angus Young’s crazy final solo at the end of AC/DC’s T.N.T, I’m not sure another band has ever come so close to expressing an explosion in musical form. Stunning.

Other Great Songs by Stiff Little Fingers: Although they’re rarely given credit for it, the SLF had a long, remarkably consistent career with plenty of gems. Inflammable Materials alone spawned punk standards like Alternative Ulster, State of Emergency and Wasted Life. Though they cleaned up their sound considerably after that LP, what they lost in intensity they gained by allowing their melodic sense to shine. Gotta Getaway, Nobody’s Heroes, Just Fade Away and recent classic Strummerville are only a small sampling of their fine catalogue. Those inclined towards punk rock would do well to look into their material.

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