Friday, April 30, 2010

Cock Sparrer- Shock Troops (Razor Records, 1983)

Cock Sparrer’s Shock Troops was probably the first great ’77-style punk album that wasn’t made in the '70s. It arrived, in fact, a full six years after 1977, and by then all the first wave greats had either broken up, changed their sound, or simply started to suck. Punk music, so fantastic in its early years, had taken a very wrong turn. Hardcore and anarcho-punk were taking over. Melody was suddenly out of vogue. The rockin’ influence of the Stooges and New York Dolls was barely detectable in the happening punk sounds of the day. New bands were aping The Exploited; old ones were experimenting with new wave or things far worse than that (see “Clash, The”). It would be a massive understatement to say that 1983 was not one of punk rock’s greatest years.

Cock Sparrer, if it had been commercially successful the first time around, surely would have gone down the same road its contemporaries traversed: one or two good albums, one or two somewhat shitty albums, and then some unfortunate foray into post-punk or dub or goth or metal or blue-eyed soul. But luckily for us, Cock Sparrer failed miserably in the '70s. Its two singles on Decca Records sold about 12 copies combined. The group recorded a full-length album that no one had any particular interest in releasing (it would remain unheard for almost 20 years!). Having been slugging it out since its mid- '70s origins as a Small Faces influenced pub rock band, Cock Sparrer had had enough and called it quits in 1980.

Then, in an odd occurrence, the burgeoning Oi! movement took a liking to Cock Sparrer’s working class punk sound (most notably, “Sunday Stripper” appeared on Oi! The Album). Suddenly, there was a “market” for Cock Sparrer. The band reformed in 1981 and returned with a vengeance, its formerly glam/rock tinged style now evolved into straight-up powerhouse punk. One year later, the group released its classic single “England Belongs To Me”. Unlike the two Decca releases, this single was not met with indifference. It garnered a lot of attention, some of it negative (the British press took it upon itself to point fingers at the band when certain unsavory elements of the right wing co-opted this catchy, patriotic number). B-side “Argy Bargy” was a beast of a tune as well, and there was no stopping Cock Sparrer at this point. Having escaped a certain decline by sitting out much of the late '70s and early '80s, the band was ready in 1983 to deliver a classic 1977 punk LP.

And what an LP it was! With its sing-along choruses, boisterous Brit-accented vocals, and proud working class bent, Shock Troops would prove to be a standard-bearer for the street punk/Oi! sub-genre. But its moderate tempos, Buzzcock-ian guitar leads, and melodic style were throwbacks to punk’s first wave, songs like “Where Are They Now”, “Riot Squad”, and “Take ‘Em All” arriving just in time to assuage the thousands of earaches brought on by punk’s new breed. The disillusionment of “Where Are They Now” (“Six years on/and they've all gone/Now it's all turned sour”) may be social and political in nature, but it could just as easily be musical. Yes, indeed, it had all gone sour, the great, fiery idealism of, say, Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash, or Chelsea already a distant memory, replaced by the tuneless monotony of hardcore and thrash. But Cock Sparrer had arrived to take punk back to where it had come from, armed with big, catchy anthems and melodies equal to the message. After a couple of spins through the aforementioned tracks or equally ace tunes like “Working” and “I Got Your Number”, you could easily assume that Shock Troops is not a studio album, but rather a best-of collection! “England Belongs To Me” (not included on initial pressings but present on any version of Shock Troops you’ll find) is not remotely fascist – if only “America the Beautiful” were as catchy and inspiring!

Cock Sparrer would release another fine album, Runnin’ Riot in ’84, before calling it quits in the wake of so much misplaced negative media attention. But since the mid-'90s, the band’s been going strong non-stop (the most recent long player Here We Stand is probably the group’s best in decades), with original members Colin McFaull, Steve Burgess, Steve Bruce, and Mickey Beaufoy all remaining on board. But really, the ONLY Cock Sparrer title you need is Shock Troops. No fan of ’77 punk (or good music, period) should be without it. It’s one of those discs you can put on, and no matter who’s with you, people are gonna be like, “Hell yeah! Shock Troops!” Song after song, you just can't help singing along and pumping your fist, your soul stirred to go out and kick some ass! It’s very easy to abuse the term “classic” while writing about music, but in this case it’s no stretch. If you’re trying to name all the no-doubt-about-it classic punk albums, Shock Troops HAS to be one of ‘em!

-Josh Rutledge

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Turbonegro- Apocalypse Dudes (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999)

There are exactly ten opinions that are so universal and indisputable that they can officially be considered facts. They are:
1. More cushion is most definitely better for the pushin’.
2. Mike Ditka is God.
3. Dick York was the better Darrin.
4. O.J. did it.
5. Virginia is for lovers
6. Cheerleading is not a sport.
7. If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man.
8. Kmart sucks.
9. Burger King should never have changed its fries.
10. Apocalypse Dudes by Turbonegro is the greatest album of all-time.

While the first nine items require no elaboration, it is necessary to categorize the two types of individuals who might dispute #10.

First, there are those who’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Apocalypse Dudes. These people are merely unfortunate, not personally flawed. They may be partially at fault for ignoring the recommendations of others or failing to investigate any music outside of the ten songs in the current Top 40. But in most cases, they can be saved. They can go out and buy Apocalypse Dudes, discover its joys, and go on to live a happy and fulfilling life. In some rare cases, an intervention is required and a friend or family member will have to buy the album for them, and perhaps even physically force them to listen to it. Even when that happens, the results are generally positive.

Far more doomed is the second category of unbelievers: those who know well of Apocalypse Dudes but nonetheless dispute its preeminent place in the annals of recorded music. Some of these people have suffered significant head injuries at some point in life; others were subjected to soul-scarring traumas such as extended encounters with circus clowns or Hoarders marathons on A & E. And then there are those who lack either a sense of humor or good taste in music, both of which are prerequisites for the proper appreciation of any Turbonegro album. The non-fan of Turbonegro is generally a sorry sort - the kind of person who scares children, regularly uses the word “cunt”, and masturbates to pictures of Ann Coulter. In many cases, he’s beyond helping. The only hope for this individual lies in a rigorous program of therapy, diet, hair care, excessive drinking, sword fighting, heavy weightlifting in the company of homosexuals, and multiple long weekends spent listening to the Dictators, Ramones, Alice Cooper, the Stooges, and KISS.

What can we say about Apocalypse Dudes but that it rocks like no album has ever rocked? Somehow no band prior had managed to combine the distinct ingredients of first wave punk, glam metal, and 1970s guitar hero hard rock – or if it had been done, it had never been done so awesomely! Imagine if Spinal Tap had listened to punk rock, received from the rock gods the talent for immortal songwriting, and taken their guitar wanking to an even higher level. Then they would have sounded like Turbonegro! Yet for all of its over-the-top flair, absurdist humor, and homoerotic posturing, Apocalypse Dudes is not a joke album. This band – Oslo, Norway’s greatest contribution to world culture – was more than just a gag. Behind the schtick were absolutely incredible songs full of melody and hooks. From the epic prog metal send-up “Age of Pamparius” through the thunderous anthem “Rock Against Ass” to the not-so-subtle “Good Head”, the material is as impressive as anything ever heard on a hard rock album. Laugh all you want at a song title like “Rendezvous with Anus”, but can you argue that it’s not a perfect rock song?

Rather than a parody of cock rock’s worst excesses, Apocalypse Dudes was an improvement on the form – what you would get from taking the silliest music known to man and somehow making it awesome. From open to close, this album aspires to nothing besides rocking to the maximum, and that it does. Everything is big: big hooks, big production, big guitars, big drums, big vocals. Euroboy, with his perfect fusion of the technical skills of Van Halen/Malmsteen and the soul of Johnny Thunders, may be our generation’s greatest guitar hero. On vocals, Hank Von Helvete is like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and Rob Halford all rolled into one. It’s amusing, maybe even gimmicky, that the group’s dressed in sailor hats and matching denim, that they have really awesome mustaches and would like you to believe that they spend their spare time trawling for hot men to fuck. But take away all of that, and you still have the greatest album of all-time.

So of course, once you’ve recorded the greatest album of all-time, are you not doomed to spend the rest of your career disappointing your fans? Yes and no. Granted: Turbonegro will NEVER make a greater album than Apocalypse Dudes. The circumstances that led to the conception and recording of this masterpiece were once-in-a-lifetime type stuff, a rare convergence of pure talent with divine intervention and a determined vision to do something that had never been done before. That said, there is no such thing as a bad Turbonegro album. You can lay down $20 for a copy of Party Animals or Scandinavian Leather and know that you'll get your money's worth for sure.

But for a copy of Apocalypse Dudes, you could not be blamed for selling your soul.

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bobbyteens - Not So Sweet (Estrus/Screaming Apple, 2000)

Crossing lo-fi trash punk with ‘60s girl group melodrama, the poppy Glitter/Gilder side of glam rock, and the super-slutty bomp-bah-bomp of Nikki and the Corvettes, The Bobbyteens were, on paper, the perfect rock n’ roll band. And on record, they were even better! Powered by wonderfully sloppy musicianship and the strong pipes of the very sexy Tina Lucchesi, The Bobbyteens were one of the best bands of that great garage/punk scene circa the late ‘90s/early ‘00s.

Having already delivered a fantastic debut LP and a number of killer singles in the late ‘90s (“Firecracker” still makes my list of the 20 greatest rock n’ roll songs EVER!), the Bobbyteens kicked off the 2000’s with their best album, Not So Sweet. A full ten years later, I don’t find myself regretting a single word of the acclaim I heaped upon this title when it first came out. Instead, it seems I may have not praised it enough! I should have promised purchasers an enhanced sexual prowess and guaranteed fortunes. I should have warned people that if they didn’t buy the album, bad things would happen. Clearly, we can now look back and attribute historic ills such as The Iraq War, the rise of reality TV, SARS, tramp stamps, Paris Hilton, meth addiction, Dr. Phil, Nickelback, ironic trucker hats, texting, Hurricane Katrina, Miley Cyrus, and the Great Recession to the sparse sales of Not So Sweet. Shame on all of you!

Like The Donnas, the Bobbyteens were initially assembled by Darrin Raffaelli. Unlike The Donnas, the Bobbyteens actually got better after severing ties with Raffaelli. A virtual all-star team of ‘90s San Fran/Oakland garage punk (Lucchesi was in the Trashwomen and Count Backwurds; bassist Danielle Pimm had played with the Trashwomen, Count Backwurds, and Brentwoods; guitarist Lisa Schenberg was formerly in the Spastics; and Russell Quan had drummed for the Mummies, Phantom Surfers, and Count Backwurds), the Bobbyteens hardly needed a mentor. Not So Sweet is the poppiest and “cleanest” sounding item in the band’s catalog (hence its release on the German power pop imprint Screaming Apple), but if you’re expecting slickness or refined musicality, you’re barking up the wrong tree! This is primitive, 4/4 rock n’ roll – fun and catchy and amateurish in all the best ways. This is what The Runaways could have sounded like if they’d thrown out the metal influence and fed themselves a steady diet of Ramones and Dictators.

It all kicks off with “Liquid Love”, one of the least subtle sex songs ever penned. With the tone clearly established, the album unfolds as expected, with more odes to scoring with boys (“Blind Date”) and the joys of low-brow culture (“Late Nite TV”), moments redolent of the Shangri-Las (“Do You Want Me”), and cover selections appealing to both our basest instincts and the music geek in all of us (The Rubber City Rebels’ “Young and Dumb” and the Hershel Almond doo wop oldie “Let’s Get It On”). Not So Sweet is nothing revolutionary or unique, but it’s an absolute blast and a must-own for anyone who proclaims to love rock n’ roll. Quan, in his own way, is probably as great of a drummer as Keith Moon or Neil Peart, and Lucchesi’s powerhouse vocals really soar on numbers like “I’m Alright”.

The Bobbyteens would strike again in 2004 with another great effort, Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’, which turned out to be their last album. If you have any taste in music at all, you ought to go buy EVERYTHING the Bobbyteens ever did! Spend as much money as you have to! You won’t be disappointed! Unless, of course, your idea of “rock n’ roll” is Daughtry, Kings of Leon, or Vampire Weekend. In that event, I’m going to blame you in advance for the next decade’s worst atrocities: asteroid collisions, dog flu, the Iran/Israel Nuke Fest ‘13, the Jonas Brothers emo album, Martian invasion, the McDonald’s McLiverwurst, All About Steve II, the ill-fated thawing of Ted Williams’s head, the complete obliteration of California, two Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl wins, and the election of Sarah Palin. Rock on!

-Josh Rutledge

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ritchie Valens- self-titled (Del-Fi Records, 1959)

If all he had been was the first Chicano rock n’ roll star, Ritchie Valens would already be a massive figure in music. If all he had been remembered for was his tragic death in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens would already be an immortal figure in rock n’ roll. But Ritchie Valens was far more than the answer to a couple of trivia questions. Ritchie Valens was one of the greatest rock n’ rollers of the 1950s, one of the most glistening stars of that most golden age. And although his lifetime’s recordings were laid down in less than one year, he managed to leave behind more great music than most artists could produce in decades. Ritchie Valens, not issued until a month after the rocker’s death, is a terrific, exhilarating rock n’ roll album. If there’s anything lacking about it, it’s that it only hints at what could have been had this 17-year-old boy not departed this world too soon. But sadly, there’s no helping that. And the bottom line is that just for the classic singles alone, Ritchie Valens is one of the most essential rock n’ roll albums EVER.

Richard Valenzuela was a high school student living in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in May 1958 when he auditioned for Bob Keane, a producer and record label owner who’d already struck it big with Sam Cooke. Keane, who was looking for artists for his new label Del-Fi, had been tipped off to Valenzuela, the “Little Richard of the Valley”, and caught one of his live shows at a movie theater in San Fernando. Keane signed the teen to Del-Fi, and Ritchie Valens was born. By July, Valens was recording songs at Hollywood’s famed Gold Star Studio, working with the best session band money could buy. Backing Valens were the likes of Earl Palmer (drummer for Little Richard AND Fats Domino - now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Carol Kaye (who’d later make herself a legend playing bass on classic songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, and the Grass Roots’ “Midnight Confessions”), and Renee Hall (a frequent bandmate of Palmer’s whose six-string Danelectro bass would give “La Bamba” its distinctively thick bottom end). Recorded first were the hard-hitting Valens original “Come On, Let’s Go” and the Leiber & Stoller number “Framed” (a 1954 hit for The Robins). Issued within days of its recording, the “Come On, Let’s Go” single was a big hit, reaching #42 on the charts, and by the fall Valens had quit high school to concentrate on his career. In the latter months of 1958, he would appear twice on American Bandstand, shoot a scene for Alan Freed’s film Go Johnny Go! (doing the sizzling Little Richard rip-off “Ooh! My Head!”), and record the rest of his debut album. He’d also reach staggering heights of success with his second 45, “Donna” b/w “La Bamba”. Both sides would chart – “Donna” going all the way to #2, and “La Bamba” peaking at #22.

Much is known about the death of Ritchie Valens on February 3, 1959 – the day the music died. What’s not as universally acknowledged, some 51 years later, is how bad-ass Valens’s music still sounds! If Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Little Richard were the top tier of ‘50s rock n’ roll, Valens is right there at the head of the second tier, and his influence on what was to come in rock is without question. With its aggressive instrumentation, hard-driving beat, and gloriously raucous guitar solo, Valens's rock n' roll interpretation of the Mexican folk tune “La Bamba” may have been the first “garage rock” single. John Lennon admitted that “La Bamba” was a massive influence on the Beatles’ guitar-heavy version of “Twist and Shout”. Jimmy Page once offered, "Valens was my first guitar hero and I played that bridge to 'La Bamba' a thousand times." And no less than an authority than Lester Bangs traced the existence of punk rock all the way back to Valens:

"Just consider Valens's three-chord mariachi square-up [on 'La Bamba'] in the light of 'Louie, Louie' by The Kingsmen, then 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks, and then 'No Fun' by The Stooges, then 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones, and finally note that 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones sounds a lot like 'La Bamba.' Twenty years of rock and roll history in three chords played more primitively each time they are recycled."

Ritchie Valens is, of course, highlighted by “La Bamba” and the beautiful slow-dancer “Donna”, written about Valens’s real-life girlfriend (Bangs called it “one of the classic teen love ballads, one of the few which reaches through layers of maudlin sentiment to give you the true and unmistakable sensation of what it may have been like to be a teenager in that strange decade”). Hard to believe both songs were on the same single! “Ooh! My Head!” may be a copy of Little Richard’s “Ooh! My Soul!”, but regardless it was one of the hottest rock n’ roll tracks of the ‘50s, replete with throaty, soulful vocals and blistering guitar work. The smoking opening cut “That’s My Little Suzie” (a posthumous fourth chart hit for Valens) is less flagrantly Little Richard inspired, while “In a Turkish Town” is a surprisingly tender turn towards the crooner rock that was just coming into vogue at the time. Even some of the filler is choice stuff – you could not go wrong with covers of Robert and Johnny’s 1958 doo-wop hit “We Belong Together” or the Larry Williams classic “Bony Moronie”, especially given Valens’s impassioned treatment of the material.

Del-Fi would go on to release a second Valens LP, Ritchie, compiling the scraps of what remained from the young man’s recorded output. The album’s best tracks have made their way onto the host of Valens compilations that have seen the light of day over the decades, and truly one cannot go wrong with any Ritchie Valens collection. What’s wondrous is that Valens’s music was so uplifting, so spirited and exciting, that it obliterates the sadness of his life story. Listening to Ritchie Valens, you don’t dwell on the sadness of his early death or the tragedy of what music lost when he was killed. Instead, you’re filled with joy and hope by this incredible music - these raw, high energy tunes that can make a bad day good and a good day even better. If you can make it through “La Bamba” without wanting to get up and dance, you may need to check yourself for a pulse.

-Josh Rutledge