Songs that made me Zombie, Part 2

[Part 2 of the series.  Part 1 here]

no one’s making any noise now, sshhh,
we’ve been waiting for so long,
they took away our films and tapes and notebooks
but it’s ok ‘cos we’ve self-censored this song.
but these lines are all individuals
and there’s no such thing as a song
and even the silent are now guilty in the empire of the senseless…
what’s your line of questioning, sir?
empire of the senseless
i can’t interrupt a one word sentence,
invent a war in secrecy
sliding scenery like a vintage toy,
isn’t plastic surgery wonderful?
satillite secret national security,
empire of the senseless
turning journalists into heroes takes some doing,
empire of the senseless
boring ollie north down in the subway dealing drugs and guns,
empire of the senseless
turning little liars into heroes, it’s what they’ve always done,
empire of the senseless
this song promotes homosexuality
it’s in a pretended family relationship with the others on this record
and on the charts and on the jukebox
and in the radio
and in the radio

– [ ] 6 Memphis, Egypt – the Mekons

destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late,
the battles we fought were long and hard,
just not to be consumed by rock n’ roll…
capitalismos, favorite boy child, we must apologise,
up in the rafters a rope is danglin’,
spots before the eyes of rock n’ roll…
we know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand,
embraced him and thought his foul (stinking) breath was fine perfume
just like rock n’ roll..

The Mekons have an unlikely provenance. Formed in the DIY flush of punk by art-school students who couldn’t play their instruments, they were signed to Virgin before anybody knew what was happening, then summarily booted off the label when they refused to be photographed for the album. After reinventing themselves over the next few years using old country and folk and reggae albums, they single-handedly created alt-country while Jeff Tweedy’s voice was still changing.

Late in the eighties, they were assimilated by another major label, and released Rock ‘N’ Roll, a blistering diatribe on the hypocrisies and failures of the music industry, and a precursor to alternative rock. The label was not very amused, and rejected the tapes of their followup album, the sublime Curse Of The Mekons. In what became a typical failure of ability to communicate with industry weasels, the band thought they were delivering what the label wanted, the label thought it was unmarketable, and initially interpreted it as a punk attempt at a joke.  After the fact, it has been considered an equal masterwork, if not exceeding, Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Based on this review in Rolling Stone, I saw the band when they passed through Shank Hall — and was totally destroyed. Jon Langford once said of the Mekons that on some nights they were nothing but drunken louts, but on some nights they could be focused like a laser beam. This was a laser beam night, and I searched for the import version of this album the next day. Four stars from RS notwithstanding, it wasn’t easy to find.  Hey, even those goddam Pitchforkers named it as number 97 on their Top 100 albums of the 90s!

With the scorching lyrics above, Memphis, Egypt blasts out the opening riff, and lurches into an alt-punk roar; again, they established the blueprint 2 years before Nevermind was released. With a major label release, they take the opportunity to spit in the face of the business they have chosen. Still punk after all these years, they were beginning a struggle to find a comfortable position within an industry they despised, making music they loved. This album is the sound of disillusioned idealists still struggling for integrity in a business that has none.

The album distills punk snarl into a focused attack, drawing from dozens of musical styles. one song, I swear Sally Timms was channeling Debbie Harry. In spirit, attitude, and diversity it sounds like nothing so much as London Calling. (Side note: I named EotS after a song on this album. Listen; the song sounds like a pre-emptive blast of disgust toward the America of the new century).

Unfortunately, the next time we went to see the Mekes, they were on one of those off nights, and we left before they finished. Total disappointment.  (years later, I found that they had been abandoned by their label, mid-tour, during the scuffle over the album mentioned above; so Imma cut them a little slack, retrospectively.  Curse of the Mekons indeed).  But by the time they came around again, they were back on target, and ever since they have never failed. Now, they are pretty much the only punk band who have been recording for thirty years, and Langford says that the only way to leave the band is in a casket.

In the years past, I have seen this band many times, which is kind of remarkable considering they are spread out over like five continents (Lu Edmonds actually lives in SIBERIA).  The range of music they have produced amuses me; it is as restless as…well, as my musical tastes.  You want punk?  got it.  You want English folk?  got it.  electro-dance?  yep.  Snarling alt-punk? o yes.  Cross-dressing english Panto lesbian dancehall musical?  You laugh, but they did that too.  Traveling art shows with live music?  Do you have to ask?

All that is, however, inconsequential; in the end I can never turn this song up loud enough.
– [ ] 7 Rock Lobster, B-52s, SNL

Another of these Saturday Night Live performances. It was a golden time.
I have to admit that of all the various influences during that part of my life, these few SNL shows did the most to introduce me to punk and new wave music. By the time I went to college, I was thoroughly enamored of new sounds, and the turgid Classic Rot I was used to just seemed lifeless in comparison.

This performance was like a circus. The strange clothes, beehive hairdos, the oddball lyrics. Total party. In a sudden surge of two chord whimsy, I discovered music could be fun, and for no other reason than because it felt good. I don’t know if the band even did a good job, because the sound was so new that I had no way of evaluating it. But it was the full five piece, original lineup; they played with the energy of kids in New York for the first time; anything beyond that was gravy.

Along with Elvis and Devo, this completed the trinity of SNL shows that opened my ears to a whole new sound. In the next year I graduated and went to college; new friends, wider experiences and a college radio station cemented a love for these new sounds that I never could have explored in my hometown.

– [ ] 8 Highway to Hell, AC/DC
When I was a kid, One of the Madison radio stations, before they were all assimilated into Clear Channel and a few even still did their own programming, would play a new release late every Sunday night. All the way through, no interruptions or commercials or talkover, just a bit longer gap when they flipped the big black CD. I could set a tape, hit record when they started it, go to sleep and have an entire new album when I woke up.

So one monday, I rewound the tape and headed to school. As I pulled out of the driveway, that five chord beginning crunched out of the speakers, and Bon Scott started that unforgettable howling, and I heard a new type of metal that didn’t yield any attitude or snottiness to punks. It was never hard to believe that this band had played thousands of shows at tough bars. It sounded like they would have been happy to stop the song just to fight or to drink.

Bon Scott soon died of it, though.

Even during the years when punk ruled my turntable, occasionally an AC/DC song would sneak into the play…. although back then I wouldn’t admit it.

– [ ] 9 abacab, Genesis
Did someone expect there wouldn’t be a Genesis song on here? What, you haven’t been paying attention?
I first started paying attention to Genesis when Duke was released. I suppose this was when they started to really achieve commercial success, but that is still a fine album.
abacab, however, was where they first started to really come together as a three part writing team, and their songwriting process finished transforming from a bits ‘n’ pieces approach to actively writing together in real time. The result was a refreshing modern approach to prog music, and at its most compelling, it relied on the space between the instruments.

So a friend and I road tripped to Madison to see them on December 11, 1981. We had relatively crappy seats even, off on the side. The band opened with Behind The Lines/Duchess; after a brief pause, they blew us away with Dodo/Lurker/ abacab.  Classic beginning.  Our eyes and ears melted.

I had never seen such powerful music so perfectly melded with stage presentation. Although Genesis had abandoned the goony theatricality of the Gabriel days, they had never lost the desire to present a spectacle, and had transitioned to coliseum size seemingly effortlessly. Of course, at the time I had no idea of their history. For me, this WAS Genesis, Phil Collins, Daryl Stuermer and all.

I had never seen Vari-Lites before. The ability to change colors, move, pinpoint, all in an instant was jaw-dropping. Mixed in with generous amounts of fog and lasers, the show was so all-consuming…. Two hours? Two and a half? I can’t remember…. but the drive back was a blur and not because of substances. It’s hard to explain the impact this show had on me and I’m doing a crappy job of it.

For days afterward, abacab was on the turntable. It still is, in a way.

– [ ] 10 Nothing Happened Today, the Boomtown Rats

Back in the days before Internoodlez (NSA), there were perilously few ways to discover new bands. Corporate radio rarely played new bands. But occasionally, one of the magazines would have something interesting. My brother had some rag with had an article about a raucous Irish band that performed legendary live shows in their hometown; I was intrigued enough to pick up one of their efforts, A Tonic For The Troops. It was good, OK, but it didn’t – quite – blow me away.  Not yet.

Their next album was supposed to break them in the States, and featured the atypical near-hit “I Don’t Like Mondays”. Unfortunately, Bob Geldof criticized Bruce Springsteen in a press conference, and the Rock Criticz didn’t forgive him until he created Live Aid. Regrettably, their lack of success in America led to disinterest from the labels and eventually they disbanded.

But for a brief while, The Fine Art of Surfacing poised to provide them success in the States. The single was OK, but for me the album, and the band, has always been much better represented by this song, which follows Mondays on the second side of the album.

The segue works well, a simple strum following the piano of the previous song, but a steam whistle kicks off a drum roll that jacks the song into a different attitude altogether. Geldof recites lyrics of alienation and boredom of a modern office droneworker. Years later, watching the opening montage of Simon Pegg’s character in Shawn Of The Dead, stumbling through his numbing routine, I instantly heard this song.

The band never deserved the punk label that was slapped on them after their first single, Lookin After Number One. They were pretty skilled musicians, and on this song they played several changes throughout the song that keeps it moving along. But Bob Geldof always delivered his lyrics with attitude:

It was the morning Then afternoon And then the night came And then the night came Oh…and someone told me, Nothing happened today.

There it is: nihilism, alienation, boredom. All layered over irrepressible music that tries to bite back at the society that makes people live there.

Later years, it was easy to find more anti-authoritarian punk songs, but for me this one always hits the spot. It’s not punk, but it’s close enough for America, and the feelings it inspires are still relevant.

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