The Face of Punk

Rankopedia is a website that believes “everything can be ranked.” One of the more interesting categories is The Biggest Punk Icon of All Time, with the subtitle “The face of punk. Who is it?” The current leader is Sid Vicious. Johnny Rotten is ranked #4, so the Sex Pistols are well represented on the list. Of course, the Sex Pistols weren’t the only punks who mattered. Joe Strummer is second on the Rankopedia list and Joey Ramone is currently ranked #3. Its interesting to note that on the cover of The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists, Joey Ramone is featured most prominently, with Sid Vicious off to the side and Johnny Rotten in the background. I don’t know what criteria that at book are using to justify using the term “official,” but one of the authors is Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators so that gives it considerable weight.

In any case, the Sex Pistols are the band most closely associated with this genre. Jon Savage’s history of punk rock, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, reinforces these rankings. Savage’s study is wide ranging, but he focuses on the Sex Pistols as the progenitors of punk rock and he credits them with defining the movement.

I can’t help but notice that the Rankopedia list seems to reward early death, as the top three are all dead and Sid Vicious died at a particularly young age, 21. Also, the Sex Pistols broke up after releasing only one LP, and John Lydon abandoned the name Johnny Rotten when he formed Public Image, Ltd. Early demise makes it easier to remember them they way they were. Julian Temple chose to show the members of the Sex Pistols in silhouette in his 2000 documentary about the band, The Filth and the Fury, for that very reason. It would seem, then, that punk rock is not just rebellion, but youthful rebellion.

So who best represents punk rock, Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten? Skullcrusher TV on YouTube makes the case for Sid Vicious.

Malcolm McLaren seems to elevate Sid Vicious’s stature at Johnny Rotten’s expense in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle,

You never wanted to be part of that New Wave, Rock ‘n’ Roll liberal tradition, looking like you were doing good things. That was never behind Eddie Cochran, or Elvis Presley. he was a Punk rocker, and so was Gene Vincent. So was Marilyn Monroe. They were Punks. They were anti-establishment, and they were gods. Marilyn Monroe is bigger than ever, and so is Sid Vicious. I don’t see Johnny Rotten on a T-Shirt on the Lower East Side: I see Sid all the bloody time. (quoted in Savage, p. 501)

Neil Young touches on these same themes in, “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black),” adding “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

But while Malcolm McLaren had his differences with John Lydon, he has been quoted as saying, “if Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude,” though I haven’t been able to locate the original source of this quote.¬†Whether or not Malcolm McLaren actually said this is beside the point, however, as the quote aptly demonstrates how Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten reflected different aspects of the band and their rebelliousness. The Filth and the Fury makes it clear that Sid Vicious was the ultimate fan. He regularly attended Sex Pistols shows before being asked to join the band, demonstrating how little distance there was between punk bands and their audiences. But while fans, such as those voting on Rankopedia, lean toward Sid Vicious, those closely associated with the music industry look more to Johnny Rotten. An example of this is Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Reynolds notes that post-punk was not as cohesive as punk had been and didn’t have the iconic imagery of punk. He points in particular to Johnny Rotten.

SR: It’s too diffuse, too rich in a way, too varied. It doesn’t have the simple shock impact of punk and punk’s imagery — the Queen with a safety pin through her nose, Johnny Rotten’s face — or the obvious political impact it had, with “God Save the Queen” being banned, the Pistols on the Bill Grundy show and so on. There aren’t so many examples of that with post-punk.

Jon Savage also places much more importance on Johnny Rotten’s contributions to the Sex Pistols, despite the use of Sid Vicious’s image on the cover of the book.

The year 1977 had been dread: Grunwick, Mogadishu, Sammheim, Lewisham–the jubilee already seemed like a pathetic scrap of bunting hung up amidst the list of apocalyptic locations. The Sex Pistols were a symbol of the year: Johnny Rotten’s face was an archetypal image to be set against that of Margaret Thatcher, the Lewisham policeman, the burning 747, on on the cover of Dennis Browne’s Datsun, placed next to L.R. Hubbard, Gudrun Ensslin and Elizabeth II. (Savage, p. 430)

Perhaps these writers looked to Johnny Rotten because he could always be counted on to articulate his version of punk rock’s purpose.

But there’s still another opinion about who best represents the face of punk. An alternative viewpoint came from another member of the Sex Pistols: the original bassist, Glen Matlock. In his book I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock points to Steve Jones as the spirit of the Sex Pistols,

Being in a band was our world…. Steve never wanted to work. He was happy being a thief. If somebody gave him a job as a stockbroker he’d have nicked the computer by lunchtime and been off with a secretary by the time the elevenses came round. It was Steve, not John or Sid, who was the real spirit behind The Sex Pistols. He was the one who did whatever he liked whenever he liked–something that most of us don’t have the honesty or guts to do. Perhaps he was just plain dumb, but you couldn’t help but admire the fact that he was the one who really didn’t give a shit.


Bands and Their Board Games

I recently read Bob Mould‘s autobiography See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. Well, I read the part about Husker Du, anyway, and then sort of skimmed the rest. Not that I have anything against his later stuff, but Husker Du is a difficult act to follow. Husker Du’s history is now well documented, thanks in no small part to Michael Azerrad. He devoted a chapter to Husker Du in his overview of indie rock of the 1980s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 and he assisted Bob Mould in writing his autobiography (receiving an “and” credit on the byline). Also recently published is Andrew Earles‘s 2010 book Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, which includes interviews with Grant Hart and Greg Norton along with many others associated with the band.

The accounts of how Husker Du got their name are not without discrepancies. Bob Mould recounts that at their first gig, the original fourth member of the band, Charlie Pines, had arbitrarily assigned them the name Buddy and the Returnables (with Pines claiming to be Buddy). After Pines had been kicked out of the band they came up with the name Husker Du by riffing on the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” parodying the Talking Heads’ use of French in the chorus. Rather than “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” someone shouted out “Psycho killer, Husker Du, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa.” Andrew Earles credits Grant Hart with coming up with the phrase Husker Du, but also states that this event occurred during a practice session in Charlie Pines’s kitchen. Of course, it doesn’t really matter who came up with the name or where it originated. The point is that the band members liked the name, which was the name of a board game that had been popular when they were kids. Bob Mould explains,

The beauty of the name was that it shared very little with the typical punk monikers of the day. Most other bands were named [insert adjective] [insert noun]. The name Husker Du was an identifier not a description. Despite the superficial inanity, the name had a certain timelessness, and that avoidance of conformity (now there’s a band name) served us well.

According to BoardGameGeek, Husker Du was published in 1970, designed by Ann M. Jackson, though not credited. Bob Mould relates that in 1987, “In Denver local music publicationWestworld came up with a brilliant idea–introduce the members of Husker Du (the band) to the designer of Husker Du (the board game). That afternoon we all played a round of the game against the inventor, and were soundly trounced.” It may be a board game “where the child can outwit the adult,” but don’t take on the game’s designer!

Husker Du never made much of a secret of their love for 1960s pop. Once the band started to move beyond the hardcore din of Land Speed Record, the distinct voices and songwriting styles of Bob Mould and Grant Hart emerged. Mould’s darker, angrier tone and Hart’s melodic sense invited comparisons to Lennon and McCartney.

The cover photo and layout for the “Makes No Sense at All” 7-inch is a spoof not lost on Beatles’ fans, as the band began to toy with parallels drawn in the music press, which went so far as to call Grant and Bob the “Lennon and McCartney of post-hardcore” (and variations thereof)…. “We started to play into the whole Beatles thing with the ‘Makes No Sense’ sleeve layout and photo, and with the title of the record,” explains Hart. “Some people got that one, some didn’t, but Flip Your Wig was the name of the Beatles board game, and here we are a band named after a board game.”

Flip Your Wig, the Beatles’ board game, was published by Milton Bradley in 1964. Few other bands had their own board game. Among the games listed at BoardGameGeek, only bands that had television shows, such as the Monkees and the Partridge Family rated their own board game.

It’s become somewhat more common for bands to have their own board games in recent years, but game companies no longer try to create a new game for a band. These days rock & roll band board games are special editions of established games, such as Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones each have their own edition of Trivial Pursuit. These bands also have their own Monopoly editions, along with several other bands, including Kiss, the Grateful Dead, Metallica and AC/DC. Far and away the king of rock & roll board games, however, is Elvis. Elvis has multiple editions of Monopoly, and even though there is no Elvis Trivial Pursuit, there is a game called Elvis Trivia. Not only that but you can play Elvis Checkers and Tic Tac Toe and Elvis Yahtzee, as well. No, strike that, upon further Googling Kiss appears to rule the rock & roll board game universe. Kiss Bingo? Words fail me.

As explained in the K-Tel commercial above, “In Denmark Husker Du means ‘Do you remember?'”

Electric Sitar

Some time back I went looking for a YouTube clip from an episode of Space: 1999. All I could remember about that episode was that one of the residents of Moonbase Alpha entertained the rest of the crew hurtling through space with a sitar. Turns out it wasn’t a sitar, but rather an electric sitar, or more precisely a Coral sitar. And it wasn’t just any old member of the crew, but sought-after British session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan. In the 1960s and 1970s. Jimmy Page, who was also in demand as a session guitarist during this time, was referred to as “Little Jim,” so as not to be confused with Big Jim Sullivan. Jimmy Page is well known for playing on any number of British pop recordings before his days with the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. In a 1973 interview, Ritchie Blackmore doesn’t refute Jimmy Page’s claims to having played on many recordings, but he states that Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar in some instances. One specific example Blackmore cites is “The Crying Game,” in which Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar, while the lead guitar part was taken by Big Jim Sullivan. The lead guitar part was a “reading part,” a skill possessed by Big Jim Sullivan but not Jimmy Page, apparently.

So anyway, after a little Googling I found the clip of Big Jim Sullivan playing the electric sitar on Space: 1999. In this episode, called “The Troubled Spirit,” a horribly disfigured figure is roaming the halls of Moonbase Alpha, and this is somehow related to a botanist using the hydroponics lab to conduct experiments on telepathic communication between humans and plants. Not a good idea, apparently, particularly when someone is playing a trippy solo on the electric sitar.

Seeing this clip again confirmed that Big Jim Sullivan’s performance on Space: 1999 was as good as I had remembered–ethereal and mesmerizing. I wanted to hear more electric sitar, so, of course, I next read the Wikipedia entry on the electric sitar, which was, of course, informative. A number of different manufacturers have tried to make electric guitars sound like sitars. In 1967 Vincent Bell invented the Coral Sitar, which is essentially an electric guitar with a couple of adaptations designed to replicate the sound of a sitar. The unique design of this guitar feaured a set of sympathetic strings mounted on the body of the guitar and a “buzz bridge.” You can zoom in for a close view of a Coral sitar used by Rory Gallagher on The Rory Gallagher Instrument Archive. Vincent Bell recorded an entire LP cover versions of hits of the day using the electric sitar to demonstrate that instrument’s capabilities.

Even though guitar-sitars may not sound exactly like sitars, the results never fail to be interesting, at least to my ears. The Wikipedia article helpfully listed several recordings that used an electric sitar. The electric sitar enjoyed great popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it was featured on several hit songs. The novelty of it wore off and tastes changed, but the electric sitar never really went away (I never would have guessed that Eddie Van Halen had used an electric sitar for the solo in “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”). It seems that the electric sitar has made a resurgence of sorts in recent years, and I found several tracks featuring the electric sitar from the last ten years or so.

So I put together a compilation of tracks using electric sitar and posted it on Mixcloud. I couldn’t leave out “Green Tambourine,” because Vincent Bell played on that track. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that all of thes tracks use an electric sitar (as opposed to a real sitar) but the sitar sounds add to the allure of these tracks.

Track list
1. The Lemon Pipers – Green Tambourine [Green Tambourine (1967)]
2. The Black Angels – Manipulation [Passover (2006)]
3. Miles Davis – Black Satin [On The Corner (1972)]
4. The High Dials – Our Time Is Coming Soon [War of the Wakening Phantoms (2005)]
5. Marshall Crenshaw – Terrifying Love [Downtown (1985)]
6. Richie Havens – Run, Shaker Life [Somethin’ Else Again (1968)]
7. My Brother the Wind – Pagan Moonbeam [I Wash My Soul in the Stream of Infinity (2011)]
8. The Higher State – The Electric Cowboy [Darker By The Day (2009)]
9. Redd Kross – Play My Song [Neurotica (1987)]
10. Rory Gallagher – Philby [Top Priority (1979)]
11. Steely Dan – Do It Again [Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)]
12. Dinosaur Jr. – The Wagon [Green Mind (1991)]
13. The Delfonics – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) [The Delfonics (1970)]
14. The Clash – Armagideon Time [London Calling (B side) (1979)]
15. P – I Save Cigarette Butts [P (1995)]
16. Andy Partridge – Open A Can of Human Beans [Fuzzy Warbles Volume 7 ((2006, originally released 2003 on the MS benefit compilation Wish List))]
17. Van Halen – Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love [Van Halen (1978)]