Thursday, February 10, 2011

“M¡PUNK”: A Nostalgic Stumble Through the Music of 1979-1981

On a live wire right up off the street
You and I should meet
Junebug skipping like a stone
With the headlights pointed at the dawn
We were sure we'd never see an end to it all
And we don't know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed to the earth below

Lately, Remember When? has been hitting me hard in two places: right in the forehead and right in the nuts. I wondered: “What was the soundtrack to my life before I became seriously – and somewhat stridently – committed to particular types of music like punk or funk or free jazz?” I decided to unearth the Top 40 Casey Kasem-sanctioned songs of my tween youth—that amorphous, confusing but somehow liberating time between 11 and 13 when you felt the rebellion in your bones (among other bodily areas) but hadn’t yet fully appropriated music that directly satisfied that rebellion. Add to this living in a bit of a cultural void—rural Wisconsin—with only a cheap Radio Shack AM/FM clock radio to connect you with the outside world. The cheesy music of your junior high years was the only rebellion you knew, be it soft rock or R&B slow jams or effervescent pop confections. Then you saw Kid Creole and the Coconuts or Captain Beefheart or Joe “King” Carrasco on the shitty 1980-81 season of SNL or The Pretenders, The Jam or The Blasters on the even shittier SNL ripoff Fridays and you realize that there’s so much more to be investigated. After that, you throw away the clock radio and get your first turntable and your first Clash album and never look back.

Until you reach your forties.

A brief note on what I’ve included: with a few exceptions, you won’t find “867-5309” or “Jessie’s Girl” or “Under Pressure” or “Whip It” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” any of the more obvious songs on the radio at the time. I’ve instead tried to unearth songs that made up the lower half of the Billboard charts, songs that you forget about for about 20 years until you hear a snatch of them on the radio – or, more importantly, hear their ironic usage in a Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson or Judd Apatow film – and all of a sudden you're back under the swirling mirrorball of the Burlington Junior High School dance, quivering with hormones and feeling simultaneously as invincible as titanium and as vulnerable as a soap bubble in a cutlery shop. You feel a sort of warm fuzziness for these groups who hit it big and then sort of retreated back into the forest of memory. (You even remember snatches of useless facts unaided by Wikipedia: How the hell do I remember that Quarterflash’s original name was “Seafood Mama”?) Their triumphs may have been brief blips on the radar, but lest we forget that the careers of the Rolling Stones or Van Morrison or Dylan or Madonna are exceptions to the rule.

It’s a bittersweet remembrance because you can never return to that period of your life and yet it’s still with you. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, you are unstuck in time. Like Billy Corgan in “1979” (lyrics quoted above), you suddenly return to that gauzy, ill-defined fence-hinge between the Smiley Face 1970s – where disco, prog and country-rock held sway – and the synthesizer-and-hair-mousse 1980s. You also realize that you’ve reached a new fence-hinge in your life where you no longer look forward but start looking back. Quoth the sage Don Draper: “Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent…It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

I know I know. Hey oldster, wipe that croc tear and get to the music!!

PART ONE: Herky Jerks

“This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” The Kings
Label: Elektra. Single released: 1980. Songwriters: David Diamond & Mister Zero. Producer: Bob Ezrin. Highest Chart Position: #43. Album: The Kings Are Here!

“Ah! Leah!” Donnie Iris
Label: Midwest National/Sweet City. Single released: 1980. Songwriters: Mark Avsec & Dominic Ierace. Producer: Mark Avsec. Highest Chart Position: #29. Album: Back on the Streets.

Hallowed progenitors of Dork Rock. Caught somewhere between the criminally overlooked Power Pop of the 70s (Big Star, Gary Myrick) and their New Wavey inheritors (The Knack, The Cars) were nervous, twitchy dudes who sort of looked like Eugene Levy (Iris) but had tremendous naive moxie (Kings), exuding a sort of combed-over edginess that trickled down from the nerd-rage politics of Elvis Costello.

Originally from Oaksville, Ontario, The Kings were very un-Canadian in that they had quite the attitude: The Kings Are Here! was the snarky title of their debut LP. This song is distinguished by a trio of killer characteristics. First, there’s bassist/lead singer Dave Diamond’s whiny nasal growl. Second, there’s the crunching monolithic Bachman Turner Overdrive beat that even pond scum could tap it’s pseudopodia to. Third, and most important, the propulsive bleebling riff from keyboardist Sonny Keys, which at first sounds like a Farfisa organ but is actually a Yamaha YC-10. No matter, it’s a tip of the hat to the role organ players have played in linking the garage rock of the 60s to the New Wave of the 70s: the Attractions’ Steve Nieve, the Sir Douglas Quintet’s Augie Myers, Joe Carrasco’s Kris Cummings, and the Mysterians’ Frank Rodriguez.

The song’s topic, like that of early rap, is suffering though the workin’ week just so you can raise the roof on Friday (“Nothin’ matters but the weekend/From. A. Tuesday. Point. Of. View…”) but like white dudes they just gotta geek out about it. Single was originally released privately in 1979 on a limited number of independent pressing on the Extreme ER-1 label – you can check out the somewhat tepid original here. Legend has it the Kings were recording at Nimbus 9 studios in Toronto when they were overheard by big timey producer/fellow Canuck Bob Ezrin. Referred to as “The King of Greasepaint Bombast” for his shepherding of 70s icons like Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, Ezrin had just come off a grueling eight months of producing the monolithic art rock of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and perhaps needed to get his groove back with scruffy up and comers. Ezrin relocated the Kings to L.A. (get it?) and added his trademark “zang” – crunchier guitars, organ more prominent in the mix, echo-chambering Diamond’s voice at the end of the chorus – that should have come from a producer half his age. (Unfortunately, Ezrin would then go on to ruin that goodwill with producing KISS’s monumentally embarrassing Music from The Elder two years later.) Single is unique in other ways as well: it’s actually a medley of two songs, unheard of for an unknown band in 1980 (Elektra released the single without the segue but it didn’t really blow up as a hit until they added “Switchin’”); also may have inadvertently predicted the rise of social networking: “I have lots of friends that I can ding at any time...Can mobilize some laughs with just one call.” The Kings continue to ding their friends to this day, and were the subject of a recent documentary The Kings: Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder.

Cut to 200 miles almost directly south from Toronto to the light-industry burg of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. Donnie Iris was a Fortune 410 wearing nerd-o with the worst teeth before the advent of Shane MacGowan who had a peerless ear for The Hook and also possessor of a remarkable voice skilled at singing different genres, from disco to rock to New Wave. He was also a self-motivated rocker whose career is more remarkable than it first seems if viewed in reverse order. Think “Ah! Leah!” was his first appearance aboveground? Think again! Turns out, he found himself an unfortunate member of the melanin-challenged funk combo Wild Cherry in 1976 – AFTER they hit it big with “Play that Funky Music.” But was that his debut on the music scene? EL WRONGO. His band The Jaggerz was formed in the mid-60s when Iris was already 22 and had a #2 Billboard with “The Rapper.” This was in 1970! Which means when Iris hit the big time with his 1980 debut album Back on the Streets, he was already 37 and has spent 15 YEARS scratching around for his big break. In other words: it took him Justin Bieber’s entire lifetime to get his due, exhibiting a sort of Herculean patience only seen in the hard-won career trajectories of Bob Seger or Jandek.

As for the song, “Ah! Leah!” was a cruising-with-a-learner’s-permit song, a hormone-pumped testing of the gas pedal with a gloriously swooping chorus that expresses exasperation at a certain coquette’s mind games without getting bitter or misogynistic about it. Iris can only shrug and roll his eyes and say: “Here we go again!” This is back before the words “bangin’” or “smokin’” were applied to hot babes—the word of the moment was “foxy” or “she’s a total fox!” (Back-up phrase: “I bet she’s hot to trot.”) This is also in the nascent pre-MTV era, where bands made videos where a gorgeous chick would walk by and the guys in skinny day-glo ties would lower their sunglasses, watching her go by while mouthing the lyrics (“You’re lookin’ better than a body’s got a right to!”). Iris is now a mortgage broker, a frequent “guest bartender” at watering holes all over the Ohio Valley and just released a Christmas album with his band The Cruisers, entitled Ah! Leluiah!

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