One interesting thing about intentionally expanding the types of music I listen to is finding shared ground between genres and the people who make them, no matter how much time or how many miles separate them.
I’ve been listening to The Clash’s London Calling and Killer Mike & El-P’s RAP Music over the past few days. No reason why, I don’t think — I just felt like it. I had a light bulb moment while listening to “Guns of Brixton.” A youtube and a quote:
When the law break in, how you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement or waiting in death row?
You can crush us, you can bruise us
But you’ll have to answer to
Guns of Brixton
I like it. It’s easy to understand. It positions the law as amoral and the authorities as a possible danger, not a source of safety.
The song was written a couple years before the 1981 riot in Brixton. I never heard about it growing up, but in reading about it, it sounds like a pretty familiar story. “Guns of Brixton” is a fight song, a warning. “Do what you want, but don’t think you can get away with this. You’ll answer for this.”
From Killer Mike’s “Don’t Die”, second verse:
Now the dirty cop’s looking at me
Talking ’bout he kill a nigga if I try to flee
Shit, I’m about to lose it, so he gon’ have to prove it
All because the government hate rap music
I’ve been labeled outlaw, renegade, villain
So was Martin King, so the system had to kill him
A nigga with an attitude, the world gotta feel him
Educated villain, intent on living
If I gotta kill a cop just to get out the building
That motherfucker gettin’ left dead, no feelings
Yelling “Fuck him!” as I buck a .45 at his fillings
Trying to knock his brains through the motherfucking ceiling
This is different, but not that different. Mike’s playing the role of a rapper who’s about to be assassinated by cops, and this is his reaction. It’s a song about self-defense, about protecting yourself and your family from anyone who would do them harm, up to and including the people who are meant to protect them.
I don’t think it’s a stretch or insulting to say that the police are often used to enforce oppression in poor and black neighborhoods. Not in a shadowed men in a dark room plotting to rid the world of the untermenschen sort of way, I mean. More in a “these policies are predatory, meant to disenfranchise people, and often built on suspect evidence” kind of way. The war on drugs as a war on poor and brown people, racial profiling, all that stuff. On top of that, disruptive community leaders, your Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs and Black Panthers, are targeted for political and personal destruction by police organizations via extralegal and obsessive surveillance.
A cop stands at the door and knocks. When you hear his voice, how do you feel? What’s the first thought that goes through your head?
Paul Simonon and Killer Mike’s distrust of authority is separated by over thirty years and a couple thousand miles, but it’s rooted in the same history, the same ideas. Protect yourself and your family, via armed resistance if you have to, because you can’t depend on anyone else to do so. There’s something really resonant about that idea. Mike’s is a little more swaggery than Simonon’s version (the delivery on “Yelling ‘Fuck him!’ as I buck a .45 at his fillings/Trying to knock his brains through the motherfucking ceiling” is nuts), but they’re both coming from the same place.
There’s this element of music that I cherish. It’s the fact that, if you’re open to it, there is a ton of history encoded into the songs. It can be anything from trying to identify a half second sample to looking up someone’s name. Stuff like “Y’out there?” being quickly followed by “Louder!” screaming out from the past. Or “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for star time?” or how Biggie flipped Schooly D’s “PSK” into a serious black/rap history joint. If you dig a little, just a little, and let your mind make the connections that are already there, you’ll find a lot more to enjoy, and that uncovers even more.
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the tenth, a milestone number that I am going to completely fail to celebrate. I’ve been experimenting with punk music lately, and I think I might have something interesting to say about The Clash and the Sex Pistols, or, more specifically, their albums London Calling and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. I don’t know anything about punk, so both albums were eye-opening.
Another giveaway! Tell me something I need to know about punk in the comments (meaning: tell me something you like that I probably don’t know and will probably like), and you’ll get a free copy of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here (mp3s, obviously). It’s old man music, the sort of album you listen to while chilling on a recliner or on a porch somewhere. The upbeat stuff is when your grandkids come around for playtime and you stand up, stretch your back, and then you show them youngins how to do some pushups. It’s good, yo.
I don’t even really know what punk music is, man. Not properly. Most of my punk knowledge comes from the periphery of punk culture. I know of cyberpunk and steampunk, though I couldn’t tell you if they’re called that because of the music or because somebody came up with “cyberpunk” and now “-punk” is the new hotness. I owned a Sex Pistols shirt before I ever listened to a Sex Pistols album because I liked how it looked. I’m pretty sure what I thought was punk rock before I actually sat down and asked a friend where I should start with punk was in fact, black metal. Something really aggressive, dark clothes, piercings, and a dude with weird hair growling into the microphone. I thought it was this, from Brian Azzarello and Guy Davis’s Hellblazer:
Yeah. I mean, real talk, full disclosure, confession time: I figured punk was basically just NWA for white people. For headbangers, not head nodders, basically. Who knew?
Anyway, enough faux guilt over having ignored an entire genre of music that people apparently like a whole lot. January 28, 2011: the day I purchased London Calling. I was heavy into the Beatles and it seemed like a good idea because… I don’t remember, I think I asked Ron Richards of iFanboy because he knows this stuff. I bought it, downloaded, and listened and was caught completely flat-footed.
London Calling didn’t sound at all like I expected. I was expecting something with some sharp snares, or something about anarchists and antichrists. Something growly and mean, the sort of music I could scare my neighbors with or disappoint my parents (in this scenario, it is also 197something). Instead, it just sorta sounds like a regular rock album. More than that–it sounds like a radio-friendly rock album. This feels like music people ride drive around to and sing with, you know?
Not to say that I don’t like it–I actually like London Calling quite a bit. I was just surprised by the diversity of the music on the album. “Brand New Cadillac” is Elvis-y, “Jimmy Jazz” is jazzy, there’s some really reggae songs on here, and then there’s stuff like “London Calling” or “The Guns of Brixton”, which I don’t really have the vocabulary to describe yet. “The Guns of Brixton” sounds a little like talking to a distant drunk, with the strange over-enunciation and the sproings around 1:15 in.
I think my favorite track on the album is actually “London Calling,” though the reasons why are still a bit unclear. I like the phrase “London Calling,” particularly how it punctuates (or maybe just punctures) the song. It’s ever-present, and sorta menacing with the backing vocals layered in on it. (I had to look up the “I live by the river” bit to see if it was about being homeless). I like how this feels post/mid-apocalyptic, like the world’s gone all wrong and it’s too late to stop. It’s the last concert before the end of the world. Am I reading too deep into the song? I don’t think so, it’s sorta right there.
I like “Lover’s Rock” a whole lot, too. That first fifteen seconds leading into the vocals is pretty great, and the vocals just elevate how good this song makes me feel (setting aside the lyrics). It feels and sounds like summertime music. This album doesn’t feel like the ’70s to me. Its style isn’t modern, of course, but it doesn’t feel that dated. It feels sorta timeless.
Amazon tells me that I bought Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols on July 18th. Makes sense–I think I played it a lot while I was in San Diego. (I also got Public Image Ltd’s album on the same day.) The Sex Pistols are closer to what I thought punk was. It’s as raw as an open wound, with a lot of speedy guitar riffs (licks?). It’s great music to work out to because it’s all so high energy.
I really, really like how Johnny Rotten isn’t much of a singer at all on this album. He croaks his way through “God Save The Queen” like somebody at karaoke, yeah? But his swagger is so strong that the rough vocals don’t matter at all. This stuff is catchy. It feels like rebel music, even if that rebellion was a billion years ago. It’s pleasingly political in a way that really isn’t that political at all. It’s not a call to action. It’s just telling us something we already know. Political comfort food. I love the “No future!” chant toward the end, especially the way its drawn out “Noooooooooo fewcha” plays against the fast music. There’s also this hitch in there around 2:46, like the vocals don’t come all the way in. It feels like a slippery, slamming song.
I like the popular songs from this one, I guess. “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” are tops. “Anarchy in the UK” is even rawer. Is it just me or is Rotten’s voice mixed super high on this song? While he sorta fades into “God Save the Queen” and blends with the music, on “Anarchy in the UK” he practically rides on top of the song. It’s all about the wobble in his voice and that whine he uses to cap off “know how to get it.” It doesn’t sound good, but it sounds great.
Does that make sense? I just love how much energy and style Rotten has on this album. All of the music sounds really great and well put together, with interesting solos and solid beats, and then Rotten comes in and freaks out all over the record. I don’t know that I can verbalize why this is so entertaining to me, but it’s sort of like how I’ll listen to a really great rap song and then hear that moment when the artist breathes in because he just finished a Jenga tower of a verse and his breath control ran out. It’s like the seams are showing beneath the music, and being able to see or hazard a guess as to how it’s put together is a good feeling.
This feels a little like history class, or maybe some type of innocent voyeurism. I’m observing this from somewhere else, far from who it was for and what it represents. I’m pretty much entirely divorced from the punk era and its ethos. Actually, that’s not entirely true–I don’t know enough to know whether or not its ethos still applies. Is that even a conversation I need to be having? Would that make me like the music more than I do? I just like how these albums sound, and not being a part of the culture doesn’t harm that enjoyment, I don’t think. I came away pretty impressed with both of these albums (they’re particularly good to write to, I’ve found, and easy to mindlessly sing along with, especially the end of “Problems”), and they definitely sparked further interest in the genre and the people involved.
The two albums either up-ended or confirmed the stereotypes I had about punk, and I think that’s what I like most about them. Punk is and isn’t exactly what I thought it is, right?
I know somebody out there is well-versed in punk. I’m taking suggestions, preferably full albums rather than singles, but if someone’s a one-hit wonder with a hot song, c’est la guerre. I’ll take it. The best suggestion gets a free copy of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here.
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