Bandits, Sociology, Paranoia, Desire, and Fucking: Being Some Brief Notes On My Five Favorite Songs (As Of Today)

1.  Bandits:  Unlike the majority of white middle class (and now middle aged) folks, my introduction to reggae was not via Bob Marley.  Rather, my first exposure to reggae was the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, still the best soundtrack album ever. There is no argument on that point, and if you thought even for a nanosecond “What about The Big Chill Soundtrack?” please go away and never come back.  I came to Bob Marley soon enough, picking up his Live album within a month of buying The Harder They Come, but I never latched on to the cult of Marley.  I do not think he was the greatest of Reggae artists.  I don’t even think he was the greatest Wailer, as I’d rank Peter Tosh ahead of him. 

Drawing an analogy between the Wailers and the Beatles, Bunny Wailer is the George Harrison of the group, contributing sweet harmony vocals, but his other gifts, considerable as they may be, are overshadowed by the Big Two; Marley is Paul McCartney, the most popular and the most gifted when it came to writing melodies; Peter Tosh is John Lennon, angry, polemicial, satirical, and if we really want to draw out the analogy to the extreme, gunned down at far too young an age.  There is no Wailer equivalent of Ringo, as Ringo is sui generis.

This is not to say that I dislike Bob Marley.  I enjoy his music.  It is just that the co-option of Bob Marley’s Legend album by frat boys as their PAR-TAY! record has occasionally caused me to slight Marley, solely because I detest frat boys and the women who love them, but as with Chuck Taylor Sneakers, Sliders, and Motown, I try not to let the association with douchebags diminish my enjoyment of what are otherwise cool things.

Of course, my wide ranging taste in reggae adversely effected my love life.  Countless times I would tell a pretty young coed that I liked reggae, and she would coo “Ooh, I loooove Bob Marley” while she slowly ran her index finger up and down the longneck bottle she was clutching.  Instead of the smart play (“I love Bob Marley too, do you want to go back to my dorm room and make out and listen to some records?”), I’d advise her that there was so much more to reggae than just Bob Marley, and begin describing the various genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, and major players therein, and by the time I got to Doctor Alimantado and explained how he was the “Doctor Born for a Purpose” referenced in Rudie Can’t Fail, she’d excuse herself and go hook up with a lacrosse player.

Which brings us to Johnny Too Bad by the Slickers.  Set over the coolest of cool organ riffs (Booker T. Jones bows his head in reverence when he hears this) and that chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk guitar riff, the story of the badass Johnny with the knife in his waistband, soon to get his comeuppance, never fails to get my head bouncing to the beat.  The vocals are dispassionate, as if the singer has seen this story unfold before, and knows how it is going to end.  There have been many cover versions, some, fascinating, some interesting, others less so, but none come close to the original.  I have only heard a handful of other songs by the Slickers, making them something of a Reggae One Hit Wonder, but with a song this great, that is ok.

By the way, The Harder They Come is a decent movie. Sure, sure, Jimmy Cliff cannot really act, but the story moves briskly, there are some great musical performances, and I love seeing what Jamaica looked like back in the Seventies.

2. Sociology:

On White Man in Hammersmith Palais, The Clash do reggae, except it does not sound like any reggae record I have ever heard, with the weird structure lacking the usual verse-chorus-verse-chorus foundation, Mick Jones counting out “Uh-1-2-Uh-1-2-3-4” before launching into a punk rock guitar riff opening, and a three note harmonica solo in the middle.

The song is based on an all night reggae showcase that Don Letts took Joe Strummer to see, and Strummer’s disillusionment with the night.  The opening verse lists some of the acts (Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe, and if you start your exploration of Jamaican music with those four guys, you are off to a decent start) on the bill that night. Strummer is one of the very few white faces in the audience; He wants the artists to say something meaningful because “if they got anything to say/There’s many black ears here to listen”, but all he hears is “Four Tops all night/with encores from stage right”.

The song shifts to an examination of British Society. Strummer recognises that armed revolution will never happen because “the British Army is waitin’ out there”.  Strummer wonders what the solution can be, and sarcastically ponders phoning up Robin Hood to “ask him for some wealth distribution”.

The song shifts again, and now Strummer focuses on the punk rock scene in London.  Again, he is disillusioned by the lack of social protest in the music, as the new groups are “all too busy fighting/for a good place under the lighting.”  He also sees that the moment where punk rock can be an agent for social change is closing as the new bands are jockeying for record contracts and the record companies are only interested in moving as much product as possible.  Strummer cynically sneers “Ha, you think it’s funny?/Turning rebellion into money”.

The song shifts back to the larger critique of British Society.  There is an election coming up, and Strummer sees people changing their votes on the thinnest of pretenses without regard for the consequences.  He criticizes the celebrity culture he sees around him, saying “if Adolf Hitler flew in today/They’d send a limousine straight away”.

One final shift, and we are back on the floor of the Hammersmith Palais with Strummer, “the all night drug prowling wolf”, looking to score some weed, but instead finds himself surrounded by some guys with bad intent.  He pleads “Oh mister, please leave me alone/I’m only looking for fun/F-U-N.”  You get the sense that this is not going to end well for Strummer unless Don Letts shows up soon to save him.

3.  Paranoia: 

Back in the late eighties, when I was living in London, Hag used to make mix-tapes to keep me abreast of the goings on in the music scene as he defined it. I remember a hip-hop tape with some Schooly D on it, a John Prine-Guy Clark-Townes Van Zandt compilation, and a tape of various bootlegged Joy Division performances, including an absolutely chilling performance of ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ which gave me nightmares. Remarkably, no matter what the theme of the tape happened to be, Hag would manage to find a way to squeeze ‘Cath’ by the Bluebells on it. I never understood Hag’s obvious affection for that song, although listening to it now, it is a pleasant little ditty.

One of the few ‘Cath’-less tapes Hag made was a mixed tape of various post-hardcore bands, mainly American, all of whom are now largely forgotten. Try to find someone who remembers Nice Strong Arm these days, much less anyone who saw them live. I played that post-hardcore tape on a constant loop on my beat to shit Sony Walkman, mainly because of this haunting Volcano Suns track. Set over a fantastic guitar riff, the refrain “It’s a Balancing Act/But I don’t Balance/And I don’t Act too Well/Apparently, Apparently” still resonates with me almost thirty years later. The guitar riff builds and builds as the chorus “It matters, It matters, It matters to me” repeats over and over until it just crashes to a halt.

The Volcano Suns have had something of a rebirth in recent years. They reunited to play one of the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows a few years back. Their records have been remastered and reissued on compact disc, with additional tracks. The records are great, but none hits me in the gut the way Balancing Act does.

4. Desire: Jesus Christ, I cannot even begin to describe the way my loins once ached for Chrissie Hynde.  She was not the prettiest woman, but with her beehive hairdo and heavily mascaraed eyes she was damn near the sexiest, at least to my fourteen year old eyes (and check out her legs at the 2:17 mark of the video), and her voice, with that odd accent and sweet sultriness, set every nerve ending in my body on fire.

As great as Brass in Pocket is, and it is great, Talk of the Town is the song that I turn to most often.  It is a song of great longing, more romantic than sexual, although sex is certainly a part of it.  The song is about longing to connect wholly with another person.  This is no longer possible as the song’s object of desire has climbed the social ladder and is no longer part of the singer’s social circle. Starting at about the 2:25 mark in the video, listen to the way she sings “I want you, I want you but now who’s the Talk of the Town?”  The way she purrs those lines sent a jolt through me.  I was fourteen when I first heard her sing those lines, and I was wholly inexperienced with women, so desire like that was something I had no first hand knowledge of. Like the Canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef, I knew it existed, but only because I had heard about it from others.

A few years later, I saw the Pretenders at Caldwell College, and they performed this song.  By this time, I was a bit more worldly.  I even had a girlfriend! And we had done it! And yet when I heard Chrissie Hynde sing those lines as she writhed around on the stage floor, that same jolt flew through me.

5.  Fucking: There was a Saturday Night Live sketch a few years about the recording of a Blue Oyster Cult song. Christopher Walken played the record producer, and he implored the band to use “more cowbell” in the song. The sketch was funny, and Walken claims that he cannot walk through an airport without someone shouting “more cowbell” at him.

The sketch works because the cowbell is cheesy sounding, especially in a rock song. That is, it is cheesy sounding in every rock song except this one:

The opening moments of Honky Tonk Women, with the rolling cowbell over the funky drumbeat, and the rhythmic guitar chords chugging until Mick Taylor plays a short lead part and Mick Jagger begins singing, may be the lewdest twenty seconds of any Rolling Stones song, and considering the Stones are rock and roll’s lewdest band, that makes it the lewdest twenty seconds of any rock and roll song. I have no idea how the lyrics, with Gin Soaked Bar Room Queens and Divorcees getting laid in New York City, ever made it past record company and radio censors, but they did, as this song was a staple of classic rock radio when I was a kid.

The Stones at their best are about carnal desires. Their social protest songs are all flops (Street Fighting Man excluded). Their dabblings in psychedelia were just piss poor imitations of the Beatles. But when the Stones did what they do best, they were raw and primal, and even before I really understood what they were singing about, I knew what they were singing about.

3 Responses to Bandits, Sociology, Paranoia, Desire, and Fucking: Being Some Brief Notes On My Five Favorite Songs (As Of Today)

  1. jayhinman says:

    All right, I took your Nice Strong Arm comment as a dare, and I accept it. I for one remember them, and I even saw them live. They were noisy and much better live than on record. They were a Texas band, but at least two of them moved to San Francisco to come out (well, I know one guy did) and one started a band called Timco who were mildly interesting in the early 90s.

    Good call on the Volcano Suns. Those are some amazingly catchy songs. I also like “Cath” too, in spite of my better judgment.

    • seanrude says:

      I saw Nice Strong Arm a bunch of times. It was usually a Tuesday night at either Maxwells or the Pyramid Club, and the audience consisted of me, the above mentioned Hag, Gerard Cosloy, and about a dozen other people. There was one odd night when they had a huge stuffed animal on stage with them. In my inebriated state, I decided that it would be a good idea to steal it, and ran off with it while the Maxwell’s security, such as it was, made a half assed effort to stop me. I’d love to say there was some cool story that followed, like me taking photos of the stuffed animal in cool places and mailing them into Cosloy’s fanzine Conflict with ransom demands, but it just sat in my apartment until it was returned to the band a few weeks later at the next show I went to.

      “Cath” had a strange hold on Hag. While I certainly did not dislike the song, I also did not need to hear every imaginable permutation and remix that the Bluebells deemed worthy of release. Remember that this was the Eighties, when remixes, dance mixes, 12 inch mixes, etc. were the norm, and Hag had every damn one of them. Hag knows his stuff, and just as importantly, has a good sense of what I will and will not like, so much so that I found myself questioning what I was missing in that song, until I finally concluded that this one of the rare instances in which Hag’s usually impeccable taste missed a step. That song became such a running joke that when he made me a Britpop tape, he left “Cath” off of it, and labelled it the “Totally Cath-Less Britpop Tape.”

  2. Hag says:

    At least I never pushed the Bruce Foxton solo shit on you.

    Twee and not so twee Scottish pop remains an interest to this day – check out Frightened Rabbit. Started when I saw Aztec Camera open for EC in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since. I bought two or three too many Lloyd Cole discs also.

    Ten, maybe even just five years ago, my hipster inferiority complex would be make me lie and say that I was a bigger Fire Engines fan than any of the others but now I just cop to it. I liked – and still like – som lameass shit. I figured when Belle and Sebastian were at their peak it meant Orange Juice would get back together and headline Glastonbury. What do I know?

    As for Nice Strong Arm I remember us hanging out with them in front of CB’s just before I made my first trek to Austin. Their tour vehicle was a beat-up gold cadillac, which I thought was cool. You may have stolen their stuffed animal but at least you didn’t scare them the way you bullied Rob Zombie…..

    NSA were OK, much better live than on record. I bought everything they put out – you were right then and now, they were meh at best.

    If either of you could use your considerable blog / web influence to convince Mission of Burma that it is time to go on another 20-year hiatus, I’d appreciate it.

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