Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thoughts on Rock and Roll in the Seventies-Punk and Power Pop (Part I)

The Punk Originators


Much like garage rock, power pop is one of the most fluid and hard to define musical genres in music. No one has yet to really define it, and that may be because like punk and its early, narrow and short-lived forebear glam-rock, both of which have more slightly tangible boundaries, it is part of rock and roll’s third generation. That is to say it came of age in the seventies, a very confusing and musically messy decade.

The true genesis of Rock and Roll lies with Chuck Berry—both rock’s Creator and Adam. Then came the girl groups, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Byrds and the American underground garage movement, and its British counterpart. And in the seventies came the great rupture and the subsequent untidy flowering of all rock’s subgenres.

That is all excruciatingly reductive, but it spells out rock’s explosive beginnings, the origins that would lead to the fracturing of rock’s still feral potency in the seventies. This feral potency did not register in all of rock and roll’s third-generation forms—there was showy prog-rock, trite country-rock, ham fisted traditional rock, and of course disco which brought with it the thrill of dancing and drugs. Neither of these genres were particularly feral or potent, but all of which were strong enough to elicit varying degrees of mass commercial appeal.

There were still of course seventies iconoclasts that were either an ill fit for genre classification or were just holdovers from the sixties—The Rolling Stones, Wings, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, the resilient Bob Dylan, John Lennon, David Bowie, the superstar Minimalists and the German Kraut-Rockers. But to me, the disco decade will historically be known for the rise of rock’s twin progeny—power pop and punk.

The feral potency first revealed itself as a conduit in the late sixties, most noticeably in the proto-punk groups, The Velvet Underground, the MC5 and The Stooges. All three of which were direct antecedents of punk’s first wave. This initial wave of proto-punk bands however, were not nearly as influential to the less aggressive power poppers that dotted the American and British landscapes as the seventies began to draw to a close. They looked mainly to the British beat groups who had begun crafting more muscular harmonic guitar pop—late-era Beatles, The Hollies, The Kinks and The Who (the latter two came out of the box fairly muscular).

Punk has almost historically been described as a social movement but I find it more helpful to see it, like power pop, as a musical movement. This conflation occurs because of the historically fluid musical crosscurrent that ran between the United States and the UK. Punk, created and named in the States, had its zenith in Great Britain where it gained commercial traction, mainly because of economic and social volatility and the relative geographic compactness of the country. In the wide-open spaces of America, punk was like a fascinating urban abnormality—a fetish that could hold your gaze, but could never become the commercially viable product that it did in Britain.

In fact, many think falsely that punk had as its original sin, an overt fascination with politics or radicalism. It is true that in America the MC5 were explicitly political, with their White Panther Party ties and appearance at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, but they were an early anomaly.

The real bridge between the original proto-punk bands and punk’s first wave were the bizarrely theatrical and exhibitionistic, yet apolitical New York Dolls. The lines are easily drawn: first, like The Velvets, The Sonics, The Ronettes and T. Rex, The New York Dolls were key early influences on the original punk band, The Ramones, and second, Malcolm McLaren—prior to famously cobbling together and managing the punk rock version of the Monkees, The Sex Pistols—handled the last few Dolls shows.

The New York Dolls did seem obsessed with sexual and gender politics in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it would be a mistake to consider them overtly political. And in the case of the Ramones, if sniffing glue was a political issue, then they’d be political, but it is not. One may argue that The Dead Boys were politicized in a way, insofar as their fascination with the shock-value of swastikas was concerned, but they were mostly just a bunch of dummies from Cleveland who wanted to be scandalous. Politics was an obvious element of punk that came later, mainly when the British got a hold of it.

Power Pop shunned the nihilistic feeling of dread and frustration that formed punk’s alienated ethos. Instead, it mined the richly naïve romanticism of rock’s early practitioners. Whereas punk may have channeled Chuck Berry’s guitar aesthetic (with Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders as primary conduits), power pop adopted his “School Days” lyrical style. Alex Chilton took that early sixties rock-naiveté, made famous by Berry, The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and fused it with a youthful restlessness (explicitly name checking The Stones) but never approaching the futuristic bleakness that the punk rabble would one day predict, on Big Star’s delicate acoustic ramble “Thirteen.”

Where punk would later turn awkward, shameful, angry and guarded, power pop was unabashed and unashamed, no matter how much like The Beatles it sounded, no matter how close to bubble gum it was. Punk set itself up as the antithesis to the sunny pop of The Beatles, and the mania it had one day inspired and the legend it had spawned. Joe Strummer sang in 1979, in the ultimate generational throw down: “London calling, now don't look to us Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.”

Of course, the ironic part was that John Lennon had already thrown the first and heaviest shovelful of dirt on Beatlemania’s fresh corpse eight years earlier when he uttered the crushing words: “I don't believe in kings, I don't believe in Elvis, I don't believe in Zimmerman, I don't believe in Beatles,” in his beautiful apostatizing lament “God.”

Power Pop on the other hand seemed to be in awe of the exuberance of sixties harmonic-pop. Even if it didn’t share with its forebears a love of traditional folk or blues-based rock, it was fairly musically virtuosic (unlike punk) and conventional where lyrics were concerned. Power pop was slightly skewed but it never truly challenged in the same way the Cain-like Punk did.

Punk shared an immediacy and rebelliousness with rock, but created a generational rift initially with its harsh and reductive minimalism, and then later with its radical rhetoric and revolutionary exhortations. Though Power Pop could become lascivious (it was in fact all about girls) it was for the most part easier to embrace, but like punk in the beginning, it was a commercial dead end.

By turning the punk origins story on its head, one can see a strange dichotomy in Power Pop’s own beginnings. The first power pop band is arguably Badfinger—a British group whose first album was released in 1970. Though the passage between mid to late sixties British music and power pop is murky, Badfinger probably best represents the genre’s beginning. Like punk’s explosive sojourn across the Atlantic in reverse, it would take three American bands to take ringing, muscular guitar pop to its apex by infusing that early British template with a pastiche of American influences.

The Best Power Pop Band Ever?

Next: Part 2, The Holy Trinity-The Flamin' Groovies, Big Star, and The Raspberries.

Top 100 (30-21)

I almost forgot I was still doing this.

30. Funny Little Frog (3:08)-Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit, (2006)-The second and last of my songs that were actually released last year. I have had a kind of love/hate relationship with this band since, what seemed to me at the time, their first album came out—If You’re Feeling Sinister (their first album, Tigermilk had gone out of print). I don’t know how many people remember, but If You’re Feeling Sinister was a big deal, and sometimes if you are not in on the initial wave, you feel like a phony jumping on the band-wagon, and I couldn’t have that, so I kept Belle & Sebastian at arms length. Anyway to make a long story short, I purchased their third album for a pittance and liked the first track "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career" (not so much now) and warmed up to them. I think their last two albums have been great, fairly grown-up and proper sounding pop albums; and I am glad that the Donovan/Nick Drake influence has been mostly chucked.

29. Eve of Destruction (1:22)-Johnny Thunders, Hurt Me, (1984)-And now, on to the second P.F. Sloan song. Johnny Thunders tears through this peacenik screed, which acts as a primer on many of the causes that had bounded the sixties counter-culture together: domestic racism, Vietnam, Middle East brutalities and Nuclear Armageddon. It seems a strange turn for the very un-taciturn Thunders: this is the guy who so successfully conflated Chuck Berry’s guitar aesthetics with heroin culture and wrote a called an album "Too Much Junkie Business."

28. Dub Magnificent (3:32)-King Tubby, The Roots of Dub, (1974)-More Reggae, or, maybe more to the point Jamaican music, and in this case, dub. For the uninitiated, dub is essentially instrumental reggae with lots of spacey and echoey delay. Tubby, born Osborne Ruddock, was a Kingston-area electronic repairman, who started out fixing sound system speakers that were set up on street corners that were damaged, oftentimes through the thuggish and competitive violence executed by rival sound system owners. As a disc-cutter at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studio, Ruddock began to pull the vocals off tracks, highlighted the low-end bass and the drums with spidery echo, dropping other instrumental tracks in and out, and in the process he invented a new genre.

27. Drinkin' My Life Away (5:57)-Hasil Adkins, Drinkin' My Life Away (2003)-Adkins was a one-man hillbilly band that was beautifully naive enough, as a young boy, to think that the music he heard on the radio was all played by one person. A lot of his output is a bit tough to get through, and is only for the true believers. Adkins was not totally unlike a loonier Link Wray with some of the most creepy lyrics that I have ever heard. Drinkin’ My Life Away is played fairly straight, a bit out of tune and very long, but very sad. Of course he recorded it as an old man, just a few years before his death from complications after being run over by an all terrain vehicle.

26. Don't Talk About Us (2:35)-Someloves, B-Side to the It’s My Time Single on Citadel, (1986)-Marvelous guitar pop from that phenomenal Do the Pop collection of Australian punk. Like the Buzzcocks, but even more fun and without a hint of sexual politics.

25. Don't Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby) (2:47)-The Cookies, Don't Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby) Single on Dimension, (1964)-I could have done a little bit better research. This is one of two songs, just on this segment of the list written by Carole King. The Cookies have a strange history, that started in the fifties, before they were transformed into The Raelettes, by, yes, Ray Charles, and then into a wonderful Brill Building vocal trio in the early sixties, scoring a hit with Chains, and Don’t Say Nothing Bad (About my Baby).

24. Don't Let Go (3:29)-The Barracudas, Drop Out, (1981)-The Barracudas were a London-based power pop band (with a pronounced punk strain) that was founded by Canadian expatriate Jeremy Gluck. The Barracudas were one of the first bands to try their hands at true sixties revivalism, but to their credit they somewhat failed. With a band like the Chesterfield Kings, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between a song of theirs and a song that was actually recorded in the sixties. The Barracudas were too much a product of their time musically.

23. Didn't Tell the Man (2:56)-The Hitmen, Didn’t Tell the Man Single on WEA, (1979)-Yet another song from the Do the Pop compilation. If I haven’t said it yet, if you like New York Dollsesque punk or tough power pop you should get this double disc. You can probably get it cheap. This is probably the best song on the comp, very much like Radio Birdman (which is the case with almost every Australian punk band), but a bit softer.

22. Darling, Lets Have Another Baby (2:36)-Thee Headcoats, Brother Is Dead ... But Fly Is Gone! (1998)-I was originally very excited to find a P.F. Sloan connection early in this endeavor, but now the novelty has worn off. The most exciting of course was the Fleetwood Mac—Earl Vince and the Valiants ruse. Well, now that I know Billy Childish was in Mickey and the Milkshakes this makes two appearances. I use to live with a friend of mine and he liked this band, I got into Holly Golightly, but not this band so much, though I did like the cover they did of The Ramones song called "Pinhead." Anyway, I bought a bunch of their records this year and this may not be my favorite of the bunch, but it is close.

21. Crying In The Rain (1:53)-Carole King, Crying In The Rain Single on Atlantic Records, (1963)-I always thought, great songwriter but kind of a corny singer. I mean, I just remember listening to the big songs off Tapestry in the car as a little kid and now it just sounds real dated. Dated in the worse seventies kind of way. This sixties stuff is phenomenal though, especially this song, very stripped, so stripped that the great songwriting shows through, no piano-funk fluff to get lost in.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Nikki Sudden, Dave Kusworth: Jacobites, The Ragged School, 1986

Nikki Sudden & Dave Kusworth: Jacobites
The Ragged School


Last Sunday evening I tortured myself by watching the Grammys. Mainstream rock and roll must really be dead if the best they could do is wheel out the Red Hot Chili Peppers who stumbled through some excruciating and dated sounding rap rock. And it would have been bad enough to sit through The Eagles playing Eagles songs, but when I had to sit through Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts doing Eagles songs badly and watch Smokey Robinson perform in women’s lingerie—well, let’s just say I was cleaning up the vomit for days.

Anyway, that’s all neither here nor there. I do, however macabre as it may sound, enjoy the In Memoriam segment, and as I was watching on Sunday night I had forgotten that the gods were cruel enough to take both Arthur Lee and Syd Barrett away in the same year. It brought to mind also the strange death of an Englishman born Adrian Nicolas Godley, known to a scant few music fans as Nikki Sudden. I stood there mesmerized, inexplicably waiting to see Nikki Sudden’s tousled Ron Wood-esque mop of hair, but of course he did not show up on the screen—an obvious credit to Sudden’s wonderfully strange legacy.

Ostensibly, Sudden died from complications having to do with drugs after playing a show in New York (he was only 49), though the cause of death is still not known. He left in his wake one of the most maddeningly diverse discographies, made up of both his bands—the seminal noisy and precocious post-punk combo, The Swell Maps and the leather and lace Dylanesque troubadours, The Jacobites—and his many disparate solo albums.

The Ragged School is not a proper album, in that it was put together for American audiences by Peter Jesperson’s Twin/Tone label, a la the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today. Ragged School is made up mainly of the Jacobites first album, which was self-titled, and the subsequent Robespierre’s Velvet Basement, both of which were reissued with reams of bonus tracks by Secretly Canadian (as is Ragged School, but I am reviewing the original twelve track album on Twin/Tone; the Secretly Canadian reissue has 22 tracks).

The only songs which do not appear on either of those first two albums are “Bethlehem Castle,” which was a holdover from Nikki Sudden’s solo album, The Bible Belt, and Nikki Sudden’s brief instrumental dalliance “Cheapside,” which appears solely on The Ragged School.

After the Swell Maps disbanded in the early eighties, Nikki Sudden went on to record two solo albums: Waiting on Egypt (1982) and The Bible Belt (1983). I remember when I was younger, I had asked someone whose opinion I respected what he thought of Nikki Sudden and he replied that he only liked his first two solo albums. Of course those were the hardest to find before they were reissued, and I naturally assumed that they were like the two matching pieces of the Nikki Sudden Holy Grail.

Well I bought the reissues and they’re fine, but they don’t match the work Sudden did with Dave Kusworth, his delicate foil and fellow Jacobite. The Jacobites albums mark the creative zenith of both Kusworth and Sudden’s (post-Swell Maps) careers.

The one misstep on the album is unfortunately its opener, the overlong “Big Store,” which sounds like “Cortez the Killer” without the guitar histrionics, which means it is languid, slow, and for the most part, a little bit boring. The good news is, once you’re through with it, the rest of the album is nigh flawless.

The second track is one of Kusworth’s and if they were competing song for song, Kusworth would have the early lead. “It’ll All End up Tears” perfectly fits one of the Jacobites’ templates: fragile and delicately intertwining acoustic guitars, reverb, and subtly distributed Casio keyboards. The next song, “Hurt me More,” which they share the songwriting credit on, is more of the same—though they add a slide guitar solo, salt and sugar harmonies and a lonely marching snare beat.

Side One closes with the epic “Son of a French Nobleman,” which introduces another musical theme that Sudden and Kusworth are fond of—the slow build. Though the Jacobites were not the first to do this, it is still odd to hear rock music built on the same repeating four-chord verse in perpetuity in lieu of the typical verse chorus verse structure. Instead of changing the chords, they slowly add more instrumentation as the song lazily moves, a little chord organ, then synthesizer, drums, tambourine, maracas, backing vocals, etc.

Speaking of themes, if you are wondering why this unabashedly Byronic duo chose to name their band after bloodthirsty French Libertarians, you are not alone. I have no idea. My guess is though—and one look at them will prove this—they both look to varying degrees like Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and by extension, Rod Stewart. So it stands to reason that they probably romanticized that Rolling Stones tax-exile period when they recorded Exile on Main Street in the South of France.

They sound not totally unlike the Rolling Stones too, though not quite as accomplished as musicians, and only if the Rolling Stones lasted from Beggars Banquet through Goats Head Soup—their best period. The Jacobites’ influences aren’t hewn totally to that Stones mentality. Though they are surely fans of The Faces and T. Rex, there is obvious threads of Dylan, Neil Young, Gene Clark, The Velvet Underground, American Country and Western and a heavy indebtedness to traditional British Folk.

Side Two of Ragged School starts with one of the two best songs on the album, “Ambulance Station,” another four-chord, sad and delicate slow burn, highlighted by Sudden’s sadly wistful lyrics: “so you pull your shoes apart, make a bridge across your heart, she threw it all, threw it all away.” Three tracks later is probably the best song the duo ever recorded, and one of the only few songs on the album to feature an electric guitar—“Pin Your Heart To Me.” With it’s Nikki-sung verse, and Dave-sung chorus it is their decidedly less sophisticated and certainly more fun version of “A Day in the Life.”

Sadly the Jacobites broke up the same year that Ragged School appeared stateside. Nikki Sudden put out many solo albums, the best of which were the phenomenal Texas, and the severely depressing dulcimer-inflected Dead Men Tell No Tales, which is not about pirates. Dave Kusworth also put out his fair share of albums; the only one I can attest for is The Bounty Hunters, which is also the name of his band. It is pretty good. They reformed earlier in the decade with uneven results. Dave Kusworth is still with us. Nikki died on March 26, 2006 in New York after playing a show with Evan Dando. He will be missed.

Nikki is the one on the left. R.I.P.


The Gories, I Know You Fine But How You Doin', 1990

The Gories
I Know You Fine But How You Doin'

One of the great (and lesser known) musical travesties is that The Gories—the best bass-less garage band to ever come out of Detroit and maybe anywhere—have been critically buried by a clownish, image-obsessed, meticulously-managed duo who mainly sound like a neutered Led Zeppelin that also eschew the bass-guitar and have a girl drummer. I will not name them, but you must know which gruesome twosome I speak of.

Detroit is obviously known for its numerous bands and musical groups, but rock and roll-wise, I’d rather it be for The Gories, (or) The Stooges, Nick and the Jaguars, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the MC 5, or even Bob Seger for crying out loud; just not that other band.

The Gories formed in 1986—a trio of obscure motor-city trash rockers that included guitarists Mick Collins, Dan Kroha, and drummer Margaret Ann (Peggy) O’Neill. They had done time in local acts such as, “the Wire-inspired” yet Jesus and Mary Chain-named, Floor Tasters, the U-Boats, the On-Set and Darkest Hours.

Armed with Fender guitars, Vox amps, a fuxx-box and a stripped down drum-kit, The Gories were armed to the teeth and prepared to churn out some of the most filthy, fuzzy, immediate and effecting garage-punk to ever be spewed from a speaker since…well, since Ike Turner’s amp fell from a moving car, or when Link Wray or Dave Davies slashed their amps, depending on which apocryphal story you choose to believe.

After a slew of singles and one beautifully realized yet chaotic album The Gories went to Memphis, Tennessee in 1990 to record an album at Easley Recording. The man they enlisted to helm the record was none other than Alex Chilton, formerly of the Boxtops, Big Star and Tav Falco’s Panther Burns—an avowed rock deconstructionist who had produced the Cramps psychobilly classic, Songs the Lord Taught us.

Though I have become recently wary of superlatives, I Know You Fine But How You Doin’ is close to perfect and should be legitimately placed above all other revivalist garage records. Another minor travesty is that the people at Rhino had the stones to put out The Children of Nuggets box and ignore the Gories. In the land of the garage revisionists—The Gories are king.

I Know You Fine opens with a lyrically poetic and antiquated sounding DJ’s shout-out from days passed: "This here’s the Gories from Detroit; hot of the press. It’s gonna jump on you baby and it’s gonna stay in your dress. Here it comes!" And then the first song, “Hey Hey, We’re the Gories,” scratches along, playfully aping, you guessed it, The Monkees. The slightly lascivious “You Make it Move” follows, buoyed by a fuzzy, livewire guitar line and the primal, repetitive thud of what sounds like a disabused oil drum.

Though it seems almost absurd to say, The Gories seemed to have cleaned up their sound on this record. Their first record House Rockin’ is bone raw, rustbelt trash rock which is almost sinister in it’s lack of control. Though it’s still a marvelous record; for I Know You Fine, they seemed to have built on that unhinged chaos, creating a slightly more coherent effort.

Coherency is one of The Gories’ strong suits. Trying to hold such disparate influences together—Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Suicide, Joy Division, The Sonics, in a slight way, Hendrix and voodoo—could make for a messy affair, but The Gories are masters at holding many contrasting sounds together at once.

The album is top to bottom nearly flawless sly and impish garage punk, shot through with minimalist deconstructionism and is built perfectly around the flinty, abrasive and subtly textured twin guitars of Collins and Kroha. O’Neil is the minimalist foil that drives each song—try finding another band, aside from perhaps Neu!, with a drummer who so thoroughly disregards the practice of doing "fills" and makes practically no rhythmic changes.

There are four stand out songs: The impeccably literate “Thunderbird ESQ,” a song about a guy wedded more to his fortified wine than his female companion, “Smashed,” about, well you can probably figure it out, the desperate “View From Here,” and, probably their most famous song, which is not saying much, “Nitroglycerine,” a particularly sweaty song, essentially about having sex and fighting.

The Gories put out one more album, the aptly titled Outta Here (1992), and then broke up. Mick Collins is in the band The Dirtbombs and Dan Kroha is in the creepy-looking Demolition Doll Rods. If you think that you are a fan of garage, and don’t have all three of their albums you should buy them today and worry about the appropriate self-flagellation later.

I mean this with all due respect—The Gories are to, that other band, what the Beatles are to Bad Finger. And that is no lie.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Is Born To Run the Best Song Ever Written?

Born to Run Single on Columbia Records
Bruce Springsteen


Sometimes it is hard to imagine that there was a time when Bruce Springsteen actually meant anything. That there was really a time when he stood, at least in the abstract for something; especially something musically significant. I know he is a rich liberal that many politicians on the left like to solicit donations from. I know he is a slightly less aggravating American version of the patronizing and overtly political U2 frontman Bono. But how long has it been since musically, sonically, and historically that Bruce Springsteen has been relevant?

Sure, he stood up to the modern world, hitched up his jeans and asked: 57 Channels (and Nothin’ on)? But for the most part, to younger generations he is the progenitor of a misunderstood, yet explicitly inward-looking, mid-American ethos—characterized by his album Born in the U.S.A.—an ethos that is now championed by car-commercial patriots like Toby Keith and (unfortunately) John Mellencamp.

Bruce Springsteen though, has authored albums that stand alone in the American canon: the defiantly lonely Nebraska, the messy, spoilt-broth masterpiece The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and the singularly thrilling Born to Run—a magical love letter to the (often vehicular) romance of a dirt-poor, greasy and romantic youth which has, as it’s title track, the spine tingling piece de resistance of the Springsteen catalogue: the magnificent Born to Run.

Greil Marcus famously said that Born to Run was a ’57 Chevy that ran on melted Crystals records. And obviously Springsteen had sixties hot rod muscle on his mind, as he brilliantly conflated the Phil Spector-inspired Wall of Sound with James Dean-mumbled sensitivity and a Dylanesque scope of Americana, making Born to Run a sonically intense epic reading of a mythic and lost American youth.

Today though, Springsteen is bloated, happy and well-heeled; a brand name and a corporate entity unto himself. He is not that lean and hungry boy that he once was. With his oversized hat, youthful scraggly beard, and tank top, he seemed such an outsider. He was just another gauche kid from New Jersey. Now, with his rich and paunchy tucked-in middle section and pasty fiftyish face he is The Boss (of what, I do not know).

He was though once a hungry and beautiful kid, the impoverished New Jersey street poet as Dickensian wastrel; and a kinder, gentler version of the intensely crabby Bob Dylan. Springsteen was also a telecaster-wielding conductor of an East Coast rock orchestra that was as tight a live act that ever sweated over a crowded throng, and he only canceled shows when he was so worn out that he was reduced to vomiting blood. Bruce Springsteen was once the real thing.

Born to Run starts with a minimally epic and iconic opening. Mixing in a simple saxophone run and bare-bones glockenspiel-sounding keyboard, the band wastes little time getting to the meat of Springsteen’s grim narrative:

"In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while were young
`cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run"

The song is beautifully literate, a kind of sweeping and inglorious tale informed by the kind of depression-era songs and novels made famous by Woodie Guthrie and Edward Anderson; stories about beautiful small town, or country losers just trying to hold on to something. And it is about cars—or as Bruce Springsteen, so beautifully puts them: suicide machines; and for the futurist-minded: hemi-powered drones.

Though I am not a fan of Clarence Clemmons, his seventeen-second-sax solo is seamless, a bit busy but not at all out of place or incongruous like the saxophone can often be in rock and roll after say Exile on Main Street.

After Springsteen delivers the fatalistically romantic line “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss,” the song lurches into its iconic breakdown, perhaps the most famous of all breakdowns for it seems as if it will never end. And then, the barely audible but spine-tingling nonetheless: “1, 2, 3, 4,” is uttered, followed by the last stanza of his nihilistically romantic hot-rod fantasy:

"The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and well walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run."

Both Lyrically and sonically, Born to Run is a masterpiece; it is the most economical four and a half minutes of rock and roll that I will ever hear. Like any great writer, Springsteen created an alternate universe, in this case an almost futuristic past, narrowly drawn, but beautifully rendered.

I don’t know what the best song ever written is, nobody does. Perhaps it’s The Rolling Stones' Little T & A, or Guided By Voices’ Peep Hole, or The Beatles’ I’m Only Sleeping. Maybe it's Chuck Berry’s Memphis, or The Ronettes’ Do I Love You?, or The Flamin’ Groovies’ You Tore me Down, perhaps The Kinks’ Come Dancing, or 96 Tears by ? and the Mysterians. I suppose that those songs represent just an ultra-slim fraction of the candidates. Born to Run though has to be, at the very least, considered one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. It is a miraculous thing of beauty that gives one the chills upon each listen.

tramps like us indeed,


  • Please read this post by an amateur satirist jerk who didn't bother to read the last paragraph of this article before he decided to get cute. Feel free to leave him a message.
  • Friday, February 02, 2007

    Top 100 (Songs 40-31)

    I am almost, almost to the end.

    40. I Cannot Find Her (2:33)-The Chesterfield Kings, Stop, (1985)-I am a sucker for desperate-sounding, jangly, acoustic twelve-string guitar ballads. The Chesterfield Kings though, are generally known for more Stonesy and aggressive garage songs, but on I Cannot Find Her, they let their sweet and sensitive lovelorn side shine through.
  • Chesterfield Kings 99th Floor Video.

  • 39. I Can Never Tell (2:44)-The Crawdaddys, 5X4 EP on Voxx Records, (1980)-Yet another entry from the Children of Nuggets compilation. The Crawdaddys were an L.A. area beat revival group who, like the Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds before them, were enamored with American Blues artists…they came along, about 15 years too late though. So instead of adulation they got a life of crushing obscurity

    38. I Adore Him (2:46)-The Angels, I Adore Him Single on Smash Records, (1963)-These Jersey girls delivered one of the archetypal girl-group songs when they released My Boyfriend’s Back in 1963. The former doo-wop group who had a hit in 1961 with Till, got tough when Patty Santiglia replaced Linda Jansen and they submitted to the Spector-lite songwriting-producing team of Feldman-Goldstein-Gottehrer. The Angels recorded My Boyfriend’s Back originally as a demo for the queens of tuff-girl pop The Shangri-La’s, but their managers decided to keep it for themselves and the rest is history. A friend of mine burned the Girl Groups Sounds Lost and Found (One Kiss can Lead to Another) box for me which compiles some fairly obscure (now) girl group songs, which is how I came across this lesser known gem from the same year.

    37. Hit That B*&!# (2:47)-The Monarchs, Heads Up 7” on Estrus Records (1995, recorded in 1993)-Over two and a half minutes of two-chord, minimal, caveman trash rock from a band that I would imagine not many people have ever heard of. I bought this single when I still actually thumbed through the new seven-inch records. I also used to have a record by another Estrus band called The Mortals, which was markedly worse. The Monarchs put out two other singles on Bulb Records, and an album on the German label Pin-up. All of which is sadly very hard to find.

    36. Greetings To The New Brunette (3:30)-Billy Bragg, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (1986)-I once had an album of his called Workers Playtime because when I was about 16, I was obsessed with The Smiths and heard that Johnny Marr had played guitar on Billy Bragg records, so I ended up with that weird blend of socialist dogma, Woody Guthrieisms and bad eighties reverbed guitar. It was clear I was not ready for Billy Bragg. Years ago I bought those records he did of Woody Guthrie material with Wilco, which are marvelous, but I had never really bothered to listen to his own work. This year though I finally gave it a shot, and though Talking With the Taxman About Poetry still has unfortunate sounding guitar (Mr. Marr plays nicely, but it sounds very dated), it has many strong songs, including this romantic song of young proletarian love.

    35. Girl of My Dreams (4:09)-Bram Tchaikovsky, Strange Man, Changed Man, (1979)-Peter Bramall left The Motors—a kind of low-rent ELO type band that wrote some good songs: Dancing The Night Away, Airport, That’s What John Said—because of a lack of creative influence, and under his unfortunately ambitious nom-de-plume, Bram Tchaikovsky recorded a single Sarah Smiles, that led him to a solo career. Girl of My Dreams is bar none the best thing he ever did, because it is one of the best power pop songs ever. Barrowing heavily from Pete Townsend for the intro and chorus and sounding as perfect as anything The Flamin’ Groovies or Big Star did, Girl of My Dreams is a power pop classic.

    34. Girl After Girl (2:04)-The Fevers, Gaan Daar Waar De Meisjes Zijn, (2002)-The Fevers are a Dutch band that sound like The Real Kids and vaguely like The Ramones—a kind of half garage, half power pop band. Girl After Girl is an Elvis song, which is a bit startling to figure out, because it sounds like pitch perfect power pop, tailor made for a trio. I figured this out by doing research for the bit I wrote on Alex Chilton who also does this song (quite differently) on Like Flies on Sherbert.

    33. Get Yourself Together (3:05)-Caesars, Get Yourself Together single on Scepter, (1967)-I know practically nothing about this band. I was quite taken with the Small Faces song of the same title, and while trying to download it I ended up with this unknown soul gem. (I could not find a picture of any kind of this band).

    32. Gentle On My Mind (3:00)-Glen Campbell, Gentle on My Mind, (1967)-Gentle On My Mind, along with By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Galveston, form a holy trio of Campbell songs, only in the case of Gentle On My Mind, it was written by John Hartford and not Jimmy Webb. Sounding not unlike Harry Nilsson’s version of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, Gentle On My Mind is the type of song that is most effecting while looking out the window of a moving car.

    31. G. F. S. (1:52)-Slant 6, Inzombia, (1995)-Wow, I had to go back to my formative years for this one. I hadn’t really listened to this record in a long while, but this year I kind of reacquainted myself with bands like Heavenly, Henry’s Dress and Slant 6. When I was twenty all my friends liked this band. I think I mostly thought they were pretty, or at least neat looking (though not on the cover of Inzombia so much) and they seemed to be kind of like empty-headed Dischord punk royalty, and along with The Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up, I decided I did not want to like it anymore, so I put the records in a box in a closet and forgot about them. Well, in the case of those Ian Svenonius bands I probably was correct but upon my new acquaintance, I found Slant 6 infectious in a lean and poppy garage sort of way, without sounding at all cute or twee.
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