By Peter Margasak
October 31, 2003
No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion
Though punk as a concept has had a profound impact on popular music, most
of its original practitioners have been consigned to the footnotes of rock
history. While a handful of bands from both sides of the pond managed to
parlay their notoriety into careers -- the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads,
the Clash, and X, to name a few -- most disappeared fairly quickly. That's
not necessarily bad: the MO of the music was burn out, not fade away.
Unfortunately, though, it means that a great deal of what constituted punk
in the first place has gone up in smoke too.
The archival label Rhino Records has expended considerable effort to
capture the diversity and intensity of old-school punk, making a big push
in 1993 with its nine-volume "D.I.Y." series, organized by scene, and its
two-disc hardcore series, "Faster & Louder." The label's latest effort, the
new four-CD box set No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion, seems more of an
attempt at a manageable overview, with contributions from nearly all the
best-known British and American punk bands (the Sex Pistols refused to
license any of their songs for the project).
There aren't a lot of duds among the 100 selections -- though I could've
done without the entries by chameleonic British poseurs 999 and kitschy
proto-new wavers the Rezillos. And it's hard to believe somebody thought
the Boomtown Rats, even in their early punk mode, really warranted two
slots. There's a decent, if predictable, history lesson by Billboard
columnist Chris Morris; Ira Robbins and Dave Schulps, cofounders of the
influential punk and new-wave mag Trouser Press, pithily annotate the
songs. There are a few treats for the folks who think they've heard it all,
including relatively obscure single versions of songs by Devo
("Mongoloid"), the Pretenders ("The Wait"), and X ("Adult Books") and
left-field entries from the likes of the tribal all-girl band the Slits,
militant postpunks the Pop Group (often overshadowed by contemporaries like
the Gang of Four), and San Francisco punks the Avengers, who never managed
to put out an album in their brief lifetime.
Sometimes sets like No Thanks! are most useful as argument starters,
opening up discussion of what the victors' history leaves out. I might ask,
for instance, why the chugging, indelibly catchy rocker "Action Time
Vision" is the lone inclusion here from Alternative TV, the arty punk band
started by Mark Perry, publisher of the early English punk zine Sniffin'
Glue. As it happens, Alternative TV is one of three 70s punk acts
performing in Chicago in the next couple weeks. The other two -- the French
band Metal Urbain and New York no-wave icon James Chance -- aren't included
on the Rhino box, but they've been at least as influential as almost any of
the bands that are.
ATV, whose only permanent member is Perry, has flickered in and out of
existence since forming in 1977. Perry's cofounder, guitarist Alex
Fergusson, went on to start the industrial band Psychic TV with Genesis
P-Orridge a few years later. In its earliest incarnation the group
delivered the classic punk sound heard on "Action Time Vision" -- distorted
guitars, an anthemic, sing-along chorus -- but before long the band was
punk in spirit more than sound. Perry moved on through a rambling amalgam
of pop, reggae, and plodding art rock that he didn't always have the chops
to carry off. ATV's last studio album, Revolution, came out in 2001, but
its most recent releases are live discs, one a reissue of Live 1978 and one
recorded at CBGB during Spin's "25 Years of Punk" party in 2001. The band
plays here Saturday at the Bottom Lounge.
Metal Urbain, who play the Bottom Lounge on November 13, made their first
run between 1976 and 1978, during which time they released just three
singles -- including "Paris maquis/Cle de contact," the first record on
England's Rough Trade label. After the group's demise, several collections
-- filled out by demos and a few songs recorded during a brief re-formation
in 1979 -- came out in France. In January Acute Records will issue the
comprehensive Anarchy in Paris!, the group's first U.S. release.
The group never made a bigger splash for several reasons. For one, they
sang exclusively in French. For another, they used drum machines and
synthesizers in lieu of drums and bass, and while that merely made some of
the straighter material sound tinny, some cuts are decidedly experimental.
According to keyboardist Eric Debris the group tried to give its music an
"anti-naturalist" feel: "That meant a music made of reprocessed sounds,
nothing natural," he says in the liner notes for Anarchy in Paris! "Like
[Brian] Eno did in Roxy [Music], voices went through a synthesizer, guitars
through filters etc. We had a complete aesthetic approach." The group's
sound provided a loose template for Steve Albini's first band, Big Black;
the discordant analog synthesizer sounds and the paranoia-inducing beats
also presaged industrial dance music. The group recently re-formed again
and reportedly will focus on old material for the upcoming tour.
Like Mark Perry, Milwaukee native James Chance (ne Siegfried) has never
really gone away, but he's also never topped his powerful early work on
Buy, his 1978 album with the Contortions. Chance and his band borrowed the
tight funk of James Brown and then savaged it with dissonance and
aggression. He sang in an urgent, desperate sort of chant, and on saxophone
he exaggerated the squealing sharpness of the R & B barwalking tradition.
In subsequent decades he's traded manic intensity for wan lounge jazz, but
there's hope yet: for his Double Door show on November 14, he'll be backed
by Chicago's Watchers, unabashed Contortions fans who have a remarkably
sure grip on the verities of postpunk funk. The group has been rehearsing
the set -- which will include material from Buy, 1979's Off White, and the
seminal No New York anthology -- since September. "We're going to try to
push it back to the actual songs instead of something jammy, taking it back
to the energy of the early 80s," says Watchers front man Michael Guarrine.
"But it's his show."
# The Reputation, the local pop band fronted by ex-Sarge front woman
Elizabeth Elmore, has signed with Lookout, the Berkeley-based label that's
home to Ted Leo/Pharmacists and the Oranges Band. The Chicago quartet
released its debut last year on the Louisville-based indie Initial Records
and will be recording the follow-up this fall.
# Drummer Graeme Gibson, guitarist Jonathan van Herik, and bassist Gabe
McDonough have quit local buzz band Boas; they may or may not play on the
band's second album, which was slated to be made in January with producer
John Parish for Overcoat Recordings. "Regardless of how much we enjoyed
playing in the band, we weren't writing songs together well," says
McDonough. "It took much too long and it was mentally and emotionally
straining for all of us."
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