My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"The big watershed was The Clash album ["¦] Although The Damned and the [Sex] Pistols were great, they were only exciting musically; lyrically, I couldn't make a lot out of it ["¦] to realize that [The Clash] were actually singing about their own lives in West London was like a bolt out of the blue."-Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers
"See microscopic, see world view, see the future leaking through, see the person who once was you."-Coil, "Windowpane"
Thousands of words have been spent in this space discussing punk rock, not to mention the millions that have been published elsewhere on the subject. We've talked about its genesis, from The Stooges to The Ramones. We've talked about its existence as a reaction to the mainstream bands of the time (especially Boston). Most of all, we've talked about the after-effects of punk, from the New Wave ushered in by Joy Division and New Order to the hardcore exemplified by bands like Husker Du and a few other we'll get to in a couple of weeks, to the slow development from post-punk into modern conceptions of alternative rock, starting with bands like REM and The Smiths. But until this week, we haven't touched on one of the most important punk bands (honestly, just bands would still be accurate) of all time. Until today, we haven't talked about The Clash.
The Clash debuted alongside The Sex Pistols at the dawn of punk rock, but the reason they remain so relevant is not only that they came in on the ground floor, but that they quickly evolved, continuing punk traditions while also bringing in other outside influences to change up the expected punk sound. By doing so, The Clash didn't leave punk rock behind; rather, they solidified the genre as one worthy of the same amount of respect doled out to other forms of music. While just a few years after the late-70's heyday of punk rock many fans would be complaining about and rebelling against what they saw as the tightly drawn rules of the genre, The Clash showed years before other bands seemed to catch on that punk rock shouldn't and needn't be as caged in as many other punk bands seemed to imply; rather, just doing whatever you wanted and creating memorable music outside of the mainstream could be seen as "punk rock" too. I've talked before about bands being "punk rock" without sounding like what we usually call punk rock (especially in my discussion of The Jesus and Mary Chain), but it's possible that The Clash invented the idea. No one was ever going to claim The Clash weren't punk rock, which freed the band to be whatever they wanted. They may not always sound like punk rockers, but that may be the single most punk rock thing about the band.
The Clash's third album, and Collin's pick this week, is the undisputed masterpiece London Calling, released in December of 1979 in the UK and the next month, at the dawn of 1980 in the US. After recording their second album Give "˜Em Enough Rope, in the US, the band separated from their manager Bernard Rhodes. This meant that the band had to find a new recording space, and after serttling at Vanilla Studios (which was located at the back of a garage) for a practice space, they quickly wrote and recorded demos, with Mick Jones composing and arranging music and Joe Strummer providing the lyrics.
In August of 1979, the band entered Wessex Studios to begin official recording of London Calling. The band asked Guy Stevens to produce the album, much to the dismay of CBS Records. Stevens had drug and alcohol problems and was known for his "unconventional" techniques. During recording he would swing ladders and throw chairs around the band to keep the tension high. The entire album was recorded in a few weeks, with many of the songs recorded in one or two takes.
The title track was partially influenced by the March 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, as well as the problems of rising unemployment, racial conflict, and drug use in Britain. "Rudie Can't Fail," the album's fifth track, features a horn section and mixes the band's punk roots with elements of pop, soul, ska, and reggae and tells of a hard-partying young man who is criticized for not acting more responsibly.
"Spanish Bombs" is, unsurprisingly, a song about the Spanish Civil War. What stands out about it is the fact that the band was actually endeavoring to deal with some political ideas within their music, to communicate ideas to their fans. This was not uncommon for bands like Devo and Gang of Four, yet for a British punk band at the time, it was at least a little bit outside the norm. "Lost in the Supermarket" is a slower song, and one of my favorite tracks on the album. The lyrics focus on someones struggling with an increasingly commercialized world and consumerism gone mad.
"The Guns of Brixton" has a strong reggae influence and is one of only two tracks written solely by Paul Simonon to be released on a Clash album. Contrary to popular belief, the song pre-dates the race riots in Brixton (which took place throughout the early '80s) but the lyrics depict the feelings of discontent that were building up due to the recession. "Train in Vain" (which on US releases is usually known as "Train in Vain (Stand By Me)") got it's title to avoid confusion with Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." The song was written in one night and recorded the next day, near the end of the album's recording. The song is sometimes referred to as a hidden track, as it was not included on the original sleeve, yet this only happened because the sleeve was printed before the track was added to the master tape. "Train in Vain" is a love song with country influences, a departure from much of what the band had done to this point, even on this departure of an album.
The Clash was one of the foremost bands in the development of punk rock, but quickly evolved into something more complex, influencing the development of ska, the prevalence of reggae, and the increase of political lyrics and ideas in popular music. London Calling is nothing short of a masterpiece, an album of big ideas, consistent vision, and an eye towards the future. Bono has said of The Clash that they are, "the greatest rock band. They wrote the rule book for U2." [Author's Note: It should be said that while Bono may claim The Clash as an influence, they should not be blamed for Bono's being a giant tool. That one's on him.] Other bands, including LCD Soundsystem, The Wallflowers, The Hives, The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Arctic Monkeys, and even M.I.A. consider The Clash to be a huge influence on their work. A landmark punk band from day one, The Clash became something more as they showed what punk could be and paved the way for numerous musical innovations to come.
Following on the heels of Throbbing Gristle, the Godfathers of industrial music, Coil was an English industrial experimental group formed in 1982 by John Balance (occasionally credited as "Jhonn Balance") and his partner Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson. Balance chose the name Coil because he said the shape was omnipresent in nature. The band's first album, and one of Tab's picks this week, Scatology was released in 1984. The album opens with "Ubu Noir," a decidedly experimental track that plays around with a single musical beat on a loop, feeding in found and industrial sounds around that center. "Tenderness of Wolves" opens with the sound of a child crying and develops an ominous feeling around that background noise.
"The Sewage Worker's Birthday Party" continues this ominous feeling, this time backed by the sounds of running water (let's hope) and industrial noises. The album's closing track, "Cathedral in Flames" is more melodic, but no less dark, maintaining the omnipresent hammering drum and adding vocals into the mix.
The group's third album, Love's Secret Domain is a much more palatable record, at least to my mind, a departure from the brooding melodies and heavy synthesizers of the group's previous work and focusing more on "acid house sampling," a repetitive, trance-like style that uses spoken word more readily than lyrics. The album's opening track "Disco Hospital" provides a perfect example of the acid house style the band experimented with on this release. The album was also intended to be more melodic than its predecessors, with even darker songs like "Windowpane" picking up a stronger beat that creates a dance-y thorough-line for the experimental piece. The title of the song refers to sheets of LSD (which the album's title is also a reference to), and the lyrics describe an acid trip.
"The Snow" has an electronic dance beat opening that is soon backed by heavy breathing and chanting. "Chaostrophy" is a sample-heavy track that ends in a hauntingly beautiful outro that would feel at home in a Kurosawa movie. Coil is often credited as a template of sorts for the development of post-industrial music in the 1990's, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails calling the band one of his greatest influences and even starting a band (with Mariqueen Maandig and Atticus Ross) called How To Destroy Angels, the name taken from Coil's first single. Coil took what Throbbing Gristle had started and moved it forward for a whole new audience, giving industrial music a dance-y update for a new decade and influencing the movement of the genre into the new millennium.
While we're talking about the 1990's (another champion segue, I think), we can take a look at Depeche Mode, an electronic music outfit that formed in Basildon, Essex, England in 1980. In mid-1989, the band began recording in Milan with producer Francois Kevorkian, and in March of 1990, released their seventh studio album, and Ashley's pick this week, Violator. One of the most well known tracks off the album, "Personal Jesus" became a huge success for the band, spawning multiple covers (the most well known by Marilyn Manson and Johnny Cash). As songwriter Martin Gore describes it, "It's a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care...and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody's heart is like a God in some way, and that's not a very balanced view of someone is it?" The song is great by any measure; catchy, intelligent, insightful and memorable, it's no wonder "Personal Jesus" has endured.
"Waiting For The Night" begins with a slow, repetitive beat before the lyrics enter in, deepening the eerie feeling of the song. If any track on the album is more well known and lauded than "Personal Jesus," it's "Enjoy The Silence," which is often considered the band's signature song. Originally written as a slow tempo ballad, the song was eventually recorded over an upbeat tempo by Alan Wilder, who believed (correctly) that speeding the song up would make it a hit.
Depeche Mode has become one of the most prominent electronic bands of all time and continues to be successful today, three decades after their formation. Many bands, including Pet Shop Boys, The Killers, Deftones, Shakira, Coldplay, and (unfortunately), Linkin Park cite the band as a major influence. They helped to usher in the prominence of electronic music in the ensuing decades, and with Violator delivered several songs that have been burned into the public consciousness ever since.
Each of these three bands holds an important place in the development of their respective genre. The Clash was there at the birth of punk and helped it to move forward. Coil ushered industrial music out of its infancy and into the more commercially popular form that it became in the 1990's. And Depeche Mode made their mark on electronic music and helped to shape what came afterwards. Each formed an important part of the development of modern music, influencing all that came afterwards, and their effect on their genres, and on music in general, can still be felt today.
Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
Kraftwerk lives in a Computer World, Sham 69 wants them to Tell Us The Truth, and My Bloody Valentine remains Loveless.
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