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.
"Here Lies Darby Crash."-Suicide note written on a wall by Crash, unfinished.
"Hey, hey, rock and roll is here to stay, its better to burn out than to fade away."-Neil Young, "Out of the Blue"
"The Joshua Tree made U2 into international rock stars and established both a standard they would always have to live up to and an image they would forever try to live down."-Bill Flanagan
Punk rock was never built to last. Created by a bunch of angry, depressive, sincerely fucked up teenagers as a desperate reaction to the mainstream music they loathed, perhaps it was never meant to. Many punk rock bands were populated with violent, drunk, drug addled malcontents who needed to vent their emotions, whether they could play an instrument or not, and the "punk lifestyle" is a resolutely unhealthy, short-lived one. To live up to the suspect ideals they set for themselves (and I'm speaking here of the more self-destructive punks, like Sid Vicious and Darby Crash, who we'll get to in a moment), they were basically required to live fast and die young. For many of them became legends partially (if not mostly) because they took the advice Neil Young handed out to them and burned out rather than fading away.
I've spoken several times in this space about how relatively short-lived punk rock's Golden Age was and yet how vastly influential it managed to be. I think there are a few reasons for this. First off, and most obviously, punk rock stars were killing themselves or dying faster than new punk rock bands were forming virtually from the start; that's a good way to guarantee the end of a musical movement right there. But punk rock suicides seem to me to be less a cause than a symptom of why punk rock was never going to become a long-lasting musical movement: very few punk rockers wanted it to be.This again is for a few reasons. First off, when you're young (and many of the founders of punk bands were very young), the idea of legacy is a distant one, and it can be hard to think as far away as tomorrow, much less years or decades into the future. Few of the early punk bands formed with the intention to be powerhouses for decades to come (like, say U2, who we'll return to in a moment); most of them wanted to make music they would want to listen to and didn't put much more thought into the formation of their bands (that isn't to say they should have, that's just the way it was). Second of all, punk burned out because it effectively got what it wanted pretty quickly. One of the most important reasons for the creation of punk rock as a genre (if not the single most important one) was to create an alternative to music that was just not meeting the quality or style standards of a lot of late-"˜70s youth. By that definition, punk only needed to exist to make sure there was good music again. So while bands like Sex Pistols and The Germs were destroying themselves, post-punk outfits like Joy Division, DEVO, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and Wire were filling the void that punk rock had originally been created to plug (and if post-punk wasn't your cup of tea, you always had hardcore with bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen, and Husker Du or industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Coil to keep you sonically satisfied).
The 30 songs on the anthology span the length of the band's brief career and display a supremely confident punk band. "Forming," the opening track, was released as a single in July of 1977 and is considered the first true Los Angeles punk record. Featuring the band's recently added drummer Becky Barton (who went by Donna Rhia) and thus an all-female rhythm section, which earned them much respect in the early LA punk scene. "Forming" was the first song Crash wrote for the band, and is a perfect example of an early punk song by a band that's quickly finding its feet.
Soon after the recording of the song, Donna Rhia left as drummer and was replaced by Don Bolles. Like everything about the band, their moment as feminist punk icons was brief. "Lexicon Devil" is an infectious punk anthem from a band who is clearly comfortable in their own skin. "What We Do Is Secret" (which would eventually become the title of a biopic about Crash and The Germs in 2008), is 44 seconds of pure punk energy, with such velocity and power its hard not to get a little caught up in the rush.
"Shut Down (Annihilation Man)" is an almost 10 minute punk epic, brimming with rage and guttural anger, a tour de force performance both musically and in Crash's anguished vocals. The bands cover of Chuck Berry's "Round and Round" is a strange departure for them. While The Buzzcocks and The Slits were both punk bands that were more than willing to incorporate their influences and other musical stylings into their sound, The Germs seem otherwise content to ignore most of what came before in an effort to form their own sound. Nevertheless, "Round and Round" is a solid effort by the band, remaking Berry's classic so fully that it loses almost all association with the original.
The Germs lived briefly (until their reunion a few years back with Shane West, who played Darby Crash in What We Do Is Secret) and burned out almost before they had even started. In that way, they may be the quintessential punk rock band, violently antisocial, none too musically talented (in fact, at their first show they spent an hour setting up and only "played" for two minutes, most of which was spent by Darby spreading peanut butter on the faces of everyone in the band), and with a radically self destructive member who killed himself overdosing on heroin at the tender age of 22 (surviving his similarly self destructive punk counterpart Sid Vicious by a year, though rumors have it his suicide may have been influenced by Vicious'). Fittingly, news of Crash's suicide was overshadowed; the day after he died on December 7, 1980 John Lennon was assassinated. The mainstream world had overlooked Darby Crash for the last time, but punk rock, and all of the music that sprung from its fertile roots, will never forget his formative influence on the LA punk scene.
As I mentioned earlier, in opposition to most punk bands, U2 seems to have always intended to be a rock band until they all die or Bono is dragged, screaming from our collective musical consciousness (which seems unlikely to happen since the band has been making shitty music for at least a decade now and are still powerhouses virtually beyond compare). When the band set out to record The Joshua Tree, their fifth album and Collin's pick this week, they chose to use America as its central theme, allowing them to explore their love-hate relationship with the U.S. and to return again to the well of socially and politically conscious lyrics the band has been drinking from almost since its inception. I know that I tend to mock U2 whenever I bring them up, and I do tend to think that their politicization of rock and roll and self-satisfied, self-serious attitudes are ripe for mockery, but let's not mince words here: The Joshua Tree is a great rock and roll record, the beginning of a golden era for the band, and in my opinion, the record that took them from being "those really political Irish rock and rollers" to being the biggest rock and roll band in the world for a time. It's the album that took U2 from an "˜80s rock band to the "˜80s rock band.The opening track, "Where the Streets Have No Name" was written by Bono as a response to the (classically "˜80s) notion that it was possible to tell a person's religion and income based on the street on which they lived, a notion particularly forwarded in Belfast. The song began as a demo by The Edge, who feared that the album, nearing completion, was lacking "the ultimate U2 live song" and wanted to create a guitar song that would knock people over. Though I've never seen U2 live, I would have to say he succeeded in creating a "classic U2 song," the perfect amount of political rock song, rousing anthem, and emotional musical journey. The band had such trouble recording the complex track that at one point producer Brian Eno was prepared to stage an accident and erase the master tape of the track so the band could just start fresh. All of that hard work paid off, though. "Where the Streets Have No Name" is a phenomenal rock song, powerful, emotional, singable and forceful.
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" deals with another quintessential U2 theme: spirituality and a religious search for Truth. The song is a pretty standard rock ballad, which isn't to say it's obvious or unoriginal, just that it fits (and arguably transcends) that rock template. Another of the band's most enduring songs, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" captures the seeker in Bono's soul, a side to the singer that is far more appealing than the heavy-handed political activist he can often come across as in other music (and, obviously, in almost everything he ever says in real life). The man who admits he doesn't know the answers is always more appealing than one who thinks he knows everything, and to an extent that holds true when it comes to U2 songs.
Easily one of my favorite U2 songs (and also one of their most popular and well acclaimed, because of course I have excellent taste), "With or Without You" became the band's first #1 hit in America and Canada. The song is about the tension that Bono claims "defines" his life, the tension between his wanderlust and participation in a touring rock band and his attempts at married life and domesticity. Powerful, emotional, and romantic without ever losing its rock and roll feel to overly sentimental melodies, the song is one of the band's strongest efforts.
The Joshua Tree remains the band's best selling album, and is one of the greatest rock albums of the modern age. It is the album that made the band what they are today, and also the album they have spent most of their career since trying to distance themselves from, top, or recreate, depending on the era. The album was the band's creative height, a modern masterpiece of rock and roll that toned down the more pretentious and annoying aspects of the band's personality for long enough to turn in a great album (mostly) unburdened by their self-serious political opinions.
When Liz Phair released her debut album, and Ashley's pick this week, Exile in Guyville, the alternative rock scene was not exactly flooded with powerful women (some would argue that's still pretty much true today). Upon its release, Phair claimed that the album was a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, a claim I find somewhat dubious but also very interesting, which is arguably the point. With her clever (and cleverly profane) lyrics, her catchy melodies and bold assertions that her album was an attempt to take on The Stones, there was almost no way Phair wouldn't get noticed by the music press and, by extension, the public at large. This isn't to suggest that Liz Phair is calculating (or at least not anymore calculating than anyone in the music business looking for success), but that she is a little bit brilliant. Few debut albums are as widely acclaimed as Exile in Guyville, an album that is still discussed today as a landmark and one that Phair has spent most of her career trying to top.
The opening track, "6'1" (which, for those playing along at home, should according to Phair correspond to "Rocks Off" from Exile on Main Street) is a powerful kiss off to an ex, about the singer's feeling that she is taller after being empowered by regaining her freedom. "Dance of the Seven Veils" (an apparent response to "Casino Boogie") is an incredibly catchy and clever song that proves Phairs skills as both a songwriter and a lyricist.
"Fuck and Run" (corresponding to "Happy") is a delightful song about Phair's regrets after a one night stand and desire to find real, lasting love. Again, the song is catchy and clever in equal measures, but also carries a meaning that is completely relatable. "Flower" (corresponding to "Let it Loose") is recorded with just Phair and her guitar, yet uses distortion to sound somewhat like a wind instrument. The song first appeared on Phair's Girly Sound demo tapes and has a lo-fi sound that sets it apart from the more traditional pop-rock of the rest of the album.
Exile in Guyville is a very solid record, all the more impressive for being a debut album. Though Phair has struggled for her entire career to top the album (much like U2 has fought the legacy of The Joshua Tree), she has also been able to leverage its success to remain an ever present force in the nearly two decades since its release.
The Germs may never have intended to be around for very long (and they were right in those intentions), but U2 and Liz Phair both seemed to know early on that they wanted to be musical forces for quite some time, and each did the necessary leg work to create enduring albums that catapulted them into the stratosphere. The Germs were incredibly influential to the LA punk scene, which may make their influence more of an academic footnote at this point, yet they managed to craft a style that would transcend their small body of work. U2 managed to take their politically conscious rock up to the next level, creating memorable and enduring rock and roll about a decade after that seemed possible. And Liz Phair managed to get noticed in an industry that is always inclined to ignore, and managed to assure herself a place in musical history through smart lyrics, catchy melodies, and sheer force of will. Each of these bands, whether they intended to last or not, has formed an indelible mark on musical history. Oh, and they made good albums in the process too.Read more My Year in Lists here>
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We follow X to Los Angeles to pick up a Wild Gift, discover that Michael Jackson is Dangerous, and follow the Smashing Pumpkins into a Siamese Dream.