2007: X-Ray Spex - The Anthology: Let’s Submerge

If you ever want to attain a full understanding of the depths punk-rock has slipped into, listen to The Anthology: Let’s Submerge and then throw in an album by any number of modern mall-punks; the disparity, if it doesn’t cause you to openly weep, will at the very least hip you to something most of us Indie-genous folk have known for a long time: the wonderfully reckless abandon of late ’70s punk and early ’80s hardcore is gone, and it ain’t comin’ back.

Poly Styrene was X-Ray Spex’ lead singer, and she’s not important because she yelled “Up yours!” every few minutes at concerts or because she talks about “cliché” and “poseurs” in her lyrics – she’s a mini-legend because, like many of her peers, she didn’t give a fuck. The image pressures and marketing infrastructures that have turned punk into a Beach Party companion simply weren’t functioning at full-bore yet, at least in the underground. And so a string of rebels maintained a ‘scene’ – both in America and in the UK, where the Spex are from – so insular that even the most precocious music-industry leeches didn’t know how to go about sucking the life out of it.

Ironically, the albums recorded during this period, threadbare as they were, have become artifacts even noble lo-fi-ers can’t seem to duplicate. While modern – or, should I say, post-modern – bands have been at least marginally successful in recreating the pastoral folk of the early ’70s or the psych freak-outs of the late ’60s (not to mention that swing resurgence most of us have blocked from our memories), the emergence of a truly Punk retread, in the classic sense of the word, has yet to occur. On the surface, this discrepancy may appear to be disappointing – will the young kids ever truly know punk? – but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. Think about it: when an industry that fills its coffers by recycling the Same Old Shit can’t come up with an Nu version (or at least one anyone cares about), it’s truly a reason to celebrate.

And we do, with four-disc box sets, CBGB comps, still-running mags that can’t seem to Get Over the late ’70s (ever read Jack Rabid’s Big Takeover?), and, last but not least, disgustingly thorough anthologies that try to turn one-trick ponies like X-Ray Spex into a cerebral band through revisionist history and loads of live tracks, John Peel Sessions, demos, and alternate versions. “Whoopee,” you might sarcastically say. After all, Let’s Submerge is on a major label that wouldn’t have deigned to touch X-Ray Spex with a ten-foot A&R pole back in the day. But we’re talking about history here, so don’t sweat the semantics; just be glad these goodies aren’t long lost on old 78s like much of the folk/blues/country of the early 1900s. What’s more, none of the recordings offend. While there are several track repeats – many songs see four different versions – many of them are different enough to warrant inclusion, especially the revealing live takes.

Did I mention Styrene doesn’t give a fuck? As sax player Lora Logic’s horn bleats on unnecessarily – yet so necessarily – in the background and the guitars and bass players barely keep up, Styrene rants so hard and loud your ears will feel like they’ve been sliced, diced, and payin’ the price like Cool J’s rivals on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” To be frank, I can barely stand listening to her for extended periods of time, and this anthology – unlike, say, their only full-length, Germ Free Adolescents – isn’t blessed with brevity. (Just thank your lucky stars the 1995 reunion album Conscious Consumer isn’t included, as it would undoubtedly water down the content of this scrappy, ankle-biting affair.) Styrene’s so emphatic, in fact, that it’s no surprise she joined the Hare Krishnas soon after X-Ray Spex disbanded; after all that purging – today’s modern bulimic could learn a lot from Styrene’s puke-free method – she was probably ready to mellow out for a spell.

Best of all, she didn’t go on to form a shitty solo band. It’s better to burn out fast than to fade away where punk is concerned, and Styrene hasn’t bored us with endless attempts to replicate her golden years, save for the aforementioned reunion. This secures her legend more than her so-punk-they’re-almost-not antics – dayglo clothes, braces – and ensures that true appreciators of punk, music’s flunky, will echo her influence, whether directly or indirectly, for years to come.

1996: Crescent - Now

Few of the lo-fi, noise-rock freak-outs of the ‘90s can claim to leave behind the amount of slow-motion wreckage Now does. One can only hope that every Crescent gig during this stage (meaning before they went sampling, electronic dub primitive) was played in a basement illuminated by a grand total of about two strings of Christmas lights and at such volume as to make one nauseous even if the music plodded by at twenty beats a minute. No other environment would really be acceptable. The liners say Now was recorded from September 9th to September 10th, 1994 and I hope that means it was recorded in one night rather than two days. It’s late night music if it ever existed.

Crescent is basically Matt Jones (guitarist and head mumbler/screamer) and threatening bass grooves. With the core decided on, the twain culled various other musicians from the mid-‘90s Bristol area housing the likes of Flying Saucer Attack, Movietone, and Amp. There were singles (Oh, were there singles!) on Planet Punk but Now was the full-length introduction to the band. The album reuses “Sun” from the single/EP of the same name as its opener (with good reason) but everything else is newly minted.

“Sun” uses that rave-up/lull formula so popular during the time (which I’ve never ever tired of, personally). Esophagus-ruining screaming is juxtaposed with shimmery, sideways guitars. “Superconstellation” is perhaps the album’s best groove situated on top of what seems to be a drone made out of French movie samples. “Intermission” is Now’s “5 - 4 = Unity” being instrumental and sort of jazzy albeit punctuated by the sort of noisy spikes that make your mom ask what’s wrong with the car. However, the album’s transcendental section is smack in the center: “Song,” “Exit,” and “New Sun.” “Song” gradually gets wilder and wilder with more frequent screaming by Jones (but whatever the stronger version of screaming is) and organ work like a pissed-off Messiaen. “Exit” destroys. It just destroys. Chinese walls of feedback and distortion, skronking sax, drumming that seems like it’s almost entirely cymbals, and Jones ruining yet another mic. “New Sun” is its polar opposite: just an acoustic guitar and the lone occurrence of intelligible vocals from Jones. The album continues with three more solid noise-rockers, but the album is essentially over after “Exit” rips the entire album into untold thousands of pieces.

Jones’ snarl and that central bass give any second on Now, even the moments when the band obviously built breaks for themselves into the songs, an ominous, “Oh God here it comes” dread. A couple sequencing issues and being a bit overlong even at 40 minutes are the only things holding it back from being one of lo-fi’s crowning achievements. But even those achievements don’t have “Exit.”

1971: Various Artists: Elektra - A Child’s Garden Of Grass

“Many people have smoked marijuana, many have seen marijuana, but very few people have ever heard marijuana.”

Everyone knows that Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, a natural conclusion to their early seventies comedy records, is the single greatest and funniest pot movie ever made (narrowly beating out Half Baked), but you’re either a fool or ill informed if you think that burnout duo produced the best ever pot album. A Child’s Garden Of Grass, a companion to the Jack S. Margolis’ 1969 book of the same name, easily takes that dubious honour. Every eccentric quirk and isolated experience you have ever known about the indisputable best recreational drug in recorded history is picked at here, all produced under the format of an educational fifties school slide show.

Utilizing all the studio tricks and sound effects the early seventies had to offer, the authentic instructional video outline is injected with surreal qualities, paced by ancient synths providing slide cues. “Have you ever been caught watching the {Flying Nun? Experienced a heightened awareness of your anus and genitals? Had three thoughts at once in a room with four story high ceilings while listening to Myron Florin music? Ever attended a meditation class where raucous Yogi mantras trail inconspicuously into a vicious “SEIG HEIL!?”} It’s all acted out vividly in quadraphonic sound.

The preparatory guidance given, though it may seem obvious to veteran smokers, is priceless to people just learning about the non-Satanic qualities of reefer. Tips on the methods of acquiring pot as well as a brief rundown of its glorious history are bound to start newbees off on the right foot. “A basic truth about being stoned is that everything –even television– is good… you must learn to be careful of this.” Good advice to young reviewers out there. Don’t make the same mistakes your parents did.

Which is most remarkable, this LP has inarguably aged with amazing grace, and is still every bit as accurate and punchy as when it miraculously found release on Elektra in 1971. The cultural relevance is evident by samples that still turn up on contemporary hip-hop and electronic albums, notably the Madvillain debut, DJ Vadim’s USSR: The Art Of Listening, and Mark Farina’s “Betcha Do” from Air Farina. And yet, despite the solid testimony, this record has yet to have a decent re-release.

1968: The Soft Machine - Self-Titled; Volume 2

Though you never see their name on any “as seen on TV” best of the ‘60s compilations, the legacy of The Soft Machine finds themselves remembered as one of the most talented and influential collectives ever to flourish out of the English countryside. Their story began in Canterbury when drummer Robert Wyatt, bassist Kevin Ayers, guitarist Daevid Allen, and idea man Mike Ratledge on keyboards formed the original line-up in 1966. It was this quartet that recorded the first Soft Machine single, while earning themselves a lot of buzz in the UK underground, coming out of the same scene that produced Gong (of which Allen was also a member) and Caravan, among others. They were frequent guests at the UFO Club and even toured Holland, Germany, and the French Riviera. However, upon returning from France, Australian stowaway Allen ran into a little visa trouble, and the group was forced by default to go on as a trio. Andy Summers, who would later become the guitarist for The Police, joined the band for a brief period, but it was as a trio that Soft Machine toured America opening for Jimi Hendrix, and recorded their debut album in New York in 1968.

Without a lead guitar, their eponymous first outing (fondly remembered as Volume 1) sought to meld psychedelia and jazz-rock through Wyatt’s imaginative, liberally panned drumming, Ayers’ jazz & pop bass grooves, and Ratledge’s horror movie Doors organ. With those pieces in motion, they achieved a wondrous time capsule of experimental pop under the constant surreal lyricism of Wyatt and Ayers. Like Syd Barrett was to Pink Floyd, Ayers brought an infatuation with unhinged, uncouth pop to the group aesthetic, which would make Vol. 1 the most conventional SM album in terms of structure. Ayers wasn’t long for this band, though. He left on good terms after the US tour in order to focus on his solo career, which would find modest success over a few decades and a dozen odd releases, many of which returned to the themes first explored on Vol. 1. There’s no rest for the wicked, as they say and the bass-hole was quickly filled by one Hugh Hopper just in time to record their second album in 1969. Hopper had previously played with Wyatt in the Daevid Allen Trio, so it was an easy fit that reflected in the work they produced together.

Without Ayers in the picture, the properly titled Volume 2 would see Wyatt helm the ship deeper into the jazz-fusion they’d toyed with before but hadn’t fully embraced, as well as Dadaism in general. Lyrics left the rational and became more freeform (often, if not always, refusing to rhyme), absurdist humor (the British alphabet in 12 seconds?), and self-reflexive (which included an ode to Hendrix for introducing them to their audience on that first US tour) while the song structure went all avant-punk. Here, a minute of sunshine pop chords bunts a non sequitur into twenty seconds of an organ being tortured without pause (except to flip sides, natch) as if that was always the thing to do, with the average track length running around an anti-radio two minutes. Hopper’s bass morphs from fuzz bomb to mellow scat at the drop of a hat, while Wyatt’s drumming only improved in intensity. This album would mark a rough thematic template that SM would take to its extremes in the years to come.

Both of these first two albums are equally superb in execution, though their aims differed. There are no bonus tracks on either of these Runt reissues, so my views are untainted by extraneous material, but the packaging, for all intents and purposes, is presented as accurately to the original pressings as possible in a jewel case, so it’s an admirable theme. All you get here are two bottles of fine wine. In later years, Soft Machine would go through many changes and release some nine albums in ten years, while Robert Wyatt is still releasing very well received material under his own name to this day. Daevid Allen has had an amazing, collaborative career that’s survived the test of time (reforming Gong as late as 2003 with members of Acid Mothers Temple), while Hugh Hopper has kept busy with all kinds of solo and group projects. You can’t point to any one person and say “that’s Soft Machine” and have much of a case to back it up. The magnitude of raw talent that blessed this William Burroughs named collaboration is written all over history, the fluid motion that propels the windmills of your mind. Open wide and let the sunshine in.

1989: Sebadoh - The Freed Man – Deluxe Edition

It has been said that the conceptual birth of Sebadoh happened when Lou Barlow recorded “Poledo” for Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me. Revisiting Sebadoh’s initial recordings in the newly compiled and reissued, The Freed Man, affirms that this statement is only half true. “Poledo” does share a kinship with the band’s early work: simple ukulele chords, stark vocals, tape effects, field recordings. Still the due fame that Barlow received as Dinosaur Jr.’s bassist and co-songwriter, overshadowed the equally apt contributions of his recording mate, Eric Gaffney. With a four-track recorder, an acoustic guitar, a slew of home-made tapes, and the urge to articulate ideas that their memberships in hardcore and punk bands couldn’t, Eric and Lou defined the genre that we’ve come to know as “Lo-Fi”.

The Freed Man – Deluxe Edition is a massive endeavor assembling 52 “recordings” from the original Freed Man tapes, rerecorded material from The Freed Weed LP, unreleased material, and early single tracks. The assertion therefore, that the album can best be appreciated for its overall aesthetic rather than for its dissection into individual songs may seem counterintuitive. Yet every sound on the record belongs: every echo, pop, inebriated diatribe, confessional verse, and guitar strum. Gaffney’s “Julianne” for example is a soaring, partially-realized pop song that ends with a pair of boys scheming for a “Woodstock of hardcore bands”. “K-Sensa My” is sweet and haunting and imbedded behind a collection of indecipherable samples. The songs toggle from atonal and mocking (“Land of the Lords”), to melancholy self-deprecation (“Punch in the Nose”) to full-fledged psychedelia (“Level Anything”). But for all of their variety, each song finds a common context with its loose craft and playful textures.

Written and, in many cases, recorded as separate entities, Barlow and Gaffney’s compositions illuminate the uniqueness of each man’s approach to music. Gaffney, a daring and creative force, crafts experiments that often warp melodies into trance-induced slices of pop. His most successful efforts on The Freed Man hint at a heightened level of consciousness, while other songs fall apart with overambitious arrangement. Barlow’s contributions are consistent if not bare in contrast, with their loyalty to traditional pop music, and concentration on lyric writing. There’s an overwhelming sense of purging in his songs, perhaps due in some part to his concurrent creative rifts with J. Mascis. His triumphant “Hung Up,” recorded in 1989 and placed near the conclusion of the album, reaches a catharsis: “Let this be the last I say/Let the anger fade/No one wants to hear it.” – A spiritual Christening of sorts for Sebadoh.

It would be apt to label this collection both a sketchbook and a document. All of the songs are short and often conclude their fragile melodies as quickly as they’re created. They present as a slate of fertile, sonic ideas that given another year, would flourish. Together Eric and Lou would record the magnificent Sebadoh III. Having the benefit of history we can view The Freed Man as a transitional time for Barlow and Gaffney. They’d both moved from the sheer energy of hardcore and punk into a more articulate mode of creation. So for its successes and failures, The Freed Man is a good album that gives us a window to the fledgling stages of one the 1990s better bands.

2007: Michael Yonkers - Grimwood

“Welcome to the everchanging landscape of early 21st century musical excavation,” began Karl Ikola’s liner notes to Michael Yonkers Band’s Microminiature Love. The album cemented the relationship between Sub Pop and psychedelic archivists DeStijl, demonstrating the former’s strength in finding and reissuing little-known gems from the psychedelic explosion. DeStijl’s Clint Simonson searches cut-out bins and Goodwills around the country for private presses, regional eccentricities and ignored basement experimenters. Often times, he finds, and conversely exposes, inventive psychedelic albums, undermining the exorbitant collector prices.

With Yonkers’ first effort, Simonson unveiled a hidden classic suppressed by major label follies and Yonkers’ subsequent music industry-spawned disillusionment. The Yonkers Band was like a coat of black paint over paisley rhythms with raw pre-punk psych-blues. By any means, the album would have never climbed American charts in the ‘60s but Yonkers believed in progression and fell for Sire’s promises. The label rejected the masters to Microminiature Love and Yonkers became another major label casualty. Instead of retreating or killing his producer a la Charles Manson, he grew a beard over his John Lennon mug, locked himself in the studio and produced a dark, dreary folk album with mystical overtones. Under the influence of Leonard Cohen, Yonkers lowered his voice, stripped down his sound and constructed Grimwood, a very personal album.

Yonkers risks coming off like a prima-donna as he bears his fears to the listener but his earnestness and stern delivery ensures the message’s integrity reaches the listener uncompromised. His masterful basement production sense assures each word’s perfect instrumental accentuation. He either fingerpicks or strums with due respect to the lyrics, adding echoing flute, droning synth and creeping harmonica to further the dark psych feel. “Lonely Fog” lists off complaints like “I will never shine again/’til I feel the daytime sky” with a chorus of “I am lonely, fog/Very lonely.” Yonkers processes his vocals to sound like a transmission from a lonely pirate radio operator and inserts a buzzing electric sound, further blackening his sparse instrumentation. His homemade guitar effect boxes, such as the wah-wah on the “Tripping through the Rose Garden,” lend his electric guitar an otherworldly voice. Though darkness engulfs the album, it contains a few bright points. Yonkers shares a joke with studio musicians “The Day is Through” and the chuckling begins the dark tale. On “And Give It to You,” he relays what actions he would take for his lover.

“And Give It To You” also reveals Yonkers weakness, as he tosses off the occasional dud of a couplet. The corniness of the tune’s basis lends itself to parody but Yonkers only fans the flames with lines like “I’d ask my guardian angel/If it would be okay/To rent a room in heaven/If only for the day.” However, a loose barroom chorus of “And give it to you” saves the song from mediocrity. On “The Day is Through,” Yonkers rattles off a few weak couplets like “I will stay here for the hour/I will pick the only flower” but most of the time poetry is crisp and concise. Even when presenting weak couplets like “There is an answer/It lies in the dance,” Yonkers’ conviction allows the listener to oversee his lyrical shortcomings much of the time.

Michael Yonkers still creates chunks of primal psychedelica and his vast back catalog still warrants reissuing. He proved ahead of his time, as both reissued albums sold poorly upon initial release. An artist with no outlet, Yonkers is pictured throwing copies of Grimwood in the air on the back of Microminature Love feasibly out of frustration with its sales. With the reissue of Grimwood, Yonkers may just find the audience he panned for almost 40 years ago.

There's a lot of good music out there, and it's not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that's not being pushed by a PR firm.