Friday, April 18, 2014

Punk, Ubu Style

Friday again, more music - and I have to follow up on last week. Actually - go backwards from last week - from Pere Ubu, to Rocket From the Tombs, mostly. A couple weeks ago, I went to see a kid I know who plays in a band - high school kids, they're a punk band, hammering away at their stuff, pretty good at what they do - though it sometimes gets very disconcerting watching them. Teenagers playing a 40 year old type of music, their parents pogoing and moshing along.... it is all very strange, given the claims of punk, then and now, to rebellion - to being a rejection of the past. All the talk back then about rejecting the worn out mainstream rock and roll - nonsense in the 70s, of course, but extremely bizarre now. It's another illustration of my theory that rock stopped in the mid-80s (say) - this bunch of kids (the first couple bands we saw) are playing their parents' music - without any anxiety about it at all. Which is fine with me - though I wish if they were going to play oldies, they'd play better oldies. I kept wishing they'd play Sonic Reducer.

Because before punk even existed, David Thomas and company pretty much summed it up and moved along, a lot of it in two songs: Sonic Reducer, Final Solution. They are very good - and very smart, the way they play their teenaged angst both for real and for a joke, and as something that's already old hat in 1974. Since it was old hat in 1974. They're so smart - their irony, their mix of wild hyperbole and solipsism (which is pretty close to the adolescent condition: hyperbole and solipsism), their distance and knowingness, playing alongside the sense that, at some level, he really means it - or meant it, when he was younger. Something like that. The way those songs embrace the fact that there is nothing new in their teenaged blustering, that it has always been thus for the Youth of Today, and that it has been pretty much exactly thus since rock and roll became the sound of Youth of Today... while at the same time, getting across the point that the reason teenagers keep repeating the same kinds of things is that this is what it feels like to be a teenager - ready to explode and being stomped down at the same time - "they all just pass me by, but I'm not just anyone..." And that became something like the point of an awful lot of punk rock, ever since - and it's all there, more self-aware than it would be again, in 1974. That self-awareness helps, too - it doesn't seem ridiculous to me for 60 year olds to play those songs - they were never a direct expression of teenaged angst - they were always about it, and always in on the joke, and written in a way you could be in on the joke when you are 50, partly because they make you remember just what it felt like to be 15. Always balanced between the real thing and making fun of it - balance of those classic rock riffs and the sense of their ridiculousness, which plays out in the straighahead parts of the songs and the ironic parts and the weird parts. They are nostalgic and mocking, modern and old; they rock out and deconstruct rock. They are fascinating.

It's interesting that Pere Ubu, especially, came up with some songs that seem a bit more direct in their angst. Heart of Darkness and My Dark Ages especially - they seem like a more adult kind of angst, with their literary and film references, their sense of restlessness and solitude, and a kind of loneliness that doesn't feel like it is going to go away any time soon. And musically, they are moving past the standard rock and roll templates - with their drones and minimalism and Ravenstine taking a bigger part. I recognized myself in those songs, far more than the others (especially when I first started listening to them) - I was never a particularly angtsy teenager in the usual sense, but I was a lonely and over analytical young adult. And shoot - there are days, you get in a certain mood, and everything I see seems so deformed - none of the faces fit a human form... you get that....

So - I wish those kids would cover RFTT. Pere Ubu if they want, but hey - they're just a punk band. Rocket is fine. Sonic Reducer is a better punk song than anything since, and not really done to death - it's in there with a couple others early punk songs - Final Solution, Suspect Device - that just never get old.

Though on the subject of RFTT and angst - the Peter Laughner songs are a bit of a different matter. Ain’t it Fun - jesus christ. That’s murder. You get contempt, self-contempt, despair, laid out like a patient on an operating table. In some ways it has distance, but it's almost the inverse of the Thomas songs: something that sounds like it's standing outside the angst, but is all of it exactly accurate. I mean - as far as I can tell that song is pretty much a straight recitation of Peter Laughner's sins. Right up to knowing you're going to die young. It has bite. (And every time I listen to it, I remember a remark someone made about the original RFTT recording - the way in the middle, Laughner takes a guitar solo - and it's completely drowned out by Cheetah, who's amp is closer to the mic.... Poor Pete - he was extraordinarily talented, and drank himself to death at 24, quite knowingly, guessing from Ain't It Fun.)

Videos - latter day Rocket from the Tombs:

Cheetah singing Ain't It Fun:

And maybe Joey Ramone playing Sonic Reducer, with Cheetah Chrome on guitar:

And finally - Living Color doing Final Solution:

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