One of the classes I teach, ENV 300 (Environmental Justice) is divided into two halves: environmental disasters on a global scale, and engineered disasters in our own backyard (i.e. Michigan). The second half kicks off with the 1973 (and ongoing) Michigan PBB disaster, which was foisted on the state by the Velsicol Chemical Company, whose plant in St. Louis made Love Canal look tame in comparison.
Jane and Ed both visited both of my sections, telling the story of just how badly the Michigan Chemical plant damaged their community. I knew a whole lot about the PBB crisis that the plant stumbled the state into (largely learning from Joyce Egginton’s brilliant book The Poisoning of Michigan and an eponymous BBC documentary from 1977), but I didn’t realize the vital role the community has taken with the EPA’s work to right decades of wrongs by Velsicol. The amount of money spent on cleanup (all of which, since 1995, has come from taxpayers) has long superseded the profits generated by the plant’s production of however many “-master” products.
If you’d like to join in on the Pine River Task Force’s next meeting and learn more about what they do, it will be happening on Zoom on Wednesday, November 17th at 7pm ET. They will post the public Zoom link on their website a few days beforehand.
Happy November, everyone. To many, that means we’ve just passed another Halloween celebration. Also to many, that means that Dia de los Muertos is fast approaching. To infinitely fewer, that means a new Song-a-Day challenge from Sonic Geography.
I should elaborate; I retired from building these things months ago. A pair of my friends from DC who began a supportive Facebook group during the pandemic shutdown in 2020 gladly took over delegating the responsibility once I told them I was stepping down from the monthly task. But, never content to let sleeping dogs lie, I decided to reverse my “retirement” for a month. This is hardly a Jordan/Hašek/Eminem/Jay-Z move on my part; I merely had another set of Not-By song cues ready to go last year that I never got around to building into a full month.
With no further ado, I give you: THE NOT-BY-THE CURE song-a-day challenge for November!
There’s no real November connection I can ascertain for The Cure. Robert Smith was born in April, and Faith came out in April 1981, so it’s not like there’s a major anniversary here. Why can’t we just use November to celebrate the existence of one of the greatest and most unique British rock bands of the past fifty years, anyway?
So, please do download the image to your phone, play along, use the hashtag #NotbytheCure, and just try to see in the dark. Just try to make it work.
I once devoted an entire episode of my first radio show to playing this record in its entirety, and I would do it again. Despite it’s prodigious length for a punk record, it still takes infinitely less time to listen to than Ulysses takes to read.
Not to be too hyperbolic, but this is the best album of the 1980s by the best band of the 1980s, and deserves to be considered one of the great works of Western Civilization. If you haven’t listened to Double Nickels on the Dime, just do so now and begin the next chapter of your life.
I could dedicate this essay to just praising the originality and uncompromising dark humor of the Violent Femmes’ definitive first album. I could tell you how Brian Ritchie’s bass solo in “Please Don’t Go” may be my favorite one ever recorded. I could also recount how “Kiss Off” is a sleeper for one of my favorite karaoke songs. I could also get into a one-sided argument about how, in a hardcore landscape facing the disintegration of Minor Threat and a takeover by meatheads, there was nothing more punk rock than scrapping anything electric or distorted and essentially busking for ten tracks. Instead, I’ll share a couple disparate memories related to the Violent Femmes which illustrate just how pervasive and timeless this record is, in spite of itself.
Flashpoint: 2003. I went to the WBCN River Rave with my college girlfriend and some of her friends from the Boston area. I was already pissed because Blur cancelled, and in order to keep some seats we snagged near the pavilion, we had to sit though Saliva for 30 minutes. Now, my audience is so niche that I’m probably not off-base to write that anyone reading this already thinks that Saliva are one of the shittiest hard rock bands to ever (1) emerge from Memphis or (2) have a cross-over hit single. Because it was a radio station-sponsored music festival, a lot of the people there bopped up and down to “Click Click Boom” and cheered as Josey Scott ranted that the Dixie Chicks should have been kicked out of “our” country. After Saliva finally finished their set and got the hell offstage, we were more than ready for – “hey, who’s on next, anyway? …. JACK JOHNSON?”
Yes, the genius programmers at WBCN decided to follow a right-wing cheez-metal band with the most obnoxiously chill singer-songwriter to emerge in the twin frat-bro shadows of Dave Matthews and Brad Nowell. I didn’t know much of Johnson’s music at the time, and none of us had any beef with him, but like Matthews and Nowell, his fans hadn’t done his reputation any favors. Johnson himself was probably flabbergasted to have to follow Josey Scott’s talentless “Love It Or Leave It” boom-boom show, but the guy deserves a LOT of credit for resetting the temperature that day. As utterly inoffensive as Johnson’s music is, he helped dial things back a bit and put us all in a better frame of mind. Maybe that programmer DID think it through, in retrospect.
Anyway, the moment when my opinion of Jack Johnson shifted, permanently, came at the beginning of his third or fourth song, when he strummed the instantly-recognizable opening chords of “Please Don’t Go,” the third track on Violent Femmes. I perked up, probably vocalizing, “Is this dude really playing a Violent Femmes song? And a deep cut??” Turned out, that dude really was playing a Violent Femmes deep cut. He sang the first verse of “Please Don’t Go,” instantly making casual fans of every beleaguered music nerd in the amphitheater. It was still early enough so that the drunks were only tipsy, too, so I had yet to make a voyage to the bathrooms in a scene not unlike when Simon Pegg darts through a crowd of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
Fast Forward 10 Years: 2013. The California Low Desert. Coachella Festival. My friend Laura and I met up to car-camp with a couple friends of friends. Our site was surrounded by, on one side, a group of nice folks who drove out from New Mexico, and on the other sides, about 15,000 of the worst people on the planet. However, Blur were playing, and although I finally got to see them play in Hyde Park in 2009, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see them on US soil for the first time*.
As the first night finally arrived, we watched the Stone Roses sleepwalk through their set before she split to go watch How to Destroy Angels, whose set conflicted with Blur’s. For those who don’t remember, How to Destroy Angels was a Nine Inch Nails side project with a relatively brief shelf life. From what she told me at our campsite later, she managed to get pretty close to the stage, where she befriended a short middle-aged man who mentioned his son was over seeing the Wu-Tang Clan. She could not get over how a person in their 50s would be that amped to see a Trent Reznor.
The following afternoon, our group migrated over to one of the main stages to see the Violent Femmes. As they took the stage, Laura lit up, turned to me, and said “Oh my god – that nice old guy I talked to before How to Destroy Angels?? That was the singer from this band!”
My response was hardly understated: “You hung out with Gordon Gano and didn’t tell me!?”
Laura defended herself, reminding me that she didn’t know who he was – Gano didn’t even mention being there to play at the festival! What a humble guy, considering how he wrote some of the most timeless and quintessential camp songs of the 20th century. So humble for a guy who created the best record of 1983, mostly when he was still a disgruntled teenager, forced to ride buses around Milwaukee and occasionally getting locked inside his house by his own parents.
Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo (who I’ve seen play with the band twice in between his stint being kicked out) opened their set on that blazing sunny afternoon announcing, “We’re going to play our first record for you, from top to bottom!” That’s the Violent Femmes for you – giving the people what they want! If only more foundational underground bands could be so thoughtful.
*I found out, years later, that the 2003 run supporting Think Tank was a nightmare for them, since Graham Coxon was no longer with the band, Simon Tong wasn’t a suitable replacement, and Dave Rowntree was going through coke-rage to the point where he was a tyrannical asshole to Nardwuar during their Vancouver stop. Rowntree did apologize and Nardwuar accepted, but goodness what an uncomfortable video if you find it.
^Am I the only one who can’t help but think about this when they look at this picture?
I’ve always been of two minds about the relentless retroactive consumption of analog data into digital, considering how we are more than 80 years past The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. On one hand, certain images and texts were conceived to be transmitted in particular manners through specific networks. On the other hand, I get to watch more streaming video than I could conceivably view in my lifetime of bands I love at specific moments in their formative years. On the other other hand, it’s more material than I could possibly view in my lifetime. It gives me anxiety to think about sometimes.
Around the time of my birthday this year, I decided to dig a little and see and if live video miners like Hate5Six had published anything from my favorite Syracuse venue from my undergrad days, Planet 505 on Westcott Street. Of course they have: a pair of sets filmed by Daniella Dombrowski in May 2002. One of which was Converge, the greatest band ever to come from Boston, touring on the steam of their epoch-defining album Jane Doe.
Given the date of that gig, I should have been in town, probably burying my head in the sand over finals or something. It physically hurts that I could have walked down the street and been at this show. But then again, I was only cursorily aware of Converge at the time, and I missed the boat on any opportunity to be a “hardcore kid.” There were certainly plentiful opportunities to find community, maybe even start my own band (despite having very little musical talent), but I found other creative/social outlets throughout my college years.
More ink has been spilled about Jane Doe, Converge’s masterpiece, than almost any album in its style, so I don’t know how much my insights would contribute to the conversation. I agree with the assessment that this record did more for “loud” music than almost any record by a large handful of highly unlistenable metalcore arena-fillers who would follow. It elevated them to high art within whatever style of punk/metal it is they play. To put it bluntly, the record absolutely smokes. It takes you for a ride, and sometimes, it’s hard to get up after listening intently.
Ever since that bizarre moment in the mid-80s when metal became shockingly marketable (or marketably shocking), nerds had been fighting to defend the style from meddling parents, dilettante meatheads, and critics who overlooked the good shit. The subgenre’s greatest musician, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, died tragically in 1986, missing out on the spoils of that cultural crest. MTV put Headbanger’s Ball on the air in April 1987, splintering metal world into the hopelessly commercial (Poison, Ratt, etc.) and defiantly underground/evil (Mayhem, Repulsion, etc.) with some Slayers bouncing between those worlds.
Right after the turn of the millennium, Converge, who came from the hardcore scene more than metal, released a record in that tradition that was impossible NOT to defend. I’d be loathe to call Jane Doe metal, since their greatest proponents were punks or college radio nerds (guilty), but it has most of the tropes we associate with metal, particularly the distortion that Kurt Ballou shoves up your ass as both guitarist and producer. The biggest “upgrade” from previous efforts (most of which were still very good) came in the form of new drummer Ben Koller, who is now almost universally regarded as one of the best to ever play in the style. He also firmly shifted Converge into the camp of “mathcore” with bands like Botch – playing in non-traditional time signatures – though many of the songs on Jane Doe still follow certain rules of pop music structure. One example is “Bitter and Then Some.” I may not be an expert on metal or metalcore, but moments recorded in that style don’t get any better than that *BREAK* at 0:32, one of my favorite moments on the entire album:
Though the members of Converge could not predict the future of the world when writing and recording this opus, the album’s release date one week ahead of the September 11th attacks feels eerily appropriate. Any American with access to a television was inundated with images of rubble and fires for weeks, lending the companion tracks “Phoenix in Flight” and “Phoenix in Flames” an especially morbid din. To Ballou’s many, many credits here behind the analog mixing deck, the latter really does make Jacob Bannon sound like a gigantic bird burning to death.
I’m not being hyperbolic. Listen for yourself. It’s the 21st century, and you can find any of these tracks pretty easily. This isn’t underground anymore. Not that there aren’t still plenty of jocks and/or meatheads in the scene, but thanks in large part to Converge, the thrashy, mathy punk they helped spearhead (and still run the table on) is unquestionable art and belongs to the nerds again. Only now, we stand in the back, but we’re still at the gig, all these years later.
For those interested in my full Top 10 list of 2001:
I recently found a couple of photos I snapped in 2015 at the Tirso de Molina anarchist market, which I mentioned in my prior post about Crass’ 1981 masterpiece Penis Envy. I actually updated that post with one of these pictures, but I figured this would be as good an excuse as any to share these here. I did find some 2004 photos from the nearby Rastro, but perhaps I was too occupied digging through bootleg CDs to take pictures of the punx by the Metro.
If you enjoy reading about my favorite records and live in Central Michigan, then you can come hang out and hear me play my favorite records TONIGHT at the Larkin Beer Garden (next to the Dow Diamond in Midland). I’ll be spinning from 6 until 9 or so! [/PSA]
It would stand to reason that Milo Goes to College would be my top record of this year, considering what a watershed era it was for American punk music (and I have a Descendents tattoo), but instead, my favorite album released in 1982 was a largely maligned “comeback” record by an egomaniacal, dinner-jacket-wearing crooner. Granted, most of the maligning I’ve seen in online communities around Roxy Music’s masterpiece Avalon is done by what I can only assume are bitter Eno loyalists. I absolutely enjoy those early prog-fire albums the collective did in fancy space costumes – I’m technically in the middle of Michael Bracewell’s tome Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music as I write this. You just can’t heap praise on Avalon without dealing with the fact that “Virginia Plain” and “Editions of You” also exist in the same universe. In 1998, Rolling Stone saw fit to choose the Eno-free Siren (an entirely okay mid-70’s glam-pop album with maybe three or four great tracks) to stand above the rest of the band’s catalog on their “RS 200” list.
I should write, with utter transparency, that I haven’t reached Simon Morrison’s 33 1/3 book on Avalon yet in my reading queue (but I cannot wait to dive in). Because this is my website, I reserve the right to come back to this post and amend it accordingly if Morrison helps me discover that I’m completely full of it. But, there’s something refreshing about sitting down without the discursive baggage equivalent to at least three or four episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ on a record you love. Considering how much time I spend thinking and writing about music, it’s somewhat refreshing to just colo(u)r a record in verbal kindness because it’s wonderful and you love it.
That’s the hill I’m going to die on regarding Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon. It’s ten tracks, (partially instrumental) of thoughtful, temple-massaging, everything’s-gonna-be-alright slow jams which permanently established the 80’s iteration of Sophisiti-pop (later re-branded as the invented joke-genre Yacht-Rock) and retroactively established Bryan Ferry as the Godfather of New Wave. Perish the thought that a college radio colleague was about to apply that label to Morrissey ahead of Moz’ inevitably-cancelled Syracuse show back in 2004. I stopped him and said that Ferry deserves that title, if we insist on slapping it on somebody. So many of the “New Wave” tropes we took for granted pre-dated Duran Duran and MTV. Most of them even pre-dated Bryan Ferry, but I can’t think of one British musician of the post-Rock n’ Roll era who more encompassed so many of the New Romantic aesthetics.
It will undoubtedly strip me of cred to admit this, but the first time I remember hearing “More Than This,” Bill Murray was singing it in Lost in Translation. For those of you who haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s elegant, insufferable romp through Tokyo, I would advise against it unless you enjoy watching privileged people being sad (Lost in Translation walked so Eat Pray Love could run). But, like a lot of mid-2000’s cinematic pablum whose apparent directive was to make young gen-xers (later renamed “millennials”) feel deep, it featured some quality tunes. From what I remember, the film brought Kevin Shields back from the dead, too, fourteen years after he dropped his own masterpiece Loveless (my 8th-favorite album of 1991). The most memorable moments of Lost in Translation all centered around music: Murray singing Roxy Music to express his disillusionment, a very young ScarJo crossing a bridge in a cab to Loveless highlight “Sometimes,” a stripper dancing to the teaches of Peaches (“Fuck the Pain Away”), and of course a pretentious ending slathered in “Just Like Honey.” The latter (putting a hip song over the credits just because you like it) felt like a device employed by countless student filmmakers in order to show off their musical taste (guilty), not something that Nic Cage’s cousin, born into Hollywood royalty, needed in order to wrap up her movie.
I’ll return to the topic at hand.
Some people ridicule that fantastic falconry cover, but I can’t imagine Avalon without it. As much as this was a departure from a lot of Roxy Music’s 70’s fare, the image fit into their singular fantasy world, drawing from the Arthurian legend and not using a sultry female model (or models) to get their point across. I would imagine that Morrisson’s book will address this, too, but I’m willing to wager that Ferry was seeking his own Avalon upon which to recover from the 70s, ultimately building a musical one. Either way, it’s appropriate, because Avalon is much more reflective and infinitely less horny than “classic” Roxy Music. Rather than playing like a raucous night out at some club, it feels like an ex-clubber approaching middle age, taking their coffee out onto the back patio and thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s overwhelmingly tasteful music that still manages to be funky and doesn’t abuse saxophones like 98% of the coke-recovery (or coke-relapse) jams that followed in the decade. Andy Mackay deserves recognition on that feat alone.
I think I’m going to stop here. I did some light Googling in order to fact-check myself, and I wound up spending about twenty minutes reading up on Welsh mythology. Listen to Roxy Music’s Avalon. If you have a record player, buy it on vinyl. Get home from a particularly long day, put the needle at the beginning of Side 2, prepare a hot compress or grab a cold drink during “The Main Thing,” and make sure to lay down with either source of comfort by the time the mysterious, drifting into to “Take a Chance With Me” begins. It’s bliss.
For those of you interested in my Top 10 Albums of 1982:
Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’
Descendents – ‘Milo Goes to College’
Angry Samoans – ‘Back from Samoa’
Discharge – ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’
Growing up, I knew one kid who was into Crass. He lived in a big beautiful house and slept on his cheek so as not to disturb his liberty spikes. He didn’t like me very much, but we collaborated on a couple of film projects via mutual friends. Once, I remember him conveniently waiting until one mutual friend (who loved the Clash) walked away to badmouth the Only Band that Mattered. Something about them being “corporate punk” or some other predictable critique. But, he made me curious about who Crass were, since AllMusic (the most available resource to demystify them in 2001) didn’t really help. I remember it called them “the most brittle and hard-line of the first wave of UK punk,” which of course made me want to get my hands on their music. Thankfully, Napster and KaZaa provided a window into a few songs to which Geoff casually dropped references – “Do they Owe Us a Living?” (OF COURSE THAY FOOKING DO!), “Banned from the Roxy,” and perhaps the most disorienting and downright frightening of their early tracks, “Shaved Women.”
Chumbawamba, another anarchist collective from the UK, had hit it big 4 years prior with “Tubthumbing.” Most of the people I knew at school were buying the eponymous CD and reselling it while absorbing NONE of the band’s anarchist message. I didn’t even go through with the trouble of owning it in the first place, as much as I may get curious someday when stumbling upon it for a quarter in some used-media warehouse. Chumbawamba’s importance didn’t make sense to me until well after I’d gotten into Crass, which happened in 2004 when I bought a bootleg best-of Crass CD in Madrid at the “1931 market” by Tirso de Molina. If there was one time and place the music collector in me wishes he could transport back to now, it would be then and there. A bunch of Spanish Anarchists, carrying (and selling) the flags of their ancestors that the Clash sang about set up every weekend with a sea of DIY shirts, tapes, and records that I would have bought ALL OF if I hadn’t been a confused American trying to sort out where he stood politically.
That Crass bootleg, which contained the entire screed from (I believe) “Yes Sir, I Will” translated into Spanish, contained a reasonable overview of their musical output during their pre-ordained 7 years of existence*. Also, to address an elephant in the room, I’ll admit that the first two Crass records aren’t very good. They absolutely fit neatly into the silo of “punk,” according to people with a fairly myopic understanding of that genre-world, but I’m not the only person who think those records are much more interesting than enjoyable.
The third Crass record, however, is unassailable and boils my blood (in a productive way) more with every listen. Eve Libertine, who assumed lead vocal duties (a political act itself in 1981 DIY punk), sings every song on here (save for one, sung by Joy de Vivre) like she’s actively castrating a rapist and knows history will vindicate her for doing so.
The production, if my lack of technical expertise could be forgiven, is NASTY. The late John Loder, who is roundly regarded as a genius, had a touch that simply elevated bands without compromising any of their edge nor idiosyncrasies. There is not one track on Penis Envy that sounds like a rock song should sound, but it still sounded cooler than almost any other punk album released in 1981. The needly guitars and sharp-as-hell bass on “Systematic Death” wrap you up and asphyxiate you while Libertine defiantly yells about how “they fuck our minds so they can fuck us silly!” The line that closes the song (“they’d almost paid their mortgage when the system dropped its bomb”) is particularly brutal to hear in 2021, when most of us are spending our entire lives in debt, servicing a system that keeps moving the end zone back every time they feel like cycling wealth upward. And, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, “people [are] just sort of fine with that.”
When I was building my curriculum for a course on Geography and Gender, a revisit to this album inspired me to create an assignment directing students to pick a song with some lyrical theme around gender to present and analyze critically. Penis Envy was hardly the first album within the realm of popular music to put feminism front and center, but there’s something otherworldly about how well, forty years ago, Crass anticipated our contemporary conversation about gender. Sexism, like racism, was baked into the greater capitalist system, not a variable defect, and to defy either, one has to ask and answer some very difficult questions.
Unlike their frenemies in Chumbawamba (who sold about 5 million more records), Crass’ message has never been anything but crystal clear. No matter where Crass (as a collective) fit into the greater pantheon of punk’s half-century of history, they solidified themselves as a great band with Penis Envy – my favorite record of 1981. Have a listen here and see below for the rest of my top ten of that year.
WHAT VISION IS LEFT, AND IS ANYONE ASKING?
My Top 10 Albums of 1981
Crass – ‘Penis Envy’
OMD – ‘Architecture & Morality’
Gang of Four – ‘Solid Gold’
The Judy’s – ‘Washarama’
Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll’
Penguin Cafe Orchestra
The Replacements – ‘Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash’
Soft Cell – ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’
*For the purposes of this entry, Steve Ignorant’s cash-grab reunion tour(s) don’t count toward the band’s legacy. You have to make certain compromises when forced to live within a system you didn’t create and don’t support, and I have no idea what motivated/pushed Steve into doing that.At any rate, he does not appear on Penis Envy.