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True Adventures on the Frontlines of Punk, 1976-1977
By Dave Thompson
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
I Ain't Gonna Be History
MID MAY 1976
The Revolutionaries (Disco Mix)
Peter Tosh (Intel Diplo)
"Babylon Too Rough"
Gregory Isaacs (Belmont)
Ras Ibuna (Pittsburgh)
Patti Smith Group (Arista)
The Mighty Diamonds (Virgin)
"Hit the Road Jack"
Big Youth (Trojan)
Jah Woosh (Attack)
"Jah Jah Bring Everything" Jah Glenn (Eagle)
Bob Marley and the Wailers (Island)
The Revolutionaries (Disco Mix)
"One Step Forward"
Max Romeo (Island)
Bob Marley and the Wailers (Tuff Gong)
"Rockers No Crackers"
G. Washington (Student)
Jackie Bernard (Grounation)
U Roy (Virgin)
Lizard (Black Wax)
Jacob Miller (Grounation)
"War ina Babylon"
Max Romeo (Island)
Don't know if I'm really gonn a take it
Don't know if I'm really gonna fake it
Come on now, get in line
Put your life right on the line
You're only gonna end up ashes in a jar
Oh I ain't gonna be history
I ain't gonna be history
The Maniacs, "I Ain't Gonna Be History"
Less than twenty-four hours after they touched down in London, the Patti Smith Group was setting up in the studios of the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, and preparing, however unwittingly, to spark a revolution.
Their debut album, Horses, had just hit the British streets (it was already six months old in the United States), and clearly the Group was expected to give it a great big push. But Smith had never been very big on conforming to expectation; if she had, she'd never have gone onstage to read poetry to an electric guitar in the first place. Whistle Test viewers needed something more than Horses, because the Patti Smith Group was more than Horses.
Smith's guitarist, Ivan Kral, explained: "Patti had released a cover of Jimi Hendrix's 'Hey Joe' in New York, back when the group was just her, Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl. We'd never played it before as a band; JD [Daugherty, drummer] and I had never played it, never rehearsed it. So when she said that was what we were going to play on Old Grey Whistle Test, it was exciting. We were in London, we were on TV, and we were walking a tightrope, playing an arrangement of a song we'd never played. Lenny and Richard knew what it was and where to go, JD and I concentrated on playing the proper notes. And, apparently, it caused a lot of fuss."
The Patti Smith Group performed two songs; first a passionate rampage through Smith's own "Land," with its knowing nods to Oscar Wilde, Otis Redding, and, torn from that week's newspaper headlines, the disgraced English politician Jeremy Thorpe — the leader of the Liberal Party was currently embroiled in the kind of sex scandal that only the truly righteous ever get mixed up in, a dizzying panoply of hunky male models, murdered dogs, and fevered denials. It was an excellent performance, but if you'd already heard Horses, there were no surprises there.
But then she swung into "Hey Joe," a superstylized revision that slowed everything to the pace of a funeral dirge, Kral's guitar crying to the sky, Sohl's organ somber and stately, and Patti wailing and howling and crying, tearing down one of rock's most sacred cows, most sainted icons.
Jimi Hendrix was God back then. Six years after he choked his final breath, the British rock cognoscenti were still casting around for somebody to take his throne, and every hot new guitarist who as much as glanced at a wah-wah pedal would be instantly compared to the master. To even sniff in Hendrix's direction was a sin; to denigrate his playing or his performance was akin to the foulest blasphemy. And here was this scrawny Yank chick, Keith Richards's grandmother crossed with Bob Dylan's pet chicken, pecking his memory to pieces. Thirty years later, I have still to meet a Hendrix fan who appreciated hearing what she did to "Hey Joe." But I was blown away.
It was brilliant. It was soul stirring, it was magical, it was everything that you ever hoped you'd witness, every time you paid your money at the door and went to see another new group. Chills down the spine, goose pimples on the arm, tears in your eyes. Fuck whatever else was on the show tonight, fuck whatever local nonsense the music papers were hyping this week, and fuck the modern literary world's aversion to hyperbolic cliché. Because this was it. This was the future.
And why was that? Because, without even a glimpse of the show's host, the doubtless now-scowling Bob Harris in his comfy sweater and little swivel chair, the broadcast cut from Smith's defiantly dramatic restaging of the hoary old murder ballad to some crinkly monochrome footage of Hendrix kicking into the same song for the benefit of pop singer Lulu's late 1960s television show. There was no explanation, but you could hear it anyway, bleeding sound-lessly subliminal out of the clip. We apologize for the interruption in our service. We will now resume our scheduled predictability.
It was almost four years since the last time something this cataclysmic had shaken Britain's most avuncular music television show, back in 1972 when the New York Dolls came over to pose and preen, and Harris dismissed them as "mock rock." Nothing more, nothing less. And the Whistle Test faithful sank back into their La-Z-Boys, safe in the knowledge that the aberration had ended.
Back then, they were right. A handful of watching kids might have disagreed with his dismissive sniff; might, as English R&B singer Graham Parker once hypothesized, have been "inspired into saying 'this is what we want to see, not bloody Osibisa.'"
But anybody who reckoned that Harris's put-down genuinely made a lasting impression on even a handful of viewers would wait a long time to see them do anything about it. The year 1972 folded into 1973, which became 1974, which begat 1975; and suddenly it was spring 1976, and the New York Dolls were ancient history. Four years is a lifetime when you're a teenager and the Dolls weren't even irrelevant any longer. They were forgotten. The Patti Smith Group, on the other hand, were here and now, and, with one single moment of musical defiance, they drew a line in the sand that the British music scene was never going to recover from, the line that divides icon from iconoclast.
Nobody was immune. At boarding school on the south coast of England, I was watching the show with the rest of the fifth form, and already planning the phone call I would be making to my parents the following day, convincing them to arrange for me to return to London for the weekend, so I could catch the Patti Smith Group in concert as well. I mentioned my plans to the friend seated next to me. He thought I was crazy. "What would you want to go see this pile of shit for?"
In Snaresbrook, East London, Steve Wilkin, guitarist with jazz-rockers Wired, experienced the same feral response from his bandmates. Just a year before, he and keyboard player Mike Taylor were working alongside pop-soul singer Linda Carr in her live backing combo, and that had been a big deal, a sign of just how high Wired might climb. Tight and professional and very, very serious, they had no time for this pseudo-arty nonsense and they were astonished that Wilkin should find it so exciting. "They became very agitated and defensively derisive. It offended their sense of musicianship. I could see their point, but the very fact that it produced such a strong reaction, rather than the usual indifference, stirred my imagination and got me scouring the classifieds for new people to work with."
Another guitarist, Mik Heslin, felt the same way. As resident lead poser with West London hard rockers Tarot, his first reaction was "What the hell's this?" He'd tuned in to Whistle Test, like so many others, in anticipation of a smorgasbord of extended guitar solos and thoughtful singer-songwriters. Instead, he got "a wiry thing with straggly hair and a large conk, doing something that sounded like poetry with a backing band that didn't seem to have a guitar virtuoso. Boring!!! It wasn't Be Bop Deluxe, it wasn't Sassafras, and it certainly wasn't Deep Purple!"
He kept watching, the wiry thing kept going, and suddenly he realized it was destroying "Hey Joe." "The word sacrilege went through my mind, but somehow it gripped me. Even when she went down on her knees with her guitar à la Hendrix phallus style, I was being won over. Damn, there was passion when she covered that song and there was something just new and different about the whole sound. I loved it!" The following day, he called his bandmates to outline his Smith-inspired ideas for a brand-new direction. "I was shot down in flames and we were never heard of again. Serves us right! Ha!"
Across the board, the people who got it really got it. Watching with all the controlled cynicism that hallmarked the best of his writing for the New Musical Express, journalist Mick Farren was astonished to find his jaw on the floor. Almost a decade earlier, Farren had led his own group, the Deviants, to heights of rebellion untapped since the heyday of Luddism. Smith's performance assured him that those ideals still existed.
"I thought she was doing for angry wannabe girl singers what Bob Dylan had done for me a decade earlier," he explained to me. "She was proving that passion, not dulcet pipes and perfect pitch, is what makes a rock singer." A month later, Farren would write the single most important manifesto of the year, a New Musical Express feature titled "The Titanic Sails at Dawn." In his mind, if not on paper, Smith's Whistle Test performance was one of the foundations that he built upon.
"The Titanic Sails at Dawn" was a beautifully opinionated distillation of all that Farren had seen happening on the UK live circuit over the past six months, and all that he envisioned might occur in the months to follow. It would be absurd to describe it as the catalyst for all that was swirling around the London underground at that time. But for a lot of Farren's readers, the absurdity was about to become reality. Forget Year Zero, this was Page Zero.
Away from the pubs and clubs and the sticky end of the Old Grey Whistle Test, British rock was enjoying some of its most super-showbiz events of all time. Rock was still meant to be the antithesis of "showbiz," to be the grubby, grimy, hyper-rebellious little monster that polite society kept walled up in the attic. But it was growing increasingly difficult to see how.
I saw David Bowie headlining one of his umpteen nights at Wembley, an ant cavorting on a brightly lit stage that looked a hell of a lot better in the photographs than it did from row ZZ.
I'd just purchased a ticket to see the Who headlining the Charlton Athletic football ground, introducing England to the age of the sports arena concert at a time when even the best-appointed soccer stadiums had as much acoustic beauty as a bucketful of sick. And I could have seen the Rolling Stones block-booking the vast emptiness of Earl's Court, an aircraft hanger wannabe designed for motor shows and boat exhibitions, before being carelessly hijacked for entertainment purposes. The first time a major rock gig was staged there, Bowie (again) in 1973, the audience rioted because the sound was so bad. I doubted whether it had improved since then.
Three bands, three sets of concerts, and three lots of ticket receipts that dwarfed several countries' national debts. It was all a very long way from whatever and wherever rock 'n' roll claimed to have started, and a far cry from anything it had threatened in its youth. This ain't rock 'n' roll, as Bowie could be paraphrased, this is mass consumption.
"There can be no question," Farren was now musing, "that a lot of today's rock is isolated from the broad mass of its audience. From the superstars with champagne and coke parties, all the way down to your humble servant spending more time with his friends, his writing and his cat than he does cruising the street, all are cut off."
Yet the answer to that conundrum was already at hand. "The best, most healthy kind of rock and roll is produced by and for the same generation. Putting the Beatles back together isn't going to be the salvation of rock and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might. And that, gentle reader, is where you come in."
In isolated pockets across the country, people watched Smith's performance with the same sense of personal commitment that Farren was calling upon, and a conviction that bordered upon disbelief. "Hey Joe" was a rebel yell, defiant and daring in the face of both the law (the song's lyric concerns a killer on the run) and received musical history. Public and critics alike were united. You just don't fuck with Hendrix. Patti Smith wanted to know why; and, now that she came to mention it, so did a lot of other people.
The day that the future Sex Pistols met Johnny Rotten for the first time some nine months earlier, he had been sloping down the King's Road in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, across which he had scrawled the words "I HATE" in shaky ballpoint pen.
It was, even Rotten's detractors would subsequently agree, an unequivocal statement, and one that would have endless repercussions. Just weeks off the release of Wish You Were Here, itself the landmark successor to the multizillion-selling Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had arrived at the level where nothing could hurt them, certainly not a few slashes of ink on a teenager's shirt.
But the repetition of the story did make people think and, as it continued to do the anecdotal rounds, so dawned the realization that a lot of other people hated Pink Floyd as well.
Not musically, perhaps, and maybe not personally. But what they had come to represent was a different matter: a corporate money-making machine, calculated purveyors of bottled emotion and cynical repression, a brand name no more or less pernicious than any high street retailer or soft drink peddler. Yeah, that was very easy to hate and, when you pursued the thought to its logical conclusion, and wrote off the past as just so many boring old farts, that, too, made an awful lot of sense.
Except, in May 1976, not too many people had even heard of Johnny Rotten, and fewer still cared what he wore. Right now, the Sex Pistols were best known as the unschooled yobbos that started fights with their audience, and whose manager ran a bondage store in Chelsea called Sex. Hence the name, the Sex Pistols. A little edgier than, say, the Woolworths Pistols, but it was difficult not to draw a similar conclusion from the smattering of press that the band had received so far. A mouthy marketing gimmick that compensated for its lack of musical ability by grabbing headlines with its fists.
The Patti Smith Group, on the other hand, had already proven all that they needed to. It was a year since New Musical Express journalist Charles Shaar Murray first heralded Smith in British print, and six months since he followed through with a second piece, "A Scuzz Odyssey," that introduced the rest of the New York scene that had birthed her. Opening sentiment — "The Ramones are quite ridiculous"; closing argument — we need to hear these bands. Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers, the Tuff Darts, and so many more. He made them sound so exciting as well. But none of them had records out at that time, none was more than a local blip on a faraway screen, white noise with the mute button on.
So we imagined what they must sound like instead.
The Ramones made the Archies sound like Black Sabbath on downers.
The Dictators, an unholy cross between the street smarts of Bruce Springsteen and the undiluted slobbering of the Stooges.
Television, all endless guitar solos and Shakespearean poetic thrust. Journalist Dave Marsh later dubbed them "The Grateful Dead of Punk," and he wasn't the first to draw that conclusion, but vocalist and guitarist Tom Verlaine shuddered when I mentioned it. "It's strange, I never even heard the Grateful Dead except when I was a kid, my girlfriend had their first record. I remember listening to it and I didn't know what to make of it at all, it reminded me of noodle pudding."
Blondie. Murray described them as "a crudd[y] garage band [fronted by a singer] with a voice like a plastic bath toy," and I cuddled up close to my Shangri-Las records. It's OK, I assured them. Nobody will ever be able to replace you.
We imagined so much, and it was only when the Patti Smith Group crossed the ocean in May 1976 that we realized just how far off the mark those imaginings could be.
Even more exciting, the desecration of "Hey Joe" was only the first shot in the rebellion that Smith was so joyously leading. Flip over her latest single, itself a complete revision of that hoary old Them chestnut "Gloria," and what did you find? The Who's "My Generation," taken at a faster pace than its makers could ever have dreamed of, and underpinned not by the increasingly disreputable dream of dying before they got too old (it was way too late for that!), but by a boisterous scream of defiant intent. "I don't need that fucking shit!" she sang in lieu of that familiar old war cry, "Hope I die because of it!" Or, as Smith breathed into the microphone onstage a few nights later, "I don't fuck much with the past. But I fuck plenty with the future."
Excerpted from London's Burning by Dave Thompson. Copyright © 2009 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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