Sex Pistols in America, 1978

A fabled tale of excess, personality clashes, and managerial manipulation, the Sex Pistols’ seven U.S. shows in January 1978 reward revisiting even at so many decades’ distance.

The Sex Pistols’ 1978 U.S. tour looks like attempted homicide. Malcolm McClaren, the band’s 31 year old manager, was hungry for the photogenic controversy that might arise if — instead of playing America’s liberal cities — he sent the world’s most controversial group to country ‘n’ western venues across the Deep South. This was less than ten years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and yet, relying on stereotypes of Bible Belt religiosity and conservatism, McClaren wanted to acquire audiences who might protest, attack the band, maybe even riot if he was lucky!

From the perspective of 2020, the level of callous disregard for his 20-to-22 year old charges is pretty breath-taking. Even on home turf McClaren knew the band’s reputation made them a lightning rod for violence. Back in June, frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), was stabbed in the hand and knee, and had his face slashed; drummer Paul Cook was attacked by a gang wielding iron bars; then Lydon was assaulted again outside a night club. All Sex Pistols’ management learned was this was a trusty approach for the acquisition of press coverage. If it occurred to him that his strategy for the U.S. could wind up getting someone seriously injured, it was of only passing concern.

The band — Lydon, Cook, Steve Jones (guitarist), Sid Vicious (bassist) — went along with it. Suffering from both the naivety and the idealism of youth, they agreed to put themselves at an unknown level of risk for obscure rewards. The tour itinerary perhaps felt reminiscent of Sex Pistols’ parochial rambles around the U.K. where — after starting off playing London colleges, then the minor club circuit — the band strayed way off the beaten path into small towns like Whitby, Dunstable, Cleethorpes, Penzance, Keighley, Cromer. There was some method to the madness: Sex Pistols’ notoriety short-circuited the traditional route to legend status because few people ever saw them play.

McClaren was also relying on the band’s ability to make the law enforcement community a co-conspirator in the stoking of publicity. In a single year, Sex Pistols had been ordered to leave Guernsey after one night; their celebration on a boat in the Thames was halted; their first album wound up in court charged with obscenity; and Lydon and Vicious had been arrested in separate drug busts — all of which was deemed a manageable cost of doing business. These were bizarre lessons to draw from Sex Pistols’ experiences in late 1976 through 1977 and only made sense if no one really cared about being a real band anymore.


Sex Pistols had certainly started out with genuine intentions. The arrival of Lydon in August 1975 made the band a functioning entity able to rehearse. Playing their first gig on Thursday November 6, they were industrious with as many as ten shows under their belts by Wednesday December 10. At that first show they played a set of rough covers and just two originals — ‘Did You No Wrong’ and ‘Seventeen’ — impressively pulling together three more — ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘Submission’, and ‘New York’ — by end of the month. From then on song-writing proceeded steadily, if unspectacularly, with set-lists beefed up by as many as half-a-dozen covers. Going by their live appearances, ‘Problems’ appeared on February 14; ‘Satellite’ and ‘No Feelings’ on April 3; ‘I Wanna Be Me’ and little-known improvised noise opener ‘Flowers Of Romance’ entered the set on June 29; ‘Anarchy In The UK’ debuted on July 20; ‘Liar’ appeared on August 14; ‘God Save The Queen’ by December 6…

But Sex Pistols’ September-October tour would be their last moment of calm. An already flammable reputation was ignited on December 1 by the appearance with Bill Grundy on the Today show. 17 of their 24 December dates were canceled and they were hounded across Britain by press and protestors; signed on October 8, they were dumped by EMI in early January; Glenn Matlock left the band in February and they had to start teaching Vicious the bass; they signed to A&M on March 10 and were dumped within the week; signed with Virgin in mid-May. After a short run of shows in The Netherlands ending on January 7, the band only played another three times before mid-July.

After writing ‘E.M.I.’ with Matlock somewhere in January 1977, Sex Pistols were overwhelmed by events and essentially over as a creative entity. At least they managed to end the tedium and repetitive sessions and get Never Mind The Bollocks recorded in fits and starts between March and August. The final year of the band would see only two new songs emerge: ‘Holidays In The Sun’ whipped together in April-June, then a revived song from a former band of Vicious’ called ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ which was rehearsed in September. Nothing is predestined, but by the time the band hit America and Lydon was trying to persuade them to attempt a new song in soundcheck, to accompany his lyrics under the name ‘Religion’, no one wanted to know.

Banned, sacked, assaulted, arrested, protested, shell-shocked, and fed-up — Sex Pistols had had sufficient drama in a single year to last other artists a lifelong career. And on a personal level it was just getting worse. Vicious had become a heroin addict, the rest of the band had more than a casual penchant for various drugs, the Lydon/Vicious versus Cook/Jones axis of the band had split again with Vicious aligning with his girlfriend and dealer Nancy Spungen. In the background, McClaren was both a focus of annoyance, and busy maintaining his position by spreading lies and gossip to poison the air between the band still further.


The tour was a predictable mess from the start: the four shows scheduled from December 29 to January 3 had to be canceled because the band’s criminal records caused Visa issues. These shows would have been in Homestead, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; and Alexandria, Virginia — which makes the claim of a ‘southern strategy’ look like retrospective justification for the silliness of the remaining week-and-a-half tour program. On the other hand, the intention to play a 600 capacity venue in Chicago — when this and San Francisco were the largest cities on the tour — looks like an attempt to guarantee a riot. The desired publicity had an effect too in that the Holiday Inn chain pre-emptively declined the band.

The frayed logic of the tour was on full display when contemplating Winterland. Prior to their departure for the U.S., Sex Pistols had never played for a crowd of more than a few hundred. Now, a mere week after touchdown, they were going to scale up to a 5,400 capacity venue. One could maybe credit a ramshackle attempt to prepare the band, with venue capacity stepping up from 500 in Atlanta, to 700-800 in Baton Rouge and Memphis, to 1,800-2,200 at the other three venues…Except the original tour schedule would have thrown them on in front of 2,000 attendees a night (with the exception of Chicago). It’s more likely an absence of mid-sized venues, rather than managerial benevolence, that gave Sex Pistols some vague hope of acclimatising.

Meanwhile Sid Vicious came undone. It’s hard not to feel a degree of pity for a young man, battling heroin addiction, being challenged to live up to his stage name again and again. There’s a ‘boys don’t cry’ sadness to his actions as he becomes the focus of so much violence and stays dry-eyed trying to prove he could take it, daring people to do their worst. This doesn’t make him any less stupid or indiscriminately violent — he embraced his role with self-destructive gusto. In Atlanta he headed to the hospital after slitting his wrist with a letter opener; he wrote ‘Gimme A Fix’ across his chest (rumours state he cut it in with a razor but there’s no sign of it by Winterland which makes that unlikely); in Memphis he disappeared again — another hospital visit plus a knife wound to his arm; in Dallas he assaults a photographer and security before being beaten by his own bodyguard; before Winterland he stuck a steak knife into his hand when accosted while eating a meal, then after the show he OD’ed in a shooting gallery on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

McClaren busied himself making things worse. There’s suspicion that he gave Vicious money for heroin, and he relentlessly egged on Vicious’ worst instincts while refusing to get his hands dirty by intervening to look after Vicious either. He also put Jones and Cook on planes between venues — though the two of them behaved so badly on a flight from Tulsa that they were banned by American Airlines — while Vicious and Lydon continued on the bus which felt like favouritism to band members already used to being wound up. There was also resentment of apparent favouritism in the matter of which hotels or motels band members would wind up staying at. By the time of San Francisco, the band knew their shows in Finland weren’t going ahead, there was a grim rumour stirred by McClaren that Charles Manson would produce their next album from prison, now the hairbrained whim of flying to Rio De Janeiro to meet with the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs.


The one thing that remained undimmed, however, was the innate talent within the band. Steve Jones is comparable to Ron Asheton in terms of having such a colossal, immediately recognisable, and oft-underrated guitar technique. Similarly, Lydon sounds simultaneously incandescent, hilarious, and thoroughly pissed off at every show — a quintessential frontman. The Sex Pistols in America are reminiscent of the Terminator in the finale of the 1984 film: stripped down, falling apart, still relentless and unstoppable. There are audio recordings, and even video, of quite a substantial quantity of the tour and they remain fascinating documents of that rarest of things in the music business — genuine unpredictability.


January 5, 1978: The Great Southeast Music Hall — Atlanta, Georgia

In front of an audience of 500 primarily made up of journalists, the bating and the technical issues kick-off from the very first minute. Jones’ guitar cuts out, feeds back, and requires interminable pauses for tuning throughout the show. The solo on ‘God Save The Queen’ is perfunctory, the drums are a methodical clattering din, then the guitar cuts out during ‘I Wanna Be Me’ while ‘Seventeen’ has a false start. At times Lydon’s vocals run headlong into the slightly panicked rush of the other instruments, everything coexisting rather than coalescing, he seems to be straining to keep up. Vicious’ bass seems to have been turned down, at its loudest it’s a dull clumping in the background of a song — occasional cussing (and the cracking line “this one’s about you, it’s called ‘Problems’”) is the biggest impression he makes. “That’s God that is and he don’t like us,” Lydon announces while — to his credit — trying to cover for the band’s issues. Things stabilise from ‘New York’ onward — ‘Bodies’ is pure exuberant nastiness including an incongruous ‘step up’ where the anti-harmonising of Vicious and Jones backs Lydon’s pleas — but then the guitar dies again during ‘Submission’, returning beset by feedback. At their best, there are moments like the solo on ‘Holidays In The Sun’ which is like sheet metal tearing, or the final pairing of ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ which sounds like gaskets exploding somewhere inside Chernobyl. There’s no way the band could have lived up to their reputation but instead they stooped down and undermined it by the simple virtue of being just another band, albeit one that was undeniably above average.

Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:

“Now. We came to dance. What did you come for?”

“See the fine upstanding young men Britain is chucking out these days? Just never join an army.”

“Aren’t we the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”


January 6: Taliesyn Ballroom — Memphis, Tennessee

The audio source for Memphis is in such wonderfully dissolute condition that the sound from the stage is a thick fug, splintered moments penetrating consciousness through sheer volume while an incoherent blizzard pushes and shoves. Ironically, in that light, at the start of ‘I Wanna Be Me’ Lydon asks for more monitors because “I can’t hear myself! Hello, ‘ello, ‘ello…” Most songs become untamed cyclones that twist and whirl through the speakers. The show itself further stoked Sex Pistols’ reputation for chaotic events with the police sending investigators to Atlanta to check on reports of the band having live or simulated sex on stage, the fire department telling the crowd outside that the show had been oversold and was cancelled, a small riot among the couple of hundred attendees who couldn’t get in and began smashing windows, and the band getting on stage substantially late. Hammering rhythm is the most visible feature throughout with most songs on the tape compressed down to a juddering roar. Lydon’s vocals would feel at home in the poesia sonora scene. The tape seems to cut or pause at points so there’s barely any visible conversation with the audience, which perhaps contributes to the sense of pace and a band back on track after a bad first show, except a good portion of the audience walked out — amusing in light of the battle outside to get in.

Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:

“I’m not here for your entertainment, you’re here for my entertainment.”


January 8, 1978: Randy’s Rodeo — San Antonio, Texas

Near constant whistling and hassle, San Antonio was the kind of nastiness that must have sent McClaren into raptures. Vicious shouting “you cowboys are all faggots!” hardly helped matters and likely served to increase the hail of material hitting the band and the accompanying verbal goading. What’s tragic is it’s one of the few gigs where Vicious’ bass work seems coherent and things are moving forward with intent…For a grand total of four songs. Then Vicious yells, “you faggot fucker!” hauls his bass strap off, inverts the guitar and chops it down into the crowd just missing his intended target — Brian Faltin who attended specifically to protest and provoke the band. Billowing clouds of bass-heavy pulse reduce Lydon’s voice to a scratchy edging with one’s memory of songs filling in the indistinctness of the lyrics, then the second half of the tape he’s suddenly more audible while the instrumental clarity disintegrates. The drum sound is remarkably separated with the cymbals a lightning clash of static, while everything else is a distant rumble. The marching beat that opens ‘Holidays In The Sun’ is gloriously leaden and it’s the most straightforward moments, like Lydon’s screaming during ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ that penetrate.

Sid bass incident:

Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:

“I see we’ve got a lot of real men out there tonight…”

“Oh dear, Sid’s guitar fell off!”


January 9, 1978: Kingfish Club — Baton Rouge, Louisiana

A sub-1,000 venue formerly part of a grocery store, the atmosphere at the Kingfish Club is hostile with audience members screaming “fuck you!” and “throw something at them!” Normally live albums are a grotesque way of fleecing fans into paying for inferior copycats of studio tracks, by contrast, this bootleg quality studio recording buries you somewhere in the crowd with blown out walls of overdriven electricity billowing on all sides. It’s wonderful seeing the rough outline of a well-known song still visible but cracked and pulled apart. The band are on a high all night despite the usual rain of coins and object hitting the stage (and the band), indeed Lydon ad-libs less because there’s so little dead time between songs. Cook shows himself to be the powerful and stolidly dependable core of the band, while Jones is feeling secure enough he can toy with feedback on the outro of ‘Seventeen’. The bass-heavy recording even flatters Vicious on songs like ‘New York’ where there’s no audible indication of the attempt by one fan to give him an on-stage blowjob and he keep stolidly strumming. Lydon is deluged by the band’s raw power, working hard to be heard amid the torrent smacking down on the audience. ‘Belsen Was A Gas’, for all its bad taste, shares a military precision and thuggish pummelling with ‘Holidays In The Sun’ which makes one wonder what the post-Matlock Sex Pistols could have done if they’d made it through January 1978.

Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:

“I’ve had it with coins!”

“This song is by an old hippie…” (The Stooges ‘No Fun’ follows)

“That’s all because I’m too lazy to do anymore. Good night.”


January 10, 1978: Longhorn Ballroom — Dallas, Texas

Another ugly atmosphere awaited in Dallas with the venue owner (whose most notable predecessor was Jack Ruby) trying to cancel — Warner Bros. sternly warned him they would sue — while the police kept a SWAT unit on standby. The night is all about Vicious. Suffering withdrawal and woozily drunk, he drifts about the stage oblivious to his bandmates’ glares. Jones has another night of guitar trouble — he breaks a string early, there’s a plethora of errors, and his usual chunky power is subdued — and he’s increasingly antagonised by Vicious. During ‘Bodies’ he has to stop playing to storm across and plug Vicious’ bass back in, he shouts at Vicious during ‘Belsen Was A Gas’, then resorts to his mic, “Look what you’re doing, not at them!” Every time the band come close to achieving momentum something derails it. After ‘Holidays In The Sun’ Vicious is sucker-punched in the nose and, in their disgust for Vicious, this is the only time Jones (“See the wanker fall over? Big tough Sid falls over!”) and Lydon (“Look at that, a living circus!”) seem to acknowledge one another or agree at any point in the tour. For the next 25 minutes Vicious looks like he’s wearing lipstick, is pink-tinted down to the waist, and engages in spitting contests back-and-forth with the audience. There’s a resurgence as the band rallies on ‘Bodies’ — Jones’ finest solo of the night with Lydon skanking in the middle of the stage — before audience-winning runs at set stalwarts ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’. For the encore, Vicious, whose face is so blood-spattered it looks like warpaint — is flicking V’s while being tailed onto the stage by a minder. ‘No Fun’ looks like finishing the night on a raucous high then suddenly a visibly angry Jones is launching himself at someone in the audience with his guitar and gets at least a shove in before bouncers intervene. The rest of the gig plays out with a man-mountain stood squarely at centre-stage monitoring the crowd and, even after the song ends, Vicious is in a shoving match with security who are simultaneously handling the crowd and him.

(For the full audio including the opening numbers missing from the video check out:

Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:

“Any more free gifts?”

“I see that we have a whole section of the silent majority over there”


January 12, 1978: Cain’s Ballroom — Tulsa, Oklahoma

Unfortunately, only a single minute of audio from the Tulsa show has surfaced along with a few minutes of visuals from the film D.O.A. A Rite Of Passage which is as much focused on the religious protests taking place outside and the police presence both in the parking lot and inside. The venue now has a framed portion of the green room wall with a hole supposed punched by Vicious. The opening band, Bliss, was essentially there because the owner of the venue wanted to give his friends exposure, not because they were simpatico with Sex Pistols — they apparently played the ‘William Tell Overture’ as part of their set. On the day of the show, the ticket price increased because, unsurprisingly given the ridiculous logistics and barely viable sizes of the venues, the band needed more cash. Apparently Lydon started the show by asking: “all you rednecks have come to see the circus?” But then the show itself was apparently tight — a shame it hasn’t survived.


January 14, 1978: Winterland — San Francisco, California

Winterland was neither the ultimate desecration of rock ‘n’ roll, nor the freak show anyone might have hoped for. Police patrols up and down the ticket lines outside, meticulous frisking by the security before entry, a DJ orchestrating audience participation in the form of swearing, and a screen projecting Sex Pistols’ quotes, it all heightened the drama of the night…Then the band walked on and sleepwalked through the show. A large space to fill given Sex Pistols’ impact came entirely from their unique stage presence, it was significantly harder to make a dent when the band were all sick. The flu subdued Jones; Vicious was smacked up (though as a consequence it’s actually the sprightliest he’d looked all tour); while Lydon was visibly exhausted and periodically wiped his nose or face on a spool of tissue or in the crook of his arm. The band were further hemmed in by professional staffing: bouncers led audience members out calmly across the stage, at one point in the encore a member of staff cleared things away from Vicious’ feet. A greater separation from the crowd confined the usual antagonism to a tsunami of nuts, bolts, coins, pantyhose, and spit. Sex Pistols were further plagued by technical issues with Jones breaking strings, his amplifiers cutting out altogether to suck the energy from ‘Bodies’ and ‘Liar’, while every pause was filled with interminable tuning. Possibly a deliberate act by snobby venue personnel, the PA was a mess and Lydon had to call out from the stage, “the monitors are completely off…Hello, they’ve just come back on.” This is the rare recording where the bass is genuinely audible and Vicious, while posing constantly, holds his own more than adequately. There’s a disconnect, however, between the sheer energy of the songs which carries the first half of the show, versus the descending arc in Lydon’s enthusiasm. The band’s figurehead on stage, his usual physical gyrations are suppressed, he clings to the microphone stand, or hangs an arm over it as if struggling to stay upright. ‘Problems’ seems to telegraph trouble and he sings much of it with his arms firmly crossed, maintaining his statue-still stance, his look of intense boredom, until well into the introduction of ‘Pretty Vacant’. For the encore, ‘No Fun’ becomes utterly pointed as Lydon essentially curls up into a ball and croaks out whatever’s left of his visibly shredded vocal chords. But then that moment of brilliance. It’s exceedingly rare an artist says anything from a stage that isn’t trite or uninteresting, few words spoken into a mic have had such resonance they’ve become legend: Lydon’s last words at Winterland are the rare exception and the perfect casual punctuation closing Sex Pistols’ wild ride.

(The soundcheck has also become available in recent years:

Finest Rotten-isms of the Evening:

“If you can put up with that, you can put up with anything.”

“There’s not enough presents. You’ll have to throw up better things than that, this ain’t good enough…That’ll do. Can we have a couple of cameras?”

“I think it’s fun. Do you want your ears blown out some more?”

“Tell us, what’s it like to have bad taste?”

“Ah haha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.”


Trebuchet: Tyranny of the Beat Pt. 1 and Pt.2

The Tyranny of the Beat Pt. I

I was honoured to be asked by Trebuchet Magazine (thank you Kailas and Naila!) to contribute a brief article to their website…And I totally failed them by contributing a lengthy rant instead! Luckily they’re kind people and found enough of substance in my growling that they were happy to publish it as a two part discussion piece.

In essence, have you noticed how inescapable ‘the beat’ is? In a world of infinite possibility how limited the possibilities used actually are? I’m not talking absolute rejection but I like the thought that my world might be limitless rather than limited by unconscious design.

Tyranny of the Beat Pt. II

When Oasis Ruled the U.K…

Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’: What Happens When You Run Out Of Dreams?

Spent the last few days living with the three disc ‘Be Here Now’ reissue – Oasis, credit to them, they always knew how to cram a single with worthwhile B-sides (always the maximum number of fresh originals every time) and that gives them the depth to sustain a substantial reissue too where most bands can barely fish out a live show to fill up a supposedly ‘deluxe’ edition.

Doesn’t mean I love ‘Be Here Now’ of course. But it’s a moment I recall, that time when Oasis really did feel like something everyone of any age could love. Speaking to so many musicians and journalists these past couple of years, quite a few have spoken of feeling the need for change after 1994 – things had become too pressured, too precious, something lighter was needed to refresh the palette. Oasis provided that to the popular mainstream in the U.K. and for a few years they felt untouchable.




Musical Ability IS in the DNA: Darn…

A side bar topic really, research indicating that there is a genetic component involved in whether someone is able to master a musical instrument or not. In the tales of Kurt Cobain’s upbringing there’s much emphasis placed on the presence of musical relatives and his acquisition of instruments and ultimately on his meeting with the Melvins and other local punk fans which all leads him toward developing a particular style and approach as well as solidifying his musical direction. Actually, none of that emphasis is invalidated by saying that some of his abilities are innate and nothing to do with the environment in which he found himself. An inbuilt ability is nothing if there’s never an opportunity to exercise it (yes, that’s why the socio-economic divide in education matters; some kids would be just as good as the privileged few but are never given that chance – what a waste), likewise a gift for something will come to naught if not pursued and encouraged. Cobain’s family members encourage him to practice which means he gets better, his new friends point him toward a particular sound, his own self-motivation and satisfaction keep him putting in the hours that ensure his instrumental and vocal abilities are sufficient to get him noticed.

Where the genetic element makes a difference to his tale is simply in allowing him to be more responsive to practice and to musical stimulus. One of Cobain’s greatest traits was that he seems to be able to listen to other facets of the underground music scene and very rapidly cherrypick those styles to incorporate them into his own idiom. The Fecal Matter demo covers most of his nascent influences, the January 23, 1988 session is an entire new world of alternatives and options, he takes less than a year to create something tailored to Sub Pop’s specific sound, then between January and September leaves it behind and lets his power pop influences show for the Blew EP bonus tracks, by April 1990 only Lithium has the Pixies-ish dynamic going but by the end of the year he’s perfected it…His talent for hearing things and knowing how to use them within his own vision is what puts him above a lot of players who perhaps had a more singular sound throughout their career (perhaps altered only by changing the cast of collaborators) but couldn’t match Cobain’s very good ear for what made things new and different.

Just placed this one here because it intrigued me. Essentially the modern age in which money goes to technology firms not to publishers, agents or – god forbid – the majority of writers has its plus side (i.e., yes, the majority of people can now create and upload art, photography, music and writing in a form accessible by others) at the same time as it’s hugely reduced the opportunity for anyone to actually practice a creative skill as a full-time occupation outside of the designated corporate business outlets and career paths. An occasional one-off will rise to the top but basically, as those running technology firms and financial institutions can’t comprehend things that aren’t processes of manufacture with a pre-defined and near-guaranteed outcome, there’s an ongoing effort to convert it into something they do comprehend; delivery mechanisms that systematically undermine the power of any individual creator and derive profit from the agglomeration of a large number of micro-payments from which they take their cut with the majority seeing little fruit from their work…Until they re-enter the standard and approved path.

Oh, and this one is just a glorious example of the wealth of random connections the world possesses – intricate ol’ place isn’t it?

The Reformations

In this age of endless reformations it’s easy to overlook the bands who survived as ongoing creative concerns. The indie superstar perennials (i.e., the only bands making enough money to continue to live on music) stand out — Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Melvins — but most others are a rebooted and rehashed occurrence giving bands a chance to finally take the bows they never get first time around. It also somehow feels reasonable, bands that have gained significant posthumous popularity receiving the chance to earn the money they never had an opportunity to first time around — I’m strangely accepting of it.

What’s most interesting is that this is a genuinely new mass phenomenon in music akin to the BBC’s discovery a few decades ago that, contrary to their policy right through into the 1970s which saw them erase numerous tapes of their shows, people often do want to watch repeated content and that there was a market for video recordings of such material. Music, to an even greater extent than television, has been a market piling new trend on latest fashion on quick fad. We’re not much over one hundred years from the first commercially available sound recordings and still witnessing new deviations and adaptations of this cultural element.

The release of greatest hits recordings started fairly early and has never ceased being a critical source of sales. Live recordings soon followed and archive recordings got going by the late Sixties when Jimi Hendrix had appalling trouble with unscrupulous characters reissuing his pre-Experience material and when the first major bootleg releases (Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes) commenced. Tribute records were more recent, the first came out only in 1981, and they’ve maintained a minor league existence ever since. The biggest shift though was the reissue of albums on CD from the mid-Eighties onwards — this gradually led to the desire to move beyond LP lengths and to fill space with bonuses and extras to encourage purchases.

Discovering that people were indeed willing to pay to buy material that, essentially, they already had was a crucial moment. Gradually reissues gained the same weight as new releases, magazines began reviewing them side-by-side, entire reissue sections entered magazines. The record company’s responded to this by placing more weight and effort into the reissues, ladling on the b-sides, the demos, the live shows until eventually the market diverged into straight reissues (usually with the pointless word Remastered emblazoned to try and claim some justification for the release as the reissued albums became CD-era) and the larger Deluxe edition for the fanatics. The arms-race didn’t cease there, however, soon Deluxe editions edged over into three disc versions until eventually the entire concept of the Super-Deluxe came about. Next the programme of reissues became a matter of packaging; the long established concept of the box-set (way back in the 1930s substantial 78 RPM vinyl sets used to come in boxes which was part of their elite cache) became a regular part of the armoury and still people were willing to buy in sufficient quantities to justify further box-sets and anniversary editions.

Somewhere in amidst it all, the same concepts became applied to live acts; if people were willing to pay to repurchase the music, there’s no reason they wouldn’t pay to see the bands essentially engage in high-quality karaoke. Reformations had always happened going right back to the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, but usually a reformation involved new material being written and an attempt to resuscitate a career because of the feeling that progress had to be made. Other artists had never gone away, they’d simply been repackaged into Golden Oldies tours and smaller venues and package tours — but the last decade has seen a fresh development.

The idea of progress has come to a halt. A few decades of seeing that people were quite happy to pay an inflated price to see a band that they never caught in their heyday (i.e., Sex Pistols Filthy Lucre Tour of 1996), as well as the realisation that most long-term artists increasingly end up playing a greatest hits medley as a crucial and favourite component of a show (i.e., everyone from Elton John to Bon Jovi), led to the realisation that a band could be resuscitated and pushed, zombie-like, onto a stage without any need to do anything new at all. This was a cheap and easy way to make substantially more profit than a lot of new acts and ongoing artists would reap — the ticket prices can be higher, the band will take a lower cut to get the second chance, there’s no need to plan around album releases or recording commitments; just get ‘em up, on stage and done. And, of course, that’s a perfectly satisfying music product for the audience; there’s nothing wrong with one quick evening of nostalgia, or that one-off sight of the heroes you never caught working through the songs you never saw when they were still a natural entity.

One element may be that the pop world has degenerated into an endless remarketing of echoes whether in the form of the kareoke contests that fill primetime TV or the reappropriation of tunes wrapped into beat-heavy remixes and major league pop product that fill the charts. With audiences used to the small endorphin thrill of recognition even the most non-mainstream audiences are simply more used to hearing the past reiterated.

And that’s the truth…There’s nothing wrong with it. A few artists, still caught in their own desire for artistic authenticity and a sense of creative validity, take the chance to whack some new music out; but Swans are a rarity in that they’re currently doing phenomenally well by being one of the few outfits to genuinely go someplace new with the music even if I don’t enjoy either of their newest recordings anywhere near as much as I did Soundtracks for the Blind or Swans Are Dead.

Victory and the Damage Done: The Shift in U.S. Rock Music

“Is there a clean white shirt ready for the bomb?”

This film will make more sense to those who are aware of a film called The Snowman — it’s a Christmas tradition in U.K., a whimsical and nostalgic piece in which a young boy enters his garden on Christmas Eve to find his snowman has come to life. The piece is wordless, story conveyed in drawn figures and landscapes and a swooning soundtrack; a warm dream. The piece above is by the same author/artist, Raymond Briggs, very familiar drawing style, childhood associations…And naturally disturbing because of the sheer Englishness of the characters’ responses and discussion — the myth of ‘the last war’ circles through the entire piece. The serious point being that in 1983-1984 the Soviet leadership was genuinely of the view that NATO was preparing a strike against the Soviet Union. Rhetoric from the west was sparking a reaction and that, in turn, led to escalating responses. The Able Archer exercise in November 1983 ( was the closest the world had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Russians genuinely believing the war games were our cover for a pre-emptive strike.

Direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to find when tracing the interaction of the background scenarios that rule over the lives of entire societies and the cultural outbursts those societies then enact. Musical motion arises on the back of and in relation or reaction to previous music; technological shifts drive changes in instrumentation, sound, style and approach; musicians arise from familial, comradely, educational and psychological advantages, pressures or drivers; scenes arise supported by the emergence of supporting infrastructure whether broadcasting media, means of production, venues for dissemination. Music doesn’t, however, float free of the politics or economics that drive a society and that are so intimately intertwined.

In the glow of victory, and contrary to what one might expect, the crime rate in the U.K. and U.S. after World War Two increased — the Golden Age of Bank Robbery was over the next two decades as demobbed soldiers, trained in the use of weapons and explosives, lucratively deployed their talents. While prefabricated homes spread home ownership across the U.S. and suburbia became a new reality, war industry used to churning out metal was retooled to churning out cars. The massive organisation of society that had arisen as a consequence of war never went away, it shifted objectives, names changes but the new institutions and the accepted levels of their intrusion into the daily lives of people had simply become accepted.

(Threads — 1984)

Rock n’ Roll, then whatever it was that was started by The Beatles in the Sixties and evolved into hard rock, heavy metal, punk and so forth tended toward less emotionally revealing lyrics — artful phrasings or vagueness substituted for stark self-examination. This evolved throughout the seventies and eighties, until the heart of mainstream rock music was a macho, dominant, hyper-masculinity that matched the defiant sense of ‘them and us’ that ruled everyday reality — in the U.S. punk barely made a dent on the mainstream leaving the Seventies rock motif to live on. Remember this was a society living under the very real threat of genuine annihilation not by zombies (heh!) but by nuclear weaponry that would halt real life in its tracks with a four minute warning for the U.K. and not much more for the U.S. The renewal of the core rock image, the penis-centric God figure, fitted like tight blue jeans to the early Eighties when figures within the U.S. military scene, in concert with the conservative figures around Ronald Reagan began focusing not on the megadeath perspective of mutual destruction, but on a belief that even amidst the graves of hundreds of millions, there was such a thing as victory in a nuclear future. There was no reason to relinquish the externally directed aggression inherent in the rock star image when there was a vast existential enemy always present.

(The Day After — 1983)

Nirvana lived out their entire youth in a world where everything was about to be blown to smithereens at any moment. By 1987 when Nirvana became a reality, nothing had yet changed. The Pacific North-West was potentially one of the few places where at least some portion of the outlying population might have made it through — a survivalist community did exist in State of Washington — but the background reality of atomic decimation and the collapse of organised society walked in step with a music culture that leaned toward Superman with a pumped up and screaming wild edge that was simply a demonstration that the superheroes of rock music were meant to show we could survive any excess, any destructive act. The drugs, the sex, the lunacy of the mainstream rock scene was part of showing that America was indomitable, indestructible — its denizens did not die when famous, when centre stage, when flaunting their power before the world. This would change.

D.C. Hardcore — Salad Days Film: the Ubiquitous Mr Dave Grohl Guesting


For the record, Ian MacKaye is on my list alongside Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, Michael Gira and Thurston Moore as one of the most epoch-making figures in punk rock over the past thirty years. I make the judgment not on record sales or temporary tabloid worthiness but on being a catalyst for numerous bands and resulting strands of musical endeavour. A sincere salute.

The gentlemen behind this film have entered the production phase but, as they’re essentially self-funding this, I can only encourage and support their request for donations toward the conclusion of this work.

The film seems to provide the cinematic counterpoint to the excellent Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. The surprising quality of the footage, the slivers of revealing interview…And yes, Dave Grohl lines up to discuss his time in DC stars Scream.

By synthesising two guys tied to the North-West grunge scene, with their new drummer from the East Coast hardcore scene, Nirvana essentially placed a full-stop on the underground scene of the Eighties. While various bands and outfits dragged the overall genre in new directions at various points of the decade, the defining geographic entities were Washington DC and Seattle, the defining labels became Dischord and Sub Pop.

There’s a fair argument that the latter learned from the former. Their impact came from tying themselves so firmly to a specific location, they were not just labels based in a particular location, putting out bands who happened to be from a certain place; they made their identity synonymous with the city from which they were from and during their defining days they bound the bands on each label to that same specific identity.

The more open geography of labels such as SST or Alternative Tentacles gathered up many of the best bands playing but never unified those bands. The DC/Seattle identities gave the illusion of a gang, a home turf, people known to each other and gathered round the label flag. That sense of intimacy made each label stand out and makes it impossible to separate the label from the city and the bands from either. It’s comparable to the way bands are regularly portrayed as ‘bands of brothers’. That united front can equally apply to a label or a place and seems equally attractive; a community of people choosing to believe in and support a sound, an approach, a philosophy. It’s, to some extent, illusionary, a projection of external desire for something to belong to onto the bands/labels/people at its centre, but it retains huge power as an idea.

So! Salad Days! Take a look, support, encourage…And sometime soon I hope we’ll see the finished product. Here’s the Facebook group for further updates and beyond that…Scott Crawford and Jim Saah? I salute thee.

Hunting Obscure Grunge & Alternative Music

I’ve posted before about the way in which the age of mass electronics has elevated the work of engineers to gold status, economically, while downgrading the goods created by musicians and writers to junk. Naturally I’m fan of incomplete answers, reality is far more complete than either/or will ever allow for.

One massive benefit of the times in which we live is the ability for the willing amateur to project sigificant quantities of curious and (often) fascinating material out into the world. Over the past few months I’ve been awestruck by some of the work done out there by people tracking down and posting out-of-print and little remembered music from the late Eighties-early Nineties.

I’m not here on Monday so I thought I could draw your attention to some of this now and it’d keep people indulged and amused through Monday. What I do is use to identify bands who crossed paths with Nirvana at whatever point in time then use these sites to locate them…

My top four, all of which I’d like to recommend to you, are:
I bow down in awe to this guy…The very first thing loaded up today is a 1985 Seattle compilation released on cassette with Bundle of Hiss, with Jack Endino, with The Walkabouts all featured. Digging further into the site there’s music from Bible Stud (shared a gig with Nirvana in May 1989), music plus an interview with My Eye… Stunning work and enjoyably expressed.
Wilfully Obscure, meanwhile, does exactly what it says on the tin. This dude must have one incredible vinyl collection because I thought I had deep awareness of long-forgotten music acts but again and again I’m having to look up what this guy comes up with…Incredible. You could listen for days here and always find someone new. Well worth exploring.
Lame Stain meanwhile is leading with a comparison of TAD and Vampire Weekend; quite rightly pointing out the lack of sweatmarks, dampness and stomach disorders in today’s polished-to-a-sheen indie darlings. Useful, I admit TAD are a band I’ve known of without knowing and this is a good antidote. More to come apparently showcasing pre-TAD outlets for the various members.
I like this guy for taking the time to put up his statement of belief at all times – it sums up most of what all these sites are about, sharing music that has been lost in time, letting people know about it, while not disrespecting the artists involved and their rights. There’s a lot of unusual material here straying across punk/metal boundaries and touring the U.S. in an eccentric and all-devouring manner.

Guardian Newspaper Article: 25 Years of Sub Pop

Quite a decent essay over at The Guardian detailing the ongoing history of Sub Pop. Rather like it for paying more attention to the post-Nirvana era and what happened next given how much work has been lavished on the pre-1990 history of Sub Pop’s first flourishing.

Branding and Marketing the Alternative Generation

One of the tragic findings of market research firms and sociologists is that when enough people are lined up under an overall guidance, personality makes surprisingly little difference. Individual morality and beliefs fade, not because the group imposes will on the individual, but because the individual and the group work together to find the point of agreement at which they can coexist while the central decision of the group remains unchanged. It’s simply a case that there are significant boundaries to how exceptional an individual can be – on multiple levels the choices available are constrained by social norms, educational structures, physical requirements, the need to exchange/interact. We’re only exceptional by comparison to a norm, the depth of our exceptionalism relies on what the norm is and can stretch to. It’s why a modern western society can be so accepting of a diversity of life choices and still pull toward an imaginary centre, even without laws mandating a set social reality, and simultaneously why most “alternative lifestyles” aren’t more than a few steps from the norm, they’re expressions of an accepted consensus. That doesn’t mean individuals disappear, it just means the overall significance of individuals fades within wider moments.

That’s where the purveyors of the idea of an ‘alternative nation’ and Kurt Cobain, with his oft-expressed annoyance at the nature of his audiences, both proved tragically deceived. What they were, in fact, doing was observing an overall cultural moment then trying to claim that the music should mean the audience was a specific and unified phenomenon. This meant attempting to place a box round an amorphous and ill-defined component of the whole of late Eighties-early Nineties youth then painting music over the top of them as if music was so clearly decisive in defining social values. Too much energy was invested in setting up an imaginary conflict between those listening to heavy metal, who as a consequence were supposedly macho and sexist; versus those who listened to the next fashion trend in music who were apparently purveyors of enlightenment. Essentially distinguishing aspects of the front-men, characteristics of the band identities, were observed and then assigned uncritically to the audience as if one was a standardised reflection of the other. It produced a simplistic vision in which you, individual music consumer, were not simply listening to Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain, you were a mere blank template on which the media-distorted and accentuated aspects of their personas were projected.

As an aside, the false nature of the ‘alternative nation’ hypothesis set up a moment in which Axl Rose, as a huge fan of Nirvana’s music and of up-and-coming currents of alternative music such as industrial, was fundamentally precisely the alternative consumer being tagged as the ‘alternative nation’ at the same time as being held up as the pantomime villain the ‘alternative nation’ was attempting to topple. The ‘alternative nation’ was a ragged tarpaulin hung over a very broad tent of people and saying nothing about those within its confines. Instead of seeing the gap with reality and then reacting by halting the lazy attempt to read the characteristics of the audience from the item hung over their heads, the challenge was resolved by an appeal to invisible enemies; the claim that some parts of the audience were illegitimate, unworthy, untrue. Of course, as usual with these kinds of witch-hunts, no one actually believed that they could possibly be the person being targeted. It would have been a lot more true to simply recognise that whatever comments could be made about the actions and beliefs of Kurt Cobain or Axl Rose, those actions and beliefs belonged to those individuals and were true or untrue of most of either audience because those two individuals were inherently just part of the generation making up the audience rather than superior to it.

The idea of an ‘alternative nation’ fundamentally undervalued the audiences. The bands tagged as the representative voices of a new generation didn’t arise and then create the audience; those bands arose because that audience was already in existence – the fact it took the means of music production, distribution and promotion time to recognise that there was a music consuming audience, with liberal social values, that would be interested in listening to something more than Genesis, is the crux of the issue. The audience itself was already there and consisted, like any audience, of those who can critically listen and distinguish between fact and fiction and who do think about the perspectives the bands are relaying; plus those who critically listen but primarily to the music rather than the lyrical philosophies and intent; plus those who could give a darn either way. The idea of ‘alternative nation’ was essentially an elitist view in which the masses slavishly follow the ‘great men of history’ and therefore are defined as a single bloc, with a single intent – rather than a temporary accretion of a range of individuals with a range of reasons for listening. It suggested that you, as a member of that audience, regardless of whether you were in a music venue or listening in a public or private location, were indistinguishable from someone in a completely different location.

To reemphasise, it relied on overrating the unified nature of music audiences; a few thousand people in a room pledged to deliver a particular social/political change is a movement, a few thousand people with nothing else to do on a Saturday night and a desire to pump fist/head is just a crowd. Consequently, whether that audience listened to Guns n’ Roses or to Nirvana was a foolish distinction to make; the audience listening to either band didn’t base their views on gender, race or sexual orientation wholesale on the politics of the band they were observing.

The belief that there was ever one single audience for grunge, or more specifically for the music of Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains et al., and that it wasn’t, at least from 1991 onward, primarily a mainstream rock audience, relied on an overestimation of the difference between rock music and this particular sub-category. The music had fed – just as Guns n’ Roses, Poison, Whitesnake did – on Led Zeppelin, on the Beatles, on Black Sabbath, on punk and emerged with a different sound but a vast range of shared characteristics that made them close brethren. If you wanted to state that those specifically pledged to the K Records DIY scene, or those ascribing to Riot Grrl principles, or who were living within one of the small local scenes of any music subgenre that defined itself not by sound but by a particular methodology or philosophy, therefore derived actions or behaviour or opinions from the music – you’d have a case. But within the melting pot of the mainstream, a non-‘scene’ with no core pledge or commitment, trying to distinguish the fans was ridiculous…

…Except it did serve a purpose. Kurt Cobain felt at times he had been rejected and spurned as a sell-out by those who remained in the K Records circle; to what extent this was true versus being representative of his own inner conflicts is hard to say but I’ve yet to see any comments attributed to any of the key figures in the underground scene doing anything other than celebrating Nirvana. From mid-1992 Nirvana’s sound was refocused, attempting to push away from the mainstream tone into which the band had dived. In the background, launching attacks on both Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam simultaneously set up a distinction between a supposed ‘past’ generation, represented by Guns n’ Roses who were busy selling seven million of each volume of Use Your Illusion at precisely the same time Nirvana was declaring them irrelevant, and a ‘false’ generation of fans who preferred Pearl Jam and therefore weren’t real fans. The fact that Nevermind (and In Utero) were selling to precisely the same hard rock audience as Use Your Illusion I and II or Ten or Vs was the background reality; the fact that listening to a record isn’t the same as endorsing all its views was reality; the fact that Kurt Cobain despised the sexist, homophobic, racist and macho element of his audience; none of these made the existence of a cohesive or coherent ‘alternative nation’ a reality.

It also makes explicit how silly it is to accept ‘music journalist reality’. That’s not meant to be derogatory, each group of commentators in society formulates a vision of life in which their particular priority is at the centre whether that places economic uber alles, or politics, etc. Kurt Cobain himself was someone for whom music was of vast importance and who explicitly seemed to define friend or foe through their musical choices and tastes. The result was he was extremely open to a vision of the world in which the young were not individual personalities with a vast range of drivers, motivations, views and visions but could instead be defined according to their music tastes.

Instead, that idea rests in the realms of utopia, like the Leninist idea that a bourgeois vanguard could spark the ‘natural proletariat’ to rise up and take over the revolution; or that anyone and everyone will become an entrepreneur if they’re simply encouraged by changes to the tax system; or that creating a monotone nation with a unifying strand of race, religion or creed will miraculously remove all social tension. Kurt Cobain’s demand in the original liner notes for fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” was always a hopeless request for people to deselect themselves and felt more like a sop to the conscience of the writer than a genuine avenue of progress. The myth of the ‘alternative nation’, unlocatable, hidden, impossible to distinguish from simply ‘the young’ laid a heavy burden on Kurt’s shoulders at the same time as fuelling a good many playground battles but it was always destined for disappointment as reality warmed the Earth and the idea evaporated.