Saturday, 29 May 2021

The spirit of 1977-78 - Ten favourite punk-new wave albums

The classic period for punk and new wave was 1977-1978 (with a bit of overlap from 1976 and 1979). I have included here ten albums that I know back to front - every note, every word. I played them all endlessly during that period.

I have attached small paragraphs from my larger reviews to sum up what I feel about them.

* To read detailed track-by-track reviews, click on the images.

The Clash - The Clash (1977)

One of the genuine cornerstones of the UK punk explosion, this absolutely seminal breakneck ride through thirteen two minute or so songs, plus Police And Thieves, is so vital to understanding the seismic shock that punk was to the music scene in 1977. I vividly remember a friend of mine getting his first car and we drove from Buckinghamshire to Manchester for the sake of it - just because we could, sleeping the night in the car in a backstreet in the city’s warehouse district. We had one cassette to play - this album. We played it over and over, there and back. Its effect was that remarkable. We loved every minute - the buzzsaw guitar, the frantic drums, the rumbling basic bass and Joe Strummer’s barked, often incomprehensible vocals. "The only band that matters" - so the often-used cliché goes whenever The Clash are being discussed. While this was somewhat hyperbolic (and one suspects, self-perpetuated), the mythology around this ground-breaking UK punk group always had a certain amount of truth in it - guitarist Mick Jones' West London high-rise tower block upbringing, bassist Paul Simonon's initial lack of ability, drummer Topper Headon's unpredictable temper, Joe Strummer's middle-class upbringing and so on. Well, you know what they said - well some of it was true.

The Ramones - The Ramones (1976)

In 1976-1977 the world had not seen anything like The Ramones. Who were they ? What were they? How did they come about? Let’s be honest, The Ramones were an extremely odd bunch, like the four geekiest/sociopathic kids at school gathered up in one group. But what a revolutionary sound they produced. For such a beautifully simplistic band, their influence has been immense, musically and culturally. Ramones T-shirts are still de rigeur, all these years later. The Ramones took the essence of rock 'n' roll, surf pop, girl groups and strip it right down to the basics - guitar, bass and drums and made it louder and breakneck fast. It was brash, silly, uplifting and bloody well in your face exciting. Bizarre lyrics, buzzsaw riffs, thumping drums, frantic songs that rarely exceed three minutes (if not two). Music had never really seen or heard anything like it. It really was a ground-breaking album in its totally goofy simplicity. It was the very antithesis of all that "prog rock" indulgence. Short, sharp and machine gun loud. As I said earlier, they were odd characters too - four weirdos masquerading as "brothers" with the "surname" Ramone - grotesquely tall and spindly Joey, looking like some strange wading bird (but the most sensitive and intellectual of the group); borderline psychopath druggy Dee Dee; disturbingly right-wing, reactionary Johnny and drummer Tommy who you always felt was the slightly detached, more "normal" one. All wearing leather jackets and torn jeans, they were a fashion sub-culture personified. They had geeky obsessions with comic books and their imagery, Nazism, Communism, mental health and, surprisingly, sunshine and summer surf fun (odd because they all looked pretty unhealthy). They also had long hair, something supposedly anathema to punks. Yes, a decidedly odd group but what a group too.

The Jam - All Mod Cons (1978)

The previous album to this one, This Is The Modern World, saw main singer-songwriter Paul Weller supposedly suffer from "writer's block". I am not sure about that. The album sounded pretty good to me. Nevertheless, he has admitted himself that he was struggling for creativity before it all suddenly came together with, this, The Jam's finest album. The punk pretensions and 60s r'n'b stylings of the first album and, to a lesser extent, the next one, were gone by now. The songs became increasingly sophisticated, intelligently structured and lyrically surprisingly observant and mature for some in Weller who had only recently turned twenty-one. The band still was a three-piece, Weller on lead guitar, Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums and it had never sounded as tight or as accomplished as here.

The Tom Robinson Band - Power In The Darkness (1978)

What a debut album this was. It had taken the Tom Robinson Band seemingly ages of "cult band" existence before it finally hit the streets in the hot May of 1978. It is up there with The Clash, Inflammable Material, Ramones, Rattus Norvegicus, Talking Heads 77 and New Boots And Panties as one of the best debut album entries into the music world of the late seventies. It burned with as much anti-establishment fire as any of the punk offerings, in fact, probably more so. I would say it was the most politically potent of all of them. It was such a shame that TRB's fire extinguished so soon after it had taken light.

Blondie - Parallel Lines (1978)

Released in September 1978, only seven months after Plastic Letters, this was the album that everyone remembers Blondie for. It was of those albums that contained multiple hit singles - the power pop of Picture This, the punkier kick-ass rock of Hanging On The Telephone, the disco groove of Heart Of Glass and the melodic radio-friendly singalong pop of Sunday Girl. Added to that, everyone seemed to know One Way Or Another too, or at least they do now. There is not really a duff track on the album. They also managed to subvert the mainstream impassively by doing what so many other artists were doing by 1978 and went full on disco with Heart Of Glass. It made them many new fans who were certainly not punks or even new wave fans but people who enjoyed the commercial sounds of this mega-selling single as well as the other singles. Ironically, by doing a disco song to be deliberately uncool, by their own admittance, Blondie had made new wave cool. They were not part of the cultish CBGB sub-culture anymore, they were firmly part of the mainstream. Blonde hairdos emerged all over the place. Regular girls found a way into punk via Blondie too, which previously had been difficult, unless they wanted to go down the Siouxsie Sioux route, which many didn’t. Here, by looking like Debbie Harry, they could get their punk kicks while not going the whole gothic hog.

Mink De Ville - Cabretta (1977)

Before Springsteen, for me, for a few months, was Mink De Ville. I first heard him with the Spanish Stroll single in 1977 which was his first (and only) hit. Springsteen was still something of an unknown quantity to teenagers such as myself back then so this sharp-suited American with a Lou Reed-style voice fitted the bill perfectly as many of us who, despite loving the energy and anger of punk, were still ripe for the picking for the more melodic, poppy but credible, street-wise strains of "new wave". Coming out of New York's CBGB's venue were Blondie, Mink De Ville and The Ramones (who, despite their obvious punkiness, had a real love for sixties bubblegum pop). I loved the whole "West Side Story" image of Willy De Ville, the tough but tender image and the saxophone-driven, soulful rock that his excellent band played. Springsteen would be along in a few months for me to take that much further, but, first of all, it was Willy De Ville that filled that rôle. I thought he was impossibly cool and let everyone know, also taking to wearing pencil-thin ties and a pair of turquoise winkle-picker style shoes. That was my punk image, as opposed to spiky hair and safety pins. There were a fair few who went down that road of "street cool" too.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions - This Year's Model (1978)

After Elvis Costello burst on the "New Wave" scene as part of the now legendary stiffs tour in 1977, he followed his debut album My Aim Is True with this even better offering. Now with his own band in place, The Attractions (the first album was played by session musicians, part of a band called Clover), Costello really developed his and his band's unique sound. Where Clover had been all jangly country-sounding melodies, The Attractions were like an amphetamine-fuelled, aggressive punky rock'n'roll outfit. Costello stated later that The Rolling Stones' Aftermath was a big influence on this album. Based around keyboardist Steve Nieve's piano and trebly, parping organ, Pete Thomas's pounding drums and Bruce Thomas's bass, Costello's choppy lead guitar and contemptuously spat-out invective lyrics, they had a unique sound. A great example of this is the breakneck, punky hit single Pump It Up and the frenetic, just over a minute long opener No Action. There were none of the previous album's unthreatening country rockers, this was a proper punk meets new wave offering, maybe one of the first of its kind. One felt that My Aim Is True had "played with being punk", to an extent, due to its stripped down, edgy sound, but that this was the real thing.

Ian Dury & The Blockheads - New Boots and Panties!! (1977)

Ian Dury's impressive and cultish debut saw new wave meet music hall vaudeville. The Dickensian Ian Dury cut an odd figure in the punk-new wave explosion. Firstly, he was already thirty-five and had been around the block, so to speak, secondly, his influences were far more soul, reggae, funk, traditional cockney music hall and even disco than rock or punk. Indeed, his attempts at breakneck punk haven't aged well and now sound somewhat clumsy and archaic. It is his funkier, witty numbers that still carry an appeal. 

Stiff Little Fingers - Inflammable Material (1979)

Stiff Little Fingers' rudimentarily-recorded and comparatively long-awaited debut album is their equivalent of the first Clash album, even to the extent of featuring lots of two minute, searing punk thrashes and one extended cover of a reggae number - in this case Bob Marley's Johnny Was. It all just takes me back to those early Fingers gigs, pogoing and fist-pumping. I first saw them in 1978, supporting The Tom Robinson Band. I had come to see Tom, but SLF just blew me away, serving up an electric, angry, searing wall of sound. Jake Burns sang, guitar in hand, with such a visceral intensity while Henry Cluney looked like a school nerd who somehow ended up in a band - but that three guitar attack of Jake, Cluney and Ali McMordie. Wow. I was hooked from that moment.

The Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)

There can be no under-estimating the seismic cultural effect of this thirty-odd minutes. I can remember to this day buying it, with its iconic yellow cover and “up yours” title plastered provocatively all over it. I was eighteen at the time. I brought the album home and left it defiantly on the kitchen table for my mother to see. Hoping for her to be suitably appalled, I returned to find that she just shrugged her shoulders and giggled. So much for my own little revolution. Back to the album, its effect launched a hundred punk bands and generated a feeling among the young that they could question the established order of things, they did not need to be deferential to their elders and they could tell people to fuck off with impunity - “there’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply....” Of course, real life was never really completely like that, but there was a change, for sure, however small, there really was, and a lot of it was down to this album. Was there ever a better album to be released when you were eighteen? Surely not.

For many other artists' work, check out my full punk and new wave index of reviews here :-

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