May 12 – Were They Punks? It Wasn’t ‘Black & White’

Regular readers know we like The Stranglers here, and that calling them a “punk” group might have been a stretch. By the 1980s, they’d clearly evolved into a competent pop/new wave band and even in the early days, pigeon-holing them was never Black & White. Which happened to be the title of their third album, which came out this day in 1978.

No one could have accused them of being lazy at that point, it was their third album in a mere 13 months with a couple of standalone singles mixed in there as well. Arguably, a little more time spent on this one might have been beneficial but all things considered, Black & White was an interesting step forward for them. As with their two previous releases, it was produced by Martin Rushent and like those records, it had plenty of fierce-seeming lyrics that had to make you wonder if they weren’t having us all on just a little bit. But they also put in some lighter tunes which pointed to the direction they’d soon take, on songs like “Sweden”. Guitarist and main vocalist Hugh Cornwell had studied at a Swedish university pre-group and they released a fittingly Swedish-language version of it (“Sveriege”) over there, helping the album be the only one from their ’70s catalog to chart in Scandinavia. The band seemed a bit more confident with their instruments and even keyboardist Dave Greenfield got a turn at the mic on “Do You Wanna?”. They played the menacing “Curfew” in 7/4 time. Besides “Sweden”, the more notable songs on the album however would be “Toiler on the Sea” (listen for the reference to a flock of seagulls in it that inspired a certain other band when looking for names), and the raunchy, probably tongue in cheek, bass-heavy “Nice N Sleazy”. As well as their take on Burt Bacharch & Hal David’s “Walk on By” which was memorable to those used to a Dionne Warwick rendition, and a 7” single not originally on the LP. However, they slid copies of the single into the first 75 000 copies of the album.

Most, but all of the reviews back then were positive. Record Mirror gave it 4-stars, and Melody Maker figured while not quite as good as the ones which came before, they gave them credit by showing they could “enlarge their ideas and still come up with good tunes.” The NME figured that at least the album’s A-side was “by far the best work they’ve ever done.” The Trouser Press, on the other hand, found it mostly “forgettable”, an “inferior rehash of earlier work”, except for the single “Nice N Sleazy.” Years later, allmusic concurred somewhat, giving it 2.5-stars, calling “In the Shadows” just “plain silly”, much of the album to be filler but still noting it had “some absolutely stunning moments.”

The British public liked it well enough. It hit #2 there and went gold quickly, while “Nice N Sleazy” hit #18 – their fifth top 20 hit in a year there – and lives on in fame or infamy online…if you dare, look up a live performance of it from a Batterslea concert, which shows what can happen when one of the members of a group has a stripper girlfriend and she has a few friends and they all have a few bottles of libation. “Walk on By”, which spurred on a few comparisons to the Doors (particularly Greenfield’s keyboard solo) got to #21 there.

The Stranglers took a bit more time putting together their next album, but the wait was worth it for fans; most consider The Raven the best of their ’70s works.


April 4 – Tubes Go Outside Their Old Selves To Be Inside Hit Charts

Eventually most adolescents mature – how many leading businessmen or politicians were once wild college frat boys? Rock’s wild frat boys (and girls) of the ’70s began to mature in the ’80s. This made The Tubes a number of new fans, albeit at the cost of alienating some of their old ones. On this day in 1983, the band put out their most successful, and  most mainstream-sounding album, Outside Inside. It was the California band’s sixth studio album, and second on Capitol Records.

Formed out of a loose amalgamation of two Phoenix bands in the late-’60s and became The Tubes in San Francisco around 1972. Through the 1970’s, they were definitely one of the more avant garde acts going… at times verging away from even being a music act as they peppered their shows with burlesque, raunchy skits and costumes and comedy bits. They’d appeared in a porno movie, had a Playboy playmate with them on stage and their records were well… odd more than anything. A&M Records signed them in the mid-’70s and they had minor success, mostly on college radio and briefly in Britain with the single “White Punks on Dope.

As the decade ended, A&M dropped them and singer Fee Waybill was becoming more interested in being a normal musician than a parody. The band signed with Capitol, and one could almost imagine their meeting with the label being like something out of the Office Space movie: “yeah, I’m gonna have to ask you to, you know, be a little more conventional. If you could just be more like, Toto, that would be greeatt!” So it was out with the theatrics, in with ironic business suits…and super-producer David Foster. Their 1981 album, Completion Backward Principle was their biggest to that point and yielded a couple of minor radio hits at home: “Talk to Ya Later” and “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore.” They decided to duplicate the winning formula for the ’83 album.

Once again, David Foster was brought in to produce and this time, they got David Paich, Steve Porcaro, Bobby Kimball and Steve Lukather from Toto, fresh off their work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller to help out on playing the music and Patti Austin and the Motels’ Martha Davis to add to the vocals. Foster and Lukather helped Waybill write the big single off the album, “She’s A Beauty” after Waybill saw a cheap club in San Francisco which had a sign saying “Pay a dollar, talk to a naked girl.” They brought in Davis to sing a duet on their cover of the old ’60s Curtis Mayfield-penned “Monkey Time.” Curiously, Davis then objected to the song being released as a single, and when the album was put out on CD, they re-recorded it with Todd Rundgren’s wife, Michele Gray dubbed in doing the female voice. (And later, the original Davis version was put back on the 30th anniversary version of the album.)

The public loved the “new” Tubes, and the album became the band’s biggest, going to #18 in the U.S. , being gold there and in Canada. “She’s A Beauty” was their only top 10 hit at home and got them great exposure on MTV. Allmusic refer to it as “Absolutely funky…definitely a party record.”

Unfortunately for the Tubes, their next record was called Love Bomb, and it lived up to its name, barely being noticed by radio or at the cash registers. Fee Waybill quit the band for awhile to work on songwriting with Richard Marx, but got back together with them in the ’90s. They still tour regularly, albeit without the vintage theatrics,  Playboy model Re Styles, or longtime bassist Rick Anderson, who passed away recently. They have a number of shows lined up for Britain and Germany this summer.

April 3 – Rockin’ Cars And Guitars No Ball & Chain For Ness

Happy 61st to another recovering-addict who we hope will have a much happier fate than Richard Manuel of The Band (who was born this day in 1945) – Mike Ness of Social Distortion.

Although born in the Boston area, Ness grew up in southern California and grew up fast – by age 15 he’d left home and was on his own, a year or so later he founded his band. Although not as successful as some of the California surf-punk contemporaries like the Offspring and Green Day, Social Distortion has earned a lot of respect through the years since he founded it in 1978 and as critic Steve Huey notes “endure the demise of the L.A. hardcore scene that spawned it.” That may be because while punkish, as allmusic note unlike some punkers Social Distortion is “influenced by American Roots music.” Inspired in equal parts by The Clash, Sex Pistols and Johnny Cash, many first heard them when they did a cover of the latter’s “Ring of Fire” just after signing to Epic Records in 1989. Their 1990 self-titled album and 1992’s Somewhere between Heaven and Hell didn’t rise high on the charts but both eventually went gold in the U.S. and earned them decent airplay on alternative stations thanks to the singles “Ball and Chain” and “Ring Of Fire”. It also made a fan in Bruce Springsteen, who appeared on Ness’ 1999 solo record. Springsteen’s occasionally shown up and joined Mike in his concerts and Ness joined The Boss on stage in one of his 2009 concerts. The band’s still plugging along,although they haven’t made a new album since 2011.

When he’s not busy with them, Ness is probably in, or working on, an old car. He’s a hot rod enthusiast and co-runs a custom car restoration biz, Black Kat Kustoms. Funny he misspells “cat” (“kat”)… believe it or not, one of his few jobs outside of music or old cars was being a school speech therapy teacher!

January 23 – Clash Rocked The Cashbox (And Billboard) 40 Years Ago

In the early-’90s, the world of pop music was thrown for a loop when “alternative” rock became so popular it was suddenly really the mainstream music. A decade earlier though, it was happening on a slightly smaller scale. On this day in 1983, those angry, political punks from Britain, The Clash, were having their finest hour in America and in so doing, standing toe to toe with such decidedly-mainstream artists as Phil Collins and the J. Geils Band. “Rock the Casbah” peaked at #8 in the U.S. 40 years ago.

Three years after they first hit the U.S. airwaves with the similarly upbeat-sounding “Train in Vain” , “Rock the Casbah” quickly became their biggest hit there. That was fitting perhaps since it was recorded in New York, not their home base of London. In the UK meanwhile, at the time it only got up to #30, making it only their sixth-biggest single to that point, although oddly it would make it up into the top 20 in 1991 there around the same time another single from the same album, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” got to #1 there after being used in a Levis TV ad.

The single helped The Clash and their Combat Rock album break through into the American market in a big way, going double-platinum; at home the sales were below London Calling and about on a par with their other three previous albums. What it wasn’t though was representative of British punk rock, nor of The Clash’s sound necessarily, although on their previous couple of records – London Calling and Sandinista – they’d experimented with enough different music genres as to not have a “sound” beyond the gruff vocals of Joe Strummer tying it all together.

The fun, dancy tune is atypical of The Clash in another way. It was the only track written and performed largely by drummer Topper Headon. He had the piano melody in his head and ended up in the studio hours before the other three in the band, so he recorded away, doing the piano work, then his drums and even bass before Strummer heard it. the singer later acknowledged “the real genius of ‘Rock the Casbah’ is Topper.”

What wasn’t necessarily genius was Topper’s lyrics, about his girlfriend, and depending on which person close to the band you ask, either very “sappy” or rather “pornographic.” Strummer looked at them, tossed the lyric sheet in the garbage and started on the witty geopolitical statement we know. The song which gloriously showcases the Middle Eastern dichotomy of both a fascination with and a hostility towards American pop culture was something Strummer had in his mind for awhile. The lyrics had begun falling into place when he’d seen a documentary on Iran, and in an interview aired on I-heart Radio, he said he was astounded to find that having a bottle of Jack Daniels there could get one “forty lashes.” “I was trying to say ‘fundamentalism is nowhere, man’”. Around the same time, manager Bernie Rhodes was complaining to him that his songs were getting increasingly like “ragas” – long, complex Indian musical pieces, which is where that word in the lyrics originated.

CBS Records sensed it had a hit on its hands and remixed it as a single with more bass and the extended vocal bit on the word “jive”, then sent the band to Texas to record the armadillo-featuring video which became an early favorite on MTV.

There were a couple of ironies in the success of “Rock the Casbah.” First, while it was more the work of Headon than any other Clash song, he’d been fired from the group by the time it began its run up the charts. Headon had deepening drug problems which curtailed his ability to perform and didn’t sit well with Strummer. So Topper doesn’t even appear in the video.

More galling to much of the fanbase, is that the U.S. military adopted the song as an unofficial theme or anthem for the 1991 Operation Desert Storm (the mini-war to free Kuwait from Iraq’s grip.) The left-wing band surely never expected their music to be the soundtrack to an American military operation and as one journalist quipped, “the notion of The Clash as spokesfolk for (military) adventurism in the Middle East might have been enough to bring Joe Strummer back from the dead.”

The Clash rocked the casbah, but didn’t rock very much of anything after. Strummer was also getting tired of guitarist Mick Jones as well and perhaps was getting weary of the Clash altogether. They recorded only one more album, 1985’s under-achieving and critically-panned Cut the Crap. That one lacked Jones, Headon and had only a passing involvement from bassist Paul Simonon but did have their business manager in charge of drum machines and production. After that, Strummer knew it was time to move on and leave the band’s legacy alone.

December 24 – Henry Offered Up A Different Kind Of St. Nick-watch

‘Tis the day before Christmas and what better time to take a look at the quintessential little story about December 24? “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was a now-classic poem first published in 1823 in a small newspaper, New York’s Troy Sentinel. Written by Clement Clarke Moore, it told of a “visit from St.Nick”, when all was quiet and not a creature was stirring – not even a mouse! It popularized many of our current ideas about Santa, aka “St Nick”, a jolly old elf who gained entries into houses through the chimney and relied on reindeer power. Certainly a seasonal classic and one put to music a few times. Few however, as memorably as the version by Henry Rollins.

Rollins is an interesting character, best described as “unusual” and most certainly, “intense”.

Rollins was born in Washington DC, but came of age in southern California, where he formed and led the hardcore punk band Black Flag. He got turned that way after a buddy played him the Sex Pistols album,when Henry was about 16. “Well! That’s something!”, he says he thought, and set off to make an American equivalent of sorts. Black Flag had a huge underground following but limited commercial success, but Henry carried on after their demise in 1986 with his own Rollins Band, and his unique blend of …intense…spoken word poetry and loud music described by one journalist as “a bellicose auctioneer.” And, having the energy of a primed punker, plus the brains of an tweed jacketed type, he’s branched into writing books, columns for Rolling Stone and acting, in an array of roles ranging from the intense hockey coach in the Christmas tear-jerker Jack Frost to a character on Sons of Anarchy. Probably an intense one. And he’s found time to work with William Shatner once or twice along the way. Suffice to say they don’t like leaf blowers! So leave it to Rollins to put a different spin on “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. The words are there. So too the helicopters and guns less often associated with Noel-time. So, give it a listen… but I don’t recommend playing it for the kiddies if you want them to be snoozing when that jolly ol’ elf lands on your roof!

November 6 – Pistols Started With A Bang

About a dozen people at St. Martin’s Art College in England got to see something this night in 1975 that probably made them say “Well, that’s something!” In a land where Art Garfunkel, Leo Sayer and Rod Stewart had all had #1 singles in the previous couple of months – the Sex Pistols performed live for the first time ever.

Mind you, only for about 10 minutes. The band had just recruited John Lydon to sing, based on his looks (he showed up at Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Sex’ clothing store with green hair, a sneer and a Pink Floyd t-shirt modified to say “I Hate Pink Floyd”) and given him the name “Johnny Rotten.” They got the gig, opening for a local band called Bazooka Joe, because bassist Glen Matlock was a student there. They played only four songs from all accounts – covers of the Who’s “Substitute”, the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone”, Small Faces “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” and something called “No Lip” by Dave Berry. Apparently they were rather forgettable but very loud. The Pistols likely had planned to do their own “Pretty Vacant” as well, as they had it written by then, but the plug was pulled on them before they could. Some say Bazooka Joe cut the power, worried their amps (which the Pistols were using) were going to be wrecked, others (such as Canadian music historian Alan Cross) say a horrified school official cut off power to the stage! Either way those four unremarkable songs ended up changing the face of modern rock more than any number of better-trained, more accomplished bands of the mid-’70s did.

November 3 – Why We Knew Geldof Long Before Live Aid

Making some good out of a bad situation, a punkish band from across the sea had a big day here 43 years ago. Ireland’s Boomtown Rats put out their third album, The Fine art of Surfacing this day in 1979. (That is on this side of the Atlantic, it had already been a hit at home for a few months.) Although they’d already got a following (and a #1 single in “Rat Trap”) in the UK and their native island, this was the album that introduced them to North America. Interestingly, it was co-produced by Mutt Lange, then still a rather up-and-coming type who’d soon go onto superstardom working with the likes of Foreigner, Def Leppard and his wife-to-be, Shania Twain.

The LP went platinum in Canada, their only such milestone outside of the British Isles, largely due to the song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” That one was a major hit for them everywhere except the U.S. (where some rock stations did play it but it failed to make the top 40). A #1 hit for 4 weeks in the UK and one of the top 10 of the year there, it got to #4 in the Great White North. The song was inspired by a mass shooting at a San Diego school earlier in the year. (Sadly it’s worth pointing out that back then, these types of events were rarities and made major headlines.)  The girl who commit the atrocity answered “I don’t like Mondays” when asked why she did it. Singer Bob Geldof was in Atlanta doing an interview when he heard the news and wrote the song. “It was such a senseless act…so I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it.” It was fairly typical of the band which like The Stranglers never quite fit perfectly in the box labeled ‘punk rock.’ They were fairly accomplished musicians and apparently listened to a range of music that ranged from British glam rock to American Motown. The variety of song types helped the album hit the British and Canadian top 10 and besides the biggie, they scored another top 5 hit in the UK and Ireland with ”Someone’s Looking At You.” While some publications like Britain’s Smash Hits panned it completely, others thought it had merit. Rolling Stone didn’t grade it, and did find the lyrics tended to the glib. They also said “paranoia rears its ugly head an awful lot here” in songs like “Someone’s Looking At You” and the “schizophrenic” “Having My Picture Taken” but applauded the playing, especially the “snap of drummer Simon Crowe’s percussive undertow” and found them to have a “smarmy charm (which) comes from an elusiveness that defies categorization.”

“I Don’t Like Mondays” was the highlight of the Rats set at Live Aid, which of course was organized by the eventually-knighted Geldof. It also more or less ended the band; after dropping sales and Geldof’s obsessive work on the charity, the rest of the band tended to work on other projects and the Rats were “mothballed.”

October 22 – Anarchy In The Florist’s?

The face of British music changed dramatically on this day in 1976, a few months after The Ramones had shaken up the American one. It was on this day 46 years back that what is generally considered the first Brit punk record came out, the single “New Rose” by The Damned.

It’s rather odd they’d be first out of the gates with a record as they were relative newcomers to the exploding punk scene in London, having formed only that summer. They played their first gig in July ’76, opening for the already notorious Sex Pistols. The band included three members of the underground act Masters of the Backside – which also had Chrissie Hynde in it – and Brian James, who’d been in the London SS, which more or less morphed into The Clash.

James says he wrote the song in 15 minutes, and they didn’t take all that much longer to record it. The best-known name associated with the single was its producer, Nick Lowe. Bassist Captain Sensible says it was “recorded purely on cider and speed”, with Lowe around to direct them to play everything loud, according to journalist Chris Bryan.

The fast, raw single opens with them deadpanning “is she really going out with him?”, a reference to the ’60s hit “Leader of the Pack” (and of course, later the subject of a Joe Jackson hit) and the nod to the past didn’t end there. The b-side was a fast, loud cover of the Beatles “Help.

Although the single, released on the ultimate punk label, Stiff, didn’t set the cash registers on fire, hitting only #81 in the UK and no better elsewhere, it did signal a change in the musical tide from the perfectionism of the Pink Floyds and Roxy Musics that Britain was mainly in love with at the time. Goldmine figured that “more than anything outside of the Pistols, ‘New Rose’ brought a focus to the still burgeoning punk scene.” The Sex Pistols themselves would enter the fray with their first single, “Anarchy in the UK” a month later.

The Damned are still around, four decades and various personnel changes on, and in fact scored a top 10 album in their homeland in 2018 with Evil Spirits.

June 20 – Not So Nice In Nice

Not so “Nice In Nice”? The Stranglers were arrested and jailed in the French city of Nice this day in 1980 for “inciting a riot” after a concert of theirs was scrubbed at a local university and students rioted.

The band had a reputation for confrontation and raucous, rowdy shows but this one was a bit beyond their control. When they arrived for the scheduled sold out appearance, the school wouldn’t let them use any additional power outlets – or even have cords touching school property! The tiny sound system in the venue was of poor quality and cut out entirely several times. They found a generator off-site and tried to run overhead wires to it, but it didn’t work causing bassist J.J. Burnel to tell the angry crowd “We’re really sorry, but remember, this isn’t our fault!,” and recommend they see the promoter for a refund. The kids took their anger out on who they figured was to blame – the university, causing about $15 000 damage.

The band blame it on being caught in a power struggle between the student union and local authorities who were at odds with each other long before the concert. They spent a week in jail, eventually paying a big fine, although as drummer Jet Black notes “we laughed all the way to the bank. Before that we were unknown in France, (after) we played to packed houses.” Time heals old wounds – for some. Although Black says he didn’t want to ever go near the city again, Burnel, whose parents were French but grew up in England, has moved to the south of France, saying “there’s more rose (wine), more sunshine, more space” there compared to the UK.  What’s more, Burnel just released a memoir which doubtless covers the week… but those of us who didn’t pay attention in junior high language classes will have to just guess as it’s written in French.

Six years after the jailtime, they penned a song called “Nice in Nice.” Ostensibly a barb aimed at a spoiled woman in a one-sided relationship, it also metaphorically alluded to the French authorities. It was a top 30 hit in Britain but failed to chart in France.

February 21 – Bassman Burnel Britpunk’s Last Man Standing

Happy birthday to the much under-rated bassist J.J. Burnel of The Stranglers. Burnel is 70 today…but you might not want to point that out to the now white-haired karate enthusiast who’s posting a pretty strong case to be considered the last man standing from Britain’s original punk heyday.

Other punk acts have racked up more critical acclaim than “The Men In Black” but few have sold as many records (to date, they’ve notched 11 top 20 albums and 22 top 40 singles in their homeland, spanning a range of genres from the snarling “Something Better Change” to the sillky-smooth “European Female” ) and none have outlived Burnel’s band. Along with guitarist Hugh Cornwell and keyboardist Dave Greenfield, J.J. started The Stranglers (with drummer Jet Black, the owner of a bar they played at in the earliest days, added in soon) way back in 1974 and they’re still going to this day, although only Burnel now remains after Greenfield’s death from Covid two years back. Burnel’s inventive and thundering basslines have always been distinctive (check out their early hit “Peaches” for example) and set the band apart from most of their contemporaries; since Cornwell’s departure in 1990 J.J.’ also become the “face” of the group and frequent lead vocalist.

Burnel was born in London and studied history at university there, but his parents were from France (hence the name Jean-Jacques) so he’s proficient in French and one of his two solo albums was in that language, as was the languid Stranglers single “La Folie” that he penned. Burnel was influenced by John Entwistle (“’My Generation’ – that bassline! I thought that was bloody cool!” he recalls) and Jack Bruce of Cream as a young bassist. In turn, his style and sound – in part created by rips in the cones of his Marshall speakers that creates a bit of distortion- have influenced a number of post-punk acts and artists like Peter Hook of New Order. While he’s not had the accolades of Entwistle, or the more widely-known Sting or Paul McCartney, his talent is undeniable and Music Radar said he can “only be rivalled by The Jam’s Bruce Foxton as the new wave bass hero.” Burnel notes “we’re starting to get (credit) when we’re in the autumn of our careers.” He calls the band a “bunch of old farts” who are “not selling anything, just a good time I hope.” Fans obviously agree. Their 2014 Giants tour was the most successful of any British tour that year and their most recent album, last fall’s Dark Matters entered the UK charts in the top 10.

Burnel had the reputation of being a rather hot-headed, mean character when he was young but now comes across as rather easy-going and humorous. Which is a good thing, because you can also refer to him as “Kyoshi”- an honorary term for advanced Black Belt students of karate. He’s the head of Shidokan UK and considered one of Europe’s top practicioners of the discipline, but of late has resided in the south of France, keeping himself busy enjoying local wine and taking his dog for walks in the hills. The Stranglers are once again on tour in Britain this winter, with Burnel scheduled to celebrate his 70th with fans in Bristol tonight.