The Les Paul Special

Les Paul, the man who did so much to build and develop the solid-body electric guitar, died Thursday at the age of 94. Famously giving helping design the Gibson Les Paul, his name is as synonymous with the electric guitar as Leo Fender. The thick, heavy sound his guitar made when being pumped through a Marshall stack is the sound of pretty much every RAWK record you’ve ever heard (or at least, until ‘80’s poodle rock came along). And if you want to hear loads of those songs, you’ve come to the wrong place.

There's Only Two Les Pauls

There's Only Two Les Pauls

Sorry, that was a bit abrupt. But I’m not a huge RAWK fan. Whilst I’m always partial to a bit of Led Zep or Guns’N’Roses, my thing’s always been at the more esoteric end of the rock spectrum. So, when I heard the news of Les Paul passing away, my thoughts didn’t go to Slash, they went to The Pixies, Manic Street Preachers, and Low.

Yes, Low.

Because Low, one of the quietest bands ever to grace this fair earth, play Les Pauls (or rather, Alan Sparhawk does). Seeing them live some years ago, they came on and started playing “When I Go Deaf”. As they suddenly kicked off into the loud part, Alan started sawing and pulling at his Bigsby-rigged Les Paul for all it was worth, and carried on even after the drummer and bassist had stopped playing. A fantastic moment.

Alan, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

Alan, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

For a band whose whole ethos is pretty much the negative image of the Les Paul-toting rock gods, it’s a great trick to use the same instrument to create slow, (mostly) quiet beauty, as they had used to play songs like Kashmir.

It’s the same with The Pixies. Although Black Francis used a Fender Tele (with the occasional Strat), Joey Santiago was a Les Paul man. And it was unlikely that such a truly unique sound had ever been made before Joey strapped on his plank. I can still remember hearing “Bone Machine” on John Peel one night, back in 1988. Sounding like nothing I’d ever heard, the lead guitar was discordant and twisted, screaming in unison with Black Francis.

Joey, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

Joey, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

And more was to come, with Doolittle taking Surfer Rosa’s twisted goodness and adding a huge hit of pop nous.

Mmmm, a gold Les Paul.

Last off, The Manic Street Preachers exploded out of Blackwood, South Wales in the early ’90’s. Can’t say I was a massive fan of them at first, what with me not liking The Clash and all that, but eventually James Dean Bradfield’s fantastic singing and playing, and their great way with a tune, won me over.

James, A Les Paul, and No Bigsby

James, A Les Paul, and No Bigsby

They always said they wanted to sound like Guns’N’Roses, and on “Motorcycle Emptiness”, they sound like what Guns’N’Roses would have been if Slash had spent his childhood listening to Nick Drake.

So, three bands all using Les Pauls in ways that probably made Les Paul himself come out in a rash. Rest in peace, Les, and thanks for making music so much better.

MP3: When I Go Deaf by Low

MP3: Bone Machine by The Pixies

MP3: Motorcycle Emptiness by Manic Street Preachers

Buy Low’s “The Great Destroyer” (CD/MP3)

Buy The Pixies “Surfer Rosa & Come on Pilgrim” (CD) (What, you haven’t got this already?)

Buy Manic Street Preachers “Forever Delayed: The Greatest Hits” (CD)

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The Pitchfork 500 Post Punk (2) – This Heat to Devo

Post punk became such a powerful musical force thanks to its combination of the original punk ethos – to just do it, goddammit – and adding a sense that music had to be rewritten and experimented with. And from that combination came some startlingly original music. From the strange noise of This Heat to the squawking punk-funk of James Chance and the Contortions, these nine tracks take the startling originality of early post-punk and added all sorts of gubbins (Trust me. I’m typing this whilst listening to the James Chance track and “gubbins” is the only word I can think of).

I’d never heard of This Heat before, so when I first played “24 Track Loop”, I thought, hold on, someone’s just copying Aphex Twin and “Red Mecca” period Cabaret Voltaire. Until I realised that this came three years before that Cabaret Voltaire record and, ooh, 14-odd years before Jolly Mr Aphex’s first release. Quite frankly, it’s bonkers. Clanging metallic drums, odd noises coming out of the mix, echoing hand-claps, it sounds utterly extraordinary and quite unlike anything of the time. The claustrophobia envelops you turning you into a paranoid wreck. And it hasn’t aged one bit. I know bugger all about them, by the way, and for once I’m going to keep it that way. Keep a bit of mystery, you know.

This is the value of a list like the Pitchfork 500 – even if you know your modern music pretty well, there’s still plenty in there to surprise you. This is one of those tracks for me, and I hope you enjoy it too. Well, maybe “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word for it.

From bonkers clanging electronic noise to the joyful, dub-tinged tunes of The Slits. Seemingly more famous now for that album cover, The Slits’ music was a frothy mix of punk, ska, with a bit of funk thrown in. “Typical Girls” was their first single and a great example of what they did; sarky lyrics with far more imagination than you’d have expected from a punk band. Which is why they are called post-punk, I suppose. The song rails against the marketing of an idealised teenage girl, who “Don’t create\Don’t rebel” and the girls who go along with the plan. You can hear The Slits in all those Riot Grrrl bands of the 90’s, but as is so often the case, the original is by far the best.

Cut Album Cover

Next up, The Pop Group. Ah, punk-funk! Gotta love it. Mark Stewart, the man who tried to do for Bristolian what Mark E Smith did for Mancunian. Squawk! Honk! Crash! Ooo-aar! Both The Slits and The Pop Group had the tribal thing going on, clearly audible in this track “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”; though The Pop Group are nowhere near as easy to listen to as The Slits. Anyway, not my (Pig) bag, but fun anyway. A prize to the first person to comment on why I just said that*.

The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” is another of their “working class heroes” tunes, though thankfully this time sung by someone not privately educated in the colonies. Helps a bit, that.

Speaking of posh people making loud music, James Chance was a conservatory-trained musician who surrounded himself with people who couldn’t play instruments, as it made them easier to boss around. He was a legendary nutter and a compelling front man – tiny, dressed in a suit, always willing to pick a fight with the crowd. The track “Contort Yourself” bears more than a passing resemblance to a punch up in a musical instrument shop, in a ska-punk-funk-jazz style, and is all the better for it. Squawk! Honk! Crash! A bit like a New Yawk No-Wave version of The Pop Group, really.

Suicide, another bunch of New York No Wave art-rockers, made this unexpectedly lovely song in 1979 and accidentally invented U2. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s great. Suicide were seen as the godfathers of the No Wave movement, not surprising given that they were about 87 at the time. Again, they rather enjoyed a good punch-up with the audience and positively courted violence, revelling in having stuff thrown at them. “I got hit one time in the eye with a wrench!” says Alan Vega, proudly.

It goes almost without saying that drugs were heavily utilised by the No Wavers.

Ah, Cabaret Voltaire. I was an enormous Cabs (see?) fan in the 80’s. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they actually wanted to try and make you dance, if in a somewhat geeky way. Part of the Sheffield scene that also spawned The Human League, they never quite hit the mainstream in the same way but were hugely influential. Cabaret Voltaire assembled their own bits of technology, and put them together in new ways (like putting drums and keyboards through fuzz pedals), to make a unique sound. “Nag Nag Nag” isn’t really representative of their ouvre (heh), as they refined themselves quite quickly after this, for example on 1984’s “Sensoria”, with its freaky video, and on 1981’s “Yashar”, with its middle-Eastern beats. Saying that, this track is a reasonable place to start. And it used to be on Boy George’s answerphone, fact fans.

And next….Throbbing Gristle. From their name (can you guess what it’s slang for?), to their background in performance art which involved some really quite disturbing acts, Genesis P-Orridge’s collection of bizarre individuals (including an ex-porn star and a man who specialised in sexual extremism) were possibly the most shocking band of their era. Their music frankly sucked. Saying that, Peter Christopherson and John Balance did make some good (if also rather disturbing) music as Coil, including some jingles for commercials. No, I didn’t quite believe that either.

And finally, Devo. When I was growing up, Devo were one of those annoying, geeky, whimsical US bands who seemed to exist to solely get on everyone’s nerves. Yes, look, you’re all dressed the same! And geekily! Or like robots! At the time, they just looked and sounded like annoying college boys. But listening to this track “Mongoloid” I went and did some research (yes, I do research these articles, you know), and found that their history was somewhat darker. For one, two of the founder members were involved in the Kent State University shootings, and indeed one of them was close friends of two of the dead students. So their take on it was to either join an armed militia gang or to form a band. Again, they used the new technology of the day to make genuinely odd, new music.

I still don’t think they are very good, though. Oh, and what can I say about this:

(Whilst the “story” part of B&B was always a little lame, some of the comments about the videos were, frankly, genius. This stream of conciousness rant from Beavis ranks amongst the best, over Devo’s biggest hit.)

So, punk-funk, ska-funk-punk, electronica, geek-punk, noise, general oddness, what unites these bands? Well, most of them couldn’t play their instruments that well, so they experimented with sounds, with the instruments, with what constituted music. They removed vital elements (drums, guitars, melody itself) and shaped it into something new. They united completely disparate genres into new, funky, bloody messes. Instead of just picking up a guitar and hitting a couple of chords and shouting, they tried to be totally different to what came before, especially if being different involved shouting. And in some of these songs there are genuinely new, startling ideas. For some of these bands (This Heat, Devo) this would pretty much be their high point; for others (Cabaret Voltaire) would go onto much better things, and for others still (Throbbing Gristle) the music was secondary to being shocking. But, The Clash aside, nothing on here sounds much like anything else.

*There isn’t really a prize.

24 Track Loop by This Heat

Nag Nag Nag by Cabaret Voltaire

The whole list is available here.

The Pitchfork 500 Goes Punk – Sex Pistols to Wire

When I was a kid, punks were scary. Not quite as scary as the skinheads that followed them, but the whole mohican and Doc Martens thing was pretty threatening to a seven year old. Even now, the sight of a proper skinhead in Docs:

This Is England

Still scares me a teeny little bit. But listening to Sex Pistols now, it’s almost hard to see why. There’s nothing particularly scary about them; in fact, it’s almost poetic: “When there’s no future\How can there be sin?\We’re the flowers in the dustbin”. Scrub that – “There is no future\In England’s dreaming” – it’s poetry.

God Save The Queen

But at the time, of course, it was a massive shock. No song had quite shocked the nation before. The media were up in arms. And there wouldn’t be anything quite like it until “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood some years later. We all know now how Malcolm McLaren shamelessly and ruthlessly played the media for ultimate sales value, but you know what? Good. Great Britain in the mid-70’s was a fucking miserable place and we needed the excitement. Whilst Sex Pistols were never exactly groundbreaking – musically they did nothing that wasn’t done 10 years earlier by Iggy and the Stooges and MC5 – they understood how to get a message across. And the message was, we’re in it for the money, and you can do this yourselves.

And so people did. One of those bands was The Clash, led by a diplomat’s son, Joe Strummer. Now there’s always been something about The Clash that didn’t sit right with me. They always seemed contrived, trying too hard (the reggae? Yeesh), and I always thought there was an aura of middle-class kids being working class heroes about them. Listening to (White Man In) Hammersmith Palais doesn’t change this one tiny bit. And it’s my blog, so I can say what I like.

Rock the Casbah’s alright though.

So Sex Pistols were chancers, copying dirty American rock and roll, and The Clash were posh kids playing at being poor. Who were the Buzzcocks then? I’d say they were the first band to really take the punk ethic and make genuinely great records. And Ever Fallen In Love is, alongside “Teenage Kicks” (coming later in the list), truly the best pop-punk tune ever. It takes the punk sensibility of playing the E-shape (ok, Em shape), moving it up and down the neck of a cheap guitar, and mixing it with a pure pop nous of the best anything The Beatles came up with (and I really am not a fan of The Beatles either). Pete Shelley sings of a love that should have stayed unrequited, making him “feel I’m dirt”, with the realisation that “we won’t be together much longer”. Now, I’m still unsure of Pitchfork’s reading of it that it’s about a homosexual or feminist relationship, but given that it was written not long after he’d broken up with his fiancee and before he came out as bisexual, there could well be something in that.* It’s one of the first truly emotional songs of the punk era, and it’s rawness and hurt shine through today. Like a cut that won’t heal and has gone all pus-y. What a lovely image, eh?

How could you tell?

How could you tell?

The next three songs in the list, Vic Godard and the Subway Set’s “Parallel Lines”, X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” and The Adverts “One Chord Wonders”, are in some ways stereotypical punk songs, low on musical skill but big on attitude and passion. And the sax in “Bondage” livens it up no end. You can’t beat a good bit of sax.

And onto the last song for today. Wire are a bit of a funny one to me. I’m a huge fan of their quite unpopular “A Bell Is A Cup…” period. Or rather, when I say “quite unpopular” I mean “No-one ever talks about it any more, rather like that strange uncle who used to let his nieces sit on his knee and wear lederhosen and is now detailed at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and is on special lists”. Maybe I’m getting it all wrong, but no-one ever mentions that album. Hey, maybe it’s next on the “What Shall We Revive Next?” list and at some point in 2010 everyone will release records sounding just like it. I’ll do a post about it soon, as I’ve been listening to Silk Skin Paws a bit lately. Anyway, back to Ex Lion Tamer.

You can tell that Wire were a cut apart from the rest even with this early effort (unlike Joy Division’s early punk efforts as Warsaw, which were just a bit crap). Just listen to the lyrics: “Next week will solve your problemsBut now, fish fingers all in a line”. Er, what? Yes, a big touch of the old Art School with this lot, but still quite special**. So why, I hear you ask yourself, do I like Wire for being a bit posh and still being punks, but not The Clash? Well, I guess it’s because with Wire, they never tried being anything other than their deeply strange selves, whereas The Clash always wanted to make you believe they were someone else. It’s a verisimilitude issue, I reckon.

I knew I could get that in there somewhere.

And where the fucking hell is Ian Dury??? Damn Americans. Can’t trust them with anything.

Anyway, next it’s D-I-S-C-O.

*Yes, I do realise that if I spent a bit more time researching this I’d probably find a quote from Pete saying “Ever Fallen In Love” is about his first homosexual relationship. Look, this isn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica.

**Special, as in good, as opposed to special, sits at the back of the special bus licking the window

Ever Fallen In Love by The Buzzcocks

Ex Lion Tamer by Wire

The whole list is available