Rock Docs Spotlight: “Blitzkrieg Bop”

The “strong, hard and raw” sound of the early New York punk scene comes back in all its gritty glory on this shoestring VHS title that I recently plucked from Rock Doc obscurity for three dollars at a consignment/antique shop in Providence, RI. It’s times like these that make me glad I have kept a functional VCR around. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is an unfancy 52-minute field report from CBGB frontline that was likely produced for a local TV broadcast. That it even got to videotape seems remarkable: there are no production credits or even a copyright date (though I’m guessing 1978 or ’79).

What you do get is complete performances of eleven songs (five from the Ramones and three each from Blondie and the Dead Boys) interspersed with straight-man narration and interview snippets with band members and notable rock scribes like Charles M. Young, John Rockwell and Robert Christgau (CBGB owner Hilly Kristal also appears). Although the narrator gamely comes to grips with the whole “punk cult” thing, he edges into an unintentional Rod Serling tone at times and overall there is a bit too much emphasis on the genre’s “violent-oriented imagery.” There is much discussion of Ramone titles “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat” (“with a baseball bat”) while often missing the point of the group’s comic-book shock value and downplaying more celebratory numbers like “Rockaway Beach.”

Although material of the film is hard to find, there are some YT clips of its Ramones Oct. 1977 CBGB show highlights.

The five songs by the Ramones are great, often electrifying, seen at a career peak two weeks before the release of their classic “Rocket to Russia” LP. The other two groups are captured in fine form as well. Blondie, featuring a more animated Debbie Harry than her cool image may suggest, do the ever-popular “X Offender” (called “You Just Had to Laugh” on the label) as well as “Rifle Range” and the sultry “In the Flesh.” The “controversial” Dead Boys (originally from Cleveland) grind out their signature “Sonic Reducer” and two others, the surly stage antics of singer Stiv Bators and guitarist Cheetah Chrome are preserved for all to see.

Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone contemplate a day trip to Rockaway Beach.

Sure it’s all a bit raucous, but fascistic? Unfortunately, the doc does go down that road courtesy of Mr. Christgau, who in a three-way discussion with other writers implies pretty vehemently that the Ramones’ messaging could one day lead to extensive right-wing violence. Wait, what? At first, I thought it was a put-on by the famous record-rater who gave “Rocket to Russia” an A. But it doesn’t appear to be unless he was indulging in some form of rock-critic performance art. Either way, I would have to give Christgau’s contribution to the film a D-.

Unsurprisingly, it is the band members who come across as the most level-headed. All agree in some way with the notion of punk’s affirmative value by way of rambunctious fun, subculture community-building, and the encouragement provided to find your own voice whether it be in music, art, fashion or whatever. The film ends with the Ramones’ tearing thru “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” Billboard’s greatest ever #1 hit that only made #81.

In the song, Sheena has to break away from the boredom of her surroundings, discovering that “New York City really has it all.” Thing is, she made that discovery during the Big Apple’s troubled decade, when it was beset by crime, arson, bankruptcy and white-flight. A new insurgent creative class streamed into a desolate Lower East Side and made their own pop-culture history. That New York bears little resemblance to today’s hyper-gentrified city. Yet documents like “Blitzkrieg Bop” help preserve that spirit in spite of a few ill-informed digressions.

If you like this article and are interested in my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey,” please leave a message below.

–Rick Ouellette

Go Placidly While You Still Have the Chance: A Pop History of the “Desiderata”

A certain little inspirational prose poem, which was born (if not completed) 100 years ago, has a few fascinating backstories. Authored by the Indiana writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) “Desiderata” been a touchstone of plain-spoken revelation for untold thousands, if not millions, of folks worldwide. Much of its popularity comes from the 1971 hit recording narrated by Les Crane (more on him in a minute) and featuring a soaring choir that assured one “You are a child of the universe.”

Even the origin of this famous work was once shrouded in a mystery born of a misunderstanding. In 1927, Ehrmann registered his poem for copyright but only included the first phrase “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste” adding only an “etc.” Although there would be further attempts to secure a proper copyright (esp. by Max’s widow after his death), there were lapses along the way and the “Desiderata” (in Latin, “things desired”) fell into the public domain around 1960. That is about the same time that St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore included it (unattributed) in a booklet of inspirational works. Someone took the listed date of the church’s founding, 1692, as the date of composition, suddenly giving the 35 year-old work the gravity of an newly discovered masterpiece of the early Enlightenment. This may also be why so many of the “Desiderata” posters that adorned college dorm walls used Gothic-type fonts.

A Desiderata mis-attribution on a radio survey from October of ’71. Still, it would prove way more popular than the other two new releases.

Of course, the poem’s popularity skyrocketed with the hit record in ’71. In a way, Les Crane may have been an odd MC for the record’s proto-New Age platitudes, asking us to “remember what peace there may be in silence.” He made his name in 1963-64, as a semi-controversial late-night TV host, being one of the first to try and go up against Johnny Carson. His show featured risk-taking political debates, unusual guests (Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother) and his signature shotgun microphone which he used to get hot takes from people in the audience. He was also a civil-rights advocate, respectfully interviewed both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and had one of the first openly gay guests on TV (Randy Wicker). To cap off his Sixties’ bona fides, Crane was also married at the time to actress Tina Louise, who played Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Les Crane on his TV show in 1964.

With Crane’s portentous, deep-toned narration and the unsubtle female chorus, “Desiderata” may sound a little hokey 50 years on, but Ehrmann’s sensible, Middle-American wisdom is needed now more ever. Many may think that given the events of recent history it is all but impossible to “avoid loud and aggressive persons” who “are vexations to the spirit.” And while I am personally referring to an orange-haired monstrosity who was until very recently the U.S. president, there is good advice here on both sides of the political aisle. People who loathed Trump are aghast at his followers who have distressed themselves with “dark imaginings.” Yet they may also try and understand that “many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness” and not just react to this phenomenon with the same rigid animosity that it unleashed. As hard as it my be in the deafening world of 24/7 news cycles and ubiquitous social-media indulgences, I believe it is still of great importance to try to “speak one’s truth quietly and clearly, and to listen to others.”

Crane’s record reached as high as #8 on the singles chart and won a Grammy in the Spoken word category. Les had thought, as did many back then, that the words had been passed down thru antiquity. When he found out otherwise, Crane (who died in 2008) did the right thing and paid royalties to the Ehrmann estate.

Given the record’s grandiose arrangement, it should be of no surprise that a “Desiderata” parody would follow, and a year later the incorrigible cast of characters at National Lampoon happily obliged with “Deteriorata” from their pop-culture spoof album called “Radio Dinner.” These two records together should convince a thin-skinned world that it is both possible to have ideals and a good subversive laugh in the same lifetime. The Lampooners (the female singer is a young Melissa Manchester, a year before her fist solo LP) let us in on a little secret right off the top: “You are a fluke of the universe/You have no right to be here.” The music (arranged by future Spinal Tap member Christopher Guest) clings stickily to the original and they scored a coup by getting famed actor/announcer Norman “Voice of God” Rose to play the baritone announcer. In the parlance of today, wicked parodists like NL may be seen as “haters” but “Deteriorata” is also sprinkled with helpful life-coaching (“rotate your tires” and “know what to kiss, and when”) and bright-side thinking: “Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment, there is always a future in computer maintenance.”

Not surprisingly, the Lampooners lose the plot for a moment along the way (“For a good time call 606-4311… ask for Ken”) but soon get back on track, assuring us that “whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.”

Now don’t that make you feel better? So while it is increasingly difficult to “Go placidly amid the noise and haste” it’s not impossible. And whether you prefer earnest inspiration or wicked satirical humor, use what you need to get there. Because even if (as NL would have it) “the universe is laughing behind your back” there is no reason why you can’t turn around and laugh right back.

Machine Age Masterpiece: Bethlehem Steel’s Singular Second Act

The gargantuan Bethlehem Steel plant towers over the Lehigh River in its namesake city in eastern Pennsylvania. It closed in 1995 amid sweeping changes in the global economy and laid dormant after the three-year site cleanup that followed. Since 2011, the facility has been renamed Steel Stacks and forms a dramatic backdrop to a complex that includes an arts center, a cinema, a PBS station, a museum of industry, and an outdoor concert venue among other things. Some sort of adaptive re-use was almost a given: the facility is so mammoth that it defies demolition. The city has constructed a three story-high walkway, stretching out probably close to 2000 feet, where visitors can get up close and personal to this facility. Walking this trestle, dotted with wildflower plantings and well-considered historical markers, tells a useful tale of a changing America.

The term “adaptive re-use” is a little different in this case. Unlike textile manufacturing from the early Industrial Revolution, which took place in orderly brick buildings which are perfect for gutting and rehabbing, Bethlehem Steel is a monumental jumble of blast furnaces, pipelines, vents, catwalks, conveyor lifts, and smokestacks. It wasn’t constructed so much as it was necessitated. The plant’s profile changed continually from its beginnings in the 1860s, as technology evolved. Eventually, the four mammoth blast furnaces completed the plant’s final silhouette and are now illuminated with colored spotlights at night. That’s a far cry from when the noisy and smoky furnaces were going 24/7 for decades at a time. Now relegated to its status as perhaps America’s largest art object, “The Steel” (as the complex was locally called) must be remembered reverently.

Starting in the last quarter of the 19th century, steel production was the master industry of the nation and was powered by untold thousands of mostly immigrant workers. From the rails needed for America’s train-led westward expansion, to the beams that provided the frame for numerous great bridges and skyscrapers to the armaments that saw the Allies victorious in two world wars, the industry’s contribution to national greatness was huge.

But as often is the case in heavy industry, worker conditions were abysmal, esp. in the earlier years. Brutally long shifts for six or seven days a week (with only two unpaid holidays mixed in) and numerous safety hazards (500 workers died from various mishaps between 1905 and 1941) led to the turbulent union organizing efforts that is a national historic epoch in itself. While even a peacetime two-year military veteran will get a fawning “thank you for your service” nowadays, very little lip service comes the way of laborers who toiled for decades in such places as Bethlehem. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Strohmeyer wrote in his book “Bethlehem in Crisis”: “it takes uncommon talent, a strong body, and a mind that knows no fear to transform piles of (raw materials) into the molten metal that is poured, rolled and pounded into the various shapes that support the mainframe of civilization.”

Bethlehem Steel workers were fully unionized by the early Forties, but the end of World War II was also the swan song of the Machine Age. It was succeeded by the Atomic Age and the Information Age, overlaid with several iterations of the Consumer Society. Although I’m not one to deny the march of time, it seems that now we are best at manufacturing clickbait, data-mining and misinformation. Still, Bethlehem presently has it better than many Rust Belt locations, with a stabilized population based on a more varied economy. Many monolithic company towns have lost half of their citizens along with most of their tax base. For instance, U.S. Steel built the city of Gary, Indiana from scratch in the early 1900s. It is dominated by the monstrous Gary Works mill which blocks out Lake Michigan. It was once the world’s largest steel plant and is still the biggest in North America, but automation and foreign competition has reduced its workforce to 3000. The company controlled the town but never cared much for building a sustainable housing stock or providing public amenities, leading to a hollowed shell of a city.

(A telling anecdote from Hardy Green’s excellent 2010 book “The Company Town” notes that during Gary’s “heyday” the city’s largest green space was the front lawn of the factory superintendent’s mansion).

South Bethlehem, where Steel Stacks is located is not without its issues: it depends partly on a large casino (which I guess is OK if you don’t gamble) and well-heeled students from the hillside campus of Lehigh University can mix uncomfortably with lingering pockets of Forgotten America. But Steel Stacks is a promising development and if you ever go there to see a concert or a movie, have a close-up look at the plant and take heed of its story, and give a thought to those who built yesterday what we take for granted today.

Photos and text by Rick Ouellette

Rock Docs Spotlight: “The Terry Kath Experience”

Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience

Directed by Michelle Kath Sinclair–2016–80 minutes

A few weeks ago, I did a retrospective review of Chicago Transit Authority, the debut long player by Chicago, as part of my ongoing series of rock’s notable double albums. A good portion of that piece focused on their renowned guitarist Terry Kath, who died tragically in 1978. Kath is the Chicago member of choice for rock geeks, not just for his musical achievements but for the might-have-beens. Chicago started out as an adventurous jazz-rock ensemble that had softened its edges by the time of Terry’s passing and would soon become all but a MOR yacht-rock ensemble by the Eighties, whose soppy love ballads are easy objects of derision.

“The Terry Kath Experience” gets its title early on in a comment about how a power trio of that proposed name led by Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarist may have been quite the ticket had Kath left the chart-topping septet (he was in the process of forming such a “TKE” group just before he died). But this affecting documentary also give proper due to the man himself. Directed by none other than his daughter how could it not be? Michelle Kath Sinclair was but a toddler when her dad passed, and the film takes the form of a personal quest to know him better (and retrieve a cherished guitar of his) as well as exploring his career. She visits with all six of the others in the original band as well as their manager/producer James William Guercio and his widow Alicia Kath.

The quest to retrieve Kath’s many-stickered Telecaster becomes a subplot of the film.

Kath was a largely self-taught prodigy who would sit in with future Chicago bandmates at DePaul Univ. music school in the Windy City. Many local players like them were serving time in “show bands” at local night clubs. His former colleagues attest that it was “renegade” Terry who began pushing for the band to be more themselves after acts like Cream and the Yardbirds started blowing thru town. It was Kath who wrote the mission-statement song “Introduction” that kicked off their bold first album, released in 1969. A remarkable piece of writing that managed to be both accessible and complex, Kath had to describe it from his head for a bandmate to transcribe. Chicago were on to a winning combination with their punchy horn section, accomplished playing and the keen pop sense that went with it (esp. of keyboardist Robert Lamm) in the early days. Kath’s husky vocals and fierce but passionate guitar solos were the feature of many of their hits, with “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” being maybe the most notable.

His daughter is an appealing presence and a natural for putting his surviving bandmates at ease in front of the camera. Drummer Danny Seraphine is esp. notable in his mix of fondness and regret when looking back on Terry’s role in the band. Kath was set to try his own luck in Los Angeles before deciding to see the band thru to its early success. The whole outfit did move to L.A. in the wake of international success and Kath was the one leading the way to camaraderie, good times and fruitful recording at the Caribou Ranch, the Rocky Mountain studio and home-away-from home built by Guercio in 1972. It was here that Kath and his wife Alicia spent much time in the early years of their marriage.

In relaxed interviews with Terry’s brother Rodney and Alicia, the pair speak to their niece and daughter of a big, amiable bear of a man. He grew up with annual vacations in the country and thrived in the company of friends and bandmates at the wide-open Colorado ranch/studio. There is ample home-movie footage, and even excerpts from a television special filmed, to attest to this.

Spoiler alert: director Michelle Kath Sinclair finds her dad’s prized Telecaster at a relative’s house in Florida.

Eventually, a darker side reveals itself. (“The trappings of success trapped him,” Seraphine says). There are not-uncommon tales of drink and drug abuse and then there’s Kath’s obsession with firearms. For the life of me I’ll never understand this widespread American fixation, esp. with someone like Kath who appears to be an unviolent man. But his favorite movie was “Taxi Driver” and he often imitated Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene.

The end came in January of 1978 when Kath repaired to his place with a member of the group’s road crew after a long night of substance intake. His companion became alarmed when the guitarist started fooling around with a handgun. Moments later, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head after removing the clip but forgetting the one bullet in the chamber.

But moving beyond this needless death, there is plenty of good stuff for fans and guitar geeks here. There are lots of great live clips (several from Chicago’s great gig at Tanglewood, Mass. in summer 1970), a discussion of his boundary-pushing “Free-Form Guitar” from the first album (recorded several months before Hendrix’ famous Woodstock finale), and the guitar quest thru several homes of friends and family that will delight fans and six-string collectors all over. (Streaming now for free “with ads” on YouTube).

—Rick Ouellette

I am the author of “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.” To look at a 30-page excerpt, please click on the book cover image above.

I Have Seen the Top of Rock Mountain: The Clash live in Boston, Sept. 1979

One of the great action shots in rock history, ace photographer Bob Gruen took this snap of the Clash at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., at the Feb. 1979 show mentioned below.

If I was backed into a corner for an answer as to what was my favorite concert ever, I’d have to say the Clash at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, 42 years ago tonight, in September of 1979. Opening acts were the Undertones fresh out of Derry, N. Ireland and R&B legends Sam & Dave (both great). The Clash had made their area debut about seven months earlier at the old Harvard Square Theater, a legendary gig ‘round these parts. However, the band’s stand-offish attitude kinda dampened their appeal at that show.

Not so on 9/19/79. By that time their first LP had been finally released in America (re-configured to include a fistful of their classic singles) broadening their fanbase while their collective surly demeanor had been replaced by more of a band-of-the-people image. That become clear three songs into the set during (appropriately enough) “Complete Control.” (My memory has since been aided by a bootleg cassette of the show that I purchased in the 90s). Near the end of the song, Joe Strummer’s ad-libbing to the “C-O-N Control” chant abruptly ends and there is a sudden roar from the crowd (at 9:55 of the above-mentioned recording, seen below). The brutish security guards employed in those days by monopolistic rock promoter Don Law were manhandling fans streaming down the aisles for a closer look. The guards were not used to being challenged, least of all by a relatively scrawny lead singer from England, who had just come ten rows deep (with his Fender in tow) to confront them.

After the commotion, Strummer went back to the stage and went all Popeye Doyle, demanding to know who’s-running-this-operation? When the name Don Law was called out it was a bit of a laugh: the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” was released as a single two months earlier. “Where’s Don Law?” Joe repeatedly bellowed. When the man didn’t show, he declared the area in front a stage open to all and the crowd went nuts. The goonish guards were obliged to stand down.

The Clash were spectacular that night, playing every song as if their lives depended on it, with a passion and ferocity seldom equaled. Guitarist Mick Jones further endeared the band to the fans by allowing, “This is a good crowd for us, don’t think we don’t appreciate it.” Mick got off another good one later, while introducing his song “Stay Free,” saying it was about a couple of friends who were sent to the nick. “That’s the penitentiary to you lot.”

The cassette ran out before the end of the show, but I do remember the first encore, a new reggae number where Strummer came out from the wings swinging a train-signal lantern. This was “Armagideon Time” which would soon be released as a b-side to the title track of the album that would break them in the U.S. From that same month (Dec. 1979) that “London Calling” was released, here’s them doing “Armagideon” at the benefit concerts for Kampuchea. RIP Joe, there will never be another.

Make Mine a Double #23: “Chicago Transit Authority” (1969)

Chicago’s career trajectory as a band is the equivalent of that guy you knew in college who was a bit of a hotshot and always there making his presence known at the biggest parties and campus demonstrations. When you catch up with him decades later you find he has moved to the most strait-laced town in your state, where he has ended up on the board of selectmen, voting down a new skateboard park or marijuana dispensary. Oh, how I kid the guys in Chicago. When this rock-group-with-horns busted out big-time from the Windy City, they were a septet known for their musical experimentation and leftie politics. But less than a decade later, on the cusp of the Reagan era, they were safe-as-milk mainstays of the Soft Rock category.

Yet the band’s keen pop sensibilities were already much in evidence on their dauntless debut, a double album released in April of 1969. Here, three Top 40 Billboard singles were in the mix along with the esoteric touches and long jams common to that period.

Chicago Transit Authority (which was then the band’s name until the actual CTA threatened legal action) opens with a lively mission statement called “Introduction” which is written and sung by guitarist Terry Kath. “Sit back and let us groove/And let us work on you, yeah,” cajoles the husky-voiced Kath and indeed the song’s arrangement follows what would become a tried-and-true formula they would develop with their producer James William Guercio. After a couple verses, the song takes off into an extended, multivariate instrumental section led off with by the horn section. This trio (Walter Parazaifer on sax, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and James Pankow on trombone) gave the group a jazzy cosmopolitan sheen that proved to have strong appeal. They yield to a solo by Kath, often the band’s ace-in-the hole, before coming back strong for a final verse where Terry notes on how they “turned around the mood/We hope it struck you different/And hope you feel moved.”

Well, something worked as the album’s next three songs were all hit singles and were all written and sung by keyboardist Robert Lamm.  The original side one is filled out by “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings” both featuring strong melodies and vibrant playing. Listeners on the AM side may have been hearing these longish numbers in edited form as the piano prelude in the former song and the two-minute percussion outro in the latter were excised for the Casey Kasem crowd.

This edited single version of reached #7 in the U.S.

The hits keep on coming at the start of side two with “Questions 67 and 68,” with lead singing shared with bassist Peter Cetera. The song is also notable for the supple, momentum-driving drum fills of Danny Seraphine, who has never really gotten his full due as one of classic-rock’s great stickmen. From here on out, though, your results may vary. There is one more chart entry, a vigorous cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” curiously released two years later as a double-sided single with “Questions 67 and 68.” Future adult-contemporary crooner Cetera helps out here with a muscular bass line and swapping out macho lead vocals with Lamm and Kath. But things also get pretty self-indulgent over the final two sides, starting with the seven-minute “Free Form Guitar.”

Faster than a speeding El train, Terry Kath shreds away in concert.

Terry Kath, who tragically died of an accidental gunshot to the head in 1978, was a major talent (and reputedly one of Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarists) but I’m not sure what justified this fingernails-on-blackboard exercise in musique concrete. But considering that Guercio devotes a whole paragraph to it in his immodest liner notes, I’m willing to shift the blame. It’s esp. confounding since “FFG” is bookended by two songs that showcase Kath’s torrid soloing within amenable blues-rock contexts: “Poem 58” and “South California Purples.”

After touching on the events of the previous year’s turbulent Democratic Convention in their hometown with “Someday” (with the inclusion of “The whole world is watching!” chant), the album ends with a brash free-form instrumental (credited to Pankow) called “Liberation” that clocks in at a healthy 15:41. While nowadays this jam may only appeal to Terry Kath completists and the odd speed freak, it does show a band willing to think big and take chances.

This spirit carried on to the next two albums (also double disc affairs) where adventurous compositions sat cheek by jowl with accessible rockin’ hits like “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4.” Not content with three doubles, they upped the ante with the four-LP At Carnegie Hall, a lavishly-packaged and rather self-congratulatory box that only featured one new song. Their first single disc was 1972’s Chicago V (fans would become used to the Roman numerals and the band’s persistent curlicue logo) and what, for me, was an early red-flag on the song “Dialogue.” Although written by Robert Lamm, the song features a back-and-forth between a concerned college student (Kath) and a hedonistic friend (Peter Cetera, tellingly) that comes down on the side of complacency (“If you had my outlook, your feelings would be numb,” is Peter’s crowning comment). OK, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and Chicago did have a fistful of attractive hits on thru the mid-70s, like “Saturday in the Park” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.”

But for many folks, especially rock geeks, the wheels came of the bus following the death of Terry Kath in early 1978. Although several original members remained, the band dabbled in disco but mostly became known for Peter Cetera’s treacly romantic numbers, which were indistinguishable from many other power ballads of the time from the likes of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner. Granted, this trend started before Kath’s passing (“If You Leave Me Now”) but steadily tracked downward with cliched love-song rhymes and sterile 80s production values featuring lots of electric piano. If you need examples, check out “Loser with a Broken Heart”, “Stay the Night” (don’t miss the absurd video!), and culminating in 1984’s mind-numbing “Hard Habit to Break” (from Chicago 17 if you’re keeping track). Cetera, probably miffed at having to share the profits at this point, left for a solo career shortly after.

Am I being too hard here? Chicago was not the only band from that era whose politics now seem like a fashion and whose target audience shifted from hard rock buffs to lovesick teenage girls and divorced single moms for whom songs like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” was the purest poetry. You’re supposed to get more comfortable as you get older and for Chicago that meant hitting the summer-shed tour circuit with other mellowed-out acts like the Doobie Brothers, who started life as a de facto Hell’s Angels house band. So, to tweak the analogy I started with, Chicago Transit Authority is like that old hell-raising high-school buddy that you see again for the first time at your classes’ fortieth reunion. When you ask him what has been up to since then, he replies “nothing much.”

—Rick Ouellette

Days of No Future Past: The Skids and the Punk Repertoire

Any music genre that was once new and fresh and radical is bound to become established and settled if the quality of the original output was great enough to still be well-loved years, decades or, in the case of classical, even centuries later. So it is now with punk rock. True, there are many younger practitioners of the form and some of them I go and see in my own area. But just as some talented young jazz artist will not make aficionados forget Miles Davis or John Coltrane, so too these ardent newcomers could never outstrip the golden era.

Which brings us to the Skids. No newbies are they: their first single was released in the halcyon days of 1978. But these veteran Scottish punkers have just released the vigorous and entertaining Songs From a Haunted Ballroom, a covers album leaning heavily to late 70s battle cries from the likes of the Clash, Sex Pistols, Ultravox etc. and also a few left-field choices that help tell a larger story. Lead singer Richard Jobson and bassist William Simpson are from the original band and drummer. The Skids’ current line-up is rounded up by the father-son guitar team of Bruce and Jamie Watson. (Bruce the elder was also in Big Country, formed in 1981 by the late Stuart Adamson who was Skids’ original lead guitarist). This duo provided plenty up six-string firepower to the amped-up arrangements heard here.

The Skids front line of today. Left to right, Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson and Richard Jobson.

The original Sids were a dtermined and edgy outfit that worked their way down to London from Dunfermline and scored a UK #10 single with the anthemic classic “Into the Valley” in 1979. They would stay together and put out four albums until splitting up in 1982. Since their 2007 re-forming they have been more centered on their Scottish origin. The “Haunted Ballroom” of the title refers to the Kinema Ballroom which recently closed before re-opening as a global fusion restaurant. Generally, tribute albums can be a hit-and-miss affair and it’s likely that some listeners will be underwhelmed by the energetic but pro-forma versions of the Sex Pistols’ “Submission,” the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore Eyes”, the Stooges oft-covered “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or the Clash’s “Complete Control.” (In the latter, Jobson shouts out Joe Strummer’s iconic ad lib “You’re my guitar hero” twice–maybe once for each of the Watsons).

In the liner notes, Jobson relates the personal significance of the selections, usually being a song from a band he saw at the ballroom in the heady days of the “No Future” punk uprising, or songs that were popular DJ selections on dance-club nights. The Kinema looms large in Richard’s largely personal mythology and not just for the revolutionizing groups he saw there and inspired his own music-making. He makes several mentions of Scotland’s numerous gangs who would occasionally crash the Kinema, giving an added edge to several cuts. Haunted Ballroom kicks off strong with Ultravox’s “Young Savage” and it’s telling tag line “Anything goes where nobody knows your name.” It also informs the Skids’ turbo-charged take on Mott the Hooples’ “Violence” and Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me.” Jobson would later form The Armoury Show with that group’s talented journeyman guitarist, the late John McGeoch.

One of the more intriguing covers here is “Rock On” where the band take David Essex’ frothy 1973 glam hit and gives it an ominous edge with a spoken-word section where Jobson recalls how gangs like the fearsome AV Toi (“the most mental gang in all of Scotland”) would use the chorus of “Rock On” as a cue to cause mayhem on the dance floor. Also having novel appeal on the song list is Garland Jeffrey’s lost gem “35mm Dreams” (the Skids’ did it as an encore back then) and Ace Frehley’s discofied “New York Groove.”

The guys end the album with re-makes of “Into the Valley” and another great early single, “The Saints Are Coming,” before concluding with their cheeky holiday song “Christmas in Fife.” The two makeovers only improve by way of modern production values, so I’m going to go with the august ’79 original where you can read the hard-to-decipher lyrics and see the band in the full flower of their rough-hewn youth. We all have some special nightspot that is now gone (for me it was The Rat in Boston) but Jobson suggests the importance of the Kinema for him goes beyond nostalgia. For him, “it’s the place that made me what I am.” And listening to an album like “Songs From a Haunted Ballroom” can help keep alive the psychic rebellion of the punk rock soul.

The Times that Bond: The Clash on Broadway at 40

The Clash and their epic residency at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, was that really 40 years ago this month? Yup, I was one of the lucky 30,000 or so who were there for one of the 17 nights. It would have been the same number of fans over only eight shows before the NY Fire Dept. reduced the capacity. Not the Clash’s fault it seems, they honored ticket holders by doubling the amount of shows when the overselling promoters were found out.

Oh, to be 23 years old again, am I right? Me and my two friends who had gotten tickets had the date changed because of this snafu. Our plans for a Saturday night gig and a neat New York City weekend were upended when the expanded schedule had our tickets transferred to the following Monday night. How we even found this out in the pre-Internet age is lost to history. All I recall now is scheming with my partner from work, tooling around in our van that we drove for the General Services dept. at Charlestown Savings Bank in Boston. He did me a solid by agreeing to speak to our manager on Monday morning and say that I was stuck in NY for some obscure reason and/or sick and would not be in until Tuesday.

The Clash at Bond’s, June 1981. From l to r: Paul Simonon, Joe Strumer, Mick Jones. Unseen: drummer Topper Headon

As usual, we had the van’s AM radio turned to WILD, the late lamented soul music station that broadcast out of Roxbury, the city’s predominant African-American neighborhood. Suddenly, the Clash’s “Magnificent Dance” came on, a rare record from a white act for that station. I excitedly told him that this was the group that was drawing me away for a punk-rock weekend in the Big Apple. I was a bit disappointed that this was the instrumental dance mix of ”The Magnificent Seven,” sans Joe Strummer’s witty white-guy rapping. But it struck a blow for the black-white-unite impulse that was floating around back then as musical elements of rock, funk, reggae and rap seemed to be in allegiance.

The weekend was a blast. Those who were there will remember the vital (and often tense) scene that held sway in front of Bond’s as lingering confusion over what tickets were for what day meant cops and crowds and media coverage almost every day. The famous Times Square NYPD sub-station was directly across the street. At one point, Mr. Strummer walked thru the crush to get to the venue’s front door, the closest I would come to meeting him.

Bond’s Casino was an iconic place with an interesting backstory. In the !930’s and 40s it was a large supper-club type establishment. Under the same name it was later a clothing store with its gargantuan signage being a Times Square landmark, the O in the word Bond often sporting a clock to go along with the miles of neon, garish statuary and news ticker. By 1981, it had converted back to a nightclub but that wouldn’t last for much longer.

The Bond’s building was quite an attraction in and of itself back in the day.

Inside the club on Clash night, I remember mostly the winding, undulating ramp that led to the concert room. I also recall hat the 1750 peeps in attendance did a fair job of filling the place, I couldn’t imagine double that number as the unscrupulous promoters wanted. I enjoyed the opening act (the legendary Slits) but also remember being pretty disappointed with the Clash’s performance that night. It seems a bit like false-memory syndrome now. This was the fifth out of six times I saw them and maybe it was the law of diminishing returns. The second time (at the Orpheum Theater in Boston with no less than Sam & Dave and the Undertones opening) was maybe the best concert ever in my personal history. I thought the guys were sort of defaulting to the dub-wise sounds of that era’s edition of the band, but the typical setlist from then doesn’t really bear it out. They opened with the blazing 1-2 punch of “London Calling” and “Safe European Home” while the Mick Jones-sung hit “Train in Vain” and the current rave single “This is Radio Clash” soon followed. But songs from the current triple-album (the eclectic and meandering “Sandinista!”) seemed to dominate the middle of the set. But I like “Sandinista” a lot more nowadays and a time-travel loop back to that gig would surely find me deliriously entertained.

Live at Bond’s, June 13, 1981

The Bond’s residency would find the Clash not only at “The Crossroads of the World” but at a career crossroads as well. They were reaching a bigger audience and not always in a way that suited some of them. Joe Strummer, God bless his soul, was incensed when some of the group’s adventurous choices for opening slots (notably Grandmaster Flash) were mercilessly booed. The group’s radical roots could only take them so far and the attracting of a more mainstream fan base did not necessarily bring the enlightenment they sought.

But that’s a story for another day. As for me, I went straight from Bond’s to Penn Station ten blocks south and caught the red eye train back to Boston. It reached Boston just in time to stumble into work Tuesday morning where I got the expected comeuppance from the boss man. So I stood there and took it and lived to rock another day.

A four-minute snippet of Don Lett’s “Clash on Broadway” footage

The closest thing to a documentary record of this event is the 20 minutes of Don Lett’s unfinished “Clash on Broadway” project. This is available on YouTube in three parts or as a bonus feature on the DVD of Lett’s exemplary Clash doc “Westway to the World.”

Rick Ouellette is the author of Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book icon above to find out more!

Make Mine a Double #22: Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Session.. Recorded in London (1973)

In 2006, original rock ‘n’ roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called Last Man Standing. Typically brash, the title has taken on a more poignant and literal meaning in the last fifteen years as many of the genre pioneers still around at the time (Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino) have passed on. But Jerry Lee kept pushing on, performing regularly until a minor stroke in 2019 slowed him down. Even though, there were still plans for the 85-year-old to record a new gospel album with T-Bone Burnett, but the start date was in March 2020 just as Covid-19 flipped the world on its head.

Well-known for his riotous performances and for marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958, Lewis was one of rock music’s first controversy-courters and his career had many ups and downs. An up period came for him in 1973 when he added his name to the list of iconic blues and rock ‘n’ roll figures who had recorded albums in London that featured many of the top names of the British pop scene (Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had preceded him there). Jerry Lee came away from it with a big double album and a hit single in “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” After several years of performing for the country-and-western circuit, he re-established himself as one of the top figureheads in the game, a status he was not to surrender after the release of The Session… Recorded in London.

The album kicks off impressively with “Drinking Wine” and sets the template for much of what is to follow. It’s some great ol’ roadhouse boogie with Jerry leading the charge, singing enthusiastically of hedonistic pursuits and pounding away at his piano in that familiar staccato style. Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, the first of many hotshot guitarists to heed the star’s command to “Pick it, son,” gives some 70s firepower to a 50s-style solo. The promised “Great Guest Artists” roster continues with Irish blues-rock master Rory Gallagher (see photo below) on bottleneck guitar for the barroom jaunt “Music to the Man.” Others include the main rhythm section of then-Faces drummer Kenney Jones and Beatles bestie Klaus Voorman on bass, while organists include Gary Wright, Tony Ashton and Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher—and there were a few extra players on most songs, some were Jerry Lee’s boys that were brought over. But it’s the six-string slingers (or as JLL calls them, “son”) that get the attention and include both Alvin and (unrelated) Albert Lee, Chas Hodges, Peter Frampton and future-Foreigner Mick Jones. Never mind that many of these “sons” were only 5-10 years younger. As Jon Landau put it in is contemporary review in Rolling Stone: “I have a feeling (Lewis) doesn’t care which son or how long he plays, just as long as the spotlight returns to where it belongs when the son is finished.”

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Jerry Lee Lewis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Although only in his late thirties, Jerry Lee was on the cusp of his elder statesman years and reportedly felt somewhat ill-at-ease during the sessions. He had rarely recorded outside of Memphis or Nashville and was surrounded by long-haired whipper snappers. He was even said to have told his son Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. (who appears on percussion here) that he thought he had maybe made a mistake. That may explain some of the “son” stuff and calling himself The Killer. The Brits were (of course) reverential in any regard and Lewis would look back more fondly on this event in an interview years later.

When these disparate elements come together the record can be great fun, with the accompanists’ amped-up backing giving Lewis a solid platform to hit his attitudinal sweet spot halfway between blasé and berserk. It’s a rush to hear Rory Gallagher and Peter Frampton trading solos as the man bulls his way thru “Johnny B. Goode” and to have pro’s pro Albert Lee move the crew full-steam-ahead on “Sea Cruise” as Captain Killer runs thru his paces of piano razzle-dazzle, esp. in those sweeping glissandos that flash by like Zorro’s sword. Brian Parrish (then with Yes spin-off group Badger) juices up a couple of blues numbers with some wily harmonica and the session dudes go country-rock on JLL’s decent readings of Credence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”

Jerry Lee pulls off a little old-school gamesmanship on second pianist Tony Ashton, inviting the younger man to play a solo then brashly besting him with an over-the-top display on the ivories. Albert Lee does the guitar solo in between.

In other places, The Session does appear “overstuffed” (per the RS review) with, say, the wayward take on Berry’s “Memphis” or on an underwhelming version of “What’d I Say” that does not come within a country mile of the Ray Charles original. A certain boredom with some of these already Golden Oldies may have played a part, as could Jerry Lee’s drinking and pill-intake at the time, even though (by his own account) his admiring British sessioneers did not so much as a light a joint in studio.

It does come all together for the concluding “Rock & Roll Medley” as the Killer whiplashes thru four Little Richard classics before climaxing with his immortal “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Jerry Lee whoops it up like it’s 1957 and attacks his piano keys with karate-chop comping while Alvin Lee flies off into Woodstock guitar-hero land. It’s a satisfying ending to an imperfect album that is still a “great party record” (again, Landau’s words) and will be a fun vinyl time no matter which of the four sides you drop the needle on. In 1973 it was lifted into gold record status on the wings of the era’s revival interest in early rock ‘n’ roll. While The Session hit #37 on the pop charts, it pushed all the way to #4 on the country countdown, and Lewis would soon return to the C&W genre: “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” would be his last rock hit single. But the album did a lot to help cement his status in the pantheon of original rock ‘n’ roll greats, a status that will remain long after he is no longer the Last Man Standing.