Punk Primer/Postscripts | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

October 30, 2003 Music | Post No Bills

Punk Primer/Postscripts 

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Punk Primer

Though punk as a concept has had a profound impact on popular music, most of its original practitioners have been consigned to the footnotes of rock history. While a handful of bands from both sides of the pond managed to parlay their notoriety into careers--the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Clash, and X, to name a few--most disappeared fairly quickly. That's not necessarily bad: the MO of the music was burn out, not fade away. Unfortunately, though, it means that a great deal of what constituted punk in the first place has gone up in smoke too.

The archival label Rhino Records has expended considerable effort to capture the diversity and intensity of old-school punk, making a big push in 1993 with its nine-volume "D.I.Y." series, organized by scene, and its two-disc hardcore series, "Faster & Louder." The label's latest effort, the new four-CD box set No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion, seems more of an attempt at a manageable overview, with contributions from nearly all the best-known British and American punk bands (the Sex Pistols refused to license any of their songs for the project).

There aren't a lot of duds among the 100 selections--though I could've done without the entries by chameleonic British poseurs 999 and kitschy proto-new wavers the Rezillos. And it's hard to believe somebody thought the Boomtown Rats, even in their early punk mode, really warranted two slots. There's a decent, if predictable, history lesson by Billboard columnist Chris Morris; Ira Robbins and Dave Schulps, cofounders of the influential punk and new-wave mag Trouser Press, pithily annotate the songs. There are a few treats for the folks who think they've heard it all, including relatively obscure single versions of songs by Devo ("Mongoloid"), the Pretenders ("The Wait"), and X ("Adult Books") and left-field entries from the likes of the tribal all-girl band the Slits, militant postpunks the Pop Group (often overshadowed by contemporaries like the Gang of Four), and San Francisco punks the Avengers, who never managed to put out an album in their brief lifetime.

Sometimes sets like No Thanks! are most useful as argument starters, opening up discussion of what the victors' history leaves out. I might ask, for instance, why the chugging, indelibly catchy rocker "Action Time Vision" is the lone inclusion here from Alternative TV, the arty punk band started by Mark Perry, publisher of the early English punk zine Sniffin' Glue. As it happens, Alternative TV is one of three 70s punk acts performing in Chicago in the next couple weeks. The other two--the French band Metal Urbain and New York no-wave icon James Chance--aren't included on the Rhino box, but they've been at least as influential as almost any of the bands that are.

ATV, whose only permanent member is Perry, has flickered in and out of existence since forming in 1977. Perry's cofounder, guitarist Alex Fergusson, went on to start the industrial band Psychic TV with Genesis P-Orridge a few years later. In its earliest incarnation the group delivered the classic punk sound heard on "Action Time Vision"--distorted guitars, an anthemic, sing-along chorus--but before long the band was punk in spirit more than sound. Perry moved on through a rambling amalgam of pop, reggae, and plodding art rock that he didn't always have the chops to carry off. ATV's last studio album, Revolution, came out in 2001, but its most recent releases are live discs, one a reissue of Live 1978 and one recorded at CBGB during Spin's "25 Years of Punk" party in 2001. The band plays here Saturday at the Bottom Lounge.

Metal Urbain, who play the Bottom Lounge on November 13, made their first run between 1976 and 1978, during which time they released just three singles--including "Paris maquis/Cle de contact," the first record on England's Rough Trade label. After the group's demise, several collections--filled out by demos and a few songs recorded during a brief re-formation in 1979--came out in France. In January Acute Records will issue the comprehensive Anarchy in Paris!, the group's first U.S. release.

The group never made a bigger splash for several reasons. For one, they sang exclusively in French. For another, they used drum machines and synthesizers in lieu of drums and bass, and while that merely made some of the straighter material sound tinny, some cuts are decidedly experimental. According to keyboardist Eric Debris the group tried to give its music an "anti-naturalist" feel: "That meant a music made of reprocessed sounds, nothing natural," he says in the liner notes for Anarchy in Paris! "Like [Brian] Eno did in Roxy [Music], voices went through a synthesizer, guitars through filters etc. We had a complete aesthetic approach." The group's sound provided a loose template for Steve Albini's first band, Big Black; the discordant analog synthesizer sounds and the paranoia-inducing beats also presaged industrial dance music. The group recently re-formed again and reportedly will focus on old material for the upcoming tour.

Like Mark Perry, Milwaukee native James Chance (ne Siegfried) has never really gone away, but he's also never topped his powerful early work on Buy, his 1978 album with the Contortions. Chance and his band borrowed the tight funk of James Brown and then savaged it with dissonance and aggression. He sang in an urgent, desperate sort of chant, and on saxophone he exaggerated the squealing sharpness of the R & B barwalking tradition. In subsequent decades he's traded manic intensity for wan lounge jazz, but there's hope yet: for his Double Door show on November 14, he'll be backed by Chicago's Watchers, unabashed Contortions fans who have a remarkably sure grip on the verities of postpunk funk. The group has been rehearsing the set--which will include material from Buy, 1979's Off White, and the seminal No New York anthology--since September. "We're going to try to push it back to the actual songs instead of something jammy, taking it back to the energy of the early 80s," says Watchers front man Michael Guarrine. "But it's his show."

Postscripts

The Reputation, the local pop band fronted by ex-Sarge front woman Elizabeth Elmore, has signed with Lookout, the Berkeley-based label that's home to Ted Leo/Pharmacists and the Oranges Band. The Chicago quartet released its debut last year on the Louisville-based indie Initial Records and will be recording the follow-up this fall.

Drummer Graeme Gibson, guitarist Jonathan van Herik, and bassist Gabe McDonough have quit local buzz band Boas; they may or may not play on the band's second album, which was slated to be made in January with producer John Parish for Overcoat Recordings. "Regardless of how much we enjoyed playing in the band, we weren't writing songs together well," says McDonough. "It took much too long and it was mentally and emotionally straining for all of us."

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