Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #10/25: Gloria by Patti Smith

I could easily write three or four posts about Patti Smith and, even at that, I would only be scratching the surface of what has turned out to be an enormously impactful life. Poet. Singer. Photographer. Lover. Mentor. Feminist icon. Mother. Humourist. Sister. Artist. The list of attributes is endless. Usually when one talks about those who were pioneers in their field, we talk about the path blazed forward for others to follow. In the case of Patti Smith, not only is she a pioneering figure in the world of the Arts in America but she is also directly responsible for inspiring the careers of so many artists, musicians, actors and writers who have followed in her wake. The scale and breadth of her life is such that I doubt I can do her justice in one single post such as this. Instead, I will focus solely on one album of hers called Horses and one song called “Gloria” while adding a pinch of her life and a dash of her accomplishments as time and space allow. I will do my best to give you all a sense of who Patti Smith is and why she is so beloved by so many and why she actually transcends the genre known as Punk music. We tend to toss around terms such as “legend” and ‘hero” as if they are candy, but in her case, these words are most appropriate indeed. Here is the story of a song and of the woman who sang it. Here is Patti Smith.

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith pose together for the camera.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Just Kids.

It all began in a book store in New York City. When one thinks of the Arts scene in any given city or town, we often think of theatres, art galleries, concert halls and the like. However, when a community has a vibrant Arts scene, we also must talk about cafés where acoustic music is strummed and poems read aloud, alley ways were graffiti artists use the city as their canvas, street corners where buskers will sing you a song in return for your spare change and spare time, and we must also talk about bookstores, where lovers of the written word often gather to harvest the language of life. It was in a bookstore in New York city that Patti Smith first gained employment after moving to the city. It was in a bookstore that she got to rub shoulders with other poets and authors and musicians and artists who were part of New York’s burgeoning Arts collective, such as Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine, along with artist Andy Warhol. But most importantly for Patti Smith, it was in a bookstore that she met someone who was to change her life in a most profound way. That person was famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was a photographer who used the camera to challenge many of society’s moral standards while, conversely, celebrating the human body in ways that had never been publicly seen before. Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith became lovers. Even though Mapplethorpe and Smith ceased being a couple decades ago, she still refers to him as one of the most important people she has ever met. What was special about their relationship was not what Mapplethorpe did for Patti Smith and her career but what they did for each other. Theirs was a partnership of equals in every manner. Both highly creative and artistic. Both bored with the state of the Arts in America at the time. Both willing to push boundaries and create new open spaces for others to find themselves reflected in beauty and positive energy. Together, they gave each other the confidence to push their Art beyond where either thought it possible to go. With Mapplethrope, it was photographing nudes in ways that explored sexuality and humanity as never before. For Patti Smith, it was initially through poetry that she came to become known. Eventually, she added music to her skill set and started performing in public. Her sets were filled, wall to wall, with an integrated combination of poetry and song, all delivered with energy and passion that left Smith, as well as those in attendance, thoroughly spent upon its conclusion. At this time in the 1970s, no one was putting on the types of shows that Patti Smith was, especially not female performers. It was this belief in her Art, at a time when no one else was there to emulate or share the burden of building a scene of her own, that enabled Patti Smith to be spoken of as a pioneering figure in the American Arts scene. She was the first punk rocker. While Patti Smith grew to be much more than a punk rocker, for the sake of this post, let’s start with that and see where it takes us.

In the 1970s, the music scene was in transition. Rock n’ Roll had erupted a full generation prior and been co-opted by the time Patti Smith and her friends appeared. Prog. rock had evolved out of the British Invasion but had begun to groan under the weight of its own self-absorption and pomposity. The protest singers from the Summer of Love had seemingly been cowed into silence by a system that no longer welcomed their emotion and earnestness. Into that musical void came the stirrings of news sounds. Hip Hop was coalescing in neighbourhoods around the city of New York. The techno-laden beats that fuelled the Disco craze could be heard emanating from nightclubs such as Studio 54 as well as from the soundtracks to films such as Saturday Night Fever and American Gigolo. Singers such as Deborah Harry from the band Blondie were combining both forms of music in songs such as “Rapture” and “Heart of Glass” that both received national airplay. Meanwhile, there was a third form of musical poetry or spoken word singing that was gaining traction in New York. That was the work of Patti Smith who, along with bands such as Television and The Ramones, was creating a new sound that eventually came to be known as Punk music.

If Studio 54 was the cathedral built to showcase Disco, then CBGBs filled the same function for Punk music. CBGBs was located in the Bowery Historical District of New York City which is in Lower Manhattan, a short five minute walk from landmarks such as Katz’s Deli and just north of Chinatown. CBGBs was a small club that became home base for Smith, Television, The Ramones and every other punk band that came to play their brand of music in America. In fact, in the 1970s, Patti Smith’s brand of performance art became so strongly identified with this new music movement called Punk that she, along with the band Television *(You can read a previously written post about singer Tom Verlaine from the band Television here) were invited to hold a multi-week residency at the club. It was while performing there that Smith came to the attention of record producer Clive Davis. Davis had recently formed his own record company called Arista Records and was looking for new talent to fill out his musical roster. Davis was completely entranced by the passionate nature of Patti Smith’s performance and signed her to an eight-album contract on the spot. The first album that Smith produced for Arista was called Horses

Horses was released just prior to the release of The Ramones’ first album. For many this means that Patti Smith’s album has become recognized as the first punk music album in American history. Smith says that the name for the album came as a result of the void which she and the disco lovers and the rappers had all sought to fill with their own unique sounds. Patti Smith said that at that time in the city and in the country, the previous musical voices had become stilled for a variety of reasons. She took it upon herself to help pull the Arts scene together again. Smith considers the work that she and Deborah Harry and Donna Summer and Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and others did as being like plow horses working the barren land, hence the name of her album became Horses

From that album came a host of songs that ranged from covers to original works. In all cases, these songs have served as inspiration for everyone from Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, to Michael Stipe from R.E.M., to Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, to some of the most respected female singers of my generation such as P.J. Harvey, KT Tunstall and Courtney Love, who all, to a person, point to Horses as being the album that made them want to form bands and/or helped them create some of their own iconic songs. What made the songs on Horses so inspirational to so many young listeners was the confidence with which Smith performed and the honesty of her lyrics. For many of those who would point to her as an inspiration and a mentor, Patti Smith’s passion for language and for the subject matter made her voice seem brave at a time when courage was a form of superpower. It also helped those impressionable young singers feel seen, often for the first time in their lives. Being gay or from a minority group or being female were all banners that Patti Smith waved proudly and fiercely through her music. To those listening for the first time, it sounded like subversion of the highest order. It sounded like exactly what rock n’ roll was meant to be. One of the songs from Horses that first gained airplay and helped inspire others was a song called “Gloria”. 

“Gloria” was originally written by Irish super star Van Morrison when he was a member of a band called Them. Morrison was just a teenager when he wrote this song about sexual awakening. When Patti Smith sang “Gloria”, she put her own unique spin on the song. When she recorded the song as an album track, she altered some of the lyrics to better represent her own sensibilities. But, more than that, she began the song by incorporating into it a few lines of her own poetry. With this track, Smith began what would become a standard operational principle of hers of taking songs written by others and altering them in ways that respected the original version while allowing her to put her own stamp on the song. A perfect example of this can be found in her most commercially successful song “Because the Night”, which was given to her to sing by Bruce Springsteen. Even though the song was written by The Boss, when Patti Smith sings it you can tell that it is a Patti Smith song. In any case, Patti Smith took Van Morrison’s great song and made it her own. “Gloria” was song one, side one on Horses. It was the first song that many people listened to when they heard the album, so in many ways, it was the first punk music song ever recorded in the United States. 

Patti Smith wearing a white dress shirt, untied black necktie, with black jacket slung over her shoulder from the cover of her album Horses. The photograph was taken by her lover Robert Mapplethorpe.

The final aspect of Horses that is impactful is its album cover photograph. The album cover shows Smith dressed in a plain white dress shirt, black jacket slung haphazardly over her shoulder. The photographer was Robert Mapplethorpe. During the session, he snapped several shots of Smith posing for the camera. As he was snapping away, he suddenly stopped and declared that he had captured the look he was after and the shoot was over. Patti Smith didn’t quite understand what Mapplethorpe was talking about. What it turned out to be was a photo of Smith looking completely relaxed and totally androgynous. The photo became a feminist landmark because it declared for all to see that Patti Smith was not going to submit to being judged as a singer on the basis of her body parts. The world could judge her on the merits of her work, just as they did for the many male musicians who release music into the world. The Mapplethorpe photo is perfectly simple, yet it spoke volumes about who Patti Smith was and what she stood for. It is not surprising to find modern day female singers donning the now iconic white shirt/black tie or suspenders look made famous by Smith as an homage to her for opening doors that might have remained shut otherwise if not for her efforts back in the 1970s.

A photograph of singer Phoebe Bridgers wearing a black suit coat, white shirt and black tie a la Patti Smith on the cover of her Horses album.
Singer Phoebe Bridgers with her best Patti Smith-inspired garb.

I will close this post with a bit of biographical information. Eventually, Smith and Mapplethrope parted company. However, they remained close companions until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. In Mapplethorpe’s posthumously released book of photography entitled Flowers, Patti Smith contributed a personal essay. She also won the National Book Prize for Non-fiction in 2010 for her book called Just Kids, which chronicles her time spent with Robert Mapplethrope as a couple. However, Robert Mapplethorpe was not the only love in her life. In the mid-1980s, Patti Smith married singer Fred “Sonic” Smith from the band MC5 *(You can read a previously written post about MC5 here). Both Fred and Patti Smith loved poetry and believed in the power of music to influence public discourse. They ended up having a couple of children together. Their son went on to marry Meg White, the drummer for The White Stripes. Patti Smith is still actively creating Art. I have a book of her photography called A Book of Days sitting beside me as I type these words. She continues to exhibit her photos, publish her poems and sing her songs, alone or as part of a collaboration with others. She is a creative life force the likes of which the world rarely sees. Patti Smith is a treasure, and we are all blessed by our association as humans on this planet.

As I stated off the top of this post, what I have presented today is a mere hint of who this amazingly accomplished woman actually is. If you are intrigued at all by her story, then by all means, avail yourselves of the Internet, of YouTube, of bookstores, record shops and libraries and do a deeper dive of your own. Patti Smith is well worth getting to know. 

The link to a video for a live performance of the song “Gloria” by Patti Smith can be found here.

 ***For me, this video is the essence of rock n’ roll. It is passionate and intense and filled with energy. She starts out with her own poetry and transitions nicely into song as time goes on. I find this performance to be mesmerizing.  There is a lyrics video that can be found here but, to be honest, it pales in comparison to the live version. Watch both videos if you can.

The link to the official website for Patti Smith can be found here.

The name of this series was taken from a lyric to a great song called “Boxcar” by the band Jawbreaker. I would appreciate it if you could show this band a little love by heading over to their website and checking out their videos, merchandise and maybe even scoring some concert tickets for yourself while you are there. Jawbreaker is a great band and I thank them for the use of their lyrics for my post. The link to their website can be found here

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #9/25: American Idiot by Green Day

Green Day are one of the most commercially successful rock bands of the past thirty years. They have sold over 75 million albums worldwide, have earned multiple gold and platinum records and have already been inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, even though they are still an active touring band. However, their very success has fuelled much discussion and debate among fans as to whether or not they are actually a true punk rock band. The debate centres around whether Green Day has adhered to the strict ethos of what makes a punk band truly punk or have they sold their soul to the gods of corporate rock n’ roll. Like many issues of this sort, there are points to be had for both sides of the story. In fact, one of the best books I have read in a while was totally devoted to the issue of examining the careers of bands who claimed to be punk to see how they dealt with commercial growth and blowback against them if they ended up signing a contract with a major record label. The entire first chapter of Sell Out by Dan Ozzi was devoted to Green Day. To be fair, Ozzi didn’t label any of the bands profiled in this book as being sellouts. Instead, he simply chronicled each band’s story. However, the world of punk is filled with fans who are purists in their idea of what constitutes a punk band. Heaven help those who opt to feed from the corporate teat. This is the story of Green Day.

A photograph off the band Green Day playing a gig at the punk rock club known as Gilman's in SanFrancisco.
Green Day at Gilman’s.

Green Day came together in the same Berkley/San Francisco area of California that bands such as Jawbreaker did. *(This series began with a post about Jawbreaker and the demands that fans and promoters of punk music placed upon the bands that they followed. It is an important read if you wish to understand the context in which Green Day was judged. You can read that post here). The band consisted of only three players: singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer John Kiffmeyer. Not long into their career as a band, Kiffmeyer left to attend college. He was replaced by current drummer Tre Cool. When it came to describing who Green Day were as a band in their younger days, they checked a lot of the boxes necessary to be considered a punk rock band. First of all, they played loud and fast. Secondly, they interacted with their audiences, often playing close enough to reach out and touch their fans as they played and vice versa. Thirdly, Green Day had lots to say about the state of the world around them and were often heard singing about their disgust with right wing, conservative politics and the politicians who supported such policies. Finally, Green Day signed their first record contract with a small local record company named Lookout! Records. Signing with Lookout! Records was an important step in establishing the necessary street credibility with their early punk audiences because that company was the one that signed and promoted other local punk bands such as Operation Ivy (which eventually evolved into the band Rancid). Lookout! Records operated on a shoestring budget, channeling almost all profits back into promoting the bands they had signed. Music that was vital and filled with passionate idealism was being made by bands who had a lot to say. It was being consumed by a rapturous choir of fans who all truly believed that punk music was music in its purest form. The holy temples where the bands played and the fans jumped up and down included places like Gilman *(mentioned in the Jawbreaker post). If the Gilman’s experience could have gone on and on forever in a protective bubble away from the rest of the world, then all would have been good. But life does not exist in a protective plastic bubble.

One of the other characteristics of many pure punk bands is that there is a rawness to their sound. These bands tend to be loud, with distortion and feedback being common features of how they play. One of the attributes that Green Day began to possess that first raised eyebrows with their fans was that they actually began to learn how to play their instruments properly. Dare I say that their musical sound became almost slick? Being a tight, polished band alarmed their fans. Green Day began playing songs that sounded more like pop or rock than they did punk. Because their songs were becoming so well constructed, rumours swept the punk world in San Francisco that Green Day was about to sign with a major label. When news leaked out that, in fact, they had left Lookout! Records for Reprise Records and had signed a major label recording contract, Green Day found themselves ostracized by their fans. Not long after they signed with Reprise, Green Day released their major label debut album called Dookie. Dookie was a huge success! It sold millions of copies and included hit songs such as “Longview”, “Basket Case”, “When I Come Around” and “Welcome to Paradise”. Music critics raved about the album, calling it one of the best punk albums of all time. The band members became famous overnight. Their bank accounts swelled. They became the poster children for the new punk-inspired resurgence that also included bands such as The Offspring, Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World and so on. Yet, through all of the band’s success, the members of Green Day found themselves under constant scrutiny regarding the question of whether they had sold their punk soul to the corporate rock world. 

As time unfolded, Green Day found that their fanbase had changed. Gone were their original passionate, opinionated fans from the Gilman sphere of influence. In their place were fans who were more interested in having fun and bopping along to songs that had a good beat and were easy to dance to, as they used to say on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The funny thing was that Green Day still felt as though they hadn’t changed much at all. They were convinced that they were the same hard driving, loud, fast and political band that they had always been and that the only thing that changed was that they had an actual comfortable tour bus to get them to gigs as opposed to a ratty old broken down van. Soon, drugs and alcohol became a refuge from the reality that they found themselves in. There were several incidents in which Billy Joe Armstrong left concerts in mid-performance because he was angry at the promoters of the show or at something the audience was doing. Sales began to fall. It appeared as though Green Day might end up becoming irrelevant. A breakup of the band seemed imminent. Then something happened beyond the control of the band that ended up revitalizing their career…the Twin Towers fell.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, a great many political moves were made by the U.S. government of the day led by President George W. Bush that were seen as being undemocratic by the band. Personal liberties were curtailed, music was censored on radio stations, public discourse became polarized and the nation was plunged into a war that many deemed to be ill-conceived and more focussed on revenge than anything else. Being the opinionated young men that they were, the members of Green Day sought to express themselves in song. Initially, they started working on an album of songs that were a mishmash of styles. In a bit of fortuitous luck, the master tapes from those early sessions were stolen. When the band sat to discuss what to do next, their producer challenged them to be better by asking if they truly believed that the music on those stolen tapes was their best work. When the boys in the band agreed that it wasn’t their best work, it was felt that a make or break time had come for Green Day as a band. To give up felt like admitting that George Bush and his followers were right about how life should be in America. So instead, Billie Joe Armstrong went off on a writing retreat and emerged a few weeks later with the makings of a cohesive album that read more like a rock opera in the same vein as Quadrophenia and Tommy by The Who. Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool channeled all of their anger against George Dubya into an album that became known as American Idiot.  This album contained songs such as the title track, “Holiday”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “When September Comes”. It was a huge hit for Green Day and served as a rallying cry by left-leaning Americans against the Republican president’s policies and personality. American Idiot breathed new life into the band. Green Day were now being hailed as a powerful voice for a new generation. They had accrued elder statesmen status and began to be respected as a talented and vital band once again.  

In recent interviews, the band was asked to reflect on their legacy. Armstrong replied by admitting that it is foolish to call them a punk band these days because of the size and complexity of their live shows and the amount of financial considerations involved in paying the salaries of hundreds of employees who help the entity known as Green Day to function day in and day out. However, he was quick to add that Green Day remains punk as f*ck because they are never afraid to speak their mind to the powers that be through their music. The members of Green Day are justifiably proud of their accomplishments and each swear that their best may still be to come. American Idiot was the inspiration behind a Broadway musical that launched a decade or so ago. The band was also recently the half-time guests at the CFL’s Grey Cup championship game. If playing in the cold at half-time in the land of three-down football isn’t punk then I don’t know what is. 

The link to the video for the song “American Idiot” by Green Day can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the official website for Green Day can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to American Idiot: the Musical can be found here.

The link to a news article about how Green Day are seen as heroes by many in the LBGTQ2s+ community can be found here. In addition to the specific connection Green Day has to this community, the article points out the tremendous role that music and musicians can play in the lives of people who feel marginalized and forgotten. This article by Niko Stratis is one of my favourite music-related articles I have ever read. Period. It is well worth checking out.

The title of this series was taken from a lyric in the song “Boxcar” by the awesome Bay-area band Jawbreaker. Please show this band a little love and visit their website to buy a little merch, score some show tickets, etc. Thanks. The band and I appreciate it. The link to their website can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #7/25: Teenage Kicks by The Undertones

Derry is a city of over 200,000 people that sits in the northwest corner of Northern Ireland, approximately an hour and a bit to the west of Belfast. On a clear day, a citizen of Derry could take a short drive to the coast and see Scotland in the distance. Derry has been in existence since the 6th century, making it one of the oldest inhabited places in all of Ireland. In the 1600s, the city was enclosed by walls, creating a fortress-like setting that exists even to this day. While the city has grown beyond the original walls as its population has increased in size, those walls remain completely intact. The walls were originally built to protect the inner city from invasion by Scots from the north and/or from the English from the south. As a result, generations of people from Derry have grown up, lived and died within the walls of the city with a besieged mentality interwoven into their cultural DNA. Even the very name of this city is a case in point. For most of its existence, the city has been known as Londonderry. It is still referred to as Londonderry on Google Maps, should anyone reading this post care to have a look for yourself. As many of you will be aware, Ireland’s history is filled with conflict. Sometimes that conflict is internal to the country and concerns itself with religion. At other times, that conflict goes beyond borders. Much of the time, it is a combination of the two. The most recent time of conflict in Ireland is a time known colloquially as The Troubles. During The Troubles, certain political and militaristic groups within Northern Ireland sought to create a homeland free from English rule. Many lives were lost during a campaign of bombings and shootings initiated by the Irish Republican Army in hopes of driving the occupying British Army out of Northern Ireland. A peace accord was eventually signed in the mid 1980s. At that time, Derry city council formally passed a bylaw that would see the name of their city change from Londonderry to simply Derry. Unfortunately, such a legal name change still required permission from London. This process of having to head to London and ask for permission on bended knee to simply govern their own affairs rankled the people of Derry. The dispute remains ongoing even as you read this post. To say the name Londonderry within the walled city is to be constantly reminded of decades of having to endure subjugation and humiliation. Removing the “London” prefix from the name of their city was an act of emancipation that many citizens and civic leaders believed was necessary in order for the process of healing to begin after the peace accords were signed. But even this seemingly simple request has become bogged down in acrimony.  It just goes to illustrate the strength of character that it must take for the citizens of Derry to go about their daily business in a positive frame of mind. That sense of resiliency and determination to defy one’s circumstances is, perhaps, best seen in how the entire city ( as well as that of all of Northern Ireland) has taken to today’s song, which is “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones. Sometimes a song is more than just a song. This is one of those times.   

A photo of the fortified walls that surround the old portion of Derry, Ireland.
The walls of Derry, Ireland.

The story of “Teenage Kicks” begins with the very ethos of the Punk music world and that is making music as an act of defiance. For much of Punk’s history in the UK and around the world, that tradition of defiance has manifested itself in music and lyrics that are violent and angry. Lashing out at systemic social constructs that are deemed to be oppressive can be seen in songs such as “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols, for example. There are certainly many injustices in the world and people have the right to feel angry at living in a society that seems to be rigged to work against them at every turn. However, anger is easy to feel. While it may feel cathartic to scream obscenities at authorities, be it your teachers at school, the police officers who are walking a beat, your parents, your employers or your political leaders, the much harder thing is to convince yourself that love and hope and happiness remain within reach during those darkest of times. Sometimes maintaining a veneer of normality is the greatest act of defiance of them all. 

The citizens of Derry have had to do this their whole lives. While people in the rest of the world sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the people in Northern Ireland are all I.R.A. members, the truth is that the vast majority of people who live there do so in the hopes of living ordinary lives despite the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. They are regular folks who have families where children go to school each day while their parents go to work. The people who live in Derry watch television, read books, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries just like anybody else. However, in the 1970s, they tried to go about their business in an atmosphere that was constantly fraught with tension that came from the possibility of violence happening at any moment. The I.R.A. and the British Army were engaged in a deadly guerilla war in those days. There were military checkpoints at key intersections within Derry, as well as the roads in and out of town. Roads and bridges were constantly closed because of bomb threats. Any unattended package or box was eyed with the utmost of suspicion. This went on all of the time, every day. Meanwhile, the citizens of Derry still tried to get on with their lives. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

The situation was much worse an hour to the east in Belfast. This city was the epi-centre of the I.R.A. bombing campaign against the British Army, with Great Victoria Road being the most heavily bombed section of town. Not surprisingly, shopkeepers along Great Victoria Road found it difficult to stay in business. No one wanted to shop in an area that was so unsafe. As a result, many businesses had to close down, which, in turn, meant that there were many vacant storefronts available for purchase. Terri Hooley was a man who came of age a decade earlier during the Summer of Love phenomenon that swept much of the western world. He was a self-described hippie. Hooley believed in the power of positivity and of love as an antidote to the violence that was consuming Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland. One of the things that gave him hope for a better future was hearing some of the local bands that played in and around Belfast. In particular, he was impressed by the energy and passion that many of the punk bands in Northern Ireland seemed to possess. Hooley truly believed that one of the ways forward as a community was through music and, specifically, through punk music. So Hooley took a gamble. He was no businessman, but he gathered as much money as he could scrape together and went down to the bombed out business district on Great Victoria Road and bought himself a store. His vision was to open a record shop. He called this shop Good Vibrations after The Beach Boys song, of course, but also cheekily as a way of turning the rumbling of the bombs into something that sounded more benign and positive.   

Like much that has anything to do with punk music, Hooley ran his record shop on a shoestring budget. This lack of resources was actually a beneficial thing in the beginning, because it forced Hooley to go out into the clubs and bars of Belfast in search of bands who might be willing to advertise in his shop and place their products on his shelves. In return, he would help promote their music. In time, Hooley created a basic recording studio in his shop. This studio would act as an inexpensive way for new bands to create a record that could be sold in his shop as well as sent to record labels in the hope of securing a deal. One of the bands that Hooley saw playing live was a group from Derry known as The Undertones. 

A photo of all five members of the Irish punk band The Undertones. From left to right: Michale Bradley, Damian O'Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and John O' Neill.
Michael Bradley, Damian O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and John O’Neill

The Undertones were a five-piece punk band. They were led by lead singer Feargal Sharkey, guitarists and brothers John and Damian O’Neill, bassist Michael Bradley and drummer Billy Doherty. Initially, The Undertones were a cover band. They played a lot in Derry and honed their skills as players and as performers. Eventually, they caught wind of the punk music scene that was exploding in London and began to alter their style of play, making everything faster and edgier. It was also at this time that the guys in the band decided that if they were to have any sort of future as musicians, then they needed to start writing their own original tunes. “Teenage Kicks” was written by John O’Neill. Unlike The Sex Pistols, “Teenage Kicks” is not a song that called for riots and anarchy in the streets. Instead, it is about that most normal of things, teenage boys singing about wanting to spend time with teenage girls. The band was able to have a few of their songs recorded on tape while playing live. They sent this “demo tape” to local record companies but were rejected by them all. In a last ditch desperate attempt, The Undertones sent a copy of their tape to famous London DJ John Peel. Peel was known for playing new songs and breaking new acts. He was impressed by what he heard and offered to pay for the proper recording of an EP in Belfast. That EP ended up being recorded at Terri Hooley’s simple studio at his Good Vibrations record shop. Once the record was published, Hooley took it back to John Peel. Not only did Peel play “Teenage Kicks” on his show, he did something he rarely ever did, he played the song twice in a row. According to Peel, “Teenage Kicks” was his favourite song of all time. He liked it so much that when he died, the opening lines of the song were engraved on his tombstone!

The tombstone of DJ John Peel. At the bottom, the opening line of the song "Teenage Kicks" is engraved. It reads, "Teenage dreams so hard to beat". "Teenage Kicks" was John Peel's favourite song.

As expected, with the promotion given the song by John Peel, demands for copies of the record went through the roof. Sire Records, one of the very same record companies who had previously rejected the band when they were sent the demo tape, came circling back around and offered the band a professional record contract. The Undertones agreed. They re-recorded “Teenage Kicks”, and off to the races they went, enjoying a successful career that contained several other hit songs, although none of which captured the attention of audiences quite like “Teenage Kicks”. Feargal Sharkey eventually left the band due to internal disputes and launched his own mildly successful solo career. On the other hand, Terri Hooley, being a poor businessman, had never asked any of the bands that he let record in his studio to sign publishing contracts with him. As a result, even though he played a key role in helping to get “Teenage Kicks” on the airwaves, he saw nary a cent from its success. Sire Records wisely locked up the publishing rights. As time went on, Terri Hooley went bankrupt on several occasions. Several times he tried to re-establish his record store as a viable business, but each time he ended up failing because he just didn’t know how to manage his books, as they say. There has been a movie made about his life that I will link to in the comments below. Even though he never became rich, Terri Hooley remains a beloved figure in the Irish punk music scene and is, himself, quite pleased to have played the part in its success that he did. Not all rewards have to do with money.

Meanwhile, as “Teenage Kicks” was airing on John Peel’s radio show, the citizens of Derry were over the moon with pride. In lives filled with knocks and daily humiliations, the happiness they felt fell like raindrops from the sky when The Undertones from Derry became famous. The song, which is nothing more than a two-and-a-half minute long celebration of teenage hoochie-coo, offered such a reprieve from the constant pressure of living under occupation that it entered into the cultural DNA of the community, much as conflict and hatred had for years previously. But this time there was something different to talk about. This time the feeling was one of joy and pride and happiness. It must have been such a relief to have had something good happen to Derry for a change. Proof of the cultural significance of this song and the emotions that it espoused can be seen in how it was used in an episode of the amazing television series Derry Girls. *(I have written about Derry Girls before in a post that you can read here).  The show takes place in Derry and integrates the impact of The Troubles into the comedic storylines that take place in each episode much in the same way that M*A*S*H* did with the Korean War. In the episode in question (Season , Ep. ), the mothers of the teenage Derry Girl stars are preparing to attend their high school reunion. Needless to say, much time is spent dredging up memories of the past all the while focussing on some naughty thing that the moms were all involved with at the end of the dance twenty years earlier. I won’t say what this naughty thing was one way or the other, but the entire episode really showed how important it was for all of these characters to have the chance to be normal and happy and have fun once in a while. The key moment of the show was when the reunion dance was about to begin. The DJ announced that it was time for the national anthem. Everyone groaned, expecting it to be “God Save the Queen”, which, if played, would have been just another in an endless series of reminders that they are ruled by foreigners. Instead, the opening notes of “Teenage Kicks” play, and everyone falls about the place. Angst is instantly replaced by joy. All is well. The reunion unfolds with laughter and drinking and singing and fun. The playing of “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones reminded everyone there that there is a reason to keep on fighting back against oppression, even if that fight is standing your ground and believing in your own right to happiness and good times. Sometimes anthems are born on the battlefield. Sometimes they are born on the dance floor. Whatever the case, “Teenage Kicks” is a balm that has soothed a nation’s soul. It may be the most punk song ever recorded.

I will end this post by telling you that I had no difficulty at all finding rousing sing-along versions of “Teenage Kicks” on video being sung in and around Derry. The song truly means a lot to the citizens of Derry. In the links below, I will post The Undertones singing “Teenage Kicks”, of course, but I will also show school children singing it, fans at football games singing it and on and on it goes. As I said off of the top, sometimes a song is more than just a song. This has been one of those times. 

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” as sung by 700 school children near the walls of Derry can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” as sung by football fans can be found here.

The link to the video for the movie Good Vibrations, about the life and times of Terri Hooley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Undertones can be found here.

The link to the official website for Derry, Ireland, can be found here

The title of this series comes from a line in the song “Boxcar” by the awesome band Jawbreaker. Please show these folks some love by visiting them at their website. Jawbreaker merch is really cool. I am hoping that I might find some under the Christmas tree…hint, hint. The link to Jawbreaker’s website can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #7/25: Dancer by Idles

In our last post from this series, we took a look at the origins of punk rock as a genre by examining the band MC5, who plied their trade in the 1960s. Today we are traveling to the other end of the time continuum by taking a closer look at Idles, who are one of the most successful modern punk-esque bands performing today. Idles hail from Bristol, England, and consist of five regular members: lead singer Joe Talbot (whose voice was once described as follows: “If whiskey had a voice it would sound like Joe”), lead guitarist Mark Bowen (who often performs in his underwear or else in dresses. Bowan also helped produce today’s song, “Dancer”), rhythm guitarist Lee Kiernan (who often flails about the stage like a whirling dervish while playing), bassist Adam Devonshire (who stoically anchors the stage while the three front men do their thing) and drummer Jon Beavis (who was once described as follows: “He’s a beast on the drums and for a small fee will do your taxes, too”). The band has been together since 2009 but have only been releasing albums of original material since 2017. In that time, the band has been nominated for Grammy Awards and England’s Mercury Prize. They are generally regarded as one of the best live acts performing anywhere in the world today.

IDLES: Mark Bowen, Jon Davis, Joe Talbot, Lee Kieran and Adam Devonshire

As a band, the members of Idles have been quick to state that they are not a punk band but are, instead, a rock band. However, their professional attitude as a band says otherwise. Ever since their debut album, ironically titled Brutalism, Idles has made their living by being nice and by espousing positivity. Like all good punk bands, the songs that Idles are best known for all seem to have a political bent. However, the band makes a consistent habit of making their points without the need for anger or by calling for anarchy. For example, “Never Fight a Man in a Perm” is their take on the subject of toxic masculinity. “Danny Nedelko” is a song that praises the important contributions made by immigrants, which, in these times, is as against the grain as a band can get. The video for this song really highlights the positivity with which Idles performs and how well they interact with their audiences. “Crawl!” is a song about mental health and what happens when people (especially men) refuse to acknowledge that they need help. This video is from the most recent Glastonbury Music Festival and was voted as being the best live performance. There is profanity, so viewer discretion is advised. “A Hymn” is a song that acts as a love letter to their parents and friends from Bristol who supported them when they were just starting out. The video for this is great! On and on it goes. For a band that plays loud and fast and hard, Idles seem like the nicest bunch of guys you could ever meet. They have excellent stage presence and are known for the interactivity of their shows. Above all else, the band preaches peace and love and unity through music, all the while having a lot of fun. This brings us to the subject of today’s song, “Dancer”.     

“Dancer” is the band’s latest single. It was just released this past week and comes from an as-of-yet unreleased album called Tangk. The song is a real banger. It features the singing of LCD Soundsystem members James Murphy and Nancy Whang on the chorus, which is more significant than the usual cameo-type appearance that guest singers tend to make on other people’s records. LCD Soundsystem, and James Murphy in particular, is well known for the quality of its lyrics and the way the band uses the musical structure of their songs to add layers of meaning to the lyrics being sung. This past summer, Idles opened for LCD Soundsystem on a festival tour of the U.S. During the tour, members of each band got to know each other and to learn from each other. When it came time for Idles to start writing songs for their latest album, they incorporated lessons garnered from their tour experiences. This was also how Murphy and Whang ended up playing such a cool role in the song “Dancer”. 

“Dancer” is a song that has a wall-of-sound feel to it but, in reality, is built upon a very basic musical construction that borrows heavily from some of LCD Soundsystem’s best known work. However, in order to understand why the structure of “Dancer” works so well, it is first necessary to step back and look at what Idles are trying to say in this song in which the medium ends up becoming the message. First of all, Idles has always wanted their fans to have a safe and fun time at their shows. They discourage mosh pits because they can lead to violent outbursts of aggression, especially among male concert goers. Idles want all fans to feel safe and to have a good time, so they preach the need for fans to watch out for each other during shows and to care for one another. At the same time, they want their fans to move and groove and most of all to sweat and leave their concerts completely spent. So, on one level, the song “Dancer” is about feeling safe enough to freely express yourself through movement to music. On a different level, the band is also talking about conflict and alternatives to violence. At some point in our lives or by watching shows on TV or at the movies, we have witnessed scenes of confrontation between two or more people where the invitation is issued by one side to the other to dance. When someone looks you in the eye, fists cocked and says, “Let’s dance”, they are not talking about doing the rhumba or the cha-cha-cha. They are inviting you to fight. The song “Dancer” is about riots and mosh pits and wars and how, as a society, we have a tendency to fall into patterns of bodily movement, in pairs or in large groups, that bring with it violence and destruction and harm. Through this song, Idles are desperately trying to appeal to the great masses in society to use bodily movement for pleasure, instead of pain. Finally, “Dancer” touches upon the culturally significant nature of the act of dancing. From Indigenous powwows, to New Zealand’s Haka dance, to Scottish Highland flings, the act of dancing is an important one. It is also a sensual one. Next to actually being sexually intimate with someone, dancing with a loved one can be one of the most loving and provocative things people can do together. If you have ever slow danced at a high school dance or house party, then you have an idea of what I am talking about here. There is a reason that so many hit songs are written about the sexually charged energy that comes from being on the dance floor.

This brings us back to the way that the structure of  “Dancer” is put together and how it helps to elevate the song’s meaning. This is a song built upon the interplay between low sounds and higher sounds. The low sounds consist of drums, throbbing bassline and Joe Talbot’s deep, gravel-like voice. The high sounds consist of the crisp, crackling higher notes of the lead and rhythm guitars, along with the chorus line sung by Murphy and Whang of LCD Soundsystem. “Dancer” begins with Adam Devonshire’s dramatic bassline that acts as the heartbeat of the song all the way through. Joe Talbot adds his low voice to this baseline, with the two amplifying the other. Whenever Joe takes a breath or a pause, the higher guitar notes jump in and weave themselves around the bassline. During the chorus, the bassline gives way to Murphy and Whang’s higher pitched voices repeating the line “Collide us while we work it out”, while Joe Talbot sings about dancing “cheek to cheek and hip to hip”. The two separate lyrics circle around each other until they form a single joyful cacophony of sound. In other words, the alternating, intermingling high/low chords and notes function the way people do on the dancefloor: they dance! A song about the physical and emotional release that comes from freely dancing is constructed in such a way that the sounds and lyrics dance with each other all throughout the song, too. The end result is, as mentioned earlier, a banger of a song. Idles are far from the traditional stand-still-in-front-of-your-microphones kind of band. They are active and boisterous and have many good things to say about the state of our world and how things can be made better. They are punk in all the very best ways a punk band can be. They are my favourite modern band. There is no other band or artist who is even a close second. Let’s get our sweat on! Here is Idles and “Dancer”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “Dancer” by Idles can be found here. ***The lyrics video is here. However, as a note, the lyrics video features Spanish and English lyrics, and, as well, it reverses the frame images throughout, which is kinda weird. But the song is so new that this is the only lyric video I could find.  

The link to the official website for Idles can be found here.

The link to a previous post written about the song “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem can be found here.  For my money, the video of this performance is one of the best live concert videos I have ever seen! Absolutely phenomenal! 

***The title of this series is taken directly from a line in a song called “Boxcar” by a great band called Jawbreaker. Please take a moment or two and visit their website and show the band some love. The link to the official website for Jawbreaker can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #6/25: Kick Out the Jams by MC5

When you are a parent of teenagers, one of your main jobs is helping them to maintain their sense of self-esteem. It isn’t easy being young these days and trying to discover their true self amid the myriad of images from influencers and advertisers that bombard them each day. This is especially true when that face in the mirror doesn’t seem to line up with how the cool kids on social media appear to be. Being on the outside looking in on the lives my daughters are leading, it is sometimes easy for me to sit back and marvel at how competent and smart and compassionate my girls have turned out to be. It is something entirely different to have them believe in their hearts that they are as special as their mother and I deem them to be. Having a good sense of self tends to be something that comes with time and experience. One of the simplest things that any young person can do to find out who they truly are is to do what makes them happy. Follow the path that your heart sets for you, and more often than not, you will find yourself headed in the correct direction in life. Once you start blazing your own trail in life, who knows what kind of difference you will end up making in the world simply by being yourself? 

This advice isn’t just something that applies to teenage girls in our modern world. It is a time-tested mantra that, as my boy Dennis Miller once said, has existed since we first started tossing our bone tools to the sky with Kubrickian glee. A perfect example of this can be found with the career of five young men from Detroit who formed a band that came to be known as MC5. The members of the band were lead singer Fred Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson. MC5 began as a band in 1963. To put that date in context, 1963 was the year that The Beatles released their debut album “Please, Please Me”. The world had not yet heard “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” or “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys or any number of the most legendary rock albums of all time. That was to come. What was happening in 1963 was all of those kids who had discovered Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton and, of course, Elvis Presley in the 1950s were coming of age in the early 1960s and forming bands of their own. 

The boys from MC5: Fred “Sonic” Smith, Michael Davis, Fred Tyner, Dennis Thompson and Wayne Kramer.

Detroit, in particular, was a city that was exploding with music. It was when Motown Records opened and started producing hit after hit and star after star. Little Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and so many more were all blossoming into stars on a national stage that had its roots in the Motor City of Detroit. In an economic sense, Detroit was at the centre of America’s economy as the Big Three automakers churned out cars in record numbers so as to fulfill the promise of a car in every driveway in America. On a societal scale, the Civil Rights Movement had a big impact on Detroit. By the mid-1960s, with Motown booming, jobs a-plenty in manufacturing and racial equality appearing to become a thing as desegregation bills became the law of the land, it was a heady time to live in the Motor City. The future looked bright for people of colour and it looked even brighter for people of colour in the music industry. Detroit was the centre of it all at a time when Rock n’ Roll, as a musical genre, was discovering its true self.

The young men who formed MC5 (which stands for “Motor City 5”) were not people of colour. All five boys were white. But from their earliest days, they were drawn toward the music played by Bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and early rockers like Chuck Berry. When the time came for the boys to choose a musical direction, they all agreed that rock n’ roll was the way. Further to that, MC5 formed just as people like Bob Dylan, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones were popularizing the use of electric guitars. In a music scene that was soon to unleash Jimi Hendrix on the world, the boys from MC5 found the way an electric guitar sounded to be intoxicating. So, they formed a band and began to play. Like many a young band, initially they had no tunes of their own, so they began their career as a cover band in and around Detroit. They played cover versions of the latest songs by The Stones, The Kinks, The Faces and other bands of that ilk. MC5 played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and soon developed a reputation as being a great live band. By the time the late 1960s dawned, MC5 could draw upwards of one thousand people for a local show. As their popularity soared, it soon became apparent that being a cover band would only take them so far. They needed their own songs if they were to ascend to a higher musical plane. Unlike their compatriots at Motown, MC5 didn’t have a team of songwriters waiting in the wings to supply them with new material. That job fell to themselves. 

This is when the old adage of doing what makes you happy comes into play. After having honed their skills playing live for almost five years, the boys in MC5 were starting to create an identity for themselves. They knew that they liked to play electric guitars. They knew that they liked to play these instruments fast and hard and loud. They knew that they enjoyed the interactivity that came from playing in intimate venues. What they also knew was that they were from Detroit and that a lot was happening in their city from which they could draw inspiration when it came to their own music. One of the things that happened in Detroit was an event in 1967 that shook the city to its core. That was the year of the great Detroit Riots. In 1967, with all of the promise of racial equality that arose out of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, came the pushback from those in positions of authority who preferred a world in which people of colour knew their place. The Detroit Riots happened when the desire by people of colour for systemic changes to the way Detroit was run, ran smack into organized resistance by authorities such as the police department. *(I wrote all about the Detroit Riots in a previous post about the origins of the classic song “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave. To get a more detailed breakdown of what happened at that time, please take a few moments to read that post, which is one of my favourite posts of all time. You can find that post by clicking here).  Many people lost their lives during these riots. Many parts of Detroit were destroyed as a result of looting and fires. If you add to this all of the things that were happening on a national scale, such as resistance to the Vietnam War, you have a picture of a city and a country under tremendous political and social stress. Enter MC5.

MC5 released their debut album in 1969. It was called Kick Out the Jams!. By this time, the final piece of the puzzle of who this band actually was fell into place. Not only would they play loud, hard and fast, not only would they play as close to their audiences as they could safely get, they collectively decided to become a political band. Their affinity for racial justice fuelled a belief within the band that their purpose was to effect social change. One of the ways that they felt that they could help make this happen was to challenge societal norms in ways that best suited them. One example happened the previous year when the band traveled to Chicago to play at protest concerts scheduled to occur at the same time as the Democratic National Convention. They made contact with protest leaders such as Huey Newton from The Black Panthers and became politically active in opposing the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the whole political machine that existed throughout the country. One of the ways MC5 channeled these new anarchistic feelings was to do something on their debut album that hadn’t been done before…they included profanity in the opening line of the song they were releasing as their first single. In the opening line of the single “Kick Out the Jams!”, lead singer Fred Tyner shouts out to the live audience, “Kick out the jams, motherf*ckers!” MC5 was daring the establishment to play this song on the radio as it was written. In live concerts, the opening line became a rally cry of sorts between the band and their fans. When you watch the video I have posted below, you can see the glee and gusto with which Tyner delivers his line. 

MC5 on stage at The Grande Ballroom in Detroit, Michigan. It was from this stage that singer Fred Tyner shouted out, "Kick Out the Jams, Motherfuckers!"
MC5 at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit: the birthplace of Punk Rock.

Did MC5 change anything with their tactics?  Well, the reality of the situation was that even though society in America was becoming more open, the country still wasn’t ready to embrace profanity in the music that it listened to. Another famous example of how buttoned-down the music industry was in those days can be seen in the story of how Mick Jagger snuck a reference to oral sex past censors with the line from Honky Tonk Woman that goes  “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind”.  I am not sure if having profanity in our songs today is an improvement when it comes to music, but I do know that I would prefer to make my own choices with regard to what I listen to and not have my musical choices censored by authority figures hidden away in dark offices in the shadowy parts of town. For MC5, sales of their album fell flat because of lack of radio airplay. The rejection of their music by the man, as it were, helped the band achieve a measure of outsider status. MC5 used this to create an even tighter bond with their fans as they milked this us against them mentality for all it was worth. In the end, it wasn’t sustainable for the band. They ended up breaking up just a few short years later. With that, it appeared as though their impact as a musical collective had come to an end.

However, one of the truisms of life is that sometimes it is difficult to appreciate the impact that you are making at the time you are making it. Sometimes it takes hindsight to put your efforts into their true perspective and then, only then, can you see that, indeed, you did make a difference in the world. For MC5, that validation would come almost a full decade later. As the 1970s rolled along, there were more and more bands who opted to play their music in the same style as MC5 had. They played loud and fast and close to their audiences and often used music as a form of political expression. Eventually music critics began commenting on this style of music as being rock music or garage music played by musicians who could best be described as punks. One noteworthy example of this came from the liner notes of an album called Nuggets released by The Patti Smith Group.  She was there for the birth of MC5’s brand of political rock. Patti Smith would go on to become one of the most respected performers, poets, photographers and artists of her generation. But, for the sake of this post, it was in her liner notes for the album Nuggets that the term Punk Rock was first used to describe the style of music created by MC5.  ***In an ironic note, Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith married in the 1980s. Together they had several children, one of which…a son…ended up marrying Meg White (drummer of the Detroit band, The White Stripes). As the 1970s went on bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned all rose to public prominence. The style of music they played officially became known as Punk Rock. As the term Punk Rock became normalized in everyday discourse, people eventually began tracing the evolution of the genre backwards in time in order to find the wellspring from which it sprang. That search led them to Detroit and, specifically, to a band called MC5. As if MC5 weren’t enough, around the same time, Detroit also gave birth to another great band that became referred to as punk rockers and that was Iggy and the Stooges, featuring Iggy Pop as lead singer. When the musical history of Detroit is written, the city will have so very much to be proud of. In addition to those Motown acts who became household names, Detroit produced acts such as Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, The White Stripes, Eminem, Alice Cooper, The Dramatics, The Romantics and many, many more. What a rich musical legacy the Motor City has, in addition to being the birthplace of Punk!

This brings us back to the whole notion of being true to oneself as a guiding philosophy in life. I can’t live life for my daughters. They have to do that for themselves. I will love them forever, but I can only protect them for so long. Eventually they will venture forth in the world and create their own experiences and make their own magic. The greatest gift that their mother and I can bestow upon them as parents, besides pledging to them our undying love, is to instill within each girl the belief that they are special in their own right and that they already possess the attributes necessary to make a difference in the world simply by being themselves. Although it may seem hard for them to believe at times, they are already worthy enough. They don’t require an influencer to mold them into that brightest version of themselves. That version already exists. It is you, my daughters (and you, my dear readers). Follow your heart. Do what makes you happy and proud. It will all be ok in the end. Sometimes, it will turn out to be better than you may have believed possible. That was the case for MC5. They were simply a rock band from Detroit who decided to be true to themselves and make music on their terms. In the end, they are credited as being the band that helped create the entire genre that we know today as Punk Rock. And they did this simply by being true to themselves. 

And that, motherf*ckers, is the secret to a happy life. 

The link to the official website for MC5 can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Kick Out the Jams!” by MC5 can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here. ***FYI: the lyrics version is censored and omits the word motherf*cker.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Who’s Punk?! What’s the score?!: Song #3/50: Pinhead by The Ramones

You can tell a lot about a person and a society by how they treat those who, for whatever reason, come to be viewed as being different. For the sake of this post, I am going to refer to the term “different” as being people who possess intellectual and/or physical challenges. When I started working as an elementary school teacher in Ontario, it was the 1989/90 school year. Back in the early stages of my career, those students who possessed intellectual or physical challenges were often segregated from classrooms such as mine. They weren’t being punished or regarded with disdain. But the thinking definitely existed that these students were better off in a self-contained setting that could be designed specifically to meet their many needs. But, as my career reached the one-third mark in the mid-1990s, government legislation was introduced in Ontario that mandated a policy known as integration. What this meant in practical terms was that students with special needs would become part of so-called regular classroom life as much as was possible. Being Mr. Cynical Pants as I tend to be when it comes to the motives of governments, I believe that part of the impetus for this legislation was that it was the government’s way of reducing education expenditures by eliminating/scaling back the existence of parallel spaces within schools that were being dedicated for students with special needs. But, one of the very clear benefits that came about both for students with special needs and for the students in regular classrooms like mine was the opportunity to get to know one another and break down the walls of ignorance that kept us separated for so long. Working with students with special needs and the wonderful staff who accompanied them was a game changer for me as a teacher. In addition to teaching ABCs and 1-2-3s, we were all provided with real-time lessons in compassion and empathy and caring for others who were different from ourselves. The personal growth we received was self-evident. The students with special needs that joined our classroom ceased being mysterious entities and soon became friends that we welcomed without question. As they became part of our classroom world, the kids grew to become protective of their new friends. They viewed these children as being the same as anybody else, minus a few quirks and quarks that may have existed. A level of understanding and acceptance grew. We became a complete classroom family.  

Up until the years of the Covid pandemic, I would have been willing to state that we, as a society, had made progress in how we view and treat those that we deem as being different from us. But, the Covid pandemic turned out to be more than just a health scare. It became a social experiment that was weaponized by people with certain right wing views. Those views included a return to a world in which white is right and only Christians need bother to apply for membership. All other minority groups have seen setbacks in the past few years that are both societal and legislative. It isn’t easy being a person of colour, a woman seeking bodily autonomy, a child with special needs in schools, someone experiencing poverty, an immigrant, almost anyone on the LGBQTIA2S+ spectrum and so on. Our world has gotten crueler and colder as those harbouring hateful thoughts have gone on the march. The whole notion of racial purity and strength being one of the foundational aspects of these political movements does not bode well for those who are viewed as being different. If allowed to proceed unabated, it is not too far-fetched a notion to envision a world in which people with physical and/or intellectual challenges will be segregated away again …or even worse.  

Despite how it may seem so far, this is actually a music post about a song that is based upon a famous/infamous movie about the very topic of how we treat those we view as being different from ourselves. That movie is called Freaks. The song of the day is called “Pinhead” by The Ramones. I will end this post by connecting the dots to reveal a television show that drew the inspiration for its creation directly from a line in “Pinhead” and, by doing so, offers us all a utopian vision of how we can all live together in harmony regardless of our appearance and our capabilities. Let’s get on with the show!

The world was very different in 1923. One of the most common ways that society dealt with people who possessed intellectual and/or physical challenges was to lock them away in sanitariums or insane asylums. Mental illness was not viewed as an acceptable condition that was treatable. In fact, even shell shocked soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe in WWI were often locked away from the general public. There was a very out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality at play. However, every now and again, it was deemed as being socially acceptable for the general public to come into contact with people who would otherwise be locked away. One of those socially acceptable times occurred whenever a circus would come to town. In those days, many traveling circuses had acts called Sideshow Freaks. In essence, the people who performed in sideshows tended to be advertised as being frightening creatures, maybe even dangerous, some were even billed as being evil. In reality, they were people with medical conditions such as being conjoined twins, people born without limbs or with smaller than usual heads or tiny bodies and so on. Many of these performers were kept in very cruel and inhumane conditions behind the scenes. Many were intellectually disabled and unable to advocate for themselves. It was an awful life for these vulnerable people who required protection and compassion and only ever received exploitation. It says a lot about the state of social mores back in 1923 that the most common reactions from paying customers to these “freak shows” was fear and revulsion. 

Against this backdrop, an author named Tod Robbins wrote a short story in 1923 called Spurs. This story was a murder mystery set in the world of a traveling circus in France. The plot involved one of the sideshow performers known as “The Dwarf” inheriting a large sum of money. Afterwards, a beautiful female con artist of “normal height and looks” decides to trick the man out of his money by pretending to fall in love with him. Needless to say, the story does not end well for this woman. Readers were given a glimpse of the environment of a traveling circus, along with the details of a crime plot gone wrong. In the end, the film rights to Spurs was purchased by MGM Studios. In 1931, MGM Studios released one of the first great horror movies called Dracula. This movie introduced the world to Bela Lugosi. The director of Dracula was a man called Tod Browning.  Because of the success of his movie with Lugosi, Browning was given free rein to choose his next project. Out of several that were brought to his attention, Browning opted to adapt for the screen the short story Spurs.

Browning discarded much of the storyline of the short story because he realized that the real story that needed to be explored was the world of the sideshow performers. Browning understood how society viewed them and wondered what it must be like to live one’s entire life being viewed with fear and hostility, living essentially in indentured servitude, with no one to care for you in any regard at all. So Browning created a film that came to be known as Freaks. The film followed some of the storyline from the short story Spurs, but it really focussed on exposing the attitudes of those who claimed to be “normal”. Browning hired actual sideshow performers and dared film audiences to look at them in all their humanity and then look at themselves as reflected in the performance of the blonde femme fatale who tries to con “The Dwarf” out of his money. Browning used his horror skills to good use. Because people were not used to being confronted by others who were missing limbs or had misshapen heads, etc., many audience members found Freaks to be horrifying in the extreme and unsettling at best. The movie’s pivotal scene involves a gathering of all the performers at a dinner. There is a sense of community among them all. The reason for the gathering is that they had all fallen for the charms of this con artist and had prepared a community dinner at which time they were going to officially welcome her into their traveling family. There is a clip for the movie that I urge you to watch by clicking here. If you watch the clip, you will see the reaction this woman has when she realizes that the performers consider her to be one of them now as they chant, “Gobble! Gobble! We Accept you!  We accept you!  One of us! One of us!”.  The scene is not gruesome or horrifying. To me, it plays more like an episode of The Twilight Zone TV show. However, Freaks ended up being banned for decades in the US and around the world. People were just not prepared to welcome into their lives other people who may have been different from them. It says a lot about the state of society back then, and as Browning was trying to point out, it accurately showcased who the real freaks were. And they weren’t the sideshow performers.

Flash forward to the 1970s. Punk rock had taken root in America. One of the bands who became the face of the genre in the U.S was The Ramones. As you may know from previous posts about The Ramones *(that you can read here and here), they were a band who played songs with lightning speed. Although the lyrical content was often sparse, The Ramones were songwriters who had a flair for coining terms that captured the mood of the world at the time. For example, they are credited with introducing the term punk rock in their song “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”. In any case, one thing that The Ramones understood as well as anyone was that their music was different from much of what passed for rock n’ roll in the 1970s. By extension, they understood that a majority of their fans felt as though they were different, too. These fans felt like outsiders who were being given voice by these skinny dudes in leather jackets and tight, tight jeans.

And so it was that The Ramones found themselves in Cleveland, Ohio one day. They had been scheduled to play at an outdoor event, but unfortunately, there was lightning in the area and the event was canceled. Suddenly, the band had time on their hands so they decided to spend the afternoon by seeing a movie. As it turned out, the movie Freaks had been given a new lease on life by folks who had come to realize that its portrayal of sideshow performers was nowhere as frightening in the 1970s as it had been in the 1930s. The ban on the film was lifted, and as it happened, the film was playing that rainy day in Cleveland. Immediately, the members of The Ramones identified with the sideshow performers’ sense of alienation as well as their sense of community. The boys were particularly drawn to a performer known as Pinhead in the film. This character was based upon a real person who went by the name of Schlitzie. In real life, Schlitzie suffered from a medical condition known as microcephaly.  This condition causes the skull to become misshapen, which, in turn, often causes pressures on the brain which result in speech and language impairments, intellectual difficulties and so on. The whole idea that these sideshow performers, who had so much going against them, exercised such solidarity and humanity by the end of the film struck a chord within the band. In particular, they recognized the rallying cry inherent in the chanted phrases of “Gobble! Gobble! We Accept You! We Accept You! One of us! One of us!”. The Ramones felt they could apply the same sort of rallying cry at their concerts. In doing so, there would be a tacit acknowledgement between the band and their fans that they may be outsiders, but they were outsiders together as a community. When the band left the theatre, they came up with the song called “Pinhead”. Within the sparse lyrical content of the song is the rallying cry at the end that goes, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” This was their take on the “Gobble! Gobble!” chant from Freaks. One of the things that allowed The Ramones to become such a fan-friendly punk band was their ability to build in audience participation moments throughout their show. They were known for starting songs with “1-2-3-4!” or using chants such as “Hey ho! Let’s go!” Add to that, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” and you have a fun evening singing, chanting and dancing with friends.

While The Ramones did much to bring punk rock into the mainstream of American music, the truth was that many “normal” music lovers still regarded them and their fans as being a niche group that occupied their own small space on the musical spectrum way off to the side, away from the rest of the bands and their fans. But, there was no denying the influence of The Ramones. One of the best examples of the groundwork that The Ramones laid with “Pinhead” and the “Gabba Gabba Hey!” chants bearing the fruit of social acceptance happened with two musicians named Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz. These guys decided to develop the idea of creating a utopian version of Freaks, but for children, that was based directly on The Ramones’ song “Pinhead”. That show aired for the first time in 2007 and was called Yo Gabba Gabba. While Sesame Street remains the gold standard of children’s television shows, Yo Gabba Gabba is one that, for me, ranks right up there! It was an awesome show to watch as an adult when my girls were younger. The show had a DJ as host (DJ Lance) and was populated by a community of characters, none of whom looked like they were human. The segments on the show dealt with things you would expect, such as lessons on kindness and courage and sharing. But the best part was that cutting edge music was played all throughout the show. Real alternative and indie bands such as Hot, Hot Heat, Devo, MGMT, Sean Kingston, Eryka Badu, The Flaming Lips, The Roots, Weezer, My Chemical Romance and even Paul Williams singing an artsy, trippy rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” all appeared on the show. ***Manchester band, The Ting Tings performed a song that they called “Happy Birthday” which was something I used to play for my kids in class whenever it was their birthday. The whole show was filled with colour and music and characters who looked nothing like you or me, all living in harmony. Yo Gabba Gabba was a quirky show, but there was something there for everyone, if only we would take the time to look. 

I make no bones about it, I have always had a special spot in my heart for the underdog. I believe that the very essence of their humanity is as valid and vital as anything that a so-called normal guy like me can share with the world. That so many of our fellow humans may require extra care or assistance to be their true selves does not diminish their right to be allowed to thrive. I was always happy to help. I would rather spend one thousand days in a row in the company of some of those kids who joined our classroom in the 2000s or those sideshow performers from Freaks or the fans of The Ramones or in the world of Yo Gabba Gabba than I would one single second in the company of those who recently protested against the rights of trans children recently in Canada. In the end, I want to live in a world where everyone is welcome and all are respected and cared for and loved. That is all. Gabba Gabba Hey!

The link to the official website for The Ramones can be found here

The link to the video for the song “Pinhead” by The Ramones can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here.  

NOTE: The lyrics in this song borrow from the plot of Freaks but with a small change. Instead of a female con artist, The Ramones sing of a nurse who is going to take them away from being a pinhead and give them a normal life. However, in the end, the nurse accuses them of being “dumb” because they are pinheads after all. The song is mostly thrashing guitars, with the famous “Gabba Gabba Hey!” line at the end of the song. PS: A member of their crew will appear on stage as Schlitzie.

The link to the official website for Yo Gabba Gabba can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Happy Birthday” by The Ting Tings that I showed to my students in class whenever it was someone’s birthday can be found here.

***The title for this series comes from a song “Boxcar” by the band Jawbreaker. I encourage all who read this post to go and check out their website, maybe buy some merch, purchase a concert ticket and/or listen to some other songs from their catalogue of great tunes. You can reach their website by clicking here. To Jawbreaker, thanks for helping to inspire the writing of this series on Punk music.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

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