Saturday, August 3, 2013

Shorter Hours, Longer Arms

Today's formative-album replay: The Stranglers, Black and WhiteI pretty much missed punk, at least in its first vanguard; what filtered through to me, eventually, was mostly its later influence on bands like The Replacements, The Violent Femmes, Husker Du, Pixies, The Pogues, and The Meat Puppets (I don't think Elvis Costello or Talking Heads really count, do you?). It was along with a record by that last band, the decidely un-punk guitar sculpture Up on the Sun, that my high school friend Jeff Niesel also lent me, for reasons I'm now unclear on, this fiendishly entertaining gob of spit and venom from 1978. It is not, apparently, a classic of its time or its genre (The Stranglers' two previous records are more highly regarded), but what I thought I heard in the tuneless, heavily accented yowl of its vocals, the blunt cynicism of its lyrics, and the heedless but not artless aggression of its sound, was straight-up punk rock from the dead horse's mouth. (That the dude on the album cover looked like Fassbinder, and the guy on his left had his head bent down to look like it was lopped off, only added to the sense of glamour-free transgression.)

Revisiting this lovably grotty collection again, I was struck by how uncharacteristic of punk much of its sound actually is, with a brontosauran fuzz bass taking the lead on most of the songs and Ray Manzarek keyboards crawling all over the place. Many of the time signatures are exotic for punk, even the lilting 3/4 of "Outside Tokyo," as are some of the ambitious song suites (as in the album's twin high point, above, in which a jerky, stabbing sneer rises to a majestic seppuku). At least part of the record's appeal, I have to admit now, is that it represents the full, dark flowering of an ungodly mutant hybrid: prog punk.

The album's ostensible single, "Nice 'n' Sleazy," does less than zero for me, as does the misguided cover of "Walk On By," and there are a few songs where the punk edge just turns dull and numb. But I still find the frenzy and frolic of much of this material utterly infectious; it's an end-of-the-world-party soundtrack with real snap and sinew and semi-self-parodic wit, as in this dreadfully perfect lyric from "Threatened": "Man killed by industry/Man killed by luxury/Man killed by falling tree/Man killed by sanity." The history of 20th century thought in four lines? Not.

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