Dirty Water 2: More Birth of Punk Attitude
This second mix of eclectic roots underpinning the late-'70s musical revolution may irk the purists who feel Blue Cheer, Edgar Broughton, Faust, Parliament, Suicide, The Misunderstood, The Godz, Woody Guthrie and others weren't "punk." Actually, many of Kris Needs' choices make sense, although the lack of Dada tone-poetry is baffling.
In his excellent book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of The Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus makes a convincing case for an ongoing distillation of a societal critique that he maps from the Dada movement to the Situationist International to Johnny Rotten. It's a critique based upon the standpoint of the absurdity in failing to challenge conformistconstructs such as advertising, popular culture, suburbs, organized religion and war. In a similar vein, Kris Needs identifies a slew of artists which he feels are imbued with aspirit akin to that which erupted in 1976 to register disgust and boredom at the economic and musical stagnation which held sway.
The cover art is awful and some of Dirty Water 2 features major label artists of early rock n roll, glam rock and reggae that we can skip over here. However, having made the necessary link with NYC punk with Patti Smith's "Piss Factory" (sounding better than ever) and Jayne County's "Man Enough To Be A Woman" (sounding worse than ever) Needs casts the net much wider. Firstly, he grabs some obscure US garage rock tracks by Human Expression, Zachary Thaks, Unrelated Segments, Tidal Waves and The Misunderstood (doing "Children of The Sun" which is the song I like best on this double CD set).
A bit of research on The Misunderstood reveals¬†John Peel (in a 2003 interview) picking a gig of theirs at Pandora's Box, Hollywood, in 1966, as the best he'd ever attended; certainly in his top ten. We live and learn. It turns out that Peel first saw the group perform in a San Bernadino shopping mall and coaxed them to London to record. Unfortunately, a combination of the US draft and UK immigration seems to have caused swift and severe problems¬†from which they never recovered. The story is detailed in Like, Misunderstood , the autobiography of lead singer Rick Brown, which looks to have some fascinating details of his subsequent escape from boot camp and fugitive life hiding in jungles and an Indian ruby mine guarded by a 115 year old guru. I'll definitely be seeking¬†that and more of their music.
Apparently, among the most appreciated artists from the first Dirty Water compilation were (doo wop group) The Silhouettes and (black pre-punks from Detroit) Death. Both bands are featured again. Death sound like they were ahead of the punk curve but a refusal to change their name at the behest of a record company meant they ended up self-releasing 500 copies of their 1975 recordings. Their "Freakin' Out" starts with a short comical falsetto screeching of their name, but what follows is a thrashing punk rock blueprint.¬†The Silhouettes' inclusion may be explained in the 76 page booklet accompanying this set (which I didn't receive). Presumably Needs feels their tales of economic woe, released in the late 1950s, had a echo in the doom-laden, scapegoating, dole queue backdrop to late-1970s England. Lipstick Traces also focuses on the effects of mass unemployment with a quote from Hannah Arendt:
"Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman."
Fair enough, although as a young carefree man, I found being on the dole quite liberating in a dreamy rambling fashion which Arendt might label "bourgeois" although it felt more like "peasant with an attitude to the passage of time similar to that sometimes suggested by The Idler magazine."
Anyway, the same people who frothed at the mouth at Needs' first collection (while muttering "The Last Poets have nothing to do with punk") will froth at the mouth over 2 (while muttering "Parliament have nothing to do with punk"). And if "punk" is seen as merely a narrow musical genre, rather than creativity borne out of a "punk attitude" then the criticism is justified. However, life's too short not to¬†accept musical variety and the¬†more inclusive angle. Such a viewpoint also tries to avoid depicting "punk" as another art or social movement which reduces most people to spectators and deteriorates into a less than amusing exercise in exclusion. Certainly, the DIY aspect is the most alluring part of the late 1970s wave of musical creativity in the UK.¬†Not everyone joined in, of course,¬†but artists seemed to be coming out of nowhere to make a cassette or flexi-single, borne along on a wave of "attitude."In Lipstick Traces, that "attitude" (be it labeled Dada, Situationist, or punk) comes across as almost a biological, noble, social imperative: to smash the old and make something which you claim is new and unique. Revolt into style, refuse to be logical, reject any labels and deny all influences. Let the critics who come along later sort it into neat piles of genre and location, if they must.
In terms of the musical variety which Needs showcases, I was pleased to listen again to some forgotten UK groups such as Kilburn & The High Roads (Ian Dury's group before The Blockheads) and Doctors of Madness. Up-close in the confines of Burton-on Trent's 76 Club, I recall Dury's stage presence as genuinely unnerving. Of course, back then it was not unknown to sup pints of "hosepipe" (mixing brown ale, barley wine and brandy) after which many things had a tendency to become "genuinely unnerving" not least oneself. In the same venue the Doctors of Madness were less memorable with their slightly silly outfits and¬†stage presence. The Edgar Broughton Band were¬†more interesting and it's good to hear "Out Demons Out" again. Maybe it was the smattering of Clockwork Orange-esque trousers but the group had a pleasing yet¬†defiant,¬†quasi-thuggish demeanor and a clunky sound which was a million miles from the pomposity, increasingly un-affecting technical skill, and celebrity aura that was the stale musical norm in the UK; after years of diminishing returns from progressive rock and West-Coast influenced balladry.
Kris Needs has a sense of how to get people to pay attention to the things he loves. He took over the fanzine Zig Zag and probably sold more copies in a single issue with (the then uber-hot and relevant) Debbie Harry on the cover than all the previous ones combined. The range of 39 tracks on Dirty Water 2 hold my interest very well. There is a¬†sense of rebellion conveyed by¬†speed,¬†aggressive playing, strident lyrics and a defiant pose. I enjoy the tangents into the realm of dub toasting, the leaps into wild instrumental catharsis or (in the case of The Holy Modal Rounders resembling a whole group of Legendary Stardust Cowboys on "Indian War Whoop") the rabid¬†yelping. Suicide also whisper and growl over what sounds like battling malfunctioning vacuum cleaner and didgeridoo for "Creature Feature." Certainly it's a fine mix when Faust, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett and The United States of America can rest easily together. My only gripes are the cover, a couple too many major label artists, the absence of any Dada gibberish, and something from Captain Lockheed and The Starfighters.