One Chord Wonders

Shouting through the walls with Rhino's new punk box.

IN THE LATE '70S, punk made it so that you had to have an extramusical reason for being in a banda manifesto, as it were. It was no longer credible to say in interviews that your primary concern as a musician was to "explore the Stratocaster's bridge-pickup setting in a more tonally coherent fashion." You had to engage with ideas or social realitiessometimes both, if you could make them convincingly overlap. Which need not inevitably equal a decline into mere style cultism; after all, the film industry recovered nicely after having to introduce plots and dialogue once the audience tired of trompe l'oeil train tunnels and people comically falling through paper walls.

In England, the walls are made out of paper, which is why its singers are lacking in projection skills and presence (i.e., wusses). The oft-told story of Morrissey whispering his demo vocals under a bedsheet before presenting them to Johnny Marr indicates one reason for the Smiths' enormous identification-related popularity in their home country: You can't actually "practice" singinglet alone screeching or holleringanywhere. As for drumming, forget it; nobody has a garage, and the neighborhood noise fascists in London bear out everything Kurt Cobain said about the English. That's why English youth so unanimously took to techno. Even the "bangin'" sounds of the Prodigy could easily be developed with the volume set lowor better yet, on headphones.

But not the Brit-punk that dominates Rhino's new four-CD box set, No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion. Without drums and amps and loud vocal projection, this stuff isn't possible. Considering the local social circumstances, punk was indeed miraculous, in that English singers and drummers threw caution to the wind and exerted themselves in public, for the last time in history, perhaps.

In fact, this may have also been the "last time in history, perhaps," that anybody got anything worthwhile out of the live-instrument format overall. There's an exhilarating under-the-wire feeling throughout No Thanks!as if these bands knew that there were only a few years left before mass digitization would render even "One Chord Wonders," as the Adverts termed themselves, as fussy anachronisms, so there was a hysterical rush to isolate what was good, or at least irreproducible elsewhere, about live instrumentation. Namely, drum parts that fall victim to their single-mindedness by becoming their own out-of-control opposites, and root-fifth distorted electric guitar chords, which communicate a proper understanding that there's really no other electric guitar sound of any fuckin' use to anybody"clean" sounds "acoustic," which should equal "firewood."

What the Brits were doing during punk's first flush was highly derivative of what American bands did a few years earlieranother realization one derives from this box. The best songs here, whether from the U.S. or U.K., are the most simplistic and rigid, and these songs also feature the best "playing""good playing" meaning "sounding identifiably singular in the tonal/motor-coordination fields while functioning as both compulsive and cohesive." Also, what I said about root-fifth chords is not quite true. Despite how certain rhetorical tumbleweeds would have it, the best guitar solos ever can be found on this thing. One of them is on a Pretenders track ("The Wait"), which solves the mystery of why some people spoke nicely of them once. Why didn't the guitar-gear magazine crowd eat this stuff up at the timewhat was the competition? Firefall? The Babies? The Souther-Hillman Furay Band?

Sadly, it didn't last, as we know. Originally, I thought No Thanks! contained too much "new wave" (pointlessly regressing to the musical unobtrusiveness of the mid-'70s "pub rock" of long-forgotten bands like Ducks Deluxe and Dr. Feelgood, mystifyingly believed by some to have had a connection with what came later) and "post-punk" (pointlessly clinging to the band format in the post-band technological age; Luddism disguising itself as progression via "confrontational" clanging cacophony, with Brits again trailing Americans by a few years). But listening, I realized those inclusions just put the real stuff into sharper, and thus more edifying, relief. Punk's other other direction, distillation of distillation, is represented by Sham 69great sounding on Oi! comps, which are great anyway; here sounding as confused and perfunctory as the Joy Division track.

Of course, everyone's going to have their favorite omissions and quibbles. (Rhino themselves apologize in the liner notes for being unable to license any Sex Pistols or Public Image Ltd. tracks.) Since I'm getting paid to list mine, it would've been cool to include the Germs' "No God" for the intro, and while I love the Runaways, they have even less to do with "punk" than Joe Jackson, who was at least "eccentric looking" and, even punklier, sounded emotionally unstable enough to make recording him seem "ethically questionable." I also prefer the Damned's "New Rose" to their "Neat Neat Neat," because on the former, Rat Scabies is the greatest drummer in recorded history.

At the end of the final Sex Pistols concert, Johnny Rotten announced, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" I wonder if in 1977 anyone envisaged a future in which anybody who actually paid for music instead of downloading it would feel "cheated." But if you haven't heard any of these tracks, No Thanks! is essentialand if you're still unsure as to whether live instruments have any conceivable utility, it's mandatory.

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