Mars never made a bad album. In fact, during its fleeting, 36-month lifespan, the NYC no wave combo never made any kind of album. Having left behind a debut single and four expressionistic contributions to the scene-christening, Brian Eno-curated No New York compilation, its members parted ways in December 1978. A self-titled EP of steel-wool abstractions squeaked out shortly thereafter and consummated the group’s high-concept demolition of downtown, post-Velvets cool.
More recently, a couple of unimpeachable if bootleg-like performance snapshots, 2011’s Live at Artists Space and the freshly minted Live At Irving Plaza, both coordinated by Thurston Moore and supercritic Byron Coley for the prolific Feeding Tube label, further ennobled Mars’ primal yet forward-looking mania. The two sets’ alien psychobabble, aboriginal rhythms, and rattling, detuned guitars thoroughly rupture what were once fixed notions about the tonality, structure, and attitude that define rock music. These pivotal gigs laid the messy groundwork for nonconformist heavies ranging from Sonic Youth to the Boredoms to the Dead C to Sightings.
So why, exactly, is Mars appearing in a column concerned with aesthetic failure? The answer: a rather questionable production decision. In the mid-80s, no wave goddess-turned-spoken word siren Lydia Lunch amassed the band’s catalog into a retrospective called 78. To remix the material, she commissioned industrial imp Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell, who drowned the goods in hopelessly dated reverb, delay, and audio effects. As ghostly ambiance surpassed clarity, the most forceful tracks became smeared, debilitated echoes of their former selves.
In 2004, bassist Mark Cunningham wisely oversaw an ameliorated anthology, the excellent Mars LP: The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-1978, which essentially restores the songs to their original luster. A longtime Barcelona resident and trumpet player for the electronic duo Convolution and the improv trio Bèstia Ferida, he graciously reexamined his Lower Manhattan past from his present-day Mediterranean perch.
VICE: Whose plan was it to remix the Mars stuff in the ’80s?
Mark Cunningham: The idea for the project and Jim’s involvement came from Lydia, for her label, Widowspeak. [Former Mars guitarist/vocalist] Connie Burg and I were involved with it; [guitarist/vocalist] Sumner [Crane] was in one of his hermit phases, and [drummer] Nancy [Arlen] was immersed in her art world and not too interested. The need actually came about precisely because we had no access to any master tapes, we still don’t. Maybe we just weren’t aggressive enough in pursuing them or didn’t have a legal fund. Back in the 80s and 90s, anyone who went asking for licensing rights encountered a brick wall of ignorance. At that time, mastering off vinyl and cassette sources was not easy, so Jim and Lydia felt that we could compensate by using effects and creating something with its own validity due to Jim’s studio abilities and his love of the material.
“Call Your Girlfriend” - In its most innocent form, we’d call it sophomoric ignorance. If we’re being more direct, however, we’d call it dubious—at the very least—when a straight white male performs a song about a life which he has not lived and, by performing it, attempts to ingratiate himself with, and make himself sympathetic toward, the plight of the person who originally wrote it (Exhibit A is “911 Is a Joke” as sung by Duran Duran). Extending beyond racism, this issue becomes much trickier when it comes to straight males covering songs written by women, like with “Jolene” as performed by The White Stripes.
Now, I use “Jolene” purposefully here because, one, I like it, both the original and the cover, and, two, because the cover-er and the covered have similar enough backgrounds. But even with their commonalities, there’s an intrinsic problem, one where the straight man who’s covering the song unknowingly, or, much more likely, knowingly, is putting himself in the corner of the woman who wrote it so as to be against those ‘other guys,’ the brutes who only care about looks and just want blow jobs and steaks and motor oil, or some combination thereof.
Before we go even further, let this be said: it’s impossible to know who ‘hurts’ more. It could be that one group experiences more inner turmoil or it could be that we all feel exactly the same when love turns sour. Whatever the case, I can say from my own experience that watching a straight man covering “Call Your Girlfriend” seems very fake. Seeing his attempt to empathize with a woman’s pain, there’s just something very “guitar guy at the party” about it.
And while this is only a guess, one may now be thinking, “This is music, buddy. This is art. Don’t be so literal.” So, as another clarifying statement, let me go on record and say I understand that music is not always meant to be taken literally. I get that it doesn’t ‘know’ gender, creed, religion, sexual preference. But, I’m guessing, if your mind jumped to the sanctity of art, you’re also someone who, before David Foster Wallace’s biography came out, didn’t think of him as someone who went on book tours for the intent of landing “audience pussy.” So, for a moment, step with me out of fantasyland and into the reality that a vast majority of straight males who start a band do so because they want to have sex with members of the opposite sex who are more attractive than the members of the opposite sex they’re used to having sex with. That’s natural selection and if we want to start talking about how that’s supposed to be taken less than literally, I have a museum in Kentucky that’s open year round.
Every once in a while, usually when I’m driving my grilfriend’s car, I listen to the radio. I’ve burned her plenty of mix CD’s, mostly for my own benefit, but she tends to ignore them and/or hide them in some obscure compartment out of my reach, because she is an actual human being and therefore the radio is fine for her purposes. Turn on the radio, skim around, find nothing worth listening to, turn the radio off. That’s about right. I do my own version of that often enough with music hype blogs and limited-one-time-pressing-of-300-because-nobody-actually-cares records. Everybody has a line beyond which they no longer give a shit. I got no complaints with setting boundaries.
So it was that I found myself listening to, and actually enjoying in a relative sense, Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” It’s a decent enough radio single. It has guitars. It’s also got that part where it morphs from a perfectly acceptable sub-sub-sub-Velvet Underground rock chugger into a decade-predicting guitar-techno jock jam.
Remember Franz Ferdinand? Anybody? They were that band that was not The Strokes back when people thought The Strokes was how bands were going to sound from now on. They were from not America. They had that one guy with the fedora, patient one for “fedoras are for douches now instead of high school nerds.” You know, Franz Ferdinand.
Listening to this jukebox monster hit of theirs on a pleasant Sunday ride home from dropping my girlfriend off got me thinking. The change in “Take Me Out” from, “oh this is a fun bridge,” to “oh wow, that’s actually the whole song and that beginning was just an intro to this” was a prescient glimpse into the turn towards eurotrash suckage that rock music took in the 2000’s. It happened (September 11th reference) just as there appeared to be a nationwide revival of the rattling janglefied drug punk we had approximately none of in the nu-metal/post-rock late 90’s. Sorry Charlie, we’d like to bring back that old sneering ‘tude just as much as you would, but we’re gonna take care of the dance floor first because we know what side our bread is buttered on. Zzzzzzzz rock history, and worse, the “larger zeitgeist” variety that bears no resemblance to what was actually going on. That’s what you get for turning on the radio in your girlfriend’s car.
Hello and welcome to what I hope to be an ongoing series of features about one motherfucking gazillion-headed monster of a subject; a real blooming-onion of a feature idea…I state with fear and excitement. As the title makes obvious, the beast in question is actually a couple of bedfellows, vinyl records and eBay. My personal relationship and experience with this phenomenon will be unpacked gradually as the series moves forward, and at this juncture, I will only go so far as to claim my status as “retired but still fascinated”, with my hands-on participation existing within the boundaries of research.
What follows is a cursory look, in the form of a glossary, at the indirect and informal terminology and phraseology found in eBay auction/set-sale listings of vinyl records, or rather, in the title lines of such. Please understand that linguistically, many of the words below have been awarded a new life within the world of eBay record-flipping/hustling, much like Office Space or the Leprechaun horror series found their true calling via the post-theatrical rental/cable/Netflix act two. These are the “Now Meaningless Cultural Clusterfucks By Day, eBay Record-Hustler Tool By Night” that punctuate the following list; their existence as such will be obvious and immediate, so there’s no need for further flagging. Ok, before my post-intro, pre-goods reader drop-off reaches goes critical, I give you…
(WHAT THE FOLLOWING TERMS REALLY MEAN…)
“Minimal Synth” – Record most-likely sounds like warmed-over, low-rent O.M.D. or Yaz, but worse. This “movement” of the early-80’s was allegedly centered around Berlin, though I favor the rumor that it was fabricated by a certain group of dudes who run labels of the topical and tastemaker variety. Lacking the forward-thought, inspiration and genuine goods to build an influential and interesting roster/discography, they possibly dug up a bunch of bedroom no-talents from roughly 1980 – 1985 who only wanted to be the next Soft Cell or ABC, then used their findings as the basis for a mythical form of first-wave post-punk/DIY. Someone might pay WAY TOO MUCH money for this record. The acutely-tedious old stuff has inspired a quasi-movement of acutely-tedious new stuff.
“KBD” – By far one of the most abused title-line tags in the realm of eBay record-hustling (intake, output, flipping, desperation sales, etc). “KBD” is now utilized to draw attention to LP’s by The Cars, The Romantics early Duran Duran, Grand Funk Railroad and the MC5 at one end of the timeline, to Sugar or Ride reissue released this year. At this point, “KBD” essentially means that the music is rock-based and made by people who play guitars, basses, drums and to a lesser degree, keyboards. I will not waste your time with boring writing related to the origin and definition of the abbreviation, but for those who feel slighted by the absence of such information, I must issue an alienating inquiry: “Was the front door unlocked? How did you get in here? Who are you?”
“Private” or “Private Label” – A half-to-highly skilled record-peddler will use one or both of these to attract buyer/bidders who drop coin on fare featured in tattered, disgustingly-soiled copies of Acid Archives…sticking out of blown couches and being pee’d on by unhappy cats all over the land. Or those who don’t own the book but still collect titles given to the world in small numbers by the real private-label boom of the 60’s, 70’s and early-80’s. Get-rich-quick divorcees and “bless-their-heart” hardscrabble types use “private” or “private label” in an inappropriate manner simply because they are unaware of the 1985 – 1988 boom of tiny, small, midsized, medium-large, or disturbingly-massive independent or seemingly-independent labels that, of course, continues to this day. Call me a softy, but I suddenly feel as though I shouldn’t be making fun of these people. I just deleted a few sentences that would have ripped new assholes across the landscape of intensely-depressing post-1968 wall-to-wall carpet, sliding-glass-door, open kitchen apartment complexes. Did I just screw up and lose a lot of readers who just skipped the rest of this piece and are now figuring out different ways to call me a pussy in the comments section? Good riddance.
“Emo”– this one’s in decline, but during its salad days, it could be found throughout wide stylistic, aesthetic and demographic spectrums. We’re talkin’ everything from The Misfits to Simply Saucer to Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can to Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine to the OST of Bette Midler’s The Rose to Greg Kihn to Boyd Rice’s Non project to Alien Sex Fiend to John Zorn to Bunny The Bear and I haven’t even toe-dipped into the waters where the usual suspects swim. And I didn’t give a chronological framework for the aforementioned “salad days” due to a desire to include The Bunny the Bear, but I did see “Emo” used to assist in the selling of an album by this duo. And no, I did not see it affixed to someone’s listing of Bette Midler’s The Rose OST, such is my questionable way of making a point sometimes.
“Test” or “Test Pressing” –Many older test pressings, such as Shiner’s The Egg (went for $150 because it was one of five copies) or the gold-medal winner of late, a Chain of Strength test pressing made someone $1,600 heavier (the What Holds Us Apart 7” EP, released in 1990 on their own Foundation Records). But oozing from the multi-genre explosion-on-top-of-an-existing-explosion small-label explosion of the early-00’s, was (and still is…to a lessening degree) is the short-con of loading up pressing-plant order forms with at least 20+ test pressings and squirreling away the majority for future eBay action. Please note that band involvement is probably a case-by-case thing, but is a part of this sitch that remains unknown out of general disinterest in the overall scam.
On a lighter note, “test pressing” is sometimes used as “code” for bootleg or any otherwise unauthorized pressing of a record. But what has me hunched-over with painful guffaws is the poor saps who use one or both incarnations when selling promos. Do these sellers actually believe that the eBay po-po are out in large numbers, ferreting out title lines containing “promo” or “WLP” or other versions thereof? Or are they unaware of what constitutes a proper promotional release and figure that a blank-label with handwriting on it must be a label freebie? Oh shit, there’s that “bless their hearts” feeling again…
“180” or “180-gram” – a reissue that has, since its appearance in the bins or on the inventory lists, cock-blocked any of the sky-reaching final bid amounts/BIN’s previously associated with the original incarnation.
‘#’d’ or ‘?/500’ or ‘numbered’ – could mean just what it says, or could be an exaggeration of reality, otherwise known as “bullshit”…use and fall-for at own risk.
“DIY” – Unlike “indie-rock” or many of the other word-corpses that have been butt-fucked into nothing by the promotional sector, ‘DIY’ still means something (really bad) and it isn’t finished doing its noxious damage to our surrounding culture. Keeping it short and sweet, the ‘DIY’ mindset and beliefs have brainwashed and converted untold millions of idiots worldwide, especially in the last five to seven years. It continues to infect underground music to an acutely-negative end. The ultimate truth is that just because everyone can, doesn’t mean everyone should. ‘DIY’ has eliminated many of the crucial growth, struggle and financial obstacles that used to weed out tons of mediocrity and flat-out shit, so the use of “DIY” as an eBay record-flipping tag is fucking tennis elbow compared to the CREATIVE AIDS now found to be symptomatic of this awful religion. Go ahead and use it to bring attention to your Dream Theater auction for some subtle culture-jamming if confusion is your weapon of choice. Then again, you can always take an album with garbage-collage cover art and break it over the creator’s head for more visceral gratification. You know, if you really want to do the latter…only if you really want to…
“Rare” – indicates a seller who operates behind an antiquated pre-1990 mindset that assigns rarity and grossly-inflated worth to anything and everything pressed on vinyl. It might also flag a record that is genuinely hard to find, but that’s not as entertaining.
“OOP” – 1. “Other Ogre’s Pussy” in abbreviated form and the root-origin of the title and theme in the Naughty By Nature mega-hit, “OPP” 2. The record is now unavailable from the label’s own site, but can be easily found elsewhere online for a comparable price. 3. A inclusion that should be an exclusion listed below with the other inspiration-eluders. I felt that this feature needed one consciously bad joke, so it stays.
“Etched Art” or “Etched” – Might mean that the band or artist doesn’t have the goods to make to fill an entire LP or EP, so side 2 or side 4 suffers a band member’s etchings. Motivated by the very real problem of paying fans accepting some laughably-useless and barely-visible “art” as a suitable substitute for what the band is supposed to fill a release with. Do you want a small bowl of human feces with your slap in the face? It will be out momentarily, sirs and ma’ams.
“Limited” - Without an included pressing count (“Limited to ___” copies on dignity-erasing splatter vinyl”, etc), this word is totally meaningless and recalls other awesomely-vague consumer cons like “Each pair of green, free-trade sweatshop-free spirit animal flip-flops you purchase will create five jobs for unemployed Americans” or “A portion of your purchase will be donated to a someone who lives in a drainage ditch” and so on.
“Mint” – frequently utilized code for “opened, played a few times and maybe used in a domestic disturbance, but still shiny!”
A lot of college professors out there will tell you that the purpose of art is to evoke ancient memories of our primitive, pre-linguistic selves. Well, maybe not a lot of them. Maybe none of them. I was barely paying attention and that was a long time ago. Hey: how about when you’re listening to rock music and the singer, instead of singing words, just lets out a real primal grunt? Isn’t that the best? Yes, it is the best. What follows is a historical tour through some of Rock’s Great Grunts.
If you’re anything like me you’re probably still reeling from the conversation-generating majesty of theWheel of Punk (Part 1). If you don’t feel like clicking over, it’s (arbitrarily) this:
It’s beautiful. It’s a double rainbow all the way. But: what does it MEAN? It’s time to take this baby out for a test drive. Let’s rate some motherfucking BANDS.
Rating 1: Sex Pistols and The Ramones
Who is more punk? This is one of those age-old questions without any answer, and one of the reasons I came up with The Wheel of Punk™ in the first place. Out of a sense of national pride I’ve always wanted to believe that The Ramones were more punk forever amen, but the Sex Pistols make a pretty convincing case too. London in the 70’s gets points for being just as fucked up as New York at that time. Say what you will about New York’s white flight, bankruptcy, blackouts, the bicentennial, and the Son of Sam; London had rioting skinheads, garbage strikes, fucking English weather and food, and the silver jubilee. They were probably equally shitty places and times to be alive. We on this side of the pond lack the historical context for this stuff. At least New York had the Reggie Jackson Yankees to root for.
By way of a review, The Ramones had the following punk things going for them: were the first/most “we are punk” punk band in the USA, funny accents, incredibly stupid songs about sniffing glue and not going down to the basement, misunderstood lyrics about fucking LIKE a Nazi, leather jackets, black t-shirts and black Chuck Taylor All Stars, an aesthetic agenda which involved no guitar solos ever, a junkie bassist who couldn’t play bass, pretty much deciding never to be anything but exactly The Ramones after working with a gun-wielding Phil Spector in 1980.
In the Sex Pistols’ favor: were the first/most “we are punk” punk band in the UK, funny accents, songs about not liking the monarchy, exactly appropriately understood lyrics about not getting abortions, presumably free yet highly conceptualized clothing as a result of being put together and woefully mismanaged by the owner of a fashion boutique, an aesthetic agenda which involved glaring bug-eyed and acting hyperserious all the time, a junkie bassist who couldn’t play bass, pretty much calling it quits and implying the death of punk rock once they got tired of their manager using them for crazy stunts.
There are contrarian arguments to be made that The Ramones were incredibly stupid Bronx-basement sub-humanoids who only sounded the way they did instead of sounding like AC/DC because they didn’t know how to play their instruments, and therefore they’re not even all that punk. And there are arguments on the other end that the Sex Pistols were effete fashion-oriented Monkees concoctions dancing on the puppet strings of a calculating businessman who saw the New York Dolls and decided to horn in on the action, and therefore they’re not even all that punk. I think those arguments are 99.9% bullshit, but, like farts, they exist and they are funny.
The good news about The Wheel of Punk™ is we don’t have to decide who is more punk. We can just say “however punk you think The Ramones are, the Sex Pistols are equally punk and vice versa, only the Sex Pistols are on the ‘artier’ side of the circle and the Ramones are on the ‘dumber’ side.” Debate over, forever and ever, and the only thing that’s left is the argument over subjective locations. If you want to buy into those “not very punk” arguments for either band, you can go ahead and put the Pistols at your 2:00 and The Ramones at your 4:00. Just know that if you do that, you’ve probably got NOFX at your 3:00 (if so, please don’t think I’m making fun of you; I wouldn’t do that because I know it’s not easy being twelve years old). We’re talking about the fucking SEX PISTOLS and THE RAMONES here.
You ever get weird flashbacks to things from high school that you both did not learn and did not forget? I get that a lot with the Wheel of Governmental Something Something. I don’t know what it’s called. I couldn’t find evidence of it on the internet. It might just be one of those things that tenth grade civics teachers have written on chalkboards since they crawled out of the primordial ooze and began droning on about checks and balances.
You know, the Wheel of Governmental Something Something? Kind of looks like this:
I think it’s supposed to teach teenagers not to get all carried away with their political beliefs. The idea is that if you go too far in one direction of wanting things to be a certain way, you come back around, and the most extreme ways to be are actually dead in the middle of two other things.
Like for example: If there’s only one person in charge of the country where you live, it’s probably not going to matter to you a whole hell of a lot if that person is ideologically more of a fascist or a socialist, because either way you’ll probably get your head chopped off for bitching and moaning about them in public. Or if everybody is equally in charge, you can never find a way to be conservative or liberal because every single decision is like nine people on their iPhones taking fucking FOREVER just to figure out how to pay for dinner. So the most left or right you can get politically are actually from the most medium-authority style governments that go all the way in one direction.
A few months back, in this little column of ours, Chunklet contributor Gordon Lamb said his piece on the sheer dumbness of Steel Panther, and judging from some of the responses it got, Steel Panther’s one note joke of a band seems to elicit a chortle or two from far too many of you. But it got me wondering what other “Sad Cults of…” are out there for our mockery? Probably enough for a multi-volume series of fine leather bound books, but at a family gathering not too long ago, one answer sprang immediately to mind. Throughout the night of a wedding that took place in something of a rural setting, I was disappointed to see that many of my requests at the DJ stand (perhaps the most dismal outlet for any form of musical service) were being promptly rebuffed and politely ignored. Forgive my tastes, but at an open bar and after a few whisky sours (a drink that perhaps should only be openly consumed at open bars) I request, nay, demand that Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, Earth Wind & Fire’s “September”, and “Teach Me How To Dougie” all be played for me as the dance floor beckons.
The DJ instead opted for the typical wedding playlist treacle, but I was indeed truly shocked when a musical ghost from my high school past started pumping through the speakers. You’ve presumably already read the title, so perhaps you can guess where this is leading. H.I.M. (who due to their rather confusing acronym, are always inevitably referred to as “That Band H.I.M.” if they ever even get brought up in conversation) were probably more recognized by their rather insipid Heartagram symbol embroidered on every mall punk’s t-shirt and backpack as they shopped the racks at Hot Topic, than they ever were for any song they made. The symbol, and to an extent, the band were also popularized by funnyman and general retard Bam Margera, which might give you a clue as to the caliber of their fan base. Now you may have assumed like myself, that the practice of playing vaguely gothic/rock/metal bands in any kind of public setting died out with lightly washed pairs of Lee Pipes, but it appears that more backwoods settings (where a fair chunk of this wedding gathering hailed from) have proven to be one of the final safe harbors of this surely irredeemable genre.
Through a long series of accidents that I’d prefer not to explain I recently found myself listening to Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails. It is awful. Musically this thing somehow accomplishes being a “less sexy Depeche Mode.” In fact, if I had to boil Pretty Hate Machine down to an essence related to a bodily sensation, I’d say it’s the audio equivalent of not getting laid. Every single muted thwack of a synthetic snare drum sounds like a retrograde explosion of backlogged sperm. If that image makes you queasy, then congratulations, you might as well be listening to it too.
Please don’t think I’m ragging on Trent Reznor, here. His career has proven the niche value of such music. Listening to Nine Inch Nails in public is free advertising for how horny you are to anybody else who might be in your boat. I’m pretty sure that’s how there became such a thing as Goths. There were just a bunch of kids who were ESPECIALLY not getting laid for whatever reason, and they stumbled upon their only hope of getting laid: making their predicament into a subculture for similarly sex-deficient people. All the things Goths do also serve to hide physical unattractiveness: hang out in dark places, glop on the makeup, dress in formless all-black outfits, and emphasize “emotional depth.” Pretend those things are “cool” and you have a recipe for Instant Nerdfuck. That’s my theory anyway. As unpleasant as his music sounds to anybody who’s ever habitually been within touching distance of another human’s genitalia, Reznor deserves credit for at least consolidating the horniest weirdos into their own happy little cultural ghetto.
Nine Inch Nails didn’t start the whole idea of being a “Goth.” I’m sure there are Goth “purists” out there who wouldn’t want me to stereotype them as depressive fat S&M nerds with bad skin, and/or also mention actual good bands like Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy. Sure guys. Sure thing. Actually, no thanks. I’m not here to talk about you.
What is interesting to me about Pretty Hate Machine isn’t the music itself, or the Goth scene that may or may not have sprung from it, it’s how popular it was. Plenty of dark, spooky noise bands like Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy have existed before and after Nine Inch Nails, but none of them went multi-platinum. Nine Inch Nails was a HUGE act. Like, you’ve heard of Nine Inch Nails. “Fuck you like an animal.” Nine Inch Nails. A music act that sold over ten million albums.
How in the wide world of squirts did Nine Inch Nails sell TEN MILLION ALBUMS? There are only two possible explanations: 1. it’s fun, catchy pop that ten million people can easily tap their toes to, or 2. it’s the perfect soundtrack to not getting laid, and at least ten million people in the late 80’s and early 90’s had a very hard time getting laid.