Tagged: Ramones

(I’m) Stranded turns 40: the song that changed Brisbane

The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.

That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.

The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.

Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.

Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.

The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.

The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.

But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.

This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.

In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.

All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.

First published in The Guardian, 14 September 2016

Gimme gimme the Ramones, forever

My favourite quote about the Ramones comes from Richard Hell, the New York provocateur who, along with Tom Verlaine, formed the art-punk band Television in 1974 and – with the help of threadbare clothes held together with safety pins, on account of the fact they were too poor to buy any more – was already busy changing the sound and look of rock & roll in a Bowery club called CBGBs.

“The first song the Ramones wrote was called I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You, the second was I Don’t Wanna Get Involved With You, then came I Don’t Wanna Be Learned, I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed, soon followed by I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement,” Hell wrote in Hit Parader in 1976, just before the release of their self-titled debut. “So Dee Dee says, ‘We didn’t write a positive song until Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.’”

So much for lyrical content. The music? “It gives you the same sort of feeling you might derive from savagely kicking in your smoothly running TV set and then finding real thousand-dollar bills inside,” Hell went on. It is impossible to overstate, 40 years after their first album, just how exciting the Ramones were when they first appeared on a flaccid mid-’70s rock scene, even if you’d already heard the Stooges.

Not that I was there. Being in short pants in the year punk broke, it wasn’t until I was in high school 10 years later that a friend (Mathew Wilkie, I owe you a drink every day for the rest of your life) dubbed me a cassette of the first two Ramones albums. Blitzkrieg Bop roared out of my parents’ stereo. And so another Pinhead was born. “Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us!” I’d found my tribe.

It soon became apparent what the Ramones did want: Something to do. To be well. To live. Shock treatment. Everything. They also graduated to Carbona, Not Glue – a song that had to be pulled from their second album, Leave Home, after Carbona decided they didn’t want to be associated with a song that extolled the virtues of huffing their solvent in desperation after “ma threw out the glue” (and roach spray, too).

Most famous of all was I Wanna Be Sedated, a song written after singer Joey suffered third-degree burns inhaling steam from a boiling kettle to clear his nasal passages ahead of a show in London. Johnny, the Ramones’ short-tempered guitarist who ran the band like Mussolini with politics to match, plays a 10-second guitar solo in which he hits the exact same note 65 times.

That was the essence of the Ramones: military discipline and economy, from the uniforms to the haircuts to the music in a flabby age. It was a revolution because, it seemed, anyone could do it. Lots of people did. The greater revelation, after four decades, is the realisation of how few did it well, and that pretty much no one has come close to those utterly perfect first four albums between 1976 and 1979.

Like all the greatest bands, they each had individual personas. Tommy, the drummer, was the thinker, original spokesperson and conceptual artist that recognised the band’s technical ineptness as secondary, or essential, to the brilliance of the idea. Spindly lead singer Joey was the hero and the romantic. He was one of punk’s best singers (he even had lessons – not very punk at all!) and wrote the sentimental songs.

Then there was Dee Dee, the bass player and resident idiot savant. It is no exaggeration to call him the Hank Williams of punk. His lyrics were unsparing and brutally plain-spoken. The black humour belied bipolar disorder (Teenage Lobotomy, Psycho Therapy, Go Mental, Bad Brain – the list goes on), drug addiction (Chinese Rocks), teenage hustling (53rd & 3rd) and mental torment. I Don’t Wanna Live This Life Anymore, an unjustly forgotten B-side, is practically a suicide note set to music.

Richard Hell tells one more anecdote about Dee Dee – that in the early days of Television, he auditioned for the band as a guitar player, an instrument on which he was a complete non-starter. Told they would play a song in the key of C, Dee Dee gingerly fingered the neck of the guitar, looking at the others with his big pleading puppy-dog eyes for affirmation. “No, no, in C!”

It’s so easy to take the Ramones for granted in an age where every mallrat wears their T-shirts in the belief that Arturo Vega’s iconic logo is a clothing brand. That won’t ever stop me wearing mine (hey, anyone got a spare a safety pin?). I can remember when wearing one was a signifier of difference, not conformity. These days, though, I derive comfort from the band’s ubiquity and belated acceptance into the pantheon.

That’s because, for me, the Ramones mean constant reassurance, long after all the original members are gone. Their music always makes me feel better, no matter what. If I’m happy, I can put on the first album or Leave Home (which may just have the edge on their celebrated debut) and feel ecstatic. If I’m down in the dumps, I can put on Road To Ruin, and be soothed – sedated, even – by its cracked anguish.

Being a Ramones fan means never being alone.

If all else fails, I can put on Rocket To Russia and crank Joey’s greatest song, Sheena Is A Punk Rocker. People talk about desert island albums. If I could take just one single song, it would be Sheena, and the sound of Johnny hammering those opening chords and that first line – “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go” – would be more than enough. I cannot think of another song that fills me with such joy.

People talk about the Beatles and the Stones. For me, it’s Beatles, Stones, Ramones – and not necessarily in that order.

First published in The Age, 21 April 2016

Richie Ramone: Too tough to die

You can understand Richie Ramone not wanting to walk under ladders, much less wanting to open that door, and absolutely not wanting to go down to the basement. “I thought there was a curse,” he admits. “I was really careful walking down the street, you know, because everybody went that young.”

Born Richie Reinhardt, the Ramones’ third drummer is one of three surviving members of the quintessential New York punk band. All four original “brothers” (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy) are now long gone, as well as artistic director Arturo Vega, who designed the group’s iconic logo.

But, while he may not be an original, Reinhardt – who is touring Australia as part of the 10th anniversary of the Cherry Rock Festival in May – is still more a Ramone than you or I will ever be. He stayed with the band for five years and 500 shows during the mid-’80s, playing drums on three albums.

The first of them, perhaps prophetically, was Too Tough To Die, easily the best record from the Ramones’ troubled middle period. Joey himself once said Richie’s arrival saved the famously volatile band.

“When you get somebody new, everybody is on their best behaviour and it’s a shot of new blood, and that’s what they needed at the time,” Reinhardt says. “The record or two before that, they were getting kind of soft, and they stripped it right down.

“They got Tommy Erdelyi, the original Ramones drummer, back to produce with Ed Stasium, and it was just getting down to basics again, that record. It all just worked.”

He also wrote some fine material for the band, his best-known tune being Somebody Put Something In My Drink. Fans can expect to hear a mixture of Ramones songs and Reinhardt originals, with the drummer alternately behind the kit and out in front of the audience.

There haven’t been that many singing punk-rock drummers – Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart and Keish de Silva, from the Hard-Ons, are among the few. “Because punk is fast music, so it’s extremely hard to do … You have to focus on your breathing, you know – when you’re singing and playing drums, you don’t want to sound out of breath.”

He says he still has an emotional attachment to those songs, but then hits on something vital about the band when he admits: “It’s not the Ramones, you know, nothing’s going to sound like the Ramones.” It exposes one of the great contradictions of punk: while anyone can do it, few do it well.

“Those songs aren’t as simple as you think. Everybody goes, ‘Oh, it’s just three chords’, but there’s still a lot more put into those songs that meets the eye. The songwriting was fantastic, the lyrical content – Dee Dee was a genius; he was a poet.

“From the outside you’d look and go ‘Oh, this is so simple’, but when you hear bands trying to play those songs, they don’t know the little nuances that go with it. I kind of know some of the tricks, so when we play some of these songs they’re really cool.”

There’s more to Reinhardt than meets the eye (or ear), too. He’s remained active in music, releasing his first solo album, Entitled, in 2012, with another nearly complete. He’s even dabbled in the classical arena, arranging 10 songs from West Side Story for a symphony in 2007.

“That was a big deal,” he says. “There’s nothing like playing drums with a 90-piece orchestra behind you. It was really invigorating. But right now, I’ve got the rock thing going again, and it takes up all my time.”

First published in Shortlist (The Age), 7 April 2016

Blank Realm: Illegals In Heaven

There’s a moment in every great band’s career where they shrug off their influences and assume their ultimate form. Blank Realm – that brilliantly erratic Brisbane quartet made up of three siblings and a “spiritual brother” – have long been the sum of their parts: a sound drawn from Krautrock, New York’s No Wave, New Zealand’s entire Flying Nun roster, and those closer to home, like the Go-Betweens.

Illegals In Heaven, though, is their definitive statement, the album no one other than Blank Realm could have made. It’s taken them a decade to reach this point, where their rough beginnings have been sculpted into a perfect marriage of pop, art and noise. If there’s a comparison to be made here, it’s with Sonic Youth, circa that band’s masterpiece Daydream Nation.

This is the band’s fifth album (not including the numerous, now impossible to find cassette recordings and CDRs from their formative years), and the first proper studio outing for this determinedly lo-fi band. To be honest, it’s not an obvious leap, sonically speaking: Blank Realm still sound thin and trebly, the mix a dogfight between Luke Walsh’s guitar and Sarah Spencer’s keyboards.

At times, the sound is practically bottomless. Drums and bass become all but irrelevant in the final passages of River Of Longing, Flowers In Mind and obvious single Palace Of Love. It doesn’t matter. These are breathlessly exciting songs, with tightly wound melodies that explode into unforgettable choruses and instrumental passages that see the band playing to the limit of their capacity.

Blank Realm have always been capable of moments of translucent beauty, the dizzying high points of previous albums obscuring the weaker moments. Illegals In Heaven, though, is both varied and consistent. For every bug-eyed monster like No Views – a whooshing slice of comet-rock that opens the album as if it’s been shot from a cannon – there’s a quiet, meditative counterpoint like Dream Date.

There’s a confidence here, too, that is reflective of a band on top of its game. Listening to Daniel Spencer belt out the lyrics to No Views (“I’ve been spitting blood in the dirt, baby, I’m tired but I’m ready to fight”) – is exhilarating, his earlier tremulous yelp replaced by something desperate and crazed. Sarah gets a turn behind the mic, too, singing lead on the shimmering ballad Gold.

There haven’t been many singing drummers in rock & roll. Daniel is akin to Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, a punk-pop craftsman with a serious romantic streak. On Cruel Night, he comes on a drunk Lee Hazlewood backed by Spiritualized; on Flowers In Mind – the album’s centrepiece – he’s the wide-eyed dreamer: “You can waste a day or waste your whole life / Chasing fragments of dreams out in the night.”

At the opposite extreme is Palace Of Love: “I’ve been feeding the sharks, been diving down in the writhing dark / I’ve been listening to you, scramble my head like a Rubik’s cube.” In another place and time, this thrilling track – played at Ramones pace, but over five minutes – would be a massive hit; as it is, it’s the one that confirms Blank Realm’s arrival at the top of the noise-pop tree.

For most bands, a record like would be a career full stop. For Blank Realm, who have been developing at a dizzying pace since their 2012 breakthrough Go Easy, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in an already impressive story. If there’s a missing star on this album, it’s only reflective of what they could possibly achieve next, having found the sound they’ve spent a decade searching for.

First published in The Guardian, 4 September 2015

Out in the heartland, no rocker is safe from right-wingers

It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.

Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?

Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.

“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)

In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.

Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.

Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.

One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.

As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.

The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.

And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.

These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”

The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.

In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.

First published in The Guardian, 22 July 2015

Australian anthems: (I’m) Stranded

The video begins, appropriately enough, with the sight of a door being kicked open – then a hurricane of noise rushes through. Until very recently in Brisbane, it was still possible to visit the decrepit building on Petrie Terrace and stand in front of the fireplace on top of which the words “(I’m) Stranded” were once daubed in red letters, where the Saints shot the primitive but charged clip for their debut single.

It’s not quite where Australian punk rock was born – that, arguably, happened a little further down the road, in the Saints’ rehearsal room on the corner of Milton Road, not far from the Castlemaine XXXX brewery. Club 76, they called it. But the Saints had been going for a few years by then – since mid 1973, by guitarist Ed Kuepper’s reckoning.

Being first can be an overrated virtue, but in the Saints’ case, it needs to be stated over and over again. (I’m) Stranded, which appeared on the band’s own Fatal label in September 1976 (the same month the 100 Club in London held a festival featuring a colourful assortment of new bands including the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned) was the first independently produced rock single in Australia.

In doing so, it beat all of the English punk bands, as well as Sydney’s Radio Birdman, onto plastic. The one band they didn’t beat was the Ramones, a fact Kuepper was crushed by: when he first heard the debut album by the New York pinheads a few months earlier, he knew everyone would see the Saints – a bunch of teenagers from provincial Queensland, fronted by singer Chris Bailey – as the copyists.

At that point, the state was still under the tyrannical thumb of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s regime, and in no small way, (I’m) Stranded helped kick off a social revolution, at least in Brisbane. At the time, though, the Saints had little choice but to leave. Copies of the single soon landed in England, where it was ecstatically received. Sounds magazine dubbed it “Single of This and Every Week”.

It must have sounded like an emergency telegram from a lost land. Such is Stranded’s urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo (the B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note). True to its lyric, much of the song was written on a midnight train, and whether intended or not, the central idea of being marooned came to stand for something bigger.

It’s one of punk’s many ironies that the London offices of EMI, desperate to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Pistols in the wake of their infamous expletive-flecked confrontation with Bill Grundy, instructed their baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the Saints post-haste in the wake of Stranded. The band immediately recorded their debut album, also titled (I’m) Stranded, over a weekend.

That album was later described later by England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage as “up there in punk Valhalla with Ramones and Raw Power”. But the Saints never fitted the punk straightjacket. When they arrived in England in May 1977, they were aghast to find EMI were designing a “Saints suit” for them: lime-green shirts and spiky hair all round.

Bailey’s tousled mop remained in place, and the band went on to make two more brilliant albums, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds, before imploding. Both records featured extensive use of a brass section – a move that won them few friends in a scene that regarded Never Mind The Bollocks as a blueprint rather than a full stop, but which dramatically expanded the band’s sound.

Having kicked the door open, the Saints soon found themselves back out on the footpath. Kuepper returned to Australia and formed the radical post-punk band the Laughing Clowns, while Bailey stayed in Europe, kept the name and pursued a much more traditional path towards heartland rock and mainstream success: Bruce Springsteen recently covered Just Like Fire Would on his album High Hopes.

But (I’m) Stranded has remained a touchstone – perhaps a millstone – the perpetually sparring Kuepper and Bailey would always be identified with.

First published in The Guardian, 13 May 2014