Tag Archives: clash

Mose Allison: Straight, No Chaser

Everybody quiet down for a second please. Turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerrys, logoff your Facebook and Twitter pages, hold that blog post, fold that laptop, stop and listen: The great Mose Allison has a new album out. Coaxed back into the studio by producer Joe Henry, the 82-year-old jazz pianist songwriting legend has recorded his first collection in ten years. Ten years! In this insufferably long moment of constant communication—all of us in love with the sound of our own digital voices, blathering our status every ten seconds—a stretch of silence like that is positively heroic. What could be a more appropriate response to a babbling world than keeping quiet, and who better than Mose Allison to deliver it? This is after all the man who wrote the 1976 classic “Your Mind is on Vacation”: “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime / Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.”

It’s great to have Allison back, though, no matter how hard Henry had to drag him. Especially since The Way of the World, the sparse and spacious gem of a record, released March 23 on ANTI-, sounds just like a Mose Allison record. And bless Allison, Henry and ANTI- alike for resisting the pressure or temptation to have it any other way. The result is an album that, song after song, makes you shake your head and think, “Remember when music sounded like this?”

Allison surely does. In fact, he is one of the reasons it did. Since his first record in 1957, Allison has drawn from the music that surrounded him growing up in Tippo, Mississippi to weave a thread that connects American music from Delta blues through bebop to rock and roll. A widely and wildly influential songwriter, Allison has been covered and cited by everyone from the Who to the Yardbirds to Blue Cheer to the Clash to Eric Clapton to Bonnie Raitt to Elvis Costello to Ray Davies to the Pixies. There is something astounding about Allison’s ability to make plain the absurdity, frailty and insanity often referred to as being human in just a few lines of blues.

The Way of the World is no exception. If anything, time has sharpened Allison’s fascination and bemusement. He gives it to you straight, no chaser. With that great laconic deadpan, Allison effortlessly drawls lines like, “I know you didn’t mean it when you stole my coat / It just happened to be the logical one / I know you didn’t mean it when you slit my throat / You was just out with the fellas trying to have some fun.” He then mumbles and hums along just off mic as he delivers a swinging, delicate, improvised solo that recalls Thelonius Monk and Charles Brown. He follows it with the lines, “I know you didn’t mean it when you blew us up / You just happened to think it was a good idea / Ungrateful people tried to interrupt when you were just trying to make your viewpoint clear.”

Now that is something you don’t hear every day. Allison gives it to mankind right in the kisser like nobody else. But on a song like “I’m All Right,” he turns his attention closer to home with an intimacy carried by the kind of mundane, specific details most songwriters overlook. Did he just say “tube socks”? Was that “dental floss”? Right and real and strange, Allison’s heartbreak doesn’t traffic in clichés, instead chronicling the small things it actually takes to get through a day. The songs on The Way of the World are so efficiently and precisely written and produced, and so sympathetically accompanied by the musicians Henry has assembled, that it all seems to work. As the time between records, his vocal delivery and his playing show, Mose Allison is no hurry. It’s beautiful. Listening to him helps you slow down a little too. Like all of Mose Allison’s brilliant records, The Way of the World is the sound of a truly great artist coolly wrestling some semblance of sense into the world around him. Allison is so good he makes it sound like it’s no big deal. Just an old genius breaking the silence with music.

–Ari Surdoval

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Joan Jett: Electric Warrior

Joan Jett in 1977 on Santa Monica Boulevard

It’s the end of winter, 2006, and Joan Jett is finishing up the final touches on her album Sinner in a New York studio, as her new song “Naked” blares over the speakers. It is classic Joan Jett: buzz saw guitars, sing-along melodies, and that amazing voice—rough and soft, sweet and tough at the same time—lashing it all together and taking it to new heights with every chorus. “Every bit of trouble that I cherished / Every bit of truth that I let perish / Every little bit of me is naked,” Jett howls, nearly pleads, and then sneers, “Yeah.”

This is rock and roll as it ought to be—raw and catchy and a little desperate. This is the music that has been Joan Jett’s lifeblood for 30 years, since she started the legendary Runaways when she was 15. Jett’s sound—succinctly described by longtime manager Kenny Laguna as a cross between “Yummy Yummy” and the Germs—is so prevalent these days it is easy to forget that she invented it. You don’t have to dig very deep below the surface of anyone from Green Day, the Donnas, and Bikini Kill to Avril Lavigne, Pink, and a slew of lesser bubblegum pop punk to find her. Every time a producer wants to sprinkle a little edge or credibility onto a manufactured starlet, from Ashlee Simpson to Kelly Osbourne, Joan Jett’s sound is borrowed. The irony is not lost on her.

Joan Jett has fought hard for her success. It was built in the face of hostile audiences, oblivious record executives, and entrenched resistance. She has held her ground in front of the meanest audience—even while being spit on, pelted with bottles and batteries, and insulted. Millions of records and about a dozen hit songs later, she takes it all with a grain of salt. She has earned some of the most loyal fans in the world and she has become a North Star for every girl who picks up a guitar. Besides, nothing is more rock and roll than kicking down doors and doing what everyone says can’t be done. And everybody knows Joan Jett loves rock and roll.

“The first records I remember really inspiring me to play guitar were T. Rex ‘Bang a Gong’ and Black Sabbath ‘Iron Man’ and the first New York Dolls record,” Jett remembers. “I started playing for real at 13. My parents got me a Sears Silvertone for Christmas. I had been bugging them for it. I tried to take some guitar lessons and was very excited and went in and told the guy, ‘Teach me how to play rock and roll!’ He looked at me like I was out of my mind and attempted to teach me how to play ‘On Top of Old Smokey.’ That was the one and only lesson I took. I got one of those ‘How to Play Guitar by Yourself’ books and just taught myself to play.”

It was just a couple years later when Jett formed the Runaways, the groundbreaking all-girl teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, with Lita Ford and Cherie Currie. “I moved to California when I was 13,” she says. “Coinciding with the time I was learning to play guitar. Moving was traumatic, because of the friends and all that, but that was the point when I thought, ‘Now I can make these dreams happen, because now I’m in California.’”

Managed by notorious Sunset Strip Svengali Kim Fowley, the Runaways gave Joan an early education in the sleazy sides of the music business and a preview of the obstacles that she would face in the years ahead. Tough teenage girls playing menacing rock and roll in an age of Captain and Tennille, the Runaways were written off as a novelty act in the U.S. (Predictably, Rolling Stone snubbed them as “Kim Fowley’s quintet of teen teasers.”) They were huge in Japan, though, and they were everything to Joan. She put her heart and soul into the band, walking the tightrope that stretches between the right to rock and the refusal to be exploited. Her look, sound, and integrity prefigured and influenced punk rock and it was punk rock that welcomed her when the Runaways fell apart.

“The whole idea of the Runaways to me is punk rock. And my first inspiration came from early British glitter music, and all the bands that were happening right around us. The Ramones, the Clash. We were lucky enough to tour right in the middle of it. It was really one of those moments you never forget. Especially being a teenager. But the Runaways were five different girls with five different influences. And half the band really wanted to go in a heavy metal direction and I didn’t. I wanted to stay more straight-up rock and roll. That’s really what caused us to split in the end. But it was devastating for me. The Runaways were my baby. They were my band. It was very traumatic. I did not look at it as freeing, or freedom, or anything like that. I felt very lost.”

Joan left Los Angeles and drifted to London, confused, unsure of what to do next. “I was just trying to figure out where to go. I didn’t want people to feel that girls couldn’t rock, that the Runaways failed. Because that is the vibe that people throw at you. Like, ‘Ha ha ha, we told you it wouldn’t work. We told you girls can’t rock.’” While in London, Joan met Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, and enlisted them to play on a demo of a song she had been wanting to record for a while. She had tried to get the Runaways to cut it on their last two records, but nobody had been interested.

Alone, far from home, with no band and no record deal—worried that she might have missed her chance, that her dreams were over—Joan Jett walked into the studio and cut “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

The response? Complete indifference. “Nobody heard ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,’” Joan says, sounding still stunned. “That was the funny thing. To everybody else it was just another song. And I have 23 rejection letters to prove it, from everybody.”

In New York, the crowds started building. “We were really well received. It seemed like it happened very quickly. The audiences were really intense. I don’t know if it was timing, or if it was the songs. We had great support from radio, though, which is nonexistent for up-and-coming bands now. Radio was very, very helpful.” With the Blackhearts, Joan went back into the studio and rerecorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” along with great versions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” and the Halos’ “Nag,” and classic Jett originals like “Love is Pain” and “(I’m Gonna) Run Away.”

“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the single and the album of the same name, were released just before Christmas, 1981. It shot up the charts and stayed at No. 1 for two months. For Joan, it was like being on a rocket. She was suddenly an indisputable rock star, just as she always knew she could be. The massive success came with a price though. In addition to an ecstatic army of fans, Joan crashed head on into a wall of prejudice and stereotype. Many people just could not accept a woman on stage playing rock and roll guitar. A tour of Europe opening for the Scorpions got particularly nasty.

Back in Los Angeles, Joan was determined. She shrugged off the rejections and pushed forward. She put together a tough band and, with Laguna, started her own label to release the song herself. “I formed the Blackhearts and we moved to New York. I wanted to get out of L.A. I wanted to start fresh. For a band that has no money, for a struggling bar band, there are a lot more cities that you can play on the East Coast and go home at the end of the night. You can play Jersey, you can play Rhode Island, you can play Connecticut, you can play Pennsylvania, you can play Massachusetts, and you can play a million places in New York and still drive home. So that’s what we did, for all of ’79, ’80, ’81. Lots of touring, sleeping in vans, selling albums that we had printed ourselves from the trunk of our car. That was Blackheart Records right there. In the trunk.”

“They would work up these loogies,” Jett remembers. “And they’d let you know they were working on them, because you could hear it! The most disgusting noises you can make, hocking, working on these hideous loogies. And I would just be showered in spit and phlegm. It was a battle. But it wasn’t even about the music! I mean, I could have been channeling Elvis Presley and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was about trying to humiliate a woman onstage. And so they’d hock on me and I would be literally dripping in these loogies, these disgusting things hanging off me, off my guitars, off my clothes. And when that didn’t work, when that didn’t get me off the stage, besides calling me names, they’d start throwing things. At one place it was a bottle, and at one place it was a battery. I don’t remember which was where. One hit me in the head and gave me stitches and another hit me in the chest and broke a couple ribs.”

At the same time, Jett was up against a different kind of opposition from record executives who didn’t know what to make of her or her success. A stint on MCA inspired a cover of the Sex Pistols’ classic put-down “E.M.I.” with the letters changed to those of her new label. “I’m not sure that a certain level of label gets what kind of artist I am,” she says. “And that’s not a cut—they just don’t get it. They try to change you and change the essence of who you are. That’s why I just do my own thing.”

Her own thing has done well. She followed “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” with hits like “Bad Reputation,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” and the multi-platinum “Up Your Alley.” She stormed into the ’90s as a mentor and inspiration to the riot grrl movement, working with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland and Donita Sparks of L7. At the same time, her near-perfect version of “Love is All Around” (the Mary Tyler Moore theme) became the anthem for women’s NCAA basketball. She wrote with Replacements front man Paul Westerberg, and together they recorded a raucous duet of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.” Not the easily defined, lobbed softballs that the major labels beg for, but truly the stuff of a fiercely independent, self-reliant artist who has always followed her own instincts and blazed her own trail forward. And most importantly, it always sounded good.

The next few months are going to be busy for Joan Jett. She is gearing up for a summer on the Warped Tour, playing with bands she influenced heavily, for a young audience who fell in love with her sound secondhand. More than most performers, Joan Jett can connect with a crowd. She feels for her fans deeply. Watching her play live, it is almost as if she sees the reflection of herself staring back at her. An ocean of kids who love and believe in rock and roll, all the same age she was when she picked up a guitar and formed the Runaways. She thinks about this generation a lot, and the question she gets asked most is maybe the one that is closest to her heart, but the hardest to answer.

“I still can’t quite figure out why there aren’t more girls playing rock and roll,” she sighs. “Why they aren’t there. I think it is a combination of a lot of things. I think a lot of women get treated the way that I have been treated. And I think a lot of women aren’t willing to put up with their whole self-esteem being destroyed every day just because they are playing music. So I think sometimes people might say, ‘I don’t need this shit for a career; I’m going to do something else.’

“There are definitely walls up. I couldn’t tell you why and at what level. Is it the A&R people? Is it the presidents? Is it the record companies? Is it the video channels? Is it the press? It’s all of it. But if people want to play music, they should be able to. And if you happen to be a girl, you should be able to play rock and roll. So all I can say is: Girls, go play! If you want to play, go play! Things will change. The world is changing.”

–Ari Surdoval

Nice spurs. From the absolute ass-end of the Eighties, but she does this one great: Joan Jett tears into Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” on Letterman.

Mick Jones on the Clash: “We Didn’t Care About Nothing”

mick-jones-clash

Mick Jones was a skinny kid living with his grandmother in a London apartment when rock ’n’ roll changed his life. Against the gray backdrop of working class early seventies London, he fell in love with the flash of Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, and T. Rex. But it was the New York Dolls who convinced him to pick up a guitar. Inspired by Johnny Thunders, Jones saved up for a Les Paul Junior, locked himself in his bedroom, and taught himself to play. A few years later, he would form the Clash.

The perfect musical partner for the much missed Joe Strummer, Jones would weave his guitar lines around Strummer’s driving rhythm guitar, the skittering, powerhouse drumming of the brilliant Topper Headon, and the thunderous bass of Paul Simonon. When the band broke up, several years later, they left behind a sprawling collection of some of the best rock ’n’ roll ever made, including the staggering London Calling. In New York,the soft-spoken and thoughtful Jones took time out for this rare interview.

“Did I say Jeff Beck twice?”
I was lucky. I grew up in a time of so many great guitarists. I loved all of them, but my favorite was Mick Ronson. And Jeff Beck. And Keith Richards. But you have to say Pete Townshend, and Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton (laughs). Did I miss anybody? Did I say Jeff Beck? Did I say him twice? I hope so! He’s that good (laughs).

I spent like a year in the bedroom, playing along to all of those people, copying them. And then I set off on my own as a rhythm guitarist. That’s what happens with guitar players. You start off copying and playing like the people you admire, and then you start to carve out your own style.

My first proper guitar was a Les Paul Junior. I saved for months, till I had enough money. I had to have a Junior, because of Johnny Thunders. The New York Dolls came along and made a massive impact on all of us. They came to play really early on in London, so we got a chance to see them. I saw them on the Old Grey Whistle Test, but I saw them live too. They were supporting the Faces at Wembley Stadium. I went to that show. I must have been 13 or 14, that perfect influential age, when you’re really gonna be changed. And I was! I pretended to be Johnny Thunders for a bit.

“That was it for me”
My maternal grandmother mainly brought me up. At that time, I was living with my grandmother, her sister, and her sister-in-law. That was very strange, growing up with three old ladies. When I started dressing like Johnny Thunders, they were a bit worried, to be quite honest. But I assured them that everything was okay (laughs).

“Let’s see if we can get Joe”
I was always going to auditions. That was a big part of my life. I was going for auditions as a rhythm guitarist, but there weren’t that many jobs for that. You had to be able to do a little bit more than just play rhythm. I played in some smaller bands. I didn’t play live much, just a few gigs, but I knew I wanted to do it.

I saw Joe play with the 101ers many times. They were nearly at the point of being the best group in London. They were lumped in with the pub rock scene, but they were really a squat band, from the squatting communities. Joe was part of that scene, which was very big in the early ’70s. And we’d seen them many times.

But even before the Dolls, I used to follow bands around. I followed Mott the Hoople up and down the country. I’d go to Liverpool or Newcastle or somewhere—sleep on the Town Hall steps, and bunk the fares on the trains, hide in the toilet when the ticket inspector came around. I’d jump off just before the train got to the station and climb over the fence. It was great times, and I always knew I wanted to be in a band and play guitar. That was it for me.

Joe had already made it in our eyes, you know? It took a lot of courage to get him to join our group, since we hadn’t done anything. But luckily, Joe had seen the Sex Pistols. They had supported him in the 101ers at the Nashville Rooms a couple of times. Joe had seen the new thing coming in. He obviously wanted to be a part of it, and that was to our advantage because we were part of that, Paul and I.

We went to see him play with the 101ers, at the Golden Lion in Fullham. Afterwards, Bernhard, our manager, went round the back and talked to him and made him the offer. We were in the squat in Shepherd’s Bush, and he brought Joe around a couple days later.

He had seen us out a few times, either at his gigs or in the dole queue (laughs). We were in the dole queue looking across at him—glaring—and he thought we were gonna start a fight with him. But we were actually looking in awe because we’d seen him play the other night! So we’d seen each other before, but he had obviously noticed us as well. We just thought he was the best guy out there. We were looking for a singer and said, “Let’s see if we can get Joe.”

“We were drifting away from those Love You songs”
We fell into it very quickly. We started work on the first day. One of the first ones we did was “I’m So Bored with the USA.” Joe and I just played a couple of each other’s numbers, and Joe made that famous addition. I played my song for him and he changed it from “I’m So Bored with You” to “I’m So Bored with the USA.” He took the “You” and put the “S” and the “A” in there, and that changed everything!

We were drifting away from those “love you” songs to something that meant more. We started to write about what was going on and what was affecting us. It was very natural. It wasn’t contrived in any way. We just started to focus. We had a very peculiar kind of schooling in the Clash. It was a bit like being in the army or something. Our manager said, “You’re gonna have a hard time for the next few years.” He kept us lean and hungry, kept us on our toes. We had to find out what we were about.

Most groups don’t have that kind of background very often now. They just go in for fame or something. But we had this very almost Communist Army thing or something. It was very unusual, but I think it kept us in very good stead. Like before we could play a note, we had to paint the studio! Our rehearsal studio needed painting. Our manager said, “You can’t do any playing until you paint the bloody studio.” And that was how the paint-splattered period started! We were painting, and it dripped on our clothes, and we went onstage like that.

Lots of things just happened by good fortune. Even the way that the group clicked. We all brought something slightly different, but we made up a great whole. Topper was amazing, and Paul became such a great bass player. After the start! We became so frustrated with him trying to learn bass that we painted the notes on the neck. We’d just shout out the chords and he’d go to it. But he soon became a very good bass player in his own right.

“We didn’t care about nothing”
I like the first Clash album the best. It’s kind of pure. I played the Junior through a big 4×12 cabinet, and when we recorded it, we didn’t care about nothing. We didn’t really care to even care about it. So it’s kind of raw. We were struggling with our instruments, and it made it more alive. With my playing and Joe’s playing, it was the sweet and the sour. See, Joe was a left-handed player but he played right-handedly, so his most dexterous hand was the opposite. That contributed considerably to his strumming style. That’s why it is so specific to him. But I think that is true of all people: You sound like yourself. Playing guitar is a further expression of your inner self. When you play you sound like no one else. You sound like you.

The songs on the first album are sort of mini-operas. I’ve always been lucky enough to put it together in a way that will make it hold together, but still changing within that togetherness. So it doesn’t really sound like bits. Now I hear arrangements more in my head, but then I did it all on the guitar. But it was very natural with the Clash. It was very instinctual. Even the stuff we did on the stage—we just seemed to have a telepathic understanding. We played off each other, and we always seemed to know what the other was doing.

“Can we have Bo Diddley?”
In America, the record company said we could have anybody we wanted to support us. We said, “Can we have Bo Diddley?” They said, “Ooh, we don’t know about that.” He was fantastic! We had Lee Dorsey as well. And Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—he came out of a coffin every night. When Grandmaster Flash supported us at the Bond’s shows in New York, they were booed! Joe was quite upset. He went out onstage and yelled at the audience. He said, “Come on! You’re not being fair. You have to give them a chance!”

Jukeboxes were quite important in our story. Especially the jukebox in our rehearsal room and the jukebox in the studio in San Francisco, where we recorded the second album. We played all the music we liked, and we’d hear all the records first on jukeboxes. On the jukebox in our rehearsal room, we’d have a lot of those records we covered. Like “Revolution Rock” and “Wrong ’Em Boyo,” a lot of reggae records, and probably Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac.” And it was on the jukebox in San Francisco that we first heard “I Fought the Law.” And we would try to copy it, but bring something of our own to it.

“The bigger we got, the worse it seemed to get for us”
Even after we made London Calling, Joe was still squatting, and I was still living in the flat with my Gran. I kept leaving and then going back to my Gran’s. That’s why Joe wrote “Lost in the Supermarket.” He wrote it with me in mind, which is really a touching thing. Everybody thinks I wrote that one, because I sing it, but Joe wrote it for me. It’s not completely accurate, though. We didn’t have a hedge (laughs).

It was kind of weird, getting as popular as we were and still living back home with my grandmother. But somehow it helped, in a way. That was our big problem all the time, really. The bigger we got the worse it seemed to get for us (laughs). It is a very strange irony. You’d think we’d be getting on great, but it got scary.

We were always battling with contradictions, but when we got big, we were faced with big contradictions. It was almost at the point of compromise. And that was a big factor towards breaking up. That, and we never had any time off, and we lived on top of each other for like six or seven years. We got dog tired and fed up. When we were struggling, it definitely held us together. “Come on! Where are we going? We’re going to the top!” We had all that drive, and just like anybody we had good intentions.

But you get compromised. You can’t beat it. We did okay, considering the things we had to contend with. Compared to most groups, we did great. But trying to deal with those contradictions was the worst. On the one hand, there was what we were singing about, and then we were becoming more and more, and bigger and bigger. And it’s like, what’s there? There’s more. And then there’s more after that. And then it is like, well hold on a minute, don’t we have enough? So we were in crisis most of the time. The more we worked, the more screwed we were.

“Suddenly it’ll all fall into place”
My favorites are still the Juniors. I had a great Les Paul Standard, a sunburst one. And then I had a black Custom, and a white Custom. And then the big white hollowbody for London Calling. But I still play the Juniors today.

The thing about guitar playing is that you have to do it all the time. That’s how you get good at something—by doing it every day. I do music every day. There’s a work ethic to it, and also it is very mathematical. It is lovely when you realize that the same chord that you are playing down there is up there in a different configuration. It all clicks into place sometimes. You just keep going at it, and going at it, and then suddenly it’ll all fall into place and it’s wonderful. Like a puzzle you solve.

-Ari Surdoval

The Clash performing “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, 1980.