collage of Joe Strummer and Clash album covers

Social Distancing Spins: Clash-mas Eve edition

By Joel Francis

Joe Strummer, lyricist, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash died on December 22, 2002. By the time I found out it was late the next day. Every 24th of December since then, I have declared Clashmas Eve and dedicated to the memory of Strummer and the majesty of The Clash. This non-denominational holiday can – and should – be celebrated by all.

Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War – Permanent Record soundtrack (1988)

Joe Strummer only gets one side of this soundtrack, but he used it to re-establish himself as a solo artist and build anticipation for a proper, full album. In retrospect, I wonder if the Permanent Record didn’t work too well.

It’s true that none of the five songs here are going to replace “White Riot,” or even “Johnny Appleseed.” At the same time, there’s none of the sub-par material like “Ride Your Donkey” that mar Strummer’s eventual solo debut Earthquake Weather.

Most of the songs on Permanent Record are solid, straight-up rockers. Although “Trash City” stands out as the best track, “Baby the Trans” and “Nefertiti Rock” are also a lot of fun. “Theme from Permanent Record” is an instrumental with Strummer’s wordless vocals.

The biggest problem with both the Permanent Record material and Earthquake Weather is the weird ‘80s production that makes everything sound both flat and glossy at the same time. The energy of these performances really struggles to come through. I don’t know if the problem is in how the instruments were recorded or in the mix, but I would love someone to try clean up these remix them.

While I’m dreaming, there is another 10 minutes worth of outtakes from these sessions floating around on bootlegs. It would be nice to add them to this set and release everything as stand-alone EP.

In case you are wondering, the second side of this album finds the Stranglers covering the Kinks as well as original songs from Lou Reed, the Bo-Deans, J.D. Souther and the Godfathers. I bet I play the Strummer side of this album 10 times for every spin the flip side gets. Take the Lou Reed track off there and that number goes down even more.

The Clash – Live at Shea Stadium (2008)

On a road trip several years ago, I subjected a traveling companion to a recreation of the legendary Clash and Who concert at Shea Stadium in 1982. Thanks to archival releases by both bands, each set can be heard in its entirety.

The two groups were obviously in very different places and had very different jobs to do that night. The Who performed for nearly three times as long as the Clash (two hours and 20 minutes) and were nearing the end of their first farewell tour.

The Clash poured their souls into a breathless 50-minute set that maintains its intensity and energy throughout. The music videos for “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Career Opportunities” were shot at this gig and with good reason. The quartet is tight and ready to blow anyone off the stage. “Clampdown,” “I Fought the Law” and opening number “London Calling” are also impeccable. Legend has it that The Clash were treated poorly by Who fans at earlier concerts. In this set they aim to convert everyone in the ballpark. Although the band splintered the following year, none of those cracks are apparent in this set.

Coming on the heels of this set, the Who’s performance couldn’t help but be a disappointment. The band had to pace itself for a much longer set and couldn’t match the Clash’s energy. Although the Who open with several of their earliest hits, they sound like a group tired of each other and tired of the road, going through the motions. Although these performances are nearly 40 years old, the Who ended up having the last laugh. It is still possible to hear Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend play these songs. Sadly, our ability to hear the Clash in concert is limited to archival releases like this.

(Side note to the official Clash archivists and Columbia Records: How about a retrospective collection from The Clash’s shows at Bond’s Casino?)

The Pogues with Joe Strummer – Live in London (2014)

Joe Strummer was never the kind of performer who would plop down on a stool, acoustic guitar in hand and play his catalog. He needed to be in a band. Even when his name was out front, Strummer fed off the energy from the musicians around him. I think this is why Strummer struggled so much after the Clash ended. He didn’t have a group of mates to perform with and draw inspiration from.

When the Pogues asked Strummer to play guitar on a late ‘80s tour, Strummer had so much fun he stuck around to produce the Pogues fifth album. When the Pogues again asked Strummer to go on tour with them in 1991, he was no longer anonymously playing guitar, but positioned front and center, replacing Shane MacGowan.

Live in London is a fantastic snapshot from that tour. On one hand, it shows how uniquely suited MacGowan is for the Pogues. Strummer seems to have trouble keeping up with the band on the faster songs, such as the opening song “If I Should Fall with God” and “Turkish Song of Damned.” Conversely, the recording also shows how easily the Pogues are able to slip into Clash numbers “London Calling” and “Straight to Hell.”

The Pogues soldiered on for a couple more albums and tours after the ’91 tour eventually breaking up, then getting back together with MacGowan in 2001. They have toured sporadically since then, but released no new studio material. Strummer became involved with several film soundtracks throughout the ‘90s but didn’t release any new studio material until forming the Mescaleros at the end of the decade.

The Clash – London Calling (1979)

I have an excellent, 560-page book that breaks down each song on the Clash’s third album. Countless other think-pieces have been written about the album as well. Here are some stray thoughts.

I love that Rolling Stone named London Calling the best album of the ‘80s when it was released in 1979.

I love that artists across all genres have drawn inspiration from London Calling. The Black Crowes, Anne Lennox, Third Eye Blind and Manic Street Preachers all covered “Train in Vain.” I’m not sure those four acts have much in common beyond a love of this song.

I love that 32 years after its release, the song “London Calling” – a warning about an environmental apocalypse – was selected as the theme song for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

I love that Beto O’Rourke loves and relates to the Clash so deeply that he said Ted Cruz was working for the clampdown during a debate like this was an everyday reference. (Beto isn’t wrong, by the way.)

I love that the greatest punk album of all time went out of its way to also include ska on “Rudy Can’t Fail,” lounge music on “Lost in the Supermarket” and pop music on the aforementioned Top 40 hit “Train in Vain.” The song “The Cheat Card” even features a wall of sound, Phil Spector-esque arrangement that had guitarist Mick Jones on piano and trumpet solo.

Never Mind the Bollocks and the Clash’s first album may have burned hotter as succinct statements of raw punk rock, but London Calling sustained that passion across four sides of vinyl and transcended the genre in the process. If you like music, you love London Calling.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Live at Acton Town Hall (2012)

Joe Strummer’s time with the Mescaleros has gained heightened importance over the years. The Mescaleros were, of course, Strummer’s final band, but also the ensemble that galvanized him to record and tour regularly.

Even in that context, this show at Acton Town Hall is of historic importance. This recording captures Strummer in fine form a little more than a month before his death, doing a benefit show for striking firefighters. Even better, former Clash bandmate Mick Jones joins Strummer onstage during the encore for the pair’s first performance together since the US Festival in 1983.

Acton Town Hall wasn’t Strummer’s final show, but it sure seems like the stars aligned for one magical night.

The Clash – Sandinista! (1980)

At three LPs and 36 songs, most would say Sandinista is too much. I would argue there’s not enough. The Clash were ridiculously prolific, turning out five albums in five years, plus another album’s worth of non-album singles, but the time around Sandinista was bountiful even by those standards.

In addition to fitting studio time for Sandinista! around a hectic touring schedule, the Clash also recorded and released the “Bankrobber” single with two dub versions as b-sides. After recording on Sandinista wrapped, the Clash started working on Ellen Foley’s Spirit of St. Louis album. Foley was dating Clash guitarist Mick Jones at the time. The Clash not only serve as Foley’s band for the entire album, but Jones and Joe Strummer wrote six original songs for the album. (Clash collaborator Tymon Dogg, who worked with the band on Sandinista, also wrote three songs for Foley.)

Imagine a version of Sandinista! where “One More Dub” on side two is replaced with “Bankrobber.” Swap out “Broadway” with “Charlie Don’t Surf” and call the third record a bonus LP: The Clash in Dub. While we’re at it, let’s drop the children’s songs as well. I wonder how history would regard this much improved version of Sandinista! It wouldn’t eclipse London’s Calling, but I bet it would have a much better reputation and we’d see more Sandinista! tracks on tribute albums.

Since we can’t change the past, my dream version of Sandinista! would contain the original album, plus the “Bankrobber” single material and the demo or working versions of tracks Jones and Strummer wrote for Foley (in other words, the Clash versions, sans Foley). I shudder to think what studio scraps from the Sandinista! sessions might remain after listening to sides five and six of the original album, but if there are any other goodies left over, include them as well. That’s easily three compact discs worth of material and I’d buy it in a second. As with all of these suggestions, someone, please, come take my money.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37 (an in-depth look at Cut the Crap, the Clash’s final album)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer in the post-Clash ’80s)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer and reggae)

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

KC Recalls: The Clash at Starlight

(Above: The Clash perform “Three Card Trick” at what would be their next-to-last concert in June, 1985.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Thirty years ago today, The Clash took the stage at Starlight Theater for their first and only concert in Kansas City. They were a far cry from The Only Band That Matters, as the groundbreaking punk band was known when it London by storm in the late ‘70s. Key members Mick Jones, guitar, and Topper Headon, drums, had been replaced by three hired guns. The mission, however, remained the same.

clashKCstarlightStub“You’re gonna do ten days’ work in ten minutes when you deal with us,” lead singer Joe Strummer told NME in 1984. “We’ll smash down the number one groups and show that rebel rock can be number one.”

Alan Murphy, 28, didn’t have to wait long for his favorite song. “London Calling” kicked off the night, followed by the powerful “Safe European Home.” The Starlight setlist could not be located, but staples of that tour included “Career Opportunities,” “Clampdown,” “Brand New Cadillac” and “Janie Jones.”

A pair of covers made big impressions on a pair of fans seeing the band in concert for the first time. Michael Webber, 20 at the time, was happy to finally experience the band’s iconic reggae cover “Police and Thieves.” “I Fought the Law” was a high point of the show for Derek Koch, then 23.

The “Out of Control” tour marked the Clash’s first extensive U.S. tour in two years. Although there was no new album to support, the band played many new songs that would end up on its final album, “Cut the Crap.” These included “This is England,” the last great Clash song, “Three Card Trick” and b-side “Sex Mad Roar.” Two new songs never saw studio release. “(In the) Pouring Rain” was released in live form on “The Future Is Unwritten” soundtrack and “Jericho” is only available on bootlegs.

Clash_PaulJoe-Roskilde-850005_∏Per-Ake-Warn-1024x976Koch recalls watching bass player Paul Simonon “throwing all the great poses I had only seen in pictures on TV or video, and Joe prowl(ing) the stage like an angry lion.”

Coverage of the Clash’s Sunday night concert at Starlight was surprisingly light. The Kansas City Times ignored the event entirely, and the Star only mentioned it in a run-down of summer concerts. A monster truck rally at Arrowhead Stadium dominated entertainment coverage that weekend, receiving both a preview story in Saturday’s paper and event coverage on Monday. Copies of The Pitch were unavailable for research at press time.

For Webber, Murphy and Steve Wilson, 31, the absence of Mick Jones, put an asterisk on the concert. Although everyone interviewed wishes they had trekked to other cities to see the band in its prime, that Sunday night at Starlight still carries great memories.

“(We arrived) just as the band began to play,” Wilson said. “I think what struck me was this sense, however diminished by Mick’s absence, that ‘Wow, I’m finally seeing the f-king Clash.’“

Keep reading:

 

KC Recalls: Elvis Presley at Kemper Arena

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

Review: Carbon/Silicon at the Record Bar

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Clashmas Eve (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

(Above: The second part of “The Night London Burned,” a 30-minute documentary about Joe Strummer’s final concert and onstage reunion with Mick Jones.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Note: Every year on Christmas Eve, we mark the passing of Clash singer and musical legend Joe Strummer. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s passing on Dec. 22, 2002.

“War Cry”

The limp reception to Joe Strummer’s 1989 solo album “Earthquake Weather” didn’t sit well with its creator. But just because Strummer was a stranger to the studio for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with music.

41R6GY31MNL._SL500_AA300_One of Strummer’s great discoveries during the 1990s was the Glastonbury Festival. The three-day summer festival combined two of Strummer’s passions: live music and camping. Every June his entourage would grow, eventually becoming a makeshift community dubbed “Strummerville.” Performances by the Prodigy, Bjork, Elastica and others at the festival fostered a love for techno music that would influence Strummer’s music for the rest of his life.

The song “War Cry” from the “Grosse Pointe Blank” soundtrack is the most overtly electronic-influenced track in Strummer’s catalog. The swirling melody is carried by a pulsing keyboard riff, but the track’s energy comes from Strummer’s vigorous guitar playing. The six-minute instrumental is the only piece from Strummer’s film score to see official release.

Strummer produced the original “Grosse Pointe Blank”  soundtrack and included two tracks from his old band. The first volume was so successful a second was released. “War Cry” was unfortunately buried near the end of the sequel.

“MacDougal Street Blues,” Strummer’s contribution to a Jack Kerouac spoken word compilation also released in 1997, found Strummer working in the same style. Kerouac sounds like he was recorded in a bathroom, but Strummer’s musical backing almost seems like a skeletal cousin to “War Cry.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but “War Cry” signaled the end of Joe Strummer’s wilderness years.

“Bhindi Bhagee”

The first time I heard this song was on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of World Café. I was in the car with my dad and halfway through the second verse I commented that the track sounded like someone from the Clash recording a Paul Simon song arranged by Peter Gabriel. DJ David Dye confirmed one third of my theory, but I still don’t think the other two guesses missed the mark by much.

globalThe musical re-awakening Strummer experienced at Glastonbury carried over to his appearance (as a guest, not an artist) at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD music festival. Listening to the acts from around the world perform, hanging out with musicians like Donovan and spending time at Gabriel’s Real World recording studio finally provided the tipping point for him to get serious about making his own music again.

The music Strummer made with the Mescaleros was diverse, encompassing dance and electronic, country, punk and rock. On the band’s sophomore release, “Global A Go-Go,” Strummer branched out big time for their sophomore release. The platter more than lives up to its name, featuring lots of violin, exotic percussion, flute and other world music flourishes.

“Bhindi Bhagee” opens with acoustic guitar and flute and features Strummer delivering his intricate lyrics in a laid-back conversational style. Like Simon, Strummer lets the song unspool like a story. The chorus is basically a list of everything Strummer hopes to encompass with the arrangement. The best part comes at the bridge, where Strummer honestly explains where he’s at musically.

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah – what’s your music like?”
I said, “It’s um, um, well, it’s kinda like
You know, it’s got a bit of, um, you know.”

Yeah, all of that and a lot more.

“White Riot (live)”

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon weren’t looking for trouble when they attended the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, but they shouldn’t have been surprised a riot broke out. Founded as response to the Notting Hill race riots and the racial issues plaguing England in the late 1950s, the carnival had become increasingly violent in its second decade.

Joe aCTONAs Strummer watched the England’s racial minorities physically challenging the authorities, he wished his fellow Caucasians would have the courage to take a similar stand.  Although written long before the Occupy movement, Strummer finally found a body willing to pick up his gauntlet:

“All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.”

Along with the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “White Riot” kicked off England’s punk movement. As the band’s debut single, it clearly had special meaning to Strummer, who performed the song as the final encore during his last tour with the Mescaleros in 2001 and 2002. (An early version of the song has Strummer singing the first verse a capella before the full band kicks in. It’s an interesting thought, but the message is much stronger in the final arrangement.) The already-potent track became even more powerful when Strummer invited Mick Jones onstage to play it with the Mescaleros at what would be Strummer’s final concert.

The duo, sharing the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, clearly had fun with the reggae bounce of “Bankrobber,” stretching it to over nine minutes. “White Riot” is the tour de force, though. After calling for the song “in the key of A,” Strummer almost seems to second guess himself. As the guitarist – I’d like to think its Jones, but don’t know for sure – plows into the opening chords, Strummer hastily calls a halt to the song, instructing the drummer to count it off properly. The aggression and anger in the original version – Strummer almost sounds determined to push you out in front of the cops if you won’t fight willingly – now shows hints of age and wisdom that suggest that while this is one way to bring about change, it isn’t necessarily the only path to revolution. It’s a subtle change, but doesn’t cost the performance any of its original urgency.

Less than five minutes after ending “White Riot,” Strummer and Jones concluded the concert with a blistering “London’s Burning.” Barely five weeks later, Strummer was gone.

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (reggae edition)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (1980s edition)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (classic edition)

Review: F*cked Up

(Above: Kansas City’s own Maps for Travelers cover “The Other Shoe” in anticipation of Fucked Up’s appearance at the Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The band may be Fucked Up, but they do many things very well. During the inaugural hour of Easter Sunday, 2012, the six-piece hardcore punk band from Toronto abolished the barrier between artist and audience with an enthusiastic set that turned fans into friends.

The hourlong set leaned heavily on last year’s “David Comes to Life,” an ambitious masterpiece that can stand proudly with other genre-redefining, double-LPs like “London Calling,” “Zen Arcade” and “Double Nickels on the Dime.”

The band had barely kicked into opening number “Queen of Hearts” before frontman Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham was leaning into the crowd, offering his mic to anyone willing to bellow. Over the next hour he walked through the crowd, encouraging hugs, high fives and anything else to encourage fans and make them feel like part of the performance.

Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham displays an intense delight at the Riot Room.

Although the themes in its music can be dark, the atmosphere is entirely positive. During “The Other Shoe,” Abraham got the entire room singing the chorus. A room full of people singing the words “dying on the inside” never felt so upbeat and optimistic.

His vocals are screamed, but the delivery is more out of enthusiasm than anger. While hardcore punk can quickly become numbing in the wrong hands, F’ed Up is surprisingly melodic. The backing vocals from bass player Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda and guitarist Ben Cook go a long way toward tempering Abraham’s abrasive technique. The band is also unafraid to show it’s classic rock influences. The three-guitar attack during “Under My Nose” recalled Thin Lizzy. Later, drummer Jonah Falco  quoted Keith Moon’s drum pattern from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” while Abraham twirled his microphone a la Roger Daltrey.

Anticipation was high for F’ed Up’s set. They were talked up by Mission of Burma on Friday night, and the one-in, one-out policy went into effect hours earlier, generating a line to the door that stretched to the corner. Once inside, from the lip of the stage to the back of the bar, everyone seemed mesmerized.

Of the seven bands on the Riot Room’s lineup for Saturday, all but two acts were part of the local music scene. The Chicago-quartet A Lull delivered a set of dreamy, atmospheric music that included the moving “Some Love.” Longtime hardcore/metal mainstays Coalesce were given the final slot before F’ed Up. Singer Sean Ingram successfully cleared a good portion of the crowd from the stage simply by testing his mic.

The band’s intense 40-minute set polarized the room between dedicated fans gathered by the stage, and the rest of the room, politely waiting for the headliner. At one point, guitarist Jes Steineger lept from the stage and played while hanging from the rafter above the crowd.

Keep reading:

Dischord finds harmony in D.C. hardcore scene

Review – Greg Ginn and the Taylor Texas Corrugators

Review: “The Art of the LP”

Review: Mission of Burma

(Above: Mission of Burma play a rare show in Kansas City as part of the Middle of the Map Festival on April 6, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Mission of Burma’s invitation to this year’s Middle of the Map festival mirrors last year’s inaugural invite to Daniel Johnston. Both artists exist miles away from the mainstream, have dedicated cult followings and usually skip Kansas City on their infrequent tour itineraries.

The post-punk quartet held the last slot at the Record Bar on Friday night. Anticipation was so high the venue was one-in, one-out more than an hour before Burma was scheduled to go on. Halfway through the band’s 75-minute set, however, about half the room had cleared out.The two biggest contributing factors to this exodus were likely the late start time – the band didn’t go on until after midnight – and the emphasis on new material slated for release on the group’s fifth studio album this summer. Fans that stayed, however, were rewarded with not only a preview of what looks to be a strong continuation of a critically acclaimed catalog, but many of the early songs everyone came to hear.

Early number “Donna Sumeria” captured the essence of Burma. As drummer Peter Prescott lays down a deceptive disco beat, guitarist Roger Miller’s fingers fumble over the frets, creating a snakey melody. The lyrics invoke the Sumerian goddess of love and turn the dance goddess Donna Summer into an abstract plea for peace in the Middle East. Miller’s brief turn on the flugelhorn at the top seems like an abstract experiment, until soundman/manipulator Bob Weston reinterprets the horn back into the mix later in the song.

All of this may seem more fussy than anything the Ramones or Sex Pistols had in mind, but the core of Burma is still very much noisy, rebellious punk music. During their original incarnation from 1979 to 1983, the band managed a handful of singles, an EP and one full-length record. Since reuniting in 2002, they have nearly quadrupled that output. Although Friday’s set tipped heavy toward the new, all facets of the band were on strong display.

After previewing “Dust Devil,” the band’s newest single, they paired the 2006 track “Let Yourself Go” with their anthem “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” which had the crowd chanting along. Encores of “This is Not a Photograph” and “Academy Fight Song” kept the energy high.

The lead-up to Mission of Burma started six hours earlier at the Record Bar with Deadringers. Thee Water Moccasins and Life and Times did a great job setting the table for Burma, proving that the local music scene can stand neck-in-neck with that in any other town. Thee Water Moccasins recalled a more avant Yo La Tengo at times. The unabashedly poppy “No Control” provided the best moment from their 45-minute set. The Life and Times were propelled by the frantic drumming by Chris Metcalf. Both bands seemed to be as excited to be in the house with Mission of Burma as everyone in the audience.

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Harry Potter rocks

(Above: Harry and the Potters rock a Wisconsin bookstore.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It is doubtful that Irma Pince, mistress of the library at Hogwarts, would approve of Harry and the Potters.

The band is loud, noisy and proud of its subversive punk influences. For nearly a decade, it has also been the delight of librarians across the country.

The band makes a return appearance to the downtown branch of the Kansas City Public Library at 2 p.m. Sunday in a free performance and Monday at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence.

“Most libraries don’t see any bands;they see author readings and story time,” said guitarist Paul DeGeorge, who founded the group with his brother Joe in Boston in 2002 and now lives in Lawrence. “Sometimes we get librarians who think we’re too loud, but now that our reputation precedes us, I think they like that what we do is unique.”

Tying in to the most popular fiction series of the new millennium doesn’t hurt either. With songs such as “Gryffindor Rocks,” “Dumbledore’s Army” and “Saving Ginny Weasley from Dean Thomas,” the duo has plugged right into the zeitgeist.

The band is among the more successful of a long list of wizard rockers, including such Potter-inspired groups as Draco and the Malfoys, the Moaning Myrtles and the Whomping Willows. They even gather for festivals, such as the annual Hallows and Horcruxes Ball in Manhattan, Kan.

“It all started as sort of a whimsical idea after reading the Harry Potter book for the first time. We wanted to find a way to convince librarians to let us play loud punk rock music in their libraries,” DeGeorge said. “We didn’t realize how extensive and pervasive the Harry Potter fan world is. Once our website [Web site] was up, word spread really quickly, and that’s when we started touring nationally.”

Onstage, both brothers are dressed as Potter. Older brother Paul portrays the seventh-year wizard, while Joe represents Potter in his fourth year at Hogwarts. Although the family-friendly music attracts a young audience, Paul DeGeorge aims for a wide demographic.

“They Might Be Giants is a band I really related to in junior high, but as I grew up I realized there were a lot of smart things in those songs that I didn’t get when I was 12,” DeGeorge said. “We want to do the same thing. We want to keep the parents engaged as well, give them stuff to smile at that their kids won’t get and give the kids things to laugh at the parents will just think is cute.”

J.K. Rowling hasn’t weighed in on Harry and the Potters, but she is a big fan of the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit group DeGeorge founded.

“The Harry Potter Alliance was inspired by the fact that Harry and his friends were just teenagers, but because they were dedicated to fighting evil they changed the world,” DeGeorge said. “We re-contextualize complex global issues through Harry Potter’s world. It’s a way to help young people understand the world and get involved using language they understand.”

Although the band is strong, DeGeorge confessed it isn’t as all-encompassing since he moved from his native Boston to Lawrence, Kan. a year ago. DeGeorge moved away from his brother to be with his girlfriend, who is earning her doctorate in art history at the University of Kansas.

“We used to do 120 shows a year, then record,” DeGeorge said. “Now we’re doing a two-month tour and will take some time off. In some ways, though, the distance makes us more focused, because we know we have to maximize our time together.”

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Review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters

(Above: Elvis Costello and the Imposters take the stage on a hot summer night at Crossroads KC.)

Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Elvis Costello solved the age-old problem of what to do when an artist has too many great songs for one show – he brought them all onstage with him.

Costello’s “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour touched down at a crowded Crossroads on Thursday night. Behind the acclaimed songwriter’s left shoulder loomed a huge multi-colored wheel adorned with three dozen of his favorite songs. One at a time, members of the audience were invited up to spin the wheel and pick the next number.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” usually an encore, came up early. So did “Earthworms,” a song Costello wrote for singer Wendy James in the early ‘90s but never recorded himself. When the wheel landed on Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” Costello let the crowd choose between that number and his own “Human Hands.” The headliner won out.

First employed in the late ‘80s, the spinning songbook is a novel way for the performer to experience his work in a new context. On that level it was a success. The quartet was tight and energetic, clearly feeding of the energy of the fans dancing along to their selections onstage. But the wheel also killed momentum and started to feel kind of gimmicky after a while.

That said there was indisputably some great music in between spins. A spooky “I Want You” and an extended reading of “Watching the Detectives” that played up the song’s dub roots were among the high points.

Many of the best moments came early. Costello and his Imposters took the stage in with many favorites in a potent 15-minute romp before introducing the wheel. The extended jam on “Uncomplicated” found Costello and bass player Davey Faragher trading lines from Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun.” The Motown connection returned during “Alison,” when Costello incorporated several of the verses from Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”

Keyboard wizard Steve Nieve was the driving force on many songs, adding calliope runs to “Radio Radio,” a Theremin solo on “Peace, Love and Understanding” and sneaking some Stevie Wonder clavinet on “Shabby Doll.”

The night nearly ended with a brilliant three-song encore in which Costello and his band somehow took the jumpy “Pump It Up” straight into the reflective “Alison” before somehow ending up on a surprisingly strong version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Costello had other plans, however, returning with two thirds of the Lovell Sisters to play some bluegrass.

Setlist: I Hope You’re Happy Now; Heart of the City; Mystery Dance; Uncomplicated > Radio Radio; Talking in the Dark; Clubland; (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding; Earthbound; Human Hands; Watching the Detectives; (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea; Almost Blue; Shabby Doll; I Want You. Encore 1: Brilliant Mistake; Pump It Up; Alison > Purple Rain. Encore 2: Sulfur to Sugarcane; The Crooked Line; The Scarlet Tide.

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Happy Clash-mas Eve

 (Above: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros delight in performing Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record celebrates Strummer’s lifelong love of reggae music.

The Clash – “Pressure Drop”

Joe Strummer – “The Harder They Come”

Joe Strummer and Jimmy Cliff – “Over the Border”

In the early days of the London punk scene, DJ/filmmaker/musician Don Letts played reggae albums at the famed Roxy Club. At first the reggae was a necessity – the punk scene was still too young for any of the bands to record their own material. But even after the punk catalog exploded, the reggae remained.

“The punks were digging on the old anti-establishment chant down Babylon (attitude), heavy bass lines and they didn’t mind the weed,” Letts told Mojo magazine in 2008.

Not that this was many of the punks’ first exposure to the Jamaican genres.

“People like (Joe) Strummer, (John) Lydon and (Paul) Simonon didn’t need Don Letts to turn them on,” Letts said in the same interview.

Jimmy Cliff in "The Harder They Come."

Strummer, Simonon and the remaining members of the Clash likely stumbled upon Toots and the Maytalls’ “Pressure Drop” shortly after its 1972 release on the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come.” Both the film and the soundtrack had a profound influence on Strummer. In 1977 the band covered “Pressure Drop,” which was released in 1979 as the b-side to “English Civil War.” The title of their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” borrows the style of “The Harder They Come” by introducing a well-known phrase and letting the second half remain implied (i.e. “… and they’ll hang themselves”).

“Safe European Home,” one of the tracks on “Rope,” not only name checks “The Harder They Come,” but borrows the phrase “Rudie can’t fail” from another reggae song, foreshadowing the band’s biggest foray into the ska/Two-Tone sound. Finally, Strummer borrowed the film plot of “The Harder They Come” and adapted it to his British punk interpretation titled “Rude Boy.”

Two decades after the release of “Rude Boy,” Strummer recorded his own version of “The Harder They Come.” Teaming with the Long Beach Dub All-Stars and U.K. reggae singer Tippa Irie, his cover was released on the 2000 benefit album “Free the West Memphis Three.” Strummer’s interpretation doesn’t alter much from Jimmy Cliff’s original, but he’s clearly having a great time. Strummer thought enough of the song that another recording of the song was posthumously released the b-side to “Coma Girl.” Recorded live with the Strummer’s final band, the Mescaleros, this version is taken at a faster tempo and joyously ragged and raw.

At one of his final recording sessions, Strummer finally got to collaborate with Cliff. Upon learning where Cliff was recording his latest album, Strummer showed up with some unfinished lyrics in hand that he felt Cliff should sing. “Over the Border,” the song that grew out of this partnership appeared on Cliff’s 2004 album “Black Magic.”

Cliff described the session with Gibson.com shortly before his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

“The two of them (producer Dave Stewart and Strummer) began playing guitar, and I came up with the melody, and then Joe chipped in with some help on the melody as well,” Cliff said. “We recorded the song right away. That was a really special moment for me. You can imagine the shock I felt after hearing that Joe was not with us anymore.”

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Go green with Stiff Little Fingers

(Above: The Stiff Little Fingers in all their glory. This live footage of “Alternative Ulster” from 1979 features scrolling lyrics so fans can sing along. Good luck.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original incarnation of Stiff Little Fingers wasn’t around very long, but during their five-year tenure they were the best band to call Ireland home.

The Belfast, punk group formed in the late-‘70s as a cover act with a moniker nicked from one of their favorite songs – “Highway Star.” It wasn’t long, however, until the punk bug that had been sweeping England infiltrated Ireland. After replacing their bass player and swapping guitar solos for gnarled sneers, the quartet rechristened themselves after their new favorite song, the Vibrators’ “Stiff Little Fingers.”

After playing a show at the Glenmachan Hotel, the CBGB’s of the Irish punk scene, Stiff Little Fingers, or SLF, singer Jake Burns introduced the band to a couple of his pen pals, journalists Gordon Ogilvie and Colin McClelland.

"The Irish Clash."

Teaming with Ogilvie to write about their native land’s current violent political climate, the Fingers recorded their first single. “Suspect Device” was packaged to look like a bomb, but a copy managed to find its way to legendary BBC DJ and underground music champion John Peel, who played the song endlessly.

The band’s second single became their biggest hit. Released in 1978, “Alternative Ulster” was an insistent, yet catchy plea for plea for a united Ireland. (“Ulster” is British shorthand for Northern Ireland.)

After the success of “Ulster,” the Fingers recorded their first album, “Inflammable Material.” When a deal with Island Records fell through, the band was forced to release the record on their own. The album sold more than 100,000 copies and became the first independent release to chart in the United Kingdom when it landed at No. 14 on the album chart. That success paved the way for a contract with Chrysalis Records the following year.

Despite this victory, drummer Brian Faloon decided to leave the band. He was replaced by Jim Reilly, who beat the skins on the band’s third single, “Gotta Gettaway.”

In the spring of 1978, Stiff Little Fingers performed alongside the Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69 and several other punk acts in the Rock Against Racism concert. This appearance earned SLF the nickname “the Irish Clash.” Intended as a compliment, the handle hurt more than it helped, since the band failed to live up to comparisons. The Clash had the budget and backing of a major label, while SLF were left to their own devices.

The designation isn’t without merit, though. Both groups had a penchant for populist lyrics, disenchantment and reggae. The Fingers didn’t share the Clash’s penchant for experimentalism, but when it came to straight-ahead punk songs, Burns and guitarist Henry Cluney could definitely give Joe Strummer and Mick Jones a run for their money.

Despite their triumphs, the group had trouble capitalizing on their great singles and memorable albums. They released their second and third albums in 1980 and 1981, but the line-up had become a revolving door. When Reilly left the band after the tour for their third album, Brian Taylor became the band’s third drummer in as many years.

This collection is the best place to for neophytes to jump into the SLF catalog.

The other band started fighting about which direction to take the band. The arguments frequently ended in fistfights. In 1982, weeks after releasing their fourth studio album, Burns pulled the plug on Stiff Little Fingers.

Five years later, the band reunited to make some money. After a handful of short tours, Burns decided to take the group into the studio and record some new songs. Despite and impressive lineup that included former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton, the Fingers were basically Burns’ show. From 1991 to 2006, he and Foxton were the only two consistent members of the group.

The reformed Fingers have released four albums, but have been quiet since the original SLF bass player, Ali McMordie, replaced Foxton four years ago. Burns has been promising new material for several years. Until that comes, there are more than enough treasures from the band’s glory days to keep fans happy.

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