Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Night Punk Was Born in Los Angeles

Three years after my group CMilk -- signed to Warner Bros. and produced, rather poorly, by a famous English producer -- agreed that we'd delighted audiences long enough, I played some new songs for an A&R guy at a publishing company, the sort who wore a silver coke spoon in his chest hair and started every other sentence with the word hey, as though to remind the listener how wonderfully candid he was being. He did a bit of this and a bit of that on the side, including some promoting, and said if I put a group together, he could guarantee a lucrative Canadian tour.

I'd never heard of such a thing, but put a group together anyway, starting with a prodigious Italianate teenage drummer who idolised his counterpart in Deep Purple, which made me nervous, but who'd painted his drums pink, which I loved beyond my ability to express. He was joined by a grizzled (28-year-old) bassist who'd been with the Motels, and a young guitar hero who could play 64th-note triplets up where the frets get really narrow. I was iffy on the guitar heroics, but was assured that audiences had come to demand them.

I taught them 16 of my songs, which I fancied to be rather Nick Lowe-ish — tuneful, you see, poppy, often droll. I imagined, given the guitarist's Marshall stack, that we sounded rather like Cheap Trick, albeit with not-as-good lead vocals (mine!). I named us The Pits (as in my answer to Cole Porter's 'You're the Top') and decreed that what we played was (stand back!)...Maximum Pop. I rang the publishing company A&R guy to relate the glorious news and discovered he'd stopped taking my calls.

Unable to bear the thought of my recruits' eyes misting over when I admitted we wouldn't be seeing Saskatchewan and the Yukon Territory after all, I got us a quick midweek booking at the celebrated Whisky a Go Go on actual Sunset Blvd., where I delighted our audience of around 14 by sticking my head at every opportunity into one of the teenage drummer's mounted pink tom toms. (My ears are ringing still!) We affixed pictures of ourselves to light poles throughout Hollywood, and our fame spread. Its booker asked if we'd like to open for Devo for three nights at West Hollywood's Starwood, whose stock in trade was smirkily narcissistic lite-metal acts with recent record deals.

I knew little about Devo except that they were from somewhere deep in the American outback and were kooky, seemingly for kookiness's sake. After Arthur Brown's celebrated performance at the Shrine Auditorium in support of The Who many summers before, a great many locals had taken briefly to setting themselves afire, but Los Angeles had otherwise never shown much interest in kookiness. In the wake of David Bowie's show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the autumn of 1972, a group called Zolar-X had taken to dressing head to toe at all times in skin-tight silver lurex and claiming not to be able to speak a terrestrial language, but everyone except the long-suffering staff of Guitar Center had ignored them.

Thinking of opening for Devo — we with our lovely tight-in-the-crotch bellbottoms and long hair, layered in the popular "shag" style, our 64th-note triplets and my own occasionally on-key evocations of Boston's Bradley Delp's falsetto – the phrase blow them off stage came to mind.

We turned up for our sound check. A couple of slightly disreputable-looking girls wandered in to watch, leeringly. Life was wonderful. I realised we'd also been joined by a dweebish guy who looked, in glasses of the sort that nobody with any panache had worn since Harry S Truman's presidency, like a refugee from a high school electronics club. His nondescript features arranged themselves into an expression of mock fascination as the guitar player's nimble digits headed inexorably for the top of his fret board. Apparently duly chastened, the dweeb slinked back out into the sunshine and smog. But then, a moment later, while the guitar player was still going diddly-diddly-diddly at a speed guaranteed to fill our dressing room with rapacious nymphets while poor Devo played to the bar staff, here he was anew, brandishing a remarkable joke guitar of his own, with around 48 strings. As our guitarist bent back at the waist, closed his eyes, and lifted his face to the heavens, fingers a-blur, our antagonist - and let us here begin calling a spade a spade: Mark Mothersbaugh — did likewise. I giggled in spite of myself, but thought: Just wait until tonight, pal, when The People, who I'm assured have come to demand guitar heroics, decide.

Guess again, Johnny. What to my wondering eyes should appear glaring vengefully up at us when we took the stage for our first set but every pimply, misshapen, or otherwise irredeemably dweebish past member of a high school electronics club in LA and his girlfriend, and oh boy, were they in no mood whatever for tight-in-the-crotch bellbottoms and evocations of Boston. We finished every song either to deathly silence or gentle hissing. And then Mothersbaugh and his men came on in their wacky matching jumpsuits, all herky jerky rhythms, robotic movements, and bleating declamation, all fervently...kooky. And the misshapen, pimply, and irredeemably dweebish were in absolute ecstasy. 

Now, as our dressing room remained the loneliest place in Los Angeles, 'twas another phrase entirely that came to mind: Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, though of course I knew very well. Seven years before, I'd been one of Iggy Stooge's most fervent and well-placed (writing for national magazines) early fans. Nine months before, in London, I'd been one of the first living Americans to get wind of the Sex Pistols, produced by the same guy who'd produced CMilk, and had found 'Anarchy in the UK' transformatively exhilarating. But what on earth did the arty, staunchly arch Devo have to do with punk?

This: the Starwood gig made the misshapen and disenfranchised who attended it realise their numerousness. None could deny it now: they were a bona fide constituency, capable of supporting a...scene! Suddenly, punk was everywhere. 

The Dils! The Weirdos! The Screamers! The Germs! The Dickies! The Thises! The Thats! The most unlikely places - restaurants in Chinatown (few had heretofore suspected that LA even had one!), bars formerly popular with 72-year-old barflies in birdshit-caked baseball caps glaring murderously at their own drinks in mid-afternoon — became key venues for the new music. The curmudgeonly restauranteuse Esther Wong emerged as a key impresaria even though (or, it occurs to me as I write this, because) her English was intelligible only to those with a few stiff drinks in them.

Suddenly there were as many awful, brazen imitations of the Sex Pistols and Clash about as there'd been awful, brazen imitations of the Rolling Stones a dozen years before.

As in every pop music upheaval, most of the would-be-cashers-in on the trend got it all wrong, neither less nor more in LA than elsewhere. In theory, punk made musicians long on vim and vision but short on chops feel they had nothing to apologise for. In practice, a lot of no-talent bozos began offering their not having been troubled to learn to play their instruments as inherently noble, as a manifestation of the True Spirit of Rock. But if rock and roll had really been reclaimed from the virtuosos and smirky narcissists, how was it that local boys Van Halen's debut album was outselling all the punk groups' put together by a factor of around 1000 to 1?

In a year or so, when everybody got fatally fed up with punk's chaos and cacophony, it began to be pushed aside by self-described power poppers in narrow ties, most notably The Knack, who raised the smirky narcissism bar to an altitude heretofore unimagined. ("...but the little girls understand," indeed!) Within two years, Motley Crue, the worst group in the history of Western popular music, had become the city's darlings. Whereupon a new phrase sprang to mind: Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?


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