One commonly-accepted aspect of punk rock was a devaluing of musical ability, and the ascendance of the idea that “anyone can do it”. The old rulebook – the one that said you had to know what you were doing before you did it – was deemed obsolete. And this attitude produced a lot of exciting new rock music, and (particularly in postpunk) some novel directions, as heretofore-unknown avenues were opened up and explored via the sheer bloody-mindedness and musical naivete´ of the artists.
This same attitude – a deep-seated suspicion of technical mastery as proxy for “soullessness or pretentiousness”, and a desire to “Kill Yr Idols” – inevitably also produced a lot of amateurish, mediocre, and just plain badly-played rock music. Even so, much of it is still charming or inventive in its way; but there’s a real joy to be had in watching and listening to a musician who has some native ability, and has put in the time and effort to master their craft.
Luckily, even in the punk and postpunk eras and beyond, there were musicians who through innate talent and sheer repetitive practice became the equals of their pre-punk-E.L.E. ancestors. Gigging night after night after night in dive bars across the country can beat the snotty punk out of you, and some bona fide old-style guitar heroes emerged.
But the media and musical landscapes had irrevocably changed; most just don’t pay the same reverence to such masters any more; and so many of these guys continue to play clubs, not arenas. They aren’t household names like their predecessors. Clapton, supposedly, was God; these guys look like they might be fixing your computer for you.
J Mascis came out of the 1980s Massachusetts hardcore scene, and is most famous for his ear-splitting power trio Dinosaur Jr. Even his main band’s name hints at their classic-rock leanings; originally called just “Dinosaur”, they were threatened with legal action by a similarly-named 60’s band; in response, they puckishly added the “Jr.”, and went right on destroying eardrums.
Mascis is an unabashed Neil Young acolyte, employing a similar combo of almost comically-limited vocal ability and knotty, unruly guitar (though he started out as a drummer, and still plays drums in pretty-terrific metal band Witch).
Mascis’ lyrics are simple, bordering on childlike; his rhyme schemes and melodies are often repetitive to the point of distraction; his voice is a cracked, mumbling drawl that sometimes slips into a surprising falsetto.
And when he lights up that fiery and jaggedly-eloquent (and yes, often very, very LOUD) guitar, none of that matters a whit. The perpetually-adolescent confusion and heartbreak of Mascis’ words are immediately dwarfed by an electrifying and expressive voice that speaks via six mangled and vibrating strings, and clearly communicates – in depth and beautiful color – those feelings of frustration and joy that he has little ability to explain in English.
In the fan video up top for “See You”, I love the way that his lead guitar squiggles up & frazzles out at :50 to make way for his vox: like it’s exasperated to be temporarily relegated to the backseat.
But he’s not always noisy; there’s usually an acoustic ditty or two per album, and he’s even recorded a couple albums that were totally acoustic – Martin + Me, a live album named for said acoustic guitar, and 2011’s studio effort Several Shades of Why.
(Fun fact: at 4:07, the keyboardist appears to be riffing on The Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want”):
Dinosaur Jr. – Goin’ Home
Playing bass with him below is Mike Watt, a formidable musician in his own right. The Green Mind version of this song has one of my favorite pivots in music, as the song suddenly shifts from hesitant and stutteringly uncertain in its first half, to soaring and exultant in the second. Unfortunately that pivot doesn’t come through quite as clearly in this live performance – it’s still pretty great though, and you can see them playing, which is nice.
J Mascis & The Fog – Blowin’ It / I Live For That Look (Live)
Dinosaur Jr. heavily influenced Doug Martsch of Boise’s Built to Spill, who similarly reaches back to Neil Young and also makes no secret of his love for classic rock. Martsch’s lyrics and rhyme schemes are more varied, and his singing somewhat less of an acquired taste, than Mascis’.
Built to Spill’s winding, off-kilter songs were inspirational to better-known bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. Built to Spill also employs additional guitarists to whip up the kind of fretboard hurricane Mascis manages on his own (though BtS often use their guitars to construct a massive sonic edifice, while Dino sometimes sounds like they might be attempting to blow one down.*)
The next video depicts a band meeting a fellow “dinosaur” out-of-time, with real empathy and respect. Maybe one of you musician-types can explain what it is that they do in the bridge; it sounds like they go almost to a reggae-like rhythm (or maybe a chantey), slowing the song to half-speed; then it sounds like there should be harpsichords playing, before they go back to the epic guitar soloing:
Built to Spill – Conventional Wisdom
These aren’t loquacious guys – in fact, Mascis is an infamously laconic interview subject – generally preferring to let their guitars do the talking. “You Are” has the barest of lyrics. But at 1:27, fireworks bloom incandescent through night sky, wordlessly completing the song’s title with graceful shimmering arcs:
Built to Spill – You Are
Here’s BtS paying homage to their roots with a live Neil Young cover. I am not often one for noodling, and this song is LONG; but it could be twice as long, and I would not mind. Lovely warm tone on that guitar:
Built To Spill – Cortez the Killer
Both Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill are still working and touring bands; Dinosaur put out the well-regarded I Bet On Sky in 2012, their third album (all three are good-to-great) since reuniting the original lineup; and I saw Built to Spill live last year, though they have not released a record since 2009. If they come through your town, I recommend a very affordable night out, watching some masters at work. The fact that you’ll be able to stand close enough to see these excellent musicians as they play is just a bonus.
Make sure you bring earplugs, though. You’re old. You need to protect your hearing.
Feel free to hold forth in comments about: dinosaurs of the literal or metaphorical varieties; guitar heroes, or Guitar Hero; or anything else that strikes your fancy.
*Seriously – listen to the final 90 howling seconds of 1987’s “Tarpit”, or the last 60 seconds of 1988’s “Keep the Glove” and you’ll see why Kevin Shields counts Mascis as inspiration and friend.
Awesome. I’ve always been awed by J Mascis, though I’ve never had the privilege to see him live. I’ve liked the new stuff but never bought any, so now I have to go off and pick some of it up.
I bought a Dinosaur Jr. bootleg when I was in Germany ~20 years ago, there was a really killer version of ‘Keep the Glove’ on it, I wish I had any idea what happened to that disc. The live version of ‘What Else is New’ that’s attached to the re-issue of Where You Been has a fantastic endpiece as well.
All three of the new albums are very worthwhile; if I was ranking them, I’d put Beyond first, then Sky, then Farm (which to my mind is a little overlong). But they are really consistent (in fact, there’s a song on Sky that seems to share a melody with one on Beyond.)
I’ve seen Dino twice…the Marshall stacks are just ridiculous. I wish I could have seen them on the 1992 “Rollercoaster” tour with MBV and JAMC…I’ve seen all those bands separately, but together would have been noise-pop heaven. I have a friend who went, and reports it was a hearing crisis; I think MBV got banned from the venue.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find Mascis resides somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. He famously seems to have trouble understanding people, and feelings, and communication (when Dino was kind of at their biggest in the early 90’s, J was still living at his parents’ house).
But damn, the man understands a guitar.
And if you like Dino, give BtS a try: they scratch some of that same itch, in a slightly less visceral/more cerebral way. Keep It Like A Secret is a good entry point.
he opened at the roseland date in ’08 for mbv. i’d never heard him before, it was pretty good, but his work is just one of those things i’ve never listened to. which is odd because i really like pavement’s first album.
His voice/lyrics can be a hurdle. But he predates Pavement a bit…my first Dino sighting was 1989, with their amazingly-awful, or awfully-amazing cover of Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, with the crazy death-metal breakdowns and weird abrupt cutoff at the end. As a big Cure fan at the time, I hated it when I first heard it; but like Dino, it grows on ya:
I love that cover.
my kneejerk is that his voice is pretty awful, yeah.
i had to do a side by side because i’m honestly that up to date on the cure either. thank superjesus for youtube, huh? it’s not too hateful a cover. (the best covers are those that approach either via reverence or through revenge)
the late 80s/early 90s were not kind to the visual arts. it took the ultra clean modernism led by folks like the designer’s republic to yank things out of the neon mush, and it took more than a decade for that to filter into the american mainstream. it’s now the dominant thing. as a lover of white space, my brain thanks everyone else for at least trying.
I first thought he was taking the piss with that cover.
But I later learned that he is a HUGE Cure (and Johnny Marr/Smiths) fan, so I think he meant it affectionately.
RE: design…there might be a post in that whole “collage/ransom-note” aesthetic that runs from “Bollocks”, through The Fall, to Pavement/GBV/BtS 90’s indie-rock.
Independent Project Records and 4AD had great visual aesthetics IMO.
If you listen to a lot of J’s stuff, it’s pretty clear this is made with love.
Apparently, they played this regularly on tour.
I’d never seen the video, had to laugh at the puppet in the Deep Wound shirt.
I first thought he was taking the piss with that cover.
You’re thinking of Who’s Next.
Who’s Next is da bomb.
You could do a Who post, Mike (hint, hint).
I only had time to give the BtS songs a listen tonight, and now I’m waiting for iTunes to download Keep It Like A Secret. So, thanks!
If you’ve not heard Yuck, give them a listen. they’re definitely in the same constellation as these two.
Heh, I almost linked Yuck (“The Wall” sounds a bit Dino to me, I get it stuck in my head a lot).
Here’s a couple more Dino-esque tracks:
Broken Social Scene’s “Cause=Time” splits the difference between Sonic Youth and Dino Jr:
Thurston of SY is a big Dino fan. Tell me the chorus of this song doesn’t sound like a J Mascis croak:
RE: BtS, I linked “You Were Right” in the OP, which somehow manages to re-purpose well-known rock lyric cliches into something meaningful; my favorite song on the album (one of my favorites of theirs in general) is “Temporarily Blind”, which somehow manages to pack all the great things they can do into one < 5 min. song: http://youtu.be/P8bK18QXA2A
I saw Dinosaur Jr at Lollapalooza in either ’93 or ’94 (I went both years, not sure which year I saw them). It was just not the venue for them, I think. It was a big outdoor stage and I found them kind of boring, enough so that I don’t remember exactly which year it was (I think it was the same year that Rage Against the Machine was on the main stage, which would make it ’93, but I could just be mis-remembering). I’ve heard that in other contexts they make for a fun show.
Yeah, the big stage (and daylight) just wrecked some bands. JAMC was on during the day at the 1992 one, and I liked it just because I loved the band (them, Lush and Ministry were about the only acts where I wasn’t actively P.O.’d for that one), but JAMC were better-served in a small dark club, with the smoke machines and audience-facing strobes combined with stunning volume to completely disorient the audience.
Huh…looking at the 1992 lineup, Seam was on the side stage. How’d I miss that? I love Seam. Either they didn’t play at my stop, or I wasn’t into them yet I guess.
One commonly-accepted aspect of punk rock was a devaluing of musical ability, and the ascendance of the idea that “anyone can do it”.
What is the word “punk” doing there? Few people could play with Duke Ellington; anybody could be the Dave Clark Five.
Yeah. Punk was a reaction against bloated carcass of AOR and the over the top art rock of YES, ELP, etc. Punk was what rock had been before it became the biggest thing.
Mike Watt….oh man The Minutemen were so darn good. Double Nickles on the Dime still holds up. Those guys knew what they were doing.
What Greg said; punk was a conscious attempt to strip rock back down to exciting, raw and democratic; Clash covered DC5; Pistols copped Chuck Berry riffs; Ramones wanted to be Beach Boys.
Re: the Minutemen – when I was sifting YT videos I saw a comment explaining how one commenter’s dad, upon being told the MM were “punk”, confusedly replied, “but they know how to play their instruments!”
Mike Watt may also be rock’s nicest guy. He still gets choked up when he talks about Boon.
I have to agree with you about Mike Watt, super nice, and just kicks ass live. I saw fIREHOSE when I was in collage, and was just blown away (it was also cool as I was underage in a crappy club, and had only got in because my pizza job boss’s band was the opening act.)
If my wife ever leaves me, it could be for Mike Watt. She still talks about the time he rescued her from the crush of a pit at a fIREHOSE show.
There were a lot of really good people at show in those day’s, on both sides of the stage. I was pretty small in high school, and I remember getting pulled out of the pit at an all day punk show by a couple of skins, just as I was starting to go down. Really saved my bacon.
Oh, and my favorite Dino song is still Freak Scene.
When I first started going to punk shows, there was a lot more camaraderie in the pit. That seemed to get lost after a while; it was quite sad.
Naturally, I blame it on all those pesky kids!
Well, as long as we’re reminiscing, this was the pre- and post-Nirvana eras.
Pre-Nirvana, the music was harder to find in the US, and had to be sought out; the people that listened were therefore self-selecting. And yeah, pits might be…enthusiastic, but the intent was not to harm anyone (though accidents still happened); as aaron & Jonathan note, if you went down, someone would grab you up but quick, and whisk you to safety, and check up on you. There was a real camaraderie; this was a FUN thing, done together.
Post-Nirvana, there were, sorry to say, a lot of meatheads that suddenly got introduced into, and did not fully understand, the culture. And they WERE trying to hurt people; they saw the music as license for rage, rather than expression of it.
Lolla I in 1991 was a beautiful thing; friendly, open, a sense that there were people “like you” all over, that were friends you hadn’t met yet. A little Woodstock.
Lolla II in 1992 was a FREAKING NIGHTMARE, full of boneheaded aggression and fighting, and I swore never to attend another* after a friend and I really, really thought we might be in real trouble/danger of trampling during the RHCP’s set; they stopped playing multiple times to plead with the crowd to calm down, and pull people to safety that were getting crushed against the barriers, and give them water.
*though I tried to break that vow for Lolla IV, ‘cos the lineup was great; but it got cancelled, so my vow remained intact.
I still send Zack de la Rocha emails from time to time saying “YOU’RE MY FAVORITE BAND! YOU AND LIMP BISKIT!”
Is there a band simultaneously as talented AND annoying as RATM?
I went through a brief phase where I liked their first – I got a pre-release tape when I was working at the radio station.
I got over them quick.
I was going to say something about the crowds at Rage Against the Machine shows, but it would violate the no politics rule, so I’ll simply say this:
If a substantial portion of your audience is made up of the very people you’re trashing in your songs, you’re probably doing something wrong.
I dunno, it’s not entirely fair to hold any artist responsible for their followers. Nirvana was very vocal about trying to shake off the problematic faction of the newer fans that they had picked up, essentially saying “if you’re a bigot, do us a favor and don’t buy our records”. Don’t know how much good it did, and anyway, maybe some fraction of those bigots eventually saw the light.
Josh Homme named his band “Queens of the Stone Age” on the theory that the homophobic element in the metal/hard rock world would be turned off by it.
IOW, I don’t care for RATM, but that they got some knuckleheads for fans isn’t entirely their fault.
Yeah, there’s a real “reaction” thing going on with rock “revivals”. Punk was a reaction to over-production… then one of those executives (Malcolm McLaren?) in a building said “we could incorporate this aesthetic and make a lot of money.”
And then it worms its way through the alimentary canal that is culture and a couple of years later we get Bow Wow Wow and then a couple of decades later there is another back to basics revival and we get “Grunge”.
Which reminds me: Bieber is the herald of a new punk revival any day now.
Has it shown up yet?
What’s funny about McLaren is that he thought he was putting together a punk Monkees, something he could control.
He didn’t quite understand what he’d gotten in Lydon, or he would have chosen someone less intelligent and more pliable.
For all McLaren’s flaws (he was a shameless opportunist and grifter) he’s an interesting character anyway, and even if he didn’t entirely understand what he was getting into and it spun quickly out of his (or anyone’s) control, I’m glad he did it. From wiki:
Very tangential: a McLaren “tribute” song that mashes together two very different voices and ideas about “love” and lets them converse with each other; perfect for end-of-night crying in your beer:
The tension between McLaren and Lydon is interesting as hell. Lydon called McLaren “the most evil person in the world” or something like that. It was phrased as only Lydon could phrase it, of course, but that was the gist. McLaren’s response was something to the effect of “because I sprinkled him with fairy dust?”
i’ve always viewed their spats as two cartoon characters hitting each other with clubs. they’re both ultimately completely ridiculous people.
Why, however could one think Lydon is ridiculous?
That said, Lydon is also awesome:
WHAT WAS DICK CLARK THINKING?!
Grunge is interesting because there were grunge folks who knew how to play their instruments, but there was a sense that as few people as possible should hear them do so in order for their music to remain authentic. Hell, there was even this crazy idea that being a “band” was itself selling out somehow. I remember someone describing Mudhoney as the “anti-band band,” and it made perfect sense, even if it’s hard to point out exactly why.
Punk hated the man. Grunge hated itself.
Despite being an archetypal Seattle band, Mudhoney has always seemed like a weird fit to me…maybe more of a garage band like The Sonics?
I prefer this Spacemen 3 cover of “When Tomorrow Hits” to the Mudhoney original, but the original’s good too…foreboding:
For some reason I immediately flashed on the movie Singles and the aftermath of it.
You could immediately see executives in buildings saying “FIND SOMEONE WEARING FLANNEL AND MAKE HIM SIGN SOMETHING!!!”
From the Singles soundtrack: I think “Screaming Trees” is my favorite band name of all time.
I’ve never really considered myself punk; more metal in the early days, then more blues as metal evolved into something different.
But, as previously noted, part of that whole movement was a reaction against something.
For me, it was an ill-fated trip to LA (as all trips to LA seem to be for me) back in the ’80’s.
(When taking girl to work at the mall becomes priority for the band, things have gone haywire. Something like ordering food from a drive-thru window should be a simple exchange, but I was with a couple of idiots. Rolling up to Rally’s and ordering “greens,” or asking for bong water– that sort of thing. Eating became much more of an adventure than I cared for it to be.)
Keel was the big local band filling the Palladium. Malmsteen had just moved to Alcatrazz.
It was seeing Malmsteen that made me say, “That’s not what I do,” and then I went about redefining a style.
And if you try listening to Keel or Alcatrazz these days, you’ll see the songwriting just doesn’t hold up. It’s crap.
I went through this minimalist phase in my songwriting, and most of that was directed to a certain market.
Maybe I’ll post some of that someday, if I can ever figure out how to get this thing to make a digital recording longer than 10 seconds in length.
I take this as a sign that God hates Vista too.
I’ll go back through the videos later when I have more time.
I’ve never seen Mascis’ vox described any better than this:
almost comically-limited vocal ability
That’s a bulls-eye.
&btw, the Minutemen rule!
I know little about technical ability, not being a player myself, so it’s hard for me to say why J’s playing seems so expressive to me, rather than simply intricate/complicated. I mentioned above that the man seems to have very limited verbal communication skills, and I wonder how much of that which he can’t get to come off his tongue, he’s able to get out through his fingers instead.
I also like that he doesn’t seem to strive for perfection; he constantly seems to keep varying what he is doing, always playing in the moment; if he muffs a note or whatever, that’s just part of the “sentence”, the same kinds of imperfections we must deal with in verbal speech; he sometimes seems as surprised as we are.
Here’s “Freak Scene”, one of their early “hits” and maybe the clearest musical and lyrical encapsulation of his aesthetic (not to mention limited rhyming skills), a frustrated yet oddly-sweet desire for connection:
Sometimes I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me f**k up will you
‘Cos when I need a friend it’s still you
What a mess…
And then the guitar launches right back into that snarling tangled “mess”.
I listened to the stuff; and really, I’m not familiar with either band, but I think I like Built to Spill the better of the two.
Mascis’ playing reminds me of Joe Perry a bit in a way; the playing off the beat aspect of it. Very dry tone as well; ie little to no reverb.
I don’t care for his solos though. I’m familiar with the noise as melody theory. Lord knows, I’ve listened to an awful lot of Celtic Frost. But Mascis sounds like he dropped his instrument a few times.
The first song, the change in the tone in the pre-verse solo comes from the tone knob. It sounds smooth, like he’s rolling the knob as he’s playing, with the pickup switch in the same position (you’d hear a little click if he moved it).
I’ve listened to the Tragically Hip a lot, and they seem superior in this genre to either of these bands; though I’d like to hear more from BtS.
Here’s Poets; and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Gift Shop has certain elements, more of BtS; though I think with more polish to it.
And just because I like the song and I’d like to turn you on to it, here’s Problem Bears. A song about writing a song. Do yourself a favor and take the time to look up the lyrics.
(Did it for you.)
I’ve been listening to some rock based off of a 16th Century opera that got confiscated by the Vatican (some bright schmuck dedicated his opera to Satan. Apparently the Inquisition was not amused).
Oh, and a composer’s duet that is absolutely, simply impossible to play (it’d break the violin).
Awesome, Glyph. Would I be able to make a request that you do a piece on punk’s relationship with reggae back in the late 70s and how this relationship evolved? Bob Marley, as I recall, was utterly confused by the love British punk fans seemed to have for reggae right from the beginning of the punk movement, but eventually came to embrace it (culminating in his more or less forgettable “Punky Reggae Party”), and of course The Clash were always heavily influenced by reggae. I’d love to get an idea of how these two rather different sounds and musical philosophies wound up working so well together.
I’d love to get an idea of how these two rather different sounds and musical philosophies wound up working so well together.
In a word, cannabis.
More seriously, my understanding is that there were a lot of Jamaican immigrants in the UK working-class neighborhoods where punk was rooting; post-Pistols and pre-PIL, Lydon spent some time in Jamaica, and was a big dub fan, as PIL showed. For all his bleating of “no future”, Lydon saw early on that punk’s explosion was simply a new starting point, not the end of the road.
Punk also saw itself as a democratizing egalitarian movement with (ideally) no regard for color or gender barriers; as I was discussing in the Sabbath! thread a couple weeks ago (and again when skins + ska came up), I think it’s strange and sad that these musical forms have become so color-segregated (and that most attempts to hybridize them recently resulted in rap-rock abominations;-).
Well, there was the brief two tone movement, which launched the (English) Beat, Fine Young Cannibals, etc. But yeah, it sucks how all that fell apart.
The first concert I attended at the Anti Club in LA and I’m pretty confident it cost less than $10 to see them and two other bands. I’m surprised there is no mention of Husker Du here though. Glad to see this band is still together though.
Ah, Husker Du! Yeah, they were the other SST guitar abusers. I guess the distinction I’d make is that Mascis turned out to be more of a “traditionalist” song-wise than Mould, despite the crushing volume…what Mould & co. got up to was pretty original. You can hear Neil Young in Mascis (or you could, once he turned things down just a tad).
Mould just sounded like Mould, and you can almost draw a line from Husker Du to The Pixies to Nirvana.
I wish there was some way to re-do the Husker Du albums, they were recorded so badly, they sound so thin. Just imagine if they were recorded properly the way Mould’s later band Sugar was:
(That song is absolutely as disorienting as its title implies; I like how it can’t get any more intense, then at 1:58 IT SOMEHOW GETS EVEN MORE INTENSE).
Also, because it’s too bonkers not to link, here’s Husker Du on Joan Rivers:
(That’s not even the weirdest such appearance on that show. On this one, Suzanne Somers is guest-hosting for Joan, and they not only have art-punk band Wire on, Wire does one of their weirder numbers, a single-chord mono-rhythmic quasi-industrial drone called “Drill”):
The thing that really impresses me about Wire is that they sounded as good live as in the studio. A tight band.
Your link to the Wire performance is actually a repeat of the Husker Du link. Here’s the Wire one:
I’m not sure if Somers is just nervous because she’s hosting the show, or if she really is that uncomfortable with the guys, but her interactions with them after the song are priceless. “You’re kind of a far out band.”
Thanks, yeah, that’s the one.
Between that and Husker Du, and PIL on American Bandstand…American TV was sometimes weirder in the 80’s than is commonly supposed. Thank goodness for YouTube.
I am gonna try to work Wire into a post soon, maybe not as the sole focus, but just a phenomenal band.
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