The Aging Punk.006

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

In my first couple of columns here I described the opening of my own musical mind, when I moved from the punk rock of New England to the jam bands of the Mountain West. Looking back I can easily see how narrow my taste had become, and how being forced to listen to music outside of those confines greatly enriched my musical life.

Coincidentally, at the same time several of my musical heroes were also expanding their horizons. Not necessarily what they listened to, but definitely what they played and recorded. For all of them, playing around with their musical styles also proved greatly beneficial.

I'm thinking of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and David Byrne of Talking Heads, all of whom released albums in 1981 which were far outside their established musical personalities. All three then followed them with masterpieces in—more or less—their original genre.

I don't want to make any assumptions here about what any of them were thinking, but it's not hard to imagine that, while punk rock was solidifying into a particular style, they all felt increasingly constrained by the genre. Not that any of them were really punk to begin with, but they had all been lumped in with the punks. (Costello had already objected to this classification with his song "Goon Squad": "Just another Mummy's boy/ gone to Rotten.") In any event, they all, at more or less the same time, embraced a musical style as far removed from punk as possible.

The first to experiment was Byrne. In 1980 he collaborated with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Bush of Ghosts matched African rhythms with sampled vocals from preachers, radio shows and other sources—long before sampling was a standard musical tool. Byrne—with Eno's help—had experimented with African rhythms before, most notably on Fear of Music's "I Zimbra," but this was total immersion. The result was quite unlike the sparse, quirky pop Talking Heads played. In addition to the different rhythms, the music was denser, layering on multiple musical lines.

Although its release was delayed, Bush of Ghosts was actually recorded before Talking Heads' late 1980 album Remain in Light. It provides an obvious template for that album. Yet what the full band accomplished goes far beyond the blueprint. Working with a full band enabled (or forced) Byrne to open up the sound. Remain in Light sounds both livelier and more expansive than the claustrophobic sound of Bush of Ghosts. The songs on Bush of Ghosts remain sonic experiments, on Remain in Light they turn into long loose jams. While I am never able to settle on an absolute best Talking Heads album, Remain in Light is a definite contender.

Then Elvis Costello released Almost Blue, an album of country covers. At the time it seemed a shocking departure for Costello. It wasn't really. He had already recorded several country tinged songs (including "Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger in the House"), they just didn't fit into the format of his albums. Further evidence of his country roots lies in how naturally he and his band took to the genre. Almost Blue sounds like they've been playing country music for years.

Costello, perhaps more than any other musician, had been boxed in by the expectations of punk/new wave. Despite the sneer, Costello was not a punk. He was a songwriter, drawing on the entire tradition of popular songwriting, from Burt Bacharach to Tin Pan Alley to, yes, country. Almost Blue was his route out of that box. By acknowledging his country roots, by acknowledging that he had any roots at all (punk rock was all about starting anew, from a totally clean slate), Costello freed himself to do whatever he wanted.

On his early albums, Costello wrote what might be called hyper-pop. Although there are obvious exceptions—including those previously mentioned country songs—most of his songs were short, fast and punchy. Oh, and angry. Which was why he got classified as punk—fast, angry songs = punk rock—even though his early albums demonstrated more complexity than most punk.

Costello followed Almost Blue with Imperial Bedroom, widely recognized as one of his best. The country influence is obvious, not just on songs such as "The Long Honeymoon" (essentially a country song), but on how Costello wrote his songs. On Imperial Bedroom, he slowed down. Of course he had written slow songs before, but the tempo of the entire album is closer to country than punk rock. By slowing down, Costello opened up his songwriting. Imperial Bedroom is far more varied than any previous Costello album, covering everything from hard rock to country to jazz to pop ballads. Also, the expansive song structures leave room for musical flourishes, especially on the piano, rare on his previous albums. In many ways, keyboardist Steve Nieve dominates the record, dropping tasty piano runs into the most fitting places.

By taking a sharp right turn in musical styles, Costello was able to discover the full potential of his songwriting ability.

While Costello was playing country songs, Joe Jackson was listening to Louis Jordan. The result of that was Jumpin' Jive, an album of jump-blues (a highly energetic form of jazz from the late 40s, a direct precursor of rock 'n' roll), also released, surprise, surprise, in 1981. Jumpin' Jive is a lively, fun album, and it sold surprisingly well. It is full of peppy horn charts, soulful vocals, and on it Jackson and his band definitely swing, in every sense of the word.

Jackson followed Jumpin' Jive with Night and Day, his first masterpiece album. Jackson had also been a purveyor of hyper-pop, although a heavy reggae influence often loosened his songs more than Costello's.

On Night and Day, Jackson was definitely taking his cues from jazz. Not that he was writing specifically jazz songs, they were more pop through a jazz prism. Also, he had moved on from Louis Jordan. As the title implies, Night and Day looks to Cole Porter for inspiration. The songs aspire to the same sort of clever social commentary as Porter. They also have a much more traditional song structure than much of Jackson's previous work. The music itself is heavily based on Latin jazz, yet another shift in direction.

It may be coincidence that all of these albums were released in 1981, but I think not. As I indicated, punk rock, as a genre, was rapidly calcifying at that point. All three of these artists got their start in the early, looser days of punk. But none of them really fit in the genre, even at the beginning, and none of them were willing to be further restricted as the genre closed in. So all three of them made a conscious break with their punk past. A break which enabled them to open up their songwriting, and bring it to a full flowering.

Of course, after that all three of them continued to expand their musical styles, flowing from style to style, genre to genre, along the way producing some of the most vital pop music of the last thirty years. Whether it was coincidence or not, it certainly is interesting that all three found a similar route to musical freedom.

G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at

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