“Punk was originally about creating new, important, energetic music that would hopefully threaten the status quo and the stupidity of the 1970s,” asserts Jello Biafra, and in a short amount time it seemed if the stupidity of disco and glam rock were given a solid boot up the keister by what perhaps is defined as “punk’s most recognizable period.” Recognizable because the immediate mention of the word and the majority would allude to what it embodied in the late 70’s – pins, Mohawks, leather jackets and a crusty old stick-it-to-the-man middle finger – and yet many question the validity of the fashion statements as subversive, but one may forget that during that time, wearing safety pins was almost on par with of a nunnery full of whores (or a brothel full of nuns), and it was what got attention to the music if the music itself did not do so. In the immediate proceeding years, the very cornerstones of this counterculture would form; in New York rose The Ramones while the United Kingdom ignited the fury of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Buzzcocks. It was a short period of immediate glory, but what 1977 brought to the world would ring invariably in many shapes and forms – buoyed by what seems to be an undying cause for personal expression and a very human passion to question what is put before us.
Through the years that followed, the subculture formed many offshoots and evolved in countless ways, but the one product of 1977 that perhaps best represents “punk” in its most effective form, would be the birth of hardcore in 1980s – The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, The Minutemen, Minor Threat and of course Bad Religion. It is from these artists listeners finally sat up and took notice that punk was more than just saying “fuck you,” it was as Greg Graffin summarizes amongst several things, “a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through wilful ignorance of human nature.” And the ignorance of human nature was not limited to the suburbs of Los Angeles. But as the new decade rolled around, many of what youth began to see – hostage crises, assassinations, riots, the birth of MTV, and the full fledged burgeoning of iconic corporations – pushed them in one direction or the other. And from these locales, Bad Religion grew into perhaps the most prominent of these groups, spearheading a revolution from the suburbs that spanned the globe. Armed with sweltering melodies, a piercing sense of urgency and a vault of vocabulary, they conquered apathy, suffering, ignorance, greed, hate, faith and the consumption of the human spirit.
Through their approach they were effective with their message; never one to rely on finding singular, common constructs, they challenged their own sound and resisted the temptation to become indifferent – even when they had found their scope of influence. During this period of musical and influential prosperity, one for all intents and purposes we shall label as 1988-1992, their work was boundless, and in essence, untouchable amongst those who shared the same billing. Speaking personally, the albums released during this period, the bulk of Epitaph’s reissues, were by far the most appealing – at least for someone who grew up far from the immediate range of their music (at least for the majority of their broadcast). In this, I found a certain likeness to their work; that it was not merely discourse in the ills of American society, but the ills of the world, and more importantly, the society in which occurred directly outside my window. While my interest in American life sparked very early on, it was during my early teen years that I began realizing the tribulations of the country I called “home” – Indonesia was (and still is) rife with poverty, corruption, ignorance and greed of the highest level that succeeded in creating a false layer of security, hiding a bubbling self-destruction that, unfortunately, has since burst into a pseudo-democratic mess where few take responsibility, and even fewer know how to. Whether or not they aimed globally, Bad Religion spoke of these evils and their words quantified and summarized the moral extinctions to the greatest effect.
1988’s Suffer is widely regarded as one of the finest albums of its kind, and it first displayed Bad Religion’s ability to so efficiently, and meaningfully amplify conscious words. From there, they went on to release No Control, which still exhibits the single greatest song written in all mankind (at least in my humble opinion). “I Want to Conquer the World” will forever be the psalm for a soul desiring change and world revolution – never has two minutes and seventeen seconds been so precise in detailing the follies and hypocrisies of the so-called erudite community and preachers of good speak; fundamentally disclaiming that no human is infallible and/or capable of such wondrous feats, no matter how burning the desire. The follow-up to No Control is perhaps their greatest collection; although that debate would run eternal, Against the Grain exhibits songwriting and deliberation seasoned over two fantastic albums and a wealth of experience gained. Much of their 1995 All Ages compilation was built around a great deal of material from Against the Grain – a sign possibly that the band is best represented by these outings. [On (another) personal anecdote, I remember vividly how during junior high, my music class was asked to each bring in a song that they would like to play for the class – everyone else strode mightily with their collection of trivial music while I played “Modern Man.” I received disconcerting looks (a mixture of horror and confusion) while my teacher questioned my morality and positive responsibility to the classroom environment. Needless to say, the song speaks volumes in documenting how population Earth has so erred in an amazingly brief period of time.] Generator is the last of this period; released in 1992, some have argued its less than powerful nature – and yes, in contrast to its predecessors perhaps that contention holds value. Nonetheless, while it is one of the weaker releases, just barely better than both Stranger than Fiction and No Substance, it still exhibits some fine work – most notably the title track. It was also their last before their departure for Sony, another endless and seemingly futile argument that they somehow couldn’t be as effective surrounded by richer lining.
So now with Epitaph’s decision to reissue five of some of the most important records ever released, where do they really stand in regards to value? For one, the five – the retooled How Could Hell be any Worse? (an amalgam of their early documentation, 80-85, as well as added EP tracks), Suffer, No Control, Against the Grain, and Generator – have all been digitally remastered and reverberate with greater intensity. Cynics will argue the difference is minute, but for those who own the original recordings, the difference is palpable. The guitars discharge even more so commandingly, while the low-end and percussion work have been given added boost. The alterations are clear to anyone who was to play any song of the old recording with the newly remastered one in sequence; take “Modern Man” as an example – the chilling prophetic atmosphere of the 1990 edition is infinitesimal compared to its 2004 version; stunning. (Artwork has been updated as well, but that facet of these recordings is far less important).
Apparently there is debate on the usefulness of these reissues – but I for one cannot understand why this has become an issue. Do we forget at which stage of the evolution we seem so entrenched in? The filth of merchandising, commercialization, branding, manufacturing; this is what has become of 1977’s revolution that grew to immense power in the proceeding decade. Artists clamoring for music video rotation, clothing sponsorship, and magazine cover appearances. Even more alarming, those who are in a position to influence a great number of able bodied kids who seek direction, purpose and understanding are swayed to this useless and pointless brokerage of apathy. I recently came across an article on an influential website that has become a beacon for this meaningless practice, where the proprietor affirms that he is “not punk enough” but he definitely “does not care.” Indeed, discussing what is and what is not “punk” is just as futile, but this apathetic approach to what was the very antithesis for apathy is just plain delusional. And so perhaps these re-releases serves the purpose to (re)educate those who seemingly have distorted their view on what is and what is not. That alone justifies any cause Epitaph may have to re-release these records, and they couldn’t have picked a better selection.
There is no definitive punk manifesto; and while Graffin himself may have come closest in defining the relevance and importance of what it is, there can never be one true understanding. He does however, point to one important factor – that those who have never been challenged by life itself have no reason to doubt. And the existence of these records does endless good to illustrate situations for those unexposed to the many injustices that have become the constitutions of daily living. Humanity is bred imperfect, and we are all of the same mold; but there is much that can be induced from these albums – three of which will eternally remain essential – most importantly, that we should forever seek to find resolution for life’s answerless question.
Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and the Art of Alienation
The hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating
Someday, when the world finally loses Willie Nelson, there will be an eruption of sadness. He is an icon, yet many people will still be shocked at the depth and profundity of his body of work. At this point already, the unbroken length and quality of his career is almost without precedent in American music. He has simply been here so long it seems he has always been here doing what he does. And his music has defied easy categorization, slipping seamlessly between wide varieties of country music, jazz, and American standards. He is probably the artist for whom the term “Americana” was most properly invented.
Yet his career can be divided into rather neatly-defined stages. For many people, myself included, his most interesting stage is probably his brief stint with Atlantic Records in the early 1970s. Atlantic had just begun a Country division and Nelson was brought in as a cornerstone for that new endeavor. The experiment was not long; Nelson ended up recording only two albums under the Atlantic label, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, but the two albums worked out to be an essential bridge in Nelson’s gradual transformation from a fixture of the Nashville establishment to an iconic Outlaw and the singular artist we know and love today. Without these works, there is no path to Red Headed Stranger or Stardust or the collaborations with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that would come to define Country music in the decades to come.
Here I want to discuss the simple, singular genius of one song from this period, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie. The song perfectly embodies the artistic maturity gained by Nelson’s long breakup with the Nashville machine. And the hard lessons learned by that process show up in the song’s spare production, which works with its deceptively simple lyrics to show how market economies alienate human beings from themselves and one another.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Willie Nelson’s Career
Nelson was pushing 40 when Shotgun Willie was released. He was a longtime fixture in the Nashville music business, mainly as a songwriter (he was a hit maker for many other artists, writing songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline). As a solo artist himself, however, Nelson was constrained by the producer-centric power structures of The Nashville Sound. His ambitions were too large to be contained for long, however.
Nelson had already experimented musically. For example, he released a beautiful yet enigmatic concept album in 1971 called Yesterday’s Wine, which began the process of pushing his way out of the mold Nashville had formed him in. Eventually, he would leave RCA and Nashville altogether, moving to Austin, Texas and, in that strange mix of bikers, cowboys, and hippies, Willie Nelson as we now know him began to invent himself.
This is the world into which Shotgun Willie, and its third song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was born.
With only a single guitar, alternating bass notes between plucky strums to create a (you guessed it) waltz, and backed by a distant steel guitar, the song begins “I’m writing a song all about you. A true song as real as my tears. But you’ve no need to fear it, ‘cause no one will hear it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
This utterly simply, yet devastatingly powerful opening tells the whole story. A man, an artist, is betrayed by his love and longs to express it through his art. The power of the marketplace makes this an impossibility. He is left both without a woman and without a song to mourn her absence. This is the purest tragedy.
Essentially the song, like many country songs, tells a story about a man who has lost a relationship with a woman. This is a rather normal part of human life, but human relations are flexible and people typically have the ability to craft new relationships in the wake of these breakups. The speaker in this song is deprived of that opportunity. The purpose of his art, the song he sings about writing, is to forge a relationship between him and his audience. His artistic expression is an extension of his humanity, his self. Sadly, this self does not exist outside the controls of the marketplace. His song will remain unsung because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
The chorus puts it in even more starkly economic terms. “It’s a good thing that I’m not a star. You don’t know how lucky you are. Though my record may say it, no one will play it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Perhaps if our singer were more famous he could escape the cage built for him by the music industry, but he is not. Therefore, any effort to make art from his pain — art that might forge a relationship between him and an audience — is in vain. No one would play it in the first place as it is not marketable.
One particularly interesting feature of this song is its meta approach to songwriting. It is, in simple terms, a song about a song. This is not a particularly novel concept in itself, with the supreme example probably being the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes” provides a fascinating twist on the genre, however. This is a song about another song that no one has heard, nor will they, for economic reasons that we will get into in a bit.
This is not merely clever, it is a formal feature that contributes to the song’s meaning. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a song is about alienation. And the singer of this song is so alienated from his personal art that he can only sing about it at a distance. It represents an ultimate form of alienation.
Alienation and Markets
Alienation is a devastating consequence of life lived under the control of markets. This is a central point in the writings of Marx and other critics of capitalism. The moving around of money in the quest to extract profit makes us all, in one way or another, cogs in a capital-producing machine, and Nashville certainly was and remains one of those.
Like many talented artists working in Nashville, Nelson had been alienated from the fruit of his labor. He was put to work writing songs for other people to sing to create income for his record company. And when we was permitted to record his music himself, it simply wasn’t Willie Nelson as we know him. Seriously, look at his early album covers and try not to laugh at how uncomfortably not Willie Nelson he looks.
And just as Nelson had been forcibly removed from his authentic self, alienation extends beyond our relationships with the products of our labor. It also emerges as a barrier between individuals, interfering with proper relationships among human beings. Forced to sell our labor for wages, other people lose their individual identities and become mere competitors, making human cooperation difficult to achieve. We become, above all, alienated from ourselves and other people on a natural, human level when subjected to the demands of money-making. We lose our status as fully embodied people, having been reduced to a figure in some equation to determine the bottom line.
Its hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating. The betrayed singer is alone and must remain alone because he cannot spin his pain into enough profit for the bean-counters.
When Shotgun Willie was produced, Nelson had only recently emerged from the Nashville money machine. He had spent years conforming himself to the demands of that industry, stifling his creative self in service of its products. This professional history provides insight into the source of a career frustration that finally exploded into songs like “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
The move to Austin, a place that was weird and incomprehensible to the logic of the Nashville scene helped break him from his binds. Hanging out with the hippies and hillbillies of that unique and idiosyncratic music scene allowed him to develop something closes to an authentic artistic self and it set the stage for his many career reinventions. He became, in many ways, country music’s best answer to Bob Dylan in this way.
When he eventually returns to Nashville it is as a bonafide “outlaw” with the rest of that movement largely founded on its rebellion against the Nashville Machine. Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a good example of how the Outlaw movement wore an open animosity against how Nashville’s system stifled individual creativity and forced it back down the throat of that very system. Capitalism being what it is of course, Nashville eventually found a way to coerce profit out of the artistic forms that rose up against it, bringing the enemy into the fold as it were. Outlaw Country became the defining sound of 1970s Nashville.
Still, Willie Nelson’s Atlantic Records period serves as an inspiration. It is a moment when an artist well into his career finds the strength to reinvent himself and claim significant ownership over his own art, taking a career full of alienation and molding it into a new form of art that would indeed forge powerful human relationships with a new audience for decades to come. It might even be said that he took a share of the means of production, with the product being Willie Nelson.
A Night with Northlane
Josh Hockey went to go see Northlane in Melbourne and took photographer Albert LaMontagne with him to capture the night.
Settling in to 170 Russell would have been nice, but as we stepped in at the allocated 6:30 door time we were greeted with the start of Void Of Vision’s set. Sprinting down the stairs and into the room, it was clear that moving the door time forward half an hour had definitely affected the crowd.
A decent audience had streamed in, but nowhere big enough considering the year Void Of Vision has had. Releasing their magnum opus album, Hyperdaze, they have been on an absolute tear, and it was clear during this set that they were going to keep going hard.
Opening up by bringing the heavy early, Void had the room shaking from the world go. An impressive light show and an almighty wall of sound filled the room with layers upon layers of adrenaline. Vocalist Jack Bergin led this assault, bringing as much energy as he possibly could, whilst utilising his seemingly endless amounts of stage presence.
New songs like “Babylon” and “Hole In Me” showcased their new sound, while “Kill All Your Friends” got the pit going like it always does. They finished strong with “Ghost In The Machine” and left their stamp on 170 Russell.
International act Silent Planet were up next. A pretty much completely new band to me, I was immediately impressed by the connection they appeared to have with their audience. From the word go, the pit was open, and everyone in the front few row was singing along with all the passion in the world.
Spoken word vocals mixed with harsh screams ensured that vocalist Garrett kept the audience on their toes. The instrumentals kept up this pace as well, with their hard hitting dark tones unrelentingly assaulting the ears of all listeners (in a good way).
Silent Planet sounded incredibly large all the way through, and definitely would have made themselves some new fans on the night. Their music appeared to be full of themes of mental illness, and political issues, which is absolutely super important in today’s societal climate.
Counterparts were up next. Definitely a well known band, the heavy Canadians immediately made clear the tone of the set announcing themselves with a call of, “Counterparts Schoolies Week Motherfucker.” They launched into their first song and it was immediately clear why they are as acclaimed as they are. Ridiculously tight and sounding stupidly massive, they had fans moving from the second they started playing.
The shit talking between sets would have been the highlight, but the songs themselves made it hard to top. Playing the old classics as well as the new heavy-hitters, there was as much two stepping as there was singing along. Also this was perhaps the first time in history I heard a pitcall of “schoolies 2019 motherfucker open it up,” which was an experience that I’m glad I had.
Dedicating a song to Australia’s very own Trophy Eyes, their massive sound continued unrelentingly. Coming towards the end, the set closed with a wave of crowdsurfers all diving and climbing towards the microphone, trying to get ahold of vocalist Brendan so they could scream his words right back at him. This set was great, and I’m quite sad I personally am not a Counterparts super fan so I couldn’t join in the fun. Next time boys. Next time.
Finally it was time for the big dogs, Northlane. The lights went down and hands went up, ready to go and awaiting the bands arrival impatiently, the audiences cravings would soon be met. Northlane charged onto stage and belted into “Talking Heads.” The movement was huge from the start, and the audience was off their feet and jumping non-stop all the way through.
“Details Matter” was a definite highlight of the set, with the ridiculously massive sound of one of the better songs of 2019 running rampant through 170 Russell. Headbangers were aplenty and moshers were in surplus. This continued even into one of their softer songs, “Rot.” The first song released by the band with vocalist Marcus Bridge, “Rot” went down an absolute treat as always.
Northlane are a ludicrously tight live band, and this became ever more clear as they smashed through “Citizen, “Obelisk”, and “4D.” New party song “Eclipse” had the room shaking as everyone refused to stop bouncing. The set began to come to a close as massive Alien single “Bloodline” was the definite highlight of the show. It has been one of my favourite songs of the year, and this rendition locked that in even more. Cannons and lights were ablaze and firing everywhere, and made this even more of a spectacle.
Leaving stage momentarily, Northlane returned as Marcus came back wearing a big sparkly coat. “Sleepless”, the closing track of the album was incredibly effective and touching live. And was a nice sombre end to the show, right before they launched into the timeless heavy classic, “Quantum Flux.” And goddamn was it massive.
Northlane are one of the best bands out there, and this show only locked that in.
Check out the images from the Northlane show:
All photos by Albert LaMontagne. Copyright 2019 Albert LaMontagne / Sound the Sirens Magazine. Please do not use or distribute these images without the permission of Albert LaMontagne. If you use these images without permission, you are a terrible person.