Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

Best Albums of My Life #22: Combat Rock

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I’ve realized two things recently: 1) I’ve been neglecting my sporadic countdown of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I’ll be 30 in a couple months, so I should probably wrap this up before then; 2) Combat Rock, the last real Clash album, is fucking awesome (I know, I know: Bernie Rhodes pushed through Cut the Crap after the band ousted Mick Jones, but if you think that’s a real Clash record, we’re gonna have words. Fighting words).

After being one of the first punk bands to actually say stuff with their music (I sometimes think “White Riot,” “Career Opportunities,” and “White Man at Hammersmith Palais” say it all), the Clash headed out into new territory, whipping up delightful mixtures of their influences (one such recipe became London Calling, the best album ever. Of course, one of them also became Sandanista!, an album that has its moments but is about three times longer than it needs to be. Yes, like Shakespeare before them, the Clash were capable of cranking out the rare bad work) and serving them up as piping hot records of rock, reggae, punk, and even early hip-hop. In the process, they went from Best Punk Band Ever to one of the best bands ever in any genre.

Even as Mick Jones’s ego and Topper Headon’s drug use (and, to be fair, the ego and drug use of the rest of the band too – to quote Joe Strummer, “We were always a drug band. Always.” If you read Return of the Last Gang in Town, you’ll find that he wasn’t too proud of that fact) began to tear the Clash apart, they managed to cobble together (not without some internal strife) Combat Rock, which would feature two of their biggest commercial hits (“Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which – I’ve read – Mick Jones wrote about Ellen Foley, a.k.a. the girl who sang on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Apparently, Mick enjoyed a romantic affair with Foley and even produced her solo debut, which tanked like a Kevin Costner movie with a score by Steven Seagall’s country band) and a host of other awesome songs. In fact, here’s a little history lesson for you kids who heard “Paper Planes” on the Slumdog Millionaire trailers last year: “Paper Planes” actually samples “Straight to Hell” from Combat Rock. So if you’re diving into M.I.A.’s catalog because of that song, do yourself a favor and listen to the Clash while you’re at it. In fact, I don’t care if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now – listen to the Clash.

Combat Rock is the Clash’s poppiest album, but that’s hardly a bad thing. In fact, it only proves that, had they stuck together longer (an impossibility which will discuss further in a minute), the Clash would’ve dominated the 80s with awesome pop goodness. Combat Rock also points to where Strummer and Jones would eventually end up post-Clash: “Overpowered by Funk” and “Red Angel Dragnet” point toward the work Mick Jones would do with Big Audio Dynamite, “Death is a Star,” and “Straight to Hell” indicate the direction that Joe Strummer would explore with the Mescaleros. Of course, Strummer’s death in 2002 (at the tender age of 50) means that we’ll never really know the impact he could’ve made with his second great band (have you heard Streetcore? It’s awesome). Jones is still running around producing various albums (including the first Libertines record, which owes a not-tiny debt to the Clash) and even recently collaborated with Topper Headon on a re-recording of “Jail Guitar Doors” for a prison charity in the U.K..

Originally titled Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, Combat Rock had a long struggle to even see the light of day. It was originally 15 tracks, 65 minutes, and growing. Mick Jones was happy with this situation, Joe Strummer was furious with it, and from there, you can see that this was a band not long for the world. In a 1984 interview with Creem, Joe Strummer pointed out, “I don’t believe anyone is that great they don’t write crap sometimes.” In Strummer’s opinion, the album that would be Combat Rock was in bad need of an editor and an outside producer – things I think would have benefited Sandanista!. When CBS heard the Rat Patrol tapes, they were not happy and suggested Glyn Johns to mix the record. Johns hacked the album down to twelve tracks with a decidedly pop bent (Strummer was on a mission to make a pop album that wasn’t all “Stuff ‘er on the bed and shove it to her” in an ambitious attempt to lure meat-heads away from the burgeoning hair metal scene), a move that led Jones to abandon the sessions, apart from re-recording his vocal on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”  Clash biographer Marcus Gray (author of the aforementioned Return of the Last Gang in Town, a must-read for fans of the band) accuses Strummer of perhaps going too far toward a mainstream sound on Combat Rock, but Strummer biographer Chris Salewicz (whose Redemption Song is also a must-read; taken together, Gray’s book and Redemption Song paint portraits of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones as two very gifted men with strong wills, strong egos, and maybe an even stronger need to be loved by a wide audience) points out that Strummer kind of stuck his neck out, “having seized the reins” for the album, and was understandably nervous about how it would be received.

Combat Rock was, of course, adored both in the U.S. and in the U.K., but that would not be enough to keep the Clash together. Topper Headon was out of the band before they went on tour in 1982 and Jones was kicked out at the end of the tour. On its musical merits alone, Combat Rock is easily one of the best albums of the 1980s and it holds up well to this day. And, if we’re being honest, we must admit that its musical greatness is due to the talents of all four members of the Clash: from Give ‘Em Enough Rope to Combat Rock, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones, and Joe Strummer matured together as musicians and made some of the best rock music ever recorded.

Incidentally, the “countdown” (it’s not really a countdown, since I do it in the order of my choosing whenever I feel like adding an album to the list) is not even half way over. If you want to catch up, you can find the entire list right here. I’ll try to update it more regularly, since I was supposed to have this all done by the end of 2009.

The Songs of Rocktober 10 to 1

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Oh fuck yes, boys and girls. Today is the day of the bestest ‘Fest. Let us not delay, then, in getting to the ten most kickass songs of this most kickass month of Rocktober.

10. Dead Kennedys – “California Uber Alles” – If there’s only one person the Dead Kennedys didn’t like in the 1980s, that person was probably California governor Jerry Brown (or maybe Twinkie defense asshole Dan White). If there’s two people they didn’t like, they were Jerry Brown and everybody. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is probably one of the best American punk albums ever, and “California Uber Alles” is especially awesome for imagining a new-age fascist America headed up by Jerry Brown and patrolled by the Suede-Denim Secret Police. Better lock up your uncool niece.

9. Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows” – The Queens of the Stone Age fooled the radio into playing songs from Songs for the Deaf and the world was all the better for it. Still one of the heaviest songs (of the not-sucky variety; I’ll allow that Metallica might have a heavier sound, but I don’t find the sound of heavy turds pleasant) to creep onto the FM dial, “No One Knows” features some of Dave Grohl’s best drumming, recorded just as he lost his battle with lameness and slipped forever out of the Land of Awesome. It also features typical (meaning “badass”) QOTSA guitars and Josh Homme talk about how we get these rules to follow and pills to swallow and all that good stuff.

8. Elvis Costello – “Radio, Radio” – To prove he was not fucking around when he sang “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me” on “Radio, Radio,” Elvis Costello stopped the Attractions mid-performance on Saturday Night Live (I think they were doing “Less Than Zero”) and counted them into this song, thus guaranteeing that Lorne Michaels would pitch a fit and ban Elvis from the show. This did not stop Michaels from later saying that Costello’s performance was this iconic event for SNL. That’s because Lorne Michaels is a giant douche. “Radio, Radio,” however, is a prescient song, written in the late 70s about how shitty radio was in general, with some allusions to crazy right-wing talk radio thrown in for good measure. There was a time, apparently, when Elvis Costello knew fucking everything.

7. The Clash – “White Riot” – You gotta love Joe Strummer watching black people riot in the U.K. in 1977 and thinking, “Why don’t white people do that? What’s wrong with us?” “White Riot” is Strummer’s attempt to get the Caucasians in the mood to bust shit up. It ultimately failed, of course, but his efforts did result in two of the finest minutes in punk history.  And who doesn’t want a riot of their own?

6. The Hold Steady – “Constructive Summer” – While I’m spreading the Strummer love here, I might as well point out that “Constructive Summer,” by the Hold Steady, is as passionate and fitting a tribute to the man as you could want. Over positively (see what I did there?) pounding drums, Franz Nicolay’s persistent rock piano, and Tad Kubler’s cranked guitar, Craig Finn orders us to “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer.” Why should we do that, Craig? “I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher.” You know, Craig Finn, you might be on to something there.

5. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy” – Raw Power is one of the all-time greatest rock albums ever recorded and “Search and Destroy” is the track that gets that particular party started with a bang (or whatever sound napalm makes). Back in 1973, there were no Sex Pistols and no Clash, but the punk spirit was living large in the person of Iggy Pop (a.k.a. Iggy Stooge at that time) and his band of miscreants. Iggy was (and still is) actually a pretty good singer and he employs full-on vocal pyrotechnics, singing “Somebody save my soul/ baby, penetrate my mind.” That’s a dude asking you to mindfuck him and when Iggy asks, you answer.

4. The Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” – I will argue with you or anybody that “Blitzkrieg Bop” is the best Side 1, Song 1 of all time. This was the song that launched The Ramones and, well, the Ramones. They were a band that didn’t have time to write multiple verses, but they did have time to get everyone pulsating to the backbeat. This would be a good lead-off track for your Rocktoberfest play list, what with the tight drum beat and Joey Ramone shouting “Hey/ Ho/ Let’s go” (or, ” ‘ey/ ‘o,” as he sings it). So let’s go, dammit.

3. Jim Carroll Band – “People Who Died” – Jim Carroll just died a few weeks ago, so if you’re ‘Festing to this song, pour one out for the man. Catholic Boy was a magnificent album and its best moment came with “People Who Died” which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of Jim Carroll’s friends who have shuffled loose this mortal coil. That could be morbid business, but the song is upbeat and insistent. Carroll’s buds employed myriad methods for exiting the land of the living, so you’ll never get bored: one guy overdoses on Drano (how much Drano constitutes an overdose? I’m guessing very little), one guy gets leukemia at age 14 (and looks like 65 when he dies), and someone jumps in front of  a train. Apparently, this song became a big hit after John Lennon was shot because it helped people deal with that numbing fact. That might sound kinda fucked up, but there’s catharsis in the irreverent humor of the song. I listened to it about a hundred times on the day Jim Carroll died. He was apparently just sitting at his desk writing. If I’m ever in a band again, I’m gonna rework this tune to include Jim Carroll, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and all the other awesome dead musicians. Who’s with me?

2. The Pixies – “Debaser” – Inspired by Luis Bunuel’s fucked up 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, (the bit in “Debaser” about slicing up eyeballs? They slice up a cow’s eye in this movie. I want you to know) “Debaser” is the best Pixies song. Period. (You don’t really think “Where is My Mind?” is their best song, do you? Why? Because it was in Fight Club?). Frank Black tears into the verse, exclaiming, “Got me a movie, I want you to know.” And certainly no Frenchman could declare “I am un” anything as assertively as Black declares “I am un/ chien!/ andalusia!” (Of course, the French dude would know to say “Je suis un” whatever, but I’ll let Black Francis slide on this one.) This is another breaking shit, bouncing around the room kind of song and I will never, ever (ever!) get tired of it. In fact, I’m gonna listen to it again right now.

1. The Clash – “Death or Glory” – If aliens landed here on Earth and pointed their lasers at my face, demanding to know, in four minutes or less, what rock ‘n’ roll was (we’re talking quintessence here – Platonic ideal shit), I’d play them “Death or Glory” by the Clash. This song has it all: an awesome guitar part, melodic bass lines, Topper Headon’s brilliantly textured drums, and some of Joe Strummer’s finest lyrics. The second verse is particularly instructive: “Every gimmick-hungry yob/ digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll/ grabs the mic to tell us/ he’ll die before he’s sold/ but I believe in this/ and it’s been tested by research/ he who fucks nuns/ will later join the church.” Nothing rocks like this song rocks. Nothing.

That’s it. Get out there and rock, revelers. Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer! And another toast to St. Jim Carroll and one to St. Joey Ramone. While you’re at it, raise a toast to Jello Biafra and Karen O. and every other awesome musician who is gracing your Rocktoberfest play list. And remember the wisdom of Mr. James Murphy: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.”

To sum up: These songs kick ass. These songs kick slightly more ass. These songs kick still more ass. These songs songs kick more ass than that. These songs kick ass and Henry Rollins is awesome. These songs kick ass but are just a minor threat. These songs kick ass and have pianos filled with flames. These songs, much like the Flaming Lips, kick ass. And Tom Waits is awesome.