Vinyl Memories #2 – James White and the Blacks – Off White (1978) & James Chance and the Contortions – Buy Contortions (1979)

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Punk’s year zero clarion call seemed increasingly empty as the UK lurched towards 1979’s winter of discontent. The music that had once seemed so brave had become reduced to a standardized three-chord stereotype by a generation of young punks seemingly content to remain ever the same.

Suddenly, over the grey horizon emerged a fresh, progressive musical approach in which all genres were ransacked in the same way that the Sex Pistols had attacked the back catalogue of The Who. This new era, which has become known as post punk in the years since, encouraged artists to think beyond restrictive structures. As a result the previously untouchable, hallowed ground of jazz became as open to plunder and redress as dub, reggae, funk, musique concrete and the avant-garde. Suddenly everything was punk.

Post-punk wasn’t about smashing the originals so much as it was a celebration of the source and stretch towards the unknown, realized through the creativity of a cut and paste genre fusion that reordered art’s sacred cows. Where punk might have declared ‘here’s three chords, now form a band’ post-punk screamed ‘here’s a load of genres, now form a universe’. And it touched art as much as music.

James Chance came to earth from the New York loft jazz scene of Manhattan where he created a mélange of James Brown, Charlie Parker and Throbbing Gristle that would become known as a part of New York’s No Wave.

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Off White and Buy Contortions are essentially two inseparable sides of the same coin. Released within months of each other, the albums offer the perfect snapshot of the No Wave scene’s duel obsessions – punk and disco. In many ways they represented No Wave’s answer to Parliament and Funkadelic – same band, but with different ambitions. Parliament was the disco band, Funkadelic the funk band with a rock edge. Each identity aimed to question essentialist assumptions about black music.

Off White was James Chance’s mutant disco album. Buy Contortions was his punk funk set. Each attempted to redress essentialist notions of what a white rock and roll band was supposed to be like.

Easy listening it was not. Discordant guitars strangled hyperactive basslines. Edgy rhythms played counterpoint to squealing freeform sax as Chance (aka White) rinsed the ghosts from Charlie Parker’s be bop body. His vocals doing a similar number on James Brown’s on-the-one barking commands. “Contort yourself one time” yelped Chance… and we did.

I bought Off White from Scorpion Records in High Wycombe. It had a ‘promo only’ sticker on it, which explained why the shop had it stocked weeks before its release. At the time I didn’t know too much about No Wave. I’d read about Brian Eno’s compilation of what he considered to be the four best bands of the scene; James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Mars. But this isn’t what made me buy the album. Quite simply it was the cover art, which seemed like trailer trash Frank Sinatra – high style, low class. To me this was punk and I lapped it up. I’d already dropped the torn up bondage gear in favour of what I thought was a sharp suit (in retrospect it wasn’t). Doc Martens, Sex t-shirts and bedraggled hair remained in place. It was the Johnny Lydon effect. So when I saw James White’s punked up lounge lizard garb it already felt like a part of me and still does to this day.

Through the trash glam meets 50’s nostalgia of the covers, these two albums paved the way for the early 80s embrace of artifice as authenticity like few others. And despite their obvious influences, these two inseparable Siamese albums sound like no one else before… or since.

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Vinyl Memories #1 – Sex Pistols ‘Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols’

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The first band I ever saw was Pink Floyd. I was bored.

A few days later I first heard the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’. I was enthralled.

In those few moments my life was changed forever. I went home, took in my flared jeans, ripped up my t-shirt, cut my hair shorter, swapped my platform shoes for baseball boots and declared myself a punk rocker. My parents were… disappointed.

So what was it that captured my imagination with such passion? The thrill seeking, breakneck speed, three-minute songs with snarling vocals was certainly part of the appeal. The outrageously attired band and fans was definitely another. The combination of horror and disgust among older music fans was also an important attraction. But the main thing was that this felt… real. Where Pink Floyd seemed arrogant and distant, the Sex Pistols was close up, in your face and about as personal as music could get. This was ours.

It’s surely every teenagers right to consider their music to represent the defining moment of their lives. Punk was our rock’n’roll, our prog rock, our glam rock – only it was better than any of the dinosaurs that had gone before. Put simply 1976 was my year zero and punk became my defining youth moment, and as soon as it had touched me my Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Todd Rundgren albums were shoved to the back of the cupboard and gradually replaced by wonderful slices of 7″ vinyl by the likes of The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, Eater, The Buzzcocks, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Penetration and The Adverts.

But no one seemed quite so relevant, quite so threatening to me as a 14 year old boy as the Sex Pistols. For a brief moment they felt like the most dangerous band on the planet. Singles like ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the later ‘God Save the Queen’ were pure outsider uproar with Jamie Ried’s cut and paste sleeve-art designed to challenge society’s sacred cows as much as the music did.

When my dad, an otherwise level headed, intelligent man, saw the band swear on national TV he declared that he would smash any records by this filth if I ever brought them into his house. So I hid my Sex Pistols records under my bed, in a space marked ‘my generation’. Such was his hatred of the band I think he’d have preferred me to keep a collection of porn there.

But the Sex Pistols felt like porn. They felt forbidden. And when the album came out in 1977 that generation divide seemed to gape like the Grand Canyon. An aching chasm between what once was and the here and now. Shopkeepers were taken to court for displaying the album cover. Woolworths, Boots and WH Smiths refused to stock it. TV and radio adverts for it were banned. Red top papers wanted to ban it. Every upstanding citizen had an opinion on it. It was surely a work of some evil.

And what was it that upset people so much? Was it the challenging lyrics about women taking control of their own bodies, chaos replacing order, the monarchy deposed, contractual rape or cultural tourism? What did you think Johnny Rotten was singing about; punch ups in the streets? No it was the sleeve that brought the nation’s finest citizens to the letters page of the Daily Mail. To be more exact, it was that word stenciled large… bollocks.

A simple, seemingly dumb image of cut-up newsprint and stenciled letters over fluorescent yellow backing (pink on the back), Jamie Reid’s sleeve-art looked like a ransom note. And in those few words the Sex Pistols debut album seemed to declare that popular culture had been taken hostage and it could never be the same again. There was no future… and England’s dreaming.

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Ironically Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols also represented the end of the punk dream. The album and band were now part of everyone’s lives, the focus of everyman’s conversation. Sex Pistols was as mainstream in the nation’s cultural consciousness as Shaking Stevens and as the album sleeve moved from under that bed and into the cultural mainstream suddenly it didn’t feel like ours anymore.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” asked Johnny Rotten from the stage of the band’s final gig only eighteen months after they’d first emerged. The answer seemed like a resounding ‘Yes!’ but that short journey from Pink Floyd to Never Mind the Bollocks lit a spark in me that would never die. And there was a future after all.

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