Sep 042012

What are you laughing at, punk?

True Confession #1: Until last week I never owned The Minutemen‘s legendary Double Nickles on the Dime. For what it’s worth I own another Minutemen album, but it’s not the same. Over the last 5 years I have purchased a few of my favorite tracks from that album, but I’ve always felt guilty about not owning their entire double-album masterpiece. I know, I bought a digital download of a record that was meant to be enjoyed in its vinyl gatefold glory. At least I’m finally digging this album all the way through for its incredibly fluid, aggressive playing and—yes—integrity. I will no longer have to quietly step out of the room whenever a lovefest for the album breaks out among close personal friends such as machinery and hrrundivbakshi.

True Confession #2: I cannot tell a joke to save my life. A traditional joke with a punchline, that is—I don’t want anyone getting the idea that I’m not otherwise incredibly funny. My inability to pick up the traditional joke-telling tradition has affected my ability to enjoy music that is constructed in what I believe is a punchline-based format.

Hearing the music of Frank Zappa was probably my first exposure to this style of song construction. There used to be an advertisement for either the Apostrophe album or a coming Zappa tour on one of Philadelphia’s FM stations that featured that bit about not eating the yellow snow. There was some other excerpt about moving to Montana. Yuck, yuck, for sure, but those sort of lyrics were so far removed from what I’d been listening to! I ended up buying Apostrophe a few years later (actually I stole it, as part of the wild 70-album heist that a college friend’s old high school friend let us pull off in the suburban mall record store he managed), confirming for myself how foreign those snippets of lyrics first sounded on that radio spot. I got Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica the same night I acquired the Zappa album. Beefheart pulled that trick as well, but his punchlines were usually completely absurd and delivered in a less self-conscious, ain’t-I-funny tone than what Zappa used. Beefheart and his crew struck me as truly weird.

American punk bands out of the loosely knit “hardcore” scene must have included a lot of Zappa and Mad magazine-loving jokesters. Their songs were loaded with punchlines, where the band would stop playing and the lead singer would utter some sardonic or self-deprecating quip. I’m going to depend on you, readers, to list your favorite punchlines from that scene and others. That stuff is still too foreign and uncomfortable to me to contemplate further than I already have. The practice itself, mind you, is not uncomfortable. My sense of discomfort derives from the shame I harbor over my inability to deliver a punchline.

[audio:|titles=The Minutemen “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing”]

The floor is open, should you choose to fill it, with your thoughts on rock ‘n roll punchlines. What are the most memorable ones that come to mind? The best? The flops? What are rock’s earliest examples of this practice of songwriting?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Jul 192011

Et tu, Eddie?

Has any rocker ever made music of merit wearing a sleeveless shirt? Not while making music bare-chested or wearing a tank top, not bare-chested under a vest, but specifically making music while wearing a sleeveless shirt.

If you’ve clicked these opening links you’ll see that U2 drummer Larry Mullen has been known to wear the sleeveless shirt. I’ll grant that an argument can be made that U2 made some music of merit while Mullen donned such a gun-bearing fashion atrocity, but he’s a drummer. In past style pieces on Rock Town Hall, drummers have gotten a pass for all sorts of questionable fashion choices, including performing in barefeet and wearing shorts. We make some allowances for rock’s driving forces based on matters of comfort. For the purposes of this survey, we’ll give sleeveless drummers a pass. Beside, I want no part of George Hurley.

Granted, as a guy who’s never expressed his vanity through his forearms (as if I could), the whole sleeveless shirt thing mystifies me. It’s to be expected that the poster boy of Rock Town Hall’s Unfulfilled Fashion Ideas series, Alan Vega, would go sleeveless, but the style would spread to some of the coolest of the cool. How much comfort does a man need to be a rock legend? How much do we really need to know about him? Sure, sometimes even the President of the United States has to stand naked, but did Bob Dylan really need to play sleeveless?

Sleeveless shirt, leather pants, two pairs of shorts...Jerry wins this battle of Best Stage Look!

I don’t know when the sleeveless shirt craze took over, but do a search on a number of rock artists with the date “1985” following their name and I’d bet you can come up with as many shots of them sleeveless as I just did with Dylan. (BTW, I didn’t realize he was into the Bare-Chested Vest Look as early as the mid-’70s, for that Renaldo and Clare movie.) You don’t believe me? Try these:

Strummer, for all his late-period Clash fashion faux pas shouldn’t surprise me, but seeing him in sleeveless shirts still hurts. Make it stop already!

Even a search on Rock Town Hall’s patron saint of mediocrity, “Bob Seger 1985,” turns up this. I pray that’s a bare-chested hippie vest shot and not what it seems.

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