TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1992

TOP TEN

Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His project “A Corpse in Your Mouth” is published in the Fall 1991 number of South Atlantic Quaterly.

  1. Fastbacks

    The Answer Is You (Sub Pop double 45); In America (Lost & Found CD, IM Moore 8, 3000 Hanover 1, Germany, recorded 1988); . . . and his Orchestra/Everyday Is Saturday/Play Five of Their Favorites (Popllama CD reissue, 1987, 1984, 1982). Seattle’s Fastbacks must be the most time-defying band in the world. Their very first, 1981 recordings (available on the hard-to-find LP never fails, never works, Blaster! Records, 3 Dove Lane, Bristol BS2 9HP, UK) represented their only real brush with fame—the drummer was Duff McKagan, now bassist in Guns N’ Roses. From then to now the Fastbacks have hammered at the door of an imaginary audience, the millions who could care less about their heart-on-their-sleeve punk, as if it were most of all the fact that the door is locked that keeps them talking. Their sound—Kim Warnick’s eager, no-range vocals set against Kurt Bloch’s sometimes raging, sometimes questioning guitar—has never changed, or even exactly improved. They can still play as if the notion had just occurred to them, and there are small, perfectly realized tunes—on the radio, odd ambushes of anyone’s pop expectations—scattered all across their decade.

    The four songs on The Answer Is You, though, might be their most free-swinging—one great, self-sustaining, all-night argument, with flashbacks of the Buzzcocks in “Impatience” and of the Safaris’ gentle 1960 “Image of a Girl” in “Above the Sunrise.” . . . and his Orchestra is the band’s best album. In America is live (“Thanks for staying,” Warnick ends it, without attitude)—and proof that, six years after, the title number was still one of Their Favorites.

    The song “In America” sums up the warmth and the fear that seem to lurk behind the Fastbacks’ music. It opens hard, like a Sex Pistols outtake; in Warnick’s voice is the permission to speak that punk gave to everyone who couldn’t sing. But the theme is a big one, what someone thinking seriously for the first time in her life might think about: whether the country is too much of a lie to take. The answer is that the lie will kill you only if you let it. “Who said the government’s on your side?,” Warnick snaps—and the liberation in that line, the exile and the isolation, so much given up and so much claimed, is more than most bands will ever think of wanting.

  2. Fastbacks

    The Answer Is You (Sub Pop double 45); In America (Lost & Found CD, IM Moore 8, 3000 Hanover 1, Germany, recorded 1988); . . . and his Orchestra/Everyday Is Saturday/Play Five of Their Favorites (Popllama CD reissue, 1987, 1984, 1982). Seattle’s Fastbacks must be the most time-defying band in the world. Their very first, 1981 recordings (available on the hard-to-find LP never fails, never works, Blaster! Records, 3 Dove Lane, Bristol BS2 9HP, UK) represented their only real brush with fame—the drummer was Duff McKagan, now bassist in Guns N’ Roses. From then to now the Fastbacks have hammered at the door of an imaginary audience, the millions who could care less about their heart-on-their-sleeve punk, as if it were most of all the fact that the door is locked that keeps them talking. Their sound—Kim Warnick’s eager, no-range vocals set against Kurt Bloch’s sometimes raging, sometimes questioning guitar—has never changed, or even exactly improved. They can still play as if the notion had just occurred to them, and there are small, perfectly realized tunes—on the radio, odd ambushes of anyone’s pop expectations—scattered all across their decade.

    The four songs on The Answer Is You, though, might be their most free-swinging—one great, self-sustaining, all-night argument, with flashbacks of the Buzzcocks in “Impatience” and of the Safaris’ gentle 1960 “Image of a Girl” in “Above the Sunrise.” . . . and his Orchestra is the band’s best album. In America is live (“Thanks for staying,” Warnick ends it, without attitude)—and proof that, six years after, the title number was still one of Their Favorites.

    The song “In America” sums up the warmth and the fear that seem to lurk behind the Fastbacks’ music. It opens hard, like a Sex Pistols outtake; in Warnick’s voice is the permission to speak that punk gave to everyone who couldn’t sing. But the theme is a big one, what someone thinking seriously for the first time in her life might think about: whether the country is too much of a lie to take. The answer is that the lie will kill you only if you let it. “Who said the government’s on your side?,” Warnick snaps—and the liberation in that line, the exile and the isolation, so much given up and so much claimed, is more than most bands will ever think of wanting.

  3. Fastbacks

    The Answer Is You (Sub Pop double 45); In America (Lost & Found CD, IM Moore 8, 3000 Hanover 1, Germany, recorded 1988); . . . and his Orchestra/Everyday Is Saturday/Play Five of Their Favorites (Popllama CD reissue, 1987, 1984, 1982). Seattle’s Fastbacks must be the most time-defying band in the world. Their very first, 1981 recordings (available on the hard-to-find LP never fails, never works, Blaster! Records, 3 Dove Lane, Bristol BS2 9HP, UK) represented their only real brush with fame—the drummer was Duff McKagan, now bassist in Guns N’ Roses. From then to now the Fastbacks have hammered at the door of an imaginary audience, the millions who could care less about their heart-on-their-sleeve punk, as if it were most of all the fact that the door is locked that keeps them talking. Their sound—Kim Warnick’s eager, no-range vocals set against Kurt Bloch’s sometimes raging, sometimes questioning guitar—has never changed, or even exactly improved. They can still play as if the notion had just occurred to them, and there are small, perfectly realized tunes—on the radio, odd ambushes of anyone’s pop expectations—scattered all across their decade.

    The four songs on The Answer Is You, though, might be their most free-swinging—one great, self-sustaining, all-night argument, with flashbacks of the Buzzcocks in “Impatience” and of the Safaris’ gentle 1960 “Image of a Girl” in “Above the Sunrise.” . . . and his Orchestra is the band’s best album. In America is live (“Thanks for staying,” Warnick ends it, without attitude)—and proof that, six years after, the title number was still one of Their Favorites.

    The song “In America” sums up the warmth and the fear that seem to lurk behind the Fastbacks’ music. It opens hard, like a Sex Pistols outtake; in Warnick’s voice is the permission to speak that punk gave to everyone who couldn’t sing. But the theme is a big one, what someone thinking seriously for the first time in her life might think about: whether the country is too much of a lie to take. The answer is that the lie will kill you only if you let it. “Who said the government’s on your side?,” Warnick snaps—and the liberation in that line, the exile and the isolation, so much given up and so much claimed, is more than most bands will ever think of wanting.

  4. Půlnoc

    City of Hysteria (Arista). Led by Milan Hlavsa of the Plastic People of the Universe, from which Půlnoc derives, this Czech band making its major-label debut has more than 20 years of persecution and fandom behind it, and, as Vaclav Havel says in the sleeve notes, something more. The secret of the Plastic People, Havel wrote in 1984, had to do with “a certain, specific experience of the world that has been formed here by history not just over decades, but over the centuries, a spiritual and emotional atmosphere that belongs to this place and no other.” You can hear hints of that on what at first seems mostly a lively, aggressive piece of ’60s-rooted art rock that suggests Eric Ambler’s pre-WWII Central European espionage thrillers as distantly as it does the prayers of pre-Christian religion, or the guitar break in Christie’s 1970 “Yellow River” as precisely as it does the light touch of Merrilee Rush’s 1968 “Angel of the Morning.” Repetition, pushed hard for truths it will give up only after one more time, underpins a sound where the instrumental doo-wop intro to “City of Hysteria” (“city of history,” singer Michaela Nemcová seems to make it) is as right as the jerky, trailing beat of “End of the World.” The group’s style is altogether its own, and also plainly unfinished; most of the faces in this band are lined and puffy, their eyes have too much knowledge in them, but still they’re just starting. As for Havel’s insistence that “encoded” in the music of the Plastic People is “an important warning...[from] a place where the knots of history are tied and unraveled” (that really has to be an epigraph for the next reissue of Ambler’s Background to Danger), such praise for a dead band is now the treasure a living band could spend the next 20 years seeking.

  5. Nancy Savoca

    director: Dogfight (Warner Bros.). This modest, very believable film about a young soldier (River Phoenix) and the folksinger-worshiping “dog” (Lili Taylor) he meets the night before shipping out for Vietnam (November 21, 1963) uses a lot of period music, but it comes off the screen with its conventional signifiers reversed. Joan Baez’s pristine rendition of the ancient ballad “Silver Dagger” now communicates, or fails to communicate, the way bad pop is supposed to—it’s brittle, self-conscious, and completely timebound. But Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights” and other putatively disposable commodities seem like events—chants of flesh, will, and endless echo.

  6. Bob Marley and the Wailers

    One Love at Studio One (Heartbeat reissue, 1963–71). The rude-boyska-beat Wailers, back when Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer (now the only one not dead) lived from disk to disk. It’s a thrill to hear their first, not because “Simmer Down” is a classic but because it’s so inescapably a smash (this song can’t wait to get released and be a hit). The group covers everyone in sight (Dion and the Belmonts, Jimmy Clanton, Junior Walker, the Beatles) in quest of the same success, then stumbles into Bob Dylan’s “ Like A Rolling Stone.” Bunny Wailer sings a quiet, mournful lead; the opening beat is textbook “Louie Louie”; the chorus remains as Dylan wrote it; the verses are new, Old Testament imagery Dylan would have used if he’d thought of it: “Time like a scorpion/Stings without warning.” Oh, this is so good.

  7. Strawberry

    Smash-Up—Story of a woman (Endless Music CD, P.O. Box 647, Los Angeles, CA 90078). Bits of monologue orchestrated out of a song or two and a lot of bad-dream electronics (the musician goes by Ursula, the producer by My Sin) finally take over in Strawberry’s long account of incest, prostitution, heroin, cocaine, living homeless in a cemetery, and epiphany (“I knew I couldn’t fuck another man for money”). Every line of the tale is affectless, unimpressed with its own pathos—on Oprah or Geraldo this wouldn’t do at all—and somehow validated by the soul Strawberry puts into the first cut of the set, a simple version of George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

  8. Neil Young and Crazy Horse

    Arc (Reprise). The two Weld CDs make a conventional live album, mostly redundant footnotes to songs prv. rl. Advertised as a random collage of onstage feedback, Arc seems almost composed, and sadistically so: a giant body of noise that for 35 minutes edges toward release and then gets distracted.

  9. John Heileman

    “Rouble without a Cause,” in The Modern Review (Autumn 1991 , UK). “It is past midnight, 20 August, and Boris Yeltsin is hunkered down in the bowels of the Russian White House in Moscow. Outside, several hundred members of the resistance militia man the hastily assembled barricades. Three of them will die later in the night. In his sanctuary, Yeltsin sits alone, pondering the possibility that time, for him, is running out. . . . He puts on ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’”

    Think about it. Here is this man, at the crossroads of history, and he wants to know what Elvis Presley has to say about it. This is what he has to say about it: “You know, someone said, the world’s a stage, and each must play a part. . . .” Is that what Yeltsin was listening for? Or was it the high-lonesome catch in Elvis’ voice as he traced the verses like a man running his fingers over the pages of an old book, over words that no longer make sense?

  10. Phil Spector

    Back to Mono (1958–69) (ABKCO 4-CD box). Girl groups, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Christmas album, lost treasures from Love’s “Strange Love” to the Ronette’s “Paradise,” the legacy—and, even “mastered in analog,” as it says here (with the information still stored and transmitted digitally), not the real thing, not even close. Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” Marshall Lieb, the producer’s first collaborator, once said, “was more air than sound,” and there’s no air here. What’s left is self-evidently a replica of a sound, a sheen without lungs or sweat: pinched, cold, not human.

    Don’t go near it. Look for the out-of-print LPs, especially the U.K. Rare Masters series; look for the singles, or wait for the vinyl bootlegs. “The mind has been tricked, but the heart is sad,” Neil Young recently said of digital reissues. “ It doesn’t know why it can’t feel the music.”