Friday, January 18, 2008

Why didn't I listen to Johnny Rotten?

The other day, I was killing time in St. Mark's Books, and looking for a book on Wagner in the music section. Not finding that, I pulled out a book called The Punk Rock Book of Lists to kill some time waiting for a friend. The book is uninteresting and stupid for a number of reasons I won't go into, but one caught my eye. It was a list Johnny Rotten (nĂ© Lydon) had given in a 1976 radio interview, of his 20 favorite songs, or of 20 songs that had influenced the Sex Pistols, something like that.

Okay, as a list it did not make me rethink my position on Johnny Rotten (a prick) or the Sex Pistols' influences (as the list really had little to do with their sound). But I thought, "My God, this list would be a perfect list of hipster tastes even today!" The list is basically: T. Rex, the Velvet Underground, some Krautrock, some reggae, some other glam, some absolute name-dropping. 

So here are several possible directions I could take, apropos this description so far:
*What did it mean for the early punks to be much more interested in dub and krautrock than in the obvious precursors to their sound? (or to claim to be so)
*How is it that in 30 years, this list has not aged *at all*: someone with this taste today would still be far out front.
*How is it that I did not ever, in the throes of my Sex Pistols fandom, wonder what Johnny Rotten listened to, and then explore that? Instead of listening to Can and Junior Murvin, I took the Sex Pistols and ran towards boring things like MDC and TSOL. 

Obviously the question about myself holds the most interest.  As a huge fan of the Sex Pistols, I naturally got into The Clash, The Damned, the Ramones--and also their immediate predecessors, the Stooges, the MC5. But would I at all have been receptive to being told that Johnny Rotten really listened to reggae and krautrock? And why not?

For me, reggae meant two things to me when I was 15--either Bob Marley or some kind of ska. Both were for losers, Bob Marley's "Legend" being a kind of perennial pothead jam, and ska then enjoying a white revival. Certainly I knew (from the Clash) that early punks were reggae fans, but in my mind, that had to be a mistake. They couldn't be serious. 

More depressingly, my development of taste in music, which I have worked very hard upon, in a way has been contained by what my favorite band (when I was 15) *already knew*. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, a shortcut was available for me the whole time, and I was always more or less ignoring that knowledge while circling around towards it. It's enough to take one down a notch in being self-impressed. 

Of course, not only would I have not understood Krautrock (which I still am not crazy about) when I was 15, but I'm not sure that it would have gotten me anywhere. The young always fall prey to the boring. For instance, I *liked* the Birthday Party always, but I *loved* Sleater-Kinney. With Krautrock, it would have been the same, and if I had followed Johnny Rotten's tastes into Can, I probably would still have come out listening to something boring and more juvenile, like indie rock. Probably it is inevitable that we have bad taste first: that we will reject any help, fall into boring traps, and not even understand our final destination when it appears to us as a shortcut.  So, to the question, "mightn't it have been possible for me to like cool music when I was 15, if only I had followed the advice of my then-favorite band?"--the answer is almost certainly "no." No one can like good music when they are 15.


sing_o_muse said...

Nicely put kicker, that. I'd add that _if_ I did like good music when I was 15, I surely liked it for dumb reasons or strictly by chance.

Re the Johnny Rotten list, here it is, condensed from the John Lydon website (fodderstompf):

Tim Buckley - Sweet Surrender (taken from: Greetings From LA, 1972)

The Creation - Through My Eyes (b-side: Life Is Just Beginning single, 1967)

David Bowie - Rebel Rebel (single, 1974)

Unknown Irish Folk Music / Jig

Augustus Pablo - King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown (single, 1976)

Gary Glitter - Doing Alright With The Boys (single, 1975)

Fred Locks - Walls (taken from: Black Star Liner, 1976)

Vivian Jackson and the Prophets - Yabby You (Fire in a Kingston single, 1976)

Culture - I'm Not Ashamed (single, 1977)

Dr Alimantado & The Rebels - Born For A Purpose (single, 1977)

Bobby Byrd - Back From The Dead (single, 1974)

Neil Young - Revolution Blues (taken from: On the Beach, 1974)

Lou Reed - Men Of Good Fortune (taken from: Berlin, 1973)

Kevin Coyne - Eastbourne Ladies (taken from: Marjory Razorblade, 1973)

Peter Hammill - The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning (taken from: Nadir's Big Chance, 1975)

Peter Hammill - Nobody's Business (taken from: Nadir's Big Chance, 1975)

Makka Bees - Nation Fiddler / Fire! (single, 1977)

Captain Beefheart - The Blimp (taken from: Trout Mask Replica, 1969)

Nico - Janitor Of Lunacy (taken from: Desertshore, 1970)

Ken Boothe - Is It Because I'm Black (taken from: Let's Get It On, 1973)

John Cale - Legs Larry At Television Centre (taken from: Academy in Peril, 1972)

Third Ear Band - Fleance (taken from: Music from Macbeth, 1972)

Can - Halleluhwah (taken from: Tago Mago, 1971) - Rotten

Peter Tosh - Legalise It (taken from: Legalise It, 1976)

- Johnny Rotten on the Tommy Vance Show, July 16th 1977

condensed list from Fodderstompf transcript

Ashley Pomeroy said...

I was just reading the reader responses to George Starostin's review of "Trout Mask Replica", and one of the replies mentions that he heard Johnny Rotten playing "The Blimp" on a radio programme at the height of the Sex Pistols' imfamy. And it must have been this program, because it's the first Google return for "Johnny rotten trout mask replica". Spooky. I wonder who else heard the programme, and had their ears opened?