Sobriquet 91.4: Playlist for "The Cellar," 3/5/13

Playlist Theme: Punk Rock's Engagement With the Theme of Crime

The Playlist and Transcript:

Segment One

1. X, "Johny Hit and Run Pauline" (2:51). Los Angeles

That was X, with Johny Hit and Run Paulene," from their album, Los Angeles. I'm Erik Grayson and you're listening to The Cellar -- Northeast Iowa's destination for classic and contemporary punk rock and hardcore right here on KPVL 89.1 FM: The Blend, Postville and Decorah.

The theme for today's show is crime. Now, in contrast with previous shows where I've generally kept my blathering to a minimum, I'll be chiming in quite a few times this afternoon, largely because I think that punk's engagement with crime is a complex one, and one that demands discussion..

The first song I played for you this evening, X's "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," for example, is a troubling song that depicts a man--dubbed Johnny--using drugs to subdue and rape a series of women he calls "Paulenes." The song's tempo and jaunty guitar riff, of course, stand in stark contrast to the lyrics' subject matter. And this juxtoposition, therefore, endows the track with even more meaning. The song's rhythm, for instance, recalls earlier recordings such as Chuck Berry's "Carol" or "Little Queenie," which valorize the male libido. Thus, by reminding listeners of the male sex drive's prominent place in rock and roll while presenting a horrifying scenario in which serial rape is performed, X brings rock and roll's entire tradition of machismo into question.

The next song I'll be playing for you this afternoon comes from Social Distortion. For those of you that have been fans of Social Distortion for some time, it should come as no surprise to hear that many of the band's songs deal with crime in one way or another. Lead singer Mike Ness, a former heroin addict, writes eloquently of the regret addicts often feel later in life, after they realize how their drug habits had led them to prison or worse. The song I'll be playing next -- "Machine Gun Blues" -- however, is a more theatrical engagement with criminality. Here, Ness imagines himself in the position of a Great Depression-era gangster, borrowing tropes from popular depictions of snappily-dressed bootleggers in fiction and film to fashion an oddly nostalgic story of an outlaw on the lam. Then again, maybe it's not so odd. Nostalgia is, of course, a major component of the self-same regret Ness explores so often in his music.

And now, here's Social Distortion performing "Machine Gun Blues." Enjoy.

2. Social Distortion, Machine Gun Blues" (3:33). Machine Gun Blues Digital Single

Segment Two

Up next, we have Hüsker Dü's "Diane," from their Metal Circus EP.  In this track, the band's drummer and part-time vocalist Grant Hart imagines a man luring a young woman into his van so that he can rape and murder her. Disturbingly, the lyrics are delivered in the first-person, creating an uncomfortable sense of intimacy between the murderous sexual predator and the listener. The fact that the song alternates between the present tense and the future prevents the listener from discerning whether the scenario depicted in the song is a fantasy or a reality, unfolding as he or she listens. The result is a creepy sense of violation.

The song is significant in the canon of American punk for several reasons. First, it was a track that really put Hüsker Dü on the college radio map. Second, the thematic content helped open up the claustrophobic confines of American hardcore by moving away from angry sloganeering and into the realm of literary speculation.

Following Hüsker Dü, I'll be playing the Misfits' "Last Caress." Like Grant Hart, the Misfits' Glenn Danzig delivers the words of a criminal in the first-person. In bombastic fashion, the death-driven speaker in "Last Caress" boasts of killing a baby and raping the auditor's mother as he courts his own death. Choosing arguably two of the most abominable crimes one can imagine as the subject of their song, the Misfits are clearly trying to be noticed. As many of you no doubt know, the Lodi, New Jersey trio deliberately sought to create a shock the uninitiated with their lyrics. The Misfits, of course, were a gimmick. Kiss-like, they donned make-up and costumes and played the part of an evil band. A Misfits gig was confrontational theater and tracks like "Last Caress" were either a joke (for those in the know) or a terrifying sign of just how evil rock and roll could be (for those who didn't get what the band was about).

But for now, here's Minneapolis's immortal Hüsker Dü with "Diane." Enjoy.

3. Hüsker Dü, "Diane" (4:32). Metal Circus

4. The Misfits, "Last Caress" (2:02). Collection II

Segment Three

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And welcome back to The Cellar -- Northeast Iowa's destination for classic and contemporary punk rock and hardcore right here on KPVL 89.1 FM: The Blend, Postville and Decorah. For those of you just joining us, the theme for today's show is punk rock's engagement with the theme of crime.

Up next, we have The Clash performing "Somebody Got Murdered," a track in which a desperate speaker who has been so poor as to contemplate robbery speculates on a murder that may or may not have taken place in the city below. The existential realization that the nameless victim will go unremembered seems to disturb the speaker.

Following The Clash, I'll be playing The Offspring's "Hammerhead," which is one of the more interesting tracks to have come out of the scene in the last few years. Initially, the song, which is delivered in the first-person, sounds like it comes from the perspective of an American soldier who views the death that comes with (and results from) his job as part of a duty to protect his fellow citizens agains external threats. As the speaker patrols hostile territory, he spouts off what sound like the sort of patriotic slogans one might expect a soldier to have learned by rote: he "sacrifice[s] with [his] brothers in arms," there's the "authority vested in me" so that he may "take a life, that ten others will live." Using "reasonable force" to "stay the course," the soldier claims "I believe I serve a greater good." Most of the song follows this trajectory, with the speaker presenting himself as a self-sacrificing soldier protecting the innocent against the enemy--just the sort of rhetoric one might expect to hear during the height of America's Bush-era tensions with the Middle East.

Then, as if Rod Serling scripted it, there's a twist. The soldier, it turns out, is not a soldier at all. Rather, he is a school shooter and his "patriotic" thoughts are the hallucinatory delusions of a mass murderer on a rampage.

How does one interpret "Hammerhead"? Do the Offspring intend the listener to sympathize in some way with a mentally ill individual as he embarks on a mission of unspeakable horror? Do they intend for us, rather, to think of statements of blind patriotism as the same sort of self-serving delusion an insane person might use to justify an evil act? The song's ambiguous meaning is its strength and listeners are left asking some difficult questions.

But for now, here's my beloved Clash with "Somebody Got Murdered." Enjoy.

5. The Clash, "Somebody Got Murdered" (3:36). Sandinista! 

6. The Offspring, "Hammerhead" (4:38). Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace

Segment Four

Coming up next, I'll be playing Black Flag's "Drinking and Driving" and the Ramones' "53rd & 3rd." In the former, Henry Rollins presents us with the image of an alcoholic who    always has an excuse ready to explain away his addiction. All the standard claims are present: he can quit anytime that he wants, he's a victim of his own circumstances and cannot be blamed for his habit, the mistreatment at the hands of his friends has led him to drink, he believes his behavior is cool, and vocational stress leads him to get drunk every evening. We've all heard these excuses, either in our own lives or on television, of course, and that's precisely what Black Flag is going for. The expected nature of the excuses strengthens the song's sense of inevitability. The man drinks, drives, kills a friend, and seriously injures himself. The party scene, for Black Flag, is a dead end and the song is anything but sympathetic to the excuse-maker. That's punk rock holding a mirror to the world and daring it to look at itself.

In "53rd & 3rd," Dee Dee Ramone draws on his own experience as a junkie turning to hustling for a means of supporting an expensive heroin addiction. The speaker of the song is an unidentified man who, after having had sex with a number of men, begins to feel insecure about his sexual identity and uses a razor blade to "[do] what God forbade" in order "prove that [he's] no sissy." The tragedy in the song is great, and the questions it raises about drug addiction and sexual identity are worthwhile contributions to conversations that remain at the forefront of American discourse to the present.

But for now, here's Black Flag with "Drinking and Driving."

7. Black Flag, "Drinking and Driving" (3:24). In My Head

8. Ramones, "53rd & 3rd" (2:21). Ramones

Segment Five

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Up next I'll be playing the Dead Kennedys' "Stealing People's Mail," a curious little ditty about a group of strange miscreants who entertain themselves by stealing and reading strangers' mail. In contrast with the "us" of which the speaker counts him- or herself, there's a "them" that spends Friday nights partying, watching sporting events, clubbing, and cruising down the main drags of the town. The mail thieves realize that their behavior is regarded as crazy by the normal people, but they continue stealing mail because it provides them with endless entertainment as they laugh at the "license plates, wedding gifts, tax returns, / Checks to politicians from real estate firms, / Money, bills and cancelled checks." In other words, as they laugh at the bureaucratic, financial, and familial concerns that consume the lives of the normal folks. Crime, here, is a means of exposing the metanarratives that dominate most lives. The song ends with the suggestion that, should the thieves get caught, they will end up "drugged and shocked" in an institution until they become born-again Christians, thereby extending the critique to include the mental health industry and religion.

The next song I'll spin for you is "Hockeynite," by Ontario's Forgotten Rebels. A song about a pedophile nicknamed "Dirty Daddy," "Hockeynite" is also an incredibly catchy, hook-laden song that just begs you to sing along. The dissonance caused by the lighthearted sing-along sound of the track when juxtaposed with the decidedly disgusting sexual abuse of a child works the way any good black humor should work: it encourages you to laugh and, when you realize that you're laughing at something that isn't funny, it forces you to ask yourself why you laughed in the first place.

But for now, here's the Dead Kennedys with "Stealing People's Mail." Enjoy.

9. Dead Kennedys, "Stealing People's Mail" (1:33). Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

10. Forgotten Rebels, "Hockeynite" (2:06). Nobody's Hero's

Segment Six

Up next, we'll be listening to Whole Wheat Bread's "Police Song," which depicts police harassment of punk fans waiting to attend a concert. Following Whole Wheat Bread, I'll be playing "122 Hours of Fear," by The Screamers. In this song, the Screamers reference Lufthansa Flight 181, which was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on the 13th of October, 1977. Control of the flight, which was scheduled to transport 86 passengers from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt, was wrested from the pilots over Marseilles and redirected first to Rome, then Cyprus, Dubai, South Yemen, and finally Mogadishu, Somalia. All 86 passengers survived, but their terror inspired The Screamers.

For now, though, here's Whole Wheat Bread and "Police Song." Enjoy.

11. Whole Wheat Bread, "Police Song" (3:47). Minority Rules

12. The Screamers, "122 Hours of Fear" (3:47). In A Better World

Segment Seven

We're going to round up today's show with two more punk songs dealing with crime. The first, Tilt's "Unravel" presents listeners with a squalid city not unlike John Yossarian's Rome at the end of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 or the grimy, fog-filled urban landscape in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock." The speaker, whose words are delivered in Cinder Block's inimitable voice, calls the city "vindictive" and imagines a hitchhiker traveling home to murder his wife. She laments the ineffectuality of municipal emergency services and sees the woman bleeding to death on a dirty floor while waiting for help to arrive. The song ends with a sense of helplessness in the face of urban violence that recalls the scene Joe Strummer sings about in "Somebody Got Murdered."

The final track I'll be playing this afternoon is The Exploited's "Law and Order." The speaker, who admits that he is both high on amphetamines and drunk on alcohol, becomes the target of another man looking to start a fight. When the man interrupts the speaker as he flirts with a few women at the bar, the latter responds by smashing a bottle across the aggressor's face. The result of his actions, not surprisingly, is a trip to jail. He implies that the officers are abusive and matter-of-factly reflects on how, seemingly out of the blue, he has ended up in a concrete cell. There's an almost naturalistic quality to Wattie's lyrics here. The man does not lament his fate; he simply ends up in jail, as the result of a seemingly random encounter. Sometimes, The Exploited seem to suggest, crime just is.

For now, though, here's Tilt with "Unravel." Enjoy.

13. Tilt, "Unravel" (2:07). 'Til It Kills

14. The Exploited, "Law and Order" (2:52). Horror Epics

Segment Eight

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Until next week, then!

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