Written by 5:17 am Audiophile Music

Proto Punk Prequels : NY to UK

Mark Smotroff spins some rock ‘n roll love letters from 1976…


When I began collecting records in earnest back in the mid-late 1970s, there were many records common to the bargain bins which you saw everywhere you went shopping for music.  Near ubiquitous were albums by Badfinger (Ass, Magic Christian Music, No Dice), Elton John (Friends), Nektar (Recycled, Remember the Future) and many others. They weren’t bad albums — some were downright great! But for whatever reason, too many copies were made and the albums ended up in the overstock discount bins selling for  $1.99 or less.  

Many of those albums are now collectors items!

AR-JoeStrummer101ers225.jpgOne of the early punk flavored albums I remember seeing regularly in the bargain bins was called simply 1976 Max’s Kansas City. It had a black and white cover and listed a whole bunch of bands which at the time I had not heard of before; hey, I was a kid from NJ listening to Bruce, Billy, Yes and Zappa mostly at that time, eventually getting on the New Wave bandwagon with Elvis Costello the gang at Stiff Records [Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Rockpile, Wreckless Eric, etc.].  Featured on this album were names I would soon learn about once I got to college:  Pere Ubu, Wayne County, Suicide. Still, for some reason I can’t explain I never felt compelled to pick up the album. There was no Talking Heads or Television there… No Blondie… No New York Dolls even…  

My bad.  I should have checked it out.

Nowadays you hardly ever come across this album which documents the early music scene there at that very important club called Max’s Kansas City, by the bands that were part of the backbone of the club, bands that never quite got as big as those other bands I just mentioned in the prior paragraph. For perspective, next to CBGBs, Max’s was the other key breeding ground for all things punk and eventually new wave.  

Recently I read a book about a bunch of the bands from this period, groups which sort of fell between the cracks. The book had a whole chapter on The Fast which sounded like a band I should be checking out — and they were on that Max’s Kansas City cut out album! They were supposed to be the band most likely to break out of the NY scene at the time and tragically didn’t really get that chance (it’s a long story, but do read this book called Flying Saucers Rock ‘n Roll for more on that group as well as fave underdog rockers The Good Rats, another great NY band who should have been huge). 

So when the PR people behind a new reissue of 1976 Max’s Kansas City — now titled Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond  contacted me about a potential review, I jumped at the opportunity if only to hear what The Fast actually sounded like. Some of you who have been following my reviews know that I don’t automatically go searching YouTube or Spotify for things like this, and I admit to being a little old school that way but for good reason:  I want my first listen to new music to be in the best possible sound and hearing music compromised by a potentially crummy MP3 file isn’t going to do it for me.  I generally won’t do a review off a stream or an MP3 for that reason.

But, I digress….

AR-Maxs1976OriginalAlbumCover225.jpgAnyhow… the second track on Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond  is in fact by the aforementioned band The Fast and it is a fab stick of bubble gummy power pop called “Boys Will Be Boys.” Their other little gem on the album — “Wow Pow Bash Crash” — sounds sort of like what might happen if Marc Bolan had been backed by The Stooges on a sugar high from too many M&Ms consumed before opening for The Bay City Rollers.

The opening track by Wayne County and The Back Street Boys — in effect, the album’s title track — is a “Sweet Jane” (Lou Reed) inspired pop audio documentary of that moment in time at the club, name-checking denizens like The NY Dolls and Blondie along the way. 

The real surprise for me when listening to Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond  is realizing just how poppy and melodic this album is — its not the sneering, snotty, simplistic thrash that came to signify for many what punk rock music was all about. This is actually some pretty compelling, innovative and fun music! “Harry Toledo” by Knots sounds like a cross between post-Morrison Doors and Judy Collins’ 1968 murder ballad electric take on the folk classic “Pretty Polly.” The two Suicide tracks here make me kick myself for not listening to them earlier — obviously a very influential pioneering prototype for the eventual electronic synth pop bands that would materialize in the late 70s and early 80s (drum machine, keyboards, vocals). Cherry Vanilla’s “Shake Your Ashes” sounds like a lost later period Patti Smith tune. 

AR-JoeStrummer101RedLPLabel225.jpgAll the recordings here actually sound real good too — these aren’t the kind of Lo Fi, tossed-off records many of us became accustomed to a couple years later from the indie punk scene (perhaps that was in fact one of the reasons I never took a chance on buying it… again, my bad). No, this album sounds pretty great as power pop and mid-70s rock recordings go. Especially since this is one of the early DIY albums of the era — perhaps the earliest! — produced by Peter Crowley. 

From the official press release, Jimi LaLumia (who is on the album backed by his band The Psychotic Frogs!) writes: “Max’s Kansas City 1976 as an expanded edition two record vinyl and double CD collection, celebrates the historic first compilation of recordings by bands that were making big noise in New York City, and, thanks to a hyper active UK music press, around the world in a pre internet, truly underground manner. Melody Maker, a British music weekly, was especially keen on the post Velvet Underground / New York Dolls / Alice Cooper / Iggy & The Stooges scene that was inspiring the most unusual creatures to want to be in bands.” 

 

]]>The new reissue from Jungle Records is pressed on lovely translucent red vinyl that is quiet and well centered. The only downside in this reissue is that some tracks from the original album were not available for this reissue — actually, I think it is just the one Pere Ubu song, “Final Solution,” that is missing so you’ll still have good reason to track down an original copy for your archives.  

AR-MaxsKansasCityReissuePlaying225.jpgBut worry not: the reissue producers more than made up for this with the inclusion of an entire second album of additional tracks including songs by The New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Nico, Iggy Pop and even Sid Vicious & The Idols.  “Heartbreaker” by The Knots is a kick ass tune!  Jimi Lalumia & The Psychotic Frogs’ “Death to Disco” may well be one of the earliest examples of the phrase “Disco Sucks” used in a pop song — that band, by the way, is also name-checked in Wayne County’s opening opus!  

Copious liner notes are included with the set by the set producer and Jimi LaLumia, details which I’m still perusing — there is clearly much to learn about this important crossroads in rock ‘n roll history from those who were there on the front lines. 

 Max’s Kansas City: 1976 & Beyond  is a very cool and essential collection. If you are interested in connecting the dots and understanding how pop music got from glam and prog rock to punk and new wave, this is one of the albums you need to check out. My only real disappointment is that this set didn’t come with a download so I can take this in the car with me but, y’know, I can always get the CD to play as it has 40 tracks on it (vs. the 25 on the new two LP set — the original single LP had 10 tracks on it). Heck…. who knows… maybe I’ll make a cassette of the vinyl and transfer that to digital for the car. Just because….

Meanwhile… while all this was going on in NYC… over in merry olde England a lad who-would-soon-be-famous — Joe Strummer of The Clash — was sowing his wild rock ‘n roll oats in a band called The 101ers. This group is featured on a vinyl issue — released on Record Store Day a couple of years ago and which I only recently picked up on discount at 1234Go Records — called Elgin Avenue Breakdown.  Here on this set you’ll hear some of the rock ‘n roll roots of the man who would soon become a punk rock icon. One disc features studio recordings by the band and the second is recorded live, all in very high fidelity sound. Issued by Parlophone Records, this package is a loving introduction to this obviously important career link for one of the important voices of the UK punk movement.

What’s great about this music is that it sounds decidedly like Joe Strummer, even when the band is delving into waters would be come to known as “new wave” vs. the rawer early flavors of his next band.

The pressings are nice thick, quiet, bright red vinyl and — like the Max’s Kansas City collection — the recording quality is surprisingly good for a relatively unknown up-and-coming band. Clash and Joe Strummer fans especially will want to get this one. 

AR-Maxs1976OriginalAlbumCover225.jpgIt is interesting to consider how similar — in many ways — the raw rock of the 101ers was to some of the sounds coming out of the 1976 scene at Max’s Kansas City. Even though they were separated by an ocean, bands everywhere were reacting to the excesses of prog rock and the banality of some of the new Disco sounds. The kids were alright, effectively sending rock ‘n roll love letters to one another via their singles. Groups like The Ramones and then The Sex Pistols would soon ascend to legendary status. Strummer would jump ship to join his mates in the Clash and make punk pop history.

Hopefully reissues like this will help draw attention back to some of those other pioneers from that important transitional moment in rock ‘n roll history. 

Paraphrasing Ray Davies: ‘’cause vinyl heroes never really die…’

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