Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Blasters

In 1983 I had never even seen or heard of the phrases "roots rock" or "Americana" that became a big genre all on its own some 20 years later. I liked blues and basic rock and roll, with a "louder, faster" rule in the ordinary course. I disliked prog rock, jazz rock, jazz funk, folk music and most Eighties electronic pop.

Principally from the beginning of 1977 to the end of 1981 and again from 1983 to about 1987, the NME was a big influence on my musical tastes and knowledge of past and present rock and pop acts and albums. Although I heard, or could buy, only a fraction of the music reviewed and mentioned in the NME I took careful note of the recommendations from the likes of Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Phil McNeil and others, for future reference should I come across the albums. Max Bell was the resident expert on American music, specifically the underground scenes forming part of or following on the New York punk bands. Quite a bit of what he championed would now probably be characterised as Americana though he did not seem to care for backwoods country inflected bands and preferred the various off-shoots of '60's and late '70's punk.

Anyhow, the NME liked The Blasters and punted them as a good example of the kind of American rock and roll that did not suck in the era of mullet haired, narrow tie wearing American New Wave. The Blasters combined the best of a cross fertilisation of American genres, from rockabilly to blues to country to testifying soul, and produced an amalgam of high energy, melodic party music that was highly satisfying. The Non Fiction (1981) album was the one that received all the praise.

Anyhow, The Blasters were another example of a band of which I knew quite a bit and had marked down as something I would be interested in, without ever coming across the records, certainly not in Stellenbosch.

Probably in 1984, after my return from two years of National Service, I saw The Blasters (1983) at a discounted price somewhere; could have been in Stellenbosch, could have been in Cape Town. I bought it though I did not know much about it. I knew the song "Marie Marie" had been a hit for Dave Edmunds, and that "Border Radio" and "American Music" were supposed to be anthemic confirmations of the celebration of American music that The Blasters were all about. No matter, the record was cheap, it was a recognisable name and I bought the thing, took it home, recorded it on a C90 cassette tape and was duly impressed when I listened to the songs. Somehow the recording process had glitched and only a part of "Marie Marie" was recorded but that was a small defect. The rest of the record blew me away.

As part of a semi-serious project to re-acquire albums (essentially the favourites) that I once owned as records and gave away, I bought The Blasters from iTunes and was impressed all over again. This album contains a cracking selection of good American rock and roll. The musicians play tough, Phil Alvin sings like a champ and the tunes are memorable and hummable and the words simple and good. It's the kind of record that brings a smile to my face and belongs up there with Live: Full House (J Geils Band), Malpractice (Dr Feelgood), In Color (Cheap Trick), Go Girl Crazy (The Dictators) and What's The Word (The Fabulous Thunderbirds) as examples of old favourite records that are wonderful, viscerally exciting and satisfying each time I listen to them.

"Marie Marie" opens the album in an impressive, high energy fashion that just makes you wanna sing along and also get up and dance. Maybe it's just good old basic rock and roll but done with such abundance of joy and accomplishment. For the rest of the album the band rollicks through rock and soul and pop, with each song being pretty much a hit on its own. It is not often that one finds a band firing on so many cylinders all at once from track to track. It is a truism that many bands bring you a couple of great tunes and a bunch of filler per album and The Blasters, like the albums I mentioned above, proves the point by the exception of its quality.

This album is a reminder of why rockabilly can be one of the most exciting styles of music ever, when done right. You got the beat, the jumpy guitars and the yelping, hiccupping vocals singing lyrics that deal with the everyday concerns of (American) teenagers, such as car and girls and having drunken fun. There are tunes and hooks and the music makes you wanna get up and dance wildly. There is a sophisticated primitivism to it and an excitement that almost defies rationality. The Blasters understand this motivation and they dig deep down into that roots bedrock. They celebrate being American, in the ways only American can do so well and with so much enthusiasm and authority, and they make us want to be American too; at least, that's how it worked for me. My favourite rock and roll time and place would have to be San Francisco between 1966 and 1967 but somewhere in a Tennessee or Texas roadhouse, with Carl Perkins on stage, in the late Fifties would be a close second. It must have been a similar blast to catch The Blasters live in the early to mid-Eighties.

The Blasters is that rarity of an album where every tune, from "Marie Marie" to final track '"Stop the Clock," is top notch, with smart lyrics, memorable tune, tough and dynamic playing and just a general groove of infectious joy. You want to listen to it on endless repeat and drive fast with the top down along some endless American highway.


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