“Spin” Tries To Recapture The Spirit Of ’77

spin%20rotten%20cover.jpgAnd now it’s time for another installment of Rock-Critically Correct, in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe, and Spin are given a once-over by an anonymous writer who’s contributed to several of those titles–or maybe even all of them! After the click-through, he examines the most recent issue of Spin:

Your correspondent has, more than once and perhaps tiresomely, discussed Rolling Stone’s interest in the music and culture of the late 1960s. But he is never under any illusion that RS is doing so in a purely evangelistic fashion: those 1967 retrospectives they’ve published this year are larded with advertising and he’s sure they did well on the newsstand. Many folks who fetishize those times can be relied upon to buy those issues, and that’s that.

But the cover image of the October Spin is a file photo of Johnny Rotten squeezing a zit–in service of a 30th anniversary “1977: the Year Punk Exploded” package–and YC is fairly sure that said picture will not inspire appreciably similar feelings on the part of late baby boomers/early Gen Xers. The punk explosion, as it were, was not something that every American knew was happening (whereas every Briton certainly did). It was very important to isolated kids and musicians alienated from the likes of Styx and disco, but YC doubts very much that those now-grown ex-malcontents are going to impulsively part with four bucks upon seeing this cover.

Spin has been here before: in 1986, Rockbird-era Debbie Harry appeared on the cover of a “10th anniversary of punk” issue that seemed to be heavily influenced by then-staffer/Punk Magazine mainstay Legs McNeil, who went on to write Please Kill Me. This time around, the package seems very Mojo-ish: a selection of the “30 Essential Punk Albums” is indistinguishable from any similar list that the British mag has published God Knows How Many Times.

The issue’s centerpiece is “The Spirit of ’77,” by … wait a second here! Where’s the byline? It appears nowhere in the piece’s eight pages: one must consult the table of contents to learn that it’s by Music Editor Charles Aaron. Aaron, who lately has been cast as Spin’s Big-Picture Guy, describes how a kid in mid-’70s America might have encountered this scabrous subculture, which bubbled up from under a completely indifferent monoculture. While Aaron’s prose is typically insightful and well-turned, the essay is oddly structured. He begins by noting how American culture in the 1977 seemed eviscerated, then describes how The Tom (“HAW HAW HAW”) Snyder Show and The New York Times’ Bill Safire tried to decode punk, and then composes a laundry list of seemingly every band and every punk scene active in America and Europe that year. Since a sympathetic American’s perspective at that time would be disjointed, perhaps it’s appropriate that this essay has a similar effect. But it could have done, for instance, with an examination of how far and wide the influence of the class of 1977 has gone since then.

And the coverboy? 1977-era diehard and editor of The Big Takeover Jack Rabid sits down with Rotten, now 51 but evidently still moved to be reflexively contrarian in interviews. He likes Journey! He doesn’t like a lot of other ’77-era punk bands! His appearances on Judge Judy, Fuse’s Bodog Battle of the Bands, and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here are just as subversive and daring as any music he’s ever done! The New York punk scene was too cerebral and not firebrand-ish enough! In one of the roundtables that follow, Blondie’s Chris Stein notes that Rotten “likes to be a public bitch and say how fucked up everything is and how much he hates it.”

About those roundtables: each is composed of veterans of the London, NYC and West Coast punk disaporas. English scribe Dorian Lynskey helms the first, and Rabid the following two. Supervising a conversation between Harry, Stein, Suicide’s Alan Vega and the Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba very likely rendered Rabid the proverbial pig-in-shit: it’s too bad that that the conversation tends to be pretty much of the “boy, New York was cheap and unsafe, but by God, we could do whatever we wanted” variety. Same goes for Rabid’s LA/SF reunion, comprised of sundry Dils, Avengers and Weirdos. Curiously, the Slits’ Ari Up and Tess Pollitt are present for this discussion, since they were in Hollywood for a gig, but, being Londoners in ’77, the two have nothing at all to contribute regarding the West Coast scene. The London contingent is assembled from X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, the Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell, the Damned’s Captain Sensible and a bunch of also-rans along the lines of the Ruts, the Vibrators and Eater. The Clash’s Mick Jones also is interviewed briefly for “A Riot of Our Own,” in which he isn’t moved to say anything he hasn’t said before many many times.

While YC wrote these words, he found himself listening to the Bee Gees and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, two groups that are held up by many of the above roundtablers as reasons punk had to happen, so he’s pretty much unsympathetic to any claims that pre-punk ’70s music needed to be destroyed. He also remembers that, as a lad who read the rock press in the 1980s, the 1977 punk movement was held up by its advocates as being just as perfect and canon-ready as late-’60s culture is by its partisans. Which is all to say that he doesn’t think ideology works as a way to experience music any more (maybe it never did), and that he wishes that Spin had found a way to address the 30th anniversary of punk in a more novel, less hidebound way. If one of Idolator’s curators didn’t much care for Anthony Bourdain’s jaundiced view of 1977-era NYC on this issue’s back page, YC thinks at least that Spin could have used a few more pieces as refreshing as his.