Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Used Bin Ubiquitous Bargains: The Blasters

Used Bin Ubiquitous Bargains is a new feature wherein I recommend LPs I frequently see fallowing in the used bins of record shops despite their quality and reliably low sticker price. They are the albums you can find easily, will only set you back 5 beans or less and are probably better than the whatever the hype machine is praising this week.

The Blasters' self-titled album is a perfect candidate. It was popular enough to make it all the way up to #36 on the Billboard chart on 1981, thus many copies are in circulation. Plus, I'm sure those who haunt record shops are unlikely to take a chance on the album based on the cover, which has to be one of the ugliest in rock history. It looks like an unskilled artist was airbrushing the cover of the first King's Crimson album from memory on to the back of somebody's jean jacket. Ironic, considering the Blasters play pretty much the aesthetic opposite of King Crimson's prog rock.

While the Blasters are usually referred to as "rockabilly," that's not strictly true. "Rockabilly" has become a sort of shorthand for all pre-British Invasion rock n' roll, encompassing 50s country, blues, roadhouse R&B as well as legitimate rockabilly. The Blasters draw from all these styles and do so exceptionally well. While their recreation of early rock n' roll is certainly derivative, it never comes off as pandering or as mere affection, as it does with, say, the Stray Cats or someone. Rather, it plays like a celebration of "American Music," to borrow the title of one of the band's more popular songs. The enthusiasm the band has for the source material is both obvious and infectious.

Despite their traditionalist bent, the Blasters were birthed through the L.A. punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Alvin actually did stints in X and the Flesh Eaters. While this may strike some as somewhat surprising, it actually makes a world of sense. The L.A. scene was extremely open minded went it came to supporting different kinds of music and was especially interested in the primitive hoodoo of early forms of rock n roll as the antithesis of the bloated sounds of 70s mainstream rock. Alvin, for his part, has stated that he was inspired just as much by seeing Johnny Rotten on TV as he was by Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Chuck Berry. (A dubious claim but we'll take him at his word.) While bands like X and the Gun Club infused their love of vintage rock n' roll and blues with a more aggressive sound, the Blasters happily played it straight. As the most conventional band in the scene, it's unsurprising they were the most commercially successful. Their moderate fame foreshadowed the rise of "roots music" and "Americana" in mid-80s mainstream rock in the forms of Springsteen, Mellencamp and their ilk. This was partially a reaction to the popularity of the stylized new wave groups that were dominating MTV at the time, commonly and pejoratively referred to as "English hair bands." (SST's Joe Carducci humorously surmised the situation as "flag wavers vs fag wavers.") More insidiously, another factor may have been the nostalgia for an idealized 1950s-that-never-existed were so prevalent in Reagan's America.

Regardless of socio-political content, The Blasters is probably the only musical relic of the 80s infatuation with the 50s that you need to own. Below are two cuts from the album: their version of Little Wille John's "I'm Shakin" (one of many covers in the Blasters' repertoire) and the original "So Long Baby Goodbye." If you want to hear more, you'll undoubtedly find The Blasters in a used LP bin near you for a very reasonable price. And if you're lucky, your copy will include a one page catalog for Slash Records merchandise. A Decline of Western Civilization blue v-neck t-shirt? Where do I send my money?

No comments: