When it started, no one knew what to call it. They hit upon the name of Punk Rock. The promoters of that term were staunch believers in the erroneous assumption that this music was a working class movement. The name changed and the music progressed. New Wave they called it. But that wasn't quite true either — you see, how could you call the Rolling Stones and the Who New Wave, when they were such landmarks in the Old Wave? (Even Bruce Springsteen considers himself a member of this musical form). Then producers just decided to fuck the whole idea, and call it what it sounds like. Rock and Roll. That's fine, but I prefer High Energy music, or even High Energy Rock & Roll. High Energy, because that is the most dominant and visible part of the music. Rock and Roll, cause most of the music is a throwback to the late fifties-early sixties musical genre. Short, powerful songs on relevant topics.
Now that we've got a name, how about some sort of idea of what the music is all about? (I hate rhetorical questions, don't you?) High energy music is first of all high in what might be called EQ, or energy quotient. A good way to get an idea of what I'm saying might be to imagine Patti Smith singing "Rock and Roll Nigger," and then picture the Bee Gees singing and then picture the Bee Gees singing about the night fever. If you can do this, you've pretty well got both ends of the scale. The people who play HEM (high energy music) maintain a level of intensity unparallelled in any other musical form. This does not mean that the music is loud. Or rather, that it must be loud. Music does not have to be played any louder than one would play a symphony if the music is high energy. The energy is an intrinsic quality. There are, of course, groups like the Ramones who play their stuff real loud when it would be good at a lower volume. But there are many more groups like the Dead Boys 'who play their music so that you go home and can't hear for 2 days in hopes that you won't notice that there's nothing there. Patti Smith does not play her music very loudly, and she is the undisputed priestess of the art.
HEM's function is not solely to get you up and boppin', the music has an essential honesty. It is not overproduced, or if it is it is no longer good. An example of this is the Cars new album. It is obvious which songs are glossed over, done and redone. The best are the songs that are raw, vital and vibrant. There was one performer who used to be able to get around this problem, and that was Iggy Pop (aka James Osterberg). Ever since his Lust for Life album, however, he has traded in his music for money. Iggy used to be able to sing around complex melodies and arrangements and retain that vital energy and force. This has now gone by the way, with his morals and principles, I guess.
The honesty shines through in the work of people like Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, Blondie, old Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. As an alternative to honesty, some performers, such as the Ramones, choose to make light of traditionally depressing situations, as in the songs "Teenage Lobotomy", "I Wanna Be Well", "Glad to See You Go", "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment", and "We're a Happy Family", etc.. In "You Should Never Have Opened That Door," they sing
You don't know what I can do with this axe.
Chop off your head so you better relax.
Not very pleasant, but very funny.
But I never did say anything about those performers I called honest. Willie Alexander has been just about universally panned, and basically rightly so. He makes the list, not because he's so talented or good, but because he appears to feel what he sings about. When he sings "Kerouac," about Jack Kerouac, you know that Kerouac means something to Alexander. I'm not even sure that Donna Summer cares about sex, though she certainly tries to convince us of it.
Blondie bills itself as an Art group, and you can almost believe that it is. The songs are true, they cut to the root of what is being sung about. When Deborah Harry (Blondie's lead vocalist) sings,
I will give you my finest hour
the one I spent
watching you shower
I will give you my finest hour
in "Picture This," you believe what she says. Add to this fine musicians and the ever-present high EQ, and you have music that both makes you move and think. Quite a combo. You won't find it in chess.
Very similar to Blondie in its artsiness is the Talking Heads. The Talking Heads differ, however, in the type of things that they write about. Blondie has more out on the street quality than the Heads, while the Heads seem to be straining to keep from bursting loose. They act like they could at any minute explode. They're more than interesting to watch and listen to.
The two most talented performers in the realm of HEM are Elvis Costello and Patti Smith. Costello sings that he "don't wanna be a goody-goody." This is the attitude that he presents to audiences. He comes on as someone who is not quite all there, slightly evil but totally honest about what he is and what he wants. It's almost as if he's a disinterested observer of his own life, and, indeed, in many of his songs he is just that. Costello sings about real things and real people. His songs are alive and rough. One can only hope that they don't overproduce him on future albums.
Patti Smith deserves a category of her own. She can make you want to get up and dance on a slow ballad. She writes songs like no other writer in this field. Her lyrics compares favorably to that of most other writers, regardless of musical type. Patti writes about things that are important, both to her and to her audience. She is very spiritual, very mystical. She is perhaps the most open and honest of HEM writers. This is quite an accomplishment in a field that prides itself on these qualities. Smith says, "My knees are open to the sun."
So that's the lowdown. That's the music scene as far as High Energy Music-Rock and Roll-New Wave-Punk Rock is concerned. The major performers. There are a lot of small groups (The Bloodless Pharaohs for one are excellent) that are striving for these same ideals, and most of them have something going for them. This is one of the best opportunities you're ever gonna have to listen to new music and musicians. Don't blow it.