Today’s ‘classic album’ is ‘The Blasters‘ by The Blasters, a beacon of American music and a record that is as perfect an encapsulation of the collision between punk and roots as it is possible to imagine. There are those who consider it fanciful to say that this record was central to the invention or definition of a genre but some of us believe that is exactly the case and my intention is to convince those doubters over the next 1,500 words.
In fact it was actually a last-second swerve that took me from Jason and the Scorchers to The Blasters, not that much of a swerve then but just enough to get this review over the line. It’s giving away my vintage to place these two bands at the start of my ‘Americana’ journey and this personal context is neither indulgent nor ‘unprofessional’ but central to a meaningful critical exploration of the record at hand; or as it may be more accurately positioned a personal crusade to persuade everyone of the fundamental genius of this LP.
I make no spurious claim for objectivity or even critical and cultural clarity here, what you are reading is a personal perspective that is formed by my experiences. Equally importantly though, you are reading this piece from a similar perspective and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise on either of these counts. Some of the best criticism (which this undoubtedly is not) is laced with personal polemic and indeed it may be considered an insult to readers to assume that a) you believe this is a completely objective, rational and unmediated narrative and b) that you are unable to distinguish between fanboy fawning and the straightened gaze of critical consideration. A bit of both is necessary, welcome and brings much greater insight into the record for those willing to take it on board. Well now that that’s clear we can get on with the piece, in a vain attempt to live up to it and do The Blasters justice.
To begin with a confession, I didn’t actually start here, in 1981 I was still a capricious student listening to Dare, Heaven up Here, Nightclubbing and Movement along with The Comsat Angels, Cabaret Voltaire, Defunkt and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. A strange combination of the harsh sound of the soon to be post-industrial North of England tempered by aspirational New York glamour, clearly this was all just a pose as I really knew sweet FA about either of them. Check the NME top 50 albums of 1981 and you can see where I was getting my guidelines from. There was certainly no room for ‘roots’ music of any kind in their critical domain and therefore my record collection. It was only with their, much later, anointing of Jason and the Scorchers and then The Blasters and Los Lobos that I was allowed to let this stuff into my orbit. When I did it was still a pose of course but this one felt like a better fit. It might have taken me another couple of years to fully realise the glory of what I’d been missing, but the true dawning came on first hearing of this record, probably 5 or 6 years after it was released.
You remember all those times you read or heard about a record that was supposed to have a roots or country sound suffused with the essence of punk rock? Finally getting to hear them they were a big disappointment weren’t they? About as punk rock as Plastic Bertrand or as rootsy as Showaddywaddy. Not this one though, all those roots records that claim a punk rock pedigree need to bend the knee here. The Blasters fit right in with the California punk scene, playing early gigs with the likes of Black Flag, X and the Screamers. Indeed one of the band’s key relationships in that period was with the Gun Club and in particular their leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce; Dave Alvin has spoken openly of their times playing together and how they influenced each other (see a cracking interview with Ryan Leach). Don’t be fooled though, there may be relentless, unapologetic energy and almost thrashing guitars here but nothing really sounds like Black Flag, Fear, The Dils, or any of those SoCal hardcore or art-punk bands.
Punk rock had turned up in the late 70s and declared a rock n roll year zero, urgently attempting to sweep everything from before that into the trash can. By the early 80s however, it was soaking up influences from much earlier times and a lot of that was to do with this band and eventually this record. For the punk kids (me included) then this record was an education; schooling a generation of spiky-haired nihilists that rock n roll had been manic, aggressive and wild long before it was called punk rock.
Further testimony to the records’ greatness is that this education spread beyond their native LA through the rest of the USA and, eventually across the pond to the UK and Europe. Though in fairness it may have taken until the 1985 release of their fourth album ‘Hard Line’ and that glowing NME review for them to cement their place in the holy trinity that was the vanguard of the roots rock ‘invasion’ (ok stretching a point a touch there) along with Jason and the Scorchers and Los Lobos.
‘The Blasters’ may have been released at the beginning of the 80s but it could not be a less 80s sounding record. The production (by the band and engineers Pat Burnette and Roger Harris) is free from any reverb-laden trickery and perfectly captures the fire and energy of the band with the clarity and precision so sought after in the 80s. In doing so it manages to avoid the super hard brightness of so many of those productions, which managed to suck the life out of some great bands – apologies to Lone Justice, Del Lords Rank n File et al.
The core band, consisting of the Alvin brothers – vocals by Phil and Dave’s guitar, Bill Bateman’s drums and John Bazz’s bass are joined by real pedigree guests; Gene Taylor on piano and Sax from Steve Berlin and New Orleans R&B vet Lee Allen. Together they laid to tape the band’s heartfelt and visceral sound in a way that few have ever managed with this kind of music before or since. ‘The Blasters’ captures the elemental raw power of the band as they transition from pure rockabilly, offering up a more rounded but still fierce and uncompromisingly intense take on what the band themselves dubbed ‘American Music’. The song of that name (and the LP as a whole) is both a paean to their musical roots:
“We got the Louisiana boogie and the delta blues
We got country, swing and rockabilly, too
We got jazz, country-western and Chicago blues
It’s the greatest music that you ever knew
It’s American music”…
… as well as being an accurate, if possibly hubristic self-critique, characterising the music as “a howl from the deserts, a scream from the slums” and pointing out that it “can be sweet and lovely, it can be hard and mean, One thing’s for sure, it’s always on the beam”. Brother Dave may actually have written this song as a celebration of all that they held dear about their musical upbringing but it is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of what the record itself offers.
All of this goes to make ‘The Blasters’ a template for the roots-rock / alt-country / cowpunk that was to follow. Many bands may have applied this template but none have ever bettered this record, really, none of them. One of the things that distinguishes this record from those that followed is the quality of brother Dave’s songwriting, combining melodies that stick like glue with lyrics that deliver simple yet literate storytelling and see the emergence of the empathetic characters that would grow to fill his later solo writing. Direct yet sophisticated and engaging writing of this kind, wedded to such robustly in-your-face music was largely unheard of at this point – unless you happened to be called Chuck Berry of course.
Still not convinced? OK, I’ve got an offer for you. You don’t have to listen to the whole record, even though it is only 30 minutes and 41 seconds long. Stick to side one, 14 minutes of the utterly perfect reduced essence of American Music. We all know of acknowledged classic LPs that, if we are honest, are more about side 1 (Big Star’s Radio City, Van’s Moondance, add your own), this might be another. Side 2 gets a little ‘bluesier’ and less immediate, perhaps the melodies are not quite there. Still great but not quite as great?
The story of this record is manifold, and all the better for it. If there were only more time to go into the detail of chapters entitled, ‘Cajun Standard Time (see the song ‘Marie Marie’, and the Balfa Brothers)’ ‘That’s not Fxxxkin’ Rockabilly (see the story of playing with the Gun Club)’, ‘They Don’t sound Like Big Black to me’ (see any number of whingey punk blogs) ‘Why are they Covering Shakin’ Stevens’ (see ‘Marie Marie’ again) and ‘Fomented in Support of Queen’ (yup, for 9 stadium gigs in the lead up to the album’s release). Sadly not to be.
Finally though; and this is undoubtedly the nadir of my critical output to date and for that I can only apologise, the ultimate comment I can make on ‘The Blasters’ by The Blasters is that if you can manage to get through its entire 30:41 without resorting, at some point, to completely unselfconscious air-guitar and truly monstrous hip-shaking then you really do need to go and have a lie-down. That won’t happen though. If you know this record then you know what I mean. If you don’t know it then one listen and you will be an evangelical convert. Guaranteed.
This review is dedicated to Gene Taylor – RIP The Fabulous Blasting Bard of the Boogie, and a lovely bloke to boot.