Tagged: Steve Jones

“Rock and roll and the truth”: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

The Stains -- bassist Tracy (Marin Kanter), vocalist Corinne (Diane Lane), guitarist Peg (Laura Dern); image courtesy of history.sffs.org

It’s crazy that the movie that is the subject of this post only came out on DVD in 2008. Director Lou Adler and screenwriter Nancy Dowd‘s modest feature made its cinematic debut in 1982 (note: Dowd was credited as Rob Morton, a pseudonym the Oscar winner used from time to time — I wonder if having the illusion of a man write the script got the project off the ground). It starred Diane Lane, Ray Winstone, Laura Dern, and Christine Lahti. It featured The Clash’s Paul Simenon and Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones. It went on to influence riot grrrl and has been referenced by other musicians (see the music video for Mika Miko’s “Business Cats“).

And yet the first time I saw this movie was in a class screening. It was during the final days of grad school before the DVD’s summer release. The version I saw was a laserdisc transfer, and included 15 seconds of static from when the person recording the movie flipped the disc. Nutty, right? Kinda informs why I’m a feminist and have an ambivalent relationship with having to dig for representative media texts that I like. I’m proud of it but irritated by it at the same time. If it gets translated into snobbishness, it’s really righteous indignation.

The plot is as follows. Lane plays Corinne Burns, a teenage orphan who has to figure out how she and her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter) can support themselves after being fired from her jill job. While staying with her aunt Linda (Lahti), she starts scheming ways to start a pirate radio station that will broadcast “rock and roll and the truth.” She ends up convincing her sister and cousin Jessica (Dern, whose character prefers to be called Peg) to start a band called The Stains. After catching British punk band The Looters, a fictitious rock band fronted by Billy (Ray Winstone) and manned by bassist Simenon, drummer Cook, and guitarist Jones, Burns’s purpose is clear. She can’t just be in the audience, some chick in the crowd among pregnant teens with nicotine habits and folks squandering their youth at the piss factory. She’s gotta get The Stains on the bill. Like so many rock legends before her, she’s gotta get outta this place if it’s the last thing she ever does.

Corinne Burns becoming rock star Third Degree Burns; image courtesy of fashionista.com

At first, Corrine tries to appeal to Billy as a fan, who is otherwise occupied with a groupie. She is then approached by The Looters’ road manager, a Rastafarian named Lawnboy (Barry Nichols) and gets The Stains booked as the opening act. It seems as though Lawnboy needs his own insurance, as the top-billed act are a has-been dinosaur rock outfit appropriately called The Metal Corpses. They’ve got a heroin addict guitar player in tow. They’re also fronted by a real charmer named Lou (played by Tubes frontman Fee Waybill). You can tell what kind of guy he is when he recounts a tryst with an older groupie acquaintance — apparently she’s as good as she ever was, but that damn kid of her’s would not stop crying and interrupting their “time” together. Class act.

Anyway, The Stains become huge and cultivate a legion of die-hard girl fans. Corpses’ guitarist Jerry Jervey (Tubes’ keyboardist Vince Welnick) inevitably dies of an overdose. This gives Burns an opportunity to spin the story and create her own mythology. Apparently Jervey loved her. She couldn’t reciprocate and he took his own life. This lie turns Burns’s band into a full-blown media sensation. Which is good, because their first gig doesn’t go so well.

But this clip, which features “Waste of Time” (penned by Barry Ford), explains why The Stains garner both an on- and off-screen feminist following (note: to preserve this image, don’t see Streets on Fire as it features Lane playing a rock star damsel in distress). The music suggests post-punk and indie’s lo-fi sensibilities and politicized amateurism. The message is blatantly feminist, and delivered through a girl’s plain-spoken sneer. This girl has as much use for pants as Lady Gaga, but her visible panties don’t mean that she puts out. She’s also equipped a replicable look and quotable opinions about how she doesn’t give a fuck about patriarchy. A star is born, and she’s after your daughters. They call themselves Skunks.

A legion of Skunks waiting to see The Stains; image courtesy of photobucket.com

By the way, if either of the dude-friends who run the Lab want to create a Stains t-shirt, I reckon you’d have a sell-out item on your hands. I think the design should include the caption, “They’ve got such big plans for the world but they don’t include us.”

Also, make sure to add YACHT’s cover of “Waste of Time” to your next mix.

Once The Stains break, The Looters bristle at just how much they’re being overshadowed by the opening act, especially since they’re just a bunch of girls (or “birds,” since they’re British). But Billy also seems impressed with Burns. He eventually seduces her, though I doubt the genuineness of his attraction as it seems more like a power grab. He wins her over by teaching her his band’s song “Be A Professional,” a song about refusing to join the army. But their romance is promptly ended by Burns when up-and-coming act Black Randy and the Metro Squad threaten to knock The Stains off the bill. The romance is over, but she takes his song as a souvenir.

Jilted Billy nearly ruins the band by revealing Burns to be a fraud after she becomes too big for him (she becomes a superstar in a little over a week). However, her fans come through for her in the end, making The Stains a tremendously successful pop band just in time for the advent of MTV. But something tells me they’d be pressured to change the name. Some label exec would try to convince them that “The Stains” wouldn’t look good on a poster with “The Go-Gos” and “The Bangles.”

Corinne faces the dreaded ex while Billy confronts the girl and legend; image courtesy of 24hourpartypooper.wordpress.com

The ending is as good a place as any to address that while I like this movie, it’s far from perfect. There’s the rushed storyline that also requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. There’s the unfortunate romantic coupling between the two leads that feels completely unnecessary and without much motivation. Some of the dialogue doesn’t work and the young cast’s performances tend to be mannered. And the ending casts a dark pall on the rest of the movie. It confirms that the girls totally sold out. More essentializing sorts might read this ending as a self-fulfilling prophecy, that The Stains became what Burns pegged one disinterested female concertgoer as: just girls waiting to die.

Join the professionals on MTV; image courtesy of flickr.com

However, I read the ending more as an indictment on how punk became new wave and how bands like The Talking Heads, The Go-Gos, and Blondie were recast by major label record executives in the process. “Be a professional, join the professionals” on MTV, as “you’re gonna be one anyway.” And when you consider that the movie was made at new wave’s zenith and the cable network’s infancy, it’s a pretty damning ending that I think is in keeping with punk’s cynical, incredulous take on human nature.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that many riot grrrls and their contemporaries who may have been inspired by this movie became professionals too. Queercore legacies Kaia Wilson and Tammy Rae Carland ran Mr. Lady for many years. Miranda July makes movies. Carrie Brownstein works for NPR. Beth Ditto has a clothing line. Kathleen Hanna is an archival subject. Johanna Fateman runs a hair salon. Of course, these are enviable jobs and social positions that work toward resisting patriarchal culture. Professionalism doesn’t have to mean compromise, but it does insure a constant process of negotiation.

But just as this movie is about young women trying to negotiate when to hold on to integrity in the working world, it is also about how they interact and influence one another. Thus, female mentorship informs much of the movie’s narrative.

The Stains are considered role models for their audience. Some commentators believe this be to their fans’ detriment, as the skunk hairdos, extreme make-up, pantsless get-ups, and disinterest toward marriage and babies assuredly will lead to wickedness (thus predicting the moral panic later waged against Madonna and her fans). Most folks who hold this opinion are male. Billy clearly espouses this opinion because he’s jealous of The Stains’ success, feels taken advantage of by Burns after she steals his song, and thinks very little of this emergent aggregate”s collective intelligence. News anchor and affirmed sexist Stu McGrath (John Lehne) thinks The Stains, and Burns in particular, are bad influences. He also seems of the opinion that they sure are sexy and naughty, which echoes how British television personality and first-rate drunk Bill Grundy seemed to feel about Siouxsie Sioux when she sat with The Sex Pistols during their infamous interview.

However, journalist Alicia Meeker (Cynthia Sikes) loves The Stains. She’s excited and inspired by their story. She also plays a part in their success by providing them coverage on local television as well as sticking up for them on the air. She’s quick to point out that these girls aren’t delinquents or degenerates. Instead, she sees them as self-sufficient individuals. She makes no bones about her partiality, and does little to hide her seething contempt for McGrath, with whom she shares a news desk.

Jessica’s Aunt Linda is interesting as well, though misses an opportunity to be a mentor. At first, she seems resistant to her daughter and nieces’ rebellion, and later dismissive of their success. But in a devastating scene that unfolds for both the band and the viewer on a television screen in the display window of an appliance store, it’s revealed in an interview that Linda is proud of them and wishes she was more encouraging. Worse yet, Linda knows all too well what it’s like to grow up in a household peopled with family members who didn’t believe she could amount to anything.

This admission makes an early scene when Linda is first introduced particularly poignant. We meet Linda in her front room, giving herself an at-home manicure with a girlfriend. The ladies break out in an a capella rendition of Carole King’s anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Linda nails the song’s high harmonies, but no one hears it. Even the girls ignored it at the time. I wonder if they reflect on it later. I hope they carry on in her memory.

Covered: Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming”

This post is really two posts. The first section preoccupies itself with why album covers matter culturally, so as to set up a discussion of a particularly interesting album cover, in this case Kate Bush’s 1982 release, The Dreaming, which I focus on in the second section. I intend to discuss more album covers throughout the duration of this blog’s livelihood. If you would like to throw out suggestions or contribute a piece, feel free. Contact me at feministmusicgeek@gmail.com.

One thing that I fear is leaving our popular consciousness in the digital age is the album cover. I don’t consider myself a technophobe and hardly think music videos (once on TV, now on the Web) contributed to the downfall of album packaging (I actually think that’s the fault of record labels who keep raising their retail prices). Yet I do worry what we’ll lose if we stop caring about album covers. Growing up, Madonna had some of the most interesting album covers ever. So imagine how bummed I was when I saw her slapped-together, clumsily Photoshopped cover for Hard Candy. Sigh.

Cover for Hard Candy; released in 2008 on Warner Bros.

Cover for Hard Candy; released in 2008 on Warners Bros.

Now I know that avering my love for album covers may cast me as a bit of a commodity fetishist (which I kinda am, despite how problematic it is). And I get why album covers don’t take priority. For one, market imperative — covers cost money and the more elaborate they are, the more expensive they can become (just ask the folks at Factory Records; for every sold copy of New Order’s “Blue Monday” — lavishly designed by Peter Saville to look like a floppy disc — the label lost money, though was more concerned in releasing a well-made, lovingly-crafted piece of popular art than in turning a profit). Also, the reliance of plastic for packaging can be less than environmentally friendly (though kudos to many musical acts, artists, and record labels for realizing this and phasing it out with more paper printing).

Cover of An Invitation by Inara George; released in 2008 on Everloving with paper cover

Cover for An Invitation by Inara George; released in 2008 on Everloving with paper cover

But album covers reveal so much — who the artist is, what the music is going to sound like, what the theme or concept behind the album might be, who made the cover art, the evolution of print technology, the history of album packaging, indeed how valuable packaging may have been to the people and companies responsible for release. And obviously, in terms of representational politics, album covers can tell stories, share folklore, provide commentary, project alternate realities, or rebel. Bottom line: they’re texts and we shouldn’t overlook them or what they may reveal about the artists, the markets, and the fan bases. If interested, I highly recommend Steve Jones and Martin Sorger’s essay “Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design.”

Treatise endeth. New treatise begineth.

One such album cover I’d like to look at is Kate Bush’s The Dreaming. Now, I’m a bit new to her, but not exactly. I have kind of a greatest hits awareness of her. As a girl, I made up dance routines in my room to “Rubberband Girl” and “Running Up That Hill” when they (rarely) got played on the radio. I know she was discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at an early age and recorded her first album, The Kick Inside, as a teenager. I know that she produces her own material. I know that she’s a trained interpretive dancer and worked with Lindsay Kemp, David Bowie’s choreographer. I know that she directed and starred in a short film called The Line, the Cross, & the Curve co-starring Miranda Richardson based on songs from her 1993 album The Red Shoes. I know she’s done some bugged-out music videos. For example:

And then I know what other people think of her. I know a lot of negative things. Characters in books like Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity hate on her music. Likewise, people like to throw around rumors that, due to her perfectionism in the studio and her penchance for writing songs about female suffering and neuroses, mythological women, and the paranormal, she is crazy. It’s all crazy sexist. On that tip, I was friends with a girl who said of Bush, “Ugh, Lilith Fair.”

And then the positives. I know that a lot of people mention her when they talk about Tori Amos (and now, St. Vincent and Bat for Lashes). I’ve read some academic work (specifically Debi Withers’s piece on queer subjectivity in her second album, 1978’s Lionheart, and Holly Kruse’s “In Praise of Kate Bush,” which considers Bush’s authorial status, from the anthology On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word). I know that Ann Powers, a rock journalist I idolized growing up, is writing a 33 1/3 book on The Dreaming (expect a future post upon its release next year — I’m way stoked).

And then I know male artists who have sited her as an influence. There’s L.A. outsider art rocker Ariel Pink, who borrows her treble-heavy, lo-fi, avant pop production sensibilities and clearly positions himself as a fan.

But lest we think that Bush’s weird music is only stuff white people like, OutKast’s Big Boi grew up on her music and R&B singer Maxwell covered “This Woman’s Work.”

Hmmm. Guess I knew more than I thought. Yet, I’d never actually listened to an entire Kate Bush album. So, I thought I’d start with The Dreaming, which is really great. It’s kinda crazy how influential and varied and timeless this music is — I haven’t had a listening experience with so many “aha” and “so this is where ______ came from” moments since I first heard The Velvet Underground’s debut album the summer before college. But that was all happy accident. I picked it because a) it’s widely regarded by music critics as a masterpiece, b) indeed, Powers is writing about it, c) it marks a transition for Bush as producer as well as singer and instrumentalist, and d) the cover.

Cover for The Dreaming; released on EMI in 1982

Cover for The Dreaming; released on EMI in 1982

This cover (made by Kindlight) knocks me out. I’ve stared at so much in the past few weeks — after several years of looking at it in various record stores — and only recently figured out that it’s supposed to be Houdini and his wife (indeed, there is a song called “Houdini” on the album, told from his wife’s perspective). The shackles around him are to be broken using the key, which Bush (as Bess Houdini) has in her mouth. But I always thought she had a wedding ring in her mouth and was internally debating whether or not to put it on (and perhaps be shackled) or swallow it and flee.

I suppose it could work either way. It’s also possible that Bush and Bess Houdini have suddenly become self-conscious about the inherent performativeness of their careers (musicians, like magicians, trade in trickery). There’s also the possibility that the key takes on some sort of sexual, Freudian design as a symbol and that the juxtaposition of the key, the shackles, her tongue, and her lusty proximity to Houdini may be at odds with her Victorian dress, coinciding at once with Houdini’s era, Bush’s origins as a Brit, and Bush’s lyrical preoccupations. All readings are valid, as they peak curiosity and dialogue with the music. Indeed, they are part of the music. Part of this woman’s work.