Brothers in Arms

Reissues from The Blasters and Rank & File

The recent death of Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, music producer and father of our country, is a reminder of how much American pop has changed since it was an entry point for unhinged young men with calloused hands and oil-stained jackets trying to find an escape hatch from the assembly line. Today’s escape hatch, “American Idol,” is more like a kid yuppie’s fast-track path to a tonier brand of shopping mall. I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy old man about it. Sure, like most of you, I’d do the right thing and veer my car onto the sidewalk if I saw Avril Lavigne standing there, but those Hanson kids are cute as all get-out, and Justin Timberlake deserves credit for knowing the right people to hire to contrive an album around what Greil Marcus has called the lad’s own “paint-thinner voice.” I’m not deluded enough to think that it’s my place to tell Cameron Diaz that she could do better.

Still, when you look at these smooth, bright faces, let alone listen to them fully explore the inexpressive possibilities of melisma, you have to wonder: do these kids know that Elvis Presley drove a truck, and if they do, do they think it was because his parents wouldn’t lend him the SUV? Cunningly crafted as all this pap — I mean pop — is, you do sometimes miss the sweaty, obsessive kick and traces of borderline insanity you find in rock music performed by people who never had the option of still going for that M.B.A. if the recording career hadn’t worked out by the time they hit seventeen.

Sure, like most of you, I’d do the right thing and veer my car onto the sidewalk if I saw Avril Lavigne standing there, but those Hanson kids are cute as all get-out.
Where do you go now for sounds that might have made Sam’s toes tingle, something that could set an honest man with good ears and a red-meat diet to howling at the moon? Something that draws on a knowledge of life a little broader than you’re likely to slap together based on a childhood spent being dragged from audition to audition by Mama Rose? Thank God for the raving maniacs corralled by the good people at Bloodshot Records, but can they really be asked to do it all alone? There’s always Springsteen, of course — apparently you can’t kill him with a stick — wrapping himself in the flag as if it were a burial shroud and serenading the fallen Twin Towers with Viagra references while continuing to righteously flog the ghost of Tom Joad, who by now would probably love to listen to a little disco or something for a change. Then there’s highly touted up-and-comers like that fellow from Whiskeytown whose idea of flouting his integrity is to pout if anyone requests “Cuts Like a Knife.” I ask you, can you imagine Jerry Lee Lewis ever losing any sleep over the possibility that someone might get him confused with the star of “The Nutty Professor”? Can you imagine anyone daring?

Happily, a couple of recent reissues, drawn from the catalog of Warner Bros.’ punk-flavored 1980s label Slash and assembled in collaboration with the sainted Rhino records, serve as a reminder that even the union-busting years of the early Reagan administration had its share of leaded-gas working-man rock-and-roll to relieve the general tedium. The brawniest and most indispensable of these sets is the Blasters’ Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, which handily collapses three albums that never quit (The Blasters, Non Fiction, and Hard Line), an EP’s worth of lesser but enjoyable live covers, and odds and ends (such as the band’s contributions to Walter Hill’s 1984 “rock and roll fable” of a movie, Streets of Fire) onto two discs, restoring to easy availability a staggering body of work that, for the most part, never made the transition to CD. (The Blasters’s 1981 debut album, American Music, which predates their signing to Slash/Warner, was re-issued by HighTone Records in 1997.)

As a songwriter, Dave Alvin was kind of into tight, three-to-four-minute arrangements the way that John the Baptist was kind of into Jesus.
A crackerjack outfit led by the mighty Alvin brothers, songwriter Dave and singin’ Phil, the Blasters were originally given a big push by their big label and they did receive their due from the music press. Yet they never really caught fire commercially the way they should have. Nor did they inspire the kind of fanatical devotion that helped keep other bands with similar working-class identities afloat. They lacked the bohemian radical-political aura of the Minutemen (though the Alvins, sons of a union organizer, bristled with a healthy blue-collar anger, and Dave’s “Common Man” is one of the great political songs of its era: a righteous skewering of Reagan that, heard today, could pass for a righteous attack on George W. Bush), the multi-cultural appeal of Los Lobos, and the undeniable, sheer treetop-clearing greatness of Hüsker Dü. What they did have was a passionate commitment to traditional rock (flavored with blues, soul and New Orleans R & B, the latter embodied by the tenor sax player Lee Allen and the D. John-style showmanship of pianist Gene Taylor) as a sound, and the chops to make it all sound as fresh as paint.

As a songwriter, Dave Alvin was kind of into tight, three-to-four-minute arrangements the way that John the Baptist was kind of into Jesus, and he had as his secret weapon bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, the Buckaroo Banzai of rhythm sections: there wasn’t anything Alvin could write for them, or pull out of his sack of beloved oldies, that they couldn’t drive through the side of a mountain. Maybe the combination put off some in the Amer-indie movement because it was so perfect and pleasurable that it seemed commercial, despite the fact that the band’s relative failure to sell records or get on the radio. Perpetually middle-aged-looking, with receding hairlines and fleshy bods, the Alvins had great faces for radio, which may help to explain why the then-new MTV threw its vote for the retro-hip market to the deplorable Stray Cats. The Cats used to sweat up their funny New Wave-meets-Fonzie hairdos trying to sneak a little “authenticity” into their act, but the Blasters didn’t need to worry about being authentic. They were the real thing.

Testament stands as a near-definitive dictionary of basic hooks and riffs, masterfully deployed. The basic sound doesn’t change all that much, but you can hear the level of talent on display deepen as the years go by. Happy at first to breathe new life into his favorite clichés, Dave’s songwriting begins to sketch a real vision of life until it grows ever scarier and more pained on such late tracks as “Common Man” and “Dark Night.” And Alvin’s singing, a cocky delight from the beginning, takes on new shades of emotion that really bloom on a late number like “Can’t Stop Time,” a sentiment that resonates with anyone in love with the popular art of the past. You can’t stop time, but you can salvage some prime artifacts before the dust settles. Testament is an invaluable time capsule preserving several night’s worth of serious fun.

Like the Blasters, Rank and File was built around two brothers, guitarist Chip Kinman and bassist Tony Kinman; they collaborated on the songwriting and split up the singing duties. The Kinmans had already made their small mark in the L.A. punk scene as the Dils. After that group disbanded, the Kinmans formed Rank and File during a sojourn in Austin, where they made the fateful decision to embrace their love of country music. They returned to L.A. and ended up signed to Slash/Warners after having opened for the Blasters. They cut two albums for the label, Sundown and Long Gone Dead. The Slash Years, a product of Rhino’s limited-edition mail-order Rhino Homemade line, slaps both albums and a handful of extras onto a single CD.

As mechanics, Rank and File were never as tight as the Blasters, and they were sometimes loose and careless enough that I’m not sure I’d want them anywhere near my carburetor. But the sheer unlikeliness of the sound and the wild-eyed enthusiasm of the performances are more than enough to put most of the material across. Compared to say, Gram Parsons, the “cowpunk” fusion of rock and country isn’t exactly graceful; the music yodels and twangs up front while the rhythm section pounds away like a blacksmith laboring to a metronome’s beat. But even if the mixture doesn’t gel, it sounds like fun, and the fun is contagious.

However the Kinmans came by their cowboy-hatted country stylings, they carry out the pose with a countrypolitan gentlemanliness that’s witty and even sort of touching in this context. Of all the bands that recorded for Slash, Rank and File are likely the one that, trying to decide on a nasty name to call some folks, would settle on “blackguards.” Another song good-naturedly admits to a low tolerance for the “lemming dressed all in black” and other “sorry junkie beatniks” littering up St. Mark’s Place. The song isn’t an expression of conservative contempt for bohemianism but a sneer at the kind of complacent hipster nihilism that Tom Verlaine ragged on in “A Future in Noise” — the kind of doctrinaire cool that would try to write Rank and File off as “squares” because of their boots and good manners.

The band really come into their own on hard-charging numbers like “Amanda Ruth,” “Coyote,” and “John Brown” (their kind of political song), which kick up enough dust to obscure the lights of Vegas. They probably did take their ideas about as far as they could go, a feeling that was sort of confirmed by their third album, the 1987 Rank and File, which goes unmentioned by name in the notes to The Slash Years, even though it was released by Rhino itself. (Maybe the new collection is their belated way of doing penance for having put out that one.) The Slash Years sums them up, complete with a final live track — a cover of “White Lightning” — that has its own time-capsule feel. It’s pretty sloppy, and the vocals are nothing for George Jones to lose sleep over (whose are?), but you can see why the Kinmans would want to sign off with it: from start to finish, the girls in the audience scream and squeal as if the Beatles were reuniting with Elvis and Jesus on backing vocals. There are things in life besides tight arrangements, you know.