A Beginner’s Guide to Pub Rock

From Black Sun Gazette:

Despite the fact that it produced comparatively few good bands, everyone remembers punk rock. Somehow it became the be all, end all of youth counterculture, the “gold standard” by which all other cultural movements are compared. I’ve never been particularly interested in punk rock, though the leading lights (The Ramones, The Clash, The Heartbreakers) certainly are great and important rock and roll bands. But even at a young age the pretentiousness and fashion whoring that punk rock increasingly became known for really turned me off. For a music that set out to destroy rock conventions, punk sure picked them all up really fast- to say nothing of the turn that it took in the early-90s. Of course, none of this is terribly surprising. Punk came more than anything out of the harder edge of glam rock. But there was another strain in the mix. The monster hybrid of rockabilly and r&b that came straight out of the British working class’s favorite social mixing spot, the pub.

Pub rock isn’t so much maligned by rock historians. It’s completely ignored. If mentioned at all, it’s a footnote in rock history, a sort of British proto-punk, or the thing that Huey Lewis and Elvis Costello were doing before they became big. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s the summation of twenty plus years of trends in working class taste in music. You can hear the sounds of a bear bones rock and roll band that knows from chops and roots in this classic track, “Coast to Coast” by the Ducks Deluxe:

The pub rock “movement” (such as it was) wasn’t just working class because its audience was. The first wave of bands were largely comprised of (American) working musicians who got the shaft during the late-60s. Bands like Eggs Over Easy and Clover relocated to the U.K. where work as a house band in local pubs was far preferable to chasing after elusive arena rock stardom.

While the first wave of bands tended to sound like a harder-edged version of American country rock, the second wave of bands gave a taste of the full-throttle sonic assault that laid ahead in punk rock, as well as the obsession with youth culture. The former was best exemplified by Dr. Feelgood. Named after heroin, Dr. Feelgood certainly created the template for a thousand lesser rock and roll bands with leather jackets and a “bad boy” image. But the band were more than just attitude and image. They were highly capable rhythm and blues musicians who took pub rock to the next level of filth and raucousness.

As far as the punk obsession with “youth” goes, the blame for that can be laid squarely at the feet of Eddie and the Hot Rods. More toward the rockabilly end of the genre, the Rods eschewed the normal topics of pub rock- drinking and other working class quotidia- for tales of youthful abandon. Eddie and the Hot Rods are the soundtrack to the cocaine-fueled, joy riding, juvenile delinquent youth you wish you’d had. Check out this live appearance with radically altered lyrics way before punk proper dropped:

Of course, the main historical interest of pub rock is a little band called the 101’ers who featured a pre-Clash Joe Strummer. Sounding a bit like the exact half way point between the Clash and Eddie Cochran, the 101’ers show Joe’s songwriting abilities at an early stage of his career. The bootleg CD Elgin Avenue Breakdown includes live tracks that also display his amazing ability connect with a live audience, another trait he frequently displayed during Clash live shows.

Pub rock had a lot of wind taken out of its sails by the nascent punk movement. In the first case, a lot of the musicians of the second wave weren’t as jaded on rock stardom, and quickly left for the greener pastures of punk. But more to the point, the moment in time was over. In a sense, the party had to end. Pub rock was utterly unpretentious and stripped of all artifice, flying distinctly under the radar, not for reasons of street cred, but because it didn’t know what else to do. The energy of the movement was preserved to some extent by pub rock, as show in the Boomtown Rats video (featuring a very drunk Bob Geldoff):

Here’s to hoping that pub rock is one undiscovered phenomenon in popular music that hipster fucktards don’t discover and strip mine in their quest to destroy everything beautiful in the world.

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