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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Wearing and tearing: An hour of classic rockers grappling with punk and new wave

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images); Neil Young (Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns via Getty Images); Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin (Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage). Graphic: Emma Mckhann.
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The various mass-extinction events in pop music history are greatly overstated. Hair metal wasn’t wiped from the face of the earth the moment “Smells Like Teen Spirit” roared to life; the pre-rock ’n’ roll crooners eked out a decent living in casinos and on TV after the teenyboppers turned their attentions to guitars. And though it briefly supplanted the AOR gods at pop’s bleeding edge, punk never truly killed its elders. The King-worshipping members of The Clash accurately surmised that the spirit of The Beatles and Elvis Presley was dead in 1977, but The Rolling Stones were still around—and the album they released on June 9, 1978, Some Girls, proved they could absorb and synthesize the aesthetic and attitudes of punk as adroitly as they had blues, psychedelia, and intravenous drugs.

Punk arrived at a moment when the monsters of rock’s exclusive claim on the counterculture had begun to slip. Indulgent concept albums and glossy production values bumped up against unstudied performances and unvarnished recordings—and one couldn’t help but rub off on the other. Some vintage rock acts took the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em approach” of Some Girls; others flipped the bird back at the sneering upstarts. A pre-fame Van Halen, fed up with all the stage time being given to the punk and new-wave bands on the Sunset Strip, devised its own method of ad-hoc revenge: Author Greg Renoff tells of a night when Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, and David Lee Roth showed up to the Whisky A Go Go in mod sunglasses and rubber noses. Looking like a corny sitcom’s idea of a punk band, they called themselves The Enemas, said they were from Scotland, commandeered the stage for a few songs, then posed for a fanzine pictorial after being chased from the stage.

Van Halen, the band’s 1978 debut, contains the song “Atomic Punk,” which doesn’t really meet the requirements for this Power Hour. (The post-apocalyptic wasteland described in its lyrics is certainly “atomic,” but the song bears little trace of anything punk.) Instead, we’ll focus on artists who’d seen some commercial success in the years prior to The Clash, Never Mind The Bollocks, and Ramones, and then tried their hands (however briefly) at the sounds of those records and the ones that followed in their wake. These songs are a document of a time when giants walked the Earth, and in their quest for survival, tried to adapt to the aggressive, innovative tactics of the spiky-haired mammals that were suddenly popping up everywhere. Some pulled it off. Some stumbled. Some look a little misguided in their mockery. (A masculine rock ’n’ roll hegemony being challenged by the Debbie Harrys, Poly Styrenes, and Fred Schneiders of the world didn’t always react in the most flattering fashion.) One is Neil Young, who’d do this all over again a decade later with grunge.

Led Zeppelin, “Wearing And Tearing” (1982)

“If you hadn’t known it was us it could have been anybody at all who was young and virile, two things that we were perceived to be the antithesis of, at that time,” Robert Plant has said of “Wearing And Tearing,” an In Through The Out Door outtake that wound up on the group’s odds-and-ends swan song, Coda. Reportedly Plant and his bandmates considered releasing the song under an assumed name, which could’ve fooled the listening audience—until Plant’s unmistakable wail came through.

Neil Young And Crazy Horse, “Sedan Delivery” (1979)

Old Bernard Shakey got two benefits from his friendship with Devo: the shot in the arm he needed to break out of a mid-’70s slump, and the title for the album that did the job. “Rust never sleeps” was an old Rust-Oleum tagline that’d stuck with Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and Rust Never Sleeps is an album obsessed with relevance, going forward, and not letting the rust take hold. Or, as Young sings on “Sedan Delivery”: “Gotta get away.” “Sedan Delivery” was written for one of the albums Young left in the ditch, Chrome Dreams, but the song found its teeth on the tour that formed the basis of Rust Never Sleeps, its surreal workingman’s log split between revved-up two-chord verses and the spacier interludes breaking the tension. The fear of obsolescence has never sounded more productive.

Pete Townshend, “Rough Boys” (1980)

The liner notes of 1980’s Empty Glass dedicate “Rough Boys” to Pete Townshend’s biological offspring (“to my children Emma and Minta”) and his spiritual ones (“and to the Sex Pistols”). Reclaiming the velocity and ferocity the Who guitarist lent to the Pistols and the rest of punk’s first wave, it’s the sound of one generation’s toughs looking at the next with admiration, jealousy, and a little bit of lust.

Paul McCartney, “Coming Up” (1980)

“I love David Byrne’s eccentricity” Paul McCartney said in a retrospective interview about McCartney II, his one-man-band album from 1980. That love is evident on the record’s lead single and opening track, the herky-jerky dance number “Coming Up.” Strip away the horns, and it could slot next to “Found A Job” on Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food. All that itchiness can’t stifle McCartney’s pop instincts, though: That inescapable hook is vintage Macca, right down to those “Twist And Shout” “ooh”s.

Paul McCartney, “Temporary Secretary” (1980)

And then, on the very next track, those instincts are fed through an ARP sequencer to create what sounds like a malfunctioning Press Your Luck board. No whammies: “Temporary Secretary” is one of the most obnoxious tracks McCartney ever recorded, but also some of the most distinct, push-button music about a position that was yet to be automated. It was later embraced by vintage-synthesizer fetishists of the 21st century, a reappraisal that still awaits the other unfairly maligned product of the McCartney II sessions, “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Fleetwood Mac, “Not That Funny” (1980)

McCartney’s admiration of Byrne pales in comparison to that of Lindsey Buckingham, who was under Talking Heads’ influence during the recording of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and continued to chase that muse through his ’80s solo work. Whereas “Wearing And Tearing” is what you get when virtuosos play punk in a studio built to the technical specifications of ABBA, the jumpy “Not That Funny” is a stadium-rock act stripping itself down to a fashionably spare throb. Amid the tangle of overdubs and sexual frustration, you can hear Buckingham lean into some Byrne-esque yelping that’s more audible in concert footage from the era.

Heart, “Break” (1980)

When Ann Wilson fell for Heart manager Mike Fisher, she wrote him “Magic Man”; when Wilson felt a domesticity creeping into the relationship, she came up with this blistering kiss-off. “I was 28 years old and I just wanted to fly,” Wilson later told Rolling Stone. “This was also when punk music was first getting really huge on the radio, and that super sped-up, hyperdrive sound seemed to be the ultimate way to express these feelings.” Another good way: Singing the line, “After a while there just ain’t no magic, man,” at the beginning of the song.

The Kinks, “Prince Of The Punks” (1977)

The B-side to The Kinks’ holiday perennial “Father Christmas” depicts a dilettante as he flails his way through multiple musical styles and fads, eventually landing on one that, in Ray Davies’ telling, is more costume than calling. It’s not a blanket anti-punk statement—how could it be, when “You Really Got Me” showed the world everything you could do with a power chord?—but rather some cheap shots at the talent and sexuality of Tom Robinson, who’d scored a hit in 1977 with “2-4-6-8 Motorway” and later issued the LGBT anthem “Glad To Be Gay.” Robinson had previously played in the Davies-produced folk-rock outfit Café Society, and the bad blood from that experience fed into “Prince Of The Punks” and its poseur subject in “a swastika band and leather boots up past his knees.” The hard feelings apparently subsided: Here’s a playlist from 2015 curated by Robinson under the headline “Ray Davies: The Master.”

Alice Cooper, “Clones (We’re All)” (1980)

Shock rocker turns synth popper in this Gary Numan replica from Alice Cooper’s Flush The Fashion. It’s a surprisingly effective mode for Cooper, particularly in the dark, dystopian humor of the bridge: “Six is having problems adjusting to his clone status / Have to put him on a shelf.” Recorded with Cars producer Roy Thomas Baker, Flush The Fashion was the prelude to a trio of new wave-indebted releases from Cooper, none of which the now-sober “Welcome To My Nightmare” singer can remember.

Robert Palmer, “I Dream Of Wires” (1980)

While Talking Heads and Brian Eno were in the Bahamas to record Remain In Light, Robert Palmer was there, too, making an abrupt, atmospheric left turn from the driving blues-rock of 1979’s “Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor).” Palmer did some percussion on Remain In Light, and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz came over to play on Palmer’s “Looking For Clues.” But the most surprising exchange on Palmer’s Clues involved the aforementioned Gary Numan, who not only co-wrote the album’s “Found You Now,” but stuck around to play keys on a cover of his own song. The Telekon cut “I Dream Of Wires” opens side two, with Palmer installing a blue-eyed soul module in Numan’s android iciness.

Frank Zappa, “I’m So Cute” (1979)

Zappa was around to see the snotty ’60s garage bands that were the first to be labeled punks, so what happened in the ’70s appeared to him a passing craze being pushed by his eternal nemeses, the rock press. “I’m So Cute” jabs a finger at the shallow and the superficial, with Frank Zappa borrowing the sledgehammer rhythms of a musical style he found particularly shallow and superficial. Asked about punk in a 1991 Spin interview with Bob Guccione Jr., Zappa said:

I liked the attitude of punk, I didn’t necessarily like it from a musical standpoint; it is anti-musical. The whole idea was we’re gonna play shitty and fast and so what? The “so what?” part I always like. But anybody who’s against music I don’t like.

Suzi Quatro, “Rock Hard” (1980)

Suzi Quatro and her fellow glam rockers could lay claim to the buzzsaw guitars heard in “Rock Hard”—Mick Ronson was playing that type of thing as far back as The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Here it’s married to a glittery shuffle that gave the erstwhile Leather Tuscadero her very own “Bad Reputation.”

Billy Joel, “I Don’t Want To Be Alone” (1980)

The album where Billy Joel argues that cool punk and new wave were still rock ’n’ roll to his undiscriminating ear is also the one where The Piano Man roughed up his sound to counter perceptions that he was just an ivory-tickling lightweight. Glass Houses isn’t so much a stylistic shift as it is a Billy Joel record populated by skinny-tie rockers like “You May Be Right,” “Sometimes A Fantasy,” and “All For Leyna,” but that chip on his shoulder sure makes him a dead ringer for Elvis Costello—as does the upstroke two-step of “I Don’t Want To Be Alone.” It’s uncanny, really, from the Steve Nieve organ Joel adopts in the verses to the bluesy “Alison” fills from guitarist David Brown.

Bruce Springsteen, “State Trooper” (1982)

The Boss was there for the birth of punk: writing with Patti Smith, playing Max’s Kansas City, and patting Suicide on the back when their label bosses wouldn’t. Well before he covered the duo’s “Dream Baby Dream” on High Hopes, he channeled the skeletal sound and coiled menace of Alan Vega and Martin Rev on Nebraska’s “State Trooper.” It’s nowhere near as harrowing as its primary influence, “Frankie Teardrop,” but what “State Trooper” lacks in kill-floor drone and images of dead family members, it makes up for in the hauntingly detailed inner monologue of a driver bolting down the New Jersey Turnpike to an acoustic approximation of Suicide’s electronic pulse. Really, it’s the unexpected, unhinged howls near the end of the track that cinch the homage. They’re so close to the real thing, Vega once mistook them for his own. We’re all Frankies—even Bruce Springsteen.

The Rolling Stones, “Lies” (1978)

Mick Jagger moved to New York City as American punk was bubbling up from the underground, a fruitful period in the city’s musical history: Disco and salsa were thriving, the composers of the downtown scene were unlocking new directions, and hip-hop was just around the corner. Disco got the Rolling Stones treatment with Some Girls’ “Miss You”; punk got “Shattered,” “Respectable,” and this rude little scorcher. “On all of those songs, the whole thing was to play it all fast, fast, fast,” Jagger has said, and “Lies” takes that to heart, sounding like it’s liable to fall apart in its final sprint. Thanks to Some Girls and the city and bands that helped shape it, that wouldn’t be true of The Rolling Stones until at least Dirty Work.