NoMeansNo: Wrong (pt. 2)

wrong

Dear Matt,

Here is a crude summary of my feelings about punk.

I spent a long time hating punk entirely on principle, having heard none. I hated it for its attitude — for the notion that striving for excellence was somehow beside the point. I hated it for thinking that three chords were enough. I hated it for killing prog, which is ridiculous because it didn’t.

At the same time, I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for any counterculture. There are echoes of the hippies and glam rockers in punk, and there was a political situation that needed to be shouted at. I didn’t like how punk treated the prog rock “dinosaurs” as establishment symbols with no regard for how transgressive and countercultural those bands were in their own way, but the foundation was solid.

Basically, I’ve always admired punk for being angry about Thatcher — but I’ve always been suspicious of it for being angry about Yes.

I realize that all of this extends from an untenable way of thinking. Because, the punk I’m talking about here is not a version of punk that exists in a meaningful way. It’s a sort of textbook-defined, Platonic ideal ur-punk. (Basically, it’s the Sex Pistols.) As always, the real thing is messier and more complex. “Angry about Thatcher” isn’t a useful epithet when you’re talking about, say, a band from Victoria.

You may be interested to know that this is in fact not the first punk album I’ve heard straight through — it’s the second. The first was London Calling, as orthodox a punk selection as is available. And even that experience confronted me with the vast difference between my imagined punk and real punk.

Here was music with a certain amount of discipline. Restraint, even. The lyrics were thoughtful. The arrangements had been fussed over. Even after four sides of it, I didn’t feel like my precious aesthetic values had been disputed.

So, no. I don’t have a legitimate ideological conflict with punk. A personality clash, maybe. Punk likes to read Marx and get angry. I like to read Shakespeare comedies and chuckle to myself. Punk is freewheeling and likes being in rooms full of shouty people. I am fairly buttoned-up and like being in libraries. Punk thinks that breaking rules is a good idea. I was raised to be suspicious of people like that.

I don’t know if Rob and John Wright are people like that or not. I suspect both of them could have earned a decent crust playing jazz — that most regimented of spontaneous art forms — and I have no doubt that they spent countless hours honing their craft. Rob’s bass playing reminds me of Chris Squire and John Wetton, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Nomeansno are King Crimson fans.

They also have a song called ‘Big Dick.’

I loved every fucking second of this album.

—Matthew

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NoMeansNo: Wrong (pt. 1)

wrong

Dear Matthew:

I promised you that this project would involve you listening to some punk rock. The time has come. But fear not — I’m going to ease you into it. This week, you’ll be listening to NoMeansNo‘s seminal 1989 opus, Wrong.

It’s actually kind of hilarious that I’m using the word ‘ease’ in the same paragraph as NoMeansNo; they’re about the most challenging punk rock band I can think of. They’re mathy and jazzy and even sometimes a little proggy — words that are kind of hilarious to find in the same paragraph as ‘punk rock’ — but they’re also thrashy and angry and they infuse everything they do with an absolutely pitch-black sense of humour. So, the way I see it, they’re built on the bedrock of everything that’s great about punk rock, but they approach it with — well, with an approach to the craft that you’ll find more palatable.

At its core, NoMeansNo is the brothers Rob and John Wright, on bass/vocals and drums respectively. The pair from Victoria, BC, though the band is now based in Vancouver. Over the years, guitar and backup vocal duties have been handled by Andy Kerr (as they are on Wrong), and later by Tom Holliston, but unlike most punk rock, the guitar is mostly just flavour; Rob is definitely the frontman, his basslines always the musical main-mast. Live, the three play side by side on stage — with John facing Rob, so the audience gets a good look at John’s playing.

Here’s another thing about NoMeansNo: they’re old. Like, I’m pretty sure they’re older than my dad. That said, they continue to rock harder than any band of their vintage that you care to name, and they’re still putting out good records; 2006’s All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt is in a dead heat with Wrong for my favourite of theirs. I mean, I guess when you’re a band for 36 years, you get pretty good at playing with each other, but these guys all had the chops from the beginning — and they can still shred every lick just as hard as the day it was recorded. In case I haven’t made myself clear: if you get an opportunity to see them play, take it. I only hope I can rock half that hard when I’m that old.

Wrong itself is interesting for a lot of reasons. For one, the title is probably the clearest example of the ‘(W)right’/’wrong’-based wordplay in which in the band frequently engages. Rob was recovering from vocal chord nodules at the time, so it’s atypical in that it features a lot of vocals from then-guitarist Kerr. It’s also probably the best cross-section of the various things the band is capable of musically. There are short, old-school punk rock rippers like ‘Two Lips, Two Lungs and One Tongue’; sludgy, sprawling epics like the album closer ‘I Am Wrong’; and whatever you’d call the madness that is ‘Big Dick’. Wrong is all over the map, and I love it.

If you can’t get into punk rock, then hey, you can’t get into punk rock. I know it’s not for everyone. But for a man of your particular tastes, this is the best possible gateway drug I can think of. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know if anything will.

— Matt