Saturday, June 15, 2013

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers - L.A.M.F.

L.A.M.F. (1977) ***1/2

If you likes yer R'n'R raw, basic, and kickass, this whopper does indeed live up to its cover, featuring our sleazebag cadre of murder junkies ready for a switchblade rumble: '50s juvie delinquent rock amped up for the gritty Mean Streets of '70s NYC.  Led by the titular character (lately of the NY Dolls) on his leather-patented sludgy, slashing guitar (but you likely already wised up to that), sidekicks Walter Lure on extra guitar and also ex-Doll Jerry Nolan all by himself on drums, plus some dude on bass (replacing ex-Television/future Voidoid/ripped-shirt pinup Richard Hell, who was in the band five minutes before his ego clashed with Thunders').  If you enjoyed Thunders' vocal spotlight in the Dolls, "Chatterbox," you're in for a treat:  this is an album comprised almost totally of songs that sound exactly like it!  Indeedy, this is one of the most kickass rock'n'roll records ever slabbed to vinyl (having never owned nor heard this on an actual record player, I have no opinion on the legendarily poor mix that allegedly led to the band prematurely breaking up in disgust -- sounds fine to me on Youtube, as most 21st century listeners are gonna experience it).  Thunders' guitar tone is wonder of nurture, oozing chunky chonk chunks of pulverizing sleaze, offhand swagger, and trebly grit.  The rhythm section swings and pounds away with relentless propulsion - tight the band is, even if I can't distinguish where Thunders' guitar ends and Lure's begins (they seem to doubletime each other's riffs half the time, creating a twin-rhythm guitar pulverizer that makes the music that much denser and heavier - the punk answer to Thin Lizzy's twin harmonized leads?).

Problem is that, as Wilson & Alroy pointed out in their review of AC/DC's Back in Black, the most kickass rock'n'roll record doesn't necessarily equal the greatest rock'n'roll record.  The primal influence of '50s greaser rock - Eddie Cochran bop, Chuck Berryisms soaring by like streamlined Mustangs, early '60s pre-Beatles Motown pop stomp - is worn on these boys sleeves' (no junkie pun intended).  But as the Ramones demonstrated better (perhaps because they had soaring melodies in their arsenal in addition to kickassitude), there's a difference between simple and simplicity.  Constructing a song around little more than a repeated chorus of, "Baby I love you, I really do," ain't the brightest of moves unless you indeed are Dee Dee Ramone, and even then.  The paradox of the Heartbreakers is that they are revered as one of the founding legends of Class of '77 Punk, and yet this LP rarely shows up in any list of Great Year of '77 Punk Classics. Their songs almost never show up as totemic covers for latter-day punk bands - which speaks volumes about the classic endurability of their songs. And for one simple reason:  junkie scumbag Thunders apparently was rarely non-nodded out enough to bother composing anything more than readymade throwaways.  So while the band sounds as rough and exciting as your R'n'R nightmares, the songwriting's awfully thin.  Obviously the glass is tilted more towards the half-full side of white-hot performances than half-assed songwriting, judging by my positive grade:  this is hard rock, after all - you don't expect heartbreaking works of staggering genius (pardon pun and contemp lit reference), you just wanna stomp, air guitar, and dance.

There are exceptions, of course - the co-write that Thunders either stole from Dee Dee or the Ramones stole from the Heartbreakers (like either dead junkie is a trusted source), "Chinese Rocks," the bruising punk standard that's the clear A-side of this record.  The other tune to make the cut as a totemic standard for the rest of Thunders' career is likewise autobiographical sketch of self-inflicted self-pity, "Born to Lose".  And there's the sole musical exception to this album of soundalike hard rock rifferamas, the Stonesy (what else?!) ballad, "It's Not Enough."  It's excellent, and a few other tracks like "Pirate Love," and "All By Myself," also sound like they had a bit of actual  thought and care put into them.  Unlike several tracks, where the band apparently thought that coming up with a riff and chorus was, "hell, good enough for government work."

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