Russian Roulette

This will probably win John Cale no new fans. John Cale is probably ok with that. He is not the kind of artist who goes courting for new followers. In fact, this isn’t even his most aggressively unapproachable work. Even for longtime fans, John Cale is difficult. But never not rewarding. If nothing else, he really helps clear out a party. If nothing else, John Cale is such a bad bastard that his fans become bad bastards by association. He could stick to melancholy piano ballads and make a pretty good buck doing so, but that would be beneath him, and us. We really need those last few artists for whom the concept of selling out still has meaning.



I love how this Black Uhuru song throws you for a little bit of a loop. First you’re lulled by the groove, like you can just zone out to it, then at about halfway, the chorus kicks in with a strong reminder of just where reggae culture came from. It’s not just a groove, it’s a raised fist. Which is what reggae music is all about; it’s a Trojan horse that teaches political lessons under the guise of music you can groove to. I’ve always appreciated Black Uhuru for their songwriting, for striking a balance of making strong points but writing them poetically.


This is kind of a grainy and poor sounding video, but it’s rare and interesting because it’s rare and interesting. John Cale at the piano is really one of the great underrated musical pleasures out there. I don’t know how much this performance will sell you on that, but if you do a little digging and listen to a record or two, you’ll know. Piano ballads can be a terrible genre; there’s something about those ivories that make people turn saccharine and maudlin and whiny, and balladeers who lean heavily on the piano tend to be all of those things. It takes a real iconoclast to make stately piano ballads sound punk as fuck, and John Cale is that man.


The popularity of rap music begins with Blondie in much the same way that the fashionable bindi traces its history all the way back to Gwen Stefani. That is, it doesn’t. At all. But, long and complex history of cultural appropriation aside, in 1981 it was a novelty song by a pop group named after the color of its singer’s hair that gave middle American viewers of MTV their first taste of a new and exciting musical style that was fomenting within the coastal, urban black community. “What is this cool new sound that cool people in New York City are listening to?” Bible-belt Americans asked themselves. “I must discover this Fab Five Freddy for myself, posthaste!” they said. While I doubt that hearing Debbie Harry rap about space aliens really did all that much to turn a generation of suburban white kids into Run DMC fans, the adage that it takes a blonde woman to get black culture’s foot in the mainstream door continues to hold true.

Purple Lips

His lips are purple because he is dead. It’s a fitting love song coming from Nico, who doesn’t do love songs. Nico was nearing the end of her life, and heavily weathered by hard living. She had renounced all glamour, and her music at this point was coming someplace so deep underground it was truly frightening. Once she had paid reluctant lip service to pop appeal, but towards the end she refused to compromise her dark vision, though she was sometimes bitterly angry that no accolades or money ever came her way. She was probably insane, or at least deeply disturbed. How she succeeded in making any records at all, after she allowed her life to revolve around heroin and music industry forgot her, is remarkable. Nico didn’t exactly flourish as an underground artist, but she scraped together a career and left behind a substantial legacy that remains important, at least to a handful of people with very bleak tastes. And, as the old guard continues to drop like flies, I can’t help but think that an artist such as Nico could never come along today. Today a weirdo with a vision would have the tools to support themselves without ┬átraditional stuff like record contracts and press attention. But they would not have the tools to become that weirdo in the first place, because nobody is that isolated anymore. Nobody thinks of singing only to themselves.

Pull Up to the Bumper

Grace Jones

Grace Jones’ message has always been empowerment through sheer glamour. It’s an understatement to say she’s intimidating; she promises to demolish anyone who throws her shade, especially if it’s┬ásome weak-ass man. But she isn’t above a good dick metaphor, either. You can be queen of the street scene and the runway, but sometimes you still gotta cruise for it, ya know? Even Grace Jones is concerned with finding that perfect long black limousine. I suspect that Jones’ gay followers particularly enjoyed this ode to the cruising life, back when cruising was still a relatively harmless pastime. Jones certainly earned her place as gay icon; her gender-bending, aggressively self-assured take-no-shit persona is emblematic of the free-for-all sexual underground of the 1970’s.

Puff She Puff

Can anyone hazard a guess what this one is about? Black Uhuru have lot of songs of great political and social import, but this isn’t one of them. Sometimes you just have to celebrate the basic stuff, I guess, and if there’s one thing everybody likes about Rasta culture, well, you guessed it.