NYC Essentials: Chrome Cranks Singer Peter Aaron Picks 6 Albums That Define New York City
Earlier this month, Joe Cardamone of West Coast scuzz lords the Icarus Line shared his six essential L.A. albums. His picks ranged from Captain Beefheart to Guns N’ Roses, capturing the sexy, skeevy, disjointed spirit of his beloved hometown. In the interest of coastal rock ‘n’ roll parity, Diffuser.fm asked Peter Aaron, singer and guitarist of depraved blues-punk stalwarts the Chrome Cranks, to create a list of the best New York City records. Aaron did just that, justifying his selections with personal stories and some of the sharpest rock criticism you’ll read anywhere.
Yeah, I know they’re originally from Washington, D.C., and are thus, arguably, not really a “New York” band. But hey, how many New York musicians really are? They moved to town in 1981, the year they recorded this, their first album. It’s one of the most devastatingly destructive debuts ever, an unstoppable assault of vicious, unrelenting and beyond-blindingly-fast bomb blasts like 'Banned in D.C.' and the immortal 'Pay to Cum.' The reggae jams show the other side of the band’s M.O., and although the Bad Brains’ reggae doesn’t really stand out as such, the examples here work really well in that they balance out the hardcore punkers. I went to the release party at CBGB, which was life-altering: Scream, Government Issue and the Bloodclots also played. To this day, for me, the Bad Brains circa 1980s remain the greatest live band of all time.
The Velvet Underground
Everyone knows that, for better or worse, downtown New York cool starts here. Indeed, I almost didn’t want to mention this, the Velvet Underground’s initial opus, for exactly that reason; I considered citing the essential 1978 no wave compilation 'No New York,' which likewise bent my brain, instead. But then again, I reasoned, there would be no 'No New York' -- and no punk rock, period -- without the Velvets as heard on this classic debut. John Cale’s screeching viola on 'Black Angel’s Death Song' launched every noise band that followed; Nico’s spectral iciness on 'All Tomorrow’s Parties' purely embodies the urbane, squalid-yet-literate sophistication that could only have come from “producer” Andy Warhol’s forward-thinking milieu; and the way that Lou Reed somehow beautifully and hauntingly chronicles S&M sleaze in 'Venus in Furs' and dead-end (literally) drug use in 'Heroin' was unabashedly radical in 1967. Nearly 50 years later, there’s still nothing like it.
If you don’t like the Ramones, you don’t have a beating heart. True, they proceeded to get spottier and spottier after this, their third album -- although even the notoriously thin later sets have their moments, and 1985’s 'Too Tough to Die' is actually one of their best. 'Ramones' (1976), a solid slab of über-raw New York street life if ever there was, is punk’s official ground zero, and 1977’s sophomore 'Leave Home' is also excellent. But Rocket to Russia, their greatest album, crystallized the sound. Here, their pneumatic attack is flawlessly defined across many of their best songs, e.g., 'Cretin Hop,' 'Rockaway Beach,' 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker' and 'Teenage Lobotomy. Brazen plug: My first book, 'If You Like the Ramones' (Backbeat Books), comes out in October 2013. Targeted at neophytes, it covers the mainstreamy pop-punk da brudders influenced (Rancid, etc.), as well as their own sometimes obscure influences and contemporaries.
In my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Chrome Cranks were formed in 1988, there’s a used record store called Mole’s. The original location on Vine Street had a back room where all the records were $1 or less. It was where the store’s knowledgeable but notoriously curmudgeonly manager, the late Michael Riley, selectively stuck the stuff that was musically cool but perhaps in lesser condition. This room changed my life. It was where I could take chances on music I’d only read or heard about or that just plain looked interesting. Here, I bought many of my first jazz records: original Prestige, Blue Note, and Impulse! releases whose deep-groove pressings meant they’d still play well, no matter how scratched up they were. Issued on the latter label, Impressions features the saxophonist’s classic quartet. In part recorded live at the Village Vanguard, it’s a revelation, swirling together Middle Eastern modes and all the tumultuous noise of New York itself.
Speaking of jazz, not a lot of people realize that half of this godlike duo, keyboardist Martin Rev, came out of that genre; prior to forming Suicide with singular frontman Alan Vega, he’d studied with post-bop pianist Lenny Tristano. The influence of this album is more than apparent in the music of the Cranks. Its bleak, dark and boldly minimal pulse runs through so much of our stuff. My introduction to Suicide came when a high school punk pal loaned it to me in 1979. I was 15, and I remember being positively scared to death as I listened to 'Frankie Teardrop' for the first time. And after hearing it I don’t know how many times since then, it still does the trick. “People were coming in to escape the street,” Vega once said about Suicide’s early gigs. “And we were shoving the street right back in their faces.”
Brooklyn-born George Gershwin is one of New York’s truly defining musical figures, a paragon of the Great American Songbook. Perhaps confusingly, there’s a 2001 set on Naxos Records called 'Gershwin Plays Gershwin,' as well as the identically titled 1976 LP on RCA that sits on my shelf. Regardless, both iterations encompass the reason you should own at least one of them: the original commercial recording of the composer’s 'Rhapsody in Blue' by Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra, the outfit premiered the piece with Gershwin on piano at the city’s Aeolian Hall in 1924. Fusing jazz, classical, blues and Eastern European/Jewish styles with the splashy, tonally rich sounds of the modern city, the moving, magisterial 'Rhapsody in Blue' is for my money the single greatest piece of American music yet written. The redemptive, ever-mounting crescendo of its coda usually makes me a welled-up, emotional puddle. Which I ain’t ashamed to say.