June 7, 2012

Betcha Didn’t Know Bill Haley Invented Ska!

In the late ‘60s when rock and roll criticism and the oldies circuit were both getting started, Bill Haley & His Comets got a lot more respect than they do these days.

Then he was seen as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, part of the pantheon of deities headed by “Elvis and the commandants around him; Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent.” These days not so much, at least in the US.

Why? Well, too corny, too white, too pudgy, too derivative, too dorky,. And in truth, his music doesn’t stand up as well as the others namechecked in the song lyric I just cited. (Bonus points if you can name the tune and artist.) On video, the band isn't as embarrassing to watch as, say, Sha-Na-Na at Woodstock but even second tier rockabilly acts from the same era, like Wanda Jackson or Johnny Burnette's Rock & Roll Trio, shred them.

Still, from a historical point of view Bill Haley & His Comets should get some props—“Rock Around The Clock” was one of the first r&r cuts to dominate the pop charts, 8 straight weeks in 1955. And the band sometimes sparked wild riots not only in live performances, but even in movie theaters when Blackboard Jungle (which “Rock Around The Clock” was on the soundtrack of—LOUD) played.

Haley gets a little more respect in England, Germany and especially Latin America, where The Comets were the ones to introduce the Twist and toured and recorded for years in the '60s. But as far as I know, nobody has paid much attention to this 1958 cut, “Lean Jean,” which I found in my crates a few months ago.

When I played it at DJ D’s Ragged But Right Show (all 7” vinyl 45s, all night) at Teddy’s Bar & Grill in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn, proprietor Glen Kirby couldn’t believe it. He kept it and played it for a professional deejay with an encyclopedic knowledge of bluebeat, ska and  reggae, Phast Phreddie, and he was amazed.

So give it a listen, friends, and if you are so inclined, weigh in. Did a guy who started out during WW2 as “Silver Yodeling Bill Haley” in a band called The Four Aces Of Western Swing actually come up with ska before anybody in Jamaica?

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June 5, 2012

Wisconsin: We’ve Already Won!

[This article is based on a piece I wrote for a forthcoming issue of the Norwegian magazine Rødt, published by the Red Party there.]

Today marks the recall election of Governor Scott Walker, another milestone in the protracted Battle of Wisconsin. which erupted well over a year ago. Irrespective of what happens in today’s voting, it has been, arguably, the most important battle waged by the US working class in several decades.

That importance is too easy to overlook, because the current stage of the battle is largely electoral and because the Wisconsin Upsurge was eclipsed last autumn by a broader development in the class struggle in the US, a development it helped to lay the foundation for, the Occupy! Movement. The point of this article is to help us remind ourselves of how Wisconsin has already changed things in this country.

The basic story can be told in a few paragraphs. Scott Walker, newly elected Governor in the traditionally unionized (in US terms, if not Norwegian), industrial state of Wisconsin, announced on Friday, February 11, 2011 that he was putting legislation before the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Assembly and Senate to mend the state’s budget deficit. The main item in the bill was to make collective bargaining between public workers’ unions and any level of state and local government illegal. Combined with a ban on “dues checkoff” (the means by which unions collect membership dues from the weekly paychecks of members), this amounted to an all-out effort to smash public sector unions in the state.

After picket lines on the weekend, protests started in earnest on Monday. By Tuesday, over 10,000 people gathered at the State Capitol building in Madison to protest. That night, 3000 protesters occupied the building (triggering, when I read about it, personal memories of sleeping on the cold marble floor when students

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