Through A Note Darkly: Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground, The Smiths

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks

Personal Favorite: “Anarchy in the U.K.”

Summarizing Lyric: “Get pissed, destroy” off of “Anarchy in the U.K.”

The Sex Pistols were obnoxious children. They ended their record with a fart noise, and that’s why I like them, but it’s also why I don’t love them. Listening to the Sex Pistols unleash their angst through barking instruments and lacerating vocals provided a catharsis for anger against the system that I definitely needed during a very frustrating election year. However, I wasn’t necessarily riled up to do anything other than violently throw a pillow across my room, and violently doing anything doesn’t do much more than letting people know you’re pissed. Punk is said to be fueled by an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, but some punks did give a fuck. Never Mind the Bollocks has some deliciously nasty instrumentation and lyrics that translate into the band not caring about anything (“I’m a lazy sod” off of “Lazy”), but their politically charged songs (“God Save the Queen”) and cautionary lyrics (“You don’t do what you want and you’ll fade away” off of “Problems”) point to a group cares, that wants to inspire anarchy in hopes of the chaos creating a world where they could thrive without judgement from apron-wearing mothers and desk job fathers. Kicking the shit out of the system with distortion and insults gets people angry, but, as Malcolm Gladwell put it in an episode of Revisionist History, “You must respect the body you’re trying to heal.” Bob Dylan showed respect to the body he was trying to heal in “When The Ships Come In”, so he got to play it during the March on Washington, actually helping facilitate change. Never Mind the Bollocks, as enjoyable as I found it to be, only got me throwing a pillow across the room, but then again, maybe that’s all it wanted me to do. What could be more nihilistic than showing a problem and offering no solution?

2. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Personal Favorite: “Heroin”

Summarizing Lyric: “I’m gonna try to nullify my life” off of “Heroin”

Ahead of its time, but of its time; constantly imitated, but rarely improved upon; makes you wish you knew about it sooner, but you know if you did you wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it. This is the criteria met by some of the greatest works of art, from Shakespeare’s plays to Warhol’s pop art, and The Velvet Underground and Nico ticks all those boxes with a crimson pen full of heroin’s brown, dull ink.

The album’s sound documents a time in the mid-60s when the drugs were still making people feel good. Close your eyes to “Sunday Morning” or “Venus in Furs” and you will float into a room inflated with weed smoke, populated by a group of stoned flower children laying on a shag rug. Open your eyes and you’ll see syringes orbiting the children’s bodies, bits of tie-dyed paper renting their tongues, beautiful horrors described by Lou Reed in his lyrics. Reed’s characters suffer from paranoia and regret in “Sunday Morning”, they’re betrayed by the drugs in “Femme Fatale”, they rely on pain for pleasure in “Venus in Furs”, but what makes the stories stand out from other drug-fueled lyrics is Reed’s self-awareness, his ability to reflect and explain why he and his characters live on the fringe. “I’m gonna try and nullify my life” he promises, and the Sex Pistols would stop at that line, screech it proudly because they chose the lifestyle, but The Velvet Underground didn’t choose alternative. As guitarist Sterling Morrison put it, “We were the original alternative band… not because we wanted to be, but because we were shunned into it.” This shunning allowed for sadness to cut through Reed’s voice when he chuckles through the line, “Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life,” almost like he knew the high wouldn’t last forever. The sixties counterculture movement had its positive effects, but they also led to the Manson family murders and Altamont deaths, horrors worse than those on the record. Haunting? Yes, and maybe that’s why it took the album a decade to strike people as fantastic. Time made the pill that said “your high is gonna end” easier to swallow.

1. The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead

Personal Favorite: “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side”

Summarizing Lyric: “Behind the hatred there lies a plundering desire for love” off of “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side”

I can always gauge how infatuated and/or heartbroken I’m feeling over somebody by how into The Smiths I get. If I start tearing up during Morrissey's all too real questioning in “I Know It’s Over” (“‘If you’re so clever, then why are you on your own tonight?’”), then I know a gasket in my heart area is loose and will need a couple weeks of repair; if I don’t tear up, then all is well and I can hear the person’s name without crumbling to the floor, feeling like a pile of dirty, neglected, unloved clothes. But lyrics for the frustrated romantic is only half of what The Smiths put into The Queen Is Dead. They have that same anger towards a system that the Sex Pistols has, and they infuse the same poetic touches and unconventional sounds that The Velvet Underground are recognized for, but they also add a layer of humanity. Yes, you see them get critical of robotic politicians (“The Queen Is Dead), unoriginality in art (“Cemetry Gates”), and hypocrisy in the church (“Vicar in a Tutu”) the way the characters in Never Mind The Bollock and The Velvet Underground and Nico might, but you also see them freeze up when love is there for the taking (“a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask”), you see them get angry at themselves for being so politically outspoken (“Bigmouth Strikes Again”), and, best of all, you hear them pleading for people to understand that just because they’re dicks when debating Romanticism doesn’t mean that they don’t have a “murderous desire for love.” The Queen Is Dead are the thoughts of every pretentious book reader and vinyl purchaser put to music, and, being a pretentious book reader and vinyl purchaser myself, I understand why some people are a little annoyed by The Smiths and Morrissey in particular (we are an annoyingly emotional bunch), but the wit, the catchiness, Johnny Marr’s unmatched guitar work, and the unapologetic desperation in lines like “To die by your side, well the pleasure and the privilege is mine” set the album apart for me.