Perfect Sound Forever


"Promises, Promises"
by Jason Gusmann
(February 2012)

Stylistic complexity wasn't a problem for the English punk band Generation X however, they had a pretty serious ideology problem, at least by punk rock standards. To just listen to them as we did, in the light of 1985, we didn't hear any issues, just a great poppy punk band. Coming of age a few years after the first wave of punk, we weren't really caught up in any ideological arguments about the old vs. the new it was all rock n roll to us anyway, the Velvets, the Who, the Pistols, the Stones, Kiss, the Replacements, the Stooges. The only ideological argument we had was with Metal and the Heads who loved it. We wouldn't realize until years later how poisoned we were by the legacy of the '60's as it took the egregious self-congratulation of the baby boomers a long time to really sink in. However, for the English punks, it was Us versus Them from the jump.

Generation X started off ideologically correct, if unconvincing, with their first single, "Your Generation," featuring the chorus, "Your generation don't mean a thing to me!" Any good politico will tell you that you don't use the language of the oppressor to fight the oppressor though, and the reference to the Who's "My Generation" was clear and ultimately reactive. The line about "might take a bit of violence" was really pretty wussy too this wasn't exactly "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" But the real issue was that Generation X had not come to bury Caesar but to praise him, and this ended up making their bad faith pretty apparent to their punk peers.

Further singles made things even worse for Billy Idol (the singer who went on to a successful career in American 80s pop) and the rest of the band "Ready Steady Go" was a pure celebration of the old British pop show, and "From the Heart" started as an ode to sincerity and first love but even then had to phrase it in words laced with reverence for rock history

I just want to give that feeling
Rock n roll gave to me
And then it just got worse as Billy tells us all,
Like Lennon said for me
I believed Ray and Keef
Like Townshend said for me
Rock and roll made me
Billy and Gen X were wide-eyed believers make no mistake. This made them the equals of Nazi collaborators in the eyes of the "true" punks the problem that arose for those punks though was that Generation X's songs were just amazing regardless. The one we loved the most, and the one that really drove home the contradictions inherent in the band, was "Promises, Promises." It started off pretty parochial -
The last lot made a few mistakes
They didn't die young
They got big waists
We got let down in the back of Earl's Court
Swore that night we'd never get bought
'Cause we were smarter than they were
And the other "promises" they listed along the way:
...we play worse than they do...
...never sell out like they did...
The "promises, promises" we are supposed to remember seem to be that "we" wouldn't ever sell out, give in, play well, get big waists, survive into adulthood which of course they did, we all did, everyone always will. But that belief, winking out in a flickering moment, is so sweet and real and pure, when it happens it can mark you for a lifetime, even in the guise of a silly Generation X song.
Where were you in '75
When there were no gigs
We were jive
On "jive," Billy Idol does something with his voice, multitracked in harmony, which is so heartbreaking I find it impossible to explain in words without just sitting you down and turning it up and playing it for you and watching your face as you understand. And it's such a silly line, too "we were jive," what the hell. This is the great glory of Billy Idol - that he could invest such meaningless stuff with such apparent sincerity his big problem is when he started trying to inject meaning into his pop fluff, like with "White Wedding," yecch. "Dancing With Myself" was awesome though.

Anyway, the rest of the vocals on "Promises Promises" are all about how "no one gave a shit for rock 'n' roll dreaming" and "they thought we were stupid" and that the music exists in spite of that, rockets joyfully forward in the face of that. And you realize about the time that Billy's crooning about how he remembers the "promises, promises" that they are just celebrating the fact that they got to do this at all, to bring it for real like Lennon and Ray and Keef and Townshend had said for them (but not Mick Jagger, interestingly enough) and now they are saying for themselves. And you realize that the rest of the song is just one big victory lap and they run faster, and faster, and if you didn't notice before how great drummer Mark Laff was you realize it now. And then Billy drops out first, out of breath of course, and just sings the "promises, promises, promises, remember" line for the rest of the song, and bassist Tony James gooses Bob Andrews along faster and faster on guitar and he hits these great bent high notes that feedback like nothing has or since like Lou Reed in "Heard Her Call My Name." And then they're running downhill, then the rhythm doubles up and then they punch it and then and then and then done. Five minutes, eighteen seconds.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER