Mandatory: The Best of The Blasters
The Blasters are a good case study in what made original punk rock so cool. The Blasters emerged from the same punk rock scene that gave us X and Black Flag. In those early days of punk, it was a defiant attitude and balls-out energy that mattered most. The Blasters hit the scene like a nitro-powered Peterbilt truck. The music they played owed a lot to rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and rockabilly pioneers like Charlie Feathers. They played this throwback music like they had hell hounds on their trail.
The Blasters were led by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin. Phil was the earnest, heart on the barroom floor voice of the band. Dave was the guitar slinger and main songwriter. They were aided and abetted with piano boogie by Gene Taylor and the saxophones of Lee Allen (veteran of the early rock and blues scene in New Orleans) and Steve Berlin (later of Los Lobos). Bill Bateman’s drums and John Bazz on bass provided the rhythmic rocket fuel that let this retro Americana band hold their own on stage with the Cramps and the Germs. Mandatory collects 21 tracks from the band’s 1980 to 1985 heyday. The collection opens with the band’s mission statement, “American Music.” I’ve always imagined this song being sung by an American soldier on leave in Hamburg or Amsterdam, going nuts hearing American rock and roll pumping out of the dive bars in the red light district. He’s out of his head realizing that the tunes he loved on clear channel radio station are loved all over the world.
“Border Radio” is Dave’s love song to the 50,000 watt clear channel stations broadcasting out of Mexico. When American radio stations were still in thrall to the crooners on the Hit Parade, the Mexican stations (as well as a few renegade stations in the US) played Black rhythm and blues and early rock and roll. For a generation of rockers, the clear channel stations were their incubator.
Many of the Blasters tunes are uptempo rockers. A few of their later songs deal with heavier topics. When Phil sings, “I thought these things didn’t happen anymore. I thought all that blood had been shed long ago,” it sounds like a commentary on today’s news, not a song written 40 years ago. “Dark Night” deals with racism and murder. I wish it was something we didn’t have to worry about anymore. “Common Man,” with its scorching guitars and takedown of political con men was written for Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, we still have con men sucking up to the “common man.”
Mandatory gives a master class in roots music. In addition to the rocking and rolling, the band dips into country (“Little Honey”), Brill Building pop, (“Help You Dream”), jump blues (“I’m Shakin’”) and gospel. “Samson and Delilah” has the glorious harmonies of the Jordanians on this traditional song. Mandatory also includes “One Bad Stud” and “Blue Shadows” from the Streets of Fire soundtrack.
The Blasters Fragmented in 1985 when Dave Alvin left for a solo career. Phil Alvin has lead a version of the band over the years while also pursuing an advanced degree in mathematics. The band put out some new albums in the 2000s and still tours from time to time.