Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 19: The Heartbreakers, "Born To Lose"

Artist: The Heartbreakers
Song: "Born To Lose"
Album: L.A.M.F.
Year: 1977

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When one looks at all of the different sounds and styles that came and went throughout the music of the 1970's, it is almost expected that there would be a handful of groups that were able to blend many of them into a single, new entity.  Seeing that many of the styles were birthed from the hard rock sound of the late 1960's, there was already a common thread between them, and it was simply waiting for a band to come around and put to all together.  However, the one band that may have done it best is one that rarely receives credit for such, as their short-lived, yet highly controversial career tends to overshadow many of their musical accomplishments.  Taking the "glam rock" attitude and making it even sleazier, then giving it an injection of the punk spirit, there are few groups that could hold their own with the power and sound of The Heartbreakers.  The bands' icnoic 1977 debut, L.A.M.F., remains one of the most stunning recordings in history, and few albums have been remastered, re-sequenced, and argued over as much as L.A.M.F.  Nearly every track seems to jump off the record, finding a unique musical space somewhere between the Hanoi Rocks, The Sex Pistols, and The Ramones, and the album remains just as fresh and exciting today as it did upon its initial release.  Yet while every song on the album is fantastic, there may be no finer a representation of everything it means to "be" rock and roll than one finds in The Heartbreakers' classic 1977 song, "Born To Lose."

As the opening notes of "Born To Lose" ring across the track, there is a darker mood that is absent from much of the punk music made in 1977, and this tone holds strong throughout the entire song.  It is quickly pushed slightly into the backdrop as guitarists Johnny Thunders and Walter Lure lead the sonic assault.  The tone of their guitars brings to mind many of the guitar greats of all time, as there is a grind and glory within their sound that pushes the song to something beyond "just" punk rock.  Though it is a rather simplistic arrangement, one can hear why Thunders is hailed as one of the greatest guitarists ever within the spirit of his playing.  Furthermore, one can clearly link his performance and sound on "Born To Lose" to his early days as a member of The New York Dolls.  Yet it is the combination of players on "Born To Lose" that make the song so brilliant, and the rhythm section of bassist Billy Rath and drummer Jerry Nolan are in top form throughout the song.  The way in which the group is able to push past the constraints of the "punk" sound and inject full-on rock and roll majesty is what helped to define an entirely new side of the punk genre, and there has rarely been as perfect a crossover between hard rock and punk rock as one finds here.  From the soaring solos to the distinctive punch that hits with each and every listen, "Born To Lose" stands as one of the few songs in history that never gets old, and it continues to easily surpass nearly everything that has been recorded since.

Adding the ideal finishing touch to the song, the vocals of Johnny Thunders find a similar balance between the spit-fire attitude of punk and the powerful, more structured sound of hard rock.  Rarely showing any need for much more beyond his speaking and shouting voice, he manages to somehow turn this stripped down sound into something to which all can relate, and it is his vocals that are the key to the now-anthemic status of "Born To Lose."  This is further reinforced by the group vocals, and one can quickly sense just how involved and high-spirited their live shows must have been.  Yet there is something that almost borders on chaos within the voice of Johnny Thunders, and it is this edge that sets him apart from his peers, giving the listener the sense that at any moment, the entire song might fall apart.  This wild, uniquely defiant sound is in many ways as "punk" as punk gets, making other vocalists seem either more tame or complete fakes in their delivery style.  The way in which Thunders seems to almost spit each phrase with a challenging tone perfectly captures the confrontational, almost detached spirit of punk rock, and lyrics like, "...living in a jungle, it ain't so hard...living in the city, it will eat out your heart..." only reinforce the authentic, almost primal tone that the band executes with absolute perfection across "Born To Lose."

Truth be told, shortly after the release of L.A.M.F., The Heartbreakers imploded, and while they would reunite a handful of times with slight changes in lineup, there was never as potent or pure a grouping under the name of The Heartbreakers as one finds throughout the album.  Even more than thirty years after its initial release, the punch and grit of the record are still as powerful, and one can easily make the case for it being one of the pivotal albums of both hard rock and punk rock.  Yet the band and album are still somehow placed into an almost cult-like status, rarely receiving the acknowledgments so clearly deserved for the way in which both re-shaped the musical landscape.  It is the manner in which the band took the glam rock sound and infused it with the attitude and reckless abandon of punk rock that makes their sound both unique and powerful, and though other groups attempted such a sound, none came close to that which can be experienced throughout L.A.M.F.  Each song on the album hits with a rock fury that has rarely been heard elsewhere, and with "Born To Lose" as the lead track, it sets a fantastic tone for the music that follows.  There is little arguing that the song stands as Johnny Thunders' finest musical moment, and it is within the song that one quickly realizes that he lives every bit of the attitude and each word that he sings.  It is this sense of authenticity, along with the fast-paced sound and a venom that makes The Heartbreakers' 1977 song, "Born To Lose" an absolutely stunning musical moment.

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