Despite its combative and dismissive reputation, punk rock, in its infancy, took umbrage with music of its age rather than what came before it. Thus punk made distasteful music associated with words like “hippie” and “Eagles” while long serving as a portal to the music that preceded it, whether it was the Ramones’ tips to ’60s girl groups or the Clash’s ties to roots reggae and rockabilly.
J.D. McPherson got his start playing punk rock in Talihina, Okla., the kind of town that didn’t have a large independent record store. He would travel to McAlester, about an hour away, to buy copies of Rolling Stone. Once, he asked his mother to drive him to a Hasting’s in Fort Smith, Ark., where he bought Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” the Ramones’ “Brain Drain” and Black Flag’s “Damaged.”
“I was mortified when my mom asked me (if she could) listen to them,” McPherson said. “She liked the Ramones, she didn’t like Iggy at all, and I didn’t let her listen to Black Flag.”
Having spent time playing punk, McPherson today has updated the ageless and wired rock ’n’ roll and R&B that moved people to dance years before the Beatles changed everything.
“When you’re 13, you like punk because you’re rebelling against your parents or something else,” McPherson said. “All this causeless anger, and you don’t know what to do with it. But you follow those bands and you find they’re relatively intelligent folks thinking about things. Some evolved, some did the same thing. But the ones that evolved were allowed to do so on their own terms. It’s a cool aesthetic that perpetuates itself.
“And with punk you could hear the obvious direction coming from these other forms of music. Punk’s still the best gateway to becoming a music nerd.”
McPherson created one of the best — and best-reviewed — albums of 2012 with “Signs & Signifiers.” The album snaps with soulful energy and an inviting beat that suggests performers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Larry Williams. The music’s energy attains some puzzling marriage of primal and precise, with sometimes howling vocals singing lyrics that must be lean to fit in a two-minute song. Some of the songs unfold more slowly, like the apocalyptic title track that has what McPherson calls “a definite nod” to the Smiths. The mix can make McPherson and his band difficult to categorize, which is fine by him. The band’s music draws from a time before radio untangled rock, country and soul and kept them apart. McPherson says he’s seen his album filed in blues, jazz and Americana. He mentions the group won a hard-rock award recently.
“It’s such a postmodern time that it’s hard to compartmentalize anymore,” he said.
If McPherson’s music has a gripping effect, it could be attributable in part to the fact that this style has few practitioners today, particularly younger ones. Berry, Ike Turner and Little Richard are still alive, but most of their contemporaries are dead, forgotten or both. Possible reasons for the absence of attention are numerous. Some of it is, and was, about timing. Early rock and R&B players were playing nearly a decade before Southern soul — a genre that has enjoyed renewed interest in the 21st century — peaked.
Simply put, Berry, a ’50s rock guy, was born in 1926, while Otis Redding, a ’60s soul star, was born in 1941. It stands to reason that the early rock players who didn’t punch out prematurely have, for a few years now, been duck-walking past the average life expectancy. Also, early rock and R&B didn’t benefit from the rise of rock writing/criticism that emerged in the 1960s. But for a few pioneers, many of these musicians have avoided canonization because they were singles artists who pre-dated documentation that tended toward those making albums.
So singers of classic ’60s soul such as Charles Bradley, Lee Fields and Sharon Jones have enjoyed recent success, decades after their style of music peaked.
“It’s weird to think the sort of people I consider to be older folks, from when I was a kid, are decidedly different in their tastes and values than the people my kids consider older,” McPherson said. “The difference isn’t that great in years, but the cultural shift is pretty significant. It’s funny to think that our album got the shot that it did now. Ten years ago, maybe we don’t get the same opportunity as we do now.”
Perhaps his instincts are just good. Punk players tend to be drawn to that which has been marginalized, so it makes sense that McPherson would throw himself into this style of music. And while the album’s title and cover suggest a conceptual depth and themes that reflect McPherson’s background as an art-school student and teacher, he insists “the content of this record is a relatively straightforward concept. It’s just a rock ’n’ roll record. It’s not trying to be much other than that.”
with the Bellfuries>
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Continental Club, 3700 Main
Tickets: $18; 713-529-9899 or www.continentalclub.com