It’s 1978 and there’s so much new music in the air that you could trip over the classifications springing up to describe it. Punk morphed or got co-opted (depending on your point of view) by New Wave. Was there a straight line from the Sex Pistols to Blondie and thence to the Cars? It seemed like it at the time. At least some of the time.
And the next thing you knew, The Knack were singing “My Sharona” on damn near every radio station and damn near sounding like a great band. It was kind of like when the Troggs came along more than ten years earlier and however dumb “Wild Thing” was, you knew that nobody would ever do that thing any better. Instant classic. Crap, total crap, but classic.
Bob brought home all the new music in our household in those days. I was flipping out over Who Are You and Bob kept putting More Songs About Buildings and Food on the stereo. He’d leave the house, and I’d put the Who back on and make snide comments about real music that had balls instead of crap that went plink plinketty plink. Since it’s now 2014 and the history of music in the 70s has been sorta written, you know Bob was a lot smarter about music than I was. He was smarter about a lot of things, but that’s beside the immediate point.
Whether or not I appreciated it, most of the music that Bob brought home from the record store was at least nominally familiar to me: I’d heard the name of the band, and maybe a track on the college radio station. Then one day this album with a washed-out looking cover featuring four skinny guys with every version of a bad 70s hairstyle among them appeared in the little wooden box that sat in front of the stereo that itself sat on the shelves of LPs that constituted our collective collection. The wooden box was for new stuff, and for stuff designed to be in heavy rotation on our home juke box. This is what the new album said on its cover:
jules and the polar bears. got no breeding.
I don’t remember how long it took me to fall under the spell, the “black fever sleep” to cop a line from the album, of this piece of work. But fall I did, and it was a tumultuous love affair.
Looking back now after 35 years, Got No Breeding seems quintessentially Los Angeles, which is where Jules and the Polar Bears came out of. It’s slick, it’s up-to-date, well informed, professional in its execution. There’s a lot of stylistic variety (slow songs, soulful loving, brassy exuberance, hard-beating rock) coupled with a definite, unique, coherent style of its own.
It’s got ego to burn. On the front cover the band is posed in front of a loading dock and Jules asserts his primacy by standing apart and above, head, shoulders, and nipples over the other guys. He also has more hair, which is saying something in this bunch. But when you’re listening to the music you wonder why this isn’t Richard and the Polar Bears, or Stephen and… or David and…. And how all that ego can be so tight.
But in the end it’s Jules because he write the words, and in the end the words are what fucked me. Given the rapid fire tenor delivery, shouted, screaming, wailed, falsettoed sometimes, the words often got lost until a phrase leapt out of the vinyl at me, and then I would scour the inner sleeve, where if I remember it right, the words were printed in white on a black background, which made figuring out what Jules was saying harder still. You had to work for this album.
And when you did, you got punched. Bad. Jawbreaking. Blinded by the tears that the fist left on your face. This is from “Convict,” the song that closes Side One:
the nice thing about true hopelessness is that you don’t have to try again
I don’t care if that’s the punch line (pardon the pun) of a song about a relationship going south forever. I don’t care if Camus said it better, at greater length, decades earlier. There’s a fundamental simplicity to Jules’s formulation of despair in that line that is truly frightening once you submit to it.
And yet oddly, there’s an affirmation of sorts in that line as well. Because I knew that no matter how broke I was, how lonely and sexually frustrated, how misunderstood I felt, how bitter the politics of academia turned, as long as I was willing to get out of bed in the morning, stand up, and try, even just one last time, I hadn’t reached the point of hopelessness. And sometimes, when I got out of bed, the lyrics of “The Soul of Many Places” would greet me:
hey my sight’s re-arranged morning’s new for a change and i love it
I could go on, about how punchy the horns on the title track are, or how the opening track, “You Just Don’t Want to Know,” sings with Jules’s attitude and Richard’s guitar and has lyrics so smart and sharp you could fry kebabs on them. About how sorry I was that all the spit and the guts got waxed over on their next album, Fənĕtĭks, until they sounded like an inept Cars cover band. But I won’t. Got No Breeding is one of the quintessential albums of the 70s. That is all ye need to know.