Joe Strummer, the Jam, and Billy Bragg are the names you most often see bandied about in comparison to East Coast power-punker Ted Leo. Those are not bad likenesses. Leo shares with the Jam a stripped-down and dirty power- trio lineup that is occasionally augmented with keyboards and second guitar. Like Bragg, he often writes righteous, left-of- center lyrics, as did Strummer, with whom Leo shares a propensity for Jamaican music.
You don’t often see Leo compared to the Elvis Costello of early albums like
Armed Forces and This Year’s Model, though; perhaps that’s because E.C., as the (admittedly classier) Rod Stewart of the post-punk generation, is no longer cool. And Leo and his band, the Pharmacists, so emphatically are really cool—purveyors of taut, melodic, punk-infused pop songs with singable choruses, anthemic guitar lines, and formidable drumming reminiscent of that of Pete Thomas of Costello’s Attractions. (Don’t believe me? Just sample “The Sons of Cain” off his new album Living With the Living. See if it doesn’t remind you of a worthy rival to some fresh hybrid of the Jam’s “Town Called Malice” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”)
What’s most interesting, to me anyway, about all of Leo’s likenesses is that none of them are Americans. Leo really does look, sing, and play more like people like Costello, the Jam’s Paul Weller, Bragg, and Strummer than he does his fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. His blog reveals him to be an ardent soccer fan, especially of the World Cup, and he sports an Irish soccer jersey on the cover of his 2004 album Hearts of Oak.
That same album includes a lament about the rise and fall of the Two-Tone ska movement in the 1970s British Midlands called “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” that sounds more like it was written by a native of Coventry or Wolverhampton than of Bloomfield, New Jersey. And it’s a song that just so happens to be one of the very finest rock-‘n’-roll songs of the new century. Living With the Living has a song about hanging out on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland, drinking a legendarily potent Scots tonic wine called Buckie, a Celtic analogue to MD 20/20.
So what gives? This all seems so natural to him. Is Leo a shameless Europhile or just a product of a uniquely Europeanized section of America? Does he feel more or less “American” than the people he meets in the South and elsewhere in the Red States of America?
Leo, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Florida, says he has some “crackpot” theories on the matter. “I have two very different perceptions of the South and Middle America,” he says. “Traveling in the punk/indie ghetto I meet people all the time who are of like mind and I get their perspective on, say, central Florida or Houston or whatever. So in some ways my perspective is that the South is just this hotter, slower version of Rhode Island. But then, also, I have to recognize that I don’t have the broader perspective on day-to-day life that I do for up here, so for the South I can only get that from the media version of events. And in that sense I do see that there are differences.”
Spoken like the true Notre Dame English-lit grad that he is. But he’s just warming to the subject. “As for the Northeast relating to Europe, for one thing, I think that it’s because well into the middle of the 20th century, New York and Boston were such hubs of European immigration,
especially for Italians and Irish. And well into the late-20th century, Italians were still dealing with discrimination from the WASPy ascendancy. My own father is Italian, and he used to get beat up on the basketball court and called ‘meatball’ and stuff.
“So it’s kind of like the European immigrant communities stayed pretty close-knit until the middle of the 20th century. Now in New York, Little Italy has been, I don’t want to say
destroyed, but almost entirely taken over by Chinatown. But that’s only been since the ’80s, so I think there were and still are a lot of people up here who grew up knowing that they were from somewhere else. So there was this kind of immigrant culture, even among the majority of white people, that was still strong and present in their lives. So because of that, there might be more of a kind of conscious connection with the Old World.”
Bloomfield, Leo’s hometown, is just west of New York City and just north of Newark. Leo says that growing up there, he was always oriented eastward, not just to New York, but beyond. “I didn’t know shit about what was happening on any given day in Philadelphia, even though it was only an hour and a half away,” he says. “But I knew everything about what was going on in Boston, which was three-and-a-half hours away. We were all focused directionally upward and outward up the coast, and
even all the way back to Europe.”
Maybe it’s his Old World outlook, or maybe it’s just his age, but Leo stands apart from many rockers today who rush their music headlong from verse to chorus and back again. The songs on
Living With the Living move at their own pace, arrive at their choruses at their leisure, fade out gracefully, slow and low or fast and hard, as circumstances dictate. Leo thinks it has more to do with maturity.
“I think it’s natural that younger people that have grown up in a music world that is more single-driven and flash-in-the-pan would have those impulses to do things like rush to choruses quicker,” he says. “For me, it’s an ongoing, learning-about-songwriting process. Going back to Hearts of Oak, I think there are some songs on there that I could have tightened up. I could have not allowed myself to enjoy sitting on a riff for that extra four measures. So I took that idea going into the next record— Shake the Sheets—and actually did really try to tighten them up and see if I could achieve that same impact with a much tighter song structure, kind of get to the same end in fewer steps, but have it cover the same amount of journey.”
Leo says he felt pretty good about the way Shake the Sheets turned out. Looking back on it, though, led him to decide that concision could be sacrificed for spontaneity this time around. “On Living With the Living, I just kind of wanted to let things unfold as they would,” he says. “So ‘Colleen’ and ‘World Stops Turning,’ those are really tight pop songs where you get to the chorus fast, but a song like ‘Sons of Cain,’ it’s really like one riff that just builds and builds. So I guess I did make a sort of conscious decision to, like, go with the flow.”
And then there’s “Who Do You Love,” with a lovely, almost “Layla”–like two-guitar punk fade-out. “The main body of that song is kind of quick and tight, a Clash-y pop-punk song,” Leo says. “But then I do enjoy those ‘ride you off into the sunset’ moments, so it was like I could have ended it at one point, but it was like, ‘Nah, let’s ride it off into the sunset instead.’ ”
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play Webster Hall May 5, websterhall.com.