David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 276: Lone Justice (Shelter)

August 18, 2023

Ah, the stupidity of labels, especially of genres.

In the 1980s, we started hearing a lot about Cowpunk.  Unless used by Gary Larson, it is a stupid portmanteau. I'd love to see a Holstein with a safety pin hanging from his giant ear. Even stupider, in my estimation, was the Cowboy punk, which is really what the term referenced. Any number of bands were labelled cowpunk, including X, who may have dabbled in country-and-western music for a time ("Call of The Wrecking Ball" being a great example), Violent Femmes (if L.A. and X seemed difficult to yoke up with country living, then Milwaukee for the Femmes seemed an even harder combination to imagine), and Rubber Rodeo (Rhode Island Design students producing country-style songs a little closer to Juice Newton than Jello Biafra).

Maybe there were some cowpunk bands I didn't know that exemplified some blend of country-and-western with punk, but I didn't hear them. Were they producing songs with titles such as, "Daisy Is A Cowpunk;" "Anarchy At The Piggly Wiggly;" or "Blitzkrieg Howdown?"

In the middle of this was poor Lone Justice. Led by Maria McKee, Lone Justice became labelled as Cowpunks when their minor hits "Sweet, Sweet Baby (I'm Falling)" and "Ways To Be Wicked" made their debut album get noticed. Both of those songs, co-written by some member of The Heartbreakers, may have a twinge of country, but certainly nothing punk. If those co-writers had been Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers, we might have had the latter, but since they were Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, fantastic musicians in their own right, but hardly punk, the label was going to seem poorly slapped on. "Sweet, Sweet Baby" is about as authentic of a love song as you get, spouting lyrics few punks would embrace ("you know you make my soul sing/and the bells in my heart go chime"), while "Ways To Be Wicked" might come a little closer to punk mentality, but backs away from it almost as quickly ("you know so many ways to be wicked/but you don't know one little thing about love").

Still, the Lone Justice album did well enough, thanks to these minor hits, and allowed the band, albeit reshuffled for several key members, including the addition of someone who had played with The Patti Smith Group (now we're smelling punk!), to record a thoroughly beautiful pop album, Shelter, that almost immediately got attacked for no longer being Cowpunk (as if that had been defined well) and for being too slick with drum machines and other electronic accoutrements. Produced by Jimmy Iovine (Petty's producer) and Little Steven Van Zandt (that guy with the headkerchief in The E Street Band), there was no doubt it would sound more pop. Hell, Van Zandt had been part of the production team of that little known 1984 album Born In The U.S.A. - you know the one with about 180 hit singles.

Maybe if Shelter had been from a new band, disassociated from a stupid meaningless brand (pun intended), it would have been appreciated for the pop sensibilities it had, most notably Maria McKee's incredible vocals. The title track "Shelter," the only song on the album for which McKee got outside help in writing (notably, Little Steven), is spiritually beautiful.

McKee's vocals and lyrics share real vulnerability along side of love, especially from the end of the first verse transitioning to the chorus: "you're unsure/well, baby, I am too/when the world crushes you/I will be your shelter/shelter from a storm outside." In the same way, she can convey the two-way expectations of love within vulnerability, as in the second verse, singing "disillusion has an edge so sharp/it tears at your soul and leaves a stain on your heart/I need you to wash it clean/you've felt it too, and you need me."

For the bridge, she presents a simple figure of speech: "your struggle with darkness has left you blind/I'll light the fire in your eyes." You may not find a more perfect couplet in pop music. Damn the cowpunks!

If the group had resorted to too much synthesizer and drum machine, there was some shelter in that musical accompaniment, especially as the song fades out with a lot of "let me be your shelter," and eventually just "shelter/shelter/shelter/shelter." 

"Shelter" was Lone Justice's swansong, charting higher than the two singles from the debut album, but that was it. They broke up after the album, making many of us wonder if there was no shelter for her and her band. Luckily, McKee went on to have some success as a solo artist, so at least her musical struggle with darkness did not leave her blind. 

Lone Justice. "Shelter." Shelter. Geffen, 1986. Link here.

Day 275: The Stranglers "Peaches"

Day 277: Steppenwolf "Magic Carpet Ride"

See complete list here.