Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Suburban Voice blog #130

(This installment was originally published in Maximum Rocknroll last year...)


When people think of Boston’s original punk era, their attention is usually focused on bands like the Real Kids, Unnatural Axe, LaPeste, Neighborhoods, DMZ and Nervous Eaters. They think of legendary clubs like The Rat (or Rathskeller, as it was formally known). Thing is, while those bands were doing something loud and energetic, it was still rock ‘n roll based. Nothing complicated, nothing too arsty-fartsy.

Still, there were bands who had artier inclinations, who came from a different muse than the more rock ‘n roll oriented bands. Not that they didn’t rock but there was a wider variety of influences and approaches. Ground Zero, The Girls and The Molls are a few examples.

Ground Zero released a pair of 7” EPs, in 1979 and 1980, each with four songs, all of them compiled onto a self-titled album on the Rave-Up label as part of their “American Lost Punk Rock Nuggets” series. In addition, there’s a nearly half-hour video called Televoid. It’s a video and aural bombardment that’s mostly a collage of miscellaneous clips and a few glimpses of the band in the live setting.  The song “Ground Zero” is accompanied by video of nuclear tests, while “Cybernetic War” shows a primitive video game (Asteroids, maybe?). No narration or words of wisdom from the band. They let the art speak for itself.

To give a bit of background, Ground Zero formed at the Star Systems Loft in Boston’s South End. I never had the privilege of going there but it was an early DIY space and was home to a number of performances by the likes of LaPeste, The Girls and Mission of Burma and visiting acts like The Contortions (my god, can you imagine what it must have been like to see those guys at a loft show?) According to the liner notes on the Rave-Up abum, Star Systems was “a group of musicians, film makers, photographers, xerographers, artists, and videographers who decided to join skills to produce an anarchic, movable musical and visual feast combining post-war angst, deconstructed 60s pop with Dada and existential influences.” Pretty heady stuff—certainly an ambitious scope. And if that seems too arty for you, at their core, Ground Zero dished out some pretty hard-edged fodder. One can hear similarities to Chrome, with the drill-press guitar sound and synth washes. But Ground Zero were capable of straight-ahead punk blasts, too, as with “Nothing” on the first 7”. That song ended up on the Killed By Death #12 compilation, and the liner notes were kind of dismissive of them (dross and pseudopunks were two terms used), but they’re wrong. The sleeve for that first 7” comes in an oversized full-color xerox jobbie with small images from live shows. Not quite abstract but certainly leaning that way.


The Girls were also part of that loft scene and they’d also play places like the Punkt/Data Gallery and their practice space was at the Modern Theatre, a building that bordered on Boston’s “adult entertainment” district the Combat Zone (the Modern also screened adult films in the 70s). During their existence, ca. 1976 to 1980, they only released one 7”, “Jeffrey I Hear You,” on Pere Ubu linchpin David Thomas’ Hearthan label. Mr. Thomas produced it, in fact. It’s one of the great lost gems from that era of Boston punk, a nearly six minute excursion that builds to a psychotic conclusion. Daved Hild’s vocals become increasingly desperate and unhinged and the song’s driving rock is punctuated by Robin Amos’ synth mania, which was a key part of their sound. The b-side is a nice bit of Ubu-esque melody-meets-atonality. 


Besides the 7”, there was a 1986 album Reunion that wasn’t a reunion but a collection of unreleased songs, along with “Jeffrey” (but not “Elephant Man”). The quality of material varies but they hit the mark a good chunk of the time. “Vietcong Women,” with its synth drone and eastern guitar lick would, once again, fit in nicely on an early Ubu album. They were capable of wanton punk bash, as well, on the relentless “Keep It Simple” and “Methodist Church,” which cribs a bit from the Sex Pistols’ “Sub-Mission.” Elements of Krautrock certainly inspired their music, Can in particular. If you listen to that band’s “Father Can’t Yell,” it’s not too hard to discern where they were coming from on “Jeffrey.” In fact, Amos later worked with former Can vocalist Damo Suzuki in his band Cul-De-Sac.

Unfortunately, the single and album are long out-of-print and definitely worthy of reissue. There are a couple of easier-to-find releases. Live At The Rathskeller 5.17.79, with somewhat lo-fidelity sound quality, but they effectively bash their way through their material. Some real punk scorchers here, “Just Got Back” and “Stiff Bird” in particular. The 2015 Feeding Tube Records release Punk-Dada Pulchritude (a pretty good description) is a collection of rough-sounding early demos. Opening track “Never Did Believe In” is a numbing, repetitive mindblower and the best song by far. There are two versions of “Little Suburban Territory” and the second one dabbles in No Wave mania. They were more experimental at this point, not yet veering into more traditional punk territory. 

The Molls' single White Stains is a stomping avant-punk classic. It had the requisite pogo punch but was accompanied by driving keyboards and even electric bassoon. Future Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott played on the record. They played the first punk show I ever saw, with The Plasmatics at the Rat. They didn’t upstage Wendy and her chain saw but I remember that particular song. The b-side, “Is Chesty Dead,” is atonal skronk and not as memorable. 
Most of these guys went on to play in Someone and the Somebodies in the 80s, with a fair amount of success. Their best song, “People Are Dumb,” was only released as a demo. That’s something I’ve been singing a LOT lately. Their bass player Tris Lozaw became a music journalist, one of the few credible local rock scribes.

If any of this intrigues you, my old friend Jordan Kratz (from early Boston punk band The Transplants) has a website with a shitload of free downloads including music from all three bands. Hit it up at Make sure you check out The Transplants, too. They were more of a straight-forward punk band and had LaPeste drummer Roger Tripp in their ranks for a time.