Friday, January 01, 2021

Suburban Voice blog #145

I'm really going to try to publish more blogs this year... some will include reviews, maybe I'll do an interview or two and some will come from the archives, my Maximum Rocknroll columns, in particular. In case you missed it, I retired from MRR last year. I really don't feel like retelling or rehash why and, in the end, I might have burned a few bridges but it was ultimately on my terms and I have no regrets. It was time. 36 years of contributing, the last 15 as a columnist is a good run. 

This piece (with a few modifications) is from my November 2016 column (MRR #402). It was about the 35th anniversary of what I consider to be one of music's pivotal years, filled with an abundance of landmark releases. I'm sure my readership is familiar with the vast majority of these bands but the point is showing the importance of what happened in 1981. Who knows... maybe some of you will check out bands that were under your radar a bit. 


September marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana's Nevermind album—you know, the album that brought punk BACK! It was as if the 1980s and the vibrant punk and hardcore underground had never happened. Nope, we went straight from the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash to Kurt and the boys’ breakthrough. There was a film called “1991: The Year Punk Broke," ostensibly a tour documentary about Sonic Youth that also included Nirvana, as well as Babes In Toyland and Dinosaur, Jr.  The documentary was shot by Dave Markey, a talented filmmaker who has legitimate punk bona-fides, having logged time in Sin 34, as well as publishing We Got Power zine. Speaking of the latter, there's a really good book that includes photos, interviews and reprints of the issues. It's still available here

I don’t think I need to recap much more about 1991, except that tons of bands got signed in a major label feeding frenzy and the same happened three or so years later with Green Day’s breakthrough. Truth be told, Nervermind has some solid tracks but I don’t think I need to ever hear “Teen Spirit” again.

But was that the year punk broke? Of course not. I took a quick look at my 1991 “best of” list that year and some of my favorite were Superchunk, Jawbox, Fugazi, Tar, Jesus Lizard, Born Against and Cosmic Psychos. Good bands, some of ‘em great, but not exactly a banner year in the total scope of things.

1976 and 1977 are usually viewed as ground zero for punk’s explosion and there was, indeed, a plethora of timeless, classic albums and 7”s and it wasn’t all one monochromatic ball of noise, either. There was a lot going on around the globe and it’s hard to fuck with debuts like the Ramones' and Clash’s self-titled albums, Never Mind The Bollocks, Damned Damned Damned, the early Stranglers and Saints albums, the early Dangerhouse records and so on. Definitely an era of change.

But I think an argument can be made that 1981 was the pivotal year for punk’s development, a branching out into new and exciting directions, without giving up its energetic focus. 40 years ago… hard to believe! There was plenty of diversity and creativity and many great bands made their vinyl debuts or put out attention-grabbing follow-up efforts. The first generation of bands had largely moved on, drastically altered their sound or put out less-interesting albums. But there was a veritable bounty of greatness that year. It certainly had a profound effect on this writer’s musical tastes. I got exposed to a lot of it through local college radio shows, especially “Media Blitz” on WMBR (the MIT station), which played all west coast punk.

So let’s start with the west coast and nearby environs. So many incredible records that year, beginning with TSOL’s debut 12” and Dance With Me album. There was an evolution even in the short space of time between the two, moving from politicized punk into something a bit more shimmery and gothic, but still providing a solid punch in the gut. Agents Orange’s “Bloodstains” single actually came out in 1980 but their first full-length, Living In Darkness, was a perfect merger of surging melodic punk and surf music and the album was packed with memorable songs. The Adolescents also helped invent the classic, melodic west coast punk sound on their debut full-length, following their “Amoeba” single. “Kids of the Black Hole” is an anthem for the ages. Bad Religion never sounded better than on How Could Hell Be Any Worse, long before the rough edges were smoothed off and the lyrics started reading like a PhD dissertation. Descendents' first 7, Ride The Wild, came out in 1980, but the first with Milo, the Fat EP, comes storming out of the gates. Featuring the 12 second classic “Weinerschnitzel” as well as feisty punk gems like “Hey Hey” and “Global Probing,” which hinted at the more tuneful elements that would follow on Milo Goes To College.

The Slash Records subsidiary Ruby yielded a pair of groundbreaking albums that year. Gun Club’s Fire of Love featured swampy, dark-hued bluesy punk. Jeffrey Lee Pierce soulfully croons, along with the occasional hell-raising whoop. Seamless transitions from soft to loud ‘n back again, paying tribute to the original bluesmen but wrapping it inside of a barbed concoction. Some of the lyrics are spine-tingling, such as with “For The Love Of Ivy”: “I’m gonna buy me a graveyard of my own/and kill everyone who ever done me wrong/I’m gonna buy me a gun just as long as my arm/and kill everyone who ever done me harm.” I admit I sing that from time to time when feeling a bit put-upon. A great album to listen to when driving late at night, especially through rural back woods.

The other Ruby release was the second album from the Flesh Eaters, A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, which was a complete overhaul from the frenetic punk of their previous All Questions Asked album. With an extended lineup that included people from X, The Blasters and Los Lobos, it was a mixture of razor-sharp guitar lines, growling and atonal sax and even marimbas creating a mutant voodoo punk stew (something like that). Chris D’s vocals could wake the dead, especially his shrieks on “See You In The Boneyard.” It’s almost joyful sounding but also scary as fuck. This was the only disc with this lineup, as Chris scaled back to a more compact grouping for the subsequent Forever Came Today, with saxman Steve Berlin the only holdover. I can’t really think of any other record that sounds like this one.

Black Flag, of course, were an established band by then but put out three pivotal records that year—the Six Pack EP and Louie Louie/Damaged single, with Dez Cadena on vocals and then Damaged, with the newly-recruited Henry Rollins taking over the mike. I know there are naysayers who claim that Rollins ruined Flag. I don’t buy into that assessment—each of the band’s four original-era vocalists had their merits and I’m actually most-partial to Dez’s glass-gargling howl. Damaged, though, is fierce throughout, save perhaps the novelty-esque “TV Party.”

Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc. was something of a jump on the hardcore express and doesn’t really stack up to Fresh Fruit or Plastic Surgery Disasters but the back-to-back “Religious Vomit” and “Moral Majority” capture the dawn of the Reagan era pretty well. Actually, the most important release on Alternative Tentacles that year was the Let Them Eat Jellybeans compilation, which was probably an entry point for many novices into the punk underground, serving up crucial tracks by Bad Brains, Black Flag, Flipper, Circle Jerks, Really Red and Feederz. There were excursions into artier punk forms, as well.

Flipper were raising holy hell in the Bay Area that year with the repetitive, annoying-in-a-great way Love Canal/Ha-Ha-Ha and Sex Bomb/Brainwash singles. The latter paired a song about the demise of blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield (that’s what the crash at the end of the song is) with the endless torture of “Brainwash.” A cruel DJ on one of the Boston college stations once played that song for 45 straight minutes.

After a couple of 7” releases, Minutemen’s debut 12” The Punch Line continued the band’s kinetic, punky and funky oeuvre, with only two of its 18 songs topping the one-minute mark. Saccharine Trust's Paganicons 12” had a similar muse although the songs were longer and Joe Breuer’s vocals cut hard against the grain. Meat Puppets’ debut 7’ In A Car dished out fast ‘n frenzied punk but you could tell they weren’t going to be a one trick pony, not with the more country-inflected “Big House” or jazzier “Out In The Gardener.” The Arizona sun was already baking their brains. Or maybe something else they ingested, if you catch my drift.

Speaking of Really Red, who were from Texas, their overlooked classic debut 12” Teaching You The Fear moved punk and post-punk into challenging realms. Like Really Red, the Big Boys were, of course, also from Texas and Where’s My Towel?/Industry Standard was their first studio 12”, following the Frat Cars 7” and split live record with The Dicks. The Big Boys certainly expanded any definition of punk and were also coming from a funky/punk muse ala the Minutemen and, as with that band, they could play their asses off but weren’t show-offs.

Of course, 1981 was the year hardcore exploded all over the US. In DC, the burgeoning Dischord label already had the Teen Idles 7” under their belts but, during ’81, they unleashed both Minor Threat 7’s, SOA’s No Policy, Youth Brigade’s Possible EP and Government Issue’s Legless Bull. Not a bad year’s work. Touch and Go records weren’t exactly slacking either, not with the likes of The Fix’s Vengeance and Jan’s Rooms EPs, the first two Nercors 7” s and the Process of Elimination compilation 7”, which marked Negative Approach’s boiling-over debut. Toxic Reasons appeared on that comp and made more noise with their Ghost Town 7” (following 1980s’ War Hero) featuring Ed Pittman’s sandpapery snarl and a feisty punk attack, adding a reggae inflection for the title track.  Chicago’s Effigies made their vinyl bow on the Busted At Oz compilation and their own Haunted Town EP. Not really hardcore but packing one hell of a wallop and the live footage of them in the You Weren’t There documentary of Chicago punk is worth the price by itself.

As far as I know, the first band to use “hardcore” in a record title was DOA, for their second 12” Hardcore ’81. They’d been around since ’77 but made things louder and faster, without losing the melodic sensibility that informed their previous recordings. I remember picking this one up on the same shopping trip as their Something Better Change album and, at first, was taken aback by having shelled out $8.50 for a relatively short EP but after getting it home and spinning it three or four times in row, any sense of being shortchanged quickly disappeared. Quality, not quantity, right?

I perhaps use the term groundbreaking more than I should but it really applies to the Wipers’ masterpiece Youth of America. The title track is a ten minute tour-de-force showcasing Greg Sage’s mindblowing guitar wizardry. It’s as much about tone as dexterity and no one has come close to matching it, even though more bands have been influenced by these guys (Sage, really—it’s his baby) in recent years. Nor have those bands been able to replicate the emotional heft in his vocals and lyrics. 1979’s Is This Real sounded like little else that year and had a more economical, punky attack, while Youth of America was a more expansive work.

Lest you think I was only paying attention to what was going on in the States, there was plenty going on overseas, as well. Discharge continued to rewrite the book for loud ‘n fast music and 1981 yielded their Why 12” and Never Again EPs, building on the primitivism of the first 7”s and setting the stage for the sonic bombast that would occur the next year with Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing and the State Violence State Control 7”. Disorder were creating a crazier-sounding punk elixir on their first two 7”s, Complete Disorder and Distortion to Deafness, both of which provided the blueprint followed by the early Finnish hardcore bands and many others since then. Mean, loud ‘n fast punk definitely made its presence felt in the UK that year and the floodgates opened in 1982.

Two other UK bands’ sophomore efforts stood out that year—Killing Joke’s What’s THIS For and Gang Of Four's Solid Gold LPs (as well as the To Hell With Poverty 7”). Whereas Killing Joke’s self-titled first album (following a few earlier EPs) had more of a lumbering and crushing sound, What’s THIS For was looser and more rhythmic, although there was an ominously noisy cloud hovering over the proceedings. Solid Gold had a more spacious, tension-and-release feel than the Gang’s debut, although songs like the churning “What We All Want” and thumping “Cheeseburger” were quite direct. Even Public Image Limited’s third album, The Flowers of Romance, tried something different—having lost bassist Jah Wobble, the remaining core of John Lydon and Keith Levene mainly built the songs around drums and synth, sparingly using guitar and bass. The last PIL album remotely worth hearing. “Banging The Door,” with hammering drumming by Martin Atkins (who appeared on about half the tracks), is the standout.

UK Anarcho punk was coming into full-flower and two memorable debuts came from Flux of Pink Indians, with their Neu Smell EP and Rudimentary Peni's first EP.” Flux’s “Tube Disaster,” bookended by two spoken word passages, is a catchy punk anthem. Peni dish out a dozen succinct blasts of stripped-down punk, punctuated by Nick Blinko’s edge-of-psychosis vocals. Zounds' The Curse of Zounds and Demystification offered a more melodic take. 

I wasn’t as familiar with non-US/Canadian/UK punk at that point. I know Japanese band The Stalin’s Trash came out that year and cut a pretty original punk path, with strains of the ’77 era, post-punk and anarcho stylings. In all honesty, though, I didn’t hear that band until much later on.  

I’m sure I missed a lot, especially from the non-English speaking world, but the records I’ve covered here make a compelling argument for 1981 being a crucial year, the bridge between the ’77 era and what followed throughout the 80s. Many of those bands’ influence can be felt to this day.