BESIDES MAKING names for themselves in local rock clubs and in the hearts of the police and the media, the Southland’s hard-core punk bands have been making records. Before you take the plunge, though, learn from this example:
I put Black Flag’s 12-inch EP, Jealous Again, on the turntable, wondering how the band’s live assault would translate to record. Surprisingly, the first cut was a moody, mid-tempo song, delivered in a deep, dark voice reminiscent of Iggy Pop. That made sense — Iggy’s presence is powerfully felt in L.A. punk music — but still, this didn’t sound quite like Black Flag. That’s when I noticed that I was playing it at 33⅓ r.p.m. instead of 45.
Lesson 1 in listening to hard-core punk records: Check the speed.
Lesson 2: Sitting still will get you nowhere.
These records are not meant to be pondered with knitted brow, and you shouldn’t listen to them at less than sandblasting volume. It’s action music designed to crank up the listener, and it tends to lose something when taken out of its social context. This poses a problem for the solitary listener, but with a little imagination and the right hardware, you could rig up something — maybe one of those baseball-pitching machines — to knock you around your living room. This is functional music, and I suspect its chief use is to liven up parties (the more conservative reader can use it to break them up), or maybe in a car sound system as driving music. Then again, do we really need kids who look like little Marines careering along the No. 4 lane with the Circle Jerks pulverizing their eardrums?
There’s a school of thought that says punk and the vastly more popular heavy-metal — commonly viewed as antagonists — are really birds of a feather. The argument is that both forms celebrate intoxication and rowdy, head-banging good times; both are male-oriented and male-dominated; partisans of both like to picture themselves in an adversary relationship to conventional society, and both styles of music are purposely designed to repel the uninitiated.
But there are profound differences. The heavy-metal fan seems more susceptible to the lure of the status quo, and his rebelliousness is easily neutralized — most often with a van and a tape deck, girl optional. The discontent of the Southern California punk — we’re talking chiefly about Orange County and South Bay beach-area kids, the “surf punks” — appears to run much deeper. That doesn’t mean they’re idealists impervious to corruption; it’s just that no one has made them any offers yet.
As for the musical relationship between the two: A heavy-metal guitar whiz like Eddie Van Halen can make the notes come as fast as raindrops on a roof, but the fundamental beat of the song will usually divide the tempo into a comfortable, listenable pace. In the punk bands, every instrument goes at a full gallop, aspiring to quadruple-time speed.
Combined with the fact that most of the current punk bands have stripped away their forerunners’ token tunefulness, this overcommitment makes for music that’s extremely short of variation, and it can be a wearing task to get through two sides of even the best of these albums (EPs, with their five or six tracks, are an ideal solution).
The groups compensate, to a degree, with brevity: If a song is boring, at least it won’t last long, if it’s good, the record will soon be over and you can play it again. But punk’s most enlivening ingredient — its sense of danger and spontaneity — largely remains limited to the groups’ live appearances, where they generally just set up a din and let the crowd amuse and abuse itself.
STILL, MOST of the local punk records have their moments. The best come when a group stretches against the confinements of its style without surrendering to broader tastes. Here’s a look at some of the significant releases from the first wave of recorded activity. Most of these have appeared within the past six months, and all are on small, enterprising independent labels.
• GROUP SEX, the Circle Jerks (Frontier Records). Along with the indispensable sound track from The Decline …of Western Civilization, this may prove to be the definitive document of early-’80s Southern California punk. The absence of a knockout production job, though, lessens the impact of some sharp material: the title cut’s sardonic spoof of the swinging life, the fierce ‘Wasted’ and the exclamatory ‘Deny Everything’.
Like their fellow bands, the Circle Jerks often fall prey to a self-conscious nihilism, and easy targets beget trite lyrics (“Beverly Hills, Century City… All the people look the same/Don’t they know they’re so damn lame?”). The Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris is one of the most agile singers on the scene (note the way he strings his outbursts on a tight chain of drum rolls in ‘Red Tape’), and while the band’s basic sound is clearly indebted to the Sex Pistols, Clash and Ramones, the Jerks bring definite authority and deftness to their attack.
• ADOLESCENTS, The Adolescents (Frontier). This album has the production (by Mike Patton) its label-mates need, but the Adolescents — who have been making a splash on the live circuit — are inconsistent songwriters. Their efforts, in fact, yield stretches so mundane that you’re ready to give up, when all of a sudden they hit you with something as crazily catchy as ‘Amoeba’, long a favorite on local underground radio.
There are some other powerful songs here, most of them celebrating the beach-punk life style with varying degrees of effectiveness. ‘No Way’ features some fiery and fancy guitar fills patterned on James Williamson’s groundbreaking work on Iggy’s Raw Power. And the Adolescents turn in perhaps the most ambitious cut of any local punksters in ‘Kids of the Black Hole’, an extended track with soaring, sirenlike guitar layers and a succession of intriguing riffs.
• T.S.O.L., T.S.O.L. (Posh Boy Records). The initials stand for “True Sons of Liberty,” but this is no right-wing militia, as a title like ‘Property Is Theft’ tells you. That’s the most inspired touch on this five-song EP, which shows that the group can play as fast as — maybe faster than — anyone around. Otherwise, it’s pretty fundamental and unimaginative.
• JEALOUS AGAIN, SIX PACK, Black Flag (SST Records). The most notorious punk bank in town is also one of the most idealistic and active in propagating the faith, but it has yet to make a record worthy of its stature.
The five songs on the older Jealous Again are fast, tight and intense, but the production is flat and the sources — Sex Pistols again, Iggy again — too obvious. The new Six Pack single (three songs) is an improvement. The group’s current singer, Dez Cadena, has much more presence than his predecessor, and the arrangements have more tension and originality. The sound, though, is muffled (producer: the ubiquitous Geza X), lacking the necessary punch. (Note: Black Flag records are worth at least half the purchase price for the art of Raymond Pettibone, whose disquieting style is a cross between early Mad magazine and Hollywood Boulevard religious pamphlets.)
• PARANOID TIME, Minutemen (SST). The cover’s by Pettibone, production by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, and it’s on Black Flag’s SST label. How did they get seven cuts on a little single? It’s easy when the songs clock in at 38, 39 and 47 seconds. (They sometimes get carried away and break the one-minute barrier).
The Minutemen attempt a broader sort of social-political commentary than their fellow bands, cramming their lyrics into tight little instrumental nooks. The sound is tense and knotty, with a hint of discordance, and the stuttering beats and gyroscopic guitar lines recall Captain Beefheart and the highly regarded English group Wire.
• A WORLD APART, the Crowd (Posh Boy). Remember when the Ramones were the most radical thing around? When their influence is felt now, it’s as a softening agent. The Crowd, from Huntington Beach, has adopted the Ramones’ melodiousness to become the most catchy and benign-sounding of the local punk groups.
Thanks to a plaintive touch in the high-range vocals, the Crowd also is the Orange County equivalent of England’s punk-pop pacesetters the Buzzcocks. The production on the LP lacks definition, but the material, performance and the surf-music elements combine in a surprisingly pleasant package.
The Crowd can also be heard to good advantage — specifically, the rousing ‘Trix Are for Kids’ — on Beach Blvd., a compilation album they share with the Simpletones (similarly surfy, poppy punk) and Rik L. Rik (mannered Jim Morrison incantations).
Another worthwhile anthology is Rodney on the ROQ, programmed by KROQ-PM personality Rodney Bingenheimer. It’s refreshing if only because you finally hear a female voice (the Nuns, the X-like UXA and New York chanteuse Cristina). The collection is uneven, with worthy entries by Agent Orange, the Crowd and the Adolescents offset by drivel from David Microwave, Pender Buddies and Vidiots. Finally, Mohawk Records brings everything full circle with its initial release: a live recording of the Germs’ first performance at the Whisky in 1977. The late Darby Crash is one of the most memorable and influential figures produced by the L.A. punk scene, and this crude document catches much of his chaotic, pathetic magnetism.
© Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1981