Thursday, February 25, 2010

early '80's California punk and SST records: thoughts from someone who frankly wasn't there, man.

I'm in the process of slowly working through some of my old writings with the intention of eventually placing most of it under the happy banner of this here blog. I'm sometimes subtly/sometimes substantially tweaking these earlier pieces, knocking out a clunky turn of phrase or adapting the text to the open-ended free-for-all approach that defines this small blip in the cyber-realm. If you are one of the three people that were previously familiar with these new/old postings, I'm sorry for the redundancy. Continue to watch this space for fresh posts. 'kay?

1977 is a landmark year in the history of rock music, for it announced to the world at large the arrival of a striped-down approach to the form that had been brewing under the surface for a good while previous: inspired by The Stooges, '60's garage bands, and even rockabilly and Chuck Berry, it was a raw, fresh approach, a return to basic principles, a slap in the face to rock-star aesthetics and show-off technical proficiency. Obviously, I'm talking about punk rock. But flash forward to the dawn of the '80s, and a look at the punk "scene" finds it floundering in a variety of directions. Many of the great bands that defined the '70s punk rock sound had broken up, others had either watered down their sound to find commercial acceptance (the "new wave" phenomena) or moved into more complex or abstract territory (post-punk or experimental music), and some were playing in the same style with less interesting results. For a variety of reasons, pure punk rock never caught on commercially in the USA, and this fact had major impact on what was happening in numerous regional music scenes around the country. The effect this had on Southern California, one of the strongest locales in the history of early American punk, was huge. Some took the new wave route, with probably the most commercially successful example being The Go-Gos (yes, they were a punk band in the beginning, though there is sadly no recorded evidence of this, their early days existing as a part of Cali punk lore). Many bands broke up, in some cases with individuals simply disappearing into a mist of anonymity, others like Darby Crash and Black Randy dying young, and a few like X and the post-Dils band Rank and File adjusting and adapting with varying levels of success to a more traditional rock sound. By the start of the Reagan decade punk rock was in bad shape. Shunned by the major record labels, perceived by the public at large as yesterday's fad, and carried on by bands who were either inferior to the classic sounds of the initial impulse or were soldiering forward with diminishing levels of chutzpah, it was obvious that something needed to happen to reignite and refocus the whole shebang. And it did. For some it was the renewed energy and focus of what came to be known as hardcore. For others, it was the varied and less genre specific sounds that were later described as indie-rock. But interestingly, one "scene" can lay claim to being an essential influence on both of these developments. That's SST records.

The label's inaugural blast was released in 1978, the NERVOUS BREAKDOWN 7 inch, and compared to other examples of punk that were extant at the time, it's a major step beyond (sonically, only The Dils and The Middle Class come anywhere near the antagonistic blitz of SST's first release. I should add that Germs, at this point, were still more notable for being barely able to hold their sound together, and for the sheer spectacle of their live shows. 1979 saw the release of their GI album, which frankly does give NERVOUS BREAKDOWN a run for its money in the extreme sonic pandemonium sweepstakes, though the Flag still take the honors by a nose). 1980 saw the band continuing the template (the challenge?) they laid out on that first platter, and it was this year that saw them gathering momentum and documenting the harsh, angry, brutally direct sound that was so influential to so many kids all over the country, kids who were vital in developing the early hardcore scene. In fact, Black Flag were so important to the hardcore explosion that was ready to detonate that they are often themselves called a hardcore band. Personally, I think this a mistake, an example of inclusion due in this case to the wicked mania of their sound, a sound that was so distinct from the often goofy non-conformist fun of their predecessors, and also the band's image or presentation, which was notably subversive (owning a Black Flag record, even in the late '80s, had the same feel that owning Burroughs novels did. It felt dangerous and liberating for a young mind). No, I'll always consider Black Flag to be a punk band, though I'll add that their brand of punk in the FIRST FOUR YEARS-era is really the perfect example of the genre at its most extreme: get any more "out there" and suddenly you've become something else. And that something else is really what hardcore was in its earliest days. Still intrinsically tied to punk, hardcore was, at its beginnings, an undeniable step in a new direction. Fueled by youth, adrenalin, rage, and a helplessness inspired by the culture of the time, hardcore at its best was a music that could send the listener reeling with its intensity. This sound served for many as a clarion call, and for others it was like a line in the sand; it was like 1977 all over again, except this time many of these snotty-nosed instigators (those who were still around) were now on the receiving end of this take it or leave it hostility. It would have been easy for Black Flag to just get swept up in the tide, tailoring their sound to this new scene, and receiving the hosannas of these new hardcore brigades on tour after tour across the country. But Flag leader Greg Ginn, through his label, had other fish to fry. If hardcore is eternally indebted to the Flag, indie-rock is unimaginable without SST. Look no further that the labels early stable of bands: Minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, and to a lesser extent Flag themselves were all beacons in the decade long march of indie-rock to its eventual explosion into worldwide consciousness via the Pacific Northwest and all the sweet hell that ensued throughout the '90s (indie-rock Mk. II).

Considering that these four bands were there at the beginning, sticking out like sore thumbs in an increasing sea of mediocrity and generics, maturing and redefining their sounds, influencing and frustrating their fellow travelers, using the inspiration and friction of the closeness of the SST "family" to create such timeless art, it becomes easy to declare that SST Records was the most important label of the '80s. The Minutemen grew from their spastic, individualist punk beginnings into the best rock trio since The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Meat Puppets kept refining what they were until they arrived at a wonderfully approachable twist on psychedelia. Husker Du subtly adjusted the noisy assault of their early sound to influence a horde of bands, and the loud/soft dynamics of The Pixies and the underappreciated early achievements of indie long-runners Superchunk are intrinsically linked to Mould/Hart/Norton.

Black Flag continued to confound listeners and critics like the dysfunctional yet brilliant unit they were; there was no accepted line on this band. Many turned their backs on them and others would praise the band for a particular release only to be let down or perplexed by the next one. The all over the map, document everything tactic of Ginn easily lost them more fans than it gained, but this eclectic, dramatic evolution endeared them to a small but fervent few as the one American band to have come from the late '70s punk scene that not only retained their relevance, but actually increased it. And in addition, Saccharine Trust existed as an often ignored, yet defiant entity that sent countless fanzine scribes into spasms of purple prose that alternately attempted to get their readers to hippen the fuck up and to document for all time how clueless these readers were in comparison to these tireless writer/publishers.

Overkill and Wurm? They show just how unconcerned SST were with scene fashion and how invested they were with personal satisfaction, and regardless of how successful you or I feel those releases were, they exist as the fringe elements of a label that was nothing short of a goddamned juggernaut that ran rampant over the '80s and was as important to the history of rock music as Chess, Sun, Stax, or Dangerhouse. By the tail end of this decade, if you listened to hardcore, you probably thought that the majority of indie bands (who were still working without the comfortable catchall genre designation to lump them under) were, with a few possible exceptions, arty or pretentious. If you listened to Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. or their confederates, you were quite likely to feel that the hardcore scene was nothing short of a near-total waste of time. I can just imagine Greg Ginn, one day around say 1987, after a grueling yet commonplace marathon practice session with his post-Flag group Gone, sitting down for a brief rest in the SST office. After lighting the fifth joint of the day, he looks over to his desk and sees two magazines. One is the latest issue of Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, where in the letters section Black Flag is dismissed by one of countless punk theorists as "sucking after 1981", and the other is the most recent Forced Exposure, which gives the critical smackdown to SST's new Das Damen LP. Greg smokes his joint in the silence save for the ringing in his ears and for a brief moment sits back and smiles with recognition at the sheer fucking catalyst he's been. Then he gets up, calls his dealer for another bag, places a full page ad for SWA in the next Option magazine, and "forgets" to send out past due royalty checks. Just a hypothetical snapshot of a moment in a day in the life of an unabashed weirdo punk.

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