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Noel's Straight Hedge

Mr Gardner's Straight Hedge No. III: Punk And Hardcore Reviewed
Noel Gardner , October 4th, 2010 13:17

Back once again under a renegade masthead, Noel Gardner has a bunch of reviews of punk 7"s but first he needs to dive headfirst into the gunk

The last of these columns I brought into class for dissection found me tackling a couplathree records that might, if you were of the hairsplitter ilk, be more instinctively bracketed as noise, rather than punk or hardcore. Some comment box warrior got the ‘ump about this being pretentious and arty and untrue to the spirit of punk rock, a genre which certainly hasn’t been utterly riddled with pretentious and arty people throughout its entire lifespan. Not at all. I start with this not to spit the dummy at dissent, but because it’s a splendid jumpoff point to talk about a great new book called We Never Learn; its author, Eric Davidson; and the band he fronted, The New Bomb Turks.

The New Bomb Turks converged in Columbus, Ohio in 1990 and drifted apart in the early 2000s having recorded six albums. (Says Eric: “We officially broke up on New Year’s Eve 2002, but all agreed that while we’re still friends and feel we can put on a good show, we’ll get together once or twice a year for fun.”) I took a punt on their first, !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!!, a few years after it came out (I was 16), in a junk shop in my desultory Cornish home town. The punk rock press had long ago slobbered its shaft until it was buff as a new truncheon, but I wasn’t to know that. I just had a CD which, if only in terms of trickle-down theory, changed my life. It was fast and malicious garage punk recorded (across two days) with a heartbreakingly perfect dearth of polish, which gleefully and frantically hailed a zillion bands I was yet to hear but came to be a kind of personal standard-bearer for how to combine glee, anger, ennui, hedonism, food grease, avarice, ignobility, archness and uncredited Wire covers.

Its first song is called ‘Born Toulouse-Lautrec’: it’s not anti-art, more anti-pedestal. “All work is honourable, yeah art is just a job/ Let me spend my paycheck on a beer/ No heroes, no leaders, no artists, no gods/ I'm a worker, you're a worker, wouldn't you like to be a worker too?” Despite, or because of, the fact this could have come from any ‘82-vintage Oi! record, to me that’s… alpha. Davidson’s lyrics would evolve, on later albums, into a bitingly sardonic tangle of puns and pop culture – he is greatly underrated in this discipline, but his turn of phrase (and his latter-day gig as a music writer) render him expressly qualified to write a book.

Writing about what he knows, to boot: We Never Learn is about a globe-spanning subculture of rock which was never properly codified into a genre, save for the vaguely unsatisfying ‘garage punk’. In lieu of this, it’s subtitled The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001. It’s tongue-in-cheek – you’re unlikely to find yourself having to use ‘gunk punk’ to make sense to people in the near future – but it works. It’s a book about bands that dived right into the algae and pollution of the rock pool, either out of circumstance or a yen for bacchanalia. When there is sex and drugs, it is largely regrettable and instills in you no desire to emulate the people involved. When there is a chink of rock star light, a few pages later the results tell us that the curtains would have been best kept closed – we never learn, indeed. (A notable exception to this are The White Stripes, who of course plugged away in the fertile Detroit garage soil of the late Nineties, and who seem to have raked their studs down the calf of almost everyone who helped them up the ladder.)

Davidson does a heroic job of making records – ones, in many cases, lost to the cutout bin or Amazon warehouse by the vagaries of fashion – sound primal and essential. If you have any kind of appetite for garage or punk, you will be moved to become a huntsman. It probably makes more sense to buy something by some of the bands featured first: !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!! itself, or one of the more crucial Dwarves, Headcoats, Dirtbombs, Gories, Turbonegro or Guitar Wolf joints, say. This is easily done and a step towards greasing up your life. Now let’s hand over to Eric Davidson, as he talks about We Never Learn, his old band, and related matters.

How seriously do you hope/expect people to take ‘gunk punk’ as a name for all this? Most genre names are created with a certain flippancy in mind, but some stick more than others and the joke ceases to function…

Eric Davidson: Not at all. About six months into the two-year-plus process of writing this, I just came up with that sub-title because I knew I’d need a subtitle, and I like puns and rhyming alliteration. Later we were going to just make it, The Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, but I thought just ‘punk’ might lead casual shelf-glancers to think it’s another tome about 1977-whatever. My editor said basically, beyond the 713 people who will instantly buy this book, you have to offer a kind of central point or genre idea to give readers a narrative focus. Fair enough. If you read the book, I think it’s only in there a few times, and I was careful to make light of it early on, with a “whatever” amended etc. Not to imply that I am not fully serious about the whole project! Just that I am aware that bands personally hate being placed into one particular box. But I still think ‘gunk punk’ is a fun quick way to put it, not meant to be taken as some exact genre tag like ‘grunge’ or something. I’m actually kind of surprised how literally people seem to take non-fiction subtitles.

We Never Learn is a pretty positive book on the whole, certainly at least on you, the narrator’s, part. Has this consistently reflected your feeling on this underground for the last 20 years or so?

ED: If I was trying to roughly coalesce so many somewhat different bands into overall proof of some kind of movement, I’d rather not spend more of my time towards bands I think suck or were outright dicks. On that count, no one was an outright dick, most seemed very into doing interviews and giving their stories. Of course I’d be positive, as I think this music is great and underappreciated. There may be a bit of aged ‘water under the bridge’ attitude, as some band dudes in the book who used to talk shit now seem a bit more forgiving or whatever. Not that there isn’t more than enough shit-talking in the book, I think; I’ve had Jon Spencer and a few other subjects get pissed at me, even for stuff I thought was complimentary! You never can tell…

The only band to really take a kicking are The White Stripes…

ED: When you outright sue former friends, that’ll happen. Plus I thought he was being pretentious in not simply saying, “Hey, I’d rather not do an interview,” which would be fine – Dave Crider [Estrus Records head] did just that in a classy manner, and not by comparing himself to fucking Edgar Allen Poe, as White did. But of course, people who become wealthy, successful, and famous usually get some shit with it, due to their own pretension or jealousy of others. I’m sure he’ll be just fine. He’s really the only individual in the whole book who became what our society would define as ‘wildly successful’.

Do you think this stuff was responsible for kind of bastardising ‘garage’ as a term? I mean you can trace a line from (staying in the book’s confines) Pop Rivets to Zeke, but it does seem sort of odd to use one term to talk about them both, when the latter are more given to playing heavy metal songs the length of hardcore songs.

ED: Hey, they called Huey Lewis and Foreigner ‘rock’ when I was in high school, so… well, in the book, I said that about Zeke, that they weren’t exactly of this ilk, and purposely didn’t write much at all about them. But they were around with a lot of these bands, played with them, had records on similar labels, etc. That was one of the points of the book – that while someone who says they like The Oblivians might not like Zeke, and a Supersuckers fan might not think they sound anything like Guitar Wolf or the Clone Defects, there is a line that goes through, of similar influence, attitude, and career obsolescence, as far as the music industry is concerned. These bands hovered around the same clubs, labels, tour managers even, and all had a similar taste for raw, kinda fast recordings and similar roots in the nastiest nether regions of old rebel music like rockabilly, Sixties garage, and Seventies punk. And to me at least, that preference for raw recordings/ performance, anti-fashion style, being broke, and practicing and playing in non-traditional venues all adds up to some kind of garage rock step forward. Time tends to bastardize everything eventually – shit, look at what they call a ‘pizza’ at Papa John’s! [We have no way of knowing but we're sure this brand of pizza is just lovely, Quietus Legal Ed] So it’ll probably happen to ‘garage’ too. Remember when ‘hardcore’ sounded like fun?

Did you get the impression that people who played and consumed this stuff could be defined by social class, or did it really cross the boards in that regard? On the surface I guess it is fairly blue-collar (your own ‘Born Toulouse-Lautrec’ is kind of explicit regarding that), but drinking and fucking are pretty universal pastimes. (Alternatively you can play it like Nine Pound Hammer and be sort of a green light for ‘outsiders’ to hyuk at rednecks.)

ED: Better to hyuk at rednecks than pretend to be one, like the freak folk scene (truly filled with trust fund kids). Nine Pound Hammer were not being ironic, for the most part, just funny… but that’s another story. Yes, definitely, I would say 80% of the people in this book were middle to lower-middle class. All that ‘raw’ recording stuff had as much to do with no cash as a sonic preference, compared to much lo-fi-via-Pro Tools indie rock usually being blogged about now. There is a whole book that could be done about trust funds in the American indie landscape. But not this book.

But of course, I have my arms open wide to anyone and everyone who wants to drink and fuck. Sleazoids of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your bank accounts!

What have been the main sources of inspiration on your journalistic writing, and latterly the writing of this book? I thought it was neat that Byron Coley got to pen the intro as I feel like you and he draw from a similar well, in terms of your turns of phrase – I think of it as kind of Beat writing scuffed up by a punk rock upbringing (see also: Crypt Records boss Tim Warren, Tesco Vee from The Meatmen, Thurston Moore).

ED: You basically named them all there. Obviously Lester Bangs too, and foremost. I love Jim Thompson’s style, and was originally trying to develop the book like that, with a bunch of dummies who eventually reveal themselves as being crazy like a fox. Of course I’m nowhere near the writer of any of these cats. Though to toot my own horn, I was IN a band, actually toured around a lot over 13 years, and could craft stories and ideas from that angle. And I think the bands I asked to interview could trust that this guy understands sleeping on floors, nine-hour drives, getting ‘paid’ with a box of 25 singles, not being able to hold onto girlfriends, etc… all that band crap. Whether that makes my actual writing style good is another story. Ha!

The amount of women in bands notwithstanding, I feel like the music covered in the book was often very… male-centric – unapologetic about having traditionally manly concerns, and in a lot of cases playing around with sexist tropes (I wouldn’t presume to say “these guys were sexist,” I didn’t know them).

ED: I always loved sexually ambiguous rockers like Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, Morrissey, even Boy George, seriously. I loved how pissed off jock dudes in my high school would get just because Boy George wore makeup. And yet they loved Van Halen and Judas Priest. Hilarious! Was always a big Sal Mineo fan, Montgomery Clift… I’ve always liked Judy Garland and Jonnie Ray in the face of some NBT fans who were shocked that I liked Prince even. But yeah, rock has always been rooted in the sexuality of the blues, which was born of a different time, place, values… so you can debate all that, and there are numerous books, or should be, about that, probably better tackled by a woman or an out gay man. Even most of the “macho” pop cult things most of the bands in my book might reference – film noir, Lee Marvin, exploitation flicks, Bettie Page, moshing – it all fairly sweats with homoerotic tones. I had a number of more political/ social passages that got excised through the editorial process because this is my first book, but my editor and I thought it best to stick to the music stuff first and foremost.

Nashville Pussy is probably one of the most macho – in regular Joe terminology – of the bands in my book, but they had two badass lasses playing for them, and bassist Corey Parks offered some different femme insights, as did Kim Shattuck from The Muffs, to name two. I definitely was aware of getting female voices in the book, and a few got cut out through the editing process. But really, even the women who were in this scene, they are, like the guys, primarily all about going nuts, having fun, messing around, not getting bogged down in the square world’s mores. So chances are if I gave a chapter to the Trashwomen, they would’ve just talked shit about exes and what color underwear they preferred to wear onstage.

What level of attention are you paying to the garage-punk scene of 2010, such as it is? Are there bands currently out there that could have held their own on the early Nineties Crypt Records roster, or combined still-breathing rawness with actual tunes like The Gories, or been plain nasty on anything like the level of the Dwarves?

ED: Sure, there are bands like that – Home Blitz, Black Lips, Human Eye, Brutal Knights, Stalkers, Sex Church, more – but they’re doing their own thing. I can honestly say that I believe all the bands in this book thought they were trying their own thing, based on favoured roots music sure, but twisting it and allowing it to all be messier, as opposed to much of the surf, swing, or other blatantly retro trends of the late Eighties and early Nineties. Music like this has only gotten noisier as the years have gone on. So I think to guys around my age, a lot of the underground garage-ish punk-ish bands probably sound like tuneless, bedroom-brewed noise sometimes. But that’s how it goes, right? I remember having older friends tell me that the Gories, Teengenerate, Devil Dogs, fuck, my own band, were noisy…

Also do you like the band Puffy Areolas from Cleveland? Part of the reason I’m asking this is because underneath the piece about you and your tome I’m gonna review a bunch of new punk/HC records and intended to talk about their album first, thus using you as a kind of hypeman.

ED: Never heard of ‘em. Not living in Ohio anymore, and not being much of an interweb trawler, I’m outta the Ohio noise loop sometimes. I like the Ex-Whites, This Moment In Black History, Homostupids… Ohio is amazing!

ERIC! If you wind up reading this piece, this is me telling you that Puffy Areolas' debut album, In The Army 1981, is an unhinged rage. It’s on the Siltbreeze label, and shares the through-the-red-into-the-black engineering values of most of their recent output (Eat Skull, Times New Viking etc); there are grotesquely reverbed vocals, piercing sax and globules of ambient meandering. So by the exacting standards of some of the biz I’ll talk about in a minute, Puffy Areolas are art knobs. Said standards, however, also write off The Stooges, Electric Eels and Chain Gang as the same, so said standards should be kept at bay. Breaking sonic bread with recent raves like Lamps and Hospitals, In The Army 1981 is a legit garage record, but… I think it’s trying to kill garage music. The knowledge that it will never die gives the whole thing a coyote-versus-roadrunner futility, but the album and that cartoon slay me in pretty equal measure.

“Punk rock is for kids” is about the lamest and wrongest canard relating to the culture. There’s always been a tendency to celebrate youthfulness – certainly since the first flowerings of American hardcore – but there’s always been old wizards on the scene who have served as counterpoints to absolutism. Thirtywhatever years on from the implosion, of course there are gonna be vets. The ones you should care about aren’t, say, Stiff Little Fingers or the Trigger’s broom disgrace of the Misfits: it’s bands like Double Negative and Violent Arrest, who come off like they still sport the thousand-yard stares.

Double Negative are from North Carolina; of their four members, the ones with the grandest punk pedigree is drummer Brian Walsby, who was in mid-Eighties crew Scared Straight, as well as (briefly) Polvo a decade or so after. Their new album (on Sorry State) is called Daydreamnation, following up 2007’s The Wonderful And Frightening World Of…. No! You’re WRONG. You DO need more sarcastic dudes who remember the Eighties. Specifically THESE ones. Eleven songs blur through the town of your ears like a cyclone, metal in the same way Poison Idea and Die Kreuzen were metal in 1984 (sort of, but also not); Kevin Collins’ lyrics paint the mediocrity of 21st-century existence as a kind of metaphysical nightmare. “Kiss the McDonalds of rock/ Learn to rock from Ray Kroc” is a throwaway beauty.

Violent Arrest are from the south-west of England; of their four members, three were in Ripcord, who circa 1986 were probably one of the first four or five UK bands to start siphoning US and EU hardcore into their sound. This arrangement is probably about as close as we’ll get to a Ripcord reunion, and is all the sweeter for being the product of eternal ‘erberts who still have the creative urge 25 years on. Minute Manifestos (Boss Tuneage/Tadpole), the second Violent Arrest LP, is a shopping trolley race of a record, a thrash rampage with not a single moment of contemplation. They still hate war and the mandarins that facilitate it; moreover, they still love Jerry’s Kids, SS Decontrol and the other unruly ideologues of Boston HC. Without any corroborating evidence I will also state that they still love cider bought straight from the farm.

If you are too young to remember when a bunch of old music you like was contemporary, then you can just pretend. This is what Idi Amin & The Amputees are doing on their debut seven-inch, released by Going Underground. Basically, they are trying as hard as possible to make themselves look beamed in from 1979, and their single a long-lost artifact by Dictators-inspired smalltown thug youth. The A-side is called ‘Disco Bitch’, and while I’m more than aware that people still play and enjoy disco now, I don’t exactly think they’re calling out Daniel Wang or Rub‘n’Tug here. “Disco bitch you make me sick / Take a Quaalude, turn to Jello quick.” Are Quaaludes even manufactured at this point? The flip, ‘Nasty Nazi’, is about skinheads who beat up punks, which I guess is marginally more of a threat in 2010 than getting monged on ludes.

Urban Blight are from Toronto, thus chums of Fucked Up and Career Suicide and suchlike. The unvarnished blare of their new EP Total War (Static Shock) makes both those bands sound positively genteel. Packaged in a bonzer Crass Records-style foldout sleeve, this is a red herring in terms of the sound of these six frantic, eyebulging tracks, which is somewhere between sped-up Oi! and the hardcore that the lawless New York slums vomited out in the early Eighties. Urban Blight may be to Urban Waste as Rocket From The Crypt were to Rocket From The Tombs.

Hailing from Portland and issuing their sugary shots via the Deranged label is probably enough to make Red Dons honorary Canadians. Fake Meets Failure parks its bus among the melodic, Brit-lauding and quasi-powerpop side of Deranged’s roster; there are tunes for days here, a “woah-oh” vocal aside or three, a cello somewhere, a naggingly English tinge to Douglas Burns’ voice. If Tony Parsehole or Danny Baker or whoever chanced upon Red Dons, they would doubtless think their fixation on a subculture which was buried by 1979 (it died with Sid, you know?) weird and necrophilic. SUCK IT, AGEING MILLIONAIRES! That’s how I’d response to this hypothetical opinion, before noting how Fake Meets Failure reaffirms how North Americans have ripped off The Jam, SLF, the Buzzcocks and The Ruts way better than Britishers for at least the last decade.

Saturday’s Kids are named after a Jam song, but don’t really sound anything like The Jam. Due to living in South Wales like they do, I’ve more or less experienced their whole gestation; when they started out, a couple of years back, they sounded like Nirvana, if Nirvana had been a Messthetics band. Over time, they have moved on from this, likely due to becoming better at playing their instruments (which I guess is the crux of the whole Messthetics thing). Now, on their first seven-inch (released by Art For Blind), they sound like a primitivist Sonic Youth, or one of those old bands that got tagged as ‘emo’ but had, well, a primitivist Sonic Youth thing going on – The Hal Al Shedad, Harriet The Spy, hell even Moss Icon. Who had broken up before any of Saturday’s Kids were born. Dang! Great single.

Also from South Wales (have you been enjoying my segues? I do hope so) are Ironclad. Their second vinyl appearance is a split seven-inch with Never Again, who I wrote about last time out. Released by Carry The Weight, my copy comes on rad yellow, green and white vinyl that looks like an old-school sweet, or some gnarly prescription drugs. Ironclad’s jams, if not necessarily their personal preferences, are on the newbreed straight-edge tip – Right Brigade and Count Me Out and all those early-00s bands who used very metal guitar tone but didn’t play metal as such. It’s not my favourite subset of hardcore, but I eff with it when it’s done well, and Ironclad do it about as well as you could hope for. NxA, whose edge ideology is fully on the table, continue their rich vein of form with three more bangers that switch up battering-ram thrash and glue-thick mosh parts.

Although Never Again have announced their imminent breakup (literally in the last few days as I type), their earlier stuff is getting compiled by Holy Roar shortly, so you’ll be able to buy it in HMV. Don’t do that, though.