The Strange World Of… Amphetamine Reptile Records

Kevin Mccaighy takes a close look at one of the most important American independent rock labels of the 80s and 90s, finding ten points of entry into a bewilderingly large back catalogue, in the shape of gems from Unsane, Today Is The Day, Cows and Mudhoney

One way to measure the seismic impact of hardcore punk on the youth of America would be to trace the explosion of independent labels that took place across the country in its wake. One label that not only caught that inspirational spirit but was able to forge a new pathway for underground music for the decade to follow was Amphetamine Reptile Records.

Founded in 1986 by ardent music fan (and at the time serving US Marine) Tom Hazelmyer as a way to release records by his band Halo Of Flies, a blunt force trauma trio he formed with school friends John Anglim and Tim Mac, Amphetamine Reptile would grow to become one of the best independent labels, featuring the greatest and most fearsome roster of bands of that era: Boss Hog, Cows, God Bullies, Hammerhead, Helmet, Melvins, Surgery, Tar and Unsane, to name only a few.

In his book Live Through This: American Rock Music In The Nineties, Everett True is effusive about the label:

"The Amrep bands were as close to the real grunge as I encountered in my travels through America… this was the sound of America’s underbelly rumbling, where artists revelled in playing whatever roles society had forced them to take on."

Amphetamine Reptile staked out a territory all of its own, first occupying and then cementing a hitherto unexplored hinterland between the corporate world of grunge and the rapidly mutating sub-genres of metal. Amrep bands demonstrated the infinite varieties of sound that dared to be defined as noise – everything from the glorious art brut of Cows to the bullet-hard riffing of Helmet. The story of Amrep is multi-faceted: it brought to light some of the most astounding frontpeople in rock history – Mike Hard, Sean McDonnell, Steve Austin and the irrepressible Shannon Selberg – and untold talents into the fold, giving them the platform to achieve their utmost. Amrep was anti corporate, anti mainstream in all its varied forms, and proudly made its name in Minneapolis, one of the most culturally vibrant cities in America during the 1980s.

All of it is down to Hazelmyer himself, an entrepreneur blessed with exquisite taste, boundless curiosity and relentless drive. His gruff demeanour and provocative output belies the sophistication of the output by the bands he believed in with everything he had. Amrep was wound up in the late 90s as a going concern, but following his battle with and subsequent recovery from serious health issues, Hazelmyer now runs Amrep primarily as an outlet for limited edition reissues. His remarkable life story is captured in Eric Robel’s outstanding documentary The Color of Noise, released in 2015.

Here is my personal guide to ten of the label’s best releases, my own journey through Ugly American Overkill.

Mudhoney – ‘Twenty Four’ from Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking In The Streets Volume One (1988)

"With U-Men, The Thrown-Ups, Halo Of Flies, and a new band from Seattle called Mudhoney. It was a pressing of 500, I think 9 were on colour vinyl", says Tom Hazelmyer, referring to his label’s notorious first compilation. Although Hazelmyer had founded Amphetamine Reptile Records in 1986 to release singles by his group Halo Of Flies, it didn’t hit its stride until two years later with this landmark collection of tracks. Using MC5 manager John Sinclair’s revolutionary injunction as its title was a masterstroke, connecting a past era of rock & roll fervour with a newly emergent one. Having served time as fill-in bassist for the U Men, his connections to the emerging Seattle scene of the mid to late 80s paid off with four nuggets of sonic chaos. The inclusion of Mudhoney’s walloping early classic ‘Twenty Four’ was critical to Amrep’s success, preceding their first release on Sub Pop later that year, influencing that label’s Singles Club series.

Cows – ‘Chow’ from Daddy Has a Tail! (1989)

How to even dare to sum up the greatest band ever to grace Amphetamine Reptile Records? Cows were a phenomenon; an exemplar of pure capability and creativity, of limitless danger and of mortal threat. In short, they were rock & roll incarnate. For ten wild years, they ruled the underground with an unimpeachable series of releases that are elusive, explosive, and damn-near unclassifiable. Their legacy is such that I could have chosen any of their incredible albums, but chronology dictates my selection of Daddy Has a Tail!. The ecstatic churn of ‘Chow’ is the perfect showcase for singer/performer Shannon Selberg’s overpowering abilities, aided by the gut-punch of bassist Kevin Rutmanis and Thor Eisentrager’s scorching anti-guitar. Tom Hazelmyer once said of Cows: "Those guys reworked the book on guitar/ bass/ drums and got none of the credit they STILL deserve." Ain’t that the truth.

Surgery – ‘Maliblues’ from Nationwide (1990)

In his book Grunge, photographer Michael Lavine describes Surgery as "street core wild boys", and that youthful swagger pervades their debut album for Amrep. Forming in 1987, Surgery cut a dash through the urban decay of New York, winning fans and eventually the attention of Hazelmyer. Nationwide has a searing, strutting energy, their noise rock attack on songs like ‘Maliblues’ and ‘L7’ close to veering out of control; Scott Kleber’s coltish guitar riffs are firmly held in place by John Lachacappele’s bass and John Leamy’s clattering drums. Out front, Sean McDonnell’s charismatic yowling/drawling vocal style hooks you in with catchy melodies and chorus refrains built for crowds to bellow and scream. Nationwide has everything you could want, accessible yet combustible, a perfect rock record, and a great party album to boot. RIP Sean McDonnell, you are greatly missed.

Helmet – ‘Blacktop’ from Strap It On (1990)

If Cows were the band that made Amrep’s name, Helmet were the group that cemented the label’s reputation. It made people pay attention to Hazelmyer’s tireless efforts, and it was all down to Strap It On, one of the greatest debut albums in rock history. Steered by former Band Of Susans guitarist Paige Hamilton, Helmet were a finely tuned outfit honed to brutal perfection, and Strap It On is about as perfect as hard rock/ metal/ noise rock/ whatever you want to call it can get. Propelled by Hamilton’s avalanche of charged, guttural riffs in drop d tuning and John Stainer’s powerhouse drumming, the album’s anthems of rage include such classics as ‘Bad Mood’, ‘Sinatra’ and ‘Blacktop’. This is the sound that irrevocably altered the landscape of metal in the 1990s, profoundly influencing the alt and nu metal variants that followed in its wake.

Tar – ‘Goethe’ from Jackson (1991)

Tar emerged from the Chicago hardcore scene to forge their own brand of terse, post-hardcore noise. Their debut Roundhouse is superb, but make no mistake, Jackson is the band’s masterpiece. It’s a juddering, seething monster of a record; it’s ten songs, five per side, churning in deadly symmetry. With blunt but evocative titles likes ‘Walking The King’ and ‘Tellerman’, the album bristles with a metallic clamour heightened by bassist Tom Jaluckyj and guitarist Mark Zabolocky’s specially designed aluminium instruments, and a poetic undertow fuelled by John Mohr’s taciturn vocal phrasings. ‘Goethe’ is the killer track, an insurgent, four-square riff grafted to a call and response chorus. My personal favourite Amrep release, Jackson is a metallic KO from the 90s, and criminally remains out of print.

Godbullies – ‘War On Everybody’ from Dope Gun’s And Fucking Up Your Video Deck – Vol. 1-3 1990-94 DVD (2003)

Three VHS volumes of Dope Guns And Fucking Up Your Video Deck were created with the merest of means, with videos and skits filmed by skeleton crews on shoestring budgets. The results are some of the best videos of the 90s, from the Melvins rocking out surrounded by sheep (‘Honey Bucket’), the strobe-light frenzy of ‘Hustle’ by Boss Hogg to Lubricated Goat’s notorious nude performance on Australian TV (‘In the Raw’), and the deranged parade of death that is ‘Hitting The Wall’ by Cows to name a few. Presiding over it everything is the extraordinary Dr Sphincter, performed by comedian Rich Kronfeld. As the ingratiating ‘CEO of AmRep Industries’, Sphincter is a grisly but hilarious caricature of the hippie-baiting conservative. Fun fact: the video for Helmet’s ‘Bad Mood’ was co-directed by Kelly Reichardt, the celebrated director of Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves and the recently released First Cow.

Frank Kozik’s Poster Art

Tom Hazelmyer made a virtue out of necessity to create album artwork by doing it all himself for many years, but in the early 90s, artists like Coop, Derek Hess, and Shepard Fairey began to break through with their own visual styles. By far the most important, and the most prolific for the label was Frank Kozik, whose relentless creative drive coincided with the most extraordinary revival of the poster as an art form. Kozik’s posters for Amrep are brash, garish, unbridled visual statements, drawing on everything from Hanna Barbera cartoons, the kustom kulture associated with cars and motorbikes, and the lowbrow art movement that came to prominence in the late 80s/early 90s. Kozik’s riotous stream of poster art is an essential record of the era, and his posters for the label are hugely sought after items to this day.

Today Is The Day – ‘6 Dementia Satyr’ from Supernova (1993)

Steve Austin may be the most single-minded musician on the label. Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, his band Today Is The Day cut a swathe as a devastating live force. His decision for the band to "tune in standard E, a punk rock tuning, but play metal music" was critical in the creation of a sound so all consuming that "this shit was enough to make any redneck want to kill you". Aided by the supremely talented drummer Brad Elrod and bassist, Mike Herrell, their debut Supernova is a visceral crawl across hellfire, its punishing waves of discordant abrasions were unlike anything else on Amrep. Tracks like ‘6 Dementia Satyr’ and ‘The Kick Inside’ are jarring, propulsive forays out of the abyss, sharpened further by Austin’s mesmerising vocal rasps. With Supernova, Today Is The Day created a new paradigm in metal that helped inspire the genre’s next sonic evolutionary steps.

Unsane – ‘Scrape’ from Scattered, Smothered & Covered (1995)

N.B. ‘Scrape’ video features camcorder injury footage

New York’s Unsane had already forged a formidable reputation as one of the hardest and heaviest bands within the East Village scene when tragedy struck. Following the untimely death of their talismanic drummer Charlie Ondras and the departure of bassist Pete Shore, guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer ploughed on, recruiting drummer Vinnie Signorelli and bassist Dave Curran. This incarnation was responsible for Scattered, Smothered & Covered, one of the most incendiary albums of the label’s later era. As a succession of impactful, hook-laden tracks, it is unbeatable – Spencer’s scything guitar riffs and blood-curdling screams are firmly held in place by Curran and Signorelli, the most rock-solid of rhythm sections. None land more forcefully than the opening track ‘Scrape’. The accompanying video, with its litany of injuries to skateboarders, earned them widespread notoriety. The album’s status as a blood-soaked classic is more than assured.

Lollipop – ‘Slow Drip’ from Dog Piss On Dog (1996)

Amrep diversified in the last years of the label’s existence, with bands like Calvin Krime, Freedom Fighters, Mog Stunt Team and Servotron being added to the roster. A standout band among the new recruits was Lollipop, a short-lived but fiery unit whose adrenaline-fuelled garage punk was distilled into one of the best late-era albums, with the unforgettable title of Dog Piss On Dog. It’s an absolute thrill ride, orienting around Marc Feliciano’s gonzo guitar work and gargling vocals, Dave Hershey’s gunshot drums and the mysterious Rebecca’s pounding bass tone. The band’s breakneck chops are in full effect on the likes of ‘Whey Face Down’ and ‘Slow Drip’, as well as their heavily custom remake of Love’s classic ‘7 And 7 Is’. It’s a sticky sweet mess of a record that deserves more than a little love.

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