Punk, Not Punk
SST Records in the ‘80s
In the early to mid-‘80s that musical phenomenon known as punk rock began mutating into what would eventually be called hardcore, a style harder, faster, and more consistently focused on political and social issues than that which had preceded it.
Los Angeles was one of the primary birthplaces of this new genre, which, not surprisingly, was even further outside of the mainstream than its immediate predecessor. The scene’s survival relied utterly on the DIY spirit of those involved. Little record labels sprung up here and there, usually involving the participation of a small circle of bands, often formed by various acquaintances who supported each other’s endeavors. One band would put out a seven-inch recording and all money made from the sales would go into the next band’s recording. It may not sound like much of a business strategy, but it paid off, for some labels anyway, such as Washington DC’s Dischord Records and LA’s SST, the latter of which was founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and which began as an electronics repair business at which a number of future LA hardcore luminaries worked.
While much hardcore punk has a standard, fairly distinctive sound (generically speaking, that is; since its inception many sub-genres have appeared, each with their own distinctive set of characteristics and clichés), many of the bands who gravitated to SST seemed to have a certain something that set them apart. The fascinating thing about SST’s early roster is that these bands, each in their own unique way and each bringing their own particular influences to the table, were expanding the boundaries of a genre that was still at the time in its infancy. I’d like to take a closer look at these releases representing early examples of one of the most vital forms of music the human race has yet to produce. And if that sounds a bit grandiose, well, in the words of Frank Zappa, eat chain.
(Author’s note: These represent some of my first forays into music journalism, and I’m not as used to faking it as I am with film criticism, so if it sounds like I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, that would be why.)
The Meat Puppets – Meat Puppets
Whew. This is a rough one. For their first LP (though in this day and age when bands routinely put out hour-plus albums, calling this barely-over-twenty-minute release an LP seems almost quaint) the Pups don’t hold back on the noise and it doesn’t exactly make it an easy listen. Even having listened to it numerous times with my comparatively experienced ears I still, at this typing, have a bit of difficulty determining the basic melody of a couple of songs.
Both guitarist Curt Kirkwood and bassist brother Cris are credited as doing vocal duty, but I’ll be damned if I can tell them apart. It’s easier to do so on later recordings (they sound a lot alike; Cris’s voice is pitched a bit higher), but here not only do they put no effort into actually singing, they seem to be making a deliberate attempt to sound like they’re speech-impaired. (No more so, admittedly, than any number of other hardcore singers, but it is a marked difference from what they would do later.) This, too, ups the trial factor of listening to the thing. As one might imagine, those who are mainly familiar with the band from their brief moment in the spotlight courtesy of Senor Cobain may find this unlistenable, which is unfortunate, because once you start to get attuned to it, you can hear that, while this is the closest thing to a straightforward hardcore album they ever made, there’s also a little something else going on here as well. If you can get past all the fuzz, you can detect early examples of the kind of inventive hooks that Curt is so good at, the chops of the band in general (it’s nice to hear Derrick Bostrom pounding out some real thrash beats), and some of the southwest twang of their native Phoenix that they enjoyed incorporating. Guitar licks such as those featured in songs like ‘Blue Green God,’ an early ode to their beloved cannabis, and the title track could pass, minus the distortion, for good ol’ hoedowns. There’s even a smidgen of their particular brand of desert psychedelia in their cover of ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.’
Final analysis: while it’s hard at first to believe that this is the same band that produced their later work, digging a little deeper reveals it’s not quite as far removed as it may seem, and the bridge becomes even more apparent when listening to such classic albums as Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun.
Hüsker Dü – New Day Rising
Let’s forget about Bob Mould’s eventual and regrettable dismissal of the entire punk scene and the scene’s equally regrettable dismissal of him as a sellout, and focus on this album in which the trio from Minneapolis delivered one of the most seminal punk records of the decade. I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s their best album because it’s been a while since I’ve listened to their others and, I’m embarrassed to admit, to this day I still have yet to hear their double album Zen Arcade, which some consider to be their best work. But even if New Day Rising isn’t their best, that in itself is saying a hell of a lot, because it is goddamn good.
Hüsker Dü employed an interesting combination of an aggressive sound, characterized by Mould’s infamous guitar, which sounds like it could be used to cut steel pipe, and a lyrical poeticism that would seem to belie it. I used to think of the Hüskers as being kind of the punk equivalent of The Beatles, what with their ability to mix the simple with the arcane, and, most especially, their ability to infuse their songs with a pop sensibility without grating on your fucking nerves. I may regret writing that at some point, but I know it was what I felt when I first heard Flip Your Wig’s ‘Makes No Sense at All’ back in 1985 with its weird mix of catchiness and violent noise. The songs of Rising, which I didn’t hear until after that, despite pop elements already being in place, lean a bit more towards the darker side of the Dü, which may make it a slighter more satisfying listen to the less flexible punkers than Wig.
It would be misleading to say that the album builds in intensity as the whole thing is an aural assault from the get-go, staring with the diesel train opening title track. But near the end the straight-forward pop sensibility of first side songs like ‘I Apologize’ and ‘If I Told You’ give way to the likes of the quirky, piano-laced ‘Books About UFOs’, the druggy jamming of ‘How to Skin a Cat’ and the surprisingly straight-forward hardcore of ‘Whatcha Drinkin’, culminating with the searing attack of ‘Plans I Make’. And it amuses me to note that I always find myself thinking of the last song as an instrumental. It does in fact have some vocals, but they’re buried so far back in the mix, they don’t stand a chance against the instruments, which sound like they’ve been brought to life, thrown in a room and given sharp knives with which to flay each other into oblivion. A similar effect is achieved in the blistering ‘Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.’ Grant Hart actually sounds like he’s singing from the top of that hill.
And that’s exactly where Hüsker Dü sets itself apart. The punk power of the music is undeniable, but their ability to blend that with the kind of evocativeness found in songs like ‘Heaven Hill,’ ‘Celebrated Summer,’ and ‘Powerline’ represent a subset of hardcore, just as cerebral, but more poetically minded as opposed to politically. One could even make the argument that in a way this music is something of an ancestor to the genre now known as emo, but there are many years of music between then and now, and do we really want to do that to the boys from Minneapolis anyway?
As time went on the pop element in their work would become more and more pronounced, for better or worse, depending on your tastes and/or prejudices, but regardless of what was to come, this is an album that every fan of punk and hardcore should have in their collection.
The Meat Puppets – Mirage
In the liner notes for the Rykodisc re-release, drummer Derrick Bostrom comments that this was the least punk rock record they ever made and he’s right, in more ways than one. Aside from the fact that guitarist Curt Kirkwood barely touches his distortion pedal, tapping it occasionally for solos and only truly opening it up on the last song, ‘Liquefied,’ Mirage also finds the band indulging in a level of navel-gazing one would not normally associate with a punk band (Sonic Youth notwithstanding). The fact that they present a country-folksy musing on natural forces (‘The Wind and the Rain’) only to follow it right after with a dorm-room-bong-session-style rumination on the nature of the number signifying nothing (‘The Mighty Zero’) is clearly indicative of this.
Add to that the fact that the production is a lot glossier then it had ever been before (which sort of befits the songs) and that they dared to incorporate keyboards into the mix (ooh, the scandal) and it’s not surprising that some punks look down on this album. I might have done so too at one point.
But it seems to me that it’s a matter of perspective. You can choose to look at this as an effort by a punk band that’s gone hippie or you can choose to look at it as one of the punkest hippie albums out there. (Sound like a fine distinction? Try not to think about it too much.) I know, it sounds like I’m oversimplifying things, but frankly I just think it’s a shame that some dismiss this album so thoroughly. In places the songwriting here is a bit less inspired than it's been on other albums, but all the songs are at the very least catchy, and some are positively transcendent. Particular favorites include the dreamy, shimmering title track, the moody ‘Leaves,’ and the Hendrix-like, vaguely sinister ‘Love Our Children Forever.’
Perhaps people were jarred by the fact that the Pups had gone from the raw noise of their debut to this in so comparatively short a time; perhaps they were unprepared for a punk band to put out an album that, rather than recalling The Damned or The Stooges, seemed to be referencing Devo ('I Am a Machine') and XTC ('A Hundred Miles'). Or maybe I'm just getting a lot mellower as I get older. I was right there with everyone else who thought The DKs had lost their minds when Frankenchrist had so many mid-tempo songs on it (until I listened to it a few more times and started to get into it). That sort of mindframe, which seems alien to me now, may be the reason some reacted badly to Mirage. Or there may have been other reasons. Truth be told, I don’t really give a fuck. As far as I'm concerned Mirage holds some exquisite moments of magic and that's good enough for me.
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