By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Post-punk, DIY, new wave: Whatever you call the fallout from punk rock‘s rapid rise and fall, it’s hard to deny that something happened to not-exactly-popular music in the late ‘70s that didn’t stop cold just because Johnny Rotten felt cheated. Between the year punk died and the year it broke -- the ReaganThatcherBush Sr. era loosely bracketed by The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and Nevermind, say -- an incalculable number of bands, here and abroad, took matters of manufacturing (often shoddy) and distribution (even worse) into their own hands, producing a vast and varied subcontinent of sound that often owed more to punk‘s implicit permission than its explicit aggression.
Too unclassifiable to constitute a “movement,” much of this music slipped under the radar of commercial radio and the mainstream press, with the result that several generations of bands are now the uncontested cultural property of ex--college DJs, know-it-all record-store clerks and vinyl-hoarding collector scum. Punk-qua-punk has never entirely left the public eye, and you can pick up a Minor Threat or Black Flag disc just about anywhere, thanks to the grassroots entrepreneurship of American hardcore, but good luck actually hearing the Tea Set, Velvet Monkeys or several hundred even lesser lights.
Into this breach steps one Chuck Warner and his quixotic “Hyped to Death” reissue series. The project began with Warner, an early Internet record dealer (as well as the founder of Boston’s Throbbing Lobster label in the early ‘80s), sending regular customers cassettes to drum up interest in worthy obscurities that weren’t selling. By 1999, he had switched to CD-Rs, which soon grew liner notes and simple black-and-white artwork. Eventually, the advertisement became the product -- he‘s recently ceased retail operations to concentrate on the reissues themselves. At 32 volumes and counting, each covering a tiny fragment of the alphabet, these are divided into several subgenres: Teenline exhausts the jangling universe of power pop, Bad Teeth focuses on British Isles punk and mod, and Messthetics and Homework offer a cross section of ’77--‘82 sort-of-popsort-of-experimental unclassifiables from the U.K. and U.S., respectively.
The marginally legal bootleg-compilation idea is nothing new, of course. Series like Back From the Grave and the more recent Teenage Shutdown have unearthed tons of barely heard ’60s garage rock, while Killed by Death and Bloodstains Across America do the same for early hardcore. Significantly, the latter two projects are themselves vinyl-only; their shadowy compilers assume you don‘t even deserve to hear this stuff if you don’t own a turntable. Hyped to Death‘s brief is different, and not just because Warner’s gone digital. He‘s up-front about who he is and how to reach him (www.hyped2death.com), his liner notes cheerfully indicate which records are still cutout-bin staples, and, most important, Warner has a standing offer to settle financially with any band that asks to be removed from future pressings. (So far, none have.)
Enough ethics (as if anyone cared, post-Napster). How’s the music? Uneven, obviously, but that‘s half the fun. A typical Messthetics band sounds as if they formed two weeks (if that) before booking a studio, wrote their lyrics five minutes before rolling tape, and broke up the day their single reached the shops. The results: anti-masterpieces on the order of the Scrotum Poles’ “Pick the Cat‘s Eyes Out,” a three-chord wonder that can’t decide whether to chug or strum, with the singer at a loss as to how to sing the title after 16 repetitions: “You‘ve gotta, gotta pick them ow-out.” (It’s not as sick as it sounds; “cat‘s eyes” is British slang for highway reflectors.) Paul Reekie’s “Lovers” dispenses with even this much pop-rock form: A prosaically narrated love triangle over one-finger piano and a funereal bass drum, it culminates in the cry “Joy, joy, love‘s rebellious joy,” sung without reference to the surrounding instruments. After prolonged exposure, those few cuts that show even a trace of practiced guitar technique or vocal poise (Wasteland’s elaborately arranged “Our Radio Nation Burns,” for instance) begin to sound downright slick.
The domestic material showcased on Homework is more varied and, if anything, more revelatory. Warner struggles mightily to draw internecine generic distinctions (Volume 4 is subtitled “DIY and DIYpunk LP Tracks R-to-Z”), but taken en masse, two lessons emerge. First, a hundred flowers -- not to mention 100 Flowers, included on Volume 4 -- were blooming. For every dose of the angular, sexually frustrated stuff we think we know as “new wave” (the Adaptors‘ peepshow anthem “In the Slot”), there’s a sinister glam number or an analog-synth anti-song.
Second, compared to the Year Zero ethos of English DIY, the American strains treat rock history as recently turned earth. Yo‘s “I See Beyond” (“How can you be president when you die?”) has a Creedence single’s punch, the vocal approach of no-wavers Rat at Rat R is pure Sun Studios, and hook-laden ‘60s song structures aren’t uncommon. I‘m not sure why this should be, though the greater stateside influence of the Velvets and Captain Beefheart, and the fact that Pere Ubu had been recording since ’75, may have lit the territory beyond inspired amateurism.
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