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.
The Los Angeles underground holds its own with the East and Midwest, with bands too outre for a Flashback Weekend scattered among several volumes: Johanna Went, Savage Republic side project 17 Pygmies, and the aforementioned 100 Flowers. Warner seems especially hepped on the Los Angeles Free Music Society extended family, from the corrosive Smegma to Alex Gibson‘s doom-dealing B-People. The Minutemen (far too well-remembered to appear here) once offered a choice between new wave and the truth; these bands and their counterparts throughout the country rejected the terms of the question.
Other than the odd inclusion (Boston’s Salem 66, New York‘s Y Pants), one thing Hyped to Death doesn’t do is make much of the importance that punk and what came after had for women. (Not yet, anyway: Warner plans an all-female compilation to be out by Christmas.) For many, that is the era‘s significance: The Sex Pistols themselves may have been as thuggishly male as Black Sabbath, but the spirit they embodied handed women like X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene and Lora Logic or the Raincoats‘ Gina Birch a permission slip reading, “Come as you are, and learn as you go.”
Among the quickest studies were Switzerland’s Liliput (originally Kleenex), helmed by bassist Klaudia Schiff and guitarist Marlene Marder through lineups that included, between 1978 and 1983, three different singers and as many drummers (one male). Their five singles, two LPs, and a handful of live and radio recordings are collected on an eponymous new two-disc set, fittingly released by Kill Rock Stars, the home to riot grrrl survivors Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, complete with a second-language note from Marder (“all the bootleggings going on make me sure there is a need!”) and appreciations by Greil Marcus and Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon.
Unavailable for years, Liliput’s body of work is a perfect one-stop introduction to the rigor and freedom of its moment, as well as what became of it. Early on, their reclaimed garage riffs and wooden, unstable rhythms are less noteworthy than their playful, even infantile, approach to language. Songs like “Ain‘t You” are a pitched battle between Chrigle Freund’s half-learned English (“Ain‘t you wanna wait around?”) and pre-grammatical squeals, grunts and gasps that most people — most men — over age 5 would be ashamed to emit, on stage or off. By 1981’s “Eisiger Wind,” the music‘s caught up with the voices, and distinctions between chaos and order become impossible to draw: The band enters too fast for the guitar intro, and all three singers fight for space, with a well-timed snare stroke before the final chorus the only sign that anyone in the room is keeping track of what’s happening.
The later records collected on disc two back off from this extreme, but not by much. Marder‘s guitar work is more varied (there are even acoustic moments), and Schiff’s bass lines border on the supple, but new recruit Astrid Spirit, plus plenty of instrument switching, steers the music well clear of good taste or mastery. For every pop-structured dirge (“Close your eyes and hear my voiceyou‘re as good as lost”), there’s a burst of nerve-splitting violin (“Birdy”) or inhuman vocalese (the tropical “Umamm”). The grooves of “The Jatz” and “Ring-a-ding-dong” derive from American R&B, but Spirit‘s stream of babble issues from nowhere on Earth. Most bands that formed in punk’s wake became more skilled over the course of a five-year career, and many got quieter, but Liliput are one of the few to do both while remaining as unsettling as the day they began.#