In this week's print edition of LA Weekly, I contributed a piece about Jeffrey Lewis's new album 12 Crass Songs, and the phenomenon of young(ish) indie rockers covering 80s era hardcore punk songs. We're using the blog to post some related materials.
I have my own anecdote from the world of Crass — about one of the people that helped make them possible, actually. Five years ago, I found myself in Europe with a semi-popular rock band called The National during their first cross-Atlantic tour, well before they had gained semi-popularity.
A year earlier, I had started a label with the band to release their first few records and, by 2002, we’d forged a working relationship with Southern Records in London, a longtime resource for the world's most strident underground bands and labels. The proto-emo band Fugazi, the uncompromising power trio Shellac, and the cinematic post-rock collective Godspeed! You Black Emperor all spent their entire active careers in close alliance with the company. Loder was a hero and mentor to personalities like Ian MacKaye and Steve Albini who, in turn, would be heroes and mentors to a next generation.
With The National, I traveled to the never fashionable north London district of Wood Green to visit the home and studio of Southern’s founder, John Loder. With most bands, there are often important personalities who linger in the background (i.e. producer George Martin, who is often referred to as the fifth Beatle). Crass — as much communards as bandmates — were a slightly more sprawling entity, and so Loder became known as their “ninth member” — a producer when no one else would record them and a business partner when no one else would touch the results.
After the jump more about Loder, a man of few words, but potent ones.
Crass were Southern’s foundation — not only financially but ethically. The band's strident anarchism was a non-starter in the late 70s for the newly ascendant major record labels, many of which were readying themselves for the glossy, corporate, MTV-directed sheen that would dominate music culture throughout the 80s.
While today, bad behavior seems like a requirement for stardom in our crowded media landscape — viz R. Kelly or Paris Hilton — at the time musicians were often expected to be as buttoned down as the companies that would promote them. A band of inveterate sensationalists like the Sex Pistols could get dropped from their label for nothing more than “their notorious behaviour in public.” Obviously, the extreme political beliefs of a band like Crass were beyond the pale. With Southern Records, Loder bravely created an infrastructure to get such beliefs into shops and into public discourse. And his company would remained committed to the band long after they broke up, even when it meant spreading news of unglamorous compost toilet building workshops.
The National and I arrived at Loder's home-slash-studio early in the morning. Too early I guess. After we buzzed up, we waited downstairs for a good half hour before he roused himself and let us in. Loder was dressed down in utilitarian clothing, a circumspect yet intense man with a salt and pepper hair, a curt, authoritative manner, and a quiet intelligence. He was clearly an eccentric who’d kept true to a very unforgiving ethic, despite having grown very successful with that ethic. Over the years Southern had expanded to own its own distribution company, SRD, and — it was rumored — a number of other ventures. When The National put the finishing touches on their album at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, I was told in hushed tones by one of Southern's employees that Loder had a part interest in place.
Perhaps I can best sum up this man's forbidding and inspiring presence by recounting the one exchange I had with him that I clearly remember. I was in full record plugger douche bag mode talking about how we weren't all that concerned about manufacturing costs and things like that, but about image, inspiration, community, blah blah blah.
This was early 2002. The internet bubble had just popped and 9/11 had taken a chunk out of our financial expectations, and cultural libido. But you could still get away with a lot of blowhard, bullshitty talk if you so desired.
Loder gave me a withering look and delivered one terse line.
“If you want to maintain, it’s…important…that…you…be….
He stopped for a pregnant pause.
Full stop. He didn't talk about “cool,” he didn't talk about “edginess,” he talked about being “efficient.” It dawned on me that that one word is the term which governed all the ventures Loder had supported over the years, that it was, in a way, what differentiated his vision of the counterculture from the ever more indulgent mainstream pop that surrounded him.
Loder's words — or rather his word — forever re-shaped my view of rock'n'roll.
The man passed away in 2005 at the age of 59. Before I go, let me point you to a good Loder obituary written by Crass's Penny Rimbaud for London's Guardian newspaper.
In my article about Jeffrey Lewis and Crass in this week's LA Weekly, I write about how Crass's vision of punk remains vital because it draws upon elements well beyond punk rock orthodoxy — in part, because punk rock orthodoxy didn't yet exist. For evidence of this, look no further than the opening passage of Rimbaud's remembrance.
I first met the sound engineer and record producer John Loder in about 1968. He was on an acid trip and seemed to be talking out of the top of his head. The next time I met him he was straight and made a lot more sense. We soon found that we shared. a common interest in Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. When we got bored with them, we would play birdsong forwards and Bach backwards.