For a music genre that was supposed to be ephemeral and impermanent, punk rock has turned out to have a surprising amount of staying power over the past four decades. What was perhaps most impressive about Sunday night’s reunion of 1977-era punk bands at the Echoplex was that so many of these musicians still have something rude and relevant to say, even if the overall mood leaned toward the nostalgic.
Presented by DJ Michael Stock and the weekly club event Part Time Punks, the early-evening show included a surprise, unbilled drop-in appearance by a legendary British raconteur, but the focus was otherwise on bands affiliated with Dangerhouse Records, the late-’70s L.A. label that released the first recordings by X.
That band didn’t perform, and neither did the late Black Randy, the sweetly profane Dangerhouse mainstay and shambolic mad genius who was like A Confederacy of Dunces’ Ignatius J. Reilly as he trampled heedlessly over early punk etiquette and cultural expectations.
But the bill started at a peak with one of the greatest, if most often overlooked, L.A. punk bands, The Alley Cats — albeit singer-guitarist Randy Stodola’s recently reconfigured version of the beloved Lomita trio. In their heyday, Stodola and then-bassist Dianne Chai had a fascinating charisma, exchanging blue-collar, Bukowski-like lines over aptly feral riffs in a way that anticipated groups like Dead Moon. Chai isn’t part of this reunion, but her replacement Apryl Cady seamlessly invoked the sublimely groovy bass solo in the band’s throttling theme song, “Just an Alley Cat.”
Once Stodola warmed up a little, howling the fearless S&M ode “Gimme a Little Pain” and intoning the morbid surrealism of “Today,” his guitar playing really took off, with searing, bluesy solos, culminating in a compact yet fierce version of “Summertime Blues.”
At one point, Rhino-39 were one of Long Beach’s most promising bands, paving the way for pop-punk groups like the Descendents. They devised a suburban-punk variation that emphasized giddily impatient, proto-hardcore tempos and sardonic teenage vocals, in contrast to the Hollywood bands’ comparatively traditional Ramones/Johnny Thunders style. Things came to a tragic halt, though, when singer Dave “Dacron” Bratton died in a 1980 auto accident. Rhino-39 carried on for a little while with his younger brother, Joel Bratton, crafting manically catchy tunes like “Marry It” before seemingly disappearing for good sometime in the ’80s.
No one in the capacity crowd had any idea what this version of Rhino-39 would be like, so it was a little startling when they began with a remake of “Let’s Get Rid of New York” by the Randoms (one of John Doe’s old bands). Later in the set, they paid homage to Black Randy with a punchy cover of “I Slept in an Arcade.”
When they got around to playing their own songs, such as “Xerox,” “No Compromise” and a too-sludgy “Prolixin Stomp,” they sometimes gave them puzzling hard-rock makeovers. Led by founding bassist Mark Malone and drummer Tim Carhart and joined by a new singer, Jason Scharback, the group was nonetheless tight, with hardcore tempos and single-note, Social Distortion–like guitar solos occasionally evoking Rhino-39’s early days.
After a long break, Deadbeats bassist David O. Jones and keyboardist Paul Roessler (Twisted Roots, Nina Hagen) emerged from the shadows and unleashed a noisy series of foreboding, industrial-strength chords that rumbled like interstellar foghorns. When lead singer Scott Guerin came out from the wings, he was dressed in black, from his platform boots to the zipped-up leather mask that covered his head. Dozens of plastic penises were attached to his outfit, which was just one of numerous visual and sonic contrasts that soon included a wacked-out jazz-punk reduction of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.”
Guerin was unzipped from his mask by Nurse Heather, who spit out the next song, "Fuck Like a Bunny," while tottering around in white high heels and red fishnets. “Bring me the head of Van Cliburn,” Guerin mumbled, apropos of nothing. “This was supposed to be more like smooth jazz.”
With their busy arrangements, the Deadbeats often sounded more like New York’s sax-mad no wave groups than a typical punk band, and augmented by drummer Joe Berardi (Lydia Lunch, Congo Norvell), they were even tighter than they used to be in 1978.
“This is the part of the show I’ve been dreading,” Guerin said, introducing guest Geza X. “I need Nurse Heather to give me an injection.” Looking colorful with short blue hair and opaque pink tights, Geza X performed onstage with the Deadbeats for the first time since the early 1980s. Eschewing his own quirky new wave ditties like “Isotope Soap,” the infamous producer mainly played guitar, adding to the frenzy on the Deadbeats' terminally ridiculous call-to-arms, “Kill the Hippies.”
“I’ve come to rearrange the furniture,” said a tall, gaunt figure silhouetted in a dark blue spotlight, his long black hair sprouting extravagantly outward and upward like Johnny Thunders’. “This is a cameo appearance… Get me while I’m hot. Get me while I’m alive.”
John Cooper Clarke was indeed alive and hot as he recited several of his spoken-word hits (“Hired Car,” “Beasley Street”) and limericks in rapid-fire succession. The English poet was a key figure in Manchester in the late 1970s, performing on shows with Joy Division and the Sex Pistols and collaborating with Bill Nelson, Pete Shelley and Martin Hannett in the Invisible Girls.
Clarke had been completely invisible in this city, and largely unseen in this country for decades, until Friday night, when he did a similar last-minute gig at La Cita. He had absolutely no connection to Dangerhouse Records or L.A. punk rock, but Clarke’s nonstop blur of images was a charming interlude.
“Cars collide, colors dash,” he said. “Sleep is a luxury.”
The audience swelled in size for The Avengers, and the pit started to get out of control for the first time during the rambunctious “Teenage Rebel.” The San Francisco quartet were one of the finest early American punk bands, but their classic self-titled debut album was out of print for decades, and even their Dangerhouse single used to be hard to find. About 15 years ago, lead singer Penelope Houston and founding guitarist Greg Ingraham reunited the band and have toured intermittently since 2004 with a solid new rhythm section, Pansy Division drummer Luis Illades and bassist Joel Reader.
Houston is still a captivating presence onstage, whether she’s torturing herself on songs like “Desperation” or rousing the rabble with such anthems as “Second to None.” In some quarters, she’s better known now as an underground folk and alt-pop singer who’s written songs with Chuck Prophet and worked with Magazine’s Howard Devoto. But she’s at her most powerful when backed by Ingraham’s heavy guitar in The Avengers.
Houston sarcastically dedicated “The American in Me” to all the people who didn’t vote in the recent election. The fiery song raised chills when she conflated Kennedy’s bloody assassination, ongoing war and the complicity of a voyeuristic public into less than two minutes of shout-along choruses and Ingraham’s exhilarating riffs. Such Avengers originals were so memorable that their definitively sinister remake of the Stones’ “Paint It Black” came off as just another song in the set.
The Avengers also received the night’s first encore, returning for two songs with former bassist James Wilsey, who’s best-known for adding distinctive twang and sparkle to Chris Isaak’s band Silvertone. Wilsey played guitar on Barrett Strong’s “Money” and the defiantly euphoric “I Believe in Me,” where Houston stubbornly declared, “I make my dreams real!”
Kicking into the leering grooves of the oft-covered “Life of Crime,” The Weirdos maintained a properly seedy atmosphere, combining menace and black humor in equal doses. Nattily attired in a black bowler and patterned vest, John Denney prowled around the stage like a psychic burglar, the stuff of someone’s bad dreams, as he delivered “Message From the Underworld.” His brother, Dix Denney, stared deadpan at the milling crowd while pressing down subtle, diminished chords in the quick spaces of the whirling funhouse known as “Helium Bar.” The ending of “We Got the Neutron Bomb” was as apocalyptic as ever, and The Weirdos made a connection to local rock history by covering Love’s 1966 garage-rock gem “7 and 7 Is” — L.A.’s first punk song.
The intensity of the sets by The Alleycats, The Weirdos and The Avengers reminded that punk doesn’t have to remain mired in the past and can still be a potent source of rebellion and inspiration. The Deadbeats, meanwhile, made it brutally clear that even punk rock can be upended and bent into new, uncomfortable contortions.
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Set lists for The Deadbeats and Rhino-39 on next page