Friday, June 8, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: LA Punk

I read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and was peeved to find almost no mention of Los Angeles. To me, L.A. punk is punk. Those great bands that came out of there in the late 70s and early 80s weren’t the first punk bands, but they were most highly evolved and lowly devolved. My conviction is probably due to the movie Decline of Western Civilization. It’s by far the best punk-rock doc and it had a profound impact on me, especially the scenes with the Germs. I was in junior high when I first saw those shots of Darby Crash writhing on stage, cutting his bare chest with shards from broken bottles, screaming the most guttural screams that any punk has ever screamed. The Germs’ GI has been reissued on CD this week after a far-too-long hiatus. Produced by Joan Jett, it’s an all-out scorcher. A lot of people call it the first hardcore album ever made, which is understandable, because they play very fast, loud and hard. But there’s a lot more going on than pure aggression. The guitar work is intricate and spidery, the drums are spastic but centered and forceful, and the bass playing is very loose and spaced out. I read Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs before I read Please Kill Me, and I was surprised to learn that the Germs didn’t listen to a whole lot of punk. They were into the New York Dolls, the Ramones and especially the Stooges, but they were actually more into the arty 70s bands that I always thought punk was rebelling against. Lead singer Crash and guitarist Pat Smear hailed David Bowie and Yes as their favorites, and drummer Don Bolles was big into Krautrock. All this comes through on the album—once you get past the initial shock of its all-out punkness.
            When I first got into punk as a teen in the early 80s, the scene was dominated by hardcore. Anything over two chords was pretentious art rock. My gateway albums were the Circle Jerks’ Wild in the Streets and Golden Shower of Hits, but both of those came out after hardcore had put a stranglehold on the punk scene. The real catalyst was Black Flag’s Damaged. After that record came out, hardcore spread like some sort of violent, conformist disease that consumed disaffected kids from the suburbs. Punk slid into a single, high gear and sort of stayed there, and that’s what a lot of people think of when they think of punk. The fact is that the L.A. punk scene was very eclectic, even after hardcore hit. The members of Black Flag themselves were hardly close-minded hardcore freaks. The band’s founder, Greg Ginn, is a professed lifelong Dead Head, and his label, SST, put out some of the most eclectic and innovative music from the 80s – Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust. And it was Henry Rollins who turned me on to Jimi Hendrix when I interviewed him outside of the Rainbow Music Hall in ’85 for a little fanzine I made on my mom’s photocopier.
            If you really want to get a feel for the scope and musical promise of the LA punk scene, check out X and Zolar X. The former were arguably the best musicians and songwriters in the scene, and their first four records – Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the Real World were tours de force. They played fast and hard, but their musicianship was always top notch, especially Billy Zoom’s guitar playing, which had rockabilly flair to it, and the vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. And they would slow it up and play more old rhythm and blues, good old rock and roll, and even a dash of country here and there. I played Under the Big Black Sun for a friend of mine who thinks he doesn’t like punk. (He likes the Clash, but strictly London Calling and later), and he thought I was full of it when I told him it was punk. Zolar X, on the other hand, were not great musicians. And technically, they weren’t punk. They were part of that nebulous mid-70s genre between glam rock and heavy metal. But they were de facto members of the punk scene. They lived in the same ghetto apartment complex where a lot of the early punks lived (members of the Germs shacked up there, for instance), and they were weird as hell. They billed themselves as aliens from outer space. They spoke and alien language that they’d made up and wore angular, bright-colored satin outfits like the kind you might see on The Avengers, as well as antennae and pointy ears – all the time, everywhere they went. Since they lived in the same place as some the more active early punkers, and they played a lot of the same small venues, they had an unwitting influence on the scene. Their music sounded less like the Germs and X and more like Kiss, without the practiced musicianship and money for production, and way more freakified with outer space sounds. Years later, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys found one of their records in a used record bin and was blown away. He reissued their rare EPs and 45s on a single LP on his punk label, Alternative Tentacles, thus officially sanctifying them in the church of punk.

            So to hell with those snobby New Yorkers and their “definitive” history books that suggest that the Big Apple and London are the only place where punk mattered. As far as I’m concerned, the genre was at its best in the West.

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