Monday, September 04, 2006

Maximumrocknroll #279 August 2006

"The advancement of Christ's Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect, Obedience, and all that tends towards a true Christian Manliness."

When I was a young lad I really wanted to join the Boy Scouts. It ran in the family - my Papa had been a Scout leader (Akela or something) and my uncle had been a Scout. My mum and aunt were Girl Guides, and their whole family used to go to camps and jamborees together. When it was my turn to carry on the tradition, religious sectarianism got in the way. In Newmains, the Scouts met at the Chapel hall. Protestant boys instead joined The Boys Brigade, a less-popular group that actually predated Baden-Powell's Scouts by about twenty years.
While the Scouts seemed to do all kinds of interesting and fun activities in pursuit of their merit badges, the Boys Brigade seemed to think that the best way to pursue The Object (that paragraph in quotes at the start of this column) was to force us to march. Week in, week out, we marched. We marked time. We saluted. I wanted to be out in the countryside learning stuff. Instead I marched round and round the same hall where I did PE at school, dressed in a uniform befitting the Hitler Youth, with some weird Christian tie-in that I wasn't into either.
The whole thing seemed designed to get us started down a path that would end with us joining the regular military. In fact, the BB was started by a soldier-turned-Sunday-school teacher who thought it would be a good way to instill order and discipline in his unruly students.
It wasn't all marching. There were also the occasional homoerotic episodes that seem to occur whenever you put a group of grown men who are overly fond of 'discipline' in charge of a bunch of young boys bursting forth with the bounty of impending manhood. Like the time we all had to dress up in cheerleader outfits (complete with wigs, makeup, and pom-poms) and mime along to Toni Basil's hit "Hey Mickey". I wish this was a joke.
We did make it out into the fresh air and the countryside once a year. It had been years since the BB uniform had included imitation muskets, but once off at camp, the boyish fascination with weaponry of all sorts was allowed free reign. For a wee fanny I was actually a pretty good shot with a bow and arrow or an air rifle, but the one time I had a living thing in my sights (a rabbit) I deliberately aimed high and missed, only to be met with scorn and ridicule.
If I could go back and talk to the 12-year-old me, I'd ask me why a boy who was bullied incessantly at school would willingly join and then choose to continue to attend an organization where he would be routinely bullied outside of school as well. I doubt my 12-year-old alter ego would have much of an answer, but I suppose I must have thought it would build character or something. Actually, I must have got something out of it, but whatever it was, it escapes me now.
Eventually, I got a paper round, and it was the type where you had to go round on Friday nights and collect the money. This meant extra work, but it also meant you got tips. If you worked for a newsagents where people dropped in and paid their bill at the shop, you never saw any extra money. But faced with a fresh-faced, hardworking young lad on his own doorstep, what upstanding citizen isn't going to say "keep the change", or even dip into his pocket for an extra ten bob? (The actual answer is, quite a few people, especially from the posh houses, and they're the bastards who get the big heavy papers as well!)
At any rate, having the paper round meant that I could no longer attend the Boys Brigade on Friday nights. Now I had extra money in my pocket, and I was free from the shackles and the uniform of the junior fascist Christian bullyboy league! Result!

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Maximumrocknroll #278 July 2006

A parade of expensive-looking single-speed track racing bicycles zipped past me down Market Street in San Francisco, like a stampede of gazelles startled by a hungry Cheetah. A cavalcade of toned calves with clever tattoos formed from likenesses of bike chains, sprockets, and punk logos glistened with sweat. Italian caps perched just so, the peaks upturned in a parody of Suicidal bandana chic. Messenger bags bulged with dumpstered muffins and Slingshot calendars. Suddenly the lead rider appeared to see something on the ground below – some sort of clue, perhaps? Too late. As he craned to read the word on the street he failed to spot the tram track just ahead – the sworn enemy of San Francisco bike rider and skateboarder alike. Too late to see what was coming – even if he had, this bike has no brakes – his front wheel jammed into the slot in the street and buckled. His near-weightless aluminum frame crumpled like a Pabst Blue Ribbon can. One by one he took the others with him. By the time the emergency services made the scene it was too late. It was a gory sight and many still weep small, wet tears at the thought of the hundred-bike-punk pile up of '06. That night This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb played a free memorial show. Thousands of bearded, underfed countrypolitan punks from college towns across the USA made the pilgrimage to pay their respects. A pyre of discarded eighties Alva skate decks with Life's Halt stickers burned long into the summer evening.
Did you know there's a holiday in the US called National Boss Day? I just found out about it myself. I'm reading all about it on Hallmark's website. Curiously, I've never seen anyone give his or her supervisor, manager, or CEO a card on Boss's day. I wonder why it doesn't seem to be catching on?
People like to talk about the evils of faceless corporations and the way they're taking over America and making life impossible for the small local businesses. I am not going to argue that Wal-Mart (for example) is not utterly evil, but I have to say that one of my better working experiences has been within a large-ish corporation. I was paid better than I ever have been before or since, I received full health benefits and paid time off, and I was treated like a responsible adult – no time clocks to punch – as long as my job was done well and within a reasonable timeframe, no one really cared what time I came or went. Of course, this freedom was ripe for abuse but apparently if you treat people like adults they are apt to behave in kind. I'm not saying I didn’t leave early here and there but over the course of the four and a half years I had that job I think I probably ended up putting in slightly more time than was expected, not less. Of course it wasn't perfect (I quit didn't I?) but I'm only mentioning it to compare it with some of my other job-related experiences, almost all of which have been working for small businesses, with bosses that consider themselves to be 'cool' or right-on or 'one of us'. This type of boss likes to stress how little money they're making and how badly the business is doing as a smokescreen for paying you shit money and giving you the bare minimum of benefits and time off (if any at all).
I used to try to spend as much time unemployed as possible, simply because I feel I have better things to do with my time than selling my labor for buttons so that someone else can get rich. Don't mistake that statement as a sign of laziness or a lack of a work ethic – when I do have a job I take it seriously and work hard. I find it pointless to half-ass things especially when it's my coworkers who will have to take up the slack. Every job I've had in at least the past ten years has told me I'd be welcome back when I quit. Anyway, once I left school and fell out of further education after two years with nothing to show for it, I settled in to life on the dole. Unfortunately they were starting to crack down on that kind of behavior and soon I was dispatched to various youth training schemes under the threat of my dole being cut off if I failed to attend. Luckily one evening a friend of mine who worked at the local recording & rehearsal studio/music venue/vegetarian café told me they were going to take on a Youth Employment trainee, and would I be interested? I immediately dropped out of the 'start your own business' trainee scheme I'd been on (at the end of the scheme you got a thousand pound loan to start your own business. I think the guys from Sedition did this to put out their first 7", "Dealing With Clichés - Or Dealing With Death?" and never paid back the loan, claiming the business failed. Brilliant!) and started working at the studio. The deal was they were getting paid by the government to teach me a skill (recording) and I was getting an extra tenner a week in my dole check. The important thing to note is that the right-on groovy business wasn't paying a penny out of its own pocket for me to be there.
Week in and week out I showed up, booked bands in and out of rehearsal and recording sessions, hoovered practice rooms, and soldered guitar leads. Despite regularly asking to sit in on recording sessions just to watch and try to learn something, I didn't see the inside of the recording studio until my band recorded there. I guess I made too many disapproving noises about soldering leads all day, because eventually my friend who 'hired' me (not any of the three vegan, 'anarchist-sympathizing' owners) took me to one side and told me they were letting me go. The reason? Apparently I wasn't keen enough.
Ironically, the studio/bar was destroyed by water damage when one of the units upstairs caught fire. Despite how it might come across in this column, I was heartbroken at the loss of what was still the epicenter of my life in Glasgow even though I no longer worked there.
I only use that as one example of how small-business bosses aren't necessarily better than the corporate variety. Given the exploitative nature of almost any boss/employee relationship, I have to think that if you actually want to be a boss, you must be kind of a dick. Why would you want to be a boss, and why do we need bosses? Or do we just think we do? How did we get to this point, where we volunteer to be told what to do? OK, there's a certain amount of coercion and force involved - for most of us, individually, it's a case of get a job or starve, or get a job or live on the street. But how did we ever let society get set up this way, for the work of the many to benefit the few?
Of course, it's been proven that we don't really need bosses. There must be thousands of worker-owned cooperatives and collective businesses currently running worldwide, some of them for many years, and their numbers are growing. Here in the Bay Area one can buy everything from pizza to organic vegetables to vibrators from companies that operate without bosses. Co-op workers have no bosses but at the same time they are all bosses, and as such they have a lot of extra responsibilities. As it turns out, they are up to the job. Are you?
OK, so I've never actually worked in a co-op, and the experience I've had with collectives hasn't been stellar. I know it takes a lot of work and commitment to do it and I'm not sure I can get along with other people enough to make it work for me. But it's a nice idea, no? I'm sure the many MRR shitworkers who work at some of the local co-ops could chime in with more informed opinions. For more information on worker-owned cooperatives you could start at the US Federation Of Worker Co-Operatives,
As for the first paragraph of this column, who knows? Blame it on the caffeine.

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Maximumrocknroll #277 June 2006

They say travel broadens the mind. But tourism is a multi-million dollar industry and there are still a lot of pretty narrow minds out there. Still, one of my fellow columnists has traveled the world (for free!?), and can also boast one of the broadest minds around, so maybe they do go hand in hand. I haven't done much in the way of exotic traveling myself (unless you count traversing continental Europe or a good swathe of the US in the back of a van) but there are certainly parts of the world I'd like to see before I die. To give you one particularly ludicrous example, I've lived in California for ten years and have never visited Mexico. I never got that urge to grab a backpack and a Lonely Planet guidebook and 'do' Central America, or Thailand, or India, or wherever else you might find intrepid twenty-something blue-eyed westerners gripped with an unquenchable desire to visit the world's Internet cafes. I guess it's the "cheap holiday in other people's misery" syndrome, or just white male guilt, but there's something unsettling about the idea of plopping oneself in the middle of some third world country to 'absorb the culture' and ogle the natives. It's not that I necessarily think there's anything wrong with traveling per se, I just have a hard time with the imbalance of it all. The western tourist (or traveler if you prefer) has the agency and privilege to visit just about any country he or she pleases, but often, the people of the visited country barely have the means to make it out of their immediate town, never mind their country. Again, I'm not trying to condemn anyone for visiting other countries or whatever, but maybe someone who has done some traveling can write and tell me if they thought about this stuff before or during their trip, and how they dealt with it?
I read an interview in the new issue of Herbivore Magazine with writer Inga Muscio, who says she only goes places she's been invited. That struck a chord with me – perhaps that was why I felt so much discomfort at the idea of being the privileged western traveler. If you have been invited somewhere, then presumably you have made some sort of personal connection with someone living in that country. This goes a long way towards solving the dilemma. Of course, it's rare for the average person to come home from work one day to find a note on the doormat from a random stranger in Costa Rica inviting him down for a two-week stay, all expenses paid. There's still a certain amount of privilege implied in being a writer or artist who is invited to foreign countries to share his or her work – or worse, to experience exotic places on our behalf, and report back in their art on the cultures they 'discover'.
While it might be unrealistic to expect everyone to nurture personal relationships with locals from any country they might be planning to visit, it might be a way (for the hopelessly guilt-ridden, like myself) to be able to travel and actually feel okay about it. (Note: whatever it seems like, this column is NOT a thinly veiled solicitation for invitations to your country. Honest.)
Actually, with the growing popularity of communication and networking tools like MySpace and Skype, there's a lot of potential for traditional geographic boundaries to become less important. It certainly makes it easier and cheaper for people to foster international friendships – assuming one has access to a computer with an internet connection (that problem of privilege again.)
Actually, perhaps the most pragmatic and honest way to approach travel is to acknowledge the economic realities of the situation – "I can go to this country because I can afford it, and the economy of this country depends on tourist dollars." Accept the fact that the locals probably see you purely as a vehicle for bringing your western wealth to their impoverished area. Stay in a luxury resort, get plastered on cheap margaritas, tip generously, and have a blast. A few shots of Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo tequila probably goes a long way to alleviating that liberal guilt, huh..?


If all is going according to plan this issue of the magazine extends last month's focus on punk business. With your permission, I'd like to address the topic a little more.
We punks are quick to get up in arms when one of 'our' bands signs to a major label or sells their music to be used on a TV show or in a commercial. It's one of the unwritten principles of punk rock that it cheapens your art when you use it to sell things. In recent times though, the mainstream media and commercial culture have sought to incorporate even the 'edgiest' and most rebellious strains of art and music into their efforts to market consumerism and materialism. Maybe instead of being pissed off that they're using the Stooges to sell luxury cars, we should ask ourselves why they're using the Stooges to sell luxury cars. The answer is, because it works. At this point, I doubt there's a style of music out there that couldn't be used to sell something, and if there is, it's certainly not punk rock as we know it. Almost any song by your favorite bands could be played over a commercial for something – maybe not luxury cars, but some disposable consumer product or other – and used to market that product so some demographic. These days, it's become almost the point of making music for some people.
I guess what I'm saying is that at any given time, your favorite band could be offered an unthinkable sum of money for one of their songs to be used in a commercial. If they're a super-political, DIY band with no interest in making money from their art, or at least no interest in being exploited for corporate interests, they'll probably say no. If they're a somewhat political band who could use the money, they might say yes. They may justify it to themselves and their fans by saying they deserve the money because they need health insurance (and why not?) or that they are getting their message out to a wider audience via that 30 second spot between Desperate Housewives and Law And Order SVU or whatever (I don't even know if they're on the same network, never mind the same night…). If they're a pop-punk or skate thrash or metalcore or whatever band with no politics in the music to speak of, they might just take the money and be glad of it, fuck anyone who complains. These are just three scenarios, but the fact is this situation probably plays out differently for each and every band that finds itself offered such an opportunity. Whichever reason your favorite band gives for taking the money and doing the commercial, you will probably feel slightly betrayed.
As members of the punk scene, we derive much of our collective identity from what we perceive as shared values. When we discover that someone we respected didn’t share all those values after all, we feel abandoned. However, we all have different ideas of what those shared values are – generally speaking, the one thing that seems to unite us is this: "we are into bands that don't sell out." Obviously, what 'selling out' means is open to interpretation but I think the basic point is true. And when we tie ourselves, our community, our values, our sense of who we are to the whims of individuals in rock and roll bands we sell ourselves short. Maybe we need to readjust our values and beliefs, and devote more attention to the facets of our culture that are less easily defined.

Maximumrocknroll #276 May 2006

This column originally appeared in an issue of Maximumrockroll tackling the 'business' side of punk rock.

The funny thing about re-reading the original major-label theme issue from twelve years ago is marveling about some of the bands that were getting snapped up in the bidding frenzy but either went nowhere, broke up, got dropped, or came crawling back to their previous indie homes. OK, Green Day are now one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, and we all know what happened to Nirvana. But it's a fucking joke now that anyone cared about Seaweed, Jawbox, or Samian, for example. I'm not making a judgment call on the quality of those bands, but with hindsight, it's clear that their signing to majors wasn't really worth making a fuss about.
The majors don't need to bother snapping up the hot indie bands any more anyway. They've got a conveyor belt of starry-eyed youngsters with no greater ambition than to get on the Warped Tour, sign to a major, make a video, and get on MTV Cribs. They got their claws into Against Me! (anyone running a pool on how long 'til they break up?) but even if they hadn't, they'd have got someone who sounds just like them before too long.
All of that stuff happens outside the punk scene these days, pretty much, but the more insidious threat is the way so-called punk labels and bands are adopting the tactics of the majors. On the surface, their efforts are transparent and hilarious, but it's the sense of competition where there used to be a spirit of cooperation that is sapping punk of a lot of its potential, it's power, and a great deal of what makes it fun.
The world at large would think it bizarre to say the least that we even think the issue of major labels is worth discussing. It's generally accepted that bands only put out records on indie labels (or by themselves) as a means to get noticed by majors. It's seen as a sign of astute business acumen when an independent label sells out to (or strikes some kind of deal with) a major label. The owners of independent labels who do this are held up as true American success stories.
The labels that churn out the bulk of the punk rock product on the CD racks at your local (or online) record store, including many (if not most) of the labels that advertise in this very magazine, have adopted sleazy major-label tactics and even collude (sometimes grudgingly but rarely unwittingly) with major labels under the banner of 'getting the message out to a wider audience' (At this point only a cynic would point out that bands have been using that argument since The Clash and the revolution still isn't imminent). Actually, the true grounds for playing the game the way the majors do seems less about spreading some spurious message and more about simply surviving. The music press is constantly (if prematurely) heralding the death of the music industry and it is true that record sales are in decline (although sales of music downloads threaten to make up the difference). The combined sales of all independent labels (including those with some sort of major-label distribution or P&D) probably amounts to less than 20% of an already shrinking pie. So there's a lot of competition for a pretty small prize. At some level, these labels might think that anything they do is justified to help them compete with the majors on a more level playing field, but they're kidding themselves. They are only competing with each other, and every step they take that gives the majors a taste of their action just makes the imbalance even more pronounced.
A couple of specific tactics that are (on the surface) pathetic and amusing but that are also pretty depressing are the prevalence of street teams and publicists. Independent and major labels willingly sucker their bands' fans into doing free promotional work for them, in the guise of making them feel like extra special insiders and probably in exchange for a free CD or concert ticket. Then there's the whole magazine publicist thing. There's very little chance that a band on a true independent will make it into the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. However, tons of glossy, 'alternative' magazines have sprung up to fill the void that RS has left by only covering acts in the Billboard Top 40. You only have to go to your local Borders or Barnes & Noble to check them out. You'll notice, though, that by some strange coincidence, they're all covering the exact same bands, and all those bands happen to have a new album just about to come out. Now do you suppose that twenty different magazine editors got up one morning and thought, I know, I'll put (current indie pants-soakers du jour) on the cover, because they're my favorite band right now!" Not on your life. Most articles you see in those alternative magazines on the newsstand (and almost certainly all the cover stories) are there because the label paid someone to suck up to the editor and/or because the label advertises in the magazine. Actually, these days even those cutting edge indie magazines are more than likely to have major label bands on their covers – you know, the cutting edge major label bands. "Hey, Death Cab on the cover equals guaranteed sales man, and then we can turn even more people on to the truly indie shit in our mag. It's all in the name of getting the message out…" It would be almost tolerable, or at least respectable, if these people were getting anything out of shilling themselves to the machine, but most of these mags, even the glossiest ones with the ridiculous advertising rates, are basically voluntary concerns, just like MRR. The editors and contributors work day jobs and then put their creative energy, spare time, and sweat into producing what is essentially free publicity for the major labels (and the best kind too, the kind with street cred). They do this in the hope that the magazine will grow and they'll be able to command increasingly high ad rates and will get enough juice with major-label publicity departments that they'll be able to conduct backstage interviews with today's hottest stars, and eventually their mag will be the next Spin.
So yeah, NEWSFLASH! The music industry is sleazy and fucked! Punk rock as we know and love it developed over almost 30 years as a true alternative to the ego-driven, fame and publicity hungry, cutthroat, competitive world of the conventional music industry. It's still the case that a lot of the best music is being made on truly DIY independent labels. So let's just keep enjoying it. Let the people who are content to put themselves up for sale go on their merry way, and good luck to them. But when it's obvious that bands or labels are obviously keeping one foot in the punk camp for the credibility while simultaneously chasing mainstream stardom, let's withdraw our support, expose them, and mock their ridiculous presskits.

Maximumrocknroll #275 April 2006

It's all Valerie McMillan's fault. When I was a nipper I was a bit of a swot, always in the quiz team and stuff like that. I don't remember putting myself forward for this stuff, but I was pretty compliant. If the teacher told me, "you're in the quiz team. Practice is at 4." I just turned up like I was told. Valerie McMillan was a year or two older than me (it was primary school, so I was probably 9 or 10). Mrs. McMillan, her mum, was my teacher, and she was brilliant. Valerie, on the other hand, was snobby and mean. I don't know if she thought she was special because her mum was a teacher, or because they lived in a nice house in the nicest part of the village instead of the grey council schemes that most of us lived on, or what. Anyway, one day at quiz team practice I got a question about flowers or something. The answer was "anemone", and I knew the answer even though I'd never seen an anemone or heard someone pronounce the word. I answered it correctly but pronounced it wrong, like "ani-moan" or something, so I didn't get the point. Valerie Watson jumped in to poach the goal, triumphantly enunciating the word while looking smugly in my direction. Looking back (and don't ask me why I remember this crap) it seems obvious that Valerie must have had something lacking in her life if she felt it necessary to vaunt her superiority over a wee boy two years her junior (age wise – probably more like five if we're talking physical and emotional development. I was a late bloomer) but all I can remember is feeling crushed. The incident was just one more reason to feel inferior. How was I meant to get on in the world competing against these folk that no doubt spent their lives up to their ears in anemones, and probably rhododendrons and camellias as well, when all we had was a balding square of grass and a tiny rhubarb patch?
The phenomenon of class is a strange one. Before I developed any kind of class-consciousness, I was ashamed of the hand-me-downs my brother and I would often wear to school. In certain circles (usually around the other 'clever' kids, most of whom lived in houses in nice areas that their parents actually owned and whose dads had white collar jobs) I was ashamed that my dad worked in a factory or that we rented our house from the council. At the same time, I still managed to feel superior to the kids who came to school dressed worse than me, or not clean, or who got the free lunch. Load of shit, eh? Now I'm just ashamed that I ever felt ashamed. Of course, most of the time none of this stuff mattered, it didn't plague my thoughts or anything, but I can see where this stuff might have made its mark on me and how it affects the way I've lived my life and the choices I've made.
When you're working class you learn to keep your head down. It doesn't do to appear too ambitious. If you are seen to be trying to improve your lot or get ahead, people will talk shit behind your back. "Who the fuck does he think he is?" On the other hand, when someone from a Scottish working-class background becomes world famous (Sean Connery, for example), everyone thinks to themselves, "ah, he's one of us."
Is the above really true, or is it my perception of what happens? Maybe it's just my guilt at wanting to escape my surroundings. I didn't want to get out because I thought I deserved better than everyone else. I believed that everyone deserved better. I just created the opportunity to leave for myself.
To this day I have an aversion to speaking up for myself. I keep my modest achievements to myself to avoid sounding like I'm bragging, because I don't want to sound like I'm getting ideas above my station. I'll sit in a restaurant and eat something that's cold or tastes rubbish rather than speak up and send it back. I'm mystified by the air of self-confidence and entitlement that surrounds people that grew up with money. Actually, at first I didn't always realize that's what it was. I'd meet these people who seemed to believe that they could do anything, that the world was their oyster. I'd be in awe of them, wishing I could be like that, and feeling that there was something lacking in me. Eventually someone pointed out to me that a lot of the time, people carry around that self-belief because they've been told their entire lives that they deserve to have anything they want and that every opportunity is open to them. Whereas I'd never seen evidence that anyone from round our way could amount to anything much.
I feel like things are slightly better now, but when I was young the only representations of working class culture you got in the media were total stereotypes. Never mind Scottish working class culture. At school, there were no authentic Scottish voices represented in the literature we studied, with the exception of having to learn a Robert Burns poem once a year. Even this they turned into a chore. No attempt was made to relate Burns' poetry to modern life, we were just supposed to learn a particular piece word for word and the student who could best recite it would go off to a national competition. I never won that privilege. Ironically, Burns was a bit of a radical and I actually enjoy his work now, but I was completely turned off of it by the ham-fisted way it was taught. It was made patently clear that literature was something created by and for the enjoyment of the middle and upper classes, preferably those in the southern counties of England. Turn on the television and you got a similar message – successful people (lawyers, doctors, politicians, actors) were well-bred graduates of the finest private schools and universities. Blue-collar types (when you saw them at all) spoke with 'regional' accents and were generally cap-doffing supplicants. I spent many of my formative years reading books about the heroic exploits of upper-crust English types, like the Famous Five, Just William, Jennings, Bertie Wooster, and Sherlock Holmes. Luckily I later discovered James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, and of course Irvine Welsh, among many other amazing Scottish authors, although I do feel that my earliest influence can still be detected in the way I write today.
I don't really know why I'm going on about all this, except that I was recently reminded of the quiz team story so it's been on my mind. I don't mean this as any kind of exertion of working class pride or some such spurious notion. These are just hang-ups I was born into. It's true that on the rare occasion I find an affinity with someone they often turn out to come from a similar background, but I try not to hold onto any prejudice. I feel very strongly that to feel proud of something that you were born into and had nothing to do with (your class, your race, your country) is treacherous territory and has been known to lead down a rather dangerous path.


I wholeheartedly recommend checking out any of the authors I mentioned above, but particularly the newer Scottish ones. While you're at it, have a go at Alan Bissett, Laura Hird, Alan Warner, Tom Leonard, Ian Rankin, Janice Galloway, or Duncan McLean. Actually, Laura Hird (author of Born Free, one of the best books I've read in the last ten years) has a pretty impressive website at, which, although named for her, also includes a host of material from other writers, as well as a section on her favorite punk bands (phew! Against all the odds, the boy McNaughton manages to slide a punk reference past the bewildered goalie and brings the column back under MRR guidelines as the Ref looks at his watch) including Crass, The Undertones, The Ruts, The Buzzcocks, and SLF. There's hours of reading on this site and I won't pretend I've even started to make a dent in it.

Maximumrocknroll #274 March 2006

When I was but a young lad I used to lie on my bed listening to Agent Orange and reading BMX Action and Thrasher, dreaming wistfully of California. Ahh, California: the endless smooth concrete of the sidewalks; the bountiful skateparks like the Pipeline and Uplands; the California of Bones Brigade videos and JFA adverts (I know JFA aren't from California but I associated their adverts with the lifestyle I coveted. I actually think I prefer those old Placebo ads to any of the records.) Every day would be spent carving a fullpipe in the desert with your mates, followed by the Black Flag/Minutemen/Hüsker Dü triple bill, and then if you were lucky you might cop a feel off some blonde-haired surfer vixen in the back of her VW van.
Eventually I did move to California in search of a better life and discovered that it wasn't the place of my daydreams. Still, I've definitely had it better than most. The California I imagined from TV and the rest of the media was indeed different from the reality I experienced, but I believe that there are some people who do live in that glamorous reality. There actually do exist people whose lives resemble an episode of 'The O.C.' (if you've never seen that, it's a TV soap opera revolving around the lives of rich, spoiled teenagers in a wealthy beach town in Southern California, and something of a guilty pleasure of mine.)
When people visit the US from Europe or Japan they often marvel at how cheap everything is here. Just as Americans have gotten used to being able to buy gas at artificially cheap prices, just about everything else we buy is subsidized by the low wages made possible by cheap overseas labor and a tacit acceptance by industry of illegal immigration. Oh yes, Republicans and Democrats alike will make noise from time to time about stamping out illegal immigration, but capital needs a steady flow of labor, and there's nothing it loves more than labor that's willing to work with few legal rights, no benefits, and below-market wages, and that won't make waves for fear of being deported.
Which brings us to the Minutemen. Not the seminal San Pedro band that you might generally expect to hear of in my column, but the loosely-organized bands of vigilantes that have sprung up in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and even on the Canadian border from Washington to North Dakota. Armed and dangerous, they have taken it upon themselves to patrol the borders and round up illegal immigrants, and have garnered publicity for videotaping migrant day laborers and those who hire them and reporting them to the INS and IRS. They've focused a lot of attention lately on the business owners who hire the day laborers, claiming that they are taking advantage of the workers when they ought to be hiring people legally and paying for benefits and healthcare and such like. I don't disagree with this, and I certainly don't think that people who hire illegal immigrants are doing so out of a sense of charity. But the fact that the Minutemen's tactics have served mainly to victimize people who are far below poverty level and are struggling to provide the barest of necessities for themselves and their families is mean spirited to say the least. They have denied charges of racism but such people always do. They want to be seen as decent people doing their civic duty to defend their way of life, but goad them a little and the teeth start to show. The terminology favored by anti-immigration activists is designed to elicit fear of some catastrophe or other. They often talk of a deluge of immigrants, of a flood of people coming over the border. I certainly don't equate the dangerous activity of trying to make your way from Central or South America to a new life in the USA, with the hazards of border guards, vigilantes, coyotes, exploitative bosses, human traffickers, foremen who routinely rape their female workers, with a flood. Anyone who risks these dangers - risks their life – just to provide a better life for their family, has earned, at the very least, better treatment from their new neighbors, if not the bare minimum of human respect.
As an immigrant (albeit a honky whose transition to this country went fairly smoothly) this issue is very close to my heart. I find that borders provide nothing but trouble. I don't like them and think it would be a better world if all borders were opened immediately. I have, however, noticed that not all borders are the same. As a youth I traveled back and forth across the border with England frequently. No one bats an eyelid although one's accent might invite comment, or a ten pound note from a Scottish bank might draw a suspicious glance despite being completely legal tender (Maybe the suspicion derives from the unlikelihood of anyone from Scotland actually having ten pounds.) Similarly, driving around Europe, the borders are policed, but for the most part, it's rarely more than a matter of routine. Workers from anywhere in the European Union can legally take their labor wherever they like within the Union (not that I'm suggesting that Europe doesn't have its own problems with immigration – the recent riots in France demonstrated their lack of egalité.) There's a palpable difference between borders (such as those between wealthy Western European nations) that aren't really policed or contested, and borders (such as the one between the USA and Mexico) that represent more than just the point where one country ends and the other starts. Drive along US 10 from El Paso, TX towards Las Cruces, NM, with the Rio Grande on your left and beyond it, the slum villages of Juarez, and it becomes clear that this border represents a life of wealth and opportunity that many will never see. It's a pretty barren expanse of land, no fences or armed guards that I could see, at least during the day, but the simple knowledge that the imaginary dotted line that can only be viewed on a map is there feels like violence. It feels like goading, like bullying, like a dare.
Like most problems, it's complex, and there are no quick and easy solutions that will satisfy everyone. Too many people have a vested interest in maintaining a façade of strict border control and resistance to immigration while turning a blind eye to the exploitation and modern-day slavery of those who do make it over the border. The American middle-class lifestyle of cheap consumer goods, cheap food and cheap gas depends on this exploitation, so it will probably continue until the masses become bored and disillusioned with the ease and luxury of their consumerist, TV-driven lives and turn instead to the betterment of society as a whole, and particularly the lower classes. So, probably in the next couple of weeks then.


I do realize that messrs. Boon, Watt, and Hurley named themselves the Minutemen ironically, after the '60s militant anti-communist group, who in turn named themselves after the elite Revolutionary War militias, but it is still jarring to hear the name I so closely associate with the band that could be our lives linked with something so negative and hateful. I've read that D. Boon wrote the following lyrics (to Corona) on a trip to Mexico. Note the use of the words "our South" to refer to Mexico. Sure, there's a border there. Sure, it's technically another country. But the people over that border are humans just like us, so it is exactly that – "our South," as much as we are their North. North America, South America, these are just words.
The people will survive
In their environment
The dirt, scarcity, and the emptiness
Of our South
The injustice of our greed
The practice we inherit
The dirt, scarcity and the emptiness
Of our South
There on the beach
I could see it in her eyes
I only had a Corona
Five cent deposit

Maximumrocknroll #273 February 2006

I began 2005 at a party in Glasgow. The party was in a bar/restaurant that's been around in one incarnation or another for many years, and has been a backbone of the music scene the whole time. I went to the party with my wife and a couple of old friends but I also ran into a bunch of people I used to be fairly close with but had lost touch with over the years. The party was crowded and a little bit boring, even though my friends' band played, but it was good to reconnect with some people I shared fun memories with. One acquaintance that happens to sing in an extremely famous band was there and he was asked about his New Years Eve in the morning paper. My wee brother thought it was impressive that even in our advanced years we were still cool enough to be at a party that was mentioned in The Sun the next day. It hadn't really felt that glamorous at the time but I don't suppose the parties that get written about in the papers probably ever do.
I thought of that particular venue because I found myself back there again in October. (You know, the trip where I broke my elbow. By the way, thanks for all the get-well-soon messages that flooded my MRR mailbox after that – NOT! And I thought you cared…) The occasion was John Peel Day, a national day of mourning the loss of the world's greatest broadcaster a year earlier, and a celebration of his legacy. BBC Radio and MTV (UK) dedicated the day to Peel, playing songs and videos associated with him all day. I saw many videos on MTV that day that I didn't know existed, videos that probably have never been aired and probably will never be aired again, except maybe next John Peel Day… CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, CAN, THE FALL, THE WEDDING PRESENT, to name just a few. It was pretty surreal to sit there and see video after video of bands you didn't realize actually even made videos. Some really low-budget stuff, but still miles better than the five videos they still show on MTV these days. It gave you an idea of what music television could actually be like if it wasn't just a twenty-four hour commercial for the most generic, commercial, soul-destroying aspects of mainstream 'culture' imaginable.
Anyway, I digress. Just about every music venue in the country was promoting a special John Peel tribute night. The one I went to featured some non-MRR approved bands, but they're bands I quite like anyway. It was especially thrilling to see MOGWAI play to less than 200 people, since they normally play stadiums and the like now I think. I'd never seen them live and probably never will again. Though I'm not a huge fan, I like their music okay, but they have this one song called Christmas Steps that just crushes. It follows the quiet-loud template of most of their stuff but for some reason it stands out for me. I first heard it on a mix CD that my cousin made for me and I'd say it's now one of my all-time favorite songs by any band. Luckily they played it that night, which is why I now no longer need to ever see them again. That particular Peel Day party was broadcast live on Radio 1, so my wee brother could sit at home and listen, and marvel that his ancient older brother is cool enough to be at a party that's on the radio. Again, it didn't feel that glamorous, especially since I had my arm in a cast and sling.
It was a bit odd to see the mainstream media of the UK embracing all things Peel for a day, especially since most of those outlets seem to spend the other 364 days of the year actively trying to suppress anything that doesn't fit the mainstream model of ambition and success. Even then, most of them missed the point by trying to define Peel in their terms – claiming that his importance stemmed from all the successful bands and artists that he 'discovered', from PINK FLOYD, TYRANNOSAURUS REX, and DAVID BOWIE to THE SEX PISTOLS, NIRVANA, and THE WHITE STRIPES. Journalists tripped over each other to prove how cool and with it they were, and betrayed their age when they let us know just exactly when they'd been turned on to their favorite band by Peel late in the night, almost without fail tuned in on a little transistor radio under the bedclothes. I'd bet none of these wankers (speaking of late-night under-the-bedclothes activities) had listened to John Peel since they'd got out of college, and they probably now think that COLDPLAY is the cutting edge of underground rock. There was no mention of the fact that Peel had told his friend and BBC Radio colleague Andy Kershaw that he felt marginalized and underappreciated at the BBC after they'd moved his show from 10pm to 11pm. The sycophantic backslapping and self-congratulation that marked John Peel Day only served to make it even more apparent that the void left by his death will never be filled.
The last day of my trip home was spent walking around Glasgow with an old friend with whom I am, thankfully, in fairly regular contact with. (Recent conversations with this friend had prompted the column on violence I submitted a couple of months ago). Our walk took in, among other things, an abandoned, derelict Charles Rennie Macintosh building hidden down an alley slap bang in the center of town, and the monument to the soldiers of the Spanish Civil War down by the river that I'd walked and ridden my bike past many times over the years but hadn't realized was there. The subject of violence came up again as we contemplated the monument. We agreed that there could be different kinds of violence, that the violence of an imperialistic crusade on foreign soil wasn't necessarily the same as a violent reaction to oppression, and this set my mind at ease a little on the questions that had been plaguing me.
My friend, a native of Glasgow, had recently moved back there after a few years away, and was trying to adjust to the changing city while at the same time trying to avoid falling into the rut of slipping back into the same patterns and routines that he was getting away from when he left. Looking at the city for a moment through his eyes emphasized the changes that had occurred since I'd been gone. I had to rethink my opinion of the place and the homesickness that is always at the back of my mind, tugging at me to return one day. It's a fact that I subconsciously deny, that the Glasgow I left twelve years ago is actually no longer there. There's still plenty of exciting stuff to discover, like ignored architectural gems down forgotten alleyways, but for how long?

Maximumrocknroll #272 January 2006

Where we lived there was no way to get back from Glasgow after about eleven at night. Even then the last train would only take you so far, Motherwell probably, then you'd have to get a taxi, probably about a tenner. Out of the question. So Sandy and I decided to just stay out all night after the GBH gig, sleep in the bus station and wait for the first bus home in the morning.
I don't remember much about the gig. Can't even remember who the other bands were. Toxic Ephex maybe? We hadn't been to many punk gigs at the time and they could be quite intimidating for young kids like us – from small towns, and not particularly streetwise – lots of scary-looking big skinheads, and pissed-off looking crusties that would demand your spare change. This was in the venue, not outside on the street. Anyway, the bands played, people pushed each other about a bit, and frankly, it wasn't all that impressive. GBH were loud and fast and all that, but in their punk clothes and 'charged' hair, it all seemed like such a cliché, even then. We drifted out of the venue and out onto the street. Time passed pretty slowly. We just walked around Glasgow's darkened streets, unfamiliar at nighttime, with all the shops closed. We looked in shop windows and planned what our band would sound like, once we'd managed to get some instruments and other people to play with us. We got to the bus station and took turns lying along the bench seats. Neither of us could really sleep. Sketchy people kept checking us out, especially this one total pedo looking guy in a trenchcoat. We eventually legged it out of there.
Down towards the river we found a comfortable alcove to hang out in. The sun was starting to come up and the prostitutes were finishing their shifts as the bin men and street cleaners were starting theirs. One scantily clad but worse-for-wear working girl crossed the street shakily, only to be accosted by a cop. He couldn't see us and probably assumed he was alone on the street with her. It looked like he was asking her some questions, and his face betrayed his utter contempt and disgust for the creature before him. He grabbed her bag and looked through it. He obviously didn't find what he was looking for, but he scattered the contents into the gutter anyway, then turned and walked away. The woman bent down to her knees, gathered up her belongings as if this was just another day, and then tottered away on her high heels. As she passed by, she noticed us, and came over.
"Got any Valium?" she drawled. We didn't. "Know where ah could git some?"
No. Sorry. She went on her way. One night on the street and we looked like the type of people you could score Valium off, or at least, like we'd know where you could get it? Hey, at that time local family doctors were handing it out like sweeties to any housewife that had the odd bad day, so I suppose it wasn't out of the question that we'd nicked some from our mum's medicine cabinets.
We hung out there for a while until we were sure we saw the trenchcoat pedo from the bus station coming down the road, and we took off back up to the station. It was almost time for the bus anyway.
I'll always remember my first and only GBH gig, but not for anything to do with the band. The self-righteousness, the hatred on that policeman's face during his brief interchange with the prostitute, his total disregard for her as a human being, was palpable. Alright, by society's standards, you don't get much lower than a middle-aged drug addict Glaswegian prostitute, but it was clear that this man felt the need to make himself feel better by belittling her. It wasn't my first (or last) experience with the heavy-handedness of certain bad apples in Her Majesty's Constabulary, but it's one that I'll never forget. The message was loud and clear. On one side, all the power. On the other, none whatsoever. That side can do whatever the fuck it wants. This side just has to take it.

Bad Luck Dept: I filed my last column from my brother's house in Scotland. I was home for my Gran's 90th birthday celebration. A couple of days into the trip, I fell off my bike while riding at a skatepark and broke a bone in my elbow.
"You fell off your bike? How old are you?!" I heard countless variations of this question at the hospital, or when people inquired about my cast. Maybe it isn't common for a 35-year-old to break his arm falling off a BMX bike, but is it really such a big deal? The implied meaning in the question is that by 35 you're supposed to have put that sort of thing behind you. Not to mention that many people who asked that question didn't even know I'd been riding a BMX bike in a skatepark – for all they knew, I could have had a bike accident riding a ten-speed to work or whatever. The point is, by the time you're my age, you're supposed to be driving everywhere, and any recreation you take part in should be passive – preferably watching one of the mainstream sports.
There is something of a double standard, though. If I'd got my injury playing 5-a-side football, no one would have batted an eyelid. Similarly, if I'd explained it away by saying I was hammered and fell down the stairs, I'd have been greeted with a chuckle, and a "could happen to anyone."
Maybe I am just clinging to my youth, unable to let go. Some might say the same about my continued attraction to punk rock. Maybe it's true. Aching muscles and ringing ears aside, when I'm carving the bowl at Alameda skatepark or down the front watching This Is My Fist at Gilman, I still sometimes feel like the kid who stayed up all night after a GBH gig in the mid-80s. Is there really anything wrong with that?

Maximumrocknroll #271 December 2005

I was waiting at the bus stop for a friend of mine when a couple of local boys I recognized but didn't know came up to me. One of them got up close to my face and said, "You beat up ma wee brother." I protested that I didn't even know he had a brother. (I should take this opportunity to point out that I have never in my life beaten up a soul.) "Ye did, ye beat up ma wee brother!" It was pointless to argue. For all I know this guy didn't have a brother. It was a fabricated reason, an excuse to start in on me, why I don't know – wrong place at the wrong time, wrong trousers, wrong haircut, looking stupit. I don't know if convincing themselves that I had somehow wronged them made it easier or more fun or what. Anyway, after a bit of back and forth on the issue of whether I had or had not beat up this guy's wee brother that may or may not exist, he stuck the head on me. I've never been very physical, or much of a fighter. Well me and my brother used to knock lumps out of each other but family's different. Basically I just leaned over and protected my face with my arms as the punches and kicks came. Eventually a neighbor came running out of the supermarket nearby and yelled at them until they ran off laughing. I was more embarrassed than sore. Every time something like this has happened (did you think this was going to be an isolated incident?) I end up kicking myself for not fighting back, because it's almost never as painful as you think it's going to be. I just never had a stomach for violence.
It seems like pacifism would be a natural fit for someone who can't stand violence. As a teenager I got in an argument with someone over them putting 'The Only Good Fascist Is A Dead Fascist' on a flyer. My politics were still developing (still are!) but I was definitely, by that point, a committed anti-fascist. I just couldn't put myself behind the trigger.
It's romantic to think of all the artists and poets and leftists who rushed to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War, to imagine that we might have fought alongside them. Or to answer the call to fight Hitler in the Great War - A noble cause, but could I have answered?
I experienced the dubious thrill of potential mob violence chasing Nazis through the streets of Glasgow when the BNP would try to march. It never came to much because the Fash were always so pathetically outnumbered that they had to have heavy Police protection. So we just screamed at each other across a human barricade of boys in blue. What would I have done if the cops hadn't been there to protect us all from what might happen? In that type of pressure-cooker situation, who knows?
I don't think I really am a pacifist when it comes down to it. It's hard to reconcile though. I think war is wrong. I will not take up arms against another living creature. But I do think it's sometimes necessary for a group to use violence in one form or another to resist violence that's perpetrated against it. Can you feel that way, but refuse to fight? Is it right to let those with the capability for violence handle the dirty work? How is that different from the hawks in the White House sending working class kids off to Iraq to advance their NeoConservative agenda?

Maximumrocknroll #270 November 2005

One day in Mrs. Watson's class Raymond Broon showed me the Blondie badge on his stookie. I don't know how he broke his arm but it was probably in the course of administering a violent beating on an unlucky acquaintance. "Punk's the best!" he says. "Ye like punk?" At this point in my life I associated punk with thugs like Broonie and his pals, who spray-painted Sex Pistols graffiti behind the supermarket and hung out at the chippy to make my life a misery when I went to pick up the fish suppers on Friday night. Naturally, this was something I distanced myself from. The Blondie badge posed a quandary though. The alluring image of Debbie Harry on Top Of The Pops haunted my pre-pubescent psyche the way Pan's People (the TV dance troupe of leggy lovelies that accompanied chart hits that didn't have a video) never could. If this was punk, maybe it wasn't so bad after all. "Are you a punk or a mod?" was a common interrogative opening gambit in the playground of Newmains Primary School. The wrong answer could result in a kicking but when everyone wore school uniforms it was hard to guess which one was right.
When a neighbor showed up at the lockups at the end of our block and put the soundtrack of "The Great Rocknroll Swindle" on the tape deck it just sounded like a comedy album. We'd fast-forward past the actual Pistols songs to hear "Friggin' in the Riggin'" and snigger at the swearing. We didn't really know who Ronnie Biggs was but we could sense that there was something bad, and therefore exciting, about his association with the record. By the time punk had made its way to our neck of the woods (post-Grundy and the resulting tabloid sensationalism) it was basically a magnet for violent schemies that believed what their parents read in the paper. As a swotty little smurf that spent more time at the local library than pogoing to the Lambrettas' version of "Poison Ivy" at the community center disco, I didn't really get exposed to it. Round mates' houses we'd listen to their records by The Specials and The Jam but I had neither a record player of my own nor the wherewithal to obtain records. I used to sit in my room on a Sunday afternoon and tape the latest songs off the Top 40 show on Radio 1. (Later I'd do the same with the John Peel programme but I hadn't discovered that quite yet). My absolute favorite at the time was Adam & The Ants (me and millions of others… although I'm not sure how many of them tried to duplicate Adam's make-up with tubs of poster paint).
From the ages of about 9 til 13 my tape collection consisted of everything Adam & The Ants put out after Dirk Wears White Sox (if I'd managed to get my hands on that art-punk masterpiece at my tender age it'd have blown my mind), one or two Madness albums, some Tchaikovsky my mum had left lying around, "Switched On Bach" from the library (classical music played entirely on Moog synths, the first electronica album!), a Johnny Cash tape that had been in my tape deck when my dad bought it off some guy in the pub, and several tapes of Top 40 rubbish off the radio. All this while a musical revolution was happening in bigger cities and towns all over the country. Who am I kidding though, I can't blame where I'm from – it's not like if I'd grown up in Manchester instead I'd have got my twelve-year-old arse straight down the Hacienda to catch The Fall and Joy Division after football practice.
Maybe if I'd been reading the NME and Sounds instead of hammering BASIC games into my ZX81 out of the pages of Your Sinclair I'd have had more of a clue what was going on. As it was, the finest years of UK punk passed me by. It wasn't until a bit later, when my interest in BMX widened my circle of acquaintances to include a skater in the next town over with a subscription to Thrasher and a music collection to match, that I got turned on to American hardcore, or Skate Rock as it was quaintly known in those innocent times. Soon those Top 40 tapes were getting dubbed over and the rest, as they say, is history.
There's a tendency to mythologize the good old days – in their eagerness to help the new kids understand what they missed out on, older people can sometimes over-state the importance of bands and scenes of yesteryear, and sometimes this emphasis on nostalgia encourages younger people to spend too much time looking back and not enough time creating something new. I think it's important to honor the pioneers of this stuff that means so much to us, but don't let it become the noose that hangs us. Let's not just sit around talking about how good things used to be. Maybe it's easy for me to say since I wasn't "there". Maybe it's because I wasn't at the birth of any important scene that I've always tried to appreciate the validity and importance and value of what was going on immediately around me. Maybe that's why I'm still interested in what's happening right now while a lot of friends my age are content to retreat deeper and deeper into their record collections. Who knows?
Speaking of the good old days, I just finished watching the Don Letts documentary, 'Punk: Attitude' that I TiVO'd off the Independent Film Channel. It's the same old boring talking head after talking head, although fewer and fewer of the usual suspects are still alive to tell their side of the story, so they've had to dredge up less photogenic and articulate players (like a slurring Glenn Branca). Don't you get sick of seeing these boring old farts trying to make sure we're constantly reminded of their place in rock history? If only Letts had talked to someone like John Loder or Randy Biscuit Turner. They'd surely have done more than try to emphasize their own importance. Now it's too late.
For the most part, it follows the usual timeline – MC5-Stooges-Television-Ramones-Sex Pistols-Clash. Unlike any other punk doc I've seen though, it does at least acknowledge Nuggets-era stuff like Question Mark and the Mysterians, Count Five, Standells, and The Sonics. It's also the first film that doesn't leave a huge gap for the entire 80s – you know, "The Winterland show would be the Sex Pistols' last. And then, in 1992, a little band from Seattle hit the spotlight…" Post-punk bands like The Pop Group and Magazine get a little attention, and there's some discussion of hardcore, including Minor Threat, Black Flag, and Bad Brains, but the bulk of the discussion of hardcore focuses on Agnostic Front. Agnostic Front! There's a brief mention (I think by Jim Jarmusch) that bands were pressing their own records, and people like Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore talk about the underground scene of the 80s, but mostly as some sort of precursor to the huge success of Nirvana, not as any kind of alternative to the major-label homogeny of the time.
I found the film interesting for the snippets of footage I'd never seen before, and to see what some people (like Poly Styrene) look like after all these years. (There's one word for Ari Up – Tanorexic). Unfortunately, at a time when punk rock is more mainstream than ever, younger kids looking to find out about the history of the music they're just discovering are going to get a pretty narrow version of it, mostly from people who haven't put out a good record in 25 years, telling them that it was better in the old days. If I was 16 now that shit would put me off punk for good. Boring boring boring. I wish they'd just shut the fuck up and show the footage, play the music. Really, that's all that matters.