Saturday, September 06, 2008

Everything Turns Gray... (MRR #305)

Except for the singer for Agent Orange's hair. Do you think he dyes it? He must be getting on a bit. Agent Orange was my favorite band for a while. They were among the first American punk bands I was exposed to, thanks to their skate-rock credentials. I had a skater friend called Campbell who subscribed to Thrasher and had an auntie that lived in America and would send him records and tapes of bands he read about in the Pus Zone. Thanks to this relative, Campbell was also one of the few people I knew who wore actual Vans shoes, not just the copy ones that only cost a fiver from the cheap shop and fell apart after one attempted ollie.
I'd lie on my bunk bed with the rain battering the window, blasting my Agent Orange tapes and reading Campbell's old Thrashers or well-thumbed copies of Freestylin' (the BMX magazine that Spike Jonze worked on before becoming a famous film and music video director). Agent Orange's beach-baked surf-punk sound promised the perfect, endless bitchin' summer that I was sure existed on the other side of the world. Sunset pool carving sessions with the Bones Brigade, Miami hoppers on Venice Beach with Woody Itson and Martin Aparijo, or airing out of the huge bowl at Pipeline Skatepark with Eddie Fiola and Brian Blyther. Agent Orange were my imagined soundtrack for all my teenage California dreams, as well as appearing on the soundtrack of many 80s bike and skate videos. They were also my introduction to surf music, leading me to seek out such surf classics as Dick Dale's version of 'Miserlou' long before it became a dorm-room staple thanks to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
Agent Orange released two albums in the 80s, several years apart and sounding quite different, trading in the buzzing SoCal punk sound of 'Living In Darkness' (Posh Boy) for a glossier 80s pop sheen on 'This Is The Voice'. When I first heard that album I thought it sounded like U2. It grew on me though and wimpy as it is, some of those songs are still favorites to this day. After that they seemed to disappear and I suppose I forgot about them. Their albums were squeezed onto the shelf and only occasionally got pulled out for nostalgia's sake.
When I moved to America I didn't meet many people who had shared my childhood love for Agent Orange. I got the impression they were considered a joke amongst too-cool-for-school hardcore hipsters. Admittedly, the early 90s was a time of us-vs-them, and admitting to enjoying a band with such brazen pop sensibilities could be considered a crime on a par with enjoying Green Day's major-label output. From time to time I'd see ads for Agent Orange shows in or around San Francisco, usually in weird venues that punk bands never usually played. I'd heard that it was just Mike Palm (singer/guitarist) and a couple of hired guns. People who had caught this later incarnation of the band hadn't exactly given them rave reviews. That, coupled with my reticence for reunion tours and nostalgia, prevented me from ever going to see them, although I always had a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I ought to at least get to see this band, my one-time favorite, at least once in my life.
So, a couple of weeks ago, Agent Orange was playing at the Uptown in Oakland, about five minutes from where I live, on a Saturday night. There was pretty much no excuse for not finally taking the plunge and seeing them.
The wife and I got to the Uptown (an unremarkable but decent-sounding black box of a rock club) too late to catch the opening band but in time to catch local streetpunx The Sore Thumbs. They were great, if somewhat derivative; some good guitar playing and catchy melodies. They played for too long for an opening band though. It seriously felt like an hour. I was a little bit confused by the crowd. Looking around at the amassed handful of skater bros, Burning Man hacky-sack types, and Hot Topic punk chicks, I felt like I was at a midweek bar show in a Northern California hick town, not seeing a legendary American punk band in a major metropolitan area.
Agent Orange took the stage and performed to a half-empty venue. I felt a pang of sympathy for Mike Palm that at this point in his career, after being a major part of one of the most influential scenes in American music, he can't fill a small venue in the San Francisco Bay Area. He didn't seem to care though; the band soundchecked with surf instrumental 'Mr. Moto', then launched straight into the classic 'Everything Turns Gray', and from there ploughed through a swathe of greatest hits from both albums, their EPs, and pre-'Darkness' demos, as well as a couple of tracks from their (unknown to me) 1990s self-released CD. Every song was tighter and faster than on record (sometimes to their slight detriment, especially on some of the poppier stuff from 'This Is The Voice', which could have benefited with a softer touch). The bass player bobbed up and down energetically like a Muppet the entire time, but was pretty harmless, except for screwing up the intro to 'Living In Darkness', which is the one time the bass has to take a really prominent role. The drummer stole the show though. Mike Palm is unquestionably the captain of the ship but the drummer was at the rudder that night. For all that it was small and somewhat unusual, the audience met the band's energy with boundless enthusiasm. The 'pit' was made up of computer-programmer types in Birkenstocks and glasses.
At their core, Agent Orange is a solid, tight live act with a repertoire bursting with timeless, classic punk tunes. So where were all the punks? I think Agent Orange just isn't cool enough for some people. I admit, the on-stage banter verged on the corny. I think that if the band had broken up just after 'Living In Darkness', or maybe even before releasing it, and then got back together right now for a reunion tour, punk scenesters would be wetting themselves at the thought of seeing them. They could have broken up after appearing on the Rodney On The Roq compilation, and they might have become another Middle Class or Rhino 39: ghostly touchstones that had faded into punk lore only to be resurrected by a future generation of hardcore historians.
So instead of stoking the loins of eBay-scouring message-board punk enthusiasts, with their sophisticated palates refined by copious obscure kbd rarities, Agent Orange play the Warped Tour or half-empty places like the Uptown, serving up 80s nostalgia to knock-kneed ageing skaters and a dose of what poppy punk could have sounded like before all those NoFX clones got hold of it to neophyte mall-punks. I'm not sure who's missing out more.
I'm not trying to make a case for Agent Orange's relevance in 2008. 90% of MRR's readership will think I'm lame for liking them or for writing this column about them, but too bad. I may never see them again, but I'm glad I went to see them this once, and that it wasn't a total bummer. Now that little voice in the back of my head has finally been appeased.


tony party said...

i meant to comment on this a while ago but… I didn’t. I feel the same way about Agent Orange. They are a really great band even through their later flaccid period. If you ever see the Trans Megetti LP “fading Left to Completely on” you should really pick it up. I always thought of that record as a “LIVING IN DARKNESS” of the now-ish. Maybe now so much in sound but more in the way the record (“Fading Left…”) sorta transcends the normal punk LP.

Also, you mentioned Rat Patrol records one time recently and I wonder if you know that guy at all. I ordered $40 worth of stuff from him a year ago and the dude will not return email or anything. Do have any insight?

Adam said...

Hi Allan!
Just got #306 delivered today & was pleasantly surprised to see myself mentioned in your column about old British zines. It's funny cos I don't have any issues myself & was talking to Neil Davidson in The Halt last week when he said he'd check out if he had any issues. Turns out he has all 4, so hopefully I'll be able to get them off him soon.
You made some good points about how zines changed back then. I think it was the onset of the "emo" attitude & "sensitive" types that changed things. Pretty much like the music at the time, I suppose.
By the way, I heard years ago that Steve who did "666 1/2" died of an OD. I wrote to him for years (as I did with Trev HAGL) & he was a top bloke. You know, I kinda miss those days of writing letters to dudes in Mexico & soaping the stamps to within an inch of their lives!
Yeah, I've not been edge for many a year. I think Jaf may still be, though I've not seen him for a while.
I'm glad you're still writing for MRR & enjoy your wee delves into your days in Glasgow.
Better go now Allan. I just wanted to send you a little "hello" & thanks for making the girlfriend think I'm just a wee bit famous. Ha ha! Take care, dude.