Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Overrunning Of The Orifice Region

Browsing YouTube late the other night, as you do, I luckily happened across a hitherto unviewed (by this writer) promotional video for Stretchheads. One of my favourite bands of all time, I was luckily enough to see this band many times in Glasgow. You know those local bands in your town that you like a lot, but you know that you don't have to go to every gig, because there'll be another one round the corner? With the Stretchheads, you made it to every one you could. Every one was different and every one was a total multimedia experience. 'Singer' P6 had a flair for the dramatic and a barely suppressed desire to be confrontational. He brought the concert to the audience one at a time and at close range. It felt moderately uncomfortable for this particular 18-year-old to be screamed at by a large, bald man in a tinfoil suit less than an inch from my face, but it was an experience I went back for time and time again. Musically, they were like nothing I'd ever heard. As time went on I became aware of the groups the were an influence on the Stretchheads but at the time I had been subsisting on a pretty strict diet of American hardcore and punk. The Stretchheads were hardcore alright, but in a completely different, twisted way. After the first LP, when they started to get even more experimental and incorporated samples, loops, and dubby effects, they just got better and better.
I remember going in to Rat Records on Buchanan Street and buying Five Fingers, Four Thingers, A Thumb, A Facelift, and a New Identity off of drummer Richie, without realizing he was in the band. When my friend Sandy and I drew up the list of must-have interviews for our new punk zine, Stretchheads were top of the list. Bassist Mofungo answered just about every question with references to The Ramones or The Sweeney, as I recall.
At any rate, thanks to the wonders of 21st Century technology, rather than just tell you about this amazing band, I can also direct you to sites where you can see and hear them for yourself. Enjoy!

Stretchheads on YouTube:
Overrunning Of The Orifice Region - Part 1
Overrunning Of The Orifice Region - Part 2
Live In Stockwell, 1990

Stretchheads on MySpace

Vocalist P6 and drummer Richie have a new(ish) act called DeSalvo that continues their fascination with brutal sounds and theatricality. DeSalvo on MySpace

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Maximumrocknroll #297 February 2008

The other night I went out to see Naked Raygun with a few friends. I would have missed it because I forgot to get a ticket but luckily Timmy Brooks from SF's finest over-30s pub rock act the Young Offenders phoned me up cos he had an extra. The doors were set to open at 7, with Chicago's Shot Baker and legendary 90s Frisco street-punx the Swingin' Utters set to open. No mention of Johnny Peebucks in any of the advertising literature unfortunately. At any rate, we got to the Elbo Room in the fashionable Mission District at about half eight, thinking the gig would be well under way, to be met by a queue that reached almost to the end of the block. Long story short, in the end NR didn't take the stage until about quarter to twelve. On a Tuesday night? I know at least one person who had to leave before they even played and two more left during the set. Doors at 7, three bands, you're expecting to be tucked up in your scratcher and sawing logs by half eleven. Instead I was dragging my carcass up the stairs about 1:30 am and trying not to wake the missus. Did I mention I was up at 7 for work the next day? Christ, I'm not going to maintain my youthful good looks for long at this rate.
Anyway, performance-wise, Naked Raygun were a mixed bag, but I enjoyed their set immensely. As I understand it, singer Jeff Pezzati apparently has some kind of chronic illness and he certainly seemed to be in pain at times, or at least very uncomfortable, and his voice was kind of weak. I got the impression that he was trying really hard to perform in less-than-ideal circumstances, and I was rooting for him the whole set. Naked Raygun were one of my favorite bands at one time, but I never got to see them live - they toured the UK, but never made it to Scotland. For a long time, it was pretty common for American bands to come over and tour England, while completely ignoring Scotland and Ireland. They might make it to one or the other, but rarely both. The excuse was often distance, which I used to think was fair enough. However, now I live in the US and I know that bands routinely drive ten hours to get to a gig. Typically, the longest drive a band might have to make in the UK is about four hours. Worst-case scenario would be driving from London to Glasgow, about six hours. I think the real reason is that the English tour promoters didn't think their bands would make much money in Scotland. Still, we were always grateful for the bands that did come, despite the lack of huge guarantees.
Back to the Naked Raygun show. It was a surprisingly social affair, which made for a nice change. I'm picky about the gigs I go to these days and usually if I go, I decide on the night and shoot out the door. Turn up by myself, maybe chat to a few folk, leave right after the band plays. This time, I actually planned to go with people in advance. At the gig, we met up with more people, including out-of-town visitors and MRR coordinators-du-jour. In between sets we nipped out to a quieter pub down the street for a swifty and I attempted to enlist a new columnist to our roster. Hopefully it will pan out. He or she will have probably forgotten all about it by the next morning.
Swingin' Utters played and all their old fans had come out of the woodwork (with the exception of one Mr. Bruce Roehrs, conspicuous by his absence). Every coiffed Fonzie with a swallow on his neck (tails as long as you like) for miles around had got suited up and cruised down to Valencia for the occasion. After they finished, there was a skunx exodus. Post- shift change the crowd looked very different: Naked Raygun's fans were mostly clean-cut late 30s software engineers. Some tech dudes with ponytails came on stage, set up their gear, and tuned up, so we all moved towards the front, thinking it was about to start. Half an hour later (seriously) the band actually came on. They didn't display much energy on stage (I don't think they ever really did) and the sound wasn't the greatest, but from the first 'whoa-oh' the crowd were singing along and the room was buzzing. They played a lot of their hits but the highlight for me was the encore of 'Rat Patrol', even though I had to help break up a bit of a handbag fight during it. As mentioned earlier, the show went on a bit late for a school night but I'm glad I went and I'm glad I stayed for the whole thing.
Naked Raygun were known to play Stiff Little Fingers' 'Alternative Ulster' as part of their live set. They didn't play it the other night, but as coincidence would have it, young Brooksy (mentioned above) happened to furnish me with a much-anticipated DVD copy of the Irish TV documentary 'Shellshock Rock', which features SLF performing said tune. I'd been hearing about this doc for years, but had never managed to lay my hands on a copy. I finally got to see it and it's been worth the wait. Not as polished as I would have expected from something that was actually on TV, it's actually pretty random. There's footage of some of Ulster's finest acts, including Rudi, The Outcasts, Protex, and of course The Undertones, as well as interviews with some interesting Belfast characters. They touch on the unique situation of how punk rock in Northern Ireland managed to bridge the sectarian divide, which definitely seems to have added a different edge to the proceedings there. It obviously meant a lot to these kids to have a place to go where the only thing that mattered was their shared music taste, not where you were from or how you pronounced the letter 'H'. I don't think this film is readily available for sale but I'm sure if you do a bit of digging on t'internet you can track it down. If you're a fan of melodic Northern Irish powerpop/punk rock it's a must see.

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Maximumrocknroll #296 January 2008 Lance Hahn RIP

Back in the early 90s I played guitar in a band in Glasgow. We wrote some songs and played some gigs and did some demos, and as is the way these things happen we got around to recording and self-releasing an LP. We'd been writing and working on our songs over the course of about two years. Besides our regular weekly practices, the bassist Angus and I met up several times a week just to play our parts together, over and over. Finally it came time to record the album. We booked two consecutive weekends at a new studio that some friends of ours had just opened. Our friend Richie (local hero and drummer in Dawson, the Stretch Heads, Fenn, and now DeSalvo) was at the mixing desk. We worked long into the night, recording and mixing fourteen songs with minimal overdubbing. Listening back to it now it's not the greatest album in the world but I think we were pretty proud of it at the time. An artist friend, Tim Goldie, designed the cover art, and we had the record cut at Porky's in London.
When we got the records back I don't think we could quite believe we'd made an album (I also don't think Angus could quite believe he'd got himself into so much debt, either). Naturally, we send copies to MRR for review. Around the time I thought the issue with the review would come out, I would go down to Tower Records (the only place in Glasgow still stocking Maximumrocknroll regularly at the time, I don't think anywhere does now) to see if it had come in yet.
After a couple of weeks of checking there was finally a new issue on the rack. I flicked furiously to the review section, scanning for our band name... nope. Not in this issue. I waited another agonizing month until it was time to start obsessively checking the newsstands again. At last, the new issue arrived, and there it was: our review. Surely this masterpiece we'd created would take MRR by storm, earning us rave reviews and coveted top-ten placings, skyrocketing us to the stardom we so obviously deserved? I skimmed the review: "sorta like FUEL, but sped up to hardcore and without the melody... "; "like straight edge kids grown up and gone to art school..." The reviewer didn't say he hated the record, but it didn't sound like he liked it, either. Who was this cloth-eared critic, who obviously had no taste and probably hated music, or at least didn't understand it? At the end of the review, those telltale initials: (LH)
Later when I moved to San Francisco and knew Lance personally I gave him shit about the review. Of course, he didn't remember it, but he did remember a time around MRR where the culture was such that there was almost a competition between reviewers to see who could write the meanest reviews. In that context I suppose Glue got off lightly. Lance's review certainly wasn't the worst one we ever received. Coincidentally, he also later introduced me to his roommate Jim, a member of Fuel with whom I ended up trying to start a band. We never really got it going but whenever I would go round to their apartment Lance would be in his room with the door closed, playing guitar. I remember hearing him play along to Queen and being impressed. For a guy in a punk band, he could actually play guitar.
Despite Lance's long-term health problems, the news that he had fallen into a coma and subsequently passed away seemed to take everyone by surprise. You just felt like he'd always be around, you know? There'd always be another J Church split 7" coming down the line, or another article about some long forgotten anarcho band. Even though I'd been following his regular email updates about his medical travails, I just figured he'd get better. He was only 40 for crying out loud. I can't help thinking he'd still be here if the American healthcare system wasn't so fucked.
Although Lance was obviously poor, had no health insurance, and had to work a shitty video store job to support himself, over the course of his short life he released dozens (hundreds?) of records, performed countless shows all over the world, made friends in every city and country he went to, and had made serious headway on what was shaping up to be a great book. He lived his life the way he wanted to. He was still taking his band out on tour and making records in the midst of his debilitating health problems. It's safe to say he didn't die thinking "I wish I'd worked that 9-to-5 office job instead." It's just criminal that his life was cut so tragically short.
The day after Lance died the word went out about a possible gathering of his old friends somewhere in the Mission. In a flurry of emails, message board posts, text messages and phone calls it was finally deduced that yes, the gathering was happening. 9pm at the top of Dolores Park, near where the J Church streetcar passes by. A few old Epicenter and former (and current) MRR workers hung out at a bench, drank a beer or two, and traded Lance stories. It was pretty low key. No one could figure out who instigated the event and no one took responsibility. It was decided that Tim Yohannan probably organized it. After I said goodbye to everyone I walked down the hill to my car and got in. I turned the key and the radio burst into life with a KUSF DJ playing a J Church song.

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Maximumrocknroll #295 December 2007

Bedtime for Mediocrity

Does punk rock inherently breed mediocrity? Looking at the glut of shit-looking, shit-sounding records that we manage to churn out year on year, I'd have to say it does. Obviously, not all punk records look or sound shit, and there are vast differences in aesthetic tastes. Personally I appreciate rawness in a recording and a certain rough and ready graphic style. But as a whole, I think we have learned to tolerate an unacceptable level of shittiness. Unintelligible flyers. Boring zines. Unimaginative (or simply stolen) record art. Shoddy musicianship. "It's cool, it's punk, right?" When did "punk" become an excuse for doing something half-assed?
There are, of course, often very valid financial reasons for doing things low- (or no-) budget. One of the best things about punk is that you don't need a lot of money or a lot of musical skill to get started, but just because something is cheap doesn't mean it has to look or sound that way. I know you've got a shitty guitar and borrowed amp because it's all you can afford. It costs nothing at all to figure out (or ask someone) how to get a good sound out of what you've got. "Nah dude, it's punk." Turn up two minutes before your band is supposed to play, ask to borrow someone's amp, plug in a crappy Metal Zone pedal, and you're good to go.
This attitude is crippling us. No wonder attendance at punk shows is dwindling. People are reluctant to spend even a nominal fee of $5 because let's face it, the chances are three out of the five bands on any given night are probably going to be mediocre. The preferred venue for punk is now the basement or house party, because while the crappy bands howl and squawk away to their five friends, everyone else can drink their 40s in the backyard or kitchen and talk about single-track bikes or some new trust-fund art-gallery-slash-clothing-store that their friend opened or something.
And that five dollar thing. People complain that $5 is too low these days, what with the price of petrol and everything. I couldn't agree more, but bands are lucky if they can even get that much now. The best they can hope for is that someone at the filthy punkhouse they're playing at has the wherewithal to aggressively hit up the crowd for a "donation for the touring band." People's expectations for punk bands are so low now that bands play not for a guarantee, not for a cut of the door, but in the eager hope that they will please a group of jaded underage drinkers enough that they will spill a few coins from their beer fund into a hat at the end of the night. That's not touring, that's busking.
For other styles of music, people queue up to buy tickets in advance. They get excited about going to shows. They don't toss the bands a couple of crumbs as an afterthought.
I dunno what the answer is. In the long run the good bands seem to do all right and the bad ones either break up or keep plugging away without really going anywhere. Again, they're not really harming anyone but they are diluting the gene pool, know what I mean?
I feel like I get quite curmudgeonly in this column. One could get the impression that I don't like punks or punk rock. Far from it, I just think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. I judge myself the harshest. I've come to realize that I have accepted mediocrity in my own life for far too long. All my life I felt different, and then punk came along and showed me there was another way. I didn't have to follow the established path. I successfully avoided the pitfalls of a normal life but along the way I defined myself by what I didn't want to be. So I never became a square, so what? Now what? Everything I learned I taught myself. Never went to school, never had a career. I'm approaching middle age with little to show for my years than a woefully inadequate record collection. "What did you do with your life?" "I was a punk". What does that mean? Am I an idiot for wanting it to be something to be proud of, instead of feeling like I'm (we're) selling myself (ourselves) short?
It's confusing when you devote so much of your energy to something that most people get into, pass through, and get out of in the space of a few years, graduating to hipster bar DJ nights. Those punk tattoos used to keep you out of the corporate workplace but now coolhunting ad agencies, design studios. etc fall over themselves to show how edgy they are.
I never picked punk up like a new outfit to try on and throw away when fashion changed. It was already well out of fashion by the time I found it (or rather, it found me). Punk was there when I had nothing else so it's not something I can easily forget about. I don't know what brought on this crisis of confidence. I'm trying to start speaking up for myself. When (non punk) people ask what I do, rather than mumble something about whatever dead-end job is currently paying the bills, I'll say I'm a musician, and a writer. Eagerly, they'll ask about the music or the writing. "What's your band called? I'll look for the records in the shops!" "You're a writer? Where have you been published?" "Ermm, well, the records are all out of print because we only pressed 300 but it might be available either through the post from some distro in the Midwest or maybe on a stall at a twelve-band thrash festival in someone's shed. The writing, well, all fifty copies of the last issue of my zine are sold out but I've still got the originals somewhere so I can photocopy it for you if my mate is still working at Kinko's..."
I'm being negative, I know. On the positive side, I'm extremely lucky that I've even managed to put out records at all, and been in bands that have toured the US and Europe. I guess right now it just doesn't feel like it's adding up to much. I'm not sure what's missing but stick around with me while I try to find out. And above all don't accept mediocrity, from yourself or from those around you.
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Maximumrocknroll #291 August 2007

Is this what winning looks like?
We know what it's like to be a small-town punk. The cool kids spat on us. The cops moved us along and poured out our beers. We're not going to forget. We've paid our dues. We've been run out of dive bars by rip-off promoters and greedy owners. We've played to empty clubs and had to call home for gas money to get to the next show. We deserve this opportunity. If we sign to this label, we can get our message out to a wider audience. Man, isn't it totally subversive that our song was used on that car commercial? And anyway, it was for a hybrid. I know our ticket prices are expensive now, but those tour buses don't run on air.
The platitudes come down like a spring rain. This time it'll be different. But time and time again, bands build a following and grow up in the DIY, underground punk community, only to leave when the money starts to come in. All of a sudden, the horrible corporate venues that you wouldn't go to unless you could sneak in for free become the only game in town. "We hate this place, but where else can we play? It's the only place big enough." Warped Tour, media whore, sadly this has become your life. All that crap about getting the message out there, it was all bullshit, wasn't it? Or when does it start? Is there a dollar amount, once you get to a certain point, then you start giving back to the community that spawned you? Or was it all just a ruse, a pose, saying the right things to climb that ladder? Because it just looks like business as usual. You said you were punks, but now you're no different. You play the same rock biz games, play the same high-door-price venues, hide behind the same violent bouncers. You've got a street team spreading the word about your gigs when you used to have street cred.
Punk rock is on MTV and in the shopping malls. Mainstream punk is getting bigger but the infrastructure is shrinking. Why is it that after all this time, there are still only a handful of reliable punk-operated music venues in the world (Gilman Street in Berkeley, The Smell in LA, ABC No Rio in NYC, Mr. Roboto in Pittsburgh, and the 1 in 12 in Bradford, England are the ones that spring to mind)? OK, I know that there are tons of punk-run squat venues throughout Europe but that's a slightly different situation. Either you're big enough to play the huge, corporate, beer-company sponsored venues, or you have to rely on people who are having shows in their living rooms and basements. Don't get me wrong, house shows are almost always more fun than bar shows or other regular venues. But it's hard to build a scene around a venue that could get shut down any minute by angry neighbors or disgruntled roommates. Also, sometimes it's nice to actually be able to hear the vocals.
I guess what I'm getting at is that if we had our shit together, there would be a network of punk rock venues/community centers, one in every medium-to-large size town. Bigger bands would play there and that would subsidize the smaller shows with less of a turnout. The bigger bands would have local bands on the bill, so that those bands could build a following and grow the scene, so that more people would come out of the woodwork and help keep the venue going. I realize it's a pipe dream - just about all the venues I mentioned earlier exist by the skin of their teeth. The kids are mostly just users who take a lot of stuff for granted, and even most of the people who do want to get involved and do more end up getting burned out, either by in-fighting and status-jockeying, or by the constant uphill struggle to keep things going in the face of apathy.
I got to thinking about this stuff when a local art space/venue, Balazo Gallery, was shut down by the city for permit issues. It was one of the few places in San Francisco that was available to rent for all-ages shows. I'd had a show booked there for months (in fact, the final show for my band, Giant Haystacks. I've never mentioned the band in my column before, but since we've broken up, I suppose it's OK), and when they had to close down I had to find a new venue, for a Friday night, at extremely short notice. In the end we split the show between two smaller places: an early show at a bar on Mission Street called The Knockout, and a later, all-ages show in the basement of Thrillhouse Records across the street. Both venues came through in a pinch, although unfortunately many unlucky people got turned away from the second show. I couldn't help daydreaming that if SF had a decent, reliable all-ages venue, we'd never have had the problem in the first place.
In the Mailbox: Along with my long-awaited copy of the Down & Outs "Minneapolis" EP on Rat Patrol Records (Reviewed in this mag by Andy Darling a few months ago), I received a four-track EP compiling some of the output of Randy 'Biscuit' Turner, to benefit the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. The record has two Big Boys songs performed by the Slurpees/Texas Biscuit Bombs, as well as a Cargo Cult tune and a live version of "Identity Crisis" performed by the Big Boys in 1981. The cool little package is rounded out by some of Biscuit's artwork. Not sure how many were pressed, but check www.ratpatrolrecords.com for details. While you're online, take a look at www.austinmusicianshealth.com.
My fairy godmother was really looking out for me, because she also saw fit to guide a copy of the Fucked Up/Hard Skin split 7" my way. On the Hard Skin side, genius Johnny Takeaway gets to do his best Jonesy impression on a note-perfect cover of the Professionals' 1-2-3. Someone from Fucked Up did a bit of digging and unearthed a candid snap of Fat Bob with a Neil-from-the-Young-Ones barnet on some hippie peace march. Can't tell when it was taken but it looks to be from back in the sixties or something. The Fucked Up song, "Toronto FC", is another work of genius on their part. Don't know if I'm picking up the theme but it makes me think of those American skinheads who bend over backwards to be as authentically close to their imaginary ideas of working class British life as possible - right down to forming little hooligan gangs and following their favorite Major League Sawkir teams. It's quite cute really.

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