Monday, July 9, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Various Artists, Dangerhouse, Vol. 1

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Nine. Archive here.]

The Los Angeles punk scene of the 70s is sometimes undeservedly characterized as the dark and nihilistic outcome of the ‘77 punk aesthetic, as if there was something about the decadent Hollywood desert landscape that bred tougher, less arty groups than their New York equivalents. This is probably because the most popular and cited documents of the scene, such as Penelope Spheeris’ concert documentary The Decline of Western Civilization
, tend to focus on the likes of X, the Germs, the Weirdos and others. They were some of the finest punk groups of their era, but onstage they couldn’t help but darkly invert notions of conventional Hollywood glamour, armed with sheer black bondage superhero costumes that made Malcolm McClaren’s “Sex” boutique look like a Men’s Warehouse. These bands spit at and picked fights with their openly hostile audiences and indulged in self-mutilation onstage that often straddled the line between “challenging performance art” and “a cry for help.” Surely, there were plenty of dark and nihilistic groups in both New York City and London that displayed contempt for their audiences, but there was something special about the LA breed, as if the music itself embodied the failed aspirations of the city’s most lost and destitute dreamers.

However, LA punk had its arty and funny sides too. For anyone looking for a primer on the scene with a more diverse edge, the compilation Dangerhouse Records Vol. 1 is an ideal way to sample the breadth of material available. Sure, there are contributions from X and the Weirdos, but you also get performances from artists like Black Randy, whose strangled yelps resemble the Weirdos’ unfiltered aggression in the same way that Talking Heads resemble the Ramones—other than their shared geography and “punk” designation, not much at all. Most of the album’s thirteen songs work as brief, enjoyable singles on their own, but the unpredictable order is what makes this collection really stand out.

1. The Randoms, “Let’s Get Rid Of NY.” Certainly a perspective that even native New Yorkers understand, this rumbling blast of anti-pomposity features suitably shouty vocals that become more and more detached as the singer lays into NYC’s self-absorbed nature (”Fashion there is really passion/airplanes there is always crashin’”). The chorus hook isn’t much more than the title and three chords, but it works.

2. The Weirdos, “Solitary Confinement.” This is perhaps my favorite Weirdos song, somehow even more exuberant than their hyperbolic classic “We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb.” When it came to songwriting, this band clearly subscribed to one truism (”Kick out the jams, motherfucker”). Of all the LA bands, they remind me most of protopunk/metal icons like the Dictators or the MC5. Few groups were as giddy in their nihilism as these guys.

3. Black Randy & The Metrosquad, “Trouble At the Cup.” Not a song that strictly rocks, but a good introduction to the demented poetry of Black Randy, who sounds a bit like Richard Hell as he bleats about the LAPD over an electronic shuffle and some rudimentary guitar screeches. His style isn’t for everyone but this cover of “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” might convince you (or turn you off completely).

4. The Deadbeats, “Let’s Shoot Maria.” Leonard Bernstein and West Side Story are surprisingly common reference points for punks. This song takes a fairly direct lyrical route into parody: “Maria/I just shot a girl named Maria,” the singer shrieks, and then comes the punchline: “Gonna finish off what Gary Gilmore started!” (yet another common punk reference point, GG). What makes this song really work is the dynamic tension between the verse and chorus, the latter of which bursts out of the ether with aggressive guitar and saxophone mellifluously mixed together.

5. The Eyes, “Disneyland.” After the claustrophobic “Let’s Shoot Maria,” “Disneyland” is an airy shot of uncut Nuggets organ melodies wedded to some smart lyrics about the Anaheim, CA institution--specifically regarding what might happen, were it on fire. The keyboards and the vocal style both convey a sense of childish innocence that contrasts amusingly with the final slogan: “Blow up Disneyland! Blow up Disneyland!” How the Mouse didn’t unsheathe its lawyers on this, I’m not sure.

6. The Dils, “Class War.” I was mostly familiar with the Dils through the song “Mr. Big” on the Rhino compilation No Thanks! That was a fairly poppy tune by LA punk standards, whereas “Class War” is mostly anchored by two chords (and a corresponding two-note solo). When it comes to unstoppable grooves, these guys can’t match X or the Germs. But there is something about “Class War” that precipitates what would become a more radio-ready strain of California hardcore punk. Green Day were probably taking notes.

7. The Avengers, “We Are the One.” This was another single I was mostly familiar with through No Thanks! The Avengers actually hail from San Francisco, but they are most associated with Dangerhouse Records, so the inclusion works. Regardless of their place in LA punk, this is a mighty anthem with great, rolling drum fills and neat female call-and-response vocals. The group recently released its own career-spanning compilation, which was interesting timing, given their name—hopefully the Avengers also stays off the Mouse’s radar.

8. Rhino 39, “Prolixin Stomp.” This song resembles Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge,”with a little bit of Wire’s “Straight Line.” Like the Dils, Rhino 39 aren’t the most dynamic punk performers, but there is a jaunty vibe to this tune that befits its subject matter. The low-key style works as a contrast to the Avengers’ sincerity.

9. The Bags, “Survive.” Alice Bag is another LA punk legend whose name is barely recognized outside the city. This song starts appealingly with finger snaps, some open hi-hat jazz drumming and gothic-tinged guitar arpeggios, before evolving into a heavy riff that then builds speed into a heavy punk groove. It doesn’t have the most elegant songwriting construction, but Alice Bag really knows how to play off each discrete section in style.

10. The Alley Cats, “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore.” The opening riff slightly recalls the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk To Fuck” a little, although this song came first. The drumming is fleet-fingered and inventive, and just when the riff is about to overstay its welcome, there is an appealing breakdown that leads into a righteous chorus. Singer Randy Stodola has a tear in his voice that makes his howls of anguish in the chorus simultaneously reflective and liberating.

11. Howard Werth, “Obsolete.” Howard Werth was a late-60s/early 70s British art rocker who was best-known as part of a prog rock group called Audience. According to David Brown, who wrote the liner notes to this compilation, Werth was intended to be the comp’s “token mainstream rock artist.” Unlike the other groups, Werth wrote this song specifically for the record. With its mid-tempo boogie groove and its Ozzy Osbourne-ish vocals, “Obsolete” could have derailed the whole collection, but it turned out to be a prime slab of conventional rock tune-age. The guitars are still dirty enough to work, and the clear, bright melody sits interestingly between the Alley Cats and X selections.

12. X, “Los Angeles.” For those punk completists who fear overlap, rest easy—this is not the same version of “Los Angeles” that would end up on the album of the same name. Lacking Ray Manzarek’s production sheen, this version of the song has more live-sounding vocals and less fuzz in the guitars. As an anthem for the city, or any city really, it has rarely been bettered.

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