A hot new reissues series, piggybacking off the original Nuggets and Pebbles and Killed By Death compilations, resurrects those bands that might just be the Velvet Underground, Stooges or Chocolate Watchband for the new millennium…or not
I remember well the first Velvet Underground album reissues in 1985, back when I was a teen fanboy. Trying to explain to today’s young musical audience why I’d wistfully muse over something so seemingly basic as access to music is a considerably murkier undertaking. I mean this was the Velvet Underground we’re talking about. By the early ‘80s, even Lou Reed was a somewhat forgotten character, much less the Velvet Underground. In a post-Google age, it is hard to impress upon people how utterly amazing it was to actually find or even get to hear a Velvet Underground record.
Long out of print and relegated to fringe cult status, the Velvets were gaining influence steam, as college radio acts like the Feelies, Sonic Youth, New Order, Dream Syndicate, Echo & the Bunnymen, R.E.M., Jesus & Mary Chain, and many more were name-dropping or covering them. Of course, the Velvet Underground’s importance was already well set in the roots of the whole punk/new wave explosion of the mid-70s. And theirs was a cult that went deep. Late-‘70s bootlegs, cheap Euro compilations, not to mention original copies of VU material all would go for out-of-reach prices at record conventions.
“Lenny Kaye’s foresight and vision to realize rock’n’roll was moving that fast, already devolving into drab, corduroy stadium rock, and wanting to remind people how wild it could be, was one of the great art masterstrokes of the late 20th century.”
And then, suddenly, a major label (Polygram) thought it worthwhile to release remastered reissues in 1985? And with big promo posters I could scam at the indie shop?! It blew my teen mind.
But that all happened 20 years after the Velvet Underground formed. Even more mind-blowing (and pioneering) was Lenny Kaye’s infinite lightbulb switch, the 1972 Nuggets compilation. It arrived only five years or so after many of the “lost” late-60s garage rock singles he gathered on that infamous 2xLP set had originally come and gone into obscurity. Lenny Kaye’s foresight and vision to realize rock’n’roll was moving that fast, already devolving into drab, corduroy stadium rock, and wanting to remind people how wild it could be, was one of the great art masterstrokes of the late 20th century. Endless fanboy variations on it – Pebbles, Highs in the Mid-Sixties, and the best of them all, Back from the Grave – with tracks mostly mastered from original vinyl singles, were inspiration rivers that flowed parallel through the 1980s to the Velvets and other “lost” late ‘60s/early ‘70s bands, leading to cultist investigations into “proto-punk.”
So, as the story goes, Crypt Records head Tim Warren – whose masterstroke was the Back from the Grave series – was hanging out with rabid obscure punk collector Johan Kugelberg, circa 1988, and said simply, “Hey, you should do a Back from the Grave of late-‘70s punk.” (Kugelberg rightly also gives credit to Tesco Vee and his want lists of regional punk obscurities that he was already digging for in the early ‘80s.)
And with that came the first four volumes of the Killed By Death series, released circa 1989-91. Oozing with the scroungiest, weirdest, angriest, often hilarious lost and forgotten regional 7-inch singles of the original punk explosion, the very name eventually got abbreviated into its own subgenre, “KBD punk.” And just like Kaye’s Nuggets, Kugelberg’s original four volumes of Killed By Death turned into an infinite number of quasi-legit punk compilations from all over the world.
It was inevitable then that someone would offer a similar suggestion to a drunk guy at a dive bar somewhere to “do a Killed By Death of 1990s trash punk.” If you had no idea there was such a ‘90s subculture, there was, and I wrote extensively about it in my book, We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 (plug – natch!).
Were these ‘90s bands the Velvet Underground, or Stooges, or even the Chocolate Watchband? No. Though the concept of “musical influence” has not only become harder to track, but the digital age’s ability to throw everything into chaotic relief (who knew the modest “random” button on an iPod would alter art?) has put a countdown clock on the very notion and importance of “influence.”
The “cool” new bands now get forgotten quickly by an ADD-addled generation raised on hyper-capitalism and/or the bedroom recorded side project imperative (whither Vampire Weekend, Tapes ‘n Tapes, MGMT…?). Instead of sifting through piles of fanzine articles, friends’ fourth-generation bootleg cassettes, or tales told by scene vets, now if someone’s sister tells you, “Oh man, you ever heard of the Urinals?!” you can simply type in “Urinals,” and there you go. (Well, that name might take a few clicks.)
The Urinals, “I’m Like You”
Admittedly, the sweaty search and myth perpetuating was often 1/3 of the fun of finding lost cult bands. So now, if you can find them in seven seconds, well that’s 1/3 the fun sapped, isn’t it? That, however, does not make the music, if properly killer, any less killer.
Ergo, Destroy All Art.
Volume 1 of this new punk compilation series came out in 2016, a few years after I drunkenly told myself, “Hey, you should do a Killed By Death of 1990s trash punk.” But finances and life junk like “jobs” had me slacking, so kudos to the man, Andrew Winton, from Bakersfield, CA, who put out Destroy All Art.
Everything on volume 1 of Destroy All Art was post-1994, which served to prop up the historical truism that decades don’t really begin until about three years in. Like polyester flare pants weren’t popular until 1973; synth pop hits didn’t top the charts until 1983; Winger still sold millions of records in 1993; and the 2000s? Well, um, uh…
And now comes the excellent Volume 2 of Destroy All Art. Unlike many of the quasi-legit trash rock comps of the last 40 years, Winton does try to at least contact all the bands and send them a couple copies of the comp. For the obsessives who put out these things, the loss of cash doing it is a given – as is the usually very low pressing amounts (usually in the hundreds). Hence these comps themselves often become quickly collectible. And the bands on them usually get the thrift drift and aren’t hiring lawyers anytime soon. They grew up in the era of knowing that rock’n’roll has long ceased being an income generator. The hoped-for historical heft these comps provide are the “royalties” of the post-post-punk world.
Destroy All Art centers on the late ‘90s, as bands like the Reatards, Clone Defects, Functional Blackouts, and Baseball Furies, on labels like Goner and Rip Off, among many, really embraced the Killed By Death comps and the most sizzling, comically violent, lo-fi sounds of the original late-‘70s punk era. The Beatles/Rolling Stones/Kinks debates of underground trash rock went from Ramones/Dead Boys/Damned to Electric Eels/ Pagans/Crime. And yes, if those names seem to be chronologically more obscure, Destroy All Art offers no bells to ring. But this second volume offers a ton of crazed sounds that will ring your bell!
There are speed-spazz crashers like the opener, “Ride Baby Ride” from the Conmen and the Neumans’ “Ready to Go.” “Social Skills” from the Seculars take a pair of pliers to a Teengenerate-ed run-through and make it all about exploding trash can snare ker-plunks. There’s some Mummies-loving, like the Arch Villians and The Nubees, who probably kicked around their tinker toy instruments in a damp basement somewhere.
The Conmen play “Ride Baby Ride” live and the skate punks go wild on the dance floor. Very lo-fi:
A few other unexpected rib-jabs abound that add intrigue, like the stray wah-wah stomp at the end of the Knotts “I Don’t Wanna Know, I Can’t Be Around” and the screeching sister on “Surfing Queen” from the Babysitters Club. The swishy glam-punk of “Neutral Eyes” (The Ignatz), and the kindred bubblegum heart in Rust’s “Two-Faced” are almost groovy for a KBD-indebted crew. Almost.
Compared to the first volume though, Volume 2 of Destroy All Art leans a little less towards the “art-damaged” end of that decade’s punk – Aerosol Species’ “Chick Revolt” falling best into that camp – and powers along on a scraggly garage rush. Jetpack’s “Throw Down” is probably the most physically smashy track on the comp, featuring some great chorus yells in the back that make you imagine what this band could’ve done, maybe even make a classic ‘90s garage rock album, if they’d hung around.
They grew up in the era of knowing that rock’n’roll has long ceased being an income generator. The hoped-for historical heft these comps provide are the “royalties” of the post-post-punk world.
After seeing Winton post about the new Destroy All Art on Facebook, I shot him a random note and got some info from him. (Note: NO, I did not know he was a fan of my band. I am not trying to add in a plug for my old band, just some good ol’ serendipity here.) So what got him into such salacious sounds in the first place?
“Funny enough,” Winton says, “my sophomore year of high school (1994/5) was the first time I heard New Bomb Turks. I knew a kid who was really into Unwound and indie stuff, but one day he showed up with a tape that had your Drunk on Cock EP on it. To this day, I have no idea where he got that or why. He never listened to anything like that before. He let me listen, and I was blown away. We never had a record store here in town that carried a lot of punk records, so I mainly counted on mail order or bands that came through town bringing distribution boxes full of shit I’d never heard before. Or the bands would suggest other bands. Not too long after that, a buddy who lived near L.A. got me a copy of Teengenerate’s Get Action, and that album was a game changer for me. I’d never heard anything like that.
“After I graduated, I moved to Oakland and that’s where I really started to dig through the used boxes at Amoeba and Rasputin’s. I would pick out records I thought may be cool based on their name or record sleeve – most of the time without a clue as to what they sounded like. They were usually like 75 cents or a dollar, so I never felt I was losing big on the gambles. I’m still that way, and some of the songs on volume 2 were blind buys from the last few years. But out of all the bands on both compilations, I only saw two of them live.”
Once again, the tracks mostly arise from the second half of the decade, with only two from 1994 and a 1990 trashy slapper, “Nerd Punk” by The Fabulous Organ Donors, that could pass for old Killed By Death tracks. As per such comps, fidelity goes back and forth from lo-fi to crap-fi to some-fi. But Winton has done a fine EQ-ing job on this, not always a hallmark of these kinds of collections. And his pal, Ryan Wells, is back for liner note duty, adding requisite sturm und drang.
“His style,” Winston explains, “in true KBD liner notes tradition, is snarky yet entertaining and informative. I also think they give some explanation as to why these records are important and why they’re on the comp to begin with.”
Much of the initial importance and plain enjoyment of the early Killed By Death comps was the extreme perversities and hilarities of the lyrics, the kind of foul, confused, teen-aggravated enormity that made you think, “Damn, and there were people who thought ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Beat on the Brat’ were rude?!” That element is kind of missing in the Destroy All Art series. There’s a nervous humor that arises from the sheer frantic energy on display; and definitely some bizarro lyrics. But these latter-day garage trash bands, digging deep into original punk’s noisiest depths, were on a sort of serious mission – musicologists in thrift store T-shirts with whippets in hand, instead of suitcoats and field recorders. And they were probably beyond annoyed at the rise of mopey grunge and navel-gazing indie rock that arose around them, when they grew up thinking the world should love the Devil Dogs and Oblivians.
It’s harder to tell what the world loves or thinks is influential when artistic influence gains weight over time. The society around it, however, weighs influence by new over old. In 2018, an “influencer” is someone who has gained a surprising amount of followers on their YouTube channel in the last year. And ain’t no major label reissuing a YouTube channel anytime soon.