Slash, the indispensable fanzine that charted the Los Angeles punk scene (1977-80), gave birth to a record label that pushed the punk boundaries well into the 1980s, releasing classic recordings by Fear, The Germs, Flesh Eaters, Gun Club and X before being subsumed by the corporate bean counters. Anthony Mostrom offers a musical chronology of the label for PKM
Go back, go back to the Summer of 1982 in Southern California: a much, oh so much simpler time in terms of, well…everything…a human-centered, flesh and blood, analog time (and yes, by that I mean cassettes).
In Los Angeles as in most hip cities, if you wanted to find out what was going on musically, you had to actually get in your car and go out and pick up one of the local free weeklies which you would find stacked outside of your local liquor store or at your favorite record shop, then go through all of that awful page-turning and flipping through the club listings and getting your fingers black with…oh, it was just awful!… printer’s ink! What a nightmare, huh?
On the other hand, mainstream L.A. was dominated by a pervasive commercial TV culture which pretty much ran everybody else’s lives, and by that I mean older people and children: your parents and your younger brothers and sisters.
Six local stations dominated the scene back then, including weird, cheap little Channel 13, whose cheesy low-budget programming ethos, geared toward the Lawrence Welk-watching, almost-dead generation of one’s grandparents, eventually gave birth to the right-wing talk show phenomenon known as Wally George.
L.A.’s local news lineups featured some fabulously paid newscasters, like the ultra-cute Tricia Toyota and vaguely good-looking Paul Moyers. These and other “talking heads” were starting to warn L.A. parents to be aware of the new punk rock scene that was picking up steam around town, and the occasional violence that went along with it, at gigs in Hollywood, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, San Pedro, Reseda, etc…even Costa Mesa.
“No more watered-down television crap!” – Fear
Meanwhile, the restless first generation of L.A. punk rockers was steadily multiplying and ready to have fun and throw themselves at each other, spit on each other, perform backflips against each other and drink lots of beer (all over each other), when lo and behold, the kids suddenly realized they had enemies: a general society-wide hostility on the part of the anxious, aging 1940s and ‘50s generation (read: their parents), who did not dig them at all. As a result, some music promoters, musicians and fans found themselves being targeted by their friendly neighborhood police departments.
The LAPD, in a strange latter-day echo of its notorious Sunset Strip crackdowns of 1967 (carried out on a much more docile generation of harmless, blonde white kids in turtleneck sweaters and bangs) now went after this new and different crop of fresh, young troublemakers, an angry, spitting, anti-cop, anti-“peace and love” crowd…anti-everything, maybe, except for alcohol and music.
According to some battle-hardened veterans and historians of the L.A. punk scene, the heavy-handed LAPD of the ‘80s eventually closed down many of the punk-centered clubs throughout this vast, flat basin we call the Southland. Thus, the scene was nipped in the bud, by the police! (Pretty strange when you think about it, like the Mayan Empire being wiped out by the Spaniards.)
Speaking of Paul Moyers, take a gander at this vintage 1982 one-shot L.A. news program called We Destroy the Family: Punks Vs. Parents, which as you will see, more or less stars the indomitable Lee Ving of Fear:
Like the Decline of Western Civilization director Penelope Spheeris herself, Moyers and the producers of this KABC-TV “after-school special” obviously sensed a certain charisma on the part of Ving, and in television terms that meant drawing power…so they clearly chose him to be the star of this warning-to-parents, and for good reason: he was magnetic, and he was good! They knew it, and the perhaps-slightly-appalled public knew it too…though most of them, of course, couldn’t have known that this scolding anti-rockumentary was actually named after a Fear song…
(Special cultural note: this one-off broadcast was the original source of that now famous / infamous line that always produces a smile in veteran punk rock circles, when a random kid in the crowd tells the cameraman, “Believe in anarchy man, it’s gonna be the way…” Hilarious!)
All this while our narrator Paul Moyers intones: “You get the feeling that Fear is putting us on. Their music is satire…grotesque satire, but satire nonetheless…that’s probably not much comfort for parents…”
Have you forgotten how great Lee Ving and Fear were? Well, don’t touch that dial… Dig this vintage bit of circa 1980 goodness from the Spheeris documentary:
Fear did alright for themselves, as everybody knows. They quickly got signed by Slash Records, then found themselves “banned” forever after appearing on Saturday Night Live following their raucous, chaotic appearance on that show…but what, really, did the producers expect?
SNL can stuff it: the band still plays today and Lee Ving is still the same high energy, Italian-American genius from Philly that he’s always been. (“Beef, beef, beef, beef bologna!”)
During this explosive time the Germs, another, equally scabrous band from L.A., became the first band to put out a record on a new label, Slash Records. The Germs were one of those deadly serious L.A. punk bands that never allowed themselves to descend into, what should I call it?…punk comedy (e.g. Fear, Angry Samoans, Mentors), their image revolving too much around the tortured personality of lead “singer” Darby Crash, who swiftly crashed and burned himself, dying at the age of 22, just when the group was hitting its stride…a sad and perfect example of the old Romantic “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” syndrome…
While an earlier literary rock star, Jim Morrison of the Doors, was supposedly inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, Darby Crash was allegedly a fan of Oswald Spengler, the German historian and author of The Decline of the West, which might help explain his choice of cover imagery for the Germs’ first Slash release, a 7” single:
Of course, the Germs’ full-length LPs on Slash are still out there for you to enjoy now (while the West declines steadily day by day), but Ms. Spheeris’ movie includes some great grainy footage of their L.A. club gigs from those early slash-‘n-burn years that are naturally much more raw than the band’s studio recordings.
When I watch these clips, my eyes and ears are always drawn to the incredible splashing multi-rhythmic drumming of Don Bolles. His playing at times reminds me of certain avant-garde free-jazz drummers like Max Roach, Milford Graves and the wild improvising Dutchman Han Bennink…more than any rock drummer I can think of…and indeed, young Don Bolles was already a cultured aficionado of the best Krautrock bands like the incredible, edible Faust, and others who went in for polyrhythms and free-form funtime generally.
Watch Bolles here, playing on the song Manimal, arguably the Germs’ “theme song.” See if you can decode Darby’s words, especially the precious recurring couplet about puzzled panthers:
Then there’s the studio version of the song from their first record, and see if I’m right about those fantastic rhythmic “breaks”:
Meanwhile, here’s the one that will peel the paint off any brand-new US Navy battleship…my favorite Germs song, My Tunnel:
But pay attention, hep cats…here’s an even better, live version…this is from the Germs CD called Cat’s Clause, and it whips arse:
Slash, the label responsible for foisting these pioneer punk bands on the world, was born in the minds of staffers working at the L.A.-based punk magazine of the same name, back in 1978:
Rather notoriously, the Slash label started its long life as a musically “pure” product of the L.A. punk scene, but before long it turned into a highly fluid commodity, both musically and in terms of its ownership, at the hands of one corporate takeover after another, a sequence of events that eventually involved Warner Bros. Records itself…something Darby Crash certainly never lived to see, having offed himself very early on (it was the day before John Lennon died: December 7, 1980).
If there was a cherry on the sundae of Slash Records’ early history in terms of critical and commercial success, it had to be the release of the first two records by the L.A. band X (Los Angeles and Wild Gift, respectively), the X we all know and love, the “touchstone” L.A. punk band in the minds of many people despite the countrified, rockabilly twang that characterizes so much of their output.
Before getting signed to Slash, X had put out a single on the fascinating, short-lived, esoterically-inclined L.A. label Dangerhouse Records (Black Randy, Weirdos etc.), a single which is worth considerable money now, fo sho. Maybe you’d like to hear this 1977 rarity:
By 1981, when Slash was more or less taken over by Warner Brothers Records, a musician and film scholar named Chris D. (lead singer of the Slash Records band the Flesh Eaters) decided to start a Slash subsidiary label and call it Ruby Records…this in an attempt I would assume to revive the original Slash “spirit…”
(Meanwhile, the indefatigable Chris D. is known today as a tireless film aficionado and champion of Japanese gangster films, having written on the subject for Asian Trash Cinema magazine among others.)
Ruby put out records by the Flesh Eaters as well as neo-psychedelic bands like the Dream Syndicate…
…while some equally avant-garde and quirky, kooky “folk punk” groups like the Violent Femmes stayed with Slash. You, of course, remember the Femmes and their famous song, “Blister In the Sun”?
Funny how much it sounds like that made-up Christmas song from the ‘90s cast of Saturday Night Live. (Hey, it was a ‘90s thing, it was a happy time…no internet, which meant no internet-fueled civil wars all the time… Yup, the ‘90s were just plain better:)
Was all of the corporate passing-around and handing-off of the Slash label, from a “punk perspective,” a bad thing? Well, it’s complicated…it’s good to remember that punk and hardcore were pretty much running out of steam by the mid-‘80s, and other sounds were bubbling up and starting to dominate, like the ha-ha pop of groups like the B-52s and Talking Heads, and a slew of new wave bands whose country-twang seemed directly descended from X.
When Bob Biggs, a co-founder of Slash, was interviewed by veteran culture reporter Kristine McKenna for the Los Angeles Times in 1987, he put it rather bluntly:
“Some people think the way Slash developed was politically incorrect, but I feel no obligation to stand by a particular style of music to the bitter end…I’ve never felt that the label stood for a specific set of ideals I was obliged to uphold.”
And McKenna herself wondered out loud: “the issue of Slash’s ‘sellout’ prompts the question: is it possible to sell out a movement that has ceased to exist?”
And that apparently was where things stood in the late ‘80s in Los Angeles.
Maybe it really was a depressing time, at least to some folks…maybe things had become over-slick and over-produced, in the minds of punk purists longing for the good old days of 1977 to about 1982, the poor souls. One bummed-out music scene veteran told McKenna, “the clubs are dead, glam rock is the only thing happening in L.A. (!), and music is going underground again. I mean, the big new record on the charts this week is Dan Fogelberg. What year is this, anyway?” Were things really that bad? Let’s take a look…
(And by the way, who in their right mind would make the following rather undelightful compilation in the first place? Dick Clark? Casey Kasem?)
“Faith no more” indeed! But after all this was the era of Miami Vice on television.
Thus Slash, the once proud, flesh-and-blood punk record label with the cool musical and visual presence (the latter courtesy of Gary Panter’s scratchy cartoons and comics) and a beating musical heart to match, all too soon found itself swapped, traded, warped and transformed until it became little more than a name, its original 1978 personality shredded and tossed into the cut-outs bin.
The brand did remain in existence long enough to lend “its” name to a few high-gloss groups of the ‘90s, who made music that was ultra-slick and clearly created with “the video” in mind (Soul Coughing, L7), while on the bright side, the company-brand-logo-disembodied-ghost did manage to put out a few standout masterpieces, like this one:
And isn’t that enough, in a sense?
At this point what else can one say, except…Slash is dead, long live Slash!