Ben Merlis and Daniel Weizmann are mad musical scientists who, while staying late one night in their lab, discovered a new musical genre. Or, rather, a hidden genre, which they call ‘1.5’. It was hidden between punk and hardcore. It’s loud, it’s fast, and it rules. And if you dive deep into their research, presented to the world here in three parts on PKM, you will learn how they arrived at their conclusions. Failing that, you will have a hell of a lot of fun listening to their evidence. Take it away, Ben and Daniel!
Were the Germs a punk band or a hardcore band? Okay, how about Adolescents, T.S.O.L., Zero Boys, or the Stimulators? Whatever your answer is, half their fans will say you’re wrong.
Forget the wasted (!) decades of cranky, nerdtastic debate—there will never be a consensus, and here’s why: All those groups occupy the zone in-between—an area large enough to warrant a taxonomic reassessment. And now that many of these outfits have projects in the works that stake their claim in History—via documentaries (Redd Kross/Red Cross, D.O.A.), reissues (40th anniversary of Adolescents’ Blue Album, Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum!” single, Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables LP) and a biopic about the Agnew family that spawned Adolescents, Social Distortion and D.I.—we think it’s high time to turn the page on how these pioneering groups are defined.
If 1 = punk and 2 = hardcore, this style is 1.5—a new addition to the musical lexicon that remedies all confusion.
Agent Orange – Bloodstains
To illustrate what we mean by confusion, listen to some of the key players from this transitional period… Ian MacKaye said of his first group to produce wax, “I don’t think of the Teen Idles as a ‘punk rock’ band. We were a ‘hardcore punk’ band. We weren’t necessarily a ‘punk rock’ band. Maybe we were a ‘punk’ band, but see ‘punk rock’ was Sid Vicious and we weren’t into that.” Ian’s Washington, D.C. comrade, Darryl Jennifer of the Bad Brains, said recently on Turned Out a Punk podcast, “1979 turning into 1980 is when they started to say ‘hardcore’; to me it was just ‘punk rock.’” Meanwhile, Adolescents guitarist Rikk Agnew told us, “Anything and everything I’ve done, no matter what the genre was, I just call it ‘rock and roll…but with Adolescents we were ‘punk rock.’ We had the [guitar] leads and stuff like that. We were always influenced by the ‘70s bands . . . . To me, punk was more melodic. It was more pop, with an abrasive edge and an anger and in-your-face. Hardcore was just music to fucking murder your friend by.” He was laughing and so were we.
When we spoke to Frontier Records founder Lisa Fancher, she said, “I don’t know if I used ‘hardcore.’ It was all just ‘punk.’ I don’t remember if you used that term then or if it was coined slightly later.” Then there’s Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler who views even widely accepted genre classifications as the result of retroactive meddling. “It wasn’t particularly calculated. I always think it’s weird when people talk about what’s ‘hardcore’ and what’s ‘punk rock.’ At the time, we weren’t labeling ourselves like that.”
If 1 = punk and 2 = hardcore, this style is 1.5—a new addition to the musical lexicon that remedies all confusion.
Kira is echoing a familiar refrain. How dare anyone apply a newly-invented genre designation to music that has mostly happened years ago? Well, the same thing happened with “doo wop,” a term that author Joel Selvin has identified as originating in the early ‘60s, concurrent with “oldies but goodies,” both applied to music from the previous decade. The same thing also happened with “hip-hop”—Billboard writer Nelson George’s phrase “rapping deejays” never caught on, but this one did circa 1982, after millions of . . . uh . . . hip-hop records had been sold over the previous three years. And, of course, the same thing happened with “garage rock,” a term applied to rock and roll bands of the mid ‘60s after the term “punk rock”—which had also been retroactively coined in the early ‘70s to describe these same types of bands—got shuffled around and reapplied to the Sex Pistols and company, in real-time.
Our point: the retroactive identification of discrete music genres happens a lot, and often it’s worth it. People are understandably skittish about the very idea of genre—they tend to think of it as an act of reduction. But in the right spirit, genre can accomplish the exact opposite; it can be wielded as a tool to expand the way a chain of events is understood.
It’s important to note that, like “rock and roll,” both “punk” and “hardcore” are terms that were initially sexual in nature. “Punk” started its illustrious journey in the 16th century as slang for prostitute and morphed over time into a common usage for modern-day prison sex-slaves, long before it described juvenile delinquents, garage rockers, or Ramones devotees. The term “hardcore” has a similarly bifurcated trajectory. In the music press, it first started bubbling up as a descriptor rather than a genre in Slash and the LA Weekly as early as 1979, but it’s worth pointing out that the movie Hardcore came out that year too. The film, written by Taxi Driver’s Paul Schrader, tracks George C. Scott as a Midwestern father looking for his runaway teenage daughter who has vanished into the sleazy underworld of Hollywood porn. The distinction between “hardcore pornography” and “borderline pornography” (or “borderline obscenity”) first fulminated in the 1950s and 1960s as American jurists tried to determine which works had literary merit and which were created solely “to stimulate erotic response.” Strange, then, that punks and punk journalists applied this term to the younger, faster form of their very own genre. Perhaps they were not consciously saying “this music has no literary merit,” or “it’s for stimulation purposes only,” but on some level, they were definitely implying that “this sound has crossed a line.”
1.5 is the moment the thing called punk rock crosses that line.
But how do you identify a true 1.5 record? Well, you know it when you hear it. For one, it’s a feel thing—1.5 is light on its feet, fierce but often swifter than punk and more spacious than its hardcore cousin. 1.5 bands play fast and hard, ditching the basic Chuck Berry-influenced rock and roll progressions that dominate punk music, but also ducking the didactic approach and reliance on tempo changes that came to define hardcore. Thematically, there’s no topic or lyrical stance 1.5 can’t handle, but it’s rarely preachy. 1.5 maintains the sense of humor and irony in punk, the love of language and personal expression, while letting go of punk’s stalest cliché shock tactics and poses. Most important: 1.5 introduces the physicality that would soon become part and parcel of hardcore.
1.5 is the moment the thing called punk rock crosses that line.
1.5 flared up and burned out quickly—that may be one of the reasons nobody ever bothered to name it. However, while many 1.5 bands fall chronologically into the 1978-’81 window between punk’s initial explosion and the rise of the first generation of hardcore, being part of that epoch is not a requisite for inclusion. In fact, 1.5 has made some surprising reappearances on all four corners of the globe (Scandinavia in the ‘00s, New Jersey in the ‘10s, and back in Orange County, CA within the past year). It’s as if 1.5 has always remained in the collective punk unconscious, taking sudden hold like a very strong flashback.
One more key thing: If the branch off the punk family tree that you’re hearing is Oi!, paisley underground, peace punk, goth, post-hardcore, melodic hardcore, swamp punk, punk-funk, ska-punk, punkabilly, Punky Brewster, or any other micro-genre, it ain’t 1.5.
Now if it seems like the introduction of this nomenclature is, er, splitting spiky hairs, remember that geeks like you (and us!) have been debating about the essence of punk vs. hardcore since the genres first started butting heads. By isolating the 1.5 aesthetic, we do not disregard the power of punk or hardcore. We merely aim to give props to the agents of change that made the transition possible and to celebrate these in-betweeners for their own distinctive merits.
AT THE CORNER OF HOLLYWOOD AND RESTLESS: THE BIRTH OF 1.5
Just what sparked this evolution of a revolution? In the course of about 36 months, so many things in the international music scene seemed to influence each other that there’s no credible way to order them, but it’s notable that the Sex Pistols never made it to Los Angeles in their time. In fact, they didn’t make it to the West Coast altogether until January ‘78, and when they did, they fumbled; their cultural moment had passed. Punk was awesome in the original sense of the word—it made good on the reality principle that serious rock ‘n’ rollers from Dylan to Lennon to Townshend to Reed had been striving for all along, but the sorry fact is that Styx and Journey were not displaced on the charts and the smug major labels declared punk a non-starter. Even worse, certain punk clichés were already getting calcified by early ‘78: safety pins, torn clothes, wraparound shades, ransom-letter flyers.
“..it’s weird when people talk about what’s ‘hardcore’ and what’s ‘punk rock.’ At the time, we weren’t labeling ourselves like that.” – Kira Roessler
Actually, the seeds of 1.5 were planted earlier, at a legendary two-night four-show run of The Damned at the Starwood in April 1977. As Pleasant Gehman describes it in Under the Big Black Sun, “The Damned had usurped The Clash as our favorite punk band…for weeks you could walk into any apartment at the Canterbury any hour of the day or night and hear ‘New Rose’ or ‘Fan Club’ playing.” With their speed, style and ability to be both punk itself and a meta-punk exploration, The Damned may be the very first example of a band transitioning from punk to 1.5. As early as Damned Damned Damned (1977) the clear Stooges influence is subverted with songs like “Stab Yor Back,” featuring wild, fast choruses. Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. later described The Damned’s “Machine Gun Etiquette” as “the theme song to any trouble I ever got into,” while Rikk Agnew of the Adolescents told us, “Damned Damned Damned is a major influence on us. To me, I think they weren’t like the Pistols or anything. They were kind of hardcore, if you want to call it hardcore.”
LA punks may have cottoned to The Damned in part because they always had a challenge on their hands: so late in the game—and with a reputation for being laid-back El Lay—how could their own version of punk stand apart? You can hear this Anxiety of Influence on tracks like the Bags’ “We Don’t Need the English,” which first appears on YES L.A., a one-sided picture disc from 1979 that giddily declares that it’s “Not Produced by Brian Eno.” (The album’s title is a parody of the Eno-produced No New York compilation). Not being New York and not being London were essential for self-respect and survival.
With the drive to make SoCal both unique and legit, the best of LA’s front-guard punk bands (X, Germs, Bags, Screamers, Weirdos, Plugz, Deadbeats and others) set the stage for 1.5 by testing the boundaries of punk itself, both musically and lyrically. They brought to punk an extra edge of performative glitter, RKO/MGM razzmatazz, and Hollywood’s special brand of stucco decay at their headquarters The Masque—a literal underground club just off Hollywood Blvd. To cite just one formidable example, X managed to fuse the thing called “punk rock” with noir, romance, Americana, and West Coast mythology and take it somewhere totally new. It was brilliant, it was unforgettable, but it was still punk and it was still rock in spirit and sound. You could even argue that the early LA punk bands were mostly “paleo-modernist”—they repped the present with shades of the past, as they groped in the dark for a way to make punk their own. But no matter how you slice it, on some level they knew: for LA punk to make its mark, it would have to go farther.
The restlessness to push past punk’s natural borders can be heard on supercharged singles like the Bags’ “Survive,” a hectic punk jam bookended by a minor key spy show riff that could’ve been cribbed from a suspenseful scene on an episode of Columbo. As if to overthrow this casual nostalgia, Alice Bag—who guitarist Craig Lee had nicknamed Violence Girl—delivers a vocal attack on the fast part that is beyond caustic, downright belligerent—she sounds like she’d cut Johnny Rotten a new one if he bumped into her in a dark alley.
The Bags – Survive
And then, of course there’s the Weirdos. As punk historian and Alice Bag bassist David O. Jones points out in his upcoming book, Destroy All Music: Pioneers of Punk Rock in Southern California, though the Weirdos were spearheads of the ‘77 brigade, they initially resisted the punk label, and were even trying to start a “Weirdo” scene with its own “look, sound, and attitude.” Raised on the wiggy experimental spirit of Zappa and Beefheart, they grasped instinctively that template punk could never be enough to contain the spirit of the psychedelicized West Coast.
Jones also cites the Plugz as a key group in the onramping toward 1.5. “The Plugz just don’t sound much influenced by the usual punk suspects. It’s a wholly different, original approach—more punctuated, rhythmically sharp, and tonally jagged. They have the melodic thing, the speed, and the technically powerful playing—that cover of La Bamba is fast as hell!” He adds that Plugz leader Tito Larriva was instrumental in developing LA’s DIY culture, showing Slash Records’ Bob Biggs how and where to press vinyl before self-releasing the first-ever full-length LA punk album, the outstanding Electrify Me.
The Plugz – A Gain – A Loss
The very first 1.5ers came from the desert, musically and literally. The Consumers were a quintet who discovered punk via the first Pistols single and recorded a full-lengther at a local studio for country and western acts on December 3, 1977. The record, which tragically sat unreleased for 18 years, is astonishing in its sheer aggression and is something of a Dead Sea Scroll of 1.5. It was the first droplet of a massive raincloud on the horizon that would drench the entire region with speed, volume, and savagery. Avant garde in their approach, the Consumers would often stage fist fights and pretend to commit suicide on stage. After being subjected to regular violence in their hometown, they relocated to Los Angeles in 1978 and were met with indifference; they were jokingly referred to by the punk elite as “cactusheads.”
THE CONSUMERS – ANTI, ANTI, ANTI
Although most casual fans of that period of punk might only recognize “Anti Anti Anti” and “Concerned Citizen” as they were much later re-recorded by 45 Grave, a band formed by Consumer Paul Cutler, a handful of soon-to-be 1.5 torchbearers took notice right away. Another outsider among outsiders, Rikk Agnew from Fullerton in north Orange County, got it. He describes the Consumers as “One of the best bands ever. Ever. I was at their first show at the Masque. Our jaws dropped. I’m just going, ‘What planet do you come from, dude?’” The wheels were set in motion for a mass movement.
Simultaneously, West LA native Jan Paul Beahm went by the punk name Bobby Pyn, a moniker so dorky it was practically a commentary on the ineffectual nature of punk names. He smartly changed his handle to Darby Crash as he quietly honed his tumultuous, labyrinthine lyrical style, creating some of the most fearsome human portraits and dizzying epics in the history of song.
“He was super intelligent,” says Kira Roessler, who worked the door at the Masque and informally served as a Germs roadie as a teen, long before joining Black Flag as their bassist in 1983. “And because of that, I think there was a little bit of a wall between him and most of the world . . . His lyrics are just so cerebral, and in a group of people like that, there were not that many people really coming across that way.”
What had started as a joke band, consisting entirely of people who couldn’t play much better than the Shaggs—and with the kitschiest glitter name on the planet, Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens—was morphing, by inches, into the Dostoevsky of rock music, the entity that would blow the form to smithereens.
San Fernando Valley’s Fear would also eventually become a core 1.5 group, and the early evidence is right there on their 1978 demo and single. Fear attempted a punk prison break, not by being faster than their predecessors per se, but rather through their rhythms—based on drummer Spit Stix’s muscle-building practice patterns. Spit’s relentless beats give the songs a mounting, dictatorial quality that makes the average Ramones track seem like folk rock by contrast. And between these intense, rampaging numbers, singer Lee Ving’s antagonistic snide ‘n’ snarky Bowery Boy stage persona invited out-and-out brawls with audience participants. Punk, it seemed, just couldn’t get punk enough.
With each of these invisible advances, the seeds of 1.5 were taking root—but it was punk’s collision with a militarized police force that made the garden bloom.
It may be no coincidence that, just as the scene began to expand and leave its Hollywood Boulevard crib, the Los Angeles Police Department made the scene. The Elks Lodge Riot on St. Patrick’s Day 1979 was an all ages show with a whopping $5 cover charge. X, the Plugz, the Go-Go’s, the Alley Cats and the Zeros were booked to play. Midway through a jolly and utterly peaceful night, the boys in blue showed up waving billy clubs, James Ellroy-style. As David Jones puts it, “Chief Daryl Gates singled that show out to make a statement from the LAPD. They came there with the full-on riot squad and just let loose on the concert goers. And as you can see from that lineup, it wasn’t exactly hardcore . . . far from it.”
the Germs released (GI). The LP has often been grossly misnamed “one of the first hardcore albums,” but it is, without a doubt, the first fully realized 1.5 album
As Jones describes it, the LAPD likely inadvertently caused the very acceleration that made 1.5 happen. “Personally,” he told us, “I think the violence perpetrated by the LAPD at the show and the news coverage that came out of it did the opposite of what was intended by the cops. Instead of putting a stop to punk in LA and Hollywood, they actually made it look more exciting and dangerous to a younger crowd looking on from the wings. They made punk a hot commodity of youth rebellion, exactly when that original scene was kind of aging out of the first wave.”
The tide was turning, and audiences were getting younger, wilder, more reckless. Six months after the so-called riot, the Germs released (GI). The LP has often been grossly misnamed “one of the first hardcore albums,” but it is, without a doubt, the first fully realized 1.5 album—in some very obvious ways it doesn’t sit comfortably either in the punk that preceded it or the hardcore that followed. Lyrically, it’s complex, hyper-real and surreal, drawing more from French symbolists than British pub ranters. Musically, it’s also challenging, operatic, supercharged and frantically fast in a way that no full-length album had been before it. But you don’t even have to listen to the thing to know that something very different is happening. The front and back covers of (GI) state its intent with absolute clarity: the artwork and the band photos are as austere as The Beatles’ White Album. No sneers, no splatter. This ain’t your granny’s punk rock.
To illustrate the remarkable difference between punk and 1.5, take a listen to the title track from the Germs’ March 1978 EP Lexicon Devil, then listen to the very same song on (GI). Despite being “first-person Hitler,” the EP version produced by Geza X is downright sing-songy, poppy and paced in the hands of drummer Nickey Beat. As DJ Rodney Bingenheimer often put it, “punk is dirty glitter,” and this recording, in an alternate universe, could’ve been a rough T. Rex demo. By contrast, the (GI) version of “Lexicon Devil,” with recent addition Don Bolles from Phoenix bringing that Consumers-style “cactushead” approach to his drumming, is downright assaultive—the song comes on like a wild animal snapping off its chain, as Bolles drives the tempo right past sanity, never touching the brakes. The melody doesn’t disappear exactly, but the sheer force of forward-motion subjugates everything in its path.
It was the Germs’ stated aim to be “more punk than the Pistols.”