|The Urinals, aka 100 Flowers and eventually Trotsky Icepick.|
Frequent readers (assuming there are any) will note that I’ve recently been on a jag of exploring early/mid 80’s LA punk, post-punk, and new wave. Yesterday I stumbled across a site that stimulated a further exploration of this fascinating (and very personal for me, since I lived then and there) era. It was a collection of gig fliers, set lists, and ticket stubs from a dizzying array of punk and post-punk shows from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s (mostly focused on the early 80’s), and from LA and to a lesser extent Frisco, San Diego, and even England. Here is a link to the site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33135085@N02/ . It’s a great site that fills me with nostalgia.
It also filled me with curiosity to examine what, if anything, is available from some of the more obscure bands on some of the fliers. Alas, I could not find anything out there by Monitor, the Screws, UK DK, Dead Skin, Afterimage, Dred Scott, or Der Stab. Monitor was a proto-industrial synth band along the lines of the Screamers or Nervous Gender that hailed from Northridge, CA, and grew out of the L.A. Free Music Society. The Meat Puppets covered their song “Hair” on their first album, and it is a harsh blare of snarly guitar and growled vocals. The Screws were HB/OC hardcore along the lines of Vicious Circle and China White, while Dead Skin and Der Stab were two other OC bands that made music that hewed more to a post-punk vibe. If anyone knows where I can find music by any of these bands, please let me know.
The Chiefs (sometimes spelled the Cheifs) were an early LA punk/hardcore quartet; their sound was similar to that of Black Flag as were the themes of their lyrics, but the vocals owe much to Darby’s early work with the Germs. “Riot Squad”, which is posted on YouTube, captures their simplistic but catchy two chord punk. They were also notable for having an African American guitarist, the excellent George Walker. This band rarely gets mentioned with pioneers like Middle Class or the Dickies but they are early adoptees of the whole punk rock thing too.
The Gears also receive few if any plaudits today despite the fact that they too were early punk rock pioneers. Their sound hews closely to the three chord rumble of the Ramones, with a splash of the melody of the Dickies. “Trudie Trudie”, which celebrates the legendary punkette scenester Trudie Plunger, is a good example of the simple but catchy nature of their songs. “The Last Chord”, recorded live during a reunion at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach in 2007 is loud and rumbling, while “Let’s Go To The Beach” and “Don’t Be Afraid To Pogo” are more melodic pop-punk that really evoke the Ramones of songs like “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and “Rockaway Beach”.
Similar to the Chiefs and Gears are the Simpletones, who formed in Rosemead in September of ’78 and who were all bona fide teenagers when they first started out. They remind me a lot of the so-called “Canadian Ramones”, i.e., Teenage Head, in that their music is simple, goofy and catchy as hell. “I Like Drugs” and “Don’t Bother Me” are two of their outstanding first-wave punk anthems that would appeal to fans of the Bruddahs, the Weirdos, and the Dickies.
On the artier end were the Shadow Minstrels, another LA art/pop/punk outfit whose members went on to join such other, better-known bands as 45 Grave and the Gun Club. Their sound incorporated many elements of English post-punk. They have no songs on iTunes or Pandora but a few songs off their 1983 album Great Expectations are posted to YouTube. “Alicia” draws on the taut emotional tension of Joy Division but has a minor key omininousness of Siouxsie and the Banshees or Magazine as well as a screechy violin solo. “The Guest” sounds like a cross between the angular punk funk of Gang of Four with the off-key coyness of the Cure’s work on Pornography.
Human Hands were a post-punk outfit that pulled from punk rock and art rock too but their music also tended to have a catchy, poppy feel to it. Several of their albums are available on iTunes, including Bouncing To Disc, which compiles nearly all of their early back-in-the-day work. I like “New Look”—the guitar has a ska feel to it—it kind of reminds me of “Poison Ivy” by the Lambrettas, but the vocals sound more like Tomata Du Plenty’s of the Screamers. I also like the rumbling drum bridge in this song. The mod/ska beat continues on the next song, “Dilemmas” but the synth is more prominent here. “Phantoms in the Darkroom” is more ominous and industrial, like early Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle. “Walk a Crooked Line” is more straight-ahead pop-punk with a skewed, angular edginess to it. This is a good band and its disappointing they never made it bigger.
In a similar vein are the Fibonaccis, another band to come out of LA’s art/noise scene; their music combined post-punk, funk, world beat, prog and jazz. Their sound was similar to that of such well regarded SST bands as Universal Congress Of. Nothing of theirs is available on iTunes or Pandora but a few songs are posted on YouTube (and their entire back catalog is available for download on their website, http://www.fibonaccis.com/), including the funky, jazzy “Leroy”, which really reminds me of a cross between the NY punk funk of the Contortions (only with a petulant female vocal, courtesy of the beautiful and talented Magie Song, instead of a white guy impersonating James Brown) and the jazz-rock stylings of Joe Baiza. “Old Mean Ed Gein” starts with a sweet, orchestral beginning but shifts into an atonal avante-classical skein that sounds like it was as inspired by Schoenberg as it is the Sex Pistols. This band rarely made two songs that sounded remotely similar. They probably achieved their greatest fame for their odd, angular cover of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, sung in a near-parody of an Asian accent (that actually doesn’t sound that far from Yoko Ono’s vocals).
Another SoCal art/punk band with unique female vocals were Long Beach’s own Suburban Lawns. Lead singer Su Tissue also had a unique voice and strange, eerie stage presence. They had a couple of minor local hits in Southern California (thanks largely to Rodney Bingenheimer, who was an early supporter): “Gidget Goes To Hell”, which sounds like funky punky surf music, and the equally 60’s-esque “Janitor”, which I remember hearing played on KROQ in the early 80’s. “Janitor” has the twitchy new-wave-girl-group sound of “Girls Like Me” by Bonnie Hayes, but Tissue’s vocals remind me of Lene Lovitch’s on songs like “New Toy”.
The Fontanelles also played edgy, funky art/punk that was influenced by Talking Heads. Several songs are available on YouTube (as well as some more accessible alternative sounding stuff on a recent iTunes album). Their best-known, or most renowned song, is “Kiss Kicker 99”, which was featured in the horrible Gremlins knockoff Hobgoblins, often touted as one of the worst movies ever made.
A band that shows an interesting evolution from first-wave straight ahead punk to artier poppier post-punk are the Urinals. They started in ’77 as a Masque house band playing fast, very simple songs that drew upon the Ramones (like every ’77 band) as well as the childlike lyrical simplicity of Jonathon Richman’s Modern Lovers. “Dead Flowers”, “Surfing with the Shah” (which approaches a proto-Velvet Underground/industrial drone), the 60’s influenced “Black Hole”, the Dils-esque “I’m White and Middle Class”, “I’m a Bug”, “U”, and “Ack Ack Ack Ack” (which was later covered by the Minutemen) are all excellent goofball punk ditties.
However, by 1980 the members of the Urinals were growing disenchanted with the limitations of this genre, as well as those of their off-putting name, and decided to make a break. They renamed themselves 100 Flowers and shifted their musical approach to one emphasizing post-punk, jazz, and funk and became underground heroes of the LA post-punk movement. “All Sexed Up” surges on a funky rhythm much like that of James Chance’s early work but cleaner and less overtly sexual. “Without Limbs” is poppier but quirky and jangly, like a cross between They Might Be Giants and R.E.M. “Reject Yourself” starts with a rumbling bass line but then becomes a clangy avante noise that sounds equidistant from the Velvet Underground and Pussy Galore. This is my favorite by them.
100 Flowers broke up in 1983 but Kjehl Johansen and John Talley-Jones formed the similar Trotsky Icepick with Vitus Matare. Trotksy Icepick created six beautiful, angular alterna-pop for SST records between 1986 and 1993. One of my fave songs of theirs is “The Commissioner” off first album, Poison Summer.