“Experiments In Destiny” Compilation (1980)

experimentsindestinyExperiments In Destiny is a label comp from Bomp! Records.  Released in 1980, the 2XLP includes 29 tracks each by a different band.  Some decent names are here – Stiv Bators, The Nuns, The Dead Boys, and even The Sonics.  Stylistically it’s a bit all over the board – punk, garage, pop, and a fairly plain rock cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” by Jimmy Lewis & The Checkers.  We’ve even got famous KROQ disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer fronting The Brunettes and contributing a song, “Little G.T.O.”, an homage to his own favorite car.

The sound quality is OK – Experiments In Destiny feels like listening to a car radio in 1980.  To modern ears used to the clearest fidelity this may not be ideal, but it’s exactly what these songs sounded like back then.

Rocket From the Tombs – “Barfly”

rocketfromthetombsbarflyRocket From the Tombs were one of the early bands that helped kick off the Cleveland punk/new wave scene in the mid 1970s.  While they never released any recordings during their all-to-brief existence, they had a profound influence on the scene and following their breakup in 1975 two extremely influential bands emerged – the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, which in and of itself testifies as to the talent in Rocket From the Tombs.  Unfortunately they may be best known for the sad loss of guitarist Peter Laughner, who died at the age of 25 due to complications from alcohol abuse.  Various reunions took place in the 2000s, one of which resulted in the release of Barfly in 2011, an album of all new material.

Barfly wasn’t what I was expecting, which isn’t to say that it’s bad, just different.  The influences sound very rooted in blues and country, though definitely with an “alt” before any attempt at labeling this version of Rocket From the Tombs with a genre.  Dave Thomas’ (of Pere Ubu fame) vocals certainly give the whole thing a slightly weird quality, but in a positive way as he contributes to the uniqueness of the band’s sound.  This isn’t just some basic alt-blues or garage-blues album (nor is it alt-garage-country-blues… ugh, enough with the genres already!), but something different and interesting.  I’d suggest sampling it before you make the decision on whether or not to buy, but there’s plenty to like here.

The Dead Boys – “Twistin’ on the Devil’s Fork” and “Liver Than You’ll Ever Be”

Twistin’ on the Devil’s Fork is one of two live Dead Boys albums I bought at Crossroads Music on my recent trip to Portland and it draws songs from two live shows the band played at CBGB’s, one in 1977 and the other in 1978.  I generally assume the sound quality on these early live punk records will be questionable, and this one even carries a disclaimer right there on the jacket reverse:  “Warning:  Low-fidelity live document of the Dead Boys during their heyday, no reunions, no overdubs!”  So at least we know what we’re getting (though there were in fact some later reunions like their other live album… but it wouldn’t have been very punk rock to even have considered such heresy back in the day).  Released in 1997 it drew from cassette tape recordings of the shows.  Thank god someone thought to tape a lot of this stuff.

As a side note, we also have yet another example here of a band from the late 1970s/early 1980s using the swastika – Johnny Blitz is sporting a Nazi Luftwaffe (Air Force) metal badge on his jacket on the cover photo.  It’s amazing how these symbols still hold enough power to make us uncomfortable almost 70 years after the end of World War II, a war that most of us didn’t have any experience with at all.

The sound quality is a bit hollow and seems to lack the depth of the bass and drums, but overall it’s not too shabby – I’ve certainly heard way worse.  The dozen songs are all originals with the exception of a cover of Syndicate of Sound’s “Hey Little Girl”, maybe the best track on the first side with the possible exception of the opening song, “Sonic Reducer”, which pretty much blows away everything else.  “Sonic Reducer” was actually written by a few band members when they were with Rocket from the Tombs and has subsequently been covered by everyone and their mother from Pearl Jam to Guns ‘N’ Roses to Foetus, and was even sampled by the Beastie Boys, so I suppose that speaks to its influence.

My other favorite here is “3rd Generation Nation”, which has a classic punk message.

There ain’t no future and there ain’t no past,
There’s just a graveyard and it’s comin’ fast.
Well we want the truth,
We’re the modern youth
History has warned you of,
And we’re down to kill.

We’re the 3rd generation nation!

Twistin’ on the Devil’s Fork is an important American punk rock artifact – these live recordings are rare and give a sense of the intense and raw nature of what was happening in the late 1970s.  The sound quality, however, means that it’s probably only going to appeal to the die-hards – I doubt a casual fan is going to get much enjoyment from it.  But that’s OK.

Liver Than You’ll Ever Be also came from Crossroads, and this show was recorded live at The Ritz in New York City in 1987 during one of the Dead Boys’ reunions.  It’s a double album on pink see-through vinyl, which is cool.  What’s not cool is the skip on side A.  But what’s even more uncool is the crowd noise on this recording.  The overall sound quality of Liver Than You’ll Ever Be is far superior to that of Twistin’ on the Devil’s Fork, with more depth and a better balance that brings the bass and drums back into the mix.  However, the crowd noise is weird.  As in, whoever was producing it did one of two things – either they were constantly manipulating the volume of the crowd noise to bring it to the front during the quieter parts or, more likely, they used a canned, fake applause track.  I think the latter is more likely (Holly and I both reached the same conclusion independently of each other), since the crowd pretty much sounds the same throughout and you don’t get any of the random shouts of “you suck” or people puking in the background.  Frankly it’s annoying as hell.

The Dead Boys played their classics at this show as well, including both “Sonic Reducer” and “3rd Generation Nation”  They also include an Iggy & The Stooges cover, “Search and Destroy,” and even “Tell Me” by the Rolling Stones.  Outside of the lame crowd noise, Liver Than You’ll Ever Be is absolutely the more enjoyable of the two records, and I think it’s good enough to recommend.  Though that crowd noise is like fingernails on the blackboard.

Sometimes I find myself thinking, “man it would have been awesome to have been coming of age in New York City when punk was happening.”  But then I remind myself – I came of age about 20 minutes outside of Seattle when grunge was happening, and it’s not like I made an effort to truly get involved in that scene other than through buying records, which I could have more or less just as easily done anywhere that had a decent record store.  So let’s be real – I wouldn’t have been living in Tribeca or Hell’s Kitchen unless I absolutely had no other choice.  One of the things that seems to define that entire scene, both in the UK and US, is abject poverty – bands and fans who barely had enough money to get by, basically spending what little they had on food, music, and getting wasted.  The idea of experiencing the movement first hand is easy to romanticize 35 years later, but I probably would have felt differently sharing a filthy squat or cheap apartment with a bunch of people and enough cockroaches to fill a swimming pool, freezing my ass off in a New York winter with no heat, living off the cheapest food I could buy (or steal).  In fact, I’m pretty sure of it.  So I guess that means I’ll just keep playing my records.

Dead Boys – “We Have Come for Your Children”

As hard as it may be to believe for those who don’t know much about punk’s history, at one time the center of the American punk universe was in and around Cleveland, Ohio.  At least I didn’t know that when I started my journey into punk’s roots.  Sure, Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…. but it was probably known more for being a run down urban center and having bad sports teams back in the 1970s.  Hell, the city was known as “The Mistake by the Lake”… the river that runs through it caught fire.   Rivers aren’t supposed to do that.  But that environment was the perfect breeding ground for punk.  And with bands like the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs, the Pagans, and Devo (OK, they’re from Akron… but I’m not from Ohio, so I have no idea how close that is to Cleveland and honestly I’m too lazy to look), Cleveland was an impressive breeding ground for the genre, much as Seattle would be for grunge a decade later.

One of Cleveland’s best known punk rising stars were the Dead Boys.  Their career trajectory was a short one – roughly 1976 to 1979, with the group disbanding following the release of their second LP, We Have Come for Your Children, in 1978.  So when I ran across a promo copy of this record at the Lake City Record Show earlier today, I figured I should pick it up and continue my punk roots education.

Tangent Alert!  Speaking of record shows…. the one I attended today was my second since I got back into vinyl a couple of years ago, and I have to say it may be my last.  On a positive note the guys set up at this show seemed a lot more organized than the ones at the last show I went to… at least most of the boxes were labelled with genres, and sometimes even sectioned by band.  But there was still a ton of crap around, with guys working behind the tables seeming massively disinterested and customers who had no problem literally shouldering you out of the way without even an excuse me to get to an “All Records $1” box.  It sort of reminds me of what baseball card shows were like in the early 1980s… except most people seemed pissed off and annoyed.  I’m sure the minimal turnout contributed, but frankly I’d rather spend my time looking through bins at the local record stores.

But I digress.  Back to Cleveland and the Dead Boys.  I’m sure classic punk aficionados can speak much more eloquently than can I about the difference sounds that came out of various parts of the UK, New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  Even to my untrained ears there are obvious differences… but they’re hard to describe.  To me the Cleveland sound seems to more anticipate the post-punk/new wave movement that came on the heels of punk.

I love the sound of Stiv Bator’s voice.  The band is tight, the music basic and straight forward, with Stiv giving the whole thing it’s character.  The front man so often sticks out, since it’s natural for us to pay attention to what the singer is saying; but I tend to listen to the vocals as an instrument (and I’m always shocked when I find out most of my friends don’t….), so how the singer sounds is much more important to me that whatever words he/she is saying.  I suppose that’s one of the reasons I don’t have any problems listening to music in foreign languages.  And it’s also one of the things I really like about the Dead Boys.  Stiv’s voice put the finishing touches on the attitude of the music.  He didn’t have the same sneering sound of many of his English counterparts; he comes across as more insistent, almost like he’s annoyed at having to tell me what he’s singing about because he can’t believe I don’t know it already.  In some ways his style anticipates some of the early grunge bands like Mudhoney.

Many members of the Dead Boys went on to play in other successful bands, and they even played some shows as the Dead Boys in the 1980s, going as far as to re-master and re-lease their debut LP in 1989.  Unfortunately though a new generation of fans would not get to experience the Dead Boys, as Bators died from injuries sustained when he was struck by a vehicle in Paris in 1990, and passed away at the all-too-young age of 40.  He left behind an impressive legacy, and We Have Come for Your Children is a great example of his early work.