Tuesday, March 16, 2004

TOP 50 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME: # 45

GERMS – (GI) LP

I was browsing my well-read copy of – ta-da! – Lexicon Devil: Darby Crash and the Germs last night and realised that I must get down in print my thoughts on this album, pronto. This is an obvious contender for a Top 50 list (well, at least from me), so obvious I was going to put it off ‘til near the end, but since that could be a lifetime away, I’ll type whilst my thoughts are somewhat fresh.

What caught my attention the most this time about the book were the photos, not the text. I was browsing, not reading, essentially scanning images in my mind and eating up the visuals. The portraits of the very early LA cognoscenti are particularly electric, and portray – at least for me – one of the most visionary and cataclysmic artistic scenes of the 20th century. I’m not saying that to be hyperbolic or to exaggerate in the hope of making a Grand Statement. I seriously believe that to be the truth. Take a good look at the black and white images of early scene-makers like Trudie, Helen Killer, Alice Bag and Pleasant Gehman, decked out in Hollywood’s hot-spots in Rocky Horror-meets-McLaren outfits, and it’s like a bizarre netherworld that never existed. It’s certainly something that won’t, and cannot, ever happen again.

I think my long-held fascination with early LA (and Californian in general) punk comes not only from the great music it bore (which was far superior to any media-hyped outfit from NYC or London), but the environment that birthed it. Both London and NYC, after all, had it easy: they’re exactly the kind of big cities that could accommodate and foster a phenomenon like punk rock. But LA? San Fran? This is where its greatness lies. The glitter kids, drug addicts, dada-freaks, art-fags, pushers, pimps and outcasts – the kind of characters littered throughout the Lexicon Devil book – had so much more to rebel against. And these natural-born fuck-ups rebelled against this façade of sun and happiness in the most hilarious and inventive ways. Seemingly unselfconscious and completely ignored by major labels, Californian punk was something that truly came directly from the street. The Germs were, at least for me, much like the Sex Pistols, a brilliant accident that had to happen. If they’d never existed, we’d have to invent them.

I’ve loved the Germs for many years, and still remember buying this LP when I was 15 at the first Au-go-go store (when it was a tiny fleapit at the end of an alleyway off Little Bourke St.) back in the dark ages. Studying the sleeve all the way home on the tram, transfixed by the grubby-looking faces on the back cover, I subsequently flogged the album heavily for months on end. Over the years I’ve revisited it many times, sometimes taking a 2-3 year break from its grooves, though for some reason, against all predictions from my parents and various peers, its music seems to possess more psychic power for me now – in my 30s – than it did for me as a teenager. As corny as this may sound, I still believe that causing trouble – simply for the hell of it – is an admirable pursuit.

(GI), which on sheer musical terms is an unbelievable triumph, also goes to show how clusters of culturally dispossessed screw-ups can affect popular culture in ways that at first appear unimaginable. Whilst never a household name in any mainstream consciousness, the Germs set off cultural ripples still making waves today. What in the hell am I talking about? Well, I guess that if you can count your fan-base as including everyone from Madonna(!!) to Nirvana to Matt Groening to William “The Exorcist” Friedkin to Ian MacKaye, then you’ve made some sort of impact, no matter how many millions of others aren’t aware of it. Is this something to be proud of? I can only answer “Yes”, especially considering their apparent total lack of forethought or planning. The Germs were a serious vortex of trouble with few, if any, pop ambitions.

Musically, the Germs are a tough band to pin down. Essentially a rag-tag collection of spoiled, suburban Bowie-freaks (and one token avant-noise nut: Don Bolles), their sound is a bizarre Iggy/Bowie/Doors/punk/hardcore/noise/No Wave hybrid I’m still coming to grips with. Impossible to replicate, I own no other record that sounds like this. I’m not mentioning any individual tracks: you simply need it.

Endnote: to state the obvious, anyone reading this who hasn’t yet purchased the Don Bolles/Brendan Mullen/Adam Parfrey-edited Lexicon Devil book needs to do so, like, now. Much like the great Please Kill Me epic, it’s an oral history of modern music that makes for an astonishing read. The only other book I can think to compare it to would be Jon Savage’s brilliant England’s Dreaming, with its massive frame of cultural reference and sense of placing you right within the centre of everything happening. More than just the story of a rock’n’roll group, it reads like a social history of Southern California’s ‘70s underbelly, teeming with Scientologists, convicted murderers, z-grade celebrities, pornographers, junkies, groupies and the truly desperate. Only then can you appreciate the Germs as not only a great rock band, but as a magnet for every disaffected screwball who crossed their path. Which may or may not include myself.

Pros: Christ, if that rant wasn’t enough, then I give up…
Cons: What cons? Does every positive have to have a negative? Until that long-rumoured Madonna-produced bio-pic comes out, let’s just say there are none, OK?
Related releases: Just the get the MIA: Complete Discography CD.

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