WHY BE SOMETHING THAT YOU'RE NOT: Detroit Hardcore 1979-1985 book (Revelation Publishing)The midwestern hardcore revival starts... now. Or a few months ago and I'm already slow out of the gate. It's 2010 and things are coming full circle. 30 years ago, the midwestern hardcore punk scene consisted of Tesco Vee and Dave Sims publishing Touch & Go fanzine for all 100 or so people who'd read it, embryonic outfits such as The Fix and the Necros, Chicago's Effigies and a few others scattered throughout the region. In its infant stages, 1979/'80, the participants probably figured their music would barely ever make a reach beyond state lines, let alone be immortalised by such a book as this, not to mention the CD/vinyl reissues which have taken place the last decade or more, as well as the countless blogs dedicated to this area of sound. Am I complaining? Not on your sweet life, honey. The midwestern scene managed to spit out some of the coolest bands of the day - I'll certainly vouch for Die Kreuzen and Negative Approach being some of the finest bands of the original HC era (and in the former, I'd say that their post-HC works are their greatest, though I may be in the minority regarding that opinion) - and it's nice to know that such outfits are getting the concrete documentation they deserve. More than that, it also confirms at least in my mind that I haven't been completely wasting the last 25 or so years of my life obsessing over this kind of stuff; after all, now it's legitimate.
Writer Tony Rettman has put this book together - I've heard his name bandied about over the years through the fanzine/blog circuit, though I couldn't give you his full CV right here and now - and it's essentially a collection of interviews w/ all the main players, interspersed w/ his own narration. A simple format, and it works. My main grippe w/ the book, and really it's the only grippe, is that it simply isn't long enough. It reads more like an extended fanzine article and could've been twice its length - there's only 158 pages of text here [broken up w/ photos and assorted graphics], as well as an additional 80+ pages of discographies, flyers et al - without outstaying its welcome. In short, it could've been fleshed out a lot more than it has been, at the very least going deeper into the individuals' respective backgrounds, their upbringing, education, politics, whatever. The book essentially starts at the birth of the HC "scene" (that'd be 1979), briefly introduces the likes of Tesco Vee and Barry Hennsler, but gives the reader very little idea of what really made them tick, or their motivation to create a faster, louder brand of punk rock. It's not like the reader is left clueless, as such things are given a glance, but not the kind of analysis warranted.
And all that possibly sounds like I wanted an over-analysis of the whole topic, or that I'm trying to intellectualise it beyond what is required, but it's not too much to ask. Perhaps Jon Savage's England's Dreaming or the Lexicon Devil book on Darby Crash just set the bar too high for many others to follow: the anaylsis given to the topic at hand being so thorough, scholarly and so well written/editied that Rettman's book seems like a toilet read in comparison. But what a toilet read it is! I demolished the book in an afternoon last week when I was struck down w/ a nasty bout (there's no other kind of bout) of gastro and enjoyed every minute of it. The book, that is. Oh, the irony: a toilet read on a day that I was virtually glued to the thing.
The birth of Touch & Go, the fanzine, is given major props in the first half of the book (I wrote about the recently issued T & G compendium here, if you care), and it puts the lens on possibly the two most important bands of the scene, The Fix and the Necros, in mostly the detail they deserve. And they do deserve such detail, not only because you could argue the point that both bands essentially kickstarted midwestern HC as we know it, but also because previously there has been so little written about both bands.
The Fix finally have their scant discography reissued for the masses via the Touch & Go LP/CD released a few years back, though the Necros still remain a mystery for most (including me), both because of the little aural/literal documentation of the group (I sense that Barry Hennsler doesn't like dwelling in the past and talking about it too much) and also because their discography has remained out of print for longer than most young HC kids around and active today have been alive. I've never owned a piece of Necros vinyl in my life; other than cut-out copies of their Tangled Up LP - their failed post-HC foray into mid-tempo metallic rock - cluttering up sale bins in the late '80s, I've never even seen any Necros records. I've had their first two 7"s, both released in miniscule quantities at the time on the infant T & G imprint, on cassette the last 20 years (taped for me by a dedicated Perth-based collector at the time who actually owned them), but that's it. Google "Necros IQ 32 blogspot" and you'll find 'em in an instant, but downloads just ain't the same as something you can hold in your hands. Don't expect a legit reissue any time soon, either: the masters are lost.
The diaspora of bands really happened in the summer of 1981. By that time, all the main players had made their connections: bands like the Necros and Negative Approach were playing to packed halls, Black Flag had swung through town several times already, making a link to the west coast, and just as importantly, if not more so, Tesco, Barry, John Brannon and co. had made a strong connection w/ the DC scene via fanzines, tours and their respective labels (I'd forgotten that Ian MacKaye actually produced the Necros' second EP and that it was a split Dischord/T & G release). The older punk scene in Detroit had been pushed out by The Kids, and judging by the low opinion held of such bands by the likes of Tesco and co., it sounds like they only required a nudge to move on and be forgotten. The hardcore scene itself, or at least what I would consider to be the definitive hardcore scene before it began running out of ideas and recycling itself, came and went pretty quick. Steven Blush in the flawed American Hardcore book is slightly generous and extends it to 1986 (and on a good day I'll grant that timeline, 1986 being the year both Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys split up and Dischord released a distinctly post-HC LP by Embrace), though Why Be Something... shows the rot had set in heavily by 1983/'84, when bands were splitting up or taking musical routes inspired by everything from the Birthday Party to REM to rock/metal. More than that, Tesco Vee even got the hell out of dodge and relocated to Washington DC. You probably know the story, and if you don't, you should...
John Brannon and Negative Approach figure prominently in the second half of the book, as the Necros passed the mantle of HC kings and spent most of the time touring for a few years before becoming completely disillusioned w/ the HC scene, in the meantime returning to their pre-punk hard-rock roots and shocking old fans w/ a more Black Sabbath/Aerosmith/MC5-inspired approach. Brannon's wildman lifestyle is the stuff of legend, and it's given a good rundown here, and there's a mountain of worthwhile anecdotes, stories and information for the dedicated, such as Brannon, Vee and co. all being in attendance at the infamous Fear performance on Saturday Night Live (John Belushi even shaved Brannon a mohawk for the occasion); the brilliant Crucifucks and their abilities to annoy all those around them; the rifts between The Fix and the Necros (the former being slightly older and figuring the Necros to be a bunch of clueless, bratty suburbanites; the latter figuring The Fix to be a bunch of old burnouts down on The Kids); Vee cutting school (where he taught: Vee was a good decade older than most of the participants and cut a pretty cool John Sinclair-style figure)) on the last day of semester so he could attend a Circle Jerks show in NY; the Necros' (and T & G label owner once Vee gave him the reins) Corey Rusk and his admirable determination to make the label more than just a fly-by-night venture by setting up a mini-recording studio; the pivotal show by the Pagans which inspired the Necros, etc. There's also a bunch of flyer reprints, discographies, gig dates and more. The band known as Blight, a Throbbing Gristle-inspired noise outfit featuring Tesco Vee and members of The Fix, were completely unknown to me prior to reading this, and I see there's a Complete Discography CD available on T & G, and thus it's educational even for know-it-alls who think there's nothing left to be said.
Hardcore punk rock is like a form of folk music now, a retro folk music at that. Just as krautrock, bebop and western swing are. I don't listen to any contemporary HC as I prefer to go to the original source for audio pleasures, just as I'd rather listen to a Charlie Parker record than a contemporary band apeing his sound. I can't and don't begrudge anyone for playing and/or listening to bands still imitating this stuff today, as my ears aren't blocked to the possibilities, but a book like Why Be Something That You're Not really does bring it on home as to why the original stuff still sounds so good: it was music w/ a purpose.
Another punk rock book for the library...
And just for kicks, below are a few clips from the Crucifucks, Meatmen and Negative Approach.