Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Demons - self titled (Mercury Records, 1977)

I’ve always been a fan of the three dollar record. You know what I mean: some forgotten long player from the '70s or early '80s, played to death in its day, stored in the attic for decades, then eventually carted off to the record store and exchanged for a miniscule amount of currency. It’s then marked for three bucks and placed in the bins with thousands of other records, where it will likely languish until the end of time. If you know what you’re looking for, you can get a good deal on a record like that. Hell, for three bucks, it’s worth the dough even if there’s only one great song! It’s just like buying a single – except the larger surface area allows it to double as a weapon. Such titles as Romeo Void’s Benefactor and JoBoxers' Like Gangbusters, which I ostensibly bought for one track, would have been overpriced at retail value. But at three dollars a pop, I did not hesitate.

…Which brings us to The Demons’ self-titled debut album. It’s the ultimate three dollar record. Like almost any other band even remotely attached to the mid-to-late ‘70s New York City punk scene, The Demons got signed to a major. Singer/guitarist Eliot Kidd was probably best known for having a few quotes in Please Kill Me. He was a pal of Johnny Thunders and Walter Lure (who at one point was a member of The Demons). Having gigged a lot with the likes of The Dictators, The Demons drew the attention of Mercury Records and were given the opportunity to record with Craig Leon. Leon, as an assistant to the legendary producer Richard Gottehrer, had worked with the Ramones, Blondie, Suicide, and Richard Hell. And while The Demons may have not been top tier a la the aforementioned bands, their one and only album is a really cool artifact of early New York punk.

The Demons are probably best known for the song “She’s So Tuff”, which was covered a decade ago by Tina and the Total Babes. Tina Lucchesi knows how to pick ‘em! “She’s So Tuff” was hands down one of the greatest power pop songs of the late ‘70s, and it alone justifies the purchase of the Demons’ album. If Kidd had been able to write a few more songs like “She’s So Tuff”, then perhaps The Demons would not be such an obscure band in our present memory. The closest the group came to another A-level track was album closer “I Hate You”, which is disturbingly funny and really fucking catchy in a Heartbreakers meets Real Kids sort of way. I can totally imagine Tina Lucchesi covering this one as well - so stay tuned, rock n’ rollers! The rest of the album, while not devoid of filler, delivers some really cool tracks. Opening cut “It’ll Be Alright” is a terrific mid-tempo rocker that kinda brings to mind Johnny Thunders fronting The Paul Collins Beat. Given Kidd’s connection to Thunders and Lure, it’s hardly surprising that “Bad Dreamin’” comes off like an LAMF outtake. “Ten Past One” is a very credible ballad in the fashion of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And well-done covers of “She’s a Rebel” and “I Fought the Law” further affirm Kidd’s affinity for that particular era of rock n’ roll.

Probably not a “punk” band per se, The Demons imbued their throwback rock n’ roll with enough sleaze and sloppiness to nonetheless fit the bill. The now-deceased Kidd is somewhat notorious for being in Sid Vicious’s hotel room the night Nancy Spungen died. But as a musician, he was more than worthy. You can’t really say The Demons were an influence on the glam-punk that resurged in the ‘90s (after all, who had actually heard them besides Tina Lucchesi?). But if you’re a fan of anyone from The Joneses to the Trash Brats to the Dimestore Haloes, you will most definitely recognize The Demons as some of the earliest practitioners of their style. Like a second string New York Dolls with power pop tendencies, Kidd and his mates were a fun band that must have been a good time live. They left behind just this one album, and one truly classic song in “She’s So Tuff”. In this age of Internet commerce, it’s not always easy to get a great deal on an old LP. But if there’s a shop in your proximity that deals in large quantities of used vinyl, The Demons are worth seeking out…even if you have to pay more than three dollars.

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, April 22, 2011

OFF! - First Four EPs (VICE, 2010)

On October 15, 2010, vocalist Keith Morris (Black Flag/Circle Jerks), guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), bassist Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt) were featured on "Last Call with Carson Daly." Banding together as OFF!, the fearless foursome performed their entire first EP (simply titled 1st EP) in front of NBC's TV cameras at Club Lingerie in their home base of Los Angeles. Running through the set at a clip equivalent to a star high-school miler's four laps, KM and friends ticked a moment in time worthy of being shot by Al Flipside or Penelope Spheeris for a viewing audience arguably more in need of a punk-rock boot to the head than the Pablo Cruise passengers from thirty years ago. Morris' Johnny Rotten-raised-in-SoCal sneer hasn't lessened one iota since his classic turns on Black Flag's Nervous Breakdown EP (1978) and the Circle Jerks' Group Sex (1980)/Wild In The Streets (1982) twin killers. Prior to the "Last Call..." live footage, here was Morris' take on the current state of the music he had a major role in shaping: "We're older guys. We don't really listen to a lot of the new punk rock bands. I mean, you can go the Warped Tour and you can see all of these emo, screamo boy bands. If you're a 13-year-old girl, that's cute and swell and wonderful. But if you're like older guys like us, that's not happening."

For "older guys" like KM -- who's still screaming at the age of 55 -- OFF! (yet another band named after an insecticide) are a breath of polluted air for those who sucked on intoxicants from Black Flag's vast spray can BACK IN THE DAY™. Thirty-two years after Morris' initial spasms, The First Four EPs collection recalls the nascent days of BF in more than one instance. Tense 'n' terse compositions lasting around a minute each in length. Lyrics dripping with several coats of anger and intensity. Raymond Pettibon's distinctive artwork that's as important to the band's vision as any instrumentalist. The most crucial likeness? KM's ageless voice box. From Pettibon in the First Four EP's liner notes: "Keith could've been born with a microphone in his hand, though he spits righteous spiel without for the privileged backstage or on the street. Cole Porter would have loved him for his enunciation and interpretation if he could have gotten past the shock and rush of Dimitri's, Steve's and Mario's accompaniment."

Thankfully, the "shock and rush" of Morris' supporting cast pace all 16 OFF!-erings in a running time faster than your track-star brother's 5K result from the Eastern Regionals. "Scared and soaked in sweat/How worse can this get?" shouts KM on "Panic Attack," and the pronounced fear is much worse than your bro's asthmatic teammate who left the necessary inhaler in his red-headed girlfriend's glove box. Spray-painting the band's moniker on a wall amongst spartan surroundings, "Darkness" doesn't turn off the Todd Stadium lights on its brutal truth shining in your face ("You're the problem/We're the solution"). Bet you and your Cocks High School buds would suck a schlong in order to skate a reconstituted Mount Trashmore ramp to the strains of "Upside Down" being played live. 'Til that happens, watch the vid with jealous rage and decipher this, dudes: "You wonder why I'm always shouting/You wonder why I've gotta yell/You ask me why I don't hang out/'Cause you turned this into a livin' hell." Had you and your brother taken the suggested Advanced Placement art class instead of slacking in a study hall, perhaps there would've been two scholarships to Virginia Commonwealth University at term's end. But alas, the aimlessness turned black paint into "Black Thoughts" ("I crash into a wall/No feelings at all/How far will I go/Before I hit the bottom"). While you were doing your best Tony Alva impersonations and pestering homeless veterans on the boardwalk, here's what was missed from Dr. Morris' "I Don't Belong" lecture: "Hit on Miss Liberty/Under the cherry tree/Drunk on hypocrisy/I'm standing in the shadows/And I'm pissing in the punch bowl." Next day's plans included smoking wacky weed and blasting Dave Matthews Bland bootlegs in your white Rastafarian friend's Jeep, thus the glimpses of "Poison City" went uncaptured ("No pictures/No flowers/Crumbling towers/Glamorize the fallen rubble/Stirring up all this trouble"). Since DMB kills eardrums and engines dead, you weren't able to hear Dr. Morris' heartfelt eulogy for his friend "Jeffrey Lee Pierce." Here's some final thoughts: "A river runs through his esophagus/To a swamp buried in his chest/So carry off, Jeffrey Lee/And we'll burn that Christmas tree."

Carson Daly: You're OFF! my shitlist.

-Gunther 8544

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Adolescents- self titled (Frontier Records, 1981)

I’ve put forth some questionable opinions in my day. I said the Dallas Cowboys should have drafted Tony Mandarich over Troy Aikman. I said reality TV was going to be a short-lived fad. I said Rudy Giuliani would coast to presidential election in 2008. I said Gary Cole deserved an Oscar nomination for Office Space (okay, I still believe that one). The point is that I’m prone to a lot of knee-jerk declarations that don’t pan out too well in the long run. It’s a defect in my brain chemistry. I was the guy who panned the debut albums of both The Daggers and the High Tension Wires. I was the guy who said The Office could never succeed as an American TV program. I was the guy who wanted the Eagles to trade Michael Vick for a 6th round draft pick last summer. But if I give myself time to really think something over, I usually get it right. The world at large may still disagree at first, but in time I’m always proven correct. I told you Donna was hotter than Jackie. I told you Hardee’s didn’t suck anymore. I told you Abe Vigoda was never going to die. I didn’t just blurt these things out. I meditated upon them at length. I did research. I pondered meticulously. Then I spoke up. Similarly, my choice for the third-greatest punk LP ever made was not hastily determined. I have been considering the point for a good 15, 16 years. I have listened to thousands of records. I have drawn detailed charts. I have consulted the Mayan prophecies. It’s all led me to the same conclusion: If the first two Ramones records are by default the top two punk albums of all-time, then #3 has got to be the 1981 debut by The Adolescents. Take it to the bank.

What I love about the Adolescents was that they occupied a very cool niche in punk history. They weren’t ’77 punk, and they weren’t hardcore punk. They were something perfectly in between. They had the catchy three-chord simplicity of early punk, but also a snotty attitude and ramped-up aggression that foreshadowed the arrival of hardcore. It wouldn’t be quite correct to say this band invented snotty teenage punk, but they’ve got to be considered one of the defining bands of the style. Formed in 1980 by 17-year-olds Steve Soto and Tony Cadena and featuring 16-year-old Frank Agnew on guitar, The Adolescents really were adolescents. The quick departure of original members John O’Donovan (guitar) and Peter Pan (drums) paved the way for the addition of a couple of scene veterans in ex Social Distortion players Rikk Agnew (Frank’s brother) and Casey Royer. The combination of Rikk Agnew’s skilled songwriting and Cadena’s attitude-laden, authentically teenage vocals proved hard to beat, and in short order the group powered out the classic single “Amoeba”. With its snarling vocals, ripping melodic guitar leads, and rousing sing-along chorus, it created a blueprint not just for The Adolescents but for Orange County punk as a whole. As synonymous with its time and place as “God Save the Queen” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” were to theirs, this song alone would have made legends of The Adolescents. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Adolescents (aka The Blue Album) is one of those rare debut LPs that plays like a best-of collection. In addition to “Amoeba”, songs like “Creatures”, “No Way”, “Wrecking Crew”, “Who Is Who”, and the near-epic “Kids of the Black Hole” are all bona fide classics that are still being copied today by up-and-coming punk groups who could only dream of being half this good. The group plays with the youthful abandon and slamming raw energy that are essential to this style of music, but one should not overlook the incredible skill that went into making the record. The guitar playing of the Agnew brothers- a hallmark of both The Adolescents in particular and the O.C. punk sound in general - mirrors the stylings of Johnny Thunders but kicks it up a notch. And the songwriting, largely credited to the elder Agnew, packs these hard-charging tunes with honest-to-goodness hooks! Cadena on vocals sounds so ferociously indignant that it’s almost shocking to see old video footage where he looks like a little kid (the way he sang, I always pictured a cross between Lemmy and Henry Rollins!). When people talk about all-time great vocal performances on punk rock albums, maybe they bring up Jake Burns on Inflammable Material or Jello Biafra on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or John Lydon on Never Mind the Bollocks. Rarely is Tony Cadena’s name brought up, but it damn well ought to be. From the first line of “I Hate Children” through the final raging strain of “Creatures”, he raises the standard for what “snotty” vocals are supposed to sound like.

While most adolescent punk rock is considered utterly disposable or at best charmingly juvenile, Adolescents is a remarkably enduring and transcendent recording. I was already in my mid-to-late 20s when I first heard it – long past the point where I held a “teenage” point of view. Even now, at the age of 40 and very much an average Joe, I find these songs exceptionally relevant to the human experience. If tunes like “No Way”, “L.A. Girl”, and “Creatures” articulate how fake and fickle society truly is, there’s no denying that’s truer than ever today. “I Hate Children” is still really fucking funny. And “Kids of the Black Hole”, in its candid critique of teenage hedonism run amok, comes off eerily prophetic in the context of our current culture. Most importantly, this remains some of the hottest and fiercest punk music ever committed to record. I would imagine that if you are a teenage punk struggling to find acceptance in the high school hierarchy and the world at large, cuts like “Who Is Who” and “Wrecking Crew” would become personal anthems the instant you heard them. And the great thing is that these are songs you’ll never need to “outgrow”. I listen to this album at the gym when I’m pulling heavy weight off the floor and at home when I’m cleaning the bathroom. It’s not just a classic punk LP but also one of the greatest albums of the past 30 years, period. And although there have been numerous reboots of The Adolescents franchise with varying lineups, they’ve never been able to quite recapture the magic of that first album. Then again, neither has anyone else.

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, April 1, 2011

Judas Priest- Defenders of the Faith (Columbia, 1984)

Anyone with the fine taste to like Judas Priest in the first place can tell you that British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance are classic albums (and that Point of Entry in between was, yeah, kind of sub-par). Priest in the early ‘80s was the balls, and the band’s exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of the great tragedies of our time. Perhaps points had to be deducted for JP’s lackluster output in the latter part of the ‘80s. The majority of Priest fans would generously label Turbo and Ram It Down as “disappointments”, but where does that leave 1984’s Defenders of the Faith? Is it the last album of Priest’s good era or the first album of its bad era? Not only would I argue for the former, but also I would maintain that Defenders of the Faith is one of the top five Judas Priest albums ever.

I bought Defenders of the Faith the day it came out. It was probably the first album in my life that I purchased on its release day. I think that as a 12-year-old Priest fan, I was initially a little let down by Defenders of the Faith because it lacked a true “classic” song a la “Breaking the Law” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”. There was no “crossover” smash hit single on the album – which seemed odd given the emerging marketability of heavy metal music circa early 1984. But it was precisely that non-commercial quality that ultimately made Defenders a great album. As the title suggests, the record wasn’t made for the masses. It wasn’t catered to the 14-year-old girls who bought Def Leppard’s Pyromania. It was made for true fans of metal. And although Priest was only a couple of years off from selling out in the very worst way, on this album the band didn’t care jack shit about cashing in or getting on MTV. They just put the pedal to the metal and rocked. And even if there’s not one all-time classic track to be found, from start to finish Defenders is as consistently good as any album in the Priest catalog.

There’s no denying Judas Priest’s highly influential and very worthy 1970s output. Still, when I think of Judas Priest, I think of early ‘80s Priest. I think of leather and motorcycles and sold-out arenas and Rob Halford wailing away on vocals and K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton engaging in dual guitar wanking of the most epic variety. Defenders of the Faith typifies that prime era of Priest. It’s the third of the three classic albums the band released in its true heyday, and of the three it’s no doubt the hardest. The songs, while tuneful and loaded with hooks, kick ass and shake the walls. Not even the dreaded tinny ‘80s production can tame the Priest metal machine. The group hadn’t captured this level of power and aggression on record in years – and would not capture it again until 1990’s speed metal surprise Painkiller. And Halford – arguably the greatest metal singer of all-time – is in career-best form. The utter ferociousness that caused “Freewheel Burning” to tank as a single makes it a big favorite amongst hardcore fans. It flat-out rips, the band coming out of the gates with a vengeance (no pun intended). It’s merely the first half of a 1-2 punch, with “Jawbreaker” coming on strong right behind it. And although tunes like the minor hit “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” slow the pace a little, it’s the power numbers that prevail. “Rock Hard Ride Free” and “Heavy Duty” (a throwback to classic J.P. arena sing-alongs like “United” and “Take on the World”) are veritable anthems that deserve a place on any good Priest best-of collection.

If there seems to be an inherent cheesiness to Defenders of the Faith (the cover art, some of the lyrics), it’s strictly an awesome, proto Spinal Tap kind of cheesiness. This was 1984, after all. Heavy metal music was supposed to be evil. And like Turbonegro, whom they clearly inspired, Priest wasn’t funny purely by accident. I doubt that one could read the lyrics to “Love Bites” or the homoerotic sex bondage anthem “Eat Me Alive” and not think the band was trying to be humorous (one person who did not get the joke: Tipper Gore). And even if “The Sentinel” is closer lyrically to a bad imitation of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” or countless Iron Maiden songs than it is to a proper parody, the band gets a pass because musically it freakin’ rocks! You could say the same about the album as a whole. Defenders is everything you wanted from a metal record in the early ‘80s. It’s accessible to the mainstream, but not overtly commercial. It’s loud, aggressive, and unapologetically cheesy. And of course it has the over-the-top operatic vocals and speed of light guitar shredding that every metalhead craves! Add in that the songs are tremendous, and you’ve got yourself a genre masterpiece. As metal music was rapidly growing in popularity, Priest would soon stumble in an effort to fit in. The use of synthesizers on Turbo was just plain pathetic, and Ram It Down was a totally phoned-in effort. But Priest’s decline is no way foreshadowed on Defenders of the Faith. A slump may have been looming, but they hit this one out of the park.

-Josh Rutledge