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Blasting Minds

19 Jul

So you wanna talk about redefining rock LPs of the 1980’s? Ya just gotta include THE BLASTING CONCEPT VOLUME II in there, chief. Anyone who hoped those “difficult” mid-period BLACK FLAG and SACCHARINE TRUST records were just a fluke couldn’t deny that, by 1985, SST Records had undergone a complete and total aesthetic overhaul. The HC punk had become heavy, found hippie, turned jazzy, gone fishin’ and then . . . well, kids everywhere were shaking their heads in utter disbelief. This just wasn’t what they wanted their oh-so precious punk rock to sound like. Ever.

THE BLASTING CONCEPT VOLUME II encapsulated those revelatory changes, and suggested a dozen more. It was a bold, powerful, collective artistic statement that directly challenged unexamined musical prejudices throughout punk & underground scenes at the time. While the first BLASTING compilation merely corralled previously released material on a handy 12″, most of this stuff never turned up anywhere else, making it primary SST documentation. Yes it’s got the most boring cover in SST’s early annals; but do check out the original, unused Pettibon artwork in the backpages of Joe Carducci’s Rock & the Pop Narcotic – a very different graphic representation to ponder when cracking an ear to this aural wonder. Blow by blow, it’s

SAINT VITUS: “Look Behind You” – One of my fave early VITUS cuts. Carducci makes mention of a creeping paranoia floating around SST back then, and VITUS pins it here with a singularly leaden, dull blade. Ouch. This version beats the slightly later, Wino-led version what with more inspired vocals by Scott Reagers and superior drumming from Armando.

DC3: “Theme From an Imaginary Western” – Dez the crooner, won’t you take the mic? Oh my god, how I love this. It’s hard, heavy, and poignant – brings tears to my eyes. And these eyes don’t cry easily.

SWA: “Mystery Girl” – Not my fave SWA song, as it’s got one of them distended, disjointed riffs that clutter up their early LPs. But Merrill sounds E. Bloomin’ hot and raring to go-go-go, like he’s about to whip his dick out in front of whatever loser audience ain’t gonna be able to handle SWA this week. You might, but me? I don’t ever fast-forward past this one.

BLACK FLAG: “I Can See You” – One of the more off-kilter melodies Ginn came up with in FLAG, and when he solos I start feeling a bit woozy. But lyrically it fits the rec perfectly, as if Ginn’s responding to the VITUS track above. Who says he didn’t grow eyes in the back of his head?

GONE: “Watch the ‘Tractor” – One of GONE’s defining moments: pure metallic punk/prog mayhem bliss. A buddy of mine always maintained GONE was responsible for the very best in-store performance ever in the greater Washington DC area, which is totally believable if they sounded anything like this.

WÜRM: “Death Ride” – I am one yahoo who actually digs Simon Smallwood’s vocals and the BLUE CHEER bronco these guys saddled on their Feast LP. WÜRM were far too early in the scheme of Heavy Revival to be considered anything more than a joke. But like VOX POP, they helped reintroduce OTT metal to punkers in LA, back when you were still making excuses for owning Haysi Fantayzee records.

OVERKILL: “Over the Edge” – OVERKILL put out the best SST LP most of you never bothered with, and this singularly-great MÖTÖRHEAD bomb is an outtake from that crucial rec. Merrill’s vocals are buried which makes him sound even more feral, and drummer Kurt Markham positively murders. I can’t not bang my head hard when this one comes on.

SACCHARINE TRUST: “Emotions and Anatomy” – A short outtake from their Worldbroken live record, so it’s got Mike Watt playing bass. At the time, this kinda deep searching, exploratory sound got me thinking there were absolutely no more limits to just how far out underground rock could be taken. You younger free-rock types oughta all come pay your respects.

PAINTED WILLIE: “The Big Time” – Not a bad bit of REDD KROSS-like sneer from guys who struggled to find their voice after the brilliance of their initial Ragged Army 7″ 45. Most of their records suffer from shitty production, but as I always empathized with punkers who tried rocking it hard and heavy, no doubt I’d have paid to see em do it live if I could.

ANGST: “Just Me” – Depressive folk rock that nicely illustrates the strengths of this Bay-area band. Again I’ll maintain that this is entirely in keeping with the vibe (if not the sound) of primo SLEEPERS/NEGATIVE TREND material.

MEAT PUPPETS: “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” – I prefer the PUPS covers of “Child of the Moon” and “No Quarter” but they’re all zigzagging stripes off the very same three-legged zebra. I always laugh when Curt maintains she don’t love you anymore/ she likes my love better.

MINUTEMEN: “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love” – Here you probably figured Merrill Ward or Henry Rollins would be the first to come out of the closet with a love for VAN HALEN. Nope: it was Boon who was the real Diamond Dave aficionado all along. I love that, in true MINUTEMEN fashion, they’ve parred this back to only the 3rd verse and the hey hey heys.

HÜSKER DÜ: “Erase Today” – a great New Day Rising-era outtake. This doesn’t actually sound like much else here, but that just illustrates how distinctive these guys’ sound actually was. I’m not a huge HD fan, but this is a classic midwestern barnburner anyway you wanna cut it.

OCTOBER FACTION: “I Was Grotesque” – Lifted from the their less-than successful second LP, wherein Dukowski, Ginn, Baiza, Stevenson et al tried to FACTIONalize within the unnatural confines of the studio. They couldn’t pull it off and I admit it: I sometimes skip past this one. But I’ll always admire their impulse to take the music one step beyond.

TOM TROCCOLI’S DOG: “Todo Para Mi” – A far from ideal cut to end things on, given the quality of all that came before. Me I woulda chose Tom’s cover of ANDY & THE RATTLESNAKES “Patience” which ended his own DOG LP from this same year. But really, what better man to bring down these BLASTING curtains than the hippiest, deadheadiest SST roadie of them all? Anybody who couldn’t deal would’ve given up loooong before this track; those who stayed to appreciate it no doubt went on to form all my favorite bands over the next couple decades.

——–

Paging Greg Ginn: re-release this lost treasure! It’s one that’ll blow minds, forevermore.

SWA: Let’s Ball!

20 May

As if my first post at PIG STATE RECON didn’t emphasize this point enough: SST RECORDS are a seemingly endless font of musical and cultural beauty, one that my skinny head can’t ever seem to get enough of. With this in mind, I will now embark on an occasional series of musical re-evalutations, focusing on historically maligned/ignored artists inextricably connected to the mighty SST RECORDS. And what better way to inaugurate this series, but by discussing SWA?

Except, today . . . I’m going to let Darren Cifarelli do it for me. He knows even better than I.

The following text (known locally as “The SWA Defense Piece”) was first published by Darren in 2004 as a lengthy comment to a post on Jay Hinman’s music blog, AGONY SHORTHAND (R.I.P. – he’s now moved on to DETAILED TWANG). At the time, it aroused much confusion, consternation, and eventually some begrudging praise among a bunch of jaded/uptight folks who roundly despised all things SWA. Me, I looked on and loved it. As I do all things SWA.

Sometime in the intervening years, The SWA Defense Piece was erased from cyberspace during a blogspot hiccup of some sort. But today, Darren’s words return with a vengeance – in your face, where they rightfully belong. Please, do read on – I guarantee you’ll never listen to SWA the same way again.

———-

Merrill and Chuck

In Defense of SWA: A Scholarly Inquiry into the NATURE of all things SWA

Some of my best memories….

[I must state that I was most likely the one guy in the audience at most of the underattended shows described in these posts. SWA was a total obsession for me.]

“Everything is but the sum of its effects. What something is, whether it be sex or madness, depends altogether on the concerns of interpreters who make things cohere, who create compositions, discourses, and connections, who construct genealogies by composing narratives.” –Nietzsche, Of Genealogy

“When people are used as society’s tools then history shows in turn we will learn that mass confusion rules.” –SWA

Background info (unknown source): “In philosophy and politics the postmodernists see reason, progress, scientific truth, and democracy as just (to use J.F. Lyotard’s expression) “meta-narratives”, big stories the Western world has told itself to convince itself that it’s better than the rest of the world and has a right to the resources and leadership of the world. The belief in objective Truth is a product of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, of a faith in economic and technological progress, and is expressed in the optimistic humanism that ruled the modern Western world for so long. Derrida calls this faith “logocentrism”, the West’s centering its philosophical and political vision on universally valid rational beliefs. The postmodernist wishes to take apart this faith, to substitute local stories for these meta-narratives, to make truth an individual rather than a social phenomena.”

So SWA crawled out of that pond. But wait, wait.

STEVE ALBINI? Steve Albini was himself a joke. Note the frequent references to his ineptitude in the Letters section of FE. Virtually every issue of FE is overloaded with Albini-slander; for instance, “I don’t care if Albini condemns entire genres of music about which he knows next to nothing…” (FE#11, p. 8). What Robert Fripp was to Creem Magazine in the 70s, Steve Albini was to Forced Exposure in the 80s: a pompous, conceited, pretentious ass who served no purpose other than as object of ridicule. That same issue lists “Be SWA” as #17 in a list of “The Most Pathetic Things a Man Can Do (in order of Pathos).” #6 is “Write about rock music” and #8 is “Write about anything besides rock music.” “Listen to SWA” is not mentioned. Personally, I followed Coley’s and Meltzer’s picks more closely than Albini’s. [On a side note, Big Black’s Songs About Fucking suffered from some of the same misinterpretation that SWA suffers from, parody heard literally, yet toying, nevertheless, with the same notions of labeling, pastiche, unfunny jokes, contextualization, and expectations.] That SWA’s music fell on deaf ears is unquestionable. Were their music labeled otherwise, it would rank more highly. The death of LA’s post-punk music scene left a gaping hole devoid of meaning, of significance, highlighted by SSTs declining experimentalism and open-mindedness, as indexed by the signing of Flag clones Bl’ast, and as represented by critical responses to SWA. Don’t deny; don’t forget Dukowski.

Hall of Mirrors. Who establishes the criteria, and upon what are they based? Has intertextuality not, as Frederic Jameson argues, reached such proportions that representations merely refer to other representations and deny the authentic? Authenticity, while intangible especially when applied to the musical output of Los Angeles in the 80s, gave way to derivativeness. There were those who took their derivativeness seriously, and those who those who stepped outside the confines of prescription. SWA simulated reality in such a way that no referent applied, denying the ground, the roots, and the sources that many see them as duplicating. They operated outside the logic of representation, reflecting reflections of reflections only to reflect white light of unknown origin.

Sylvia and Merrill

INSTRUCTIONS FOR REPRODUCING SWA LIVE IN YOUR OWN LIVING ROOM:

1. Play several sped-up Mingus & Haden unaccompanied bass solos over a drum beat, loud.
2. Play your Metal Machine Music LP louder than your speakers can handle (don’t shred them, just add some natural distortion).
3. Invite any random madman to scream through a megaphone at you.
4. Walk around in sticky puddles of beer.

SWA is Postmodern. It decenters the limited universe of LA music and challenges what had become a stale, formulaic approach to music. In literature and literary theory, postmodernism is “a cool response to the triumph of modern technology and science, especially electronic and communication technology, over older or more isolated world views. Postmodernist literature showcases the disjointed, the nonlinear. From Umberto Eco’s exploration of the medieval spirit in his The Name of the Rose to William Gibson’s skewed vision of the future of the computer revolution in his cyberpunk novels from Neuromancer on, postmodern fiction wanders through dark worlds and alternative paradigms, worlds foreign to the modern faith in science and technology, paradigms alien to the modern belief in the univalence of truth, reason and order.”

Much more than meets the ear goes on in SWA.

SWA exploits genre music as Eco and Gibson exploit detective novels and sci-fi pulp fiction, by transforming the genre through appropriation of heavy-metal poses, SST riffs, loud, male-dominated, testosterone-laden, driving force music without belief in any of the false pretensions associated with it, but with the realization that a mutated heavy-metal guitar solo compliments “free bass”-style arrhythmic soloing. Reconfigured, the best elements of jazz, metal, rock, SST are spliced together in SWA, disjointed and nonlinear, creating a new paradigm and straining to escape the metanarrative prison.

SWA supports multiple interpretations. Listening to that band enables one to project both real and imagined memories onto it. [Roland Barthes, along with other French literary critics, has heralded the Death of the Author. Now meaning is supposed to come from an interaction between the text and the reader: the reader of literature constructs the text from his or her own unique perspective. Under postmodernist theory, everything can be read as a text, and all readings of each text are equally meaningful, if not valid. Meaning and truth are thus plural, changing, and subjective. To give privilege to one truth over another becomes an act of psychic terrorism.]

rockinswa.jpg

CUT TO: At the Palomino, mid-80s, Dukowski slams his bass into the floor to begin the second half of “Bad Acid,” Merrill shrieks from inside the women’s restroom, while Sylvia splays a solo faster than Jack the Ripper can remove a ripe ovary from a terrified yet tempted streetwalker. I sing along silently, rewriting the lyrics to every song that would appear on Winter, resignifying presented meanings to match my thoughts each time I heard the songs. See also, Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. “Since Frederick Jameson’s book on post-modernism, the term [post-modern] has referred to a pastiche, a quilt or patchwork, an eclectic juxtaposition of diverse stylistic elements without necessarily exhibiting any internal logic or intended structure…we explore whatever geometrical phenomena strike our fancy and fit into our limited technical repertoire.”

Other than citing Led Zeppelin as a originating form of pastiche, implying that the parodic elements are already present in the original and that no parody is necessary or valid, SWA, as pastiche, represents the evolution of rock into the postmodern sensibility: in short, SWA embodied simultaneously the larva, the progressive evolution, the de-evolution, the regressive deformity, the birth defects, the aborted fetal matter, the idiot savant, the naturally selected advanced gene, the genius, the spliced gene, and the Christlike god-made-flesh. Not merely meta-narrative: meta-evolution. Let me explain. On Black Flag’s My War, Dukowski’s song structure and lyrical content formed a critique of megalomania in its myriad forms. Leaving Ginn to play and Rollins to sing in the role of Hitler on he title track while departing the band was a bold, yet subtle, critique of the band’s excesses, conformity, adherence to formula, and explanation of his departure. Meanwhile, in Dukowski’s absence, Black Flag actually became what you describe SWA as. [Actually, I like the instrumental Flag albums, Process and Family Man, but they could easily fall prey to the same criticisms leveled at SWA.] SWA’s early released are marred by uneven content. Occasionally, a rough beast emerges from the primordial slime on Your Future If You Have One such as “Until You Bleed” or “Islands in the Freeway.” Most mutations are a mess, evolution in motion but failing. Sex Dr., while it spawned a few mutations and aborted efforts that would have been best left on the girl’s bathroom floor at the Prom, also gave birth to a few advancements in the species, such as “The Evil and the Good”, more ordeal than song; and “Sea & Sky”. Nothing, however, compares to the utter nihilism of XCIII’s monstrous set list of “Faker’s Blues”, “Optimist”, “Evolution”, “So Long”, “Succumb”. The whole album represents a pinnacle, an evolutionary leap into the future. Winter, despite the departure of Juncosa, in its raw unrecorded state had great songs, great lyrics, and amazing playing. The recording completely fails to do justice to the power of that album. Densely-layered, complex songs (which, when the lyrics are obscured by noise, lay down vocal patterns upon which alternate lyrical content rests peacefully–compose your own paranoia). The release-version was overproduced with vocals far too prominent and contained attempts at a hit song–clearly sounding different and thus separate from the rest of the album. Having heard these songs live for so long, I was, of course, disappointed with the release because, live, the songs sounded so great. [The post-Winter release Volume has but moments that ransack past glories.]

CUT TO: Once, while calling the phone company to complain about my bill, I was placed on hold for over an hour. One song played was “Chances Are.”

See, it worked.

What germinates spawns a multitude, spanning the frightening to the powerful to the powerless, of forms. A huge step in avoiding a hostile corporate takeover of the human mind would be to engineer a paradigm shift in LA’s alternative music scene, which in its small unheard way, SWA did.

CUT TO: At Bebop Records, a Merrill-less show, Dukowski announces “Monster” as a “…song about education, but when Merrill sings it, it sounds like a sexual come-on.” People laugh; it’s funny: every song Merrill sings sounds like that. But for this one, there’s a reason behind it. Duk rolls his eyes. Blank canvas, filled in slowly, with shards of sound, dollops of color, mutated into a fully realized apocalyptic composition, framed by ornate mahogany floral patterns with gargoyle carvings at each corner.

duk.jpg

Dismiss Dukowski if you want (to be ignorant); however, he was at the top of his form in SWA as a songwriter, bass player, and performer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t he leave Flag because the music was too confining and Ginn refused to have non-rhythmic bass “leads” compete with his guitar leads? Some of the best songs on My War are Dukowski compositions; SWA continued that legacy and allowed him the freedom to play leads on bass, to solo, to allow his playing to dominate the music. Duk’s playing transcended its context in SWA. In songs like “Faker’s Blues” or “Bad Acid” (and virtually all of XCIII and Winter), his playing amazes me: it’s intricate, varied, non-repetitious, and original, incorporating elements of free jazz, improvised soloing, and multipart songs that deny the rhythmic monotony of standard bass playing. Psychobiology rendered in musical notes. On the album Winter, in songs like “Monster,” “Mass Confusion,” and “Goddess,” he frequently solos through the vocal chorus! You can ignore all this BS here if you want to (since it’s mainly jokes/parody/pastiche or pretentious rock writer criticism SWA nonsense anyways), but Dukowski deserves recognition as a revolutionary bass player, not for his playing in Black Flag which was unremarkable, but for the style he developed and perfected after leaving Flag and playing in other configurations, which primarily was SWA and some impromptu jam sessions. His solos and song structures still blow me away today. No one played like him.

Sylvia Juncosa

And, for a short time, he was in a band with Juncosa, who isn’t well-recognized enough as a massive guitar player. Sylvia Juncosa deserves championing, not pity. As technologically adept as she was technically proficient, her playing in SWA fused noise, psychedelic, heavy metal, the “SST sound,” surf, and an unparalleled lusty, sensuality that balanced and complimented Merrill’s chemically amplified testosterone. The SWA release XCIII documented her playing well, never to be recaptured on vinyl, tape, or CD; in fact, no format accurately contained the sound and fury of her playing except live, eardrum-bursting performances in smelly, smoke-filled clubs: it was the most distorted vision of beauty I remember from the 80s. Juncosa played with the tyranny of the senses to the tyranny of reason, for no reason, and when the impulse to play, merely for the sake of playing, is followed, we cease to be governed by either sensuousness or rationality; technology is merely there, a force which signifies nothing, expresses nothing, but which was being made to express nothing beyond its own momentum. She herself was force. Like free association, her playing was not tuneless, but so irrationally tuneful that it disrupted normal synaptic discourse, breaking the logical connectives of neurotic discourse, and inscribing a new pattern to destabilize normal brain function only to almost simultaneously reinscribe itself into the neural network as insidiously as an obsession, as bluntly as a guillotine. The experience was like grabbing a downed powerline in the rain. To classify her guitar playing as merely heavy-metal is like comparing a close range shotgun blast to a bee sting.

Merrill

The singer in a rock band is a joke, so why pretend IT is anything else? Sometimes striking poses that would appall Freddie Mercury, Merrill played the role of heavy-metal rock singer as the exaggerated, ridiculous, over-the-top way in which you describe, but did so deliberately, confusing the joke with the joker. I always imagined him to be an old, crusty taxidermy model of himself, dust-covered, stuffed, and mounted with dried, clear glue under two phony eyes bulging and perpetually on the verge of falling out. Fake, in other words. I’m against privileging paradigms, and whether or not Merrill realized it (see Rollins above), he parodied himself. Yes, ironically. But it had to be deliberate. The lyrics to “Optimist” show Merrill adopting one of many persona; other songs sound closer to his real voice and personality, but it’s a blurry line to define. The provocative live act–the Merrill puppet show–garnered a reaction, strongly negative, but with sufficient impact to deliver their message (obscured though it may have been).
“And whether fetishization is not an exercise capable of dissolving an illusory ego; homing in on, physically possessing, not the ruling ego, but affective reality, made up of a mingling of the subject’s body with several other affective bodies, which operates through a given organ, muscle, or joint.” –Helene Cixous, Les Marionnettes

On a purely emotional level, I spent many nights checking out SWA. They were my favorite live band, and the one that I have seen more often than any other band. My words, other people’s words, quoted or uncredited, still fail to do justice to SWA. Somehow, in some inarticulate way, going to the Anti-Club or Al’s Bar or The Shamrock, drinking, listening to SWA, watching Dukowski play bass in a way that NO one ever has or could, brings memories that (when they do resurface) are as relaxing and pleasant as going to the Anti-Club on a Sunday afternoon for an SST Barbecue, getting a hot dog from chef Chuck, and kicking back and listening to jam sessions that were never meant to be repeated but merely instant memories.

St. Vitus: now there’s a band worth revisiting.

–Darren Cifarelli

PIG STATE RECON wishes to thank the following folks:

- Flipside Magazine for all the B&W photos;
– Rolling Stone Magazine(!) for the color photo of Merrill;
Sylvia herself for her rockin’ photo;
this guy for the rockin’ Dukowski photo;
– Jay Hinman of AGONY SHORTHAND blog, whose initial, unflattering SWA post became the unsuspecting recipient of Darren’s SWA Defense Piece;
– Dave Lang of LEXICON DEVIL blog, whose post about the Program: Annihilator cassette apparently egged Jay to write about SWA in the first place;
– Tim Ellison at MUSIC CHAMBER blog, who kept SWA on my mind over the past few years with little reminders like this.

And of course, to Darren himself for listening to SWA when no one else bothered.

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