photo manipulation by nacrowe
filmed in SEATTLE after the initial wave of GRUNGE had crested and crashed, HYPE! (HELVEY-PRAY PRODUCTIONS, 1996) is very much a contemporaneous attempt to make sense of what turned out the be the last organic pre-internet mass cultural phenomenon in AMERICAN history.
utilizing interviews from participants from bands the likes of SKINYARD, THE MONOMEN, BEAT HAPPENING, THE MELVINS, SCREAMING TREES, SOUNDGARDEN, THE FASTBACKS, MUDHONEY, TAD, GAS HUFFER, COFFIN BREAK, THE SUPERSUCKERS, LOVE BATTERY, 7 YEAR BITCH, THE GITS, DEAD MOON, PEARL JAM and THE WALKABOUTS among others and scene producers like JACK ENDINO, STEVE FISK, FRANK HARLAN and photographer CHARLES PETERSON as well as local indie record label founders CALVIN JOHNSON (K RECORDS) and BRUCE PAVITT and JOHNATHAN PONEMAN (SUB POP RECORDS)
it has been repeatedly said that due to this scene's relative isolation from all but major touring acts in the 80s that a void was filled by local bands that had a fierce DIY ethic informed by HARDCORE and INDIE ROCK of the period. when this insular scene burst open nationally in the wake of the success of ALICE IN CHAINS, SOUNDGARDEN, PEARL JAM and, of course, NIRVANA, things became more unbalanced in the scene once a financial motive got involved. suddenly catwalks where filled with flannel and opportunistic bands moved to SEATTLE to be "discovered" and outright careerism polluted the once vibrant scene that house and nurtured misfits.
i found the crux of this film to be that intersection between art and commerce. that point at which expression is informed by winds of passing fad. once your scene is a fad, where do you go? what do you do?
the film never really answers that question but offers an amazing look at how such commercial interests affected that small intimate scene at a time it was wholly unprepared for it. and yet it seems inevitable that once you become en vogue, your season will ultimately fade and another thing will replace you. i think fortunately for SEATTLE, to this day that city name is synonymous with highly influential strains of ALTERNATIVE ROCK, INDIE ROCK and even SLUDGE METAL. it is still relevant to anyone who loves ROCK AND ROLL. there is still a purity to listeners to this day. of course, this idea of commerce affecting a scene's perceived purity makes no sense in today's climate. through technology there is no more isolated local scenes, the playing field is relatively horizontal in terms of means of exposure and music distribution. when nobody is making money anymore from music, those lines that existed during the filming of this documentary seem rather quaint by comparison.
interestingly, director DOUG PRAY 20 years later revisIted the scene and talked to some of the same participants again (video embedded below) about the impact of that initial wave. for most of them they just kept on their same path and nurtured upcoming artists. for band that came about long after GRUNGE came and went, the true legacy is that commercial viable artistry that is vibrant can come from anywhere, even SEATTLE.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
throughout all the past memoirs i've read regarding musicians since starting this blog, there always seems to be this crossing of the rubicon moment when fame hits. its a transitional moment where a new kind of pressure is introduced and musicians have to deal with their altered public profile in terms of their FAMILY, PEERS and ADMIRERS. DIG! (INTERLOPER, 2005) is a documentary that is very much about that period of transition and the potential brutal aftermath of having SUCCESS.
the film follows two tight-knit bands THE DANDY WARHOLS and THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE as they navigate the 90s underground INDIE ROCK scene together. THE DANDY WARHOLS are very much in the vein of SHOEGAZE and ALTERNATIVE ROCK with a decidedly heroin-chic look and bohemian flair that belies their names obvious reference. they very much come off as a knowing nod of the hat to all the better eras of rock history, recalling THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, THE ROLLING STONES and even concurrent INDIE ROCK bands such as THE BREEDERS. THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE is basically the vehicle for songwriter / multi-instrumentalist ANTON NEWCOMBE, who takes the hero worship one extra level and singlehandedly recreates the feel of 1960s PSYCHEDELIA but puts his own authentic twist on it. he is the resident genius of the two bands, both fully acknowledging such.
what marks this film is the dissolution of this once intimate, supporting relationship between the two bands. this is the result of both NEWCOMBE's DRUG ABUSE, ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR and ultimately, his unreliability. THE DANDY WARHOLS on the other hand are probably more careerist and have a more streamlined sound which ultimately gets them courted by major labels and ends with them signing to CAPITOL RECORDS. for NEWCOMBE and THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE this is a betrayal of their INDIE ROCK ideals and DIY sensibilities. both bands take shots at each other in their music and things just devolve.
much like the documentary film HYPE! (HELVEY-PRAY, 1996) was about the SEATTLE ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s dealing with COMMERCIAL VIABILITY and the consequences of that on the purity of their scene, this film deals with the same situation except in a more direct, face-to-face dynamic.
ultimately its a strange thing to question AUTHENTICITY in music. GENE SIMMONS once said that "everyone is in the KISS business" and he was right. everyone is monetizing off their image ultimately. everyone is being marketed. i suppose it is the level of control that you give up on the way to gaining major distribution from a record label. to them you are an investment and in order to have it pay off they present their roster in a certain manner. but i dont know, even back then i felt the PUNK ROCK police attitude towards music was pretty simplistic and ultimately counterproductive.
now the whole argument seems naive and a waste of time since in the age of MOBILE DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY with video and streaming platforms at everyone's disposal on their phone(!) the compromise necessary for DISTRIBUTION doesn't exist. now record labels are just brand names that raise your public profile in a flooded market. watching this documentary now is almost an act of NOSTALGIA for a less complicated time when lines that divided music where more well-defined.
its the wild west now and basically everyone would make THE DANDY WARHOLS decision if asked. NEWCOMBE is an anachronism.
great classic documentary dealing with PUNK ROCK guilt. required viewing.
the MC5 was an explosive, powerhouse DETROIT rock outfit that both infused revolutionary politics with an unbridled, kinetic energy that made good on the promise of the recent BRITISH INVASION. if anything, their sound was the answer to how AMERICA does BLUES-based ROCK AND ROLL and paved the way for THE STOOGES, NEW YORK DOLLS and PUNK ROCK in general. kick out the jams, indeed!
and essentially that is the starting point for legendary guitarist WAYNE KRAMER's stellar memoir THE HARD STUFF (DA CAPO, 2018). while this book does dive deep into his career and cultural influence, its focus is far more concerned on how his experiences in federal prison in the 70s on drug charges informed his politics surrounding social justice and drug policy.
first off i want to say that this memoir is remarkably well-written. cogent, thoughtful and very direct. in particular, his description of the lost promise and debasement of DETROIT from its post-WWII peak as an economic and industrial juggernaut to its steady fall from grace and how such affected long-simmering race relations (due to racist labor practices and union self-dealing) was artfully written. KRAMER expertly provides a vivid firsthand eyewitness account at the DETROIT riots of 1967 and how they were fueled by race resentment fear and resulted in a further distancing of the races by the subsequent WHITE FLIGHT to the suburbs, leaving the urban center destitute and long-suffering. you really get a sense of how destabilizing and demoralizing such was in the psyche of a young idealist. it basically set up DETROIT as a political metaphor for the 60s idealism and the frustrating limits of the AMERICAN DREAM, the very chaotic backdrop by which the revolutionary politics of the MC5 were born.
the mismanagement of the MC5 and their inability to make good on their promise, for a variety of factors both external and internal, resulted in a career that flat-lined, which saw KRAMER fall into the seedy drug underworld of DETROIT that had shifted markedly from the late 60s into the 70s. if anything it became more corporate and opiates had taken over. his decent into a series of bad choices involving relationships, drugs and money resulted in KRAMER going to federal prison in KENTUCKY for a period in the mid 70s.
a central argument from this book is the nature of recovery and rehabilitation and how such is seeded in hope. from his vantage point incarceration should be a place of providing opportunities and hope for inmates largely not equipped to function on the outside within the usual guardrails. they need assistance and providing them fear and discouragement only fuels their unsuccessful reintroduction to mainstream society upon gaining back their freedom.
its hard not to see the WAR ON DRUGS as a colossal failure. this testimonial only one more drop in that ever-growing bucket. i just don't see MIDDLE AMERICA ever waking up from their slumber and seeming existential fear of the other.
we need empathy and that is basically his realization. he caused damage from his choices and all he can do now is help others in this moment when possible. not in the future. now.
this centering of the locus of control in his mind from longstanding macro structural failures of the AMERICAN political and economic apparatus (that the MC5 fought against) to making good personal decisions in the moment is quite the narrative arc.
excellent read that i would recommend to anyone interested in the 1960s counterculture, PUNK ROCK, free jazz, revolutionary politics or rehabilitation.
BOOK REVIEW | "UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF L.A. PUNK" BY JOHN DOE WITH TOM DESAVIA AND FRIENDS
this book covers what i would consider an often overlooked history in the story of PUNK ROCK and HARDCORE, which is that of the first wave of L.A. PUNK ROCK which lasted roughly from 1977-1982. much as what distinguishes this scene in terms of the diversity of its participants (varying race, sexual orientation, geography, class, political affiliation) and their sound (rockabilly, traditional chicano, avant-garde, mixed-media, performance art), this book reflects such with its multiple authors as curated by X's JOHN DOE and co-author TOM DESAVIA. these writers include members of THE BRAT, THE GO-GO's, THE ZEROS, T.S.O.L., THE FLESH EATERS, THE MINUTEMEN, THE BLASTERS, BLACK FLAG, THE SCREAMING SIRENS and X. incorporating this many voices with their own chapters gives the book a unique depth from other books on the topic. you really get a feel for how the scene was initiated, evolved and ultimately fractured through the viewpoints of participants with varying perspectives on the topic. this was a deft structural decision by DOE and DESAVIA as it places the community as the author, which it seems was the ethos of the scene.
much of what has been written on L.A. PUNK is more or less associated with the HARDCORE scene of the 80s with such notorious bands as BLACK FLAG, CIRCLE JERKS, THE ADOLESCENTS, T.S.O.L. and THE MIDDLE CLASS, and deservedly so as such have had immeasurable effect on modern PUNK-influenced music, active sports (bmx, skateboarding, motocross, surfing, etc) and associated lifestyle industries. it could be argued modern youth culture is defined by this scene. what doesn't get as much appreciation is the fact that this scene evolved (or devolved) out of the first wave which was decidedly less violent and more inclusive.
in essence the first wave was an art movement informed by the previous GLAM ROCK fanbases of bands like T.REX and DAVID BOWIE morphing into the early PUNK crowds that first encountered 1977 PUNK bands like THE DAMNED, THE RAMONES, THE CLASH and THE SEX PISTOLS. its arguable that the ethos of the first wave was informed by GLAM ROCK and early PUNK. even hispanic participants from EAST L.A. took these influences as the impetus for picking up an instrument, not the inherited musical traditions of their parents.
the real inflection point of this novel is the transition that happened in the early 80s to HARDCORE, which was decidedly more violent, less inclusive and less experimental in its approach. this variant was all about aggression and spoke to an audience beyond the borders of the original scene. reading about how that played out and how both sides felt about it is beyond interesting as it constitutes a debate on the nature of PUNK ROCK and what that ever-mercurial tag actually means.
on one side you have a scene that prizes individuality and personal expression as a means of combating societal norms, whereas the other is not concerned with such subtleties and has more interest in burning the fucker down as a means nihilistic rage rooted in the subversion of the failed AMERICAN DREAM as exemplified by the vacuous SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA lifestyle. its all a matter of perspective and of course, there is no correct interpretation.
this confusion is what i expect DOE was interested in when writing and compiling this book and i highly recommend it for anyone interested in PUNK or HARDCORE.
when the BRITISH concocted their COTSWOLD GAMES in the 17th century, a forerunner to the modern olympic games, they touted "amateurism" as a way of assuring that the sporting event was kept pure from debased notions of professionalism. after all, they wanted to showcase their self-assured physical superiority over the constituents of their imperialistic holdings without looking as if they actually tried.
this was the prism i viewed CALVIN JOHNSON and the cult surrounding his legendary indie label K RECORDS and the whole 1980s INDIE music scene of OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON through in general. primarily known for his decidedly non-professional musicianship in his notable group BEAT HAPPENING, as well as late projects including THE HALO BENDERS, DUB NARCOTIC SOUND SYSTEM, and THE HIVE DWELLERS, JOHNSON has been renowned for popularizing what has since to become known as TWEE POP. this genre usually denotes music by amateur or non-technical musicians.
before reading MIKE BAUMGARTEN's "LOVE ROCK REVOLUTION" (SASQUATCH BOOKS, 2012), i mistook JOHNSON and his ilk as being inept, arts-fartsy elitists that look down upon musicians with actual talent, like say the concurrent GRUNGE scene that blew in neighboring SEATTLE. perhaps that notion came from reading books about NIRVANA and PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN and how acolytes of the underground made them question the purity of their careerist motives in making music.
BAUMGARTEN's portrayal of JOHNSON in essence is that of a curious music fan that sought out an artistic community that didn't exist in his youth. the narrative of K RECORDS is the story of his efforts to nurture that community, employing a strong DIY ETHIC that put artistry above profit margin. this mindset comes directly out of his involvement with various INDIE and HARDCORE scenes in the early 80s and his connections to institutions like DISCHORD RECORDS and arguably most importantly, EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE's unconventional KAOS 89.3FM college radio station. if anything, the story of the label is an outgrowth of the community surrounding the radio station, university and the underground independent tape-trading communities across the nation.
i can understand how successful GRUNGE musicians felt pigeonholed by "Calvinist" acolytes from OLYMPIA and the burgeoning scene including fiercely strident labels like KILL ROCK STARS. by making their bed with the "corporate ogre," they were essentially a part of the machine, a by-line on a quarterly report, a commodity and they knew it. yes, the music produced by K RECORDS was decidedly unsophisticated and had what FRANK ZAPPA famously coined in another era as "zero commercial potential," but their motivation was to sell records but to showcase artistic freedom.
and on that scale he flourished having collaborated with/and or helped promote a fertile cultural scene that gave the world HEAVENLY, BIKINI KILL, MECCA NORMAL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY / SLEATER-KINNEY, UNWOUND, HEAVENLY, MAKE-UP, THEE HEADCOATS, KICKING GIANT, THE GO TEAM, D+, THE MICROPHONES, BECK, MUDHONEY, TIGER TRAP, THE MELVINS, and even NIRVANA.
so there you go. K RECORDS is almost a modern VELVET UNDERGROUND-like phenomena in their cultural relevance wasn't rooted in the records they sold, but in the bands they influenced. and their influence according to the book was their DIY ETHIC, GRUNGE bands be damned.
photo by nacrowe
essentially this is the book on punk.
ENGLAND'S DREAMING (ST. MARTIN'S PRESS, 1991) by JON SAVAGE goes into the cultural and socio-political morass that was 1970s england, which birthed the whole scene in tandem with their american counterparts.
central to the whole story is the singular figure of enfant terrible MALCOLM MCLAREN who was essentially the precursor to what we would now deem an internet troll. his whole cause célèbre was coming up with interesting attention-grabbing press events to both stick it to the uppercrust of the british establishment and promote his businesses, including a boutique store called SEX that he sold garments and wares designed in consultation with his partner VIVIEN WESTWOOD.
so essentially the SEX PISTOLS were assembled to promote a business, which is a fact i love. they are as manufactured with intent to exploit a dormant market as the BACKSTREET BOYS, N'SYNC and NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK were decades later. its just a fact, i still love them and appreciate their artistic contributions to modern music. its just an interesting fact given the later 1980s HARDCORE and INDIE ROCK scenes that channeled this scene into their own local scenes with a heavy DO IT YOURSELF ethic. this scene was anything buy DIY given that most of the major players on both sides of the pond were on major labels, including THE CLASH (CBS), THE RAMONES (SIRE), PATTI SMITH (ARISTA), TELEVISION (ELEKTRA) and of course THE SEX PISTOLS (EMI / WARNER BROS / VIRGIN).
you can also see punk as a return to basic rock formula's of the 1950s as most of these bands initially started out retreading then 20+ year old CHUCK BERRY riffs, despite their claims to the contrary and supposed revolutionary posturing.
i think the reason later musicians, most notably KURT COBAIN who later sought out SAVAGE for interviews in the british press specifically because of this book, respect this book is due to its empathy for the subject matter without romanticization or worse, hagiography. SAVAGE largely comes off level-headed in his analysis of the movement, at times letting his subjects speak for themselves and complicating a very messy period with a very messy influence on modern music.
bottom line: this book is a must read for anyone interested in punk rock. read this first and then everything else.