450 · 11 September 03
Minor Threat: First Demo Tape
I missed punk.
I caught up later, of course, but I totally missed it when it was originally happening. My active awareness of current music only really began in about 1978, and it wasn't until some time in 1982 that I started to realize how much music I wasn't hearing on Dallas FM radio. All my favorite first-wave punk bands were defunct before I ever heard them. By the time I turned 16, in 1983, which conferred mobility, it was time for New Wave. I was there for New Wave. I'm still there for New Wave, honestly.
In 1985 I finished high school, and moved from Dallas to Cambridge to go to college. My musical knowledge expanded rapidly, but I'd already missed another generation of punk. I got into Hüsker Dü with Candy Apple Grey, the Replacements with Tim, the Minutemen with Three Way Tie for Last, the Meat Puppets with Huevos, Soul Asylum not until Grave Dancers Union. I was there for the Pixies and Nirvana, at least. I was there for the Manic Street Preachers. I was there for Shampoo.
But I missed straight-edge, too. This is extremely difficult to understand in retrospect, since during some of its most formative years I was stomping around Harvard Square in combat boots and a mohawk, developing contentious politics and most definitely not drinking, not smoking and not fucking. But I was at Harvard, learning about urban design and film editing and Kant, and being "punk" as an arguable philosophical position is a very different thing from kicking people in mosh pits. I knew who SSD were, but my obscure-music friends weren't into that, either. "Fugazi" was a Marillion album-title to me until I bought Repeater on a cover-design whim in 1991, and Minor Threat were safely compiled and annotated before I ever heard them.
The first Minor Threat EP, released in June of 1981 while I was listening to Moving Pictures and Fire of Unknown Origin, was Dischord catalog number 3. I'm not totally sure, but I think the first release Dischord put out on CD was Fugazi's 13 Songs (#36). Complete Discography, the twenty-six-song short history of Minor Threat, was #40 and might have been the label's second CD. It was exhaustive, it contained no repeat-purchase-inducing unreleased material, and if anybody tried to jack up its price to go with the track-count, the back cover sternly reminded shoppers that for $10 Dischord would be happy to mail you one directly. So although Repeater was my definitive Dischord album, musically, Complete Discography felt like the definitive Dischord object.
Complete Discography is no longer complete. In the process of digging up material for the 2002 20 Years of Dischord box set, somebody came across Minor Threat's first demo tape. Their second one, recorded a month later, was the source of their first EP. Contentwise, the two are nearly the same. The first tape included "Stand Up" and "Guilty of Being White", both of which ended up getting deferred until In My Eyes (Dischord #5); the second substituted the EP opener "Filler" and the dizzying "Screaming at a Wall". Both the recording quality and the performances on the second tape are discernibly better, so the decision to try again is easy enough to understand.
But the EP was mixed when it was recorded, and Complete Discography merely reports history. The first tape was only mixed by Ian MacKaye and producer Don Zientara in 2001. Complete Discography is straight-edge's self-image, captured and preserved. First Demo Tape has the unusual dual benefits of youth and age, of less-rehearsed performances and twenty years of perspective. The combination is fairly stunning. On the original EP, Minor Threat sound angry, but bratty angry. A month of practice made the songs go faster, but sound less immediate, and the thin 1981-issue mix turned all the instruments into toys. Given a second chance, with new tools, Ian and Don are both technically and emotionally able to render the recordings clearly. Twenty years later, we are suddenly, for the first time, back in Don's basement with the band. Jeff Nelson's drums crash off the walls, Brian Baker's bass buzzes cassette boxes off the shelves, Lyle Preslar flails at his guitar trying to keep up, and Ian shouts with palpable desperation, as if that's less about the lyrics than just what it takes to make himself heard. They leave some of the studio banter in this time, for atmosphere (a good punk tactic that didn't seem so obvious until the Pixies). Neither the timing nor tuning are entirely accurate, which feels fabulously proper.
And it is, for me, as if these songs are wholly reborn. Maybe it will be different for you if you heard the originals when they were new, but I wonder if that might actually make the effect stronger. We didn't know, in 1981, how thin those sounds were. Some day they'll remaster Complete Discography, but even that will only fix part of the problem. By the second tape, Minor Threat were better at their material, and worse at their gift. The EP sounds like a record they made, and how threatening can a band be if they're disciplined and patient enough to make records? First Demo Tape hangs on, tenaciously, to what was left of the band's indignant, irresponsible naiveté. For eight songs, they still sound like they've never heard themselves played back. They sound like kids who might never amount to anything, and whose rage is thus that much more credible. They sound like I felt.
So yes, I missed punk. It was a huge part of the musical history of the world during my lifetime, and I could have been part of it but I wasn't. But neither, in a way, was anybody else. It wasn't history while it was happening, it was just music, and not always music that knew what was important about itself. History's roles are defined in retrospect, that's what "history" means. And twenty years is only barely enough time to realize how things fit together, but far too long for us to see clearly through. And to hear some of it, we have to listen as us, not to what kids played and heard then, but to how it would have sounded now, in different air.
Killing Joke: Killing Joke
The truth is, I was probably never angry enough to be a real punk, anyway. I was a rational anarchist as a rhetorical stance, never a vandal in trade. I have disgusts, and dissatisfactions, and disagreements; but I am a romantic, not a nihilist. I often understand angry music, but rarely empathize. Ian shouts, and I nod. My agreement is detached. As a result, I think, I tend to prefer my anger stylized. My awe at Repeater was a function of Fugazi's instantiation, through 13 Songs and then Repeater after it, of what seemed to me like a self-contained recapitulation of artistic reduction and re-expansion. It had nothing to do with mosh pits, or sweat, or Dischord's economics. So of course I was perfect for New Wave. The real punks puked in protest when New Wave used vitriol as hair gel, but I just wanted more. I loved the stupid clothes, I loved the synthesizers, I loved "Don't You Want Me" and "It's My Life". I always understood anger as a performance, so "Head Like a Hole" seems no more ridiculous to me than "Bela Lugosi's Dead", and "This Corrosion" no more absurd than "Love Will Tear Us Apart".
And stylized anger, at least, is sustainable. Twenty-six songs is all Minor Threat was good for, but Killing Joke started three years before them, and despite a four-year break in the early Nineties and a seven-year absence after 1996's Democracy, they are now back for what I make to be their eleventh studio album. They are still angry. They are angry about inequitable distributions of wealth, biochemical weapons, corporatism, oil, God and England backing the US. But they sound about the same when Jaz is singing about asteroids, or Osiris, or a sweet childhood that (he claims) never deserted him. No substantive critiques are really developed in the short texts of even the topical songs here, so it's hard to take them serious as polemics even if you want to. They are, at most, affirmations of the willingness to object, or reminders that anger is possible, or perhaps freeze-frames from the outrage.
But that's fine with me. It is possible to fit substantive statements into the compressed structure of rock songs, but it's a lot easier to unfold them into books. Conversely, it's fairly hard to write a book that makes me want to air-drum. I do not begrudge art forms their capacities. I want Killing Joke to help me believe the things I believe, or support my resolve to defend them. I want songs that sing how defiance feels, so I will know that feeling better when I need it. I don't need songs to overthrow the government. But I might need to be reminded that they can't, and that somebody may need to.
And measured against those expectations, Killing Joke is a levianthanic triumph. The band is officially a five-piece this time, with Jaz and Geordie joined by both bassists, Youth and Raven, and the revolving drum slot filled, in what I hope was an inspired bit of lawsuit settlement dating from Nirvana forgetting to ask before borrowing the "Eighties" riff for "Come As You Are", by former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. With Youth's participation suspiciously reduced to playing (and with no detailed instrumentation credits, it's hard to say exactly what), the production ends up being done by ex-Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill. The resulting album is overwhelmingly, at least for me, an exercise in noises. Gill and Grohl obviously know what the old Killing Joke records sounded like, secret massing anthems for a weather-control cabal, but Gill likes to hear instruments, not apocalypse wind-roar, and Grohl likes to hit individual drums extremely hard, preferably in patterns he gets to repeat a lot. So they set up the plans for the album like this: Grohl pounds out ominous, concussive, quasi-mechanical rhythm frames; Geordie and the bassists merge into a kind of hybrid guitar/keyboard/bass thing that buzzes through the spaces in the drumming like pulse-stenciling through tungsten with a rotary saw; somebody wisps through a few stray synth-twitter sparks; and Jaz howls hoarsely over it all. Most of the songs make do without anything that strictly qualifies as a hook, substituting chant inflections and tightly mathematical two- and three-chord oscillations (although "You'll Never Get to Me", notably, is kind of all hook, arguably borrowing back the "Eighties" riff). Even the remake of "Wardance", I think, though in egregious violation of my rule against post-hit bands undermining their new material by deliberately reprompting comparisons with old songs to which listeners already have emotional ties, ends up confirming the overall aesthetic rather than distracting from it.
Whether we need this or not is a harder question. I think there's a sense in which we do need First Demo Tape, but only because we already have Complete Discography, which means we're basically avoiding the question by stipulating that it's already been answered. There are many other ways to invoke defiance, and maybe Andrew WK's version, for instance, which is sort of Killing Joke cross-bred with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is a more contemporary idiom. But I Get Wet's defiance is deliberate superficiality, fuck-you as retreat rather than attack. Nine Inch Nails' defiance sounds similar, but bases hate on pain, and is thus constrained to vengeance, which means it can produce nothing better than the last status quo. The Sisters of Mercy's defiance makes some of the same noises, too, but treats armor as costume, which is how empires fall. If the problem is the government, then none of these others are responsive, and maybe they are all partially complicit, at least in allowing the emotional issues to be re-centered in these harmless ways. Punk, to be frank, was never that good at this either. "God Save the Queen" was grandstanding, not politics, and straight-edge was about micro-economics, not macro. But Gill's Gang of Four knew the difference, and maybe he helped Jaz and Geordie remember. "As far as trying to go up against the government?" a talk-show caller's confused voice says at the beginning of the hissing "Total Invasion". "It's just--unless the whole country did it, I guess." They won't, and this isn't the record they'd be playing if they did. You can't depose debt, and we won't overthrow this bankrupt corporate government by assault. But maybe, if we remember how to hate it, we'll remember not to stop it from shooting itself in its own empty skull.