Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk”
Started ?-Finished 6/13/09
We’re not the first
I know we’re not the last
To play a song popularized by others
So you’ll have a blast
The music and the lyrics
They don’t belong to us
Why won’t anybody
Make up their own stuff
Make due with what you have
Don’t take what you can get
Pay no mind to us
‘Cause we’re not Minor Threat
Yeah, a lot of you aren’t going to understand that passage at all. The short version is that when I wrote those lyrics, probably around 1988, I had noticed a lot of mediocre bands breaking out into cover songs in order to get the crowd on their side. Nothing fancy, mind you--a Ramones song here, a Misfits song there, or if they were really stretching, perhaps a lesser-known song by Agnostic Front--though they always announced the band they were honoring. “Hey you like The Misfits? Well, this song is by The Misfits, so come on up and sing along!”
To me, it was always obvious what these bands were doing. It was a punk rock version of Bob’s Country Bunker from The Blues Brothers, where they have to abandon “Gimme Some Lovin’” to find something these people like and fast. Enter the theme from “Rawhide.”
Anyway, so I had our band learn “Minor Threat” by the band of the same name. The first time I remember playing the song was at a huge show that we had set up at a bingo parlor, with this bill that would be unheard of today. Consider this, punkers: Five bucks to see Discrepancy, Libido Boys, PTL, Yeastie Girlz, Neurosis, Christ on Parade and MDC. But I digress. So we started playing the song, stealing the signature opening guitar riff from Minor Threat’s signature song.
Everyone went nuts.
I’m not good at watching the crowd, especially with my eyesight, but I remember one kid in the front, throwing his fist in the air and singing along, and getting very confused when he finally realized we were singing something completely different, and essentially, making fun of those who sang along.
This is why I’ve always rallied against iPods and before that, CDs. Lyrics are important. Especially when the band is being clever, yet at the same time impossible to understand. Or, in other words, most punk bands.
Yesterday, I watched a documentary titled Punk’s Not Dead. It’s better made than a lot of documentaries I’ve seen on the punk scene, I was still more than a little taken aback when they stated that punk rock had a stagnant period in the late 80s through the early 90s. Sure, part of that era was when some bands tried to go metal, but seeing how it was the era that I was an intrinsic part of, I found it dismissive, seeing how it was what was probably the most tolerant time for punk since its inception. Sure, much is made about the fact that Devo, Blondie and the Talking Heads were considered punk bands (I had an original flier with Talking Heads opening for Black Flag in Santa Clara that I sold to a guy for three dollars worth of arcade tokens when I was 16. Even without thinking about eBay, how fucking stupid was that?), but PTL (my band, for those who haven’t been paying attention) have played with emo bands as well as pop punk, hardcore, speed metal, industrial, sludge and glam bands. But we didn’t look at these shows with such labels or genres in mind, we just decided that if we liked the people in said band, we liked your band.
Just in case this is getting too much like a reminiscing love fest, some of the bands that we didn’t like include The Vandals, The Offspring and The Melvins. How’s that for notoriety? Also, it seems that if your band is “the” anything, you’re probably jerks. That probably goes double for “The the,” Though I haven’t met any of them personally…
Well shit. That’s about all I had the stamina to write last week, and now that I look at it again seven days later, I have no idea what I had in mind in terms of topic. I’ll see if I can salvage it.
There’s been a lot of punk nostalgia going on lately, and my band has even cashed in on it, whilst not getting any cash. In the last year we played three shows--not easy to do as the singer still lives in San Jose, and I live in Hawaii. But we played just for bragging rights of sharing the stage with some of the bands of our youth. We’ve already built up quite a roster, playing with Green Day, Bad Religion, NoFX, Agression, All, Capitol Punishment, Good Riddance and Jawbreaker. But last year on New Year’s Eve, we played support for The Misfits, then in October we played in California and Hawaii, as support for Raw Power and Dead Kennedys.
Of course, there are a couple of oddities about these events. The biggest would be that all of these legendary punk bands had anywhere from one to three original members, and they’re playing with PTL, a band I broke up at the cusp of the ’90s after losing the entire string section. To me, it felt like nostalgia hour. We didn’t want to break up, but seeing as the singer and I knew nothing of notes and keeping things in tune, it seemed like the time to call it quits. Rich (the singer) asked why, and I said that since we had lost most of our core, continuing to play felt like how Wattie is still in a band called The Exploited, and yet he’s the only mainstay in the band.
Wow. My sister isn’t going to understand that reference, and I bet she’s not the only one.
So, we dissolved. But there’s something I wrote for this newspaper last year about how you never forget it. Any time you see a band, you think to yourself, “I used to do that.” And you miss it. And since Rich and I were still great friends, and we had lots of people who liked both of us and our band, we kept finding excuses to play again, if only for a one-shot reunion deal.
Having lived through this, I think, changed my entire perspective on the idea of a band that continues on. For every AC/DC that replaces their singer and succeeds, there are a dozen other bands who have to face a backlash every time they step on stage without the original line up. At one time, I think I agreed with this notion. Now I know that I was an idiot. What would the world be like if Pink Floyd stopped after dumping Syd Barrett? Without mentioning the specific people, how about and end to bands such as The Velvet Underground? The Who? Rolling Stones?
A band usually consists of people who come together (or at least, they used to--for popular culture these days it’s organized by a music tycoon, and thus, soulless). The point is, people get together to make music, and they shouldn’t stop just because the lost one quarter of the link that made them start.
Of course, there are the icons. I remember being offended at the replacement of Bruce Dickenson from Iron Maiden and Rob Halford from Judas Priest. But nothing lit a self-righteous fire under my ass the way the way it happened when I found out that The Misfits and Dead Kennedys were playing again without their original, iconic singers.
This needs a little explaining for the people who weren’t living in my house during the heyday of these bands. Twenty years ago, (side note: at the bar I work at, the band tonight did a cover at the end of the night of The Misfits “Last Caress.” I made a joke to the cocktail server, who was singing along, that I’ve been listening to The Misfits since before she was born. As it turns out, I’m right... Because I’m old.)
Anyhoo, I explained the nuances between DK and The Misfits to my boss at the corporate restaurant that I used to work at, when he approached me with a bit of trepidation because his son was getting into punk. “The Misfits are a Saturday morning cartoon version of punk,” I explained, “with their B-horror movie icons and song material about turning into a Martian and a desire for skulls, (yours in particular). “If he’s listening to Dead Kennedys, he’ll be fine,” I said. “But if he’s got a lot of Misfits stuff, you’re in trouble. Because, while they’re good, they’re absolutely retarded. Dead Kennedys sing about things that are important. The Misfits sing about things they can put on a T-shirt.”
Still, there’s no denying that The Misfits are marketing geniuses. Walk into any shop that specializes in music, and the safe bet is there will be some Misfits merchandise. And they have a lot of merchandise, some much less obvious that the prerequisite shirts and stickers, including watches, belt buckles, onesies, light switch plates, ashtrays, bottle openers and decorative Christmas lights, all of which is for a band that technically ended in 1983. (Founding member Jerry Only won the right to perform under the Misfits brand name in 1995 after an extended legal battles with original singer Glenn Danzig. He currently remains the only original member.) For good or for bad, if ever punk had a brand name, it is the Misfits.
In the meantime, there was the Dead Kennedys, the band that made me realize that you could be an obnoxious punk and still be smart, thanks to Jello Biafra’s acidic wit. Google the lyrics to “Riot” or “I am the Owl” if you don’t believe me (or don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.)
Two important bands who will probably live in infamy when everyone has finally forgotten about Guns ‘n’ Roses and Katy Perry. AND, interestingly enough, two bands that tour these days, playing without the singer that made them so memorable, and throwing away any kind of punk ethic they once carried. And we played with both of them.
But alas, this review is too long, and I’ve been too uninspired to write lately. Tune in next week, when I can hopefully finish these thoughts.
Worth new (or stealing, if you’re punk).