It’s amazing how a seemingly elegant story can become astonishingly complex the closer you look at it. Take, for example, Darwinian evolution. Darwin’s original notion of the place where life on Earth began was a gentle “warm pond,” a conceptual predecessor to the “primordial soup” that most of us probably learned about in high school.
In the middle of the 20th century it was more commonly believed that life began, whether in a pond or not, in the fairly harsh environment of a noxious atmosphere composed of ammonia, methane, ethane, and other gases (oxygen only came later, a product largely of plant-based photosynthesis). The famous experiment from the 1950s where scientists created amino acids by running lighting through a flask full of these gases was the watershed moment in this line of thinking.
More recent research confounds this thesis in turn, arguing that organic compounds — especially RNA, the probable evolutionary precursor to DNA — dissolve readily under such conditions, and therefore would have a hard time surviving such an environment.
The current thinking is that the early evolution of life on earth was many-pronged, possibly resulting in numerous forms of life (e.g. protein life, RNA life, even rudimentary life based on clay crystals) that were eventually outcompeted by DNA-based life, viruses, and certain possible forms of RNA-based life that may yet survive. Yet more radical theories argue that the early chemical precursors to Earth life may have formed on Mars billions of years ago, when that planet’s chemistry and climate were more favorable to the formation of RNA-like compounds, and then came to earth by accident after meteor strikes knocked some of Mars out into space.
The point, before I bore all my readers into submission, is that history is always far, far more complicated than it at first seems. The simple classroom narrative almost always covers up all the interesting complexities and for this can end up being almost wrong.
This goes for music history too. Every so often, new recordings emerge into popular view that change the dominant narrative of pop music as we know it. Just last year Rhino released One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost And Found, a tour de force compilation of 120 girl-group recordings from the 1960s that acts as sort of a companion piece to that label’s four-disc Nuggets set, which collected American garage rock from roughly the same period.
Together these two box sets amount to a drastic revision of the usual quickie history of Rock and Roll in which rock and roll hit a dead patch after the Elvis joined the Army and didn’t get interesting again until the Beatles wave broke over North America, and didn’t get good for Americans until the Summer of Love. Judging from songs collected on these two Rhino sets, that history is not only wrong but monstrously unfair to a huge number of artists working between 1959 and 1968 who have had the misfortune to fall on the wrong side of tightly controlled Oldies Radio playlists.
One lesson to take away from both my tiresome little homilies is that what we think we know, what survives to make up our worlds, has as much to do with accident as with design (whether “intelligent” or not). So why did I just expend 500-odd words on jibber-jabber about DNA and Rhino Records? Because of a new compilation called Godfathers of L.A. Punk: Today Its Time To Wake Up Again America!!!, out now on Siamese Dogs records.
The usual narrative of punk rock goes something like this: The Stooges begat The Ramones begat the Sex Pistols who begat Everyone Else, world without end, Amen. This is a neat little chapbook of a history that, while elegant, completely fails to explain what the Dead Boys and Rocket From The Tombs were doing in Cleveland in ’74, how the Saints came from Australia, or why when the Sex Pistols went to California for the first time, there were punk bands ready and waiting to open the show for them.
It turns out that — surprise! — there’s more to the story.
Siamese Dogs Records is the brainchild of one Philippe Mogane, a French photographer who, in the 1970s, found himself in Los Angeles with a bagful of high-end cameras and a serious jones for the Detroit-bred musical stylings of one James N. Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop, and his band The Stooges. Mogane found himself in fact living in the same tatty building as The Stooges, and in time became sort of a go-between among the warring Stooge factions. The photos he took of the group were published in Europe, resulting in renewed interest in the group there.
At the same time, Mogane became interested in the local bands that were following in The Stooges’ footsteps, and with Stooges guitarist James Williamson founded Siamese Dogs records to promote these groups. Their first releases were a couple archival singles by the Stooges, “I Got a Right” and “Gimme Some Skin.”
By the time 1978 rolled around, the punk sound was on the breeze and Siamese Dogs was riding the first wave of Los Angeles punk, releasing music by (as Mogane styles them) “the Godfather of LA Glam Punk,” The Max Lazer Band, “The Godfathers of LA Hard Punk,” The Weasels, and “the Godfathers of LA Punk,” The Controllers, among others. Mogane now feels the world is finally ready for the music he recorded nearly thirty years ago, and has revived the Siamese Dogs imprint to release Godfathers of LA Punk.
One thing for sure is that the bands recorded by Siamese Dogs are clear ancestors of many great California legends. Godfathers captures something about Southern California, a feeling that would eventually play out in recordings by dozens of bands we know well. For example, The Controllers and The Weasels point the way straight to The Germs, Black Flag, The Weirdos, Suicidal Tendencies, Bay Area bands like Flipper and The Dead Kennedys and even Jane’s Addiction. And though it is surely heresy to say so, you can hear in the glam of The Max Lazer Band a little bit of the strut and swagger that influenced the metal scene that spawned Guns ‘n’ Roses. In these latter cases, it’s not so much a sound as a vibe, a creeping Californianess that colored each nascent scene and ties together bands as diverse as The Doors, X, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Suicidal Tendencies.
But all this historical importance is of interest only to snotty record collectors who own Stiff Little Fingers LPs on vinyl and can name from memory the birth-names of all the Ramones, CJ included. Without decent music, no disc like Godfathers of LA Punk will be anything more than a curiosity, a mildly interesting document of a time just as well forgotten. Luckily, that is not the case. Instead,Godfathers of LA Punk is very worthwhile listening for any serious punk collector. Besides its historical value, there is just too much music here of surpassing quality to pass up.
To begin with, the Stooges tracks, “I Got A Right” and “Gimme Some Skin (both alternates from the Raw Power sessions) are practically worth the price of admission on their own. But beyond the long shadow of Iggy is a surprisingly diverse collection that probably has something to please punk fans of every stripe.
My personal favorites are The Weasels and The Controllers, who in particular anticipate merchants of gratuitous outrage like The Circle Jerks and The Dead Kennedys and the hard-boiled tales of X. The Weasels’ biggest hit, “Beat Her With A Rake,” is a song about a guy who beats his girlfriend to death for giving head to another guy again in public. Objectively, there is absolutely nothing redeeming about a song whose message line is “beat her with a rake and make her pay for her mistake.” Indeed, it’s only sorta-funny in the way that appeals to world-weary eighteen year olds. Nonetheless, over a trashy and muscular punk riff that is years ahead of their time, The Weasels sell “Beat Her With A Rake” and another domestic abuse single (this one with a Nazi twist!) called “I’m The Commander” to the hilt, reveling in their brazen crassness.
Similarly, The Controllers’ melodic proto-hardcore stomp “Do The Uganda” is about wanting to “get VD and be real mean, I wanna be black and look like Idi Amin,” only to conclude that “You can’t leave Uganda, yeah the joke’s on you!”
Mean-spirited joke songs like these seem indigenous to California’s punk scene. It would be a surprise if a young Jello Biafra hadn’t come across these records up in his Bay Area home.
With such classically tasteless offerings as these on hand, it is no wonder that Philippe Mogane himself emailed me in response to my request for a review copy of this album, warning me that “it might be too staggering for your proper, nice and orderly mind.” Well, fair enough. But I’ve heard songs like “Beat Her With A Rake” before, going all they way back to The Leaves’ and Hendrix’ versions of “Hey Joe,” Jim Morrison’s half-silly spoken word rants about killing his parents, and even John Lee Hooker’s lovingly detailed torture-murder fantasy “Bad Like Jesse James.” And if I can enjoy Snoop singing about how he “don’t love these ho’s” or the Meatmen singing about how crippled children suck, then I can surely get a thrilling transgressive frission out of the absolute awful, terrible wrongness of a chorus that goes, “beat her with a rake and make her pay for her mistake.”
Beyond the manic (but today fairly orthodox-sounding) punk of The Weasels and The Controllers, Godfathers is a gratifyingly diverse set. The Max Lazer Band enriches glam rock with saxophones and a punk edge, and if “Street Queen” isn’t quite as ferocious as some of the other offerings here, it still glitters, writhes, and bites hard.
More interesting still are the arty, jagged noise experiments of Nu Americans and the Attitude, both of whom even employ – gasp! – keyboards! The Attitude’s cover of “Hound Dog,” featuring some hot piano from Little Richard, is a nicely sacrilegious good time, and Nu Americans’ bizarre “Listen To Your Heart” sounds like some unholy mix of The Slits, Devo and Captain Beefheart. That is, except for one thing: Devo and The Slits had yet to release their first records. (Indeed, this is just one of the many ways in which the bands on Godfathers of LA Punk were ahead of their time. Iggy Pop may have showed everyone the way as far back as ’73, but even in 1978, the day of punk had yet to arrive.)
Together the Attitude and Nu Americans remind me of a one-shot video I have of a band called the Steel Tips, who opened for the Dead Boys at CBGB in ’77. The Steel Tips mixed Zappa with The MC5 and added some atonal riffing on top, in what I presume was an effort to sound like no other band ever. Having now heard The Nu Americans and The Attitude, I now suspect that bands like this were incredibly common in 1978 and have now been all but forgotten. And although I’m not personally in love with that sound, your mileage may certainly vary.
If a French photographer had never shacked up with the Stooges in a grimy Los Angeles loft, the bands on Godfathers of LA Punk might never have been committed to wax. And if said French photographer hadn’t decided that it was time for America to hear these sounds again, they would be lost forever but for faint memories in the minds of Los Angeles’ oldest bartenders and punk progenitors.
Godfathers of LA Punk isn’t necessarily the alpha and omega of Los Angeles punk rock, but it is definitely of interest to any and all fans of the genre. More importantly, it helps shed some light on the murky beginnings of one of punk’s most important scenes. Punk was the one of the last great gasps in rock and roll’s evolution before its long, slow decline toward the millennium, and we owe it to future generations of truth seekers to give them the straight story. I’m sure that what Philippe Mogane has done in reissuing these songs could be done (has it been done?) in Houston, in Cleveland, in Chicago, and every little jerkwater burg in between. And even if all the music so rediscovered is not worth saving, it would be nice to make that decision consciously rather than let happenstance and obscurity swallow dreck and diamonds alike.
One final note: Godfathers of LA Punk contains the answer to a question I didn’t even know needed asking: what’s the deal with Pauly Shore? Readers of a certain age will remember that in his MTV days, Pauly Shore would frequently refer to himself in the third person as “the wea-sel,” with just that singsongy skip in the middle: “wea-sel.” Well guess what? I think I know what Pauly Shore was listening to before he hit the big time, because The Weasels introduce themselves in the live version of “Beat Her With A Rake” as, you guessed it, “The Wea-sels.” You learn something new every day.