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Music Review: Germs – (GI)

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While there are a number of bands who can lay claim to having issued the first Southern California punk LP, the Germs are definitely not one of them. They can however claim to having released the finest early SoCal punk album, if not the finest with their one and only full-length record, (GI). The album was (and remains) so good, the notoriously cranky music critic Richard Meltzer had this to say about it in his then-contemporary review for the L.A. Times (as quoted in the liner notes), “The album of the year. The most staggering recorded statement so far from the American branch of New Wave. The most remarkable L.A. studio achievement at least since The Doors’ L.A. Woman.”

High praise indeed. Like so many genius works of art, the circumstances surrounding the recording of (GI) were convoluted to say the least. For one thing, there was the decision to bring in Joan Jett to produce. At the time, Jett was in career limbo. Her band The Runaways had dissolved, and she was still a few years away from hitting it big as a solo artist. Both vocalist Darby Crash and guitarist Pat Smear knew Joan from the local scene, and everyone is in agreement that she did an excellent job.

No matter how good Ms. Jett performed behind the console, it really all comes down to the songs themselves. The original vinyl release contained a total of 16 (!) tunes, and the new Real Gone CD reissue adds the bonus track “Caught In My Eye,” which was held back as a potential single. It is a great song. In fact, Pat Smear felt it was the band’s strongest of all, hence the idea of keeping it “in the can” for the future. Sadly, there was no real future for the band after Darby Crash’s accidental overdose in 1980.

While popular myth has it that the Germs (who also included Lorna Doom on bass, and Don Bolles in the drum chair) were inspired amateurs, who somehow got it together to record a classic, the fact is that the foursome took their music very seriously. As Bolles mentions in the liner notes, “We practiced at least three days a week for like five or six hours.” Another surprising revelation is the variety of musical influences each member brought to the table. Bolles was a big fan of “hippie art-noise” (as Smear called it), which included groups such as Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson. Pat Smear himself was into Yes and Queen, to name just a few examples.

(GI) opens with the powerful blast of “What We Do Is Secret.” Other stand-outs include “Richie Dagger’s Crime,” “Strange Notes,” “Manimal,” and “Media Blitz.” For a group out of Los Angeles, a song criticizing the town’s ubiquitous media is no real surprise. The inspired addition of what sounds like television samples of dialogue makes it something special however. Although I don’t know if this is true or not, the great Northwest punk group The Dehumanizers employed a similar effect a few years later with “Five or Six More Minutes of Noise.”

The real surprise is the original closer, “The Slave,” which clocks in at nearly ten minutes. I guess this is where the “closeted” prog-influences are acknowledged. The previously mentioned addition to this reissue, “Caught In My Eye” is indeed a winner. While it is debatable as to whether it truly is the strongest song on the record, it is definitely a high point. What I found very intriguing during this song are the vocals of Darby Crash. They sound uncannily like Iggy Pop, who was surely an influence on the group.

The end of the Germs is just sad, as they would have surely gone on to bigger and better things. While (GI) did not sell very well at the time of release, it has had an enormous amount of influence on the countless punk bands that formed later.

There are very few records from 1979 that really hold up 33 years later. Lets face it, a great deal of reissues are geared toward the nostalgia market, with some bonus tracks thrown in for good measure. I never owned (GI), even when I got into seriously into punk a few years later. I had heard it previously, with more attuned punk friends, and have noted how many groups cited the album as a key inspiration for them. The biggest of these was Nirvana, who actually brought Pat Smear into the fold after their first album.

I make those qualifications for the simple reason that hearing (GI) all these years later is not at all an exercise in nostalgia for me. It really is a brilliant album, and one which, surprisingly enough, sounds as fresh today as it must have back in the day. There is absolutely no question about it, if you are someone who likes punk, yet somehow missed this one, you need it.

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