Thursday, August 9, 2012

San Francisco Punk -- Then and Now, Mostly Then

Reissues outsell new records. That's why shops, mailorders, and labels continually invest in them. People would rather buy something they know is good than something they have to try out. Also, every year there are new folks who are getting excited about these artists for the first time. This summer, reissued works of San Francisco punk from the '70s, '80s, and '90s have brought some long-awaited material back to the public. In this reporter's opinion, there is some seriously good shit to be had.

     In the fall of 1976, a teenaged Penelope Houston left Seattle to enroll at the SF Art Institute, up on the hill in North Beach. By 1977 she was fronting the Avengers, and her shorn blonde hair and leather jacket graced the covers of their records. By the time the band split in 1979, they'd recorded quite a bit of material, but only a single and a 12" EP had appeared. In 1983 the local label CD Presents released a self-titled Avengers LP, with almost all of their recordings. By the time I'd heard of the band, all of this material was out of print. As the years went on a few singles and live recordings appeared. It's only now, at long last,  that the LP has been reissued. Four Men With Beards is doing the vinyl, while Water Records is doing a double-CD version, with live recordings, outtakes, and a comp track--one of their greatest songs, 'Cheap Tragedies,' which appeared on the legendary, long out of print Rat Music For Rat People LP.


       In the winter of 1978, the British group the Sex Pistols played their final shows on an ill-fated American tour, finishing their careers (as did the Beatles) here in San Francisco. A twenty-something Texan, Gary Floyd, was at the show, and he retunred to Austin eager to contribute to the emerging punk scene there. It took too long to form a band, so he flyered the city with posters for non-existent shows featuring his non-existent band, the Dicks. But before long, the band was real. 1980 saw their first single, Dicks Hate the Police, an instant classic reflecting the, uh, tension between good-ol'-boy cops and Texas queers and freaks. In 1982 their first LP, Kill From the Heart, was released on Los Angeles's SST Records. At this time the band relocated to San Francisco, but after a particularly difficult tour the other guys headed back to Texas, leaving Gary to reform the band. This new line-up released the Peace? 7" in '84 and the These People LP in '85. All of this material went out of print, with Kill From the Heart and Dicks Hate the Police commanidng high prices on the collector's market and being repeatedly bootlegged. I'd never heard either LP until Alternative Tentacles reissued both this summer. The CDs contain the 7"s, and 1-2-3-4 Go! also reissued Dicks Hate the Police on vinyl. Kill From the Heart blew my [freakin'] mind--thrashy, bluesy, 90-second (give or take) songs guaranteed to inspire disgust in decent, patriotic people (racist police will be particularly offended.) Now I can see how the greatest punk history website in English was inspired to borrow this LP's title for its name. These People continues the attack, specifically targeting militarism this time, but with less thrash and more rockin' blues. Gary was and remains an incredible performer, so don't miss out when his solo projects perform.

     South Florida, early 1990s--four young men form a band whose name is an obscenity, causing them to sometimes play out under the abbreviated moniker F-Boyz. After a few 7" releases, the band relocated to San Francisco's Mission district. When the singer moved back home, the guitar player, Matty, took over on vocals, and they recorded their final 7",  vs. the Hawaiian Mafia, the title inspired, in what would become a recurring theme, by death threats left on their answering machine. When the bass player left as well, Matty and the drummer, Aesop, recruited a new bassist and formed a new band, Hickey. In the band's first three years they had three 7" EPs, two split 7s", and numerous compilation tracks. In '97 local label Poverty Records compiled all of this, along with unreleased material, as the CD Various States of Disrepair. After Poverty went belly-up, an East Bay concern, S.P.A.M. Records, reissued this disc, and soon they were gone as well. In early 1999 the band went "on hiatus," and while Aesop and Matty played out together and with others in a great many bands, Hickey never performed again. Hickey remained beloved owing to their inspiring songs, relentless touring, and amazing stage presence. Matty died in 2002, and Hickey's music (as well as other work of his) was posted free on a tribute website. A live DVD and a reissue of Various States were oft-rumored, but elusive. Finally, this summer saw Oakland's 1-2-3-4 Go! Records release a remastered CD and double LP reissue, with nine new songs recorded after the first disc had come out. I snatched up a double LP upon its arrival here at our Fiction & Music Annex, and it has yet to leave my turntable. These tracks highlight the range of styles the band had mastered, with catchy, melodic, sing-along numbers; epic, four-minute big-guitar meetings of punk and 70s rock; lazy, ugly dirges; compressed, savage, grating attacks; mellow indie rock... I can't stop singing these songs everywhere I go. Seeing the Hickey heart (their logo) spray-painted or etched in cement (like at Duboce at Church by the outbound train stop and the sidewalk at 9th and Irving) always makes me smile.

     To be fair, though, the greatest punk music is being made now, or at least that's the attitude you gotta have to avoid being a washed-up adult. All of the bands discussed above were very popular in small scenes, but largely unknown to the general public, and so it is with today's most inspiring bands. The easiest way to get a weekly dose of new and old obscurities is to visit a website hosting a weekly radio show recorded in a live/work space here in San Francisco. Maximum Rocknroll is a volunteer-run monthly magazine, thirty years old this month! Ever since day one these kids (in the political sense) have been digging in to the best music they can find from around the world. The radio show started in 1977, preceding the magazine by five years. The over-the-airwaves show died when the guy who dubbed all the tapes in real time to mail to radio stations finally burnt out. With the advent of internet radio, the show was reborn and remains strong as [heck.] The magazine is hella sweet too. Check it out in our Annex.      .