Graded on a Curve:
Big Boys and The Dicks,
Live at Raul’s

Decades after their breakups the Big Boys and The Dicks remain two of the greatest bands in the history of Texas punk. They achieved this stature through the stretching of boundaries and by investing the music with loads of unique personality. In 1980 both groups were given one side of a live LP, a record known to punk-nuts far and wide as Live at Raul’s. It’s a fascinatingly imperfect document of a scene that attracted imperfect but deeply interesting and even inspirational people to its spastic movements like moths to a flickering flame. Searching out an original copy won’t be easy, but once found it will provide much illumination into the early phases of two truly killer bands.

Texas has a strong punk rock history, and in consort with the reputation for occasionally twisted individualism that has transpired from within the state’s borders, many of those punk bands can be accurately described as offering up often fascinating displays of defiant extremism. In the capsule versions of the ‘80s punk narrative, the Lone Star group that frequently receives the most attention is The Butthole Surfers, a drug-bent bunch of subversive weirdoes who began their journey as tasteless punk pranksters to quickly enter a zone of warped and noisy bad-trip psychedelia (the saga ending with a major-label funded anti-climax in the ‘90s).

For many, the Surfers presented an escape hatch from the increasingly generic strains of hardcore, and are considered amongst the cream of the state’s crop. But the reality is that Texas spawned a very interesting batch of inspired and still vital acts that could hold their own with the finest in punk rock from anywhere on the map. And if the general perception regarding the Texan attitude of individuality is that it swings to the Right, then naturally much of the region’s punk action is located on the far opposite end of the spectrum.

Maybe the band most representative of this phenomenon is Austin’s The Dicks. Formed in 1980 by vocalist Gary Floyd, the late guitarist Glen Taylor, bassist Buxf Parrot and drummer Pat Deason, throughout their original incarnation they presented one of the angriest and most unsettling examples of punk’s power to provoke. While it’s difficult to hear them from the vantage point of the present without encountering a bit of a (not disagreeable) time-capsule flavor, as the ‘80s unraveled The Dicks’ existence felt very confrontational and dangerous.

Self-described as a Commie Faggot Band (complete with a hammer and sickle in their logo and a cross-dressing, openly gay singer), The Dicks can be easily compared to their Texas mates MDC (a group of initials that stood at various times for Millions of Dead Cops, Millions of Damned Christians and Multi-Death Corporation). The difference was one of impact; while MDC made some good records they ultimately felt like preachers, and Jim Jones and Fred Phelps aside, preachers generally aren’t very scary.

The Dicks were scary however, though what felt worrisome about them wasn’t their stated beliefs but rather how they let it all hang out in a local environment and a world culture that was (and indeed to a somewhat lesser extent still is) plagued by intolerance. Austin might be the Lefty stronghold of its state, but that distinction doesn’t wipe out the ‘80s punk scene being rife with homophobia and moreover the city that reared The Dicks also holding pockets of decidedly un-punk observers that would’ve definitely found the group’s sexual openness and strident political outlook unattractive and even abhorrent.

After some thought, the band that shares the most similarities to The Dicks isn’t MDC but the Big Boys. They consisted of sadly deceased vocalist Randy “Biscuit” Turner, guitarist Tim Kerr, bassist Chris Gates, and a slew of drummers, the most notable being Rey Washam, who became something of a Touch and Go Records’ mainstay through his connection to the fried Texan mayhem of Scratch Acid and his membership in Rapeman (featuring Steve Albini) and The Didjits.

One obvious connection between the Big Boys and The Dicks was Turner’s status as openly gay and the fact that he would also hit the stage in drag. In fact, the first picture this writer glimpsed of the band accompanied an interview in the punk ‘zine Flipside, the snapshot capturing Turner wearing a tutu. It was quite an arresting image, partially due to Turner being a rather large-framed guy.

But another aspect shared by both bands was a penchant for expanding the possibilities of punk without bailing on its basic rudiments. In the case of the Big Boys, this stretching of the norm was predominantly musical. While tagged as skate-band, they fell way outside the lines of the by-the-numbers speed-focused thrashing that came to define that sub-genre. Instead, they could be sort of categorized as expressing the same kind of limits-pushing strategies as the Minutemen, though the Big Boys ultimately weren’t as groundbreaking as that truly cornerstone band.

They did integrate elements of funk-rock and an interest in the upstart rap movement into their sound however, and this was frankly a big breath of fresh air from a scene that was increasingly polluted by stale mosh-obsessed also-rans. And if The Dicks are notable foremost for the caustic content of their screeds (the song “The Dicks Hate the Police,” later given a scorching reading by Mudhoney, is the a-side of their first single, one of the great debuts in all of US punk), they also possessed some boundary pushing formal elements that were most often manifested as a highly bastardized and deeply brutalized blues.

So it makes total sense that the Big Boys and The Dicks share the opposing sides of a live LP. Taped and released in 1980 on the imprint Rat Race, Recorded Live at Raul’s Club (generally shorthanded as Live at Raul’s) captures both bands quite early, before either had released a proper studio LP. While on a purely musical level it takes a backseat to the highpoints in the discography of either group, the record is still highly valuable for helping to document the hardcore era that was just getting underway and doing it through the live sets of two bands that didn’t have much more than a local reputation.

But in hardcore, a local rep was really all that was needed. At this early point there was very little touring; for the most part bands played for hometown audiences. Those on stage on Friday night would reliably be in the crowd on Saturday. Live at Raul’s does a great job of relating the non-grandiose nature of this situation. As comparisons go, the Big Boys provide the lesser of the two sets, so it makes sense to find them on the record’s first side.

The Big Boys material is far from underwhelming, however. Instead of go-for-broke energy they shoot for diversity and from that place they largely succeed. Opener “Detectives” is a surf-tinged number that gives way to a showcase of Turner’s vocal abilities, “Out of Focus” is a tough slab of Gang of Four-damage, “Psycho” is a quiet bit of moodiness, and “Red/Green” (one of their best tunes in its studio version) tackles a bluesy stomp. “In the City” (not a Jam cover, though there are stylistic affinities) is highly melodious and well developed, one thread the band thankfully never lost. “Nightbeat” kicks up some needed dust, and closer “After 12:00” takes another stab at post-punk. Not everything works equally well, but it’s a gas to hear the more formative moves from this act, one that never wanted to sound like everybody else.

The ten songs found on The Dicks’ side of the rec wail like a true champ. Along the way they rail against the New Wave (opener “Fake Bands”), give smoking readings of band classics (“Dicks Hate Police” and “Wheelchair Epidemic”), display an unusually high level of emotive dynamics (“Dead in a Motel Room” and “Shit on Me”), engage in some torrid bashing (“Babysit” and “Suicide Note”), provide a wickedly weird example of early hardcore (“Lifetime Problems”) and yes, get a little bluesy (“Shit Fool”).

Suffice to say that The Dicks’ set closer “Love Song” ain’t exactly sincere. And yet it never succumbs to the level of a shallow piss-take. But maybe the best little moment on the whole side comes from the mouth of Floyd at the close of “Babysit” when he relates to the crowd “looks like we’re having a little fun!” Yes, we are Gary. Yes indeed.

Eventually The Dicks relocated to San Francisco, where they recorded a very massive LP Kill from the Heart, released by SST in 1983. Original copies have been scarce for years, and outside of hard to locate bootlegs, for the longest time the easiest place to hear part of that album was via the Alternative Tentacles-issued CD comp 1980-1986.

Naturally, that disc bugged a lot of punk-heads due to the nature of its incompleteness. Well, they can quit carping because Alternative Tentacles has recently reissued Kill from the Heart on vinyl, a spectacular gesture of dedication to a very deserving band.

After the rest of The Dicks returned to Texas, Gary Floyd remained in San Fran and recruited a new lineup for the LP These People, a final, very different (in three words, much more bluesy), quite divisive and rather slept-upon release that looked forward to Floyd’s next band Sister Double Happiness.

Post-Live at Raul’s the Big Boys knocked out, amongst a bunch of other material, two very fine LPs, ‘83’s Lullabies Help the Brain Grow on Moment Productions and ‘84’s No Matter How Long the Line at the Cafeteria, There’s Always a Seat for Enigma. Both have seen vinyl reissue and shouldn’t be that hard to obtain on the format.

But due to that heavy prolificacy, there was also a trio of compilations. Two of those, The Skinny Elvis and The Fat Elvis, were CD-only issues via Touch and Go, but Wreck Collection was issued on LP first by the Unseen Hands label and subsequently on expanded double vinyl by the Gern Blandsten imprint. Any of these comps (or the original records, natch) would serve as a fine introduction to this terrific group.

Live at Raul’s was sorta halfway reissued way back in ‘92, with six songs from each band pressed up on a double-7-inch. That was a nice try, but one unfitting of two bands that didn’t do anything halfway. Since the scarcity of Kill from the Heart has been addressed, hopefully the reissues will continue and will include Live at Raul’s. It deserves to be clutched in the mitts of many more people.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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