(Re)Graded on a Curve: Dangerhouse Records’ Compilation,Yes L.A.

The format that best suits the loud and fast patois of punk rock is the 7-inch. Studies have been done, experiments have been undertaken, and the superiority of the short-player in relating the form’s unsubtle essence has by this point been rather securely established. But the 7-inch wasn’t the only way to harness the genre’s energy. Another method was the compilation, and one of the best of the early bunch was Dangerhouse Records’ six-song one-sided clear-vinyl silkscreened picture-disc Yes L.A.

Indeed, compilations were incalculably valuable in getting a premium of information into the grooves and onto the sleeves of one slab of vinyl, preferably with some tangible theme along for the ride, the better to hip listeners to what was occurring as punk rock gradually slid underground. Those themes could unravel and possibly intertwine in any number of interesting ways. Some comps attempted to detail the diversity of a specific city’s scene, shooting for including as wide a cross-section of styles and attitudes as possible. Other releases retained the focus on one locale but instead of assembling an assortment of sounds for variety’s sake chose to hone in on one sub-sect of the scene, the intention being to illuminate the activities of those defiantly standing apart from the pack.

It’s important to remember that the early days of punk displayed with regularity the opposite of what folks might call “playing nice.” It was music bred from unhappiness with the status quo after all, and the concept of “punk unity” was at this point nowhere in sight. Bad politics, suspect ideologies, and general social ineptitude surely abounded, but far more often there was arguing, backstabbing, arrogance, pettiness, immaturity and competitiveness, the kind of stuff that can happen in any office building or tiny village across the globe.

One the other hand much of this unpleasant behavior flared up due to the specifically human desire to create great art, impress a girl/boyfriend or even just put out a record when some loudmouth jerk dismissively claimed it couldn’t or even more obnoxiously shouldn’t be done. And it’s also undeniable that a fair amount of this nastiness and bickering can be looked upon decades later as riveting theatre; the nihilistically negative abjured the politically progressive, the working class kids grumbled over and sometimes lashed out at their rich counterparts, and the sophisticated and/or arty disdained as mere pandering anything they perceived as retrograde or commercially solvent.

A great example of that last attitude would be No New York, the absolutely essential Brian Eno-produced compilation detailing the New York City No Wave movement released circa 1978 to no fanfare and soon-to-be-classic status. The bands were The Contortions (featuring James Chance), Teenaged Jesus and the Jerks (featuring Lydia Lunch), Mars (featuring the late Sumner Crane), and DNA (featuring Arto Lindsay).

The record was a way for Eno to document a subterranean musical happening that was very much a line in the sand in a city where numerous punk icons were cozying up to the marketplace and shucking off the brusqueness of their former selves. But unlike the back-to-basics hyper-thrash that came to define the hardcore movement, the music on No New York could accurately be described as a misanthropic art-student’s wet dream; in fact many to this day insist that its contents are something wholly other than punk rock and some will even decry it as not being music at all.

Well, balderdash. But that didn’t stop punkers on the USA’s opposing coast, specifically in the city of Los Angeles, from getting hot under the collar at what they perceived as flagrant and effete NYC snobbery and showboating, and all of it sponsored by an intellectually inclined Englishman. And much of that resentment stemmed from an aura of disrespect that has hung like a smoggy halo over the L.A. music scene from the era of Cool Jazz all the way up to the present day.

Los Angeles is the belly of the music industry beast, and yet when the talking turns to early punk, the bands enthused about mostly tend to hail from either New York or the UK. It must have added insult to injury to be part of the late-‘70s L.A. punk scene, a community that thrived artistically while being blown off by the majors in their very backyard and denied its true stature until well after hardcore, another punk progression that was basically birthed in Los Angeles, had played itself out.

But enough background; Yes L.A. was released in 1979 on Dangerhouse, the justifiably vaunted label that established with ease just how brilliant Los Angeles punk was in the era before the city’s other great label SST reared its acne-riddled noggin. Run by Pat “Rand” Garrett and David Brown with help from Black Randy (more on him in a bit), all musicians and additionally active participants in the punk spasms ripping through their torrid town, Dangerhouse managed to do in a relatively brief span (’77-’80) three important things superbly well, and in an environment where clear-headedness wasn’t exactly held in high regard.

First, they proved that a small, DIY imprint could release more than just one or two incredible records before flaming out under the duress of rampant egos, fast living or blatant mismanagement. To wit; Frontier Records compiled two dandy volumes of Dangerhouse stuff (both with vinyl pressings, by the way) that are indispensible to anyone with even a mild interest in the power of uncut punk. Listening to their contents makes it obvious that crucial ’80’s entities like Touch and Go and Dischord would’ve shaped up much differently minus the Dangerhouse precedent as a guide.

Part of what’s so special about Yes L.A. is how it stands as a splendid one-sided incarnation of the unruly spirit displayed via those Frontier comps (or the killer bootleg LP of Dangerhouse material Me Want Breakfast), the disc impressively hitting racks while the label was still extant. And just as significantly, the whole package was designed to the nines by Garrett and hand silkscreened by Brown and others for maximum collectability.

Oh yeah, design plays a vital part of why Dangerhouse still matters. It wasn’t enough to just knock out records that sounded exceptional. They had to look that way as well. And it was a unified aesthetic that influenced many; again, compare the Dangerhouse logo with those of Touch and Go and Dischord for evidence. And while Pavitt and Poneman at Sub Pop have cited Motown as the inspiration for their label’s early visual approach, I also suspect that those Dangerhouse releases, records that traveled up and down the west coast creating lovely mayhem and forever altering lives at least subconsciously, played a part.

And that’s the ever-loving point of it all; neither that restless DIY spirit nor the smartly realized visual presentation that accompanies it would matter one whit without a clamor that was (and is) far more than just up to snuff. Yes L.A. has six songs from six bands and provides a unified gut punch that still connects with full velocity over thirty years after it first hit turntables. This is far more than just an artifact; it was actually meant to be played frequently and very loudly.

It all begins with the Bags’ “We Don’t Need the English.” It’s ambiguously an answer song to The Clash’s “I’m So Bored with the USA,” a possibility increased by that tune being fresh in the States at the time of Yes L.A.’s release, appearing on the UK band’s second US LP. However, the Bags’ cut is more generally an indictment of fashion authoritarianism. If it seems that the Los Angeles punks had a huge chip on their collective shoulder that’s very true, but that fact matters very little after hearing Alice Bag snarl her way through this total gem; the band is pogo ready and the whole thing is over in a minute and change.

Next is the Eyes’ “Disneyland,” stepping out with ‘60’s styled organ, some actual singing and an exceedingly fine drum sound. Thwack. The Eyes are often overlooked in the Dangerhouse scheme of things, partially because they only recorded a handful of songs, but also for how they register more as a late summation of early punk’s bubblegummy gestures and less as a hint of what was to come (ala label mates The Dils). But both “Disneyland” and “TAQN” (stands for Take a Quaalude Now, don’tcha know) from the band’s sole 7-inch are as strong as any L.A. punk song cut pre-1980.

Due to Diane Chai’s impassioned vocals “Too Much Junk” by the Alley Cats is somewhat comparable to the Avengers and also the Bags, for all three band’s flaunted killer gal singers. And like the Eyes, the Alley Cats don’t get enough posthumous love. Of all their songs I dig most their ode to disillusionment “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore,” but this riffy hunk of hard-rock laced punk action isn’t far behind.

Then comes the love it or hate it stylings of Black Randy and the Metrosquad. As a snide goof upon creeping reggae influence, “Down at the Laundrymat” is a perfect example of the late Randy’s brazen divisiveness; defenders see him as an anarchically angelic spirit and detractors fault him with being an insufferable non-talent. And furthermore, some see his 1980 LP Pass the Dust, I Think I’m Bowie as an unkempt lambasting of the very movement that spawned him (aka a very punk move) but others view it as a mere grab for attention by a hanger-on. Well, I’m in the pro-Randy camp. And this isn’t his best stuff, but it does go down pretty well. Sure the song is too long, but that’s also part of the point.

And it’s an oddball lead-up to “Los Angeles” by X, a flawless tune from a cornerstone L.A. punk band. They certainly swung to the traditional, and that’s why they continue to be dug by so many non-fans of the genre. But I think X naturally communicated their connections to and reverence of the past in a way that The Clash didn’t, and their tune here contrasts sharply (and well) with “No God,” the closer by the Germs. Now a canonical band in US punk lore, it was once fiercely debated if the Germs were even any good. The loose frenetic spillage of “No God” shows why, with Darby’s buzz-saw voice running roughshod over the top. It’s truly galvanizing stuff and a fitting end to a fantastic snapshot of a scene.

A few years ago there was talk of Frontier reissuing Yes L.A. as their 100th release. I never saw one and am unsure if it actually ever happened. Either way, it’ll definitely be a true pain in the ass to find. And this is kind of fitting for a product born from such circumstances. These bands and this label made music history while so many that should’ve cared were busy not giving them the time of day. It’s only fair that in the 21st century the demand for Yes L.A. far exceeds its supply.

(RE)GRADED ON A CURVE:

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