Graded on a Curve:
S.O.A.,
“First Demo 12/29/80”

In 1981, a fleeting outfit from Washington, DC called State of Alert released an EP titled “No Policy.” Its grooves held ten short brutish blasts of early American hardcore that have endured to become historically famous. Subsequently, debates raged over its actual sonic worth. The freshly issued “First Demo 12/29/80” returns S.O.A. to 7-inch vinyl after nearly 35 years, and its eight concise tracks make a fantastic case for the band’s musical value.

By the end of the 1980s hardcore’s critical rep was at a nadir, mainly because the style just wouldn’t die. This is largely due to kids discovering it intermittently. As part of the underground, knowledge of ‘80s punk/HC was almost entirely disseminated via printed matter (fanzines and select glossy rags), word-of-mouth (a talkative classmate in the cafeteria) and guiding example (older bro or sis).

These revelations occurred in fits and starts, but once the connection was made the record store bins were loaded with wax to buy. Those documents served as the crib-sheets for wave after wave of well-meaning but rudimentary bands, many playing multi-group, all-ages shows in suburban Knights of Columbus halls (or similar locales) all across the USA.

Even at this early juncture, DC hardcore was already legendary, partially due to the later activities of certain key members, but also because the music from that scene/era was easily procured. The gateway names were of course Bad Brains and Minor Threat, but scads of salivating young punks also stepped up to the cash register with copies of the Flex Your Head comp and the Four Old Seven Inches LP collection.

This I know from experience. By ‘80s-end I’d turned my back on rote hardcore almost entirely, but the music mentioned in the previous paragraph always remained close at hand. However, it wasn’t specifically a DC thing; there were also Midwesterners (Negative Approach, Necros, The Fix), Texans (Big Boys, Dicks), and Bostonians (SSD, Negative FX, DYS, Gang Green).

As the ‘90s barreled forward the records from these bands continued to receive a substantial amount of turntable time (at least in my house). So much play in fact that it became advisable to pick up a few inexpensive CDs in order to cut down on vinyl wear and tear. And along with repeated spins, a favored pastime was gabbing over hardcore’s highs and lows.

Opinions differed and occasionally tempers flared; one of the most disputed topics was the qualitative standing of DC’s State of Alert. For every person considering S.O.A. (they were one of the first to employ HC’s popular three initial contraction) to be great there was an opposing number rating them as gravely overrated.

But indisputable was S.O.A.’s historical importance. The four-piece came together from the ashes of unrecorded act The Extorts, with guitarist Michael Hampton, bassist Wendel Blow, and drummer Simon Jacobsen locating new singer Henry Garfield (Extorts vocalist Lyle Preslar picked up the guitar and joined Minor Threat).

The group burned brief but bright; they debuted live in December 1980 on a ludicrously-loaded house-show bill with Minor Threat, The Untouchables, Bad Brains, and Black Market Baby, the “No Policy” EP followed shortly after as the second release on Dischord Records, and by the time their three Flex Your Head entries appeared in January 1982, they’d been broken up for roughly six months.

The brevity of existence is unsurprising; their final show (July of ’81 in Philadelphia opening for Black Flag) ended in a notorious riot. The dense and distorted force of the music was thoroughly appropriate to their status as an act accompanying assorted methods of physicality. Well into the ‘90s S.O.A.’s association with mosh-pit/gang violence kept dividing listeners.

Even more divisive was the fact that young master Garfield became Mr. Henry Rollins. A few days after the Philly mayhem, he packed a bag and bailed for California to join Black Flag. To this very instant opinions vary wildly over Rollins’ contribution to that group. Many look upon him and see a multifaceted punk bard. Others view him as the sinker of a once great band. And in terms of Black Flag, both viewpoints are valid.

Over the years I’ve heard a few carp that Garfield/Rollins ruined S.O.A. as well. Additionally, I’ve witnessed others insinuating the singer as their only strong point. My reaction to both statements is that neither is derived from open-minded listening; State of Alert’s reality is that Henry Garfield is no more than a crucial ¼.

Last week Dischord posted three contemporaneous reviews of the “No Policy” EP via their Tumblr account. One sourced from the Washington Tribune focused upon the record’s lyrical preoccupation with violence and general matters of testosterone; while mentioning their musical variety, it’s still moderately negative.

But all three texts receive S.O.A. as a unit, though in the piece by John Stabb (singer for the band’s harDCore contemporaries Government Issue) he does mention Garfield sounding “mean as shit.” In noted DC scenester Howard Wuelfing’s ‘zine Discords, “No Policy” is ranked as the best of the month (May 1981). The EP also earns the distinction of a “real” punk release.

Interestingly, those quotes are present in the Discords review, referencing at an early point S.O.A.’s relationship to their milieu. Naturally their demo, cut with the assistance of distinguished owner of Yesterday and Today Records and laudable mentor to the DC punk upstarts Skip Groff (“Skip we love you!”), captures them emitting an especially potent combination of energy and rawness.

It opens with the mid-tempo grind of anti-cop anthem “Public Defender.” If reminiscent of Black Flag’s “Police Story” the track actually forecasts the slower weightiness the Cali outfit would further explore in the Rollins-era. No less of a punk authority than Jack Rabid (in Steve Blush’s book American Hardcore: A Tribal History) dismisses the “No Policy” EP as “toneless garbage,” but to my ear “Public Defender” not only underscores S.O.A.’s desire to stand out from the speed-focused hordes but also emphasizes their impact upon peers like Negative Approach.

“Gonna Have to Fight” quickens the pace, though the guitar still burns with fury in a song that at :42 is stripped to the bare essentials. It’s followed by the pulsing wave of uptempo distortion that is “Gang Fight” and the bruising, spastic and even shorter “Disease.” And the fairly standard HC roar of “Draw a Blank” is nicely punctuated by a superb fit of blurry atonal guitar shrapnel.

Some will decry “War Zone” as structurally simplistic, but getting to hear the aura of youthful competence before these players progressed into greater realms of complexity and assurance (along with Henry’s ensuing history members went on to The Faith, Snakes, and Embrace) is still (if you’ll excuse a violent metaphor) a sweet kick in the pants. And that environment is extended in the terribly basic yet wickedly effective “Riot.”

But with “Stepping Stone Party,” S.O.A. scores another blast of diversity, though folks familiar with this song through its inclusion on Flex Your Head can be forgiven for thinking it’s a reaction to the cover of the Boyce-Hart composition that closed Minor Threat’s second record. It’s placement on “First Demo 12/29/80” lends State of Alert a touch of long-posthumous erudition as it joins up with the Minor Threat version to highlight this new breed of industrial strength punkers as garage rockers at heart.

No doubt the debates will continue in regard to S.O.A.’s level of achievement, but “First Demo 12/29/80”’s issue on short-playing vinyl is the closest one will get in 2014 to moseying into Yesterday and Today and slapping down a copy of the “No Policy” EP onto the countertop. Like punk and much of rock music in general, the 7-inch format served hardcore best. It was no different for the blitz of barely harnessed anger that was State of Alert.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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2 comments
Tom Lyle
Tom Lyle

You have to excuse me; I had to laugh a little when I read this review. This record, as was many of the early Dischord Records’ platters, is evidence of music that was made by bands that did not have ANY illusions of grandeur. It’s music written and played by kids for kids to listen to. Over analyzing these records as you do in this review, and placing any more value on them as anything more than what they are is silly.  One may have heard Dischord Record’s head-honcho Ian MacKaye state that they were releasing these seven inch records only so their friends could buy them and play them at home, as gigs in those days were not only hard to come by, but when the bands did get to play live the shows were usually stopped by the authorities shortly after they began. Don’t get me wrong, to this day I listen to SOA's No Policy, and I love the new Demos record. But this review is written in a style as though in front of a sociological anthropology or aesthetics class. Or in, heavens forbid, a mainstream "music" magazine. That’s just silly.


Joseph Neff
Joseph Neff

@Tom Lyle

Tom, I appreciate your response. Naturally, I don’t believe I’ve over analyzed S.O.A.’s stuff, but I’ll add that the notion of “thinking about music at length taking the fun out” is one to which I don’t subscribe. But hey, ain’t it just like a music writer to say that? At least we agree that the songs still sound great. If the above is indeed guilty of over-thinking, the records will withstand my supposed folly with ease.

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