Graded on a Curve: The Superior Viaduct Punk Singles Bundle

Minus the aid of a financial stockpile it’s often difficult and sometimes well nigh impossible to experience many punk classics via their original format. So it’s tremendous that five killer chips off the genre’s block by The Residents, the Germs, The Dils, X, and Flipper are seeing reissue as they initially appeared; as 7-inch singles. Pressed on color vinyl and available separately in stores the week of April 14, the whole batch can be obtained as a special-priced bundle only by ordering through the website of Superior Viaduct.

Unfold and ogle a map of North America and it’ll be hastily apparent that California covers a lot of acreage, and is in fact the third largest territory in the US union. By extension the Golden State looms large in its country’s punk narrative through the spawning of thriving city-scenes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Apart, they join New York and Cleveland as the USA’s healthiest regional explosions from ’76 to ’81; considered together, LA and San Fran become an unbeatable combination.

It might not seem a fair fight, but of the 50 states the 31st wields the strongest output of the pre-HC era; New York and Ohio had the heaviest hitters, the former municipality cultivating many of the defining acts in the style as the latter berg came to embody the sparks that can fly when the need for artistic expression collides with significantly grim surroundings, but simply put, California had the deepest bench.

As the music bundled by Superior Viaduct illustrates, Cali possessed a hefty share of vital bands; these units, two hailing from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco with one chalking up time in both cities, managed to unleash wide-ranging sounds persisting as highly influential. Indeed, the music ranks amongst the finest punk ever waxed.

On occasion detractors will posit California as consistently reacting to the precedents set by New York and England, but the lineup presented above, beginning early in the genre’s proliferation, shows the error in this thinking; three of these records hit racks prior to the end of ‘77. And while great punk needn’t be burdened by the impulse to innovate, the wily goodness corralled herein is unswervingly groundbreaking.

It’s a sum reaping further benefits from the straightforward deployment of the 45. Once hardcore reared its head the 7-inch frequently slowed to 33⅓ as they were routinely packed to the gills with blazingly fast missives. By contrast, all of the entries compiled here utilized the tried-and-true method of the two-song single, even as widespread commercial prospects for nearly the entire roster, especially the earliest and latest in the chronology, were nil.

Some purists will balk over the bundle’s inclusion of The Residents; surely an unorthodox duck paddling around in this oily pond, much of the group’s oeuvre does fall outside of punk’s parameters, but it only takes a solitary listen to the Eyeballs’ scathing deconstruction of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” to comprehend them as belonging to the art-punk fringe of 1976.

To The Residents’ credit, almost 40 years later “Satisfaction” retains its ability to unsettle through controlled abrasion and palpable hostility. It lurches and lumbers like a malicious giant irate at having been roused from a long nap, with much of the foreboding atmosphere courtesy of guitarist Phil Snakefinger Lithman’s corrosive note splatter and wailing slide-work.

The track’s vocals are even more caustic, so demented and dripping with distorted residue they resemble an incensed android from the darkest bowels of space hell. “Satisfaction” delivers a truly vitriolic haymaker that’s undeniably punk, but its flip “Loser = Weed” is substantially less antagonistic. The cut, featuring chanting, banjo flailing, bass fingering, strands of electronics, tangible rhythmic motion and even a little horn tooting, substitutes inscrutability for aggression.

If perplexing, The Residents’ art-inclination sidestepped accusations of incompetence. Such was not the case with the debut 45 by the Germs. As What? Records’ inaugural release in July of 1977, it’s been called the first true punk record to emerge from Los Angeles; but far more importantly, “Forming” b/w “Sex Boy” is one of the earliest exhibitions of a bunch of upstarts turning sheer desire into spectacle in the near-complete absence of formal skill.

The Germs of “Forming,” namely Bobby Pyn/Darby Crash on vocals, Pat Smear on guitar, Lorna Doom on bass, and Donna Rhia on drums, were by any trad-rock yardstick inept, but fascinatingly (and self-consciously) so; recorded in Smear’s parent’s garage with two mics, one documenting the instruments’ rudimentary drone-barrage and the other soaking up Crash’s echo-laden buzzsaw syllable-spew, the mauling primitivism that resulted is an eternal snapshot of ideas and inspiration surging forth before acquired talent could attempt to harness them.

For many it’s just a shitty-sounding stab at a punk record. I’m don’t belong to their number, but it’s also difficult to deny that had the group, with Don Bolles replacing Donna Rhia on drums, not spat out ‘79’s (GI) (notably produced by Joan Jett and engineered by Pat Burnette), they would reside closer to a footnote than as a cornerstone of US punk.

And yet “Sex Boy,” a murky bootleg-level live recording complete with breaking glass, screams and a choice expletive captured at the Roxy as it hosted the filming of Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, offers an absorbing slice of audio vérité chronicling the assembled restlessness of the early LA punk community, and of course a gang of glam-damaged provocateurs that would not be denied.

What? Records’ second 45, issued just a few months later, couldn’t vary more sharply from the undisciplined mess of the Germs; “I Hate the Rich” b/w “You’re Not Blank (So Baby We’re Through)” by the Dils is an unrelentingly powerful double-sided beast intersecting raw intensity, songwriting acumen and seriousness of intent.

Formed late ’76 in Carlsbad, CA by brothers Chip and Tony Kinman, the guitarist and bassist drafted Endre Alqover as their first drummer and promptly relocated to the Bay Area. They proved speedy, shrewd studies; while distorted, the opening guitar line to “I Hate the Rich” is an unequivocally attractive proposition quickly cast aside for blaringly precise stomp and a burning spasm of a guitar solo.

The aural throttle is matched with strident lyrics. The Clash-influenced sobriety of content occasionally catches flak, but the Dils (who do appear in Up in Smoke) stand as an estimable exemplar of politically-oriented punk. Seemingly detailing baseline negativity toward both rich and poor, the words actually do a crafty job outlining class schisms and general societal fatigue in late ‘70s USA.

But the band’s lofty stature is achieved through reliably impressive musicality (in a slim discography); as said, “I Hate the Rich” comes on deceptively melodic and then goes for the heart-punch, but “You’re Not Blank” basically employs the opposite tactic, emerging raucously to subtly underscore the brothers’ abilities not only as writers and instrumentalists but as deft vocal harmonizers. Altogether an amazing single; the follow-up for Dangerhouse is even better.

“198 Seconds of the Dils” is arguably the best 45 that august LA label released, though it has some stiff competition; for starters, there’s X’s “Adult Books” b/w “We’re Desperate” from ‘78. Again, differences; the Dils (and for that matter the Germs) played a role in shaping hardcore, but the same cannot be said for vocalist Exene Cervenka, bassist/vocalist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake.

Theirs is a decidedly classique embodiment of the punk ethos, descended from rockabilly and other well-chosen roots forms, though they were neither retro-inclined nor boldly trashed-out a la the Cramps; instead, X flaunted contemporary-minded songwriting chops and tunes that could be appreciated by open ears from across the listening spectrum.

Really the first exponent of Cali punk to receive widespread critical praise and industry consideration, the reasons are easily discernible in the a-side to their debut 45. The tuneful grit with a hint of feverishness found in “Adult Books” comprises a total gem, from the prickly opening to Doe and Exene’s edgy and timeless tandem to Zoom’s ‘60s-imbued solo spot.

And even stronger is the rapid-fire explication as tour de force of “We’re Desperate.” Grabbing the attention immediately is Doe and Exene’s fervent testifying, individual verses alternating with anxious harmony as the ragged accuracy of Zoom’s playing intensifies the ambiance, but just as striking is the infectious non-simplicity of Bonebrake behind the kit. It all combines to fill the back half of a perfect 7-inch.

The Germs and the Dils influenced hardcore, but by the point of Flipper hitting stride they were effectively at odds with the encroaching conventionalism that marred so much ‘80s punk. Formed in ’79 by vocalist Ricky Williams, bassists Will Shatter and Bruce Lose (later Loose), guitarist Ted Falconi, and drummer Steve DePace, Williams (noted as member of Crime, the Sleepers, and Toiling Midgets) left prior to any recordings; Shatter and Lose shared vocals thereafter.

“Love Canal” b/w “Ha Ha Ha” dates from 1981, but its extremity bookends well with the Residents’ convulsions from a decade earlier. Flipper’s fitful lifespan (Shatter’s ’87 death by OD, a breakup and several reunions) has been synopsized as a long provocation, but unlike many similar outfits, they aren’t chained to the context of their era. And while inconsistent they could conjure some magnificent sonic sewage.

If many punks were merely playacting these guys presented a genuinely fucked-up alternative in a decade that was ratcheting up the conformity. Commencing through a gigantic, ominous bass line, “Love Canal” brandishes its slow pace like a weapon, bludgeoning with weighty rhythmic swagger, piercing feedback, searing distortion and an effects-laced rant.

It’s a solid early volley in the noise-rock equation, though by the ‘90s some had greatly diminished if not outright dismissed them, a downgrading generally relating to Flipper’s punk canon placement as skid-row pranksters. It’s an image definitely reinforced by “Ha Ha Ha.” If not as brutal as “Love Canal” it remains an oddball (if livelier) bit of biz; maybe not as strange as when it first assaulted my lobes roughly 30 years ago, but still plenty weird.

If Flipper transcended their context, the circumstances that sired them are crucial to a full understanding the band’s lasting worth, and the same applies to everything collected here. These are sounds of defiant resistance inextricably linked to their period, and they cohere into a history lesson continuing to pack a mighty wallop.

RESIDENTS
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THE GERMS
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THE DILS
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X
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FLIPPER
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GRADED ON A CURVE:
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