Graded on a Curve: Government Issue,
Live Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Minneapolis, MN 08/03/1983

Sound reads from the archives, all summer long.Ed.

John Stabb is dead. Anything I add to that is likely to sound trite, so let it just be said Stabb was a hardcore punker with extraordinary gifts and a sweet side, and that on a good night, Stabb and his long-time band Government Issue could blow the doors off anybody, fellow DC stalwarts Minor Threat and Fugazi included. I only met Stabb—who succumbed to stomach cancer at the young age of 54—once, to interview him for The Vinyl District, but he was kind and charismatic and very funny, and it’s a damn shame the man and his band never achieved the acclaim they so richly deserved.

From the 1981 “Legless Bull” EP, a seminal slab of in-and-out, slash and burn harDCore if there ever was one, Government Issue proceeded to go through a mind-boggling series of personnel changes as they evolved musically from hardcore to a more complex sound, one that combined elements of metal, Goth rock (Stabb loved The Damned), new wave, and psychedelia, none of which endeared them to the dyed-in-the-wool mosh pit monkeys who wanted GI to sing “Asshole” until the day they died. And even as a harDCore band, Government Issue failed to play by the rules. Stabb went in for flamboyant stage attire and demonstrated an actual sense of humor, both of which ruffled feathers in DC’s deadly serious hardcore scene.

As Stabb, the self-proclaimed “Clown Prince of Punk” told me, “My goal was always to shake people up and also just to confuse the punk rockers.” He added, “We started out doing the hardcore thing… and people thought we were this super hardcore band that was angry and frustrated with the world, but we always had a sense of humor, compared to SOA with Henry Garfield and Ian [MacKaye of Minor Threat] and all these other people. They were really, really angry bands. And we wanted to mix the anger with humor.” Which opinion coincided with mine at the time, and was the reason I gave a lot of hardcore bands a pass.

Government Issue’s available body of work increased greatly in 2012, when the band released a treasure trove of 27 “live bootleg” recordings, chronicling shows from 1981 to 1985. The Live Bootleg Series gives fans a chance to hear the band kick ass and evolve in club performances across the United States, as well as Slovenia, England, and Germany. And that Vol. 1 implies that further recordings from later dates will hopefully follow. I selected the 1983 Minneapolis performance because by then Tom Lyle had replaced Brian Baker (who so disliked Stabb’s outrageous stage attire and antics he offered Stabb money to tone it down) on guitar, a position Lyle would hold until GI’s dissolution in 1989. I also picked it because it showed how much the band had already begun to inject their hardcore with a healthy helping of metal.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of the band’s most radical evolution would occur in the future, and there’s no mistaking the Government Issue on this record for anything but a hardcore band. But what a band! As Dave Smalley of Dag Nasty and Down by Law once said, “Government Issue was one of the best bands in the history of American Hardcore,” before adding, “For one reason or another they were jinxed… but they were amazing.”

“Plain to See” opens with the throbbing bass of Mitch Parker, and lots of big power chords by Lyle. Stabb and the backing vocalists bark and shout in a hardcore style, but the song is more metal than punk, unlike perennial crowd fave “Teenager in a Box,” which is definitely hardcore and unfortunately (at least in my opinion) marked the band as adherents of that latter-day puritanical scourge known as straight edge, what with the teenager in question killing himself with drugs and booze, those wonderful gifts to man that William Blake may or may have been talking about when he said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” “Asshole” is another barking loud hardcore classic with a straight edge theme, and it’s hard to reconcile it with the sentiments in “Plain to See,” which includes the “don’t follow leaders” lines, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.”

“Hey Ronnie” is a time capsule back to a time when every hardcore band in the world was out for Ronald Reagan’s blood, and it sets a land speed record as it roars along, the vocals buried beneath Lyle’s guitar and the rhythm section. And if you think “Hey Ronnie” is a grand champion in the velocity department, along comes “Hall of Fame” to prove you wrong. It includes one of the shortest lyric sheets I’ve ever seen, and about all you can (and need) to hear vocally is the band shouting “Hall of fame! Hall of fame!” And just as you think you can’t take any more the band slows it down a bit for a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” It’s a big thumping slab of metal, this one, with Lyle making like Black Sabbath while Stabb sings the chorus with brio before the song accelerates at the end.

Then Stabb asks for requests before the band goes into “Happy People,” which boasts an even shorter lyric sheet than “Hall of Fame.” It’s one minute of mayhem before the band moves on to “Dead Dog,” a monolithic slab of heavy metal complete with feedback, Godzilla-ponderous guitar riffs, and lots of painful vocal contortions by Stabb, whose shouts, shrieks, cries, and ululations definitively demonstrate he would have made a great noise rock vocalist. Why, blasphemy of blasphemies, there’s even a guitar solo. And I love how Stabb ends the song by saying, “That’s one of our country and western songs.”

“Partyline” is another hardcore classic, with Lyle slashing away at the guitar while Stabb and company speed sing the lyrics. Once again Stabb demonstrates that he has one flexible set of vocal chords, and at one point does a pretty darn good Darby Crash imitation. Stabb opens “Sheer Terror” by saying “This song has got to be probably the most scariest song in the world,” and it alternates between truly frightening vocals and hardcore speed-ups, along with some soaring riffs from Lyle on guitar. Stabb’s moans and cries are truly insane, while Lyle’s guitar reminds me a bit of Greg Ginn during Black Flag’s own metallic phase.

“Time to Escape” is your standard hardcore song, and doesn’t much move me, but the same can’t be said for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Bullshit,” a very funny diatribe that not only attacks such AOR punk targets as Supertramp and Van Halen but also takes impious swats at some of punk’s sacred cows, in lyrics such as “I used to listen to the Clash/Now they suck like all the trash/The Ramones used to be a hit/Now they’re just a pile of shit.” It’s a classic case of sons hating their fathers, but it rocks like balls and is a crack-up to boot. Government Issue close the set with the blazing “Hour of 1,” which includes some very ragged band cries of the title, then slips into a brief metallic interlude before going back to warp speed. I’ve got no idea what it’s about, and it doesn’t really matter, because by the time you’ve picked your battered self off the filthy mosh pit floor Stabb is saying “Check out Prince woo woo!” and the club manager is on stage saying, “You gotta go you guys. Time to go play on the freeway; we gotta let the drunks in.”

From 1981 to 1989 Government Issue put their hearts and souls into their music, and unlike many of their hardcore peers they had the guts and imagination to move away from the loud and fast formula to stretch out into unchartered waters. Later albums like 1986’s self-titled LP and 1987’s You were triumphs of diversity, but they only proved that Government Issue—remember Smalley’s “jinx”?—simply weren’t destined to enjoy their day in the sun. But Stabb—and this speaks volumes about his character—never grew embittered, and maintained a bemused and philosophical attitude about his lack of fame to the very end. Indeed, he wrote his own epitaph when he said, “Music is an intense therapy session for me,” before adding, “We’re not too punk to smile.” Smile on, John Stabb, wherever you are. Namaste, kind soul.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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