Graded on a Curve:
Negative Trend (s/t) 7″

In the second half of the 1970s, the hilly West Coast burg of San Francisco was noted for some bands, and a few of them specialized in the creation of punk rock. Amongst the more illustrious names are The Avengers, Crime, The Dead Kennedys, and Flipper, but one of the less championed troops in the city’s early punk narrative was Negative Trend. Their terrific self-titled 1978 7-inch is repressed by the folks at Superior Viaduct, and it’s an essential purchase for anyone striving to build a comprehensive punk library.

By this point, the late-‘70s punk uprising has been examined from a multitude of angles, with the majority of the approaches offering at least some measure of substantive insight. Since the whole explosion proved to be such a complex beast, indeed so multifaceted that individual perspectives can frequently seem downright contradictory, the value found in such a large number of diverse viewpoints should really come as no surprise.

One particularly interesting outlook concerns how punk’s North American surge was inevitably doomed to initial failure due to the lack of an appropriate distribution network to service its burgeoning creativity as it was emerging. It’s a tempting idea, but it tends to sidestep the reality of what actually did occur after The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! (my pick as the starting point of the unhyphenated punk era) first hit the racks in early ’75.

Specifically, the impulse spread like wildfire, or better yet like a disease. In England, the situation grew into an epidemic that sent shockwaves through the country’s entire culture, but in the USA, the very land that gave the form its messy back-alley birth, the transmission remained either underground or largely disdained but the public at large.

The theory of poor distribution basically suggests that if bands and listeners residing in late-‘70s St. Louis could’ve somehow achieved cognizance of and then linked up with their cohorts in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Phoenix, New Orleans, Syracuse, and Portland, the phenomenon wouldn’t have stalled-out (and then quickly reignited as Hardcore), but would’ve instead thrived and eventually taken the nation by storm.

As said, it’s an enticing notion, and surely a degree of benefit would’ve resulted from a nationwide awareness of punkish activities as they transpired, but what often gets overlooked in the whole scenario is that a large chunk of the style’s greatest moments were underground by nature rather than by imposition.

Punk commonly gets assessed in retrospect as a righteous cleansing of the musical palate, but in truth it was highly subversive state of affairs. The concern of parents and guidance counselors was definitely shortsighted and misdirected, but given the circumstances their worries were inevitable. And yet a high ratio of pre-hardcore punk was made not by unruly teens but by disillusioned adults living in bleak and even dangerous neighborhoods as the ‘60s slow decline reached its gloom-enveloped nadir.

It was a messy, sometimes tasteless (“Belsen Was a Gas,” anyone?) and occasionally barely articulate rebelliousness that in large part surfaced out of necessity and not out of calculation. Yes, the scheming mind of Malcolm McLaren helped guide The Sex Pistols to their heights of infamy, but scores of others were moving forward with barely an outline of a battle plan. And while it’s also true that scores of disheveled punks secretly or subconsciously desired to be rock stars, formulating a new improved model for an age of disappointment and stagnation, very few were actually cut out for the formidable task.

The energy of ‘70s punk was sourced not from consensus but from a lack of agreement. A substantial level of unity is required for large-scale commercial success, and while historically celebrated scenes bloomed in the larger US cities, they were still mere outposts in a larger cultural wilderness. When the west coast caught wind of what the east was up to (and vice versa), they reliably scoffed and then promptly indexed the worthy bits for later use. Frankly, the art flourished because of this rough terrain, not in spite of it.

In terms of scenes however, San Francisco had one of the finest in the US. Try this incomplete list of bands on for size: Crime, The Avengers, The Sleepers, The Nuns, The Mutants, and UXA. Plus, on the artier end of the spectrum there’s Chrome, Tuxedomoon, Pink Section, and Factrix. But one of the most important punk outfits to have emerged in the Bay Area’s early days was Negative Trend.

Due to the fitfully elusive status of their slim discography, Negative Trend is sometimes noted more for what they begat than for what they embodied while active, with two members moving on to the legendary anti-punk unit Flipper. What’s more, the final edition of the group basically morphed into one of San Fran’s most fascinating unclassifiable u-ground rock units, Toiling Midgets.

Formed in 1977 from the dissolution of a band named Grand Mal (from which the Offs also sprang), Negative Trend’s first lineup featured Craig Gray on guitar, Will Shatter on bass, Todd Robertson on drums, and Rozz Rezabek on vocals. After Rezabek quit early the following year Gray and Shatter began the search for a new singer, and due to Robertson’s erratic attendance at gigs they decided to acquire a new drummer as well.

With vocalist Mikal Waters and new kit-man Steve DePace on board, Negative Trend recorded a 4-song 7-inch in June of ’78, and for decades it was the document upon which their musical (as opposed to genealogical) rep rested. First issued on the Heavy Manners imprint in an edition of 1,000 copies, it was given a 12-inch waxing by Subterranean under the title “We Don’t Play, We Riot” in ’83 and a compact disc edition via Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 label in 2006.

I lucked into a cut-out copy of that CD shortly thereafter, but happily Superior Viaduct and Subterranean have elected to repress these tracks on vinyl for widespread consumption, and in the process have returned them to their original 7-inch format. Fans of the style should consider this outstanding news, for it remains a powerful and concise slab of rapidly-conceived punk throttle.

Recorded and mixed in two days, the music is truly impressive in its lack of sloppiness and avoidance of the rudimentary. Opener “Mercenaries” is thick and heavy, the kind of punk a hard-rock fan would take a fancy to, loaded with a chugging riff from Gray as Shatter and DePace establish a rhythmic bedrock of unusual confidence. While punk of this vintage was unfailingly loud and consistently fast, Negative Trend stand out through an attack that’s bruising in effect.

And yet it was also fleet enough to get the crowds hopping at the Mabuhay Gardens, the club that’s the subject of the record’s second cut “Meat House.” But instead of celebrating the joint, Waters offers a dark vision of dehumanization and emotional dissatisfaction, providing a sharp critique of punk behavior from an early vantage point as the music rages behind him.

In terms of influence, Negative Trend derives from the lineage of the Stooges, though the impact of Iggy and Co is spat back out with a fair amount of subtlety, at least in punk terms. Waters has a bit of Pop’s inflection, though it’s nicely blended with flashes of Johnny Rotten. Also, the lyrics of “Mercenaries” are politically focused, dealing with the topic of imperialism in a manner presaging their San Francisco peers The Dead Kennedys, and it contrasts well with “Meat House”’s tangling with the personal.

Interestingly, “Black and Red” also forecasts Shatter and DePace’s subsequent motions in Flipper, though missing is the blatant will to provoke that continues to define that combo. Negative Trend slow the velocity but still keep a handle on rocking, so instead of druggy art-damage it registers as another fine gesture towards variety.

And if a stable lineup was ultimately beyond their control, it’s important to note that this 7-inch is devoid of redundancy. In fact, the closer emphasizes Negative Trend’s range extremely well, with “How Ya Feelin’” a superb muscular hunk of uptempo punked-out rock ‘n’ roll that’s brought home by Waters’ gruff but dexterous vocals. It completes an EP that if not quite up to the high standard of Dangerhouse Records’ best releases, ain’t far behind.

After this disc Negative Trend’s additional recordings featured ex-Sleeper Tim Mooney in DePace’s spot and former F-Word singer Rik L Rik replacing Waters. Two songs from these sessions are included on the excellent compilation LP Tooth and Nail, with those tracks and three more issued under Rik L Rik’s name on the very good Poshboy comp Beach Blvd.

It’s all fine stuff, as is the live set included on a very curious CD titled Miner’s Benefit, the contents of which document a real honest-to-Betsy benefit show for striking Kentucky coal miners. Along with UXA, The Sleepers, and Tuxedomoon, the Trend complete the bill and the long-delayed and now scarce disc is vital as it provides the only recorded evidence of their wild, speedy Rozz-fronted original incarnation.

Miner’s Benefit would make a great 2LP reissue (hint, hint), but as swell as those early cuts are, they don’t usurp this 7-inch’s standing as the group’s strongest work. The four selections here detail a fully functioning rock unit offering an instrumental equality that’s somewhat rare in punk of this vintage. They have the form down pat, but also display a commitment to content that’s substantially deeper than what’s delivered by most punk bashing then or now.

However, maybe the record’s best quality is found in the realization that it wasn’t scaled to hit the charts and potentially take over the world. It’s all far too personal for that. To really get the essence of ‘70s punk, one needs to look beyond those canonical LPs that populate the Best of the Decade lists and Must Hear before You Croak books and spend some time grooving with the little bands. Negative Trend remains one of the best of their number, and this 7-inch, once again easily obtainable, is the place to start paying them some mind.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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