Graded on a Curve: Fear, “I Love Livin’ in the City” b/w “Now Your Dead”

Los Angeles punk mainstays Fear will be forever defined by the anti-social expressions of their 1982 album The Record. Many thousands cherish that disc, while others evaluate it as the locus of obnoxious fakery. But those who completely dismiss them shouldn’t do so without hearing their 1978 single “I Love Livin’ in the City” b/w “Now Your Dead,” for both musically and in terms of attitude it paints a distinct portrait of the group’s early development.

The general consensus on The Record finds it ranking very high in the punk rock pantheon, but after going back again to recheck, I must admit that I’ve never felt it’s all that great. Actually, I’d rate it as only moderately good, at best. Yes, the LP is loaded to the gills with historical importance and does have enough moments that I’ve kept a copy around, but the only time the thing’s gotten play in this house over the last few decades is when I would periodically feel the need to reassess my evaluation in the face of other’s rampant enthusiasm.

This happened more than just once or twice, and on a few occasions my viewpoint was met with something other than just disagreement. Instead I received stares of deep incomprehension, like I’d just called Michael Jordan an okay shooting-guard or Shakespeare a middling playwright. It was enough to instill some personal doubts. Perhaps it wasn’t The Record; maybe the problem was with me. But each time I pulled it out the same conclusion was drawn, and until just recently it has spent roughly a dozen years tucked away on the shelf.

However, I will agree that a significant part of my reaction does come down to personal considerations. Specifically, I didn’t get to hear it until around 1987 or so. If I’d been a late teenager when The Record kicked up its first clouds of dust, it might’ve been a gripping experience. But in 1982 I was just peaking into the doorway of adolescence, with my musical heroes the predictable suburban standbys Zeppelin and Sabbath. If someone had played The Record for me then, my reaction would’ve naturally held some measure of, well, fear, but it surely would’ve been overtaken by a much greater sense of bafflement.

That’s to say the disc is definitely not targeted to the mindset of the typical eleven-year-old. It’s more like a version of punk rock as envisioned in a film by Death Wish-director Michael Winner that along the way gets overtaken by its antagonists. It’s all right there in “I Don’t Care About You,” with Lee Ving bellowing lyrics about watching an old man dying of a heart attack in the street, the singer shoplifting the idea of punk as being symbolic of urban decay and then brandishing it like a badge, or even better, as a verbal weapon.

Each time I’ve played the thing from the wizened distance of adulthood I’ve been struck by how it’s adoption of a nihilistic stance hijacked early-‘80s stereotypes over punk. On one hand the group’s name is truly apropos, playing upon the fears many held of punkers lurking in the bushes everywhere, but on the other it’s just one big goad, designed to incense those afflicted with good taste and proper manners. Not just my mom and yours, but also scene contemporaries that felt a proper punk band should follow the example of The Dead Kennedys.

As such, The Record is very much a document of the circumstances from whence it sprang. And frankly, its homophobia and misogyny is a real turd in the punchbowl. To those who feel I’m taking it all too seriously and should just grin and bear it, I can only retort that the “joke” has grown increasingly stale over time, largely because it wasn’t funny in the first place.

But I’m not here to be a scold. Social inappropriateness is an undeniable aspect of punk (along with much of rock milieu, and all art-making) and some bands utilized or at least survived it better than others. That’s the case with the Angry Samoans. And in 1987, when I was diving into as much punk rock as my ringing ears could handle, that unit’s Back from Samoa LP (notably also an ’82 release) was a revelation. Beside it, Fear’s first album already felt like a time capsule.

And that’s mainly down to how intensely Fear was dominated by their shtick. If The Record didn’t suffer from poor production, an assessment Ving shares since last year he inexplicably waxed a revamped version called The Fear Record, and had it been stronger instrumentally, a verdict Ving might also agree with due to his remodeling lacking any participants from the first go-round, it would withstand scrutiny far more easily.

On a musical level, Fear was far from awful, but they also lacked sustained inspiration and while their influence on hardcore was considerable they were in no way formal trailblazers. This was of course a large part of their very MO, as “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones” makes perfectly clear. But where the Samoans’ music remains a vibrant and deceptively smart distillation of early punk’s basic paradigm, by ’82 Fear’s sound was undercut by an over-studied simplicity peppered with lukewarm gestures of ingenuity.

Dwelling on The Record’s musical shortcomings basically misses the point though, since Fear was really striving for the spectacle. Their segment of Penelope Spheeris’ L.A. punk doc The Decline of Western Civilization emphasizes this, but it’s in the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live that really brings this home. By 1981 punk was a decidedly non-mainstream affair, so Fear’s performance, which included a mosh pit of future hardcore legends (and naturally a crowd-baiting run-through of “New York’s Alright…”), having its plug pulled was, if not inevitable, surely a safe bet.

And the estimates of property damage to the SNL set continue to be wildly disputed. Until recently it’s been nearly impossible to see any footage of this John Belushi-instigated exercise in mixing oil and water, but the entire thing is currently online, and watching it left me thinking it just might be Fear’s finest moment.

But that’s a big might, since way back in 1978 Fear put out a 45 that greatly outshines the rest of their recorded output. At this point, they consisted of vocalist Ving, bassist Derf Scratch, guitarist Bert Good, and drummer Johnny Backbeat, who was apparently a former member of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. And with a name like that I can believe it.

After completing the single Ving and Scratch sacked the other two and soldiered on, but I don’t think they should’ve been so hasty, for the two cuts here pack real punch. A-side “I Love Livin’ in the City” is long-familiar from the version on The Record, but this early take is far superior, mostly because its guitar playing is rougher and more in keeping with a pre-hardcore sensibility.

This is most detectable in the dime-store Chuck Berry lifts of Good’s brief solo spot. On the album, replacement guitarist Philo Cramer’s zippy, half-debased hard rock-isms are effective, but they resonate much differently than what’s offered on the original. Plus, by The Record’s completion, Ving and Scratch had been given an abundance of time to overhaul the song.

Beyond the fact that most punk bands sound better at four months than at four years of age, the long period of rekindling brings the later reading (and the LP as a whole) closer to the sound of hardcore. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that unlike the spring-action mayhem of Minor Threat or the brutal scorch of Negative Approach, ’82 Fear is closer to a hardcore outfit that has bludgeoned the spark and spontaneity out of their music through relentless over-practice.

No, The Record isn’t as bad as that situation often turned out to be, for it was only 1982 after all. But the playing of drummer Spit Stix (no, not Johnny Backbeat under a different handle) is clearly designed to soundtrack some unbridled moshing. And like Cramer’s guitar, he does a serviceable job, but Jeff Nelson he is not.

By contrast, Mr. Backbeat is no DJ Bonebrake. But his playing, which embodies frenzied pogo action far more than slam dancing, fits in at this stage like a glove. As does Scratch’s bass, even if his prominent string throttles do underscore his solid musical background prior to Fear’s commencement. But in truth that’s a fairly familiar punk rock scenario, so it ultimately inflicts no harm to the proceedings.

Ving’s contribution is essentially already in place, even down to the lyrics, and yet it’s curious to hear his obscenities getting partially obscured in a reportedly successful attempt to receive some Los Angelino radio play. Later on Ving’s foul mouth became its biggest selling point, and on The Record he already sounds positively rehearsed. Like an actor; this just might be why Belushi dug ‘em so much.

But “I Love Livin’ in the City” circa-’78 is just the sound of a four guys coming together, navigating frictions and quickly working up a very good tune. It’s all many similar bands could successfully manage, and in terms of ‘70s-punk it’s often enough. But the b-side’s “Now Your Dead,” in addition to detailing Fear’s anti-authoritarian feelings on the use of proper grammar, is just as strong.

Possibly even stronger, since the song finds Ving working in an unusual lyrical mode, commenting on the assassination for John F. Kennedy in a manner that while not particularly thought-provoking does bring him within spitting-distance of a Biafra-like approach. It’s a circumstance his subsequent image as a rootin’ tootin’ urban punk cowboy was in open conflict with.

Finding Ving inhabiting less calculated environs is a cool twist. If “Now Your Dead,” which notably predates The Dead Kennedys’ arrival on disc, is less articulate than Biafra it also avoids his frequent didacticism, though once Ving’s trap opens it never shuts. So while different, it’s sorta the same. And without the raw string wrangling of Good, all Ving’s syllables wouldn’t be worth much. But happily, the guitar is definitely there, as is the needed rhythmic weight of Scratch and ol’ Johnny B as they help to complete a double-sided winner.

That “I Love Livin’ in the City” b/w “Now Your Dead” is also the curious prologue to one of punk’s most familiar tales lends it something extra. But even if Fear had ceased to exist after this 45, they surely would have ended up residing in the annals of one-shot punk obscurities known as the Killed by Death scene. Neither track is as strong as California KBD monsters like The Maggots’ “(Let’s Get Let’s Get) Tammy Wynette,” The Maids’ “Back to Bataan,” The Injections’ “Prison Walls,” or The Child Molesters’ “I’m Gonna Punch You in the Face,” but after time spent soaking them up, they aren’t far behind.

In striking me harder than anything found on The Record, both of these initial Fear efforts greatly reinforce my lightning-in-a-bottle view of punk’s essence. It took a Scratch-less lineup until 1985 to finalize a second album, though Ving’s designs on an acting career (he’s in Flashdance, don’tcha know) surely added to the delay. And if The Record is average, More Beer is basically a dud, signaling the end of Fear’s usefulness and beginning a pattern of lifeless horse abuse that continues to this day.

I do realize that my tough treatment of Fear might smack of the long-established desire of writers and barroom shit-talkers to gleefully knock a cornerstone band a few rungs down the ladder of quality. That was not really my original intention; it’s just that praising this single (which to my knowledge has never been reissued, at least on vinyl) without tackling Fear’s larger significance really makes no sense. And hell, I’m far from the only person to belittle their achievement, with many considering them to be utter crap. But that ain’t me, babe.

In a gesture of smoothing down any ruffled feathers, I’ll acknowledge The Record as Fear’s classic statement, though I must add that it attains this status for historical rather than musical reasons. So if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan maybe that will soothe your savage beast. If not, just remember this; we’ll always have Johnny Backbeat.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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