Graded on a Curve:
No Trend,
Too Many Humans/
Teen Love

Drag City Records’ May 29 release of the No Trend Too Many Humans/Teen Love box set comes during a resurgence of interest in the Ashton, Maryland hardcore band turned three-ring circus. While the band went on to record three additional LPs and an EP with Lydia Lunch, the Drag City compilation chronicles the band’s early years, when their Flipper meets PiL grind and black humor made them the enfants terribles of Washington, DC’s hardcore scene.

I exchanged e-mails with the duo who co-produced the set: former No Trend guitarist Buck Parr (who played with the band in 1985-86) and writer Jordan Mamone, and together they cast light on how the project came about. But first, here’s Parr’s rundown of the box set’s contents:

“The box set includes exact vinyl facsimiles of the Too Many Humans LP and the “Teen Love” 7″ and 12″ right down to the original inserts, and how things are folded. It comes with 40-page booklet with a great interview I did (tooting my own horn, but whatever), plus the French Too Many Humans bootleg book, one of the ‘lost’ dance books, and all manner of other nonsense. (The box set also includes flyers from a variety of shows, as well as bonus CDs consisting of demos and live recordings from San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens and LA’s Cathay de Grande.) Comedian Neil Hamburger (aka Gregg Turkington) actually recorded one of these shows. How weird is that?”

“For decades,” Parr added, “people had been writing to Jeff (band leader Jeff Mentges) in an effort to re-release the material on this set (the Too Many Humans LP and the “Teen Love” EP). Jeff, for reasons known only to himself, would refer these inquiries to me. I’d check them out–some of them seemed rather worthy–and report back to Jeff, who would invariably kill the idea. He really had little interest in seeing this material out again. He’s never been altogether concerned with the band’s legacy and saw releasing old material as pointless.”

“I met Jordan some 20 years ago. He was writing an article about the band, and we became friends. We were both very fond of No Trend’s early material, and wanted to see it out again. As I’ve said before, Jeff and Bob Strasser (the band’s other surviving member) couldn’t have cared less. However, Paul Smith of Blast First Records made a very good pitch–a career spanning retrospective. I brought this to Jeff, and he finally relented, and allowed things to go forward. Frankly I think he was worn down by me asking to produce it for so many years. And he respected Blast First a great deal.”

“We had no material to work with whatsoever. The original master tapes had been destroyed. Neither Jeff nor Bob had saved any ephemera. So a lot of sleuth work went into uncovering grist for the project. We eventually got lucky and found a great deal of material–much more than we had anticipated finding. It soon became clear to us that a complete career retrospective was untenable, so we focused on the early material, which had a defined aesthetic, both musically and with the artwork.”

Unfortunately, says Parr, the Blast First project fell through, and in his words, “We chalked it up to the general curse that seems to follow the band. We’d done so much work for so many years, and we were very near the finish line.”

“Almost as a Hail Mary, Jordan sent some over-the-transom inquiries to several labels that we respected. We were shocked at the positive response we received, particularly from such great labels. Ultimately we went with Drag City, whose proposal well exceeded what we ever intended to do. Their idea to do complete facsimile versions of the records was very appealing. In the end, they did so much more.”

“Jeff and Bob seem rather bemused by all of this. Neither really understands why this happened in the way it did. You will not find them commenting about it in the press, but both are happy with the outcome, despite having some mixed feelings about its existence.”

It was Mamone’s exhaustive 2002 article on No Trend for the New York Press (“It was just living hell finding them in those days”) that may have first sparked Blast First’s interest in the band. “Blast First’s was the first offer Jeff seriously entertained,” he wrote. “I can specifically remember him turning down the Providence-based noise rock label Load, as well as a punk reissue label called Grand Theft Audio. Who knows why?”

Mamone agrees with Parr on Mentges, writing, “Jeff is pretty reclusive to say the least. Buck seemed to be the only former band member who really cared about No Trend’s name or legacy. We became friends and kept in touch. I remember commenting that someone should reissue the early records, and he mentioned that he’d been bugging Jeff about that for years. But Jeff wasn’t into it. Then one day, probably circa 2010, Jeff, for some reason, relented. He wanted a box set of the whole No Trend catalog! Which, of course, was way too cumbersome to execute.”

Mentges’ sudden openness to reissuing the old material was likely due, at least in part, to his positive feelings about Blast First. Notes Mamone, “Jeff respected the label’s history and the fact that Paul wanted the project to be more like a book than some straight punk reissue, including extensive liner notes and visual documentation. This eventually snowballed into the 40-page booklet, written and edited by Buck and myself. The most remarkable thing about the booklet is the way Buck interwove the voice of guitarist Frank Price into his long interview with Jeff and Bob using old fanzine interviews, almost as if Frank was commenting on the band alongside them. That was brilliant, since Frank was so important to that era of No Trend but obviously could not speak for himself.” (Price passed away in 1989.)

Mamone was even more effusive in his praise of Drag City: “If Blast First was thinking big, Drag City was thinking even bigger. They encouraged us to really go for it. Thanks to them, this project is actually more lavish and better-looking than we’d imagined it. No excess seemed like too much for them. Hard shell box? Sure. Facsimile reproductions of the original No Trend business card and the booklet of essays from the French pressing of Too Many Humans? Why not? Through their connection to the comedian Neil Hamburger, Drag City even managed to find a high-quality live recording at Mabuhay Gardens we never knew existed. Which we ultimately included on the bonus CDs.”

“It’s weird,” noted Mamone, “but somehow appropriate that the two surviving founders of No Trend had nothing to say about the project. I can’t think of another band in which the creators of the music simply don’t care that much about it. I don’t think they’re embarrassed by it or that they hate it, per se. It’s more that it just isn’t so significant to them nowadays.”

“Obviously, Jeff has at least some vague opinion, or he’d have never allowed it to happen at all. I hope that he and Bob are, in some way, pleased with our efforts. Or at least perversely amused by them.”

At least two former band members I contacted were positive about the box set. Too Many Humans bass player Jack Anderson wrote, “I’m pleased with it. The mastering went well and it sounds good. It had never been properly transferred digitally. Instead there have been vinyl rips of various qualities floating around the internet for years. I just wanted to hear a good version for myself and my own vinyl copies aren’t virgin. It’s also amazing to hear the live recordings (rough that they are) from Mabuhay Gardens and Cathay de Grande. I didn’t know those shows were recorded at the time. It’s a major nostalgia trip for sure.”

No Trend drummer Michael Salkind wrote, “It’s a a fetishist’s wet dream. Beautiful packaging, like a thicker box version of the Wedding Album, and just as listenable to some people. I am amazed at the work that went into it, and the accuracy of the information. It seems the lineup credit is entirely correct; I’m surprised anyone was able to recreate that. It even talks about pre-No Trend band the Aborted (of whom I was a member). Whoever put the booklet together, in detailed chronological order, is a genius.”

Salkind did note, however, that there was friction over his efforts to see recordings back in print. “I haven’t seen the guys since around 1983. But over the years, there was some interest in reissuing the stuff. I was involved in helping two labels put out recordings I played on. I guess that didn’t sit well with other living band members, but when I tried to reach out, I got no response from them. I did not know Frank (AKA Jim Jones) had killed himself until I ran into Jello Biafra in the 1990’s.”

I think most of my quotes in the gem of a booklet speak for themselves. I am thrilled that I played in No Trend, and thrilled I stopped. Bob and Jeff are interviewed in the booklet, and I didn’t get insulted by them as badly as I expected. I guess enough time has gone by. I was, perhaps, unfair in my acidic writings following the tour. Slightly.”

Salkind does have a gripe with his portrayal in the book: “I have been criticized as being a bad drummer. I can’t argue with that–at the time I had just started beating on an old thrift store set, and knew nothing of the drums. The beauty of punk was one didn’t need to know how to play to make music. If former members of No Trend had a problem with my ability as a drummer, they shouldn’t have had me in the band.”

Drag City is selling the box set on their site for $75, and $85 on Amazon and other sites. I’m not in the habit of pushing product, but I will say this: the music’s great and the book is full of surprises. No Trend actually got a write up in Playboy magazine! Mentges has nice things to say about the Dischord crowd! Strasser calls the band “Minor Threatening”! Mentges admits to have liking Peter Gabriel and Genesis! Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!

Too Many Humans/Teen Love is a major contribution to modern civilization, which I’m sure was the last thing No Trend would have wanted. But why should they be spared the awful fate that awaits us all?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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