Graded on a Curve:
TAANG! Records:
The First 10 Singles

In 1984 a record label was formed in Boston with a focus upon the city’s hardcore punk scene, its name an acronym for Teen Agers Are No Good! Since then its founder Curtis Casella has released music of wildly varying levels of quality, but TAANG! Records: The First Ten Singles provides a surprisingly consistent and highly enjoyable listen. A Record Store Day box-set limited to 2,000 copies and available only at participating brick and mortar shops, it offers 7-inches from Beantown acts Gang Green, Negative FX, Lemonheads, Moving Targets, and more.

Like numerous other ‘80s indies, TAANG! began as an outgrowth of a long-established local scene, with Curtis Casella chronicling the mid-‘80s punk/HC activity of his hometown. Other US imprints of similar beginnings exude more respective glamour (e.g. SST, Touch and Go, and Dischord), largely because they started earlier, but TAANG! stepped-up and captured a transitioning milieu when many of his predecessors were running out of steam, chasing dead-ends, or simply losing interest. And like any worthy label it’s the music that’s paramount, so let’s waste no time in delving into this set’s rewards.

Prior to a long tenure as one of the globe’s leading celebrants of unbridled alcohol intake, metal-tinged skate-punks Gang Green existed as a trad hardcore outfit, with their strongest attribute the exhibition of almost ludicrously blistering speed. That velocity is crucial to “Sold Out,” easily the crown jewel from the original lineup. It alternates parodic yet appealing elements of melody with stabs of breakneck momentum, and “Sold Out” stands as one of the best HC songs (which were frankly at a premium) of its period.

Following “Sold Out” on the a-side of TAANG! #1’s initial pressings was the 47 seconds of “Terrorize,” the flip holding a likeable if indisputably minor dub version. But for this collection, “Taang Dub” has been curiously and debatably excised, and “Terrorize” now sits on the b-side all by its lonesome. Some will understandably quibble with this decision, but it’s also hard to deny that a track many have given short shrift gets a new lease on life through the maneuver.

Reinforcing TAANG!’s hardcore bona fides is a second release by Last Rights. Featuring legendarily notorious vocalist Jack “Choke” Kelly after the dissolution of his first band Negative FX and before the rise of the apparently still extant Slapshot, Beantown HC nuts surely know Last Rights well, and those cuckoo over indie-rock might actually recognize them for “Chunks,” a song fellow Massachusetts act Dinosaur Jr. tackled on the flip of their “Just Like Heaven” 12-inch (Last Rights’ sole gig was with D.Y.S., Outpatients, and Deep Wound, the latter the HC unit of J Mascis and Lou Barlow pre-Dino).

Given its marriage of density and gargantuan hard-rock riffing, it’s no surprise “Chunks” ended up in Dinosaur’s book of covers. Not nearly as strong but still agreeable (i.e. a solid b-side) is “So Ends Our Night,” which succeeds mainly due to the sing-along elements of its chorus being enveloped in ample guitar residue. Like “Chunks,” its lyrical concerns do point to the testosterone-soaked sensibilities that caused many to leave HC behind, but “So Ends Our Night” persists as quite effective, and it completes a killer one-shot 7-inch.

Then TAANG!’s scenario takes a pleasant detour into melodic territory via Stranglehold, whose “Same All Over” b/w “She’s Not Leaving” is a slept-on classic of ’77-style melodicism from the heart of the ’80s. The anthemic and gritty a-side is essentially a glam-punk cocktail and its counterpart delivers revved-up power pop. The Heartbreakers, Stiff Little Fingers, Gen X, and The Undertones reliably get cited as touchstones upon Stranglehold’s whole shebang, and whenever I hear this 45 I’m always stumped over why I haven’t checked out their album.

From there TAANG!’s move toward the catchy continues with an unexpectedly worthwhile split single. The scoop is simple; when Leslie Green left Noonday Underground the remaining members and new bassist Frank Schact changed their name to Last Stand. I’d previously heard neither, but Last Stand’s “Scum Guns” is a catchy and appropriately raucous slab of protest-punk with trappings undeniably Brit.

It works in fine combination with the prior band’s severely infectious “Injun Joe,” a stout, very riffy mid-tempo number that flirts with an overextended duration (thing’s 4:32, a recipe for disaster in the punk realm), though just when it seems like they might be running out of petrol they kick it into overdrive and toss in some studio-enhanced vocalizing for good measure.

A 5-song 7-inch from Negative FX brings a return to hardcore, but it’s also a curveball. Fans of the group know their complete output (save for some belatedly issued demos) was placed onto a self-titled LP, the one with C. Manson’s unsavory mug on it (all six Last Rights tracks got stuffed onto the compact disc as well). Casella originally intended for his label to be a singles only affair however, and indeed Taang #5 was initially conceived as a 7-inch.

To borrow a phrase from a long-gone and much-missed poet: First Thought Best Thought. Short-playing vinyl is the format best-suited to the corrosively rudimentary HC of Negative FX, with the rather maximal “V.F.W.” and the four cuts packed onto its flipside wielding brazen simplicity and a guitar sound of titanic scuzziness.

Instead of plowing headfirst and getting submerged in the generous but ultimately overabundant banquet that is that collected CD, it’s a total gas to absorb both Last Rights and Negative FX in far more manageable doses via this set’s tidy yet bountiful spoils. I maintain that “Chunks” is the acme of Choke’s career, but will also admit that his early convulsions have never sounded better than they do right here.

Save for Chris Doherty (who also played in Stranglehold), the Gang Green that recorded “Skate to Hell” b/w “Alcohol” is a completely different entity than the one enshrined on Taang! #1. In terms of lyrical content, the first lineup specialized in Don’t-give-a-fuck-Core, but as mentioned above the band’s later focus was the championing of boozy overindulgence with a little bit of skateboarding thrown in.

And if this seems like an underwhelming subject, please keep in mind that the 1980s found millions willingly aligning themselves with the ideology of Just Say No (to say nothing of Straight-edge, HC’s own pocket of abstaining, a movement that was huge and often unhappily militant in Boston). It was in this environment that Gang Green Mk 4 defiantly shouted Yes.

They also engaged with an increasingly Hard-Rock sound, with Doherty (vocals/guitar), the Stilphen brothers Chuck (guitar) & Glen (bass) and ex-Outlets Walter Gustafson (drums) focused, at least at first, on the admirable template of prime Motörhead (AC/DC was also an acknowledged inspiration). Both this 7-inch, with its massive b-side statement of purpose(lessness), and the ensuing TAANG!-issued LP Another Wasted Night survive as indispensable documents of their era.

From the ashes of Stranglehold came the Oysters. TAANG! #14 follows a trajectory of tuneful clamor that if detectably more assured is still comparable to the outfit that partially spawned them. Before its inclusion here this 45 had escaped my hearing; while I dig how “Mine Caroline” culminates in a swell Buddy Holly/Stones rip, at this early juncture I find the beefed-up power pop of b-side “Tell Me” to be slightly preferable.

As noted by Casella in the accompanying booklet, the Lemonheads’ “Laughing all the Way to the Cleaners” EP was first issued on vinyl through the Huh Bag/Armory Arms label, though TAANG! was involved in the record’s distribution and signed them properly shortly thereafter. And before they became a big alternative deal, the Lemonheads were but one in a serious influx of ‘80s acts unthinkable without the precedent of The Replacements and especially Hüsker Dü.

Sounding better now than they did circa ’87, a time when many of us were experiencing intense Mats/Dü fatigue, the songs comprising their debut EP are far from carbon copies (some might disagree), with great gobs of punk snot torpedoing around the four tracks. In particular, the snarling riffs of “I Like To” and the heaving libido purge of “I Am a Rabbit” turn “Laughing all the Way to the Cleaners” into a retroactively appealing proposition.

In the ‘80s second half every major American city seemed to have at least one group advancing the agenda of Post-HC, and TAANG! #18 holds three selections by key Boston representative Moving Targets. They derive from a 7-inch previously available only in Australia through a licensing deal with the label Mr. Spaceman, though I’m sure a few copies reached other shores. Two cuts are found on their LP Burning in Water.

In the booklet, Casella makes a nice case for the trio’s instrumental ability, but I’ll note that while clearly proficient they weren’t flashy overall, even as Pat Brady had no problem giving his drum-kit a beating with much finesse. Instead, their work here combines sturdy melodies, with more Dü influence (quickly discernible on “Faith” and “Squares & Circles”) sitting alongside nods to hometown heroes Mission of Burma (particularly on a-side “Less Than Gravity”) as Kenny Chambers’ guitar thickness and the weighty propulsion of Pat Leonard’s bass and Brady’s drumming cohere with heaviness and precision. Nice work.

I’d long ago written off Slapshot as Choke’s third and least interesting band, but I must say that “Same Mistake” brings considerable racket, the a-side to their ’88 7-inch (following the “Back on the Map” EP) drenching mid-tempo thud in wailing guitar overload. Sadly, the shout-along orthodoxy of the flip’s “Might Makes Right” (a revamped Negative FX number) is far less inspiring. But next to what I was expecting, my cup positively runneth over.

Obviously, this set’s musical success is very much related to circumstances of format. I’m fond of underscoring that punk/HC, like most undiluted rock & roll, is extremely well-suited to the succinct nature of 45s. Concision means bands are far less likely to run out of ideas, but another vital factor is the general aura of youth that hovers around this collection; many of these discs are debuts (the rest are close to it), a fact that’s very important since rarely do punk/HC acts age like wine. Far more frequently they turn to pungent vinegar, many before even entering a studio.

In terms of packaging Taang! Records: The First Ten Singles is impeccable, its design easily meeting the high standards of presentation associated with the Get on Down label. The set’s an absolute beauty to behold, though it’s not so finely detailed that one will hesitate in pulling it off the shelf so one’s friends can handle it. And playing the 7-inches in order makes for an evening well-spent, but there is also a useful CD allowing the story to spill forth at a much faster clip.

The music is not always perfect, but that’s appropriate as it represents a gloriously imperfect era. With that said the 26 songs found here do combine into a very cohesive and stylistically varied listen, and the grade below is devoted solely to their collected achievement. TAANG! may not be my favorite Boston punk label of the ‘80s (I’d rank Ace of Hearts, Modern Method, and X-Claim higher) but Curtis Casella’s endeavor remains an impressive one. Taang! Records: The First Ten Singles is a deserving tribute.


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