Notes from a grouch

Between the ages of sixteen and twenty seven I went to about one gig a week, minimum. Sometimes two, sometimes three. During insane summer touring seasons, maybe more. I used to do a lot of things to do with DIY, but this isn’t about that. When I got back to the UK in Autumn 2008, I basically ceased being an “active” DIY person. Life took over. Well, more specifically, my PhD did. I kept my hand in helping Bryony out with Big Take Over shindigs, but that has been about my limit.

Now, there’s a strange thing that happens on the “other side”, which happens to most people. Apart from the usual “Where have you been?” questions, most people in my position feel the need to justify themselves in one way or another. Me? I think, for the first time, I shut up. I didn’t talk about DIY and got on with doing what came to hand. I am generally happy with this state of affairs. Other classes of response fall into a few really fucking boring typesets. There are the “Oh it’s so childish” brigade. These people flake out and then turn around and badmouth everything they previously held dear. DIY punk and hardcore made me who I am, I’m not going to join those chumps any time soon. Then there is the “Oh, it’s all bad these days, it was so much better back in the day (when I was the centre of attention).” brigade. Again, these people tend to forget the ephemera nature of the beast. I was at a gig the other day at the Cross Kings (wait, “The Star of Kings”, way to go with bad cross-branding, chumps). The basement was as packed as any with probably a hundred people I have never seen. DIY scenes generally work around lynchpins, the people that get shit done. I guess I used to be one of those people. The point being, we’re all replaceable. There is no single person that every made themselves indispensable. The world continues to turn and it doesn’t require anyone to give it a push. So yeah, I might prefer older bands, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any better than what’s going on today. The only people that really get to pull that line with a straight face were all coming of age in the late seventies anyway. The last set of people tend t be the ones who get really fucked up on drugs and start partying. Never had any truck with that, but hey, it’s a free country. So, having singularly failed to fall into the three basic categories of ex-scenester, I shut up and got on with my life.

Fast forward a couple of years and I have to move house for the nth time because London rents are insane and east London is populated by people paying rent on their parent’s credit card forcing rents through the roof. I have to move, but this time I get to plan it. One thing tat I have been carting around is a big box full of photos. I used to take a lot of photos at gigs. Anyways, prints are totally ephemeral, I decided to finally get shot of all the duff pictures that garnered a few decent band pictures. There was a time not long ago when gig photos were not digital. I used to have to scan negatives to stick them on the internet. I would go and get stuff developed at Jessops or whatever and end up with a handful of decent pictures and tons of duff shots spoilt by stagedivers, stage potatoes, moshers and all the other chaotic elements that make a hardcore gig. So I dumped those and kept the good ones. Or, more specifically, the ones that were worth keeping for a variety of reasons. The thing that amazed me ten years down the line was quite how much got away. The amazing gigs that I never took a picture at, or bands which I wasn’t able to get a decent picture of. I thought I’d put some up here with reflections. You know, because otherwise this stuff would be condemned to a dusty box.

Why? Man. That’s the most stupid, and oft repeated, question anyone ever asked about hardcore. The only answer is “because”.

Exhibit A: The Endless Blockade

It isn’t the best picture, but what is? Anyways. January 2006 I went to the Super Sabado in San Francisco. For a mid twenties punk, it was like a pilgrimage to the holy land. So many record shops etc etc blah blah blah. But yeah, this band. The Endless Blockade. One of the things I dig about hardcore is that it gives anyone a platform. It isn’t some popularity-free utopia, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. But if you want to shout about something, find three people to make noise while you do it (or less - see Iron Lung) and you have yourself a band. If you have the guts to get up on a stage (or a floor, or whatever) chances are people will watch you. If you are good, some of them might take notice. They might go wild, they might heckle, they might cheer. Whatever. If you’re bad, you’ll get sympathy mosh and between song auto-clapping. The line between the two reactions is perilously thin in any case. The basic point is anyone can do it if you have the guts to do it. So basically, you get bands of misfits making a racket and occasionally there’s a very good one, and occasionally they play to a crowd that goes off the hook. That pretty much describes 50% of Super Sabado in a nutshell. Didn’t really know them, but Andy the bassist was best friends with Jamie, the guy I went with, so ended up hanging out. My overriding memories of this band are Andy spitting on the floor of the brewery bar across the road from Gilman in disgust at the fact they wouldn’t accept legit ID from punks. That and this gig.

There are times when a band goes off, and the audience goes off, and at the end, everyone slaps each other on the back and says “Good gig!”. You know, this happens a lot. We see a lot of good gigs. Then there are the brief times when the band goes wild, and the audience is egged on to greater heights of insanity. It is a bit like a feedback loop stuck on “fuck tomorrow”. Things get out of hand, the vaguely defined dancefloor becomes a swamp of bodies, people, beer, beer cans and other objects are flying everywhere. If you are within line of sight of the vortex, you are both a participant and responsible. Out the back of the venue, the ghost of post-Minor Threat DC hardcore is crying at the irresponsible dancing, inside, chaos reigns. There is no self-conscious shit. In many respects “self” is suspended for both the band and audience until the amps go off, or someone breaks a string, whichever comes first.

The above photo is one of the only documents I have of witnessing such an event. The other ones didn’t come out too good. Who cares? I’m glad I got one.

Lesson: That mental image that coalesces in your head of the perfect gig? It will happen someday, hang tight and some day the bad clouds of folk-punk will part to reveal the promised land. You get a three hour pass, tops, so make the most of it.

Exhibit B: Abandon Ship

I include this picture because it pretty much sums up one of the key features of road life: van breakdowns. This was taken on, uh, day two of a weekend tour. Somewhere outside Glasgow. The point at which a weekend on the road, seeing friends and people all over the country descends into the stuttering sound of a gearbox and Andy Ship swearing is quite hard to convey. In short: it sucks. It was a surreal weekend. The previous night was a gig at a golf club(?) or some other incongruous venue on the Wirral, followed by a drive into town where we got re-directed by police due to a guy being killed in a bar fight. It was January and the city centre was filled with guys in short-sleeve shirts. Go figure. Less than an hour outside Glasgow the van dies. Abandon Ship managed to make it to the venue, play a decent gig (despite everyone being totally bummed out) and then had to cancel the rest and limp home with the recovery van. The only other band at the time that was similarly van cursed was On Thin Ice, who managed to write off a van exiting a ferry (though it wasn’t their fault).

Lesson: Ex-Royal Mail vans don’t cut it for touring. Oh, and all the fun stuff you get to do and see that 99% of the population can barely imagine comes at the cost of being stuck on lay bys, wasting hours outside a venue til a promoter shows, and all the other crap that is an essential component of touring (or jumping into a tour van). It is worth it.

Exhibit C: Jamie Franklin

This was taken at the Terror/Agnostic Front gig at the Underworld (see below). Franklin had just returned from some lads tour in South Europe somewhere (maybe it was a stag weekend, I forget). On the aformentioned holiday, he was sunburnt to lobster red on his back. He is pictured here operating as a human springboard/stage dive platform for the constant stream of punks moshing to Agnostic Front, and loving every minute of it. There are some things punk induces in people that are hard to explain. Allowing perfect strangers to jump off your sunburnt back is one of the more esoteric that I’ve encountered.

I guess I’m including this because I have a ton of affinity for the guy, even though I haven’t seen him for years. Frank the Mosher (his sometimes witnessed alter-ego) was a stroke of genius. Anyways. Jamie didn’t quite fit because he’d turn up to gigs reading the Financial Times. I once got an interrogation from a “named” scene persona for reading The Economist while manning the door for a gig, hence the affinity. While training to be a lawyer, Jamie also fucked his knee moshing, and broke a front tooth to Deny Everything, so I guess he didn’t “fit” too good either.

The funny thing about hardcore is that people expect it to be something. Sure, it takes a certain type to get into it, but the whole point is that it isn’t exclusive. I heard my fair number of bitchy comments about Jamie being “posh” and so on, and they irked me a shit ton more than the usual scene whinging and whining. The reason why is that this was the exact point at which punks wound up sounding as thick as the rah-rah blockheads who end up running the country because their greatx7 grand-daddy created offspring with a blue blood. Saying “You don’t belong” because someone wants to work as a lawyer or go into finance is equal in stupidity to the same rah-rahs saying the same about people that dropped out of school or never went to uni. At least they’ve got an excuse of living in some fucked up bubble world of Knightsbridge designer shops and the Kings Road. Punks don’t get that excuse.

To return to the photo, it pretty much encapsulates why Franklin was/is awesome to me, hence its inclusion. As Hunter S. put it: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

Lesson: Hell,  when you let people constantly stage dive off your surnburnt back, then you get to say who does and does not belong. Til then, there are far more important things to worry about. Like, are they going t0 play Victim in Pain, or am I going to have to sit through some turd they wrote in the last 20 years?

Exhibit D: Terror

I took a bunch of photos of Terror over the years, this is the one that captures them for me. Summer 2003 a ton of my friends got back from Hellfest saying “This one band Terror fucking killed everyone”. Sure enough, they made it over. And they fucking slayed. Lowest of the Low is a great record. A couple of filler songs, but still, woah.

I pretty much gave up on them after that record. the next one was “meh” and so on. Not my thing etc etc. Still, if there’s one thing to be said about that band, apart from “Scott”, it is probably “Vogel”. A ton of my friends will disagree with this, and it is pretty easy to, given the weird shoe-shopping videos and all the other trappings of a hardcore band that becomes professional. Then there are the endless things like “Vogelism” lists and whatnot. Objectively, there are a thousand points that could be debated and weighed.

The point is, none of that really matters for the twenty minutes between the opening riff and the “That’s us, goodnight”. In the eternal quest for some higher meaning and meta-narrative of being in a band (thanks, Nation of Ulysses) and playing aggressive music, sometimes people get caught up scientifically dissecting minutiae to the point that they ignore the most important bit: the minutes and seconds in between the opening riff and the good-night. Sometimes people are so caught up in proving that their particular minutiae are so damn good that those minutes don’t matter. Well, they do, and Vogel is proof.

Terror played a gig at the Dome (I think, my memory is hazy), then Ninjafest. As eluded earlier, sometimes it is the band and the audience that make things go crazy. Well, the sheer force of Vogel’s on stage persona is able to achieve near that (a man can only do so much). They leveled the place. People went crazy. I’m pretty sure people got hurt. In their prime (aka when I paid attention to them), Vogel would not stop, he would not accept indecision or timidity. Again, back to the self-consciousness bit. It is hard to be self conscious about moshing or stage diving when there is a guy with a microphone saying things like “I want a level ten stage dive now” in deadly earnest because he knows it is a way to get the crowd moving.

At a certain level, crowds are like sheep. Pack mentalities take over. Punks don’t like this. They don’t like to think that on a certain level, we’re all the same like that, that we take cues from the people around us. And yeah, I can see why people like Vogel copped flak for admitting this fact and using it to play crowds like a puppetmaster. If there was a hint of falsity about it, I would have gone off the whole shebang instantly, but you know, the way he did it was to push the limits, constantly. I remember seeing the (irreplaceable) Merauder shirt he used to wear being torn to shreds at some gig and he didn’t stop. Because none of that shit mattered, all that mattered in between open and close of his set was to kick, punch and headbutt the limits as best he could. To drag as many people along with him as possible in that finite space of time. And the riffs on Lowest of the Low still make me want to stage dive eight years down the line.

Lesson: That neo-Gramscian critique of the motion of bodies in a consensual gig environment you wanna talk about? Save it for the break. Right now, shut up and enjoy yourself.

Exhibit E: On Thin Ice

Don't ask me what line-up this is, I doubt they know either

I had a ton of On Thin Ice pictures, and this was the one that was truest to them. It is a mess. You can just about pick out Nate about to charge the crowd and Dargs shredding. OTI were like that though. I forget the volume of stories, line-up changes, van outages, releases TBC, and so on that dogged them throughout their existence.

I’ve seen Nate dial it in, and I’ve seen him on fire. This was one of those latter moments. The only comparable time I can remember involved them at The Underworld, someone headbutting my rib and cracking it, and me carrying on moshing regardless. Hardcore induces people to do stupid stuff. There is a school of thought that regards gigs as a sacral environment in which safety, certainty and inclusion are paramount. There were (back in these days) a load of idiots who thought “Yeah, fireworks indoors are a good idea”. The latter were mostly misinterpreting Clevo stories of bricks and hammers. The point being that throwing a heavy, blunt object in Cleveland could get you killed, but people did it anyway. Letting off fireworks at/near scared 16 year olds was fucking stupid, lame bullying. But people did it anyway. Anyways, OTI kinda reaped the whirlwind in that regard. Devotees of Cleveland mythology, but trapped in a scene that was, well, not Cleveland. When they were on point, they conjured that crazy energy and vibe that resulted in torn down ceilings, banned venues and all the other stories that it is way too late to remember. People did stupid stuff and the finger got pointed at them for starting the trend (make no mistake “Sketchiness” was in most cases as artificial as it came, the sketchiest band in UK hardcore at the time was Search and Destroy, one of whom became a machine gunner, another who glassed someone with a shot glass and another who broke into a limo for a place to sleep while fucked).

What gets me about it all is that they’re gone. Really gone. The 7” and split don’t do them justice, the second demo kinda catches some of it, but nothing like what I can remember seeing them live when they were 100% on point. Hell, none of the videos I could dig up on youtube really do them justice, either. So that’s pretty much why I picked this photo out of all of the ones I took. Because they’re a blur, a memory that I’m sure cannot be completely accurate. And there’s not much evidence that I can offer to say “they were better than that” other than the blunt assertion. In the end though, who wants to hear old guys go on about how amazing that band you never saw were, and how you will never be able to understand? Not many people.

Lesson: The band that you are into now, the one whose riffs get your blood boiling, that band can sink without a trace, without warning. The best stuff is ephemeral (if you were there) and timeless (if you weren’t) anyway, so don’t worry about it too much. The point isn’t to devise immutable lists of the best band ever, it is to enjoy it and move on. Or maybe to remember it from time to time.