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Musical Inspirations: Punk & Post-Punk

Friday, December 13th, 2013: Music, Musings.

Calendar collage by Max and Mark, 1980

Calendar collage by Max and Mark, 1980

A Golden Age

My generation was too young to play an active role in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, but we had our own moment of glory in the aftermath of punk music, as part of an urban youth culture more creative and energetic than anything I’ve seen since.

Punk embodied a cultural, political, and economic rebellion: against mainstream commercialized music and lifestyles, against government and authority figures, and in protest of working-class poverty and hopelessness. Post-punk took its rebellious, do-it-yourself ethic from punk, but post-punk music was less a genre than the musical component of a continuous, open-ended underground arts scene committed to exploration and experimentation.

It was a time of economic hopelessness in the cities and disillusionment in society, a few years before personal computers and the digital revolution, bookended between the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and the regressive Reagan presidency, when young people felt betrayed rather than empowered by technology, and the media were relentlessly promoting a shallow, meaningless consumer lifestyle. So urban young people, instead of focusing on their careers, focused on their “free time” when they could collectively create or participate in their own alternative culture.

It was a unique, magical time resulting from a rare combination of factors: disaffected youth, cheap urban rents, and the late-70s vanguard of punk music as a unifying inspiration. It may seem paradoxical to some, but poverty and mind-numbing jobs, rather than affluence and economic opportunity, inspired creativity, because we were forced to create our own culture with much more limited resources than the youth of today, and without access to the infinite interwebs, we had to work hard to discover and share new ideas.

My experience was limited to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but our local scenes were connected to the distant cities like New York, London and Berlin via friendships, record shops (like our SF outpost of London’s Rough Trade), zines, artist tours and festivals. All of this occurred “under the radar” of mainstream media, so that it was a true underground phenomenon, and unlike today’s urban art scene, it was the only game in town for young people, the only challenging and meaningful way to spend your time, and unlike the rave scene of the late 90s it was participatory, with more creators and fewer spectators.

For a few short years in San Francisco, my fellow artists and I opened and maintained dozens of underground venues which hosted a continuous lineup of shows, salons, parties and large-scale events eagerly supported and attended by our crowd of thousands of roving cultural explorers, so that any night of the week it was hard to choose, and groups of us ranged deliriously back and forth from the Mission to scary South of Market tenements, finally stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning.

Our culture, documented in forgotten zines like San Francisco’s Search & DestroyDamage and Re/Search, was open-endedly eclectic, embracing minimal rock, African music, industrial noise, electronic experimentation and sampling, video and performance art, free jazz and chamber folk. We were passionate about anything that wasn’t mainstream.

Cover of Damage, December 1980

Cover of Damage, December 1980

 

Cover of Re/Search, first issue, featuring The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and Sun Ra

Cover of Re/Search, first issue, featuring The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and Sun Ra

Rotten to the Core

My own coming-of-age began in 1978. I was living in a group house south of the city, where I had been playing and listening to nothing but bluegrass, convinced that popular music was a wasteland. But my roommate James, an older anti-war rebel and environmental activist from the hippie generation, suddenly started playing the records of the Modern Lovers, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols nonstop, all day long, and my mind was blown.

The following year, I moved to CalArts in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, where I squatted in an art studio, living on welfare and food stamps, wrote punk songs, played in my friend Mark’s punk-inspired new wave group, and saw the LA band X performing in a small classroom. Newscasts were bludgeoning us with the Three Mile Island apocalypse, the Iranian revolution, the mass suicide of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple cult, the assassination of gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and the unfolding, gruesome stories of serial killers in the U.S., when the first recordings of the definitive British post-punk bands, Public Image Ltd and Joy Division, appeared and became the soundtracks of our nihilistic parties and road trips and the main inspirations for our own music.

Max's drawing of Los Angeles band X performing in a CalArts classroom, 1979

Max’s drawing of Los Angeles band X performing in a CalArts classroom, 1979

One of Max’s early punk lyrics, set to music in 2010:

Tracks like PIL’s Swan Lake and Poptones, and Joy Division’s Transmission and Love Will Tear Us Apart, were our anthems, simultaneously angry, cynical, and energizing. Our society was rotten to the core, and as PIL’s John Lydon sang, “anger is an energy.”

Burning Brightly

The following year, I got a boring day job in the tech industry that took me to San Francisco, where I immediately found myself in the midst of a cultural explosion. I was going to shows several nights a week at venues like Jetwave and Target Video that hadn’t existed the year before, and writing songs and putting together a band on the other nights, making new art and meeting dozens of kindred spirits and bursting with new ideas.

Ad in Damage for Max's first group art show, at Target Video in San Francisco, October 1980

Ad in Damage for Max’s first group art show, at Target Video in San Francisco, October 1980

New York experimental dance band Liquid Idiot playing an after-hours show in the basement of Valencia Tool & Die

New York experimental dance band Liquid Idiot playing an after-hours set in the basement of Valencia Tool & Die, August 1980

The tracks Nightcrawling and Too Close, sharing the dark visions of post-punk bands like Joy Division and PIL, were composed in 1980 by overdubbing repeatedly between stereo cassette decks, using primitive sound makers and ambient audio samples.

Our local scene peaked in October 1980 with the Western Front festival, which demonstrated the unity of punk, post-punk, street art, performance art, film and video art, supporting local artists and introducing us to exciting touring acts like New York’s DNA and England’s Delta 5. My new roommate and future bandmate Gary introduced me to the brilliant, totally unique Welsh chamber group Young Marble Giants, who became one of my biggest inspirations.

18" x 24" poster for the Western Front festival, San Francisco, October 1980

18″ x 24″ poster for the Western Front festival, San Francisco, October 1980

Max's drawing of the New York no-wave band DNA, 1980

Max’s drawing of the New York no-wave band DNA, 1980

Max's drawing of the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, 1980

Max’s drawing of the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, 1980

The Terra Incognita tracks Love Chant and Wireless took the minimalist aesthetic of Young Marble Giants in a more experimental direction.

Our local luminaries included electronic pioneers Rhythm & Noise, the chamber trio Minimal Man, the atmospheric trio Tuxedomoon, the politically offensive Dead Kennedys, and the perpetually fucked up Flipper. They were all inspiring in different ways, and we all hung out together at after-hours parties and neighborhood clubs like the Mission’s Valencia Tool & Die and South of Market’s notorious A-Hole Gallery, where you often stumbled over underage junkies nodding out as you climbed the four flights of dingy stairs to the illegal speakeasy.

Max's drawing of the San Francisco post-punk band Tuxedomoon, 1980

Max’s drawing of the San Francisco post-punk band Tuxedomoon, 1980

Within the next year, I got to see both New Order (the successor of Joy Division) and Public Image Ltd, but I had already organized my own band and performance art group, Terra Incognita, which was to last the rest of the decade, repeatedly morphing into completely different styles and lineups, all inspired in some way by that short-lived cultural revolution, which had all but faded away by 1983.

Max's poster for Terra Incognita's first show, 1981

Max’s poster for Terra Incognita’s first show, 1981

Max onstage with his gear at a Terra Incognita show, 1981

Max onstage with his gear at a Terra Incognita show, 1981

Jon and Max performing in the Terra Incognita loft, 1982

Jon and Max performing in the Terra Incognita loft, 1982

It simply burned too brightly while it lasted, and it couldn’t be sustained. But from 1979 to 1982, it produced a major segment of my mature repertoire, from early songs like Nightcrawling and Hand Over Hand to the later Terra Incognita instrumentals Black Water and Plains of Abraham. And it continued to have repercussions in my creative work, as in 1985 I met Katie, a Los Angeles artist who introduced me to the music of the Arizona cowpunk band Meat Puppets, and 1986 we met Sebastian, a Portuguese artist who introduced us to the music of England’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which had started at the same time as the Sex Pistols, because he thought we sounded like them. Who would have thought that something as brutal as punk music could open the way to a genre as delicate as chamber folk?

Our friend Sebastian brought us a cassette of Penguin Cafe Orchestra after hearing us perform songs like The Sheep.

Lasting Legacy

The post-punk scene introduced African music to Western audiences. In early 1981, my new bandmate Jon gave me a cassette of West African highlife music, so that when a few months later Talking Heads came out with their African-inspired Remain in Light album, I was already on the path to learning and absorbing African styles, which I learned directly from West African luminaries OJ Ekemode, Joni Haastrup and Malonga Casquelourd in jams and performances at my loft in early 1982.

Some post-punk bands, like New Order and Gang of Four, joined mainstream artists like Michael Jackson and new wave acts like Eurythmics in the club scene, which for us survivors of the dying cultural revolution was one way to keep some of that energy going – we still loved to dance!

Punk and post-punk music established the DIY paradigm for all the “alternative” and “indie” artists to follow, from the 80s until now. The early electronic experimentation of artists like Rhythm & Noise and Cabaret Voltaire, nurtured by the post-punk scene, evolved into the vast, diverse electronic music and dance culture of today.

Although the tight-knit post-punk youth culture collapsed in the early 80s, its ripples continued to inspire new music throughout the decade, so that in Terra Incognita’s most visible phase, from 1986-1990, we always had plenty of good company in a vibrant local music scene, from hard-core experimentalists like Bardo and the Invertebrates, to our friends American Music Club, who gained a worldwide audience.

The Meat Puppets are still around, after polishing their sound and surviving various traumas, and in the 90s they became my favorite rock band, inspiring my songs Yellow Mud and Drivin’ Round Loaded. And New Order evolved into pillars of the urban club scene during the late 80s and early 90s, releasing classic-sounding tracks like Waiting for the Siren’s Call and Krafty well into the aughts.

Although Yellow Mud may not sound anything like the Meat Puppets, the lyrics were inspired by Curt Kirkwood’s mystical, childlike style of writing.

The main riff in Go to Them was inspired by the simple, catchy rhythmic phrases in New Order’s classic songs.

Three decades after the post-punk era, we live in an era of widespread complacency. Unlike my generation, young people in the affluent cities of the First World seem happy to immerse themselves in their careers, media, and technology, trusting that they can solve the world’s problems just by making those wonderful, “democratic” gadgets and apps available to everyone, with Google wifi balloons hanging over every African village. Gone are the hopelessness, anger and cynicism that drove the creativity of the early 80s, to be replaced by the boundless optimism of the tech industry and the thrill of making lots of money. Those of us who still perceive cycles in nature and society, including my ecologist friends, wonder when it will all come full circle, with technology again exposing its dark side, and the easy money fading away. I see a society that’s still rotten to the core, and more destructive than ever. Anger is an energy.

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Listening Outside Your Comfort Zone

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014: Music, Musings.

I was brought up on eclectic music, but I have had my obsessions, like the early 70s when I only listened to classical, or the 80s when I only chose to listen to African music. Yet even during those times, my girlfriends and roommates played other kinds of music constantly all around me; music listening had not yet been privatized via iPods and earbuds.

Obsessions were part of my youth, when I was more worried about rebelling or establishing my identity. Later I gave that up. I’d much rather learn and evolve than get stuck with an “identity.”

Now that private listening has become the norm, my younger friends are migrating to streaming services. As others have noted, even when it’s “curated,” streaming music delivers primarily that which is already familiar to you. Pandora creates “radio” based on your favorite artists. I’m sorry, but that’s no way to discover new music.

As an artist committed to, or rather, dependent on, lifelong learning and unlimited exploration, I have only limited interest in listening to the kind of music I already know and like. That’s one reason why I still listen to terrestrial radio with live DJs. While I’m working at home, I stream a handful of stations that play eclectic music that often surprises me and turns me onto something I didn’t know and like before, including one internet-only station that happens to play my music. I’ve discovered these terrestrial stations during my travels, by actually being in the places where they’re located, places I developed a connection with, and having them available online is the icing on the cake.

In this context, I regularly listen to shows featuring styles of music I don’t like, because sometimes a single track will stand out and teach me something.

Still, I know a lot of older musicians who should know better, who only listen to the one or two kinds of music they’ve identified with: folk, country, rock, jazz, world, etc. Musicians who revere jazz or traditional music and make sweeping judgements against rock, electronic or punk. And of course the nostalgic baby boomers with their classic rock addiction. That’s a great way to stagnate, dudes.

Or you could try listening outside your comfort zone – you might learn something and have some unexpected fun!

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