Agony Shorthand

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The first time I ever listened the Maximum Rock and Roll radio show must have been approximately September 1981, because the Tim & the gang were all abuzz about a brand new comp of LA punk & weirdo bands called "KEATS RIDES A HARLEY". It was very funny to me, that year I turned 14, to know that there really existed a band called "The Meat Puppets". I will never forget hearing the band's "H-Elenore" that very day, and have it form in my head as the most extreme, chaotic & wild music I'd heard to date (still is right up there 24 years later). I also vaguely recall TOXIC SHOCK's excellent nasal/minimal "Sensationalism" from the LP being played. A few years later I had my own copy of "Keats", and it always stood apart from the rest of the LA punk comps I hoarded as something very unique, insular and somewhat hard to pigeonhole. Only a couple tracks qualified as rough-and-ready punk rock, and of those 1 or 2 that did, just barely. But they were all pretty neat. Imagine my happiness when Happy Squid and Warning Label records undertook a CD reissue of it this year, with an extra track by EACH of the original 9 bands and the bonus "Happy Squid Sampler" EP, a collectors' holy grail if ever there was one.

The original "Keats" LP had some of the best mastering of all time, so every song exploded off the vinyl & gave some of these young bands their best tracks ever. I've always been partial to the LEAVING TRAINS' keyboard-infused "Virginia City" as the best thing they ever did, and Falling James himself does some great liner notes to the CD (I have a hard time reconciling my few in-person interactions with a strung-out, cross-dressing James Moreland with the guy who writes like someone who not only possesses all his marbles but perhaps has a few more than most folks. Go figure). Ditto for the GUN CLUB's early version of "Devil In The Woods" -- very raw, echoey and intense, miles better than the version that ended up on their 2nd record. A bit of this is lost in translation to digital, I'm afraid, but not so much to preclude you from immediate purchase nonetheless. There are some real winners among the extra tracks as well -- the funkified EARWIGS come up big on both their numbers; TOXIC SHOCK, who were really an early DIY-core version of SLOVENLY, contribute a good punker called "Fat"; the MEAT PUPPETS tackle Neil Young's "The Losing End" live in the studio moments before they recorded the uber-ballistic "H-Elenore"; and the nearly always-great 100 FLOWERS, who underwrote this comp as well as virtually the whole bastard scene around it, contribute "Sensible Virgins" (later dropping the "s" in Virgins for another punk/art hybrid comp on New Underground Records).

The compilation in its new 23-song form is laden with joyful experimentation from the scene that formed in the small clubs and cramped garages around Los Angeles. The sound tweakers HUMAN HANDS, ARROW BOOK CLUB and PHIL BEDEL will be quite out of place for those who come to slam, but as the bands themselves say over & again in the first-person liners, the definition of "punk" was a lot more broad than us whippersnappers today would have it. I'll bet many were called "Devo" in their time for wearing a black shirt or funny glasses. It's a great thing to again have this glimpse of 1981 LA bands independently operating far below the radar of those whom themselves operated below the radar.