Agony Shorthand

Friday, May 09, 2003
JUKEBOX JURY, ROUND THREE…..It’s time once again to face down the demons of our past and bring those now-dated bands and performers that marked my (and perhaps your) college-era experience (1985-89) to their final day of reckoning. Did they really have any relevance beyond the boozing, record collecting 19-year-old demographic? Can we honestly bring ourselves to listen to their once-unchallenged music in 2003 with nary a wince? If you missed the first installment, in which we took it to KILLDOZER, LAUGHING HYENAS, THE FLUID, PUSSY GALORE, and SCRATCH ACID, you can find it by clicking here. In our second installment, we rendered swift military-style justice to the LAZY COWGIRLS, DINOSAUR JR., NAKED RAYGUN, SPACEMEN 3 and SOUL ASYLUM, and you can find that one here. As before, the ground rules are as follows:

"Just as in our criminal justice system, these musicians will be judged either INNOCENT or GUILTY. If Innocent, they have successfully stood the ravages and judgment of time, and their music still sounds good to this day – not a small matter when the original jury was 18-19 years old. If they’re deemed Guilty, these bands are already being judged harshly by history, and will likely be wholly forgotten when the college students who bought their records in the 80s slowly begin to die off".

Let us bravely confront the mistakes of youth together. Here are this round’s sacrificial lambs!


1. BUTTHOLE SURFERS – There was a time when this band was the be-all & end-all for many a young parent-hating, drug-taking college student. Their 1980s live shows were absolute carnival freak shows, with absurd props & pranks, horrid medical accident films, crazed light shows, and unholy, droning noise that either sent one on a search for better stimulants or straight out of the room. But the records? Well, as the band themselves admit, it was never really about the records, and listening to them today I have to agree. There are a few screeching slices of low-end croak like “Concubine” or “To Parter” that still stand up, but mostly the Surfers on vinyl come across these days as gimmicky, unfunny and straight-up boring. I remember laughing hard at “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave” in the 10th grade – today it sounds like something only Jello Biafra or a 10th grader could still cop to digging. JUKE BOX JURY VERDICT? Line up those old LPs for a ritual unloading on eBay – the Butthole Surfers are GUILTY.

2. DEATH OF SAMANTHA – These Ohioans got little respect and less glory for their rarified NY Dolls-meets-80s indie rock swagger, but I always thought that Death of Samantha were one of the absolute best bands going in 1985-89. They put out four terrific 12” records that showcased exceptionally clever wordsmithery & guitars that could jangle & shred in the same riff: “Strungout on Jargon”, the EP “Laughing In The Face of a Dead Man”, “Where The Women Wear The Glory and the Men Wear The Pants” and “Come All Ye Faithless”. For many, it came down to whether or not you could handle John Petkovic’s snarky, semi-abrasive vocals and his determined-to-piss-you-off personality. I could, and I still can. And those clothes – god, those clothes. Fantastic band, very much deserving of CD reissues of the aforementioned LPs. JUKE BOX JURY VERDICT? Death of Samantha are INNOCENT.

3. DRUNKS WITH GUNS – Could be a real easy one for most to dismiss without actually listening to their late 80s output, as their shtick revolved around way-“heavy” topics like blood, guns, deviant sexual behavior etc. All well and good when you’re in the naïve, blossoming flower of youth, but it doesn’t wear so well on a 35-year-old. But St. Louis’ Drunks With Guns, who barely released anything back in the day that you could actually find without resorting to extreme ninja record collecting tactics, mitigated all of their youthful stupidity with the most flattening, bottom-heavy creepy crawl THUD that moved well beyond the benchmark set by FLIPPER into new realms of heavy ugliness. I listened the other day to some of their achievements, and tracks like “Drunks Theme” “Hellhouse” and, uh, “Dick In One Hand” still have it. They also were blessed with a terrific vocalist (Mike Doskocil) who “sang” with an affected miserable, angry white trash drunkard’s voice, and actually pulled it off. Many lesser lights have tried, and for all their raw, chapped vocal cords and belligerent posturing, their bands’ records are sitting in the 99-cent bins today (Iowa Beef Experience or god forbid, TAD, anyone?). Meanwhile, Drunks With Guns vinyl changes hands for $50+ for each of those impossibly rare 45s. JUKE BOX JURY VERDICT? Never mind the rarity – for their bloodthirsty music alone, I call DWG INNOCENT.

4. HALO OF FLIES – I’ve already had an impassioned plea on one of the earlier comments to pronounce Minneapolis’ Halo of Flies innocent, but let’s go through the motions here first. Here’s another one who made their mark on the collector scum circuit first with gimmicks like edition-of-100 45s. Thing was, ALL of their 45s are killer. Tom Hazelmeyer, despite his crafted fake-racist/thin-skinned/uptight military man persona, was a phenomenal guitarist, capable of shooting sheets of guitar noise through a wah-wah & coming up with some of the most sonically invigorating up-tempo punk rock this side of the MC5 or his heroes THE CREATION. Every CD collection needs a well-played copy of “Music For Insect Minds”, which contains their complete recordings – every 45 and EP and comp track is fully represented. JUKEBOX JURY VERDICT? INNOCENT of course, but I might bring Hazelmeyer himself up for a parole hearing in a couple of years to see if some of his 1980s fanzine rants check out.

5. DIE KREUZEN – Finally we end with a decision on Milwaukee’s Die Kreuzen – ah, what to do with them? Their self-titled first LP, which unfortunately falls outside of the ’85-89 period we’re covering, is quite honestly and simply the greatest hardcore punk LP of all time (depending on whether or not you count "Damaged" and "G.I." as hardcore – if so, number three is still not a bad place to be). That record will joyfully peel the skin off your arms and scramble your synapses, an all-time heavyweight in the hard & loud hall of fame. So what did they do next? Well, it may have sounded good back then, but I now think any enthusiasm I was throwing at “October File” and “Century Days” back then was simple basking in the glow of the debut. They now sound like warmed-over, art-damaged metal at their best, and they obviously grope for U2 popularity at their worst. I saw them open for Sonic Youth in 1988 at San Francisco’s Fillmore, and was so eager for a good-time first-LP-style thrashing that I tried painfully hard to overlook the big hair, the power ballads and the exceptionally mediocre songs. It was tough, and for years I kept my feelings about it tightly bottled up, and kept telling everyone that Die Kreuzen were a damn good band. I talked this one over with my Midwest correspondent/expert DP, who saw Die Kreuzen many more times that I did, and he helped me with the final, painful, self-confronting judgment. JUKE BOX JURY VERDICT? GUILTY Dave Lang’s eloquent protestations to the contrary.

Come back next time when we wrap up our series with decisions on BIG BLACK, SQUIRREL BAIT, DAS DAMEN and more!