Agony Shorthand

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A couple of months ago I was able to break bread and sample adult beverages with Mike Atta and his family in Fullerton, CA, thanks to a mutual friend and his family. We all three of us have boys around the same age, and an abiding love for Southern California punk rock of the late 70s, though only one of us actually helped to invent it. Guitarist Atta and his fellow teenage brothers Jeff & Bruce created one of the gnarliest and crazed punk bands of any era, THE MIDDLE CLASS, and as heralded before on this site, their “Out of Vogue” EP from 1978 is a stone classic, one of the most berserk records of all time & a true rock and roll landmark. I’ve seen some references here and there over the past couple years to the Middle Class, that record, and their subsequent records (the “Scavenged Luxury” 7”EP and the “Homeland” LP), but their mythology has remained unpenetrated to date. Until now.

We talked punk rock and child care that balmy evening in Fullerton, and Mike was kind enough to agree to an e-mail interview with Agony Shorthand in the correspondence that followed. Here’s what transpired:

Agony Shorthand: We’ll start with probably the most generic of all questions about the Middle Class and the band’s legacy, such as it is. What do you make of the notion that “Out of Vogue” EP was the first hardcore punk record?

Mike Atta: It's nice to have something to be remembered for, but sorry kids, Middle Class was about as hardcore as Dr Pepper (which, by the way, fueled our speed). We were very fast, tense, tight, sonic, loud, young, excited, nervous, naive, and only slightly pissed...actually more annoyed than pissed. Our Out of Vogue era gigs did manage to whip up a frenzy, but nothing so aggressive or violent as hardcore would later be know for. As far as Out of Vogue being the first hardcore record, I'm not even sure I know what that means, but….um …ok. Something for the obituary I guess....

Agony Shorthand: What sort of response did the band get from the Hollywood/Masque crew? Was there truly a distinct bias against anything from South of Hollywood or did you guys fit in well with the Bags, Germs, Weirdos, X, Metrosquad, etc.?

Mike Atta: Early on Exene asked us "why do you guys have to play so fast?" I don't think anybody knew what to make of us, 20 songs in 20 minutes, we didn't look the part either but some people found that even more disturbing. Middle Class wasn't blues, rock, or pop based. There wasn't any reference for fans of "rock and roll" to latch on to. You either liked it or you didn't. Some responded well, some just ignored us.

As far as OC bias, that didn't exist when we started, there was plenty of bias, but not geographic bias. That would come later when the other kind of "Beach Boys" would trade in their shoulder pads and cleats for bandannas and engineer boots. Most people in the early scene were from somewhere else. At the time being from Orange County was just like being from the Valley, just another place off the 5 freeway.

We managed to slip in at an opportune time. The punk community was very small, so if 75 people found you less than annoying, you had a majority. The musical styles of the bands of the time were quite diverse. Anything that wasn't mainstream and had an attitude was given a shot. After playing our first gig (The Germs, The Bags, The Controllers and Middle Class for $2.00. Top that!) getting shows proved pretty easy, at least at first when we where content on opening. All the other bands from that era had been on the scene for sometime and nobody wanted to open. We were very happy to oblige. Looking back on it we got plenty of support from the other bands of the time, The Dils, Germs, Alleycats, Screamers, and Zeros in particular. We fit in so well with the Bags that my brother Bruce (Middle Class drummer) dated Alice for 4 or 5 years. We also got our fair share of Slash and Flipside press. For our third gig (at the Whiskey) we got a lengthy, great review in Slash. We went from zero to being in the middle of the LA punk scene within six weeks. It was pretty amazing to us.

Agony Shorthand: Second most generic question. How do you explain 3 brothers, all into punk rock, all playing in the same band, all playing different and complimentary instruments (your brother Jeff’s auctioneer vocals included, of course)?

Mike Atta: I really can't explain it. I think that's why it worked. We basically learned together. We had no musical background, training, or pedigree. I had been playing for about 6 months at the end of 1976 when I hooked up with my brother Jeff's high school chum Mike Patton. Jeff and Mike were always on the outside a bit, listening to The Stooges, Sonics, MC5, Eno, Bowie, Modern Lovers. So when punk reared its ugly head with the Ramones, they were ready. Urging me to drop my 16 year old Joe Perry yearnings, Mike Patton started a group with me, my brother Bruce on vocals, and some real "dude from HB" on drums. When the speed of Ramones covers became to much for the HB boy, Bruce decided he could learn drums, and Jeff figured if Bruce could just decide to play drums, then he could sing. We had nothing going on outside the band. You know, misfit types. So we locked ourselves away in a Santa Ana storage unit for about a year, figured out our instruments together, and what you hear is what came out. It was just the way you hear punk should be, four people just decide they can be a band and then do it.

Agony Shorthand: How did the Atta parents react to the teenage punk rock invasion under their roof? Any good stories of them having to bump up against Darby Crash or Black Randy at gigs?

Mike Atta: Our parents were very supportive. We grew up in a not-so-nice part of Santa Ana with six kids and very few dollars. Middle Class gave their aimless, bored boys purpose and confidence. I was on the fast track to loady-dom and Jeff and I stayed in our room a lot. So they were very happy that we found something. Plus, they thought our punk rock girl friends were cute.

Our dad never saw us play live. Our mom came to the Whiskey and saw us play with the Germs. She and my little sister (9 at the time) met Darby, Lorna and Dinky (Bonebrake) and Michelle. We steered her clear of Pat and Don. My mom thought they were all very nice people. She also liked Bowie. Darby would be happy to know that.

Agony Shorthand: You told me about a West Coast mini-tour that your youngest brother Bruce wasn’t allowed to go on, and that you had to hastily ask Don Bolles (GERMS) to fill in for. Tell us what that trip was like, including any Bolles stories you care to mention.

Mike Atta: Bruce was 15 at the time and our parents weren't quite ready for him to rock beyond the Grapevine. We played with the Germs a lot and asked Don to play drums with us. We practiced in the basement of the Canterbury two or three times and realized that Don had no desire to learn our songs. He ended up playing the opening drum riff to Lexicon Devil at Middle Class speed for all 20 songs in our set. My memory may not be correct, but this might have been the time that we were maced at the Mabuhay by disgruntled Marines who thought they paid their 5 bucks for a North Beach boob show and ended up with Middle Class. How awful for them....

I do have Don Bolles stories, but, as with a lot of Don Bolles stories, they don't end pretty.

Agony Shorthand: Back to Jeff’s vocals on that first EP – it’s one of the most distinct set of vocal performances in punk history I’ve ever heard, particularly on “Out of Vogue”. Please comment.

Mike Atta: My brother Jeff had a lot to say. The problem was he had to say it fast because we weren't going to wait for him. He had to force all the lyrics, verses, and choruses of a three minute song into a one minute speed fest. His vocals became like the drums or guitars. All down strokes. I think he had no choice, it just had to be that way.

Agony Shorthand: Since Middle Class were truly more of an “artpunk” band, even from the first record, than many of the groups you automatically got lumped in with – and since you played on bills that weren’t always just the punk-by-numbers bands – can you tell us a little bit about what you guys were digging at the time, and how that evolved as the band continued on to record your 1982 “Homeland” LP?

Mike Atta: We were always a band who was influenced by what was happening right in our time. Musically, politically, and socially. We fully embraced the Clash's '77 mantra "no Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones". Again, Jeff was always on the underground side of music buying all early '74- '76 punk releases when they came out or other bands that were branded punk 'cause there was no place else to put 'em My guitar influences were bands like Wire (12XU), Buzzcocks (Spiral Scratch ep), Ramones(1st LP). The oldest thing I was into at the time was The Modern Lovers. I always loved the diverse bands of our little universe. The chaos of the Germs, the tension of the Screamers, the spectacle of Black Randy, the political posturing of the Dils, etc, etc....It was all very brilliant.

A little later, when the definition of punk narrowed, bands like Pop Group, Gang of Four and Joy Division would have an obvious effect on us.

Agony Shorthand: The sort of jagged, skeletal stuff you were making in the 80s were not typically sounds one associates with Orange County, CA during the hardcore & beachpunk explosion. How was it received within the County, and were there any other kindred souls down there that you were regularly gigging with around that time?

Mike Atta: As usual, Middle Class was doing something slightly out of step. By the time OC and hardcore became big we evolved, by the time the other stuff was catching on we quit. A lot the kids in that beach scene hated us by 1981. A lot of the bands from OC that got their first LA gigs because of Middle Class didn't understand what was going on with us. They became OC hardcore. We ran from it. We started playing shows with bands that were formed from the ruins of past bands and bands formed by fans of the first punk wave. People who were listening to bands like Joy Division and Gang of Four. I can't really remember any bands from OC that were going in the same direction as us at that time. A lot of the original bands from LA reacted to OC hardcore differently a few embraced it, most were frightened by it, many were breaking up, exploring their inner folkiness, dying or becoming pop stars.

Agony Shorthand: I have a pretty good sense of what you’re up to in 2006 – what about your brothers Jeff and Bruce? Mike Patton (bass)? Matt Simon (post-Bruce Atta drummer)?

Mike Atta: Jeff works with my wife and I, running our art and design shop in Downtown Fullerton. It's next to our vintage modern furniture and clothing shop. Bruce is a philosophy professor at Cal State LA. Mike Patton was, the last time I checked, a union negotiator for bus drivers in the OCTA. I'm seeing him in a couple weeks so there may be an update. Matt Simon, who I see frequently, is a third grade teacher.

Agony Shorthand: Has Middle Class ever been seriously approached to reunite, even if just for a gig or two?

Mike Atta: I've said it before. History is remembering us pretty well, we shouldn't fuck it up by playing again.

I really have mixed feelings about this. That time period, that music, that band, that scene, the whole thing helped shape me, my opinions, my humor, my extreme likes and severe dislikes. Those bands really meant something; they changed music and broke down barriers. Bands were fans- fans were bands. Anyone can do it - this was true. Playing today is just pure nostalgia. It means nothing. And that bothers me. I have this fear that, in the not too distant future, all the bands that once stood for something different will end up on a public television special. A gala event, "The Stars of LA Punk Rock" Nicholas Cage will be the host in his "Valley Girl" punk get-up and everybody will have the same backing band. Exene will sing Los Angeles, John Denney will sing Life of Crime, all 35 Black Flag singers will sing Nervous Breakdown together, and because nobody really remembers, that fake and phony ER dude will still do Darby. It'll be just like those 50's doo wop shows....

We did come close to reuniting once. A couple of years ago, Brendan Mullen (Masque) who was always a fair guy to us, asked us to play the class of '77 show. To my surprise, my brothers agreed; the only stumbling block was the two week prep time. Playing that fast after a twenty five year layoff would be difficult at best. The Adolescents have asked us to be a surprise guest at a House of Blues Show, but....naw.

We were asked to do The Germs Return Show. They wanted to re-create the original show which featured The Germs, Middle Class, and The Minutemen. I responded that we had the only original singer that was alive and I didn't want to kill my brother to do the show. Jeff said he would do it if we got an actor from ER to play him. Maybe that Noah Wyle feller.....

If, down the road, we do a reunion show, please disregard all of the above.

Agony Shorthand: Your retrospective CD “A Blueprint For Joy” came out in the late 90s and can barely be found any longer. Is there anything else in the works that might get these crazed sounds out to a new generation?

Mike Atta: We will be releasing a retrospective on Frontier Records sometime this year. It will have all the studio material that appeared on A Blueprint for Joy, plus recently discovered studio demos from just before the Out of Vogue single and before we got our first show.

Out of Vogue will appear on the soundtrack of American Hardcore this fall on Rhino.