SOMETIMES this shit seems so important that it eclipses everything, and then when you finally get it together after years of trying and failing, it turns out it means absolutely nothing at all.
There’s a picture of me, Paul, John and Doug from about five years ago, at a house party in leafy Headingley. We’re all beaming. I’m well and truly trollied, having a right laugh with some of my dearest friends, as happy as Larry.
After a tough couple of years, things were happening. I was secure in an exciting new job, confident, cohabiting, committed, and happy with my lot. Full of optimism for the future, I was ready for anything and everything life could throw at me.
At least some of my exuberance on that particular night stemmed from Paul’s admission that he’d found the copy of the seminal Washington DC hardcore compilation, Flex Your Head, that he’d somehow appropriated from me back in the day. Like 30 years ago back in the day.
“I ended up with the record because you gave it me during one of your youthful ‘I’ve had it with that shit, I’m moving on’ moments,” says Paul. “You gave me Let Them Eat Jellybeans too”.
It does sound like something I’d do.
Getting Flex Your Head back seemed like a really big deal. I was proper excited to hear it again – even though, we should remember, I cared so little for this very expensive import that I gave it away within a year or so of buying it.
I was eager to revisit that bit of my ever-more-distant youth, and to recall old times and people and places, and probably make some hokey, convoluted point that while the good old days were pretty great at the time they were actually pretty shitty when you look back on them, yeah? Or maybe it would have been the other way around.
Either way, everything went horribly tits up shortly after. Rather than the druggy boho idyll I imagined I inhabited, I was in fact living on Fantasy Island, and everything I thought was solid and permanent and real was actually made of lies and wishful thinking and bullshit.
Before I knew what was happening, I was left high and dry, single and jobless, skint and shellshocked. Regular readers will recognise this familiar refrain.
It felt like the world was falling to pieces around me.
As the year progressed, there were earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, plane crashes. Dozens of kids were murdered by some nazi prick in Norway.
The Arab Spring began and, while it was entirely understandable that people would want to rid themselves of the authoritarian wankers in control of their lives, it was obvious from the outset that particular multifaceted geo-political religious clusterfuck was going to turn out badly for all concerned.
Meanwhile, kids in this country responded to the police’s apparent shoot-to-kill policy against people they’d decided were gangsters by looting off licences and sports retailers, but it was okay because a load of concerned young middle-class professionals cleaned up afterwards.
Even worse, before the year was out, we would lose Amy Winehouse and Gil Scott Heron.
And my beautiful niece was born, massively premature, and had to spent the first few months of her life in an incubator.
I mean, what the fuck?
It was a proper shitty year. Battered, bruised, a bit punch drunk, I eventually went over to stay with Paul and his missus for the weekend. I needed to get the fuck out of Dodge.
Paul, bless him, chose this moment to give me this seminal compilation of early 80s hardcore from Washington DC.
Me and Paul have been friends for ages, we’re probably about as white, working class and northern as it gets, and we’re also blokes of a certain age, but y’know, we’re not completely emotionally illiterate. We talk about real stuff.
I think Paul giving me the album was just his way of trying to make me feel better. Or maybe he was just trying to shut me up.
Either way, by this point, I’d got myself into such a state that I couldn’t really listen to music anymore.
I tried to fight it, to no avail. I remember sticking a Sergio Mendes album on shortly after and just crumbling to bits before the first song was even halfway through. As far as I was concerned, music was either completely irrelevant to what was happening in my life, or – as in this particular case – a direct and very personal piss take.
It’s not a term I subscribe to myself, but some people would describe the blessed Sergio’s smooth grooves, heart-stopping harmonies and happy-go-lucky melodies as ‘easy listening’.
And while, on one level, they can fuck right off, on another level, it is true that very little music is easier on the ear than the soothing sounds of Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66.
But I couldn’t even handle Sergio, never mind some relentlessly angry collection of ragged US punk anthems from the days of yore. I was just a big blank.
For a time, I channeled what emotional investment I could muster into taking photos of flowers and trees and putting them on Instagram. Truly bad times.
It took me a few months to listen to music again and a couple of years after that to be able to properly listen to Flex Your Head, never mind think about what it meant to me. It didn’t seem so important anymore.
The thing is, it might actually have done me a bit of good, emotionally, to have listened to Flex Your Head a bit sooner than I did. Practically everything about this record screams unwavering fuck-you teenage contrariness and anger, and it’s right in your face from start to finish. I could have used some of that fiery defiance.
Flex Your Head is filled with the sounds of frustration, aggression, hatred and bile – although, brilliantly, the beautifully-composed, rather genteel tableau on the cover (of the original version I have, natch) gives precisely zero indication of the no-holds-barred angst and breathless bombast of the grooves within.
This record sounds like it was made by a load of kids who’ve been wound up to the fucking limit, and are finally, at long last, giving vent – mainly because it was a record made by a load of kids who’d been wound up to the fucking limit and are finally giving vent.
A snapshot of the DC scene from 1980 to 1981, it collects together the recorded output of a dozen or so DC-area punk bands – most of whom had split by the time it came out – on a label run by a pair of idealistic young men named Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson from a shared house at 3819 Beecher Street in Washington.
On the evidence of the album’s Xeroxed insert (with lyrics, artwork, credits, photos and contact details for each of the bands), it wasn’t a hugely diverse scene. There are black, hispanic and asian faces here and there – probably more than there were on the scene in the UK at the time – and just a single woman.
But in the context of Washington DC, these white, suburban kids were a minority group.
“White kids were kind of invisible in a weird way,” remembers MacKaye. “Nobody should feel sorry for them, of course, it was just this weird cultural void.
“I used to say that Washington DC has two distinct cultures: the federal culture – big business, Hollywood movies, network television, major label music, anything the federal government are involved with. Then there was true culture, which in a 70% black town was black culture.
“What was the white culture? None of us had any clue.”
They did their best to find out. Listening to Flex Your Head again, 30-odd years after first hearing it, you find you’ve returned to a world of shaky, unsteady drum rolls, massively-distorted guitars having the shit thrashed out of them and lots of songs with ‘hate’ in the title.
Don Zientara and Skip Grof’s production can be, by today’s standards, somewhat muddy. Some of the musicianship is hit and miss, to say the least. Some of the singers – vocalists might be a better word – can barely hold a note.
There’s not much in the way of subtlety, musically or lyrically. It’s them and us, black and white, right or wrong. 3819 Beecher Street was no halfway house. It was all or nothing.
However, further listening reveals a more nuanced and affecting collection than a cursory listen might suggest. Whatever you might want to say about the music on Flex Your Head in terms of style and ability – and if that’s an issue, you’d best fuck off now – it’s undeniable that this music is honest and true, and direct and real.
The vinyl itself is appropriately solid, heavy and rigid.
“Dischord was just some kids who put out records that nobody cared about, except for those kids and their friends,” says MacKaye.
The first band to really make an impression is State of Alert, featuring the already throaty roar of Henry Garfield. SOA’s studio time was funded, apparently, by Garfield working as a manager at a Haagen-Dasz parlour in Georgetown.
SOA contribute the excellent I Hate the Kids, a raucous take on the UK Subs’ Disease, and a loutishly good fun cover of Stepping Stone. I like their style.
Faster, heavier and louder still are Minor Threat. They sound a good deal more together, more convincing, more serious, more professional than pretty much everyone else. According to Steve Albini, Minor Threat were, “the very best of the pissed off, super-hardcore bands”. He’s not wrong.
They speed up the angular intensity of Wire’s seminal 12XU into an angry, restless whirlwind. At the time in Washington, it seems it wasn’t uncommon for every act on a four-band bill to play their own version of 12XU – but here Minor Threat make it their own. I may even prefer it to the original.
Chopping and changing tempo like a finely-honed chopping-and-changing machine, Minor Threat release a very controlled kind of fury, with Lyle Preslar and Brian Baker’s big, loud fuzzy guitars, Jeff Nelson’s thundering drums, and MacKaye coughing, squealing and snarling a new pay off for the song: “Flex your head!”
It’s straight to the point, no-nonsense punk rock made by a bunch of kids who were playing like their lives depended on it – because their lives did depend on it. Even if they didn’t, really.
The fact is, for every child of the downtrodden blue-collar masses involved in the DC scene, there were also kids from decidedly middle class backgrounds, including two of its leading lights, MacKaye and his best friend Garfield.
But so what? It’s not about where you’re from, it’s where you’re at, right?
As MacKaye sings on the blistering Stand Up:
“Something’s fucked up, Something’s not right, I came to have a good time, You came to fight, But if I do fight, Nothing to fear, Cause I know, My friends are here .. I don’t like to fight, I don’t like getting hurt, Got my guard up, State of alert.”
These were ideas – self-reliance, respect, personal responsibility, collective action, working for the common good – MacKaye would develop further as the label, and the scene, matured.
“What I got from punk was this sense of… a call for self-definition,” he says. “That you can make your life what you want it to be, that you didn’t need somebody else’s approval and maybe even that you needed somebody’s disapproval.”
Meanwhile, in Waste of Time, Youth Brigade display an early version of the straight edge philosophy – much of which sprang from the influence of MacKaye – that came to characterise the DC scene:
“Your a waste of time, Your a waste of space, I don’t need your drugs, So get ‘em the fuck out of my face, Say it’s not your fault, Blame it on your peers, Make up any excuse, To have a few more beers ..”
On Last Word, Youth Brigade’s raw, basic, fuzzy punk is not a million miles away from that of Rudimentary Peni, and while they may not understand the value of using apostrophes to form contractions, they clearly know the value of a great call-and-response chorus.
“MORAL MAJORITY, right-wing knights, MORAL MAJORITY, take away your rights, MORAL MAJORITY, blind as can be, MORAL MAJORITY, not for me ..”
This kind of direct, issue-based polemic is a rarity on Flex Your Head. There’s much less of an obvious party line being peddled than much of the Crass punk that was coming out of the UK at the time. The Dischord kids have a more personal, individual worldview, and it’s all the more affecting for it.
At the same, they also seem far more switched on, politically, than any of the more ‘mainstream’ punk bands who were popular in the UK in 1981 – the Damned, the Anti-Nowhere League, the Exploited and the like – the pantomime, picture postcard, end-of-the-pier punk that practically invited parody from Benny Hill and Kenny Everett.
The DC kids win, massively.
Side two of the record kicks off with Red C (perhaps named in honour of a popular local Ethiopian restaurant, the Red Sea), who immediately distinguish themselves by being in possession of the funk, I’m assuming, influenced by bassist Toni Young, who was one of a handful of black women in the scene.
They open with Jimi 45, a scratchy punk funk doodle, which may or may not be inspired by Hendrix in some way (it doesn’t particularly sound like it, to be honest) and doesn’t go on for half long enough.
The excellent 6 O’Clock News is their slow-burn cow-bell accentuated take on notions of vicarious living that Flux of Pink Indians explored on Tube Disasters. Like a number of the bands on Flex Your Head, Red C have the loud/quiet, slow/fast thing – y’know, that thing Nirvana would go on to make millions of dollars with – down to a tee.
“Sex and violence, I like to watch, destructive earthquakes, catastrophic shocks …” sneers singer Eric L over a slightly camp, slightly sleazy lounge-style interlude before the band slams in behind him again at 500 miles per hour.
Red C look great too. Guitarist Sweet Pete Murray dresses like a Clockwork Orange droog, Swiss emigre drummer Tomas Squip Ravioli looks like he should be sitting on top of a university clock tower, naked, with a high-powered rifle, and Eric L is like a young Don Johnson, while Toni Young just looks like Sylvester (the insert photocopy is so poor I actually thought Toni was a man for years).
I bet Red C were dynamite live.
Void were a quartet from Columbia, Maryland, a “planned community” which is actually nearer to Baltimore than Washington, fact fans, but the famously insular DC kids still dug them, possibly because they are agreeably angry, always shouty and often very fast indeed. They also do the fast, slow, fast, slow thing too.
Coming on like an unhinged, chaotic, supercharged Sabbath – they were named after Into the Void – they have, in deranged American-Filipino guitarist Jon Bubba Dupree, a genuine guitar hero, firing off jumbo-sized guitar riffs like there’s no tomorrow, riding the feedback like some crazy one-man apocalypse.
“Dehumanised by the city, Americanised by the pity,” barks John Weiffenbach. “No more authority! No more authority! NO MORE AUTHORITY!”
“We hate Columbia (the people). We hate fucking up at shows, breaking guitar strings and drum sticks, and especially school,” sez Void in a fanzine interview from those days.
Void’s artwork is something else. It features a Raymond Pettibone-esque line drawing of some demonically-grinning youth, with a gasoline can at his feet, holding a lit match next to a weeping authority figure (it might be someone in particular, it could almost be Larry David) who has a V carved into his forehead and is bound to a stake.
According to Void bassist Chris Stover: “Hardcore provided an outlet for us to channel our rage and all the crazy hormones that were going on with us at the time. The game plan was to cause mayhem.”
Predictably enough, Void also get the thumbs up from Albini, ever appreciative of “records made by anti-social people under bad conditions where nothing was working properly, and as a result they’re freakish records.
“Like a lot of those really early, really crude punk rock singles have an amazing enthusiasm that comes across partly because they sound fucked up. If everything was tightened up and tidied up and in tune and in time and had impressive lush production, they wouldn’t have anything like that sort of urgency that they do.”
I would have loved to have seen Void live. I bet they were MENTAL.
I remember thinking when I first got the album that Iron Cross had an unfortunate name, and in New Breed, an unfortunate song title, and yes, perhaps even an unfortunate credit to the DC skins, but I think it unlikely that Discord would have anything to do with actual nazis, it was all a long time ago anyway, and y’know, Joy Division.
Either way, their primitive, chugging, thudding music has a creaky allure, and their lyrics an endearingly-naive fuck-you directness – “You say that we’re too young, But I say that you’re too old ..”
They win, partly because they’re so shambolic and partly because they have a bassist named Wendell Blow (he also played bass in SOA).
Their timing is a bit wobbly, they’re not particularly tight, and their lyrics could’ve been written by a 12-year-old but their songs are simple, unsophisticated and catchy as hell.
“Live for now, live for now, Don’t tell me about tomorrow, Live for now, live for now, kids today ain’t kids tomorrow ..”
These kids have got 16, 17, 18 years of this shit stored up. Years of mom, dad, teachers, coaches, cops, shrinks, priests and preachers telling them what to do, but mostly telling them what not to do. It’s fast and it’s furious.
“My interest in punk rock was that I wanted to create a family,” says MacKaye.”Most people I knew that identified as punk were marginalised. Maybe they had trouble at home or felt marginalised, politically, racially, for their sexuality – even for their gender. They felt they didn’t belong but I realised, ‘oh, we belong to each other.’”
Artificial Peace’s music, sounding very Crass punk to these ears, is full of sharp, tight, abrupt twists and turns, and packs enough ideas for three or four songs into one song of two or three minutes duration.
Their lyrics are not bad either, and Wasteland, which starts off like bubblegum pop punk and then breaks down into something much bleaker, is one of the stand out tracks of the whole album.
Some of the tracks on this album – mostly the earlier, rawer stuff – don’t really do it for me these days. And some of them are really fucking hard work, to be honest.
The Teen Idols, an early and hugely influential DC supergroup featuring MacKaye and Jeff Nelson largely pass me by, as do Untouchables, Deadline and Government Issue (who have been going, on and off, ever since). My loss.
I haven’t paid much attention to rock music for quite a long time, but from what I’ve seen over the last few years, much of it is deeply uninspiring. And I’m speaking from a position of almost complete – and blissful – ignorance here.
As far as I’m concerned, most of them seem to be slightly detached, going through the motions, more concerned with being cerebral and 6 Music-friendly without any kind of passion, and generally failing to commit. Like, I dunno, Elbow.
Or being irredeemably oafish, tragi-comic lad-rock clowns, like Kasabian, for example. Either way, it all seems a bit soulless to these ears. It’s beige, banal, boring – choose your own disparagement.
Still, at least they’re not all putting on cockernee accents anymore, like they’re in a desperate Lionel Bart bearded, tattooed hipster musical, right?
Either way, it’s all – all of it – as dreary as fuck. I can’t even hate it really. It’s hard to hate something when the most intense emotion it conjures up is a shadow of indefinable distaste and disappointment, with perhaps a slight sense of ennui and a vague feeling of deja vu.
It’s a bit like when your nostrils catch a noxious mistral from a lingering cat fart. You know it’s tedious and unpleasant but there’s barely enough substance for you to really know either way for sure.
This is about as far away as you can get from the bands featured on Flex Your Head. Hairy air biscuits they are not. You couldn’t accuse any of them of failing to commit. They were not dreary. They had buckets of soul and passion and authenticity. They gave a fuck. They cared – even if they hadn’t yet worked out exactly what they cared about.
“My definition of punk is the free space,” says MacKaye. “It’s an area in which new ideas can be presented without having to go through the filtration or perversion of profiteering. So, if we’re not worried about selling things, then we can actually think.”
The rallying cry of Flex Your Head was always as much about using your head – thinking – as it was about slamdancing your aggression out in the pit.
The bands on Flex Your Head didn’t have a plan, they didn’t know what they were doing, and they weren’t trying to make a career out of it – they just wanted to make a noise.