Monday, June 18, 2018

Various Artists I: How Compilations Influenced a Generation - This Is Boston, Not L.A. Penned By: John E. Swan (Modern Method Records)

INTRODUCTION: Maybe, it's in the gray hairs that I've started finding in my thinning hair. Maybe, it's that dreaded third decade of life that seems to have been rearing it's ugly face around every corner. Maybe, it's a quarter life crisis, but something has been keeping me up at night. I sometimes, stay awake into the early hours of the morning spinning records and fumbling with CD jackets from high school, grasping hold of my youth for dear life. I search out elusive first presses of albums I'd somehow, lost to time, hoping that they'll somehow, tighten the thread leading from middle school to adulthood.

To be clear, I'm not fishing my torn band T-shirts or bondage pants from the depths of my closet, but as I make the transition into my 30's, shedding roommates and getting oil changes at regularly scheduled intervals, I can't help ruminating on where these albums came from and how they've shaped me. I can't help begging the question, "How did I get here?"

How I've come to be surrounded by this specific collection of music is largely, the consequence of efforts made by larger labels and their annual sampler CD's, but even today, I search out small Indie labels that pump out quality collections of exclusivities and excellent representations of a variety of music scenes.

Typically, priced at $4-5.00 and featuring, sometimes, up to 40 songs from just as many bands, compilations have always served as convenient and affordable ways to discover new and obscure bands. This is imperative to the formative years of a generation of listeners; compilations were the compass that one used to navigate the endless sea of Punk Rock and consequently, Hip-Hop, Hardcore, Indie, Reggae, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Many of these discs were used as shovels to tunnel into cozy nests of Punk records and artistic eccentricities.

It's this ability to influence and inform listeners that I'll be here every month to discuss. I'll be stopping The Witzard by to shed light on those discount albums in the so often overlooked "Various Artists" bins of the world, along with their influences within their communities, within their genres, and within the chronology of listener interests all across the globe, here in, Various Artists: How Compilations Influenced a Generation.

VARIOUS ARTISTS I: When I was in high school, a friend of mine lent me a copy of Steven Blush's critically-acclaimed book, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, an oral history of the early 80's American Hardcore/Punk Rock movement. I was immediately drawn in by the obscurity of the genre relative to other genres of music during that decade and other carnations of that genre over time. Purists claim that original "Hardcore" only actually existed between the years of 1980 and approximately 1983 and so many of those records seemed lost to time and discount bins in the basements of re-sale shops. It seemed to me that the first wave of Hardcore had showed up, made a lot of noise, and self-destructed with virtually, no one to witness it.

The nature of Hardcore dictates that fervor precedes talent. The urgency with which songs were written and performed meant that few hardcore bands were of any technical proficiency. Album covers and flyers for shows were often crude sketches done in just black ink. Any concept of fashion statement was virtually nonexistent. It was all so approachable. It was accessible. It was the antithesis of the Rock star. It was something that I could actually do.

For the first half of my sophomore year of high school I tore through the pages of that book, downloading every song that I could find by every band that I didn't already recognize—no easy task in the unorganized days of LimeWire—and that's how I came to be familiar with a band called Jerry's Kids; a meager 1 minute and 22 second glimpse into Boston's Hardcore scene by way of a song called "Wired." With one song, Jerry's Kids seemed to exemplify the ferocity of teen angst that I'd been trying to articulate for years. Jerry's Kids and "Wired" acted as my first introduction to the 1982 Modern Method Records classic compilation album, This Is Boston, Not L.A.

30 blistering fast Hardcore songs by seven of Boston's finest at the time, This Is Boston... serves as a rabbit hole for the casual Hardcore fan to delve into. It's an exhibition of bands so obscure that, in some cases, they only exist on this particular slab of wax.

Perhaps, more accurately billed as an "EP collective," This Is Boston... opens with six songs from Jerry's Kids, before moving on to three songs by The Proletariat, one by The Groinoids, and closing the first side of the disc off with four songs by The F.U.'s. On the second side we have seven tracks from Gang Green, one from Decadence, and eight songs from The Freeze. I won't delve into any stylistic descriptions here, as this isn't exactly where my interest lies. Arguably, of more significance to the history of Hardcore and Punk Rock is that This Is Boston... acted as the recorded debut of almost every band on the record; The Freeze, whose only prior recording was the self-released "I Hate Tourists" 7-inch single, is the only exception to this.

The significance of this is not to be overlooked. Modern Method Records existed to document Boston Hardcore and Alternative music and did so to a fault. Hardcore was never meant to make money and as a consequence, the label folded in 1985, after 27 releases. But the genre would never have made much noise at all, if it weren't for small labels coming out of the woodwork and shouldering financial risks in the interest of preserving American music.

Hardcore wasn't viewed by record labels as a viable commodity. In fact, most record labels probably had no idea what these suburban teenagers were doing on the fringes of the music industry. It was necessity that bred these small labels. It was an eagerness to document marginalized sub-cultures and forms of art that blazed the trail between that tree falling in the forest and the ears of those who weren't around to hear it.

What we're seeing here is hardly new. In the early 1920's, talent scouts were known to venture into the hills with recording equipment, returning with shellac discs with grooves cut by needle, housing family heritages and traditions. Even today, archivists hunt those discs down, arduously restoring them, enhancing them in a way that brings us closer to their original sound. Closer to what those early talent scouts heard before they put that needle down.

In the case of the origins of Hardcore, bands, record labels, and promoters were forced to operate under the radar of the major label music industry. This Is Boston... is by no means, the first compilation to give a platform to bands who were assumed better off not having one, but it certainly defines a genre built on a strong DIY ethos that's been upheld for nearly 40 years.

Even now, assembly lines form in basements of suburban houses all across the country. When they can't be heard over the noise of their neighboring cities, these musicians pool their money, sharing the financial strain and producing tapes and records on their on. As these labels grow and these bands gain more momentum, they begin speaking over other musicians in other suburbs and the cycle is repeated, breeding more documentarians tasked with telling the world that even art made in haste is art worth holding on to.

John E. Swan (@midwest_stress) is a novelist and short story writer, as well as freelance editor and journalist. His first novel, Any Way to Elsewhere, takes its name from a compilation cassette that he curated during his time with Berserk Records. When he's not writing, he can be found making music under the moniker "t h e m e s" in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he lives with his girlfriend and their dog, Diesel.

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