Monday, November 5, 2018

Various Artists V: How Compilations Influenced a Generation - Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade & BYO Records (Halloween Hangover)


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 V: If a person were to subscribe to The Tralfamadorian's non-linear concept of time, there is a version of myself standing with my head between the floor joists of a Northern Illinois basement: I'm frozen in amber. I'm held still, arrested inside of an instant forever. But there are other versions of me, too, standing in roller rink parking lots; standing in Midwestern backyards, next to fires that rage inside of steel drums.

There is an army of snot-nosed versions of myself, clutching at nearly-frozen cans of beer. I'm standing in bars. I'm crowd surfing in living rooms. I'm shouting when I speak in garages, but without these images, I'd never know that any of these suspended moments existed. I'd never remember them.

What I remember are Halloween shows in basements and tribute shows in roller rinks. I remember shows in garages so cold that you couldn't feel your fingers. I remember shows in living rooms so hot that the ceiling bled condensation and the floor bent and bowed with the weight of 100 dancing misfits. I remember Shot Baker pretending to be Minor Threat. I remember bands forming out of the wood paneling of parties to perform as Operation Ivy... as The Ramones... as The Lunachicks.


I remember zombie-themed proms hosted in suburban lake houses and I remember washing stamps and X's, penned in permanent marker, from the backs of my hands; tearing wristbands, wrinkled with sweat and spilled beer, from my forearms. There are bands that exist only inside of the blurred memories of a single party. Groups that existed for a single night, founded on the mutual love of some obscure band or another.

It was nine years ago—nearly to the month—when Better Youth Organization (BYO) and American Hardcore giants, Youth Brigade took this idea to its natural conclusion, celebrating 25 years of activity with their multi-media release, Let Them Know: The Story of BYO & Youth Brigade.

Pressed to a translucent red double-LP and housed inside of a coffee table book complete with DVD documentary, Let Them Know tells an all-encompassing oral history of one of Punk Rock's most important mainstays.


Boasting an ambitious 31 tracks, the album compiles BYO artists as they pay tribute to one another and to the label that brought them all together. And in much the same way that we always did as kids; by covering tracks that reach as far back as the label's 1982 inception from The US, The UK, and Canada, respectively.

Despite some of these artists being separated by oceans and decades, there's a continuity in the tonality throughout these discs that's reminiscent of early Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords bands; labels either critical to, or inspired by, the progressive DIY ethos of Better Youth Organization. Sensible, when considering Ashers' cover of Bad Religion's "In The Night" (1981) and NOFX's contribution, a prim and polished version of Battalion of Saints' "No More Lies" (1982.)


And maybe, it's the burnt color in the leafs that line these country roads and city sidewalks, but hearing some of these songs re-imagined, I can't help thinking of those long Fall nights in the parking lots of civic centers and VFW halls. I can't help thinking of those early BYO albums, held in the grimy hands of versions of myself that stand in skate shops or hide in Wal-Mart bathrooms, shoving security tags down the toilet. It brings to mind those late nights in high school where a person went home smelling like a bonfire, their heads spinning like vinyl LP's, skipping forward over the boring bits and playing over all of the best hooks. If they went home at all.

This double-disc breathes new life into old songs, bridging generational divides as well as blending genres. Whether it's Matt Skiba's Indie-Pop take on "I Scream" (The Brigade, 1986) or Krum Bums' grit-filled Street Punk rendition of "Hating Every Minute" (Alkaline Trio, 2004,) there truly is a conversation at every turn on this album. Conversations I've had many times.


These efforts remind listeners that we're not alone in our influences. Not only are we influenced by 7 Seconds, but so are The Bouncing Souls. The Briefs have the same Adolescents records on their shelves that we do. Suddenly, we're no more alone in the world than we were at those Halloween parties, singing the same songs as a hundred other kids. Paying homage to the bands that set us apart from our family, the kids at the skate park, our classmates, or our co-workers in the first place.

After 36 years of failed rhetorical statements on the part of the Hardcore community, songs about unity, oftentimes, seem like trite, tired tropes more than honest statements. Bits of cliché sensationalism more than genuine sentiment, but there's something in Kevin Seconds' strained vocal chords as 7 Seconds finishes this album off.

There's something about this Folk-injected cover of "Sink with California" (Youth Brigade, 1983) that puts the listener around a campfire with their heroes and suggests that the balding punks still believe in what they say. Suddenly, there are younger versions of myself in cold, crowded garages singing cover songs, dressed like an idiot, because admission is free with a costume.



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. It can be ordered here. When he's not writing, he can be found making music in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he lives with his girlfriend and their dog, Diesel.

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