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 VIII: The Punk Rock community has long been a catalyst for social activism from its early years with Rock Against Racism, to the Rock Against Reagan concerts of the 1983 Hardcore movement, the militant vegan demonstrations attended by Britain's Conflict and beyond. Punk bands have been penning rallying cries as far back as The Clash's 1977 hit single, "White Riot." Protest songs have been a staple point of most every aspiring Punk bands' career and in many instances, they can be cited as being directly influential in the lives of young people educating themselves, organizing rallies, and mobilizing against injustice all across the globe. A direct by-product of this call-to-arms is Ark 21 Records' 1997 CD compilation, Generations I.
Sub-titled as "A Punk Look At Human Rights," the discs' mission is either quite vague or incredibly ambitious and it's in this ambition that we note an earnestness and charm reminiscent of a young person wanting to make a difference in the world and having just discovered that it is within their power to do so.
The release boasts an impressive array of exclusive appearances from entry-level Pop-Punk acts such as Green Day and The Mr. T Experience, while still sprinkling in performances from industry giants—such as Bad Brains, Lagwagon, and Rat Scabies' (ex-The Damned) one-off project, Electric Dog House with Joe Strummer—juxtaposing the enthusiasm of youth with the feel of a middle-aged person's more lived-in CD wallet.
While a lot of these contributions bring to mind mostly skate parks that exist only in one million-year-old memories, the disc also, runs the gamut of everything from Hardcore to Ska, to Post-Rock and even more sonically "Hippy"-leaning anthems. We're even gifted a cover of Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown," as performed by California's Pennywise.
Whatever side of the spectrum a listener may come from when first hearing this album, there is a discovery to be made. In the true spirit of sampler CD's both before and since, there are whole catalogs for listeners interested in indulging in entire discographies, as well as the perfect obscure Punk single for even the most casual fan's Summer mixtape.
So often my love for compilation and sampler CD's has been retrospective, their tracklists bouncing around my skull, jumping from one-hit wonder to one-hit wonder. They affirm years-long biases and transport me to the beginning phases of my music collecting and the very embryonic stages of my self-identification. Rare, is the 20-year-old release that still connects with me on the same level that these albums once did. Rare, is the release that inspires me to take initiative; to create memories now, something to be nostalgic for in the future, as opposed to reflecting on memories that will, surely, have been beaten to death and stale with over-use by the time I've reached my geriatric stage.
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.