Whatever happened to cowpunk?
That's the first question that pops up when you immerse yourself in the latest flood of records from the Los Angeles grass-roots rock scene. Only yesterday, every other L.A. rockerseemed to be learning how to put on a string tie and dance the two-step and drive rock 'n' roll impulses into country music settings.
The cowpunks are still out there, doing their bit to make L.A. the U.S.A.'s most energized and eclectic musical hotbed. But for one reason or another they haven't joined the latest move to vinyl.
So what kind of music is L.A. rock's ambassador in 1987? None other than that written-off, put-down, demeaned and discredited critter, \o7 punk rock!
Not only are there more punk records than any other kind, but they're the ones making the most noise in the underground market--at least as measured by national charts like the CMJ Report and local surveys like KXLU-FM's Top 35 play list. Not surprisingly, a whole slew of current L.A. product is on the latter, while Redd Kross and the Descendents have made the strongest showing on the somewhat more mainstream CMJ chart.
Punk is not what it was at the beginning, musically or culturally. As the sound has mutated to accommodate everything from Suicidal Tendencies' harrowing semi-metal to Redd Kross' grinding garage-grunge psychedelia, it's also drifted from its original trendy and arty moorings and become an integral voice for a discernible teen community--just like rock 'n' roll used to be. Like the resilent insect, punk has learned to adapt and survive in the cracks and corners, and it might just outlast more "advanced" species.
At the same time, the latest outpouring of L.A. records--which, in the tradition begun with the big late-'70s upheaval, remains concentrated in small, independent (often band-operated) labels--also registers a surge in the "electro-folk" movement and preserves for posterity some of the arcana that contributes to the colorful L.A. patchwork.
Here is a selected roundup of the current crop of albums, EPs and singles, most of which have been released over the past few months.
Suicidal Tendencies' "Join the Army" (Caroline). There's no new "Institutionalized," but the Venice menace combines power and finesse in a remarkable hard-rock attack. They skip and careen at breathtaking thrash tempos, then shift to metal gear as the album progresses into more introspective terrain. The music pulls and strains against itself, creating an excruciating tension as Mike Muir bellows out his internal strife, pain and fears with terrifying intensity.
Descendents' "All" (SST). The Lomita-based pranksters offer a sort of ant-farm view of South Bay teen life, holding up a window to the inner workings of things like vans and young love. The tone is mainly benign, with self-laceration countered by a "Pep Talk" that underscores the value of friendship. The punk pace is buoyed by a melodic pop flair.
Henry Rollins Band's "Hot Animal Machine" (Texas Hotel). Free of the increasingly sludgy settings of Black Flag, the tattooed tough shifts to a stripped-down, Iggy-derived rock 'n' roll that's fluid enough to embrace both avant-noise and Jerry Lee Lewis stylings. Rollins' hammering bellow is impressive for its sheer strength, and he shows his gifts as a rhythm-juiced yarn-spinner in the rock- noir scenario of "A Man and a Woman." Pursuit and paranoia are the dominant strains in "Machine." A muddy production job is its main flaw.
Rhino 39's "Rhino 39" (Triple X). This Long Beach band is mainly on the hard-rock/hardcore border, dropping pop and surf touches into the solid if unambitious brew. Things pick up as the album proceeds, first with the inexplicably funny "Headcheese," then with the Clash-like "What Is Your Name," and finally in the upbeat, semi-acoustic and altogether terrific Stones-ish rocker "Bars and Bricks."
The Brigade's "It's a Wonderful Life" single (BYO). From its feature-length video tour documentary "Another State of Mind" to its Better Youth Organization label, the Brigade has been one of the most enterprising and idealistic forces on the Southland scene. Its music hasn't always been so noteworthy, but this new single (from its last album, "The Dividing Line") has them branching effectively into moody, Doors-ballad territory.
Mad Parade's "A Thousand Words" (BYO). These Orange Countians sound as if they're trying to be real songwriters and nudge their punk into the mainstream, and end up sounding a little labored. The fast Doors sound of "Talk to Me" and the Del Shannon moodiness of "Watch Me Run" are pretty good, but overall the sound simply doesn't have enough impact. Assignment: Listen to Suicidal Tendencies' album 10 times.