One of my best songs, part 2

Diane,

I decided I was mostly going to write punk rock songs in 1992.

I decided I was mostly done writing punk rock songs in 2007.  That means the amount of time I spent seriously engaged with punk (because for a musician, writing songs in a genre is as seriously engaged as it gets, and everything else is just dabbling) was about five times as long as the Sex Pistols were together*; about twice as long as the first incarnation of Bad Brains lasted; probably three times as long as it took Greg Graffin to earn his Ph.D.; and roughly one and a half times as long as “Sandanista!” (zing!).

In that time frame punk went from a gentrified, specialist’s genre to a compromised alternative radio and MTV force, and back again.  It saw the tail-end of the ascendancy of pop-punk labels like Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords, who waxed with the success of Green Day and quickly waned again after (though they still plug along today).  It saw Rancid revitalize the sound of The Clash to mostly positive notices, but some vitriolic negative ones as well.  It saw the deaths of two Ramones and Joe Strummer.  And it saw me, some random home-taping idiot, pumping out a couple hundred two minute 4-track anthems.

Sadly, most of those anthems have no staying power for me, for several different reasons.  My early musical experiences were pop-heavy and highly melodic, so I gravitated towards the harmony-laden, poppy stuff when I first got into punk: Bad Religion, NOFX, Lagwagon, etc.  I still like the best work of those bands, but as a musical direction for myself I wouldn’t choose it – it tends to be shallow and repetitive stuff, while not as immediate and brash as the earlier, less melodic punk it evolved from.  Besides that, I was a mediocre songwriter and had a tin ear for recording and mixing music back then, so many of the songs I wrote consisted of a blandly pretty melody over a generic chord progression buried under a wall of BLLLLAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR – “blllarrrrr” being the sound my purple B.C. Rich with the Floyd Rose tremelo made when I played it through my shitty amp with the distortion maxed the fuck out.  That guitar was made for better amps and douches like Yngwie Malmsteen, not some wannabe punk kid with his shitty tape recorder.  Basically I was a sub-garage sub-Paul Simon/sub-Bad Religion hybrid.  If I made anything listenable in those first few years, it was a complete damn accident.

The early two-thirds of my punk period (makes me sound more Picasso-like, doesn’t it?) were spent recording under the silly moniker The Septic Bobs.  The name dates back to high school, when my friends and I had little better to do than fill up tapes with bad songs and think of ridiculous band names.  (Early examples: Reubens Exposure [Pee Wee Herman historians will chuckle], Vicious Upholstery, The Giving Tree [no one will chuckle, though many may rasp the mirthless laughter of embarrassment].)  I stuck with it because why not, it was a sort of brand name – known and tolerated by my close friends, who were the only people hearing any of the music I was making.  I also had developed a sideline of drawing Septic Bobs, which (it turned out) were little cartoon monsters that liked to eat things:

lilcheesebobNaturally, the Bobs adorned all the album covers for their namesake band, like so:

ethelineThis got to be such a meme (can a meme be a thing that you’re mostly sharing with yourself?  I dunno, who cares) that I was powerless against it.  The Septic Bobs continued as a mostly one-man band for years after I was basically sick of my “style.”  The increasingly intermittent tapes I put together came to be all over the place in terms of genre and tone, and I started incorporating lots of other influences – classic Brit punk, Cars and Blondie-style new wave, folk, pop, goth rock (of the tongue-in-cheek variety), and avant garde noise bullshit.  I think ultimately I was just sick of myself (a la Matthew Sweet) and was trying to become somebody else – maybe everybody else, and all at once, if necessary.  Finally, it was time for one last hurrah.  I did “Halloween 666,” the sixth installment in a long-running and kind-of-annual tradition of horror-themed punk albums; then I put the Bobs to rest.

But that was well before 2007.  And we’re not doing that story today, anyway – we’re just getting through some history.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I had a habit of listing terrible band names that no one would want to use, just things that made me laugh.  One of those names was The Insaniacs.  For some reason this third grade-level play on words was giggle-inducing for me.  What kind of stupid band would call themselves that?

Turns out, it was me.

My return to punk, post-Bobs, in the summer of 2004, was as The Insaniacs.  For whatever reason, the name had grown on me to the point that I thought it was fitting for what I wanted to record next.  That thing was ultra-short, ultra-ultra-minimal punk rock missiles aimed at the gut and the crotch.  My aim for “All the Different Kinds of Nuts” was to cram 10 songs into 10 minutes of CD (yeah, I had moved on to digital recording by then).  I managed it in fifteen, anyway.  The songs were much harsher than before, without quite verging on hardcore, and there was a distinct and new influence from The Clash, who had slowly become my favorite punk band.

The follow-up to “Nuts” was intentionally set up as a test of my own willpower.  I was going to call it “150 Goddamn Phat Tracks,” which would sprawl over probably four CDs, and force myself to write and record the whole thing in a year.  The pace was beyond ridiculous, and as I passed the 20-song mark I knew I was never going to make it; I was already tired of the conceit and ready to take a break.  So I wrapped it up at just 29 goddamn tracks (maybe half of which were phat – the other half were mere fat) which at least squeezed on to a more manageable single disc.

“Phat Tracks” looks like this:

insaniacssmall

I think we can all agree, if nothing else, that that dog is cute and kind of scary.  That’s what I was going for.

The album had an even bigger Clash influence than before, which was fitting, since Joe Strummer was two years past being able to sue me.  I was working in a lot of ska, reggae, and new wave influence – which was both very “London Calling” of me, and also a logical next step, seeing as how I was getting seriously into roots reggae and dub, and had always loved the hell out of The Cars and Talking Heads and all their skinny-tie, big-suit brethren and sistren.  That year my mailbox was always stuffed full of the fresh-ordered likes of “Remain in Light” and Buju Banton’s opus, “Til Shiloh.”  (Between then and now I’ve consumed a whole world of both genres – Adam and the Ants, Wailing Souls, Bounty Killer, The Jam and Joe Jackson, Scientist and Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby; I could go on and on and on.)  Between these various influences, The Clash largest among them, the album came out sounding like “London Calling”‘s snotty kid brother.  Only not nearly as good.  But hey, nobody has THOSE kind of aspirations.

This, to me, is the best one track from this album – the one I’d play for almost anybody to give them an idea what it KIND OF sounds like, MOST OF the time.  It owes a clear debt to Mick and Joe, and also to Talking Heads and Bow Wow Wow (they of “I Want Candy” fame).  It’s got a backbone of semi-tribal drum rhythm, something Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants were playing with most, but many others also danced around in the early 80s.  On top of that is big guitar chords and a raucous tune of the variety I’d describe as “Clampdown”-meets-“Rudy Can’t Fail”-with-a-splash-of-Buzzcocks.

Here’s a few of the things I’m talking about – in order, Adam and the Ants (with the title track from “Kings of the Wild Frontier”); The Clash doing “Clampdown” live; and purely for the fuck of it, Buju Banton on a super-G-funked remix of “Champion”:

And if you’re feeling a little too inside my head at this point, I’d advise you to shake it off and just listen to the damn thing, already.

Libby O

By the way, my good friend Sweaty B (an original Septic Bob, though never much of a punk appreciator) played the sweet bass notes on this song, and several others on the album.  He’s a true pro, that guy… except in the sense that I totally didn’t pay him a dime for his work.

* Pre-cash-in reunion, of course.  We’re pretending that didn’t happen.

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