Sex Bomb Baby
(Touch & Go)
It's kind of ironic that punk rock is now as American as apple pie and produces multimillion sellers like Green Day and Offspring, considering that it began as an irksome though negligible force on the cultural margins. Themes of boredom remain the music's vital legacy, but today's kiddie punks generally opt more for bubblegum melodies amid the bashing than the brutal rants from days of yore. Yes, times have certainly changed. Green Day wouldn't have dented the charts ten years ago; just look at the pathetic hum-along jokeholes the Dickies, who are still poking around for that elusive breakthrough (they play Crobar October 26 and shouldn't hold their breath). Now Green Day is a post-Nirvana gold mine setting the precedent for punk rock on the charts. Beneath all the phlegm-hocking and blue hair, though, Green Day isn't much more than a scruffy pop band singing about masturbation, watching TV, and girls. More than ten years ago the Bay area from which Green Day hails was ruled (in an artistic sense, at least) by Flipper, which made no money back then, and, despite the changed attitudes toward punk rock, surely wouldn't today. In fact, a couple of new CD reissues of primo early- to mid-80s American punk rock exude a sense of power, character, and danger that's missing in today's chart toppers, which, of course, is a large part of the reason they're climbing those charts in the first place.
Although Album--Generic Flipper (1982) is Flipper's unquestionable masterpiece, the recently reissued collection of singles and compilation tracks, Sex Bomb Baby, handily asserts the misguided San Francisco foursome's unalloyed power and innovation. "Sex Bomb" was the quintessential Flipper song--a brilliant reduction of rock 'n' roll's sex-obsessed nihilism. With seven words--"She's a sex bomb, my baby yeah"--they conveyed the delirious drama of one last-ditch bender, a Dionysian celebration of self-destruction through careless carnal pleasure, booze, and fast cars; the song's climax--dead silence--is preceded by the screeching sounds of an auto wreck. "Ha Ha Ha" meditates on meaningless reactions to prolonged suburban boredom: "What is there to do she said / He said come on baby / And I'll show you a good time / So they went on down / To one of those cheap motels / And they got all gushy and wet." To Flipper sex just helps pass the time. When a sick pal pleads for help in "Get Away," he's rebuked with, "Go go get away." Flipper songs may not have been particularly violent, but they expressed a cold disaffection that predated gangsta rap by many years, albeit from the less put-upon white perspective. Whereas Green Day merely shrugs at boredom Flipper reacts with self-annihilation, particularly by abusing heroin, which eventually took bassist Will Shatter's life in 1987.
While Flipper offered an almost poetic account of humor-laced desperation, its ugly music had no problem succeeding on its own. Flipper was the first grunge band, existing when the word meant only dirt. It's hard to imagine Nirvana without Flipper, although you'd never confuse the two. While nearly all of its hardcore contemporaries lived by the "loud fast rules" ethos, Flipper often opted for funereal tempos. Both Bruce Lose and Shatter played bass, together creating a gloriously sloppy mess of distorted sonic sludge that was also a crawling grind swinging in drunken unison with Steve DePace's thundering drums and Ted Falconi's reckless guitar machinations and sputtering splashes of feedback. Sex Bomb Baby collects the band's three singles and a number of early compilation tracks, but even with a partly slapdash construction, it provides a potent example of Flipper's short-lived glory. The band continued to make records, although none of them were very good, including 1993's feeble reunion album, American Grafishy. But their early work stands alone.
The Effigies were one of Chicago's first punk bands, and like Flipper, their music was largely anomalous, given the vast soundalike hardcore bands littered across America. Originally issued in 1989 on the defunct local indie label Roadkill and now available on CD through Touch & Go Records, Remains Nonviewable indispensably collects their debut single, first two EPs, and a few tracks off their debut album, For Ever Grounded. Sharing more with dark English postpunk bands like the early Ruts and Stranglers than with their hyperactive Yankee brethren, the lyrics of frontman John Kezdy eschewed the loose nihilism of Flipper and the shallow political sloganeering of most other American punk outfits. His words were certainly political, but more often than not they addressed the politics of the individual. He didn't offer cliched punk-rock attacks on Reaganism, but he chastised those who simply lumped the status quo only to get screwed over by the Man. The Effigies weren't afraid of employing traditional rock moves--particularly the brutally lacerating, near-metal guitar solos of Earl Letiecq--to get their point across. Letiecq's solo on 1981's vitriolic rant against commodified coziness, "Security," for example, rips apart the hard postdisco drumming of Steve Economou.
The band's music eventually became more terse and focused. A yearning for variety tripped them up at times, especially some poorly chosen contemporary production tricks that wounded some of their mid-80s output. The Effigies embraced punk's idealism rather than its stylistic hallmarks, and their last few albums bore little obvious resemblance to the genre; even "Techno's Gone" from 1983's We're da Machine employed aggressive acoustic guitar strumming, a move definitely at odds with standard punk dictates. The Effigies also fizzled away unceremoniously and mounted a less than inspiring reunion of sorts, but the music collected here stands as their greatest achievement. And as the so-called legions of punk-rock bands clog the alternative-rock airwaves in search of a gold record, listening to these old recordings by Flipper and the Effigies provides a stern reminder, in very different ways, of what punk once meant. The fear, desperation, and faint hope that floated through this music remain palpable a decade and a half later. In 2005 Green Day will probably sound like the Knack.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Vince Anton, L.L. Logman.