Thursday, April 12, 2018
Dischord 1 - The Teen Idles - 'Minor Disturbance E.P.'
Recorded Sept. 1980 - Inner Ear Studios
Released Dec. 1980
Nathan Strejcek − lead vocals
Geordie Grindle − guitar
Ian MacKaye − bass
Jeff Nelson − drums
Get Up And Go
Getting In My Way
Too Young To Rock
We start at Dischord 1, the answer to dozens of trivia questions. The first, but not quite only, release by The Teen Idles, although the only release by the band during its existence, but, wait, even that isn't quite true.
This first release for Dischord Records is certainly not its greatest release, but arguably, it's the most important, not because it was first, but because it was the singularity - the Big Bang - the impetus for Dischord coming into existence.
There's a lot to say, so let's back up, or, rather, let's zoom out and then zoom in as we get further along.
They say that history is written by the winners. When it comes to American hardcore, I'd say that history is written by those who were able to document it. Even the best band in the world will eventually be forgotten if they're never documented aurally. Live experiences can only be passed down through stories, but you can throw on a record and enter a time machine.
The book 'American Hardcore: A Tribal History' by Steven Blush is, appropriately, segmented by region. A trained ear can, blindfolded, identify the difference between hardcore bands from New York, Boston, D.C., Texas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Even scenes close in geography, such as Orange County and Los Angeles, or New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, had their stylistic differences.
The historically better-known scenes had the benefit of record labels that primarily were there to document what was happening in that specific region. If I say "In-Effect", you might shout back "New York". If I say "Xclaim!" or "Taang", you say "Boston". If I say "SST", you say "Los Angeles". If I say "Alternative Tentacles", you say "San Francisco". If I say "Touch and Go", you say "midwest" (Ohio/Michigan/Milwaukee/Chicago).
If I say "Dischord", you say, "Washington D.C."
Those who ran these labels no doubt loved music from other regions, but they found a purpose in documenting THEIR scene, THEIR hometown - because major labels certainly weren't going to do it. This was creating a product for sale where the product was more important than the profit, and the profit only necessary so that the label could turn around and release even more records.
The Teen Idles were four kids from Washington, D.C. who formed in 1979. All four members were teenagers when the band formed, and still teenagers when the band broke up only one year later.
The name of the band is a clever play on "Teen Idols", and while the "Teen" part is true, these teens were anything but "idle". In fact, with the benefit of knowing history and all that transpired in the decades since the band existed, one of its members did, in fact become an "idol" for many thousands, if not millions, of punk rock kids, even if that idolatry was the last thing he wanted.
Of course, I am speaking of Ian MacKaye, who, along with Jeff Nelson, had already done some time in a band called The Slinkees, a band not too well documented, although I seem to remember a practice tape circulating in my (brief) tape-trading days in the early '90s. Some Slinkees songs would go on to become Teen Idles songs and one of those songs, "Sneakers", appears on this E.P.
Aside from some band experience, and massive inherent talent, in Nelson and, especially, MacKaye, the band also had the good fortune to grow in a scene that had already been set into motion, and featured one of the most important hardcore bands, Bad Brains, before they would make the move up I-95 to New York City. Bad Brains being a band who blasted out the fastest, most aggressive hardcore for its time, while easily switching gears into reggae and dub, all with the musical ability of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. What that must have been like for a young band such as the Teen Idles to watch and take inspiration from, I can't imagine. They didn't try to emulate the Bad Brains, and that's probably a good thing. Know your limits. Even today, very few punk bands have the level of musicianship that the Bad Brains did.
This band of teenagers, again, hardly idle, made their way to the West Coast, in a time when booking DIY tours was still in its infancy, no doubt following a path blazed by Black Flag.
Shortly after returning home, the band broke up, and found themselves with $600 in the piggy bank. The decision of what to do with that $600 changed everything.
Sure, an easy decision could have been for each band member to take $150 and move on. Probably a decision many bands would have made. But instead, the band chose to spend that $600 to document their band's existence, even though the band itself would cease to exist. Hence, the birth of Dischord Records. Profits from the sale of their E.P. would simply be reinvested to make even more records. Sales were certainly made, and 180+ records and 38 years later, Dischord still exists. As I said at the start, this is an important record.
It's an impressive piece of entrepreneurship and also is demonstrative of what our relationship with records was in 1980 compared to now. It seems hard to imagine a band breaking up in 2018 and only then going to record music for people to own going forward. Records are no longer the important vehicle for a band - the live show is where it's at these days. Music in its recorded form, has become a worthless commodity, if we're talking commercially.
In the pre-internet age, everything was about the record. Records grew and lived their own lives. Tours were there to support the purchase of records. Now, records have become an afterthought, and are there to sell tours. The entire business model of the music industry has reversed upon itself, and the DIY punk community hasn't been immune to that. We have eschewed art, and records are where the art lives and breathes, in favor of being content to simply see our favorite bands in a live environment, and leave them there on the stage as we hit the exits for home. I still feel like the live show is my reward, my payoff, for knowing these bands through their records. I'm not sure that's how most people view the live experience now, but who knows.
I have yet to discuss the music itself, even if its importance pales in comparison to everything else that can be said. But since the music exists, let's deal with it.
This record was made at a time when the rules of hardcore were still being developed, but there were certainly blueprints in place, and the Teen Idles record doesn't venture too far from those boundaries.
As I've listened to this record several times across the week, I began to feel a real difference between the two sides of this record. Side One feels more accessible and somehow less mature. In the band's theme song, the lead off track, you can squint and feel a Ramones influence, musically and lyrically. Of course, "Teen Idles" ends with one future icon thanking another, the "Thanks Henry" that Ian gives the shout out to (first studio shout out on a record? maybe) is, of course, their roadie Henry Garfield, who the world knows better as Henry Rollins. We'll be seeing him real soon.
"Sneakers" and "Get Up and Go" continue with the speedy and upbeat feel, with Nathan barking a quick "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8" in the middle of "Get Up and Go", another reminder that the Ramones were probably a major influence.
I've always felt that "Deadhead" was a bit of a misstep and I've never felt the "Casey Jones" butchering was all that funny or clever. Punks and hippies, I've always felt, had a certain common bond in their subcultures.
Side B, however, is what began to grow on me as the week went on. Whereas the first side was upbeat and controlled, the songs on Side B felt darker, a sense of chaos underneath. In "Fleeting Fury" we hear the first appearance of the Jeff Nelson drumbeat we would become more familiar with in Minor Threat. "Fiorucci Nightmare" and "Getting In My Way" feel like two parts of a whole, the transition between the songs being almost completely imperceptible.
All of the songs are commentaries from the perspective of teenage kids, but whereas the songs on side one celebrate, in a sense, being a teenager (which of course includes giving a middle finger to the older generations), the songs on side two seem to display a more pessimistic attitude, a looking forward that isn't idyllic.
There's a big difference between "Put on your sneakers and be a kid / Why don't you try and have some fun / Put on your sneakers and be a kid / You're not fooling anyone" ("Sneakers") and "My vision's clouded, the sun is dark / I've lost my way, I've lost my mark / Chased by something in another way / Hoping to see the light or another day" ("Getting In My Way").
The record closes out with an incomprehensible live song, "Too Young To Rock". This wasn't Kiss 'Alive'....this was someone holding a boombox in the back of the club. You couldn't come up with a starker contrast between this and mainstream corporate rock.
The song opens with an audience chant that reminds me of the beginning of the first Exploited record, before the band blasts away at chords that are entirely illegible. But this song is what gave the 7" it's title, like the band name, a play on words - 'A Minor Disturbance' ("Minor disturbance, stopped at the door / Not new to you, 'cause it's happened before"). Lyrically, a reflection of the E.P.'s cover, another iconic image, the "X"'s on the hand that clubs would draw on underage kids, a symbol that those kids would own and take for themselves.
The record is a snapshot of youth and all of its frustrations. Feeling idle, as if those older view you as having nothing to contribute, seems to a major theme. The record itself destroys that entire notion.
The record is legendary and it's valuable (like REALLY valuable, you may need to refinance your home to purchase one if you're fortunate to ever come across an original copy), but only because we know what the record means symbolically, and what some of the members of the band would go onto in future years - from teenagers, to young men, to, now, middle-aged men on the brink of their 60s.
Strejcek and Grindle will soon fade into the background as we continue down this journey, while Nelson and MacKaye will remain focal points, the two of them being the owners of Dischord Records and playing together in one of the most legendary and influential hardcore bands ever. MacKaye, specifically, will be a partner through this entire ride.
Dischord has been kind enough to share their entire catalog on Bandcamp, so at the end of these things, I'll be providing the link since after all this discussion, it'll be nice to relax and actually listen to these things.
As always, my grand hope is to generate discussions - so please feel free to use the comments to add your own thoughts, add to the history, tell me where I'm going wrong, etc.
BANDCAMP LINK - TEEN IDLES - 'A MINOR DISTURBANCE'