Sunday, April 15, 2018
Dischord 2 - State of Alert - 'No Policy'
Recorded Dec. 1980-Jan. 1981, Inner Ear Studios
Released Mar. 1981
Henry Garfield - vocals
Michael Hampton - guitar
Wendel Blow - bass
Simon Jacobsen - drums
Lost In Space
Gonna Have To Fight
With their second release, Dischord moves from being a vehicle to document the Teen Idles' brief existence, to becoming a label with the intent to document the D.C. hardcore scene. There is a big difference between a label that releases just one record, and a label that releases two.
That second release is the one and only release from Washington D.C.'s State of Alert, probably better known by their initials, S.O.A., the No Policy 7". To be more specific, this is the only S.O.A. release during their time together as a band, as Dischord will, 34 years later, release a pre-7" demo. We won't be getting to that one anytime soon.
S.O.A., similar to Teen Idles, were a short-lived band, formed out of the ashes of an earlier band (The Extorts, whose vocalist, Lyle Preslar, we'll be meeting up with shortly), and is far better known for what the members of this band would go on to, rather than what the band itself produced.
Jacobsen and Hampton will go onto The Snakes, Hampton will also go onto The Faith and Embrace, and Blow onto Iron Cross. We'll be visiting all of these bands in the future.
But, first and foremost, S.O.A. features the recorded debut of Henry Rollins, at the time still going by his birth name, Henry Garfield. Like Ian MacKaye from the Teen Idles, Rollins would go onto become one of the iconic figures in American hardcore. Unlike MacKaye, however, Rollins' fame would eventually transcend hardcore, or even music in general.
Since this blog is about personal reflection, this seems like the ideal time for my punk rock origin story.
I was aware of the Ramones and the Clash via MTV growing up. While still in elementary school, I had bought the first Ramones album and "Combat Rock". I never associated either album with being "punk rock". I didn't know what punk rock was back then. As a young kid, my cousins had played for me a Sex Pistols song, and I entirely rejected it.
My local record store was Island Sound in Merrick, New York. From the time I was in 5th grade, I used to bike up there every weekend and spent pretty much all of my paper route money on records. Hard rock and metal, the heavier and more extreme, the better.
But one day, probably a bit before my 13th birthday back in 1986, a new t-shirt for sale caught my eye. It was the image of a smiling puppet holding a knife. Above the image in big, block letters - "BLACK FLAG". Underneath the image, "My War". I remember staring at it. I was captivated and I absolutely had to hear whatever this band was offering.
Ron, the owner of the store, who had watched me grow through my early musical evolution, and had guided me towards many of my favorite records, led me to the only two Black Flag cassettes he had behind the counter - 'Family Man' and 'Slip It In'. I bought both of them. Ron, not thinking I'd like them, offered to refund my money the following week if they turned out not to be my thing.
When I got home, I immediately put on 'Family Man', and out through the speakers came the voice of Henry Rollins, "Do you want the family man or do you want the swingin' man? You choose."
And that was it, I was as captivated by the poetry coming through my speakers as I had been that 'My War' t-shirt image, as I had been by the 'Family Man' and 'Slip It In' album covers too.
This was something very different, something far darker, more realistic, raw and visceral than anything I had listened to before.
After a few poetry selections, "Armageddon Man" came roaring out of the speakers. I loved it. 'Family Man' is a bit of an odd gateway into hardcore, it's even odd for a latter day Black Flag record, since it's half spoken-word and half instrumental, and even "Armageddon Man", the only song on the album that has both words and music, is essentially a spoken word piece over top an instrumental piece, if that makes any sense (and it will if you listen to it).
'Slip It In' is the more traditional album of the two, and I loved it just as much. It fulfilled my need for heavy and aggressive music, but with a certain emotional depth that I just wasn't getting from my metal records.
The following week, back to Island Sound. No - I don't need my money back - what I need is more of this - whatever "this" is. I was pointed to the "Punk/Hardcore" section. Huh? This is punk rock? It's somehow not what I had envisioned. But after that, there was no turning back.
I am, without apology, a Henry Rollins fan. As much as I love early Black Flag, Rollins brought a delivery, a heft, a certain psychological darkness and heaviness that the early singers just didn't capture. He even brought it to the material in which he had no writing involvement. I put the 'Damaged' versions of those songs up against anything recorded by the earlier singers that you can hear on 'Everything Went Black'. There's just no comparison between the Rollins version of "Damaged I" and Dez Cadena's version. One is a noisy punk rock song that quickly wears out its welcome. The other is a statement of purpose - "My name's Henry - and you're with me now."
Rollins Band was the first band I ever saw at CBGB (well, technically I guess that would go to Tool who opened) - June 1992. I've also seen him do several of his spoken word performances, and have always found him to be thought provoking. I'm also currently watching Season 2 of 'Sons of Anarchy' (SoA?), and as an actor, Rollins has also played interesting roles and delivered.
In the end, I think that's what Rollins excels at if nothing else. He never had the greatest voice, but he has the gift of delivery - he makes you believe it - whatever "it" may be. I'm a fan - and that is why.
The 'No Policy' EP itself opens with a crash, all hands on deck, all at once, with "Lost In Space", an early no-frills, in your face anti-drug statement.
The record continues on, 10 songs in total, only two of which go past the minute mark, and only just barely. Each song blazing along at a similar fast tempo, similar simple chords, and similar, simplistic rhyming lyrics: "War goin' on / Inside my head / Can't get to sleep / I'd rather be dead" ("Blackout"); "There's a war on the street, whatcha gonna do? / There's no choice, they've turned on you" ("Riot").
The EP is repetitive, but I appreciate the all guns blazing from beginning to end feel of the record. But I've listened to this about a dozen times this week, and the only songs I ever truly remember are the opening track, "Lost In Space", and "Public Defender" on side two.
What these two songs have, that the rest don't, are hooks. I love hardcore, I love metal, I love dark, heavy and aggressive music. But for me, I still need hooks. Something that wakes up my ear - an interesting combination of chords, a soaring melody, an interesting rhythmic change, etc.
What 'No Policy' has in aggressive spirit, it lacks in songwriting. "Lost in Space" and "Public Defender" both have hooks in different places. In "Lost in Space", it's the verses that are memorable. In "Public Defender", it's the chorus ("Man in blue, coming for you / Siren's red, you're gonna be dead").
But the rest of it just blends a little bit too much together for me. Perhaps the one other exception being the final song, "Gonna Have To Fight", which I think continues to demonstrate an English punk influence that I know a lot of the early Dischord bands drew from.
Hampton's guitar solos often out atonal even Greg Ginn, although without any of the musicality (check out the solo, if you can call it that, in "Draw Blank").
Additionally, Jacobsen's drumming is often clumsy to the point of distraction. What S.O.A. went for was fast, tight, 45-second-long songs, and Jacobsen just doesn't keep up most of the time. Ivor Hanson, also later of The Faith and Embrace, would replace Jacobsen, but I'm not sure there's any recorded documentation of that final line-up. Hanson's drumming may have been a great improvement had he been in the band when they recorded this.
The cover is a treated version of a live photograph, with Rollins in a pose I don't normally associate with him: singing upwards rather than in a crouch.
Let's not be too hard, though, this is a pretty fine slice of fast, aggressive, simple hardcore for its time, even if it is a bit unmemorable. Rollins delivers the words, even if he's not capable of the poetry that would later come to him, in the convincing fashion that I've always known him for.
The story from here is a famous one. Rollins driving up to New York City to see Black Flag during the Dez era and joining the band onstage for "Clocked In" before driving back to D.C. in time to open up the local Haagen Dazs. Rollins was later given an invitation to try out for the band, an invitation he accepted and an audition he passed, followed by his move to the west coast. Where on the timelime this is in relation to the end of S.O.A., I'm not so sure about. But what I am pretty sure about is that, with or without the Black Flag intrusion, the band members each needed a change of scenery to take it the next level.
BANDCAMP - State of Alert - 'No Policy'