Alan Moore, Watchmen
The Subhumans, The Day the Country Died
The Exploited, Horror Epics
The Ramones, Too Tough to Die
[Punk music: what does it mean? When and where does this turn to hardcore, punk-rock, intellectual hip-hop, grunge, alternative and indie music? How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture? If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down? I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition. We will listen for a close reading of the album as microcosm and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.]
The mid-‘80s were a dark period in the lyrical zeitgeist of the English speaking world. The very real fear of nuclear destruction at this time is best captured by Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen. Though the threat-watch color spectrum has mostly replaced notions of a Doomsday Clock, this constant visual motif in the novel of one-minute to midnight– symbolically, doomsday– was a stark reality. Whether this doomsday would be ecological, nuclear, the gang warfare of Youth Culture, or the best intentions of those trying to save the world–I won’t spoil–read the novel for the greatest climactic gross-out in all of comic-books, a gross-out avoided by the movie.
The Subhumans’ album The Day the Country Died starts with static which turns into the sound of dropping a large bomb, followed by a descending progression of power chords. This segues seamlessly into the second song, “Ashtray Dirt.” This song becomes a definitive moment for the album, with Dick Lucas simultaneously equating contemporary culture with tobacco ash and warning Youth against the–supposedly deliberate–attempt to kill young people through cigarette adverts.
The main statement of the album comes on song six, “There’s Nothing I Can Do.” Much like Moore’s would-be heroes in Watchmen, best intentions, even heroic efforts, don’t make much difference to a ticking clock.
There is almost a tender moment, vocally, on song 12, titled simply, “No.” “My Mother died of cancer when I was five.” But despite all this degradation, despite the down-spiraling systems at large, despite the looming threats of Cold War England, it’s the pan-ultimate track that ends the album: “No More Gigs.” As long as there are punk bands and punk shows, all this chaos is tolerable– and when there are no more, not. And on the final track, the following is repeated– with the rhetorical voice of command. “Remember the day the country died.” So when all is torn down by the punk project, the nation-state does not last, but memory remains.
More musically complex is a relative term in ‘80s hardcore music, but Horror Epics by The Exploited–my vote for hardcore-est band of all time–does have more notes, and more interesting floor tom drumbeats. Lyrically, this album is in the same vein as The Subhumans, but with better attention to detail. Take the title track’s lyrics, “Third world countries starved of nutrition… skeleton framed figures of what was children… push your tea tray away from you before you spew up… real life is much more horrible than fiction.”
Mostly this is a punker break-up album, featuring two songs about an infamous Maggie, with a lot of the C-word thrown about. Bad words for private-parts certainly still linger when all is torn down, as does the emphasis, indeed power, of these words.
Note the power of this attention to detail, on the song “Down Below,” “my ears are filled with a deafening roar, a howling wind and the temperature soars. The houses crack, the city falls, a deadly dust brings death to all. In the shelters, down below.” And the strongest statement of the album, “40 Odd Years Ago,” reminds punkers of a line of tyranny reaching back before they were born. Much like The Subhumans’ album, history remains when all is torn down–but so does tyranny.
Of course, mid-‘80s hardcore was not limited to the British Isles. Some may question inclusion of the Ramones under the heading hardcore, but this album is about lyrics. Lyrically, Too Tough to Die is as tough and unrelenting as anything coming from Los Angeles or Oakland– D.C. Hardcore has it’s own column. This is not the Ramones of End of the Century or Pleasant Dreams–though the songs “Chinese Rock” and “The KKK Took my Baby Away” deal with hard drug abuse and mob lynching, these albums were overly produced sonically. The band sought broader commercial success and radio play– too absolutely no avail until the mid-‘90s. But if you have doubts as to the ferocity of the lyrics, listen to bassist Dee Dee Ramone sing “Warthog.” Every verse is worthy of quotation, so just read them all, here.
“Mama’s Boy” opens the album with singer Joey Ramone on a torrent of abuse worthy of Dylan at his most barbing. The usually bubblegum-gone-bad lyrics of Joey are majorly distempered. I’m not sure why “an old lady with a shopping bag,” makes him “wonder if life’s a drag,” but this simple struggle of everyday life really gets to him, a la another comic-book, American Splendor, by Harvey Pekar. And no doubt there are some hit tunes– not hardcore– in the middle of the album, “Chasing the Night” and “Howling at the Moon (Sha-la-la).” But Joey makes some potent statements in “Planet Earth 1988.” This song is a vision of the future, the album was released in 1985. “Russian and American war machine will destroy mankind… Is this what the future will bring?… the solution to peace isn’t clear, the terrorist threat is a modern fear… it’s too late, it’s too late, it’s too late.” Once again, there seems no exit from the Cold War fear-mongering machine. Ahh, the ‘80s.