Jun 052008

The other day, when Townsman Sammymaudlin took it upon himself to drop a huge electronic dump on The Germs, I gladly dropped my drawers and added to the dung heap. It turns out I was not alone in having my issues with that band and with hardcore in general. Others were mystified by the negative reactions, telling us we “had to be there” to appreciate these bands, that neither sounded good on record nor, for that matter, in concert. Townspeople candidly shared stories, displayed scars, and acknowledged their own shortcomings. I’m OK, You’re OK, was the prevailing sentiment. It was a moving day, yet one Townsperson was not satisfied. SoCal transplant Mwall still needed an explanation as to why some of us felt The Germs sucked. He was not satisfied by the resulting inability of Germs sympathizers to explain why they were good. It’s as if he thought we were obligated to adhere to American values like Innocent until proven guilty.

To his credit, Mwall did not back down. He kept at us, finally recommending particular songs that we should hear – without prejudice. And so I acquired the songs he recommended; cleared my mind of all memories of hardcore dudes scoffing at my own band’s particular brand of “pussy” music; and cleared my mind further of those same dudes, a few years earlier, before they gave up on their aspirations of being the next Tony Iommi and took up hardcore instead, even then scoffing at my friends and I for being such pussies. Let’s just say I was very clear and open-minded before revisiting The Germs. I’m, like, totally Pacific as I revisit these Germs songs I dismissed on one listen nearly 27 years ago. Following are my thoughts and the songs, for you to play and revisit alongside me.

“Lexicon Devil”: As Sammymaudlin said, this closely follows the model of punk rock as set by The Ramones. When this song was recorded there were a fair share of local garage bands cranking out their own super lo-fi version of this Ramones template. This is totally fine in a humble, well-intentioned, local punk band way, circa 1983 (yeah, I know the recording is from a few years earlier, but it doesn’t make them visionaries) – if you’re, like, totally open to punk rock. If not, you’d be looking for the nearest locker down on which to hang a band member by a wedgie. The fact that the lead singer would be a poster boy for a lot of hot-button psychological issues is not of consequence. He sings like a young punk with as mediocre and inconsequential a life as any of us.

“Richie Dagger’s Crime”: Good opening guitar riff that’s reminiscent of something the New York Dolls might have used to kick off a song. The song itself is soon spoiled by bad drumming and lame production, but there is enough there that either a producer or in-band visionary could have shaped this into a satisfying side 2 deep cut on a Stiff Little Fingers or Richard Hell and the Voidoids album. Much better than expected.

“Communist Eyes”: Oh man, here’s that too-fast-for-the-drummer’s-own-good hardcore drumming style that’s an immediate deal breaker for me. This is terrible. Any half-decent idea the guitarist might have is overrun by a drummer and singer who has no clue where to find the potential groove of the song. The inability that so many hardcore drummers and singers had to find the core groove of a song was always a turn off for me. Anyhow, in this “Communist Eyes” song, whether Darby Crash is shouting lyrics on par with the poetry of T.S. Elliott or not, I want to hear the singer sound as if he’s able to hear the band in his headphones. Crash sings as if he’s guessing at where the downbeats land. Was this one of Eno‘s Oblique Strategies? With that drummer perhaps Crash didn’t have a choice.

“What We Do Is Secret”: Half-step guitar riffs, chanted gang choruses, over before it had a chance to sink in. The brevity of this song is its strong point. As this achetypal hardcore song structure goes, the execution’s not bad.

“We Must Bleed”: More chromatic chord progressions, a blur of cymbals, a bunch of shouting. This is the kind of stuff that made the likes of myself and General Slocum wonder what it was really all about while we waited out these bands at the back of a club so one of our bands could take the stage. That descending chord part doesn’t represent anger and rage to me in any productive, satisfying way. It’s the musical equivalent of a spoiled brat whining.

You know, I read the lyrics to these songs because I couldn’t make out many words listening to them. The lyrics read much better than they sound. There’s a serious Stooges Raw Power vibe running through the lyrics. Although Raw Power is the one Stooges album I don’t love, the lyrics on that album are often strong. What I don’t like about Raw Power is James Williamson‘s guitar playing, which races through songs with no regard to the backbeat. His playing causes the usually rock-steady Iggy to lose track of the groove as well. Bowie‘s lousy production, in which Iggy’s voice doesn’t have a natural spot within the music, is another turn off.

It seems to me that Darby Crash guy wanted to be Iggy Pop, but he seems to have aspired to all the characteristics of Iggy Pop that I find least appealing, the Iggy who’d lost his focus, the Iggy who was more concerned with apocalyptic rants than simply kicking ass, the Iggy who was one of the Stooges not set apart from them by an ampersand. Along with misplaced aspirations, in my opinion, Crash and his bandmates display little musical talent and no musical vision. Only guitarist Pat Smear sounds like he was developing his own style on his instrument. The drummer and Crash sound like they don’t have a clue of what their role is musically, other than to be “punk.” If there’s a bass guitar on these songs it made absolutely no impression on me, and I don’t mean to suggest that the bassist is tastefully understated.


  11 Responses to “Open Mind, All Ears: Mr. Mod Reconsiders The Germs”

  1. Actually, I appreciate you giving it this much effort, despite the fact that obviously I don’t agree. You came at least one quarter of the way along on songs you never had much chance of liking, considering that you can barely even tolerate more pop punk bands like Husker Du.

    The loose, fast-paced drumming is one of the album’s great strengths, as are some of the occasional bass riffs. Most deeply amazing is how you can hear no groove on these songs. But I understand how it’s not your thing, and that’s okay: arms folded on the sidelines as your dreams are shoved aside by this mystifying new phenomenon, what better response than “Hmm, I don’t think that juvenile fellow hit that note properly.”

    Still, your willingness even to stay there and frown when others would not means that there’s no doubt–and I mean this as a compliment–that had you not made more money elsewhere, the punk phenom could have truly revered you as the coolest high school music teacher that ever could have taught them something.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    Compliment accepted.

    BigSteve, have you had a chance to revisit this stuff yet? It’s lonely over here on the sidelines.

  3. BigSteve

    Mwall is sending me a CD, and it hasn’t arrived yet. I kind of didn’t want to spoil it.

    What strikes me after a quick listen is that they lack precision, which to me is what makes this kind of music work. The writing may be good, but they’re just not sharp. Listen to the beginning of We Must Bleed and how sloppy the drummer is when he comes in. By contrast think of how the Bad Brains would sound playing this material. It would cut like a knife.

    I’m not opposed to degradation as an artistic strategy. But the idea is that there’s illumination at the end of it, not just sinking farther and farther into oblivion. Portraying alienation in music is very hard. Falling apart is easy.

  4. trolleyvox

    There are two versions of Lexicon Devil. The first recording is a bit more lo fi, but a much more rewarding take.

  5. Rumor has it that Steve has now listened to the album.

  6. BigSteve

    Mwall was gracious enough to send me the Germs compilation that has GI and I guess all of their other stuff too. I was telling him that I thought GI made more of an impact when I heard it straight through than when I heard just the tracks that were posted here before. They’re still not as tight as I’d like, though maybe comparing any bad like this to the supernaturally tight Bad Brains isn’t fair, but they were sometimes better than I was giving them credit for.

    I still don’t understand the concept of purposely obscuring the lyrics with the proto-cookie monster vocals, especially when the lyrics really are a step or two above “I hate my parents,” though I wouldn’t compare them to TS Eliot by any means.

    But I’ve got to say that Lorna Doom is one of the great noms de punk.

  7. I appreciate you and the Mod giving the album a relisten, Steve. And actually I’ve enjoyed my own chance to play the album a number of times along with some other albums I have from that era. I liked the Germs album a lot the first time I heard it, but as Matt said earlier, I can agree that it’s an acquired taste.

    The momentum of the album is definitely part of the point. And in short songs like that, a lot of the changes happen between songs as much as within them, which is why taking separate tracks out is, ahem, only a way of listening with prejudice, although I appreciate the Mod’s willingness to go even that far.

    Yeah, Berylant’s Eliot reference was a bit silly, although since he’s one of the band’s fans here I didn’t feel like taking him up on it. Just for future consideration, any time we’re dealing with high energy, literate destructive or self-destructive poetic lyrics, probably the touchstone should be Arthur Rimbaud. “I set beauty on my knees and found her bitter.” Rimbaud stopped being an artist at 22 also but instead of killing himself with heroin he took off for shady business and sexual dealings in Africa that killed him when he was 37. Those were the days, huh? In any case, next time we’re bringing up a lyricist who’s trying to portray the chaos, Rimbaud’s the comparison we need.

    One thing I’ve noticed in replaying GI is how catchy, memorable, I find a lot of the tunes in their key bits and pieces. They do stick in the head more for me than might seem likely. And of course I’m not denying that the band can be sloppy; I just feel like there’s so much drive to the songs that the sloppiness adds as much as it takes away.

    Yeah, Crash’s vocals are an issue. Not really cookie monster, I would say. But of course I like heavy metal and am able to make distinctions between growlers in that kind of music. But I think that Crash infuses his vocals with a pretty decent level of individual personality; I know it’s him when I hear him, and he has more inflection than one might think.

    Of course, what you said earlier about the difference between portraying alienation and just falling apart onstage is key. In their live work it seems blatantly clear that they pretty much just took the second option. But for me the implied chaos holds together well over most of GI. It takes the punk aesthetic more or less as far as it can go in the direction of teetering on the borderline.

  8. Mr. Moderator

    Mwall wrote:

    The momentum of the album is definitely part of the point. And in short songs like that, a lot of the changes happen between songs as much as within them, which is why taking separate tracks out is, ahem, only a way of listening with prejudice, although I appreciate the Mod’s willingness to go even that far.

    My friend, next time remind me to listen to the hum of the grooves between songs. I’ll post them on the site as further examples for Townspeople to sample and comment on. This is an excellent idea that I’m surprised we’ve never looked into before on RTH! Have you ever closely listened to the grooves between the songs on REO Speedwagon’s Good Trouble? Even diehard fans of the band will tell you that the songs themselves are a letdown following Hi Infidelity, but the brief moments of silence on Good Trouble are enlightening. When taken in consideration with the rest of that album, the between-track grooves raise that album from a D to a C+.

  9. Thanks for the grammatical correction. You’d make a great teacher of the old-fashioned sort! Sometimes in moments like these I write “across?” as an example of a suggested alternative wording. Imagine how much time that would save.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    This is the curse of being an editor…and an asshole. You’re a good man, as always, Mwall.

  11. mockcarr

    Damn those Beatles for eliminating the spaces between the songs on the second side of Abbey Road! Let’s start the Punk Movement!

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