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Album Review

WHAT IS IT?
Punk Rock In SoCal, '77-'83

Like the guys on this album would rip me a new one for using that fancy font, eh? Probably not because the musicians who made up a large part of the punk scene in Los Angeles in those days have moved on and, hell, it was a music scene, fer Chrissakes, and not an all-out war with the establishment like the record companies would have had you believe. Sure, there was angst and tension and even anger now and again. Welcome to Youthville! The only reason the young hippies were so mellow was that they were stoned all the time! Take away that nefarious weed and they could well have ended up spitting on sidewalks, each other and, worse, you!

I look back to those days and almost laugh. I say 'almost' because as crazed as some of these musicians thought they were, they were part of a small piece of music history which was luckily captured by Chris Ashford at What Records. Born and raised on surf and pop, Chris one day found himself surrounded by friends with spiked hair and safety pin piercings and, in pure self defense (he claims), he acquiesced. Well, not completely, because he refused to pierce anything, shall we say, too personal and his curly blond hair, no matter what he did with it, remained curly and blond. Know what? It may well have been wavy and blond. But I'm getting off the point here. Point is, he was there and so were they and damned if he didn't end up recording some of the bands being ignored by the established music interests and pretty soon here was a single and there was a single and eventually a compilation album and voila! What Is It.

This isn't the first time most of these tracks have been on LP. Most were there when the first compilation was released on, amazingly enough, What Records (this one is on Wondercap), but Ashford decided to blow the dust off of two tracks heretofore buried in his vaults (a handful of cardboard boxes stashed toward the back of a closet, a constant bone of contention between him and his girlfriend) and put two previously unreleased tracks on this one, those being by The Spastics. For the first time anywhere, the world is exposed to their recorded music (I'm a Spaz/Fuck the World and Baby, You String Me Up/Your Head Exploding) and might not be all the better for it. The Spastics, even supported by the future David Baerwald (David and David, Sheryl Crow), were not exactly crowd favorites wherever they played and, like the liner notes say, they “had the fire extinguisher turned on them during their swansong performance” at The Masque. An aside: The author of those liner notes is working on finishing up a book about those early punk days tentatively titled Destroy All Music.

You get the picture then, right? Throw in all of the standards of the time, though many would argue the term, and you have a history of oddball punk with tracks by The Germs (Forming and 'Round and 'Round), San Diego transplants The Dils (I Hate the Rich), The Eyes (Don't Talk To Me), The Skulls (On Target), The Controllers (Killer Queers), Kaos (Top Secret), and Agent Orange (Out of Limits). Hell of a lineup and including future names like DJ Bonebrake, the aforementioned David Baerwald, Johnny Stingray, Charlotte Caffey, and Darby Crash, among others.

Watch out, though. Though the young punks have mellowed and even burned out, the music is as brash as ever. If you were there, you will undoubtedly want to turn this up and recreate some of those adrenal rushes you experienced listening to the bands or the records in the old days. If you weren't, chances are you will want to turn it up anyway. There is something about these punks that doesn't sound quite right when played at a low volume and, hell, that would be defeating the purpose of this music in the first place. So turn it up, my friends, and be thankful that there is a Chris Ashford out there watching over your music. And if you don't agree, there are fire extinguishers everywhere. Chris will be that old surfer dude with the long curly (or wavy) brown hair. Tell him Frank sent you.

By the way, What Is It is available for download or will be eventually and the 10-inch vinyl record is ready for shipping from Wondercap Records. If you visit, check out the other releases, including a fine rock/jazz album by DJ Bonebrake Trio. The drummer for X playing vibraphones? Very cool. And doing one hell of a job on them, too.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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