Singing Songs Of The Unsung – BYO Records and Youth Brigade Celebrate Twenty-Five Years

Monday, 07 September 2009

After it has been in place and thriving for a while, it's very easy to forget when a given institution wasn't there and punk rock is no exception. By now, it's a safe assertion that punk's presence has become virtually universal – there are a couple of kids making noise with three chords and something they want to say in even the smallest, most backwoods little town the whole world over – but that hasn't always been the case. After its initial explosions in London and New York, punk took a very grassroots hold on the global population in a viral way as little pockets of bands began to form in larger city centers.

After New York and London, according to the history books, Washington DC began to get some punk push thanks to acts like Minor Threat but, usually, there tends to be a glowing blank spot in most accounts of the chronology after Washington's development; after that, suddenly the music was just everywhere in fantastic numbers. Bad Religion released Suffer in 1988 on their own label, Epitaph, and inadvertently became an institution on the American west coast, but that release came five years after Minor Threat released its first album and twelve years after The Ramones came out (to say nothing of punk's initial stirrings in 1974). Is it really reasonable to believe that it took so long for punk to develop a hold on the Golden State?

That's the story that seldom gets told and it falls squarely in that gap between 1982 and 1988. There was indeed a punk movement in Los Angeles – it was (and remains) the home of Youth Brigade. So were Youth Brigade (which began when Shawn Stern and his brothers Adam and Mark unleashed Sound & Fury the first time in 1982 and then in 1983 with a different track listing) the first punk band in Los Angeles? No, in fact bands like X, The Germs and The Dickies were the ones that cleared the ground, but Youth Brigade were the first to put down a lasting institution upon it – BYO Records. Since its foundation in in 1982, BYO (short for Better Youth Organization) has been home to a series of influential punk acts including Throw Rag, The Unseen and SNFU to name only a few and the label has never faltered in its mission to “promote punk and other alternative youth cultures in a positive light” and promote bands who share the Sterns' belief that “every generation has a responsibility to change what they feel is wrong in the world.”

Given that almost every punk label (including Epitaph) has fallen into hard economic times at one point in their respective histories (if you ask Bad Religion bassist Jay Bentley, for example, he'll tell you that The Offspring saved Epitaph from collapse with the runaway success of their album, Smash, in 1994), that BYO can make no such claim is a testament to the calibre of the bands that call the label home as well as the unflinching work ethic that the label and its founders in Youth Brigade uphold. “It never ceases to amaze me,” marvels bassist Shawn Stern when he looks at the legacy that he and his brother/BYO co-founder/Youth Brigade drummer Mark have lived out. “I never thought I'd be doing this for twenty-five years. I didn't think I'd be doing this in my thirties let alone my forties and approaching middle age like I am now.

“We're very, very lucky I'd say, and I would definitely say that a lot of it is luck; none of it was planned,” continues Stern. “We just sort of did it because it seemed like the right thing to do; play in a band, put a record out, you have something to say so let people hear it and they seemed to react so we just kept going.”

While such information is common knowledge depending upon how schooled the individual being asked might be in the history of punk rock, it isn't something of an oral history as, seldom if ever does BYO get mentioned in “complete” tomes on the history of punk rock, it just gets left out of everything. As Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman, Dischord Records co-founder and punk values advocate Ian MacKaye says himself in an interview contained in the footage of BYO's documentary, Let Them Know, screened at North By Northeast music conference last year,  “There is no video evidence of this – there's no movies.”

Needless to say, it has been a road hard run with victories hard won but, to commemorate their quarter-century in operation, both BYO and its founding fathers in Youth Brigade have gone all out with a wholly unique deluxe box set featuring thirty-one bands (including Pennywise, NoFX, Bouncing Souls, Anti-Flag, and more) covering some classic tunes from the BYO catalogue. The set – which comes as a two-disc vinyl comp as well as a coffeetable-sized book and a copy of the Youth Brigade/BYO documentary Let Them Know – is finally complete and will be in stores on September 22, 2009. While the label's twenty-fifth anniversary was in 2007, Stern remains confident that, with such an incredible offering in hand, fans will simply be elated that it appears now, better late than never. “'Better late than never' was exactly what I said to my brother when he was freaking out that we weren't going to get it out in our twenty-fifth year,” confides Stern. “I said to him, 'You know? People are going to remember a really good box set that came out a little late, but will probably not remember a mediocre box set that came out precisely on time so it's better to have quality than to be on time.' That's my feeling, and we really did go all out on the set so I don't think anyone will be disappointed.

“Pretty much all of the bands that played on Let Them Know are friends of ours, so we just started reaching out to them or when we were out playing shows or we'd talk to other bands that we'd see,” continues the singer on how Youth Brigade was able to orchestrate such an enormous comp. “We also do this big bowling tournament in Vegas every year and many of them have come to the tournament to hang out or played in it because it's the big punk rock party of the year for the last eleven years – so between the people that we know and have met over the years, bands that we've played with and bands that we've recorded or released, there have been lots of opportunities to to network and ask around. Everybody wanted to do it, then it was just a matter of trying to get them in to record and actually get the songs. Of course, schedules didn't always line up and some bands ended up being left out because of that, but it turned out really good.

“The whole package is just really, really nice; I think people are going to want to own it,” muses Stern, clearly enthusiastic. “We did the big, full-size version like that, and then – because lots of people don't have a record player and the vinyl wouldn't be much good to them – we also did a scaled down version; the book has all the same content but isn't as big – it's about the same size as one of those old CD long-boxes – because it doesn't need to hold the records and it comes with a CD version of the songs and the DVD and sells for half the price.

“I think people will like it; everyone that has seen it so far has been really into it.”

Even with that said though, Stern does concede that there was a bit of a business mind behind what they were doing too. After all, while BYO and Youth Brigade wanted to commemorate their milestone anniversary, they didn't want it to just blend into the ongoing stream of releases going through. “Part of the reason why we've part Let Them Know together the way we have was a reaction to the music industry being in the sorry state it is with everybody downloading and not paying for their music,” explains Stern frankly. “It became a matter of needing to re-examine if the way we've been working still works and, at the same time, we're celebrating our longevity while being faced with the dire possibility of not being in business anymore because we're a record company and the way you deliver records and CDs and music in general is changing drastically. That was one of the reasons we came up with a book because, this way, kids can't necessarily bootleg it all. They can bootleg the music and they can bootleg the movie, but that isn't really possible to do that with a book. Not that it was our primary concern – we wanted to do something that we thought was really different – but it's a handy side effect of what we've done with the set.”

Even with the box set now finally complete and in line to hit store shelves, Stern and Youth Brigade have elected to not bother with even trying to ride the coattails of the release or rest on any laurels. Rather, they've booked themselves on still another tour to promote the box set with Swingin' Utters and 7 Seconds. “Times have changed a bit over the last few years and so has the line-up of the band,” explains Stern of what fans can hope to see on this upcoming tour. “We stopped playing for a few years between 1985 and 1990 when my brother Adam [Youth Brigade bassist Adam Stern –ed] decided to go back to art school, but it was all three of us when we got back together in 1991 and it has been all three of us until the last few years because Adam started getting jobs doing computer graphics and animation so there have been a few guys that have filled in on bass on a couple of tours. For the last couple of years, it has been this kid Joey Balls on bass we've gone back and forth as a four-piece over the years and it definitely makes my life easier because I don't have to be the one that's singing, playing and talking onstage at every turn. That's been a really great help and he's a really great guitarist and great singer. As well, my brother Adam hasn't been in the band now for about two years because he's busy working in the film business so we brought in this kid Joey to play bass with us and a guy from his other band, Blue Collar Specials, Jonny, have been playing with us and it's been going really well. They're also big Youth Brigade fans and what they've managed to do is get us to start playing a lot of songs that we haven't played in quite a few years which has been really cool.

“We're also making plans to do another record finally,” continues Stern. “Because we've been so busy with the box set and given that those guys really just joined the band permanently at the beginning of this year, we haven't had much of a chance to get writing but we'll definitely start working on new material soon. We're hoping we'll have opportunities during sound check or on days off to get to work on some new material. I wrote all the songs for the split release we did with The Swingin' Utters, which was our last release and was – scary enough – ten years ago, and I wrote all of them in a week so hopefully when we do get back into it, it'll come that easy again.”



Youth Brigade – “Sink With California” – from Sink With Kalifornija

Youth Brigade – “Believe In Something” – from To Sell The Truth

Youth Brigade – “Men In Blue Part One” – from Sink With Kalifornija
SNFU – “Misfortune” – from Let Them Know
Old Man Markley – “We're In!” – from Let Them Know

Pennywise – "We're Gonna Fight" – from Let Them Know

Let Them Know
comes out on BYO Records on September 22, 2009. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

BYO box

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