Hey! Rotate This. Vol. 7

Monday, 18 February 2008

Every punk historian will tell you that the bulk of the genre was built upon a handful of bands in the twilight of the 1970s (Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash along with about a dozen others) and hardcore was borne of a few more (Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, The Minutemen and the clutch of groups that the members of those bands started after the originals fell apart) but that can only be viewed as part of the story. Yes, modern punk rock as an idiom probably couldn’t have existed without the aforementioned groups, but saying that all current bands continue to cite those bands and only them—that nothing valid has come along since and those bands still making the music are simply rehashing and retreading the same twenty-three-year-old (minimum) ground—is an exercise in cultural tunnel vision. Ideas and values shift and mutate with time and the single easiest place to see and hear that fact is in the arts.

In 1989, things didn’t look like they were ever going to get any better from a political standpoint in the United States. The initial hardcore explosion that erupted in the early eighties had proven to be as effective at overthrowing oppressive and antiquated political regimes (Reagan served not one, but two, terms in office, and George Bush Sr. had just been elected in so it was still all-Republican all-the-time) as the hippie generation had 20 years earlier. Being disillusioned had always been an important aspect to the punk ethos, but now punks were beginning to question their ability to not only affect change, but that their voice even mattered. In the East Bay area of California, a dyslexic street punk (Tim Armstrong) and his three friends simply declared ‘Fuck it all’; or rather, “I know things are getting tougher when you can’t get the top off the bottom of the barrel. Wide open road of my future now, it’s looking fucking narrow.”

…And absolutely no one summed up the disappointment, anger and disillusionment that punks felt as they were left ignored by those above them (even Johnny Ramone was a staunch Reagan supporter) and the scene they’d believed in abandoned them better than Operation Ivy did when they screamed “All I know is that I don’t know nothing.”

The snarling, growling speed frenzy of “Knowledge” was only the beginning of Op Ivy’s landmark, debut album. Energy successfully updated both The Ramones and London Calling for an all-new generation of ignored kids looking for something they could call their own. Grinding out a toxic blend of punk and ska, the band crammed thirty-six minutes of the catchiest fury ever created in the annals of punk rock to that point (Green Day and The Offspring came later) into the nineteen tracks of their Lookout Records debut and proved that innovation was still possible. There is no manifesto or statement of intent in songs like “Bombshell," “Unity” or “Bad Town” outside of the very personal sentiments of the band’s members; no ‘Fuck Reagan,' no ‘Fuck Bush’ or similar sloganeering, just a chronicle of the desperate circumstances that the band’s members and their friends found themselves in set to the only sounds they knew how to make. It’s poetic in its own way, after the original bank of punks were either accepted by the mainstream (Ramones), blanched themselves to fit in (Blondie) or dissolved into obscurity no matter how temporarily (the Voidoids and Black Flag were largely forgotten at the time), the new breed that Operation Ivy represented at that time were the cold, hungry, disenfranchised and forgotten. In the truest sense of the punk idiom, they came out of nothing but they would not be ignored; and they weren’t going to roll over for anybody.

Just two years after Operation Ivy threw their first pebble—and had broken up—the ripples began to stretch out. In 1991, the band’s label (Lookout Records) released the first expanded version of Energy (27 tracks to the original’s 19) and, after that, the album continued to be one of the label’s top sellers—only falling behind Green Day’s first two LPs in sales—until it basically closed its doors in 2005. The scope of Op Ivy’s influence can be at least partially measured by the number of bands that have gone on the record (literally) to pay tribute to them since. In addition to Green Day, Millencolin and Big D and The Kids Table have Operation Ivy songs in their reserve set lists as well as on record; not surprisingly, after ex-Ivy members Tim “Lint” Armstrong and Matt “McCall” Freeman formed Rancid, they’ve occasionally dusted off a couple of their old songs to play as well.

The definition of ‘classic’ is an item of enduring interest, quality or style of the first or highest class or rank. Does Energy fit that definition? Then, other than paying lip service with the odd cover, why is Operation Ivy not often regarded as influential on a larger scale?

As Operation Ivy was falling apart, Inquisition was just getting started. While the band occasionally gets a footnote (at most) in punk history, their only full-length album illustrated that all of the punks hadn’t migrated to Washington DC, California or New York. Right from the opening slash of “Pulse," Richmond, VA’s Inquisition marked something different; not content to simply bang out four chords at top volume (although they did that too), Inquisition kept one eye on their punk and hardcore heritage while simultaneously incorporating other sounds. In “Fuse," for example, the band breaks out an acoustic guitar (unheard of for a punk band at the time) and sings ‘round the campfire (a telling line, “All my heroes up in cells and shot, all my heroes have all been bought” sums up where the band was coming from) before issuing an indictment so caustic it blisters as much as the blasting distorted guitars that follow it. And yet the band is still positive; as future Strike Anywhere singer (and Inquisition alumnus) Thomas Barnett rasps in the chorus, “I will live until the day I die” and implies that he’ll retain his independent thoughts against any obstacle. And just to prove the point, Inquisition reprises its acoustic turn complete with harmonica two tracks later on “Hotel X”—this was a band intent upon breaking barriers and challenging views; including the loud-fast rules of its own community. Elsewhere the band calls the youth of their nation to arms (“Idle Teens”) before burying them (“Hotel X”), empathizes with the destitute and others that have fallen through the cracks of society (“Strike Anywhere”) and taking lumps from the police (“Cop Song”) before issuing one last letter of defiance (“Bulletproof”) and calling it a day. The album is, very simply, exhausting and totally gratifying in the end.

Unfortunately, the band’s innocence proved to be its undoing; idealistic enough to believe that time off was tantamount to breaking up, Inquisition disbanded just weeks after Revolution…I Think It’s Called Inspiration was released. The members went their separate ways (Mark Avery joined River City High while Russ Jones and Rob Huddleston caught up with Ann Beretta and Barnett took the title from an Inquisition song and formed Strike Anywhere), but their impression was indelible; while Op Ivy made it possible for party punk bands like Green Day and The Offspring to break through, Inquisition inspired a new generation of disaffected but cerebral outcasts to pick up instruments and ultimately put together Anti-Flag, Hot Water Music and The Loved Ones among a host of others. If ever proof was required to show that “Punk’s Not Dead," it lies in the short careers of these two bands. While Operation Ivy now finally gets a little historical credit, Inquisition lies all but buried. These bands took what their forefathers were doing and changed it to make it work for them. It will happen again sometime; hopefully by then, the genre will have been around long enough to show the influence of these (and more) bands over just The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and Minor Threat.

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