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Why Be Something That You're Not: Detroit Hardcore 1979-1985
by Tony Rettman
Revelation Records Publishing
Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine '79-'83
by Tesco Vee & Dave Stimson
edited by Steve Miller
Bazillion Points Books
Ah, sweet validation. In the last decade, we've seen a slew of attractive magazines and splashy docs about America's "golden age of punk" — most of them with their noses firmly in the crotch of the (admittedly heavy) sounds coming out of the East and West coasts. From 1999's Fucked Up and Photocopied to 2006's American Hardcore, today's "punk experts" have largely relegated the burgeoning Midwest hardcore scene of the early 1980s to a brief chapter or a curious footnote.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. One has only to look back at Glen Friedman's seminal 1982 My Rules "photozine" to see Detroit-area hardcore heroes Negative Approach and the Necros given major billing. And it's not just that Midwest hardcore is overlooked nationally, but even in Detroit some have complained that the musical timeline goes right from Iggy and the MC5 to the White Stripes, with no clue of what happened in between.
Well, compadres, the good news is that Detroit's 4-4, balls-out, screaming-and-shouting sound is finally getting its due, thanks to re-formed bands — notably Negative Approach and the Meatmen — hitting the stage again, a recent Metro Times cover story on NA's John Brannon, and now two handsome books showing the Detroit hardcore scene for what it was: fast, angry and, finally, self-imploding.
Take music writer Tony Rettman's book, Why Be Something That You're Not — its title taken from an NA anthem. Rettman gets the story straight from the intense local fans, bands and promoters who had to invent a scene all by themselves. Detroit had few all-ages venues; no bar owners wanted to promote this brutal new music; fans had to comb fliers in record stores to find out about shows; the bands themselves could hardly play their instruments; and the shows often damaged the club or ended in full-scale melees in the parking lot. For a time, the hardcore scene moved between ramshackle venues in Detroit's pre-crack Cass Corridor, back when it was a neighborhood even police avoided. Despite the grim settings and actual violence, many of the stories are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Often told in the words of the very people who helped that self-made scene happen — in the oral history style of Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me — WBSTYN is a lively and fun romp through all the craziness, illustrated with photos, fliers and album covers from many a personal collection. As the tome makes clear, Detroit hardcore was a heady mix, with the speed of Southern California punk, the shouting and audience participation of British oi, all wrapped up in a tasty coating of suburban anger.
And, reading the quotes from the original movers, one thing is clear: If hardcore was a reaction against what we now call "classic rock," it was also a reaction against the older, more established "punk" bands of the 1970s. These "bald kids" had little interest in New York's Talking Heads, and they laughed at groups like Lansing's early hardcore outfit the Fix, because they'd show up for gigs in preppy street wear with their punk costumes in suit bags. Older Detroit punk bands were often dismissed, with Touch and Go zine lamenting, "The legacy of Ron Asheton seems to corrupt practically every ax man in this city." Or take the quote Rettman pulls about the first Black Flag show at Bookie's, where it all came together, with slam dancing, shouting vocals, nine-second songs — and "Detroit punk old-timers in the back with 'Who farted?' looks on their faces." More established musicians couldn't help but dislike these kids who'd buy a $50 guitar and write an EP's worth of songs in two weeks.
But Rettman's book is more than a rehash of Necros, Negative Approach and the Meatmen, although they are major players. Rettman includes the Allied, Bored Youth, the Crucifucks, Son of Sam, Fate Unknown, Violent Apathy, Youth Patrol and more. This explosion of bands produced a few big names — such as Brannon, who draws crowds in Europe — but it's sweet to see these lesser-known worthies get coverage, including period photos and interviews.
Of course, by 1983, the first wave of hardcore kids had started to grow out their hair, turn to the metal they'd reviled, and dive into the drugs they'd abhorred. Many came back from touring only to shake their heads when Detroit's slam-fueled sausagefests ended in near riots. And perhaps it's here that the book's narrative falters and its timeline becomes a bit hazy, with scarce mention of Graystone Hall, which Corey Rusk reopened in 1985 — the titular end of the book's timeline. But it's a small complaint.
Naturally, there are no such complications with the complete, start-to-finish compilation of Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson's Touch and Go zine. For those weaned on the Internet, it might be hard to fathom the lengths people had to go in the 1980s to escape from a wasteland of corporate radio that force-fed a steady diet of Top 40 trash and stoner butt rock. Based out in godforsaken Lansing, the Touch and Go guys were energetic enough to tear through issues of NME and Melody Maker, hunt down obscure zines, drive 300 miles to Chicago to buy records, and then publish reviews and criticism in their own personal magazine.
Lots of that energy gets captured in this handsome, perfectbound volume, down to the original, frenetic cut-and-paste layouts. T&G's entertain-first, inform-second style meant plenty of caustic editorials ("Kill the Hippies"), locker room humor, letters from offended readers, tweaked pornography, inspiring "Top 40" lists (Angelic Upstarts, sex, Flipside, Black Flag, X, unsportsmanlike conduct, vodka) and hilarious "Bottom 40" lists (reggae, Cheap Trick, New York, the '60s, cover charges, Killing Joke, the Beatles, Ted Nugent, High Times magazine, long hair, pimples, the Cars, Lansing Radio). The zine called the Romantics a "hyped-up puppet show," and reserved some of its most withering criticism for radio, including this zinger: "WILS sounds worse than a fart from a dead bear's bum."
But these eruptions of discontent soon gave way to enthusiasm over new, mind-blowing music, first from the UK and quickly from the coasts. Describing the Black Flag song "Nervous Breakdown," one article declares, "Call it punk rock, call it some kind of new music, call it anything you like, but you can't deny the fact that this is the kind of noise that curdles the minds of the feeble and completely melts those of its most ardent fans." 'Nuff said!
Moreover, without the T&G crew, it's unlikely that Midwest hardcore's first wave would have coalesced so tidily. Like cool older brothers, Stimson and Vee traded zines with up-and-coming punks, connected them with new sounds, helped them promote shows, bought them beer, and, finally, immortalized their infamy in these pages.
All in all — some 25 years after that first wave came to an end — it's nice to finally get some recognition.
In addition to an exhibit of punk photography and more, Tesco Vee (and, possibly, Dave Stimson) will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, July 30, at Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park; 248-968-1190. The release of WBSTYN is marked with several reunion concerts, including one in Detroit, with Negative Approach, Tesco Vee's Hate Police, and Violent Apathy, at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 31, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-6358.
Michael Jackman is associate editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.