Spinning in Their Graves

Retro punk, retro funk, shoe-gazing tunes, and novelty junk

Local music has come a long way from the '80s basement demos collected on Barefoot & Pregnant, a just-reissued punk collection. These days, we're nearly buried in slickly packaged local CDs, many of them now well-produced and ready for the radio, if radio were only ready for them.

But even so, new discs by the funky likes of Vanguard, the melancholy Mollycuddle, and the cheeky Sandwiches all seem slightly static next to the crazed amateurishness of a forgotten band like Man Sized Action, who are "documented" on Barefoot as if they were armed robbers on security cams. I'm not indulging in a spiky-haired version of Wedding Singer nostalgia here: Today's beginning bands have more venues to play and cheaper ways to record than ever before. But even so, we've lost something in the info-overload '90s: We don't sound hungry. Today's would-be stars could use some of that old punk gall, the mindset that you can create something new under the sun, and that to do so is positively necessary. Then, perhaps, we'd close the vintage stores, forgo the swing lessons, and make our own clothes and our own steps.

various artists
Barefoot & Pregnant
Reflex/Garage D'Or

The notion that hardcore punk was a musically reactionary undercurrent of early-'80s New Wave has by now become rock critic orthodoxy. The line goes something like this: American punk's second wave yielded a rigid set of musical rules (high bpm, no melody) and lyrical norms (political dogma) that a few exceptional bands like, say, Hüsker Dü proceeded to transcend, thus inventing "post-hardcore," and later, "indie rock."

Sure, sure. But even if there's a grain of truth in the complaint that hardcore was responsible for turning a boho free-for-all punk scene like CBGB's into a truck stop for Murphy's Law soundalikes, the history of coastal punk is but a chapter in the Ameri-core travelogue. And the recent reissue of 1982's Twin Cities punk compilation Barefoot & Pregnant shows how wide-ranging the form was before hardcore became "post-punk," and post became "alt-rock."

What's remarkable about this series of outtakes and demos from 11 bands, originally collected on Hüsker Dü's Reflex label, is how little the overall din resembles the constant roar some historians would have you imagine. There's nothing here like the righteous thrash of today's Minneapolis revivalists Code 13: The politics on Barefoot are too scattershot, the music too uncomfortable with itself. This is adolescent rock--and not only in the sense that it's immature and angry--but because it's half-formed and, subsequently, open to possibilities.

You'd think Loud Fast Rules, who later changed their name to Soul Asylum, would be prime specimens of speed-rock orthodoxy. Instead, they lead off the record with a countrified version of Clash-style ska-rock, suggesting musical detours rarely taken in '80s punk. And though Barefoot contains louder and faster versions of the Hüskers, the Replacements, and the less influential Rifle Sport, these early recordings are just as compelling as watersheds like Let It Be.

Rifle Sport are a ragged, organ-fed garage band with anachronistic metal licks while the Replacements, recorded live, sound remarkably tight on a slam-dunk take of Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" that contradicts Paul Westerberg's post-song remark that "we're gonna try and sober up a little bit and we'll be back." Besides the Dü, only Mecht Mensch, a Madison, Wis., band with ties to the Cities (they later morphed into sludge-funkers the Tar Babies), serves up what could be called straight-up thrash. But even on these songs, the guitars are too messy and dense to sound like rote drone.

The Barefoot bands seemed to have latched on to the anger and honesty of punk before fully grasping the conventions. With more confidence than anyone else, Hüsker Dü set the tone with "Signals from Above" (recorded live), with Bob Mould screaming, "Dirt-cheap love is a thing of the past/I feel hate 'cause I move fast." It's a particularly inspired non sequitur set to a bizarro series of chord changes that make his latest solo effort, The Last Dog and Pony Show, sound like 12-bar blues. Hate and speed, far from shackling singers Mould and Grant Hart, gave them a voice--and an audience. And that excitement made lesser bands sound more vital. Sure, Idol Threat's "The Reason Why" was a predictable anti-nuke screed, its blistering guitar line hopelessly ruined by a lame X-Ray Spex-style sax part. But it's delivered with such complete conviction that you might find yourself fist-pumping along with it.

At times the politics of the Barefoot bands seem to lash out indiscriminately. The band In Decision plowed through Lou Reed's "I Want to be Black," the self-hating precursor to Black Flag's "White Minority." The immortal Man Sized Action cried, "Everybody's happy/It's all just a dream/About a time when hate was in," on "Everybody's Happy." (This before launching into the more straightforwardly anti-social--and misogynist--"I Hit Girls.") Here were visceral kicks mixed with constant self-analysis that bordered on self-loathing--"complicated fun," to borrow the Suicide Commandos' phrase. Crashing through the collected works of the class of 1982, you sample the songs like an aural yearbook, a collection of pissed-off signatures that still sting a decade later.

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