THE MID-'70S rebirth of the rock underground was not, as dominant histories would have it, exclusively confined to New York City and London. Instead, it was a synchronized budding of scattered seeds throughout America. Minnesota has its own proof in the Suicide Commandos. And now, some 18 years after their breakup, the first-ever Twin Cities punk band is--in this season of so many punk rock revivals--staging a comeback of their own.
It began last summer with a thunderous reunion set at the Lyn-Lake Street Fair, fueling popular demand for the Mercury reissue of the first Minneapolis punk album--1978's long-deleted Make a Record, available this week to an entire generation of local fans for the first time. Furthermore, an album of Commandos "odds & sods" is in the works, with an all-new recording planned for early '97. Not bad for a band that's hardly ever mentioned in the punk history books. As Commandos guitar hero Chris Osgood puts it, "Ours is more of an oral history than a written history."
Well, let's write it down, then. Osgood, drummer Dave Ahl, and bassist Steve Almaas (aged 21, 20, and 19) came together in 1975 amid a Mill City club scene dominated by a handful of monolithic West Bank blues bands. Informed by early rock & roll, the New York Dolls, and the Stooges, and with no local precedent, the trio aimed to be utterly different from stagnant FM radio. "When we started the Commandos we decided, let's just strip all that [excess] away," says Osgood. "Let's get the smallest number of people possible, which was three, and try and make the most noise that we can, have the most aggressive and fun bash that we could. And we had fun every time."
"There was no road map," Osgood adds. "There was nothing to follow, except going all the way back to Eddie Cochran and the beginning of rock & roll. We were looking for anything that was absolutely immediate, and we didn't want very much more than that."
When the Commandos traveled to New York City, they were surprised to find a number of kindred spirits. "It's funny," says Osgood. "It was about a year after we established our sound that we heard the first Ramones record. And we were astonished, as was everybody else, that somebody else would be sounding so much like us." At clubs like CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, the Minnesotan punk ambassadors made contact with bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and the Dead Boys. Among their principal new pals were Cleveland's Pere Ubu, whose leader Crocus Behemoth (aka: David Thomas) showed them how to self-release their first two singles. From this network of interstate friendship was forged a new punk club circuit which would include the legendary Jay's Longhorn in Minneapolis.
One night in the fall of '77, the Minnetonka Fire Department burned down the condemned Utopia House--the legendary Commandos HQ that the band had rented for $30 a month. Knowing it would happen, the band wrote one of its finest anthems for the occasion--"Burn It Down"--shooting a video for the song with the flaming house as a live backdrop. Over the next two nights, the band played with Iggy Pop and then the Dead Boys, shows attended by Mercury A&R rep Cliff Bernstein at the urging of Pere Ubu. "He offered us a deal on the spot," says Osgood. "I think we hemmed and hawed for like, 30 seconds?" The album was recorded quickly and issued in January of '78 on Mercury's "underground" imprint, Blank Records. (The only other Blank record was Ubu's classic debut, The Modern Dance.)
Cheaply produced by Twin/Tone Records co-founder Paul Stark at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, Make a Record was once likened to "trying to pass a hurricane through the eye of a needle." The pace is hyper-caffeinated and the beat is often intricate and jerky, like 33 RPM sound being played at 38. There are many great moments: "Burn It Down;" "Mosquito Crucifixion,"Osgood's very Minnesotan paean to insect hatred; and "Attacking the Beat," an 87-second burst of lust. Yet many eclectic elements are also a far cry from Ramones purism. Osgood, reared on the blues, dabbles in some wildly destructive arena-rock riffing and soloing (not to mention his smart and snotty vibrato), and the band even foreshadows some of the artier sounds that would typify Minneapolis new wave.
Neither the Suicide Commandos nor Make a Record would make it to the end of 1978. Cliff Bernstein was soon fired from Mercury and the Blank experiment abruptly ended. Make a Record became a cut-out after estimated sales of 20,000 copies--great for a local band, but not enough to break national. The band itself split up that Thanksgiving, posthumously releasing a rare live album on Twin/Tone and three compilation tracks on the famous Big Hits of Mid-America. The Commandos' achievements would soon be overshadowed by Minnesota music yet to come--all of which owed no small debt to the Commandos' testing of the waters.
All three Commandos have energetically gone on to music-related careers, and these days they're simply reexperiencing the joys of having a record out, playing shows, and writing material--with few expectations beyond that. The moment of truth was last year's Lyn-Lake performance, an archetypical blast of pure rock & roll suggesting that punk rock, like many genres, is often at its best when played by the old masters.
"It doesn't have anything to do with the Sex Pistols [re-forming]," Osgood notes. "It might just be the thing that got us to make this music in the first place--just something in the air, something changing. It just seems like the thing to do." CP
The Suicide Commandos perform Saturday, August 31 at Mill City Music Festival in Minneapolis; for more information, call 942-8881.
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