Almost 40 years after their groundbreaking debut, the Minneapolis punk pioneers return to drop Time Bomb
“Thanks a lot you guys.” That’s what I hear myself say to Chris Osgood and Dave Ahl as I shake hands with two of the three Suicide Commandos after an hour-long chat at Studio 2 Café in south Minneapolis last week, and we share a brief chuckle. Over the years, “thanks a lot you guys” has been Osgood’s signature salutation at the end of Commandos’ songs and sets, and for a generation of grateful punks, my parting shot is a fittingly Minnesota Nice way of expressing gratitude for the prairie punk pioneers who took rock ’n’ roll by the scruff of its bloated neck in the mid-’70s and made it raw, fun, and revolutionary again.
One of those grateful punks is Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, who extols his admiration for the Commandos and other punk rock forebears in Cyn Collins’ terrific new oral history, Complicated Fun: The Birth of Minneapolis Punk and Indie Rock, 1974-1984 (Minnesota Historical Society Press, reviewed here). “To this day I see him as a mentor,” Pirner said of Osgood, and he credits our current Minneapolis hotbed to a lot of smart people and tastemakers who came before him. One of these, book MVP Terry Katzman, sums up the Commandos’ legacy succinctly: “The Suicide Commandos were doing punk rock before anybody else was doing it.”
Deserving though they may be, such accolades tend to mummify bands, a fate the three cool cats (singer/guitarist Osgood, singer/drummer Ahl, and New York-based singer/bassist Steve Almaas) kick against nicely on Time Bomb, their first new recording in almost four decades, released this week on Minneapolis’ seminal and also newly out-of-mothballs label Twin/Tone Records. Eerily and deliciously, the 13 songs on Time Bomb sound both super fresh and of a moment, as if they were somehow recorded with today’s technology in 1977, alongside the likes of the Ramones—whose members’ demise led directly to the Commandos’ decision to record and regroup.
“The impetus for getting us off the dime was Steve calling and saying, [Ramones drummer] Tommy Erdelyi is gone, all the Ramones are gone, dead; we’re all alive, let’s get on it, let’s do it,” says Osgood.
“We were really on a mission with the Commandos to go out and reenergize rock ’n’ roll,” Osgood says. “We really were. We saw ourselves as being on a mission from God to do that. The Commandos were born of us just hating everything that was on the radio. We just said, ‘Let’s bring back Eddie Cochran. Let’s bring back Gene Vincent. That’s what rock ’n’ roll is.’ So that’s what we did. But we were pretty good players, even then, and I think we play pretty well on this record.”
“Forty years of practice,” says Ahl.
“That’s it,” laughs Osgood. “It’s thrilling to hear Steve and Dave play, and how well they play, and how well we play together. That’s for others to judge, but it’s enjoyable to listen to. I don’t ever wince or think, ‘I should’ve played it another way.’”
In their day, the Commandos recorded two albums: Make a Record (1978) and The Commandos Commit Suicide Dance Concert (1979). The band initially split up in 1979 when Almaas moved to New York to front his bands the Crackers and Beat Rodeo, and to embark on a solo singer-songwriter career.
“We were a punk rock band when you could own all of the punk rock records because there were so few of them, and that’s probably a distinction we have that most musicians don’t,” says Almaas by phone from his home in upstate New York. “You know, we were a punk band playing at CBGB’s in May of 1976, from Minneapolis, and that’s just kind of a weird thing. A weird good thing.
“The legacy of the Suicide Commandos was very much on my mind when we were making this record. I really wanted to tap into all that music that we were grooving on when we first got together and I think we managed to do that.”
Time Bomb was recorded over three days in April of last year by versatile south Minneapolis-based songwriter/engineer/producer Kevin Bowe at his home studio (which Ahl built) and mixed by indie rock/power-pop hero Mitch Easter. Now it’s time for the Commandos, all in their early 60s, to get out there and promote it—starting with two performances this weekend. Could a world tour be next?
“It would be awesome, it would be totally fun,” says Osgood. “We don’t want to strap it on for the rest of our lives, I don’t think, and I don’t think we’re going to rattle around in a van, except for in Europe, where you kind of have to do that. And we’ve got a publishing deal, too, so these songs can go places and do things.”
“They’ve got our whole catalog,” says Ahl. “The old stuff too.”
“They’ll have it for three years, and now we really have some people in our corner that are going to work it,” says Osgood. “The other thing is that we have reinvigorated [Twin/Tone Records founders] Paul [Stark] and Peter [Jesperson], and as I’ve been saying, they’ve been flexing record company muscles they haven’t flexed in many years. They both love the record, and Peter went over the top and fell in love right away and is being the Peter of old. He’s our de-facto manager now, trying to work all the angles and think about everything.
“We don’t expect to go to Paris or anywhere else and have everybody say, ‘Where have you been for 40 years, we love you now.’ We don’t think that’s gonna happen, but there’s that guy, Radek, in Poland, who’s going, ‘Come to Poland!’ And Steve’s friends in Sweden: ‘Come to Sweden, we’ll have an audience for you!’ Danny Amis down in Mexico City: ‘Come to Mexico City, the kids will go crazy.’”
Me: “Do it!”
“Those things would be fun to experience, but hey man, we’re old now,” says Osgood, laughing. “We’ve been beaten down every single way, and we’ve experienced frustration and disappointment and disregard for our music, so if we go back out and play gigs, that’s going to happen again. The only way we would be immune to that is if we just stayed put and played to an ever-shrinking audience because they’re starting to die.”
The current Commando goals are modest: Sell out of Time Bomb’s initial run of 1,000 CDs and vinyl, and do mini-tours of the United States and Europe. This will be one of the busiest summers in the band’s 40-year history, including an August 19 slot at the Hilde Performance Center in Plymouth, opening for Soul Asylum and Guided by Voices, and the day before that, an appearance at Lake Harriet’s movies and music series, which pairs local bands with a kindred-spirited film.
“Guess what our film is,” says Osgood.
“Rock & Roll High School?”
“Grumpy Old Men.”
Suicide Commandos record release
When: 7 p.m. Fri. May 5
Where: Turf Club
Suicide Commandos in-store
When: 2 p.m. Sat. May 6
Where: Treehouse Records