Armagideon Time

To avoid repetition, this week’s installment will be taking a collective approach to Link Records’ Live and Loud!! series of punk concert LPs.

The sub-imprint spanned just shy of three dozen releases (including related “Live and Rockin” rockabilly stuff) across half a decade, wrapping up in 1992. While a lot of Link’s imports were pricey and/or hard to come by, the Live and Loud records tended to be both ubiquitous and cheap on the used vinyl circuit. That would explain how I ended up with at least a half dozen of them, as they provided affordable access to material when the studio releases were otherwise unavailable.

I didn’t bother taking a full inventory in preparation for this post, but the ones I can recall owning with any confidence were Cock Sparrer, the Angelic Upstarts, the Cockney Rejects, Sham 69, and Vice Squad. There were a few others, picked up more for the $2 asking price than any great enthusiasm for the artists involved.

So dazzled was I by the cheapness of these finds that I overlooked the fact that the lion’s share of these recordings were absolute shit, quality-wise. There’s nothing as exciting as a live punk show, yet capturing that ambiance and energy on record is near impossible to achieve. Sins of technical proficiency or sound quality that would be overlooked from mosh pit level become impossible to ignore when blaring from the speakers of your bedroom stereo. It also didn’t help that most of the Live and Loud shows were recorded off dodgy PA systems at dive clubs with the acoustics of an aluminum storage shed.

The Cock Sparrer one was probably the best of the lot, probably due to the their roots as a pub rock outfit before they cashed in on the Docs ‘n’ slaphead demo. The Cockney Rejects installment, on the other hand, could have been released as ambient white noise release without anyone being the wiser. The rest fall somewhere in between those extremes, though favoring the latter pole over the former.

To be fair, the quality issues were addressed to some extent in mini-essays printed on the back of sleeves. In addition to the mixing board mea culpas, they also offered lashing of hype-as-historic-content and Serious Opinions on the State of Punk Rock. I recall the one for the Angelic Upstarts most clearly, because the author lashed out at The Clash for “going Hollywood” and the Damned for becoming a “cabaret act” while the streetpunk scene stayed true to its roots. I was coming off the height of my punk puritanism when I read it, and its defensively earnest confusion between “arrested development” and “authenticity” struck me as rather pathetic.

Few of the Live and Loud records got more than a spin or two on my turntable, just enough for me to determine if I was willing to seek out pricier studio recordings of the material. In that sense, at least, they served an invaluable purpose.

(from “The American Century” by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck in Captain Marvel Adventures #110, July 1950)

Slightly out of the Silver Age timeframe, yet appropriate for today.

Happy a 4th of July, and don’t blow any fingers off playing with experimental cancer cures!

It’s own public enemy

July 3rd, 2015

Pro Wresting: “No one can top us when it comes to molding high-concept caricatures from popcult trends.”

Comic Books: “Wanna bet?”

Thy lord and energy-saver

July 2nd, 2015

The supplicants gathered around him in preparation for their daily rituals of prostration.

He did not seek out their worship. He had been content to dwell in the darkness behind the accordion door, disturbed only when some disorder affected Him or the Great Installer made on of his periodic follow-up inspections.

Their arrival confused Him at first, coming during those frantic minutes after someone in the Realm Above took a long hot shower. There was the Matron and her charges, the fresh-faced new flesh of her species. He assumed it was another demonstration visit, like the times when would bring his associates to the basement to gawk and marvel at how “this sumbitch set me back half a grand.”

This did not displease Him, for He knew the crucial role His wire-coils heating elements played in the House’s day-to-day operation. It was good that the young flesh were instructed in this, for perhaps some would grow up to become Installers in the future.

He was not prepared for the chant, however. Or the ritual dances. Or the sacrificial rites in which His stainless steel body would be anointed with the blood and entrails of some small creature.

He did not ask for these, but He learned to expect them and, in time, enjoy them. Thus He shed no tears when the Man of Home’s objections were silenced by a blade across the throat.

It was then the Matron’s faith began to waver. As she dropped the knife and stared down at blood pooling in her feet, He could feel uncertainty and doubt take root in the young flesh who sought her guidance. He could not allow this to be.

In a fit of panic, He cracked a gasket. A gout of steam bellowed forth from His innards, accompanied by an oscillating, high-pitched shriek. He had spoken. He had acknowledged their devotion, and uttered His approval.

Their faith restored, His worshipers fell upon the Man of the Home’s cooling body and to begin their celebratory feast. It would be a most messy communion, but the Matron was wise in the ways of housework…and there would be plenty of hot water for the clean-up.

If it is possible for a comic to straddle the ill-defined line between Nobody’s Favorite and Nobody Else’s Favorite

… Ace’s Atomic War! would be that comic.

The short-lived series hit the stands at a moment when Cold War paranoia and lurid funnybook fare were approaching their hysteria-inducing high-water marks, and it shows. From the cataclysmic cover art to the jittery oversized logo (complete! with! exclamation! point!), you’d be hard pressed to find a more concentrated hunk of early Cold War zeitgeist. It’s so square on the nose that it almost doesn’t feel real, but rather a prop mock-up created for a Frank Tashlin comedy flick — George “Foghorn” Winslow intently reading it while dyspeptic dad Tom Ewell tries to instruct him about the mysteries of girls and football. (If you don’t understand those references, congratulations on not being sad and old.)

The comic did exist, however, managing a run of four issues spanning the end of 1952 through the early months of 1953. The premise was adequately summed up by the title — chilling and thrilling tales of the nuclear Armageddon both dreaded and anticipated by a fearful public and flailing policy-makers — just the sort of “with-it” exploitative sensationalism that can part impressionably curious tykes from their hard-earned dimes.

It may not have been good, but it certainly knew how to deliver the goods. Every tedious sequence of long-winded exposition and rushed art was punctuated by a multi-megaton money shot rendered in exquisitely excessive detail.

Atomic War! may not have been big on the consistency front, but it certainly had a clear grasp of its aesthetic priorities.

The series would be noteworthy enough as an ephemeral slice of intersecting panics, moral and cultural, but there’s another aspect of Atomic War! that makes it a fairly groundbreaking effort. It was not just a random jumble of tales dealing with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but a chronicle of a hypothetical world war with the events unfolding in a roughly sequential fashion from story to story and issue to issue. The tone and style of the individual installments varies widely, cycling between the war, sci-fi, and espionage genres, but it’s clearly implied that this is a single event being covered from multiple perspectives.

There is no interaction between the characters across the tales, though the characterizations tend to draw from the same shallow pool of archetypes — Private Hillbilly, General Clueless, Comrade Nogoodnik, Captain Hardman, and many other of the lazy war comic caricatures we’ve come to know and dread.

More distressing than that familiar shorthand is the tendency for stories to simply end when the creative teams hit their required page count. No resolution, no tacked-on caption tying up the loose ends, just a full stop at the point the paycheck-generating quota was met. (It’s a practice that would be later honed into a frustrating art by Charlton’s anthology titles a few years later.)

Yet for all these rough patches and cop-outs of economy, Atomic War! can be seen as a primitive and probably unintentional prototype for the shared-world anthologies — a poorly executed and fairly inept one, but still pretty groundbreaking nonetheless. It was an odd thing to encounter, especially in a marginally competent effort to cash in on the nuclear nightmares of traumatized tots, but its presence places Atomic War! in the dubious DMZ between Nobody’s and Nobody Else’s Favorites.

It’s shame the series was shelved before it could come to a decisive resolution, but I’m going to take a wild stab…

…based on social, cultural, and historical context and assume that America won.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

Fuck that unreachable star

June 30th, 2015

The name of the class was “Film and TV Production.” The instructor was supposed to be a local actor-comedian of note, but he dropped out somewhere between pre-registration and the first day of classes. His replacement was a geeky, goatee-rocking production assistant with a background in the trending world of reality programming.

This alone was disappointing for a bunch of wannabes who’d signed up for the class specifically to net work with a Big(ish) Name, but the hits to the creative ego kept on coming. It soon became apparent that the new instructor was *gasp* a realist with no intention of pandering to his pupils’ pipe dreams.

I thought it was a breath of fresh air, but it was anathema to my classmates and their visions of being the next Spielberg, Whedon, Jolie, Affleck, Stern, et cetera. They didn’t want to hear about paying dues, working up through the ranks, and praying for that brass ring to come within reach. They wanted affirmation, not a reality check.

I signed up for the class because I’d been flirting with the notion turning some of my sketches and plays into short films, and was curious about the logistics. On that front, the class was an effective bucket of ice water full of cautionary nuggets of advice about not trusting empty promises, the dubious critical opinions of friends and family, and how social talents rarely translate into mass appeal.

“There is plenty of work in film and theater if you set your pride aside.”

I did okay in the class, but the big takeaway was that I neither wanted or needed the Dream intently enough to put up with the the associated bullshit. This was confirmed during a related project was so tortuous to manage that I quit writing altogether for the better part of a decade.

Look, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at a sack of cash and plush sinecure, and a bit of wider recognition for AT would be a nice ego boost. But I don’t really need either, especially to the point where bullshit-wading is required. It helps that I’m neither young and hungry nor middle-aged and desperate. I could bin all this tomorrow without incurring any real losses (and would probably gain in terms of mental health in the long term).

This might sound like a load of protesting too much, and perhaps there some undercurrent of that. It is nice to get props for doing something, but it’s equally important to understand why you’re doing it. That has been a difficult part of my creative learning process — not confusing the honor of getting asked versus what will actually be required and how well it suits my temperament and skillset. (To be fair, years of me being me to various parties has thinned out the flow of offers immensely.)

Write More Good? An ordeal that turned out pretty well in the end. Comics Alliance? A bad fit made worse by lack of communication from both sides. Some stillborn comics pitches? The error of mixing personal and semi-pro relationships while not really being cut out for the task. Death Saves? A good experience, thanks to having a clear idea of what I wanted going in…along with the best collaborator imaginable. There’s also a promising small project in the too-early-to-announce stages and a pretty flattering offer I’ll probably turn down for reasons stated in the previous paragraph.

The above perspective is one I arrived at after years of (often painful) experience. It isn’t meant to be a universal guide (in the form of a one-size-fits-all wet blanket). They only thing you should take from it is that it’s up to you to determine how much you want or need this, and what are you willing to sacrifice to make it possible.

(I’ve set my barriers close to self-defeating level, but that also means that my mortgage doesn’t depend upon crafting a 5000-word thinkpiece about the latest Marvel movie. And that I can flip the bird at my monitor and play videogames for twelve hours straight if I so desire. Some things are better than internet fame.)

Just a reminder…

June 30th, 2015

The Vision is not a robot.

He is a synth-IZOD.

(from Avengers #254, April 1985; by Roger Stern, Bob Hall, Joe DelBeato and Joe Rubenstein)

Almost forty posts in and we’ve reached the last day of 1991 and the birth of The Walk.

The Walk came about for two reasons: My chronically impoverished pal Leech’s lack of subway fare and a need to kill time. In this case, the clock being run down was for a New Year’s Eve party the pair of us were going to attend that evening with Maura and her friend Beverly.

Starting at the NEC store in Allston (where I finally found the first two issues of Baker Street), we worked our way down to the Pizza Pad in Kenmore Square, then across the Mass Ave bridge to MIT, around the backside of the pre-prettified Kendall Square to the Garment District (where I bought the vintage school tie I wore to the soiree), then out again to Mass Ave at Central Square straight up to Porter, then finally stopping at Davis Square for a short subway ride to Alewife and the bus back to Woburn.

It was a pretty epic journey even for my less-decrepit younger self, especially since it was the end of December, I refused to muss up my punk ‘do with a hat, and I trekked it in knee-high lineman’s boots with two inch heels.

The route was plotted to hit nearly every record, funnybook, and vintage clothing store of note, most of which have long since passed into the personal mythologies of aging provincial Gen X’ers (hi, my name is Andrew Weiss, pleased to meet you) — Superhero Universe, Second Coming, Disc Diggers, Oona’s, and others which either mean nothing or the nostalgic world to you.

The stopover at the In Your Ear in Harvard Square was where I picked up the two significant slices of vinyl spotlighted by this post: Public Image Ltd’s Album and The Cure’s Staring at the Sea. The pair — plucked from the glorious churn of the “unsorted new arrivals” bin — set me back all of six bucks and were purchased essentially sound unheard.

The 1980s “college rock” all but passed me by, apart from the trailing end when I stumbled (via crushes) into The Pogues, the Throwing Muses, and TMBG. My transition from 60s rock & soul to thrash metal to punk unfolded so rapidly and absolutely that I never had much reason to experience anything outside those strictly defined fandoms. Some of the stuff was osmotically familiar, but rarely enough to match it to a artist’s name much less an entire “scene.”

So what made my Oi-and-aggro-lovin’ self opt for a sudden shift in listening tastes? Because I knew Maura had been a fan of both bands, though she’d since moved on to a weird mix of anime music, new age stuff, and instrumental soundtracks. Still, anything capable of providing insight into the muddled uncertainties of a new relationship was too important to discount. If she once liked these albums, then I felt compelled to see what the big deal was.

Album was the easier one to get into, with the formerly Rotten One’s voice offering a note of familiarity amidst the occasionally melodic cacophony. The Cure was a harder row to hoe, mainly because the band had been so intrinsically linked to the most insufferable breed of clove-smoking, winkle-picker shuffling art student.

Neither provided me with any valuable information at sustaining a viable relationship, though the point was made moot at the party itself, where it was determined that Maura and I were indeed a romantic couple and not simply friends fumbling towards the same. (The party deserves a post in itself, one I’ve written at least three times over the years.)

The albums did end up serving me well as background noise during the all-night studying and essay-writing sessions of the next few semesters. Both made for some handy low-distraction listening which could be left playing without forcing any manual track skips. They also encouraged me to explore a bit more outside the narrow confines of punk puritanism, which would pay off immensely later on in terms of expanding and reassessing my musical tastes.

Song for Sunday #144

June 28th, 2015

The Delgados – American Trilogy

(from “The Hostage!” by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette in The Peacemaker #4, September 1967)

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