The Adolescents
Agent Orange
The Circle Jerks

Punk rock, Southern California style

Around the turn of the '80s, the punk scenes in London and New York had either faded or descended into self-parody (witness the ridiculous Oi! movement). For the rest of the decade, punk rock found its true home in one of two places: a)California, especially the greater Los Angeles area, or b)the rest of America, where it evolved into indie rock, a much more creative and interesting style of music than hardcore punk. All three of these bands were key players on the L.A. punk scene circa The Decline of Western Civilization; all of can be labeled under the tag "skatepunk" or "beach bum punk" or "Valley Boy punk" which is to say that none of them should even be mentioned in the same breath as the Clash or Television. But there was some decent music to come of out the L.A. punk scene that wasn't made by X or the Blasters (who were rockabilly!) or the Go-Gos (who were surf-girl-group pop, and even had about four good songs!) or Black Flag (who were sped up Black Sabbath!) or the Angry Samoans (who sang about Hitler's dick!) or the Minutemen... but enough about those bands! I'll get to them eventually in other reviews! Right now I'm reviewing these three bands!

The Adolescents: The Adolescents (1981) ***

This is as close to a generic early '80s L.A. hardcore record as it gets (almost) and I mean that in kind of a good way - after all, most hardcore is faceless and totally sucks, and this isn't faceless and doesn't totally suck. In fact, I take back what I just said. The Adolescents have that classic So Cal Epitaph sound down cold before there even was an Epitaph - heck, before Bad Religion even released their first piece of plastic! So I suppose that makes them an influence. And the band name fits them perfectly: every band has to have that little something special to differentiate themselves, and not only are the Adolescents really are (I mean were; these guys are pushing 40 now! - weird thought!) teenagers, but they sound like it! The songs they write could only have been written by highschoolers - I'm talking lyrics here, of course. "I Hate Children" overreacts to babysitting your kid siblings. "L.A. Girl" is an incredibly snotty and incredibly parochial assualt on a stuck up bitch. Anyone who doesn't live in Orange County couldn't care less about their rivalry with Los Angeles County - do I expect you to care about Malvern High vs. Lakeside? Of course not, and I don't care anymore, either - that was highschool! Fact is, the very highschoolishness of this disc is exactly what makes it entertaining - particularly Tony Cadena's definitively dumb angry teenboy vocals. He's the very impersonation of your average upper-middle class, suburban surfer-boy So Cal brat - he could not, I repeat could not, have come from any other part of the country. Such creatures are mercilessly mocked in the rest of the country! And by Frank Zappa, who got a hit single out of said subject! The dominating musician, though, is guitarist Rick Agnew, who appears to be a few years older than the other guys. He's a good guitarist, much better than your average punker, and something of a legend among L.A. punk circles because he can actually play his instrument. Some of these suck - in fact, about half of these songs don't do anything for me. But that just means it was a typical hardcore punk album, of and for its time. The centerpiece is the amazing "Kids of the Black Hole," which isn't hardcore punk at all - it's a five minute epic about Kids, and yes that is an allusion to an exploitative soft-porn flick masquerading as social commentary released a few years ago. Other highlights include "Ameoba," in which the Adolescents pick on a one celled organism - hey, even if you're a wimp doesn't mean you can't bully something around. It is also the first example I can identify of a bizarre strain in So Cal punk I'll call "scientist rock" - for some reason, a lot of punk band members in California moonlight as graduate level science majors. I can't explain why this phenomenon occurs, either. And what about these definitive teen nerd lyrics from "Creatures": "Cheerleaders - hot and full of cheers! Teasers! They say no, so I jerk white tears!"

Rick Agnew: All By Myself (1982) *1/2

Do you want to hear a good guitarist who can't sing or write decent songs release a homemade album in which he did, as the title indicates, play all the instruments and produce it himself? If you are Rick's girlfriend or Mom, then sure you do! The rest of us can do without it. Surprisingly, Agnew dabbles in as much anthemic power pop as pop punk, though admittedly that's splitting genre hairs a bit. "O.C. Life" continues in the same excessively parochial vein as the first album's highschool rivalries. Why should you or I care about Rick putting down kids who can't see past the county line? Do people in L.A. (and New York) really think in such geographically puny terms? And I thought only Southerners had a sense of regionalism. The lyrics are really clumsy - even Jackson Browne came up with a better song about a gorgeous girl who all the guys are afraid to approach, which in the end leaves her very lonely because guys won't ask her out. May I point out that I have never seen this actually occur in real life? There's never a shortage of naturally horny and self-confident males willing to risk being shot down by a beautiful woman in the off chance that she might actually go out with them. Unless they're unnattractive, women in general almost never suffer from a lack of propositions by men - finding a nice guy, one who's not an asshole, can be a problem, but the reality is that most women, if they are at all attractive, do not let a day go by without some guy hitting on them. It's really different for guys - "The Invisible Man" is not a fictional creation. I'm probably going to get a few arguments from women about this. After all this feminism, men are still the pursuers and women are still the pursued, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon. This really doesn't have anything to do with the album, but it's more interesting than anything I could have said about this album, anyway. This album is generously appended to the contents of the CD reissue of The Adolescents, which is why I'm even bothering with it.

Agent Orange: Living In Darkness (1981) ***

Now this band really sounds like they're from California - you see, they're a surf-punk band, and probably the first to proffer that mixture, which ought to count for something. They even cover "Pipeline" and "Miserlou", and it still sounds like punk rock. I've read that these guys were into Blue Oyster Cult, and that's a key influence, too - this is much more instrumentally sophisticated than your average punk rock record. Guitarist/vocalist/lead dude Mike Palm really smokes out some nifty, sticky BOC-style metal hooks here and there. However, like a lot of surf bands, Agent Orange aren't that strong on songwriting. Part of this might be due to the circumstances: according to the liner notes and interview at the end of the reissue, they only had about half of these songs completely ready before they entered the studio - and, given their limited budget, they only booked one night in the studio. As they themselves admit, due to those circumstances the band starts to sound tired near the end of the sessions. The reissue leads off with the album-preceding single, the mighty "Bloodstains," that's easily the best thing the band has ever done, and one of the greatest California punk singles of all time. It's a near-perfect fusion of surf and hardcore punk, with Palm screaming, "Fast cars! Rich girls! Fine wine! I lost my sense I lost control I lost my mind!" - gee, kid, life is so rough. The Offspring ripped off this song for their big hit, "Keep 'Em Separated" - c'mon, you knew that hook was too original for a band like the Offspring to have come up by themselves. Though it's not as adolescent as some of their peers (who shall remain nameless, wink nudge), "I'm not in love/There's no such thing/It doesn't matter to me," doth protest too much. As a bonus, the '81 interview at the end of the reissue is pretty cool.

Agent Orange: This Is The Voice (1986) ***

After a long wait, Palm & Co. finally release the second Agent Orange disc of plastic, and it's considerably different from the first - in place of metal-edged surf-punk, now they play mod-tinged pop-punk. The approach works best on the terrific single "Fire in the Rain," which is smooth and catchy enough to be a hit (of course it wasn't, this was 1986, remember?). Some of the songs are kind of forgettable, but mostly Palm shows big improvements as a singer and songwriter - he's by no means great as either, but by now he's fairly competent, penning catchy choruses ("Voices in the Night") and stronger melodies. There's no classic of "Bloodstains" caliber here, unfortunately, which means if I'm in the mood for snotty California pop-punk, I'll stick to the Descendents. The drummer seems to worship Rick Buckler of the Jam, and I ought to like this a lot more since I'm a fan of the style, but mostly this leaves me with the feeling of "good show, lads" rather than genuine excitement. It's decent pop-punk, then, as opposed to great pop-punk. BTW, guys, the cover is downright ugly, though glancing at your mugs in the inside leaflet, I can fully understand why you intentionally blurred the front cover photograph.

The Circle Jerks: Group Sex (1980) ***1/2

Lead singer Keith Morris either left or was kicked out of Black Flag after their seminal Nervous Breakdown EP, so he formed this band with guitarist Greg Hetson, who you kids might be familar with from his later Bad Religion gig. This little mini album - 14 songs, 15 minutes - is far and away the best thing they ever did, and the only album you probably ought to buy by them. Why is it so special? Well, seeing as the band can't write melodies or come up with interesting riffs or doing anything else interesting musically (except for drummer Lucky Lehrer - he kicks!), the only reason for this album's existence is this: SPEED. Back in '80, this must have blown minds - how can humans possibly play that fast? This is one of the fastest records in existence that can still remain listenable - listen to Napalm Death for a few seconds to experience pure speed taken to its ultimate, and ridiculous, extreme. Why does it remain listenable? Because it's funny, and Morris has a funny voice. He sounds like a whiny asshole, and that's what makes him so charming - this schmuck sounds like he deserves all the abuse he gets from the world and girls and parents, which makes him fun to laugh at, 'cause he undoubtedly realizes what a loser he is, too. "Got a date/Can't be late/If she don't show/I'll masturbate!" Man, does "World Up My Ass," feel mighty good when the world is, indeed, UP - MY - ASS! Paul Westerberg filched the idea behind "Group Sex," which features Morris reading from the personals advertising "a private swing party", which goes to show you how long ago 1980 was: the Boogie Nights era. Hey, you group sex addicts are the reason we've got AIDS! Disco caused AIDS! A couple of Black Flag songs are covered here, but credited to Morris/Hetson - the thieves! Black Flag retaliated with a very personal attack on the Jerks. And they are Jerks. And jerks getting knocked around and abused by life is funny - it's called slapstick, a very long comedic tradition!

The Circle Jerks: Wild In The Streets (1982) **1/2

Dammit, I told you guys not to start taking yourself seriously! The "political" punk song can be as formulaic and empty as your average diva's "love" song, and believe me the Jerks have nothing interesting to add to American nation's public discourse. The title track may be the best thing they've ever done, though: it's a ridiculous, irresistably idiotic cover of a ridiculous, irresistably idiotic song from a ridiculous, irresistably idiotic 1968 teensplotation flick that features a cameo by a young Richard Pryor. Rent it sometime, it's the movie they coined "it's so bad it's good" for. "Defamation Innuendo" is idiotic, but in a very resistable way; why do bands think they have to bash the media when they get bad reviews? You know, sometimes bands deserve to be trashed by the critics. Besides, if it weren't for critics (which I'm not going to pretend I'm not), you the public would have no way of knowing about 95% of the bands you listen to - unless you just get your info about music from the radio, a terrible source these days.

The Circle Jerks: Golden Shower of Hits (1983) **1/2

Well, they're not taking themselves seriously anymore, and the "political" songs such as "Coup d'Etat" are just dumb, trashy fun. Unfortunately, three years have passed since the debut, and the Jerks sound about ten years older - drinking beer slows you down, don't you know, and what good are a slowed-down Circle Jerks? Don't answer that question. A couple of these songs are - gasp! - conventional hard rock, at least in tempo. And as I said earlier, these Jerks are incapable of coming up with solid three-chord riffs or - god forbid - melodies, so what's the use unless they play in quintuple time? The highlight's at the end, and almost redeems the disc: "Golden Shower of Hits," a punk medley of soft rock classics from Paul Anka, the Carpenters, the Starland Vocal Band, and other folks whose yecchy drivel is a blight upon the human race. It's a funny little coup, and well-aimed revenge against '70s soft rock, which I loathe and so should all sentient beings. By the way, appropos of nothing, the first Bee Gees album is actually pretty good - I just got it today, thought you might want to know that. But you probably don't care, do you?

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