The Angry Samoans @ Gillman Street

imagesIn the late 1970’s I was introduced to the music of new wave and punk rock. My life, after that, changed forever. In high school I was a misfit, spending most of my time in the library, reading books about mercenaries, bigfoot, and spontaneous human combustion. I didn’t really have many friends, and I rarely socialized with people my own age. The only time that I went out in the evenings was to go see a movie.

I first learned about the band DEVO when my sister and her husband brought me to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Before the start of the main feature, a short film of the DEVO song The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise was shown. I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of this bizarre piece of raw, edgy music, but it left an impression on me that I could not shake. This inspired me to seek out other similar artists, and thus I discovered bands like The Suburban Lawns, M, Lene Lovitch, The Stranglers, and Blondie.

Angry Samoans Set ListMy first introduction to hardcore punk came when my neighbor loaned me The Dead Kennedy’s Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and The Angry Samoan’s Inside My Brain. It was the Angry Samoan’s record in particular that caused a rush of adrenaline to rise in my system with an intensity I had never before experienced. Here was a kind of viceral, angry, wounded yet smart-alicky music that was a direct mirror of my own teenage angst. The band’s bizarre lyrics and raw musical sound were like sonic illustrations of my inner emotional preoccupations, giving an unashamed and sometimes indecent voice to my sense of alienated anger. The snotty, teenage voice of the lead singer, Metal Mike, was matchless, spewing forth venom over a bare basic musical backdrop of guitar, bass and drums. The music, like the album sleeve, was conveyed in a stark, intense, black and white simplicity. The world of the Angry Samoans was not complicated. The world sucked, people sucked, and together we could confidently yell “fuck off!”

DSC08587Over the following years, as I became part of a community of like-minded punk rockers, I had the opportunity to see The Angry Samoans play live countless times. I can’t remember the first time that I saw them perform, but the most vivid memories I have are gigs at the I-Beam, in San Francisco, and at Ruthies’ Inn, in Berkeley, where they played to packed houses, provoking the assembled crowds into violent and frenzied slam dancing. The band’s energy was almost overwhelming to the audience, and without participation in the rhythmic marching and aggressive thrashing of bodies in the pit to act as an outlet, it would have been unbearable. There was a power and excitement to these performances that I have never experienced when watching any other band.

Metal Mike

Metal Mike at Gilman Street

That was over 30 years ago, and the Angry Samoans are still around. The band’s lineup has changed, but Metal Mike is still the anchor point; still singing the same songs and still complaining that his “old man is a fatso.” Their latest performance was at the Gilman Street Project in Berkeley, and I went along with my wife and niece. The show was kicked off by the bands Instant Gratification, Cornelius Asperger and the Bi-curious Unicorns, Oppressed Logic, and the Wasted Ones.

Oppressed Logic

Oppressed Logic

I especially enjoyed Oppressed Logic, a band formed in the mid-90’s with members that gleefully try to offend people’s “PC” sensibilities. Their music is unrelenting in its aggressive intensity, and they really whipped the small crowd into quite a frenzy. Afterwards, I bought one of their CDs, which is really good. It ironically contains numerous anti-Gilman Street lyrics. It seems they have a love/hate relationship with the place.

My wife was eager to see the Wasted Ones, which is a reconstituted version of the early 1980’s LA-based band Wasted Youth (along with members of Circle One). In this incarnation of the band, the previous singer’s son took over as front man, belting out a 20 minute set of songs from the band’s only release, Reagan’s In. Unfortunately, the energy just wasn’t quite right, and the crowd remained rather unimpressed and unmoved (literally).

Angry Samoans

The Angry Samoans

When The Angry Samoans came on, I wanted to feel the same excitement and furious energy that I did when I was a teenager. The truth of the matter is that both the band and I have changed, and thus so has the gestalt that results when I listen to them live. While it was comforting to hear all of the familiar songs – Inside My Brain, My Old Man’s a Fatso, You Stupid Asshole, Steak Knife – the vigor and conviction that I recall from all of those shows in the 1980’s was lacking. This time I stood back at a comfortable distance, watching all of the young punks slam dancing while the older punks steered clear of the pit. The songs were raced through in a perfunctory manner, and Metal Mike handed the microphone over to other members in the band at various points, as though he himself was too tired to belt out the lyrics anymore. The show ended abruptly, and there was an awkward lull during which the audience was unsure if that was the end of it all.

ThrashBut there was a saving grace that night, demonstrating that everything depends on one’s perspective. My wife’s teenage niece, who came with us to the show, was swept into the pit for her first time. Standing on the sidelines, a young punk grabbed her arm and pulled her into the melee, where she had her first experience with slam dancing, losing her hat, being trampled and then hoisted back to her feet by the other punks in the pit. Afterwards, she was ecstatic. She had been initiated into something that she would never forget, and both my wife and I were quite excited to be there for this important, transitionary event in her life.

An old tradition has a new recruit.

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Rancid

RancidTransplantsIt was in the midst of unselfconsciously singing along with the song “Nihilism” that I suddenly became self-conscious. There I was, feeling as one with the crowd, watching Rancid perform on the stage of the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, when all of a sudden I reflected back on myself and thought, “What is going on here?”

Consciousness “in-itself” was transformed into consciousness “for-itself.”

It was not a sold-out show, but the enthusiasm in the place made up for any empty seats. The crowd was an interesting mixture of hard looking hooligans, fun-loving young punks, and soft looking middle-aged men and women, all of whom sang along with the lyrics and were united in their excitement for the band. Fists were raised in the air, cups of beer swished and swayed along with the beat, and a chorus of voices echoed from the crowd. I was bonked on the head by a bald young man behind me when he became a bit too animated in his movements. I turned to confront him and he quickly apologized as we exchanged an awkward handshake that made everything OK. “This is good,” I thought. “We all understand one another. We all get something from this music.” Lars Frederiksen, the guitar player and sometimes singer of Rancid, cemented the feeling when he announced that family and friendship are all that really matter in the world. That’s why we were all there; to listen to music preaching a message of solidarity and unity.

Even though they have become a popular and well-known band, Rancid retains a feeling of punk-rock authenticity. They were late-comers to the Bay Area scene. I first heard of them in the 1990s when a friend of mine gave me a compilation tape that included their song “Nihilism.” This instantly sparked my curiosity. What band (other than my own, of course) plays songs about nihilism?! The more I listened, the more I was hooked.

DSC01300Rancid’s sound and message are throwbacks to late 1970’s and early 1980’s British street punk. Their hard-driving songs are laced with influences from punk, ska and Oi!, and it is  clear that they have an understanding of the tradition that their music draws upon. When I listen to them, I’m reminded of some of my favorite bands from when I was growing up: bands like Sham 69The Exploited, The Oppressed, The Angelic Upstarts, Blitz and The Toy Dolls. This is music that sometimes got a bad name during the 1980’s, being labeled as “thug rock” because of its association with violence. And yet none of these bands, when you really take the time to listen to their lyrics, ever preached hatred or violence. Most commonly, the themes that they sang about had to do with celebrating and promoting solidarity among the outcast and the marginalized. These were bands that attracted a wide variety of fans; punks, skins, rockers and mods among them. Such an unstable mix of followers often caused live shows to teeter on the precipice, threatening to devolve into chaos as these various subcultural elements struggled to come to terms with one another. It’s no wonder that the call for unity was so common among these artists. Such a message is only necessary when things are threatening to fall apart.

And this is what is so fun and vital about a band like Rancid. They harken back to a time when the Dionysian spirit of punk rock was bursting at the seams; when there was internal tension between a whole variety of sub-subcultures within the punk rock movement that competed with one another at the same time that they were contributing to the character of the music and the countercultural lifestyle.

When I was growing up, punk rock consisted of a weird mixture of folks that would only later come to be categorized as distinct. Even while we all hung out with one another, there was a sense of competition and friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) conflict among a diverse variety of stylistic factions. I recall a group of girls that we jokingly referred to as “The Bag Ladies,” because they looked to us like homeless people. Today, their style would be called “Goth.” There were a lot of surfers and skateboarders, as well as the skinheads, mods and hardcore kids. There were punks who looked like new-wavers, with their funny sun glasses and skinny ties, just as there were kids who didn’t look like they belonged to any subculture in particular.  Everyone was feeling their way through the times, and there really weren’t any particular rules to play by. Everything was evolving, growing out of the raw material of past movements and being fashioned into something expressive of our own current, unique experiences.

You can see this same sort of tension among the young fans of today. At the Rancid show, there were all sorts of weirdoes and normal looking kids that you might otherwise think had nothing in common. Young toughs, tattooed from head to toe wearing T-shirts with the word “Hooligan” across the chest socialized with bearded young men in knit caps who looked like they would never harm a fly. There were kids with mohawks, kids with long hair, jockish looking guys and girls, and young folks that looked like preppies. There were very young children with their parents, just as there were middle-aged couples who bore the traces of past subcultural affiliation. Nervertheless, they were all there to see the band; and that was what united us as one.

DSC01266There was a tradition here as well, however. You could hear it in the songs and you could see it many of the styles. One of the opening bands, The Transplants, covered an old Blitz song, “Razors in the Night.” The recorded music played between sets consisted of a large variety of old reggae and ska tunes, such as “Skinhead Girl,” by Mr. Symarip. As I walked around the venue, my Angry Samoans t-shirt was commented on and admired by a bunch of youngsters who knew who the Angry Samoans were! To them, this was old-school punk. It was part of what they considered to be their musical and cultural heritage.

Perhaps this is what caused my unexpected shift in consciousness during the show. Here, in this auditorium, I was an old-timer, seen as a representative of the “old-school.” I was not in competition with others, nor was I concerned with image. I was just there to listen to the band and to drink in a message that I grew up with and that I was comfortable with. What was jarring was the realization that this message and subcultural style was now being transmitted to a new generation who viewed it as raw material for their own expressive needs. In fact, I myself was raw material for this younger generation.

As I stood there, singing along with Rancid, I came to realize that no longer am I a kid trying to make sense of punk rock; I now embody the essence of punk rock!