Angelic Upstarts

6ruopt6qoib54u2tilhfThe Angelic Upstarts roared through a stirring set of old and new songs when they performed at Thee Parkside in San Francisco last night. Ever since I was a teenager, the Upstarts have been one of my favorite bands, although I never had the chance to see them play live until now.

This is a band with lots of heart and plenty of passion. Starting in the late 1970’s, The Angelic Upstarts recorded albums for Warner Brothers, EMI and Anagram, before producing an almost countless number of EPs, singles and albums on independent labels, the latest of which is the excellent Bullingdon Bastards. I still find myself a bit dumbfounded that a band with the intensely aggressive sound and political stance of the Upstarts was at one time thought a marketable commodity by major record labels; but the atmosphere of the late 1970’s was a unique one. On the heels of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, record executives were apparently looking for the next big punk act to cash in on. The appeal of the Angelic Upstarts, however, is different from these other well known punk bands. The Upstarts are not at all philosophically ambiguous, they are not playfully ironic, nor do their songs dance around the issues, only vaguely hinting at politics. No, the message of the Angelic Upstarts is clear and in-your-face, making them a hard act to package and market to a mass audience. Wearing their left-wing politics on their sleeves,  this is a band that unapologetically bashes right-wing politicians and the police, while also promoting socialism and communism. While this might stand a chance of gaining some traction in Europe, here in the US it is an attitude that immediately relegates a band to the underground. But that’s fine with me. Vague, mainstream pap bores me to tears. Say what you want about the Angelic Upstarts; but you can’t say they are boring!

During the show at Thee Parkside, the Upstarts performed just about every song that I was hoping for: 2 Million Voices, Anti-Nazi, Shotgun Solution, Kids on the Street, Solidarity, Police Oppression, Red Flag, and others. The crowd enthusiastically sang along, fists raised skyward, chanting the choruses as one. Despite a single altercation on the dance floor between two fans – which was moderated and diffused by Mensi, the lead singer – the atmosphere in the club was friendly and filled with unity. The message of the music was well heeded by the crowd: we’re all in this together; we are all part of the same movement whether we are young or old. The show came to a fitting conclusion when the band covered Sham 69’s If the Kids are United.

Angelic UpstartsThomas “Mensi” Mensworth is remarkable on-stage. He is old, fat and not as tall as I imagined. He is not – and has never been – a polished or trained singer, but that is beside the point. It is his passion, humor and authentic commitment to punk that is exhilarating. Punk rock, after all, has been the focus of the majority of his life, and it is obvious that he really enjoys it. When introducing songs that he wrote decades ago, Mensi reminds the audience that he still believes in the message after all these years. In addition to singing, he preaches, he jokes, he spits anger. During a lull between songs he recited poetry provoking a young man standing next to me to  groan, shake his head and leave the performance area in apparent disgust. But so what? The Angelic Upstarts don’t just want to entertain; they want to incite, inflame and confront their audiences. Mensi is a master of this art.

Toward the end of the show, as the temperature in the club climbed to uncomfortable heights,  Mensi informed the crowd that he was about to impress the ladies by taking off his shirt. Doing so, he revealed a torso emblazoned with tattoos as well as a huge gut displaying a pattern of serious looking surgery scars. “My body is a temple,” he laughed, “but it’s in ruins!”

He is an impressive ruin, and his band is still amazing after almost 40 years!

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!