I met Michael Gira, frontman of Swans, after the first time I saw the band play live. It was March of 2013 at the Black Cat in D.C. I had driven two and a half hours from my college town of Charlottesville, VA to be there. Gira shook my hand, looked straight into my eyes from under his trademark cowboy hat, and said something like, “It’s so nice to see young people at our shows these days.” I can’t remember what I said to him, if it was anything beyond “thank you.”
At that show, Gira turned up the heat as he likes to do, at one point asking us mockingly if it was warm enough in the room. He danced around, waving his hands like he was summoning something primal from the depths of the earth. I saw Gira conduct the band, constructing moments of perfect synchronization that were absolutely revelatory in terms of the way he was presenting sound. The music was so loud that it was tangible, which brought home the necessity of physically experiencing Swans instead of simply putting on a record. It’s the difference between appreciating how nice a table looks in a room and smashing it to bits to see what it’s made out of.
Why I chose Swans for this week
Swans allow me to explore the aspects of music that are important to me. Much of Swans’ output could be called “challenging,” and I believe that we need heavy, noisy, unsettling music in this world. And yet, Swans also have the ability to transcend. They transcended their No Wave beginnings. They found moments of engulfing beauty in their last few albums and during the shows supporting them.
Swans have really run the gamut in terms of their output, from obscure noise records to major-label art rock. They’ve been through a lot as a group, and come out the other side in an arrangement that takes into account both the importance of their recorded music and the power of their live show.
How I’m approaching this project
I majored in history, meaning this week I will take into account both context and chronology in evaluating Swans’ discography. I will adhere to a loose narrative illustrating how the band progressed from their brutal early work, to the classic album Children of God, to their “accessible” (or trying to be) material, through their enormous drone/noise late projects, and finally past their hiatus to become the formidable touring noise orchestra and composing machine they are today. I’m also going to talk about major lyrical themes in Gira’s work (darkness, light, sex, God, death) as well as how the band builds their sound.
Swans are doing some incredible work recently with sound both live and in their recordings, a culmination of Michael Gira’s 30+ years of making music under the name. If you stick with me through this week, I want you to hear Swans’ post-hiatus output as the product of the various “failures” and successes of their earlier discography. Including the “sellout” album Gira doesn’t want us to hear. Including the teeth-gritting, drawn blood hardness of their early records.
In addition to examining Swans’ catalog as a whole, I would like to draw attention to the influence their music has had on a number of genres, from noise to hardcore, grindcore, and sludge. I’ll be posting a few bands throughout the week that probably wouldn’t sound the same without Swans.
Ultimately, I want those who have never gotten into Swans to find something in their discography that appeals to them. There is a huge variety of music produced by Michael Gira & co., so much that every reader could sit down and appreciate at least one song this week (but hopefully much more than that). This band means a whole lot to me, and I hope I can convey that to readers over these next seven days, and convince them to either start listening to Swans or see them a little bit differently than they did before.
Up next: my answer to the question, “Where do I start with Swans?” as well as a few songs that might serve as entry points into aspects of the band’s sound.
Today’s first post is about “Teen Love”, undoubtedly No Trend’s best-known song. Punk rock is a form almost consciously designed for the single format and punk rock produces innumerable one-hit wonders within its own ambit, just a pop music doe on a wider scale.“Teen Love” is but one in the pantheon of hardcore records that entered some kind of cross-country consciousness within punk circles.
This makes a lot of sense: “Teen Love” is maybe the archetypal sardonic/campy-hardcore song (see also: Flipper’s “Sex Bomb”, Black Flag’s “TV Party”, MDC’s “John Wayne Was a Nazi”, the Minutemen’s “Corona”, anything the Dead Kennedys ever did, Minor Threat’s version of “Stepping Stone” — it’s interesting that most hardcore bands’ “signature” songs were often also their most blackly humorous — but that’s another story). It’s got an oddly pacific main theme — again, that loping bass, with the guitar drone skewing immersive rather than abrasive this time. It could be a slightly more distorted Minutemen interlude, really, short of Jeff Mentges’ affected deadpan, detailing the titular love affair.
The lyrics are a fairly straightforward riff on the vacuousness of youth culture, in a way that is at once the voice of a crew-cut dad telling his son to shape up and a consumer-culture critique in the vein of Veblen and Mills. The sarcasm is more evident here than in most of their work (perhaps this explains its popularity) — Mentges’ opening line (“they met during social interaction in algebra class”) still feels funny, if preachy, for its overt 1984 vibe, a jaded lament in stark contrast to the music.
Again, the critique here is a root-and-branch one: No Trend’s targets here seem to ultimately be the very concept of love or any pretense to “authenticity” in modern society, much as did arch-pessimist Theodor Adorno in Jargon of Authenticity. Is there any hope of escape? In the boundaries and world of “Teen Love”, there is not and we risk sinking into a post-modernist cynicism, where there is no hope for change. The world that the anti-heroes inhabit is fundamentally absurd; they don’t die in a drunk-driving accident, they die because the male suitor was pretending to be drunk (in order to “fit in”, we presume) and crashes the car (perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to be “real”), as bitter a commentary on the futility of “authenticity” as is possible.
There is, however, a place for catharsis. Midway through the song, the post-punk shuffle comes to a halt and a scuttling bass riff — with a cartoonish feeling reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” or maybe George Crumb — takes its place. We’re whisked into a 1-2 hardcore stomp, which collapses under its own weight, vocals shrieking unintelligibly (have I mentioned yet that No Trend has a number of aesthetic, if not genealogical, ties with black metal?). In a characteristic move, rather than end with this somewhat predictable Willhelm scream, the same hopeful melody returns, this time with a shit-eating ironic grin. This is some really Brechtian shit (but what else would you expect from a band who shone floodlights onto their audiences) — the obvious tragedy of the situation is constantly undermined by the almost-jaunty music, the laconic delivery. “Yeah, our society is fucked up — I dare you to care about it.” Does it shock you into awareness of the contradictions of capitalist society or just gross you out? I can’t say for sure myself but the song — about a car accident — is, if nothing else, like a car crash itself. You want to look away from the horror but you can’t. Check out the claustrophobic performance linked to above. The garish 80s colors and production only enhances the sense of discomfort that “Teen Love” revels in.
We’ll finish up with ‘It’s All Up To You.’
The kind of party I can get behind.
Black Flag’s incessant musical progression alienated listeners. Some of this was by design –again with the band’s confrontational attitude – but some of it was as a result of the choices they made, too: their release schedule didn’t allow listeners to catch up. It comes as no surprise that the back end of the band’s catalogue is often overlooked, or dismissed as sellout hippie blah blah blah.
It’s easy to make the argument that the glut of post-injunction albums is too thin: more albums means more songs, some of which aren’t up to snuff. “In My Head” was originally to be Greg Ginn’s first solo album, so the killer/filler ratio rests heavily on the left side of the slash. It’s one of the band’s best, and is criminally overlooked.
I mentioned the other day that Black Flag’s fanbase was unduly shocked by side B of ‘My War’ despite the sonic hints forecasting the band’s imminent change to a heavier, sludgier sound. Similarly, the records that led up to “In My Head” show Ginn’s evolution as a guitar player, away from rote punk riffery in favor of an aggressive jazz/rock fusion reminiscent of John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Ginn’s style remains instantly recognizable – his particular vernacular consists of chains of bent and squealed notes which each seem to have nothing to do with those that preceded and followed them. It’s tough, and cringe-inducing and first listen (even at like tenth listen), until the design of each song/solo emerges. There’s nothing sloppy or accidental about Ginn’s playing. He practiced playing like that, as evidenced by the abundance of Black Flag live shows available online. Mistakes prove to be intentional as the sound of a finger hitting a fret, say, recurs in performance after performance. In line with the band’s overarching dual ideologies of confrontation and progression, Ginn created and developed his own language on guitar and didn’t care what anyone thought.
It’s tough stuff to listen to, so it’s no surprise that the albums which chart the evolution leading to “In My Head” are some of the most neglected in the catalogue. “Family Man” features Henry Rollins’ first recorded stabs at spoken word, while side B is largely instrumental. The raw shock of the A-side and, at the time of release, the novelty of a side of just talking makes the spoken stuff more accessible than its musical flip – it’s no surprise, then, that across the land vinyl side B’s of ‘Family Man’ remain pristine while the A-sides are deeply grooved.
“The Process of Weeding Out” is another instrumental album, one that’s not as talked up as its full-band contemporaries. Ginn, Stevenson and Kira are locked in throughout, playing something that is certainly punk rock in its attitude, if not execution. It’s funny to think that one of the most revered punk bands of all time starting mutating into something resembling jazz more than anything else, but that’s exactly what happened, and if the fanbase didn’t like the change, fuck ‘em (as the title implies).
So it’s in the wake of these changes that “In My Head” arrived, the last of a chain of records which shifted in production and execution. Lots of fans were pissed off by at least one variant of the band’s presentation and dropped off, or were just exhausted, either financially or aurally, by the full-bore assault.
“In My Head” features “Drinking and Driving,” an accessible anthem very much in the mold of “Annihilate This Week.” The title track’s chorus riff is chunky and heavy – but the verses are showcases for acrobatic single-note oddity. That’s as straight as the songs on the record play.
For my money, the apex of Ginn’s guitar playing in Black Flag comes back to back on side B with “Society’s Tease” leading into “It’s All Up To You.” The former, in particular, is an expo of Ginn’s ridiculously particular talent for creating cacophony, and, in doing so, forging something perfect. The precision with which he plays the exact wrong notes time and again reveals that his choices are precisely right throughout. The whole album – with these two songs, back to back – is a clinic.
I understand all the reasoning for not listening to album –and there’s the matter of the mix, which finds Rollins’ vocals buried so low as to almost be inaudible, perhaps a political decision predicting the band’s end in the summer of 1986 – but all the clues are there on the preceding records, and the performances throughout are stellar, as the Ginn/Rollins/Stevenson/Kira lineup had played something like 180 shows a year for two years in 1984 and 1985. They knew how to work and play music together, and it all gelled, especially on “In My Head.”
“Slip It In,” the third Black Flag studio album, is (select any/all that apply):
1) The first featuring bassist Kira Roessler.
2) One of the best Black Flag records.
3) An obvious ‘fuck you’ to a punk establishment growing more orthodox in ideology as well as in fashion and sound. The original American and British punk scenes were free spaces for ideas and innovation. With the advent of hardcore, punk reached a younger audience hungry to latch onto something countercultural. Younger audiences tend to be more impressionable and eager to be accepted than their older counterparts, so what amounted to a dress code quickly came to the fore. Bands in the suburbs, relatively detached from the immediacy of punk scenes in cities, grew more orthodox in their sounds, as well, aping already-established bands releasing records. In terms of ideological content, things began to become politically correct through the release of zines like Maximumrocknroll – so left-leaning that they began to seem right-leaning. Black Flag wanted to rankle kneejerk fans who adapted the more PC ideology for the sake of fitting in – remember that punk was originally a place for people who didn’t fit in. Black Flag wanted to reinforce this. Releasing “Slip It In” fit the bill.
4) An extension of the band’s road-dog persona and general disrespectful attitude towards women. In the early days, they kept a running tally of the number of women they’d slept with in the van; stories of tour hookups abound. Songs like “Loose Nut” on later records confirm this reading.
5) One of the worst Black Flag records.
6) The first of a misunderstood series of songs designed to make people reflect on choices they make. The album’s title track lambastes hypocrisy – the band was setting a hard example through their constant work, practice, and touring. Of course, not everyone lives this way, so subsequent songs which also addressed what they perceived as the public’s weakness and stupidity, especially concerning not being able to control primal urges – “Loose Nut,” “Annihilate This Week,” to a less carnal extent “Drinking And Driving” – were made a little more obvious so that listeners wouldn’t misinterpret them as easily and as often as “Slip It In” was.
7) The first of several studio albums which drag because the material isn’t strong enough to sustain repeated listens. After MCA’s injunction against the band lifted, Black Flag released records quickly to accommodate their backlog of songs and their seemingly endless touring. With that said, some songs didn’t fare well outside of the live setting, and the best songs were evenly distributed amongst the many releases to level the killer/filler ratio.
8) An okay Black Flag record.
9) The beginning of the end of a band ruined by Henry Rollins joining.
10) The sound of Greg Ginn becoming newly comfortable with his role as the band’s only guitar player. For years he had Dez behind him to fortify his sound. Ginn hit his musical stride after the release of “My War” and the ridiculous practice regiment maintained by the Ginn/Rollins/Stevenson/Kira lineup. The strength of the rhythm section allowed him to be more out there with his leads.
11) A mediocre Black Flag record.
12) A continuation of the band’s ongoing infatuation with metal. The longer, slower stuff on “My War” reflects the band’s infatuation with Black Sabbath; the production on “Slip It In” and “Loose Nut” is an attempt to aurally pass on this infatuation.
13) The first of five LP’s, two live albums and an instrumental EP released between 1984 and 1986.
Not everyone liked “My War” — or, for that matter, the second side of it. The ‘sellout’ cry rang far and wide, even though the band was playing some of the most challenging, confrontational music of their career.
Tomorrow: the elephant in the room.
So: Dez shifts over to guitar, Henry Rollins is plucked from Washington DC’s State of Alert and installed as the singer, and Black Flag finally records ‘Damaged,’ their debut LP. And it’s amazing.
Then came the legalese which cast a shadow over the rest of the band’s recorded output and career: the Flag guys didn’t think floundering MCA subsidiary Unicorn Records was doing the job they had promised. Ginn and co. took things into their own hands, and were summarily served with an injunction preventing the band from releasing anything (1). When the injunction was lifted, it was two years later. In that time, the band had burned through:
Drummers Robo (who couldn’t get back into the US after playing overseas)
and Emil (ask Mugger about this one)
and DOA’s Chuck Biscuits
as well as bass player extraordinaire Chuck Dukowski,
and Dez Cadena set out on his own, leaving the band without a permanent rhythm section or a second guitar player.
There were a few times in Black Flag history when the band was in a lurch and had drummer Bill Stevenson of the Descendents fill in, as he already knew the songs. So, Bill was a natural choice to play on the new batch of material.
When “My War” came out, the fan reaction was extreme. The ‘A’ side consists of some great stuff: the amazing “Forever Time,” live staple “Can’t Decide,” and the Dukowski-penned song which bears the album’s name spring to mind here. These songs are in the same vein as a lot of Flag’s other songs. But the flip—‘Nothing Left Inside,’ ‘Three Nights’ and ‘Scream’ – was close to twenty minutes of trudgery. And it’s infuriating.
But not because the material has changed: I love that the band’s confrontational attitude manifested in their refusal to adhere to their audience’s expectations, both physically and aurally, in a time when the hardcore scene was becoming more orthodox. And not because it’s long – remember that by the time “My War” was released, the Wipers’ “Youth of America,” featuring a ten-minute title track, had already been in release for more than two years, and the Subhumans’ “From The Cradle To the Grave” had been released shortly before. Long punk songs were nothing new.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, Black Flag are a frustrating band. My War is one of these times. I understand why the band recorded the album when they did – they had new songs to record, and were gung-ho to release them following the injunction being lifted – but the how is tough in this case. A lot of stories told about the band –their history, or at least the shorthand for it — revolves around the Black Flag work ethic, both in the act itself and at Ginn’s SST imprint. So I find myself wishing that they had applied that ethic and had waited until they had a solvent lineup that practiced for a zillion hours a day until the songs were perfect. This was the case on the albums that followed. On “My War,” Ginn played bass himself under the pseudonym Dale Nixon (2).
The popularity of the widely-bootlegged 1982 demos, with the Greg/Chuck/Dez/Henry/Biscuits lineup playing, hints at the greatness of the five-piece lineup. So do some shows from 1982 which recently surfaced as ‘Live At The On Broadway 7/3-24/1982.’ Listening to these makes the studio album all the more frustrating – the bootleg/live stuff sounds better than the studio recordings.
Yeah, we can argue that the b-side, with its three songs in nineteen minutes, is designed to be a trudge. The thin production adds to the effect (whether or not this was the intention). I would counterargue that it’s also designed to kick ass. And while the songs are great, the timing and execution of the recording don’t always serve them. I know times were tight, and I know that, like Raw Power, a new mix might make me appreciate the first one more. I wish things had been done differently is all. Yeah, shoulda/coulda/woulda. But still.
Check out this live video of the five-piece slaying “Nothing Left Inside” in Germany, 1983.
(1) They did, of course: “Everything Went Black” was originally released without the band’s name on the cover. Of course, it was released with a bunch of Black Flag songs on it, so Ginn and Dukowski were hauled to jail.
Something I forgot to mention yesterday: ‘EWB’ is a fascinating rec because it allows for some direct compare/contrast between the band’s first three singers and their respective takes on things: play ‘Depression’ and or ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ in three different iterations and see where you stand regarding The Singer Argument.
(2) Dale Nixon was credited on the Fucking Champs’ album IV, on some Campaign For Real-Time records, and, perhaps not surprisingly, as the photographer who took one of the author pix in my novel.