Friday, February 23, 2024

CD Review: Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981 (2024)

Blank Generation CD box set
Multi-disc punk rock compilations are a dime-a-dozen these days, and I’m lookin’ for the guy supplying the coin. England’s Cherry Red Records has done yeoman’s work in digging up and offering long-lost punk obscurities with a seemingly endless stream of chronological clam-shelled box sets that are all worthy of your patronage. However, with the label’s recently released Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981, they’ve outdone themselves. A deluxe five-CD box set packaged in a 5.5”x7.5” hardbound book, Blank Generation offers up succinct liner notes with plenty of B&W and color photos, making it as much a historical document as it is a collection of great music.

While the set certainly ain’t cheap – I paid $50 and change for my copy – it works out to roughly a sawbuck per CD (or less than 42-cents per song). Considering the rarity of some of tracks here, any one of which you’d pay double-dollar collector’s prices to acquire on a 45rpm slab, Blank Generation is a steal for the dedicated punk rawk fan. It’s the music that we’re all here for, and Blank Generation features 130 tracks from North American punk, post-punk, and punk-adjacent bands and their various progeny. Some of the bands included verge on being household names – Blondie, Devo, and Patti Smith come to mind – while others would still be familiar to anybody that followed music rags like Creem, Bomp!, or Trouser Press back in the day.

So, let’s get the niceties out of the way, shall we? Yes, Blank Generation includes well-worn punk “classics” that have become ubiquitous and tediously familiar for nursing home residents after nearly five decades. Scratch the obvious Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ title track off your bingo card; ditto for the Heartbreakers (“Chinese Rocks”), Pere Ubu (“Final Solution”), the Avengers (“We Are the One”), the Weirdos (“We Got the Neutron Bomb”), the Germs (“Lexicon Devil”), X (“White Girl”), Minor Threat (“Minor Threat”), the Ramones (“Rockaway Beach”), Dead Boys (“Sonic Reducer”), and the Dead Kennedys (“Holiday In Cambodia”). Sure, these are all great songs, but even the most half-assed punk fan is sick to death of hearing them by now.  

Blank Generation: A Story of U.S./Canadian Punk & Its Aftershocks 1975-1981

Blondie's Blondie LP
However, even for those bands you probably know, Blank Generation digs a little deeper into the punk bag and plucks out plums that qualify as “deep cuts” by any standard of measurement. Take Blondie, for instance…you might expect to hear hits like the disco-punk “Heart of Glass” or the new wavish “One Way Or Another.” Instead, the producers/compilers chose “Rip Her To Shreds,” an original track from the band’s indie label debut. Framing singer Debbie Harry in less of a 1960s-styled pop style, her lyrical delivery here is snotty, punkish, and insulting to the nth degree, Harry’s snarl accompanied by dense instrumental clouds that evoke both previous-decade garage rock (especially the chiming organ) as well as looking forward to the dawning of the “new wave” 1980s   

The Modern Lovers’ “Someone I Care About” is a wonderfully ramshackle and somewhat angular garage rock-adjacent track with instruments that are seemingly working at cross-purposes in a valiant sacrifice for the musical greater good. Jonathan Richman’s vox are off-kilter and wailed above the consistent din of the soundtrack, which makes for an exciting and invigorating performance (plus, it’s not the often-compiled “Road Runner,” no matter how great it may be…). An almost-forgotten track from 1976’s Radio Ethiopia, the Patti Smith Group’s “Pissing In A River” later fit comfortably onto the 1980 Times Square movie soundtrack. It’s a damn fine slab o’ estrogen-fueled heartbreak, punkish in intensity and cinematic in delivery with a lofty, art-rock soundtrack with haunting keyboards and slashing guitars to paint a painfully dark portrait. But it’s Smith’s emotionally-tortured vocal performance that raises the song above the punk rock ghetto.   

Q: Are Devo a “punk rock” band? A: They are Devo! Falling off the evolutionary ladder somewhere along the line, the beloved band from Akron, Ohio were alternately punk, new wave, art-rock, and surreal unlike any we’d ever heard before. Hailing from their 1978 debut album, Devo’s “Come Back Jonee” was produced by the definitely “not punk” Brian Eno (who also worked with the new wavish Talking Heads). An oblique song with nearly-buried vocals barely rising above the pogoing backing instrumentation (which incorporates guitar, synths, drums, and other noises), it’s punkish in spirit if not execution. By contrast, Wall of Voodoo’s “Call Box 1-2-3” sounds more like Devo than “Come Back Jonee,” the song evincing the same sort of ‘odd bodkins’ ambiance; bouncy, semi-irritating instrumentation; and strangely-phrased Stan Ridgeway vocals that come close, but still miles away from their college radio hit “Mexican Radio.”

Exciting, Supersonic Sounds

Destroy All Monster's "Bored" 45rpm
The box includes a lot of truly obscure tracks as well, many only originally available on 45rpm slabs and a tad bit pricey to acquire via Discogs or eBay these days. Cherry Red seems to have front-loaded the most familiar songs and artists on the first two discs, ‘cause the tracklists get weirder, funkier, and punkier with CDs three through five. That’s not to say that the first couple o’ flapjacks are lacking in obscurities, though…take Destroy All Monsters’ “Bored,” a band and song that barely crept beyond the borders of Wayne County, Michigan in 1978. A Motor City “supergroup” of sorts, featuring Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Michael Davis of MC5, and fronted by the gorgeous femme fatale Niagara (née Lynn Rovner), they were a great live band and “Bored,” their first single, established the template for much of what would follow. Niagara’s voice barely floats above the clashing guitars and cascading drumbeats, but the effect is otherworldly and enchanting in its ennui.

Long before legends like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü emerged from a thriving Minneapolis music scene, the Suicide Commandos were rockin’ stages with their loud ‘n’ fast punk rock sound. Signed to Mercury Records’ Blank label (along with Pere Ubu), they only released a single studio album, but their Make A Record album is well worth tracking down. The band’s “Match/Mismatch” is a good example of this unduly-obscure band’s range, displaying just a bit of the art-rock noise their friends and labelmates Pere Ubu pursued, but mostly just cranking up the amps and cranking out three-chord, supersonic rock ‘n’ roll with turbocharged instrumentation and passable – not laughable – vocal harmonies, that blazed a trail for other Minnesota bands to follow…artists like Curtiss A, whose “I Don’t Want To Be President” hits your eardrums like an earthbound meteor. The self-professed “Dean of Scream,” Curtiss Almsted kicked around the Twin Cities for years in a number of bands, but never recorded anything as potent as this 1979 Twin/Tone Records single.

Pure Hell's Noise Addiction
’s “Hot Wire My Heart” provides another electrifying jolt of high-voltage punk rock, the San Francisco band early adopters of the aesthetic, releasing the song as a single in 1976. Produced in glorious lo-fi with a veritable wall of noise behind the vocals, the band’s amateurish first effort is nevertheless incredibly effective, with ringing guitars and shouted vocals delivered with more ‘joie de vivre’ than better-produced, bigger-budget label releases. On the other side of the country, Pure Hell was terrorizing Philadelphia audiences with “Noise Addiction,” the first African-American Afropunk outfit every bit as young, loud, and snotty as any band working the ‘bucket o’ blood’ club circuit and one worth your time to discover. They’ve been a lot of things over the years – punks, power-pop, alt-rockers, bluesmen – but Red Kross was, perhaps, never punkier and prouder than on the slash ‘n’ burn “Clorox Girls,” from their self-titled 1981 debut EP on Posh Boy Records, which needs less than a single frantic minute to burn itself into your medulla oblongata.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Pagan's Street Where Nobody Lives 45rpm single
There are a lot of other exciting sounds to be found on Blank Generation; too many to ramble on about here, to be sure. But if your musical tastes run towards the punk, post-punk, and power-pop oeuvre, you’ll probably dig tracks by Television (the wiry “Friction”), the Dictators (the mondo “I Live For Cars and Girls”), the Residents (their mutant cover of the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction”), the Dils (the jaunty “Mr. Big”), the Bags (the high-octane “Survive”), Pagans (the amped-up garage rock gem “Street Where Nobody Lives”), Chrome (the syncopated electro-punk of “New Age,”), Non Compos Mentis (the power-pop/hardcore mashup “Ultimate Orgasm”), and DMZ (the Boston-bred “Bad Attitude”) who, in turn, begat the Lyres (the‘60s-styled proto-punk “Buried Alive”).

I’ve been writing about this stuff since the beginning, decades “frittered” away banging my head against the proverbial wall, and the Blank Generation box still manages to offer up cool bands I’ve never heard before (Black Randy & The Metro Squad, the Young Canadians, the Dishrags, Crash Course In Science) or had only read about in dog-eared copies of Bomp! and Trouser Press (Cleveland punks Mirrors and Electric Eels, New Math, the Middle Class, Howard Werth, et al).    

For you young ‘uns who didn’t enter this metaphysical plane of existence until the changing of the millennium, a lot – a majority, maybe – of these tracks will be brand new to your hungry ears. As such, Blank Generation is either the only punk rock compilation set you’ll ever need, or a welcome catalyst for further investigation into the early history of the genre. For those of us who rode that hobby horse from the beginning, before the paint began to chip off and tarnish set in, Blank Generation is a reminder of how fresh, new, and exciting rock ‘n’ roll can be. Either way, this is a set worthy of inclusion in even the most comprehensive music library. (Cherry Red Records, released 2023)

Buy Blank Generation from Amazon

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