“Wally George’s Outrageous Rock ‘n’ Roll Shindig” shaped up as an interesting, if not terribly enlightening, exercise in culture clash. Bring in Orange County’s arch-conservative talk-show host to preside as emcee over a bunch of anarchic kids steeped in the signature sound of Young O.C., which is punk rock.
But George was absent due to illness, and too many of the new-generation punks who turned out at the Ice House on Friday night have managed to transform punk anarchism into their own form of arch-conservatism.
On a bill featuring five emerging local acts playing for a mostly teen-age audience, the band that played to the densest pack of stage-crowding bodies and drew the biggest response was Guttermouth.
Musically there was almost nothing to distinguish Guttermouth, 1994, from the Circle Jerks or Black Flag circa 1980. This was straightforward, Southern California-style hard-core punk: damn the melodies, full speed ahead.
Guttermouth was extremely effective at playing old-style hard-core, as you could tell from one glance at the crowd. The tumult directly in front of the stage looked like a football goal line on fourth-and-1 a second after the ball has been snapped.
Guttermouth ranted and blitzed without much differentiation, but there were a few more palatable departures. The set’s best number was a mysterious, surf rock-influenced song apparently called “No Such Thing.”
Musically this was an old ritual, but so, in their way, are trad-blues shows and ‘50s rockabilly revival bills. What soured the proceedings wasn’t so much the familiarity of the music as the calcified attitude that went with the recycled sound.
Guttermouth’s singer, Mark Adkins, was a cheerfully obnoxious ringleader whose lack of seriousness made his more outrageous pronouncements easier to take. But Adkins, in his sardonic, joking way, did seem earnest about upholding the punk orthodoxy that says the music has to be hard and fast, that certain boundaries of fashion must not be crossed, and that to deviate is to sell out.
One of his targets was a kid in a Bad Religion shirt. Formerly the darling of hard-core punks, the Los Angeles-based Bad Religion has now fallen from favor among the ultra-orthodox for daring to tint its anti-authoritarian tirades with poppy melodiousness, and for becoming sufficiently popular to have signed a major label deal. Adkins alluded mockingly to all of this.
He also harangued a stage-front fan who had the temerity to wear his hair at near-shoulder length. “Let’s make an example of this guy. Obviously a KROQer,” Adkins said, before facetiously urging the crowd to beat the kid up.
The longhair was in no danger; no one was about to do him any harm. In the early 1980s, brawling between shorn punks and shaggy rockers was commonplace in Southern California, in a replay of the Rockers vs. Mods mid-'60s youth-culture warfare recounted in the Who’s “Quadrophenia.”
Punk was new in those days. Not to condone the brawling, which was stupid, but punk at that time was a statement, and it had conviction and teeth. Today, it is a fashion to put on, a ceremonial rite to attend. This young crop of punk fans is sensible enough not to regard it as anything worth fighting over.
Talk to Orange County’s punk rock godfathers, people like Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. and Mike Ness of Social Distortion, and they’ll tell you their share of tales about youthful brawling. But they’ll also emphasize that punk’s truest mission was to free up personal expression, not to enforce orthodoxy.
As stale as it may be artistically, punk orthodoxy remains sufficiently volatile to cause some real unpleasantness. A month ago, when Kurt Cobain of the hot-selling, punk-influenced band Nirvana, pulled up a chair on stage at the Forum and began playing an acoustic ballad, some troglodyte(s) in the audience scored two direct hits on him with flung sneakers. Cobain’s laudable desire to stretch his musical reach made him not punk enough in some quarters.
Those who feel that way are one with the doddering folk music purists who booed Bob Dylan on the day in 1965 that he went electric. They complete an inter-generational circle of stuffy, artistically deadening conservatism. To paraphrase Pete Townshend, chronicler of England’s Mods versus Rockers wars, “Meet the new jerks, same as the old jerks.”
The Wally show’s headliner, Sublime, offered a more promising example of what can happen when hard-and-fast music serves as a spark but not an all-consuming flame. The Long Beach trio, playing to a somewhat thinned-out, but highly receptive audience, gave its fans an excuse to mosh with hurtling hard-core punk passages. But those were just the punctuation, not the entire grammar, of a band that also took significant cues from the reggae of Bob Marley and the reflective songwriting of Elvis Costello.
Singer-guitarist Brad Nowell was most effective in getting across emotions in quieter, lighter-textured passages in which his smoky voice took on a Costello-like hue. While much of what he sang got lost amid the Ice House’s vastness and echoing, bare-brick surfaces, Nowell showed some promise as a lyricist in a character portrait of a fellow lost in drugged fog:
“I’m too drunk to light the bong, I’m too stoned to sing this song. . . . Drunk by noon but that’s OK, I’ll be president someday.”
The third-billed Nuckle Brothers offered a ska-punk mix and a frat-rock sensibility. Three horns, a rhythm section and two voices growling and shouting in tandem made for a hard to decipher din under the circumstances, but the on-stage energy and fast-hopping ska beat gave the audience all the cue it needed to bounce along.
Gameface turned up with a flawed game plan: An utterly foreseeable happenstance, a broken guitar string, brought its performance to a seven-minute halt. Handy replacements are available at reasonable prices at any music store, fellas. Try sticking an extra set in your guitar case before your next gig.
After finally solving the broken string dilemma by borrowing another band’s guitar, Gameface played a reasonably sharp set that included the evening’s most consistently melodic songs. The band paid for it: “We’re not punk enough for these guys in the front who were throwing (stuff) at us all night,” singer Jeff Caudill said as Gameface finished.
Actually, they could benefit by going more pop: a cover of the Cyndi Lauper ballad, “Time After Time,” speeded the tempo and narrowed the melody to the point where the song’s emotional core of longing was lost. Live, as on its new CD, “Good,” Gameface sounded just like the better-established O.C. punk-pop band, Big Drill Car.
Listening to the opening band, One Eye Open, was like hanging out at a Laundromat. Rap, reggae and metal bits were spliced together in rapid succession in a cycle of churn-soak-spin that allowed for neither melody nor a coherent form.