Beyond the streets of Los Angeles, Washington D.C. was a hub for a budding interest in adrenaline-drenched punk and hardcore music ideologies. But while Bad Brains was taking control of the Capital City, the punk vibe was steadily brewing further north. Boston, Massachusetts was gathering its own punk and hardcore scene, one that LA and DC couldn’t handle. Pioneered by bands like Gang Green, the Boston punk/hardcore phenomenon was taking over. After more than 30 years since the scene hit, influential figures in the movement have released Drop the Needle – Boston Punk Anthology, a collection of legendary punk tracks and unreleased materials from figureheads of Boston-based punk and hardcore. If you’re wondering why punk was such a big deal during the 80’s in Boston, this is the record to listen to. It doesn’t cover every single facet, but this music is still some of the most furious examples of everything great about the scene.
“First Nickel” possesses all of the energy of a punk classic, but tames it quite a bit with melody and some blistering guitar solos. Its emphasis on texture over speed makes it a much less potent chaser after the Red-Bull-spiked adrenaline punch of the first three tracks. The songs by Celebrity Death Certificate don’t reach the paces of classic punk energy, but the band demonstrates a nice control over their intensity. It’s clearly metal over punk, but that’s not a bad thing.
The Scratch tracks are the songs that stand out the most in the “punk” or “hardcore” vibe, because they really aren’t either. Their steadier tempos and Black Sabbath-style guitar solos are so incredibly noticeable when standing on the same album as Gang Green. The bass lines on the song “Centralia” are so heavy, even when set behind the rugged and ripped guitars, highlighting Scratch’s slower pace (which also contributes to the song’s length, which is massively longer than other tracks on the album). The songs from Mallet Head continue this trend, with the live version of “Mother Sunshine” progressing with a stomping rhythm beat and a vocal chorus that, while definitely good for brewing those pits, calls out longer than your typical punk “oi!” But like the Scratch tunes, Mallet Head’s tracks emphasize steadiness and are clearly more based in classic heavy metal than 80’s hardcore punk.
This makes the third Scratch song “El Monstro” such a sucker punch to the face; it starts off quiet and steady enough, but bursts into punk pacing without any warning. The band’s metal skill darts through in a great guitar solo, but still keeps its tempo energized and racing. The brew of metal and punk reaches a near-perfect pitch on “El Monstro”, a track that is able to please both headbanging metalheads and the amped-up punk fans. It’s one of the best tracks on the record.
Probably the most interesting inclusion is five rare demo tracks by Smegma and the Nunz, one of Boston’s premiere punk supergroups that would eventually become the second major lineup for Gang Green. Composed of members of Gang Green and The Freeze, along with the late vocalist of Leper (what is said to be the first hardcore band in the Boston region), Alec Steere, Smegma and the Nunz are still as rambunctious and energized as ever. Steere’s sneering vocals are right up there with the legends of The Sex Pistols and Black Flag. Guitarist Chuck Stilphen (who appears on all other tracks on the album) is a very skilled axeman who is able to mix melodic texture and punk endurance together fascinatingly. “Napalm Sticks to Kids” has an infectiously creepy guitar bend throughout the track, while the bass beats in “Nuns of Guatemala” are just as inescapably hypnotic. As one of the unsung heroes of punk, Smegma and the Nunz’ influence is just as important as Gang Green’s, and in some ways, accelerates itself far past its own breaking point while still managing to stay on its feet. It’s downright incredible how much this music holds up today.
It’s kind of sad how the Boston scene seemed to get set aside in favor of the Los Angeles scene, because the music it produced was something of immeasurable potency. Unlike other groups, its speed and energy never trumped its musicians’ virtuosity. The songwriting from Smegma and the Nunz is amazing: blisteringly fast, but melodic and toned when it needs to be. The Mallet Head and Celebrity Death Certificate tracks don’t stand out as much, but they’re not as all bad: they just have a lot to live up to sharing the stage with Gang Green. Scratch manages to keep both punk and metal fundamentals in equilibrium; “El Monstro” is a fantastic recording. The inherently influential nature of Boston-based punk and hardcore is something of Northeastern myth (trust me, this is Pittsburgh), so seeing the movement get such a resounding tribute is downright incredible. Boston had a lot of offer for punk and hardcore, and this record is a fine sampling of what made the movement so massively appealing, even in 2014.
Categories: Music review