This year marks British punk rock's 20th birthday, but the Sex Pistols reunion tour hangs in the air like the stench of death--or at least the suspicious smell of a million moldy dollar bills. As John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock prepare to kick off their tour in Europe this summer, hauling out all the old favorites for an audience that only experienced punk through nostalgic photos and scratchy records, the fathers of punk rock have become its assassins. The once and future Johnny Rotten says they're only in it for the money, and if you didn't feel like you were cheated the first time around--only because you weren't there--here's your chance to catch up on your history.
God save the Pistols? Not bloody likely.
The three young musicians who now sit around a table in a Deep Ellum pizzeria find the idea of a Sex Pistols reunion a little too cynical--like an obese Elvis world tour in 1977, or a Beatles tune recorded with a dead man singing lead. Yet they'd go to the Pistols show if they had the thousand or so bucks for a ticket, if only to say they attended the lecture for the course credit.
These young men, all of whom were 4 when the Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks in 1977, are punk-rock acolytes--carbon copies run off from a fading original. To a cynic, they're nothing but kids wearing their parents' clothes, all dolled up in bondage trousers and leather jackets when Mom and Dad are at the movies. But to the true believer, the person who'd insist punk existed before and long outlived its early practitioners, the boys of Riot Squad are the real thing--or real enough to warrant their shtick.
The Undying Breed, the band's recently released debut on Last Beat Records (and on vinyl, in keeping with authenticity for authenticity's sake), could have been recorded in 1977. Then again, Cowboys and Indians' The Western Life album could have been released in 1949, or the new Oasis record could have hit stores in 1969. Forty years into rock and roll, the lines are blurred, outdated, and useless.
"People will keep doing punk no matter what," says bassist Matt Schrader. "Every kind of music that ever existed is still alive. Once a music is created, it's gonna be around forever."
"When you go to a show, you see that punk's not dead," insists singer-guitarist Joe Blow. "You see the fun, the excitement, the adrenaline."
Riot Squad is a peculiar brand-new artifact that defies easy cynicism. The Undying Breed sounds like a homage to all things punk--sing-along choruses that echo like battle cries, furious guitars, and fast beats, all pins and spikes and mohawks--and it wears its studded heart on its black-and-white sleeve with unmitigated pride. For Riot Squad, it is still 1977, and punk rock is about to change music and the world.
Original drummer and co-founder Benjie Bollocks, a mohawked young man who seems the product of some time-warp experiment gone terribly wrong, quite literally lives, breathes, and dreams punk rock. Bollocks, who was born in England and moved back there shortly after this interview (he has been replaced by Ron Haywood, formerly of Lower Caste Struggle), sports the immaculate punk attire, less a fashion victim than a fashion suicide--all studs and leather. Blow sports a Texas Chainsaw Massacre T-shirt and an outgrown mohawk. Schrader is comparatively nondescript in his apparel, and the absent lead guitarist, Billy Blitz, could almost fit into a rockabilly band.
These young men know you can only invent something once, but that's hardly the point anymore; if rock and roll hasn't exactly run its course, then it's started to get awfully winded as it comes around the track, and punk's about as cliched as arena metal or acoustic folk. The only difference between long-hair-and-torn-jeans and short-hair-and-torn-jeans is a pair of scissors. But like Jesse Jackson says, someone's got to keep hope alive.
"I believe that music back then had more of a heart and style to it," Bollocks explains of the reason he formed this band. "I'm not trying to do anything new with my music. I just try to keep that old thing going, trying to make it survive. If I were to get in a time machine, I would move back to the late '70s-early '80s. The feeling I get from listening to an old Police album is like being in a dusty basement underground record store. I can't put it in words, but it's a great feeling."
Bollocks spent a good part of his childhood in London soaking up the aftermath of the punk scene, but Blow grew up in a household filled with the sounds of country and rockabilly. It wasn't until Blow heard the Misfits some time later that he decided to jump the fence to punk, and in 1989, he met Bollocks and formed Riot Squad. But the late '80s were definitely not the days to be in a punk band in Dallas, unless you loved to be ignored, and the band disbanded shortly after its formation. It didn't resurface until two years ago, when old friends Schrader and Blitz joined.
As individuals, the four band members couldn't have more disparate influences: Schrader listens to Led Zeppelin, NOFX, and the Police; Blow prefers his Hank Williams records; Blitz loves old country and rockabilly; and Bollocks indulges in reggae and Dixieland jazz. "But our main meeting point is the love of punk rock," Schrader says emphatically.
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Just as the music they love so much landed in their hands and on their turntables in the form of scratchy LPs and 45s, The Undying Breed was released on vinyl as an attempt to be as genuine as possible. It may seem like commercial suicide, but Riot Squad prefers it this way, and it hasn't necessarily hurt sales: Last Beat's Tami Thompsen says the album has sold about half of its initial pressing of 1,000 albums.
The Undying Breed is a worthy slice of old-fashioned vinyl--a fervid, diverse, even fun record. What could have been a hodgepodge of empty punk cliches is instead a feast of varied themes: Blow, who writes all the songs, has an affinity for horror B-movies that's evident in such songs as "Dracula's Daughter," "Book of the Dead," and "Catwomen on the Moon." Then, with a wink and a blink, he can turn around and pen a dead-on hate letter to a deadbeat dad ("Forsaken"), a condemnation of corporate greed that destroys small-farm owners ("James 5"), or a preachy little ditty about true justice ("Rapists and Murderers," with its rather to-the-point chorus of "Castrate the rapists/and mutilate the murderers").
The more you listen to The Undying Breed, the more you realize it sounds like an album on which the gesture is often more important than the musical content. It's both a labor of love and a defiant attempt to justify itself, to prove punk is not dead--which is perhaps a moot point in 1996. As pop music constantly reinvents itself, every genre is up for grabs and due for a facelift, and ironically or appropriately enough, the album's inner sleeve includes several drawings of mohawked skeletons hoisting guitars.
It is the mix of that adrenaline and idealism that propels the members of Riot Squad, that keeps them making those punk-rock fliers for yet another show that may or may not make enough money to buy a six-pack. "We play gigs for nothing," Bollocks says. "We just wanna do it because we believe in it. Kinko's has made more money from us than we make from our music." He laughs. "Some people may call it a sacrifice--you spend your resources, time, and money--but we believe in doing it.