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Combat rock

It's a chilly winter night at the half-abandoned Executive Inn near Love Field, and the frigid north wind is knocking the temperatures down even further on the skin. The place is dark and seemingly deserted, except for the noise emanating from several of the rooms. What used to be a motel for quick-visit travelers and other itinerant Dallasites is now an almost derelict building where, for very little money, bands can rent out gutted rooms to hold rehearsals.

You can get consumed by an eerie feeling as you walk around the unused pool and the scattered debris, your ears picking up on the hidden soundtrack emanating from behind closed doors--various snippets of thrash metal, grunge, punk, and sensitive folk rock escaping through the thin old walls. It feels like the set of a movie that takes place in the not-so-distant future, where music is the only way out of this decrepit hell.

Just how many of these young hopefuls will actually get to live their rock-and-roll fantasies is a question that hangs up in the frozen air on this night, but in the room where the Strafers practice, the familiar and cliched illusions are quickly dismissed when the singer puts his mouth close to the mic and bellows against a barrage of twin menacing guitars: "This is musical testimony/It ain't to pick up no chicks/And you're gonna be real lucky/If you hear any guitar licks."

The room resonates, though not so much because of the tumultuous volume. The electricity springs from the righteous fury of young men hungry to be heard above the radio noise and the manufactured anger of many of today's pop stars. The song they're performing is called "The Baddest Gang in Town," and it deals with Dallas' boys in blue. It's the Clash's "Police and Thieves" tailored to fit 1996 Dallas, or any American city.

Its theme--being harassed by those who are supposed to protect and serve just because you don't look right--is familiar and ultimately universal: "They don't know me/They don't know you/The baddest gang in town is the boys in blue/Let's get ready to rumble/It's the people versus the police." It's a far cry from one of the most popular songs of the decade that starts with the catch phrase of the '90s: "Do you have the time to listen to me whine."

Ryan Wall--the 26-year-old who writes the songs, sings them through a Joe Strummer sneer, and plays guitar--just doesn't buy into the complacency of the new pop that passes as punk.

"I don't like to whine," he shrugs. "This is about testimony. This is what I feel. They say you can't change anything with music, but it's worse to sit down and not write anything about it."

Twelve tears ago, Wall became infatuated with punk rock and its rebellious call to arms. While a lot of his peers were into punk for the cool clothes and adventurous hairdos, Wall embraced the political manifestos of the Clash and the biting social commentary of the Jam. He became convinced that young music is much more than two chords played fast and loud; he believed in the power of the words shouted over those chords, and he believed rock and roll could empower kids who wouldn't be heard if they didn't sling a guitar over their shoulder.

Wall began playing drums in 1983 in a band he formed with his brother, and they called themselves the Rad Boys. Not long after that, Ryan switched to guitar and began writing songs for his next band, the Dive Bombers, which released a single in 1988.

"By that time, the local scene sucked," Wall insists. "There was only the Theater Gallery and the Twilite Room, and the live scene wasn't anything. The Bombers broke up in 1989, but we dragged it along with another lineup until '91, but that wasn't much."

When it all turned funk and grunge in the early '90s, Wall packed it in for a while--mostly, he says now, because he couldn't find any other musicians with whom he shared the belief that rock and roll could change the world. In 1993, he strapped his guitar back on when he fronted the short-lived Kahili Knock. After that, it was back to bulletin boards in music stores, placing and perusing the "musicians wanted" ads.

Last October, 18-year-old Illinois native Dylan Baerwaldt saw Wall's ad in a music store and called him. Fresh out of high school in Springfield, where he played with hard-core bands, Baerwaldt moved to Dallas and started looking for fellow musicians.

"I called several people before I saw Ryan's ad, and most of them wanted to do Rush covers," Baerwaldt recalls. "Ryan's ad mentioned punk and the Clash, and I knew I wanted to be in a band like that."  

Drummer Brian Sidener, 24, came to the band as a family friend who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

While they rehearse, the emotional intensity is overwhelming, as are the similarities to the Clash: In their staccato riffs and sing-along choruses (and song titles), the Strafers sound almost as if they're a subconscious tribute band to the British punk war-horses. "Rebel Radio" recalls "This Is Radio Clash," and "Have a Gun" could be "Guns on the Roof," especially when the latter borrows the line, "I fought the law and the law won," from the Bobby Fuller song the Clash made its own. In "Enemy Lines," the Strafers break into the chorus of the reggae classic "Pressure Drop," another song to which the British gave new life.

Wall's songs, in essence, comprise the album between The Clash and Give 'em Enough Rope that the Clash never recorded. The band's five-song cassette, Rebel Radio, plays itself out like an artifact from 1978--all speed-demon riffs, punch-and-run drum attacks, lyrics barked out as though they were military commands. The Strafers are one of those odd creations who sound so like their heroes one can't help but gape in amazement at the reproduction. This isn't a bland carbon copy, but a blatant note-for-blessed-note Xerox, yet to damn the Strafers for so perfectly capturing and revitalizing the essence of the Clash would deny the effectiveness with which they pull off their homage.

The Strafers are a great band for exactly the same reasons the Clash were: There's sincerity in the delivery, passion in the anger, indignation in the words even when Wall howls the epigrams of generations before him ("Hell, no, we won't go/We're listening to Rebel Radio"). You get the sense that when Wall howls, "Waste 'em," he's not fooling around.

As critic Greil Marcus wrote of the Clash during that band's late '70s heyday, the Strafers are one of the few local bands "out for community, the self-discovery of individuals as a means to solidarity, a new 'I' as the means to a discovery of an old 'we.'"

All that rings like a compliment to a young musician's ears. "The Clash is my favorite band," Wall admits, "but the lyrics and the vocals are American. It's completely my own experience. I look at the Clash as a genre of music, not as a band. The Clash wrote the rule book on what punk is all about: Anything goes. They used all these different influences like reggae, ska, rockabilly, and they created a whole genre. You can call it 'combat rock.'

"Their music is so empowering. Like reggae, it's about what one man needs to be empowered. It's not about being in a gang to feel in power. It's about what one man can do to stand against the system. 'Rebel Radio' is about the KNON show 'Rebel Reggae International'. When I feel bad I play reggae or the Clash. You know you're alone, but it gives you the feeling that you have power as an individual."

Wall's raging muse is fueled by personal experience, and most his lyrics are eloquent accounts of real-life incidents accompanied by a machine-gun band. "Have a Gun" recounts the night, three years ago, when Wall was arrested at a local club for carrying a handgun.

"But before that happened," he insists, "I was in a park one day, and this little gangster kid showed me his gun because I looked at him wrong or something. He threatened to shoot me and my friends. From that day, I started carrying this small .25. Three weeks later, I was at this club, and a waitress bumped into me and felt it. Pretty soon a bouncer came to me and asked me to step outside. I didn't know what was going on, but as soon as I walked out these cops were all over me. They threw me on the ground and they stuck a gun to the back of my head.

"The funny thing was that the cop who arrested me had me cuffed in the car, and on the way to the station he pulled someone else over. He had a felon in his car and he pulled someone else over for a traffic violation!" Wall's voice rises in disbelief and indignation.

"I guess he was Super Cop," Wall figures. "That thing changed my life. I'm on a five-year probation, and I'm not able to leave Dallas. I've done two and a half years already, though."

"Time flies when you're on house arrest," jokes Baerwaldt, who surely has heard this story dozens of times.

As every member of the Clash turned 40 last year and their legacy begins to fade behind mediocre soundtrack work and Big Audio Dynamite records, the Strafers are more than happy to persist with their political rantings against the apathy that allows punk rock to become more and more sanitized and just another marketing tool aimed at the kids who still buy their Rancid records at the Blockbuster. The Strafers' impressive song set is as taut and powerful as, say, Rancid's, but there is real meat to the Strafers' lyrics. It's the difference between shooting blanks and firing hollow-point bullets: The noise is the same, but the results of the impact are significantly different.  

"Rancid performs punk with clinical precision," Wall insists. "When they played Dallas in November, they were tight and all that, but they didn't have the live feeling. I left that show kinda empty. They write about what they do during the day. It's safety punk, the kind mom or dad will buy for their kid at the mall.

"Most bands are afraid to be political. They play songs, rock out, but they're either afraid to wear their beliefs on their sleeves, or they have nothing to say. My beliefs are an open book."

"I like the messages in Ryan's lyrics," Baerwaldt adds. "He lets you know what he thinks, and it's all about the truth.


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