Various Artists - Black Hole: Californian Punk 1977-80
1991 (the year punk rock broke according to Sonic Youth) was also the year that Jon Savage published his acclaimed study of the original punk era, England's Dreaming. In the book's appendices, Savage included a listening guide that explored the development of the genre from its 1960s roots to the global phenomenon that it became, pausing to recommend a number of Californian releases that had been mailed over to him, records - and acts - that were barely acknowledged in the fast-moving world that was the weekly UK music press. Twenty years later he gets the chance to expose these tracks to a wider audience via this personally-curated compilation.*
Kurt Cobain said that, without access to the records, he had to imagine what punk might sound like, gleaning what he could from the pages of Rolling Stone and Creem magazine. There's a sense that many of the bands featured here also forged their own version of punk, ignorant of what punk was 'supposed' to sound like - at least until British records began to filter over and the genre became much more codified. A visit by The Damned to Los Angeles in April 1977 is largely credited as being the catalyst for local bands to increase the tempo, but there is still as much sonic - and technical - variety as ever stemmed from the streets of old London town. The discordant amateurism of The Germs connect these early works to later excursions into noisy rock via guitarist Pat Smear; The Screamers' synth punk offering a cross-country connection to New York noise terrorists Suicide. Consumers 'Anti, Anti, Anti' has all the pent-up fury of Raw Power and is typical of the strand of nihilism that ran through much of the scene, alongside a general suspicion of government and corporate America, which reached some kind of apotheosis with Dead Kennedys, represented here by their classic sliver of paranoia 'California Uber Alles'.
The latter were one of the very few early Californian (or indeed American) acts who successfully made the jump over the Atlantic, with most crashing and burning after a handful of singles. Some refugees carved out more successful careers: The Bags' Patricia Morrison briefly wound up in Sisters of Mercy, while Penelope Spheeris became one of Hollywood's most successful female directors after her role with The Avengers. The lack of interest can be largely explained by the UK press' need for novelty and the sheer speed at which the domestic scene exploded into a myriad of new movements (Oi!, mod revival, 2-Tone and eventually New Romanticism) and sometimes the indifference is understandable, The Randoms' 'ABCD' is the kind of sloppy r 'n' b that could've graced the stage at The Roxy on any given Tuesday night. Scholars of the period are nevertheless well served though, with the likes of the nerdy jangle of The Aurora Pushups a particular highlight ("Victim of terrorism / Some day we might all be ...") and little else has had a prior official release in the UK.
The compilation stops in 1980, the year when American punk began to evolve into hardcore and when Savage's interest in the genre began to wane. This may not be a Nuggets for the period - too much time has passed and rock has lost too much of its innocence for any such work to have a similar impact, but it remains an essential purchase for anyone yet to explore outside the recognised punk canon. So that's California covered - when do we get the other 49 states?
*The oddest thing about this fine release is that more time has passed between now and the original publication of England's Dreaming, than between the book and when these records were first pressed. History - it's a runaway train that just seems to get faster and faster ...