[29 May 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
When you think of America’s punk Meccas, Indianapolis usually isn’t the first place that jumps to anyone’s mind.
Instead, you think of places like Seattle (where the hit-and-run immediacy of punk gradually morphed into a slower, heavier sound that served as a cornerstone for the early ‘90s grunge revival), Los Angeles (where punk got picked up, repackaged, and resold in a more digestible form), and, of course, New York City itself. While each geographical locale produced their own unique spin on the post-Sex Pistols anarchy that (along with hey-day Ramones) provided the backbone for American punk rock, it is often easy for us to overlook the hard rock sound that populates America’s heartland. More landlocked states like Utah and Texas—areas that are known for harboring strong religious populations—have produced tons of excellent (though lesser-known) hard rock acts, the sound often stemming from a sense rebellion emerging from that reigon’s particular culture. This notion of geographical rebellion is perhaps best embodied by the Zero Boys, the best punk group to ever come out of… Indianapolis.
Formed in 1979 by Paul Mahern, the Zero Boys (rounded out by guitarist Terry Hollywood, drummer Mark Cutsinger, and bassist John Mitchell) met over a shared love of the Sex Pistols, and, really, that’s all it took in those days. The group made their recording debut with an EP called Livin’ in the ‘80s, released (somewhat ironically) right at the start of 1980. Their full-length debut, the lauded Vicious Circle, followed in 1982, and then—despite the fact that the band had already endured a lineup change prior to Circle‘s release (David Clough replacing John Mitchell on bass)—the group promptly disbanded. Like any great punk song, the band itself was over just as fast as it began.
Earlier this year, Secretly Canadian decided to reintroduce the band to the world at large, re-releasing not only Vicious Circle, but also History Of, a post-Circle odds-and-sods collection with the complete Livin’ in the ‘80s EP tossed on as a bonus. The EP’s title song had an opening line which describes the group perfectly: “I have no heroes / I’m just havin’ a good time”. In case track names like “I’m Bored” and “Dingy Bars Suck” were any indication, the band’s aspirations weren’t to be huge or influential: they just wanted to rock, plain and simple. Looking back nearly 30 years later, it’s fair to say that the band more than accomplished their mission.
Listening to that self-produced EP for the first time, however, it’s obvious that the Zero Boys worshipped at the altars of Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone in equal measure. Livin’ in the ‘80s shows the group succumbing to idol worship more times than they’d probably care to think, as their simple sentiments (if you “Stick to Your Guns”, you’re going to have “fun”, apparently) were adorned with clichéd rock riffage, the band often jumping to their choruses sooner than was necessary while underplaying their songcraft in the process. Even though the disc was recorded in one night, the sonic experiments at the end of “Piece of Me” and vocal harmonies at the close of “Guns” displayed a group that was eager to explore sounds beyond their Ramones-by-Numbers playbook, possibly leading to something greater down the road.
It’s a bit of a shock, then, when you put on Vicious Circle for the first time: suddenly it’s the Germs subbing for the Ramones, the band dropping simple melody in exchange for sheer ferocity, and the tradeoff working brilliantly. Co-produced by John Helms, the disc opens with the instant headbang insanity of “Vicious Circle”, a song with cascading shout-along vocals, speedy chord changes, and a wreckless abandon that was missing from the too-safe ‘80s EP. The band frontloads the disc with some of their fastest tracks, making the disc sound like a sonic punch in the face before they even get to the five-minute mark. The excellent “Dirty Alleys/Dirty Minds”, throws everything off balance, however, as the group is suddenly willing to experiment with slower sounds and deeper melodies, making the end product something you could mistake for an early Replacements single. Though you can call Vicious Circle a punk album, its grasp of hard-rock history is so keen and so precise that it’s not long before “punk” feels like too narrow a term to describe the band.
Oh sure: the band can go full-throttle at times (“Drug Free Youth”), and they sure as hell aren’t afraid to take their own lifestyle down a few notches (the political “Civilizations Dying” puts the Pope, the President, and the rock star who “made a lot of money” on the same public pedestal), but the best moments on Vicious Circle prove to be the unexpected ones, like when the Zero Boys show that they’re willing to pull riffs straight out of left-field genres (like “You Can Touch Me”, a track based off of rockabilly chord changes) and experiment with nifty production tricks (the opening lurch of “Charles’ Place” sounds like the band is using a guitar made out of broken beer bottles, opening up the band’s textural palette). Though Vicious Circle may not necessarily be labeled as hugely influential, it’s still intensely enjoyable: a punk record that truly warrants multiple listens.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of History Of somewhat lessens the impact of Vicious Circle. Though tracks like “Black Network News” helped foreshadow the rise of ‘90s alternative rock, the band winds up repeating a lot of the same sonic territory that they did on Circle (there’s little to be derived from “Mom’s Wallet” that you couldn’t already get from “Hightimes”). There are moments of genuine humor to be found lying around (the intro to “High Places”, for example), but the best parts are the hints at where the band’s sound was heading (the incredible “Amerika” displays a melodic maturity that indicates that the group could’ve weathered the mid-‘80s alternative movement with ease had they not, you know, broken up). Though some of the songs on History Of indeed feel like fragments of a larger whole, the best moments only leave us wondering what that original lineup could’ve accomplished were they given the chance.
In the long run, the Zero Boys weren’t an “essential” punk act in the way that Black Flag or the Germs were, but they were still a damn fine foursome that might have given us so much more had they been given the chance. And who knows? Given that chance, maybe Indianapolis could’ve become that punk Mecca the Zero Boys so wanted it to be?