The Germs’ (GI) is one of those long-revered punk rock albums. The genuine article. A primary text for the West Coast vein of the genre. It’s also made by a band with all the right elements of an underground legend. Singer Darby Crash died of a heroin overdone in 1980. Pat Smear went on play with Nirvana and Foo Fighters. The bassist’s name was Lorna Doom. They’re a band that both sneered at convention and demanded your attention.
The real work Real Gone Music has done in reissuing (GI) is to get it back in print on compact disc. It’s been long unavailable in this format, and some might argue that the album was better served by its vinyl reissue a couple years back. The packaging here—complete with full lyrics and interesting liner notes, the excellent bonus track “Caught In My Eye”, originally left off the album—argues otherwise, as Real Gone, a label that specializes in things like the Grateful Dead Dick’s Pick series, have taken care to make this a worthwhile pressing, a document of history as well as an album.
The music itself still crackles with bratty energy. The onslaught of Smear’s guitar and Don Bolles’ smashing drums and Darby Crash’s blues-tinged scream that come out all at once—braced by Doom’s bass—on “What We Do Is Secret” is as bracing now as it must have been in the late-‘70s. And the band doesn’t look back from there. The moody grind of “Communist Eyes”, the driving chug of “American Leather”, the surprisingly subtle textures of “Manimal,” it all comes across as equal parts energizing and confrontational. The power-chord blitz of these songs is undeniably infectious, but there’s always a hard, burred edge to these songs, an undercurrent of fury and spit that keeps you from every getting too comfortable. The band breaks all their fuck-off anger wide open on nine-plus minute closer “Shut Down (Annihilation Man)”. It’s a live performance, and Smear’s guitars are unruly and brittle, as much squeaking feedback as they are angular power. The song is a mess in the best way possible, a hint at the ambition behind these quick-fire punks.
This is all to say that (GI) still sounds every bit like the vital punk rock record it was. It’s also an album with a quiet poetry to it. Darby Crash’s songs are about disenfranchised youth and corrupted power and all the other things you’d think he’d sing about, but he can get downright lyrical. On “What We Do Is Secret” he labels his cohort as “defects in a defect’s mirror.” On “Lexicon Devil”, his frustrations with government and cronies in power reaches his peak, and his appeal to violence is dangerously charming when he spits “I’ll get silver guns to drip old blood / Let’s give the established joke a shove.” And both his isolation and resolve are perfectly stated on “Manimal” with a chorus that reads, “I came into this work like a puzzled panther, waiting to be caged / But something stood in the way, I was never quite tamed.”
I say the chorus read that way because most of Crash’s singing is incoherent. For an album that succeeds in small details—the doubled vocals at the end of the verses of “Communist Eyes”, the rim taps that open “American Leather”, etc.—Crash’s singing is curiously imprecise. Sure, this is part of his punk-rock charm and there’s an undeniable power to that. But if (GI) speaks for West Coast punk in both its inception and its prime, then it does so in a warts ‘n all kind of way. For all the precision of the music—Pat Smear even edited out all his guitar solos to keep things stripped down—the ideas it is trying to articulate get lost in translation. It’s an album that is frustratingly unintelligible mostly because its incoherence seems deliberate, stand-offish.
More than a lot of bands of their ilk, the Germs played like a capital-P Professional rock band. They practiced hard, and they were insightful songwriters and great musicians (Smear’s guitar work is particularly strong). In the end, though, it’s an album more about attitude than content, an album that screams “We don’t care what you think” even as its members teased their hair just so and adopted clever stage names. Make no mistake, the attitude still resonates today, and it’s got a power far from impotent, but that attitude drowns out an album that, on the lyric sheet, has some serious things to say.
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