I was going to evaluate this collection of demos from the legendary California punk band the Adolescents under the following criteria: Either The Complete Demos 1980-1986 fails as an album because it is only worthwhile to collectors and die-hard fans, or it succeeds as an album because the demos are interesting enough on their own that it will appeal to a slightly broader audience. Ultimately, a collection of punk rock demos from a band that really had a limited (although spectacular) career can only hope to attract collectors and die-hard fans. To criticize the album for not appealing to a broader audience, or trying to argue that it is more than an interesting footnote to punk rock history, would be doing a disservice to the album as a whole.
The question then, becomes how does the album work in filling in the little gaps in the band’s history? Well it doesn’t get more historic than the first four tracks of The Complete Demos, which features the Adolescents’ first recording session. Unfortunately, the tracks are little more than pieces of history, considering that they seem to be recorded on an answering machine in an entirely different room from the one the band was practicing. The CD booklet helpfully contains lyrics to these songs, but it hardly matters since the melody, let alone the lyrics, are completely obscured by the non-existence production. In any case, the songs (particularly the embarrassing “Black Sheep”) are the weakest in the band’s catalogue, and at this point the Adolescents were completely undistinguished in their sound.
A scant few months later, the band got it together (punk bands never need a long incubation period). “I Hate Children” bursts out from the muck of the first four tracks with a blast of sonically crisp venom. These later demos are still fairly lo-fi, but following their first demo tape, these later tracks sound as slick and produced as a Steely Dan tribute album to Burt Bacharach. “No Friends” and “Who Is Who”, highlights of the Adolescent’s immortal self-titled debut, appear here in only moderately changed forms. Still, these two songs show how the Adolescents began to blend genuine sunshine pop into their hardcore sound. Little did they know at the time that this subtle combination of hardcore and traces of pop melodies would become the foundation of the California punk rock sound.
This second demo tape ends with “Wrecking Crew”, perhaps the Adolescents’ finest moment, with Tony Reflex’s bored monotone of suburban disaffection suddenly segueing into a burst of pure rage as he screams “Bring on the Wrecking Crew!”, wishing destruction on the social structure that has brought him up. It is such a powerful song that Suicidal Tendencies effectively rewrote it for their quasi-hit “Institutionalized” (which is, of course, also really great). The CD follows up “Wrecking Crew” with, well, “Wrecking Crew”. The next batch of demos happens to begin with a new version of “Wrecking Crew”, this one a little spacier, almost psychedelic in nature. The contrast between these two versions of the same song marks one of the few points on the disc that truly reveals a little bit about the creative process of the Adolescents. The Adolescents played relatively simple songs, so when they changed the mood or tone of a song, even slightly, the results were radically different.
The other interesting highlight buried in this album is “Richard Hung Himself”, a song left off of their Welcome to Reality EP. Its presence isn’t enough to tempt anyone but the faithful, but it’s a rather fascinating example of the band trying to find a different stylistic groove. The band slows down the tempo just enough that the track lurches into an almost heavy metal mood. The lyrics, an honest and harsh evaluation of a suicide, are far beyond such, well, adolescent stuff as “I Hate Children”: “Stiff blue painted cat wired to the roof / Cyanide in the darkness and dangling goat hooves / Floor covered in dirt, dead grass, and decay / Now Richard joins them and calls it escape”. It’s hard to follow them when Reflex spits them out in his pretend English accent, but, on paper, they’re something close to poetry. After a handful of mediocre renditions of Adolescents classics like “Ameoba” and “Self Destruct”, “Richard Hung Himself” points to the future, specifically the 1986 Adolescents who were a heavier and more thoughtful version of the band. This band is featured on the album’s final two tracks, demo versions of “The Liar” and “The Peasant Song”, which, although they lack the teenage energy of the earlier songs, wrap up this overview of the Adolescents’s career by showing the band successfully surviving maturation.
So, how does the album rate? Well, for a demo collection, it works fairly well as a listening experience (with the exception of the first four songs). There are a few hidden jewels in here, even if most of the album is really unnecessary. It’s more notable for its behind-the-scenes look into the creation, and development, of the California punk rock scene. In other words: It’s a good purchase for collectors and die-hard fans. The rest of us will stick with the studio albums.