The Twisted Roots of the Punk Rock Family Tree
Twisted Roots never had the chance to record a full-length album, or even a proper EP. The band lasted for only six months in 1981, but in its short career it seemed to predict and encapsulate the evolution of American punk rock from its origins in thrashy hardcore to its most recent incarnations as indie rock. The band was formed by ex-Screamers keyboardist Paul Roessler and punk rock Renaissance man Pat Smear following the death of Germs’ singer Darby Crash. According to Roessler, who writes the matter-of-fact liner notes for this reissue, they formed Twisted Roots to turn away from the increasingly nihilistic punk scene “which was turning dark ugly and violent” and toward something “young and hopeful”. To that end, Paul decided to enlist a group of younger musicians, enlisting his younger sister Kira to play bass, a local scenester, Maggie Ehrig, to provide lead vocals, and a 15-year-old surfer named Emil McKown to drum (although many of the tracks on this compilation were recorded after McKown was replaced by Gary Jacoby).
In hindsight, the name Twisted Roots turned out to be a very apt name for the group, as nearly all the band members branched off into a wide variety of careers in the incestuous punk rock community. Most famously, Pat Smear joined Nirvana in their final months and was one of the founding Foo Fighters. Kira Roessler became the bass player for the later, experimental Black Flag (which McKown also joined, briefly). Paul Roessler went on his own path with solo albums and eccentric collaborations with folks like Mike Watt. Using Twisted Roots as a starting point, one could trace nearly every important player in the American punk rock scene in a mere handful of moves.
The historical importance of Twisted Roots goes beyond the pedigree of the individual members. The 12 surviving songs collected on this album showcase an impressive array of styles, each song hinting at a different path that punk rock would take in the upcoming years. The traditional Los Angeles hardcore pioneered by bands like the Germs appears for brief moments in songs like “James Bondage” and “I Wanna Be Trendy”, but they are always contrasted with intricate dance-punk breakdowns or Roessler’s Keith Emerson-inspired keyboard riffs. The first three songs, culled from their sole seven-inch, are bouncy new wave tunes that must have irritated the punk rock purists. At the other end of the spectrum, the bass-driven “Pretty Little White House” and the genuinely disturbing “Parade” cast Twisted Roots as post-punk pioneers creating harrowing musical experiences. The inspiring “Fill Your Heart”, which really deserved a better recording, shifts from a punk-funk riff into a beautiful, gauzy chorus that seems to predate shoegazing. Whatever the cause of their early demise, it was not a lack of ideas.
This variety is ultimately why Twisted Roots does not hold up as a consistent listen. Twisted Roots had so much potential, but never enough time to develop into a solid band. The tracks from the seven inch (“Mommy’s Always Busy in the Kitchen”, “Pretentiawhat”, and “The Yellow One”) are well produced and fully formed, but the rest of the tracks are culled from compilation tapes, demos, and four-tracks. The songs themselves always have a few interesting moments, particularly when the two Roesslers and Smear find the right groove, but none of the songs had the opportunity to really gel. Twisted Roots suffered from a problem all too rare in rock and roll: too much creativity, not enough time. Their later careers, and the careers of other bands who explored similar musical territory, were more successful in discovering ways to maintain the punk rock spirit without following any cookie-cutter formulas.
Lead singer Maggie Ehrig, however, disappeared soon after the dissolution of the original Twisted Roots, which is something of a pity. Standing aside both established punk rock veterans and future innovators, Ehrig manages not only to hold her own but to even thrive. She is able to sound cute and adorable, especially on the poppier tracks but when she goes haywire on songs like “Parade” and (especially) “Are There Cobwebs on My Face?” she is spellbinding. “But what’s a parade / Without a little PAIN, PAIN, PAIN!” she screeches on the former, accompanied by Paul Roessler’s hellish carnival music riffs, and the effect is about as chilling as pop music gets and one wants to hear her belt in a proper recording. This is ultimately what makes Twisted Roots a disappointing, if entertaining, listen: It is impossible to listen to these poorly recorded demos and not imagine how good the band could have been if they had been given another six months.