Reissues of two Reagan-era punk records turn out to be the perfect tonic for 21st century American problems.
We all need the Dicks right now.
Seriously: In this depressing Tea Party/George Zimmerman/Pussy Riot era we’re living in, what better tonic could there be than bracing, blistering punk rock that fights the Power with equal parts rage and pitch-black humor?
The Dicks exploded out of Austin, Texas, in the early 1980s. Led by larger-than-life frontman Gary Floyd, the band was an influential (if short-lived) part of the Reagan-era punk landscape. For years, though, the only way anyone could find the band’s songs on LP or CD was via the cover versions that occasionally appeared on records by groups like Mudhoney and the Jesus Lizard. Thankfully, Bay Area record label Alternative Tentacles has just reissued the Dicks' two full-lengths -- 1983's Kill from the Heart and 1985's These People. Each album has been remastered by label owner Jello Biafra and includes key Dicks singles as bonus tracks.
Kill from the Heart came from the first incarnation of the Dicks, the one born in Austin's then-fledgling music scene. (Floyd is joined on the record by guitarist Glen Taylor, bassist Buxf Parrot and drummer Pat Deason.) Musically, the record sits squarely in the 1980s punk tradition, but with a few Texas twists. Taylor's distorted guitar sound reflects a fondness for raw blues and Southern rock. The rhythm section, meanwhile, moves easily from familiar punk trashes to slower, funkier tempos.
The real draws here, though, are the lyrics and Floyd's snarling delivery of them. Floyd rails against corrupt cops ("Pigs Run Wild"), racists ("No Nazi's Friend") and contemporary materialists ("Bourgeois Fascist Pig"). Like some mohawked prophet delivering his own Sermon on the Mount, Floyd promises that his targets won't be on top for long: "Revolution is in the air / The Pigs are wild; they're running scared / 'Cause they can kill us / And we'll be back in a couple of days," he sings in "Pigs Run Wild".Floyd reveals a dark sense of humor with "Little Boys' Feet". As one of the few openly gay figures in the 1980s punk scene, Floyd had to know that a song in which the narrator expresses fondness for licking teenage boys' feet would cause a stir. And he responds by inserting a hilarious line: "Hey, Mom and Dad, there ain't nothing wrong! / Gimme your sister! / I want her feet, too."
The second record, These People, was released after Floyd moved to San Francisco and recruited a whole new band -- guitarist Tim Carroll, bassist Sebastian Fuchs and drummer Lynn Perko. Not surprisingly, it has a different sound; metal and Sabbath-style hard rock are prominent reference points throughout. (Some of the tracks, like the sludgy "Sidewalk Beggin’", directly presage the rise of Seattle's heavier "grunge" bands.) The mood is different, too. Floyd is still in primal-scream mode, but on this record, the lyrics often look inward. "I'm feelin' bad, I’m feelin' down, I'm feelin' / Dead in a motel room", Floyd sings. Which is not to say that the political consciousness is gone. The reissue of These People includes three venomous antiwar tracks originally released on the Peace seven-inch. All feature lyrics as direct and confrontational as any protest song you're likely to hear: "(You know) I hope you get drafted / I hope you burn and fry / You apolitical asshole / I hope you're the first to die."
Overall, These People isn't quite as good as its predecessor. Despite its more varied sonic palate, the record sometimes feels undercooked, even bland. That criticism, though, may have more to do with the crackling incendiary power of the first record rather than the modest flaws on this follow-up.
Both reissues stand as important relics of a music age both very near and tragically out of reach. But these aren't "dated" albums. The Dicks attacked problems nearly 30 years ago that continue to plague our country today. It's good to have Floyd and his collaborators showing us the light once again.