Fuck art. Fuck being a popstar. Fuck catering to the chatterbox intellectuals drunk on wine and sanctimonious bullshit. Fuck praying that stuffy record label plants think your sound could earn them millions. Hell if music should become some hot commodity you can wrap in some prissy bow and call merchandise. Let’s show some backbone instead. Let’s form a band that plays the music our friends and us love, consumers and snobs be damned.
Amen, said the DIY music followers of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Video was already killing the radio star, and musicians desperate for attention were clawing for their slice of the spotlight. Still, luckily, a small faction remained in the shadows, singing, strumming guitars, recording for as much as a cassette cost, laughing into the night.
Imagine bands composed of nerds who frankensteined instruments from household junk, bands packed with rejects who sang their minimalist message to empty venues, bands like the Homosexuals, Scissor Fits, and Desperate Bicycles, all who scoffed at stardom and flipped pretentious art poodles the bird. These were DIY musicians who harbored no grandiose illusions of fame and fortune. All they needed was a quiet kitchen, a few close friends, a duct-taped deck that worked, and the rest became history.
Here’s your chance to eavesdrop on the bands that simply wanted to make the music they loved and encourage their comrades to follow suit. Their message was pure, their sound, raw, and their solidarity, undeniable. Like them, castaways and weirdos can now share their music with friends and delight in a sound that isn’t poisoned by consumerism or popularity contests. One listen, and minimalist junkies as well as post-punk addicts will get hooked.
Allow me to introduce pusher Chuck Warner, founder and manager of the CD and CD-R reissue speakeasy Hyped2death.com, where us modern rejects, us part-time punks, us exiled hearts of rock can finally find the albums that document the independent spirit and seductive sound of the DIY music tradition.
Welcome Chuck, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. Let me start out by saying that I really enjoy all the Messthetics and Homework releases by H2D, and the real reason I wanted to interview you was to understand why this music has seduced me, really. Figured the best way to find out was to go to the source, the man behind the label. That’s you, so let’s start out by talking about how you got started down the reissue path.
My journey down this path really goes back to being a teenager and growing up in the Boston area. I always wanted to be a disc jockey, and when I got off to college, basically the first thing I did was walk into the radio station.
Being a disc jockey, playing records for people, being on the air, all of that was a real passion for me, but after a couple years of dealing with music in a commercial radio format, I pretty much soured on the scene by ’77. It wasn’t until end of ’82 when I started doing regular college radio in Cambridge that I just fell in love with it all over again. There weren’t any production values, I could say whatever I wanted and I could be as good or as bad a DJ on any particular day.
The great thing about being a DJ back then was that you had access to these great record libraries. Of course it’s totally different now. Everything’s on the Internet. Anyone can get an instant record collection in no time flat. Used to be there’d be one or two maniacal record collectors that everyone knew about in every city, and now, there’s probably 100,000 iPods with more music on them than those collectors had in their entire record collections.
But in Boston in 1983, one of the things that struck me was that there were all these great bands that came and went and left nothing behind but demo tapes. That got me thinking about starting a label. I basically gathered up all the demo tapes, paid the bands $100 each in advance and started making records.
And that’s when you started Throbbing Lobster?
Yeah, we did really well with the compilations for some time. I think there were around 15 records total, but only three compilations came out (and two died in the can). One EP sold about 7500 copies, the compilations sold 2500-3500 each and everything else basically lost money. The mid-’80s was when everyone started up an independent record distributor, and they all worked the same scam, which was make a big splash, order from everyone, sell that stuff, and pay people more and more slowly, until no one would give you new product, so you went out of business.
So from 1984-1988, I ran a Boston-based garage-rock label that cranked out LPs, EPs and singles before bad luck, bad guesses and distributor rip-offs bled us dry. There’s still limited stock of almost everything we did, and given the horrible condition the indie record business, it now seems like a good time to put that back on the market — and maybe help pay some bills for Messthetics.
What came next? Why start Hyped to Death then?
Well, I took 12 years off from the record-business, but in 1996 I was producing a syndicated news-radio program and because all the field recordings were done on DAT and edited on computers I realized what you could do with digital sound, and naturally my first thought was I could really do a lot with scratchy old records.
I started to put together cassette samplers of records from my mail-order rare record business that I hoped people would buy. I was just going through my boxes of records and needle dropping, and they were basically mix-tapes. The thing that really thrilled me about digital audio was you could nail every segué — you could match the speed, you could get the timing just right.
But I was getting sick of the mail order business by 1999, and that’s when I decided to invest in the first CD-R burner I could afford and start a CD-R label. (Sony had just introduced a CD burner for $999.) The cassettes had all been called “Hyped to Death” but with the CD-Rs, I split it into four series: there was Teenline for power pop; Hyped to Death for punk; Homework for American post-punk; and Messthetics for UK DIY and post-punk.
So what drew you to the CD business?
Experimenting with digital audio and getting excited about restoring the sound. Early on, when I started contacting bands, they’d write back, saying the record didn’t sound this good when it was new, and it helped that the bands were really excited about how it sounded.
Thing is I’ve been around audio recording gear long enough that I have some very strong opinions about how it should sound in the end, and I made a decision from the start that I wasn’t going to master anything to commercial CD standards. That whatever went into the songs from the vinyl or the tape, whatever dynamic range I had there I was going to preserve on the CDs.
People say, “Oh I’m into the reissue stuff, but I only buy it on vinyl because you know vinyl sound so much better,” and vinyl does sound better … than 99 percent of the current CDs on the market today, but not because of any analog reproduction. You record digitally, you send off the DAT to the mastering lab, they press your songs on vinyl, and presto, people say, “Oh man, this vinyl sounds amazing.” It’s true, but you can still preserve the whole dynamic range in CDs, too.
But I also get a chance to improve on the vinyl sound a lot, too. Used to be, when you were mastering a 45, as soon as you got close to four minutes, you would have to start sacrificing some of the sound, and the way you did that was by cutting the bass or compressing. Now, many of the guys that ran the cutting lathes were complete geniuses, too, and they knew just what to do with the EQ and compression to “fix” a lot of the crappy master tapes they were handed (which is why I still master from vinyl sometimes even if masters are available). But they all had to make compromises — and I’m always happy to “uncompromise” that material as I’m able.
What exactly was the DIY movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s?
Well, from the end of 1976 through most of 1977, punk had been such a huge success in the UK that (possibly for the first time in the history of the music business) virtually everyone that deserved to be stars actually got to be stars. There was lots of money being made, so it’s no surprise that all the top acts were signed to major labels or the major indies — and even the smallest indies were making money.
DIY came from a hodgepodge of folks that in one way or another missed out on 1977 punk. Some were simply too odd, too idiosyncratic for punk’s essential constraints, while others were too interested in playing their instruments the way they wanted to, or writing about things besides politics and rage, but, mostly, DIY sprang from a generation of kids who would have been in punk bands except they were still in school. Shouts of “Punk is dead!” were raised at the end of ’77, and while no one really had any confidence about that, they did start looking at punk in a new way, and for starters, it was obvious that punk rock in general had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the major labels and the mainstream music press.
In August 1977, the punks were still being snapped up by bigtime A&R reps, but the Desperate Bicycles’ first self-released record arrived with DIY’s rallying cry, It was easy, it was cheap: go and do it! — and this sent two clear messages.
To the older, disaffected non-punks (who’d spent the last year unable to interest anyone in their vision of music — or even find places to play) it was: “Hey, if you put out your own record you don’t have to fit into anyone else’s musical pigeonhole.” While to the students it meant: “Who cares if you’re not old enough to play in a pub — you can still make music and put out a record. Doesn’t matter if your hair’s wrong or you don’t have a leather jacket yet … or, even, if you haven’t actually learned to play your instruments yet.” The essential message was that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought — you are in control.
I want to digress for a moment, because there was also another really remarkable bit of sociology going on in the background. For centuries, gay men from “good backgrounds” grew up in England, endured their arranged marriages, and enjoyed a parallel and completely separate social life among “gentlemen”. Meanwhile there were always these extremely harsh social laws criminalizing any sort of homosexual activity, so there was a long history of double standards and looking the other way, and through all that time there were loads of great gay performers in the arts — except that they were always at the risk of being exposed.
Exposed as a homosexual — having their careers ruined — by promoters, by anyone doing business with you, anyone who had a grudge against you, by anyone who was privy to your private life and had involvement with your public life, as an artist, an author, a musician, movie star, whatever, and it didn’t appear to be getting any better.
Your average straight while male had no real impediments to becoming a rock star beyond talent and luck. But gay musicians didn’t really have it that easy. By the time Bowie and the glitter rock movement ended, you could become a half-in half-out cartoon, or, more likely, you could stay deeply closeted and live in mortal terror of being exposed and your whole recording career exploding in your face, which happened as late as George Michael.
Enter DIY. The whole idea was you could make music having decided a priori that you weren’t going to become a pop star. You didn’t have to care who listened to your music anymore. If you wanted to make music and get your songs out there and join this community that shared the recording information cheaply, then that’s what you did, simple as that.
So the result of all this was that the ranks of DIY bands had a hugely disproportionate share of young, gay musicians — because other musical career-paths were still closed. On the DIY scene, you didn’t need to be a star, you could live how you wanted, and you could write about what you wanted, instead of what the record companies wanted to hear, and you had the support of this thriving, underground music community, too.
Messthetics Greatest HISS: Introduction to DIY cassette scene 1979-84
25 tracks on the CD plus five bonus MP3s: 86 minutes of music.
24-page booklet, crammed with histories, photos, and an essay from Mick Sinclair.
The UK’s original cassette-scene hosted some of the most inept shambling in the history of recorded sound, but moments of musical (and lyrical) genius were far from uncommon. DIY’s “cassette culture” produced sounds of incredible freshness, directness, and even occasional sophistication … From hundreds of bedrooms filled with found and improvised percussion, Woolworths guitars, homemade electronics came over a thousand tapes, chiefly circulated through the mail, usually in editions of 100 or fewer. Featuring superstars of cassette culture like The Jelly Babies, Danny & the Dressmakers among others, The Greatest Hiss series samples the cassette-scene’s more melodic material (sorry, there’s no ambient or industrial, and everything’s under four minutes). This is DIY at its most liberated … [link]
Messthetics #206: The Manchester Musicians Collective 1977-82
21 songs, plus 7 bonus MP3s: 90 minutes of music.
24-page booklet, documented with histories, photos and artifacts.
Messthetics’ first visit to Manchester surveys the most successful and innovative of Britain’s postpunk musicians collectives. The MMC’s most famous spawn were obviously The Fall (who first played at a MMC meeting) and Joy Division (who loaned their P.A.), but the MMC’s emphasis on public performance and its egalitarian ethic of shared gear, expertise, and (frequently) band members affected and inspired them all — future stars and faintest sparks alike — to create a range and a richness of truly “alternative” sounds that remains without parallel … [link]
Messthetics #213: Dry Rib – Whose Last Trickle
“Dry Rib were a late ’70s three piece group of some indefinable power — not Powerful in the obvious sense, as in everyone slugging out the same riff … More the power of musical and lyrical imagination … Rob Vasey’s guitar style of blurred chord stylings coupled with continuous tremolo arm pre-empted My Bloody Valentine (or anyone else) by the best part of a decade… Rob was ably supported by two equally intelligent musicians – drummer Andrew Goodwin and guitarist Mike Mullholland, who could make a Fender Precision sound like Entwistle, Matlock or a distressed horsefly!” — Ed Ball of O Level (and later The Times and Teenage Film Stars) [link]
Messthetics #216: Performing Ferrets – no one told us
Twenty-eight songs from one of DIY’s iconic bands, including most of their astonishingly scarce LP, which music-historian, journalist, and DIY enthusiast Johan Kugelberg described as “the most seminal LP to come out of DIY … Fantastic over-enthusiastic juvenilia of an almost supernatural beauty.” Whether or not the name was ironic, the Performing Ferrets were very much a performing band — whose songs clearly grew out of the way they interacted. A curious rhythm, an engaging riff, an arresting lyrical snippet, and frequently a melodica tumble and writhe into groove experiments that stood unique on the indie post-punk scene. [link]
What lead to the downfall of DIY music in this era then?
Well, sticking with the gay musicians sub-plot, the thing that killed that end of DIY was the Hacienda Club scene and the success of this wave of dance music, when it became possible to be gay and fashionable. Record companies realized you could let people be out without being a cartoon, and they would work hard to make you loads of money.
To an extent, DIY had run its course already, but that was in many ways the final blow, where you lost this artificial, protected environment for the gay teenager making music. He suddenly had other places to explore with his music. And it wasn’t just the new dance music changing the face of the music biz — the commercial success and fashionability played a big part in instigating social change in the UK. Hardly a Stonewall moment, but vastly gentler and more effective.
What did DIY offer these bands?
A chance to get their music out with minimal compromise, interference — or expense, since in the early days — through most of 1979 at least — everything sold well. 500 copies would sell automatically, and with only the slightest support from John Peel or Rough Trade, sales of 1000 were commonplace. DIY also offered this social network, where, again, people could just be whoever they were, they corresponded madly, but mostly the scene as a whole was just a really rich, protective, supportive environment, as long as you could deal with the fact that no one was going to become a star this way.
For example, when the cassette bands were big, that whole scene all happened through the mail. There’s another whole layer peeled away from traditional constraints. Where suddenly you were mailing things back and forth, and some of these things were collaborators where someone would put some vocals and guitars on a tape, and send the tape across the country to have someone else add keyboards, and that ended up being very liberating.
What’s different about these bands?
The two vital lies of the record business were thrown out. Music had been about changing the world and becoming a star for years. But somehow, once people let go of being a star and making art, not only did the rest of the musical system work, but it opened up tons of possibilities. You didn’t have to create a backstory for your character anymore.
If you listen to the songs on Messthetics, they’re about the most mundane, local things. People were singing about what happened in their little town, as if it was the most important thing in the world, and the day when they were sitting there with their homemade guitar and the spoons they’re using for drumsticks, it was the most important thing in the world.
When punk rock came along, junk shops filled up almost instantly with old keyboards and anything that wasn’t guitar-based, and the stuff was cheap, too. If you didn’t want to follow in the musical footsteps of what was popular, you could use whatever instruments you wanted, you could make whatever sound you wanted. So DIY was filled with some really bad stuff, like flutes and violas, lots of keyboard that had fallen completely out of fashion.
But there was this incredible musical richness, not just with the sounds, but with talent and proficiency, too. Forget about playing gigs though. Remember, though, that you could always get into your recording session with your little DIY band and record whatever you wanted.
Is that diversity, that eclecticism what appeals to you about these bands then?
It does, yeah, but precisely because there was all that energy and all those musical sources that the bands were riffing on and expanding on, there came a point when a number of these bands moved outside the range of music that “fit” Messthetics’ style. A good case in points is Take It, who did two of my very favorite singles, but then got into small band swing jazz. It’s really good, but it’s nothing I could put on a compilation.
So my point I guess is that Messthetics can tend to paint a wrong picture – that DIY’s musical energy was moving inward towards some common music-making gestalt. In reality, though, it was always spreading off and moving outward, and the music was always becoming less similar rather than more alike.
True, some of what the Messthetics bands played I find amazing, but some of songs I find completely unlistenable. The thing that does unify their music for me is the lack of superego. Instead of worrying about social constraints, you just play.
For example, having a female in the band was problematic for many DIY bands. Because the straight guys started behaving differently. They were all worried about what she was going to think of them. And just that little layer of self-consciousness, that little layer of self-censorship was like rust, it was a cancer, and it ate away at everything that was vital about DIY.
Why were these bands recording? To participate in this free community?
W: I’m not entirely convinced there really is a reason. Almost instinctually, there’s this impulse to make music. But with the Desperate Bicycles single, and then Scritti Politti put out a pamphlet “How to Make a Record”, and people started sharing information on how to play and record cheaply. S0 mostly it was just because it suddenly seemed so cheap — and possible.
So how did the recording process work for them?
Some of the stuff was done on the crudest possible level. Maybe you used a small self-contained cassette deck with a built-in microphone, and you would practice with everyone standing at various distances until you got the balance about right, and then press record and shout into the microphone.
But there were also lots of hippies around, and again, because the standard in the music industry meant you had to have expensive gear, there were a lot of hippies that had some equipment, and all these two-track, four-track or even eight-track studios sprang up. Even in squats, these hippies could set up and knock down their studios easily. True, there was an incremental cost, but certainly nothing at all like what bands had to pay to get into a studio in the States.
And because folks were also recording onto cassettes you could test out countless takes until you were happy with the sound.
So what goes into producing your CDs?
Originally, it was just going through boxes of records in my collection and my mail-order stock, and making piles for the different genres.
The idea was to find as many of these bands as I could, and make it easy for other bands to find me, too. I wanted to make the stuff available, and to make the songs available in the best possible quality, which is another reason I don’t put it on vinyl, because records immediately start to degrade. It’s a very anti-collector mentality.
Back then, however, I didn’t have a network of contacts for these bands, but I did everything I could to find the bands. A good trick is calling the oldest music shop in town, because they almost always know somebody who knows somebody who knows the bands. Then since 2003, everyone’s been contacted in advance — it slows things down a lot, and it’s a lot more work, but obviously it’s a lot safer…
In your opinion, how has DIY music and its production influenced modern bands?
Not at all, slash, gratifyingly so. Today, there are these little networks of bands that actually enjoy my reissues and make music, too. It’s thrilling on the one hand, but it’s also deeply discouraging on the other. Because of course this should have been happening from the start.
But take the natural phenomenon of MySpace. Just the fact that you can post your music online and allow people to listen for free will all-by-itself produce sounds like Messthetics. When you’re not worrying about the major labels or booking gigs, you get to make this music. Messthetics is natural music in a sense. It’s music you make when you don’t overthink it. Whereas in the music industry, it’s all music that someone has been thinking about packaging, somehow…
I don’t think there’s a note of music on MySpace that wouldn’t have happened without the Messthetics bands. It did happen, it would have happened, it is happening, naturally, without anyone being even dimly aware of what happened in this musical backyard of mine. But some of these new bands do listen to my stuff, and they’re energized by the songs, which is incredibly gratifying.
Ten years ago, yeah, you would have had to buy my stuff to listen to bands like these, but right now, who needs Messthetics? You can find music that’s just as fresh on MySpace. I don’t mean, of course, that you don’t need Messthetics, but you don’t need any historical context to access and enjoy the profoundly authentic music that’s all over the Internet now. But I’m delighted when people do make the connection and realize something very much like MySpace was already happening 30 years ago.
Why reissue these obscure releases now?
W: Honestly, I do the reissues because I think it’s incredibly important music, and I love what I’m doing. Obviously, there’s some personal payoff when the bands get excited about getting their music out there again. The vast majority of them are sadder, older, wiser, and they’ve made peace with why they aren’t rock stars. They have the opportunity, then, to be genuinely pleased that there’s interest in what they did way back when, without the “where are my royalties?” mentality.
Lastly, what would you recommend the newcomer to Hyped to Death listen to first? Personally, I started with the Animals & Men CD.
To start? With Messthetics, the Greatest Hits CD was designed as a place for people to start, the one caveat being it runs a bit to the extra primitive side, so if you’re not feeling quite so adventurous, one of the London volumes (101 and 102) would sound good. For that matter, if your heart lay in punk, probably good to start with Messthetics 103. As far as the individual bands, certainly the most accessible is probably Animals & Men. I’m actually running short on their CD.
For Teenline, Teenline #101 or Teenline #108, or you can’t go wrong with The Shivvers. For Homework, I’ve been sending people to Homework #104 and 105.
Be warned though. There are definitely great bands like The Homosexuals who cannot do sonata format. As much as you love anything of theirs, you’d better love the next little snippet that comes along, because there’s just no musical attention span on their three-disc set. That’s what makes it in some measure brilliant, but it’s a challenge.
In a way, the Performing Ferrets are 180 degrees apart from The Homosexuals. Not that it’s totally song structured, either — it’s a parallel form of malfunction. What they are is a series of interesting grooves that move around much more like bebop than a conventional song. They’re just kind of winding around each other until the band gets tired of playing (which is gratifyingly soon, only two or three minutes for a song), but it’s going to require that a person isn’t straight and narrow with their chords and breaks.
Any final comments?
Look, the thing to know about Messthetics and everything on H2D is that I’m still a disc jockey at heart. Everything I put out is on some level a pop song. It might just be that the lyrics are pop, or conceptually it’s pop, but they’re all pop songs. I’m hoping that people will take a chance on my rather broad definition of pop…
Discover Steve Treatment, Digital Dinosaurs, Dry Rib, and Performing Ferrets, bands that recorded for fun and still intoxicate listeners with their incorruptible sound three decades later. Listen to their rebellious echoes that continue to inspire contemporary musicians and fuel the burning hearts of basement shows.