In 1981, Urgh! A Music War was released, and there hasn’t been anything quite like it since. Urgh!, a combination of footage from two live shows, one in the US and one in Europe, captures a particular cultural moment. Urgh! shows un-commented upon performances by “post-punk,” “new wave,” et al., bands at a point when underground experimentation, in style and in form, was starting to yield songs catchy enough to make it big in the charts. Urgh! has yet to see a proper DVD release for what one can only imagine is proof positive of the ineffectual and current copyright law. Inspired by Urgh!, in form if not partially in concept, comes a documentary from Los Angeles local music scenester Sean Carnage, 40 Bands 80 Minutes.
Unlike Urgh!, 40 Bands doesn’t really detail or embody a whole worldwide zeitgeist or pressing mainstream cultural moment. Instead it’s a documentary of a DIY underground that prides itself on eclecticism. 40 Bands is a like a scene report for LA’s current DIY underground music scene in all its heterogeneous glory. A crew of locals who regularly set up shows at Hollywood’s Il Corral threw together a massive fest to include as many local acts as possible, giving each band exactly two minutes to play (depending on how easy it was to actually cut off the chaos when the stopwatch hit 2:00.) Director Sean Carnage collected seven hours worth of video footage and distilled it down into 40 Bands, and an accompanying special feature of bands that didn’t quite make the final cut entitled “10 Bands in 20 Minutes”.
Maybe it’s the influx of experimentally minded musicians from CalArts, or maybe it’s LA’s historically varied punk scene, which gave birth to bands as disparate and pioneering as Black Flag and The Screamers, but 40 Bands depicts a lot of acts really trying to push conceptual boundaries. The DVD isn’t without its stylistic mainstays: the majority of the acts seem to focus around freeform experimental noise and Lightning Bolt-inspired aural assaults replete with weird time changes. But alongside unstructured performances by what are probably one-shot project bands (I’m thinking primarily about the band known as “I Rape Nick Lachey” here) there’s hiply ironic party punk, there’s electro, and there’s even acts that use their two minutes to reconceptualize performance-as-such. An act cryptically named /// spend their two minutes reading the newspaper with all the lights in the house on to a backdrop of ambient noise. Another performance features a guy who, in a startling one minute and 23 seconds, is able to construct and slice (!) a sandwich with his feet.
The disc opens with Captain Ahab, an act whose performance echoes, in spirit, the inside-jokey, stripped down dance punk of San Francisco’s DJ Shitbird, or maybe a less arena-ready Andrew WK. The two minute song finds the singer repeatedly posing the crowd a question, “Are you ready to rock the fuckin’ party?” then imploring them to “punch [themselves] in the crotch as hard as [they] can”. These two particular sweaty, shirtless, frenetic minutes set the stage for a depiction of the rest of the evening’s shenanigans. Faux For Real move the crowd with an attitudinal Le Trim/JJ Fad/Fannypack-inspired electro jam, “I’m Not Gay, But My Boyfriend Is”, that features the trio busting smokin’ hot choreographed dance moves. Laptop DJ Nosajthing performs an infectious two minutes of glitchy broken-beat hip hop that appears to get an unfairly lukewarm response. Explogasm impose a costumed circle-pit onto the audience, to the tune of a recording of a Bell Biv Devoe song played on fast forward. Gimmicky costumes and ironic mustaches abound, people do the “noise dance”, palms upward like they’re lifting something heavy, to a performance by Toxic Loincloth. The buxom Karen Centerfold is introduced as the apparent perennial lunatic about town, and she gives a sporadically lucid and filthy sermon on racism, the police state, and the downsides of a culture in which we are told that it’s wrong to stick our fingers and hands (zoinks!) into our vaginas.
Some performers recite poetry. Some play dissonant, screechy folk. Harrassor, the singer sporting a massive beard of hillbillyish proportions, delivers a dirge that’s a little stoner and a lot grindcore. Bacon Tears Up Business tears up, well, business, clad in a Neu! shirt, with only a drumkit, a trumpet, and some triggered sounds — apparently no one had heard of him before, and apparently he was also a member of West Coast third wave ska legends Skankin’ Pickle, making him at least the second member of Skankin’ Pickle to begin a subsequent career as a musical experimentalist (Jay Vance of Captured By Robots being the other.) Mitchell Brown of Gasp has everyone sitting down and exploring the world of minimal percussion. Did I mention a guy makes a sandwich with his feet? The guy un-wraps the cheese with his feet and everything. It really makes for a minute and 23 seconds of gripping cinema.
There’s a deeply personal feel to the entire DVD, bolstered by director Carnage’s commentary. Carnage, along with a few key L.A. scenesters involved in the show, gives some insight into the nuts and bolts of the show, where it fits in the context of the venue’s history, and he does so in the compelling voice of someone totally stoked on a wildly eclectic scene. His commentary is much better than the other commentary track, given by members of a few key bands in the L.A. scene, who sound at least a few bong rips deep and would probably help to strengthen the opinions of any haters out there who consider a love for inscrutable, free form noise as snide, self-indulgent hipster currency.
That aside though, 40 Bands definitely gives the impression that LA has something cool going on — it’s a fun account of a pretty exciting evening — probably a lot more fun if you were actually there, but the fact that the special features let you pick band names to watch performances helps 40 Bands act as an introduction to a whole lot of bands with a lot to recommend when they have more than two minutes to play. And one guy who can make a sandwich with his feet.