The Manhattan club is dim and divey, an earnest tribute to the storied punk clubs of the Empire State: Max’s, CB’s, ABC. It’s awash in muted shadows, boasts a small stage, once hosted salsa-dancing nights and is accessible only through a small, subterranean entrance. It’s warm, too.
Show-goers, a day-glo collection of riff raff in spiky haircuts and other shiny vestiges of punk regalia, jostle and skank to the jerky street beat of local bullet-belted loudmouths Never Say Never. It’s that frantic, urgent kind of punk sound that may have filtered into consciousness by years of listening to any measured combination of japcore flexis, Battalion of Saints and Broken Bones. Frenetic, explosive, floating in that weird punk-metal purgatory, guided only by the pungent squall of boozy barbarism. The fast songs rip, while the slower ones trundle a bit. The punks like it, and they should. It works. They have a song called “Beaverbong.”
M.D.C.’s set begins promptly. The punks stomp around the floor as Dave Dictor flits between ribald tales of smuggling drugs into his high school and dictatorial conspiracy theories. His banter matches that of his lyrics. Little discernible melody, but a captivating, corybantic warble that sets you into a mild panic when you hear it. A good politico-punk quality. He removes his shirt and paces the stage while he sings, his tattoo-pocked flesh undulating with each step. “NO WAR, NO KKK, NO FASCIST USA.” a few punks grab the proverbial torch and chant along. The hits come steady at this point. “Business on Parade,” “John Wayne Was a Nazi” and “Dead Cops.” Only they sound a little more aged, a little softer on the edges than the ones on record. I think about the first time I heard “Chicken Squawk” in college. How I thought it was a throwaway cut, akin to a Sesame Street song about barnyard living (I know, it’s an indictment of factory farming, but you can’t expect me to take a song whose chorus is composed entirely of simulated chicken sounds seriously, do you?). As if mining my personal thoughts, Dictor begins flapping his wings, and kicking his feet (think Gob Bluth’s chicken dance) and the psuedo-country slam jamboree of the song swells around him. I’m not sure what to think. I stand by it being a silly song, but given the enthusiastic animal dancing, and the fact that it got the biggest pit reaction out of their set, I have to at least commend the commitment to it. I’m also not opposed to a tempeh sandwich on occasion.
The trickle of punks wafts back from the dance floor and into the recesses of the club, and I look for a place to sit. Even however many years it’s been since some zitty brit-born nastee went all ape-shit on Bill Grundy’s news program, the visual of punks in large numbers still impresses me. A mottled throng of chains, glue, studs and safety pins, spiky and fluorescent. The malted scent of perspiration and leather hangs on everything. I became all the more aware of my Ralph Lauren shave balm and J. Crew socks. I’m fine. The “nine-to-five” world gets me, brother … and I’m ok with that.
The Casualties connect with the crowd immediately, and the empty stage front fills with grimacing mugs. Show-goers bounce and pogo and grab for the mic and sometimes bash into each other. The reaction is huge. Jorge Herrera shouts out SLC punk bands Endless Struggle and Skint. His hair isn’t up in liberty spikes, but down in front of his eyes like red straw. I hear “Fight for Your Life” and “Ugly Bastard” and the reaction is still huge. They clamber over each other to sing along. To leave a mark. It’s lively, it’s fun. It’s a genuine representation of street punk. Even these jaded fingers can admit it in print. I’m not much about music politics, really. Bands do what they do. Sometimes we like it and sometimes we don’t, but we can always enjoy the recordings.
That’s where my mind goes when the stage empties of Casualties gear. An SLC Pyrate Punx banner flanks the entire set-up and I’m reminded of exactly why I’m here. Earlier this year, these guys prevented a Negative Approach show from going into the shitter, and it resulted in the best gig (in my journo-scumbag opinion) that the Shred Shed has ever seen. So, the Pyrate Punx have brought N.A. here twice now, and that alone should get the tip of your cap.
Negative Approach needs no real explanation, but I’ll posit one quickly: Hardcore has a group of undisputed elites. I’ve never met anyone with an entry-level foundational knowledge of punk and hardcore who doesn’t appreciate this band. Punk, skin, core-man or corporate lackey. We all see the simple solution to our stupid waking-world problems in the 10 relentless cuts which comprise their 1982 Touch and Go EP. We recognize Tied Down’s importance as a flawless full-length, in a genre that only sports a handful of these. We acknowledge that, in the pantheon of hardcore, N.A. will always have a hallowed space. I acknowledge that I’m getting a little too Wayne’s World at this point. I’m fine.
John Brannon never smiles. At least not when he’s on that stage. Their set begins without any grand announcement, just a stick count. “Can’t Tell No One.” “Pressure.” “Why Be Something That You’re Not.” There’s just not a bad one in the bunch. I mosh because I’m an idiot, and can’t envision an existence where these songs don’t trigger a response to break something. It’s fine. The songs are short, the reaction is brief. “Tied Down.” “Nothing.” John Brannon’s lip is bleeding, Harold Richardson is wailing away that wiry solo on “Lead Song.” Some idiot is screaming out for a Suicidal Tendencies (what?) cover. These songs are quick, borderline psychotic snaps of furor. Perfectly crafted by some mystic core entity into some divinely inspired audiovisual ratio of power and speed. No frills, no whistles. The calcified gristle of rock n’ roll’s fattened carcass, the parts that stay behind when the glistening flesh has long rotted away. “Ready to Fight.” “Borstal Breakout.” Brannon hands out another microphone to the crowd. The Sham 69 standard elicits gang shouting, with punx and normals trading off their chance to scream a line or two. It’s the perfect set list. No banter. Nothing chintzy. Just rippers. “Negative Approach.” “Sick of Talk.” “Whatever I Do.” Then it’s over. Brannon places the mic back onto the stand. Ron Sakowski cops a sip off a Budweiser.
The crowd chants for more. There are no more. “That’s all we know!” The band, sweaty and battered, saunters off the stage. The persistent punx finally begin filtering out when the amps come down. I hike back up the stairs, back up to street level, tired but feeling light. Free. Abuzz. It’s the kind of music that leaves no room for speculation that simply happens when three instruments, a growl and a singular fixation on one negative idea collide for a minute. Pure and simple, raw and without excess. I’m a better, more enlightened person for having seen it live. Again.
John Brannon’s Twitter can be found at @RealJohnBrannon. I suggest you follow it because it’s one of the best Twitter accounts in the history of ’80s hardcore guys getting on social media.