Staring Down the Developer

(unpublished, summer 2005)

From Greenpoint to Coney Island, Brooklyn is under siege by developers bent on erecting skyscrapers, arenas, and malls that will block our views, crowd our streets, and, most importantly, call themselves a culture of our own making. At such a time, when, in my own neighborhood, titanium threatens to replace brownstone, it becomes essential to recall the most forgotten or failed aspects of indigenous culture, which, in their obsolescence may be mined for clues on how Brooklynites might oppose the pseudo-progress of impostrous organic culture being imposed on us. So what forms does an authentic, local, and non-commercial culture take, in opposition to the ready-made, slick, big-box void that has become a synonym for “American culture”? Why, dumb rocknroll of course!

A new record—yes, a vinyl LP—has recently appeared, like manna from the dustbin, or more accurately, the dustbarrel. It’s called “Staring Down the Barrel,” and it’s a compilation of dumb, forgotten, bad, and hopelessly obscure punk records from 1978-1983, including two by Brooklyn bands, DUCKY BOYS and N.Y. RAVERS. For the past fifteen-plus years, record collectors from around the world have been putting out such compilations of punk records originally released between around 1977 and 1982. Like “Nuggets” for ‘60s pyschedelia, the gold standard for punk compilations is “Killed By Death” (KBD). There have been innumerable volumes as well as many offshoots of KBD, compiled by collectors from several countries. The motivations behind them range from benevolence (desire to share otherwise unobtainable music with a wide audience) to sheer spite (#7 is composed entirely of records on the wantlist of the compiler of #5 and #6, complete with his address on the back). In the age before MP3s, these compilations were the only way to hear bands like Jackie Shark and the Beach Butchers or The Absentees, whose records exist in quantities somewhat lower than the number of digits on a poppin-fresh newborn.

Indeed, “Staring Down the Barrel” is likely the last gasp of the vinyl memorialization of obscure punk rock. It’s the final offshoot of an offshoot. And, appropriately, it’s the first one to feature a band from Brooklyn since KBD #1 incongruously included the first EP by The Beastie Boys. The funny thing about these dumb, forgotten, bad records included on the comps is that even the really bad ones tend to be brilliant. In fact, the worse they are, the better they are. Because nearly every record worth knowing about (plus many not worth knowing about) has by now appeared on some compilation, what remains is truly the bottom of the barrel, so marginal and strange as to have slipped beneath the underground archivists’ radar. And it is in their marginality that we should revel.

In today’s world of stars imitating reality shows based on the lives of stars, there is something truly refreshing about four teenagers who couldn’t play their instruments, never had a deep thought in their lives, were too ugly to be popular at school, and, most importantly, didn’t give a sweet fuck about any of it because they just wanted to play nasty rocknroll. Unlike most rockstars, whom sane people should want to forget, it is these basement bands that, even after the release of a record, disappear into oblivion. Yet after a record is “comped,” its value tends to skyrocket because collectors suddenly learn about a great song previously unknown to them. The escalation in price makes the comp even more important for non-collectors who would never pay more than a few bucks for a record, but in this somewhat unfortunate fashion, bands that barely existed when they existed, get their minute of fame twenty-plus years later in bidding wars on eBay.

“Staring Down the Barrel” includes sixteen tracks, all by American bands. Many of the records included are punk only by default. After 1977, when the Sex Pistols’ antics made headlines around the world, many bands that might’ve otherwise continued to play amorphous ‘70s rocknroll became punk bands—the liner notes describe the first release by The Grackles as “inexplicable DIY jazz.” Additionally, the idea the Sex Pistols embodied, that a band requires little to no talent and a whole lot of aggressive anti-authoritarianism meant that bands comprising ne’er-do-wells with out-of-tune guitars sprung up around the world; by 1979, there had been punk bands in all fifty states as well as every Western European country (including Iceland and Portugal), Yugoslavia, Poland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and perhaps others. The myriad KBD-style comps include representative records from these countries, and thus, are miniature aural history lessons.

By way of example, on this comp, one punk-by-default band is The Principles, from 1980, who reveal a trope familiar to fans of obscure punk: unintentional hilarity, also known as “laughing at you, not with you.” This track, called “ USA 423”, is an anti-Communist anthem about the Olympic ice-hockey game in 1980. Usually the only thing less funny than anti-Communism is Communism, but Miami’s Principles managed to work in lines like, “So puck you Mother Russia / we knew that we could crush ya / Now beat it out of Afghanistan” and “A hammer and sickle don’t amount to but a trickle / from a pimple on your you-know-where.” All this over a punchy, lead-driven, singalong rocker that’d have even the most hardened Trotskyite chanting “ USA! USA!” in no time. I can’t really imagine the marketing demographic for a pro-US punk song about hockey, released in Southern Florida after the US had already won the freakin’ game. I have to assume that it was sheer love of rocknroll, hatred of Communism, and perhaps one or two errant pucks to the noggin that inspired the release of this record. Will there be a similar pro-Nets one-off 45 coming out by Brucie Rat and the Yard Developers? I’ll look for it in a 50¢ bin in twenty years.

Back to Brooklyn: Ducky Boys and N.Y. Ravers were not punk by default; though the 1982 release date for their 45s indicates another “Killed by Death” trope: TLFTT, or Too Late For The Trend. By 1982, punk rock, in its Stooges/NY Dolls/Ramones/Pistols/Clash evolution, was old news in most places in the world. Hardcore punk had taken over by then—music which grew out of the initial wave of punk rock but which tended to define itself in opposition to the aging and mellowing older punks by being meaner, less fashion-oriented, rawer, noisier, and faster. Often due to overt political radicalism, hardcore was even less viable commercially. These two Brooklyn bands, however, played like it was still 1978, as if Black Flag hadn’t yet already completed a US tour or two and The Clash hadn’t sold out.

The N.Y. Ravers are particularly mysterious. Their label name is Stark Raving Mod, and before baggy pants and ecstasy soiled the term, a “rave” or “rave-up” was a straight, direct, ‘60s blues-based rock song. Nevertheless, if the N.Y. Ravers thought they were channeling The Who or The Yardbirds, or even some late-‘70s British mod revivalists, they were sadly mistaken. They seem to be attempting melodic, poppy punk one would expect from the mod revival, which some New York bands of the era actually pulled off with suitable panache, but the Ravers are too lo-fi for poppy punk. Though no one could’ve predicted it then, lo-fi, primitive, or just bizarre recordings, usually the product of ineptitude and poverty, are today what the aficianadoisie seek in rare punk records. There’s much more personality, uniqueness, and honesty in a bad recording than a good (professional) one. Unfortunately for our local friends, the N.Y. Ravers’ recording isn’t cruddy enough to stand out. Additionally, whereas mod-revival bands centered around their singers, who, unlike punk singers, had to know how to carry a tune, the Ravers’ singer just plain sucks. Out of tune throughout, his fake British accent makes the songs particularly endearing to me but I can imagine other Brooklynites cringing. Supposedly, the band played the NYC club circuit, but no one seemed to care, probably because their tunes did the unthinkable in the parochial downtown music scene: they mixed British and N.Y. punk styles, the equivalent of the legendary football matches between deserters in No Man’s Land during the first World War.

Picking up a KBD-style compilation can be like watching The Antiques Roadshow. It can shed new light on the moldy old records you had flipped past a hundred times in the local shop, or, even better, you might find out that someone from Hell, Norway, unlike your neighbors, shares your appreciation for, say, The Shitdogs “History of Cheese” EP. When I acquired “Staring Down the Barrel,” the name N.Y. Ravers rang a bell. Indeed, the band had appeared on a cassette sampler of international hardcore released by Britain’s tiny Xcentric Noise Records and Tapes in 1983 or so. I had listened to two of their songs several times on this tape, called “Raw War,” but I’d always assumed that they were a “pisstake” of American punk because of what seemed like a Brit attempting to fake a New York accent. With “Staring Down the Barrel,” I now know it was the inverse. What’s really weird is that considering the tape’s context, a song titled “Violence Due to Environment,” and the poor recording, it seems like N.Y. Ravers could’ve been part of the movement known as Oi!—the gritty wave of ‘80s UK punk characterized by shaven heads, steeltoe Doc Martens, football hooliganism, and working-class pride. Too bad the 45 was so rare because I reckon the punters and yobs otherwise might’ve been able to get down and get with it.

Whereas “I Really Don’t Think So,” by N.Y. Ravers is most interesting as a historical anomaly, “Hooked on Junk” by Ducky Boys is, in my opinion, the reason to pick up “Staring Down the Barrel.” Hell, it’s a reason to become a record collector and seek out the original vinyl. The song’s a raucous ripper, with echoey yelps and shreiks galore, feedback and noise atop a driving thug-punk bass-and-guitar duel. Boring junky rock it ain’t. In fact, the musicianship is so outstanding, it’s clear the DBs played this style of music because they loved it, not because they could learn only three chords. “Whooh, Yeah Yeah, Owww. . . I’m hooked on junk baby. . . Yeah Yeah” etc.

On the sleeve of the original Ducky Boys single, there are two band photos, of two slightly different line-ups. I should note that the band name doesn’t appear on the front of the sleeve, which endearingly illuminates their marketing savvy. In each photo, the band attempts to look menacing, posing with knives, grenades, and guns, bullet-belt bracelets, combat boots and camo, and another rather large, um, weapon in the singer’s pants. What comes across, however, is that unintentional hilarity I was talking about earlier. That said, when Ducky Boys and their crew were hanging out on their Butler Street stoop, most passers-by probably crossed to the other side.

Nevertheless, both photos show what I would consider the band’s quintessential Brooklyn-ness: men and women of at least three ethnicities made up the band. Beefy lead singer Broadway Turk Superstar told me that the explanation for the heterogeneity of the band was that the local white kids were mostly into classic rock or disco. To me, this explanation conflicts with the conventional wisdom that punk rock’s anti-disco vitriol was veiled racism, because disco was predominantly black and Latino (as well as queer). That’s a subject for another essay, but I should note that these conventional wisdoms are often the result of a focus on a narrow aspect of history. Had the historians talked to the bands on the margins, which were often composed of the minorities supposedly hated by the entire genre, the story told today would be different. Still, while Turk told me the DBs had female friends who sometimes played in the band, as opposed to the usual rocknroll fantasy of women partaking in only backstage shenanigans, I wouldn’t exactly call the band progressive, because their lyrics reveal typical teen-age rock obsessions with sex, drugs, and violence. What they did right, however, was to take these obsessions to an extreme, combine them with brilliant, over-the-top, needle-in-the-red rocknroll, and a hilarious picture sleeve for the cherished complete package.

Originally called Spoiler, Ducky Boys began around 1979 with their moniker stolen from a street gang in the cult film The Wanderers. The founding member, a teen guitar prodigy, hired Turk because he sought a wild, macho frontman like Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators. Listening to the tuneage, it’s clear The Dictators were a big influence on the band, but, in my opinion, the DBs far surpassed their Bronx elders. In addition to “Hooked on Junk,” their record includes two other songs: “Mercenary,” a frenetic anthem to match Turk’s home-made, iron-on “I.R.A.” tee-shirt, and “A Little Lovin’ Tonight,” a please-please-please-sleep-with-me ballad with the chorus, “I’ll be your ducky boy baby, believe me.” Indeed! Incidentally, for almost thirty years, Turk was also the Butler Street Wrestling Club (BSWC) Hardcore Wrestling Champion. Reflecting on a gig at which one-time drummer Eddie Havoc nearly ruined the day by egotistically harassing the other band members, Turk told me, “I should’ve given him a piledriver.”

If anyone quoted in the punk-history books had a memory of Ducky Boys, it’d probably be that they were the band that allegedly tried to torch CBGBs. Turk remembers it differently: “The arson allegation was a set-up. We played in front of a packed house at CBGBs and got rave reviews. There was going to be an obvious conflict between us and the Dead Boys, the house band. We were better musically, physically tougher, and had a better show. They made up the arson thing to blackball us. We came back with a new drummer under the name Scandals and they still wouldn’t let us in. Typical of the club politics of the time. Hindsight being 20/20, I should’ve gone back with a few grams of coke and bought everyone off.” Today, with tears shed over the imminent loss of CBGB, I am compelled to tell the DBs’ story. While the venerable Bowery club was indeed the site of much music history, the story sold today is revisionist, as it excludes the scenesterism that sabotaged the quest for new talent CBGB supposedly supported. Today CBGB is little more than a disembodied brand name, a tee-shirt for tourists, at best tangential to the underground. The DBs realized early on that the scene at CBGB had become a country club for heroin-addicted rockstars (slightly more exciting than what it is today). In response, they stayed in Brooklyn and built their own scene, playing Cobble Hill block parties and putting on shows like the annual “Ducky Boy Dance.”

This is the real lesson of these forgotten Brooklyn bands: it’s more fun to make your own party when they stop you at the door to theirs. In the end, doing it yourself is the only way to assure you won’t have to make compromises, even if it means a rough sound, infighting among band members, or even landing in the dustbin of history. The tough wildness of Ducky Boys is a Brooklyn folk culture, a volatile one, on the margins of a margin, which could never be commodified for Marty Markowitz’s campaign literature. Once upon a time, CBGB itself was a bulwark against creeping corporatization, but a stroll down the Bowery today will reveal its success. Many parts of Brooklyn face a similar “revitalization,” and its opponents—the natives—are floundering to craft an alternative. The answer, fellow Brooklynites, is to embrace what is uniquely ours, not so we can attempt to relive the past, but so we can learn its lessons: don’t attempt to compete with the mainstream; embrace the margins and throw popularity to the dogs. And, hey, maybe Bruce Ratner will invite CBGB to relocate to the Atlantic Yards, where Frank Gehry will ensure it looks like a Los Angeles-versus-Bilbao battle of the bands. Which Brooklyn band will receive the first arson allegation? Does titanium burn?

“Staring Down the Barrel” is available from www.undergroundmedicine.com.

© 2017 Stuart Schrader