Punk Rock Lives
While I've always written the spirits blog as a means to communicate with customers and keep people up to speed with the happenings in our booze department, the D2D interviews and the celebrity outreach was purely a selfish endeavour. Sure, it's great marketing to show famous people visiting your store and drinking products that you helped them pick out, but it was always just an excuse to reach out and interact with my heroes in some way. The punk project we did with St. George and Frontier Records grew out of that same outreach, but there was also some unfamiliar ground for me. I was a big fan of Suicidal Tendencies and the movie Repo Man as a kid, so I knew about Frontier Records, but it wasn't until I started hanging out with Lisa Fancher and Julie Masi (the ladies who run the label) that I really started listening to the Adolescents, Christian Death, and other Rikk Agnew influenced music. In my heart, I have always been a post-punk person. It's by far my favorite genre of rock music. I sat in my bedroom as a child in the eighties listening to cassette tapes by the Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus (hence my love for David J—the first guy to do the D2D interview series), Devo (hence the Gerald Casale interview), and Echo and the Bunnymen. Real, gritty, scenester-style punk rock was never my thing.
Of course, to call a genre of music "post-punk" is to say that punk rock ended and something new came afterward. The Sex Pistols fell apart, Sid Vicious overdosed, and Vivian Westwood went on to become a couture fashion designer, so rock and roll moved on to new adventures. Be careful saying that to a true punk rock fan, however. Punk rock didn't end in the seventies for many people. It began again in the eighties. These folks will scream at you until they're hoarse about the merit of the Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy, and—of course—the Adolescents. Folks who came of age in the nineties like me will tirelessly defend the honor of Pennywise, Green Day, and NOFX—all decent bands in their own right, but none of which ever did it for me. Be it punk, post-punk, or rock and roll in general, music from experience is always the most moving for me. I'm an eighties junkie by nature, and when it comes to my iPod playlist I'm pretty much stuck in that decade by choice. Up until last year, I thought I had pretty much heard every single meaningful style of music the eighties had to offer. That's when Julie Masi sent me the Christian Death "Only Theater of Pain" album in the mail and my whole world changed. How had I missed this? It was everything great about goth, shock rock, and punk all rolled into one, with an artsy undertone and somewhat seedy core. It was unbridled and raw, yet melodic and almost genius in its instrumentation. It was captivating and overwhelming. It sounded so familiar, yet I was hearing it for the first time. It was the rock album I'd been waiting my whole life for. I became obsessed.
In that box of Frontier Records goodies was also a copy of the Adolescents "blue album," a record that began to grow on me over time despite my lack of serious passion for punk. What the Adolescents and Christian Death records have in common is serious songwriting. Like a great bottle of whisky, you may not like it, but that doesn't mean it isn't well made. The more I played the "blue album," the more I started to recognize that quality. The link between both bands and the high quality of songsmanship is Rikk Agnew, a man who's been called "the Brian Wilson of punk." Agnew started off in the band Social Distortion (another legendary group) before joining the Adolescents in 1980 and handling most of the songwriting for the "blue album," which was released in 1981. Agnew left the group after the record was released and quickly joined Christian Death after watching them perform at a SoCal venue. He played guitar and wrote most of the songs on "Only Theater of Pain," as well, the band's debut record that came out a year later in 1982, marking two seriously groundbreaking albums written by Agnew in a short span—both completely different in style. Thanks to my relationship with Frontier, I was finally discovering these albums more than thirty years after their time. I won't say that my interaction and relationship with Frontier Records made me any more a fan of punk rock, but it definitely made me a fan of Rikk's. The man was clearly capable of creating a wide spectrum of sounds.
Flash forward to July of 2016. I got an email completely out of the blue from Rikk Agnew about our special Faultline releases—an homage to his inspiring work. He was now sober and not necessarily interested in drinking a boutique bottle of gin or absinthe; however—seeing that he was the main guy in both bands—he still wanted to put a bottle of each on his mantle (along with the records, of course). Would I be willing to get him a bottle of each? Absolutely. I put an order on hold in the Hollywood store, he came by to grab them, and we took a quick photo of him (above) to mark the occasion. Since then I've kept in touch with Rikk via email, more so as of late because of his new record release. Today, October 14th, Rikk Agnew is releasing his latest record, an album called "Learn"—the newest addition to the Frontier catalog. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy a few weeks back. I have not stopped listening to it since. It's so good. It instantly drew me in the same way that those Christian Death and Adolescents records did when I received them over a year ago. There's something inherently wonderful about Rikk Agnew's music, which has won him his place in punk rock history. What's amazing to me, however, is that in a genre where most people burn out (or die) in their twenties, Rikk might have saved his best work for his fifties. "Learn" isn't just a statement about Rikk's history of hard living, it's one of the best new rock and roll albums I've heard in years.
Before I ever wrote a word about wine or spirits, I wrote music reviews for an indy newspaper in Southern California while attending USCD. I'm a bit out of practice, but here goes: "Learn" is an album rooted in punk rock origins, yet completely unrestricted by those limited architectural designs. I think that's why I love it so much. It starts out with a track called "I Can't Change the World," which opens with an acapella anthem of the chorus. It's that same punk texture of harmonies that moves the album forward, all the way until the final track, "Deprogrammer"—potentially the record's best song. Personally, I don't consider background vocals and harmonies to be one of punk rock's stronger suits. If you can even stay on tune as a singer, you've got a leg up on a number of other bands. The Rikk Agnew Band can not only sing, they can orchestrate. When punk rock bands orchestrate, they expand their horizons greatly. Listen to a Red Hot Chili Peppers album before John Frusciante, and then after. There's a HUGE difference. Background vocals and harmonies add so much more depth to punk rock and, in the case of "Learn," they're a major part of the record's infrastructure. Not every song is as deeply structured, but there's a nice variety of styles. "Ripped to the Tits" and "Nelson's Blood," for example, are two incredibly catchy tunes you'll be singing all day after listening to them (and rum fans will enjoy the reference there). They're beyond a mere punk classification. They're just good songs.
Agnew's Adolescent roots really come out on "Think Ov The Children," with the escalating guitar chords moving up the fretboard in classic Agnew style. The song plays like an updated version of the band, which should greatly please longtime fans. "Bash!" gives you a good old punk rock screamfest with some quasi-humorous lyrics and a clever usage of the old children's rhyme: sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. There's always an element of humor at play on "Learn," despite Agnew's rather serious attempt to atone for his past indulgences. While the subject matter is heavy, the message never is. It's the difference between being preachy and being experienced. In this case, it's the experience that gives Agnew the edge. The guy simply knows how to write punk songs because he's been doing it for so long. He's telling himself to learn from previous mistakes, yet it's pretty clear what else he's learned over the years: how to add nuance, depth, and richness into his rock and roll layers. The songs have texture and complexity (see, this is just like reviewing whisky!). Then there's "Catfight," a song I've listened to about a hundred times already. Gitane Demone blisters through the vocals here. I'm imagining a biker bar with bottles flying through the air and tables being overturned amidst the chaos. I love it.
I have to imagine other fans of Agnew will love the record, too. As I mentioned above, I'm a relative newcomer here. But I'm far from a newcomer to rock music. I like to think I'm as well-versed in the genre as anyone. As someone who continues to follow the music scene, I've repeatedly watched musicians with former pedigrees attempt the great comeback, hoping to rekindle just a bit of the old magic. As a fan, I end up going to these shows, dreading the idea of them "playing the new stuff." Just stick to the hits, please! Most people want nostalgia from their nostalgia acts. In the case of Agnew, there's no difference between new and old. If twenty year olds could write records this good today, I'd probably go to more shows. "Learn" combines many of his strengths from both the punk and death rock genres, along with a number of other stylistic tricks he's picked up since then. There's a thirty-four year gap between "Only Theater of Pain" and "Learn," but you'd never know it. Punk rock is alive and well in the veins of Rikk Agnew. It's like riding a bike for him. He's fallen off here and there, but he's never forgotten how to ride. Plus, he rides better when he's sober.
"Learn" is available today from Frontier Records. You can download a copy here, as well as order the vinyl if you like. I can't recommend it highly enough.