Work-rest-play-die: The Subhumans

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Franz Nicolay | July 13, 2009

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Call me punk 'cause I wear a leather jacket

Call me a hippie 'cause I believe in love and peace

Call me an idealist 'cause of songs like this one

You can call me what you like, I am all and none of these.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Subhumans are the most patched band in punk rock, which is to say, the world. It's one of the many flagrant ironies in punk that the most outspoken opponents of mindless consumerism, capitalism, and the like, are the most successfully branded. It's an identifying coloration, like the splash of orange on an oriole, advertising in snap summary an individual crust-punk's political loyalties, graphic design sensibility, and taste in obscurities. The discerning park-sitter, with rough-cut hair and one tatty dreadlock hanging over the forehead, creates a kind of family tree of cultural nihilism on their faded green vest and black cargo pants, working backward from American contemporaries like Kylesa, Tragedy, and Choking Victim; through Aus-Rotten, Nausea, and Totalitär; to a Thatcherite generation of British anarchist squatters with a line in gothic, communitarian nihilism: Crass, Discharge, Amebix, Zounds, Chumbawamba (if you have a sly streak); and especially, the red-white-and-black, fanged, screaming skull with alien eyes and an SM57 mic, the iconic logo of the Subhumans.

Not that they would openly condone that kind of thinking: “Relate the logo on the T-shirt/Now you're just a walking advert,” goes “This Is Not An Advert”, off a latter-day record. The five-year history of the first, classic phase of the band is a seething, spitting tangle of unresolved contradiction and resolutely anti-poetic complaint; the top-of-the-head rants of a sidewalk pamphleteer with an endless list of grievance but little in the way of solution. The lyrical fixations are paranoid and recurrent: cancer, nuclear war, zyklon-B, the dehumanising effects of work and money, the animal nature of humanity, the lobotomizing nature of television, the rot at the heart of modern society (and, for a chain-smoker, an awful lot of anti-smoking rhetoric). As an ex-bandmate of mine once said about Crass, “It's cool, if you like getting yelled at.”

A brief synopsis is in order. Formed in or around 1981 in or around southwestern England, the Subhumans were four; single names only please:

— Dick on vocals, a stringy meerkat in long-cut jean shorts, black Doc Martens, t-shirts with neck and arms cut off and hanging off the shoulder. Sweat-drenched, chain-smoking, one ratty dreadlock hanging over owlish glasses, hyperactive and compulsively verbal, an inverterate writer of uniquely-punctuated manifesti (collected in a near-impenetrable book, Write The Way Up).

— Bruce, guitar; bandana, baby face, cargo shorts, sleeveless T's, angular, atonal riffs and floridly flanged solos – only the Bad Brains, and occasionally East Bay Ray, got away with such Hendrixian guitar-heroics in ‘80s punk. Shares Billy Zoom's best-foot-forward stage stance.

— Phil on bass (after a few years of Grant), a solid, stolid bear of a man with a landing-strip goatee, in 1983. Both shared a taste for trebly, unbelievably busy basslines (there must have been something in the British water: see also early New Model Army).

— Trotsky, a cheerful, stout Buddha, friendly, unconcerned, and apparently unfazed by the demands of nightly hours of machine-gun drumming.

The band released a handful of 7″s (later packaged on CD as EP/LP) and the dystopian concept-ish full-length The Day The Country Died on Spiderleg Records, before christening their own Bluurg imprint for the remainder of their career. Southern, their distributor, is currently re-mastering and re-releasing their six “classic” records from the 1980-85 period: The Day The Country Died (1983), From The Cradle To The Grave (1983) Worlds Apart (1984), 29:29 Split Vision (1986), EP/LP (1986), and Time Flies/Rats (1990, but a compilation of the two EPs Time Flies But Aeroplanes Crash from 1983 and Rats from 1984). (Left out is the odds-and-sods compilation Unfinished Business, including the personal-favorite “Song No. 35”). The new packages include some extra art—flyers, poster-size versions of the cover art—but no archival material.

Stickers rather dubiously claim “Hear the albums as they were meant to be heard when they were originally recorded;” dubiously, because it's hard to argue that they were ever intended to be heard in any kind of higher fidelity. EP/LP, even in its new, re-mastered format, still sounds like an overloaded audiocassette: headlong tempos, buzzing guitars, manic bass lines, weirdly reverbed guitars (like old Cure records, a reedy reminder of the alien hollowness of early digital effects); nauseously see-sawing pans, like circling birds of prey. Dick is in mocking, whining, paranoid, sarcastic Johnny Rotten mode from the outset, hurling nursery-rhyme insults: “Parasites!” “Our society, what a drag…la da da da da da da.” Unlike his later stream-of-consciousness didactics, his complaints are more taunting, perversely triumphant cheers than nihilistic accusation (“There ain't no patriots no more/Who's gonna fight in the third world war?”); more catchy, unsubtle, rhyming sloganeering (“No, no, no, no, it's too shitty/I don't want to live in the big, big city”). Nor do the punks themselves escape his scorn, for mistaking fashion choices for subversive action:

Now she's out of trouble 'cause her hair is white

And the punks all think she's all right

But she is blind, her face is red

Peroxide soaked into her head

Peroxide! Peroxide!

Because nobody cares?

What do you do?

You dye your hair.

It speaks to an unresolved vulnerability in the Subhumans' philosophical stance: that their career can be summed up as an unrelenting “No,” rejecting even communalism, the old punk-rock solidarity-of-the-outcasts fallback. His negation is so comprehensive that more than once, Dick attacks from one angle, only to turn around and shoot back at the same corner. On Worlds Apart, the playground-taunt singsong of “Ex-Teenage Rebel” excommunicates the anarchist who decides to buy in (“So you gave up and settled down/What happened to you with your ideas?/What happened to all your hopes and fears?/Ex-teenage rebel– same old story”), then follows immediately with “Power Games”, about the self-righteousness and infighting of punks haranguing other punks, each convinced of the purity of their ideas:

Convinced they'd got it right, the rest were wrong

By deriding them to gain respect

They tied a noose around their neck….

The power games still exist

And one idea is right, the rest are wrong

While such ideas as this are here

We'll never live without the fear

Of feeling that we somehow don't belong.

So which is it? Dick's lyrics are resolutely prosaic, with little evidence of editing between notebook-scrawl and tape. You get the sense that the immediacy of his sentiments contains and embodies all the contradictions and counter-arguments with equal passion and conviction.

Take The Day The Country Died, a hallucinogenic mosaic of post-apocalyptic societal breakdown, with hints of nuclear war, 1984/Big Brother paranoia, and hints of popular uprising (“They shouldn't have brought back hanging/it caused a lot of fuss/no-one could trust the government/we had the fuckers sussed”). It's a nightmare of passivity (“Sit back and watch the death and decay”) soundtracked by hollowed-out guitars, a snare drum that sounds like a ripped tambourine, the tinkling of a broken piano, and a grim parody of the weird laugh from “Wipeout”. Empty winds blow and animals gibber into “Subvert City”, in which Dick ponders the circular fate of anarchist or revolutionary movements: Inevitably, naturally, they become the government themselves, and a new generation spraypainting slogans on the walls is out to get them (“There was no system left to change/the people ran the entire land/the subverts became politicians/and finally got the upper hand/meanwhile back in Subvert City/Someone's writing on the wall/”Fuck The Government”, spray-paint hero/But in Subvert City, it's subvert rule”). It's the aftermath of Ziggy Stardust's “Five Years” and “Suffragette City”, where the end of the world came and went, without the alien-saviour fantasy.

It's satirical nihilism, in which even punk rock can't help (“My Subs LP is still brand new/but what does it matter?”) or alleviate the hopeless boredom (“Man kills himself for something to do”). It's not, in the end, the fault of the government or “society”, but interpersonal relations and the breakdown of trust and fellow-feeling: “There's nothing I can do/I wouldn't do it for you/But then, you wouldn't do it for me/Well, that's the facts, you see.” People are scared of each other, not some shadowy oppressor:

Nobody says anything on buses

And that's why people kill themselves

The system wins again

And will carry on winning 'til god knows when

'Til people start to talk to each other

Everyone just like a brother

'Til the morals and fear that divides us all

Is [sic] no longer the excuse for the system's rule.

A cosmic joke, except that cosmic implies a greater scope than the sordid TV-glow of the Subhumans' dystopia. “Zyklon-B Movie” is a Misfits-esque horror film, complete with panning piss-take metal hammer-ons. Even party anthem “'Til The Pigs Come Around” (“This is the fun bit!”), like Black Flag's “TV Party” or “Six-Pack”, isn't that fun, and eventually escapism is no escape: “All the smoke-filled room contains is dejected people with no aims/A bottle of gin, a packet of cigs/Sing, brother, sing, we got no more gigs.” Finally: “Can you say it with just one word?” Sure they can! “Government: bullshit!”

From The Cradle To The Grave marked not only the first release on the band's own Bluurg label, but the beginning of both a superhuman (if you will) period of productivity and the beginning of a more ambitious musical and lyrical phase. The Subhumans claim as inspiration, in addition to obvious progenitors like Crass and the Damned, unexpected pre-punk progs like King Crimson and Frank Zappa; and it starts to show, not least in the almost seventeen-minute title track (and Bruce's helpless love for flanged and chorussed solos). Dick had always eschewed bridges, leaving the band to shove together atonal arpeggios, John-and-Exene open harmonies and rockabilly doublestops, Stooges-esque acoustic guitar overdubs, and experiments in cross-rhythms and permutations of syncopated riffs, like Worlds Apart's identically-titled instrumental bookends. (“Fade Away”, on Worlds Apart, also introduces what would become an increasingly central and influential part of the Subhumans' sound, the crust-anarcho-punk evergreen fascination with ska/reggae verses.)

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I'd suggest another reference: Captain Beefheart, who also had a fondness for ranting nursery rhymes over seemingly unrelated, angular riffs. There is a Stanford psychologist named Anne Fernald who believes, stemming from her work with infants, that there are at least four preverbal, universal melodies of speech, whose rhythm and contour mean the same thing across all languages and cultures: the rise-and-fall approval (“Good girrrlll!”); a stop or prohibition command (short, sharp, staccato); a pay-attention command (rising, high pitches: “Look!”), and the comforting, wavelike murmur we often think of as “baby-talk”. Speech is not just about something, she says, not just a medium for conveying meaning; it also is meaning, meaning is inherent, is included at no extra charge, in the details of its delivery. Just so, Dick’s “dah-da-dah-da-DAH” cadence rides, childishly simple, the stormy waves of his rhythm section, a familiar and easy-to-grasp handhold in unforgiving waters. I would also posit that there is a fifth universal melody, of particular relevance: the “NAH-nah-nah-nah-boo-boo” jeer, evoking, even if you don’t grasp the words, derision, contempt, and mockery.

Like Beefheart, too, the most ambitious records are not for entry-level listeners. The critical focus on the very opaqueTrout Mask Replica has, I bet, scared away hundreds Beefheart first-timers who could happily enjoy the more accessible Safe As Milk or Grow Fins. I would no more recommend Cradle over EP/LP as a Subhumans first-listen than I would Sandinista over London Calling, or Cast of Thousands over Crossing The Red Sea for Adverts virgins, but all those “difficult” records are the truer marker of the bands' ambitions.

Like Zappa, Dick's default lyrical mode is face-value anti-culture sarcasm; but there are two other increasingly apparent, related, and slightly mystical strains. The first is a fascination with fantastical, Kafka-esque transformation. The guitar-gothic nightmare “Wake Up Screaming” strikes themes of Ovidian, even alchemical metamorphosis: “I don't think I am what I was before”. “Us Fish Must Swim Together” is a swinging creation tale with a back-to-basics moral, in which “we are descended from fish” means literally that (“If we progress much further/We'll put our lives at risk/We're starting to destroy ourselves/With pollution, war, and greed/When food and sex and water/Is all we really need”). “Heads Of State” evokes a Lewis Carroll allegory, a strange vision of literally-replaceable “heads of state” that aren't “screwed on”.

In various crates in a paralyzed state

Are the heads for the mood of the day

There's one full of piety and one for anxiety

And one for when we're heading for war

And one for the masses and the privileged classes

And one that does nothing at all.

Second, there is a pervasive, almost celestial passivity and fatalism, a barely-conscious sense that both the evils and virtues of the world are pre-ordained, like each evolutionary step from fish to “subhuman” to modern civilization is equally tainted by a prehistoric, pre-creation original sin (unrelated to religion). “Our actions are all transient and fated,” he says in “Time Flies”. “You can never do as you please/Your body takes over and your mind don't care.” Body and spirit are objects that things happen to, not subjects that act: spectators, not actors, trapped in flesh and world. Consciousness is simply marking time. “It's the story of your life/And the end of it's your death/And every word that's in between/Is just a waste of breath.” Unlike punk based in inspiration and possibility, a lot of Dick's world exists in blackened past tense. “The revolution failed.” The country died. Failure is preordained. “We are the rebels like the rebels before us/Pre-destined to scream in and out of tune…we are all controlled.” Cradle's epic title track is a Sonic Youth-worthy pile-on of riffs, rhythmic change-ups, breakdowns; scripted scenarios of a life like a rollercoaster, dramatic but utterly predictable.

Unless you can react against the brainwash from the start

Your government will rule your mind and your mind will rule your heart

You'll conform to every social law and be the system's slave

From birth to school to work to death, from the cradle to the grave.

The only alternative to this irresistable force/immovable object duality in Dick's universe is indeed terminal impairment, of a kind: The song “Worlds Apart” (not actually on the album of that name; as indeed “Time Flies” isn't on its own eponymous record) offers a Sun Ra-esque alternate reality (though Sun Ra would never say “We're only human”) of a happily lobotomized, alcoholic return to the womb. Circular riffs lift Arkestra-like chants and rounds:

Ignorance and innocence go together

Peace and harmony, flowers and trees

Your peace of mind only comes in pints

There are other worlds apart from these.

EPILOGUE/AFTERLIFE

This is as appropriate a place as any to say, by way of full disclosure, that I'm acquainted with the band, though slightly. My former group, the World/Inferno Friendship Society, did three tours opening for the reunited Subhumans in the new century, in 2005 on the East Coast and in the Midwest along with the ubiquitous Leftöver Crack; in April 2006 on the West Coast with the Bay Area's Born/Dead; and once again in the Midwest, fall of 2007, with Aus-Rotten descendent Caustic Christ. On Inferno tour manager Greg Daly's instigation, singer Jack Terricloth and I on accordion (on at least one occasion in Chicago, late and far too drunk, which for not pointing out, I thank them profusely) joined them for the jig-cum-scene challenge “Work-Rest-Play-Die” (“Are you prepared to die for your beliefs or just to dye your hair?/The anarchist, the nihilist, but can you prove that you exist/To a population who insist you're just a bunch of fakes”); and I worked up (but never got around to performing with them) the cold piano riff “Susan”, an “Eleanor Rigby” for the dole generation.

And it bears pointing out that the contrast could not have been greater between the nihilistic, nothing-matters sensibility of the lyrics and the graciousness and inspiration of a relentless and restless band that had, under a variety of labels, been touring and recording pretty much continuously for over 25 years. Even the photos in the insert of 29:29 Split Vision show, not black-clad doom-mongers, but what could easily be a chipper '70s hard-rock outfit frolicking geekily in a field. For rock lifers, they showed a cheerful disregard for niceties like soundcheck and a communal loyalty to repeat tourmates like ourselves and Witch Hunt. Though the Subhumans name had been retired in 1985, Dick, Phil, & Trotsky, plus a sly multi-instrumentalist named Jasper and some others, cycled through a series of incestuous, increasingly poppy and ska-flavored projects culminating in the 1990 rollout of Citizen Fish. (Culture Shock, with Dick & Jasper, had been a kind of larval Citizen Fish between 1986-89). Citizen Fish is, in a sense, the great “Yes” to the Subhumans' “No”; whose “whoa-oh” singalongs and pop-ska trumpet hooks rightfully landed them on California pop-punk labels Lookout! and Fat Wreck (which made me wonder, briefly, what Fat Wreck label head Fat Mike thought about the B-side lyric “No thanks sonny/We've heard it all before/Turning punk into money/Doesn't work anymore”). It's a sound whose relative accessibility made it, arguably, even more influential than the Subhumans; not least on the New York City C-Squat collective of bands centered around Scott Sturgeon's Choking Victim and Leftöver Crack (with whom, full disclosure, I've also played and recorded). One assumes the musical difference was based in the power-chordier Phil on guitar instead of Bruce's craggy atonalities, but the lyrics are more forgiving, too: “Replacing conversation space with pleasantries that rhyme,” as Dick puts it in one song. There is less harangue; more snapshots and stories. “Sometimes something good/needs understating to be understood.” It's a fair statement, but one that would have been totally foreign to the Subhumans.

There it stood, more or less, for most of the next fifteen years (punctuated by The Clutton Brothers, a pseudonymous Jasper & Dick bedroom 4-track, keys/turntables/samples two-off, including the cheekily-named “Turned Out Nice Again”, and a Trotsky-curated all-star, or All-Starr, jam that went by The T4 Project). Intermittent reunions starting in the late '90s eventually led, despite Phil's relocation to Spain and Trotsky's to Germany, to a new Subhumans record, 2007's Internal Riot. Dick's voice had, by then, dropped from a Cockney whine to the gruff, stormpipe-brass baritone of a thousand cigarettes and another thousand shows; and the band expanded from the confines of a scratched 7″ or broken boombox to full digital stereo. There's a new fixation on anorexia and body-image-related suicide, plus the petty-annoyance toss-off “Mosquitoes” (“I hate mosquitoes and they hate me!”—see also, for daily-life lashouts, the road-rage B-side “Motorway Song” on Unfinished Business); but the larger themes remain more than relevant: “The war on terror, like the war on crime/Is a war against anyone, anytime.” The nine-minute thrashy epic “Never-Ending War Song” (a title, which, if you didn't like the song, could be read either way) nails the sophistry of the ascendant worldview: “It's a war against war against war against war/With words about words about words on the wall.” That year they toured west as the Subhumans, with Jasper selling merch; then did a musical-chairs act and returned as Citizen Fish, with Jasper on bass; playing to hundreds heading west and dozens heading east; dogged new chapters in lives devoted to faithful, hopeful defiance.

Give me a chance and I'll tell you what's wrong

Or give me a pen and I'll write another song

Everyday life, everyday life

Something somewhere, just ain't right.

Franz Nicolay is a keyboard player in the Hold Steady, a composer of songs based on famous graphic novels, and as evidenced in the past, a Friend with Benefits.

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