Behind the farce/facade known as "official rock history" there's the groundbreakers and nay-sayers that are far too often swept under the carpet. Over the last decade this has become much less so. Look in your music encyclopedias coming out these days and you'll see entries and glowing praise for everyone from the Red Crayola to the Godz to Black Flag to Mission of Burma; browse through your record racks and you'll see Von Lmo and Debris reissues, and tribute albums to Skip Spence, D. Boon and the Silver Apples. Miracle of miracles, there's even a goddamn 7-CD box set for Funhouse. Ten years ago, such events were near unimaginable.
Nevertheless, there's always more to discover. More than that, sometimes the best bands have been under your nose the whole time, and you never even took the time to listen. The bands I'm about to write about have been under my nose for many a year and been regular spinners on my turntable for just as long, so I guess it's time for my fingers to finally do the talking. Why? For the same reason that anyone who's really into the music has to do it: to get it out of the way. I'm talking about the secretive, unique world of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, music scene of the 1980's.
You may think that for someone from Melbourne, Australia, to write such an article would be sublime, and maybe you'd be right, but for myself the Milwaukee scene of that period, and its four main protagonists - Die Kreuzen, Boy Dirt Car, Vocokesh and F/i - created their own little soundworld that still holds a fascination with me in the same way as, say, LA ca. '77-'84 or Berlin '68-'74 does. Like any other close-knit community of musicians, the four bands in question often shared members and gigs, toured together and did the odd split LP. There's a million similar stories and most of them probably aren't all that interesting to anyone outside of those involved, but the one-of-a-kind sounds created by Die Kreuzen (DK), Boy Dirt Car (BDC) Vocokesh and F/i (err... F/i) are something I'd like to tell you about.
Milwaukee is situated North-West of Chicago - a few hours drive, I've heard - and is renowned mostly for its beer, snow and Happy Days. Having never been there, I won't make any more such judgments or assumptions. Like many other cities in the US and across the globe, it experienced a punk rock boon in the late '70's that slowly evolved into the hardcore phenomenon of '81/'82. Also, more to the point, like many other cities, by around 1984 things started to change once again. The raging fire of the original hardcore explosion slowly turned to cinders, though in its wake evolved something just as new and exciting. The "post-hardcore" sound comes in a million varieties, though Milwaukee, being semi-isolated that it is (which, considering how close it is to Chicago, I guess it isn't, but let me foster some romantic notions here), birthed a "style" that still sounds a million miles removed from the respective rackets being made in any major cities across the US of A at the time (Wire-y Anglo-punk outta Chi-town; Velvets-y art-noise outta NYC; SST-styled hippie jazz-punk outta L.A., etc.).
When I interviewed Richard Franecki (ex-F/i, now in Vocokesh) many a year back about "the Milwaukee sound" for some piddly toilet-paper zine I was producing at the time, he responded that somehow a group of misfits from the local punk scene, who all shared a common interest in plundering a weird kind of mix of hardcore punk, psychedelia, krautrock and industrial music managed to find each other and the rest is history. I think that's as good a way to start getting into the meat of this article as just about any, hunh?
The most "famous" of the bands in question is Die Kreuzen, whom I guess got that way mainly due to their long-running deal with Touch & Go in the '80's 'til their dissolution in '92, as well as their original popularity in the hardcore scene and their willingness to tour (something other Milwaukee acts liked to avoid). Not to downgrade their efforts, however, as their first three albums are still high on my non-existent list as some of the best albums of that decade, so let's get to the meat 'n' bones of the matter.
Some sort of "official" history of the band is scant, and believe me, I've tried. You'll find scraps, interviews and occasional half-arsed "career rundowns" of DK, but as for the real thing, the why's, who's, what's and where's, you'll have to piece it together yourself. I've got a smattering of interviews with them from ancient hardcore fanzines, but that's about it. Anyhow, starting out in '81 with the same four-piece line-up that'd be with 'em til the end (that's Dan Kubinski on vocals; Keith Brammer on bass; Brian Egeness on guitar; and Eric Tunison on drums), and spurred on by the usual suspects that lit a million flames in their wake (Black Flag, Germs, Minor Threat, etc.), the band was big news in their home town and released their own 7" EP in '82 called Cows and Beer. Somewhat similar to the early efforts of other mid-western hombres such as the Necros and Negative Approach (two other seminal, early Touch & Go bands), they managed to create an awesome din of howling, punked-up thrash that whilst giving off an aura as American as apple pie, corn fields and kicking preppie ass in the pit, also borrowed a touch from the UK school of three-chords-and-you're-out maelstrom pioneered by Discharge and their minions. In other words, it kicked booty.Touring round the States at the time, playing with everyone from the Exploited (whom they rightly loathed) to the Flesheaters, they made it back in time in '84 to record their debut LP with Corey Rusk, he being the owner of Touch & Go and one-time Milwaukee resident and Necro. Boasting the awesome cover-art of buddy Richard Kohl, who would subsequently do all their artwork, their self-titled debut long-player is a classic of the original hardcore era (which I guess died in 1984, so they just made it). Fast as heck, and just blistering with that Angry Young Man fist-in-the-air energy that can only be borne from bored-shitless suburban teens, it's a righteous poke in the eye that unfortunately tends to only beckon the odd footnote in the official rock books to this day. I mean, just cop those song titles!: "On the Street," "Fuckups," "In School," "Get 'Em," "Hate Me," "Enemies," "Sick People," and the list goes on! Musically, comparisons don't really come easy. There's elements of US and UK hardcore, for sure, but the howling vocals border on the "industrial" (don't ask me how, just take my word for it) and the chunky, Birthday Party-ish bass lines foreshadow the sound both Steve Albini (an early fan of the group) and Touch & Go would run into the proverbial toilet over the next decade and a half.
Following up was the 1985 sophomore effort, October File, once again recorded by a Mr. Corey Rusk. This is where the radical departure in direction came about, alienating many of the older fans, but unlike many other "radical changes in direction" from rock's past, actually winning them many newer fans, to boot. Let me think of a way of describing this disc without making it sound like a piece of shit, for that it certainly isn't. If I was to say it was bordering on some kind of metallic post-punk with, dare I say, "gothic" flushes, would your stomach churn? Well, like most of their discs, it's hard to put a finger on it. My layman's summation usually results in saying that it's like a bizarre concoction of Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Joy Division and the Birthday Party, so I'll stick to that. Kubinski's throat-lozenge scream from the debut has been replaced with a more Ozzy-like wail, and the pumping 2-minute blaze of the music has been replaced with a more mid-tempo "rock" sound that's part art-rock and part metallic crunch. A strange combination, but the overall effect is superb, and unlike all that lame "crossover" garbage that littered the hardcore scene in the mid to late '80s, Die Kreuzen managed to drop the hardcore tag at a moment's notice, yet pick up the pieces by incorporating elements of arty post-punk, psychedelia and the best of '70's HM (Sabbath, BOC, Hawkwind, etc.) into their music.
1988's Century Days is usually considered their high point, and I'm not one to disagree. Produced by Butch Vig in his Madison studio at the time, this has long been an all-time fave record of mine. Coming in a fetching gatefold sleeve adorned by Kohl's creepy cover art, for myself there's no other record that captures the spirit of some sort of smalltown mid western alienation like Century Days. In fact, if memory serves correct, I once wrote in a non-drunken review that DK really shoulda done the soundtracks to Blue Velvet and River's Edge, so wonderfully do they musically summate the kind of lumbertown eeriness those films glow. At the time, the critics were divided. Some hailed it as album of the year, others dismissed it as either a shallow sell-out to the college-rock market or merely HM wank. Both are wrong, of course. Track for track, this is unbeatable. From the opening crunch of "Earthquakes" to the acoustic melancholy of "Lean Into It" to the simply incredible ending opus- "Number Three," a stunning 6+ minutes of ghostly crawl that perfectly balances their delicate mix of art-prog and sinewy metallic rock, I'll state my claim again: one of the best albums of the '80's. For the interested, get the CD, as it features the band's version of the Halloween movie theme song as a bonus, and it's a good 'un, too.
Stop-gap effort time now, so let's make it quick. 1989's Gone Away 12" EP is well worth mentioning. Of course, you've got the slightly disposable B-side, live versions of tracks off their previous two LP's (all good versions and well recorded, mind you), but the A-side is the keeper here, with two new studio tracks. The title number is a "ballad" of sorts to love lost or whatever, that, to my thinking, had it been released a decade later on a major label, with the radically altered post-grunge musical climate, probably woulda been a huge hit for the band, what with its acoustic guitars, catchy melodies and anthemic chorus that bring to mind the best of Black Sabbath's more "moving" material from their classic period. The second track is another keeper, a surprising cover of Aerosmith's "Seasons of Wither," a song I'll admit to being totally unfamiliar with (it's from their mid '70s time-frame, which, despite claims from some that their work from the time represents a sort of highpoint in post-Dolls/pre-punk American rock, I've never checked out... and likely never will). Again, it's kinda cheezy, a little schmaltzy, and friends are usually shocked when I say I like it, but what the hell, the last thing I ever want to be accused of is good taste.
1990 brought another teaser in the form of a 7" in which the band goes into cover mode and does the Germs and Wire, "Land of Treason" and "Pink Flag" respectively. If I was talking to you about this record right in front of you, person to person, you'd be wiping spittle off your face that I'd be letting forth in excitement as I pronounce to you that THIS IS MY FAVE 7" OF THE 1990's!! Capital letters are as close as I can get in print. To say that covers versions rarely approximate the mightiness of a good original version is a cliche; to say that a cover version shits all over the already mighty original version spat out by the original recording artist is about as rare to these ears as to have never been said before. DK achieves the latter. For the Germs number, think of a kick-ass, tight-as-a-nun's-bun band delivering the punch topped with a spine-shuddering, screeching vocalist, and as for the Wire track, just think of a beefier sound and no annoying fake cockney accent. That'll do.
1991's Cement, the band's final recording, isn't really worth talking about, for the simple fact that it is neither good nor interesting. It's simply dull rock, too little, too late, with about three good songs. Met with a giant shrug and a yawn at the time of release (even by myself), the band, probably about as uninspired as the record sounds, called it quits. Not a good way for a band to bow out, but that can happen to the best of 'em.
Die Kreuzen seem to be a band that I constantly have to justify liking to various friends, associates and self-styled music-boffin pals of mine, and considering how much I love their music, I'll be damned as to why I feel I have to. I guess it's the "metal" tag that puts many off, and I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the genre in general - it being seemingly littered with either brainless machismo, shockingly dull fret-board masturbation or preening no-dick pretty boys - though to my mind, DK were far more heavy metal in the pre-punk sense of the word, i.e. - hard-arsed no-BS guitar rock. Well, sure, DK had an element of BS, what with the artsy flirtations and all, which I guess puts them in the league of, say, "experimental" metal bands like Voi Vod (a band they were often compared to), but... wait, see what I'm doing? Trying to justify myself again. Old blowhards like Thurston Moore and John Zorn (ED NOTE: unlike you, eh Dave?) still rave about the mightiness of Die Kreuzen, so how 'bout it, eh? Like Charlie Parker once said: there's only two sorts of music - good music and bad music. Die Kreuzen are good music.