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I miss when music sounded like shit.
Some half-baked thoughts about how good bad demo tapes used to sound.
Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the first, best, and only newsletter about music in the entire world.
One of the great joys of writing a newsletter instead of trying to land paying gigs at proper journalistic outlets is that editors at those places tend to want you to have a “point.” They need you to pitch them a fully formed idea that they can then sell to their readers, and not just some rambling crap you cooked up after midnight. Well, I don’t have a point right now. What I have instead is a collection of half-ideas and stray grievances. Actually, I really just have a single thought today, and it’s this:
I miss when music sounded like shit.
Last week I discovered (via Evan Weiss) the NJPP Archives, an astoundingly deep collection of old demo tapes and EPs from the place and time in which I cut my teeth on punk (tri-state area at the turn of the century, babyyyy), amassed by Joe Pulito. Joe has apparently been doing this for years and I’m very behind in this discovery, so this has kept me busy for several days. I am extremely grateful whenever I see people archiving bygone music minutiae like this—demo tapes, flyers, fanzines. I have zero patience to do it myself, but I’m glad someone has decided to take it on.
I spent the entire weekend listening back through the recorded material of every opening band I watched through my teenage years. Bands I’d long forgotten, bands I half-remembered, some that I knew personally, and a select few that included members who went on to bigger things. I went on a nostalgia binge through the recesses of my memory and texted friends from high school about it. Could this perhaps be perceived as troublesome behavior for a man rapidly hurtling towards 40? Is this the punk equivalent of buying a mid-life crisis Porsche? Could the finality of my own mortality finally be sinking in for ol’ Dan?? SORRY NO TIME TO EXPLORE ANY OF THAT BECAUSE I JUST FOUND THE CATCH-22 DEMO!!
Most of what I discovered in this archive was turn-of-the-century pop punk, third wave ska, and some of what might’ve been categorized at the time as emocore. But these are just labels. They all had something greater in common, which is that they all sounded incredibly shitty. Just real dogshit sound quality. Grossly rough, scratchy, and warped cassettes. Total crapola. The levels are inconsistent and the sound is tinny and you can hear their high school buddies laughing in the background. But that was the charm of it all, the ideal way to listen to a bunch of musicians who barely knew how to work their instruments. Spending a few hours listening back made me realize how much I miss those imperfections and how seldom I hear them now.
OK the next paragraph is where I start venturing into full-on old-man-yells-at-cloud territory, so brace yourself!
Nowadays every band has access to Pro Tools, so even their earliest recorded material sounds slick and produced. They use the right plugins and the cool fake drum beats and everything is properly paced and “correct,” down to the beat. Most of the imperfections have been buffed out. Sure, maybe their songwriting isn’t fully evolved yet, but the sound quality you can now get in a bedroom has the potential to rival any small studio of the late 90s. That’s all well and good, I guess. No point in impeding the march of progress. Work with the tools ya got, I say! I certainly would’ve killed for the technologies found on even the most basic smartphone when I was a kid, instead of fumbling around with four-tracks and cassettes and a Walkman that I pumped $20 worth of AA batteries into every month. I’m suddenly remembering that in my basement growing up we had a VCR with two tape decks. I tried to edit together all the skateboard footage I’d filmed with my friends on this beast and it was mostly fuzzy tracking and static. Once in a while you’d catch two seconds of me hurtling myself down some stairs. Now, am I claiming that I would’ve been a professional skateboarder if I’d had access to iMovie? Yes, I am saying that. 100%. I would’ve been Rodney Mullen.
But the Dogshit Vibe has been making a strong comeback over the last few years, though it’s been largely relegated to bands’ visual aesthetics. It seems like everyone wants that late 90s look—the one marred by light leaks and muted colors and film grain and the little timestamp in the corner. Jurassic technologies like 35mm photography, VHS camcorders, Super 8, Polaroids, and Xerox artwork have become extremely popular among Gen Z artists in music videos and promo photos. At best these are made with actual equipment dug out of thrift stores or eBay and at worst it’s run through some cheap filter app. And then there is the current fad of gadgets that rely on the idea that young people will pay perfectly good money to own things that replicate old-timey crap. Urban Outfitters sells an entire line of this kinda retro shit, like this thing, which mimics Apple’s first digital camera from the 90s. Not sure why a teenager would want such a thing but I owned a fucking lava lamp when I was 13 so to each their own. (Update: Upon looking further into it, it appears this is not even a functional camera, and is simply “an interesting and historically ground breaking piece of decor.” OK…?)
This is all very weird to me. Sure, trends move in cycles, but as someone who lived through analog days, it’s always confounding to watch young people actively seek out technologies that are clunky, fickle, and, if you’ve checked the price of film lately, more expensive than they’ve ever been. Were all outdated technologies treated with such nostalgic reverence by a new generation? Were there young cavemen who saw the invention of fire and said, “Nah actually I lowkey like the feel of eating raw meat, you know? Dysentery is the vibe right now for real.”
I don’t know what I’m complaining about here. I love these old, stupid things. I love Xerox artwork and I love film photography and a part of me is glad that culture is clinging to them. I wish film would make a big enough comeback that it would be manufactured in greater quantities and the prices would drop a bit. I guess it’s just strange to watch the antiquated instruments of my youth employed by people born into a time that does not require them to do so. My culture is not your costume, etc.
Anyway, back to how shitty music used to sound. It did, and it’s rare that I hear that kind of authentic shittiness today. There’s been a recent movement in basement hardcore that comes close to keeping the shitty torch burning, and of course garage rock is always chasing that bare bones recording approach, but often when I do hear bands embracing that *lofi sound*, it’s a deliberate choice, and not the product of the physical limitations of their equipment. It’s going out of the way to sound bad. Are shitty punk demos a thing of the past? Is punk just being upstreamed to indie rock? An optimist might say that the sound of punk has evolved; a cynic would say that nothing sounds punk anymore.
Whew, these are a lot of thoughts for a man to have just because he listened to a demo tape he hasn’t heard since 1999, and none of the thoughts make any real points. But, in fairness, I stated very clearly up top that I did not have a point, so that’s on you for reading. So, instead of making half assed prognostications about The Future of Punk or broad statements about how digital recording quality has made music creation more accessible but perhaps too impersonal, I would like to pull out a few personal highlights from the NJPP Archive. Maybe some of these were familiar to you if you lived in the area, or maybe it’s completely foreign. I really recommend just reaching your hand into the pile and listening to whatever crap you pull out. It all sounds like 1998!
Of the greatest interest to a general readership is this Catch 22 demo from 1997, which I have gotten an embarrassing amount of mileage out of over the last 48 hours. There were many attempts at ska during this era and the hit rate was extremely low in my opinion, but this is one of those rare outliers that verges on being a genre unto its own. I’m convinced most of the ska bands of this time were conceived solely on the basis of some genius coming up with a punny ska name. Once you come up with SkaSkank Redemption, Skabba the Hut, or Premarital Sax, for example, you really have no choice but to build a band around it. That’s when you start roping in the trumpet players from your high school band class who have never heard of Less Than Jake but are just happy to make friends. Also, this one was not so much a pun as a reference to Clue but did I see this band Professor Plum open roughly 500 shows during this period.
Darien was really formative for me. Firstly because they had a couple of seven-inches that I still think sound objectively great. Lots of Full Metal Jacket and Breakfast Club samples throughout. And secondly because their singer worked at the record store where I bought my first punk CDs. They were locked up in a glass case because the owner didn’t trust us to not steal them. (Which in hindsight was correct.) This guy somehow convinced me to buy the Misfits box set and I have no recollection of where I came up with the $50 at the age of 14. He also made me buy all the early Black Flag albums before “Rollins came along and ruined the band.” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about but I had to nod along and say “totally!” like I did.
Penfold was probably the biggest a local band got without blowing up nationally. Ever so slightly ahead of their time, I think their style of emotive, occasionally twinkly post-hardcore would’ve made more of an impact if they’d come along just a few years later. Or maybe not, what do I know. They were good while they lasted! (Also, this does not fall into the shitty-sounding category. It still sounds great to me!)
Kevin Devine’s Miracle of 86 holds a special place in my heart as the first band I can remember seeing. This is an EP of their demo songs and man, they’re amazing. My friend Keith and I also recently dug through the bins in his basement and found these old photos of the band playing the Warped Tour in 2001. That’s history right there you understand?
My friend Justin was in this band and as far as that aforementioned Dogshit Aesthetic goes, this has got to take the cake. Look at this demo cover. Look at it! When you cannot even be bothered to scam Kinko’s and get some some copy and paste art, this is the way. Just a Sharpie and a fuck-it-all attitude. I still have this cassette somewhere and I still think the musicianship is pretty decent for teenagers!
I remember local kids really liking this band at the time. Listening back, it makes me realize how influential Blink’s Cheshire Cat was on a generation of pop punk kids—kinda nasally, wobbly, and way too bass-heavy. Maybe this is historical punk revision on my part, but I do feel like that album changed the way a lot of pop punk bands wanted to sound.
Would you like to hear fast drums and a trumpet at full volume and NOTHING ELSE? Well, here’s Melmac. I am reasonably sure this band went to my high school or possibly the other high school near me. Melmac is of course the planet where Alf was from. That wasn’t even the only Alf-themed band name in the scene. There was also Son of Alf. I think it was just a trend to name your band after extremely popular TV shows at the time. There was also a local band I loved called the Alex P. Keatons (a nod to Family Ties, of course) whose singer worked at the music store in the mall and looked the other way when we showed up and Dag Nasty CDs went mysteriously missing. I really need to dig that demo up and submit it to this archive.
Another extremely bad late 90s pop punk trend? Covering the most cornball pop songs imaginable. Like this band, who I’d never heard of, covering Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” for example. Who started this trend? I’m not not looking in the direction of you, Less Than Jake’s Grease covers! (Side note: If you can power through the entire cover, you will be treated to the follow-up track, “Bitch,” which, uh… woof. The 90s, am I right??)
I remember this being the go-to band when you needed someone to play a show on a moment’s notice, which is usually how it went. I also remember the guitarist would sometimes take his pants off when he played. I think I have a photo of that somewhere. They had a cool song called “Pig Roast” and I can’t bring myself to look up what the members are up to these days out of fear that one of them became a cop or something.
There was also Bigwig, who was not to be confused with (even though they sounded incredibly similar to)…
Bigwheel, whose members were the first people I knew to get anime tattoos.
Maybe it’s just the nostalgia factor but dare I say this Lanemeyer album still sounds… good to me? A big selling point for me at the time was that it used a few samples from the John Cusack skiing movie Better Off Dead. I truly, TRULY miss the days of using uncleared movie samples. The internet really ruined that for all of us.
Anyway, feel free to go digging around over at NJPP. There’s some good stuff in there—the Ergs, Shady View Terrace, Weston, the Degenerics, the Roskoes, Plow United, Digger. Go nuts!
And pre-order Geoff Rickly’s novel!
Alright that’s the end of today’s nostalgia tour. On another note, perhaps you heard that Geoff Rickly (screaming fella on the cover of my book) has written his own book called Someone Who Isn’t Me via Rose Books, a new indie press founded by my pal Chelsea Hodson. I’ll have more on that later this week but for now, pre-order it!
Oh, and in Mac Demarco news…
I don’t know why but Mac Demarco has been haunting me this week. I don’t really know much about Mac Demarco other than that weirdly great Weezer cover he did for the AV Club many years ago, so I don’t think about him often. But then last week my friend Alex Winston covered one of his songs and my friend Emma Garland did a great interview with him for Dazed. Why is the universe trying to push Mac Demarco on me so hard?? Anyway, if you’re proudly #MacHive, here ya go…
Alright that’s it for today. As always, all the crap in my online store is pretty cheap. Going to the post office to drop off your precious little packages is the only time I see the sunlight, so keep em coming.