About a week ago I received a CD in the mail from a fantastic local Portland label called Arena Rock. The contents of the package did not meet my expectations at all. I tore open the padded envelope prepared to read about a young, up and coming Northwest band, full of promise, surrounded by a nascent buzz, on tour with an already sure thing but on the verge of fleeting greatness themselves. (You know the story, I'm sure). Instead, what I found in my hands was a Larry Norman anthology replete with liner notes from Norman himself and a thick booklet of lyrics. I admit to not being wholly familiar with Larry Norman. I knew he was in a band called People! in the late 60's, that he and another member left the band when the rest of the group converted to Scientology, and that he wanted their first record to be called "We Need A Whole Lot More of Jesus, And A Lot Less of Rock n' Roll" (it ended up being called "I Love You"). But I didn't know much about his solo records or the fact that he is considered the father of Christian music.
I've spent the last few days immersed in Larry Norman-land, which is a more bizarre and contradictory musical world than maybe even Frank Zappa's or Bob Dylan's. For one, there are less filters. His lyrics have the straight-talking appeal of someone like Fred Neil meshed with the child-like sensibility of Brian Wilson. Norman verges on the poetic, the mystical, and the metaphysical; and he was a shrewd observer of political injustices. His ruminations are non-conformist; they are words of an outsider, and of the conflicted.
Listen to Norman's "I Am The Six O'Clock News" written in 1968 from the album 'Rebel Poet, Jukebox Balladeer: The Anthology'. His label at the time, Capitol, refused to put this song out as a single. For many years, it was the most requested song on military bases.
Another reissue that came my way (actually, I think this is the first time most of these songs have seen the light of day) is by Bum Kon on Smooch Records/Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. Bum Kon were an all but unheard of early 80's hardcore band out of Denver. In 1983 they released their only 7" single, Drunken Sex Sucks. (Ostensibly the Colorado take on "Too Drunk Too F**k" by The Dead Kennedy's).
Listen to Bum Kon's "Nancy Reagan Fashion Show." (Would hardcore have flourished under anything but the Reagan administration?)
What interests me more than Bum Kon's music—which sounds like teens thrashing about, trying on anger and angst but only barely masking a celebratory fearlessness, each song is a smirk—is that the CD unearths a small piece of history heretofore unnoticed. There are thousands of Bum Kons from countless towns from every decade. We all know these bands. They are not the underrated but the under-the-radar. They are the missing pieces to a puzzle, the reason that a guitarist from a famous or semi-famous band came upon a certain sound, or how a singer decided on their affect or outfit. They are artists like Badfinger, Silver Apples, 13th Floor Elevators, Jackson C. Frank (Paul Simon was a huge fan, for instance), Anne Briggs (Robert Plant was influenced by her voice), the Melvins, or Big Star. They are the bands in your cities that never put out an album, that played two shows and then broke up but left a well of influence that everyone rushed to drink from. Or they did put out albums, but someone else came along at a different time, was more poppy, better-looking, or, most likely, just plain luckier.
In regards to this topic, I think of the great Quasi lyric, "better to be a has been than to be a never was." Yet there seems to be an in-between category that is worth unearthing as well, and that is the barely was and the barely were.
Feel free to shed some light on those bands from your towns, or on artists whose brief or relatively quiet existences unleashed an uproar.
(Pictured below: Bum Kon. Photo by Patrick Barber.)