Most music histories pimp along the usual bullshit lies, elevating a handful of heroes to mythic status while leaving most of the little people who weren’t “leaders” (bestsellers, critical darlings) in the Dumpster. The punk, indie, and alternative scenes were supposed to be about empowering any schlub who had enough huevos to have a riot of his own. Instead, we got the old story of turning rebellion into money. The weirdos and creeps making musical accidents and building the scenes were the real heroes, not the “geniuses” and media stars that got toasted endlessly (Lydon or Cobain ring a bell?). Do we leave all the unknowns out of the picture because they had broken vans, stolen equipment, and nonexistent management?
Chuck Warner’s been there, through his Throbbing Lobster label in the ’80s and his later return to the record dealership gig from whence he came. Last year, he concocted cassettes and CD-R’s of prime catalog material from thousands of tiny labels to serve as shopping guides for his record store. His Hyped to Death collections feature ultrarare sub-indie singles from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Sure these semi-bootlegs are as gray an area as Napster, but Warner compiles his samplers as prospective promos for a deluge of unknown groups, encouraging them to come out of the woodwork and reclaim some glory (some deal, eh?).
While he offers hit-and-miss series like Bad Teeth (U.K. DIY) and Teen Line (power pop), the real prize of Hyped is the six-volume, alphabetically arranged Homework, adorned by xeroxed piles of record sleeves, looking appropriately as no-frills as the original singles it compiles. Since I’d previously heard of only a fraction of the bands, it’s no surprise that many of them are underrehearsed, amid a few un-unknown ringers like Throwing Muses and Half Japanese (who, in this context, almost sound professional). Of course, the plurality’s unpolishedness gives the collected groups more true-punk spirit than most of the Class of ’77. Considering the source material, the sound quality is surprisingly good. And Warner covers a lot of ground geographically. Aided by liner notes digging up what facts can be found, the series is always interesting and well paced, making it a virtual playlist for a truly alt-rock college radio program, if such shows still existed.
Since they don’t, take the initiative yourself to savor Warner’s research. You won’t find a stronger selection of stateside underground action than Homework #4—it’s less left-field than the other installments but also the most consistent. I’d take Yo’s sharp yell-along “Knives,” Really Red’s Nico tribute, well-named anthems from Screaming Urge (“No Melody”) and Steriles (“You’re So Glam It Hurts”), Randy & the Goats’ tense, catchy “Media-Ized,” and Wild Stares’ pastoral rant “Piece of the Picture” over a Rhino new-wave comp any day. Homework #1 1/2, the “experimental” disc, is chock-full of bizarro song ideas, charmingly cheap keyboards, strangled vocals, and guitar drones: Theoretical Girls and Static showing off Sonic Youth’s roots, Zach Swagger’s spooky voice loops, Redness’s black hole of sound “Little Debbie,” Armand Schaubroeck Steals boogying around some coarse intercourse. Homework #5 is less stylized, wider ranging and even stranger: White Boy and WKBG contribute electro-guitar that ought to scare Trent, and Blake Xolton gives forth Xmas cheer complete with wall-of-Spector sound. The how-low-can-you-go-fi Homework #1 sports Reversible Chords’ squeeze-box romps celebrating crime and sex-as-consumerism, Stripsearch’s anti-anti-commie propaganda, and Mike Runnel’s primal-beat, Limey-pop “Tell Her Again.” Though it repeats a few undeserving ensembles, Homework #2 picks up in its second half with Standing Waves’ hectic “Integrated Circuits,” Hugh Beaumont Experience’s pre-Butthole psychedelic frugging, Student Teachers’ lost surf-pop classic “Channel 13,” and Shrapnel’s land of the 1001st dance. Give or take the too poppy-sweet Homework #3, the series is a better sociological study of white boys gone cuckoo than Lord of the Flies or Kids.
Of course, praising obscurity for the sake of obscurity is knee-jerk bullshit. Sure, there’s appeal in discovering hidden treasures and indulging in one-up games of “you don’t know ’em,” but these bands never wanted to be unknowns—they wanted someone to love, hate, or at least hear them. Homework is their battle cry: vital because it’s a corrective to the litany of what’s made up the so-called underground of rock for the last quarter century.