swingset

Joe Carducci interview part 1

Joe Carducci is a rock scholar and writer to the highest degree. With his first book Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Carducci placed himself within the cannon of Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and what have you. With the unique insight of having worked at the greatest music label of the 80s, SST, Carducci witnessed the from both the label and the distribution end. His latest book Enter Naomi is a must read and places all this within the context of the story of SST photographer Naomi Peterson. Tony Rettman stepped up to get the scoop for Swingset, so here’s part one of the conversation. With the unique insight of having worked at the greatest music label of the 80s, SST, Carducci witnessed the rise and fall from both the label and the distribution end.

Tony Rettman: As far as ‘Rock and the Pop Narcotic’’ goes, did you begin writing it as soon as you left SST? Was it an idea or concept you had in the back of your head for awhile?

Joe Carducci: I began reading for the book immediately after leaving SST in March 86. You have to remember that although SST was music-first, we weren’t about being more indie than thou. We wanted our bands on the radio, commercial radio, and in chain stores. The other good small labels didn’t think like this yet, because the lousy labels were all about that sort of business ambition. Greg, Chuck, Spot, myself were a little older and remembered hearing radical stuff on FM and AM radio. That was our intent, and having failed in that it seemed to me important to at least write the bands of the punk era into a general history of the music. Nobody seemed likely to do that because most of the underground was glad to be underground and from there, SST’s failure seemed a success. I had the information at hand due to my years at Systematic Record Distribution, so I thought it would be an important thing to do before leaving music behind entirely.

TR: A majority of the SST bands went on to majors and left an impression on mainstream culture. I’m supposing by writing that you ‘failed’, you mean you failed at presenting them to the world under the SST umbrella with the SST aesthetic? Would you say you were trying to bring the ‘mainstream’ to SST rather than the normal visa versa route people usually use?

JC: No, I meant that we were not thinking indie. The major labels were not the culprits in the seventies; they signed alot of good bands. They may have poorly served them over time as they tried and failed to seduce or force the hands of the radio industry (culprit zero: Lee Abrams), or the music press (cz: Jan Wenner), but majors not only signed most of the best NY bands out of their NY offices, their LA offices signed more LA bands then people remember (Plimsouls, Motels, Dickies, X). In 1969 though, Bubble Puppy on International Artists had a top 40 hit called “Hot Smoke and Sassafras”; that’s what I call leaving an impression on the culture. I heard it as a 14yr old on WLS AM. The centralizing radio industry prevented that kind of fluke hit by 73 even on FM. That made Nirvana’s breakthrough more dramatic but also less organic; it took fifteen years for some sort of punk hit that wasn’t “Because the Night” or “Rock the Casbah” and the vitality wasn’t sustained at all. The Ramones only now are leaving an impression on the culture with their songs played over the PAs at baseball stadiums. They failed in their day, by my use of the term. It would have been nice to ride everybody up under the SST tent but we weren’t set up business wise for that; we expected bands to sign out to majors whenever they could. (The Minutemen’s 2nd album “What Makes a Man Start Fires?” was supposed to get them signed.) Far less SST bands did get signed than should have, and often far too late and they failed there too. And again the mainstream hadn’t been so impenetrable so we expected that we could find doors that would open if we pushed. People think SST was part of the turning away from the industry that Dischord or the Olympia thing represented, and that wasn’t true. Black Flag was on the news a lot in LA and had a lot of friends in the industry etc. Billboard reviewed all the records we sent them. Rolling Stone took years and never did review a Black Flag release.

SST’s failure looked like success to indie labels that followed, and all this music seminar connect-the-dots marketing professionalized all that followed, so it’s no real alternative anyway. I think the Naomi book and Turned On and Get in the Van demonstrate that SST was more early punk than indie, it was drop-out culture not a lifestyle, only Black Flag wasn’t going to be satisfied just hanging out in LA if no-one would sign them. They were the only band worth throwing in with.

TR: I never thought of SST as being ‘indie’ ever. If you were trying to work with MCA/Unicorn to get ‘Damaged’ out, it’s obvious you were trying to crack the mainstream. But I think I know what you and the SST people were trying to do. I am too young to have ever heard something truly radical on commercial radio, but my brother has told me stories of hearing things like Steeleye Span, Canterbury Prog and Krautrock on the rock stations of the early 70’s. By the time I caught up enough to follow Punk with my brother when I was in middle school, college radio was not only your only way of hearing anything interesting, it was the only game in town. You wouldn’t even bother listening to anything else on the radio. You always expected to hear one great thing if you kept the radio tuned to the local college station. You might have heard something you never did before, but it wasn’t this ‘out of nowhere’ thing due to the format/programming. So, in that sense, do you think a certain sense of discovery was lost on younger people way before the technical advances we’ve seen in the past 8 years or so?

JC: Yeah I think so, and these distinctions are important if you want to figure out what happened, although things are so changed now technologically and culturally that it may be academic. By dropping out in the mid seventies it was network TV, college, sports, and the workaday world you were dispensing with. Most of us still listened to the radio and saw films; and college radio was never very good. The south bay LA thing was that they’d seen so many arena rock shows in the early and mid-seventies that they never fully bought the idea that punk was a break from music history. (They being Black Flag, Minutemen, Descendents, Saccharine Trust, Red Cross, Saint Vitus, Overkill) obviously the Ramones didn’t either but the Brit stuff all fucked up that continuity. The fat faced platinum artistes that Abrams and Wenner foisted did tempt one to forget how great stuff had just been. But now it isn’t really the tech changes that scare me, it’s that current music is decoupled from the blues, and the audience is on stage. The few artists can’t get a spotlight on them. The Red Hot Chili Peppers should’ve just stayed the number 1 thru 4 minutemen fans and not picked up instruments because they aren’t musical in the least. There weren’t that many of their type back then but now every cream-sipping college kid wants up on stage or to be a filmmaker.

TR: So what in your mind separates the audience from the artist and where is the line that should never be crossed?

JC: Black Flag had a testy relationship with its audience and ultimately as the self-defined Hardcore bummed on the slower, improv, experimental material, they just stopped coming. What was left was more like the early punk audiences: rockhounds, misfits, guitar obsessives. Chuck was often talking about music and ideas with kids after a show, and Henry came into the band as a booster for all the different scenes around the country, but as Greg took over the band the challenge to their own audience rose. The Minutemen, or rather D. Boon in an attempt to demystify their own greatness would encourage kids to form bands and say there should be a band on every block. He was so egalitarian in his assumption that Mike Watt would challenge D. to own up to his own exceptional ability. They were both around SST a lot and we (BF, Spot, Mugger, me) were much more willing to be dismissive of uninteresting bands. Mike did distribution and manufacturing of some New Alliance releases through the Enigma/Greenworld company in Torrance and saw how they would talk about micro-genres of the time (cow-punk, paisley underground…) and whether they could move 5K or 10K of this or that style. Mike knew how hard it had been for the Minutemen to sell those numbers. If you said the other SST bands were influenced or inspired by Black Flag circa 1980, you’d have to say they immediately pushed to develop their own voice and away from Black Flag’s only to find that each by 84 were inspiring copycats. It was so difficult to sell records in my experience at Systematic and SST in that period that it’s easy to be uncharitable about anybody who takes unearned monies from that paltry economy.

I guess it was the end of the sixties/seventies romantic drive for self discovery thru art. There were always scammers around and it’s always in part show business, but there was a blues-based ethic of authenticity that followed Elvis, the Beatles, Hendrix thru til 82 or so. Thereafter the culture of the medium began to have more pull on kids than the culture of the message. It’s easier to see now of course, when what good music is made is less inside-out like Hendrix or Black Flag, and more outside-in like Bowie, or The Strokes.

So, specific to your question, I guess its that as America is less working class and more upper middle class and kids are primed to express themselves and their self-esteem is coddled through to college graduation, they prefer to avoid work by being what they think an artist is. As it happened there was a mid-seventies myth of non-musicians dropping their paintbrushes, typewriters, etc., and picking up guitars and making genius noise. That was predicated on that period coming off of a very rich musical period and those dudes having been educated and raised in larger, less indulgent families. You don’t want today’s kids dropping their Guitar Hero and picking up an actual guitar I’m afraid.

TR: I totally agree that Black Flag had a very weird relationship with their audience. I don’t know what it was like for them in California post -’84, but every time I saw them in my hometown in New Jersey, it was mostly all punkers bitching about the long hair, the long songs, etc. and it would be PACKED. I found it really strange kids would spend ten dollars to go somewhere and complain about it. It was such a volatile atmosphere due to this. It seemed neither the audience nor the band had any interest in each other. But I guess the grounds for a cultural institution had been laid and they had to be there. I guess this goes back to what you said about the culture of the medium having more pull on kids than the culture of the message. By the time some kids caught up with Hardcore through the whole ‘crossover’ Metal thing, Black Flag were already onto the long jams, etc. but these kids knew they had to see Flag due to their reputation of starting the whole shebang. Looking back on it, perhaps Black Flag in some way were more popular in their later period then than when they were working in the early 80’s vanguard mode. What do you think of this half baked idea?

JC: That’s good to hear but I know going back to Renaissance/Systematic in the late seventies that N.J. was more seriously interested in music – half our mail order customers were in N.J. I think a lot of towns had instant hardcore scenes formed in imitation to what they read and locally in reaction to a gaybar-based new wave scene and nothing else. NJ, Cleveland, Texas and other places had deeper music cultures. In San Francisco, the Maximum Rock n Roll folks went from being totally into Black Flag to qualifying that they were merely the best live band, then to not coming to their gigs by the end of 83. They totally fell for the form as a forge for a youth culture revolution. In L.A, Suicidal Tendencies became king of the hardcore scene instantly in ‘84 and then Black Flag could play small halls with Saint Vitus, or do instrumental shows at bars with no hardcore interference at all. Greg blamed Henry for inviting the bad vibes but some part of that was Henry absorbing the blows that Greg’s new harsh art-rock provoked. Plus, it was Greg’s idea to have the Nig-Heist open until ’84. Henry was into it, but Mugger’s trip also amped up the abuse he took. It’s hard to imagine any other band who ever challenged their audience like that. Maybe early King Crimson going from pomp rock to essentialist prog. Greg saw them at the Roxy in ’75 and he said when they came out dressed in white like technicians he thought ‘Oh these guys are fascists!’ I never saw King Crimson live but they were my favorite band in that three album period, Larks Tongues to Red. Certainly they must’ve bummed out some Court of the Crimson King audiences in the U.K. I imagine them fleeing to Rick Wakemen and E.L.P. Outside of Los Angeles it is true Black Flag were popular to the end. Once I got back to Chicago it surprised me how many bands I saw in the late 80s and early 90s who had only seen the last Black Flag tour. It’s like the discrete punk audiences existed in five-year periods: 75-79, 80-84, 85-90, with only small numbers of scene people who lasted longer. It was different in LA once O.C. jocks went punk and Black Flag began to put on their own shows and flyer and buy radio ads in a way that took the entire southland as their frame of reference. Before that, Punk scenes liked being insular. But they drew far less in LA after 83, but more around the country. I saw them in Chicago in July 81 at Tut’s which became the Avalon. There were probably fifty paid. And that was their second time in town so it was building on that smaller Dec 80 show.

by TONY RETTMAN on 10/28/2008 in Interviews | Tags: , , ,