Thursday, April 19, 2018

Chuck Warner compiler of Messthetics / Hyped to Death postpunk and DIY CD-R series

Messthetics: An Interview with Post-Punk Archivist Chuck Warner of Hyped To Death
Blissout website 2001?

Q: So how did you get in this lark---doing CD-R compilations like the U.K. D.I.Y post-punk series Messthetics?

A: You can run through the press-stuff at for my background as a record-label-owner (16 releases in 4 years at a loss of $100,000), deejay, seminarian, astrologer’s helper, vacuum-cleaner salesman… I'd been selling all this stuff --or trying to sell it--for 20 years, though just by mail-order. I started making cassettes in ’97 as a sort of shopping aid--to encourage my mail-order customers to buy stuff that WASN'T already bootlegged on Killed by Death and Bloodstains (many of whose tracks had been purchased from me in the first place). All the cassettes were called Hyped to Death, though they were themed. The H2D numbers ending in -1 or -2 were North American punk [these are now the HYPED to DEATH CDs]; -3 was UK punk & mods [now BAD TEETH]; -4 was American power-pop [now TEENLINE]; -5 was UK D.I.Y. [now MESSTHETICS]; -6 was world punk [briefly PLANET PUNK]; -7 was New Zealand Flying Nun-style gnarlpop/DIY [WIMPLES] or world D.I.Y [GERÄUSCHVERGNUGEN]; -8 was American D.I.Y./punkwave [HOMEWORK] and -9 & 10 varied.

Messthetics in particular? Well, the style, if there is one, has been a personal favorite, since 1980 or so. I’d been in London (a Baron’s Court bedsit for £4.50 a week) for January and February of 1978, but the better bands were all out on tour and there was this awful "power-pop" revival clogging up the clubs--bands like the Boyfriends and the Pleasers–who were utterly tuneless pubrock leftovers in skinny ties who liked the Rich Kids but couldn’t write a tune to save their lives. The closest thing to D.I.Y I saw was Patrick Fitzgerald busking between sets at the University of London the week before "Safetypin Stuck in My Heart" came out. He was brilliant, but I had no idea the Desperate Bicycles, etc. were out there, too. Mostly I groupied enthusiastically for the Soft Boys, who were busily opening up the Troggs reunion "tour." I learned about DIY rather slowly, and after-the-fact as I came across the records over the years.

Throughout the early 80s my major energies went into buying and selling 1960s and early ’70s garage and psychedelic LPs. Much of the American stuff that now trades for thousands first hit the $100 level on my auctions in Goldmine and Trouser Press. I bought collections and store-stock when some shop went out of business, so there were always older punk and new-wave 45s coming in along with the new stuff. I felt no specific allegiance to any one style. But back then it was actually the first Chocolate Soup for Diabetics bootleg that made the most vivid impression. In 1981 I could probably have recited the entire International Artists catalog from memory, but most of the Chocolate Soup stuff-–I never knew it even existed : I was stunned and delighted beyond description…. SO, in a very long, windy, and round-about way, that’s what I want for my compilations… It’s my hope that Messthetics, Teenline, and Homework might bring that same shock-of-the-[old]-new to a few 20-somethings today.

Q: Messthetics and Homework do indeed remind me a bit of the old PebblesMindrockersBack From the Grave etc compilations of Sixties garage punk that I used to buy circa 1983-84, at this point when nothing much was going on in contemporary music. But your CD-Rs are effectively bootlegs, right? Although you give the bands royalties if they contact you, right?

A: Hey, wait a minute. Those were ALL bootlegs. Nuggets was legit (and seriously limited by what Lenny Kaye could pry out of the major labels’ vaults). Pebbles was a pure bootleg series that Greg [Shaw] parlayed into the excellent, mostly-legit Highs in the Mid-60s series as bands started turning up. Mindrockers, if memory serves me, was an example of a quasi-legit thing a buncha people did in ’81-83 or so where they sent letters to the addresses on all the old records and parked royalties in escrow accounts. Tim [Warren] compiled the excellent Back from the Grave series from his legendary cross-country journeys: he’d talked to some of the bands (while he was buying the last of their 45s from them). While they were 10-15 years away from the records they were compiling (and Lenny Kaye was as little as 5), I’m putting the H2D CDs out 20-25 years after the fact. It’s a lot harder to track people down by word-of-mouth or by old addresses and phone-numbers.

So it was the combination of affordable CD-R gear and the Internet that gave me a better idea. Unlike vinyl or glass-mastered CDs, where you're limited to a minimum pressing of 500-1000 (you can get fewer, but the cost is no different), you can duplicate CD-Rs to order, so I didn't have to worry about how well power-pop or American or UK D.I.Y. would sell, at least in terms of carrying expensive inventory. And I could start off with a catalog of a dozen titles, instead of just one or two. More importantly, however, the CD-Rs meant I could be in a perpetual state of upgrading and rearranging. Like with the Messthetics series, where I’ve been very slow to get organized. There are half a dozen new tracks and-–at last—liner-notes just within the past six weeks.

The internet lets me maintain the newest versions of all the notes and links where fans and bands can easily get to them, and the Hyped to Death website gives them an easy way to reach me. And the H2D website gives the bands hype and appreciation, a way to turn up on search-engines, a chance to tell their story in the context of the styles and scenes of ’76-82, and plenty of links to anything they want advertised. I’ve talked to well over a hundred bands to date (and installed links to many more) and not one so far has asked to be taken off of the CDs. Although more and more bands are learning about H2D from folks who own the CDs, a majority of those who find us do so because they’ve typed their band-name into Google or Metacrawler or Dogpatch (or is it Dogpile?). There’s usually 3 or 4 a week that come in that way.

I send sample copies of the CD to any and all band-members, update the liner-notes with whatever dirt they’re willing to share with me, and add links to reissues, fan clubs, personal pages, new bands, etc. There’s no money involved, but I do tell them as soon as there’s any real money being made, we’ll figure out a way to share the wealth.

But the "bootleg" approach is important. (1) it’s a completely "above-ground" bootleg –like you say, anyone who wants money can find me and get it, but what’s more important is (2) I get to start off with absolutely the best collection I can put together. That’s what bands hear as their first impression: their song sounds great and everything else sounds great, too (especially if they remember how crummy the original vinyl pressings sounded: I frequently spend hours cleaning and restoring individual tracks with a couple of digital editing programs.

 Q: So is there a collector's market for original postpunk DIY singles? What kind of prices are being asked? And do you sense a resurgence of interest in that era? There seem to be a bunch of bands coming through, from Life Without Buildings to Erase Errata to Liars, who reference that period.

A: Over the years I was occasionally able to sell that stuff for $10 or so, but only rarely. 90% of the market and 99% of the upward pressure on prices these days seems to be spill-over from punk-collectors who’re buying stuff just because it’s rare and it’s been bootlegged on vinyl. I’ve always had a half-dozen collectors who’d dutifully pay $50 for the weirder stuff because I told them to, but I didn’t have the feeling there was a bigger market waiting to happen.

I’m thrilled that interest is building. And it’d be great if the enthusiasm was more musical than principally archival and/or mercenary, the way Killed By Death has been, or Pebbles, etc, at least until the garage-revival thing got rolling in the early 80s. As I’ve been deliberately ignoring my mail-order business since starting the Hyped2Death CD thing, however, I can’t say I’ve had an increase in collectors wanting to buy DIY.

Q: Messthetics is organized alphabetically, but starts more than half-way through the alphabet, and is quite micro-focused -- Messthetics #1 is R-to-Si, Messthetics #3 is Th-to-Va. Seems like you'll have around thirty or forty volumes of Messthetics if you see the project through to its end!

A: Twenty anyway. More if I can rehab some of the cassette-only material before it all self-destructs in people’s basements. (I’d love to hear from people who still own a DIY cassette-releases: NO ONE imported that stuff to the U.S. Better yet, I’d like to hear from the bands who still have the master-cassettes or tapes…)

Q: Although the series title references Scritti Politti--the name is taken from a track on their Peel Sessions EP--most of the stuff you've collated isn't really from that post-punk vanguard sound that one associates Green & Co with: i.e. the funk/disco/dub-influenced, self-deconstructing, anti-rockist, politicized/theorized strand (Gang of Four through This Heat to Lemon Kittens). You also shy away from the proto-Goth sub-Banshees/Killing Joke end of things. Mostly you've gathered up the sort of Swell Maps-y/Desperate Bicycles/TV Personalities scrappy-scratchy D.I.Y stuff and lotsa Buzzcocks/Undertones-wannabe pop-punk. It even gets a bit mod revival in flavour here and there.

A: I wasn’t a fan of the stuff with horns back then, and I’ve always loathed the lesser Goth/bat/death combos. That said, the Pop Group-wannabe subspecies of D.I.Y sounds better all the time: I’m mentally compiling and searching for a title even now. For the moment, though, I am indeed focusing on the punkier end while mixing in what I think of as the most coherent of the other/outer DIY stuff, like Nigel Simpkins or Take It, and my favorites of the honking and ranting variety, like Vital Disorders’ "Let’s Talk About Prams" or the Stolen Power track I just added to Messthetics #2.

I make a distinction between "post-punk" and "DIY" that’s more useful taxonomically than historically. Post-punk-–sorta by definition—looked at punk (and major-label punk, at that)…and decided to be something different. D.I.Y., on the other hand, just did what was easy and cheap: it was a reaction to the expense and corporate control, but it never set out to re-define or improve on what had come before. 90% of the time it was everyone’s first band, and 80% of the time it was their last, as well. Everybody did the best they could even though they knew other people could sing and play a whole lot better…

Q: What do you think are the defining differences between UK D.I.Y and US D.I.Y?

A: Sort of the same as with punk. The UK has the dole (and sometimes even things like the G.L.C): it seems like 70% of the guitars are owned by the unemployed. D.I.Y there (i.e. putting out a DIY record) was incredibly empowering and freeing-–a perfect and really satisfying piss-off to the world of commerce and pop charts. In the US, meanwhile, 90% of the guitars are in the suburbs, and the teenagers among their owners all either have after-school jobs or they don’t need them because mom and dad are generous with their allowance. The ’Stones’ "What can a poor boy do / ’cept for play in a rock’n’roll band?" was apt enough in the U.K., but it’s pure pose here in the states. (The better equivalent would be a poor black kid from Newark hoping to make it as a basketball star. It’s THE way out.)
All kinds of class boundaries DO exist here, but the American promise--and the American problem—is that we’re proudly ignorant of them. Most bands dream of being rich and famous, but it wouldn’t occur to any of them that it’s their only chance to be rich and famous. We vote for Republicans who promise obscene tax-breaks for the rich because we all expect to be rich ourselves, somehow, someday. So showing how cheaply you could put out a record is definitely not part of an American mindset: no matter how crummy certain stateside records sound, those bands spent every penny they could on making them sound that way…

So despite your kind comments below about superior drumming in these parts (suburban Yanks can afford proper drum-kits and nice dry basements to practice in?) I think the main hallmark of American D.I.Y is a realistic appraisal of one’s musical talent. (So it’s the same as the UK thing, just without any sociological import or awareness.) Somewhere around 1978 (it may have been all the howling about "punk is dead"), folks started thinking it could be fun to sing and play and maybe put a record out even though they KNEW they’d never get signed and be stars. The instruments are the same in Cleveland Ohio as in, well, Cleveland County: whatever’s lying around, anything that makes a cool wheezy noise, and-–if you’re feeling really brave—whatever you used to take lessons on when you were 12. It’s about unselfconsciousness. But I think, far fewer bands here put out records (at least in proportion to their overall numbers).

Q: Although New York was very much in line with the UK post-punk vanguard and there were other weirdo outposts like Cleveland/Akron with Pere Ubu and Devo, or the San Francisco scene with Ralph Records, Residents, Tuxedemoon, Chrome, etc., generally speaking the American stuff is a lot more convincingly rockin' and rollin': there's a bottom-line proficiency, especially in the rhythm section. Whereas the UK stuff can seem really amateurish and rhythmically shaky (that's part of its charm, I guess). Generally it seems like US post-punk wasn't so determined to destroy rock as the UK vanguardists were. "Anti-rockist" was a British coinage, after all.

A: The thing about all of the first-generation, pre-1978 US bands you mentioned except maybe for Chrome is that they were part of an ART scene. Whatever their failings as vocalists and musicians were, those failings (which they were, by-and-large, almost pathologically self-conscious about) became part of their artistic statement…. Pere Ubu used their vocals. Suicide used their limited musicianship. Later Homework bands--and the Messthetics crowd--were often arty but they’d gotten over worrying about their limited skill-sets. The breakthrough Ohio bands for "real" D.I.Y were the Mirrors and the Electric Eels (and later, down in Kent, the Human Switchboard).

la lotta continua...


Nick Haines said...

Good work. Your efforts are appreciated more than you might know. Regards from the south coast of England..Portsmouth..home of the hits.

Ola Åstrand said...

Where do I get the series called Homework today? Did Chuck put down all sales? I live in Europe and would like to buy all the CDs in that series!

Ola Åstrand said...

Where can I find Warner today??