The Crew Is Me: Twenty Years Too Late

On Sunday July 8, 1984, I woke up in my mom’s house in Concord, North Carolina and went to work as a restaurant cook. One day and two plane rides later, I was in Reno, Nevada (then the hometown of 7 Seconds), riding in the passenger side of a blue 1980 Toyota Corolla being driven by my friend Bessie Oakley (former bass player for Reno band The Wrecks; see their “Punk Is An Attitude” on Not So Quiet on the Western Front comp). The Descendents’ Milo Goes to College was on her car stereo and the weather was beautiful. I remember thinking at that moment that maybe I’d finally found a place where I belonged. I had become enchanted with the Reno scene through my correspondence with Bessie and her friend Jone Stebbins (another ex-Wreck whose punk name was Jone Jetson). And, of course, there were the scene reports in Maximum Rock’n’Roll written by Kevin Seconds. Initially, I wasn’t enamored with 7 Seconds, but when their Committed for Life EP came out in the summer of 1983 I was won over. Although the Reno scene lived up to what I’d imagined, I could tell things were winding down. My friends were talking about moving away as no one cared much for the city, so, the “place” where I felt I might belong was a community that would soon splinter.

Still, the week I just happened to be there was quite eventful. 7 Seconds’ The Crew was released and I got to see them play along with the Dead Kenndeys, the Sluglords, and the Yobs. There was no “punk club” in Reno, which necessitated the formation of the Positive Force group. They would have benefits to raise money so that they could rent out spaces for punk shows. The money they raised was kept in an old typewriter case at Jone’s apartment. They had rented out a building known as the Musician’s Union Hall for this particular show. The Dead Kennedys show was the biggest that they had put on at that point. The hall had no air conditioning and one drink machine. The drink machine quickly sold out, thanks to the three or four hundred people (many from out of town) who came to the show. There was a water fountain which people would use not only to drink from but to cool themselves off, which created a huge, slippery mess on the floor. One of my clearest memories of that night is seeing Kevin Seconds with mop in hand repeatedly cleaning up after the crowd. He could have been acting like a big rock star at this show, but instead he was a punk rock janitor when he wasn’t on stage.

In the mid-to-late ’80s, both 7 Seconds and I would become less involved in punk. I had burned out on listening to mostly fast thrash bands. While I remained interested in and never lost touch with the punk scene, I didn’t feel it spoke to me as directly as it had in the early ’80s. As for 7 Seconds’ change in direction, we can only speculate. Maybe they were burned out on playing fast thrash; maybe they were put off by the violence that sometimes accompanies punk gigs; maybe some members (or all of them) wanted to be rock stars. Many old fans ridiculed them for the change, but I actually liked the change at the time. New Wind became my favorite album of theirs and I found plenty of songs I liked on Praise and Ourselves. For one reason or another, I never bought or heard Soulforce Revolution. I did hear their 1993 album, Out the Schizzy, and didn’t care for that at all.

Once again, 7 Seconds and I made the same change at more or less the same time when, in the mid-’90s, we both came back to punk. For me, it had to do with a friend taking over a local club and booking lots of young local punk bands. Just watching those young bands play and the crowds going crazy made me want to be involved again. There seemed to be more musical variety among the bands than there had been a decade earlier when I started to lose faith. Once again, the punk scene seemed like a place where I might belong. As for why 7 Seconds came back to punk, here is what Kevin had to say about that when I interviewed him for the now-defunct Zineith in January 1998: “I know it was perceived as ‘the punk thing’s back’ and ‘7 Seconds decided to get on the punk wagon.’ The reality was when (guitarist) Bobby Adams was out of the band I started playing guitar again. My style of guitar playing is very limited. We started playing some of the old songs we hadn’t played in a while; it was fun to play fast again… there was this new energy. This really did precede the big punk explosion, but we just said ‘fuck it.'”

Of course, I realize that many veteran punks aren’t buying that. Whenever an old punk band changes musical direction then later reverts back to their original style (with perhaps a break-up and reformation somewhere in there) most assume the band is only doing it for the money. Johnny Rotten and Keith Morris have both stated that money was the reason for their old bands reforming. When I saw that 7 Seconds was going to be touring through my state I immediately wanted to interview them for Razorcake. The response that I received from Todd was less than enthusiastic. I didn’t quiz him about it and contacted 7 Seconds’ record label anyway. The interview did not come to fruition due to Kevin’s ongoing throat problems on this tour due to singing every night as well as having a cold. Still, Todd’ doubts about the band’s integrity and the prospect of seeing these guys live for the first time since 1991 caused me to revisit all of the 7 Seconds music I owned and I was left with some new insights.

Except for “We’re Gonna Fight” and “Racism Sucks,” I was never that enamored with Skinheads, Brains, and Guts. Maybe if the recording quality wasn’t so primitive I’d appreciate it more. Listening to it now, I get the impression that they were mostly listening to British bands like Sham 69 at the time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but something happened to them in between that first EP and their second one, the vastly superior Committed for Life. What I think happened was Minor Threat. I don’t think 7 Seconds copied Minor Threat. I think that Minor Threat gave them (or gave Kevin, at least) the courage to express sentiments that had previously been absent from most punk rock, such as abstaining from drugs and alcohol or talking about the oppression of women in the punk scene and in society at large. The racial unity lyrics from the first EP carried right through.

I had finally got my own copy of The Crew in the fall of 1984. I didn’t live in a part of the country where everyone I hung out with was playing this music. As I was then entering my hardcore burnout phase, I now imagine that I listened to The Crew around ten times in the fall of that year and probably filed it away until I interviewed Kevin in January 1998. In other words, most of these songs weren’t supplanted in my brain from repeated listening. And now, as of this writing, I’ve probably listened to it ten times in the last month. Of course, the production is incredibly lacking in power but not the performances or the songs. I like the album much more now than I did twenty-one years ago.

I also revisited Walk Together, Rock Together. The recording quality far outshines The Crew with my only complaint being that this seven-song EP is too short. While the title song, “In Your Face,” and their cover of “99 Red Balloons” are the ones from this EP still in their set list, I found myself most blown away by “Spread.” It has a Bad Brains-like intensity that’s really impressive.

In 1985, for five bucks, you could order the Blasts from the Past EP directly from the band and become a member of the “7 Seconds Friend Club” which, of course, I did. The Friend Club membership would put you on the mailing list for future 7 Seconds newsletters. I appear to have received at least two future mailings and tucked them inside the single’s sleeve. This four-song EP featured a cover of “If the Kids Are United,” which now sounds as if it were written especially for them. Does this mean Sham 69 was the first posicore band? There’s also a cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” which is respectable, and two strong originals, “War in the Head” and “No. 1 Rule,” which sound as if they could have fit comfortably onto Committed for Life. The inner sleeve states that these early recordings are from the “aborted United We Stand LP.”

To this day, I still think 1986’s New Wind is my favorite. Culled from two separate recording sessions that occurred six months apart, they show the hardcore-to-melodic-punk shift the band underwent. The four songs from a DC session with Ian MacKaye show the band at what I think may have been the absolute peak of their early hardcore sound. The other nine songs show Kevin beginning to sing rather than yell, and with the exception of “Calendar,” they all still sound really good to me in 2005. Few hardcore punk guys back then would have attempted “Man Enough to Care,” with its lyrics warmly acknowledging the sexuality of a closeted gay friend. Also, I don’t know of another song written by a man that so affectingly rails against acquaintance rape as “Opinion of Feelings” does here.

In 1987, they released the Praise EP and fell completely off the hardcore punk wagon. It’s telling that as they became more pop sounding, they also become more explicitly political, especially in the liner notes. On the lyric insert for Praise they heap praise on Amnesty International, PETA, Citizen Alert, and Greenpeace, among others, and lob disdain at everything from The Reagan Administration to Rambo movies. The title song struck me as a stirring condemnation of American imperialism back then and I like it just as much today. Too bad it has become all too timely again. Some of these songs sounded much better (more raw) on the live One Plus One album that came out shortly thereafter.

Ourselves, released in 1988 and their slickest recording to date, was the turning point where my friend Keith Bullard (RIP) started making fun of them. I liked the album just fine back then although not quite as much in 2005. The slower ones try my patience nowadays. I like Bobby Adams spiderweb guitar sound (I stole that phrase from The Big Takeover‘s Jack Rabid who used it to describe Ron Emory’s guitar sound on TSOL’s Beneath the Shadows) on the faster ones. Glancing over the lyric sheet just now, I see that one song addresses Gandhi.

I heard no more of their recordings until my Zineith publisher gave me 1995’s The Music, The Message, their only major-label-subsidized release ever, the post-Nirvana irony being that this album was far less polished-sounding than Ourselves. It was a stripped-down return to their roots, although not quite a return to form as the songs aren’t as striking as the ones of The Crew, but ,still, I like this one far better now than I remember liking it then. How can I not love it when the opening song, “Ghost,” begs “Let’s do it for the frustration, aggravation, masturbation/ Let’s do it for the attention, fascination, education”? I was surprised at how many good songs I found (at least half of the sixteen here) upon revisiting this album.

Between 1995 and 1999, I think Kevin especially rediscovered what it was that made people love early 7 Seconds so much. 1999’s Good to Go was clearly not a “let’s do it for the masturbation” album. No, this album was done for the full-on make-up sex! It’s a complete return to form with tons of energy and, amazingly enough, inspiration tearing out of the speakers. Whereas at times The Music, The Message seemed weighted down with answer songs to their critics, on Good to Go they shine when Kevin’s singing about the kids or the old-timers who don’t understand the kids today or, of course, male chauvinism. It seemed so heartfelt I was wondering what they would follow it up with, but after 2000 they seemed to drop off the radar.

When I first got their latest, 2005’s Take It Back, Take It On, Take It Over!, I thought it wasn’t quite as good as Good to Go, but now I put them about even. Again, Kevin and the band are at their most convincing (for me anyway) when Kevin’s singing about the kids and the scene in a way that strikes me as both non-pandering and encouraging. I can’t think of any other old-school punk band still playing that devotes as much of their lyrics to this subject. Most of them aren’t that connected to the scene anymore except when their bands are on tour. I did an e-mail interview last year with a singer of another early ’80s hardcore band who could not disguise his lack of interest in anything related to the present scene unless it revolved around getting people to see his band’s then current tour. Kevin, on the other hand, sounds like an excited kid himself on “Our Core” when he sings, “Will someone make it happen, take time and work it out / Will people stand together, who’s gonna be the next to rise up/ Spread the message, spread the word?” Lest we think he’s living in the past, the chorus states clearly: “Don’t you tell me I’m being nostalgic/ I’m not looking to go back in time/ take it back, take it on, take it over, nothing more, just our core, re-defined.” And on “Big Hardcore Mystery,” I love how he bags on today’s new metal (that includes the music and the attitude) that calls itself hardcore: “some even tried to steal the name, but it was not the same.” “Y.P.H.,” which stands for “your parent’s hardcore,” as in “this is your parent’s hardcore,” is a big, fat anthem encompassing more statements of purpose but also an increasingly self-deprecating sense of humor: “Nobody here’s perfect, we’ve got flaws, I’m probably a bigger fuck-up than you’ll ever be, and yet we get through life together peacefully.” Again, this album is another unexpected stunner from a group many had written off years ago.

So what new insights did I gleam after the most extensive and prolonged listening I have ever done to their music? I think that Kevin is and always has been the punk conscience of the band. That is not to suggest that the other guys don’t posses their own unique punk consciences, but I think their devotion to being musicians outweighs their punk consciences in most instances. With Kevin, I believe the scenario is reversed. I am not stating that Kevin equals good and the other three equal bad. Visionary punk singers can prove to be difficult whereas the non-visionary, less rigid types in the band may be the more laidback guys you want to hang out with. Most really proficient musicians (and Steve Youth, Troy Mowat, and Bobby Adams certainly qualify for that description) get bored with the narrow limitations of punk and hardcore. When the band changed direction in the mid ’80s, it may well have been because the band was itching to stretch out musically. I know I once drove a good friend and drummer out of my old band because every time we would learn a new song he would try to play a drum beat that was too laidback for me. I’d always end up saying, “Yeah, that’s cool, but could you play something more driving and a little faster?” I suspect Kevin went along with the change back then because visionary punk guys can feel hemmed in and desire something different at times, too. It certainly happened to me. It was Kevin’s punk conscience that pushed the peacenik lyrics front and center as their music became more “radio friendly”; it was one way to feel connected to the rebellious spirit of their early days.

So, why did they return to their hardcore roots? Was it simply because there is a larger audience for that music now than there is for the Ourselves style and they wanted that audience’s money? I don’t think that’s actually the case. Being both the less typical musician and the punk conscience guy, the change fits Kevin the best. As for the other three, it may be a question of identity. For example, would you rather be known as the Steve Youth who played on The Crew or as the Steve Youth who played on Out the Schizzy? A musician that I had played in a band with for nearly four years before he quit recently told me that quitting our band had been hard for him. He said the band was “his whole identity.” I found this statement really surprising because we had not been a full-time band. We kept regular jobs the entire time and I never thought of us as being a hugely popular band. Yet, somehow being in our band defined him during that time. I can easily see how the same scenario would apply even more dramatically to Steve, Troy, and Bobby. They might really rather be playing some Sublime-style reggae (I’m just speculating here), but it’s their early hardcore punk songs that have endeared them to kids young and old. Kevin has released and will still release solo music that many punk fans won’t tolerate. Visionary punk singers do have the desire to push the musical envelope with their audience. See The Clash’s Sandinista for the Ultimate Visionary Punk Musical Challenge. For me, none of these things invalidates the music 7 Seconds is making today.

For you younger ones who weren’t around then, I have to say that when I think about my life in the ’80s, I don’t focus so much on the good times; I focus on the bad ones, or, more accurately, on all the missed opportunities. There are flaws and weaknesses in all of us that are not so easily changed and they hold us back all the time. With the passage of time and with hard work and some luck we may overcome some or most of these things. We can then look back and see more clearly what we missed because of our imperfections. Taking a cue from his more recent lyrics, I think Kevin feels he fucked up in the ’80s too. I’m not going to speculate on the hows or whats or whys. I don’t think he regrets any of the music that he made. I just get the feeling that he’s a better person now than he was then and knows that he could contribute something more valuable today if he could just be accepted as something other than an old guy singing his old songs. That’s why on “Our Core” he sings, “Who’ll make the comeback record, who’s going to be the one to make it all as great as it once was?” I don’t think that he’s out of touch and thinks that no one is making good hardcore punk music these days. I think he’s referring to the sense of community that hardcore punk once offered. There was a time when it wasn’t hardcore kids vs. punk kids vs. crusties vs. straight edge kids, and so on. He’s put aside enough of his ego that he doesn’t feel that he has to be the one to make that “comeback record,” but I think he loves hardcore punk enough that he wants to be more than a spectator when someone does.