Sunday, June 24, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #006 - 'kill from the heart' by dicks

So there are some cultural narratives around certain genres of music like hardcore punk that I'd like to think this series at least has taken a small step in helping demystify, and today we're going to be talking about one of the more complicated ones: homosexuality in hardcore. Because just within the classic records I've covered so far we've heard gay slurs, and while the majority of the artists seem to regret them now, it's just as important to understand this was the early 1980s. It was Reagan's America, hypermasculinity was in, and hardcore punk was very much a boys club, and even though we're talking about a genre that trended left, I wasn't remotely surprised to see those slurs pop up among young guys looking to be as blunt and edgy as possible.

But that did not mean that there weren't gay artists in hardcore, and while I wasn't originally hoping for this record to top the poll for this month, given that it's Pride Month I'm kind of happy it did. That's right, folks, it's time we talk about one of the foundational albums in queercore, hardcore punk that tried to take a stridently progressive angle when it came to sexuality and gender and bringing it with as much fury as any of their more conventionally oriented counterparts. Hailing from Texas of all places and well-known for a drunken live show and their prominent socialist bent - and again, this was in 1983 - a band in Austin started as a joke by their openly gay frontman Gary Lloyd until singles and records proved otherwise, today we're going to be talking about The Dicks, and their full-length debut album Kill From The Heart, and this is Resonators!

So the first important thing to note with Kill From The Heart is that, like with other hardcore acts, it was pulling on different sounds to push it outside of the traditional sound, specifically from blues rock. And honestly I'm a bit surprised that didn't happen earlier - the band was signed to SST, and with Spot producing to give the fatter bass a firmer position within the mix, a pivot towards blues riffs seems a natural step, especially given The Dicks were a little slower than your average hardcore band. Or to put it another way, it's not every day a hardcore punk ends their record with an eleven-and-a-half minute punk and blues breakdown where the bass breakdowns are as prominent as the thinner, jagged slices of distorted guitars. And when you factor in Gary Lloyd's thicker drawl - vaguely reminiscent of Jello Biafra's yelping but with some thicker, heavier twang, it was a fusion that made a fair amount of sense, even if you could definitely make the argument that the band might have been a bit too sloppy for their own good and said final song definitely runs out of momentum by the end. And yes, some of that residual sloppiness does mean that certain cuts here feel abortive or a little undercooked - compared to Black Flag or Descendants or Minor Threat, The Dicks are not quite as immediately catchy or sharp or composed - more a broad wallop of a hardcore group rather than cutting more deeply.

And that also is a very apt descriptor for a lot of their songwriting as well - to put it bluntly, while The Dicks claimed to be pretty far to the left, we're not talking anything close to the anarcho-punk scene of the early 80s like Crass, The Subhumans, or early Chumbawamba - more broad anti-establishment shots with the sort of openly violent language that didn't really care who got caught in the crossfire. The police are by far the biggest target and often directly equated with The Klan - in the American South in the early 80s, that's not unfeasible - or Nazis but then you get songs like 'Bourgeois Fascist Pig' and 'Rich Daddy' and they are about exactly what you think they are with a lot of murderous intent. And songs like 'Right Wing/White Ring' that are calling out the common person who cries if their kids die in foreign wars highlighting people to be aware of the consequences... look, it's not exactly populist, and that's kind of a problem when you're trying to drive political and social change. But you have to wonder whether the Dicks even considered those deeper implications, because then you get songs like 'Marilyn Buck', a reference to the hard-left radical activist who spent most of her life in jail for robbery, jailbreaks of fellow activists including Assata Shakur who later took asylum in Cuba, and who in the same year was convicted of bombing the United States Senate in the Resistance Conspiracy protesting U.S. invasions of Lebanon and Grenada - and it's very clear The Dicks are at least sympathetic to her. And look, it seems like with every passing month I move further to the left, but domestic terrorism doesn't exactly help that argument along, and while I doubt The Dicks knew any of this - the Resistance Conspiracy wasn't charged until 1988 - it doesn't reflect well upon them. And then there's 'Pigs Run Wild' - and yes, I get what it's trying to call attention to with police brutality towards the black community and the open dehumanization of what many perceived as a war and a coming of a far left revolution... but when the Dicks are using the n-word with the hard 'r' in order to place themselves as stand-ins for that position against a more pronounced blues edge... look, even in 1983 in Texas that was probably not okay.

Now what threw me off-guard was how little queer content there is... and yet there's a part of me kind of glad for that, because while we get subtext on songs like 'Rich Daddy', the most explicit example is 'Little Boy's Feet' - and again, I get that this is 1983 in Texas in hardcore punk and that Gary Lloyd is trying to shock, but shouting about how turned on you are by the feet of teenage boys doesn't exactly age well or look good for the LGBTQ community thirty-five years later. Granted, given how The Dicks write songs I'm not sure I'd want to hear them address something like the growing AIDS epidemic - which was very much a thing in 1983 - but the fact that I can make that statement highlights the biggest problem with Kill From The Heart: for as much passion and intensity as you get, it's formless and once you get past the blunt provocation it doesn't really cut as deeply. Yeah, there are solid cuts here - 'Rich Daddy' plays into a borderline country melody with a really great hook, the fuzzy blues stomp of 'No Nazi's Friend' connects well, as do the grinding riffs on the title track, they actually do a pretty solid hardcore cover of Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze', and even despite some uncomfortable racial politics 'Pigs Run Wild' is still catchy as hell - but later on the track list you get 'Anti-Klan, Pt.2', which is very much like the first part that opens the record but with a sloppier, more acoustic arrangement that's nowhere as strong. And some of this might be the band just misunderstanding their strengths - Gary Floyd might be one hell of a frontman, but Glen Taylor and Buxf Parrot are the hidden stars of this group trading guitar and bass, and Spot's production does wonders to highlight it, and for as much as 'Dicks Can't Swim' meanders, it makes you wonder if the band played to a tighter, groove-driven vibe they might have been more successful... but digging deeper into how the band described their composition process meant that added level of focus and insight probably wasn't on the table. Hell, the band mostly left hardcore by their second album These People, which leaned even heavier into blues and also got a lot more political - yes, even than this.

But as a whole... of all the acts that I've covered thus far, The Dicks were one of the ones that left me the most conflicted, because I wanted to love this... and I don't. For research purposes I actually found the documentary The Dicks From Texas that tells the band's story mostly through lo-fi VHS interviews with the band, fans, and friends, and that more than anything helped define that DIY appeal of the group in Austin, slapdash lightning in a bottle that captured a lot of furious intensity and provocation... but on the other hand if it wasn't for riding the hardcore wave or the reputation of radical politics or providing the first snapshot of queercore, I'm not sure how much this record would have lasted in the cultural memory beyond just a strong local band. But on the other other hand, so much of hardcore relied on raw intensity more than anything else that sometimes that can be enough to become local legends or maybe even a bit more. So for me... I definitely don't love this, but I understand why Kill From The Heart stuck around, which is why I'm giving this a very light 7/10 and a recommendation, but a bit less so than the other acts. They're definitely a band worth remembering for real, radical provocation at a difficult time for punks and LGBTQ people, and on some level, you do have to respect that.

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