Wednesday, October 31, 2018

400 Pounds of Punk: The Lost "He Once Ate a Small Child" Cassette

400 Pounds of Punk

He Once Ate a Small Child

scum stats: if there are more than twenty of these out there, I'd be shocked. I'd bet less than half that

As a primer for this post, it helps to have already read this piece...

Ok, ok, ok...Cassette Store Day has come and gone and to help celebrate the meaningless event, I'll talk about an actual real live cassette here that is virtually unknown.

I went to school with Scott Riker, the guitar player in 400 Pounds of Punk. I'd heard in the halls there was someone else who liked Nirvana to an unhealthy degree. We chatted a bit, probably traded some bootlegs (back then I had the Into the Black 6 x CD boxset which made me particularly cool to a specific subset of dorks...I actually still have it, so you know, if you're a dork).

Scott played guitar and told me he had a band called 400 Pounds of Punk. At that same time, my buddy Nick and I had a band we were calling the Rags. Sophomore year. 1997-1998.

In a totally unrelated world, my uncle Jack was starting his band the White Stripes. One of their first shows was opening for the band Rocket 455. Jeff Meier, one of the guitarists in Rocket, struck up a friendship with Jack. I remember, clearly, being at Jack's house in Southwest Detroit while Jeff was there hanging out. Jack said, "Hey Jeff, what's the name of your nephew's band we're recording tomorrow?" to which Jeff replied "400 Pounds of Punk."

I was gobsmacked. Of all the suburban teenage bands out there, how in the HELL were these guys, to which I had mentally self-invented a rivalry, recording with MY uncle?

It took me all of five seconds to simmer down. I probably used the perceived slight to practice more. Whatever.

Jeff's nephew, Mike Audia, was the drummer in 400 Pounds of Punk. Jamie Cherry was the singer, but I'm not sure if he was anyone's nephew.

The session seemed to go smooth from what I gathered. Jack and Jeff probably worked together with the engineering duties. While only five songs were on the released cassette, the full session contained a few more, including covers of Nirvana's "Drain You" and "Endless, Nameless."

Me and Nick, as the Rags, would go to Jack's house a few months later and record our two Nirvana covers, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" and, duh, "Drain You."
(seriously, if you don't like "Drain You", you're not a REAL Nirvana fan)

The master reel for 400 Pounds of Punk is dated 1-3-98, and even though I would've thought the session took place as much as a month or two earlier, I do need to resign myself to the fact that there can very easily be gaps in my memory.

My biggest take away from all of this is...thank god for cool uncles guiding aimless punk nephews. Should I ever have a nephew, I will happily repay my debt to society. Second, I was as pretty shitty drummer. Probably still am. Mike is SOOOO good on the tape, blast beats and fills for days. Literally did not feel like a teenager should be able to play so good. Third takeaway...why didn't I ask Jack to sing with us??!?!?! Duh. Big regret over here.

Jeff plays the sick guitar solo/lead on the cover of "One Way Or Another" and I'm pretty sure this is the only recording ever with both Jack and Jeff performing together. A nice capture of a brief moment in time that was seemingly forgotten/ignored for far too long.

400 Pounds of Punk later changed their name to the Surgeon Generals and actually released a CD on a label either called Jeff Row or Jeth Row or some weird play on that phrase. Like this cassette, there is NO info to be found about that CD anywhere, but I know there's a copy of it in my basement somewhere. Nick and I played the same bill as them, the only time Nick and I ever took the stage together, for Notre Dame High School battle of the bands. Spring of '99. We lost, so did Surgeon Generals, this pretty boy named Ian had a band that did all Creed covers and cleaned up.

Nick and I were joined by Larry on bass and we did covers like Nirvana "Sliver" and "Dive" and then other things like "Louie Louie." I remember not feeling great about the performance. I wanted us to look sharp, so I brought a bunch of suit coats and ties for us to try class up the joint. In one of the most beautiful memories of my life, Larry's back is facing me, fiddling with a tie, turns around and says "How's this look?"

He was wearing a navy blue corduroy jacket, a tie, and no shirt. It was beautiful. This is what passed for rebellion in an all-boys Catholic high school. Never mind that Nick, our vocalist, started the show with a call to the crowd to come closer to the stage, "Come one, come and straight alike." I thought we were gonna get pulled off-stage before even playing note one. I think my bass drum kept sliding away, songs didn't go off as planned, I was frustrated. I had them introduce us as The Mindbenders for some reason. Ugh. Sixteen is a bitch.

I'm sure there's more to be told, but the girls are swinging from the rafters. It's amazing I was able to write this at all.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why I Hate Discogs - OR - Stop Making Me Want Records I Didn't Previously Know Existed

This was originally for the Discogs blog, hence the prominent deprecation of the brand.
I’ve got enough I’m searching out already. I’ve got my hands full — from unknown, forgotten and unheralded discs from the region of my birth (Detroit, MI) spanning all popular musical formats to diving way too deep into local spoken word releases, ethnic Serbian and Croatian songsSpanish language conjuntos from Mexicantown, Arabic language 78s and everything in between. I will never be able to buy (or even just catalog) all the records that I want and that’s a terrible feeling I still can’t come to grips with.
But every once in a while, I’ll cruise through master release lists on Discogs for titles I’m already quite well in possession of. Started off with the MC5 and the Stooges…a maple leaf on the back cover of Canadian pressings, a size/typeface change, the most minuscule label variations. These things got me pumped. But it’s a tricky game. How far does one go? How different does it have to be for me to care?
There’s no right or wrong answer here, but I can say this compulsion has driven me further than I’d ever anticipated.
Ben Blackwell organizing his record collectionPhoto by Eilon Paz for Dust & Grooves.
One day last year I was cruising through the master list for Nirvana’s In Utero and was surprised to see an In Utero cassette that originated from Saudi Arabia. Even more surprising was the cover art that completely censored the musculature of the female body depicted on the front cover, almost as if to partially appropriate the chador worn by some Muslim women. Sure, the face, arms, feet and wings were exposed, but everything in between was blacked out.
This FASCINATES me. Just in the same way that the Russian copy of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nationfascinates me. While said release is unofficial, the fact that the wizards over at Antrop whittled down the double LP to a single LP is shocking. The fact that, rather than depict the Gerhard Richter painting of a candle on the front cover and instead just put a picture of a candle, the cover is absolutely beautiful. In communist Russia, candle lights you! They didn’t have time to try and use the real cover. They just had to make do with the materials they had at hand. I love this approach.
The quest to track down a copy became a mission. With some help, I even had Diogenes_the_Fox on the case. Ultimately, a copy would show up on an eBay auction in March, paired with a Saudi cassette copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind as well. I put in an insane bid immediately. A few days later, I noticed a copy of the Saudi In Utero for sale on Discogs. A little bit cheaper than the starting price on the eBay auction, I figured “what the hell?” and just bought it outright. The auction was soon removed, and I was happy the search had only lasted me about six months.
Ben Blackwell with his record collectionPhoto by Eilon Paz for Dust & Grooves.
Until I did some digging and through saved screen grabs I was able to find out that the Saudi Arabian cassette of Nevermind (which did not have a Discogs entry at the time) actually has a DIAPER drawn on to cover the penis of the baby depicted as swimming on the album artwork.
Reached out to my Discogs seller and of course, he was the guy selling on eBay as well. I ended up paying MORE money that had I just gone through with the auction as I bid in the first place, but nevertheless, just shy of a month later I was happily in the possession of these two weird, quasi-unbelievable artifacts of one of my favorite bands and an authoritarian regime that isn’t SO bad as to completely ban or outlaw Western culture — but they’ll be damned if you get to see any naughty bits in the process.
Were it not for Discogs, I would have never even known these records EXISTED, let alone be able to track them down. That is both a blessing and a curse. I accept it happily.
Ben Blackwell with rare cassettes

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Lost and Found Playlist...

The kind folks at the Detroit Institute of Arts asked me if I could provide a soundtrack to their current Lost and Found exhibit, highlighting vernacular and found photography spanning from the 1860's through the 1970's. I decided to focus on lost and found recordings from the second half of the 20th century. From Detroit. That didn't get flagged by Soundcloud's content management filter.


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Future of Vinyl Discussion with Anthony Fantano...58 Excruciating Minutes of It

Seems like Fantano "The Internet's Busiest Music Nerd" has a bit of a following. Also seems like I need to figure out whether I need to look at MY picture or HIS picture when speaking on Skype. Apologies for my less-than-crystalline audio one told me I needed a fancy microphone.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

My Recommendations from 20 Years Ago Are Still Rock Solid...

Junior year of high school, Spring of 1998, a classmate named Al told me that he'd found a record store that sold local music. In one of the coolest questions ever asked of me, he said "What should I buy?"

Good thing the store was Car City Records, which basically served as my reason for being back then.

The scan above is the hand-written notes and recommendations I gave him back when I was still sixteen years old.

(Pay no attention to Ass Ponys, Mud Hunnie, Pestiside, Blood Rust, The Reble Rousers, Punk U, My Ass the Vampire, NoFX, KRS-One or Suicide Machines...he must've been getting info from some other punks who's tastes seem to not have aged as well.)

Al posted this on Instagram recently and I was shocked at how much I STILL stand by all of these claims and suggestions twenty years later. Either I'm extremely stunted, incredibly reliable, or a combination of the two.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

How A Letter From A Failing Independant Record Label Buoyed The Self-Esteem of a Clueless 15-year-old Virgin and Set Him on a Path of Vinyl Righteousness...

Pulled this one out of the basement recently and was shocked at how responsive, thoughtful and courteous the entire conversation was. When I emailed some of my friends at Sub Pop, their initial response was "Uh oh, how mean a reply was it?"

But this simple letter, along with some "Powered by Sub Pop" stickers, two Eric's Trip pins, something promotional for the Blue Rags (guitar picks? I can't exactly remember) was just the slightest nudge I needed to venture further into the world of independent record labels and mail order. I was 15 years old. I was already asking for classic albums on vinyl. I was salty that the address on the Foo Fighters first album never wrote back to me.  I thought I was clever telling Sub Pop they were "swell."

I can never remind myself enough, but the smallest gesture can sometimes have the largest, most unexpected impact. Deep down inside, I don't think I would be on the exact path I'm on today 21 years later had I not received such a caring letter from a record label I adored.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Dirtbombs Live, University of Toronto radio, July 31st, 1997

A garage rock time capsule to say the least.

Unheard since 1997, please relish in a time in the not-too-distant past where I was actually not a member of the Dirtbombs. The performance is the EXACT reason why I fell in love with the band and the interview with Mick is revelatory. I could go on and on, but just trust me when I say it's worth the listen. Much respect to Allyson Baker, the then-teenaged CIUT DJ (and now dear friend) who was able to convince these guys to do this performance and was smart enough to tape it! University of Toronto radio...hell yeah.