the bands to emerge from the early Los Angeles punk scene in the late
1970s, the Germs might be the most legendary. Along with groups like X,
Fear, and the Weirdos, they pioneered a form of Southern Californian
underground music even more vicious and stripped-down than the London
and New York acts that first made punk a vital force in the mid-'70s.
Unlike many of their peers, they had the opportunity to capture part of
their legacy on a full-length album, at a time when the scene was
woefully under-documented on vinyl. Although they released other tracks
on seven-inches and compilations, 1979's (GI) was the only LP they'd put out
prior to singer Darby Crash's death in December 1980, and remains the
core of their slim discography.
The band had
issued a couple seven-inches before (GI)
that were recorded under relatively primitive conditions. Their 1977
debut single combined a two-track home recording on the A-side
with a live cut on the flip,. Guitarist Pat Smear didn't even own an
amplifier when they did 1978's Lexicon
Devil EP, making it necessary for him to play his instrument
directly into the soundboard. For (GI),
however, they'd have three weeks of sessions at L.A.'s Quad Tech
Studios, with a superstar-in-the-wings serving as producer.
Their original choice, surprisingly, was the former lead singer of Paul Revere & the Raiders. "Darby wanted to get Mark Lindsay, because Mark Lindsay was pretty great," remembers drummer Don Bolles (who had yet joined the Germs on their earlier releases). "He did a really good job with some of that Paul Revere & the Raiders stuff. Some of those singles just leap out of the speakers. They're really loud, good-sounding records that kick butt. But he wanted, like, our whole recording budget, which was about ten grand, I think. Then we had this discussion — well, who's our most famous friend that would do it for kind of cheap? The answer was Joan Jett, who Darby and Pat had hung out with for years. I hung out with her after I moved here. She was a riot."
At the time Jett worked on (GI), the Runaways had just split, and she had yet to release her first solo album. "She did a really good job," emphasizes Bolles. "She knew what to do. She worked with [producer] Kim Fowley [in the Runaways], and she's a smart girl, she pays attention. And Kim Fowley is a fucking genius of some sort. There's nobody like him. We liked the Runaways a lot, and she hadn't started her solo thing yet, really. People say she passed out; I think yeah, well, once she went to sleep on the couch. But she did her job as a producer quite well. Like she'd tell Pat when he was out of tune, or tell us when one take was better than another take. She just basically listened and kept an ear on what was going on, listening to us through the speakers and helping us stay objective. And I think it really worked."
With its buzzsaw Smear guitar riffs, aggressive Crash-ing vocals, and hell-bent rhythm section, (GI) might have sounded extremely raw to the average 1979 rock listener. Just as unusually, a dozen of the sixteen songs clocked in at less than two minutes, though the epic closer "Shut Down (Annihilation Man)" lasted almost ten. But for all its uncompromising lack of slickness, it was also the result of quite a bit of work, both in and out of the studio. "We practiced at least three days a week for like five, six hours, I think," points out Bolles. "We did those songs a lot, until they were good. By the time we did the album, we were pretty good. Then we went in and recorded 'em live, with Pat and [bassist] Lorna [Doon] and I all playing at the same time live, in a room. I was in a drum booth. It was a little bit tricky that way, but we got the stuff in a very minimal amount of takes and it all sounded pretty good."
Though (GI) sounded like little that had preceded it in either mainstream or underground, some of the Germs' influences went far beyond the rigid boundaries of hardcore punk. "I brought some records in, like [a] Van der Graaf Generator album, the first King Crimson album, the second Roxy Music album, and the first Fall album. And said, 'I want my drums to sound like that," he laughs, "all of those. I think I brought in Lou Reed's Berlin too. It really did have kind of a Van der Graafy sound, in a way, without so much reverb. Sure, we were the Germs, but we were really into other stuff. Pat really liked Yes a lot, and Queen. I really liked Van der Graaf Generator a lot, and Faust and Neu!, those kind of bands. Hippie art-noise, as Darby would call it. Darby really liked Bowie. Everybody liked Public Image, everybody liked Bowie."
As for Smear's guitar work, Bolles adds, "The guy was a savant at the guitar, and not an idiot, either. Pat had all these overdubs in his mind, all the ones that are on the record. We had never heard any of that, because we had been practicing the songs with him playing the one guitar. He'd be, 'Run it back, let me do a harmony to that, and let me double that.'" There could have been more overdubs, as for some tracks, "Pat mixed his guitar solos out. That was crazy. 'Let's Pretend' and 'Strange Notes' had really great guitar solos. But he took 'em out because he was embarrassed." Why? "'Cause it was punk rock. He didn't think there should be guitar solos. That was like some kind of tenet in the punk rock scripture."
Don missed the mix, he continues, because "I went to work on the Rock'n'Roll High School film as an extra to get a little bit of money. The next time I heard the songs was on the record when it came out. And I'm like, 'Dude, what did you do with your guitar solos?' 'Oh yeah, those. I mixed 'em out.' I'm like, 'Jesus, no.' I still haven't gotten used to hearing it like that. I think it sounds good, though."
Sums up Bolles, "We knew exactly what to do, for some reason. We were driven by a force greater than ourselves to do these things, and we were justified by whatever it was. We saw it as important, and we worked our asses off to make it not suck. We were less than perfect as musicians, especially myself and maybe Lorna at the time, [though] she got to be really good. That album really did surprise a lot of people. Because [at] the Germs' live shows, everything was just crazy. You couldn't hear the vocals a lot of times, and it was just this crazy feedback and noise, even when the band was good."
The packaging nearly didn't come out quite as the Germs wanted. "The album cover almost was jelly beans and meat spelling out 'The Germs,'" says an amused Bolles. "Oh hell no, not for a second! We had an emergency band meeting when we found out that that's what [Slash Records chief Bob] Biggs wanted it to be. We went to my apartment and [were] just like, 'What are we gonna do? We gotta come up with something better.' And we did, right there. Darby came up with the blue circle on black, and I wanted it to say Germs, have those white lines, and have this circle be in the lower right corner. Darby wanted to call it (GI)."
In the Los Angeles Times, Richard Meltzer hailed (GI) as "the album of the year," "the most staggering recorded statement so far from the American branch of new wave," and "the most remarkable L.A. studio achievement at least since [the Doors'] L.A. Woman." But sales were limited, as was airplay, though it got some spins on Rodney Bingenheimer's influential show on L.A.'s KROQ. Released on Slash a few years before it could really benefit from the growing network for indie punk record distribution and college radio exposure, it was fated to be more of an influence in decades to come. Smear, of course, went on to success with both Nirvana and Foo Fighters, as did Jett as a solo artist, with Bolles remaining active with his current band, Fancy Space People.
"We felt our thing was for real," muses Don when asked about (GI)'s durability. "Darby had this great power to draw people's minds into his thing. The hearts and minds of the people were often his wherever he went. It was more like a secret society bent on world domination than it was a band. The person at this T-shirt company that we deal with said every generation of 15-year-olds rediscovers the Germs." – Richie Unterberger
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