Thursday, 27 April 2017

Top Tens: Omar from Racehorse's Top Ten Punk Rock Influences

Undoubtedly it’s a little presumptuous of me to list my own influences, given that my own small town band have yet to influence… well, anyone that I know of. But anyway, before we get started, I should probably get the shameless plug of my own band Racehorse out of the way. There’s three of us, we play alternative punk rock, and we’re loud but melodic. If that sounds like you’re thing then check us out on the link below.

But anyhow – to the list. I came to punk rock fairly early on, but it wasn’t until around fifteen or sixteen that I started on the stuff that would act as a gateway to the music that has ended up shaping the entire way I play, write, and listen to music, as well as probably shaped a lot of the way I am as a person. Trite, I know, but it is still the truth. This list has also proved to be something a little humbling for me, as if I’m brutally honest with myself, there is a band in here now that I’ve not listened to in years, as to my ear they simply no longer measure up. But they must be included, for it would be a vile artifice to only include critically lauded and punk-scene approved bands to make myself seem cool.

Also, a brief disclaimer – this is not done in order of preference, but rather chronologically. There are bands earlier on the list that are just as, if not more influential, than bands later on. Furthermore, if I am to write one of these in another five years, it’ll probably look completely different. And with that, we begin.

10. Rise Against

Full disclosure – this was the band I mentioned earlier. Maybe I’m just a fucking snob, but these days, I can’t think of a time in recent memory I listened to a Rise Against song all the way through. Lyrically and musically, to my ear they just don’t cut it for me anymore. But in my younger days, I adored them. ‘Revolutions Per Minute’ and ‘The Sufferer and the Witness’ underwent heavy rotation in my CD player, and in spite of my brother’s well-meaning attempts to teach me Red Hot Chili Peppers songs, I completely eschewed learning their catalogue because I found it too hard.

For better or worse, Rise Against gave me power chord heavy songs to which I could shift my two fingers into a basic shape and play along, subtlety or accuracy be damned, and this basically ended up being the style I started writing my first rubbish songs. They drilled me in the art of the chainsaw punk rock chord grind, a rite of passage for any budding punk rock guitarist, and I’ll always owe them for that. I might never listen to them with the same fervour ever again, but that’s OK. They’ve earned their place on this list.

9. The Ramones

They had to be on here somewhere, right? My brother had a copy of ‘It’s Alive’ and my teenage self promptly drove my mother up the wall, its relentless “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” attack filling me with boundless energy and her, by what I can only imagine was the twentieth repetition, to near insanity. Sorry, mum.

But either way, even though that album sort of blurs into one big mass, what a fucking great mass that is. Ramones’ classic sound showed me you could ditch punk’s didacticism from time to time and still undeniably kick arse. Johnny Ramone’s machinegun riffery only served to further strengthen my arm and reinforce my belief in the sheer power of distorted guitars. I could follow the tabs, and play some facsimile of them. But then the next band in this list came along, and flipped everything about the way I saw punk on its head.

8. Benton Falls

Further to the above, I now must confess that this quartet-then-trio from Santa Rosa then flipped my world on its axis yet another time. When Benton Falls entered my life, I was starting to have those dreaded bastards known as hormones make themselves particularly apparent. Now, at this point, many have turned to groups of – in my opinion – questionable repute to weather the storm. Hawthorne Heights, My Chemical Romance, you know the kind. So it was rather serendipitous that my brother brought home a CD from his then-girlfriend’s sister, which he’d borrowed, and like most music in his room, I then pinched it to put on my iPod. I never knew what hit me.

‘Guilt Beats Hate’ is one of those rare, emotionally crushing punk rock albums that is delivered with a deft touch as it is a clenched fist; one of the deciding factors in its power is undeniably Michael Richardson’s lyrical and vocal prowess. Discarding the keening wails of many of his younger, tighter-jeaned contemporaries, Richardson’s smooth baritone managed to actually sound like a man whose life was falling to pieces, especially when he broke into a powerful roar that was never overcooked or overused. Didn’t hurt that he was backed by an unstoppably tight rhythm section and could play circles around pretty much anyone in the early 00’s alt-punk boom, flitting between dazzling arpeggios to monster suspended chords and punk rock palm mutes, all in the same song, while always remaining heartfelt and melodic. I’ve spent about nine years trying to incorporate elements of his style into mine, and although I’ve never managed it completely, Benton Falls are a band that will never really leave me.

7. Fugazi

The very first time I listened to Fugazi, I didn’t really like it. Call it the folly of youth, but at the time it wasn’t immediately gratifying as something like Nirvana or At The Drive In, so I put it to one side. A few years later, I cast my eye back over that same copy of ’13 Songs’ that I had so stupidly tossed aside before, and decided to give it another chance. This decision ended up being one my better ideas, as I ended up so hooked that I quickly blazed through the entirety of the catalogue, spread as it was between my two older brothers.

Fugazi’s influence on me has been both profound and long lasting. They basically took the idea of whatever being ‘punk’ was and is and completely redefined it, while remaining wholly badass and as fiery as any other punk rockers you care to put them up against. They showed me that you don’t need to rip and tear all the time to make powerful music; that simmering, grinding atmospherics can and often are just as powerful; that you can and should completely divest from the supposed rules and conventions of the genres you love while making music of your own. Moreover, their DIY ethic and refusal to compromise is something that affected me greatly, and while I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate their staunch and unimpeachable outlook on their music and career in my own, it’s been rewarding enough to try.

6. Jawbreaker

The first time I listened to Jawbreaker was with their ode to a hangover classic, ‘Kiss The Bottle’, and at first I couldn’t quite understand what was going on, with the sludgy guitars lurching from chord to chord like a stumbling drunk and the vocal performance being more shot to hell and hoarse than Shane McGowan after a piss up. But the more I tried, the more I liked it. Its imperfections revealed themselves to be masterstrokes, lurking in disguise, and then just like that, I was an irritatingly obsessed Jawbreaker fan. And I mean irritating, as anyone who had the displeasure of knowing me during sixth form will know.

For you see, up until now, a lot of the songs I really liked and had been trying to learn had guitar lines in them I couldn’t or wouldn’t play, due to hamfistedness and lack of ability. Rise Against had long since been forgotten as I’d become tired of being preached to by my music – but Jawbreaker had the perfect blend of everything, and for the first time, I could just about play an entire album from start to finish. Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics skewered my heart and although I hadn’t been through a lot of the things he so richly described, the emotions were so naked and raw that it cut to the core of my being, ably supported by a fantastic rhythm section and beautifully simple but crushingly powerful riffs, a lesson I’ve taken deeply to heart. There has never been a band like them since. And, given recent news which I will be discussing in a later article, it seems that we’ll be in for a treat very soon.

5. Texas Is The Reason

Although this band didn’t quite hit me like the proverbial express train in the manner of Jawbreaker, it is without question that their influence upon me was very much disproportionate to the actual size of their discography. One entire album, an EP and three split singles, of which I only owned the full-length and the EP… but if MP3s could physically degrade, then I would have worn grooves into these like scratches from a wolverine. It got to the point where I’d just leave Do You Know Who You Are? on shuffle and repeat, as I never really skipped any of it.

Texas Is The Reason was formed out of the ashes of various hardcore punk bands, and they occupied a sonic nether zone which sounds fresh even to this day, because it wasn’t as bludgeoning as the hardcore bands that preceded them, but neither was it as scrubbed and mall friendly as some of what was to come later. There are some truly thuggish riffs on Do You Know... but there are also some really quite lovely melodies. My first band’s song that I was proud of wholesale ripped off their trick of taking the common metal guitar tuning, Dropped D, and using it for the easy access power/suspended chords that powered their unique blend of pop inflected turbocharged post-hardcore. Hell, I’ll even admit I just plain stole the pre-chorus riff from ‘Nickel Wound’ and reversed the damn thing… but for the first time, it sounded OK. A tragically short lived, but brilliant, band.

4. Bob Mould

My decision to list Bob Mould instead of Hüsker Dü here may ruffle a few feathers, but if I’m honest, it’s his post-Hüsker work that arguably had more of an impact on the way I write and play guitar to this very day. It seems that he underwent something of a punk renaissance in his twilight years, and now is kicking out albums that sound just as good blowing your ears off as they do strummed on an acoustic. I think it wouldn’t be a disservice to describe his style as explosively melodic, as while it’s undoubtedly thunderous, raging power punk, it’s always delivered with harmonies, hooks and choruses for days.

Mould’s style of distorted open chord work is something I’ve definitely pinched, and given that I’m now playing in a three piece myself, it’s a tactic that works extremely well to fill out a band, as the sheer wall of sound it generates can really make a song feel all-enveloping. Furthermore, his status as a punk elder statesman has really given his songs a certain gravitas that his younger compatriots can’t quite emulate, as his weathered, touching outlook on aging, loss and life itself is one from which we can all benefit. I probably would play guitar pretty differently without listening to him.

3. Hot Water Music

I could probably start and finish this section in a single sentence by saying that this is the only band that’s influenced me enough to get their logo tattooed on my shoulder. But I must caveat that by saying that it would have been Jawbreaker had I had the means and gumption to do so… but they were pipped to the post by this gang of Gainesville growlers. Alliterative joking notwithstanding, Hot Water Music’s gruff musical stylings and dry, concise lyrics came to me at a time when I needed some other ragged source of inspiration, and as trite as it may sound, they helped me through a lot of unhappier times at university.

On the face of it, Hot Water Music play straight up punk, but on second or third listen, you realise that there’s always a huge amount going on in every song; the guitar parts almost never play the same thing, broadening their impact and making it all the more aurally exciting, while the bass and drums are pretty much untouchable. Although I can’t claim to have written songs that even come close, it was their sense of being a true unit that resonated with me, as it’s never seemed like one member is the figurehead or ‘star’, so to speak. Even the way they position themselves on stage gives the impression that they want the spotlight shared equally, and it reflects in their music – frequent vocal harmonies, rasped with power and conviction, with interweaving parts and lyrics that never seem unreachable or portentous. Uncompromising in their music but never didactic, Hot Water Music made me a better person. No, really.

2. Leatherface

I think it speaks volumes in and of itself that Chuck Ragan from Hot Water Music lists Sunderland punks Leatherface’s 1991 record Mush in one of his favourite records of all time[1]. In fact, it was his ringing endorsement that encouraged me to buy that very same record, and I’m very glad I did. Leatherface’s music is somehow as throat burningly raw as it is poignant, often within the course of the same song, a trick which when pulled off with their uniquely English aplomb is nothing short of devastating. Frankie Stubbs’ Tom Waits-ish growl lent their music a bloodied-but-unbowed, everyman edge, while his lyrics flirt with the abstract and the absurd as much they do outright heart-on-sleeve aching sadness.

Although I’ll never claim that I even sound a tiny bit like Stubbs, they’ve certainly strengthened the brew of influences from which I steal with a flavour that is all their own, and they give me a reason to be proud of England in a current climate where those are dwindling fast. If you want proof or a reason to call me out for plagiarism, listen to their tune ‘Not Superstitious’ from Mush and then listen to ‘Attrition’ from Racehorse’s self titled EP. It’s all there, as it is in legions of scowling punks across the world – in the words of Stubbs himself, ““It’s all about the sound […] You know, making the guitar go, AAAAARRRRRAAAARRRRGH!”[2]. Often imitated, never bettered.

1. Propagandhi

Now I should probably come right out here and admit that not only can I barely play any Propagandhi songs, I’m not even close to being vegan. These facts notwithstanding, I think it’s safe to say Propagandhi are my current band du jour. Their blend of metal’s precision with punk’s fuck-you attitude is starkly their own, with a lyrical bite and sarcasm that at times recalls the weapons-grade satire of the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra. Chris Hannah, whether by himself or backed up by the eminently capable David Guillas or Sulynn Hago, is a frighteningly gifted guitarist, and its his unabashed technical prowess that has, in some small way, been nudging me to finally try and actually practice guitar with some regularity rather than defeatedly telling myself I’ll never get any better.

Furthermore, for a band with a hilarious, piss-taking name and what appears a simple thrash-and-bash approach to explosively raw punk, they frequently come out with some astoundingly beautiful chord progressions amongst the machine-gunned palm mutes, albeit delivered as fast as a prizefighter’s jab – listen to ‘Mate Ka Moris Ukun Rasik An’ from 2001’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes for just one example. Propagandhi reawakened my liking of politics in my music, something from which I had shied away from for years. Call it a mistake, call it what you will, but it’s lucky they did, because there’s plenty around that we need to be both informed and fucking angry about at the moment. Perhaps they came just at the right time.

So ends the list. Hope you enjoyed reading it; if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of at least a few of the bands mentioned. Why not dust off an old favourite and give it another spin?