“The Gospel According to…” Presents…Old Skull – Get Outta School
Culture Fusion is proud to present the work of Jonathan Brodsky, the frontman and composer for Canadian group The Orchid Show and one of the premiere Canadian underground rock and roll intellects. Jonathan’s knowledge of obscure music is practically unmatched as is his savage wit and inherent understanding of his topics. He will be a Sunday regular here.
Today he delves deeply into the past, present and future of punk n’roll by discussing the inherently crude yet endlessly fascinating world of Old Skull. The review follows the picture.
Punk rock has long been derided as a pastime of the inept.
Indeed, the long-espoused cliché that punk is the sound of the common man – as well as the notion that ‘anyone can play guitar’ – could certainly lend the unaware reader to conclude that the results of such an endeavour would more heavily lean towards exercises atonal chaos than anything of musical value.
But let’s take a brief look at the history of punk: while everyone seems to have a different opinion on its genesis, it ostensibly began as an American extension of both ’60s domestic garage rock and British R&B (a genre which once described the sounds of bands like The Who and The Kinks more than that of R. Kelly and Usher). This sound influenced bands as disparate as The Velvet Underground and The Stooges (retroactively categorized as ‘proto-punk’), who in turn influenced a second generation of like-minded bands who had a more chordal-based approach to their songwriting and placed a higher premium on their aesthetic presentation (The New York Dolls, The Sweet, etc.).
The marriage of a conscious image to the emancipation of blues-derived rock from its structural tropes begat a separate generation of musicians who – although not the most virtuous players relative to the prog-rockers of the time – were certainly competent (if not occasionally fledgling). And it’s not like it was truly unsalable – of the mid-’70s NYC Bowery/CBGBs scene, a surprising majority of the acts were snapped up by major labels – most prominently Sire, with Arista, Chrysalis, and Elektra, etc. Heck, off the top of my head, the only ‘legendary’ band of that time and place who eluded a corporate contract were art-damaged duo Suicide, who were especially against the musical grain of even that motley crew and were mostly considered punk due to their association with other acts of the time, as well as frontman Alan Vega’s confrontational behavioural toward their audiences.
However, no matter what anyone else concludes (I think that side 2 of German band Neu!’s 3rd album, Neu! ’75, qualifies as the first time that all the elements of ‘punk’ came together on record), ‘punk’ as widely understood stands in sharp dichotomy to the party line. If anyone can truly make punk, why is it that the bands that defined the term for many were, in actuality, surprisingly talented in terms of both their ability to write strong songs and perform them faithfully in a concert setting?
This is because punk, as defined, was a marketing tool. It’s not that it wasn’t youth music (although, admittedly, it was the early hardcore movement that first offered an honest subculture of rebellion to youth), but it was music that took advantage of its aesthetic qualities to present a portrait that, while not inauthentic, was based more in a fantastical interpretation of reality than reality itself. Even the hardcore movement, as based in truth and principle as it was, was rife with talent – though said talent might not be as immediately recognizable behind the blinding speeds and rough, low-budget aesthetic.
If 1976 was when ‘punk’ formed, when did punk as written happen?
Given the wasteland of private-press releases and horrible bands that never got recognition beyond their basements and friends’ ‘zines, I don’t think that anyone can truly pinpoint an exact moment, but if one thing has recently come to my attention, it’s that there was one band that completely typified the essence of punk as conceived.
And they were three tow-headed children from Wisconsin who, for lack of equivalent academic language, were shit.
But, much like a fly, I tend to wind up in the orbit of shit when I seek out art that entertains me, and as such, anything that threatens to compromise or challenge an art form by merely existing under the header of its classification is mighty appealing to me. As such, Old Skull’s 1989 debut album, Get Outta School, is a compelling listen, even aside from the novelty of its circumstances.
And those circumstances were as such: Wisconsin punk-scene mainstay Vern Toulon’s two pre-pubescent sons, Jean-Paul and Jamie, started a band with their friend Jesse Collins-Davies. This seems unremarkable so far: a lot of kids feel the inclination to play music at some point in their development, and given the nature of their fathers’ interests (Collins-Davies’ stepfather was a member of SST alumnus Tar Babies), the opportunity to do so was more available to them than most.
This is where the normality of the scenario drops off.
Given the sort of music that these children were in all likelihood subjected to due to the punk predilections of their parents, it’s not surprising that their sheer lack of musical ability didn’t turn them away from their aspirations. What was surprising was that Restless Records, a Californian record label with a rather eclectic stable of bands (their contemporary labelmates included The Dead Milkmen, The Flaming Lips, and Devo), signed the band.
Although their collective age was 29 (and they played as poorly as this entailed), the trio tackled surprisingly mature content, though they often revealed their lack of true familiarity with the subjects (‘What is AIDS?/Will I get them?’). This led some people to wonder how involved their parents were with the songwriting; while I don’t dispute that the Toulons were likely prodded towards dealing with certain subjects, the results are authentically juvenile – most lyrics come off like a 4th-grader’s book report. As well, given that Vern Toulon is credited with some of the more refined lyrics on their sophomore effort (wherein the word ‘spics’ is misread by the vocalist as ‘spice’), the structural patterns of the lyrics on Get Outta School tend to evoke a similar pace, vocabulary, and similar disregard for logic (‘How do you kill a dead eagle?/Just kill it.’) throughout its half-hour running time. This is certainly the work of children, albeit crust-punk kids who are a fridge short of being able to hang their drawings.
I’ve spent all of this time building an atmosphere so that I can tackle the music last, and this is because there’s not much one can say about it. It is truly punk beyond any of the music played by celebrated punk bands at the time of the term’s genesis: there is little regard for any metrical convention, key signature is an afterthought, and rhythm isn’t even a consideration. Jesse Collins-Davies’ drumming is more concerned with hitting the drums as opposed to considering why (or when) he’s doing so, and the Toulons’ instruments (guitars on every song, scant keyboards on a select few) offer nothing beyond rudimentary, chugging aleatory. The tracks are engaging due to their sheer abandon, but rarely demarcated from one and other.
Perhaps the easiest musical points of reference to make here are between Kidz Bop™ and Crass; the naïvety and childishness of the former are paired with the chaotic free-improvisation playing reminiscent of the latter’s underrated magnum opus, ‘Yes, Sir, I Will’. The two records even share a certain modus operandi – politically-charged lyrics are shouted arbitrarily and aperiodically over a spastic backdrop that serves to simultaneously propel and bury the message, but where Crass are educated and militant, Old Skull are young and half-informed. For me, it’s comedic that two bands of such disparate composition and degree of purpose arrived at similar aural conclusions. That being said, the Crass album obviously stands as the superior document, but it took them 5 albums to get there: Old Skull were everything ugly about punk’s manifesto from the get-go, and all that it took was moderate effort and minimal skill.
Sadly, by the time of 1993’s ‘C.I.A. Drug Fest’, Old Skull had left the purity of their salad days behind: Jesse was grounded by his parents for a month and was thrust from the band due to his inability to violate his punishment, and in his stead, the Toulons became a rather adequate (for their years) rhythm section, enlisting a new guitarist and vocalist (also similarly aged) for Old Skull. The playing (and writing) became a little more competent, likely owing equal debts to the years they spent playing in between LPs as well as the songwriting assistance of Vern Toulon on a handful of tracks. Old Skull were still certainly punk – and still more punk than most identified as such – but in adhering to the musical conventions that went beyond their consideration on Get Outta School, they left the impermeable purity of their uncompromising inaccessibility behind.
And then they did a bunch of drugs and died.