Dirt-Cheap Punk Rock Samplers: Like Puberty of the Soul

The recent news of Tony Sly’s passing hit me surprisingly hard. It’s weird, because No Use for a Name was never one of my favorite bands. I only ever owned “Leche Con Carne” and “More Betterness”, two solid albums of hook-laden skate-punk with average playing and decent lyrics. I liked them fine when I was a kid, but I was never a huge fan of the band– rather, I was a fan of that sound, of that scene, and NUFAN kind of came with the package. So did a few other bands of that era that provided sufficient power-chord thrills but failed to make a lasting impact on me. For every Strung Out or NOFX or Bad Religion, there was a plethora of interchangeable soundalikes.

So what was it about Tony’s death, and the likely disbanding of NUFAN, that made me so sad? I thought about it for a while and realized that it had less to do with how much NUFAN impacted my life and more with when. Because I didn’t learn about No Use for a Name from the internet, like I would now learn about some small indie-rock act. No, NUFAN represents a very exciting time in my life, discovering an assload of new, obscure bands that none of my friends in Barranquilla had ever even heard of , upon a life-changing visit to the US during my early teens.

I remember it very well. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. My dad married his second wife (so weird, the things that your memory clings to: I very clearly remember standing at the wedding ceremony, singing the chorus to Weezer’s “Pink Triangle” out loud– I was on a big Weezer kick at the time– and getting scolded by my aunt). For their honeymoon, they went up to some romantic getaway somewhere in the States, leaving me and my siblings with my grandparents. After a couple of weeks, after they were done doing whatever it is that newly married couples do on their honeymoon (the specifics of which I’d rather not think about), we were to go up there and join them for our customary once-every-few-years trip to the Florida theme parks. We hit DisneyWorld Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, and Busch Gardens. It was awesome.

Kumba: the only reason I’d ever return to Florida.

But something in me had changed between the previous trip and this one. I was now effectively a teenager, and though I was 14 and just starting my career as an angsty jerk, the first few signs of that unearned weariness and cynicism were already poking through.  Walking through Magic Kingdom really crystallized that for me. What was once met with wide-eyed enthusiasm now felt a little boring, a little hokey, a little passé. I was more interested in listening to my discman, reading comic books and browsing record stores.

Of course, at the time, I was transitioning out of my horrible Offspring fixation and learning about what else was out there, after having grown up on jazz standards and classical music. But the record stores in Barranquilla were extremely limited. There was no way to get most of the albums that I wanted, let alone discover anything new. I had to turn to pricey imports to complete my NOFX collection, paying ridiculous amounts of money for short, cheaply-made punk rock. So actually being in the States and having access to American record stores was a life-changer: I spent all of the money I had saved from Christmas and birthday presents on CDs, amassing a fairly impressive collection (if you find 90s independent punk impressive). But then I stumbled upon a monumental discovery: dirt-cheap punk samplers.

I was already somewhat aware of the existence of the “Punk-O-Rama” sampler, through my e-mail correspondence with Kyle Lees. Kyle was (and still is) a bit of a role model for me, someone whom I looked up to and aspired to be more like. Kyle lived (and still does) in Canada, and we struck up an intercontinental online friendship through a mutual interest in Dragon Ball. Kyle was into punk, and I desperately wanted to be part of that world I knew almost nothing about. ¬†Kyle was 13 at the time that we started corresponding, and I was an impressionable 11-year-old; through the prism of sheltered Barranquillan youth with no exposure to anyone even slightly edgy, he was punk rock. He made references to something called “Diesel Boy”, and ruthlessly mocked something called “The Pietasters”, bands I’d never even heard of at the time. And during one of our interactions, he mentioned how thrilled he was with a record called “Punk-O-Rama”, the concept of which blew my mind. An entire album filled with all kinds of obscure punk rock! How amazing. How thrilling. How badass.

So, a few years later, when I finally came face-to-face with one of these “Punk-O-Rama” compilations, I instinctively picked it up. And then another one. And another one. And very soon, I had all editions of the sampler that were available at the time (I believe they were 1 through 6). And I could afford this because these compilations were so absurdly cheap– produced by Epitaph records and meant to showcase their classic back-catalogue as well as promote new up-and-coming bands, each edition contained an average of 20 tracks and retailed for something like 4 dollars. ¬†A bargain and a half.

Through “Punk-O-Rama”, I was exposed to a lot of music that I love, a lot of bands I went on to become a longtime fan of, and many more bands I never listened to again. It was hardly eclectic– the compilations all contained dozens of (slight) variations to the California skate-punk sound, the odd genre deviance (volume 4 contained a Tom Waits song, volume 5 had a techno instrumental) and a live track or two, usually anchored by a Bad Religion classic and a NOFX rarity. Out of all six volumes I purchased during that feverish listening spree, volume III is easily my favorite. Containing genuinely great tunes by Pulley, Osker, Rancid and Wayne Kramer (!!!), it’s probably the only one of the Epitaph collections that I can still listen to all the way through.

The song that stayed with me the most is probably the wonderful pop genius of The Dwarves’ darkly humorous and melodically rich “Everybody’s Girl”. I still listen to this song a lot, and the album it’s taken from (“The Dwarves Are Young and Good-Looking”) is a powerful, infectious and entertaining album. A great burst of melodic aggression.

I quickly learned that Epitaph wasn’t the only label putting together these samplers, and I purchased this wonderful gem of a compilation, ¬†the Hopeless Records showcase¬†“Hopelessly Devoted to You (vol.3)”. It’s the only one I got, as it was the only one of its series that I could find. I clearly remember it catching my eye with its bright yellow plastic wrapping. This is another compilation that I can still listen to and enjoy all the way through, as it was masterfully put together: the flow is perfect, with a great opening track by Dillinger Four that I still listen to when I need to get pumped up. The song selection is great, as not only do the songs have a remarkable level of musical cohesiveness (it really sounds like it was designed to be listened to all the way through), but they also share a certain identity. It’s the dirtiest, grittiest of the compilations I picked up in this trip– most of the songs are decidedly low-fi, and the entire thing has a very DIY feel to it. It features great songs by The Queers, Fifteen, Selby Tigers and Samiam, along with a couple of duds by Mustard Plug (lol).

But by far the biggest contribution that this compilation made to my life and overall well-being was my introduction to the music of The Weakerthans, who turned out to be one of my all-time favorite bands. For that reason alone, this compilation is a real milestone in my life, as the music and words of John K Sampson and associates are a pretty integral part to the person I turned out to be. The first Weakerthans song featured in this compilation is the wonderful “Watermark”, a rather upbeat cut from the largely-downkey yet completely amazing album “Left & Leaving”.

Of course, being a big NOFX fan, I was thrilled to learn that Fat Mike had his own record label, and was quick to pick up the Fat Wreck compilations. I bought “Fat Music” volumes 1 through ffffffive, maybe? I don’t know. They kind of blend together in my head. This is the compilation that introduced me to No Use for a Name, and “Justified Black Eye” was the first song by them that I ever heard (also my favorite NUFAN song). All in all, it’s pretty obvious that this is Fat Mike’s label, as most of the bands follow a pretty specific template and shared a common identity: those that didn’t, like Snuff and Swinging Utters, are the ones that stand out the most. This particular edition of the compilation, volume 4, included fantastic songs by Wizo, Good Riddance, Frenzal Rhomb and Strung Out. Though, I do have to say, perhaps my favorite part of every Fat installment was the inevitable cover by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. ¬†They were always so fucking awesome.

But I think the main thing I took from the Fat series was my discovery of the discography of the Swingin’ Utters, who combine old-school Social Distortion-style California punk with an acoustic folk sensibility. “Promise to Distinction” is still a song I sing along loudly to, and the record it was pulled from (“Five Lessons Learned”, the title track of which is permanently burned into my memory thanks to Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2) is a fun, rollicking listen that still finds its way into my rotation.

And finally, this little piece of work. Another record label run by a frontman of an Epitaph punk band, the Hellcat Records compilation “Give ‘Em the Boot”¬†featured tracks hand-picked by Rancid lead singer Tim Armstrong. It feels a little weird even calling this one a “punk rock sampler”, because, even though most of the material is clearly within the confines of the punk sound, it also contains a huge amount of ska, reggae and out-there weirdness. During this trip, I picked up the first two installments of the series, and bought the third and fourth editions several years later. The second one is absolutely fantastic, exposing me for the first time to Joe Strummer’s work with the Mescaleros, but I think volume 1 is my favorite. It has great tracks by The Slackers, Skatalites, Dave Hilyard Rocksteady 7 and a one-off experiment fronted by Armstrong and featuring Brett Gurewitz on guitar named The Silencers. The way the album zigzags between punk rock, hardcore, ska, reggae and jazz makes for a very interesting combination, and it helped me see the value in a genre I’d long dismissed as boring and repetitive. ¬†(I also finally got to listen to The Pietasters: Kyle was right.)

The song that most stayed with me was this wonderful little tune by Hepcat titled “Can’t Wait”. Out of the four songs featured in this post, this one’s probably the one I listen to most frequently. I have a hard time articulating exactly why I love it so much, but I think it’s fantastic; a lovely melody atop a bouncy bed of old-school ska. In fact, I worked out an acoustic-guitar arrangement of this tune, and to this day it’s my go-to when handed a guitar in public.

Out of all of the music I purchased during that trip– samplers or otherwise– this is the one it took me the longest to digest and grow to love. I can safely say it ended up becoming my favorite, and opened my eyes (and ears) to a stunning revelation: the melodic turns and ideas across these disparate genres, regardless of instrumentation or general aesthetics, is largely the same. This helped me realize that music didn’t have to be about sticking to the confines of a specific sound, that I shouldn’t be a close-minded jerk, that doing away with everything I’d grown up with in favor of an insulated idea of punk rock perhaps wasn’t the way to go about things. That maybe I should pick up those old records again– those old standards, those symphonies, those quartets– and find a place for them in my daily routine instead of feeling guilty over liking them. In a way, immersing myself in punk rock to the point of developing musical tunnel vision ultimately broadened my horizons, and helped me become a better and more open music listener. I grew up a lot. In a way, it was kind of like puberty. Musical puberty. Punk puberty.

5 thoughts on “Dirt-Cheap Punk Rock Samplers: Like Puberty of the Soul

    1. Ah thanks man. I wrote this across several hours while at work and posted it without proofreading so it turned out kind of disjointed. I did feel like I needed to somehow honor these samplers, unsung heroes of my youth.

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