Lookout Records, the seminal East Bay label, shut its doors this year, after 25 years of releasing some of the finest punk records on either side of the Mississippi.
I’m not the first to make a list of essential songs from essential Lookout releases (“Dr.” Frank Portman of The Mr. T Experience even did one – https://www.spin.com/articles/20-essential-songs-late-lookout-records), but I had to jump on the bandwagon.
As I wrote over a decade ago, in a silly rhyming verse about different types of punk (that, thankfully, I never bothered to publish) – “Those pop punk kids like Lookout stuff / they can never get enough / in high-top Chucks they say woah-oh / cos that’s how all pop punk songs go.”
And, okay, not all Lookout releases were pop punk, and I’m not a kid anymore…but I still have my Lookout Records button pinned to my punk jacket.
1. Green Day – Christie Road (from Kerplunk, 1992)
A couple years ago, I was discussing Green Day with a couple friends of mine. I talked about how I was twelve when Dookie came out, and how much I loved it, and how I subsequently tracked down 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Kerplunk, and from there, other Lookout Records releases.
One of my friends said that they weren’t punk. He said they were never punk, not even when they were on Lookout; said that their sound was too poppy to qualify as punk, and that they didn’t even swear in most of their songs. My other friend jumped in: “You were already in your twenties when their first album came out, and away at college, in the Bay Area, no less. Things you thought of as Not Punk sounded a lot different to a pre-teen living in a mid-sized town in the Midwest.”
To pre-teen me, Green Day’s early tunes about alienation, unrequited love, and getting stoned sounded pretty f’in punk rock. And, hey, whether you wanna call it punk or not, listen to this sloppy little number, where a young and lonesome Billie Joe sings about the only place he feels not so alone. Give me something to do to kill some time. Take me to that place that I call home. Take away the strains of being lonely. Take me to the tracks at Christie Road.
2. The Mr. T Experience – Thank You (For Not Being One of Them) (from Love Is Dead, 1996)
It is because of The Mr. T Experience that I am here today, writing this column. Let me explain – when I was a teeny punk of sixteen, I interviewed MTX for my fanzine. I’d interviewed a couple local Racine bands prior to that, and I’d been writing about music I liked since I was eleven or twelve, but MTX was the first non-local, somewhat-known band I ever interviewed. They were so cool to me, and the interview went so well, that I decided then and there – Writing About Music was gonna be what I did with my life. It was difficult for me to choose one essential MTX album, and one song to represent that album, as I love pretty much everything Dr. Frank has done. However, I think it’s on Love Is Dead that his bitter, funny, clever lyrics stand out most; this album is also from my favorite era of the band’s ever-rotating lineup – the power trio that was Frank on guitar and lead vocals, Joel on bass and back-up, and Jym on drums. This song is a love song, but it could be sung to a close friend, could be sung to any of those someones that are on the side of Us in the eternal battle of Us vs. Them. And just listen to those sweet woah-oh-ohs. As it stands, there’s still a chance you’ll hear me calling as I’m crawling from the garbage cans. The kids are having fun, proud of what they’ve done. Later that night we hold each other tight, and plot their destruction.
3. Screeching Weasel – Teenage Freakshow (from My Brain Hurts, 1991)
Oh, why did Ben Weasel have to turn into such a dick? I mean, he’s always kinda been one, but the things he’s done recently make his old self seem like a sweetheart in comparison. Yeah, I shake my head at the things he’s done (namely, punching two female audience members at SXSW in 2011), but I still love Screeching Weasel. You have to understand – I came of age as a punk in the Chicago area in the mid-90s to early ’00s, so Screeching Weasel is kinda intrinsic to who I am. This is probably my all-time favorite Screeching Weasel song, has been since my best pal put it on a mix for me in ’96. It’s punk – with the biting lyrics about the scene (written by Ben Weasel and Danny Vapid), and Ben’s snotty growl; it’s pop – with the sweet organ chords and the oh-oh-oh-ohs (sensing a theme here?). And It’s time for change, we don’t know what. We sit around collecting dust. I don’t wanna get high, I don’t wanna dance but everybody’s got an answer.
4. Groovie Ghoulies – Ghoulies Are Go! (from World Contact Day, 1996)
The Groovie Ghoulies are just so much damn fun. Jumpin’ tunes about monsters and dancing, and dancing with monsters, and having crushes…on monsters, and being a misfit kid, and…monsters. Pretty much the ideal music for anyone who was weird and nerdy in school, who found salvation in comic books, old B-movies, and (pop) punk rock. I always felt like pop punk was more inclusive, as a scene, than other sub-genres of punk. All of punk is about Us vs. Them, but pop punk lets anyone who needs to be part of the ‘Us.’ (Let’s harken back to Tod Browning-via-the-Ramones for a second: “Gabba Gabba we accept you! We accept you! You’re one of us!”) Case in point: this song, with its fuzzed-out bass and guitar and Kepi singing: When everybody’s let you down, all your friends are out of town, that’s when we all come around. We’re the Groovie Ghoulies, yeah yeah. You’re a punk and you’re a kid, doesn’t matter what you did. You can keep our records hid. You’re a Groovie Ghoulie, yeah yeah.
5. Boris the Sprinkler – Do the Go (from the Russian Robot 7″, 1998)
This is the only song on this mix that isn’t from a full album, and I’m only using it cos it’s an excuse to include Boris The Sprinkler. Seriously, though. Much like Screeching Weasel, this band helped me grow into the me I am today. It’s a sort of geographical punkness – I’m from southeastern Wisconsin, so there were Chi bands like Screeching Weasel, and there were Sconnie bands, like Boris the Sprinkler. In any case, this track (one of two B-side tracks from this 7″) is good stuff. There’s no introductory monolog, but Rev. Norb hints at his true weirdness – even though the song clocks in at just over a minute, he somehow manages to get tangential with the lyrics. And it has Paul #2 on the drum kit, so you can’t go wrong. The song is short, fast, goofy and perfect.
6. Pansy Division – I Really Wanted You (from Wish I’d Taken Pictures, 1996)
I love playing Pansy Division for unsuspecting people. It’s a good way to weed out the squares. They think they’re hearing a sweet pop ditty, and then they listen to the lyrics. Homophobes (or uptight, squeamish folk) beware – the sunny guitars and crooning vocals are a backdrop for raunchy and vivid depictions of gay sex. Except, of course, when they are playing a sweet pop ditty, such as this one. It’s jangly and sad and cute. Whether gay, straight, bi, or otherwise, we’ve all been in a situation like this one. On the hottest night of the summer, on a sticky, steamy street. I was glowing like the sunset; I knew how happy we could really be. Your suntanned body stretched out on the carpet in front of me – I know as long as I live I’ll never lose that memory.
7. The Queers – I Can’t Get Over You (from Don’t Back Down, 1996)
Don’t Back Down was a departure for The Queers, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t, because there were still bratty odes to being a punk loser (“Born To Do Dishes,” “I’m OK, You’re Fucked,” etc.). It was, because the title track was a cover of a Beach Boys tune, and there was also a cover of “Sidewalk Surfin’ Girl,” by The Hondells. (Though it’s not entirely surprising, as The Queers always owed a huge debt to the Ramones, who never hid the fact that they loved the Beach Boys and other bands from that era.) The best songs on this album, however, aren’t the covers or the 1-2-FU songs. The real stand-outs are the original love songs, like “Punk Rock Girls,” “I Always Knew,” and this one. “I Can’t Get Over You,” a three-minute track with guest vocals by Lisa Marr (of Cub, and The Lisa Marr Experiment); the ultimate pop (punk) song of lost love. Sigh. Blue skies, turning into gray; since you went away, nothing’s the same. Time flies, and I realize what I thought was love was just a game. Passing by the places where you used to be. What I wouldn’t give to have you here with me. I know I’m stupid and I know you’re gone. I know a lot but I can’t get over you.
8. Tilt – Crying Jag (from Play Cell, 1993)
Sometimes I hate musical genre distinctions. Cos, man, if you didn’t see Cinder Block with her short spiky red hair, and maybe if this were just a little more polished and if the lyrics were just a little less dark…wait, no, scratch that. Not despite those things – short red hair, raw wild sound, dark mad lyrics – not despite them but because of them, not to mention Cinder’s bluesy belt-it-out voice – this is a damn fine rock’n’roll tune. It’s also worth noting that as I was writing this description, the sound of distant thunder outside the window blended seamlessly with the drums. You may say I live on easy street. You can think anything you want to think. Come by some time, my door is open to you, where I can show you how easy I am.
1. Pretty Girls Make Graves – Sad Girls Por Vida (from Good Health, 2002)
Like I said before, not all Lookout releases were straight-up pop punk. Take Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Good Health. Is it fiery indie rock? Loud-ass post punk? It’s angular, but there’s a hook. And it’s got that punk rock energy fueling it. I remember when I saw PGMG at the Fireside Bowl, back in 2002. When they played this song, as Andrea Zollo shouted “sad! girls! for! life!”, she looked so defiant that I swear she was proud. I pumped my fist in the air and screamed along, I know, how cliche, but I remember thinking: “Hell yeah, I’m a sad girl for life, too.” Why not find some measure of pride in it, if it can’t be changed? I’ve racked my brain about a hundred times a day. I’m confused by everything, I’ve used my means, I’m still uncertain. Waiting, wondering. I guess I’ll keep my fingers crossed till I can get an answer.
2. Avail – Cross Tie (from Over the James, 1998)
Tim Barry wrote stuff that hit me like a suckerpunch even back in the Avail days. I almost can’t find the words for this album, this song. Sound-wise, it’s melodic hardcore, I guess, though I’ve heard other people call it skate punk. Maybe we should call it train punk, instead. Maybe I don’t even want to talk about genres. Maybe I just want to tell you that this album made a lot of sense to me, back in the day – I’ve never even been to RVA, but I sure knew what it was like to both love your hometown and constantly try to get the hell away from it. Or I could say that, even though it wasn’t released until ’98, more than any of the other albums mentioned on this mix, this one sounds like the ’90s. Or I could just tell you to listen to this song. Listen to the music build, starting in your toes, moving up to your gut and then your throat, before it all blasts in at 1:03, and you are left breathless and shaking from the adrenaline rush. Maybe I should warn you that if you are anything like me, this song might make you cry. Take a ride on the back near the switch and make good time, without a hint of leaving. Be from many places. Be from here, see what to see then. Wander alone, steel rails hum. Find the cure then fall right back.
3. American Steel – Whiskey, Women, and Blackguarding (Ain’t No Cure for a Broken Heart) (from Rogue’s March, 1999)
This one ain’t pop punk, or hardcore, it’s honest-to-goodness punk fuckin’ rock. If someone could sing while they were spitting gravel at you, this is what it would sound like. I mean that in the best possible way. When I was living in Oakland, this tune got stuck in my head a lot. I’d pass by Adeline Street, or the American Steel warehouse (where this band got their name) on my way to work, and yeah I was broke and usually hungover and I could ‘feel the fuckers in the hills looking down their noses,’ but I’d always feel better just having this song rattling around in my head. And no matter where you live, it’s a great song to listen to when you’re wheeling around the city, screwing up your life. You spend your sunny days on the brink of another disaster. Try to run, but you couldn’t live any faster.
4. Blatz – Fuk Shit Up (from The Shit Split, 1991)
Full confession: I used to have a tattoo inspired by this song. It was a mean-looking skull-and-crossbones surrounded by the words (in a mean-looking font, of course) ‘fuck shit up.’ Not like Blatz were the only punks to ever say those words, but I loved this album, and this song. The tattoo has been covered up by a different tattoo (give me beer and I will tell you why); I still love the band, and the album, and the song. Annie Lalania screams, Jesse Luscious growls, they all shout, and it sounds downright menacing at the beginning when Jesse is intoning ‘tonight we’re gonna fuck shit up’ and Anna Joy is in the background cooing ‘to-ni-ight’ over and over. If you’ve never believed that punk could ever be a real threat to anything, this song might change your mind. We, the punx, are out tonight. We’re gonna start a riot, what a sight. Burning cop cars and looting stores; eating the rich because we’re poor.
5. Operation Ivy – Knowledge (from Energy, 1989)
Well, obviously I had to include a song by this band, because it’s Operation Ivy! You know, the infamous ska/punk (before ska-punk was even a thing) band from the East Bay, important both to the early days of Lookout and the early days of 924 Gilman, whose members Matt Freeman and Tim Armstrong later went on to form Rancid, blah blah blah. The only other things I’m going to say are: 1. I prefer Jesse Michaels’ vocals to Tim Armstrong’s vocals. 2. This song is so great. 3. The lyrics to this song can be found embedded in the sidewalk on the Berkeley Poetry Walk (on Addison, between Shattuck and Milvia). 4. This time I got it all figured out – all I know is that I don’t know nothing…and that’s fine.
6. The Donnas – Checkin’ It Out (from American Teenage Rock’n’Roll Machine, 1998)
The Donnas were the ’90s’ answer to The Runaways. Teenage girls who were hot shit and knew it, but who also had the musical chops to back themselves up. I don’t know if The Donnas were even truly a punk band (they claimed KISS as one of their biggest influences), but I do not care. I spun this album when I wasn’t listening to The Runaways, but needed another album that fit moments of fishnet stockings and red lipstick. And this song, it’s got guitar solos, it’s got cowbell!, and I think I feel such a deep affinity for it because it was released the year I turned seventeen. I know what I want tonight, and I see it coming off the street. I’m going nowhere and I’m only seventeen. I know about gettin’ it on, and I want a little piece of you. I’m thinking about taking a bite, if you know what I mean.
7. The Criminals – Never Been Caught (from Never Been Caught, 1997)
Never Been Caught sounds like the soundtrack from a punk noir film that never was. And this title track is what would play during the opening credits, when the audience first gets a glimpse of the killer as he skulks down a dark alley. That walking bassline is spooky-sexy, the guitar has a touch of a Dead Boys sound (really the whole track is just a hair-trigger less devastating than “Sonic Reducer”), and then there’s Jesse, telling us all what he’s been up to: Standing in the cold rain – never been caught. Sniffing glue and stalking you – never been caught.
8. Pinhead Gunpowder – Keeping Warm In the Nighttime (from Jump Salty, 1994)
I opened with a Billie Joe Armstrong band, and I’m closing with one, too. Hey, if you’re dealing with East Bay punk, you can’t stay away from him for long. But really, Pinhead Gunpowder is not on this mix because of Billie Joe, they’re on here because of Aaron Cometbus – famous zine-writer, and drummer/lyricist for, like, 1000 punk bands from coast to coast. If MTX are why I write about music, Cometbus is why I write about my life. He taught me that the so-called small, fractured moments were worth recording, too. I’m starting to sound sentimental… Ahem. It’s the sum of all PHGP’s parts that makes them so good. Billie Joe and Mike Kirsch’s vocals play off each other perfectly on this track, and there are Aaron Cometbus’ rolling drums, and the lyrics. Let’s call this one an anthem for staying up late. That said, it’s one a.m., I just finished this column, I’m hella tired, and I’m going to sleep. Anything’s possible, every thing seems so clear when your blood is pumping, mind is scheming, eyes wide open but you’re still dreaming. Prancing, prowling, searching for yourself. The darkness is so comforting, so beautifully intoxicating. Daytime’s stress and pettiness doesn’t matter now.