Chicago, home to some of the finest music ever made in the US of A.
Chicago, my former home, and forever the home of my heart.
The other week, a friend of mine asked me to choose my favorite Chicago punk rock band.
It was nearly impossible. I made a whole long list, and it hurt my heart to have to narrow it down to just one band. Which got me to thinking: why not do my next column on Chicago punk rock? I
t only makes sense, as the two things I write (and think) about the most are Chicago, and punk rock.
These are some of my favorite Chicago punk bands. Be sure to tune into the first-ever installment of Mix Tapes from the Midwest: The Podcast, as it features many songs and bands that I could not fit into this column, as well as verges out of punk territory just a little bit.
Even with the podcast, though – there are many, many bands I couldn’t cover. So many I may do a second volume, eventually.
In the meantime, crack open an Old Style and remember: ‘you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.’
1. Effigies – Haunted Town
Although the Effigies are not my absolute favorite Chicago punk band, this song might be my absolute favorite song on this mix. The Effigies were part of the first wave of Chicago punk. They formed in 1980 – yeah, Chicago was kinda late to the punk thing, but we’ve made up for it since. The Effigies are sometimes referred to as a hardcore band, and sometimes referred to as post-hardcore. I don’t know what that means, especially since hardcore wasn’t even really a thing until the early ’80s… Anyway, this is a mid-tempo hardcore punk tune that’s every bit as menacing, sound-wise, as good hardcore should be: but unlike some of the faster, more heavy-metal-esque types of hardcore, the threat of violence implied in this song is less like a meathead dude about to punch you in the face, and more like someone hiding in a dark alley with a knife, waiting to jump out and slit your throat. The lyrics are about the landscape of Chicago in the late ’70s/early ’80s – the economy was in decline, many people had fled to the suburbs, and cities across the US were left to decay. Seems oddly similar to what’s been occurring, again, since 2008. Wires are frayed, where the people once stayed – and the rust doesn’t make a sound.
2. Naked Raygun – Rat Patrol
Speaking of songs from the past being relevant to the world we live in now…this tune, from Naked Raygun (another early Chicago punk band, also formed in 1980, though they were around a lot longer than the Effigies), is downright eerie when put in the context of what the US has been doing all over the Middle East. There’s a bit of a menacing sound to this one, as well – check out those ‘whoa-oh-oh-oh-ohs’ (these are no happy pop punk whoa-ohs, I promise). And the lyrics: although inspired by a short-lived ’60s TV show about soldiers stationed in North Africa during WWII, well… Machine guns blaring, and Arabs staring – wondering why the Westerners are there. It’s the same old story, and it never ends. It’ll happen again.
3. Big Black – L Dopa
Another classic Chicago punk band, Big Black played a kind of noise-punk unlike anything else you’ve ever heard. Say what you want about Steve Albini being smug and full of himself – Big Black were amazing. Just listen to this song: that throbbing drum machine, that buzz-saw guitar, and those screams that come in toward the end. I got a sickness, sweet as a love note. I got a headache like a pillow.
4. Los Crudos – desde el barrio
And this is just some hardcore f’in punk. It’s a more in-your-face style of hardcore than, say the Effigies; a sheer aural assault, but it works so well. Los Crudos were an all-Latino hardcore band from Chicago, predominately from the Pilsen neighborhood. All their songs were sung in Spanish. They paved the way for a lot of other bands, tearing down barriers for other people of color in the often white-dominated punk scene. The title translates to ‘from the neighborhood,’ but I don’t speak much Spanish, so, sadly I cannot translate the lyrics. In any language, though, Los Crudos shred.
5. Rotten Fruits – Dykes Rule, OK?
The Rotten Fruits have been Chicago’s premier queercore band – or, as they describe themselves, Chicago’s favorite drunken faggots – since 2001. This is a super-fun bratty trashy queer punk ode to badass women who love women.
[Unfortunately, no video can be found, or made, for this tune. Check out the podcast to hear it.]
6. The Manhandlers – Make Out Bandit
Speaking of badass – The Manhandlers are some totally badass foxy ladies. I used to love to see them live, they’d strut around the stage, looking hot as hell – but you better believe they’ve got the chops to back it up. This song will make you wanna strut, too, especially if you, like me, are a make out bandit. I’m not lookin’ for Mr. Right. I just want some lovin’ tonight.
7. The Vindictives – Time of My Life
This couldn’t come at a better time – The Vindictives are set to release Mono Flexi, a 4-song 7″, their first new music since 1999. It was supposed to be released on December 4, but as of the writing of this column, it was still listed as a pre-order. Until then, you can listen to this classic Vindictives tune. It’s got all the great elements of their songs – a bit of pop punk, a bit of weirdness, a speedy drum beat, a gang chorus, and lyrics about being screwed up. I’m having trouble expressing this concept, there’s something here and I can’t ignore it. I know there’s something wrong with me.
8. Screeching Weasel – Totally
I know Ben Weasel is a jerk, but I totally love this band. And this song is totally sweet. I totally love when pop punk bands do love songs – because what could be better than a love song you can pogo to? And this one totally mentions Belmont Ave. I totally lust when I see you around. The Belmont bus takes me right by your house. Totally neat, totally sweet. Totally knocked me off my feet. Totally lame that you won’t say you’ll hang out with me every day. I totally love everything about you.
9. Oblivion – Bob and Weave
This pop punk song by Oblivion takes a bit of a different tack. It sounds poppy and upbeat, but the lyrics are depressing as hell. Pop punk is good for that – songs you can dance to, that when you really listen to the lyrics, make you go ‘oof.’ It makes them more poignant, somehow. Check out the bassline, and check out Pete Kourim speak-singing: And silence is a language that I’m fluent in, ‘cos practice makes perfect, and I spend a lot of time by myself.
1. The Lawrence Arms – Here Comes the Neighborhood
Let’s start with a little Chicago punk rock history lesson. It went like this – first there was Slapstick, a ska-punk band from the early ’90s. When Slapstick disbanded, some members went on to form The Broadways, and other members went on to form Tuesday. Members of those bands branched off to become members of The Lawrence Arms, Alkaline Trio, and The Honor System. They’ve since branched off and crossbred yet again, to form The Falcon and Sundowner, amongst others. Google ‘Slapstick family tree’ if you want to know more.
Now that that’s out of the way – here is one of The Lawrence Arms’ more political tunes. Unlike The Broadways, most of The Larry Arms’ songs aren’t overtly political. Most of their songs are about being a lonely, drunken loser – standard orgcore/beardcore/melodic punk with gruff vocals territory, but I love it. This song is an exception to that trope. It starts off as a funny and cynical little dig at young white hipsters who ‘work on Belmont, but live in Wicker Park,’ and then becomes a scathing indictment of gentrification. And when the property value’s raised, you’ll be on your merry ways. Like the poor outclassed families before you. You’ve already paved Ashland to Western, Chicago to North Avenue. Congratulations kids, your shallow model city is sinking. You’ve become what you swore that you’d never be.
2. The Tossers – Chicago
When my friend asked me that question the other week, about my favorite Chicago punk band, my response was ‘The Tossers.’ Though it was difficult to decide, and though my answer might have been different had I been asked at a different time, I stand by it. There are many reasons for that choice, and I’m not going to get into all of them, here. Suffice it to say that these boy-os have a special place in my heart.
The Tossers are Chicago’s answering to Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphy’s, et. al. – an Irish-American band that incorporates elements of Celtic folk music with their punk rock. However, I think The Tossers are better than Flogging Molly or Dropkick. I ain’t just saying that cos they’re from Chicago. See, unlike Flogging Molly, The Tossers make music that’s more barroom brawl than sea shanty; yet they have tender moments the likes of which Dropkick never quite manages. This is another song about gentrification, about living in the neighborhood you can afford to live in, yet knowing all the while that if you’re white, wealthy white folks will see you as making the neighborhood safe for them, and the process of gentrification will begin. And what can you do, when you love where you live, but don’t want to drive anyone else out of their neighborhood? This song asks all of that, starting out as a drunken ballad, then turning into a blistering punk tune. Chicago, Chicago, well there’s assholes everywhere. Chicago, Chicago, where you’re 15 pints from all your cares. Where your wallet’s like a sieve. And that’s where all of the gangsters live. Chicago, Chicago, is where we can afford to live.
3. PAL – Your City Here
My years in Chicago were a heady time in my life. It seemed like everyone I knew either wrote a zine, played music, or, most often, both. PAL were a prime example of that – there were, at one time, three zinesters in the band. In fact, the album this song comes from is called Live from Quimby’s – Quimby’s being Chicago’s finest independent bookstore/zine shop.
This tune is super fun, bouncy yet raucous, with an organ and a bit of an early riot grrrl sound in the shrieking voices ricocheting off each other. It’s also a love song to the City of the Big Shoulders. I love Chicago!
4. Blue Meanies – Send Help
The first time I saw this band, I was at a show in Milwaukee. I went there to see The Mr. T Experience and the Teen Idols. The club added two Chicago bands to the bill – the Blue Meanies and Apocalypse Hoboken. I’d never heard either one of them. I will forever be grateful for that last-minute lineup change, cos seeing that show that night is really what got me to become part of the Chicago scene. The Blue Meanies, especially, blew me away. They had such intensity; the frontman, Billy Spunke, was like a circus ringmaster – he coulda said ‘jump,’ and the audience would’ve jumped through hoops of fire. Also, their sound was completely new to me. They had punk fury, but they had a horn section. But they weren’t really a ska band. They had some elements of heavy metal, and hard rock. Whatever you classify them as, they played killer music.
I chose this live version of “Send Help” for two reasons. One being that, as good as they were on record, their live show was always phenomenal, and their studio albums never quite captured that. The other reason being, this track is introduced by Wesley Willis. He was a huge part of the Chicago scene, friend to everyone, and maker of his own music. Sadly, he passed away in 2003; he is forever missed.
Now, my intro is out of the way, so here they are: Chicago’s own Blue motherfuckin’ Meanies!
5. Apocalypse Hoboken – Misguided Memories
Like I said, I first saw Apocalypse Hoboken the same night I first saw the Blue Meanies. I wasn’t as floored by them, but they did eventually become one of my favorite bands. Apocalypse Hoboken were weird, obnoxious (and I mean that as a compliment) punk f’in rock, with Todd Pot’s clever, sarcastic lyrics. Here’s a little ditty about wasting your life competing with everyone around you. The outside world is no concern of yours. Your lack of feelings shows. You’re stuck on a ladder; there’s little for you. You fight for position – what does it really prove?
6. 88 Fingers Louie – 100 Proof
Here’s another hardcore band for ya. 88 Fingers Louie were a different breed entirely – neither the spooky mid-tempo hardcore of the Effigies, nor the stage-dive fury of Los Crudos, 88 Fingers were melodic hardcore. Think hardcore that has the chugging guitars and pounding drums, but still sounds prettier, somehow, and sad rather than angry. Or maybe, angry at yourself rather than the outside world. This one’s a gloomy tune about being a drunken mess. Another weekend spent alone, time passing by. Too drunk to pick up the receiver, feeble attempts to help me go ignored. Don’t have the energy or will power to make it anymore.
7. Noise by Numbers – 17 on the Wayside
If I were posting this song on my blog, I’d be tagging it ‘this fucking song,’ which is what I tag all songs that hit me like a punch in the gut. Okay, lemme backtrack a little. Noise by Numbers are one of many, many Dan Vapid bands that I adore – he was in Screeching Weasel, and The Methadones; he’s got another current band called Dan Vapid and The Cheats. Noise by Numbers are probably my favorite of all the Dan Vapid bands, though. They’re not as much in the power pop/pop punk vein as his other bands are; they are more in the style of gruff, emotional Midwestern punk rock. It reminds me of ’90s Chicago punk – not like any particular band, just that style.
This song, though, this fucking song. It’s about hanging out on Belmont and Clark (in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot) at age 17; it’s about being 17 and having screwed-up, damaged friends. Dan Vapid sings – Sometimes, I close my eyes, and I swear I’m back in 1989. If he said 1999, instead, this would be the story of my life.
8. The Arrivals – The Power Won’t Be Staying on for Long
It doesn’t always work when punk bands try to do slower songs, but The Arrivals pull it off with this track from their most recent album, Volatile Molotov. The lyrics are pulled along by the raspy, strained vocals. The rhythmic drums march you toward the end of something – the end of the world, or just the end of an era? – and then you reach the last part of the song, where the strained singing is more like pained shouting, and the drums pick up even more. I used to think that life was what it seemed, with our time stable, with our minds able. We digitized the beauty that we’ve dreamed. Now a generations’ history floats like ghosts in my periphery. Now I see, the forest for the trees – it’s timber falling down without a sound. Talk to your brother, ’cause the power won’t be staying on for long.
[This is another track that a video can’t be found for. Track it down, it’s worth your while.]
9. Alkaline Trio – I’m Dying Tomorrow
Oh, Alkaline Trio. Sometimes I am afraid to admit I like them, because there is a certain type of person associated with liking Alkaline Trio. Because, well, they got more famous outside the punk scene than any of the other bands on here. And because some people refer to them as an emo band. I wouldn’t call them emo, though; more like melodic punk rock with dark lyrics. Whatever. Whatever you call their music, I do like them. I dig their older albums (like Goddamnit) better, overall, but I chose this song because it can still choke me up. It is the song I listened to over and over when I was getting ready to leave Chicago. Did I remember to keep your beer as full as mine? Did I remember to say cheers? Did I at least try to make sure everybody had a good time, had the best time? Did I remember to stay up late, drinking for the fun, singing for the taste? Did I run outside to kiss the rain under electrical skies? I’m dying tomorrow. This house, this street, Chicago. I’m dying tomorrow. Did I do it right?