Rumors Debunked, Facts Ungunked

"It’s like a game of Telephone. One person whispers into another’s ear, and that person repeats what they think they heard, and this cycle continues until what the last person hears is usually completely different from the first person’s original." (Neo Tokyo Times blog 7.30.2004)

Despite King Diamond’s exhortation, I break the oath – the oath that I’ll quit reading punk forums and newsgroups altogether – at least once every couple weeks. Part of the reason for the oath is that I stare at a computer screen for hours on end every day – spending “free time” doing the same just ain’t right; but that’s a secondary reason. The REAL reason is that for every entertaining, intelligent post there are twenty know-it-all, in-joke jackass ones posted like tar babies begging me to take a swing. Even when I’m not lurking, friends – knowing I’m most likely oblivious – send over snippets... just enough to raise the blood pressure. Years’ worth of rehashed threads hasn’t lessened the incessant drone of blowhards who – knowing only half the story at best – post and post and post and post their half-wit opinions. The litany of distortion is too long and my attention span’s too short to set the whole record straight, but put down the Telephone for a few minutes, and I’ll tell you the facts behind my participation in the incestuous and invigorating world of Killed By Death production. Call me GG.

I first noticed and bought a copy of Killed By Death around 1992 when, I believe, volume #4 had just come out. A couple plays through the A-side’s Rotters > Really Red > Filth > Kaos > Heart Attack > Brülbajz sequence, and I was fully, completely hooked. I tracked down #2 and #3 without too much trouble. Number Two was and continues to be one of the strongest volumes ever compiled, without any of the small missteps found on the other original four. Volume Two’s notes even make a point to say, while #1 was flawed, this here volume KILLS. It was awhile before I got my hands on the elusive #1. Including the Beastie Boys EP in its entirety – with a whole wide open field of other contenders available – still strikes me as, well, just plain wrong. Of course, “Polly Wog Stew” was most certainly an attention getter, though perhaps not the kind of attention a compiler would invite (thus its removal on the repress).

All four had been compiled by a gregarious Swede with a binge-and-purge tendency to dive headlong into a new interest and leave as quickly as he came. Keep in mind that many of these records weren’t that OLD... most had been originally released only ten years prior. The Swede’s tendency to stick around just long enough to say “been there, done that” is one of his most endearing qualities (along with flip-flopping dogma on any subject you can name). Killed By Death is, like, SO 1990. Side note factoid: the series title is less to do with Motorhead fandom and more to do with an homage to Tim Warren and his Back From The Grave series. Or so the Swede told me one day as we shared a Turkish prison cell. Who knew KBD would come to be a classification of punk records, a Yahoo newsgroup, and an overused eBay keyword? Other comps surfacing around this time (or earlier) were Feel Lucky Punk?!, Year of the Rats, and the beginnings of another series that was beat to death: Bloodstains.

A year or so after #4 (that is, 1993), an Australian stepped into the ring and began what was – for a time – a delightful tradition: take the spirit and trappings of the Killed By Death series and make your own volume. Number five and number six followed in quick succession. Like their predecessors, Killed By Death #5 and #6 were mixes of worldwide punk rarities with fairly strong line-ups... not blockbusters but still plenty of hits. At the same time, Incognito had started its Back To Front series which started strong but quickly got me and at least one of my friends saying to ourselves “I could do a better fucken comp. than this.” The seeds were planted. 1994 saw the release of Killed By Death #7, a volume with origins that still make me laugh.

For reasons that can only be described as spiteful, a new pair of conspirators (responsible for the Bloodstains series) compiled #7 using only records found on the aforementioned Australian’s want list. And, to add further sting, they included the Aussie’s actual address on the LP’s foldover jacket. It was a mean-spirited (and devilishly funny) effort, and all credit to that want list... the record included some tasty morsels.

I can’t recall the exact moment where thought turned to action but 1995 saw the release of our first volume, Killed By Death #8½ – named so not for a Fellini fetish but because the grapevine told us someone else was working on a #8 as well (the grapevine was wrong). Disgusted with the increasing lameness of the Back To Front series, we decided to send the trans-Atlantic middle finger and set our efforts apart with one annoying, pseudo-nationalistic phrase: All American Punk, No Foreign Junk (later stolen by the Europeans – I love it!). The theme helped us stay focused and acted as the opening slap in an abusive relationship with our listeners (ourselves included). Note “we” and “our”. Every volume I’ve worked on (six in all) has been a two-man effort, at least in the creation stages. We split the costs, we split the profits – we did not split the labor. I did most of the legwork, much of it repeating or repairing work my partner in crime was supposed to have done. I’ll take full credit for actually get the compilations to record bins. Still, no compilations would’ve happened without both of us sweating to the oldies. An important part of that collaboration was tracking down the original 45’s included on the compilations... in fact, that’s the most often overlooked aspect of these LP’s. Some people seem to think we simply rub a genie lamp and raw, rare records appear in a puff of smoke. It takes a LOT of time, effort, and money to find these 45’s even when we’re the only ones looking. It’s fun sometimes, it’s fucking aggravating much of the rest.

We’ll call my collaborator M... a legend in collecting circles for his encyclopedic knowledge, his dogged collecting, his never-ending sense of entitlement, and his peerless penchant for sloth. The fact that we’ve remained friends can, at times, seem miraculous (perhaps this article will change all that). M and I had been friends for several years before the comp. He’d started me down this aggravating and wonderful path of appreciating and collecting punk rock obscurities. M’s main virtue lies in his desire to own every punk/independent/wave/dog turd 45 from the era and his ability to appreciate and remember details. Countless times friends and I have dropped a needle in the groove only to pull it off in horror seconds later, pause, and then voice the only possible classification: “M record” .

As with the mighty Swede and his first four, we really caught our stride on our second volume. Killed By Death #9 remains one of the best KBD installments (if I do say so myself). A very satisfying #10 followed several months later. The first three make for a rather stomping hat-trick. I still listen to ‘em on a regular basis, and they’re not getting stale. After a bit of a lull, we scraped together our last volume (#12) and fizzled out (or vice-versa). But more on that below...

From a production standpoint, there wasn’t much M did well. He clipped the beginnings of songs when given the task of recording the sources. He provided what are perhaps the world’s worst scans for artwork. He wrote down the wrong years and the wrong song names. He procrastinated endlessly. I was always cracking the whip, pleading, yelling, taking up the slack. There were many times I proclaimed “I’m never doing this again”. How M redeemed himself was by writing, what were to me, hilariously abusive liner notes. I still laugh when I read them today. His style took the established KBD style and its shaky command of the English language and combined it with a massive dose of antipathy toward anyone who bought our record. M referenced current events (OJ, the OKC bombing), band members’ current occupations (real or imagined), other compilers – no one, including ourselves, was spared. Favorites include:

KBD #8½:
TURNBUCKLES “Super Destroyer Mark II”: “So dumb indeed are these Turnbuckles who sing about wrestling in their frozen minds. Only the Minnesota winter could turn out such idiots again and again.”

KBD #9:
THE NOTHING “Uniformz”: “For a NYC band, NOTHING is one obscure piece of piss. Ten million people and no one tells us shit. Singing about their future at McDonalds musta turned away all their friends.”

SADO NATION “On Whom They Beat”: “Next up the SADO NATION offer entertainment for the whole family. We don’t take sides. Perhaps they were beated for using proper English.”

KBD #10
Intro: “We are tired and sick of such shit we hear about our last fine volumes eight and nine. American punk is not so great, it is shit we hear. Perhaps. We take no sides, we just take your money. We offer to you a few tracks from further north to shut up those mouths. Please don’t thank us for the entire album of the weakest Canadian scrap that might appear sixteen volumes from now.”

The inclusion of Canadian (still technically “American”) tracks on #10 was a response to Killed By Death #26, a volume that appeared after #9 and was one of the first in what we considered an onslaught of pathetic volumes. One other funny aspect of #10 (at least in my opinion) was the inclusion of a track that M had vetoed. Tiring of the argument (one started years prior to the compilation), I simply swapped in the contentious track in the final edit and re-wrote the liner notes for that one record. Such were the privileges of being the hands-on guy... imagining M’s reaction cracked me up no end. Upon the record’s release, he took the hijinks in stride and even conceded I’d done a fine job imitating his style in the notes. M should’ve known I never give up.

KBD #12
MEATY BUYS “New Freedumb”: “With the kiss-off to the modern woman, Meaty Buys ensured that they’d be eating White Castle hamburgers instead of pussy for the rest of their lives.”

While the liner notes and the slogans were important, it was the song selection that set our style apart. Were M solely responsible for picking comp tracks... well, it wouldn’t have been pretty. M has broad – extremely broad – tastes and finds beauty where others find garbage. I’m the pickier, more tunnel-visioned, three-chord purist. The most common phrase M says to me “It’s really good. You’d hate it.” We make for a good team. Our differing tastes provide the foundation on which we built compilations. If we were able to agree on a song, we had a winner. We argued a lot. There were dozens of “you gotta be kidding me” and “no fucking way” moments. Some of the arguments continue to this day, though to M’s credit I’ve wound up digging most of the songs he lobbied for, song which I initially snubbed. There were tit-for-tat compromises along the way... OK, that record can go on only IF this one gets included. Our compilations were anything but thrown together... they were agonized over. Reshuffled. Reselected. Rejected.

Over the years, whiners and windbags have come out in force when attempting to determine WHY people undertake Killed By Death compilations. Speaking only for myself, the driving motivation for putting out a Killed By Death is the satisfaction of the comp well-done, and the small bit of glory that comes with it. Having punk fans marvel and adore something you created and hearing contemporary bands cover the songs you helped unearth is gratifying. The vain satisfaction of doing something better, doing it when no one else could pull it off – that’s the #1 motivation, the driving force behind the effort. This is especially true in relation to our two later compilations, No One Left To Blame and Staring Down The Barrel. In past newsgroup discussions, the “pissing contest” – the notion that it’s just guys saying “look, my record collection’s better than yours” – aspect seems to get blown way wholly out of proportion. That view assumes (1) we had any real competition or (2) that we care about anyone other than ourselves and our friends. Trust me, we didn’t, and we don’t.

“When anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” H.L. Mencken

The second and undeniable motivation is money, money that lots of people realized was real EASY money. In the mid-90’s, every Tom, Dick, and Günter was cranking these comps out – some good, some lame. Selling 500 - 1000 was easy. For us, selling 1000 compilations meant around $2500 each... a good chunk of change to both of us. No bands got paid. We knew how to reach some, others were a complete mystery. Some bands enjoyed their uncompensated inclusion, some voiced apathy, and I’m sure others were outraged. We went the selfish, easy, and practical route. Though bands received no money, some did benefit financially either through undertaking a legitimate reissue release or even selling their originals for far more than previously possible. That isn’t simple self-serving justification... it’s a fact. And, of course, we make no apologies. It got things done.

Forum prophets often accused compilers of including mediocre titles for the sole purpose of “moving units” collected far in advance. Way off. An upcoming compilation inevitably prompted a mad scramble to follow all leads and tie up loose ends before cats left the bag. We weren’t stupid. Once the compilation hit the streets, demand increased and competition flourished. You bet your ass I rounded up whatever I could. But for as many times as I had managed to round up some extra copies, there were far more times when an included record was one I was still missing in my collection. More than once, M had the only known copy at the time. Inclusion was a sure-fire way of shooting myself in the foot with my only consolation being the “war chest” the comps generated. If a copy surfaced, I could justify blowing some ill-gotten gains. My first lesson learned was THE NOTHING on Killed By Death #9. I agreed to its inclusion figuring I’d round one up without too much trouble. It took several years of active pursuit and $500 before I was able to call The Nothing mine. On our most recent collaboration Staring Down The Barrel, I walked headlong into the same mistake, all in the name of getting a quality compilation finished. See you fuckers in the bidding war.

In the liner notes of Killed By Death #12, we conceded reaching the end of the line. Between touting the “purest of barrel scrapings” and encouraging listeners to “dig the dross”, we knew it was time to retire. While the comp was driven by a handful of previously uncomped gems, the rest was recycled or second rate, and we knew it. The closing track was “Punk Rock Is Dead”. In 1996, the glut of KBD comps (whether titled as such or not) was in full effect. We signed off and watched many an effortless and expensive (sometimes nearly $20 retail) comp continue to spew forth.

Following a five-year hibernation, the rumblings of a new comp began in 2001. At this point, no one really imagined there were enough quality U.S. unknowns to fill an LP. They hadn’t been digging as hard as we had. We’d excavated some winners, some absolutely impossible goodies. They HAD to be heard. The use of the Killed By Death title was, for me, out of the question. It was time for something different, a new take on the old formula. The title No One Left To Blame was pulled from the B-side of the Critical Mass 7in. The title’s second meaning, of course, was “hey this is the last comp...there’s no one left to blame.” The notes moved to a more factual, less abusive tone. We were getting soft. And M was getting worse. He couldn’t even manage the simple task of recording discs, and he refused to send a couple of “only known copies” through the mail even via Express Mail or Registered. Eventually, I was forced to buy him a plane ticket to my place. No, really... it’s part of the guy’s charm. At least this way, if the plane crashed, he’d go down with the records. What a collector mensch! While the comp included a couple duds (I blame M – then again I had no alternatives to offer at the time), the ragers more than carried the day. I’m proud of that comp, and I still listen to it.

Time lapse... another four years to just about now (2005). The tidal wave of comps had slowed to a trickle, or I was paying even less attention. While the barren landscape of quality unknowns was mostly to blame for the drop-off, it was the Hyped 2 Death lawsuit that put a solid freeze on things. One compilation-in-progress was stopped cold in its tracks at the test pressing stage. H2D’s brazen and idiotic “you’ve been bootlegged! drop a line and I’ll send you a CD-R” approach didn’t sit well with one musician-turned-lawyer out to teach a lesson. The fallout wasn’t pretty especially for several small stores and mail orders caught in the crossfire. Oh, the irony... H2D’s creator once decried our “All American Punk, No Foreign Junk” series for “ruining the spirit of Killed By Death”. Forget the so-called “spirit” of the KBD series... H2D almost single-handedly quashed the REALITY of it! My point is that undertaking another comp required a little more guts and a lot more caution. M was quick to remind me that I played a MUCH bigger role in producing the compilations. M took solace in a philosophy grounded in the Holy Trinity of Alfred E. Neuman (“what – me worry?”), Burt Bacharach (“that’s what friends are for”), and the Circle Jerks (“deny everything! deny everything! deny everything!”).

It was the half-dozen stone killers that pushed me into action on the new comp. I mean it simply wasn’t right that only a handful of people were ruining eardrums to these genius beats. Half the comp was already set in stone... nothing to argue about. The other half was a different story... M and I’s back-and-forth got pretty heated. I’d decided on a name: Staring Down The Barrel and found some suitable clip art (putting aside the hallowed KBD tradition of using a 45’s picture sleeve on the cover). And, of course, the gun’s barrel wasn’t the only barrel we were staring down (titles with a single meaning are rarely sufficient). This time we were positive... this is the end of the line. Really.

M managed to repeat the recording problems of yesteryear by clipping songs too close. Yell, rinse, repeat. Both engineers responsible for mastering previous volumes had vanished. I booked some time in a new studio. Half-an-hour of watching the engineer’s puzzled look (from the studio floor, I might add – he sat in the only available chair) was enough for me to pull open the trap door and bail. A friend recommended another studio, so I booked time and headed in the following day. I told the engineer what I wanted (no noise reduction, tight edits between songs, all tracks equally loud), and this whiz kid delivered in spades. In fact, those edits were so tight I’ve already had several complaints from DJ’s who’ve tried cueing songs. Ha! Finally, something went BETTER than expected. I gathered up label and sleeve scans from M (whose scanning know-how had improved over the course of a decade). I also asked him to knock out liner notes while I got the layout of the LP jacket together. M delivered notes so dry that I couldn’t even manage a few tears of frustration. I reworked the notes to a digestible level and sent everything off in the hopes of returning from a long summer trip to find our new baby hatched and ready to go.

What I found when I returned was a mess: poorly printed LP jackets (images too dark, splotchy cover) and – even worse – a shipment of severely warped LP’s. I was barely holding together when I realized that M had not only written down the wrong release years (despite my insistence that he LOOK at the records and not rely on his memory), but he’d jotted down an incorrect song title. In my hurry to wrap things up, I hadn’t caught the mistake. At this point, I was prepared to forget the whole fucking project. Barely able to hold the phone to my ear (all the steam being released), I asked M about the song title. He laughed – oops! – and said it wasn’t a big deal. “It’s not a big deal to you because you’re not the one who’s been busting his ass to get this fucking thing out. I ask you to do 2% of the work, and you STILL can’t do that.” I hung up.

After some consoling and further helpful editing from friends, I bit the bullet and reprinted the LP jackets. It was too late to correct the labels on the vinyl. Once the repress arrived, I crossed out the incorrect song title on every single copy. Between one thousand black lines and a couple thousand rubber stamps, this project was FAR more hands-on than I could’ve imagined. The repressed vinyl arrived much improved but still nowhere near one of those good-old-days beauties you find slipped inside a heavy pasteboard jacket. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Staring Down The Barrel has produced the expected mindfreak (“where the FUCK did you dig these up?!”) which is very satisfying, but the best part has been the one-end-of-the-spectrum-to-the-other opinions on the 45’s we chose. Among the earlybird listeners to the comp, every last cretin chose a different hop as his favorite. List toppers have included Ralphs, Grackles, Mind Games (agreed), J.T. IV, Ducky Boys, Secret Savior. Who knows, maybe someone out there will even enjoy the Psychotic Frogs? If such a person exists and is willing to work, make an effort to contact M... you two have a bright future putting together more compilations. As for me, I’m irrevocably, undeniably, unequivocally retired from this racket. I’ve said it before, but this time I mean it, man. It’s time for some whippersnappers to take up the slack and fill the void. Put down the Telephone and answer the call. Right now it’s well of over a decade since a whole slew of great 45’s hit the record bins. The precedent’s set... now all we need is that new breed of Swede wielding a catchy acronym. GG, over and out.