image
July 15, 2014
by Joel Tannenbaum

In the real, empirically verifiable, corporeal universe that you and I inhabit, the American punk rock band Flag of Democracy formed in suburban Philadelphia in 1982 and, over the next three decades, made eight full-length albums plus a handful of EPs and compilation appearances. They have never taken a formal hiatus and have not had a change in personnel since 1986. Aside from some early notoriety in the 1980s U.S. hardcore scene and several years of popularity in continental Europe in the 1990s, the three members of F.O.D. have played shows and made records—and continue to do both, though with declining frequency—in almost total obscurity. This is odd, for two reasons in particular:

1. Most bands don’t even make it to record number two, let alone record number eight. And most bands that stick around for decades do so because, let’s be honest, they are making money. Trust me on this: F.O.D. isn’t making any money, nor have they ever. And if SRA Records hadn’t stepped in a few years ago and begun systematically remastering and re-releasing the band’s entire catalog, well…I don’t even like to think about that.

2. F.O.D. invented a style of melodic punk played at breakneck tempos that was utterly revolutionary, influenced hundreds—and indirectly, thousands—of bands, traces of which still inflect a good 50 percent of what constitutes melodic punk/hardcore today and the vast majority of people in the world who listen to that kind of music have never heard them, or even heard of them. Think about that. It’s surreal. Imagine a world where Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and then went back to playing semi-pro baseball, or where Einstein published his theory of relativity and kept working in the patent office until he died. Obviously the magnitude of impact in the real world is different when you are talking about revolutionary socialism or experimental physics but, if we confine ourselves to the world of loud, fast underground music, the weirdness is proportional: We live in a world where the band that invented the dominant sub-genre of an entire huge genre of music received zero recognition for doing so, despite having been a band for 30 years. F.O.D.’s brushes with greater recognition have been rare, and almost as weird as the band itself: a mention in a Dead Milkmen song, and a story that resurfaces occasionally about the singer physically removing serial killer Gary Heidnik from a punk show in West Philadelphia in the 1980s. They made a record called Everything Sucks and the Descendents released a record with the same name a few months later. (Also there’s a Green Day song called “F.O.D.” but honestly who knows what that’s about.) In 2014, the members of F.O.D. just go about their adult lives, raising their children, working at their jobs, occasionally carving out time to play a show to less than 50 (sometimes less than 20) people or to record new songs. My point—and I really, really hope you’ll agree with me—is that this is very weird. Something else—I’m not sure exactly what—should have happened. Like the characters in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, when I listen to F.O.D. I am filled with a creepy sense that there’s been some kind of mistake: that history stopped awhile ago and what’s been going on since is some sort of carefully cultivated illusion.

F.O.D.’s politics were prescient as well. They espoused a kind of paranoid techno-anarchism that is everywhere now, from Anonymous to Occupy to Silicon Valley. They looked to the future with both fascination and fear. It’s little wonder they can’t be accommodated by the punk rock nostalgia economy that has emerged in the last decade. Nostalgia is incredibly dull to them.

Physicists who study the origins of the universe generally agree that, for an infinitesimally brief period after the “Big Bang” the universe underwent a period of massive expansion described as “cosmic inflation.” According to some of these physicists, the inflation happened unevenly, creating “bubbles” of the universe that are not observable to us. Based on this theory, a smaller group of physicists have created mathematical models postulating the existence of a “multiverse” – infinite universes, existing simultaneously and in parallel, all equally “real,” yet non-intersectional. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Schrödinger’s poor cat, this is one of those abstract scientific theories with wide popular appeal, because the idea of infinite universes allows us to imagine that everything that we can think of, everything that we can picture, everything that could have happened has, or will, happen, in one of these infinite universes.

Personally, I like the theory of infinite universes created by cosmic inflation because it helps me to understand the career of Flag of Democracy. Sure, I happen to live in a universe where F.O.D. has made eight brilliant records that inexorably changed the shape of punk rock and hardly anyone gives a shit, but I mean, whatever. There are also universes where

  • F.O.D. does not exist.
  • F.O.D. is wildly popular.
  • F.O.D. ghost-wrote “Wrecking Ball.”
  • F.O.D. was assassinated by a handful of surviving members of the Japanese Red Army while performing at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
  • F.O.D. turns out to have been lip-synching the whole time.
  • F.O.D. and Bad Religion have basically switched places.
  • F.O.D. and Pagan Babies have basically switched places. (This one is really, really hard to tell apart from our universe.)
  • F.O.D. has roughly the same recorded output as they do in this universe, but people keep tarantulas as pets while hamsters are considered deadly predators.
  • Everything is just rocks.
  • Everything is just rocks but one of the rocks has “F.O.D.” written on it for some reason.

So you see my point, of course: F.O.D.-wise, things could be better in this particular universe, but they could also be way, way worse. So, in the spirit of free scientific inquiry, here is the history of the universe in seven F.O.D. songs. Unlike the origins of the universe and the very nature of time itself, they can be presented and understood in chronological order:

1. “Powerload” (1984)

“Powerload” is the runaway awesome song on Eight Love Songs, F.O.D.’s first commercial release. The bizarre yodeling breakdown was, in retrospect, the first hint that something out of the ordinary was happening.

2. “Houses Made for Mannequins” (1986)

The leadoff track from F.O.D.’s first full-length, Shatter Your Day, announces itself immediately with a clash between textured feedback and a highly arrhythmic bass and floor tom accent pattern before launching into an impossibly fast two minutes of melodic hardcore. As will be the case with many of the band’s best songs, F.O.D. manage to maintain its melodicism over weird and complicated chord progressions, rather than just the usual I-IV-V, as the creepy monastic “Whoa-oh-oh” refrain here attests. The words are a pretty typical adolescent complaint about suburban conformity/hypocrisy, but are delivered with unusual eloquence. The title is of course a reference to the Yucca Flat nuclear tests of the 1950s, where the U.S. government built suburban housing developments in the desert to test the effects of atomic blasts. This is first showing of the sardonic retro-futurism that would become part of F.O.D.’s lyrical vision over the next several decades.

3. “You’re Fucked” (1988)

Dude. You’re fucked.

4. “King Size Twisted” (1994)

This is more or less the music F.O.D. was making when I first started getting to see them play, and wow. This is when they were at their fastest. It’s also when they were settling into their 30s and having to deal with the adult world as adults, and were none too happy about it. These encounters of course allowed the band to mine rich new veins of hypocrisy and absurdity and these form the basis for most of the material on their fourth studio album, the wonderfully named Hate Rock. I can only speculate as to the identity of the wormy, self-satisfied bureaucrat who inspired the words to “King Size Twisted” but damn, they must have sucked real bad.

5. “Skins ‘N’ Hooves” (1996)

By the time Everything Sucks came out, F.O.D. was watching with detached bemusement as something called “pop punk” became an obsession at the suburban VFW halls where they were now playing irregularly to audiences quite a bit younger than them. Never so grasping or careerist as to try to cater to these trends, F.O.D. nonetheless couldn’t resist occasionally dropping a beautifully rendered, harmony-soaked two-minute kitchen sink drama like this one into the mix.

6. “Cops and Teachers” (2000)

By the time they began writing the songs for FODworld, F.O.D. really and truly had passed the point of giving a fuck. In some ways this is their most interesting record, but it’s also the hardest to really understand. Still, if F.O.D. wrote “Cops and Teachers” to demonstrate that, if they wanted to, they could be a better powerviolence band than Spazz, Charles Bronson and Assholeparade combined, well, point taken. The lyrics are great too. FODworld is the album where the band’s life-long anti-authoritarianism takes a more philosophical turn.

7. “Racist Boyfriend” (2010)

The 2000s were the closest thing F.O.D. had to a lost decade, but in the end, it got them to their best record, Home Lobotomy Kit. And this minute-long explosion of middle-aged suburban angst is almost too perfect for words. Listen and despair.

And the bonus track:

“Under My Dumb”

It’s 2014 and F.O.D. is still making music and it sounds like this. Creatively, F.O.D. continue to advance through tinkering, experimentation and incremental change. Every record is a little different than the last. And if this article has convinced you of nothing else, I hope I’ve at least made a compelling argument that F.O.D., unlike most punk and hardcore bands, are making even better records in their 40s than they were in their 20s. “Under my Dumb” and many other songs, will be released on a series of split 7-inches on SRA Records over the next year. You heard it here first. The universe continues to expand. And so does Flag of Democracy.

Advertisements