Here’s the thing: I kinda like Hot Topic. In theory, anyway: jeez, if that place had been around when I was in high school, setting myself apart from the real and imagined aggressors in the hallways would have been so much easier. I would have had more time to go out and smash the state or whatever, though at that tender age “smashing the state” probably meant reading a book in a coffeehouse or hoping cops would notice my attempts to ollie curbs so I could proclaim, loudly, that I had been a victim of skate harassment.
But the cops didn’t care was the thing: I’m sure I was so bumbling in my attempts to grind they assumed—correctly—that I was harmless, if they noticed me at all. But the noticing is a key component of the formative days, whether we’re talking pre- or post-Hot Topic. No matter the era, the initial self-awareness yields some sort of reaction, an anti-matter which pushes away from what’s established and into the unknown. More than becoming a part of something, it’s a separation from the established order of things, definition by negation.
The ‘Topic is an early stage of that nowadays. So is nu-metal, so is hip hop, so is Skrillex, etc. It’s easy to get a reaction if that’s all that you’re looking for. But after a point, there’s taking things to the next step, using the initial shock as a springboard.
The whole “punk is dead” argument comes into play more regarding the genre’s origins than the fashion and subculture it spawned. There’s a legitimate case to be made in saying that punk died around 1979, once the first wave started to dry up, break up, or move away from the initial narrow limitations. Not to say I believe any of this stuff, but I get it, and understand when first-wavers try to drive nails into that particular coffin. It happens all over music—there’s the school that says hardcore died in 1984/85, for example. Again, I get it, even if I’m not buying it.
What I am buying is the Stiff Little Fingers. They’re a recent discovery, spawned by pre-internet memories of skate magazines merging with a series of videos by ‘80s pro Jeff Grosso. Back then (and now) Thrasher was the edgy one, what with its great punk and hip-hop coverage. The skaters themselves, though, seemed like they’d make fun of me for not being _________ enough.Transworld was slicker, and accordingly the skaters therein seemed more approachable. After a time, Grosso was featured in both—he had something going on, in other words. I recently stumbled across a series of videos he’s doing, which made me think back to the interviews he did. I remember him talking about Stiff Little Fingers—after all these years!—and tracked ‘em down.
Grosso was right.
Certainly the punk “era” was rife with reasons for railing against the establishment—the socioeconomics on both sides of the pond, certainly, yielded plenty of strife—but a lot of said railing reverted to nothing but pose and aping by within a few years, part and parcel of something small becoming a movement (seriously, teenagers complaining about Reagan’s bad policies? C’mon, dudes!).
Here in 2012, it’s easy to hear a barely restrained fury in Inflammable Material—the incendiary goings-on in and around Belfast drive the album, still bleeding urgency after all this time. The band’s politics are in no way kneejerk or aware of the “punk” genre—they’re responding to a time and a place in the most honest way possible in songs like “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster.” This is protest music, plain and simple, speaking to the disaffected in a snarl that sounds like common parlance. But there’s joy in there, too—the sudden and unexpected means, perhaps, of self-expression coming together. The raw anger is certainly identifiable in terms of genre, as are some of the tropes—there’s reggae in here à la the Clash, for example, the influence of rockabilly, in-your-face song titles like “I Don’t Like You.”
What’s surprising is how fresh and influential much of this sounds, despite the band’s relative under-the-radar status. It’s easy to hear echoes of Crass in singer Jake Burns’ raspy croak—as well as the hoarse delivery of Frankie Stubbs of Leatherface, commonly thought of as the vocal ground zero for the seemingly endless stable of gruff melodic bands in and around Gainesville, FL. There’s Proletariat in their drums, and more syncopated stop-starts in “Suspect Device” than in any of the other early bands’ stuff. The initial wave becomes the foundation on which the band built their particular take on the time and place, using their unique vision to craft a document that acknowledges the recent past but builds on it, as well.
It’s a neat trick, sounding both familiar and fresh in the context of the day’s heavy hitters, but the Stiff Little Fingers pull it off admirably (both here and in their follow-up “Nobody’s Heroes,” the song Grosso, in his ages-old interview, used to reflect on his skating fame). Despite punk’s protestations, there’s a canon, and these cats deserve to be in it.