Wednesday, 24 January 2018

California Screamin' (part 2): Subtle Oppression / Atrocity / Clark Kent "Their Eyes don't Lie" split Ep, 1984

Peacepunk, as one of many punk facets that can be contextualized in time and place, was, as I posited previously, very much a response to British anarchopunk, a recreation and actualization of the anarchopunk ethos and sound in California (to be more accurate San Francisco and Orange County). If there were strong, meaningful sonic similarities between the UK and the US versions (it does not take a musical genius to spot them), they also shared the politics, the aesthetics and a specific aestheticization of these politics. If you asked your average punk what anarchopunx (or peacepunx) were like, he would have probably answered something like "vegetarian hippies who don't recognize the greatness of The Exploited (can be replaced with an American hardcore band if the context requires it)". And actually, your average punk would still answer something along those lines nowadays, especially with the current "anti-PC" trend that does not exactly tend to raise the bar in terms of critical thinking. 

This said, our punk friend would not be completely wrong as pacifism (not to be confused with non-violence) and animal rights are the two emblematic issues embraced by anarchopunx in the 80's. The former usually manifested itself through the (sometimes excessive) use of the peace symbol while the latter was conveyed through shocking pictures and slogans depicting the horrific implications of meat-eating in our modern societies. Of course, I suppose these are seen as either clichés or unquestionable parts of a given template nowadays, and I guess that even back then, people started to roll their eyes after hearing yet another anti-vivisection song. Still, even though there was a trend element to animal rights in the punk scene back then, it is undeniable that many of us (I hope) were made aware of the horrors of the slaughterhouse and of meat culture thanks to anarcho bands and, quite clearly, Atrocity and Subtle Oppression were adamant that the slaughter and exploitation had to stop. 

I suppose that a lot of the peacepunx were self-proclaimed vegetarians at the time but, to my knowledge (and please, correct me if I'm wrong), this split Ep is the first record entirely dedicated to animal rights and liberation to rise, not only from that corner of the scene, but from the US punk scene as a whole (of course, MDC had pro-vegetarian songs in '82/'83 but none as explicitly pro-animal rights). There were probably bands singing about it before but this Ep revolved entirely around this theme and it makes sense that it was financed and produced by the Student Action Corps for Animals, who were a campus-based student collective for animal rights from Washington DC (that's a pretty unusual producer but I suppose that the political connections between Berkeley and DC made such a project possible). There is a lot to read on the subject on this Ep and the foldout cover/poster format is used at its full extent with several texts and pictures to illustrate and make a point (which is the whole idea anyway). Educational stuff. I can definitely imagine this Ep being released on Mortarhate at the time and I suppose Conflict have a lot to answer for here anyway. 

But let's start with the actual content of the Ep and with the first band...or bands... or...well, it is a bit unclear to be honest. The track on side A is made up of two parts, a spoken one which is the introduction to the second one, the actual song. The thing is that the spoken word was done by Clark Kent (I hope the geezer wore glasses at least) while the song was performed by Subtle Oppression. So does that actually make the Ep a 3-way split or just a usual one? You tell me. Even discogs doesn't know what to make of that one since the entry is shambolic to say the least. Anyway, Clark's bit is actually a poem entitled Sonnet for a Cow (even as a vegan, this one is too cheesy for me) which I am not going to comment upon (let's say the prosody ain't quite right) and focus instead on Subtle Oppression... a band I know virtually nothing about, apart from the fact they were from Bethesda, close to DC, and therefore were probably part of or at least connected to the Student Action Corps for Animals (it sounds likely). But that's about it. I have not been able to find anything about them on the world wide web. Enlighten me if you can.

I cannot claim to be a DC punk expert or fan. The only thing I know with certainty is that there were a lot of jumpy hardcore bands over there. Was Subtle Oppression one of them? Absolutely not. They played rather theatrical-sounding anarcho postpunk with high-pitched vocals, clear guitars and a mid-paced beat. I am reminded of UK bands like Flowers in the Dustbin, Zounds, Youthinasia or Slaughter of the Innocent, which is a very good thing but it is hard to tell what the band was going for on just one song and no information. The sound is great, the musicianship is there and the songwriting pretty strong so I would tend to think that the band must have had some studio recording but that could be wishful thinking. Their song, "Deep beneath the rituals", unsurprisingly deals with the culturally constructed habit of meat consumption disguised as a natural act.

On the other side are Atrocity, who are the reason why I picked this record they were a Berkeley-based peacepunk band. As I mentioned in the review about Trial, Atrocity were part of the first generation of San Francisco peacepunk bands along with Crucifix, Trial, Treason, Peace love Happiness and A State of Mind (apparently, the six of them shared the bill at a classic gig that took place at the Club Foot in Dogpatch) and one of the singers, Sarah Borruso, was John Trial and Matt Crucifix' sister. Also in the band were Katherine (vocals), Jennifer (bass), Paul (guitar) and Greg (drums) who I suspect was also behind A State of Mind's kits. I could not find much intel about Atrocity (the moniker does not exactly make researching easy) but their participants were apparently really young when the band was formed in 1983 (in their mid-teens) which is both impressive since the songs are brilliant and a little depressing when I think about how useless my 15 year old self used to be... Oh well... 

If Trial could be seen through the prism of the "All the Madmen anarcho sound", Atrocity took their influences in the tradition of female-fronted anarchopunk that was really strong in the first part of the 1980's in the UK and, if it were not for the accentuation, you would doubtlessly think they were part of that scene. Of course, there has been in recent years a resurgence of interest in 80's anarchopunk and quite a few US bands have been trying - more or less successfully - to recreate that UK sound. Yet, just like for Trial, I find odd, if not almost disturbing, that a band like Atrocity is never mentioned despite this "anarcho trend". What works so well here is the spontaneity of the songwriting. Probably because the members were so young, they just went for it with determination and without a second thought (just like the bands they were influenced by really). That youthful energy and boldness are what makes the two Atrocity songs so incredibly good. Tuneful but moody anarchopunk with dual female vocals, somewhere between Lost Cherrees, Rubella Ballet and Icon AD for the melancholy melodies and bands like DIRT, A-Heads or The Sears for the upbeat snottiness, although it is hard to tell if, by 1984, the band had actually heard all those bands. The dual female vocals work perfectly and creatively together through variations in tones and patterns, sometimes their different vocal styles overlapping and intertwining, hence creating layered polyphonous moments, at other times singing along together in true punk fashion or in a trade-off manner... On the vocal level, I am reminded of Chumba, Alternative or even bands like Joyce McKinney or Chin Chin, and although these came after Atrocity, it will give you an idea. 

Several articles, critical essays or even books have been written in the past few years about feminism and females in punk-rock, especially from a US point of view or taking the US punk scene as the background. Of course, a lot of them focus on the Riot Grrrl wave of the 90's but the absence of bands like Atrocity in this type of work - usually coming from the academic world but not always - is surprising if not a little problematic because the teenagers in Atrocity ruled hard, although it is difficult to assess what kind of influence the band really had... I guess a book about peacepunk is long overdue (I know such a project was started a couple of years ago but I suppose it sadly fell through).   
Anyway, the two songs, "Animal fate" and "Silent victims", both about animal welfare, were recorded during the summer of 1984 by Rip (from Trial and A State of Mind) and if you are into vintage anarchopunk, you should try to find a copy of this split Ep (it goes for cheap). Peacepunk at its best. Two other Atrocity songs can be found on a mixtape compiled in 1991 by Aaron Cometbus (of the notorious Cometbus fanzine and also known as "Green Day's mate"), probably rehearsal recordings judging from the sound quality but they still make for a decent listen (there is also an unreleased Trial song on the tape). 

Could there be more unknown Atrocity recordings? I'm not holding my breath...  



  1. Hi there,

    My name's Kevin Mattson. In these circles you might have seen the recent and well-done documentary about Positive Force called "More than a Witness." I'm in the film, as the co-founder of Positive Force. This project that you're trying to figure out (not surprised) is a project I helped work on. Subtle Oppression was my band after Hate from Ignorance (HFI) broke up. Clark Kent is really Clark Chapin, who was once lead singer of HFI (one of the first peace punk bands in D.C.). We did this 7" for the Student Action organization you mention. I helped get Atrocity to do one side (and faintly recall telephone conversations with members of the band... but sheesh, a long time ago). Subtle Oppression broke up soon after this record was released (there's also a solo cassette tape version that was done by Subtle Oppression -- but what's really just me and a four-track recorder). I think Atrocity broke up around time of the record.

    If you have a copy of this, I'd love to see it again. Presently, I am an American historian who teaches at Ohio University and am presently writing a book about American punk in the 1980s -- hence have been doing searches for stuff I remember.

    There's more but I'll leave it that for now.

    My email:

    1. Hello there,

      Thanks a lot for your comment and for the background information. I did not make the connection between Subtle Oppression and HFI (whom I only know the tracks on the Mixed Nuts compilation Lp) but that was not so obvious and the internet was remarkably quiet about it.

      I am curious, will your book also cover the 80' peacepunk scene? If so, I am very looking forward to reading it, as I have always been obsessed with it (it shows, I suppose).

      The Atocity/Subtle Oppression Ep is actually not difficult to find and goes for a fiver on discogs (that's how I got my copy).

      Thanks again


    2. Dear Romain,

      Yes, the book will definitely consider the growth of peace punk during the early 1980s. Plus, lots of other approaches to punk. It will mostly be about ideas and debates and the great conversation that punk helped stimulate during the dour times of the Reagan administration.

      All best,

  2. As I've said before in other comments on this I was fortunate enough to catch Treason and P.L.H. a few times in the 80s. I was part of the peace punk scene in San Francisco/ Bay Area. In the mid to late 80s many of us were involved in No Business As Usual a sort of punk protest group. I also worked for groups like SANE and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze along with Lance Hahn (RIP) and Jon Sumrall(Econochrist). I've been trying for many years to find live recordings or practice tapes of P.L.H. and as much written information as possible. Along with show fliers and pictures I'm hoping to do a fan(zine) dedicated to this and other Bay Area peace punk bands. Sadly due to gentrification the scene here in San Francisco has declined and/or aged out. The fierce protests we were famous for are but a fainting memory. If you have anything to help with from your research please let me know Romain. You know my social media page. Peace-Sean

    1. Hey Sean. A zine about the peacepunk scene would be amazing indeed as it is sadly little documented. As for PLH, a former member got in touch with me a few months ago as he wanted to include one of my pieces on a website he worked for (I'm not sure which one but I well check). I think he mentioned some sort of live recordings floating around. I can give you his contact if you like.