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Sunday, May 25, 2008

DVD Review: T.S.O.L. - The Early Years Live

T.S.O.L. - The Early Years Live DVD
2008 MVD Visual
Ray Van Horn, Jr.



In some respects, T.S.O.L. was America's answer to Killing Joke. Both were formed in the late seventies and both were considered pioneers of punk and hardcore. Another likeness between the two bands was their willingess to outsource from different moods, perspectives and instrumentalization to step beyond the smash mouth rebelliousness each began with. What this translated to be was a pair of punk acts with a dark affinity for Goth textures who thought nothing about throwing their audience curveballs in the name of exploring their art. Let themselves be damned if need be...

Both bands sadly expanded themselves to the point of stretching themselves so thin that little-to-no resemblence of the core infrastructure could be said to exist. Killing Joke confusedly turned altpop on synth-drenched and way-out pantomimed albums in the mid-to-late eighties like Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Outside the Gate and Jaz Coleman's huh? spoken word album, The Courtald Talks. In the same timeframe, T.S.O.L. had been shorn of its singer Jack Grisham and drummer, the late Gerald Barnes in what had to have been sheer rebellion in the suddenly lost and confused sound T.S.O.L. would eventually spew with the moody and nearly Cure-like Change Today? and utltimately their pop rock and straightforward heavy metal courtships with 1986's Revenge and '87's Hit and Run respectively. If anything was generated for T.S.O.L. in their awkward glam and leather days during the original heavy metal explosion, it was exposure from having "The Name is Love" from Hit and Run played a couple times on Headbangers Ball.

The soup-to-nuts about T.S.O.L. (or True Sounds of Liberty in case you're wondering) is that they, along with other hardcore bands of the day like Agent Orange, Circle Jerks and the Dead Kennedys, initially formed the lately-revered So-Cal punk scene that has now erupted with everything from stoner bands like Fu Manchu and High On Fire to metalcore darlings like Avenged Sevenfold, Eighteen Visions and Bleeding Through. T.S.O.L. showed bravery to alter their anarchy in the streets mentality on classics like "Abolish Government/Silent Majority" and "Property is Theft" from their blistering self-titled E.P. to a Goth-laced (and ironically far more driven) angst demeanor on Dance With Me, Weathered Statues and Beneath the Shadows, albums that challenged their listeners as well as all existing precepts about punk.

T.S.O.L. - The Early Years Live takes us back to that delicate moment in the band's career when their days as Vicious Circle had already passed but the members who transferred to T.S.O.L. had taken with them that snarling punk attitude along with an adopted view of enlightenment blossoming throughout the British punk and alt scenes with future legends like The Cure, Bauhaus and Siouxie and the Banshees, tapping into fugue and Goth to supplement their disaffected punk roots.

So was the motif of T.S.O.L. in 1983 and the footage shown on this DVD from the seminal punk magazine and record imprint Flipside and Target Video77 archives reflects a band in the midst of tapping into their identity as a razor's edge Goth punk band. If their allegiance of fans were confused by the constant directional changes T.S.O.L. were exploring at this time, the college kid crowd assembled to watch the band on the Flipside footage look positively droned, save for a handful of punk rockers who meander about in front of the stage while T.S.O.L. belts out "Beneath the Shadows," "Love Story," "Darker My Love" and "Man and Machine." There's a decided tension to this performance, despite the casual way Jack Grisham skulks about the stage. The punkers don't seem to get with the program until T.S.O.L. rips into "Superficial Love" when they finally press up to the stage (and disrupt the audio feed in the process). Meanwhile, those surrounding stage who are not of punk appreciation simply stare in bewilderment. In some ways, T.S.O.L. may have inadvertently helped define what would be called "college radio" later in the decade as they could be found (like many punk rock bands of the day) pounding out shows at local campuses in order to spread the word, usually at low cost or outright free.

The Target Video77 footage in contrast, albeit brief with only three songs, gives us a more accurate punk rock facade with slam-dancing, diving and a high octane energy level from T.S.O.L. that is more befitting of the "mega-intense" tag sported on the DVD.

An extensive interview with original members Jack Grisham and Ron Emory on the DVD is actually the biggest bonus item because we get some insight into issues that punk rock bands faced back in the day (and even in its current state as well), such as pay-to-play venues and accusations of selling out from fans. Rather humbling to listen to Grisham relay that he was still living with his mother and barely had enough money to pay her rent as well as other minimal life expenses while punk fans were deriding T.S.O.L. as being cash-hungry. Considering the group played a ton of freebies as they were coming up, the frustration of misperception is grossly affective, particularly in light of a band that would soon be marked in the rock books as a formative band in a scene that would hypocritcally become as much of a cash cow as the popsters it fashionably ridiculed.

Rating: ***1/2

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