Missoulian – Saturday, March 27, 1982
Grab your babies, punk is here
By Shawn Swagerty
When Who Killed Society made its public debut as a punk rock group last spring, antagonism and chaos ensued. However, at a performance last month, society responded more favorably.
When Missoula’s punk rock standard-bearers, a local group called Who Killed Society, debuted last spring at a battle-of-the-bands contest, a riot nearly ensued.
No sooner had Who Killed Society taken the stage than the hail of ice, coins and bottle caps began, and both the assaulters and the assaulted unleashed packs of foaming obscenities. Things got a big tense.
There are battle lines, you see. When a crowd of heavy-metal rock fanatics watches three kids with dyed and spiked hair, vinyl and leopard-skin pants and torn T-shirts, pick up their guitars, the fanatics are liable to throw the nearest thing with projectile potential that they can find. Why is this so?
Anything capable of unifying people is also capable of dividing them; rock is a prime example. Fisticuffs between friends have been known to occur over issues as trivial as personal musical tastes, so it follows that riots between two long-estranged factions could stem from similar disagreements.
Missoulians Wally Erickson, 20, Sabina Miller, 19, and Randy Pepprock, 20, are familiar with confrontational politics. Pepprock, guitarist and singer for Who Killed Society, describes a recent incident in which he and Miller, the band’s bassist, were hanging posters on telephone poles when they were accosted by a gang of teens riding in a “junky old yellow car.”
“They drove up and started spitting at us and calling us ‘punk faggots’ and whatever other names they could think of,” says Pepprock, who is no stranger to threats of physical violence for his appearance.
“People just don’t realize how aggressive those children are,” he complains. “We don’t drive around and look for kids with long hair to beat up.”
Well, what is it that they do to make others so concerned about their behavior?
A little background might help. Punk rock originated in England in late 1976, when groups like the Damned and the Sex Pistols took over British popular music in a sudden blitz which reshaped – even renewed for some – the “rock sensibility,” that rebellious, angry spirit which has characterized the rock genre since its beginnings.
To the punks, the ‘70s meant a betrayal of this sensibility. With bloated Elvis Presley aping Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney aping Elvis, and other assorted apings occurring, rock’s dynamism and energy seemed to have disappeared.
“Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” a definitive punk album and punk document declared when it was released in the United States during the 1977 Christmas season. The album was politically, morally and musically extreme and finally accomplished what socially-motivated rock of the ‘60s only hinted at: the abnegation not of mom and dad’s moral values, but of mom and dad’s entire moral structure. Good and evil seemed to be invalidated when Johnny Rotten snarled, “Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it – I wanna destroy, possibly.”
The punk ethic demanded destruction, and new creation from the rubble. Bands such as the Clash, the Jam and Sham 69 took up the cause of building the New Order with a sometimes annoying commitment. Social matters formed the thematic core of the music. Love songs were scarce.
The American co-option and perversion of punk began about two years later in Los Angeles. Rona Barrett and Phil Donahue all of a sudden were looking concerned into living rooms across this great land and warning of the impending bloodshed if the “punkers” were to take over. Penthouse and People magazine came forth with dire predictions of the sort that echoed the warning about Elvis Presley’s “race music,” and the Jupiter Effect’s cataclysmic impact. Hype makes the world go ‘round.
Who Killed Society seems to fit squarely in the English punk tradition of social activism. Some of the first lyrics penned by Pepprock were for “Political Science,” a song that attacks the notion of compulsory military service. As Pepprock explains, “I’m going to go to jail if I question why they want me to kill someone from Saigon or San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador). It’s just absurd.”
Miller’s concerns are more generalized. She is disturbed by the resistance not only to change, but to her personal expression. “You’d think if we’d all get together and try to do something, we could really accomplish something constructive,” she says. “But people are too worried that someone’s a punk; some people can’t stand to see anything different from themselves.”
Despite the resistance, Who Killed Society has come a long way from the days of total audience rejection. When the group played at the Missoula’s Top Hat last month, Pepprock was amazed by the favorable response from the packed audience. “It was the first time we played the Top Hat that people didn’t boo and throw stuff. We didn’t know quite how to react to that, but it was great.”
Musically, the band had made quantum leaps over the course of its year-long existence. Pepprock’s guitar playing has developed a style which, though derivative, is not imitative. Miller has become a facile rock bassist, and Wally Erickson, an instinctive drummer in the mold of the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook, has become more agile and assertive.
Despite their increasing facility as musicians, other musicians still laugh at the idea of a band referring to punk as “music.”
“No musicians look to us and say ‘cool, I respect what they’re doing.’ They all just laugh,” says Pepprock. Still, Who Killed Society remains committed. Pepprock states his satisfaction in terms of personal and artistic freedom and integrity. “Even if we broke up right now, we’ll know that for one year we did exactly what we wanted to do.”
(Shawn Swagerty is (was) a UM student and is a former Montana Kaimin arts editor.)