Invoke a well-worn genre tag like, say, Grunge, and you’ll invariably hear invocations of heavy, sludgy guitars, angsty vocals and Seattle. Mention Punk and you might hear citations of New York, London or Los Angeles (depending on who you ask, of course), and inevitable allusions to caustic and frequently speedy music with an accent on nihilism and iconoclasm. Riot Grrl will probably get you the Pacific Northwest and dismissive descriptors like “shrill” and/or “amateurish” (again, depending on who you ask). These instances (and countless others) are usually the result of one or two prescient music journalists’ well-timed penchant for succinct appellation.
It doesn’t always work out as planned, of course. Both the tags for Goth and Shoegazer started off as snarky pejoratives penned by haughty British journalists who probably never imagined that the terms they coined would go on to be embraced, let alone legitimized as stylistic demarcations of music. They may have started off as cheap pot-shots, but they stuck.
But for every genre-specific label that seemed to click -– from No Wave to New Romantic -- there are ones that are a bit more vague and amorphous. One that’s always sort of eluded readily definable classification for me is the term scumrock. Beyond it not necessarily connoting any specific, sonic qualities to the music in question, it doesn’t seem to be rooted in any particular locale. While I’ve always associated it with my native NYC, I have seen it invoked in other parts of the world as well. As far as I’ve ever been able to discern, scumrock was basically a catch-all that encompassed a sloppier brand of post-punk rock, essentially pre-figuring a burlier variety of same in the form of Grunge. This is, of course, entirely subject to interpretation.
Initially, I remember those sorts of bands being branded with the markedly more colorful term, Pigfuck, a choice adjective slapped on names like the Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Live Skull, Scratch Acid and even Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore –- outfits that eschewed the almost militaristic stealth and comparatively cohesive lockstep of hardcore in favor of an artier, more dissonant and willfully transgressive approach.
I think the first time that I actually saw the term scumrock officially applied was via a pair of live ROIR tapes. In case you’re unfamiliar, ROIR was a maverick indie label (prior to “indie” being considered a genre unto itself) that issued a cassette-only line of crucial releases. Their most celebrated release is invariably the Bad Brain’s seminal debut album, but they also put out amazing stuff like the live compilation Lest We Forget by the Buzzcocks, Fuck’em If They Can’t Take a Joke by the Dictators and New York Thrash, which documented the nascent, percolating NYHC scene.
In any case, between 1988 and 1989, ROIR released both The End of Music (As We Know It) and, more specifically, New York Scum Rock Live at CBGB. While I personally preferred the former (as it featured Jack Natz’s post-Undead/pre-Cop Shoot Cop ensemble, The Black Snakes with Richard Kern), both collections offered up a fresh new generation of New York bands that were putting a raucous, new spin on proceedings.
But that’s also where things got confusing. Who was and wasn’t scumrock, and was there really a difference between that and “noise rock” and/or the afore-cited pigfuck? And, more crucially, did it even matter?
If you’re a regular reader here, you might remember a video clip I put up quite a while back featuring the Lunachicks, a band who arguably fell solidly in the initial scumrock camp. Well, that video clip was part of a larger segment on a video compilation from 1989 called “Hard & Heavy,” that devoted a whole swathe of one episode to this new phenomenon of “NYC Scumrock.”
Curiously, there is no mention of bands like Flaming Pablum favorites Pussy Galore, the Black Snakes, Cop Shoot Cop and White Zombie (though each have been tied with the epithet), but –- in addition to the mighty Lunachicks – the program did profile bands like the Reverb Motherfuckers and Da Willys -- two bands also featured on that second ROIR compilation, New York Scum Rock Live at CBGB.
Honestly speaking, while I continue to love the Lunachicks (as evidenced here), I never thought very much of the Reverb Motherfuckers, and even less of Da Willys. Are they wholly indicative of Scumrock? Do they do the evidently roundly misapplied term any semblance of justice? Who knows? More importantly -- who cares? As the Lunachicks themselves admit, it doesn’t necessarily apply to them (especially if that acronym theory -- “Socially Conscious Underground Music” -– has any truth to it). But, for a moment, at least --- it was a term that had resonance for some.
Step back in time to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1989 … and enjoy a putrid lungful of SCUMROCK!