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Germs - (GI) Music Album Reviews

Germs - (GI) Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Germs’ (GI), a touchstone of California punk.

Trying to get the straight story of Los Angeles punk band Germs is like trying to piece together the timeline of a debaucherous night out: The specifics are blurry, the headache is blinding, and everybody has a different take on what happened. One lucid fact pierces through the hangover: Germs were a mess of contradictions. Doomed frontman Darby Crash was a well-read savant and a mumbling cretin, crowds adored and abhorred them, and the music they made in four belligerent years reached decades beyond their downfall. By the time their sole studio album (GI) arrived in 1979, Germs had swaggered their way to local infamy, and Crash had crowned himself the genius king of Hollywood’s juvenile delinquents. He died by suicide a little more than a year later at 22. The first LP ever released by Slash Records, (GI) captured Germs in top form. It documents four hardworking iconoclasts who somehow translated their chaotic live sets into a classic record.


Before punk-rock brevity came into vogue, Germs opted for glam flamboyance: After forming in 1977, their working name was Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens. Crash (then known as Bobby Pyn) started the group with friend and classmate Pat Smear. Crash and Smear both attended IPS—an alternative education program within L.A.’s University High School that imparted principles of EST and Scientology. It was there that Crash first dabbled in amateur mind control. “[Darby] had this natural power,” Crash’s friend and schoolmate Paul Roessler recalled in the Germs oral history Lexicon Devil. “It was either that he was so much smarter than anybody else… or he had techniques that he learned from the books he read or from IPS. Or he just had magic.”

It was this “magic” that somehow had Germs on everyone’s lips before their first gig at the Orpheum in ’77. Their live debut, opening for the Weirdos, included very little music. “Germs were absolutely fucking terrible!” recalled Weirdos drummer Nickey Beat. “They came on stage, tuned up for 10 or 15 minutes, and then got through maybe one-third of their first song and stopped and started over again… [Darby] took the mic and stuck it in a jar of peanut butter… The Germs weren’t to be taken seriously after that night… for a while.”

What Germs lacked in serious prospects they made up for in absurdity. They taunted interviewers like bratty siblings, destroyed property, and got their first single, “Forming,” on the radio by calling KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer multiple times a day until he relented. The band’s fuck-it-all approach seemed both carefree and calculated: long before merch bundles and lengthy album rollouts, Germs had T-shirts, a logo, and a loyal mob of fans, known as Circle One, before they ever laid down a record. Circle One members, typically women, identified themselves by wearing the band’s blue circle insignia, or with grisly “Germs Burns,” which were administered by searing the inner wrist with a lit cigarette from tip to filter. Once healed, a tidy, circular scar formed. “I completely control a number of people’s lives,” Crash once said. “Look around for the little girls wearing CRASH-TRASH T-shirts.” By late ’77, Germs were headlining Brendan Mullen’s notorious nightclub the Masque; punks queued out the door to watch Crash smash beer bottles and bleed on stage.

Despite early lineup shuffles—their original drummer was future Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, who came down with mono and enlisted a friend to replace her before the band’s first gig—Germs’ circle wasn’t complete until percussionist Don Bolles joined Crash, guitarist Smear, and bassist Lorna Doom. Similarly, the boy born Jan Paul Beahm did not seal his fate until he rechristened himself Darby Crash. “Whereas Bobby Pyn seemed to me a much more innocent, goofy, carefree character,” Brendan Mullen wrote, “Darby Crash became much more demonic, complex, intense, intoxicated, as he gradually began to exude a much darker persona.”

Prior to (GI) (short for “Germs Incognito”), the group had released only a couple of singles. Pronounced the “world’s most volatile band” by writer Kickboy Face, and the “worst band ever” by themselves, it seemed unlikely that any label would sign them. But Slash Records founder Bob Biggs was up to the task. He presented a contract, enlisted Joan Jett to produce, and fronted the cash for Quad Tech studios. Biggs later described his role in (GI) as more “glorified babysitter” than label maven.

Something about their impending debut rearranged Germs’ molecular structure. Despite their prior shenanigans, Crash, Smear, Doom, and Bolles got their asses in gear. “My fondest memories of the Germs are right after the beginning and up to recording (GI)... which was a thrilling experience for me,” Doom said. The band rehearsed more than ever, putting in four hours a day, multiple times a week. Their work ethic in the studio was undisputed, although the same cannot be said for Jett, who was frequently passed out, according to many accounts (Crash even makes a crack about it in closing track “Shut Down”).

Jett wasn’t the group’s first choice of producer—Crash had his heart set on Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, but he was too expensive. Jett, who insists she only slept on the job one time, was chosen for her talent, proximity, and friendship with the band. Asleep or not, she managed to channel their focus. “Darby took it pretty seriously,” she said. “We didn’t have to do a lot of takes. He was certainly not out of control in the studio. He respected me. Did what I asked him to do… It was controlled nuttiness at that point.”

(GI) was yet another page in Germs’ tome of contradictions. Suddenly, the peanut butter-smeared, tantrum-prone little freaks had (nearly) sobered up and delivered one of the most influential records in punk history. Darby Crash’s progression from blathering imbecile to secret rock’n’roll poet shocked everyone. X’s John Doe was particularly surprised by Crash’s vernacular: “You didn’t know the words because it was all like ‘Warrrrrrrrwarrrwarr,’ when Darby’d sing them live,” he said. “So everyone was just astounded when they got that first Slash record and actually read the lyrics. They were great!”

(GI) is often considered the first-ever hardcore album. Bolles’ drumming style was fast and savage, doubling the BPMs of anything the Sex Pistols or Television had released. Meanwhile, Crash’s vocals were far removed from X’s harmonies and Joey Ramone’s chewed-up bubblegum. Crash didn’t sing: he growled. On (GI) centerpiece “Manimal,” he assumes the pelt of a rabid feline: “I came into this world like a puzzled panther/Waiting to be caged… I was never quite tamed,” he snarls. “Manimal” contains some of Crash’s most succinct and effective writing. It has none of the stilted, two-dollar words that sometimes appeared in Germs’ catalog (even Smear admitted that Crash’s lyrics could be “a bit pretentious”), and the song marries thematic and sonic elements better than most of their tracks. It is also one of many cuts on (GI) to hint at Crash’s impending death. “Evolution is a process/Too slow to save my soul,” he sneers, before letting out a pained roar like a wildcat being dragged off by poachers.

Like many bands, Germs’ ingenuity grew from limitations. When they formed, no one could really play an instrument, save for Smear, who dabbled in guitar throughout high school. As they performed and rehearsed, they realized they could play better and faster. Bolles perfected his machine-gun drumming, Doom fine-tuned her trademark “wall-of-whump” basslines, and Smear developed a guitar style that was shrill, gritty, and metallic—it often sounded like he was scraping his strings with a cheese grater. Their playing on (GI) is a balancing act of personality and restraint, leaving space for Crash to run the show.

Crash was a born prophet, a “premeditated would-be apocalyptic cult leader,” as friend and producer Geza X put it in another oral history, We Got the Neutron Bomb. Darby’s followers were already chauffeuring him around L.A. and footing his endless bar tab long before (GI) arrived. “When you have people for friends and they’re not the kind of people you want, what do you do?” he once asked an interviewer. “You make some better ones.” On (GI), Crash’s frightening magnetism was spelled out in song, and “We Must Bleed” is the most stirring distillation of his power. Crash repeats the titular line with such conviction, he sounds like a deranged preacher distributing the poisoned applesauce to his disciples.

Crash was intrigued by the charisma of cult leaders and dictators, from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to Charles Manson, Hitler, and Mussolini. “Richie Dagger’s Crime” portrayed a more benevolent side of Darby’s coercive nature. The song’s narrator is a holdover from Crash’s glam roots—a swaggering “boy that nobody owns.” Dagger was a dead ringer for Crash, who grew from “a child despised” into a teenage messiah. When he sings, “I can take on your heroes” it’s both a threat and a premonition—and the closest Germs ever came to pop music. “Lexicon Devil,” perhaps (GI)’s most iconic entry, repurposes Crash’s favorite manipulation device, suffered by everyone he knew: “Gimme, gimme this, gimme, gimme thaaaaaaat.” The song was an admission of Crash’s thirst for supremacy, confirming that nothing he did was by accident.

If any of (GI)’s songs were out of step with Germs’ repertoire, it was “Shut Down,” a nine-minute, narcotized jam session. Smear, Doom, and Bolles made minor detours from one circular riff, while Crash improvised lyrics that volleyed between playful and disturbing. One minute, he mocked Belinda Carlisle for being a cheerleader. Measures later, he nodded to the needle: “When I put that in my arm, I know that it done no harm.”

(GI) came out at a time when Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, and the Eagles were topping the Billboard 200. It didn’t get anywhere near the charts, but local critics took note. In his Los Angeles Times column, Richard Meltzer crowned (GI) album of the year, calling it “the most remarkable L.A. studio achievement at least since L.A. Woman.” At last, there was documentation that Germs were a legitimate band who could write and cut a record, and a great record at that. It was their best work—the gold standard they never got the chance to improve upon.

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In the following year, Darby Crash rapidly eroded due to substance abuse. Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris’ punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization captured his incoherence, making previous claims of his “genius” seem ridiculous. As Crash’s drug use escalated in his final months, so did his sense of alienation. Germs broke up, Crash made a failed attempt at going solo, and he became increasingly distraught over his closeted sexuality—many of Crash’s friends didn’t learn he was gay until after he died. On December 3, Germs played a reunion show. Everyone agreed it was the band’s best performance ever. Don Bolles was so happy playing the concert, he was convinced Germs would regroup for good. But Crash had other plans. “The only reason I’m doing this is to get money to get enough heroin to kill myself with,” he told Smear before the gig. Crash had threatened suicide so many times that few people took him seriously. Four nights later, Crash and friend Casey Cola procured $400 worth of heroin, drove to Cola’s mother’s house, and shot up. Somehow, Cola survived. When she came to the next day, Crash was lying dead next to her.

In a cruel twist of fate, Darby Crash died a day before John Lennon, and the news of his passing was largely overshadowed by the Beatle’s murder. It took years for Crash to be widely recognized as a gifted writer, but his work took on a new life after his ended. Germs had an immediate impact on their L.A. peers, but their contributions were particularly felt in the following decades, when artists like Hole, L7, Melvins, Henry Rollins, Meat Puppets, and Red Hot Chili Peppers cited the band as a major influence. After a string of odd jobs and musical exploits, Smear joined Nirvana as a second guitarist in 1993. As a touring member for their In Utero trek, Smear played on the band’s famed MTV Unplugged session in 1994. Following Kurt Cobain’s death, Smear became a founding member of Foo Fighters. He still plays with them today.

Bolles continues to perform with a handful of bands, and works as a radio DJ. Doom, who passed away earlier this year, retreated from the music scene after Crash died, remerging briefly in the early 2000s to play a few reunion gigs with Smear, Bolles, and actor Shane West filling in on vocals. West starred as Crash in the 2007 Germs biopic What We Do Is Secret, a heap of schmaltz that is hard to watch, but confirms the ill-fated frontman’s eternal allure. Darby Crash knew that Germs’ music was the first step in establishing his legacy. “Records are only a medium to get something else done,” he once said. “I want to die when I’m done.” (GI) serves as the final testament from one of punk’s most divisive figures—a man who was sadistic and kind, brilliant and obtuse, and destined to eclipse his inner circle.

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