In an era like ours when cultural innovations are almost immediately absorbed into the mainstream and diluted of their revolutionary potential, it is refreshing to discover a "leading edge" of creativity that stridently resists assimilation.
To the casual onlooker the most noticeable independent record labels in the Bay Area seem representative of an outspoken, vigorous avant garde music community. But if 415's new wave, Ralph's cubo-surrealism and Beserkley's narcissistic power pop are thought of as major alternative music sources, what to think of another label that rejects even the alternatives? It is ironical that yesterday's extremists are today's middle road travellers - Subterranean Records has surfaced to confront what it considers the trivializing pap of inherently commercial tendencies.
The co-owner and spokesperson for Subterranean is Berkeley resident Steve Tupper. Looking vaguely like Tony Perkins, Tupper conceals his ideological strength, yet there are flashes from underneath the surface. In fact Subterranean Records is almost an alter ego of the shy, soft-spoken Tupper. His considered, self-effacing manner only briefly tempers the shock of his label's bold, incorrigible music.
Subterranean started as an idea of Tupper and partner Michael Fox early last year. Fox wondered what to do with a "thrown-together 4-track studio" he had constructed in his Richmond garage. A quick survey of the recording opportunities for new bands in the Bay Area showed them the way.
"There were few options at that time," said Tupper recently in an interview at his modest bungalow homestead. "It was almost impossible for bands to find a label to record them if they didn't have an easily marketable sound or proven commercial potential. And the expense of pressing their own discs was often prohibitive. Musicians never have any money."
So Subterranean was created to fill a new wave culture gap. Punk and new wave started as a chance for young people to exhibit their personal music choices. But now the situation threatens to exclude just those musicians who could keep the scene excited with challenging, new explorations. Tupper and Michael Fox started looking for bands they could feel justified in presenting as music with a future.
Late last year the first release on Subterranean hit the stores. SF Underground was a 7" EP of four obscure groups with little or no standing (at that time) in the community. As the first collection of local punk bands it created an initial shock that ran through the 2,000-copy first pressing.
The bands on SF Underground may have had their limitations as to sound quality or even instrumental proficiency. But in Steve Tupper's mind the results were significant far beyond the product itself. "This was a reaction to the prevalent myth that punk was running out of steam. I see punk as basically a form of folk music. Here we've come to a street level of bands still willing to try new ideas.
"It's not the expertise that matters," Tupper said with a smile. "It's the inspiration."
The next project for Subterranean after a studio move to San Francisco was to re-record live a performance by Flipper, one of the bands on the EP. Eventually the project was expanded to a full album with four experimental groups. Recorded in February 1980 but released only late last August, "Live at Target" has proved to be a high watermark for both the label and the bands involved. Though local response has been predictably minimal, the album struck a sympathetic chord in Europe, notably Germany. Most of the 2,000+ pressing has been shipped overseas. [Actually, that's not quite correct. Local media response was minimal, but most did sell here. -ed.]
The "Live at Target" bands - Flipper, Factrix, Nervous Gender, Uns - share the virtues of the innocent creator who thinks he has found an elixir for eternal life. Maybe he lives forever, maybe he only lives until he dies. But at least he tastes the mysterious potion. AT LEAST he tries. Subterranean has been such an unconventional label it has been mostly an unheard label, save by the most adventurous. Of course, adventure is what Subterranean is all about.
Subsequent singles have included Society Dog's explosive "Working Class People" ("Working class people are the perfect example of a slave society / A living lie existing on a hate for itself"), the bizarre jazz-inflections of Bay of Pigs ("Henry Miller is the navigator / Making desire the only creator"), and the garage hostility of the anti-imperialist Tools. The power of these bands lies in their clear, unimpeded vision of ideas. If some lack niceties like professional technique or inoffensive politics, their integrity is indisputable.
If they have often induced rage or violent rejection they can also be accused as successful instigators of thought. Their only problem is in outright acceptance. But Steve Tupper has considered that longshot possibility.
"Social movements sometimes grow enormously but don't go anywhere because of their ultimate absorption," said Tupper. "We're trying to identify splinter groups. Some flicker and die, some catch on and expand until they eventually become mainstream.
"But meanwhile Subterranean would still be the outgroup on the scene here. We keep looking for that leading edge."
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