SUBTERRANEAN: A Label's Story
by P. Stirling
(Puncture, Fall 1986)
SIT DOWN AND THINK and you'll remember certain things. You might
even recall the late-seventies premiere of punk. How were you living, perceiving
that nascent weirdness?
San Francisco played its part with an impressive array of punk phenomena, some
intense underground activity. Of course, given the cyclical nature of human behavior,
a decade later things have homogenized for now, allowing someone like me to look
back and write in an organized state of mind. Once punk has been thoroughly analyzed,
rationalized, and "understood," the environment will be boring and calm enough
for a new psychotic outburst. Aren't we all looking forward to whatever it will
Meanwhile, electrical charges of history and nostalgia are sparking those regions
of the brain wherein lie the capacity for curiosity, identity, and progression.
Punk was a major and intuitive forward thrust, its motives still not wholly grasped,
still in need of sussing out. This is a good time to start. We're distant enough
to have calmed down into observers, as opposed to manic participants of the time,
too hysterically bent on a suicide mission to talk or think sense. The devastating
period when adolescents break away from their parents allows no mental space for
reflection on childhood. It isn't until they are securely independent that the
procession of past events around the creation of their identity begins to interest
them. Yes, this article is that deep.
So we start to realize how lucky we are that an institution like Subterranean
Records was around to record that history, and that it survives and keeps its
warehouse stocked with records whose abandonment would leave a painful hole. You
were a part of that mad era? No doubt Subterranean has the proof. You are a scholar
or collector of the punk period? What luck! Subwrex holds in its vaults a gold
mine of information. You're a confused, misfit, noncommercial band looking for
a label? No problem! Subterranean takes pity on all God's creatures.
Warning: by 1986 Subterranean found it necessary to "sell out." They acquired
a new logo design which is legible. Even slick.
One might scan their recent releases and say "What crap! It'll never make it."
Then one looks at the back catalog and says "Good God, where's my checkbook, stamps,
and an envelope?" This has been going on for a long time. Subwrex has been in
existence for seven years, and its prime purpose seems to be to create and maintain
history. Its genius is that it has never consciously tried to predict history.
It has a catalog and backstock of records no one else comes close to. Subterranean
pressed a Dead Kennedys single. They compiled collections of house bands from
the landmark SF clubs: the Deaf Club, Target, Club Foot. They financed Flipper's
albums and incomparable singles. They anthologized scumbag bands who became major
influences on today's chartbusters with "SF Underground" I and II and "Red Spot."
They delivered more than a few pregnancies (some postmortem!) and promoted such
adoptions as Code of Honor, Minimal Man, Wilma, Z'ev, the Vktms, Factrix, Negative
Trend, No Alternative, the Lewd, Leather Nun, and the anonymous yet well-known
Witch Trial mob.
Besides, there are no punk clubs anymore, you know. What tear-jerking nostalgia
to listen to "Live at Target": as an atmosphere of crime and subversion is exhumed
through the speakers, ghosts rematerialize, transforming the room into a real-life
haunting, better than the movies.
Subterranean documented on vinyl the most unlikely music never to have had a chance
of landing a major label contract. It still does. It's an odd strategy, entrusting
the label's viability largely to backorders and cult crazes like Flipper, Frightwig,
Minimal Man, Muskrats, Chrome, Pop-O-Pies: not quite chart-toppin' material in
America as we live and know and listen to the radio in it.
Subterranean's store sells its products and the other independent material listed
in its mail-order catalog, like Thermidor (SPK, Birthday Party, Toiling Midgets)
and Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys, TSOL, DOA, Butthole Surfers), underground
mags (Re/Search, Breakfast Without Meat, Unsound, this rag), posters, and T-shirts.
Bins hold rather scant samplings of used, obscure industrial, international hardcore,
and mainstream Black records. The store, virtually unmarked and not easy to locate,
is on Valencia near 16th Street, across from Bombay Bazar with its bargain array
of Indian spices, grains, condiments. (Another few blocks off is Rainbow, splendid
low-cost no-meat natural food co-op.)
Subterranean is two blocks from the defunct Graffiti Club, one of the more tolerable
venues from the transition period when the underground began to climb out of the
sewers and onto the campuses. Graffiti did not close because of zoning, licensing,
or minors, it is rumored, but rather from bankruptcy following police disruption
of drug traffic.
The sidewalks along this stretch of Valencia still bear faded tracings of Minimal
Man's skullhead stencil. A half block down, on the corner of 16th Street, is a
large sunken lot: the grave pit of an apartment building that burned. Here are
colorful, accusatory graffiti, stenciled skeletons, and white crosses stuck in
the rubble, commemorating those killed in a fire blamed on landlord arson. Occasionally,
to the alarm of passersby, a gory and remarkable sculpture proclaiming injustice
makes an appearance, lashed to the chainlink fence cordoning the trashed lot,
brought there at night by some uncommercial artist. This major crossroads of municipal
transport is a free art museum, perhaps not so practiced and flash as New York
subway cars, but on the other hand you can always find it. (Or almost always.
From time to time the authorities spray over the display.--Ed.)
This is the Mission District's slum/vagrant area, where you edge through beggars
to get to the pawnshop, where brawls spill out of the bars, where only thrift
shops thrive. Where gentrification is lagging and you step over people sprawled
on the sidewalk to enter an espresso cafe. At 16th and Mission, Christians scream
Spanish through their bullhorns.
Subterranean's theme of perpetuating scraps of undergroundrubbish, supporting
the most steadfastly non-conforming bands, is a puzzle. Take Flipper, a group
never destined to embrace the music biz. There are several Subwrex artists of
some repute: Minimal Man, Chrome, Frightwig, and the Pop-O-Pies; some still on
the label, some God knows where doing God knows what. The Pop-O-Pies are the most
recent hangers-in-there. Joe Pie's chosen destiny is to trash, revere, mock, honor,
and despise all media-enforced and underground aspects of music. Pie is honest
about his own intuitions and talents. He's like Flipper, afflicted with some persona
"handicap," unable to connect with the concept of commercialism. But this can
be cured. The day comes when you're getting on in years, rent has to be paid,
food bought, etc. Maybe after all you can adjust your skills and morals a bit
towards monetary stability. When in America do as the Americans. But try to hit
pockets that can afford and deserve it. What can a company do whose product is
created by and for an underground, subversive, non-mainstream (i.e., poor) audience?
There are treacherous contradictions here. You get fed up finally: you give up
or you get a new logo.
Today there's a feeling that success may not be so out of the question for indie
businesses. Circumstances aren't quite as hopeless as they were in the struggle
with big commercial companies. Indies are becoming press darlings and so gaining
public favor. What prestige and awe accompany the uttering of the words "Rough
Trade." We await the day when bands will battle to avoid major labels, preferring
the coolness, esteem, exclusiveness of an indie.
In the long run, anyway, a band won't necessarily profit more on a major label,
in view of the majors' expenses. Mass distribution is the majors' big plus; but
as the desirability and popularity of indies increase, so will their availability.
Yeah, Subterranean's got this great new logo that'll catch the eye for sure. While
"Joe's Third Album" is hitting distributors and knocking deejays' sox off, a couple
of other bands are slithering about Valencia Street like giant earthworms, sloshing
together something typical of the uncooperative eccentricity and trend-obliviousness
You have to have patience with Subterranean bands. They are easily distracted
into strange play by nightcrawler buddies, forgetting they're in the middle of
recording an album. They get lost coming home from work if the bus isn't right
on time and Subwrex must take up spades and search to unearth them in remote,
unstylish regions of the US and drag the bodies home. Thus the damned records
are delayed. In fact, still to come is the debut album of ex-Flipper-dorsal Will
Shatter's band Any 3 Initials.
Flipper tormented Subwrex with such problems for years. And it's not over. Oh,
no, Flipper hasn't belly-upped, popped its gas, and sunk to Davy Jones's Locker
where eels pick the flesh from the cartilage. They've got some brilliant masterpiece
of a live double LP wriggling around on Subterranean HQ's floor. Now and then
a band member may come in and kick it in the side, but mostly the boys are denying
any responsibility or relationship. Fucken rock stars! Sweet, merciful, heart'o'gold
Subterranean is taking care of the poor little bastard.
The live Flipper doubleheader should hit the streets and start paying for itself
as soon as the package design is finished. Since Subwrex has got this professional
looking logo, they want the product to live up to it.
No, you mustn't say Subwrex are retarded -- note instead how studied and cautious
they are. They know you must stand on your own two feet. Think of the Long Run.
Don't count yer lizards before they are hatched. A roach in the lentil soup is
worth two smeared on the wall over the sink. Mildew grows where Flipper misses
when they pisses.
Subterranean are slow yet proud: proud that the packaging of the new Flipper set
will be the most dangerously fun thing since Parker Bros began marketing the Ouija
Board in Salem, Mass., many years ago (absolutely no reference to Satanism here.
Sorry censorship fans!).
I think I'm starting to choke on nostalgia, or is it a bone? I passed the boarded
up Sound of Music the other day and thought about the time when Flipper was its
house band, when the Dead Kennedys were the Mab's house band, when I was a frequent
visitor ("She Was a Visitor" -- Minimal Man single).
I pulled out "Live at Target" to listen to the earliest recordings of Flipper,
the scariest, grungiest, and silliest. As it happens, my household owns three
copies of this obscure record. Is that weird, or what?
AN UNDERGROUND BIOGRAPHY
Steve Tupper was an East Bay machinist ("making gadgets for biologists") and part
time punk when he first got involved in NewYouth, the legendary grassroots organization.
It was 1979 -- the year the Youth put on the Clash (their first Bay Area appearance)
to a packed Geary Temple.
Through this umbrella group, Tupper met people who were deeply involved in underground
music. Some of them later reached their ultimate audiences on Subterranean, the
record label Tupper founded later that same year.
He met Bruce Loose (soon to be of Flipper) at a Polk Street club gig featuring
Mary Monday, Negative Trend, and the Offs. He met Mike Fox (then of the Tools,
later of Code of Honor) when Mike turned up at a New Youth meeting to see about
a Tools gig.
"Mike seemed like a pretty neat guy," Tupper says in his laconic way. "I had some
tapes I wanted copied, bootlegs of Screamers and Cramps demos -- and I went to
see him. He had a garage studio. He had just produced the first Tools single and
was getting it pressed.
"In those days, there were not so many recording studios, and bands did not have
the money, the know-how, or the equipment to put out their own records as often
as they do now. We talked about our favorite groups and how hard it was for their
music to get heard. And we said, 'Let's start a company.'"
"We saw this project as a way to undermine the establishment and to give more
control of music to the street punks who were creating it, instead of to big-label
"We wanted to start with a 4-track sampler. We put together No Alternative, one
of my favorites; the Tools; and the Vktms. We weren't sure at first what the fourth
band would be.
"Then one night, I went to a Deaf Club gig. I think it was the first time Bruce
Loose sang with Flipper. The changeover from Ricky was really strong. I really
liked it, especially 'Earthworm.' So now we had our fourth band."
The first couple of years, the label ran from Tupper's living room in Berkeley.
He continued gadgeting by day, doing label work by night. Then he used a space
off John Boshard's woodworking workshop in El Cerrito. This lasted a few months,
with the Thermidor label coming into being as an offshoot. John wanted to produce
the first Flipper single ("Love Canal"/"Ha Ha Ha") along with Joe Carducci (later
of SST). In the end, the single was really a Subwrex production; but John had
helped with general label work and Thermidor got co-production credit.
In 1982, Subwrex moved to San Francisco's Valencia Street. Tupper commuted to
label HQ every night for half a year. When the biotech firm laid him off, the
label went fulltime. Flipper's debut album came out -- a high point in Subterranean
Generic Flipper made money. But establishing the label in SF was costly, and the
folding of several distributors hurt sales (not to mention the $10,000 left owing
to Subwrex). Colleagues (besides Mike Fox these have included Kathy Hatch, Kate
Mitchell, Ray Farrell) departed in search of regular pay checks. The following
year, Tupper was running Subterranean on his own.
Has the label's growing following put things on a more solid footing by now? Steve
Tupper is not that optimistic, despite unrestrained advance interest in the upcoming
Flipper live duopak.
"I wouldn't say things have improved. Punk has degenerated severely. 1986 is to
1977 as 1975 was to 1967. That is, just as the hippies degenerated into boring
nothingness by the mid-70s, the punks have now gone the same way. A lot of people
are just waiting for something new."
The label branched out to include avant garde music. "The idea is still to be
out on the edge of musical expression. To find the most creative people with the
least adherence to formula. People who will take chances in order to do something
About 25% of Subterranean's income is from mail order. "Greg Turkington, who also
does 'Breakfast Without Meat,' is handling this now. We offer other people's records
in our catalog [enclosed with every record] as well. Soon we'll offer even more
distribution for other labels and for bands' own releases. So the importance of
mail order will increase.
"Then there's promotional work, which Gary Strasburg has done full time for the
Tupper's own tastes in music range unexpectedly widely.
"That's right, I like hip hop. I see it as exactly parallel to the white punk
scene. Both are developments out of a broader cultural movement, and both incorporate
many forms of expression: art, dance, music.
"I've been enjoying LL Cool J a lot. I like Run DMC's new stuff. Lesser known
groups too. Last year a really good song called "King Kut" by Word of Mouth played
a lot. Haven't heard from them since.
"One of the Roxannes has a new record out with a DJ named Howie Tee. She calls
herself the real Roxanne but I don't think she is. It has a kind of go-go beat.
"I saw Shante last year in Oakland. Better than the RealRoxanne. She was great."
"We decided at the start not to let material fall out of print. If something's
good now, it will stay good. We aimed for things that would not age.
"No, there isn't the money to keep everything in print. Some of the earlier singles
are starting to disappear. I hope to resurrect them on a compilation album someday.
"The main problem is always that most releases lose money. It's more and more
difficult to put things out that break even. I believe the rock market is becoming
more conservative, and distributors less willing to take chances. The effect spreads
to retailers and consumers.
"College radio stations here rely on the same few well-known names. There is little
chance to penetrate. Subterranean releases actually get better airplay in other
parts of the country than they do here.
"As for the national music press, access is very difficult. Even 'Spin' only seems
to want to review big national names."
"In terms of distribution and attention, we are back to where we were in 1981.
Except that now we put a lot more of our energies into promotion than we did then...
"Why do we keep on doing it? Because there are people all over the world who are
looking for this."
Readers can obtain Subterranean's mailorder catalog by sending an SASE to 577
Valencia St., San Francisco, California 94110 USA.
Code of Honor's Johnathin Christ, considered by some a prime musical, political,
and spiritual inspirer of punk here, is shown in action on our back cover. The
Code's important early works Fight or Die (1/2-LP) and What Are We Gonna Do? (7")
are still available on Subterranean.
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