When I was a junior in high school, my friends and I walked into the Best Buy that was near one of their houses on Halloween night (we didn’t have much to do…). I strolled down the CD aisle and looked at all the new pop albums and classic-rock greatest hits comps and felt kind of disappointed. Then I noticed a name in the racks that I kind of recognized – The Dead Milkmen – local punk legends in and around Philadelphia, where I grew up. It was their latest album, 2014’s Pretty Music For Pretty People, in a Best Buy of all places. “For $11?” I thought. “Sure why not – might be cool.” It was either that or Queen Live at the Rainbow ’74 that just came out in some deluxe package for $30 or something ridiculous like that. I made the right choice.
So then if you were to tell me while I was in the check-out line that a few years later I’d be sitting backstage at The House of Vans the afternoon of July 12th, before their free show there that night, telling that very story to them, then I might have said to you “Well then now I KNOW I made the right choice tonight!” because on Halloween 2014, I became a Dead Milkmen fan!
I spoke to drummer Dean Sabatino and guitarist Joe Genaro first about the Philly punk scene in the early 80s. “There was a pretty healthy hardcore scene in the city,” said Dean. Though admittedly the Milkmen wer enever strictly just “hardcore,” the pair recalled back forth playing with those bands, both Philly local and national luminaries – “Sadistic Exploits, The Stick Men, Autistic Behavior…and then bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü came and played.”
Now of course there’s a link to Chicago early in the band’s history. Their 80s releases like Eat Your Paisley, Big Lizard In My Backyard, Punk Rock Girl, were put out by Chicago indeoendent label Fever Records. I wondered the major differences between releasing their records back then compared to putting out an album today. “Well you have to fight now,” said Dean “In the 80s, a record company would do a lot or us. They’d send the album around to radio stations and that’s how we got out there – through that station network.” They cited the now defunct College Music Journal magazine read by almost all college stations around the country. “It’s easy to put your music out online, everything’s on iTunes or Spotify, but you have to fight to promote it.” For their latest EP, Welcome To The End of THe World, th eband teamed with The Giving Groove in Philly to give half the profits to Girls Rock Philadelphia.
I asked them their experience in Chicago over the years. They referenced playing places like The Cubby bear, The Metro, Congress Theater, and more recently Riot Fest 2009 and 2015. “Chicago reminds me oh Philadelphia in a way,” said Dean, “It’s a city of neighborhoods, which I think Philadelphia is too. Sort of a working class city like Philadelphia too.”
Do a quick Google search of the band and you’ll find one main word – “satirical.” I asked them if they agreed with the satirical punk label of many of their lyrics. “Maybe before but not so much now…people didn’t alway get it…Over time we changed.” When asked what they like to write about now they answered “conspiracy theories, political events, history, books…” In fact their song “Somewhere Over Antarctica” off of the album I bought on Halloween was inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft story At The Mountains of Madness.
Finally I asked what they were listening to lately. Joe cited Young Father’s newest album Cocoa Sugar, and Dean cited Courtney Barnett’s latest Tell Me How You Really Feel.
The Milkmen were next in The Vans House Parties concert series this summer in which headliners and their chosen opening acts play for free in The House of Vans in the Near West Side neighborhood of Chicago. Playing on July 12th were of course The Dead Milkmen, The San Andreas Fault, Caustic, and Youth Code. In the venue, which looked to me like a converted warehouse, everything was free – admission (based on capacity), water, beer, even the concert t-shirts and poster. A Wax Trax pop-up shop set up there too for the audiences’ browsing pleasure.
I leaned against a skate ramp before the first band, drank my free warm bottle, and mouthed along to the words to “Rip It Up” by Orange Juice (A song I love and was glad to hear over the speakers) and looked around at the crowd. A mix of old school punks covered in buttons and patches, some perhaps have been with The Milkmen since the start, and kids my age also in their buttons and patches.
First to go on. All instrumentals with a spooky, doom surf, the highlight of which was the clear and fast bass lines. The kind of music you’d expect to hear at the begining and end of some trash surf and/or crime movie. The band introduced themselves only as Joe, Pete, Jay, and Bob. Bob interestingly enough played in Chicago band The Defoliants and goes way back with The Milkmen. They played songs off their new EP Black RIbbon.
“Ok, now I get why Wax Trax is here,” I thought when Caustic played their set. They’re a four piece industrial band from Madison, WI. An interesting juxtaposition to the Milkmen’s jangly punk but still very cool. I will admit I’m, not very well versed in industrial music, but enjoyed the snarled vocals and extreme pulsing of the drums, played standing up next to two synth players. There was a sizeable pit of stomping and dancing and the band was joined by Dead Milkmen singer Rodney Anonymous for two songs. Caustic released their latest album American Carrion earlier this year.
Sure there were Milkmen fans at the show, but there was for sure a sizeable chunk of industrial fans there too. The duo Youth Code lead the slam dancing crowd through an intense adventure of crunching sheet metal beats and screamed vocals. Lit by red and purple lights, they jumped all around the stage in what was the most energetic set of the night. This was the last Youth Code show of the year, as they’re entering the studio soon for a new album.
The Milkmen took the stage at 9:30. The band opened with their classic single “Punk Rock Girl,” and the crowd, filled with shaved heads, long hair, beards, a mohwak or two – true fans – went off. Beer sprayed and the pit started swirling fast and didn’t stop for the entire hour and a half set.
The sound was classic Milkmen: jangled-up punk with a nice pronounced bass from bass player Dan Stevens and snarley vocals with an exaggerated Delco accent (extra points to anyone who knows what I’m refering to). They dip into a few styles; some hardcore, some reggae, power pop, even an electornic beat or two. One thing I took notice of was that there really weren’t a lot of pauses or talking between songs (something I appreciate in a band).
Set highlights included “Tiny Town,” “Punk Rock Girl,” “Watching Scotty Die,” “Big Lizard In My Backyard,” “V.F.W.” and of course the classic “Bithchin’ Camaro.” During the intro for that one, Rodney took the opportunity to champoin some local Chicago bands, Hide, Ganser, and Lana Del Rabies. “Lana Del Rabies are your friends…Lana Del Ray not so much,” Rodney shouted. He also encouraged the audience to use their voices and register to vote. There was a table at the venue where fans could do just that.
The crowd never stopped for the whole set, Dean didn’t stop smiling on the drums, beer kept spraying from somewhere in the audience, and Rodney’s last words to us were “And I was surprisigly sexy for an old man!” The House of Vans puts on a fantastically run show and the Dead Milkmen gave us all a fun night!