Coming straight out of Indianapolis, the Zero Boys were destined from the beginning to be wrought by the burgeoning punk scenes of both coasts. Those unfamiliar with their seminal debut, Vicious Circle, might actually find the proceedings a tad overcooked upon first listen, sounding too much like this and too much like that, and nothing like themselves. Considering Indianapolis was (and still is) a dim realm of Midwestern purgatory, Vicious Circle reflects that identity crisis and is torn because of it: is this the obliteration of traditional punk or the trailblazing birth of hardcore? It’s said the band started because of a shared love for the Sex Pistols, and when it came time to record their first 7-inch in 1981, a mere five months after their start, they wanted to sound like the Germs. But timelines do nothing for definitions, and being stuck in the middle, just like their sad-sack state, was a boon for their out-of-nowhere aesthetic and the dead-end subject matter of their songs.
All that explanation might warrant Vicious Circle as a generic component in the punk equation, but it’s quite the contrary. They weren’t as political as the Dead Kennedys, as goofy as the Circle Jerks, as visceral and dumb as Black Flag, as nihilistic as the Germs, or obnoxious as the Sex Pistols. Instead they were all these things, re-imagining the punk mold into an album rife with uncomplacence and boredom bashing that survived by “living on booze, living on caffeine.” Sure there was police brutality and glue-sniffing in Naptown, it just wasn’t as magnified in their commentary. In contrast they were complaining about the Beatles on the radio (“Livin’ in the 80’s”), rebelling against the white-wash of the suburbs (“High Places”), and stealing from mom’s wallet (“Mom’s Wallet”), and the ferocity and aggression in their execution was likely unparalleled at the time Vicious Circle was released.
That’s the first thing you’ll notice about the Zero Boys, the speed and skill with which they attack their instruments. By the standards of his peers, guitarist Terry Hollywood was a virtuoso, comparable to Johnny Thunders in that he was never in fear of launching into a solo that wasn’t just an atonal jumble of notes. The same can be said for singer Paul Mahern, who, though often veering into the guttural monochrome vocals of what is considered hardcore, often leans into melody. Anthems like “Trying Harder” and “She Said Goodbye,” while hardcore in intent, are actually just hyper takes on the Ramones brand of punk bubblegum. Vicious Circle teems with pop, even as the band lays the groundwork for hardcore in songs like “Amphetamine Addiction” and “New Generation.” These are buzzsaw moments that are difficult to connect to anything else, especially considering the group’s surroundings.
Of course, the lives of most of these bands were short-lived or over-driven, and that’s apparent on History Of a compilation of singles and demos that would have likely been the Zero Boys’ sophomore album. It’s safe to assume that by this point each member may have been going his own way. There are traces of thrash and hair metal in parts, the sounds are slicker and less desperate, and there’s even what sounds like an attempt at radio glory in the song “Amerika.” But while lacking the cohesiveness of a classic like Vicious Circle, it’s still plain to see that the Zero Boys were onto something, and they never (fully) got a deserved pat on the back until now.
Kevin J. Elliott
MP3: “Civilization’s Dying” from Vicious Circle
MP3: “Livin’ in the 80’s” from History Of