The Zeros
“Main Street Brat”
The Normals
“Almost Ready”
Last Laugh

As record collectors and enthusiasts, we live in a time where anything and everything is being excavated with little regards to quality. Week to week, reissues of the past are just as much a staple as releases of new music, so it’s quite hard to sift the gems from those piles upon piles of platters from our past. That’s especially true of punk. When punk broke, in every city from Liverpool to Omaha, a scene emerged and, as evidenced by the endless Killed by Death and Messthetics compilations, every snotty teen outfit reveling in punk seemed to make at least one record. The reality is only a quarter of it is worth hearing again, let alone digging up and repressing. Fortunately enough, a guy like Harry Howes exists, and with his new label, Last Laugh (his first being the excellent Almost Ready Records), you can see in every detail that Howes revives the punk single as a labor of love as opposed to the ubiquitous cash grab to which so many collector scum fall victim. Howes is well-versed in this art and knows a punk band needing a complete reassessment when he hears one. Two of Last Laugh’s latest and finest releases display his thoughtful ear. Though both the bands here were heavily influenced by what they were hearing from the Ramones, they were also reinventing that template into intriguing and, in the case of the Normals, unheard designs.

Case in point towards Howes crusade, is the two-sided classic from Los Angeles quartet the Zeros. Though these songs, and most of the Zeros catalog, have been readily available throughout the ’90s and beyond from labels like Bomp and Restless, this single is the essence of the Zeros. One really doesn’t need much else other than “Main Street Brat” and “Handgrenade Heart” to see the influence (or perhaps disparate diversion) the Zeros had on punk. They were forever tagged the “Mexican Ramones,” but that claim is only half-truth. Sure the three-chord riffs here evoke those of Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee, but there’s something more sinister at work on these early Zeros recordings. They were originally known as the Main Street Brats, so this A-side is a theme song of sorts. Campy and obliged to the Ramones as the Zeros may be, their mixture of gritty realism and bored teenage kicks sounds ahead of its time. The visceral tandem of Javier Escovedo and Robert Lopez sends the song into a sonic knife fight down a once well-lit alley. The latter in particular wasn’t afraid to rip out a solo and prolong the damage where most bands of the time were on to the next song. It would even be fitting to compare them to the Germs, if only for the warped images that color the Zeros’ work. “Handgrenade Heart” boasts talk of melted sunglasses, stomachs pumped and Nazi tarts rejected, which effectively opposes the mostly fun-loving bop of the Ramones.

The golden ticket in Last Laugh’s initial push, though, has to be the slab from the Normals. In this secondcoming of the relatively unknown New Orleans punks (yes, they existed there as well), Last Laugh even went as far as using the original leftover 7-inch stampers to recreate the band’s first single. It’s pretty much what you got at one of their shows in ’78, only not from the hands of the now defunct local Electric Eye Records. For good reason, the Normals’ “Almost Ready” can now reside in the classic category, as there’s a futurist bend in the single regardless of the myriad influences that must have attracted the Normals to punk. For one, there’s a heavy British influence bypassing the Sex Pistols and headed parallel to the Subway Sect. Catchy and aggressive simultaneously, “Almost Ready” is proto–new wave in the song’s nervousness and proto-thrash in its velocity. The combo is accented even more on the tightly wound sneer of “Hardcore” (a precursor to an entire different strand of punk ?), another anthem that surely incited a rumble or three. The wrench in the overt rawness of “Hardcore,” like the Zeros, comes in the Normals’ tendency to journey past the short-attention span of punk. Here, guitarist David Brenton sounds almost as if he was plucked by some struggling southern rock cover band from the region. On “Hardcore” his twanged additions add a surrealist quality to the average punk slash and burn. It will be very interesting to hear what the band could do on a larger format, as Last Laugh is slated to release the Normals’ unreleased LP soon. If these songs are any indication, all those “classic” punks we’ve heard since youth might want to make room on the totem pole.
Kevin J. Elliott