CIVILIZATION IS STILL DYING
by Jack Rabid, The Big Takeover
It came out of nowhere in 1982, this punk rock/hardcore fireball with the bright yellow sleeve. In one sense, The Zero Boys’ Vicious Circle was yet another example of how U.S. punk seemed to peak coast to coast that year. For the first time, it was truly a continental revolution, beyond just the initial, mostly coastal enclaves of New York, L.A., San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, Houston, and Akron/Cleveland. Yet, with all the attention paid to these more established scenes, and those newly emerging in Washington, D.C., Boston, Detroit, and Chicago, who would have expected an LP this loaded with sheer intensity, unfettered zeal, up-front smarts, massive hooks, and blockbuster chops to come from little, corn-fed Indianapolis?
The young Midwest quartet was surprisingly tight, with a precision rarely associated with the new American hardcore: leaner, faster, meaner, more riotous, and eight times more explosive than on their previous, respected "Livin' in the '80s" 7" EP. And the recording quality was impeccable, zooming past like an amplified dragster. "Civilization's Dying" (with its insightful tie-in on the then-recent shootings of the otherwise completely-unrelated trio of John Lennon, president Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II!), "Dirty Alleys/Dirty Minds," and "Hightime" all zipped by so fast and hard, yet crystal clear, whole others such as "New Generation" and a re-recorded, suped-up "Livin' in the '80s" were Who-like "My Generation" calls to arms for the new, exciting scene. Singer Paul Mahern ("Paul-Z" on the sleeve) was like an uncaged rabbit, singing so quickly yet so clearly, you didn't need a lyric sheet. Behind him, lightning-quick, adroit guitarist Terry Hollywood and punishing drummer Mark Cutsinger had their hands full keeping up with the fastest bassist in U.S. underground history this side of The Minutemen's Mike Watt, the truly outstanding David "Tufty" Clough.
Thus, along with the much different, more hardcore Minor Threat and Bad Brains, Vicious Circle immediately became the hottest LP around, the most requested new album at East Coast punk gigs that year this side of two other new revelations, Bad Religion's comparable How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and the Descendents' Milo Goes to College, or such standard bearers as Dead Kennedys' Plastic Surgery Disasters and D.O.A.'s War on 45. A year before Social Distortion's classic debut Mommy's Little Monster, Kraut's crunching An Adjustment to Society, Toxic Reasons' spirited Independence, T.S.O.L.'s stunning , sea-changing Beneath the Shadows, and Husker Du's unholy, much improved Metal Circus, the Zero Boys were pointing the way to a scene that could accommodate heaping helpings of melody, intelligence, and rock 'n' roll sus, not just turbo-charged ferocity.
Looking back now, Mahern remains fond of this marvelous record and the singular times that inspired it. "It was 1978 when punk rock finally made its way into one of the record stores in Indianapolis," he recalls. "My high school friends and I would take a half-hour bus ride across town just to check out the strange records from New York and the U.K. I remember a particular issue of Creem magazine with the Sex Pistols on the cover that just freaked me out. At the time I was into Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, and Kiss, but this Sex Pistols thing seemed to obliterate all of what I thought a rock star should be. Needless to say I started a band right away!"
Mahern's new group was playing at a high school party when he met Hollywood and Cutsinger. "Terry was the one with all of the old Iggy records, and Mark had the biggest four-piece drum set I had ever seen," he laughs. With bassist John Mitchell in tow, the Zero Boys practiced together for the first time in the spring of 1979, played their first show three weeks later, recorded their first record six months after that, and released 500 measly copies of their debut 7" EP in the spring of 1980.
"We recorded that record in a friend's basement on 8 tracks in one night," remembers Mahern. "All five songs we recorded ended up on the record, in fact I am sure they were the first five songs we had written together. At the time we were listening to a lot of Dictators, Ramones, and Sex Pistols, the slower, early punk stuff." By the end of 1980, Mitchell had been replaced by Clough, and by Mahern's own admission, "Along with Tufty came some blazing bass playing."
The vast difference between the formative EP and Vicious Circle was largely due to the emergence of the West Coast bands as a touring/distribution force, a first for American punk. By late 1980, the four Indianapolis kids began to hear wild, faster bands like D.O.A., Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks. "Records like the Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables blew our minds," muses Mahern. "We started playing faster and harder, and we started experimenting with shorter songs and more social/political lyrics. We were the same kids from urban Indiana, but we felt like we belonged to something much bigger. Until that point all of our favorite records were on major labels, but now the best stuff was coming out on little indie labels and more great records were coming out every week."
Indeed, the west coast punk bible Flipside magazine started to make it to Indianapolis, further "solidifying our suspicions that the outside world was a punk world," as Mahern confirms. The band started rehearsing for the new LP in the spring of 1981 in their road manager Marvin Goldstein's brother's garage.
"I remember we had a little mixing board and the band would jam while I recorded the rehearsals for reference, then I'd take the cassettes home and write lyrics. We had very little money to make the record, and we knew we would have to be in great shape to get it done quickly. So we rehearsed just about every day for four or five hours."
All this hard work and preparation obviously paid handsome dividends. "We entered Keystone Recording in Indianapolis on August 18, 1981, and recorded all 16 songs in two days (Note: 14 made the LP, the other two, "Slam and Worm" and "She Said Goodbye" appear here for the first time! Back then, the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra talked the Zero Boys into leaving this excellent pair off the album, believing them to be "too pop." Ludicrous, it says here.) "The recording engineer John Helms put the band all together in one great big room, and sequestered me in the hall to sing," explains Mahern. "We'd played him the Germs' GI LP to give him an idea of the sound we were looking for, and he really nailed it. Everything went down live; we would record the band and my lead vocal at the same time. Then Terry would play some very Dictators-esque guitar fills, and we would all shout along for a little background vocal action. I think we mixed the whole thing in one day a week or so later. It was a great time!"
Of course, having completed their statement record, and having secured its release on the fledgling, soon to be forgotten local Nimrod Records label, the group still had to make themselves known to the rest of this punk community outside of isolated Indiana. This, as Mahern remembers, was no easy task, far more difficult than in these more organized times, where an entire circuit of clubs, magazines, and CMJ playlists exists for independent, upstart bands. But though it was so much smaller, the 1982 underground network was actually better, more organic in some aspects, as Mahern concurs. "Promoting a punk/hardcore band at the time was quite different from today. College radio was a wide open medium. In those days all you had to do is have a good record and send it out to the student program directors and they would play it. It was great, the whole college radio thing didn't interest the major labels yet. The fanzines were great as well, and it all felt so fresh and real."
And unlike today, no one was in it for the money or the fame. "On one hand, the most money any band could hope to make was as much as a Black Flag, or a Dead Kennedys' pennies compared to the top of the punk heap of today," he continues. "Yet on the other hand you could promote and sell records easily and directly to real fans through a self-built network. There was something really going on. Sometimes I wish the scene had been larger. What if the '60's hippies had the sense of humor and work ethic of the early American Punk Scene?"
Unfortunately, like that short-lived, vital scene, the band was not built to last, petering out within in a year of Vicious Circle's release without giving us a deserved follow-up. "I think we were just too land-locked," is Mahern's take in it now. "We were completely unaccepted by the Chicago and Minneapolis scenes, we had trouble getting out of Indiana. We did get to New York once, we played a show at A7 with the Beastie Boys (when they were a fledgling hardcore band). And we made it all the way to Vancouver and Calgary and played with the (Canadian) Subhumans, and down to L.A. to play with Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and M.D.C. That was really rewarding, that was a scene that really 'got' us. For example, the guys from T.S.O.L. were there and knew all our words!"
"But when we got back from that tour, we were totally broke, we were all living in a house together, and we all got in each otherís space. We couldn't handle each other any more. We did record a group of songs that never got released, which would have been the second LP at the time. I hope they will be released someday. But then, in the final straw, Tufty joined Toxic Reasons. They seemed more dedicated than us. So that was kind of the beginning of the end. We held on for some months thereafter, but the fire was gone."
Clough went on to revitalize Toxic Reasons with the same sort of hyper power-blasts, on the terrific, often-overlooked Within These Walls and more typical, better-liked punk outings such as Killed By Remote Control and Bullets For You. Mahern laid low for a while, doing live sound for bands playing his burg (including one I joined for one 1986 U.S. tour, L.A.'s Leaving Trains, we talked a lot about the Zero Boys that night), and producing loads of records. He then resurfaced for a while with two new bands, first Dandelion Abortion, who released two cassette LPs, then the vastly underrated Datura Seeds, with their 1990 LP What Do You Want It To Be? He then went back to producing and engineering, where he has made a fine living since.
And just as important, Vicious Circle was reissued in 1988 on the better known Toxic Shock label,with six bonus cuts (three from the Zero Boys' contributions to the 1983 compilation LP, Master Tape, Vol. I). Inspired, three of the four Zero Boys, with new guitarist Vess Ruhtenberg in place of Terry Hollywood, shocked everyone by reforming for a while. The reconstituted foursome reached New York again, this time to play a much bigger show, one of the packed, 1600-attended Rock Hotel punk gigs. I'm here to say they were just as smoking on a stage with a good P.A. The refreshed band went on to record and release two more LPs, 1991's Make it Stop on Germany's Bitzcore, and 1993's The Heimlich Maneuver on Skyclad, which you can also search for (though they're more metallic-shaded).
We can only hope the reappearance of this searing masterwork Vicious Circle will bring the boys out of retirement a second time to play its contents for us. What say, 'Livin' in the 00s' this time!