Sunday, 1 September 2013

Confession - The Last

To a lot of people the mere mention of music from 1980's LA conjures up images of huge excess. Drugs, booze and hairspray, all in huge, unmanageable quantities and bands like Mötley Crüe revelling in the mess of it all. However 1980's LA was a far more diverse than that and played host to far more than just hair metal. Hardcore was in full force on the tough streets of Los Angeles, with bands like Black Flag and The Germs tearing audiences apart with their faster, angrier breed of punk. Indie labels like SST and Bomp! were gaining a foothold and churning out records that would have far more cultural impact than was apparent at the time. On top of all of this, the often overlooked paisley underground scene, with bands like The Three O'clock and Rain Parade was taking 60's psychedelia and shaping it into a whole new beast.

The Last were one of the few bands to bridge the gap between the LA punk scene and the more pop orientated paisley underground. Hugely admired by both sides of the fence, they have been cited as an influence by the Bangles and in Andrew Earles' great Hüsker Dü biography, Bill Stevenson, drummer for the Descendents, Black Flag and producer/co-conspirator for numerous other punk bands said: “The biggest influence on The Descendents was a band called the Last who were from our hometown, Hermosa Beach.... Songs by the Last were the blueprints for the South Bay Pop Punk sound. The Descendents got the credit for it, but the Last did it.” The band recorded two influential albums between 1979 and 1980, the first of which was released on Bomp!. However apart from a collection of rarities that the band released on a small french label in 1985, the band all but disappeared from view for the next few years.

In 1987 the band reformed (though without David Nolte, one of a trio of brothers who formed the core of the band's original line-up) and Greg Ginn, owner of SST records and a longtime fan of the band, approached them about releasing a new record. Whilst SST is thought of primarily as a punk label, it began to morph over the years to accommodate Ginn's widening music taste. Amongst the free jazz releases and more experimental acts such as Negativeland, SST released two albums by the Last, including 1988's Confession.

Confession's sound undeniably has its roots in Power-pop. Big, reverberant, Byrds-esque 12-string guitars are a mainstay of this album and their chiming riffs provide a real boost to songs like “And They Laugh”. Combined with vocal harmonies and a very strong sense of melody, its obvious that the band's sound owes a lot to the 1960's acts from the west coast. As if there wasn't enough proof, theres also a cover of 60's deep cut “Soldier Of Love” on side B of the album. Despite all this, the album isn't without it's punk attitude. The speed and veracity with which these songs are attacked makes it obvious why bands like the Descendents found them so inspiring. The opening chords and machine-gun snare roll of “So Quick To Say” for example, could belong on any Pop-punk album from the early 90's.

The album takes a turn towards folk-rock on “Dancing”, with its sparse production consisting, until the second verse, of Joe Nolte's voice and a 12-string guitar. Like many good folk-songs there's something dark, threatening and yet melancholy in this urban tale of death and decay. With its grim tone and its reduced instrumentation, it feels like a grittier, inner-city version of Fairport Convention's “Matty Groves” and a precursor to the White Stripes's distorted, cascading version of “Black Jack Davey”. The difference being that those are covers of old folk songs whilst “Dancing” is an original composition, which makes it all the more admirable.

Bill Stevenson's note on the back of Confession
For an SST release, Confession sounds surprisingly polished. Known for its lo-cost, hi-speed philosophy on recording, the label would encourage bands to churn out albums fast and furious. This album was recorded over a period of 2 weeks (a luxurious pace by SST standards) and produced by Bill Stevenson and assisted by Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton. Stevenson even wrote a paragraph for the back cover of the album professing the same sentiment about the band as I mentioned earlier. I'm not entirely sure of the point of this note, perhaps it was meant as an explanation to hardcore punk fans who picked up the record not knowing of its pop/rock contents? Regardless of it's purpose, the note's sentiment is obviously genuine as Stevenson did a fine job. Each instrument finds its place in the mix perfectly and he has taken advantage of studio technology well, applying effects and techniques that are a rare occurrence on SST albums up until the mid 80's, but not to the point of overproduction, maintaining some grit. He also manages to wring every last ounce of passion out of the band. Joe Nolte's vocal delivery in particular is drenched in feeling and is probably responsible, at least in part, for the band's popularity with the punk rock crowd. The result of all this is a record that stands up well to the test of time and sets it self apart from the rest of SST's huge catalogue.

After another album at SST the Last kept quiet after their first national tour left them unsatisfied only to resurface in 1994. Since then they've released one final SST album Gin & Innuendo's (which I can't help but feel is some sort of innuendo itself involving Greg Ginn) and played many shows around California. Two weeks ago, they signed a new deal with End Sounds records to release Danger their first album in 17 years, later in 2013. As for Stevenson, despite having fallen foul of Greg Ginn of late, he's taken his rightful place as one of punks most respected drummers and producers, working with some of the biggest and best names in the genre.

I can't find any of The Last's music on Spotify but you can listen to some tracks from the album (and read track notes) on their website, which is packed full of information on the band.

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