If the order of election to the punk-rock hall of fame were decided on the basis of unwavering dedication to both the elemental sound and the positive rebel spirit of loud- fast-rules, no band would have a right to stand ahead of Vancouver’s D.O.A. in the induction ceremony. For more than two decades, singer/guitarist Joey (Shithead) Keithley (consistently spelled Keighley on early records) has led the band with a dedicated work ethic and a level head, ignoring all the stylistic detours that have tempted lesser men and rebuffing the creative exhaustion that comes from endless years of touring. That he has been rewarded for his efforts with little more than the respect of those in the know says a lot about the fact that punk-rock is, by definition, a marginal occupation, and that those who make millions from it aren’t doing it right. Meanwhile, the D.O.A. family has suffered more than its share of personal tragedies, which underscores the obvious — that no amount of three-chord rip-and-run can slow the progress of real life, and that punk’s uneasy adulthood is, after all, something of a willful illusion.
Formed in ’77 as a trio of Shithead, drummer Chuck Biscuits and bassist Randy Rampage, D.O.A. (which has since seen many members come and go) took its cues from English and American punk archetypes, blasting away at a host of targets with simple, sneering energy. Although always clear and cogent in its potent aggression, D.O.A. didn’t demonstrate any other distinctive features (employing the usual topics, familiar chord patterns), which makes the first records satisfying but unspectacular.
Triumph of the Ignoroids is raw and live, like stripped-down Dead Boys; Something Better Change is tighter, with more anthemic material fleshed out by two guitarists; Hardcore 81 is faster and looser.
War on 45 sounds like a keyboardless Stranglers and includes a humorous (and highly charged) reworking of Edwin Starr’s “War” (“good god y’all!!”) that makes Springsteen’s attempt sound pathetic. Although D.O.A. isn’t above confusing vulgarity with rebellion (e.g., the “Let’s Fuck” rewrite of Chris Montez’s 1962 hit), this is mainly above-average punk. (The UK version of War on 45 substitutes two tracks from Something Better Change.)
The 19-track Bloodied but Unbowed (The Damage to Date: 1978-1983) recapitulates that era in an exhilarating rush of shooting-gallery entertainment and rude fun; the ’92 CD reissue tacks on all eight songs from the notably stronger and better-produced War on 45.
Two of the four Peel session tracks that make up the ten-minute, four-song 12-inch Don’t Turn Yer Back EP reappear on Let’s Wreck the Party, a great-sounding album that breaks ranks with a few slower tempos. (The Dawning of a New Error reissues that record, augmented with the rest of Don’t Turn Yer Back and a bunch of early singles — 33 tracks in all.)
True (North) boasts similar sonic variations and maturity — these guys are almost growing up! Topics include Canada’s inferiority complex (“51st State”), an equation of Ramboid jingoism with nascent fascism (“Nazi Training Camp,” redone from the band’s 1978 debut EP), their gonzo work/play ethic (note the version of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” with the lead riff played on guitar plus trumpet!) and a longstanding commitment to political activism and freedom. (The band’s mechanical royalties from the song “Ready to Explode” go to South Africa’s then-outlawed African National Congress.) Weird angle: “Bullet Catcher,” the grim tale of a woman cop who died in a hail of bullets; D.O.A.’s song is critical but sympathetic.
The politically charged but musically uninspired Murder finds a new guitarist (Chris Prohom) in place of stalwart Dave Gregg; otherwise, the most notable aspect of this high-octane/mid-tempo business-as-usual is the acknowledgment of Nelson Mandela’s release (in a sore-throat rewrite of “The Midnight Special”). (The CD and cassette add one track to the vinyl edition.)
D.O.A. then moved to adjourn; a live album of the band’s farewell show at a Vancouver club was released as Talk Minus Action Equals Zero. Keithley went so far as to form another group, the short-lived Joey Keithley’s Instinct, but was soon back at the helm of D.O.A., joined by old bassist/singer Brian Roy Goble (ex-Subhumans) and new drummer Ken Jensen.
Produced by NoMeansNo’s John Wright, 13 Flavours of Doom relocates the spunk and inspiration absent from its slack predecessor. Leaving out the jokiness, Keithley takes his lyrical responsibilities seriously here. Thundering away with firm rhythm-guitar power (and some effective slide work) that favors the Dictators more than the Dead Boys, Keithley and Goble bellow and growl about governmental and economic injustice (“Death Machine,” “Legalized Theft”), public health concerns (“Hole in the Sky,” the safe-sex “Use Your Raincoat”) and crud culture (“Beatin’ Rock’n’Roll to Death”). The guitarist even manages a sensitive acknowledgment of his own imperfections in “I Played the Fool.” Wotta guy.
Back on the lighthearted side of the street, It’s Not Unusual is an uneven five-song EP that merrily romps through the titular Tom Jones chestnut and follows it with “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” a roaring but unintimidating vendetta against those who’ve crossed the band.
Although the booklet photo of D.O.A. (and a moosehead) in full-on Canuck regalia suggests producer Wright’s mischievous influence might be affecting the band’s course, Loggerheads stays on track with songs about North America’s trade imbalance (“Logjam”), religious hypocrisy (“I See Your Cross”), conformity (“That Turbulent Uneasy Feeling”), welfare cheats (“Witch Hunt”), environmentalism (the intricate “The Only Thing Green”) and urban decay (“I Can’t Take Much More”). The absurdist society ball (“Cocktail Time in Hell”) comes out of nowhere, but Keithley and co-writer Wright use it to get in digs at a long list of celebs. In line with the album’s moderately elevated musical ambitions (and its producer’s twisted sensibilities), the band caps it all with a mind-boggling, feedback-soaked, Melvins-speed Johnny Cash cover, “Folsom Prison Dirge,” which is equally unprecedented.
Drummer Ken Jensen died in a fire at home in January ’95; The Black Spot — recorded by Keithley, Goble and new guitarist/keyboardist Ford Pier with Wright sitting in on drums — is dedicated to his memory. Compounding the album’s morbid gloom in the liner notes, Keithley eulogizes five other past bandmates (including drummer Ken Montgomery, better known as Dimwit) and associates who died in the ’90s. Ironically (or maybe not), The Black Spot is the tautest, most precise and hard-edged of D.O.A.’s career. Spewing amplified energy, tight-formation fills, overdrive rhythms and anthemic punk choruses, the band wants only for conceptual focus in the songs. Three of Goble’s songs describe a wacky perimeter: “Big Guys Like D.O.A.” is a goofy ode to the band’s fans, “Worries” obsesses over various anxieties and “Running Out of Time” delves deep into existential prognostication. Keithley’s “Kill Ya Later” damns drug dealers, “Blind Men” bigots and “Je Declare” customs agents. “Marijuana Motherfucker” is a totally pointless David Peel joke, but a cowpunk cover of the Woody Guthrie-popularized “Bound for Glory” (the first of three linked songs — including the saw-wielding death metal bluster of “Unchained Melody” — dubbed “The Nutwrencher Suite”), while used as a protest against reactionaries, sounds like nothing so much as a proud reaffirmation of the band’s unflagging spirit.
On his solo record, early D.O.A. bassist Randy Rampage — with assists from ex-D.O.A. drummer Chuck Biscuits and former members of California’s Dils and Avengers — shows he can almost approximate solid, even (gasp) “musical” punk rock.