Although Las Vegas may be America’s sleazy entertainment capital, its gambling tourists typically prefer Wayne Newton or Bill Cosby to the Sex Pistols. As a result, Vegas’ only great punk band gave up before its career could get off the ground. Were it not for half of a posthumous release, the prematurely titled Last Rites, the gifted M.I.A. probably would have remained unknown. Last Rites sold well, especially after its outstanding opener, “Tell Me Why” (not the Beatles’ tune), was included on American Youth Report, an excellent West Coast punk/hardcore compilation. Finding themselves wanted, M.I.A. reunited, relocating to the more supportive Southern California punk community.
Last Rites contains a side each by M.I.A. and New Jersey’s Genocide (about whom the less said the better). Although M.I.A. come across as na‹ve, uncomplicated, almost willfully unimaginative 1-2-3-4-off-we-go punk, the record drips with the excitement that many such records of that time had. The roaring guitar sounds like a Marshall amp on twelve and the hooks are as instant as oatmeal — just add steaming water. Mike Conley’s singing is unusually clear, easy to decipher and pop-melodic. The subject of “Gas Crisis” may be out of date, but on the pulverizing two-chord verse of “I Hate Hippies,” Conley’s ironic tongue is so far in his cheek it’s almost coming out his ear: “Cause they’re dumb/I’m smart/They’re weak/I’m strong/I’m right/And they’re fucking wrong.” Hilarious!
The songs on Murder in a Foreign Place aren’t overly political; the music resembles early Brit-punk (Generation X, Sham 69) in spots. By tempering fierce enthusiasm with clear organization (although the mix buries Conley), relatively leisurely tempos and musical coherence, M.I.A. rises well above the crowd.
The much-improved Notes from the Underground leaves hardcore behind for a pretty fair Damned/TSOL-influenced punk LP with occasional acoustic guitar and even sax (on an anti-apartheid song). The hooks are occasionally a little too obvious, but “Another Day,” “Write Myself a Letter” and “Shadows of My Life” are first-rate punk-pop. Nick Adams’ wall of guitar dominates each of the ten tracks.
After the Fact is one of the best US punk records of the late ’80s, mostly because it mixes in many post-punk influences and innovates where other punks cling to tradition. The two guitars rarely play similar parts, there are dynamics and mood settings, contemplative sound (“Whisper in the Wind”) and even a Killing Jokey tribal backbeat (“When It’s Over”). The production on After the Fact is far superior to M.I.A.’s past efforts, with real bottom, kick, drive and guts. Just check out the cover of “California Dreaming” or the effortless “Edge of Forever” for proof that punk can be a fresh aural pleasure, even at this late date.
M.I.A. ultimately paid the same price that the original TSOL and Effigies did when they went against the grain and tried to take punk to its next step: the group split up in early 1988.
Returning to action, Frank Daly and Mark Arnold formed Big Drill Car. Like labelmates All and Chemical People, the Huntington Beach band specializes in bouncy punk-pop full of hooks, harmonies and exuberant playing. To its credit, BDC wisely eschews the former’s atonal excesses and the latter’s porno fetish.
Daly’s earnest and clear vocals and Arnold’s sharp, efficient guitar work brighten the six-song Small Block, a near-perfect introduction to a very likable quartet. The inexplicably French-titled “Les Cochons sans Poils,” which suggests the group has listened to as much Cheap Trick as Black Flag, stands out on a record whose only disappointment is its brevity.
The band’s first full-length opus (the title of which is format-specific) mines similar terrain, though only a couple of the tracks are as immediately catchy as those on the EP. Still, as the jaunty “16 Lines,” “No Need” and “About Us” prove, you’d be hard-pressed to find a band straddling the hardcore, power-pop and hard-rock fences with more finesse and enthusiasm. (Compulsives may want to consult “I Scream” from the Brigade’s 1986 The Dividing Line to trace the ancestry of the great hook on “About Us.”)