Without True Sounds of Liberty (and Agent Orange, for that matter), it’s safe to assume there would be no Offspring. In its prime one of the top five or so punk outfits this country has ever produced, the pioneering California group degenerated from a tight, rippling hardcore quartet to a lame hair metal band with no original members by the end of its first run, in 1990. In between, TSOL embraced new genres about as often as charismatic singer Jack Grisham switched surnames.
Formed by two members each from Vicious Circle and a rival band, True Sounds of Liberty exploded out of Long Beach in 1978. The first vinyl is a tough, politically inspired five-song EP that bristles with excitement. Ron Emory’s thrashing guitar provides a steady foundation for vocalist Jack Greggors, credited on the sleeve with “mouth and other organs.” These fine songs, like “Abolish Government/Silent Majority,” are super-hot.
Moving from Posh Boy to Frontier, TSOL made other changes as well. For one thing, Greggors changed his name to Alex Morgon; more importantly, the group abandoned politics to join the trendy horror/shock-rock movement. Along with a cover depicting the grim reaper in a boneyard, the lyrical themes of Dance With Me are largely those of B-movie scare flicks, and nearly as much fun. While other bands have proven useless at this genre, TSOL succeed because their brutal, razor-edge sound keeps its musical conviction, regardless of the subject matter.
TSOL’s fondness for atmosphere reached into more experimental territory on the four-song Weathered Statues, an assured exploration of spacey, sorrowful post-punk textures and even dub trappings. The record is as fitting a primer as possible for the full-on creative renaissance to come.
Grisham and drummer Todd Barnes adopted new names for Beneath the Shadows and added a keyboard player. Dropping any remaining connection with hardcore, this newly refined approach takes the group on a neo-psychedelic trip, but with bonus amounts of rock drive and character. A great record from an always surprising band.
Singer Jack Takeyourpick selected another surname (Loyd) and joined Cathedral of Tears, which issued a weirdly commercial six-song mini-album — raunchy guitars, synthesizers and a danceable resemblance to both the Cult and Dead or Alive.
The aptly named Change Today? unveils another stage in TSOL’s ongoing impermanence: a new label and two new members. Stalwart guitarist Emory and bassist Mike Roche are joined by Joe Wood (guitar/vocals) and Mitch Dean (drums). Fielding a whomping near-punk rock sound, the foursome is aggressive, coherent and lucid, singing shapeless, insubstantial songs that pack a sonic wallop if nothing else. Not a bad record, but not a primo effort.
Remarkably retaining both lineup and label, TSOL issued Revenge, a powerful LP that shows the group still vital and active. The mixture of Alice Cooper/Golden Earring-styled ’70s arena rock and traditional LA punk (with a dollop of X-into-the Doors on the title track) could have soared with better (or at least more consistent) material, but there’s nothing wrong with the self-assured, energetic performances. (Incidentally, Revenge includes a new song entitled “Change Today.”)
Thoughts of Yesterday — a reissue of the first EP with the added bonus the terrific genre-defying Weathered Statues 7-inch and a speedier alternate version of Dance With Me‘s “Peace Thru Power” — is an essential document of a once-great band. Just try to keep from laughing at the embarrassingly fawning liner notes from label head Robbie Fields. (A bunch of tracks from punkrockers Pariah fill out the CD. The 1992 CD of includes Tender Fury.)
By Hit and Run, TSOL’s mutation from hardcore standard-bearers through progressive new wavers into tattooed blues-metal boys was complete, resulting in a record of rote fist-punchers, vigorously delivered but tired-sounding all the same. On TSOL Live (recorded at a California date in January ’88), the band sloughs off a full set of Change Today-forward originals as well as who-cares covers of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Roadhouse Blues.” Well-recorded, but pretty tepid.
Emory left the group during the recording of Strange Love, and Roche took a walk on the eve of its release, leaving TSOL with no original members. This John Jansen production is a joke — lame minor-league metal replete with stock leather’n’love clichés and sluggish playing.
In the late ’80s, TSOL’s original mouthpiece (now billed as Jack Grisham) and skins-pounder Todd Barnes reappeared with a metal-gilded project of their own, Tender Fury. The eponymous debut (produced by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz) is thin-sounding punky (but definitely not punk) rock, augmented on some fairly hooky tunes by Daniel Root’s incendiary riffing and Barnes’ solid drumming. In all, a not-bad effort that will come as a surprise to punkers who never thought they’d be hearing West Coast hardcore legend Grisham croon the word “baby.”
Barnes and bassist Robbie Allen are conspicuously absent from Garden of Evil, Tender Fury’s awful follow-up, produced by Hunt Sales. Half-written songs and Grisham’s annoyingly hyperdramatic vocals sink this effort, though the title track is a catchy chunk of no-brainer hard-rock.
Legally prohibited from using the band’s name, TSOL’s charter members — Grisham, Barnes, guitarist Ron Emory and bassist Mike Roche — teamed up for a thrilling live reunion album in 1991. The reenergized crew blitzes through such early classics as “Superficial Love” and “Man and Machine” with a violent fury not heard since the days of the band’s first EP. The most convincing equivalent to an aural moshpit you’re likely to encounter.
The same year, Triple X released If Anger Were Soul, I’d Be James Brown, the third and final Tender Fury album, a huge improvement over Garden of Evil. With ex-Adolescent Frank Agnew on guitar, the band rips through a batch of catchy melodic punk that admirably recaptures the classic SoCal sound. Also worth noting is the excellent cover of Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul.”
Perhaps hoping to ride the crest of the new punk wave, Grisham reteamed with Emory for the Joykiller, whose eponymous debut takes the band back to its hardcore roots. A speedy collection of full-bore punkish rock, it wouldn’t have much character if not for Grisham’s melodramatic vocals. With the exception of the socially conscious “Show Me the System” and the salacious sing-along “Go Bang,” the songs just don’t stick.
Without the support of Emory, the band found its footing the following year on Static. Grisham sings the lyrics of teenage glory and misery with impressive energy and affect. The songs are simple and impossibly tuneful, with sunny barbershop harmonies, toe-tapping piano and punk- pop exuberance. Three is nearly as good, though it gives up a degree of spontaneity for sweeter pop textures. Against Ronnie King’s twinkling keyboards, Grisham again loses himself to the catharsis of young love (“Another Girl” is a flawless two minutes of romantic abandon), this time tempering the dream with such adult meditations as “Ordinary” and “Once More.” Though too measured at times for its own good, Three is an admirable swan song. The inadequate Ready Sexed Go! retrospective is worthwhile for its inclusion of several unheard tracks that were recorded for two abortive post-Joykiller projects, the Go and Gentleman Jack.
The original TSOL lineup (minus drummer Todd Barnes, who died of drug-related causes in December 1999) got together again in the late ’90s as a fully functioning, forward-looking unit. Disappear finds TSOL as stylistically ravenous as ever, from the familiar confrontational sound of “Sodomy” and “In My Head” to Joykiller-esque love-punk (“Renounce,” the title track) and goth-lounge-jazz (“Socialite”). Grisham’s not-too-mannered croon and carnival barker grin are energized by his return to an edgier outlet than the Joykiller, Emory channels Chuck Berry through a watery, gothic psychedelia, and Mike Roche keeps the basslines limber and expressive. Only the songs are less than stellar: the brief album has too much filler from a band that’s had so long to prepare.
Divided We Stand, produced by David Bianco, remedies the songwriting problem. A typically (by this point, at least) varied batch of tracks that coincided with Grisham’s unsuccessful campaign for governor of California, the album revisits the political concerns of the band’s earliest material, although the singer has not risen too far above his personal life to declare: “Being in love sucks! / Don’t wanna feel it again.” Beneath the Shadows keyboardist Greg Kuehn returns from obscurity to lend invaluable color to the proceedings, especially on the bluntly critical “American” and “Shine,” one of the band’s most propulsive, infectious — and, god forbid, hopeful — songs ever. Anyone writing off the reunited TSOL as an anachronism or nostalgia act is sorely mistaken, and this record proves it.
Who’s Screwin’ Who? is the resurrected lineup’s live-in-the-studio re-recording of songs both old and new.