Monday, February 6, 2017

Shots in the Dark: The Offs' "First Record"

Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights third-wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, a fickle record-buying public, or other, unforeseen disasters, were lost in the fray. 

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Band: The Offs were formed in San Francisco in the late '70s by openly gay Don Vinil (vocals) and Billy Hawk (guitar) with Chris Olsen and then Bob Steeler on drums--and a shifting set of bass players (including Fast Floyd, Olga de Volga, Denny Boredom, and Eric Peterson) and horns (Bob Roberts, Roland Young, and Richard Edson). While they were very much a part of that SF's nascent first wave punk scene that spawned Crime, Nuns, The Avengers, Pink Section, Tuxedomoon, Vktms, Mutants, Lewd, The Dils, The Zeros, and more (the Dead Kennedy's first show was with The Offs at Mabuhay Gardens in 1978), there was ska and reggae in The Offs' wild mix from the start (according to a 1978 interview in Slash magazine, guitarist Billy Hawk was the one in the band who loved his reggae). The Offs' 1978 debut single featured a great punky cover of The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad" (think of how The Clash covered "Police and Thieves")--though their follow-up single in the same year, "Everyone's a Bigot," was much more representative of what would become their almost unclassifiable post-punky, no wave, ska/reggae sound.

By 1980, The Offs were living part of the year in Manhattan on Prince Street (while maintaining their home base in SF) and had been quickly embraced by the downtown/underground Manhattan music and art scene (that brought together musicians and artists of every color and from every scene), where The Offs regularly performed at the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and Max's Kansas City, which released their third single, "You Fascinate Me" b/w "My World," also in 1980 (the former a loungy-jazz punk cut, the latter straight up ska). At some point in 1983, The Offs had their debut album in the can for San Francisco-based CD Presents (the CD standing for Civil Defense, not compact disc; the label was also home for The Avengers, D.O.A. and Billy Bragg in the US), but singer Don Vinil overdosed on heroin in NYC--prior to the record's release in 1984--and The Offs were no more.

The Sound: Think of Sandinista-era Clash plus the angular post-punk funk of Gang of Four, all heavily influenced by the early 80s NYC no wave/art jazz scene (see James Chance and the Contortions). The Offs are challenging and certainly not for anyone put off by transgressions of musical boundaries and genre conventions--but they had punk attitude to spare and a sound that was rebel music/ska 'n' reggae to its core.

The Release: I picked up The Offs' First Record (which has only ever been available on vinyl) in the late '80s at Bleecker Bob's based almost solely on the fact that it was in the ska section; there just weren't that many ska releases available at the time. Of course, it also helped that the back photo of the album clearly identified it as a ska record and NYC downtown artist Jean Michel Basquiat had illustrated the cover in his punky/primitive graffiti style. Even though The Offs' music exists in an uneasy, often dissonant intersection between funky post-punk, no wave jazz, and ska/reggae--and was like nothing else I was listening to at the time--I was hooked from first play and 30 years later find that First Record still holds up.

The album kicks off with a second stab at the "Taxi Driver"-like "You Fascinate Me" (about watching young hustlers: "I said all you kids/Out on the streets/Hunting around now/Trying to make ends meet/Hanging out on corners/Outside of bars/Cruising Johns drive by in their cars/I said, you fascinate me/I don't know why/You living your life, honey/It's live or die...You bringing me down")--which had evolved from its earlier incarnation into a funky ska-like track with a fantastically ragged "oh, oh, oh" line in its chorus and a sweet guitar flourish at the end of the song that resolves all of the previous musical off-kilterness and lyrical ugliness. The fantastic keep-a-lid-on-it "Cool Down" is a Augustus Pablo/Far East sounding reggae track that wouldn't be out of place on a punk re-imagining of "West Side Story" ("When he was young/It was so much fun/No cares in the world/Nothing tied him down/Today, he keeps it straight/For the fun that is done/For tomorrow he's a poor man/So, tell me, what's the poor man done?"). The tightly wound-up punk-no wave-funk of "True Story" (with drummer Steeler on vocals) is all bitter with betrayal ("Told me a true story/Said it was fiction/The girl you seem so sad about/I know that you're the one/You changed most of the names and places/But still the innocent have faces/Do I see through you and him/Just like a pair of aces/What are you expecting?/A true story?"). Side one concludes with the jazzy ska of "Why Boy," which is their "Friday Night/Saturday Morning," about a kind of aimless night on the town for a misunderstood youth just looking for something approximating fun ("People wanna know/Where you come and go/They don't understand/'Cause it's not their way/'Say, 'why boy?'/You go down to the park/As the night begins/You got money in your hand/You're looking for the man...Some strangers from the suburb/Wanna push your around/They don't understand/'Cause it's not their way/You better fight back boy...You go to the club/To see the band/The people there seem to understand/Tonight...").

The Offs' mash-up of musical styles and subcultures (note the hip hop/graffiti reference in the lyrics) is at its most Sandinista-like on the first track of side B with "Body Hesitation," a more reggae-ish "Magnificent Seven," if you will, written and sung by their saxophonist Roland Young ("This ain't no/Misguided energy/It ain't no/Running wild style/This ain't no/Lack of thinking/For our society/It is a sinking..."). The horrific misogyny/gender politics of The Heptones' sweet-sounding "I've Got The Handle" ("I've got the handle, baby/You've got the blade/So, don't try to fight me, girl/'Cause you'll need first aid, yeah") is blunted a bit when The Offs shift the song into a broadside against then President Reagan: "Ronald Reagan is Babylon/Babylon must fall/You must find the resistance to kill 'em/Fight 'em back, to resist him!" The tension of the funky James Brown-ish workout "One More Shot" (of booze, that is, and he'll be ready) is almost unbearable. Everything finishes with The Offs' incredible ska cover of Mary Wells' 1960 R and B cut "Bye Bye Baby" ("You know, you took my love/Threw it away/You gonna want/My love someday/Well, a bye bye baby"), which is somehow the appropriate bookend to the twisted opener "You Fascinate Me."

(Fun fact: Character actor/downtown musician Richard Edson--who was Sonic Youth's first drummer and also a member of Konk--played trumpet on this album; you'd probably recognize him as the parking garage attendant from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," as well as from "Desperately Seeking Susan," "Stranger Than Paradise," "Do the Right Thing," "Platoon," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dirty Dancing," and many other movies and TV shows.)

The Ugly Reality: Back in the late '80s, I always wondered why The Offs simply seemed to have vanished, since I never read about them anywhere or ever came across more of their music (it was like that in the pre-internet days; some questions would just never be answered). Don Vinil's 1983 death from drug overdose years certainly explains why. I would have loved the chance to see The Offs live and how they might have been embraced (or not) by the growing NYC ska scene in the mid-to-late '80s and in which direction their next album might have gone.

It's a sad but true story that drugs have killed off many a brilliant band. And The Offs' tale is yet another one.

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Despite being reissued a few years ago, The Offs' First Record remains pretty rare and expensive, so you might be stuck buying a digital copy on iTunes or listening to it on YouTube. There's also a 1997 German compilation of The Offs' singles and compilation tracks called Californian Skapunk Pioneers out there (I happened to have bought a copy of it in 2000 at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square) and a much cheaper and easier to find live recording of the band, Live At The Mabuhay Gardens Nov 7 1980.

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