There was a gap, maybe 18 months long, between when Torches to Rome broke up and when their LP came out on Ebullition. The record's insert kind of acknowledges it: "a big apology to anyone that wrote to us and got an untimely response or no reply at all, especially anyone that sent money for a tape - if you sent for a tape and never received one please send a post card to Ebullition Records and we'll send you a free record, sorry about the hassle!" It was in this interim that I read a long, unfocused complaint about Torches to Rome in a now-forgotten zine. I hadn't heard that band yet, and as a result I couldn't follow the argument, which never described how the band sounded or what their songs were about, but instead focused on how annoying it was that everyone was talking about Torches to Rome. How exhausting to hear about them all the time, to have to have an opinion. Once I heard the record I understood exactly why the person was upset. Because among the condemnations of police and bureaucrats and corporate boards, the biggest target described on that record was the punk scene.
On the opening song, "Mass For the Dead," Sarah Kirsch sings: "They took the sharpest blade/and cut out the part that mattered." I always love the use of unnamed "they" in punk songs, the acknowledgement of power, how power is nebulous, how it shifts from individuals to structures. "They" could encompass both the systematic racism of policing and a single cop punching a kid in handcuffs. In "Mass For the Dead" the ambiguity serves another purpose - forcing the listener to determine who cut out the part that mattered most. Was it the major labels treating our scene like minor league sports, a training field to find talented prospects? Was it the bands like Green Day and Jawbreaker quitting our scene for major label contracts? Was it Antioch Arrow singing about "gummy worms" or Promise Ring singing about "kissing sounds" or Quicksand singing about anything? Kirsch might not name the villain explicitly, but she does challenge someone in the refrain: "What's this mean to you?" and "What's this mean to me?"
This indictment reminded me of another record that perennially angers people, 'Start Today' by Gorilla Biscuits and its callout: "Why play for us/if your heart's not in it?" So much of punk is built on the camaraderie of shared enemies—Reagan/ Thatcher/Police/War/Shell/Parents/etc—and punk has been so incisive about/ vicious to these enemies. So when the target shifts to bands that sound similar and people that look similar, when that acid rage is directed at someone standing next to you at the show, it grows tense very quickly. This feels different than infighting to me, in part because Torches to Rome implicate themselves ("We are guilty!") but mostly because I've always connected to these criticisms, understood this frustration. That is self-serving, I know, and not really constructive, but the sore-throated distress of "what might seem dumb to you/is pounding in my heart" or "I'm not afraid to say/I'm not afraid to say/I'm not afraid to say/I'm not afraid to say I care" is unconditionally convincing to me. No one strikes these positions and reveals this betrayal with any kind of angle. It's just too raw. There can't be any clout in this vulnerability.
The CT-85 tape opens with a song against Christianity and an anti-boss/work song. These are important songs to write! But the tape really clicks for me on the third song, "Punk Frat" with the lyrics: "You rock and roll/I nag and control/you have fun with the guys/I'm stuck up and roll my eyes." It reminded me immediately of the jab I'd hear when trying to keep people from bashing into each other at shows, or snapped at someone for spilling beer on someone: "fun police." You could hear people yelling it toward the stage at a 3000 person Fugazi show, and you could have someone spit it in your face at a house show with just 16 other kids there. My response, always, was that there are a million bars and bands playing boring AC/DC style music in every city in the world, if you want to punch your friend and throw a beer just go do it at one of those shows. A different thing can happen here. I appreciate that not everyone agrees with this.
There's a live video of CT-85 that opens with the singer explaining that they were playing with a substitute drummer because their regular drummer had been in a gruesome van accident. "He's okay," she explains, and "He would want you to know, he would want you to be mindful of making sure that the way that you have fun doesn't make it so that somebody else can't have fun in the space." Everyone claps but I bet there was at least one person mad about this instruction. It is sometimes funny to imagine that the singer of a punk band could spend all 20 minutes of their set talking about extreme injustices, war and racism and inequity and billionaires and for some part of the audience the only time they're actually outraged is when someone in that same band tells them not to shove a stranger.
But this outrage is constructive I think, or maybe it is like proof of concept? Because I often worry that punk is ineffectual, diffused energy. That George Trow quote: "Punk art is allied to what an extraordinary prisoner might do in his cell. Not ask for parole, for instance, or bone up on his case, but etch crazy feathery patterns into certain secret places." I have no trouble imagining these patterns, I feel like I'd know where to look for them. I think I could make the case for them too? For stepping away, for refusing to ask for parole, for refusing to wear the tie and look remorseful. "You think I want to end up like you?" as shouted at the end of CT-85's "The One About Your Boss." What does it suggest, then, that we can outrage each other to such extremes? It is in "I'm not afraid to say I care" and "we believed the same things" and "you're nowhere to be found when this shit really counts." I appreciate this sense of responsibility to others, and I think it's not wild to expand it to a notion of how the world could/should work. That Huggy Bear quote on the back cover of the 10": "CAN SUCH A WEAPON AS YOU AND ME BE DISMISSED AS MERE NUISANCE?" The outrage of the guy yelling "fun police" proves we cannot.
CT-85's songs are fast and dynamic. They swarm. The drumming is exceptionally devouring, overwhelming. My jaw hurts after I play the tape, my whole body sore from the tension and fury. But I think about that live video, all the jumping and grinning the band does. There is fun in this music, a fun made overt in the last song on the tape, "No One Ever Said Punk Was Gonna Be Easy." The song is four lines repeated over and over: "Fuck everything you love/we're having way more fun/This life don't make sense to you/we'd never want it to." The "you" in this song is that same unnamed "they" mentioned above, but it is reassuring to know exactly who CT-85 means. And it is reassuring that the foundational value understood in the song is "way more fun."