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Tying up the loose ends of a life in hardcore from 1986 until yesterday lunchtime

'Punkier-than-thou' - The Wire, June 2013.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Poison Idea, Ian MacKaye and that record cover: an interview with Kalv of In Your Face records


'By using my name, P.I. themselves have elevated me to a god. Surely no one would treat a human being like that' 

Ian MacKaye, July 23, 1989.
It's with those words – in that pointed, gnomic tone familiar to anyone who has listened to Minor Threat, Fugazi or any other of MacKaye's many bands – that the target of Poison Idea's ire skewers his unsolicited appearance as the title of their 1989 mini-LP. It was one of the most contentious moments in the career of the Portland, Oregon punk pioneers, no mean feat for a band who were never ones to shy away from controversy.

And those sentiments form part of a terse letter written to my friend and Geriatric Unit bandmate Kalv – who pressed the Ian MacKaye EP (grotesque cover and all) on his In Your Face label – after he alerted MacKaye (as a matter of, I suppose you could call, 'courtesy') to the fact that his name was going to be plastered all over a record cover that would eventually be deemed too obscene to be printed in the UK.


A little backstory: it was during a long drive through the mountains of Catalonia on a Geriatric Unit tour of northern Spain that me and Kalv were chatting about records, rarities and obscure one-offs – the stuff that middle-aged punks discuss to while away the time while stuck in a van for hours on end. The conversation, as it often does, turned to Poison Idea:

'I've probably got something most PI collectors would like to get their hands on,' said Kalv, in typically understated manner.

'Oh yeah?'

'Yeah, it's the Ian MacKaye test press, but with a couple of extra pictures from the band, and a letter from Ian in a Dischord stamped envelope telling me how pissed off he was about it.'

'Fucking hell!'

I knew straight away I had to see this, and get some words from Kalv about it, too – so during the last (for now) of many, many great Saturday nights of drinking budget booze and playing superlative vinyl at his house, we sat down for a quick chat about how the record came to be, the struggles to get the cover printed, and how – a quarter of a century after Ian MacKaye made his objections known – the whole episode looks in hindsight.



First though, is MacKaye's letter to Kalv in full. It's hard not to feel more than just a little twinge of sympathy for him, isn't it? (Caps and underlines are his own.)

'JULY 23 1989
KALV,
IF INDEED THE CONCEPT OF THE POISON IDEA LP WAS TO REMIND PEOPLE THAT I'M NOT A GOD, CONSIDER THIS … BY USING MY NAME, P.I THEMSELVES HAVE ELEVATED ME TO A GOD, SURELY NO ONE WOULD TREAT A HUMAN BEING LIKE THAT.

I'VE DONE NOTHING TO THEM, I'VE DONE NOTHING TO YOU, AND WHILE I LAUGH AT THE INSANITY OF THE SITUATION (MY NAME AN LP TITLE!) IT HURTS MY FEELINGS TO BE TREATED LIKE COMMODITY BY PEOPLE WHO I CONSIDERED TO BE MY PEERS.

IAN'

Kalv's Ian MacKaye test press, with letter from MacKaye and Dischord stamped envelope, top, and extra PI pictures: Tom draining a can of Old English, bottom centre, and Jerry A in the studio, bottom right. 


And once all you Poison Idea collectors have composed yourself following the revelation that there is an iteration of probably their most notorious release – and one, which, by rights, should probably belong in a museum – that you'll never get your hands on, read Kalv's take on the matter. It's a great yarn.

So how did In Your Face start?

What started it really was when we started to fall out with Dig Pearson. We used to be mates, when Heresy was going – our first release for a flexi 7in was joint financed by myself and Dig. We were mates in those days, and as the band got more popular, he set up Earache, and one of his earliest releases, obviously, was the split with Concrete Sox.

By the time we got enough material to do our first full album, things were getting pretty strained. Jon (March, Heresy singer) was sharing a place with Dig at the time and they weren't getting on, and we were full of these big ideas about what we were going to do. So we decided to set up a label - that was myself, Jon and Trevor who used to drive for us - and we were going to put out the first Heresy album ourselves.

Obviously Dig wasn't too pleased at the time, as he thought he was going to have it [on Earache]. That was the main motivation behind it.

So for a while we did the label – we got set up on a Prince's Trust Scheme where, if you had £1,000 in your bank account, the week [your application] was submitted, you could get on it, so all of us had to beg, borrow and steal to get £1,000 from our relatives just to have the money in the account for that week, then the money would get taken out and given straight back.

We didn't exactly get flying in that first year – there were only two releases, well, it turned into four, with two coming right at the very end of that financial year. And it was obvious that we couldn't keep doing it together as we were off the dole at that point, and running the label. In that first year, they'd give you your dole money, just to get you off the system, and after that first year, you were theoretically up and running.

The back of the Jerry A picture:
 'Kalv, here's a pic of Jerry A
looking like your YOUR
hero Garry Bushell or whatever
the fuckhead's name is!'
Ah, so it was like a Young Enterprise Scheme type thing?

Yeah, it was something along those lines … So with me having four releases under my belt, I decided to give it a go, and it kept me off the dole for four years after that, although I wasn't on money that was any better than being on the dole, but it basically meant that I never had to go and sign on any more. But at least when I talk about my past, I can say I was self-employed for a while, even though I was getting out of bed whenever I wanted.

You were a young entrepreneur!

[Laughs] Richard Branson, it wasn't, I promise!

So how did you come to get Poison Idea on board?

We were big fans, especially me and Steve [Charlesworth, Heresy drummer]. At around that time, Heresy had split up, PI had put out the Filthkick EP, which had come out just after the War All The Time album, and the Getting The Fear 12” - the records were kind of small pressings for a band of their stature, and were pricey, as they were imports.

I'd been trading records with Jerry A, and at the time – just as an idea – I wondered if I offered them £1,000 they'd let me release both recordings, the Filthkick EP and the Getting the Fear 12”, as a mini-album. But the way it was released, they dropped the cover of The Damned's New Rose off the 7in, and instead put on a song called Burned For The Last Time, which is a kind of Maiden-esque heavy metal song.

So I got this phone call from an American guy at about 4 o'clock on a Sunday morning. We'd occasionally get phone calls like that because we'd put our numbers on the records sleeves, which wasn't necessarily a great idea because you'd get people from Italy or Greece just phoning up to talk about the band.

[Regrettable comedy foreign accent] 'You are my favourite!!!'


Yeah – all that nonsense! But so there was an American guy on the other end of the phone, and it was stupid o'clock – four or five in the morning, and I could hear this American accent: 'Hey Kalv … ' And my first response was: 'Man, do you what time it is?' He goes: 'Oh sorry man, I didn't realise, but, hey, it's Jerry A from Poison Idea here' [laughs]

Suddenly, I woke up, and was not bothered at all about this American guy calling me at stupid o'clock. So we talked and he said 'Yeah, yeah, we'll take the £1,000, man,' which at the time, because the exchange rate was quite good, I guess they got $1,800 to spend down the pub for something that was already recorded, as it was basically a licence deal.

It sold about 4,400 – and that was it. They eventually signed with Vinyl Solution who reissued it a couple of years after my version went out of print, and they [the label] didn't call it Ian MacKaye, quite reasonably, after all the controversy.

So how did that cover come about?

Well, they sent the sleeve over before it ended up having to be censored. At first I couldn't believe it. Personally, I laughed – but then I thought, having played with Fugazi, and, you know, having thought … well, Fugazi were great, but Minor Threat, especially, were one of the most important bands in punk rock. And I'd met Ian, and he was a really nice guy. So I thought, well, it's not very nice having your name being plastered all over some hairy buttocks and plums on a record sleeve. So I Xeroxed the sleeve, sent it off to Dischord, and hoped that he'd see whatever funny side there might be. I got a letter back: he wasn't best pleased and I don't blame him.

I think if it was any other band I would have probably talked them out of the idea, but at that time, Poison Idea were just my favourite band, and I was just so stoked to release the record. They could have pretty much anything they wanted on the sleeve, and I would have gone along with it.

Jello Biafra saw a copy and just shook his head: 'It's the wrong guy. It should be Ray Cappo!'

Well, you did account for yourself. However torn you might have been, you did at least present it to Ian MacKaye. I'm not saying you covered your arse by any means, but you did say: 'This is happening.'

Oh yeah, yeah. It was all upfront. He basically got a copy of it well in advance of the record actually coming out. I spoke to Tom Pig, and they thought it looked great, but apparently it showed up in San Francisco, and Jello Biafra was in a record store, and saw it. He saw it and just shook his head, and said: 'It's the wrong guy. It should be Ray Cappo!'

Yeah, I remember thinking that at the time. It seemed …

Yeah, why go after the guy who was the originator of it all? It was the second-generation copy guys that need to be laughed at.

Right. So what was Poison Idea's reasoning?

Just that he was the polar opposite of what they were into, which was drink and debauchery. Their reasons at the time probably carried a bit more weight than they do now. Now it looks a bit childish, which frankly it is. {laughs]

So what happened with the printing of the sleeve?

I sent it down through Revolver, who pressed records for me. They got back within a few days and said, 'No printer will touch it. We can't print it as it is.'

Under obscenity laws?

Yeah, it was considered obscene. So I called Tom Pig and said, 'As long as we obscure the nastier parts … ' And he said, 'Yeah, go for it.' So I put the 'Banned In The UK' there just as a laugh, because the printers were too limp to touch it, and when PI got it, they loved it. They said, if anything, it adds to it: makes it look even crazier.

There were 150 copies with the stickered sleeve [of the uncensored cover]. Andy Larsen, a mate of ours from the Heresy days, a German guy who worked at a printers who was also friends with Poison Idea, got a copy of the original art, ran off 150 sticker-copy sleeves, which have ended up becoming collectible.

So this was just an afterthought?

No, basically he was distro-ing the record. I think I'd sent him 90 or so copies. And he said, “I've made a sleeve for all the copies you've sent me, so here's the other 60,” and he sent me them in the post. I did the same. Sent some out as mail order; some ended up in Selectadisc; some ended up in Japan. So yeah, if you were around at the time, and you were first in line, you got one. There was no thinking 'Ah, this will be collectible. I'll stick half-a-dozen aside.”

Looking back, any regrets? In hindsight, would you have done it any differently? Or even tried to suggest Ray Cappo's name?

I was 23: they were my favourite band in the world. There was nothing I could have done at the time that would have been that much different, so it is what it is. As time goes by, straight away I can take Ian's point of view. He's right: he doesn't deserve to be called an arsehole. It's a bit late in the day for regrets, though. I did it; I put it out, and I stand with it. But Minor Threat are one of my favourite hardcore bands of all time, so … respect due, yeah.


UPDATE: Jerry A posted this on his Facebook page on 7 June, 2016, after my pal and former Nation of Finks bandmate Tommy Duffin (check out his new band Headless Kross - they rule) shared this blog with him.


I'll tell the story one last time, and maybe it'll clear some stuff up. I doubt Ian is on FB, or that he will ever see this. But then again, when that record came out, we didn't think he'd ever see that either. Kalv was going to re-release a couple singles onto a 12" and we were doing the cover/art. the model, asshole, was Kevin the bass player for The Imp. Pigs and Tom's room mate. We took the photo, it came out as we expected. And then we went to name this comp. record. At first it was to be called, "Dinner Is Served". That didn't seem too intense or even funny, so we threw around a bunch of names, and then we started naming people. I think Biafra even might have been named. Someone said Ian's name, and we laughed. Then someone said no, we should stick with that. It was a split second decision, decided while drunk and if we would have made time to really think about it, we probably would have came up with a better title. We didn't set out to attack Ian. We were all Minor Threat fans, who wasn't? I never thought people would be talking about it years later. I wrote a letter once to Ian, at the Discord house explaining why we did it, and never heard a word back. So like I said, it wasn't us hating and attacking this guy. There are a lot worse people in the world to call an asshole. And if anyone would have calmly taken the time to ask us, back then, we would have said the same thing.

4 comments:

  1. is he really that sad about being called an asshole? maybe he was the right choice after all. its not as if they called his mother a bad name or something. its just a joke. <3

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  2. we gotta remember - there was a period in late '82/'83 when there was a substantial backlash against Ian. He seemed a bit baffled and dismayed while it played out. This was from whence the "This is no set of rules" riff intro to the reprise of "Out of Step". Ian generally seems to champion vulnerability as part of one's humanity and so it's no real surprise he was taken aback at being presented as being linked to a gaping asshole.

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