TAKING THE PISS: Originating as a “parody of punk” in the ’70s, the Urinals’ choplessness turned into their biggest asset.
I don’t want to waste your time waxing philosophical about the problematic logic behind qualifying music “good” or “bad,” much less pontificating on whether “sophisticated punk” is an oxymoron. That said: I prefer the Urinals’ late-’70s/early-’80s UCLA phase to their mid-’00s, post-reformation, oodles-more-sophisticated What Is Real and What Is Not era. So do I write that they were better before they knew how to play their instruments well? Only if I want to look like a jackass.
“What I like about punk now is, it’s turning away from the very strict formula it’s been adhering to for the last 15 years,” says Urinals enduring bassist and singer John Talley-Jones, communicating from Pasadena. “For a while, punk rock was strictly defined as very aggressive, sort of melodic, maybe a little surfy, and very fast. There were expectations about it that people were adhering to. Now, people are going back to an earlier model of what punk is, which is a lot more open-ended. It’s rife with potential.”
He’s referring to faces around the proverbial campfire of LA’s alt-punk hub, the Smell, mentioning in particular No Age. Despite the generation gap, the Urinals are also a periodic presence on the Smell’s stage, and not solely because of their elder-statesmen cred. Like LA’s new batch, the Urinals have always defied punk dogma, ’cause punk with rules is the real oxymoron. Well, fuck yeah!
The Urinals, who are in the class of post-punk precursors with Wire, Mission of Burma, and the Minutemen, originated as a “parody of punk” in 1978, playing their first set at a UCLA cafeteria. Their technical ineptitude limited them to minimalistic, vigorous numbers like “Ack, Ack, Ack, Ack” and “I’m White and Middle Class.” Those songs are awesome, however, so the band’s choplessness turned into a major asset.
The Urinals did ascend the punk totem pole, eventually landing on bills with the Go-Go’s, the Last, and Black Flag. To distance themselves from the chest-beating meathead form of early-’80s hardcore, they changed their name to 100 Flowers. In 1983, citing creative differences, the band members parted company. Years went by and people developed an interest in (or a longing for) the punk of yore. In 1996, the Urinals were invited to re-form for a friend’s CD release. The results — experienced musicians playing songs written by novice versions of themselves — were damn intriguing.
“We didn’t want to start immediately from the point we had ended up at [in the ’80s],” says Talley-Jones. “Instead, we decided to start at the earliest, most primitive material and go from that perspective. The ultimate idea was to start all over again and continue on into the future — which is pretty much what has happened.”
More intriguing still: the Urinals performing “I’m a Bug” in Mandarin, a treat feasted upon by attendees at 2005’s inaugural International Pop Festival in Beijing. “We were essentially playing for an audience that was only peripherally aware of what rock music is. A lot of people there did not necessarily get exposed to the kind of popular culture that we take for granted. One of the sets we did was typically brisk, 20 songs in under an hour, and we were told later by one of the festival coordinators that the audience had no idea what we had just done. One really long song? 20 short songs? They didn’t understand the context, but we went over pretty well.”