First, a note: I received a USB turntable for Christmas. After a couple months of software hassles (which continue), I finally started ripping some of my dormant old vinyl. My collection is small to moderately sized and overwhelming dominated by obscure '90s punk, but there are noteworthy gems hidden in there–and in the collections of my fellow A.V. Clubbers, covering all genres. Here's the first write-up of what we find while crate-digging in our own houses…
Lookout! Records, 1992
File under: The sound of a dam about to burst
Related artists: Green Day, Fuel, Crimpshrine, Monsula
Nirvana gets all the credit for revolutionizing the sound of mainstream rock in the '90s, fomenting the rise of grunge and inspiring legions of terrible self-serious bands–a cultural revolution that hit its nadir with ads for Gap-branded flannel. And for most of that, Nirvana deserves the credit/blame. However, many people overlook the seismic effect Green Day had on pop music following the release of its 1994 breakthrough, Dookie. Today's musical landscape isn't awash with Nirvana copycats, but you can draw a direct line from Green Day to some top-selling artists.
While drawing that line, you could argue that Green Day wouldn't have blown up without the foundation Nirvana laid, and you'd be right–but Green Day's success was as much a reaction to the moany seriousness of grunge as it was the result of catchy songs and fortuitous timing.
When Bay Area quartet Pinhead Gunpowder recorded the four-song Fahizah EP in April of '92, Nirvana was well on its way to reshaping the cultural landscape. But not many people outside of the Bay Area knew about Green Day. The band had just released its sophomore album, Kerplunk, on taste-making indie Lookout! Records, but was well on its way to becoming an underground-punk sensation.
Still, it wasn't especially noteworthy that Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong played guitar and sang in Pinhead Gunpowder. If anything, he was outclassed by other members of the Bay Area supergroup: drummer-vocalist Aaron Cometbus played in beloved punk band Crimpshrine, and guitarist-vocalist Mike Kirsch played in the popular melodic post-hardcore band Fuel. (Bassist-vocalist Bill Schneider was another scene fixture who would go on to play in Monsula and assist Green Day.) Within two years, Armstrong would become a superstar, and the other guys mostly known for their association with said superstar (with the exception of Cometbus, a luminary of punk-zine culture).
But that was all to come when Pinhead recorded Fahizah, a four-song EP sounds like a one-off project among friends. No song lasts longer than two minutes, and one is a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." Considering its members' other gigs, it's unsurprising that Fahizah is a perfect snapshot of the Bay Area sound of the early '90s: The songs' structure and aggressive moments, particularly in the shout-sung vocals, reflect the influence of hardcore, but the melodies are decidedly melodic and occasionally poppy. (The poppiest elements, unsurprisingly, come at the hands of Armstrong.)
Berkeley was practically Ground Zero for political correctness in the '90s, and Cometbus' lyrics are filled with lefty anti-consumerist outrage that would quickly become cliché in the punk scene. Look no further than the EP's title for proof: Fahizah was the alias of Nancy Ling Perry, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the paramilitary group who kidnapped media heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. Perry died in a shootout in May of that year, but the ideas she expressed in a letter to the public before her death has parallels in Cometbus' lyrics. Her letter ends with "DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE"; the inside sleeve of the album ends with "Rip Off Society..Blow the World..A hundred causes, a thousand reasons, but they all came down to the same basic message–smash the rotten social structure and build a new world on the rubble."
That fits nicely with the post-civilization utopia imagined in leadoff track "Future Daydream," which portrays a world where "skyscrapers and factories crumble down to the ground" and plants have overgrown "malls with paint peeling off the cracked walls." Here, "in the ruins of the world today," we'll "get acoustic guitars and play." (It's like Mad Max, but with hippies.) The proselytizing continues on the second song, "Freedom Is…," a typical rage against the conformist 40-hour-week machine–"we're just endentured [sic] servants / living on the master's land"–that lambastes the "home of the braves, land of the free, where 'freedom of choice' just means Coke or Pepsi." The EP takes a tangent on the first song of Side B, "Hey Now," an annoyed kiss-off to a whiney friend, but Pinhead Gunpowder gets back on point with the cover of "Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell's classic critique of rampant development.
It's heady stuff for a fun project among friends, but this was a scene that took (and still takes) its personal politics very seriously–which makes Armstrong's role all the more amusing. Until Green Day got all political on American Idiot a dozen years after Fahizah, few would have guessed Armstrong paid attention to politics. And few would have guessed that Pinhead Gunpowder would amount to more than Fahizah, especially once Green Day became a platinum-seller. Yet the group would go on to release a full-length and several EPs.
The more newsworthy story lies in all those records Green Day would go on to sell. When it came, it wasn't a shock to the group's fans. But it irrevocably changed not only the musical landscape in the Bay Area–which became a hunting ground for major labels looking for the next Green Day–but also in pop music. Fahizah is a quick snapshot of that world before the flood, when having a member of Green Day in a band wasn't as big of a deal as having dudes from Crimpshrine and Fuel.
Current whereabouts: Pinhead Gunpowder still exists, albeit on the extreme backburner. Kirsch left the group not long after Fahizah, and Jason White of Monsula replaced him. The band has released only one proper full-length since 1991, and it seldom performs. A pair of shows in Southern California at the beginning of February was the group's first gigs in more than six years.
Album availability: Lookout! Records barely exists since Green Day (and numerous others) pulled its back catalogue, but Fahizah is apparently still available through No Idea Records. But all of its songs appeared on Jump Salty, a CD compilation of Pinhead's vinyl releases. It's still available.
Key track: "Freedom Is…"
A: F worked on Sproul at a juice stand
B: Kidnapped an heiress but C botched the plan