Punk & Post-Punk review Artcore's 'Directions'
"Welly Artcore is probably best known for his DIY fanzine, Artcore, which has seen 40 print issues across 35 years since its inception in January 1986" begins Russ Bestley in his review of 'Directions to the outskirts of town. Punk rock tour diaries from nineties North America' for Volume 11 number 2 of the Punk and Post-Punk journal. Continuing his report in some detail with, "Having previously fronted Welsh hard- core punk bands Four Letter Word and State Funeral, he is currently vocalist for Violent Arrest and works as a graphic designer, creating music packaging and promotional material for bands and labels within the contemporary punk scene. As a longstanding writer, commentator, editor, designer and all-round contributor, Artcore is widely recognized as one of the ‘good guys’ who always has something interesting to say about the ever-changing ‘punk’ scene both in the United Kingdom and internationally".
"Directions to the Outskirts of Town is Artcore’s first full book, a compendium of personal diaries covering two tours he took part in across the United States in the 1990s. The first tour in 1994 saw him accompanying longstanding Bristolian hardcore punks Chaos UK as road crew and ‘merch guy’, while the second, in 1998, took the author onstage as lead singer with little-known Welsh group Four Letter Word, having signed – more by luck than judgement – to the hugely successful Los Angeles independent label B.Y.O. (Better Youth Organisation) run by Hollywood brothers Mark and Shawn Stern, whose band Youth Brigade headlined a number of shows on the tour".
"The 1994 Chaos UK ‘Hope You Got a Fuckin’ Headache Tour’ covered 12,000 miles through 35 states in less than two months. By this time Chaos UK represented the dog end of British punk for many critics and the group’s regular set, featuring covers of songs by the Sex Pistols, the Valves, Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, the Partisans, Punishment of Luxury, Sham 69 and Reagan Youth alongside some of the group’s own ‘greatest hits’, perhaps more closely reflects a form of crowd-pleasing punk karaoke rather than anything more challenging or contemporary. Gigs in sweaty basements and punk clubs in industrial units and former retail spaces on the edges of sprawling US cities are followed each night with the band and crew sleeping on the floor of a single, cheap motel room or in the basements of houses, typically owned by the extremely generous and forgiving parents of gig promoters and local punk fans. The routine and mundanity of driving hundreds of miles, consuming free food and drink supplied by the promoter, playing to a small audience in a sweaty warehouse through a poor-quality sound system, sleeping on the floor of a local house then getting up mid-morning to repeat the process all over again is captured well by Artcore’s diary entry-style prose. Brief detours to local record shops to dig through crates for US hardcore classics show the nature of most of the touring troupe as fans as well as performers, while interactions with support bands such as Eyehategod, MDC, Toxic Narcotic, Public Nuisance and the Swingin’ Utters provide local colour and a sense of camaraderie".
"Artcore returned to the United States four years later with his own band, Four Letter Word, having secured a record deal for three albums with B.Y.O. on the strength of the 1995 debut single which the singer had sent to the label as a purely speculative gesture. B.Y.O. released the band’s debut album, A Nasty Piece of Work, in 1997 and the quartet, along with their friend and general helper Graham, flew to Los Angeles in late June 1998 for a seven-week stint through 38 US states and four Canadian provinces. Tensions arose from the day the band arrived and were allocated basic ‘lodgings’ at label co-owner Shawn Stern’s Venice Beach house which was undergoing redevelopment to build two new apartments on either side. The UK visitors were more than a little surprised to discover that they were required to undertake some manual labouring, moving rubble and building materials into a large skip. Following a hard day’s work the band members dubbed their accommodation ‘Shawn Stern Concentration Camp’."
"Once the entourage set off on tour, they discovered that they were sched- uled to play low down the bill at many of the venues, supporting 1980s hardcore legends Youth Brigade and 7 Seconds alongside newer bands Pinhead Circus and Brand New Unit. By this time,Youth Brigade and the Stern brothers had achieved significant status as elder statesmen of the US hardcore scene, through their activities with their label and music promotion business as well as their reputation on the live circuit. Youth Brigade had acquired a level of fame more than a decade earlier when, along with Social Distortion from Orange County, California, the band had been the subject of the 1984 docu- mentary film Another State of Mind, which attempted to capture the experience of the first wave of hardcore bands as they toured the United States. These kinds of reflective documentaries helped galvanize a wider US hardcore punk subculture: a decade later, the book Get in the Van by Henry Rollins (1994) reflected on the Black Flag singer’s own experiences of the underground tour- ing circuit, while ‘tour diaries’ became something of a punk staple in fanzines and later on social media".
"Early starts at many venues saw Four Letter Word play late afternoon to sparse crowds of young punk fans who were usually just waiting for the main bands later in the evening. The singer’s penchant for irony and English (well, Welsh to be precise) wit in his onstage pronouncements did not exactly endear the group to audiences either – though in retrospect it is definitely one of the highlights of the book for readers on this side of the pond and the sense of bewilderment among teenage US ‘punkers’ is palpable in Artcore’s subtly dry account of two cultures separated by a common language. To make matters worse, the band seldom got paid even their paltry agreed fee and spent most of the tour broke and surviving on the hospitality of local hosts. For all the reverence afforded to B.Y.O., the Stern brothers come across as far more inter- ested in their own business ventures and punk celebrity status as in reaching out a hand to other bands in the spirit of fraternity and equality".
"Much of Artcore’s account centres on the frustration of the touring routine and the endless time spent in the hire van covering thousands of miles of US interstate roads. Even the brief moments of relief are rather perfunctory – getting drunk, buying records, sightseeing. There is an undercurrent of male bonding (and rivalry) – all the bands and most of the promoters along with a large proportion of the audiences are young men, and women are nota- ble by their absence from the narrative. Like the Chaos UK tour four years earlier, the performance of ‘punk rebellion’ seems to centre on band names (John Cougar Concentration Camp, the Stupid Jerks) and song titles (‘Fight to Unite’, ‘Sink with California’) with little sense of transgression or threat. Meanwhile the performers, audiences and promoters generally appear to be polite, introspective and often very middle class with super-supportive liberal parents who turn a blind eye to assorted ‘punks’ sleeping in the basement and even, at times, give them milk and cookies and make them breakfast in the morning before they leave".
"From a reader’s perspective, Artcore’s book is rather repetitive and the drudgery of the touring narrative does become a little wearing after a while. In the process, however, Directions to the Outskirts of Town captures something of the tedium and frustration of a small band on the road, subject to the whims of disinterested audiences and the egos and power games of some of the older, better-known bands on the circuit".
Azerrad, Michael (2002), Our Band Could Be Your Life, Boston: Back Bay Books. Four Letter Word (1997), A Nasty Piece of Work, vinyl album, USA: B.Y.O. Makagon, Daniel (2020), ‘Booking your own life: The development of a DIY
touring network in the United States’, Punk & Post-Punk, 9:2, pp. 205–21. Rollins, Henry (1994), Get in the Van, Los Angeles: 2.13.61. Small, Adam and Stuart, Pete (1984), Another State of Mind, Laguna Beach:
Russ Bestley is reader in graphic design & subcultures at the London College of Communication, editor of the journal Punk & Post-Punk and co-editor of the Global Punk book series, published by Intellect Books and the Punk Scholars Network. His research archive can be accessed at www.hitsvilleuk.com.
Contact: London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, Elephant & Castle, London, SE1 6SB, UK.