by Ryan Settee
If you're looking for one of those all-time overlooked bands, Personality Crisis definitely ranks up there. Maybe Iím a bit biased because they're from my hometown, Winnipeg, and that they spent a good portion of their formative years playing the Marion Hotel--a dive bar that I currently live a block away from. That's undoubtedly a part of it. We all have to have some sort of connection with the music that we like though, for whatever reason that is. But this is my first attempt here to explain why a local band deserves the respect and recognition of any other similar band worldwide that has largely eluded them for the last three and a half decades. I mean, everyone's got their personal cache of bands that are criminally overlooked; as if said music is some sort of unknown strain of new drug that few other people have access to. It's always a bit of a risk to say that certain bands should have been bigger, seeing as the years go on, the music usually starts to lose context as other bands adopt and adapt the sound in a more relevant way to the current scene and sounds.
The daunting task that I faced was trying to offer reasoning as to why the band's name just never filtered out of the scene, like it was some sort of unofficial blacklisting. I wasn't there, so I can't comment on what exactly went down, but hindsight can offer much clearer reasoning . And considering that author Chris Walters had already written an excellent book on the band, Warm Beer and Wild Times in 2008 (highly recommended), I have to offer something that goes beyond that in terms of context. So, with all that touring and getting out there, why did the band never make it onto bills with similar bands and bigger bands? Why did the social aspect of the behind the scenes activities never coalesce with bigger and better things onstage, as well as things that would have furthered the band's career? You'd think that in their lifespan from 1979 to 1984 that they would have caught on more, even in obscurist music circles.
While I admit that Iím too young to have seen them, Personality Crisis always seem to be held up in amazing regard by those that were there when the band were in their prime. The recordings (and, sadly, what scant few of them there are in PC's lifespan) are great no doubt, but indeed as YouTube footage would suggest, the band were really outstanding in the live domain. Punk, more so than any other genre of the time, seemed to suffer from the "great live band with so-so albums" disease--in this case, more from the production end of things, rather than the actual music/songs. The producers and technical people that were available on a budget in recording studios at the time just often didn't understand where these types of bands were coming from or what they were after sonically. Live, singer Mitch Funk is all over the stage, interacting with fellow band members and pacing maniacally back and forth, usually engaging and acknowledging the audience; guitarists Rich Duguay and Jimmy Green are riffing endlessly; bassist Duane "Eddy" Froslev somehow channels Lemmy's "bass guitar player with a guitarist's mentality" through his Rickenbacker bass; drummer Jon Card is tying everything together with complicated tasteful fills and tom tom breakdowns. In fairness though, it's pretty difficult to capture that energy and physical prowess in the grooves of a record, even for the most well-intentioned of technical people in a studio.
For a punk band, PC was astoundingly, mind-bogglingly tight. Their skill and attention to detail sadly, went overlooked by many less open-minded rock music fans, simply because of the ferocity and pace that the music was delivered at. And the advanced skill level meant that they could play at insanely fast tempos, but their attention to detail with songwriting and song structure meant that they also had style within that speed as well. I never get the idea that PC's speed was just for speed's sake, rather that they were innovating a new take on old rock 'n' roll conventions. Compare the Creatures For Awhile album with Husker Du's Land Speed Record and there's no comparison. Grant Hart has since lamented the fact that he'd never found a voice within that hardcore medium, while PC's material still has a classic song structure, with guitar solos and discernible lyrics in a 80's hardcore via protopunk delivery amidst the assault.
The problem is that when you're too good, sometimes it creates a problem- you need to get yourself onto bills with bigger and more well known bands, but if you upstage the headlining band, sometimes egos get in the way. Friendly competition often elevates bands to strive to be better than they ordinarily would be. I laugh when I read about John Armstrong's (from Canadian punk band Modernettes) stories in the book Guilty Of Everything , wherein he details how he took the fuses out of (legendary San Francisco band) Crime's guitar amps. There certainly was competition and some sabotage within the scene back then.
And of course, poor/non-existent management was a problem-PC couldn't find anyone of merit to help them book shows. They often just drove from town to town, seeing what was available. Another band cancelling a show at the last minute was a prime opportunity for the band. Sometimes shady promoters would renege on their promises, and/or venues that were promised to them didn't even exist. These were the only types of resources that existed for punk bands back then, and it reminds me of what it must have been like in the '30's and '40's, when blues and rural country artists tried to offer their talents in non-localized areas: it really was a shot in the dark. Basically, all you had was word of mouth and a verbal agreement, and any contract or tour guarantee was obviously only as good as the paper that it was signed on. Sometimes PC was booked on wishful thinking on the part of overly enthusiastic fans that wanted to see the band. The "accommodations" that you were promised could very well be a tent in the back of someone's parents' yard. But if you didn't get paid, it meant that you didn't have gas money to get to the next town. And if someone didn't pay you for a show, no matter if you kicked their ass and taught them a lesson for doing so, you still weren't getting paid.
Compounding the issues even further, was that at a dead gig in the middle of nowhere, the band itself knew that there was no money made at the door that night. As such, PC didn't have their first full length available until 1983 (Creatures For Awhile) which was well into their existence and long overdue by that point. Merch-wise, you can't sell what you do not have. One could only wonder how many more copies that the band could have sold over the course of their short career if they had actually had something to spread the gospel on record players to potential new converts at a party when they weren't touring those areas. Their deal with Risky Records was aptly titled- Mike Barbeau was supposed to be their manager and record label honcho, but he was good at neither job, so the band suffered. In terms of promos, labels usually do that with underground and cult level magazines for reviews and interview purposes. But this in this, forget it... PC didn't have any of that done for them.
There are some parallels in PC's career to Black Flag- one is that they both had to re-establish punk rock in the early 80's, amidst the trend dying off to all but the most dedicated following of people that cared to venture past the Sex Pistols and Ramones in a less mainstream definition of punk. Some of the sub-strains of punk (post punk, hardcore, straight edge, etc.) left the punk scene fractured, as bands sought out to define their own brand of music that catered to a more specific, localized demographic that had better reflected their own surroundings and values. As great as that was on one hand, on the other hand, there was less crossover between bands and scenes. I think that was bound to happen, when even the mission statement between The Sex Pistols and Clash were divided--one was out to shock and to fizzle out while the other was out to enlighten and empower as they went on in their more lengthy career. Even then, fans--especially those that formed bands--realized that they'd found a line in the sand that wasn't going to be crossed. You had to choose one or the other, not both. For many bands and fans of the punk movement, it was about having something different to say than the other scenes.
Another comparison between PC and Black Flag is that touring across North America left almost no time in one's life for anything other than the band (practicing, playing and getting to and from shows), giving the music a validity in the process by living hand to mouth. Your life was basically the band, and you played it as you lived it and vice versa. Also, both bands had a very aggressive take on some classic rock and metal elements (lots of guitar soloing, emphasis on skill and variation in the drums and bass playing for more than just straight-ahead 4/4 bashing, etc.). As it was, PC practiced anywhere from 8-12 hours a day, which was far more than most bands, even outside of punk.
The classic rock and metal elements that both bands had were too progressive and showy for some punk scenes that wished that the '77 styled punk would live on forever. In many ways, both bands became their own insular movement, as it was them against everyone else. There were supporters, but there were also many detractors- people that genuinely didn't like what those bands had to offer, musically, but also those that were secretly envious of anyone else that were doing anything different and exciting. For example, if drummer Jon Card had played for Black Flag or another more well-known band, he would likely be known as a "Keith Moon of punk" sort--aggressive enough to hit the drums hard, but with enough finesse in that some of the more complicated breakdowns and rhythmic variations would become more metallic. In some ways, he could have been in an outright metal band like Iron Maiden or NWOBHM band (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) or any of the punk/metal crossover acts that were becoming more prevalent around '83-'84 as hardcore transitioned away from the steadfast rules that it once had abided by. There is simply no way that you ever replace a drummer like Card, and he knew that when he'd seen PC in Calgary, that was the band for him. He'd moved from Calgary to Winnipeg, loaded up his Mustang, and joined the PC crew. Through PC's origins in the band Le Kille, it's clear that the "classic lineup" is as such for a reason, with Card in the ranks.
Both Black Flag and PC had to really break down a lot of barriers, too, by playing a lot of venues that would take risks- booking bands on slower days or just being more open minded in the scope of acts that they'd book. Many people forget that CBGB's took on the Ramones and other fringe acts on off nights that had nowhere else to play there.
But that's about where the comparisons between the two bands end. And in regards of what Iím about to say, Iím in no way saying that Black Flag had it easy. Far from it. They had extreme difficulties and poverty and tough times of their own, and their record deal/lawsuit with Unicorn/MCA had stunted some of their progress. However, to illustrate how much more difficult Personality Crisis had it, I have to mention the following things. The differences are that Black Flag were based out of a large urban environment, and had the West Coast network of venues to play that weren't that far away. The Mabuhay Gardens, for example, was a venue that likeminded bands came from far and wide to play. PC were based out of a small and conservative market and had to drive 8 hours to reach the closest major U.S. cities in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Even though Black Flag maintain that they didn't condone the violence and fan madness that had followed them to and from gigs, it was, nevertheless, great publicity for them. The cops following your band and disapproving of the music and culture as being "anti-authority," that's about as good as a sales tool as you can hope to get as a band in that position at that point. Plus, Greg Ginn knew some things about business (SST Electronics) and running a record label and how to get the music out there. PC had nobody in the band like that. On other fronts, PC has their own belief that Maximum Rock n' Roll and founder Tim Yohannon--who had major influence over what punks did or didn't pay attention to--didn't pay any particular regard to PC, because they didn't have any beef with Reagan or anti-governmental messages in their songs. For PC, it was about partying and living the nomadic lifestyle of what each new city and meeting new people would bring them.
Between that and the fact that punk was still a tough sell in many out of the way markets, any band that toured as hard as PC did, was bound to run into major financial problems. The limited and underground/cult/outsider appeal of the punk lifestyle meant that venues, bands and bills were comparatively more difficult to come by than other more mainstream bands and scenes. By the time that PC had really hit their stride from '82-'84, many punk bands had already transitioned away from punk rock and had mutated into more palatable forms of selling and making a living by playing music. Stiv Bators' (Dead Boys) and Brian James' (Damned) Lords of the New Church come to mind with their gothic post punk. Some bands in the 80's incorporated punk successfully into a hard rock setting-The Cult grew out of their goth/post-punk phase of Southern Death Cult/ Death Cult, culminating in the streamlined hard rock approach of Electric and Sonic Temple (which was the point where they'd lost many early punk/ outsider music fans). Billy Idol reconfigured his Generation X time into a more anthemic hard rock approach, and his spiked blonde hair somehow was rebellious enough but with enough crossover appeal into the rock realm, in terms of image. And Guns N' Roses (a band that truly came from the streets and were disaffected youth, living on the skids and coming from broken homes) came out with Appetite For Destruction; a collision of punk influences mixed with '70's hard rock bombast. The lived-in CBGB's shirts and torn attire was authentic-that's who they were. Ironically, Personality Crisis had made a friend in Duff McKagan in the early '80's, when they'd played Seattle and the surrounding West Coast area; Rich Duguay eventually contributing lead guitar on GNR's cover of Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" (from 1993ís The Spaghetti Incident?) and Duguay also being a part of McKagan's short lived and less successful solo band.
Image-wise, PC didn't fit in. Mitch wore intentionally bad polyester shirts bought at thrift shops, and Jimmy and Rich were sporting a low budget Johnny Thunders glam look and longer hair, with eyeliner and fashionably messy hair. Jimmy and Rich had also played Gibson guitars; a Les Paul in Rich's case and an Explorer in Jimmy's case. Few people in any band that weren't metal were playing the pointy Explorers, then or even now. Duane had played bass higher up on his body; in stark contrast to the low slung, much cooler look of an instrument hanging and being played down lower. Jon played a bigger drum kit; by the looks of it, he--at one point (or at all points?)--had a china crash cymbal in his setup. Basically, the bigger the kit, the more uncool it starts to get in many players' eyes- china crash cymbals and things like splash cymbals typify the metal scene and much-maligned prog movement, and in punk rock, that's a big no-no. Leaning too much towards metal is a shade or two too close to longhair thrash "banger" music. Honourable mention goes to guitarist Walter Kot, who'd been in the band from 1979 to 1982, and who'd also toured incessantly with the band. With his "spirit dance" (an out of control jig that came from truly being caught up in the energy of the thrill of playing live) to his soldier boy outfit, he'd fit the band's oddball image perfectly.
The touring resources were dwindling at that time for bands that were still playing lightning fast three chord rebellion. It seemed like when the band deviated from the West Coast into the Midwest or Central areas of the U.S., they'd ran into a large section of the continent where it became obvious why bands like Dead Boys had to move out of Cleveland and ply their trade in bigger, more urban cities. Even in Canada, when PC toured places like Calgary, the cowboy/country oriented urban populace just didn't quite get the music. And even in Winnipeg, only the Marion Hotel in the band's early days would host punk bands, and a little while later, Wellington's started putting on punk shows. The Royal Albert Arms (a well-known Canadian punk/alternative/metal/outsider music venue which is now closed) didn't start putting on punk shows until PC was starting to wind it down as a band.
Punk, at least the way that I see it, mostly comes from large urban environments where there is a large enough population of youth that are disenfranchised with the popular culture and popular opinion/direction of their surroundings. It has never really predominantly been a form of rural environments, in much of the same reasoning why rural music (country, bluegrass, etc.) doesn't necessarily connect as well with urban audiences. On the Canadian prairies, for the most part, it is a rural environment; a difficult place to base oneself by playing outsider music. In Winnipeg, though we have an inner city that is rougher than the suburbs, we don't have endless blocks and stretches of the city that are enveloped by the dire poverty that you see in New York and Los Angeles, so perhaps the legitimacy for playing outsider music isn't as "legitimate" as that of a much bigger city. But even if it is just subliminally, I think that the mindset is there in that to really be "punk" (in some circles), that you have to really come from squalor and true disenfranchisement. There certainly is the unfortunate self-defeating bias that exists that one cannot be a "true" punk band if you make a career out of it. In some even more extreme circles, even putting out recordings constitutes "sell out," because the music has then become a product.
But punk was also initially created also out of youthful boredom, and although this city of Winnipeg has its merits and many good things going for it, it's far enough from any major parts of the world in that it's insulated pretty much from everything else and everywhere else. You have to create your own entertainment and create your own thing, because even many of the major touring bands altogether skip Winnipeg and Central Canada and play Toronto/Montreal out east and play Vancouver when they're touring up the West Coast. Boredom is a given, especially when winter kicks in and makes outdoor activities something only for the brave and few when it is minus 30 outside for many months of the year.
Then again, even if PC were from New York in the late '70's, it's unclear as to how well they would have caught on. The Dictators and Testors employed a similarly fast and aggressive approach to punk rock (good songwriting/melodies, classic rock elements, big guitar solos), played with surprising skill and without the sloppiness that is often seen in punk bands. Actually, Sonny Vincent and Mitch Funk share a fairly similar baritone, husky vocal tonality. Both the Dictators and Testors were also basically entirely omitted from the book Please Kill Me, which detailed the NYC punk scene in the late 70's, exemplifying what happens when you're the odd band out.
That isolation from other places geographically is likely why PC doesn't get the recognition that they deserve. In Canada, itís Ontario (Forgotten Rebels) and Vancouver (DOA, Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, etc.) that get a better rating historically, most likely because they're from markets with more people and a more overall salability. That being said, even those bands--although they are respected by many people--seem to lose out to New York punk and the British punk scene. I must point out that for a Canadian band, the necessity to play outside of Canada is crucial to any band that tours or releases records with any frequency, simply because there is not the population here that the U.S. has. The drives between cities are excruciatingly long, and if you play the same venues and types of bills (which is inevitable in any scene or town, period, let alone a scene that is comparatively more limited in the punk circle) you run the risk of oversaturation. After a while, there's simply nothing new enough to really draw people out. After awhile, it was a given that in places like Edmonton, you'd have a bill with PC and SNFU, and as good as that is, eventually some people wish for more diversity or lack of expectation.
Another scene that PC would be unwelcome in was the straight edge DC punk scene. As PC were out for a good time, which involved beer and drugs (addiction eventually hit Rich Duguay hard in particular), obviously that was a no-no for the straight edge scene. Minor Threat at least had an angle that made for good press and some sort of interest (even if it was from people that didn't agree with their lifestyle views) in that they had the (for the time and even somewhat now, though less so) odd distinction of being anti-drugs and alcohol. PC did mirror the New York Dolls (the band for which they take their name from) in that the good times atmosphere started to take over the music at points in the band's lifespan, but then again, many a band has been a casualty to the offstage excesses that music and touring brings.
The band that most exemplifies exactly what Personality Crisis started in a somewhat recent domain (i.e. last 10-20 years) is the New Bomb Turks- everything delivered at a million miles an hour, with proto-punk influences, hardcore intensity and rock 'n' roll swagger. The NBT's never really fit into the punk scene, either- they spent a little time on the esteemed Epitaph label, but never really fit in there with the skatepunk and more modernized punk/hardcore/screamo bands. They fit in much better, later on, on the Gearhead label, surrounded by similar-sounding party rock punk 'n' roll bands. It's too bad that Crypt Records, Junk Records and Gearhead weren't around in 1982 to get PC's music out there, because the band would have fit right in on those labels and with those rosters of similar minded bands.
The band fizzled out in 1984; their energy completely spent on the rigors of being dead broke on the road, as well as tiring of living essentially out of a suitcase and then coming back to Winnipeg, jobless and hungry. Mitch resumed his job as an orderly at St. Boniface Hospital, though having quit and being re-hired meant that he'd lost his seniority. As an orderly, that involves some very unenviable work. He'd then gone on to form Honest John, with members of the similarly reputed but sadly overlooked Stretch Marks; all members having shared an interest in just creating a fun, basically local (i.e. little/ no touring) band. Other members of the band and ex-members had done various things, but for brevity's sake in an article, only Rich Duguay had really got any worldwide reputation with the aforementioned G n' R and Duff McKagan connection. Even though members of the band hadn't really pursued that sort of goal after PC, and though they were in bands that they'd liked, none of them had really found that magical connection after PC. It was a once in a lifetime sort of thing, to find that band that you really click with.
Though the band had realized that they were worn out by the incessant poverty that came with playing and touring their version of punk music, the nods to '50's/í60's three chord rock n' roll and protopunk bands made their sound unique both then and today. And if you have one of the original copies of Creatures For Awhile in mint condition, hang onto it- it's worth a good chunk of money now, but it will undoubtedly keep on increasing in value, due to the scarcity of it. And, maybe due to a little more interest in the band.
Information sources: Chris Walters and Personality Crisis: Warm Beer and Wild Times , published in 2008
Creatures for Awhile LP, Risky Records (1983)
Creatures for Awhile reissue LP, Overground Records (1989)
"Twilight's Last Gleaming"/"The Jam" 7," Overground Records (1990)
Creatures for Awhile reissue LP, War On Music (2008)
"Burning Rain," "Sundays," "On The Sidewalk Bleeding" (1981)
"Wonder What They're Thinking," "Waiting," "Shotgun," "Empty Sky," "Losing Time" (1981)
"Wonder What They're Thinking," "Waiting," "Shotgun" on Charred Remains compilation (1981)
"Piss On You" on Something to Believe In compilation, BYO Records (1984)
"Case History" on Rat Music for Rat People, Vol. 2, CD Presents (1984)
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