Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk Sam McPheeters
Years ago when I lived in Philadelphia in the first of many punk houses, I spent every morning before class sitting in the freezing kitchen, drinking black coffee from the percolator, and reading my way through Mike Azzerad’s Our Band Could be Your Life. As I leafed through the chapters about bands I loved—Minutemen, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi—I would forget how cold I was, transported by the possibility of other lives. Even the chapters on bands I wasn’t that interested in, like Butthole Surfers and Big Black, were diverting and funny enough to hold my interest. I immediately understood why the book was such a classic, because it accomplished exactly what it promised to do: produce the feverish haze that makes you want to drop everything and start a band.
Although I’d loved punk since 13 or so, this was my first experience reading musical criticism and oral history that focused on what punk meant, on the political, artistic, and cultural movements that created my favorite bands. The music stands on its own, but once you learn about the Minutemen’s philosophy behind making art, you arrive at a whole new understanding of the band. Moreover, by juxtaposing all the stories together, Azzerad clearly shows us the overlaps between the different scenes. Our Band Could Be Your Life quickly became one of my all-time favorite books.
I haven’t felt this strongly about another music book until I read Sam McPheeters’ Mutations. McPheeters is probably best known as the vocalist of Born Against and the owner of the record label Vermiform. He was also an MRR columnist, and MRR and Tim Yohannan are all over these pages. McPheeters does a great job of capturing the magic of volunteering for MRR and exploring the record collection, and also gives a thoughtful overview of some of the controversies and critiques of the magazine. In one poignant moment, he and Aaron Cometbus confess their separate plans to save print MRR (a little late, though maybe they’ll like the website).
I don’t listen to Born Against much, but it’s not super necessary to be familiar with McPheeters’ musical work in order to enjoy this book. The book is less about his bands and more about the bands that inspired him. He sets out to take us through all the unique phases of the music world he’s experienced, from riot grrrl fights to playing a fake punk for a music video. Ostensibly, he’s most interested in what he calls “hardcore” and what Aaron Cometbus calls “underground music,” although terms get fuzzy as the book progresses. I would say it’s a book about punk, with most bands fitting more into the hardcore genre but some (like the Flying Lizards and the Gossip) not fitting anywhere at all.
The chapters are short and sweet snapshots into different genres and time periods. McPheeters manages to approach even the most misanthropic and belligerent subjects with compassion and genuine curiosity. His writing voice is a mix of Al Burian, Cometbus, and Steve Albini—self-deprecating and sarcastic but always with an underlying interest in other people. There is significantly more diversity (in terms of gender, race, and sexuality) in Mutations than in Our Band Could be Your Life, and McPheeters goes out of his way to highlight things like the homoeroticism of the hardcore scene, the strangeness of athletic straight men taking their clothes off and basking together in their youthful, sweaty glow.
Early on, McPheeters establishes a mascot of his preferred type of hardcore through what he calls “Parachute Meat Person.” Parachute Meat Person is the caption on a grotesque photo of sausage stuffed into a parachute that he saw as a child in a newspaper photo spread on punk. Parachute Meat Person embodies what he believes hardcore punk music will sound like as a child: “the quick glimpses of chaos reminded me of all the violently abstract nightmares from the dawn of my consciousness. I assumed actual punk records would do the same.” He’s understandably disappointed then, when he listens to a Sex Pistols album and finds that it’s mostly just ordinary rock’n’roll. But this sparks a quest to find the real music that will capture his deepest horrors. He is looking for soundtracks to the apocalypse, songs that will transport him straight into the heart of an inferno. He finds it in bands like Die Kreuzen, the Crucifucks (or as they were known on fliers, The Christmas Folks), Discharge, and my all-time favorite, No Trend. He examines all of these bands in depth to figure out why they resonate, and along the way he meets like-minded people also searching for their own Parachute Meat Person.
Mutations is very personal, and McPheeters isn’t afraid to make fun of himself or discuss his mistakes. He describes at one point how he received an unexpected trust fund and in a short span of time, after funding the record label and paying his friends’ rent, lost it all. This kind of admission is rare to non-existent in hardcore memoirs, and the lack of posturing is refreshing. There’s also a great chapter on punksploitation and the famous LA punk club The Smell, a sort of rock-bottom for McPheeters where he agrees to play an 80s punk extra for a music video. He writes, “At some point I slipped into a Frankenstein dance… I think I was on the verge of a stroke at that point, I’m not sure. I do know that I wasn’t very happy with the way my life was going at that moment.” The layers at work here are fascinating: the actual punk club with fake graffiti and hired fake punks plus one real punk trying to imitate a real punk club.
But Mutations isn’t without some misfires. There’s a particularly bizarre chapter entitled “Please Don’t Stop the Muzak,” in which McPheeters denounces radio pop in favor of muzak, and verges on becoming the finger-wagging old man telling kids to get off his lawn. In order to make his point he revives tired rhetoric about “entitled Millennials,” stopping just short of the avocado toast:
Millennials…you lead custom-tailored lives, from your social media feeds to the fancy drinks you expect your barista to get right day after day. You’ve grown up with the accumulated knowledge of humanity literally at your fingertips. You’re the first generation since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution without actionable levels of lead in your bloodstream. You should be far smarter than all of us who came before.
He also spouts some questionable opinions, such as when he refers to the Misfits as more of a clothing brand than a band (all I’m saying is “We are 138” has the same chord progression as “Teenage Kicks” and was recorded a few months before, he doesn’t at least find that interesting?).
But these are just minor quibbles with an otherwise wonderful book. Mutations is an essential addition to the hardcore punk canon that raises important questions about what it means to define yourself in a community that is equal parts abrasive and loving. Our band could be your life, sure.
But our Parachute Meat Person could be your nightmare.
P.S. In case you do become horrified reading about the violent exploits of various bands, it might be helpful to know the cover glows in the dark.