Perfect Sound Forever

SIN 34

Not Your Father's Hardcore Punk
By Kurt Wildermuth
(June 2020)

For a while in the mid-1980's, Phoebe and I were friends. Just friends. Part of why I was perfectly happy with just friendship was Phoebe's physical appearance (bear with me here), which would have made us a hilarious mismatch. Phoebe was one of the smallest people I've ever known, and I don't mean just short. She was an ultra-tiny Asian woman, and perhaps to make up for that physical diminutiveness she was the most "hardcore punk"-looking person I've ever known--from her spiked hair down to her combat boots, the kind of "perfect type" that cartoonists often render. These days, fashionistas don similar uniforms, but back then the style was seen as more than a look, especially if you were rocking it on suburban Long Island. It seemed to represent a lifestyle choice. Then again, one of the other most "hardcore punk"-looking people I've ever known joined the family business in Manhattan's diamond district, so appearances may be deceiving.

Speaking of which: Lou Reed and I might have shared little beyond a Long Island upbringing and a love of rock and roll, but at that time, I looked just like him on the cover art of New Sensations (1984). I didn't look hardcore or even punk, but I loved the spirit and much of the music, which Phoebe and I talked about sometimes. So I was surprised and disappointed when she admitted not liking the California hardcore band Sin 34. "Girls shouldn't sing hardcore," she explained.

That statement was so not punk rock. But wearing a uniform, even a hardcore punk one, indicates a propensity for the doctrinaire. That was always the position of the Dead Kennedys' original singer, Jello Biafra, and he'd know better than I would. "Nazi punks fuck off!" as the Dead Kennedys once put it. Phoebe didn't appear to be a fascist, but for her, even lousy hardcore bands with male vocalists, such the Beastie Boys on their first EP (1982), fit the bill. Sin 34, with a singer named Julie, didn't.

I'd encountered such sexism before. My high school punk rock friend, Dave, once said he couldn't accept Joan Jett as a bandleader "because she doesn't have a penis." I'm not making this up. Then again, he went on to attend an Ivy League university, which was so not punk rock.

My friends' attitudes possibly help explain Sin 34's name, which in a mirror would appear as, roughly, "PE niS." That's the explanation I heard at the time, though according to Wikipedia, "SIN 34 was named from the Los Angeles UHF television station Spanish International Network, channel 34." Maybe both explanations are true, if the station's abbreviated name were seen in a mirror.

Anyway, punk bands and audiences had always included women. Julie's forerunners included Patti Smith (punk at least in spirit), Joan Jett (totally punk in spirit), Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), the Slits, Gaye Advert (the Adverts), Siousxie Sioux, Exene Cervenka (of X).

By 1983, though, when Sin 34 released their one album, Do You Feel Safe?, hardcore had become the leading edge of punk, and it was decidedly a boys' club. Punks hadn't formed an organization and posted a sign saying "No Females Allowed." Instead, they embraced the aggression of thrash music as a revivification of punk after the ascendance of new wave and goth and other less straightforward variations on what ultimately added up to "alternative." For some of Ye Older Punks, the music was still supposed to sound like 1977's versions. For those wanting something newer, hardcore took a propulsive sound that had happened sporadically in previous decades, such as on certain whacked-out garage-rock singles or in the rhythmically challenged middle of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" or on Iggy and the Stooges' ferocious "I Got a Right," and fueled it like a vehicle in a Mad Max movie. The idea was to make a rhythm so fast and furious that the musicians could barely keep up with it, leading to an off-kilter, herky-jerky race to the finish. To match the musical style, singing became shouting and dancing turned into slamming.

All that expressive anger, often coupled with horror at rightwing politics (primarily Margaret Thatcher's U.K. prime ministry and Ronald Reagan's U.S. presidency), called to young men more than to young women. And the inherent violence could be intimidating for anyone. Forward-thinking, multitalented bands such as Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, and Black Flag established themselves as hardcore, and then, with good reason, threw off that straightjacket.

So what can a skateboarding punk rocker named Julie do in the midst of a male-dominated, violence-driven scene? Why, front a band and damn the torpedoes, plus whatever other projectiles came her way!

For its couple years of existence, Sin 34's stable lineup consisted of Julie "Jules" Lanfeld on vocals, Mike Glass on guitar, Phil Newman on bass, and Dave Markey on drums. They were kids playing around. The playfulness of their album, all 23 minutes of it, is signaled by the names of its two sides: Side 1 and Side A. It is the only record I'm aware of that has a smiley face on the label of one side, with a hole where the nose should be, so the turntable's spindle sticks straight up and becomes the nose. Fun!

A lot of '80s hardcore was similar-enough-sounding to be called "cookie cutter." On Do You Feel Safe?, Sin 34 avoids that trap by applying an unusual, creative touch to each song, even if the difference is just rhythmic variation within the song. For example, the title track is a masterly jumble of rhythms that, after a slow warm-up, never loses touch with its thrash heart. "After You" opens with mysterious microphone mumbling, with Julie sounding disoriented, before blasting into a rant. "War at Home" devotes the first 15 seconds of its 1:35 to a spoken-word introduction about the Smith family: "They were a happy family who lived a quiet suburban life.... Now the kids are punk rockers, and for the Smith family, that's a big problem." "Two Words" alternates shouts of "I'm sorry" with complaints about the person who's always having to apologize for making life difficult. "Nothin' Makes Sense" has a smeary guitar solo and subtle use of cowbell. Most impressive, then and now, is the recasting of Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge" as hardcore, sort of like Devo's recasting of the Stones' "Satisfaction" as jittery new wave.

Things get even weirder on "Barbie and Ken," 1:17 of doll porn with heavy breathing, as Julie and Phil trade "vocals." "New Wave Slut" alternates noises of the band shouting out phrases with noises of the band goofing around on their instruments. This experimental mixture consists of a little free jazz, a little juvenile comedy, a little punk rock, maybe a dash of the Beatles' "Revolution 9." It's hardly great music, but it enlivens what could otherwise be a repetitive listen.

Elsewhere, Julie delivers the kind of pronouncements and advice that hardcore bands loved to dish out. "Power's in the hands of a few / Any religion / Any government // Face truth / Face life / Face up to your reality." "We don't want to give in." "Never forgive / And never forget" (in regard to a bully). "We're all taught in the same way / We all learn what to say... Too much work / And not enough beer."

In the midst of this mild agitprop are a couple of true-life tales. "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" draws from '60's phraseology--they were a California band, after all--in a monologue from a drug dealer exploiting a young customer. "Left Waiting" is a sensitive address from a young person to an absent father: "You're a part of me I'll probably never know."

The band could play, even if they weren't inclined to play the way fans of classic rock would understand. The Allman Bros., they ain't. "Say We Suck" may be their anthem: "Say we suck / Who cares? / Don't need you / So what?... If you don't like us / That's okay / This is something / We like to play / No rock star attitudes / Petty jealousy / Is what it boils down to." If they were also responding to sexism and misogyny, they never make that explicit. Julie holds her own as a hardcore punk frontperson and doesn't make an issue of her gender. She simply serves the songs.

If you like punk rock and especially vintage hardcore, Do You Feel Safe? will make you smile and even laugh out loud. Hell, you might even be inclined to tap your foot or move around. If you don't like punk rock or especially vintage hardcore, you might be inclined to move away from wherever the music's playing and wonder why anyone would like this.

The original album reportedly sold 2,500-3,000 copies. In 2014, it was reissued with three additional tracks, which don't expand the band's aesthetic but do add three and a half minutes to the running time. Further testament to the band's legacy is that the long-running California punk band NOFX covered "Say We Suck" in 2011.

On YouTube, there's a video of an excellent 2008 reunion show. "With all the original members," Julie announces proudly. The comments note that she died in 2018, and Wikipedia reports that Phil died in 2015.

"RIP Julie," one YouTuber writes. "Always to be remembered as that ballsy punk chick that wasn't afraid to play with the big boys." I wouldn't have put it that way, especially in equating balls with potency ("big boys" might simply refer to high-profile bands). But in the spirit of punk rock inclusiveness, I raise a beer and say 'amen.'

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER