During the 1980s, streaking across the musical horizons ripped open by punk rock, there was an underground surge of sounds influenced by the sixties. Long-dormant genres of psychedelic, folk and jangle once again filled the air and had new life breathed into them. In some places, like Los Angeles with its Paisley Underground, well-defined scenes sprang up. Most everywhere else, however, these retro-inspired bands operated in relative isolation. And lurking in the shadows and alleyways of it all was a creature much more subversive and wild than the rest, a new strain of garage rock. Boston had the Lyres, Portland had the Miracle Workers, Pittsburgh had the Cynics … and all of these bands shared a common ethos. Worshipping at the altars of the early Kinks, the Sonics, the Standells, “Louie, Louie,” so-easy-anyone-could-do-it simplicity and screaming volume, these bands were sixties-sounding, but reborn with a punk heart. Three chords, fuzz guitars, Farfisa organs, plenty of snarl and a penchant for mixing long-lost nuggets from the golden age of garage with attitude-laced originals were the order of the day. Coming in at the tail end of this movement was one of Norfolk’s own, the M-80’s. I was first introduced to the M-80’s when a friend loaned me one of their 45s, “You’ve Been Told” backed with “What I’m After.” It was the B-side that got me. Placing it on my turntable, the next couple of minutes found me in jaw-dropping awe of this band. The vocals were gritty and passionate, the singer moving seamlessly between a croon and a growl and a shout, and the guitar smoldered. The song itself was a slow, sinister crawl, ripe with tension, and threatened to explode at any moment. That explosion came at the end, in a burst of harmonica, bringing everything to its logical conclusion. The sense of control the band displayed throughout, while still oozing all the righteous abandon you’d expect from garage, was incredible. And the warm crackling of the needle-on-groove only added to its authenticity. This was what rock n’ roll, what living, was all about. It was perfect. Like every band in Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets pantheon, if the M-80’s had never created anything else, “What I’m After” would stand forever as a monument for the ages.
The M-80’s all-too-brief existence straddled a certain moment in time, during the late eighties and early nineties, just before the college rock scene and all its rich diversity got blown away by the enormity of grunge. And more than just a one-song wonder, the band went on to become legendary around these parts. While those years in Norfolk, with a thriving local scene and a steady diet of shows played at now-defunct venues like the King’s Head and Friar Tuck’s, are fondly remembered in general, the intensity of the M-80’s live shows in particular, and their commitment to playing no holds-barred rock n’ roll, have become the stuff of lore. People still talk about them to this day. For the rest of us, for those who never had an opportunity to see them live, all we have are the recordings. And through these recordings the music does live on. The library, in fact, has a self-titled collection of songs by the M-80’s. Of course one should know this isn’t exactly music for the tea-totaling crowd.
The screamin’ and shoutin’ that lead off the first couple of songs are sure to scare off the faint of heart, and that’s probably how the band wanted it. If you can hang in there, though, the rewards are plenty. The choice of covers alone – the Pretty Things’ “Rosalyn,” Q65’s “I Got Nightmares,” the Blues Magoos’ “Gotta Get Away” – will tell you volumes about what to expect. A killer cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It,” with singer Eddie Pierce sounding eerily like David Johansen, also graces this collection, and will have you believing you’ve discovered a forgotten gem by the New York Dolls. And even with all the ruckus going on, there are quiet moments, too. The final track, “Spiderwebs (Song for Anna)” is as introspective a tune as you’ll ever find, and is downright country-ish a la the Sticky Fingers- and Exile-era Stones. Sadly, “What I’m After” isn’t on this disc, and while it might be sacrilegious to say, I’m not sure anything else they recorded can quite touch the pinnacle they reached with that song. But that’s a personal opinion, and it certainly isn’t a swipe at anything else this band achieved. If garage rock is up your alley, you’re a rock ‘n roll traditionalist who likes your music in a pure, unadulterated state or you just want a taste of the old Norfolk scene, give these guys a listen. You’ll be glad you did.