The Germs – (MIA) The Complete Anthology

There’s a certain perfect irony about the fact that, upon opening my vinyl copy of The Germs’ (MIA) reissue [yes, The Germs’ single best-known album has been reissued during a pandemic – I know that’s ironic too –ed], I found that the sticker on the C-side of the album was mangled and torn in a manner which, while it was recognizable, rendered it damaged and unsightly [in spite of the damage, the vinyl itself played fine –ed]. From the outside looking in, the most that any critic could say is that such damage is unfortunate but, for anyone familiar with the L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s and early Eighties, saying that a Germs album arrived superficially damaged is actually a flawless and pertinent comment on both the band itself and the music they made; formed in 1976 (when the bandmembers were between seventeen and eighteen years old), the band’s debut full-length album, (GI), emerged in 1979 and earnestly sought to illustrate both who and what the band was, as well as how clearly and obviously they deserved to appear on the same level as “dangerous” punks like the Sex Pistols in the UK and The Ramones in New York. The Germs built a reputation for leaving a lot of damage in their wake and, in just three years, had been banned from playing most of the venues they tried to get booked into (which is actually where the title of their first album came from – (GI) stood for “Germs Incognito” and was the moniker to which they resorted in order to book shows). Of course, such consistent disturbance drew the interest and attention of plenty of interested parties (some punks as well as some concerned parents), and singer Darby Crash took to the attention, happily. His choices (and drug intake) refocused interest and concern and, when the band was somehow signed to Slash records, the plan was to get the band into the studio (and away from the toxic people who were feeding the singer’s drug habit) as quickly as possible.

Legend has it, The Germs wanted to get Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere and The Raiders to produce their album, but he was out of their price range. Instead, Joan Jett agreed to produce the album and so (GI) was made and released in October, 1979. Darby Crash would die just fourteen months later by intentionally overdosing on heroin, and so the band’s story ended – except it didn’t. A trickle of small releases bearing The Germs’ name would aerate out on the public, over time, and in 1993 Germs guitarist Pat Smear joined Nirvana as the band’s second guitarist – which reignited interest in The Germs. That interest inspired the release of (MIA): The Complete Anthology in 1993 on Slash/Rhino Records, and so the legend of The Germs was renewed. Since its original release, (MIA) has proven to be the album which has been easiest to find (which is to say, interested parties have been able to find it at all – in larger record stores), and the greatest upholder of the band’s legend and banner. Now, in 2020, (MIA) has been released on vinyl for the very first time as a 2LP set (one 12” black platter, and one 12” blue platter – to match the color scheme on the album’s cover) on Porterhouse Records – and the release is absolutely, positively phenomenal.

As soon as needle sinks into vinyl on the A-side of (MIA), Pat Smear’s lean and scrappy guitar and Darby Crash’s deliberately (and intentionally) incoherent, abrasive vocal tone make the introduction of “What We Do Is Secret” feel raw, unfiltered and almost unrehearsed. For forty-two seconds (the complete length of that first cut), The Germs immediately present themselves as the next evolution in punk; the speed that wowed punks when they were introduced to The Ramones has been refined and increased(the song is forty-three seconds long but, in listening, it doesn’t feel that short) and the bile/vitriol presented by the Sex Pistols has been magnified and further distorted by Darby Crash’s vocals as well as the pounding rhythm put forth by bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Don Bolles. In effect, in just forty-three seconds, The Germs establish themselves as the new face of the new big national scene in punk (from a stereotypical sound and demeanor standpoint – there were other punk bands with albums out in L.A. in 1979).

Leaving no time to waste, “Communist Eyes” nearly tramples the final seconds of “What We Do Is Secret” as it rushes out and compensates for being twice as long as its predecessor by also being twice as intense. With double the amount of length as its predecessor, it becomes that much easier to get one’s bearings within the song. Here, Lorna Doom’s bass whirls around the mix with an incredibly nasal tone (or fine-toned; suffice it to say that the bass does not dominate the mix as it in a Rancid song, for example), only anchored by Don Bolles’ drums – but the rhythm section is then contained  (literally – it is the dominant force here) by Pat Smear’s guitars and topped with Darby Crash’s growled, mangled vocal. The results are something all their own; the song is simultaneously caustic but scattered and impossible to ignore – and listeners will find that they cannot turn away from it too.

After “Communist Eyes” lets out, “Land Of Treason” continues in the same vein with minor chords blazing for two minutes – but what sort of gets lost in the din is the shockingly wordy lyric sheet. Even after one scan, lines like, “The time is now – the vicious here – a stolen dinner code/ The license of the savage land – that/ you’ve always sold/ So bite the hand that feeds you/ and bless another coal” are poetic in image and work within their meter with finer precision than many singers who are revered for their craft produce – and this was written by some punk kid. The writing is, needless to say, stupendous – and that many are unaware of it to this day is criminal.

As the A-side progresses, more gems which have gone largely overlooked and/or undervalued manifest, in short order. When “Strange Notes” plays through, for example, Joan Jett’s really, really spare production style (more like engineering in execution than formal production, really – the idea was clearly to capture the sound, get it on tape and try to make sure someone Darby Crash’s vocal in the mix somewhere due to his perennial habit of forgetting to sing into a microphone) reveals a fantastic tone in Smear’s guitar which is as dramatic as that of almost any recording ever made by The Who, while “American Leather” really showcases the speed and tight styling with which Don Bolles plays. And then there is, of course, the studio recording of “Lexicon Devil” – easily the best-known and most-covered song in The Germs’ oeuvre. 

On this new reissue of (MIA), the presentation of “Lexicon Devil” (on the A-side – there’s a different version on the B-, but more on that later) is absolutely impeccable; while the CD version came off sounding muddy and rough, Lorna Doom’s bass comes through as sinewy and muscular while Bolles’ drums run lean and tight. That backdrop is fantastic – and Smear’s guitar as well as Crash’s vocals ring through crisply; the combination of those elements makes this reissue of (MIA) hands-down the best representation of this music to date.

With “Lexicon Devil” still ringing in their ears, listeners will be hit next with the mid-tempo swagger which opens “Manimal” as well as the seething scream which follows it. Even listeners who have become comfortable with The Germs’ angle of angry presentation will be taken aback by this, and it’s then followed by “Our Way” (which is the unfortunate loser for sound quality on this reissue; there is distortion in the audio which sounds like the tape used to capture it was mangled at some point and, unlike the rest of the album, was not corrected or repaired) and then the descending riff of “We Must Bleed” strongly sounds the close of (MIA)‘s A-side.

The B-side picks up the thread left hanging by “We Must Bleed,” but registers imperfection far more quickly than its predecessor; in “Media Blitz” (the opening cut of the side), the squawking CB radio in the song is much too high in the mix which proves to be terribly distracting but, happily, “The Other Newest One” follows it with unadorned song structures and instrumental performances reminiscent of The Heartbreakers or Richard Hell and The Voidoids – which instantly redeems the running and gets listeners right back on track with the band for this side.

It may have taken a few cuts to regain the rhythm of the album’s A-side, but the B-side proves to recapture that pinnacle when the running reaches “Let’s Pretend.” There, Darby Crash’s vocals are arguably the clearest to be found on the first disc of (MIA)‘s running and, while they’re still not the most intelligible things, the power and passion are absolute and are capable of resonating in listeners’ bone marrow – it’s simply unbelievable now, forty years later. Only a fraction of the band’s velocity is lost with the play of “Dragon Lady,” but is regained in the minute-long shred-fest that is “The Slave” (which plays with all the poetry of a skinned knee, and feels a bit like a pre-cursor to the emotionally articulate alt-rock that bands like Nirvana  and Mudhoney would make) before the nine-minute anomaly which is “Shut Down”  closes out both the side and the disc. No argument could possibly be made that Darby Crash’s shredded vocals and Lorna Doom’s bass (which doesn’t exactly commit to pitch) don’t test listeners’ patience a little (there’s a difference between those occasions when the band does it for a minute or two, and when they do it for nine), and the effect when the needle lifts from the side at the close of the song is one of relief.

…And that’s the end of the running for (GI). Granted, it’s difficult to assume that everyone was totally satisfied with (GI) on its own, but it leaves the gate open in much the same way Never Mind The Bollocks did, and that possibility is inspiring. In a turn of fate similar to the one which affected the Sex Pistols too, The Germs came to an abrupt end when Darby Crash died about fourteen months after (GI) was released, and the band’s story was basically over. A few years after the original shock subsided (in 1981), Slash Records raided the tombs and compiled eight songs (three from the Lexicon Devil EP, one cover song, one outtake and a couple of live tracks) and produced the What We Do Is Secret EP. That got brought back into service for the second LP in (MIA)‘s running, as did The Germs’ first single (“Forming” b/w “Sex Boy”) and a few songs from soundtracks  and compilations. Needless to say, the second disc of this set is a “get everything that’s left!” affair, but the cool thing about it is that some of those cuts illustrate that The Germs were improving – and doing so very quickly.

While it’s true that “Round and Round” opens the C-side of (MIA) with some laughter and goofiness that is really very throwaway (the chord progression sounds a little like it was cribbed from “At The Hop” by Sha Na Na), it also reveals that Pat Smear wasn’t just pounding on chords to move along; he was already developing some guitar licks. Lorna Doom is throwing in more than single-note bass lines to fill out the progression too; granted, the sound that The Germs are working with is still very embryonic, but there’s a little more at work than there was on (GI), and that’s very interesting. The exact same thing is true of the version of “Lexicon Devil” which follows immediately after “Round and Round”; unlike the version which appeared on LP1 of (MIA), this one is more tempered than it is fiery, and actually finds Darby Crash injecting melody  – not just grunt-and-squawk histrionics – into his performance. Some critics may complain that it just feels  like  a watered-down Germs, but this critic claims that it’s an excellent counterpart to the “other” version of “Lexicon Devil”; it illustrates just how quickly The Germs were developing.

…Of course, not every cut on the second disc of (MIA) is a stroke of genius. Yes, it’s true that “Circle One” (which features some pretty great guitar work) is pretty profound, but the version of “Caught In My Eye” really isn’t – nor is the pretty scruffy “No God” or the almost childlike whining in the live version of “The Other Newest One” which follows it; those cuts are all just too loose for their own good.

There is a bit of a downward spiral which occurs later in the running of (MIA)‘s C-side, and well into its D-side too. Live cuts like “Sex Boy” sound very sophomoric and wear their “bottom of the barrel” tag in plain view, but happily studio cuts and outtakes like “Throw It Away,” “Now I Hear The Laughter” and “Forming 2” redeem the running and make the most out of the “very little left in the tank” before seizing to a stop at the end of the side. That’s not to say listeners will be overtly relieved when the needle lifts in the end, just that they’ll be able to recognize that hoping for another collection like the second plate of (MIA) is pretty pointless. Simply said, this set got all that was worth getting. Make no mistake readers, this vinyl pressing of (MIA) is a great listen and definitely deserves to be in the collections of many, many punk fans – but it will be one-on-a-kind. Accept no substitutes – it you’re looking for a Germs album to buy for your collection, this is the one to get.

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.