LP: Lucky by Fifteen
1999 Sub City Records SC002-1, dual color
Favorite Track: My Congressman
LP: Survivor by Fifteen
2000 Sub City Records SC015-1
Favorite Track: Colorado
In 2000, when I was 17, I had a Sub City Records mail catalog and some of my parent’s money to burn. So punk rock, right? Anyways, I had heard of the band Fifteen because of being a DJ for the Lakota East’s radio station–something that I forget was much more of a fascinating experience than I had comprehended at the time–and my friend Dave and I respected Jeff Ott’s lyrics, but they just were not very good musically. It didn’t help that the album was live and the recording garbled like they set up the mic a foot away from the left speaker.
So why was I so attracted to Lucky and Survivor? The cover of Lucky depicts a black and white photograph of Lucky Dog, a former Fifteen bassist, who had recently committed suicide. Survivor was a bold sky blue with sewn together throbbing red heart. Maybe the images stuck out because I had recently lost family members. Maybe it was because I was just a teenager trapped in that awful awkwardness of puberty and pre-adult angst mixed with intelligence without wisdom. Maybe I never even thought of it and just ordered them on a whim. I did that a lot back then.
When the CDs came in the mail, I immediately threw on Lucky. I was probably blasting it–sorry mom and dad. I had a black CD player tucked into the corner of my bedroom next to my grandfather’s old TV with antennas with our NES system hooked up to it. I blared music from that box regularly. By the time the CD was done, my mouth was agape. I had to tell Dave. Something changed. Then I heard the first track of Survivor: they could play!
Okay, that sounds a bit patronizing to Jeff Ott and the rest of Fifteen’s talent. They always could make music, but their craftsmanship skyrocketed for these two albums. They quickly, alongside of Rancid, became the staples of my music collection until I bought a Clash cassette and heard Joy Division.
When I found them both sitting on the shelf at ShakeIt Records, I had to buy the vinyl copies. This was recapturing a part of my childhood. They are also pretty rare. The clerk said, “One person sold both. One person bought both. Always happens with these two.” Which kind of makes sense as in Fifteen is that type of band where you either like them or you don’t. As I walked home, I wondered how much time was going to change my perspective on the music. I hadn’t listened to the albums since college and, as I have grown older, my musical tastes have landed heavily in the late ’60’s and ’70’s. There are a lot of ’90’s punk bands that are great, but I never really dug deep into the obscure bands to break out of that stranglehold of heavily produced Clash/Buzzcocks sound exemplified by bands such as Rancid and NOFX. Dilinger Four may have been as hardly known as I went back then. In other words, I feared listening to these albums would not be as exciting because the “punk sound” (which in itself is a whole blog entry of debating fine and mostly pointless genre descriptors) had become homogenized.
And I forgot exactly why that made Fifteen so exciting. From the opening bass line of “Family Values”, I re-discovered that Fifteen had borrow their sound from previous punk artists (like all artists do) but had their own unique take on it. And they were not trying to write pop songs, but craft strong political anthems. And how political. There is no mistaking where they stand on the issues. When I was a teenager, I agreed with every word he said. For the most part, I still do although I think their inflexible hardline stance shows a little naivety about the complexities of human nature and human motives. But really what dragged me down was how sad some of the songs were. I couldn’t believe I listened to this music nearly every day as a moody teenager. I was so bummed out by the end of Lucky, I almost did not put on Survivor. During “Colorado” which is maybe my favorite Fifteen song, my favorite lyrics became an hour long conversation with myself. The lyrics go, “The only thing worse than a stupid American is an American who actually gets it and does nothing.” It is a great barb on a lot of leftist/humanitarian people who say they are against homelessness, racism, sexism, etc. but then don’t help the causes by attending benefits, protests, volunteer activism, etc. Yet, is singing a song about it really doing anything? How does one really decide what actually changes society and the people around (besides obvious things like making marriage legal for same sex couples)? Being nice to somebody could be just as powerful as thousands of people marching to the Capital Building. You just don’t see the change that is happening before you. Ott’s lyrics are designed as an attack which makes people defensive and less likely to understand the point he is trying to make. A lot of punk rock, if not all of it, is a us-verus-them mentality, which is fascinating because punk rock also espouses that everyone should be themselves and not conform. Which is why I have been really digging Stiff Little Fingers’ single “Suspect Device” because after singing about not believing in them (i.e., authority figures), they change the chorus at the end to “Don’t believe us.” They admit they are suspect devices as well.
All in all, these were two great purchases. Grim perhaps, and maybe not destined to have heavy rotation on my player, but an important musical influence that has shaped my life not just in punk taste, but politically and in being aware of such issues as needle usage, inherent sexism and racism in our social systems, and how much waste a rock band actually makes in its career. I would definitely see them live if they were to reform and tour again. And I miss being a radio DJ playing all those songs one is not suppose to play on the radio. Which is really funny because I never listen to the radio.
I just realized how weird I am.