San Francisco is always weathering a Season of the Witch, oscillating somewhere between liberal idealism and cold reality. Whether that reality is in the form of sadistic violence or obscene wealth, the cycles between the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly, make up the city’s core. And within these cycles, music is the most obvious mark of victory, defeat and catharsis.
Seasons of the Witch is a new series that traces the bloodlines of music. Like David Talbot’s book of a similar name, the series is a window into the people and events that made The Bay Area what it is today, though through a musical lens — the bands, songs and moments that shaped music as we know it.
The stories of their onstage antics go beyond the normal crotchety bottle throwing and touchy-feely violence of hardcore’s heyday. One story has singer and bassist Bruce Loose throwing a month’s worth of his kid’s dirty diapers at the audience, only to have someone in the crowd throw one right back into drummer Steve DePace’s face.
Whether they actually were the band everyone loved to hate, hated to love, or if that was just a label that stuck to them, Flipper had an essential otherness that is well-documented in their sound. This was not guitar-centric punk music. There were no overarching themes of brutality or anarchy. This was bass-driven, heavy, dissonant and “slow” – slower than anything being labeled “hardcore punk.” They were grungy before grunge was a thing. Genre-bending in unanticipated ways. The band’s most renowned song, “Sex Bomb,” is a saxy little funk number. “The Lights, The Sound, The Rhythm, The Noise,” is a straight-forward mind-fuck that both Sonic Youth and Joy Division would have loved to have made. So before Kurt Cobain and his homemade Flipper t-shirt turned the world on to the band, Flipper had already earned a truly underground following. Among the sordid lyricism of the fast, angry and serious punk bands of the hardcore scene, their stark and groovy sound, both comfortingly bleak and strangely optimistic, perplexed and seduced the more off-kilter punks — the misfits among the misfits — and paved the way for sludge metal and noise rock.
Formed in 1979, Flipper’s first recorded offering came on a 7-inch compilation called SF Underground, put out by underground champion Steve Tupper and his own Subterranean Records. Together, the imprint and the band issued two albums that are now considered punk classics: Flipper’s sludgy but straightforward debut LP Album–Generic Flipper (1981) and their experimental follow-up Gone Fishin’ (1984). These two albums alone went on to inspire a diverse collection of artists, from R.E.M. and The Melvins, to Moby (who may or may not have fronted Flipper for two days while then-singer Will Shatter was in jail) and of course, Nirvana.
Though Flipper slowly began to disintegrate in 1987 after Shatter’s heroin overdose, their legacy lives on in the tunnels of the underground and in the music of other artists. Contemplating Flipper’s fate, Tupper once told the now defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian, “You’re talking about basically culture and the way it ebbs and flows. If you look back through history, this kind of thing has happened about every 10 years. You had the punk thing in the late ’70s, the hippies in the ’60s, and before that you had the beats, you had the swing era. And you can just trace it all the way back, about every decade or so – music, art, and politics, all rolled up into one big explosion that happens every once in a while. And they don’t last forever.”
Flipper may never have the cult following that Black Flag or Dead Kennedy’s enjoy, or the mainstream attention that their successors have earned, but they must find repose in the fact that their music inspired legions of prolific musicians. Without them, there might not be an R.E.M, and without R.E.M there might not be a Radiohead. Without them, we could be living in a world without Nirvana, and consequently without Courtney Barnett. And that is not a world I want to live in.