Christian Arnheiter has every excuse to sit and sulk. For two decades, his band the Hates has been thrashing away in blissful obscurity, all the while upholding the tattered flag of the punk aesthetic. And now he has to watch as bands such as Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring cash in on the resurgence of a sound that his Houston group had a hand in fashioning in the first place. If he had a mind to, Arnheiter might muster up a few putdowns to go with his been there, done that attitude. But instead of anger, all Arnheiter can come up with is indifference. True punks, Arnheiter will tell you, stow their frustration. They save it for their songs; they use it for inspiration; they take it out on their guitars. And rest assured, Arnheiter is as true as they come, a living, breathing, Mohawked anachronism.
"I'm not really into that newer stuff," Arnheiter says simply, trying his best to be democratic about the whole punk revival thing.
Keep in mind that to Arnheiter, "newer" means anything after 1981, and punk only rarely means anyone -- excepting the Ramones, Richard Hell and a few others -- who wasn't born and raised in England. More than anything, the Hates were avid fans of Brit-punk. And make no mistake: Arnheiter is obsessed. For close to 20 years, punk has been his passion. He's consumed by the music, often sitting for hours spinning vinyl and watching grainy videos from an era that he can't seem to shake from his consciousness -- not that he wants to shake it. For Arnheiter, it's more than merely reliving the glory days. He can't quite articulate it, but you get the feeling that until punk came along, Arnheiter was living only half a life. Punk made him whole. It's his hobby, his emotional and intellectual release and -- perhaps more than anything -- his identity.
And yet Arnheiter's vast catalog of Hates originals details a uniquely personal vision that extends beyond the mimicked moves of a fixated fan. Much of the weightier early Hates material is featured on the group's ninth and latest release, Greatest Hates. It's a career retrospective of sorts on which Arnheiter, bassist Dave Deviant and drummer Screech recreate a number of Hates songs from the '70s and '80s. The CD includes fresh versions of the signature Hates battle cries "New Spartans," "Bored With the Boys," "No Talk in the Eighties," "City on Ice" and "Science's Fiction," along with the band's first "official" demo, "Bother," and select sound bites from local radio interviews. The dated protests and laundry-list-of-ills commentary -- driven home by simple chord changes, menacing vocals and unchecked speed -- may sound like so much dogma nowadays, but the CD's directness, and outright tunefulness in many cases, is exhilarating in measured amounts. There's no slighting Arnheiter's efforts to cast his own unnerving portrait of the city in which he's spent most of his 40 years. The pall of frustration hanging over "Texas Insanity" and "City on Ice" suggests that, at the very least, Arnheiter has succeeded in conveying his distinctly "Tex-o-centric" sentiments in as few words as possible. And, punk revival or no punk revival, in this city, it's still unique.
At first, the Mohawk, black leather, Doc Martens and Sex Pistols T-shirt are intimidating, even when set against the cluttered domesticity of Arnheiter's Montrose apartment. So it's a welcome surprise to find out that Arnheiter's imposing image doesn't carry over into his personality, which is polite, mild-mannered and chipper. A city employee who spends most of his time taking surveys for water-meter projects, Arnheiter says everyone at his workplace has long since gotten over his protruding, hair-sprayed mane. He's been sporting the look since 1982, and over the years, the Mohawk has changed in length and color more times than he can remember. "Some people ask me, 'Don't you think it's time for a change?' But after a while, people don't even notice it anymore," Arnheiter says.
"Change" hasn't been part of Arnheiter's vocabulary for at least the last decade, which may explain why the Hates missed their chance at real success the first time around -- and likely will miss it again. None of that seems to bother Arnheiter much. True punks, he'll tell you, were never in it for the money or the fame (Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren be damned). But rather than talk income, this December evening Arnheiter would rather talk shop, rummaging through a closet for his crate of rare punk rock 45s. The Lurkers ("the Ramones of England"), the Nipple Erectors (from Ireland), London, the Models: he rattles off intriguing factoids about these and other short-lived bands. Arnheiter fingers through his prized possessions, each lovingly preserved in transparent dust sleeves and many long out of print, with the enthusiasm of a kid showing off his prized baseball card collection.
"A lot of punk bands springboarded people into bigger careers," Arnheiter says, pointing out that the Nipple Erectors' Shane MacGowen found greater fame as the leader of the Pogues. "I bought a lot of these when they came out around '76; at the time, 45s were only 99 cents."
"It was really strange at that time; Cactus Records had an import section, and all it really consisted of was bands like Yes and Hawkwind -- progressive rock," remembers Arnheiter. "Then, all of a sudden, boom! They were importing all this stuff. And I would just go there and buy it all."
An ex-hippie who grew up with his mother in northeast Houston, Arnheiter formed the Hates in mid-1978, a few months after he'd had the transforming experience of witnessing the Sex Pistols live. He and Hates co-founder Robert Kainer had already been peddling the early punk sound on a radio program they hosted on KTRU/91.7 FM. Lovingly dubbed Destroy All Music, the show gave Arnheiter the chance to debut the records he'd purchased each week.
Then, on a chilly January night in 1978, Arnheiter and Kainer piled into a car with some friends and drove to San Antonio to see the Sex Pistols. That show -- some say one of the best of the Pistols' only U.S. tour -- was all the incentive the two needed to get serious about writing original music. At first, the pair called themselves the Guyana Boys Choir, opting for the Hates several months later, inspired by a term used by George Orwell in 1984. At the time, the epicenter of Houston's limited punk scene was the Paradise Island club on Main Street, where the Hates played regularly with such short-lived local groups as Really Red, AK-47 and Legionnaire's Disease and the occasional national touring act.
"The Island was the only club strictly devoted to having punk. And what was weird was that the owner didn't really want to have punk there, he wanted to have rock bands," Arnheiter recalls. "But the punk groups would bring in a good crowd."
Arnheiter says the punk lifestyle in Houston circa '78 was a lighter version of the hard-core practices rumored to be the norm in London, Los Angeles and New York. As far as the Hates were concerned, intoxicants never got any heavier than booze and marijuana, and the vibe was more rowdy than sadistic. "It was fun, really," he says. "Everyone was just having a good time."
The Hates released what is reputedly Houston's first punk-rock recording, "No Talk in the Eighties," in 1979 on the band's own Faceless Records, and made three EPs before Kainer left the band in 1980. (The early Hates cuts are long out of print, though some are still available in compilation form on the German import Contamination Disc.) By that time, punk was largely finished in Houston. Still, Arnheiter kept the group going, bringing in his friend Paul Minot (the guy who'd bought him the Pistols tickets back in '78) on bass and Lawrence Baker on drums. This version of the Hates released a full-length debut, Panacea, in 1982, and continued performing for anyone who'd have them. As the decade dragged on, and safety pins, hail of guitars and rebellion were displaced by eye-liner, synthesizers and MTV, the list of punk-friendly venues -- minuscule to begin with -- shrunk to nil.
"We'd try to go around and play clubs, and people would be like, 'Punk is dead.' It was a bad time for us," says Arnheiter. "People would ask us, 'Why are you doing this?'"
That's one question Arnheiter never bothered to ask himself, and the Hates continued. Since 1982, there have been five Hates recordings (including the new Greatest Hates) and seven roster changes. The newest Hates incarnation (Dave Deviant has been with the group almost three years, and drummer Joel Mora just joined) features players who are decades younger than Arnheiter, but who were drawn to the music for the same reasons as the band's founders.
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"When I was in high school, I had long hair and liked rock and roll. It just seemed like it all fell into place for me when punk rock came along," Arnheiter says. "I fell into the look, the sound, the lyrics. I was just going full-hog with it. Before, I was struggling trying to learn the guitar, but with punk, I could pick it up and just start playing. One day I didn't have a band, and the next I was headlining the Island."
Equally passionate about punk is Dale Brooks, a supervising engineer at KTRK/ Channel 13 and a walking encyclopedia of punk-rock knowledge who's been a trusted friend to Arnheiter pretty much since the Hates started. He's been a crucial element in the group's survival, making promotional videos and funding Hates releases. "I lose about a thousand dollars every year, but this is what I do for fun," admits Brooks, who adds he plans to continue to fund Arnheiter's projects and act as his producer. He's also worked out distribution deals for Hates recordings in Europe, where the band has avid followings in England, Scandinavia, France and Germany.
In the States, sales have been much slower, but now that punk's finding its way into the Heartland, the Hates may finally start to command some respect. Closer to home, the band has been performing more frequently; club owners, it seems, no longer look at the Hates as some nostalgia act. And while he's unlikely to change his ways, Arnheiter says he's beginning to see some sense in popularizing the genre he cherishes.
"I used to have to go into some little mom-and-pop record shop and buy a fanzine to read about punk. Now you can go into a bookstore and see Green Day on the cover of Rolling Stone," Arnheiter muses. "Punk being on the cover of something E anything. I think it's great.