Punk rock in Houston today just makes sense, but in the late '70s, it was not exactly the place to be. As punk rock was just beginning to find its footing amid complaints from the older generation of rockers that it was all just noise, Houston had little to offer to the scene, which was exploding in places like the Bay Area.
One of a handful of bands changed that and put Houston on the map, Really Red struck a chord with young punks, capturing just about every aspect of the genre that would soon become the recipe for every successful punk band to come in their wake.
Though now largely only known by punk historians and aficionados, Alternative Tentacles -- the label run by ex-Dead Kennedys provacateur Jello Biafra -- has honored Really Red's place in punk history by reissuing their entire discography across three records: Volume One: Teaching You the Fear; Volume Two: Rest in Pain; and Volume Three: New Strings for Old Puppets. Now young and old alike can rediscover one of hardcore punk's early masters as the three-disc set finally gives them their due.
What's amazing about Really Red in retrospect is how sharp they were. They were so keenly attuned to everything that was going on in punk around America that they uniquely blended every element into the perfect combination.
Over the course of the three reissues, there are moments that descend into the organized chaos of punk jazz, such as the opener of Volume Two: Rest in Pain, "Youth Culture for Sale," or "No Art." They resemble the Minutemen's most frantic moments, or an early precursor to bands like Nation of Ulysses.
Yet Really Red were never pretentious. Their work could get experimental, like the funky complexity of the bassline in "A Reminder," different takes of which close out both Teaching You the Fear and New Strings for Old Puppets.
At the same time, they were never afraid to just write a rock-out track like Volume Three's "No More Art," a straight-up hardcore song from hell with a blazing guitar solo to match.
It was both a strength and weakness for the band. While "No More Art" is one of Volume Three's best moments, the much less angry "Downtown" is more indebted to punk bands with a lighter touch like the Clash, and maybe the worst track that Really Red composed. It probably had a better shot at getting mainstream attention, but its a rare miss for a band that usually fired on all cylinders no matter what their approach to a song was.
Regardless of what guise they operated under, though -- hardcore, experimental, or straight punk -- one of Really Red's greatest aspects was their lyrical ability. When lyrics could make or break a punk band, defining both their sound and their identity, Really Red still refused to be pegged down. Some bands were political, some were angry, some were emotional, and some were just trying to get a drink.
Really Red was all that and more. Their most memorable moments were probably when they entered the sociopolitical realm, but they could cover almost any topic. It's a small wonder listening to "Starvation Dance" why Jello Biafra would love these guys, especially the lines "don't point your fingers at me/ you can't put me to shame/ I gave to Jerry's Kids/ there's nothing I need to explain" and "dancing on their graves in Africa/ dancing on the mounds of dead bodies in southeast Asia." These are lines Biafra would have probably killed to have written himself in 1981.
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But they could so adeptly switch it up and match the Circle Jerks or Black Flag in the perverse self-loathing of a masochistic punk rock animal, writing tracks like "Teenage Fuck Up." Then they could just as easily turn it on others, as in "Bored with Apathy," which takes the weak to task in a direct manner that would make Henry Rollins jealous.
Ultimately, what the three reissues show the most is a band that represents a very specific point in Houston musical history, if not punk-rock history itself. Really Red were not so much a product of a scene around them, but a product of a scene outside of themselves which they absorbed like sponges. They were ultimately so diverse, and so brilliant, because they heard things going on outside their world and decided to introduce it to the one they lived in.
That distinct flavor of a band discovering themselves in a city without a scene to tell them what to do is what makes so many Houston bands so unique, and Really Red is a prime example. Their music comes from all places, and yet couldn't have come from anywhere else except Houston. They made their own sound which sounded like so many other sources, yet couldn't have possibly come from any of them, and so it defined the sound of their city.
Even without that context, though, Really Red staked their claim in punk history much the way their contemporaries did: by writing damn fine songs that hold up even when put on a series of reissues more than 30 years after their release. Punk rockers never meant to establish or inspire all these sorts of retrospectives and thoughtful insights, after all. They wanted to rock out and inspire a generation to be revolutionaries. The revolution may never have happened, but Really Red still really rocks, even after all these years.
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