Rocks Off recently had the opportunity to speak with Agent Orange's Mike Palm, who founded the Southern California surf-punks in the late '70s and has remained in the trenches ever since. Agent Orange plays Fitzgerald's Sunday evening.
Rocks Off: What brought about the affinity between surf and punk cultures?
Mike Palm: I think you'd have to go all the way back to the 1960s. Actually, you could probably go even further back than that. Original surf culture - those guys were all about forging their own paths. They were kind of outcasts. People thought they were degenerate.
In reality, they were some of the first people to embrace fitness and clean living and actually living the life they way they wanted to, which is beneficial to your health in the long run. Mainstream society thought they were freaks. It's the same thing with punks too. People think, punk rock, what's it all about? Spitting, fighting, bloody noses, and guys barfing on each other.
Someone asked Joe Strummer (The Clash) what he thought the meaning of punk rock was, and he said, "An exemplary attitude towards your fellow man." Something like that. He was the kind of guy at 4 in the morning, when everyone was drunk out of their minds, he was the guy who made sure you had an ash tray, if you needed it.
People think that punk is just this nasty thing, but really, I think it was an intelligent movement that sort of paraded as idiocy, for the fun of it.
Rocks Off: Did you feel like outsiders - melodic instead of raw?
MP: We had a falling out, Steve Soto (Adolescents) and I, and that split the original line-up, and thank god that happened, honestly. The world got the Adolescents and D.I. and everything else, the splinter offs. Steve is a huge Paul McCartney fan. Actually, I love the Beatles too. More poppy and melodic music has always been something that appeals to me, and I right off the bat saw the potential of combining the furious energy of punk rock with something melodic and thoughtful, something more intelligent.
It's just two schools of thought. You can either strip it down to something primal, strip it all the way down to the frame, basically that's what hardcore is, or you can take it in the other direction and go beyond that to do something more interesting. It's not like we were the only band doing it. Look at the Damned. They did all kinds of very adventurous things musically. Siouxsie and the Banshees right off the bat were expansive.
In the pre-punk days, we were listening to a lot of German electronic music. Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream are two of my favorites. That was very outside-the-box thinking for its time. We just happened to choose the melodic direction. The hardcore guys, of course, weren't into it, but chicks dig it.
RO: You really liked Germs singer Darby Crash's voice and lyrics?
MP: Sure. There's lots of people who have unique voices, and you go, "Wow, listen to that guy." Darby wasn't really copying anyone. No one did that before him. It's not that he had a great voice, it's that he had a great style of singing. Anybody could have done it, but he was the only guy who thought about it, to do it that way for whatever reason. Lyrically, I think he was really brilliant. To this day, it blows my mind to read those lyrics.
RO: Did studio engineers understand the band's style?
Those guys in the 1970s didn't have a clue. They didn't know what was going on. Tape your wallet to the snare drum...
RO: Dampen it like Fleetwood Mac?
I was thinking of Steely Dan. It was really hard to try and talk these people into anything different. It's a real shame. Our first recordings were done on a 3-track. The Beatles made great records on those machines. Here we were livid with this vintage old machine, but guess what? That thing had the potential to sound great.
Unfortunately, someone taped a wallet to the snare and sucked all the life out of it. That was the era. You live through that, and there's almost nothing you can do about it.
RO: Did you feel connected to 1950s rock and roll?
Definitely. And there were guys that we knew...Right off the bat, one of the guys we latched onto was a friend of ours from Fullerton. He was in the original D.I., playing guitar. He played bass for the Cramps for a little bit. That guy had a really broad knowledge of vintage recording equipment at the time.
Tube microphones, tube compression. Old boards, 3-track machines. He knew what worked. When those machines were made, they were built in an era when quality counted and things were built to last. That's why those machines sound so incredible. There's no question about it.
RO: Jack Grisham of TSOL said the whole point was to be different than other bands, or risk even getting your ass kicked.
That's true. You'd get your ass kicked if you had a fake English accent. There was a whole list of things you could get your ass kicked for.
RO: When did people start taking Agent Orange seriously?
About the time I wrote the song "Bored of You." I can't remember the rhyme right now, but something like, "I'm sick of the Rolling Stones and all the leather jacket clones." I had this conversation. There were like 20 of us in this Volkswagen driving up to Los Angeles for a punk show, going to see the Damned or something.
I got a couple of beers in me and started ranting, like "the scene is turning into a bunch of goons with matching leather jackets that all look like the Army in their uniforms." Dennis Danell (Social Distortion) was sitting in the back and I heard him go, "Ah shut up." I looked over and he was wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black leather jacket.
I said, "Everyone but you, Dennis" (laughs). "You make it work, man" (laughs).
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.