Last Night: Agent Orange At Fitzgerald's

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Agent Orange Fitzgerald's January 9, 2010

In the 1987 21 Jump Street episode "Mean Streets and Pastel Houses," fresh-faced Johnny Depp goes undercover as a punk to root out vicious gangland teenage thugs lurking in the inner city. He ends up at a rowdy punk concert roiling with slam-dancers crashing and banging in choreographed chaos as two-bit Hollywood actors lip sync to none other than... Agent Orange songs.

That fictionalized punk-as-pathology and dirty glamour may live long on YouTube, but Agent Orange's real ethos is not about being aural wallpaper to point-blank nihilism and senseless violence. Instead, they convey what it means to unmask false promises and struggle in the heart of a stifling suburban wasteland, where mallification thrives and young kids cope with endless blandness, boredom and consumption.

Just note their declaration of dissent on "The Last Goodbye," which decries people, both "exquisite" and uniform, that are so duped they don't even question authority, like Stepford Wives. As the band hit the first notes Sunday night at Fitz's, the crowd surged, egged on by a conjoined alienation.

As such feelings festered during the late 1970s, restless people like singer Mike Palm began to meld his affection for residual art rock like Brian Eno and Roxy Music with the surf music that his older siblings once stocked up. The new West Coast sound he gravitated towards was the angry, smart, female-led Avengers, wild dogs The Germs, and proto-hardcore contemporaries Middle Class, who lived nearby in the Inland Empire of sleepy Fullerton, Calif.

With a knack for melody and harmony, Agent Orange married punk's insistency with true tunefulness, an ability to graft hooks onto lyrical terrain about not wanting to die, "Too Young to Die," or in turn, seeking risky adrenalin rushes and vengeance, like "Bloodstains," which still causes an audience to catapult in a frenzy.

In the process of making their chunk of history, Agent Orange battled the "senseless minds" of 'normals,' like parents and studio engineers, as well as the changing tides of the underground punk music scene itself, which quickly ceded musical freedom and experimentation to lean, mean, marshaled beats made for a "bunch of goons with matching leather jackets," as Palm once intoned.

Perhaps that's why they inject their brand of punk with whiplashed Jefferson Airplane ("Somebody to Love"), Johnny Rivers ("Secret Agent Man"), and more recently, streamlined and amped-up Screamin' Jay Hawkins ("Whistling Past the Graveyard"), all resurrected Sunday night.

To Palm, pop music is a motley hybrid, rough and resonant, which sounds sublime when careening from his 1960's Vox Phantom guitar, despite the occasional problems with broken strings, or getting knocked out of tune by invasive fans, or a strap suddenly coming loose, bedeviling Palm in the middle of a song.

Looking back, a band that merged the pummeling thrill of surf evoked by The Chantays and Dick Dale with the urgency and sweat of slam pits was bound to attract profiteers as well. Labels like Posh Boy knew that money could be easily gleamed from such a marriage between rebellion past and present, from the cultures of woodies, jalopies, and bronze skin to motorcycle boots, bandanas, and pasty cropped-hair misfits and rejects.

To be sure, when surf music savant Laramie Dean jumped up and helped ignite "Miserlou" into a monster sonic wave for the last song, the crowd drank it in, dizzy and deep, just like when the band jetted through "Everything Turns Grey," their 1981 Posh Boy single, early in the set.

"We were young, we were naïve, we signed contracts we shouldn't have signed, we didn't have proper representation, no one was looking out for us," Palm recalls about that infamous label. "To this day, I know I am getting the short end of the deal."

That never stopped them from stirring up a catalog of succinct songs that feel pithy and purposeful, a blend of timeless aggression and coiled drama balanced with hope and protest, like the iconic "A Cry for Help in the World Gone By," which came unfurled near perfect last night.

Even their rawest punk slabs, like the blitzing "America" and "El Dorado," which barely eek over a minute each, never totally divorce from mutant bubblegum elements, even when buried under heaps of disgust and agitation, which they aim at "people who stared" and labeled them freaks for chopping off their hair in the age of Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon.

They still feel estranged from that dinosaur rock. No wonder the band decked themselves in Adolescents T-shirts, paid homage to the Dead Kennedys with a full-bore version of "Police Truck," even poked a bit of fun at foreign punk legacies like the Sex Pistols.

"God save our Queen," Palm quipped at one juncture, then bellowed "Fuck Joe Strummer" for a millisecond, despite being a fan of the Clash himself. It really just marks a sense of time, place, and heritage -- I am of this disaffected world, not the land of Led Zeppelin clones.

Sure, in the mid-1980s Agent Orange joined fellow rockers like TSOL, 45 Grave, Redd Kross, and Marginal Man by signing to Enigma and releasing the adultish croons of This Is the Voice, which still retained heavy hitters like "Say It isn't True." In fact, if Green Day and Offspring had antecedents in the Reagan era, Agent Orange's catalog peddles that slightly FM-friendly, taut pop landscape underscored with punk sensibilities.

Even today, they can't shake that side off. Lighter new tuneage such as "This House is Haunted," just released last fall, is a bit cartoony, but held its own in the push'n'shove crowd.

These days, Palm might be revisiting his fondness for Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream when not discovering new joys like Interpol (for whom his brother is a guitar tech), but the live show that the new lineup carves afresh nightly, perhaps bittersweetly, still feels like a small club bursting with 1979 flavor and finesse.

Not a cut-rate, has-been, faceless re-enactment of the past, but an evocation, even validation, of an era when surfing, skateboarding and punk rose in raucous tandem, shaped by streets buzzing with discord and dissidence.

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