Disruptive Since '79: MDC's Radical American Rock'n'Roll Revisits Houston

Dave Dictor, outside Vinal Edge, The Heights, 2017
Dave Dictor, outside Vinal Edge, The Heights, 2017 Photo by David Ensminger

For 40 years, MDC has acted as a political punk lightning bolt striking with the force of power and light across the globe. Whether visiting each corner of America, including often neglected flyover territory and the boondocks, or zooming over the years from Russia, Malaysia, and Mexico to Brazil and beyond, the band has remained fiercely committed to their grassroots, participatory ideals. Punk is not ancillary to action – it is action itself.

So, when they stop in Houston at Donkey Paw Screen Printers on January 4 during their short but potent Happy Impeachment Tour, they will be unleashing not only tireless songs but also an impassioned plea to get up, stand up. They will not be here merely to bedevil authorities with their buzzing electric chords or only to create a moshing soundtrack for disenchanted, ‘rebels without a pause’ listeners. They will be here to stimulate voters into a civic-mindedness that comes from their own brand of straight-talk. They are concerned about reclaiming democracy and offsetting the panic of the Trump era, not feeding the frenzy of despair.

During their humble basement-punk beginnings in Austin during the late 1970s, when the band was known as the Stains, they witnessed how the college town and government city morphed from a languid cosmic country wellspring to a tumultuous alternative music Eden. In clubs like Raul’s, where the frat boys drove by and taunted the customers, a whole new genre emerged: bands like the Next and the Huns stirred up trouble. They blasted the nights like an occupying force dripping with rock’n’roll fervor.

The songs of such seminal first wave local bands — taunting, debauched, hectic, maddening, and raw-edged — seemed to stir up a whole generation of people hovering under age 30. Among them were future MDC members.

Originally MDC formed around the core nucleus of sinewy guitarist Ron Posner, Al Schvitz’s jazz-influenced drum onslaughts, revolving bass players, and Dave Dictor’s manic singing. Their songs like "Kill the Light," "I Hate Work," "Greedy and Pathetic," and "Born to Die" seemed like incendiary poem-bursts that effortlessly mixed MC5 style rhetoric, Black Power righteousness, and Yippie gutsiness. To that template, they glued fleet-footed, hectic beats, yet the tunes somehow remained nimble, syncopated, propellant, and catchy.

Nothing else sounded like them. Musically, they were as singular, in their own way, as Minutemen and Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Articles of Faith.

By sticking to their crucial ethos — fighting the good fight against sexism, bigotry, violence of all strains, homophobia, and more — MDC amounted to a new kind of torch bearers, which foreshadowed the Woke Generation. They carried forth previous countercultural strains of the 1970s by bolting that radicalism onto their DNA while also finding new modes of expression, like their country-punk vegetarian opus “Chicken Squawk.”

Sure, other bands, even in the South, had been fomenting savvy political discord, including Red Rockers (New Orleans), Really Red (Houston), and the Dicks (Austin), but none of them had the same sheer breathless velocity, zealous perspective, and mileage either. MDC toured and cut records at a blazing pace, as if every second was an opportunity to foment rebellion.

In doing so, they helped created the momentum and zeitgeist of hardcore, which took the hard-rain of punk rancor and fueled it with an increasingly pummeling, frantic sound — more direct and brazen, more furious and bareboned, more blistering it became.

Plus, they never relinquished their jabbing humor, especially on songs like "My Family Is a Little Weird," the disruptive disco of "Sexy and Christian," and the anti-McDonald's singalong "Corporate Deathburger."

Ever since, they have continually barraged America, though their steadfast music has also foisted other tendencies too, like nods to heavy metal and classic rock, hip hop and rap, and a roots-rock tendency that beckons back to Dictor’s original impulse to migrate to Texas but is usually mostly found in MDC’s unplugged sets.

And throughout such well-endowed musical meanderings, which stretch across several presidencies, varied tumult has served as their background: conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador; Native American resistance to mining; endless violence;  the collapse of the Berlin Wall; and the changing nature of the drug war. MDC has been on the forefront each time.

But even such seasoned veterans have been shaken by these incendiary Trumpian times. In fact, despite the years gliding past, many of the themes of MDC's tunes remain totally relevant, like prejudice towards LGBTQ communities, ongoing war, police brutality, and corporate domination of worldwide lives.

“At first, I was a little shocked by the crassness of Trump and his open denial of the truth, but the right-wing machine with the likes of the Heritage Foundation and such has been consistent over the last 40 years, and it really goes back to even the 1930s,” explains Dictor, who studied history at the University of Texas and has been a teacher during certain periods of his life.

“Billionaire funded and directed led fascism has been sown into our society while their think tanks cleverly reassert their racist, homophobic, and classist societal view,” he continues. “They encourage vulnerable people to hate the ‘other,’ at the same time as providing more wealth to the rich while suppressing the lower classes. For instance, they resist the minimum wage and coin new terms like ‘right to work’ while suppressing labor unions, causing them to accept lower wages.”

Still, as the next election looms, Dictor is also adamant that unity is possible, despite many Democrats fearing that an overly-progressive candidate, ala George McGovern (the Democrat candidate for president in 1972), might hold sway over voters. “If Bernie Sanders is George McGovern, then too bad. The Democrats should unite better. Hilary should have taken in Sanders to be her Vice President choice, as Biden ought to be doing so right now. I fear that Democrats don’t want to work with each other unless they are the same. Abraham Lincoln had a cabinet of rivals that challenged each other and made them stronger as a group.”

And Dictor is still probing alarming issues happening every day in America, especially among vulnerable immigrants, even while the mainstream news might be fixated on impeachment. “In some ways, the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) program raiding people’s homes and work places is awful. All the deaths in custody and sexual misconduct, lack of prisoner rights ... that is all truly awful and sickly cynical.”

Plus, Dictor still finds much potential, and hope, in Texas, where he has been spending more time recently, including the capitol. “Austin, Texas has been an oasis of free living and free thinking for a long time now. Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio discovered they didn’t need a Republican for mayor. Texas is turning blue, and I want to help that by playing at lots of community centers this year, including acoustic gigs. This is a good time and place for Texas.”

More so, Dictor is not interested in mere rancor and disgust, or fixed ideologies and diatribes that act like a cheap charade of politics. After nearly dying from an infection a handful of years back, some of his outlook has been driven, in part, by a burning spirituality.

“You can be punk and on a mission from God or Goddess,” Dictor attests.

And he wants the message to be clear and pro-active. “People can get active in registering voters and getting out the vote. Let’s take our country back again like when we elected Obama twice. I hope people join us. They should be active too. Now is the time, more than ever.”

And though MDC sang “No War, No KKK, No Fascist USA,” in the early 1980s, during the crisis of the Ronald Reagan era, Dictor is totally enthused that anti-Trump coalitions, and Green Day, especially right in the middle of the 2016 American Music Awards, have carried forth that dictum with an updated “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” iteration.

For MDC plays the long game of social justice, undeterred by the waxing and waning appeals of trendy modern music.

Join the rebel chorus, Dictor suggests, one gig at a time, and the world may change, yet again.

MDC is scheduled to perform on January 4 at 8 p.m. at Donkey Paw Screen Print, 1103 East Freeway. For information, call 713-732-6935. $12.
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David Ensminger