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Lost Missoula punk EP a window into '80s music scene

Lost Missoula punk EP a window into '80s music scene

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In 1981, a band called Who Killed Society entered a battle of the bands in the University Center Ballroom. They went onstage after country-western bands and groups who covered Ted Nugent.

The heavy-metal fans in the crowd didn't react nicely to the trio of punks. They threw "ice, coins, and bottle caps," according to the Missoulian archive.

"What fun would it be if you didn't cause some sort of commotion?" Randy Pepprock said recently.

On the 15th, an EP his band recorded in '81 will be released for the first time, a rare document of the commotion of a punk band in a time period that went largely undocumented.

In another unusual feature, Who Killed Society recorded with a friend, Steve Albini. The Hellgate High School graduate went on to work as the recording engineer on classic albums like the Pixies' "Surfer Rosa" and Nirvana's "In Utero."

Decades ago, before you could see punk rock on stage in a Green Day musical over at the University of Montana, it was an underground phenomenon that Missoula kids like Pepprock could only read about in magazines — it wasn't played on the radio, and shops didn't stock the records, at least at first.

The instant gratification of streaming music was decades away. When Pepprock wanted to hear the Sex Pistols, he had to fill out a money order and mail it to the U.K. Several months later, he received a small envelope that contained the band's first single, "God Save the Queen."

"It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," the 57-year-old said. "It was worth waiting for."

At the time, radio stations were playing music that sounded impossibly polished by comparison, with slick production and instrumental prowess. Punk was different. The rawness spoke to him, and he recalls that it sounded more authentic and true. He read an interview with Joe Strummer, in which the Clash frontman said most anybody could be in a punk band.

By the early '80s, Shawn Swagerty, a fellow musician, remembers a good record store called Music Magic on the Hip Strip, where the owner would stock albums by groups like Joy Division.

The first thing Pepprock learned to play on guitar was the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." He learned it from Albini, a friend a few years younger than him who had a punk band called Just Ducky. Albini taught himself bass guitar over the summer after breaking his leg in a motorcycle accident, according to a Missoulian article.

Pepprock played with Albini's band around 1979-80, and said he learned a lot in a month or two before he was kicked out. With a laugh, he admits he couldn't play.

In an email, Albini wrote, "I always admired Randy's gumption and his eagerness to do things. He was full-steam-ahead on punk rock at a time when the only other people interested in it were dabbling, myself included."

Around 1980, Pepprock formed Who Killed Society with bassist Sabina Miller and drummer Wally Erickson.

He'd traveled to San Francisco and stayed for months, long enough for him to see California hardcore bands like Black Flag. The trip gave him a "whole new mind-set" from his previous group, which was a bit new wave. "Seeing that anybody could make any kind of music and any kind of noise," opened his eyes. It wasn't about perfection. "The point was that you just did it," he said.

Pepprock wrote all the songs himself — he said he's not the kind of guy who can jam, but he if wrote it himself, he could play it. He went to the library to skim the titles of books looking for a name, and found Cleveland Emory's "Who Killed Society?" Pepprock liked it, but discarded the question mark.

Their EP was recorded in 1981, a set of seven songs sprinting through 13 minutes.

In the recordings, he has a distinctly Anglo sneer, with the kind of anti-authority lyrics you'd expect. "Say One Thing" has him questioning why he should be a model citizen. "Brave New World" has a mean, mid-tempo anti-government swagger. "Don't You Dare" feels spare, like British band Wire's 1977 album, "Pink Flag." "Suburban Hope," one of the few songs with the distinctive palm-muted punk chords, is confrontational yet hooky.

Speaking earlier this week, Swagerty recalls how impressed he was after the group played him their cassette. "It was, OK, this is (expletive) great. This is a highly original sound," he said. 

In an email, Albini wrote that he was new to recording. He'd only done some demos for Just Ducky and some bands in Chicago, where he was studying at Northwestern. It's also the city where he'd form Big Black, an influential noise-rock band.

"I knew some basics and tried to apply them," he wrote. "In the kingdom of the blind, etc. I'm sure I made fundamental mistakes, but the basic idea was to get their music recorded without someone unsympathetic in charge. They paid a penalty in competence for that but I was happy to be involved. At the time everybody was on the same team and wanted to help everybody else get something done, whether that meant lending a hand putting on a show, making flyers or something like recording," he wrote.

By 1982, Who Killed Society was the subject of a large feature in the Missoulian, accompanied by two photos. "Grab your babies, punk is here," reads the headline. Swagerty, a former Kaimin arts editor then freelancing for the Missoulian, describes the battle of the bands scene with the fights and thrown objects.

Pepprock's band was the first that Swagerty can remember that took a crack at the genre, while others were "all trying to feel our way around what it was to be a punk."

By the time they'd "revved up," there were others, Swagerty said. Who Killed Society ran in the same circles as Deranged Diction, a local hardcore band formed by Jeff Ament, when the Pearl Jam bassist was studying at UM and had yet to move to Seattle.

Both Pepprock and Ament's groups participated in a memorable-sounding gig, advertised in the Missoulian in 1982, as a "New Wave Festival" at the Forum.

Swagerty, who had his own band, Ernst Ernst, remembers hanging out at the Top Hat one night when the Lost Highway Band was playing. Pepprock was talking about getting the Missoula punk scene moving, sitting next to Ament. When the band went on set break, Pepprock asked if they could play for a bit. They jumped onstage to "bash through these awful songs," he said, and ended up ruining some equipment. "It wasn't terribly nice, but I suppose that's the punk thing to do," he said.

Just Ducky sounds equally confrontational. According to Albini, it was "amateurish punk rock; we played mostly simplistic covers and our own rudimentary songs. We weren't good by any stretch, but I am eternally grateful for the experience and everybody has to start somewhere."

He was a fan of provocative performances, even back then. "We were a novelty except within our relatively close peer group. When we played in front of an unprepared audience (Hot Springs high school dance, Star Garage show, some frat party someplace ... ) the reaction was usually stunned displeasure, sometimes violent. I don't recall anybody ever coming up to me after a gig unbidden and saying he liked it," he wrote.

Regardless, it seems like a harbinger of the noise-rock to come. By 1984, in a Missoulian interview, the 21-year-old said he'd "long been interested in the possibilities of ruining sound." 

Live music downtown was different back then. Bands would play long sets to provide a full night's entertainment. Roadhouse-style blues cover groups would play a weeklong residency at the Top Hat, recalls Tim Bierman, a former co-owner of Rockin' Rudy's. 

In contrast, the assortment of punk and new-wave groups would pool their efforts to fill a night.

"They would put together a one-night show that would have four, five or six bands on the bill, because they would have particularly short sets of a lot of original music and of course some classic punk covers they would do," he said.

According to Swagerty, sometimes they would get a show together by convincing the owner of a clothing store to move their racks and for a few bands or whomever else Pepprock talked into performing.

Bierman said it was "a really vibrant group of people that were definitely into making original music, and nonconforming music, that were inspired by punk and new-wave and more integrated into alternative culture and alternative society that we had back then," Bierman said.

It might be a mish-mash of spoken word, performance art and music, only united by that alternative perspective.

"When you think about it, it's weird that that (expletive) happened in Montana," said Bierman. "You're out there in the middle of nowhere with these bikers and cowboys and stuff. Back in the '80s, it was way different than it is now, not super accepting of those outsiders," he said.

Swagerty remembers that if you dressed a certain way, it was an invitation to get yelled at or have something thrown at you. Once, he was walking on the Higgins Avenue Bridge and someone yelled a slur and threw a Big Gulp at him.

Who Killed Society broke up before the end of 1981. Pepprock moved to Seattle and started another band called Circle Seven. He took some of the Who Killed Society songs with him, and re-recorded they for an EP on Ruthless Records. Pepprock isn't too happy with the sound — he said the producer pushed them to add some gloss. "I gotta own that," he said, adding that it's easy for a young band to get talked into things in the studio.

He said the band never quite fit in around Seattle — it was years before the music scene grew into a national phenomenon. They moved to Los Angeles, which was relatively intense, he said. They loaded up in a Datsun pick-up, and Pepprock rode in the back with all the gear.

He moved away from punk into more raw rock 'n' roll, like Social Distortion. The hair-band scene was still happening, he said, and he played in a band with Duff McKagan for awhile. The bassist had another group called Guns 'N Roses. He remembers McKagan mentioning some excitement over a song they'd just written called "Welcome to the Jungle."

Pepprock worked in the film industry as a scenic artist and set painter, and had a union card.

Pepprock moved back to Montana in 1993. He was tired of the unusual hours required on movie sets. The L.A. riots had made the tension around the city unbearable. He played in bands here. He and Bierman had a group called Shangri​-​La Speedway that opened for Pearl Jam at a local concert in the early '90s. Bierman's since moved on from Rockin' Rudy's and manages the Ten Club, Pearl Jam's fan operation. Pepprock later started up a punk band with his teenager kids called Letters to Luci.

Playing gigs now is more difficult, logistics-wise. He lives in Darby, where he runs Downtown Deco, a company that sells architectural miniatures that he designs himself.

Years later, a copy of the unreleased EP made its way from Swagerty, the former reporter, to Dave Martens, who runs an archival music project called Lost Sounds Montana. From there, it made its way to Ament, who decided to help self-release with it Pepprock. On the 15th, it will be available at Ear Candy and Pearl Jam's website.

"I'm flattered that anybody likes it or remembers the band," Pepprock said. Hearing it for the first time in years, he said there's a lyric or two he might change if he could, but he thinks some of it's cool, which isn't always the case when someone revisits the creative projects of their 20-year-old selves.

Albini hasn't listened to the new LP yet, but he said that he's "cautiously optimistic about hearing the released version in the near future. It was a chaotic and exciting time and I expect that listening to such an innocent moment will evoke that time effectively."

For Pepprock's part, he hopes younger kids just get out there and do it, and don't worry about whether it's perfect.

"It all goes back to Joe Strummer saying, 'Anybody can do it,'" he said.

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