Swiz – Down

Swiz – Down – Much, Time // Cause, Lie (Hellfire Records) 1987. When I was 16 I was pretty obsessed with Can I Say by Dag Nasty. At the time it seemed like such a huge step forward for hardcore. And in one way, I guess it was. By attempting to turn all of the rage and nihilism of 81-83 into something positive and life-affirming, bands like Dag Nasty were developing an approach for life after hardcore. Essentially that is what the proto-emo music of bands like Dag Nasty, Beefeater, (later)Articles of Faith, and Rites of Spring were trying to do. It seemed pretty radical at the time. What comes after the end of everything?

Keep in mind I was also 16 and I was frequently told by people that I took things way too seriously.

This break didn’t happen overnight. I remember reading an interview with Black Flag in Trouser Press around the time Damaged came out where their new vocalist (and ex-DC resident) Henry Rollins talked about the lyrics and themes of the band being “personal” instead of “political”. After Damaged, you really could see two strains in American Hardcore, one where the singers’ rage was targeted at society at large (“fuck the system”) and another where the rage was targeted inward (“what is wrong with me?”). A lot of the bands in the second category seemed more relevant to me. I mean, Jello Biafra could quote statistics a mile long about how many political executions Pol Pot was responsible for but in the end I was pissed off at my gym teacher for giving me detention because I wore dress socks to gym class. I remember connecting with bands like Decry and Minor Threat on a personal level that I just couldn’t with a band like The Dead Kennedys. Today, I don’t feel the same as I did when I was 16 but when I hear, say Asylum by Decry, I remember the connection I had to that song and I remember how I felt at the time. Maybe that is the definition of nostalgia. Who the fuck knows?

The introspective approach to hardcore reached its apex with bands like Dag Nasty. Can I Say is almost embarrassing to revisit as an adult. Dave Smalley just puts it out there. Its naked, adolescent, poetry-on-the-back-of-your-math-notebook kinda stuff. And the riffage. They were so tight. Brian Baker combined the power of hard rock with the drive of hardcore and even some cool underground rock flourishes here and there. The rhythm section was tight and explosive. It was both a musician’s album (we all wanted to sound like that for a while) and a lyricist’s album. Afterwards we couldn’t wait for the next album from Dag Nasty. We sat with baited breath. We heard rumours that Dave Smalley had left the band. We didn’t care. Then Wig Out At Denkos was released and we all collectively said, “what the FUCK?!?”

Looking back on it, Wig Out wasn’t terrible. It’s an OK album. But it ain’t Can I Say. Not even close. So I went looking for stuff that did sound like Can I Say and found Swiz. The similarities were no real coincidence. Vocalist Shawn Brown was the original vocalist for Dag Nasty and can be heard on the excellent Dag Nasty 1985-86 release. Rumour has it that Shawn was released from the band for not being melodic enough and if you listen to some Swiz lyrics you will hear some evidence to support this rumour. Whatever happened, Shawn left the band pretty early and formed Swiz with Jason Farrell (guitar), Alex Daniels (drums), and Nathan Larson (bass). Their first two albums were released on the Sammich Records label (along with early Shudder To Think) and were just amazing. The chord structures and drive are similar to Can I Say. Shawn’s vocals are indeed less melodic but at the same time, the dude could really bark. When he says on the classic Wash, “I’LL FACE YOU STRAIGHT TO HELL”…well, you really believe the dude.

Swiz gets lumped into the early emo category along with bands like Shudder To Think and Rites of Spring today and I think that’s reasonable. Their lyrics and approach were self-examining and their visual aesthetic was in line with that scene. But they were a much more visceral band than a lot of the early emo groups. In that sense, they also share similarities with bands like Gorilla Biscuits. However, you will find no youth crew allusions with Swiz. I remember in 1989-1990 having their first album on a tape with Ozma by The Melvins and feeling that the two albums went really well with each other. Oftentimes a Swiz song is based around a simple metallic chord progression. Look at their one word song titles. Its intentional minimalism. A deconstruction. I played Swiz and Ozma over and over in my Gran Prix. Emo, youth crew, or post-hardcore, point being that Swiz were somewhat hard to pigeonhole and that may have been what has made them a bit forgotten.

However, bands that are hard to classify are often the best bands. It’s an ironic twist that because they are hard to classify they are also the most difficult to discover.

Jade Tree Records understood this and released the excellent Swiz anthology back in the 1990s to help. It’s still available from Amazon and is an amazing overview of an amazing band. It contains everything Swiz released including this, their first 7inch from 1987. Imagine if you will, if Dag Nasty would have followed Can I Say with the first Swiz album. If emo would have deconstructed instead of adding layer after layer of cheesy angst and eyeliner. Imagine a world with no Cobra Starship. No Pete Wentz. Yeah, I know, it would have never caught on if it didn’t degenerate into a bunch of stupid nonsense. But one can dream. Wow….that sounds like the beginnings of an emo song.

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22 Responses to Swiz – Down

  1. Brushback says:

    Ha ha, I haven’t digested this whole post yet, but so far after one read-through it’s pretty great!

  2. Adamski says:

    Funnily enough, I threw some Swiz on last week for the first time in years after someone mentioned them in a forum. They had some great stuff, but I forgot how metallic the guitar sounded at times. Shawn Brown seemed very bitter about his experiences in Dag Nasty.

  3. elliott says:

    i personally like the fuck the system hardcore. the other shit always seemed winy to me. i don’t really care about listening to other people bitching about how pissed off they are about someone. i still do but i like what jello has to say way more than black flag. that doesn’t mean i don’t totaly love black flag it just means that antigovernment hardcore seems to be where i fit in. but this band is great. metallic guitars? hmm maybe.

  4. theun_k says:

    swiz still ranks as one of my all time favourite hard core bands. jade tree did an excellent job on their discography cd – may i suggest you buy it right now. on top of that jade tree offers the demo that came before the Down 7″ as a download on their site:

    http://www.jadetree.com/mp3/Swiz-With_Ramsey.zip

    you need it.

  5. Smitty says:

    Great, great band and way more visceral and hardcore and rock than the rest of their DC brethren who kept getting wimpier and wimpier. Also, by decade’s end they were the only DC band you would find on more traditional hardcore bills in the North East whereas the Dischord bands by that point would only play with each other mostly. Great live too and very cool approachable people.

    Dig and agree with what you’re saying about political statement hardcore VS. personal issues hardcore and it definitely goes back further than “Revolution Summer.” Even something like straight edge (something I always abstained from huh huh) is a personal choice. I actually think maybe it starts (as do so many things) with Black Flag. Even the stuff on ‘Nervous Breakdown’ is inward looking (though sarcastic and funny). Musically I think the origins of emo can be found on the first Scream LP (the soaring guitars and vocals), mid period GI (the post punk basslines + Marshall guitar sound) and Faith ‘Subject To Change’ EP (the world weariness.

  6. Adamski says:

    I agree about the “political versus personal” lyrics. Hardcore to me is anger, which translates to hatred of a fucked-up system, for example. The personal stuff is a bit self-obsessive. You split from your girlfriend? Get over it! MDC, Crass, Conflict, Wretched etc opened my eyes to some big wrongs in the world. When i listen to Dag Nasty’s lyrics (much as I love the 1st LP), I just think: “Oh, boo-hoo!”

  7. xx says:

    i saw swiz live a couple times. they were great, definitely of the ‘late’ period minor threat/early dag nasty school, but they also took some influence from the ‘darker’ sst hardcore stuff like Black Flag & Blast (& so cal band Half-oFF contemporaries of Swiz). their 2nd album went further into that zone. that FURY 7″ (swiz offshoot) is crucial too, maybe even better.

  8. Smitty says:

    Well right, the danger of personal hardcore is it leads to all that Rollins Band “I hate you / I hate me / I hate you for loving me” melodrama or worse, Insted-style friendship core. I mean, I’ve come to dig ‘Can I Say’ but there’s still some cringe-worthy on there.

  9. elliott says:

    if i want personal punk i’ll take gg allin any day. i love black flag and minor threat but it gets a little stupid after a listen or five. i hate to say it but i think that’s what started emo.

  10. Brushback says:

    Great post, Joe– you really hit on some crucial points here. It takes a guy like you who knows this stuff and can put it into words for the rest of us. That being the case, I deleted the Swiz tracks about 5 seconds after I listened to them. Man, they suck.

  11. Joe says:

    I knew there was a punchline, Brushback. I disagree. I think the Swiz tracks are good. Not as good as the 1st Swiz LP but whatever.

    So here’s my take on the whole personal versus political hardcore thing. I think they are both kinda stupid. Especially the more hardline they get. Like Black Flag singing about “My War” is cool or VOID singing “My Rules” but Embrace singing “Dance of Days” is cringeworthy.

    Conversely, The Dead Kennedys singing “Holiday in Cambodia” is cool but I have a hard time with Crass or something.

    Hardcore is aggressive music and I listen to it largely because I am can be an aggressive person. The aggression is the message. Obviously if it comes wrapped in some ideology that I have a hard time with, then thats kind of a showstopper. But in my opinion, the best hardcore is the “I dont give a shit” variety. Bands like Angry Samoans, FEAR, The FUs, DOA are my personal favorite.

    The more hardline they venture into preaching some kind of message beyond say “fuck shit up” the more they run the risk of losing me. That goes for youth crew, overtly political (left or right), emo whatever….

    As you get older you cant go adjusting your personal history to suit your current “enlightened” state. Your past is what brought you to where you are. My current opinions don’t change the fact that for about 6 months in 1987, Dag Nasty was the best band around to me.

  12. Brushback says:

    Ha, no offense meant. Didn’t like Swiz back then, thought maybe the passage of time would give me a different perspective on them, but no dice. I sorta know what you mean about Dag Nasty, though– I saw them three times in ’86-’87, and from the first time (in Providence, with Dave Smalley singing) it was easy to see that they had skills that most other bands in the scene didn’t have. They were a bit more commercial than what I wanted to listen to at the time, but they were still impressive… shame about every record after “Can I Say”, though.

  13. elliott says:

    i disagree. i love crass and what they stand for. i don’t mind personal hardcore and punk but i listen to political hardcore and punk waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay mor.

  14. Joe says:

    @elliot: It’s all better than listening to Taylor Swift or U2 anyway. so good on ya….

    @brushback – no worries. Always welcome your thoughts no matter how incorrect they are!

  15. elliott says:

    hell yeah you can say that again man. love your blog!

  16. Brushback says:

    I have made a habit out of being incorrect.

  17. Chris says:

    I’m about your age and Dag Nasty were an important band to me when I discovered them in the late 80′s/early 90′s. Then they seemed to being saying more than just “Fuck the System” even if they were actually really vague.

    I really like “Wig Out At Denko’s” and that double CD was an important buy at one stage. It’s been well over a year since I threw it on though. I wonder if it still holds up to my ears.

  18. Joe says:

    @Chris – I bet it doesn’t! Cringe-inducing! I like your point that lyrically they were really vague. “Values Here…in my heart…will be here til tomorrow.” What values?

  19. Gbooch says:

    I agree about Wig Out. Without Dave, they weren’t the same band. Saw them w/ Pete at City Gardens open up for GI. We sat there asking what happend? Sorry but Pete couldn’t carry the power Dave did. Although musically they were still fantastic on both records. ( a few clunckers in there) Sometimes you just have to bypass the lyrical content – political, satire, straight edge, or comical – of hardcore & appreciate the its musical contributions. Now I’m off to do a playlist of Dag, Bad Brains, DK, Agnostic Front , SNFU & AOD

  20. Jeff says:

    Hardcore is annoying like that. It means a million different things to a million different people, and all of them think their view is the only correct view. It’s tough finding people who are really into it but who also don’t care why you’re there.

    Actually, I’m probably just bitching. I know it was a lot worse in the 80s.

    Personally, I just like it for the loud and fast. Good lyrics are just gravy.

  21. I really enjoyed reading that. I love both Swiz and Dag Nasty and must disagree about Wig Out. I’m a huge fan of it. Anyway, the demos for the 1st Lp (Hell Yes I Cheated) are great, too. I don’t remember where I found them, but if you want, drop me a line and I’ll hook you up.

  22. alex says:

    hey that’s an insightful write up! i was in swiz and enjoyed the experience. we bonded real tightly in the first several months of playing and became one of those bands that was all about US (and no one else).

    p.s. i haven’t deleted any swiz songs in my collection, but sometimes i fast-forward them

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