The Middle Class
1. Out Of Vogue
2. You Belong
5. Love Is Just A Tool
6. Above Suspicion
8. Home Is Where
9. A Blueprint For Joy
10. Last Touch
11. Introductory Rites
13. You Belong
14. No Applause
15. What We Do
Founded in the late seventies by three brothers and a guy named Mike Patton (no, not that Mike Patton), The Middle Class attained only modest local popularity in their time as an Orange County punk band before breaking up in 1982, right as hardcore was really starting to take off as the dominant force in underground American music. Although there was little fanfare regarding the group when they split, it wouldn't be for another twenty years, with the publication of Steven Blush's seminal (and highly controversial) book, American Hardcore, that The Middle Class would be ostensibly pegged as the first hardcore band with their 1978 EP, Out Of Vogue. Featuring four blisteringly fast tracks, all but one barely more than a minute long, the record does indeed provide raw and primal version of high speed punk rock, one which predated both Black Flag and The Bad Brains, and all of the first generation Dischord bands which would come to practically define the sound of the hardcore genre throughout the eighties.
Were The Middle Class influential? No, not really. Were they in fact the first hardcore band? That's obviously open to debate (and rather meaningless debate, at that), but to me, they were really more of a speedy anomaly within the second wave of California punk rock (one which, often overlooked, bridged the gap between the glittery, gritty early scene and what became hardcore) rather than the true pioneers of the hardcore genre – and I get the feeling from research that members of the band would probably say the same themselves. Contrast this with Black Flag and The Bad Brains, who, on opposite coasts, would a year later be influencing denizens of youths to adopt their sound and stylings to the result of an entirely new musical sound and aesthetic. Retrospectively, The Middle Class could certainly be called proto-hardcore, but then again, so could many bands from that era. Regardless, despite being relegated to general obscurity for a number of years, renewed interest in the group generated in part by American Hardcore and in part by the recent-day hardcore punk revival have led Frontier Records to reissue The Middle Class' earliest recordings as the compilation Out Of Vogue – The Early Material, thus making most of this once-buried band's brief discography available again to a whole new generation of wide-eyed, spiky haired listeners.
Out Of Vogue – The Early Material contains the group's seminal first EP, Out Of Vogue, and adds to it an additional studio session, their second (and less heralded) Scavenged Luxury EP and finishes everything off with four early demo tracks. All in all, the CD's entire fifteen tracks in done in over in a scant twenty-six and a half minutes, with the "epic" numbers being those which reach past the two minute mark. Something else to be aware of before going into this compilation is that these songs – whether official releases or unreleased long-lost demos – all sound extremely rough. Some sessions certainly have a rougher feel than others (but none are so harsh that they are rendered unlistenable), but it's obvious from the first track that there was clearly no effort made on the label or band's part to pretty up the mastering of these tunes for their official debut into the digital age. That said, this doesn't bother me very much, as these songs sounded raw when they were recorded, and it doesn't really make sense to force them under some sort of superficial beautification process just because they are making the jump to a different format. I can't really imagine anybody who cares about early punk and hardcore getting stuffy about production values anyway, but as a warning to any staunch audiophiles out there – real or imagined – you probably won't even want to bother with this one.
And if that does happen to be you, it's really your loss, because regardless of whether or not you view them as a historic footnote, this compilation reveals The Middle Class to be a great, wholly unique punk band with sharp focus, impressive creativity, and great tunes. The most memorable number on here is without a doubt the debut EP's title track: within a minute-long whirlwind of chainsaw guitar tones, arty monotone vocals, and relentless high speed drumming, "Out Of Vogue" is a cold, vicious blast of obscuro punk too fleeting and ugly to be an anthem, yet too precise and power-packed not to be a classic. "You Belong" and "Insurgence" follow the blurry lead of "Out Of Vogue", while "Situations" slows things down to a peppy mid tempo pace, while dissonantly melodic, yet biting guitars layer over a near-dance beat (at least for the first part of the song). A brilliant outlier of a song on an excellent starting EP. The early demo tracks located at the end of this disc are very similar to the fastest material on Out Of Vogue, so if you adore this EP and don't want it to end, you can extend your pleasure by about four minutes by programming your CD player to skip ahead to track twelve after "Insurgence" ends. (I wouldn't exactly recommend doing this in the interest of all the great music you'll be glossing over in doing so, but I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself here.)
Anyway, the next three songs on the CD come from the (to my knowledge, previously unreleased) "T & N Sessions", and, despite an annoying lack of information chronologically placing which songs were recorded when, they appear to have followed the Out Of Vogue sessions as they find the band continuing to mine the more post-punk oriented leanings present on the track "Situations". "Love Is Just A Tool" is as speedy as most of anything you'd expect to find on the first EP, but the other two songs show the band to really be developing musically: suddenly, the bass is isn't just playing the root notes of the guitar anymore, and the guitars themselves are employed to much greater atmospheric effect, with sharp chords washing over loud bass notes and tight, uppity drumming. "Above Suspicion" is the most angular song the band has introduced up to this point, and breaks up the monotony of straight-ahead (but great) songwriting approach the band has consistently implemented up to this point with a different, perhaps brainier kind of aggressive. It's songs like this that just screams to me "smart songwriters!" Sure, they can play by the (yet to be codified, though well in the making) loud/fast rules, but the most impressive bands to me are those that can choose not to play by those rules when they feel like it. Had the sound been slightly cleaned up, these three tracks would've made for a fine single (with b-sides), and it becomes increasingly apparent as the disc goes on what a bummer it is that these songs haven't been commonly available for so long (or at all).
It is with the final official release featured on this CD, the Scavenged Luxury EP, in which The Middle Class may truly be at their highpoint. Shedding the solidly linear but ultimately limiting high-velocity aggression for which the band has recently become better known, The Middle Class here dives full-on into postpunk territory, merging jagged, groove-oriented riffing with a harsh delivery and aesthetic minimalism, thereby coming across as a very timely American response to British acts such as The Stranglers (though far less dancy), Gang Of Four, and early Wire. All four of these songs are absolutely all killer, no filler ("Home Is Where" and "A Blueprint For Joy" being personal favorites of mine), and had the band added a faster kick drum to the bass break in the chorus of "Last Touch", they might have been dubiously mentioned years down the line as the first rock band to use a blast beat in addition to theoretically being the first hardcore band. Such mentions are ultimately of little real significance though; people will always be bickering back and forth over who came first in any genre that remains vital and at least a little popular, and if "Out Of Vogue" could be the first hardcore song, surely The Zakary Thaks could've had the first hardcore song too with their infamous tune "Bad Girl", as has been suggested by Mark Prindle.
My point? Accolades often don't hold up over time, but good music sure does, and The Middle Class, for all their obscurity and hubaloo over supposedly being "the first hardcore band", never seemed to get mentioned for simply being a great, creative punk band, which is exactly what they were. For their brief existence and fairly limited output, The Middle Class shows on this compilation that they have gone through more growth and done more interesting things musically than most punk groups do who manage to stick around for ten times as many years. But then again, perhaps such is the nature of fleeting outfits: burning out before they stagnate, they never have chance to reach the point of being boring so long as they don't start there in the first place. More so than they deserve to be mentioned in the history books, The Middle Class deserve to be heard. Now that it's easier than ever to do so, there's no reason not to. This album will end more quickly than a discussion on the origins of hardcore punk will, and I can almost guarantee you that it will be an infinitely more rewarding listen as well.
Review by Hunter Brawer
Review date: 06/2010