Flash Metal Suicide: TSOL

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“This is our last show, since we’re all gonna get killed by LA punks on Tuesday” - 1981 TSOL bootleg

Here’s how crazy it got with TSOL by the time Strange Love hit the streets: the sole original member, bassist Mike Roche, quit the band in disgust after recording the album, leaving an entirely new band to carry on their dubious legacy. Fast-forward a couple years and the “old” TSOL was booking shows in the same cities on the same nights as the “new” TSOL in a fitful bid to save their already tarnished name. And really, the only reason any of this bullshit was still going on was because GN’R drummer Steven Adler wore a TSOL shirt in the Sweet Child O’ Mine video. An endorsement from the biggest band in the world – even from their drug-addled drummer, who may have just fished it out of a pile of somebody else’s dirty laundry - was enough to sell piles of records for a few years in the late 80s. Fast forward another few years. Flash metal is dead in the water and Green Day replaces Guns as the age group stadium rock champions. TSOL goes back to their punk roots like the bandana headbands and Cult rip-off albums never even happened. And they never speak of it again.

Yeah well, it happened, man. And we gotta deal with it. Here’s the thing with TSOL. You can essentially pin the wave of indiscriminate violence and bloodshed that riddled punk shows throughout the 80’s on them. Maybe not them alone, but certainly their circle. Formed in Huntington Beach in the late 70’s, TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty) were part of the first clutch of ‘hardcore’ punk bands in California, pumping out a much faster, meaner, and altogether unhinged form of rock n’roll than had really ever existed before.

And they didn’t just play punk, they were punks, violent ex-jocks and surfers who relished brawling with their audiences. Stabbings and beatings were commonplace at TSOL shows. I mean, they were at Black Flag shows too, but that was usually just the audience; TSOL gave as much as they got. Eventually, that mindset of mindless violence became part of hardcore’s culture and swept across the US. It reached such ecstatic heights here in Boston that we ended up with an actual punk rock gang (FSU, AKA Fuck Shit Up) who would go to shows solely to beat kids up. So, you know, thanks for bloody noses, TSOL.

That would’ve been a cool legacy to end on, at least. People would whisper about ‘em in dark corners for decades. The most violent punk band of all time, holy smokes. But that’s not what happened. What happened was, singer Jack Grisham discovered Roxy Music, and over the next few years, TSOL went from hardcore to glammy post-punk. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t exactly fit in with the hardcore scene. Nobody starts a slam-pit at a Brian Ferry show. But anyway, they rode that train for a few years.

By that time, original guitar player Brian Emory was already out of the band. In 1983, Grisham and drummer Todd Barnes quit, too. All that was left was the bass player. Unless you’re Thin Lizzy or Motorhead, you really can’t leave the bass player in charge of your band, man. He’ll do something crazy. And that’s what happened. Mike Roche said ‘fuck it’, and turned TSOL into a Sunset Strip sleaze metal band. At this point, why the hell not? By 1987’s Hit and Run album, they had scrubbed all the old punk edges off completely. They had long hair and dangling earrings and sang about chicks instead of destroying the state. Most of the “kids” just accepted them as the Cult rip-offs they became, and probably weren’t even aware of their bloody, short-haired punk rock past. It was honestly one of the more seamless transformations of the era, certainly less jarring than Discharge or Celtic Frost’s hardcore punk/metal-to-glam makeovers. And again, the GN’R endorsement certainly didn’t hurt. For a bunch of punk rock turncoats, things were going pretty well.

And then came 1990’s Strange Love. It’s their best album, really. That’s the takeaway. It’s brawling, used-leather biker metal, full of bracing, fist-pumping, fight-and-fuck anthems. It’s probably the closest TSOL album, in terms of intensity, to their early punk rock warrior days. It’s up there with Circus of Power’s Magic and Madness, The Almighty’s Soul Destruction, and The Cult’s Sonic Temple when it comes to sheer chest-thumping, he-dog motorcycle mania. But Roche split right after it was finished, so can you even call it a TSOL album? I guess the answer is no, because pretty much the next ten years was just lawsuits and warring TSOLs fighting for the same club-date scraps. Ultimately the original punk rock bullies won out, and they’re still riding the hardcore nostalgia circuit, most recently on a tour with whoever is left from their old sparring buddies in Black Flag.

Also singer Grisham ran for governor of California in 2003. He got over 2,000 votes so, you know, pretty close.

Next week: Speaking of punk rock resurrections…