I’ve always been a little wary of The Germs. I love punk rock. I especially love Californian punk rock. And The Germs are one of the most revered of the early days of that scene. They were only together for a few years, and they only made one studio album before the suicide of singer Darby Crash. But their legend only grew in the years following. That’s what makes me wary. Is the music that good, or has the legend simply taken on a life of its own? Is their one and only studio album, GI, actually any good?
The first surprise is how slick it is. I’ve read about the band a bit over the years, and I remember them being a major part of the documentary The Downfall of Western Civilization. And what I remember most, is how shambolic they were. But the opening trifecta of What We Do is Secret, Communist Eyes and Land of Treason is pretty tight, efficient stuff. It’s simple, balls to the wall, and effective.
Richie Dagger’s Crime and Strange Notes make me think a lot of the credit for this tightness belongs to future Nirvana and Foo Fighters guitarist, Pat Smear. Darby Crash’s antics and lyrics as a front man may have gained the notoriety for The Germs, but Smear’s guitar stood out more and more with each track.
The Germs and GI may have surprised me with their (relative) polish, but the narrow scope of their music is exactly what I expected. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It just means you should know what you’re getting into. If you don’t like the first track or two, you might as well give up there. Because from opener What We Do is Secret, all the way through to closer Shut Down (Annihilation Man), GI is an exercise in finding what it does well, and doing that again and again and again. OK, Shut Down tries something different with a blues swagger, but after 15 songs of same-same leading up to that, it’s too little, too late for anyone after real variation.
So, I’ve listened to GI. Does it justify their legacy, or prove my fear that the legend has grown to be much bigger and better than the band ever was? The answer is kind of in the middle. I liked GI. I really, really liked. And I can hear so many bands I love today being inspired by it. NOFX, the Vandals, Guttermouth all owe The Germs an obvious debt. But I also don’t know if they had another album in them. GI sounds like they were already kind of running on fumes. They were just especially potent fumes that were more than enough to propel one pretty great album.