Before Indie Distributors, Before the Internet, Before Green Day
Celebrates 20 Years as a Punk Rock Label
The bright yellow walls — painted with that sponge/marble effect — that enclose the Better Youth Organization Records headquarters probably aren’t what the Stern Brothers envisioned when they launched their label back in 1982. Then, Mark Stern never imagined painting the walls of his own office — one that didn’t also double as his own home. And he certainly didn’t think that when he had a daughter, she’d be able to tell her friends that her dad runs a record label. Granted, at one and a half years old, Madison Stern and her friends don’t discuss their fathers’ occupations, but after 20 years on board, there’s no reason to believe he still won’t be the co-captain of the S.S. BYO along with his brother Shawn when the time comes.
Shawn Stern doesn’t have kids, but he is developing some gray hairs. The Stern Brothers started BYO partly as a vehicle for releasing Youth Brigade’s records, the band they started along with their brother Adam, who doesn’t help run BYO, but has been known to do some graphic design for them. BYO wasn’t the only independent label around back then in L.A., but as SST, Slash, and Poshboy fell by the wayside, it is one of the few that has survived. Plus it is still going strong even as the onslaught of bands, trust fund babies, and ‘zine publishing-ink slinging-skateboarding-Web designing grandmas run labels that barrage the Internet and the used CD bins with their wares and merch.
Youth Brigade formed in 1980, and has more or less been a staple of the SoCal punk scene ever since. At 41, Shawn is fully aware of the quips made about the band’s name, riffing off some like “Old Brigade,” “Over the Hill Brigade,” and my favorite, “Geriatric Brigade.” But when you take into consideration that BYO’s first release, Someone Got Their Head Kicked In, featured other luminaries like Social Distortion, 7 Seconds, and Bad Religion, they are grateful for at least having a full heads of hair — unlike one band that could be dubbed Bald Religion. But what’s in a name? Even back when Youth Brigade released their classic first album, Sound & Fury, to quote one of their liner notes:
“The general philosophy of the band is that ‘youth’ is an attitude, not an age, and that every generation has the responsibility to change what they feel is wrong in the world, but it seems that many people either forget or grow weary of this responsibility as they get older in years and so they feel it is really important that every new generation realize this responsibility and act upon it.“
The Sterns have found something they like, they do it well, and it keeps them young. They haven’t just pioneered the DIY punk label and all-around SoCal punk sound; they have long been at the forefront of emerging underground styles. Hell, their band was initially called The Swing Skins Brigade, a full decade and a half before Jon Favreau’s Swingers had all the Money Daddies and the Pretty Babies learning the Lindy Hop. Their juxtaposition of swing and punk prior to Youth Brigade’s Oi-punk debut paved the way for Royal Crown Revue, which in turn opened the gates for Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the like, all the way down to the last band to play to an empty Derby as the swing revival’s rigor mortis set in in the late nineties.
Then, while the zoot suit scene started taking mambo and salsa lessons, Mark and Shawn were sitting on a stack of their Sociedad=Suiciedad compilations. Released a couple years previously, it features bands like Aztlan Underground and Quinto Sol, who really got people ready for the “Latin explosion” (as if Ricky Martin or any of his Menudo amigos were to blame/take credit). The comp featured Ozomatli’s “Como Vez” before it was released on their self-titled debut, back when they were grooving to a packed house at the Dragonfly club.
BYO’s projects go beyond releasing groundbreaking punk, swing, and “rockin’ Espanol” compilations. Their catalog includes quintessential LPs like 7 Seconds’ Walk Together, Rock Together, which has sold well over 100,000 copies and counting. Over the years they’ve put out great albums by roots ska band Hepcat, Bouncing Souls’ classic first full-length, The Good, The Bad, and the Argyle, and most recently, Manic Hispanic’s The Recline of Mexican Civilization, which sounds like Suicidal Tendencies fronted by “Weird Al” Yankovic at Punk Rock Karaoke. In 1999, the label set forth to release an ambitious split series pairing bands that have influenced or complimented one another. Like a digital Reese’s peanut butter cup, the CDs feature “two great bands together on one classic record.”
The first split in the series featured Gainesville, Florida’s Hot Water Music and the English band they emulated, Leatherface, which contributed their first new recordings in over six years to this project. Volume II united the Brigade themselves with their Bay Area pals and punk-Irish folk friends, The Swingin’ Utters. Going back to this album would prepare all Utters fans for Johnny Bonnel’s (lead vocals) and Darius Koski’s (guitar, vocals) spin-off/side project The Filthy Thieving Bastards, which serves as an outlet for their more folksy, Celtic compositions. Therefore it is no surprise that BYO recently released FTB’s A Melody of Retreads and Broken Quills. Not only did the marriage of Irish folk and more popular styles of music not start with Pogues, this album shows it didn’t end with them, either. Among the Guinness-guzzling groups such as Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, down to The Real McKenzies, fans of these bands should all enjoy FTB’s tunes, which go just as well with a steaming cup of Irish Breakfast tea.
A twentieth anniversary seems like a fitting time to put out a record that is sure to sell like rubbers in a Nevada brothel town’s mini-mart. It is the third volume in the split series, but before we get to it, let’s wave our hands in front of our faces as we flash back to the zygote stage of BYO Records. 1982. No independent distributors, no World Wide Web, no compact discs, and no Green Day videos on MTV (Martha Quinn hadn’t even been a veejay for a full year at that point) to make punk rock popular with the kiddies. Back then, distro was handled by loading up the car with the vinyl records and driving to places like Poobah’s in Pasadena or Middle Earth in Downey to try and convince them to stock the albums or take them on consignment. Flyers were still the primary source of finding out about Youth Brigade or Adolescents shows. At least back in the day, there were far, far fewer bands trying to make it on the scene.
When asked how long it took them to realize that BYO was off the ground and running, Mark replied “19 years.” Over that time, and during the changing landscape of the punk/independent music scene, BYO truly remains a powerhouse among labels. So who joins the roster? Mark explains that “It’s gotta be a band we like and a band we think we can help. We can’t help bands that do this part time. And we can’t help bands that are coming out of the garage and think that they’re gonna be rock stars if we put their record out and they wanna sit around and wait on their ass until the limo comes and picks them up.”
After all, bands like Blink 182 are playing arenas. Their weak-ass, replica protégés, Fenix, TX, open for them, and the dream of fame and fortune being in a punk band is sprinkled in the Pixie dust piling up on garage floors across America. It’s a fact the Sterns could not have fathomed when they launched their label, but it is something they have learned to live with. Mark sees the formation of Fugazi and reformation of Bad Religion as the turning point, the catalyst, for reviving the dormant punk rock scene in 1987 and clearing the way for bands like The Pixies, then Jane’s Addiction, then Nirvana to make the radio and clubs safe from the hair rock bands. “And that all culminated in ’94 when Green Day and The Offspring got big, huge, popular. That made the whole second coming of the punk rock scene, and then (the popularity of) Rancid and NOFX a couple years later.”
Now back to Volume III. Due out March 5, BYO’s 79th release features six songs by Rancid and NOFX, each. Both bands are Epitaph recording artists — the two biggest — so this will be an instant classic as well as a goldmine. It’s a no-brainer yet a brilliant idea, and from there, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong made the light bulb glow even brighter. He suggested the bands cover each other’s songs, and we’ll all have to wait until next month to find out which songs from their respective songbooks they chose. With a little prying, Mark gave up a little teaser with the two obscure covers. NOFX does “Girl With a Heart of Gold” (en Espanol as “Corazon de Oro”) and Rancid dug out a tune from S&M Airlines, doing “Vanilla Sex.”
Smiles light up both Mark’s and Shawn’s faces as Shawn perishes anyone’s fears that this will be a hard to find album. “We’ll press as many as people want… We’re ready for it, we got five new shelves.” Their own offices AND new shelves? These guys are having fun.
The Stern brothers both agree that working with great bands, bands that play the kind of music they like to listen to, as well as having the opportunity to travel the world (and surf the seven seas) is what keeps them in the game. Being involved with BYO is not just a job, it’s being a part of a community. In fact, in defiance of the music industry schmooze-fest, SXSW, they created the annual DIY Bowling tournament, which they hold in Vegas, because bands already signed to indie labels don’t need a place to showcase for free. “The bottom line is,” as Mark says, regarding the bands as well as the people who run the labels, “what do you want to do? Let’s just go bowl and drink and gamble.”
Creating BYO wasn’t so much a gamble or even a career choice. “We weren’t thinking. We just did it,” says Shawn. When asked if they thought they’d still be here 20 years later, he immediately replied “Hell no.” So where will the Better Youth Organization be in 2022? Will they just buy themselves some gold watches and retire as loyal company men? Mark half jokes/half predicts that his daughter will be running the label. But in earnest they cannot say, because there never really was a game plan, nor has one developed.
“I don’t know that it’s ever something that you plan,” Shawn ponders. “I think things you plan is when you say ‘I’m going to go to college, then get a degree and become a doctor.’ You don’t plan to join a band then run a record label and make that your life. That just happens… When people interviewed us back when we started this, we were saying stuff like ‘We won’t be doing this when we’re 30.'”
BYO Records: http://www.byorecords.com