Here’s one I haven’t listened to nearly enough times in my life, Dag Nasty Can I Say. It’s righteous.
I stopped my dreaming
I don’t want to go back
I started looking closer
and I know what it’s become (‘Never Go Back’)
If you can’t go back, you have to go forwards, or just stagnate. Dag Nasty were formed out of the diaspora of relatively sane folks looking for less straight-forward music and much less violence, out of the DC hardcore scene. Brian Baker bassist and, later guitarist, with the great Minor Threat formed the band with Colin Sears, Roger Marbury and singer Shawn Brown – who promptly left before they recorded their debut and was replaced with Dave Smalley. Dag Nasty had a good idea and in hindsight like a lot of good ideas it just seems so blindingly obvious now that it’s a wonder why no-one had ever succeeded with it before, namely to marry the urgency and kick of hardcore with a generous dollop of … melody. Thus was melodic hardcore born in 1986*.
It’s a simple premise, but a real winner. Just cue up Can I Say, drop the needle on ‘Values Here’ and I defy you not to stamp your foot, punk. Smalley was a great choice for singer as he isn’t a particularly good one – technically, if you see what I mean. There’s nothing wrong with his voice at all and certainly not with his lungs. His effort and earnest straining for some of the notes is palpable and it just stops anything getting too sugar-coated. You can hear just how much every word is meant.
For all this new-fangled melody don’t think that Dag Nasty have sacrificed any aggression, or attack. DC hardcore, in particular, was always a bit like being hit in the face repeatedly by a half brick, Dag Nasty refined this a little, sanding their brick down and smoothing away some of the jagged corners but as the killer title track (all 1:59 of it) will attest, the overall effect of that is to make that brick a bit more aerodynamic.
Listen to a track like ‘Justification’ and you’ll hear exactly where hardcore was going in the next few years, it just took most of the other bands a couple of years to catch up. It even has (HORROR OF PUNK HORRORS!) a guitar solo in it. I’ve always really liked Brian Baker, ever since I first encountered him as a spotty youth, me not him, in Junkyard and later in Minor Threat and Bad Religion. He has a great knack of writing really great guitar lines and a really interesting, almost percussive style of playing.
I have really, really got back into Can I Say recently and I love the sheer adrenalin and craft of cuts like ‘One To Two’ and their mini epic ‘Never Go Back’, as well as the new-wave-on-steroids of ‘Circles’. If you catch it in the wrong mood it can be a bit like driving for an hour in really heavy traffic with someone sat in the seat directly behind you with a megaphone bellowing his innermost thoughts at you. But, when I catch it right, I find myself just surfing along on the velocity of it all and spotting and enjoying all the little touches and quirks in the tracks. I swear to you rockers that the opening of Dag Nasty’s requiem for the DC hardcore scene ‘Never Go Back’ is pure Thin Lizzy sped up, I swear it.
Another point of interest is just how well Ian MacKaye produced Can I Say, a more complex sound needs a more complex production and that’s what he had clearly learned how to do. I like to think of him working on this and the idea for Fugazi flickering into life during the process.
I still really get a lot from this LP even after owning it for 23 years now. Last words are from Dave Smalley taken from Steven Blush American Hardcore: A Tribal History (2001), pp.158. which is a brilliant book on the scene (I’ve trimmed bits out):
Can I Say, we knew it was something special. It was unique and exciting. Ian produced it … Ian was shaking his head and looking down at the console and I thought, ‘I fucked up, I was off-key – he must not like our band.’ … He said, ‘It’s a fucking great record.’ It was like he wished he’d been doing it.
Who are we mortals to disagree?
PS: Miss out the last 6 tracks below, like most extra tracks (which aren’t on a separate disc) they actually dilute and detract from the impact of the LP.
*well all the bits of it that weren’t invented by Hüsker Dü , but for the purposes of this post I’m pretending that they don’t exist.