The Sound of Now: How Policy of 3's Dead Dog Summer changed the shape of punk to come - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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July 4, 1994, saw a lot of firsts for me. I was standing in the North Carolina heat, in the middle of a barely there house — Dick Street House in Greensboro, in fact — that was falling to kindling, and surrounded, for the first time, by actual punk rock.

Sure, I’d gone to shows before that, had dyed my hair various reds and greens, wore the biggest pants like the skaters in Thrasher and hung out with the goths at the local Krispy Kreme. But before this day, I’d never seen any of the stuff I was seeing that balmy afternoon– Food Not Bombs had cooked a meal for the concert goers, the house’s living room floor was covered in shoe boxes of 7” punk and hardcore records, and people from diverse backgrounds were all huddled into this living room awaiting the rock. I had tagged along for the three-hour trip with some friends, mostly to see the headlining band, who at the time were my favorite: Propaghandi — a quirky, technical skatepunk band with somewhat advanced political lyrics for the genre that were just starting get huge. With all of the typical trappings of a 90’s punk show, all surrounding me, I felt both out of place, like a fledgling indie-rock / pop punk kid, and at home all at once. Screen-printed t-shirts on the back of thrifted LaCoste polos, records folded into manilla envelops, fanzines with the ink still drying fresh off the Kinko’s press. Not only was this punk rock, in its rawest, nerdiest form, free from the barcode-stamped mall and Hot Topic regurgitation, this was young people empowered and doing it themselves. I was encouraged to check out the opening bands, and so I did. One of those bands was Policy of 3.

Hailing from Philadelphia by way of South Jersey and originally starting out as a quirky, straight ahead hardcore band called Matter of Fact, Policy of 3 began playing in 1989, making this year the band’s 30th anniversary.

Their sound would soon evolve, as the four friends — Jeff Fisher (guitar / vocals) Adam Goldstein (guitar / vocals), Bull Gervasi (bass), Chris Fry (drums) — became more enamored with underground punk, noise music and the expanding parameters of heavier indie-rock. The band’s music, aesthetic, and attitude, however, remained steadfastly punk, their ethics never wavering from the spirit of DIY. Their first 7” on local Bloodlink Records, a label known for its bare-bones approach to documenting lesser known second and third wave emo-hardcore bands, was a lurching, noise-splattered, slab of post-hardcore, drowning in Helmet-isms and Swans-ian industrial thump. The political lyrics and foreboding artwork mixed into the pot to create a dense, ominous experience. While this record is pretty intense, their follow up LP, Dead Dog Summer, on Old Glory (another seminal record label capturing the DIY emocore sound of the ‘90’s) was a masterpiece. The opening notes of lead-off track “1%” blasts into the ether, ripping apart a hole in space/time like a violent siren let loose, a howl in the night. The song explodes into raging punk evocative of wilder moments on Fugazi’s In on the Killtaker by way of Black Flag, yet it retains the weightiness the Po3 hinted at on the first record. Lyrically, the song precedes the entire Occupy movement with its castigation of the one percent — “10,000 years so you won’t fall”, they scream at their oppressors in a delightful caterwaul. It’s one of the best opening songs of any punk record, yet it remains largely, shamefully unheard. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dj2NFUz5JbM

When the band took the stage that day in 1994, I wasn’t prepared. The wall of sound, the visceral immediacy of their performance, the strange artfulness as they played weird jazz and showtunes records in-between their songs — their performance pushed my mosh-n-mohawk interpretation of punk to its limits. They were emotional, sure — all good music was, is — but their performance seemed to shake the foundations of the house they were playing in. They were doing this without a stage, without a sound system, without the presence of alcohol, just some folks in a house absolutely destroying everything that was laid before them.

I would say it was “life changing” if it wouldn’t entirely embarrass their soft-spoken bassist and Philadelphia punk rock stalwart and activist, Bull Gervasi. Bull’s bass playing lent an intense, weighty overtone to their music, cutting through the band’s often swirly dual-guitar attack, giving a sense of structure to their shoegazing tendencies. Though he still plays music, Bull spends his time working as an electrician (after years spent managing and organizing at the Mariposa Co-Op in West Philly), still making music, screen printing shirts. “It’s really flattering,” Gervasi says in an interview at XPN, after I ask him about Policy of 3’s impact on the scene and me in particular. “The same thing happened for me with various bands over the years. To think that I could have that effect on someone is really kind of mind-blowing. Those influences, I like to think, kind of evolved through various lineages and continue today. I like the idea that there are all these bands, and people and zines that had a very positive influence on me as a young punk and I really like the idea of giving back and being a positive influence on other folk.”

Policy of 3 were a part of a music community that changed the face of punk and hardcore and even indie-rock. The sonics of their genre-exploding noise has several antecedents: from the Positive Force / Revolution Summer of the mid to late 80’s DC bands like Embrace, Rites of Spring and Beefeater; to folky influence of post-punk bands like Squirrel Bait and Moss Icon; to the cut-n-paste aesthetic of the feminist leaning pacific northwest scene of bands like Beat Happening and labels like Kill Rock Stars, 90’s emocore bands would borrow from those movements musically, artistically, lyrically and, just as important, ethics-wise and create a scene for themselves. As well, often inspired by the prolific DIY machinations of avant garde jazz musicians like Sun Ra and Art Ensemble of Chicago, bands like Shotmaker (who toured with Policy of 3), Anasarca, Universal Order of Armageddon and Antioch would inject the aforementioned punk movements with a seminal, oftentimes missing ingredient, that would remind the listener of emo and indie-rock’s very punk roots: rage.

On songs like “Drone” and “Mind Over Matter” from Dead Dog Summer, Po3 created noisy, bombastic punk but encased it in an impenetrable forcefield of swirling electric guitar and sluggish rhythms, then screamed passionately over top of the tracks. “We tried to create music that was unique to us,” Gervasi says. “There’s always influences that play into that, absolutely, but I would like to think we had our own unique take on [punk].”

On the writing process, Gervasi recounts: “The song writing process was pretty collaborative, often Adam or Jeff would bring an idea and then we’d kind of workshop it in the basement for hours and hours in Chris’s parents basement, which I’m sure they loved. We would just play off of each other and try to form things into songs.” Guiding them was the fact that their influences ranged all over the musical map. From Crass and Conflict, to Chumbawumba and Neurosis — lyrically and musically, these bands broaden Bull and his bandmates’ horizons as a young punk rockers. “Neurosis was a big influence on me,” Bull says, recalling early encounters with live music during pivotal moments when punk’s evolution from three-chord, Chuck Berry riffs gave way to more eclectic presentations. “When I was really young my brother and I would put on shows in South Jersey, and one of the first bands we booked that wasn’t from the region was Neurosis. It was 1990, the Word As Law tour, and they just blew all of us away. They were just starting to veer into that direction, of getting more interesting and less straight forward. That really opened my mind to kind of heavier, slower music, in an emotional, heavy way.”

As is often the way, as emo would move into lighter, more mall-friendly territory, stripped of its political and punk roots, and become the rock-n-roll voice of a generation, records by bands like Policy of 3 are often lost to the ether. It was the music and ideas of these bands, however, that would shape the dynamics of punk music to come. The angular rhythms of At the Drive-In’s In Casino/Out could be heard in Po3 songs like “12 Years Down”, or the more operatic moments on My Chemical Romance’s 3 Cheers for Sweet Revenge can easily find roots in a Po3 song like “Of the Wolf”. Emocore, as a punk offshoot, has not always had the benefit of its creators being among its more famous practitioners. Grunge, for instance and by contrast, was able to share the limelight with it’s o.g.’s like Nirvana and Mudhoney, even while also-rans like Stone Temple Pilots took the aesthetic and ran with it. For emo and post-hardcore, two problems emerged that disallowed this symbiosis: the mid-90’s bands were so fleeting, the best bands often appearing on only one national tour, if they were lucky, maybe an LP if they were luckier, and then disappearing within a year and a half of forming. This certainly affected the legacy of any band that might have wanted or deserved one. And the other problem? Bands at the time didn’t like the “emo” label. They were punk.

“We didn’t want to be lumped into that label. It just felt weird and limiting,” Gervasi recalls. “I thought, ‘it just doesn’t fit us.’  I almost wanted to be associated more with the riot grrl bands that were coming around at the same time. It’s funny to think of MCR as being lumped into bands from the DIY scene in the early 90’s, or DC stuff from the 80’s. It’s a weird phenomena in general for punk. I would imagine there are some [current] bands that are emo that are political, but as far as stuff that’s on the radio, it’s mostly devoid of any substance.”

photo via Sophie’s Floorboard

It’s this adherence to a political sensibility that kept Po3’s music firmly rooted in punk, no matter how spacey their sound got. On the album’s closing opus, “Space Cadet/Let it Build,” the band pushes through a harrowing tale about abuse against women, about the ostracization that happens to those who speak out against said abuse, and then ultimately how attempts at restorative justice, in all of its complications, can still leave scars. It’s heavy, but considering punk’s penchant at the time for just singing about being chased by cops for skating in office parking lots, or modern emo’s penchant for singing ever-so-passionately about how their girlfriends broke up with them, revisiting songs like “Space Cadet” is a revelation.

“There was an intentional feed of Space Cadet into Let it Build,” Bull says. “When we were playing it, it felt very intense and emotional in a way that I don’t really have that experience much otherwise. I’ve played in other bands, and with that song, it’s a different connection to the other people in the band, and to the music and the lyrics. Both the other serious bands I played in were very different and had a different feel to them, but [with Policy of 3] we had all kind of grown up together and had a very close bond. Just that energy and connection to the music and lyrics, it was really strong– really enjoyable and really intense. In the moment it felt very intense and cathartic, it felt very real.”

Often their sound would clash at local shows. As the band moved from Matter of Fact’s chugging, fast hardcore into its signature, droney post-hardcore sound of Dead Dog, they’d play with bands like the Parasites, Sticks and Stones, Turning Point and Lifetime to unsuspecting audiences. “Early on it was a lot of house parties, shows at this movie theater we would put on, but it was a bit of an evolution.” Bull says about sonic shift. “It wasn’t an immediate change in our sound where we were just gonna drop all these old songs and start doing this weird thing we hadn’t done before. It worked out well for us most of the time. One of our shows was in Syracuse which at the time was a notorious, hardline, straight edge scene that we didn’t really fit in. We were still Matter of Fact then, but our sound was starting to shift and we, just, tanked. Like no one wanted to hear us. The headliners were Worlds Collide and Earth Crisis and that’s all that anyone wanted to see.” Eventually, though, the scene would come around. Upon Policy of 3’s LP release, hardcore and punk would become inundated with screamy, dreamy, noisy bands changing the dynamic range of punk’s sound. Soon, bands coming out of the scene that had in fact produced Earth Crisis, would appear as a third wave of sorts, where formerly macho scenes began to explore more a sensitive side. While several bands in big-pants hardcore on labels like Revelation and Victory and the labels that aspired to be them affected an emo, post-hardcore visage, the impact of Po3 was communal, nurturing, and rooted in a granola politics that permeates the underground scene today. If you’ve been to a basement show in 2019, Policy of 3 paved the way for that.

Since 1989, they had made their own t-shirts, distributed other band’s records, and pressed their own vinyl; they supported leftist, radical political causes — and still do — that they believed in. Then, in 1995, Policy of 3 went to Europe. They were one of the first bands in the DIY hardcore scene to do so, totally on their own, patching into dialers and siphoning long distance calls at payphone booths to European promoters, most of whom were promoters in only the loosest sense of the word. The band would play shows outside on the lawns of hippy communes in Spain to a handful of traveling punk-types (the same day Fugazi was also playing in town at a different show), or at a German sqaut, like, an hour after a full on riot and clash with the police right outside the venue doors. These were the kinds experiences that would change them for sure, but they helped carve out a blueprint, a map, for other bands to follow in their wake.

Their second release on Old Glory was unveiled around this time, a 7” called American Woodworking produced some of their more galvanizing songs. It featured a gentler approach to the sound the band was already working with, as the lyrics unfolded a tale of a young man affected by bullying and toxic influences in a somewhat pastoral setting. “Where was the love this child was supposed to know? / Never cried / Held it all inside” the band sings over some of their most melodic passages. It’s such a perfectly emo moment, but the songs on the flip side are so overtly enthusiastic, so fist-pumping and uplifting — “we are changing the sky!” — as to be anthemic.  If this record has any fault it’s that it’s desperately trying to communicate a maturity that perhaps the band, the genre, wasn’t quite ready for. What it lacks in just pure, volatile rage, the American Woodworking 7” certainly makes up for in the pure optimism and rousing spirit and otherworldly grace.

On the heels of the band’s 30th anniversary, French record label Stone Henge will be releasing their full discography on double LP vinyl. It will hopefully stand as an amazing document to not just a band, but a time and a place, a life-changing moment in musical history that few will write about, talk about, or come to know. Still, with the reach of the internet and a rising interest in the sound of this era that sees well-respected, far-reaching archival record labels like Numero Group re-releasing select discographies from bands like Unwound and Indian Summer, that sees the constant reforming and reunions of seminal 90’s punk, hardcore and emo bands like Bikini Kill and Rainer Maria, perhaps there can be some fresh ears experiencing Policy of 3 for the first time.

It might not have the same impact on them as it did for me nearly 25 years ago; after all, the things Policy of 3 innovated are so submerged into the fabric of punk that a similar impact might be missed. It’s possible that with one drop of the needle on this upcoming wax, for whatever kid lucky enough to stumble onto the band’s discography or to find their CDs and records in the used bins at their local shops, will confirm that this music more than holds up. It’s the sound of now, it’s the punk sound of the future.

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