No More Beatlemania, Once Was Enough!
It’s Time for All Hits Mania!
Men and Their Work (Iron Lung Records)
I don’t remember their words, but I remember their stances. My grandfather and my uncle at the kitchen table, summer of ’93. They were arguing about people with HIV. My uncle was calm and compassionate. He argued people deserve care. My grandfather was defensive, doubling down, blinded by homophobia. He argued people should be shamed, isolated.
Three brief guitar blasts open “Instro,” the lead track on All Hits’ second release, Men and Their Work. Squalls of feedback follow, crashing over steady eighths on the floor tom and bass. No vocals yet. Time to get your bearings. Take advantage of the moment. It won’t last long. Read the lyrics and credits. Nine tracks. 45 rpm 12”. Try to decode the photo on the cover. The band huddles in front of the kick drum. Janie Black, Sam Whitelaw, and Izzy Dupuis on guitar, drums, and bass, respectively. They’re ready to work, but they take a moment to check in with each other. The black and white image is lit by a single bulb, but it’s not the lone lightbulb of interrogation scenes. It’s more like an underground cell carving out a temporary safe space before striking out, checking in before digging in.
My grandfather lived his whole life in central Maine. He survived the Depression, served in the Navy in World War II, and held down a good union job at a paper mill for decades. He was also part of an all-White community where some people attended local dances in black face. By the ‘60s, though, he’d become a civil rights supporter who wept over Dr. King’s assassination. He was capable of change, but he never moved past his homophobia. He stopped taking in new information, didn’t consider different viewpoints.
“His position reflected his intense discomfort with sex and his rejection of homosexuality,” my uncle recently remembered. “HIV/AIDS was the vehicle that day, but it was grounded in issues Dad carried all his life. He was so uncomfortable he could not speak of either sex or gay sex. It was quite a different response than evangelicalism, which spoke comfortably although derisively about both.”
My friend Mike and I get together once a year to mail copies of our zine. We each curate a stack of records to share while we stuff and label envelopes. That’s how I heard All Hits. At the time, I was watching my budget, so I set my expectations to “acknowledge but don’t embrace.” Be open minded, but no making lists, no buying records. But there was no denying All Hits.
The record opens with “Instro,” a short, unlisted instrumental. The ambiguity was intriguing, but I couldn’t gauge the band’s direction. Initially, I couldn’t get my bearings. (I’ve since come around on this track and accidentally discovered it works at 33 1/3 almost as well as 45.) Then came the second song, “Blockhead.” Guitarist Janie Black unleashes a stinging string of leads that remind me of Erin Smith (Bratmobile, Cold Cold Hearts). “Kickback” has more of those rapid-fire riffs. Black also dips into reverb-soaked lines reminiscent of East Bay Ray (Dead Kennedys) and dives into ample feedback. Punk is a guitarist’s medium and All Hits have all-star representation with Janie Black who plays with such voice and variety.
My daughter is 15. The other day at school she and her friends were talking about how they’d support a child of their own who was trans. As our conversation shifted to gender norms, she said, “No offense, but you and mom definitely steered me and Sean (her brother) toward different things when we were little.” My fragility spiked. I felt her mom and I had avoided gender stereotypes. I thought about that kitchen table scene between my grandfather and my uncle, and I wondered which role I was playing.
All Hits are insistent on so many levels and they couple this with a just-right amount of restraint. They’re loud but rarely scream. They’re intense but favor mid-tempo songs. The guitars saturate the mix, but usually with just one or two layers. The gut punch lyrics are direct and sparse, affirming and amplifying feminist voices.
“The end result of his power: violation
End result of his power: isolation
The end result of his power: dehumanization”
“The collar on his neck
The marble collapsed
It’s men and their work”
-“Men and Their Work”
Always elevated by a hold-your-stare delivery.
When my daughter was in sixth grade, she started having problems at the after-school program. She felt the teacher was unfair. I couldn’t get a clear picture of what was happening. I encouraged her to speak to the teacher. She said no way, that would make things worse. I offered to call. At first, she said that too would make things worse. We talked more, and she changed her mind. I called the teacher and we sorted things out. A couple years later, in ninth grade, she noticed a male teacher addressing students as “sweetheart.” This time Maggie wanted to speak up. She wrote an email that was concise and on point, asked me to read it over, and sent it to her teacher. The teacher heard what Maggie was saying and apologized. Maggie noticed an immediate change in the classroom.
“I’m going to need you to fuck off!”
There are echoes of All Hits in Maggie’s evolution. Earlier this year—she’s now in high school—her chemistry teacher passed out song lyrics to start class. The lyrics were a parody of Katy Perry’s “California Girls.” The teacher rewrote them about the female students of Maggie’s class. The first of many red flags. Maggie was livid. She took things into her own hands this time. She emailed the teacher before she asked me or her mom for input.
“Throughout the year, you have made jokes targeting the female students in your class,” she wrote. “Making fun of the way we act, talk, and making comments in general. These ‘jokes’ and comments make me and the other female students very uncomfortable and disrespected. Along with this is the song you left on our tables this past Friday. This song mocks the female students by making fun of the way we act and dress. What you wrote sexualizes us by calling us ‘toned, slim, fit,’ saying that we ‘got the right stuff,’ and calling our skin ‘so pale.’ Adding to that, using a student’s name and saying, ‘These are the girls I love the most.’
“Taking time to treat the girls in your class with disrespect, and only seeing us as a joke because of our gender, is a very big issue. We deserve to be taken seriously and it is hard to learn when we are being mocked and objectified. You treat your male students with respect, take them seriously, and don’t make fun of them, so why do you do it to us? Please take this into consideration next time you think about making another comment about your female students.
Maggie F., on behalf of the female student body”
“He hurts them, he hurts me
I’m not gonna let it be
Keeping quiet for social clout
That’s not what I’m about
C’mon let’s kick him out
Are we gonna kick him out
When we gonna kick him out”
Maggie met with the school principal. She met with the assistant superintendent. I was present but she did most of the talking. We filed a sexual and gender harassment complaint. The administrators spoke with other students. The teacher responded as expected. First, a qualified apology—“I’m sorry if I offended you.” Then a staggeringly lame excuse—“Years ago I wrote a murder mystery and we needed a song parody. The song was sung at the murder mystery by another student, not by me. It was a play that was very popular and I just wanted to share the parody with you.” We weren’t privy to the details of the investigation, but the teacher was out for a month. Maggie doesn’t believe he changed, but since his return the tone of the classroom certainly has.
I think Men and Their Work is more about congregation than conversion, but there’s room for allies. I may not be the intended audience for Men and Their Work, but people like Maggie and bands like All Hits keep me moving forward, on the right side of the table, so that I’m not the target either.