It's almost criminal that Austin skatepunk pioneers The Big Boys are known more for their pivotal roles in the history of other bands than for their own wonderfully bizarre raucous blend of hardcore, post-punk, jazz, psychedelic, and straight up funk. Mentions of The Big Boys are usually either in the context of discussing onetime opening act The Red Hot Chilli Peppers (my 4th least favorite band...saved only by Breaking The Girl which I'll begrudgingly admit is a good song) who essentially borrowed The Big Boys signature sound wholesale on their first few records, or in the context of the infamous Bad Brains / MDC controversy.
A Nation of Misfits: Big Boys, more than just a Bad Brains fuck up
An excellent accounting of the whole thing can be found in the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History (for a detailed anti-Bad Brains biased (although factually accurate...) account check out this article from Ffanzeen, while Bad Brains' bassist Daryl Jennifer gives his version in a Pitchfork interview). So I wont go in to depth (especially since the whole point of this is that there's more to The Big Boys than their relationship to Bad Brains)... Here are all the facts everyone can agree on:
(This book will give you more info on what I'm talking about here)
During a stop in Austin on the Rock Against Reagan tour, Big Boys flamboyant lead singer Randy “Biscuit” Turner let the guys from Bad Brains crash on their floor. Biscuit lent Bad Brain's singer HR some money for pot. After finding out that Biscuit was gay, HR refused to pay Biscuit back leaving him a note that read “Thanks for the herb, too bad about the money. Fire burn all bloodclot faggots!” The incident enraged the lead singer of Bad Brains' tourmate at the time—Dave Dictor of MDC—who had a violent confrontation with HR. Dictor later wrote the song Pay To Cum Along as a response. It left Bad Brains perpetually plagued by accusations of homophobia, forever tarnishing their reputation.
Although members of MDC would speak openly and candidly about the event, The Big Boys consistently refused to address it in interviews, instead simply praising Bad Brains as a live act. The incident became a divisive moment in a scene that was becoming increasingly “macho” and homophobic, but also a galvanizing one for the nascent queercore movement.
The Big Boys' approach to the fiasco was in many ways emblematic of their approach to music. Although their songs sometimes took on social complaints (their excellent first single Frat Cars is the sister song to The Dead Kennedys' classic Terminal Preppy while TV treads the same territory as Black Flag's TV Party while the heart-is-in-the-right-place White Nigger is probably best avoided), by and large, their lyrics tended to focus on the fun side of being a punk. Songs like The Movies and Mutant Rock's pop culture riffs and trivial subject matter stand in stark contrast to the sometimes bleak sermonizing of Minor Threat and Black Flag. Later songs like Fun Fun Fun and What's The Word, with it's killer horn section, invite the audience to dance without an ounce irony or pretense. Their philosophy is best summed up in the song Apolitical which espouses an unusual-for-the-time “we're not able to fix the system, so why rage against it?” message. With big major key choruses and sunny harmonies The Big Boys brought the Ramones Beach-Boys-but-louder aesthetic kicking and screaming in to the hardcore era.
As a kid discovering punk in the late 90's era of dial-up internet and Napster, I had nearly any song I could possibly want to hear available if I was willing to wait long enough for it to download. (Sometimes I wonder if I gravitated towards punk rock because I could download a minute and a half long song a lot quicker on my 14.4 modem than an 8 minute metal opus) But I had no context. I could only find out about long broken-up bands from compilations and mix tapes from my friends. If I wanted to dig into a band's history, there was no Google, and no Wikipedia. So for me the evolution from the Ramones to my then favorite bands like Propaghandi and (see previous entry) Bad Religion was a mystery. The fact that 80's hitmakers The Talking Heads had ever been considered involved with the early punk scene was simply baffling. The first time I ever heard The Big Boys, however, I understood the missing link between 70's New York punk rock and the So-Cal skatepunk sound that dominated the scene (and my CD collection) through the 90's.
Across 3 singles 3 albums and a split live LP with The Dicks, The Big Boys can sound like a dozen different bands, but even at their most diverse, the members' idiosyncratic styles are unmistakeable. Biscuit's hoarse but melodic yowl is the same whether he's doing his best Jello Biafra on Lesson or shouting “baby baby baby baby yeah” as if it's the most profound lyric one could possibly write. Tim Kerr's guitar finds a previously unknown middle ground between hardcore intensity, country rhythms, and funk's complex chord structures. Even at their hardest, his guitar never breaks a light overdrive, instead proving that playing a clean guitar loudly can pack just a much of a punch as the hardcore punk all-knobs-to-ten crunch. Bassist Chris Gates stands alongside the Minutemen's Mike Watt as one of the greatest bassist in the history of punk, moving far past the prescribed role of anchoring the rhythm section, and actually provides a lot of the dominant melodies in the songs. While their revolving cast of drummers included some of the most versatile to ever pick up a pair of sticks; most notably Ministry and Rapeman drummer Ray Washam.
Ultimately their greatest legacy is in the legion of bands they inspired. Biscuit was famous for ending their sets by inviting the audience to “go start your own band!” Beyond wholesale imitators like the Chilli Peppers, The Big Boys can be heard in everything from the upbeat anarchy of The (International) Noise Conspiracy to Ian Svenonius' “baby yeah” shouts in The Make-Up. While their slower introspective songs like Sound on Sound anticipate the Revolution Summer bands of 1985. When Biscuit died of complications from Hepatitis C in 2005, a who's who of punk luminaries came out to praise the Big Boys for their uncompromising unique sound and style. As a wise man once said, “OK y'all, go start your own band!”
Vinyl, Digital, or Torrent? As with any band with this eclectic a sound, there's bound to be some failed experiments. Between the complete discography collections Skinny Elvis and Fat Elvis and the rarities collection Wreck Collection, every song the Big Boys ever committed to tape is available at your favorite digital music store. I suggest you pick and choose and create your own Best Of collection.