Give Them A Smile
By Jordan N. Mamone:
For six years in the 1980s, No Trend defined the word "infamous." Never has a single group confused, irritated and challenged the small-minded punk-rock cognoscenti with so much vigor and imagination.
Based in Ashton, MD, an outer suburb between Baltimore and Washington, these uncompromising smartasses left an assaultive, poignant and tragicomic legacy that laughed at the fundamental awfulness of human nature. They also provided an unfashionably obnoxious liberation from the ideological and stylistic straitjackets worn by DC’s straight-edge hardcore community. While Minor Threat’s influential leader Ian MacKaye sought subcultural unity as he denounced drinking, drugs and sex, No Trend’s chief instigator Jeff Mentges (aka Jefferson Scott, aka Cliff "Babe" Ontego) called for "Mass Sterilization Caused by Venereal Disease."
Only now, 14 years after their breakup, has the final No Trend album arrived in stores. Morphius Archives, an imprint of the independent Morphius label, recently unearthed More (1988), an aborted, bombastic LP deemed too weird for release by the venerated Touch and Go Records, to which the band was signed at the end of its career. Back then, underground tastemakers couldn’t handle blowouts like the 18-minute "No Hopus Opus," a saga of doomed trailer-park cretins ornamented by a sweeping 40-piece orchestra, brutal thrash jazz, the six-string intricacies of Eric Leifert (aka Leif) and the effervescent backing vocals of future Lilith Fair star Paula Cole, who matriculated with saxman Brian Nelson (aka Johnny "Bubba" Ontego).
Needless to say, No Trend suffered for their phenomenal, erratic output. The era’s fanzines hated them. They reaped little acclaim from being managed by Steve Blush, the gig promoter who would found Seconds magazine. Or from collaborating with Lydia Lunch on the tormented A Dozen Dead Roses (1985). Mentges’ revolving lineups evolved constantly and unapologetically; the brave few who embraced the trudging fuzz-scrape of Too Many Humans (1984) were vexed by the insane horn charts and lounge-metal histrionics of Tritonian Nash–Vegas Polyester Complex (1987).
"To say that No Trend went against the grain would be a great understatement," says Dean Evangelista, guitarist from 1984 to 1985. "No Trend took the grain, and shoved it into the faces of the pretentious hardcore fans, leaving them to wonder what had just happened."
Jack Anderson (aka Ozob), bassist from 1983 to 1984, elaborates. "No Trend was despised particularly in DC because of the insular nature of the DC hardcore scene at the time. We did not play hardcore music, but we did play hardcore shows. We also taunted punk rockers, who were essentially conformists within their own scene. We were challenging punks to think about the uniforms they were wearing, and a lot of people didn’t want to hear that. There was a sentiment, especially from [Minor Threat’s] Dischord Records crowd, that No Trend was ‘bad for the scene’ because we were so critical. And simply put, Jeff wanted to be despised.
"For example, we once opened up for T.S.O.L. Jeff went out of his way to invite the Dischord crowd and the Bad Brains, among others. He had acquired these superbright lights that I think they used on airport runways. He put them on the edge of the stage, in between the band and the crowd, making it nearly impossible to even look at the band–even if you could have seen us through the lights. Looking out and seeing people turning away, shielding their eyes or simply putting their heads down, I realized this is a band that will always be more hated than loved."
Mentges himself offers a different perspective. "There seems to be this imagined rift between us and the hardcore scene. That really wasn’t our main goal. It was about doing what we felt like doing, and along the way it just pissed some people off, so every now and then we would have an easy opportunity to take jabs at people. But I’ve always been confused by why what music you listen to would dictate what kind of clothes you wear or what color your hair is. If there’s a philosophy in the music you like, you can live by that, but I don’t see why you have to be part of a clique, a scene, a movement."
"You’d be at show waiting for Government Issue to go on," says Buck Parr (aka Fishman), guitarist from 1985 to 1986. "There’s like 10 bands on the bill. You watch a couple; they’re pretty good–they sound a lot like GI. No Trend comes on next, and suddenly everyone in the club knows that something is not right. The band is not playing hardcore–they are playing some slow, droning, monotonous nightmare. People stand around slackjawed, not knowing what to make of it. The song they’re playing goes on for far too long. Maybe it will end soon, but it doesn’t. Kids are starting to get pissed because they’ve gotten new boots and have come out to slam. Twenty minutes later the band is still playing the same song, and it hurts to listen to it. The singer is verbally berating everyone. What the fuck is this? Who let these guys in? We’ll never share a bill with those assholes again."
"It is ironic," adds James Peachey (aka Fuzz), drummer from 1986 until the end, "that the punks, who originally came together because they were alienated, felt alienated again when No Trend’s lyrics accused them of being just another fashion trend. The idea that they weren’t alienated or disenfranchised anymore was so repugnant that they started loving to hate No Trend."
"We didn’t even listen to the type of music we played," says Mentges. "When hardcore first came out, it was fun and interesting, but after a while, it just turned into everything it was against. I remember pulling up to [NYC venue] Danceteria with a big wad of Redman chewing tobacco in my mouth and Hank Williams Sr. blaring out of the van. People were like, ‘Well you’re not No Trend.’ ‘You bet your ass we are!’
"Early on, we’d go to thrift stores and get the ugliest, mismatched polyester things we could find," he continues. "We’d play ‘Mindless Little Insects’ and I’d walk around with a mirror and put it in people’s faces. We came out with a big drop cloth that had wet paint running down it at Danceteria. For some reason, I had my body wrapped in aluminum foil and covered with shaving cream. We had the strobe light going and I was just this giant, reflective white blob running around behind this clouded plastic with dripping paint. Of course, as I crashed into that, the whole thing came down on all these people in their best little new-wave outfits.
The lyrics –grim, often psychotically screamed observations of Middle America at its most mundane and frustrating–compress everyday torment into such keenly spiteful couplets as "Are you stupid/Or are you dumb?" and "My feelings have no thought/My thoughts have no feeling/Everything turns to shit/I know I’m next." Mentges’ contempt for society seemed upstaged only by his contempt for himself, with black humor as the leavening agent. In More’s "Sorry I Asked," he reduces existence to "Just another grave to be filled/Just another counterculture/Just another waste of time.../Just another day/You have bad breath." The title track of Too Many Humans simply scolds, "Too many fucking humans/You breed like rats/And you’re no fucking better." No Trend’s best-known song, the 1983 debut single "Teen Love," unsympathetically mutilates two dull adolescents in a car crash.
"Who could bear being part of one of the most affluent, educated and safe counties in the country?" asks founding bassist Bob Strasser (aka Robert "Smokeman" Marymont). "The opposing forces of pretentious urbanites on the one hand and the remnants of the South’s white trash in certain parts of our home state on the other gave us great foils to work with."
"I’ve been told that I like pessimistic things," says Mentges. "For example, I see The Grapes of Wrath as an uplifting book–to see people survive and endure the hardship. If you look at things at their bleakest, the only thing you can do is see something better."
"Jeff was a brilliant but sometimes difficult person to get along with," recalls Anderson. "He couldn’t stand most people and would let them know it."
"Jeff is the most gifted, naturally born provocateur I have ever known," affirms Parr. "He is–I should say was–an extremely talented psychological bully. I have never met anyone quite like him. He could reduce the most well-adjusted person to a quivering lump in a matter of moments. He had an enormous amount of negative charisma, approaching genius level. He was gifted in this horribly offensive, yet oddly appealing, way. It’s hard to describe how, but he was a true star."
Mentges may have been the mouthpiece, but Frank Price (aka Jim Jones, aka Frankenberry), who killed himself circa 1989, was the quiet architect of No Trend’s early cacophony.
"Frank’s contribution was to lay the groundwork and philosophy of the band," notes Strasser. "Jeff politicked and organized and I happened to be there to cowrite and play the music that followed. [Frank] had a rather dim view of his fellow man, and was caught in a less than perfect family situation. You can see it in his virulently antisocial lyrics. I think it was his way of throwing reality back into the face of all the ‘lame cunts’–his term–living unexamined lives predetermined by fad and popularity. Unfortunately, his viewpoint ended up costing him his life."
By late 1984, Price had departed. Strasser, who had left in 1983, had returned, making No Trend more melodic but less predictable. "I do think that the later, Vegas-style sound was at least as offensive and deliberately provocative as the early stuff," says Parr. "By the time I was in the band, No Trend was a known entity, and people came to our shows looking to hear something angry, noisy and abrasive. What they got instead was lounge music, polkas and Muzak. You come out to see the band that wrote the song ‘Cancer,’ and they’re all dressed in uniforms doing a tightly choreographed dance routine. There’s a horn section. [In the mid-80s] bands like Sonic Youth were really starting to get national attention. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that No Trend changed its sound around this time."
"The noise approach was just the first edge of the spectrum the band was eventually to explore," says Peachey. "We could play a noise tune or two, but would have quickly gotten bored if that was the only idea to work with. As we went, more and more influences got brought in until it seemed that no style was safe from No Trend reinterpreting it. The great thing was that nobody could quite tell whether or not we were joking. With More, all the style lines were blurred beyond the willingness of Touch and Go to market the album."
Unable to find a new label, the quintet dissolved when Peachey went to grad school. Mentges turned to filmmaking and in 1990 completed the John Holmes biopic Of Flesh and Blood, a low-budget precursor to Boogie Nights.
"I guess No Trend could really be a true dada band," he reflects. "Through the nonsense there is some sort of meaning, but I don’t know if I’m even worthy to say what it is."
Parr sums it up best: "So few people comprehended the band because it was the band’s intention to fuck with its audience’s expectations. No Trend, regardless of what anyone is telling you now, was not about making music that people would actually enjoy. The band was more about alienating and confusing people, including whatever limited fan base it was able to gain. We wanted a freak show. No Trend] was more than the music they put out–they were almost like theater, some terrifying experiment in mass psychology or crowd manipulation. But the music was insanely great, as well. There was no one else like them."
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