St. Louis rockers infuriated by recent harsh assessments of our fair city's music scene should steer clear of Chuck Warner. The way he sees it, St. Louis punk and rock never had a thriving scene. "At least, it never made it to vinyl," he says. "As far as national influence goes, St. Louis' vinyl record is particularly poor. It's like Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina -- whoosh --Screaming Mee Mees, Drunks with Guns -- whoosh -- Uncle Tupelo. That's it."
Currently a St. Louis resident, though he is moving home to Boston soon, Warner's knowledge of and history with punk and indie-rock gives him the cred-muscle to back up his argument: He's an avid-to-obsessive collector of rock, power-pop and punk records, especially those of the late '70s and early '80s, with a collection of vinyl running easily into the tens of thousands. He ran a mail-order business for years, was in college radio forever and used to run the Throbbing Lobster record label out of Boston. When he speaks about a city's music history, then, he's filled with forgotten facts, be they about the Peppermint Productions studio scene in Youngstown, Ohio, or the various power-pop record labels active in Lincoln, Neb., in 1979, and when he calls St. Louis "the land where punk rock never happened," his assessment is based on the facts as he sees them, not on personal bias.
Warner wants to share his accumulated information, and he wants you to hear all of those records. To this end, he has begun releasing a series of CDs documenting the great lost heroes of hundreds of regional scenes, creating what Spin magazine's Andrew Beaujon called "an Anthology of American Folk Music for dinky bands from Tampa to Dundee." The project, called Hyped to Death, is divided into a number of subgenres. The sub-series specifically called Hyped to Death deals with U.S. and Canadian punk rock, the Teen Line series tackles power-pop and Homework delves into experimental punk and punk-wave. Messthetics and Bad Teeth take on British punk and pop, and several other series are in the works. Each disc features 25-30 tracks from bands alien even to the most diehard music fans, and the results make for a fascinating, if somewhat daunting, listening experience. The CDs are being released alphabetically by band name, having started with the letter R and working to the end of the alphabet (the series is currently on B, and covering just those 11 letters has so far taken 44 CDs).
It seems that the series closest to Warner's heart is Homework, a collection of bands left behind and forgotten even more than most, unfashionable at the time and still not respected by "official" punk historians, all because they were too smart for their own good or (gasp) had a saxophone player. "Kids today getting into old-school punk have the idea that there was nothing other than guitar-bass-drums," he says. "They have no idea that two out of three bands you'd see on a weekend would have a keyboardist and one out of three would have a horn player. History belongs to the victors, I guess, and the cool thing about Homework is that I can cover bands that were doing experimental things, as well as bands that played punk shows but had a keyboardist, or a saxophone player, or a violinist, or just a singer who really wanted everybody to know he'd been to college." He cites St. Louis prog-wavers Earwacks as band that may crop up on a later Homework CD. Other St. Louis artists have appeared on Hyped to Death CDs, including the Zanti Misfits and the Mopeds. In the event that either bands' members are reading this and were unaware that they'd been -- well, let's just say it -- bootlegged, they should refer to the inscription found on each CD in the series: "Hey bands ... Don't get pissed off. Get in touch!" Of the 500-plus bands featured so far, Warner has been in contact with somewhere around 200.
Once bands have established contact with the project, they get not only copies of the discs on which they appear but also what Warner sees as a chance to cement their place in history. Warner promises to pay royalties (roughly 7 cents per song per CD sold) as soon as the CDs have sold in high-enough numbers for money to be an issue. And, lest you think Warner is a tyrannical mogul of a huge recording empire, keep in mind that his all-time bestseller, Teen Line #6: Power-Pop and Pop-Rock 45's A&B has sold approximately 170 copies worldwide, and there are plenty of weeks when he gives away more copies than he sells.
To do the series, Warner has fully embraced the Internet and CD-R technology, part of what he calls "the whole Napster/MP3 meltdown of the traditional music business." The CDs are compiled and burned in small batches as needed, with what he assures us is the highest attention to quality. He claims he has yet to have a defective copy returned. The liner notes accompanying the discs are fairly simple; longer, in-depth notes are available at his Web site (www.hyped2death.com). With such technology available, bands can update or correct their information or, if they so desire, be taken off the CDs altogether.
Warner freely admits that what he's doing can be seen as bootlegging but maintains that he's an "aboveground bootlegger," citing his readily accessible Web site and his willingness to remove and financially settle with bands who choose to no longer be involved. So far, no one has asked to be removed.
When bands discover that they've appeared on these collections, they generally have one of two reactions. "Seventy percent of the time [the reaction] is, 'Wow, I can't believe you've heard of my band.' The other 30 percent is people who are not really suspicious but need to be reassured that they're not getting ripped off."
Steve Scariano, current member of Prisonshake and the Love Experts whose early-'80s power-pop bands Turning Curious and the B-Lovers have appeared on a few CDs, is slightly annoyed but ultimately nonchalant about the whole affair. "It's like seeing pictures of yourself in high school for sale on the Internet," he says. "It's weird -- flattering, but weird." And although he refers to the project as a "glorified taping service," he seems to bear it no ill will.
With half of the alphabet still to go, as well as supplemental volumes, "greatest hits" and more, it would seem that Warner has his hands full, but he's planning years ahead. He has boxes and boxes of 7-inch singles from the late '80s to mid-90s that he's just begun going through for possible compilations. It would seem that as long as there is good music being made in obscurity, Hyped to Death will be there to pick up the pieces.