EDITOR’S NOTE: It has been brought to our attention that many of our readers enjoy flipping through the magazine while eating. For this reason, we have taken certain editorial liberties with the images contained herein, in order to ensure a more pleasant reading experience. Bon appétit!
My local 7-Eleven recently started selling $10 posters. The marketing is less of an endcap display than it is just a large box passive-aggressively plopped down in the middle of the floor so that you have to stand and bend, ass aimed at incoming customers, a record store gesture.
Leafing through this box last month, I found the usual suspects for mass culture in deep inland Los Angeles: Kobe, Dodgers, elaborate gangsta tat makeovers of Marilyn Monroe. But a handful of these prints felt as personally targeted as any Instagram ad: Slayer, Public Enemy, a beautiful Sid Vicious poster that made me—briefly but genuinely—reassess whether I might just be the kind of person who would hang such a thing on a wall in my house.
Then I discovered a poster for the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia.” The image, a detail from the band’s infamous 1980 12-inch, is from Thailand, not Cambodia. It was taken during a university massacre in 1976, when right-wing paramilitaries, angered by rumors that the king had been mocked in a performance, overran the campus and lynched students. Associated Press photographer Neal Ulevich risked his life and earned a Pulitzer for this photo.
It’s a harrowing image. In the picture, a large crowd stands gathered around a tall scrawny tree. A lynched corpse swings inches above the dirt. A young man stands poised with a folding chair, about to smash it over the corpse’s head, like a wrestling move. The neck has been stretched by the rope and the face is distorted so the features look silly and inhuman, like a Muppet. The lurid awfulness of the scene hypnotized me as a kid. Now the store where I get my Ben & Jerry’s was offering the opportunity to buy a print of this image to take home with me.
There are lots of disturbing record covers out there in the world: gory illustrations, depraved toilet humor, every nude inch of the human body, up to and including John Lennon’s dong. It’s an exponentially smaller group of music album covers that involve photos of real people in real moments of horror. For shrewd music fans, it was once possible to divide such viciously graphic record covers into two camps: highbrow and lowbrow.
“Holiday in Cambodia,” with its withering assault on yuppie privilege, would have been considered highbrow. So would Discharge’s Why EP, featuring a nauseating array of wartime atrocity photos. I’m guessing Rage Against the Machine meant for the cover of their self-titled 1992 debut LP (the fiery suicide of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, a photo also used on the U.K. pressing of “Holiday in Cambodia”) to belong in this pantheon. I remember a high school assembly I attended where the entire student body was shown Holocaust footage, including long shots of floppy corpses being bulldozed into pits. The intended message—this is what’s at stake—feels similar to these covers.
On the lowbrow end of the spectrum, there were records designed to assault with no higher pretense. Italian black metal band Mortuary Drape released 1994’s All the Witches Dance LP with a cover photo showing a desecrated corpse propped in front of a tombstone with ritual candles, rumored to be the late grandmother of one of the band members. Not to be outdone, the cover of Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts LP is a graphic photograph of the lead singer after he’d quite literally blown his brains out (the guitarist found the body and snapped the photo; he himself was murdered by the band’s bassist two years later). I remember a time in grade school when, furious at literally everything, I sat on my bed and gave the finger to my bedroom wall. These covers seem kind of like that.
It is a hallmark of this teensy, tiny genre that most of its album covers could fall into either camp. Brujeria’s Matando Güeros (decapitation), the first LP by Australian hardcore band Depression (mutilation), Unsane’s debut LP (public suicide), Agnostic Front’s Victim in Pain (public execution), Amebix’s No Sanctuary (war carnage)—each of these records could have been intended as either blistering antiwar art or searing psychic land mine. And some of these terrible photos just wound up on record covers because the band members felt strongly that obscenely violent photographs fit the overall “feel” of their music.
This business at the 7-Eleven got me thinking about my own blooper reel. Thirty years ago, my record label, Vermiform, released a split 7-inch EP with two bands, Rorschach, a New Jersey metalcore act, and Neanderthal, a side project from members of Infest and Man Is the Bastard, bands that would go on to mint their own sub-sub-subgenre, power violence.
One side of the fold-over sleeve featured a black-and-white Life magazine photo titled “A member of the South Korean National Police holds the severed head of a North Korean communist guerrilla during the Korean War, 1952.” In the photo, a farmer or soldier smiles, beams, as, from the opposite side of the frame, an outstretched arm holds a severed human head by a slim hank of hair. The head looks so light it could be a hollow piñata. The scene is compositionally elegant yet EC Comics lurid. Unlike EC Comics, this image wasn’t cropped above the incision. This bloody stump is fully visible, complete with ragged flaps of skin and a few drips of viscera. The expression on the head could be described as sleepy.
Renowned photographer Margaret Bourke-White shot this picture. She writes about this trip in her memoir (her time in Korea reads like a nightmare band tour; she slept on police station floors). In the rural hinterlands, she discovered medieval fortresses ringed with pointed bamboo sticks. “I came to think of this as a conflict between children,” she wrote. The war pitted childhood friends against each other, sending them to lob beer-can hand grenades in the same woods they’d played in just a few years earlier.
The sleepy severed head never comes up in Bourke-White’s account. She’d seen far worse photographing the concentration camps. But she did leave behind an out-take. In the second photo, the head has turned by a few degrees. From this angle, the viewer can see what should have been apparent in the first photo: The deceased is a child, maybe not even a teenager. The witness has stopped smiling and simply stares at the head, as if realizing that this moment will never leave him. I gave away my last copy of this record years ago, to a pal organizing an online fundraiser for her injured dog. Would the decapitated child whose photo I merchandized have approved?
Thirty years ago, the wrongness of the imagery seemed to confirm the rightness of its use. In the wake of the PMRC, I remember a distinct feeling that bad taste was a sort of moral obligation, born from the same impulse that made it appropriate for teachers to show high school kids footage of Holocaust atrocities. See? the record cover seemed to say. This is what we’re capable of (although the object of that sentence could be either the actual wartime atrocity OR the merchandizing of that atrocity).
There was another, far less noble(?) impulse at play: Offending people gets addictive. A lot of us learned this in the ’90s. I remember calling my customer rep at a major jacket printing company and asking him gingerly about some sordid project I had lined up. “Oh, that’s nothing,” he told me conspiratorially. “One of our customers just printed a record sleeve with a monkey inserting a banana into a woman’s v-a-g-i-n-a...”
I think back on the Rorschach/Neanderthal split with disgust, not shame, as if it were something I stumbled upon and not funded. But it’s hard to sustain remorse for something that everyone else seems to think is perfectly acceptable. I’ve NEVER gotten any bad feedback about that record cover.
Here is how little a shit anyone gives: Two years before the Rorschach/Neanderthal 7-inch, Billy Joel dropped the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” In the video, Joel sings before a wall-sized photo of the Saigon street shooting of Nguyen Van Lem. You’ve seen this picture: A Saigon soldier casually points a handgun at the grimacing head of a man in a flannel shirt. In the decades since America’s defeat in Vietnam, a cottage industry sprang up debating the justness of this one particular street execution, with all the rage and resentment that Americans bring to these things. If one believes that the shooting was justified, as many do, then I suppose this pretext could be stretched further still to cover the image’s use as a literal backdrop in a music video 20 years later.
In a different chorus, Billy Joel croons before a photo of Robert McDaniels, lynched in Duck Hill, Mississippi, in 1937. The picture is gruesome enough even without the backstory: McDaniels was chained to a tree and tortured with a blowtorch in front of 500 people. The shadow etiquette of white supremacy makes it feel somehow rude to mention these details, even though the song itself was a cultural phenomenon, inspiring parodies and tributes from Coca-Cola and The Simpsons and The Tonight Show.
Lynching pictures have a complex history in America. In the first decades of the 20th century, these photos were used as postcards, serving as both souvenirs of racist violence and direct-mailing agents of racist terror. In the 1930s, anti-lynching activists subverted these images, using the very same photos as hard proof of mass cruelty. A half century later, such imagery had, somehow, lost enough potency that Billy Joel could make his video.
Offending people gets addictive. A lot of us learned this in the ’90s.
Punk bands generally avoided lynching photography. But the same year of the Rorschach/Neanderthal 7-inch release, Florida grindcore act Assück referenced the McDaniels photograph for the cover of their Anticapital LP, which reimagined the image with huge gnashing gears—turning a literal horror into a metaphorical one—like the scene in Modern Times when Charlie Chaplin gets sucked into the cartoon cogs of the capitalist machine. At the end of the century, fellow Floridians Pung parodied the Assück record cover on their State of the Youth EP, re-reworking the image into a biting commentary on wallet chains, which were a thing at the time.
These pictures also served as beacons. I was slow to get this. Running a record label that trafficked in such images made me bump Venn diagrams with some dark weirdos: armed drifters, young men who dressed like the grubby vampire tweakers in the film After Dark, people who worshipped serial killers and wouldn’t shut up about the Bud Dwyer suicide video. In the 2016 memoir of Cro-Mags bassist Harley Flanagan, several such figures make cameos, people whose capacity for mayhem shocked even him. These were the kind of folks Vladimir Lenin once ominously called “some truly hard people.”
Cruelty was the allure. In this case, I don’t mean just the cruelty of what-if scenarios where family members find these images in the wild (although there is that). I’m talking about the heavy malice of inserting unwanted thoughts in the heads of strangers. Weaponizing atrocity photos was certainly the cruelest craze in underground music—there’s no way to opt out of accidentally glimpsing a messed-up record cover—but it certainly wasn’t the only strain of cruelty. In the years before the concepts of “punching up” and “punching down” gained currency, there were many strains of cruelty afoot in the countless scenes that flowed from underground subcultures: flyers, lyrics, band names, fanzines. Gruesome record covers just proved to be the most potent.
Everything gets merchandized eventually. The Rorschach/Neanderthal kid still floats serenely on bootleg shirts. Andy Warhol’s “5 Deaths” print (car crash, floppy corpses) has been worn on runways by Calvin Klein models. Of this print, Warhol once said, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” That’s wrong, of course; these images can reach us on primal levels, and in the years before Zoombombing, album covers were one of the most efficient ways to traumatize random people.
The word for all this is “trolling,” and it’s easy to forget that the bad-faith techniques of the 21st century were honed in the pre-internet 20th century. Left to fester in the last decades before social media could incubate push- back, proto-incels and edgelords thrived. Boyd Rice’s slow pilgrimage from experimental artist to coy Nazi mouthpiece inspired a mini-generation of carbon cutouts, brooding young men red-pilled by a few chapters of Nietzsche. These guys were a dime a dozen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they liked their records with decapitated children on the cover.
Only in the rearview mirror can I spot these strains of cruelty for what they are: channels, tributaries, feeder streams leading to a present-day dystopia. There were other channels, of course—the men’s movement, anger-tainment, gamer culture, military cosplay, 4Chan—but the cruel edge of the American underground was absolutely in the mix.
Writer Jim Goad provides an absurdly tidy bridge from Then to Now. In the early 1990s, Goad’s infamous shock-zine, Answer Me!, featured a schlocky edginess in the vein of those shirts that say I’M NOT RACIST, I HATE EVERYONE EQUALLY (or, in the past few years, NO LIVES MATTER). It was forced edginess packaged as hyper-transgressive “misanthropology,” using the same rough photos of bad shit. The magazine stood out mostly for Goad’s deep commitment to a dumb bit.
And yet his joking-not-joking shtick is now standard issue for the troll armies of the alt-right. Goad had the ear of Gavin McInnes, who has long gushed over the impact Answer Me! had on the early, transgressive phase of his own magazine, Vice (disclaimer: I wrote for Vice after McInnes left). McInnes went on to found the Proud Boys, whose members are, as I write, being tried and convicted for storming the U.S. Capitol.
A week after 9/11, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter declared, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” Instead, the attack ushered in a generation of real-life Fangoria illustrations. Imagery from Fallujah and Abu Ghraib pushed real-life horror into American living rooms. In response, comedy grew far sharper, its satire whittled down into nihilism. Family Guy and South Park (and lesser-known but far smarter PFFR shows like Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel) plumbed the depths of this new depravity, with jokes about AIDS and ISIS and poop and gore and rape and racism, each joke so meta that its own brutal, bottomless awfulness became the joke itself. By the second G.W. Bush term, the term “the death of irony” was itself an ironic punchline.
And yet something close to the end of irony—at least a temporary cessation—did sneak up on everyone during Trump times. It took the shock of the 2016 election to spark a mass realization that ironic assholism no longer functioned as humor. For the past six years, I’ve watched in distant fascination as my own comedy faves (The State/Mr. Show comedy bloodlines) grappled with this shift in real time. I tuned out Michael Ian Black in the aughties, after he engineered a C-word pile-on of some random woman on Twitter. In 2020, he wrote a book tackling toxic masculinity. Sarah Silverman went from defending anti-Asian comments in 2001 to serving as den mother for the anti-Trump left, one willing to engage, with empathy, both hostile strangers and her own past persona.
If mainstream comedians could reassess their shit, where, I wondered, were the people from underground music? I’m not talking performative mea culpas or icky apology videos; where were the honest reassessments? In music scenes built around authenticity, where were the people saying, “Hey, things changed, I was wrong, we were wrong, how weird is all of this?”
Then one happened. In October 2021, Steve Albini (whose second band, Rapeman, received startlingly little public pushback) posted:
I certainly have some ’splainin to do, and am not shy about any of it. A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them. It’s nobody’s obligation to overlook that, and I do feel an obligation to redeem myself, [a] project I’ve undertaken piecemeal as I’ve matured, evolved and learned over time. I expect no grace, and honestly feel like I and others of my generation have not been held to task enough for words and behavior that ultimately contributed to a coarsening society.
For myself and many of my peers, we miscalculated. We thought the major battles over equality and inclusiveness had been won, and society would eventually express that, so we were not harming anything with contrarianism, shock, sarcasm or irony. If anything, we were trying to underscore the banality, the everyday nonchalance toward our common history with the atrocious, all while laboring under the tacit *mistaken* notion that things were getting better. I’m overdue for a conversation about my role in inspiring “edgelord” shit. Believe me, I’ve met my share of punishers at gigs and I sympathize with anybody who isn’t me but still had to suffer them.
Three months later, a betrayed Jim Goad posted, “Steve Albini is another one who’s become an insufferably estrogenic shrieking moralist spouting the same brainwashed pieties. And they all wind up looking like the same elderly gender-studies student.”
Albini replied to Goad: “Better than winning a Grammy.”