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Anarchy in Omaha—and beyond: The punk rock history of Drastic Plastic Records
In 1982, a record store called Drastic Plastic introduced punk rock to Omaha, Nebraska. Thirty years later, Drastic Plastic’s record label is reintroducing punk rock to the whole world.
Drastic Plastic’s fascinating evolution, from record store to record label, mirrors the history of punk, alternative, indie, and underground music of the past 30 years. The store’s founder, Michael Howard, wasn’t originally from Omaha. A Colorado native, then living in Kansas City, Howard followed girlfriend to her hometown of Omaha and realized that the Midwestern city didn’t have much of an outlet for the punk rock he loved so much. So Howard took half the stock of a record store he owned with his brothers in Kansas City and set up Drastic Plastic on South 24th Street in Omaha. (Howard derived the name Drastic Plastic from the title of an album by the decidedly non-punk synthpop band Be Bop Deluxe.)
Back then, there weren’t too many Nebraskans with Mohawks, spiked neck collars, and safety pins for earrings. Setting up a store dedicated to punk rock and garage rock in Omaha may have seemed about as savvy as setting up a scuba diving shop in the southern Sahara.
“One year later, he moved to Old Market, which is the heaviest foot traffic part of Omaha,” says Neil Azevedo, General Manager and head of A&R for Drastic Plastic Records. “For 10 years, I think, he was working other jobs so that he could open the store in the afternoons. It was somewhat risky. But I don’t think, at the time, he thought of it that way. He went into it as a fan full of passion.”
On the face of it, it seemed that the timing for a record store dedicated to punk rock couldn’t have been worse. Punk’s heyday began circa 1975 as bands such as The Ramones, Voidoids, The Germs, The Heartbreakers—who came from a lineage of American garage rock bands such as Iggy & The Stooges, MC5 and The Velvet Underground as well as The Kinks, The Troggs and The Who in the U.K.—created a primal form of riff rock that was catchy , if often freewheeling in the rhythm department. In 1977, The Sex Pistols turned that music into an anti-establishment statement with its ripped clothing, barbwire hair, and slogans sliced into skin with razors. The band’s debut, Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, sounded like a downtuned Chuck Berry playing alongside Animal from The Muppets on drums and a snarling Cockney named Johnny Rotten spitting out his vocals.
Soon after, a wave of British punk bands such as The Damned, The Clash, and The Buzzcocks proclaimed mutiny against behemoth classic rock bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Like all movements, punk quickly splintered. Its influence informed experimental post-punk bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Television, Killing Joke, Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Wire. But by 1982, major label punk bands such as The Damned, The Ramones and The Clash split up, underwent lineup changes, or became more mainstream in their sound.
“While all those bands had gotten popular and had driven Howard’s ethos, the hardcore movement was just hitting its stride and getting going,” recalls Azevedo. “But it was still underground.”
The hardcore movement, led by the likes of Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat were harder and faster and as violent as the broken mirror on the cover of Black Flag’s Damaged album inferred. Notably, they were all on independent record labels. No selling out for them. Drastic Plastic got in the act by creating the short-lived Fat Bat record label to release an album by a local band named Apathy. At the same time, Michael Howard brought bands such as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, The Dead Kennedys and Toxic Reasons to Omaha. A badge of honor was bestowed upon Drastic Plastic when the store’s phone number appeared on the cover of Black Flag’s live album Who’s Got the 10 ½. (Fun fact: To this day, Drastic Plastic’s phone number remains the same.)
Howard also bought a screenprinting press to create T-shirts for local punk bands. Drastic Plastic began to stock the punk clothing and style accessories that, if anything, had grown in popularity since 1977. At the same time, Drastic Plastic’s shelves stayed abreast of underground music trends such as the emergence of British Goth rock bands such as The Cure, The Mission, Fields of the Nephilim and alternative American rock bands such as Hüsker Dü, Sugar, Sonic Youth and The Pixies. By the time Nirvana arrived on the music scene, Drastic Plastic was poised to capitalize on the moment when underground music went over ground in the form of early 1990s grunge. The store moved to Howard Street in 1993. That was when its screenprinting press burgeoned into an off-shoot rock merchandize company that continues to go from strength to strength.
The heady days of retail music have waned precipitously since then, of course.
“As the Best Buys came in and it became harder and harder to stock music at an affordable price, Drastic seemed to get criticized a little bit more than other competitors,” admits Azevedo. “Because Drastic was then a record store. We always had this authenticity that we had to aspire to keep. If we carried things like Sheryl Crow we got called out!”
Yet Drastic Plastic, whose motto is “Specializing in underground culture since 1982,” is still in the same location on Howard Street. And its reach is now much wider than just Nebraska. The recently reactivated record label, now called Drastic Plastic Records, reissues out-of-print vinyl records of punk rock classics as well as lesser-known underground music gems. Those reissues are available to buy at Drastic Plastic’s store here at Rock Square, so we recently called label manager Neil Azevedo to chat about Drastic Plastic’s legacy, the history of underground music, and how his team produces such high-quality vinyl reissues of punk rock classics.
Your motto is “Specializing in underground culture since 1982.” Was it a risky venture to found a record store devoted to a niche segment of music?
Definitely. What really distinguished our store from other stores around was that [Michael Howard] carried the fashion of punk rock. He carried Doc Martens before anyone else in town. And when that had run its course, he started carrying skateboards before anyone else in town did. And posters and fetish stuff, like the studded bracelets and things, were popular with the punk rock movement. And eventually, T-shirts.
Where did that underground culture fit into Omaha at the time and was it a reaction to traditional Midwestern culture?
At first, it was mostly ignored. But it created a huge gathering of kids. I was one of those kids. I started high school in 1981. So I was at the exact perfect age to be into the Drastic thing. Drastic was a place where you congregated and it was a place for people into hardcore music. It was where you went to get your wheels or your trucks for your skateboard and then you skated around the downtown area. It very much became a symbol for that. In addition to all the things I mentioned, Mike also put on shows. He was the first person to bring Hüsker Dü here. He brought Black Flag here. He was the first one to bring The Dead Kennedys here. And there was a whole bunch of local acts that would play weekly. He was very much into the whole ethos, the life, of the thing.
One of the things Mike did early on was to buy a screenprinting press and license really small bands just so he could do T-shirts in the store. He started to sell them wholesale and that became Impact merchandizing, which is its own separate thing from the store. But you can go to impactmerch.com and you can see how big it is. We have a Pink Floyd license, AC/DC, Misfits, Ramones, Velvet Underground, Joy Division. We do all those T-shirts.
Drastic became the symbol of the alternative lifestyle. People who were misfits really fitted in there. I was just a high school kid who liked to listen to music. What Drastic clued me into was that this music was part of a greater thing. We were a group of people, a generation, who could make a difference if we wanted to—which was the overall message of Minor Threat or The Clash or The Dead Kennedys. Ultimately, I ended up doing my graduate work in writing because I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to change the world. I was a believer. It was because of the symbolic nature of the store that made it okay for me to think that as a kid.
By the early 1980s, there was a distinct underground movement in music with a wide diversity of styles that had emerged out of that garage/punk aesthetic. For instance, there were Goth bands such as The Cure, Bauhaus, and, by the mid 1980s Fields of the Nephelim and The Mission and Sisters of Mercy. Those styles of music fell under the umbrella term “alternative.” That must have been a boon to Drastic Plastic’s growth.
We always bought in a heavy amount of that post-punk music. Some of that post-punk music is some of my favorite music and a lot of it is Mike’s favorite music, too. In terms of the store, it became what Drastic was known for. It was the place where you’d get The Cure or Fields of the Nephilim or Love and Rockets. You saw that video on MTV and you just assumed you’d get it at Drastic.
Now, Omaha is a pretty conservative community and it’s a fairly small city. So the percentage of people who were into that sort of thing and were spending money on it in the ’80s was relatively small, so it wasn’t enough to make anybody rich. But it was enough to establish this thing that Mike was able to keep long term. All that stuff blew up in the ’90s with bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. and all the bands that came after the post punk stuff. That had a much wider audience and those were the years when Drastic probably sold the most music.
In the pre-Internet age, how did word about those underground bands – largely confined to small, independent record labels – find its way to listeners in smaller, inland cities such as Omaha?
You’d hand drill a little line art graphic of where the bands are playing and you’d photocopy 500 copies of them and post them on every street lamp in the city. I was in high school in ’82, ’83 and people would put the flyers up all over high school. You’d pull them down and keep them in your room. There were also ’zines. They weren’t as good about communicating shows but they did communicate the ideas of what the local bands were doing—the culture behind the live music. And, of course, the store itself. It always had a wall with all of the flyers on it. So, if you weren’t sure if the lamp post you were looking at was the most current lamp post, you could always go check out the wall at Drastic.
The best way to learn about things were magazines. I really miss Trouser Press, I miss Option magazine. I remember reading one of my favorite reviews in Option magazine for a Swans live album. It went something along the lines of, “If that ghost that rattles his chains in the basement of the castle listened to a Walkman, this is what he’d be listening to.”
Drastic Plastic was perfectly poised to capitalize on the emergence of hardcore punk bands such as Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys in the early 1980s.
“It was the last naturally occurring youth movement in America.” I can’t quote the person who said that, but it’s definitely an idea I read about. It’s not an idea that’s original to me. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I am probably biased because it was my movement, but I think there’s an element of truth to it.
To one degree or another, everything post grunge was manufactured. It was there to be bought and sold. Minor Threat was never meant to be bought and sold. It was meant to change the world. Buying and selling was accidental.
At the time, a number of smaller, indie record labels started up and Drastic got into the act with Fat Bat Records, releasing the Apathy LP, Out the Window. What happened next and what was the next step for Drastic Plastic’s record label division?
The drummer for Apathy still works for the larger company—his name is Mark Blackman. Nothing happened with that. It went dormant for about 20 years. We resurrected it in ’09 because we always loved vinyl and the new vinyl revolution had started a few years before that. We saw an opportunity to capitalize on licensing some of the bands that we really loved and we wanted to see brought back because it seemed like the overwhelming majority of vinyl being made was either classic rock or solidly indie stuff that had come out in the last five years. So we wanted to bring out The Damned. We wanted to bring out The Clash.
What have been your biggest selling items?
The first really great seller was The Clash, the self-titled U.K. edition. That sold pretty quickly. We do limited runs of 1000 pieces. We do half of them in 180 gram and half of them in colored vinyl. It takes us a long time to put one out because we’re sticklers for the sound and we want to get it right. We’re sticklers for the quality so, rather than churn one out every month, we take time with each release. Since we did The Undertones, which was in 2010, every one of them has gone. We did the three Birthday Party records—Prayers on Fire, Junkyard and Hee Haw. We did The Damned Machine Gun Etiquette. All those releases sold out within, I’d say, four hours. We were doing it the right way. We were making sure the sound was really good. We were making sure the pressings were really good. We weren’t accepting shabby quality. And, of course, we’re licensing great titles as well.
A couple of other ones that sold really well were Agent Orange Living in Darkness and Motorhead’s first release.
What are some of the most notable collector’s items Drastic Plastic has produced over the years?
All of it is pretty recent, so I wouldn’t know what the collectible value would be. We hand number everything. Probably The Birthday Party records would be the most collectible thing we’ve done. The Birthday Party had not been on vinyl in a long time. I think Hee Haw was only released in Australia, though I could be wrong on that. No one had been able to get it, so it was snapped up really quickly. We hope to reissue it again in a different edition. We’re in talks right now with EMI/Beggars Banquet/4AD to get rights to do their fourth. But they did two EPs that they put out as an LP called Mutiny/The Bad Seed. We’d like to reissue all four sometime.
I don’t know what the collectible value on T-shirts is, but we’ve had the exclusive Velvet Underground T-shirt license for a really long time. We’ve done various designs, some of them very limited. But that’s an Impact thing, not a Drastic thing.
What are some of the hidden gems you’ve reissued that listeners may not have picked up on?
The three Factory releases are under the radar and are definitely good examples of the best experimental rock of the time. Experimental rock doesn’t sound that scary and fresh anymore. I’ll name the three: Section 25 Always Now was a fantastic record produced by Martin Hannett who, at the time, was producing Joy Division. The Wake Harmony really got pushed aside. It was the first record that Bobby Gillespie played on. He went on to do Primal Scream and drum on the first Jesus and the Mary Chain record. Crispy Ambulance was another really good one.
One album that isn’t selling as well as we’d anticipated is Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. We did a cherry red collection called Smashed Hits. That’s a fantastic collection. Maybe it was out fault for not getting the word out. Maybe it was a little too under the radar. It was a fantastic pressing for us because we did it on half red, half yellow vinyl. Each record is split so it’s both colors.
Take me through the process of re-releasing a classic album on vinyl. Presumably, there’s a lot of work that goes into finding the rights holder, negotiating a license deal, signing off with the artist or band, tracking down the best master recordings and making sure they’re viable and also reproducing the album art.
The first thing is to find out what the licensing situation is on a record and then whether you can negotiate a deal that will allow you to keep the record at an affordable price and still allow the licensor and us to make a fair amount of money. By “fair,” I mean an honest amount of money, not a ton. It’s not easy to find one like that. For starters, there’s a lot of records that major labels bought up when they bought out a lot of the indie presses in the ’90s. No one is really sure who owns the rights because a lot of the old contracts are cryptically worded. So no one wants to go out on a limb and say, “Hey, we could do this on vinyl.” Some people want too much money and you can’t make the record profitable, and that’s disheartening.
But then, when you find one and you can come to terms for a deal, it’s about finding a recording that our masterer, Alex, who works for Masterdisc in New York, can use. We always aspire for what they were going for with the original vinyl but with a clearer, ambient quality that you can get now because it’s 30 years later and the equipment’s better.
What that basically has come to mean is that Alex has separated out the instruments so that you get that clearer sound and sometimes you have to go one or two decibels down in volume in order to get that full, rich sound, but not that often.
Then, we do the art here. We have an art department and the drummer from Apathy, Mark Blackman, is the head of our art department. Not only does he have the technical knowhow to do desktop publishing work, but he has a photographic memory for authentic punk rock stuff. He knows exactly—exactly—what The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette record is supposed to look like. To the point where the people who own the rights to the record, Ace Records, will tell him things and he’ll call them on it. One hundred percent of the time he’s right. He’s our secret weapon.
Then we’ll go through a place in New York called A to Z Media to help us get the vinyl done. It’s always different who we go to, to get the vinyl pressed.
At the moment, punk and alternative and guitar music seems to be underground once again – dance music and electronic music dominate both mainstream music and the underground scene. Do you anticipate that the wheel of fashion will turn yet again and that we’ll see another band such as Nirvana bring back punk/alternative/garage music?
I guess I would answer your question by addressing the metaphor itself. The wheel has split up into many wheels. The distribution channels that gave us this steady, linear stream of music for 40 or 50 years for rock ’n’ roll, no longer exists. People are getting it from all over the place. I think the younger generation feels the inclination to gravitate toward whatever they want. They’re not as influenced by the waves the way my generation was. They have so much to choose from.
I think there will always be great guitar music. I think there will always be great electronic music. I think some of the electronic music coming out is the best it’s ever been—you think of bands like Autechre and Boards of Canada. And then you have underground punk music. There’s a band called the Mind Spiders that are absolutely fantastic. Sort of Ramones-y, real simple, guitar-driven roots rock. It’s really fast but it’s not that scream stuff.
So, yes, to a certain extent things do come back around. But I don’t know if anything will envelop the imagination of an entire generation the way Nirvana did.
The Internet age means that Drastic Plastic is no longer confined to Nebraska. It has global reach. Do you have any anecdotes to illustrate that?
This is our 30th anniversary, so we’re doing a series of limited edition T-shirts. The number of people who Facebook message or email or buy these T-shirts say comments like, “You meant so much to me when I was young.” I get that one over and over again. I think that its reach through the Internet has touched this other kind of reach, which is through time.
I don’t know if we’re reaching new people who don’t know about the store. That’s something we’d like to do with Rock Square because we have a great story. I think people who don’t know about it would be really be into it if they came and hung out a bit, either virtually or actually.
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