One of the least known of the hardcore punk outfits tearing up the late-'70s San Francisco music scene, No Alternative garnered a rabidly loyal local following during the band's too-brief history. Sadly, the band's lofty reputation among Bay area punks never extended far beyond the borders of California. No Alternative's relative obscurity wasn't due to any lack of chops; if anything, the band's fast-and-furious aural assault and socially conscious lyrics showed deeper artistic influences and more intelligence than many of No Alternative's contemporaries.
Johnny Got His Gun 1978-1982 is a 26-song collection that presents a fairly comprehensive history of the band, including side projects and early recordings. The disc offers a number of rare live recordings circa 1979-1980 (taken from shows at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens, the Deaf Club and Wheeler Auditorium), unreleased studio tracks, and the odd compilation contribution. All of the material has been remastered for the digital age, engineered by East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys. The studio material is as crisp as any low-budget recording of the era and the live tracks are quite tolerable given their age and the primitive equipment they were captured on.
It's the music that earned No Alternative its reputation, however, a high-octane and highly flammable mix of British hardcore (think U.K. Subs or the Damned) and American punk (Johnny Thunders school) with a dash of roots rock thrown in for good measure. Fueled by the incendiary six-string work of singer/guitarist Johnny Genocide (née Hugh Thomas Patterson) and a strong rhythm section in bassist Jeff Rees and drummer Greg Langston, No Alternative came across more like a Bay area version of X than another Sex Pistols-influenced hardcore act. No Alternative imbued its material with more intellect and less rhetoric than many punk bands of the time.
The band introduced young punks to Dalton Trumbo with the popular anti-war anthem "Johnny Got His Gun," (which was featured on the seminal S.F. Underground compilation) while "Rebel Youth" is a powerful call to arms with twangy guitar and jackhammer rhythms. The nihilistic "Life of Suicide" features a scorching solo by Genocide that would put many stadium rockers to shame, while a blistering guitar line and crashing rhythms drive "Dead Men Tell No Lies" towards chaos. Genocide rips off a riff from Golden Earring's "Radar Love" and sledgehammers it straight into your brain.
Some of the live material here offers a glimpse of the band's energetic and eclectic performance style. A cover of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" is played straight with fierce rockabilly undercurrent while the Genocide original "Sir" sounds like a cross between Jamaican dub (as filtered through the Clash) and mid-'70s heavy metal. No Alternative covered Johnny Cash almost a decade before Social Distortion, revisiting "Folsom Prison Blues" with a piss-and-vinegar reading that captures the songs original intent if not its sound.
Johnny Got His Gun 1978-1982 also includes the interesting, cow-punk styled "Show Em' All" and the generic punk rocker "Picture Frame Seduction," both recorded by an early pre- No Alternative band called KGB that included Genocide and Rees along with future Dils drummer Zippy Pinhead. A side project formed with Mike Fox of Tools and called "Alternative Tools" yielded the half-dozen songs that close Johnny Got His Gun 1978-1982, tracks like "I Hate the Government" and "People's Revolution," penned by Fox, eschewing Genocide's relative lyrical subtlety in favor of in-your-face anarchistic sturm und drang.
No Alternative were an important part of a San Francisco punk rock scene, contemporaries of better-known artists like the Dead Kennedys and the Avengers and an obvious influence on bands like Rancid that would follow in their wake. Johnny Got His Gun 1978-1982 rescues the band from the dustbin of history and establishes No Alternative as major players in one of the most important times and places in the punk rock pantheon.