Generally speaking 90s pop-punk came in three flavors: Lookout and Epitaph/Fat Wreck Chords, and the weird Cruz bands who sounded like ALL. Yes there were other labels and some bands who didn’t really fit into any of those categories, but as far as bands who anybody gives a fuck about, the vast majority were one of the above.
In this post, I will compare and contrast these three subgenres/scenes and discuss my favorite examples of each. For the benefit of anyone who wasn’t around at the time, I will also share my recollection of how “real punx” (aka the scene police) viewed this stuff at the time, since it can be funny to remember how butthurt people got about stuff that in retrospect is completely trivial. Check it out and let me know what you think– oldz might get a kick out of being reminded that RKL existed, and hopefully some of you under 25ish might find a good band you missed out on!
The Lookout sound/scene is essentially all bands who copied the Ramones’ sound and look. Some of them departed a little further from the formula than others, but they all used that classic 1-4-5 chord progression (ala “Blitzkrieg Bop“) and wore tight jeans with leather jackets and Chuck Taylors. Pretty much all the people in these bands were exactly like the people who listened to them: skinny white dudes who were a little too smart for their own good and ultimately ended up being broke, bitter losers because they had a bad attitude and a problem with authority. For some reason I always think of Lookout style punk as “music for people who work at gas stations” (see The Queers “Born To Do Dishes“).
In comparison to the Fat/Epitaph bands, and especially the Cruz bands, these bands weren’t very good at their instruments and all their records sound pretty much like shit. Also, all their songs sounded the same, but it was OK because they all sounded like catchy Ramones songs. Since they were smart guys with a chip on their shoulder, they were good at coming up with clever song titles that made them seem more talented than they actually were.
At the time it was considered more or less OK for ‘real punx’ to like this stuff, especially if they called it a guilty pleasure- sort of like how it’s OK to like Man Overboard or Fireworks now.
Screeching Weasel “Ursula Finally Has Tits”
There is no better example of the Lookout style than Screeching Weasel. The music is by-the-numbers, Ramones-style punk, but it has funny lyrics that make you forget how generic it is. In this case, it is about how Ben Weasel is excited than some teenage girl he lusts after has started growing breasts– par for the course, since this scene was full of super creepy weirdos.
The Queers “Stupid Fucking Vegan”
This song = never not funny. Without a doubt one of the best 90s punk songs, and the lyrics are more true every year!
J Church “Tide Of Fate”
Not sure where bands like Fifteen and Crimpshrine belong… maybe their own “pop punk for filthy East Bay squatters” category? Not even sure that J Church exactly belongs there, but I don’t know where else to put them, and I love this record. RIP Lance.
Mr. T Experience “I Wanna Do It With You”
With catchy songs and flirty lyrics like these, you can imagine why MTX shows attracted a lot more girls than most punk shows at the time… unfortunately, it being the 90s punk scene, almost all of them were fat and angry, with hairy legs and K Records tattoos.
Zoinks! “Uma 14 Times”
I think these guys were on some weird label with other weird bands like Brown Lobster Tank, but they were a really solid band that was kind of a hybrid of the Lookout and Epifat sounds. I actually had no idea there was a video for this song, but I liked it a lot in high school because I also had a celeb crush on Uma Thurman after watching “Pulp Fiction” (since she looked like a 90s punk chick, only hot, on the cover of the soundtrack).
Beatnik Termites “Angel Saw Reggie’s Dick”
This band was C-level at best, and this song doesn’t even sound like them, but when will I ever another chance to post a fucking Beatnik Termites video??? I think I saw them with FYP once in the late 90s.
Sloppy Seconds “So Fucked Up”
Although they were on Metal Blade, these guys were probably my favorite Lookout-style band- sarcastic, hilarious, fat dudes who hated the world almost as much as they hated themselves.
EPITAPH/FAT WRECK CHORDS
Also known as “skate punk,” back in the day many people referred to these as “Epitfat” bands, because dumb people thought all the bands on those labels sounded the same. Whereas Lookout was all about copying The Ramones, the Epifat sound was based on the Bad Religion sound (at the time that was called “melodic hardcore,” although these days I guess it’s just seen as pop punk).
In stark contrast to the sloppy, amateurish performances in the Lookout scene, most of these bands could actually play (and in the case of bands like Strung Out and RKL, were total shredders). Thanks to producer/engineer Ryan Greene, they also had pretty flawless recording, and most of the guys in the bands were chill stoners/heshers from underrated parts of California like the Valley, Orange County, and the Inland Empire.
Epifat bands were much more popular than Lookout bands (with the obvious exception on Green Day), so of course “real punx” hated them. I can understand why, because lots of snowboard/motocross bros were into this stuff, and what’s more threatening to some insecure, awkward kid in a leather jacket and a Vindictives shirt than “normal people” coming to punk shows?? These bands were looked at similarly to how people today view A Day To Remember: posers who make music for 15 year-old girls who shop at the mall. I will leave it up to you to decide whether that’s accurate or not, but it definitely NOT acceptable for “real punx” to listen to Strung Out or Lagwagon.
NOFX “It’s My Job To Keep Punk Rock Elite”
Much like Screeching Weasel were the epitome of the Lookout style, no band emobided the Epifat style more than NOFX (runners up: Pennywise). Pretty sure this song is about now-completely-irrelevant zine Maximum Rock N Roll? Either way, the lyrics are still 100% relevant today, and NOFX stand as one of the very few bands who can give The Vandals a run for their money in the lyrical department.
No Use For A Name “Soulmate”
This was something of a punk rock “hit single” at the time, and is basically a checklist of Epifat scene gear: dude with a goatee and backwards baseball hat singing; a snowboard; bowling shirts; Manic Panic hair; and Mesa/Boogie guitar amps. Also, I remember thinking the girl was kind of hot– this is how starved we were for girls in the scene back then O_o (Bonus trivia: Chris Dodge of power violence legends Spazz and owner of Slap A Ham records was in an early version of NUFAN and worked at Fat for a long time in the 90s).
Guttermouth “Do The Hustle”
Back in the mid 90s, the rising popularity of rollerblading and subsequent rivalry with skateboarding was a hot topic! Leave it to the brilliant Guttermouth to drop some science- check out the lyrics to this track and it should be obvious what a big influence this band was on me!
Strung Out “Solitaire”
There’s way more to say about this awesome band than I can fit in here, so check out my older post on Strung Out– but if I had to pick one 90s pop punk band to listen to for the rest of my life, I would probably make it Strung Out. So good!!
Hailing from Sweden, Millencolin were one of the first Euro bands to pretend they were suburban Americans– I hope that Chunk No Captain Chunk, Me Vs Hero, and Your Demise give these guys the credit they deserve for their pioneering work as fake American mallcore kids!!
RKL “We’re Back, We’re Pissed”
In addition to being one of the original Nardcore bands, RKL were also the only punk band who could shred harder than Strung Out. They weren’t very popular, but this album RIPS! Still some of the best drumming I’ve ever heard, especially when you consider that this was before the days when punk bands could afford to use triggers and so forth. Also, the singer sounds a lot like Dave Mustaine :(
Pulley “Cashed In”
Featuring MLB pitcher Scott Radinsky on vocals, in my opinion Pulley were criminally underrated. I still listen to these guys all the time, and I’m bummed I never saw them back in the 90s.
Unwritten Law “Lonesome”
Call me a poser if you want, but Unwritten Law’s self-titled record is one of my favorite albums of all time. I went through a few phases over the years where I would listen to it like five times a day– there’s something about pop-punk songs that revolve around self-destruction, self-loathing and substance abuse that I just can’t get enough of. That’s probably not a good thing…
Finally, we have the odd man out, the scruffy, fleabitten, but super-intelligent dog that hangs back from the rest of the pack, content to eat their scraps if it means he answers to no one: the Cruz Records bands. Cruz was a short-lived spinoff of SST (the label founded by Greg Ginn of Black Flag) that mostly existed to put out ALL records, from what I can tell. For anyone who doesn’t know, ALL = the final lineup of the Descendents, but with a different singer– imagine the Descendents “All” album, only with more weird songs like “Impressions” and “80s Girl.”
Cruz was a refuge for very, very weird bands who were equal parts Cheap Trick/Van Halen-style arena rock and pop punk. Imagine a bunch of dudes in their 30s with long hair who played pink Ibanez guitars and wore tie-dyed tank tops, but spent their 20s touring with DIY hardcore bands like Massacre Guys… an odd bunch to say the least.
Much like the bands themselves, the typical Cruz fan is a more than a little on the weird side. I’ll just put it this way: the biggest ALL fan I knew was a guy named Wayne who was 30 at the time, dated an 18 year old, worked as a bagger at a supermarket, spoke fluent Japanese, and had an amazing collection of Sega Saturn games and Gundam models. Pretty sure he actually moved to Japan to get married to some girl over there. I think that says it all- although I should add that he was an awesome dude and played drums in a fucking great Cruz-style band called The Unknown that you’ll see below. MISS YOU WAYNE!!
Aside from ALL getting a tiny bit of airplay on 120 Minutes, nobody gave a fuck about any of these bands back in the day, and even fewer people give a fuck now. I’m including them here because I love the Cruz sound, and I’m hoping someone will bring it back one of these days. I really appreciate how pure this scene was– you definitely weren’t going to make a fucking dime off playing this style, and there were no girls (just legions of weird dudes), so anybody in a Cruz band was doing it purely for fun, and there is something to be said for that.
As far as credibility with “true punx,” I think these bands were totally off the radar of the No Fun Club. They probably knew who ALL were, but I’d be pretty surprised if any of the snobs with Antischism or Spitboy backpatches had any clue about Chemical People or Gameface– imagine a Venn diagram in which the two circles just don’t overlap.
I love the Descendents, but I love ALL even more. And just to underscore how weird I am, “Allroy Saves” is my favorite. Feelsbadman.jpg, but this song never gets old to me.
The Unknown “Biff The Cat”
The appropriately-named The Unknown were a band from Cleveland who carried the Cruz torch well into the 2000s. Their records are pretty hard to find, but if you miss that sound, I think some of them are still available through Boss Tuneage and iTunes?
Big Drill Car “In Green Fields”
BDC were really more rock than punk, which was sort of what the Cruz sound was all about. They had a few EPs and two LPs, all of which are worth tracking down– it’s a huge bummer that this band didn’t get more recognition at the time, but I guess it makes sense since they sound more like Cheap Trick than NOFX. Also check out the video for “Friend Of Mine,” from their final album– great song.
Gameface “Guess What”
Although not actually on Cruz, and in my mind possibly more aligned with the Orange County hardcore scene, the first couple Gameface records sound almost exactly like BDC and should not be missed. I even like their more “rock” album on Revelation (check out the video for “My Star,” didn’t even know that existed until now).
WHAT DO YOU THINK??
Personally, I feel like the Epifat stuff has stood the time better than any of the others. A lot of that is because they actually had good recordings, but it’s also because they weren’t rehashing Ramones songs that were 20 years old even back then. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Ramones as much as the next guy, and The Queers have their moments, but for the most part I just think of that stuff as what the guy who’s changing my oil is listening to- it’s hard for me to separate it from all the bitter, jerky losers who were into those bands. On the other hand, I can still listen to NOFX and Strung Out records from 10-15 years ago– and Guttermouth never gets old!
That said, I’ll always have a place in my heart for those weird Cruz bands- there’s nothing like Scott Reynolds-era ALL or Big Drill Car!!