The history of Missoula’s music scene is packed with intriguing characters, legendary shows and bands that went on to great success while others imploded or simply fizzled into obscurity. Perhaps one day someone will write the book, but it won’t be complete without a chapter on the small but intense punk rock faction that elbowed its way against the mainstream at the dawn of the 1980s. Somewhere between the dominance of shit-kicking Aber Day bands like Live Wire Choir and the Lost Highway Band and the sleek synth-pop of local skinny-tie heroes the Time and the Heartbeats, punk rock gained a foothold in Missoula. It was never a very big scene even at its high point, with maybe two dozen hardcore punks forming bands and attending each other’s shows. One of those bands, Who Killed Society, recorded a set of brief, jagged songs in a home studio in 1981. Over the course of three afternoons, a then-recent Hellgate High School graduate named Steve Albini captured the brooding energy of the raw young trio. Yes, that Steve Albini. Of the 1,500 albums the legendary producer/engineer has worked on for bands including Nirvana, the Stooges, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the Who Killed Society sessions were among his very first. The seven-song cassette that they produced is one of the few surviving artifacts of a short but potent era in local music, and it’s about to get a digital polish and official release.
In the 37 years since that initial recording, Missoula’s first punks have dispersed and gone on to make their mark in all kinds of creative endeavors, from a gross-out act in a circus sideshow to one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Missoula’s initial punk explosion may have been short and messy, but like a bottle rocket aimed through a kitchen window, its impact can’t be ignored.
Plenty of veterans of punk’s second Missoula wave, which crested at the turn of the millennium and revolved around the legendary (and now defunct) Jay’s Upstairs club, are still kicking around town. That era and its bands are well-documented. The story of Missoula’s first hardcore heyday, though, is not widely known. In order to chase down the details surrounding the Who Killed Society recording, the obvious place to start was with Randy Pepprock, guitarist and songwriter for WKS. He lives in the tiny Bitterroot Valley hamlet of Connor, and agreed to meet on a recent Sunday for a chat in a local diner. He suggested we invite Jeff Ament, a friend and fellow veteran of that original punk rock milieu.
When I walk into the crowded eatery at the appointed time, Randy and Jeff are already seated at a table near the window, getting reacquainted. I grab a chair, making a mental note to add “punctual musician” to my collection of oxymorons. As I sit down, they’re tossing names around, recalling a few of their fellow punk rockers from back in the day. “Joel, who was in Silkworm,” says Ament, part-time Missoula resident and the bass player for Pearl Jam. “He was at all those early shows. He was just a little kid. Chris Badgley with his mohawk ’fro…”
“Hawaii Bruce,” says Pepprock. “The Scherer sisters, Matt Crowley…”
“Matt ‘The Tube,’” Ament laughs. “We were on tour with them for two months. I never actually drank the stuff that went into his stomach, but a few of my bandmates did.”
Matt the Tube was a performer with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Pepprock explains. His claim to fame was inserting a 7-foot tube down his throat and squeezing a pump to siphon a variety of liquids into his stomach. Then he would invite audience members to come onstage and drink the repulsive slurry he vomited up into a beer pitcher. As I stifle a retch, Pepprock snaps his menu shut and says cheerily to the waitress, “I’ll have bacon and eggs, scrambled, with whole wheat toast, please.”
Ament orders a cheddar cheese omelet and wheat toast. I wave off breakfast, having suddenly lost my appetite. “Uh, just coffee.”
“To me it’s a document of such a cool time,” says Ament of the WKS EP, Before Everything Got Broken, which is scheduled for release May 15. “I don’t really have a lot of pictures from that time, so whenever you can have any kind of document from that time, it brings back stuff.”
In 1981, Ament was a freshman at UM, having come to Missoula from his hometown of Big Sandy. One afternoon he was in his dorm room, spinning a Black Flag album at low volume. “Just testing the waters,” he says. “I’m in Jesse Hall, and this guy pokes his head in and says, ‘Oh, hi, I’m from L.A. and I just saw Black Flag two months ago.’ I was, like, whaaat?”
The guy’s name was Jon Donahue. A punk rock bond was forged, and the two started hanging out, listening to the Ramones, Sex Pistols and other bands. Eventually they picked up a guitar and bass and started playing along to the records. “We would just drink tequila and play along to the Ramones’ It’s Alive,” Ament says. An encounter with Pepprock’s band provided them with an unexpected opportunity. “We saw that they were playing a show at the Top Hat. We were cranked! We drank a couple Foster’s lagers, got our punk clothes on and went down. We were skankin’ and doing our thing.” When the band completed its set Ament asked Pepprock if he and Donahue could “borrow the drummer” and play a few songs. “Then afterwards [Pepprock] says, ‘Hey, if you guys can get a drummer you can play with us next month.’ So I owe Randy a lot for opening that door.”
Soon afterward, Ament would quit school and form Deranged Diction, his first Missoula band.
Who Killed Society was one of the more popular Missoula punk bands at the time, but their recording was never officially released. Pepprock’s last copy of the cassette sat in a drawer for years, unplayable because the tape had broken. The band had produced only a few copies, which have been drifting around since. One of the tapes found its way into the hands of Dave Martens, who documents the history of Montana music through his Lost Sounds Montana project. Actually, “found its way” is too polite a phrase to describe how Martens obtained the tape. Once he learned of its existence, he pestered a contemporary of Pepprock’s to mail him a copy. “I got the tape after sending, I don’t know, 50 emails to Shawn Swagerty,” he says. Swagerty, who now hosts a radio show in Portland, among other things, was writing for the Kaimin at the time, and provided a good bit of coverage for Missoula’s nascent punk scene. After having the tape transferred to digital format by Rick Kuschel in Missoula, Martens was at a skateboard jam in Big Sandy last summer, where he ran into Ament. Martens asked if he could include some material from Deranged Diction in a compilation he was working on. “He said yes,” Martens says, “then I also mentioned the Who Killed Society stuff. I just thought he’d be interested. I didn’t think he would release it.”
Ament says he’d periodically dug through his milk crates of unmarked cassettes over the years, looking for his copy of the WKS tape. He had no idea that Martens had a copy, let alone had it converted from analog to digital wav files. “I’d been talking to Dave about lots of stuff, and he says, ‘Man, I just got a copy of the Who Killed Society thing,’ and I was, like, what? I was freaking out. He immediately sent me a download of it, and I burned a CD. Then I sort of drove around with it in my car for a couple days, and I said we gotta put this out. So I reached out to Randy.”
Who Killed Society was far from the first punk band to play in Missoula. According to those who were there, that honor almost certainly goes to Just Ducky. The band was short-lived and featured an ever-changing roster, but its one constant member was Steve Albini. Pepprock was the band’s guitarist until he was sacked just before their first gig because, he says, he wasn’t good enough. In the WKS EP’s liner notes he actually thanks Albini for kicking him out “so I could start my own band.” Just Ducky played a variety of rock, from hardcore originals to surf tunes to covers of heavier songs by the Who and Alice Cooper. As far as Missoula’s emerging punk scene was concerned, Just Ducky was the progenitor. They slashed through shows with outrageous antics like smashing a TV onstage. They didn’t care who they pissed off, which was mostly other bands.
“It was like a war,” Pepprock says of the friction between the upstart punks and the more established mainstream bands. “Where there was a Battle of the Bands, it was like a real battle of the bands.”
“I got punched carrying a bass cabinet out of the Carousel,” Ament adds. “This dude just came up and punched me in the face really hard. And I was holding this bass cabinet so I couldn’t fight back.”
Punks typically sported mohawks and wore leather jackets, ripped jeans and Converse or Vans sneakers. The codified attire helped them feel like they belonged to something, even while they were rejecting pretty much everything else. But it also made them highly visible targets of derision from their musical rivals, or just civilians who were uncomfortable with their presence and threatened by their aggressive music.
Ament has vivid memories of the enmity between the punks and all the other bands in town, and how the punks had each others’ backs. “There wasn’t really a whole ton of judgment within our little scene, so you’re mostly just really supporting each other. It really was us against them, because everybody else hated us.” He recalls going out to the Trading Post to see the Time, a well-loved pop band that featured brothers Erik and Wylie Gustafson. Easily identified in their punk gear, Ament and his buddies had food and insults hurled their way by patrons and other musicians. “They loved to call us ‘Devo,’” he says with a bemused grin. Physical violence was not uncommon, although Swagerty recalls times when the punks would bring it upon themselves.
“Randy and Wally [Erickson, WKS drummer] would get pretty looped out with the clown oil. The band would play ‘Boom Boom’ by Pat Travers, and they would expect everybody to yell, ‘Out go the lights!’ and Randy and Wally would yell, ‘Fuck you, pricks!’”
One of the most egregious incidents involved Just Ducky, which played last on the bill at an infamous Battle of the Bands held at the Wilma in 1980. Pepprock recalls the lineup of bands, which was pretty typical. “Back then it was, like, you’d have a couple of country-western bands, a bluegrass band, a couple of bad heavy metal bands doing covers.”
Swagerty remembers the show, which he covered for the Kaimin. “All the usual bands came out and played. Just Ducky was last, and they were awful. The guitarist, Dan Walseth, crawled out of a garbage can. Steve Albini … he had a guitar effects box taped to his leg with gaffer tape and he was playing a big old Peavey bass. And John Rose was doing the singing.” Joe Cregg was on drums, and it’s likely that Heather Gonsior was playing keyboards The band wasted no time in pissing all over the decorum usually shown the venerated Wilma, which was at the time primarily a movie theater, but also hosted the occasional city band concert or symphony. “They immediately blew an amp,” Swagerty says, “so they borrowed an amp from Erik Gustafson of the Time, and they immediately turned it up to 10 and blew that one out, too. It was just total outrage. I guess they got into trouble with the owners of the Wilma because Dan Walseth smashed a guitar onstage, and you weren’t supposed to mess with that stage.”
Dave McIntosh, co-owner of Electronic Sound and Percussion in Missoula, was running the sound for the show. “They were reluctant to put on the show there,” he says of the Wilma’s management at the time. “Bob Ranstrom was the general manager. If he’d been there when that guitar got smashed on the stage, he would have lost it.”
Missoula music veteran Chip Whitson saw it all from the audience. At the time he was just a wide-eyed 15-year-old with big rock ’n’ roll dreams, but Whitson would become a mainstay of Missoula music through the ’80s and ’90s, playing in bands like the Coup’rs, the Furys, the Small Town Deputies and Top Jimmy. Currently living in Coeur d’Alene, he recalls how he’d never seen anything like Just Ducky. “I remember the stage curtain parting slightly in the middle, before they were introduced, and a band member mooned the crowd with his bare ass. Talk about a collective gasp. Then the curtain opened and Just Ducky tore through about four hyper-speed songs, ending with the breaking of a guitar a la Pete Townshend. It made me sad because I was still hoping to get my first electric, and this guy just broke one.”
Pepprock, after getting booted from Just Ducky, redoubled his efforts on guitar and began writing songs. He formed the Details, which included Sabina Miller on bass, Wally Erickson on drums and Dave Peterman on lead guitar. Most working bands at the time used a booking agency, and Pepprock was told that the band would have to learn some popular radio tunes if they were going to get gigs. They learned a few new wave and punk hits by bands like the Cars and the Ramones, trying to meet the agency in the middle. The Details played exactly one gig, at the 44 Bar in St. Ignatius. “I’m thinking there’s going to be a stage and lights,” Pepprock says, “and we get there and it’s, like, ‘OK, we’ll move the candy machine in the corner.’ We played one set and the owner said, ‘We’re gonna pay you, but you’re gonna have to go. You’re driving everyone out.’”
Peterman left the band after that, and the remaining trio became Who Killed Society. They played around Missoula at places like the Forum and the Top Hat and began to gain a following. When Pepprock decided to record a few of his songs for posterity, he recruited Albini, who recalls that he was probably visiting Missoula after moving to Chicago after graduation. The band rehearsed at their rented house on Ernest Street, but memories are hazy on the location of the recording sessions.
“It was in the home studio of somebody who worked at a local music shop,” Albini says. “The studio was certainly not worse than a lot of places I’ve worked since. It was semi-professional, but everything worked.”
Pepprock recalls Albini taking the master tapes to a local studio for mixing, and how the seasoned soundman was appalled at Albini’s greenhorn approach. “I remember something about Steve going, ‘What happens if we do this?’ [mimes turning a big control knob] and Jay was totally mortified, like, ‘It’ll be totally distorted! You can’t do that!’ So Steve said, ‘Well, let’s try this and this and this!’ Even then, he was, like, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ As far as I know, he never had any schooling or education on recording, he just started twisting knobs.”
So how does the music hold up, almost 40 years down the line? “I’m happy with it,” says Pepprock. “I hadn’t heard it for 20 years. I’m not embarrassed. We were young then, so it’s kind of teenage writing. Lyrically, I’m older, I have a more mature way of writing, I guess I’d write it a little different. There are a couple of bum notes. We did it pretty quickly, like, ‘OK, we did it four times, that’s enough.’ But I’m happy with it.”
“Say One Thing,” opens the set with lo-fi menace, the weird slap-back of the room making Erickson’s snare sound like a gunshot in a convenience store. Echoes of U2, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols emerge in a song that’s not even two minutes long. The ensuing six songs race by, drenched in anger and attitude, but are surprisingly sophisticated for a trio of misfits who’d never seen the inside of a recording studio, using dynamics and guitar hooks like old pros. Pepprock’s cheeky British accent only adds to the contemporary punk flavor. Corroded guitar tones, pick drags, propulsive drums and sneering vocals combine to create a punk statement that demands attention. It’s honest. It’s authentic. The songs are now older than a whole generation of hardcore fans, but they blast out of the speakers like a vintage bombshell.
“It’s pretty visceral,” Ament says. “It comes through. Even the way that Wally is playing the drums, you can hear that angst.”
Although punk never really went away in Missoula, and would see a resurgence in the late-’80s onward, the original scene began to splinter almost as soon as it hit its stride. Albini moved to Chicago and eventually formed Big Black, his entrée into the big leagues. Ament formed Deranged Diction and quit college in his sophomore year to follow Pepprock to Seattle, where he would go on to play in Green River and Mother Love Bone, eventually putting together a little combo called Pearl Jam. Other veterans of Missoula’s first punk wave include Joel Phelps, Tim Midyett, Andy Cohen and Ben Koostra, who went on to form Silkworm, which found some national success. The aforementioned Matt Crowley performed at Lollapalooza with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, thrilling crowds with his repugnant feats of gastric hydrology. Locally, Chris Badgley, the mohawked young punk who had a band called Nuclear Youth, recently ran for City Council. Like Joe Cregg and many other “survivors” of Missoula’s original punk scene, he still calls the Garden City home.
In the interviews conducted for this story, a common observation was that everyone from that early-’80s hardcore scene thought Randy Pepprock was “the real deal.” He had the look, he had the attitude and he delivered the goods. After leaving Missoula in 1982, he served as kind of an expatriate godfather in Seattle, letting other Missoula transplants (including Ament) sleep on his floor or helping them find jobs. Who Killed Society morphed into Circle 7, which recorded an album at Triangle Studios in Seattle. (Pepprock hates the album, which he says was ruined by a glossy production.) He left Seattle just before grunge exploded there, shooting for a recording career in Los Angeles. After a stint painting movie sets for a couple of years, he returned to Western Montana, eventually settling in Connor, where he has raised two daughters and runs a thriving business creating miniature buildings and diorama kits used in model train layouts. Over the years, he’s mounted a couple of rock bands, including Shangri-La Speedway, which featured Dave Bond and Tim Bierman, who’s now the president of the Pearl Jam fan club. His most recent band, Letters to Luci, released one album, in 2014, which featured some bass tracks by his buddy Ament. Nowadays, like most of us 50-somethings who worry less about raging against the machine and more about rising property taxes, Pepprock is thicker in the middle, gray on top, and has trouble reading a menu without his glasses. But one thing he hasn’t lost is his firm grip on the punk ethos.
“People will follow the winner, the leader who’s great all the time, but I like to follow the underdog, the guy who’s going in the out door, knocking stuff over. A lot of times it’s crap — doesn’t mean it’s good. But sometimes there’s a little spark, and the guy’s not trying to follow, he’s trying to do his own thing. It might be crappy, but it might be great.”