50 Years of Music: 1981 — Wipers - "Youth of America"

KEXP 50
08/03/2022
Martin Douglas
Photo by Frans Schellekens // Getty Images

KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year, and our writers are commemorating a song from that year that resonates with them. This week, KEXP's Martin Douglas looks back at visionary punk rockers the Wipers and their signature 1981 track "Youth of America."

Read and listen to the piece below.

Audio production by Roddy Nikpour

Five years after the purported inception of punk rock music, where else could the genre have gone outside of a 10-minute song?

By 1981, there had been a few notable attempts to commodify the genre. Punk boy bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were both signed to major labels, as was each band’s design when they were formed. While one had flamed out in a blaze of infamy, the other — who had the better songs — were probably still better known for their visual aesthetic than their music. Even though the Clash retained their countercultural ethos and musical adventurousness, they were also products of the major label system. 

Punk music’s plan for rebellion against encroaching dollar signs and the looming shadows of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was to play faster. Get tighter. Go harder. Hardcore had taken punk in a more brutalist direction, with punishing instrumentation at breakneck speeds. But that formula seemed to wear itself out pretty quickly in the minds of many of the more erudite punks. 

Where had punk’s sense of adventure gone? Its willingness to challenge its listeners’ expectations? Much of the brilliant guitar music of this era had already begun detaching itself from punk, with descriptors like “post-punk” and “no wave.”

Enter a somewhat reclusive genius named Greg Sage, from a place called Portland, Oregon. This was way back in the day, when Portland was well-known for virtually nothing except logging, beer, and a weird obsession with settler culture. Sage reportedly began building recording equipment after watching a film about Thomas Edison. Due to having access to the proper machinery as a child, he was literally cutting records long before he learned how to play music. Formatively inspired by Jimi Hendrix, the right-handed Sage taught himself how to play guitar left-handed. When he formed Wipers in 1977, he produced all the recordings and conceptualized the band as a group that would never perform live. 

Sage notoriously wanted to record 15 albums in 10 years with no promotion. Just sending records to shops and letting mystique and intrigue do the rest. With the long talons of capitalism already sinking into the punk community, it was a truly radical position. Sage himself resisted categorization, repeatedly insisting Wipers weren’t punk — or any other classifiable style of music for that matter. Which, of course, is as punk as it gets.

“D-7,” from Wipers’ first full-length album, Is This Real?, is widely regarded as a very early prototype for the Pacific Northwest’s chief musical export. Oh yes, I’m talking about the g-word, grunge. It’s difficult to imagine a band like Green River, placed at the forefront of the grunge movement, without the muddy guitar tones captured on Wipers’ debut record. Not only did Nirvana — an arty punk/hard rock hybrid erroneously lumped into grunge by proximity — famously cover “D-7,” but Wipers had a profound influence on Kurt Cobain. More on that later.

Wipers’ 1981 album, Youth of America, and in particular its immortal title track, trades in the sheer urgency of Is This Real? for atmosphere. That’s not to say the 10 ½-minute centerpiece is not brisk or tense, because it is absolutely both of those things. It is a journey of ebb and flow, of peaks and valleys. The instantly memorable guitar riff that serves as the chorus, the storm clouds of guitar noise, and Sage’s rallying cry for activism (which is sadly every bit as relevant 40 years later) all float in and out of “Youth of America” at various points. The backbeat is driving and insistent; never letting up an inch for the entirety of the song. There’s an instrumental and spoken-word section that lasts for nearly five minutes; a near-psychedelic mélange of vocal and guitar effects showcasing Sage as punk’s foremost sound architect back when Sonic Youth were still making ESG-type beats. 

The failed social experiments of “trickle-down economics” and “the War on Drugs” were in their nascency when “Youth of America” dropped, but Sage perfectly captured the tension between the haves and the have-nots circling each other. He saw the deeply coded writing on the wall and urged whoever would listen to do whatever they can to reverse course before it was too late. 

Of course, we all know how that story played out. We’re singing the same song after four decades. 

We now live in a truly frightening era of instant gratification, while it took more than a decade for the influence of Wipers to catch up to the world. Much of that can be attributed to the aforementioned Kurt Cobain. Like it was for many other bands, his advocacy of Wipers led to the visionary punk project gaining a well-deserved increase in repute. On Cobain’s famous list of his 50 favorite albums of all-time, three spots were occupied by Wipers records. In a 1990 interview, he said Wipers created the so-called “Seattle sound” fifteen years too early.

The band’s influence stretches far beyond Cobain’s considerable reach. Beat Happening had played shows with Wipers in the 80s and enlisted Sage to produce their debut seven-inch single in 1984. Thurston Moore directly referenced Youth of America in the press cycle for Sonic Youth’s 2009 album The Eternal, and its title track set a clear precedent for quite a few of Sonic Youth’s songs stretching well past the five-minute mark (including “The Diamond Sea,” which has a runtime of nearly twenty full minutes).

Bands like the Melvins, who themselves recorded a cover of “Youth of America,” have cited Wipers as absolutely essential, as have countless other bands in the region and far outside of it. Dinosaur Jr. cited the band as a huge inspiration, and Mission of Burma’s cover of “Youth of America” was a live staple for the Boston band when they reunited in 2002. Steven Malkmus, Britt Daniel, Vivian Girls. I’d be here all day if I listed every punk/indie/alternative band that has raved over Wipers in an interview or referenced their sound in their work.

The delayed impact Wipers have had on punk music is merely an indicator that, throughout the hype and accolades and gimmickry and tall tales and quote-unquote “discourse,” the music is the only thing that actually lasts.

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