“You’ll never change just stay the same/Play the same old fucking game/Won’t let go of yesterday/Cause you’re not ready to accept a/Negative Approach/Negative Approach!”
We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy! There’s probably a dozen oldster Negative Approach fans in town who haven’t been to a show at Jay’s all year but will turn out for Easy Action just to hear John Brannon, the former vocalist for Detroit hardcore legend Negative Approach. And another dozen youngsters who know Brannon’s band by reputation or re-release even though they were still spinning Tinkerbell records on Holly Hobby record players when Negative Approach broke up and Brannon formed the decidedly un-hardcore Laughing Hyenas.
Negative Approach is generally regarded as one of the best bands of the genre, from anywhere, ever. Plenty of people will tell you they’re the best, period. There’s a good reason why music like this sticks around: It still inspires awe. Back in 1981 or 1982, being a punk rocker in the upper Midwest or anyplace else was a pretty dangerous thing to do. It meant getting beaten up a lot, and in the beginning there were few avenues for recording or putting out records or touring or really even finding places to play in your hometown, which hardcore bands today take for granted. Even in Detroit, apparently, the scene was tight and militant out of necessity. In short, the best bands from that era didn’t take what they were doing lightly, and 20 years later all the aggression and hopelessness and grim commitment still comes across loud and clear.
Incidentally, eBay bidding for the Negative Approach 7-inch (released in 1982 by an infant Touch & Go Records) can start at upwards of $100 and climb as high as it takes for someone to win by attrition. In a 2000 interview with New York punk fanzine Game of the Arseholes, former NA guitarist Rob McCulloch acknowledged the strangeness of buying Negative Approach memorabilia from the online auction service:
“[I bought] some videos that I had not seen of us, and a demo tape that I didn’t think anyone had, so it’s kind of cool, too. It seems funny to me that I am buying my own history from others, but I would rather do that than not have it. I never let the people who I am buying it from know who I am either, although I might get a better deal if I did.”
McCulloch is married, and he and his wife have a child. He seems to be the only member of the band to have done an after-the-fact interview (the band broke up, arguably at the top of their game, in 1984). By contrast, his old bandmate Brannon might be the only member still active in the Detroit music scene. Although Negative Approach always acknowledged the more traditional Detroit influences on their music, it took a couple of changes of band before the singer finally came around to playing something like most people would consider rock music with a blue-collar Detroit sound.
Easy Action does sound more explicitly Detroit than Brannon’s previous bands. The one constant in the mix is his readily identifiable voice, an awesome, caustic bellow that hasn’t softened a bit in two decades. Brannon’s voice has its share of imitators, too. Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm is something of a Brannon acolyte, sounding in many ways like Brannon’s musical kid brother. In his croonier moments, Brannon inflects his words like Mick Jagger played at 16 rpm on a turntable with a faltering belt drive—not exactly the guy who writes the songs that make the whole world sing, but compelling anyway. Most of the time, though, he just sounds pissed and scary, like the guy from Negative Approach or the Laughing Hyenas who intimidated a hard-working Detroit rock band into letting him sing for them.
The four-on-the-floor pounding of tunes like “What’s the Deal” and “Do or Die,” from Easy Action’s self-titled 2001 album on Reptilian Records, are nothing very special. It’s Brannon’s voice that gives them such a terrifying urgency, and breakup songs like “You and Me” a mutual-loathing quality that makes you wonder what it would be like to be the person who, you know, wants to share some feelings with the guy. Not for the weak!