Prior to the release of this 21-track retrospective, the Units had been criminally relegated to footnote status in discussions of San Francisco’s more notorious early synthpunks, the Screamers. When not namechecked as an addendum, they frequently earned passing mentions in the Jandek lineage, as the loner/weirdo’s first LP was initially released under the name Units, prompting these keyboard-wielding future primitives to submit a cease-and-desist notification to the future Corwood Industries superstar. In the pantheon of underground music (and the art scenes that often spawn it), little is more insulting than to be remembered as a band cited only in reference to others. As such, History of the Units levels the playing field as handily as it educates and entertains.
The Units were an extremely appealing first-wave synthpunk band whose music - while pretty fringe by most standards either current or historical - is still far more approachable than that of the Screamers or nascent electro-punks like Nervous Gender or Xex. Comprising the band’s early singles along with unreleased demos and selections from their classic Digital Stimulation LP, these songs tell the story of California’s first punk band to elevate the phrase (as quoted in the liners): fuck the guitars to battle-cry status. That’s not a statement likely to earn much traction with subscribers to the Black Flag-dominated version of left coast punk history, but indeed, the Units took the business of musical discontent and structured it for a dystopian future that was still decades away. Most importantly, they did it with a sound and aesthetic that was wholly different, yet just as revolutionary as the one preferred by their bemohawked non-brethren.
The Units speak for a time when trepidation for the digital future was a cultural norm in nearly every aspect of popular culture. To some, rapid advances in everything from video games to cable television and home computers (and the youth cultures that accompanied them) suggested a world that was changing too rapidly, if not careening out of control. Accordingly, the Units processed that anxiety and regurgitated music with a fierce skepticism towards a war-mongering and materialistic consumer culture. Unit Training Film #1 (which can be viewed here) is a primitive montage of found footage, 1950s science class reels, and live performances accompanied by the song “Warm Moving Bodies” (one of many stellar moments on this CD). The video demonstrates how effectively the band could draw upon disparate sources and present a form of artful protest that has arguably aged more deftly than the many raging guitar bands of their era have. The Units weren’t merely a garden variety punk act who eschewed hardcore for electronic bleep boxes. Their social commentaries were just as acerbic as anything in the Germs or Avengers axis, but their use of synthesizers and robotic vocals made them outsiders in both the mainstream and local punk scenes. Only the tiniest handful of bands can claim to have belonged to such minuscule yet critically lauded scenes, and that classification is a large part of what makes re-visiting the Units in 2009 such a blast.
Unfortunately, hard luck and ever-changing musical climates derailed their opportunities to make a dent beyond the confines of the San Francisco underground. In 1984, they signed with CBS/Epic, released a solitary EP that spawned a medium-rotation MTV single (“A Girl Like You”), and then had two albums worth of freshly recorded material shelved by the label. Much like Scritti Politti’s “Sweetest Girl” (released just a few years earlier), the Units’ latter day material was a major departure from the defiant angst that had characterized early tracks like the ones chronicled on this collection, and it’s difficult to say whether their release would seem as revelatory. Perhaps musical trends of the next 20 years will engender a second volume of these later Units recordings, but in the meantime, this CD captures the finest artifacts from the band’s point of departure - without contest, their most crucial and invigorating work.