Pushing boundaries is taken for granted in extreme music. The review pages of Decibel are packed with bands that eschew convention in the hopes of creating something different. In the early 80s, hardcore punk and metal were ruled by dogma. T.S.O.L. was one of the standard bearers: Weathered Statues and Dance With Me were benchmarks that are revered to this day.
The band began to change around Beneath The Shadows but charismatic frontman Jack Grisham soon left. Guitarist Ron Emory started jamming with sometimes blues musician Joe Wood, who flirted with the punk scene but wanted to go his own way. What happened next was unplanned, but has resonated through the ensuing decades.
Change Today?, released 30 years ago by Enigma Records, was among the first albums to come from the underground that was impossible to classify. It’s a mix of punk, blues, classic rock and even Goth. Far more than a stab against scene orthodoxy or an experiment, it is a timeless collection of songs that are a reminder that life can be both beautiful and terrible.
Although Change Today? was well received by critics the band’s change, and the departure of a popular frontman, was not. As the band toured they got in fights, were threatened by skinheads and abandoned by many of their peers (read Wood’s recollections in the retrospective interview below). But while the petty rules that governed the scene are now viewed as silly, Change Today? has survived.
Change Today? is simultaneously a record of the times and not tethered to them. There are hints of The Doors in Wood’s vocals, a nod to T.S.O.L.’s hardcore past on “In Time” and the emotional honesty that made Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade such a revelation three months later. But Change Today? is ultimately a collection of songs more than a cohesive statement like Zen. It’s the work of musicians who get together and gel instantly.
What sets Change Today? apart from many records of the time is soulfulness and heart. It courses with an eye for life’s truths. Opener “Blackmagic” is a bluesy take on the evil woman who wrecks your life and “Red Shadows” is a primer on paranoia. That’s not to say the social bite of earlier songs like “Silent Majority” was dulled: “American Zone” is a critique of a solider deserted when he returns home. “It’s Gray” is about the corrosive effect of a bad relationship. It starts with sparse instruments and Wood’s vocals and pushes ahead to a fever pitch, much like a destructive connection begins with seduction. “Flowers By The Door,” the album’s centerpiece and one of the best songs to come from 80s punk, is about suicide. The song became popular after it aired on an after-school special. But it’s not a Hallmark sentiment — it gives anguish a voice with an unforgettable hook and sparse but powerful lyrics.
Change Today? was perhaps the finest moment for a band eternally in flux. After Revenge, T.S.O.L. made a full transition to glam with Hit And Run. The disdain for the band’s reinvention might be the reason Change Today? is criminally underappreciated. You won’t hear these songs live unless you happen to catch Wood at one of his local blues gigs in southern California. T.S.O.L. plays with Grisham and a set list that doesn’t touch Change Today? But the songs remain, flowers by the door that are still beautiful despite three decades.
Can you believe it’s been 30 years?
No, it seems very odd. I didn’t plan on being around this long. It makes me feel old, first of all. I was a street kid. I was playing in a little band when I hooked up with T.S.O.L. and I really didn’t think I’d be around too long. Every day was just a new adventure. It was a great time in my life looking back. I had no worries and everything seemed to come together on the first record. We had just decided to call it T.S.O.L., which was a big deal.
The band recorded Beneath The Shadows before you got together. That was more experimental and changed things up. When you started working on this was there a conscious decision to change more?
What came out is what came out naturally. Jack was getting into other things musically and Beneath The Shadows shows that. I was in a blues band called The Loners. Ron started sitting in with me, playing guitar. Then I ended up joing T.S.O.L. We weren’t going to even call it T.S.O.L. Mike Vraney, God rest his soul, was the manager of T.S.O.L. and The Dead Kennedys. And he said we could get a tour booked and make a record as T.S.O.L. I didn’t care what we called the band. But it was a really tough road those first couple of years.
What was the reaction to Change Today?
The reaction to the record was great. The reviews were good. But if you are going to replace a singer you better nut up, dude. There were plenty of people out there that liked Jack. I just thought of it as another band. (On the road) there were tons of fights, people yelling “dick!” and “you suck!” My front teeth were busted out. It was all sort of punk rock stuff, even skinheads. Someone threw a five-gallon glass water jug at us off of a ten-story building.
That’s crazy to think when it’s just about a band and a record.
I never got it, dude. I never understood the angst in all of it. I just wanted to be a musician. I’m a singer and a songwriter and that opportunity came when I had nothing else to do.
So what pissed people off might have been the decision to be more musically adventurous?
Well, I get it. To this day if you go see The Rolling Stones no one wants to hear the new fucking album. They want the shit that meant a lot to them when they first heard it. But I just hung in there through the whole ordeal. I never wanted to be a rock star or have millions of dollars – I just wanted to play rock and roll.
The record has stood the test of time. Does that make the hardships worth it?
I knew Change Today? was really good and the songs had the truth. I stood behind it and sang the songs every night before the crowd changed. Punk already felt over when I joined the band. When the straightedge shit came out and everything started to sound the same, I just checked out. I didn’t give a fuck about who was punk because I was on my journey. I knew where I wanted to end up.
What do you remember about writing and recording the record?
We did it in two days at Mad Dog Studios (in Venice). Everything was pretty much one take. It was a great time – we were drinking and making music and there were no consequences. So we went for it. Ron wrote all of these great guitar hooks that worked so well.
How often you people stop and ask about Change Today?
Every day (laughs). I mean I’ve moved on, I’ve moved way on. Not that I don’t love the record – I’m stoked it made it impact. It makes me feel good. Sometimes people will still yell “Code Blue” when I play blues gigs. But I laugh that stuff off. It wasn’t T.S.O.L’s first record but it was this lineup’s first record. Everything seemed right in the pocket and meshed together. There’s often a certain magic with first record that happens once in a while and I’m glad it happened with Change Today?
Would you change anything?
Now? Well, I’d change everything but it would ruin it. And I don’t want to ruin it.
I think the record introduced a lot of magic into people’s lives. I know it did for me.
Thank you very much. That’s really awesome to hear. It was my first real record with a band. I loved being able to play with those guys and be a part of that.