Oi! – Detroit-style 

Punk's not dead — just ask Bad Assets

Bad Assets play a CD release show for The Spirit of Detroit at the Corktown Tavern on May 26 with 1592, Standard Issue, Public Sex and Super Dot. 1716 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-5103.



Alright, here's the history lesson. As the '70s were giving way to the '80s, as UK punk rock was being sanitized for the mainstream and rechristened "new wave," a movement of still-pissed working class youths was forming. Over here, those refusing to accept the Police and Elvis Costello as punks were creating what we now know as hardcore. Over in Blighty, the new sound was called Oi!

The lyrics and the riffs were simplistic enough to make the Pistols sound like intellectuals, as the original punk sound was blended with the primal stomp of the glitter bands (Slade and, yes, Suzi Quatro) and the boozy feel of pub rock bands like Eddie & the Hot Rods and the Heavy Metal Kids. Beer and soccer chants and dissatisfaction with the government and working conditions were the order of the day, as bands such as Cock Sparrer, the Business and Sham 69 stomped their Size 11 Doc Martens all over Britain. Those boots and the accompanying skinhead haircuts, denim jeans and a home-scrawled T-shirt were the uniform. 

The movement was labeled Oi! by English music journalist Garry Bushell writing for Sounds magazine in 1980. "Oi" is a cockney (East London) term meaning "hey." Used twice ("Oi-oi"), it's an affectionate greeting.

There is an unavoidable sinister side to Oi!'s history. Because of the aforementioned image, as well as the chant-like qualities of the music, the movement attracted white power types, including the vile National Front, an offshoot of the right wing pseudo-political British National Party (BNP). However, the vast majority of the bands had no such affiliations. Indeed many, such as the Angelic Upstarts, the Oppressed and the Burial among others, were openly left-wing and would play anti-racism shows.

In the decades since, American hardcore made its way over to Britain. Meanwhile American bands like Rancid, the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs stated their appreciation for the Oi! movement. And specifically in Detroit, a few bands came and went, paving the way for Bad Assets.

These guys, ranging in age between 22 and 42, formed three years ago. Ralph Anderson had been singing with hardcore band Death in Custody, as he continues to do. Guitarist Matt Bishop is also a member of Deliberate Abuse, while bassist John Labeau plays with a variety of Celtic bands around town 

"With Jason [Milbauer, drums], you get a lot of the Southern California punk rock, the younger stuff," says Labeau. "Matt and myself remember a lot of the '90s bands, as well as going further back. Ralph just being old brings a lot of older bands."

Besides Milbauer, who is a student, these are all married-with-children guys who hold down full-time jobs. Apparently, that dastardly system caught up with them.

 "Not only am I in two bands, but I work full-time and I've got a kid that I see all the time," Anderson says. "I have to schedule everything way in advance. I could tell you what I'm going to be doing for the next six months, right now."

So fighting the temptation to jump to an assumption, is there any risk that Bad Assets have any white power sympathies? One look at the band immediately puts those fears to bed. 

"Well, I'm black," Anderson says. "If you know anything about the scene in Detroit, back in the '80s and early '90s, there were a lot of Nazis in the Detroit punk and hardcore scene. Detroit didn't really have a big Oi! scene, but there were some other Oi! bands back then. Whether or not they were racist is kind of a question mark. I've been in Death in Custody for 10 years, and I can tell you, there aren't any Nazis that come to punk shows in Detroit anymore."

"The second people hear 'skinhead,' they think of a Geraldo version," Labeau adds. "They think of 'We hate Jews, we hate blacks.' Obviously, we've got a black dude in the band. We're not a racist band, but trying to live down that stereotype is hard. People are like, 'You're just trying to back out of it.' We've never played with any white power bands. That would be one of those things where we'd really put the brakes on, if we knew that was their political affiliation. If anybody wants to play a show with us, hopefully they know who the band is."

That's fair enough. Much like those British bands mentioned earlier, Anderson has played anti-racism shows with Death in Custody. So there we have it. Skinhead + Oi!  Nazi. One has to ask though, what does a dude in Detroit listen to that turns them onto Oi!?

"There are a lot of Detroit bands I listen to and know about but I never actually got to see," says Anderson. "I'm not originally from Detroit. [Hardcore band] Cold as Life are a big influence, as are [Oi! band] Pub Life. I was influenced by some of the British Oi! bands, but also a lot of New York bands. I'm from New York."

"Of course, Negative Approach," Labeau adds. "I listen to everything under the sun. The way I try to play bass, I try to fit a little bit of a Motown sound into it. I absolutely love Motown music. I grew up going to shows seeing the Bumpin' Uglies, Suicide Machines, anything from the Detroit area. There are very few bands from the Detroit area that I don't like."

Anderson says that one of the greatest gigs the band has played was opening up for English Oi! pioneers the Business. "We hadn't even been a band that long," the singer says. "That was pretty cool. To me, there are two kinds of gigs. You can play in a big venue and open for a big band, or you can at somebody's house or basement where everybody gets drunk and has a blast. We've played a few of those too. An Indiana show we played was in my friend's basement, and he had a skate ramp. That was awesome."

While Bad Assets is still a relatively new band, Labeau hopes to still be playing Oi! with his band, as well as fighting fires, a decade from now. "I love the guys I play with and I can't imagine trying to replace any of them," the bassist says. "Right now we have, as clichéd as it sounds, a really good chemistry. We all come to the table with ideas and every idea that we come to will either lead into a song or be put on the back burner for another song. We're all part of the songwriting process, whether it's lyrically or musically."

Hopefully they'll have company too. Both men agree that local like-minded punks Standard Issue and Public Sex are two of the best of the new breed. "Public Sex is two members from a hardcore band that was very short-lived called Broken Teeth," says Labeau. "I really wish they were still around. They were young, but they had that gritty old-school hardcore feel. We also played quite a few shows with Iron Clad, an Oi! band from Ypsilanti."

So that's Bad Assets. The band isn't trying to change the world, and there are no shady political agendas on the table. As Anderson so eloquently puts it, "It's about having a beer, having a laugh and playing some fucking punk rock."

More by Brett Callwood

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